The Hub Cool News

Thing Explainer

thing-explainerA new book explains “complicated stuff in simple words,” reports Alexandra Alter in The New York Times (11/23/15). The book, by Randall Munroe, is called Thing Explainer, and it follows his previous best-seller, What If? Randall is famous for raising — and answering — questions like: “how many model-rocket engines would it take to launch a real rocket into space (65,000, give or take).” His new book “consists of annotated blueprints with deceptively spare language, explaining the mechanics behind concepts like data centers, smartphones, tectonic plates, nuclear reactors and the electromagnetic spectrum.”

To do this, he “limited himself to the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language. This barred him from using words like helium and uranium, a challenge when describing how a rocket ship or reactor works.” Randall says this is fun “because it forces you to think about it some more.” Randall is “a former NASA roboticist” who got the idea for this book three years ago as a cartoonist after taking a blueprint of a Saturn V rocket and “labeling boosters as the spot where ‘lots of fire comes out’ and the oxygen chambers as a place with ‘cold air for burning and breathing.'” His history as a cartoonist goes back ten years, “while still in college.”

“In 2005 … he started posting his droll stick-figure comics on his website, First, they circulated among his friends. Then, other bloggers took notice and traffic boomed. When his NASA contract expired in 2006, he decided to pursue his cartooning hobby full time … He published a collection of his comics through a small press in 2010, and sold more than 100,000 copies.” Randall’s fan base has now “expanded far beyond … computer programmers and physics graduate students to mainstream readers,” reflecting “a broader cultural shift that has occurred as science and technology increasingly saturate our lives.”

Thigh Power

legsStrong legs tend to support healthy brains, reports Gretchen Reynolds in The New York Times (11/24/15). No, this is not a crass joke about where some people’s brains reside. It is about a new study that found a link between sturdy legs and mental prowess. The study, led by Claire Steves of King’s College London, is based on “health and fitness data for thousands of British twins.” The research “looked for twins who, 10 years previously had completed extensive computerized examinations of their memory and thinking abilities, as well as assessments of their metabolic health and leg-muscle power, which measure muscles’ force and speed.”

Twins were chosen for this study because they “typically share the same early home environment and many of the same genes,” so differences between them are “more likely to be attributable to lifestyle, including exercise habits.” The focus was also on their muscles rather than their exercise habits because of “people’s notoriously unreliable recollections of how much they have worked out.” Scientists “found that of the 324 twins, those who had the sturdiest legs a decade ago showed the least fall-off in thinking skills, even when the scientists controlled for such factors as fatty diets, high blood pressure and shaky blood-sugar control.”

“If one twin had been more powerful than the other 10 years before, she tended to be a much better thinker now. In fact, on average, a muscularly powerful twin now performed about 18 percent better on memory and other cognitive tests than her weaker sister.” Brain imaging also found that the twin with sturdier legs “displayed significantly more brain volume and fewer ’empty spaces in the brain’.” Why this is ain’t exactly clear, but Dr. Steves “suspects that working muscles release biochemicals that travel to the brain and affect cellular health there … the sturdier the muscles, the more of these chemicals they create.”

Heads & Tails

magillThe principles of great brand stories are timeless. A Hub White Paper by Jim Magill of Cibo. Great copywriters made their marks during the first 50 years of the 20th century. Some, such as David Ogilvy, built agencies based on the idea that advertising copy alone could capture the consumer’s interest and loyalty. Television, however, along with the new discipline of brand management and the beginnings of cost concerns, soon shifted standards.

The new age demanded short, quick messaging with very little storytelling. Few efforts were multi-channel and rarely involved even the barest of handshakes between what was shown on the screen and what happened in the physical store, let alone anything in between. I began my own career during a resurgence in storytelling, then known as ‘emotional advertising,’ when campaigns used language and visuals to engage consumers with the brand on an emotional level. Continue Reading.

Finger Popping

fingersnapSnapping with one’s thumb and middle finger is finding new utility, reports Katherine Rosman in The New York Times (11/22/15). There’s nothing new about finger popping, or snapping — apparently it dates back at least to the Roman Empire. A more modern manifestation “dates to the heyday of the beatnik poets, who would gather in coffeehouses and at hootenannies to perform poems laced with cultural rebellion and political activism.” Today, it is resurgent as the offline equivalent of clicking “like” on social media.

The phenomenon — in a public setting like a lecture hall, conference or poetry slam — is regarded as “a less official, more spontaneous and impassioned, in-the-moment response.” In more formal settings, it “is a way for audience members and classroom denizens to express approval without completely disrupting a lecture, speech or performance.” At a poetry slam, it provides a more subtle way to show support, particularly when the subject matter is sensitive, or “dark or sad,” and flat-out applause would be too much.

Some say snapping’s single-handedness is a good match for times when one hand is often clutching a mobile device, busy texting or taking a selfie, notes Daniel Gallant of the Nuyorican Poets Café. In schools, some teachers encourage snapping among students as a kind of discipline. “If you’re sitting in an assembly with 400 children, and they can snap instead of going ‘Me too! Same here!’ its a lot easier to keep order,” says Grace Lindsey, a sixth grade teacher. However, Grace recently found herself “snapping her approval while having dinner with parents,” which, she says, wasn’t “a cool thing.”

Still Cool

icecubeWhen it comes to longevity, sensory metaphors have an edge, writes Jonah Berger in The New York Times (11/23/15). That is, words that connote any of the five senses tend to be more memorable, and so they are used more and stick around longer. The word “cool,” for instance, has been used “to describe not just the atmosphere, but also an internal state of calm,” since the 16th century. In “the late 1800s it began to signify style and hipness and some of the other meanings with which it is associated today. Now “cool” is used as a synonym for almost anything good.” Even news, sometimes.

This insight was brought to light by Jonah and a colleague, Ezgi Akpinar, via “a searchable database of more than five million books from the last 200 years.” They tracked “the popularity of thousands of words and phrases over time.” They found that someone who is not very friendly is described as “cold” and those who are smart are called “bright.” They also “found that phrases that relate to senses in metaphoric ways … became more popular over time.” Their research finds that a phrase like “bright future” is 2.4 times more likely to be used than “promising future,” for example.

Back in the 1800s, people said “sudden increase,” but in the early 1900s, the phrase “sharp increase” was introduced “and now is more popular.” When people are nice or nasty, we’re more likely to say they are sweet or bitter. “If you give people a list of sensory metaphors and other phrases that mean the same thing … sensory metaphors are 50 percent more likely to be remembered 10 minutes later.” Where “natural selection” determines the length of a giraffe’s neck, a “cultural selection,” or “the psychological processes of memory and transmission shape language.”

Brands That Do

susan-machtigerBehavior brands use action to create meaningful experiences. A Hub white paper by Susan Machtiger and Jaime Prieto. Is it the “Great Age of the Brand,” as business guru Tom Peters has declared, or is it the “Twilight of the Brands,” as James Surowiecki heralded this past year in The New Yorker? These divergent views reflect the paradox of brand-building today. What a brand is and what it means in a world of fragmentation, consumer control, and content overload is in a state of challenge, questioning, and turbulence.

The Meaningful Brand Index — a global metric of brand strength — recently reported that most people wouldn’t care if 70 percent of brands disappeared overnight. That should terrify all of us as marketers and businesspeople. However, consider this more deeply: 70 percent of brands are so meaningless to consumers that they may as well not be there. They are brands that don’t matter — just names on products or services. The larger, more strategic issue is this: Consumers are sending a very clear message that challenges every part of a business — from finance to operations to marketing. Continue Reading.

The Comedians

comedians“Comedy’s practitioners were never a particularly ‘nice’ bunch,” writes Merrill Markoe in a Wall Street Journal review of The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff (11/21/15). She’s not joking. We find out that funnyman Buddy Hackett fired “round after round of bullets into a car” parked in his spot. In his former life Rodney Dangerfield was a guy named Jack Roy, who scammed “people in the home-repair business.” Bob Hope performed in blackface and “comedy icons George Burns and Jack Benny were brought up on charges, in the 1930s, for jewelry smuggling!”

The profession itself got its start “with vaudeville and its unheated, rat-infested dressing rooms.” W.C. Fields said the vaudeville era was “the most miserable period” of his life and Harpo Marx said it was “sheer, unmitigated hell.” At the time, “comedians assembled their acts by simply stealing jokes from one another.” When radio arrived, and threatened vaudeville’s fortunes, “moguls of vaudeville … funded a widespread propaganda campaign” of “newspaper editorials bemoaning the hearing loss radio caused and the house fires started by receiver sets.”

As recently as the 1970s, “nightclub comedy was so intertwined with the mob that the wiseguys are credited with inventing the term ‘stand-up comic’ — originally a riff on a ‘stand-up fighter,’ a tough but dependable guy: a veritable joke puncher.” “I heard them plan kidnappings,” said Henny Youngman, “but I kept my mouth shut and minded my own business. Yeah, they weren’t bad fellas — although they were murderers and thieves.” This helps explain “why there were so few women comedians back in those days,” albeit not why the book doesn’t much mention the more recent rise of female comics.

Coney Island

coney-island“Like nowhere else, Coney Island occupies a singular niche in our imagination,” says Robin Jaffee Frank in a New York Times story by Alan Feuer (11/22/15). Robin is curator of The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, which developed “the first full-fledged exhibition to gather works of art inspired by the celebrated park.” The show, called Coney Island: Visions of an American Dreamland 1861-2008, is now on display at the Brooklyn Museum. “An amazing array of painters, writers, filmmakers and photographers saw Coney Island as a place to capture the American experience.”

The exhibit captures the history of Coney Island, whose arrival coincided with the “advent of industrialization” and rise of both wages and free time among the masses. Unlike world’s fairs, and an emphasis on education and “the progress of technology, there were dancing dwarves and deep-fried clams.” “It is blatant, it is cheap, it is the apotheosis of the ridiculous,” Hampton’s Magazine wrote in 1909. “But it is something more … it is a national playground.” By 1913, Coney Island attracted 350,000 visitors a day, and within ten years, one million.

Decline began with television’s arrival. In 1964, Fred Trump (yes, Donald’s father) demolished part of the park to make way for luxury apartments. Its decline continued, and yet it retained “a dark charisma, a melancholy charm in which the boardwalk’s seediness was, at once, moodily present and a proof of what was lost.” In the early ’80s, a group of artists established the Mermaid Parade and a vaudevillian side show, triggering a revival. “There’s still this creative and rebellious spirit there,” says Robin, “a kind of edgy magic that I hope is never lost.”


hopscotchA mobile opera is performed in 24 cars en route around Los Angeles, reports Heidi Waleson in The Wall Street Journal (11/12/15). Called Hopscotch, and conceived by director Yuval Sharon, the story plays out in 10-minute chapters before “groups of four” people who move “from car to car (actually limousines), and from place to place, watching fragments of the tale unfold. The order is not chronological, and it is impossible to get the full story in a single performance since each of the three 90-minute routes … covers only eight chapters.”

Because of this, “the experience is atmospheric rather than narrative, with each chapter a surprise and a plunge into the emotional character of the moment … when the audience shares the enclosed space in the limo with a singer and an instrumentalist, or several, it creates an enforced intimacy that can feel voyeuristic.” When an actor is staring out the window and singing “a musing aria about space and time, you realize how disturbed he is.”

“Driving along in a car with a man mourning his dead wife, accompanied by two violas … makes you suddenly, physically conscious of all the lives and sorrows and joys going on in all those cars driving past the freeway all the time … It is a masterpiece of logistics and remarkable fusion of of variety and consistency.” Hopscotch breaks “the fourth wall with vengeance, not merely freeing opera from the opera house, but also making its heightened expression the sound of real, everyday, and inner life.”

The Gum Wall

chewed-gumWhat would Wrigley do? A wall of chewed chewing gum is an unlikely tourist attraction in Seattle, reports Kirk Johnson in The New York Times (11/12/15). The site is Pike Place Market, where people have parked their spent gum on a The Gum Wall for the past 20 years. The result is “a deeply encrusted pointillist display of perhaps a million pieces” that weighs an estimated 2,200 pounds. This “threatens the integrity of the 115-year-old brick wall,” (the sugar is eating away at the brick) and so a crew has now removed it “with garden rakes and superheated water.”

“I tell people it’s the second-most disgusting tourist attraction in the world,” says William Ward, who is only too happy to sell gum — and lots of it — at his newsstand situated “just around the corner from the bizarre attraction … He also sells a lot of hand sanitizer.” William thinks “only the Blarney Stone in Ireland, which millions of tourists actually kiss, can top the gum wall on the gross-out scale.” Christie Fergus, who visited the gum wall to make a contribution with her husband and kids, agrees that it’s “pretty disgusting, but also a really interesting and fun family activity.”

People first started sticking their chewed gum on the wall “in the 1990s, added by people waiting to enter an improvisational comedy club. But after several cleanings, and the realization that mentions of the wall in tourist guidebooks like Frommer’s were spurring people on, they surrendered.” Even though the wall has now been cleaned, it’s expected that people will start sticking their gum on it again. “It’s a crowdsourced piece of public art,” says Emily Crawford, a Pike Place spokesperson. “We don’t have to promote it.”

Uber Ideas

gigwalkUberfication is wending its way into traditional companies, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (11/16/15). For example, at Crossmark, an in-store merchandising company, full-time employees use an app developed by Gigwalk to streamline their reports. Gigwalk was designed, in true Uber fashion, as a way to help companies manage freelancers to do similar work. That didn’t work so well, because it’s critical that store managers know and can trust the merchandisers — a requirement that’s difficult to fulfill with “rotating cast of freelancers.”

“One of the things I rely on in the stores I go to is relationships,” says Jarrel Gainer, who “builds those eye-catching stacks of Huggies or pyramids of canned soup that sit at the ends of grocery-store aisles” at Walmart stores. “They know when I start and finish the job it’s going to look good and they’re not going to have to question why I did it this way or that way.” So, rather than putting Crossmark out of business, Gigwalk is helping it move into the 21st century by “upgrading its information-technology infrastructure … It is as if Uber had decided to sell its technology to taxi companies instead of driving them into oblivion.”

Gigwalk is also re-balancing work and life for people like Jarrel, who used to spend “two hours a day on paperwork and data entry alone … At the end of the day, he would have to manually enter all he had done into a website on his personal computer at home.” With Gigwalk’s mobile app, “he does essentially all his work on a smartphone,” saving about two hours each day … “his longest workday is now 4-6 hours.” “The concept of the nine-to-five workweek is an anomaly of the 20th century, a product of mass production,” says Gigwalk CEO David Hale, suggesting that this is “just the beginning” of a new era of workforce management.

Big Pot

leaflyTechnology startups are meeting “the growing needs” of the marijuana industry, reports Elizabeth Dwoskin in The Wall Street Journal (11/18/15). “In the cannabis industry, there are a lot of people who lose track of a lot of things,” says Nic Hernandez of La Conte’s Clone Bar and Dispensary in Denver. Nic uses an app called Flowhub to “keep his operation straight.” Flowhub “helps growers optimize factors like planting schedules, soil nutrients, and lightbulb replacement.” Other apps include Eaze, which “connects users of medical marijuana with cannabis dispensaries throughout California.”

Potbotics Inc. matches medical research with queries from doctors and patients. Leafly Holdings Inc., an aspiring Yelp for hemp, harvests customer reviews of dispensaries and perceptions of the efficacy of particular strains for ailments from bipolar disorder to multiple sclerosis.” Big data meanwhile “offers pot growers, dealers, and customers the kind of bird’s-eye business perspective that mainstream industries have come to depend on.” When recreational use was legalized in Oregon, Leafly “found that clicks from Oregonians over 65 years old rose 835% compared with the previous year when pot use was strictly medical.”

Leafly was able to identify which varietals were most preferred. “You couldn’t collect this information previously because all the transactions and purchases were conducted in the shadows via an illicit market,” says Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer Holdings, which “owns three pot businesses.” Legalized pot is growing like a weed, “expected to expand by nearly 86% on top of a 74% jump to $2.7 billion in 2014,” according to The ArcView Group. While some venture capitalists are jumping on board, mainstream companies like IBM and Salesforce have neither confirmed nor denied that they have any cannabis companies as customers.

Breakthrough Prize

breakthrough-prizeYuri Milner wants scientists to be “as cool as movie and rock stars,” reports John Markoff in The New York Times (11/10/15). Or, at least, Yuri wants them to be thought of as celebrities. To that end, Yuri, “a Russian investor, Silicon Valley mogul and theoretical physics dropout” three years established the Breakthrough Prize with Silicon Valley luminaries including Sergey Brin, Jack Ma and Mark Zuckerberg. The hope is that a Hollywood-style awards ceremony, combined with $22 million in prizes annually, will encourage young people to become scientists.

Yuri believes that popular perceptions of scientists in both the United States and Russia have declined over the past 50 years, when Albert Einstein enjoyed celebrity status. “We peaked 50 years ago and it has been a downward slope since then,” says Yuri. He hopes that one day the Breakthrough Prize will command “a global audience between 50 and 100 million people,” but for now its broadcast is limited to the National Geographic channel on cable. He has managed to add some star power in the form of “the actors Russell Crowe and Hillary Swank,” and singer Pharrell Williams.

Seth MacFarlane hosted the event, and “glossy videos” celebrated “each prize winner, and the trophies were awarded in each category by Hollywood celebrities paired with Silicon Valley chief executives.” This year’s winners “included two neuroscientists … a cardiologist” and “a community of 1,300 physicists led by seven researchers who have shed new light on … neutrinos.” Ryan Chester, 18, was awarded a “Junior Challenge” prize for a “video explaining Einstein’s special theory of relativity.” He says he hopes to study film, not science, in college.

True Taste

true-tasteDescribing flavors is not the best way to describe wine. In True Taste, Matt Kramer says a different set of adjectives is better suited to capture the experience, reports Moira Hodgson in The Wall Street Journal (11/16/15). Over time, “the ability to distinguish an ever longer list of scents, odors, aromas and flavors has become tantamount to judging the quality of the wine,” Matt writes, adding: “It is nothing of the sort.” We all know the vocabulary. Fruity, for example, is subdivided into “citrus, berry and tropical fruit,” and then into “grapefruit, blackberry, banana and so forth.”

The problem is “that wine drinkers are left with the impression that if they can’t detect those flavors, they are somehow lacking as tasters and just not getting it.” This is further compounded because of the number of wines reviewed. So, how to distinguish one “cherry-scented” Pinot Noir from another? Still more subdivision: “black cherry, wild cherry, pie cherry, maraschino cherry, cherry jam and cherry liqueur.” This trend apparently dates back to 1984, and Ann Noble of University of California, who came up with the Wine Aroma Wheel.

Matt tosses it all out with his own set of descriptors: “insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise and nuance. These are the markers, he says, that can help us understand what makes one wine better than another … He believes that instead of acting as a flavor detective, a critic should try to speak with ‘insight’ about the wine.” The best wines, he says, have “layers” and “textures” that are delivered with “finesse.” Its “nuances” keep “your interest as you drink … Harmony creates a sense of cohesion … the wine practically floats” and “each layer is its own surprise.”

Store Stories

tomsBlake Mycoskie didn’t want to open stores, so he opened community outposts instead, reports Steven Kurutz in The New York Times (11/15/15). “An outpost seemed like more of a meeting center, an area for information, almost a political rallying point,” says Blake, founder of Toms Shoes. “This is the place where things are happening.” It’s a vision that goes back three years now, when Blake opened the first Toms Outpost “in the Venice section of Los Angeles. A visitor will find a back patio with seating, free Wi-Fi and events like morning classes and movie nights.”

Toms Outpost also has “a café serving cups of Toms coffee, a recent brand expansion. And, oh yes, grouped in distinct places around the room, traditional Toms products like shoes and eyeglasses.” Another six Toms Outposts have joined the original, and represent “a model of the retail store as a community center, a welcoming environment that offers experiences in addition to products.” Also on this trend is The Store, in SoHo, where selling stuff is presented almost as an afterthought. “It’s a place to be, a creative hub,” says Alex Eagle, the Store’s creative director.

The Store features “comfy, oversize couches … and a kitchen serving organic dishes. A DJ plays music and regular art installations are held … only about one-fifth of the 30,000-square-foot space is dedicated to traditional retail.” Free City Supershop in Los Angeles doubles as an artist’s commune, where artists “help create products, décor, art installations and events.” “There’s still room for companies that make beautiful products and that’s their sole purpose,” says Blake Mycoskie. “But I do think it’s a competitive advantage if you … have a larger purpose that people can be part of.”

Saks Fifth Facelift

saksSaks Fifth Avenue hopes to lift its sagging fortunes with a flagship facelift, reports Hiroko Tabuchi in The New York Times (11/16/15). Saks is 91 years old, and “has long defined fashion and luxury.” The renovation of its NYC flagship will cost $250 million, take three years to complete and will be led by its president, Marc Metrick. Marc believes the opportunity is to create a luxury shopping experience that online retailers cannot match. This begins with big changes to its interior that “open up the entire store to shoppers.”

“When you look at the store from the outside, it’s huge,” says Marc, “but when you go in, you almost can’t tell that there are other floors.” Renovation plans include “punching a hole through the ceiling of the ground floor to make way for a 23-foot-high spiral staircase, wrapped around a glass elevator. The beauty department will jump to the second floor, leaving the first floor to handbags and other accessories. About 55,000 square feet of back-room space in the basement will be transformed into a boutique for fine jewelry to be called the Vault.”

Marc also hopes to respond to a changing luxury shopper who “today is rarely loyal to any particular store and hunts for value on favorite name brands, often mixing ‘high’ and ‘low’ labels. Harried consumers also look for efficiency.” E-commerce is further affecting traditional customer relationships, “as fashion houses … start to sell directly to consumers online, and through online luxury retailers.” Saks will respond by “adding ultra high-end designers … but also shifting from segregating the store by price, mixing high and low brands on the same floor.”

Happy Tales

happy-talesThe plot always thickens along the brand-experience storyline. A Hub roundtable discussion featuring Peter Horst, CMO of The Hershey Co.; Mark Hellendrung, CEO of Narragansett Brewing Company; Valerie Camillo, CMO of The Washington Nationals; Clay Cowan, CMO of The Gilt Groupe; and Zain Raj of Shapiro + Raj. What makes or breaks a brand story? Peter Horst of Hershey says: “If the brand story is to have any kind of value and meaning, people need to care, so that they want to participate, be a part of it, and share it.” Valerie Camillo of The Nationals says: “There has to be someting in the story that connects with how consumers see themselves, aspirationally.”

For the Nationals, this means focusing “not just on the story as it pertains to the team, but also the the experience of coming to a Nationals game.” With Naragansett, says CEO Mark Hellendrung, “it’s bringing a brand back to life through its historical context in a culturally relevant way. The most powerful example of that is our 1975 retro cans. Other breweries do retro cans, but what makes ours so great — and it’s such a great story — is that it’s the can that Quint crushes in a famous scene in the film classic, Jaws.

Clay Cowen of the Gilt Groupe says the story, ultimately is highly personal. “A brand should feel like a person. Brands like to jump to quick stories and value propositions in five words in a PowerPoint slide,” he says, “but it’s hard to summarize a person in five words.” The problem, says Zain Raj of Shapiro + Raj, “is that great stories aren’t necessarily positive.” People tend to spread negative stories more than positive ones, he adds, which can “break the original story. Dissonance is powerful because what brands is not necessarily consistent with what they do.” Read The Complete Roundtable.

Real Cool

true-storyAs consumer loyalty to brands erodes, authentic brand stories are a panacea, reports The Economist (11/14/15). This trend is not without statistical support: “In 2013, the Boston Consulting Group surveyed 2,500 American consumers and found that being authentic was indeed one of the main qualities they said would attract them to a brand. For younger ‘millennial’ consumers … it was second in importance only to rewarding their loyalty with discounts.” So, if you can fake authenticity, you’ve got it made.

This is easier said than done, of course: “In North America, consumers say they trust only about a fifth of brands, according to a poll by Havas … For slightly less skeptical Europeans it is about a third. Consumers seem particularly wary of big brands. About half of American shoppers say they trust small companies to do the right thing, compared with just 36% who say the same of large ones, reports Mintel … Of the top 100 consumer packaged-goods brand in America, 90 lost market share in the year to July, according to Catalina.”

Such skepticism explains why Whole Foods shoppers are offered “scintillating biographies of the chickens they are about to casserole. Prospective Tesla drivers can learn not just about the car’s performance but about the principles of stator rotating magnetic field.” It’s also why “craft brewers have almost doubled their market share in the five years to 2014.” Indeed, a quality product is still central to a truly authentic brand story. To use the easy example: Apple, in 2014, “had only six percent of the revenues in the personal computer market, but 28 percent of the profits.”


gdpSoft trends can be better economic indicators than hard data, writes Diane Coyle in The New York Times (11/8/15). This reality dates back at least to the 1920s, when it was observed that “the height of hemlines” can provide “surprisingly good indicator of the state of the economy. Long skirts are associated with hard times; but when the economy booms, as in the ’20s or ’60s, skirts get shorter … Another anecdotal measure is the number of cranes visible on the skyline, their stately dance a prominent visual signal of the underlying pace of construction activity.”

Retailing trends are also an important, albeit “less obvious” indicator. “When good times roll, people decide that their great idea for a specialty store is viable. Thus, booms bring all those boutiques selling just one type of good: socks or scented candles or freshly squeezed juices.” Then “they close as soon as the skies darken and things start to cool.” Other soft metrics include how easy or difficult it is to get tickets to a Broadway show or hail a cab — although Uber may be throwing a monkey wrench into the latter.

The number of “help wanted signs” in store windows offer still more evidence because they suggest employers are so desperate for help they’d hire someone off the street. The trouble is that “nobody collects these statistics” and aren’t captured as leading indicators of what’s to come. The stock market has been considered a leading indicator, but questions about “the rationality and efficiency of financial markets” have undermined this. The GDP lags events. Ultimately, it’s up to economists to “check the skyline” and notice hemlines to “supplement their statistics.”

Hedda Hopper

hedda-hopperHedda Hopper pioneered using her wardrobe “to turn herself into a viable American brand,” reports Ruth La Ferla in The New York Times (11/12/15). Hedda was a onetime chorus girl and actress who reinvented herself as a gossip columnists in the 1930s and ’40s. She’s back in the limelight, to a degree, thanks to Helen Mirren’s portrayal in Trumbo, “the new quasi-comic film account of Hollywood blacklisting.” “Flamboyance was her gimmick,” says Daniel Orlandi, a costume designer who created “colorful approximations of her trademark look.”

Hedda was “a sartorial extremist, preening in headgear that varied from cabbage rose confections to plumed saucerlike contraptions that seemed poised for flight.” Her hats were “garnished with toy horns, Eiffel Towers and Easter eggs … So outré were her hats that they were spoofed on the cover of Time, in an illustration portraying her with a telephone, a microphone and a typewriter perched atop her curls. Those hats, and a wardrobe of mostly pink and lavender suits, riveted Westchester housewives, young Hollywood hopefuls” and studio heads alike.

Her style was born while working as “a contract player for MGM in an era when actors provided their own movie costumes.” She spent “her entire salary of $5,000″ on wardrobe for the 1918 film, Virtuous Wives, “which helped her eclipse the leading lady.” She later channeled her film persona into a columnist career “just as Ronald Reagan did later as a politician,” writes Jennifer Frost, author of a book about her. A strong supporter of McCarthyism in the ’50s, Hedda and her hats ultimately faded away along with Hollywood’s Golden Age.