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Fox News

nate-silver-foxFoxes are "more wily and flexible learners" than hedgehogs because of their childhoods, reports Alison Gopnik in The Wall Street Journal (8/20/14). The difference between the two animals — whose traits are often ascribed to people — was defined by the Greek poet Archilochus, who said: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." (Archilochus apparently knew one thing but didn’t know how to make it rhyme.) The concept was later popularized by Isaiah Berlin, an Oxford philosopher.

Berlin ultimately decided his observation was oversimplified, but recently, psychologist Philip Tetlock "studied expert political predictions and found that foxy, flexible, pluralistic experts were much more accurate than experts with one big hedgehog idea … In tribute to this finding, the statistics whiz Nate Silver chose a fox as the logo for his website." Biologist David MacDonald, meanwhile, suggests the fox-hedgehog difference is, well, biological: "Hedgehogs develop their spines — that one big thing — almost as soon as they are born."

This makes them independent within six weeks, compared to fox cubs, who "are dependent for six months." Where hedgehog dads take off after mating, fox dads "help bring food to the babies." Not only that, they bring still-alive prey "and the babies play at hunting them." They "practice and develop the flexible hunting skills and wily intelligence that serve them so well later on." So, where hedgehogs quickly adapt to one environment, a combination of parental protection and play teaches them to "cope with a changing world."

Beane’s Genius

oakland-as-capContrary to popular belief, the Oakland A’s success is not because of homegrown players, reports Jared Diamond in The Wall Street Journal (8/20/14). In fact, the "A’s have used just four homegrown players in 2014, the fewest in baseball by a wide margin." By comparison, the languishing New York Mets "have used 21, the third-highest total." Interestingly, both teams have "similar payrolls" — the Mets actually spend a bit more ($85 million) than the A’s ($82.3 million). The difference may be explained by "two central tenets."

The first tenet is general manager Billy Beane‘s legendary "ability to identify (or luck into) cheap, productive players whom his competitors don’t want … No team does a better job of rummaging through everybody else’s attic and discovering gold." The other is Billy’s "commitment to financial flexibility," which enables him to "constantly tinker with his assets." Unlike the Mets, he doesn’t allocate 23.5% of his budget to a single player (David Wright), much less 49% to three players (David Wright, Curtis Granderson and Bartolo Colon).

The A’s highest-paid player at season’s start, Yoenis Cespedes, accounted for just 12.8% of the team’s budget, and its three highest-paid (Yoenis Cespedes, Jim Johnson and Scott Kazmir), "made up 35.8% of the payroll." Yoenis has since been traded. Granted, it may be easier for a smaller-market team like the A’s to avoid employing big stars, but the bottom line is "the A’s are within striking distance of their third consecutive American League West crown," and 8th since 2000, while the Mets haven’t made the playoffs in eight years.

Westside Markets

westside-marketThe newest Westside Market is opening on New York’s East Side, changing everything but its name, reports Kia Gregory in The New York Times (8/19/14). The store is Ioannis and Maria Zoitas’ sixth — four are in Manhattan and one — called Maywood’s Marketplace – is in Maywood, New Jersey. The new East Side store will keep the Westside name, but its product offerings will match neighborhood tastes. "One block makes a difference in this city," says Jimmy Beleses, who will run the store with his brother-in-law, George Zoitas.

"Every neighborhood has its food culture, particularly as food has evolved from necessity to a form of identity. What sells uptown, like rice cakes, barely budges downtown. For truffles, it is vice versa … A 64-ounce-size laundry detergent does not sell to downtowners; they want 32 ounces … Uptown will buy fried chicken. Downtown, it is chicken baked with bread crumbs. Uptown, Amy’s canned soups are popular. Downtown, homemade kale chips sell better. Uptown, Kobe brisket. Downtown, seltzer barely sells."

"Our dairy buying, our produce buying, our grocery buying, our fish buying is all store level," says George. Ioannis — known to friends as ‘Big John’ — designs the store interiors "with pencils, paper, a ruler and a few erasers." He started out as a stock boy at Westside’s first location at Broadway and 110th, buying and re-naming it 37 years ago. Back then the store carried mostly just the basics, but today, says Big John, "People … eat more quality and they will spend extra for it."

Two Americas

americaA decade’s worth of search data reveals America’s cultural and consumer divide, reports David Leonhardt in The New York Times (8/19/14). The search data — provided by Google – was cross-referenced with a Times "analysis of every county in the country to determine which were the toughest places to live." That analysis was "based on an index of six factors including income, education and life expectancy," and found that those living in "large areas of Kentucky, Arkansas, Maine, New Mexico" tend to lead the toughest lives.

The Google analysis meanwhile found that in those regions, the most common search topics included "weight-loss diets, guns, video games and religion. The dark side of religion is of special interest: Antichrist has the second-highest correlation with the hardest places, and searches containing ‘hell’ and ‘rapture’ also make the top 10 … In the easiest places to live, the Canon Elph and other digital cameras dominate the top of the correlation list." Apparently, "where life seems good," people "want to record their lives in images."

These areas include "Nebraska, Iowa, Wyoming, and much of the large metropolitan areas of the Northeast and West Coast." "Holiday greetings" is a popular term in the easier places, perhaps because they are populated by people who have moved away from relatives or childhood friends — and that "Merry Christmas" is a more popular wish in harder places. "The phrase ‘pull-out’ is also relatively popular in the easiest places. It presumably refers to either a kind of sofa or a kind of birth control."

Improbable Insights

improbable-too"You can’t have world-changing discoveries without allowing apparently pointless research," writes Steven Poole in a Wall Street Journal review of This Is Improbable Too, by Marc Abrahams (8/9/14). This is "not only because the latter sometimes turns into (or at least inspires) the former, but because there’s no way to tell what will be important before the results are in." You may recognize the book’s author as the founder of the Ig Nobel prizes for "improbable research."

The Ig Nobel prize is best known for silliness, such as the finding "that people would be able to run across the surface of a pond but only on the moon," or research that "confirmed scientifically that the more alcohol you consume, the more attractive you are." The premise is that such research is "not entirely stupid and humiliating" but rather "first makes you laugh and then makes you think." At a minimum, it is "a celebration of the small truth or pleasing resolution of the everyday conundrum."

For example, there’s been research to explain why "sawing horizontally with a knife" works better than "pressing straight down with the blade." The book also offers an "amusing counterweight to the cultural picture of scientists as heroic figures" and takes aim at the "mania for measurement," such as one scientist’s 35 year study "of how fast his fingernails grew." And then there is the quirky but useful, such as a study of the "size of the CEO’s signature on SEC filings"; the bigger the signature, the worse the company’s performance.

Data Wranglers

lasso"It’s an absolute myth that you can send an algorithm over raw data and have insights pop up," says Jeff Heer of The University of Washington in a New York Times article by Steve Lohr (8/18/14). This minor detail is often lost in the excitement over Big Data’s potential. The problem is that "data scientists … spend from 50 percent to 80 percent of their time mired" in the mundane task "of collecting and preparing unruly data, before it can be explored for useful nuggets."

This is because Big Data, by definition, is drawn from multiple sources — each of which may arrive in its own special format. Compounding the challenge "is the ambiguity of human language," meaning that different sources may describe the same thing using different words. A number of start-ups, such as ClearStory, are trying to solve for such problems by developing software "that recognizes many data sources, pulls them together and presents the results visually as charts, graphics, or data-filled maps."

Other start-ups on a similar path include Trifacta, which uses "machine-learning technology to find, present and suggest types of data that might be useful for a data scientist" and Paxata, whose focus is on "finding, cleaning and blending data so that it is ready to be analyzed." The vision is that such tools will make data analysis accessible to "a wider market of business users beyond data masters," not unlike the way "spreadsheets made financial math and simple modeling accessible to millions of non-experts."

Data Lakes

data-lakeGeneral Electric has added a "data lake" to its information ecosystem, reports Quentin Hardy in The New York Times (8/11/14). A data lake is a "method of analyzing sensor information from industrial machinery in places like railroads, airlines, hospitals and utilities. GE has been putting sensors on everything it could for a couple of years" and is now "working with an outfit called Pivotal" to look "at information from 3.4 million miles of flights by 24 airlines." As a result, "it figured out things like possible defects 2,000 times" faster than before.

GE’s William Ruh says this is only the beginning: "In 10 years, 17 billion pieces of equipment will have sensors," he says. "We’re only one-tenth of the way there." Meanwhile, "billions of humans are already augmenting that number with their own packages of sensors, called smartphones, fitness bands and wearable computers. Almost all of that information will be uploaded someplace, too," creating "a world-changing ecosystem of digital hardware and software spreading into every area of our lives."

The "relentless acquisition and analysis of digital information" might be compared to the advent of the automobile, which "succeeded through the widespread construction of highways and gas stations" and spawned "suburbs, fast food and drive-time talk radio," among other things. Already, the growing data ecosystem is enabling "businesses like Uber and Airbnb" to succeed "without assets like cars and rooms, instead coordinating data streams about the locations of people, cars and bedrooms."

Data Magic

stitch-fixThe magic of the emerging shopping experience — online or off — "comes from the data," reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (8/15/14). For e-commerce enterprises, the data enables a level of personal service that approximates — or potentially improves upon — that which can occur naturally in a store. "In traditional retail, they have the benefit in that they have real people who in theory could offer a very personalized experience," says Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix, an online women’s clothing retailer.

Stitch Fix "sends its customers boxes of clothes picked by a combination of personal stylists and big data." The advantage over, say a mall or a traditional e-commerce play, says Katrina, is that it eliminates the often overwhelming array of choices. Bill Gurley, a Stitch Fix investor, says the data science involved in making this happen is significant. "There’s a 15-page profile, there are over 66 characteristics tracked and there’s a predictive heat score for every single item against every single user."

Birchbox uses a similar approach with beauty products. "We use curation and personalization as a way to make the internet have some of those fun and satisfying elements of shopping," says Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp. "There is still this desire to work with somebody that you trust." Birchbox takes a similar approach at its sole physical store, where Birchbox’s online customers can provide their email address to an employee, who then directs them to relevant items, based on their profile.

Artisan Nest

nestRebecca van Bergen is connecting small-village artisans to the great American marketplace, reports Rachel Felder in The New York Times (8/14/14). Rebecca is founder of Nest — not to be confused with Nest — which "acts as a matchmaker between artisans and companies in the fashion and home furnishings fields." It has now "created what it dubbed its Artisan Summit," designed to help "indigenous craft artists" market their wares as well as teach big-market retailers how to work with them.

"Nest brought together these artisans because they share the same challenges," says Nest founder Rebecca van Bergen. "One of the largest is how to take largely home workers who have produced for local markets with different standards of quality, and translate that to a fashion industry, particularly a luxury fashion industry, that has very stringent requirements in terms of quality and replicability." It’s an equally interesting challenge for major retailers "as the appeal of such products grows."

Rebecca launched Nest in 2006 by "lending artisans money to produce goods, then selling the products to recoup those loans — but eventually eliminated sales to become a non-profit." Nest has helped produce items such as "Trina Turk glass-beaded necklaces in Tiruchirappalli, India … and handwoven Ikat Feed tote bags in Guatemala City." Rebecca says that bridging developing economies and urban fashion is "strange and surreal," adding: "To see the process from design to rack, I mean, it’s art."

BucketFeet Community

bucketfeetWhere Toms Shoes hopes "to improve lives," BucketFeet is "about building a community," reports Lizette Chapman in The Wall Street Journal (8/14/14). Toms is famous for donating "a pair of its shoes to a person in need every time a customer buys a pair." The BucketFeet idea, meanwhile, is to connect "people around the globe through art. Its flip-flops and sneakers for men, women and children feature designs by more than 5,000 artists worldwide." (images)

"By doubling down on our artist community and the stories they tell, we’re building our brand," says co-founder Raaja Nemani, 32. "Yes, we sell shoes, but we are really about building a community." Launched in 2011 by Raaja and business partner Aaron Firestein with $100,000 in personal savings, BucketFeet today "has 16 full-time employees and has raised nearly $6 million in venture capital." Its footwear is sold nationwide in Nordstrom’s and will soon be available "at select Bloomingdale’s stores" and its website.

Prices range from "$30 for flip-flops to $68 or more for sneakers." Raaja says BucketFeet’s success happened because "we had zero pride in how we did it and focused 100% on how to get in front of people at street fairs, trunk shows and every party we could. We talked about it shamelessly everywhere and messaged every person we knew on Facebook and said, ‘please buy our shoes as a favor to us’." Currently, BucketFeet offers two styles, but plans to have "six or seven by spring of next year."

Shaker Aesthetics

shaker-setteeThe Shakers revived craftsmanship amid "the Industrial Revolution’s shoddy, mass-produced goods," reports Lance Esplund in The Wall Street Journal (8/7/14). They were also "the ultimate capitalistic communists … very shrewd men who knew how to make money. And they did." Actually, their founder was a woman, Mother Ann Lee. At their peak, The Shakers had "23 settlements in eight states," and "numbered nearly 6,000." Today, "only three Shakers remain," Brother Arnold Hadd and "his two elderly sisters."

This is in no small part because Shaker "tenets demand that you give up ‘everything you have’," except your celibacy. The Shaker design aesthetic endures, however — ironic perhaps because there really is no "Shaker aesthetic," as they considered any kind of ornamentation to be "a sin of pride." This did of course, result in a design style known for "clean, economic lines, and form-follows-function restraint." (link)

The Shakers brought their aesthetic to "furniture, clothing, tools, toys, paintings, drawing, photographs, textiles, crafts and graphic design." They were "the first American modernists" who believed that "beauty rests in utility … They imbued everyday objects with a straightforwardness akin to spiritual presence," producing "household objects that resemble physical manifestations of prayer … reverence for form. Monumentality is expressed through modesty," and a "plain spoken poetry that is uniquely American."

Art of Gold

goldSomething about the darkness and light of gold has inspired artists from the ancient Greeks to Andy Warhol, reports Jenny Che in The Wall Street Journal (8/9/14). Gold "inspires things like power and passion and greed and commemorates things like weddings and the Olympic Games," says Jose Diaz, curator of Gold, "an exhibition … at the Bass Museum of Art in Miami Beach." (link) He adds: "There’s this jubilant aspect of gold, and dark, sinister references to gold."

The challenge, says artist Fernando Mastrangelo, is that "you’re placing your own work within (gold’s) value structure." Indeed, "artists who have used gold to symbolize excess have raised their art’s market value just by incorporating the precious metal." Fernando addresses this by using "low-end materials" to create a replica of a gold medallion out of sugar. Dario Escobar took precisely the opposite approach with a "gold leaf-covered McDonald’s cup," while artist Sylvie Fleury chimed in with "a gold-plated trash can."

Other works include Glenn Kaino’s 19.83, which "uses gold to re-tell Tommie Smith’s record-breaking run in the 200-meter at the 1968 Olympics … The installation features stills from the race and a gold-plated replica of the platform that Mr. Smith stood on when he received his gold medal and raised his fist in support of civil rights." The thing about gold, says Fernando Mastrangelo is "that it never loses its value no matter how it’s cast or used … So, the artist almost becomes irrelevant."

Cashew Cash

cashew-appleSmall farmers in India are making more cash from cashews thanks to PepsiCo’s thirst for new taste sensations, reports Stephanie Strom in The New York Times (8/9/14). Pepsi’s interest is in cashew apples — the stems typically thrown away when cashew nuts are harvested. The juice of the cashew apple is "tangy and sweet," and PepsiCo thinks it could be the next coconut water. "The cashew apple is exotic and appealing and we think it is a premium product," says Anshul Khanna of PepsiCo India.

The other part of the story is that cashew apples are relatively inexpensive, given that they ferment and rot quickly. "Coconut, pomegranate and lime juices are popular, but affordability is a major issue," says V.D. Sarma, also of PepsiCo India. "So we are always looking out for new juice sources that are locally produced to bring prices down for us and for consumers." Some local cashew farmers found PepsiCo’s interest in cashew apples "a little strange," but tend not to question the incremental revenues from their crops.

PepsiCo discovered cashew apples "in Brazil a few years ago, when Mehmood Khan, its global head of research and development, was working there to get the company’s coconut water business up and running. A local supplier took him to a cashew orchard, where he saw the colorful apples and wondered how they could be used." Plans are to add cashew juice "into a mixed fruit juice drink sold in India under the Tropicana label, replacing more expensive juices like apple, pineapple and banana," and eventually take cashew juice worldwide.

Coconut Rob

coconut-robThe "most important ingredient" in his juices, says Coconut Rob, "is love," reports Rachel Wharton in The New York Times (8/9/14). Other ingredients usually include things like kale, dried berries, dates and cashews. "He’s my medicine man … I get what he makes me," says Atibon Nazaire, a regular customer at Coconut Rob’s juice stand, located just outside Magazines & More, a bodega on New York’s Fulton Street. What Coconut Rob — and his assistant, Cashew Steve — makes, is something more than just juice. (video)

"There’s a spirit of energy and celebration of life that’s transmitted from the juice stand," says Howard Ross, another regular. "He’s the mayor of Fort Greene." Coconut Rob is happy to talk to anyone walking by, whether they buy a drink or not, although he likes to tell people that they can "pay for the juices now, or … pay for the doctor later." A local realtor "uses a stop at Coconut Rob as a way to sell prospective customers on the neighborhood," because he makes them "feel at home."

Coconut Rob used to coordinate "transportation for patients at New York City medical centers," but grew unhappy with his job and opened a sugarcane-and-coconut stand in 2007. He moved around to various locations until settling in outside Magazines & More two years ago. He hopes to move his operation indoors at some point, so he can continue juicing during the winter months. "When they come they’re not just getting a juice," says Coconut Rob, "they’re getting a piece of who I am."

Up, Up & Away

chris-hoytShopper marketing is gaining altitude, but still faces headwinds in three key areas. A report by Chris Hoyt and Nancy Swift of Hoyt & Company. The results of the 2014 HUB Shopper-Marketing Update survey present a very positive picture of shopper marketing, with the caveat that certain core issues still need to be addressed.

Clearly, shopper marketing is now well established, with 54 percent of respondents reporting that their shopper-marketing departments have five or more years of experience — up from 38 percent since 2012. Conversely, ‘newbies’ (1-2 years) represent only 17 percent of participants — down from 27 percent in 2012. This does not mean, however, that shopper marketing is ossifying. To the contrary, shopper marketing appears to be as dynamic as ever.

Retailer interest in shopper marketing is growing, as reported by 78 percent of respondents: Headcount in shopper-marketing departments continues to grow; shopper-marketing budgets as a percent of total marketing budgets are up 8 points; 95 percent of respondents expect their budgets to continue to increase or remain the same over the next three years; and, most important, the percentage of those rating their own performance as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ has increased from 36 percent to 46 percent in the past 18 months — a 27 percent increase since 2012. Read the rest of Up, Up & Away.

Apple Seeds

apple-seedsAt the core of Apple’s organization is a school that teaches a culture of simplicity, reports Brian X. Chen in The New York Times (8/11/14). Called Apple University, Steve Jobs founded it in 2009 "as a way to inculcate employees into Apple’s business culture and educate them about its history, particularly as the company grew and the tech business changed." As with so many other aspects of Apple’s world, Apple University "is highly secretive and rarely written about."

Mr. Jobs chose "Joel Podolny, then the dean of Yale School of Management," to design Apple University. Courses include "case studies about important business decisions that Apple made," as well as the best way to share "ideas with peers." As one employee described the Apple communications ideal: "You go through more iterations until you can simply deliver your message in a very concise way, and that is true to the Apple brand and everything we do."

To communicate the concept, instructor Randy Nelson uses "a series of 11 lithographs … that Picasso created over about a month in late 1945," in which the artist began with a detailed sketch of a bull, and concluded with "a curvy stick figure that is still unmistakably a bull." (link) A course called "What Makes Apple, Apple" features a slide of Google’s 78-button remote control, and then the Apple TV remote (image), with just three — "a button to play and pause a video, a button to select something to watch, and another to go to the main menu."


yoThe biggest thing since Twitter may be an app so simple that Apple initially rejected it, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (8/11/14). Called Yo, the app’s "sole function is for a user to send the word ‘Yo’ to any other friend using the app." Apple "rejected it on the grounds that it lacked substance," but then relented, and Yo has "since been downloaded two million times, and its 50,000 or so active users have sent more than four million Yos." The app also now has "$1.5 million in funding."

What makes Yo a potential blockbuster is that it is neither a messaging app nor a social network; it is "a communications protocol," not unlike "text messages, email and Twitter." This is because it "provides any person, business or Web service direct access to the notifications tray of your smartphone … these are the alerts we see on our lock screens, and they also interrupt us whenever we’re doing anything else on our phones." The value is inherent in "how often the average smartphone owner glances at his or her phone."

The opportunity is to use the protocol to send more than just a ‘Yo’ to friend. Future iterations "will let users send a link," too, and an RSS feed, which would enable "every blogger, website and media outlet … to send push notifications." Yo will also enable users to add profile pictures and individual or organizational names. A Yo-specific app store is in the works, and already it is possible to integrate the app with services, such as "one that will let you know whether there is a bike available at a designated Citibike-sharing station in Manhattan … Israelis can also get a Yo whenever rockets are incoming."

Colliding Worlds

colliding-worldsArt and science — "the twin branches of understanding" — "have been coming back together" after drifting apart, reports Jascha Hoffman in a New York Times review of Colliding Worlds, by Arthur I. Miller (8/5/14). You may remember Arthur Miller from his previous book, Einstein, Picasso, which also showed "how the discovery of quantum mechanics inspired a generation of avant-garde artists, including Picasso, Kandinsky and Dali," who said he wanted to use "neutrinos … to paint the beauty of angels."

So, this trend dates back to "the dawn of the 20th century" and Arthur has been studying it since the 1980s. He "argues that artists and scientists have always had the same mission: to ‘fathom the reality beyond appearances, the world invisible to our eyes’." His subjects include "Neri Oxman, who is using her knowledge of bone formation to design better buildings from concrete, and David Edwards … who has come up with methods for inhaling food and beverages and transmitting odors using cellphones."

Then there’s "bio-art," or those who use "living tissues as raw material," such as "Stelarc, the Australian artists who coaxed his own cells to grow in the shape of a human ear grafted onto his left arm." In the future, Arthur envisions "working with computers made of not-yet-invented materials" and "producing theories that generate images that can be manipulated like equations." He envisions art that is "sometimes beautiful, sometimes disturbing, sometimes subversive, sometimes downright crazy, but always interesting."

Origami Robots

paper-airplaneA Harvard graduate student is creating self-folding robots out of origami art, reports Kenneth Chang in The New York Times (8/7/14). Sam Felton says the goal is "to make robots as quickly and cheaply as possible," and suggests that his origami robots (video) might be useful "on future space missions. Or perhaps the technology could one day be applied to Ikea-like furniture, folding from a flat-packed board to, say, a table without anyone fumbling with Allen wrenches or deciphering instructions."

The "paper" for these robots is actually "a flexible circuit board and Shrinky Dinks — plastic sheets, sold as a toy, that shrink when heated above 212 degrees Fahrenheit." The sheet is attached to motors, batteries "and a microcontroller," costing a total of about $100 to build. The process is "simpler and cheaper than the manufacturing process for most machines today … which are made of many separate pieces that are then glued, bolted and snapped together."

Sam must design and fold the robot, "but the hope is that the mathematics of origami will allow computer software to … create complex robots capable of doing almost any task." Origami can also "alter the properties of a material," making it "stiffer or curved or able to swing like a hinge … For example, a folded-up sheet could be unfurled on top of a building, and then made rigid, forming a roof," or possibly "incorporated into the surface of robotic limbs, floppy and flexible when reaching for an object, and then stiffening to pick it up."

R & R

al-wittemenShoppers have an appetite for engagement that all media must satisfy. A Hub white paper by Al Wittemen of St John & Partners. One of my favorite books is William J. Bennett’s The Book Of Virtues, a collection of stories about self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, loyalty and faith.

At some ‘aha’ moment in recent years, I realized that these virtues, which make us good people and good friends, were the same virtues (set of best-of business practices) that help build great brands. I realized that they—a rose by any other name—were in fact often embedded in the DNA of great brands, that they guided marketers in making better choices, maintaining stronger relationships, and realizing the increased results that transform their brands from good to great.

Little has changed. Marketers today have the same goals they’ve had for years: relationships and results. Whether consciously or unconsciously, today’s great brand leaders are succeeding by implementing virtuous strategies that develop meaningful relationships with their consumers and net superior, quantifiable results. Read the Rest of Al Wittemen’s White Paper.