Far from rendering public libraries irrelevant, "technology and digitized information has had the opposite effect," reports Loretta Waldman in The Wall Street Journal (9/30/14). Nowhere is this more true than at the Westport, Connecticut Public Library, which recently acquired a pair of "humanoid" robots that will "teach the kind of coding and computer-programming skills required to animate such machines." The Westport Library was also among the first in Connecticut "to acquire a 3-D printer and to create a ‘maker’ space."
The robots, named Vincent and Nancy, were "made by the French robotics firm Aldebaran," cost about $8,000 each and were privately funded. Among other things, the robots "have blinking eyes and an unnerving way of looking quizzically in the direction of whoever is speaking." They "can recognize faces" and have a "’fall manager,’ that helps them right themselves after a tumble … grunts and all. They can even ‘touch’ and ‘feel’ with the help of tactile and pressure sensors."
Maxine Bleiweis, the library’s executive director, says Vincent and Nancy are about more than just novelty, however. "Robotics is the next disruptive technology … and we felt it was important to make it available to people so they could learn about it," she says. "From an economic development perspective and job- and career-development perspective, it’s so important." The robots will also help "patrons locate books" and greet "elementary-school groups that visit the library." Vincent and Nancy will make their library debut on Oct. 11.
The Des Moines Register hopes virtual reality will reinvent the news experience, reports Lukas I. Alpert in The Wall Street Journal (9/22/14). The newspaper is "incorporating the technology of Oculus VR, computerized game platforms and 360-degree cameras." In this way, a story about "how a sixth-generation Iowa farming family is struggling to maintain its traditions in an increasingly globalized world of agribusiness … takes a viewer into a computerized world of cows, soybeans and grain silos."
Basically, the reader gets a sense of "roaming around a farm in Page County, Iowa." This does require "strapping on Oculus’s virtual-reality headset," but it allows viewers to "walk up to the family’s machine shop and click on an icon that places them inside a 3-D video feature about maintaining high-tech farming equipment," for example. They "can view the information in any order," not unlike a videogame. If they don’t have an Oculus helmet, they can still interact in 2-D "on any computer."
Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute says it has limitations. "Although we call it multimedia, most of these stories are hybrids that use the visual elements to amplify the underlying narrative," he says. "You can take a virtual tour of a building where an event occurred, but that is a different thing than having characters who are fully explained." Other limitations are that the "virtual-reality technology" makes some people dizzy, and currently only 125,000 Oculus headsets are in circulation.
A "stealthy newcomer" named Amelia "embodies a new approach to artificial intelligence," reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (9/29/14). Similar to IBM’s Watson, Amelia "is the product of an attempt to understand how people think, rather than to copy the means by which they do it. Many traditional AI efforts try to map the human brain … But Amelia is all about turning what psychologists know about how thinking happens … rather than how it’s carried out by our neurons."
"We didn’t achieve powered flight by copying birds," says Chetan Dube of IP Soft, developers of Amelia. "First we had to understand the principles of flight." Amelia "learns from textbooks, transcriptions of conversations, email chains and just about any other text. As long as the answer appears in the data she gets, she can solve problems." She is now being tested in call centers, where the "goal is consistency — every time anyone calls, that person should get the same, correct answer," which is based on correct answers previously supplied by humans. (video)
The larger goal, of course, is to replace humans, "especially in a customer support type of situation." However, Amelia "remains, like all synthetic intelligences, merely a clever way to automate tasks" and "has no free will." She does have feelings, though. If you tell Amelia you hate her, "the three variables that define her emotional state — arousal, dominance and pleasure — are negatively affected." "Our goal here is not to just model emotions, but to use what we detect of those sentiments in decision making," says Ergun Ekici, Amelia’s lead architect.
Alan Turing created a test to prove that machines could think the way humans do, writes Walter Isaacson in The Wall Street Journal (9/27/14). "His test, now usually called the Turing Test, was a simple imitation game. An interrogator sends written questions to a human and a machine in another room and tries to determine which is which. If the output of a machine is indistinguishable from that of a human brain, he argued, then it makes no sense to deny that the machine is ‘thinking’." The year was 1950.
Based on this test, Mr. Turing "predicted that in 50 years there would be machines that, for five minutes, could fool a human questioner 30 percent of the time." Sixty years later, this hasn’t yet happened. Even if it did, "philosophers led by Berkeley professor John Searle contend that it would be wrong to ascribe intentions and consciousness and ‘thinking’ to a machine, even if it could fool 100 percent of questioners indefinitely." Mr. Turing was challenged on this very point during a debate against a brain surgeon, Sir Geoffrey Jefferson.
Sir Geoffrey’s said he wouldn’t believe a machine "could think until he saw it touch the leg of a female machine" and "make a fool of himself." In other words, it is "appetites, desires, drives, instincts" that set machines and people apart, not just how well they answer questions. Mr. Turing’s personal life ultimately amplified Sir Geoffrey’s point. Having been arrested because he was gay, and forced to take hormones as treatment, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple. As Walter Isaacson concludes: "Was that something a machine would have done?"
A French diplomat is opening a bookstore "inside the French Embassy’s Fifth Avenue mansion," reports Jennifer Maloney in The Wall Street Journal (9/25/14). Antonin Baudry "has served in New York as the cultural counselor since 2010" and envisions this bookstore — called Albertine — after a character from a Proust novel — "as a public reading room … a place where Francophiles and book lovers of all stripes can discover new works, in both French and English."
"The good bookshops," says Antonin, "are not only bookshops," but rather a place where visitors can linger "for four hours and read books. Nobody is going to push them to buy anything." Antonin is "designed in the style of a grand private library … The store’s ceiling is painted with an arresting blue-and-gold starscape inspired by the 16th-century ceilings of Lorenzo de’Medici. It is meant to evoke the Renaissance idea that the pursuit of knowledge encompassed science, math, literature and the arts."
Albertine will open "with a six-day festival … curated by the cultural critic and author Greil Marcus" and featuring "speakers including ‘Mad Men’ creator Matthew Weiner and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz." The bookstore is backed by sponsors including "LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton … and Air France." The location — in the embassy — is itself liberating. "There is no rent," says Antonin. "We have the freedom to show the books we love." New York’s only other French bookstore, the Librairie de France, closed in 2009.
A dive bar in Brooklyn is doubling as a "short-story workshop" for unknown authors, reports Sheila McClear in The New York Times (9/28/14). Unknown — literally. Authors of submitted short stories remain anonymous. Some are famous writers but others are not. Each Sunday — known as Literate Sunday — Matthew D’Abate "puts out a new crop of five stories … during his bartending shift" at the Plank, in Williamsburg, from 2 pm to 10 pm. Patrons can enjoy the stories along with $3 cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and offer their critique.
"The point of Literate Sunday is to remove, if not subvert, the idea of fame, removing the ego and the names from the pieces so the stories can speak for themselves," says Matthew. The anonymity is important for another reason: "There is this real fear through social media and through the experience of growing up online of being very conscious of what’s linked to your name," says Kara Rota, who has submitted pieces. "I think there’s a real value to be found in doing something creative anonymously that gives you a freedom you don’t have a lot anymore."
Those in-the-know can access the stories anytime, as Matthew keeps a stash of about 100 pieces in a chest in the back of the bar. While he steadfastly refuses to name any of the writers, he does disclose that they include authors of bestselling books and contributors to Paris Review and McSweeney’s. Matthew also makes stories available to subscribers of an email list, currently numbering about 500 people in 12 countries. "It’s about the writer being free," says Matthew, adding: "All the greats have come from outside the system."
The full value of e-commerce is greater than just its ability to generate sales. A Hub White Paper by Angela Edwards of Catapult eCommerce. Let’s face it: There hasn’t been much organic growth in the consumer packaged-goods industry over the past three to five years. That is why, when the conversation with marketers turns to e-commerce, the energy level in the room immediately shoots up. There’s a sense of inevitability that the Internet will continue to play a larger role in driving purchases of consumable goods — a perception fueled by the success of Amazon, in addition to brick-and-clicks like Walmart.com and online grocers like Peapod.
As a result, nearly every packaged-goods company today is at least considering how to make e-commerce a more integral facet of its business model. From there, the marketer’s questions become weightier: How big, exactly, is the growth potential in my primary categories? What are the top global markets for e-commerce? And how can I be sure that my investment in building our company’s digital marketing and e-commerce capabilities is going to be worth the payoff? Read The Rest of the White Paper.
The late Will Radcliff turned "brain-freezing super-sweet drinks" into a $25 billion business, reports Paul Vitello in The New York Times (9/22/14). Mr. Radcliff was a peanut salesman who had his million-dollar epiphany while "inspecting a slush-making machine" at a trade show. He calculated that he "could sell a drink for 10 cents and make 7 cents" each time. The Slurpee was already available, but he thought "they were not being marketed well enough to spread the word about the pleasures of flavored ice drinks."
He "began studying the aesthetics of flavored ice drinks. He reviewed the options on texture (shavings, granular mush), flavoring (supersweet? a dollop of tartness?) as well as drinking containers and certain intangibles." Among the insights, he told the Cincinnati Enquirer, was this: "Believe it or not … we have people who buy it because they say they love to hear that ice hit the cup." The name Slush Puppie arrived "over a six-pack of beer on the porch of his Cincinnati home," with the help of Mr. Radcliff’s wife and daughter.
They adopted "a floppy-eared cartoon dog as its symbol," and with just $970 — which was all they had — launched Slush Puppie Corporation in 1970. "The Slush Puppie is now sold around the world at convenience stores and gas stations from vending machines." The company was sold "in 2000 for $16.6 million to … Cadbury Schweppes. The J&J Snack Food Corporation of New Jersey bought Slush Puppie in 2006." "He could sell anything to anybody," said his daughter, DeeAnn. Will Radcliff was 74.
Noble W. Harris believes "the right ice … is the cornerstone of any mixed drink," reports Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan in The Wall Street Journal (9/25/14). Noble mixes drinks at The District Tap House in Manhattan, and believes ice is "opening up new doors" for mixologists, as different kinds of ice "chill things down at different speeds." The first consideration is the size of the ice: "The larger the ice, the less diluted a drink gets. This is especially important if you’re a slow sipper."
For "drinks that taste better after sitting a while" — such as Scotch, for instance — Noble favors "big spheres of ice that fit snugly in a squat lowball glass." This lets the drink breathe and is "also really nice to look at," he says. With highball glasses, Noble "likes to use long rectangular ‘spears’ of ice that are about 1 inch wide and 4 inches long." Shaved ice has its place for strong drinks like mint juleps that "need dilution from fast-melting ice." Meanwhile, square cubes "about an inch and a half high, work fine in most cocktails."
When using square cubes, Noble goes for "perfect clarity," often achieved using filtered water. He says you shouldn’t keep ice in the freezer too long, lest it begins to absorb aromas from neighboring items. If it’s an intentionally flavored cube, that’s another story: Noble "likes to add extra flavors to a cocktail via ice in flavors such as rosemary, lemonade, ginger or apple juice." The most common bartender mistake, says Noble, is "not using enough," ice, as there’s nothing worse than a drink "where after two minutes all the ice has melted."
Twenty-five years later, The Simpsons "remains as vital, fresh and funny as ever," reports Will Friedwald in The Wall Street Journal (9/24/14). The question is: "How does a show sustain its creative life for roughly 22 episodes a year for 25 years? Al Jean, who has worked on the program for its entire history" says consistency is the thing, in that the show’s goals and its cast of characters have not changed — except for the death of Miss Edna Krabappel, "following the death of Marcia Wallace, the actress who supplied her voice."
One benefit of this is that no one can say that the show "jumped the shark" because it never added "a new central character." It also gives the viewer the flexibility to jump in and watch episodes at random. There is precedent for this: Kelsey Grammer "played Dr. Frasier Crane over two distinct series from 1984 to 2004" and Jack Benny "kept his own cast intact over three decades and many incarnations of shows that encompassed a surprisingly seamless transition from radio to television."
The other thing about the Simpsons is that "Homer and Marge are believable as flesh-and-blood characters, and we can relate to them as human beings more than as pen-and-ink drawings." Their world "is a lot like ours, filled with hurt and disappointment, but also love and humor, all interlaced with an often overwhelming dose of absurdity." This makes all the more poignant a recent "episode constructed entirely out of Lego blocks," based on Homer’s wish for a world "where everything fits together and no one gets hurt."
The "most wonderful terrible restaurant in New York" has remained "virtually unchanged since opening in 1975," reports Pete Wells in The New York Times (9/24/14). Where other Lower East Side eateries "obsess over filament light bulbs and salvaged barn beams," Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse "will be ready when fluorescents and drop ceilings make a triumphant return to fashion." The lighting recalls "a bail bondsman’s office in Detroit" and the "front of the building … looks as if it has been marked for demolition."
The servers dress "in Sammy’s T-shirts and jeans with a dishrag swinging from one pocket," and their style is "by turns cranky, funny and crankily funny." When asked by anxious patrons whether they had ordered enough food, a waiter rolled his eyes, looked at his watch and said: "Tell you what: If you’re still hungry, the Chinese food will be here at 9:30." Not much chance anyone will go hungry, though, between the fried kreplach, latkes, and kishke — and the meat, which will arrive cooked, but at random degrees of doneness.
The menu is "stapled inside manila folders as it has been since the Koch administration," and "is less distinctively Roumanian than it once was." But Sammy’s remains "loudly, raucously, endlessly, embracingly Jewish, a permanent underground bar mitzvah … In Sammy’s basement" strangers join hands and dance among the tables as a man at a keyboard sings, "Sing us a song, you’re the schmatte man." "This is how people had fun in the Old World … before amplifiers and apps and … video games."
A novelist is using a big-box store as the setting for a horror story, reports Steve Dollar in The Wall Street Journal (9/23/14). "A hallmark of research into ‘real’ haunted places is that people feel a sense of confusion and disorientation," says Grady Hendrix, author of Horrorstor. It’s a design concept known as Gruen Transfer. "It’s what casinos do. There are no windows. There are no clocks. The carpets have these complicated patterns on them. It deliberately takes you on this twisty path. You often forget your original reason for being somewhere."
In short, it’s a lot like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Grady’s model, however, is Ikea, and his premise has "a group of employees … trapped overnight in a ghost-riddled retail labyrinth." Inevitably, there is social commentary, as Grady "zeroes in on the horror of mundane, minimum-wage jobs. They are compared with forced-labor therapies imposed in 19th-century prisons." "Every religion has a different version of hell," says Grady. "My version is a job with no breaks, no vacations, no promotions."
The only problem is that, in real life, Ikea employees love their jobs — as Grady found when he spoke with them. Undaunted, Grady named his fictional store Orsk, and his "novel doubles as an actual catalog, of sorts, with mock order forms and illustrations for imaginary furnishings such as the Muskk, a bed, and the Hugga, an office chair." Grady sees department stores as inherently horrifying. "There’s something creepy about hundreds and hundreds of chairs no one’s ever going to sit in," he says. "Like, what are they waiting for?"
A new grocery store in Germany "has dispensed entirely with disposable packaging," reports Feargus O’Sullivan in CityLab (9/16/14). Located in Berlin, Original Unverpackt (unverpackt means unpackaged) also sells no brand-name items. The store’s "dry goods — rice, cereal, spices — are stored in large dispenser bins, and customers fill containers they have either brought with them or purchased in the store. Liquid goods, such as juice or yogurt, are sold in jars or bottles with a deposit on them."
Most of the store’s "products are organic" with origins noted. The assortment is a little bit quirky: "As yet there’s no meat or cheese (problems working out a packaging-free system for these, perhaps?), but you can get chewable toothpaste tablets … On the plus side, the brand-free policy doesn’t seem to have led to only single, generic choices being offered; the store generally stocks several types of everything they sell. If customers shop regularly, then the potential to cut the amount of packaging they … throw in the trash … is vast."
The absence of brands and packaging also apparently helps "avoid the risk with projects of this type" — the associated cost reductions address the traditional high-cost of organic goods. Indeed, "many or most of Original Unverpackt’s products cost a little less than they would at the average German grocery store." In addition, "the bring-your-own-containers system is also likely to induce … customer loyalty," given that shoppers may be more likely to return once they’ve invested in "a set of appropriately sized Tupperware."
Community is the glue that binds online and offline brand experiences. A Hub white paper by Christine Hall of Landor. Consumers have an emotional connection to the small handheld computers they carry around in their pockets; however, few brands have fully tapped into how to build relationships through them. Clicks are, in fact, ‘social networks.’ As Internet ecosystems have evolved and mobile technology has strengthened, the concept of ‘social’ has become something that is done through computers and, increasingly, phones. Because of this, there is no separation between bricks and clicks.
When the phrase ‘bricks and clicks’ began circulating in the business world, it was generally about driving business back and forth between physical retail stores and websites. Today, it’s not about the brick-and-mortar store or the website. When we hear the word click, it no longer necessarily connotes pressing a button on a computer mouse. Most people don’t even click anymore — they swipe, pinch, tap, and touch. Read The Rest of The White Paper.
A competition to find the best local honey in NYC reveals surprising variety, reports Ralph Gardner Jr. in The Wall Street Journal (9/22/14). One might suppose that honey made in New York City would likely taste pretty similar. "I mean, how different can New York City honey taste from one address to the next?" Ralph writes. "Also, what is it that the bees are pollinating? I hate to think. Chewing gum? Sidewalk trash? I assumed if there were a recurring flavor profile it might be soot."
However, judges of the second annual Battle of The Bees, used terms such as "floral, minty and woodsy" to describe the competing honey. The competitors include the Waldorf itself, as well as the Durst Organization at One Bryant Park, the New York Beekeeper’s Association’s High Line Honey, Brooks Brothers and York Prep School’s Bee Club. Each competitor has its advantages: "York Prep is steps away from Central Park. The Durst Organization has Bryant Park. And the High Line boasts all those textural plants, shrubs and trees."
The winner was the Waldorf, whose honey was praised for its "complexity." David Garcelon of the Waldorf "noted the hotel’s rooftop garden has so many varieties of flowers, that they may have provided the winning margin." The Waldorf also has "ready access to Park Avenue’s plantings." However, "bees can travel an astonishing 5-mile radius in search of honey" and David thinks this may have made the difference. "We believe they go up Park Avenue to Central Park," he said.
Bees and ants are surprisingly good at thinking as a group, reports Robert M. Sapolsky in The Wall Street Journal (9/20/14). "Social insects excel at what we’ve come to call the ‘wisdom of the crowd’." For example, a bee reporting a food source twice as good as that reported by another bee, does so by "dancing" twice as long as the other bee. "The hive’s other bees will encounter" this bee "twice as often as the other bee," so "twice as many bees" investigate the food source, and report back with their own double-length dance.
As a result, "four times as many bees" check out the superior food source … "then eight times as many, then … everyone. No bee investigates both sites, yet the better site is chosen." Ants behave in a comparable manner when scouting out a suitable place for a colony (the darker the interior the better). Researchers at Arizona State University found that when the difference between the nests was slight "ant groups were more effective than singletons in selecting the best nest in a set time," while for "easy choices, a single ant is likely to be more accurate."
Researchers at Macquarie University also "studied honeybees using two vials of fluid, each attached to a symbol that a bee had to learn to recognize. The vial near the correct symbol contained sugar water, while one near the wrong symbol contained quinine. When the symbols were easy to tell apart, the bees usually picked the correct one. If they were hard to differentiate, they didn’t choose either. Net: "First, even ants need some rugged individualism. Second, judicious bees aren’t drawn like bees to honey if the odds of succeeding aren’t great."
Kids who exercise self-control get better grades, and grow up to be richer and thinner, reports Michael Shermer in a Wall Street Journal review of The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel (9/20/14). This insight is based on Walter’s late ’60s experiment involving "children between the ages of 4 and 6" who "given a choice between one marshmallow right away or two marshmallows if they waited 15 minutes" (video). Only a third elected to delay gratification, but those who did turned out to have more success in life than those who didn’t.
Critics of this research say it’s misguided, that a single trait like self-control cannot by itself "explain success or failure." Walter acknowledges this, but maintains that "self-control can be nurtured in children and adults." He says it’s mostly about differentiating between "hot" and "cool" systems in the brain: "one hot to deal with immediate rewards and threats (and) the other cool to deal with delayed consequences." The secret is to find ways to "cool your hot system."
For example, keep temptations out of sight — e.g., "clear your fridge of tempting treats you know you shouldn’t eat … Get a full night’s sleep and eat a healthy diet to maintain the energy level you need — exercising willpower, researchers have found, burns a lot of actual calories." A support system of friends and family is also important. In another marshmallow experiment, children "could ring a bell to call back the experimenter and save them from themselves." Of course, it’s up to the individual to take control by ringing the bell.
"Trying to answer a stupid question thoroughly can take you to some pretty interesting places," writes Randall Munroe in What If?, reviewed by Steven Poole in The Wall Street Journal (9/20/14). His book was inspired "by apparently ridiculous questions sent by readers" of his website, xkcd. For example: "What would happen if you tried to fly an electrically powered airplane on Venus?" Answer: "Your plane would fly pretty well, except it would be on fire the whole time … Venus is a terrible place."
Or: How heavy would a mole ("a unit of measure in chemistry") weigh if it were made of up moles (the animal)? Answer: It would "be about as heavy as a planet." "The mole planet," Randall writes, "would be a giant sphere of meat." To the question of "what would happen if you tried to hit a baseball that was moving at 90% of the speed of light," Randall replies: "I sat down with some physics books, a Nolan Ryan action figure, and a bunch of videotapes of nuclear tests." In other words: Ka-Boom!
The point of such estimates is to help "get a handle on a problem" by "reasoning from first principles: work by analogy, perform very rough orders-of-magnitude calculations, or try to flip perspectives." This is often otherwise known as "blue-sky research … Yet even the most bizarre examples teach us something surprising about the fragility of human life, or the astounding variety of the intellectual tools that humanity has devised or just the sheer amazingness of the universe."
Two new buzzwords are propelling retail into orbit. A Hub white paper by Rodney Mason of Parago. Online retail is growing, but not as fast as offline brick-and-mortar is contracting. Many retailers are reporting that their customers who shop online don’t come in-store much, if at all, and vice versa. Customers who shop online tend to expect greater selection and cheaper prices than they would find offline, in addition to free shipping, which erodes margins that are already battered by price-match strategies.
All of this change has two new buzzwords — BOPIS (Buy Online; Pickup In-Store) and BISBO (Buy In-Store; Buy Online) — permeating retailer ‘mission control,’ as they work to grow transaction counts and healthier margins. Retail is steeped in traditional ‘markdown’ events, which still work, and which have recently been proven once again necessary. However, many shopping trends are not being closely addressed, and now retail is playing catch-up. Read The Rest of The White Paper.
Brooks Headley is a pastry chef at a four-star restaurant, but doesn’t think of himself that way, reports Jeff Gordinier in The New York Times (9/17/14). "He doesn’t even like that term," says Mark Ladner, executive chef at Mario Batali’s Del Posto, where he works with Brooks, a punk-rock drummer who "never went to culinary school." In his new book, Fancy Desserts, Brooks plays to irony, in that his "desserts at Del Posto are the very antithesis of fancy. Much of the time, he specializes in exploring the old-school, birthday-party partnership between cake and ice cream."
Here’s how he describes his candied carrots: "This recipe is inspired in part by the Looney Tunes episode where Bugs Bunny buys carrots out of a vending machine." The recipe is accompanied by a photo in which "purple, yellow and orange greenmarket delights are shown lying side by side with a roll of Life Savers and a Zagnut bar." His chocolate gelato carries "a slight memory trace of American junk food." "I toss in two types of cocoa powder to make it feel a little chalky — the way a Fudgsicle tastes a little chalky," he says.
Punk rock is a "core aesthetic," in the sense that Brooks believes in deconstructing a dessert, like a song, "down to its raw essence." He also draws on the "rootsy soulfulness of Italian cooking" — he actually "views himself as an Italian grandmother, and he credits women with teaching him everything he knows." When Brooks is not making desserts, he might be found whipping up a Superiority Burger, a veggie burger that created a sensation at a pop-up food fair. Brooks says he’s a humble guy, "except with veggie burgers. This is the best," he says.