Kellogg Story: The Battle of Battle Creek

Bryan Burrough: “If by chance you are reading this over your morning cornflakes, be warned … it turns out that the turn-of-the-last-century origin and evolution of the cereal industry was a very nasty and unpleasant bit of business, as Howard Markel chronicles in The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek … Dr. Markel, a professor of medical history at the University of Michigan, tells the story not only of two titans of American commerce and medicine, the brothers John Harvey and William Keith Kellogg, but of the institutions they founded, John’s Battle Creek Sanitarium and Will’s Kellogg cereal colossus—not to mention their long-running feud, one of the more spectacular in the annals of business.”

“Many of John’s patients struggled with the age’s great scourge, ‘dyspepsia,’ a medley of gas, diarrhea, heartburn and upset stomach. An American diet long on animal fat, salt and sugar produced what one historian called ‘the great American stomach ache’ … The Kelloggs (and others) thought that an easily digestible corn cereal might solve all the problems.” However, John “refused to aggressively sell the Kellogg cereal because he thought it unseemly for a medical doctor, and his increasingly famous sanitarium (“the San”), to sell a commercial product.”

Will “made a deal with John to leave the San and start a cereal company of his own, which in time became a global conglomerate. Litigation between the two brothers began almost before the first Corn Flakes box could be shipped from Will’s factory. John sued. Will countersued when John finally sold a cereal of his own. The litigation went on for years, finally ending only in 1920, by which point the damage was irreparable … In the end, the Kellogg brothers’ fortunes reversed. Will, dour and lonely, became one of the country’s wealthiest men … John, though internationally famous well into the 1930s, slowly lost many of his holdings, including, in 1920, the sanitarium itself.”

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Consumer Culture & The Ikea Catalog

Quartz: “Beginning July 31, IKEA’s highly-anticipated catalogue will appear in millions of mailboxes around the world … This year, it took the Swedish company 18 months and a hundreds-strong army of photographers, art directors, copywriters, proofreaders, prop masters, carpenters, photo retouchers, programmers and CGI specialists to produce the catalog’s 1,400 pieces of art and 24,000 texts. While the text remain basically the same worldwide, IKEA’s team does go the extra mile to swap out subtle, tell-tale details in 72 different region-specific editions.”

“Knowing that kitchens in China are much smaller than the US for example, catalogue designers crop into a photograph and reposition elements in post-production, to illustrate a cozier cooking space … Last February, members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community received a 67-page, all-male product catalogue with challah boards, Shabbat candlesticks, tables set for the Sabbath meal, and Billy bookcases propped with volumes of the Talmud and Bible, the Jerusalem Post reports.”

“The annual catalogue is also a way for IKEA to set prices for their different markets, factoring in the cost of goods, transport, and tariffs and the foreign exchange rate … IKEA works with five paper suppliers and 31 printers around the world to produce the catalogue each year. In choosing the paper … they even consider how different markets perceive quality vis-a-vis the paper’s brightness and sheen. An Ikea exec comments: “People have a ‘magazine moment’ with a cup of tea, at home, touching the paper.”

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Blind-Date Books: Novel Mysteries

The Wall Street Journal: “Booksellers across the country are enticing readers to take a chance on a surprise selected by store staff. To set up these ‘blind dates,’ the stores wrap the book to hide the cover and offer a few clues to give a sense of the hidden work’s genre and tone. ‘It’s been the most successful table we’ve ever put together,’ says Cari Quartuccio of the blind-date offerings at a location of Book Culture, where she is the store manager.”

“For customers, trusting the staff at their local store is part of the fun. The clues allow readers to select a gift for themselves. (And then, of course, immortalize unwrapping the mystery volume on Instagram.) At Book Culture, blind-date offerings are wrapped in brown paper and bear a note advising ‘Read me if you liked’ and a list of three books staff members think customers are likely to have read.”

“Book Culture’s Ms. Quartuccio says customers seldom are lukewarm about the notion of blind-date books. Fans often make repeat purchases, with some even buying stacks as gifts. Other customers are perplexed by the idea. Finally, she says, there are those ‘who get really upset when we won’t tell them the title of the book. Mystery isn’t for them, but they still want to take part in it’.”

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Deep Thinking: ‘Artificial’ Trumps ‘Intelligence’

LARB: From a review of Deep Thinking, by Garry Kasparov, the chess champion defeated by Deep Blue, a machine, in 1997: “The history of computer chess is the history of artificial intelligence. After their disappointments in trying to reverse-engineer the brain, computer scientists narrowed their sights. Abandoning their pursuit of human-like intelligence, they began to concentrate on accomplishing sophisticated, but limited, analytical tasks by capitalizing on the inhuman speed of the modern computer’s calculations.”

“This less ambitious but more pragmatic approach has paid off in areas ranging from medical diagnosis to self-driving cars. Computers are replicating the results of human thought without replicating thought itself. If in the 1950s and 1960s the emphasis in the phrase ‘artificial intelligence’ fell heavily on the word ‘intelligence,’ today it falls with even greater weight on the word ‘artificial’ … If a machine can search billions of options in a matter of milliseconds, ranking each according to how well it fulfills some specified goal, then it can outperform experts in a lot of problem-solving tasks without having to match their experience or insight.”

Also: “A bit of all-too-human deviousness was also involved in Deep Blue’s win. IBM’s coders, it was later revealed, programmed the computer to display erratic behavior — delaying certain moves, for instance, and rushing others — in an attempt to unsettle Kasparov. Computers may be innocents, but that doesn’t mean their programmers are.”

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Machine Platform Crowd: The Future Today

The Wall Street Journal: Machine Platform Crowd, a new book by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, “is a book for managers whose companies sit well back from the edge and who would like a digestible introduction to technology trends that may not have reached their doorstep—yet … In the authors’ terminology, ‘Machine’ is shorthand for computers running software that, with new AI techniques called ‘deep learning,’ essentially teaches itself how to make judgments superior to those of humans. ‘Machine’ also encompasses the disappearance of employees in the services sector, leaving only the customer, robots and software—what the authors refer to as ‘virtualization.'”

“‘Platform’ refers to digital environments that bring economic actors together, exploiting free, or nearly free, online access, reproduction and distribution. Uber and Airbnb are examples of new platforms. ‘Crowd’ refers to information resources created by the uncredentialed, the nonexpert and, with rare exceptions, the unpaid. Wikipedia and the Linux operating system comprise the two most impressive achievements of the crowd.”

​”Messrs. McAfee and Brynjolfsson argue that, in the latest phase of the second machine age, incumbent businesses will be pushed aside if they fail to understand how new machines and software, platforms, and the crowd enlarge the scope of digital technologies—just as manufacturers that had appeared and thrived in the first phase of the first machine age were displaced when electricity supplanted steam power in the early 20th century.”

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From Baking Powder & Cardboard to Amazon

The Washington Post: “A&P Baking Powder was an important product in the history of retailing,” Marc Levinson wrote in The Great A&P, a history of the company and grocery stores. “With it, the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, and many of its competitors, began a transition from being tea merchants to being grocers. It was a transition that would dramatically change Americans’ daily lives.”

“The branding of baking powder was important because most merchants back then were just essentially selling, as Levinson wrote, ‘generic products indistinguishable from what was for sale down the street.’ And in selling their powder in a tin, the owners were ahead in another important way — packaging.”

“The invention of the cardboard box changed everything. The company could now make, brand and sell its own condensed milk, butter, spices — just about any staple of the kitchen … There was difficult, transformative work ahead. The company needed to upend an entire culture of shopping built around neighborhood stores … A&P’s business model began to sound a lot like the one pursued by its retail descendants — Walmart and Amazon … Amazon’s tea was books. Then it diversified.”

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‘Amazon Charts’ Re-Define ‘Best Seller’

The New York Times: Amazon now tracks “not only the top-selling digital and print books on Amazon, but the ones that customers spend the most time reading … With its lists, Amazon aims to redefine the notion of a best seller, expanding it to include books that are ‘borrowed’ from its e-book subscription service, and ones that are streamed on Audible. As a result, the lists give increased visibility to books that might not typically appear on other best-seller lists.”

“All of Amazon’s acquisitions and new features are having a cumulative effect, allowing the company to draw on its vast customer base and troves of data to discover what is popular, and return that information to customers, creating a lucrative feedback loop … Crowdsourcing and data mining are also driving the company’s approach to its bookstores, which act as showcases for books popular with customers on the site. While the stores have traditional categories, like fiction, nonfiction and travel, the most eye-catching shelves feature categories culled from Amazon’s customer data.”

“The first thing customers see when they walk into the store is a large display table, labeled Highly Rated, which includes books with an average rating of 4.8 stars or higher on a scale of 5 … Another display case, labeled Page-Turners, features books that people finish reading on their Kindle in fewer than three days … Another section features the most ‘wished for’ books from Amazon’s website … The books are all displayed face out. Under each book is a card with the average customer rating, the number of reviews and a featured review from an Amazon reader. Displaying the full cover of each book mimics the visual look of Amazon’s website, and might lure customers to unfamiliar titles.”

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Michael Ruhlman & The American Grocery

The Wall Street Journal: “Is there any place more American than the supermarket? Forget the airport and the voting booth; for nearly a century, the one-stop shop has remained a temple of consumerism, not to mention our particular form of consumerist anxiety … In Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America” Michael Ruhlman focuses on “his beloved hometown supermarket, Heinen’s Grocery Store, a Cleveland-based chain with 23 locations in Ohio and Illinois. Joe Heinen opened the first one in 1933, three years after Michael Cullen launched ‘the first true supermarket,’ in Mr. Ruhlman’s designation: King Kullen in Queens, N.Y. Heinen, like Cullen, stockpiled meat, seafood, dairy, produce and groceries, often at a discount, under a single roof. (King Kullen’s slogan was ‘Pile it high. Sell it low.’)”

“There are now 38,000 grocery stores in America, some as large as 90,000 square feet. Heinen’s has annual sales of some $600 million—on a margin of only 1.25% to 1.5%, typical of the industry. ‘You do sales of half a billion dollars,’ a Heinen’s executive notes to Mr. Ruhlman, “and you only have profit of $5 million—what kind of a business is that?'”

Now the best grocery stores compete in a crowded marketplace by combining all of the above while becoming obligatory shopping, and even tourist, destinations. Wegmans, an East Coast chain frequently named America’s top grocery, and Central Market, an upscale offshoot of Texas’ H-E-B … have generated the kind of fervent fan bases once limited to sports franchises.” However: “Jeff Heinen fears that the supermarket will eventually go the way of the suburban shopping mall. ‘We’ll be prepared food and specialty products,’ he tells Mr. Ruhlman. Everything else, all those center-aisle products, in his estimation, will be delivered via Amazon.”

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Book Capella: Library as Luxury Showroom

The Guardian: “Tapestries, leather armchairs, candelabras, sculpted woodwork and figures of the apostles: Book Capella, a newly built, gothic-inspired library in central St Petersburg, is complete with all the expected luxuries of an ancient athenaeum – and a price tag to match. To enjoy the library’s collection and atmosphere, you have to pay a ticket of just under £100 for a four-hour reading session – a markedly different experience to the free access readers can enjoy in Russia’s public libraries.”

“All the books date from between the 16th and 19th centuries and are displayed in thematic rooms with names including The Book of Wars and The Book of Travels. Its motto is a phrase from Jorge Luis Borges: ‘I have always imagined paradise as a library’.”

“However, while Book Capella proclaims its motto to be Borges’s heavenly vision, the space appears to be less library, and something more akin to a luxury showroom.” Project director Irina Khoteshova comments: “One hundred pounds per visit is certainly not a low price, but it is less expensive than tickets to the opera or ballet. People aren’t really surprised by the price itself. They are surprised that it’s the price for a visit to a library … Book Capella is not a library in the traditional sense, and it is not a museum, although elements of the museum are presented. It’s also not the bookstore, although you can buy our books here. [It] is a new way for people to communicate with rare books.”

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The Happiness Effect: The Dark Side of Social Media

From a review of The Happiness Effect, by Donna Freitas, in The Wall Street Journal: “The real downside of Facebook, Instagram and their ilk … is constant cheeriness. Young people learn that any hint of unhappiness or failure may not be posted; it can haunt their futures and damage their ‘brands.’ This imperative then creates a vicious circle.” Freitas writes: “Because young people feel so pressured to post happy things on social media, most of what everyone sees on social media from their peers are happy things; as a result, they often feel inferior because they aren’t actually happy all the time.”

“Young people feel that they have to be online almost all the time, but they cannot share their real selves there, a situation that produces even greater unhappiness … Yet avoiding social media is almost impossible; professors, for instance, create discussion groups on Facebook. So the beast must be mollified and a ‘personal brand’ maintained: that of a studious yet social person who does the right activities and holds the right opinions. ‘Many students have begun to see what they post (on Facebook, especially) as a chore—a homework assignment to build a happy facade,’ Ms. Freitas reports.”

“Some of her interviews contain real gems … One young man tells her that he doesn’t think his generation is any more self-centered or self-obsessed than any other … ‘Everybody wants to be noticed,’ he says. ‘Everybody likes feeling approval. They all like it when other people like them.’ Anyone who has posted a photo on Instagram and then checked 10 times over the next two hours to count the number of ‘likes’ … knows this feeling.”

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