The Huarache: When Weird is Beautiful

Quartz: “The Nike Huarache almost never existed. The shoe, made of a sock-like bootie encased in a supportive exoskeleton, was definitely unusual when Nike began showing around the prototypes in the early 1990s. Practically nobody placed orders, and Nike seemed to have little choice but to kill the idea. Lucky for Nike, one product manager didn’t listen … the Huarache has become Nike’s top-seller globally.”

“The shoe dispensed with a number of conventional ideas in sneaker design. It had no heel counter—the firm backing of the shoe that wraps around your heel to support it—opting instead for the distinctive, harness-like strap, similar to a sandal. (A ‘huarache’ is a kind of Mexican sandal.) It also used neoprene, which had never before been done in a running shoe … when no one placed orders after seeing the prototypes, Nike decided not to make the shoe for release.”

Tinker Hatfield, who designed the shoe picks up on the rest of the story in his new book, called Sneakers: “But one of our product managers actually thought it was awesome, and without proper authorization, he signed an order to build five thousand pairs even though there were no orders. He stuck his neck way out there. He saw what I saw. And he took those five thousand pairs to the New York Marathon, not a place you typically went to sell shoes, and he sold them all in like three days at the exhibition hall right there near Times Square. Word got out. They went like hotcakes. In a month, we went from zero orders to orders for half a million pairs.”

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The da Vinci Code: Observe, Connect & Create

Walter Isaacson: “Today we live in a world that encourages specialization, whether we are students, scholars, workers or professionals. We also tend to exalt training in technology and engineering, believing that the jobs of the future will go to those who can code and build rather than those who can be creative.”

“But the true innovators tend to be those like Leonardo who make no distinction between the beauties of the arts and the beauties of the sciences. When Einstein was stymied in his pursuit of the field equations for general relativity, he would often pull out his violin and play Mozart. The music, he said, helped to connect him to the harmonies of our cosmos. At the end of many of his product presentations, Steve Jobs would display a slide that showed the intersection of streets labeled ‘Liberal Arts’ and ‘Technology.’ He knew that at such crossroads lay creativity.”

“There is a flip side for those of us who love the arts and humanities. Like Leonardo, we must be able to see and embrace the beauty of a mathematical equation or a scientific theory. Cultural critics who complain that today’s students fail to learn Shakespeare or civics or history should not be complacent about their own cluelessness when it comes to, say, what a transistor does or how a circuit processes logical sequences. All of these topics are valuable and enriching, especially when we can connect them to one another.”

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Perennial Seller: Make Connections, Not News

The Wall Street Journal: In Perennial Seller, Ryan Holiday “emphasizes the value of low prices and word of mouth over press coverage. Raymond Chandler, he writes, became the ‘quintessential detective author’ because he encouraged his publishers to sell his books as pulp paperbacks, for 25 cents a copy. Suddenly his books went from selling a few thousand copies in bookstores to hundreds of thousands in gas stations, train stations and cigar stores. Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe followed.”

“Likewise, the comedian Drew Carey’s long run on network television began with an invitation from Johnny Carson to appear on “The Tonight Show.” Validation by one person whose opinion is valued, Mr. Holiday argues, is worth all the press coverage in the world.”

“Iron Maiden has never relied on hit singles or frequent radio play, since its songs often run to 10 minutes, with solos from each of its three guitarists. Instead, the band has toured almost nonstop, building close connections with thousands of fans who now buy almost anything it puts out, from albums to beer to belt buckles. Its core of hard-core fans, Mr. Holiday writes, has allowed Iron Maiden to ‘endure through fads, technological shifts, and the fact that their music was never mainstream’.”

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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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