Saturn & The Great Cosmic Joke

Remember Saturn? Jean Thompson does, in The New York Times: “The dealerships offered no-haggle pricing, and emphasized customer-friendly service. When you bought a Saturn, back in those palmy days, the dealer took a picture of you posing next to your new vehicle, wearing a Saturn hat, and perhaps a Saturn T-shirt. You were part of the Saturn family. Yes! There were even Saturn Homecomings where owners drove their cars back to Spring Hill to celebrate the Saturn experience.”

“But G.M. didn’t do right by Saturn. All the upbeat advertising in the world couldn’t seem to make up for some design missteps and lack of resources. The last Saturn was manufactured in 2009.” Jean has been driving her then-new Saturn since 2001. Now, she writes: “For so long the car has been my Millennium Falcon, my African Queen. Those battered but indomitable embodiments of disreputable romance, with hidden reserves of performance for anyone skilled enough to pilot them … One recent morning the emergency brake light came on and a warning began chiming, one last spasm of its softening automotive brain.”

She continues: “It’s only a car, and there’s no point in being sentimental. After all, the universe is organized around the principle of entropy. Systems decay, institutions and landmarks we took for granted vanish, swept over a precipice: the Saturn brand, the Republican Party, the glaciers of Greenland. Ah, love, let us be true to one another! Let us make our stand against the implacable forces that hasten the end of all worthy things. Let us fight the good fight, look our fate unflinchingly in the eye, die with a hammer in our hands. Let us go car shopping.”

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Go Cubes: Technology As a Lifestyle Brand

“This year SXSW … feels like a story of how the tech ethos has escaped the bounds of hardware and software,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Tech is turning into a culture and a style, one that has spread into new foods and clothing, and all other kinds of nonelectronic goods. Tech has become a lifestyle brand. … physical products that aren’t so much dominated by new technology, but instead informed by the theories and practices that have ruled the tech business.”

For example: “Go Cubes, the caffeine-infused gummy snacks that have been compared to candied nuggets of cocaine,” from a company called Nootrobox, makers of “supplements that the founders say enhance human cognitive capabilities … The company grew out of an online movement of ‘biohackers’ — people who congregate on sites like Reddit to discuss how a variety of foods and other chemicals, from caffeine to street drugs to Alzheimer’s medicine from Russia, alter their focus, memory and other cognitive abilities. Nootrobox aims to find the most effective of these compounds — and only the ones deemed legal and safe for use in the United States — and turn them into consumer products.”

“Traditional coffee is an inconsistent product, they argue — each cup may have significantly more or less caffeine than the last — and it can have undesirable side effects, like jitteriness. Go Cubes … are meant to address these shortcomings. The cubes are more portable than coffee, they offer a precise measure of caffeine, and because they include some ingredients meant to modulate caffeine’s sharpest effects, they produce a more focused high. The cubes run about $1.70 for the price of two that are meant to equate to a cup of coffee.”

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Aston Martin vs. McLaren: Luxury vs. Technology

The Economist offers a study in contrast between two British plates: Aston Martin and McLaren. “Both carmakers are in the business of hurtling drivers towards 200mph. Yet with their respective focus on luxury and advanced engineering, they are relying on contrasting British strengths.”

“McLarens are wild-looking mid-engined sports machines that harness the firm’s skills in engineering to adapt racetrack materials, such as carbon fibre, and high-tech gizmos to make a car as at home on the circuit as the open road … Aston is first a ‘design company’ … Performance and handling are important but the aim is to make the ‘most beautiful car on the road.’ To do so, Aston has remodelled itself as a luxury-goods firm, emphasising design and craftsmanship that are a British speciality, while trying to extend the brand.”

“McLaren, meanwhile, strives to make its cars the most technically advanced. Last year the firm renamed itself the McLaren Technology Group to emphasise the importance of innovation … Ron Dennis, the firm’s boss, is convinced that its tech business will be its biggest and most important part in years to come. It already serves oil-and-gas, health-care and financial-services firms. Using skills honed in analysing the vast quantities of data generated by motor racing, it is developing analytics software for the likes of GlaxoSmithKline and KPMG.”

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Chevy Sets Limit on Teen Spirit

Engadget: “With the 2016 edition, the Chevy Malibu has added a new setting called Teen Driver. Once enabled, the feature lives in the infotainment system in the dash and warns underage drivers when they exceed a predetermined speed limit. At that point, it kills sound from the stereo until the front seat belts are buckled, enables all the safety features like traction control and generates a report card for the whole trip.”

“It’s basically a computer narc tucked behind a four-digit PIN … parents can use the report card to make decisions about future access to the car and use it as an opportunity to talk about their kids’ driving habits. And because it offers up hard evidence — such as when a safety system like stability control was activated and the top speed — a parent has the information necessary to make that conversation count.”

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Connie: Hilton’s Concierge Robot

“Concierge is getting a robotic makeover at one Hilton Hotels location,” reports The Christian Science Monitor. “The McLean, Va., Hilton is the site of a pilot program featuring a robot concierge. The new hire stands in at two-and-a-half feet tall and has been placed on the desk beside human reception staff. More than just a shiny piece of equipment, the robot’s brain is packed with artificial intelligence.”

“Connie, named after Hilton founder Conrad Hilton, is a partnership between Hilton Worldwide and IBM. The brains behind the robot are IBM’s artificial intelligence program Watson and another partner program called WayBlazer, imbuing the new concierge with enough AI to carry on conversations with guests and answer questions about the local area.”

“Connie’s body, though small, is also designed to help it serve. The body is based on the Nao robot designed by Aldebaran, with fully functional arms and legs and eyes that change to express humanlike emotions … Is the future of Hilton concierge robotic? Definitely not, according to Jim Holthouser, Hilton vice president of global brands.”

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Ryanair & The Value of Being Nicer

The Wall Street Journal: Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary “once defended Ryanair’s €70 (about $75) penalty fee for passengers who show up at the airport without a boarding pass, saying they were “being so stupid.” … He has in the past proposed a standing-room only cabin and a charge of one British pound (about $1.41) for using the in-flight toilet … The no-frills model, once novel but now widely mimicked, turned the 32-year-old Ryanair into Europe’s second-biggest airline by passengers flown.”

“In 2013, a price war with full-service carriers and upstart budget airlines alike threatened that success … To win back customers, Mr. O’Leary relaxed onerous hand-luggage restrictions and redesigned Ryanair’s cumbersome website. It cut fees and told staff to be less confrontational. The airline also made headlines by dropping its trademark bugle call, which it blasted through cabins each time a flight arrived on time. The practice, amusing at first, had started to annoy passengers.”

“’Standing room only and charging for toilets was a great PR wheeze when we were young, dumb and growing rapidly,’ Mr. O’Leary said in an interview. But after rivals started painting the moves as cheap and nasty, ‘the laddish noise was displacing the great fares, brilliant punctuality and new aircraft,’ he said. ‘If I had only known that being nicer to our customers was good for business I would have done it years ago,’ Mr. O’Leary says.”

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Is Binge Watching Breaking Bad for You?

“Binge-watching TV shows is trouncing our mental health,” reports Vice. “That’s according to a new University of Toledo study, anyway, which found that, of 408 participants, 35 percent qualified as binge-watchers, and those binge-watchers reported higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression than their non-binge-watching counterparts. The study found 77 percent of participants watched TV for two hours or more without a break on an average day, with anyone doing more than that … classified as binge-watching.”

“‘Binge-watching is a growing public health concern that needs to be addressed,’ said the scientists who headed up the study. But so can just watching TV in general. A long-term American Journal of Epidemiology study in 2011 found that watching TV for more than three hours a day put women at 13 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with depression. So can winter weather, or summer weather, or smoking, or sleeping too much, or not sleeping enough. So can, according to about a billion studies from 2010 onwards, too much Facebook.”

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Echo: Amazon’s Next Billion Dollar Baby?

“A bit more than a year after its release, Amazon’s Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Here is a small, stationary machine that you set somewhere in your house, which you address as Alexa, which performs a variety of tasks — playing music, reading the news and weather, keeping a shopping list — that you can already do on your phone.”

“But the Echo has a way of sneaking into your routines. When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too. In this way, Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google — the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world — with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes.”

“Many in the industry have long looked to the smartphone as the remote control for your world. But the phone has limitations. A lot of times fiddling with a screen is just too much work. By perfecting an interface that is much better suited to home use — the determined yell! — Amazon seems on the verge of building something like Iron Man’s Jarvis, the artificial-intelligence brain at the center of all your household activities.”

“Scot Wingo, the chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm, said the early signs suggested that the Echo was on a path to become Amazon’s next $1 billion business.”

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Burger King Re-Discovers its Inner Whopper

The Wall Street Journal: “Following unsuccessful efforts to appeal to a broader, more health-conscious customer base with salads, snack wraps, smoothies and low-calorie french fries, Burger King has returned to its roots as a purveyor of inexpensive burgers, fries and, now, hot dogs.”

“The bloated menu complicated kitchen operations and failed to attract customers as hoped. In 2010, Burger King launched more than 30 limited-time offers and 20 permanent menu items. By comparison, it launched 20 limited-time offers last year and no permanent menu items.” Burger King President Alex Macedo: “In a moment when a lot of brands in quick service are trying to become more fast-casual, we’re taking an opposite view.”

“David Harper, a franchisee who operates 72 Burger Kings in several states, said the chain has learned not to repeat its biggest mistake: copying rivals. ‘We know who we are now,’ he said … The changes are showing results. Burger King’s adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization grew 68% between 2010 and 2015 … Same-store sales at U.S. and Canadian restaurants grew 5.7% last year, better than most big rivals.”

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