App-etite for Munchery

Bloomberg Business: “Munchery is one of dozens of technology startups around the world trying to solve the challenge of mealtime planning with the tap of an app. GrubHub in the U.S., Just Eat in Europe, and Ele.me in China, to name just a few, all connect Internet users with restaurants and their takeout menus. Critics derisively call the proliferation of these businesses the “lazy food economy,” but Munchery is different. It cooks and delivers its own relatively healthy fare.”

“The company is in four cities—San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle—operating industrial kitchens in each. One recent afternoon in San Francisco, chefs and their assistants, wearing white caps and long-sleeved smocks, toiled over trays of grilled salmon atop brown rice with edamame and sweet carrots ($10.99) and pork belly buns with hoisin sauce, shredded cabbage, and pickled daikon ($10.95) … After they’re prepared, the dishes are chilled in refrigerated rooms, packed in compostable boxes, and loaded into cars for delivery. Customers heat them up for about two minutes in a microwave or 10 to 20 in an oven.”

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Americans Are Loving Bowls

“Sales of bowls are rising as Americans prefer more casual, one-course meals that layer flavors,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Tableware makers are reconfiguring place settings. Restaurants are overhauling their china cabinets. Consumers are increasingly cradling their food while perched at kitchen islands, lounging on sofas or multi-tasking at a table.”

“The trend began as a way to make healthy entrees more appealing. If eggs and vegetables are piled into a bowl rather than on a plate, the diner is less likely to mourn the missing bread.” Juliet Boghossian of Foodology comments: “You’re taking away all the carbs, like toast, muffins and potatoes, but you don’t see the empty space on the plate.” Designer Ree Drummond adds: “A bowl is much more flexible and open to interpretation compared to a plate.”

Rebecca Proctor of Aurora Brands says: “The rise of the bowl is really evidence of the shift in our lifestyle from more formal to casual.”

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How Netflix Beats Amazon

The difference between the way Netflix and Amazon use big data is the difference between a hit and an also ran, reports The Observer. Data scientist Sebastian Wernicke, in a TED Talk, “explained how two shows, which were strategically made with data analysis methods creators thought would ensure Breaking Bad caliber success, were created, and how they faired in the ratings. One, Netflix’s House of Cards, worked—the show went on to score a 9.1 on the rating curve. The other, Amazon’s Alpha House, however, fell short and landed at 7.5 on the curving, marking it as a completely average show.”

“When Amazon set out to make a data-driven show, the company held a competition. They evaluated a bunch of show ideas, selected eight of them and then created a pilot episode for each and made them available online for free. Millions watched the free episodes, and the company used data (such as how many people watched each show, how long they watched and what parts they skipped) to create a show they hoped would be destined for greatness. After crunching millions of data points, the results said they should create a sitcom about four Republican U.S. senators. Alpha House was born.”

“Around the same time, Netflix was brewing up something similar. But instead of using a competition, the company looked at the data they already had about viewing on their platform (ratings, viewing history, etc). They used that data to discover small bits and pieces about what viewers like and took a leap of faith … Amazon’s show wasn’t a booming success because it used data all the way. Netflix, however, looked at what users like and used that insight to think up a concept for what they believed would be a hit show, and it clearly worked.”

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Behind-the-Scenes at IKEA

Mental Floss: “Nineteen behind-the-scenes secrets of IKEA employees.” Among the gems: “The winding walkway is known lovingly among employees as the Long Natural Path or the Long Natural Way. According to a 2011 New Yorker article by Lauren Collins, the pathway is supposed to curve every 50 feet to prevent shoppers from getting bored.”

“There are multiple quick routes through the store, both for safety reasons and stocking reasons, and they’re open to the public. But they’re not advertised, so you’ll need a keen eye for secret passageways … If you’re the passive-aggressive type of shopper, you’re bound to be disappointed at IKEA. Employees are given specific instructions to let the customers come to them if they need assistance.”

“Lovers’ quarrels are so common in the store that at least one psychologist told the Wall Street Journal she has her bickering clients construct the Nornäs coffee table as a relationship-building exercise.”

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Bitter & Esters

The New York Times: “Except for maybe that final celebratory phase, home brewing seems to be a solitary endeavor. But at Bitter & Esters, a home-brew shop in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, hopeful brewers discuss all parts of the process with like-minded beer aficionados, from the minutiae (and there is quite a lot of detail) to the merrymaking when an especially good batch is turned out.”

“I know there’s a picture of a guy brewing by himself,” said John LaPolla, an owner of Bitter & Esters, on a recent evening. “But it’s really not like that. It’s a community.”

Although Bitter & Esters is not a tavern and does not have a license to actually sell beer, “we can give tastes educationally,” Mr. LaPolla said. And they educate, liberally. The shop offers about 10 classes a month, with options for beginners through advanced brewers. Those classes, Mr. LaPolla happily admits, are “brilliant marketing.” “We make our own customer,” he said.”

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Your Mouse Says You’re Angry

The Wall Street Journal: “Santa Claus probably knew if you were naughty or nice, but your computer mouse knows whether you are angry, fearful or stressed. The part about the mouse, at least, comes from a new paper by researchers at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Building on prior research into mood and muscle control, the scientists show that bad feelings increase the distance and reduce the speed of mouse-cursor movements, which could let computers detect users’ emotional states from their clicks.”

“The scientists found that mouse movements allowed them to detect the presence of negative emotion with 82% accuracy … One obvious application for these findings: Web developers could alter their pages based on which areas or tasks seem to induce telltale cursor movements indicating user unhappiness. Companies might even build in automated apologies—or notify customer service—when a user’s mouse movements indicate that a frustration threshold has been reached.”

“Why do bad feelings influence mouse movements? The scientists think that negative emotions impair the brain’s processing capacity and undermine users’ ability to focus.”

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The Same Old Story

The Atlantic: “Storytelling has a shape. It dominates the way all stories are told and can be traced back not just to the Renaissance, but to the very beginnings of the recorded word. It’s a structure that we absorb avidly whether in art-house or airport form and it’s a shape that may be—though we must be careful—a universal archetype …

Storytelling is an indispensable human preoccupation, as important to us all—almost—as breathing. From the mythical campfire tale to its explosion in the post-television age, it dominates our lives. It behooves us then to try to understand it. Delacroix countered the fear of knowledge succinctly: “First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.”

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Late & Great: Richard Sapper

“Richard Sapper, an industrial designer whose sleek, precision-engineered prototypes spawned the Alessi espresso maker, the Tizio lamp and the IBM ThinkPad, died on Dec. 31 in Milan,” The New York Times reports. He was 83.”

“Mr. Sapper also designed for Mercedes, Fiat and Pirelli; conceived an ergonomic executive chair and computer monitor arms for Knoll; and invented teakettles that whistled in two keys, emulating an American locomotive. But he was especially revered by coffee connoisseurs for his lustrous stovetop Coban 9090 espresso maker, a graceful stainless-steel, single-piece machine that was introduced in 1979 by Alessi, the Italian housewares manufacturer.”

He once said: “I am very interested in objects that move and change character. That’s the main theme of the Tizio, for example, or even the ThinkPad, which opens and reveals itself like a box of cigars. The Coban also has this nature — it makes noise, steam comes out of it, you see the condensation drops form. It starts to live.”

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Is Creative Genius Geographical?

From a review of The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner in The Wall Street Journal: “Why is it that genius isn’t equally distributed over time and place but rather flares up briefly in certain places and then disappears again? … The Athenians abhorred professionalism. Soldiers were poets, and poets were politicians. This led to an extraordinary cross-fertilization of ideas and talents quite alien to our era of hyperspecialization. In Hangzhou … Chinese genius, unlike the Greek or Austrian kind, was free of metaphysical anguish. The Chinese reveled in painting, writing, invention and adventure as the Europeans staggered out of the Middle Ages, and they seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves.”

“Athens honored wisdom and got Socrates. Rome honored power and got an empire. The 19th-century Viennese honored high culture and the life of the mind and got Beethoven and Freud. Today wealthy patrons in fleece vests pay tens of thousands of dollars to watch alleged geniuses give 17-minute accounts of their work at TED conferences. They support medical research and plans to improve education. They are seeking ways to prolong and enrich human life for more people. This might not yield us the Sistine Chapel, but it may be as worthwhile.”

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Get Your Pencils Ready

cassetteAt some point, while few were looking, the cassette tape crossed the great divide from a commodity to an experience. Steve Stepp, president of cassette-maker National Audio Co., attributes this to “stubbornness and stupidity.” Anyone who ever owned cassette technology knows it as unbelievable junk that jams, breaks and otherwise frustrates the task for which it is intended.

It many ways, it’s not unlike vinyl, which has also made an unlikely return. Warping, hissing, popping, skipping. Who doesn’t love that? Both comebacks are a function of the rise of CDs, then MP3s and now streaming, and the relative nothingness of the experience. As Bob Dylan once said of the CD: “There’s no stature to it.” Would love his thoughts on Spotify. (I, for one, love it.)

Some claim that these old analog media have a “warmth” that digital does not. Okay, but at least a bit of that warmth is that of nostalgia and, with cassettes, the warm hand of making and sharing mix tapes. It’s also about the importance of “things” as a part of the experience, and vice-versa. If that’s true for the cassette, then it can be true for just about every commodity.

We buy experiences as much as things, and today, it seems, even more so. Those trees we acquired over the holidays: Were they “things” or experiences? How many old iPod boxes do you have squirreled away in your closet? It’s all in the unboxing. With the rise of cassettes, a surge in pencil sales is sure to follow. Artisanally sharpened, of course. A mountain of things are just aching for an experiential rewind.

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