The ebb and flow of public spaces

A slow yielding of public to private spaces led to a tremendous opportunity for Starbucks in the early 1990s: not to sell coffee but to rent public space.

To rent a Starbucks public space you purchase a disposable token (a white Starbucks coffee cup) and place it near your person. The cup contains a complimentary drink. The tokens are uniform in outward appearance but can be filled with various liquids which are sold at different prices to allow the consumer to signal who they are. The liquids may be consumed.

It’s understandable that Starbucks would attempt to program a discussion of race throughout its chain of “public squares.” The effort failed but I bet they’ll try again, perhaps by allowing regional or individual stores to set the agenda and partnering with established brands.

I was reminded of Starbucks’ trade in public spaces by this short history of anti-theft devices in medieval libraries.

By way of analogy, the author asks : “Do you leave your e-reader or iPad on the table in Starbucks when you are called to pick up your cup of Joe?”


An intrepid researcher has mapped some of the microwave towers being used to conduct high-frequency-trading around the world.

HFT requires competitors to use cutting-edge technology to see ahead. It has antecedents:

Height, then, played an important part in facilitating that speed. A trader’s physical height became an advantage, which is part of the reason some traders were former basketball or football players –“taller traders were easier to see”. In the 1990s, some traders wore high heels in the pits to trade faster, and inevitably experienced injuries due to lack of balance. This prompted the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) to impose a ruling making the maximum size of platform heels two inches in November 2000.

via Alexis Madrigal.

Speaking of antecedents, one of the cons lovingly illustrated in the 1990 movie The Grifters involves exploiting time delays to make money on financial markets. The con involved selling the promise of that grift, not actually carrying it out. Brilliant.


Ev Williams is a 42 year-old billionaire and one of the founders of the company that created the popular communications tool Twitter.

Recently, Ev Williams posted a five-second video on Twitter implying that Human Rights Watch (HRW) should be embarrassed because one of its pieces of marketing was made in China.

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The heroes we get (summer of 2014, continued)

Thoughts on the commercially successful superhero movies Guardians of the Galaxy and Lucy. Apparently, superhero movies are a bad place to look for heroes.

Guardians of the Galaxy is full of clever jokes and features a disarmingly charming actor as its protagonist. It was clearly made by very talented people whose greatest achievement is to leaven the emotional impact of a plot that hinges on a nonstop parade of death and destruction.

Guardians presents as its hero a man-child whose emotional development is arrested by the absence of a father and the early death of his mother. Where a normal child would have had to adapt to reality, this hero is kidnapped from Earth (reality) and is thus free to develop outwardly, physically, without developing inwardly, emotionally. In a fantastical version of space, he enters into a prolonged adolescence of sexual experimentation and solitary expeditions based on role playing (“code names”). He is without society. He is blissfully ignorant and thus boundlessly optimistic.

At the end of the movie, when his moment of emotional reckoning finally arrives, when he unwraps the lesson / gift of his dying mother, it is empty*: a song that promises only a future tale. The prospect of growing up has been deferred and we are meant to revel in that postponement. He lives to grieve again.

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Many film critics, including some of the most astute, have written praises for the 2014 movie “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. I greatly enjoyed a few scenes and marveled at many shots that are visually stunning. I also found it an offensively lazy and shallow commercialization of its predecessors. This is why.

In the 1963 novel “The Planet of the Apes”, the society of humans has regressed such that men and women live like foragers while the society of apes has advanced such that it has stratified into “aggressive gorilla soldiers, pedantic and politically conservative orangutan administrators, and liberal chimpanzee intellectuals.”

Written by Pierre Boulle, who also wrote about a society in crisis in The Bridge Over the River Kwai, the original “Planet of the Apes” is a satire of ideological blindness and post-war European society. When Boulle’s novel was adapted into a movie by the gifted polemicist Rod Serling, it became a critique of progress: a stark reminder that human society does not always advance.

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The Management of Feelings


Feelings by Morris Albert


Standard Loneliness Package by Charles Yu

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind by Charlie Kaufman

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley


Affective Labour, Pret a Manger and the political economy of post-recession England by Paul Myerscough

AKB48 member’s ‘penance’ shows flaws in idol culture

Private Dancer by Tina Turner

Beautiful Agony by Richard Lawrence and Lauren Olney



Oxytocin increases trust in humans by Michael Kosfeld, Markus Heinrichs, Paul J. Zak, Urs Fischbacher and Ernst Fehr

Professional sociopath Rush Limbaugh admits to OxyContin use

Scientology by Lawrence Wright:

To advance such lofty goals, Hubbard developed a “technology” to attain spiritual freedom and discover oneself as an immortal being. “Scientology works 100 percent of the time when it is properly applied to a person who sincerely desires to improve his life,” a church publication declares. This guarantee rests on the assumption that through rigorous research, Hubbard had uncovered a perfect understanding of human nature. One must not stray from the path he has laid down or question his methods. Scientology is exact. Scientology is certain. Step by step one can ascend toward clarity and power, becoming more oneself—but, paradoxically, also more like Hubbard. Scientology is the geography of his mind. Perhaps no individual in history has taken such copious internal soundings and described with so much logic and minute detail the inner workings of his own mentality. The method Hubbard put forward created a road map toward his own ideal self. Hubbard’s habits, his imagination, his goals and wishes—his character, in other words—became both the basis and the destination of Scientology.

Technologies of Self by Michel Foucault:

My objective for more than twenty-five years has been to sketch out a history of the different ways in our culture that humans develop knowledge about themselves: economics, biology, psychiatry, medicine, and penology. The main point is not to accept this knowledge at face value but to analyze these so-called sciences as very specific “truth games” related to specific techniques that human beings use to understand themselves.

As a context, we must understand that there are four major types of these “technologies,” each a matrix of practical reason: (I) technologies of production, which permit us to produce, transform, or manipulate things; (2) technologies of sign systems, which permit us to use signs, meanings, symbols, or signification; (3) technologies of power, which determine the conduct of individuals and submit them to certain ends or domination, an objectivizing of the subject; (4) technologies of the self, which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform I themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.

Science and History of Treating Depression

An antidepressant like Paxil or Prozac, these new studies suggest, is most likely not acting as a passive signal-strengthener. It does not, as previously suspected, simply increase serotonin or send more current down a brain’s mood-maintaining wire. Rather, it appears to change the wiring itself.

Mad Men 2013

About 15 years ago I saw Tyler Brule, then just two years into Wallpaper, give a presentation that would forever change my understanding of art and commerce. He explained how Wallpaper was cajoling its clients into letting the magazine’s art team redo their ads so that these would play better as facing pages to the editorial.

I wonder if, say for the final season of Mad Men, AMC’s clients could be talked into having their creative redone to match the time period depicted in the series. (For example, the early 1970s.) Would it make those spots all the more talked about, noticed, viral?

The new co-viewing. Same as the old.

Television sets often determine the layout of the furniture in communal rooms. Their position in the typical American home is a clear testament to their social function, a purpose that can be traced back to the origins of theater and other communal rituals.

Television programmers have always been involved in family and/or group dynamics. Successful programmers must not only persuade individual viewers to watch a show, they must also win over the viewer’s family and/or co-habitants. (This network often extends to peers and friends but it’s unlikely to exclude the home.)

This inherently social context is not solely a function of the linearity of traditional television – the fact that it is distributed at set times with an emphasis on those times when most viewers are available (i.e., “prime time.”)

Non-linear or video on demand is also, in its own way, a very social practice. In order for a “web video” to become popular, it must be shared by its viewers. Thus, even though such programs are often consumed by a solitary individual on a personal device (computer, tablet, smart phone), they are still dependent on group dynamics for their success.

Thus, whether programming a linear or non-linear channel, the programmer must consider the social role of the experience – how it will be presented by one viewer to another, how it will impact their relationships, how it will be used – for it to reach its maximal audience.

Cost management is for winners.

You don’t create better products by cutting costs. You cut costs after you create a better product.

It may be tempting for companies with unpopular products to cut costs in order to hide a shrinking or flat market share. This is cost management as denial.

A free marketplace does not forgive companies that fail to produce better products. Time and again, consumers have rejected the more affordable product for one they perceive to be better. (Before Starbucks, who paid $3 for a cup of coffee?)

Cost management helps companies with already successful products increase market share.

Take Apple. First, they create a must-have product that does not compete on price. Then they make it cheaper so that more people can buy it. This approach has made them the most profitable in their sector.

This is cost management as an accelerant.

Do bad companies fire more workers?

Successful companies have better employees. They are more productive and more profitable because they are better at hiring (choosing, attracting) and developing (guiding, coaching) their workers.

So, does the inverse hold: do bad companies fire more employees, more often?

This may be a matter of correlation, not causation. Also, perhaps, this has already been investigated by economists.

Panic: single working moms, unemployed single men, and high finance.

One way to explain the moral panics of our day: a society governed primarily by old, rich white men of European descent apprehends an economy driven by single, working moms, weighed down by unemployed single men and traumatized by the reckless mass incarceration of the poor.

Their imagined community is obsolete to an increasingly multiracial, multicultural and anti-heterosexist majority. Quite simply, the numbers do not support their story of self. (Not that they ever did.)

Meanwhile, this ruling minority are also experiencing a crisis of faith, as their religion, high finance, keeps failing to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Thus, perhaps, a great deal of panic. From Wall Street to Main Street and back.


what if car dealerships were run more like Apple stores?

Nissan Leaf, Apple iPhone

recently, i went to check out one of the most expensive high tech gadgets you can buy: a new car. 

perhaps, our experience was atypical. but I suspect not given the larger transition underway in the auto industry.

at one dealership, only a single dealer – out of say 10 – knew about the model we were after. and that dealer wasn’t in.  

at another dealership, two sales reps traded rough words almost within earshot of us while discussing which of them was allowed to show us the car we wanted to see.

can you imagine going into an Apple store and finding nine sales associates who know all about iPhones but nothing about a MacBook? Or striking up a conversation with a sales person only to see them get into it with another one about which products they’re allowed to demo?

i understand that commissions are at the heart of the auto sales business. but do they need to be?

could a  bonus for which dealership has the best customer service drive more sales across the board? could a higher baseline salary produce a more democratic and a more collegial work place where everyone knows the products and everyone can sell the products?

consumers are already changing the way they shop by going to web sites to research big ticket purchases. a more informed consumer will expect a more informative salesperson. and a more integrated sales experience, from vehicle maker web site to dealership, could benefit all involved – not just the consumer.

for example, if the car marker’s web site encourages potential buyers to schedule an appointment to see the vehicle in person, rather than dropping by without warning, the dealership could hire fewer warm bodies and focus only on retaining the superstars. such a referral process could even generate helpful leads.

a differently trained sales team could also bubble up important consumer insights to the engineering and marketing teams. after all, who better to capture the “deal breakers” than the deal makers?

update like so.

more on Mexican restaurants; planting a cactus in too small a pot

A few weeks ago I asked why Mexican restaurants are so often decorated like 19th century ranch homes when Mexico is a living, modern culture. Such decor perpetuates the lie that traditions are preserved in amber, when, in fact, they are preserved by usage and adaptation.

La Surtidora Abarrotera Mercantil “Julio Gabriel Verne” is the old-timey sounding name of a new restaurant which serves the most traditional and basic Mexican dishes as they are meant to be experienced: in the present.

It is, not surprisingly, located in Mexico.

While its quirky name and spare decor are just as affected as that of a restaurant named after a colonial-era landmark and decorated with hand-wrought ironwork, the social and political implications of its affectations are very different.

We use the word “nostalgia” to refer to a temporal longing – the desire to go back in time – but the root of “nostalgia” means literally a pain for returning home; from whence we came. It is an understandable desire: to undo the passage of time is to escape our certain fate: change, death.

Life is thus a journey away from our origins, away from sameness, towards difference and disruption. As much as we may want to end up where we began (an odyssey) the very journey transforms us – just as entropy and others will have transformed whence we came.

People have many reasons for becoming a steward of tradition – whether by preserving a recipe or a relic – but such traditionalism does a disservice to the very roots it seeks to preserve when it denies them a chance to grow, branch out and bloom anew.

should Mexican restaurants always be decorated like 19th century ranch homes?

Near our home is a newish Mexican restaurant that bills itself as a “modern Mexican delicatessen.”

Like many Mexican restaurants, it is decorated as if it were a 19th century Mexican ranch home. It has dark wood beams, stone and brick walls (they’re painted-on, like trompe l’oeil) and the shelves are lined with knickknacks resembling pre-Columbian icons and statues.

When you order chips and salsa at this modern Mexican deli, the chips come in a plastic basket woven to resemble wicker and the salsa in a plastic cup styled like a black rock molcajete. In sum, the interior is designed to create a feeling of a pre-modern life even if the ingredients are not.

Would a restaurant that bills itself as a “modern American delicatessen” be decorated with a wagon wheel and bales of hay?

Inside the Cracker Barrel
modern American deli Cracker Barrel

Would a bright, airy decor, light materials and/or photos of contemporary Mexicans and their homes make the food taste less authentically Mexican?

When is Mexico?

is it then?

or now?

living in the age of digital singles, what of digital shorts?

Computers have transformed music production and consumption by enabling the cheap and easy manipulation of sound. Digitization took apart music culture (industry included) and put it back together again in a very new way.

Using free software, consumers took apart the pop album ushering in an era of digital singles. Using samplers, producers took apart songs and then entire genres, converting rap and funk into hip hop and then hip hop into pop. And, after a series of missteps, record companies are beginning to take apart their business models, using sites like YouTube as A&R and dabbling with such technical and pricing innovations as allowing consumers to rent songs (i.e., new forms of bundling.)

Digitization is also having a transformative effect on video production and consumption.

The primacy of the network or channel is being usurped by that of the series, thanks, in part, to the digital video recorder. The new business of distributing short video clips is having a very healthy run on YouTube. Cameras and editing software are cheap enough to come standard on portable media devices like the iPhone and iPad. And television companies are beginning to shift their weight by taking cautious first steps into digital distribution.

One outcome of this transformation is already clear: consumers have signaled that they’re open to great variety in video entertainment. Properly developed, new formats could provide video producers with new revenue regardless of what happens to existing formats.