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Haute Hormel

“I can’t imagine them selling anything other than Spam,” says Jeff Lieberman in a Wall Street Journal article by Steven Gray (11/29/06). “Just the name elicits that image of the blue label on the square tin with that loaf of horrendous looking meat.” In some ways, it’s hard to imagine why Hormel would even try to sell anything other than Spam, “which it introduced in 1937 and is essentially ground pig shoulder meat, salt, water, modified potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite, all of which is baked in a seven-story oven inside Hormel’s factory in Austin, MN.” Spam is indeed “a surprise star of the packaged-food industry,” having cornered the market of “middle-age, blue-collar men who place a premium on hearty foods that are affordable and easy to make.”

For the more adventuresome, Hormel has even come up with innovative line-extensions such as “single-serve packets and new flavors such as Stinky French Garlic.” And that goes over big: “Today, the 115-year-old company, founded by George A. Hormel, the son of German immigrants, has a market value of about $5.2 billion” and its stock price has more than tripled over the last decade. But that isn’t good enough for Hormel’s ceo, Jeffrey M. Ettinger, who won’t rest easy until Hormel is found on the shelves at Whole Foods. And he has just the product to do it: Hormel Natural Choice, “a line of preservative-free deli-style meats” that eliminate additives using a process called High Pressure Pasteurization (in which “87,000 pounds of water pressure per inch kills bacteria”).

“We thought it’d be icing on the cake if Whole Foods wanted to take it …” says Scott Weisenbeck, a Hormel group product manager. They didn’t — although Wal-Mart and Kroger did. Meanwhile, Hormel has also appointed Dan Hernandez as director of innovation, in a bid to get “Middle Americans to try ethnic fare.” (it owns a number of ethnic brands, and also the licensing for Chi-Chi’s products). In addition, “Hormel this month kicked off its most ambitious advertising campaign in years,” via BBDO Minneapolis, featuring “a svelte, cocoa-toned woman raving about using Hormel’s chili to make penne pasta.” Then again, there’s always Hormel Microwavable Trays, a line of “‘shelf stable’ entrees that can sit on a shelf for at least 18 months and can be heated up in just 90 seconds.” It’s “now the fastest-growing product in Hormel’s grocery segment,” accounting for $846.5 million in sales. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Compare Foods

compare foods

“The American consumer has become very health conscious … but we don’t see much of that here,” says Alex Perez, manager of Compare Foods in Farmingville, N.Y., as reported by Peter Applebome in The New York Times (11/29/06). What they do see is “whole pigs and pigs’ feet, pig tails, pig hearts, pig kidneys and smoked pork neck bones …” They also see “black chili pods and pasilla chili pods, chipotle chili pods and Japanese chili pods, fresh plantains, great stacks of La Sirena pica pica (hot sardines), Materva yerba mate soda from Argentina, and Guarana Antartica soda from Brazil …” They see sections that are Portuguese, Brazillian, Argentinian, Uruguayan, Mexican, Columbian and Salvadoran.

“It’s amazing how diverse this area is,” says Alex, of his trading area. “I’ve been at this store four years and even over the last year, it’s amazing how much more diverse it has become.” The stores do offer familiar items, such as “Cokes, Pop-Tarts, Kix and most of the offerings at conventional supermarkets. But its background music is Hispanic pop or samba, cumbia or merengue. The decor features colorful pinatas.” Most of the shoppers are Hispanic, but Sen Le and Duc Le, formerly of Vietnam, like it because it “feels more like the markets in Vietnam than the antiseptic stores they’ve found here.

Another shopper, Manny Gonzales, says he “prefers the variety of produce, spices and foods at Compare Foods to the more generic markets.” He explains: “There you find one aisle … Here you find 30.” But what you won’t find is much of anything that is “low fat, low sodium or low sugar … They say ‘give me my grease,” says Alex. “Give me my sugar. Give me my salt. We tried the other, and it just didn’t sell.” But they have plenty else to sell. The Compare Foods store in Farmingville is just one of a 26-store chain that started in Freeport, on Long Island, in 1989. Twelve of its stores are on Long Island, but Compare Foods also has locations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and North Carolina. ~ Tim Manners, editor

J Allard

The guy at Microsoft who’s in charge of toppling the iPod not only uses an Apple G5 computer, but also keeps a picture of Steve Jobs on his desk, reports Jay Greene in BusinessWeek (12/4/06). That guy, J Allard, owns nine iPods, too. And he’s been known to quote Mr. Jobs: “The only problem with Microsoft is that they have no taste … They have absolutely no taste.” (YouTube clip here). Maybe that’s why, when it came time to pick a color for Microsoft’s iPod — the Zune — J (the technogeek formerly known as James) chose … white. Or brown. Maybe that’s why, when it came time to design the Zune, J chose to prove Steve Jobs wrong by proving him right — with a device and a business model that is right off Apple’s blueprint.

Maybe. Maybe not. Yes, Microsoft built its own device (like Apple) and offers “its own music-selling service” (like Apple). But J Allard did one thing — perhaps the most important thing — that Apple did not do. Zune comes with wi-fi. That means you can “beam songs” to your friends’ Zunes. And he convinced record labels “to let consumers share music in a tolerable way; Zune includes technology that limits beamed songs to three plays or three days, whichever comes first.” As J explains his pitch to the record companies: “My customer becomes your street team.” The model in this case is not Apple; it’s Microsoft’s own Xbox, which also arrived with wi-fi, putting it in just the right place “when online gaming took off.”

What J Allard is doing with Zune — and what has already happened with Xbox — may, in fact, be the cultural change that Steve Jobs implied wasn’t possible at Microsoft. It could represent a shift away from a culture that said software comes in boxes and hardware is made by someone else. It could be that the very thing Microsoft thought limited Apple’s growth (“creating both proprietary hardware and software”) will prove to be its own growth engine, ultimately powered by the coming wi-fi “cloud" –where internet connectivity is everywhere. J Allard says the real mistake is focusing on the device rather than the experience. And the lesson for Microsoft is simply to look ahead: "Apply too much of the wisdom and knowledge that got us here, and you end up right where you started," he says. "Take a fresh look from a new perspective, and get a new result." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Invisible Engines

invisible engines

"Just as the internal combustion engine led to the formation of the modern automobile industry and ended up driving so much else in the economy … invisible engines are now powering the vast postindustrial economies in which we live and work," writes Om Malik in a Wall Street Journal book review of “Invisible Engines,” by David S. Evans, Andrei Hagiu and Richard Schmalensee (11/28/06). These “engines” aren’t engineered by engineers like they were in the old days, though. They are developed by developers, as famously celebrated by Microsoft ceo Steve Ballmer while dancing an insanely great jig (YouTube clip here). And what these developers develop is not just software but strategies that create “their own thriving economic ecosystems.”

Perhaps the best example of an invisible engine is, yes, the iPod. “Beneath its shiny veneer, iPod is nothing but a bunch of chips, a storage drive and a tiny piece of software that allows you to play music you buy from the iTunes music store … But this simple-to-use technology required all sorts of small-step advances: e.g., the invention of ‘software-based algorithms’ for compressing large digital audio files into small ones that can make their way easily into ‘computer networks and smaller devices'; the construction of data files, or ‘formats,’ for transporting and storing content; the development of encryption and tracking software that will monitor use (and permissions) for licensing purposes; and the creation of mechanisms on the receiving end that will ‘read’ all this digital data.”

Apple sold “nearly 62 million” of those babies over the “past two fiscal years.” But what Apple also created was a platform for developers to “keep on inventing devices and accessories (calendars, headphones, even leather jackets) … The crumbs at the iPod table add up to a mega-billion-dollar iPod economy.” However, the book’s authors note that a product must achieve somewhere between 40- and 50-percent of market share before it can attract “the interest of spinoff businesses” on a meaningful scale. They also warn that today’s platforms “may not be tomorrow’s: The rise of open-source operating systems, such as Linux, and of related technologies, may make the harvesting of profits more difficult.” But, for now, says Om Malik, “Any executive looking to turn his company’s product into an engine of growth will want to consult ‘Invisible Engines.’" ~ Tim Manners, editor

Amazon Plan

As Jeff Bezos sees it, what the internet did for content it could also do for products, reports Kevin Many in USA Today (11/22/06). “I haven’t figured out a way to explain this very well yet,” Jeff admits. His idea is premised on the concept of excess capacity — both online at companies like Amazon and offline at companies like General Motors. In a nutshell, if you wanted to start your own company, Amazon could rent you the space you need on its computers, “its transaction capabilities to sell things and collect money and its distribution system to store and ship items.” Says Jeff: “We can take all the things that used to be fixed costs and let people pay by the drink” (whatever he’s drinking, I’ll buy a case, please).

What Amazon is providing, basically, is a sales and distribution platform. If General Motors, meanwhile, were to apply the same thinking to create a manufacturing platform, it “could enable the creation of dozens of new niche-market car companies, all using GM to make … their designs.” Comments Kevin: “If you tease out Bezos’ plan, you get to a point where a high school cheerleader sitting at home with a laptop could theoretically harness computing power, design capabilities, manufacturing and distribution from around the world, and make a market a cute little pink hot rod …”

As Kevin points out, the concept is "not that far afield from today’s contract manufacturers in Asia, which make batches of cellphones or toys or shoes on demand. Except Amazon’s concept suggests a new level of sophistication and ease-of-use. Point, click and make a product to sell to the world." As Jeff Bezos says, "It’s letting people create a business by remote control." Just as "blogs, videos, music, animation and websites form individuals and small companies constantly challenge traditional media companies … that same scenario" could plow "through one consumer segment after another: food, clothing, cosmetics, sporting goods, musical instruments and so on," says Kevin. "It could be a wonderful, vibrant, scary chaos." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Sportexe Turf TV


“We will be able to turn the football field into a giant Jumbotron,” says Mark Nicholls, ceo of Sportexe, in a Forbes article by Monte Burke (11/27/06). It’s a pretty easy trick, actually. Sportexe simply blends each blade of artificial grass with optical fibers. In the click of a mouse, a gridiron can be swapped out for, say, a Budweiser logo. During the national anthem, the field could be turned into one, great-big American flag. During the game, referees can use the sensors inside the turf to “track the footsteps of a player to determine if he was inbounds or not.” And there’s soccer game the next day, the field can be re-set instantly — without the time or expense of re-painting the lines.

Here’s how it works: “A computer sends an image to the field, where it is distributed among 1,750 interconnected square trays, 7.5 feet on a side, that host their own light processing circuitry. Thousands of blades of polyethylene grass, blended with optical fibers, reflect light upward from the trays … Unlike your flat screen at home, this display is equipped to withstand the impact of a 380-pound lineman. The blades are conducting light, not electricity, so athletes can’t be electrocuted on rainy days, even if they’re losing badly.” Says Mark: “The technology isn’t really that amazing … It’s just that no one’s done it on a field yet.” That would include Sportexe, a $50 million company that currently provides so-called “in-fill” turf systems for just two NFL fields.

Currently, “all 12 of the 31 NFL stadiums with artificial turf now use in-fill systems,” which “are also found at baseball stadiums and town parks.” In-fill is said to “look and feel more like natural grass” than Astroturf, and is also touted as “softer and more forgiving.” It does cost three times more to install a Sportexe field versus non-illuminated in-fill systems, and ten times more than an old-fashioned grass field. But Mark notes that the maintenance is less than for grass, and, of course the ad revenues of “Turf TV” could more than make up the difference. Currently, Sportexe is a distant number two to FieldTurf, a $235 million company, with "1,900 sports fields and 150 fields in town parks," as well as eight stadiums. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Sigrid Olsen

To walk through the front door of Sigrid Olsen’s new fashion boutique in SoHo is to walk through the back door of her own home in Hamilton, Massachusetts, reports Claire Wilson in The New York Times (11/19/06). “I want my customers to feel as comfortable in my store as they would be visiting their best friend’s home,” Sigrid explains. “I want them to feel as though they’ve entered a work in progress, as most homes are.” The space, designed by Pompei A.D., consists of “a loose configuration of roomlike settings.” For example, fitting rooms surround a “luxurious bedroom suite.” The cash desk is in the kitchen (because the kitchen is where everybody congregates).

Because Sigrid began her career as an artist, the space is accented with artifacts including “an easel, a stool and some well-used paintbrushes.” Some of her artwork graces the walls and the coffee table in the “living-seating area” is “strewn with design magazines and art books.” Says Ingrid: “Just like my house … but without the fireplace” (here are some pictures) But the idea, says Ron Pompei, the designer, is not so much a celebration of Sigrid’s lifestyle as it is an open door to the shopper’s own sense of self, and artistry. “Rather than ask customers to take on the value of the brand … we created a retail space that encourages them to express themselves in new ways,” says Ron.

He adds: “We try to create a landscape where people will meander, make a circle, discover the stairs and look for more … Sigrid is saying to the customer, ‘You are a complex woman, with many different aspects to your life’.” Ron also color-coded the different rooms: “The different blocks of color … is a signal that you turned a page,” he explains. The Sigrid Olsen label is a Liz Claiborne division, and it sold through some 55 stores, catering to older (i.e., over 30) , suburban women. This new 3,500 square foot location, on West Broadway between Prince and Spring Streets, is Sigrid Olsen’s first store in New York City. ~ Tim Manners, editor

CCTV Building


“Hardly any building really engages space … most skyscrapers exhaust space … This building leaves open the space it encapsulates,” says Ole Scheeren of the CCTV project in a New York Times article by Robin Pogrebin (11/16/06). CCTV stands for China Central Television — and Ole, a partner in Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is talking about a five-million square-foot, “people-friendly” skyscraper in Beijing that is “one of the largest ever constructed” and that was designed “to address the preconceptions that people bring to an enormous tower … The television building is essentially an upside down U with right angles, an office tower bent out of shape.” It “looms and leers like some kind of science fiction creature” (this is how it looks).

Ole says the building actually would be scary “if it was a pure gesture … But since it’s actually a circuit of life,” he continues, “it’s a huge social catalyst.” Rather than creating “a campus with each of the company’s various functions in a building of its own,” the architects “decided to unite them in a single structure, with everyone connected through the spaces they jointly inhabit.” Ole explains: “It attains the critical mass of a small city … It becomes a collective in its own right … Staff and visitors move in parallel, can observe each other, can meet and congregate.” Amenities inside include restaurants, health clubs and a small hospital. Rem himself comments: “It’s a fiendishly complex building in terms of program and structure.”

There are even “peepholes” on a “large viewing deck at the underside of the building’s cantilever” affording “vertical views to the ground some 500 feet below.” The project is being featured at the Museum of Modern Art as part of "a new effort by the Modern to explore architectural projects that have yet to be completed … the goal is to present architecture in new ways," or as assistant curator Tina di Carlo puts it, "to get away from plan, section, elevation." Of the 54-story CCTV tower, which sits on a site the size of 37 football fields, Tina says: "It’s a radical re-thinking of the tall building typography." Says Rem: "Awe is not usually a condition our buildings inspire … Amidst all the skyscrapers there, it’s relatively low. It will feel accessible." He adds: "We never did a building of this scale." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Alice Brock

Alice Brock

Forever linked to Thanksgiving Day, Alice Brock — of Arlo Guthrie, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, littering, arresting, draft disqualifying, Alice’s Restaurant fame — is now running her own little art gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts, reports Robert Tomsho in The Wall Street Journal (11/22/06). She has a website, too — You’d think she’d have a chain of 237 restaurants and have sold out to, say, Wendy’s Restaurant, by now. But for all the notice Alice enjoyed in the 18-minute, 39-year-old Arlo Guthrie song that gets played every Thanksgiving Day by scores of radio stations all across America (Sirius Channel 16 plays it non-stop), Alice Brock never exactly cashed in on it.

The story behind the story is that Alice apparently never really even wanted to run a restaurant. She was a painter who took a job as a librarian at a boarding school in Stockbridge, Mass., while her husband, Ray, an architect and woodworker, taught shop. Alice and Ray lived in "a converted church" that became a "crash pad" for "Arlo Guthrie … and his hippie friends." Naturally, Arlo and friends "expected to be fed and they would sit around the table and sing," says Alice. One of those meals was the famous one on Thanksgiving Day, 1965, the same day Arlo illegally dumped some of Alice’s trash over a cliff because the dump was closed, which led to his arrest, "and the resulting police record led to his being declared ineligible for the draft during the war in Vietnam."

The song did lead to Alice actually opening one restaurant in 1966 and another in 1971. She also wrote a memoir, "My Life as a Restaurant" in 1975, and there was a movie based on the song that came out in 1969. An Arthur Penn movie. None of this was successful, though. "They had to fill up the movie with stuff, and it was all fiction," says Rick Robbins, who was arrested with Arlo in the littering incident. Even Arlo had gotten sick of the song by 1970 and had stopped singing it in concert. Alice and Ray divorced and Ray died in 1979, and that’s when Alice moved to Provincetown, where, six years ago, she opened her gallery, where only memories are served. Says Alice: "You can always ring the bell, and if I’m here, I’ll open the door." Walk right in … it’s around the back .. Just a half a mile from the railroad track … ~ Tim Manners, editor

Blue Moon Beer

Orange is the color of money for Blue Moon beer, reports Joseph T. Hallianan in The Wall Street Journal (11/20/06). Or make that oranges. Keith Villa of Molson Coors came up with the idea to merchandise Blue Moon — a Belgian-style wheat beer — as the one beer to have with a slice of orange. That worked. “When people saw a beer with an orange slice on it, it piqued their interest,” says Jim Doney of Chicago Beverage Systems. Once that idea caught on in bars, Monarch Beverages carried it through in stores: “Wherever there’s an orange, there ought to be a stack of Blue Moon,” says Jim Zerons of Monarch Beverages. That worked, too.

“Last month alone, his distributorship sold 16,500 cases of Blue Moon … and Blue Moon is now his third-largest-selling draft beer, behind Miller Lite and Coors Lite.” But while consumers now know that Blue Moon is to be garnished by oranges, few know that it is manufactured by Molson Coors. It looks like a craft beer, and Molson Coors has carefully cultivated that impression by “playing down the beer’s connection to its corporate parent; avoiding TV ads; using distributors who know how to sell smaller brands; and targeting key markets and accounts.” The only agency involved is Omnicom’s Integer Group, which creates point-of-sale materials.

The result is, Blue Moon is expected to “sell between 400,000 and 500,000 barrels … this year,” making it “the third- or fourth-largest craft brewer in the U.S., behind … Boston Beer … Sierra Nevada Brewing … and New Belgium Brewing.” And although it is made by Molson Coors, its production level, at “fewer than two million barrels of beer a year” technically qualifies it as a “craft beer.” Molson Coors’s accomplishment is one that both Anheuser Busch and Miller would like to replicate — in fact, Miller has introduced Leinenkugel Sunset Wheat beer, which, “for all practical purposes is a clone of Blue Moon.” They may have a long road ahead: “Blue Moon’s success … has been a slow process, taking more than a decade” to earn “respect.” Plus, by most accounts, the beer tastes really good. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Kudu Coffee House

Kudu coffee house

You would think a former theology professor would be smart enough not to try to compete against Starbucks, but John Saunders (presumably no relation to Anne Saunders) is proving himself to be plenty smart, reports Edward Iwata in USA Today (11/20/06). Dr. Saunders got it right by doing his homework first — “researching the market for a year” — before opening the Kudu Coffee House in Charleston, South Carolina. “He read voraciously and attended trade shows and coffee-making classes. He visited coffeehouses and talked to experts. He worked at a tobacco shop to learn how to run a neighborhood business.”

He also found a great location — “in a brick building near Charleston’s historic district and the College of Charleston.” But probably most important he found himself a theme. His coffee shop is named “after the kudu, a large African antelope” whose “horns hold deep spiritual value to the Zulus, who blew the horns to call people for gatherings … The Kudu Coffee House offers African decor and plants, live music, a baby grand piano and a sunny patio. A boutique called Kudu Kitu sells African masks, pottery and other artifacts.”

The coffee beans and teas he sells are, of course, from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. Kudu has proved popular with "locals, college students and tourists … Even with several independent and Starbucks coffeehouses nearby, Kudu Coffee House already has loyal customers and is close to breaking even, ahead of schedule." John says he’s happy to compete, and actually is thankful for Starbucks. "We’re all very grateful to Starbucks," he says. "They put gourmet coffee on the map … The more the merrier. If people have choices, I had better blend some pretty good coffee." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Xinjiang Medica

“Chinese and Western specialists approach pharmacology from very different angles,” but Novartis is hoping to find new cures by encouraging Sino-American collaborations, reports Nichcolas Zamiska in The Wall Street Journal (11/15/06). “For centuries, Chinese doctors have tinkered with different mixtures of medicines, guided in part by trial-and-error, to see which ones are the most effective. Working with that body of knowledge, they operate on the assumption that the traditional remedies work, even if by Western scientific standards it’s not completely clear why.” So, they know the cure works, but they don’t know which “target it hits.”

Western researchers, meanwhile, “often begin the search for a drug by identifying a target, and then looking for a chemical compound that has the desired effect. If they do find a drug that works, they usually understand the mechanisms behind it. That helps in refining the compound to make it more effective and in convincing regulatory authorities … that the medicine is safe and effective.” So, Novartis has hired a botanist named Shen Jingui of the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica to venture into remote regions in areas such as China’s Xinjiang province, “to ferret out rare plants and herbs traditionally used in treatments for ailments ranging from aches and pains to cancer.”

Novartis hopes that if it can “isolate the particular compounds active in the Chinese traditional medicines by testing the raw extracts from the plants” Shen Jingui collects, the result will be “a new generation of blockbusters to fight diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” So far, Jingui “has provided around 1,000 natural products.” Of those, a total of nine “have shown particular promise against specific disease targets and two have been selected for further study.” Dr. Paul Herrling of Novartis says that hit rate is actually pretty good as compared to traditional research methods. The cost involved is also relatively small. He comments: "China has thousands of years’ experience of using plants in Chinese traditional medicines … why not use the Chinese experience as a kind of filter?" ~ Tim Manners, editor

Xinjiang Pears

fragrant pears

Fragrant pears, which farmers in the Xinjiang region of China “have cultivated for 1,300 years” are for the first time arriving in American supermarkets, reports David Karp in The New York Times (11/15/06). “Fragrant pears are fairly small and roughly oval, with long stems. The light green or yellow skin, with a reddish blush on some fruits, is thin and readily edible; the flesh is extraordinarily tender, crisp and juicy. The flavor is delicate, and different from most Asian pears, with a whiff of the ‘pear ester,’ ethyl decadienoate, which gives European varieties their characteristic aroma. Ready to eat after harvest in September, they can keep in commercial storage for up to a year.”

That’s a good thing, because it takes a very long time for these Fragrant pears to get from there to here. First comes a seven-day trip by truck, “over small roads as well as highways, to Shenzhen, a port near Hong Kong; two weeks by container ship to Long Beach, California; and another five days by truck to New York.” All that travel time doesn’t exactly make these pears popular among “environmentally conscious shoppers concerned with food miles.” But at least one entrepreneur, John M. Wells of Viewmont Orchards, has “brought back cuttings of the variety, which he intends to propagate and plant next year.” In the meantime, the Chinese government is getting behind the export of Fragrant pears in a big way.

The Chinese first “asked to export Fragrant pears to the United States in 1993, but American pear growers raised concerns that the imported fruit might introduce exotic plant pests and diseases.” Approval finally was granted last December, and the Chinese hope Fragrant pear exports will help “relieve economic pressures” as well as political turmoil in the Xinjiang region, which is currently plagued by “separatist agitation and terrorism by the mostly Muslim Uighurs" there. Xingiang actually only produces about "3 percent of China’s pear crop, but the Fragrant variety … fetches twice the price of other pears." Overall, China’s pear production is "expected to reach 12.5 million metric tons this year, more than two-thirds of the world’s supply." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Dementia Debate

” … Science is supposed to consider all reasonable ideas,” writes Sharon Begley in The Wall Street Journal, “but Alzheimer’s disease is not your normal field of science.” (11/17/06). Ever since Alois Alzheimer wrote a report — 100 years ago — about a senile patient, Auguste D., the scientific community has fixated on the “globs of beta-amyloid,” Dr. Alzheimer observed on his patient’s brain. The assumption was that the resulting “plaque” was the cause of the disease. But for the last 20 years, at least, there have been doubters who have suspected that these “plaques might be innocent bystanders to the real, ‘upstream’ culprit. If so, targeting the plaques … would do nothing to help the 4.5 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s.”

Until now, these doubters couldn’t even get their papers published in mainstream journals. “Among the major journals and funding agencies, the attitude was, ‘if it isn’t amyloid, it isn’t AD,” says Mark Smith of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.” But in October, a different kind of paper — one that considered the possibility “that amyloid plaques don’t cause Alzheimer’s” — was published in a journal called Alzheimer’s & Dementia. In fact, this paper looks at the possibility that the plaques may actually be “a response (and maybe a therapeutic one), not a cause. If so, ridding the brain of plaques could cause harm.”

Sharon Begley observes: “… Concluding that beta-amyloid and plaques cause Alzheimer’s is like believing a scab on your knee causes pain. The scab is the body’s response to an earlier injury. Similarly, there is evidence that amyloid plaques don’t cause Alzheimer’s.” John Trojanowski of the University of Pennsylvania points out: ” … The field was lulled into a false sense of confidence that beta-amyloid was the culprit. But there is great deal of uncertainty that the beta-amyloid hypothesis will be validated … We need to have a balanced portfolio of targets.” And Robert Mahley of the J. David Gladstone Institutes comments: "I definitely think it’s time to think along other lines of treatment … Big pharma has had all its eggs in the [amyloid] basket, and is starting to worry about that." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Fear of Knowledge

fear of knowledge

A new book called “Fear of Knowledge,” by Paul Boghossian, takes on the difference between truth and belief, and provides “a remarkably clear introduction” to the subject “in just under 100 pages,” writes William Ewald in a Wall Street Journal review (11/16/06). Nothing is relative when it comes to “the basic truths of arithmetic or about the advisability of jumping from tall buildings.” But on the other hand, few people are objective “about whether red is truly a better color than green or whether vanilla is objectively preferable to chocolate …

” … Somewhere between these poles come quantum mechanics and aesthetics and moral theory. The problem … is to say precisely when and where relativism is appropriate.” It’s especially a problem for those who prefer to think that “everything is relative.” The problem is the claim itself, because if it, too, is relative, then its advocate must accept that “the view of the objectivist is ‘just as valid’ as the view of the relativist. If it is not, then relativism is false. Either way, the relativist is in trouble.”

Paul Boghossian explores the relativist dilemma by distinguishing “carefully between relativism about truth and relativism about belief, and … explains the ways in which various forms of sophisticated relativism nevertheless remain vulnerable to variants of the stock objection … In the end, he does not claim to have proved the truth of objectivism, but rather to have shown the failure of even the most sophisticated relativists to establish their case … The result,” says William Ewald, "is one of the most readable works of philosophy in recent years … a book that can be read in an afternoon and thought about for a lifetime." ~ Tim Manners, editor

Sight Gags

“A particular kind of cinematic language began to atrophy when the screen’s silence was broken,” writes A.O. Scott in The New York Times Magazine (11/12/06). That language would be the language of the “sight gag” as perfected by Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mack Sennett, Harold Lloyd and Harry Langdon. It is, in short, a language of “gestures and camera placements” versus a language of “double entendres and stinging comebacks … Physical comedy did not exactly die with the rise of the talkies, as any fan of The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey will attest. But it did suffer a loss of prestige; what … was the highest form of laughter is frequently seen as the lowest, fit for the amusement of children or French people.” So says A.O.

With a nod to a 1949 essay by film critic James Agee, he continues: “However much we enjoy them, pratfalls and sight gags tend to be viewed as juvenile or vulgar — mere slapstick, lacking in cerebral stimulation or satirical bite. This is in part the residue of an old cultural hierarchy: dialogue-based film comedy had its roots in the legitimate theater, while the banana-peel buffoonery of the silent clowns always carried a disreputable whiff of vaudeville. Polite opinion likes it best when funny keeps company with smart. Humor that is mute — or that deals with nothing more refined than the laws of gravity or the problems of digestion — often seems dumb: either childish, or implicitly, lower class.” Of course, that is exactly what gave silent-screen comedy its appeal.

“The genius of a well-executed gag is that getting it requires neither schooling nor explanation,” A.O. writes. “And the laughter that results … overrides our sensibilities and sensitivities, our politics and our better judgment, disables our intellectual capacities and leaves us speechless.” In other words, it makes us laugh — really laugh — as opposed to just giggle or smirk. Which brings us, inevitably, to Borat. As a movie, says A.O., it didn’t even seem like a movie — it wasn’t even really television; it was YouTube, at best. Until, that is, the scene where the tall-and-thin Borat chases the short-and-fat Azmat — both starkers — “through hallways, elevators and a crowded banquet room. “It was dumber than dumb, but, says A.O., it was moment when the movie “achieves the condition of cinema, climbing the ladder from titter to yowl, past belly laugh and into the wordless Utopian realm of the boffo.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Funny Luck

you're lucky you're funny

“The key is specificity,” says Phil Rosenthal, explaining his approach to sitcom writing on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” reports Bill Carter in The New York Times (11/13/06). Yes, the show had “a great cast led by Ray Romano” and “a strong staff of experienced comedy writers.” But “what really made the show stand out … was faithful reliance on truly specific — sometimes minutely so — details of married life. The details were so specific because they almost always came directly from the lives … of the married men, and occasionally the women, who kicked around ideas (as well as one another’s egos) inside the show’s writing room.”

For example, a legendary bit from the show’s first episode was based on a real-life reaction Phil got from his parents when he sent them a subscription to the Fruit of the Month Club as a Hanukkah gift. His parents had never gotten fruit in the mail before, and when his mother heard a fresh assortment would be arriving monthly, she was horrified. “Every month!,” she exclaimed over the phone, before turning to her husband and saying, “My God, Max. He got us into some kind of cult.”

Phil recounts that and other experiences from his comedy-writing career in a new book called “You’re Lucky You’re Funny.” The title was inspired by his wife, the actress Monica Horan, who uses the line on Phil when she’s mad at him. Phil says he noticed the importance of specificity in comedy while watching tee-vee classics like the Honeymooners and The Dick Van Dyke Show. And he says most shows these days are too focused on “the next laugh instead of trying to ‘tell a great story’ … A lot of these shows,” says Phil “will go for generalities, thinking that’s the way to get everybody … Buy that’s the only sure-fire way to miss everybody.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Radio Man

Jerry Lee says he knows why radio ads work better than television ads, and his track record at WBEB-FM in Philadelphia suggests we’d do well to listen to him, as reported by Robert Strauss in The New York Times (11/15/06). Jerry started running WBEB fresh out of college, in 1963. At the time, the F.C.C. was pretty much giving away FM frequencies because at the time, only about a third of homes in Philly even had an FM radio and cars didn’t have them at all. WBEB was snapped up by a fellow named David Kurtz, who was working as an engineer at Philco at the time. It was the last frequency left on the FM band and David hired Jerry to figure out how to make money with it.

WBEB entered the market as WDVR, it was competing against “four other FM stations in Philadelphia that played what was called ‘beautiful music.'” You know, “instrumentals, lush orchestras.” Jerry noticed that only about 6 of 10 songs in that format were familiar to most listeners, so he figured he’d make it 10 out of 10. He also noticed that the other four stations shut down at midnight, so Jerry thought, hey — “Why don’t we go on 24 hours and pick up listeners little by little?” Within “four and a half months” Jerry had propelled the station to number-one in its market, “and by 1968 … he was billing $1 million in ads annually, more than any station in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles … let alone Philadelphia.”

When the Telecommunications Act of 1996 kicked in, triggering radio station consolidation, Jerry and David not only didn’t sell out to the corporate giants, they increased their promotions budgets — precisely because the big guns were cutting theirs. Jerry put together a creative group to make spots for advertisers and invested in more market research among the women who are the station’s primary listeners. He also put more money into TV spots, which is a little bit ironic because Jerry thinks radio has it all over TV as an ad medium. As Jerry explains it: “On radio … your ear gets a customized version of a commercial … You conjure up your own image.” David Kurtz died last year and Jerry Lee now owns the station all by himself. WBEB today plays “adult contemporary” music, is “rated in the top 3 in Philadelphia” and is “appraised at $185 million.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Crocker Corn

internet dogs

“I’d never eat Betty Crocker cornbread because it’s not for black people,” said an employee of General Mills (which makes the stuff), as reported by Steven Gray in The Wall Street Journal (11/14/06). For one thing, the Betty Crocker package featured corn muffins and African-Americans don’t eat corn muffins. They eat cornbread. For another, the product pictured on the package looked cold and everybody knows that the only way to eat cornbread is warm. And, anyway, the cornbread-mix-of-choice is made by Jiffy, “a quirky family-owned company based in Chelsea, Michigan. All of the above appears to be changing now, however — now that General Mills has a Harvard M.B.A. named Zack Ruderman on the case.

Zack has re-flagged the Betty Crocker product as “Authentic Cornbread and Muffin Mix,” and pictured the cornbread baking in a skillet (not a pan), with steam rising and butter dripping. Zack also started dropping coupons for the re-positioned mix in Sunday papers, especially “in the weeks before Thanksgiving, the peak cornbread eating season.” Perhaps most important, Zack persuaded B. Smith, “a restaurateur whom some consider the African-American Martha Stewart” to appear on the package.” So, which is it — Betty Crocker or B. Smith? Hm. That move was controversial because, to some, it brought back memories of Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and the use of African-American “characters” to help sell packaged goods items.

However, the consensus seems to be that the B. Smith imprimatur works because it’s not a “character or a drawing” and B. Smith “is not just any black woman.” And the bottom line is that, last year, pre-Thanksgiving sales of Betty Crocker cornbread mix “soared 50 percent from the previous year” and sales are up “23.3 percent in the 12 months ending in September 2006.” Despite such inroads, CEO Howard “Howdy” Holmes of Chelsea Mills, makers of Jiffy, is not concerned. “Our idea of market research is not a room full of M.B.A.’s,” he says. “We have a reputation and we got to this point by word of mouth … and it didn’t cost us a dime.” Ironically, Jiffy is positioned as … “corn muffin” mix. ~ Tim Manners, editor

Ferrari Doctors

“In one of the more unlikely collaborations of modern medicine, Britain’s largest children’s hospital has revamped its patient handoff techniques by copying the choreographed pit stops of Italy’s Formula One Ferrari Racing team,” reports Gutam Naik in The Wall Street Journal (11/14/06). The idea came to Dr. Allan Goldman, “head of the pediatric intensive care unit at Great Ormond Street Hospital,” a racing fan, while watching a Formula One race on tee-vee. He and a colleague, Dr. Martin Elliott, “noticed striking similarities between patient handovers at their hospital and the interchange of tasks at a racing pit stop.”

What they noticed was how well the pit crew handled its handovers — switching the tires, cleaning the air vents, adjusting the front wing, and sending the car on its way — in just seven seconds. Hospital handoffs “seemed downright clunky by comparison.” So, Drs. Goldman and Elliott “invited members of McLaren, a British team that fields race cars in Formula One contests, to provide insights into pit-stop maneuvers. Their interest was more in improving accuracy than improving speed, per se. Their primary discovery was this: “…. Pit-stop handovers were successful … because of an obsession with tiny mistakes.”

Everybody knows what the big problems are; it’s the cumulative effect of the small problems that nobody notices that can add up to “bad outcomes.” They also found that “each member of the Ferrari crew is required to do a specific job, in a specific sequence, and usually in silence. By contrast … the hospital handover was often chaotic." The doctors came up with a new, Ferrari-style protocol, and then compared a total of 50 handovers — half of which occurred before the Ferrari principles were applied and half after. The result: "… The average number of technical errors per handover fell 42 percent and information handover errors fell 49 percent." ~ Tim Manners, editor