The Hub Cool News


A pair of books take very different views of men today, reports Dave Shiflett in the Wall Street Journal (10/26/10). In Manthropology, Peter McAllister says that today’s man is "the worst man in history," and "scoffs at what passes for grit these days. He dismisses, for instance, modern-day ‘blood pinning’ in which military insignia are jabbed into soldiers’ chests." He compares this to manhood rites in New Guinea, in which Sambian boys have "cane splints jammed up their nostrils and vines shoved down their throats."

He also favorably compares the 13th-century rampage by Genghis Khan’s son, Tolui, in which "Mongols killed as many as 60 million people during a century of slaughter," to Al Qaeda’s mere toll of 14,602 in 2005 (as if either is to be commended). For Peter, manliness is at least partly measured by "the willingness to face an enemy and mete out punishment without flinching." Roy F. Baumeister meanwhile takes a different, albeit equally depressing, view. In "Is There Anything Good About Men?" Roy writes about the expendability of men in a culture they created.

They are wasted in wars, "die more often in work-related accidents and die earlier, on average" than women, for starters. They are "taken for granted and denigrated as the bane of female existence" while getting no credit "for a great deal of good, including the economic bustle and technological advance that we associate with progress." And yet, Roy "writes with a hopeful air, insisting that" men and women "can create partnerships based on complementary skills." He concludes that despite being treated as expendable, "The historical evidence is overwhelming …Women stick around men."

Fear the Beard

Brian Wilson, the San Francisco Giants relief pitcher, brings "focused rage" to his game, reports Jason Turbow in the New York Times (10/28/10). "I don’t have time to be angry away from the field," he says. "So I brush it off, bottle it up and drink a tall glass of it before taking the mound." I’ll have what he’s having: This season, Brian’s "48 saves have led the major leagues, and his 1.81 earned run average and 93 strikeouts over 74-2/3 innings were better than those of an San Francisco closer since Robb Nen in 1998."

If Brian’s "taut and severe" pitching style isn’t enough to intimidate batters, there’s also the way he looks: "There’s the hair, part mohawk and part mullet; the tattoos; and the perpetually unbuttoned jersey. There are the bright orange spikes, for which he was fined $1,000 by Major League Baseball because they failed to conform to the standard of being at least 50 percent black. And there is his preternaturally black beard — dyed several shades darker than the rest of his hair with what appears to be industrial-grade shoe polish." It’s inspired a fan slogan: Fear the Beard.

Not only that but he claims to be "a certified ninja and a mental assassin." And there’s this strange "cross-armed salute" he does after completing each save, a nod "to his religious faith," Christianity. But then there’s also his clubhouse manner, where "he is a regular at the Latino-dominated dominoes table." Says Brian: "It doesn’t matter what country they’re from. It doesn’t matter what language they speak. It doesn’t matter what they wear. It’s impossible for me not to say hello to everybody, to have a conversation." All of which is just fine with Giants manager Bruce Bochy: "He has his way of going about things," he says, "and it’s worked for him."

Vintage Apples

Time was, some 15,000 different kinds of apples were "grown and eaten in the US," but now about 90 percent are one of about a dozen types, reports Anne Marie Chaker in the Wall Street Journal (10/27/10). Fortunately, "a number of orchards and apple historians" are starting to grow some of these forgotten varieties, which have names like Yellow Bellflower, Ralls Genet and Arkansas Black. Unlike modern apples, they have "freckles, stripes and other visual peculiarities." They also have flavor.

This makes them popular with chefs, like Andrea Reusing of the Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC, who "uses some of these rare apples, sourced from a nearby orchard, because the unusual flavors are fun to pair with other foods." She says that the Yellow Bellflower has "notes of cilantro" and describes the English Golden Harvey as having a "spicy, plummy, cardamom" flavor. However, such heirloom apples can be expensive, costing "up to twice as much as common apple varieties" (like $3.99 a pound).

This makes them something less than popular with most shoppers. Michael Rozyne of Red Tomato, a non-profit that helps farmers place heirloom apples in mainstream supermarkets, says the trick is to "create the romance and the story and the history that goes with it." The Tolman Sweet, for instance, tastes like banana, and the Pink Pearl is "an inside-out apple (the skin is yellow and the flesh is pink)." And the "rich and juicy" Esopus Spitzenberg, a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, was recently voted the "best-tasting apple" at a vintage-apple tasting at his Monticello estate.

Koshu Grapes

Long derided as sugary schlock, Koshu wine from Japan is being reinvented for the world market, reports Corie Brown in the New York Times (10/27/10). Koshu has been around for about 150 years, and it has a bad reputation because traditionally it’s been made with "damaged and rotten" fruit, rendered somewhat palatable with heavy doses of sugar. But an American enthusiast, wine importer Ernest Singer, sees potential for Koshu as a dry wine that can be "light and crisp with subtle citrus flavors."

In fact, Ernest thinks that Koshu is "a match for Japan’s cuisine." He’s been on the Koshu trail for nearly a decade now, working with "a clutch of family-owned Japanese wineries … under the banner Koshu of Japan." Among them is Shigekazu Misawa of Grace Wine, which had been making bad Koshu for generations. "Koshu is two-thirds of all we make," he says. "And we needed to make it better." Changes include planting the vines differently (in rows, not canopies) and "getting rid of the grape’s bitter skin early in the process." And no added sugar.

The result, so far, is a simple, bone-dry wine, with low alcohol content. One Koshu, a 2004 vintage made at Grace Winery, went over well with Robert M. Parker Jr., the wine critic, who "gave it a score of 87/88 on a scale of 100." But the wine has yet to go over big in Japan, where "wine drinkers are slow to believe that they are worth their price tags of $20 and up." Koshu is an even tougher sell in the US, where it is not yet readily available, but can cost $50 a bottle at restaurants. Ernest Singer remains optimistic, however: "I’ve been in Japan for 50 years," he says, adding, "this movement is going to blossom."

Fun Inc.

"Last year, US revenues for videogames amounted to $20 billion, twice as much as for Hollywood blockbusters," reports Robert Ferrigno in a Wall Street Journal review of "Fun Inc.," by Tom Chatfield (10/25/10). Worldwide, the total figure is $110 billion. World of Warcraft alone "had revenues of $1 billion," and some 12 million subscribers, paying "$10 a month to inhabit a virtual world where they can choose to be any character they want, from mage to warrior to goblin." The budget to create a videogame on that scale is now somewhere between $10 and $50 million.

It is indeed a long way from 1972, and "the dramatic success of Pong, a game in which the object was simply to hit a "puck from one side of the screen to the other." And yet, "US game-related sales … declined over the past year," according to Gamasutra. Ironically, the decline is coming at the hands of "low-cost games designed for smartphones or given away on the internet," which are "threatening profits and market share." Farmville, for instance, a "free online game … has 62 million active users." And Pac-Man is making a comeback with a "30th anniversary edition."

One of the more fascinating growth industries within the industry is the advent of "gold farmers," mostly in China. One of the goals in games like World of Warcraft is to accumulate virtual currency that can be used to "buy things within the game — armor, horses, food, magic spells." Since players don’t always have time to earn this currency themselves, they will buy it through brokers, using real American dollars (100 gold coins go for about $20). Another somewhat surprising quirk is that even though videogames are often criticized for violence, "for the past five years the most popular segment of the videogame market has been games rated E (for Everyone), comparable to a G-rating for films."

Games Bible

Leigh Anderson’s book, "The Games Bible," offers up "about 350 diversions meant to make waiting rooms more bearable or parties more interesting," reports Steven McElroy in the New York Times (10/22/10). Leigh started thinking about self-amusement after being laid off from her job at Goldman Sachs. "The idea of an $18 martini sort of seemed ludicrous and was out of my reach anyway, so I was really looking for low-cost ways to entertain myself," she explains."

"The Games Bible" covers everything from "a refresher on the rules of Go Fish to an explanation of how No-Equipment Baseball works … What most entries have in common is sociability. No-Equipment Baseball, for instance, has players "taking turns being the ball and trying not to get caught as a runner advances." Others are a bit more cryptic. Ministry of Silence gives players "a single clue" and their job is get more clues from other players "via diplomacy, trickery, luck or whatever other strategies they can dream up."

Leigh’s first discovery was the Big Urban Game in Minneapolis, "basically a board game come to life on the city streets." The rest of the games in the book she learned about "from friends, relatives and several game developers." To promote the book, she’s collaborating with Charley Miller, who co-created the Ministry of Silence with Bob Clark, to create a new game called Triviaphile, in which "teams will receive trivia questions via Twitter and then run to bases set up in (Central Park) where they might find the correct answers." That will happen on October 30, and you can sign up here (link).

Christian Yogis

The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has a problem with yoga as it relates to Christianity, reports Stephen Prothero in the Wall Street Journal (10/22/10). R. Albert Mohler says that Christians "must either deny the reality of what yoga represents or fail to see the contradictions between their Christian commitments and their embrace of yoga." More specifically, he says: "The idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine … that’s just not Christianity."

He continues: "Yoga cannot be neatly separated into physical and spiritual dimensions … The physical is the spiritual in yoga, and the exercises and disciplines of yoga are meant to connect with the divine." But Stephen Prothero, a Boston University professor and author of God Is Not One, disagrees, noting that Catholics "have long seen the seven sacraments … all of which by definition operate on the body — as vehicles of grace." Protestants, meanwhile, "have typically affirmed the sacramental nature of baptism and Holy Communion."

He writes: "There is no bending or twisting in these rites, but in both Protestants traditionally see the human body as a means of connecting oneself to the divine … So it is not quite right to conclude that, while Hindu yogis get to the divine through the body, Christian believers get to the divine only through the spirit." For those who remain uncomfortable with this, he suggests looking into "recent innovations such as ‘Praise Moves‘ — ‘the Christian alternative to yoga,’" which attempts "to bend yoga toward Christian ends."

Cyber Swearing

Because "old bad words have lost much of their meaning," Jan Morris thinks we need a dose of cursing two-point-oh (The Wall Street Journal, 10/13/10). "Blasphemy … means little today," she writes. "A religious reference used to give a curse or an oath extra authenticity, but today most of us don’t for a moment hesitate to take the name of God in vain, and anyway most of the sacred content was long ago elided into the language."

For example: "How many of us, when we use the grand old expletive ‘bloody,’ recall that we are invoking (‘by our Lady’), the mother of Christ? … When a Welsch-speaker exclaims ‘Godacia!’ — his equivalent of ‘Damn!’ — he little realizes he is echoing the old English curse, ‘God ache you!’" As religious curses lost their punch, dirty words based on s-x went on the rise. But, as Jan observes, "By now the ‘F’ word has become so commonplace throughout the English-speaking world that one does not even notice it."

She continues: "What we need now, if the tradition is to be revived, is a glossary of bad language based upon contemporary obsessions, and in particular upon the universal influences of our time … We need some cyber-swearing, some reality expletives, to reflect these changes. ‘Blog off,’ perhaps. Or ‘Up your USB!’ Or ‘What a load of apping, synching, twittering b–wls.’" Hm, whatever that means. Somehow that’s not as satisfying as saying, "Son of a mother duck."

Yuengling & Son

The rest of the beer industry may be tanking (so to speak), but sales of Yuengling Beer were up by 12 percent last year, reports David Kesmodel in the Wall Street Journal (10/21/10). That’s two million barrels and the double-digit growth rate is unmatched by any other brewery among the US top ten. If you’ve never heard of Yuengling (pronounced ying-ling) that’s because it’s sold in just 13 Eastern states. But the 181-year-old brewery is "the seventh-largest US beer supplier" and its fifth generation owner and ceo, Dick Yuengling, Jr., has big, if methodical, plans. "We are around for 181 years and we’re in no hurry," he says.

But Dick did just sign a letter of intent to buy an old Coors brewery that "could more than double the company’s capacity." This $20 million move would seem at odds with Dick’s personality, which is frugal. He drives a 2002 Ford Taurus to work, which he never washes because he doesn’t want to spend for it, according to his coo, David Casinelli. He’s also known to rinse and re-use Styrofoam cups. The company has just 250 employees, compared to 700 at Sam Adams, "which is about the same size in terms of sales volume, though it distributes in 50 states."

This might be part of the reason Yuengling is doing well, but it’s also because the brand seems to be an ideal match for the times. Many Yuengling drinkers think it’s an import — Yuengling actually is German for "young man," but some people think it’s from China. More important, those who know it’s domestic — from Pennsylvania — "view it as being in the same camp as microbrews and other specialty domestic beers, though its main brands are priced similarly to Bud Light and Miller Lite." Some of its cachet is also thanks to its "hard-to-get" reputation, which of course could diminish as it expands.

Missing Lucile

Lucile Kroger, daughter of Kroger Company founder Barney Kroger, left behind a "ghostly presence" that has "haunted the Kroger family for nearly 100 years," reports Stephen Birmingham in the Wall Street Journal (10/21/10). Lucile’s many mysteries is the subject of a book, Missing Lucille, written by a granddaughter, Suzanne Berne. According to the book, one of the few things Suzanne’s father remembers about his mother was hurting her feelings one day when he was six years old.

He was sitting in the garden with his mom "while she planted spring bulbs. He was eating red cinnamon candies called Red Hearts, and she asked him if she could have one. He said no. He carried her hurt and reproachful look to his grave." Her grave was an early one — she died at 43 of abdominal cancer. Suzanne isn’t sure, but she thinks Lucile’s early death might explain why her father "alienated himself from the family, got cut out of several wills, made no real mark for himself in life and ended up a bitter old man living on Social Security."

It might also explain why "the Kroger family seemed to disintegrate into alcoholism, adultery, lawsuits, squabbles over money and lifelong estrangements." Of course none of this stopped the Kroger Co. from growing into a $76 billion grocery chain, with "2,486 supermarkets and 750 fuel centers in 33 states." Left unexplained is exactly who Lucile was, and what she did, or did not do, in her short lifetime. The book raises more questions about Lucile than answers, but "emerges as a lacy, loving Valentine to a lost lady, who, if only she had lived a little longer, would have made everything and perhaps everyone in her family turn out differently. Perhaps."

Adjacent Possibility

Innovation as the art of the "adjacent possible" is at the heart of Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, reports Megan McArdle in the Wall Street Journal (10/5/10). The basic premise is this: "New ideas are limited by the supply of existing ideas and by the speed with which those ideas can combine to form new ones." On this basis, "innovation is most likely to occur when ideas from different people, and even different fields, are rapidly banging against each other."

This is "why cities foster much more innovation than small towns: Cities abound with serendipitous connections." Other factors include "the tolerance of failure, as in Thomas Edison’s inexorable process-of-elimination approach to finding a workable light-bulb filament." Steven also suggests that "competition and market forces are less important to innovation than openness and inspiration." He presents an analysis of "history’s most important innovations," and finds that “market-led innovations are in the minority."

However, Megan criticizes Steven for putting too much emphasis on "the great-discovery" model of innovation, and not enough on the incrementalists, citing Walmart as having pursued small refinements to big effect. “That’s not because Sam Walton emerged from his lab one night waving blueprints for a magic productivity machine,” she writes. “The company made continual, often tiny, improvements in the management of its supply chain … Reducing the history of innovation to a few ‘big ideas’ misses the full power of human ingenuity."


Perhaps only thing more unusual than the way that Freakonomics, the movie, was made is the way in which it is being marketed, reports Catherine Rampell in the New York Times (9/30/10). Freakonomics, the book (actually two books, a blog and a radio show), "is a hodgepodge of research findings about the hidden incentives behind people’s sometimes perplexing, sometimes deceitful — but always logical — actions." The idea of turning that into a movie is inherently strange.

"It’s like taking a piece of music and making it into a birthday cake," says Eugene Jarecki, who is one of the film’s directors. The film actually has many directors — creatively the movie unfolds much like the book, in chapters, with each part done differently. A chapter on cheating in sumo wrestling is done documentary-style; the one on the connection between abortion and crime rates is served up as a cartoon; and the one on bribing college students presents the experiment itself, for instance.

As with some other quirky, independent films, this one was released on through video-on-demand and iTunes before rolling out to a limited number of theaters nationwide. But the real play may be the potential for sequels, director’s cuts or additional "chapters." As Peter Broderick, a distribution strategist notes: "Maybe the true genius in all of this was somehow recognizing that today some audiences don’t really sit down and watch movies for 90 minutes at a time … Maybe that’s the real innovation here, even if we find out it’s been discovered by accident."

Cooley News

Phillip Cooley is turning "the good will of his barbecue joint into a relentless pursuit of community building," reports Melena Ryzik in the New York Times (10/20/10). Phillip is a former fashion model and son of a real estate developer who in 2005 opened Slows Bar B Q " at the edge of downtown Detroit, in Corktown, across from the long-abandoned train station." Since then, "it has become a beacon, drawing longtime Detroiters, newly arrived young people and scores of suburbanites, who wait for hours to sample the pulled pork and dry-smoked ribs and coo over the upcycled design."

In its first year it, Slows did $1.8 million in sales, three times what Phillip expected. Todd Abrams, a local restaurant critic, says Slows means a lot to the neighborhood. "Slows was almost a zeitgeist thing … They came into that neighborhood at time when it really needed it." Others credit Slows with helping to change Detroit’s reputation. "Before Slows was built, generally speaking people came into the city for hockey games, ball games and to see the ‘Sesame Street Spectacular,’" says Toby Barlow, an author and ad guy who moved to Detroit from New York in 2006.

The rest of Slows’s block is a kind of "Cooley corridor," set for development into "lofts, art spaces, a pop-up shop or business incubator, and, eventually, another restaurant." Phillip and his girlfriend live above Slows, and he sometimes invites potential entrepreneurs to stay with him while they work out their plans. He also "organizes an underground restaurant, ClandesDine, a secretive, invitation-only affair where meals are served in abandoned buildings." Says Phillip: "This is an incredibly fruitful place to do business, because we’re so starving for anything."

Bobbie's Place

Bobbie’s Place is a typical children’s clothing store "in every way but one — all the merchandise is free," writes Ralph Gardner Jr. in The Wall Street Journal (10/20/10). Located in Brooklyn, serving some 8,500 children and run by Avi and Michal Schick, all the merchandise at Bobbie’s Place is brand-new. In fact, many of its items "are usually the preserve of families with disposable income — Wall-E undies, children’s watches," for instance. Nothing Bobbie’s Place sells is donated; every item was purchased using $650,000 per year in funds from "foundations, friends and family."

"It looks and operates like a really nice store," says Avi, an attorney and former president of the Empire State Development Corporation. "The goal is that it never screams or even whispers charity." Michal says she regularly notes "what makes the experience better" when she’s shopping, and incorporates the best of what she sees at Bobbie’s Place. Shoppers get a numbered tag to help keep track of items they’re trying on, like at the Gap, for example. "There’s also a computerized checkout system … and a telephone answering system that greets callers in Persian, Russian, Hebrew and English."

Customers, who are mostly recent emigres, have to be interviewed to shop there. "Once accepted, they’re allowed to shop for their children four times a year, in each season." Bobbie’s doesn’t ask manufacturers for donated items because "it’s difficult to get them to part with merchandise" in the right sizes and quantities. Instead, says Avi, they ask for discounts, which they often get. The store itself was inspired by Michal’s late mother, a Hungarian immigrant who faced tough times but managed to start a successful bakery in Brooklyn. Bobbie, incidentally, is Yiddish for "grandmother."

Mr. Average

Cody Ross is living proof that "the distance between what’s average and what’s extraordinary is a lot shorter than it used to be," reports Matthew Futterman in the Wall Street Journal (10/19/10). Cody is an outfielder with the San Francisco Giants who, in this year’s postseason has hit " four home-runs … driven in six runs and … collected seven hits, including a game-winning single in the divisional round that knocked out the Atlanta Braves." What makes this so remarkable is that Cody is otherwise so unremarkable.

In terms of age, height, and batting average, he is exactly that — average — among major league ball players. His salary — $4.45 million a year — is also about average "and, according to all the fancy metrics, he helps his team about as much as a typical player can be expected to … Compared with every other major-league outfielder this year, his performance per plate appearance falls within ten percent of the average in hits, home runs, runs scored and RBIs."

Perhaps thanks to his "relentlessly middling" record, Cody’s been bounced around from team to team. Ironically, it was, in part, his amazing averageness that made him attractive to the Giants. "He’s an all-around player," says Giants general manager Brian Sabean. "There aren’t that many guys who can play all sides of the ball." And besides: "Today, as the top players seem to be receding in their skills, a player as thoroughly average as Mr. Ross may not be so far off in talent from the best hitters in the game."

Mr. Invisible

You’ve probably never heard of him, but John Atanasoff invented the digital computer, reports Michael Rosenwald in Bloomberg Businessweek (10/11/10). The idea came to him in a flash, while sipping a bourbon and soda at a roadside tavern in the backwoods of Iowa, in 1937. His creation, built in 1940, was known as the Atanasoff-Berry Computer (or ABC), and John came up with it because he was a scientist who needed to solve linear equations, and the Monroe calculator he had been using wasn’t powerful enough.

John never patented — much less marketed — the ABC. It wasn’t until a court battle in 1973 that he was awarded credit for building it. His story is told in The Man Who Invented the Computer, by Jane Smiley, and Michael Rosenwald notes that the tale is "a reminder of computing’s original mission: to solve equations and problems that humans were incapable of handling themselves." Not so these days, when the goal is make the computers as small as possible and the focus is on entertainment more than enlightenment.

In other words, as computers have become smaller, so have their goals: The best-selling iPhone app, he notes is "Angry Birds," which "allows players to sling digital birds at virtual pigs." Granted, some developers, like Tim O’Reilly are creating apps intended to make the government run better and the U.S. Army recently ran an apps contest, where "winners included those dealing with disaster-relief aid," for example. However, as Michael notes, "The more we use these tiny computers for tasks we’ve always done without gadgets, the further removed we’ll become from innovation."

Green Economics

The power of peer pressure provides greater motivation than financial incentives when it comes to environmental responsibility, reports Stephanie Simon in the Wall Street Journal (10/18/10). Case in point is that it’s not the five-cent tax on disposable bags imposed on Washington DC shoppers that persuades them to bring their own bags; it’s that they have to ask for the bags "right in front of their fellow customers. The result? Retail outlets that typically use 68 million disposable bags per quarter handed out 11 million bags the first quarter of this year and fewer than 13 million bags in the second quarter."

In another case, homeowners who were "informed that 77 percent of their neighbors already used fans instead of air conditioning … reduced their energy consumption by 10 percent." A control group — who had been told they would save $54 by using a fan or prevent 262 pounds of greenhouse gas each month, reduced their usage by no more than three percent. "I would bet that if you went into a residential neighborhood and put a red, green or yellow light on people’s mailboxes to show who’s an energy hog and who’s not, people would start to change their behavior," says Paul Hamilton, an energy consultant.

Microsoft is trying to capitalize on this insight with microsoft-hohm dot-com, where users "can input data about their utility bills, appliances and habits" and receive a score, which they can then compare to that of their neighbors. However, Paul Stern of the National Academy of Sciences thinks peer pressure works only when big sacrifices aren’t involved and that "financial incentives and saturation marketing are often needed to inspire more significant change," citing the Cash for Clunkers program as an example. Others note that "too much emphasis on competition" can backfire, because it presents "conservation measures not as the norm … but as an extreme sport, done by fanatics to win a contest."

Clean Economics

Human behavior explains why economists can’t agree on much of anything, reports David Segal in the New York Times (10/17/10). George Bernard Shaw made the observation a long time ago: "If all economists were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion," he said. The reason is that there’s just no telling what people will do. "The entire question of how emotion will change people’s behavior is pretty much outside the standard model of economics," says Daniel Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality.

He continues: "Pride is not in the model. Revenge is not in the model. Fear is not in the model. Even simple things like the disenchantment of people who are fired from their jobs — the model doesn’t account for how devastating that experience can be" and how that will affect the economy. So, take the $700 billion stimulus bill, for instance: "It has run its course over the past year and a half, but it is not an isolated event," says Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow. "One thousand other things were happening that had an effect on employment and GDP."

Professor Ariely suggests the problem is the one-size-fits-all nature of the stimulus; he thinks there should have been different stimuli in different states — maybe cash for Californians and debit cards in Delaware, for instance. If a mass-market approach is required, he thinks the most effective thing would be a "debit card with President Obama’s face on it, along with the words, ‘Spend the Government’s Money.’" As he explains: "If you have a simple problem, you can offer a simple solution. But the economy is a hugely complex problem. So we either simplify the problem and offer a solution, or embrace the complexity and do nothing."

Towards Fords

"Ford has become almost the ‘halo brand’ for G.M. and Chrysler," says consultant Art Spinella in a New York Times piece by Bill Vlasic (10/14/10). "Because of Ford’s success, people are less resistant in general to considering all of Detroit’s products." It’s true: "Sales of Detroit’s vehicles have climbed 11 percent this year through August, compared with an eight percent increase for the overall market." Ford’s sales are up 18 percent, and chief marketing officer Jim Farley says it’s because "we can show customers the cold, hard facts that our vehicles are world class."

That’s true, too, based on J.D. Power surveys, as Ford "has blown past Toyota, once considered the paragon of reliability for new-car buyers. While Ford registered 93 problems per 100 cars in the survey, Toyota had 117." CNW Research meanwhile finds that much of the improving attitude towards Fords is happening among younger people: "Three years ago, more than 40 percent of new-vehicle shoppers under the age of 30 said they would never consider a Detroit product. Now that figure is 32 percent, and dropping."

This apparently has much to do with Ford’s Sync, a voice-activated multimedia system, which younger consumers find "pretty cool." Jim Farley is happy about that, but says "it’s the fundamental, underlying trust that people have in our vehicles that is the foundation for shopping our brand." And yet, he notes that cars equipped with Sync sell faster than those that aren’t. "Imagine that," he says, "a $295 option is causing the whole car to sell better." Jim also believes that the financial crisis helped Ford, because people "started to notice that we were doing things differently and our cars had gotten a lot better."

Ford's Dashboards

Ford is going to the edges when it comes to dashboard design, reports Phil Patton in the New York Times (10/10/10). "We found we learned the most not from the average driver, but from the extreme cases," says Iain Roberts of Ideo, the design firm, which works with Ford. He adds: "About six users represented 80 percent of the problems … They were early adopters of technology who put 15-inch screens on the console and huge disk drives in the trunk."

It’s also challenging to keep pace with the technology itself, since "mobile electronics evolve much faster than automobiles." When its Fiesta models arrived in showrooms last summer, its cellphone-inspired controls "looked old-fashioned alongside the latest Apple iPhones and Motorola Droids." So, Ford has set up some guidelines, "a universal logic," or dashboard DNA, that would be applied to all of its models, worldwide.

Another challenge was to not overdo it. This led to a screen "organized around four corners and four colors" corresponding to functions like entertainment or navigation. "When you have an eight-inch touch-screen, you think of all the things you can do," says Iain. "But then you remember that people have to drive while doing it." The basic design can be modified to look sportier on the Mustang and classier on the Lincoln, for instance. And it offers a viable alternative to Ford’s now-famous Sync voice-activated controls.