Dynamist Blog

Real Golden Arches Are Back

I learned from Michael Bierut's characteristically fun post on Design Observer that McDonald's had opened a HUGE, retro-styled new place in Chicago to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Michael linked the building to the work of "our country's greatest unacknowledged design visionary, Bruce McCall," whom he called (with this link) "the visual poet of American gigantism". (The obligatory negative Chicago Tribune review is here, along with some fun slide shows.)

Now reader Rick Lee, a commercial photographer in Charleston, West Virginia, informs me that McDonald's retro style is apparently going national. He posts the photographic evidence on his blog, along with some other fun entries, including a couple of photographer's tricks for making science look cool, even when you aren't in an actual lab.

Think Petty

I use a Mac because I like the software, but I've never bought Apple's claim to groovy virtue and niceness. The only reason Microsoft has a monopoly (on its operating system only) and Apple doesn't have one on its OS and its hardware is that Microsoft was more effectively managed--not that Apple didn't try.

Now word comes that Apple stores are pulling all titles published by Wiley, including David Pogue's popular Macs for Dummies, 8th Edition to punish the publisher for the forthcoming book iCon Steve Jobs: The Greatest Second Act in the History of Business. The company's Control Freak in Charge may have every right to be mad, but does it really serve Apple's customers, or its shareholders, to make Mac info more cumbersome to get? Or to look like a heavy-handed jerk after you've already made the company look bad trying to censor blogs? (Via Good Morning Silicon Valley.) At this writing, iCon Steve Jobs is at 144 on Amazon, with publication more than a month away.

Quality Rewarded

Congratulations to Jonathan Rauch, who won a well-deserved National Magazine Award for his excellent columns in National Journal. (Reason Online reprints his columns and maintains an archive going back to 1998.)

This award is a Very Big Deal, though you'd never know it from National Journal or the anything-but-self-aggrandizing Mr. Rauch. (If you crossed him with Camille Paglia, you'd get a normal level of writerly self-promotion.) The National Magazine Awards are like the Pulitzers or the Oscars--only with a much tighter connection between actual merit and winning.

Demonstrating a refreshing range, the specific columns honored were on gay marriage, McCain-Feingold, and the political risks of the "ownership society".

Speaking of Gas Guzzlers

In his Forbes column, Peter Huber makes the provocative argument that rising oil prices have little effect on consumer behavior, in part because gas taxes, which don't rise and fall with oil prices, make up such a large part of the price of gasoline. His conclusion:

All of these factors collapse into a single economic metric: The demand elasticity for crude is very low among the ordinary drivers whose behavior is most reviled by people who think they know better. In the short term low elasticity means consumers can't easily change their habits--they are stuck with the car engine and the commuting pattern they had yesterday. In the long term it means that when you buy a car, and the house you've always wanted, the capital costs you are incurring are so large that alongside them the oil is almost too cheap to meter.

I'm not entirely convinced. There's a lot of opportunity for small adjustments, since the vast majority of cars on the road at any given time are there for optional trips. Commuting isn't the only reason people drive. You can save a lot of gas by combining errands more efficiently, walking for short distances, or even staying home. But Peter's column is definitely worth a read.

Maybe it's my imagination, but the traffic in L.A. seems to be getting less horrible as gas prices get closer to $3.00 a gallon.

Cars of the Future

olds51rkt.jpgIn his talk last week, Grant McCracken explained how superstar industrial designer Raymond Loewy misunderstood the early-'50s zeitgeist, making his 1954 Studebaker a humiliating commercial dud. Americans, Grant argues, wanted cars that reminded them of rockets and jets--vehicles for individuals and a society "going somewhere." Loewy's streamlined design, I would argue, did try to capture movement--only it was rooted in pre-war imagery where sleek locomotives, not airplanes, were the touchstone of progress.

After his public humiliation--Studebaker unceremoniously fired him--Loewy took out his frustrations in a speech that was later published in The Atlantic. Ranting against the bad taste of his fellow Americans and the car designers who encouraged them, he said things like, "The world will soon forget that under these gaudy shells are concealed masterpieces of inspired technology. What we see today looks more like an orgiastic chrome plated brawl." (Not so long before, Loewy, with his unnecessarily streamlined pencil sharpeners and flair for publicity, had been the epitome of middlebrow not-so-good taste.)

What Grant didn't mention about Loewy's speech/article is that much of it was about what cars will be like in 2005--and that it's online, in the publicly accessible portion of The Atlantic's great web archives.

In predicting the car of the future, Loewy gets some things right, notably the increased emphasis on safety, but he gets a lot wrong, right from the start: "Experts estimate that fifty years from now there will be 120 million automobiles on the roads for approximately 98 million Americans." (There are roughly 300 million Americans, with about the same number of cars.)

If you're a fan of mid-century images, particularly of cars, I recomment Ephemera Now, with running comments here. My favorites aren't the cars, though they're prettier, but the bizarre paintings of televisions in oddly glamorous places.

Where Do New Ideas Come From?

In chapter four of The Future and Its Enemies, I discuss MIT management professor Eric von Hippel's work on "sticky information"--knowledge that is difficult to transfer from one person (or group) to another. In developing new product ideas or improvements, one way to overcome the sticky-knowledge problem is to have users do their own innovations. That's the topic of Von Hippel's recent book Democratizing Innovation and of my new NYT column discussing it:

When most people think about where new or improved products come from, they imagine two kinds of innovators: either engineers and marketers in big companies trying to "find a need and fill it" or garage entrepreneurs hoping to strike it rich by inventing the next big thing.

But a lot of significant innovations do not come from people trying to figure out what customers may want. They come from the users themselves, who know exactly what they want but cannot get it in existing products.

"A growing body of empirical work shows that users are the first to develop many, and perhaps most, new industrial and consumer products," Eric von Hippel, head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in "Democratizing Innovation," recently published by MIT Press. (The book can be downloaded at Professor von Hippel's Web site, http://web.mit.edu/evhippel/www/.)

Innovation by users is not new, but it is growing. Thanks to low-cost computer-based design products, innovators do not have to work in a professional organization to have access to high-quality tools. Even home sewing machines have all sorts of computerized abilities. And once a new design is in digital form, the Internet allows users to share their ideas easily.

Because users are often quite different from each other, their innovation, by definition, accommodates variety. A survey of users of Apache Web server software found that different sites had different security needs: one size definitely did not fit all. Nineteen percent of the users surveyed had written new code to tailor the software to their specific purposes.

"Users are designing exactly what they want for themselves; they have only a market of one to serve," Professor von Hippel said in an interview. "Manufacturers are trying to fit their existing investments and existing solution types to the largest market possible."

Read the whole column here.

Car Troubles

For just the first quarter of the year, General Motors has reported a loss of $1.1 billion (with a b). I don't think the WaPost report is quite right to compare the company's woes to airline problems, since the economics of airlines are completely different from the economics of car making. But it's certainly true that GM is burdened by the legacy of life before intense competition.

In his column a week ago, the WSJ's Holman Jenkins mordantly explained why the company can't invest the bucks that might yield hot new cars:

GM's boss should be the media's darling, running his company to provide job security and health care for its workers first, second and third. Wonder why GM invests just enough in new product to keep the game going, not enough to make its cars really sought after? Because the extra capital that would have to be invested goes instead to doling out gold-plated health care -- no copays, no deductibles -- to workers and to plumping up their pension fund, which two years ago required the largest corporate debt offering in history to top off....

GM made an effort to imply that Zeta resources were being deployed to speed up redesigned pickup trucks and SUVs, which will begin to appear next year. This was smokescreen. Zeta was shelved to free up money in coming years to meet the pension and health-care obligations to workers -- money that manifestly won't be coming from sales of G6s, Cobalts and LaCrosses, the new models that GM had nursed high hopes for.

All these cars are decent or even better than decent by every standard except the best of what GM's competitors have on offer -- such as riskier styling, meatier engines and more advanced transmissions (five- and six-speed automatics are state of the art today, whereas GM has tried to make it through another cycle with stale four-speed automatics).

Deep-sixing Zeta was GM's way of saying it will devote the rest of the decade to non-wow products. Risk taking, after all, is what you do when you're working for diversified shareholders, none of whom will go hungry if you swing for the fences and miss. It's not what you do when the primary goal is to sustain workers, retirees and their dependents in the accustomed manner until nature finally relieves you of the burden....

Mr. Wagoner has decided that GM will go the final laps in its race with the mortality tables without the possibility of any hits that Zeta might have spawned. This may be entirely rational, but the grim reaper had better hold up his end of the bargain. In the meantime, GM shareholders can expect the thrill ride to get only more, er, thrilling.

I'd say, "Read the whole thing," but you can only do that if you have a subscription.

Following my talk at this morning's conference, Grant McCracken--whose blog is almost as good as his books--gave a great talk about how the strange aesthetics of 1950s cars so effectively tapped into the aspirations of that era's culture, confounding the formulas of the famous Raymond Loewy, whose streamlined 1954 Studabaker was an embarrassing flop. The talk was drawn from a fascinating argument developed in Grant's new book, which due in a month or so

My Brother, the Track Star

My brother Sam finished 951 in the Boston Marathon, running it in 3 hours, 6 minutes, 4 seconds and got well-deserved kudos in the local paper. It's hard to believe I could be related to such an athletic person. (But I bet I can walk farther in high heels.) He's nice, smart, funny, and good looking, too.

Recovering Lost Texts

Ancient blog readers--those reading this site back in early 2001--may recall a post reporting that "technology developed at Brigham Young University has made it possible to read a huge archive of Greek and Latin texts buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius." It looks like the promise is now being fulfilled. The Independent reports:

For more than a century, it has caused excitement and frustration in equal measure - a collection of Greek and Roman writings so vast it could redraw the map of classical civilisation. If only it was legible.

Now, in a breakthrough described as the classical equivalent of finding the holy grail, Oxford University scientists have employed infra-red technology to open up the hoard, known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, and with it the prospect that hundreds of lost Greek comedies, tragedies and epic poems will soon be revealed.

In the past four days alone, Oxford's classicists have used it to make a series of astonishing discoveries, including writing by Sophocles, Euripides, Hesiod and other literary giants of the ancient world, lost for millennia. They even believe they are likely to find lost Christian gospels, the originals of which were written around the time of the earliest books of the New Testament.

The original papyrus documents, discovered in an ancient rubbish dump in central Egypt, are often meaningless to the naked eye - decayed, worm-eaten and blackened by the passage of time. But scientists using the new photographic technique, developed from satellite imaging, are bringing the original writing back into view. Academics have hailed it as a development which could lead to a 20 per cent increase in the number of great Greek and Roman works in existence. Some are even predicting a "second Renaissance".

I doubt we'll see a "second Renaissance," except in the narrowest sense of recovering ancient texts, but if we do, we can thank the Mormons. (Via Arts & Letters Daily.)

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