Dynamist Blog

"Today I Am a Fountain Pen"

Have you or a loved one had a bar mitzvah recently? If so, did you (or he) receive pens as presents? For an article on pens in a digital age, I'm looking for bar mitzvah boys (isn't that redundant?) to interview, and I'd prefer not to use even distant relatives. If you qualify, please email me. Thanks.

Inside Joke

Atop the headlines on TCS's "Elsewhere" lineup is this cryptic teaser: "Pamela Friedman would agree!" Pamela Friedman? I asked myself. The only Pamela Friedman I know is Ron Bailey's wife.

Yes indeed, the link is to a Hit and Run post titled, "Bailey tackles touchy subjects." Very funny, to an elite audience.

Saving Lost Books

On National Review Online Cathy Seipp offers a paean to the Internet's role in keeping out-of-print books in circulation.

No longer must we book geeks troll dusty old shops (mostly to no avail) for particular sentimental favorites. Several years ago I began to easily find most of McKenney's and Bracken's books online for just a few dollars each, along with those of another out-of-print author I'd often fruitlessly searched for, Judy Van Der Veer. Information about obscure and forgotten writers like Van Der Veer, whose atmospheric tales of ranch life in the San Diego backcountry have been described as "lyrically minimalist" by California state historian Kevin Starr, is another great gift from the Internet.

One Van Der Veer novel, November Grass, was recently reissued as part of Heyday Press's California Legacy Series. What I consider her best, though (because it's the only one with a real plot), is the 1966 children's classic Hold the Rein Free, about two ranch children who steal a thoroughbred mare from her heartless owner. It's still out of print but available used online for as little as a dollar or two, plus shipping. Even rereading this story as an adult I found it such a page-turner that I'm surprised it's never been optioned by Hollywood.

As prices get bid up, online auctions reveal just how much customers want out-of-print books. And that information has brought some once-lost books back into print. Tiny Purple House Press has flourished by bringing back old children's books. The press is named for Mr. Pine's Purple House, founder Jill Morgan's favorite book as a child.

Turns out the book was also Jeff Bezos's favorite, leading to an unexpected plug on an Amazon promotional email. "Within a day, the book's sales rank leapt from 50,000 to 15," report Beth Kwon and Maccabee Montandon in a Fortune Small Business feature. "'I was ecstatic,' says Morgan."

Recently reissued in a 40th anniversary edition, Mr. Pine's Purple House would make a fun gift for the nonconformist child in your life. As a child, I particularly enjoyed its characters' colorful surnames.

Maintaining Choice's Charms

Why is Netflix so charming? asks satisfied customer Grant McCracken. His theory: It offers near-infinite choice and, hence, gives customers exactly what's right for them. But it also helps you manage those choices, "mediating plenty in a post-scarcity world."

With Netflix, I have access to just about all the movies in the world. But, given my subscription model, they come to me only 2 at a time.

Two movies are not a lot. In a world of nearly limitless access, this should be irksome. But it ain't, of course, because these are almost always exactly the movies that interest me. Two movies has a deeper virtue. "Two movies" is an elimination of all the movies that might otherwise bid for my attention, damaging my sense of value and, God knows, even my identity formation.

Grant's analysis adds another dimension to some of my thoughts on the challenges and opportunities presented by proliferating choices.

How Many Shoppers?

Carl Bialik, the WSJ's "Numbers Guy," sorts through dueling estimates of Thanksgiving weekend retail sales. (This link does not require a subscription.) The most obvious way to count sales--asking retailers--won't work, because many stores, notably Wal-Mart, won't say.

"As more and more retailers have given less and less information, you are in search of the Holy Grail, the statistic that will give you some insight," says Michael Niemira, chief economist and director of research for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group based in New York. "No single statistic out there is totally comprehensive."...

"Hardly any companies comment on how they did on Black Friday," says Merrill Lynch analyst Stacy Turnof, who covers department stores. "It used to be like that years ago, that you called them Monday and they gave you information." Those large companies that have shared information have reported increases well below the 22% cited by NRF (the Online Journal has assembled updates in its Holiday-Sales News Tracker).

Without hard sales data, there's a lot of room for different estimates, using everything from credit card sales to online surveys to videos of mall crowds.

The Functions of Fashion

What makes fashion valuable? Business changes are forcing designers, merchants, and fashionistas to rethink their assumptions, as Julie Frederickson's posts discussed below, and the Black Friday blogging more generally, demonstrate. In the Boston Globe, Kate Jackson reports on how "cheap chic or disposable clothing" is changing fashion:

Cheap chic is not a new concept, but it's now more foolproof than ever, according to Aaron Keller, cofounder of Capsule, a brand development firm in Minneapolis. "Low-cost retailers are no longer a season behind," he said. "They're side by side with the designers."

Keller credits a combination of technology, overseas manufacturing, and the fierce competition that exists among discount retailers for faster production cycles and lower prices. "For instance, China is getting smarter about quality and product. A lot of retailers have been tapping into these and other countries where labor is cheaper," he said.

As a result, innovative design isn't the competitive advantage it once was. Also, since low-cost retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart, H&M, and Old Navy have such a large presence, they have the financial capital to negotiate for increasingly better quality, he said.

In other words, knockoffs don't look like knockoffs anymore.

Today, a shopper can buy a Marc Jacobs velvet beaded shrug for $440 at Saks or go to Old Navy and pick up a similar version for $26.50. "It may not be the most premium quality, but if it's a trendy piece that will be out of rotation in a few weeks, even the most moneyed shopper is going to choose the less expensive option," Keller said.

According to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor newsletter, 58 percent of women surveyed said they're more likely to shop the apparel department at Target today than they were two years ago, citing better styles and low prices.

In TSOS, I define fashion as aesthetic changes purely for their own sake, without underlying functional reasons. (You could broaden that definition to change for change's sake.) Fashion in this sense isn't limited to personal appearance. So, for instance, baby names go through fashion cycles, even though there's no commercial market for them.

The "fashion industries" traditionally bundle several different values together in their goods. One is freshness, novelty, or trendiness. Suddenly some new style or color just looks right. It offers a new, timely source of aesthetic pleasure.

Until recently, however, that pleasure came attached to a particular meaning. Not everyone had access to the latest looks. Fresh styles were expensive, available at a limited number of retailers, and in many cases unknown to anyone but the cognoscenti until a year or so after they'd been introduced. So wearing the latest styles marked a fashionista as wealthy, well-connected, and well-informed.

Since this limited audience could pay high prices, new fashions also tended to be made with expensive materials and workmanship. Although they were often ephemeral, they tended to be made to last. That's still true at the highest end of the market, but the coming of "fast fashion" means that if all you want is the right look, you can buy it cheaply. If the style will be dead in a year, why buy a piece that will last any longer?

If being stylish means having the look of the moment, fast fashion is truly democratizing style. That creates an uncomfortable situation for businesses and individuals who depend on trendiness to create customer value and maintain personal status.

Over time, we can expect other sources of value to become more important. These may include quirky personal expression and style setting (think fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker), classic elegance and sprezzatura, fine detail and craftsmanship, and customization.

Milton Friedman Award

The Cato Institute is soliciting nominations for the 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty: "The winner needs only meet one criterion: to have made a significant contribution to advancing human liberty. Nominees may be from any and all walks of life. Scholars, activists, and political leaders have been among the hundreds of nominations submitted for the first two prizes." Submit nominations here. The deadline is December 31.

What Is Beauty?

Social scientists want to know. Swedish economist Niclas Berggren is asking Dynamist blog readers "to participate in a scientific study of beauty carried out by three academic economists: Associate Professor Niclas Berggren, The Ratio Institute, Dr. Henrik Jordahl, Uppsala University, and Professor Panu Poutvaara, University of Helsinki. They study how differences in beauty, and some related traits, are perceived, and for this purpose they need respondents from different countries. Respondents have the option to participate in a lottery with a 200 (approx. $235) prize."

The survey asks you to rate the looks of various people in head shots, on characteristics including beauty, trustworthiness, intelligence, and age. To participate, go to this link and write DYNAMIST as your city of residence. All replies are anonymous. The deadline for participation is December 8.

You can email questions to niclas.berggren-at-ratio.se.

Whose Time Is It?

This WaPost article on Black Monday highlights a rarely remarked-on workplace transformation. As work moves from physical production to creative effort and personal interaction, employers are paying not for time but for output. With the boss's permission "work time" often encompasses personal activities, from chatting with colleagues to shopping online.

Postell Carter, a database manager for the New Israel Fund in the District, squeezes online shopping trips into his day in bits and pieces. "Generally every couple of hours I'll take a little break," he said, adding that he might go online to buy clothes for his kids or flowers for his wife. It rarely takes more than 10 minutes, he said.

He plans to start his Christmas shopping in earnest this week.

Carter said his boss is easygoing about online shopping, as employers increasingly are. Several major local companies said they are fine with employees doing personal errands on the job as long as they do not abuse the privilege.

"We actually think it's productive if they do it that way instead of running out to a suburban mall and stretching the one-hour lunch into two," said Bob Dobkin, a spokesman for Pepco, which has 2,500 employees in the area. "We do think it promotes a better employee relationship."

Workplace consultants say employers' attitudes about online shopping are evolving, generally in favor of giving more leeway to employees. Where many companies once blocked access to high-volume shopping sites, for example, they now use threshold software that simply limits an employee's time on such sites, said Susan Larson, vice president of global threat analysis and research for SurfControl, which makes filtering software for workplaces. Today, she said, companies are more worried about employees bringing viruses into an office network by shopping online than they are about reduced productivity.

One of the first books to examine how different employees draw the boundaries between work and home was sociologist Chris Nippert-Eng's fascinating Home and Work, which I wrote about in Forbes ASAP.

Blurring home and work can make work much more pleasant. But it can also make people feel like they're always at work. Social critics (and harried employees) who complain about the "overworked American" rarely consider how much personal time employees are consuming on the job.

Compared to service workers, manufacturing employees have far less flexibility on the job, because each has to integrate his or her production with everyone else's, and with an often-continuous flow of material. When I interviewed managers at American Leather for my NYT feature on the company, they noted that the American-born children of their immigrant factory employees rarely wanted to work in the plant and, when they did take jobs at American Leather, second-generation plant employees quit. Even when they have no white-collar options, they prefer lower-paid but less structured positions in retailing.

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