Dynamist Blog

Suburban Industry

Stephanie McCrummen of the WaPost reports on a hobby I was utterly unaware of until I moved to Dallas: the creation of elaborately decorated scrapbooks by suburban moms documenting their family's life.

With devotion, and, some say, obsession, they have fueled the thriving, $2.5 billion scrapbooking industry, an ever-expanding, ever-more-elaborate supply of photo-safe minutiae: corner lacing punches and circle cutters, rickrack and paisley paper and brads eyelets and packages of thematic word stickers -- on love, on vacation, on childhood -- the better to frame a life.

What's driving the phenomenon? One theory is that it creates an excuse for sociability while allowing time for personal enjoyment. I suspect that scrapbookers find their hobby a deeply satisfying source of "flow". But will anyone, except maybe 22nd-century social historians, really want to look at these scrapbooks?

Robbie Blinkoff, principal anthropologist with Context-Based Research Group, a company that studies consumer behavior for such clients as the Campbell Soup Co., spent a while observing the scrapbooker. He concluded that what Ballard described as "going out and coming in" was at the root of the phenomenon and others such as the iPod. Blinkoff calls the underlying trend "alone, together."

"It makes me feel part of a larger community, but it also grows my sense of self," he said. "That's what scrapbooking does, especially for moms, who have no time to be creative these days."

And yet, among their thousands and thousands of photos, women tend to include very few, if any, photos of themselves, often because they don't like to be photographed or are reluctant to relinquish control of how their descendants will view their lives in 100 years.

Movie Talk

In the buildup to Oscar, Steve Kurtz has posted his "Film Year In Review--2005," which is much smarter and more fun than the Oscars.

Like Steve, I'm sorry that theater attendance is down. I like to see movies in a dark room with other people. Of course, I don't like it when those other people talk or bring their squirmy, loudmouth kids. And I do think movies are pricing themselves out of the market, forgetting that they have competition for your entertainment dollar.

I didn't see that many movies in 2005, but I second his recommendations of Downfall, which was absolutely riveting, and Layercake. And, like him, I had fun at Mr. and Mrs. Smith, even though I understand the critics' objections.

Doing the Math

Quite a few readers have written to ask about the answer to the bat-and-ball question in my NYT column. Here's the relevant equation: $1.05-0.05=$1.00.

Interestingly, when Shane Frederick asks a different version of the question, substituting a difference of 13 cents for a bagel and banana totaling 37 cents, many fewer people get the answer wrong--because it's not intuitive.

Another X Prize

Having spurred the development of private space flight, the X Prize Foundation is now turning to genetics. According this WSJ report (subscription NOT required):

The X Prize Foundation, a nonprofit-education organization, is looking to spur a new adventure -- into human genes.

The Santa Monica, Calif., foundation plans to offer a $5 million to $20 million prize to the first team that completely decodes the DNA of 100 or more people in a matter of weeks, according to foundation officials and others involved.

Such speedy gene sequencing would represent a technology breakthrough for medical research. It could launch an era of "personal" genomics in which ordinary people can learn their complete DNA code for less than the cost of a wide-screen television.

The X Prize Foundation's website is here.

Kelo Backlash, Cont'd

The bank BB&T (once upon a time, my brother Sam's employer) has announced that it will not fund commercial development that depends on eminent domain to seize private property. The Institute for Justice press release is here. The policy no doubt reflects CEO John Allison's Objectivist convictions.

Content Matters--But So Does Style

On the lookout for style-as-innovation stories, my friend Sean Doughterty, an old-time radio buff, sends along an exchange from a fan listserve that illustrates that the iPod is hardly the first audio innovation to change behavior with aesthetics. The reply is from Elizabeth McLeod, author of The Original Amos 'n' Andy -- Freeman Gosden, Charles Correll, and the 1928-43 Radio Serial, and I am posting it with her permission.

My question: do you think that Amos 'n' Andy - or any other specific radio stars of the late '20s-early '30s era (perhaps Rudy Vallee?) - helped drive radio sales, and thereby hasten the heyday of great radio entertainment?

Or was it a more general thing - that RCA created a National Broadcasting Company to encourage radio sales... and the talent then rose up to fill the airwaves with that needed entertainment?

There's a lot of anecdotal talk to the effect that many people bought their first radios to listen to "Amos 'n' Andy" during 1929-30, but I don't think it's realistic to claim that the fad surrounding the program was the major engine driving radio sales during that era. There were numerous other factors as well.

The most important of these factors involved the evolution of radios themselves. Beginning around 1925, radio sets evolved from crude-looking boxes festooned with knobs and jacks and dials and visible wiring to more elegant devices contained in wooden cabinets designed as furniture. This change made radio far more acceptable as family entertainment for the living room instead of a reclusive hobby for the attic.

Following this change, in 1926-27, radio manufacturers introduced sets that operated directly off the AC line, rather than off batteries. Many housewives of the era objected to the presence of batteries in their living rooms -- especially the wet-cell "A" batteries that could leak acid on the floor, create odors, or otherwise make their presence unpleasant. These batteries, likewise, would need to be carried off to a garage or filling station once a week or so to be recharged, adding to the inconvenience of owning a set. An AC set, on the other hand, could simply be plugged into the wall and enjoyed without any of this muss or fuss.

And the final such factor came in 1930, with the introduction of "midget" radios. These small table sets -- including the famous "cathedral" cabinets -- were much easier to fit into a living room than a massive console, and were also much more affordable for working-class people, who could buy one on credit for as little as fifty cents a week. These radios exploded onto the market during 1930, a period which coincided with the peak of A&A's popularity, and the two crazes thus were able to feed off each other -- more people could buy radios to listen to A&A, and more people who bought radios discovered they enjoyed A&A.

The popularity of "Amos 'n' Andy" did, however, undoubtedly drive the popularity of radio drama during the early 1930s, encouraging a great many imitators in the nightly serial format -- and soon spreading into daytime as well. While most dramatic programs prior to A&A had been anthologies, with few or no continuing characters, the popularity of "Amos 'n' Andy" proved beyond question that listeners would and could follow the stories of favorite characters and that Everyman characters such as they were could serve as the framework for long-term series popularity. Without the proletarian influence of Amos and Andy, the evolution and development of dramatic radio might have lagged for years in the sort of stilted, psuedo-stagey productions which characterized most American radio drama prior to their rise.

Her account echoes Elmo Elkins Caulkins's landmark 1927 Atlantic article, "Beauty the New Business Tool", which I discuss in Chapter Two of The Substance of Style. Caulkins wrote:

In applying art to machines we are on our own ground. Machines are native with us, and the effort to beautify them has created a new field of artistic endeavor, as witness the sky-scraper, the motor car, the phonograph and the radio....

Among our new playthings was the phonograph. For a long while it lingered in its ugly box with its blatant horn, and no one minded its hideousness in the strange new experience of listening to it. It did not occur to us that it was not necessary to affront the eye to please the ear. But the spur of competition compelled the manufacturers to add every improvement they could think of, and when mechanical improvements were exhausted they turned to aesthetic ones, with the result that the great horn disappeared inside, the case took on some semblance of form, designers and cabinetmakers were consulted and period and other designs produced, so that now the phonograph may easily be an addition to the furnishing and decoration of a room. The transformation of the radio took less time. While it is still so new that broadcasting stations have not yet been assigned permanent waves, its makers are as much concerned with giving it an acceptable physical appearance as with lengthening its reach. That is because it arrived in an age in which both manufacturer and consumer are aware that there is such a thing as good taste. We demand beauty with our utility, beauty with our amusement, beauty in the things with which we live. And so the radio has been promptly put in the hands of the designers, to make it, if possible, a thing of beauty and a joy forever even when silent or especially when silent.

Intuition, Reflection, and Risk

My latest NYT column looks at some fascinating, and fun work by MIT's Shane Frederick on the connection between cognitive ability and attitudes toward risk and waiting. Those psych test subjects are more diverse--in important ways--than you'd think from the generalizations we often hear from psychologists and behavioral economists. Fortunately, investment, loan, and insurance markets largely accommodate this variety, no personality tests needed.

And, to answer some of my emails in public, if you think the question about a 15 percent chance of $1,000,000 is a misprint or wrongly reported, it isn't. Those are the real results, and they're remarkably consistent. In fact, at 1% and 3% chances, essentially everyone went for the sure $500, with no distinguishable difference among groups.

Bayesian Drug Tests

In the Pipeline blogger and pharmaceutical research chemist, Derek Lowe reports on the prospects for using Bayesian statistics in clinical drug trials. The Bayesian approach, which he explains more precisely than I could, essentially lets you revise your estimates of how likely success is as you get more information from experiments. For new drugs, fans say, it could "make clinical trials easier to run and more meaningful at the same time."

If Bayesian spam filters are an indicator, a Bayesian approach is definitely the way to go. SpamSieve, a Bayesian filter for Mac OS X, has pretty much solved my spam problems.

Fashion Geek

Leslie Katz of CNet News profiles Project Runway contestant Diana Eng, "a geek's geek who discovered the joys of math by second grade."

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