Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Good and the Beautiful 

Recently I’ve been reading Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine. It’s an historical novel about the city state of Athens when Sokrates and Plato sat in its fabled agora. Sokrates was a divisive figure at the time and our protagonist Alexias finds that many of his family, friends and acquaintances will not suffer the sage’s company. Xenophon is chief among Alexias’ friends who avoids Sokrates. Imagine then Alexias’ surprise one day when he finds Xenophon sitting in with the students.

“What brought you to Sokrates?” Alexias wants to know. Xenophon explains that he had been walking down an alleyway when Sokrates blocked his path and asked,
“Can you tell me where one can buy good oil?”

I thought it odd he should need telling, but I directed him. Then he asked after flour and cloth. I told him the best places I knew; he said, ‘And where can one get the good and beautiful?’ I must have looked pretty blank; at last I said, ‘I’m sorry, sir, I can’t tell you that. – ‘No?’ he said smiling. ‘Come with me, then, and let us find out.’ So I turned and walked with him, and stayed with him all day.
I was very moved by this passage. I love the idea of finding a wise teacher who opens you up to the world. A teacher that engages you in a community of fellow travelers struggling to understand the universe; that discusses the nature and definition of concepts such as “good” and “beauty.”

Down a few conceptual, spiritual, and cultural levels from trying to intuit the Platonic forms of good and beauty, is the matter of seeking the new.

Many years ago, I worked as a headhunter in the fashion industry. The fashion industry has a great divide between the creation (design and manufacturing) and the distribution – (retailing) sides of the business. I specialized in the former; placing designers, technical designers and merchandisers into the major, New York-based apparel houses. Occasionally, folks from other ancillary parts of the value chain would end up at my desk, such as merchandisers from fabric houses, e.g., Loro Piana, who specialize purely in sourcing the high-end fabrics that are sold to the design houses. I never knew what to do with those folks.

One particularly confounding group of people was the trend forecasters. I was learning a great deal about the business world as I transitioned from my former life as an actor to being a headhunter. So it was not the fault of the trend forecasters that I did not really understand who they were or what they did at first. I knew who the futurist and cultural forecaster Faith Popcorn was, probably thanks to an early issue of Wired Magazine, but I did not know that there were trend forecasters in the fashion industry. (And frankly, my fellow headhunters at the agency neither understood nor cared who they were. They were from small companies. They weren’t part of our core clientele. They were not money sitting in the chair in front of you.)

I’m a people person. So I interviewed the trend forecasters. I learned from them about their business. I thought it was fascinating. Trend forecasters in the fashion industry walk the streets to watch what people are wearing. They photograph them. They focus group people who seem like trendsetters. They scan lots of different media looking for emerging colors, patterns, and fabrics. Then they write reports which designers read on what the predicted trends are for the coming seasons. This helps designers choose whether to lean into a coming wave or away from it. Eventually, from my interviews I learned who the major trend forecasting houses for the fashion industry were and how they operated. But I also learned that those companies were too small to use headhunters and so I never could find jobs for those nice people who sat at my desk and patiently explained their art.

A few years later, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker (and later in his first book – frequently referenced here) about Nike’s division of “cool hunters”. Cool hunters are a blend between a trend forecaster and a designer. Cool hunters go trend spotting to see, for example, what urban youth (read: black kids) are wearing on the basketball courts. Then they try to design a prototype of a shoe that will pick up where that trend is headed and take it to the next level. They take the shoe out to a court and have a kid play in the shoe and, in addition to asking for that one kid’s feedback, they watch how others respond to him wearing the sneakers. (By writing about Nike’s team, Gladwell put “cool hunting” into the common vernacular in place of “trend spotting.”)

In the past six months, I’ve noticed that individuals have nominated themselves as cool hunters on the web. They’ve set up sites that track, and point their readers towards, new pieces of merchandise that represent the latest in design trends. The web having a strong geek audience, it’s not surprising what most of these sites are focused on: gadgets, sneakers, and clothing - primarily t-shirts. Some of them also cover trends in modern art and architecture, although not to the same degree. Here then are some of those sages who purport to have the power to show you the good and the beautiful:

Boing Boing
I don’t know of Boing Boing started the podcasters shrieking “Boing!” all the time or if the site’s name is just playing on the trend of geeks to shout “Boing!” when they find something that floats their boat. (“Boing!” seems to be the “schwing!” of the 00’s.) In any case, Boing Boing, subtitled a Directory of Wonderful Things, glosses technology, gadgets, humorous news events and various web-based ephemera.

Cool Hunting
Josh Rubin founded this site and was its sole editor until a few months ago when he asked a host of others to co-blog with him. The site scans sneakers, t-shirts, gadgets, design, music, and nifty futuristic prototypes made by companies and individuals. While I preferred it when it had a single editor, I still enjoy its variety of categories and appreciate its non-tech specific focus.

Being Hunted
The folks at Being Hunted are interesting in part because they’ve crossed the line into commerce. They now have a European retail operation called The Glade that sells some of the fashionable items they review.

Together with Gizmodo, Engadget defines the category of gadgetblog, of which there are now burgeoning numbers. In addition to being the place to find out what the latest cell phone designs are in Tokyo, Engadget is the place to go to read the editors and readers pontifications on the future of TiVo.

Gizmodo carried the 2005 Bloggies for the “Best Computers or Technology Weblog”. It’s pretty duplicative with what you’ll find on Engadget, although for some reason I’ve not yet defined, I prefer Engadget.

Josh Spear
Subtitled The Pulse of Cool, Josh scans art, books, fashion, popular music, design and gadgets. For some reason, he’s elected to group blog on Cool Hunting, but his site is still worth reading because he generously does not write overly duplicative posts to each site.

Mighty Goods
One of the few female cool hunters out there, Mighty Girl of the Mighty Goods Shopping Blog picks out housewares and kid’s stuff in addition to the usual host of fashion items, gift ideas and gadgets.

Shiny Shiny
UK-based Shiny Shiny is gadgets for girls. Very much like Gizmodo and Engadget, but frequently referenced by Cosmo and Allure, Shiny Shiny picks out chic cell phone holders and LED-covered lingerie in addition to the usual gadgets that the guy-oriented sites fixate on.

As a final note, I was amused to note that Gothamist recently posted a (not so engaging) interview with a professional trendspotter from Youth Intelligence. I guess I'm onto something in the zeitgeist.
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Wednesday, March 23, 2005

"Give Us More to See!" (2005 Photobloggies) 

Stephen Sondheim wrote an extraordinary musical about the creative process called "Sunday in the Park with George". Without regard to the strength of the musical as a whole (the book is challenging in certain respects), it's well worth listening to the music and what he says about creativity.

One of my favorite lines comes from the artist's muse (Dot - originated by the supremely original performer Bernadette Peters) as she sings with the protagonist the heartbreaking song "Moving On". Dot sings:

Anything you do,
Let it come from you.
Then it will be new.

Give us more to see...
Right now on the web, there are a host of talented photographers who are publishing their work, often on a daily basis and providing a tremendous amount of inspiration to their viewers. There is truly some astonishingly good work out there.

At Chromogenic, the photographer ran out of film for his Hassleblad and jury rigged the camera to take a smaller film stock. When he developed the film, he discovered he had exposed the film across the sprocket line. A terrific effect. Here's a favorite from that series.

At OneMountainPhoto, Ed Nazarko has a wide array of work. A favorite winter shot.

For landscapes, it's hard to compete with A Walk Through Durham Township, PA. Check out this shot, up for a Photobloggie Award.

Mute has some terrific portrature, both posed and candid. Speaking of which, Joe's NYC has some incredible street scenes.

These are just a few shots to represent the multitude of photographic creativity blooming on the web. So go to the Photobloggies site, click on the links and then vote for what you like best.

P.S. If you're a photographer or a designer yourself, you should check out Daily Snapshot's Interviews with web photobloggers. The new design is gorgeous!
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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

No Hope For Humanity – The Misanthrope’s Film Festival 

More film festivals are on the way! Dan did the honors yet again in picking up our tickets for the New Directors/New Directions Film Festival at Lincoln Center which is in a couple of weeks. And after the excellent experience we had with the documentary screenings at Sundance, K. and I are also seriously considering going to Durham, NC for Full Frame, the documentary film festival.

Given that all of these events are on the horizon, I thought it might be time for another Evangelist Film Festival post. These are my opportunity to program a mini-festival in your living room, focused on a single theme. This time around, its misanthropy.

I have no patience with misogyny, but having a bit of a fatalistic streak I have a lot of patience for misanthropy. I think the first time I had a good taste of filmic misanthropy, it was probably Heathers. (By the way, haven't you always wondered what the heck happened to Heathers director/writer team Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters? The answer is not pretty. Their next big endeavor was on the notorious flop continuum alongside Ishtar, Heaven's Gate and Waterworld. The film's name? Hudson Hawk. To add insult to injury, Waters' brother helmed 2004's massively successful, Heathers-lite flick, Mean Girls.)

That was the first time I recall seeing a character so disgusted over his fellow humans. Heathers remains, however, a teen comedy and so I did not include it here. While some of the films in the Misanthrope's Film Festival are also comedic, they are generally more adult in tone and present more incisive arguments for dislike of one's fellow man and perhaps all fellow men.

American History X
Anchored by Edward Norton's searing portrayal of an American neo-Nazi, this film powerfully depicts the ills of American racism at its worst. The film is truly unforgetable and will give viewers new insight into just how awful people can be to each other. In fact, the film manages to encapsulate in a single sound effect how evil might inhabit each and every one of us when pushed to extremes. (If you've seen the film, you know just what that sound is. If you haven't, you will recognize it as the foulest, most effective sound effect you've ever heard the moment you hear it.)

It's hard to know who to credit for the film's potency. Director Tony Kaye was supposedly yanked from the project during editing and later sued to have his credit listed as Humpty Dumpty! The buzz was that Norton wrapped filming and helmed the editing process as well. In any case, I found it to be quite an eye opener and well worth seeing.

Citizen Ruth
Everybody loves writer/director Alexander Payne after Sideways, but it's worth taking a trip back in time to see this earlier effort.

Laura Dern stars as a drug addict named Ruth whose especially cheap brand of entertainment is "huffing" spraypaint. When Ruth turns up pregnant, she becomes a political pawn between right-to-lifers and a band of old-school feminists. Comedy ensues as each side does their best to use Ruth for their own purposes, desperately pretending to themselves and the world that Ruth's welfare is their paramount concern.

It sounds strange to say, but it is Dern's brave and essentially unlikeable characterization of Ruth make this film work and also make it worth watching.

Dancer in the Dark
This film began my "von Trier habit". About 15 minutes into the film, I said to myself, "Wow, he really hates women." By the end, I said, "Wow, he really hates all of us!"

The film tells the story of woman's gradual descent into blindness and her attempts to save enough money from her factory toils to save her son from the same fate. The cruelty of her situation is compounded by the way some of her co-workers deal with her situation.

As difficult as Dancer in the Dark is to watch, it is truly original filmmaking that makes excellent use of cinematography, music and as unlikely as it might seem, dance.

Von Trier strikes again. This time a Brechtian saga with an whiff of Cold War paranoia. A young woman enters a mountain mining town, perhaps on the run from someone. What should the townspeople do?

A fascinating film. Potentially a searing endictment of America. Maybe a messiah myth. All depends on your point of view. Here's the thing: you cannot help but have an opinion. There is no neutral response to this work.

Another early work by Alexander Payne featuring wonderfully hateful performances from both Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon. Quite an achievement, don't you think?

Centered around a high school election, the film tells the story of a teacher who so dislikes a student that he cannot stand to see her win. Payne uses the election as a filter not only for American politics, but also as a way of examinging human competitiveness. Weird, funny and very nasty.

Who can make you have empathy for a child molester? Only one man: Todd Solondz. In this film, Solondz takes an Altman-esque approach to examining sexually maladjusted American suburbanites (a favorite target.) Skillfully weaving together several storylines, Solondz continually takes us to the point of complete squeamishness and offers release by returning to the thread of another tale we'd begun earlier.

This film is proof that Solondz is Soderbergh minus the sellout. All the filmmaking talent, the use of brilliant ensemble casts, but he hasn't lost his agenda: to put the worst of the human condition under a microscope and examine it thoroughly.

The Shape of Things
You have to hand it to Neil LaBute. Whether or not he does actually singlehandedly own the entire misanthropy genre, the press pretty much thinks he does. Crashing out of the gates with In the Company of Men and barreling through Your Friends and Neighbors, LaBute brings it on...and on...and on. Each time setting up a specific set of human failings and watching it play through.

The Shape of Things is one of his more interesting films to me because it is much harder to parse. In this film, the question is "how far would you go for love?" Without recapping the plot, suffice it to say that it will keep you asking questions right up through the very end.
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Friday, March 04, 2005

Whipped by the Long Tail 

In the October issue of Wired Magazine (remember Wired?), Chris Anderson wrote a very interesting article on a new business theory called the Long Tail. The premise is that the Internet aggregates demand virtually in a way that makes possible an entirely new business model that cannot be duplicated in the physical world.

Essentially, freed of the constraints of shelf space, retailers of physical and digital products are discovering that Pareto’s 80/20 principle crumples under the huge catalog of potential SKUs beyond the “hits”. Everything beyond the 20% of what constitute “hits” or “best sellers” in the physical world can produce a profit at least equal to, if not greater than those hits that physical retailers rely for their profits.

This Tail Smells Familiar
I believe that this phenomenon is not entirely new. I’ve been told that when MTV launched in the Midwest, record retailers were entirely flummoxed by straight-laced teens marching into their local record store to demand their Kajagoogoo. “Kajagoogoo? Don’t you mean John Cougar?” said the retailers. Because that is what their demographic retailing models told them to stock in Ohio. They simply were not prepared to find (nor to market to) the potential Depeche Mode market in Akron. MTV threw a wrench into the traditional marketing models because no one had put much thought yet into marketing bands across American markets via music videos. Markets were labeled in a fairly limited psychographic manner and marketed to accordingly. MTV changed all that. Suddenly, there was new demand in unexpected places. (In fact, as long as we’re discussing the music industry, they NEVER seem ready for change. Direct mail in the form of Columbia House blew their minds back in the 50’s, and it’s happening to them yet again in their current MP3-driven muddle.)

Similarly, the Long Tail model posits that businesses can aggregate (what would otherwise be) niche demand into such volumes that it is profitable; especially because they don’t have to worry about shelf space. (Unless we’re talking about digital products, e.g., music, someone in the value chain does have to stock those items or they have to be easily manufacturable on demand. Anderson’s Long Tail article doesn’t address this issue, however.)

What’s most interesting is that sometimes a product that was way down “on the tail”, e.g., well below the status of a bestseller in a traditional model, can jump up to bestseller status based on the use of collaborative filtering where consumers can see what others with similar tastes are buying. Anderson gives the example of how “Touching the Void” returned from an almost out of print status to bestseller when Amazon recommendations suggested it to people who were buying “Into Thin Air”.

Who’s Wagging the Tail?
Thinking back to Gladwell’s seminal work, it seems appropriate to wonder how the demand for items that are on the tail is generated. Gladwell posited that there are three important roles in the phenomenon that makes up an unexpected hit: connectors, mavens and salesmen.

Connectors know astonishing amounts of people and are masters of the “weak tie”. In other words, they are good at maintaining many relationships on a weak level that they can leverage when they need someone else’s support. Mavens collect vast amounts of information on a particular topic or topics and share it compulsively. Salesmen…well, you don’t need me to tell you what they do. (They sell!)

On Amazon.com, collaborative filtering makes us all mavens by sharing what we like with others who like similar things. The user reviews turns the willing into salesmen. And the combination of the two makes Amazon.com into a very effective connector.

Getting the Long Tail in Your Face
What happens when the Long Tail aggregates demand for the unexpected and the unexpected is…YOU? That’s what seems to have happened to a hapless teen in New Jersey named Gary Brolsma.

Who is Gary Brolsma? If you’re reading this site, I’m pretty sure you know him. You just don’t know his name. You see Gary Brolsma uploaded a video of himself to the web. We don’t know why. Probably to amuse a few friends. But I’m guessing that somewhere there was a connector in the mix. And the next thing he new, Brolsma was famous in a way he really did not want to be. His “Numa Numa Dance” was forwarded lightning speed around the world and suddenly the Today Show wanted to know if this young Staples clerk wanted to meet the world.

You see in the physical world, a hard copy of Brolsma’s videotape would not have made it very far. It’s amusing sure, but would you take the time to duplicate it and mail it to ten of your friends? No way. But it seems that online the demand for silly and transient amusement is pretty high. And the cost to share those amusements is non-existent. And so websites that collect funny items collected Mr. Brolsma’s video (either as a file or via a link to another site) and suddenly that demand was a flood. SMACK. Hit in the face by the Long Tail.

So while the Long Tail is very interesting when one is considering a retail business model, it should also be a cautionary phrase to those who think “I’ll just share this with a few of my friends” because once we’re in the digital world, the Long Tail can strike rather unexpectedly. Just ask Gary. Or Pamela. Or Paris.
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