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Brain Pickings

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Feeling Thoughts, Playing Visions

Public display of emotion, world-saving vocabulary, the new jet set, David Lynch, the animal in us, what Mike Gravel and Moby have in common, why parting with our miniature sheep collection finally seems doable, and how everything begins with music.

HEART OF A CITY

The Nordic countries, always the beacon of design and innovation, are bringing yet another refreshing new project to the cultural table. Emotional Cities is the work of Swedish artist Erik Krikortz and is a multilayer, concrete, visual reflection of the world’s emotional pulse as it changes in real time.

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The concept is both simple and elaborate. First, there’s the website where you pick your current emotional state on a seven-level scale by clicking the visual representation of your mood. Then there’s the elaborate part that turns it into a public art installation of an emotional snapshot.

mood.pngThe project aspires to calculate and plot the average values for cities, countries and the world in real time. You can also create custom groups by using the Emotional Cities Facebook app and mood-track your workplace, your posse or your roommate. The idea is to make us more aware of our own emotions and those of others, and hopefully to help us understand them better — after you’re asked the “how?” question about your emotional state, you can also choose to answer the “why?” in a private diary on the website, encouraging you to deal with emotion in a healthy, intelligent way.

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Here’s the elaborate part: in some cities, the city’s current emotional state is projected onto a light installation in a public space. So if you were flying into Stockholm, you’d be able to instantly get a feel for the city’s cumulative emotional state at that time.

And to say the concept has gigantic social potential would be an understatement. Emotional transference or mimicry is a tremendously powerful, primal force that we humans are neurologically wired for. For details on the back-end, read up on mirror neurons and indulge in Daniel Goleman’s brilliant book “Emotional Intelligence.” But, meanwhile, let’s just say that the Emotional Cities project has the potential to virally infect real people and entire cities with positive emotion, improving everything from the stress level of the daily grind to our overall standard of living.

How are you today?

SYMBIOTIC BETTERMENT

Ask Chaucer, and he would’ve probably told you literature can save the world. And you would’ve probably laughed. Possibly pointed. Well, put that finger down because FreeRice, a smart new sister site to aspirational poverty-assassin Poverty.com, is feeding the hungry while enhancing your vocabulary.freerice1.png

Here’s how it works: you play a web game that tests your knowledge of fancy words (remember those SAT questionnaires?) and for every word you get right, FreeRice donates 20 grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program to help end world hunger.

And that’s not all. These are serious folks — the “game” is built by professional lexicographers to ensure maximum benefits for your vocabulary. So you’re helping the world while helping yourself sound smarter, formulate ideas better, make greater impact with your speech, score better on tests, nail job interviews…you get the idea.

To kick up the challenge, you can set your computer to remember your vocabulary level as you play, so the game pushes you to make actual progress. There are 50 levels total, but getting above 48 is Shakespearean.

We dig the idea — it sounds like symbiotic quality-of-life improvement: for the world’s poor, relieving hunger clearly improves their lives; and in the world of capitalism, improving vocabulary, which is integral to your image and therefore a “self-marketing” currency, will ultimately improve your life.

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The site is entirely ad-supported, which allowed the project to double its impact — it actually started out with a 10-grains-per-word contribution, but it got a tremendous response. And because more traffic means more advertising revenue for the program, they were able to double the donation in November. Still, it may seem like tiny chip at the world poverty problem — eliminating which, along with all its related diseases, the UN estimates will cost $195 billion a year.

So scurry off to FreeRice and make yourself a better person in more ways than one. Heck, let’s go crazy — bookmark it and spend a minute on it every day. It may save a life.

Word.

BIG BIRDS, BIG EGOS

dopplr.pngWhat happens when you combine business networking, social networking, travel, and real-life fun get-togethers? Dopplr happens, a brand new service for the city-hopping business elite. It lets frequent biz travelers share plans with their friends and colleagues so that if they happen to be in the same city as a buddy at any given time, they can swap the boring staring-at-my-hotel-wall evening for a night on the town in good company. Trade in the pay-per-view for, you know, actual humans.

Seems like we’re running a Nordic theme here — Finland-based Dopplr (the country seems to be on an innovation spree lately) is the brainchild of several business geniuses, media executives and designers with extensive upmarket experience — the same crowd that embodies the site’s average user.

But with the success, smarts and talent of this set also comes some networking snobbery — right now, Dopplr is invite-only (just like uber-exclusive luxury social net darling aSmallWorld.net.) The folks behind it say the main reason is that they’re focusing on the business clientele and want to maintain maximum security, but they also admit they like to maintain an air of exclusivity. Yep, someone’s gotta cradle all those big egos. Plus, replicating people’s real-life relationships to lend the service some word-of-mouth credibility wouldn’t exactly hurt.

Do check it out — it may sound like a niche project, but we think it’s a sign of a powerful trend that’s starting to emerge. These same new-age business execs may well be the hot new commodity, a lucrative demo driving both culture and economy forward. Watch out.

NO ELABORATION NEEDED

Why we love David Lynch and simple parody.

Download it and watch it on your iPhone here.

UNTRIVIA

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Okay, let’s do nerd-talk for a second: Goal-Gradient Hypothesis. (Man up, you can take it.) It’s the behaviorist idea that animals expend more effort when there’s an imminent reward. And because we’re all just animals (no, not like that, you dirtball), our behavior is shaped by the same patterns.

Case in point: an interesting study by a bunch of Columbia and Fordham researchers substantiated the “duh” knowledge we already have by backing it up with numbers. They looked at exactly how and by how much the prospect of a reward changes everyday human behavior. And they found that when folks joined the reward program at their local coffee shop (you know, the buy-10-get-1-free kinda thing), their interpurchase times dropped by 20%. That’s a lot. The pattern was also projected onto online behaviors, like rating a certain number of songs on a music-rating site to redeem an Amazon gift certificate. The idea is that once people have a tangible reward at the end of a task, they accelerate towards that goal beyond how they would normally complete the task. Yeah, we know, “D’oh!”

But even more interestingly, they also found that people who joined the reward program were also…

  • 19% more likely to chat with cafe employees
  • 12% more likely to say smile
  • 8% more likely to say “thank you”
  • 18% more likely to leave a tip.

So besides being numbers-based evidence for the obvious loyalty and incentive programs many companies already use, we think there’s a bigger human truth behind it — we all appreciate feeling appreciated. We want tangible proof that we matter — whether it’s to a cafe or to our bosses or to our friends — and it all becomes a loop of reciprocity.

The point here is, tangible appreciation does’t just make better customers: it makes better people. So go ahead and send that old-school thank-you note to your great aunt, even though you were so not feeling that reindeer sweater. You’ll feel better, as will she. And, who knows, maybe she’ll get you a Modbook next year.

THINKTUBE

And while we’re being brainy, the big news on that front this week is BigThink — a brand new online video network that aims to empower the “citizen-consumer” by providing access to the brains of today’s greatest thinkers and a venue for those absorbing the ideas to respond.

The army of experts spans an enormous range, from faith to science to politics to art, and everything in between. And the idea people are as diverse as former Viacom CEO Tom Freston, presidential candidate Mike Gravel, Overstock.com founder Patrick Byrne, University of Pennysilvania President and political theorist Amy Guttman, iconic entrepreneur Richard Branson, and time-changing artist Moby. Plus a ton more.

Currently, the site is in private beta. But the idea is that once people immerse themselves in the world of ideas, they’d be inspired to respond and contribute, uploading their own videos. Right now, BigThink is simply an amazing and rare library of ideas, professionally organized and neatly gathered in one place. Which is great. But whether or not the project truly succeeds (and we sincerely hope it does) depends entirely on the willingness of that same “citizen-consumer” to shift from the passive lean-back comfort that current web video has become and lean forward into the active world of thought.

Time to quit watching other people’s cats do funny things and maybe think about the nature of humor.

CLUTTERBOARD

Lately, it seems like stop motion has been having a field day with award shows, YouTube popularity and the sorta-indie-but-skewing-mainstream set. And, sure, the most recognized representatives of the genre are often the most elaborate, big-budget productions backed by a corporate merchant of cool. (Hey there, Sony and Guinness.)

But it’s neat to see a fresh stop-motion spot from an unexpected, even traditionally “boring” category. Let’s face it, it’s a little easier to get excited and inspired by plasma TV’s and beer than it is by, say, storage. Which is why we dig “Tide.”

https://youtube.com/watch?v=6QfvSGZIDuM

Out of London-based agency CHI & Partners, by director Dougal Wilson, this Bronze-Lion-winning spot is visually indulgent, yet short and to-the-point: it really makes us think about the pack-rattish clutter in our own lives that we’re drowning in — heck, nothing’s come this close before to making us feel like it’s time to stash our miniature sheep collection away.

MEDIUM/MESSAGE

frame_davis.jpgThere’s no question that music has ignited some of the greatest fires in civilization’s belly. Still, it’s rare that the artistic vision music inspires uses both music’s medium and its content to craft new kinds of art. But that’s exactly what SoCal mixed media artist Daniel Edlen has done in vinyl art, using white acrylic and vinyl records to create portraits of the artists right on the physical canvas of their music.

Although the artist says his “payoff is people’s reaction when they see the pieces for the first time,” you can help support his work and vision with a more tangible payoff by buying one of the few yet-unsold pieces, framed in a clean black metal LP frame with the original album sleeve as background.

BP

Gags, Drags and Other Oddities

Cheat absolution, crash kittens, why digital restraining orders aren’t far away, how the alternative to the alternative is doing, and what parachute pants have to do with Silicon Valley. Welcome to the Gags, Drags and Other Oddities issue.

KARMA POLICE

We’re all for eco-sensibility (and we were long before the whole greenwashing bandwagon rolled into town.) And ethical judgment of motives aside (did someone say corporate PR?), it’s a good thing for all of us little ants because, well, we’ve only got one anthill. But as great as the idea of damage control via carbon offsetting may be, we can’t deny there’s something sketchy about it. It’s just too weird a cross between corruption, the Catholic church’s confession- absolution model, and those miracle pills from the late-night infomercials that promise to help you lose 30 pounds in a week with no diet and exercise.

So we kinda dig CheatNeutral, an innovative British project promising cheat offsetting for the chronic dabblers in infidelity and cash rewards for the faithful folks. They claim to have come up with a market-based solution to a natural part of most modern human relationships: cheating and jealously. The back-end is simple: you cheat on your apparently-not-all-that-significant other, then pay a small amount of money to CheatNeutral, who then invest the money in a faithful couple and — voila! — your little indiscretion has been karmically offset. Too good to be true? Just check out their real-life success stories.

Okay, so it’s a gag. Get with it, son. But it’s a gag with a solid point: it’s so much better to be eco-conscious in our daily lives than it is to crap all over the planet and then try to clean it up. Or, like our mother likes to say, “Just keep your room clean and you won’t have to whine about having to clean it, you thoughtless little pig!” Wait, that last part was actually Alec Baldwin. Never mind.

LESSER NOT EVIL

It’s been a while since we came across an artist’s summation of his or her own work so succinct and honest it just, well, says it all. Which is why we dig CrashBonsai and its creator John Rooney, a self-described “artist torn between the desire to create and destroy.” Not a hard concept to relate to, we admit.

The miniature fender-benders are sculptural mash-ups of home-grown bonsai plants and vintage car models, each uniquely disassembled, cut, melted, filed, banged up, and then reassembled to portray a “living crash site.”

The quirky collision sculptures are available for sale in select Boston-area stores. And if you find yourself confined to the other 99.9% of the world, you can always check out the gallery or buy his awesome crashed cars and make your own bonsai. Just stay away from kittens. (Chill out, that was all a hoax.)

STALKER IS THE NEW BLACK

Ah, the paradox of choice — the online world is like a wonderland that lets you go anywhere, but which little door to enter? It can get overwhelming, especially under the pressure of knowing all your friends are out there doing their thing. All the time. All over the place. So it would be kinda nifty to keep track of your buddies’ Flickr and Picasa postings, Pandora and Last.fm cravings, Facebook and MySpace updates, YouTube uploads, LinkedIn connections, Digg finds, Twitter blurbs and more — all in one place.

Well, it now is. Thanks to Spokeo, a brand new service that lets you keep track of your friends’ updates across a ton of (32, to be exact) digital hangouts. It’s kinda similar to Google Reader or another RSS aggregator — it pulls only the updated content from your friends’ web dwellings so that you don’t have to go on each of those websites, then look for what exactly your friends have changed since last time you checked.

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You’ve got three super-simple options to track friends: by address book (just type in your Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail email and Spokeo will pull all your contacts’ public content online), by friend email (type in a friend’s email and see what they’re up to online), or by social network (just login to your key social net and Spokeo will keep you posted on how your friends there are doing.)

Spokeo may be a nifty time-saver for the web-glued generation. But it also has the potential to be a smart platform for behavioral targeting or, at the very least, a powerful upgrade to the sociological study that is the social graph. It’s only a matter of time until marketers, academia, or both devour this approach to better understand how people interact, connect and consume information across the entirety of the social web.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifIt’s funny how we still refer to non-TV watching of TV programming as “alternative viewing” — it’s mostly funny because TV itself is becoming the “alternative” to “alternative devices.” According to the latest numbers from The ChoiceStream 2007 Survey of Viewer Trends in TV and Online Video, more than 55% of Internet users who watch regular TV also watch TV content on their computers, mobile devices and mp3 players — especially the younger folks (66%), although the older ones also sport a not-bad-for-geezers 36% rate.

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Some more findings from the study:

  • The trend is expected to grow — 20% of respondents expect to watch even more on alternative devices, mostly displacing from their traditional TV watching time
  • Surprisingly, 23% watch the commercials even if they’re tuning into a TiVo-ed programming, with the most popular commercials to watch being those found to be educational (36%) and entertaining (34%)
  • A good 42% of folks are willing to watch even more commercials if that meant a lower-priced subscription package
  • 65% of those cross-watching on alternative devices watch professionally-produced content
  • 39% watch user-generated stuff

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  • The computer is the most popular “alternative device” (66% vs. 6% for each mobile and mp3 players) and it seems to be a favorite among heavy users: 33% of those who watch on their computers admit they do it for more than 4 hours a week
  • A key frustration with getting entertainment online seems to be how long it takes to find quality stuff — but even more people find channel-surfing for good TV just as frustrating
  • Although browsing sites is the main way people find content online (56%), we hate beating on the same drum but word-of-mouth is a formidable force, driving some 32% of content finds (via family and friend recommendations) and pretty much tying with search engines (33%) — how’s that for the underdog tying with the champs?

And here’s the kicker: another, much larger-scale study (by Simmons) found that when people watch TV shows online, they’re 25% more engaged with the show’s content than when watching the traditional way and — get this — 47% more engaged with the advertising accompanying the show. And, really, without the engagement metric all those other numbers on who watches what where are as relevant as a bikini store in Alaska.

PLEASE TOUCH

Seems like everyone wants to shake it like a Polaroid picture these days. Yep, dance is a budding mainstream trend, the “it” cultural commodity. It’s popping up everywhere. First we got DDR (that’s Dance Dance Revolution, for those with no nerdy-hip friends) — the video game that first popped up in Japanese game parlors in 1998, then caught on like an international wildfire with over 4 million copies sold in the US alone where it’s showing up anywhere from college parties to family living rooms to anti-obesity school programs. Then came all those TV reality shows that started off between questionable and laughable, then sucked in audiences by the millions. Then YouTube kicked it up a notch with the most-viewed video of all times: Evolution of Dance. And the ever- present underground dance subcultures are starting to emerge in the mainstream.

But nothing says this-is-where-the- money’s-at like serious interest and financial investment from a celebrity- turned-Silicon-Valley-entrepreneur. Yep, the parachute-pants-wearing man behind one of the most danced-to songs of all times is starting a new venture for uploading and sharing dance videos. That’s right, MC Hammer, who’s been known to indulge his passion for all things digital by lurking in the offices of Apple and other tech companies, is launching DanceJam — a niche haven for the dance-minded, if today’s millions of dance passionistas can be considered a niche.

Stereotypes of Asian boyband-wannabes aside, take our word for it: dance is going to be big. And everyone and their mother will wanna touch this.

BP

SPECIAL: Second Annual Not-So-Much Awards

Bowel bothers, $4 million can-can, wow- lessness, flogger flops, unfab abs, FedEx, how “the social” never happened, what public bathroom walls have to do with big mergers, and why Gossip Girl isn’t feeling lucky. After a year of celebrating the good, welcome to the second annual round-up of the bad and the ugly: the Brain Pickings Not-So-Much Awards.

FAST POOPED NATION

With all the health-related propaganda oozing from the popular media, you’d think it’s getting easier for the nation to stay healthy. Well, not so much. Last year gave us the glorious E. coli outbreak from spinach that caused 3 deaths and 200 illnesses. And what did this year bring?

Another E. coli outbreak (this time from beef patties and frozen pizzas — we’re downgrading); asthma- attack-provoking sulfites in dried sweet potatoes; thousands of cans of beans with botulism– causing bacteria; Veggie Booty with Salmonella; and various- untimely-body-exits-inducing baby carrots with Shigella.

So has it been a great year for the 5-a-day set? Eh, not so much. Unless the number refers to the frequency of daily number-two runs. Then 2007 hasn’t been half crappy.

PLANS AND PROMISES

This was going to be the year of good television. The return of comedy that’s actually funny. The rise of smart scripted dramas. The time for well-written shows to claim glory, audiences and ad dollars back from the national tragedy that is reality TV. At least judging by the upfront extravaganza, that was the plan.

abc_upfront.pngMillions of dollars were spent (3 to 5, to be exact), grand venues were rented, all-star Academy-winning casts were made to do the can-can in uncompromising spotlights, glamorous swag was sent to the media and marketing folk who matter, big plans were laid, $9.2 were sucked in from advertisers.

And then the WGA struck. More than 12,000 writers raised their communal and previously snubbed, ignored, unheard voice for the first time in two decades to ask for a teeny bit more than the measly revenue crumbs they’ve been getting. No writing, no audience, no ad dollars. Network terror. Panic. The unmistakable smell of TV exec shit.

For all those reasons and more, a well-deserved Not-So-Much award goes to the 2007 TV Upfront. Congrats, too bad TV execs can’t retire on a virtual trophy once they’re handed that cardboard box.

GARGANTUAN PRODUCT LAUNCH

vista.pngBilly Boy, we love your humanitarian work — but Vista? Seriously? How about you first test it out on your PC at home next time, eh? Needless to say, the “WOW” moment never came. Unless we count the “WOW” you got after PC World (!) named Vista the biggest tech disappointment of 2007. Combine that with the overwhelmingly underwhelming review by ultimate tech tastemaker Engadget, and there you have it: wow? Not so much.

Really, though. Isn’t this why you’re paying those pimply programmer kids seven-figure salaries? Feed them more pizza, buy them more beer, do what you gotta do. Just don’t let another one of these slide.

BIG PAYOLA PIMPIN’

Rather than learning from last year’s flogs debacle (hey there, Sony PSP and Wal-Mart), the ethically challenged bastard-children of the marketing industry decided to kick it up a notch this year: they hired full-fledged floggers. Under the PayPerPost model, thousands of bloggers brokered their “opinions” to eager advertisers — it’s Payola 2.0 and it’s going down in flames already.

So the FCC threatened. WOMMA (the Word of Mouth Marketing Association) initiated an investigation and proceeded to slam the practice as non-compliant with their Ethics Code. The New York Times raised a disapproving eyebrow at chief offenders PayPerPost.com, ReviewMe.com and SponsoredReviews.com. Then it really escalated: first the FTC stuck a major red flag on it all, then it got as bad as it gets — Google spanked the questionable practice big-time. (Because, let’s be honest, these days a bitch-slapping by Google is far more serious a threat than anything coming from a Federal Toothless Committee.)

In the end, PayPerPost (legally IZEA) folded some of its properties and quietly tucked away others. And the obvious answer to the “Isn’t paid blogging a great, legitimate, win-win idea?” question seems to be an unanimous “Not so much.”

CELEBRITY COMEBACK

It’s not that they didn’t give her a chance. They did. And boy oh boy did they regret it. Because Britney’s “comeback performance” at the VMA’s was just the kind of ordeal that sent 99% into almost-feeling-bad-for- her-but-not-quite bouts of convulsive laughter. The remaining 1% got fired because of it…although we’re pretty sure they too laughed all the way to the Unemployment Office. Wait, wait. We take that back. the remaining 1% were Chris Crocker.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=jK-T5Y1ZeVg

But the abysmal performance isn’t what’s earning Brit the Not So Much award this year. Because while it may have been abysmal, at least it was real. Which isn’t something that could be said of her spray-tanned- over-the-flab abs. If only she had spent those 2 hours rehearsing, then maybe it wouldn’t have ended like…oh, who are we kidding.

UNWITTING KICK IN THE GROIN

And what’s an annual shitlist without an Ann Coulter entry? Nope, it’s not for dropping the F-bomb on both Al Gore and John Edwards. It’s not for saying the Jews need to be “perfected” into Christianity. (All that and more has come to be naturally expected from the depravity dame.) It’s not even for comparing the New Testament to FedEx.

It’s for doing it on Donny Deutsch‘s The Big Idea. Here’s the thing: Donny, always the media whore, is probably much less disturbed by stabs at his private beliefs, such as religion, than he is by even the slightest allusions to his public failures. Because, coincidentally, Donny’s big Super Bowl idea this year crashed and burned like no other. Which we’re sure only added fuel to the fire of his grumping about how BBDO’s spots for FedEx outperform any Deutsch Super Bowl creations year after year.

Congrats, Ann. You’ve reached a point where your bile reaches far beyond your intended sore spots.

GARGANTUAN PRODUCT RELAUNCH

And so it is, Microsoft appears to be the Tina Fey of the Not So Much awards (you know, snagging the honors in multiple categories)…only not nearly as smart and much, much less sexy. Case in point: the Zune.

You may vaguely remember last year’s overhyped launch and the sharing-based “Welcome to the Social” positioning. Well, after an initial review by make-or-break tech expert Engadget that actually included the word “sucked” and a subsequent extensive confirmation of the Zune’s overall lackingness, it became apparent that the only sharing going on was that of worldwide opinions on what exactly about the Zune makes it suck.

So swinging between damage control and a second stab at taking down the iPod, the unfortunate underdog decided to pretend like “the social” never happened (wait, it actually never did) and position the Zune with the sharply original (in another universe) “You Make It You.” More hype followed, including one rather blatant rip-off of a certain shot-down- by-client Cutwater spot for Motorola by Michel Gondry, or of the wonderful “Hello Tomorrow” spot for adidas by Spike Jonze from a few years ago, or of both.

In the end, the Zune continues to tank, Microsoft continues burning through ad agencies like a celebrutante through rehab stints, and the answer to the “Are we bumping the iPod yet?” question continues to remain: “Not so much.”

FOOL-PROOF PLAN

Remember in high school when the bathroom walls were a graffitified slander fest, a Sharpie-driven manifestation of petty popularity vendettas? Well, seems like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, the same nice guy who made his own salary $1 last year and basked in the press ooohing and awwwing over it, is more high school girl than business big boy. Or at least that’s what his doings in the business version of bathroom walls — you know, the stock market forums — suggest.

wall.jpgBecause this year was the year he got caught Sharpie-handed, busted for being the mysterious bad-mouther of Whole Foods competitor Wild Oats all across the stock forums, something he’d been doing since 2005 — when, apparently, his plan of acquiring Wild Oats was first cooked up. (A plan that finally came to fruition when Whole Foods agreed to buy Wild Oats for $565 million, or $18.50 a share, this year.) That mysterious had been dishing out rather specific prophetic projections, including the prediction that Wild Oats would crumble into bankruptcy after its stock price dropped to $5, as well as some pretty stabby critiques of Wild Oats management. So how did the mystery bad-mouther get traced back to Mackey?

Via the very, very, very cleverly devised username: Rahodeb. Which just so happens to be wife Deborah’s name with the syllables swapped backwards. Even more embarrassingly, “Rahodeb” went as far as revealing, like, an ohmigod-total crush on Mackey, complete with confessions like “I like Mackey’s haircut” and “I think he looks cute!”

Not to worry, though. Our aforementioned government hero, the FTC, stepped in hands-on-hips and cape aflow to resolve the issue by questioning the bigger-than-high-school legal issues about a Whole Foods / Wild Oats merger. Too bad big bad villain Bureaucracy got in the way — the case is still pending, and we’re left hanging for a final word. But, meanwhile, we’re pleased to present Rahodeb with a Not-So-Much award for a high-school-to-business-world transition.

BELIEVABLE PRODUCT PLACEMENT

It’s not news that product placement, branded entertainment, or whatever else you wanna call the ubiquitous paid-for logo-slapping on today’s screens, has become a big deal. Some takes on it are actually marginally believable and not too disruptive of the show’s flow. NBC and Bravo had the formula right again this year, with 8 of the top 10 most successful (a.k.a. least likely to piss off audiences) product integrations.

So what is the formula? The pros say it best: Frank Zazza, CEO of product placement valuation company ITVX points the finger to seamlessness: “[Seamlessness] is the key to the future of product placement… If it is done organically and seamlessly, it will match [the viewer’s] real world.”

Hmmm, we have to wonder what kind of wax the CW folks had in their ears when deciding to go smack against the expert advice. Sure, they’re hungry to rise above being the pimply loser at the popular kids’ party that is broadcast television. And, sure, they may be lusting after the 13-24 female set with shows like the flashback-to-the-worst-of-high-school Gossip Girl. But seemlessness, it seems, wasn’t anywhere on the roadmap for getting there.

verizon.pngSee, the CW chose to splatter Verizon products all over that canvas of mediocrity that is Gossip Girl (a gig so inexplicably sought-after that it ignited a vicious three-way bid-off against T-Mobile and AT&T, which Verizon in the end won.) And by all over we mean all over: long pan-and-zooms on Verizon devices, unnaturally lengthy screen time of text messages (and, yes, we mean unnatural even in the uber-texty universe of teenage girls)…you get the idea.

Meanwhile, they choose to purposely mask the most natural, plot-based use of one of today’s most universally recognized brands: Google. In fact, a brand so crucial that they simply couldn’t get around it in the story line, and so powerfully popular through word-of-mouth alone that it didn’t even need to pay for placement. Most importantly, a brand so strong that it’s inevitably recognized beneath the changed colors of its homepage, the generic “Search” name, and the bland “1st Result” label for its iconic “I’m Feeling Lucky” button. How’s that for matching the viewer’s “real world.”

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What an ironic allegory for the power of brands this is — goes to show that no product placement budget can match the pure value of authenticity. In the great words of Google VP of Marketing David Lawlee, “It’s easier to do a thousand little things than one 30-second spot, if you have the world’s attention.” Unfortunately for the CW, the world’s attention in this case was neither there nor generating revenue.

Spotted: CW trying oh-so-hard to score with the cool kids but scoring the year’s biggest Not-So-Much award instad. Fake recognizes fake, little net.

BP

The Last and the Curious

Democracy, rashes, the big ambush, Eastern Europeans for free, why the ‘burbs are cool again, how 40 tons can make you really, really uncomfortable, what gingerbread has to do with sustainability, and just dance, dammit.

THE INDEPENDENT MASSES

Let’s face it, neither big labels nor online music sales are exactly a conducive trampoline for indie artists looking to make the big jump, however talented they may be. The few who rose from the indie ranks and made it big may have the traction to give the labels the finger (hello, Radiohead and LiveNation folk), but what about the little guys, the next Beatles and Kinks and Blondies humbly making great music in their basements?

ourstage.jpgLuckily for them, there’s OurStage: one big, brilliant community talent contests. It allows emerging talent to gain exposure by uploading work, then — here’s the smart part — it lets the community decide in a completely democratic vote. Every month, the overall winner gets $5,000 (and the top 5 rankers in each genre channel get some pocket change — $100, to be exact — to fuel those practice sessions with beer and pizza so they can do better next month.)

We sampled some of the top-ranked talent — and talent it is, we were pleasantly surprised to find. Current rank topper Julie Odell oozes promises of Joni-Mitchellish vocals and Rufus-Wainwrightean piano work. And runner-up Wandering Bards blends Lynard Skynardesque Southern rock with early Dave Matthews Band rasp, plus a kick all their own. And, is Sydney Wayser for real? Please come to and give the woman a record deal already.

All in all, OurStage seems to reflect a bigger trend of late — the concept of individualism by the numbers. It helps indie artists remain, well, indie, while building a community fueled by individual opinions but moving forward by means of critical mass. Who knew democracy wasn’t the repugnant villain big labels and the Billboard charts make it out to be?

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gifAlright, alright, maybe the Billboard charts aren’t all crap — if you know how to read them, that is. The big B published the annual recap on what was hot in the year past, spanning every imaginable genre, category and music publishing method. But we were most intrigued by a little something that goes by Tastemakers Chart.

It’s intended to balance out the big music retailers’ influence on the rest of the charts, which are largely shaped by sales figures from the major chain stores. But the Tastemakers Chart reflects music sales in thousands of small, independent stores where, coincidentally, cultural “tastemakers” often first discover new music. It’s the long tail, if you will. And while its entrants are strikingly similar to those popping up in the mainstream charts, it still tells a different story — and we like different stories.

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And while we’re on the subject, might as well resist the urge to snub TIME Magazine‘s 50 Top 10 Lists of 2007, including the music one: we’re sensing the onset of a distinct overexposure rash with all that Amy Winehouse dominance. (Oh come on now, the “OD-ing on Amy” joke would’ve been too cheap a shot.)

BIG THINGS START SMALL

Sure, it was a matter of time. But we kind of expected fanfare, grandeur, or at least another campfire event in Mountain View to announce it. Nope, Google has decided to take down the social networking giants quietly and stealthily.

reader.pngThis week, Google Reader (you know, the nifty RSS aggregator that lets you keep track of content updates on sites you’ve elected to actually care about *cough cough*) tapped into users’ address books for a social function that lets you see what your friends are reading.

And that’s just two months after Google Maps quietly added the same function, leveraging the existing custom-mapping and local user reviews. Thanks to the (not yet but soon) almighty address book, people can share routes and trails with friends, click through reviews and see what else that person reviewed, and add links and photos.

Not to mention personal Google profile pages have been around for a while, letting people show the world a no-bells-and-whistles snapshot of who they are, where they’re at, and what they’re into.

Sure, the Goog folks still need to streamline things and intersect Reader profiles with Map profiles with Docs sharing and whatever other personal/social components they’re brewing up for the Google army of apps. But the point here is, the address book is a tremendously powerful tool.

Really, if we’re talking about real social networking, your social foundation — your circle of close friends and all the acquaintances you actually care to keep in touch with — is bound to be in your address book. Heck, even the expression “keeping in touch” wouldn’t live outside the context of some sort of address book. So we can’t wait to see how the Google touch transforms a field that has traditionally been done backwards, adding social contacts (who may or may not be actual friends) once the network is formed. Slap OpenSocial to this whole shebang, and something big, something long overdue is starting to emerge.

And while we’re on the subject of putting the individual up front and center, perhaps the most noteworthy of Google’s latest is a new tool they’re beta-testing that goes by knol (which stands for “unit of knowledge”) — based on the screenshots, it sounds like Wikipedia on steroids: it organizes all the world’s information by having thousands of experts in specific, niche areas write “knols” on what they know inside and out.

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Google folks make a good point about how all other public media (books, articles, music, etc.) have a known author, but the Internet, for the most part, somehow evolved without that key component. So they say the idea is to claim authorship back and build a momentous pool of knowledge by highlighting the author in a way that fosters top-notch info and credibility.

WILL REWARD FOR INFO

One word: huh?

This oddball, reminiscent of the infamous Counterfeit MINI campaign, has been gathering viral momentum and generating massive web-wide head-scratching for months. Across the several duplicates posted to YouTube, it’s got some half million cumulative views. And all it points to is this Romanian website, where there seems to be some Romanian auto-parts retailer tie-in.

It’s also a featured example on Unruly Media, a service that seeds brand-backed viral videos to publishers who cash in on views. Their clients include big-wig names like Pepsi, Glaxo Smith Klein, Budweiser, Motorola, BBC and more, plus a ton of conglomerate- owned agencies — and a Romanian auto-parts shop?

The site is registered to one Bogdan Popescu and his questionable kin, Morek Popescu, seems to have designed it. We have no idea how common of Romanian names these are, but Bogdan (if that’s even “his” real name) seems to be either a computer science researcher in Amsterdam or involved in an electronic software solutions company. Or, you know, Borat’s cousin. Oh, and they’ve bought keywords — Bogdan’s name, alongside “viral video,” pulls the mysterious website as the top search result. Yah, we know, “HUH?!”

We love the brilliant absurdity of the viral vid, but something ain’t right here — anyone who’s got info on what the deal is, do speak up. We’re willing to offer authentic Eastern Europeans as a reward.

SUBURBAN OUTFITTERS

Behold Urban Outfitters, that glorious haven for pseudo-rebels and budding stick-it-to-the- man folk. But all questionable stereotypes and blatant counterfeiting charges aside, the chain — which includes college-aimed Urban Outfitters, grown-up chic Anthropologie and the lesser- known but possibly most original Free People — does have distinct style and vibe, plus some plain cool stuff.

But here’s a question: what happens when the Urban Outfitters loyalists grow up, settle down and swap their hip urban lofts for picked-fenced suburban houses but still wanna keep their hip? President and Chairman Richard Hayne saw a market opportunity there, mixed in a smart jump on the recent gardening trend, got “inspired by the greenhouse” (who isn’t these days, with all the greenwashing going around?), decided to cash in on the growing male market, and — voila! — in May, he announced Urban Outfitters’ latest venture: a home and garden store by the name of Terrain targeting 30-to-45-year-old green-thumbed men and women alike.

The plan is to launch in 2008 and open 50 of them in the next 15 years — yeah, a time-frame too eye-rollingly distant for Urban’s core consumer, but let’s see where these kids flock for pots and pans in a decade.

THIS STORY IS NOT A FAIRY TALE

Very rarely are we so torn between the creative merit of a project and its bare-bones humane impact. But artist Johnathan Harris took us to that state of uncomfortable ambivalence in a matter of seconds with his latest project: The Whale Hunt.

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In May, he spent 9 days living with an Inupiat Eskimo family and documenting the thousand-year-old tradition that is the big whale hunt. Starting at the very beginning with the Newark Airport cab ride, he took 3,214 photographs by the end of the hunt, which resulted in two dead whales weighing around 40 tons.

Harris calls the project “an experiment in human storytelling” and even the image narrative sequence is presented on a heartbeat-like timeline. The entire concept is unquestionably original, offering a gritty glimpse into a whole different world. But we can’t help being a bit shaken by this epic death chase of these epic animals.

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Okay, so this insures the community’s annual food supply. And it’s strictly regulated by international law with a limit of 22 whales per year. But there’s something about the snow that makes it feel all the more chilling when blood-stained. Something about calling it a “harvest” — isn’t this something the Earth gives, rather than something violently ripped from her? — that’s hard to swallow.

Food for thought. But, then again, the Inuits living at -22 °F need more than thought to live off of. So we won’t sit here with our tuna salad waiting in the fridge and judge.

STREET PICKINGS

Count on Whole Foods to make off-the-grid living sound like tons of fun and remind us what the holidays, this month-long tribute to conspicuous consumption, are really about — because besides the food and the fun, there’s also that giving back thing. Literally: who more important to give to than Earth, and what more important to give back than what was originally hers?

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So get those LED lights already, take it easy on the pointless waste mechanism that is gift wrapping and, um, go have some food and fun, eh?

DO THE DANCE

What better way to send the year off than with one of its gemmist viral gems? Especially if it’s one that gets you in just the right body/mindset for those night-long parties coming up.

The humbly killer video for D.A.N.C.E. by French electro-rock band Justice took the web by storm and earned a GRAMMY nomination along the way, among a slew of other awards. And it snagged the one that counts the most: a massive worldwide fan-base reflected in the 5 million YouTube views, 29,000 times the vid has been favorited, and close to 5,000 raving comments pinned on it.

We’re not ones to sheepishly follow the masses — but, c’mon, the masses are right on the money with this one. Go ahead, chug the Kool-aid.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fo_QVq2lGMs

BP

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