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Brain Pickings

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This Week…

Smurfs on drugs, little kids, a three-way call with McDonald’s and your BFF, where to have the best affair in Zambia, what Einstein and a bunny have in common, and how to butter up your boss for the holidays. Welcome to Brain Pickings.

SWEETLY PRETENTIOUS / PRETENTIOUSLY SWEET

Unadmitted intellectuals, self-admitted New Yorkers at heart, culture hogs and cheapos alike: rejoice. The holy grail of web publishing is finally being handed to us on a digital platter. Yes, it’s true: The New York Times has made its online content available for…gasp…free. Which leaves us with in an oh-so-familiar paradox: so much to explore, so little free time.

Luckily, we’re all kinds of nice here. So we’re sifting through it all for you at 5th-gear-full-throttle rates to bring you the very best. Stuff like painter and experimental filmmaker Jeff Scher’s The Animated Life, a blog (but, oh, so much more) about the abstract and the nitty-gritty of life, beautifully written and marvelously animated. What more is there, really?

Granted, the man’s credits make him sound a bit pompous (and by “a bit” we mean Niles Crane pompous): he has screened at the Guggenheim, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pompidou Center in Paris, and opening night at the New York Film Festival, among other distinguished venues. And he’s done work for HBO and PBS, among other distinguished acronyms.
But we, regardless of our general tendency to go for the darker stuff, dig that he’s not a trend-follower. That whole “dark” trend, that is. Because we’ve noticed that in recent years, that whole generation of teen-angst-ridden kids has grown up to become a generation of twentysomething-jaded artists who, however talented, often exorcise it all through the aforementioned “darker stuff.” And a lot of it is painfully alike. Good, sometimes even great, but alike.

Jeff Scher’s work is anything but. Dark and seen-it-before, that is. Part 50’s Russian animation, part Wizard of Oz, part early Disney, part French cartoons from the early 90’s, it’s truly whimsical and feels eerily timeless, and yet it captures those can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on things about modern life. No wonder NYT kept it in their private Fort Knox for so long. Hell, we would, too.

Except we’re nicer than the Ochs-Sulzberger family.

YOU’D BETTER BELIEVE IT

Okay, we’re not in the business of putting people at risk for getting overcultured. So let’s hurry and offset any damage we may have done.

The interesting thing about click-and- mortar warehouse Amazon.com is that it lumps together serious, reputable products (like, say, one Options Playbook) with, well, let’s just say less reputable ones. Stuff like our product pick of the week which, had we seen it elsewhere, we would’ve instantly taken for some sort of viral gag.

Well, it ain’t.

Alas, it ended up in Amazon’s digital clearance bin and garnered no reviews whatsoever, so we guess people were unable to not believe and therefore refused to buy.

Now here’s something to kick off our holiday gift shopping early.

WHEN A MOTEL WON’T DO

Long before bad movie remakes put the name on public lips, Mr. & Ms. Smith was a niche travel website that bridged couples with their dream romantic escapes, at the world’s most luxurious destinations. The allusion to the original movie, in the team’s own words, is “a wink to couples everywhere, who fancy checking into a fabulous hotel under this classic dirty-weekend pseudonym.” Ah, marriage.

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Their travel portfolio includes the poshest destinations and independent hotels across the globe, each reviewed anonymously by a professional Mr. & Mrs. Smith reviewer. And speaking of the team, besides the three key chronic entrepreneurs, it features a reviewer panel made up of writers, restaurant critics, designers (including Stella McCartney) and rock stars. If these guys don’t know luxury and incognito, we don’t know who does.

Exclusive memberships come in three ego sizes — BlackSmith (£10), SilverSmith (£75), and GoldSmith (£250) — all promising cardholders various levels of very, very special offers. (No, not in that Asian massage parlor kind of way.)

BIG BROTHER WANTS TO CALL YOUR MOTHER

Convenience is the new capital. We pay more to get places faster (hello, overpriced Accela Express), do things with less effort (Amazon.com, thank you for sparing us many a shopping trip), watch things on our terms (TiVo, anyone?). But it was only a matter of time until smart business models started popping up, offering convenience in exchange for something other than money. Ours, at least.

San-Jose-based Pudding Media is one such interpreneur — using the Internet to revolutionize telecommunications. Last week, they launched The Pudding (in Beta), a VoIP service that allows free calls to anywhere in North America straight from a web browser, sans annoying application downloads.

The business model also includes “breakthrough technology that makes your conversations even more interesting by displaying content that is relevant to your conversation.” Read: repurposed contextual targeting technology that nudges highly targeted ads into your conversation. For the Gmailholics among us, it’s nothing new: you know those contextual ads to the right of your message? Same deal, only The Pudding’s technology uses voice recognition software (the same thing that lets you add voice commands to your cell’s call options.) But it’s made it into The New York Times, so we guess it’s significant enough an innovation to warrant the big guns’ attention.

The Orwellian privacy police of the blogasphere is already going at it. But, really, who’s forcing their fingers over t-h-e-p-u-d-d-i-n-g-.-c-o-m on the keyboard? We’re just glad the option is out there.

And, more than anything, we’re fascinated by the most interesting finding of all: while running some testing, Pudding Media CEO Ariel Maislos found that the advertising content actually influenced the course of the organic conversation between the caller and the callee. How’s that for proof of the very real feedback loop and Conversationality potential between brands and everyday folk?

WHAT LIVES UNDER THE DIGITAL BED

What happens if you take the Smurfs, get them high on psychedelic drugs, have them watch Six Feet Under for seven hours, read them selected excerpts from your favorite Stephen King novel, and let them loose with a bucket of paint and a brush? Zoomquilt II happens.

Zoomquilt IIDubbed “a collaborative art project,” it’s really a digital mashup of various artists‘ illustrations, pieced together in Flash to produce a mesmerizing, dizzifying, endless loop of interlocking images sure to give you more optical illusions than walking into Disneyland after downing five Purpletinis.

Originally conceived by mastermind artist and developer Nikolaus Baumgarten, the first generation of Zoomquilt was born in 2005. Over 100,000 Google hits later, it was retired to make room for 2007’s upgrade: Zoomquilt II.

Check it out and see how long you can last before your head starts spinning and your recurring childhood nightmare about that creepy clown living under your bed comes back.

ANIMAL PLANET MEETS NIP/TUCK

Most of us have moments when we feel weird, awkward, odd, and generally unfitting. (Some of us more frequently than others.) So it’s nice to know that there are other weirdos out there in the global high school that is the Biosphere.

yeti_crab.jpgFor your viewing pleasure, we present you with “25 of The World’s Most Interesting Animals.” (And, dare we add, our 8th grade English teacher’s words of literary peevishness — that “interesting” is what you call an ugly baby — never seemed more fitting.)

We’re having a hard time picking a favorite. There’s the blob fish, which looks like a certain great uncle of ours; the tarsier, which finally helps us make sense of Simon Cowell’s comments regarding a certain American Idol contestant’s appearance; the aye-aye, which gives us a sneak preview of what next century’s anthropologists will see when they exhume Paris Hilton’s dog; the angora rabbit, which looks like it proposed the Theory of Relativity; and, of course, the Komondor dog, which we’re pretty sure can be purchased at the Pottery Barn.

Pick your own favorite oddball, or just sit back, check yourself out in the mirror, and be grateful you didn’t end up on nature’s aesthetic shitlist.

BP

Gadgetry, Widgetry and You-name-itgetry

A shirtless Tiger Woods, a very ethical octopus, how the fabric of culture makes a great quilt, why you may be a municipal light fixture, and what possessed 8,058,860 people to hurl sheep at each other.

THE TENTACLES OF INNOVATION

Gone are the days of boxy, bland gadgets. These days, if peripherals don’t come built into your computer, they’d better come in great design that makes you wanna showcase them as much as use them. But how about a mashup of this new thinking about gadget design and the new green ideology?

U.K. sustainable development tech company United Pepper, in a partnership with digital technology group EuroTech, has just released two adorable oddballs: Lili (an octopus webcam) and Oscar (a starfish hub) who are just as green as they are functional and cute: they boast fully recyclable bodies made from cotton, sand, Kapok (a tree fiber) and paperboard, 100% recycled packaging, recyclable PET, and 70% of parts produced in a free trade environment. (C’mon now, even Mother Theresa couldn’t know what sweatshop the fabric for her glorious attire was weaved in.)

Lili’s top-notch 1.3 megapixel webcam and microphone go for £29.99 (or $59.95, but we’ll have to hold off until the U.S. release.) Oscar’s asking £19.99 for his four 2.0 USB hubs (or $7.99 per tentacle). Both come in red, green and blue.

We’d be temped to whine about the little quirksters not being Mac-compatible. But then, of course, we remember this. And proceed to feel really, really, really cool. And superior. Yep, definitely superior.

HANDS OF THE TIMES

We’ve started seeing it everywhere. From products to services to communication to culture. The first Mini Cooper racing stripes designs. The home-delivered diet systems. The user-generated ads. Etsy.com. Forget pre-canned and factory-sealed, it’s the age of personalization and customization.

All over America, millions of hands are busy making, creating, crafting things. Things driven by visions, things that have something to say. And one artist-filmmaker spent most of 2006 traveling 19,000 miles to document the phenomenon. Fifteen cities, 50 indie artist interviews and 80 hours of video later, Faythe Levine was ready to start splicing together Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY Art, Craft & Design, the first documentary to really delve into what drives some of the most creative minds in the nation. The film, a deep-dive into DIY, art, craft and design, is still in production, but the trailer gives you a pretty good idea of the scope:

True to the culture it explores, the project is a low-key production almost entirely by the artist’s Etsy shop. And although its budget may be tiny, its scope and mission aren’t. It pushes us to step outside our daily microcosms, outside our own creative heads, and see how other minds make sense of the world, from the grand creative visions down to the nitty-gritty of paying the electric bill.

Now that’s not something you often get to do on the couch questioning yet again why you even bother with primetime TV.

UNTRIVIA

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If you’re like us, Facebook‘s 23-year-old CEO Mark Zuckerberg is your ultimate hate-what- he-does-to-my-ego-but-worship-him-anyway hero. Okay, maybe not that far. But, at the very least, unless you’re still not over big hair and leotards, you have the sense to acknowledge that when he opened up Facebook’s platform to developers a few months ago, he became the 2.0 mover-and-shaker of the year. Perhaps even of the decade. (And that only months after making the previously college-exclusive net available to anyone, .edu email or not. At that point, the social phenomenon that started out as a small online hub for a few Ivy League universities had raked up 24 million users, a toll growing by 150,000 a day.)

As a result, over 4,200 application widgets have popped up on Facebook, many of which ended up embedded in millions of profiles. Yep, profiles heaping with as much or as little demographic and psychographic information users choose to provide. But, unlike MySpace, the majority of Facebook users are not at all shy about sharing the info. (Because, after all, you only facebook-friend people you know or think you know, there’s virtually no spam, the interface is much cleaner and reassuring, and it still carries that insiders-only vibe from the pre-everyone-on-the-boat days). So you can get anything from a person’s age and location, to relationship status, to favorite music, TV shows and books, to intersts, to latest hangouts and even hookups.

Point is, all this embeddable apps and widgets are also heaping with advertising opportunities to people who actually welcome them. And thanks to a Bay-area start-up Adonomics (previously Appaholic), there’s now a very sophisticated app performance ranking and tracking system based on installs and active users. Think of it as Digg (who, by the way, just added a ton of super-cool features) for Facebook. Here are the must-know-about top 10:

1. Top Friends: 2,820,950 daily active users, 15,671,900 total installs

Lets you add a box of 32 of your best friends to your profile in a world where friend count is by the hundreds. Made by Slide Inc.

2. Video: 943,493 daily users, 9,434,930 total installs

Lets you publish personal video and tag your Facebook friends. You can even use your webcam to record and your cell to tag. This one’s a Facebook original.

3. My Questions: 516,474 daily users, 8,607,900 installs

Instantly poll your friends on whatever you’re pondering at the moment. Made by Jeremiah Robinson of said Slide, Inc.

4. Super Wall: 806,572 daily users, 8,065,720 installs

Upgrades your standard wall (the space in your profile where friends use to give you a publicly heard shout) to include photos, videos and more. Crafted by Stanford grad student Jia Shen. (Who, by the way, launched his first app, a photo slideshow, on MySpace, it caught on like wildfirewall, but because MySpace offered no monetization for developers, it ended up crashing Shen’s servers and costing him a fortune.)

5. iLike: 805,931 daily active users, 8,059,310 total installs

Lets you add music to your profile, check out where your favorite bands are playing next, see which of your friends are going, and get free mp3’s based on your music likes. Product of iLike, Inc.

6. SuperPoke!: 886,475 daily users, 8,058,860 installs

Makes the super-popular Facebook poke function (sorry, out-of-loopers, you’ll need this to get it) into a contact fiesta: pinch, tickle, hug, pin, throw sheep. Crafted by Stanford alumni Nikil Gandhy, Jonathan Hsu and Will Liu.

7. Likeness: 440,929 daily users, 7,348,820 installs

Another Jia Shen creation that lets you see which friends and celebs you resemble.

8. X Me: 651,650 daily users, 7,240,560 installs

It’s not uncommon for many apps to offer similar functions and compete with each other. So app-master Jia Shen (again) decided to take on the SuperPoke! people above with this action-based poke upgrade.

9. Movies: 780,949 daily active users, 7,099,540 installs

Dish on movies via ratings and reviews, check out showtimes, view trailers, and see how your friends compare in cinematic taste. Brought to the film-hungry by Flixter.

10. FunWall: 839,575 daily users, 6,996,460 installs

Another competitor to a different top-10 app. Adds vids, photos, etc. to your wall — you know the drill. Crafted by Daniel C. Silverstein and Bobby Joe (poor kid) of — you guessed it — Slide, Inc.

Other rapid rank-climbers: Grey’s Anatomy Quotes, My Chatroom, Fashion IV, My Ruckus Music, and Halo 3 Service Record. Our personal favorite: the last.fm music widget, which turns your favorite music into a playlist of full-length tracks and makes a cool collage of album covers based on it, all embeddable in your profile.

So the virtual social world is eagerly embracing this new generation of widgets. And these are some big numbers to easily dismiss. Even more amazingly, a good portion of the apps are branded, including top-tier ones (hello, Flixter, Ruckus and XBox 360), which is just about the ultimate form of those over-pounded buzzwords “engagement” and “permission marketing.”

And a number of companies are already cashing in: besides good ol’ Google Analytics, upcoming niche ad network Lookery is zeroing in on Facebook and will offer clients extremely sophisticated profiles of their user base. Talk about ultimate targeting. And Gigya offers tools to help developers better distribute widgets, then track their performance in real time. That’s as hand-on-the-pulse-of-the-young-and-savvy as it gets.

And it doesn’t hurt that Facebook’s said user base grew a sweat-inducing 270% last year (and congratulations to one contributing Mr. Haag who can finally sit with the cool kids at the school cafeteria), leaving 72-percent-growth rival MySpace in the social networking dust. Mark Z, wanna go behind the school gym and make out?

VIRAL EMMIES

And speaking of trivia and 2.0 phenomena, 1,358,348 viewers can’t be wrong: animated vid “Internet People” is the best way to play Trivial Pursuit with yourself and test your viral pop culture knowledge.

So how many of the referenced vids do you recognize? (Hint: if it’s less than 10, you’re either too old or a lamp post.)

RIGHT UP OUR ALLEY

Keywords shmeewords. We don’t talk using operators and booleans, so why should we search that way?

We’ve seen hand-curated search and “artificial artificial intelligence.” And now one progressive start-up brings us another revolutionary concept: “natural language search.” Silicon Valley company Powerset Inc. is opening up its beta version on Monday, allowing the public to test out their natural language processing technology. The product of three decades worth of research at the iconic Xerox Corp PARC research center, this new kind of search will allow users to search the web using natural language.

In the great words of Powerset CEO Barney Pell, “Search today is like talking to a 2-year-old.” So he put his doctoral degree in artificial intelligence to use and decided to put intelligent conversation (Conversationality, anyone?) back into the quest for relevant information.

Once the Beta site launches, you’ll be able to check out two kinds of demonstration on how the search works. In one, “Cases,” you’ll get to see how conversational questions like “Does Tiger Woods shave that manly chest that lies beneath his Nike polo shirt when he bursts through walls?” produce better results than the standard keyword subject/verb fare. The other, “Powermouse,” shows the back-end of the search process, letting you see how the algorithms break down your search into grammatical components, revealing the underlying data links used to produce the results.

Sure, we’re completely conditioned to use traditional caveman search language. So it may take some time until conversation claims the online info world back. But we think this stuff is pretty neat and definitely something to keep an eye on. If only to see the day count until Google A) snaps it up or B) outsmarts, outintegrates and outmonetizes it with a way cooler version.

Get the full scoop from Reuters.

ONLY IN PHILLY

From the depths of the West Philly ghetto to your desktop. This elaborate grafittied garage door speaks volumes about what moves the urban culture needle. Dark? Maybe. Fucking amazing? Hell yeah.

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And we love that homie Homer S. shares our own sentiments about what appears to be Ozzy Ozbourne in profile.

BP

Flying with the Future while Mooning the Past

Air-fueled taxicabs, conspiracy theories, a very special fly, Ryan Seacrest, what L.L. Bean has on Budweiser, the world’s most expensive Phil Collins record, hypersonic travel, and butts. Welcome to The Flying-with-the-Future-while-Mooning-the-Past Issue.

DRIVING ON AIR

Brace yourselves, people, for this may be the best thing to happen to the planet since Al Gore.

A rather Jetsonian new car that runs on nothing but air was first conceived in 1993. Inventor Guy Nègre, who previously designed F1 engines, at French R&D company Moteur Developpement International spent the next decade on research, development, and funding hunts for the yet-to-be-produced miracle machine. But without factories built, the project couldn’t even take off. After some press buzz in 2000, things took a turn for the worse: in 2001, a Swedish investigative journalist called the whole thing a scam and, in 2003, MDI was practically bankrupt.

But persistence, like buying Google stock circa 2004, always pays off in the end. MDI has just signed a 5.5-billion-dollar deal with Tata Motors, India’s largest motor companies. Under its terms, 6,000 air cars are slated to hit the streets by August 2008.

Okay, time for Oz to come out. How does this whole shebang really work?

It’s true, it does run on air. Compressed Air Technology is the name of the game, the same stuff power tools have been running on for decades. The engine has 4 cylinders, like a regular car engine, but because there’s no combustion at all, 90% of it is made out of lightweight aluminum, the lower melting point of which prevents it from being used in a normal combustion engine. The cylinders themselves are made from carbon fiber, which, unlike the metal used in regular cylinders, doesn’t shatter into shrapnel in crashes and accidents. The air car can run on one tank, which only takes 3 minutes to refill at a compressed air station, for almost 2,800 miles. That’s a trip from New York to L.A., plus a few spare miles to drive around West Hollywood gawking at the trannies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmqpGZv0YT4

That’s all neat and all but, really, let’s ask the most important marketplace questions: how much and how fast?

The final models are expected to max out at 69 miles per hour. Not exactly street racing fare, but perfect given they’ll be urban vehicles, mostly taxis, dwelling within city limits. And how much? They’re expected to start at $15,000. But get this: a regular gas car costs about $60 per week to fuel, a hybrid sets you back by $30, and an air car is just a few dollars. So they’re smarter than Smart Car, and don’t look nearly as ridiculous.

conspiracy.gifAnd speaking of, we’re tempted to spin a conspiracy theory, oh maybe something involving a Mercedes-Benz desire for US market domination maybe, as to why this clearly brilliant, pollution-reducing, cost-efficient concept is receiving hardly any press and certainly no billion-dollar deals on the oh-look-at-us-we’re-so-green US scene. But we’ll refrain.

THE PRODUCT LAUNCH THAT REALLY LAUNCHES

While we’re on the subject of Jetsonian stuff, the latest from Virgin entrepreneur (no, not in that Harvard Engineering guy way) Sir Richard Branson’s latest move on the much-hyped awhile ago project Virgin Galactic is as futuristic as they come. After signing a deal with NASA earlier this year, Virgin Galactic has finally chosen a winning design for its first 100,000-square-foot spaceport set to begin construction in 2008. Both the spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, are to be completed next year as well.

The $31-million spaceport will be built in New Mexico’s Mojave desert. Where, for those of you concerned with petty things like safety and, um, life, an SS2 prototype exploded on July 26, killing 3 people and injuring another 3. But that would too rational a concern for those willing to shell out an Ivy League education ($200,000, to be exact) on boarding the craft and aimlessly floating in ether for a bit.

Still, we’re not having too much trouble seeing the “cool” factor — imagine casually mentioning at your next dinner party that you’ve been on a hypersonic vehicle traveling five or more times the speed of sound. Which seems to us is the only real appeal anyway, given the folks at Virgin maintain that their 3-day pre-flight training program fully simulates the experience. So, um, if you can experience in 10 square feet what you can experience in a 200-grand getaway, why go?

Eh, but who are a few cheap bastards like us to stand in the way of progress and reckless spending? Make your own call.

We’ll give it this though — from a mail-order record retailer to a space travel agency, Virgin has gone a long way from selling the Dark Side of the Moon for $18.98 a pop to putting a $200,000 price sticker on it.

UNTRIVIA

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With ever-growing online spending, it’s no surprise the fashion segment is sucking up some major e-dollars. Here’s a snapshot of how the top 10 big online guns in apparel and accessories are doing and (of course) why it matters:

1. eBay: $2.98 million total apparel and accessories sales in July, $35.83 average spend per shopper. Doesn’t hurt that they own some of the most powerful e-commerce tools — PayPal, Skype, shopping.com, and more.

2. Victoria’s Secret: $663,000 total, $177.74 average spend per buyer. But before you roll your eyes like we did and think it’s a bit much to spend on undies while at the same time welcoming a sign that less people are foregoing those, keep in mind there’s more to Victoria’s Secret than lingerie: after dumping Express and The Limited, the brand still includes Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel, C.O. Bigelow, White Barn Candle Co. and La Senza.

3. J.C. Penney & Co.: $568,000 total, $68.65 per shopper. That’s a 17.4% growth in online sales for Q2, making a smartly entrepreneurial someone reach around his shaved-but-really-bald head, pat himself on the back, and feel the love.

4. Chadwick’s: $305,000 total, $62.15 per spender. Small wonder given they’re owned by French conglomerate PPR, the mother ship for Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta. The folks at Chadwick’s anticipate to have sold 750,000 dresses once summer wraps up. (Nope, not an inflated ego case — they were at about 500,000 end of August.) Let’s see, that’s 2 and a half dresses (kinda like two dresses and a skirt) to every 10 American women. Or a dress for every 2 1/2 out 10 American women. Kinda like a dress for every two women and Ryan Seacrest.

5. L.L.Bean: $271,00 total, $122.40 per shopper. With the exception of the underwear people, that’s an average spend per person almost double what the other top-fivers can claim, and more than triple (closer to quadruple, really) what top player eBay scores. Oh, and these folks give top online players even outside the apparel industry a run for their money — llbean.com gets over 2.3 million U.S. monthly unique visitors, half of what TV Guide’s massively promoted website boasts. (It also happens to be the exact number must’ve-been-hammered Anheuser-Busch execs anticipated for Bud.TV, only to end up with just 6% of that a mere month after its launch.)

6. Lands’ End: $263,000 total, $76.48 average spend. After being acquired by Sears in 2002, the retailer grew from the 100-products-plus-buncha-essays-and-travelogues it was in 1995 to a full-blown online shopping destination. Even so, they’ve got quite a bit to catch up with main clicks-and-mortar competitor L.L.Bean. (In 2000, actually, Lands’ End and L.L.Bean were the top two online apparel retailers, respectively, separated by less than one point in Forrester’s rankings. Way to drop the ball, Lands’ End.)

7. Coldwater Creek: $259,000 total, $182.71 per shopper. Seems like these folks (and their bottom line) were so happy with their ever-climbing online performance (how’s a 10% increase since last quarter?) that they sucked up the mind-blowing expenses of operating a store in Manhattan and just opened their first, sticking their flag on 15,000 square feet at Third Avenue and 68th Street.

8. Lane Bryant: $253,000 total, $60.50 average spend. Acquired by Charming Shoppers Inc. in 2001, the retailer’s online home seems to be doing just that. And in a plus-size category where fashion and fit must be like Starsky and Hutch, their smart new Right Fit technology seems to be, once again, just that with shoppers.

9. QVC: $204,000 total, $98.89 per spender. Named after terms out of a Marketing 101 textbook, these folks have managed to put a tangible, hefty price sticker on intangibles quality, value and convenience. And if you think of QVC as an outlet for washed-up celebs’ jewelry lines (we’re talking to you, Paula), reconsider: they carry Bradley Bayou, Pamela Dennis, Bob Mackie and Diva By Dana Buchman for apparel, and Dooney & Burke, Maxx New York, Etienne Aigner and Michael Michael Kors for accessories.

10. Kohl’s: $200,000 total, $84.26 average spend. And we’ll keep an eye on this one — unless you’ve been living under a brand rock, you know Vera Bradley signed a deal with Kohl’s awhile ago. Her Simply Vera line just kicked off to an understated but fourfold-outperforming-projections launch last week. And we’re pretty sure it’ll make competitors drop down the rankings like hemlines at this year’s Fashion Week.

Get the full scoop from the pros at Women’s Wear Daily.

But here’s why we care: turns out, some 15% of consumers are responsible for 1.5 billion brand impressions per day. Each of these 32 million “conversation catalysts” mentions a brand 184 times per week, on average. They dish out on a wide range of topics and industries, with media and entertainment getting the most tongue time at 16 mentions per week. But get this: fashion and retail get over 10 weekly mentions. And these WOM moguls are not your expected chatty herd of 20-somethings: 37% of them are boomers.

So, combined with the fact that WOM is more likely to move women to action than men, it’s starting to dawn on us that, perhaps, a large portion of the business on the above retail fat-cat websites, who in reality sell more to women than to men, is driven by a small percentage of middle-aged consumers. Kind of helps make sense of why the whole ooh-let’s-make-a-Sears-brand-island-in-Second-Life platform that’s been the trend this year is only populating the virtual world with ghost towns creepier than Harry Potter doing erotica.

BACKLESS COUTURE GOES SOUTH

And speaking of erotica, while we’re still (sort of) on the too-much-(for)-underwear note, there’s hope for those who want to reconcile their love for fine lingerie with their desire, well, not to wear any.

If expensive thongs are too much of a trip back to grade school for you (bully takes lunch money, bully gives wedgie, you end up broke and uncomfortable), there’s an alternative. Thanks to N De Samim, a lady (or Ryan Seacrest) can shake her tailfeather without the aforementioned discomfort. Yep, it’s buttless underwear.

Inspired by 16th century France, when wearing undergarments was considered indecent because of how it accentuates the anatomy, designer Nona de Samim decided to give this concept a buttlift, although we suspect indecency was not their primary concern. In their own words, it “creates a private world. One that creates a passion, to provide an experience, [sic] only few can imagine.” Eh, we’ve imagined those anatomical features before. And they go on to promise “…a whole new way of seeing…more, a way of being.” We’ll give them the seeing more part.

But at 95 Euros (or $131.85, at today’s rate) apiece, we ask the obvious question: isn’t it easier, cheaper and more cost-efficient to just go comando? Be your own judge, if you can squint through what we’re now convinced is an optometrist-sponsored sea of 32-point Edwardian Script ITC.

FLY OFF THE WALL

And on a less offensive note, let’s check out one guy who makes art out of dead pest.

Nicholas Hendrickx, a recreational macro photographer and general creativist from Belgium, takes one dead fly where no dead fly has ever been. With a little bit of photo equipment (a Canon EOS 350D plus various accessories) and a whole lot of patience, Nic has created The Adventures of Mr. Fly, an astonishing photoessay of miniature brilliance.

From Mr. Fly’s wonderfully retro portrait, to his laid-back chill-out moment, to our personal favorite, his stint as a professional bum, the project is a testament to the power of a little bit of spare time and a seriously creative mind.

Nic also does other macro stuff, some of it just as fascinating and all of it just as unexpected. Like the case of Larry, who’s hotter than Ryan Seacrest finds a shirtless Chuck Norris.

BP

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