Yogurt Popularizer Dies: Note How Old He Was

Daniel Carasso, who popularized yogurt worldwide via the Dannon brand, died on Sunday. He was 103. From the obituary in the NY Times:

In 1916 his father took the family back to Spain, where he [the father] became disturbed by the high incidence of intestinal disorders, especially among children. Isaac Carasso [Daniel’s father] began studying the work of Elie Metchnikoff, the Russian microbiologist who believed that human life could be extended by introducing lactic-acid bacilli, found in yogurt and sour milk, into the digestive system. Using cultures developed at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Isaac began producing Danone. . . in 1941 the arrival of the Nazis forced [Daniel Carasso] to flee to the United States. There he formed a partnership with two family friends, Joe Metzger, a Swiss-born Spanish businessman, and his son Juan, whose flair for marketing would make Dannon a household name in the United States. . .The little company operated at a loss until 1947, when, in a concession to the American sweet tooth, strawberry jam was added to the yogurt. Sales took off, new flavors were added to the product line, and Dannon yogurt made the leap from specialty product to snack food and dessert.

Thanks to Marian Lizzi.

How Things Begin (Japan Traditional Foods)

I eat natto (fermented soybeans) once/day. Most of the natto I see in stores is from Japan (soybeans from America) but I found one local source: Japan Traditional Foods, in Sepastopol, California. Like many people I believe traditional diets are far healthier than modern ones. How can such diets, now almost extinct in rich countries, become popular again? To learn more about this, I interviewed the owner of Japan Traditional Foods, Minami Satoh.

How did your company begin?

I started it in 2006. We started to produce product in November 2008. So far natto is our only product. I went to business school at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a private business school in Arizona, and graduated in 1983. After that, I worked for DuPont in Japan, but I wanted to work in the US. At DuPont, I did marketing of Teflon and Silverstone (a sister brand of Teflon). Then I worked for my father’s company selling wholesale steel pipe and tubes. I was successful but felt it was boring. I thought food would be more interesting. I acquired a small natto-making company (Yaguchi Foods) in Japan in 2004 or 2005. The owner had died. His relatives sold it to me.

In 2004, I came to America to meet Malcolm Clark. He’s the great-grandson of Dr. Clark, who is very famous in Japan. Malcolm Clark was responsible for introducing shitake mushrooms to America. He owns Gourmet Mushrooms in Sebastopol and lives in Occidental. Natto is an unusual food, like shitake mushrooms. I thought he could give me good advice about how to start making natto or other possibilities. That’s why the company is in Sebastopol. When I met Clark, he was thinking of retiring. I bought a stake in Gourmet Mushrooms; now Gourmet Mushrooms helps Japan Traditional Foods sell natto. I moved here in June 2008 to manage this company.

Why natto?

Americans already eat tofu, soy sauce, miso, edaname, and soy milk — but no natto. Natto is more nutritious than the other forms of soy that we currently eat. It’s more nutritious because of fermentation. It has more vitamins. A enzyme found in natto called nattokinase dissolves blood clots. In Japan natto is a traditional health food. It is usually eaten at breakfast.

How is natto made?

You boil the soybeans in a steam basket. Spray with bascillus. Put the soybeans in a paper cup. Put the cups in a fermentation container for 20-24 hours. Take them out and put in packages. Then give to the distributor. If you ferment more than 20 hours, natto bascillus start to eat themselves, which produces ammonia. Most companies stop fermenting at that point to avoid ammonia. If fermented longer, it may smell of ammonia. Japanese accept this, but Americans may not.

How big is Japan Traditional Foods?

One person plus myself. I hired someone from my natto company in Japan. He makes artisanal natto. He handcrafts it.. We put it in the paper cups by hand.

How did you get distribution?

It wasn’t hard. There are two distributors, one for Los Angeles, the other for San Francisco. They specialize in Japanese markets. Now it’s in close to 30 stores, including Korean and Chinese stores. The Los Angeles distributor wanted to sell his stuff in New York but the shipping costs would have been too high. This summer we will start going to farmer’s markets. We’ll have a  booth there to sell and sample. The goal is to educate and share recipes. We’ll be at the San Rafael Sunday market and the Ferry Building Tuesday lunchtime market. It’s a kind of test. We’re talking to distributors about getting the product into non-Japanese grocery stores, such as  Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods. From the farmer’s markets we hope to get feedback to improve the packaging, size, and recipes. We want to find the best ways to make the Western market receptive to natto. For example, we can sample it in different ways. In Japan, the most popular way to eat it is over rice with finely chopped green onions, often at breakfast. I’ve come up with many different recipes: with rice or bagel or lettuce or crackers. With different sauces and toppings.

What were the hard parts?

It was difficult to find a good temperature control system here; I had to import it from Japan. I also needed a big steam cooker, which I had to import. This was hard because it is prohibited to export them from Japan to other countries.

Your promotional leaflet says “stir natto more than twenty times” before eating it. Why?

We do not have any valid research on this. But somebody says stirring natto creates the “Fifth Taste” we call “umami.” Somebody else said that it gets the natto bacillus awake again with oxygen because the bacillus was sleeping in the refrigerator.

How Things Begin (sparkling tea)

Today, at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, I learned about Golden Star White Jasmine Sparkling Tea, the most new interesting product at the show (out of thousands). I asked the CEO, Edward Carden, how it came to be. He said he was helping his parents move several years ago when he thought: Why isn’t there a sophisticated non-alcoholic beverage? Like wine, but non-alcoholic. Starting with the best ingredients, what could they come up with? They could make stuff that tasted great, but there was an arbitrariness to it. Making a tea allowed them to connect with that heritage. Wine has a heritage, beer has a heritage, cheese has a heritage. They start by infusing tea leaves, then add sugar and microorganisms and ferment for a short time to develop complexity of flavor. The fermentation produces a small alcohol content. Call it a microwine. It was delicious.

Park(ing) Day in Berkeley

Park(ing) Day was today. The first Park(ing) Day was in 2005. You celebrate it by turning a parking place into a park — as in the verb to park. In North Berkeley, around lunchtime, I came across a dozen Landscape Architecture grad students sitting around a long table full of food that filled up two parking places on Shattuck Avenue (a busy street). My big question was where the tables came from — that seemed like the hard part. From Wurster Hall (where the Landscape Architecture Department is). They invited me to join them and the whole thing was so interesting I couldn’t resist.

The food was very good. One person brought tomatoes, broccoli, cucumbers, and purslane picked that morning from his garden. Someone else brought homemade salsa.

You might think you could lay claim to a parking spot by putting money in the meter. Not in Berkeley. A parking cop came by and wondered what was going on. Someone had reported “a picnic,” the cop said. The cop left. Twenty minutes later he returned. Apparently there had been discussion about how to handle this. The ruling was you need a permit. Parking places are for cars, said the cop. Feeding the meters wasn’t enough. The cop gave the students 15 minutes to leave. At that point I left.

City of Berkeley Economics: The Value of Snobbery

The City of Berkeley, which Jane Jacobs called a “pretentious suburb,” isn’t doing well economically. There was a Barnes & Noble downtown, a kind of anchor store. It closed. There was a Ross downtown. It closed. Chain stores don’t do well in Berkeley. One downtown corner has gone through several renters, including Gateway Computers, Cody’s Books, and L.L. Bean, in just a few years. The main reason I go to downtown Berkeley is to take BART to San Francisco.

My neighborhood, North Berkeley, is doing much better, although there are two empty storefronts and the Starbucks will close. Elephant Pharmacy, a New-Agey kind of pharmacy (“the drugstore that prescribes yoga”), has been successful and has started opening branches in nearby cities. (It’s a good place to shop, too. Yesterday I bought some whole nutmeg there.) The Cheese Board, a worker’s cooperative, with a great selection of cheese, has done a good job adding pizza sales to cheese sales.

The overall economic record of the neighborhood is staggering, since it includes the original Peet’s, the inspiration for Starbucks, and Chez Panisse, the most influential restaurant in the world. It also includes the first Papyrus store. I don’t drink coffee, and didn’t start drinking tea until the Shangri-La Diet, so I never shopped at Peet’s until recently. A friend, however, has been going there almost its entire history. He says that when Mr. Peet died, the workers became a lot friendlier. Before that they had a snobbish attitude. Some workers from Peet’s started a similar business in Seattle, which they called Starbucks. It was very successful and they sold out to Howard Schulz, who greatly expanded it.

Was Mr. Peet’s snobbery “bad”? Well, it — plus the corresponding attitudes of Berkeley residents — allowed him to develop a unique business. After that business was developed, that attitude could be shed and the whole thing could be moved to a place (Seattle) where its business potential could be revealed. The shift of ownership allowed the idea to become separated from the “big business is bad” notion (which was helpful at first) and launch a thousand Starbucks. (An excellent company, by the way, that not only provides me a place to work but also produced How Starbucks Saved My Life, a very good and persuasive book.) This is yet another tiny illustration of my theory of human evolution, how it all started with hobbies which eventually became businesses. Peet’s wasn’t a hobby, but it was hobby-like in its expression of the owner’s attitudes. It was far more a labor of love than most businesses. There are other examples. Survivor is to The Real World as Starbucks is to Peet’s. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is to Slow Food as Starbucks is to Peet’s.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 8)

ROBERTS Were there really some people that didn’t think that opera is highbrow and comics are lowbrow? Was that a hard thing?

NUSSBAUM The complicated thing is: why is opera considered highbrow and why is comics considered lowbrow?

ROBERTS That’s a different question.

NUSSBAUM We were trying to articulate this. Part of it is a mass versus elite thing. Part of it is a notion of the complexity of ambition of the thing. But that doesn’t really work.

ROBERTS That’s not quite fair.

NUSSBAUM You can have an opera that’s incredibly dumb and not very well thought through. And you can have a comic book that is the most ambitious thing ever in terms of its narrative or in terms of its artistry. The tricky thing is: what pulls something up or down? Also, I just couldn’t over the fact that people didn’t understand that lowbrow is not a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing for something to be mass and enjoyable. That’s why there are two different things. The visual is meant to literally suggest that highbrow and lowbrow are not same thing as brilliant and despicable.

ROBERTS I liked The Approval Matrix for that. I took it for granted.

NUSSBAUM I’m kinda chatterboxy today for lack of sleep.

ROBERTS That’s fine. You’ve helped a lot. The wonderful thing about The Approval Matrix is that in a small space it makes me aware of many new things I would like to find out about. It improves my world. It opens me up to lots of stuff. It opens me up to lots of art. It helps me find lots of great art.

NUSSBAUM That’s great!

ROBERTS Other magazines don’t do that as well. I think every magazine does that a little bit.

NUSSBAUM Not only is that very exciting to hear, it was one of the things when I was redesigning the section that was really difficult. When you read a section on culture it is generally divided into genres. So if you’re interested in visual arts, that’s what you end up reading about. If you’re interested in visual arts, you flip to the visual arts section. You’re likely to perhaps never read the book section or the TV section or something you’re not interested in. The thing about The Matrix is, because it’s a destination that sort of forces everyone to go to this place where it’s like a big bus station where everyone interested in everything is forced to hang out, I hope it has that service quality you’re talking about. Which is it opens your eyes to things you’d normally not have heard of, you’re forced to mingle with all art forms, to be very high-faluting about it.

ROBERTS That’s a good way to put it.

NUSSBAUM Are there other questions?

ROBERTS There’s aren’t any other pressing questions, no. You’ve done a wonderful job answering my questions. Thanks a lot, Emily.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 7)

NUSSBAUM The other thing is it [The Approval Matrix] got picked up all over the place. Which was exciting for me. We would start noticing people started refering to things as highbrow/despicable.

ROBERTS By “picked up” you mean by other magazines? People on the street?

NUSSBAUM A lot of people did imitations of it. Some of them mentioning it, other ones ripping it off. I’ve seen 10 or 12 other magazines doing things that were like The Politics Matrix or whatever. A bunch of European magazines did things. At one point Stuff magazine did something and we put their matrix on our matrix. I wasn’t involved in the placement at that point. We put their matrix on our matrix, and then they put our matrix on their matrix. It was this strange little down-the-rabbit-hole issue. I would occasionally read different articles or online things where people would start refering to something as lowbrow/brilliant. And at one point we talked about making stickers to put around town so that people could tag things as lowbrow/brilliant or highbrow/despicable like that. It never happened. There was a New York magazine event where they made t-shirts. I think the t-shirts are going to be a problem because I don’t think people are going to get a t-shirt that says highbrow/brilliant.  Everybody will want a t-shirt that says lowbrow/brilliant or maybe lowbrow/despicable. It was an interesting question: What labels are people willing to put on themselves? Which t-shirts would be more popular than others?
Later they created a online interactive Matrix on the website, but I don’t think it was that successful even though it was incredibly beautifully done. To me that was because people don’t want to place things on the matrix, they want to argue about the matrix.

ROBERTS I did it once and everything landed in the middle. It was no fun.

NUSSBAUM It was an interesting idea in theory because it was a Wiki-matrix. But to me it missed the point of what people liked about it. First, people like the authority of it being set and then responding to it. They don’t necessarily want to create their own.  The other thing was that the jokes out of context of their actual placement are not that interesting. If you just see a factoid about a particular fashion show that week — it’s not that meaningful unless you see where it’s placed on The Matrix. To me, it wasn’t supersuccessful. Did you find it that, technologically, it was lovely? I wasn’t surprised that it didn’t take off.

ROBERTS I did it once and the average answers were so boring I stopped. I don’t care what I think, I’m more interested in what other people think.

NUSSBAUM Exactly. I think that that’s the case. I launched it, and oversaw the editing for — I don’t even remember how long, I was working so hard at the time, the whole thing is such a blur to me. After a couple of months, like I said, we hired Sternbergh and he came on and he was the overseeing editor of it for quite a long time.  If you want to talk to him, he’s another good person to talk to.

ROBERTS Well, I’m just writing a blog entry about this, not a book. This is wonderful. This is so interesting to me, you can’t understand how interesting this is to me.

NUSSBAUM So why are you interested in it? How did this become a thing for you? I’m just so excited when someone likes it. It’s nice. What interests you about it?

ROBERTS Partly it’s that I worked at Spy . . . No, the first thing that happened was that I read Spy. I loved Spy. The interesting thing is not that I was so into dissing powerful people, it was that Spy made me interested in New York City in a way that I’d never been before. Spy did all sorts of things that made New York come to life and made it seem like a wonderful place. This was the city that has The New Yorker, remember? Spy did better, way better. Then I worked at Spy and I talked to the editors, I know they were very interested in coming up with new ways of telling things. I could see that it was very successful at this. And then Spy goes away, and a long time later The Approval Matrix comes up which has the same quality as Spy of making me interested in stuff. In a big way. It really succeeds in ways that other magazines don’t do so well.

NUSSBAUM I was very into Spy as well.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 6)

NUSSBAUM We do want it [The Approval Matrix] to be useful. Somebody told me that they were sitting on a subway and they saw somebody circling things on it. That was really cool, I suppose it was things they wanted to see.

ROBERTS Exactly!

NUSSBAUM I thought that was really great. There are the two reactions that I like the most: people finding it really useful and also people arguing with it. It was always interesting to trigger an argument where people just have a conversation about how good or bad something was in relation to something else. We actually made a little bit of a specialty in the Culture section in general of doing quasi-mathematical charts. We did a crazy guilt/pleasure index for reality television as a way of covering reality television. The other big one was when Sternbergh and I collaborated on this thing called The Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations. I don’t know that you’ve seen that. That’s the flowing time chart that shows how things move from buzz to saturation point, how good people think things are going to be, to backlash to backlash to the backlash. We’ve done a few mathematical things. But they’re kind of tricky. We tried to come up with others but sometimes they just didn’t work. Or were too complicated. It’s hard to come up with anything original just because magazines, this is their stock in trade. The thing I do really love about The Matrix and I did feel really proud about, was the fact that… I felt like it managed to combine a bunch of things in a good way.

ROBERTS Like what? What did it combine?

NUSSBAUM It’s fun to respond to, so it’s an entertaining thing. It allows us to have a final say on the culture for the week. In a magazine sense, it closes the section nicely. And it’s kind of a destination place, people open the magazine and go to it.

ROBERTS That’s very true.

NUSSBAUM Give a quick shot of wit and humor.

ROBERTS It’s easy, pretty easy.

NUSSBAUM On the one hand it’s easy and reductive. On the other hand, I’m telling you, I guess people who are just not mathematically-minded at looking at charts: I don’t get it. I don’t get it.

NUSSBAUM They don’t understand how charts work. I had somebody say: I don’t like it, it makes me feel dumb, it makes me angry. I mean, I think it’s clever but it’s not THAT smart.

ROBERTS They didn’t understand what the placement of the points meant? Is that what you’re saying?

NUSSBAUM Exactly. This wasn’t an uncommon reaction. There was a moment when it first came out where people felt like they had to work to understand it. I don’t think that was a bad thing. There was also a question of the tone of it. We had a meeting early on, when we first put out the section, where there was a discussion about whether it was too kind of snarky, bloggy, online, maybe juvenile in its sensibility, whether that was in some way problematic, or didn’t match what the rest of the section was supposed to be. I never agreed with that. But it’s always a discussion because when you have something that’s funny and punchy in that way, there’s the question of: Is it going to be sour and kind of rim-shot-ish, like it’ll just be a roast? To me it doesn’t feel like that at all. And obviously we celebrate things. A whole half of it is about things we think are brilliant! So those were the main points of debate. One of them was tonal, one of them was the idea of acting as if there really was a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. And then, that’s it.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 5)

NUSSBAUM For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things. In the very beginning one thing I did try was to make it a policy, if we could avoid it, to not snark on things that we hadn’t actually experienced or really knew nothing about, just make jokes at the expense of the names of books that we hadn’t read. I wanted to make the jokes about things that were very specific. Instead of saying we don’t like the movie Godzilla, saying “the ridiculous scene in . . .” — a specific scene, a specific performance, or a specific song in a musical, or something like that. Because to me it makes it more useful and more authoritative, and less just striking out at the general world of culture and saying good, bad, good, bad, good, bad, which is always a danger with something like that. Because we were under a time crunch.

ROBERTS Yeah, a little less Entertainment Weekly with its A+, B+. . . . I happen to like that.

NUSSBAUM I don’t actually have a problem with that. What Entertainment Weekly does with that is very basic, and a lot of places do that, is using a school metaphor thing to judge things. They’ve read the book. They’re actually writing a review of it. The Matrix isn’t writing reviews. but because it’s putting things on this chart, I do think we have to have some sense of responsibility about not just throwing something on just because that doesn’t sound good.

ROBERTS You’re real critics. You actually know about what you’re talking about.

NUSSBAUM The whole thing works better if we know what we’re talking about, if it actually seems like…it operates as though it has its own consciousness and  it’s this weird hive mind of a lot of different opinionated people who’ve experienced a lot of different culture.

ROBERTS If a book is on The Approval Matrix, someone at New York has read the book.

NUSSBAUM Ideally, yes. I’m talking to you because I began the thing. But I’ve switched jobs now, I’m not the head of Culture now. Sternbergh isn’t editing it, either, it’s been passed on. But even if it was a very silly book, you should at least take a look through it. That was essentially the premise. Some things are about news items. Those don’t have the same necessity in terms of . . . I feel like I’m being so crazily over-analytical! Of course it is a charticle.

ROBERTS A charticle? There’ve been many charticles in the history of journalism.

NUSSBAUM Of course it is a visual device. It’s supposed to be entertaining.

ROBERTS I think it’s wonderful. Not because it’s entertaining, although it is, but because it’s enlightening. It’s opening up a world. It does it so well. Let’s take Entertainment Weekly. If they give something an A, I’m going to look into it. If they give a book an A I’m going to check out that book. But they take two pages to give one book an A. The Approval Matrix can give something an A or A+ five times in one page.

NUSSBAUM This is the transcendent beauty of the reductive. We can chart something in this pseudo-scientific way. It does have some kind of …

ROBERTS Pseudo-scientific? I don’t know about that. I think it’s scientific.

NUSSBAUM Just in the sense that it’s so absurdly hyper-specific that it’s unreal. 

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 4)

NUSSBAUM Occasionally we’d throw something in that had nothing to do with culture. At one point this year the weather was really miserable. I just suggested putting overflowing sewers on one side and then hot soup on the other — or something like that. The main thing we got flack for was the highbrow/lowbrow aspect of it.

ROBERTS Why? What was the flack?

NUSSBAUM We got this objection from people who have a strong feeling about these cultural categories. About the art of the charticle. The strongest objection was essentially, to be super-academic about it, that we were reifying the categories of highbrow and lowbrow.

ROBERTS What does reify mean?

NUSSBAUM Instead of critiquing, or being playful with, or using but in a knowledgeable way, those categories, that we were solidifying them, and acting as if they were real and making them into solid objects.

ROBERTS I’m not grasping the criticism. Oh, ok, you’re doing that, so what?

NUSSBAUM Basically, that we were taking them at face value, or, even more cynically, that we were presenting them at face value even though we knew better. By setting up a chart like this, we were basically saying opera is highbrow and comics are lowbrow. When to me, part of the point of it was making visual those illusory categories. Effectively setting up a kind of stimulus for people to react to the way that we place things. You do end up saying to yourself, at least if you’re in-house and you’re debating these things — you do end having this weird conversation about: are the Oscars more highbrow or lowbrow than the Grammys and the Tonys? This kind of crazy way of determining things. Sternbergh once wrote something to the guy [Mohamed Ibrahim] who was doing Behind the Approval Matrix — we were so excited that someone was doing a blog about it — he wrote a note to him at one point describing our thinking on several of the items in it. Also, occasionally people would just come up to us and say, I don’t understand why is this in this category, it should be here! And then we would have an absurdly overanalytical conversation about our thinking. For good or bad there was actually a lot of conversation and real analysis about where to place things.

Interview directory.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 3)

ROBERTS To me one of the fascinating things about The Approval Matrix is not only that it works so well but also that it has this despicable/brilliant dimension. This is fascinating because they’re not opposites, obviously. But also because despicable is an unusual word to see in highbrow American journalism.

NUSSBAUM All credit to Adam Moss for people who like and dislike the word despicable. Who find it both brilliant and despicable.

ROBERTS I’m saying that people usually don’t pass moral judgment. Are you saying that despicable is just a synomym for idiotic or awful?

NUSSBAUM To me, what despicable does is it says there is something outrageous about this and not entirely serious about the judgment. Because, the truth is, to me the voice of The Matrix, much more than the rest of the Culture section, sounds like people mouthing off in a bar. When you get in one of those crazy High-Fidelity-like debates about something. Where you say, “Don’t you think that this is a tiny bit better than the other thing?” These two characters on a TV show, one of them is two notches better than the other one.  Somebody says: I just can’t abide anything from that genre, it’s completely despicable. It has the voice to me of people being, hopefully, witty blowhards. To me, despicable kind of refers to them.

ROBERTS An underreported category.

NUSSBAUM Yes, the witty blowhard! The thing signals—because you can’t judge things so literally, on a mathematical chart—it both displays our judgment about things and to me slightly undercuts it. Because part of the point of The Matrix is for people to argue about the placement of things. Or object to them. Because that’s what happens. If you hand it to somebody, nobody’s going to agree with everything. Often what they disagree with is not the literal placement of things but the placement of things in relationship to one another. For instance, wait a second, a Sondheim musical is more highbrow than this particular HBO drama. And then there’s this weird discussion: Why is that? What constitutes more highbrow? Or, often, my favorite thing: Early in The Matrix, one of the fun things to do was to create a something like a constellation. . . .

ROBERTS You mean, if you connect the dots, it makes a shape? Is that what you mean by constellation?

NUSSBAUM No, not a literal constellation like that. I mean a bunch of things that all cluster together and are all being judged in relation to one another. This was several years ago and we had a tiny cluster that was essentially Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, Lindsey Lohan, these starlet types who had been caught in various scandals. They were all in lowbrow/despicable but they were in slightly different sections next to each other. Lindsay Lohan was slightly more highbrow than Nicole Richie and a little bit more brilliant. They were funny in relationship to one another. This was at the point when Sternbergh, a couple months into it, he started being the top editor. And his sensibility has been really important to it. He was overseeing it when there was an end-of-the-year matrix thing. There were a lot of Jude Law movies out that year. So it was Jude Law’s face right in the middle of The Matrix and then four of his movies were right around him, each of them in one of the quadrants. The bizarre thing is — they were weirdly accurate. I’m trying to remember what they were. The Closer was highbrow/despicable. God, what did he make that year? He had literally done four movies that you could kind of justify as being very close to one another but each crossing into a different category. I always enjoyed when we did things like that.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 2)

NUSSBAUM I remember during the first Matrix, there was this Uggs fever in New York. I put them on the slightly highbrow and slightly despicable side. A picture of an Ugg. It just said Ugg. A one-word thing.

ROBERTS Ugg spelled U-G-H?

NUSSBAUM It just said U-G-G-S. On the other side was some “brilliant” fashion thing. So we started pairing things. Initially, the illustrations were way too literal. They would just illustrate the thing we were talking about it. But I think The Matrix works better when there are some big and some small things, some visuals that are jokes themselves.

ROBERTS You said there were big things and small things. What do you mean by big and small?

NUSSBAUM Just visually. Sometimes there would be one big blown-up thing to add visual interest to it. We were constantly sending notes to the photo department saying, “if there’s a thing about something being slow, just show a snail.” Silly dopey things like that. Finding a visual that made its own joke, as opposed to simply being straightforwardly: We think this book is good, we think this TV show is bad. We wanted something that would kinda make it work together. And then of course there were debates about what constituted highbrow and lowbrow. The way we actually created the Matrix was, it was mostly the people who worked in culture — it was myself, Chris Bonanos, and, once we hired Adam Sternbergh, he was very involved, and he really helped sharpen the voice. Because he used to be a comedian and he was incredibly funny at coming up with these compressed one-liner ways of saying things. At the time, I was top-editing it, and then later, he took that on, and now there are other people doing it: Emma and Ben. I would send out a big mass email, trying to get stuff from all of the different people who did different areas, classical music, art, etc. But the truth is, it was just a few people contributing initially. People would send in their jokes or their elements. They would send us something that was highbrow/despicable. And sometimes, more specifically, it would say “highbrow/despicable but very close to the brilliant/despicable line”, describing where it should go on the Matrix. Then I would top-edit the jokes. And often at the end of the day, when we were closing the thing, the three of us would gather in Bonanos’ office and we all just would hash it out and try to sharpen or improve some of the jokes in the way that you do. We would do it collaboratively and try to get it to work. Then I would send it by Adam Moss and he would add or sharpen things further. It was often an incredible crunch because it was such a visually-complicated thing to lay out. And very last-minute. Because they would be trying to get a photo of something odd or difficult.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 1)

New York magazine’s Approval Matrix is my favorite magazine feature. I asked Emily Nussbaum, an editor at New York, how it came to be.

ROBERTS When did you come up with this? What happened in the beginning?

NUSSBAUM I’d been hired soon after Adam Moss came on board as Editor-in-Chief and my job was essentially to oversee the redesign of the culture section. It was a collaborative process with editors like Chris Bonanos and writers including Boris Kachka and Logan Hill. I wanted to open with something more substantive — an essay on a cultural matter or a profile — follow with reviews and fun devices. and then close with something really visual, ideally that combined different genres. We rejected a variety of things before we managed to come up with something. Actually, the idea [for The Approval Matrix] came off a piece I saw in Wired magazine. Which was a kind of Matrix-y sort of chart, a one-off thing. The two directions, one of them went geek to cool, the other went nerd to wonk. It didn’t have any visuals and it didn’t have any jokes. It was all of these different people. It had Joss Whedon and Joss Whedon was nerd/cool. Names of different technology people, a little bit of pop culture. It was funny, it was hard to understand in its own way, which I think is true of The Approval Matrix as well — but that was part of the appeal. So I brought it in and showed it to Adam. We were talking about it and I suggested we use it as a back-page round-up, a visual catch-all for stuff from theatre to television to books . . . Commentary on little news items in culture, events, people, a whole range of things. That was the basic concept. Then I had suggested that it go highbrow/lowbrow and something like good/bad or great/terrible. Adam said we should make the extent of the continuum longer than that. So I said “brilliant” and he said “despicable” — which in the long run was one of the more controversial aspects of The Matrix! Every once in a while, I’ll come across someone who says, “How can you call something despicable?” The larger philosophy of the section was to combine access — talking to creators — with judgment and authority. So the Matrix was about making judgments but also being playful and random, by comparing totally different things to each other. The extremeness of brilliant/despicable was supposed to be part of that. And then there’s the highbrow/lowbrow thing, which can also be controversial. It’s both something that we’re literally doing and something we’re being satirical about. For me personally, one of things that I thought was appealing about it — not to be, as I’m already being, incredibly overanalytical — but one of the things that I wanted for the section as a whole, was to say the obvious but true thing that you can have something that’s lowbrow that’s absolutely fantastic or something that people think of as mass-y, like comics books or whatever, that’s incredible, and some opera that’s actually incredibly dull; it’s just that they operate on different parts of the spectrum. So the idea was that putting those things together was essentially saying what really matters is the quality of them, not whether people consider them an elite taste or whether people consider them a mass taste. But obviously it’s also supposed to be something fun, geeky and mathematical. There was an initial concern that it might be hard to understand. Just because it’s a graph, and people found it a little confusing. So, anyway, we drew up a prototype of the Matrix. The designers did a great job. Then there was a gradual move toward launching the Culture section. And we launched The Matrix. It didn’t change that much from the time that we put it out. What changed was the developmental process of figuring out which jokes work and what works best in terms of combining visuals and text.

Interview directory. Behind The Approval Matrix. The Greatness of Behind the Approval Matrix.

How Things Begin (conference-call classes about Indian philosophy)

Waiting for a BART train I met Krishna Kashyap, a San Diego businessman, who teaches classes on Indian philosophy by conference call. He was born in India and studied philosophy there before he came to America.

There are many such classes. About 15 years ago, a Berkeley student named Mani Varadarajan started a listserv called bhaktilist, which allowed people who were interested in Vaishnava Vedanta to contact each other and exchange ideas. This is how the conference-call classes began. Bhaktilist no longer exists, but many lists came from it, including srirangasri@yahoogroups.com and oppiliappan@yahoogroups.com. There are several thousand people on these lists.

Kashyap himself recently stopped teaching classes so that he would have more time to learn. He is now taking classes with a teacher named K. S. Varadachar. He dials his number in India at a particular time. Other people can dial in as well. They listen and ask questions. “I got isolated from my community when I came to this country 20 years ago,” Kashya said. “Reading books is not enough. There wasn’t any other way to communicate [besides the conference calls]. When I wanted to learn I had to get teachers from India.”

Now there are 4 or 5 classes simultaneously; they meet by phone once/week, using freeconferencecall.com. The Indian lecturers don’t get paid or at least such is the convention. They are given an end-of-term “gift,” called sambhavana, that is $200-$1000.

A vast amount about Indian philosophies is here.

How different from American higher education! People learn easily, without coercion, without threats, without punishments, without external rewards, if they see their teacher as a guru. The American term for guru, of course, is motivational speaker.

How Things Begin (Reading the OED)

Maybe this post should be titled How Books Get Written. A curious feature of the book industry is that it gets almost all of its key ingredient — book manuscripts — from amateurs. No other big industry is like this. If our economy is a giant experiment, this point is an outlier. A huge outlier. What does it mean?

To find out, it would help to look at specific cases. I asked Ammon Shea, author of Reading the OED (forthcoming), how he managed to write it. He replied:

The advance was plenty for me to live on for a year, which is approximately how long the book took. However, I live cheap. I moved in with my girlfriend, who owns her own apartment, and so the rent, or maintenance costs, are low. We cook at home, tend to not buy things that we don’t need, and our idea of excitement is to go to a new library.

I had wanted to read the OED for quite some time, but knew that I didn’t have the leisure to spend ten hours a day doing so. I wrote the book proposal to see if I could convince some publisher to, in effect, subsidize my hobby.

I’ve worked as either a musician or a furniture mover for most of the past twenty years – both are occupations which allow a certain freedom; freedom from both responsibility and security. Taking off time was not so much of a problem. In terms of circulating the proposal I had my agent send it out. He’s the same one that I had when I wrote several other books, some eight or ten years ago.

Ammon’s editor is the same as mine (Marian Lizzi), which is why I knew about his book. Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21730 Pages (= 60 pages/day) will be published in August.

How Things Begin (I Got UGGs!)

Mohamed Ibrahim, the New York schoolteacher who does Behind The Approval Matrix (which I have blogged about) also has a blog called I Got UGGs!. I asked him how the Ugg blog began. Here’s what he said:

I have a fetish about Uggs. Whenever I see a girl wearing Uggs, it’s the sexiest thing in the world to me. It drives me crazy. You know how they say “do what you love and the money will come later”? I read an article in Time about bloggers and blogging. One of the blogs they profiled was by two ladies who post pictures of kittens and cats and write little blurbs about them. This gave me an idea: I’ll do the same thing about girls in Ugg boots. They got $5-6000/month from ads and all they do is post pics and write blurbs about them. I’ll take pics of girls wearing Uggs. Not only will I enjoy it but maybe I can also make some money. I went to Best Buy, got the cheapest digital camera, and hit the streets. The first place I went was Times Square. Initially I would approach people and ask them if I could take their pic for the blog. I discovered later it’s better to just take the pic and put it up. That’s what I do now. Now I get people sending me pics — they take a picture of their friends or they send me pics of celebrities. We’re getting over 500 page views/day. It’s only been about 4 months.

The Gawker link Mohamed got by telling them some crazy guy was taking Ugg pics and blogging about it.

Golden Handcuffs

In The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen gives many examples of how industry-leading companies lost their lead, often so badly they went out of business. As I’ve said before, this is something I’ve studied in rats writ large. In a great talk about the beginnings of the PC industry, Mitch Kapor describes meeting Ken Olsen, the CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), a $15-billion-sales-per-year company destroyed by the PC.

“Meeting the needs of people who had never previously used computers was the foundation of this entire [PC] industry,” says Kapor. “Even after we [Lotus] had started to become successful, this was still not clear to some people.” This is what Christensen says, too: Disruptive innovations begin downmarket, among users not previously thought worthy of notice. For example, hydraulic-powered shovels started in sizes appropriate for digging ditches. The pattern Christensen saw was that the industry-leading companies ignored this market until it was too late. DEC was no exception. Olsen wanted to meet Kapor, who was flown by DEC helicopter to DEC headquarters. When they met, Olsen complained for 15 minutes about the flimsiness of the PC case.

“The stuff that made him smart was the stuff that was now making him incredibly dumb,” says Kapor. “They didn’t understand that they needed to stop doing all the things that had made them successful in order to have a chance to succeed.” I would put it differently. Our experiments with rats made one thing clear: The more successful you are — and DEC was very successful — the harder it is to try new ways of doing things.

Comment on another Kapor talk.

Jane Jacobs and Art

painting of big flat building

The Cleveland painter Michelle Muldrow was a musician for ten years before becoming a painter — although she got a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) before that. From an unusual background, an unusual creative process:

Interviewer: Describe your working process when creating a new work.

MM: Usually I begin reading about environmental issues, urban development, really anything touching on the subjects of land use, as well American history and fiction. I guess I sort of consider myself a sponge at the beginning stages of work, then usually some travel helps and I take tons of source photos. From there I organize my photos into different obsessions, be it the artificial horticulture and landscaping in the modern developments, or the death of inner ring suburbs, subdivisions, etc, at that point I look for what I am most interested in painting. It’s sort of like all my intellectual obsessions still must go through a filter of how I feel, and that is an important element to my work- nostalgia. I suppose I attribute that to the rootlessness of my childhood, I am always trying to make sense of my landscape and home. Then I begin the body of my work. I tend to approach my work as a series or body rather than as individual images. I always prep, underpaint and paint at least 4-5 paintings all at once, never one at a time. I freehand draw, then do a monochromatic underpainting, and from there, I paint.

Painting, in other words, resembles blogging: You can blog about anything, you can paint anything — so long as you care about it.

One of her favorite writers is Jane Jacobs. She used to live in San Francisco, where there seemed to be no upper limit on the value of property. In Cleveland, with boarded-up homes everywhere, there seems to be no lower limit.

painting titled LA Wires

Experimental Mathematics

The journal Experimental Mathematics, started in 1992, publishes “formal results inspired by experimentation, conjectures suggested by experiments, descriptions of algorithms and software for mathematical exploration, [and] surveys of areas of mathematics from the experimental point of view.” The founder wanted to make clearer and give more credit to an important way that mathematicians come up with new ideas. As the journal’s statement of philosophy puts it, “Experiment has always been, and increasingly is, an important method of mathematical discovery. (Gauss declared that his way of arriving at mathematical truths was “through systematic experimentation.”) Yet this tends to be concealed by the tradition of presenting only elegant, well-rounded, and rigorous results.”

When John Tukey wrote Exploratory Data Analysis (1977), he was doing something similar: shedding light on how to come up with new scientific ideas plausible enough to be worth testing. Tukey obviously believed this was a neglected area of statistics research. I was told that the publisher of EDA was uninterested in it; they only published it because it was part of a two-book deal. The other book, with Frederick Mosteller, was more conventional.

My paper titled “Self-experimentation as a source of new ideas” made the same point as Tukey about an earlier step in the scientific process: data collection. How to collect data to generate new ideas worth testing was a neglected area of scientific method. Self-experimentation, derided as a way of testing ideas, might be an excellent way of generating ideas worth testing.

I think of it as crawling back into the water. In the beginning, all math was conjecture and experimentation. In the beginning, all data analysis was exploratory. In the beginning, all science was tiny and devoted to coming up with new ideas. From these came methods of proof, confirmatory data analysis, and methods of carefully testing ideas. Human nature being what it is, users and teachers of the new methods came to greatly disparage the earlier methods. Gary Taubes told me that he spoke to several obesity researchers who thought that the field essentially began with the discovery of leptin. Nothing before that mattered, they believed.