Sunday, August 31, 2014

From Here to Where?

Elgo American plastic bricks.  Favorite indoor toy, not made since the 1960s.

Last week here at your favorite literary oasis we went from a western rural Kentucky county to Purgatory (which we found is in Ireland, surprisingly).  Today's trip is much more neck-snapping, so hold on.

In a blog that I read regularly, a mention was made of an article about why there is little variety in ketchup while mustard comes in hundreds of choices .  Malcolm Gladwell penned this information-packed essay for the September 9, 2004 issue of the New Yorker.  I didn't have all the time I do now to read about such things back then and so missed it, and of course I'm curious about the imbalance between the two standby condiments. 

That was only the beginning point to a fascinating short history of the successes and failures of food industry moguls, marketers and scientists.  And there is genius behind the genesis of some particular brands and styles of products that are enduringly popular with many people; all the research, investment, data and experimentation does sometimes go awry without the inspired insight that is only present in a few of us .  And the greatest of them all, after Henry Heinz (who completely changed ketchup from its insipid, thin original state into what is, and probably always will be, the standard) was one Howard Moskowitz.

Pepsi, when considering using artificial sweeteners in the early 1970s, asked him to find the perfect amount of sweetener.  It was already known to be somewhere between 8 and 12%.   Doing the usual research, Moskowitz found that the data was all over the place, which led him to the first of his eureka moments:  that there was no perfect one in this case; it's plural (the beginning of why there are 500 varieites of everything today).  Penetrating insight and creative thinking must run in his family; he's descended from The Seer of Lublin, Polish rabbi Yaakov Y. Horowicz, who was known for his exceptional intuition and miracle-working, with the added gift of repairing souls.  (But he died in 1815 after falling from a window -- didn't he see that coming?) 

Moskowitz went deeper with the problem he tackled for Prego spaghetti sauce, which was trying to compete with industry leaders.  He found segements of taste and preference which could be addressed only with new products.  People then divided in their choice of plain or spicy sauce; Moskowitz, thinking of how Heinz forever captured his market by making ketchup much thicker, recommended chunky spaghetti sauce after finding out that there were actually three general preferences, one of which no one in the industry had thought of.  Launched in 1990, it was, and is, very successful.  I highly recommend reading the article online to learn about how achieving the "unity of taste" makes a product universally popular.  Hint:  Coca-Cola starts with a dark vanilla taste and, like Heinz ketchup, rolls back along the tongue revealing other flavor notes in the most pleasing order.  Imitation colas hit a citrus or cinnamon note first and don't develop.

Here's the hook:  without the internet, I'd never have come across this, the science and psychology of which I think is pretty interesting, and pursued the subject so easily.  Even though the monthly bill from Verizon seems high, it really delivers a lot of value if you make regular use of it.  I think what the travel, time, expense and effort required would be to find odd items like a cartrige for your old printer, or just find things out, without our worldwide web.

So, to flip it over, what do you miss about the pre-internet world?  When there were only two to five broadcast channels, before cable, we certainly had a lot more time to spend otherwise than in front of a screen, and those activities probably involved more activity and deeper engagement.  The same goes for the use of all of our internet devices.  Now that I can, for example, find a book or record from my old "look for" list effortlessly and with a great chance of success, it seems to take the challenge out of it.  Found on a library give-away table a few years ago, an old copy of  the novel South Wind in excellent condition still makes me smile in a way that ordering it with two clicks on could not.  I also miss the relative anonymity one can maintain in an old world of paper records that might be inaccessible or lost.  Now, of course, everything about you isn't mostly yours anymore.  So, you get falsely personalized marketing and scam communications daily, and they can track you like a wolf following a rabbit.

Your average wired 11-year-old today probably won't agree (because they don't take these surveys), but the Five Best Toys of All Time (as of 2011) are:
           a stick,
           a box,
           a cardboard tube,
and...  dirt.

Say what you will, virtual dirt in a video game just can't compare.


My all-time favorite dirt-moving toy.  Real metal, too.



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