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October 31, 2006

No Trick, No Treat, No Thanks

According to a story in The New York Times, Halloween has lately become important in the UK:

Halloween is big business here now. According to The Observer of London, Britons spend an estimated $228 million a year on Halloween-related items, a tenfold increase from five years ago.
But apparently many Britons aren't fond of the holiday:
This withering away of homegrown tradition makes people hate Halloween all the more. What could be more unattractive, they argue, than a bunch of rapacious, acquisitive children traipsing around the streets, demanding candy in exchange for nothing?

"Trick or treat? I don't know about you, but my answer to this question, if I'm honest, would be unprintable in a family newspaper," the critic A. N. Wilson wrote recently in The Daily Mail. "Let's say it's stronger than 'push off.' Yet the little beggars will soon be round, banging and ringing at our doors with this irritating refrain."

No Trick, No Treat, No Thanks

Fifty-eight percent of homeowners in a recent survey by the Norwich Union insurance company said they had hidden in the back of their houses and turned off all the lights on Halloween, pretending that no one was home.

What fun would childhood be without a yearly ritual of rapaciously and acquisitively traipsing around the streets, demanding candy in exchange for nothing? And what's the Halloween equivalent of "Bah, humbug!"?

October 29, 2006

"I Need Fuel"

For my second Michael J. Fox-related entry in two days, from AutoblogGreen:

New Technology Turns Food Leftovers Into Electricity, Vehicle Fuels

The University of California - Davis has started up a new renewable energy demonstration facility. They will be trying to capture the energy that diners leave behind on their plates when they eat out at restaurants in the Bay area. The new Biogas Energy Project is the first large scale demonstration of an anaerobic phased solids digester. This concept was developed at UC-Davis by professor Ruihong Zhang specifically to process a wide range of waste products.

Food scraps will be collected from some of the finest restaurants in the area and processed at the new facility. Initially they will digest about eight tons of food a week eventually ramping up to eight tons a day. Leftovers like melon rinds, broccoli spears and fish bones will be turned into both hydrogen and methane, both of which can be used as energy sources.

Haven't we seen this before?

Doc: Marty! You've gotta come back with me!

Marty: Where?

Doc: Back to the future.

Marty: Wait a minute, what are you doing, Doc?

Doc: I need fuel.

October 28, 2006

Limbaugh, Fox, and Civil Discourse

1. Watch Michael J. Fox's campaign ad for Missouri Senate candidate Claire McCaskill.

2. Watch Rush Limbaugh's critique of the ad (shown the first two and a half minutes of this Keith Olbermann piece).

3. Watch Katie Couric's interview with Fox (transcript here).

Now, having watched these videos, if you don't conclude that Michael J. Fox is conducting himself with extraordinary civility, dignity, and grace under pressure that is difficult to imagine, well, you and I see the world through very different lenses.

This, for me, was the money quote from Katie Couric's interview with Fox:

I want to make that point too, that people that are against stem cell research, embryonic or otherwise, whatever, I couldn't respect them more and they prayed on it and they've thought about and they can't get their head around it or their heart around it, then great, fantastic. I admire them and I respect them. All I have to say to them respectfully, if there was a majority that all prayfully and thoughtfully and emotionally and intellectually and in every other way, weighed this and came on the other side, and said 'No, I think this is the right thing to do,' to very carefully tread these waters, to save these lives, then you have to respect that too. And I don't resort to name-calling or inflammatory language or, mocking, or whatever you need to do to just have a discussion about it.
What a model for us all moving forward.

Interestingly, I thought about Fox's point here and edited out some things I had written about Rush Limbaugh in the first draft of this entry. Maybe civilizing the debate starts with a single person. Besides, I don't think I need to make a specific comment about Limbaugh -- whatever one thinks of him, he generally speaks for himself.

October 27, 2006

Starbucks and the Aspirational Lifestyle

After lunch at Pei Wei with a friend and co-worker yesterday, I stopped in the Starbucks next door to pick up a coffee to bring back to work. That led to this conversation in the car on the way back to the office:

Me: So as I understand it, an executive at Starbucks was recently asked about saturation and the limits to growth, and his answer was, in essence, "We don't think we've even saturated Seattle yet."

Friend: Wow. That's amazing. There are the jokes about Starbucks opening up new Starbucks inside existing Starbucks, but the truth isn't too far from that.

Me: It's clear that Starbucks is trying to become a lifestyle brand. Their idea is that people will come visit not so much because they want a cup of coffee, but because of the satisfaction they get from being the kind of person who visits Starbucks. They get the satisfaction of physically being inside the Starbucks, and then they get the satisfaction of carrying a coffee cup around with them that shows they were at a Starbucks. No one I know who visits Starbucks regularly -- including me -- says that Starbucks has the best coffee. It's adequate, but it's not the best. It's not about the coffee; it's about the lifestyle.

Friend: They're not the only ones doing that. McDonald's and Coca-Cola are trying to be lifestyle brands. I've dealt with some of the people at Coca-Cola, and they absolutely believe their product is about a lifestyle.

Me: Who eats at McDonald's or drinks Coke because they somehow identify themselves with those brands?

Friend: I think there are plenty of people who identify themselves with McDonald's.

Me: When my ex-wife and I had little kids, we spent more time at McDonald's than I'd ever care to admit. Why? Because it was cheap, the kids would all find something to eat, and they'd give us a few minutes of conversational time while they played in the ball pit. But I don't think we identified ourselves with McDonald's. It wasn't something we aspired to. And as for Coke, they don't have a physical presence -- they're just a brand in a very competitive market, and not differentiated in any meaningful way.

Friend: What about Red Bull? They're popular now.

Me: Right, but it's a very tenuous popularity. It's a fad that could collapse at any time. I think Starbucks is fundamentally different. It's a lifestyle brand that's powered by physical spaces. And it's aspirational -- it represents a lifestyle that people want for themselves, and by going into the physical space, they can experience that lifestyle for a bit of time.

The more I think about this, the more I see both the opportunity and peril of Starbucks' approach. If they can truly establish themselves as the aspirational lifestyle brand that's accessible on an regular basis, then they could be vastly larger than they are today, and for decades to come. That's an incredible opportunity. But when there's a Starbucks on every corner, will we continue to aspire to it? Is it possible to aspire to something that is everywhere, or does it need to be ever so slightly out of reach? I honestly don't know.

Later in the day, I saw this AP story (found via Starbucks Gossip) on Starbucks growth:

The people who work in Seattle's tallest building face a tough decision: should they get their caffeinated indulgence at the old Starbucks on the building's first floor or the new Starbucks, 40 floors up? And, if those lines are too long, is it too far to walk across the street, where a third Starbucks awaits?

Starbucks Corp.'s recently announced goal of having 40,000 stores worldwide isn't just about spreading green awnings through middle America, the Middle East and other areas of the world not yet tempted by easy access to mocha Frappuccinos and pumpkin spice lattes.

The coffee chain's aggressive growth also hinges on what the company calls "infill" -- adding stores in cities where its mermaid logo is already commonplace...

Starbucks adds a whopping six stores a day on average...

As of Oct. 3, Starbucks had 12,440 stores worldwide, including 7,102 company-operated stores and 5,338 licensed locations...

Starbucks insists that it sees very little cannibalization of its existing business when a new store opens...

It's highly unusual for a company to be able to add so many stores so close together and still see the kind of consistently strong sales growth Starbucks can boast, said John Owens, an equity analyst with Morningstar.

"At some stage there (are) limits to their expansion, but to date we really haven't seen any signs that they are near that point," Owens said.

Still, Owens said there are risks a company faces when it builds out quickly. He noted that McDonald's Corp. suffered after an attempt to expand rapidly in the 1990s. McDonald's has more than 30,000 stores worldwide, compared to about 12,000 currently for Starbucks.

Major concerns could include anything from a drop in quality to the brand losing its luster...

For now at least, Owens said Starbucks doesn't appear to have similar worries.

"We haven't seen any evidence of it, but that's certainly a risk," Owens said. "How can they continue to maintain such a strong connection with the customer as they become just basically a global giant?"

October 26, 2006

$380,000 for Every Extra Minute

From a New York Times column (subscription required) by Nicholas Kristof:

In the run-up to the Iraq war, Donald Rumsfeld estimated that the overall cost would be under $50 billion. Paul Wolfowitz argued that Iraq could use its oil to "finance its own reconstruction."

But now several careful studies have attempted to tote up various costs, and they suggest that the tab will be more than $1 trillion -- perhaps more than $2 trillion. The higher sum would amount to $6,600 per American man, woman and child.

"The total costs of the war, including the budgetary, social and macroeconomic costs, are likely to exceed $2 trillion," Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist at Columbia, writes in an updated new study with Linda Bilmes, a public finance specialist at Harvard. Their report has just appeared in the Milken Institute Review, as an update on a paper presented earlier this year.

Just to put that $2 trillion in perspective, it is four times the additional cost needed to provide health insurance for all uninsured Americans for the next decade. It is 1,600 times Mr. Bush's financing for his vaunted hydrogen energy project...

We still face the choice of whether to remain in Iraq indefinitely or to impose a timetable and withdraw U.S. troops. These studies suggest that every additional year we keep our troops in Iraq will add $200 billion to our tax bills.

My vote would be to spend a chunk of that sum instead fighting malaria, AIDS and maternal mortality, bolstering American schools, and assuring health care for all Americans. We're spending $380,000 for every extra minute we stay in Iraq, and we can find better ways to spend that money.

October 17, 2006

"They're Saying the War Can't Be Won"

I was talking the other day with a business associate -- a retired Army officer, still deeply involved in the defense industry. He's a conservative guy, perhaps even very conservative, clearly a long-time Republican voter. What he said took me aback, not because of the sentiment, but because of the person expressing it:

Officer: The generals' reports out of Iraq are sanitized before we see them, but if you read between the lines, what they're saying is that the war can't be won.

Me: The generals are saying we're losing the war?

Officer: They're saying the war can't be won.

October 15, 2006

Two Wrongs Make a Right?

I've never been a fan of pickup trucks. They're cramped, noisy, ride poorly, and guzzle gas. If you need to haul things around in them on a regular basis, they're reasonable, but how many privately-owned pickups do you see actually carrying things in their cargo beds? I don't see many.

And I'm not a fan of the Volkswagen Touareg. One of my best friends drives one, and it's nice, to be sure, but the styling has never done much for me. Even by SUV standards, it's heavy, as if Volkswagen lined it with lead to make it feel more substantial.

And then I saw this, a one-off conversion of a Touareg into a pickup truck:

Touareg Pickup Conversion
(From AutoScoops, via Autoblog.)

I don't know how it's possible that someone has taken an SUV I don't particularly like, converted it into a vehicle type I don't like, and yet somehow I find the end result incredibly attractive. It doesn't look very practical, but this is so easily the best-looking pickup truck I've ever seen that I'd happily drive it. Buy it? Probably not. But drive it? In a heartbeat.

October 14, 2006

"South Park" on "World of Warcraft"

I'm sure I'm one of the very last people to have seen this, but for those few stragglers out there, South Park's episode satirizing World of Warcraft is spot-on and hilarious. If you've ever played WoW (or another massively multiplayer online game), or if you've been curious about it, it's a must-see.

As Cartman says:

You can just hang outside in the sun all day tossing a ball around, or you can sit at your computer and do something that matters.