Richard Knerr, the real Hudsucker Proxy

WhileThe Hudsucker Proxy is not one of the Coen brothers’ most lauded films, but I have always though of it as an amazing movie about the unlikely sources of innovation. It wasn’t until I read about Richard Knerr’s death that I realized the affiliation the movie has with Knerr’s real life, namely the invention of the Hula Hoop, Frisbee, and other circular toys of mass appeal. In fact, the Hula Hoop suffered similar ups faced in the Hudsucker Proxy:

In the first year, Wham-O sold as many as 40 million hoops; by 1960, 100 million, a mark no other toy had ever reached. After too many households had two or three of the hoops, the fad evaporated, leaving Wham-O marooned on a mountain of tubular plastic. Total profit: only $10,000, a result of business inexperience and millions of unsold hoops.

Richard Knerr was certainly an unlikely source of innovation, and I am positive that the world never saw the Frisbee or Hula Hoop coming. I think the Hula Hoop discovery scene is a great interpretation of the process of diffusion, and a fitting homage to Mr. Knerr’s amazing inventions:

Bribing your way into a restaurant

When going to dinner on a Saturday in New York, one only has a few options: eat early, eat late, or eat at home. Last night we were confronted by Williamsburg Saturday-night economics, four restaurants in a row with over an hour wait, and I was reminded of a story that I read ages ago entitled Pocketful of Dough. The author, Bruce Feiler, is paid by Gourmet magazine to bribe his way into restaurants:

Curious, I hatched a plan. I would go to some of the hardest-to-penetrate restaurants in New York armed with little more than an empty stomach, an iron-clad willingness to be humiliated, and a fistful of dough. Most people (including the editors of this magazine) assumed I would get turned down at half the places on my list. “You’ll never get into Daniel,” said one. “Union Square Cafe?!” said another. “Forget it.”

My plan was to show up between 8:15 and 8:30 on varying nights of the week. I would go with a different companion each night. I would try to get a reservation by telephone that afternoon and go only if I were turned down. And I would carry a twenty and a fifty in my left pocket, and a hundred in my right pocket. I did have an incentive: I could eat at any place I could successfully finagle my way into.

What results is a classic piece of journalism that I cite at least twice a year. That is to say, I am only referring to it, not a practicing bribe-maker. Since the cat has been out of the sack for over 7 years now, I wonder what effect Bruce Feiler has had on wait times in New York? Next time I go to Williamsburg on a Saturday night, I will definitely bring some dough and report back on the timeliness of this technique.

Obama’s music taste

I was surprised the other day when I stumbled onto Barack Obama’s Facebook page and discovered that he actually filled out his music tastes:

Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder,
Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites), and The Fugees

I think that given the task of coming up with a more inclusive list, I don’t think I could come close. Some pop culture researcher must have consulted. Seriously, who would be offended by anything on this list, and everyone probably identifies with something.

Some of his other tastes:

Movies: Casablanca, Godfather I & II, Lawrence of Arabia and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Books: Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), Moby Dick,
Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Parting the Waters, Gilead (Robinson), Self-Reliance (Emerson), The Bible, Lincoln’s Collected Writings

TV Show: Sportscenter

The myth of short sleepers

I was fascinated by a piece on yesterday’s Morning Edition about sleep, In today’s world, the well-rested lose respect. A myth has been created by America’s most successful politicians, businesspeople and other luminaries that their success is in some way tied to a physical condition, short sleeping, that allows them to have more productive hours than the rest of us.

Sleep researchers believe that short sleepers are not prevalent , and that those who claim to be short sleepers are simply redefining what sleep is (and sleeping on the job, in the limo, on the plane, etc.) or are just used to functioning on insufficient rest.

So I ask, what’s more likely:

  • A superbreed of humans with the ability to stay awake longer than the rest of the population has taken over the powerful positions of the world in the middle of the night
  • A third, independent variable, namely drive or motivation, has led to both the success and stress-induced insomnia that come with being in a powerful position

This story is so powerful that one of the interviewees had the following to say about her daughter:

My daughter, who has a life-threatening disease, when I asked her if there’s one thing you could change about yourself physically, I’d expect her to say she’d like to get rid of her life-threatening condition. No way. She’d say “I would abolish the need for sleep, so I could get more done.”

I find it really tragic that our society has arrived at this position, and that people want to sleep less. I like to sleep 8 hours nightly, and if I’m ever powerful enough to be asked how I got to where I am, I’ll say it was the sleep.

Not the norm

Whenever I am selected as part of a survey panel, online or otherwise, I nearly always take the opportunity. I am “one of those people” who creates self-selection bias. I am a perennial student of surveys, and always interested in what researchers and marketers are trying to understand. I received an invitation this morning by a reputable magazine that I read frequently, and decided to take the dive. One of the many questions asked about online activities, specifically which of the following actions I have partaken in over the past 3 months:

  • Sent and/or received an Instant message (IM)
  • Sent and/or received a text message (SMS) on cell phone
  • Accessed the internet from cell phone or PDA
  • Downloaded/listened to or watched music/videos, podcasts or other audio files, webcasts, etc.
  • Watched user-created videos online (e.g.,
  • Read a blog
  • Posted to your own blog
  • Have a MySpace or similar online profile page
  • Created/uploaded art, photography, images, video, music, etc.
  • Participated in chat rooms or forums
  • Visited social networking sites (e.g.,, etc.)
  • Use RSS Feeds
  • None of the above

Suffice to say, I think that I am not the norm:

Online Activities

Perfect 12!! It’s always refreshing to be reminded that you are not average, especially when the media you consume, the people you interact with and the activities engage in suggest otherwise. Although it seems like many average internet users could fill up a large chunk of this list. is a community “for people with large data sets,” founded by Aaron Swartz. It’s essentially a wiki and a few Google Groups centered around three topics:

  • Get: acquiring data through scraping, crawling, or otherwise
  • Process: conversions, queries, algorithms and the like
  • View: visualization in any number of forms

I’m excited by the definition of this community, but a bit skeptical of the scope. My intuition is that communities centered around tools, (e.g. Processing) tend to thrive more than general task-focused groups. I really hope the emergent data understanding population finds this tool and helps shape it accordingly. (via waxy)

Macworld != World

This is the dumbest, most myopic blog title I have seen in a long while: “Apple Stock Tanks During Stevenote.” I don’t mean to be snarky, but is it possible that someone could be so enthralled with the cult of Mac to completely miss the fact that Citigroup posted a $10B loss today? Of course Apple’s stock tanked. So did every other stock in the known universe. In the words of the Economist,

Citigroup Earnings

Proof that 2 = 1

From Overcoming Bias, a proof that 2 is, in fact, equal to one. First let x = y = 1.

  1. x = y
  2. x2 = xy
  3. x2 – y2 = xy – y2
  4. (x + y)(x – y) = y(x – y)
  5. x + y = y
  6. 2 = 1

There is a simple flaw in this proof that an astute observer will identify, but it’s still good for cocktail parties and stumping children on the border of abstract reasoning! Wikipedia has a page on invalid proofs for 1 = -1, 2 = 1, -2 = 1 and &infinity; = 1/4, all of which seem mighty plausible.