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September 5, 2004

Rise of the Denim-istas?


Rob Walker's "Consumed" column in today's New York Times magazine focused on Levi's new alife custom 501 jeans.

They've created a limited edition offshoot, which will offer just 501 pairs (for the entire world), each pair in one of five colors, priced at $165 (why not $501?, was my first thought), available at exactly one store, which itself will exist for just one month.

I guess Rei Kawakubo's


guerrilla store concept made quite an impression at Levi's, huh?

Here's the story.

Bluejean Masterpiece

A quintessential mass brand tries to transform its product into art

Levi's is up there with Coca-Cola and Nike as a company people refer to when they want to make a point about how pervasive a brand can be.

So it's worth wondering what this household name is up to in deciding, after more than 150 years of existence, to forge its first-ever co-brand, the limited edition Levi's alife Custom 501's.

There will be just 501 pairs, each in one of five colors, priced at $165 and available at exactly one store - which itself will exist for just one month.

The 501 is so iconic it's hard to know what could be left to say about it.

But what is alife?

If Levi's is a quintessential mass brand, alife could be thought of as an emblematic mini-brand.

This is a distinct category: instead of being known by everybody, the mini-brand is known to a very specific and even rarefied group of somebodies - somebodies who are seen (by marketers, at least) as cultural connoisseurs, with forward-thinking tastes and an influence far out of proportion to their numbers.

These are consumers open to the idea that certain products -- even workaday items like jeans and sneakers - can be much, much more than a commodity.

This group matters to Levi's because it has struggled in recent years to stave off trendy new competitors like Diesel and the Gap.

So when the Levi's alife 501 Concept Exhibit opens in Manhattan on Sept. 11, with a big party, in the middle of Fashion Week, what it will really be selling, aside from a few hundred pairs of jeans, is Levi's' cultural relevance.

Courting the taste-maker set has been part of the company's strategy for a while; it even established a ''vintage clothing'' division in 1999, making exact reproductions of various items from its past that had been deemed classics by dedicated denim-istas.

Still, the intersection of art and product is the specialty of alife, a three-man collective founded in 1999 and based in a storefront on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The co-founders, Tony Arcabascio, Rob Cristofaro and Arnaud Delecolle, have made and sold limited-edition clothing items and products, held exhibitions, created a line of shoes that Barneys has picked up and informally hooked up their downtown artist peers with various corporate patrons, including Adidas and Sony.

''It's an art gallery, a publishing house, a creative design team, a store and a clubhouse,'' offers Jeffrey Deitch, a SoHo gallery owner who presented an alife art-as-product show two years ago.

There's even a spinoff, Alife Rivington Club, with the dark-wood feel of an exclusive jewelry store, only with Nikes instead of diamonds behind the glass.

The goal of the mass- and mini-brand collaboration is to elevate a familiar product to artlike status.

The distinctions between standard 501's and the alife variation are subtle: there are the colors; there's an alife tab hidden behind the famous red Levi's tab on the back pocket; and the standard leather-look patch says ''501(R) XX ALIFE.''

So the real key might be the context - the jeans' predetermined scarcity and a 1,400-square-foot retail environment intended to foster a museumlike reverence.

The interior of alife's Orchard Street store has been completely rebuilt (on Levi's' dime) and painted stark white, the front portion made over into a gallery of Levi's imagery, rising in steps to a small boutique space showcasing the limited-edition jeans, plus another limited Levi's alife Custom 501 line and T-shirts and accessories created by downtown designers and artists like Futura Laboratories and SSUR.

In addition, alife has special shopping bags, even business cards, for the store - even though it will all disappear a month after opening.

''We're treating the retail environment as an installation,'' Arcabascio says. ''And you can leave with this artwork.''

On one level this mass-mini team-up sounds like just another case of a big corporation trying to co-opt some street cred.

Yet when the alife founders talk about the project, they make it clear that, downtown status aside, they are hardly dissenters from the culture of consumption.

They love good products, and they love certain brands, especially a ''staple'' like Levi's, they emphasize.

They practically light up at the mention of alife making it onto a Levi's patch, where no other brand has been.

''That's the thing that makes us most happy,'' Arcabascio says.

''We were able to infiltrate.''

September 5, 2004 at 09:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Star38 - fake caller ID is finally here


Now, for a mere $19.55/month, you can be anyone you want on someone else's caller ID box.

Created to help debt collectors contact deadbeats, the technology promises many more uses.

The company plans to sell its capability only to collection agencies, private investigators, and police.

"It's irresponsible," says Darren Charest, president of US Tracers, which has been quietly selling similar technology for five years, but only to law enforcement agencies that don't want "police department" to show up on caller ID.

Methinks poor Darren just saw his Ferrari going back to the dealer 'cause he can't make the payments anymore now that his company's product is available for 10% of what he's been extorting from his sole-source-dependent customers.

Jason Jepson, CEO of Star38, said his company required only 65 lines of computer code and $3,000 to create its service.

He says he got the idea after speaking to his aunt, a bounty hunter, about the best ways to get in touch with people who don't to be in touch.

Website Engadget tested Star38 this past Wednesday, and was able to make calls pretending to be from Satan (666-666-6666).

September 5, 2004 at 06:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Self-Service Video Store - Can MoviebankUSA Succeed?


The company's opening a 500-square-foot store on West Houston Street in Manhattan that will house over 5,000 DVDs, video games and VHS videos.

That's about the same amount of inventory as a regular corner video store, but there'll be no human around.

In France, these kiosks abound: there are no longer traditional Blockbuster-type video rental stores.

I have been puzzled by how Blockbuster has managed to remain in existence, even though we're told weekly of its imminent demise.

The bottleneck in computer download speed remains Blockbuster's salvation; until you can instantly order and view any movie via your TV remote or telephone, the company will stay afloat.

Here's Jeffrey Selingo's story about the new movie vending machine, from Thursday's New York Times Circuits section.


Want to Rent a Movie? Help Yourself

When VCR's appeared on the market in the early 1980's, renting movies was expensive and cumbersome.

It often required costly membership fees at video stores that were few and far between.

Since then, renting a movie has become a lot easier and cheaper.

Rental stores opened on what seemed like every city block.

The spread of DVD players spawned Netflix, the online rental service that sends movies by mail.

And now home viewers can rent movies from their cable companies or download them from the Internet, much like music.

Entering that crowded market is a new concept that in some ways is a throwback: A self-service video store.

MoviebankUSA plans to open a 500-square-foot store on West Houston Street in Manhattan that will house at least 5,000 DVD's, video games and VHS videos.

Its inventory will be about the same as that of a traditional video store, but there will be no human attendants.

The store will resemble a bank lobby full of vending machines that renters can use to select a movie or video game.

The machines will double as displays for movie trailers or video game promotions.

Customers return the movies or games to the same location.

The store is essentially a much larger version of the self-service video rental kiosks that have appeared in neighborhood convenience stores in Europe in recent years.

"In France, you cannot find traditional video stores any longer," said Stéphane de Laforcade, a co-founder of MoviebankUSA, who is French.

"People want convenience. In New York, you have a city that never sleeps, but you can't find a video store open at 3 in the morning."

Besides convenience and a large selection, Mr. de Laforcade is betting that customers will be attracted to the self-service store by the price. Movies will cost 99 cents for six hours or $2.50 for 24 hours with a free membership card.

Users can also reserve a movie in advance on the company's Web site, www.moviebankusa.com, and the video will be blocked from other customers at the store for three hours.

In addition, customers can sign up online to get an instant message or an e-mail when a movie that is not available is returned to the store's inventory.

Whether Americans will embrace self-service video stores is unclear. Such faceless services have had mixed success in the United States.

While A.T.M.'s and automated highway toll collections are popular, other experiments have failed.

For instance, four automated Redbox convenience stores in the Washington area, offering 130 items ranging from eggs to toilet paper, closed last year after only a year of operation.

Those stores failed because customers worried about freshness of the goods, said Michael L. Kasavana, a Michigan State University business professor whose position is endowed by the National Automatic Merchandising Association.

Although video-store customers would not have the same concerns, Dr. Kasavana remains skeptical of the idea.

"There was much more of a demand for what Redbox sold," he said. "Movie rentals are not as much of an impulse purchase."

While MoviebankUSA customers will be able to use the vending machines to search by actor, director, genre and new releases, Dr. Kasavana said the sheer number of movies available may lead some people to browse for a long time and hold up the line.

"It's like a restaurant with a 45-page menu," he said. "Sometimes you can have too many choices."

The DVD-rental market is also expected to peak in 2007, according to Kagan Research, a consulting firm that studies media markets, as cable companies roll out video-on-demand services and Internet movie downloads, already available on Web sites like www.movielink.com and www.cinemanow.com, gain popularity.

"There's nothing more convenient than sitting on your couch and renting a movie without moving," said Wade Holden, an analyst at Kagan.

Even so, Mr. de Laforcade is confident there is room for Moviebank- USA in the crowded video-rental market.

With Netflix, he said, customers have to wait several days for the DVD.

At full-service video stores, he said, not only are rentals more expensive, but movies are often hard to find and the selection, beyond new releases, is limited.

And of course the staff may not be helpful.

"Traditional video stores are nothing more than fast-food places - the people are there only to serve you," Mr. de Laforcade said.

"We're getting rid of the human where it has no advantage."

Mr. de Laforcade hopes to open eight MoviebankUSA stores in New York by the end of the year and 10 to 15 similar stores in other big United States cities in the coming years.

He also has put smaller self-service machines that hold 1,000 to 3,000 DVD's in the lobbies of two residential buildings in New York.

He plans to expand distribution of the smaller dispensing machines to office buildings and retail stores.

September 5, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Bali Sea Salt


Every morning, Balinese salt farmers wade into the calm blue offshore waters.

They gather sea water in buckets made from the Lontar Palm, then deposit it into black sand beds where the tropical sun evaporates the water, leaving sand shards rich with salt.

Through a painstakingly slow process of leaching, the farmers remove all the sediment from the shards and collect the brine in wooden drums.

They then evaporate the brine in halved bamboo timbers, which can take three days.

The resulting fragile crystalline structures are harvested and placed into bamboo-skinned cones and allowed to drain.

After weeks of hand-panning and grading, a tiny amount of sea salt results.

I am not making this up; you can read the details here.

$16 for 5 oz. in a coconut, or be frugal and get 8.5 oz. in a box for $10.

September 5, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'10 (66) and All That'


Title of theoretical physicist Michio Kaku's sprightly piece in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, about the theoretical possibility of fast-forwarding reality to see the results of the upcoming presidential election.

He concludes that we couldn't even if we possessed the ultimate supercomputer, but does hold out the possibility that historians of the future could hit a "rewind" button and get an instant replay.

What I found interesting about his take on things - he's considered one of the world's finest thinkers on such matters - is that if such is the case, then you and I, right this second, might be starring in a hugely amusing reality show in the year 3033, say.

Here's Kaku's essay.


10 (66) and All That

At the carefully scripted GOP convention, with transcripts of speeches passed out beforehand, journalists are describing events in the past tense, even before they happen.

Information, traveling at light speed, seems to blur the distinction between past, present and future, and a question arises: Can we fast-forward reality to see the outcome of the November election?

In the movie "The Matrix," the universe was stored on a supercomputer. Machines enslaved humanity by creating a vast, artificial reality.

That was just Hollywood.

But now physicists ask: Does the quantum theory, which rules the subatomic world, allow for a universe on a computer?

Physicist Jacob Bekenstein has claimed that our universe might be an illusion, perhaps consisting of 10 (100) bits of information which can be stored on a disk.

Outrageous as this may sound, this means that everything around us might be a CD in which a super-being has pushed the "play" button.

To calculate this number, we have to ask: What is the smallest distance, and how much information can you cram into it?

Zeno declared that any distance could be sliced up into infinitely small pieces.

He then confounded philosophers for 2,000 years by proving that it was impossible to cross a river.

Since it takes an infinite amount of time to pass through an infinite number of slices which span the river, it was mathematically impossible for anything to move. (So the universe cannot be placed on a CD, and you cannot even hit the "play" button.)

Zeno's paradox was finally solved by Newton and the coming of the calculus.

In a Newtonian universe, it was possible to cross a river, but it was impossible to truly simulate reality.

For example, our greatest computer cannot accurately model every molecule which makes up the weather. (Perhaps the smallest system which can truly simulate our weather is the weather itself.)

However, in the 1970s, Bekenstein and Stephen Hawking began by noting that a black hole (hundreds of which have now been catalogued by Hubble) represented the maximum possible compression of information.

Oddly enough, the total info packed into a black hole was proportional to its surface area, not its volume.

If you threw a book into a black hole, its information was somehow encoded on the surface. (You really can judge a book by its cover!)

And today, physicists believe that the "smallest distance" is the "Planck length" (10 (-33) cm), the distance where space-time itself becomes unstable (becoming "foamy" and frothing with tiny wormholes and bubble-universes).

If we put one bit of information into each Planck interval, we can re-derive Bekenstein and Hawking's results.

Bekenstein calculates that an aging mini-black hole, decayed down to about a centimeter across, may contain 10 (66) bits of information on its surface.

From there, he estimated how much information can be stored in the visible universe, and came up with 10 (100).

His results seem to agree with string theory, the leading candidate for a "theory of everything" which can describe quantum black holes. (In string theory, we can also obtain an even more bizarre possibility, that the universe is also a hologram.)

Alas, this does not mean we can hit the "fast forward" button and see the outcome of the November election (because of the uncertainty principle).

But it does raise a possibility that super-historians of the future, instead of reading bland histories of the election, might simply hit the "rewind button" and get an instant replay.

September 5, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

iSold It


New company that works with eBay to help you easily sell stuff you don't want.

If it's worth more than $30 and weighs less than 150 lbs., they'll do all the heavy lifting.

Here's how it works:

1) You bring your junk - oops, I meant treasures to be deaccessioned - to one of their stores

2) You go home

3) They send you checks

What's not to like?

Well, I suppose you could object to their taking a fat 30% commission on the proceeds from the sale of your stuff.

Before you get too bent out of shape, though, I'd like to ask you a question:

How much is 100% of 0?


'Cause that's what you'll be getting if you just let your stuff sit and rot in your attic or basement.

September 5, 2004 at 06:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Twinkies on the brink


Last week, Twinkie-maker Interstate Bakeries Corp. delayed filing its annual financial report for the second time, causing its stock to drop more than 42% on speculation about the company's ongoing viability and possible bankruptcy.


Twinkies bankrupt?

How can this be?

The company now has until September 26 to file its annual report or trigger a cascade of events that could well plunge it into deep cream filling and Chapter 11.

Problems with data entry into the company's new computer system - am I the only one who hears a dog burping after eating someone's homework, way in the background? - are being blamed for the delayed filing.

Also hurting Interstate are consumers jumping onto the low-carb bandwagon.

Interstate's other brands, among them Wonder Bread and Marie Callender's, are also suffering.

Shares of Interstate closed at $4.56 on the New York Stock Exchange, a new all-time low.

The company's 52-week high was $16.88 in March, just six months ago.

When it rains, boy, it sure makes for soggy Twinkies.

September 5, 2004 at 03:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

E.T., don't bother calling; write instead


Superb article by Dennis Overbye in Thursday's New York Times about why it's more likely our first evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence will be an artifact like in "2001: A Space Odyssey" than radio signals via SETI.

It's this week's cover story in the journal Nature.


Here's Overbye's piece.


Sorry, E.T., but Parcel Post May Beat Phoning Home

Ever since 1960, when an astronomer named Frank Drake pointed a radio telescope at a pair of nearby stars on the chance that he might hear a cosmic "howdy" from extraterrestrial beings, astronomers have persevered in the notion that radio or light waves could bridge the unbridgeable gulfs marooning civilizations in space and time.

So far there has been only silence, but in their wildest, most romantic moments, astronomers dream of tapping into a kind of galactic library in which the knowledge and records of long-dead civilizations are beamed across the galaxy.

Now, however, it appears that E.T. might be better off using snail mail.

According to new calculations being published by a physicist and an electrical engineer today in the journal Nature, it is enormously more efficient to send a long message as a physical package, a cosmic FedEx, than as radio wave or laser pulse.

As a result, say the authors, Dr. Christopher Rose, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Rutgers, and Dr. Gregory Wright, a physicist at Antipodes Associates in Fair Haven, N.J., searchers for extraterrestrial intelligence should pay more attention to how messages could be inscribed and delivered and where they might be found.

"Our results suggest that carefully searching our own planetary backyard may be as likely to reveal evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations as studying distant stars through telescopes," they wrote.

In an accompanying commentary, Dr. Woodruff T. Sullivan of the University of Washington said that although this was not a new idea, the new paper was the first quantitative analysis of the comparative costs of the ways of delivering information between the stars.

He compared the notion of a message in a bottle to the monolith left as a calling card by aliens in "2001: A Space Odyssey," adding, "If astroarchaeologists were to find such, it would hardly be the first time that science fiction had become science fact."

Although the result sounds counterintuitive, the problem will be familiar to anyone who ever spent time shrinking a digital photograph before trying to send it over the Internet through a dial-up connection.

It would be much easier to drive a truck of photo albums across town or put them in an overnight-mail box than to go through the process of scanning and shrinking each photo.

The paper, Nature's cover article, is being received with bemusement by veterans of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.

Dr. Paul Horowitz, a Harvard physicist and SETI expert, called it "a fun and an enjoyable read, but I wouldn't turn off my radio telescope and go out with my butterfly net."

The new argument is based on a simple observation.

The farther a light beam or radio wave is sent, the more it spreads out, and the smaller fraction of its energy is recaptured at the other end.

Moreover, if the recipients are not looking in the right direction at the right frequency when the signal arrives, it will shoot past and be lost.

A letter, by contrast, does not disperse in transit, and waits at its destination until it is read.

And with modern nanotechnology, the authors point out, that letter can contain quite a lot.

Some 10 to the 22nd power bits of information - much more than the sum of all the written and electronic information on Earth - can be encoded into a cube weighing about 2.2 pounds, Dr. Rose and Dr. Wright say.

Even allowing for thousands of pounds of lead to protect the message from cosmic rays and the weight of fuel, they calculated that it would take 100 million times as much energy to radiate those bits from the world's largest radio telescope to an antenna 10,000 light-years away as to send it them in a "letter."

The hitch is that the package could not travel as fast as radio waves.

At only one-thousandth the speed of light, it could take 20 million or 30 million years to reach distant stars, but that is still a blink compared with the galaxy's age, 10 billion years.

The main advantage of radio waves, the authors argue, is the possibility of two-way communication.

But other beings could be so far away - hundreds or thousands of light-years - that even at the speed of light a reply would be impossible.

"If you're simply trying to say, 'Here we are,' a radio wave is the best way to do it," Dr. Rose said in an interview.

But he added that any detailed information would require a long message.

Still, he acknowledged that someone out there might be trying to communicate that way.

"We'd be goofy not to keep looking for radio waves," he said.

Dr. Jill Tarter, an astronomer at the SETI Institute, intends to keep on doing just that.


"We've always reserved the right to get smarter and add new search strategies to our arsenals," she said. "For me personally, I'm sticking with radio."

September 5, 2004 at 12:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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