Saturday, April 08, 2006

Food critic, of course.

Be Merry, Not Ancient


BECAUSE we all needed yet another set of rules to follow, because we had not yet been sufficiently bombarded with dictates about the colors of the fruits and vegetables we should eat and the ideal intake of alcohol and the optimal frequency of low-impact exercise, the Journal of the American Medical Association came along last week to tell us that serious calorie restriction might best serve the quest for a long, disease-free life.

The number of calories in the daily diets of some participants in this latest study was — gulp — 890. Which, by my nonscientific research, is less than the average teenage or adult American who lives within a half mile of a Burger King and has not had gastric bypass surgery consumes for dinner. That might be considered a helpful target, except that it's so ludicrously unattainable, in professions other than modeling and zip codes other than 90210, that there isn't anything helpful about it.

It's also hard to see the point of it. If living to 99 means forever cutting the porterhouse into eighths, swearing off the baked potato and putting the martini shaker into storage, then 85 sounds a whole lot better, and I'd ratchet that down to 79 to hold onto the Häagen-Dazs, along with a few shreds of spontaneity. It's a matter of priorities.

Do we really want as many years as we can get, no matter how we get them? At what point does the pursuit of an extended life — a pursuit that pivots on the debatable assumption that habit can outwit heredity, not to mention chance— become the entire business of a life? Is longevity all it's cracked up to be?

Scientists and medical doctors are certainly obsessed with it, charting a tedious path of pleasures assiduously portioned and rituals steadfastly maintained. Cut back on caffeine. Stop after a glass and a half of red wine. Make an enemy of red meat. Make friends with flossing — which, it turns out, may have benefits that go beyond admirable dental hygiene to the prevention of heart disease and diabetes.

Month after month brings study after study, and the only thing more addling than keeping track of all the information is resolving the contradictions it seems to contain.

Take the matter of weight. If memory serves me (it may not, given my failure to toe the line on wine) and a Nexis search isn't failing me, we received a different set of instructions just a year ago.

Last April, a study also published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more commonly known as the Journal of Utterly Mixed Signals, demonstrated a correlation between being very thin and an increased risk of death. The study indicated that people who are overweight but not obese might be better off, at least in terms of attaining the coveted status and Pensacola retirement home of the nonagenarian.

I'm no expert on metabolism, but I bet that the 890-calorie-a-day diet followed by some participants in the new study would lead, over time, to a condition that looks an awful lot like extreme thinness. So what should I have for breakfast? A cup of low-fat yogurt or a salt bagel with a schmear?

Yes, I'm painting with a broad brush; the studies in question are more nuanced and less definitive than I'm making them out to be. The cap of 890 calories a day was a short-term fix, not a long-term prison. There might be allowances, down the road, for a Whopper with cheese. Followed, of course, by some vigorous flossing and a brisk 40-minute walk.

But the larger point remains. We are awash in behavioral strictures, many of them conflicting.

After years of being schooled in the transcendent virtues of low-fat diets, we were informed two months ago — in, you guessed it, the Journal of the American Medical Association — that this education might be flawed. An eight-year, $415 million federal study of nearly 49,000 women found that those who maintained low-fat diets had the same rates of breast cancer, colon cancer and heart attacks as those who ate what they wanted.

So, I'll have that bagel with a schmear, but not simply because one study among many gave me a green light, at least for the moment. I'll have it because it makes me happy, which has to count for something.

And even if the new study is wrong and the old studies were right and the schmear robs me of some time on the tail end of my days, I may not have enough money in my 401(k) to go the full distance, and I'm definitely not counting on Social Security to pick up the slack.

Which raises additional concerns. What happens to all of us, as a society, if 100 becomes the new 80? Plastic surgeons may get even richer and the populations of Florida and Arizona may swell, but will pension funds still be there for us? Will prescription drug benefits?

Each of us can individually hunker down for the long haul, squirreling away our money instead of spending it on hedonistic vacations, exercising faithfully so that our limbs stay as limber as our nipped-and-tucked faces are taut. But doesn't the quality of our days matter as much as the quantity of them?

Pondering this question, I riffled through some obituaries.

Richard Burton died at 58 — no doubt fewer years than he or anyone else would want — but wasn't his a swashbuckling, gallivanting life that was in many ways worth envying, Liz or no Liz?

Strom Thurmond died at 100. "In those last years," according to the obituary by Adam Clymer in The New York Times, "he had to be helped onto the Senate floor by aides, who also told him, in voices audible in the Senate gallery, how to vote."

Of course neither man planned it that way, and that may be the most important lesson of all.

We can't really predict tomorrow. We can't guarantee its arrival with a specified number of calories or a given allotment of sleep, with milligrams of dark chocolate or ounces of fiber. But we can often determine the measure of joy we wring out of today.

I also riffled through a book of quotations and immediately found this proverb: "He lives long who lives well." I don't think those last two words are really about blueberries, broccoli and green tea. And I'm not sure the first three are about anything as literal and prosaic as a tally of years.

Reflecting, post-Madness.

E-Ticket: Forever Coach

The greatest coach in the history of college basketball has a tiny place. John Wooden's Encino, Calif., condominium couldn't be more than 700 square feet, and almost every inch of it is occupied. Piles of books -- volumes of poetry, biographies of Abraham Lincoln, several bibles -- line the hallways. The dining room table is cluttered with Pyramids of Success waiting to be signed and sent to fans. And dozens of photographs and plaques, commemorating 43 years of coaching and 95 years of life, hang on the walls of every room.

"I have a lot of memories to think about," Wooden says softly, sitting up straight in a curved-back wooden chair in his living room, and turning his eyes to a stack of framed photographs on the floor.


An All-American captaincy at Purdue; an 88-game winning streak and 10 national championships as head coach at UCLA; hundreds of student-athletes graduated; a double- induction (as both player and coach) into the Basketball Hall of Fame; 53 years of marriage to his beloved wife, Nellie (who died in 1985); and the birth of two children, seven grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren who know him not as "Coach," but as "Papa."

It has been a remarkably full life, the kind a man sits with in his den in the afternoon and reflects on at night before he lies down in bed, tasting love and loss all over again, reaching back across the years to the people and places he's touched and been touched by. "I've been blessed in so many ways," Wooden says. "I like to spend time in the past, with the things that have been important to me."

Not what you expect to hear from a man whose work ethic and philosophy are deeply rooted in a Zen-like devotion to the present moment. "Today is the only day," he so often says. "Yesterday is gone." But as you listen to him recite the opening lines of Longfellow's "Hiawatha," just as his father recited them to him by kerosene lamplight nearly a century ago, past and present blur. "He doesn't wallow," says Andy Hill, who played for Wooden in the early '70s and now is a close friend. "He's a child of the Depression. He endures. He keys on happy moments that feed him and inspire him in what he does today."

The objects Wooden keeps open like windows, like portals between then and now.

In his wallet, you'll find a seven-point creed his father gave him when he graduated the eighth grade. It's one of many copies he had printed after the original wore to shreds. "Be true to yourself," it says. "Make each day your masterpiece, help others, drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible, make friendship a fine art, build a shelter against a rainy day, pray for guidance, count and give thanks for your blessings every day." His bowed, arthritic fingers shake a little as he shows it to you, but he remembers the words by heart and says them aloud. "I was built up from my dad more than anyone else," he says. "I tried to live by this and I tried to teach by it. I haven't always been perfect, but I've tried."

Somewhere buried under the correspondence and the photographs in his den, tucked away in the corner of a desk drawer or maybe slipped between the pages of a book, is a poem written by the student manager of the 1942 Central High School basketball team Wooden coached in South Bend, Ind. "The paper is crippled, but I still have it," says Wooden, who enlisted in the service in 1942 and never returned to high school coaching. "I loved high school teaching. Had I not enlisted, I don't think I would have ever left. That's where the real teaching is done."

And on the left side of their bed, below carved wooden letters that spell out her name on the wall, Wooden keeps a shrine to Nellie -- her nightgown, a photo of the two of them together, flashing the "hang loose" sign at a Hawaiian luau, the personalized license plate from her car. "It makes me feel better," he says. "I know she's there. I talk to her every day." He whispers this, the words half-swallowed. She overwhelms him 20 years after her passing, cuts through his love of poetry and his flair for maxims to some inarticulate well of feeling.

In this tiny place, surrounded by these personal artifacts, you notice an embroidered pillow on the sofa in the den. It's a quote from Mother Teresa, one of Wooden's heroes, that reads: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." Reading it, you realize the greatest coach in the history of college basketball, the man who fashioned success into a pyramid, the man whose rolled-up program and horn-rimmed glasses were for many years the very definition of competitive intensity, the man whose winning percentage is the stuff of legend and whose meticulously planned practices were Exhibit A in the triumph of rationalism over uncertainty, is, at heart, a sentimentalist.

And you don't mean this as a slight. You mean it as high praise. You mean he feels deeply. He loves. He honors. Across time and distance, he connects and stays connected to the people in his life. "Once you're on his team, you're on his team forever," says former UCLA All-American Bill Walton. "He's your coach for life."

* * *

Wednesday morning, 8 a.m., and the pale light of the sun comes pouring through the plate-glass windows of VIPs, a coffee shop on Ventura Boulevard, just as Walton comes busting through the front door tooting on a noise maker and singing the most god-awful rendition of "Happy Birthday" you've ever heard in your life. He's carrying paper party hats, balloons and a banner, and Coach Wooden, sitting at a booth in the back, cringes a bit at the sight of him. "You've gone too far, Bill," he says.

Walton kicks it up a notch. "Come on!" he says. "You only turn 95 once." It's a party. In addition to Wooden and Walton, Hill is there, along with former players Kenny Washington (Class of '66), Lynn Shackelford (Class of '69), Jamaal Wilkes (Class of '74) and Marques Johnson (Class of '77).

Washington and Walton hang the banner on the brick wall above the booth, Hill blows a horn, Shackelford tries to decode the mysteries of something called a "musical candle," and, in a particularly delicious theater-of-the-absurd bit, Wilkes struggles -- "This is the hole, isn't it?!?" -- to blow up a metallic SpongeBob Squarepants balloon. Everyone but Coach has strapped on a goofy hat, and the quips are flying fast and furious. It's a table full of Shriners, it's the poker game in "The Odd Couple." Except at this table, everyone has shaved within the hour -- "You've gotta shave for Coach," Johnson says. "You've got to."

"Happy Birthday!" Walton shouts. "Coach, you made it. You're now of age. Congratulations!"

"I appreciate the thoughtfulness," Wooden says. "I just wish you meant it."

"You know, Coach, now that I've learned to speak, you can't get me to shut up," Walton says, referring to the stutter that plagued him for most of his life.

"That's what your mother said," Wooden shoots back, showing no mercy.

That's right. The Wizard of Westwood, the coach of the century who has lived almost a century himself, is doing the dozens, going "Yo' Mama" on The Big Redhead, over breakfast. "The rest of us can only hope we're half as sharp at 95 as he is," Hill says. "Heck, most of us would settle for being half as sharp now."

But make no mistake, Walton and company give as good as they get here.

Could they ever have imagined they'd be sitting here with Wooden now, celebrating his 95th birthday?

"I thought he was dead when we played for him," Walton says.

"That's true," Shackelford chimes in. "You know, I think he looks better now than he did then."

They reminisce about practices, and about how and when they first came to UCLA. Washington tells of coming out on the bus from South Carolina and being afraid to get off of it when he arrived. Wooden mimics Wilkes' inimitable, elliptical jump shot. Hill, who rode a lot of pine, proudly claims his two points a game made him a Jewish All-American, once upon a time. Walton and Johnson compare notes on where each man was taken for his recruiting dinner (Johnson got a steak at Chasen's, Walton recalls "maybe a bowl of dry cereal"). Shackelford tells you Coach would prefer it if their wives had come, "because they're much better looking than we are." And they all laugh about pantomiming their way through Wooden's infamous imaginary shooting and rebounding drills. "I still start my day every single morning with that," Walton says. "I go out in the backyard, put the imaginary ball up in the air, and yank it down, arrgghh, elbows out."

It's a special scene, full of warmth and wit. A handful of VIPs customers who've stumbled upon it can't believe what they're seeing. Wooden, Walton, Wilkes -- this is once-in-a-lifetime stuff.

Only here's the thing: It happens all the time.

Wooden is a regular at VIPs, has been for 12 years. "I only go six or seven mornings a week, that's all," he says with a sly grin. He's met at the door each morning by Paul Ma, the proprietor, and before he sits down to his usual (egg scrambled, bacon brittle, English muffin and fruit), Wooden makes the rounds, slowly walking with his cane, greeting folks at the swivel-stool counter and in the sea-green vinyl booths. "Good morning, Coach," they all say, shaking his hand, putting an arm lightly around his waist, maybe offering the sports section from the morning's Los Angeles Times.

"Ed and Margaret are always in the next booth," he says. "And Millie is always in the next one, and then at the counter right across is always Lois, and Barbara is next, Mike is next, Scotty is next, Jerry is next, and Jack is next. It's just family. All the waitresses you know by name, and you know something about their families. It's a home place."

For years now, Wooden's former players, his "boys," have been part of this home place. The birthday bunch is only a sample; Mike Warren, Keith Erickson, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, Bob Webb, Larry Hollifield, Swen Nater and many others regularly dine at VIPs with Coach. And when they can't come, they call. Daily. He keeps a hand-written calendar that would make diplomats and doctors half his age feel like no-account slackers. Sit with him in the den for an hour and the phone will ring half-a-dozen times. He lets it go to the machine, and picks up when he recognizes the voice. Ring. "That's Bob and Larry." Ring. "He played on my first team at UCLA in 1948." Ring. "This will probably be Bill."

"When it's me," Walton says, "he lets me go and go and go until I fill up the machine." But for all the joking, and all of the casual conversation that flows between them, the players come and call because they feel an enduring bond with him; three decades or more after they played for him, he remains a fixture in their lives. "Outside of my mother and father, Coach is the single most important person in my life," Walton says. "My love for him grows every day."

You can't get a word in edgewise at the birthday table. Walton's riffing on how Wilkes never passed him the ball, and Shackelford's taking a beating for finally getting the musical candle to work. The infield chatter is relentless.

But Washington, who goes to church every Sunday with Wooden, puts a halt to it. "I want to get this out," he says firmly, like he's laying it down for the Congressional Record, like he needs to say it. "To me, Coach has been like a foster parent to us. He's been very important. We were all lucky to have a great, great parent in him, someone who cared about us as people, as human beings."

Coach smiles with pink cheeks. The other players nod and look his way. The moment doesn't last. It isn't long before Hill is accusing Wooden of loving the 3-on-2 drill simply because, "You were standing there watching while we ran," and so on. But a while later, as plates are being cleared and someone is deciding what to do with the cake Paul brought out, Wooden seems to answer back to Washington, not just for today, but for every day.

"It's very nice to be with you," he says, running his thumb over the rounded edge of a table knife and averting his eyes just a bit. "I love you all very much."

* * *

You have to catch Bill Walton between speeches. He's on the road constantly, preaching the Wooden wisdom, lessons from the Pyramid of Success to the Four Laws of Learning (Demonstration, Imitation, Correction and Repetition), and everything in between.

His fascination with Wooden began as a boy in San Diego, the night he went to a neighbor's house (he had no television at home) to watch UCLA defeat a much bigger, stronger Michigan team for the national title in 1965. "The Bruins were just the littlest, skinniest guys in the world," he says. "I thought they'd get pounded. And instead, they ran a clinic that night -- the fast break, the press, the ball movement, the teamwork. I knew instantly. That was it. That was what I wanted to do with my life: move like that, think like that, be like that."

That was 1965. By the early '70s, Walton wanted to be a free spirit, too, complete with long hair and bushy 'burns, protests against the war in Vietnam and devotion to Dylan and The Dead. Meanwhile, his coach at UCLA was the same Indiana farm boy he'd always been, committed to the simple things: hard work, humility, and a pair of socks put on properly, with nary a wrinkle. Needless to say, they clashed from time to time. "He didn't think I had the right to tell him he couldn't wear his hair long," Wooden recalls. "And I said: 'You're right, Bill. I don't have that right. I just have the right to determine who is going to play -- and we're going to miss you,' and that shaped him up."

For all their differences, Wooden's discipline and structure -- practice began precisely at 3:30, profanity was not allowed, players criticizing other players was not tolerated -- resonated with Walton. As he had in lively dinner-table discussions back home, he thrived on the give-and-take with Coach, and as had been the case with his father's rules and regimens, Wooden's limitations were something he could both question and lean on. "I was always in his office," Walton says. "I would always ask him 'Why?' I challenged him on everything."

But Wooden was neither father nor friend to him in Walton's playing days. He was a fierce competitor who drove his "boys" hard (no chairs, no towels, no breaks during practice, and only salt water to drink) and a principled teacher who peppered them with maxims ("Failing to prepare is preparing to fail," "Be quick, but don't hurry," "Never mistake activity for achievement," "Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out," "Always try to be better today than you were yesterday") they often found confusing and sometimes found comical.

"We thought he was crazy," Walton says, laughing. "We thought he was a walking antique. We were waiting for the next Dylan song, and here was this guy out there talking to us about making each day our masterpiece and putting our socks on the right way. We thought he was hopelessly out of touch."

Of course, in a way, it didn't matter what Wooden said or what they thought of him, because the Bruins were winning big in those years. They racked up two national titles, two 30-0 seasons, and 88 victories in a row with Big Bill as the three-time All-American center at the heart of it all.

It wasn't until Walton moved on to Portland and the pros, and struggled to cope with severe injuries and overwhelming disappointment, that Wooden truly started to come alive for him. "The worse things got for me," Walton says, "the more important he became to me. I started to understand all the things he'd been talking about, about how to deal with adversity, about how to stay positive about the outcome of today."

The story's the same for Marques Johnson, whose daughter drowned several years ago: "A lot of that stuff from Coach was buried down deep inside, but it came back to the surface when I didn't know if I could come back."

And for Jamaal Wilkes, who went through a painful divorce: "He told me I had to love in order to live. It was what I needed to hear."

Wooden's quaint phrases had waited on them, had anticipated their hardships.

"They were a gift I didn't open until years later," Walton says. "I didn't realize. I was a kid. Now that I'm a parent, now that I've been through what I've been through [including dozens of surgeries on his ankles and many years of work to overcome his speech impediment], I see that they're not just phrases, they're a philosophy of life, and I can't imagine my life without them."

Andy Hill doesn't have to imagine. He spent 25 years away from Wooden.

A Westwood boy born and raised, Hill always wanted to be a Bruin. He would hum the UCLA fight song shooting hoops in his back yard. He would travel all over the city to see them play in the days before Pauley Pavilion was built. The chance to come to UCLA, to play for Wooden, was his dream come true.

Until he got there.

After a promising year as the leading scorer of the freshman team, it was all downhill. On the court, Wooden felt he had better guards in Kenny Booker and Henry Bibby, so Hill almost never played (he took just 99 shots in three years on the varsity). Off the court, he and Wooden butted heads over politics and the program's treatment of reserve players. At one point, Wooden even encouraged him to transfer.

While Walton thrived in the interplay between himself and Wooden, Hill felt neglected, misunderstood, disillusioned. "Things weren't good with me and my dad," he says. "I think I came to UCLA looking for a father, and I think Coach was just looking for a point guard." The disconnect left him hurt and lost. "For the first time in my life, basketball wasn't fun," he says. "And I was sure this man who I'd idolized just really didn't like me."

So he played out the string, ran through the drills in practice and steamed on the bench in games, ambivalent, after a while, about even getting in. "People used to call Andy 'The man who starts five thousand cars,'" Walton jokes, "because you knew when he got in the game it was over." It was embarrassing, and when graduation came in the summer of '72, Hill couldn't get out of Dodge fast enough. "The day I left school," he says, "I was sure that was the last time I'd ever see Coach."

On a golf course 25 years later, Wooden came back to him. "Before a difficult 2-iron shot, my playing partner told me, 'Don't hurry, get your balance,'" Hill, then a CBS television executive, says. "It was like he was channeling Coach, encapsulating what he taught us. And in that instant, I realized, though I thought I'd put him away, he'd always been with me, his principles had guided my life and my career." In a moment of clarity and calm, Hill knocked the shot stiff, and decided he had to call Wooden and thank him when he got off the course.


"Coach, it's Andy Hill."

"Andy? Where are you? Can you come over?"

Eight years later, Hill, who visits Wooden at least a couple of times a week now, helps Coach into the passenger seat of Walton's car in the parking lot out behind VIPs. He offers his left arm, bent at the elbow, and Wooden reaches out his right hand and grabs on. They pause there for a second ("Don't hurry, get your balance"), leaning on each other, before Wooden settles down into the seat. "That phone call was the best decision I've ever made," Hill says. "It changed my life. Once we were away from basketball, from my thinking I should play more, I could see he did care about me. And what we have now goes way beyond the father-son relationship I used to hope for. What we have now is that plus a friendship."

* * *

"Don't call me Wizard," Wooden says. "I'm no wizard." If he were more theatrical, the line would come with a "Harumph!," but instead he just grimaces. He doesn't think there's anything remarkable about him at all. He's just a kid from Martinsville whose daddy told him to do right and do his best. He's no better than you or me. He's a schoolteacher who's been lucky enough to have some exceptional students over the years, end of story. He's kept his nose to the grindstone and he's kept his eyes on the prize, but he ain't special.

Ask him to explain that chock-full calendar of his, ask him why it is that he and so many of his boys have stayed so close for so long, and he'll tell you it's just an extension of what all coaches and players share. "You deal with each other in so many different ways," he says. "You deal with each other physically, emotionally and mentally, and through times of stress, and I think you just get to know each other better."

The boys aren't buying such a mundane explanation. They know he's one of a kind.

They speak of him in hushed tones, with wide smiles on their faces. They gush. Do they risk deifying him? They don't care. They know what they know. Wilkes tells you how moved he was, how much he learned, by Coach's absolute devotion to Nellie. Washington speaks of Wooden's unflinching support of Kareem at a time when the center was marginalized by race, size, politics. Shackelford marvels still at his steady habits of study and preparation. Hill raves about his memory, of names, faces and lines of poetry he loves. Walton, who unabashedly calls Wooden "an enduring flame of hope," says it's all these and more: "It's the totality with Coach. It's the example he sets by the way he does all the little things and all the big things in his life."

Fidelity. The man is simply, steadily faithful, to his God, to his principles, to his family and his friends, to the creed in his pocket, the poem in his den and the shrine on his bed. He knows himself. It's a simple thing but a rare one, against the social grain. "There's a line I like from Socrates," he says. "When he was unjustly imprisoned and facing imminent death, the jailers asked, 'Why aren't you preparing for death?' And Socrates said, 'I've been preparing for death all my life by the life I've lead.'"

For Wooden, planning the jump and jumping the plan means a kind of serenity. "I have peace with myself," he says.

For his players, his uncommon consistency serves, now, as a measure for their own lives, half challenge and half inspiration, as it was in their playing days. "No one's perfect, and of all people, I know he's not," says Hill. "But he's closer than anyone else I know, and by that I mean he really does live in congruence with the philosophy he espouses."

It's not that they agree with everything he thinks or believes. It's not that the points on his creed must be their own. It's that he was there, doggedly holding on to his principles at a time when Walton, Johnson and Wilkes needed something to believe in. It's that, if nothing else, they believed in his believing. It's that he and one of his favorite lines from Mother Teresa -- "Forgiveness sets you free," -- were there, 25 years later, when Hill needed to hear them on the other end of the line. "Love is giving," Wooden says. If his boys give him, especially in the years since Nellie passed, a home place, he gives his boys himself. Every time. That's why they come and call, so often and for so long now. That's why they love him like they do.

Well, that and the way he slices and dices Walton over scrambled eggs and bacon.

* * *

It's Wednesday afternoon now, in a conference room in the athletic complex at UCLA, and Wooden is at a long table, surrounded by some 300 leather basketballs. He's got a Sharpie, and every ball needs his signature for some alumni fundraiser or other. An athletic department assistant is lining up the balls to his right; he's signing them with a ridiculously steady hand for a 95-year-old man and no-look flicking them to the floor at his left. "You know, you'd have probably benched yourself for that pass," you say, knowing he doesn't go in for the fancy stuff. He laughs. "I could use the rest," he says. He's kidding. The balls keep coming and keep getting flicked away. You're amazed at his energy, and you find yourself wondering how long he can keep it up. It's no great leap from that thought to thoughts of mortality, to hoping there are many more signatures and breakfasts to come. "I'm always struck by these incredibly dissonant emotions when I leave him, and he's standing there on the balcony of his condo, waving," Hill says. "I'm elated that I just got to spend time with my dear friend and the greatest coach of all time and at the same time there is the momentary dread of feeling how our time together is like sand running out of an hourglass."

Watching the signed balls go by, you think again of Wooden's mementos. In his pocket, to this day, he keeps a small steel cross, given to him by his minister when he enlisted in 1942. It has an alpha and an omega embossed on one side, and a heart and a monad (a symbol of unity) stamped on the other. Beginnings and endings, love and order. This cross has been with him for 63 years, through triumph and loss, through joy and sadness. You see how it's been worn smooth by his busy fingers, and you imagine how it's grounded him, provided him some measure of comfort and counsel, reminded him of who he is and what matters to him.

Walton keeps something, too. He opens his wallet and takes out a card. "Timeless wisdom from a godly father," he says. "Never lie, never cheat, never steal. Don't whine, don't complain, don't make excuses." "Just do the best you can," Coach chimes in. They're Wooden's father's words. And you hear the two of them reciting from memory, it seems, and you think: This is the bridge. Not just the card but the impulse to keep it. Not just the card but the ideas printed on it. You realize in this moment that the vagaries of age and failings of the body notwithstanding, Wooden will live on.

"He'll always be with us," Hill says. "His lessons, his concepts, his philosophies are deeply ingrained in all of his former players." Breakfast at VIPs is a testimonial event, you think. It speaks to how deeply people can affect each other. Maybe it's a Frank Capra thought, maybe it's straight out of "It's a Wonderful Life," but you think it, you believe it, and you're intoxicated by it.

* * *

You drive Coach home at the end of the afternoon. You open the door on the passenger side, and hold your left arm out, bent at the elbow. He reaches out with his right hand, grabs on, and lifts himself to standing. You walk him to the gate and watch him head to the elevator in the parking garage. You wait. Hoping to see him appear behind the glass door at the balcony. The sunlight bouncing off the glass makes it hard to see inside. You wait. Finally, you see him moving behind the glass and you wave. You feel a twinge, a hint of that mix of joy and worry Hill must feel, and you turn to go, with your hands in your pockets, wishing you had some token.

More angst from technology.

The Times April 08, 2006


Are they ready for a close-up?
by Hannah Betts

How is the beauty industry combating TV’s new era of high-definition wrinkles?

The old thespian joke about having the perfect face for radio looks set to gain new currency this spring as high-definition television (HDTV) starts to be relayed to hundreds of thousands of British homes.

As media moguls rub their hands, so a shiver of horror has gone through the performing industry. For the hyper- real quality of HDTV may make the beautiful game still more beautiful but it is set to wreak havoc among celebrities of a certain age; that age being anything over 14.

Not since the introduction of colour in the 1970s will there have been such a revolution in quality of viewing. The high-definition image has more lines of resolution, allowing for dramatically more detail than ever before. And with two to three times the precision of DVD and movie footage, and four times the clarity of standard definition television, every wrinkle will be a crevasse, every pore a black hole.

At Sky, which looks set to be the first big provider of this punishing new realism, rumours abound concerning presenters seeking out “Botox budgets” and peels. Beauties may have their reputations ruined by the screening of footage that reveals them warts and all, seats could lie vacant at awards ceremonies where red-carpet scrutiny is too much for fragile egos to bear.

Not only is HDTV an ideal medium for sport, it has also generated an alternative sport in the United States, where the technology has been available for over five years. Phillip Swann edits the TV Predictions site, on which he rates the most terrifying HD celebrities (

Teri Hatcher is outed for a bulbously veined forehead, Demi Moore for being coarse and leathery, Donald Trump for orange-streaking and flaccid cheeks. The traditional recourses of the older performer — surgery, heavy Botox, being Tango-ed — appear too blatant and will no longer render one ready for one’s close-up. Smooth-skinned beauties such as Nicole Kidman may be rejoicing.

Younger starlets do not fare much better, with Swann noting Keira Knightley’s high-definition acne during the 2006 Oscars. Alas for young Keira, slap-wise, even the lightest euphemistic veil can take on the subtlety of cement applied with a trowel.

Nevertheless, the cosmetics giants are viewing HDTV as a research and development opportunity. Clinique has cornered the market in high- definition slap. Dr David Orentreich, the company’s dermatologist, says: “HDTV is a real issue for performers. An analogy would be that seeing skin through a standard format is like looking into a regular mirror. Seeing it through HDTV is like looking with a magnifying mirror. It exacerbates the appearance of redness, scars, pigmentation irregularities and shows every line, pore, and discoloration.”

A daily skincare routine, religious use of sunscreen, good diet and a ban on smoking and extreme weight fluctuation are — as ever— the key to looking good. Clinique has also come up with an HDTV action kit: not least, its new CX range of skin nourishers, correctors and concealers (from £28). However, Sandra Exelby, the chairwoman of the National Association of Screen Make-up Artists and Hairdressers, says: “It’s all about applying make-up properly rather than using new brands.”

Otherwise, stars risk falling prey to the put-down issued by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, in which she describes a rival as a “Monet”: alluring from a distance, but a chaos of daubs and artifice close up.

The psychological effects of this new technology should not be underestimated. The aura that film and television companies have been able to create around their stars by means of lighting, air-brushing and the like will be stripped away to expose the all-too real individuals beneath.

We mere mortals may even look rather better. Behold the revenge of the little people.

Screen-able skin

To get the requisite flawless visage, Dr Orentreich, a dermatologist, recommends fractional resurfacing. This is a laser treatment which aims to reduce wrinkles, broken blood vessels and sun damage.

Judicious use of Botox and light chemical peels should go undetected on HDTV.
But if your red-carpet invite arrives late, leaving you no time to indulge in some non-invasive cosmetic surgery, opt for light foundation — but not too light-reflective as it makes skin look greasy and sweaty.

And avoid red or yellow make-up as HDTV picks up on these colours far more than pink or bronze-based hues.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Forget the information economy; how about the privacy economy

Everyone is focused on the information economy. What is the inverse of information or the absence of information? One can look at is as privacy. In nature, there is a constant battle based on signal guarding (outbound) and signal acquisition (inbound). sometimes, allowing signal to go out can be beneficial (reciprocal altruism, kin altruism), but generally, signal asymmetry is the most favorable state. We envision the emergence and explosion of a privacy economy where people value the lack of information (spam filters, anonymizers, etc). Take a look at the article below where cellphone will be equipped for evesdropping on daily activities. NSA would have a field day.

MEDIA COMPANIES have long searched, with mixed results, for proof that advertising works. Some high-tech help may be on the way.

A number of established audience-measurement companies and industry newcomers are developing tools to better gauge the connection between media exposure and consumer behavior. The audience-measurement job is more complicated these days because of an explosion of media offerings in and outside the home.

A dark horse in the race is Integrated Media Measurement Inc., a start-up led by some prominent technology entrepreneurs that is using specially adapted cellphones to measure what consumers listen to and see. The company has developed software that helps the phones take samples of nearby sounds, which are identified by comparing them against a database.

Besides television and radio, IMMI, as the San Mateo, Calif., company calls itself, says the technology can track exposure to CDs, DVDs, videogames, sporting events, audio and video on portable gadgets and movies in theaters. The closely held company has been testing its system for nine months with about 200 consumers in Sacramento, Calif., and hopes to help answer some tricky questions. They include:

-- How often are TV shows watched outside the home?

-- Which songs prompt listeners to change radio stations?

-- Which movie trailers get viewers to go to the theater?

"For the first time, you may be able to get an answer to one of the holy-grail questions -- is my promo working?" says Alan Wurtzel, president of research for General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal unit, who has been briefed on the IMMI system. "It's a very interesting methodology."

The field has plenty of competition. Another entrant is Media Audit, a unit of Houston's International Demographics Inc., which has collaborated with Paris-based Ipsos SA on a cellphone-based measurement system being tested by such companies as radio-station owner Clear Channel Communications Inc.

Some companies argue that cellphones could lead to distorted research. Survey participants, for example, could change how often they carry or converse on phones, or download content to them.

Arbitron Inc. instead proposes a special-purpose gadget called the portable People Meter, which it has been testing in Houston. GfK AG's Mediamark Research Inc. also is developing a pager-size media-measurement device.

Radio and TV exposure has long been measured, respectively, by Arbitron and VNU NV's Nielsen Media Research. Methods include pen-and-paper usage logs filled out by selected panels of consumers, as well as devices that passively measure media usage in the home.

But consumers' media exposure has taken on many new forms, including delayed TV broadcasts with digital video recorders, Internet video, videogames and songs or movies that are downloaded to Apple Computer Inc.'s iPod or other portable devices. The new measuring services aim to better follow consumers as they move among the media types.

IMMI Chief Executive Tom Zito previously led videogame company Digital Pictures and, a Web music start-up. A partner at both ventures was Amanda Welsh, now an IMMI senior vice president. Al Alcorn, IMMI's chief technology officer, co-founded videogame pioneer Atari Corp.

The entrepreneurs, backed by $14 million in venture capital, plan to give survey participants cellphones that can take reliable sound samples, Mr. Zito said. Those snippets -- taken every 30 seconds and altered mathematically so any conversation is made unintelligible -- are transmitted continuously to IMMI. Sounds from headphone devices such as iPods can be transmitted to the cellphones with a wireless accessory. IMMI has been building a database of sound signatures, with help from customers testing the company's services as well as with CD content it has licensed.

Arbitron and some other companies prefer an approach that uses inaudible identifying code, sometimes called a watermark, that can be inserted into broadcast programming. Arbitron spokesman Thom Mocarsky argues that matching audio samples doesn't work, say, if two radio stations are airing the same syndicated program.

But encoding a watermark also has downsides, Mr. Zito says, including requiring time and effort on the part of content providers -- and embedding such identifiers isn't possible on DVDs and CDs that have already been sold.

Dave Harkness, a senior vice president of strategy and business development at Nielsen, said both watermarks and sampling may be needed to provide the most complete exposure ratings. But sampling alone may still provide valuable information to advertisers and media companies, he said.

IMMI's Mr. Zito says there is evidence that sampling provides useful clues about ad effectiveness. Some respondents in the Sacramento test who were exposed to a particular trailer for the movie "King Kong" went to see the film more than twice as often as those who saw an alternate trailer for the movie, IMMI's data show.

No pain, no gain.

April 7, 2006
Study Links Punishment to an Ability to Profit

Sociologists have long known that communes and other cooperative groups usually collapse into bickering and disband if they do not have clear methods of punishing members who become selfish or exploitative.

Now an experiment by a team of German economists has found one reason punishment is so important: Groups that allow it can be more profitable than those that do not.

Given a choice, most people playing an investment game created by the researchers initially decided to join a group that did not penalize its members. But almost all of them quickly switched to a punitive community when they saw that the change could profit them personally.

The study, appearing today in the journal Science, suggests that groups with few rules attract many exploitative people who quickly undermine cooperation. By contrast, communities that allow punishment, and in which power is distributed equally, are more likely to draw people who, even at their own cost, are willing to stand up to miscreants.

An expert not involved in the study, Elinor Ostrom, co-director of the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University, said it helped clarify the conditions under which people will penalize others to promote cooperation.

"I am very pleased to see this experiment being done and published so prominently," Dr. Ostrom said, "because we still have many puzzles to solve when it comes to the effect of punishment on behavior."

Dr. Ostrom has done fieldwork with cooperatives around the world and said she often asked other researchers and students whether they knew of any long-lasting communal group that did not employ a system of punishment. "No one can give me an example," she said.

In the experiment, investigators at the University of Erfurt in Germany enrolled 84 students in the investment game and gave them 20 tokens apiece to start. In each round of the game, every participant decided whether to hold on to the tokens or invest some of them in a fund whose guaranteed profit was distributed equally among all members of the group, including the "free riders" who sat on their money. Because the profit was determined by a multiple of the tokens invested, each participant who contributed to the fund enjoyed less of a return than if the free riders had done so as well.

The tokens could be redeemed for real money at the end of the experiment.

About two-thirds of the students initially chose to play in a group that did not permit punishment. In the other group, the students had the option in each round of penalizing other players; it cost one token to dock another player three tokens. All participants could see who was contributing what as the game progressed, and could choose to switch groups before each round.

By the fifth round, about half of those who began the study in the no-penalty group had switched to the punitive one. A smaller number of students migrated in the other direction, but by Round 20 most had come back and the punishment-free community was a virtual ghost town.

"The bottom line of the paper is that when you have people with shared standards, and some who have the moral courage to sanction others, informally, then this kind of society manages very successfully," said the study's senior author, Bettina Rockenbach, who was joined in the research by Bernd Irlenbusch, now at the London School of Economics, and Ozgur Gurek.

Switching groups frequently prompted remarkable behavioral changes in the students. Many of those who had been free riders in the laissez-faire group eagerly began penalizing other selfish players upon switching. Dr. Rockenbach compares these people to heavy smokers who are insistent on their right to light up, until they quit. "Then they become the most militant of the antismokers," she said.

Being exploited appeared to cause deep frustration and anger in most students, she said.

Other experts said the results were an important demonstration of how self-interest can trump people's aversion to punitive norms, at least in the laboratory. Out in the world, they said, it is not usually so clear who is free-riding, or even whether a given group is encouraging cooperative behavior in most people.

"The mystery, if there is one, is how these institutions evolve in the first place," Duncan J. Watts, a sociologist at Columbia, wrote in an e-mail message, "i.e., before it is apparent to anyone that they can resolve the problem of cooperation."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Noise, filtered.

link to original article.



Muzak in the realm of retail theatre.
Issue of 2006-04-10
Posted 2006-04-03

If you blindfolded Dana McKelvey and led her into a retail store, a restaurant, a doctor’s office, or a bank, she could tell fairly quickly whether th music playing in the background was Muzak. You may think that you would be able to tell, too, but unless your job is creating Muzak programs, a McKelvey’s is, you probably wouldn’t. The syrupy orchestral “elevator music” that most people associate with the company scarcely exists anymore Muzak sells about a hundred prepackaged programs and several hundred customized ones, and only one—“Environmental”—truly fits the stereotype It consists of “contemporary instrumental versions of popular songs,” and it is no longer terribly popular anywhere, except in Japan. (“The Japanes think they love it, but they actually don’t,” a former Muzak executive told me. “They’ll get over it soon.”) All of Muzak’s other programs are draw from the company’s huge digital inventory, called the Well, which contains more than 1.5 million commercially recorded songs, representing dozens o genres and subgenres—acid jazz, heavy metal, shag, neo-soul, contemporary Italian—and is growing at the rate of twenty thousand songs a month (Some record labels now upload new releases directly to the company, which, like a radio station, pays licensing fees for the songs it uses.) The Wel includes seven hundred and seventy-five tracks recorded by the Beatles, a hundred and thirty by Kanye West, three hundred and twenty-four by Le Zeppelin, eighty-four by Gwen Stefani, a hundred and ninety-one by 50 Cent, and nine hundred and eighty-three by Miles Davis. It also include many covers—among them, versions of the Rolling Stones’ song “Paint It Black” by U2, Ottmar Liebert, and a late-sixties French rock band with female vocalist (who sang it in French) and approximately five hundred versions of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” which, according to Guinness World Records, is the most frequently covered song in the world.

“There are so many songs out there that if I listened to just one I’d never know whether it was Muzak or not,” McKelvey, who is twenty-six years old, and has the kind of soft, persuasive voice that would sound good on late-night radio, told me. “But I could tell if I listened to the flow of a few. The key is consistency. How did those songs connect? What story did they tell? Why is this song after that song, and why is that one after that one? When we make a program, we pay a lot of attention to the way songs segue. It’s not like songs on the radio, or songs on a CD. Take Armani Exchange. Shoppers there are looking for clothes that are hip and chic and cool. They’re twenty-five to thirty-five years old, and they want something to wear to a party or a club, and as they shop they want to feel like they’re already there. So you make the store sound like the coolest bar in town. You think about that when you pick the songs, and you pay special attention to the sequencing, and then you cross-fade and beat-match and never break the momentum, because you want the program to sound like a d.j.’s mix.” She went on, “For Ann Taylor, you do something completely different. The Ann Taylor woman is conservative, not edgy, and she really couldn’t care less about segues. She wants everything bright and positive and optimistic and uplifting, so you avoid offensive themes and lyrics, and you think about Sting and Celine Dion, and you leave a tiny space between the songs or gradually fade out and fade in.”

Muzak’s corporate headquarters are in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Naturally, there’s an awesome sound system, which extends into the parking lot but not (for deeply felt symbolic reasons) into the elevator. McKelvey works in a section of the building called the Circle, a curved arrangement of cubicle-size offices, which are the only Muzak work spaces that have doors. She has spent many hours behind hers, listening to hundreds of songs and thinking about how best to employ music to further the marketing ambitions of the hundred or so clients she manages at once. At the time I visited, she was working on a proposal for a prospective customer, a French-owned chocolatier in New York City. “They want the program to include music from everyplace in the world where cocoa grows,” McKelvey told me. “It’s a challenge, to say the least, but it’s fun.” Shortly before we talked, she had been listening to lounge and rhythmic music from Brazil and West Africa, and to a number of less exotic songs, including familiar jazz tunes that she felt conveyed a mood of chocolate-appropriate romance.

McKelvey, a creative manager at Muzak, is one of twenty-two “audio architects”—the company’s term for its program designers. All but two are in their twenties or thirties, and all have serious, eclectic, long-term relationships with music. (Eight of the architects work in the Circle, ten work in the Muzak office in Seattle, two work in New York, and two work from home, in Connecticut and in California.) McKelvey was born in 1980 in Charleston, South Carolina. Her parents weren’t musicians, but her mother liked to sing and her father worked as a d.j.; he now owns a night club in Charleston called Casablanca. McKelvey began playing the piano when she was two, could read notes on the treble clef before she could read words, and took up the violin when she was seven. Two years later, she joined the Charleston Youth Symphony, as a violinist, and performed through high school. At home, when she wasn’t practicing classical pieces, she listened mainly to eighties pop—Michael Jackson, DeBarge, the Jets—and to the music her parents loved, which was Motown and funk. “I never had a TV in my room,” she told me. “I always had a 45-player. My dad had an amazing record collection, and he still does, and it’s all first runs, not reissues. Whenever I’m in Charleston, I try to sneak records from him.” She says her current taste in music is too diverse to characterize.

People at Muzak sometimes speak of a song’s “topology,” the cultural and temporal associations that it carries with it, like a hidden refrain. When McKelvey works on a program for a client whose customers represent a range of ages—such as Old Navy, whose market extends from infants to adults—she has to accommodate more than one sensibility without offending any. The task is simplified somewhat by the fact that musical eras and genres are not always moored firmly in time. Elvis Presley (who is represented in the Well by fourteen hundred and five tracks) sounds dated to many people today, but teen-agers can listen to Beatles songs from just a few years later without necessarily thinking of them as oldies.

Spanning musical generations can pose technical challenges. If a track that was recorded last year is played immediately after one from the forties, fifties, or sixties, the difference in texture can be jarring. (Anyone who has downloaded music onto an iPod or other digital music player is familiar with the difficulty of maintaining consistency from song to song.) One of the techniques used at Muzak is dynamic range compression, which consists of turning down the loudest parts of a signal and then turning up the entire signal; it’s the reason that television commercials often seem louder than the programs they interrupt even though the commercials and the programs are technically limited to the same sound level. In addition, audio architects frequently use tracks as bridges between music from different eras—say, placing a Verve remix of a jazz standard between an Ella Fitzgerald classic and a recent release by Macy Gray. Tracks in the Well are catalogued not only by artist and title but also by producer, label, and date. Recordings from particular studios in particular eras often share a characteristic sound—like wines from particular vineyards and vintages—and some juxtapositions work better than others.

Covers can be useful when you have a range of ages, McKelvey told me. “You can play Vanessa Carlton and Counting Crows doing ‘Big Yellow Taxi,’ and it’s relevant to young people today because the message is still meaningful and they know who Vanessa Carlton and Counting Crows are, but it’s also relevant to their parents, who think, Wait a minute, I know this song—isn’t that what’s-her-name? They may not think of Joni Mitchell right away, but the song affects them because they listened to it when they were younger.”

McKelvey studied marketing at Winthrop University, near Charlotte, North Carolina, and went to work at Muzak not long after she graduated. She told me, “The first time I explained to my mom what I do for a living, she said, ‘They pay people to do that?’ Most people walk into a store and hear music, but they never think that somebody actually put thought into what they’re hearing. A song they like is playing, and they’re nodding along with it, or maybe they’re kind of dancing to it and maybe they don’t want anyone to see that they’re dancing. They don’t realize that the song was put there for a purpose, and that there’s a reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. But there is.”

The company that became Muzak was founded by George Owen Squier, a career Army officer, who was born in Dryden, Michigan, in 1865. Squie earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, in 1893, and he later devised a way to transmit battlefield radio message clandestinely by using living trees as antennae. In the early nineteen-hundreds, he invented a system of “multiplex telephony and telegraphy by mean of electric waves guided by wires”—transmitting multiple radio signals along the outside of electrical, telegraph, and telephone lines. Squier realize that his invention could be used to deliver music, news, and other programming directly to homes and businesses. In 1922 (after helping to establish predecessor to the Air Force, and running the Army’s Signal Corps during the First World War), he sold a license to the North American Company, public-utility conglomerate, which formed a new subsidiary, Wired Radio, to develop the idea. One of the first test markets was Staten Island. Wire Radio customers there were given a boxy receiver, which looked a little like a gramophone, and the programming fee was added to their monthl electric bill. In 1934, Wired Radio—following the example of Eastman’s brilliant coinage, Kodak—changed its name to Muzak. Squier died the same year, of pneumonia.

As the quality and quantity of wireless radio broadcasts increased, eliminating the residential market for wired radio, Squier’s company concentrated on selling background music to hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, many of them at first in New York City. (Muzak is probably called elevator music because soothing melodies were used in early skyscrapers to make people feel less nervous about stepping into a contrivance that looked like a death trap.) In the forties, Muzak introduced a trademarked concept, called Stimulus Progression, which held that most workers would be more productive if they were exposed to music of gradually increasing intensity, in fifteenminute cycles. The process was said to be subliminal: Muzak affected you the way hypnosis did, whether you wanted it to or not. Only sanitized instrumental arrangements were used, because the absence of lyrics made the music less likely to intrude upon conscious thought. It was sometimes said that if the songs in a Stimulus Progression program were played in reverse order a listener would helplessly fall asleep.

Stimulus Progression acquired a vast supporting apparatus of baffling in-house research studies and impenetrable charts and diagrams. It was pseudoscience, but it remained alive at the company until the late nineties, partly because it was a useful marketing tool and partly because it seemed so plausible: most people really were happier and more productive when there was something humming along in the background. Recorded music was “piped” into insurance offices, ocean liners, hotel lobbies, and department stores, and Muzak built a network of franchisees to spread its business further. Today, the company estimates that its daily audience is roughly a hundred million people, in more than a dozen countries, and that it supplies sixty per cent of the commercial background music in the United States. (Modern Muzak is delivered to customers by satellite, over broadband, and on high-capacity disks.)

Until the late nineteenth century, people usually had little access to music unless they made the music themselves, and even in the nineteen-twenties, when Wired Radio began, most people’s lives were still tuneless much of the time. Muzak’s early listeners didn’t have clock radios, car CD players, MTV, home entertainment centers, in-flight hip-hop programs, satellite radio, or iPods, and when their telephone rang it didn’t play the theme to “The Godfather.” Muzak, for many people, was the first manifestation of a phenomenon that is now so familiar we scarcely notice it: the shifting, and frequently inescapable, soundtrack of everyday life.

In 1968, Yesco, a small company in Seattle, began competing with Muzak by offering businesses a product that came to be called foreground music: program of popular songs that hadn’t been transformed into symphonic mush. Foreground music violated all the central principles of Stimulu Progression

Until the fifties, “Music by Muzak” and popular music had a great deal in common, and a number of the company’s songs were recorded by the same big bands that played the hits on the radio. By the time Yesco came along, though, Muzak and popular music had diverged, and generational differences in taste were unbridgeable. When I was in high school, my father brought home a Muzak-like record called “The Beatles Songbook, Vol. 4,” by the Hollyridge Strings. He meant the purchase as a gesture of conciliation, but from my point of view the album might as well have been called “Why We Are in Vietnam” (or, more to the point, “Why I Am Not Going to Clean Up My Room”). As popular music acquired its increasingly rich topology of cultural, political, and sexual associations, Muzak’s bowdlerized hits seemed more and more like an affront. People began to use the company’s name as a generic term for anything bland, soulless, and uninspired—so much so that today many don’t realize that the word has a non-pejorative application.

Muzak was slow to adapt. It didn’t introduce an original-artist program until 1984, and that program, called TONES, was actually produced by Yesco. In 1986, Marshall Field V, the Chicago department-store heir, bought the company, and the following year he took over Yesco and merged the two. Truly modernized Muzak didn’t arise for more than a decade, when the company, which by then had another new owner, underwent a transformation that employees still refer to gravely as “the rebranding.”

This big change was initially conceived by Alvin Collis, an unlikely agent of corporate revolution, who later became the company’s senior vice-president of strategy and brand. He is fifty-three, tall, and extremely thin, and he wears a nearly unvarying uniform: nice black T-shirt, unfaded jeans, high-top sneakers, coollooking wristwatch, designer glasses. Not long ago, we met in the courtyard of the Trump Tower, where he had just had a meeting with the marketing executives of a luxury clothier, which was considering hiring Muzak to create musical programs for its stores.

Collis, who recently left Muzak to become an independent consultant, is from Victoria, British Columbia. After graduating from high school, in 1970, he bummed around Canada and Europe for a couple of years, and eventually moved to Seattle without a green card. He thought of himself primarily as a post-punk musician, a performance artist, and a storyteller. In the eighties, he worked as a freelance sound engineer, and did jobs sporadically for Yesco, and then for Muzak after the two companies merged. Once, he and a group of other engineers were adding a musical soundtrack to a movie (a project unrelated to Muzak). They were working on a love scene, which they knew was supposed to make moviegoers cry. The first time the engineers watched the scene, though, they all laughed. “We were giggling like crazy, and I was thinking, This is going to be a problem, right?” Collis told me. The men spent the next three hours trying to find the right background song for the scene. “Finally, as one song was playing, I turned around and saw that all the guys in the studio were crying. These were all crusty old guys, and by that time we had watched that scene probably twenty-five or thirty times. Suddenly, I understood that the emotional content of a movie is driven largely by your ears. Your eyes can tell you what’s going on in a scene, but it’s hard to feel things through your eyes. Even if a movie has a really good director and a really good script and really good actors, if you watch just the raw footage, with no music, you think, Oh, no, it’s going to tank.”

Several years later, Collis was doing an engineering job for Muzak. He told me, “I walked into a store and understood: this is just like a movie. The company has built a set, and they’ve hired actors and given them costumes and taught them their lines, and every day they open their doors and say, ‘Let’s put on a show.’ It was retail theatre. And I realized then that Muzak’s business wasn’t really about selling music. It was about selling emotion—about finding the soundtrack that would make this store or that restaurant feel like something, rather than being just an intellectual proposition.”
In 1997, the company adopted Collis’s concept—the main element of which he called audio architecture—essentially in its entirety. Muzak went through an exhilarating period of self-examination and redefinition, and moved its headquarters from Seattle to Fort Mill—mainly for economic reasons, but also to sever itself from its stodgy past. In a relatively short time, it transformed itself from a company that sold boring background music into one that was engaged in a far more interesting activity, which it called audio branding.

A business’s background music is like an aural pheromone. It attracts some customers and repels others, and it gives pedestrians walking past th front door an immediate clue about whether they belong inside. A chain like J. C. Penney, whose huge customer base includes all ages and incom levels, needs a program that will make everyone feel welcome, so its soundtrack contains familiar and relatively unassertive popular songs like “Kin and Generous,” by Natalie Merchant. The Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando, which appeals to a more narrowly focussed audience, plays “Girls, Girls Girls,” by Mötley Crüe, and cranks up the volume. (Imagine how teen-agers would perceive the jeans and t-shirts at Abercrombie & Fitch—not Muzak client—if those stores played country-and-Western hits.) Audio architects have to keep all this in mind as they build their programs. They als have to be aware of certain broad truths about background music: bass solos are difficult to hear, extended electric-guitar solos annoy male sports-ba customers, drum solos annoy almost everyone, and Bob Dylan’s harmonica can make it hard for office workers to concentrate. Audio architects als have to screen lyrics carefully. They removed the INXS hit “Devil Inside” from many of the company’s playlists after a devout Christian complained and they are ever vigilant for the word “funk,” which almost everyone mistakes for something else

People often ask Muzak executives whether they worry about competition from the satellite-radio providers XM and Sirius, which carry a broad range of commercial-free music programs, divided among many genres. Bruce McKagan, who is Muzak’s vice-president for music and voice, told me, “Satellite radio is great, but they don’t do what we do. At Muzak, we take a brand and find music that is specific to what it’s trying to accomplish in the marketplace. That’s different from simply grabbing a channel and playing it.” XM and Sirius both sell packages to businesses, but neither company offers the degree of customization that Muzak does. Nor can a business legally use a consumer broadcast of any kind as background music, unless it pays a licensing fee. (The same rules apply to digital music. The ninety-nine cents you pay to download a song from iTunes doesn’t give you the right to play that song to customers over the sound system in a restaurant.) Muzak’s main competitor is actually another commercial background-music company, called D.M.X.

Last March, at a trade show in Las Vegas, Muzak demonstrated audio branding on a large scale. The company’s simple rectangular booth had a decorative theme for each of the show’s three days: a red rose, a Martini, and an eight ball from a pool table. Dana McKelvey had designed a soundtrack for each day that was meant to evoke the theme musically. While the songs played—Etta James and Diana Krall for the rose, Frank Sinatra and dZihan & Kamien for the Martini, Blondie and Wilson Pickett for the eight ball—audio architects interviewed visitors, and used their answers to come up with a “personal audio imaging profile” for each one; later, back in Fort Mill, the audio architects used those profiles to create personalized CDs.
I went through the same imaging process during my visit to Fort Mill. Steven Pilker, a twenty-five-year-old audio architect—he had worked in a record store while in school at U.N.C. Charlotte and, when he graduated, was offered a job by a Muzak executive who had been a regular customer—asked me seven or eight questions, none of which had anything to do with music. (“When you’re not working, what do you like to do?” “If you could choose an actor / actress to star in your biographical movie, who would it be and why?”) A couple of weeks later, he sent me a six-song program, which contained nothing connected to what I think of as my main musical phenotype (“classic rock”); in fact, five of the six tracks were by artists I’d never heard of. Yet I liked all six very much, and later bought CDs by two of them (Sufjan Stevens and Jamie Lidell). Pilker’s selections aren’t definitive, of course; another audio architect surely could have had another take on my “brand.” But I was struck that Pilker, after spending very little time with me, had created an appealing musical program that was based on his sense of who I was, rather than on any direct examination of the music I actually listened to if left on my own.

Some Muzak customers have specific musical requirements for their programs; Moe’s Southwest Grill, for example, wants only songs by Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix, and other artists who are dead. Most Muzak customers, though, are “imaged” in much the way that I was, except that in their case the investigation is of their corporate self. Dave Keller, who is the creative director of the company’s music department, told me recently, “Audio architecture involves looking at a client’s brand, and then matching music to the attributes of that brand. In its simplest form, you use keywords to define a personality for the brand. You might say that it’s bright, or energetic, or fun, or classic, or something like that. And then you find music with a subtext that reinforces that personality. This all really comes from Alvin Collis’s vision.” Collis himself said, “If you ask a client, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ the answer doesn’t get you anywhere, because musical taste is very subjective and very personal. You want the client to be thinking, Is this the right emotion for my brand?”

When the fit is right, the effect can be memorable. At a cocktail party in Manhattan recently, I met a man who told me that he had loved the music playing in a particular restaurant, and had asked his waitress where it had come from. “I said, ‘This is the best radio station I ever heard—what is it?’ And she said, ‘It’s not a radio station; it’s Muzak.’ ”

In the late nineties, when the Muzak rebranding was under way, Collis and another executive set a private goal of securing the Gap as a Muza customer. Such an association was unthinkable initially: Muzak was the lamest kid in the class, and the Gap was one of the most astute and brand-aware marketers in the world. But Collis felt that Muzak would have a chance if it could first establish a successful record with smaller specialt retailers. It eventually succeeded, and today the four Gap brands play customized Muzak programs in all their stores. (In ascending order of volum and boisterous musical energy, those brands are Forth & Towne, Banana Republic, the Gap, and Old Navy.

After Collis and I had talked for a while, we walked across Fifth Avenue to the Gap store at the corner of Fifty-fourth Street. The first thing he noticed was that the music we were hearing wasn’t Muzak, it was the audio track of an in-house video advertising program, which was playing on a bank of plasma-screen monitors suspended from the store’s high ceiling. In a few minutes, the Muzak program resumed—with “Soul Meets Body,” by Death Cab for Cutie—and Collis and I moved deeper into the store, where we studied the speakers. Muzak prefers to use sound equipment manufactured by two companies, Bose and Klipsch, and it designs systems depending on the customer and the musical genre. Collis said, “If you are a company that sells candles, you want an experience that’s moody, low light, and very organic, and so you want a sound system that kind of envelops you. If you walked in, you wouldn’t see a speaker, whereas when you come into an environment that’s more youth-oriented, like this one, the speakers are right there, and they aim the music at you, so that you feel it and get a real sense of where it’s coming from. And at Old Navy the music would be even more in your face.”

Muzak’s audio architects do something analogous within programs, too: some customers want to establish different moods at different times of the day; some want current hits to repeat frequently, as they do on Top Forty radio stations; some want programs that are closely geared to the seasons. At some retailers, one of the biggest changes occurs at closing time, when the music becomes louder, more intense, and presumably more likely to include lyrics that could be mistaken for profanity. That’s an after-hours program, designed by Muzak’s audio architects for employees who restock the shelves.

When Muzak undertook its corporate makeover, executives had to decide whether to change the company’s name, which by then had acquired surplus of what marketing types call negative equity. In the end, despite reservations, they elected to keep it and rehabilitate it—perhaps the ultimat audio-imaging challenge.

Background music is a tough business under any circumstances. Muzak—which is privately owned, although its bonds trade publicly—has lost money for a number of years. The company has tried many times to broaden its business, with mixed results. After September 11th, it made a major effort to sell closed-circuit-television security systems, but that enterprise proved almost immediately to be a dead end. (Collis told me, “With audio branding, you’re selling emotion, love, caring, feelings. With CCTV, you’re selling fear. Not a good combination.”) Other ventures have turned out better. Muzak has a large and profitable “on hold” business, which creates music-and-voice programming for commercial telephone systems. The voice division also creates in-store promotional announcements, which can be patched seamlessly into the company’s backgroundmusic programs. All in all, Muzak creates about thirty thousand voice spots a month. It also provides the drive-through ordering systems used by many fast-food restaurants.

The company’s most interesting effort to redefine its brand may be one that isn’t meant to be profitable. It’s the Muzak Heart & Soul Foundation, which contributes money to musiceducation programs around the country and conducts an annual summer camp called Noise!, whose purpose is to introduce musically inclined teen-agers to the less visible parts of the music business. LaFouji Alexander, a thirty-year-old audio architect, thinks Heart & Soul is “the cornerstone of the company.” (When I asked him to explain his last job, as a Muzak “music specialist,” he said, “Maybe a Chinese restaurant wants only a certain kind of traditional Chinese music, and if that means I have to order it from Tibet . . . ”) Most teen-agers, he said, have a distorted view of the commercial music world. “Shows like ‘American Idol’ give them the wrong idea,” he said. “Music isn’t just stars; there’s this whole huge industry behind them.” Campers at Noise! visit recording studios, meet professional musicians and industry executives, make business contacts that may be useful after college, and—not incidentally—develop favorable associations with the name Muzak. Alexander said, “I tell my boss all the time that if we directed more outreach toward the kids, doing more of the things that Heart & Soul does, we wouldn’t have a problem convincing America who we are.”

During Muzak’s early decades, office workers and others sometimes complained that public background music was an invasion of privacy. Some people feel that way today, although the first thing many of us do when we find ourselves alone with our thoughts is to reach for the handiest means of drowning them out—by putting on a pair of headphones, say, or by sliding a disk into the car’s CD player. Audio architecture is a compelling concept because the human response to musical accompaniment is powerful and involuntary. “Our biggest competitor,” a member of Muzak’s marketing department told me, “is silence.”

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Exaggerated spontaneity.

April 4, 2006
Living on Impulse


Play hooky, disappear for the weekend, have a fling, binge-shop like a Wall Street divorcée. Spontaneity can be a healthy defiance of routine, an expression of starved desire, some psychologists say.

Yet for scientists who study mental illness and addiction, impulsive behavior — the tendency to act or react with little thought — has emerged as an all-purpose plague.

In recent years, studies have linked impulsiveness to higher risks of smoking, drinking and drug abuse. People who attempt suicide score highly on measures of impulsivity, as do adolescents with eating problems. Aggression, compulsive gambling, severe personality disorders and attention deficit problems are all associated with high impulsiveness, a problem that affects an estimated 9 percent of Americans, according to a nationwide mental health survey completed last year.

Now researchers have begun to resolve the contrary nature of impulsivity, identifying the elements that distinguish benign experimentation from self-destructive acts. The latest work, in brain research and psychological studies, helps explain how impulsive tendencies develop and when they can lead people astray. A potent combination of genes and emotionally disorienting early experiences puts people at high risk, as do some very familiar personal instincts.

"What we're seeing now," said Charles S. Carver, a psychologist at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., "is a rapid convergence of evidence indicating that when the prefrontal cortical areas of the brain, the brain's supervisory management system, are not functioning well, this interferes with deliberative behavior, and the consequences are often unpleasant."

Few experts dispute that impulsiveness pays off in some situations and, perhaps, had evolutionary benefits. When life is short and dangerous, and resources are scarce, there is a premium on quick response. In studies of baboons and monkeys, researchers have found that animals that are impulsive as adolescents often become dominant as adults, when they moderate their confrontational urges.

In humans, impulsive behavior typically peaks in adolescence, when the prefrontal areas of the brain continue to develop, or soon after, in the young adult years, when it is culturally expected that people will test their limits, psychologists have found.

Yet new research suggests that a taste for danger or conflict is not enough to produce persistent, ruinous impulsivity.

In a study published online last month in The Journal of Psychiatric Research, Janine D. Flory, a psychologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, led a team of investigators who studied 351 healthy adults and 70 others with impulse-related disorders like antisocial and borderline personality disorders. The participants took a battery of tests to measure inhibition, appetite for risk and the inclination to plan.

Analyzing the responses to questions intended to gauge thrill seeking like, "I like to explore a strange city or section of town by myself, even if it means getting lost," and, "I like to try foods I've never tried before," the researchers found that an appetite for risk was associated with smoking in both groups.

But in the healthy volunteers, the appetite was also associated with higher education. In previous studies, healthy risk seekers scored highly for curiosity and openness to new experiences. On measurements of instinctive planning — "I am better at saving money than most people" and "I hate to make decisions based on first impressions"— the researchers found that less deliberative habits were related to heavy drinking in the healthy group and the troubled group.

In cases with personality disorders, deficits in planning were also associated with a history of suicide attempts. The combination of sensation seeking and lack of deliberation characterizes millions of healthy people but appears to be extreme in those whose impulsivity leads to chronic trouble or mental illness, Dr. Flory said.

"The way I think of it is that one factor has to do with the urges people have, and the other has to do with the brakes they apply," she said.

How and when people apply the brakes is crucial to distinguishing those who can flirt with regular heroin or cocaine use while finishing an Ivy League degree and those who die trying.

The people who can binge, gamble or try hard drugs and get away with it have a native cunning when it comes to risk, this and other studies suggest. They are prepared for the dangers like a mountain climber or they sample risk, in effect, by semiconsciously hedging their behavior — sipping their cocktails slowly, inhaling partly or keeping one toe on the cliff's edge, poised for retreat.

"These are highly self-directed people," said C. Robert Cloninger, a professor of psychiatry and genetics at Washington University in St. Louis and author of "Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being." "They have goals and are resourceful in pursuing them."

Those who are upended by their own impulses, by contrast, are more likely to trust their first impressions implicitly and absolutely, the studies suggest.

"I am a very intuitive person, I can tell very quickly when someone's lying to me, when they're telling a shaggy-dog story," said Thomas Crepeau, 55, a computer systems analyst in Washington who said his impulsive temper helped worsen a contentious marriage.

Mr. Crepeau, who has since benefited from therapy, said he used to act on his hunches immediately. "Other people might allow me 20 words before cutting in, but I would allow them four," he said. "I never had the patience to just wait it out and see if the other person was wrong."

This difference in ability to hedge or self-regulate is partly based in genetic variation, experts say. In a study published in March, investigators at the National Institute of Mental Health took blood samples from 142 healthy volunteers and analyzed a gene called MAOA. The gene directs the body to produce an enzyme that reduces the activity of a brain chemical called serotonin, which strongly influences mood. Earlier studies have linked variations in this gene to impulsive aggression.

The researchers conducted M.R.I. scans on participants' brains while they were performing tasks intended to measure impulse control. In one of the tests, the participants watched as a computer screen presented a series of arrows, boxes and X's, three at a time, as a slot machine does.

The patterns appeared in quick succession, and the participants were instructed to hit a button indicating which way the arrow was pointing. They also had to restrain from hitting the button when one particular pattern appeared. Their mistakes provided a measure of how well they could restrain their reflexes.

The researchers found that, during the computer game, men who had one common MAOA variant, known as the "high-risk" variant, showed significantly less activation than peers with the "low risk" version of the gene in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate. The cingulate is part of the brain's prefrontal area — its supervisory manager — which is involved in shaping deliberate behavior, in measuring a proper response or reflex.

The participants in the study with the high-risk gene also had deficits in areas of the brain involved in moderating emotion, supporting many earlier studies finding similar gene-related differences.

"On the one hand, these deficits in emotional regulation set people up for strong emotional reactions early in life and make them more vulnerable to trauma, we believe," said Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, the study's lead author. "On the other hand, the deficit in cognitive, inhibitory function creates a propensity to act on those emotions later in life."

And life never stops testing those supervisory mental skills. Drug use weakens deliberative regulating skills quickly and cumulatively over time. Coping with periods of extreme stress at any age — starting a new job, breaking up with a romantic partner, recovering from a car accident — can overload the prefrontal regions, leaving fewer resources available to manage emotions, Dr. Carver said.

One reason true impulsivity has been difficult to capture in the lab, said Dr. Martha Farrah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, is precisely because "it is most manifest in these very high-stakes situations, when people are trying to get what they want, to stay focused, maybe trying to kick a drug habit." And that is when they break down.

None of which is to deny the power of early psychological wounds, regardless of genetic makeup.

People with borderline personality disorder, for example, an enigmatic condition characterized by neediness, emotional reactions and self-destructive behavior like self-mutilation, often misread others' motives and are savagely impulsive in response. "The impulsive behavior always has specific meanings for them," said Dr. Glen Gabbard, a psychiatrist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

One of his patients, he said, recently called her boyfriend at work, who told her he couldn't talk just then, he was swamped. She took that to mean that he was about to dump her.

"She called him back immediately after hanging up and broke up with him on the spot, as a pre-emptive strike," Dr. Gabbard said.

For her and many others, he said: "It is the psychological meaning of the event that matters most, and for her it was abandonment. Her own father left the family when she was 4 years old, and she sees abandonment everywhere."

In Mr. Crepeau's case, he enrolled in a "compassion power" group-therapy workshop and learned that his contentious nature grew in part out of a history of being dismissed and ignored. Once he understood how this history shaped his impulsiveness, he was able to begin delaying his reactions.

Mr. Crepeau now teaches workshops that help people deal with impulsivity and other relationship problems. In a recent class, he had to contain himself when one of the workshop attendees, asked to present a homework assignment, took the opportunity to brag at length about his accomplishments.

"I couldn't believe this guy; not long ago I would have stepped in" and told him off, Mr. Crepeau said. "But I just waited, and politely told him he needed to do the assignment over."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Asking the right question.

More important than having all the answers.


Things That Make Us Smart

Donald A. Norman
03.15.06, 12:00 PM ET

The power of the unaided mind is greatly exaggerated. It is "things" that make us smart, the cognitive artifacts that allow human beings to overcome the limitations of human memory and conscious reasoning.

And of all the artifacts that have aided cognition, the most important is the development of writing, or more properly, of notational systems: number systems, writing, calendars, notational systems for mathematics, engineering, music and dance. So when I was asked by Forbes to help them "rank the 20 tools which have had the biggest impact on human civilization," I was ready.

"Writing," I proclaimed. "The invention of writing is probably the most important tool for human advancement, making it possible for each new generation to build upon the work of the previous, to transmit knowledge from person to person, across cultures and time."

"Sorry," came back the response. "We decided early on to try to limit the list to handheld objects that could be physically manipulated to complete a task."

What? Handheld objects? Hmph. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words--ah, the power of words has no limits.

Poor Forbes: They are facing a fundamental problem with this list. There are many different kinds of tools, and it is really quite impossible to rank them in importance. One set of tools is essential for life: knives and other hand tools, fire and other tools for clothing and warmth, agricultural tools and transportation tools such as packs, wheels, wagons, harnesses and saddles. Another set is essential for the advancement of knowledge, civilization and culture: notation, reading and writing, and the algorithms for logical thinking. How can one compare these sets? Comparing apples with oranges is easy compared to this: This is comparing apples with algebra.

But I'll stick with my choice. Sure, the traditional handheld tools allowed us to survive, to clothe and feed ourselves, to keep us warm and to develop thriving homesteads. But cognitive tools transformed us from a band of surviving clans to a true civilization. These are tools of the mind, the hidden invisible routines of language, thought and culture. Hey, the question didn't ask for tools that allowed us to survive: it asked for tools that impacted civilization, the principles of logical reasoning, the development of laws and cultural mores.

So, good list, Forbes, but you left out the most important tools of all, the cognitive artifacts that have truly made us smart: writing and notational systems, objects of travel and information technology, which really picked up somewhere around the development of the telegraph, but could be argued to have developed earlier with the wide variety of signaling systems. These cognitive tools are so essential to civilization, that we send our children to school for decades. Society knows that the educated mind is its most important asset. So I stick to my choice. What tools have had the biggest impact upon civilization? Cognitive artifacts. Tools for the mind.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group. He is a cognitive scientist & design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, authors books, including Things That Make Us Smart and Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. He lives in northern California. Write him at

Sunday, April 02, 2006

cost of not living

had lunch with a friend who is head of interventional radiology at an east bay practice. we had the same conversation we always have. he wants to live in the penninsula, be in an academic center like stanford, work with innovative technologies, and work with venture capitalists. what holds him back is the "cost-of-living" index issues. he makes a handsome salary, which carries his lifestyle a bit further in the east bay than here. if he came to stanford, he is concerned that he would take a double hit on his lifestyle due to lower salary and higher cost of living. i have similar conversations with people from all over the region and all over the country who express sticker shock at the cost of living and the relatively small salaries. there are valid reasons to like living elsewhere and valid reasons to choose to live away from the peninsula. there are people for whom a ceiling exists and cost-of-living is an insurmountable issues. however, for those that are talented and want to live here but are held back only by the cost of living issue, here is a thought:

in honor of all of them, i'd like to introduce the concept of "cost of not living index" which specifically tracks the value created by a particular environment that is not captured in the simple but misleading equation of happiness = salary - costofliving. cost of not living would include opportunities that are made more accessible by living and working in a particular area, such as working at stanford in order to work with VCs. the fun, activities, weather, quality of people, quality of opportunities, intellectual stimulation, and networking effect have enormous value that can't easily be quantified. the economic value, though at first vague, is ultimately very large and greatly outweights the more tangible costs. yet it is human nature to measure the things that are measurable and capitulate on the intangibles.

the good news is that the bay area's "high" cost of living works as a great filter to select in those individuals that are good at assessing value, especially the vague but large intangible value. high cost of living, thus, is a self-fulfilling prophecy as the area continues to attract fearless, clear-eyed talent who are going to arrive, work together, and sustain the economic revolution. not recognizing and acting on this dynamic is the real cost, captured in the concept "cost of not living".