Thursday, December 30, 2010

Color-Blind Technology

This is the season of Angry Birds and other apps that keep children amused and caged. I'm predisposed to the Renegade Cheetah or the Branded Monkey but will take my diversions where I can find them.

Among the half-million apps in the marketplace, there are a lot that provide utility. One caught my eye: an app for color blindness. Or more precisely, augmented reality for color blindness. This has been Dan Kaminsky's secret side project (  The DamKam app costs $3 and is available for the iPhone and Android.

I'm not an expert on color blindness but have read that about 30-40% of men have some degree of color blindness, mainly in the red-green spectrum. I'm included in that percentage. I didn't know this until I enlisted in the military and was shown the Ishihara test plates that Kaminsky describes. The test plates features the familiar colored dots with numbers circumscribed within the plate. If you are color blind you either can't read or have difficulty reading the numbers. The app makes reading the circumscribed numbers possible.

I've spent much of my life compensating for this, at red lights and elsewhere, Somehow I was able to serve as an assistant navigator on a Navy ship without running it aground.  But I couldn't qualify for nuclear submarine duty because of my color blindness. 

Here is an excerpt of a blog post on the Kaminsky site: "I used it today in the real world. It was amazing! I was at Target with my girlfriend and saw a blue plaid shirt that I liked. She asked me what color it was so I pulled up DanKam and said 'purple'. I actually could see the real color, through my iPhone. Thanks so much."

So now we know; there is a good reason men wear all those ugly shirts and sweaters and have no opinion when their partner comes out of the changing room with a dress that might as well be an Ishihara plate test. I wear a lot of black and it's not because I live in New York. (Read the blog post chain to get a sense of how infuriating this deficiency can be to woman who are not familiar with the condition).

This app resonates with utility for designers, artists, photographers, scientists, app game developers and those who design fashion for men.  One blogger suggested that the code for this app be sold to Apple who could implement it into the iOS software. Another suggested the inventor received the Noble Prize.

More than one blogger mentioned this was like an early Christmas present; technology used to advance the human condition.

I'll join that chorus.  

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Culture for Health

This is the time for lists; for the last year, decade and even quarter-century. We live our lives this way of course, measuring out our spans with T.S. Eliot's "coffee spoons." Don't get me wrong; I'm still a fan of the very demanding Gregorian calednar. And I like the number 25 because it actually represents less time than I have spent in the magazine business.

All the notables have their "notable" magazines of the last 25 years.  Elle, Oprah, Cooking Light, Wired and, of course, Men's Health, are on most lists.  In this post I'll focus on Men's Health or, more precisely, what led up to the launch. Or what made it possible.

I spent a chunk of my magazine years at Rodale and that informs my opinions and biases. I got there by accident. As a newly minted PhD I was ready to go to Detroit, Michigan or Walla Walla, Washington, or St. Louis, Missouri to earn my stripes as a non-tenured professor before Yale or Notre Dame called.  Since that involved too much packing I accepted a chance meeting with Bob Rodale, late chairman of Rodale, who gave me copies of very early vintage Organic Gardening and Prevention and told me to consume both issues and come back in the morning.

I did and told him that the magazines seemed a little "down-market." Actually that was a phrase I learned later. I think the phrase I actually used was "scruffy," in my best English accent. He laughed and we got around to talking about the "Great Chain of Being," an Elizabethan notion that had been drummed into my head in graduate school stating, more or less, that "God is in his heaven and all is right with the world."  Then Bob Rodale spoke about his world view, a manifesto that linked the health of the soil with the health of the land. He was a rough philosopher to be sure but a philosopher nonetheless. So it wasn't the publishing side of the business that took me to Rodale but rather the chairman's caste of mind, his sense of humor, his utopian dreams, and I must say humility.

Did I mention quirky? What I loved most about going to work was that Bob Rodale always had another project, if not a scheme. Soon after I joined he told me he wanted to build a veldorome (a bike racing track)in Trexlertown, PA--he had seen one in his travels and thought Eastern Pennsylvania would be a better place with one. He asked me to coordinate the project, bringing together architects, engineers, and those with knowledge of track design. I visited all available tracks in the country. The Trexlertown velodrome still stands (I've provided more details about this project in an earlier post). Perhaps the most important by-product of the track is that it encouraged Rodale to acquire Bicycling magazine, an on-ramp to the men's market.

Mr. Rodale was a bit of an iconoclast in his own company. One day he came to my office and said he thought the Book Division was moving too slowly with launches. His solution: to create another department called Fast Access Books. This department would have one employee--me; and fast meant I'd be working seven days a week. In truth this was just a way for Bob Rodale to publish The Solar Green House Book, a subject he was very interested in. The book seemed to hit a nerve; selling a couple hundred thousand copies.

Not everything worked. New Shelter magazine which became Practical Homeowner was not a success, as we didn't understand that crowded market well enough and probably didn't have the skills. But that said, the company remained dizzy with experimentation. Bob Rodale provided the cover and the culture; President Bob Teufel provided the discipline and business expertise.  As noted, the acquistion of Bicycling was fortuitous. This made it possible to acquire Backpacker (subsequently sold). Then Runner's World, which was the jewel in the crown. Add Men's Health and you have the Rodale Active Advertising Network.

I made some missteps, such as when I launched Superfit which was meant to be a cross-training, fitness magazine for those that had outgrown special-interest activities. It was a nice idea but could not find a market or a voice. But it provided another angle on the men's market and a small stable of writers.

In the meantime Prevention Editor Mark Brickin and his team were enjoying success with fitness and health newsletters for men. This was an invaluable conversion platform when the company was ready to test Men's Health. 

I had little involvement with the launch of Men's Health in the states. I did lead the team that launched the first international edition in the UK. We sold 100,000 copies of the first issue. The rest is history.

Men's Health is a very big success story, perhaps the most important launch of the last twenty-five years. It was a very big editorial idea as well as a huge business success. There were other successes but few had such a large footprint.

But that is a story for another time. I just wanted to celebrate the 25th birthday of Men's Health by saying a few things about the Rodale culture that made it possible or at least did not drag it back into committee.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Google & the Lit Crits

I recall attending a Southern Literature seminar at Lehigh University that focused on Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.  The professor had a keen interest in exploring the difference between the original text that was serialized in The New Yorker and the final novel. In fact, one of our assignments was to track, weigh and evaluate these changes. What seemed like detective work then now, after I have written and edited a dozen books, now seems kind of silly. Well, if not silly, a little laborious.

Much literary criticism entails this kind of work. At Lehigh my disseration was entitled: "Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Francois Mauriac, Graham Green and Flannery O'Connor." A friend wrote a dissertation on the medical imagery in John Donne, probably over a weekend. There are thousands, if not tens of thousands of such dissertations, both pompous and narrow, that have searched endlessly for themes, language patterns and clusters, keys words and Freud's slips of the tongue.

This was always lonely work with monk-like devotion to the text and rapt attention to the journals that were the academic version of the playbook for Monday night football. The key was finding an angle, a metaphor, a new insight that had not appeared in that scruffy journal called Notes & Queries. I can't make too much of this. I know dozens of associates who have gained tenure for noticing--when no one else had, that a particular heroine had crossed her legs enough times to be divisible by three. 

In July of this year Google awarded grants for a new digital humanities research program. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that this was Google's first formal foray into supporting humanities text-mining research on its corpus of more than 12 million digitized books.

Welcome to the world of literary metadata!

I think this is a wonderful development.  After all, literary criticism as an academic discipline has long tried to position itself as a by-product of scientific inquiry. New Criticism, developed in the South by John Crowe Ranson, Allan Tate and Robert Penn Warren after World War I, strove for a kind of linguistic exactness and stripped-down language. This school of criticism would be at home in the world of meta-data.

Literary critics have long poked through texts during their long, idle afternoons looking for word patterns and phrases that indicate narrative intent and the psychological inclination of characters. Now they have a reason for coming to work. 

The New York times reported today that scholars at George Mason University, with a Google grant, are scouring every 19th century British book for keywords and phrases that might offer fresh insights into the minds of the Victorians.  So far they have charted more than two dozen words, including: God, love, work, science and industrial. I assume they'll get around to sex.

No offense meant but it wouldn't be a bad idea if this new generation of digital tools would put some literary critics out of work or at least send them back to the classroom to teach Johnny how to write a Hemingway-worthy sentence, at least before Google does that too.

I'm applying for a Google Humanities grant to help codify this work. I hope once and for all, as Google is my witness, to finally vanguish the phrase "hidden meaning."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Magazines as Culture

I've written extensively about how magazines are a very good lens through which to view developments in various countries, particularly in China (see  In the U.S. it took the better part of fifty years for magazines to shift from being broadly general-interest to having more of a special-interest focus, matching the changes in demographics, income, leisure time and wealth. After all, consumers probably wouldn't have much interest in health, fitness or sports magazines if they remain, in Maslow's words, pinned down at the safely level.

I've published magazines and digital businesses in twenty countries and found the above trajectory generally true everywhere.  In every country or region I have observed the transition from general to special-interest titles has taken less time than in the states. As late as 1995 in China the bulk of the many thousands of magazines were gray, faceless products that served as an arm of the government's formidable propaganda machine.  Go to Beijing or Shanghai today and the fashion, service, auto, health, and even psychology magazines will seem indistinguishable from their Western counterparts. To be sure the long arm of censorship--or more correctly, self-censorship--is still more or less enshrined in law there. However, unlike news or business magazines that write about sensitive subjects, special-interest magazines stay with the safer subjects.  Make no mistake about it these magazines nonetheless serve as a projection of Chinese self-confidence and self-worth.  After all, magazines reflect the national psyche and even censorship can't completely hinder that celebration.

A couple of weeks ago NYT columnist David Brooks wrote an interesting piece on the role of general-interest print magazines in U.S culture, using as his starting point the merger of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, a marriage that seemed to be greeted by the sound of one hand clapping.  Brooks reminds us that general-interest magazines were a by-product of the Emersonian push for self-improvement. He writes: "This ethos shaped the American news media for more than a century. Poor families scratched together their dollars to buy an encyclopedia, to join the Book of the Month Club, to buy Will and Ariel Durant's 'Civilization' series or the Robert Maynard Hutchin's Great Book."

In Brooks' view a generation ago everything seemed to change and general-interest magazines began to pay more attention to the readers themselves than to cultural issues. Then came the inevitable segmentation by interest and desire hastened by technology. Just as Twitter and Facebook to this list, and you have a perfect recipe for a National Solipsism.

I started my day reading about Flipboard's plans to get beyond offering an enhanced RSS feed to something that will look and feel more like a "social" magazine. This seems like an elegant idea even though I might end up with my highly personalized, individualized magazine of one, a future many of us in the media have hoped and planned for.

I was thinking about Brooks' proposition while I was reading the current issue of TIME in which Managing Editor Rich Stengel interviews Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. It is a remarkable interview, not necessarily because it sheds additional light on the recent leak of diplomatic cables.  This is service journalism at its best and the service provided is a wonderful look at how a free press and engaged citizens should operate when governments continue to grow in power and secrecy.

If high schools in America are still teaching courses in Problems of Democracy, this should be required reading. Toss the textbook and listen to Stengel and Assange, two really good teachers, address some of the most serious issue of the day with a sobriety and seriousness that Brooks would surely applaud.