Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Magazines & Sausages

Perhaps I wasn't paying attention but I haven't heard much about the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Fortunately Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen opened that window a little, examining how Ronnie Dunn, described as a country music megastar, assembled a secret stash of Soviet art.

I was working in Moscow at that time, visiting farms, printers and state publishers. At every location I saw examples of muscular Soviet Realism, usually in the form of rosey-cheeked farmers, almost beaming productivity. This Communist propaganda, pretty much unchanged since Stalin, was the official product of the Soviet Artists Union. If you wanted to sell art or even get paint, you had to conform to this style. As Studio 360 notes, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the art that has been created secretly and hidden under beds caught the attention of collectors like Ronnie Dunn and the rest is history.

I first visited Russia in 1989 and what seemed immediately clear was the map (offical US government view) did not fit the territory (the flesh-and-blood Moscow).  The bread lines, the alcohol consumption and the utter dependence of the citizenry on the government took some of the sting out of the Russian bear. As my boss famously said at that time, "There are no hardware stores in Russia." This accurately defined the Russian soul.

It was remarkable how quickly Russians walked away from the official Communist Party line, in art, science and public expression. This was a bizarre world at a bizarre time. Communist Party officials simply "walked" across the street and became free market democrats. We didn't seem to care. We were the disciples of transformation and regeneration.

Robert Rodale, the late chairman of Rodale, asked me to help him launch Novii Fermer, loosely based on Organic Gardening and the New Farm, in Russia. We knew the collective farms were not able to feed that nation and the use of commericial fertilizers was killing the soil. There was a strong dose of American optimism and hubris in the notion that we could encourage a sea change in a country governed by collective thinking for almost a century.

At the time Russia had no legal system to speak of and very little understanding of joint ventures. Nonetheless, we pushed ahead and developed a joint venture with a state publishing company. That was the easy part. Since there were no suitable presses in Moscow, we would have to print Novii Fermer in Finland and truck to Moscow. This wasn't that unusual and caused no more of a headache that paying the hefty tolls and bribes along the route.

Unfortunately our joint venture partners were less interested in magazines than in building a sausage factory on a farm outside of Moscow. So the deal went something like this. We would buy the equipment for the sausage factory as our contribution to the joint venture. The plan was to sell high-quality sausages to the ex-pat community in Moscow who would pay in hard currency (US) that would cover the printing in Finland. What was left would help cover operating costs.

Why the sausage factory? To the best of my knowledge this was government edict.  Russia was so short of modern machinery that they tried in the years after the collapse to add similar requirements to joint ventures where possible. I think we were the first to come down the pike. Though we had a top-notch Washington DC law firm protecting our interests, the combination of our naivete and the chairman's desire to do the deal took away some of our bargaining chips.

Tragically, Rodale and three of our Russian partners were killed in a horrific car accident within hours of signing the joint venture agreement, September 1990.

We pushed ahead and produced a glossy Novii Fermer a year later which was largely subsidized. The sausage factory didn't work out and the equipment was subsequently sold.

George Green, the long-time president of Hearst International often said that what American magazines export was a can-do, DIY point-of-view. I recall my long sessions with Russian editors describing the notion that we have the power to change our lives.

That was Bob Rodale's message at home and abroad. His work is still remembered in Russia and entrepreneurs there have told me that small farms, cottage industries and local produce are on the rise, changing the face of the nation.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Small is Beautiful

We learn a lot about business models these days when informed by IHS Suppli following a component teardown that the Amazon Fire, which sells for $199 costs $201.70 to make. Equally interesting is the Kobo ad supported e-reader that sells for $99. And far from the telcom's radar is the partially-subsidized Indian Aakas tablet that will sell for $50, a response to the challenge of providing services to the "last mile" In India the last mile is represented by the poorest of the poor who live on less that $2 a day.

Recently I was researching the international ramifications of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  A Danish blog, Mythological Quarter, mentions a NYC-based group that has created bicycle generators in an apparent failed attempt to get around Mayor Bloomberg's ban on kerosene heaters. The blog suggests the OWS movements worldwide consult Pedal Power in Work, Leisure, and Transportation, a book I edited thirty years ago.

I published this title when  E.F. Schumacher's book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, was widely read and became something of a bible for the back-to-the land movement. But Schumacher was a respected economist and not a one-issue prophet. He suggested more than a generation ago that the modern economy is unsustainable. He argued that fossil fuels should be treated as capital and not as expendible income. If he had a rallying cry, it was about "appropriate technology."

The Pedal Power book was a product of an insight  by the late Bob Rodale, who while watching bicycle racers on the Lehigh County Veldrome envisioned practical applications for this pedal power. He established an incubator to develop prototypes that would power well pumps, plows, and grain mills. He quickly realized this technology would have applications for developing countries. The responsible UN agency did not think so, though the book has been translated into about eighteen languages and widely pirated.

It is mildly amusing to think of the OWS protestors around the world pedaling their stationary bikes at a brisk 120 RPMs to power their iPhones and iPads. This is one way to stay warm. I'm not sure what Schumacher might have recommended.  He was fond of talking about a "philosophy of enoughness"
and "Buddhist economics." We have heard similar sentiments from OWS. 

Small is Beautiful is worthy of a new generation.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Dangerous Method

Recently I attended an advance screening of A Dangerous Method, a film by David Cronenberg, set in Europe on the eve of World War 1, examining the friendships and conflict between Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. The film opens in New York and LA on November 23, 2011.

This film is based on a play that was based on a book. So not surprisingly, some of the stage and theatrical elements have survived and A Dangerous Method at times seems like a splendid 90-minute costume drama that serves as a platform for the bristling and occasionally tedious dialectic between Jung and Freud. And the nexus for the brilliant but troubled young woman who comes between them.

A Dangerous Method opens with the young woman, Sabina Spielrein, being literally deposited at an asylum outside of Zurich where Jung was a doctor. Her jaw-jutting, frenetic writhings stands in sharp contrast to the doctor's understated, behind-the-patient remarks about the talking cure. This is acting underdone and overdone. She will get better. The doctor, played by Michael Fassbender, seems to stay in his "brown study."

It is very difficult for a film, depicting events more than a hundred years ago, to capture the heady, early years of the 20th century, the profound experimentations in psychology, theater, and fiction and the itch to deconstruct an old 19th century reality.  These forces were in the air in the film and frame many of the discussions between the character Freud, the father, and character Jung, the son. The former argued, accurately from an historical perspective, that psychology had to rely on science and not the mysterious and esoteric, such as mythology, that would become central to Jung's understanding of the personal and collective unconscious. But in a film that represents a condensed period before WWI, the issue for Freud was more about "parental" authority. Thus he wouldn't share a dream with Jung.

Freud, played by Viggo Mortenson, seemed to steal the interpersonal show with his wit, charm, and understatement. One of the most telling scenes was when Jung visited Freud in Vienna. We see him at the Freud family table with a dozen people, helping himself to most of the family portion while he talks endlessly about sex and psychology.  We already know that Jung is rich through marriage and seems in this film to be made somewhat unconscious by this advantage. Gluttony appears in many guises.

The emotional center of the movie is Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient and then lover after he is prodded by a marvelous walk-on character who reminded him of his shadow side. The two scenes in which Jung spanks Spielrein, thus getting to the seat of her trauma, will represent audience takeaways. It is more than mildly ironic that while Jung is engaging Freud in deep conversations about the future of psychotherapy, he is having sex with his patient. For 90-minutes, at least, Jung's actions seems to legitimize Freud's point-of-view.

If you are interested in the birth of psychoanalysis, this film is worth seeing. And it's cheaper than analysis.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Magazines as Archetypes

My local library, not far from Shakespeare's Bardonia (NY), is a wonderful place, boasting meters of magazine display space that most news agents would die for.  I guess the top 300 ABC magazines, more or less, are available in full frontal display with ample space in-between. And, just in case you miss the logo, the magazine names are printed undeneath. While I had to bend a little to review some of the exhibited magazines, most are at eye-level.

Although I spend my waking hours chasing digital in all its cross-platform splendor, I'm happy to take a break and spend a couple of hours browsing the racks. The magazine are listed in alphabetical order, left to right, so it's rather simple for me in my first stroll to focus on the magazines where I have served as editor, publisher or had some business involvement.

I start with my favorite magazine Bicycling, where I cut my teeth, and remind myself to congratulate Rodale friends on the new design. Everything inside, though familiar, is brighter and more open than I remember. The broader themes are still there, including the lament for Campagnola, the northern Italian component manufacturer, about the challenge of maintaining the soul of their design in a commodity market. I remember having a similar conversation with Mr. Campagnola almost twenty years ago. This is a narrative worth telling and retelling and helps elevate a magazine above a nominal how-to disposition. Magazines represent culture as well as advice.

This survey is mainly fun. I notice, without cringing, that the November
2011 issues of Car & Driver and Road & Track sport the same BMW M5 on the cover, though from different perspectives. While this might be a major blunder within the editorial ranks, from a consumer perspective it doesn't really matter so much. Likewise, if Woman's Day and Better Homes & Gardens have almost interchangeable Thanksgiving covers, no one should lose her job.

I can't remember how many cover meetings I have sat in on where the primary concern about a cover subject is differentiation from the competition. This is a worthy conversation to have, of course, as it keep us sharp and in the game. But as we have come to understand, magazines are also brands or from a Jungian perspective--I'm a student--archetypes that embody universal ideas. And this gives magazines staying power. It will be interesting to see whether this archetypal power of the brand migrates fully into the digital space. That archetypes also resonate in our personal and collective unconscious suggest brands will remain intact. Psychology doesn't say much about CPMs.

I look at Maxim magazine and remember the concern we had at Men's Health International when we learned of the Dennis launch. Angst aside, I never had much doubt that a magazine that focuses on health and sexuality would live to tell the tale. Maxim still has a beauty bathing herself under a garden hose but Men's Health wins the prize.  

I am conducting my library research on and after Veteran's Day and being a veteran myself, bring a certain bias to the effort. Out of curiosity I looked for titles in the appropriate categories that might contain articles about our various wars, the military in general, or the effect of serving on the psyche. My review wasn't scientific but I  didn't find any obvious coverage. Except for the November issue of Men's Health.

At first "The Signature Wound" by Bob Drury bothered me because I thought this might be another way for MH to get the penis into the conversation. It was not. Vietnam maimed a lot of men but nothing like what improvised explosive devices (IEDs) do to a soldier's "junk." According to Drury, if you lose a nose or an eye in combat you will be compensated $50,000 for each. If you lose your penis, nothing. Apparently the Department of Defense does not recognize that the loss of genitalia is worth compensation. Also, no price tag for a shattered psyche.

One percent of Americans serve in the military or have family connections to someone who does. The other 99% should read this article.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Google Plus

Some of my best friends work at Google. So I want the company to be profitable enough to keep the sixteen or so free company restaurants open so I can stuff myself on the occasional visit. Think Android is confusing? Try deciding on whether you want Tibetan fries or Finnish goose as an appetizer or main course. That is after you find the right place in the Restaurant Row known internally as the Google Crave with themed, color dots and markers leading one to the right place. It doesn't help to be color blind or late.

I am very grateful for the various Google initiatives I have been able to sample such as Google Wave, Buzz, Voice and Google+. Unfortunately by the time I figure them out, Google tends to throw them under the bus. That happened with the Wave. Actually I read the Apache Software Foundation accepted the Wave into its incubator for new product development. Now I feel better.

My gmail recently told me that Buzz will be going away and I might want to save my posts. Fortunately I only had one post, about CBS newsman Bob Schieffer being my favorite TV news person. It hurts that he probably never got the message though I do note that his Sunday morning ratings are up. I take no credit for this incremental improvement that could also be due to the color of his tie.

I'm just getting into the ever-widening, dizzying circles of Google+ but am fearful that the same fate may await it. I think the project would have a greater chance of reaching its first birthday if Google executives used it as regularly as they do Facebook. This initiative I want to survive.

I give Google high marks for integrity, even though I have never been comfortable with the "Do No Evil" slogan. Recently an employee distributed to the world a memo intended for internal purposes, addressing the failure of the Google+ platform, no less.  This has been called the greatest Reply-All screwup in tech history.  If you include the withering criticism of Jeff Bezos in this memo, then I'd have to agree.

As far as I can tell nothing happened to the employee. I've worked at a dozen media companies and one association and I would have been handed my head in all but one. In the military I would have been shot.

Google not only doesn't shoot employees if they wander off that very large reservation; they continue to provide to supplicants like myself an array of free services as if they were the government. But better.

My son signed me up for Google Voice some time ago and I have been delinquent in using that service.  So the Google Voice Team sends me a pleasant email saying phone numbers are a limited commodity and if I wanted to keep my precious 415 prefix, I should get a whole lot more chatty. They also provide customer service if I want to port my existing number to Voice so the one number will ring all phones. The service also includes free text messages and voice mail transcription. 

Even when I'm not parked in a Google restaurant, I still seem to be getting a free lunch.

It's just that sometimes I have to eat fast.