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By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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From the Wall Street Journal:

LONG BEACH, Calif. — As the U.S. Olympic swim trials wrap up here, among the new stars are two prefabricated, above-ground pools. Located in a parking lot adjacent to the Long Beach Convention Center, the two 50-meter pools—one for competition and an adjoining warm-up model—were erected just over a month ago and will be dismantled and shipped elsewhere by mid-August. And having served their primary purpose, they now are a successful case study for communities hoping to host world-class sporting events without building expensive permanent venues that can sit nearly empty years after the crowds and TV cameras go home. [article unavailable online]


  • Few events shaped American economics as much as the rise of mass consumption in the 20th century, when Americans began buying cars, refrigerators, and jugs of laundry detergent by the millions. But now the Tide is turning. Procter & Gamble, which has been selling Tide to a mass market since 1949, now insists that "every one of our brands is targeted." Other companies are also "shifting emphasis from selling to the vast, anonymous crowd to selling to millions of particular consumers," wrote Business Week in a recent cover story called "The Vanishing Mass Market." McDonald's has cut its budget for network TV ads in half to spend more on in-store channels or specialty magazines that reach customers of a certain age, sex, or ethnicity. Today, advertisers must reach customers through "hundreds of narrowcast cable TV and radio channels, thousands of specialized magazines, and millions of computer terminals, video-game consoles, personal digital assistants, and cell-phone screens," Business Week says, adding that the challenge is "figuring out the right way to send the right message to the right person at the right time." Article
    Related: Is it good news that American viewers and readers "see only what they want to see, hear only what they want to hear, read only what they want to read"? asks the New York Times
  • The mass market may be gone, but collective bodies can still seem a little too collective. A recent Senate report blamed "groupthink" for misjudging "ambiguous evidence" about nuclear and chemical weapons in Iraq. Despite the dangers of groupthink, in which "dissenting opinions … come to seem improbable," James Surowiecki writes that "under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, often smarter than the smartest people in them." Surowiecki, economics columnist for the New Yorker, makes this claim in his first book: The Wisdom of Crowds, Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. He tests his thesis in case studies involving everything from the stock market to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (in which the ask-the-audience option yielded the right answer 91 percent of the time). Surowiecki—whose argument is mostly sound though at times morally loose, according to a review in the San Francisco Chronicle—introduces a paradox: "The more influence a group's members exert on each other, and the more personal contact they have with each other, the less likely it is that that group's decisions will be wise ones." Review/Excerpt of book
    Related: More on groupthink and collective wisdom from NPR
  • Spam is getting more literate, says the Denver Post. "Purveyors of junk e-mail, increasingly thwarted by electronic filters and new federal labeling requirements, slip sales pitches into inboxes by affixing them to 'messages'" such as jokes and excerpts of novels. Spam used to contain nonsensical strings of words that fooled filters but said nothing. Now that filters are getting wise to this tactic, jokes and quotes "provide enough text to pass as legitimate queries," even though they're just a setup for a solicitation. How will filters ever distinguish these messages from the jokes e-mailers forward to all their friends? Article
  • Being a medieval monk not only enlivened the soul, it filled the stomach, a researcher at London's Institute of Archaeology told the International Medieval Congress last week. Philippa Patrick studied 300 skeletons of British monks and found evidence of arthritis and skeletal hyperostosis, strongly suggesting rampant obesity among monks. "They were taking in about 6,000 calories a day," Patrick told the London Guardian. "Their meals were full of saturated fats. They were five times more likely to suffer from obesity than their secular contemporaries." So much for St. Benedict's warning that "there is nothing so opposed to Christian life as overeating." Don't miss Philippa's breakdown of monks' daily menu at the end of the article.
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