Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Hedgehog’s Array: April 24, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism,” Jackson Lears
“It is a platitude that we cannot defend the humanities without slipping into platitudes. Why is that?”

“An Ex-Cop Keeps The Country’s Best Data Set On Police Misconduct,” Carl Bialik
“The whole data-collecting operation is powered by 48 Google Alerts that Stinson set up in 2005, along with individual Google Alerts for each of nearly 6,000 arrests of officers. He has set up 10 Gmail addresses to collect all the alert emails, which feed articles into a database that also contains court records and videos.”

“Inside the Whimsical but Surprisingly Dark World of Rube Goldberg Machines,” Brendan O’Connor
“Our modern era is riddled with machines doing ever less consequential tasks in ever more complex ways. The machines are digital, not mechanical, but the difference between the maximalism of the Rube Goldberg machine and the minimalism of the iPhone is perhaps not so great after all.”

“Have We Seen the End of the 8-Hour Day?,” Nathan Schneider
“Twenty years ago, ‘flexibility’ was considered a good thing, a desideratum for working mothers gaining a foothold in workplaces designed for sole-breadwinner men. In the intervening years, however, the flexibility discourse that had been developed to meet the needs of white-collar workers, especially women, has been turned against blue-collar workers, especially women. ‘Flexibility,’ and control over what it meant, became the privilege of employers, not employees.”

“Managing the Decline of, Like, a Great Language,” Barton Swaim
“What I’m advocating is the grammatical equivalent of legalizing marijuana but regulating it. Maybe it will turn out badly, but the policy of interdiction has failed.”

“What World? Whose Algorithms?,” Eitan Wilf
“If search engines can and do use similar algorithms to analyze a user’s profile based on the corpus of his or her past online activity to dictate advertising and customized content, they can potentially entrap users in a self-referential and narcissistic world that hinders and stifles personal development and growth. Yet the same algorithmic technologies can be reconfigured for the opposite end.”

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Up in Smoke—Plain Packaging and Brand Identity

Athletes in a Camel cigarette ad from the 1950s, by Camel cigarettes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Athletes in a Camel cigarette ad from the 1950s, by Camel cigarettes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As plain packaging regulations for cigarettes ramp up in the European Union, opinions on the effectiveness of this strategy remain mixed, even contradictory. Plain packaging refers to the stark warning labels and gruesome photography that have become part of public health campaigns against smoking in Europe and Australia. Using black-and-white graphics designed for maximum readability, the warnings are simple and direct: “Smoking kills” or “Smoking causes blindness.” If you won’t help yourself, then they ask you to consider the well-being of others: “Smoking seriously harms you and others around you” or “Protect children: Don’t make them breathe your smoke.” Generic packaging requirements go even further: Packs of cigarettes must have no logos or identifiable branding devices and must use color photographs of diseased body parts or vulnerable children.

But plain packaging is not an unqualified success. In Australia, where these laws were first introduced, one report last summer noted that there had been a rise in tobacco sales, in spite of the regulations and a concomitant rise in tobacco taxes. The increase in sales volume—more people returning more often to buy the cheapest cigarettes—has also, according the report, led to an increase in smoking rates rather than the uniform decline predicted by plain-packaging advocates.

Around the same time, Financial Times reported that Australia has had a significant decrease in smoking rates since plain-packaging regulations were put into place in 2012. According to the 2013 National Drugs Strategy Household Survey quoted at, people are starting smoking later and overall consumption has gone down. The reporting of the effect of plain-packaging laws clearly depends to some extent on whether one is an anti-tobacco campaigner or a pro-tobacco spokesperson.

Statistics aside, plain-packaging laws have had notable unintended economic consequences. Typically, anti-tobacco regulation includes an increase in taxes and prices. When faced with rising prices, consumers seek out the cheapest cigarettes. As noted above, the proliferation of cheaper cigarettes has led to more people smoking more cigarettes. At the same time, because tobacco manufacturers are unable to enhance their brands through marketing or new package design, they may save money by investing less in advertising or upgrading factory equipment.

In addition, tobacco companies may further benefit by being able to lock in market share, since they are unable to take advantage of differentiating their brands through advertising. Further, as price-per-pack rises, profit margins increase because total tax as a percentage of price falls. The freeing up of cash goes toward shareholder dividends, where, in the past, it might have been plowed back into product development. Counterfeiting and black market smuggling have also picked up, putting cigarettes—usually without warning labels—into the hands of smokers all over the world who are willing to break the law for cheaper, tax-free smokes.

But there’s more to plain packaging than mere economics. Back in the bad old days, advertising linked smoking to lifestyles and aspirations. Tobacco companies groomed brands to cultivate the mystique of the smoker as liberated woman, urban hipster, rugged cowboy, or the cosmopolitan athlete (as in the Camel ad above). Consumers became conditioned to recognize their preferred brand among others on the store shelf by its skillful packaging design, a complex interplay of color, shapes, and typefaces.

Then came the 1964 US Surgeon General’s report on the public health hazards of smoking. One year later, Congress introduced the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 and the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969. This legislation banned all smoking advertising in print and broadcast media and introduced the cigarette pack warning label. By the 1990s, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada led the way in adopting plain packaging with the European Union and the United Kingdom following over the next decade. Plain packaging seems poised to invade the Asian tobacco market in the near future.

For now, American tobacco sellers have been able to sidestep plain packaging. In 2011, Reynolds American and Lorillard won a suit against the FDA, arguing that labels requiring graphic images of cancerous lungs would have violated these companies’ free speech rights. These same tobacco giants are back in the news, challenging the FDA over its requirement that the agency be notified whenever a manufacturer wants to modify product labels. The companies contend that having to submit even minor color changes to the FDA’s notice-and-comment rulemaking process impedes and restricts commerce and free speech. Unlike their European counterparts, American tobacco companies can still prevail on matters of brand identity as long as they do so under the First Amendment protections.

Back across the Atlantic, one UK tobacco executive also invoked rights, saying “We have a fundamental right to differentiate our brands from those of the competitors.” The rights referred to in this case are upheld by law, specifically the World Trade Organization’s Article 20 of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) which states, “The use of a trademark in the course of trade shall not be unjustifiably encumbered by special requirements, such as use with another trademark, use in a special form or use in a manner detrimental to its capability to distinguish the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings.” By this standard, plain packaging encumbers trade by imposing restrictions that change not the product itself but how the product is perceived in the consumer’s mind. Plain packaging tears down the intangibles of brand identify, that is, the decades of impressions that brand has accumulated.

Brand differentiation is a vital part of every business that sells consumer goods. Being neither durable goods nor endlessly renewable, cigarettes must be positioned by marketers to be distinctive in other, more transient, ways, namely in the marketplace of consumer perceptions or aspirations. These properties can only be endowed by branding.

One EU economist noted that intellectual property protections have been set aside in the past in cases of national security or public morals, but that plain packaging opens up the possibility of new interpretations and an expansion of government jurisdiction. “This is going to set a precedent,” said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy. “What we’re talking about here is the extent to which a government actually can deny a company the right to communicate its own trademark, to distinguish its own goods from other goods.”

The property of a product to be distinguished by consumers—its capacity for brand recognition—is something that companies zealously cultivate and protect. Branding works through its own idiom: colors, shapes, typefaces, slogans, all of which work together to create a statement about the product and its capacity to speak to and for the consumer. Of course, we should probably not allow this discussion to take a Mandevillean turn, extolling the private vice of smoking in the service of the public benefits of well-crafted, free expression. Still, the rise of plain packaging laws probes that tender spot between public health and private action—and where the government fits in.

Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of The Hedgehog Review.

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 17, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Creative Accounting,” Michelle Dean
“Along with the long hours alone and the creeping madness, one of the questionable benefits of the writing life is that you are self-employed. This makes tax time an extra-special delight.”

“eBay and the Historical Imagination,” John Lardas Modern
“When I think of eBay, I think of Walter Benjamin and his recollection of an auction in Berlin in 1930.”

“All God’s Creatures,” Susan Harlan
“To enter the Creation Museum and Taxidermy Hall of Fame (and the Antique Tool Museum), I walked down a flight of stairs into an underground lair that was guarded by an enormous armored knight.”

“Track and Yield,” Julia Lipscomb
“The internet is whatever we want. There is room for all kinds of different webs, different internets. If you are a person who is interested in independence and serendipity, then what you need to do is support creators.”

“The Vampire Virtuoso? Paganini’s Bloodletting Kit Is for Sale,” Rebecca Rego Barry
“In Paris and elsewhere in Europe, Paganini further beguiled the public by sauntering through graveyards and visiting hospitals and autopsy rooms. Clad in his black cape, he would sometimes serenade the dead and the gravely ill.”

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 10, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The Assistant Economy,” Francesca Mari
“Nothing becomes an assistant so much as leaving his or her job. ‘The worst thing to be called,’ Aronofsky’s assistant told me, long after he’d moved on, ‘is a really good assistant.’”

“What Part of ‘No, Totally’ Don’t You Understand?,” Kathryn Schulz
“For the most part, this enthusiastic ‘no’ has very little negative meaning, or really much semantic content at all. It is more like verbal punctuation—like the initial, upside-down exclamation mark in Spanish that alerts you to impending excitement: ¡Totally!”

“Il n’y a pas d’Israël pour moi,” Jerry White
“That is, basically, the limits of François’s moral imagination; he can find nothing between the dead culture of fascism and the undead culture of consumerism. It doesn’t take long for the reader of Soumission to conclude that this is also more or less the limit of Houellebecq’s ability to imagine the complexity of modern life.”

“The Nearest Thing To Life,” James Wood
“I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, ten-minute reveries. Displacement also adds its own difficulties. I sometimes feel, for instance, that I grew up not in the 1970s and 80s but in the 1870s and 80s.”

“Having Fun,” Ben Jackson
“Does anyone remember ‘dog shit girl’? In 2005, her dog defecated on the subway in South Korea and she refused to pick it up. Her fellow passengers offered her tissues but she got aggressive and used the tissues to wipe the dog. Outraged people took photos; within hours they were all over the web. Soon her name, age, university and other personal information were posted online.”

“Can Matthew Crawford Deliver Us From Distraction?,” Michael S. Roth
“Matthew B. Crawford burst upon the scene in 2009 with a compact, powerful book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (Penguin), a macho denunciation of the contemporary world of cubicle life and an ode to the joys of mechanical dexterity and productivity.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Pluralism Doesn’t Mean Relativism,” John Inazu
“The pointed commentary surrounding the Indiana law is a recent reminder that we lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, the meaning of human flourishing.”

“Six Centuries of Prints,” Leann Davis Alspaugh
“Since Renaissance humanism first made it acceptable—even imperative—for artists to draw attention to themselves, creative types have complied and produced many forms of what curator James Clifton calls ‘ego-documents.’”

“In Defense of Specialization,” Chad Wellmon (paywalled)
“To judge from the jeremiads of some of academe’s elite scolds, the specialized scholar is an anachronism. Disciplinarity is dead. Or it should be.”

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An Interview With Alan Jacobs

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Poster for The Karate Kid (1984). Image from Snack to the Future.

Over at The Infernal Machine, Chad Wellmon has been hosting a discussion of Dr. Alan Jacobs’s “79 Theses on Technology.” Jacobs also held a seminar here at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture to discuss his theses. We sent him some questions about his project, and he graciously took the time to answer them.

The Hedgehog Review: You’ve written seventy-nine aphorisms, or “theses for disputation,” on the Internet and technology more generally. Why this form? What does it open up about this particular topic?

Alan Jacobs: The form of the presentation—theses for disputation, as opposed to, say, an academic article—arises from a combination of humility and laziness. Humility because the disciplines relevant to the human experience of digital technology—psychology, sociology, theological anthropology, computer science, interaction design, neuroscience, behavioral economics, etc.—are so wildly varied that no one can possibly master (or even have an adequate familiarity with) them all, so that it makes sense to present one’s ideas as open to dispute or refutation. Laziness because I don’t have the time or energy to support all these ridiculous claims, and therefore will escape accountability by saying “I’m just interested in what you people think.”

THR: Thesis 1: “Everything begins with attention.” Every time I read this I go “hmmm…everything?” so I will ask: Everything?

AJ: Well…yes. If we’re thinking technology and personhood, and especially technologies of knowledge, in a context in which few if any technologies are definitively mandated—most of us could get jobs that did not involve the use of a computer if we really, really wanted to—then the best place to begin, I think, is by asking where my attention is going and why it’s going there.

THR: Thesis 26: “Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.” A platform like Medium seems to be attempting to do just this, though on a popular level rather than a scholarly one. Is this representative of the direction you are hoping online publishing will go?

AJ: No. On Medium, commentary is definitely secondary. You don’t see the comments unless you specifically choose to click on them, and even then only the comments that are explicitly approved by the author. Medium is an extremely author-centered technology. (I understand why the designers took that direction, especially given that toxic wasteland that almost all comment threads have become. But still.) Continue reading

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The Troubled Stranger

A Korean War veteran, left, places a wreath during an event marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement July 27, 2013, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

A Korean War veteran, left, places a wreath during an event marking the 60th anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement July 27, 2013, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Wikimedia Commons.

Last November, Virginians voted on an amendment to the state constitution that would exempt the surviving spouse of a service member killed in action from property taxes on his or her primary residence. Along with 87 percent of my fellow citizens, I voted in support. But I did so with mixed feelings.

Why the ambivalence? I fear there is a particular kind of pity at work. I am not referring to the sorrow and sympathy we feel for those who have suffered in war, and their families. These are worthy emotions that we have been rightly concerned to express, especially after our conspicuous failures to honor returning soldiers during the Vietnam War era. Rather, I have in mind a certain image of the service member as pitiable, as a kind of “troubled stranger” in need of help.

This is not simply a metaphorical condition. One consequence of the fact that only 0.5 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces since October 2001 is that most citizens cannot count active-duty military personnel or recent veterans among their family members or acquaintances. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey of the general public, more than 90 percent of the respondents expressed pride in the post-9/11 troops, and some three-quarters said they had thanked a service member. At the same time, most have no link to recent or active-duty service members, have never heard their stories, and report little understanding of their challenges. For at least half of the respondents, the “wars have made little difference in their lives.” Continue reading

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The Politics of Spectacle in Putin’s Russia: An Interview with Peter Pomerantsev

The British filmmaker, journalist, and author Peter Pomerantsev was recently in the United States to lecture on Vladimir Putin’s use of culture and information to advance his domestic and international agenda. He stopped by our editorial office to discuss his most recent book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.

The Hedgehog Review: Peter, your book, which I very much enjoyed, could also have plausibly been subtitled,  “What I learned while working in Putin’s culture industry.” But before you go into what you learned from that experience, could you tell us a little about what you did and how you got into what you were doing?

Peter Pomerantsev: Sure. I worked as a TV producer in Moscow. I had finished university in Edinburgh and film school in Moscow, and I was looking for a job, and there was just a lot more work in Russia than there was in Britain.

THR: This was the early 2000s, right?

PP: Yes, during the oil boom, when Moscow was a very happening place. Russia was the fastest-growing TV market in Europe, and there was just more opportunity to progress faster—to start making, directing, and producing programs and films rather than just assisting. It also seemed a very exciting place to be—the place, in many ways. It was a bit like Elizabethan England or New York in the Roaring Twenties. There was a real “Jazz Age” feel about it. There was a hint of menace, but the menace at that point seemed intriguing. Not like now, when it just seems threatening.

THR:. And, so, who did you start working for exactly?

PP: I worked with Russian TV channels, an entertainment channel. It was already, by 2006, morally déclassé to work in news. There were quite a lot of Westerners who had come over, working as bankers, international developers, and consultants. And there were also a lot of media people who had come over to teach the Russians how to make Western-style TV. I worked with an entertainment channel, which was explicitly apolitical. And it was my job to make a 120 million Russians laugh and cry.

So we did. This channel brought the reality show to Russia, and it brought the sitcom to Russia. The ratings were very good. The mood at the channel was sort of culturally punkish, but it was very, very successful, and rolling in gas money. And everybody who was working there was, like, twelve. The head of the channel was a thirty-something. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: April 3, 2015

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Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“My Quantified Email Self Experiment: A Failure,” Paul Ford
“Before this experiment, I would have told you that I used to be very passive and conflict-resistant, and that it took a long time to get my back up — but now I’m much more willing to stand up for my ideas. But no, that’s entirely wrong, too. According to my archive I was constantly in some fight or another over email. I apparently have three inches of plate in my skull. And in fact, because I believed, and have believed for so long, that I once was passive but am no longer, I think I tend to be even more likely to be passive-aggressively aggrieved than the typical person.”

“The Overdose,” Bob Wachter
“The clinicians involved in Pablo’s case that day — physicians, nurses and pharmacists—all made small errors or had mistaken judgments that contributed to their patient’s extraordinary overdose. Yet it was the computer systems, and the awkward and sometimes unsafe ways that they interact with busy and fallible human beings, that ultimately were to blame. And the biggest culprit may well have been the hospital’s incessant electronic alerts.”

“Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins
“But I take it that our having to ask ourselves what poems and pop songs are for, and our compulsion to suggest answers, is a good thing—that it’s the fields that are certain of their purpose and their standing that lend themselves most to reified thinking.”

“This Portentous Composition: Swan Lake’s Place in Soviet Politics,” Amelia Schonbek
“Why Swan Lake? It may seem like a random artistic choice, but to anyone who lived in the former USSR, it made perfect sense.”

“Were We Too Hard on Jonah Lehrer?,” Daniel Engber
“Here’s the truth about Jonah Lehrer: His career has not been destroyed, nor has he apologized for the full extent of his mistakes. This master storyteller did not wander in the wilderness and find some inner peace. He disappeared into the bushes, licked his wounds, and re-emerged with another, even more bewitching tale—the story of his own redemption.”

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