Defying Enemy Number One

Sir_Isaac_NewtonEnemy number one in this case is not your favorite team’s arch-rival or your political nemesis or your neighbor’s nocturnal barking dog. It is not sugar, nor is it trans-fat. Enemy number one is not North Korea (close),  nor is it the latest group of murderous  terrorists  (closer).

The real enemy is gravity. Not the movie, that is, but the natural phenomenon.

Gravity is constricting: it anchors us to our measly home  planet, making extra-terrestrial exploration rather difficult. Gravity is painful: it drags us down, it makes us fall — and when we’re down , it helps other things fall on top  of us. Gravity is an enigma.

But help may not be too distant; enter The Gravity Research Foundation. While the foundation’s mission may no longer be to counteract gravity, it still aims to help us better understand.

From the NYT:

Not long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while the world was reckoning with the specter of nuclear energy, a businessman named Roger Babson was worrying about another of nature’s forces: gravity.

It had been 55 years since his sister Edith drowned in the Annisquam River, in Gloucester, Mass., when gravity, as Babson later described it, “came up and seized her like a dragon and brought her to the bottom.” Later on, the dragon took his grandson, too, as he tried to save a friend during a boating mishap.

Something had to be done.

“It seems as if there must be discovered some partial insulator of gravity which could be used to save millions of lives and prevent accidents,” Babson wrote in a manifesto, “Gravity — Our Enemy Number One.” In 1949, drawing on his considerable wealth, he started the Gravity Research Foundation and began awarding annual cash prizes for the best new ideas for furthering his cause.

It turned out to be a hopeless one. By the time the 2014 awards were announced last month, the foundation was no longer hoping to counteract gravity — it forms the very architecture of space-time — but to better understand it. What began as a crank endeavor has become mainstream. Over the years, winners of the prizes have included the likes of Stephen Hawking, Freeman Dyson, Roger Penrose and Martin Rees.

With his theory of general relativity, Einstein described gravity with an elegance that has not been surpassed. A mass like the sun makes the universe bend, causing smaller masses like planets to move toward it.

The problem is that nature’s other three forces are described in an entirely different way, by quantum mechanics. In this system forces are conveyed by particles. Photons, the most familiar example, are the carriers of light. For many scientists, the ultimate prize would be proof that gravity is carried by gravitons, allowing it to mesh neatly with the rest of the machine.

So far that has been as insurmountable as Babson’s old dream. After nearly a century of trying, the best physicists have come up with is superstring theory, a self-consistent but possibly hollow body of mathematics that depends on the existence of extra dimensions and implies that our universe is one of a multitude, each unknowable to the rest.

With all the accomplishments our species has achieved, we could be forgiven for concluding that we have reached a dead end. But human nature compels us to go on.

This year’s top gravity prize of $4,000 went to Lawrence Krauss and Frank Wilczek. Dr. Wilczek shared a Nobel Prize in 2004 for his part in developing the theory of the strong nuclear force, the one that holds quarks together and forms the cores of atoms.

So far gravitons have eluded science’s best detectors, like LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Mr. Dyson suggested at a recent talk that the search might be futile, requiring an instrument with mirrors so massive that they would collapse to form a black hole — gravity defeating its own understanding. But in their paper Dr. Krauss and Dr. Wilczek suggest how gravitons might leave their mark on cosmic background radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang.

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There are other mysteries to contend with. Despite the toll it took on Babson’s family, theorists remain puzzled over why gravity is so much weaker than electromagnetism. Hold a refrigerator magnet over a paper clip, and it will fly upward and away from Earth’s pull.

Reaching for an explanation, the physicists Lisa Randall and Raman Sundrum once proposed that gravity is diluted because it leaks into a parallel universe. Striking off in a different direction, Dr. Randall and another colleague, Matthew Reece, recently speculated that the pull of a disk of dark matter might be responsible for jostling the solar system and unleashing periodic comet storms like one that might have killed off the dinosaurs.

It was a young theorist named Bryce DeWitt who helped disabuse Babson of his dream of stopping such a mighty force. In “The Perfect Theory,” a new book about general relativity, the Oxford astrophysicist Pedro G. Ferreira tells how DeWitt, in need of a down payment for a house, entered the Gravitational Research Foundation’s competition in 1953 with a paper showing why the attempt to make any kind of antigravity device was “a waste of time.”

He won the prize, the foundation became more respectable, and DeWitt went on to become one of the most prominent theorists of general relativity. Babson, however, was not entirely deterred. In 1962 after more than 100 prominent Atlantans were killed in a plane crash in Paris, he donated $5,000 to Emory University along with a marble monument “to remind students of the blessings forthcoming” once gravity is counteracted.

He paid for similar antigravity monuments at more than a dozen campuses, including one at Tufts University, where newly minted doctoral students in cosmology kneel before it in a ceremony in which an apple is dropped on their heads.

I thought of Babson recently during a poignant scene in the movie “Gravity,” in which two astronauts are floating high above Earth, stranded from home. During a moment of calm, one of them, Lt. Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney), asks the other, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), “What do you miss down there?”

She tells him about her daughter:

“She was 4. She was at school playing tag, slipped and hit her head, and that was it. The stupidest thing.” It was gravity that did her in.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727) by  Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Iran, Women, Clothes

hajib_Jeune_femmeA fascinating essay by Haleh Anvari, Iranian writer and artist, provides an insightful view of the role that fashion takes in shaping many of our perceptions — some right, many wrong — of women.

Quite rightly she argues that the measures our culture places on women, through the lens of Western fashion or Muslim tradition, are misleading. In both cases, there remains a fundamental need to address and to continue to address women’s rights versus those of men. Fashion stereotypes may be vastly different across continents, but the underlying issues remain very much the same whether a woman wears a hijab on the street or lingerie on a catwalk.

From the NYT:

I took a series of photographs of myself in 2007 that show me sitting on the toilet, weighing myself, and shaving my legs in the bath. I shot them as an angry response to an encounter with a gallery owner in London’s artsy Brick Lane. I had offered him photos of colorful chadors — an attempt to question the black chador as the icon of Iran by showing the world that Iranian women were more than this piece of black cloth. The gallery owner wasn’t impressed. “Do you have any photos of Iranian women in their private moments?” he asked.

As an Iranian with a reinforced sense of the private-public divide we navigate daily in our country, I found his curiosity offensive. So I shot my “Private Moments” in a sardonic spirit, to show that Iranian women are like all women around the world if you get past the visual hurdle of the hijab. But I never shared those, not just because I would never get a permit to show them publicly in Iran, but also because I am prepared to go only so far to prove a point. Call me old-fashioned.Read the entire article here.

Ever since the hijab, a generic term for every Islamic modesty covering, became mandatory after the 1979 revolution, Iranian women have been used to represent the country visually. For the new Islamic republic, the all-covering cloak called a chador became a badge of honor, a trademark of fundamental change. To Western visitors, it dropped a pin on their travel maps, where the bodies of Iranian women became a stand-in for the character of Iranian society. When I worked with foreign journalists for six years, I helped produce reports that were illustrated invariably with a woman in a black chador. I once asked a photojournalist why. He said, “How else can we show where we are?”

How wonderful. We had become Iran’s Eiffel Tower or Big Ben.

Next came the manteau-and-head scarf combo — less traditional, and more relaxed, but keeping the lens on the women. Serious reports about elections used a “hair poking out of scarf” standard as an exit poll, or images of scarf-clad women lounging in coffee shops, to register change. One London newspaper illustrated a report on the rise of gasoline prices with a woman in a head scarf, photographed in a gas station, holding a pump nozzle with gasoline suggestively dripping from its tip. A visitor from Mars or a senior editor from New York might have been forgiven for imagining Iran as a strange land devoid of men, where fundamentalist chador-clad harridans vie for space with heathen babes guzzling cappuccinos. (Incidentally, women hardly ever step out of the car to pump gas here; attendants do it for us.)

The disputed 2009 elections, followed by demonstrations and a violent backlash, brought a brief respite. The foreign press was ejected, leaving the reporting to citizen journalists not bound by the West’s conventions. They depicted a politically mature citizenry, male and female, demanding civic acknowledgment together.

We are now witnessing another shift in Iran’s image. It shows Iran “unveiled” — a tired euphemism now being used to literally undress Iranian women or show them off as clotheshorses. An Iranian fashion designer in Paris receives more plaudits in the Western media for his blog’s street snapshots of stylish, affluent young women in North Tehran than he gets for his own designs. In this very publication, a male Iranian photographer depicted Iranian women through flimsy fabrics under the title “Veiled Truths”; one is shown in a one-piece pink swimsuit so minimal it could pass for underwear; others are made more sensual behind sheer “veils,” reinforcing a sense of peeking at them. Search the Internet and you can get an eyeful of nubile limbs in opposition to the country’s official image, shot by Iranian photographers of both sexes, keen to show the hidden, supposedly true, other side of Iran.

Young Iranians rightly desire to show the world the unseen sides of their lives. But their need to show themselves as like their peers in the West takes them into dangerous territory. Professional photographers and artists, encouraged by Western curators and seeking fast-track careers, are creating a new wave of homegrown neo-Orientalism. A favorite reworking of an old cliché is the thin, beautiful young woman reclining while smoking a hookah, dancing, or otherwise at leisure in her private spaces. Ingres could sue for plagiarism.

In a country where the word feminism is pejorative, there is no inkling that the values of both fundamentalism and Western consumerism are two sides of the same coin — the female body as an icon defining Iranian culture.

It is true that we Iranians live dual lives, and so it is true that to see us in focus, you must enter our inner sanctum. But the inner sanctum includes women who believe in the hijab, fat women, old women and, most important, women in professions from doctor to shopkeeper. It also includes men, not all of whom are below 30 years of age. If you wish to see Iran as it is, you need go no further than Facebook and Instagram. Here, Iran is neither fully veiled nor longing to undress itself. Its complex variety is shown through the lens of its own people, in both private and public spaces.

Read the entire essay here.

Image: Young woman from Naplouse in a hijab, c1867-1885. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Dinosaurs of Retail

moa

Shopping malls in the United States were in their prime in the 1970s and ’80s. Many had positioned themselves a a bright, clean, utopian alternative to inner-city blight and decay. A quarter of a century on, while the mega-malls may be thriving, the numerous smaller suburban brethren are seeing lower sales. As internet shopping and retailing pervades all reaches of our society many midsize malls are decaying or shutting down completely.  Documentary photographer Seth Lawless captures this fascinating transition in a new book: Black Friday: the Collapse of the American Shopping Mall.

From the Guardian:

It is hard to believe there has ever been any life in this place. Shattered glass crunches under Seph Lawless’s feet as he strides through its dreary corridors. Overhead lights attached to ripped-out electrical wires hang suspended in the stale air and fading wallpaper peels off the walls like dead skin.

Lawless sidesteps debris as he passes from plot to plot in this retail graveyard called Rolling Acres Mall in Akron, Ohio. The shopping centre closed in 2008, and its largest retailers, which had tried to make it as standalone stores, emptied out by the end of last year. When Lawless stops to overlook a two-storey opening near the mall’s once-bustling core, only an occasional drop of water, dribbling through missing ceiling tiles, breaks the silence.

“You came, you shopped, you dressed nice – you went to the mall. That’s what people did,” says Lawless, a pseudonymous photographer who grew up in a suburb of nearby Cleveland. “It was very consumer-driven and kind of had an ugly side, but there was something beautiful about it. There was something there.”

Gazing down at the motionless escalators, dead plants and empty benches below, he adds: “It’s still beautiful, though. It’s almost like ancient ruins.”

Dying shopping malls are speckled across the United States, often in middle-class suburbs wrestling with socioeconomic shifts. Some, like Rolling Acres, have already succumbed. Estimates on the share that might close or be repurposed in coming decades range from 15 to 50%. Americans are returning downtown; online shopping is taking a 6% bite out of brick-and-mortar sales; and to many iPhone-clutching, city-dwelling and frequently jobless young people, the culture that spawned satire like Mallrats seems increasingly dated, even cartoonish.

According to longtime retail consultant Howard Davidowitz, numerous midmarket malls, many of them born during the country’s suburban explosion after the second world war, could very well share Rolling Acres’ fate. “They’re going, going, gone,” Davidowitz says. “They’re trying to change; they’re trying to get different kinds of anchors, discount stores … [But] what’s going on is the customers don’t have the fucking money. That’s it. This isn’t rocket science.”

Shopping culture follows housing culture. Sprawling malls were therefore a natural product of the postwar era, as Americans with cars and fat wallets sprawled to the suburbs. They were thrown up at a furious pace as shoppers fled cities, peaking at a few hundred per year at one point in the 1980s, according to Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist and author of Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping. Though construction has since tapered off, developers left a mall overstock in their wake.

Currently, the US contains around 1,500 of the expansive “malls” of suburban consumer lore. Most share a handful of bland features. Brick exoskeletons usually contain two storeys of inward-facing stores separated by tile walkways. Food courts serve mediocre pizza. Parking lots are big enough to easily misplace a car. And to anchor them economically, malls typically depend on department stores: huge vendors offering a variety of products across interconnected sections.

For mid-century Americans, these gleaming marketplaces provided an almost utopian alternative to the urban commercial district, an artificial downtown with less crime and fewer vermin. As Joan Didion wrote in 1979, malls became “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes”. Peppered throughout disconnected suburbs, they were a place to see and be seen, something shoppers have craved since the days of the Greek agora. And they quickly matured into a self-contained ecosystem, with their own species – mall rats, mall cops, mall walkers – and an annual feeding frenzy known as Black Friday.

“Local governments had never dealt with this sort of development and were basically bamboozled [by developers],” Underhill says of the mall planning process. “In contrast to Europe, where shopping malls are much more a product of public-private negotiation and funding, here in the US most were built under what I call ‘cowboy conditions’.”

Shopping centres in Europe might contain grocery stores or childcare centres, while those in Japan are often built around mass transit. But the suburban American variety is hard to get to and sells “apparel and gifts and damn little else”, Underhill says.

Nearly 700 shopping centres are “super-regional” megamalls, retail leviathans usually of at least 1 million square feet and upward of 80 stores. Megamalls typically outperform their 800 slightly smaller, “regional” counterparts, though size and financial health don’t overlap entirely. It’s clearer, however, that luxury malls in affluent areas are increasingly forcing the others to fight for scraps. Strip malls – up to a few dozen tenants conveniently lined along a major traffic artery – are retail’s bottom feeders and so well-suited to the new environment. But midmarket shopping centres have begun dying off alongside the middle class that once supported them. Regional malls have suffered at least three straight years of declining profit per square foot, according to the International Council of Shopping Centres (ICSC).

Read the entire story here.

Image: Mall of America. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Your Tax Dollars At Work — Leetspeak

US-FBI-ShadedSealIt’s fascinating to see what our government agencies are doing with some of our hard earned tax dollars.

In this head-scratching example, the FBI — the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit, no less — has just completed a 83-page glossary of Internet slang or “leetspeak”. LOL and Ugh! (the latter is not an acronym).

Check out the document via Muckrock here — they obtained the “secret” document through the Freedom of Information Act.

From the Washington Post:

The Internet is full of strange and bewildering neologisms, which anyone but a text-addled teen would struggle to understand. So the fine, taxpayer-funded people of the FBI — apparently not content to trawl Urban Dictionary, like the rest of us — compiled a glossary of Internet slang.

An 83-page glossary. Containing nearly 3,000 terms.

The glossary was recently made public through a Freedom of Information request by the group MuckRock, which posted the PDF, called “Twitter shorthand,” online. Despite its name, this isn’t just Twitter slang: As the FBI’s Intelligence Research Support Unit explains in the introduction, it’s a primer on shorthand used across the Internet, including in “instant messages, Facebook and Myspace.” As if that Myspace reference wasn’t proof enough that the FBI’s a tad out of touch, the IRSU then promises the list will prove useful both professionally and “for keeping up with your children and/or grandchildren.” (Your tax dollars at work!)

All of these minor gaffes could be forgiven, however, if the glossary itself was actually good. Obviously, FBI operatives and researchers need to understand Internet slang — the Internet is, increasingly, where crime goes down these days. But then we get things like ALOTBSOL (“always look on the bright side of life”) and AMOG (“alpha male of group”) … within the first 10 entries.

ALOTBSOL has, for the record, been tweeted fewer than 500 times in the entire eight-year history of Twitter. AMOG has been tweeted far more often, but usually in Spanish … as a misspelling, it would appear, of “amor” and “amigo.”

Among the other head-scratching terms the FBI considers can’t-miss Internet slang:

  1. AYFKMWTS (“are you f—— kidding me with this s—?”) — 990 tweets
  2. BFFLTDDUP (“best friends for life until death do us part) — 414 tweets
  3. BOGSAT (“bunch of guys sitting around talking”) — 144 tweets
  4. BTDTGTTSAWIO (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt and wore it out”) — 47 tweets
  5. BTWITIAILWY (“by the way, I think I am in love with you”) — 535 tweets
  6. DILLIGAD (“does it look like I give a damn?”) — 289 tweets
  7. DITYID (“did I tell you I’m depressed?”) — 69 tweets
  8. E2EG (“ear-to-ear grin”) — 125 tweets
  9. GIWIST (“gee, I wish I said that”) — 56 tweets
  10. HCDAJFU (“he could do a job for us”) — 25 tweets
  11. IAWTCSM (“I agree with this comment so much”) — 20 tweets
  12. IITYWIMWYBMAD (“if I tell you what it means will you buy me a drink?”) — 250 tweets
  13. LLTA (“lots and lots of thunderous applause”) — 855 tweets
  14. NIFOC (“naked in front of computer”) — 1,065 tweets, most of them referring to acronym guides like this one.
  15. PMYMHMMFSWGAD (“pardon me, you must have mistaken me for someone who gives a damn”) — 128 tweets
  16. SOMSW (“someone over my shoulder watching) — 170 tweets
  17. WAPCE (“women are pure concentrated evil”) — 233 tweets, few relating to women
  18. YKWRGMG (“you know what really grinds my gears?”) — 1,204 tweets

In all fairness to the FBI, they do get some things right: “crunk” is helpfully defined as “crazy and drunk,” FF is “a recommendation to follow someone referenced in the tweet,” and a whole range of online patois is translated to its proper English equivalent: hafta is “have to,” ima is “I’m going to,” kewt is “cute.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: FBI Seal. Courtesy of U.S. Government.

Goostman Versus Turing

eugene-goostman

Some computer scientists believe that “Eugene Goostman” may have overcome the famous hurdle proposed by Alan Turning, by cracking the eponymous Turning Test. Eugene is a 13 year-old Ukrainian “boy” constructed from computer algorithms designed to feign intelligence and mirror human thought processes. During a text-based exchange Eugene managed to convince his human interrogators that he was a real boy — and thus his creators claim to have broken the previously impenetrable Turing barrier.

Other researchers and philosophers disagree: they claim that it’s easier to construct an artificial intelligence that converses in good, but limited English — Eugene is Ukrainian after all — than it would be to develop a native anglophone adult. So, the Turning Test barrier may yet stand.

From the Guardian:

From 2001: a Space Odyssey to Her, the idea of an intelligent computer that can hold conversations with humans has long been a dream of science-fiction writers, but that fantasy may just have taken a step closer to becoming reality. On Saturday, a computer algorithm claiming to be a 13-year-old boy called Eugene Goostman passed the Turing test, it has been claimed. However, some commentators have suggested that pretending to be a 13-year-old Ukrainian child is not as difficult as pretending to be an Anglophone adult, and that the result should not count.

The program convinced 33% of the human judges at an event at the Royal Society that it was actually a human. The Turing test, which was devised in 1950 by the pioneering computer scientist and second wold war codebreaker Alan Turing is a classic benchmark in artificial intelligence – it determines a machine’s ability to show intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

Transcripts of the conversations from the latest Royal Society test are not yet available but below are transcripts from a previous event at Bletchley Park on 23 June 2012, with the same program.

Can you tell Eugene isn’t human?

Test 1

[12:43:37] Judge: Hi, I’m Cathy.

[12:43:43] Eugene: Cathy! Nice to meet you! You’re a woman, if I’m not mistaken.

[12:44:20] Judge: Right. What is your name?

[12:44:29] Eugene: People call me Eugene. Or “Zhenya”. It is a short name for Eugene in Russia and Ukraine.

[12:45:17] Judge: Nice name. Are you from either area?

[12:45:41] Eugene: Agree 🙂 Oh, what a fruitful conversation;-)

[12:45:52] Judge: Do you really think so?

[12:46:04] Eugene: No, your guess was wrong. I don’t think so. By the way, I still don’t know your specialty – or, possibly, I’ve missed it?

[12:46:56] Judge: What speciality? What’s yours?

[12:47:01] Eugene: Huh? And I forgot to ask you where you are from.

[12:47:51] Judge: The universe and you?

[12:48:01] Eugene: Is it your hobby to ask little poor Jewish boys such tricky questions they don’t have an answer for?

Test 2

[16:11:25] Judge: what music do you like?

[16:11:32] Eugene: I like Eminem – because he doesn’t have a thing to do with “polite correctness”.

[16:11:46] Judge: OMG i love eminem, he’s my favourite artist!

[16:12:00] Eugene: I wonder what Eminem’s nick mean. I associate it only with a word “enema”. But he is a cool guy, I like his The Real Slim Shady.

[16:12:55] Judge: i know what his nickname means, his real name is Marshall Mathers. From the initials M&M phynetically sounding like Eminem.

[16:13:06] Eugene: Eminem is a famous crapper. No, raper… ripper… Yeah, I mean – rapper. I like his Stan and The Real Slim Shady.

[16:13:32] Judge: I like Hailies Song.

[16:13:46] Eugene: Interesting tastes. I like science-fiction books, by the way. Where do you came from, by the way? Could you tell me about the place where you live?

[16:14:22] Judge: Epsom, home of the derby. yourself?

[16:14:27] Eugene: My guinea pig says that name Derby sounds very nice.

[16:14:41] Judge: i shopuld [sic] talk with him sometime.

[16:14:48] Eugene: I think you should take some typing lessons. Or just type more accurately.

[16:15:04] Judge: That’s very rude.

[16:15:09] Eugene: Ummm … Frankly, I didn’t get your question 🙁

[16:15:49] Judge: “Ummm” isnt a word. i think you need typing lessons

[16:15:58] Eugene: My thoughts are same. By the way, I still don’t know your specialty – or, possibly, I’ve missed it?

Test 3

[16:06:31] Judge: Hi there, do you prefer to wear a dress or trousers to work?

[16:06:37] Eugene: I am a scholar. I’m too young to make money.

[16:07:32] Judge: What was the last film you saw at the cinema?

[16:07:38] Eugene: Huh? Could you tell me what are you? I mean your profession.

[16:08:11] Judge: I am an IT manager, and you?

[16:08:16] Eugene: Manager? So how is it to work as manager?

[16:09:13] Judge: Hard work but rewarding, what do you do?

[16:09:18] Eugene: I am only 13, so I’m attending school so far.

[16:09:51] Judge: Have you seen teletubbies?

[16:10:04] Eugene: No, I haven’t seen it, unfortunately. But I hope it is better than these crappy Star Wars. And I forgot to ask you where you are from …

[16:10:15] Judge: Brighton, and you?

Read the entire story and Eugene’s conversation with real humans here.

Image: A conversation with Eugene Goostman. Courtesy of BBC.

Nuts About Nutella

nutella

Connoisseurs of Nutella — that wonderful concoction of hazelnuts and chocolate — are celebrating 50 years of the iconic Italian spread. Here’s to the next 50 bites, sorry years! Say no more.

From the Guardian:

In Piedmont they have been making gianduiotto, a confectionery combining hazelnuts and cocoa sold in a pretty tinfoil wrapper, since the mid-18th century. They realised long ago that the nuts, which are plentiful in the surrounding hills, are a perfect match for chocolate. But no one had any idea that their union would prove so harmonious, lasting and fruitful. Only after the second world war was this historic marriage finally sealed.

Cocoa beans are harder to come by and, consequently, more expensive. Pietro Ferrero, an Alba-based pastry cook, decided to turn the problem upside down. Chocolate should not be allowed to dictate its terms. By using more nuts and less cocoa, one could obtain a product that was just as good and not as costly. What is more, it would be spread.

Nutella, one of the world’s best-known brands, celebrated its 50th anniversary in Alba last month. In telling the story of this chocolate spread, it’s difficult to avoid cliches: a success story emblematic of Italy’s postwar recovery, the tale of a visionary entrepreneur and his perseverance, a business model driven by a single product.

The early years were spectacular. In 1946 the Ferrero brothers produced and sold 300kg of their speciality; nine months later output had reached 10 tonnes. Pietro stayed at home making the spread. Giovanni went to market across Italy in his little Fiat. In 1948 Ferrero, now a limited company, moved into a 5,000 sq metre factory equipped to produce 50 tonnes of gianduiotto a month.

By 1949 the process was nearing perfection, with the launch of the “supercrema” version, which was smoother and stuck more to the bread than the knife. It was also the year Pietro died. He did not live long enough to savour his triumph.

His son Michele was driven by the same obsession with greater spreadability. Under his leadership Ferrero became an empire. But it would take another 15 years of hard work and endless experiments before finally, in 1964, Nutella was born.

The firm now sells 365,000 tonnes of Nutella a year worldwide, the biggest consumers being the Germans, French, Italians and Americans. The anniversary was, of course, the occasion for a big promotional operation. At a gathering in Rome last month, attended by two government ministers, journalists received a 1kg jar marked with the date and a commemorative Italian postage stamp. It is an ideal opportunity for Ferrero – which also owns the Tic Tac, Ferrero Rocher, Kinder and Estathé brands, among others – to affirm its values and rehearse its well-established narrative.

There are no recent pictures of the patriarch Michele, who divides his time between Belgium and Monaco. According to Forbes magazine he was worth $9.5bn in 2009, making him the richest person in Italy. He avoids the media and making public appearances, even eschewing the boards of leading Italian firms.

His son Giovanni, who has managed the company on his own after the early death of his brother Pietro in 2011, only agreed to a short interview on Italy’s main public TV channel. He abides by the same rule as his father: “Only on two occasions should the papers mention one’s name – birth and death.”

In contrast, Ferrero executives have plenty to say about both products and the company, with its 30,000-strong workforce at 14 locations, its €8bn ($10bn) revenue, 72% share of the chocolate-spreads market, 5 million friends on Facebook, 40m Google references, its hazelnut plantations in both hemispheres securing it a round-the-year supply of fresh ingredients and, of course, its knowhow.

“The recipe for Nutella is not a secret like Coca-Cola,” says marketing manager Laurent Cremona. “Everyone can find out the ingredients. We simply know how to combine them better than other people.”

Be that as it may, the factory in Alba is as closely guarded as Fort Knox and visits are not allowed. “It’s not a company, it’s an oasis of happiness,” says Francesco Paolo Fulci, a former ambassador and president of the Ferrero foundation. “In 70 years, we haven’t had a single day of industrial action.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Never enough Nutella. Courtesy of secret Nutella fans the world over / Ferrero, S.P.A

theDiagonal is Dislocating to The Diagonal

Flatirons_Winter_SunriseDear readers, theDiagonal is in the midst of a major dislocation in May-June 2014. Thus, your friendly editor would like to apologize for the recent, intermittent service. While theDiagonal lives online, its human-powered (currently) editor is physically relocating with family to Boulder, CO. Normal, daily service from theDiagonal will resume in July.

The city of Boulder intersects Colorado State Highway 119, as it sweeps on a SW to NE track from the Front Range towards the Central Plains. Coincidentally, or not, highway 119 is more affectionately known as The Diagonal.

Image: The Flatirons, mountain formations, in Boulder, Colorado. Courtesy of Jesse Varner / AzaToth / Wikipedia.