Starbucks and the European Coffee Culture

This New York Times piece illuminates the struggles of Starbucks in Europe, particularly in France:

After eight years spent setting up 63 French Starbucks stores, the company has never turned a profit in France. And even in the parts of Europe where the company does make money, sales and profit growth lag far behind results in the Americas and Asia.

The reason Starbucks is struggling in Europe:

While a New Yorker might grab a coffee to go — carry-out orders are one of the company’s biggest money makers — French friends tend to sit when they sip. So Starbucks is having to invest huge amounts to give its stores in France additional seating space, along with other renovations.

On innovations Starbucks is undertaking in other European countries:

In London, an experiment is under way to take customers’ names with their orders and then address them by name when filling it. Participating patrons get a free coffee, but many others have lit up Twitter with complaints about bogus, American-style chumminess.

Other changes in the way baristas operate — they now keep milk within arms’ reach of the steamer, for instance — are meant to overcome the Continental curse of slow service.

The most visible innovations, though, involve “concept” stores designed to make a Starbucks feel more like a trendy neighborhood shop. Last month in Amsterdam, the company’s chief executive, Howard Schultz, cut the ribbon on a striking space with local woods and avant-garde architecture, including a stage for poetry readings.

My advice? If you go to Europe, head to the local coffee shops. Why pay for something that you can experience in the United States?

Jeff Bezos, Space Enthusiast and Explorer

When NASA’s Saturn V rocket launched the historic Apollo 11 mission to land the first men on the moon in 1969, the five powerful engines that powered the booster’s first stage dropped into the Atlantic Ocean and were thought lost forever. Until now…

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says that his deep-sea sonar expedition in the Atlantic has located the five engines used to launch Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon in 1969, and he plans to bring at least one of them to the surface.

Jeff Bezos writes on his blog:

Millions of people were inspired by the Apollo Program. I was five years old when I watched Apollo 11 unfold on television, and without any doubt it was a big contributor to my passions for science, engineering, and exploration. A year or so ago, I started to wonder, with the right team of undersea pros, could we find and potentially recover the F-1 engines that started mankind’s mission to the moon?

I’m excited to report that, using state-of-the-art deep sea sonar, the team has found the Apollo 11 engines lying 14,000 feet below the surface, and we’re making plans to attempt to raise one or more of them from the ocean floor. We don’t know yet what condition these engines might be in – they hit the ocean at high velocity and have been in salt water for more than 40 years. On the other hand, they’re made of tough stuff, so we’ll see.

Though they’ve been on the ocean floor for a long time, the engines remain the property of NASA. If we are able to recover one of these F-1 engines that started mankind on its first journey to another heavenly body, I imagine that NASA would decide to make it available to the Smithsonian for all to see. If we’re able to raise more than one engine, I’ve asked NASA if they would consider making it available to the excellent Museum of Flight here in Seattle. (For clarity, I’ll point out that no public funding will be used to attempt to raise the engines, as it’s being undertaken privately.)

Very interesting indeed.

Lenny B. Robinson is Batman

Last week, police pulled a man over on Route 29 in Silver Spring, Maryland because of a problem with his plates. The man was driving a black Lamborghini, had the Batman symbol on his license plate, and was dressed in full head-to-toe Batman regalia. So who was this guy?

The Washington Post has the scoop on Lenny B. Robinson (with B standing for Batman):

The Caped Crusader is a businessman from Baltimore County who visits sick children in hospitals, handing out Batman paraphernalia to up-and-coming superheros who first need to beat cancer and other wretched diseases.

 This is actually an amazing story:

Batman is 48. He is a self-made success and has the bank account to prove it. He recently sold, for a pile of cash, a commercial cleaning business that he started as a teenager. He became interested in Batman through his son Brandon, who was obsessed with the caped crusader when he was little. “I used to call him Batman,” he told me. “His obsession became my obsession.”

Batman began visiting Baltimore area hospitals in 2001, sometimes with his now teenage son Brandon playing Robin. Once other hospitals and charities heard about his car and his cape, Batman was put on superhero speed dial for children’s causes around the region. He visits sick kids at least couple times a month, sometimes more often. He visits schools, too, to talk about bullying

Surely, the world needs more Batman. And as for his sidekick, Robin? He’s staying home, studying for his SATs.

For Factual, The World Is One Big Data Problem

This is a very interesting article about Gil Elbaz, Caltech graduate, and the company he founded, Factual:

Geared to both big companies and smaller software developers, it includes available government data, terabytes of corporate data and information on 60 million places in 50 countries, each described by 17 to 40 attributes. Factual knows more than 800,000 restaurants in 30 different ways, including location, ownership and ratings by diners and health boards. It also contains information on half a billion Web pages, a list of America’s high schools and data on the offices, specialties and insurance preferences of 1.8 million United States health care professionals. There are also listings of 14,000 wine grape varietals, of military aircraft accidents from 1950 to 1974, and of body masses of major celebrities. Odd facts matter too, Mr. Elbaz notes.

He keeps 500 terabytes of storage near Factual’s headquarters. That’s about twice the amount needed to hold the entire Library of Congress. He has more data stored inside Amazon’s giant cloud of computers. His statisticians have cleaned and corrected data to account for things like how different health departments score sanitation, whether the term “middle school” means two years or three in a particular town, and whether there were revisions between an original piece of data and its duplicate.

A quote from Mr. Elbaz: “Having money is overrated when you are brought up not to believe you are entitled to it…You can make enough money to not need things, or you can just not need things.”


Related: Stephen Wolfram on Personal Data Analytics

Arctic Motion

A little escapism on this lovely Sunday afternoon is this timelapse video by  Tor Even Mathisen. As the title of the film implies, we traverse the Arctic and see mountains, quaint villages, and striking displays of the Aurora Borealis. The accompanying song is “As We Float” by The American Dollar. The timelapse was made with Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Canon 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens.

Also worth watching is Mathisen’s beautiful timelapse captured off the coast of Norway, still one of the best Aurora Borealis compilations I’ve ever seen:

Walking All Five Boroughs of New York City

The New York Times reports on 31-year-old Matt Green, whose goal is to walk every street of all five boroughs of New York City. By some estimates, that’s in excess of 8,000 miles:

Many people have walked every street in Manhattan. The local historian John McNamara, who died in 2004, walked every street in the Bronx. But Mr. Green believes he is the first to try for every block in all five boroughs — a distance he calculates at roughly 8,000 miles, counting parks, paths, cemeteries and occasional overlaps. He estimates that the project will him take more than two years of full-time walking to complete.

Each morning, Mr. Green, who once lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, but now sleeps on friends’ couches throughout the city, scrawls the day’s route into a three-by-five-inch Caliber notebook. He starts walking between 10 a.m. and noon and keeps going until the sun goes down.

Matt Green has already a couple of adventures under his belt, such as having walked from Rockaway Beach (Queens, NY) to Rockaway Beach (Oregon) in five months and having traversed the entire New York City subway system in just over 24 hours. But for his latest project of walking on every street in New York, he is uploading his routes on a Google map and posting pictures from scenes he encounters. Matt Green’s daily photoblog is a must-see, as it’s a wonderful reflection of New York City culture.


(hat tip: Steve Silberman)

Surviving in Joshua Tree National Park

When promiment real estate broker Ed Rosenthal went missing for six days in Joshua Tree National Park one summer weekend, people assumed that he was a goner. But as he recounts in this amazing story in Los Angeles Magazine, he survived.

I finally admitted that I was really and truly lost. I was in a wasteland of ditches near where the park ends. I was too weak to move up the hill to see what was on the other side. No one would ever have found me or my bones. I couldn’t eat. The dates I tried to chew on just stuck to my tongue—I had to spit them out. It was frustrating, but you eventually get over not eating. Afterward I was told I was lucky I didn’t eat, that if you have food while you’re severely dehydrated, your body has to use up resources to help with digestion.

As evening approached I spotted some yuccas nearby. I started to cut away the sheathing at the base of one with my Swiss Army knife—you can suck on the tendrils for water. The stalk was too tough, though: I didn’t want to be away from the tree at night, so I gave up, went back to the tree, and struggled to make myself comfortable. But even under those branches I didn’t feel sheltered on that open hillside. It was freezing. The emergency blanket was falling apart. I tried to wrap pieces around me like a mummy—they just blew off into the night. So I spent my time slathering Mercurochrome and antiseptic from the medical kit onto my cuts. It reminded me of how I’d needed to apply Mercurochrome to my legs after a quadruple bypass ten years earlier: A calamitous real estate deal had triggered the heart attack that led to the surgery; the memory of it helped keep me calm that night. I was determined not to have another heart attack. 

Near the end of his piece, Rosenthal writes:

The moment they gave me water, I threw up all over the helicopter. They brought me to the hospital and started filling me up with fluids. I was in the ICU for two days. I experienced some heart damage, and my left ankle is shot. I don’t know what it is; they can’t do anything about it. But the rest of me is stronger. I’m hiking again. More with the Sierra Club. Now I experience plants as not being a separate species. They’re like cousins. It’s not like, There’s me and there’s plants. There’s us. I’m overwhelmed by how incredible they are.

I’ve hiked in Joshua Tree in October, and even in middle of autumn, the heat takes a lot out of you (even on a moderate three hour hike). Ed Rosenthal’s piece is a must-read story of survival.

Decimal Points Matter

From a story in Bloomberg today:

JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) is being sued by a trader who says he accepted a contract from the investment bank because a typographical error made him believe he would be paid 10 times what was actually offered.

Kai Herbert, a Switzerland-based currency trader, is suing JPMorgan for about 580,000 pounds ($920,000), his lawyers said at a trial in London this week. The original contract said Herbert’s annual pay would be 24 million rand ($3.1 million). JPMorgan blamed the mistake on a typographical error and said the figure should have been 2.4 million rand, according to court documents.

Who should win the lawsuit?

Margaret Atwood on Twitter

Margaret Atwood is one of the most popular authors who’s an active user of Twitter. In this fantastic New York Review of Books post, she muses on Twitter’s personality and her evolution as a Twitterer:

[O]n Twitter you find yourself doing all sorts of things you wouldn’t otherwise do. And once you’ve entered the Enchanted E-Forest, lured in there by cute bunnies and playful kittens, you can find yourself wandering around in it for quite some time. You might even find yourself climbing the odd tree—the very odd tree—or taking refuge in the odd hollow log—the very odd hollow log—because cute bunnies and playful kittens are not the only things alive in the mirkwoods of the Web. Or the webs of the mirkwoods. Paths can get tangled there. Plots can get thickened. Games are afoot.

On Margaret Atwood’s early days on Twitter:

When I first started Twittering, back in 2009—you can read about my early adventures in a NYRblog post I wrote two years ago—I was, you might say, merely capering on the flower-bestrewn fringes of the Twitterwoods. All was jollity, with many a pleasantry being exchanged. True, some of those doing the exchanges represented themselves in masks, or as pairs of feet, or as rubber ducks, or as onions, or as dogs—quite a few dogs. But having had an early career in puppetry and a somewhat later phase during which I amused small children by giving voices to the salt and pepper shakers, I was aware of the fact that anything can talk if you want it to. My Twitter friends were not only sportive but helpful, informing me about Twitpic, letting me in on the secrets of acronyms such as “LMAO,” analyzing the etymology and deep symbolic meaning of “squee,” and teaching me to make many an emoticon, such as the vampire face, represented thus: >:>} (Though other vampire-face options are available.) They led me to extra-Twitter adventures: a live chat on DeviantArt, a website where I found the cover for my book, In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination. To this day I rely on my Twitter followers for arcane information, most recently some updates on the vernacular speech of the young. Who knew that “sick” is the new “awesome,” and that “epic” is the rightful substitute for “amazing?” Twitter knew.

As I like to say: Twitter is what you make of it.

Georgia Lottery Players, Also Known as Suckers

The lottery players in the state of Georgia are the biggest suckers in a nation buying more than $50 billion a year in tickets for state-run games, which have the worst odds of any form of legal gambling.

According to Bloomberg:

Georgia residents spent an average $470.73 on the lottery in 2010, or 1 percent of their personal income, while they received the sixth-highest prize payouts, 63 cents for each dollar spent, the Sucker Index shows. Only Massachusetts had higher spending, $860.70 per adult, more than three times the U.S. average.

Georgia had per capita income of $34,800 in 2010, below the national average of $39,945, while Massachusetts’s was higher at $51,302, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Massachusetts players were the biggest lottery winners, getting back almost 72 cents on the dollar, according to the data compiled by Bloomberg. That state still places second on the Sucker Index because spending as a percentage of personal income is the most, at 1.3 percent.

So how does the Sucker Index work? Bloomberg took the total spent on ticket sales in each state and subtracted the amount of lottery prizes awarded. The difference was divided by the total personal income of each state’s residents. Georgia was at the top (or bottom, depending on how you view it) of the list.

Conclusion: if the saying “There’s a sucker born every minute” holds any merit, there’s a very good chance he is living in Georgia.