The Genius of Red Solo Cups

A reader emailed in this week to say “I’ve been overlooking an instance of pure inspiration my whole life.  No more.” and included a link to an LA Weekly posting about red Solo cups (so apparently Toby Keith is not the only one to be moved by this great American invention).

Since we’ve had a bit of a food & drink theme on Historicalness.com over the past few weeks, and since summertime BBQ season is coming into swing, it seemed to make sense to delve a little deeper.

From the LA Weekly: “[Solo’s creation] was the hard work of a man named Leo J. Hulseman, who in 1936 started producing paper cone cups out of his home to sell to bottled-water companies [my note: during WWII, since glass was scarce, companies turned to paper cups]. The business grew into Solo, and by the 1970s the iconic red cup was born.”

And who can forget the landmark year of 2009 when history was made with the introduction of “Solo Squared®, a first-of-its-kind Squared® single-use cup”, according to the Solo Cup Company website.  What’s more, “in addition to the classic red party cup’s new innovative shape, Solo Squared® has four ergonomic grips, ensuring a more comfortable and reliable hold.”

In May of this year, a Michigan company, Dart Container, completed its acquisition of Solo Cup for approximately one billion dollars.  At today’s Solo cup-to-dollar conversion ratio (we did something similar for English muffins a few months ago), that equates to about 8 billion cups — which would stretch about 500,000 miles long if you stacked them on top of each other.  Not too shabby considering that  would get you to the moon and back, with about 25,000 miles to spare.

I guess Red solo cups really are a source of pure inspiration.

Photos: Best of Old New York

If you’re a fan of old photos, you’ll love a recent post at TheAtlantic.com called “Historic Photos From the NYC Municipal Archives“.

Apparently, the Archives — which are part of the city’s Department of Records and Information Services — “just released a database of over 870,000 photos from its collection of more than 2.2 million images of New York throughout the 20th century” and TheAtlantic.com selected 53 of its favorites which you can see here.

Here are two of my favorites from their list of 53.  First, is a view from the Williamsburg Bridge looking west on Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — exactly the area that’s being contemplated for the Low Line Park that I mentioned in my last post.  This photo is from January 29, 1923:

Second, is the famed Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park which, based on this photo, was I guess at one time actually a meadow for sheep (circa 1900-1910:

If you’d like to see the entire catalog of the Archive’s photos, you can visit here.  The browsing functionality isn’t that great, but they have added some categories to help which you can visit here.

The Lowline: From Abandonded Station to Futuristic Park

There’s apparently been a lot of press — all of which I’ve missed — about the Lowline.  In case you too haven’t heard, the Lowline aspires to be the world’s first underground park, tucked inside an old trolley terminal on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Last night I went to a talk by the Lowline’s two visionaries, James Ramsey and Dan Barasch, who view their project as a cousin of sorts to the High Line and who are taking a similar grass-roots approach to convince the city to transform this unused area into a landmark public space.

Here’s an illustration of the Lowline would look like:

The MTA controls the space due to its historical roots as the Williamsburg Trolley Terminal which shuttled passengers from October 1904 – December 1948 between Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the Lower East Side, passing underneath Delancey and Essex streets.

Here’s the Trolley Terminal, looking east above Delancey Street toward the Williamsburg Bridge

The reason why the Terminal’s space is wider than you might expect is that it includes 8 loops which the trolleys used to turn around (and which in the picture below resemble the tops of tennis racquets).

An overhead shot of Delancey Street and the Terminal, with the Williamsburg Bridge disappearing in the lower right corner.

Here’s what the loops looked like at their underground level.

What’s also fascinating is the technology that Ramsey has created to capture sunlight above ground and then transmit it down into the park to feed the trees and grass:

The Lowline could serve as a model for urban areas around the world — and there are even a bunch more abandoned stations throughout New York which might also be candidates which you can see here at a site called…Abandoned Stations.

If you’d like to learn more about the Lowline or make a donation to the cause, you can visit their site at DelanceyUnderground.org.

What Was On the Menu?

There are a ton of places in NY and elsewhere to get great cocktails, many whose recipes were invented in an earlier era.   I’ve often wondered what people were eating when these cocktails first arrived on the scene — what were they dining on before/during/after their Sidecars and Old Fashioneds?

And, wouldn’t it be fun if restaurants today offered some of those dishes — or, if there was a spot dedicated solely to recreating the menu of the [insert decade here] in its entirely, soup to nuts (literally and figuratively).

But how do we know exactly what used to be served in restaurants around town? Enter the NY Public Library, which has a vast archive of original printed menus, some 40,000 from the 1840s to present (most from NY dining spots).

In April 2011, it launched a digital program called “What’s on the Menu?” (you can see it here), and over the past year, almost 900K dishes from 13,500 menus have been transcribed from print to digital by public volunteers — visit http://menus.nypl.org and you too can help out.

It’s a mouth-watering look into history.

Curious what Delmonico’s (the old one at 26th and 5th) was serving one October evening in 1898?

I don’t know what Filet de boeuf a la Montebello is, but I already love it

What the NY Athletic Club patrons were offered at the turn of the century?

decisions, decisions…

Or that Governor Teddy Roosevelt had a dinner in his honor on Saturday, March 11, 1900 at the Waldorf Astoria?

Looking good TR

Then this is the place for you.  Enjoy!

The History of Chocolate

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I’d take a look at the history of one of my mom’s favorite desserts: chocolate.

So where does chocolate from?

The earliest signs we have of chocolate consumption go back to 2,000 BC in what was called Mesoamerica (what today is roughly Central America).

And for the vast majority of chocolate’s history, it was consumed as a drink, not as a food — only in the last 150 years has chocolate emerged in the form we know it today.  In fact, the word “chocolate” is derived from the Aztec word “xocoatl,” which was a bitter drink created from cacao beans.

Here you can see the cacao fruit as it grows on a tree, and the seeds inside which we use to make chocolate:

For the Mayans and Aztecs, cacao was held in very high esteem: cacao pods were represented in temples, and beans were used as currency as well as to make the xocatl drinks which often had medicinal purposes.

In the 1500s, Cortez brought cacao back to Spain after conquering Mexico and it spread throughout Europe. It made its way to America in the 1700s (and was given to soldiers in the Revolutionary War).

In the mid 1800s, European chemists created the first modern chocolate bars, which soon began to be marketed by companies like Cadbury’s.  In 1875, the first milk chocolate bar hit the market.

Today, most cacao is grown in West Africa and in 2009 total chocolate candy sales were $5 billion across supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandise outlets.  “Premium” chocolate, which has higher cocoa percentages — e.g. 70% cacao vs. a Hershey bar’s 30% cacao — has recently been a major growth area.

But if you don’t like eating or drinking it, at least you can bathe in it. Enjoy!

Where Did $600 Billion Go?

There are 3 important things I’ve learned recently about our education system:

  1. No one knows where the dollars in K-12 education are really going (we know the sources of funding, but we don’t know how those funds are spent).
  2. This leads to inefficient and unintended uses of the funding.
  3. There are powerful structural elements — including K-12’s various stakeholders and conditions/contingencies tied to how funding is used — that work against fixing the situation.

First, a little context about the K-12 world.

    • Large: Education spending for kindergarten through 12th grade is massive, totaling $600 billion, which is about $12,000 per year per student (with WIDE variations on per student spending depending on the state and district you live in, roughly from $5K-$15K).
    • Growing: Spending on K-12 education has grown 2-3x over last 30 years (even when adjusting for inflation).  Federal funding alone has doubled in the last decade.
    • Funding Sources #1 – 10/45/45: The $600 billion is funded 10% from federal dollars, 45% from state (sales & income taxes), and 45% from local (property taxes).
    • Funding Sources #2 – Taxes:  Education funding is the largest claim on your tax dollars except for Medicaid.

I spent some time with Marguerite Roza at the University of Washington’s College of Education who is the country’s expert on K-12 financing.  Her book, Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?, is terrific — short, sweet, and clearly written — and I’ve excerpted a number of items from it below.

So, revisiting the three things I’ve learned….

1) No one knows where the dollars in K-12 education are really going (we know the sources of funding, but we don’t know how those funds are used).

How can this be true?  Well, the problem is districts don’t track what they spend on each school.  Seems like this would be pretty important, but they don’t do it.

As a result, “despite extensive financial reporting requirements, most districts cannot answer basic questions [such as]: How much does the district spend on professional development?…How much does the district spend on sports and electives? How much does Johnson Elementary receive relative to Lincoln Elementary?” (pg 47).

2) This leads to inefficient and unintended uses of the funding.

There are many examples, but let’s pick one with a particular historical connection.

In 1965, LBJ launched the War on Poverty and with it created a new federal education program called Title I.  The program was well-intentioned: it was meant to provide funds to schools with the highest concentrations of poverty.  More specifically, it was meant to provide incremental funds ON TOP of an equitable distribution of all other funds across all the schools in a district, so Title I would provide a real boost to the students most affected by poverty.

To this day, Title I is the largest slice of the $60 billion federal edu pie at $15 billion per year.  The problem is, it’s not working as intended.

How can this be?  To have any sense for where money goes in K-12, it helps to start by looking at compensation, as salaries and benefits count for ~70% of spending (we think!).

Since more experienced and therefore more expensive teachers (due to seniority vs. merit-based compensation plans) choose to teach in wealthier schools with middle & upper-class students, these schools receive more funding by way of higher salary spending.  For instance, 1 teacher in poor school tends to be less experienced so gets $40K whereas 1 teacher in a wealthy school tends to be more experienced so gets $60K.

The funding gap between schools with wealthy and poor student populations is so large that Title I dollars cannot make up for it — instead of providing a boost, it can’t even provide a level playing field.  So the highest poverty schools actually receive less than wealthier schools — completely opposite of what is intended.

Targeted Federal Funding atop Uneven Base Allocations in One School District (pg 35)

As a result, we’ve reached a world where, “one could argue that the implicit [my emphasis] strategy in spending realized at the school level is one where the system:

  • is trying to increase the gaps between minorities and whites;
  • reinforces the benefits realized by wealthier students;
  • is working to expand the achievement gap between high and low performers” (pg 68).

3) There are powerful structural elements — including K-12’s various stakeholders and conditions/contingencies that limit how funding is used — that work against fixing the situation.  

There are numerous stakeholders who are involved in the K-12 world: school boards, superintendents, central office staff, principals, parents, and political officials at the local, state and federal level.  Why is this necessarily a problem?

Well all these chefs each vie for their own favored projects — and those better at working the system assert greater influence over where funding goes vs. programs (e.g. Title I) intended to sure equitable distribution.  For instance: “Parents band to block school closures and prevent budget cuts to cherished programs.  In one district, students marched into a [school] board meeting playing their musical instruments, thus saving the middle-school music program in a single school.” (pg 30)

In addition, more chefs lead to more rules which limit a school’s site-based discretion.   For instance: “In [one] school, the district continues to provide bus transportation to all students to the school, despite the fact that more than half could safely walk.  The principal wants to redirect the funds to other services but says the district cannot, since those funds are earmarked by the state for transportation only.”  (pg 66)

What to Do?

There is no magic solution.  But I do think there are opportunities to (a) advise districts on how to better make use of and understand their data as well as (b) create technology solutions to track spending down to the school level — not just software to enable compliance, but software to enable insight into where money really goes and whether it’s being spent in ways that drive student achievement.

2,500 Year Old Medical Problem

I came across an interesting whitepaper by HealthPrize.com, which is a company addressing what turns out to be the massive issue of patients not taking their medications (what’s called “medication non-adherence”).

Although it sounds counter intuitive, 50%-70% of people, after being prescribed medications by their doctors, don’t take them.

And interestingly, this is a phenomenon which has been going on for thousands of years — as the paper’s quote from Hippocrates almost 2,500 years ago (“Keep a watch also on the faults of the patients, which often make them lie about taking of things prescribed.”) indicates that humans have had a long history of non-adherence.

Hippocrates Refusing the Gifts of Artaxerxes I (1792) by Anne Louis Girodet de Roucy-Trioson

How pervasive is this?

  • Up to 25% of people don’t fill their prescription in the first place.
  • Of those that do, up to 40% stop taking within the first 60-90 days; another 20% drop off somewhere along the way.
  • As a result, only 30% of people take their prescriptions as they’re supposed to (that’s (i) 75%, those who actually fill their initial prescription, multiplied by (ii) 40%, those who complete their treatment).

What’s going on here?

Non-adherence obviously has costs for patients; drug companies (e.g. lost revenue); and increased costs on the medical system as patients worsen — the total costs are estimated at “$290 billion in ‘otherwise avoidable medical spending’ in the US per year”.  And as this is not a new problem, you can imagine that there have been a lot of efforts to fix it — with practical things like alerts and reminders for patients.

But maybe part of the issue is that prior fixes have focused on addressing rational vs. emotional thought.  After all, one of the key reasons people don’t take their medications is that they don’t like the constant reminder of their affliction.

In that context, it seems to me that fixes could be designed to meet people in a different way — e.g. giving people counseling (even if limited?) for the duration of their prescription period?  If that’s cost-prohibitive to do across all medications, focus it on the chronic afflictions where there’s the highest-cost to all parties.

Are We As Smart As We Think…or Smarter?

Interesting article in Sunday’s NY Times called “Would You Vote for This Face” (called “A Facial Theory of Politics” in online editions) which highlights — based on the results of a series of studies — the importance of candidates’ looks in determining their electability.

Some excerpts:

  • “It turns out that a candidate’s appearance — not beauty, but a look of competence — can generate a far greater vote swing than we previously thought.  Furthermore, this effect is not only powerful but also subliminal.  Few of us believe that appearance determines our vote, yet for a significant number of us, it may.”
  • “After all the talk about the economy, health care and other contentious issues, the issue that may swing an election may be which candidate best looks the part.”

As the author notes, few of us are likely to admit that looks determine our sense for others’ competence.  But as is true in these studies, just as it is in our everyday lives, we often rationalize our decisions after we’ve already made a determination that may be based on a subliminal process, an emotional response,  a gut feel, etc.

Since by its nature, this undercurrent can be hidden from rational thought, it can be hard to be aware of it, but I suspect if you pay attention to this, that in the next day or two you’ll come across an instance where you justify a decision with your rational thought process that your emotional or instinctive intelligence had already made.

Future of education (cont’d)

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post (esp. point #3), I wanted to highlight a few interesting excerpts from David Brooks’ Op-Ed yesterday, Testing the Teachers, which talks about the state of US universities and some significant trends — namely, that:

  • “Colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing.”
  • “Colleges today are certainly less demanding. In 1961, students spent an average of 24 hours a week studying. Today’s students spend a little more than half that time — a trend not explained by changing demographics.”
  • “This is an unstable situation. At some point, parents are going to decide that $160,000 is too high a price if all you get is an empty credential and a fancy car-window sticker.”
  • “One part of the solution is found in three little words: value-added assessments. Colleges have to test more to find out how they’re doing.”
  • With these assessments, some institutions could say: “’We may not be prestigious or as expensive as X, but here students actually learn.’”

This last point is key — and it may be online offerings, not just less well-known universities, who will be able to market off this tagline.

Looking ahead: future of education

Just back from the Education Innovation conference at Arizona State, and there were a few recurring themes about where US education — at both the K12 and post-secondary levels — is heading, three of which I’ve highlighted here:

1) Technology to drive personalization and adaptive learning.

Historically, individualized instruction has been provided by effective teachers, who have the skills to tailor how they teach a topic to different students based on the students’ needs, learning styles, etc.

A slew of new companies — from big district or university-wide data systems to individual iPad apps — are attempting to significantly augment (or provide for the first time, in the case of students taught by ineffective teachers) personalized learning by capturing and analyzing real-time student actions (e.g. their clicks of a mouse in an exercise), and then providing them specifically tailored online instruction.  TBD on which ones will ultimately succeed (see #2 below).

2) Too many edu technologies are being developed without understanding the real needs in K-12.

Educators expressed concern that too many technologists and product developers were working without enough understanding of (a) their products’ consumers, e.g. teachers, students, etc.; or (b) the latest research of what drives student achievement.  Given the dynamics of selling into the K-12 universe, understanding the multitude of constituents’ needs and motivations — from district administrators to principals to teachers to parents to students — is key and not a trivial undertaking.  Even those going direct-to-consumer via web-based or app models need to understand this.

3) The future of universities.

As I’ve posted about previously, there are an increasing number of online sources where students can gain practical vocational skills (vs. credentialing) at a fraction of the cost of what a university charges.

As a result, this creates an attractive alternative for (a) students who are better served by these targeted and inexpensive options and (b) employers who care less about the name of the institution on a prospective employee’s resume and more about their actual skills.

When I’ve hired engineers and designers, whether they were straight out of college or not, it was relatively straightforward to assess their abilities by looking at their code samples and/or portfolio — where their degree was from (or even if they had one), was irrelevant.  This is generally true across functions (not just engineering) as people move farther away from graduation dates and their undergrad or grad degrees are trumped by their professional experiences.  But increasingly I think it will be true for those in the early stages of their careers, especially in functional areas like software engineering where employers will be directly dictating desired educational outcomes and are indifferent as to where the student has developed the skills to achieve those outcomes.