Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Milk is Doomed

Via @Coreycore, the dairy industry has dropped it's "Got Milk" marketing in favor of a new "Milk Life" ad campaign emphasizing nutritional benefits over humor. Despite the fact that the new ad is terrible and just a little gross, I see a deeper reason why the re-brand will probably fail to convert new "milk lifers".

Milk has lost popularity in part because people think it's high in fat and calories, which mainstream nutrition tells us is unhealthy (it's not). The dairy industry seeks to confront this nutrition-based aversion head-on by trumpeting the protein found in milk. But by focusing so heavily on the nutritional dimension of milk (rather than, say, cultural heritage or taste) the industry is locking themselves into a justification scheme that will eventually turn on them.

Nutrition science is slowly undergoing a paradigm shift where the key drivers of unhealth and obesity aren't fat and calories but instead things like low-fiber carbohydrates and sugar--anything that spikes your insulin levels. As this framework becomes more publicly available and sugar becomes increasingly demonized for its adverse health effects, the fact that lactose is just sugar will become an increasingly burdensome marketing handicap. Training consumers to evaluate milk using a nutrition-and-health frame will become a disadvantage, not a clever opportunity.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lingua Terra

Why can't we all just speak my language?
Photo Credit: memory-alpha.org
The Economist recently had an interesting article reporting on the state of English as the lingua franca among global firms. This got me thinking about the old futurist idea of a world that operates on a single, global language (eliminating all others). What would be the costs and benefits of such a system?

Clearly the network efficiencies of a single language would be huge. There'd be radically less friction in all sorts of interactions, greatly reducing transaction costs. This would have an effect of bringing people into the global social, cultural, and economic marketplace who's current contributions aren't big enough to warrant translation. There's surely a lot of great minds and ideas in isolated communities that, given the opportunity, would flourish globally.

Usually when n=1 resilience concerns are apparent, and language is no different. Less language diversity would mean less experimentation, and a reduced quantity of different cognitive perspectives (we know language affects how people view the world).

A single language would have much less modularity, and be extremely sensitive to changes--good or bad. Some really disgusting new word (yolo!) would have few barriers preventing its global spread. This isn't a trivial concern: unjust cultural biases ingrained in language systems certainly exist. Putting all your eggs in one basket usually carries hidden tail risks.

On a global scale, eliminating translation and the ability to employ multiple languages would greatly reduce feedback. How would you know that a language institutionalizes certain cultural biases or cognitive styles without meta-reflection?

No doubt the optimal outcome is some multilingual mixture, which allows for the benefits of a global lingua franca while preserving some consolidated language diversity. Where the equilibrium settles with respect to minor languages--Icelandic has few speakers but seems durable--is an interesting question for computational linguistics.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Baby Steps Towards Restroom Reform

A new startup is planning a pay-for-access washroom in Manhattan that basically sounds like a capsule hotel. As I've previously noted, the supply of public restrooms in most big US cities is pathetically low. Many cities, such as Tokyo, have publicly-funded restrooms. Other cities have privately-supplied restrooms that charge small fees. The US has neither, with most public restrooms provided as a complementary service by private businesses selling other stuff. This system worked okay because overuse of these free restrooms was curbed by norms--polite "for customers only" signs etc.

For whatever reason these norms are breaking down and businesses are decreasing the quantity and accessibility of their restrooms. This Manhattan experiment is nice because it can help shift the way people think about restrooms: as a valuable good that people should be willing to pay for. Smuggling this idea into a business model that bundles a bunch of products together (storage lockers, showers, a quiet space, etc.) is both clever and disappointing. It's clever because it emphasizes the positional value of the package by appealing to rich folks. It's disappointing because it fails to target the low-value customers, like tourists, who's willingness-to-pay for a public restroom might fall below the membership fee.