retail news in context, analysis with attitude

There was a wonderful piece in the Financial Times the other day by Lucy Kellaway, who defines herself very early in her column that she is a little tired of all the Apple adoration, and that the company’s long line of successes has become a little irritating. “When the iPad came out, I prayed that it would be awful,” Kellaway writes. “My prayers were not heard: like all Apple products, it is sleek and gorgeous, and in due course I shall go to one of its wondrous temples of consumption and grumpily buy one.”

But then Kellaway makes a point that I love:

“Now I find that Apple has succeeded in an area even more revolutionary than designing beautiful products that are easy to use. This time, though, I feel no discomfort. Apple has discovered something that other companies have long forgotten, if they ever knew: language can also be beautiful and easy to use. Words can be fun to read. They can look elegant. They can make you laugh.

“Earlier this month it published a set of guidelines for apps sold at its App Store. According to the laws that govern this sort of thing, this document should have been doubly unreadable. It was a list of legal requirements and was aimed at techies. Instead, it was funny and clear, and I found myself reading it effortlessly, even though I barely know what an ‘app’ is.
“‘We have over 250,000 apps in the App Store. We don’t need any more Fart apps. If your app doesn’t do something useful or provide some form of lasting entertainment, it may not be accepted.’

“The tone is direct, comic and elegantly threatening.

“‘We will reject apps for any content or behaviour that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, I’ll know it when I see it. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it’.”

I know there are a lot of people who see this as a kind of censorship. Maybe I’m just getting older, but I don’t think so. It isn’t like there is any dearth of diversity - of images and language and pretty much everything else - on the internet. All Apple is saying that it has certain standards of behavior, and it expects people who use its stuff to behave with a certain level of elegance and propriety.

I’m okay with that.

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road recently, and often listen to the radio as I’m going from place to place. I’m amazed - specifically on sports radio - how use of the language as devolved. When did it become okay to say “ass” on the radio? (I know it’s legal, but that’s not what I’m talking about.) I was driving by myself, but all I could think was, what if I were driving around with little kids in the car, listening to the radio?

There’s nothing wrong with standards. As a culture, we’ve somehow fallen out of love with the beauty and precision of words.

Tom Stoppard once wrote a wonderful play called “The Real Thing,”which I saw in its original Broadway production starring Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close. The play is about a writer named Henry, and at one point in the play he speaks about the connection between words and ideas:

“This thing here (a cricket bat), which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of a particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might travel ... I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you’re dead.”

It is, like in so many things, a matter of the lowest common denominator and reaching for something better, higher, more beautiful, of greater consequence. Why would we shoot for anything less?

Here is excellent news.

Clear is back. Or at least, coming back soon.

For those of you who do remember, Clear was the airport screening system that allowed frequent travelers to register, get pre-screened, put our biometrics on file, pay a fee, and then get access to express lines through security. When the company went out of business for funding reasons almost two years ago, it must have been in a couple of dozen US airports, and most of us who used it, loved it. (It was especially great in places like the Orlando airport, which seems perpetually clogged by people who never have flown before and therefore are completely oblivious to the rules about what you can bring on board an airplane. Clear allowed us to bypass all those folks, get through security quickly, and get to an airport club where hot coffee and free internet awaited.)

This week, I got an email. Clear will be back soon, acquired by an equity firm, and will have installations up and running soon in Orlando and Denver. And the more than 600 days left on my membership will be respected by the new company.

I hope that they have the economics figured out, and that Clear will be around for a long, long time. It is a wonderful concept that should achieve broad acceptance in a security-minded world.

I haven’t had the chance to go to the movies in a couple of weeks, so I asked my son, David - a young actor and writer living in Chicago - to contribute a film review this week:

“The Town,” Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort, is a movie about the leader of a Boston-based group of bank robbers who, because of a relationship that develops with a bank manager that one of his team kidnapped, tries to break free from his dark ways... but of course not without one, or maybe two, of those "final jobs."

While not as morally complicated and thoughtful as his first film, “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck’s second film shows that the triple bill actor/writer/director can bring an incredible amount of nuance and integrity to what is essentially a mainstream action film. The acting all around is terrific: Affleck reminds us that there was a reason he was a movie star to begin with, while Jeremy Renner and Jon Hamm make the most out of what could've been one note parts. 

For me, the movie sings when Affleck develops heaps of tension in scenes as small as a lunch date and as big as a major action set piece located at Fenway Park. “The Town” is impressive; there are people who already are comparing Affleck to Clint Eastwood, and while that seems a little presumptuous at this point, it is clear that Affleck is not just in command of his skills, but also of his career. “The Town” is worth seeing.

Thanks, Dave.

That’s it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you Monday.

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