Cue the threatening music and ominous voiceover. An advocacy group has published a list of what toxic and hazardous materials can be found in new vehicles.
The researchers at HealthyStuff.org sampled 11 different components on new vehicles and tested each for the presence of 11 chemicals such as lead, mercury, bromine and chromium. The off-gassing of such materials is responsible for the intoxicating aroma known as “new car smell,” which is less the odor of fine Corrrrrinthian leather than the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds from glue, plastic and flame retardant.
That data has been condensed into an easy-to-read chart that’s available on the HealthyStuff.org website. Click on one of the car names and you’ll see the full test results, which read like a who’s who of the hazmat set.
Before you panic, it’s important to note that despite the catchiness of a “death from your dashboard” headline, there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up exposed to harmful levels of any of these substances — unless you regularly drink smoothies made from car armrests.
The researchers didn’t measure how much of each chemical a typical passenger would encounter, but instead focused on the presence of toxic materials are inside of a new vehicle. Other studies have shown that exposure levels are higher when a car is new, when the windows are up and on hot, sunny days. Whether drivers should be worried is still an open question: In 2007, a German researcher found that new car smell may not be toxic – but could make allergies worse.
“Each of these data points is a PPM parts per million reading for a specific chemical in a particular component,” said Jeff Gearhart, the study’s research director. “Our 0-5 ratings are an effort to boil this down to a single usable number consumers can use to compare vehicles.” It doesn’t mean, for example, that the Mitsubishi Outlander, shown above with the lowest rating, is six times more toxic than the highest-rated Honda Civic.
Also available for quick comparisons: a smartphone app. For those of us who spend a lot of time testing out new cars, it helps us figure out just what occupational hazards we’re exposed to — other than getting spoiled by the latest and greatest vehicles on the road.
Still, even if you’re not getting lead poisoning from your shifter, it’s good to know what went into the making of your new car. If a manufacturing process involved toxic chemicals, there’s a chance it’s not as environmentally friendly as it could’ve been. And years down the road, recycling a car will be easier when you don’t have to dispose of hazardous materials.
If anything, the study’s results have a silver lining: Since studies on the toxicity of “new car smell” first hit the cable news circuit a few years back, many automakers have begun using less hazardous materials in their new products, especially polyvinyl chloride PVC, the manufacturing and disposal of which is of environmental concern. “We have seen a trend towards reduction of PVC use in vehicles since 2006 and Honda has lead the industry with 83% of their vehicles we tested this year being PVC-free,” Gearhart said.
The business practice of brainstorming has been around with us so long that it seems like unadorned common sense: If you want a rash of new ideas, you get a group of people in a room, have them shout things out, and make sure not to criticize, because that sort of self-censoring is sure to kill the flow of new thoughts.
It wasn’t always so: This entire process was invented by Alex Osborn, one of the founders of BBDO, in the 1940′s. It was motivated by Osborn’s own theory of creativity. He thought, quite reasonably, that creativity was both brittle and fickle: In the presence of criticism, it simply couldn’t wring itself free from our own minds. We could only call our muses if judgments didn’t drag us down. Osborn claimed that this very brainstorming process was the secret to BBDO’s durable creativity, allowing his ad guys to produce as many as 87 ideas in 90 minutes–a veritable avalanche. “The brainstorm had turned his employees into imagination machines,” writes Jonah Lehrer in a long, excellent article in The New Yorker. But as Lehrer argues, the only problem with all this is that brainstorming is total bullshit.
You’re More Creative Working Alone
As an opening salvo, Lehrer lays out a devastating experiment, conducted in the 1950s, which found that when test subjects tried to solve a complex puzzle, they actually came up with twice as many ideas working alone as they did when working in a group. Numerous studies have since verified that finding: Putting people into big groups doesn’t actually increase the flow of ideas. Group dynamics themselves–rather than overt criticism–work to stifle each person’s potential.
Lehrer doesn’t quite explain why that happens. But in a nice coincidence, Susan Cain tackles that very problem in her upcoming book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. As she explains in The New York Times, groups don’t encourage creativity because of the social pressure they bring to bear:
People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”
Criticism Improves the Brainstorming Process
Those findings all probably make sense to anyone who has sat in a brainstorming session and wondered why Debbie from accounting suddenly became the world’s most vocal expert on car design. (Here, I’m referencing a real-life experience I got sitting in on a brainstorming session for a major car company.) But Lehrer goes on to point out that other studies have shown that the presence of criticism actually increases the flow of ideas. One experiment compared two groups: One which brainstormed with a mandate not to criticize, and another which had the license to debate each others ideas. The second group had 20% more ideas–and even after the session ended, the people in the second group had far more additional ideas than those in the first.
Why is that? Lehrer doesn’t really say, and neither do his sources. But this idea makes sense. The problem with traditional brainstorming is the assumption that good ideas can spring up unbidden. But the process is really more interesting than that. Usually, inventions often begin when an inventor spots a problem. Good ideas usually don’t hang by themselves, unattached. They come about as solutions. Thus, allowing criticism into a room full of people trying to brainstorm allows them to refine and redefine a problem. Adding more and more complex problems to the mix doesn’t stifle creativity–it actually gives the mind more to work with, simply by demanding that we find better and better answers.
Creativity Is About Happenstance, Not Planning
Lehrer then goes searching for better models of the creative process, and finds a couple. One comes in the form of a professor who was able to study how the relationships within a group affect the quality of their work. Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern, found that on Broadway the worst-performing productions were the work of two groups: Those that had worked together too much, and those that had worked together too little. Too much familiarity bred groupthink. Too little meant that they didn’t have enough chemistry to challenge each other. The most productive groups were those with a baseline of familiarity but just enough fresh blood to make things interesting.
But there’s a serendipity involved that you can’t fake: Studies have shown that the most successful groups of scientists also work in extremely close physical proximity. Just being around another creative person is vital to the process, because so many ideas happen as a result of water-cooler chatter and passing contact. The best support comes by anecdote: Building 20, a famous hothouse of ideas on the MIT campus. It worked because its design was so crappy and haphazard. It was nothing more than a sheetrock box, but in its maze of corridors and cramped offices, scientists of all stripes often found themselves happening upon conversations with others from wildly different fields. It’s no accident that so many breakthroughs came from that building, including radar, microwaves, the first video games, and Chomskyan linguistics.
Can We Rework the Brainstorming Paradigm?
I laid out all of these details from Lehrer’s article because each of these findings suggest that the brainstorming process might not be totally hopeless after all. We know that breakthrough insight likely requires intense, individual reflection. We also know that criticism unlocks creativity. And finally, we know that creativity can be fostered by a certain type of physical space.
Each of these findings, taken together, is cause for hope. For one, the brainstorming might work better if it focused not on finding solutions, but rather identifying problems. What if, during a brainstorming session, people weren’t asked to simply throw out ideas, but rather problems as well. Granted, you’ve still got the annoying problem of groupthink. But the fact is that people are usually better at finding fault than they are at finding answers. Properly harnessed, that could be a good thing. Let’s say, for example, you’re trying to invent a new computer UI. It’s much more productive to find what drives people nuts and the features that keep them from doing what they want to do than it is to find out what sort of computer they’d like to have in some idealized fantasy world. Solving such a complex problem as UI design demands a certain subtlety and depth of thought. But those solutions only begin flowing when the problem becomes interesting enough to demand new ideas.
Finally, the fact that office design can so dramatically affect the work we produce means that designers have the wherewithal to affect a company’s core mission. Designers really can make a company smarter, if they embrace the chaotic reality of creativity, rather than trying to create spaces where every last function and possibility has its place. In other words, there might be room for a new design paradigm that embraces both limitations and flexibility. You can create offices where accidental encounters are the rule. And you can create offices where nothing is ever fixed. The smartest office isn’t perfect, and it isn’t permanent.
Newspapers could be used to power cars, a team of molecular biologists from Tulane University in New Orleans claim.
The team from the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology has discovered a new strain of the bacteria Clostridium, TU-103, that can produce a biofuel when breaking down newspaper.
The biologists state: “TU-103 is the first bacterial strain from nature that produces butanol directly from cellulose” — in the presence of oxygen.
Other strains of Clostridium have been used to produce butanol before, but they’ve had to be genetically engineered to do so. Others can produce butanol, but not in the presence of oxygen, while still others must break down the cellulose into sugars first. And some can break down cellulose but don’t produce butanol.
The Tulane team identified their strain in animal droppings, cultivated it and developed a new methodology (for which the patent is pending) for using the bacteria to produce butanol without having to isolate it from oxygen.
Butanol is touted as an alternative to ethanol because it can be used in automobiles without modification, it contains more energy than ethanol and it can be distributed through existing fuel pipelines (although there are concerns about its toxicity).
“This discovery could reduce the cost to produce bio-butanol,” says associate professor David Mullin. “In addition to possible savings on the price per gallon, as a fuel, bio-butanol produced from cellulose would dramatically reduce carbon dioxide and smog emissions in comparison to gasoline, and have a positive impact on landfill waste.”
Dr Oliver Inderwildi, who is the head of low-carbon mobility at Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and was not involved in the study, called the discovery “a breakthrough.”
“The scientific results are convincing, especially the point that the bacterial strain works when oxygen is present is a breakthrough,” he said.
He adds: “Up to now, only bacteria that are destroyed by oxygen worked and that is a major issue for the large scale production. At present butanol is either produced chemically using a two-step process, which is relatively energy intensive (the butanol consequently has a high carbon footprint and the energy balance is not good). Biochemically it is produced by fermentation of sugar or starch and this should not be done on a large scale due to the food-fuel trade off. Therefore, the results from Tulane could help to produce significant amount of butanol sustainably.”
The Tulane biologists will now test whether the bacteria also will produce butanol when let loose on bagass, a fibrous waste material they obtained from a sugarcane processing plant. But they are also sequencing the bacteria’s genome in order to single out the genes that are responsible for producing butanol. The hope is that these genes could then be engineered to increase the biofuel production.
As Lady Gaga stormed the web with promotions for Born This Way this summer — Farmville knockoff, Starbucks virtual scavenger hunt and Gilt Groupe deal included — her presence on one unlikely platform went largely unnoticed.
Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, hosted a sale of posters inspired by the album. The pop star commissioned three Etsy artists to design the posters and then signed each one, giving the profits to VH1 Save the Music.
Though Lady Gaga is no stranger to trail blazing, her presence as a musician on the craft site fit a trend. Etsy has been gaining steam as a platform where artists promote themselves, sell their merchandise and connect with fans.
“We have been doing little music projects for about four years at Etsy,” explains Matt Stinchcomb, Etsy’s European director and one of its first employees. “Only now are we really beginning to think about how we can develop that further.”
Artists ranging from independent garage bands to international pop sensations have helped create Etsy’s unofficial music scene. Here’s how.
I’m From Barcelona member Anna Froderberg poses with her book, which is for sale on the band’s Etsy store
Is music a handmade good?
At Etsy, the official answer is yes. “People work hard to create the content in MP3s and it seems in the spirit of Etsy and handmade to allow the output of these types of endeavors to be delivered in digital format,” explains Etsy Marketplace Integrity Specialist Mark Shaw. “Also, a file physically does exist. It isn’t ephemeral, it is stored data, somewhere in the world.”
Hundreds of musicians sell or give away their MP3s or CDs on Etsy.
But more of them sell other merchandise, like handmade tote bags and t-shirts. Etsy takes a smaller cut of these sales (3.5%) than a record label would, and the site provides a sales platform to little-known bands who have neither a label nor a website with checkout capabilities.
Even when a band is more established, an Etsy store can have its advantages.
“It’s something that’s real, it’s something that’s physical, and it’s something that’s limited really,” Stinchcomb says. “There’s a deeper connection that comes with it.”
“They are a caring group of individuals who have come together in support of a dear friend, Tim LaFollette,” the band writes about the charity. “Tim is battling ALS and has amazed and inspired so many of us. ”
The personal tone of The Avett Brothers store is present in the Etsy stores of other well-known bands as well. Twenty-nine-member I’m From Barcelona sells typical band merchandise on its website, but offers personal items like hand-drawn broaches and a picture book on its Etsy Store. Chaz Bundick, whose band is called Toro Y Moi, sold a limited edition tote bag that he designed himself and packaged with digital download cards of the new album.
Collaboration With Etsy Artists
In 2009, Etsy started inviting artists to perform in its space. At a series of events called “Rock n’ Shop,”It would stream these performances live (rock) in its Virtual Labs, and the artists would curate a selection of items from Etsy (n’ shop).
The events were one of the first examples of bands collaborating with Etsy artists to establish a presence on the site.
Three years later, bands that don’t craft are still using Etsy. Like Lady Gaga, indie rock band The Walkman teamed up with established Etsy sellers to launch a pop-up store on the site in anticipation of its latest album release.
Etsy’s music roots go deep. Stinchcomb used to be in a band with Etsy’s “office ecologist,” Josh Wise. Two more employees are still working together in a band called Neighbors, and several others are DJs. Etsy’s social media specialist, Dave Brown, ran an independent record label for more than 15 years. And when new employees start at the company, they are given a $50 budget for headphones.
Music plays a big role in the lives of many Etsy’s employees, and the theme seems bound to have leaked into the product that they’re creating.
At some point, for instance, Brown started a Twitter tradition of highlighting a band on “Music Mondays.” At another, the video team decided to profile the band Tuneyards (the video will be posted on the Etsy site in Mid-September). Asking to speak with people who have worked on music projects at Etsy gets you a meeting with representatives from merchandising, customer support, community, editorial, international and office ecology teams.
Now, Stinchcomb says, the company is just starting to consider what a more formal format for Etsy music might look like. He could personally, he says, imagine a licensing platform where bands can collaborate with Etsy artists to make fan art.
His guess is that Etsy’s costumers overlap with the music scene as much as its employees.
“We have 25 million people coming to Etsy every month, and they are looking for unique and special things,” he says. “And I feel like they’re the kind of people who also want to find unique bands.”
I’ve been thinking through my social presence, but further more, I was thinking about what it’s going to be like for a business (small or large) to manage their social presence. The thing is, there are a lot of different ways people are going at this, and not any one of them is perfect, but I like looking at what is there and then thinking about what else I’d want.
For instance, I’m a user and affiliate for the Hootsuite application. If you look at the graphic to the left, it lets you post messages and read messages from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, FourSquare and elsewhere. It also lets you cook up searches in Twitter search, plus a few other things. There’s a built in link shortener (though I’d love to be able to swap out my own), which means that I get stats and tracking, too.
But what else would something like Hootsuite have to do for you to make it your standalone dashboard for managing your social presence? Here’s a small list of thoughts:
A way to listen beyond Twitter search. I need Google Blogsearch, for instance, so I can have bigger ears. Plug in Radian6 or Sysomos or similar and this would be done (for a fee).
A blog editor. (They’ve dabbled with linking Hootsuite to WordPress.com, but this shouldn’t be that hard.
Email marketing integration. Would love to have my stats in one place for my Blue Sky Factory account.
Site analytics, like Google Analytics.
Social Presence Management Needs
But What Else?
What else would you want with a presence management dashboard? What else do you need it to do for you? And what would move it past managing your own (or business) presence, and into managing relationships?
Kind of fun to think about, eh?
Chris Brogan is an eleven year veteran of social media using both web and mobile technologies to build digital relationships for businesses, organizations, and individuals.
The #1 clicked thing on chrisbrogan.com in the last many days was my about page. Holy cats. Believe me, with all my heart, I had no idea. In fact, it’s a strange revelation. It’s a VERY strange revelation.
Because in my mind, what I thought you’d do is what I want you to do (see how that never works?). I want you to subscribe to the blog. I want you to get my email newsletter (not the blog). I want you to hire me to speak or work with me.
But YOU, because you’re smart, because you’re new here, because you need to know who’s talking with you, click my ABOUT page more than anything else.
Oh, what a powerful lesson.
If your About page is poopy, please rethink what’s on it. Make your about page VERY sexy. Do it. Do eeeeeeet.
Chris Brogan is an eleven year veteran of social media using both web and mobile technologies to build digital relationships for businesses, organizations, and individuals.
The convention for creating financial opportunities is evolving and changing the way we seed prospects, promote our expertise and prowess, and connect with those who can help us learn and advance through the facilitation of strategic and mutually beneficial alliances.
Digital capitalization is laying a foundation for expanding the need to cultivate and participate, not only in the real world, but also in the online networks and communities that can benefit us personally and professionally.
In an era of democratized publishing and equalized influence, it can be said that engagement and participation are a new, powerful and effective form of “un” marketing. At the very least, this is an epoch of empathy.
Social capital is a strong ally, an elite catalyst for lucrative relationships, and now a metric for qualification, consideration and ultimately success (however you define it). This is a state of human economics that is thoroughly discussed in Tara Hunt’s book, The Whuffie Factor. Our “Whuffie” or social capital and intellectual assets are defined by both online and real world conduct and its “balance sheet” is available for anyone with a web browser to review, assess, and analyze.
Reputation, trust, and relationships, are each earned at varying levels, through our action and words. Our interaction reinforces impressions and engenders experiences. As such, our personal and professional brands are essentially reflections of our contributions. In the end, we get out of it, what we invest in it.
By participating in relevant online communities and publishing content that promotes our expertise as it empathizes with those seeking information and direction in a way that literally speaks to them, we begin the process of building and shaping our online reputation, brand, and persona that traverses virtual, augmented, and actual realities. The ideas and wisdom we share and the relationships we forge only fuel its proliferation and stature.
Like any form of capital, Social capital rises and falls with the market and the individual to which it’s governed by the state of the industry and affected by the state of corresponding affairs. As it escalates, however, it unlocks opportunities that are commensurate with the community’s assessment of its value. In the same regard, the community will not support or reward lackluster, opportunistic, also-ran, or hollow engagement in the long term.
Again, social capital is measured by individual value and collective perception.
The Human Algorithm
But trust and reputation are only as valuable as their ability to represent you in your absence. And as in anything online, perception and presence are the focus of proactive programs that enhance the discovery process and steer recognition and stature in your favor.
As search plays an increasingly important role in the investigation process of surfacing qualified candidates and social objects around relevant topics, we quickly become brand managers for our intellectual and personal assets. Our livelihood now pivots on our ability to connect dots between who were are, what we stand for, and the value we offer.
You will be Googled.
You will also be Twittered, Flickrd, YouTubed, Facebooked, and LinkedIn’ed.
While Google is the standard by which all search is measured, those active in defining their presence in traditional search will do so through organic as well as through optimized techniques such as SEO. However, as search becomes social, the role of queries disseminates beyond Google with content sought and channeled directly within Social Networks as well as new breeds of real-time search platforms. As such, prominence is then ascertained by the digital shadows we cast across the traditional and social Web (yes, there is a difference) and also through our investment in driving strategic visibility. Essentially, our brand as defined by our views, opinions, thoughts, observations, and actions, becomes a social object that requires dynamic cultivation and placement.
The Human Algorithm becomes our lifeline to regulated exposure while also providing a foundation for constructing and enhancing our presence directly within the channels where prospects are seeking information.
Social Customer Hierarchy
As social media becomes ubiquitous, businesses will no longer possess the means to effectively scale and sustain participation across all conversations on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online communities. Whether you agree with this or not, brands will face the need to prioritize who they engage based on what I refer to as the Social Customer Hierarchy. The level of influence and authority a customer or prospect holds determines their placement in the chain of preeminence.
Yes, we earn prominence and amass social capital through productive contributions to online societies. In the process, we increase our stature and amplify our voices and it will escalate consumer matters when other traditional means are exhausted. Brandishing this distinction however, erodes value, and over time, ranking and credibility are diminished.
Our online reputation and the activity that contribute to its definition are investments in our social capital. The return on these investments is evident in the opportunities and relationships that ensue and proliferate. Our social graph, the connections we forge and actively nurture, represents a very public testimony. If you’re not actively investing in its significance, you may actually take away from its net worth.
Connect with Brian Solis: Twitter, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google Buzz, Facebook