In this week’s New Yorker

May 14, 2011

Who is Indra Nooyi? She’s the 55-year-old Hindu vegetarian C.E.O. of PepsiCo. That’s one of many intriguing facts and factoids I gleaned from the overstuffed innovators issue of the New Yorker this week. John Seabrook’s piece on how PepsiCo is attempting to position itself as a “good company” producing stuff that is “good for you” is hilarious at times but also full of absorbing descriptions of, for instance, how potato chips are made. (“Snacks for a Fat Planet”) Key quote: “As part of PespiCo’s commitment to being ‘the good company,’ the corporation wants to play a leading role in public-health issues, and particularly in the battle against obesity. Some people think this is ludicrous. Marion Nestle, the author of ‘Food Politics’ and a professor of food studies at N.Y.U., told me, ‘The best thing Pepsi could do for worldwide obesity would be to go out of business.’ ”

Malcolm Gladwell’s story on how a visit by Steve Jobs to Xerox PARC contributed to Apple’s getting out ahead in the innovation competition turns up this amusing tidbit about the evolution of the computer mouse. After glimpsing one during a visit to Xerox’s R+D plant, Jobs went to Dean Hovey, one of Apple’s key early designers, and said “You’ve got to do a mouse.” Hovey recalls:

“‘I was, like, ‘What’s a mouse?’ I didn’t have a clue. So he explains it, and he says, ‘You know, [the Xerox mouse] is a mouse that cost three hundred dollars to build and it breaks within two weeks. Here’s your design spec: Our mouse needs to be manufacturable for less than fifteen bucks. It needs to not fail for a couple of years, and I want to be able to use it on Formica and my bluejeans.’ From that meetings, I went to Walgreens…and I wandered around and bought all the underarm deodorants that I could find, because they had that ball in them. I bought a butter dish. That was the beginnings of the mouse.”

Then there’s Anthony Lane’s droll tour of Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, California. “How you get a job at Pixar, nobody knows. The most reliable method is to be born there, preferably in a cupboard full of office supplies, then to sit tight for twenty years before sneaking out over Christmas and finding space at a workstation. You could apply to the effects team, say, but only if the number of doctorates you hold is divisible by three. Even the lone visitor, effusively welcomed and ushered around, is an intruder: the sticker on my lapel bore the phrase ‘A stranger from the outside!’ Nine-nine per cent of that is a joke — it’s a direct quotation from ‘Toy Story,’ chirruped by the trio of silly green aliens — but the one per cent was menacing enough to give me pause. And, certainly, were I to stand in the atrium of the main building and cry out, ‘I have never even used PowerPoint! or Excel! I am not an animator! I am a man!,” retaliatory action would be swift. Special forces in yellow hazmat suits would drop from the ceiling on ropes, isolate me under an airtight dome, evaporate me, and vacuum up the remains, as they do in ‘Monsters, Inc.,’ when the sock of a human child — a menace to health and security — is found on the factory floor.”

Just minutes after his impressive report from Libya, Jon Lee Anderson weighs in with another spectacular closely observed piece about how the effort to turn over the war in Afghanistan to the Afghans is going (“Letter from Khost Province: Force and Futility”).

Judith Thurman’s review of the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Alexander McQueen’s fashion designs makes me definitely want to check it out. Joan Acocella once more turns me on to an obscure writer I’ve never heard about, Paula Fox, who turns out to be Courtney Love’s grandmother. I haven’t read Michael Ondaatje’s story “The Cat’s Table” yet, but I’ll bet it’s very good.

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