The Question That Made Milk Famous


A well-known logo from the early days of the web: AOL’s “running man.”

Once in a blue moon, comes along a slogan that encapsulates the truth of an entire era.

Throughout the 1990s, AOL would cheerfully announce the arrival of each new electronic message with the greeting: “You’ve got mail.” Back in the early days of the web, one looked forward to receiving such communication. For one, the technology was a novelty. For another, it meant that the sender was a secret online lover or a chum or a family member—that is, people you wanted to hear from.

Today, Google celebrates the converse with the blunt text: “No new mail.” Activity in the inbox can mean either more work or more junk, neither of which is welcome. The e-mail has, over time, devolved into a tool of oppression. It’s a way for the boss to stay in touch with you after work hours. And in the hands of marketers, it’s an avenue to sell.

When people talk socially today, they connect over text, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Facebook, not e-mail.

“Got Milk?” It was this little question, which after its appearance in 1993, turned a piece of advertising into a cultural phenomenon. By the way, it also made milk famous.

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Secretly Whispering To Your Speaker

Who’s that talking to Alexa?

There’s a concern that artificial intelligence, powering household hardware—Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant—can be made to do tasks by embedding concealed commands in a song or a spoken text that its owner can’t hear.

This is steganography, hiding a secret message within a non-secret message. So, while cryptography protects the contents of a message alone, steganography protects both the contents of the message as well as the fact that it’s being sent.

Fresh Food At The Drop Of A Coin

A trio of lemon meringue pies (two quarters only) sit inside vending windows at the Horn & Hardart automat on Third Avenue and 42nd in New York.

Eatsa is an eatery in San Francisco that has no waiters or an order taker behind a counter. It has no counter.

Diners place their orders on their tablets or phones. The grub appears in a box that goes dark when the order is ready for pick-up. All meals are quinoa-based and a bowl of each is priced at $6.95.

At the time it opened, three years ago, it was touted as a restaurant of the future—for being almost fully automated.

Wait.

Prefabricated meals, at the push of a button, became a reality at the turn of the 19th century.

In July 1912, Joe Horn and Frank Hardart opened a new kind of dining establishment in New York’s Times Sqaure, whose walls were lined with banks of little chambers that served you the full panoply of ready-made, all-American grub—everything from a ham-and-egg sandwich to macaroni-and-cheese to an apple pie. It’d opened in Berlin in 1895. It was called the “automat.” The diner would drop a nickel or a quarter, turn a knob, lift a small window and take out a plate.

By the 1940s, there was a chain of such outlets all over the borough. People flocked to them. In their resplendent dining rooms, outfitted with stained glass, marble floors and decorative, chrome coffee dispensers, New Yorkers of every color and class rubbed shoulders.

On entering, diners would head to one of the restaurant’s “nickel throwers,” seated in a glass booth behind a wooden or marble counter. The fare was ready-made but it wasn’t, what we today, understand by fast-food. It was freshly prepared, the dishes stocked from the rear by an assembly of kitchen staff. Orange juice was squeezed fresh. Horn & Hardart brewed its own beans.

The automat began to disappear in the 1950s with the growth of drive-in restaurants and carhops.

Eatsa could well be a reincarnation of the automat, but as Joshua David Stein observes in Eater, the greatest difference between the automats of then and now isn’t that technology has supplanted waiters, but that the diners,  themselves, have become machine-like. It’s simply, a place to “inhale one’s lunch while checking Instagram” before returning to the lofty start-up they came from.