Cupcakes in a Muslim World

Question: Where is Magnolia headed?

Steve Abrams: So we have lease in West Hollywood that also is supposed to open in November, December. I’m on a steep learning curve here on how to roll this out, so what I found out is that although I know the New York’s construction codes very well and how long things take to get through, I don’t know wherever else I want to go, so L.A. was quite a wake-up call. As bad as we think New York is, it’s worse elsewhere, and it’s even worse when you don’t know. So I found that it’s probably going to open in January or early February. And then the world exclusive with Big Think: in February we’re actually opening up a store in Dubai inside a Bloomingdales which will be the first Bloomindales outside of the United States ever, and we’re working with Marvin Traub who was the chairman of Bloomingdales for 25 years on it. And that certainly was of interest to us to work with someone with that type of experience.

Question: How did the partnership come about?

Steve Abrams: We get, on a weekly basis, somewhere between five and 10 requests for a franchise opportunity, and it runs the gamut from mom and pop’s “Hi, I just got out of school and I went there on vacation, and I want to open a Magnolia” to: “Hi, we’re a three and a half billion dollar company, and we like your concept.” And we’ve been very clear with ourselves not to do any individual franchising. We don’t want to be in that business. I don’t think we can adhere to the integrity of our product by doing it that way, and since we’re not looking to be that big, it’s not necessary; it’s very exploitive, and we don’t want to be in that position. I don’t want to be a policeman going from store to store correcting people.

I have a very, very anal vision. Everyone who works for me is very anal, and we all skew towards exactly what we’re supposed to do, and once you break that out to other people, you’re subject to their whims, personalities, financial issues, etcetera, so we haven’t gone down that road. But we also understand that we need to expand the brand, and there are going to be instances where geographically and culturally we’re not going to be able to do it ourselves.

So we get an enormous amount of requests from the Gulf States region – Dubai obviously was very hot and still is, even though it’s gone through the recession like everybody else; it’s on the rebound. We were talking to one of the cousin’s of the Royal Family in Abu Dhabi who flew us there last November to talk about buying in and taking over the Gulf States region as a licensee which we would be partners with. Those talks didn’t work out. In April I got contacted by a woman who was representing a very large group who was very interested in having us come there, and we were very, very impressed with her. I mean, being a woman in an Arab country rising to be the president of a three billion dollar group is very impressive and probably doubly hard than to do anywhere else. So it was somebody we did want to get involved with, but the timing wasn’t right for us. And we were very clear to her, “If there’s anyone we’d want to be in business with it’s you, but we just can’t do it now”; this was maybe March, April. We were figuring out our expansion plans, putting our finances together. I had just come off a long illness and it wasn’t right.

In August I got a call from Marvin Traub. Marvin is not someone you don’t call back, and obviously, I was very intrigued. It was about going into the first Bloomingdales that’s going to be out of the country. Little did I know that the woman I was speaking with in April was actually the person’s group who was bringing or licensing the Bloomingdales, so it was this very serendipitous circle, and I of course contacted Marvin; met with him I think that day, possibly. At the very least, I want to pick his brain about what I’m doing. You don’t get access to people like this very frequently, and we were able to come to terms. The timing was better for us. Our resources were better. The reality is it’s very easy to have your eyes too big for your stomach and grow, but if you don’t have the infrastructure, it’s very dangerous, and since we’re not looking like I said earlier to take over the world right now, we have the luxury of planning this properly and not putting our self in reaction positions on a continual basis. We get to be very proactive in the way we’re going to address it and do it very methodically. This wasn’t something we were looking for, but we also knew it was something that was ultimately necessary, and we wouldn’t necessarily be in this position again to be involved with this group with Marvin in this way. So we jumped at the chance, and we’re opening, I believe, February 10th.

Question: What will the menu look like?

Steve Abrams: It will be the exact same menu. We’re talking to the group there now to see if there’s any nod we should make to the local culture. For example, dates and figs are very big in that culture. It might be very easy for us to make a cookie with dates in it or to make a cheesecake with figs on top or even make some sort of date or fig or other type of cupcake that would resonate with the local population, and I think that’s perfectly in line with our brand.


Recorded on September 30, 2009




The Magnolia Bakery made famous by Sex and the City is venturing into the land of oil and indoor skiing. Owner Steve Abrams makes the exclusive announcement on Big Think.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
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Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

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Michael C. Crair et al, Science, 2021.
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