Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Twitter - what's it for?

What role does Twitter play these days? A year or so ago, I twittered a lot. These days, I check the Moviestorm Twitter feed more often than I check my own, and most days I don't tweet at all. Facebook, for all its faults, seems to have completely supplanted Twitter in almost every respect.

There are two clear signs that Twitter is losing ground, not just in numbers, but in the way it's being used. Most obviously, it's no longer a place for conversations. In 2009, you could tweet a comment, and people would tweet back. To be sure, they were awkward, stilted conversations, but they happened. Nowadays, very few tweets elicit any reply at all. By contrast, almost every post I make on Facebook gets a response, and often several. It's not just what's being said, it's that Twitter simply isn't a good medium for conversation. If you look at those people who link their FB and Twitter feeds, you can quickly see the different reactions they get to the same posts on each. Twitter's not threaded, so you have to keep track of the conversations the old way. And there's no simple mechanism for replying to everyone who's interested in that thread; all your tweets are either completely public or directed at specific individuals. What's more, Twitter has no equivalent of the much derided "like" button. This simple interaction is a remarkably useful piece of social structure. It's the equivalent of a smile; a non-verbal way to show that you appreciate what's being said. It doesn't necessarily advance the conversation, but it does give people social standing and allow people to be involved in a passive, but overt way.

The second, less obvious symptom is the huge downturn in retweets and sharing on Twitter. I recently read a piece by Seth Godin in which he noted that only about 1 in 6 tweets gets retweeted. That was written in early 2010. Looking at my feed now, I'd say it was more like 1 in 30. Most of what gets put on Twitter goes no further. Most of what I see retweeted is from celebrities like Stephen Fry or Warren Ellis, which is strange when you think about it for a moment - they have millions of followers, and everyone who's interested in them follows them anyway, so who are these retweets aimed at?

A Twitter link: it's almost like reading code, and I have to open a browser to see what's at the other end.

Compare that with Facebook, where sharing is common. Again, it's not the content, it's the medium. Part of it is that Facebook is a much richer experience. If I want to link to a video, you can see a thumbnail, read a description, and then watch that video right in your browser. The same link in Twitter consists of a shortened URL (which tells you nothing) and a few words, then you have to go somewhere else to see what I'm showing you. Then, if you like it, go back to Twitter, find the post, and retweet, probably trimming 16 more characters off the description to allow room for RT @MattKelland: at the beginning. Tweets are almost like little ciphers, filled with strange hashes, disemvowelled words, bizarre characters, and geeky things that look like code. Facebook, by contrast, is more like the language we speak.

A Facebook link: useful information, immediate feeling of community from the likes and comments, easy ways to interact and share, and I can watch it right there.

It feels as if Twitter has outlived its usefulness. It went from the preserve of a few tech addicts to a vehicle for celebrities and brands to push out robotic marketing messages. Tweet about visiting a friend in Chandler's Ford, and you'll find yourself followed by Ford dealerships wanting to tell you about their special offers. Say you're moving your Web site to a new server, and you'll get bombarded by removal companies, software companies, and Web designers. Sure, it's a great way for the Governator to tell millions of people what he's doing, but everyone else is lost in the noise. And there's a lot of noise. Twitter never did have a very good signal to noise ratio, but it's gone from the gossip of a coffee shop to the hubbub of a giant mall.

There's a lot wrong with Facebook, but it seems to provide a far better communication medium than Twitter. And, of course, they have a proven, successful business model, which Twitter doesn't. I'll be interested to see whether Twitter turns into the MySpace of 2011.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Radio Freefall

My Christmas read (on paper, not a Kindle, amazingly) was Matthew Jarpe's debut novel Radio Freefall from 2007. It's labelled cyberpunk, but it's really more cyberprogrock. The lead character, after all, is named after a Jethro Tull song, Aqualung, and it's filled with references to all sorts of music.

Locus described it as "rollicking", and that's pretty dead on. It involves everything you want from this kind of novel; rich corporations trying to take over the world, sentient computer viruses, long-dead rock stars, hackers, mobsters and lunar colonies seeking independence. Jarpe also throws in some political comment with remarkable relevance to recent headlines. At one point, a bunch of kids are protesting. Our protagonist grabs a camera and microphone and talks to them, pointing out that "people don't throw bottles of gasoline if you let them speak, but just one person in power telling them that their voices don't matter is enough to turn them ugly."

My favourite ingredient in the mix is what they call The Machine. It's a device designed to manipulate an audience's emotions, and they use it as the best warm-up band ever. Personally, I think of it as "what would have happened if Hawkwind had been able to get their hands on alpha wave generators and the Internet". A truly scary, but entertaining prospect. Lemmy and Dave Brock with that kind of technology?

I ripped through it in two sittings, and only put it down because it was Christmas Day and the family demanded my presence. Well worth reading. Here's the first chapter for you, free.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Business head vs business heart

The hardest part of making any business plan is always when you know you've got a cool idea, you know how to make it work, but you can't make the numbers come out right for it to be a viable business. You're left with three options.
  1. Walk away. This is obviously the logical thing to do. After all, it's why you do a business plan, so you can find out before you start whether it's going to be worth while. The down side is that you'll never get to do your cool idea. And if it was that cool, you're going to be really pissed off when someone else does it, and even more pissed off when they make money at it. I've lost count of the number of ideas I've walked away from, only to see someone else be successful at them years later. So, the answer is clearly to...
  2. Do it anyway and hope the rewards come later. Perhaps you screwed up your planning, perhaps it'll pay better than you think, or maybe circumstances will change. Or maybe it will lead on to something else that pays off. Think of it as an investment. Except that of course not all investments pay off. You might think your idea is cool, but nobody else does, and you're just pouring money down the drain. But that's okay, because you can...
  3. Do it anyway and just accept the losses. If it's fun, and you can afford it, treat it as a hobby. If it makes some money back, so much the better. Of course, if you end up spending more than you can afford, and it turns out not to be as much fun as you thought, that's a real downer, so obviously it's more sensible just to walk away. But then... yeah, we're right back where we started.
The thing is, loss-making businesses are not necessarily bad. Some of the world's most successful businesses spent years losing money before becoming profitable, and the big win didn't always come from where they expected it. They just had to stick around and keep the faith long enough to reap the rewards.

And sometimes, it's perfectly OK for a business never to make a profit. Look at people creating little niche products: specialist magazines, custom artwork, small bands, amateur theatre groups, and so on. It costs them money to make that stuff, and they rarely get back as much as they spend. But they enjoy doing what they do, and by getting something back, they can afford to keep doing it and making people happy.

Yes, business is first and foremost about making money, but the bottom line needn't be the bottom line.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Assorted food-related observations

  • I love making my own stock with chicken carcasses, ham bones, and so on. It seems pointless, given how cheap and easy it is to buy the stuff, but I find it satisfying to use as much as I can from the animal. I also enjoy the bit where I pick the bones as clean as they can get.
  • On a similar note, I get immense satisfaction from cooking with left-overs, odds and ends, and whatever I can find in the back of the kitchen cupboards. It feels like I'm getting something for nothing.
  • I can taste a spicy dish and tell you exactly what spices are in it, but I cannot, for the life of me, identify the grape variety in a glass of wine.
  • Of all coffees, I enjoy African coffees the most. And I think Hawaiian Kona is overrated.
  • I really like going to the Mexican market and loading up on tomatilloes and assorted chile peppers. I think I have ten different varieties of chiles in my kitchen right now, none of which is habanero or jalapeno.
  • My favourite meat is venison, preferably slow cooked in either port or brandy. Or both.
  • My slow cooker is my favourite kitchen utensil. It feels good to cook while I make breakfast and then know I'll have a delicious meal on demand later that night.
  • I cannot cook omelettes. I can't make scrambled eggs in a frying pan either.
  • I'm lousy at cooking steak.
  • I rarely eat deep fried food.
  • I pride myself on being able to cook food from around the world, but my knowledge of French cuisine is practically nil. I can probably cook more Iraqi, Nigerian, or Polish dishes than French dishes.
  • My favourite pizza topping is pepperoni, mushrooms, anchovies and jalapeno, with extra mozzarella. These days I prefer thin crispy pizzas to deep thick ones, and I like to eat the crusts, as long as they're properly crunchy.
  • I prefer tawny to ruby port. And I'm partial to a good sherry. On the other hand, I never drink Scotch whisky.
  • My favourite fruit is mango.
  • I loathe raw tomatoes, except in salsa with plenty of lime and chilli.
  • I almost never cook desserts or cakes, but I make a totally kick-ass baklava.
  • The combination of meat and fruit is something I love experimenting with.
  • I often make vegetarian meals, even though I'm not a veggie. I just like the variety and don't feel the need to include meat.
  • I find cooking aubergines (eggplants) really tricky, especially the big Greek ones.
  • I cannot eat seafood (but fish is OK) or tofu.
  • I had a very satisfying moment a few years ago in a restaurant, when I realised that I was no longer choosing food because I hadn't tried it before; instead, I was choosing dishes which I couldn't make at home because I can't get the ingredients or I don't have the utensils. Now, I tend to choose food based on the restaurant's recommendation.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Buzz!

One of those commonplaces of modern marketing is that overnight successes take a hell of a long time to manufacture. It's only the punters who think they're spontaneous. Seth Godin, however, takes a slightly different view, and puts his finger on what makes an idea viral.
No-one sends an idea unless:
  1. they get it (see below)
  2. they want it to spread
  3. they believe that spreading it will enhance their status
  4. the effort necessary to spread the idea is less than the benefits.
No-one "gets" an idea unless:
  1. the first impression demands further investigation
  2. they understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea
  3. they trust the sender
That's why viral marketing and internet memes are so shallow. And, most importantly, ideas never spread because they're important to the originator.
From Small is the New Big, by Seth Godin.

If you don't want to read the whole book, just read this one blog post. Really, do. It'll take you three minutes.

What Every Good Marketer Knows


Here's a few of my favourites from that post.
  • People don’t buy what they need. They buy what they want.
  • You’re not in charge. And your prospects don’t care about you.
  • Good marketers tell a story.
  • Effective stories match the worldview of the people you are telling the story to.
  • Choose your customers. Fire the ones that hurt your ability to deliver the right story to the others.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hulu Plus

We recently got a free trial of Hulu Plus. We love Netflix, and don't have regular TV, so we thought we'd give it a go.

The short version: it's got a long, long way to go before it's worth the money.


The long version: the selection of content is pretty lousy. They have a total of 543 movies. That's about 10% of the DVD collection I left behind me, and about half of what Netflix have in just their foreign romantic comedies section. Of those 543 movies, you get a small selection of uninspiring documentaries, a pile of crappy sci-fi B-Movies from the 1950s (Atom Age Vampires, for example), a load of early John Wayne movies, a bunch of straight to video kung fu flicks, and not much more. Out of 543 movies, I found maybe five I wanted to watch, and even those were in the "if there's nothing better to do" category. But guess what, there's something better to do.

The TV selection isn't any more interesting. I'm watching Jack of All Trades, which is fun and which I haven't seen anywhere else. Spartacus: The Motion Comic looks like it'll be worth an hour of my time. And, errr, that's it.

The PS3 user interface is dreadful. They don't, for example, tell you who's in a movie, or who directed it, or when it was made, or give you a rating. They do, however, give you screen space to tell you what network it was provided by. They also give you the ability to sort your movies by network. Guess what, I don't give a damn about the network, I want to know about the actual movies! Navigating around is weird: you can't just click on a movie to find out about it. If you click, you play the movie: instead, you have to press DOWN to access the movie info screen, then click again to see the actual details, then back and click something else to put it in your queue. Even starting and stopping movies is a pain.

I reckon it'll be worth taking another look at Hulu Plus in six months to see if they've improved their user interface and got anything actually worth watching. Until then, we'll stick with Netflix. We've already paid for the first month (we thought it was a month's free trial, but it was actually only a week), which gives me time to finish Jack, but otherwise, we're done with Hulu Plus now. A huge, huge disappointment.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kindling


As you probably know, I'm a bit of a book lover. I've had a book in my hand since I was two years old, and can't imagine life without reading. Last month, however, I finally succumbed to the lure of the e-book, and got myself a Kindle 3G with wi-fi. I'll admit, I've been hugely prejudiced against them, and only got one because I needed it for work. After all, what can compare with the touch, smell, visual appeal, and convenience of a proper paper book? I hate reading books on computer screens, and can't imagine myself ever preferring an e-book over the real thing.

After several weeks of learning to live with my Kindle, there are still things about it that I dislike. Let's get those out of the way first.

I can't (safely) read it in the bath. On the other hand, there's a lot of books I don't read in the bath either. Big, heavy books are generally out of the question, as are most hardbacks. Bathtime reading is only for cheap paperbacks I can afford to have accidents with. And anyway, I don't have many baths these days. I have a shower, and I have a hot tub, and hot tubs aren't really for reading. So, not so much of a problem, then.

I can't put it in my pocket. Well, it fits in the side pocket of my shorts, quite neatly, as it happens. But it doesn't go in my jeans, and what with living in Florida, I don't have an inside jacket pocket, so I have to carry it. However, most books don't fit in my pocket either, and the Kindle is much, much lighter than a real book. So actually, the Kindle wins, especially as I can now put thousands of books in my pocket, or at least, carry them around with me.

It's hard to organise books on it. When you have 900+ books loaded up, it's not easy to find the one you want. Fortunately, there's a feature called Collections, so you can have a load of sci-fi, a load of reference books, all the books by a specific author and so on. Unfortunately, the user interface for putting books in collections is horrible. It took me all evening to sort out all those books. Which is about as long as it would have taken me to sort through 900 books if you'd dumped a load of boxes on my living room floor, but I could do it all while sitting down drinking a glass of wine. So, could be much, much better, but still an improvement on paper.

E-books cost too much. Many years ago, I was involved with publishing. About 50% of the cover price of a book is the cost of the paper. It can be more if you're doing a fancy cover. Another 10% is the cost of getting it to the store. E-books have no printing or distribution costs, so you'd expect the price to be proportionately lower. Sadly, that's not the case. A book that costs $15 typically costs $14 as a digital edition. It's hard to justify that pricing, and it's going to make me reluctant to buy e-books, especially because...

... you can't lend or resell e-books. With a real book, I can pass it around my friends. Most of my books were inherited, gifts, or second-hand. That's not allowed with digital books. Every person who wants to read the book has to pay the full (inflated) price. You're not building up a collection of anything you can pass on. You're paying for an admission ticket to a reading experience, and there's not even a family discount if you bring your kids.

Many of the things I expected to dislike about it turned out to be completely groundless. One of the constant objections I hear from book lovers is "I like to annotate my books". It's actually way easier to annotate a Kindle than a real book. Just click and start typing. Better still, all your annotations and bookmarks are indexed so they're easy to find. Can't do that with a real book.

Battery life is quite impressive. This weekend I charged it for the first time since buying it. Four hours on charge, and it'll be good for another month. If only my phone lasted that long.

The Kindle has actually proved to be remarkably easy to read. It uses E-Ink, so it's not backlit, and it doesn't strain my eyes like a computer screen. The experience is nothing like trying to read on a Palm or a laptop. It's much like reading a book, in fact. Flipping pages back and forth is just a thumb press, and you can rescale the print to whatever size you like. You can get around a book really fast with hyperlinked contents and footnotes, and judicious use of bookmarks.

The experience of buying a book on a Kindle is quite incredible. I can go to the Amazon Web site, find something, click buy, and within seconds, it's mine. That's less time than it would take me to get up from my chair, answer the door to the postman, and open the box, let alone order something on the Web and wait for next-day delivery or even actually go to a shop. Not only that, but with 3G, I can buy a book any time, any place. See... want... have. It's that simple.

The thing I've noticed most is that a lot depends on the e-book, rather than the reader. As I mentioned, I now have some 900+ books on there, and I've certainly noticed there's a huge difference between a good e-book and a bad one, just as there is between a good edition of a book and a bad one. When they get the formatting right, do proper tables of contents, and restructure the books so it works, it's really pleasant to read them. When you get mixed up fonts, bad OCR so you have typos, and they've just tried to copy the print layout, it's often too horrible to read. Still, you get what you pay for. Good ones cost, free ones may well suck.

Something that's also quite cool is the built-in dictionary. Unsure what a catafalque actually is? Just put the cursor over the word, and it'll tell you. That's something else ordinary books can't do.

The experimental features are pretty unimpressive. The audio player has no controls, so it's practically useless, and the Web browser is possibly the worst I've ever seen. Certainly the worst I've seen in the 21st century. However, this is a book reader, not a tablet, so I'll just ignore those problems and move on. Maybe they'll update them in time, maybe they won't. I'm not bothered either way. The pdf reader seems like a good idea, but it has a fatal flaw: most pdfs are so closely typeset that they're illegible on that screen. Imagine a magazine page shrunk down to 25% of normal size, and you get the idea.

All in all, though, I've learned to love my Kindle. I've sprawled on the sofa with a Dreamweaver manual. I've sat in airports reading thrillers. I've had lazy mornings in bed reading classics. I've taken it everywhere, and found myself reading at times I didn't expect. I can carry a whole library with me, and that's as liberating as when I discovered I could carry my entire music collection in my pocket. My only real objections are the pricing and the DRM. However, there are loads of free books, there are libraries, and there are torrents, so I suspect the book business is soon going to find itself facing a piracy issue just like the music and film industries are facing right now. Set fair prices and allow fair use, and people will pay. If not, they'll find ways to get what they want anyway.

Will it replace books? Probably, and surprisingly, to a large extent, yes it will. Digital books are more convenient for many reasons, just like mp3s are more convenient than vinyl, and Netflix is more convenient than a houseful of DVDs. I still cherish books as objects, just as I cherish some of my favourite album covers (even though I have nothing to play them on) and the deluxe box sets of some of my favourite movies. But for everyday reading, the Kindle is marvellous. And, dare I say it, better than paper.

I never thought I'd say that.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

ThisIsWhyYou'reFat

I'm doing my best to lose a load of the weight I've put on since being here. What with not walking or cycling, indulging myself in yummy Southern food, and eating huge American portions, I've put on a few pounds. I've finally got around to making good on my New Year goal to do something about it. I'm even going to the gym most days, and if you know me, you'll know how much of an achievement that is.

Of course, it's easy to point at the ridiculous food you see on Web sites like This Is Why You're Fat, or the absurd (but wonderful) treats like fried cheesecake or the Monte Cristo sandwich. But really, that's not the problem. The fact is that the basic serving size is enormous, and verging on the obscene.

On Wednesday, we went to a restaurant for a birthday dinner. I went with the dieter's meal. For $12.99, they gave me a small Caesar salad, a half-size portion of what was basically a burger, mashed potatoes and broccoli with some cole slaw, and a half-size dessert. In other words, half a regular meal.

I couldn't finish it. I managed the salad, half the main course, and none of the dessert, and went home feeling full. On Thursday, I ate most of the rest of the main course and half of the dessert for my lunch, and still felt full at dinner time. Then yesterday, I finished the main course and the cole slaw for lunch, had a small dinner in the evening, and the rest of my dessert.

In other words, a half size meal fed me for nearly three days. A whole normal meal works out as practically a week's worth of food for an average middle-aged man. In some places, a frickin' salad contains more calories than I need for the day! So even when you try to stick with the healthy options, they're still way in excess of what's necessary, or even sensible.

Compare recipe books from the 1930s with modern recipe books, and what used to be 8-12 servings is now considered 4 servings, even though we're all much less active these days. The smallest latte in Starbucks is three times the size of what you'd get in a French cafe, and contains about a third of my daily caloric needs. I could go on, but there's no need.

And that, my friends, is why I' m fat. And why most Americans are fat, and why there's an epidemic of diabetes.

Let me just reiterate. A half size restaurant meal fed me for nearly three days.

The answer's simple. Put less food on the plate.

Friday, October 29, 2010

On Leadership

One of the books Ralph Nader constantly referred to in his satirical book Only the super rich can save us (which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is John W. Gardner's On Leadership (1990). It's a masterpiece.

How often have we all said that we don't have any true political leaders any more? In Britain, the last real leader we had was Maggie, and she was a mixed blessing at best (or an evil bitch, if you prefer). In America, there hasn't really been anyone since JFK. Barack Obama may yet turn out to be a great leader, but it's too early to tell. It depends whether he survives the next two years (politically and physically), and that's highly questionable.

Gardner's book asks two important questions. What is a leader, and how do we create them? He takes care to distinguish between leaders and managers, and between leadership and power. That actually sums up what's wrong with governments today. They're run by managers who wield power, and people hate that. So-called "UK plc"* is a vile idea, that reduces people to nothing more than shareholders and workers, and makes it clear that those at the top are there to boss people around and extract profit from them.

He also points out that leaders occur at all levels. It's not just about Presidents and Prime Ministers. It's about union leaders, youth club leaders, and others who can initiate widespread change. Arguably - though these examples post-date this book - the most inspirational and effective leaders we've seen in Britain in the last 20 years have been Bob Geldof, Bono, and Jamie Oliver. (And before you tell me not to be so stupid, think about it. They've done more to motivate people than any political or religious leader of recent years. Geldof and Bono have both been nominated for a Nobel peace prize, which is something none of our prime minsters are likely to achieve, and Oliver's been awarded a TED prize, putting him on a par with Bill Clinton and, err, Bono. And yes, it says a lot about Britain that two Irish pop stars and a TV chef show more leadership than anyone in the government.)

For most of the book, Gardner discusses the qualities required of a leader. He worked at many levels of the American government, and with many Presidents, and so he had the opportunity to see leaders of many types at first hand.
  • Vision: a leader looks beyond the immediate situation and gives people something to aim at. Not just a wishy-washy "things will be better," but a definite, achievable set of goals. Like putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade, or achieving a society in which black and white people are treated equally.
  • Affirming values: a leader stands for something that people want to believe in. He is a living example of what people should be. What he's trying to do reflects what's important to that society.
  • Inspiring trust: people follow a leader because they believe in him. They are prepared to let him take the tough decisions, and they will back him, because they trust him to do the right thing.
  • Accountability: as part and parcel of being trusted, the leader accepts that he is accountable to his followers. The buck stops with him. If he screws up, he will admit it and let people judge him on his record.
  • Motivation: a leader makes people want to achieve. When he speaks, people act. They don't just go back to their normal lives, or grumble to their friends. They do something.
  • Managing: a good leader doesn't act alone. He has to get others to do what needs to be done. He has to deal with crises, manage budgets, and delegate work. A good manager isn't always a good leader, but a good leader has to be a good manager.
  • Achieving unity: leadership is often about building consensus and achieving compromise. You can't lead half a country. Well, you can, but then you get either civil war or the political stalemate we've had in Britain and America for the last few decades.
  • Knowing the system: you can't manage or achieve unless you know the ways of politics. (Just watch Yes, Prime Minister.)
  • Decisiveness: leaders don't um and aah. They don't have time. They cut through the crap and get on with the job.
  • Explaining: people need to understand what's happening, especially if their leader is going to take them through a difficult time. A leader needs to be able to explain what he's doing, and why. It's not the same if it comes from a subordinate.
  • Being a symbol: the leader is the person people look up to. Once he takes that office, he's not just himself. He's something more.
  • Representing the group: the leader is an ambassador, and other people's perception of the whole society is coloured by that. Look at how Europeans treated Americans under George W. Bush, and how they now treat Americans under Obama. Same people, different leader.
  • Supporting their followers: one of the key qualities of a leader is to make his followers believe that he is doing his best for them. He is working on their behalf. He is enabling them to do what they want. Even if it's a tough path, he has to convince people that he is acting for their benefit, not his own.
There's obviously much more to it than this, but it's a great checklist. Does David Cameron have these qualities? Does Ed Miliband? I don't think so. Brown and Blair sure as hell didn't make the grade. It looked like Blair was going to cut it for the first few few months after ousting John Major (another non-leader), but then he made it pretty clear he was just another corporate shill. Where's the vision? Where's the trust? Where's the accountability?

I have no idea where the next generation of leaders is going to come from, but I am sure of one thing. Until we have leaders we can respect, admire and trust - even if we disagree with them - we won't have governments worth a damn, and basically, we're all screwed.


*For the benefit of my non-UK readers, a plc is a Public Limited Company. UK plc is the idea that you can treat and run the country like a giant corporation.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In at the deep end

Learning's a weird thing. We all do it in different ways. Some by watching, some by experimentation, some by theory, some by reading. I used to be a reader, but for some reason, that's changing. It may be middle age, it may be the nature of the things I'm learning, or it may just be that I'm learning new learning techniques.

Once upon a time, I'd learn things by reading manuals. Cover to cover, grasp everything, and if there were exercises, I'd do them in my head. Then I'd get going.

Then I started to learn by playing. I'd mess around with a piece of software, try things, and gradually absorb what it could do and how I could do it. That's how I learned to use Photoshop, in my own, idiosyncratic way. I've tried reading books or watching tutorials, but somehow, it never stuck. The only time I've learned new tricks is when someone looks over my shoulder and says - the right way - oh, did you know you could do this instead, and it's easier / better / faster ? And then I can take that little tip, relate it to what I'm doing, and use it.

Nowadays, though, I only seem to be able to learn software when I have a specific goal and some serious time pressure. If I know what I'm trying to achieve, then I have a structure to work with. I don't get distracted by obscure features or unnecessary tasks, I just focus on learning everything I need to know to get the job done. And, because it's a real project, not a test project, I learn it and remember it.

Right now, I'm learning how to make eBooks. I've spent a day or so looking at how it's done, researching the market and the different devices and formats, and doing the basic research. I've got the tools, and now I need to learn how to use them. I've opened them up and played with them a bit, but I'm none the wiser. The solution is simple. Start on the first book right away. Screw it up, get it rejected, do it again, repeat until satisfactory.

I know the job can be done in a day. Two days is normal. So I'm allowing myself a week for the first one. Then, as I get better, I'll get quicker, and within a few iterations, I'll know all I need to know to hit that one-to-two day target. Then, once I have the process down, I'll start picking up tricks to do more. It works out quite efficiently, and it means I'm getting real results very early on.

I think it's mainly due to the fact that most software is way more feature-rich than I need. I probably only use maybe 10% of the functionality of most of the apps I have. The rest are unnecessary. If I started learning by playing, I'd be lost in irrelevance, and getting frustrated that I wasn't doing the thing I was after. Yes, it might be nice to figure out how I can make a book title that wings its way onto the opening page like a flight of swans, forms beautiful letters while rippling through all the colours of the rainbow, and then bursts into flame, leaving nothing behind but the words scorched onto the electronic paper, but really, that's not as important as figuring out how to put the damn text onto the reader, is it? Task-based learning forces you to focus on what's critical. In the process, I'll notice the option to create animated titles, and I can come back to that when I have time, or if I have a project that would genuinely benefit from it.

It's the same with pretty much all apps. They do way more than I need. So does my phone. So does my bloody dishwasher. (What exactly are those other four programs for? Isn't the WASH program enough?) I can't be bothered to figure everything out, just enough to deal with what I need right now.

This isn't just a technology thing or a complaint about unnecessary features and over-engineered software. This "just in time knowledge" is actually how we learn most things. I'm not going to learn all about plumbing to deal with any potential household crises. I'll find out just what I need to know to fix my leaking shower, and deal with that. (Or, in reality, get someone to come over and fix my shower while I watch, so I'll know for next time. Thanks, Jon!)

Learning by throwing myself in at the deep end seems to work for me. It keeps me focused on results, and seems to improve my retention. I'd be interested to hear how others learn new skills.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Treehackers

This arrived in my inbox today. Since my friend Eddy explicitly says he's putting it in the public domain, here you go. Feel free to make this happen, share, repost, or whatever!
Lunch-time conversation with colleagues turned to the idiosyncracies of the Mac App-store's guidelines on acceptable content - and how to work round them.  Apparently depictions of violence against animals or people are out; but no mention of plants.  Nor are your enemies allowed to be any identifiable real-world cultural group; but apparently nothing prevents *your* side from being one.  So we concluded that you might be allowed a hyper-violent video game in which the enemy is a force of triffids and ents defending the forests from evil loggers who've hired you as a mercenary to fend off the mobile plants while the loggers go to work raping the rain-forests.  Since it's common "knowledge" that the nazis all ran away to hide out in South America, *our* side can safely be jack-booted thugs with hakkenkreutz insignia.  We just have to be careful not to have any of them being killed horribly; so the ents and triffids must be killing humanely, thereby further driving home the "you are on the side of evil" message.  Make it sufficiently over the top, I suspect it could actually be very popular, just for subverting all the silly censoriousness (not just Apple's) about violent video games.   Remembering that some on this list have contacts in the gaming industry, I hereby dedicate this silliness to the public domain.  As to this mail's subject: despite its similarity to the word "tree-hugger", especially when pronounced, it'd be more faithfully translated as lumberjack - or "tree-hacker".   Eddy. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Chief Culture Officer

Chief Culture Officer, by Grant McCracken, pulls together the two diverse and yet interlinked strands of my life: anthropology and business. I studied social anthropology at Cambridge in the mid-80s, and ever since, I've wondered whether what I learned was pure self-indulgence (paid for by British tax-payers, because that was how we did things back then, and for which I've always been grateful) or the most totally useful thing in the world. I've always liked to believe that my knowledge of anthropology has underpinned everything else. It's not just that anthropology is the study of people and societies, but also that it teaches you how to study people, how to analyse them, and how to respond to them.

Over the last few years, I've finally noticed people claiming a role for anthropologists outside academia and National Geographic. In 2007, at a conference in Atlanta about virtual worlds and MMORPGs, I first heard people talking about how they needed anthropologists to understand the way online societies were evolving. WoW, Second Life and the like were no longer defined by their technology, but by the way the people interacted and the social mechanisms that the worlds facilitated - deliberately or accidentally. In 2008, at a reunion dinner in Cambridge, we had an extensive discussion in the anthropology department about the way technologies like Facebook, Skype, and mobiles phones are changing society and fundamental social mechanisms. Now, there's even someone who's doing a study of entrepreneurs and investors from an anthropological, rather than an economic perspective.

Chief Culture Officer puts the official seal on this trend by calling for companies to have an anthropologist at the very top level if they want to connect with their market. In effect, he's saying that without the understanding that anthropologists bring, companies can't create the products people want, or communicate in a language they understand. Written by an anthropologist from Chicago who studied under the great Marshall Sahlins (my personal hero in the anthropology world), and who has consulted extensively for mega-brands such as Coca-Cola, IKEA and Kraft, this book comes with some serious authority.

McCracken argues that companies need to understand culture in its wider sense. It's not just about what's "cool". Cool is destined to become passé overnight, and you can't rely on riding that wave forever. It's not about "high culture" like opera or art galleries. It's about a complex web of what people value, which affects not just their choice of music, clothing or beverages, but also sofas, curtains, washing machines, bread or Christmas presents for their mother in law. It's about understanding the shift towards reusable and recyclable goods in some communities, or when people want beige instead of this summer's fashion. It's about knowing when shopping is a necessity, and when it's a pleasure, and when it's entertainment, and how that affects what people want out of it. It's about knowing how people will react to a gimmick like making Coke vending machines charge an extra 10c in hot weather (they actually considered doing this, but rejected it on McCracken's advice) or changing a logo.

I have to say, I rather like this idea. It validates everything I've been saying for over 20 years. Big companies should be employing people like me, and giving us jobs at the highest level - with appropriately huge salaries, of course.
But then I got to thinking. It's all a utopian fantasy.

McCracken suggests that it's the CCO's job to know everything, from trends in music to food to clothes to tv to hobbies to hair dye products to anything else you can think of. Across the whole world, all demographics, all ages. He actually says it's the CCO's job to "know everything about everything." I call bullshit. You can't possibly know it all. I don't care how many magazines you read, how many Web sites you visit, how many people you follow on Twitter, or how many hours of TV you watch. The world's way too damn big. No matter how much I learn every day sitting at my computer, I'm never going to understand the LA Hispanic community, rural mid-West America, Chinese in New York, Thai communities in Florida, school kids in deprived black areas, to name but a few. And that's just in the USA. I haven't even started on Canada, South America, Europe, and so on.

And anyway, that's not how proper anthropology is done. Anthropologists work by focusing on one community, immersing themselves in it, understanding it, then focusing on another community, and contrasting them. They don't do a drive-by and then claim in-depth knowledge.

His anecdotes to show how the CCO achieves this omniscience are fallacious. For example, he talks about the trend towards artisan breads, and how they're taking a bite out of supermarket bakeries. He says that most people took a while to notice this, but a CCO would have spotted this trend starting in 1990. A classy bakery started in San Francisco (which he calls the first artisan bakery in the US, which I seriously doubt - weren't they doing it 100 years ago?), and by the end of the year, it was doing well. And on this basis, the CCO can predict a trend.

Again, I call bullshit with 20/20 hindsight. All you can tell is that this shop was doing well - you can't predict from a sample of one that this would spread to other bakeries, other cities, other communities. And even if you could, what's the likelihood that your CCO will know about that one shop, especially if he's based in Chicago or Seattle?

I liked some of his insights about culture, and I could certainly appreciate how this could help some companies, mostly the ones with huge amounts invested in their multi-billion dollar global brands. But in the end, it was like a typical academic paper - an appeal for funding. It came down to "I know stuff about people, and you need me, so let me define my own job title."

Frankly, companies really don't need yet another C-level guy swaggering around pontificating and pretending he knows everything about people and what the company strategy should be, from product design to pricing to advertising to hiring staff. Companies already have marketing departments, and it's their job to know their market. Sure, they can probably learn something from the way anthropologists work, but all that means is that an anthropology degree could be a solid foundation for a good career in marketing. Actually, many anthropologists could learn a lot from good market researchers.

And that, I suppose, explains why I enjoy the market research side of my job and loathe sales.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Only the super-rich can save us!

The world's pretty messed up right now. Everything's controlled by a few huge corporation who are to all intents and purposes above the law. Governments answer to the interests of big business. And big business answers to the interests of a few billionaires. The rest of us really don't matter a damn, and neither does the planet. Everything is sacrificed in the interests of profit.

So what can we do about it? Realistically, probably not a damn thing. We can elect different politicians, and within months, they'll be completely in thrall to the same old corporations. We can launch consumer protests and boycotts, but they have such a hold on every aspect of our way of life that it'll only work if we all go back to being self-sufficient pioneers, and that just ain't gonna happen.

In this book, Ralph Nader plays with an interesting idea. What if a bunch of super-rich people got together and decided to change things? Using the skills they've learned for manipulating governments, media, and economies, and their vast personal fortunes, they effectively launch a commercial revolution. They champion alternative energies, they challenge Wal-Mart's stranglehold over retail, they tackle healthcare billing fraud and insurance companies, and they fight the way that corporations buy politicians. As a Brit, I missed some of the political and commercial references, but enough came through to keep me hooked throughout. I also learned a lot from his use of real legal cases and legislation.

Nader's protagonists are all real billionaires or multi-millionaires; Warren Buffett, George Soros, Ross Perot, Ted Turner, Bill Cosby, Bill Gates Sr, Paul Newman, and Yoko Ono, for example. By contrast, most of their "opponents" are fictional: CEO Cumbersome, Edward Edifice, and so on. This gives the book a strange feeling. It keeps reminding you that Nader's talking about the real world, not some imaginary thriller conspiracy world, but at the same time, it's only fiction.

Now obviously, this is a satirical fantasy, and it's wildly utopian. Somehow, I don't think these guys are going to pledge their personal fortunes to save the world. However, it's an enjoyable book, and an easy read even though it's nearly 800 pages long. Nader's analysis of what's wrong with American society is insightful, and needs to be read.

For me, the best part was when he showed how overturning the corporations was not just within the spirit of the Constitution, but was also completely compatible with capitalism. Nader argues that what we have in the US isn't actually capitalism, it's state capitalism. The big corporations are backed by the state and supported by the state. The laws are written for their benefit. They pay lower taxes than smaller businesses or individual. They get huge handouts. They control the courts and the media. They get preferential treatment in every way. That's not free market competition. That's not capitalism. That's basically an economy based on state-sponsored monopolies - a classic hallmark of communist regimes.

Although I don't get to vote in this country*, I'm trying to get to grips with American politics. I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole Republican/Democrat thing doesn't matter. They may chant different slogans, but in the end, they don't run the country. The corporations do. Whoever gets to Washington, it's the corporate lobbyists and their vast budgets who decide how Congress votes. They're happy as things are and can effectively block any changes that don't benefit them. And you don't get to vote for them. Worse, they have huge support because of their total control over big media. "What's good for business is good for America," they say. "If you damage our business, it'll cost jobs," they threaten. "We bring you cheap goods - what's the problem?" they ask. And so people nod and turn a blind eye to all the corruption, profiteering, and monopolistic abuse of power.

If you want to see real change in America, what's needed is to get rid of the unelected cartel that controls the government, and Nader makes this point eloquently, passionately, and with conviction.

"I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
Thomas Jefferson

*I can't vote because I'm a resident alien, not a US citizen. I could opt to become a US citizen in a couple of years, but I haven't decided whether that's something I want to do.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rework

Are you an entrepreneur? Managing a small software company? Thinking about getting into a start-up? Frustrated by the way your work/life balance is shot to hell?

Then get a copy of Rework, put it in your bathroom, and read a few pages every time you have a few moments. It's full of short, insightful essays, typically a page long, that add up to a different vision of how you can do business, and what a successful company can look like.

Some of it's pretty obvious advice. Meetings are toxic. Don't hire too many people too early. Love what you're doing or it'll show.

Some of it's slightly utopian, and only suitable for certain sorts of companies. Hire people who don't need managers and will just get on with whatever needs doing. It's OK for everyone to work from home, scattered round the world as long as they communicate online every day. Make sure you can do every job in the company yourself. Keep your product really simple.

Well, that's all fine if you're building a small software product, and you only need a few talented programmers to create it and refine it step by step. That doesn't always work so well if you're building a complex product that requires a lot of people working together. Or, come to that, opening a restaurant. Sometimes, you need a roomful of grunts and a manager just to get through the sheer volume of labour and ensure everyone's working effectively. And if they're highly specialised grunts, you can't really expect anyone else to be able to do their job. That, after all, is why you hired them.

However, there are some pieces in Rework that challenge orthodox business thinking, particularly in the modern tech start-up. These are the bits you need to read and think about. The five that stuck in my mind this time were:

Planning is guessing. No plan I have ever made for a business has come to reality. And, probably, neither have any of yours. All those optimistic budget forecasts, sales forecasts, hiring plans, release schedules, marketing plans - all bollocks. They looked impressive, and people signed up to them, but the truth is they were my best guess, nothing more, and they all turned out to be wrong. Hell, I can rarely even plan for what I'm going to do next week. Things change too fast in modern business. So, they advise, stop wasting your time making pointless plans, set some goals, and just do the damn job. Or, if you do have to make a plan, make sure you and everyone else knows they're only a guess.

Don't write down the procedures. Forget sheets of diagrams and documents explaining you do everything in the company. You won't stick to them anyway. A release checklist or similar, fine. But don't waste your time writing down stuff that either everyone knows, or which will be ignored in the heat of the moment.

Don't plan for an exit. This one's anathema to investors. After all, you only build a company so you can sell it, right? Well, that's one view of business. Alternatively, you could build a company that you can stick with for ever, and do it because you love it.

No to-do lists. Actually, I don't agree with this one. I'm a to-do list person. But I do like their suggestion not to waste time going through and prioritising everything 1, 2 or 3, and giving everything a target date, importance, and so on. Instead, just pick the most important thing, put it at the top of the list, and do that. Then, when you've gone as far as you can with that, pick the next most important thing, and do that.

Don't be a hero. If you're the guy working until 11pm every night, you're not doing anyone any favours. You're going to be tired and unproductive, and guilt-tripping your colleagues into working longer hours isn't going to endear you to anyone. More to the point, if what you're working on is really taking that much effort, then you should seriously consider whether you're going about it the right way.

The main themes of Rework are that in most companies we waste too much time on unnecessary management, and we'd all get a lot more done if we just got on with what was most important to delivering a great product to our customers. As I said, not all of this applies to everyone, but it should certainly get you thinking about how you and your company could work more efficiently, get more done, and spend less time doing it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

National Coming Out Day

Today's National Coming Out Day. I hadn't heard of this until I noticed many of my friends posting about it in their FB statuses. I was going to just cut'n'paste their standard phrases into my status, but figured I needed more than a couple of sentences.

First off, I really don't give a damn about other people's sexual orientation. Straight, gay, bi, bi-curious, celibate, transgender - it makes no difference to me whatsoever. I care about the people I like because of their personalities, and I'm more interested in talking to them and enjoying their company than what sort of genitalia they like their sexual partners to have.

Second, I don't see why same-sex couples shouldn't be allowed to marry. It's surely better than being trapped in a fake marriage and having affairs to satisfy your sexual inclination. At one point, shortly after it was legalised in England, I think I knew more gay married couples than straight married couples. They seem to be perfectly happy, and as much in love with each other as any straight couple. If anything, more so, because they have to endure much more to publicise their emotional commitment to each other. Okay, so most of them don't have kids, but then again, many of the straight couples I know don't have kids either.

Thirdly, to the religious among you, I have only this to say. Love is as close to a divine gift as any of us can expect to experience. If a person is truly in love with someone of the same sex, then obviously your God wants it that way, so you should give them your support. Whether they marry or not, you should let people be with the person they want to be with. It makes the world a better place.

Fourth, to anyone who believes that homosexuals or bisexuals shouldn't be allowed in the military, tell that to the Spartans. They're just as courageous, patriotic, and reliable as heterosexuals. Just because the guy you're sharing a barracks with is gay, it doesn't mean he fancies you. He's a soldier, doing the same job as you, and that's all that matters. "Don't ask, don't tell," is a pathetic policy. It's what we called in England the "Blackmailer's Charter", which basically meant that gay people were permanently under the power of anyone who knew their secret.

And lastly, to anyone who thinks it's acceptable to bully someone for being gay, or for being confused about their sexuality, particularly in their teenage years, it isn't. That makes you an intolerant bigot, and there's no place for you in my world.


Friday, October 8, 2010

It's crap, but is it art?

A lot of my friends have been to see Exit Through the Gift Shop this week. I didn't go, largely because I'm not a fan of Banksy, or street art in general, but also because I decided to go to a different art show that evening, which I thoroughly enjoyed. After hearing their reports of the film, I'm really glad I didn't go. I think I'd have hated it.

This is nothing to do with the quality of the film. I haven't seen it, so I can't, and won't, comment. It's about the subject matter. It would have made me very angry, and I'd have left the cinema seething. I'm not sure if that was the emotional response they were after.

From what I can tell, the movie goes like this. A guy, Thierry Guetta, decides to make a movie about street art. Guetta shows his footage to Banksy, who tells him it's absolutely terrible, and suggests that he should try his hand at painting instead, while he (Banksy), despite having no film experience, will edit the footage into something watchable and finish the movie. So Guetta goes off and makes a load of equally terrible art, hires a warehouse in LA, and tells everyone that Banksy told him to be an artist. He hypes it like crazy, and suddenly his stuff is cool and he's an instant millionaire and the darling of the LA art set. The film ends with an embarrassed Banksy saying "I used to think anyone could do art. Now, I don't think like that."

Now, it's very likely that this wasn't a genuine documentary. I'd guess that Banksy set the whole thing up, just to take the piss out of the art world. Either way, though, the message of the film is the same.

Being a successful artist has nothing at all to do with talent. You can be absolutely terrible, but if you have the support of someone famous, you too can get rich and famous. People will buy your art, not because they like it, or even because they think it's cool, but because they think that other people will think they're cool for having it.

Even if it's another spectacular hoax, it's an insult to every talented, hard-working artist I know who's trying to get noticed. Don't bother going to art school, kids. Don't bother perfecting your craft. Don't even try to be original. Just do any old shit and get someone cool to back you, and you'll have people fighting over your work. It's Malcolm MacLaren and the Sex Pistols all over again.

No, that's nothing new, I know that. It's always been that way, and I'm not in the least surprised. But I wouldn't have enjoyed sitting in a cinema for an hour and a half having it rubbed in my face that talent is completely worthless, and the only thing that counts is having a Banksy on your side.

Don't let me stop you watching it. All my friends loved it. It was certainly thought-provoking, even without having seen it. But given that I spend much of my life trying to promote talented artists, the film's message is not one I personally want to hear.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Keep it clean

This may fall into the category of too much information, but what the hell. I'm going to talk about soap.

Well, not just soap, but memory and senses.

Since being over here, I've used various things to get me clean. Axe shower gel, some organic hemp-based soap, cheap hotel soap, and so on. A few weeks ago, I was in the Indian store and picked up some ayurvedic soap. Because it was there, and it was cheap, and I needed soap.

Most of the time, I associate smells with two things: food and incense. I love the aromas of cooking, especially spices, bread, stews and coffee. And I love to fill my environment with incense, though I don't do it as often as I'd like because the smoke tends to trigger my asthma. But most of the time, smell isn't a large part of my world. It's just not one of my critical senses. If anything, the smell of cleaning products is something I actively try to block out: I can't actually walk down the aisle of the supermarket where they keep the washing powder: it gives me an instant migraine.

So I was quite surprised when the first thing that struck me when I opened my box of soap was the smell. It reminded me of the school soap at my boarding school in the mid 1970s. The same thing happened when I visited Bombay a few years ago: all the hotel soap smelt like this. Actually, a lot of Bombay reminded me of the Britain of my childhood - the Morris Oxfords, the Enfield motorcycles, the style of the signage, the nostalgia for the 1930s, and so on. The policeman are like Dixon of Dock Green in Indian uniforms, and the shopkeepers are like Indian versions of The Two Ronnies. The people have a politeness that's all but disappeared from British society: it's almost like an alternate timeline for England, where we never had the Sex Pistols, the yuppie 80s, or the Thatcher years.

The smell of the soap brought back a flood of memories, of school wash times, bath nights, scratchy towels, making up loads of lather in the sink and throwing the suds at each other, and so on. But most of all, it just smelt of cleanness. It was like the primal essence of soap. Deep down in my brain, some primitive memory was telling me that all these fancy new smells like Dragon Fruit & Kiwi or Vanilla & Raspberry were just plain wrong, no matter how sensual and nice they may be, and if I was ever going to be properly clean again, this was what I needed. It's like the original Pine scented Radox. It just feels fundamentally different to any other variety, because that's what we had when I was a kid.


Honestly, I have no idea whether ayurvedic soap is any more or less effective than Axe Dark Temptation shower gel when it comes to actually cleaning my skin. But I feel cleaner, and as far as I can tell, that's purely down to the smell and memories of childhood bathtimes. Which is weird, but rather pleasant.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Potted woodlouse

Our ancestors were a lot less squeamish than we are about what they'd eat. This fine recipe, courtesy of my former CEO and all-around good bloke Jeff Zie, comes from a 17th century English cookbook. Apparently it tastes like shrimp paste.

Collect a quantity of the finest wood-lice to be found, and drop them into boiling water, which will kill them instantly, but not turn them red, as might be expected. At the same time put into a saucepan a quarter of a pound of fresh butter, a teaspoonful of flour, a small glass of water, a little milk, some pepper and salt, and place it on the stove. As soon as the sauce is thick, take it off and put in the wood-lice. This is an excellent sauce for fish.
Well, seeing as I'm allergic to shrimp, but love the taste of shrimp paste, I'm half-tempted to give it a go. This does, naturally, leave me with two questions.

How do our local Floridian woodlice compare to English woodlice? The initial thought is that the American pill bug is likely to be meatier than your English variety, though whether it will have the same taste is a whole different question.

American pill bug or roly poly, of the Armadillidiidae family

And secondly, what are the criteria for "the finest woodlice to be found"? According to Jeff, they'd be "the ones in top hats". Hmm.

This calls for experimentation. Who wants to join me on this culinary expedition?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Re yr msg

With the advent of the net and mobile phones, we're communicating more and more, but in the process we're having to learn whole new ways to transmit information effectively. Reducing messages to 140-character tweets or texts, or even 420-character Facebook updates, means that we're inventing ways to compress information further and further. At the same time, we're getting used to skimming information streams faster and faster, and extracting the relevant info from it with less and less effort. In the process, information is inevitably lost, and the result is miscommunication, usually without hilarious results.

Basic compression works

I'm not actually talking about the way that we're compressing words. That's actually relatively easy to process. Hebrew elides vowels naturally, and that's quite comprehensible. German portmanteau words are easy to break down and pass into normal speech. We're nearly all comfortable with expressions like LOL, BRB or WTF these days, and we're quite happy with some shortened forms of words.

cu 4 drnks tonite?

is, I think you'll agree, perfectly legible as

See you for drinks tonight?

It's 18 characters instead of 27, which saves you 9 characters - about 33% shorter for no loss of information.

When punctuation gets omitted, that can be harder to parse, but still unlikely to result in major miscommunication. Yes, there are the obvious "Let's eat, grandpa," jokes, where the comma is obviously significant, but those are comparatively rare.


WTF?

The real problem is when messages are so compressed that they are meaningless. Or when they have several meanings, which comes to the same thing. Here's a real example from texts.

Me: meeting @ yr house, mine, or cin?
Reply: y

"Y"? What the hell does that mean? Is he asking me why I want to know, or what the hell I'm talking about, or does it stand for y[ours]? So the exchange continues.

Me: ?
Reply: def

Well, I've been waiting for ten minutes for each reply, so after 20 minutes I'm still no wiser as to where we're meeting. So I phone my friend, ask the same question, and get the answer, "My place, see you at 7." Ah, so "y" meant "yes", and my friend only actually read the first four words before answering. In 15 seconds of actual conversation, we transmitted more useful information, more accurately, than we did via text. Of course, it would have worked fine if we'd actually sent the following texts, but we didn't. We were too busy "saving time" and sending compressed messages, and the end result was it took longer and was less efficient.

Me: are we meeting @ your house, mine, or the cinema? and what time?
Reply: mine at 7

Sorry, I thought you meant me!

The other problem with this kind of compressed communication is that it's often cryptic and untargeted. Let's take an example like this (fictionalised) status update:

Fred is getting fed up of ppl who make stupid & unreasonable requests they could perfectly well take care of themselves

That may be a perfectly reasonable expression of how Fred is feeling, but it's not good communication. Who's he talking about? What are these unreasonable requests? Does he mean me asking if I can borrow his DVD of Star Trek IV? Did I piss him off? Should I apologise and find someone else to get it from? Or is he, in fact, referring to the fact that his sister just called and asked him to drive 200 miles to help her move some trash from the back yard, even though last weekend he had to drive over to help her pick out a new TV? I honestly can't tell - especially if I know nothing about the sister or her trash.

What inevitably happens is the sort of comedy of errors beloved of playwrights and scriptwriters. I'll get huffy because I think Fred's being rude about me, our respective friends will weigh in on one side or the other or play peacemaker, and eventually, when tempers have flared, we'll find out he wasn't talking about me at all. End result: an evening of unnecessary tension and aggravation for all concerned.

Oh, was that a joke?

To make it worse, humour and irony are often lost completely. It can be hard enough to write humour in long form, as most writers can attest. In brief messages, these can be really hard to convey, and simply adding (jk) or ;) doesn't always have the desired effect. We pick up humour from body language and nuances of inflection, none of which comes through in prose. The emoticon is a great attempt to bring that back in, but it doesn't always work. Here's one I posted the other day:

I don't see why people are being so hard on the English football team: they're just as good as the US.

The responses ranged from LOLs to fury, from both English and American friends. Frankly, I couldn't give a toss about football, and I was just having a friendly dig at soccer fans of both nations, but that's not how it came across to some people.

I never got yr msg

Of course, the biggest assumption we all make is that when we've sent a message, that means the other person has actually received it. I've had days when I'm getting literally hundreds of emails, thousands of tweets, and God only knows what else coming through skype, FB and text. So yeah, I miss messages.

Or else I'm away, don't have Net access, and won't get your message until get back. Or maybe I'm in the air or driving, or my electric is out, or I'm recording VO and have everything switched off, or I'm asleep or sick. There are a hundred reasons why I might not have got your message yet, or may have skipped over it.

A huge amount of aggravation is caused by sitting there, angrily thinking "the bastard never got back to me" or "shit, I need this info right now, when's he going to respond". I've done it. So have you. For all you know, the other person is blithely unaware of this and is sitting on the beach with a pina colada.

All we have to do is keep talking

I'm not advocating that we all stick with proper English, and that modern communications all suck. Far from it. We're developing a powerful and effective new language and new way of communicating emotions and information to a wide audience.

However, as was drummed into me at school, in the cadets, at university, and in business, communication is not about telling people things. Communication is about making sure they understand correctly what you want them to know. Clarity, not brevity, is the essential component of successful communication.

Sometimes, it's better to pick up a phone and speak directly to someone, or go and see them and deal with the issue face to face. It's often quicker in the long run, and there's less risk of miscommunication. (Though, as I've found many times, emails before and after confirming what was said can be invaluable.)

Sometimes, it's better to spend the extra few seconds typing a message in full instead of abbreviating it to the point of ambiguity.

And sometimes, it's better to spend the time and explain what you actually mean, rather than try to squeeze too much into a few sentences. There's still a role for lengthy blog posts in a world dominated by short status updates.

Then again, maybe all I needed to say was:
socmed comms r often poor way 2 get yr meaning across? twitter/fb/txt FAIL :)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What does online friendship mean?

"Friend" always was a broad word. Your closest friends are people you would pretty much lay down your life for. But your friends also include the people you know at the pub, work colleagues you get on with and have occasional conversations with, and people you socialise with in other ways.

I've always been intrigued as to the point when someone goes from being a "friend of a friend" to a "friend". In my mind, that happens when you start making an effort to have a relationship with them directly instead of via that other person, even if it's just meeting for coffee, or lending them a DVD.

Social media, though, broadens the concept of friendship still further. A friend on Facebook means "someone to whom I can establish a connection". Facebook's suggestions actively prompt you to befriend everyone who's a friend of a friend. So, since status in these things is achieved by maximising your friend count, you friend request these people. Not wishing to be rude, they see you have a mutual friend, and accept you. Now you can befriend all their friends, and so it grows. Going from "friend of a friend" to "friend" just takes one click each, and there's absolutely no social or personal interaction.

Where it gets really messy is that in the social media world all this is public. You friend someone, all their friends can see this, and so they click, see who you are, and befriend you too. Woo! Everyone wants to be your friend! Aren't you popular! Actually, no. It's more like someone shows up at your house, announces themselves as a friend of your mate, so you invite them in, and next thing you know, they've brought all their friends and their friends' friends, and there's a party in your living room full of complete strangers. (I hope you're thinking of that scene from Weird Science now. I am!)


Now turn it around. We all know what it's like when one of your friends breaks up with their partner, and you have to do your best not to be seen to choose sides. In real life, you adjust your social life so that you can gracefully avoid people you don't want to stay in touch with, and life gradually takes its natural course without, hopefully, offending too many people. In the online world, though, there's no accepted etiquette or sense of discreet grace when you un-friend someone.

The problem is that we feel pressured to publicly declare as friendships things that are only casual acquaintances. If my friend Fred has a new girlfriend, Jo, I feel obliged to call Jo my Facebook friend, even if we don't actually like each other. If I belong to a lute-playing club, I'd feel obliged to call any other club member my friend. When social circumstances change, and I no longer have an association to those people, the logical thing is to dissolve that spurious friendship. However, that's a hugely emotionally charged act, especially since everyone can see you do it. People get massively offended when you unfriend them. It generates responses such as "you were obviously never my friend in the first place, which makes you two-faced," or "what did I do to offend you?".

Strangely, the unfriended get offended even if they were hiding your updates. It's not that they actually wanted to maintain any kind of relationship with you, or even had one in the first place, it's purely the fact that you have removed them from the status of "friend" and taken an active decision to exclude them from your social circle.

A while ago, I wrote about the concept of autistic media, and how social media really can't match up to the complexity and shades of human interpersonal relationships. I'm still amazed by the level of communication that we now have, and how we can use this to enrich our lives in many ways, but it's becoming increasingly clear that we still have a long way to go on the fundamental social and emotion-driven structures that will be necessary for online communities to work properly.

Monday, June 28, 2010

The soporific screen

I don’t know what it is, but these days I find it almost impossible to watch an entire movie without – quite literally - falling asleep. Whether I’m in the cinema or at home, I can’t make it all the way through. Sometimes I can’t even get through a single episode of a TV show. It’s becoming really annoying.

I don’t think it’s just tiredness, though that certainly doesn’t help. I find myself dozing off in matinees or when watching something late afternoon or early evening. It’s certainly not boredom – I end up dozing through the end of films I’m really enjoying. It’s not that I can’t concentrate for two straight hours – I can read a book or play a game all day without dropping off, but half an hour after a movie starts, I start to feel sleep creeping up on me.

I thought for a while it was a reaction to darkness. Dave & Darien both prefer to watch movies with the lights off, so I tried insisting that we leave the lights up. That certainly made things better, and now I can usually get most of the way through a movie or into the second episode of TV before drifting away. I tried changing my posture, and that makes a difference too. If I’m lazing on a couch with my feet up, I tend to crash out fairly rapidly. Sitting upright in an armchair or sitting on the floor helps. However, neither of those is sufficient.

I was fascinated to read in Wired this week how using the Internet is changing the way our brains process information. We’re becoming more and more adept at skimming, at multi-tasking, and at dealing with rapidly changing data sources. After working in machinima for seven years, I now find myself thinking of a ten-minute movie as a long piece, and am getting more and more used to two-minute movies. Watching a full-length feature is rather like trying to listen to an opera or a symphony after being immersed in a culture of three-minute pop songs and advertising jingles.

There was a time when I would sit in a chair or lie on the floor and just listen to an hour-long symphony. Nowadays I’d want something else to do with my hands and eyes while I was listening, and would probably be getting restless after the first movement. When I listen to music now, I’m usually cooking, reading, web-surfing, chatting online, working, or doing housework. (Or, more likely, several of these at once.) I’d probably stay awake through movies if I treated them as background in the same way.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is that watching a movie is completely passive and non-interactive. With a book, at least I’m turning the pages, I control the pace at which I read, I can easily skip back a few pages, and I can get up, make coffee, and read anywhere. I'm imagining the scene, turning words into mental images and sounds. With a movie, I’m completely captive. It demands my attention, but requires that I do absolutely nothing else and gives me everything I need to see and hear. As a result, when I watch a movie, it’s as if my brain is saying to me as soon as I relax, “nope, nothing to do here, Matt, might as well go into stand-by mode”.

Strangely, I can sit by the shore of a lake, in a forest clearing, on a beach, or on top of a hill, and just sit, silently, thinking or meditating for hours without going to sleep. By contrast, I can lie in bed in the darkness for hours, and my brain races insanely, no matter how tired I am. My preferred insomnia cure is to get up, put on a movie, and fall asleep on the couch.

It's perplexing. And, as I said, annoying.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

This Film Is Not Yet Rated

This is a fascinating documentary about the American movie ratings process that anyone interested in either film or censorship should watch.

As a European, I have to admit I found several aspects of the movie completely baffling.

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s a well-known issue that Europeans are reasonably tolerant of sex in movies, but tend to shy away from extreme violence, whereas Americans will accept almost any degree of violence, but are comparatively puritanical when it comes to sex or bad language (despite having the world’s largest porn industry). As a result, the criteria by which films are rated are completely different to what I’m used to. Movies I think of as suitable only for adults are kids’ movies here, and movies I’ve watched with my kids are deemed shocking and unacceptable because there’s a hint of boobage or some bad language. However, that’s not what struck me this time.

The whole basis of US ratings seems to me to be useless. When we watch movies at home, we usually end up looking at the European ratings to find out whether they’re suitable for our 12 and 15 year old kids.

For the benefit of my fellow non-Americans, the US ratings system goes like this:

  • G: kids of any age can watch this movie
  • PG: kids of any age can watch this movie (but it may contain material some parents may consider inappropriate for pre-teens)
  • PG-13: kids of any age can watch this movie (but some parents may think it’s inappropriate for pre-teens)
  • R: kids of any age can watch this movie (but the cinema may require them to have their parents with them)
  • NC-17: for over-18s only (and probably won’t actually get released or broadcast because the studios and distributors won’t touch it)

In other words, anyone can watch anything unless it’s NC-17. The PG-13 category is so broad that some movies are fine for 10-year olds, others – in my opinion – aren’t really suitable for a 15 year old, and would probably be classified 18 in the UK. Kids change hugely between 11 and 18 as they go from pre-puberty to adulthood, and there’s absolutely no indication in the rating of where on that scale a PG-13 fits.

The thing that feels truly weird is that Americans simply don’t have mass market movies for grown-ups or older kids. In the UK, we’re quite comfortable with the idea of having major movies that you have be to 15 or 18 to see. In America, if the theaters can’t get the 14-16 year olds into the cinema and sell them popcorn, they simply won’t show the movie. As a result, an NC-17 rating is basically the kiss of death for a movie. It relegates it to the status of a porn flick.

The strange side-effect of this is that when film directors are arguing for an R rating rather than an NC-17 rating, what they’re actually demanding is that scenes that we would think are suitable only for adults are actually fine for teenagers or even younger kids. In other words, they’re saying that young kids should be able to watch people being tortured and dismembered in graphic close-up, anally raped, having a drug-fuelled orgy with crucifix-shaped dildos, screwing donkeys, or whatever else they want to include in their story.

They’re not actually saying that, of course. They’re just trying to work with this broken ratings system.

What they’re actually asking for is two different things. First, they want the artistic freedom to make the movie they want to make. Well, they already have that freedom. They can make the movie any way they want, and they have the option of releasing it as NC-17 or unrated. Nobody's stopping them making the movie, as long as they can get the funding for it. That puts them in the exact same position as every other artist.

More importantly, though, they’re fighting for a commercial opportunity for that movie, and that’s where they have the problem. There is no commercial market for NC-17 movies in the US. That’s down to the decision by the studios, distributors and exhibitors not to show NC-17s. Wal-Mart and Blockbuster won’t touch them either. As a result, they have to get that R rating from the MPAA one way or another, or the movie is pretty much dead. So either they have to cut the adult scenes the MPAA doesn't like, or they have to argue that the adult scenes are acceptable to kids.

What the US needs, as far as I can see, is to accept that some movies really aren’t suitable for kids, and that there is a place for adults-only movie entertainment that isn’t porn. It’s perfectly accepted in other areas of the entertainment business. Nobody has a problem with putting on a burlesque show and saying over 18s only. Some art exhibitions, theatrical performances, variety acts and gigs don’t allow minors in. Kids can’t get into bars. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and most Americans are quite comfortable with that policy.

So why do the distributors and exhibitors have such a problem with movies that are unsuitable for minors? An NC-17 movie should be no different to any other form of 18+ entertainment. If they were happy to show NC-17s, there would be less pressure to include increasingly hardcore adult material in R-rated movies, and that, surely, would be more in keeping with their mission to protect kids from unwholesome movies.