Monday, February 01, 2010

Real Time, Smeal Time

I've done a ton of thinking about Twitter. Who hasn't? How funny the mocking of Tweets ("Having a ham sandwich now. NO MUSTARD!") seems almost equal to the raves ("Twitter beat all the rest in showing the pain in Haiti"). I didn't plan to blog about it (see Done. Well, mostly done., first blog in a year, below), but I felt the urge.

 For the moment, I mostly mean Twitter as representative of the real-time web. It's one of the "next big things." Yet my interest remains low. Why?

Do I see value? You bet. In particular, I see value for someone who has a natural following needing an efficient conduit to fans, friends, followers, etc. (Kutcher, Obama, Kobe). I also see opportunity for someone who, by nature of their life or activities, has a preferred vantage point for something of interest. If your job is to see technology before others, politician statements before others, martian visits before others, or anything else before others...and if there are enough of these "others" interested, you've got a niche. More power to you.

So real-time has its place. But I realize in my content consumption, I've gone the other way.  In audio, I've moved from radio to podcasts to lectures to audiobooks. I get more value from my valuable content consumption time when I listen or read information someone has actually thought about. And probably edited themselves.

This isn't a big deal and this whole topic is not an either/or. It's just a personal trend. Of course, it might also be a blind spot. Since I personally find more value in well-considered content, I have to be careful not to be blind to real-time value. Heck, Hawkins' On Intelligence would have something to say about that sort of blind spot, hmm?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Done. Well, mostly done.

I've had little intention of continuing this blog because I learned the basics of what I was after during my year or two of experimenting. Yes, I realize that's a ridiculously obvious statement with a last post in '07. Even I didn't realize it had been that long. Anyway, I've got nothing against blogging and have some favorites I visit most every day. But with the experiment over, I didn't see how it fit my schedule. We'll see. I have an urge to write a short one about real-time info. Fortunately, Blogger doesn't have some rule like, "blog monthly or lose your account."

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Words and Music: What's the Right Mix?

Was thinking a bit more about my question below on the ideal mix is between audio with words (just called "words" below) and audio with music ("music") to stimulate productive thinking. I realized I started with the assumption there is a right answer. That assumption is probably ridiculous for a boatload of reasons, but one in particular got to me: Reasonable people won't agree on what "productive" is. Let's pretend all parties agree that words (rather than instrumentals) encourage small leaps in thinking--focused thinking that relates to the words in various ways. And let's even say that all parties agree that music allows a seed of an idea to grow in more divergent ideas. It ought to be a short leap to thinking about optimization of time spent listening to one and then the other. But optimization toward what? You hit an immediate wall that people will not agree whether short-leap focused thinking or long-leap divergent thinking is preferable. So you probably can't agree on what mix gets you the "furthest"--since you can't agree on what you're going "furthest" toward (I suspect there's a Myers-Briggs correlation in here somewhere.) Oh well.

I suppose I can still ponder it for my own idiosyncratic belief about the relative value of the contribution of stimulating these two types of thinking. Everyone else is going to have to optimize for themselves....

Friday, November 30, 2007

Force for Change In Western Acceptance of Islam? (Or...Isn't It Just a Teddy Bear?)

I remember my first conversation with someone who was Muslim about Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It was a person I respected immensely and I was not let down. The person helped me at least manage my confusion about the fatwa on Rushdie's life in part by explaining that Rushdi, raised a Muslim, knew exactly what he was doing. He was not ignorant of the implications of his novel. A liberal Westerner could understand how, while a fatwa may seem extreme, it was internally consistent with cultural customs and therefore--somehow--acceptable. Worthy of tolerance if not support. Fast forward 20 years to a very different situation (if one is to believe the press). A British teacher in Sudan asks her students to vote on a teddy bear name, accepts their overwhelming choice of "Muhammad," ...and is arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to prison time for insulting Islam. Protestors chant for death. A government spokesman says "it's not much of a punishment at all. It should be considered a warning that such acts should not be repeated."

The story has gotten wide coverage, so my goal is not to repeat it. It is to link back to my Rushdie conversation. Open-minded Westerners understand and support a culture, Muslim or otherwise, having strong convictions that differ from their own. And the most open-minded would certainly say that anyone living on foreign soil must understand local customs and beliefs. But I fear that these same Westerners may have a sort of subconscious Kantian absolute standard that draws a line in the sand for acceptability. And a former Muslim writing a blasphemous book is one side of that line and a grade-school teacher accepting her seven-year-old student's choice for a teddy-bear name is very far on the other. And the more teddy bears show up in the press, the more strain Western support will sustain.

I get it that religion is about purity, not marketing. But if mutual understanding and support is any part of the goal, this situation didn't help.

Friend's purchases: Brilliant, but Facebook's 1.0 doesn't fly

Facebook's widely covered Beacon advertising program, allowing "friends" to see your purchases as soon as you make them, is brilliant in concept, fatally flawed in execution. But it will come. The brilliance--obvious once in the market--is that most of us really do want to buy things our friends buy. Not to be like our friends (well, at least for the sane among us), but because we know how our friends make decisions. And if a friend with an acceptable decision process and criteria similar to mine buys a Dell Latitude or 8 GB iPod or electronic gopher trap or flight on Virgin America--I'm done. I'm ready to go. This isn't theoretical. We have several friends that have told us that if my wife and I buy something for our son, they want it. Sight unseen. We've even been asked to "just buy two." Like so many who write or read blogs, I have myriad friends who will buy whatever computer or accessory I've bought to to avoid having to do research. So with yesterday's announcement, Beacon 1.0 is dead, but Beacon will come. Or better yet, understanding my friends' decisions about purchases will come. I can't wait. Facebook's "1.0" version is too intrusive, sensitive, and...well...downright creepy. If we follow the usual rule about when a Microsoft product is worth buying, I can't wait for the 4.0 version. It'll save me a ton of time.

Friday, September 14, 2007

More on Words vs. Music in Audio

When I'm listening to casual audio, I often go back to my question about whether listening to words or music is better to encourage new ideas. I blogged about this a while back. It seemed (still does) that words encourage short leaps of new ideas where music encourages--or just makes feasible--big leaps to entirely new ideas. Words seem to encourage "applied ideas"--not in the sense of being utilitarian, but in the sense of limiting thoughts to new ways to apply the exact ideas in the words. It would be ridiculous to assert you can't get divergent ideas from words. It's more a practical statement. It's hard to think about two totally different topics at the same time. And when listening to words, the flow continues even as your imagination takes flight in a new direction. So you either zone out and stop listening to the audio or you get drawn back into the audio--away from your divergent pondering. So it's less that words can't stimulate great leaps in thinking than that words tend to anchor us to their specific topic. By the way, with a paper book, it's clearly different. With a book, you get a divergent idea and you pause in reading, look away from the text and, well, think. The flow of words stops until you "hit play" by looking at the text again. Obviously, audio players have a pause button, but the dynamic is different.

Meanwhile, as long as you have a seed for a new idea, music gives the idea room to develop without an anchor.

When I wonder about this, I invariably think of parents annoyed by teens spending untold hours with ears and brains plugged into their favorite tunes. Having a kid of my own, I probably could falled into the same pattern. I could have spouted self-righteously, "Any audio time not spent listening to NPR is wasted time!" But I've shifted my thinking about this. I've become convinced that the "words are the seed, music is the soil" idea is true.

So all this throws out so many questions, I'm not sure where to start. Among music without lyrics, say, jazz or new age or classical, is the effect any different? Is there anything about the music itself affecting idea development or is all instrumental music equally effective as long as our upbringing makes it attractive and familiar enough? What does this say about music that isn't pure melody? What about ballads with a clear, audible story? What about music containing lyrics and long breaks such as recordings of Chuck Berry, the Grateful Dead, or Eric Clapton? If supporting productive thinking is a goal, what's the right mix of words versus music?

My totally anecdotal experience is that, with me, ballads act just like words. That is, if a song has a strong story, such as Bruce Springsteen's My Hometown, it provides both a seed for new ideas and an anchor to divergent thinking. Now obviously, this is only because I'm one of those strange people who not only listen to words in songs, but actually find myself unable to avoid listening to them.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Pick Your Candidate: Thought I'd Hate It. Didn't.

Came across a site that lets you input your stance on various issues and then, using data from, "picks" the candidates most aligned with your views. Seemed trivial, superficial and all about what's wrong with McPolitics. Turns out it is very compelling. Check out And if you want to do your own homework, the chart on is, itself, pretty interesting.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Yet Another: Chinese Toy Recall

An new report today on a massive recall of products from China. This time, it's lead in the paint of (gasp) children's toys--the beloved Elmo himself carrying poison. If this were a regional market, rather than an international market, repetitive quality problems from the largest manufacturer would quickly open a window for a smaller, higher-cost, "trusted supplier." That door may open on the international stage also. Remember when "Made in Japan" was turnoff to Americans? It later became a signal of quality and manufacturing prowess. Innovative, modern Chinese factories are joining small-time operations, adding capital to low labor costs. In doing do, they should establish new standards among Chinese exports for quality and dependability. Importantly, this should be true even if they don't set a lower standard for cost since the labor cost they are replacing is already low. And it looked like that's the way the story would play out. In 2005 and 2006, China seemed on the brink of turning the manufacturing-reputation corner from the standpoint of American consumer perception. Virtually all expected China to win the global manufacturing battle and, given the low prices and satisfactory quality, few were concerned (except those whose manufacturing jobs disappeared). Yet over the last 6+ months, seemingly biweekly reports on dangers lurking in toys, ramen, pet food, toothpaste, etc. has got to have some of the largest distributors hedging their supplier bets. China isn't going to stop making things, but if the manufacturers or the export regulators don't get their act together, it certainly isn't going to make everything.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mostly Useless Story about Audiobook Narration

Unlike paper books, audiobooks have "the narrator question." A friend recently told me he was head-over-heels about Moby Dick. Yes, that Moby Dick. He never read it back in the day (neither had I) and was amazed at how fantastic it is (long passages on the best way to strip off whale blubber notwithstanding). He took the time to burn me a copy of the book (yes, a legal copy--that's not the point. Stay with me here.) It's 20 CDs! And I want it for a vacation going "out to sea" tomorrow (Ok, it's a cruise, but there will be lots of water). And it was going to take 350 hours to get the files off the CDs. But he'd done so much work.

And I had this credit at Audible see? And the stack of CDs was really big. And files were small and disconnected. And they came into iTunes with funny names. And to tell the truth, I get my media electronically, so at first I forgot how to get the files off at all. I researched file conversion and downloaded an application just for getting the files off. Then I realized I could just use iTunes and didn't need that app at all. But we're leaving tomorrow and I need Moby Dick on my iPod for listening at sea. And, ok, out with it, I used my credit at Audible and bought a copy and didn't use the CDs he worked so very hard to create. It all took 3 minutes over a cable modem, rather than, well, 350 hours. I know. I'm evil. But there. I've said it.

So that is just part of the story (not that it was much of a story). There are TWO Moby Dicks at Audible. For any sane person, the choice is easy because one (call it A) is less than half the price, since the other (call it B) requires you buy the two parts separately and each part costs more than the whole A version. But if I'm going to spend weeks listening to some guy whisper in my ear, I'm going to wonder about the options. So I read the reviews. Of the reviews that mention the narrator, they totally trash A's narrator: "effete," "affected," "annoying," etc. While B's narrator (the expensive guy) is "a real man" who "brings out the humor," etc. Hmm. So the first question is: to whom did my head-of-heels friend listen? Answer: Mr. Whiny. So I listened to both Mr. Whiny and Mr. He-Man. Both had samples on Audible and I could, of course, hear lots of samples from the disks I'd received (Page with samples: Mr. Whiny, Mr. He-Man). Very different. And at least on first listen, you could see how a reviewer might use some of the terms above. My initial preference was Mr. He-Man. (Notice that I've dropped the A/B designations for something I'm suddenly finding more colorful.) I had my wife listen. She immediately keyed into something different: Mr. He-Man sounds like he's doing a high school play. Really into it. Giving it his all...when a little less would be better. Yes, Mr. Whiny was, well, a little whiny. But his "performance" was less distracting. We weren't sure. There was the money thing, but that was mitigated by the fact that a credit at Audible is a credit. That is, even though Mr. He-Man was in 2 parts, either of which cost more than Mr. Whiny, since I was going to use a credit, the only difference was the cost of the second part. (That's very unclear, but suffice to say, the money difference didn't matter much.) In the end, Mr. Whiny's straight-forward narration combined with the fact that my friend was head-over-heels on the book and had listened to Mr. Whiny made him the winner.

So we now both go to sea with the White Whale on our Nanos.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hamlet as I Never Imagined

At the beginning of the This American Life edition called Act V, we're told we may learn more about Hamlet than we ever knew by hearing about a production put on by prison inmates. It's actually quite easy to teach me more about Hamlet than I knew before, so the bar wasn't very high. This show, however, cleared the bar the way a 777 clears a farmhouse. Inmates, whom we hear late in the show are in prison for some pretty gnarly crimes, talk about the play with the sort of insight I only wish some previous professor could express. In fact, I'd say that the discussion from the inmates was so poignant, it made me think about how my view of many other Shakespearean plays would be improved by experiencing them with such competent commentary. Amazing stuff...and worth a whole lot more than the 66 cents it cost me on Audible.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Will China Success Crush Their Economic Revolution?

Is China going to fail under the weight of its own success? I'm an ardent supporter of embracing Chinese economic revolution. I challenge clients without an Indian or Chinese outsourcing strategy. Intellectually, I truly believe in the economics of comparative advantage and that open trade raises overall standards of living--for both trading partners. (It doesn't necessarily raise the standard of living for each person, of course, but that's another topic.)

Lately, however, Chinese domination of the world economy is starting to smell a little like the Japanese domination of world economy forecast in the 80s and 90s. Sure, all the ducks are in a row for continuing wild growth: number of workers, number of super-skilled innovators, business-friendly economic policies (nearly free s/w and technical infrastructure anyone?), and lots more. Just pick up China, Inc. (audio, print) for a fascinating walk through the Chinese domination park. But there are those nagging issues: not enough food, environmental travesties, tainted export products, urban poor with barely enough to live...and rural poor with less.

It's a race: can China succeed so greatly that it can buy its way out of the crises? Or will the crises sink the country before success is sufficient?

You have to question some of the tainted pet food, human food, toothpaste, etc. stories as exaggerated by those with an agenda. But the issue is real. And in this case, international business is like local business: you can't be my favored vendor if I can't trust your products. Yes, you'll still get some of my business by being cheap (Doesn't everyone have some Wal-mart stuff around somewhere?), but you can't rise to the level of market domination without the trust of your customers. And if you repress and poison your staff, there's going to be some consequences. It's a race.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Personification as Religion

I heard a very cool lecture about play called Phaedo written by Plato about his hero, Socrates. Yeah, I know. There’s no way that a play by Plato can be just fun, right? And the star is Socrates, so that seems a double whammy. But it was only one lecture and I figured I could zone out during a workout and just listen to it again later. It turned out to be a great story. Socrates is the star. He's about to be killed for annoying the politicians and he has a couple of groupies hanging out with him. They can't figure out why he's so happy. So he tells them. And along the way builds a story about being completely sure that good and evil are linked to some sort of consequences in the afterlife. The story is simultaneously fantastic as pure relaxing entertainment and, yes, thought-provoking--even if you're trying to avoid thinking and just focus on the story.
Anyway, Socrates is sure that there must be consequences for whether you pick good or evil while you're alive. It dawned on me that if you lived in Socrates' time and believed him...and if you wanted to "market" that idea to the masses, you'd be far more successful if found a way to personify that good/evil/consequences thing. (Certainly more successful than Socrates who was put to death for his trouble.) This had an obvious link to some earlier thoughts about personification of the Republican and Democratic parties. To personify good and evil, you might want someone to be behind the scenes matching actions to consequences. And this is, after all, pretty much the definition of God's job in most faiths (well, after you get past creation of the universe, stars, planets, plants, animals, mankind, etc.). Unless you want God to be simultaneously good and evil, you might also want a Satan, but there could be a lot of disagreement on his role. As abstract a concept as God is, it would certainly be dramatically more concrete than just "good and evil." That might work for a few thousand years. But you know humans. They eventually get jaded, so as a good marketer you need to make the concept more concrete again. You'd want to bring the authority figure down to earth, figuratively and perhaps literally. So you need Jesus. At least initially appearing human, but by all accounts, pretty stand-offish. So you know where this going, right? Over time, you need to get more concrete. Hey, instead of an esoteric son of a carpenter, how about building on a trader, business person…even a military leader? Like, say, Mohammed? This is a crude storyline based on only one dimension of persuasion. And I certainly don't know the true role in the universe of these influential entities/deities. But it's staggering to me that at even such a superficial level you can derive the origins of Christianity and Islam from the simple words of an old, dead Greek guy and one good marketing rule of thumb.

All in all, if you agree that it's compelling to personify the idea you want people to accept--and there's plenty of modern proof this is true--it's a short hop to use Socrates' ideas of good and evil to derive the need for a more concrete being with which to identify good, that is, God…and then Jesus…and then Mohammed…and others who in recent centuries have tried to put themselves in that pantheon. It's like all of religion since the Greeks can be interpreted as marketing for Socrates' view of absolute good and absolute evil. This is a lecture…and story…not to be missed. I'm going to get off religion as a topic soon, but it's obviously a pretty fertile area for pondering.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Get a Book, Start a Church

As mentioned last entry, I recently enjoyed Rufus Fears' take on Dante’s Divine Comedy. I noted the Divine Comedy finally brought logic and a realistic motivational approach to the concept of being "Saved" by believing in Jesus. I also promised the that book could offer you a new career as the head of your own evangelical church…using the Divine Comedy can be your (only) sermon source. This entry dives into that….

First things first: I'm not advocating a non-believer put themselves in a position of power over believers. Got it? You could. And Dante wrote the songbook. But it's a bad idea on so many levels. Not the least of which is that if you're a non-believer and you're wrong, yowsa, is there a wild and nasty special level of hell for you! Come on...starting a church for your own benefit using Dante's masterpiece for your sermons? What are you thinking? I mean, if Dante is right about the afterlife, you don't even want to imagine how many of your organs will get gorged on daily by large birds and ugly beasts! I'm not saying that will happen. I'm just's a bad idea. One other thing, as far as I know, there is no single evangelistic tradition that actually holds Dante's work as an accurate guidebook on the afterlife or the rules around ending up, well, where you'd prefer to end up. But it's also true that modern evangelical tradition does not require adherence to any particular form of gospel. So again, I'm not promising redemption, just stellar marketing.

Ok, so we've already covered the basics: Dante tours hell and then goes back up through Purgatory with a glimpse of the levels of Heaven. He hangs out the residents along the way and hears their stories. The rules of getting to heaven are clear: live a life without accepting Jesus and you go to hell for eternity. It might be the bad part of town or it might be the really bad part of town. Either way, you're there forever. Or accept Jesus and you end up in Purgatory and it might also be extremely unpleasant and you might be there a very long time. But you'll have a friend on the other side and someday, someday, you'll check your mailbox--filled for a thousand thousand days with the most useless of junk mail, and you see a glowing ticket to that final, highly coveted field trip to heaven.

The rules are crystal clear and the story is detailed…and has it all. Death (obviously), intrigue, murder, lechery, sex, last-minute changes of heart, wild animals, redemption, hope, hopelessness, bad things happening to bad guys, good things happening to good guys, and a happy ending for the hero. And everything, everything in this killer story is tied to one single theme: accept Jesus and things will be OK. That's it. You've got a rich story with staggering discipline about thematic purity. And it's not just a good story. It's one of the great stories of human civilization.

The point? If you can tell the Divine Comedy in a convincing fashion, you can start a church. It’s that simple.

Success requires knowing the story, managing your delivery, building suspense—all the stuff a good storyteller needs. But the story is done. You could deliver one fiftieth of the story as your sermon every week, take 2 weeks off, and start over in January. And that's your church. Yes, it will take practice and a little talent. In the second year, maybe you start vamping a bit and adding your own color. But if you're a purist, you don't even have to. Believers in the Jewish tradition read the Torah cover to cover (hmm…do scrolls have covers?) and start again each year. You could too. Yes of course, there are business issues to worry about: where to hold services, marketing the availability of your ministry, finding larger spaces as your congregation grows, payroll for staff, etc. But the core is waiting for you for just $15 ($10 for paperback, less if you're OK with "used").

And speaking of the business issues, the marketing lessons are also incredible: personify the challenge as well as the goal, appeal to fear and to desire, contrast long-term value and short-term value, and fundamentally ask “what’s in it for me (to follow these scripture-based laws you keep telling me about)?”

And keep in mind, you have more than a good story--you offer hope. And (I'm sorry, this may sound like the voice of a skeptic, but that's not the intention)…no one will know whether your sermons are correct in time to tell your current or future customers, er, congregants. This could be a very good career.

I'm not pretending this will be easy. How many career changes are easy? But the Devine Comedy is an awesome product (the rules) wrapped in amazing marketing (the story). The story can be told briefly or in deep, gory detail. It has pain, drama, justice, fear, redemption—heck, a one-hour primetime show would get great ratings. And the story does get great ratings! But less on TV than in congregations all over the country. Yes, yes…you have to work weekends….

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Divine Comedy of Being Saved

I recently enjoyed Rufus Fears' take on Dante’s Divine Comedy (paper, audio). I knew of the book and its descriptions of the levels of hell, but I'd never read it. Two things jumped out at me like a ton of bricks (yeah, I know, bricks can’t jump, but I live with a 4 year old, so they can do most anything): first, the concept around being "Saved" by believing in Jesus finally makes sense at a logical level. And it is both as profound in its implications and also nowhere near as all-forgiving as non-believers understand it to be. I'm not saying you should run out and be Saved. I'm just saying the concept as it is typically portrayed seems odd to those outside the culture and it is actually grounded in logical, motivational imagery. Second, if you want to start an evangelical church, the Divine Comedy can be your (only) sermon source. This entry is about the first of those….

As you may know, the book flows through Dante getting to tour hell with the poet Virgil as a tour guide. He goes down and down through the famous and increasingly nasty layers of hell…and then starts going back up. On the way up, he sees Purgatory, a separate place for people not ready for heaven because of things they did in life, but in a holding pattern until they get their ticket punched. If I’m getting it all correct, the key is that the levels of hell are for eternity. That’s it. You’re done. Maybe you have a REALLY bad location where animals eat your liver all day and maybe your level is just having to eat greasy chicken strips and okra every meal. Either way, get used to it. But Purgatory is temporary. It’s no picnic either and you may be there a long time, but hey, a long time is nothing compared to eternity. And once you leave Purgatory, you get promoted into heaven where all is lightness and brightness and you hang out with (and maybe even become part of) the top guy (uh, I mean Top Guy). And how do you get to Purgatory instead of hell? Through Jesus. Why do I find this so fascinating? Well for hmm, what term to use? Well, for typical "non-believers," one of the problems with the whole finding Jesus and being “Saved” business seems to be, “What a deal! You’re a jerk your whole life and you accept Jesus on your death bed and you go to heaven. What’s up with that? It’s so irrational that it can’t make sense. No omniscient being would make up rules like that. So either the Deity (in the form being described) is a fiction or those who claim to speak for the Deity are mistaken.” Well what a surprise, the rules are a little more rational…in fact, a lot more rational. Do bad things and you get punished. No matter what. Either way. But if you accept Jesus, you’ve got a friend in the diamond business. You’ve got someone willing to stick up for you and say, “Come on Dad…er, God…sure, this person did some nasty things, but his heart is in the right place, so let’s put him through the ringer for a few millennia and then let him into the party.” And God says “OK son, that seems fair. But make sure people down there know that those millennia aren’t going to be fun!” These are rules that make sense! If people knew and believed these rules, then some would try to be good all the time and some wouldn’t, but all would realize that Christ conversion and acceptance will help in the final resolution. Earlier is better (in fact, there’s a special--NOT particularly sunny--spot in Purgatory for those last-minute, just-in-case converts), but joining the team at any time gets you a friend on the other side. It’s a much more compelling story. Which leads to the second much more practical point. A point that could give you a new career anytime you want. But that's the next entry. I just need a few days….

Thursday, March 08, 2007

When Support Goes from Amazing

Ah, good. Something to get my mind off religion and politics for a few day. We have a product called an "Instant Hot" made by InSinkErator. If you haven't used one, they're simply another faucet on your kitchen sink, usually fed through a water filter, providing nearly boiling water out of the tap. Ours (pictured) has hot and cold faucets. They work by having a small hot water heater under the sink. When you pull the hot water tap, water runs into the tank which displaces hot water through the faucet. Well, InSinkErator seems to have the lion's market share. They sell tons of other appliances too.

Anyway, the tank went out after ~3 years. In a bad way. the only obvious sign was that the water didn't seem as hot. The bad thing was that when you ran hot water, you also drained water under the sink where you might not notice it. Not good. Apparently ALL the tanks go out after 1-4 years of regular use. Also not good.

So they improved the design a year or two ago. Good enough that they increased the warranty from 1 year to 5 years. I called them to clarify whether we needed a new tank or the whole deal (tank, faucet, filter). The support person confirmed that we only had a one year warranty. He asked my serial number (easily visible on the tank front) and confirmed that I only needed a new tank, about $300 or so. That was good news.

Then he said something amazing: "We're sorry for the hassle and we'd like to give you a new tank. Would you like me to send you one at no cost?" Ok, you can read all the self-interest into this that you want. "Oh no" you say. "They knew it was defective" you say. "They didn't want to get sued" you say. Whatever. They sold bazillions of this design for half a decade or more. They didn't have to do anything. Three years wasn't a good lifetime, but it wasn't an crazy unreasonable one either. We would have bought a new one. As a market leader, they didn't have to do anything other than offer clear instructions and guidance from customer service. But they went far beyond that. This creates a halo effect of goodwill that will give an extra glow to their whole product line in my eyes.

Pretty impressive.

There are only a handful of companies that have impressed me this way. One other is Belkin, with their lifetime hardware warranty (which I've had to take advantage of). A friend tells me North Face once restuffed a 15 year old down coat sent to them to fix a ripped pocket. Email me or leave a comment if you've had companies that have amazed you with customer service.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Hip Hop as a Reflection

I heard two wonderful lines about Hip Hop:

Hip-hop is violent, misogynistic, homophobic and materialistic...and it reflects a county that is violent, homophobic, misogynistic, and materialistic.
And a line described as a paraphrase from Ice-T:
“Hip-hop is really funny. But if you don't see the humor, it will scare the hell out of you.”
It was on a panel headlined by Byron Hurt, filmmaker of Beyond Beats and Rhymes. You can listen to it here.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Marketing within the Evangelical Tradition

I'll dip into the topic of religion as great marketing with a reference to an incredible view of marketing within the evangelical tradition in this Business Week article, Earthly Empires: How evangelical churches are borrowing from the business playbook. Believers and non-believers have to stand in awe of the success of the so-called "megachurches" at achieving their mission. The article asserts,

"Their runaway success is modeled unabashedly on business. They borrow tools ranging from niche marketing to MBA hiring to lift their share of U.S. churchgoers."
Even if Business Week has a particular slant, direct comments from Church leaders carry a similar tale. Thinking about market segmentation, Martin King, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists' North American Mission Board remarks,
"We have cowboy churches for people working on ranches, country music churches, even several motorcycle churches aimed at bikers."
And Pastor Joel Osteen, whose Lakewood Church is buying a former NBA arena to create a 16,000-person high-tech church, says,
"Other churches have not kept up, and they lose people by not changing with the times."
And what about the "product?" In a world of stress, pressure, and timelines layered with companies trying to deliver services to ease customers' busy lives, how can it not be inspiring to read about a customer, er, congregant saying,
"When I walk out of a [Lakewood Church] service, I feel completely relieved of any stress I walked in with."

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Personifying Families as a Political Tool

I've been wondering about personifying as a marketing technique. U.S. politics is a straight-forward example: personifying the Republican/conservative family ideal is so much more concrete than personifying the Democratic/liberal family ideal. Close your eyes and imagine the Republican family ideal. Do it. No one will see you. The Republican ideal has a specific family structure, clear roles, traditional genders, coherent values. And Republicans need to connect their leadership to delivering that image. They implication is: "If the image is attractive, give us your vote!" No, that doesn't mean the Republican "tent" isn't big enough to include other sorts of families. Republicans have various non-Caucasian wings, gay and lesbian wings, etc. But the core imagery is consistent. These various wings say, essentially, "I realize my party doesn't portray me as a traditional member, but I am drawn to the broader ideals." That is, "I am a Republican despite my idiosyncrasies, not because of them."

I remember being amused to hear that if you give 6 - 8 year-old American children a crayon and ask them to draw a home, the vast majority draw the same thing: a square with a triangle on top. A door and a window or two. A chimney. You know it in your mind's eye. The amusing part was that this image is even consistent among children living in dense, urban, multi-family dwellings--children who have never seen that archetypical detached, single-family house outside of a book or picture. And who do they--and you--"see" living in this house? Is it a father, a mother, a kid or two, maybe a pet? The concreteness is staggering. And if this is not your view or your family, I've got a hunch you don't see anything WRONG with that image. And that's the power. I believe that humans tend to embrace a general ideal and dismiss or accept some amount of conflict. Up to a breaking point of fundamental difference, a positive image is worth supporting. Is the father working...or out of work? Are the children adopted? Is the mother a VP...or a stay-at-home mom? For most, these aren't deal-breaker conflicts with the Republican ideal. They will say, "No problem, give me a reality anywhere close to that image, and you can have my vote." But variation from that core image is, of course, a spectrum. What happens when the parents switch breadwinner roles? Does the image lose a few advocates? Maybe. OK, what happens when both parents can be the same sex? Do we lose a few more? What happens when each parent can maintain a second family to support their emotional or financial needs? Wait. We just lost 22 states. Where's the line? To a large extent, I believe that understanding this spectrum is core to driving success in American politics.

Close your eyes again. What's the Democratic family imagery? Do you get as concrete a picture? No chance. The Democratic "ideal" includes families with dramatically different forms: varied gender roles and mixes, varied physical home styles, varied interpersonal relationships among parents and children, varied racial mixes, varied value structures. In a word, variety. "That's the strength," say Democrats. And perhaps so. But the marketing challenge--where "marketing" means "influencing behavior" to vote Democratic--is far, far more difficult.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Politics as Marketing

I already noted that I believe blogging about religion is a terrible idea, but I'll be doing some of it anyway. Blogging about politics (at least in a non-political blog) is similarly terrible. And again, it almost guarantees that replies will be flames over conversations. I figured I'd never do it. I was wrong. Because, like religion, politics is about influencing behavior. At least in societies that are--or keep up a credible facade of being--democratic, politics is about influencing citizens to support your leadership. And once again, that behavior influence is the definition of (outbound) marketing. The stakes are high. And in many cases, the practitioners are brilliant. So I can't help but wonder about the techniques political practitioners use. For what it's worth, political bloggers are--and probably should be--open about their affiliation. I'm not a political blogger and so my affiliation doesn't matter. For the record, I vote somewhat, but not 100%, consistently. If you read between the lines, you might decide you know where my sympathies lie. But I contend that reading anything I write in that light would be a waste of your time. I hope that observations on various political techniques aren't a waste of your time. But they may be. We'll see....

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Religion as (Great) marketing

Blogging about religion is a terrible idea. A terrible idea. At best, no one will care. At worst, I'll be dealing with flames instead of reasonable replies. Before I go any further, here's the obvious part: I have no idea whether one religion is correct or even whether any of them are correct. Personally, I'm a strong believer in some sense, but those of many faiths would question my devotion. For the topics I'll consider, that doesn't matter. I have trouble believing that any--from congregants to religious leaders to atheists, from the faithful of Christianity to Islam to Judaism to Zoroastrianism--would argue with the assertion that one of the foundations of religion is to influence behavior. Even the Universal Life Church, a self-described "non-denominational" institution that offers ordainment to anyone over the web and is vehemently open-minded about behavior, has the tenet: "Do only that which is right." So here's my problem. "Influencing behavior" is the definition of marketing. And I admire great marketing. (OK, to be strictly accurate, I'd say "Influencing behavior" is the definition of outbound marketing. Inbound marketing is about creating the right product or service. I'm going to avoid this aspect because if you extend the metaphor, you get into decisions about the defining the right religion and, well, that would be even more foolish of me to discuss.) Anyway, I've been doing some wondering about religion as marketing. I mean no disrespect and, for example, I don't capitalize "marketing" because I don't mean it as a business department or a self-serving function. I mean it simply as a phrase to imply a core of religion: behavior influence. More on this to come...

Sunday, February 04, 2007 Save Time, Reduce Annoyance

One of my recent secret weapons is you call, leave yourself a message, and they convert the message text and email it to you with a link to the sound file. It's free (for now) and a wonderful time and/or drudgery saver for anyone on the move. As is obvious from previous posts, my in-depth focus on many topics comes from audiobooks, lectures, and podcasts. And the only time I have for these is outdoor workout time. So out on a trail somewhere, I end up having many of the ideas I'd like to use, explore...or just store away to fool around with later. And for 80+%, not only wouldn't I follow up without capturing the idea in the moment, but in truth, I may not even remember considering it. Before Jott, I used the voice recorder on my phone, but just the small step of transcribing put that somewhere between unattractive and annoying.

To me, Jott does several things right:

  • The offering is simple and responds to a need some find least some of the time: call, leave a message, hang-up, and receive your message in text
  • Visual design is simple and friendly, but not amateurish
  • Sign-up is well done—not just easy, but well thought-out and “application-like” with tips about why certain personal info is needed.

Perhaps most importantly, they’ve thought through where to apply technology and where today’s economy lets them apply people. Apparently, initial transcription is by machine (with voice recognition using service-side server power rather than lower desktop power). Some number of messages are then redone or reviewed by “clean room” human transcribers.
I've frequently gotten an email with one transcription only to receive an email a bit later with a more accurate one.

If you read the "Why You Should Blog" post I link to below and decide to blog, I also suspect you will find an invaluable tool.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Musemotes: Songs as Musiceutical "Units"

I get a lot of encouraging emails about Musiceuticals as a way to sort or buy music. I've also gotten a few comments that the name is a mouthful--not for the category, but to use everyday, especially when you are just saying you want one! Since the "unit" of Musiceuticals is the song or sound, not the artist or genre, it needs a simple, smaller word for that unit. The answer I have so far is "Musemotes" (myoos-ee-motes) with the obvious link to emoticons. Like emoticons, Musemotes(tm) are smallish things that stand for something much larger. In this case, audio with the power to drive or maintain an emotion or mental state. My song collection might have 800 songs, of which 50 are Musemotes that drive enthusiasm or energy, 30 are Musemotes inspiring thought or contemplation, and 10 are there when I want to savor a melancholy afternoon. If I pay a buck a song today, I suspect I'd almost double that for a bonafide Musemote....

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Does Reptillian Always Win? WIIFM?

I considered commenting on Frank Luntz's interview on NPR regarding his book Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. I checked around for reactions and enough has been said, so I won't add. However, in my search, I found a quote far more compelling. On the Rockridge Nation site, a post from Think4Myself noted:

Another masterful marketer from France, Clotaire Rapaille, is quite unapologetic and enlightening. ... He says, "I don't care what you're going to tell me intellectually. I don't care. Give me the reptilian. Why? Because the reptilian always wins."

The reference, of course, is to the so-called "reptillian brain," the ancient part of our brains driving such reflexes such as fight-or-flight and a desire for comfort or gratification. When helping people with compelling communications, we often ask them to focus on the question (OK, more cliche than question) "What's in it for me?" or WIIFM. It's easy to see WIIFM--a standard "tool" of business--as a fussy translation of "Give your audience the reptilian because the reptilian always wins."

Over the years, I've become convinced that subtlety in communications--whether design/graphic communications, presentations, or even conversation--rarely expresses desired points. I hated that realization, but what I want is irrelevant. That's not to say that people don't pick up on subtle clues, just that you will probably fail if you plan and want to communicate something and do it with subtlety. Few will pick up that "those two pics are related because they are the only black & white images on the slide" or "our company name means value and honesty in Chinese." What seems obvious to you is just not worth thinking about to anyone else.

Of course, there are exceptions, typically based on your role. If you are your country's President/Prime Minister or the head of a central bank you words will be dissected. But you're not, are you?

Anyway, this is part of the same issue. The reptillian brain isn't tuned for subtlety, just as the weight lifter isn't built for needlepoint. WIIFM. It won't let you down.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

China Getting Old Before Getting Rich

Following up from my last post on low Chinese labor cost observations, the Mercury Center (website for the San Jose Mercury News) has an article "China's Getting Old Before It Becomes Rich." It's an obvious story once you think about it, but has not been covered much. The gist: China's one-child policy reduces young people while better healthcare and nutrition increase the elderly. It's the U.S. social security crisis on steroids. In one estimate, the number of people over 60 will be larger than the entire U.S. in several decades. The crisis part? China is still a developing country even as it becomes an industrial powerhouse. So the challenge of feeding this number of seniors may be a nightmare. The one-child policy has been going since the late 70s, which would put those unborn kids in their 30s now--prime production years. And the move to capitalist ideals, including rural kids moving to cities to find fortune runs headlong into ideals about honoring and providing for one's elders. Yikes.

At the risk of an overly ridiculous analogy (I'll take ridiculous, but not overly ridiculous), this brings back memories of the era when Japan, Inc. was going to crush the U.S. And along the way, the geopolitical shift was derailed by Japan's banking system, real estate bubble, and more. I'm not dismissing in the slightest the massive impact I expect from the exploding Chinese industrial might, but just noting that a few twists may happen on the way to the party (or should I say "Party").

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why You Should Write Blogs--Not by me

In my shortest entry, I encourage you to read a long one: Steve Yegge's "Why You Should Write Blogs." It's a fun read and I came across it after I'd been messing with blogging for 5+ months and figured I'd gotten a sense of it...and could just stop. But after reading Yegge's comments, maybe I'll keep it up for a little while longer....

How is the World Different with (Near) Zero Labor Cost?

A while back, I spent several weeks traveling through China. I came away with one staggering observation--or perhaps I should say question: "How is the world different with (near) zero labor cost?" Westerners hear constantly about the current and future impact of low labor costs in China...and elsewhere. But I found seeing it myself showed a more extreme magnitude than even the media expresses. Imagine driving out of town on a good road that, after 2 hours, turns into a poor road. At the transition sit three men on white, plastic chairs (the sort you might buy for $3 at Target or Walmart). Each has a 3'-long chisel and a hammer. And each is using these hand tools to break up the old road. From the looks of their progress, the three might move a couple of feet per hour. A single front loader could move that distance in 45 seconds. And it's not like China has no front loaders. Needless to say, the equipment to create that Yang Tze dam is massive and plentiful. Using people and hand tools just makes more sense. And that's a terrible example because the "world isn't different." It's just the same old task, but with people instead of machines. OK, here's a better one: a very old traditional building had been painted a bazillion times over the centuries. Apparently the layer of paint four or five layers down was the one they really wanted. So rather than repainting the building that color or stripping the paint off and starting again, an army of people with tiny hammers and tiny chisels was tapping away at the top layers of paint to remove them and leave a particular layer of paint. Again tracking the progress, I'd estimate each person finished 1 square foot every 30+ minutes. A generous soul tells me this is typical of these sorts of preservation projects....but it is staggering to see. And I don't expect to see it done the same way with any preservation projects in Chicago. To trade my anecdotal stories for those of someone with far more focus and time on the subject, I highly recommend "China, Inc." by Ted Fishman (paper, audio)--fascinating and great fun.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Evangelicals Going Green Revisited

In a December post, I noted interest at hearing a claim of growing support among religious leaders, in particular Evangelicals, for fighting global warming. The Associated Press put out an article on the subject, mostly confirming it, but with a requisite denial also. Definitely a changing landscape. Here's the article via the San Jose Mercury News' site (the maroon bold highlight is mine...I just find that quote very intense):

Evangelicals, scientists unite on climate


By John Heilprin, Associated Press

Saying they share a moral purpose, a group of evangelicals and scientists said Wednesday that they will work together to convince the nation's leaders that global warming is real.

The Rev. Rich Cizik, public policy director for the National Association of Evangelicals, and Nobel-laureate Eric Chivian, director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, were among 28 signers of a statement that demands urgent changes in values, lifestyles and public policies to avert disastrous changes in climate.

``God will judge us for destroying the creation. Therefore, we as evangelicals have a responsibility to be even more vigilant than others,'' Cizik told a news conference.

``Science can be an ally in helping us understand what faith is telling us,'' he said. ``We will not allow the creation to be degraded, destroyed by human folly.'' >> more

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Lies, Damn Lies, and...well, you know

A while back, I mentioned Steven Levitt's Freakonomics, including some of his more interesting assertions (poor economics of selling drugs, parenting techniques that matter, etc.) One of his most controversial points is that the real cause of the drop in crime in the 90s was Roe v. Wade. His story is in-depth, of course, but the gist is that unwanted children have the highest risk of a life of crime. He looks at a wide range of data throughout the U.S. to prove this effect is real. In fact, he asserts that it is far more important to the drop in crime than traditional views, including more cops on the street, "innovative" policing tactics, changes in drug use patterns, and others.

Enter Franklin Zimring, author of The Decline of American Crime. To be clear, I have not read this book, I only listened to an interview on public radio's Forum with Michael Krasny. So this entry isn't about the's about how even reasonable, academic, smart, diligent people can come up with such different views. Zimring looks specifically at the Roe v. Wade assertion and finds it wanting. In a gentle way, he even accuses Levitt of one of the greatest sins for an academic: confusing correlation with causality. Yes, Zimring says, the timing is right to believe that reducing unwanted children would cut the crime rate, but the U.S. isn't the only story. He decided to check for the same effect outside the U.S.--and didn't see it. Then he makes a variety of other contrasting claims: hospital admittances for drugs actually went up in this period, birth rates for young, unwed mothers went up, etc. Zimring says there is some modest effect, but explicitly says it is not even close to the most important.

I sure don't know the answer and I guess I could write this off with the positive view that "I'm confused at a higher level." But it is less than satisfying....

Monday, January 15, 2007

What Matters--the Expected or Unexpected?

I encourage you to read Cognomad's comment to my "On Intelligence II" post below (as well as checking out his blog). I was about to just respond to the comment, but the thing that caught my eye seemed a new entry: First--to Cognomad--enjoyed your blog...thanks for coming by and commenting. Cognomad seems to have far more physiological background in this stuff than I do, so I'll stay at the model level. If we accept any flavor of the "escalation" approach of Hawkins, that new perceptions get "noticed" or "passed upwpard" in the brain based on something about the perceptions, it's a pretty fundamental question whether the brain "notices" and "passes upward" the expected or the unexpected. Hawkins asserts the unexpected, while Cognomad asserts the expected. It's a tough question because seeing the difference physiologically is way beyond us for now (hmm, a neural packet sniffer?) AND I suspect it has the sort of Ptolemaic/Copernican thing is going on. Remember in high school science learning that Ptolomy said the earth is the center of the universe and Copernicus said we went around the Sun? I remember being interested at the time that the Ptolemaic model --with a few tweaks--was apparently working just fine helping ships navigate. So the question was still important, but on a practical basis, it didn't matter. For a while at least, I bet the same thing is true here: a good model (i.e. one that is pretty good at predicting outcomes) might be possible assuming either expected or unexpected things get escalated in the brain.

Anyway...I'm still on the Hawkins side that "unexpected stuff gets passed upward." My current pondering is whether the underlying algorithm might be something like a default binary test of "This doesn't matter." Then, when a perception breaks that default (i.e. it does matter because it's not only different, but different in a way that seems important), it gets passed upward. Arguably, this just begs the bigger question of how "importance" is measured. But at least it gets me going thinking about it....

Cognomad makes a case in his/her comment that escalating the unexpected would get bogged down by random noise. But given the length of connections between neurons, I'm not sure this causes the implied problem. That is, it seems plausible that direct connections between neurons at different levels could--once the escalation is established--bypass lots of levels to support the speed of thought. But that's just guessing. And although this is another topic (sorry), I also wonder whether this same mechanism might deal with Cognomad's comment about "deep" hierarchies being slower. If anything, this seems to be exactly what Gladwell, in Blink, called the benefit of expertise: lots of connections offering a deeply textured understanding of a topic allow extremely fast, accurate conclusions.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Infrared (IR) Thermometer: This Season's Hot Toy

An Infrared (IR) thermometer--sometimes called a touchless or non-contact thermometer--is an amazing tool. It looks like a toy gun and when you pull the trigger, it takes the temperature of whatever it is pointed at. Often they have an integrated laser pointer to help you point at things further away. The laser is only useful in certain use modes, but it makes the toy more fun. I first saw one on a Food Channel cooking show. One of the hosts (probably Alton Brown on Good Eats, but it's been a while) casually used it to check the temperature of a pan before adding ingredients. My wife and I immediately looked at each other, saying "What is that?" Followed by "We need one." A little research told me it was a common device and key professional tool of food inspectors (Is that chicken salad in the "death zone" of 40-140 degrees Fahrenheit?) In theory, it gets the same temperature whether it's 10 inches from the target or 10 feet, but theory being what it is, that isn't actually true. The temperature dissipates by a few degrees (as if that ever really matters).

The key variables are: range of temperature (e.g. up to 400º or up to 600º), accuracy (typically 2º or 2%, whichever is greater), and focus precision (e.g. 8:1 means at 8" distance the field of measurement is 1" wide). As a toy, you want the answers to be "higher temp," "more accurate," and "smaller field."

I find myself using this all this time. I actually do keep it near the range: I want stir fry oil to at least 440º but not over 500º, I want pancake pans at 350º, etc. But it is also a source of endless amusement. The dog? The kid? The TV? The outside lid of a boiling pot? How's the freezer doing? When the oven says 350º, is that the side or the top? Why is their so #$*@% much temperature variation on the surface of the BBQ? This room is freezing, what's the temperature of various surfaces? (I could go on, but I'd just embarrass myself.)

Search for a new one on eBay to save 50%+. For 20 or 30 bucks, you'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Cisco v Apple: A Fascinating Legal Doc?!

Who would have thought that my one "news" story below would result in another comment on a recent event, but I honestly recommend you read the original legal complaint filed by Cisco against Apple over the iPhone name. The link is below, with thanks to ZDNet. The beginning looks like another dull formulaic legal document, but read on about the way Cisco makes its case. Fascinating....

Cisco v Apple Trademark Infringement, Unfair Competition Complaint by ZDNet's Dan Farber -- Following is the complaint filed by Cisco over Apple's use of the iPhone name: COMPLAINT FOR TRADEMARK INFRINGEMENT, UNFAIR COMPETITION, FALSE DESCRIPTION, AND INJURY TO BUSINESS REPUTATION; CASE NO.[...]

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

On Intelligence II: Does Hierarchy Shape Matter?

In my first entry on Jeff Hawkins' On Intelligence, I said it became a filter for an unbelievable number of the things I notice and wonder about...and yet I haven’t added new entries about it. Truth is, it's mostly because I fear it may seem so bizarre to use a single set of ideas as a filter for so many things, that you'll find my selection of blog topics even more oddly random than you already do. But it's time. To kick it off, I'll briefly mention step 1: The Hawkins Memory-Prediction model of the brain focuses on hierarchy. Ignoring the details, parts of your brain get information (typically from the senses) and if it matches what they expect, they do nothing. If it doesn't, they pass the information up the hierarchy. It's sort of like an entry-level worker escalating a new problem to his or her boss. And like the CEO (which, in a sense, you are), you don't have time or mental cycles to stay on top of what's happening at the low levels in the hierarchy, so you generally keep track of what's being passed up the chain. You could say, "Your brain--and therefore, you--only notice something if it differs from expectation." Simple, elegant, and able to explain many of our perceptions.

OK, step 2. The more accurate the predictions are at the lower levels of the hierarchy, the less they have to pass upward. How do the predictions get more accurate? By experiencing information more often, predicting something, and checking results. Practice makes perfect. They get "smarter." Suffice to say this works identically for observing something--as in knowing immediately whether a dirty, brown rock is a clump of dirt, a piece of quartz, or a diamond OR for doing something--like playing a sonata on a violin or designing a brilliant ad for a new soft drink (is there such a thing?).

Step 3. If a talented person spends 18 hours a day playing the violin, the violin-connected parts of their brain will be very smart. The lower levels of the hierarchy won't need to escalate messages often. When this happens, the theory claims, the upper levels of the hierarchy don't just take a vacation. Instead, they think higher thoughts. They look for connections between the things the lower levels are doing. It's like a lucky manager leading such a great team that she gets to spend time focusing on long-term strategy, integration between functions, or new ways to think about everyday tasks. The hierarchy of the dedicated violinist becomes very "deep." It has many levels because what is complicated and "escalated" one day becomes rote and simple the next. Of course, our master violinist will probably be a lousy diamond finder.

Now things get interesting (at least for me ;-). Imagine another person who is a dilettante. He dabbles in a thousand things, paying attention in the moment, but gaining no expertise. The theory would say his brain is constantly passing messages upward. Little is rote. The lower levels have mastered little, so escalation is the norm. You could say this person's brain hierarchy is extremely flat. Poor guy, right? But along the way, he is certainly creating connections and, if the theory is right, his dabbling brain is still making constant predictions. And he's really fun at parties. And since the brain doesn't "know" when it's playing the violin and when it's looking at dirty rocks, it seems clear that experiences in one field will start to inform predictions in others. I'm not speculating that if you look at enough rocks you'll be able to play the violin. But if your brain only has random data, it's going to use it the best way it can.

So here's my quandary: Of these two people, who would you trust to build your kid a treehouse? Or set up your Tivo? Or make you dinner? Or join your bowling team?

If you had them both on your team doing something neither had done before, would you assign them to different types of tasks?

Too ridiculous a question? Ok, then how about just this: What would you encourage for your child? What do you wish was encouraged for you when you were young? (Assuming this sort of thing can be encouraged at all.)

Will a flat hierarchy drive more diverse connections and relationships? Will a deep hierarchy--more practiced in "thinking about thinking"--provide more abstract, in-depth considerations in other fields?

Apple iPhone...and Website

As anyone reading this blog knows, this is not a site about latest news. But today's Apple iPhone announcement can't pass without comment. I bought the 128k Mac in 1984 and was ecstatic to upgrade it to 512k. I remember the revolution when I could afford a hard disk (external, of course). I'm a PC user today and we have 5 or 6 PCs in our home network. We have one Mac also--mostly to run HyperCard (remember that?) which holds, yep, recipes and phone numbers. Similarly, I was an intense Newton user who now uses a Pocket PC. And I used to use my Pocket PC for music and audiobooks...until the iPod Nano came out. All this is to say, I've got a foot in both camps: obsessive about well-designed products, but with little patience for blind allegiance.

Back to phones and soon to websites:
In the schism between big, functional Blackberry-like phones and small, sleek Razr-like phones, I'm in the second camp. I remember seeing my first StarTac. It was one of only a dozen or so products I've ever seen that made my legs go weak. The Razr is just a StarTac with six more turns of the crank. Yes, phones were getting smaller before StarTac, but some devices establish a standard so clearly they leave their mark on the trend that follows them. The iPhone will be such a device.

The iPhone will define a class of phones for years to come: sleek, touchscreen, elegant, multi-functional, computer-friendly, multimedia, etc. The question that is now so old it is cliche? Will Apple profit from this in the long term or will someone else?

You'll find unending iPhone reviews, so I won't add one. Instead, I point you to a website you have to see: Apple always had a beautifully designed site, so it's not just that the plain white background is now plain black. The magic of the iPhone site is the product experience . You see a world-class product demo before you even know you're seeing a demo. You know intuitively that the little translucent dot is your finger. There is no conscious leap to "oh, I see, that's the pointer" or "that thing represents my finger." No, you just understand the metaphor intuitively...almost subconsciously. Some (like me ;-) may look for more direct interaction with the product, but I don't know what it does yet. And even I have to admit the most intuitive interface is hard pressed to make interaction obvious when you don't even know what you want to do.

Am I behind the times? Are there similar--maybe far better--examples of transparent product experience on websites? Could be. If so, let me know....

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Makes it OK to Rage at Work??

I've worked at big companies and startups. Young companies and old. In no way a representative sample, but enough to taste different styles. And one question always intrigued me: What makes people visibly mad at others when at work?

There's two parts to this:

  • What makes people mad?
  • What makes it OK to show you are mad?

Both are interesting and I suspect understanding either would make for a more productive--and pleasant--workplace and group dynamic. But I'm so far from really understanding either that I'm combining them for now. Maybe it's simple and I'm just missing that simplicity: Bad stuff happens. People are human. They get madPublish and show it. But I think there's more. Anger…really getting mad at someone…seems tied to one of three things (am I missing some?):

  1. Intention (undermining you, your job, or the company)
  2. Incompetence (how could you not know?!)
  3. Negligence (why are you here if you don't care?)

If those aren't involved and something just goes wrong, say rain at an outdoor product launch, the stock tanks just before a merger, a good sales or marketing or product development plan goes south, etc., then you're still not happy…but it's not the same sort of focused rage. And it doesn't seem to come out with as much noise and fury.

If you have thoughts on this, email me or comment. I'm going to keep trying to tease out more, but I suspect at minimum, it may help me to try to figure out which of the three aspects above is a contributor--whether I'm the angry one or not. ;-)

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Great Courses are Great

I’m on an audiobook break, listening instead to audio from “The Great Courses” company. I know, that name is incredibly stuffy and obnoxious sounding, but hold on. Their pitch: they figure out the top 1% of prof’s in the country and invite them to audition. Of the 1%, 1 in 20 is picked to do a course. Each lecture is 30 or 45 minutes and a course is 20-40+ lectures. In listening time, a total course ranges from one long book to two or more very long books. List price is outrageous, but they have an annual sale where everything is ~70% off. I’m guessing the company just takes the rest of the year off. Anyway, somehow I got on their catalog list a few years ago and was frequently tempted. I finally took the dive and got three that seemed like slam dunk topics that showed a broad range: Great Ideas of Philosophy, Books that Changed History, and Relativity. (I was surprised and then amused that all three started in the same place, but that's another topic.) I’ve listened to some of each so far, but more Philosophy than the other two. They are awesome. Whether the numbers in their pitch are real or not, their promise about prof quality seems real. At least for these three, I think they actually think about the art of lecturing differently…hell, for that matter, they just seem to think it is an art. Period. Yes, they are more entertaining than lectures I’ve had. But also more memorable. And far (far!) more thought-provoking. For example, in comparison to books, they realize someone is listening and that the best path might not be linear. They seem to have more link-backs and connections than would seem natural in a book. As a comparison, when listening to a book, I frequently repeat sections. Maybe I get distracted when working out or I just miss a point. No problem, just "rewind" and keep going. But that's where the impressiveness of the lectures comes in: I've delayed my rewind instinct because half the time I need it during one of these lectures, the prof decides that moment is the time to restate their point. It's as if they are trying to be sensitive to which moments a listener will need greater clarity or reinforcement. It doesn't feel like a repeat, but rather a useful reconnection to make sure nothing gets missed. There’s definitely a sense of listening to folks who are simply more expert at lecturing than I’m used to. And at least in theory, my ancient school days put me in front of some top lecturers.

I suppose it's weird that I'm talking so much about style rather than substance. So I'll end by saying the content itself has been excellent. I suppose it's hard to miss with the three test courses I picked and I'll probably get motivated to talk about them in a future blog. But the gist is that there have been topics on which I've taken courses and tests (yes, ancient history)--and only now realize I never really "got" before. It's very cool. Even calling what they sell "courses" can probably make them sound dull and heavy. But that's far from true. If their catalog has any topics that interest you and you don't at least try out a course or two, you're missing out.

[On a totally differnt topic, if anyone else knows why Blogger sometimes has this weird glitch where you paste something in and can't make everything that same font, please shoot me a message, OK?]

Monday, January 01, 2007

"Thinking Like a Genius" list

There's a lot of "be smarter," "be more creative," "lose weight," "run a marathon" stuff on the web. Most seems worth what it costs. I happened across this list and quite liked it. Maybe you will too...

Thinking like a Genius

1. Look at problems in many different ways, and find new perspectives that no one else has taken (or no one else has publicized!)

Leonardo da Vinci believed that, to gain knowledge about the form of a problem, you begin by learning how to restructure it in many different ways. He felt that the first way he looked at a problem was too biased. Often, the problem itself is reconstructed and becomes a new one.

2. Visualize!

When Einstein thought through a problem, he always found it necessary to formulate his subject in as many different ways as possible, including using diagrams. He visualized solutions, and believed that words and numbers as such did not play a significant role in his thinking process.

3. Produce! A distinguishing characteristic of genius is productivity.

Thomas Edison held 1,093 patents. He guaranteed productivity by giving himself and his assistants idea quotas. In a study of 2,036 scientists throughout history, Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California at Davis found that the most respected scientists produced not only great works, but also many "bad" ones. They weren't afraid to fail, or to produce mediocre in order to arrive at excellence.

4. Make novel combinations. Combine, and recombine, ideas, images, and thoughts into different combinations no matter how incongruent or unusual.

The laws of heredity on which the modern science of genetics is based came from the Austrian monk Grego Mendel, who combined mathematics and biology to create a new science.

5. Form relationships; make connections between dissimilar subjects.

Da Vinci forced a relationship between the sound of a bell and a stone hitting water. This enabled him to make the connection that sound travels in waves. Samuel Morse invented relay stations for telegraphic signals when observing relay stations for horses.

6. Think in opposites.

Physicist Niels Bohr believed, that if you held opposites together, then you suspend your thought, and your mind moves to a new level. His ability to imagine light as both a particle and a wave led to his conception of the principle of complementarity. Suspending thought (logic) may allow your mind to create a new form.

7. Think metaphorically.

Aristotle considered metaphor a sign of genius, and believed that the individual who had the capacity to perceive resemblances between two separate areas of existence and link them together was a person of special gifts.

8. Prepare yourself for chance.

Whenever we attempt to do something and fail, we end up doing something else. That is the first principle of creative accident. Failure can be productive only if we do not focus on it as an unproductive result. Instead: analyze the process, its components, and how you can change them, to arrive at other results. Do not ask the question "Why have I failed?", but rather "What have I done?"

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Philips Digital Photo Display

I picked up a few 7" Philips Digital Photo Display frames for gifts. Of course, I had to set them up before giving them, add a card to increase capacity, add initial photos, etc. Among many in the market, the Philips seemed to have top reviews. And they do indeed work as expected. Adequate display quality. Flexible frequency of photo rotation. Actually, I should be more positive--when working, they are a product worth having. But during setup (which for me, of course means trying every option), I have to admit to thinking "hardware companies should not be allowed to ship software." The out-of-box software experience is just too annoying. What makes it worse is that they obviously tried to optimize for non-technical people. Yes, if you mess with the setup options and button configuration for a while and it becomes fairly natural. But so did DOS...

Evangelicals Going Green?

I heard a panel (sorry, no link, but it was NPR) asserting that Evangelicals are starting to go "green." Specifically, the assertion was that Evangelicals were starting to talk from the pulpit about Global Warming--that it was moving from an economic issue to a moral issue. The panel went on to claim this rise in Global Warming attention from religious leaders wasn't limited to Evangelical Christian leadership, but extended to religious leaders of many faiths. The panel reminded listeners that many of the social issues we take for granted today, such as abolition of slavery, women's right to vote, civil rights, and others, brewed for years without taking off...until they were adopted by religious leaders.

If the panel was correct, this is big. And it's big on many levels: It's big if you follow the priorities professed by the leaders of your faith. It's big if you track the economics of solar panels. It's big if you simply wonder if the world (or even just the U.S.) will ever consider Global Warming a serious threat. Anyone else out there want to confirm this from personal experience?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Freakonomics: Why is Stuff the Way it is?

If selling drugs is so profitable, why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers? Is it possible that the real reason crime dropped in the 90s is an idea so repulsive that a politician mentioning it guarantees election loss? Freakonomics (paper, audio) asks these and a bunch of other questions and uncovers data to find answers. The forward essentially says, "This book is random and the only consistent thread is a search for truth about why our very real-world life is as it is." It's true. I think I remember opening term papers with something like that when I just couldn't quite get the topic to hang together. Funny how an opening admission often makes it ok. And sure enough, they pull it off. Freakonomics is written by an economist, which--I suspect they'd be delighted with this analogy--is like saying Indiana Jones movies are about a history teacher. Steven Levitt is the sort of economist you want to drink with. He looks at the world and asks why…and instead of leaving the question hanging like the drunk whispers of vapid intellectual, he tries to figure it out. If you like data and numbers, you'll like it. If you hate data and numbers, but like truth, you'll like it. If you don’t really care about much of anything, well, you won't like it. If you're a parent and you get it in audio, be ready for people to avoid you as you start arguing with an invisible companion as Levitt undermines your convictions about the stuff you're doing to help your kid be successful in life. He can't be right. But the data is compelling. But he can't be right. But the data...

The drug dealer question is one of the funniest because once you hear why so many dealers are poor, it is just so painfully obvious. And so obviously right. And so obviously based on exactly the same premise as 1001 "legitimate" activities: Amway, insurance sales, chain letters, local politics, stock options, lotteries…I could go on and on.

Oh yeah, and what was it that dropped the crime rate in the 90s? (Gladwell's Blink, another book worth your time and mentioned previously) goes into rather gory detail asserting a pretty common view that the drop in crime in the 90s was something non-controversial: innovative policing tactics. Levitt digs into this also. And compellingly disproves it…with more data. Who ya gonna believe? As usual, you have three choices: flip a coin, look at both arguments to see who is more convincing, or get the data and figure it out yourself. Come on, you know you're not going to do the third one. And you don't really want to be the kind of person that does the first one, right?

So what's the crime drop factor you can't mention without retribution? Hey, don't firebomb Blogger HQ on this…but it's Roe v. Wade. Levitt claims that fewer unwanted children result in fewer children at risk for a life of crime--and he does the math. You'll have to get the book for the details.

[Follow-up: An interesting contrasting view from Frank Zimring, author of The Decline of Crime in the United States. Mentioned briefly above.]

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