Thursday, July 29, 2004

Complete this puzzle (why ads work)

Lest you underestimate the sophistication of the advertising complex, read this crisp, riveting description of the semiotics of advertising (from Geoff Cohen, who saw it on Making Light). It begins:
The intent of advertising is to associate desire with commodities and services, and to cement feelings of positive affect to brands.

To achieve this, advertisers must construct texts that are recognizable to viewers as ads; moreover, they must produce texts that are sufficiently compelling that viewers are motivated to decipher them. Still, the ads cannot mean anything on their own. Ads require viewers to complete their meaning, to make the necessary turns of meaning that premise giving value to a brand or a logo.

Okay, so you have to have your semiotics glasses on to read the rest of the site. But it is fascinating, isn't it?

Guerrilla Drive-Ins

Great article in today's NY Times Circuits section about people who are setting up projectors and speakers outdoors for free (article link requires sub, and will be swept ruthlessly into a pay-again archive, even if you are a paying subscriber; so much for that commons). This quote captures the spirit:
Mr. Modes aspires to more than a good time on a Friday night: he wants to change the way people use public space, and return the commons to an idealized past untainted by money.

"Part of why we're doing this is to reclaim public space and give people a way to use the nighttime that's not mediated by commerce," he said. "In our town, the parks close at sundown, you have to buy something at coffee shops. We wanted to give people a way to interact with each other outdoors without having to spend any money."
After hearing James Howard Kunstler at last year's PopTech eviscerate urban planning in this country, these guerrilla drive-ins are a tiny bit of balm.

Buy this T-shirt! (to engage the other side)

I'm amazed -- and not amazed -- that Bush and Kerry are still in a dead heat.

I'm amazed because it is perfectly clear to me that Bush has done so many manipulative, secretive, uninformed, misguided, untrustworthy, uninspiring, hypocritical things that I think everyone can see through. But they don't.

Yet I'm not amazed, because our electoral process has devolved into little more than a consumer mass-marketing spectacle. Both sides use the same process and technologies such as focus-group-driven TV ads and pinpoint targeting of swing voters to achieve their goals, so despite anything that might be happening out in the real world, it seems natural (if creepy) that the opinions should split 50-50. We are very malleable, especially when we're feeling lots of fear.

Walking around a city center recently, I had a little "aha!": If we're split evenly, then every other person I'm passing as I walk pretty much disagrees with my views on these issues (I'm sure it didn't take you that long to reach that insight). How do we reach out to talk to one another? How about announcing a willingness to engage passers-by in a (relatively safe) conversation on this important topic, while disclosing my point of view?

So I composed a T-Shirt message and opened a CafePress store to sell it broadly. (Isn't that what we've always done? Imagine if Tom Paine or Ben Franklin had been able to print T-Shirts and bumper stickers!) So buy one now, then head to your local mall and troll for conversations. I'd love to hear what happens.

Renaming "Hijacking Catastrophe"

I went with Jay Cross and a few other friends to see Hijacking Catastrophe, a level-headed, hard-hitting documentary with none of the innuendo and Moore-ness of Fahrenheit 9/11 (e.g., the Tastee Freeze truck, filming outside the Saudi Embassy). Jay's review of Hijacking voices my reactions perfectly.

A second, more pragmatic reason to rename the documentary is that the title is quite difficult to recall. Each time I want to cite it, I have to pause. Not good.

Parts of Fahrenheit are superb, such as Moore's disbelief that we could ship 140-odd Saudi citizens out of the country when nobody else could fly, with no real interviews, no shadow of being sent to Guantanamo... nothing. Or the fact that Bush's inaugural motorcade was pelted with eggs and rushed to the White House (no wonder he had Ashcroft set up the unbelievable "Free Speech Zones"). Or his emphasis on how the privileged start wars, but the poor die in them. How come nobody reports these things? Why is it left to Moore?

A separate thought: that clip from Fahrenheit in which Bush says, "some people call you the elites; I call you my base" should be a freestanding piece, available everywhere. I'm glad it's been in the trailer.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

A poignant song about the current mess

About a year ago I had the pleasure to meet a great young singer/songwriter from the UK named Jont, who has a knack for building memorable songs from minimalist lyrics and guitar work, all beautifully paced and placed.

He has asked for a little help getting a particular song in the world that describes the mess the Bush Administration got us into. It's called World Gone Blind (MP3 format). Please feel free to mirror it, put it on Bittorrent, etc.

This song is also licensed under Creative Commons' Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs License.

Monday, July 26, 2004

To the Democrats: Light, Memory and Discourse

Here's a suggestion that is idealistic, can't be finished in four months, involves unfamiliar territory and isn't proven to work. I hope you will consider it for ten minutes, because it describes the society in which I -- as well as many alienated, non-voting citizens of both parties -- would like to live.

A credible and consistent commitment toward this vision would energize voters of all kinds, in all geographies. These are game-changers, moves that change the shape of the box in which electoral politics is currently trapped. As long as we stay in that box, as Al Gore did in 2000, we will lose this election.

Three initiatives would help crystalize civic (read: voter) participation: Light, Memory and Discourse.

Light

As Justice Brandeis said, "Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants." John Dean points out in "Worse than Watergate," that this is the most secretive Administration ever, and he's right. Evidence is plentiful (unlike the info being hidden).

Memory

Shining a light is a good step toward making better decisions. What the light discloses is far more useful if you can remember the facts you find and put them to use in various contexts. For example, when the Environmental Working Group published the Farm Subsidy Database, it helped legislators see that the subsidies were going to factory farms, not small farmers. Facts help offset lobbyist pressure. We need a great, reliable, collective (distributed) memory for real data, plus some tools to make it all accessible and useful for decision-making.

Discourse

Small wonder that individuals feel powerless: Govenance and politics have been taken over by consumer mass marketing. Politicians care principally about getting money from supporters, then funneling most of those funds directly to mass-media outlets, principally for TV ads. Republicans do it; Democrats do it. Donors know this. They know it's expensive, necessary and meaningless, and they thirst for something that feels more like democracy.

Quietly, in many different places, groups are exploring ways to make Governance more personal, more effective and more democratic. Think of it as little "g" governance. These initiatives go by names like deliberative democracy, emergent democracy, deep democracy, public journalism, participatory journalism and civic journalism.

If there's a silver lining in the past four years, it is that the neocons have outed themselves. They have uncloaked. Their agenda is public, if not in its full imperial glory. And they do not represent the majority of conservatives, not by a long shot.

Why do this?

My previous open letter is here. The excellent New York Times Magazine cover story this weekend on rethinking democratic participation (go, Andy!) is here.

A song for Darfur

Jim Moore points me to an activist song about the horrible events in Darfur. The song is licensed under Creative Commons' Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs License.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

One fact too many sites omit

I just sent the following note to Multiply, yet another social networking service with a few novel (apparently proprietary) features that I found by following a link from Judith Meskill:
You've answered most questions in your About and FAQish areas, except the most important, if you expect humans to trust you.

Who are you?

Who are the principals, who are the backers? What is the intent? What is the "birth story"?

Without these, I see no reason to join.

Respectfully,

Jerry Michalski
www.sociate.com
Why do so many sites hide their founders? How do they expect us to trust them? I imagine many people fall for this, which makes me wish there were better established cultural norms that would out such companies and make it harder for them to draw us in.

The Great (Mayan) Calendar Change

This one's a bit of a stretch, but it's a great, crazy idea that stretches the brain.

Futurist José Argüelles, author of The Mayan Factor and several other works, coiner of the term Harmonic Convergence (August 16-17, 1987) and decipherer of Mayan time keeping, says that one of the reasons we're off kilter is that we're pegging our lives to the Gregorian calendar, which was tweaked to make Easter more regular and has all sorts of oddities and irregularities.

The natural cycle, says Argüelles, is one of 13:20, with 13 28-day months, then meaningful increments of 20 (see the time keeping link above). Every year there is one "day out of time" that sets us back on schedule. Switching to this Thirteen Moon Calendar would help humankind get back in sync with nature's universal cycles, he says.

Funny thing is, I tripped across this information the day before yesterday, and the dates he recommends making the Great Calendar Change are today and tomorrow. (I did have an amazing day today.) You can observe the 13:20 calendar on your own, if you like.

I like to question things, but this one took me outside my usual comfortable field of inquiry. For example, I have often wondered why countries with faiths that don't involve Jesus end up having to use a calendar that is pegged to his life (at least for international dealings), but I never went that step further to imagining a different setup.

Buckle your seatbelts!

Postscript: BoingBoing black belt Xeni, whose Dad is a Mayan priest, notes that the Mayan calendar is indeed groovy and different, but that Argüelles is considered quite the charlatan by his peers. Also, apparently we can ignore the Great Calendar Change.

Aw, shucks.


Again: what's so difficult about abundance?

While moderating an afternoon panel at BlogOn last Friday, Technorati's Dave Sifry made a passing comment that got me a little stirred up. I can't quote him verbatim, but he stated roughly that in business, there's no value without scarcity. I couldn't help myself and shouted a "no!" as I gave him a thumbs-down. (The quick-witted Kevin Wen captured the moment on his phonecam.) We had a brief back-and-forth during the session.

It drives me nuts that scarcity is seen as such a fundamental requirement for creating a business. Sure, there are plenty of businesses built around scarce resources, and sure, Dave's time and my time are scarce, but that's no proof that businesses can't cruise along profitably creating voluntary loyalty by knowing their customers better, never betraying them, always being available and fixing problems, responding more quickly than others.... you get the picture. But go to business school and what they teach you is how to create artificial scarcity. That's the kind of thinking that got us into the present mess.

Perhaps more importantly, if you don't think from the point of view of abundance, you're going to miss a ton of interesting new business ideas that are emerging now. These businesses may not be IPO-track businesses (sorry, VCs), but they can be vital, profitable enterprises.

BTW, Dave and I hugged and made up later. Dave will be a special blog analyst for CNN at this week's Democratic Convention. His brother Micah will be there, too, blogging away for his Iraq War Reader and Personal Democracy (a follow-on from the conference I helped Andrew Rasiej organize recently in NYC). To see who's blogging from the convention, visit Convention Bloggers.

Friday, July 23, 2004

There'll be a health surcharge for your pizza, Sir!

Nervous about where privacy practices are headed? Check out this ACLU projection of what pizza ordering might be like in a few years (thanks, Byron Go!).

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Wishing F2F was a conference call

IBM's Jim Spohrer just made an interesting observation during the opening panel at BlogOn. On arriving at a recent face-to-face meeting with some IBM colleagues, he noticed that he felt a certain uneasiness. As he reflected on it, he realized he was wishing tht the meeting were held as a teleconference, so that he could have his tools available that would allow him to find out who was sitting across the table: their bios, their IBM objectives and achievements, their history on the Web.

It's a slightly spooky scenario, but I'll confess to having wished for a heads-up display that projects inside a pair of glasses who's who at a cocktail party, including who used to work with whom, who's friends with whom (hey, orkut) and who's dating whom.

The panel as a whole was a bit strange, because it mixed people from LinkedIn, Tickle (formerly eMode, recently bought by Monster Worldwide, which was formerly TMP -- Telephone Marketing Systems) and Lycos who are building relatively conventional online spaces with other folks working on exciting things, including Spohrer, ace journalist and new author Dan Gillmor and Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield (disclosure: I'm an advisor to Socialtext).

Monday, July 19, 2004

Really liking the Merc's daily tech news

I find I look forward to John Paczkowski's Good Morning Silicon Valley, which is full of well-linked items I haven't generally heard elsewhere. Crisp, pithy, good sense of humor, good coverage. Well done.

Friday, July 16, 2004

On Bush/Kerry, Huffington and Cialdini

"He's a flip-flopper" has become the rallying cry for Conservatives trying to convince voters to avoid John Kerry. Repetition does create illusions, doesn't it? Here's Arianna's punchy summary of who's really been flipping and flopping:
...as Dick "Not Peaches and Cream" Cheney ominously put it at a Republican fundraiser: "These are not times for leaders who shift with the political winds, saying one thing one day and another the next."

I couldn't f---ing agree more, Mr. Cheney. But it's your man George W. who can't seem to pick a position and stick to it. He's reversed course more times than Capt. Kirk battling Khan in the midst of the Mutara Nebula. Gone back on his word more times than Tony Blundetto. Flip-flopped more frequently than a blind gymnast with an inner-ear infection.

The list of Bush major policy U-turns is as audacious as it is long. Among the whiplash-inducing lowlights:

In September 2001, Bush said capturing bin Laden was "our number one priority." By March 2002, he was claiming, "I don't know where he is. I have no idea and I really don't care. It's not that important."

In October 2001, he was dead-set against the need for a Department of Homeland Security. Seven months later, he thought it was a great idea.

In May 2002, he opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission. Four months later, he supported it.

During the 2000 campaign, he said that gay marriage was a states' rights issue: "The states can do what they want to do." During the 2004 campaign, he called for a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

Dizzy yet? No? OK:

Bush supported CO2 caps, then opposed them. He opposed trade tariffs, then he didn't. Then he did again. He was against nation building, then he was OK with it. We'd found WMD, then we hadn't. Saddam was linked to Osama, then he wasn't. Then he was - sorta. Chalabi was in, then he was out. Way out.

In fact, Bush's entire Iraq misadventure has been one big costly, deadly flip-flop:

We didn't need more troops, then we did. We didn't need more money, then we did. Preemption was a great idea - on to Syria, Iran and North Korea! Then it wasn't - hello, diplomacy! Baathists were the bad guys, then Baathists were our buds. We didn't need the U.N., then we did.

And all this from a man who, once upon a time, made "credibility" a key to his appeal.

Now, God knows, I have no problem with changing your mind - so long as you
admit that you have and can explain why. But Bush steadfastly — almost
comically — refuses to admit that there's been a change, even when the
entire world can plainly see otherwise. He's got his story and he's
sticking to it. But that darn Kerry, he keeps shifting his positions!
Consistency -- not flipping or flopping -- is one of Robert Cialdini's six principles, the forces that make people say "yes" when they really mean to say "no." (Cialdini's book, Influence, leads my list of dangerous knowledge; here's his consulting practice.)

While we're on the subject, the Bush campaign is making wonderful use of the other five Cialdini principles, to wit:
Notice that logic isn't on the list. By consistency, Cialdini doesn't mean building consistent, logical arguments, but rather being consistent in what you say or do from one instance to the next. It's why a good salesperson will get you to say "yes" to something insignificant, then ask you the closing question in a way that would make you seem to be a waffler if you said "no." After all, you were just being so agreeable. Because flip-flopping breaks one of Cialdini's cardinal principles, it is an effective insult. Look how it took Al Gore down.

Logical arguments are the hard way to convince people. Facts get spun, obscured, classified, misused. How can we change this? How can we create a society with civil discourse, with facts used in ways that promote the design of experiments to test new ideas?

Subscribe to my Furl archive

Shortly after I mentioned Furl in a recent post, several people surprised me by subscribing to my Furl archive. I had no idea it was even possible, but in fact it's easy to view, and it has RSS feeds built in, so you can add it to your news aggregator. It's elegant.

Furl is not quite a blogging tool, but it's close.

I'd have the headlines showing in a blogroll-style frame on this page, but I'm betwixt and between site authoring tools (see below), so that feature will have to wait. For now, please feel free to follow the articles I read daily by following my Furl archive.

A way to tell the voters, "I tried."

In a beautiful Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, author Thomas Frank (What's the Matter with Kansas?) neatly demonstrates how Conservatives took the path least likely to succeed so they could stage-manage an event that allowed them to pander to the extreme elements in their base, forced Democrats and maverick Republicans like McCain to vote "no," and won plenty of earned media (press coverage you "win" when you do something controversial). I especially like the way Republicans consistently accuse Liberals of doing what the Republicans are in fact doing:
What's more, according to the outraged senators, these liberal judges were acting according to a plan. Maybe no one used the term "conspiracy," but Mr. Brownback asserted that the Massachusetts judges who allowed gay marriages to proceed there were merely mouthing a "predetermined outcome"; Orrin Hatch of Utah asserted that "these were not a bunch of random, coincidental legal events"; and Jim Bunning of Kentucky warned how "the liberals, who have no respect for the law" had "plotted out a state-by-state strategy" that they were now carrying out, one domino at a time. (Link requiring sub; link to full text in Furl.)
Last I looked, our Constitution is not a place to enshrine any kind of bias.

Want a state-by-state conspiracy? Take a look at redistricting (especially Tom DeLay's infamous actions in Texas), Super DMCA bills and school books -- particularly how the books that our children read in school are selected (watch the composition of the Texas School Board, whose decisions affect many of the other states' selections).

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Journal's nifty swing state poll visualization

On the online Wall Street Journal's home page you'll find a link titled "Battleground States Poll" (which launches a Javascript window that makes me hesitate to link to it directly here).

The applet is beautifully designed, with nicely rendered graphs that display when you click on each of the states, as well as a simple summary table. Good work.

Nurture affects rats' genetic makeup

Sharon Begley writes in today's Wall Street Journal that rat mothers that nurture their young actually activate "silent" genes that affect their pups' future levels of anxiety.
Rearing, it turns out, affects molecules in the brain that catch hold of stress hormones. Licking and grooming increases the number of these receptors. The more such receptors the brain has in the region called the hippocampus, the fewer stress hormones are released; the fewer the stress hormones coursing through its body, the mellower the rat.

It turns out that all newborn rats have a molecular silencer on their stress-receptor gene. In rats reared by standoffish mothers, the silencer remains attached, the scientists will report in the August issue of Nature Neuroscience. As a result, the brain has few stress-hormone receptors and reacts to stress like a skittish horse hearing a gunshot.

But licking and grooming by an attentive mother literally removes the silencer; the molecule is gone. Those baby rats have lots of stress-hormone receptors in their brains and less stress hormone, and they grow up to be curious, unafraid and able to handle stress.

"In the nature/nurture debate, people have long suspected that the environment somehow regulates the activity of genes," says Prof. Meaney. "The question has always been, how? It took four years, but we've now shown that maternal care alters the chemistry of the gene."

(This link on WSJ.com requires a subscription; this one on Furl doesn't.)

We've come a long way from Harry Harlow's inhumane cloth mother/wire mother experiments, which helped break the early spell of behavioral psychology. But it sure seems we have a long way to go.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Is Office 2003 an upgrade?

So I upgraded to Microsoft Office 2003 recently, mostly because my Outlook 2000 data file was hitting a known size limit that would mean my life's conversations might soon be on a speed-chute to Purgatory. Also, I could no longer archive my Outlook file, because it had become corrupted somehow, and my attempts to repair it were fruitless. The upgrade seemed to fix those problems, but brought with it a few new annoyances, such as: Microsoft spends $5 billion a year on R&D, which it has the luxury of expensing, not amortizing. Some chunk of that goes into advances for the Office suite, but I'm having trouble seeing the progress.

Gosh, didn't I just pick on Microsoft recently?

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