Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Pipe dreams and piss pots. Contemplating advertising craft.



David Foster Wallace was an amazing Writer. He makes this aside in his book of essays A supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.

If you think about the quote it is true. When I create an ad it is directed at a person and I have every intention of rewarding their attention with either utility or some amusement to either create some connection or to reinforce a bond with the brand that I represent. 

But whilst the message is directed to a notional individual - a person in the 'target audience' or drawn from a relational database and matched to something like your interests (and maybe even addressing you by name) - an ad is never personal. The idea and its expression is for the client - the brand owner. The exchange of value might well be a fair trade and it may delight, provoke and stimulate. But, for all its craft and excellence - it can never be art any more than a urinal not selected for a Dada purpose by Duchamp is art - it will always be a urinal as much as a pipe painted by Magritte can never actually 'be' a pipe.

If you haven't read DFW may I recommend you begin with Consider The Lobster, though his fiction is tasty too.
Don't send him fan mail though. He hung himself in his garage in 2008, but not before sharing his considerable gifts, none of which were ads.

Let's reverse engineer engineering…


Michelle Dickinson is NanoGirl. She is a scientist and educator who has done wonders to promote an interest in the sciences in New Zealand and probably to a wider audience. She is young, attractive and more than willing to front for the cameras. She loves what she is doing and it shows. Recently she protested a New Zealand engineering firm's practice of objectifying women in their promotions in an irrelevant and sexist way. She was prompted to confront the issue by female students in her courses at the School of Engineering and is concerned that the imagery characterised an industry that discourages active participation by women in engineering.

As a result of Nanogirl's campaign it begs the question about engineering as a term and how its application alters the perceptions of both young women and men when considering it as an educational pathway.

I wonder if part of the issue isn't about framing - or reframing?
Regardless of whether we are talking about males or females the term 'engineering' as it is widely understood implies using some kind of force on an object to change its nature. (Which of course it is).


When I was in high school I took engineering as a subject. It was the '77-79. What we studied, or rather practiced, was how to use tools to make things. It suited me because I only had two interests in life at the time - mucking about with old British bikes and art (which involved a lot of drawings of old British bikes…and hot rods). That was engineering. Machines. When I left school I worked in a factory. Ultimately I was a die setter and studied for a NZCE (plastics). Still, engineering was about machining and making shit. Mostly it was dirty and noisy and sometimes dangerous. (In that era safety was a fingers-crossed matter - if you had some left).


Today my daughter takes 'tech' subjects - hard-tech/soft-tech (which I would have called home ec' back in the day). This is a good thing as it refers to the change in how things are made and understood. I don't think enough emphasis is placed on learning to code - or implement solutions to ideas/hypothesis - but that is another story for another time. The issue is that the blanket term 'tech' makes it all but meaningless - even if, like 'engineering', it is correct - as if it is a catch-all to mean not math, english etc.


I wonder if, to attract more people - and have an accurate representation of the population - to engineering there needs to be a movement to reverse-engineer the term. Take nanotech for example. Richard Feynman gave it a false start, implying it was a mind game for scientists, and it can be mind-boggling (just the other day I woke up in the night wondering if there is an 'up' or 'down' at an atomic level and if so how does gravity act on particles?…and what could that mean?).

What does engineering mean? It sounds like a platitude - is it about making the world better? (Not sure how mucking about with old bikes fits in there).

There are levels of engineering; from being the conceptualiser to being the riveter. The old world qualities of being able to manipulate 'heavy' things still rings out. Alongside Feynman I place Brunel 'up there' in the heroic process of bending nature to the human will.

The impression of what an engineer 'is' is rests substantially on Brunel as an archetype - he utterly changed how humans travel and trade. His innovations in ship building, port construction, railways and tunnelling made the world, for better or worse, what it is today. He was a colossus of innovation and the will to make things happen. He paved the way for modern capitalism (once again - for better or worse) with the systems that created the wealth that America tapped from vast, widely spread natural resources - without railroads there would have been no railroad barons. Western parts of the US would probably have been a different country, with different colonial rulers. Banking, arising from the trade would not have evolved as it has (once again, I'm conflicted). Intercontinental transport would have been slower - heck, New Zealand would be less significant than it already is if propellor driven ships that Brunel helped to perfect hadn't allowed refrigerated meat to be transported to Europe. Not everything Brunel proposed worked. He wanted to build a train-like system using a vacuum pipe to propel pods between cities - which sounds a lot like steampunk version Elon Musk's Hyperloop.

So in parallel with the great innovations of Brunel came the psychology of the man forcing his way into the future and blasting aside barriers - whether access to capital or the rocks in a mountainside to make way for a tunnel or bridge. It corresponded with ideas of rugged individualism (pathologically portrayed to the extreme by Ayn Rand in her bizarre philosophy set out in books like  The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged). It is a macho, confrontational vision of the future - fertilised in the soil of industrialism and colonialism.

These attitudes and impressions persist today - though the issues that engineering confronts seem characterised by repairing or mitigating the problems created by the thrusting macho world created by Brunel's Victorian ideals.

Engineers are challenged to do more with less - whether is developing stronger, lighter structural solutions to conserve materials and produce less waste or to explore solutions on a nano scale that delicately deliver a hammer blow to a problem. It's almost a remedial approach to development. We can't un-ring the bell of technology or un-see the demons set loose by opening Pandoras Box but we can refocus and reframe.

The qualities of an engineer might well be better described as 'feminine' - nurturing, preserving and growing - applied by men and women alike. We can't continue to batter our way into the future - because, as even I, with the most rudimentary understanding of Newtonian physics, know that every force has an equal and opposite. Harnessing yin and yang should be present in our thoughts as we engineer the future - and the practice of science, technology and engineering will benefit from the skilled, educated participation of both men and women - because it is so important we can't continue to eliminate half of our intellectual capacity as we have.


BONUS LINKS

Richard Feynman's lecture on nanotech - where he mocks nanotech but which has been adopted - just as I am doing to promote the very thing. He's fantastic. This talk was delivered on my birthday before I was born - and you thought nanotech was mind-bending.









Monday, May 04, 2015

Elon Musk - The Sun King?



In my previous post I talked about Elon Musk as a visionary. If you had any doubts - watch this clip where he launches the Tesla battery pack for solar power.

Reducing carbon emissions is crucial to having a sustainable future. Continuing to rely on fossil fuels isn't just moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic - it is the iceberg.

Remember Steve Jobs' announcing the iPhone and it seemed like the second coming of Jeepers Cripes? You have to admire Musk's vaguely shambling, seemingly unrehearsed pitch. It's the content that wins the day.

And one other thing. The technology behind the Tesla system is open source. Think about that. He's not simply launching a slick new thing for movie stars and the 1% to feel good about reducing their carbon footprint. He's making it accessible to virtually everyone.

Amazing.

There's more info here (and an interesting discussion thread).

One point though - I wish he'd get a better tailor - the jacket didn't seem to fit so well.

Friday, May 01, 2015

What do you mean 'who is Elon Musk'?


Steve Jobs is dead. Bill Gates might as well be (he was always kind of boring) - in the realm of visionary world-leading people who is there to be inspired by?

How about Richard Branson? Not really. He's a publicity hound for sure and he parlayed his restlessness into starting and collecting businesses under the quirky Virgin brand. But he's never really disrupted an industry with anything unique.

There's people like Peter Thiel - one of the original investors in Paypal and Facebook - but, aside from being lucky and in the right place at the right time with some spare change he's hardly going to significantly change the world.

 You get my drift?  Who is there that not only has ideas that no one else has and has the completely insane focus to make them happen?

How about Elon Musk. No doubt you will have beard about him. He's often referred to as the prototype for Tony Stark (IronMan). He co-founded Paypal with Thiel, but unlike his Thiel he has gone on to innovate at a rate that can only be describes as (and I think this is the scientific term) …bonkers.

Musk created the Tesla car company. It makes viable electric cars - which is an astonishing accomplishment in itself but what is more remarkable is that his company is developing an entire infrastructure to make the vehicles practical - with not only a network of electric recharging stations but also making forays into generating the energy to pump into the vehicles (which is free for their owners). It makes sense that he has a significant interest in sustainable energy.

His company SolarCity is the second largest provider of solar systems in the US. (If I was you I'd look for some investments in solar power).

 He's developing plans to create transport system called HyperLoop that would allow you to travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes - a distance of 350 miles. It operates like a vacuum tube.

It seems as though Musk operates in a way that takes Niels Bohr's question very seriously indeed: "Your ideas are crazy - but are they crazy enough" Oh, and he's also got SpaceX a company that is reimagining space travel (making Virgin Galactic seem like a low altitude publicity stunt). It is world's largest private manufacturer of rockets and has a deal with NASA.

You get the picture - the man is a brainiac maniac.

Obviously he attracts a lot of interest and attention - to be expected when you have wealth and influence that wasn't inherited.

People want to know the magic trick - how can they replicate Elon Musk's magic?

His ex-wife has some insights for you, posted on a Quora thread in response to the question:

 “Will I become a billionaire if I am determined to be one and put in all the necessary work required?”

“No,” she says and goes on to say that is the wrong question.

“You’re determined. So what? You haven’t been racing naked through shark-infested waters yet. Will you be just as determined when you wash up on some deserted island, disoriented and bloody and ragged and beaten and staring into the horizon with no sign of rescue?”

 “Shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs.

Ask yourself what you have the potential to offer that is so unique and compelling and helpful that no computer could replace you, no one could outsource you, no one could steal your product and make it better and then club you into oblivion (not literally).

Then develop that potential.

Choose one thing and become a master of it.

Choose a second thing and become a master of that.

When you become a master of two worlds (say, engineering and business), you can bring them together in a way that will :

a) introduce hot ideas to each other, so they can have idea sex and make idea babies that no one has seen before and

b) create a competitive advantage because you can move between worlds, speak both languages, connect the tribes, mash the elements to spark fresh creative insight until you wake up with the epiphany that changes your life.

 The world doesn’t throw a billion dollars at a person because the person wants it or works so hard they feel they deserve it. (The world does not care what you want or deserve.) The world gives you money in exchange for something it perceives to be of equal or greater value: something that transforms an aspect of the culture, reworks a familiar story or introduces a new one, alters the way people think about the category and make use of it in daily life.

There is no roadmap, no blueprint for this; a lot of people will give you a lot of advice, and most of it will be bad, and a lot of it will be good and sound but you’ll have to figure out how it doesn’t apply to you because you’re coming from an unexpected angle. And you’ll be doing it alone, until you develop the charisma and credibility to attract the talent you need to come with you.

 Have courage. (You will need it.)
And good luck. (You’ll need that too.)”



 And, of course, he wants to go to Mars. I expect we'll get a postcard sometime soon.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Harrison Ford experiences the force…in his kitchen



Like modern politics magic is about distraction and deception. One of the most important elements is misdirection or controlling the audience's attention to where you want it to be (and without them realising that they have been manipulated). Even though we live in a savvy era where everyone has seen everything before and almost expect to be fooled that's not a problem for sophisticated tricksters - especially politicians and their communications 'strategists' (spin doctors). Illusionists call the heightened sense of alertness 'hot attention' and they use it against the audience in a sort of mental ju jujitsu. 

One of the first things to understand is directing the audience's gaze. Magicians use this trick - if you look at something - they will look where you looked. They can't help it. If an illusionist wants you to look away they will look at something to the left or right - away from what they are really doing with their hands. And if you look someone in the eye - they will find it very hard to look away. While you are addressing them this way they won't notice what you are really doing - and it can happen so quickly they won't even know it happened.

Have you ever wondered why magicians have magic wands and brightly coloured silk scarves that they wave around? That's because they are unexpected and novel. People are curious about new things so they pay closer attention to them. While the audience is watching as you wave your hanky or wand - you pocket a sponge ball or palm a coin.

Use a big flourish to conceal a small move. When a magician waves their hand to do the big abracadabra, meanwhile they palm the coin. In an instant it seems as if the coin magically vanished.

And, speaking of abracadabra don't forget the power of magic words. Telling stories can suspend more logical rhetoric - people hate lists of 'facts' - they're boring. They love stories. Willy Apiata's story of heroism as an SAS soldier in Afghanistan will always trump any logical discussion of the realpolitik and deals New Zealand made in back rooms to secure trade terms and more influence. Advertising legend Bill Bernbach said: 'The facts are not enough.' Another trick is to engage the audience in the story. Attention can be distracted by asking an audience member to think of a number - then secretly tell it to the person on their right. Once they are engaged in their own part of the narrative they can't pay attention the the deception happening before their eyes. It also draws the rest of the audience's attention - which is kind of like baiting a political rival into a public discussion of a seemingly trivial matter - then accusing them of worrying about trivial matters when there are bigger fish to fry. That's the technique in play at the moment over the New Zealand prime minister's hair pulling episode. In fact it was a double whammy. Rather than engaging the electorate in a meaningful discussion about the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) or the deployment of New Zealand troops in the middle east -  the government stages a spectacle like the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli disaster. When the bizarre hair pulling event happens the spin doctors accuse opponents of distracting attention away from the distraction of the spectacle. The flag is waved, the coin is palmed.

Bad jokes are another part of the magician's repertoire - when John Key minces down the catwalk or says someone's shirt is a bit 'gay' it is pure magic. The audience can't laugh/cringe and think critically at the same time.

The final trick is to conceal a lie amongst a series of minor truths. When a card sharp asks you to pick a card then confirm it is your card - you do - that's true. He tells you he is going to cut the cards - true again - says he'll put your card in the middle - not true - but you are in the flow now and deception is straightforward. When you pull the card they chose from an envelope - or a lemon - the crowd is predisposed to believe you…and why wouldn't they?

Why wouldn't they indeed?

These are not the droids you're looking for.

Now, get the fuck out of my house.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Headphones to create a new experience at concerts


A friend sent me a link to this clip by the jazz group Snarky Puppy. I don't know if you like jazz or not - for me it's ok in moderation. But the thing that intrigued me wasn't the music but how it was being enjoyed by the audience. They are wearing headphones. I did some quick research and found that this could be a trend. Audience members listen to the performance through headsets connected directly to the engineer's soundboard. That way they get to experience the live event with clean, clear sound - as the artists intended.

Just a day before I had lunch with a buddy and noticed he was having a little difficulty hearing what I said in the yum cha restaurant when he wasn't looking directly at me. Or he may have been ignoring my comment about The Eagles - which is also very likely, as a DJ he is picky in his tastes. I asked if he could hear ok. He told me he had some hearing loss and was using hearing aids - he showed me the delicately wired phones. I asked if it was the result of DJing. He replied that, more likely, it was the result of years of gym classes - with pounding, loud music.

Wearing 'cans' at a musical event would make sense. Aside from transmitting the sounds pitch perfect it would also mean that you could select the volume you prefer. Combined with a smart phone app maybe you could interconnect with with friends in the audience and enjoy a private conversation - or group chat mixed in the audio stream - selecting whether to allow the intrusion or not. Maybe you could include a voice to text option so that you can so 'This bit reminds me of our holiday in Venice' isn't mixed into the stream.

It might seem anathemic to concert purists for whom feeling the music in their chests amongst 10,000 other AC/DC fans is the point, rather than intimacy or sound quality. But most mid size events aren't like that. The experience of a gig could be augmented by using cans - much in the same way that 3D glasses change the way you enjoy a film.

With revenues from recordings falling (Spotify and other streaming services barely register on bands balance sheets) concerts are part of the experience economy that is growing.
What do you think. Would you entertain the idea?



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Campbell Live - Dead man walking?


Prime minister John Key has broadcast his view that Campbell Live is an entertainment and so the outcry about MediaWorks pulling the plug is nothing to do with the public good. According to the Prime Minister: "Look in the end we live in a world where it's largely about commercial returns of what is a private station. It's not funded by the government, it's not subject to anything. It's got a bunch of shareholders it needs to make a return to."

On one hand he is correct. TV3 is privately owned. They have paid their fee to license the spectrum they broadcast on so are free to air what they feel is the right programming to attract an audience that will make their operation viable. Though the government intervened to permit them to pay for their permits on 'the drip' - but let's set aside the fact that MediaWorks is a corporate welfare beneficiary for the moment and, contrary to what Mr Key said they are in fact funded by the people of New Zealand.

But let's also look at the role to the government owned broadcaster in this melee.

If TV3 and other free to air broadcasters have no public good obligation then it draws attention to the fact that TVNZ does. Instead of competing with privately owned stations, as it does, it should uncouple from addiction to advertising revenue - competing unfairly with private concerns for revenue and for the commercial programming that attracts a broad audience.

TVOne and 2 have virtually indistinguishable programming that, in turn is hard to differentiate from TV3's product. The consequence seems to be an endless reinvention of the wheel by all of the major players to compete for the middle ground. As a result the quality of programming is dubious - either imported bland 
genre driven finished product from overseas markets or licensed formats that are repacked for New Zealanders.
The cost of content, its promotion and production are part of the downward spiral that broadcast channels are experiencing around the world. They are confronting challenges to remain relevant in the era of continuously available on-demand content (VoD and the web).

The value of free-to-air seems to revert to the public service model that was once an integral part of the equation. As the government owned channels TVNZ should have more obligation to the public good. News and current affairs are an essential part of the public service mix. As Mr key infers, the proper place for people like John Campbell is in the public service arena. Take away the overly commercial bent of Campbell Live as format and you take away the criticism that dilute his reputation as a high quality journalist. His personality and indisputable charm would remain and attract an audience on a public platform - but the need to 'innovate' with b grade 'driving dog' diversions would be set aside. The news component of TVNZ should be considered as independent from partisan politics - just as the public service and government departments are supposed to be. Assuming this logic Seven Sharp would move from TVOne to TV3 and its host's partisan political spruiking could live or die by the commercial sword - instead of being on massively expensive life support from the public purse to distort the commercial reality.
In the context of the Campbell Live story media commentator gavin Ellis said "If they won't voluntarily meet civic responsibility then maybe we need to look at some form of regulation to require them to provide good, competent, professional news and current affairs."

As it has happened TV3 have, to some extent been performing the government's responsibility with Campbell Live but which the government has abdicated in the pursuit of acting as if it was a privately owned enterprise - which it is not.

So the prime minister is right. MediaWorks can manage their property as they see fit within the law and their obligations to broadcasting standards. But he can't have it both ways. TV3 is privately owned. TVNZ is not and has an obligation to public service broadcasting. They should get out of the way of private operators and provide value to the segments of society that do want access to New Zealand stories - both news/current affairs and the arts - because New Zealand viewers can get pop and pap culture anywhere but there needs to be a happy place that is free of commercial obligation.

If the current government doesn't agree with that, then it's not really as committed to free markets as it would have you believe.