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giraffes, live and modeled
|One day after I saw many giraffes in South Africa's Kruger Park, I visited an art class near Acornhoek, about 50 miles away. There, an American named Nick Vorono, working for Seeds of Light, was teaching 20 or 30 kids. Below, in descending order: the real giraffes; the art class project that I visited; and finally, the two of the shots Nick posted on his Facebook page.
A view of South Africa
Mapusha Weaving Cooperative
|One of my key stops in South Africa this week is at the Mapusha Weaving Cooperative, in the hills near Acornhoek. My sister, Judy Miller, has worked with the weavers for the last decade. That's her with the spinner, Anna Mduli. They're building a new studio a few hundred yards away. That's the big job this summer. The new studio will be just a stone's throw from the new nursery, where I stopped by for some songs.
|I'm in South Africa, on a short trip I decided to take, literally, from one day to the next. We went to Kruger Park yesterday and this morning, and this leopard is the first animal we saw. We didn't see another cat the whole time, in part because the summer grass, as you can see, is high.
It occurred to me as I looked at this picture that the pattern recognition required to perceive a the head of leopard behind that grass comes naturally to humans--and would be exceedingly hard for computers. Spotting potential predators hiding in the grass was vital for our ancestors. And even if we spend 99.9% of our days in cities or suburbs, that uncanny ability has been handed down to us.
I should note that a tour guide spotted this animal. We stopped when we saw his halted bus, and he pointed it out to us. So despite our ability to see a leopard through the grass, we probably wouldn't have seen this one on our own. When it comes to some of these survival skills, we're a little rusty.
What children might be thinking
|What might this boy be thinking? He's standing in the bombed-out ruins of Essen, Germany, in 1947, and is caught on film by Chim, the photographer also known as David Seymour. Writing about an exhibit of Chim's photos in the New York Times, Ken Johnson ends his short article by focusing on the boy: "Like an angel descended from heaven, he bears witness to humanity's murderous and suicidal idiocy. He might be wondering: When will they ever learn?"
He might also be spotting a cool place to play hide and seek. I'm reminded of an interview in which filmmaker Werner Herzog
recalled his childhood in post-war Germany. Here's a snippet
He noted ... that while growing up in the ruins of a city was hard on adults, it was satisfying for a child. "Kids in the cities took over whole bombed - out blocks and would declare the remnants of buildings their own to play in where great adventures were acted out. . . . Everyone I know who spent their early childhood in the ruins of post - war Germany raves about that time. It was anarchy in the best sense of the word. There were no ruling fathers around and no rules to follow. We had to invent everything from scratch."
The rise of corporate media
|Try putting yourself in the mind of a chief marketing officer for one of the car companies. The Super Bowl is coming up, the biggest advertising event of the year. You can reach more than 100 million people for 30 seconds for about $4 million. Of course some of them will be grabbing a beer, and others will be flipping past your ad with the DVR, but still, tens of millions of people.
Now imagine launching an editorial operation, an online newsroom with maybe 6 people, including a seasoned professional or two. You could do that (and even pay their health care) for $1 million. That's 7.5 seconds of a Superbowl ad. This news staff could produce great stories and videos, and some of them will go viral, perhaps reaching millions (if not a Superbowl-sized crowd) on Facebook or Twitter. Is it any wonder, as Tom Foremski
writes in Silicon Valley Watcher, that corporate-generated media is booming?
Lots of factors contribute to this boom. The traditional media model is collapsing, sending thousands of journalists into the job market. At the same time, big advertisers can't count on those understaffed and cash-poor publications to send reporters to interview their execs and write stories about them. What's more, as their advertising crashes and staffs shrink, they have fewer pages to fill. (Magazine advertising, I read in the WSJ, is down by 32% since '08. I'm surprised the number isn't higher.) As corporations see it, the best way to get their story out is to produce it themselves.
You'd think that their stuff would be crap. A decade or two ago, it would have been. But they see themselves as media companies now, at least in part. Their reputation is at stake. Equally important, if they produce propaganda, it won't go viral--and denunciations of it just might. That doesn't mean they don't push their point of view. But they've always done that, under every business model.
Ira Glass's career advice: Amuse yourself
|Ira Glass, producer of This American Life, describes a very bright colleague he had early in his radio career, in Chicago. She would come back from assignments and tell the funniest stories, he says. Everyone would love listening to her. Then she would go on radio, cut out all of the funny and quirky stuff, and produce a responsible piece of journalism. In Glass's words, she "deprived her audience of the chance to be amused."
This is what I've never liked about practicing or, for that matter, consuming most journalism. Journalists often take themselves too seriously and edit out the fun. I have a feeling that I've blogged about this at one point, but when I was at BusinessWeek I would call my wife on a Wednesday morning and tell her how many of my "jokes" had been squeezed out of a story. In each article, I'd generally have three or four little turns of phrase, allusions or funny quotes that amused me. I called them jokes. And as far as I was concerned, they were the reason I bothered to write the thing. Most of them died in editing. ("We need to get the earnings projection in here... Do we really need this reference to Positively 4th Street?")
This was a big reason I got into blogging and writing books. I could have more fun. And sometimes when I read comments reviews of Numerati and Final Jeopardy, it strikes me that even some of those who appreciate them didn't get the jokes.
Glass's point is much bigger than just having fun. His idea is that journalism used to command our attention by default. If you wanted to hear what was happening in London during the Blitz, you listened to Edward Murrow on CBS. He had great responsibility, and tried his best to be authoritative. And there was nothing wrong with that.
But today we can get our news from thousands of different sources, most of them free and few of them thriving. There's an industry-wide battle for our attention. Naturally, we turn to the stuff that amuses us. It doesn't have to be funny. It can be beautiful, poignent, brilliantly argued, but it has to offer something special to claim control over us for a few minutes--and lead us to share it with others. Journalists who figure out how to create such work will thrive in the coming years. Glass argues that they'll do it by following their own tastes and interests.
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg is in the wrong business
| As I researched the social media story that ran in today’s Times, I kept wondering whether Facebook is really made for the advertising business. Could Mark Zuckerberg be in the wrong line of work?
Facebook of course has enough going for it, including a billion
networked members, to make a good business in advertising. Revenues top
$4 billion. But despite its towering strengths and limitless potential,
the company struggles to please traditional advertisers and investors.
The company reminds me of a brilliant student who's following the path
his parents have mapped through med school, even though he'd rather be
building skyscrapers or writing songs.
The difference, though, is that Facebook is capable of transforming the
very industry it's trying to fit into. You could argue that that's
already happening, as I'll detail below.
Clearly, in the short and medium term, Facebook has little choice but to
pursue a career in advertising. At the moment, no other business model
can raise billions, which the company needs to build a global enterprise
with huge data centers, employing thousands of brainy engineers and
scientists. Still, there a sense that Facebook's mission is bigger, and perhaps more transformative, than advertising. “If Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to pay back the venture
run the risk of losing his talent, he would have taken a different
route,” says Rishad Tabaccowala, chief innovation officer at VivaKi, a
digital arm of Groupe Publicis.
In fact, Facebook's very strengths lead the company along a
different path. The ads that work best on social networks represent a
new model, a blend of advertising, word of mouth and viral connections.
These defy traditional definitions and measurements. One example. If
you're an American woman over the age of 45, you might have seen cute
photos of kittens and puppies pop up next to your news feed. Those are
ads. Click one, Facebook gets around 25 cents, and at least in this case
you subscribe to updates from Petflow, an e-marketer. The company has 620,000 followers now.
In the news streams that carry updates about their neighbor's pork
roasts and cousin's birthday parties, those people also receive several
updates from Petflow. And if they click "like" on one of them, Petflow's
news flows out to all of their friends. It goes viral. Should Petflow
want the update to linger longer in news feeds, reaching more of its
followers, it pays $500 to $2,000 for a promoted post. Petflow's
co-founder, Alex Zhardanovsky, says the company generates more than 30%
of its sales from Facebook.
Nonetheless, success that justifies a $100 billion market cap will come only
when the big traditional advertisers, like Proctor & Gamble, Apple
and the car companies, move from social media toe-dipping and
take the plunge. To satisfy them, Facebook has taken extraordinary
measures. The company has teamed up with Datalogix,
which has a vast database of customer loyalty cards. The two companies
have matched the ads people see on Facebook with the purchases they
register with customer loyalty cards in the physical world.
The link is the common e-mail address. Many of them show up on both
Facebook and the supermarket lists. To shield identities, the two
companies have devised a convoluted process, hiding both the consumers
and their loyalty cards behind numbers known as hash tags. (More details
from TechCrunch and Facebook itself.) The point is not to track the individuals (nor to find
themselves in another bruising privacy battle), but simply to
demonstrate that anonymous beings are more likely to buy certain soaps
or cereals after seeing ads on Facebook. So far, according to Sean Bruich,
Facebook's head of Measurement Platforms and Standards, the response
more than justifies the ad spend. They have carried out 50 studies for
big advertisers, he says. In 70% of them, the return on investment
reached at least three times the ad spend. On 49% of them, it was 5X or
Still, the numbers-driven ad market will press relentlessly for more
data. That's the nature of the Numerati world. It never stops. The goal
is to monitor and measure all of the stimuli that lead us make a
decision, such as whether to buy a certain bar of soap. The way it is now, a
person sees different ads on TV, billboards, in newspapers, and a
sponsored post on Facebook, and each one of those media players claims a
portion of the credit--probably more than its share. Now, Facebook and
others developing a complex analysis called "multi-touch." The idea is
that it will divvy up the credit for each interaction, and each media
player will be able claim its share.
We've already seen how this ends. The more data that arrives, tracing
our movements and activities, the more analysis it generates and
questions it raises. Arguments are inevitable. The losers will hunt down
more data of their own launch their own studies, challenging the status
quo. As a result, we're be scrutinized in remorseless detail. The
market would have it no other way. The process is barely begun. And no
matter how much they know, advertisers, on Facebook and elsewhere, will
always come up with reasons to dig deeper and a little more. In the
process, they learn more about us--and perhaps that process, or insights
derived from it, will lead them into entirely new businesses.
Below, today's Times story. A few minutes ago I saw a bit of blue reflected in the front door. I ran out to the driveway and grabbed the analog version of the paper, which resonates for me emotionally. (I broke into journalism writing on manual typewriters, after all.) But then I promptly get to work with my camera and computer to render it back to digital.
Shuttered vision: Predicting our future
|If you look at your life as an education, have you graduated? According to new research, many of us believe that while we've changed through the years, perhaps changing our beliefs and priorities along the way, we finally have it all figured out. John Tierney in the Times discusses this research.
It turns out that we're just not that good at anticipating change. I find this when I talk to people about the future of technology. Often what I get is simply a continuation of what we have now. Computers will be smaller, cheaper and more powerful, cars will be more fuel-efficient, etc. Lots of things will be more of what they are now. What's missing from this vision are the disruptive technologies that lead us into new directions. Most of us aren't Jules Verne
or Vannevar Bush
I just called up an episode of the Jetsons, to see how cartoonists in the '60s fared. I was startled to see George Jetson suffering with application that behaved much like Apple's Siri. He wanted information about a small animal that his son, Elroy, had brought back from an asteroid. He started to ask the virtual encyclopedia, and the machine kept giving him wrong answers. When George complained, the machine accused him of mumbling. Then it gave him a bunch of facts about the animal that George already knew. Felt very familiar.
Perhaps the most startling novelty in The Jetsons is the dog as an upright biped
David Pogue has a column
about predicting the future. The worst thing you can do, he writes, is to predict that something will never happen. When it does, you look like a dunce. If, on the other hand, you predict that something will happen, and it doesn't, you can always argue that eventually it will.
This happened to me. In the late '90s, I wrote admittedly hype-nourished visions
for BusinessWeek about the impact of mobile technologies. Here was one from 1999:
A 15-year-old girl strolls through London's Berkeley Square. Suddenly she hears a beep from her cell phone and looks at the screen. A message sponsored by Starbucks informs her that two friends from her "buddy list" are walking nearby. Would she like to send them an instant message to meet for coffee at the nearest Starbucks around the corner? She merely has to click "yes" on her smart phone to send the message. And she gets an electronic coupon worth $1 off a Frappuccino.
Following the Dotcom crash, I took a lot of grief from that one. I deserved some of it, because I predicted that this technology was just around the corner, instead of a decade away. Even so, it didn't take a fortune-teller to come up with that scenario. The mobile industry in Europe was busy putting the foundation technologies in place and anticipating a wave of innovative apps.
The real trick, as Tierney writes, is to envision a future that doesn't follow a clear line from now.
Books of 2012, and '13
|I start off every year with ambitious plans for reading. Maybe I should take a course on Shakespeare, I think, read Mill on the Floss, or Proust. But I only have to survey my reading in the year just ended to see what happens to such ambitions.
I've ransacked my memory and bookshelves, and my Amazon account, and have come up with a list of the books I finished in 2012. It's barely 20 books, a good number of them from the Coursera course
I took on science fiction and fantasy. I probably started and abandoned the same number, or perhaps more. And I cherry-picked chapters from others. Still, here are the ones I finished:
Julian Barnes, Talking it Over
Ray Bradbury, Martian Chronicles
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Princess of Mars
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Harry Mulisch, The Discovery of Heaven
Cory Doctorow, Little Brother
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
H.G. Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau
Jane Brickley, Noise (not yet published)
Isaac Singer, The Slave
Bill Bryson, At Home
Kenneth Slawenski, J.D. Salinger, A Life
John Vaillant, The Tiger
Dave Eggers, Zeitoun
Judith Miller, Mapusha and Me (not yet published)
Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Stuart Firestein, Ignorance, How it Drives Science
Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullans, Homo Evolutis, A Short Tour of a New Species
Books I plan to read in 2013
I'm already about a quarter of the way through Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which I last read at age 23 (and remembered next to nothing). Then there are the Christmas presents, With Fire and Sword: the Battle of Bunker Hill, by James Nelson; When the World Spoke French, by Marc Fumaroli, and Periodic Tales, a Cultural History of the Elements, by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. I'm also looking forward to This Love is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juarez, by Robert Andrew Powell. And I just ordered a newish translation of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which was my favorite book in my 20s.
| Mann's Magic Mountain is in the mail, in hardcover
One thing I know: I would read a lot more if I gave up sports on TV. And considering the downward trend of my Philadelphia teams, it might come closer to happening in the coming year.
RT @marthagabriel: "It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated."
-- Alec Bourne #quote #goodmor…
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Why Nate Silver is never wrong
- November 8, 2012
The psychology behind bankers' hatred for Obama
- September 10, 2012
"Corporations are People": an op-ed
- August 16, 2011
Wall Street Journal excerpt: Final Jeopardy
- February 4, 2011
Why IBM's Watson is Smarter than Google
- January 9, 2011
- October 3, 2010
The coming privacy boom
- August 17, 2010
The appeal of virtual
- May 18, 2010
My next book: IBM's Jeopardy mission
- March 22, 2010
- November 12, 2009
BusinessWeek cannot afford to stay within McGraw-Hill
- August 6, 2009
How to remake BusinessWeek?
- July 16, 2009