Vincent Writes

Welcome to Vincent van Wylick's Website

Category: Long thoughts (page 1 of 26)

Be Consequential

As a creator, writer, artist, or entrepreneur, that is probably the greatest struggle we face. It’s the greatest lesson I learned from focussing on pure sales for several years, it’s the greatest goal I pursued in my writing and in my work as both a business owner and an employee.

In writing, this is hard for several reasons. What moves people and how do you measure it? Can you be aware of it before placing the first word on the screen? The way we measure written value is by tracking eyeball metrics, but those can just as well be attracted to a catchy title or book cover, and not at all be affected by the writer’s content. On an individual level, it’s a great balance between this measured relevance and then the feelings of your own and perhaps a focus group of users’ perception of value. At times, I would imagine, these can be quite far apart from each other.

In sales, perception and reality are much more aligned. The bad reputation of sales based on “lying to customers to get a sale” is quite misconstrued. Lying to get a sale is not sustainable. It’s the simple difference between the effort of selling to new customers or to existing customers. A “liar” would never get a second sale and would hence have to keep finding new customers, which is very hard. An honest sales person would build up his or her reputation with existing customers and be able to come back for another sale, which is, relatively speaking, much easier. Their financial revenues will, over time, be much higher and predictable.

When looking at other business functions, we return to similar conflicts that writers have. An entrepreneur will have to do a lot of product development and business building before getting both positive feedback and sales results. He or she too will have to rely on focus groups, by which I mean lead users or experts, and on his or her own conviction, to see if their business will add value. In the end, if the business sells product, perhaps the discrepancies will dissappear. Even so, much of the effort that entrepreneurs make (9 out of 10 new businesses fail more than once~source: 2008 statistics) is often not appreciated in the sales figures.

Because of the simple broadness of scope, it’s harder to discuss every business function’s consequence on others. Generally, the more linked your work is to the goals of the business, as well as to the needs of customers, the more valuable it is. It’s hard to teach that, it’s harder to understand that. Books like Ram Charan’s “What the CEO Wants You to Know” can teach you a lot, moving across different functions and running a business of your own will teach you a lot more–neither of which is an experience many people have.

The lesson in all of this is that it pays to not just DO, but be aware of the WHY behind it, or rather the WHY for the people affected by what you do. This can be taught or be instinctive, and is hardly ever as you expect it. You can believe one thing, which can be perceived differently by your surroundings; vice versa your surroundings can need one thing, which you can’t quite make a reality. The entrepreneur’s or writer’s journey is the most telling: it takes a lot of effort to get to word 1 or product 1, effort that may never be recognised, especially if the work is out of sync with its environment. Balancing that understanding with the work is what we all should aspire to do.

Inconsistencies:
if a writer sells, isn’t the feedback honest?
if a sales person helps rather than sell, isn’t there a misalignment?

The State of Individual Websites

These last few weeks, I’ve really been thinking about one main topic to write about (I’ve also experienced two of the most severe flus in my life): the state of individual websites in an unwelcoming ecosystem. I started with thinking about the evolution of social networks, which for me are more and more becoming professional media-based, rather than friend-or connection-focussed. As I came across an article on the disappearance of the blog due to both a change in consumption and in how Google ranks websites, my thinking evolved to that level and what it meant for me.

We all represent sub-cultures that exhibit different behaviours to how we add value to our intellectual lives. My consumption pattern for media is perhaps like yours the reader (there is the likelihood of a perception bias), but it could also be completely different. As a blogger since 2004, I’ve read a lot of blogs and found ways to organise that reading through dedicated readers. The jump to podcasts was not hard, because it’s essentially the same world in audio-format (independent authors, collective players instead of readers). Social media was always more experimental for me, because of the random nature of what you would get out of it (I have a good idea what Daring Fireball will write about tomorrow, but not necessarily my brother or girlfriend). Because I already had a dedicated reading environment, I was very slow to add (semi-)professional media to social platforms, and it still feels like something I should not mix.

Nowadays, we see social platforms everywhere and the idea of a dedicated reader has been pushed into the dark, forgotten corners of the web. A new user of the Internet will more likely have heard of Twitter and Facebook, than know that Google Reader once existed, was replaced by Google Plus (a Facebook clone that has no real value), and other much smaller readers tried to take Google Reader’s place (Feedly being the most well-known).

Next comes the problem of discoverability. While searching for blogs or other ‘independent content’ was always a little tricky—Google once had a dedicated blog search as well, but that was hidden off the main page—we now operate in an era where searching for any individual content will reveal either adverts or collective results. Think about the following:

  • Search for any book: you’ll probably find Amazon as the top-result.
  • Search for any job: you’ll get Indeed.com as a top-result.
  • Search for a restaurant or hotel: Trip Advisor or Yelp.

This list can easily go on for any search term out there. All of the above-mentioned websites have been around for over a decade, but another trend arose within this decade, that of single-serving sites that exploit individual searches. I don’t have to visit dishwasher.com or headphones.com to know that very likely it comes with a significant amount of buy here links to dishwashers or headphones. Owners of these domains don’t need to possess any domain-specific knowledge either, they just need to repeat a specific set of keywords many times on their websites to earn its title (note to self: write a blog post that repeats the words ‘Vincent’ and ‘writes’ over and over again…). The same trend is happening in job searching as well: search for CRM jobs and you will find a search site dedicated to these jobs, the same for analysis, IT, sales, etc. etc.

The overal point is that the idea of search is no longer aimed at specificity, but has been supplanted by collections of results. The underlying thought is that search is overwhelming, we need curators, but these curators are not in it for the common good either. The Internet is a commercial place and there is little potential for blockbusters—rather it’s little pockets of money, best catered to by these mini-specialised-sites.

I feel there is a loss associated with this, but it’s hard to describe that loss in general terms. As I said, we are all sub-cultures, and each of us becomes happy in our own way. So my idea of discoverability may be less valuable to you.

The loss for me is the conversation, which would in the past come from other bloggers seeking commonalities (and traffic) by leaving a comment behind. There is this feeling of being one tree in a  very large forest, and when a branch grows, it does so quietly.

Granted, the world has changed. We all hear this phrase “In my day…,” and I’m no longer sure whether there’s even a point in reflecting because the “my days” continually seem to be replaced by new realities. The new reality of publishing a book is growing an audience before any publisher becomes interested. The same applies for venture funding (even though that is currently on a peak) and for many other areas. We each make our own luck and only the suckers stick to the traditional, passive path of expecting favours. But that too isn’t sustainable. An author with an audience doesn’t need a publisher anymore. A company can self-fund. The weirdest market is that of job searchers, who are expected to network to enter the hidden job market, but even that seems like a shot in the dark.

Traffic for a blogger has never been easy. From the beginning of time the story went that the more you give (in the form of comments and guest posts on other sites), the more you get back. This hasn’t changed, except that many blogs are becoming even more obscure than they were before. Instead, the “marketing” happens on LinkedIN and other social platforms.

I’ve always been in this space for the purpose and satisfaction of writing, and that will likely not change. But I’m more and more thinking that writing on a “blog” is about as useful to the world, as writing in a text file on my desktop is. We are cluttered with information and whether I keep the clutter to myself or throw it out into a noisy world, there doesn’t seem to be much difference. These may be the words of a tired writer (recovering from the two flus I mentioned) and should probably be ignored. They may also be true.

To be evolved…

 

Lin火: Why Sherwood Smith chose to self-publish her latest book

Sherwood Smith is the co-author of Stranger and its sequel, the now self-published Hostage, neither of which I have read. I discovered her writing a guest-post on Charlie Stross’s blog. She (Sherwood) gives a revealing insight into the contemporary publishing model—at least in their experience—where the focus is on books as products, rather than literary pieces.

Their first book in the series was published via the traditional model, something they sought not to replicate because primarily the time factor:

But, as publishing often does these days, that process took three years from the time she expressed interest in the project (September 2011) to publication (November 2014). From Viking’s end, it was 2.5 years, i.e. from the time we signed their contract, in March 2012. But from the writer’s perspective? That wonderful “I’m interested” call came after the long period of submission, and then was followed by half a year of contract negotiation.

What the next step looks like from the writer’s end is that, once the offer is made, the writer gets notes that take a few weeks to rewrite or polish or proofread the manuscript before turning it back in to the publisher. Then they wait, and wait, and wait, until the next stage, and then wait again. From what we have been hearing from other writers is that the gaps between getting editorial feedback at each stage of the process may be anywhere from a few months to nine months to over a year—or longer. In those cases, the book’s release may be delayed, then delayed again.

Why the delays? My understanding is that publishing houses have changed a lot in the past forty years, partly because they’ve been scooped up by mega-corporations who regard books as product units, meant to gain instant profit or be dropped. And at minimal cost at their end, which means no more editorial staffs: editors are doing what used to be three and sometimes four people’s full time jobs, which means reading actual manuscripts on their own time. Rather like teachers, who correct and lesson plan on their own time. As I know from my own experience, they are paid for their classroom time, but they put in at least as much unpaid time behind the scenes.

As a result, manuscripts languish unread, or bought but unedited, for years, because one human being can only do so much in a day.

It’s an interesting case study, as you more hear about writers self-publishing their first book, then getting discovered, and entering the more traditional model. Pricing issues aside, which she describes in her blog-post, I think the most telling reason of why it’s easy to make the shift, is that authors are expected to generate their own publicity, something that publishers seem less willing to do. Publicity is already half the battle towards getting name recognition, the production of books, electronically or physically, is notably easier. Take that with the two possibilities of writing a book on your own time/money or funding more complex projects via Kickstarter and other sites, and the role of the traditional publisher is by and large diminished.

Lin火: Talib Kweli on why he left major labels

Talib Kweli is a hip-hop artists that I’ve known from the band Black Star, a collaboration between Mos Def and him. In this piece he recounts the process of going independent and the kinds of influences he has today.

So the question for the artist who is making a living from their art is: how do you monetize cultural relevancy?

It’s generally agreed that this is a problem for the artist, not the consumer of art, to solve. To find the answer I began to pay attention to indie artists with integrity who still make a good living, and I found myself paying attention to comedians. When Louis CK filmed a stand-up concert and made it available for stream and download on his website for $5, he made a cool million and gave half of it away to charity. I thought it was a genius idea, but when I tried to apply the realities of releasing a hip-hop album thru this kind of platform, the task seemed daunting. Louis CK comes up with jokes in his head and delivers them solo, on a microphone to an audience that is paying for seats. His only costs were probably the filming, the streaming and getting the website built, but the money he made from the concert could have probably covered these things. Louis’ hit show on FX and the success of his past comedy specials did the marketing for him, so he didn’t have to spend a lot of money in that department. He had no producers to pay, samples to clear, studio time to pay for, engineers, musicians, etc. There are no royalties that he has to pay out to anyone once the product is released as well. I scrapped the idea of being a hip-hop version of Louis CK, until singer/producer Ryan Leslie tracked me down to share an idea with me.

Lin火: Zoë Keating on the power of Youtube

What if, for years and years, you use social media as a tool to interact socially with your fans and friends? And what if that tool suddenly presents you with a big fat contract outlining who the boss is? Well, as Zoë Keating discovers that Google is boss, at least where it concerns publishing your content on it. The only problem is that the type of people like Zoë Keating… the type that woud use YouTube because it’s a convenient medium to reach many people… these types of people don’t necessarily believe with that dogma.

I found these words particularly striking.

The catalog commitment is the biggest issue for me. All these years I’ve yet to participate fully in any streaming service although I’ve chosen to give a handful of recordings to a few of them. If anyone wants more and they balk at paying for it, they can always stream all my music for free on Bandcamp(*2) or Soundcloud or they can torrent it (I uploaded my music to Pirate Bay myself many years ago). I’ve heard all the arguments about why artists should make all their music available for streaming in every possible service. I also know the ecosystem of music delivery made a shift away from downloading last year. Streaming is no longer advertising for something else, it is the end product. It’s convenient. Convenience is king. Yup, got all that, thanks.

This is the important part: it is my decision to make.

Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015? It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to. I was encouraged to participate and now, after I’m invested, I’m being pressured into something I don’t want to do.

P.S. Zoë Keating is one of those few artists that I bought music from just via her website. Powerful music, maybe not for every moment, but an artists that deserves serious recognition.

On Publishing vs Platforms part two

When I linked to the Harvard Business Review article about hybrid Publisher-Platform strategies a few days ago, I didn’t actually say that I find the strategy a little outdated in this day and age. We have established platforms with huge audiences and we have publisher with huge qualitative content capabilities. Yes, everything changes, and yes, once upon a time we said great things about MySpace (arguably a hybrid strategy that failed) as well, but the trend is really towards platforms becoming (stable) utilities and publishers to embrace those now established mediums. Facebook’s and Twitter’s (and Google’s) ‘connect with’ buttons are everywhere, eliminating much of the friction of integrating services with those platforms (I forgot LinkedIN in this, also a big one).

Publishers are rising to the challenge, (hopefully slowly abandoning old media and) embracing publishing where people read stuff: not in glossies or old tree canvasses, but in a feed.

The missing part is targeting. Of the big three, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, only the last one is pursuing a clear value proposition: for professionals. Facebook asks me to add my CV on a regular basis (not going to happen) and Twitter is a little bit of everything and nothing. So now I have Harvard Business Review in my Facebook and on LinkedIN, one of those two is going to lose. This represents a dual effort that can only come out of a continuing uncertainty of where content will be read (Arguably, tablet and mobile platform-interfaces are adding to this developmental overhead).

The Publisher as a Platform strategy may seem outdated, but it’s clearly a desire to control both content and audience, something that may not be as frictionless using other platforms. It’s public knowledge, for instance, that Apple does not share much user data with app developers (thank you Apple), but I don’t know whether this communication break is common practice with other platforms. I assume that due to the business model (it’s free, but someone is paying for it, usually with our user data), it isn’t.

So why does a publication choose to embrace so many platforms if, for instance, Facebook encompasses a good audience already? It may be for a couple of reasons, some more relevant than others.

  • One would be hedging bets on the future of a platform: history has proven that nothing lasts forever
  • Two may be that the overhead isn’t as large as imagined: at least for the web-based-platforms the programming tools will be similar. Platforms also have an incentive to make building apps easier.
  • Three could be differing audiences: LinkedIN and Facebook clearly aren’t the same, there is some overlap, but there are also people that only use one of the two. Same with Twitter and Facebook.
  • Four could be relevance: There’s a reason why old media is called Old…
  • Five could be learning: about platforms, audiences, differing business models, etc.

The list is probably endless and my bet is that at least half were mentioned in strategic discussions about publishing on platforms.

With all these challenges, however, it makes less and less sense to reinvent the wheel, unless your content or your platform vision is truly unique. Medium was an example mentioned in the article I previously linked to, but even that is risking much by some of the changes it is making, namely opening up the gates to the masses (I assume it did this because the masses were not reading enough). I hate end these thoughts on Publishing vs Platforms with time will tell, but it always does.

Kottke.org & the evolution of Link Aggregation

I probably started reading Kottke.org 5 or 6 years ago, but realise that in its near 17-year history, it has survived through some pretty radical changes on the Internet. Jason Kottke writes about this in a, perhaps inadvertently, revealing blog post on the topic of links—the essence of what makes the Internet the Internet.

I could write a lot about what I think defines Jason Kottke’s website as a go-to site for me. Yes, it’s not focussed on a particular topic-area (what are the liberal arts really, except everything), but generally the content is interesting, intelligent and, as a result, rewarding to read. I also appreciate the commercial direction that Kottke.org has taken. On a podcast-interview some years ago, Kottke said that he can’t have a similar sponsorship model to sites like Daring Fireball, because that site is focussed on a particular popular and profitable area (again, that indefinability of ‘culture’). Recently, Kottke.org took on a new sponsorship model revolving around Kickstarter projects, which seems like an excellent fit for the site and are ‘advertorials’ that I actually enjoy to read.

In the blog post that he entitled “The return of the remaindered links (sort of),” Kottke writes about the importance of links to Kottke.org’s initial growth and the subsequent commoditisation of links as the web evolved:

The links gave the site a velocity it didn’t previously have. I hadn’t really thought about it until I sat down to write this post, but that increase in velocity made it possible, more than two years later, for me to quit my job and do kottke.org full-time. But the web has changed. Sites like Reddit, Digg, and Hacker News and services like Facebook and Twitter are so much faster than this one man band…trying to keep pace is like racing an F1 car on roller skates. So, I’ve traded that velocity for quality (or, if you’d prefer, fussiness). I no longer post 10-12 things per day. Instead I post 4-6 of the most interesting things I can share with you on that given day.

With Twitter, things are changing for him again, but I understand the following sentiment quite well:

As my remaindered links experience shows, going fast without a plan can be beneficial in unexpected ways. With different tools and media delivery channels available to me now, I wonder: how fast can a one-person site go while still maintaining that choosiness?

To translate this into something more innovation focussed, we see phases of Kottke’s development:

  1. One of several blogs on the Internet.
  2. An increase in content and audience through the aggregation of links.
  3. Rise of link aggregators (along with, I believe, changes in the way Google weighs them) leads to a devaluation of the link concept.
  4. Refocus of site on quality over quantity again.
  5. Rise of Twitter as a personal link aggregation site (previous aggregators had much less identity associated with them).
  6. Attempt to reintegrate that into the Kottke.org brand.
  7. Next…?

There is no telling if his experiment will work, but my bet is that as long as he associates it with his unique vision about what goes onto the site, it will be somewhat successful. It’s important to note that his current advertising model (just referring to the sponsorships) is long form and therefore perhaps less suitable for a site that posts short links exclusively, if that is a possible direction he is considering.

In the end there is no such thing as sustainability, at least not in the “stay the same and make money” sense. Everything has diminishing returns as the rest of the “competition” eventually catches on. The key is to balance experiments with opportunity cost analysis (risks of jumping on wrong (technology) bandwagon, of alienating audiences or paying customers).

The strange transparency of Apple’s App Developers

Now, when I say transparency, I do mean that in a very limited way. Datapoints are being revealed left and right by developers, but even so the majority of app developers are keeping their sales numbers quite hidden.

A little background: Overcast, Unread, Monument Valley and several other more prominent developers have been quite open about the financial results of their respective apps (MacStories has more). In the greater context of things, this is perhaps not unusual. As I pointed out in previous blogposts, we live in an age where information is speeding up and increasingly becoming commoditized. Still, you don’t really see many commercial businesses revealing their numbers, unless they are public and obliged to do so to their shareholders.

So I have a few theories about this, the primary one being that the App Store is a learning platform for many developers. It has built-in tools, an audience, and a revenue structure that is by and large complete, just missing that special recipe that makes the app (what many have pointed out is lacking however is the App Store as a marketing and sales tracking platform). Apple is also quite transparent to not want anything more from its developers except for their 30% cut and certain, sometimes oblique, values to be respected (no adult content, spam, advanced functionalities in notification center?). Apple is also the market leader as far as these app platforms go (alternatives are Google Play, Amazon, Facebook, you name it), providing a certain stability and confidence in developers that it, at least, is here to stay. Finally, there is the combing trend of communities enabled by the Internet and even before that around Apple, that makes it easier for people to open to up to what they feel are sympathetic audiences.

The bigger question is will this lead to something? For many developers, I can imagine it will. You can do a computer science degree to learn how to code, you can learn how to code from the Internet. To run a business, the best learning is made from the marketplace and these kinds of ‘revelations’ are invaluable lessons to budding entrepreneurs. That said, there are no guarantees that the App Store is a viable platform forever. Marco Arment and others publish statistics about what it’s like to have a relatively successful app in that marketplace, with its inbuilt mechanism to make the purchase possible. Arguably building for mobile will always require some kind of App Store, but there is no certainty about it making you rich.

Lin火: “Don’t Try to Be a Publisher and a Platform at the Same Time”

Harvard Business Review has an article discussing some of the complexities surrounding hybrid publishing platform or “platisher”strategies:

Typically, publishers are considered to have editorial judgment, while platforms lack it. From this perspective, the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, and The New York Times are classic “publishers” — they present highly-curated content, and their editors invest a lot of time in its creation. Google, Facebook, and Twitter are classic “platforms” — they distribute other peoples’ content without as much editorial oversight. But these differences are largely cultural. It’s not technologically difficult for publishers to add platform-like elements, and vice versa.

Making these hybrids work over the long term is difficult, because their incentives work against each other. Toward the end of last year, one of the first platishers, Say Media, announced it was selling off its publishing properties to focus on its technological platform. CEO Matt Sanchez explained the decision to jettison its publisher properties as an inability to do both tech and content at the same time.

As more platishers mature, they may find themselves facing similar conundrums. Platform and publisher incentives are better aligned when a platform is new. A new platform that’s intended to host user-generated content has one overriding goal: Attract users and convince them to create content. High-quality, carefully-edited content is great for pulling in an audience. Well-thought-out content can also “seed” the platform for new users, shaping their understanding of how they use the tool.

The answer is perhaps blindingly obvious. Publishing platforms work well, but less so for individuals publishing, like on Medium or most blogging engines. Rather they work well for groups of people forming all the best ingredients for a publication: research, writing, editing, revenue.

I have yet to see a platform encouraging such groups (apart from the basic functionalities) in the form of how-to’s and easy structures taken from traditional publishing houses.

Banksy, Uber, Je Suis Charlie, and the limitations of freedom

I believe to have said it before, but the one element I like about storytelling is the infinite range that your imagination can take characters and situations. Oddly enough, we live an age where information can also travel into infinite directions and in real time. This is the age of connectivity between devices, words, pictures, images, executable code, and people. This reality is just one of several, but it has been around for the affluent part of this world since the mid-nineties. To anyone growing up or immersing themselves in this reality for years and years, the view on the malleability of what is and what can be is irreversibly changed.

To some extent this same analogy can be made about globalisation, where companies are now incredibly flexible to choose how much they pay in wages, taxes, and other resources, all according to what location they settle on in a map. This, to the chagrin of many a local government that sees countless organisations close up shop and place their workforce into subsidised (un)employment programmes, because they either found cheaper means of production elsewhere or cannot compete with organisations that benefit from these advantages.

The Internet has had an equatable type of opposition in that many would not want information to move as freely as it does, because of financial and ideological reasons. Digital information (much like the resources used in globalisation) has become so flexible, so replicable, that the concept of ownership is very much in doubt. The traditional link between value and object risks to become severed and threatens to overthrow certain less adaptive elements of our economy.

Ideologically speaking, two threats of free information are often discussed. One, the risk of the media-hype, which can distort the truth of stories but can equally give extremists (like those that caused the Paris massacre) a platform to shout out their message from. The freedom of media is causing both for everything to be open (think racial profiling and killing in Ferguson), but can also bombard and destroy (think paparazzi chasing and causing the death of Lady Diana). On the other side of the coin, this abundance of press also causes audiences to become increasingly desensitised about the many atrocities around this world (particularly those in areas that don’t necessarily affect us directly).

So, how does this relate to Uber, the Je Suis Charlie movement coming out of yesterday’s Paris killings, and Banksy? Each of these deals with the testing of the boundaries of our current reality. Uber, in providing a service that wants to freely turn every driver into an entrepreneur, but depends very much on a free market economy where they can compete with established (and licensed) transportation companies. Je Suis Charlie, or rather the publication Charlie Hebdo, which chose to disregard individuals’ and groups’ sensitivities and instead chose to publish cartoons that were provocative in thought and certainly provocative in feeling (please read my note about this below!). Banksy, an artist treating public architecture as his distribution mechanism.

Each of these have decided to embrace freedom, yet have (purposefully) ignored that this freedom can also create havoc elsewhere and to themselves. Charlie Hebdo tries to expose much of the silliness in people’s beliefs, but that alone is not sufficient in eliminating that people believe in certain causes (that may or may not hold valor). Banksy combined public commentary and the use of a controversial medium (graffiti) into a  condemnation of the art world and statements about societies similar to Charlie Hebdo’s. Uber, perhaps in bad company amongst these two, chose to follow the freedom of a capitalist model (following many other recent startups), while purposefully ignoring the local environment for their own benefit.

With the freedom of information age that we live in, come these entrenched beliefs that we should not be censored in what we say and that it is better to act than to stand still. But this new thinking clashes with a world, a reality, where resource mobility comes at a cost, where information can hurt and overwhelm, where established forces do not want to be a part of this freedom. In this free world, we no longer have the freedom to choose not to participate, to choose to not lose our jobs to cheaper labour elsewhere, to not have our private pictures exposed, to not have our religious beliefs questioned, to not have our property defaced with graffiti, etc.

Freedom in a world without boundaries makes sense, yet we live in a world where someone, somewhere has the power to pull the plug, to pull the trigger, to pull the curtain closed. More worryingly, we live in a world, where the very limiting nature of our planetary biology discourages freedom and asks for restraint. We also live in the contrast where one person’s truth can set them free, while another person’s lie can provide them with food and housing in an otherwise poor environment.

What is the answer to this? To me, freedom cannot be the sake of it, but respect and cultural sensitivity to the diversity of beliefs is a more sustainable way forward. To me, Charlie Hebdo was playing with the fire of a stick of dynamite that has been burning globally for a very very long time. Uber has to realise that financial growth is not the only metric to measure themselves by. Banksy, while amazing, is essentially a criminal.

I wanted to publish something more hopeful, but these values of respecting differences are too deep and while I hurt for the killing of these amazing journalists, I also hurt for much of the killing happening in other parts of this world, largely ignored for the consequences they have on the behaviour of radicals within the Western world. Nothing excuses violence and nothing excuses ignorance, somehow we have all found ourselves in the middle of this discussion to which there is no short-term solution.

Afterword: after careful reflection, including discussions on the media and attending the march to pay respects to those that were killed as part of the Charlie Hebdo massacare, I want to add that I very much realise that all of this is a matter of perspective. To the French, Charlie Hebdo was a pillar of free speech and many of its contents were both contested and vindicated within the French legal framework, which deeply respects the separation between Church and State. The I am Charlie movement is also not just about free speech, it is about not living in fear. It is about not living in a dictatorship that restricts much more than just freedom of choice. My stance is still that this freedom of expression must be nuanced to respect those involved in it. Invading people’s privacy is not OK. Should conducting actions that conflict with people’s beliefs be OK? It’s a tough question that I struggle with in light of what comes after free speech is restricted.

The complexity in innovation

As someone with an unbridled curiosity about how (any kind of) organisations innovate, combined with a passion and ongoing interest for all new technological developments on the market, I have had the luck to have some incredibly in-depth and specific conversations with innovators about what they are trying to accomplish.

Every organisation is trying to accomplish something, because every one of them feels the pressure of being left behind. Some governments offer some limited protection in the forms of subsidies, tax-breaks, and protective measures against foreign competition, but every company has to stand on its own two feet by the age of maybe 3-5 years old. When you are alone like this, it matters to both earn a living now and to provide the promise of earning a living in the future. That is where innovation comes in.

We all derive our inspiration from the intelligent developments around us. For many, it’s the market, new technologies being released that make us wonder whether this or that organisation could do the same. For some, it’s also public, but less accessible releases in the forms of scientific breakthroughs that may inspire the expert to build on top of that. For a few, it’s the scientific team in a closed off lab that comes up with an idea that can transform itself into an innovation downstream.

It’s always worthwhile to come back to the essence of what an innovation is supposed to be: an invention that has commercial application. An idea that transforms itself into a product or service that people are willing to pay for. There are very prominent elements within this definition of novelty and applicability, which is a tough balance to manage between getting inspired by existing market innovations and not yet commercial raw scientific ideas.

The truth of the matter is that these are all races of solutions for specific problems. In the end, the problem (market) can only sustain a few of these solutions, which means that speed and completeness of a solution are keys to success. It means that any organisation that seeks to innovate, must do so in the way of a well-oiled machine, while realising that that investment may not pay off now, but will pay off if you see it as a continuous muscle that gets stronger with every problem you are trying to solve.

To make things not at all easier, the rate of innovation is increasing with technological advances. Physical goods are catching up to digital goods, in the sense that anything can now be modelled and prototypes can be produced and tested at a faster speed. This could and will very likely end up in a downward spiral for business returns, because, much like in for instance the software market, the range of utilities makes the market more price-sensitive and less loyal, thus creating less sustainable rewards from single innovations.

The conclusion is therefore two-fold. One, no organisation can afford to not dedicate time and resources to consider their long-term positioning in the market. Two, organisations seeking to be though-leaders in the market, must make the difficult choice of continually innovating with the promise of smaller returns, or of finding alternative models that position them within an innovative ecosystem, without getting sucked down the spiral. A good example of this are the many platforms that continue to arise, though even those risk becoming commodities over time. That … is the complexity in innovation.

I envision a world where filters are no more

What if this drama resulted in every newspaper (and weblog) publishing content that provokes… thought? What if by everyone becoming ‘the enemy,’ we all end up laughing about it becoming friends? What if…?

Je suis charlie

Ahem, hello and welcome back

First of all, happy new year! Second of all, this was one of those years where the transition of one to the next was less special than other times. I am not 100% sure why — less happy new year wishes on Facebook, a stressful few months, perhaps other priorities in life. But still, happy new year and may this one bring joyful news about your friends, family, work, and/or geopolitics.

Two months ago, I started a strange workflow that both works and doesn’t work for the purpose of this weblog. I started making notes offline, for the purpose of writing a blog post in the future. Why it works: it’s considerably more stress free than writing up one post at a time, sometimes over several days/weeks. Instead, I start with micro-thoughts, tag them for this blog, and finish it when inspiration hits.

Why it doesn’t work: long breaks mean I have a huge backlog of these ideas and that it’s a challenge knowing on where to start. I like going back and publishing the oldest thought and continue from there. That works well. But what if the oldest thought was from a time where you don’t even remember what you were really thinking? Can you recreate it? Is it still relevant? Then the search continues along the timeline to reconnect with a thought worth publishing.

That aside, what is the plan for this weblog in 2015? I’m afraid it’s more of the same, while I promise to continue to make the structure more transparent and easier to navigate. I started a little with this end of 2014, by creating a landing page and a separate blog view (found under this weburl/blog). As mentioned, I have a backlog of ideas (91 according to my CMS), of which I hope half are word-worthy.

Until the next time then.

Essay: The Consequences of Having a Digital Soul

In science fiction and in the Kurzweilesque future reality, the concept of a digital soul is abstract and difficult to grasp. Yet, we have experienced an evolution in this area in the last half decade or so. I speak of the simple matter of IT backups and how it changes our thinking about IT. Very likely that same change of thinking will happen about what it means to be human as well.

At some recent point in time, each computer that we possessed was a separate entity. Yes, every computer was designed with input and output methods, in the form of (portable) storage devices, keyboards and mice, printers, and other forms of output. This evolved to the rudimentary beginnings of the Internet and has exploded in the last 15 years. As network speeds became faster, so came the introduction of ‘the backup,’ in the form of external storage, either in the home or off-site.

Right now, computers are backed up in a multitude of ways. We have offsite options, in the form of Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, Backblaze, and countless more. We have home-based options, in the form of software that will sync/backup your data to external harddrives. Not to be ignored, we have software that operates in the cloud, from note-taking to video-recording, to managing your customer, financial, and other company data.

What is one practical consequence of this? Every time your computer gets stolen, breaks, or is replaced, for every fire and flood, a simple restoration procedure from backup to a new computer will restore your digital life to its original, useful state. In essence, the hardware has become immaterial.

So what is the value of a human life? At this time, it is priceless because each and every one of us is ‘unique.’ We have data within us and, let’s not forget, physical features that are impossible to replicate and replace. We, you and I, are not backed up into some form of external storage. I am the only copy as are you, you, and you too.

Right now it seems unimaginable that Raymond Kurzweil or others will succeed to upload our human essence into a digital storage device 1. It seems equally difficult to grasp as to why they would want to do this, as if the very act would remove what it means to be human. That part is true. If being human means being unique, then having a backup is decidedly not human.

But there is incredible value in transcending humanity in that way. Wars and other disasters are killing people every day. People that we will never see again. Some are saying that our planet is being destroyed either by natural or industrial forces, or rather a combination of both. Without action, our only exit is to leave Earth and relocate somewhere else in space. Yet, that brings the cost of transportation with it, mostly expressed in time (another precious human commodity) and the resource cost of transporting many, let alone one.

What about more controversial values? What is the value of someone that is imprisoned for life, yet (supposedly) reforming himself? What is the value of the many unemployed, a trend that only seems to be improving for the wealthier part of this world? What is the value of a parent outliving a child or a person wanting to extend their life beyond human terms? The controversiality is that this value can also be expressed in cost to society.

If we do succeed in transcending towards a transportability of our digital souls, then we will also lose something else. We will lose our bodies and what they mean to both us and the people around us. At best summarised by staring into your beloveds’ eyes, also called the windows to our souls, which would then disappear with the passing of a human. Yes, we are making strides in replicating objects on a three-dimensional scale, but it is hard to believe that this replication can reproduce the depth and uniqueness of the eye, the texture, temperature, and hardness/softness of the body, the characteristics and flaws that make us unique in a physical sense.

For everything there is a price, but as I found out many times now with my electric devices, that price is relatively minor compared to having all of your memories restored. A point of discussion I admit, but I’m happy to argue it on this front also: does the value of a digital soul that is eternal outweigh the value of the whole of a living, breathing, physical specimen?

Notes:

  1. For those interested, find out more information about his vision here

Lin火: an interview with David Grann, New Yorker author

For those that do not know David Grann, he’s a writer for New Yorker and author of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (a favourite read of mine), as well as The Devil and Sherlock Holmes. To me, he has the best job in the world, but that’s mostly because I enjoy reading his work so much. In this interview on the Longform podcast, he reveals a lot about his process and how he ended up where he did.

It becomes pretty clear from his words that the news publishing business is not easy. He admits that he is not cut out for the fast writing pace required for certain types of news stories and time is less of an element for his kind of writing. At the same time, it is pragmatic world that revolves around doing as much preparatory work as possible, requires (over)selling your stories to your backers (the publisher), and of course timing plays a role as well. On a personal note, I found it interesting that he comes from a creative writing background, which is different from that of a news writing one—the latter being much more focussed on brevity and speed of writing.

The nature of his stories are very different, but as he highlights, it’s about finding authentic voices, designing a narrative around them, and, of course as a non-fiction writer, of triangulating the truth from what he hears. He discusses several of them in the interview, as well as the complexity around writing these stories.

Wikipedia has a nice overview of the articles he wrote in his career. If you added all of these to your Instapaper, you’d have a nice reading list for the holidays. I greatly recommend The Lost City of Z, an adventurous and romantic tale about an explorer’s fascination with a mythical city in the Amazon and his eventual disappearance.

On Marketing: The business of loneliness

Perhaps it was in the late 60s that smart (M)admen decided that the next great thing is loneliness. Yes, probably before that, loneliness was a topic also, but it was different. The lonely were idealised (think lone cowboys in Westerns or James Dean). Perhaps at that time people wanted to be lonely.

After a certain point, let’s call it the rise of career-orientated male and female individuals and dual household incomes, loneliness became a pain rather than an ideal. Thus came the era of products and services targeted at this market: microwave dinners, TV, speed dating… and why do you think no one cares if you eat a McDonalds meal alone vs. at any other restaurant?

This hasn’t changed much, though we now have an abundance of services for single consumers, from content via your personal computer to couch-surfing. But there is another area that shouldn’t be ignored, that of the dual income market. Here we see the messaging shift from loneliness to making the best of the little time you have. Think luxury weekends, baby creches and other kid-orientated distractions, family-sized sports cars, and … robotic vacuum cleaners (my inspiration is slipping here).

With overpopulated now-not-so emerging economies like China and India, and the competitive pressures of a ‘flat’ global economy, this trend is not disappearing, rather we are moving towards less workers’ protection and a higher burden on and cost of services. Judging by what is happening around the globe, we could be heading one of two directions in the future: an acceptance to live with less on either a physical or spiritual level, or a war that temporarily reverses this trend, but only for the victors.

I’m sorry to head in both a geo-political and a Buddhist direction all at once. I choose to believe that, ignoring the many opportunities that life provides to crawl out from under the rock of humanity, most of us will have to become more efficient with what we have, and I will leave the reader to interpret that in either the spiritual or physical sense.

Taking a marketing stance may seem cynical, but not if you view business as the organisational connection between individuals, problems and solutions. We get into cars that get us to a destination quicker, but the car itself must be built with that purpose in mind. That requires a good understanding and appreciation of both sides of the equation: our consumer need and the services that can help us to reach it at a higher level.

So how can or are marketeers biting into this trend? Making more with less can mean spending less today and tomorrow and the day after, or it can mean spend more to have more, and both are viable perspectives. Spiritually, we are looking for both mind-strengthening activities and emotionally satisfying ones. Think sports and meditative services and on the emotional side, think family orientated services (from public spaces to family movies). Physically or materially, we are looking for one of two things: discounted pricing or getting more for your spend. In consumer electronics, these are the cheap netbooks vs. the more durable MacBooks; in food, these are the discounters like Aldi’s or Lidl’s vs. more energy-bringing “super” foods from (not necessarily) premium vendors.

In a perfect economy, there is perfect transparency and perfect pricing. Sadly, many of these services that I suggest are not perfectly understood and mis-priced. It shouldn’t be a premium service to go meditate somewhere and healthy food that gives you energy and makes you live longer, should not only be found in expensive stores. Conversely, short-term solutions shouldn’t be priced at a discount, because their ingredients are commodities (yes, I’m talking to the Samsung’s and McDonald’s of the world).

Both suffer from non-transparent because the cost or benefit to society is not included in the calculus. But that is a discussion for another day and perhaps someone else.

On Writing (Lin火): Steven Pinker on Style


In what’s quickly becoming my favourite intellectual podcast,  Radio Open Source’s Christopher Lydon interviews Steven Pinker on his new book “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.” Having read “The Elements of Style” at least a dozen times (I still haven’t mastered it), I’m interested in reading this supposed counter to the reductive advice given in Shrunk’s guide.

Pinker celebrates the more floral way of writing (in this writer’s point of view), which has its merits, but can tire the mind if over-used. I agree that the key to good writing is to read good (and bad) writing, but believe myself that all good things must be used in extreme moderation. Much like Darwin’s last line in  “The Origin of Species” (quoted in the podcast description), which leaves the reader inspired, but only after reading what I hope is a much more to the point description of evolution.

Publishing: Is free content an opportunity or a threat to scientific publishing?

Similar to last post from last Friday, there are other trends that are threatening the raison d’être of the traditional publishing model. This specifically being about publicly funded publishing, i.e. the scientific kind, being asked to become free content. What I find interesting is that this is not really for reasons of disruptive technologies like the Internet (even though Bill Gates is one of the initiators), but rather a much broader idea: that knowledge is important and must become free for the maximum benefit of societies.

The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation published a new manifesto / open access policy on their site a few days ago. It lists 5 stipulations that publishers associated to research sponsored by the foundation must follow:

  1. Publications Are Discoverable and Accessible Online. Publications will be deposited in a specified repository(s) with proper tagging of metadata.

  2. Publication Will Be On “Open Access” Terms. All publications shall be published under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CC BY 4.0) or an equivalent license. This will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.

  3. Foundation Will Pay Necessary Fees. The foundation would pay reasonable fees required by a publisher to effect publication on these terms.

  4. Publications Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. All publications shall be available immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period. An embargo period is the period during which the publisher will require a subscription or the payment of a fee to gain access to the publication. We are, however, providing a transition period of up to two years from the effective date of the policy (or until January 1, 2017). During the transition period, the foundation will allow publications in journals that provide up to a 12-month embargo period.

  5. Data Underlying Published Research Results Will Be Accessible and Open Immediately. The foundation will require that data underlying the published research results be immediately accessible and open. This too is subject to the transition period and a 12-month embargo may be applied.

Of note, this is not a new movement. In 2012, the British government announced that tax-sponsored research would be freely accessible as of last year. The European Union followed suit, and some American institutes (the Gates foundation included) are requiring it too.

Having studied scientific publishing models for some years now, I believe that this will in fact become an unopposed reality. The reason being that scientific publishers are transforming into becoming providers of decision making tools for scientific advancement. They are still dependent on new publications, but having access to so much raw data means that they can create intelligence on top of that, making it more accessible to practitioners. That is becoming their new revenue stream, therefore reducing their dependence on the traditional model.

Whether this should be a universally accepted way of publishing, arguably it already has in some parts, since this and many other blogs are free to read. I have a feeling that book publishing is heading into a different direction, though still more and more cutting out the middle-man, i.e. the publishers. Where it leaves the latter and how this will translate to other publishing media is a big question I hope to get the answer to in the future.

Publishing Lin火: “Amazon is doing the world a favor by crushing book publishers”

In a decidedly inflammatory article, Matthew Yglesias writes on VOX:

When all is said and done, the argument between Amazon and book publishers is over the rather banal question of price. Amazon’s view is that since “printing” an extra copy of an e-book is really cheap, e-books should be really cheap. Publishers’ view is that since “printing” an extra copy of an e-book is really cheap, e-books should offer enormous profit margins to book publishers. If you care about reading or ideas or literature, the choice between these visions is not a difficult one. The publishing incumbents have managed to get some intellectuals sufficiently tangled-up to believe that it is. But ask yourself this — do you regret the invention of the printing press? Of the paperback? Do you think public libraries devalue books and reading? The idea is absurd.

I don’t agree with everything he writes here — while one ecosystem is clearly losing ground, is a new Amazon-run ecosystem necessarily better? — but I do find some of the arguments regarding the more empowered stature of authors compelling.

In addition, the increase in authorship also creates a power-distribution problem. A publisher might have been willing to take a risk on a new author a few decades ago, but there is ample supply of writing out there, meaning that publishers become more conservative in their selection. The only reason this is happening is because of the investment that a publisher makes into authors, which is nice, but not if it restricts consumer choice. As is increasingly becoming clear that investment is available elsewhere also and the remaining services that publishers provide to authors can be replaced by a number of alternatives (distribution, marketing) or are no longer as necessary (printing).

On Publishing: Christopher Nolan’s creative process

In this article in the NY Times, Christopher Nolan, creator of Interstellar, the Batman trilogy, Memento, and many more movies, gives some insight into how he works. In terms of ambition, he’s one of my favourite auteurs, though not one that I expect to like all the time. On a side-note, that is what I hear makes for a successful movie, one that people either rate highly or rate lowly, but not consider mediocre.

There were a few tidbits in the article that stood out to me, regarding how he designs physical landscapes (a key quote: “The genius of [Ridley Scott’s] “Blade Runner” […] is that you never feel like you’ve gotten close to the edge of the world.”), how he uses collaboration within the studio system to his advantage, and how to create that very ambiguity of interpretation that makes him an interesting auteur.

The key differences between the creative process in movies and that in other mediums, is perhaps most strikingly the physical aspect that drives the visual medium. From the article:

[Nolan] tries to build maps the size of the territory, whole cities from the ground up in disused airship hangars (as he’s done for four of his movies at a former R.A.F. facility outside London), even if he’s going to shoot just a few street-corner scenes.

It’s hard to imagine this, both for a non-industry-insider and for an aspiring filmmaker (with a lower budget than Nolan). But it also makes sense. Some of the most striking movies, the aforementioned Blade Runner, Star Wars, Terminator, not to mention outside of the sci-fi genre, used low tech mechanical effects, not CGI, resulting in movies that stood the test of time and perhaps, like Nolan says, create the effect of a real world.

He also discusses the collaborative nature of this process and how to use it to his advantage…

“The single-most important thing was the art of working in the studio system,” Nolan told me of his experience with “Insomnia.” “It takes time to learn how to take notes. In the corporate structure, the people giving you the notes are not responsible for the final product. You are. It’s not their job, it’s yours. When you’re taking notes, it’s possible that you’re having an interesting conversation with a very smart individual and everything they’re saying is correct. But they’re wrong. So you have to go back and approach it from a different angle.” He continues to treat executives as, essentially, representative filmgoers. At a development meeting — at, in other words, a conference-room table — before “The Dark Knight,” he had to explain the Joker’s motivations. “Execs are very good at saying things like, ‘What’s the bad guy’s plan?’ They know those engines have to be very powerful. I had to say: ‘The Joker represents chaos, anarchy. He has no logical objective in mind.’ I had to explain it to them, and that’s when I realized I had to explain it to the audience.”

What I find interesting about movies, very similar to how games are made, is that you can’t really do anything alone. Sure, you can take your Canon DSLR and go shoot some footage and sure it’s technically a movie, but really these creations involve complex tasks, different actors, locations, and many other links in the complex chain that connects creation to consumption in the cinema or at home. Writing sometimes feels a bit more independent (or isolated), but it’s important to keep in mind that that too is part of a value chain, from working with editors and publishers, to perhaps being the script for a movie, all of which creates that magical experience for the audience.

Last, but not least, he discusses ambiguity, which is arguably a part of most of his creations.

Nolan is known for making movies that hold themselves open to various interpretations, but it’s an effect that can be created only when the director knows, in his own mind, exactly how he sees it. For the director’s commentary on “Memento,” Nolan recorded three different, equally plausible interpretations of the final scene that the DVD serves at random to viewers. But he insists he has a full, definitive interpretation that he keeps to himself. “The only way to be productively ambiguous,” he told me, “is that you have to know the answer for you — but also know why, objectively speaking. If you do something unknowable, there’s no answer for the audience, because you didn’t have an answer. It becomes about ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. There has to be a sense of reality in the film. If you don’t have rules, then what I’m doing would be formless. I feel better with consistent rules.”

Now, at this stage, I’d like to say that there are scenes in Interstellar that definitely bothered me (I think I wrote about this yesterday), the reason being because they are a little light on the exposition. Not everything needs to be explained, but there needs to be a payoff at some point (I did not really get that in this case). Key here, however, is to understand that Nolan is in the unique position to determine the creative path of his movies. Often, within the collaborative studio system, previously discussed, we see a design by committee effect, simplifying and exposing to the least common denominator. That is, thankfully, not a criteria of Nolan’s movies.

 

Older posts

© 2017 Vincent Writes

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑