Monday, 26 July 2010

Book reviews: Being Direct & Double Lives

I'm hip deep in a few books at the moment, trying to catch up with a vast pile of things I need to read. Mandelson's new book is somewhere near the top, although so far I've not found it has quite the hook I was hoping. But, for reasons too complicated to go into, I found myself going back to one of my favourite books recently.

Lester Wunderman is a name which really needs no introduction. He has changed the way in which advertising has worked in a fundamental way, essentially inventing direct marketing, and leading the charge on a range of other innovations.

Being Direct takes the form of a biographical tract, and it is surprisingly humble. The book also has a nod to those of us who are reading it to learn, with each chapter ending with a clear summary of what Wunderman and his team discovered in their work. I've found thats rare in this sort of book, most authors seem to prefer to retain the idea there is some sort of magical formula, which only they possess the key to.

Its also one of the most incredible life stories you could hope to read, made all the better for the fact it is incomplete. Its also something which is a real learning experience. If you're trying to get a handle on how advertising and messaging work its a brilliant book.

Another book I recently returned to is Double Lives by Stephen Koch. A fascinating book on the Russian spy networks during the early Cold War.

It focusses on a mecurial character named Willi Muzenberg, a consumate master of propaganda and messaging in all its forms. The book slices through his career, encompassing a host of other characters, who he manipulated and turned to his will.

Its a slow starting book, and extremely tough to get into, since it doesnt always deal with the easiest subject matter. It's also extremely dense, rammed full of facts and names which weave in and out of each other.

The sheer size, and scale of what was in essence, a grassroots campaign, is staggering. Muzenburg mobilised a cast of thousands, self sustaining and self motivating, in support of his cause.

I really recommend this book for anyone who wants to get a sense of a piece of history which has largely fallen by the wayside. For campaigners, it gives an interesting insight into how networks work, and how a grassroots movement can be created and sustained.

For the record, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, its just a damn fine book.
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Sunday, 25 July 2010

Interesting Politico video

Once again, been very quiet on the blogging front, but wanted to share this video.

Its a comparison of the views of "D.C. Elites" vs regular people in regards to some key political questions in the US. The actual questions are less interesting in some ways to the huge disconnect between the elites and the normal human beings.

Personally I'd love to see some similar research in the UK, where we have the same problem. Elites who simply arent well connected to the views and prioirites of regular people.

Anyway, watch the video and consider the implications for politics.



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Monday, 19 July 2010

Book review: The Long Tail

I've been meaning to read The Long Tail by Chris Anderson for quite some time. Its one of those books which is endlessly referred to in pretty much every text on the topic of internet sales.

So I settled back to read, and with a heavy heart, quickly realised it was a long essay book. In fact, the long essay already exists, in the form of Anderson's article on Wired.com

The premise of the book is that in our increasingly digital age, the high street point of sale is no longer able to offer the range of goods which the consumer wants. Its a sensible point. I can buy pretty much every song or book ever written, thousands of computer games, and every variety of consumer goods under the sun without leaving my chair. Only a very small range of extremely specialist shops can provide with products which I can't get online, hiking boots are the only thing I can think of off the top of my head.

The upside of this for seller is that, particularly in the case of electronic goods, the shelf space is next to zero, and it only takes a couple of people to buy any obscure MP3 before it becomes profitable. This is also true of 'real' goods, since warehousing is substantially cheaper than shopfront space, Amazon being the obvious case in point.

Unfortunately, I just explained the book. Its got plenty of great examples in there too, in fact, hundreds of case studies adorn its pages, however they don't extend our understanding of the premise.

I was also dissapointed by the lack of discussion about the future of the idea, and how it might be applied. Whilst there is a fascinating amount of detail on Apple, Amazon and others, that's not wildly helpful when it comes to trying to form ideas about how to do something new with the long tail.

So, in the final analysis, I'd recommend going no further than the essay. Its a quicker read, and you'll get everything you need from it.
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Monday, 12 July 2010

I'm back, ish

Back at work today for the first time since last Tuesday, following the delights of wisdom teeth extraction.

Hoping to do some blogging in the near future, various things I've had pile up on my plate recently.

Right now my brain is focussed on ignoring the stabbing pain.
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Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Down time

As I've got a hospital appointment tomorrow for the delights of having my wisdom teeth removed, I'll not be blogging much in the next week or so. I will try and put something up once in a while.

In the meantime, let me know whether you think I should be putting togeather some sort of friday list of my favourite articles. Can't tell if its a good idea, or a massive vanity exercise on my part.
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Monday, 5 July 2010

Design, and why it matters to me

Despite several mentions of my excitement about going to see Garr Reynolds speak, I managed to totally forget to blog about the actual event. Because thats how I roll. Having now finished Presentation Zen and a good chunk of his second book on design, I feel like its time to make brief mention of these and related matters.

Garr Reynolds writes the Presentation Zen blog, which has slowly risen in my daily reads until it's found its way firmly into the top 10, sitting between (fantastic) Zen Pundit and (always entertaining) io9. He covers a strangely broad range of topics, considering that at its heart, the blog is about one thing, how to present.

He is a huge advocate of something dear to my own heart, that we should use programmes for the purpose they were intended, rather than trying to force Powerpoint to do 'decks', Word to do spreadsheets, and Excel to do databases.

His idea is that we should take a more, in essence, artistic approach to presentation, and seperate it out from our desire to include huge reams of text in slides.

Considering that we all have to sit through goddawful presentations at least a weekly basis, it staggers me that there isnt more consensus on this issue. I've now got to the stage that I wont do a presentation which includes significant text on the slides, and I think I'm a better presenter for it. I speak more confidently, I'm more likely to bring the audience with me, and it ironically means that I'm better prepared to do presentations without any slideware support if I need to.

The problem is that most of us arent taught to do presentations, or prepare them. At best we learn by doing, from inadequate teachers, who are themselves bad presenters.

There is also a huge issue in that people put togeather Powerpoint presentations as something which serves the dual purpose of speaking to, and giving out to the audience. Frankly, if your presentation can be handed out and makes sense in this form, whats the point in you? You're a pointless entity, you have become your tool's tool.

Consider the fantastic example which the New York Times publicised recently. Its a monsterous thing, and serves no purpose, apart from an arbitary desire to present things in the format demanded of the presenter. Look at the slide, can it possibly mean anything? Really? If this is a topic which interests you, check out Colonel X Hammes article, avaliable here, which savages the use of Powerpoint in the military.

I wholly agree with Garr when he says that we need to seperate these things out. Producing a handout for the audience if needs be, or a leave behind, leaving us free to design a presentation which actually works with the way we speak.

I'm also incresaingly a fan of doing work 'offline'. I recently did a bit of work on a website and found the best way to get my thoughts in order was to grab a scetch pad, and draw the site out. Then draw the site as I thought it could be. It took a while, but it made me far more effective when I got down to the business of writing it up.

I'm not sure if its spending too mcuh time watching presentations on the TED website (If you're not watching at least 1 talk a day you're not living life to the full), but I wonder if there isnt a place for a type of kareoke for public speaking. Toastmasters offers a formal version of this, however I'm not a fan of this sort of approach, and I think it can be quite intimidating for people to stand up blind in front of a critical audience.

I wonder if there are a few people who would be up for getting togeather on a monthly or bi monthly basis, and just speaking for around 5 minutes on a topic they care about. Bring your friends along, and it becomes a networking event for all concerned.

I genuinely think this could be good fun, 45 minutes of speeches, maybe allow 15 minutes for people to do improv speeches, or responses to what they've seen on stage, then an hour for a traditional networking style chat afterwards.

If nothing else, it'll give people confidence speaking to an audience, allow for the sharing of passions amongst a group, and it might just be a good time.

Whos with me?
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Friday, 2 July 2010

Your freedom, would you like it?

I wanted to wait until Your Freedom had actually started working properly before I wrote this, unfortunately that doesnt seem likely to happen. I'm pretty sure it's being hosted in someone's basement.

So thats how Freedom has arrived, slowly, and with frequent error messages.

Its a lovely idea, people get to vote on laws which need changing/repealing, the Government promises to listen and take action when writing the Great Repeal Bill we've been promised later this year.

But, as per usual, a great idea has been spoiled because our Government can't do the interwebs.

No one seems to have considered that if you expose this sort of site to the interwebs, with no editorial controls, anyone might sign up and might register any sort of complaint. Hence why I will later be coming out against the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Also, on truly controversial issues, the Digital Economy Bill for example, literally dozens of different entries, all asking for the same thing. (I got bored trying to list them all)

The other problem is, what if people don't like Bills which the Government has committed itself to keeping? Like DEA, which looks set to stay, because the music industry will cry if it doesnt.

There's also a ranking system, which doesnt take into account that something with a ranking of 5 with 2 people voting for it, is less important than something with 4.9 with hundreds voting for it. So literally nothing on the most popular page is actually an issue of any importance, since all the important issues have enough voters that one person spoils the perfect 5.0 rating.

I can't seem to sign into my first account because of a draconian need for context sensitivity in the username (WHY?!), which is a small thing, but exposes a larger problem.

When I couldnt sign in, I created a new account! Enabling me to vote twice for anything I want. So basically votes don't actually mean anything on the site. I'm pretty sure I could pop onto 4Chan's /b/ board and some kind soul there would engineer a few billion people voting in favour of any issue I like.

All the media froth about this yesterday could only have been the result of reading a press release and listening to a speech. Anyone who uses this site is going to realise how hideously flawed it is from the outset.

I think there must be something you sign when you become a politician, or work for one, which says that you will never, under any circumstances show any degree of competance. Nor will you hire anyone who can do it better than you.

This isnt true internationally, where there are some beautifully simple websites. Look at the wonderful example of USA.gov. Its sleek, there's nothing pointless there, its lean, it looks hungry, like it might bite. (A little too poetic there, sorry). It even has some vaguely useful applications for you to download for your phone, a range of health, government services, and general information tools.

What we needed was a well designed, simple toolkit, which allowed people to vote on any ACTUAL Bill, and make suggestions about regulations that could be dropped.

As always, lovely ideas, poorly carried out, by a group of people who like the buzz around social media, and the idea of the internet, but couldnt care less about how its implimented or whether it actually works.
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