August 2010
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Month August 2010

Hi there. I'm a Partner at Undercurrent, where I lead a team focused on helping ambitious organizations operate in ways that are beneficial to all their users.


Five Interesting Things, v2

1. And the winner is… (Why prizes work, and why they don’t)

Amid all the crowdsourcing discussion – whether things like CrowdSpring are good for creativity or not – there’s an interesting thing happening at the upper end of the innovation “market”, where big businesses (Netflix) and big investors (the X Prize folks) are offering up big prizes to people/groups able to solve a big problem. Fly to space twice in a two-week span? 10MM dollars awaits. The same is out there for whoever is able to design a car that gets 100mpg. This is old news, I know. But The Economist points to a couple interesting factors that complicate my opinion on crowdsourcing.

  1. This is really old news. Governments have been doing it since the early 18th century (see: The Longitude Prize), offering bounties to those creative/brainy souls able to solve a particularly vexing public problem.
  2. It’s good for everyone; even the losers win in the long run. “A study led by Liam Brunt of the Norwegian School of Economics scrutinised agricultural inventions in 19th-century Britain and found a link between prizes and subsequent patents. The Royal Agricultural Society awarded nearly 2,000 prizes from 1839 to 1939, some worth £1m ($1.6m) in today’s money. The study found that not only were prize-winners more likely to receive and renew patents, but that even losing contestants sought patents for more than 13,000 inventions. Today’s prizes appear to have a similar effect. The Ansari X Prize, for example, has attracted over $100m in investment into the (previously non-existent) private-sector space industry.”

2. Games, science, human smarts, oh my! (Why games are good for the world)

If you haven’t heard of FoldIt, and you work in marketing, you’re missing out on a really wonderful “for the common good” gaming case study. Again, via The Economist.

“[The] game is Foldit, in which players score points by squeezing proteins into the most chemically stable configuration. Proteins, which are the building blocks of life, come in long chains of molecules that work properly only once they have folded into their final, three-dimensional shape. Figuring out how they fold correctly is thus crucial to understanding biochemical processes, and to creating new drugs.

“To test the players’ shape-predicting ability the researchers used ten proteins whose structure had been discovered but not yet made public. The top humans outperformed the state-of-the-art Rosetta software in five puzzles, drew in three, and lost just twice (in both cases neither got close to the final shape). People excelled at problems requiring substantial remodelling, which often meant making the structure temporarily unstable, a ruse shunned by Rosetta. They were less good at starting from scratch, ie, a fully unfolded protein. That suggests that a balance will need to be struck between the inputs of man and machine.

“Intriguingly, few of the best performers were biochemists. To entice the non-scientific, the game comes with upbeat arcade music, bleeps, pops and colourful star confetti when you succeed (at least in the tutorial stages which tested your correspondent’s protein-folding skills). Players also get nifty tools with names like ‘shake’, ‘wiggle’ or ‘rubber band’. These tweak the basic structure into the optimal shape, though some players preferred to do that by hand.”

I heard about the game last year, after I’d been pointed to the Nature article about its launch. So it’s interesting to see some stats (57,000 players) and results on its success, especially given the abstract of the Nature report: “The integration of human visual problem-solving and strategy development capabilities with traditional computational algorithms through interactive multiplayer games is a powerful new approach to solving computationally-limited scientific problems.” I love the idea that gamers are better than computers at some tasks that require intermediary, iffy logic jumps. I also like that the scientists weren’t the best at figuring things out. That makes me feel good, and, yay interdisciplinary studies!

3. Japanese firms push into emerging markets… (Small product development > big product development)

Alex and I are doing a talk at Web2.0 about why smaller is better. Which is to say that more customized, more specific designs – in digital and real things – is better. The Economist this week writes about Panasonic’s recent changes in design philosophy to a more focused, more regional approach:

“To prosper on the new frontier, Japanese firms must adapt. Panasonic, an electronics firm, is overhauling both its products and its organisation. Instead of maintaining strict management divisions by territory, the company now thinks about product lines by temperate and tropical climate zones. Executives from South America visit their peers in Malaysia each quarter to swap ideas.

“The firm increasingly relies on local engineers to redesign products for local tastes. ‘If Japanese engineers did it, they would create a Japanese product,’ explains Hitoshi Otsuki, who heads Panasonic’s overseas operations. Now, only 10-20% of the products it sells in emerging markets are developed by Japanese teams, down from nearly all. ‘This is totally revolutionary for us,’ says Mr Otsuki.

“In Indonesia, Panasonic found that fridges need big compartments to store lots of two-litre water bottles: Indonesians boil water to purify it in the morning and then place it in the fridge to cool. They need less space for vegetables, however, since they tend to buy and eat them on the same day.

“In India, where power is unreliable, Panasonic is developing air-conditioners that operate with little energy. And because Indians tend to run the air-con all the time, the motors are designed to be quiet. In China, air-conditioners are a status symbol, so Panasonic’s are big and colourful enough to catch the neighbours’ envious eyes.

“In the most recent quarter, emerging-market sales helped Panasonic post a profit of ¥84 billion, reversing a ¥52 billion loss in the same period a year earlier. The firm expects revenue for electronics and appliances from emerging markets to increase from 25% of its total today to 31% in 2012.”

Totes. Design things that are relevant for local behavior and local needs. As the cost to create new things comes down, the value of creating something that’s incredibly specific – does one thing, and does it very well – goes up.

4. “This Generation Gets Alter Egos”

NPR had an interesting piece this morning about Gaga, Katy Perry, and assorted female pop-stars with alter egos. The author, Zoe Chace, makes the leap from the rise of alter-ego use to a generational mindset shift due to the use of digital profile-creation tools:

“This generation really gets alter egos. They also have a personal stash of identities for different situations — they’re constantly deploying different versions of themselves online: one for Facebook, one for Twitter, one for going out at night. … This is a modern phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it’s new, says Judith Halberstam, who teaches media studies at the University of Southern California.

“‘Look back at the 19th century at people like Oscar Wilde,’ she suggests. ‘Oscar Wilde may well be one of the early people who created a public persona for himself and then was happy, when called upon, to perform this role of the glib dandy who was full of one-liners.’”

I’m not sure I’m 100% bought-in to the idea that the internet gets the credit for the glut of personas used by celebrities/singers, but it’s an interesting point nevertheless. Identity play is certainly a fertile field, and one that’s absolutely worth exploring…but I don’t think we can definitively say yet that things have changed. What say ye, dear readers?

5. Post-Digital Briefs

My digital friend – with whom I had the pleasure of sharing a conference-speaking-roster last year at Planningness – Gareth Kay has a great presentation up on post-digital creative briefs.

Here’tis:

For the past couple years, I’ve felt increasingly iffy about the idea of a “brief”. Every format felt reductive to me, constraining, whatever. And I had the pleasure of working with a creative group at Odopod that didn’t need briefs (instead, they needed inspiration), so I could put together a messy book of thought and let them run with it.

That said, I rather like Gareth’s framework:

GET the audience

TO do, feel or think something

THROUGH the power of an idea

If you can’t summarize your thoughts using the above, you probably haven’t thought it through enough.

Jaws Screengrabs

Screengrabs For the Cultural Win

Screengrabs of movies, I think, are particularly powerful bits of culture. Just as humor is a good way for a group of people to decide who’s in and who’s out (laugh at my joke, you’re in the group…don’t laugh, you’re out), cinematic bits are extraordinarily rich nuggets to help define groups and meaning.

And on top of that, movies generally are some of my favorite places to look for secondary (tertiary?) research on a topic, because they’re not only created from culture but have a hand in defining how we view/experience culture.

If that makes sense.

Anyway.

The Royal Tenenbaums Screengrabs

Five Things One

As a result of my work lately, which seems to get busier, more interesting and generally better by the day, I have nothing additional to blog about. So hopefully I can get back into this good habit by pointing to interesting, if random things.

1. Lessin’s Law, Jarvis’ Corollary + My Thoughts

I’ve always been a big fan of Jeff Jarvis. Unlike most pundits who either dabble or make a full-time-living in this space, he’s got a real non-marketing angle.

Jarvis offers up Sam Lessin’s “Law”: Once-abundant privacy is now scarce. Once-scarce publicness is now abundant.

And his Corollary: Now publicness is free.

Which is to say that people who controlled publicness can’t make money off that exchange in the current economy.

I’d like to add that it’s not just publicness – which is really difficult to not write as pubicness – it seems that effort is either close to free or at least getting cheaper by the day. I think that simply follows on from the others, and isn’t necessarily something revelatory, but it’s important to note that if properly incentivized, people will do all kinds of things for you for free. Most organizations do a shit job of incentivizing, motivating, or supporting action, so the opportunity is to figure out how to be really good at harnessing the crowd.

2. Influencers are fickle, cool kids who like LOLs.

No matter what you think of the term “influencers”, MailChimp’s recent examination of influence and engagement is fascinating. By hooking your MailChimp lists up to Rapleaf, you can get social information on everyone in your system…and see how they influence others. Turns out that influence and engagement are inversely proportional to each other: the more influential people are, the less likely it is that they’ll click on something…and vice versa. Which is not the same as “visa versa”, which happens to not be a thing at all. So get that right.

3. Moscow’s Traffic is Crazy + A Distributed Digital Fix

According to The New Yorker, traffic is absolutely insane in Moscow.

So insane that in the wake of the Metro suicide bombings – despite a 40-minute gap in between each explosion – system administrators decided to not evacuate for fear of a total meltdown.

“The response from a metro spokesperson was immediate. ‘You have no idea what would have happened if we’d closed down an entire branch of the system,’ he said. The city was so crowded, its functioning so tenuous, that it was better to risk another explosion than closing off an artery. ‘The city is on the brink of transportational collapse,’ Mikhail Blinkin, a traffic expert told me. ‘Moscow will simply cease to function as a city. You and I will be living in different cities. Some people will live in one neighborhood, and others will live in a different neighborhood and that will be fine, except they won’t be able to get from one neighborhood to the other.’”

The reasons, according to experts, for the mess?

  1. Mismatched development under the direction of different rulers with differing goals. From concentric circles of walled forts (early history), to haphazard development while St. Petersburg was favored as the capital, to Soviet development of enormous radial avenues designed to make military parades look cooler… planning for mass automotive transportation wasn’t ever really on the agenda.
  2. Onrush of people into an underdeveloped system. Once the regulations that kept most Russians out of Moscow were dropped, people flooded in and crazy, industrialized development ensued.
  3. Impatient, angry driver behavior. Once there’s a ton of traffic, drivers aim to take whatever they can get. And that makes traffic worse.
  4. The existing social system (feudalism, essentially) is reflected in how the roads are used and governed. Different rules exist for different drivers: if you’re in a black Mercedes with a siren on top (which may or may not indicate that you’re a legitimate member of the government), you can do whatever you like. And whenever regulations are created and enforced with fines, legitimate enforcement leads to corruption and embezzlement and illegitimate enforcers pop up, hoping to get their part of the cheese.

So… plan out your network with the future in mind, and don’t tempt Anonymous.

More interesting, though, is the happy digital resolve to all of this: a section of the popular Muscovite portal, Yandex. Traffic-monitoring systems use traffic cameras and sensors to monitor the flows of automobiles, but installing either would be prohibitively expensive. Instead, Yandex Probki (Yandex Traffic) offers apps that work with smartphones and a wiki to monitor movement. Cool.

4. Achievement Unlocked 2 (Game!)

Click the image to make it larger. You can see all the ways your achievements are quantified… even dying is rewarded.

Thanks to the kind folks at Buzzfeed, I discovered this wonderful example of the “Reward Everything” philosophy on Armor Games. Sidenote: Armor Games is rad. If you’re looking for tons of different reward systems, go there, and study. While gaming! During the course of Achievement Unlocked 2, you direct a little blue elephant throughout several rooms, progressively… unlocking achievements. Everything you do in the game is rewarded somehow, from clicking on the start button, to 10 minutes of inactivity, to finding all the coins in a room. Hell, even death is rewarded. If you can’t figure out how to use this in the way you develop/design interactions, there’s no help for you. So I’m not even going to explain it.

5. To Young Players, Playing Time is Oxygen

“Player development experts I’ve talked to at length are unanimous that one of the best things one can possibly do to help a rookie’s career is to bless him with the confidence of a supportive coaching staff and minutes to get used to the NBA game — and very few players get that. Just a week ago an elite player development coach told me that every single player in the NBA can play, and it’s really just a matter of opportunities and coaching and the team.

“David Thorpe has been making similar points for years. He talks all the time about ‘the royal jelly.’ Literally, that’s what worker bees feed a chosen baby bee to make her the queen. But it’s also, says Thorpe, what coaches and others can feed players to help them achieve their potential. A lot of it has to do with building confidence. Throughout his career, Thorpe has been accused of hyping up his players up and giving them big heads, to which he replies, jokingly, ‘guilty!’ Thorpe is convinced that ‘the royal jelly’ can and has fundamentally changed the careers of countless players. The gold standard of helping a player evolve, he says, starts with playing time.

“‘Playing time is the first part,’ says Thorpe. ‘A coach’s support is another thing – it helps you grow as a player if you know you’re not going to get yanked the first time you miss a shot. That gives you the confidence to be creative and expand your game. And then the final aspect of the ideal set-up is coaching you up on the new things you’re adding to your game. A great recent example of this was Trevor Ariza with the Lakers last season. In the spring, everyone was wondering why they’d let him shoot all those 3s. It wasn’t productive. But they needed him to be able to do that, they let him do that, they didn’t yank him for doing that, and they coached him how to do that better. And in the playoffs he was amazing at that and helped them win a championship.’ On a lot of teams, Ariza would have been condemned to the low-earning life of a non-shooter, but the coaching situation, and minutes, turned him into a sniper.”

Give the young people in your organization the permission to do amazing things…and fail beautifully. When I was a young(er) business-fella, I chafed at the structures that surrounded my work. As management and mentorship have started to creep into my work-life, I’ve found it increasingly valuable to give the young ones a question to answer and the freedom to answer it in the method they choose. They’re smart, right? You’ve hired smart people? Give them the room to figure it out.