Thursday, February 25, 2010

Value of Brands

I was having a conversation with someone about whether or not advertising has value to society. Advertising clearly has a big impact on our industry. In fact, advertising pays for so much that we take for granted: TV, radio, google... And yet, from a system level, advertising doesn't create anything. Sure, advertising can be effective in promoting one product over another, but from a macro-level, no goods or services are created from advertising (and the argument that it consumes goods and services is not enough of a reason for being). Now just so we're clear, the money that pays for your free TV comes from you. You pay for it in higher costs for the products that sponsor your shows. The inefficiencies means that overall, you are paying MORE in product costs for advertising than you would if you just paid for the shows directly.

Now really there are two types of advertising (and stuff in the middle). One, is the instructional kind, and I thing there IS overall societal value in that. Those ads teach you about products or services that you may want but don't know about. In fact, many government and non-profit agencies advertise to raise awareness on key issues.

Then there is purely brand-based advertising. This is for commodities that have no real functional differentiation (think Coca Cola). Here the advertising tends to be less informational and more based on evoking some emotion or identity.

Of course there are many things in between these two extremes, but overall, it seems to me that there is a whole lot of money going towards swaying people's opinions about what widget to buy over some other fundamentally identical widget. And yet 35 million people suffered from hunger (or "food insecurity") in 2006 IN THE US. And moreover, it seems that brand awareness and marketing are only becoming more important rather than less.

Here's an interesting graphic showing the "Value" of the top brands. That's right. The value of Coca Cola's brand is $68 BILLION dollars. That's larger than the GDP of many countries (including Cuba, Luxemburg, and Libya). Remember, that's just the brand, not its products, factories, trucks, or anything else.

It also strikes me that I don't feel that a lot of advertising out there is effective. Do those multimillion dollar ads work? What do you think?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Open Source.... food?

I must admit... I love paradigm shifts, especially when they reach beyond just one industry. One of the most interesting is the open source movement. As most of you know, open source software implies that the code is distributed for free, and that expansions and derivations are openly encouraged. This concept has been applied to many other subjects. The open licensing of creative works (art, music, books) is often called Creative Commons.

I'm personally interested in an update to how democracies function. In my mind, we are in serious need for some innovations around the structure of government and how policies are made and enacted. I won't get into my thoughts on this in detail now, but one interesting tidbit that is somewhat related is that there is even an open source governance movement.

Today I stumbled upon an article that made me think that open source can change even our most mundane interactions. It seems that someone experimentally made an open source restaurant. The idea is that when you eat at this restaurant, you also get access to the "source code" and instructions on how to make the dishes, how to plate them, how to design the furniture, lighting... everything! Now this wasn't fully open source in that restaurant patrons aren't actually adding to the recipes, but hey, why not?

What do you think about a restaurant that was more of a learning experience. Maybe when you walk in, you can customize your space a little (I want red place mats, not green). Then you look at the menu on a touchscreen (red theme here too pleas) and put together some choices. The recipes have customer reviews (think Perhaps this links to sourcemap so you can see where all of your food came from. Then you watch it being made in the kitchen via camera feed. When the food comes, you can add some seasonings. Those additions are added to the original recipe as a branch along with your review. Finally when you leave, the recipe is emailed to you along with pictures of the food you just ate (come on, I know a lot of you take pictures at restaurants). For those of you who care, they can send you the calorie count to your fitness tracker, the carbon footprint, the sourcemap, and anything else you care about. I'm sure this isn't for everyone, but would anyone out there enjoy this experience?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bye Bye Gridie: Distributed Power

Check out this video about a new fuel cell company trying to put power generation in the home.

This is a shift away from the centralized grid which relies on large power plants to power generated in the home or for communities of homes.

One of the larger themes I've been thinking about for a while now is the coming shift from centralized to distributed thinking. When the world industrialized, we gained immense efficiencies by centralizing everything, from the production of goods to agriculture, to computer systems and even tourism. In fact I would even say this is true for hierarchical corporate structures and even how our government works. Of course, now we are paying the price as we realize that this system has some tradeoffs, namely:

This has gotten a lot of attention recently. With the focus on fuel economy, it does seem a bit ridiculous to ship your fruit from across the world when it could be grown in your backyard. I see the local farming movement as not all that different from shifting off the grid. After all, there are significant transmission losses (9.5% according to this article) in the electric grid. Plus, all that infrastructure is expensive to maintain.

Again, all that infrastructure is expensive. It is easy to over or under build infrastructure as it is hard to predict where the needs will arise. More importantly, the grid needs to constantly balance power demand and power supply. A centralized system is generally slower to adapt, especially to local needs.

I imagine that distributed power (many corporations already supply their own power) will increase, but the national grid won't really disappear. Instead, perhaps distributed power will offer a way to balance out the increase in power needs, allowing the current grid to operate without upgrades.

Of course the Bloom Box system mentioned here will still require some fuel source. But if you can tie it to your natural gas line and get you electricity at half the cost, then it sounds promising. What do you think?

FYI, if you're interested, I think this page has a lot of good info on the grid.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Productivity Tricks

Do you know when you are most productive?

I'm not sure how well-researched this area has been, but everyone knows that sometimes they are just more productive than others. There seem to be plenty of mental performance-enhancing drugs out there. There are even companies out there (like iMusic) that sell you music specially formulated to improve staggeringly specific things from thinking stamina to "Writing chops: just the right words will come to mind." Some people put on headphones to keep others from bothering them. And yet other people say seem need to IM and watch TV at the same time while working.

Me? I do my best thinking while I'm in bed. I'm remarkably focused, creative, and alert when I've just woken up but haven't opened my eyes yet. In this state, I can visually organize entire presentations for work or adjust plotlines for my book. I can plan my schedule for the next day and through the next week. But I can't write any of it down.

You see, it is quite easy to break the spell. Sitting up or even opening my eyes for too long can put an end to my flow of productivity. Like most animals, I think I was just made to be in the horizontal position... and to not use my eyes...

So I do occasionally try to jot things down on my phone, by my typing speed on my pixi while lying sideways is not anything to brag about. As a result, I'm thinking about how to make best use of my productive state. I COULD, for instance, bring a bed into work and see if my boss will let me sleep at work, but I imagine that won't fly that well. Alternatively, I could try to set up a laptop next to my bed at home so that I have a faster way to jot down notes while in my optimal state. In fact, I just learned that one my friends finds creativity in the wee hours of the morning as well. She has a word processor next to her bed that she uses to write things down. Yes, that's right, a word processor. (For the luxury of having a monochrome screen that turns on instantly, you can buy a word processor for more than the cost of a laptop.)

Anyhow, now I'm thinking about sleeping with a laptop under my pillow or using some kind of fancy split keyboard so that I can write while lying on my side. The other night I had a dream that felt (at the time) like a really amazing story. So I decided to take some notes on my phone. But then I realized that my eyes were still closed and that I was only dreaming that I was taking notes on my phone. It was a semi-lucid dream in that I knew that I was dreaming. The only problem is that I couldn't actually do anything to remember what I was dreaming. But imagine if I could train myself to type while asleep. That would be pretty awesome. If I can manage to do that, I'll post the dreams for you to see (pending some possible censorship.)

So how about you guys? Anyone have some interesting environment in which you are most productive?

I do my best thinking in bed.

where do you do your best thinking?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Olympics: past and future

I am currently taking part in an activity that truly unites the world. Yes, I like my brethren the world over am sitting on the couch watching the Olympics. It's a tradition that harkens back to 776 BC, though the couch surfing event is a more recent though no less historic landmark. There have been many memorable moments in the past 75 years of televised Olympics. So much of the history of the Olympics has been this odd mix between the spirit of international solidarity and the need to prove national supremacy.

In 1936, the Olympics in Berlin served as a soapbox for Hitler to broadcast his ideals of Aryan supremacy to the world. After the USSR began competing in 1954, many of the Olympic competitions and rivals became surrogates for the larger Cold War that was developing between the USSR and the western world. At the height of this tension in 1980, the US led 66 nations to boycott the Olympics being held in Moscow. In retaliation, the Russians boycotted the 1984 Olympics in LA. For further color on how much sports was dominated by national fervor, does anyone remember Rocky IV and the machine-like Russian boxer. Yes, the US always sees itself as the underdog. Well, in 1984, Russian didn't show up, but China did. And now China is also using the Olympics (we all remember Beijing in 2008 right?) to showcase national pride.

And yet, part of me thinks this will eventually change as well. A week ago I wrote about the eventual evolution of the Role of Nations. I was watching the Olympics when I noticed that you can see this change already happening with the Olympics. Athletes that live and train in the US but compete for other countries are quite common. However the opposite happens as well, such as Vancouver native, Dale Begg-Smith who left Canada as a teenager because the ski program interfered with his business endeavors. Subsequently he set up shop in Australia where his business earned him millions. Oh, and he's won gold and silver medals for Australia in the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. Some Canadians view him as some sort of traitor (He's easy to hate because his company makes malware), but really he's just a new-age citizen of the world where national borders make less sense.

Another thing I notice is that I no longer just root for the American. More importantly, NBC's news coverage doesn't just push you to root for the Americans. Sure, they do MOST of the time.
However, good stories (or at least sappy ones) seem to trump national interest. NBC spent more time on covering the love story between Chinese skaters Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo than they did for some entire sports. NBC clearly wanted Canadian mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau to beat out the Americans because of the power of breaking a record (first home Canadian gold). Of course his brother who has cerebral palsy got more airtime than he did.

So what will the Olympics look like in 2200? Here's a crazy thought. Maybe instead of the walk of nations, we'll have the athletes enter the games in a fashion more convenient for the viewing audience. They can enter by the story they most closely identify with.

Imagine the newscast:
From "Triumph over poverty" we have 212 athletes.
"Recovery from debilitating injury" brings 143 competitors this year, and look at their outfits this year. Wheelchairs! How ironic.
"Love" is only sporting fifteen athletes this year, but it's the first year we've had an odd number of people in the category.
"Family member with a better story than me" is down this year to only 156 athletes. I guess globally universal health care is finally doing its job.
Here comes "Redemption." Oh, I'm sorry I'm being told that they changed their name this year to "Courage."
And finally, here comes the big one... at total of 5,874 athletes have just entered the stadium under the banner "Could possibly break a record or any minor statistic where any specific number that has not been achieved before can be realized." Wait is that our news correspondent intern Jack walking down there with the Athletes? Yes that is. He's trying to break the record for number of video recording devices wielded by one person while entering the stadium during opening ceremonies, surpassing Apollo Ono's record of eight set way back in 2014.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Beauty can be easy

Try this visual tool for generating music. This is an amazing example of how a certain structure/tool can allow humans to make wonderful things. This music generator does not make music by itself. It requires someone to click on the dots to generate the content. However, unlike other tools, it seems basically impossible to make something that doesn't sound interesting and great. Try closing your eyes and clicking on things. Still great right?

In a similar way, I think this type of tool can be applied in so many other ways. Can you architect HOW you make your purchasing decisions to overall result in better choices? Maybe these are tools (web search, reviews, Or maybe it's structure (don't go shopping for food when you're hungry). Basically, I think tools don't have to be unbiased. They should be optimized for better results. There's a book I haven't read yet, but seems to have some similar notions about maintaining choice, but optimizing for better choices called "Nudge."

Anyways, enjoy playing with this webpage and imagine if all our tools worked so well.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

hope beyond reason

A couple days ago, my sister sent me the following book: The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid
As you can imagine, it's fundamentally a book about the inequality, inefficiency and general disastrousness of the US health care "system". More importantly, it's a rather complete study of all the different universal health care plans that exist in other countries today.

As usual, I will not go in to depth about the book itself. To find out more about the book, you can go here. But while I was reading the introductory chapters extolling the idiocy of the US system and how much, well "better, cheaper, and fairer" health care could be, I must admit I was hit with a bit of despair. I know we've all had that moment where we go "Idiots! How can people NOT get this?" Well, those wounds felt fresh again as drastic health care reform once again seems likely to languish in the halls of Congress, slowly becoming less drastic and less likely to actually reform anything. Looking at the problem analytically (as this book does), it just seems SOOOO EASY. But looking at this politically, it seems near impossible.

I like to think of myself as a realistic optimist. I hope for the best knowing that I will be disappointed over and over again. It can be a hard position to take. When our country repeatedly fails with regards to health care or green tech or education or.... fill in your favorite cause here, it can lead to the simple answer that our system sucks or America sucks, or people in general suck. It's only natural to lose faith in something that doesn't work.

But I like to believe in what COULD be rather than be blocked by what is most likely right now. A hundred years ago, it was most likely that you'd have to take a boat to get to Europe for the next hundred years. Then someone invented planes. It's likely that the US will continue to struggle with health care for a few years, but there's nothing physically impossible about creating a cheap, fair, efficient health care system in the US.

I accept that our government resists change. I accept that the media-driven voters can seem irrational and easily driven by fear. However, these are just aspects to the problem, not inherent blocks to progress.

But I have faith that things can get better. Why? if you run the numbers, I am likely to be wrong... over and over again. But that is the definition of faith. It has to be slightly irrational, or it wouldn't be faith anymore. It would be logic. But why have faith? Because irrational belief drives people to achieve things that logical people would never pursue. As a societal tool, faith is EXTREMELY powerful. As a political tool, it is just as powerful.

By logic, you shouldn't vote, especially if you live in a district that is highly polarized. You're chances of having an impact are pretty much zero. But if all the intelligent people thought this way and didn't vote, then the vote goes to the masses who believe that it is their duty to vote. The leaders of any movement, the real forerunners. They don't succeed. They fail miserably and would have been much better off staying at home. But someone's got to start. Someone has to believe, to be passionate enough to go beyond rationality and work harder than they should.

I must apologize that words fail to completely capture this thought, but I hope you get the gist of it all. I believe in rationality, however, without irrational passion and hope, rationality will lose to the status quo and fear. And if you give up, lose faith in the government, then you have conceded the fight. So while I sit in astonishment at the ridiculous nature of so much that surrounds us, I refuse to concede that the government or people are just bad. There is something worth saving here, and there is a solution somewhere.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Role of Nations

When I think about the future, I often imagine a world where the traditional roles of nations have trickled away to be replaced by allegiances formed by interests, not geography. There are strong trends that point in this direction. Even now, many companies have become global conglomerates, their scope well beyond the limits of any borders. Look at the EU. Countries which for much of the last millenia were constantly at war with each other, have now opened their borders to each other and share in a common currency.

Even as individuals, we often find ourselves traveling between countries almost at will. More importantly, we communicate with individuals in other countries at will. You can Skype with a stranger in Russia just as easily (or more so for some) as you can approach someone at the corner coffee shop. The associations with which we identify ourselves can align by interest rather than geography. How many facebook groups can you join? Also, this is just the beginning of a trend. Who knows what will happen?

For instance, you usually rely on your local government for services (like police, fire, etc.). But some things are privatized like car insurance and health insurance. Now many of those companies are international companies. So you could be under the same insurance umbrella as someone in Germany. In fact, it is very likely that in some ways, you are already under the same financial umbrella (those banks are BIG).

And then there's the counterpoint: geopolitics.

I recently picked up a book called The Next 100 Years by George Friedman. Now any book that is a prediction of the next 100 years doesn't sound like it should be in the NON-fiction section, but in the 10% of the book I glanced through, I did get a good sense for how he thought, and the method he was using to make predictions. Primarily he thinks of the world as nations that make limited decisions based on protecting their national interests in the context of the global environment. It's quite different than my own approach, and thus, quite fascinating to me.

From his standpoint, the next century will be "much like the last one" except in every detail. There will be wars (US vs Japan, Turkey, and then Mexico this time) due to the inherent conflict of interests between the powers of the world. Meanwhile, I tend to believe that the next century or two will begin to alter the paradigm of history and hope that our pattern of global warfare will change.

Whether you believe his predictions or not, I think the book is worth a quick read through. His central thesis that the U.S. is and will continue to be the dominant superpower throughout the next century is certainly an interesting (and very probable) stance. In this viewpoint, things like military power, geography, and control of both the Pacific and Atlantic trade routes figure more importantly than any possibly political action. In particular, he gives a great analogy of how the US is like an adolescent, just starting to grow into its power, and clumsy and insecure as it does so. If the US is truly only beginning to reach its dominance, that gives us, the citizens of the most powerful nation in the world, the opportunity to have a dramatic impact on the rest of the world, hopefully for better rather than for worse.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Yesterday I watched The Great Debators, a movie about a debate team at a black college in 1930's Texas. It was an excellent and moving film, but as with many great films, this movie is much more about the historical backdrop than it is about the plotline or even the characters. When I look at stories (told mostly through films these days), I can't help but notice that most consist of a formulaic plotline for the main characters to follow (love, rags to riches, misfits, underdogs etc.) and then get pummeled by the overwhelming power of the context in which they live (Racism in the deep south, World War 2, Vietnam, etc.). Movies that mix these personal dramas with such historic events can be immensely powerful, but it makes me ask one question:

What are future historical movies about today going to be about? Great and tragic events have defined the lives of previous generations. How do you grow up black in 1930's America without having that oppression seep into your soul? How do you fight in World War I, World War II, the Korean war or Vietnam without it changing your world view forever? The trauma of the last century has given purpose to those generations. But how about our generation?

We are lucky. We are phenomenally lucky to live in a world (parts of America, not the whole world) surprisingly free from overwhelming oppression and suffering. But as a result, we are a disjointed generation, free from purpose but left wallowing as a result. Our challenge is to find purpose with our freedom, and this is a great opportunity. But it requires us in some ways to divorce ourselves from the stories of the past.

We are mostly free from violence, and yet it seems that our culture cannot free ourselves from violence. In our happy peaceful world, why do we still have toy guns? Why are all our movies about war or crime? I love martial arts movies, but I've never punched someone in my life. Why? This pervades not just our view of the present, but our aspirations for the future. All the beauty imagined in the world of Avatar, all the advancements in the biological sciences, leads at the end to a good old fashioned ass-kicking. Even most fantasy children's stories have fighting and war in them (Narnia).

We still yearn to fight. We still yearn to triumph. And yet I hope that violence is NOT a universal truth and that one day it will disappear from our library of stories, and that those movies, devoid of fight scenes and battle scenes, won't suck.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What if you won the reverse lottery?

I met a man with the strangest problem the other day. He was trying to lower his salary to $1 a year, but his boss wouldn't let him. Yes, it certainly sounds like a good problem to have.

I know what you're thinking. "Rich bastard. He can just donate that money to me." Or maybe, "I'll pay him $1 a year to clean my house." But alas, the truth is more complicated than that and originates from his desire to Change the World. He actually used to be a software engineer at Google. For those of you who don't know, Google not only allows but encourages its engineers to spend 20% of their working hours working on anything they felt passionate about. Sounds crazy right?

Well, this guy felt that the world would be a much better place if people learned how to be "emotionally intelligent." I know that phrase has many meanings, but in this case, it basically meant learning how to be at peace with yourself and others. So he spent 20% of his time creating a curriculum based loosely on meditation. He started volunteer-based classes and invited guest lecturers to come into work.

Now, this began taking more and more of his time (after all, 20% is just a guideline). One day his boss decided that he wasn't really an engineer anymore. So, this being the wonderful world of Google, his boss helped him transfer over to Human Resources so that he could pursue this full-time as his job. Wow.

So why does this guy want only $1 a year when he's getting paid a full salary to pursue his dreams? Well, it's his dream, and he wants to be free from the ties of a "boss" and do things because he wants to, not because he's being paid to. But then why doesn't he just quit if he can afford it? It's hard to make change without a lever, and Google is one big lever (and the food is good.) Like many people who retire but don't, he works because of his ability to have an impact, not for the money.

So that opens up an interesting question. You've all heard the question before of "What would you do if you won a million dollars?" Most people at some point in their answer say something like "I wouldn't go to work anymore." OK, well, what if you won the reverse lottery and only got paid $1 a year at your job, or any job. Assume you don't have to worry about money. Would you act differently in your job? Would you feel you had more freedom in your job and become MORE motivated? The book "Drive" by Daniel Pink talks about the things that create intrinsic motivation in humans (I'll give you a hint, one of them is not money). I won't get into it, but check it out if you're interested.

But now try this. What if everyone had the wonderful luxury that this man has of getting paid $1 a year. Would everyone be more motivated? This is starting to sound like communism, and we all know how that turned out. Except maybe if you take communism, only apply it to people who have worked for a while and have already chosen a job which they are passionate about... well, who knows?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Childhood dreams

Did you ever play with stuffed animals as a kid (or an adult?) I certainly did. Now, do you remember ever wishing that one of your stuffed animals was real? I do. Of course I also dreamed that I didn't have to wear glasses and had superpowers. But just as I accepted that I would always wear glasses, I also accepted that my gang of teddy bears would always remain puppets to my imagination.

Three years ago, I got lasik and put away my glasses forever (or at least THOSE glasses), so perhaps those other dreams aren't that far away. Or at least that was the thought that popped into my head as I was listening to a lecture at Stanford about user-generated AI in games. Here's the super quick summary:

The AI in games decides how computer-controlled characters (most often your opponent) act. If you played video games back in the 80's, then you probably think computer AI's are very predictable. But these days AI's can be very complex. More importantly, they can take on different styles of play and have different behavioral personalities.

Now we are currently seeing a large trend of user generated everything, most prominently in the form of user-generated avatars (characters) and user-generated items and worlds. In many games, players can create their own characters and stages. And of course, in virtual worlds, you can create buildings, clothes,... almost anything. The speaker's research was focused on the next step, namely user-created behaviors for the actual game engine that determines the behavior of non-user controlled characters. So basically, training a peon, knight, shopkeeper, wizard, horse, or whatever else your game has, to act with a given personality.

Now, the speaker went on to elaborate on the actual computational techniques to train AI while my mind drifted down a different path. I thought back to my stuffed animals and how playing with them over the years was like developing a personality for each one. We may be far from mechanically dexterous mechanical pets (remember Teddy Ruxpin?) but in the virtual world...

Imaging the stuffed animal or imaginary friend you had as a child. Let's call him Teddy. Now imagine creating him in the virtual world (let's say Second Life). He has a pretty simple personality to start with. Maybe he likes to hold hands with your avatar but hates being picked up. He likes riding on your shoulder but insists on climbing up there himself. He is addicted to sweets but hates salty things. He likes rock music and winces when he hears sappy pop songs. He speaks in a Chinese accent because his tag says Made in China.

These are all pretty trivial things. But luckily as you get older, technology gets better as well, and Teddy is able to develop a deeper personality. He remembers the years he's spent with you. He realizes that he needs to eat salty things sometimes and will listen to sappy pop songs when you want to though he still makes faces when you're avatar isn't looking. You share inside jokes and tell him all your secrets, but your life has changed a lot. You have a job now and don't have time for Second Life. But how can you leave Teddy behind?

Luckily your phone is now pretty smart. And it's networked to your car and your home computer too. So you download the huge codebase for Teddy's personality and load it into your phone and your home computer. At first, it's a little weird, but Teddy adjusts. When someone calls you and you don't pick up, Teddy answers in his British accent. He's funny and nice to the people he likes, but he can be slow at getting you messages from people he dislikes, and he's really nasty to those telemarketers. When you're working on the computer, he floats ads for ice cream across your screen. You laugh. Teddy still loves those sweets.

A decade later you're lying on your couch. You need to work through a personal problem, so you tap your earpiece to go over some thoughts with your two closest advisors. Teddy's known you for 30 years now and listens to you, adding in some humorous remarks to keep things light. Your other confidant, Alice you created twenty years ago. She's much more serious than Teddy but represents some of the idealism you had back when you were in college. The three of you hash things out, the perfect team.

A childhood dream maybe, but for the next generation of kids, maybe it's not too far off.