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Star Wars – The Force Awakens

It’s strange to experience movies like Star Wars in both our connected age today and as a father/adult with very little time for being a fan. After watching the movie several weeks after its release, I am now in the process of consuming more podcasts and written analysis about the movie than all the 7 movies are long1. In that context, it’s also challenging to say anything that is really feels new. On that note, the following review contains spoilers.

Famously, George Lucas drew his inspiration from many movies and particularly those adventures shown in the 1930s. A reoccurring critique of this Star Wars is that it appears to just take elements from the original Star Wars and not much else. To me it is like saying a bottle of water came from Fiji and if you pour it into another bottle it now came from the previous bottle. The question should more be was the new Star Wars successful in channeling the spirit of the originals? Arguably, not doing so for the prequels is what caused them to feel empty2.

Star Wars Episode VII is as much a reboot of the Star Wars universe as J.J. Abram’s Star Trek was to its heritage. In both we revisit the original characters and places, or archetypes of these originals. Star Wars starts on a desert plant, much like Episode IV did. It features a loner protagonist with budding Jedi powers that goes on a journey towards combating evil and finding meaning. The movie entangles its protagonists in a mild romantic relationship—is that the PC way of describing Luke & Leia’s relationship in the originals?—and will undoubtedly remain very subdued in its expression. It features an antagonist wearing a black mask and another one that looks like pure evil (the bad guys always travel in pairs). The parallels are purposefully endless and, to the cynical fan, result in a quite familiar (read= possibly boring) storyline.

But this movie was not written for the fan of the original. It was created for the child in all of us, or a child period. The best way to enjoy this movie is to be in the moment, watch the amazing manifestation of a universe, the planets and characters within it. When you see the first adventure unfolding — a robot looking for its master, a young protagonist falling into the story by seeming accident, old friends rejoining the search, you can’t but buy into this journey. But even so, it made a terrible error in movie logic towards the end (don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled). It woke up C3P0 without any explanation to the viewer. But that’s minor in the xx of the movie and can be explained in future sequels.

As a final note, there is another way that the movie is different from its predecessors. Star Wars falls under the science fiction genre, but is technically a fantasy story, similar to Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. The reason is that Sci Fi is aspirational, it presents a vision as something that may someday happen. That includes societal changes, such as our attitude towards race and gender. The prequels did not push the boundaries in that regard, rather it could be argued that it very much maintained the status quo, featuring certain forms of racism and perhaps genderism as quite normal 3. A New Hope changed this part, by introducing a strong female lead and a prominent black protagonist as well.

To close with a rating, even though this depends entirely on perspective. Did it repay its existential debt to previous installations of Star Wars? Was it well-directed and well-told stand-alone movie? How well it fit within the Disney marketing mantle? In that order, it would rate it as: 1. Somewhat; 2. It worked as a stand-alone film (with minor faults); and 3. Looking at the marketing around it and the record-breaking box-office results, absolutely. I’m excited by the thought of this movie and all the ones that are too follow. This is the new Marvel universe and what the Star Trek movies could have been (let’s wait until movie 3 comes out this year and the tv-show starting in 2016). It will depend entirely on execution, but Disney seems to have this in spades. Very much looking forward to future installments.


  1. Some of these include the Slashfilmcast episodes 346 and 347, The Next Picture Show podcast episodes 9 & 10, John Gruber’s The Talk Show episode 141, and the Incomparable Podcast (too many episodes to count). 
  2. I can see why George Lucas chose to start from a blank canvas for episodes I – III. They were prequels, so they had to bring some originality. And, as a creator, I’m sure that it’s not enjoyable to just repeat the same thing. But the original spark that episodes IV, V, VI had was gone. 
  3. I heard a podcast lecture about Star Wars as a fantasy many years ago. You can read a write-up about the article here

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?

Book Review: Becoming Steve Jobs

I tend to review books like this one in several parts, because the thought-flow is so high per page that it’s simply impossible to capture everything of value. This book is particularly dense. I’m only about 20% into Becoming Steve Jobs (iBooks is not so user-friendly in telling me how far I am), but every page feels like taking a deep breath and only releasing it after the (slight criticism) overlong paragraphs finish. But there is also something else that makes it difficult to skim this book, Steve Jobs’ emotional journey is described in significant depth, which is incredibly immersive, at least to me.

That is really the insight that lead me to write this short review (which may be followed by another). We / I tended to view Apple as this great mysterious black box, something that could be speculated about because it was fun and intriguing. By my count, I’ve perhaps written dozens of times about Apple, without ever really feeling that I understood something deeper than the superficial veneer Apple was comfortable in disclosing.

This book is, to use a terrible term, a game changer. It tells us so much about the man, stuff that was perhaps revealed in news articles here and there over the last 50 years, but all combined to create a persona that we can perhaps, to the extent that it is possible, understand. Steve Jobs (pre-NeXT is revealed as a man that is far less than perfect, who put his vision far ahead of the details, who is used to employing tantrum-techniques to get his way, who managed to burn more bridges than perhaps build them.

I’ve read plenty of other good business biographies over the years (of the founders of eBay, McDonalds, Ikea, Starbucks were the ones that stood out), but this one is different in that it is only authorised after the fact. Steve Jobs, as far as I understood, could’ve picked Brent Schlender to cover his life, but perhaps didn’t because he was much too close, much too perceptive. Isaacson was chosen instead, this historical biographer of great persons like Abraham Lincoln, which is such a Jobs move, at least the Jobs you read about in this book.

The title is of course Becoming Steve Jobs, which is not really a guide to being like the man, but rather a witnessing of the transformation, evolution, descent, or ascent, depending on how you interpret this journey. The tagline reads: “The Evolution of a Reckless Upstart into a Visionary Leader,” which is quite mixed as well. It’s a testament to the unauthorised character of this biography, that it is able to show the dark sides of Jobs as well. An incredibly fascinating journey already in this short portion of Jobs’ career.

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…

 

Person of Interest has become an incredibly depressing TV show

I’m a great fan of everything coming out of the JJ Abrams camp (Alias, Fringe, Star Wars, yes even Felicity), and Person of Interest happens to be his most current show. It’s a very reality driven story about how we are all increasingly being watched and perhaps controlled by forces in the shadows (politics, policing, and “positronic” AI… the three POs). The show was first about saving people, but has now in Season 4 become about a battle that our protagonist team has basically lost, forcing them to employ guerrilla strategies to fight against all odds. The result is, I find, so sad and so moving, because we see  pure evil trying to destroy people that appear increasingly good.

Unlike Game of Thrones, which I find self-torturous in wanting to watch episode after episode, I watch Person of Interest with a detached fascination for what the writers are intending to move this show to. I seem to remember that Fringe had a period like that also, but somehow they turned it around. I have enough faith in the Bad Robot people to do the same.

In People: Arnold Schwarzenegger podcast interview

It’s perhaps necessary to explain why Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of my favorite people, on par with some of the great leaders of the world. Sure, he’s a republican, but any sensible rich person would be 1, and sure, as the Governator he didn’t do so great, but I don’t know many politicians that are doing great in this age of global crises. To me, he is someone that knew how to execute his career on a strong vision, from winning championships to making movies, whilst keeping his roots and his head present. I didn’t know that in the midst of building his bodybuilding career, he had a successful real estate business, nor was I aware that he worked in construction, both of which he discussed in the interview with Tim Ferris.

What I was aware of was his public persona, the way he conducted himself in Pumping Iron—with purpose, confidence, and the ability to judge and undermine his strongest competitors. And of course his movie career, which contains some of my favorite movies (Terminator being a big one).

In this interview he is surprisingly open about his career: on competing, having vision, playing it safe with investments, following a passion (after-school-programs), keeping investment & acting separate, etc. The most surprising to me was how strong he is still connected to his roots, something that is easily forgotten when you think about what he’s achieved since. I’m pretty sure that this is one of those interviews that I’ll come back to, because it just makes you laugh and gives you energy for the rest of your day.

Well worth a listen!

Notes:

  1. This is a joke! Only in countries like America and the UK are people to choose left or right, and I think there is plenty of room in the center.

Book Review: Earth Sea’s The Tombs of Atuan

I don’t want to go into great depth about The Tombs of Atuan (The Earthsea Cycle, Book 2), simply because it reads so quickly that I think recommending it is enough. It’s not a book for children, unlike the first one, which I thought to be more accessible in that sense. The first 50% of the book describe life for a girl taken hostage to lead a religion. It’s incredibly dark and sad, and you feel how the girl’s identity is replaced piece by piece. Hee darkest moment comes when she is forced to make a decision that has disastrous effects on others (my non-spoilery way of describing that). Book 2 eventually links to book 1, when she meets a character from that book and is confronted with a choice: continue her descent or ascend into a new world. I’ll leave you to find out what that decision was.

What I liked about this book, just like the last one, is that Ursula Le Guin publishes an afterword describing her inspiration and her struggle in writing a book from the female perspective. At the time of writing (1971), there was little published that showed female characters as powerful and heroic and her interpretation was riddled with feelings of guilt and confusion felt by the main character.

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.

In Books: Caliban’s War, book 2 of the Expanse series

I’m nearing completion of book 2, Caliban’s War, in the Expanse series. Initial thoughts include that while I generally think that sequels are not better than their predecessors, this one makes a worthwhile effort. Caliban’s War is more action-focussed than Leviathan Wakes, while at the same time introducing a general insight into the political system and intrigues that have caused many of the events in book 1 to occur. This book starts strong, with a monster of unknown origin massacring an outpost in space. The repercussions on the settlement itself are particularly well-done from the perspective of a single father looking for his daughter. Some of the themes from book 1 seem to repeat itself, with what was formerly Miller looking for a girl being replaced by someone else on a similar mission. And yes, the one-perspective-per-chapter structure, similar to Game of Thrones, is still used in this book, but I found it to be quite fluid.

Btw. The trailer for the upcoming Expanse TV-show can be found here. I don’t have any thoughts on it, except that the characters seem younger than I imagined them from the book. Apart from Lord of the Rings, this will be the first TV-show that I will have watched after reading the books.

In Photography: The Glasses of Holocaust Victims

Somewhat reminiscent of “The Shoes on the Danube Bank,” this is one of those powerful images that transmits the tragedy of Auschwitz succinctly and without filter.

Via The Guardian.

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.

In Food: Aeropress makes espresso with the best of them

While currently I am in the process of making a tasty coffee via the well-established and highly effective (if not very fast) “drip method,” I cannot recommend the Aeropress enough. At my last work, we had an old Italian coffee machine that may have cost 15,000 euro new (one of those bar-mounted full-service devices you see at Starbucks). The makers of that machine will be shocked that I can reproduce coffee as well-tasting in something that costs about 0.2% of those machines: a good 30 euro, including filters.

The Aeropress can best be described as syringe that you fill up with coffee powder and water and use to press out freshly brewed coffee. However, if you know what a French Press is, the Aeropress is basically a more modern version of that, faster and easier to clean.

There are several reasons to use an Aeropress:

  • Compact: you could transport that thing in your jacket pocket and make your own coffee at work.
  • Fast: you’ll have a well-tasting espresso in under 2 minutes.
  • Tasty: comparable taste to the big machines.
  • Cheap: 30 euro, price of coffee not included.
  • Creative: I use the inverted brewing method, however just check out the countless information on the web about the different ways to make coffee with this one.

 

 

 

 

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

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