Saturday 25 December 2010

A lonely Christmas

With every unexpected death there's someone who'll feel the pain most. A December night, minus five on the scale and a blizzard on the way, and a light has gone out in someone's life. For me this is a stressful situation as I gather my thoughts, try to follow protocol, hoe I'm not forgetting things, concentrating on doing a good job, and keeping new colleagues under my wing. We are not the only people present. There is a newly bereaved brother. He is keeping up appearances, answering stupid questions, trying to be helpful. The realisation has not yet kicked in. The loneliness of someone alone in the country will not manifest itself for a few hours.

Hours pass as officious feet trudge muddy footprints through the hallway, radios bleep, hard male voices converse mixed with hushed tones at appropriate moments, occasional, accidental, stifled bursts of laughter break out. Hustle and bustle is everywhere, paperwork flows. Finally it is all over.

There is a week until Christmas. What would have been family affair has suddenly turned into a void. With any luck there may be a friend or colleague who will take pity. I hope so for his sake. I pass on final information about the coroner, mortuary, an apology that due to health and safety we cannot clean up the mess in the now silent living room. I mutter a limp euphemism about this not being pleasant. With an effort I look him in the eye, attempt a smile, which I hope conveys something approaching empathy, and, ridiculously, my final words are almost as if I'm saying goodbye to a mate after a pint. "Take care."

Suddenly the stony, glum resignation falters. I see shoulders slump. I know what this means. I shoo everyone out the front door and make sure not to look behind me as I pull the door shut. Some privacies are inviolable.

Hours later, nearing the end of a continuous 27-hour working day, hysterical exhaustion invading, I stare out from the window of a deserted, stifling twelfth floor over central London. Outside, nothing but a whiteout - the snowpocalypse descends. On an always-on radio somewhere on the other side of the bleak office, Chris Rea's "Driving Home for Christmas" comes on, and I have a little moment to myself which I am glad there is nobody with me to share.

A week later, it's Christmas night, and although I'm not really the praying type, that poor woman's lonely brother, who I'd never met and probably never will again, is in my thoughts. Christmas is no time to be alone.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Struck off my Christmas card list

A big "sod off" to:

  • The Tories
  • Labour
  • Robert Peston
  • Rupert Murdoch
  • The Telegraph
Anyone else? I am pretty riled today.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

The Damscille Triangle

In secondary school maths, around the time we were taught Pythagoras's famous theorem, Mr Stark taught us the equally famous relationship between distance, speed and time.

He called it the Damscille Triangle, at least that's what I heard; I assumed Damscille was a Greek mathematician - a contemporary of Pythagoras, Archimedes and Euclid.

It wasn't until I was about fifteen that I suddenly realised that it was in fact a mnemonic: Damn Silly Triangle (distance, speed, time). Damscille was no more, and won't be found in any textbook or history book, but still has a special place in my heart.

The continental shelf

I was a precocious child. (Pity it's been downhill since). I used to read all kinds of books and encyclopaedias which were aimed at kids much older. When I was about seven, I read about continental shelf in a picture book.

I couldn't swim at the time. I refused to wade out too deep, because I was convinced that at the edge of the continental shelf there was a sudden drop off, and that you could accidentally step off the edge and fall in. It took years before I found out that the truth was less dramatic.

NewMR Festival - some thoughts on the daytime session

I did actually set my alarm for 4am with the intention of catching some of the Aussie/Far East sessions of the NewMR festival, however willpower (or lack thereof) won the day and I could only haul myself out of bed in time for the 9am GMT sessions.

Brainjuicer's John Kearon kicked things off with a presentation on his "research robots" or DigiViduals. I'd already seen a presentation online on the same subject, but preferred this new one. Basically the concept is that you create a virtual persona, consisting of any attributes you like: behavioural traits, attitudes, tone of language, personality types, lifestyle choices...with or without more traditional sampling attributes like demographics. With your subject created, you go and scan various forms of social media (Kearon always starts with Twitter, but it can go to shopping sites, forums, YouTube...) looking for REAL people whose personal characteristics, as evidenced by the content they have created, "match" our virtual person. Then, you can simply lift content from those people and analyse the relevant parts to your study.

This is a brilliant concept. Sampling can move away from the old "middle class mothers who read magazines" to groups who share characteristics that are much more tactile. I wondered about the volume of data that you'd have to go to before you'd get people who form a "close enough match". Kearon pointed out that while much of the work is done automatically by the research robots, there's still a lot of manual data cleaning to be done.

I imagine in practice there is some sort of "threshold" that people have to meet to be counted in. For example, perhaps they meet at least 60% of the attributes, or else they are 40% more like our digividual than the "average" person.

The real beauty in this is that your digividual can be a totally artificial construct, not based on any real people at all; in fact, it could be an experiment to find a type of person who you don't know exists. The potential for discovering new or niche markets is endless.

Talking of artificial situations, this led nicely into Tom Ewing's presentation comparing research methods with gaming. In the last year or two, more and more commentators have predicted that online gaming will really take off to new levels in the next few years thanks to the social side. All sorts of games - whether web-based, console-based or whatever - have had a new lease of life thanks to the social aspect. Ewing mentioned FourSquare as the ultimate example (I'm only just about to get my first posh phone so I barely know anything about it!); I was surprised he didn't mention Second Life (does anyone actually play that any more? You heardly hear about it these days).

Ewing rattled through a series of nice analogies - but there was a linear theme about showing how research can learn from the best games which keep their players entertained and engaged. He pointed out that a game like chess, whose mechanics are simple and dull, has millions of possible game scenarios, which quickly become complex and involving, requiring a lot of thought and effort on the part of the player (or respondent!). He also pointed out that different people have different motives for playing games, and that good game designers can take this into account; similarly, research respondents have different reasons for giving up their time, and the canny research designer will bear this in mind and try to take advantage.

He makes the point that Sonic the Hedgehog would be a dull game if there was a constant progress bar! However, the concept of levels in games means different things to different people and a sense of achievement (and therefore the effort that goes in to fulfil that achievement) varies from person to person. Monopoly playing styles also vary - people's approach to risk results in very different ways of taking the game on.

Ewing also showed he similarities between gaming and research like simple mobile tasks/apps and also community building. While the analogies came thick and fast, the presentation was full of real-world suggestions for ways that researchers could actually go away and make their projects more interesting for respondents tomorrow.

"Gamey" was how the next presenter, Jon Puleston, described some projective techniques and again this presentation was full of practical ideas of how to improve data quality. He recently undertook a study showing increases in respondent productivity as a result of changes made to online survey designs. Imagery and snappier introductions both made a significant difference, but most interesting were the increase in data quantity/quality from using more interactive, projective techniques. One in particular (where researcher and respondent trade ideas one-for-one) was shown to be particularly effective, as was the game of "put yourself in someone else's [the client's?] shoes..." A very nice presentation.

Completing the first mini-session was Graeme Lawrence of Virtual Surveys. His presentation seemed to have less of a structured narrative, but was no less interesting for that. It was all about "not just listening"; the point that successful "NewMR" needs to be a mixture of large-scale, passive listening/monitoring ("why ask some when you can listen to all?") - but also more proactive asking of questions. I suppose this must vary depending on the subject - there are some areas where there are vast volumes of data already out there, but others where respondents need to be prompted and pushed. I suppose there's less noise to eliminate once people have more of a focus - at the expense of things being a bit less natural (looking forward to Mark Earls's keynote later - my rather verbose review of his book here). One example he gave showed some data on "where else" on Facebook fans of a particular page go - does anyone know what tool was used to get that insight? He gave examples of Facebook fans of Next and H&M providing opinions and insight - it occurred to me that here you are restricting yourself to brand loyalists. It doesn't necessarily work for all brands, either: people may be shy to become Facebook fans of a feminine hygiene product or political party, for example.

After a short coffee break, Annelies Verhaeghe gave a terrific talk on research using social media. I loved her initial analogy of a house of cards - companies are throwing themselves into social media without having a clue about best practice, then getting surprised when things go catasrophically wrong. My current line of work is closer to PR than MR but the facepalm horror stories come thick and fast. She quickly moved on to the issue of representativeness of online and NewMR techniques - a subject dealt with at some length by Ray Poynter in his excellent Handbook of online and social media research. Her main point was that we don't know who is talking. Real people become personae, defined by their content and personalities rather than their demographics. But haven't we heard something like that before? It's all about John Kearon's digividuals again. The sampling goalposts haven't been taken away, just moved along. She also talked about the fact that most sampling online is convenience sampling, and touched on issues of data quality (for example content that is "quoted" or duplicated). There was also a very nice graphical representation of data volume vs sentiment for a particular topic.

Rijn Vogelaar followed with his take on opinion leaders or "Superpromoters" as he calls them. He divided thoughts up into conscious, subconscious, and brand opinions. Personally I found myself a little skeptical - for a start I'm not convinced that there are an elite few brand evangelists who shape community opinions, but also because I'm not convinced that the opinions of the blind optimists, the hardcore fans, are necessarily the most important: aren't the drifters, the disloyal, and the indifferent, of more interest?

Rich Shaw finished up the second mini-session with a presentation about the "hacker ethic". I must admit I missed most of this - initially distracted by "NewMR chatup lines" on Twitter, and then by the gas man knocking on the door. I'll come back to it.

Academic researcher Dr Agnes Nairn gave a great overview of the ethical issues surrounding new research techniques in a talked entitled Oi, you took that without asking! Her own work is concerned with children, and she brought up practical concerns about getting the appropriate level of consent from both the child and their parents (by phone: consider!!!) There is also an issue of data protection: I was pleasantly surprised at the level of confidence in the police dealing with personal data, but market researchers were at the bottom of the trust pile - way behind bankers.

She moved on to the central issue of informed consent. The old rules have been thrown out of the window where social media monitoring is concerned. It is difficult to inform people for whom you have no point of contact (for Facebook, forums etc) or details (Twitter), particularly if you are collecting data on a very large scale. The level of intrusion also varies on a sliding scale: there is a world of difference between taking one person's personal essay, quoting it in client meetings and using it to influence decisions on he one hand, and merely using a sentiment analysis tool to add an opinion to a set of positive/negative sentiment aggregate data at the other. I also have some sympathy with the view of Mark Zuckerberg who caused a storm when he said that people in the Facebook generation are less bothered about privacy and more inclined to open up their lives in public online; yes, of course he has an ulterior motive, but I get the feeling that he's mostly right despite the noisy protests of various pressure groups.

Henrik Hall's chat with Ray Poynter wasn't really relevant to me, but Bernie Malinoff's presentation on the pitfalls and differences between different approaches to online surveys was interesting. Incredible that two similar methodologies, with only some small tactical differences, can give completely different results. It's the sort of thing the research industry needs to tackle quicksticks to avoid being seen as a waste of time and money by clients. Ian Ralph's practical talk on smartphone research was also interesting, although as a non-practitioner I find these highly tactical discussions a struggle to keep up with.

Betty Adamou finished with a brilliantly rousing call to arms for Facebook research. She made some bold claims about young people - email is as dead as the CD, for example - and pointed out that researchers must make the effort to reach out to respondents, not the other way round. She made some great points about the sorts of times and places respondents might want to take on a piece of research: at a bus stop, for example, or waiting for a late-running boyfriend. I'd love to see some "situation-based" research. She also said that researchers need to be more flexible about adapting to the way young people behave, especially online - by embracing things like txt spk and smilies.

The evening session features one of my recent heroes, Mark Earls, and lots more goodies: I can't wait. If it's half as good as today's session then it'll be a very enjoyable few hours.

I have cross-posted this on the NewMR site as a blog post.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Assembly Rooms under threat: why the council must reconsider

It has emerged that Edinburgh council want to "refurbish" James Henderson's magnificent Assembly Rooms on George Street to incorporate some shops and a restaurant. William Burdett-Coutts's Assembly Theatre, the council's key tenant during the summer, are petitioning hard against the plans. It is a worthy campaign.

As a student, I spent four summers working for Assembly on the promotional staff. It's the ultimate student job at the festival: fully involved at one of the most buzzing venues in town, mingling with actors and comedians, chatting and drinking (heavily) with a vast range of fun people, and seeing a whole host of different shows. For a nineteen year old, it was a dream come true; I bust a gut for Assembly, as I was so desperate for things to go well - it was an attitude typical amongst staff there for whom Assembly was, and still is, a way of life. As a venue, it's at the heart of the festival both geographically and metaphorically, with important productions (many of which transfer to national tours following their Edinburgh run), world-class comedy and more contracts and agent signings than you can shake a stick at.

That's not to say the venue is perfect. I was appalled at one or two of the managerial decisions that were made in my final year there (to the extent that it took a while to get over my bitterness), and the backstabbing atmosphere in the main admin office was oppressive to the extent that in my final year, when I was mainly office based, I was desperate to escape to the relative relief of handing out flyers. The programming is desperately dull, with Burdett-Coutts and co wheeling out the usual suspects year after year: Guy Masterson, Bob Kingdom, Adam Hills, Soweto Gospel Choir, Antonio Forcione, and various mainstream dance acts all add up to a painfully risk-averse and predictable programme each year. (That's not mentioning those atrocious Otar Imerlishvili artworks which appear year after year). Not that there's anything wrong with those acts listed; there's just a certain inevitability about opening the glossy brochure for the first time and seeing the same names yet again. There are only so many times one can sit through tango fusion dancing. Like once. The lack of courage on the programming front has resulted in venues like the Underbelly becoming the place to hunt for the really off-beat stuff.

Yet the size of the venue means that a heavy leaning towards the mainstream, the tried and tested, is understandable. The quality of those "old favourites" tends to be pretty strong. From Caroline O'Connor's Bombshells to Jerry Springer the Opera to Lee Mack to John Clancy's explosive Fatboy to Masterson acting in an outstanding Oleanna, there are always likely to be hits worth seeing (if you can afford the ticket prices). They make up for the critically panned moneyspinners (hello Nancy Cartwright).

To lump all Assembly productions in as pre-West End warmup runs would be unfair, too. I have seen some outstanding shows from relative unknowns, and some real offbeat, alternative productions that have been breathtaking. In my first year working at Assembly, Demitri Martin won the Perrier with his particular brand of poetry, gentle one-liners and...palindromes. In the same year I was wowed by Michael Raynor's autobiographical one-man play Who's Floyd Stearn? A fellow colleague of mine (whose own show I saw this year at the Underbelly) was in floods of tears after watching Teatro Sunil's kooky, almost autistically optimistic view of freedom in Icaro in 2003. More recently, mime artist Julien Cottereau (2010) and Northern Firebrand's Scarborough (written by Fiona Evans, herself formerly on the Assembly payroll), in 2008, were highlights. Best of all, though, was back in 1995. Slava Polunin's extraordinary Snowshow was, and still is, the best show I have ever seen, of any kind, in my life. I saw it aged twelve, and saw it again ten years later, and my opinion didn't change. (I believe it was a nightmare for the staff, who had to crawl on their hands and knees to pick up thousands of little pieces of paper from between the seats after every performance).

The Assembly Rooms may not have quite the same cutting edge as the Pleasance, Aurora Nova or the Traverse (although the latter is falling into the trap of putting on productions by the same people, year after year) but it still a creative hub bursting with talented people, ideas, inspiring conversations. It remains a place where deals of nationwide artistic significance are struck in the Club Bar.

Ah, the Club Bar. An elegant place for the creatively exalted to relax over a coffee? Yes. But also a place for top actors and comedians to get utterly smashed by night. I could tell you some stories. But I won't.

Actually, I will. Which married London stand-up had a drug-fuelled affair with a member of street team staff? Which comedian made a home-made porn film with another street teamer the same year? Which actor drank so much each night that he eventually got alcohol poisoning? Which Hollwood A-lister was thrown out of the Club Bar on his own birthday after going behind the bar and pouring drinks uninvited? (That was Christian Slater). Which fifty-something performer was finally shown the door after a string of complaints from attractive seventeen-year-old staff who he'd been repeatedly pestering for dates? That doesn't even scratch the surface, either.

Those were good times. Not all the stories were booze-and-drugs related, either. There's Gerry, the genial retired American teacher, who practically lives at Assembly for the entire festival, blags his way into everything with his long-suffering wife and two friends in tow, then stands outside loudly giving his opinions on the performance to anyone who'll listen (his opinions are usually limited to a drawling "that was a goooood showwwwwww" or alternatively "pooooooor"; I have noticed his positive and negative reviews seem to be equally good at putting people off buying tickets). In all seriousness, though, Gerry is a solid gold legend, and someone for whom the festival means a huge deal, and Assembly in particular. Edinburgh would be a poorer place without him. Talking of Gerries, there was the famous day when Jerry Spring's lawyer heard about the Opera bearing his name, called up and demanded tickets for him and his twenty-strong entourage. The entire run was completely sold out. The lawyer played hardball. The box office somehow found twenty tickets. The story goes that Springer and co flew in from LA by private jet, went from the airport to George Street in a fleet of limos, went to see the show, hopped back in the limos, and back on the plane having loved the show.

As usual, I digress. The point is that despite having many shortcomings (what about the despicable decision to use their financial and marketing muscle to try and split from the Fringe along with other mainstream venues, leaving the beating heart of the festival - the small, independent venues - fibrillating weakly) Assembly remains a true hub of festival activity, a creative zenith, a theatrical and comedic centre round which punters, critics, performers and tourists alike naturally gravitate. A festival institution in contrast to so many transient ventures in the city. Part of the festival furniture.

Yet longevity alone is not a reason to keep the Assembly Rooms going as a festival venue. They are perfectly suited to performances. The unique layout of the Wildman Room and cabaret vibe of the Supper Room, combined with the opulence and airy space of the Ballroom and Music Hall, with plenty of space for bars and admin all around. Apparently the Supper Room and Wildman Room will be gone forever following the proposed "upgrade", along with the Edinburgh Suite and Drawing Room; not to mention the "Scott Room" which I believe is the tiny space used to such great effect by the production of Scarborough in 2008. The great festival venues range from university function rooms, through tents, churches and inflatable cows, to Masonic lodges; the wedding-cake surroundings of  the Assembly Rooms are part of that wonderful mix.

The focus of this campaign has been on the festival, understandably, since it's Assembly Theatre who are behind it. Yet it is a disgrace that such a magnificent building can be so criminally under-utilised during the remaining months of the year. There is a mish-mash of tired craft fairs, ceilidhs, record fairs, and the occasional wedding. It's all too easy, when the building is covered with hoarding, posters and stage scaffolding for the festival, to forget just how spectacular the building is: the Assembly Rooms are a stunning set of ornate chambers.

So what are the council proposing? With an imagination only seen in the public sector, it's a shops'n'restaurants package which will "transform" the building and "guarantee the building's future as one of the most sensational events venues in the city".

I have several problems with this. Shops'n'restaurants is default thinking. George Street does not lack either. The sterile Multrees Walk, which feels like the afterthought to a business district that it is, can hardly be a model to aspire to. But more worrying for me is the thought that the Assembly Rooms needs a refurbishment. It desperately needs something to be done. But change the physical layout? The Assembly Rooms are a simple set of function rooms, with unlimited possibilities for their use. The problem is not the venue itself - only a numbing lack of imagination. Whilst Burdett-Coutts and Assembly's artistic programming may leave a lot to be desired, they have managed to make brilliant use of the space, utilising some of the unsexy spaces as well as the first floor blockbusters, with areas like the famous Lane Bar a real hub. The council, meanwhile, can only muster a few craft fairs. Why have we not seen art exhibitions? What about musical performances? Awards ceremonies? Entertaining foreign dignitaries? Club nights (Vegas used to put nights on)? Talks? Conferences? One of the most spectacular buildings in the country has had its potential ignored, and now the council are planning to shove in some shops.

When refurbishments of this sort are done well, they can be brilliant. The transformation of an old RBS building (a Grade A listed James Craig construction) by Caledonian Heritable into what is now The Dome, a few doors along from the Assembly Rooms, was a classic example. Such tasteful refurbishment, combined with commercial success, is rare. It's not something you would expect Edinburgh council to emulate. Certainly not if the best they can come up with is bunging a few shops in the front.

Assembly Theatre have tried to convince the council to let them take over the running of the venue year-round. This seems to have failed. Personally I'm not sure I would want the venue to be run solely by the theatre company - its transformation in August is one of the unique selling points of the Rooms and I'm not convinced that the year-round programme would be of much interest. I can, however, see the sense in improving the catering potential of the building. It's all very well for people like me to idly mutter about conferences and events, but unless there's the possibility for world-class catering and facilities to go alongside the world-class architecture, then outside companies won't want to invest. The Assembly Rooms website talks of its proud history " a venue that, whilst still catering for both public and private balls, was now equipped to accommodate public meetings, concerts, recitals, music festivals, dinners, banquets, Royal occasions and public readings by celebrated authors such as Dickens and Thackeray." So why does the council think that their "ambitious" plans to shove in a few shops, whilst sacrificing the potential for one of their key clients to operate freely, will suddenly transform the ailing venue to the way things were in the glory days?

The petition/campaign website has been set up by Assembly Theatre Ltd, whose focus, somewhat understandably, is on their own contribution during the summer, which remains the principal operation of the building these days and has, by all accounts, transformed the venue which was in an even worse state in the 70s. The comments on the site reveal some of the depth of feeling for the venue, much of it unconnected the the festival (although understandable as I mentioned, it's a shame that so much of the focus of the campaign is on the venue's use as a theatre rather than is initial and ongoing purpose as a civic function suite). A few examples of comments which I agree with 100%:

The Assembly Rooms as they stand are a priceless reminder of the glory of Edinburgh...

Dare to put a paint brush near your own listed building they come down with a vengance on you...

Please help to keep Edinburgh a beacon of culture and preserve the Assembly Rooms! They are an integral part of Edinburgh's unique and extremely rich heritage, which will only be diluted by more shops and restaurants catering only to mindless consumersim, and will probably end up a Gap, a Banana republic and a TGI Fridays like every other souless urban block in the world! 

To transform the ground floor of such a beautiful historic building into shops and a restaurant is quite frankly vandalism. I have to ask what is motivating the decision for this change? Is it down to money? If so, I am sure refreshing the sales and marketing strategy for the venue would make a significant improvement financially.

Can you imagine Bath turning their Assembly Rooms into shops?? The Assembly Rooms should be used even more for their original purpose.

It is one of the basic foundation stones of Edinburgh at Festival time, and so it should remain.

This decision will impact on the attractiveness of Edinburgh as destination festival to International tourists and companies. (Aurora Nova hero Wolfgang Hoffman)

There certainly have been occasions when a Glory of a City is badly messed up, but such attacks have usually involved enemy bombing. (Jack Klaff)

I feel deeply sad that this melting pot for culture, this down and dirty artistic mash up sited in a beautiful old council building - a PEOPLE's building - is set to be turned into some nasty little franchise bitch. What a terrible shame. (Jackie Clune, another Assembly performer during my time)

Edinburgh council have form for white elephants: the underground "Princes Street Galleries" shopping mall, or the tram, anyone? (It's not just a modern thing; what about the National Monument on Calton Hill?!). Realising the potential of the Assembly Rooms and reclaiming former glories should be a priority for the council, and some sort of action plan is desperately overdue; but turning such an iconic venue into a retail outlet is clearly not the answer. They must rethink.

Friday 29 October 2010

Blasted (Lyric) - review

Why would anyone want to kill you?
Revenge. Things I've done.
I read a lot of "pre-match hype" about Sarah Kane's Blasted, and found it difficult to shake off the stereotypes of it being a "cry for help" shortly before her suicide, and didn't know what to make of the hypocrisy (there is no other word for it) of critics, who denounced it as "filth" (among other things) at the time of its first production, but lined up to laud its genius after her death. Sean Holmes takes it on at the Lyric.

I went in braced for an onslaught of harrowing visual imagery. Blasted isn't as simple as that, however. It's a series of rather disjointed tableaux, darkly comical at times, post-apocalyptic at others, with shades of everything from Greek tragedy to Wilfred Owen to Kafka along the way.

Ian and Cate are spending idle time in a hotel. The hotel is plush but bland: perhaps a Hilton or Marriott. The nature of their relationship is never fully revealed; it is mainly sexual, abusive, domineerin on the part of Ian...but Cate does not walk away. Ian's foulmouthed misogyny and vices clearly have some sort of appeal. The dialogue is framented. Many questions are unanswered at this stage: why does Ian carry a gun?

The tone darkens as scene two opens: Lydia spits "Cunt" and it is clear that she has been violated in the night. Even now, the conversations are broken and ambiguous, Ian's paranoia ever more apparent. A soldier bursts into the room, and enages in philosophical debate about the nature of wartime atrocities with Ian. From then on, the surrealism, graphic brutality and black humour crescendo to a grotesque endpiece.

Danny Webb and Lydia Wilson take on the lead roles with mixed success. They are fearsomely difficult parts to play, and the uncomfortable chemistry that is inevitable between a foul-mouthed, abusive, paranoid alcoholic and an attractive introvert thirty years his junior, is clear to see. Webb, despite a rather bizarre accent, was excellent for the most part, although he took a while to warm up. His central conversation with the soldier (it reminded me of Owen's Strange Meeting) crackles with tension, coinciding with some of the best dialogue in the play, while his descent into the tattered rags of a man towards the end reminded me somewhat of the central character of Paul Theroux's deeply disturbing The Mosquito Coast - paranoid, self-destructing, hideous. Wilson, meanwhile, plays her part bravely, but rather surprisingly is let down by technical basics rather than a lack of depth: her hammy stutter, unconvincing movement, and inability to deliver the humorous lines, are all surely details that could be ironed out, as she tackles the uncomfortable role fearlessly.

In truth the script left me rather cold. The soldier dialogue, Ian's complete mental collapse in the later stages, and some of the black gags are terrific, but ultimately I didn't find the play particularly thought-provoking as a whole. Is it shocking? Yes, the material is pretty graphic, but again, I found it all leaving little emotion on me. Much of the attention is understandably on Ian's grapples with the morals of suicide, but these are only really interesting in the context of the playwright's situation - little original thinking is presented. Meanwhile, for truly horrifying rape scenes, look no further than The Paper Birds' In a thousand pieces or Biuro Podrozy's Carmen funebre which are both infinitely more harrowing, without an explicit scene in sight. (The Paper Birds take their latest show Others to the Camden People's Theatre in a couple of weeks). But the shocking truth for me was that it all left me feeling a bit nonplussed.

Sean Holmes left me feeling pretty flat with his Three Sisters earlier this year. This time, his production is terrific, with only irritating details from the actors letting the side down. The post-holocaust latter scenes are quite brilliant, and the final scene rightly had the audience gripped in horror. A special mention to Paule Constable's lighting, which was particularly good.

Finally, a gripe. I was running late, and charged from the tube station, thrust my tenner at the box office staff, and hurried upstairs, sweating, into the auditorium at a minute to seven. It was practically empty. I had to check my ticket to confirm that it was indeed a 7pm start. Only ten minutes later did the press night audience start wandering in, seemingly under no pressure from staff to hurry up and get to their seats, and some even wandered out again to refill their drinks. The show finally got under way at a quarter past, seemingly because the becocktaildressed PR team couldn't be bothered to chivvy the critics inside. Now, I know it's press night and there are whims to be pandered to, but that strikes me as discourteous and disrespectful to the paying punters. If there's an advertised time, there should be no reason (technical hitches apart) not to stick to it.

Verdict: a brutal but disjointed script is overhyped, but neither that nor stilted acting can spoil a thoughtful production of this post-holocaust vision. Worth seeing.

Until 20 November. Tickets from £10.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

An open letter to Foxtons, Willesden Green

Mr Andrew Weir
Area Director, Foxtons
Willesden Green Sales
2-6 Station Parade, London NW2 4NH

Dear Mr Weir

Thank you for your fourth letter in as many weeks which plopped on my mat this morning. In your most recent unsolicited communication you encourage me to sell my home for free. I understand that I should "seize my chance". You assert that "there is no catch" despite your offer sounding "too good to be true". Yet something is holding me back.

Ah, that's it: I'm not a homeowner. While the prospect of selling a property that doesn't belong to me tickles me greatly, it is also illegal, as a certain Mr Anthony Lee found out to his cost recently. A five year jail term does not appeal. More than that, however, and how shall I put this...I am getting mighty cheesed off with the incessant stream of paper (posted locally from Andover, I note) clogging up my hallway.

I believe I am not the only person to have such sentiments. I understand that the Willesden Green office has been in operation for three weeks now, and already you are making your mark on the community. Alas, I suspect the local reaction will be one of intense irritation at being bombarded with ceaseless junk mail rather than ecstasy at the too-good-to-be-true-ness of the promised offer.

Incidentally, you boast of your "cafe-style" office. Why on earth do you expect this would be of benefit to anyone? If I have to deal with an estate agent there are certain criteria I look for: (1) ability to get things done efficiently with minimal screwing me around, (2) that's it. To think that either as a landlord/seller or buyer/tenant that my fees or rent would be increased by the fact that my estate agent wants to install some sort of fung shui in the office leaves me cold, to be honest. Offer me a cup of tea if you like - a common courtesy to a client in any form of business - but I couldn't give two hoots what your office looks like.

Mr Weir, you are probably younger than me and may not have worked for Foxtons four years ago when BBC's Whistleblower exposed your company's vile, scurrilous, low-life business practices for what they really are. I have not forgotten the programme. If you don't know what I am talking about, then take a look at this article. It is not for the faint hearted (also anyone in the process of buying a property through Foxtons should read it with a health warning attached).

In fact, on reflection, perhaps you are an experienced estate agent, as you were giving quotes to national newspapers in January 2008. While your manager will doubtless have praised you for showing such public confidence in the market at the time, it doesn't say a great deal for your credentials: 11 months after you confidently gave the opinion that "I don't think we will see house price falls...I just see no reason for it", the Halifax reported that house prices were down a record 16.2% year-on-year. Oh dear.

Yours ever


PS. In case I forgot to mention, or in case the message didn't come across, pretty please, with sugar on top, never ever write to me again. xx

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Richard Feynman, the celebration of doubt, and some horribly clunky and tenuous parallels with consumer research

Richard Feynman is the scientists' scientist. He was one of the greatest physicists of all time (seventh in Physics World's 1999 poll, behind Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, Bohr, Heisenberg and Galileo) - brilliantly explaining the relationship between photons and electrons in a fundamental area of particle physics called quantum electrodynamics which he basically invented. His squiggly pictures, now known as Feynman diagrams, can help explain complicated particle interactions in a non-mathematical way to the extent that someone with only a basic knowledge of physics could understand them.

The Feynman diagrams were a classic example of what made him not just a boffin, but a great scientist and educator. Feynman's approaches and attitudes were second to none. One of the best £90s I ever spent was, as a student, when I splashed out for the Feynman Lectures on Physics. If any physics undergraduate (or even A-level student) happens to read this, do yourself a favour: the three volumes are utterly inspiring, although beware - his methods are frequently unorthodox and can sometimes become ferociously difficult. I had a love-hate relationship with physics, but keep coming back to the Lectures time and time again.

Feynman has always been a bit of a hero of mine, and so when the latest batch of books I ordered online plopped on the mat, rather than consigning The meaning of it all to the end of the rapidly expanding backlog, I gobbled it up over a couple of days on my commutes. It is a collection of three lectures he gave in 1963 on the relationship between science, religion and uncertainty. It's a slim volume, but essential reading whether you've made up your mind on metaphysical and ethical questions, or whether you have an open mind. In an era dominated by shouty shock-jocks like Richard Dawkins, Feynman's quiet reflections really do stand out. Furthermore, I'm convinced that his opinions will be relevant to commercial research of all sorts as well as pure scientific work.

The general thrust of Feynman's argument is a celebration of uncertainty. The claim that ignorance and uncertainty are not something to be ashamed of, but quite the opposite - an exciting problem fresh to be solved - is quite refreshing. He comes across as a pure scientist: tackling problems for the problems' sake, yet appreciative of the practical implications of scientific research. One aspect that it's enlightening to hear from the mouth of the great man is just how "unscientific" the scientific process can be: rather than "Eureka" moments, scientific research is an iterative process, slowly proving the old rules wrong; Sherlock Holmes knew what he was talking about when he said "Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth." Slowly building on established knowledge, confirming and disproving different strands by experiment (trial and error, if you like), is the way knowledge is furthered.

While Feynman, of course, is concerned primarily with things that can be measured and evaluated quantitatively (or even qualitatively), he makes the point that it's not only measurable aspects which are important:
But if a thing is not scientific, if it cannot be subjected to the test of observation, this does not mean that it is dead, or wrong, or stupid. We are not trying to argue that science is somehow good and that other things are somehow not good. Scientists take all those things that can be analysed by observation, and thus the things called science are found out. But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work. This does not mean that those things are unimportant. They are, in fact, in many ways the most important. In any decision for action, when you have to make up your mind what to do, there is always a "should" involved, and this cannot be worked out from "if I do this, what will happen?" alone. You say "Sure, you see what will happen, and then you decide whether you want it to happen or not." But that is the step the scientist cannot take. You can figure out what is going to happen, but then you have to decide whether you like it that way or not.
What of consumer research, then? To me, that implies that the business decisions which are made as the result of research still need to be bold ones, and that no matter how robust the research methodology itself may be, if the research brief is lousy or pointless then the research is wasted. Nothing new there then. But also that the research in itself might not be enough to show clearly whether the benefits of international expansion, or introducing a new product line, or scrapping dress-down Fridays, outweigh the side-effects. The research might demonstrate what the benefits and side-effects are, and even quantify them. But as for making that instinctive judgement? Market research's usefulness might be limited there. What Feynman is saying is that even from a scientist's point of view, that instinctive judgement isn't something to sniff at.

Having recently read Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, it occurs to me that there are a lot of parallels between the two - and can be summed up as "common sense". Objectivity. Looking for ways to disprove your work rather than proving it. These are basic groundrules.

More on uncertainty:
...doubt and uncertainty [are] important. I believe that [they] are of very great value, and extend beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.
Feynman is a pure scientist, through and through. He asserts that
work is not done for the sake of an application
which I agree with 100%. But, since I'm corrupting this post horribly with comparisons to commercial/consumer research which would probably horrify the great man, I'm not sure that I agree that this statement is true for market research. Sure, if MR and consumer research help boost the pool of knowledge surrounding consumer behaviour, then great. But while the foibles and complexities of consumer behaviour are undoubtedly fascinating (whether the research is conducted by market researchers or academic psychologists), the implications of its results are more important. Market research is definitely an applied science. A MR project is generally undertaken to fulfil a purpose - is that something to be ashamed of? It is a tool that provides insight into consumer behaviour and attitudes so that decisions can be made based on the findings. To paraphrase Feynman, the scientist (or market researcher) can provide the answers to questions like "what will happen if I do X?" or "what should I do in order to achieve Y?" Of course, whether Y is a desirable outcome or not, is outside the researcher's remit, and only the decision-maker can tell. But it's the transition from pure research to marketing applications that is where research is so exciting, for me.
To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.
That sounds like the sort of thing one of those "inspirational" business blogger "gurus" like Seth Godin might say. It wasn't. It was something a Buddhist monk once told Feynman, who, rather than making a sweeping statement based on it, interprets it in the context of ethics: top-level scientists have the capability to do something really dangerous with their expertise. Feynman should know: he worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

He says that whilst making vague claims is next to useless, making bold assertions, which can then be proved either wrong, or correct until proven wrong (as with Newton's laws) is the way to go about scientific research:
The more specific a rule is, the more powerful it is, the more liable it is to exceptions, and the more interesting and valuable it is to check...doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value.
More generally, he lauds risktaking in research, saying that with such risks, reputations may be put on the line, but the greatest discoveries are made. must be willing to stick your neck out...make a specific rule and see if it falls through the sieve.
The risk, of course, is that you are barking up the wrong tree completely. The parallels with the commercial world are obvious. Those researchers who try an outlandish methodology, or make a bold hypothesis, might end up getting nowhere. All kinds of agencies are experimenting with neuroscience, text analysis, eye tracking and all sorts of techniques with varying levels of sophistication. They sound sexy and therefore generate coverage (and thus sales), although there are a lot of sceptics who doubt the value of such techniques, particularly as, given their youth, by the sounds of things many of them are doing little more than floundering around in the dark.

I would argue, however, that is is the duty of big brands to invest in risky research - to invest in a hypothesis or methodology that could be badly flawed and provide zero ROI. But the likes of Unilever, Coca-Cola and Nike can afford to take such risks once in a while, and if the gamble pays off, that new methodology might give them deep consumer insight which rapidly gives them ROI and an edge over the competition. Perhaps more importantly, they should feel compelled to make these contributions to marketing, because brands as a whole may be able to benefit from the latest techniques in neuroscience, say, that would be too expensive for smaller companies to invest speculatively. Of course, this would rely on providers not flogging dud research.

Yet to invoke the spirit of Feynman requires that little spark, that little wow factor. There are plenty of case studies out there at the moment which just make you sit up and take notice. One example is this from Brainjuicer's John Kearon:

Crumbs. I don't know where to start with that one. Maybe it deserves another piece in itself.

The other piece of research, and this is something that REALLY made me sit up and take notice, was an academic study by researchers from Indiana University, entitled Twitter mood predicts the stock market. I've read the paper in full and will write a piece shortly - until then, if your imagination is running riot and you can't bear to wait, have a look at Wired who have covered it.

These analogies are horrible, I know, but I'm reading a lot about MR developments at the moment so forgive me for making comparisons.

And so to religion. Dawkins and his crew have made a lot of noise in the last few years with dismissive sweeping statements (the same, of course, can be said about the religious right). Feynman (who, let me reiterate, was one of the greatest scientists of all time) doesn't mince his words.
I agree that science cannot disprove the existence of God. I absolutely agree...belief in God and action in science [are] consistent.
For someone so mild, cannot is a strong word. It's a bold claim, an absolute claim. (It's also something I happen to agree with, but who am I to comment on the great man's veracity). He describes the wonder of seeing the mysteries of the universe come alive as
an experience which is very rare, and exciting
A young scientist, Feynman continues, may find
the religion of his church" inadequate to describe that kind of experience. The God of his church isn't big enough. Perhaps.
And the walls of belief might start to crumble. But at the same time, he argues that people who are not religious, by and large, share the same values as religious people:
It seems to me that there is a kind of independence between the ethical and moral views, and the theory of the universe.
Feynman splits religious thought into three: metaphysics, ethics, and inspiration. On the metaphysical aspect, he argues that scientific beliefs are perhaps less strong than religious ones (the principles of dogma and infallibility spring to mind here). Meanwhile
the uncertainity that is necessary in order to appreciate nature is not easily correlated with the feeling of certainty in faith, which is usually associated with deep religious belief.
 This goes contrary to conventional wisdom, which says that it is science which provides absolute answers, and religion which leaves questions unanswered.

Feynman died in 1988 but the most obvious as yet unanswered question which still lingers regards the origin of the universe. As science and technology become ever more sophisticated, we know what happened closer and closer to the Big Bang. Minutes, seconds, tenths of seconds, millionths of seconds...we're not that far away from having a pretty good idea of what the universe looked like at one Planck time after the Big Bang (which I don't have time to explain...ho ho). But as for the Big Bang itself? All analyses seem lead to a singularity (infinity or impossibility if you will) - something which we cannot measure, cannot decipher, and it seems as likely as ever that it will be something that we can never understand. And what is so wrong with that?

Richard Feynman - what a hero.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

NewMR Festival - my "main stage" picks

Just a very quick post. Ray Poynter's Festival of NewMR takes place in early December, and in true co-creative style, prospective attendees help choose the programme. Dozens of submissions have been put forward, and I've had a very enjoyable hour perusing the synopses with less than an hour to go before voting closes.

As a non-practitioner, some of the more complex proposals didn't interest me, but in general there are stacks of papers that look fascinating. I only hope that the ones that don't get voted for do end up being presented in some format, either as a "fringe event" at the NewMR festival, or elsewhere.

As someone who is to an extent "looking in from the outside", papers with a strong practical element or ood case studies appealed to me, although some of the more abstract papers look great too. The format for voting for papers was great (and really made you think about the papers in turn). The only thing I would quibble is the wording: I must confess that in answering do you think this presentation is likely to be of value to the audience I acted purely selfishly - clicking "yes" only to those papers that were likely to be of value to me. 

I ended up with 24 papers on my shortlist, and picking three was nigh-on impossible. Some highlights for me included Brian Fine on research through computer games (Tom Ewing had something similar); Alison MacLeod on brand evangelists and the difficulties of filtering out respondents desperate to give their opinions; Jon Puleston on encouraging RESPONDENTS to think creatively; Nick Coates of Promise Communities on co-creation, and Tom De Ruyck of Insites on a similar theme; Betty Adamou on young researchers and how the game is changing; Fiona Blades with an overview of recent innovations; papers on sampling issues in social media research - firstly Sue York on the blurring of quant and qual borders as sampling "rules" are torn up, and Christine Walker more specifically on Twitter sampling implications; and plenty of good looking practical online papers from the likes of Robin Shuker, John Griffiths and Ray Poynter himself.

But I had to go for three and the ones I plumped for in the end were Brainjuicer's Paul Roberts with a practical study of emotions at point of transaction; Nigel Legg with a social media listening case study; and Marty Gage on multi-sensory stimuli. This last one has the potential to be really interesting - I reckon these holistic approaches will become all the rage in the next decade or two of we are to really get a sort of Steven Hawking-style "Theory of Everything" related to all the different heuristics and components of a consumer's decision-making process.

But whatever comes out on top, there are likely to be loads of goodies. I can't wait.

Friday 15 October 2010

Twitter shines in Liverpool coverage

Extraordinary scenes in the last couple of days at Liverpool FC, with the club rapidly imploding as the disastrous owners use increasingly destructive tactics in an attempt to get a better return for their shoddy and unwanted investment. As chairman Martin Broughton and his sidekicks attempted to sell the club to John Henry and his New England Sports ventures, George Gillett and Tom Hicks slapped down an injunction in a Texas court preventing further activity, despite teh move having been approved at the High Court earlier the same day. Yesterday the (London) High Court threw that Texas judgement out, effectively forcing H&G to lift he injunction.

The injunction was lifted at about 4am Texas time, prompting a race between the board and Hicks to see who could sell first, as Hicks now wants to sell his stake to shady hedge fund Mill Financial, who already own Gillett's stake. Clearly there's an absolute deadline of 4pm to sort this whole mess out before RBS take the club into administration; aside from that, there are legal questions as to the validity of the transfer of funds and debt, from the point of view of the board, Premier League, English law, Texas law, and so on.

Hicks has become a wrecking ball, determined to destroy any sort of deal which would be in the positive interests of the club. To anyone who hadn't realised before, it has become abundantly clear that Hicks's interests are only his own, and have been since the start. He has behaved disgracefully throughout this whole process, and deserves nothing more than to take a heavy loss. If there was any question that he had any love or interest for the club whatsoever, those questions can be put to rest now.

Along with the Chilean miners' rescue - surely one of the most extraordinary human triumphs of all time - the Liverpool story has been the most incredible news story of the year. I have been gripped, mainly because the pace of change has been electric. From minute to minute the situation has changed; you might think that changing the ownership of a £100s-of-millions organisation would be a cumbersome business, but the lurches of power have been abrupt.

Perhaps it's a cliché to say this nowadays, but the LFC story has been a classic example of how social media is the best way to stay up to date with fast-paced news stories. The Guardian website has had excelletn coverage, much of it aggregating other journalists' views, but for the most timely updates, Twitter is the place to be. The #LFC hashtag has a lot of noise and commotion, but I found that the best way was to make a list of the top journalists involved with the case (Ben Smith of the Times; Rob Harris of AP; the Liverpool Echo; Oliver Kay of the Times; Dan Walker and Dan Roan of the BBC; Owen Gibson and Steve Busfield of the Guardian; and Paul Kelso of the Telegraph) along with a small handful of the most knowledgeable commentators with their ears to the ground. Basically they are mostly tweeting real-time updates of what is going on - and so you can see, at a glance, what is being said and done, and all the murmurs and rumours coming through. The TV and websites can't keep up; to see updates from a variety of sources, in real time, Twitter is the only place to be. It shows the network at its very best.

Tuesday 12 October 2010


A nice example of the stalker stalked: Big Brother aka Google Analytics threw up this yesterday. The answer is: yes I do, but I was tickled to bits, of course.

Monday 11 October 2010

Weak ties and social media: Malcolm Gladwell is partly right

Philosophical discussions surrounding the reach and power of social media are all too often tedious and predictable, but the news that Malcolm Gladwell has written a piece in the New York Times which fiercely doubts the extent to which social media can effect large-scale social change, got me interested.

Basically Gladwell's point is that mass behaviour such as the civil rights movements in the 1960s, took place perfectly naturally without the need for social media. Furthermore, he points out, social media encourages a culture of "me too" in so far as clicking "Like" or "RT" is concerned, but our activism tends to be confined to words rather than deeds these days. In short, social media encourages lazy activism.

Social media evangelists, some of whom often cite Gladwell as their hero (hi Xavi), are up in arms, and apparently feel a bit betrayed. There have been numerous discussions on all sorts of blogs in the last few days since the article as published -  including an interesting riposte here. I'm in two minds, but tend to agree broadly with much of what Gladwell says where social change is concerned.

An example is Justgiving. A few years ago, if someone was climbing Kilimanjaro or running the marathon for charity, they'd call up their friends and relatives, go into their local newsagent, do a whip-around at work. These days, it's merely a quick page on Justgiving and that's it. Most requests for donations completely pass me by because they're two-a-penny, impersonal requests; if someone called me up and asked me to sponsor them, I'd do it! Then there are the "awareness" campaigns. While I'd agree with Leo Mirani that awareness campaigns are vitally important in many cases, and that social media has indeed revolutionised the way that causes and issues can explosively reach a mass audience, at the same time there are plenty of examples of limp, "passive activism" through social media.

An example was World Aids Day earlier this year, when any tweet with the hashtag #red changed colour. It took off in a big way - huge numbers used the hashtag. But there was rarely any context; I didn't actually realise the significance of the hashtag until the day was nearly finished, having seen dozens of tweets referring to it. Having fun with colour-changing tweets is all very well, and I'm sure the HIV-positive millions in south Africa would be touched, but commitment levels were clearly minimal.

Another social media example, this time on Facebook, was the viral spreading of Facebook status updates by women, who posted a colour (it turned out to be their bra colour) - apparently men weren't supposed to know what it meant. To that extent it worked: my at-the-time-all-male office were puzzled for days. (It transpired that it was something to do with breast cancer).

Just this week, a new breast cancer "update your Facebook status" campaign has appeared. If any of your female friends have posted something saucy ("I like it up on the kitchen table) in the last 48 hours, that'll be it. Harmless fun, but what good does it to cancer sufferers? I nearly fell into a fatal trap: I posted a cynical update to my own Facebook status, and was shutting down the machine...when the realisation of my own hypocrisy hit me.

The examples posed by Gladwell were concerned with activism, but to what extent does social media, more generally, have the power to change behaviour? Can social media affect our decision making processes, which in turn might affect commercial or other enterprises? The debate, I think, is far more wide-reaching than merely political campaigns. To what extent can the connections people forge via social media channels change their behaviour, compared to connections made by more "traditional" means? What are the political, social and commercial implications?

The crucial sentence in Gladwell's article simply states that "The platforms of social media are built on weak ties". Yes - but aren't those the ties with the most potential? Close family-and-friends bonds are immensely powerful, restrict yourself to your usual social circle and it's all too easy to find yourself associating with people from similar cultural and economic backgrounds, with similar outlooks on life. By throwing caution to the wind (the relative anonymity of social media can help throw off the shackles - a bit like alcohol for losing inhibitions!) and getting involved with a range of conversations, minds have the potential to be changed. I'll never have a bad word said against my closest friends, I love them all, mates for life and all the rest of it, but our conversations tend to be limited to rugby, women, poker, alcohol, and how much the rest of them are earning. My loose connections in social media allow me to have active discussions on all kinds of offbeat topics.

The internet has facilitated this since its early days. Whether it's an interest in obscure music or bizarre sexual practices, the internet has allowed people to come together and spread ideas; the fact that Facebook and Twitter have come along and made the process a bit more personal and one-to-one haven't "revolutionised" this, rather they are an organic extension of internet culture as it was in the early 2000s. And what of the ultimate in extreme views, the cult? It's far easier to join a cult now than it was in the 60s, and many people are doing more than just spreading words and ideas, but going ahead with actual deeds.

Just a little aside about weak social bonds. They can be misleading. I was at my ten-year school reunion over the weekend; catching up with people who have little in common except that we spent six years in the same building. The general impression beforehand was that the evening would be a cringeworthy affair where we put on plastic smiles, exchanged the usual pleasantries, tossed up a few memories, and left. That couldn't be further from the truth. Many of us came away open-mouthed about how much those long-distant memories meant to us all. Old school friends are classic examples of those sorts of casual Facebook relationships - but a reunion demonstrates just how those apparently flaky, throwaway "friendships" can be astonishingly powerful.

One of the great things about social media is that it's possible to converse on an equal footing with world experts in a particular area. People at the top of their game within a profession or interest area mingle with dabblers on a hashtag or discussion forum. It's something which Andrew Keen rallies against in his book Cult of the amateur (I haven't read it); apparently the thrust of his argument is that there's an obsession with sharing knowledge, even from people who are clueless, so we see a false sense of gravitas created by an individual based on participation levels, social skills, or other interactive means. This week Andrew Marr launched a tirade against bloggers for similar reasons. It's true that it's possible to exude a false sense of gravitas on forums and social networks based on participation levels or social skills. It's also true that many heads are not always better than one. But at the same time, crowdsourcing and wikis provide collaborative efforts unheard of before. (One of the most interesting articles on Wikipedia is actually about the reliability of Wikipedia). There's no longer a top-down approach to knowledge - a point also made by Ben Goldacre in his excellent Bad Science. Yet he "top" of "top-down" might not be experts but rather a media, government and commercial elite who form opinions almost by brute force. As Goldacre points out, when the small media elite get things wrong, there can be disastrous consequences, as with the MMR "scandal".

Lively discussions now occur in frameworks as diverse as Amazon reviews, Wikipedia talk pages, and comments sections on mainstream media publisher articles, notable on the Guardian and Daily Mail websites (not to mention Guido Fawkes's blog comments, although tread there with caution). Of all social media, I find forums the most fascinating. Unlike most social networks, forum users tend not to know each other when they join up initially, but bonds and cliques naturally form over time, while all sorts of interesting social undercurrents start to manifest themselves. Inspired by Tom Ewing's excellent Confessions of a Moderator, at some point I will write a little piece comparing forum dynamics of the ones I've known. For a rainy day, though.

In my own personal experience, social networking has allowed me to participate in discussions (often arguments) with people I've never met, sometimes halfway around the world. The flow of inbound information and content is far more varied (and just more abundant); no longer are we restricted to what we read in the Metro in the morning, and watch on the ten o'clock news. With minimal effort we can subject ourselves to some rather extreme views from all sides, evaluate them, spread our own ideas around.

Postscript: the bank called me the following morning, alarmed at an unusual payment on my card the previous night to Cancer Research that "didn't fit in with my normal spending habits". That's me told!

***Update*** I've just become aware of this piece in Wired which references a paper from 1973 about weak ties. I haven't actually read the Granovetter paper yet, but I'm hoping it'll be an academic viewpoint similar to my own amateurish daydreams!

Friday 8 October 2010

Autumn theatre: Jack the Knife / Enlightenment / Barbican shows

Gatecrashing a party always feels a bit weird.

And so it felt last night when I went to the Drill Hall - a venue new to me. They have two spaces - it was in the cosier studio space downstairs that I went to see Jack Klaff perform Jack the Knife. Klaff himself was there, shaking hands and greeting the audience: it was the first night, and the entire audience comprised friends and acquaintances. In answer to "Hello, who are you?" I could only lamely retort "just paying audience..."

But the handshakes were deliberate, as Klaff later explained: they are a manipulative technique, sucking you into the performer's inner circle, making you part of his life. For this is a piece about performing itself: the tricks, the subtleties. It's also a personal retrospective of Klaff's career. The combination of not being familiar with his work, there being plenty of theatre industry in-jokes, and surrounded by his mates, all added up to the feeling of being at someone else's party.

None of which detracted from the quality of the show.

It is certainly a show designed for people who are regular theatre-goers - if you're a twice-a-year Blood Brothers-and-panto person, then I might gently point you elsewhere. But Klaff is a natural storyteller in the oldschool sense. The kind of bloke you can imagine holding centre ground in the pub. The show begins organically - you barely realise it's started - and we dart between childhood tales, to outrageous impressions of South African academic colleagues, explorations of philosophical concepts like choice, tongue-in-cheek digs at the theatre industry, Elgar, Paul Schofield, and anecdotes of his foul-mouthed mother. Fiftysomething Klaff had an old school friend in the audience, who tutted and hilariously put him right every time he used artistic license in embellishing old stories (this only added to the experience!)

When I was about eighteen I watched Woody Allen's Sweet & Lowdown and was intensely irritated to discover it was about a fictional character...but, over time, I appreciated the quality of the film. I also read a biography of Kerouac without having read any of his works! Despite being a personal retrospective, Jack the Knife will appeal even if you haven't come across Klaff before. I meant to see it in Edinburgh over the summer (it was at Assembly), definitely glad I was able to put things right. Highly recommended. Final night tonight.

There are plenty of promising things coming up, too. Hampstead Theatre have Enlightenment. The Hampstead have a new Artistic Director in Edward Hall and this is his first production in his new role. He has a good pedigree, having worked with Propellor, and anyone who's directed an episode of Spooks gets thumbs up from me! Enlightenment promises to be a psychological thriller about the lengths to which people will go to find the missing pieces of their lives. The trailer is here - the show looks promising and worth checking out. I've already spotted that local councillor Andrew Marshall has been and loved itUntil Saturday 30 October.

Talking of directorial movements, it's a great shame that Michael Grandage is stepping down from the Donmar Warehouse. Hopefully this will just mean he's off to do even greater things but he's been responsible for some spectacularly good productions over the last few years - notably Othello and Hamlet, although his Ivanov and Twelfth Night were also excellent (only Danton's Death was lame). Big blow for the Donmar, but I'm sure they'll bounce back.

Meanwhile there are all sorts of tasty treats at the Barbican. Black Watch, although it's exorbitantly expensive, is actually one of those rare things that justifies the hype. There's enough of that around already so I won't add to it, everything that needs to be said has already been, just get a ticket and go. It's astonishingly powerful. Lullaby sounds intriguing (Reuters report here), while the excellent Song of the Goat Theatre from Poland bring their own version of Macbeth. Finally, Complicite have Sun-Kin which also promises to be worth trying.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

"CoolBrands" - a worthless exercise?

A company called The Centre for Brand Analysis have published a list of the top 20 coolest brands.
It has gained extensive coverage as far-reaching as The Drum and the Telegraph, while Marketing Week also got in on the action. I have commented extensively on the Marketing Week website so won't repeat myself, but suffice to say that it comes across as a very flaky piece of research. There's precious little available on their methodology, but what there is doesn't inspire confidence. How can you quantify "coolness" into a list format anyway?
The Marketing Week article is here.


Update, September 2011: a year on, and the exercise has been repeated. It's still fluff, but it got Aston Martin trending on Twitter, so it's fulfilled all its objectives, I suppose.

Monday 27 September 2010

Pearls of wisdom

I had the misfortune of standing next to three dreadfully posh girls on the Overground this morning. They were about sixteen. Their chat was absolutely desperate. There was a blonde girl called Lydia who did most of the talking. She came out with some absolute gems.
He's really weird, like autistic or something.
That's good for starters.
They never go to parties, like ever, like once a month or something.
They continued with lengthy analyses of boys called Zack and Joel, and asserted that there was "beef" between themselves and the "Hampstead Crew". Once, it turns out, Lydia went to McDonalds, where I'll let her continue the story.
So this boy comes up to me and is like can I have a chip so I'm like yeah and he's like you're so cool and then he goes away and then like a minute later he comes up again and is like can I have another chip and I'm like yeah and he's like oh man you rock my world for letting me have a chip and I'm like it's not like I actually CARE and then he goes away and then he comes back and asks for another chip and I'm like yeah and then he hugs me and he's like you rock my world and it was actually the most surreal moment of my life EVVAAAAHHHHHH
I looked around the carriage. There was a lot of grinding of teeth going on.

Saturday 25 September 2010

Which is about racial distribution, Monet and "neuromarketing"

I'm quite particular in who I follow on Twitter, and who I place on lists. I regularly cull anyone who tweets too much, or tweets rubbish, or is overly self-promotional, or just links to stuff that I don't find personally interesting. On the flipside, it means I get to read a lot of really interesting content. This week I've come across some more really interesting articles.

At the moment, my entire reading list (books not blogs!) seems to be based on Mark Earls's bibliography. I'm still ploughing my way through the latter chapters of Thomas Schelling's Micromotives and Macrobehaviour. It's quite pedestrian in style, but methodical and quietly brilliant. Basically it's a calm, rational, statistically-orientated study on the way small personal preferences - just a few per cent here and there - can result in major changes in group outcomes. There are numerous studies, all carefully argued step-by step without any QED flourishes (but then who needs flourishes when you've got a Nobel Prize to your name). The most famous chapter is the one where a simple home-made experiment (you can do it too: all you need is a few coins and a chessboard) demonstrates how very small preferences to have some of your own kin around you, end up in quite stark racial segregation across cities.

It's all very well seeing pictures in a book of what look like noughts and crosses, and as a reader you nod your head and say "how shocking"...but, living in "multicultural" London, where it feels like people of all different colours are jumbled up together, complete racial segregation feels a long way away. I suspect it can't be all that different in the States, either; which is why these new graphics of racial distribution by location are all the more startling.

I'm just beginning to dabble a little in reading around some psychology and neuroscience pieces at the moment, and having been just a few weeks ago to a superb Impressionist exhibition, I found this New Scientist article offering a possible explanation to why the Impressionists are so popular: basically the lack of detail means that our own imaginations are stirred into "filling in the gaps", while our subconscious locks onto blurred images with greater intensity than we might do otherwise. Fascinating stuff.

The same magazine has been causing a bit of a stir recently with its highly publicised experiment to pick the best front cover based on a neuroscience experiment. The neuromarketing claims have caused a bit of a stir with both scientists and neuroscience-focussed market researchers; even Derren Brown picks up on it, and links to this interesting article. Meanwhile, Robert Bain on Research Live presents the story against the background of other neuroscience/marketing issues, and gives a thoughtful and balanced analysis of some of the techniques availale right now. Peter McGraw, on the other hand, is much more sceptical.

Tapping into our natural instincts is nothing new. In Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy explains that the average person looks at an ad for 0.9 seconds, their eyes sweeping from top left to bottom right. (Eye tracking seems more interested in web design applications these days - plenty of interesting stuff out there to read on the web like this article). While advertising agencies and branding consultancies are obsessed with wanting to portray themselves as "different" (there are some truly gruesome straplines but perhaps the most vomitworthy is BBH's "when the world zigs, zag"), surely the aim of most marketers should be to discover scientifically what their best practices should be, and find out evidentially how people respond to certain situations, and act accordingly.

One or two people are muttering darkly about the ethical considerations of neuromarketing. It's a fair point. There's something slightly subversive about much of this, a little like subliminal advertising (a concept which I don't have a great deal against personally). My own take is that neuroscience probably has a lot to offer when it comes to trying to unravel subconscious decisions made by consumers, particularly at point of sale. There's probably a lot of very interesting research that can be done into packaging and logos, for example, based on brain activity, which might explain a shopper's instinctive decision to choose one washing powder over another, particularly on occasions where their usual brand is out of stock and they are relying purely on instinct. As for New Scientist? As Peter McGraw points out, it's a shame that the tree covers couldn't have all been put on sale, to add some real-world data to the lab experimental data. There are loads of great articles out there at the moment, fascinating stuff.

As a postscript, I'm slightly regretting climbing down on my last blog post. I honestly think that anyone who's happy to spout the unverified "research" claims of vitamin supplements on the whim of a PR company but not realise that they're apparently endorsing the product - especially where children are the topic of conversation - deserves both barrels. However, it reads better as it is now, and there's no point in dragging something out.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Becoming a Bad Science disciple, and mummy blogger bullshit

Yesterday Ben Goldacre's Bad Science plopped on the mat, and over the next little while it will be competing with all the other unfinished books that I'm trying to juggle. Bad Science has the unfair advantage, however, of being something that once you've started, is rather hard to stop.

I'm only a few pages in so won't make much comment at this stage except that Goldacre articulates many things that you suspected already but weren't that sure about - covering all those nebulous things like cosmetics, dietary supplements and so on, which you had an idea were based on guff but never actually went out of your way to read up on. As discussed by Mark Earls in Herd when he cites Bad Science, as interesting as the bullshit is the natural way that it can spread in conversations, in such a way that it's almost like an epidemic.

One thing that strikes me is that for anyone who's not an expert on any given subject...and most of us aren't experts on's easy to believe anything from someone who is perceived as an authority. It's a perfectly natural reaction. The problem is that the "authority" may just be a journalist, celebrity, or general big shot in a completely unrelated field.

The internet is a wonderful tool for keeping an undercurrent of dissent going, and there is a disproportionate amount of anti-bullshit, anti-conspiracy, anti-spin material out there, with some voices who are capable of shouting pretty loud. Ben Goldacre is just one example. That "moral majority" can propagate their messages far and wide via social media these days - so in many cases, if there's a seriously dodgy bit of misinforamtion being spread by a company, political party of whatever, then often the "truth" will come out.
The problem is, as with the MMR case, that all that can backfire if the well-meaning moral majority all have it wrong, and the "establishment" figures were right to begin with. There's a fine line between mythbusting and unjustified panic.

There's a lot to be said about the "detox" myth, though. I'm a sucker for it myself: I firmly believe in the power of orange juice to cure pretty much all manner of ills from hangovers to flu. I've got a pretty nasty cold at the moment and made sure I got some orange juice at lunchtime. Beyond being vaguely aware that vitamin C is "a good thing" and helps the immune system, I'm not an expert on its powers. But I've always felt a nice tingly sensation after drinking orange juice on top of a cold, and manage to convince myself that it's doing me good, and it's a habit I'm unlikely to change.


From this point forward, I've decided to amend the post. I made a critical reference to one particular blog post by someone who I've never met and have nothing to do with. I exchanged some constructive email correspondence today with an anonymous person who criticised my approach and said that the blogger in question was personally upset. I make no apology for the post and won't remove it - my points still stand - but I'll tone things down a bit and make more general references, rather than a personal criticism. I think that's a reasonable compromise.


I haven't reached the relevant chapter yet, but vitamin supplements companies come in for stinging criticism in Bad Science. Now, I don't know much about vitamins or dietary science or nutrition or anything like that, but I do know that these companies exploit people's ignorance and fears. Look at the advertising. Everything is "this important period in your life" - whether it's childhood, teenage years, pregnancy, menopause, old age. They prey on vulnerable people not knowing what's right for them, people who worry that their diet might not be as varied as it could be and what effects this might have on their health. Scavenging like vultures are the supplements companies, making you paranoid that you're not getting enough selenium.

It's against this backdrop that we come to the phenomenon of the "mummy blogger". They need little introduction - there are countless articles on them already. Although not a parent myself, I have spent a fair bit of time on "mummy blogs" over the last few months, and my private opinion is that almost without exception, they are devoid of interesting content. Many of them are written by PR professionals, and they mainly consist of backslapping each other for getting on various "top bloggers" lists, the odd photostream of their little ones, and an incessant stream of saccharine "reviews" of products sent to them by PR companies. Thought-provoking content is a rarity; they are some way ahead of the SEO-boosting affiliates/link farms/pseudo-blogs, but not a million miles away. It's a field which has had vast amounts of media coverage to the extent that it might be called a "phenomenon", although they are all quite SEO savvy, with badges, charts and backlinks to each other's blogs all over the place - the vast majority of comments seem to come from "fellow mummy bloggers" rather than organically.

I appreciate that this is the way PR works, and it doesn't bother me in the slightest that bloggers are sent free products and samples in order to review them. On the contrary, if the bloggers are given inspiration for things to write about, as well as free products, and the brands get coverage, and the readers get things to read about on a regular basis, then everyone's a winner. Paid reviews are common in many fields - whether restaurant review blogs (lucky them!) or travel bloggers (even luckier them!) - and as long as the bloggers get a reputation for fair reporting, with constructive criticism where necessary, and make it clear if a post is sponsored or if the reviewed products were free, then they can be a valuable source of information.

There have been several parenting blogs writing pieces in the last few days about Seven Seas' range of supplements for children, "Haliborange". I'll freely admit to being deeply cynical of supplements companies targeting nervous and paranoid parents, who worry about the state of their children's health and diet; I'm even more cynical of them convincing parents to write positive things about their products. But I feel that the bloggers themselves have a responsibility too, towards their readers, and I think that some of them have let themselves down.

Several bloggers have remarked, uncritically, that omega 3 - and thus Haliborange - increase concentration/attentiveness in children. One, who makes no reference to her piece being a sponsored post - states confidently that "numerous studies" have shown this. Another mentions that she is looking to feed her daughter vitamins, while propagating the official Haliborange line that the product "may" improve children's concentration; in the comments, she suggests that she's rather sceptical of their claims, but makes no mention of this in the initial post. None of them have tried using the product on their kids; therefore none of them are actually reviewing the product, but rather just endorsing it, with a greater or lesser amount of personal response to the concept of vitamin pills for kids.

What benefits omega 3 actually has, I don't know - although I bet you anything mummy Newton and mummy Freud and mummy Shakespeare weren't obsessively shoving tinned fish down their respective sons' throats. (I also note that Ben Goldacre has devoted an entire chapter to the subject, so I'm sure there are some untold stories. That said, I'm sure it can't do any harm, there's mountains of anecdotal evidence out there so it probably does something good, and it's up to any parent to decide if their kids are eating a healthy diet and if there's a need to do somethnig about it if not. What gets my goat is that the brand - or rather, their PR/digital/social media people - have managed to persuade bloggers to reproduce their PR material pretty much verbatim.

When someone comes blind to a subject and looks for advice, they might read some newspaper articles, they might get on Google, they might read a book. But most of all they'll go to people they'll trust - friends and family first and foremost, and then, perhaps, bloggers. My feeling is that since blogs began, they've been looked at with more trust than newspaper/magazine journalists, because there's a sense that they're drawing from personal experience, telling their own stories. If they're parroting PR companies' spin on issues which could involve worried parents, paranoid about how best to care for their kids, then I think they're letting the side down pretty badly. Surely they have a responsibility to their readers?

Seven Seas/Haliborange have previous history here, inducing the wrath of the Mumsnet community after some grubby sockpuppeting on the forum a few months ago. The mums responded in kind, with a nice SEO-sabotaging campaign. A nice bit of work, and something perhaps the bloggers currently doing their bit for Seven Seas were unaware of. Although I note that Seven Seas have been working with a new PR agency - Virgo Health - since that debacle, who presumably weren't implicated in it.

I should also stress that these are my own private opinions.

PS I wonder if Ben Goldacre ever saw the Real Hustle scam where the conmen sold tiny pots of boutique moisturising cream for £25 a pop. They marketed the fact that Petroselinum crispum was the active ingredient. The "natural powers" held within would cleanse and rejuvenate the skin, or something.

Petroselinum is the Latin for parsley. They had blitzed some parsley with some cheap lotion from Asda (£3 for a large bottle), put it into minuscule jars, stuck on a fancy label, and sold them for a profit margin of around 3000%, if I recall. It was brilliant.