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.