Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Social media listening ethics: some thoughts


Debate on the ethics of social media research has flared up in recent months with some eminent names taking diametrically opposed points of view.

A good starting point is the lively debate surrounding Brian Tarran's excellent post on Research Live. There have also been a couple of good posts on the Digital MR blog recently which address the pertinent
issues head on. They are clearly worried that new guidelines will restrict their ability to do their job effectively, and leave them  vulnerable to providers from non-traditional research backgrounds who may not be subject to the straitjacket of a code of conduct, and therefore be able to provide research solutions quicker and more cheaply, which is definitely the trend. Their worries are certainly valid.

My own take on it is this. The principle of informed consent should still be the starting point. There are a lot of people making loud noises about social media research being "different" from traditional market research. This is true...up to an extent. But my worry is that the motivations for wanting to water down the restrictions on data usage are business ones rather than ethical ones. "If we restrict ourselves then there are non-MR companies out there who will move into our space" simply does not wash as an excuse for lowering standards.

Ray Poynter has made a series of thoughtful posts on the issue and neatly breaks down the issues. In August he wrote:
"The benefits of traditional market research ethics were that they allowed some exemptions to laws (e.g. data protections laws, laws about multiple contacts, laws about phoning people who were on ‘no call’ lists), increased public trust, and allowed market research to get close to a scientific model – for example to use concepts such as random probability sampling and statistical significance. Complying with codes of ethics incurred extra costs, but they also brought commercial benefits. The ‘proper’ market research companies could do things the non-research companies could not - so there was a commercial argument in favour of self-regulation, codes of conduct, and professional conduct bodies."
Why can't this continue? Annie Pettit reported that Jillian Williams from the Highways Agency, said that anonymity is important to clients as they will take the flak rather than the research industry. Ray then appears to contradict himself slightly by saying "If market research companies abide by the old ethics, in particular anonymity and informed consent, they will not be able to compete for business in most areas where market research is growing. This is because there will be no commercial benefits that will accrue to sticking to rules and ideas that nobody else does." Surely the majority of clients, if they are looking for a genuine market research study, will want to stay firmly within the "rules" whatever they might be. There was an almighty stink when Nielsen Buzzmetrics were found to have scraped a healthcare forum that was ostensibly private. I actually had some sympathy for them - they were exploring new ways of collecting data, which in itself is quite legitimate - they'd just made a mistake in the execution and hadn't thought hard enough about the wider implications. They took the rap rather than the end client that time, but no client wants to be caught up in a grubby web scraping scandal.

Anonymity is a sociological issue that's very a la mode - there's an interesting post on the ever-excellent Face blog about current trends for real names versus pseudonyms; meanwhile debate rages over Google+'s insistence on real names. What about agencies using monitoring services such as Sysomos or Radian6 or in-house tools? These generally provide the capability to drill down to individual posts, tweets and so on, which can be sent directly to the end client. Perhaps some sort of deals could be set up with the dashboard providers whereby data is automatically anonymised in certain situations. And what about client-side monitoring, which may be informal reputation management/PR or a more in-depth research project. We must be careful not to set guidelines that are restrictive merely because the technology is so good. The principles should apply no matter what fancy new algorithms (buzzword...ugh) are created.

There is also a difference between qualitative and quantitative data. There is an enormous gap between a qualitative study which drills down to individual tweets, forum posts or Facebook status updates and sends them - warts, personal details and all - to the end client, and a large-scale overview of aggregated sentiment-analysed anonymised data which may say nothing more than "there has been a 17% uplift in sentiment from Yorkshire women on Twitter towards the value for money of Fabreze in the last 6 months" or whatever. (What is Fabreze, by the way? It's something which I know my girlfriend spends money on and is almost certainly totally unneccessary - beyond that I haven't got a clue).

The next question over anonymity surrounds platforms. Bloggers, for example, are posting opinions which they want to be heard; furthermore, bloggers generally have an easy choice whether to remain anonymous or not. Many do, others are quite happy to be identifiable. In my book they're about as close as you can get to "fair game". Forums are somewhat similar. At the other end of the scale, you have Facebook; I would hazard a guess that many people whose profiles are set to public are actually unaware of the fact, and have simply been confused by Facebook's ever-changing T&Cs, not to mention their tendency to play fast and loose with privacy. Add the fact that Facebook profiles are usually in real names - and easily identifiable with photos and so on - and this adds up to an ugly mixture of possibly unwanted intrusion combined with ignorance of the fact. A far cry from the "informed consent" principle if researchers start harvesting their data for business purposes.

Then there are idiosyncracies of the social networks. Should there be a difference between the attitude to privacy of someone saying "I wish Nature valley cereal bars were sweeter" and "I wish @NatureValleyUK cereal bars were sweeter"? Is the second option crying out for attention - by researchers?

Michalis Michael from Digital MR says
"Finally a specific minor detail which is most important from a DigitalMR perspective is this: when using quotes in MR reports, we (MR agencies) should not be asked to mask the handle/meta data of a person who posted a comment on a public website – if that website states that posted comments can be viewed by anyone."
I think this depends on what is being done with the data. If the data is quantitative then I believe it should be anonymised - at least before it reaches the end client who needs to make the business decisions that follow the research. For qualitative data perhaps another set of rules should apply;

Ultimately I suppose the question needs to be asked "what are the purposes of these ethical codes anyhow?" I've even heard people criticising the Data Protection Act itself - this smacks of tobacco companies criticising smoking regulations. The Data Protection Act was drafted to bring UK law into line with EU privacy directives and the European Convention on Human Rights. These are fundamental directives; they are universal. They provide for people to be able to live their day-to-day lives in a normal way. They enshrine into statute principles of common decency which are inherently part of human nature. Thanks to UK implementation such as the Data Protection Act and Human Rights Act, we are able to do this. The Code of Conduct must use these principles of common decency as its starting point, and leave "but other people are doing it" wheedles to the minor details. The ever-excellent Annie Pettit speculated the other day that a lack of grounding in the "old" ethical MR principles has led to a slackening of attitudes towards privacy. This sounds very plausible, but a lot of it seems just to be a frustration with, or fear of, not being able to work efficiently, particularly if there is "competition" out there coming from a different background who will cheerfully sweep up the work without having to worry about pesky obstacles like common decency.

All this still doesn't quite square with the fact that this social media data is publicly available, sitting there for the world to see, and common sense would seem to dictate that it would be daft to deliberately close our ears to mountains of conversations that are taking place in the public domain. It is undeniable that it is impractical to contact thousands of people individually and ask them whether the sentiment expressed in their Facebook status yesterday may be used for market research purposes. It is also unlikely that many people will feel there's much of an intrusion of privacy from Jack Daniel's picking up on the fact that someone has publicly moaned about it being too expensive, and using that to influence their pricing stategy. But it must be done in such a way as to minimise disruption to people's lives and not fuel speculation that businesses are running slipshod over personal data. Is there a difference between "private" and "personal"? I think so, and perhaps it's a definition that needs to be made explicitly. In general we may need to re-think the "informed" concept and define in what situations "informed" means "explicitly told personally".

I think there are direct parallels between the issues faced by social media researchers, and the police and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA): for intrusive "directed surveillance" authority from RIPA is required - because that involves targeted "stalking" if you like, of a particular person. You also need RIPA authority for similar work online. But there's no requirement for a RIPA for simple day-to-day casual monitoring. If an officer in plain clothes spots someone doing something he regards as suspicious, there's no need for a court authorisation to discreetly follow that person down the road to find out what he's up to.

As Steve Cooke of Digital MR points out, it is true that social media listening is different to other forms of social media research such as communities. But offline ethnography is subject to pretty strict controls and to informed consent principles. Social media conversations - even "person to person" conversations such as @messaging on Twitter - may be in the public domain, but any offline conversation in public is monitorable if you have a big enough pair of ears. Social media listeners must be careful that the sensitivity of their "ears" doesn't mean they abuse their power. Perhaps there is a case for abandoning long-standing principles - but it shouldn't be merely for convenience purposes.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Bivvying in the Brecons

Just got back from a weekend in the Brecon Beacons where we experimented with bivvy bags for the first time. Both my mate Duncan and I had no experience of bivvies and tarps before so it definitely had the potential to go wrong!

We parked up near Glyntawe on Friday night, arriving around midnight, shouldered packs and headed up for about half an hour to gain some height and find a nice place to camp. There were plenty of little dips and hollows, and the terrain wasn’t too bad.

Brecon Beacons

I was using a Terra Nova Competition 1 tarp which at £40 in Field & Trek and 180g represents terrific value. It’s a simple affair, with both loops and eyelets in all the corners plus halfway along each long side. Having done some internet research the only conclusion I could draw was that there was no right or wrong way to pitch a tarp, so I had a go at an A-frame setup to begin with. It wasn’t the best of starts as I realised I had left my tent pegs behind; fortunately there were plenty of rocks around, and Duncan had spare pegs as well.

It was painful progress in the dark but somehow I managed to get some sort of structure erected, and then hoped that waking in the morning I’d find the tarp still over my head.

What am I supposed to do with this thing?
Progress was slow but steady.

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This was what I woke up to:

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The view was nothing to shout about, but there’s a thrill about opening your eyes in the morning and getting the grass right next to your head and the wind on your face, which a tent just can’t provide. Duncan had a worse view to endure though.

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This is the life. Duncan, meanwhile, had opted for a Terra Nova Jupiter bivvy bag, which has a hoop and therefore requires no tarp. It looked like this:

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As for the tarp, my guylines were far too long, especially in the corners, which meant that it was a very flat “A” shape. No matter, not bad for a first effort, and how bloody cool does this look for a camp.
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I don’t use trekking poles normally, but wasn’t creative enough to think of anything better, so reluctantly I picked up a cheap pair from Lidl. Apart from use as tarp poles they remained entirely untouched for the duration of the weekend.

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Our route was fairly short but we found a promising-looking tree under which we intended to camp, and wanted to get there before dark, so that shortened the day considerably, especially as since we didn’t get to bed until nearly 2am we’d made a late start. We crossed the Cwm Haffes, up the flank of Fan Hir, north along the top of the ridge and along to Fan Brycheiniog where the path joins the Beacons Way. Fan Hir is a dramatic walk – a perfect quarter pipe with some pretty steep cliffs at the top.
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Here’s a view back at Fan Hir from the north:

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Once the path joins the Beacons Way it’s basically a flattish yomp around the edge of the plateau with some pretty spectacular views.
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That’s looking back towards Fan Brycheiniog. The next one is looking in the other direction (westwards).
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Then we cut south through some pretty boggy ground before skirting round near to where we started to pitch up our bivvies again.

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The second night, with a little more confidence, I decided to pitch a slightly tighter “A” but keep it nice and high given how calm the weather had been.
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The rest of my setup was: Alpkit Pipedream 800 (which proved a touch on the warm side) inside a Rab Alpine bivvy bag. The Rab is spacious inside, has a good zip although it could do with being an inch or two longer on each side, feels durable and proved both waterproof and stayed remarkably condensation free – hardly surprising given that it’s made from eVent fabric. A foam mat (Karrimor, £3) underneath proved highly successful.

We set up and headed for the pub. Unfortunately I forgot to completely close the bivvy bag zip, so the hood of the sleeping bag was soaking with dew when we returned from the Bryn Arms. This means that my face was cold and damp for the whole night. Bivvying really teaches you discipline! By that point I was pretty cold and wet anyway: I was wearing trail shoes (Inov-8 Roclite 315) which aren’t waterproof, and didn’t bring a change of socks. There’s boggy ground all over the place, and boots would probably have been a better idea, perhaps we got a little carried away by the minimalist ethic.

The two bivvying systems are very different. The Jupiter is a self-contained sleeping system – not needing a separate tarp means (1) you save a little bit of weight and (2) there’s no risk of the tarp bowing away in the night. On the down side, Duncan reported that is was VERY snug inside (he’s 6 feet and was using a Pipedream 600 sleeping bag), there’s nowhere to keep your rucksack dry, and getting in and out of the bivvy bag in bad weather would be a horribly uncomfortable experience; needing a pee at 3am in freezing rain wouldn’t be one of life’s greater moments (by contrast I did a pee on my knees from my sleeping mat, but maybe that’s too much information). Tarps, meanwhile, are versatile, although you’ve got to be careful to try and keep the weight down to around a kilo for tarp + bivvy, because you’re already in lightweight tent territory there. The exhilaration of sleeping truly out in the open definitely gives the bivvy bag some extra utility though. Does life get any better than this…?

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We had had incredible weather over the course of the day for mid-October, but the rain set in overnight and the breeze picked up. I spent most of the night worrying about the stability of my novice tarp pitch. There’s a hell of a lot of noise from it flapping around, too. In the event, however, the tarp stood firm (in future I’ll pitch it a lot lower) and this was how it looked in the morning (wind’s coming from the left):
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Life couldn’t get much better, really, although bivvying does alter your definitions of comfort somewhat. Sleeping in a zipped up bivvy bag isn’t the most comfortable experience and temperature regulation is tricky, but the freedom and rawness of the camping more than makes up for it. Going minimalist definitely does have its kicks – all my kit was stuffed into a 32 litre bag. Not something to try in bad weather though!
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Tuesday, 27 September 2011

A shout to the Google Alerts heads

A big "hello" to anyone who got here from a Google Alert (is this reverse stalking?). Particularly if you are Foxtons, the Old Vic, Tom Ewing, Dubit, or dreamthinkspeak. Give us a wave!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Decision making (2): choosing a seat on the bus

I conducted an informal five-minute focus group on Friday afternoon with colleagues. The topic of discussion was: imagine you go to sit upstairs on the bus. Every double seat has one person sitting in it, so you have the choice of the whole top deck, but you'll have to sit next to someone. Who do you sit next to?

Instant reactions included "completely random", "somewhere near the front", "over the back wheel", "the hottest girl" and "not next to anybody fat or smelly". All fairly predictable stuff.

When pushed a little further, people started to realise the subtleties of the decision. Did they sit on the left or on the right? Next to men or women? What if there were several places that all looked as good as each other?

A couple of people stubbornly refused to believe their choice was random at first, but had to admit that they had to make a conscious choice to actually do the action of sitting down. The discussion was fascinating, with several key areas coming into play.

The most cited motivations for choice were "someone ordinary", alongside "convenience". Ordinary meant not fat or smelly, not taking up the whole seat with bags, and no loud music. Even the blokes who said "I go straight for the most attractive girl" managed to elaborate: when I asked "wouldn't it look a bit obvious going straight for the hottest girl when you've got the whole bus to choose from?" everyone agreed, amending their choice to "across the aisle", "the most obtainable girl" (!) or "in which case I'll go for the second most attractive". Feel privileged, ladies.

Then a thought occurred to me. With as deadpan a tone as I could muster, I asked if they tended to sit next to white or black people. Everyone initially insisted this didn't cross their minds, and I was careful not to push anyone to say anything indiscreet...but then one of the (white) girls admitted she probably sat next to white people more of the time, which led to one or two other people mumbling something similar.

When I asked why this was, she came up with a fascinating piece of insight: "I think I try to sit next to people who are similar to me." I was delighted and leapt on this; it tallied with the fact that she had already said she tended to sit next to women (and perhaps gave a little more insight into what people meant by ordinary). Another girl separately said that she would sit next to people "about my age or a bit older." This all tied in neatly with Thomas Schelling's theories about racial segregation: a very slight preference to be amongst people like ourselves can result in near-complete racial segregation which can sunder a whole city. I wonder what Rosa Parks would make of a theory that perhaps segregation on buses could be more naturally occurring than one might think?

According to Robert Cialdini, we subconsciously lean towards choices that remind us of ourselves (although I reserve the right to remain sceptical about nominative determinism, as explained by Wired this month). If this is true, what questions does this answer for people wanting to affect decisions? Is this why Dove's campaign for real beauty struck a chord because people saw themselves in the ads? Or is that going too far?

So there seemed to be rational motivations (I could suggest loads of others - from window/aisle to proximity to the emergency exit to wanting to pretend-drive the bus from the front seat) and less rational ones. But what else could be affecting our decisions? For example, let's amend the parameters slightly - this time a couple of people get on in front of you. Perhaps their choices affect yours (the Herd effect). If you are with friends, how would that affect your decision (and how would your presence affect theirs?) What about if you were on the phone and therefore slightly distracted? How does experience affect your decision - would someone who takes the bus every day make a different choice to someone who has never taken a bus in their life?

But here's a tester: would people choose the same seat again, given the same initial conditions? Asking people they thought "no" but then these were the same people who thought their choice was random in the first place. But do they have a point? Stochastic choice models would suggest that yes, there will be a "random" element involved to a certain extent. Thinking about this, my gut reaction was to think "well of course that makes sense, with 20 seats to choose from it's hardly likely that you'd choose the same one each time" - but surely the fact that the probability of choosing the same seat ten times running is a function of the number of possible outcomes suggests that there is, in fact, a chance that with only two choices you wouldn't go for the same one each time. In general, though, it seems that stochastic models for decision making are generally preferred among academics. Comparable to quantum mechanics, they imply that any input-output model for a decision can only give a probability that a certain decision will be taken, given a certain set of initial conditions.

You could extend this psychology of seats on buses. On an emptying bus, at what point does it become appropriate to move away from the person next to you into an empty seat? And at what point do you become irritated if your new-found companion insists on staying put, rather than moving into a free double seat? In addition, if you're sitting on your own, presumably you breathe a sigh of relief when people decide to choose someone else (according to what you've learned today, you need to look as little like that person as possible!) but do you get paranoid if you are the last person to be chosen? I certainly do! All this is very similar, of course, to the etiquette of choosing a urinal - every self-respecting bloke should know this, but if not, then have a go at this game...

We make odd choices and have odd motivations depending on our circumstances. For some reason I'm reminded of a time, years and years ago, when I was in the local organic/health food shop with my dad - you know, the sort of place with business cards advertising reiki and aura therapy. In the vegetable section there were two boxes next to each other: Carrots (Dirty) and Carrots (Washed). The Carrots (Dirty), which were covered in soil, were more expensive than Carrots (Washed)! Another example of creative pricing!

The bus discussion evolved somewhat with my girlfriend in the pub (the Black Lion on Kilburn High Road, which is a cracking place). A couple of days previously Rachel had picked up some beers in the supermarket. We did our best to deconstruct the process.

She started out by looking to see if they had any Peroni, because she knew I like Peroni (bless her). They didn't have any in multipacks, so she looked at what was on special offer. There were a few options. She only looked at bottles - not cans. Why? Not sure, she was in a rush, and tired. How did she choose the crate of bottles, then? Some were 6 for £5, others were 8 for £6 which she thought was a better bargain. Did she look at the volume of the bottles? No. Why not? She was in a rush, and tired [she was becoming increasingly irritable by this point in the discussion!] Did she consider standard "session" lagers (Carlsberg, Carling, Fosters), or just premium lagers (Heineken, Stella, San Miguel)? Just premium lagers. Even though her primary motivation appeared to be cost? No, just premium lagers. Would she still agree that price was her primary motivation? Rachel glanced at me, then meaningfully at her empty glass, then at the bar, and then at me again. I took the hint.

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I've written much briefer post on decision making here and there's another half-written one in the pipeline - watch this space.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Autumn/winter theatre highlights & previews

There are plenty of shows worth getting your paws on over the autumn and well into next year. Here are a few that caught my eye.

To kick things off there are some heavyweight Shakespeare productions to look out for. You've just missed Sam Mendes's Richard III at the Old Vic which was excellent. Kevin Spacey was louche in the title role and there was a driving energy powering the whole production. There are  a couple of promising Hamlets: Martin Sheen et al at the Young Vic is the blockbuster (sold out, but more tickets go on sale on 27 September), but there is also a rather exciting proposition at the Barbican where Thomas Ostermeier and his Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz ensemble have a tempting modern interpretation. The Barbican are also behind Jonathan Holmes's take on The Tempest at St Giles's Cripplegate. It's part of the misnomered freeB festival: tickets are £21.

Looking further ahead, in the spring Filter and Sean Holmes return to the Lyric to present their take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. Potentially best of all is the Shakespeare project in the pipeline from dreamthinkspeak, The Rest Is Silence, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. It kicks off in the Brighton Festival in May, before transferring to the Riverside Studios in London and Northern Stage in Gateshead the following month.

If you can get your hands on a ticket for the sold-out Roadkill at Theatre Royal Stratford East then grab one as reaction from Edinburgh last year was universally positive and it came away laden with awards.

One thing that depresses me is the predictability of opera programming at the moment. Yes, we're in the middle of a recession so less risks are to be expected, but there's a frustratingly familiar cocktail of Verdi, Mozart, Wagner, Donizetti and Tchaikovsky being put on by the main opera companies. A quick scan of the  next twelve months' programmes reveals a dearth of pretty mainstream opera composers like Monteverdi,  Britten, Handel and Strauss. On the other hand, highlights include ENO presenting the UK premiere of Adams's The Death of Klinghoffer which promises to be worth seeing. Also at ENO is Rameau's Castor and Pollux - a great bit of programming and one that shouldn't be ruined by being performed in English. Finally on the opera front, Rory Bremner translates Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld for Scottish Opera - might be worth a look - I was unaware that Bremner, a languages graduate, had already made translations of several other stage works. According to the Guardian this one is supposed to be pretty Bullingdonian, which is all good in my book...and the poster looks cool:

Ontroerend Goed's latest show Audience divided critics in Edinburgh but is surely still worth checking out, for better or for worse; it comes to the Soho Theatre in December. As with Internal, it seems that Audience will really screw with your mind as a viewer and the performers will get under your skin...but would we have it any other way? Devoted fans will certainly be going.

Looking further ahead, I've got tickets to Frantic Assembly's Lovesong at the Lyric; it'll be interesting to see how it compares to the other productions of theirs that I have seen, the lively Stockholm or disappointingly tepid Beautiful Burnout.

Michael Frayn's brilliant farce Noises Off comes to the Old Vic over Christmas. I saw it in the West End a few years ago and it remains a show with one of the best laugh-per-minute ratios I've ever seen. It's classic, old-school laughs and surely can't go wrong. I'm also off to see Playboy of the Western World at the same venue. Not to forget the Boom Boom Club at Old Vic Tunnels - can't wait!

Lundahl & Seitel wowed me with their immersive piece Rotating in a room of images at the 2009 One on one Festival at BAC. Their site-specific work In memory of W T Stead, performed at the offices of Steinway in 2009, returns in February. By all accounts it's similar to Rotating... insofar as there are headphones involved and it's a bit of a spatial exploration. There, however, the similarity ends: it's a live performance of a Bach fugue set to a sort of promenade performance in conjunction with Nomad, if that makes sense (it doesn't to me). Anyhow watch this space, it sounds very promising.

The National has Mike Leigh's Grief, a stage version of my childhood obsession Swallows & Amazons, and some Bible readings to celebrate the King James version's 400th anniversary; although the Bush Theatre have trumped them with a 24 hour epic, entitled Sixty six books. If you've got little ones, or if you can free your mind to being a toddler yourself, then take yourself off to a wonderful show all about innocence and a whole lot more. White - also at the Southbank - is one of the sweetest shows you'll see anywhere. As fascinating as the show itself is watching the expressions of pure wonder on your fellow audience members' two year old faces.

In chronological order:
Richard III - Old Vic - run finished - sold out
The Playboy of the Western World - Old Vic - until 26 November - £10-£49.50
Grief - National Theatre - until 28 February - £12-£32
The Tempest - St Giles's Cripplegate - 21 September-22 October - £21
Boom Boom Club - Old Vic Tunnels - 29 September-1 October - £19.50
Sixty six books - Bush Theatre - 10-29 October - various prices or £80 for 24 hour epic!
Castor and Pollux - ENO - 24 October-1 December - £19-£97.50
Roadkill - Theatre Royal Stratford East - 28 October-20 November - sold out (£18)
Hamlet - Young Vic - 28 October-21 January - £10-£29.50
Hamlet - Barbican - 30 November-4 December - £16-£42
Orpheus in the Underworld - Young Vic - 30 November-10 December - £22.50
Noises Off - Old Vic - 3 December-25 February - tickets tbc
Audience - Soho Theatre - 6 December-7 January - £10-£20
Swallows & Amazons - National Theatre - 15 December-14 January - £12-£42.50
White - Southbank - 17-31 December - £12
Lovesong - Lyric - 11-28 January - £12.50-£30
In memory of W T Stead - Steinway & Sons - February dates and tickets tbc
A Midsummer Night's Dream - Lyric - 9 February-17 March - £12.50-£30
The Death of Klinghoffer - ENO - 25 February-9 March - £19-£97.50
The Rest Is Silence - Brighton, Riverside Studios, Gateshead - May & June - tickets tbc

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Montane Man

I've found myself buying quite a few bits of Montane gear in recent months, mainly thanks to some great deals from the excellent Climbers Shop (no, I don't work there!). They must have some sort of tie-in with Montane as they regularly have ex-demo stock, plus some exclusive non-standard models. It's mainly these exclusives that I've snaffled up recently.

They've all had some use now, including on the Three Peaks I did a couple of weeks ago with some work colleagues. All the Montane bits have done me proud.

I picked up the Evolution jacket (now re-renamed the Superfly once again, I believe). My trusty North Face Paclite, which had done a great job for several years, was starting to pack in so it's being retired for city use only, and I wanted something a bit more technical. The evolution was my first experience of eVent fabric. In terms of breathability it's OK, although not as amazing as everyone says: that said if it's raining it's going to be damp and sweaty anyway at the best of times. It has a mid-length cut although has a tendency to ride up at the bottom which is slightly irritating. It's also completely shapeless - pretty much straight-up-and-down which, aside from being unstylish, doesn't feel the most efficient or comfortable.

Functionality is excellent. It feels tough, and kept the very worst of the weather out - prolonged heavy rain didn't manage to penetrate anywhere. The hood is well designed with a good, stiff-but-easily-adjustable peak and the front of the jacket protects the face well when fully zipped up. I'm not so sure about the elastic adjusters but the hood feels snug and comfortable overall. Pockets are high up - climbing style - and without storm flaps, felt slightly vulnerable in heavy rain.

I picked it up for £120 which was a nice price, although RRP is double that. Plenty of outlets have it for less than £150 which seems a good bet to me. Advertised weight is 420g which is on the light side of average in its class.

Montane do make some stupidly light kit and none lighter than their windshirts. I'd never worn one before and took a punt on the special edition Featherlite-Slipstream hybrid at the Climbers Shop. Quite what the difference is between this, the Featherlite and the Slipstream I don't know - it seems to be the design of the Featherlite made with the lighter Pertex Quantum used in the Slipstream, as far as I can make out. What's a few grams between friends anyway? As expected, it's ridiculously light and packable, although it does feel rather flimsy. It got extensive use on the Three Peaks where I wore it both over a fleece (see below) and also just over a base layer.

Whilst expecting the windshirt to be more breathable than a waterproof, I was slightly worried that with only a short sleeve base layer on, having the Featherlite against my skin would be sweaty. I was even more worried that I'd be irritated by the very artificial feel of the fabric against my skin - it is nasty rustly stuff. My fears were unfounded. We made a pretty brisk ascent up the Snowdon Miners' Track; I mainly just wore the base layer and just put the windshirt on when we hit the summit ridge which was, as expected, pretty blustery. It turned out to be very comfortable and I wasn't annoyed at all by the fabric against my bare skin. I think for three-season fast-paced walking my "default" will be this over a base layer, with a fleece added in colder weather. It did a reasonable job of keeping the drizzle off, as well.

The full-blown Slipstream retails for £80ish so £23 is a steal. It'll be ideal for cycling as well, hence my choice of orange (I couldn't bring myself to get a high-vis yellow one, though; that would just be too hideous in the hills).

I've never believed in spending money on fleeces. In general they're a simple, non-technical bit of kit - all you need is for it to add some warmth. OK, if I had a spare £130 I'd snap up a Patagonia R2, but in all honesty there are better things to spend £130 on. My standard midlayer had always been a 320-weight Icebreaker and there's an old cheap Tiso fleece top in the wardrobe as well. But I'd always had half an eye on Montane's Chukchi top simply because of its advertised weight - 230g, which is far lighter than competitors. There was a special edition burgundy going for £23, so I grabbed that as well.

It's...exactly what you'd expect a basic fleece to be. It's just a lightweight fleece top. t's completely featureless, but that's what leads to the low weight which is exactly why I bought it. It's comfy 100-weight Polartec Micro, and that's it. I'm struggling to find anything else to say...the colour is nice. Overall verdict: I certainly wouldn't have bothered paying full price for this. Now that I've got it, I'm pleased with it and it'll start to get used more than the Icebreaker which weighs quite a bit more, but other than weight there's nothing to recommend it over a budget £15 fleece from Tiso or Field & Trek.

Another thing I've resisted paying money for is expensive walking trousers - I've had a couple of pairs of budget-label convertible walking trousers which have done me fine for years. Legs don't tend to get cold and trousers aren't heavy...what's the point in paying a hefty amount for some sort of fancy soft-shell nonsense?

I was proved very wrong by the Terra trousers (or "pants", as Montane insist on calling them...aren't they supposed to be a British company?!) Once again I picked them up for around half the retail price, and I'd have to go with the same verdict as the Chukchi, that it's just not worth paying full price when you can get a perfectly functional piece of kit for a fraction of the price.

That's where the similarity with the Chukchi ends: the Terra trousers are a very technical bit of kit. They have quite a snug cut and a syntheticy feel on the inside. At home I could feel a bit of static from them which was worrying, but this turned out not to be a problem on the hills at all. They are light, once again - advertised at 330g, and this was noticeable. I might have preferred a few extra grams for some extra pocket space, but that's a minor quibble.

The snug cut turned out not to be a hindrance at all: the Terras were very comfortable. But the performance was excellent. The weather on Ben Nevis was frustrating: the cloud base was very low, meaning that we had swirling fog and drizzle which regularly flared up into a squally shower for a few seconds before dying down again to drizzle. Time and time again I pondered waterproof trousers. Time and time again the Terra trousers showed they were meant for this very British weather. They kept the wind off brilliantly, drizzle was completely repelled and on the one occasion where a strong wind drove the rain through, the trousers dried out in minutes. Personal preference of course, but it's arguable that the waterproof trousers can stay in the pack most of the time - perhaps even in the car unless bad conditions are forecast. They're not desribed as true soft shell, although not being a soft shell advocate/expert I don't really know what constitutes soft shell these days.

It wasn't just Montane kit that was getting early use on the Three Peaks. My new Inov8 Roclite 315s got their first serious outing. Given that my regular boots (Raichle Mountain Peaks from about 2005) weigh a ton, this was pure luxury. Feet stayed secure and blister-free throughout, grip on the wet rock was adequate and after splashing through a stream they dried out impressively quickly.

Meanwhile the Osprey Hornet 32 is extremely light, but still manages to pack in an impressive amount of features. In fact, like most Osprey packs you wonder just how light they could get their packs if they shedded all the crap hanging off them. The 32 litre pack is generously sized, in fact too big for a daysack outside winter; in its favour, however, it sits nicely against the back with almost no lateral movement. As I mentioned, there are bells and whistles aplenty: two lid pockets, side pockets (although these are not a useful shape) and hip belt pockets; compression straps, hydration compatible; plenty of adjustments; even a tiny whistle. The downside is durability. The top of the lid is a flimsy mesh which has already started to give way and the overall package doesn't feel as if it'll take a thrashing.

Random post I know, and it might sound as if it was sponsored by Montane and/or the Climbers Shop (it wasn't) but it's all been money well spent. I need to start getting busy with a camera on my next outdoor trip, although that's going to be a bivvying session in the Brecon Beacons. Catching Pneumonia pretty much guaranteed...

Ireland make four changes vs Australia - will it be enough?


While Ireland produced a creativity-free performance to struggle past the USA 22-10, Australia sparkled in the second half against Italy and, Wales apart, look the most impressive side so far at the World Cup after the first round of matches. So is Ireland's task impossible?

Declan Kidney has one selection dilemma solved, at least: Jerry Flannery's calf gave way in training and his Cup is over. There are four changes to the starting XV, with Healy, O'Brien, Reddan and Kearney replacing Court, Jennings, Murray and Murphy.

All those changes make sense. Healy is the best of a weak forward line, although the Irish scrum looked sturdy against the USA while the Australian forwards were minced by Italy. Kidney's men could dominate in the scrum while there's be some furious battles at the breakdown. Shane Jennings was ineffective against the USA so O'Brien's return is welcome. Conor Murray did nothing wrong on his World Cup debut, it would be cruel to ask him to start against the Wallabies. Eoin Reddan, whilst hardly world class, is the safest bet.

Rob Kearney has never hit the heights of his Six Nations exploits a couple of years ago but he remains one of the most exciting Irish backs and rock solid under the high ball, attacking from deep. If he can keep a cool kicking head, he's the right choice. On the other hand, while Keith Earls had a quiet match against the USA, I'm still glad he's been preferred to Andrew Trimble.

If the Australian backs get into their stride, then they'll be unstoppable. Much depends on the Irish back row dominating David Pocock; if Heaslip and O'Brien can make more progress with ball in hand and at the breakdown than Pocock, and force the penalties, and if Sexton can do a better job at kicking them than he did against the Americans...

There are a lot of ifs, actually. Sexton will need to kick well, because the Wallabies will definitely score tries. Digby Ioane is injured but Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale lived up to the hype against Italy and it'll be impossible to keep them out for 80 minutes. Ireland wil need to hope that they completely dominate the scrum, hold their own in the lineout and the breakdown, and that O'Driscoll, Kearney and Bowe are at their very best. There are still obvious weaknesses in the Irish XV (the whole front row, O'Callaghan and D'Arcy are glaring soft spots) but it's still a decent side if they can get fired up and play to their best. Which, unfortunately, they haven't done for months.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Lullabies

In the deepest mists of early memories sit the bright lights of the songs which lulled me to sleep. Until the day I die these tunes will hold fierce nostalgic imagery for me:

Fanny Power
Drink to me only with thine eyes
Pokarekare ana


My earliest memories involve my dad tramping up and down in the small hours of the night with me slung over his shoulder. He always maintains that he can't sing (and isn't musical in the traditional sense) but would hum the Carolan tune Fanny Power for all it was worth; Carolan's Concerto is another old favourite of mine which holds special memories. Meanwhile Drink to me only with thine eyes  always struck me as an odd favourite of his, but there you go. My mother meanwhile would never sling me over her shoulder; rather, she would softly sing the Maori Pokarekare ana by my bedside if I had trouble sleeping. As an Australian perhaps that, too, was a slightly unusual choice.

A few years ago I was given a ticket by a friend of mine to go and see Jose Carreras at the Albert Hall. Carreras belted out Christmas carols (why he was miked up, I have no idea) and then showed up special guest Hayley Westenra for the appalling singer that she is. But when she performed Pokarekare ana I nearly dissolved on the spot. It's an incredibly beautiful song. One that I hope I can pass on one day.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

In which I ask a lot of questions about pricing, and answer none of them

It was a tweet from Rags Srinivasan, via Leigh Caldwell, that got me wondering. "If a designer shoe goes up from $800 to $860, who notices?"

Certainly not me; I operate at the grubbier end of the shoe market. Caldwell, however, commented, "When behavioural economics can answer this, we've won." Caldwell's blog Knowing and Making and Twitter feed are both essential reading; they're the sort of effort that make one wish they had studied economics at university (or even at school). I know next to nothing about either pricing or behavioural economics (Caldwell's specialities) but I have read snippets by Ward Edwards and others on the marginal utility of money and perceived price, and it set me on a daydream.

The starting point is that the actual price of a product, and the price that the consumer thinks it costs are different entities. The relationship between actual price of a good, and its perceived price by a consumer is not necessarily linear. It might also depend on the product, sector, economic circumstances or, of course, the individual consumer and his whims. If you ask people "which do you think is more expensive, good A or good B?" for a range of products, then you can roughly calibrate a "perceived price" scale - which, after all, is going to drive the purchase decision far more than the actual price of the product.

This got me wondering: if the perceived price depends on the individual consumer, for a given product, under given test conditions (economic circumstances, etc), if you were to plot a histogram of those perceived prices, what would the dispersion of the curve be? And how does perceived price change depending on the consumer's income, and indeed over time?

And how would those dispersion curves be affected from product to product? This would be particularly interesting when comparing two products in the same sector. The acid-test question would be, if two competing products happened to be the same price, which would be perceived as more expensive?

These aren't just "nice-to-know" theoretical questions. If your company's product is the same price as a competitor, but people think it's more expensive, then this will very likely have an effect on the purchase decision, all other factors being equal. Although whether it's a good thing to be perceived as more expensive is not necessarily clear cut, either; it might be offputting (consumers might opt for the commodity they think is cheaper) but on the other hand if "more expensive" equates to "more desirable" then it may be an advantage ( - although then, presumably, that brand's prices are set too low.

It is logical that the relationship between actual and perceived price would vary across product categories, frequency with which they are bought, price as a percentage of disposable income, and whether the product is an "essential" commodity or a luxury.

So perceived prices - and indeed perceptions in the rate of change of price - will surely be different between bus fares, beer, washing powder, a packet of crisps - or designer shoes. Perceived value for money may depend on external factors as well. The mix of online and offline word of mouth, advertising, and economic trends could all contribute.

It is one thing to ask "who notices?" but the other question, of course, is "at what point does it become a problem?" At what point does a consumer go elsewhere to a competitor, or change their habits? What are their motivations for buying the product in the first place, and where does value for money (perceived, of course) fit into the decision-making process?

This leads on to a further question: how often do people compare changing prices across categories? Aside from the odd nostalgic "I remember when a pint cost less than a loaf of bread", I suspect it's not very often - after all do we really compare the utility and value for money of a litre of petrol compared to a litre of Coke? How often do we consider the price of a month's travelcard, and evaluate it versus a month's electricity? Consciously, I'd argue, rarely - but subconsciously? And even if we do, how often do we make conscious decisions to spend money on one luxury over another, or to sacrifice a luxury for a commodity, or even vice versa? Surveys ask blandly "Do you think you have cut back your spending in the last 3 months?" but without probing the thought processes that go into belt-tightening or splurging, those sorts of questions strike me as next to meaningless. Knowing that people have less disposable income is one thing, working out behavioural patterns and irrational decisions, and how to make sure that as the manager of a gym your customers sacrifice a meal in a restaurant each month, or even shiver in darkness, rather than give up their membership - that's the sort of question we need to be asking. Are those purchasing decisions rational in a recession, and how can we find them out?

Putting people on the spot in surveys, asking "is product X good value for money?" always seems contrived, and I have instinctive doubts about the validity of answers when compared to an unprompted population. Worse still are questions along the lines of "how much would you be willing to pay for product X?" I have filled in surveys of this type before, and consistently give a figure lower than what I'd "really" be willing to pay, in a subtle effort to drive down the price of my favourite products, and I suspect this will be true of many people. I certainly can't imagine anyone saying "I think this product should cost more than it already does" - although perhaps someone can enlighten me to the contrary!

A lot of questions, then. One final one - where can I read more about the psychology of pricing, and hopefully find the answers to some of them?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Brand cathedrals

An interesting question popped up in a pub quiz this evening: which brand overtook Coca-Cola in 1996 to become the world's most recognised brand?

We worried over this particular bone ages, long after the answer papers had been collected. Clearly it would have to be a brand that was accessible across cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, which would rule out all luxury goods, probably including consumer electronics (so Sony, all the rage at the time with the CD Walkman and Playstation everywhere, were out). 1996 was pre-internet, so a few years too early for Yahoo! et al. We muttered about all the ubiquitous FMCG brands we could possibly think of, but in the end plumped for Nike. We were wrong (and kicked ourselves when we were told the answer*).

Talking of truly iconic brands, a couple of years ago, in full tour guide mode, I showed a Thai teenager around town along with her mother. I tried to pick a mixture of the obvious sights and one or two things off the beaten track, but there was only one thing she wanted to see above all else: that temple to the consumerist gods - the Apple store. Only in the last few months did I finally get around to going to there myself, along with another cathedral just a stone's throw away: Niketown.

Personally I found the Apple store oppressive, but then traditionally I've had slight Luddite tendencies. The store perfectly mirrors the brand's ideal: achingly trendy, lots of clinical-white space, enthusiastic staff showing the products off in all their glory. Yet I found the place wholly inadequate: I was there to buy a phone cover as a present, and received no help at all despite armies of blue-t-shirt clad staff. On going up to the counter to pay, I was expecting to have to be the subject of a battle between the half-a-dozen staff members there to process my purchase, but no: the sales counter upstairs doesn't sell anything, it's just yet another bench for them to show things off. The sales process takes place on the ground floor, hidden away at the back. For me the Apple store was just too sterile, and trying too hard for its own good, but the throngs of tourists flocking in would evidently disagree.

Niketown is another matter: it's basically a museum devoted to the brand. It's brilliantly done. Like Apple, they must be paying millions for the premium site, right on Piccadilly Circus, but it's the kind of place that raises brand equity just by being there. This one truly is a temple: come and worship decades of trainer history, along with a lot of neon lighting and various tempting "bespoke" offers. The biggest praise that I can pay the place is that I wandered around actually coveting their goods, nay lusting after them, which I didn't find with the Apple store. Nike has only been around since 1978 but they managed to create a sense of history dating back further than that; although to the teenagers who flood the place, 1978 probably feels prehistoric anyhow.

But can someone please explain to me what the M&Ms World in Leicester Square is about? I haven't managed to drag myself in, but surely four floors devoted to little glorified Smarties (in fact is there any difference?) doesn't sound inspiring. There has to be a reason to go there, and for the casual Leicester Square visitor, I would have thought a trip to the Ben & Jerry's cafe would make more sense. Or am I out of touch?

*The answer was McDonald's.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Ontroerend Goed's "Audience" to come to Soho Theatre

Fantastic news announced today - Ontroerend Goed's latest production, Audience, currently taking place in Edinburgh at St George's West, will do a London stint in December. If reviews are anything to go by, it promises to stay true to the Ontroerend Goed blueprint: challenging, genre-defying, and completely unique.

Tickets go on sale in a couple of weeks, apparently. Don't sleep...

Proud

These are crazy days we're living in. The whole country seems to be soul-searching and scratching their heads for ever more implausible theories for the reasons behind the riots. Almost all of them are utter BS.

I could witter on about critical mass and mob mentality and the fact that the rules of the game have changed so that nothing is seen as unacceptable any more and how "game" may indeed be the right word to describe the attitude of the participants and how all the whining about cuts and poverty and politics and the way the whole thing was caused by Twitter are way, way off the mark. But it would just be drivel adding to a swollen morass of existing drivel.

So I won't. I'll just say that London remains the best city in the world and we'll stay strong. Once I've finished work tonight at my day job I'll be on my way in to volunteer for London for a 12-hour stint. It's times like these when I can cast aside the inefficiencies, the frustrations, the annoyances and inconveniences, and just be proud to be part of London's Finest Family. It's times like these that make us realise why we signed up.


(Original at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pixel-eight/6024429000/)

***Update*** not often you see this (the first 15 seconds or so).

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Impressionists and more at the National Gallery

It's easy to ignore the National Gallery. The front is now firmly guarded by human statues and reggae buskers, while the gallery itself seems too "obvious" to venture into. Nonsense: it's not world-famous without reason. And with late opening on Fridays, there's no excuse not to drop in for an hour or two after work.

Huge galleries can be intimidating - just the thought of going round dozens of rooms is tiring. I tend to stick to dipping in for an hour or so - catching a few of my favourite rooms and then heading off before it becomes more of a chore than an enjoyment. On my last visit I started with the Impressionists as I usually do, but then branched off into some earlier works. Here were some that really stuck out for me last time:

Monet - The Thames below Westminster: starting as I always do in the Impressionists' room, this one always gets me and I spent a while with it the other day. A smooth wash of sky and lack of colour evoke acrid smog brilliantly. Pale grey, yellow and beige are just so London all the way. The Thames is so iconic, so stolid, when it's portrayed like this it makes me proud to be a Londoner! A classic for all time.

Monet - The Japanese Bridge:  Tangles of lush green creepers dominate the work. A true Impressionist work: let your eyes drift slightly out of focus and be overwhelmed by the greens. This jpeg doesn't do it justice. The paint is smeared on roughly, almost aggressively; it's got a wild, jungle feel to it.

Eugene Delacroix - Christ on the Cross (1853): the worm's eye view is conventional enough, but the lighting, with Christ's face almost completely obscured by shadow, is startling. The pale skin tones suggest both the impending thunderstorm and Christ's vulnerability.

Constable - The Hay Wain: large, detailed pastoral scene from Constable's native Suffolk. This is so different from Monet's painting of London, but in a completely different way, this is majestically English.

Turner - The Fighting Temeraire, 1838: a grandiose but brilliantly portrayed sunset wrestles for attention with the main attraction - a warship being towed by a tug towards its doom. While the sunset catches he tug and highlights it, and an arrogant smear of rust coloured smoke points rudely at the warship, the Temeraire is pale, almost translucent: already nearly forgotten. Brilliant.

Turner - Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844): an incredible work anticipating Impressionism. You can almost smell the smoke, be bowled back by wind and dust from the hurtling train. Nowadays inventions are confined mostly to new mobile apps; 150 years ago they were revolutionising transport for ever. What dull times we live in...

Guercino - Elijah fed by Ravens (1620): I'm pretty ignorant about Baroque art and I tend to get impatient with it, but this large piece is both dramatic and atmospheric. Elijah is presented as a figure of great power and wisdom.

Pissarro - The Boulevard Montmartre at night (1897): a reminder why Paris is the second greatest city in the world! Ignore the crowds looking at Seurat's overrated Bathers at Asnières and head for this one instead.


Cezanne - An old woman with a rosary (1896): this bleak work shows a world-weary woman - apparently a former nun - engrossed in her own decline. Her vulnerability and pathos are palpable.


There's an interesting-sounding exhibition of Norwegian and Swiss landscapes at the moment - admission free.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Maths jokes

I won't apologise for any of these. They're all classics.

Did you know that the "B" in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stands for Benoit B. Mandelbrot?

ex is having a drink in a pub and propping up the bar on his own. The barman walks over to him and asks him, "Look man, it's a busy bar, why are you standing drinking on your own? Why don't you integrate?"
elooks at the barman morosely and answers, "Why would I? It wouldn't make any difference..."

A mathematician and a physicist are busy sinking a few pints in the pub, just a few metres away from ex. They're having a great time trading arguments and philosophical paradoxes. After a while the mathematician says , "Here's a tricky little problem. Imagine you're on a riverbank, and there's a beautiful woman lying on the opposite bank, naked. With your first step, you can get halfway across the river. With your second step, you can get half as far - that's another quarter, so you're three quarters of the way across. With your next step, you can only go half as far again. This carries on for ever. You'd never reach the naked woman, would you?"
The physicist thinks for a moment, then says slowly, "Perhaps not...but I'd be close enough for all practical purposes."

Finally, a quote from one of the greatest minds of the last hundred years...

"Physics is to mathematics as sex is to masturbation" - Richard Feynman

***Update*** - heard a new one over the weekend:

A Higgs boson walks into a church. "Why are you here," asks the priest? "Well, without me you can't have mass," replies the Higgs.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Willesden Green: on the up (1)

Willesden Green. It's not the sort of place that inspires emotions of hope, creativity and joy, right? And the truth is, that Willy G could easily be overlooked. But there are some gems to be found.

Walm Lane and the east end of Willesden High Road are starting to become a bit more gentrified, with a Costa and new Foxtons sprouting near the tube station (the latter, sadly, taking the place of the highly regarded Shish), and a couple of deli-cum cafes; all these have appeared in the last few months. This all suggests that the area is becoming a bit gentrified. Here are a selection of my favourite Willesden Green spots.

Nest: take the Sunday papers
Forget about Costa and head for Nest (Willesden Green station, Walm Lane) instead. It's a straightforward café beside the tube station, offering a standard array of paninis and sandwiches, full breakfasts (excellent), coffee, cakes and croissants, with large windows and comfortable sofas. No, not somewhere to make a trip to, but as a local café it's an excellent option: independent, rewarding and cheap to the point that you wonder where their profit margins are coming from - coffees are less than £2 and croissants £1, with a full English breakfast just £5.50. A solid Sunday papers option.

Another good place for a bite is Petra (19 Walm Lane).
Petra: best of the kebab options
Petra used to be known as Shawarma Express which was by far the best of the kebab options (although I never went to Shish). With a new name and, seemingly, new management, Petra is more expensive than it was in its previous incarnation but continues to offer good Lebanese food - ignore the Willesden Charcoal Grill down the road and come here instead. I tend to go fairly late when some things have sold out, but this isn't a kebaberie just for when you're drunk - they have tasty Lebanese options like sambousek.

There are loads of really good local food shops around - a mixture of long-established and new places. Two Middle Eastern supermarkets stand out. One is Al Thmarat (21a Walm Lane) - blink and you'll miss it; it's a tiny, cramped, shadowy place right next to Petra - the sort of Platform 9 3/4 place your eye slides past, but a treasure trove of pulses, spices, and jars of olives. Just up the road is Hamada (25a Walm Lane) - slightly larger and brighter, and a good spot to pick up some bread, baklava or a big bag of monosodium glutamate (no, really).
Hamada
Hamada has some meat options, but for a proper butcher try Khan Halal Butchers (1f Walm Lane) which has a solid array of beef, lamb and chicken, alongside some fresh vegetables. Forget about the two local Sainsbury's - even the larger one is pretty disappointing and more expensive than the local shops.



Khan Halal Butchers
More interesting still is Willesden Fisheries (1b Walm Lane). I keep forgetting to ask the guys who run it where they are from but my guess is possibly Mauritius, or maybe somewhere like Sudan. Anyhow, they have a great selection of fish - and it's different from most fishmongers in this country: there's no cod, haddock or sole - indeed there's hardly any flatfish at all - instead they have bass, bream, grey mullet and snapper, as well as African fish such as the river-dwelling tilapia.
Willesden Fisheries
Finally, round the corner next to Geezers barbers is a relatively new butcher - the Moura Meat Centre (10 Willesden High Road). This serves the local Portuguese community well (chorizo discussions were conducted in painfully slow English) but has some really interesting Portguese/Brazilian meat and sausage options. Well worth a look.
Moura Meat Centre
So while the Foxtons and Costa might suggest that Willesden Green might at last be starting to turn into a bland middle-class suburb, which can only be a good thing for house prices, let's hope that the more esoteric options stay in place. In the next few weeks watch this space for a little review of a few more local options.

What the area badly needs, though, is a decent pub: Angie's is fun but not for the faint-hearted, while the Queensbury is just a sterile yuppie cliche. Hopefully we'll see a better option appearing in coming months.

Friday, 22 July 2011

From Pizza Express to Starbucks: premium brands extend their options

The power of premium brands, eh. The other day, my girlfriend (who drives to work) and I were walking along the pavement when she grabbed my arm, turned towards a thirty-something power-dressing woman clutching a coffee, and muttered to me wistfully, "I wish I got the train to work in the morning, so I could clutch a Starbucks cappuccino on my daily commute."

Then, after a moment, a nervous laugh: "I got so carried away, I forgot I don't even like coffee!"

Transferring a successful restaurant brand into a supermarket staple, without losing brand values, is a tricky balancing act. Pizza Express have negotiated the tightrope well without losing their vision, even branching our into sundries such as dressing.

Rather surprisingly, Pizza Express feature in the "top ten most working class brands" as reported in a recent study by research/strategy agency Britainthinks which looked into the differences between a self-defined middle class and working class.

Interestingly, according to Britainthinks, 71% of Britons consider themselves middle class, although according to the National Readership Survey, 55% of the population would be defined as "middle class" according to the well established standard NRS social grading system.

The study reports some key findings differentiating attitudes between the self-defined middle and working classes, and some key traits of the working class: particularly interesting for me was the fact that the "working class" generally consider themselves "above" another class - the non-working class; and that television habits are distinctly different; the research living up to the cliché, the self-defined working class prefer soaps and reality TV, while the self-defined middle class are busy watching the Antiques Roadshow.

A side question here about methodology: were respondents asked at the beginning of the survey to define their class, and then asked questions subsequently? If so, I would suggest there might be a danger that respondents felt their answers should "conform" socially to their stated class. This might also help explain the clichéd cafetiere which was supposed to be the item that summed up the middle class (contrast a cringeworthy pair of workman's boots - dirty, of course - for the working class).

All the usual C2DE suspects are there - KFC, Iceland, The Sun - but celebrants of rocket and parma ham, Pizza Express sneak into the top ten. Deborah Mattinson of Britainthinks wondered if the launch of supermarket products might have had something with Pizza Express's new-found fame as a working class icon.

Marketing textbooks are littered with examples of brands launching in new markets, or launching new product lines, diluting their brand values, and losing brand equity as a result. Pizza Express took the gamble of launching into a crowded market with their supermarket pizzas and are seemingly as strong as ever; an even tougher challenge is faced by Starbucks, who launched their VIA instant coffee brand in the UK last year.

Where Starbucks lead in the social media space, others follow - their MyStarbucksIdea co-creation concept spawning hundreds of case studies across Slideshare - but, according to Starbucks head honcho Howard Schultz, instant coffee has been in the pipeline for twenty years (although I note that a caramel flavour has been introduced partly following a suggestion via the community).

Conventional wisdom suggested that a premium brand like Starbucks was taking a foolish risk by launching an instant product - I'm not so sure. There's a difference between "premium" and "only for special occasions"; Starbucks isn't the sort of brand they'd like to treat yourself to once a month - it's a brand that wants to be part of your daily routine, as my girlfriend proved. The middle class cafetiere cliché lifestyle without the washing up to go with it. More engagement with the brand (to go with your CD collection). Of course it's easy for me to say, a year after the brand was launched, safe in the knowledge that it's been immensely successful!

But how exactly do you launch a product like this into such a crowded space? The Internet Advertising Bureau have published a little case study video of an ad tracking study undertaken by GfK.



A promotional piece by the IAB it may be, but the research clearly shows an augmentation in reach with online advertising, and demonstrating the success that digital ads have in improving both product awareness (up 19% compared to the control group), and also brand favourability and purchase intent. Product awareness was already quite high amongst the target female audience, and with this group it was purchase intent which was boosted most. The video touched on the differences between portals (for high reach), lifestyle sites (where consumers are really engaged with the site, for a longer period of time) and social media; it was inferred that social media advertising gave the best value for money in terms of driving brand favourability and purchase intent for a low cost. Food for thought.

Three songs

Three songs which have nothing in common...

Vikter Duplaix - "That Night"
Rednex - "Cotton Eye Joe"
Prince - "Darling Nikki"

There is a reason for posting those three songs. Don't even ask. As you were.

For the record, I've mainly been listening to Gesualdo's Tenebrae this evening. Startlingly good.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The one that got away

There are few things in life worse than wondering what might have been. A moment, an opportunity, dithering, worrying, the moment passes, the opportunity lost. Then years of wondering what would have happened, had the opportunity been seized. "Should I have been bolder? Should I have done something stupid?" Years of imagining that the moment is still attainable, running scenarios over in your head, ever more fanciful ideas. Futility and reality need not be a concern where imagination is required.

Then, years on, reality. A line is drawn, finality, closure. The opportunity will never exist again. The rabbit has bolted the net, never to be seen again; the one that got away, to be left only with a lingering lifetime of imagining "what if", dwindling away into a mere shell of a memory. A shell maybe, but that husk will never decay.

We move on; perhaps maturity is realising that most of life's daydreams are never fulfilled.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Getting the balance right between search and social media

In the last few days an American study for Google has shown that search, rather than social media, is the biggest driver of word of mouth.



The timing of this announcement was interesting, as it coincided with the launch of the Google+ social network. Forget all the excitable "Is it a Facebook killer" chatter; it is a logical progression for a search engine to move towards more human-generated content - based on both your own preferences and those of your contacts.

I haven't played with Google+ yet (OK, OK, what I mean is I haven't had an invite...DAYS behind the times, darling) but my hope would be that rather than merely offering an alternative to established social networks, that it would integrate heavily with other Google products, and I imagine that Google themselves are thinking the same way. Much is being made of the "circles" concept, but I would think that there is more at stake with heavy integration with YouTube, Blogger and, yes, search. The "+1" concept, alongside the recent trend for including acquaintances' tweeted link in search results  already means that Google are actively "socialising" their search offering. In an excellent blog post, Simon Mainwaring says that "search...is becoming increasingly inward facing, with the individual as filter."

As a colleague of mine pointed out, this may limit our own personal web somewhat, if we are restricting ourselves to search results based on the preferences of others. He has a point; the fact that we are naturally social  creatures, I hope, won't be an excuse to diminish the breadth of our web universe. However, this provides an immediate reference point - if time is short, then a link that your friend has recommended is likely to be your first port of call over anything else. I hope this can be extended into Google+ to make it a content-driven social network; Facebook has no handy way of storing your favourite content in one place ("Likes" are a mess), while social bookmarking sites are sprawling and geek-heavy. If Google get this right, Google+ could be a Digg killer.

But it seems that search itself is a social phenomenon, which leads us back to the Keller Fay study. They don't go into methodological details but claim that "conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible and more likely to purchase, compared to those that reference social media." They emphasise that offline word of mouth dominates online; but that both TV and internet content drive those conversations (online and offline). And of the internet content that drives conversations, it's the stuff found in search engines that is the most influential.

This goes slightly against the fashionable line of thinking that all conversations just happen organically, that we're purely influenced by those around us, and that there are no tangible drivers; I think it also makes sense. We ARE all capable of thinking for ourselves, of looking for things we like, then finding them (and I'd say this study vindicates Google's search algorithm somewhat if we're liking the things we find via search!) and sharing our favourite content. After all, isn't it natural to TRY and influence people?

This research is a clear warning that "buzz" agencies need to do more than just creating some snappy content, shoving it on Twitter and Facebook and waiting for the rest to happen organically. Ultimately, if brands are measuring their word-of-mouth success purely by numbers of retweets and Facebook Likes then they will fail; the interactions between our online conversations, offline conversations and, critically, the actions we take as a result, that are most important. It transpires that the internet and TV have equal importance in influencing consumer conversations, but that the internet is used as an information checking tool (as one might expect) and that search, in particular, has more bite: "conversations referencing search are thought by consumers to be more credible (+25%) and more likely to lead to purchase (+ 17%), compared to those that reference social media."

By subtly integrating their various products yet keeping them disparate, boosting their core search product, and offering a simplified interface to social networking, Google are taking the fight back to Facebook - and it seems they have a new lease of life.

Update: this article in the International Business Times is worth a read.