Mohawks and Media

While I am delighted to see Curiosity in Gale Crater at last, I need to write about the real media story of the month. Bobak Ferdowsi, JPL’s mohawked mission controller, watched some data arrive from Mars. I won’t even provide a link because you should already know about him.

Why is this guy so freaking awesome, all of a sudden? I’m trying to list the different ways in which it was a whopping great win:

– Punk hair at work! Hell yeah!
– Science + Mohawks = Awesome with a capital A.
– The mohawk had stars and possibly stripes. Broadcast to the whole world!
– Awesome for Persian-Americans, especially if they have really Persian names.
– He can do anything with his hair, they’re driving Curiosity around from an office.
– Engineering is suddenly cool? There’s a conspiracy theory for you amateurs.

But the greatest win of all: It seems nobody did intend that mohawk to be anything other than a cute workplace prank during an international broadcast. The Internet just decided that this mohawk guy was worth talking about, so they talked about him. SpaceX couldn’t have bought the same kind of attention for their recent mission. We’re at an important point here – institutions with the ability to manufacture popularity are going extinct.

Even crazier, mohawk guy is now a legitimate sex symbol, though it doesn’t look like he was ever interested in being one. Sorry, Bobak. Society has always been a strange beast, and it does all sorts of weird, troubling shit like this. Now the Internet is systematically breaking down all the barriers that used to preclude this kind of impulsive, even dangerous behavior. This is fantastic news on the one hand, because it means that success will be harder to cheat and existing oligarchies will lose influence. On the other hand, it’s a bit like taking a toddler out of his crib and handing him a block of kitchen knives. So we should probably be a bit more careful about the things we say and do. Bobak was, and that turned out to be a very good idea.

For me, John Q. Anonymous, it might seem a bit Orwellian, or at least annoying. But there is a promising future in store when the global community spontaneously celebrates integrity and competence – they might even be sexy someday. I’ll drink to that.

Mathemantics

In a desperate panic, Professor Emeritus Andrew Hacker confronts mandatory math education, sending this poison pill to the New York Times:

Making mathematics mandatory prevents us from discovering and developing young talent. In the interest of maintaining rigor, we’re actually depleting our pool of brainpower. I say this as a writer and social scientist whose work relies heavily on the use of numbers. My aim is not to spare students from a difficult subject, but to call attention to the real problems we are causing by misdirecting precious resources.

Is this really the best intermural discourse that our elites can offer? Why does this person even believe in mandatory education? What kind of absolute hypocrisy is that? Mandatory history prevents us from being a truly moral society, but you don’t see me complaining about it to the editor, do you?

Andrew, I’ll tell you something about math. Math is wonderful, easy, and infinitely useful. I don’t believe you for a second when you say that someone “can’t” do it. We all do it every hour of every day, and if our understanding doesn’t extend to those symbols we copy down from the blackboard, that is perfectly normal! The symbols suck! They were invented by obsessive-compulsive introverts with pieces of paper – that’s what mathematicians were in those days! Today, computers make it all much easier (obsessive compulsion, introversion, …) and my practiced mathematical ability earns me a comfortable salary, just like people said it would. Every child should have a similar understanding before we can expect them to make rational decisions, even by your soggy social definition of “reason.”

If you’re not convinced, I guess that’s about all I can say right now, and you’re just going to have to believe me. In my personal experience, learning math only became easy when I started ignoring the various procedures and techniques that fill in for real understanding, and addressing each topic by thinking carefully and deeply about the problem domain. With arithmetic, I’m lucky because it happened a very long time ago. I could derive and integrate equations by the 11th grade, but I didn’t actually realize what integration was until about halfway through college, and of course that was an extracurricular event. I’ve forgotten many of the required algorithms (not necessarily their C equivalents), but because, for example, I haven’t forgotten what an integral is, I can recall and relearn any of those methods in seconds, given Internet.

Think about math more, learn your multiplication tables in case Google is unavailable, and if you’re still having a lot of difficulty go find a teacher who makes sense, not a confused and bitter old man like Andrew Hacker! I’ll help you out personally if I have time, but there will be hard work involved, so be warned.

Advertising

This new iOS project is essentially an experiment in direct-selling digital goods, so I’m not especially hung up on all these gnarly new questions about ads and their value, on Google and Facebook but offline as well. Yet it would be very wrong to assume that I can disregard business stuff like ad-based marketing, because ideas like MixBall will always need the attention and support of customers or fans or patrons or investors, and now that I’m pondering unanswered questions about promotion and consumer behavior, here are some random weekend advertising ideas:

– Why is the sound always overcompressed in video commercials? I mute the stream and therefore this does not seem to have the effect that the producers are intending. The only explanation I can imagine is that a lot of people walk into the next room or have a chat during commercial breaks, and either the proportion of those people is greater than the proportion of people who get annoyed by obnoxious audio quirks, or those people spend more money on advertised goods.

– I guess the colors are usually all blown out too, does that annoy visual people? Should sponsors care about this stuff?

– Can advertising work? Of course. Does most advertising work? Very different question…

– I’m not that nervous about Facebook spying on and then advertising to me based on my personal life (maybe I should be), but aren’t they something like 50 years behind with this idea that canned social advertising can convince me to spend where a straight commercial would fail? Isn’t it already uncool to buy the same stuff as the other people that I know?

– Is anyone else annoyed when ads and media have that obvious sort of glossy, meatless focus-group quality to them? Rows of brilliant-white, picket-fence teeth sparkling from inside diverse and demographically-precise protagonists, an awkward and asinine cliche grafted here, an agreeable slice of the Generic American Songbook cued there, and I slip right right into “uncanny valley” mode. It bothers me more than the hypothetical NSA archive of my Facebook timeline, because it feels vaguely as if the culture I belong to is being imitated by an alien entity in camouflage. I stare at this grotesque parody of human interaction, and my animal brain recoils at the knowledge that it is about to be tempted with yet another inappropriate way to spend money. Needless to say, the experience does not put me in a buying mood. The worst offenders of this kind seem to be movie previews, and I can’t tell if the effect is actually more noticeable these days, or if I’m just more likely to perceive it after brief exposure to film school. How can advertisers prevent this problem, and again, would they even want to?

– I’m thinking mostly about video ads, even specifically the kind that pop up for a mandatory 30-second interruption. Does anything else work, online? Do unexpected things work with small and/or weird subsets of the population? I suppose market researchers have answered many of those questions already, and I could probably buy access to some of the answers.

– Does that information matter for every product? Is anything more effective than a personal recommendation? Does anything else even come close?

Content

In the coming weeks I’m going to be spending a lot of time thinking about content, media, and entertainment, and trying to understand what current events might tell us about the future of that industry. I’m also experimenting with content of my own that includes audio, video and interactive components rather than just text, so now would be an appropriate time to type about the general idea.

The big reason I’m obsessed with content lately is because on average, its value seems to be falling as fast as the prices on production and distribution technology. I’m incredibly excited that the barrier to entry for an independent musician has never been lower than it is right now, for example, but this situation is causing other problems. Promotion is now far and away the largest investment that a typical media producer has to make, so quality suffers. And because fans now have essentially unlimited access to content, they are becoming jaded to the considerable effort that still goes into actually creating it, and are less willing to give their money to media producers as a result.

Let me make this clear: those who believe that content curators don’t actually need to own and care for their music, or books, or videos, or software (or that the Internet can conjure up all of these things and more, indefinitely, by virtue of its very existence) will eventually realize what happens when a social phenomenon is trusted to organize and archive ideas. Specifically, it still does not work very well.

The “Netflix problem” is a good example: I can access a massive library of motion media at any time, bought from established studios and streamed through the Internet to my TV, and yet almost every time I simply want to pick out a movie to watch, I can never find it on Netflix. If I always knew that I was going to be interested in “mind-bending foreign thrillers” or maybe “goofy critically-acclaimed comedies” then I would have much less of a problem finding appropriate content, but that is never what I am actually looking for. In general, when I take the time to watch a movie, I want to see ideas that are important, and useful, and novel, and skillfully presented. Basically, I want to see the “good” movies by my own definition of “good,” and Netflix doesn’t provide more than 10 mediocre recommendations in that category.

Of course it really couldn’t be any other way, because scientifically, the Internet is just a bunch of smartass humans who wired their computers together for efficiency! More people need to understand that idea. I see a lot of what I’d almost call disappointment, because Facebook wasn’t actually able to save the Middle East, or because the next Instagram will sell for a lot less than a billion dollars, or because Justin Bieber is still famous, and it doesn’t really sit right with me at all. In fact, it seems rather naive and entitled.

Although the ponzi schemers may say otherwise, there has never been any magical voodoo behind this Internet business. Even if there was, Newton and Maxwell never could have done Einstein’s work by crowdsourcing it. The Internet only matters because the people who built it and use it have done great things with it. It will never be great or profitable or world-changing for any other reason.

St. Jobs

I’m sure there will be glowing biographies about Steve Jobs and his many accomplishments in time, but that guy deserves every single bit of the massive praise that is heaped upon him. Some of the most interesting comments come from the journalist disciples who all but compare Jobs to Jesus at every opportunity, and from the corresponding messiah-doubters who say that Jobs was nothing more than a savvy businessman who understood timing, manufacturing and product placement. However, other contrarians are understandably uncomfortable with his role in the commercialization of independent software and his control over the iUniverse, like a charismatic sort of software dictator type figure. Many of these people have Apple on their “modern hypocrites list” and might tell you so if the conversation wanders in that direction.

Here’s maybe the one valid way I could compare Steve Jobs to Jesus: Jesus was all about ideas that could outlast and defeat humans, no matter how powerful they might seem at the time. Steve made computers and computer systems that will outlast their owners. I can’t possibly imagine a day when my iPad (2) is any less useful or amazing than it is today unless it smashes, no matter what the next ten versions look like. We are going to have to explain to our kids that this is a weird new thing! Computers used to be rickety, noisy boxes with all these wires and different parts sticking out everywhere, and they used to break all the time when a competent engineer wasn’t available to keep things working! All you early majority consumers of a certain influential desktop operating system know exactly what I am talking about…

Somewhat ridiculously, the very approach that allowed Steve and Apple to end this massive problem with casual computing was his uncompromising, even autocratic management of the platform. It feels like I might be stepping on the dreams of the free and open software communities a bit here, but I think I’m starting to understand the actual logic in favor of Apple’s paradoxical mecha-fascism, if only because I program sounds and other fast things. Not every computer has the luxury of being some genius freedom-fighter’s personal data management device. Many computers have to control cars, and medical machines, and all those other things that can’t break or otherwise present an end user with some unpredictable software issue that needs debugging. When my grandma is trying to call me on video chat, it has to be the same way. That was his reasoning, I think, and I have to agree that it makes a lot more sense than it used to.

One day, when we’re donating these old tablets to needy kids or whoever, we might remember Steve by understanding what he wanted to create: a world united by its magical and powerful technology – technology we can use to do formerly impossible things, without losing all of our time in the process.

What is Art?

Art is not about overpriced images, inaccessible music, or boring film. The general concept, which has no useful word, describes efficient communication, where in every case the artist has managed to fit some “large” idea into a comparatively “small” package for distribution. If a given thing is to be called “Art” then this efficiency must exist in some sense. However, no objective standard can determine whether a candidate message is “efficient enough” to qualify. As with comedy, each individual might arrive at a different answer to that question, depending on which new and useful ideas are communicated to and understood by that individual.

Reality should not anger creative people or create conflict between them, but alas, it is sometimes ignored by “Artists” busy in denial about the long-term sustainability of their ideas. These creatures have never sought efficient communication, instead occupying themselves with the construction of a grand strategic agreement bubble, in which obscurity or inaccessibility to anyone outside the bubble is painstakingly interpreted as an ideal outcome. I suspect their logic goes something like this: Because other smart people behave like my Art means something to them, my Art must mean something to the universe. If anyone behaves like my Art means nothing to them, they must be stupid and wrong.

This insular, counterproductive attitude seems to grow within a creative community as a new medium goes mainstream and the associated production industry matures, evidenced by the fact that painters and poets live in the most oppressive bubbles of all, while filmmakers and programmers have only recently arrived and started to network with The Machine (historically speaking). Politics infect everything, revenue becomes the new quality, and the real creators who decide to stay with their craft are neglected and abused.

One can only hope that this regrettable outcome is not inevitable, or even that it is a relic of capitalism, mass production and the necessary physicality of early distributed media. But a lot of people are still out there buying crap and calling it Art. Maybe that will be the case until they or we are all dead. It’s not very encouraging to people who produce ideas in exchange for anything other than money.

As artists, what can be done? Well, we can always rush into some unexplored, newfangled hi-tech medium, and try to keep the quality alive by virtue of diversity and evolution and all that. However, there is also no reason to think that the “old” media have been lost to the barbarians just yet. Great writers, painters, musicians, filmmakers, and other craftspeople are still out there, dreaming of amazing things that nobody has ever seen or heard or touched or tasted. Some will find ways to turn those dreams into reality. The only question is whether media producers acknowledge this reality, or die in some bubble.

UsBook

I’ve been wanting to talk about the Facebook IPO for a while. If you believe me, I really wanted to predict that it would be that underwhelming, but was totally scared about being wrong like everyone.

Here’s what I think is happening: Investors these days have a more mature sense about the things that are actually valuable to an economy, and they are starting to worry about how much value Facebook will ever be able to derive from its community. With serious underemployment problems across much of the developed world, most of the activity on a place like Facebook consists of idle chatter or practical logistics, and the heaviest users tend to be the people with the most downtime. Many of these people will not be able to spend very much money on arbitrary advertised goods, even if the ads are perfectly targeted. Investors know that.

The value of Facebook is determined by the value of the information that is shared on Facebook, just like the value of every web property is determined by its content. The content on Facebook is our lives. This IPO is such a grand referendum on America precisely because Facebook is the social tool that we tinker around with in our idle time, and so Facebook is only proportionally as valuable as us, in a certain sense.

What I’m saying is that if you want Facebook stock to take off, Mark Zuckerberg to get everything he ever wanted, and the economy to recover, there is only one thing you can really do:

Make a lot of money using Facebook.