What the NY Times missed about “Rizzoli & Isles”

Earlier this week, New York Times TV critic Mike Hale reviewed the opening of the seventh and final season of the TNT original cop show, “Rizzoli & Isles.”

Here’s a relevant snippet:

On television, as in life, comfort food comes in all sorts of flavors. There’s the tart apple pie of “NCIS,” the solid corned beef and cabbage of “Blue Bloods,” the wacky loco moco of “Hawaii Five-0.”

“Rizzoli & Isles,” which begins its seventh and final season on Monday night, is in the TNT section of the menu. Like those other shows, which are on CBS, it’s good reheated. But it’s lighter and easier to eat with one hand while doing other things. It’s the thin-crust pizza of prime time.

That makes it the type of show that doesn’t generally garner much attention when it announces that its run is ending. (The final 13-week season will bring the show to a more-than-respectable 105 episodes.) A lot of people will notice, though, when “Rizzoli & Isles,” a formulaic buddy-cop drama — with the twist that the buddies are women and one’s a medical examiner — goes away.

I’m more charmed by the series than Hales, but I accept and agree with his point that “Rizzoli & Isles” is light fare, a far cry from “House of Cards” or even “Orphan Black,” but he misconstrues the lookalike shows that bring what’s interesting and distressing about “Rizzoli & Isles” into focus.

The real consideration set should be the other Holmes & Watson pairings where an eccentric genius teams up with a normal-but-tough partner.  By this definition, the peer group for “Rizzoli & Isles” are “Castle,” “The Mentalist,” “Elementary” and “Psych.”

When you look at this group, then the thing that immediately pops out is how much more eccentric the male geniuses are allowed to be than Maura Isles (portrayed by Sasha Alexander).   Rick Castle, at least at the start of the series (ignore the stupid, audience-betraying finale from last month), was an impish, annoying horndog who happened to be preternaturally insightful.  Holmes in “Elementary,” is a recovering drug addict who might be on the autism spectrum.  Patrick Jane in “The Mentalist”  was morally ambiguous at best: a con man who was only working with the cops to get revenge for his slain family.  In “Psych,” Shawn Spencer is another con man, in this case a hyper-observant young man who pretends to have psychic powers as a gimmick for a detective agency.

So what, in comparison, is so eccentric about Dr. Maura Isles?

She’s usually over-dressed for her job as a medical examiner.

Oh, and she is a tiny bit socially awkward when not talking about science.

That’s it.

When you look at “Rizzoli & Isles” in this peer group, then you quickly see how much narrower our conception of women’s range of eccentricity is when compared to how men can be eccentric.

Unless, of course, the woman is playing a villain.  Then you can get Alexis Carrington, Cruella DeVille, or any of the other snarling, scenery-chewing bad girls.  Think of the delight the camera takes in all the previews and stills from Margot Robbie’s forthcoming portrayal of Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad.”

A crazy man can be a hero or a villain.

A crazy woman is a villain.

I’ll keep tuning in, but just once I’d like to see the show runners of “Rizzoli & Isles” give Sasha Alexander the kind of acting material that Nathan Fillion, Simon Baker, Jonny Lee Miller and James Roday regularly received in their shows.

TechfestNW: Daimler’s Ambitious Vision for Self-Driving Trucks

I was reminded this week of a 1983 episode of the classic TV show “Knight Rider” featuring a self-driving truck named Goliath as the villain-of-the-week who battled heroes Michael Knight (played by a young David Hasselhoff) and K.I.T.T., a self-aware and self-driving Pontiac Trans Am. This boyhood memory clanged into my awareness because now, 33 years later, self-driving trucks are racing from science fiction into reality, although none of them sound like William Daniels (who provided the voice of K.I.T.T.).

At Tuesday’s TechfestNW conference in Portland Oregon — where Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) has its headquarters — two chief engineers shared the company’s ambitious, pragmatic and exciting vision for self-driving trucks in a rare public appearance.

Steve Nadig, DTNA’s Chief Engineer of Mechatronics, and Al Pearson, DTNA’s Chief Engineer of Product Validation, told the story of how Daimler Trucks’ Global CEO Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard let them know in December of 2014 that they would have to demo a semi-autonomous truck by May of 2015 at Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. 

With the clock ticking, the two engineers went back to basics, starting with clay models and then shifting to digital models in order to rethink the truck both inside and out.

Nadig and Peason’s team faced more than just engineering challenges: they also had to work with the state government of Nevada to have the truck accumulate 10,000 miles of incident-free driving before it could be licensed. 

148 days later, they hit their mark with the Inspiration Truck, a Class 2 semi-autonomous semi-truck (perhaps they should have called it the Semi-Semi?) that answers DTNA’s key questions, “What’s next?” And “How will we drive tomorrow?” in tons of metal instead of mere words.  

(Note: a fully autonomous vehicle is Class 5, and a vehicle with no automatic driving capabilities whatsoever is Class 2.)

Humans still behind the wheel, but only paying attention sometimes…

Unlike other vehicle companies that imagine a time when human freight drivers will no longer exist — or perhaps a time when humans are not allowed to drive at all — Pearson doesn’t think that an era with zero human truck drivers will arrive anytime soon.

“Total autonomous is possible now,” Person said. “But only if the environment is controlled. We think it’s going to be a while before we can ensure safety in all conditions.”

With a human driver still in the Daimler truck, that driver’s role will evolve, piloting the truck in the too-complex-for-AI terrain of cities, and then letting the truck drive itself on the highways.

Freed from highway driving, the human driver will manage logistics from the road, pushing that role out from a central or regional office to the edges of the shipping company’s footprint.  (More on this later.)

Why develop the Inspiration Truck?

Pearson and Nadig shared a cluster of compelling reasons for self-driving trucks: as the economy grows and becomes evermore global, freight will only continue to be grow alongside it, and self-driving trucks increase freight capacity. 

With “platooning” — where one self-driving truck follows another on the highway at a distance of 15 meters or less — the first truck cuts through the wind and gives an aerodynamic benefit to each of the trucks that follow it. 

15 meters is too close for a human driver to follow, but with V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications) the self-driving trucks take slower human reaction time out of the equation.

In addition, freight companies would benefit from trucks like the Inspiration because of increased safety features, reduced fuel consumption, reduced vehicle component strain, reduced maintenance and repair, predictive route driving, reduced driver stress, optimized driver time and more generally an improved reputation for the company in question.

Daimler’s approach

Since the Inspiration truck is not striving to eliminate human drivers, Daimler’s approach to self-driving is, in Nadig’s words, “a relatively simple combination of technologies,” that includes an internal camera, two cameras in each mirror (one looking at the blind spot and back down the trailer, a “big safety improvement”), and a radar sensor focused out in front of the truck. 

As Nadig observed, using this technology “reduces drivers’ stress and gets them to an optimum level,” but this is only for highway driving: “there are still lots of skills being used on city streets.”

Daimler’s lean approach requires less up-front computation than what other self-driving experiments (like Google, Uber, Toyota, Nvidia) are finding they need, although particularly with V2V and platooning there is still a formidable amount going on under the digital hood of the Inspiration.

As the session shifted into audience Q&A, Nadig observed that “there’s a social aspect” to autonomous vehicles as well as a technological one. “Think about getting on an airplane without a pilot: the technology will go faster than society is prepared to react to it,” Nadig said.

Implications: Daimler’s approach to self-driving trucks is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, which I intend as a compliment. DTNA’s focus is on making its current customers happier and happier by improving the most expensive tool their customers buy and maintain: trucks.

I’m most intrigued by how the Inspiration reimagines — and reengineers — the role of the human driver into half driver and half logistics manager: it’s a rare moment in autonomous vehicle thinking that thinks of humans as a resource worth investing in rather than as a disposable cost center.

One possible outcome to this shift is that drivers also become knowledge workers, higher skilled, higher paid, managing deliveries, inventories and other things at the edge of a freight company’s geographic footprint rather than having things managed mostly in the home office. This could make the freight company more responsive and agile in how it approaches its business.

Moreover, with excess human capacity in the Inspiration, in what other activities could a freight company — or DTNA itself — invest?

Recall that Amazon Web Services (currently the fastest-growing part of Amazon’s business) started as an answer to the question of what to do with the company’s excess web server capacity, and an opportunity for DTNA to do something similar with its own excess capacity in transport and logistics quickly comes into focus (Thomas Friedman discussed UPS doing something similar in his 2005 book The World is Flat, and I’d be eager to see how the larger carrying capacity of DTNA trucks grew that opportunity.)

DTNA’s level 2 approach to self-driving trucks also shows that while the world in which humans no longer drive except for pleasure is still a long way off, we’ll start sharing the roads with non-human drivers in the very immediate future— and not just near Google’s Mountain View campus.

But can I get my car to talk to me in William Daniels’ voice, like K.I.T.T.?

[Cross-posted at LinkedIn.]

Where “Lucifer” on Fox goes off the rails

“Lucifer,” the new midseason replacement show on Fox, doesn’t trust its audience.

Episode #8 aired last night, and at this point the show is a basic police procedural with a celestial crisis (something bad will happen without Lucifer working as Hell’s CEO and main jailor) lurking vaguely in the background.  Tom Ellis is charming as Lucifer in a performance that is virtually a cover of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel movies.  Lauren German is the supermodel cop who plays the straight woman.

The debilitating, series-limiting problem with, isn’t that the show is offensive to Christians (it is, but that’s no surprise), nor is it that the show has the same narrative engine as “Castle,” “The Mentalist” and “Elementary”— what NPR’s Linda Holmes calls “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic.”  (I wonder if Lauren German, Stana Katic, Lucy Liu and Robin Tunney get together over tea to practice humorless looks on beautiful faces.)

There’s no way that any TV show could capture the sprawling story from Mike Carey’s “Lucfier” comic book (inspired by a Lucifer cameo in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comic book).

Instead, “Lucifer” fails because it tips its hand the moment the story opens: we know that Lucifer Morningstar really is the devil, has left Hell because he got tired of playing a role in God’s plot and instead moved to Los Angeles (the city of angels) to open a piano bar, at which point he meets a gorgeous female detective and they start an investigative partnership.

The missed opportunity with “Lucifer” was that the show could have been a tightly-focused “is he the devil or is he nuts?” exercise, one that could have lasted five seasons.  (I predict that “Lucifer” will run of out of story steam in Season Two.)

The show would have been more interesting and sustainable if every time Lucifer demonstrated unusual abilities there could have been two equally valid interpretations, only one of which is that he isn’t human.  Lucifer’s conversations with brother angel Amenadiel could have been shot in different stock or with a filter that suggests they might have been hallucinations. 

This twist would have not have affected the police procedural plots, the crimes of the week that Lucifer and Detective Chloe Decker solve, but it would have made the sustaining relationships more interesting.

The entire show, in other words, could have been more like Lucifer’s relationship with psychiatrist Dr. Linda Martin, in which she does not believe that he is the devil but agrees to work within his metaphor in treatment.  If the audience had doubts about Lucifer’s devilish status, then Dr. Martin’s torrid sexual relationship with Lucifer would then have been more ethically dodgy — and more dramatically interesting — since she would have done something wrong rather than been mesmerized by a supernaturally sexy being.

If the audience didn’t know whether Lucifer was the devil in retirement or just a mad human, then that would have made all the personal stories that come out of the narrative engine compelling.  In other words, the series could have played the Hamlet card: is the prince merely putting on an antic disposition or has he truly gone nuts?

But it’s not fair to saddle Lucifer with Shakespeare-sized expectations.  Instead, the series should have taken a page from the movie “The Sixth Sense.”  (Spoiler alert, although for a movie from 1999 I should hardly have to warn you.) 

At the end of that movie, the revelation that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is himself a ghost, one of the dead people that the little boy can see and hear, casts everything the audience has just watched into a new, complex and compelling light. 

What’s important, though, is that even without that final twist “The Sixth Sense” is still a great story.  We don’t need the twist to have loved the movie, but it makes us reengage with the story as it ends (see notes).

In my alternate reality version of “Lucifer” (the one where Spock has a beard), Chloe’s relationship with Lucifer would have been vexed by her having to triangulate growing affection against a fear that he’s either a whacko or the devil in retirement… neither of which are high recommendations for a boyfriend you can bring home to meet Mom.

A five season arc might have gone like this:

Season One: we meet the characters, Lucifer and Chloe forge a partnership with potential.

Season Two: Chloe thinks that Lucifer is human and nuts, but she falls for him anyway.  She spends part of the season trying to figure out his real human identity but cannot.  They consummate their relationship.  The season ends with Lucifer doing something impossible.

Season Three: Chloe now believes that Lucifer really is the devil, and she is trying to figure out if sleeping with him has eternal consequences.  The season ends with Lucifer demonstrating mortal frailty (e.g., he gets shot, cliffhanger with him in the hospital).

Season Four: Lucifer, recovering from his wounds, begins to doubt his own story.  He refuses to talk with Amenadiel because, like the audience, he thinks that Amenadiel is a hallucination. 

Season Five: everything comes to a head.  The really weird stuff (e.g., Donald Trump is a presidential candidate) gets even weirder, and from the “he’s really the devil” perspective the gates of hell stand agape and it’s really time for Lucifer to get back to his real job.  Meanwhile, from the “he’s just nuts” perspective Chloe and Lucifer are faced with their need to move ahead or move on.  The last moment of the last episode finally reveals the truth, with no ambiguity or “Dr. Sam Becker never leaped home” betrayal.

I’ll keep watching “Lucifer” for another few episodes to see where the plot is going, but I fear that the answer is “to hell in a hand basket.”

Notes:

Don’t miss Linda Holmes’ piece that includes “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic.” HT to Alan Sepinwall [] for linking to this, and his own review of “Lucifer” is brief but strong.

Digression #1: “The Sixth Sense” is the opposite of “The Fight Club” (1999, and another unnecessary spoiler alert), which lies to the audience throughout because the Brad Pitt character turns out to have been a movie-long hallucination by the Edward Norton character.

Digression #2: I’ve long been fond of literary explorations of the devil, from Milton to Gaiman and including Jeremy Levin’s “Satan: his psychotherapy and cure by the unfortunate Dr. Kassler, JSPS,” “Glen Duncan’s “I, Lucifer,” and a terrific version in Robert Heinlein’s novel “Job: a comedy of justice.”

Cross-posted on Medium.com.

First Thoughts on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa

Based in large part on my friend Jeff Minsky’s enthusiast endorsement, I bought the Amazon Echo device that comes with its voice-activated, Siri-like, AI digital helper named Alexa.  “This is a no-brainer,” Jeff said.  “If nothing else it’s a terrific wireless speaker for under $200, and it does so much more.”

I unboxed Echo on Wednesday, downloaded the iPhone app, plugged it in and had it running in minutes.  Jeff is right about the speaker: it has a great sound and fills up even my (no pun intended) echo-filled living room. 

Here are my first thoughts about the Echo and Alexa, its successes, missed opportunities, and where I see it going.

Surprise and Delight: The Beatles

As I did the morning dishes, my first request was, “Alexa, play The Beatles.”  Seconds later I heard “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.  Wow!

Over the course of the next few minutes of puttering and tidying, I heard a news briefing from NPR, skipped through a bunch of other music, and also discovered that every CD or MP3 I’d purchased in my 18 years of Amazon.com membership was available to Alexa… and this is quite a bit.  I didn’t even realize that I had a music library outside of the Spotify-like, free-with-Amazon Prime music service.

Then — more surprise, more delight — a query of mine revealed that Alexa also has access to all my Kindle books… and she has a nice reading voice.  Within moments, Alexa was reading Michael Winberg’s It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up book about 3D printing and IP law.  I’ve experienced earlier algorithmic reading of text, and it was no fun: robotic voices with no cadence and a ton of mispronounced words.  By contrast, Alexa is smooth and winning.  Does she measure up against a professional actor performing a text?  By no means.  But for simple, “what’s this book about?” curiosity she’s fine… it’s a Herb Simon satisficing exercise, rather than a premium audio-book optimization.

Alexa is an example of what Jeff Minsky calls the “Ambient Internet.”

Even more so than with the always-in-your-pocket smart phone, having hands-free Echo on the kitchen counter reduces friction between my desire to search something and performing the search.  This is even lower friction than my experience with the Apple Watch, because with the Watch I have to raise my wrist to my face with my left hand and push a button with my right hand to wake it up and have it start listening… although Siri on my iPhone wakes up to “Hey, Siri.” 

Not having to move a muscle and still being able to search something is powerful, even seductive.

Last night, for example, my 10 year old son wanted to go to a barbecue joint for dinner.  So I asked Alexa where the best ribs in Portland are.  Alexa immediately recommended Reo’s Ribs, which is zesty and tangy (it used to be our neighborhood joint before it moved about seven miles further away).  Alexa couldn’t manage to suggest other options (although to be fair I only asked her for the best ribs in my query and, like Siri, she has a limited ability to understand followup questions), so I trotted to my computer and to Google to find a closer joint.

Dinner was delicious. 

There’s a down side to the Ambient Internet, which is that it accelerates my technology-induced quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder.  Having a bunch of devices that can deliver tasty, Doritos-like nibbles of information doesn’t help me buckle down and focus on pressing tasks at hand. 

Likewise, having a cybernetic pal eager to tell me about things happening in the world while I do dishes gets in the way of either mindful attention to task (even if the task is dishes) or mindless day-dreaming that often sparks a creative insight. 

Many smart folks have written extensively about how frictionless 24/7/365 connectivity makes us reactive and superficial rather than proactive and deep (see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows for one good example), and I don’t need to make that argument again here except insofar as how adding another connected device, Echo, throws more cognitive Doritos into my info-diet rather than veggies.

Brief Digression on Cyber-Security: I’m not, in this post, addressing either the Big Brother Question (Amazon is always listening, tracking everything, and using that information to take over the world or maybe just help the NSA) or the Skynet/Robot Apocalypse Question (Alexa will fuse with Siri, find Ultron, and then decide to eliminate the infestation of humans ruining this perfectly good planet). End of Digression.

But what about the shopping?  I have yet to ask Alexa to add something to my Amazon list, but I have no doubt that Alexa’s frictionlessness will aid purchase… and if Alexa continues to live in the kitchen then that will probably hurt my local supermarket if I wind up ordering dishwashing soap through Amazon because I just ask for it when I’m running out rather than having to pull out my phone to add it to the shopping list. 

Missing: a battery.  It’s only by using a device that you see the presumptions that the creators had while designing it.  With Echo, the designer presumed that once you picked a spot for the device it would stay in that spot.  This is a problem as I’m working to figure out where Alexa should be in my house, since every time I unplug the device it powers down and takes a minute-plus to reboot when I plug it into a different socket in another room.  I find this minute-plus reboot time vexing… and it doesn’t fit with the general frictionlessness of Echo. 

A backup battery that would keep the Echo going for a half hour would be useful.

But the lack of a battery also suggests that Amazon has more pervasive ambitions for Alexa.  From the start, I asked myself, “why both Echo and Alexa?”  Why not just call the device Alexa?

The reason, I think, is that Alexa has a bigger future footprint than the Echo.

The Echo is just a speaker, but pretty soon users will find themselves chatting with Alexa on their phones, on their computers and tablets when shopping on Amazon.  And judging from the Ford SYNC integration with Echo that I saw at this year’s CES, Amazon also wants us to chat with Alexa when we’re driving around.  “Alexa, please add Tide to my shopping list,” I’ll be able to say as I drive around.

While Alexa is great, she is no “Jarvis” from Iron Man and The Avengers.  One disappointing thing about Alexa is her half-hearted connectivity to other services.  Yes, you can play your Spotify tunes out of the Alexa speaker, but in order to do so you have to stream Spotify from your phone (or some other device) into Alexa.  So you can’t ask Alexa for a particular playlist or to search Spotify for that rare Bill Evans tune.

The Achilles heel of most connected technologies is having the mobile phone as a tether: this is as true of Echo as it is of the Apple Watch.   

Finally, another designer presumption that a few days of use has turned up: Echo was designed for somebody who lives alone, or at least for a single user.  Here’s a revelatory snippet from the Amazon page on Echo and Alexa:

Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.

This engineering mindset parallels that of the smart phone: one user per device.

But I live with three other humans and a dog.  While the dog’s shopping needs don’t require an AI helper, my son — who is entranced with Alexa — has trouble making himself understood because Alexa has adapted to my voice. 

This is a pervasive problem with shared services.  Since my entire family uses my Amazon Prime account, Prime thinks I suffer from multiple personality disorder since the suggested purchases run across four idiosyncratic people’s interests.  I always know when, for example, my teenaged daughter has been makeup shopping on Amazon because the Amazon banner ads that stalk me across the web shift.

My Netflix recommendations are even worse since we started using the service before the company enabled different profiles.  I have no interest in “Cupcake Wars,” but Netflix disagrees.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Echo/Alexa’s potential impact on business, shopping and branding.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Don’t Miss Adam Grant’s new book “Originals”

Of the many compliments that I can give to Adam Grant’s remarkable new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, a rare one is that I will have to read it again soon.  Grant is an unusual social scientist in that he’s also a terrific writer, a gem-cutting anecdote selector of real-life stories that illuminate his points with a breezy, swallow-it-in-a-gulp momentum so I found myself racing through the book with a smile on my face.  I didn’t even take notes!  That doesn’t happen.  So, I’m going to read it again, slower, pencil in hand.
In the meantime my first tour through Originals haunts my waking life, an insightful shadow nodding in at unexpected moments— as a professional, a thinker and as a parent.
For example, when an academic friend told me she was trying to salvage as much as she could from her recent articles to put into a book she needs to write for tenure, I replied, “Don’t do that. You are prolific and have tons of ideas: only chase the ones that still excite you.”  That’s lifted straight from Grant, who talks about genius as a surprisingly quantitative endeavor: it’s not that creative masters have better ideas than the rest of us, instead they have have a much greater number of ideas so the odds go up that some of those ideas are terrific.
One of Grant’s opening anecdotes explores a non-causal correlation between success in a call center and an employee’s decision to change the default web browser on her or his computer.  If the employee switched away from Internet Explorer to Firefox or Chrome (this isn’t hot-off-the-presses data, I think), then that switch demonstrated a kind of “how can I make this better?” mindset that led to higher job performance.  I’ve thought about my own default choices repeatedly since then. noticing how sometimes I work around the technology when it’s too much bother to make the technology serve me.  Looking at the pile of remote controls near the entertainment center in my living room is one example: I haven’t bothered to research, buy and program one universal remote.
Grant’s notion of strategic procrastination has also proved actionable faster than I might have predicted.  I’ve often been a pressure-cooker worker, mulling things over for a long simmering period before rolling up my sleeves.  Grant has persuaded me, though, that getting started first and then taking a mulling break at the halfway point leads to higher quality outcomes, and I’ve used this to my advantage — and the advantage of the work — on a research project that is taking up most of my time.
Originals isn’t perfect but it’s always provocative.  Another phenomenon that Grant explores is the correlation between birth order and creativity, with younger children — particularly the youngest of many children — often becoming more successful as ground-breaking creatives because they inhabit a different social niche in their families than rule-making parents and rule-abiding oldest children (of which I am one).  Grant’s birth order argument focuses so much on the nuclear family that I wonder if it’s too Western, too settled, too suburban.  My mother, for example, grew up in a close, hodgepodge, overlapping community of immigrant parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and oodles of cousins.  Her closest peer group were her cousins, with whom she roamed her city neighborhood unsupervised.  The cousins, with whom she is still close decades later, influenced her as much if not more than her sister, eight years her senior and a more distant presence in her childhood than, say, the presence of my 14 year old daughter in my 10 year old son’s day-to-day in our little suburb.  Still, Grant’s birth order research has made me rethink some of my own parenting choices with my older child.
Perhaps my only real complaint with Originals is that I want some additional product that will help me to apply its powerful insights in my everyday life.  As I gobbled up the book, I wanted something like a deck of playing cards with distilled versions of the chapters that I might rifle through to help sharpen my thinking… something like the Oblique Strategies or Story Cubes.
I was a big fan of Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and Originals is just as good if not better.  It was a pleasure to read the first time, and I’m eager to dive in once again… perhaps I’ll make my own deck of helpful playing cards using my friend John Willshire’s product, the Artefact Cards.

My 2015 in Books

This is the second year that I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve finished, sharing that list on New Year’s Eve once I’ve realized that I won’t finish anything else before midnight.  I’ve read plus-or-minus 56 books this year (the +/- will make sense if you read on), not counting re-reads or partial reads.

As I noted in last year’s list, I was inspired to do this by my friend David Daniel, who keeps a list of the books he wants to read with him at all time. 

2015 was a complex, challenging, exciting year for the Berens Family, as we spent the first half of the year living in Norway, moving back to Oregon over the summer.  Looking back at where my head was and correlated that to where my body was geographically helps to make sense of the year in intriguing ways— not unlike when I look into my sent-and-received email when I need to figure out what the heck I was doing on a given day.

You’ll see that I’m eclectic in my reading: lots of non-fiction, science fiction, media and marketing, with a new-this-year focus on behavioral economics. 

Here’s the list:

1. Hurwitz, Gregg.  Trust No One. Finished 1/9/15.  

I’d enjoyed Hurwitz’s “Crime Writer” book a few years back, but I don’t remember when this one made it into my iBooks on the iPad.  Perhaps it was a free volume somewhere along the lines.  A terrific thriller, fast paced with an interesting and flawed protagonist in Nick Horrigan.

2. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Finished 1/22/15.

Fantastic, smart, insightful. I’ll need to read it again to gather my thoughts into order.  I don’t say that often… although I think I felt the same way after finishing the Carse book Finite and Infinite Games

Levitan’s work on the significance of physical environments in an evermore digital world is not to be missed by any digital thinker.  It felt weird to read this book on the iPad, since one thrust of its argument is to be careful about digitization.

3. Sansom, C.J.  Lamentation. (Book 6 in the Matthew Shardlake series.) Finished 1/24/15.

Terrific book, as all the Shardlake novels are.  This one marked a major transition in the series as it moves from the reign of Henry VIII to young King Edward and with an eye towards Queen Elizabeth 1. 

4. Thomas, Rob & Jennifer Graham.  Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell. (Book 2 in the Veronica Mars novels.) Finished 2/1/15.

Finished this during the flight back from London to Bergen after my iMedia UK “Data-Fuelled Marketing” keynote and subsequent hangout with my buddy Kevin M. Ryan in Amsterdam.  It’s in no way a surprise that Thomas, who created Veronica Mars, nails the sensibility and rhythms of the show and movie.  The only surprise is how much I loved both this book and the first one that I read last year: it’s like watching a long episode of the show.

5. Jones, October.  Texts From Dog.  Finished 2/6/15.

Dogless since the death of beloved Dexter in October of 2013, when my son happened across the hilarious Texts from Dog site we decided that we must support the creator, October Jones, by buying the book for my birthday.  If you’ve ever had a dog, then this prolonged fantasy of what a dog would text if he only had thumbs will bring a smile to your face.  The fact that it’s utterly profane as well makes the experience even better.

6. Aaronovitch, Ben.  Foxglove Summer (Peter Grant/Rivers of London Book #5). Finished 2/8/15.

Delightful fantasy novels written by a Doctor Who alumnus writer.  I imagine that #6 must be coming-real-soon. 

7. Harris, Sam.  Waking Up: Searching for spirituality without religion. Finished 2/13/15.

Way back in graduate school, my friend David Brewer told me about Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity and said that reading that book helped him to figure out his personal politics.  Likewise, this magnificent book by Sam Harris helped me to figure out my own sense of spirituality.  It’s a fascinating, bracing, personal, helpful work about mindfulness, who we are and who we aren’t, and how to live in the world.  One of the most important books of my year.

8. Hornby, Nick.  Funny Girl.  Finished 2/14/15.

Hornby is always good, and the nice this about this book is that it takes him back into the 1960s, away from his usual modern milieu.  An enjoyable, fast read.

9. McCloud, Scott.  The Sculptor.  Finished 2/15/15.  (Graphic novel, but at 488 pages it counts!)

I used to teach McCloud’s Understanding Comics as a writing text, and like all McCloud fans have been waiting for years for his next fictional work. This doesn’t disappoint: it’s a masterpiece of comics writing, brilliantly fusing words and pictures in a moving story about art, passion and life.

10. Sillitoe, Peter.  The Guide to Shakespearean London Theatres.  Finished 2/17/15.

A short, handy and fact-filled guide to the theaters of Shakespeare’s London that I zipped through as I was preparing a talk about Shakespeare for the iMedia UK team.

11. Nadel, Barbara.  A Passion for Killing.  Finished 2/22/15.  

An Inspector Ikmen and Inspector Suleyman mystery, set in Turkey.  Nothing exceptional here, but a quick and well-crafted read.  I wasn’t moved to read any more in the series, but didn’t regret reading this one, which is #9 in a series.

12. Nourbakhsh, Illah Reza.  Robot Futures Finished 3/2/15.

Smart meditation about how robotics will change our lives in the startlingly near future by a Carnegie Mellon roboticist. The book veers away from robotics towards the end — or expands the definition of robotics in ways I found unhelpful — but the first 3/4 were smart and clarifying.

13. Berger, Jonah.  Contagious: why things catch on Started & finished 3/7/15.

It’s rare that I can finish a non-fiction book in one day, but Berger is a fine writer explaining his research with clarity and gusto.  If you’re interested in what works and what doesn’t in advertising, then don’t miss this.

14. Dolan, Paul.  Happiness by Design: Finding pleasure and purpose in everyday life.  Finished 3/16/15.

Remarkable.  I’ve continued to think about this book at least weekly since reading it — along with Harris (and Kahneman, coming up next) one of my tops for 2015 — and I don’t know why this isn’t being read in every book club in the English speaking world.  A fascinating combination of economics and psychology. 

15. Kahneman, Daniel.  Thinking Fast and Slow.  Finished 4/11/15.

At last, at last!  I have too much to say about this book in this compendium, so please see my blog post: Daniel Kahneman kicks my ass, or Reading Fast and Slow.” 

16. Schrage, Michael.  Who Do You Want Your Customers to Become? Finished 4/18/15.

A short, impressive book that pivots the reader’s understanding of the project of a business from asking a consumer to “buy this thing” to asking that consumer to “become this person.”  It’s one of those exercises that will help any business going through a strategy session or major transition.

17. Riordan, Rick. The Lost Hero. (Heroes of Olympus #1.) Finished 4/21/15.

I promised my son that I’d catch up on the Percy Jackson novels, and this was the first of the second series.  Terrific YA fiction.  Riordan is prolific and always good. 

18. Sterling, Bruce, ed.  Twelve Tomorrows 2014: MIT Technology Review Annual SF Anthology.  Finished 4/22/15.

The always-strong, always-provocative anthology of SF stories from MIT’s Technology Review— I never miss it.

19. Riordan, Rick.  The Son of Neptune.  (Heroes of Olympus #2.)  Finished 4/25/15. 

20. Sicart, Miguel.  Play Matters.  Finished 5/3/15.

Play has been a notion increasingly on my mind as key to why some technologies proliferate and some don’t. 

Play is different than the popular term gamification, and Sicart’s brief but well-written book teases out the differences nicely.  “Designing for play means creating a setting weather than a system, a stage rather than a world, a model rather than a puzzle. Whatever is created has to be open, flexible, and malleable to allow players to appropriate, express, act and interact, make, and become part of the form itself” (90).

21. Wright, Helen S.  A Matter of Oaths Finished 5/13/15.

Steve Patrizi linked to a list of great SciFi that included Wright’s 1990, sadly out of print, but delightfully free on her website space opera.  Ahead of its time in its gender politics with gay characters, the Locus review is right when it suggests that this is an entire series crammed into one novel, but it’s still great fun.

22. Gibbs, Stuart.  Spy School.  Finished 5/15/15.

Another in a series that I read with my son: this is Austin Powers for middle schoolers.  Great fun, and we’ve enjoyed the whole trilogy.  I hope Gibbs writes more!

23. Delany, Samuel R.  The Einstein Intersection. Finished 5/17/15.

When I asked my friend Joseph Carrabis who his favorite science fiction authors are, Delany topped his list.  I can see why: this 1967 book is fascinating and hard to describe since it is told from the POV of aliens who have inhabited a far-future dead Earth and are attempting to live out human lives reconstructed from what the species left behind.  Smart, deep, moving, esoteric and memorable. 

24. Macleod, Ken.  The Cassini Division. 5/19/15.

Published in 2000, this was an interesting, unplanned juxtaposition with Delany, since it deals with what happens to the normal humans left behind when some members of our species become post-human.  A sci-fi version of HBO’s “The Leftovers” series that talks about what happens to the rest of us post-Rapture.  Interesting, well written. 

25. Gibbs, Stuart.  Spy Camp  (Spy School #2).  Finished 5/24/15.

26. Bujold, Lois McMaster.  Ethan of Athos.  Finished 5/31/15. (A reread technically but I didn’t remember most of it for some reason.)

Bujold, as I’ve said many times, is my favorite living science fiction writer, and one of my favorite writers ever.  This book is set in a cul-de-sac off the main path of her award-winning Vorkosigan universe, and it asks the question “what would an all-male society do to make babies?”  Not a great introduction to the Vorkosigan books, but a great independent read.

27. Sharp, Byron.  How Brands Grow: what marketers don’t know.  Finished 6/3/15. 

When two friends in two countries (Carol Phillips in the US and Michael Bayler in the UK) independently raved about this book, I had to get it.  It’s hands down the smartest marketing book I’ve ever read, and one that delightfully punctures through a lot of market mumbo jumbo.  Sharp is brilliant, incisive and sometimes wince-inducingly mean in his footnotes.  Will keep thinking on this one, and I’m thrilled that a sequel has just come out!

28. Baker, Kage.  In the Garden of Iden (A Novel of The Company #1).  Finished 6/11/15.

A crazy time-travel story where a mega-corporation recruits orphans throughout time and turns them into immortals to do their bidding, secretly taking control of all civilization.  Imagine the Time Lords of Doctor Who, only without conscience.  The protagonist is a woman named Mendoza, whose first adventure is in pre-Shakespearean Elizabethan England.  A speedy, fun read… enjoyable enough that I read the second one as well, and may go onto the others some day.

29. Asaro, Catharine.  Undercity.  Finished 6/21/15.  

A new murder mystery series set in a prequel time to Asaro’s terrific Skolian Empire series.  Science Fiction and Mystery often don’t mesh well, but they do here.  This is a less soapy, more SF version of J. D. Robb’s “In Death” series (Robb is a pseudonym for romance novelist Nora Roberts).

Note: this novel includes “City of Cries,” a novella that I read in 2013.

30. Thaler, Richard.  Misbehaving: the Making of Behavioral Economics.  Finished 6/24/15.

Behavioral Economics fascinates me, and Thaler has been at ground zero for the birth and development of this new academic discipline.  He’s an insightful and hilarious writer, and so this is not to be missed if you’re interested in these matters.  It was a lucky chance that I got to read this and Kahneman within just a few weeks of each other.

31. Baker, Kage.  Sky Coyote (A Novel of The Company #2).  Finished 6/29/15.

32. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller.  Dragon in Exile. (Liaden Universe.) Finished 7/3/15.

A robust new entry in Lee and Millers wide-spanning Liaden Universe SF series.  There is simply no way that a new reader will understand what’s going on in this book if she or he hasn’t read a half dozen other books, short stories and chapbooks, but I’ve read most of them and think they’re terrific space opera.  Start by heading over to this page on the authors’ website if you’re looking for a new series.

33. Wolff, Michael.  Television is the New Television: the Unexpected Triumph of Old Media in the Digital Age.  Finished 7/7/15.  

This book frustrated and puzzled me: see this post for details

34. Wilson, G. Willow & Adrian Alphona.  Ms. Marvel: No Normal.  (Trade paperback of issues 1-5.)  Finished 7/7/15.

and…

Wilson, G. Willow & Adrian Alphona.  Ms. Marvel: Generation Why.  (Trade paperback of issues 6-10.)  Finished 7/23/15.

and…

Wilson, G. Willow & Adrian Alphona.  Ms. Marvel: Crushed (Trade paperback of issues 12-15 & S.H.I.E.D. #2.)  Finished 11/23/15.

Ordinarily, I don’t include comics in this list, but Ms. Marvel is remarkable: a 16 year old Pakistani-American who get superpowers while still going to high school in Jersey City.  It evokes memories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the best possible way, although it’s much different.  Counting all of these as one book: a must if you have teenagers in the house.

35. Bujold, Lois McMaster.  Penric’s Demon.  Finished 7/22/15.

Bujold is Just. So. Good.  This is a short work in her “Five Gods” fantasy series, but you don’t need to have read any of the other works in that series to enjoy this yarn about what happens when a ne’er do well second son of a minor aristocratic family accidentally becomes possessed by a powerful demon.

36. Lambert, Craig.  Shadow Work: The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day. Finished 7/26/15.

I first bumped into the notion of Shadow Work in Levitin’s Information Overload (Book #2 this year), and thought it was a compelling notion.  Lambert’s is a more exhaustive (although not exhausting) treatise on how our DIY culture expects us to do things ourselves that other people used to help us accomplish.  Worthwhile, although unless you’re fascinated with this sort of thing the passage in Levitin that covers Shadow Work will serve.

37. Gibbs, Stuart.  Evil Spy School.  (Spy School #3).  Finished 7/31/15.

38. Corey, James S.A.  Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse Book 1).  Finished August 9, 2015.

Terrific space opera, now a TV series on SyFy.  The book is mammoth, and therefore daunting (there are six of them each around 600 pages), but well-crafted, briskly plotted and enjoyable.  It’s the kind of commitment that Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars series was a few years back: worth it, but not if you’re in a rush.

39. Moore, Geoffrey A.  Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers. (3rd Edition). Finished 8/13/15.

Recently-updated classic work about technology adoption written from a B2B marketing point of view but applicable elsewhere.

40. Cline, Ernest.  Armada: a novel.  Finished 8/24/15.

Disappointing, particularly after Cline’s interesting debut Ready Player One.  Armada is too disappointing even to write a snarky review.  Don’t bother.  It’s a lesser version of the movie Pixels.

41. Scalzi, John. The End of All Things (#6 in the Old Man’s War series). Finished 8/26/15.  

Great read, but only if you’re already devoted to the series, which I am. 

42. Yancey, Rick.  The 5th Wave.  Finished 8/30/15.

Recommended by my friend Brian David Johnson, who told me it was dark.  He wasn’t kidding!  The most disturbing thing about this book is that it’s intended for the YA crowd.  The plot is horrifyingly dark, with a teen girl losing everything as humanity’s darkest hour arrives.  I am in shock that they’ve made a soon-to-be-released movie of this, although after the success of the atrocious Hunger Games series I suppose anything is possible.

43. Leckie, Ann.  Ancillary Justice.  Finished 9/10/15.  

Once again from that list shared by Steve Patrizi, the conceit of this book is remarkable: a human body formerly animated as a Borg-like drone member of a hive mind that helped to crew a starship has been sundered from her vessel, and now must make her way as an individual.  Far future space opera: I loved this book so much that I had to let it sit for a couple of weeks, but then I inhaled the second and third.

44. Lagercrantz, David.  The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Millennium #4).  Finished 9/14/15.

A perfectly adequate continuation of the Steig Larsson “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series, which peaked with #1.  This is one of those books that will only be enjoyable if you read it when it first comes out, so I grabbed it and read it immediately. 

45. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas.  Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder Finished 9/23/15.

Brilliant, fascinating, frustrating.  I needed a buddy to make it though this complex book, and fortunately had one in John Willshire.  I don’t know if this is a compliment or an insult, but having just finished Antifragile I feel that I won’t truly understand it until I read it again.

46. Leckie, Ann.  Ancillary Sword.  (Sequel to Ancillary Justice.)  Finished 9/27/15.

47. Leckie, Ann.  Ancillary Mercy (3rd in the Ancillary Justice trilogy.)  Finished 10/8/15.

I wish there were more coming in this series, but I think she’s done.

48. Selznick, Brian.  The Marvels Finished 10/21/15.

Beautiful, theatrical, lyrical and secretly complicated: Selznick’s hybrid graphic and prose works continue to impress and delight me. The Marvels is his most structurally ambitious work to date: two stories overlap each other. At first, they seem to have no point of contact, but then — Cloud Atlas-like — they do.  The interlocking surprises of the last third of the book kept me reading later into the night than I’d planned.  At nearly 700 pages it’s an amazingly quick read since most of those pages are single-page illustrations.

49. FitzGerald, John D.  The Great Brain.  Finished early November. 

Childhood re-read that I grabbed out of the library for my son, and then read myself when he wasn’t interested. I’ll try again to get him to read it. It’s good.

50. Hoffman, Bob.  Marketers Are From Mars: Consumers Are From New Jersey.  Finished 11/6/2015.

Terrific, bracing, laugh-out-loud reality check on the BS of marketing and advertising— recommended by Renny Gleeson and Brian Wieser

51. Riordan, Rick.  The Mark of Athena. (Heroes of Olympus: Book 3).  Finished 11/8/2015.  

Enjoyable installment. There are just so many characters that it is hard to engage emotionally with any of them, but it is action-packed and fun.  I can’t keep up with my son’s reading these days.  

52. Allison, John.  Bad Machinery: The Case of the Team Spirit.  Finished 11/15/15.  

Collected web comic of this British series.  Six kids in high middle or lower high school… kind of like the Trixie Belden gang, only British.  Recommended by Karen Hohndel.  Pretty good, although I’m not on fire to read another as I’m decades past the target audience.

53. Dunstall, S. K.   Linesman.  Finished 11/17/15.

First in a terrific new space opera series recommend by Karen Hohndel.  I inhaled it and look forward to the release of #2 in February.  Not a lot of science fiction deals with class engagingly, but this book does.  It reminds me slightly of Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy in that regard.

54. Carr, Nicholas.  The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us. Finished 11/25/15.  

An accidental companion to the Nourbakhsh book on robotics and to Levitin’s Organized Mind from earlier this year, Carr is an insightful critic of the advantages and disadvantages of our digital lives.  This is a nice followup to his earlier book The Shallows, and is required reading if you’re thinking through how connected experiences will change human life.

55. Hidalgo, César.  Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, from Atoms to Economies.  Finished 12/10/15.  

An eccentric take on how our tight information density is what makes Earth and its inhabitants different than the rest of the universe.  The book is truly interdisciplinary, mixing “information theory, physics, sociology, and economics.”  It sometimes made me think of the work of Jane Jacobs and also that of Steven Berin Johnson on environments. 

Hidalgo is acute about how the physicality of objects differs from narratives about objects, and I love his notion of balance of imagination as opposed to balance of trade.  On the other hand, when he starts talking about “personbytes” (how much information individuals possess) as an actual metric the argument spirals into nonsense.  I also consistently wondered why the book didn’t engage deeply with how digital technologies change information and human relationships to it, but I am in touch with how much that’s me projecting my own obsessions onto the book.

56. Card, Orson Scott.  Gatefather (Mithermages Book #3 of 3).  Finished 12/18/15.  

I’d read the first two (Lost Gate & Gate Thief) a year or so ago.  When I saw that this one had come out I realized that I couldn’t remember most of Gate Thief, so I reread #1 and #2 before jumping into #3.  It’s a solid, interesting fantasy series… although as with other pieces of Card’s work there’s an ongoing problem of characters getting powered up to godlike levels as the series continues.  Here, the ratcheting up of power levels across the dramatis personae means that the series gets decreasingly interesting by the end.  I’m also leery of Scott’s lily white, hetro-only world view.  

That’s the list for 2015.  A pile of books awaits me in 2016: I’m in the middle of Michael Polanyi’s classic The Tacit Dimension, so expect that in first or second position next year.  I’m also midway through Rachel Bach’s “Honor’s Knight,” the sequel to “Fortune’s Pawn” that I read late in 2014.

Thanks for making it this far!

[Cross-posted over on Medium.]

A glimmer of hope for CBS’ “Supergirl”

This TV season’s new “Supergirl” TV show confuses me.

Over on the CW, producer Greg Berlanti has nailed both “Arrow” and “Flash,” but where those shows feel fresh and exciting “Supergirl” is forced and whiney.

“Supergirl” oscillates between action and soap opera, rarely integrating the two. There’s too much talking among the characters but not nearly enough wit — the show is the anti-Buffy. Every character is earnest to such an extreme degree that I wonder what jokes get cracked in the writer’s room. Even Calista Flockhart’s media magnate Cat Grant can barely get a snicker out of her celebrity lifestyle.

But in the most-recent episode (#8, “Hostile Takeover”) I saw a glimmer of hope.

Warning: SPOILER ALERT!

Towards the end of this episode  —  which whiplashes between Supergirl fighting renegade Kryptonian villains led by her evil aunt Astra and trying to stop the ouster of her boss, Cat Grant, from her media company  —  Ms. Grant finally figures out that her long-suffering assistant Kara Danvers is also Supergirl, and proves it when she demands that Kara take off her glasses.

Thus, in one deft move “Supergirl” does away with 78 years of unbelievable super tradition that anybody with more than that many IQ points would be fooled by a pair of glasses.

Suddenly, Supergirl’s secret has been revealed to a media tycoon who must wrestle between her desire to help Supergirl and her desire to drive viewership to her network. Suddenly, Supergirl’s secret identity is more than merely at risk, it’s a leverage point against her all day, every day.

Now this conflict has potential. I just hope that Berlanti/CBS exploits it.

In fairness, the Super Family is hard to narrate. Even a relatively depowered version of Superman or Supergirl is so, well, super that it’s hard for merely mortal criminals to do anything that poses a challenge. That, I think, is why the show has aped the back story of “Man of Steel” where good Kryptonian goes mano a super-mano against many bad Kryptonians: it’s the only way to have a fair fight.

It’s also boring.

The structure of “Supergirl” combines Kara’s “why can’t I be a real girl?” soap opera against the alien of the week arriving in town from a defunct Kryptonian prison, complete with slightly upscaled Doctor Who makeup.

There’s no real challenge in any of the aliens, and no season long “big bad” (like Tom Cavanagh’s complicated and compelling Harrison Wells in the first season of “The Flash”) to absorb the audience’s attention, and that means that the interest has to come from the soap opera.

For those of you curious about this show, the pilot reruns tonight.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

On Meditation: a tweet drizzle in 11 brief parts

On meditation: a tweet drizzle (1) #mindful

OK, I get it. Morning mediation is important. It creates a shock absorber in my head for the day to come, gives me resources. (2) #mindful

The chattering monkeys and skittering spiders of my thoughts need taming, stilling, calming, tranquilizing (3) #mindful

Inner peace is probably beyond me, but a mind less like a New Delhi street with cars zipping any which way would be nice. (4) #mindful

But why does meditation have to be so damned BORING? My breathing just isn’t that interesting, nor are my aches and pains. (5) #mindful

Listening to music while meditating — even Gyoto Tantric chanting — seems like cheating somehow. (6) #mindful

I listen to the fridge whispering in the kitchen, the sound of my clothes rustling, house settling, birds outside waking. (7) #mindful

And then my mind skulks away from meditation into myriad chores, emails to write, what to make the kids for breakfast. (8) #mindful

Is this the project? A fight to dwell in a brief present amid a siege of thoughts? Does it get easier, effortless, soothing… (9) #mindful

Or is meditation always a struggle on the ground of the present moment between past reflection and future anticipation? (10) #mindful

End of tweet drizzle (so called because by definition something on meditation can hardly amount to a storm). (11) #mindful

Don’t Call Them “Consumers”

What you call people matters.  It tells them what you really think about them.

Here’s an example: years ago my friend Jules shared how her Mom would call for her Dad in a never-changing escalation of urgency and decline of affection: “Sweetheart!” she’d trill, followed by, “Honey?” and then ending with “Bill!!” 

The equation worked this way:

“Sweetheart!” = “Hello, loving husband, it is I, your loving wife, checking in this happy morning.”

“Honey?” = “Where has that man taken himself off to, and is he perhaps forgetting that I’ve asked him to accomplish something this morning?”

“Bill!” = “Move it old man— I’ve got shit to do!!”

In three words Jules’ Mom went from an affectionate to a functional relationship with her husband.  Fortunately, relationships are dynamic and tend to move in both directions.

This matters for marketers and their attendants (agencies, media) because when you talk about those folks who either already buy your stuff or may one day buy your stuff as “consumers” then you have reduced your relationship with these people to a functional one in which their only job is to consume your stuff so that you can make money, then make new stuff, and then sell that stuff to the consumers also.

If you are an old-style marketer who is using one-way pipes like TV and print to firehose impressions at a somewhat resigned population, then you’re probably OK doing this because you’re just talking and not pretending to listen… sort of like Jules’ Dad.  (This may sound like I disapprove of such messaging, but I don’t: it’s honest and practical and sometimes the ads are entertaining.)

However, if you’re a marketer using social media to create so-called “friends” or if you’re content-curious and trying your hand as a publisher, then the moment you use the word “consumer” then you’ve proven that you are a liar.

They aren’t your friends.  You don’t care what the people on the other end of the communication think or how they feel.  They are just consumers, and you’re saying, “shut up and eat.”

Now, for the most part people don’t want to have relationships with brands.  They don’t want to be friends with brands.  They don’t care about the brand behind the products they buy and use except insofar as those brands save them valuable cognitive effort when shopping (so they can go back to playing with their phones) or save them money at checkout.

But that still doesn’t make them consumers.  At zero moments do people welcome marketers efforts to paint them into a corner where they are consumers.

So, if you’re a marketer reading this, then join me in vowing not to call the people who pay your bills “consumers.”  It’s just rude.

BUT WHAT DO I CALL THEM? I hear your plaintive cry.  Much ink has been spilled on this question. 

Marketers don’t want to call people “customers” because they reserve that label for the folks who have already bought something (not that they treat customers any better than consumers.)  This is bullshit but at least it’s logically consistent.

My friend Joe Jaffe and I got into a spat many years ago when we disagreed about whether to call the online version of these folks “users” or not (I thought yes; Joe thought it made them sound like addicts… and this was before Facebook made us all into genuine addicts).  Another friend, Grant McCracken, once suggested calling these people “amplifiers,” but I think this is too hopeful a term as most folks decline to amplify.

When you’re talking about folks who do or might buy your product in a social media or content marketing context, then I suggest using “audience,” since even though they don’t have much of a voice at least we credit audiences with having brains, opinions and feet with which they can vote.

If a marketer is talking about people who are actively doing something, then I suggest “participants,” because that label recognizes their efforts— whether positive or negative.

And if you’re fire hosing messages, then I suggest you talk about the collection of drenched bodies as people— since that’s what we all are.

Just don’t call them consumers.

[Cross-posted with iMedia Connection.]

The FOMO Myth

In my last post I wrote about how Facebook’s business need to have more people doing more things on its platform more of the time is in tension with how human satisfaction works.

In today’s post, I’m going to dig a little deeper into the satisfaction math (for those of you with a “Math, ewww” reflex, it’s just fractions, man, chill) and then use that to argue that there’s really no such thing as FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out” for most people when it comes to social media.

Here again for your convenience is the whiteboard chart sketching out my sense of how the Facebook satisfaction index works:

chart

I’m less concerned with where the hump is on the horizontal axis (50 connections, 150, 200, 500) than with the shape and trajectory where as you have more and more connections your overall satisfaction with any single interaction moment on Facebook (or any other social networking service) approaches zero. 

Most people’s response to this is to jump onto an accelerating hamster wheel where you check in more and more often hoping for that dopamine rush of “she did THAT? cool!” but not getting it because the odds get worse and worse.

This is because most people, myself included, aren’t interesting most of the time. 

As a rule of thumb, let’s follow Theodore Sturgeon’s Law which argues that 90% of all human effort is crap, and you spend your whole life looking for that decent 10%.*

By this logic, your Facebook friends will post something interesting about 10% of the time— with some people you love this is a comedic exaggeration because a lot of the time we don’t love people because they are interesting: they are interesting because we love them.

Now let’s say you have 150 Facebook friends, which is both close to the average number of Facebook connections and also happens to be psychologist Robin Dunbar’s Number (how many people with whom you can reasonably have relationships).

Next, let’s say you glance at Facebook once per day and see only one thing that a connection has posted with attendant comments. (BTW, I just opened Facebook full screen on my desktop computer and, to my mild surprise, I only see one complete post.)

If we combo-platter Sturgeon’s law with Dunbar’s number then the odds aren’t great that you’ll find the post interesting: 10% of 1/150, or a 1/1,500 chance.

Wait, let’s be generous because we all find different things worthy of our attention at different moments (we are wide, we contain multitudes), and let’s say that in general you’ll find a post interesting for one several reasons:

The poster says or shares something genuinely interesting

You haven’t connected with the poster in a while

The poster says or shares something funny

You think the poster is hot so you’ll be interested in what she or he says regardless of content due to ulterior motives

You just connected with the poster on Facebook (or Twitter, et cetera) recently, so anything she or he says will be novel and therefore interesting

So that’s now a five-fold increase in the ways that we can find a single post interesting, but the odds still aren’t great: 5/1500 which reduces down to 1/300. 

That’s just one post: if you keep on scrolling and take in 30 posts, which you can do in a minute or so, then you’re at 30/300 or a one-in-ten chance that you’ll find something interesting.  (These still ain’t great odds, by the way: a 90% chance of failure.) 

At this point, cognitive dissonance comes into play and you change your metrics rather than convict yourself of wasting time, deciding to find something not-terribly-interesting kinda-sorta interesting after all.

Remember, though, that I’m deriving this satisfaction index from a base of 150 friends: as your number of connections increases — and remember that Facebook has to grow your number of connections to grow its business — to 1,500 (close to my number, social media slut that I am) then your odds of finding something interesting in 30 posts goes down to 1/100 or a 99% failure rate.

Multiply this across Twitter, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, Vine, Tumblr and every other social networking service and you have an fraction with an ever-expanding denominator and a numerator that can never catch up.

Or, to translate this into less-fractional lingo, even if you spent all day, every day on social media the days aren’t getting longer but your social network is getting larger, so the likelihood of your finding social media interactions to be satisfying inexorably decreases over time.**

This is different than FOMO.  Sure, pathological fear of missing out exists: people who check the mailbox seventeen times per day, who can never put their smart phones down for fear of missing an email, who pop up at the water cooler to listen to a conversation. 

But with social media it’s not FOMO, it’s DROP: Diminishing Returns On Platform.

Most importantly, there’s a conspiracy-theory-paranoiac interpretation of how people talk about FOMO when it comes to social media: if you attribute checking Facebook too much to FOMO, then it’s a problem with the user, not with Facebook.  The user needs to develop more discipline and stop checking Facebook. 

As I discussed in my last post, this pernicious argument is similar to how Coca-Cola — which needs to have the 50% of the population that drinks soda drink more soda to have business growth — dodges the question of whether it is partly responsible for the U.S. obesity epidemic by saying that people just need to exercise more.

Facebook could create better filters for its users with ease, making a Dunbar filter of 150 that the home display defaults to and letting users toss people into that filter, and remove them easily later.  This is what Path was trying to do, but there’s no business model in it for a startup like Path.  With Facebook’s dominance in social media, it could and should value user satisfaction more than it does.

Right now, though, the only ways to increase your satisfaction with Facebook are either to reduce your number of friends or to reduce your time on platform.

* The Third Millennial Berens Corollary to Sturgeon’s Law is that only 1/10 of 1% is truly excellent but that our signal to noise ratio makes it almost impossible to find excellence.

** This line of thinking is similar to the opportunity costs that Barry Schwartz discusses in his excellent 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice.”