Said and read – March 2020

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Image used courtesy of S. Donaghy

Humankind is deeply ill. The species won’t last long. It was an aberrant experiment. Soon the world will be returned to the healthy intelligences, the collective ones. Colonies and hives.The OverstoryRichard Powers

Were we ready when March began for the way the world has changed? How casually and spontaneously we jumped on airplanes and flew from place to place without even thinking about it. How every activity was about time and convenience, nothing to do with whether or not it would be life threatening to leave one’s house. Sure, when March began, we knew the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading – we saw the tragic consequences unfold in more distant parts of the world (depending on where in the world you are, of course). But even now self-isolation orders (and adherence) is piecemeal, fragmented and inconsistently applied and enforced. Until we feel the pain or fear of personal loss, we don’t seem to care very much. We see the death toll rise, but unless it’s touched you, we express a collective, “Oh that’s too bad” kind of semi-indifference. When does that change? It may be an ideal time to reassess who we are in the world and who we want to be.

I want this not only for artists and writers, but for any person who perceives life to be more than an instrument and therefore something that cannot be optimized. A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.” –How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

We haven’t seen the extent of the way the world will change. We just don’t know if it gets better or worse from here. And while I go on in my own long-term self-isolation (this is my normal lifestyle), I continue reading. I wish I had the language to discuss reading and books more interactively, but I don’t. I find that many people tell me they “love” reading, only to discover that they are talking about audiobooks (ugh) or scifi/fantasy novels, and then I just don’t have common ground any more. I want people to read; I want to read. I want to share this passion, but then I find I reach a certain point where it becomes private and insular, and no one can reach me on the ground I tread.

Past editions: 2020 – February, January. 2019 – December, November, October, September, May, April, March, February, January. 2018 – NovemberOctober, SeptemberAugust, July, June, May, April, March, February and January.

Thoughts on reading for March:

Highly recommended

It only takes a single night of frost to kill off a generation. To live, then, is a matter of time, of timing.” –On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

*On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousOcean Vuong

It’s a narrative work from poet, Ocean Vuong, and you can tell it’s written by a poet. The language is evocative, emotionally resonant and beautiful.

You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.

*How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention EconomyJenny Odell

Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.

I am not sure that there could have been a better book for this moment in time of “manifest dismantling” than Odell’s How to Do Nothing. While many of us are forced to abandon what we think of as valuable productivity, and face who we are day to day without the trappings of what we think of as “normal life”, we are reflected back at ourselves. Since the various lockdown levels have rolled out globally, friends and colleagues have begun to exhibit signs of minor meltdown, insisting after two days at home, “I’m bored.”

Even with the technologies we insist we rely on at their disposal, which have been so immersive and all-consuming to the detriment of human connection, isolation is unbearable. When these people did have the opportunity to commune face to face with other humans in public spaces, they didn’t – they communed with phones and devices, which now – only now – aren’t enough for them. Who would have thought? And now they demand entertainment. Probably this is more a function of being human – needing connection and validation – than of just being unimaginative and boring (as grandma said, only boring people get bored), yet it’s still perplexing – and mesmerizing. What should you be doing? And if not now, when should you think more deeply on this subject?

“The point of doing nothing, as I define it, isn’t to return to work refreshed and ready to be more productive, but rather to question what we currently perceive as productive.

I will never run out of things to do. Why are these people so bored? Is the need to socialize and be productive in a collective way so compelling – compulsive?

If you become interested in the health of the place where you are, whether that’s cultural or biological or both, I have a warning: you will see more destruction than progress.

What has marked all of my memorable reading this month is how accidentally it has fallen into thematic alignment with the pitting of the momentary against the longevity of the durable and persistent … and what these things mean, and whether those definitions can and do change. That is, in Odell, Powers, and Sinclair we see long-term ecology and culture stretch out over unseen time, beyond this frenzied economic cycle, beyond our envisioned or predicted lifespan, beyond the life of a single tree from one geologic epoch to another…

“Our idea of progress is so bound up with the idea of putting something new in the world that it can feel counterintuitive to equate progress with destruction, removal, and remediation. But this seeming contradiction actually points to a deeper contradiction: of destruction (e.g., of ecosystems) framed as construction (e.g., of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress, production, and innovation relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like so many weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if we sincerely recognize all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”

Good – or better than expected

*UnaccompaniedJavier Zamora

Powerful poetry from Salvadoran poet, Javier Zamora.

*The OverstoryRichard Powers

I have no way to describe why I liked this. It just had some beautiful, evocative passages about trees, nature… and chestnuts. Just after I’d discussed chestnuts with someone, stating that I was not sure I’d ever tasted them, I started reading and immediately was struck by the mildly erotic (?) description of the flavor of a chestnut.

“The charred nuts are comforting beyond words: sweet and savory, rich as a honeyed potato, earthy and mysterious all at once. The burred husks prickle, but their No is more of a tease than any real barrier. The nuts want to slip free of their spiny protection. Each one volunteers to be eaten, so others might be spread far afield.”

The “overstory” essentially is like the often lengthy life of a tree. Life’s decisions are not one-dimensional, one-generational, their consequences not immediately felt. They appear later, throughout time, like the rings of a tree.

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*Lifespan: Why We Age – And Why We Don’t Have ToDavid A. Sinclair

There’s also a difference between extending life and prolonging vitality. We’re capable of both, but simply keeping people alive—decades after their lives have become defined by pain, disease, frailty, and immobility—is no virtue.

When confronted by propositions about living forever, aging and the disease of aging, scores of questions follow. How do we value life, relationships, commitments if we remove mortality from the equation? Would we reevaluate “old age” if being elderly didn’t inevitably mean infirmity? Would we really want to live forever – or even for hundreds of years? What do things mean when they are no longer finite?

If the epigenome had evolved to be digital rather than analog, the valley walls would be the equivalent of 100 miles high and vertical, and gravity would be superstrong, so the marbles could never jump over into a new valley. Cells would never lose their identity. If we were built this way, we could be healthy for thousands of years, perhaps longer. But we are not built this way. Evolution shapes both genomes and epigenomes only enough to ensure sufficient survival to ensure replacement—and perhaps, if we are lucky, just a little bit more—but not immortality.

I read this book in large part because my brother talks obsessively about aging (and why we don’t have to age the way we think of aging now). For now, Sinclair’s impressive book, ostensibly about aging and how we can prevent it, is full of different strategies and avenues medicine, science and research are taking to tackle the problem of aging. It aims to challenge the shared narrative of aging as we know it as a natural phenomenon, and instead of redefine it (i.e., infirm aging) as a disease.

Yet, this book has struck me more for its focus on the ubiquity, totality, danger and promise of data… Sinclair argues that we give away copious amounts of personal data as a form of currency every single day, but we are reticent to do so when it is medical in nature, even if this data might be the most vital we could offer in ‘rejuvenating’ humanity.

Perhaps there are people out there who’d be happy to drive without any dashboard at all, relying solely on their intuition and experience to tell them how fast they are going, when their car needs fuel or recharging, and what to fix when something goes wrong. The vast majority of us, however, would never drive a car that wasn’t giving us at least some quantitative feedback, and, through our purchasing decisions, we have made it clear to car companies that we want more and more intelligent cars.

Surprisingly, we’ve never demanded the same for our own bodies. Indeed, we know more about the health of our cars than we know about our own health. That’s farcical. And it’s about to change.

Thanks to wearables, we already have the technology in place to monitor the body temperature, pulse, and other biometric reactions of more than a hundred million people in real time. The only things separating us from doing so are a recognized need and a cultural response.

Most of us aren’t “the world’s most connected man” (side note: I had read about this dude, Chris Dancy, online a few times and then a few years later was seated next to him on a plane), but we’re connected enough that any illusion of privacy we cling to is… a fantasy. Why do we not embrace it?

Indeed, most relevant at the moment is Sinclair’s writing (from 2019) on a future pandemic that is poised to wipe out huge swathes of the global population and how data might help. It’s timely right now, but clearly, the pandemic is already here.

Coincidences

Apart from more than three different books I recently read citing the film Gattaca, I didn’t stumble on any great coincidences in March.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*Girl, Woman, OtherBernardine Evaristo

This was by no means a bad book; I simply had my expectations built up, so anything would have been disappointing. What I can say about it is… it is dynamic, told from multiple points of view – and that’s a hit or miss proposition for me.

Up in smoke: Lessons from Tinder

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I am not in the market for a relationship or a hookup or anything else. I’ve been burned, twisted, chilled and disturbed by the grind and the hell of relationships – or rather by the ruptured “trust” experienced with the people in my life, particularly in the last few years, and feel more than ever that the only important relationship is the one I have with myself. I realized as this year winds to its close that I have actually neglected the real relationship with myself and have focused on all the wrong things, distracting things, because I did not want to face various things. And it’s time for that to stop.

That said, comfortably ensconced in this insular, individual cocoon, I had become curious about different dating platforms after reading a lot of articles about the on-demand nature of dating apps like Tinder and sites like OkCupid, so I decided to do a limited-run test of some of my suppositions.

Nothing scientific or controlled about my trial. I have no controls for geography or generation (I’m old, and assume most people who match with me are also older or have ulterior motives – but that’s my hangup, which is also something I cannot account for in this uncontrolled trial) … really for anything. I only wanted to test whether Tinder especially was an instant hookup tool. As in, someone messages you and immediately tries to hook up and/or gives you very little information about him/herself. From everything I had read, and this may only apply to the target youth/millennial demographic, it is like an online smorgasbord of impersonal and reactive potential hookups that shift quickly into meeting and hooking up and then… who knows? (I have read other articles that indicate that it is not being used only or primarily for semi-anonymous hookups… but I guess it does not matter where reality is.) My curiosity drove me to check it out for myself.

A few weeks ago, then, I set up a profile, had a few very brief exchanges with people in the UK, Sweden, Norway and a few others in Europe. Most led nowhere, but also did not lead to any kind of lurid discussion or casual suggestions. I got a lot of info about people’s ugly divorces, concert-going plans, music tastes, career aspirations and business, people’s children and just normal person stuff. I have gotten to know one person outside of the app, which has been really surprising and cool, but unexpected and probably anomalous. I met no one in reality/in-person and had no desire to do so, other than the one, anomalous case (and deleted the profile recently when I went to the US and started getting all these “super like” notifications out of nowhere once my geography had changed).

The funny thing is, though, that I was hanging around with my brother, and he explained “how men use Tinder” and promptly swiped “right” on every single girl that popped up and explained the odds game and how he can always disconnect with someone if he does not like them after they’ve matched with him. So yeah in that sense, which I naively had not even considered, it can be a cynical numbers game. I found that I was the opposite. I swiped “left” on almost every single person I saw (again, this might be motivated by the fact that I had no desire to meet anyone). To me, the “accept everyone and go from there” approach seems ludicrous (especially since I am a wee bit of an antisocial hermit and workaholic who doesn’t have the time for this kind of time-wasting nonsense), but I can see how it could work in at least someone’s favor.

My curiosity is satisfied, even if I did not learn anything valuable. “Love is a bourgeois construct.”

Underdog’s key to marketing success

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Reading an older article on Subaru’s marketing strategies, I see exactly the keys that underdogs competing in a much bigger, competitive market need to seize on for success.

  • Focus – do the few things you do better than anyone and make sure you know it, show it and can prove it
  • Make the most of limited resources – memorable marketing that taps into what your customers want
  • (Most importantly!) KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS! – take advantage of that data, the loyalty factor and continue to add depth

“What Subaru has done is to make itself into the first automaker that could be described as “artisanal” — focused, individualistic, and really good at a very few things. With only limited resources, Subaru has made smart bets on features like all-wheel drive, developed memorable marketing and advertising that set it apart from the competition, and learned more about its customers than any other automaker. In appealing to them by geography, lifestyle, and, at times, sexual orientation, it has built the deepest loyalty in the car business. The company understands itself so well that for years its advertising tag line was the self-referential “It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.””

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)