Said and read – February 2020

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Image courtesy of S Donaghy, 2020

“The anxiety and insecurity engendered by the danger of losing what one has are absent in the being mode. If I am who I am and not what I have, nobody can deprive me of or threaten my security and my sense of identity. My center is within myself; my capacity for being and for expressing my essential powers is part of my character structure and depends on me. This holds true for the normal process of living, not, of course, for such circumstances as incapacitating illness, torture, or other cases of powerful external restrictions.”To Have or To Be?Erich Fromm

The mildest winter I’ve experienced in Sweden is nearly behind us. As usual, February was dark in every way that dark exists. Reading is the antidote to this, and everything else.

As far as book reports go, here’s what you missed in previous months and years: 2020 – 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 February:

Highly recommended

“I can get through. I was right, but only just. You’d be surprised how quickly the mind goes soggy in the absence of other people. One person alone is not a full person: we exist in relation to others. I was one person: I risked becoming no person” –The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

*The TestamentsMargaret Atwood

I approached this book with some uncertainty. I find Atwood to be a hit-or-miss thing for me, and having overdosed on the excessive torture porn nature of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I didn’t know if I could stomach more of it here. But then, it’s better to see what the original writer of these tales would share. I was pushed in the direction of “read” rather than “not-read” because I spoke with a guy who’d praised it; he seemed exceptionally intelligent and thoughtful despite clinging religiously to Oxford commas (which is his right) but insisting on his lack of respect for anyone who did not share this adherence.

As an aside, I’ve become a relaxed pseudo-sociolinguist in relation to how language is used for communication purposes. I used to be a rigid grammarian as well, but I’ve lived long enough, in enough places, to see that rigidity in everyday life serves no one. Sure, this flexible, fluid approach didn’t win me any points with that particular dude, but I don’t really care. I explained to him that I apply the style guide required (thus, am accepting of the Oxford comma when called for), as dictated by the project I’m working on, or company I’m working for. He didn’t seem to find this acceptable.

Back to the point: The Testaments was better than I expected, shifting points of view throughout, and illustrating deftly how there are occasions when very different ideologies at times overlap to achieve a shared goal (albeit for very different reasons).

““But why did she do it?” I asked. “Did she want to die?” “No one wants to die,” said Becka. “But some people don’t want to live in any of the ways that are allowed.””

*To Have or To Be? The Nature of the Psyche Erich Fromm

We can all recognize the existence of two modes of being – having and being. We may, however, be blinded – particularly by the greed/have-oriented society we live in – to the fact that we don’t even know what it is to be in the “being mode”.

BECAUSE THE SOCIETY WE live in is devoted to acquiring property and making a profit, we rarely see any evidence of the being mode of existence and most people see the having mode as the most natural mode of existence, even the only acceptable way of life. All of which makes it especially difficult for people to comprehend the nature of the being mode, and even to understand that having is only one possible orientation. Nevertheless, these two concepts are rooted in human experience. Neither one should be, or can be, examined in an abstract, purely cerebral way; both are reflected in our daily life and must be dealt with concretely. The following simple examples of how having and being are demonstrated in everyday life may help readers to understand these two alternative modes of existence.

A valuable book to read to understand the “proprietary” approach we take to living, and how we might disentangle ourselves from the ownership model into which we have been indoctrinated.

“MOST OF US KNOW more about the mode of having than we do about the mode of being, because having is by far the more frequently experienced mode in our culture. But something more important than that makes defining the mode of being so much more difficult than defining the mode of having, namely the very nature of the difference between these two modes of existence.”

*White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About RacismRobin DiAngelo

In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy’s power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.

This is a powerful book, and one I must recommend (along with most of the works DiAngelo quotes throughout this book and lists in the resources section at the end of the book).

You’ve just got to read it for yourself. “You’ve” here refers mostly to white people, even if everyone can benefit in one way or another. Yet no one but white people needs to confront the reality of the social, political, historical constructs that make up racism and privilege white over anyone else.

White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism. Challenging this cocoon throws off our racial balance. Because being racially off balance is so rare, we have not had to build the capacity to sustain the discomfort. Thus, whites find these challenges unbearable and want them to stop.

Racism, as DiAngelo argues, is an endemic system – not just a mindset or an act. Like it or not, we are all part of a racist system, and until we can understand, acknowledge and act on that, we are not seeing things as they are or challenging the “racial status quo”, as DiAngelo frames it.

Instead I ask, “How does this claim function in the conversation?” If we apply this question to these two sets of narratives, one color-blind and the other color-celebrate, we see that all of these claims ultimately function in a similar way; they all exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem. They take race off the table, and they close (rather than open) any further exploration. In so doing, they protect the racial status quo.

*The Nickel BoysColson Whitehead

This book broke my heart. Less because it’s so tragic, which it is, but more because of how real it is. I find injustice more difficult and painful to bear all the time, and get angrier and angrier because I don’t know what to do about it. And books like this bring it home.

*The White Album Joan Didion

“We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”

Each time I read Didion, I think I will find it tired and not to my liking, and I am surprised every time by how engaging it is. You’d think I’d learn, but can we easily unlearn preconceived and ill-informed ideas? At least I attempt again and again to act against these preconceived thoughts.

“We were that generation called “silent,” but we were silent neither, as some thought, because we shared the period’s official optimism nor, as others thought, because we feared its official repression. We were silent because the exhilaration of social action seemed to many of us just one more way of escaping the personal, of masking for a while that dread of the meaningless which was man’s fate.”

Whether making general but pointed statements about how we live and think, or very geographically specific observations that challenge false logic, Didion always comes across as effortless.

“…suffering severe drought, many people in water-rich parts of the country seemed obscurely gratified, and made frequent reference to Californians having to brick up their swimming pools. In fact a swimming pool requires, once it has been filled and the filter has begun its process of cleaning and recirculating the water, virtually no water, but the symbolic content of swimming pools has always been interesting: a pool is misapprehended as a trapping of affluence, real or pretended, and of a kind of hedonistic attention to the body. Actually a pool is, for many of us in the West, a symbol not of affluence but of order, of control over the uncontrollable. A pool is water, made available and useful, and is, as such, infinitely soothing to the western eye.”

*The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better LifeAnu Partanen

Re: America: “In this country you are at the mercy of your employer. You really don’t have any rights. Because of that you live in a constant state of worry.”

Please bear with me (keep scrolling if you must)… I am including a large number of direct quotes from this book because it’s that important.

This book chronicles so clearly and in such detail the things I saw and always felt were missing from American life, and, despite not knowing any better (since I grew up there), knew didn’t have to be. The true and surprising ease and freedom of Nordic life, which has given me such comfort, still at times feels insecure to me only because I am coming from this ingrained insecurity and can’t trust that anything can be this … stable and free.

“Yet the longer I lived in America as a Nordic immigrant, something became clear to me. Regardless of whether Finland was the “best” country in the world or not, most people in the United States, as well as many of my Nordic countrymen back home, did not fully realize that to leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time. As a Nordic immigrant to the United States, I noticed something else, too. Americans, and many others around the world, did not seem fully aware of how much better things could be.”

Instability is the name of the game in American life, and I so much wish I could impart to Americans that the definitions they have been force-fed about their lives and non-American lives are so politicized that they are incorrect. People are sold a bill of goods that insists that they are free, but how free are you when everything is so complicated, opaque, decoupled, and you are tied to your job, your insurance, your insanely high loans, and processes that Nordic people are free from (it took me a long time to realize that actually I don’t have to go to a bunch of different offices to license my car or fill out a million unintelligible forms to file taxes, etc.)?

“The unknowable “new price,” of course, would be much, much higher. It was all part of a way of doing things in the United States that, as I would gradually realize, forced you to be constantly on guard, constantly worried that whatever amount of money you had or earned would never be enough, and constantly anxious about navigating the complex and mysterious fine print thrown at you from every direction by corporations that had somehow managed to evade even the bare minimum of sensible protections for consumers. Things didn’t improve when it came time to file my first tax return for Uncle Sam. I tried to research my tax situation on the Internal Revenue Service Web site, and was soon tearing my hair trying to comprehend the pages and pages of fine print and the endless exceptions and loopholes. In Finland filing my taxes had always been quick and simple. But here in America, buried under IRS instruction booklets and terrified I might make some crucial and costly mistake, I gave up and hired an accountant, something I’d never had to do back home.”

“The longer I lived in America, therefore, and the more places I visited and the more people I met—and the more American I myself became—the more puzzled I grew. For it was exactly those key benefits of modernity—freedom, personal independence, and opportunity—that seemed, from my outsider’s perspective, in a thousand small ways to be surprisingly missing from American life today.”

“Gradually it dawned on me how much people in America depended on their employers for all sorts of things that were unimaginable to me: medical care, health savings accounts, and pension contributions, to name the most obvious. The result was that employers ended up having far more power in the relationship than the employee. In America jeopardizing your relationship with your employer carried personal risks that extend far beyond the workplace, to a degree unthinkable where I came from.”

“By now I was used to hearing the Nordic countries dismissed as “socialist nanny states.” But ironically it was here in America that businesses trying to manufacture products and make a buck had somehow gotten saddled with the nanny’s job of taking care of their employees’ health. Surely, I thought, Milton Friedman, the great free-market economist, must be turning in his grave! From a Nordic perspective, it seemed ludicrous to burden for-profit companies with the responsibility of providing employees with such a fundamental, complicated, and expensive social service. People in the United States were aware of this contradiction, of course, and in discussions of the American business landscape, experts often pointed to the burdens that health-care obligations placed on companies, especially on small businesses. But no one seemed to be talking about the other side of the coin: the unhealthy dependence on employers that this creates among employees receiving, or hoping to receive, these benefits. It was an old-fashioned and oppressive sort of dependence, it seemed to me, completely at odds with the modern era of individual liberty and opportunity. I could see the consequences in the lives of everyone I knew.”

“All the advantages I gave up when I left Finland and moved to America—universal public health care, universal affordable day care, real maternity benefits, high-quality free education, taxpayer-funded residences for the elderly, even the separate taxation of spouses—were not gifts from the government to make me a servile dependent on the state’s largesse. Rather the Nordic system is intentionally designed to take into account the specific challenges of modern life and give citizens as much logistical and financial independence as possible. This is actually the opposite of a community-centered system, or socialism, or whatever you want to call it. This is also why the supposed social solidarity of people in the Nordic nations is not really as noble an undertaking as it is often made out to be.”

“However, what really motivates Swedes and other Nordic citizens to support their system isn’t altruism—no one is that selfless—but self-interest. Nordic societies provide their citizens—all their citizens, and especially the middle class—with maximum autonomy from old-fashioned, traditional ties of dependency, which among other things ends up saving people a lot of money and heartache along with securing personal freedom. According to Trägårdh and Berggren, Nordic countries are, in fact, the most individualized societies on the face of the earth.”

And of course the endless argument I hear is that our taxes are SO HIGH. Guess what? They aren’t that high.

“So what income tax rates are people actually paying in different Nordic countries? The OECD has compared average tax rates for a single individual without children in thirty-four developed countries, including federal and local income taxes, along with an employee’s social security contributions. In 2014 Denmark had the third-highest average tax rate at 38.4 percent, but this was still lower than in Belgium and Germany. Finland came in ninth, at 30.7 percent, and—here’s a shocker—Sweden fell under the OECD average with a rate of 24.4 percent—less than the United States, which came in at 24.8 percent. It may seem hard to believe, considering how much more Nordic citizens get in exchange for their taxes, but average Finns pay income taxes and employee contributions at a rate only about 6 percentage points higher than the rate paid by average Americans, while average Swedes pay less than average Americans.”

And good timing for election season, as we listen to entitled billionaires insist that they alone understand economics and business because they built their empires through their own hard work…

“The reason for setting up such requirements is simple, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren put it eloquently: “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there, good for you. But, I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory and hire someone to protect against this because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.””

And … just generally, people in the Nordics can make their choices without worrying, which is key given how anxiety levels have shot through the roof everywhere.

“When I look at my Nordic friends now, they seem so free to me. They work and have children, they engage in hobbies, they travel the world, and they never seem to worry about really going broke. They have health care, day care, and pensions. They can study whatever they want, and they don’t have to risk their financial future to do so.”

This is so true. I have watched all my friends have families, make the choices that suit them best in rearing their children, not lose ground in their career paths or earning potential, and so on. My friend can stay home and take care of her kids because she wants to – but she could equally go back to work and negotiate for a flexible part-time schedule and be welcomed. The system is set up to support people in this – and many other – way(s)… and I can’t imagine a better way/place to be.

Good – or better than expected

*Our Man in HavanaGraham Greene

“‘You should dream more, Mr Wormold. Reality in our century is not something to be faced.’”

A darkly comic and satirical tale of a vacuum-cleaner salesman, Wormold, who rather accidentally stumbles into becoming a secret agent.

‘We’re not shocked by that any longer.’ ‘It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.’

Exposing the incompetence and farcical nature of bureaucracy and how easily people and institutions see only what they want to see, holding a mirror up to where we are today, e.g. what is shocking erodes constantly so that previously unthinkable acts of corruption are ho-hum, who cares, regular blips on a radar screen full of malfeasance.

“‘I told them even if I’d known I wouldn’t have stopped you. I said you were working for something important, not for someone’s notion of a global war that may never happen. That fool dressed up as a Colonel said something about “your country”. I said, “What do you mean by his country? A flag someone invented two hundred years ago? The Bench of Bishops arguing about divorce and the House of Commons shouting Ya at each other across the floor? Or do you mean the T.U.C. and British Railways and the Co-op? You probably think it’s your regiment if you ever stop to think, but we haven’t got a regiment—he and I.” They tried to interrupt and I said, “Oh, I forgot. There’s something greater than one’s country, isn’t there? You taught us that with your League of Nations and your Atlantic Pact, NATO and UNO and SEATO. But they don’t mean any more to most of us than all the other letters, U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. And we don’t believe you any more when you say you want peace and justice and freedom. What kind of freedom? You want your careers.””

*CleannessGarth Greenwell

It was difficult to resist the beauty of the prose in this brief book. It was at times brutal, at times tender – and always human and difficult to read, difficult to pull away from.

“Of course it wasn’t his fault, I would say, of course he was blameless, entirely blameless; there wasn’t any invitation he could have given, even if he had wanted it there wasn’t any permission he could give. But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

*The Memory PoliceYoko Ogawa

No matter how careful we are, we all leave behind little bits of ourselves as we go about our lives. Hair, sweat, fingernails, tears…any of which can be tested. No one can escape.”

In an island society where everything eventually disappears – from roses to one’s own limbs – what has value? What role can memory, or nostalgia, play when one’s own memory is slowly wiped away and forgetting is enforced? Can one even trust memory at that point, or does everything just slip away?

While I am not sure entirely what to make of this book – it bears the hallmarks of many contemporary Japanese novels – more stylistic than plot driven, very atmospheric without much action – I found it nevertheless enjoyable and worthy of thought.

“Would you really like to remember all the things you’ve lost?” R asked. I told him the truth. “I don’t know. Because I don’t even know what it is I should be remembering. What’s gone is gone completely. I have no seeds inside me, waiting to sprout again. I have to make do with a hollow heart full of holes. That’s why I’m jealous of your heart, one that offers some resistance, that is tantalizingly transparent and yet not, that seems to change as the light shines on it at different angles.”

Entertaining/informative/thoughtful or some combination thereof

*The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest PredatorTimothy C. Winegard

“’We are not makers of history,’ conceded the esteemed Dr Martin Luther King Jr. ‘We are made by history.’ The mosquito prods our human journey along its uncharted course and stimulates our swing through time in mysterious, if not macabre, ways. She connects historical, at times seemingly unrelated, events separated by distance, epochs, and space. Hers is a long and warped reach.”

You wouldn’t imagine that a lengthy book about mosquitoes would be such a feat of gripping storytelling, but it is. It’s well-written and engaging, and paints the mosquito as a resilient and villainous adversary. It is no exaggeration when the author references something (DDT possibly) as the mighty mosquito’s Kryponite; nothing stops the mosquito, and DDT was only a temporary setback in its onslaught.

The book weaves together various moments and major turns in history that may well have been altered significantly by the humble but disease-ridden mosquito. Almost silent but deadly.

*Nobody’s Victim: Fighting Psychos, Stalkers, Pervs, and TrollsCarrie Goldberg

“Let’s be clear: Coercing someone into sending an intimate picture and then distributing that image without consent isn’t “sexting.” It’s a violation and a crime. And the first step to protecting young people from this kind of abuse is to teach about consent. I’m talking about no-holds-barred conversations with real-world examples of what pressure and coercion look like. As in, Yes, asking a girl over and over again to send you a nude is PRESSURE. And, Someone threatening to dump you if you don’t send a pic is COERCION. And, Sharing someone else’s naked pics with all your friends without their consent in many states is a fucking CRIME. Teaching sex ed to the digital generation is not only the responsibility of parents. Safe sexting should be taught in middle school, when most kids get their first phone (and also hit puberty). It should be woven into the plots of teen movies and disguised as listicles on BuzzFeed (“Ten Reasons to Not Send Your Friends That Nude Pic of Your Ex!”). This is an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

I did not enjoy this book. It would be impossible to enjoy it. It’s a really fucking scary account of the things people have gone through at the hands of stalkers, psychos, etc. – in particular in the wild west of the digital age, where laws haven’t understood or kept up with the new, pervasive and unforeseen threats and the far-reaching damage that can be done. People seem to understand less about the idea of consent and what they need to have consent for as technology makes spying, stealing, sharing easier than ever. Is there any such thing as privacy any more?

This leads pretty directly to the idea of better education – sex education, consent education, and even legal education (both for the layperson and for the legal field). And leads to the next book I read about building empathy despite the proliferation of technology (see below). As we become less connected with our fellow humans, and objectify them, how can we prevent the kinds of horrors that Goldberg describes in this book?

Coincidences

*The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed WorldKaitlin Ugolik Phillips

What has actually happened for many of us is that robots have seeped into our lives and our relationships somewhat without our notice. AI is part of the fabric of so many of the tools and services we use every day. How many people think critically about their relationship with Alexa and whether it’s healthy from an emotional or philosophical perspective? Does my skepticism of her, and my tendency to call her “her,” mean I am failing to ‘apprehend the world accurately’?”

The older I get, the more I think about the past and the barely remembered people who populate it. I have clear memories of so many colleagues, for example, who seemed very important at the time when I had to spent eight hours a day with them, but over time, some of the details have grown hazy. Don’t get me wrong – I remember an insane amount of detail about people with whom I was never close, but then big pieces are missing (if they were ever stuck in my brain to begin with). Not long ago I was thinking of a driven, confident, possibly even forceful, but gregarious woman I worked with 25 years ago, but I could only remember her first name and a ridiculous level of detail about parts of her life. But I couldn’t remember her surname for the life of me.

Imagine my surprise then when I selected a book to read at random, got about a quarter of the way into it, and came across a familiar name. I thought to myself, “Do I know this person?” And it was in fact the woman I’d worked with 25 years ago with whom I have had no connection at all. I had no reason to imagine that this book, its subject matter, would have had any connection to this woman from the past. She was, back then, completely focused on her vocal studies (she was a singer). But there she was, Celeste Headlee, cited as a “conversation expert”.

I am constantly stunned by how small the world is, how our paths sort of cross again and again. In this particular book, the author approaches Headlee with questions on how we might build conversations and connections in a tech-obsessed age. Headlee points out that tech is “a tool like any other” and is not the problem. I’d tend to agree. Tech can work for or against us; in this case, tech has actually helped me connect the dots about this long-ago acquaintance to confirm that yes, in fact, it was her I was reading about.

A secondary, but no less relevant, sort of coincidence related to this book was yet another mention of Stanley Milgram and his experiments in obedience to authority. This book referred to studies in human-robot interaction.

“Human-robot-interaction researchers have even replicated the historic Milgram experiment, in which Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram claimed to show how far people will go to obey authority by asking participants to apply shocks to a screaming person in another room. (Milgram’s results—in which 40 percent of participants stopped before reaching maximum voltage—were recently shown to have been manipulated.) In 2006 and 2008, Christoph Bartneck, of the Human Interface Technology Lab in New Zealand, and his colleagues found that all twenty of their research subjects were willing to apply the highest voltage to a robot with facial expressions that could move and talk. On the other hand, while all participants in a later study involving Microbug robots (little crawling toys) complied with instructions to destroy the bots with a hammer, they felt bad about it. Some said they didn’t enjoy “killing” the “poor robot” because it was “innocent.””

“a study by Peter Kahn of the University of Washington in 2012 brought it all home for me: 98 percent of children who participated were against putting a person in a closet, and 100 percent said it was OK to put a broom there—but only 54 percent were OK with putting a robot called Robovie in the closet. They knew the robot wasn’t a person, but they still felt bad treating it inhumanely.

Biggest disappointment (or disliked)

*I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59Douglas Edwards

After reading the Marissa Orr book (Lean Out) I really was not ready for another Silicon Valley tell-all. And this one was horrible. Orr’s book, at least, at some keen insights. This one just seemed like some dude who got bored and wanted to tell us how he ended up at Google in its infancy, and it reads like someone who actually never quite fit in no matter what he did. Sure, it’s interesting to see how precarious the early days at Google felt, but I don’t think this comes as a great surprise to anyone. They got lucky, and they had the smarts or good fortune to have hired a few people who kept things on track and could see more clearly than others. However, the book chronicled organizational and political growing pains that almost all companies endure, which made this less than remarkable.

In some cases some of what this dude wrote seemed contradictory. In one case, it is possible that the writer’s earlier complaints about not fitting in, not understanding what was expected of him, and not understanding the thinking of Google’s founders eventually passed, and his understanding began to fall into place, but the following passage seemed to contradict so much of what he wrote up until this point:

“Larry’s product-review meetings created a central information nexus. I could sit on the black couch, plug directly into Larry’s head, and get root-level access to all that I needed to know. Nothing helped me do my job better than downloading directly from Google’s wellspring of strategic direction. Cool draughts of clear vision washed away ambiguity about user interfaces, product features, and competitive positioning. I basked in my unobstructed view of the deliberations driving our company’s creation, blissfully unaware that I would soon be banished from this information Eden and forced to forage for the info bits that I had come to rely upon to do my job.”

Later he did something similar when he wrote about his anger that the company was not going to follow his advice about sticking with the CRM they were already using by bringing in some acquaintances with an untested CRM instead. The founders argued that by bringing them in, getting them to build to Google’s specifications, they would get exactly what they wanted without having to pay for some fraction of what they wanted, and eventually they acquired the company for peanuts. He eventually decided that the founders were wise and that this worked beautifully for them. But nearer to the end of the book he writes:

“One business-development person warned me that Microsoft’s MO as a company was to get close to startups, suck them dry, and then throw them away. Microsoft was methodical about it, giving generous terms to keep the startups alive, but essentially turning them into captive research-and-development centers. Microsoft would become the startups’ biggest customer and thereby drive the direction of their development, perhaps offering to provide informal technical help, which necessitated a look at the startups’ proprietary code.”

How is this any different, really, from what they did with the CRM startup?

I do not feel lucky for having made the misguided choice to read this book.

*Click: The Magic of Instant ConnectionsOri Brafman, Rom Brafman

I did not particularly care for this book – I don’t care much in general for popular psychology, and even though this was interesting enough, it didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know.

*Dead AstronautsJeff VanderMeer

Hated it. Like someone else said – this felt like a word salad that wasn’t meant to just be read.

*The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern ConflictWilliam T. Cavanaugh

I had to read this for my studies, so it’s not like I expected a lot from this book. Still it looked more interesting than it turned out to be. Most of all, I found its key point valid but then the author repeated it so frequently, presumably to make the argument through various lenses, that it lost its resonance.

“‘I argue that there is no transhistorical and transcultural essence of religion and that essentialist attempts to separate religious violence from secular violence are incoherent. What counts as religious or secular in any given context is a function of different configurations of power.

That’s the disappointment here, but I didn’t hate the book. I found the argument valuable and salient – nationalism and the opportunity to wage war or die for nationalist causes, for example, is somehow seen as acceptable while violence perpetrated in the name of religion is defined as “other”, when they do in fact seem like the same thing.

“How can I move to Canada?”: Innocent question, unintended consequences

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It’s been all over the news – the question (or some variation of it): “How can I move to Canada?”  was one of the most searched Google queries during the US primaries’ Super Tuesday events.  At one point, a Google data editor posted to Twitter that this search query had spiked 350%, which eventually hit a 1,500% spike.

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And who could possibly have predicted that this innocent question, borne of the fear, frustration and panic brought on by the possibility of a Donald Trump (or a Ted Cruz!) presidency, would lead to the Canadian government immigration website being overpowered by traffic spikes? I think a lot about these kinds of unintended and unforeseen consequences – fascinating for sociological as much as technical reasons. I have been a frequent visitor to the site myself as a maniacal citizenship collector and lover of Canada (Canadian friends have even named me an honorary Canadian in the past). I have followed the changes in Canadian immigration laws/rules, which turned more conservative and closed during the Harper years. These will probably be revisited under the liberal Justin Trudeau administration. As I visited and revisited the Canadian immigration site, I hated seeing Canada become, well, less Canadian and less aligned with the values that the whole world associates with Canada.

Anyway in all the time and all the years in which I had visited the site, I had never been greeted by this:

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Every day, it seems, another website falls victim to its own success or demand.But in this case, a little-seen (unless you are trying to move to Canada, which is probably a high enough number but doubtfully website-breaking numbers on normal occasions) government website is not necessarily the kind of site you’d expect to be overpowered by stampedes of would-be Canadians. (Get it, Stampede?)

Sure, many government websites are not the most heavily trafficked web spaces, and an unexpected spike is just that – unexpected. Some such issues are quite predictable (referring here to the US government’s Healthcare.gov debacle, which US President Obama called a “well-documented disaster” that nevertheless led to a better government understanding of how to handle technology). And eventually that disaster was fixed. Big, small or somewhere in between, even public sector entities (in fact, sometimes especially public sector entities) are responsible for fairly high-stakes information – public safety, public health, economic data – you get the picture. For that reason, they should always be prepared. Not every flood of traffic is expected, but when it does happen, you hope – and they hope – the site is ready. I mean, uninsured Americans were required to use Healthcare.gov to sign up for insurance. Yeah – how, if they can’t even get into the site? And you’d really hope that when the time comes to escape the Trump demagoguery, Canada and its government websites will be ready for you!

For now, though, in the heat of the Super Tuesday returns, the Canadian immigration website, apparently not ready for the influx of potential immigrants from the US (or at least not ready for their website visits to the Great White North), struggled to keep up with demand, posting the warning pasted above to all its visitors (and today, several days later, the warning is still there).

Now if only anyone had heeded the months of warnings about Trump/Drumpf.

 

 

 

Halloween Random Gum soundtrack – Better late than never

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Everyone who knows me knows that I put together at least one “soundtrack” of the songs (i.e. “random gum that holds the year together” – here’s a link to all the previous soundtracks on Spotify) that popped up in one meaningful way or another during the year, put them on a CD and send them out the old-fashioned way via postal mail. Some years, I am organized and get the things in the mail early – this year, I got them done just in time to go out on American Thanksgiving. I had the track listing done ages ago but never had time to deal with the rest of the process – burning CDs, making the simple but nevertheless handmade (thus time-consuming) Halloween cards, printing out all the notes and track listings and folding it all up and shipping them. It also did not help that in the early days of my November vacation, a time I planned to devote to this card-production process, my internet connection went dead for several days, making the songs for the soundtrack out of reach (needed to download a good proportion of them). But finally – finally – the whole thing is finished.

scottish spring – troubled summer – falling down – getting up
random gum – 2014

The full playlist on Spotify (except for songs that don’t exist on Spotify).

Nine Inch Nails – “We’re in this Together” if the world should break in two/until the very end of me, until the very end of you
Had no idea when this year began how true the sentiment would be. “We will make it through somehow” “Even after everything/you’re the queen and I’m the king/nothing else means anything”. For S.

Charlotte Gainsbourg – “Hey Joe”
We didn’t know we needed a breathy Charlotte-sung, Beck-produced version of this song, but we did!

Angel Olsen – “High and Wild” you’re here, you’re here, but your spirit’s disappeared/off to some place that i don’t know, some human thing has squashed your soul
Another dark Berlin summer, emerging in the light. “You might as well be blind, cause you don’t see me anymore/And you, you can’t tell me that you love me, when I’m standing in your way”

Dum Dum Girls – “Take Care of My Baby”
For S, and getting through all the rough times and worries. Takes on unforeseen depth.

Le Prince Miiaou – “Hawaiian Tree”
For Aurélien, who long ago won the battle, in quality and number, of track-listing mentions.

Tennis – “It All Feels the Same”
“We could be good but we don’t live the way that we should/Constantly told we’re imperfect and cannot be good/Tired of waiting around for you to intervene/Tired of wishing that you even knew what I mean”. Pain and strain of repeated mistakes

Wild Flag – “Romance We love the sound, the sound is what found us/Sound is the blood between me and you
“Back when I had no story, nothing to form me/You got under my skin/You were my maker/my re-creator/My reason to live”

The Saints – “(I’m) Stranded”
For Stephen and those half-hour conversations (“wee chats”) that never lasted less than all night.

Sonic Youth – “Kool Thing” I just want you to know that we can still be friends
High school. “Are you gonna liberate us girls from male, white, corporate oppression?”

Angelique Kidjo – “Lay, Lady, Lay”
Angelique from Benin, one of those countries in Africa I learned about only incrementally

Crowded House – “Not the Girl You Think You Arethe bathroom mirror makes you look tall/but it’s all in your head
Always loved this song; takes on new meaning as life passes into new phases. “He won’t deceive you or tell you the truth/he’ll be no trouble. He won’t write you letters, full of excuses…”

Circuit Object – “Hollow Words”
For and by ML. Sometimes things just change, and we can’t do anything about it.

Tamaryn—“Violet’s in a Pool” the sound is moving in
Soundscape for late-night drives in western Sweden – evokes Bengtsfors, of all places!

Aimee Mann – “Amateur” I was hoping that you’d know better than that

Angel Olsen – “Stars” I wish I had the voice of everything
“To scream the feeling til there’s nothing left”. Such beauty…

Patti Smith – “Don’t Smoke in Bed”
“Take care of everything; I’m leaving my wedding ring, don’t look for me – I’ll get ahead. Remember, darling – don’t smoke in bed”. Elegiac words for the sad endings of sad entanglements

Damien Jurado – “Amateur Night” It’s me who made you/It’s me who will take you
“I am not an evil man/I just have a habit I can’t kick/It starts with an urge and ends with this/Hang up the phone, I ain’t finished yet”. Another song whose meaning deepens w/experience

The Smiths – “I Won’t Share You”
Toasting the end of my rural man harem and W, the Smiths-quoting filth peddler

Tadpoles – “Sunrise Ocean Bender”
This makes me feel like I am in the 1990s again.

Glasser – “Shape”
“And I look out longingly/over the beach./There’s an ocean making life/beyond my reach,/and the vastness is/too much for me to stand.”

Warpaint – “Love is to Die” I found a way/To look towards this day/But it all hooked up/This could only go one way/I’m not alive, I’m not alive without you

The Fall – “Life Just Bounces” life just bounces so don’t you get worried at all
An unusually warm and bright February day. Watched a BBC show about the mad, inimitable Mark E. Smith. Blasting The Fall on high all the rest of the live long day. For Naomi

Sydney Wayser – “Geographer”
It’s just beautiful

INXS – “Don’t Change” I found a love I had lost/It was gone for too long/Hear no evil in all directions/Execution of bitterness/Message received loud and clear
Beautiful and bittersweet nostalgia – tangentially thinking of Michael Hutchence, his late wife Paula and Paula’s late daughter Peaches… will tragedy ever stop dogging that family?

Rolling Stones – “Miss You”
For obligatory naked pre-Mogambo balcony dancing

Sonic Youth – “Youth Against Fascism” I believe Anita Hill/that judge will rot in hell
I still believe Anita Hill; pop culture references – some timeless, some a flash in the pan, some culture/country specific, made immortal in song.

Cat’s Eyes – “Over You” I’m over you/Soon I’ll be rid of you and your ways/And I’ll forget all those/wasted days/And I wonder what took me so long/to finally let you know that I’ve begun

Lia Ices – “Thousand Eyes” We are a starry sky/Gazing down with a thousand eyes/And we know that we go on
Multilayered beauty. “Flash your flood, set your fire/You were born to overflow/And we know that we go on”

Buried Beds – “Stars”
For S. You may come upon the blackest stone/What passage lies beyond is still unknown/And sleep won’t come, cause you never close your eyes/Like stars above us we are on fire”

Hefner – “Love Inside the Stud Farm” Girl, you’re a teaser/what on earth did I just do to deserve a girl like you?
“You don’t know what you’ve done to me, with that voice, with those eyes, with that smile, and that smell…” All those auspicious beginnings when things are perfect, before the unraveling of reality

Miriam Makeba – “Liwa Wechi – Congolese Lament
Much love to Zaki

Neneh Cherry featuring Robyn – “Out of the Black” I fear what’s gone before will come right back and slap me

XVIII Eyes – “I’ll Keep You”

Otis Redding – “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember”
“Nobody knows what I feel inside/all I know – I walked away and cried…”

The Boxer Rebellion – “Both Sides are Even” You don’t need a reason/For I know that what I’ve done is wrong/No one there to warn you/About the way that our moment’s gone
“These are my suspicions/And I’ll never know how this was a lost cause/And both sides are even/They are even and alone/Yeah, it’s the same/Right or wrong”

Angel Olsen – “Unfucktheworld” Here’s to thinking that it all meant so much more/I kept my mouth shut & opened up the door
“I wanted nothing but for this to be the end/For this to never be a tied and empty hand/If all the trouble in my heart would only mend/I lost my dream I lost my reason all again”

The Doors – “Love Her Madly”
For S. and poetic comparisons.

Robyn Hitchcock – “Everything About YouI love everything about you/I love your crooked smile/The way I try to please you/And have done for a while

Sonic Youth – “Wish Fulfillment”

George Jones – “The Grand Tour”
For S and the riding lawn mower future. This type of twangy country tune makes me laugh – the “woe is me/she left me” whining, but I don’t think for one minute that “she” left without cause.

The Hat, feat. Father John Misty, S.I. Istwa – “The Angry River”
“The awful cost of all we lost/As we looked the other way/We’ve paid the price of this cruel device/Till we’ve nothing left to pay”

Angel Olsen – “Hi-Five” But I’m giving you my heart, my heart/Are you giving me your heart?

The Kinks – “You Really Got Me”
Meant for playing at insanely loud volume

Angel Haze – “New York” calls from overseas like a motherfucking crusade
For Jill – finally leading the New York life. And for Annette, the vigilante! “I run New York”

Pulp – “Lipgloss”
For M, my lipgloss and girly-stuff provider extraordinaire

Nirvana – “Love Buzz” Would you believe me when I tell you/That you’re the queen of my heart?
20 years since Kurt Cobain died – hits harder now, in middle age, than when it happened

Sondre Lerche – “Bad Law” When crimes are passionate/can love be separate?

Travis – “All I Want to Do is Rock”

Wild Flag – “Something Came Over Me”
“Yeah, you were always headed down the wrong path/But you’ll be back, you’ll be back around/Summer’s creeping up slowly/We’re gonna let the good times, let the good times roll”

The Brian Jonestown Massacre – “B.S.A.” it’s gonna be a long cold winter/but I feel so warm when I’m in her arms
“She goes off like a shotgun/she’s got me begging on my knees/she’s like a kiss from Jesus/make me forget my disease”. An S song

Merry Clayton – “Gimme Shelter”
Proves that this should have been a woman vocalist all along

Belle & Sebastian – “Your Cover’s Blown”
For Jill. For Inga and days in the poopbarn when Boring Guy did not want to “blow my cover”.

Trentemøller – “Still on Fire”
Cool sound + opening to TV show Halt and Catch Fire

Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians – “Queen Elvis” People get what they deserve,/Time is round and space is curved./Honey, have you got the nerve,/To be Queen Elvis?

Sam Phillips – “I Can’t Stop Crying” In dream I scream but you can’t hear me calling you
Floods of tears when circumstances tear something or someone from your hands, your life

Angel Olsen – “Forgiven/Forgotten” all is forgiven/all right, you are forgiven
“If there’s one thing I fear/it’s knowing you’re around, so close but not here”

The Platters – “Twilight Time”
Memories of the old pre-internet days when wild goose chases ensued looking for songs we could not quite place. What on earth did we do without Google?

Townes Van Zandt – “Lungs”
The late, great Townes.

Roxy Music – “More than This”

The Handsome Family – “Far From Any Road”
“And rise w/ me forever across the silent sand/the stars will be your eyes & the wind will be my hands”

Barbara Lewis – “Baby, I’m Yours”
For S.

Aaron Neville with Linda Ronstadt – “Don’t Know Much”
My joke song with S, who does not know where his face is going. “And that may be all I need to know”

Neil Diamond – “Love on the Rocks”Love on the rocks/ain’t no surprise/just pour me a drink/and I’ll tell you some lies
Top-floor flat in Berlin; drunken torture and misery – hatching an escape plan. Traumatic memories of high school teacher and her laminated Neil Diamond posters

The Go-Betweens – “Quiet Heart” And what did I say that made you cry?/Our dream won’t die/Doesn’t matter how far you come/You’ve always got further to go

A Fine Frenzy – “Almost Lover” shoulda known you’d bring me heartache/almost lovers always do

Angel Olsen – “Windows” won’t you open a window sometime?/what’s so wrong with the light?

Sinéad O’Connor – “Just Like U Said It Would B” when I lay down my head/at the end of my day/nothing would please me better/than I find that you’re there

Gram Parsons/Emmylou Harris – “Love Hurts”
For S. and the tragic loss of the Gram Parsons shirt. At least there’s still “Yeah!” to wear.

Tomten – “Wednesday’s Children

Johnny Cash – “Hurt” And you could have it all/My empire of dirt/I will let you down/I will make you hurt
I don’t think I can listen to this again without crying; Berlin summer disaster and near endings

Moby with Damien Jurado – “Almost Home”

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!)

Made in Sweden – It might surprise you

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Most people have clear ideas of things that are Swedish – Volvo, IKEA, Abba. It’s also easy, being in Sweden, to imagine that everyone knows what’s Swedish and what isn’t. But I realized that there are a few things that are very much Swedish that a lot of people (outside Sweden and Scandinavia) don’t realize. Even some really major companies.

H&M (Hennes & Mauritz) – Late last year when I was in the US, a giant new H&M store was opening in a shopping mall near where my parents live. I had to explain to virtually everyone that it’s a Swedish giant. No one I talked to seemed to have a clue. One person thought it was Dutch; another thought, improbably, Korean. But no one guessed Swedish.

Spotify – Spotify has spread all over the world to become almost like the “Google” of streaming music, i.e. synonymous with the idea of streaming music the way Google is with search. But people outside Scandinavia seem blissfully unaware of the Swedish roots of the near-ubiquitous Spotify service.

Skype – Skype revolutionized instant communications. But again, an everyday convenience and household name technology is not recognized outside northern Europe as a Swedish invention.

Tetra Pak –You probably use Tetra Pak or some facsimile of it every day without knowing it – but probably did not know that the paper-based packaging, developed in Sweden, was a revolutionary change in packaging.

Electrolux – the world’s second-largest appliance company. You know, all the white goods!

And a little older …

Celsius scale – Swede Anders Celsius invented the 100-point thermometer scale used globally.

Erudite Google Doodles

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In high school I was one of those nerds who enthusiastically volunteered to take part in stuff like Academic Decathlon and Knowledge Bowl. One year we had to study Dian Fossey and her work with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda. My friends and I actually found a plastic toy gorilla on the ground in one of the schools where one of our competitions took place, and we named him “Digit” after one of the gorillas in Fossey’s group at Karisoke Research Center and who figured prominently in the film, Gorillas in the Mist. We took that toy gorilla everywhere (from places near, such as all over the state for our competitions, to places far, such as Japan and Germany) until one of those in our group irresponsibly lost him. I somehow hope he is still traveling and having adventures as we had always hoped for him, wherever he is. (Assigning human traits and adventures to inanimate objects is nothing new to me.)

Google Doodle for Dian Fossey

Google Doodle for Dian Fossey

I was thrilled when I opened Google today and say this creative, evocative Google Doodle on the screen, celebrating Dian Fossey’s 82nd birthday. (She was murdered in 1985.) Lately the Doodles have been fabulous – with one recently marking the 123rd birthday of Zora Neale Hurston, the difficult writer who was a star of the Harlem Renaissance movement and whose work, particularly the seminal Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a staple of American high school and college reading lists.

The same can be said for the recent Google Doodle of French writer Simone de Beauvoir. Much cooler than my words can convey.

I don’t know if these semi-obscure Google Doodles raise awareness or not – but I love that they exist and maybe make a few people dig into things they would not otherwise have been exposed to.

Bad Cover Version – Peeking in on the Underdog

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I spent a long time working at Opera Software, maker of the cross-platform Opera browser. What’s that you say? Never heard of it? Yeah, that was sort of the uphill battle of working in marketing at Opera. Where do you start with marketing and building buzz about something that no one has heard of and that is the quintessential underdog in a world of giants (Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari). In some niche markets, Opera was kind of like a household name – and in the developing world, Opera was not necessarily the underdog – but it made a mobile browser that would work underdog phones (low-end, Java-enabled feature phones). It was kind of the “browser for the people” – for those who heard of it. Especially prone to underdog status – the desktop browser… up against insurmountable odds and an engineering culture behind it that had no belief in marketing (i.e. the old “if you have a great product people will find it”).

But Opera had its fingers in a lot of pies, so plenty of people were using different variants of the Opera browser on different devices without realizing they were using Opera (on various mobile phones and on televisions). And perhaps that is how underdogs survive and sometimes thrive. Embracing the fact that you are never going to be the market leader is the first step – and then you have to decide how you deal with that. What niche can you dominate? Where can you find loyal fans and partners? How can you mutually exploit those partnerships?

You don’t have to be a cheap knock-off just because you’re the underdog.

I have been thinking a lot about this with regard to streaming audio services. Ignoring for the moment the arguments against streaming leveled by music artists themselves, and taking into account the growth of streaming and downward slide of downloading, cross-device streaming is happening. Spotify might not have been the first such service out of the gate. But it is probably the best known globally. That said, there are plenty of other services – some geographically restricted, some not. Perhaps even more so than with the Opera experience, forming partnerships is key to making these services work. But the really important thing is to make the user experience immersive. Users turn to what they know – again and again – because it is familiar. Not necessarily because the feature set offers the most or because the service is user friendly. Not taking into the account the aforementioned geographical restrictions.

With streaming music, I instinctively turn to Spotify. But why? Is it because I think it has the biggest available music catalog (without having any evidence to support that)? Is it because I find it the most useful, engaging, immersive? User friendly? In truth, I think it is a matter of what I saw first (and what was available). When I have tried to convert people to Spotify in the past, they resisted if they had already become dedicated users of some other service. I found this was particularly true with French users of Deezer and US users of Rhapsody.

What converts users? With Opera there was a lot of repeating and reinforcing incentives – that is, looking at popular use (what sites were people visiting) and forming partnerships with mobile operators to promote use of the popular sites (free use of those pages for a month, if using the Opera browser). This could contribute to subscription sales for the operator, and they would, I assume, pay some kind of fee to Opera based on traffic.

The streaming music model is more complicated, considering the geographic and licensing limitations and restrictions. I am interested, though, in how services like WiMP can take on the giants like Spotify – find their niche rather than becoming like a bad cover version.