Thursday, June 20, 2013

good means

          you are petals on my skin
                    and berries on my tongue
     you are what good means to me now
  i call our time apart...                      suspense
 until i see you next
my love

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Post-Mass-Marketing and the Metaphysics of Presence

It's now cliche to assert that mass media business models are dead. It's no longer hard to either make or distribute media products. Markets are awash with digital product, which people expect for free. Artists today have to apply their creativity to other ways of producing unique value that people will buy.

At Sceneverse, where I work, we are becoming huge fans of the band One-Eyed Doll (Wikipedia), not just for their music, but for the whole way they create a scene around themselves that keeps them in touch with their fans and economically viable.

They sell what's rare.

For digital music files which have become hard to price, they sell album downloads on a pay-what-you-want basis. But if you buy an "appreciation package" involving a physical CD from them, you do so secure in the knowledge that each one is individually signed and bitten by the band's lead singer and guitarist, Kimberly Freeman. We bought some, and you can see the bite marks. They also sell buttons and baubles and stuff that fall off her costumes during their performances, (she is insanely energetic). They sell paintings of band members, thank-you notes handwritten by the duo, personalized thank-you videos, and other artisan products (understanding that these are FUN pomo-goth-slasher-freak-tregan-playing-hard-touring artisans). Items are priced by the degree of personalized attention the duo pour into them for the specific fan.

The bitten CDs and costume detritus put me in mind of Derrida (that's how much of a nerd I am). These are traces - marks of clawbacks - taking the product out of abstraction and connecting it to the material, physical person of the artist again. You could say it reminds us that artists are real people who need to survive, but it is too easy to be blithe about this market shift when you frame it that way. It's also a good example of Mike Masnick CwF + RtB = $$$ formula, but I want to resist formulation for a moment, to appreciate the deeper dynamics that make the formula work here.

In the value universe hypothesis proposed (and further developed) by economist and fellow Sceneversian Greg Rader, the bite marks on the CD "rehabilitate" it, in the following sense. A CD hovers perilously between economic quadrants in Rader's model.

- Is the CD a political-economy good? (A bearer of legally-enforceable intellectual property?)
- Is it a transactional/commodity good? (A "thing" you might find in a bin or rack for $10?)
- Is it an attention-economy good? (A heavily managed "star" product from a "fame" industry?)
- Is it a relational-economy good? (A way of personally thanking Kimberly and Junior for their art, and their dedication to making kick-buns experiences for us?)

The bite marks add flesh to how you consider this item. It's a trace of the non-metaphysical, which claws the product over much more in the direction of the relational economy than most CDs are - even autographed ones. (Music. Reloaded. This time, it's personal.) One-Eyed Doll are masterful relational marketers. Their offering actually covers all four Raderian value quadrants, but they strongly downplay their legal right to extract a price (obscure its legibility), and pump up the personal touch. They walk the incredibly delicate tightrope between offering relational, attentional and transactional goods with Venti integrity and a big invigorating shot of sheer camp.

Kimberly is certainly a persona. The real person that she is exceeds what we as remote fans can know about her, but she makes her presence known with a very physical trace of a moment - a moment when she considered us in particular, even if abstractly. The broken bits of her costumes are traces of the ferocity of her performances, of the activity pattern in life that she is. These traces themselves are not metaphysical. They are not pure hype or simply symbolic. Each one costs her some of her own life's focus.

One cannot escape metaphysics - these artists are replacing commodity fetishism (mass-producible, like the Coca-Cola brand marks) with relational fetishism. In (what might seem to be) less metaphysical terms, a materials engineer looking at the bite marks using an electron tunnelling microscope might just give a molecular description of the indentations in the material lattice of the substrate, and not care what made the marks. We imbue them with presence, with the subjectivity, agency, intention and affect of an author. We make them hosts in a communion with their source as we imagine her.

But that willingness to read presence into a trace (that if anything should alert us to absence and presence simultaneously) - that craving for presence that Derrida messes with and frustrates in his writings... that is a great marketing driver! If that hunger for presence drives all of Western civilization, and has since antiquity, that's a damn strong market trend to ride! It's a very smart way to start thinking about a business model.

One-Eyed Doll have their way of doing it, but other independent musicians are also - of sheer necessity - feeling their way around the new economics of culture, and doing more and more things to build up high-relational-value offerings that they can authentically and with integrity exchange in ways their fans are willing to pay for. This new music industry may not enjoy the same economies of scale that the old attentional economy of mass-market pop stars did, but it will be delightfully weird.

Integrity is key to this. This return of artisanal economics in the music industry is an example of the "new spirit of capitalism", where capitalism goes to the edge of the market, to things that exceed the rationalized production of industrialism, to mine authenticity and to return with products that bear its stamp. Not every indie rock group could offer the kind of value One-Eyed Doll does, and if they did, One-Eyed Doll would have to think of new stuff, to stand out from the crowd. One-Eyed Doll both is goth-y and makes fun of it, and they make fun of the vampire craze in pop culture. Bitten CDs take their meaning in the context of the whole conversational culture they create with their fans around that experiential stance.

Marketing in the way One-Eyed Doll does means cultivating weirdness, and being very clear about the weirdness you offer. That is the business you are in.

There is something you offer that your fans connect with. There is a distinctive communion, outside the easily-explained, outside the generic comparisons people may make between you and every other musical act out there. That is your product. It's probably something you can't quite put into words - something that may be the mojo in your music, or maybe the way you address the mix of dedicated fans and first-time listeners who turn up at your shows, the way you make great evening for them, or the comic perspective on the world you embody... maybe it is in the imaginary world or alternate reality your music creates for listeners who "get" your music... the kind of pain you give expression to for people, the masterful way you faithfully deliver on the awesomeness of a genre, the surprises and new sounds your technical skills let you produce... something that can't be churned out in a factory is the real thing you have to offer people.

If you connect your weird relational goods to that unique and authentic source of weird value, it is starting to look like you can build a business as a musician again. Communications technologies give you the relational reach to connect with your fans in these ways. In this new post-megastar economy, you may not be able to buy a castle in Scotland (at least not a big one in good repair). But you may actually be able to make your living managing your band, your brand, and your time, centered around the activity you most want to do.

There are definitely worse ways to spend your mortal moments.

Friday, December 16, 2011

PAEI, perceptions and self-similarity

For anyone interested in the Adizes Methodology, I adapted this graphic from the Google Plus stream of Dorothy Shapland. It made me see a relationship between PAEI and perceptions. Really, it's an assertion that there may be a self-similarity in PAEI.

When you map PAE styles to the perceptions "is", "should" and "want", those things add up to "mine". But when you shift from the "me" to a "we" perspective, that perspective carves off a sense of what is, what is wanted, and what should be - in collective terms. It's about the state of the world for us.

My general observation is that this is another source of confusion in perceptions - in life and on management teams. Very, very, very often, people think they are arguing for the "we" case, but they misperceive. They fail to see that their perceptions are in fact very focused on their own understanding of "is", "should" and "want", then they falsely universalize these perceptions, and make pronouncements about what "we" must do.

An individual pronouncing for a "we" is usually projecting. The right to really make pronouncements about the reality we face, the goals we desire and the things we should do cannot be claimed by individuals unless they have been empowered by a group which has deliberated these things in an explicitly collective process.

Political debates in informal settings are typically duelling projections of the "me" as if it were "we", when it isn't.

However, there are all kinds of other ideas supported by this observation that perceptions may be "fractal" or self-similar. Perhaps I shall get into that in a later post.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Types of Costs

(This is a total idea dump for my own future reference. I'm not sure if anyone else would get any mileage from it.)

Joel Dean was a pioneering figure in the field of managerial economics. His 1951 textbook of that title was important in establishing the field. One of the things he wrote there that still rivets my attention is the beginnings of something - the beginnings of a schema for understanding costs. Basically, he noted a whole series of what you might call "opponent" costs:

Opportunity costs - Outlay costs
Past costs - Future costs
Short run costs - Long run costs
Variable costs - Constant costs
Traceable costs - Common costs
Out of pocket costs - Book costs
Incremental costs - Sunk costs
Escapable costs - Unavoidable costs
Controllable costs - Non-controllable costs
Replacement costs - Historical costs

This strikes me as one very, very important and promising unfinished idea. I see the shadow of a future theory of costs in this initial collection of observations. It makes me want to continue the list. Going to Wikipedia for cost concepts offers the following additional ideas:

Private (internal, transactional) costs - external costs (externalities)
Social costs (internal and external costs) - Psychic costs (stress, worry, anxiety, uncertainty, fear - adding "repugnancy" costs in this category? e.g. the repugnancy of a market for human kidneys)

In business, retail, and accounting, a cost is the value of money that has been used up to produce something, and hence is not available for use anymore. In economics, a cost is an alternative that is given up as a result of a decision.

The page then notes that cost of a business input ("intermediate consumption" in national accounting for GDP) includes its production costs, plus the markup for the producer's profit, plus transaction costs. Also mentioned are a couple of dimensions along which costs might be categorized:

Costs are often further described based on their timing or their applicability.

It is mentioned that biological costs (or the metabolic price of something like a big brain) are "a measure of the increased energy metabolism that is required to achieve a function." Then there are reproductive costs - life-history & somatic/reproductive tradeoffs - a whole other topic... perhaps related to information costs (the signalling and screening games that play out in asymmetrical markets are a lot like those that play out in sexual selection - Akerloff, Spence and Stigliz).

Is there a noise function in cost theory? Is the process of a diminishing marginal return analogous or commensurate with the increase of noise in a communications channel?

These are really half-formed, messy impulses and desires to learn. They may be very clear to people schooled in economics, perhaps behind some math I can't parse. But I have yet to find a non-mathematical general conceptualization of cost that systematizes all of the observations in this field. In the very little bit of game theory I've done, different games impose different configurations of costs or types of cost on players... I feel like the topic is still foggy, in my own mind certainly.

Monday, September 20, 2010

For Tanya

Your fingers
Deftly slicing week-old plums
In a pool of light next to mine
Sorting veggies into tubs
Before our dawn commute

Aging alongside me
Every imperfect moment
Choosing to spend it

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Mergers/Acquisitions Theory and the Culture Wars

The culture wars between liberals and conservatives can be framed in many ways. Some of my favourites include George Lakoff's Moral Politics framework (, and Johnathan Haidt's Five Moral Bases framework ( But while these frameworks help illuminate the difference between the two worldviews, they don't offer us too many tools for understanding the interplay between them.

After all, we currently live in a bistable political world that oscillates between these two attractors, with liberal and conservative regimes successively replacing each other as electorates react to the excesses of incumbents. That leaves a lot of liberal and conservatives in charge of things who need to interact with each other. How can we work together? (Although even the desire to do so is a liberal trait, I realize, which may be one reason why conservatism is so effective in zero-sum contests, and why people flock to conservative positions when under us/them threat.)

I've recently stumbled upon the work of Harrison Trice and Janice Beyer, who published a book called The Culture of Work Organizations in 1993. Discussing mergers and aquisitions, they point out that these often fail due to cultural incompatibility between organizations. They distinguish between cultural innovation and cultural maintenance, and point out that cultural innovation entails much greater perceived risk, cost, uncertainty and effort. Cultural maintenance is much easier, and is a very powerful bulwark against felt-uncertainty.

Now, change management theories have pretty much always envisioned the change process as a journey from the current state, through a transition process, to a new stable state, so even cultural innovators are working towards an end. This sometimes leads to a phenomenon of stable orthodoxies emerging among ideological liberals, which provide easy targets for conservative critics.

But the truth is that change is disruptive, and risky, and to sway "dual-frame" or "undecided" supporters, liberals need to do things that limit that risk and emphasize continuity as well as change. Cultural innovation needs to be rooted in stablity, and move towards it.

Cultural innovation includes:
- Creating a new culture: recognizing past cultural differences and setting realistic expectations for change
- Changing the culture: weakening and replacing the old cultures
Cultural maintenance includes:
- Integrating the new culture: reconciling the differences between the old cultures and the new one
- Embodying the new culture: Establishing, affirming, and keeping the new culture

A full list of tactics for doing so is listed here:

One thing this framework does for me is explain something that has long puzzled me. It is the apparent paradox noted by Thomas Frank in his book What's the Matter With Kansas ( - namely, how is it that so many low-income people are so immediately ready to vote against their apparent interests, stepping up as stalwart conservatives to support governments whose policies vastly increase the disparity between rich and poor?

I've seen such obviously poor people adorned in emblems of patriotism, stepping forward to boldly declare their fealty to the rich, their faces glowing with virtue, pledging to support candidates who will pull away what fragile safety nets remain beneath them and trade their jobs and communities away via computerized stock exchange selling programs...

I think part of what's going on is that cultural maintenance is an opportunity for heroism. When change causes pain, the stance of saying "no" to people trying to change things offers people a sense of agency, of importance, of solidarity in the face of calamity. Low-income conservatives may feel more secure by embodying the dominant culture, and degrading efforts to reform it. An us/them mentality intensifies this commitment.

The painful irony is that the changes that are radically changing the income equation for working class people in G7 countries have been caused by the opening up of huge trade pacts encompassing hugely different economies, and the people who have profited most from this expansion are a miniscule economic elite class. But this elite class is able to motivate working people against liberals who actually *are* trying to reduce the impact of this huge sea-change on working families, by painting those liberals as elites. And liberalism *is* associated with cultural elites, in part no doubt because you need the luxury of time to expose yourself to culturally innovative ideas, weakening your investment in ideas of the past and allowing yourself the cognitive freedom to imagine change without also imagining insecurity.

Sigh... I so hate fighting against that easy circling of the wagons and the us/them rhetoric of ridicule that is so easy and accessible to people on the right. That rhetoric is so appealing to so many, and so hard to overcome once it's been used against you...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Project Documentation as Incantational Magic

Last night, my wife and I were commiserating about writing out project documentation following fixed templates. There are all of these headings, and it feels like the only reason you have to write down something under each heading is so that some project auditor can work their audit trail and check off on their little checklist that each section was filled out. It seems to be form without function. There is so much repetition involved, so much stuff that makes you want to write:"see scetion "C", above")... plus stuff you just make up in order to fill the gap. It is easy to feel like this kind of writing is futile.

However, this morning on the bus ride in, I was reading an "Impact Assessment" document I had written late last year for a training program I am developing. It was one of those department-mandated documents with lots of mandatory headings, and when I was writing it, I felt all the frustrations I referred to above. It felt like a repetitive, persnickey, process-heavy and unnecessarily long production.

Reading it again a few months later was an interesting experience. I realized *so* much all of a sudden.

First of all, reading it as I did - I have my mind full of other pre-occupations, I haven't thought about this in awhile, I only have a brief time to look at it and I am thinking of other things I have to do soon... I began to realize how important that repetition is for slowly easing the attention of the reader to the main points. You can lay all of the main points out once, but the reader's mind is fragmented by other preoccupations, so they barely skim it and get it in the first time. But then, as they read on, section after section, as the message is re-framed and re-delivered, with slight variations that highlight different aspects of it, with consistency that builds over time... it starts to sink in. The consistency and rhythm become soothing. It calms your busy mind and softens you up to receive the message.

It's like music. The reason it isn't just a quick memo is because it isn't supposed to work like communication, it's supposed to work like music - to lull and immerse readers in the idea, and to support their own imaginations as they get into the emotional and physical world of the idea (or in other words, to make them fully present to the idea).

Suddenly, the repetitive structure of the document made perfect sense. Classical music - all classical musics - modern and old, across cultures - are all about themes and variations. So is jazz, so are folk musics... but think about Philip Glass for a moment - there's that recognizable theme, repeating, with slight variations in the instrumentation, slight overlaps of the themes, minor chromatic shifts, but each repetition of the theme pulls you in and through the piece, and into this attentive frame of mind where the experience of the piece becomes increasingly vivid and real to you.

*That's* the kind of composition those repetitive documents are like. To us, when we are writing them, the repetition seems pointless because we already stated the point once, and we don't understand why we have to do so again. But for a preoccupied mind - one who picks up the document to resurrect an awareness of the project but who has not thought about it at all for awhile prior to picking up the document - the first statement of the theme is barely heard through their mental clutter, but by slightly varying and restating the theme in section after section - slowly they get lulled into the state of mind that at some point - probably a different point for each reader - the project inhabits their mind fully, and they inhabit the project mind.

At that point they may set the document aside, and not finish it, and miss some important detail that was in the document, but that they ask you about, even if it was written there, and they did not take the time to read it all the way. That is not stupid or an insult, if you know why those kinds of documents exist - which is that they are musical compositions that get everybody attuned to the mental model of the project.

Repetitive documents also serve a double-function as reference material, so that people who need to look up some specific fact needs to be able to find it under some specific heading that is easy to find, so again, the fact that you kind of echo the overall theme (with variations) under each heading is part of the magic of these documents - so that even though they are hunting out some specific detail, there is enough of the main "tune" there to revive their awareness of the overall picture.

This seems so pointless when we are writing, and the awareness of the theme is total for us, but reading it months later while multi-tasking, it is *such* a usable document format!!

And you know what, I recently had a meeting about this training program with my manager, and she and I did not read the impact assessment document beforehand. As a result, we re-invented a lot of what had already been written in the document. I realized, while reading the older document on the bus this morning, that this was okay.

Part of enculturating a team of people with an imaginary world (a future project is a state we are imagining, and we want to make it true, but nonetheless we are doing the same thing storytellers are doing on some level), is repeating and restaging the core messages. So you can do so beautifully once in a clear document that everybody loves, and everybody praises that document, but then the fragmented multi-tasking nature of the organization means that their awareness and "fusion" with that imaginary world subsides. Later, in another event, you may do something else, including brainstorming anew as if the first document had never been written. This is not a way of invalidating or disrespecting the first document, and it is not stupid. It is smart. Part of your job as a communicator around projects is to restage the invocation of the product vision many times. It may give rise to multiple restatements of similar ideas, but these are just recordings of your various performances. They should all be good, and as a professional, you should know that your job is to perform the same high-valued tunes repeatedly.

Your job in invoking the reality of an invisible, imaginary world over and over until it is made real for people is a lot like the role of a priest or a shaman. The believers all know the core messages you bring up as you perform for them, but to keep that vision alive against the onslaught of everyday life, they need you to bring down the magic over and over again, in ways that keep them on track. Don't expect it to follow the logic of reason, because that is not what you are being asked to do. Your task has the logic of magic, not reason. You are successful if your produce many different artifacts (documents, presentations, minutes, emails, phone calls), and each one repeats goals visions and key points in a gently supportive and evocative way, with infinite patience, because each time you do that is another successful instance of you making this invisible world real for people - in their minds - so that they are then empowered to make it real for real - in reality - an executed project.

Given the normal chaos of organizational life, not everyone will access all the right documents, or not in the right order, and those who do may be so busy that key points are driven out of their mind, or they may not access the documents frequently enough, or have missed updates, etc. This is normal, and part of your job in working the magic is to use repetition, theme and variations across all of your productions so that no matter where they hook up to your project, they can start to hum along with the rest of the crew.

One of the universal structures of human folk musics and even animal communications is the "call-response" structure. In this kind of song, a song leader calls out a phrase, and a chorus of listeners repeats the call. Performers in live concert often start up call-response sequences with their audience, jazz musicians improvise by having one instrument throw out leads while the ensemble responses, soldiers do call-response chants while marching, cheerleading squads use them... some cultures have very rich call response folk music traditions.

Each point of communication is like a call, and you know that it is hard to participate in a call-response song if you don't really know the song. Performers who try call-response sequences in concert often fall flat because the audience doesn't know the words of the song well enough. So your role is to put out calls that enable the chorus to respond because you awaken enough of the whole song in their mind for them to participate. Each communicative fragment is like another call, and it's okay that some of them are repetitive. Call-response games are supposed to be repetitive - that's what makes the format possible.

"The Lord is my shepherd" - think about that idea in the context of organizational life. People are like sheep darting off in all directions while the project dictates they all need to get their heads up and move off for a long journey in one sustained direction. Your job as a priest/representative of the imaginary goal world is to herd those sheep and get them all moving. Each section of a repetitive document, and each repetitive document in a project, and each redundant meeting - is actually a border collie, and you need to deploy several of them around the herd of sheep to enable the herd to move.

So the fact that you have to deploy more than one collie is good, normal and to be expected. As a skilled shepherd, your job is actually to bring forward and deploy multiple border collies, so make sure each collie has a full enough set of the information for the project that it can do its job. One key/dominant sheep may not see your brown collie, only your black one, so every collie has to be a repetition of enough of the overall theme to keep all sheep oriented to the correct direction.

It's a different way of understanding your work. It changes perceptions. Things that seem like organizational/bureaucratic irrationality turn into understandable human dynamics of making the imaginary real. This is how humans normally make the imaginary real - themes, variations, repetition, multiple instances, multiple reminders, multiple re-enactments... that's how a pastor thinks of his or her job list for the year, and that's how a business analyst should think about her role as well - this is part of the magic of the role.

The recursive nature of it is not a useless waste of effort to be resisted - it's the performance. A musician has to practice a piece of music thousands of times and perform it live thousands of times and produce recordings that are played millions of times in order to create a timeless classic. That's the art form. That's what it is. That's what you have to be good at! That's the value you bring to the organization. That's what they count on you for.

Repetitions of project themes aren't wasted reminders to people who can't keep things straight, they are incantations - each one helps bring the imaginary world into real life. If you lovingly and patiently repeat those incantations when people turn to you, relying on you to work your magic once more and bring the invisible world into mental life for them, then you will be succeeding at your task. If you bristle with resentment because you thought you already sent them that message so that now if they don't know what you sent them, they are disrespecting you and your prior investment of time and energy, you are missing the point and misunderstanding your role.

You yourself, if you were taken off your own project, not given time to read the document for a year, and then were brought back to lead the project, would appreciate someone kindly re-invoking the mental model of the project for you in your mind - you would need that, and if someone could do it artfully without making you read your own prior document, in a way that repeated the key themes with subtle variations that were aimed at what you need to know right now, this very minute, you would appreciate their incantation - their magic words of resurrecting the reality of the project to your mind.

So that's your profession. You're a project magician! And your spells are musical compositions that lull people into alternate (achievable!) realities in the world of imagination. The more you succeed at re-invoking those visions into life in peoples' minds over and over again, the better your team will be at making them real, hitting their targets, and enjoying success.