Friday, September 25, 2015

Effect, Meet Cause -- What Everyone Gets Wrong About Advertising

This is a very good article and makes some great points about the media, online content, privacy, IoT and robots. You should go read the whole thing. But, like almost all media analysts and tech experts, Maciej Cegłowski gets the advertising cause/effect backwards. He writes:

In the beginning, there was advertising. It was a simple trinity of publisher, viewer, and advertiser. Publishers wrote what they wanted and left empty white rectangles for ads to fill. Advertisers bought the right to put things in those rectangles. Viewers occasionally looked at the rectangles by accident and bought the products and services they saw pictured there. Life was simple. There were ad agencies to help match publishers with advertisers, figure out what should go in the rectangles, and attempt to measure how well the ads were working. But this primitive form of advertising remained more art than science.
The old chestnut had it that half of advertising money was wasted, but no one could tell which half. 
Emphasis mine.

The mistake is a common one, because it looks at advertising from the perspective of the consumer of media and advertising; the audience. That's how we perceive the bargain. There is content out there we are interested in; newspaper, magazine, radio, TV, etc. Someone wrote or recorded something I'm interested in -- sports, movies, guns, cooking, music, whatevs -- and as I go and read, watch, listen, I will put up with some advertising in order to enjoy the content.


The advertising (or the intent to advertise) came first. Some nice people with nice products wanted you to know about them. They had money that they could spend on making that happen. There was no media. So they got together with content creators and said, "Hey, this is what I want to sell. These are the people I want to sell to. You make some content and we'll pay for it with this advertising."

Don't believe me? Look up the history of soap operas. The originators of them were advertising agencies. There was nothing on the radio that appealed to the women they wanted to sell homemaking products to. So they invented radio dramas modeled, loosely, after the serial romance stories found in women's magazines.

Which were started by advertisers. To sell things to the same group of people. But radio was more immediate and newer and interesting and could pump out shows every day without the cost of printing or mailing.

There is, of course, content that you pay for directly. Books, movies, music, etc. Sure. And that looks (to you) a lot like the other content. Because you consume it similarly. But from a production and pricing standpoint, it's very different.

There are historic entertainments that didn't start out with advertising (some sports being a good example). It got added over time. And so that's closer to the model Cegłowski suggests. But, remember... that content had been paid for earlier by tickets or patrons. So... why did we add advertising? To pay for them? But they were already paid for?

It's a subtle distinction, but important. In any content relationship involving advertising... advertising comes first. Nobody (much) builds a magazine or radio show or TV program around an idea and then hopes for ad revenue. They build in order to sell ads.

Our enjoyment is secondary. That's not immoral. It's just not always comfy.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Peeved Medium. A review of "Mad Max: Fury Road"

So the title of the post isn't really a pun. I'm not sure what it is. It's there because I can't summon the energy to be clever or interesting about a film which was neither.


If you're disappointed in that gag, rest assured you're not as disappointed as I was in the film itself.

Here's where a reviewer has to make sure that you understand that s/he's not a film snob. Because if you don't like an actiony-packed-edy movie like this, that's the first reason people might think. Establishing my b-movie bona fides should only take one sentence for y'all:

I've seen all the "The Fast and the Furious" movies.

Now that that's out of the way...

I wanted to like this movie. I wanted to love it, actually. I'd heard from a couple people online that it was an amazing, action-packed ride through a post-apocalyptic hellscape. I read one review snippet that said it was "ballsy," one said it would leave you "speechless." One called it "surprisingly tender." As I look on Metacritic, I see that it has an average score of 89/100 and only one neutral review opposed to 42 positive ones.

Which might lead someone to think... did you miss it, Andy? Did you miss the allegories? The metaphor? The deep layers of meaning? The artistic flourishes? The various homages? The culture war references? The mash-ups?

This is where most reviewers won't, but I will, remind you that I'm a poet and have a degree in English Lit.

I didn't miss that stuff. It's just that it's all thrown in so randomly and heavy-handedly that I can't tell if it's meant to be a tapestry of chaos or just chaos. It's energy and craft masquerading as art. It's volume masquerading as depth. It's verbs masquerading as action.

There are a lot of verbs, to be sure. So booms. Very stunts. And much of the film is beautiful and haunting in terms of the cinematography.There is *artistry* in there aplenty, from the stunts to the backdrops to the costume and make-up design. Lots of individual parts where I thought, "That's very nicely done."

But a movie is supposed to have a story. At least one. And characters you care about. Again... at least one. We have no idea why Max is where he is now. I get it, I know. Right. He's the Wanderer. Right. So... We care about him why? He gave up on... what? He has these weird flashbacks to little girls whom he let down and... nothin'. Same for Charlize's character. I get it. She's saving some few of the people whom the bad guy is being Very Bad to.

Even the action, after awhile, stopped being interesting. Because it was, essentially, the same. Car/truck/cycle with spikes goes fast, shoots things, blows up. The first 15 minutes of that was spectacular. The 2nd 15 minutes of that was interesting. Minutes 31-90 of that were... not. 

The audio? There is nothing like dialogue in this movie. The few times there are lines that aren't there for exposition it is almost impossible to hear what they're saying over the ambient booms, bangs and roars and the score, which I found very heavy handed.

I read a lot of sci-fi. I read a lot of weird fiction. I've written some weird fiction and some very weird poetry. I like weird. I like it a lot. And I wanted this to be some kind of super-action-flick-meets-high-art-extravaganza. The trailer gave me goose-bumps.

The movie itself didn't.

I'm sorry. Again... I wanted to love this movie. But while spectacular visuals and action can enhance a good story and decent characters and make an otherwise decent film incredible, they can't fill the void left by no story and flat characters.

Gotta give this one a D+

Because if you go to all that effort on the frosting, the lack of cake seems even more appalling. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A most joyful, terrifying dream

As the son of a shrink, I grew up talking about dreams. I'd come downstairs on a Saturday -- the day I got to sleep long enough to make it through a dream before waking -- and sit with my Dad in his study. He'd stop working on billing or bills and we'd talk about my dream. He was good at providing both a Freudian analysis and "an accurate one," as he'd call it. That is, let's look at the symbolism, but let's also just think about what you're going through. Helpful, insightful and often fun times.

I have had lots of very weird dreams. Years ago my subconscious stopped trying to torture me with monsters and last-minute tests or work assignment and went to unsolvable or a-logical puzzles. Like, "You must arrange these names in numeric order and lay them out in the shape of grass." I'd wake up both stressed out and pissed off that my brain had been able to trick me, again, into getting all worked up.

But I hadn't had a real nightmare in many years. Until a few months ago.

I watch "Mad Men" and love it. I think it's the closest thing to poetry that TV has generated. And because it's about marketing, my field, the metaphors used often apply to my life directly, even if the substance doesn't.

One thing that became clear to me as I watched the first few years of the show was that, on some level, I wanted to be Don Draper. He is a philandering, shallow, self-centered, self-denying, chain-smoking, alcoholic, inveterate liar whose choices have made him deeply unhappy, probably unlovable and, I fear, eventually doomed.

But lawd a' mighty, what a very fine looking man. With a job that is, basically, the dream of anybody in Old School Marketing Town -- the Idea Guy. The guy who is paid to simply Think the New Thing.

And he's good at that. He's not telling tales when it comes to his job... which is thinking of new tales to tell. So, yeah... Of course he's an advertising genius. He's been spinning and branding his life forever. It's deep doo-doo and I love it and, some days, I fear it.

But still... Yeah. Don. Jeez. On some level, I would've loved to have been him.

Until my nightmare.

I often dream exceptionally realistic scenes and people. I've had dreams whose scenery and players I remember with more detail than my entire sophomore year at high school. Really crisp, colorful, highly exacting scenes.

This was one of those.

In it, I was older than the 48 I am now. It seemed maybe... late 50's. Maybe early 60's. I had thinning hair. Yeah, for those who know me, no... That wasn't the nightmare. I was wearing an expensive three-piece suit and sitting in an opulent, sky-high office. Big office. Great view of some urban metropolis... Maybe NYC, maybe Chicago or Boston. Didn't matter. But it was gorgeous. Floor-to-ceiling windows. Thick, dark red carpet. Huge oak desk.

One wall was covered with pictures of me with famous people in various settings. Clients, friends, vacation buddies, etc. It also had various degrees and awards displayed. And the shelves were likewise filled with trophies and awards and mementos of a very successful career.

In the dream, I knew who I was. The head creative guy at one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. Don Draper + 20 years. I had more money than the Catholic Church. I had entire offices full of people working for me. I had power and influence. I was The Guy You Called When You Needed The Idea That Will Save You.

I was not a bad man. I was not evil. I was not hated by my employees. I was just very, very dedicated to doing my job.

And I knew, in the dream, that that had had (fun to say three times fast) some personal costs. I was in the process of a third divorce. I had pictures of kids from all three marriages on my desk. And I was looking at them when the phone rang.

It was my second wife, with whom I knew I had eventually come to be quite cordial. Her name came up on the Caller ID, and I answered expecting to hear about some event that she wanted me to attend or someone who needed a job or an introduction. We were socially close.

No. She had called to tell us our daughter, who was 22, had killed herself with a drug overdose.

I have never, in any dream, felt the kind of sheer and complete terror/horror and pain as I did at that moment. I felt responsible for her death and my wife's completely numb grief. I couldn't breathe. I looked at the pictures of my kids on the desk and felt like the entire world should end so that I didn't have to feel that way anymore.

I prayed to God that I could go back in time and change something. Whatever that might be. Something that would keep this horrible, painful, shattering thing from happening. Prayed that I could take The Other Path. That I could choose differently and do things differently and be another man that wasn't the man who was about to vomit on the nice, dark red rug.

And then I woke up.

And for about half a second, I thought that my real life was, in fact, the second chance. That I had been that man... that slightly balding, rich, successful, powerful man. And that I had been sent back to do it again. To live a different life. To be... me. Instead of him.

What an awesome dream. What an awesome, awesome dream.

Now I watch "Mad Men" with a lot less angst. Because I know that, no matter how much I might envy Don his chiseled good looks, I will never, ever again envy his fate.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Film review of "Ex Machina:" soft core Pornocchio

Note: there will be no spoilers in this that aren't in the trailer. Other than to say, if anything in the movie surprises you, you haven't ever read, seen or considered anything about AI. 

There is a certain genre of film that seems to want to replace ideas, dialogue, action or plot with any/all of the following:
  • Long, slow pans of empty rooms
  • Long, slow pans of empty landscapes
  • Long, slow shots of the actors sitting, thinking
  • Long, slow shots of the actors sleeping
  • Long, slow shots of the actors walking through empty rooms
  • Long, slow...
You get the picture. There's usually either creepy electronica of some kind in the background or vaguely classical compositions that feel both eerie and elusive. There's a sense that you are being given time to digest the depth and purpose of the sparse dialogue. You're being invited to soak in the ambiance in order to pick up on the subtle double and/or hidden meanings. You're allowed to peer inside an editorial process by which, like Proust, the film maker explicitly makes known the structure of the internal by exposing the art of the external.

Or whatever.

I often like these movies. As a change of pace, especially, from stuff like the "Variously Fast and Furiouser" or the upcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road" shenanigans that should, it seems, come with a warning that it might cause epilepsy or a micro stroke. It's nice to go slow, enjoy the dialogue and have some pretty things to watch and listen to.

Up to a point. And then it's just boring and you realize that, maybe, the director and script writer didn't have that much to say after all and are filling 45 minutes of the film with long, slow pans of [for x = 1-?, next x].

There are lots of interesting discussions and observations and plots to pull out of the subject of "strong" artificial intelligence. That is, some kind of man-made program that goes beyond calculation into the real of cognition. "Ex Machina" is, explicitly, a long form exploration of a Turing Test, by which a reclusive, kinda douchey billionaire means to use one of his employees to determine if his artificial intelligence is truly intelligent.

We know, having seen the trailing and going into the movie, that the answer has to be "Yes." Because of the 4th Law of Robotics: hot chick robots are totally alive. Again... if you're six years old and the concept is new to you, there may be some interesting bits (ahem) in here... but for the rest of us, it's a foregone conclusion that she must be alive, because she's cute, petite, has somber dark eyes and looks directly at the camera in a wistful sort of longing way.

It's soft core Pornocchio.

I know, that was in the title of the review, but I'm inordinately pleased with myself over that one.

The two male leads do a decent acting job. The females aren't really allowed to, because if they were too emotional that would seem... I don't know. Non-robotic? Out of character in a film that is overly serious? I would have enjoyed seeing Ava, the robot girl, laugh or do a jig or anything besides seem properly grim and fey.

Anyway... I enjoyed it more than this review might indicate. There are a few interesting moments. There are some really dumb technology things that I won't complain about because it would be tedious for you and me. Except for one, which I'll leave as a question for anyone else who has seen the film:

Key cards? Srsly?

Anyway. I'd give the film a solid "C." Nice CGI, lots of pretty cinematography and enough little, "Oh, that was a nice little bit," to keep it from being super boring. The discussion around a Jackson Pollock painting is one of those saving graces.

I would have been much more interested if the robot looked like me.


Unrelated to the film... Something to keep in mind when thinking about or discussing strong AI... When (if) it comes, it may have an intelligence that we do not recognize at all. Or it may not recognize us as intelligent. Or we, humans and AI, might completely miss each other. Like a sea creature and a mountain butterfly. Same world, different worlds. The idea that we'll design something enough like us to love, hate, talk to, fuck or frighten us is a kind of anthropomorphism in and of itself.

That might make an interesting movie, too.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"Kingsman" review: like the Piranha Bros., cheery but violent

In the Monty Python sketch, "The Piranha Brothers," the eponymous siblings are described as, "A cheery lot. Cheery... but violent." I can't think of a better description of the overall tone of "The Kingsman" than that.

For a movie whose action starts relatively slowly, there ends up being a lot of cheery violence. I mean... a lot a lot. If you are disturbed by the gratuitous deaths of hundreds of bystanders and generally innocent (or at least non-main-villainous) crowds of fellow humans... think twice. If, however, you can take your bloodbaths with a handful of salt, you'll find yourself doing that thing where you laugh and go, "Awww... Garrrg... Blaaahhhh..." at the same time. A kind of laugh-groan-yuck noise where you laugh because it's well done and, frankly, pretty funny but groan because, well... lots of death. And then you feel bad because you're laughing at people getting their blanks blanked off or blanked up or blanked in... and then you feel bad for feeling bad because, really... did you go to this movie thinking it would be a serious treatment of... er... anything.

Warning... mild spoilers coming about some character attributes, but nothing that will spoil the plot. I promise. Because if you don't know the plot, you've never seen a tongue-in-cheek spy movie.

Colin is great. Love seeing him playing, essentially, a classier version of Bond. The ass kickings he hands (foots?) out are the main joy of the film. The main character hunk (don't know him, don't care) did a fine job of jogging through almost every "lower class kid surprises his 'betters' and makes good" trope in the book. Samuel L. Jackson (with an inexplicable lisp) is... just odd. Don't understand the casting, didn't understand his character's motivation (not surprising: it was given 11 seconds), don't understand the reasoning behind his Grand Evil Scheme. He serves his purpose only barely, which is a shame, as I generally love SLJ. His henchman (henchwoman?), Gazelle, played by Sofia Boutella has prosthetics similar to the "Flex-Foot Cheetah" legs but, of course, with blades in them. And while that makes for a neat henchwoman gimmick, it could have been much more interestingly used. Yes, there are a couple good fights where she bounced around on them, weaving a ballet of death. But it seemed like whomever was in charge of Colin's fights got the good writers/choreographers, and she got the 2nd stringers. Similarly, the spy gizmos were somewhat disappointing and all, essentially, warmed-over Bondage items.

The tone is, really, what saves this movie from being average. It doesn't take itself seriously, doesn't expect you to, and -- having given itself (and us) that kind permission -- goes off in its chosen direction with willful abandon. The couple major surprises that are popped on us (that's a pun; come back after you've seen the picture) are fun and inventive and the filming is joyously over-the-top music-video-meets-sam-peckinpah. While there is not a lot of meat on this bone, there is also no fat. Which means... I guess... It's just a bone. Which, as dogs will tell you, makes a fine toy.

I give it a B+ and encourage anyone who can enjoy casual, almost glib and merry buckets of colorful violence to check it out. As said of Douglas Piranha, "When he was young, he was keen on boxing. But when he learned to walk, he took up putting a boot in the groin."

If that sentence makes you smile at all, you'll like "The Kingsman."

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Risk for two: mad mods for classic board game

A Facebook discussion about the various versions of Risk (LOTR, Star Wars, etc.) and different rulesets about reinforcements reminded me of the insanely modded version of the game I played when I was a kid with my friend, Derek. We did a lot of camping in those days, even in the cold months at either end of the season, and that often meant a few hours inside a camper or tent if it was particularly nasty out. Derek was a couple years older than me and introduced me to both Risk itself, and to the idea that you can play whatever rules you want, as long as everyone agrees ahead of time. I was around 12 or 13, and my brother wasn't quite old enough to enjoy more complex games yet, so Derek and I ended up modding the hell out of Risk, since playing standard rules with two players is both boring and infuriating.

Any of the following rules/mods can be taken alone, or lumped together. Or, of course, altered until unrecognizable from the original.

1. City States

Probably the most important for making two-player play a bit less unbalanced. After picking your colors, take a third color (we always used black) and assign at least one random territory in each continent as an independent city state. We generally put one each in Australia and S. America, two in N. America, Africa and Europe and three in Asia. Each city state gets 10 units. They are not reinforced unless attacked; after any attack on a city state that doesn't wipe it out, add one unit of partisans. After a player attacks a city state for the first time, it will then get a one die standard attack roll against all adjacent territories in which you have units. If that roll wipes out the last player unit, the territory becomes annexed to the city state with 5 units.

The city state rules make it hard to both attack the human opponent, defend against him/her and try to wipe out a whole continent. When combined with the alternate reinforcement rules below, it makes the game take a LOT LONGER, but allows for some very different strategic planning. Including deliberate pestering of city states near your opponents main areas and deliberately losing to them in order to create new annexes. Heh.

2. Alternate Reinforcements

We dumped the regular reinforcement rules even in 3+ person play. Way too much swinging back-and-forth with huge swings based on the cards. Three main changes:
  • Regular reinforcements = territories owned divided by two when it's your turn and divided by three when it's anybody else's. Yes, you get reinforcements when it's not your turn. Attacker deploys reinforcements first. Again, this makes for a longer and more defensive game.
  • Continents' value adjusted up by +3 for each. This has the effect of making the smaller continents more valuable relatively. 
  • Cards reinforcements: turn over a random card each turn. That territory gets +3 reinforcements. If playing with City States, they don't get them. We basically hated how important random card matching and hording became in later game stages.

3. Navies

This is a weird one, but we had fun with it. At the beginning of the game, take a 2nd color for your navies. You use the big (x10) pieces as carrier groups and get 3 of them. You use the little ones as destroyers and get 10. They can start on the coast of any territory you have. You can move them once per turn to the coast of an adjacent territory. Carrier groups can transport up to 10 troops each and  can shell adjacent territories based on two-times the number of troops carried. Carrier groups defend, however, as only one unit, plus any destroyers in the same "sea territory." Carrier groups cannot attack other sea units. So while they are powerful, they are vulnerable. You can't have more than 3 carrier groups and 10 destroyers (we defended this idea based on fuel availability, but we were pre-teens, so whatever) at any time, but if they are destroyed, you can trade regular units in any territory adjacent to sea at the rate of 3 units per destroyer and 10 per carrier group. This makes your original carrier groups relatively valuable and encourages irrational expansionism that often comes up short. You're welcome.

4. Nukes

At any time you can trade 20 units in one territory for a nuclear missile with defensive strength of zero. There is a three turn count-down, during which if the nuke is destroyed, it goes away. On the third turn after it was created, it can be used to either: a) wipe out all enemy (or city state) units in one territory, anywhere in the world (or all sea units in one sea territory), or; b) halt all enemy reinforcements (offensive and defensive), worldwide, for the next two attacking turns. This was the "EMP" version of the attack, and we thought ourselves very clever.

- - - - -

We tried some rules for air units (fighters and bombers) similar to the navy rule, but that got too complicated... At some point, you can just hang up Risk and play Tactics II or Panzer Blitz or something. We also tried some rules that prevented massive, multi-turn build ups of forces based on the idea that the populace would eventually not like huge standing armies hanging out for multiple years. But that required turn counters and... bleh.

Anyway. I just realized today that I had never chronicled these most excellent mods, and the Internet is where I'm supposed to put this stuff so that the group mind can benefit.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Heisenberg's Second Date

You said, "Yes." I don't know why.
The first went, I thought... bad.
To say the least. Your grace,
my clumsy humor not matched
so much as all opposed and all that
wine spilled on and in your shoe.
Why would you say, "Yes" to more?
I thought I knew before I called.
I thought I knew half way through
the first. All the awkward
silences. The food sent back.
The mention of the film
your ex was in. All that
and still the magic, unhoped... "Yes."

The joy of being wrong
is in me like a flare of burning paper.
And now I do not know
where this will go
but I am glad, so glad,
I so fucked up
the measurements.