Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Mindset Changing: Why Slave Ship Captain James Irving Couldn’t See The Irony of Being Enslaved and What We Can Learn from His Experience

One of the basic rules of planning communication goals is to make them achievable. Some things you can change and others you just have to live with. Maybe you can convince someone to buy your product, and maybe you can change their attitude about the environment, but some changes are just too big for one step, or perhaps even for one generation.

A new book has just been published that contains a beautiful example of this. Eighteenth century slave ship captain James Irving wrote many letters to his family which were never intended for publication. He also wrote at a time before the abolitionist movement when no one questioned slavery so his accounts of his experiences are uncensored and, to modern eyes, astonishingly candid. You can read the whole story in the book: Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Liverpool English Texts and Studies) by Suzanne Schwarz

I won’t repeat here what he said about his human cargoes, since practically every word he wrote is offensive to Africans and African-Americans but there is one episode that makes his story perfect movie fodder: after years of transporting Africans into slavery he was shipwrecked on the coast of Morocco and enslaved himself. After 14 months of slavery he returned home and you might expect that he would be a changed man and at least support the embryonic abolitionists. Well you would be wrong. As soon as he could he found another ship and went back to his old ways.

To modern minds this seems appalling, and everyone who hears the story is amazed at this final twist, but they shouldn’t be because it reflects the mindset of his era. He had no sympathy for his own cargoes because he didn’t consider them human, but to enslave an Englishman was scandalous. And if you can’t get inside this mindset try asking yourself if a man who has spent time in jail will stop buying eggs laid by chickens in cages because he empathizes with their plight. Of course not, they are just chickens.

This extraordinary story has a lesson for us all. There are some things that people just don’t see and you should never plan to change these attitudes with a PR campaign. Even more dramatic methods like giving slavers a taste of slavery don’t work because their mind is programmed in a way that they just can’t see your point of view. But on the positive side attitudes can be changed, though it takes time, patience and consistency. James Irving never understood the humor or the irony of his situation, but attitudes have changed so much over the last two hundred years that we find it hard to imagine. So there is hope.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Wikipedia Makes Me Clever: A Critique of Critical Critiques of the Online Encyclopedia

Hardly a day goes by without some educator protesting about the damage done to learning by Wikipedia. Students cut and paste text directly, they claim, or they repeat one-sided arguments and false stories planted by vandals and spin doctors. Actually I can well believe that students do these things and I am sure that had I grown up in the web 2.0 era I might have done the same, but this is no reflection on the quality of Wikipedia but rather a wasted opportunity to educate students about research techniques.

Pretty much everyone knows that Wikipedia is not perfect, but still it is an immensely useful source for a first quick look and as a source of links to primary sources, but anyone who is using the Wikipedia itself as a primary source badly needs to learn the basics of research. Rather than banning the use of Wikipedia, educators can actually use it as a very convenient, popular and well known resource for learning some key concepts of researching. To begin with you learn never to trust a single source, even if that distils the wisdom of the crowd. Pretty soon users understand that some pages are fairly risk-free – the History of Shoe Polish, for example – while other pages are obvious targets for vandalism and manipulation. Then you also learn to follow up the references and judge their trustworthiness.

For example, there is or was a Wikipedia page alleging that former French President Jacques Chirac preferred drinking Corona beer to wine. Now if the references cited articles in Le Monde, Le Figaro and Le Nouvel Observateur then I might have half believed it. In this case, though, the only source is a single article in a South American trade magazine quoting a single waiter who asserts that he saw Chirac drinking Corona. Googling “Chirac drinks Corona” turns up no other sources and I am pretty sure that if the president of France drank Mexican beer someone would have noticed it. My judgment in this case is that the story is very dubious, though I did not delete it because I use it as an example.

In fact the very open nature of Wikipedia has the healthy effect of making readers view the content with a critical eye. It is not likely that people will lie about the freezing point of kerosene but I would be very dubious about any article describing living political leaders. In addition Wikipedia follows the encyclopedic principle that everything must be sourced to external references, this means that you can follow up the references, something people should do anyway.

As for the claim that students cut and paste from Wikipedia, well they could do the same with any encyclopedia and it is always obvious anyway. Nobody should be fooled by the average student who suddenly starts using language that is obviously way over their head, and if they were smart enough to paraphrase they’d be able to do the assignment without help anyway.

And by packaging information in a convenient place Wikipedia actually makes them much smarter than they were in the old days of library stacks. I am sure that in the old days you could find just as much information by looking in books, but it took so long only anyone who wasn’t a full time researcher rarely bothered to check as much background as the average student today.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Newcastle of the Pope: Why CACC is not a Good Name for a Company and Yes, There Really is a Place Called Pukeberg

Some places have names that are romantic or glamorous: think Hollywood, Saint Tropez or Timbuktu. Others are not so fortunate: Dusseldorf in Germany, Pittsburgh in the USA and Pukeberg, Sweden come to mind. For the English the town of Newcastle is firmly in the second category. Not exactly England’s Beverly Hills, it was long famous as the place coal came from though these days it is perhaps more famous because of a brand of beer called Newcastle Brown Ale.

That’s why to English people “The Newcastle of the Pope” is such an incongruous and faintly absurd expression, yet that is the literal meaning of a wine that’s made just a short way from here in the Avignon area – a wine called Chateauneuf du Pape. To the French guy who coined this name it probably had a very literal meaning in the sense of a castle that is new that was built by the Pope, but through use it acquires a value of its own – a process recognized in trademark law. So, for example, the Sharp brand for consumer electronics was originally from a mechanical pencil called “Ever Sharp” but over the years has lost its association with sharpness, so it was accepted as a trademark for TVs even though you could consider it descriptive, something not permitted by trademark law.

And in fact this is an important principle to remember when you name a product, a service or a company. When you ask focus groups they will tell you that the name sounds “funny” or merely laugh at it. But these are the same people who laughed at “Walkman”, “iPod” and pretty much any other globally successful brand. The fact of the matter is that any name sounds funny until it builds that association with the product that gives it a meaning and life of its own. When your parents first heard “walkman” they were probably thinking of the component words “walk” and “man”, but today the word makes you think of an old time personal cassette tape player and the brand was so successful that it came dangerously close to being a generic term – the nightmare of trademark lawyers.

I can see the value of running potential names for products past a few potential users, but only to identify unexpected problems – associations that maybe you hadn’t considered, or confusion with other products. For example, I would recommend to the authorities in China to reconsider using the name Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China – CACC – because it has an unfortunate resonance in some languages. But when people say that a new name just sounds “funny” in the sense of funny-peculiar then ignore them, because everything sounds funny at first. I am sure that many generations ago the wine drinkers of the Rhone valley scoffed when the local “cave au vins” labeled a tasty new red “Newcastle of the Pope”. Sometimes when I am in the area I can imagine the people muttering “...but it sounds funny”, in French of course.

And yes, there really is a place called Pukeberg Sweden, though the locals pronounce it like “Pooka-Barry” and not like you think. It’s in the south east, in an area famous for its glass blowing works, where you can become the proud owner of genuine Pukeberg glassware and send your friends a postcard saying “Greetings from Pukeberg”.
More details at: http://www.pukeberg.com/

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Future Thinking: Recording Data for Playback Media Yet to Be Invented

Recently researchers discovered what was billed as the earliest sound recording ever – a brief clip of a French folk song recorded by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in Paris on April 9, 1860. Actually de Martinville never intended to record sound to be played back. He was simply interested in capturing on paper a visual representation of sound for analysis, but with modern technology this paper can now be scanned and converted into sound by means that he could never have anticipated. (See the New York Times for details, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/arts/27soun.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin)

This reminded me that very often there is a means to capture inputs suitable for some future playback mechanism long before this mechanism exists. For example, decades before color photography became a mainstream product some photographers were capturing color separated black and white negatives for display using colored light projectors. Later these negatives could be used to make prints using color printing paper. In the same way pioneers of moving film could easily have made sets of negatives that would have allowed people to make color movie prints later when the technology was available, though I know of no case where this was actually done.

Sometimes, like in the de Martinville case, the inputs are recorded accidentally, as in the case of early non-electrical sound recordings where multiple recorders were sometimes used to record many original masters. As a result it is occasionally possible to find two recordings from two separate microphones, giving a true stereo effect. There are some authentic stereo recordings of early bluesmen assembled in this way.

Animated cartoons, too, could have been created long before movie technology was invented. Leonardo da Vinci could conceivably have made hundred of drawings that when assembled in a flip book would give animated drawings; it was also not beyond the technology of the day to make a “What the Butler Saw” machine. With technology that developed 500 years later these drawings could have been photographed and projected as cartoons.

More recently photographers have started experimenting with High dynamic range photography ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HDRI ), where digital photographic techniques are used to capture visual information that cannot be viewed directly using today’s prints and displays but can be stored in anticipation of the development of this technology. At its simplest this consists of taking the same picture three times with three different exposure values – a technique used by traditional photographers to ensure one perfect exposure. One of the images will be on average underexposed but will show more detail in the highlights; another will be overexposed in the highlights but will show more details in the shadows. The data from all three images can be combined in a file which holds more information than we can use today, though there are techniques for mapping these images to a practical format which has a strange, shadow-less look.

Similarly, anyone can capture inputs for future 3d video projection technology: all you need to do is record the video using two cameras side by side and then just wait; eventually 3d projection video will be in every home and your baby videos will not look so dated. Suitable display and projection technologies may not be in stores next year, but most of you will still be around when it comes.

So what are the practical lessons from all of this? For important events and actualities maybe you need to be forward thinking and considering capturing some extra data that might be appreciated by future generations. In my own small way I have already started by recording all video in 16:9 format – old style 5:4 TV format looks sooo dated -- and by capturing some photos for future high dynamic range technologies. But if you are in a position to be capturing images that are likely to have value in the future I would seriously consider thinking ahead to future media and anticipating what kind of data will be needed. For example, at the inauguration of a head of state or a public building expected to last a long time I’d give some thought to recording some video in both stereo and high dynamic range. At home you might do the same for baby pictures. One day someone will thank you for this.