From Mixtapes to The OA


The funny thing about a convention is that it often takes something to break it before we even notice it is there.

The OA, a recent TV series produced by Netflix, is a case in point.

Rather than follow a standard length for each installment, the eight episodes of The OA vary in running time from 30 to 70 minutes.

This would have been unthinkable when programmes were made to fit into rigid broadcast schedules used by TV networks around the world.

But The OA is available to stream directly by viewers, at the time and place of their choosing, so there is no specific allotment of time to fill.

The OA has discarded other conventions too. The creators of the series know viewers often binge-watch several episodes in one go on Netflix. And so there is no need to provide a recap of what has previously taken place at the start of each episode.

The makers of the show can just focus on telling the story.

We have been here before.

Vinyl LPs, which dominated the music industry in the 60s and 70s, played for around 45 minutes in total, and so albums typically came with 12 songs lasting three and half minutes each on average.

I grew up in the cassette era, and made hundreds of 90 minute TDK mixtapes using a twin cassette deck – with high-speed dubbing and Dolby B no less!

I remember trying to time the songs so not a second was wasted before the tape ran out on either side (because fast-forwarding was boring after all).

Meanwhile the CD imposed a new 74 minute time limit, which encouraged artists to reissue their back catalogues and add bonus tracks. In the early 1990s, this led me to spend a fortune on Japanese imports of my favourite band’s albums, plucked from Ear Ere Records on Penny Street in Lancaster.

Playlists on iTunes and later Spotify changed all that. These days I create “mixtapes” of what ever length feels right, and I tend to listen to them on shuffle rather than worrying about sequencing them in any particular order.

There is an argument for how constraints encourage creativity. But I prefer the freedom of breaking the old conventions. And the makers of The OA clearly agree.

Read the original article here.


From Mixtapes to The OA

Bricks from the brink


News that Lego is now the world’s biggest toy company will not be a surprise to anyone who has ventured into a toy department recently.

Lego occupies more shelf space than ever, with 18 different product themes designed to appeal to just about everyone, from Duplo and Ninjago to Friends and Technic.

At home my two sons – aged 9 and 5 – seem to talk of little else. At Christmas they both asked for Lego sets, and when they are not building with Lego bricks they are flicking through Lego magazines or asking if they can play a Lego app or watch the trailer for the forthcoming Lego Batman film.

The place they would most like to visit again? Legoland.

It was all started by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter who had scraped a living making wooden toys in the tiny town of Billund during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

After naming his company Lego, from the Danish term “leg godt” – which means “play well” – Christiansen took a gamble after the Second World War and bought a plastic moulding machine. By 1949 he had started producing interlocking plastic bricks, and quickly realised he was on to something.

But it has not all been smooth sailing. Just 15 years ago things looked bleak for the company as it faced bankruptcy.

Problems had started in the 1990s when cheaper copycat toys with compatible bricks had started eating into Lego sales. As video consoles exploded in popularity it looked like Lego was about to be be packed away in a dusty attic alongside Meccano, Hornby and Dinky.

Lego fought back hard with a dizzying array of new launches, from clothing lines to theme parks, and licensing deals with blockbusters like Star Wars and Harry Potter, but the company was losing its identity and burning through cash in the process.

The turnaround came after the appointment of a new CEO in 2004, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, who sold off or closed the bits of the business that were a distraction, and inspired Lego employees to be creative again by focusing back on the brick, and building up from there.

Lego is still a family owned business. And with annual sales of over $5 billion that plastic moulding machine turns out to have been a pretty good investment.

Read the original article here.


Bricks from the brink

On Autopilot

teslaIn 1914 the crowd at an aviation competition in Paris were amazed – and presumably slightly alarmed – when a man named Lawrence Sperry flew by with his hands off the controls of his aircraft.

Sperry was demonstrating the world’s first autopilot system. It was rudimentary and worked only to keep a plane flying level in a straight line, but it represented the start of a quest to automate tasks that would otherwise be undertaken by potentially tired and otherwise unreliable humans.

Autopilot is now considered one of the greatest safety features of modern aviation. But sometimes problems occur, and these problems require the attention of the crew.

In a study of 37 serious air accidents by the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States it was found that 31 were caused in part by inadequate monitoring. As the New Yorker magazine put it: “Nothing had failed; the crew had just neglected to properly monitor the controls.”

The air crews had been lulled into complacency and even boredom because automated systems do so much, so dependably, day in and day out. By the time they noticed something was wrong it was too late.

This issue is about to get much bigger with the rise of self-driving cars.

Tesla already fit their vehicles with a feature called Enhanced Autopilot, which can do everything from adjusting the speed and changing lanes to taking exits and parking.

One day it will almost certainly be the norm. But it seems inevitable there will be a period of painful adjustment as technology takes over while still requiring us to pay close attention – a potentially impossible ask.

In May last year the driver of a Tesla Model S died in a collision in Florida after a witness reported he had been watching a Harry Potter movie. The company said in a statement, “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Tesla went on to note, “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”

And of course we should remain alert. But can we?

Read the original article here.


On Autopilot

Wine experts are charlatans (but does it matter?)


Every July a panel of seventy wine connoisseurs gathers in sun-drenched Sacramento to judge and award prizes at the California State Fair in a blind-tasting competition.

It is a prestigious event with a history stretching back to 1850. For winemakers a gold, silver or bronze medal offers the opportunity to gain status, publicity and – perhaps most importantly – sales.

But the owner of one small vineyard in California, armed with some knowledge of statistics, had real doubts about whether anyone really can consistently judge wine. And so Robert Hodgson decided to conduct a test (or lay a trap, depending on how you look at these things).

With the agreement of the head judge, Hodgson entered 100 bottles of wine into the competition, and secretly ran each of the wines past the judging panel not once but three separate times. He did this for four consecutive years. And then he published the results.

Just as Hodgson predicted many of the judges awarded wildly different scores to exactly the same wine. Even judges that were consistent with their scores in one year were usually terrible the next.

The problem was not unique to the judges at the California State Fair. Hodgson looked at how wines performed at blind-tasting competitions across America, and found a gold award winner in one was no more likely than any other wine to win in another.

The whole thing was seemingly random, with the only real winners being the competition organisers who charge a hefty fee for each entry.

Hodgson’s findings have been widely publicised, but little has changed. When a wine wins an award, however dubious the judging process might be, you can bet it will be proudly displayed on the bottle.

And that is because an award logo is one of the visual cues we look for to help validate whether we are making the right purchase decision.

Faced with a wall of wine bottles we might still be left with a decision to make even after narrowing our choice by region, grape and price.

If the brand is unknown the shiny medal on the neck of the bottle might be the thing that swings it. And so the show goes on.

Read the original article here.


Wine experts are charlatans (but does it matter?)

Against all odds printed books thrive

The Art of Looking Sideways by Alan Fletcher

When Amazon introduced the Kindle e-reader in 2007 it looked like the writing was on the wall for printed books.

Just as the iPod had decimated CD sales when launched by Apple six years earlier, it looked certain that the Kindle would do the same to physical book sales.

All the signs were there. How could bulky paper books possibly compete with a lightweight device that could store a whole bookcase?

And the Kindle was a huge success. Sales of e-books grew from near zero to around a third of all book sales in just a few years. Book publishers were convinced this trend would continue. Bookshops, already under pressure from the sale of physical books online, started to close in greater numbers, including many much loved independent stores.

But now something strange is happening. E-book sales have flatlined. Physical book sales are growing again. It turns out the printed book, with a history stretching back many hundreds of years, is a resilient old thing.

Some people have drawn parallels with the resurgence of vinyl records, which are growing in sales too. But this is from a very low base, and still accounts for only 3% of the UK music market. It is also not happening at the expense of music streaming, which continues to explode in popularity.

And there is another difference. Once music is playing it is in the air. A book, however, is something that you hold in your hands. Paper is tactile. It has weight.

Books are often beautifully made, from the choice of paper stock and binding to the typography and graphics. A book can be something you admire as an object before you have read a single word.

And when you do start to read there are no distractions. No internet browser or Facebook app.

Like most children my two young sons would probably spend all day every day playing on an iPad if only they were allowed, and yet surprisingly they have never once asked to swap a bedtime story in print for one on a screen.

For all these reasons and more it felt good to give and receive a bunch of books this Christmas.

Read the original article here.


Against all odds printed books thrive

Pablo Picasso and the Locksmiths’ Paradox


One warm summer’s day, or so the story goes, Pablo Picasso was sitting quietly in a park when a woman recognised the famous artist, approached him, and insisted he sketch her likeness.

With a smile Picasso is said to have reached for his sketchpad and created her portrait with a single stroke of his pencil.

Taking the paper in her hands the woman expressed astonishment at how he had captured her very essence perfectly. And then she enquired as to the price.

“Five thousand francs,” Picasso replied.

“Why, that’s absurd!” the woman exclaimed. “It took you only seconds to create my portrait.”

“On the contrary,” Picasso replied. “It took my entire life.”

I was reminded of this story after reading about a conversation between the writer Dan Ariely and a locksmith.

The locksmith told Ariely that things had been much simpler at the start of his career.

Back then when people hired him he was inexperienced and took a long time. Sometimes he even broke their lock in the process. But his customers were always grateful for his strenuous efforts, and did not mind paying him for his hard work.

The locksmith found to his surprise that as he gained experience, and discovered how to open almost any lock quickly and without damage, his customers started to resent paying his fees.

How, they asked incredulously, could something that took so little time and apparent effort cost so much?

The locksmiths’ paradox is a problem for many companies. If a customer considers only the length of time a task takes, and not the time invested in learning the skills that make it possible, or the benefit of the end result, they may object to paying very much for the work.

The way for companies to avoid falling into this trap is to communicate their true value to the customer, above and beyond their basic competence.

Successful locksmiths do not sell their ability to quickly open doors, that should be a given, instead they sell their responsiveness and trustworthiness, and their ability to save you from the uncertainty of being locked out on a cold winter’s night.

Read the original article here.


Pablo Picasso and the Locksmiths’ Paradox

I can see why you might feel that way


Many of us will give or receive an Apple product this Christmas, and that might involve a trip to the Apple Store. From the store design to the customer service, there is no shopping experience quite like it. When people write books or give presentations about retail they almost always use Apple as an example of how to do it well.

Nothing in the Apple Store happens by accident. From the smiling person greeting you at the door to the folks behind the Genius Bar in blue t-shirts, everything is meticulously planned down to the finest detail. And that includes the language Apple employees use.

A few years ago a copy of the Apple Store training manual was leaked to the technology news website Gizmodo and it makes for revealing reading. The manual outlines the psychological techniques Apple staff are taught to use when dealing with customers.

If you describe a problem you are experiencing with your iPhone to an Apple employee the issue will often be repeated back to you using different, more positive phrasing.

Certain words are banned entirely. For example, a computer does not “crash”, it just “does not respond.” A laptop never runs “hot”, at most it is “warm.”

Emphasised throughout is an instruction to use empathy whenever possible – for employees to put themselves in customers’ shoes.

If a customer says a MacBook is too expensive, a suggested reply employees might use is, “I can see how you’d feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it’s a real value because of all the built-in software capabilities.” Complain about almost anything and the staff will most likely reply with a variation of, “I can see why you might feel that way,” before reframing the conversation.

Reading these approved responses I realise I’ve seen them somewhere else – in a chapter from a parenting manual on how to defuse toddler tantrums.

In many ways this is classic sales training. Displaying empathy is one of the first tactics all salespeople are taught. The only difference with Apple is they go so far with it.

But it works. Apple has the highest sales per square foot of any major retailer in the world.

Read the original article here.


I can see why you might feel that way