Archive for February, 2008

Here’s a set of insights from John Bryant.  They are particularly potent considering the upheaval in media, news, politics and pop culture.  We often appeal to mentalistic terminology to understand and explain the complexity of behavior at play on our sites, in our classes, in our cities and at the polls.

Here’s what John has to say:

The explanatory emptiness of much of our ordinary talk involving mental events is not evidence that mentalistic notions have no place in a scientific account of human behavior.  It is evidence of the power of conditioning of behavior and a lack of understanding of what it means to be ‘scientific’.

As humans, we often explain each other’s behaviors by alluding to mental states such as intentions, beliefs, and desires. These are all non-observable. That is not the science part.  Using idiomatic terms allows people to communicate, albeit, in non-scientific or empirical ways.  Mental mechanics are inferred from watching other people’s behaviour and making analogies with their own mental world. Pointedly, they are all that is available to the citizen to understand behavior when metaphysics, superstition and agency get reinforced more than data-based science of behavior.

Partly because of this un-observability of private or mental events, behaviorists hold that to use these notions in explanations of behavior is un-real. When it is done we are basically using explanatory fictions which refer to a homunculus, a sort of inner person, i.e., a metaphysical inner agent which, of course, is no explanation at all.  Besides being un-scientific, these explanatory fictions confuse what we learn about our behavior and the behavior of the people around us that we care about.  Trouble is that their use in common communication has leaked over to scientific communication and for over the last 100 years a lack of a science of behavior has grown too slowly to push for keeping them separate. One of the reasons is that it is hard to tease the two types of communication apart when a scientific approach is a major threat to many would have built their value on pop science, intolerance and “science is for geeks” logic.

For the most part, we don’t understand how the behavior came to be, how or why it changed, why it goes away when it does or anything else.  That approach would take it out of the laboratory and into the streets where we, as a culture, can ill afford not to understand what is going on out there that created 9/11, Columbine, Virginia Tech and a 100,000 other senseless events that are not welcome.

Almost all of human behavior can be seen in terms of
* Learned Stimulus cues
* History of conditioning
* Current status or state
* Potential consequences for actions

Yes, behavior may start with reflexes and instincts with fixed action patterns but contingency management and combinations of rules that impact an organism are responsible for creating and maintaining who we are.

It is paradoxical to think of reinforcement as a simple mechanism as many, like Daniel Dennett, have surmised when it is just such simple rule-based operations that Conway’s Game of Life is based on and that generates anything but ‘simple’ behavior.

However, it occasioned me to compare Dennett and others with his reinforcement history are today [2008] in a similar predicament as was seen in 1920s.

In the 1920s things were changing and American social patterns were in chaos. [sound familiar?] Traditionalists, gentry of the nation were worried that everything valuable to them was ending. Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote was a brick around the neck of the established order. Young modernists struck out in other ways and no longer asked whether society would approve of their behavior and challenged everything. [As an aside: Polite society was not seen as reinforcing] Intellectual and social experimentation flourished. American’s danced to Jazz, showed their contempt for alcoholic prohibition, the social caste order, and debated abstract art and Freudian theories [topically more reinforcing even today than plotting schedules of reinforcement] . In a response to the new social patterns a wave of revivalism [now called fundamentalism] developed, becoming especially strong in the American cities and in the South.

Looking back, tensions evolved where the traditionalists had to make a stand on many fronts and one of those occurred in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom over a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, who was charged with illegally teaching that crazy theory of evolution. The Bible was at stake!  If the traditionalists didn’t make a stand they would lose yet another hallmark of their world.  For sure, integration of colored and whites would come soon. Guilt and the law mattered little as this trail was really a stand for traditional vs. relativist intellectual values.  The results that could never have been imagined would impact American society and foreign entanglements for generations to come.

More and more, the same can and has been said for the position of mentalists vs. the behaviorists.  People are interested in what’s going on.  They get cranky when anyone or thing says don’t look into that proverbial telescope.  Today things aren’t right with so many institutions like the family, business, governments, immigration, etc.  People are aware that there are a lot of different groups contending for each citizen’s attention, commitment and allegiance. For sure, if some of these contemporary ideas were not oppressed some groups could lose everything they had worked to acquire.

Be clear that one of those radical ideas is: “If we can explain behavior of organisms without invoking metaphysics, divine intervention, illusions of the spirit world or internal agents, maybe we’d be better off.”

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Somewhere along the way I lost capital letters and periods in my emails, IMs and other documents.

People started to notice.

Where did they go?

Blackberry, Office 2007, and other software took them from me! That’s right! Authoring software for mobile emails and office documents now does so much for me that it even caused me to stop hitting shift + letter when I start a sentence. Capitalization mistakes appear so frequently in my emails now because my primary email client is Thunderbird and it does not autocorrect.

At first, I thought it was a stylistic choice. Perhaps I picked up on Generation MySpace style or maybe the various companies I consult for conditioned me. I am the next ee cummings.


It took me some time to see it and isolate when and where I lost this behavior, but after going back through documents and emails, I lost it as soon as I got my blackberry 7130 and Office 2007 Beta 2 installation.

I’m not making this up. See Exhibit A, sample pre and post -blackberry and office 2007 emails. See Exhibit B for a primitive mistake frequency analysis.

Months and months and thousands of documents later my typing behavior is altered to the point where my capitalization and punctuation changed by style of communication. The chain of consequences is even more dramatic as people read my notes and docs differently, in a different mindset, with more or less urgency and so on.

Does it matter?

Yes. It does to me as I want to have more control over whether I’m saying what I mean to say. Punctuation, grammar, capitalization and other style guides make it slightly more possible for us to understand each other. As soon as those norms go out the door it’s communication anarchy with emails, phone calls and conversations filled with “huh? What does that mean?”

What am I going to do about it?
Pay attention.
Turn of the auto correct features.
Use my paper notebook more.
Slow down.


EXHIBIT A: Typical Emails Pre and Post Losing Style

Email from 1/21/2004 6:53 AM
Try resetting it to the details below and then test it by logging in as him. (be sure to log out though!)

I’ll call ya from the factory.


Email from 2/18/2008 8:18PM
well, well, well.

time to catch the prowler in a net… i’ll ping him and see what he’s into.


Exhibit B:
From 1/21/2004 – 2/18/2006: 1734 emails composed in sample set. 1.2 capitalization or punctuation errors per email.
From 2/19/2006 – 2/27/2008: 1567 emails composed in sample set. 2.9 capitalization or punctuation errors per email.

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John Bryant observes:

A combination of factors affecting this year’s Academy Awards viewership show on Sunday:

  • Gruesome /dark nature of many of the top films up for awards
  • Number of non-traditional film subjects
  • Writer’s strike got us away from TV too long and we didn’t come back that Sunday
  • Host was a wing-affiliated effete snob cable guy that was not popular with networks
  • Poor results at theaters for all but twenty movies during the past year
  • Campaign’s were more interesting than what anyone was allowed to say on air Sunday
  • Lack of interest in the pretty people now that we are moving due to bankruptcy
  • Read that there would be a 15 sec delay so to screen inappropriate comments
  • Decided four hours was better spent watching contestant humiliation game shows
  • Ran out of interest during Regis’ red carpet prattle with people that are boring in real life
  • Was hooked on one of 38 reality shows catapulted to prime time for last 4 months
  • 14% decrease in views = 14% increase in ticket cost of movies receiving homage

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John Bryant writes:

At the 80th Academy Awards Sunday Feb. 24th, 2008, an actress stood up and said that her award is an “accident” because she didn’t know how she got up there to receive her Oscar. No one can attend to the how this particular Oscar award came to be.  Besides “accident” being monocausalitis (see definition below) itself, she was probably responding to reality for her.  There are so many variables and interactions involved in winning an Oscar it is very hard for a person to ‘understand’ with any empirical certainty how it did happen!   That loosely translated to her as an “accident”.  Giving it a ‘cause’ like fate, luck, Buddha or alignment of the stars is preposterous.




Yes, it is a made up word but it represents a very serious brain freeze. Humans drift to monocausalitis whenever possible.  Quick links between one event and another are reinforced by others due to…


Û competition

Û access

Û information

Ü absolutism

Û # of approaches

Ü data validation


Simply put, “one problem; one solution” can also be seen as one event, one reason; one effect, one cause.  Very MBA-driven and very superficial science. 


Ernst Poppel coined the term in an Edge.com paper as far as I know.  Ernst is the neuroscientist and Director of the Institute for Medical Psychology, University of Munich and says that humans are victims of “evolutionary heritage being satisfied only if one and only one cause for a solution to a problem is identified.” I think that conclusion is bunk but it is an interesting launching point.


Single causes are simple, complete and represent closure in a life that seems increasingly complex and that escapes both understanding and conclusions. 


I am not sure that evolution is involved in monocausalitis as Poppel has suggested other than that detection of things in the environment is part of selection by consequences.  The consequences for finding a single or major ‘cause’ are almost universally reinforced.  Thus, the strategy that goes in that direction is repeated over and over; taught, mimicked, and copied. You see it all the time:

  • Book of the month revealing…
  • Cop shows… Game shows… Law and order brands…
  • Guru solution for…
  • Stock on the move due to…
  • Magic cures…
  • What the government (doctor, lawyer, baker, hair dresser, etc.) doesn’t want you to know…
  • Reasons for this, that, or the other thing…


The behavior of organisms is frickin’ complex.  Simplistic connections between behavior, world hunger, war, peace space exploration or a Super Bowl win are junk despite being the daily fare from Foxy talking heads cleverly passing themselves off as “newstainment.”  Move on.  Even the relationship between a PowerBar and getting homework done is not 1:1.  Fill your head with something you can count on: multi-causal relationships.


The scientific basis of the behavior or organism’s hasn’t advanced much for a zillion or reasons.  the ease with which we can claim a person is ‘evil’, talented, dumb, biased, towel head, female, liberal, fundamentalist, ADD or this and that dilutes any substantive understanding of behavior by helping to keep behavior ethereal rather than tackling its existing complexities.  


Don’t take my word for it!  Test monocausalitis for yourself.  If you can find a ‘single cause’ for anything send it to this sight.  We’ll post it and any information you can provide for others to rejoice in.   Believe me, it will be a big deal and the start of some awesome conversations.


If you see the telltale signs of monocausalitis anywhere, be suspicious, be very suspicious.  If you can, dig deeper.  In science, trust is not a virtue. 


Understand that the idea of ‘cause’ itself is not exactly cogent with what we know about how things work in the universe.  For 5 decades ‘cause’ has been a very low credibility concept of a mechanistic or Newtonian ilk.  Poppel’s appeal to end it in everyday usage is refreshing but improbable.  As a way of speaking, and thus thinking, it is too well established to have it go away swiftly.

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In October of 2006, Netflix released a $1,000,000 contest to improve their rating prediction/movie recommendation algorithms.  No one has won the prize yet (surprisingly).

I read the latest wired mag (i know, i know) which featured a contestant.  I’m easily inspired to work on difficult challenges.  I figure this will be good learning AND good research into software collaboration (one of my favorite topics). Yes, I’ve entered the fray as Team SocialMode.  Heck, I’ve been looking for a meaty project to put a bunch of my thoughts together.  This prize is perfect for that and it takes nothing more than access to cheap CPU cycles and a brain (both of those I have, which I have more of I don’t know.)

My approach will not be highly abstract.  Having built several Pay Per Click engines/behavioral targeting systems, simple content recommendation engines, search algos and a few collaborative filtering systems, my experience leads me to believe an improved algorithm will come from practical analysis of rating behavior, user interface behavior, exposure to movies to be rated (cognitive dissonance type concepts), clustering of practical movie meta data (e.g. I like anything with George Clooney, 10 explosions or more, or dinosaurs) and normalizing simple “flags” (all people dislike the Star Wars with Jar Jar, just need to adjust for an individuals rating scale).

Some assumptions of mine:

  • People rate things they haven’t seen
  • People rate in batches
  • People don’t rate as they watch
  • Viewing experience affects rating
  • Technical quality affects rating
  • There are Gender and Age differences
  • Every individual has a different 1-5 scale
  • It is cognitivily easier to rate something as 1 or 5 (love or hate) than 2-4
    • We deal with bits better than inbetween values
    • User interface widgets often times make it harder to rate inbetween value

I’ll have more to say on this.

My solution will be using Python and the Orange library and will utilize data from IMDB, BoxOfficeMojo and RottenTomatoes.

Some interesting links:

Let’s roll!  All progress will be posted.


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Consider the Democratic Primaries. Do we see any predictive power in internet traffic?

Quantcast Demographic Info:

Compete.com: Hillary vs. Barack


Check here. 



It’s tricky! however, I think we need to normalize the traffic by demographic as raw volume is not a good predictor at all (very low correlation between results+exit polls and internet traffic). See here for detailed information on results and polls.

No conclusion yet…

Next Steps:

I will be mashing all this data together to show trends overtime. AND, i will be overlaying it on tools like PolicyMap to show how Internet (general and social networks) + real world policies + polling locations + business all works together.

Amazing that we have all these tools and an incredibly small set of people uses them. Oh, that’s not amazing nor surprising – perhaps frustrating.

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Yeah, it’s all the rage in agency/vc/online publisher land but Online Video and Online Video ads is not going to get very many people rich really quickly, not like search ads and domain squatting.

Yes, youtube and other video outlets are growing like weeds still but their revenue is not even close to their costs.  Their infrastructure providers aren’t even making a profit.  Users are consuming content but not ads and advertisers aren’t buying.


There are some very specific reasons why:

  • The cost of serving videos is anywhere from $1-5 cost per thousand.  That’s 10-50x higher than text and text ads (the major of online business)
  • The consumption of video is very low relative to other content like emails, ims, stories, blogs, comments, news and photos
  • Viral activity is limited – You can’t email full videos to each other and certainly not wrapped in ads like emails and stand alone webpages
  • The cost in time, money and creativity to make watchable video and video ads is 10-100x greater than text copy and text ad copy
  • The targeting mechanisms suck to the point that they are worse than no targeting at all
  • over 95% of video isn’t monetizable easily (pump and dump like text ads).  Most consumption is in bad home movies, porn, music videos and highlights from TV.
  • The video experience is catastrophically altered by video ad pre rolls and other intrusive ads.  We all can easily ignore banners that surround text, we can’t ignore pre rolls that keep us from the content.  We could all get over that as consumers if the content were good quality/engaging and exclusive a site, but its not and won’t ever be
  • Media Entropy – there’s no possible way for us to aggregate video and a/v experiences like we did when only the boobtube pumped out content on 3 channels.  Consumers are everywhere and no where – at least 10 major aggregator video sites, 10,000 legit video publishers, embeds on every blog, cell phones, slingboxes, set tops, video game console on demand, TV, and LCD screen everywhere we go
  • Video Ad Rates have NO CORRELATION to transactional nor brand value, not even audience size gets you much.  The rates are all over place and are overly high, only because the costs are high.  Rates will drop faster than costs making online video damn near impossible to do at high margins. (I know this FIRST HAND and would love show data… but that data will become apparent as the market matures)
  • Hollywood types have been asked to the party.  Yup, the first Internet explosion was built by a totally new crop of thinkers.  it was devoid of most of the hollywood gimmick and a lot of traditional agencies and publishers didn’t participate.  Now the stakes are so high that everyone is involved and the level of raw creativity has gone down a lot – Or the raw creativity is being washed out by all the white noise from everyone who ever had a thought, good or bad.  Barrier to entry is so low with all these great toolsets, cheap hosting and complete anarchy in copyright law.

Personally, I love this.  the complete destruction of all rules.  the annihilation of former schedules.  It’s not going to get less complicated.

Certainly tons more to say on this and tons more to talk about when i say search ads are still where the money’s at……..


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In my last post, I pointed out the inevitability of entropy and energy consumption in media businesses.

Well, you can’t avoid, but you might want to know how I spot it when the entropy is costing money?

Change the measurement.

Measure Profit/Employee and Profit/User and Profit/Pageview.  Those 2 metrics tell you everything you need to know.  You’ll spot inefficiencies very quickly with that.

Really.  try it.


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“Why did you {them, this company, those guys, that company, this group} do this?”

Yup, that’s the first – maybe second – question any consultant or new hire in a media company asks.  The hope is to find some easily understandable, presumably correctable, explanation for how the hell on earth a product, service, experience, division, or company came to its current state.

That question is never answered easily nor accurately, though almost everyone asked responds with a flurry of justifications and musings.

There is no accurate answer possible.

When a company or product is successful, we heap praise on the executives and their innovative approaches.  We retroactively assign a grand plan. i.e. Google eyed Microsoft from the beginning.  Steve Jobs planned the destruction of the music distribution model. American Idol creators just knew they had a pop culture masterpiece.  “We stuck to our guns despite the disbelievers.”

When a company or product is awful, we blame those engaged as lacking vision or being too stupid to see the obvious.  i.e. Ford didn’t see the hybrid coming.  Yahoo! hired too many Hollywood types to see that search was the way to go. “The guy before you just didn’t get it.”

In either case, this is myth.  It is impossible to explain the current state of a product, company or service with any accuracy.  Not only is it impossible, it would be worthless if you could do it – it would take too much time and wouldn’t be all that accurate for whatever comes next.

So?  what’s yer point?

Media and business can’t avoid the second law of thermodynamics – systems never decrease in disorder. (there are lots of variants on this).  That’s right.  A company is never going to get more orderly.  A product is never going to get more orderly.  It’s just not. It’s impossible.  It is a universal law.  Media properties, websites, networks, companies behind those entities are never going to get more orderly.

Thus, any explanation of why things are at the current state doesn’t help you avoid the looming disorder.

The only way to go from a poor product, company or experience is to move completely into a new one.  Start over from a more orderly state.  Don’t spend any energy in gluing the broken coffee cup back together, just go get a new one or form one from raw materials.

Yes, it is possible to pour a huge amount of energy into something that is in disorder to restore some order but the work (real energy) require to do so is not 100% efficient –  that is, you’d be wasting a lot of energy in ever increasing amounts to battle disorder.

Now imagine your own company and situation?  can you provide an example where a project, product, campaign, division actually got more orderly without diminishing returns?  I can’t think of a single instance of this in my own experience.

I’m going to draw this out more specifically for different types of media.  There’s no way to battle disorder.  There is a way to benefit from disorder…


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Here’s a terse little paper and experiment showing some clean (easy to understand and rework) results.


Past research on the benefits of network structure on the flow of information has often focused on the positive properties of small-world networks [2, 3]. The results of our research cast this view in the wider perspective of fit between network structure and problem space, highlighting the importance of exploration vs. imitation. For the network structures we studied, the lattice promotes the most exploration, followed by the small-world, and the random networks, with the fully connected network producing the least exploration. The needle payout function requires the most exploration to find the global maximum, followed by the multimodal, and then the unimodal. Since there is a tradeoff between the exploration of a problem space and the exploitation of good solutions [4, 5] this tradeoff seems to be highly relevant to the ability of a group to succeed at our task.

Winter A. Mason, Andy Jones, Robert L. Goldstone

That’s pretty academic talk and I’m going to add to it.  Check this essay out.  Combining the two essays and we have something interesting.  The Lattice network set up is best at solving a problem requiring exploration AND we are unable to construct an algorithm that can optimize the traversing of the lattice.  The best path emerges simply by trying to solve the problem AND it’s better than other networks like Small World.

Here’s some quick definitions: (from this nice little doc)

Lattice Network

Rural areas resemble societies long ago and is characterized as “structured lattice.”  That is, people in rural areas are more likely to be friends with each other, while having less bridging friendship ties with the outside world.

Small World

Urban areas resemble random connection societies.  That is, from telecommunication advances that are readily available in urban areas, more friendship bridging ties are available.

Okay, now a fun exercise is defining the structure of MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Open Source Community and sussing out why each one may be so good at what it does.    This is purely me just toying with an idea (what do you think?).

MySpace – Full.  You can and do connect to anyone and everyone.  It’s a race for connectivity and theirs no real “neighbor” paradigm.  MySpace definitely has the imitation feel to it.

Facebook – Lattice, small world.  Your neighbors typically are your college mates and work mates.  Apps, links and “problems” propogate and are reworked quickly, far more quickly  in my experience, than on MySpace.

LinkedIn – Lattice.  hard to assess linkedin’s ability to solve problems or propogate thinking.  It’s mostly a lead gen network.

Master Software Developer Competition – Lattice.  but hard to say.  There seemed to be a few key nodes and generally some “neighborhoods”.  On slashdot it was full, but once the Google group took over the network structure changed a lot.  Hmmm… need to think on that.

Open Source – Lattice, sometimes small world.  Open source projects generally are not completely wide open (there’s a skill level required/credibility) and their aren’t random.  Ideas, code propogate 1 or 2 degrees from the original node.  Very rarely isn’t it full, like the internet.  Everyone connected.  Ideas and problems are very efficiently solved in open source but it’s damn near impossible to predict who, what, when.

 The implication that network structure alone can have that big an impact is very interesting, and a powerful concept to understand if you are in the business of solving problems or socializing ideas/policies or marketing a product.

Methinks the network structure is a proxy for the schedules of reinforcement at play. Different structures reinforce behavior in different ways.


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