Kana, Shoulda, Woulda…

I spent a large part of my limited free time last year in trying to teach myself the Japanese kana syllabaries. To unsophisticated Westerners like me, the angles, triangles, and hooks of the kana characters, especially in blazing neon above Shibuya, convey a sense of alien futurism, like sequences on a Martian spacecraft, despite their being rooted in a writing tradition centuries old.

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On the Berlin-Warsaw Express

Over twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and over six decades since 1945, you still know that there is something different about traveling east from Germany. Instead of a thick network of high-speed rail binding Frankfurt to Paris, and Cologne to Amsterdam, modern state-of-the-art train routes are nearly nonexistent across the eastern border. The backbone of the connection, itself somewhat new, is the Berlin-Warsaw Express, running several times daily between the capitals of Germany and Poland.

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Mom’s Cooking


A chicken fricassee from the old country

A chicken fricassee from the old country

As some of you might know, my mother’s family is from Germany. This meant, growing up in Texas, we had some fairly diverse meals with decidedly Teutonic character. What I best remember among them is a chicken dish with rice, asparagus, and mushrooms called ‘fricassee’. Now I have no idea if this is authentic (and my version from Knorr most decidedly is not, packaged to start with, and as you see I’ve replaced the peas with fresh California asparagus) but just making it awakens some ancestral memories. Anybody else out there have a specific dish that instantly reminds them of being in the 4th grade and reading Judy Blume novels? (We’re going to file this under ‘nostalgia kick, continued’). The comment board is open!



A Tale of Two Computers

Had a major nostalgia kick (the funeral of Margaret Thatcher maybe?, the new Liberace biopic on HBO?) and ordered a Commodore VIC-20 on eBay. That’s right, the 5K RAM superstar that introduced millions of kids in the early 1980s to PEEKs, POKEs, GOTOs, and the rest of the colorful verbal arsenal of the BASIC programming language. I could have gotten a Commodore 64, but Bill Gates apparently said at the time I’d never need that much memory.

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F Train to Castro Street

The Eureka Valley/Castro neighborhood was a quintessential ‘streetcar suburb’ a century ago, and it still is today. On the sunnier side of the Twin Peaks divide, and with a straight-shot, ten-minute transit connection to downtown jobs (when the trains show up, that is), the neighborhood thrived on the development of city infrastructure. The 1918 Twin Peaks Tunnel added a new underground stop, Eureka Station, which is still there, barely visible to passengers on inbound trains just before they enter the 1980s Muni Metro Station.

In the 1990s surface trains were restored with the inauguration of the F Market, which connects Castro to, perhaps somewhat improbably, Fishermans’ Wharf. The idea seems to have been to pull tourism and tourism dollars down from the northern waterfront into the central city districts.

Stopping at almost every intersection, the F is an arduous way to get to work, but on the weekends it’s a bit of a treat to jump on a historic streetcar and watch San Francisco life go by.

Changing Gears: San Francisco Stairway Walk

A ramble up and down the hills and streets of my neighborhood, with sociable cats, Burning Man patrol jeeps, a 4/20 rally, and more. I’m filing this under Travel even though I probably didn’t get a mile from my house. In the slideshow below, we’re basically going to wander up Beaver Street out of the Castro District, climb the summit of the Corona Heights hill, zig zag our way over to Upper Market, take in the view of the Pacific, and clamber back down again.

Walk inspired by Adah Bakalinsky’s Stairway Walks in San Francisco.

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Seeing Inside the Quantifiable Self

While the trend has been slowly building over the last decade, the concept of the ‘quantifiable self’ has now fully emerged, in the form of gadgets and websites that can monitor, display, and analyze your personal health and wellness data. Whether it’s the Nike Fuel Band, FitBit, or sites like MyFitnessPal that track your fitness data, the ability to use technology to easily and effectively see inside yourself and (in theory) improve your life is now taken for granted. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Qualities and Quantities
At the outset, it’s worth thinking about the difference between quantitative and qualitative data in research, and why the former is so heavily preferred in the marketplace. Quantitative data can be counted and expressed numerically, whether it’s a heart rate, a percentage of people with a given gene, or the number of people who answer a yes or no question in a survey. In branding, an example of quantitative data can be the level of ‘unaided’ (“Tell me the top three companies that come to mind when I say “fitness”) or ‘aided’ (“Did you know Company X was a fitness company?”) awareness. Quantitative data can also be used to track KPIs (key performance indicators) that measure the success of a marketing or branding campaign (“Our unaided awareness among fitness professionals increased 50% year over year after we launched our media campaign.”)

You Like Me, You Really Like Me!
Qualitative is what is sounds like: the quality of the feeling or understanding you have about something. If, quantitatively, you have 3,000 friends on Facebook, qualitatively, you may value a very small group based on common interests, shared personal history, or other factors that are hard to translate into an unambiguous numeric value. With the growth of social media, we have learned to measure our social abilities in just this way: Facebook likes, Twitter followers, YouTube comments, and other social media stats turn meaning into metrics.

Why do technology companies like quantitative data? Exactly because it can be measured. Not only that, but collecting data (for example, via products like Fit Bit), measuring and analyzing the data (through algorithms) and presenting that data to the end user (interface experiences, whether embedded or online) can all be monetized, providing structured tasks for engineers, UX strategists, marketers in a way that qualitative cannot.

Quantifiable Data: Friend or Foe?
Evgeny Morozov, in his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, calls this ‘the folly of technological solutionism’. But let’s put things in perspective. As long as privacy is respected (admittedly not an easy thing), and users are in control, quantifiable data and the services they support have value. It’s true that, to improve health, you need to know things that can be measured, from your weight to your blood pressure or how much time you were on the treadmill today. Or that correlations to other health characteristics in population samples may help you make your own wellness choices. We just have to consider the bigger picture: my FitBit can’t measure (or maybe it can?) the psychological strain of the fight I had with my partner before dinner, or the joy I felt hiking with a good friend and good conversation. There are many qualitative aspects to our lives that weigh into how we feel, how we perform, and how we live.

Measuring Perception
Likewise, companies measure their own success in presenting their story in terms of quantifiable data: the KPI achieved, the ROI gained, all of which can lend disproportionate weight to data that are more amenable to being measured, as opposed to the ‘messier’, qualitative data. If ‘companies are people’, then ‘brands are selves’, that can be quantified and, if needed, put on the right fitness program to restore brand health. And just with people, companies should consider the qualitative aspects of brand perception. What does it mean for a company’s product to make someone just feel good? What does it mean for me to just feel good? This combination of facts and feelings is at the heart of understanding and developing successful brands.

More to come on these topics, or get in touch.

The Linguistics of Branding

My day job (that takes a few nights as well) is helping companies connect to their customers through ‘verbal branding’: that is to say, positioning, messaging, corporate language, and brand voice. It’s somewhat unusual in that to many people, brands are visual constructs, consisting of logos, color schemes, visual vocabulary, and guidelines. However, that’s not the end of the story.

What makes a successful brand is the combination of the visual and verbal: a visual presentation that captures the spirit of what the brand is about, combined with the right messages, crafted in the right tone. Without key messages, a piece of brand communication is a beautiful box with nothing inside.

Positioning is, essentially, the company’s credo, or its belief about the world and how the company helps make it a better place. Whether it’s simple, desirable user experiences that let people get more out of life, a ‘third place’ between work and home where you can enjoy a latte, have a short escape, or be productive, successful companies have a simple, clearly articulated idea about what they do that is bigger than the flagship product offer in any given business cycle.

Brand messaging unpacks the positioning into a set of key ideas. It has to explain three things: what the organization stands for, what the organization offers (not always literally what the organization ‘sells’), and why this matters to the recipient of the message, whether it is customers, employees, or hiring candidates. Successful messaging allows companies to better position themselves in the marketplace, gain more effective product communications, and retain and attract the best people. With messaging, any employee can answer the question “What does your company do?”, and any customer can understand, “What does this company do for me?”.

Brand voice and corporate language are the expression of the verbal brand. Using some classic examples, whether it’s Apple’s famous “Ten thousand songs in your pocket”, or Nike’s “Just do it”, it is the product or company brand put into words that have a spirit and viewpoint.

In short: brands are languages. They have a syntax and semantics, speakers and listeners. You could go even further and say a brand, because it is a language, is also a semiotic system. In other words, that means brands have signs, symbols, and interpretation tools the same way languages and other forms of communication do. By understanding brands as languages, companies can go far in structuring and managing their communications.

Stay tuned for more on this topic, or get in touch.

Understanding the Second Amendment

Here is the text of the Second Amendment:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

‘Well regulated Militia’, is that not understood? Could nothing be more clear about what this text means? That the government can regulate arms? Good Lord, what Foxheaded idiot cannot follow this? You can have ‘arms’, you can bear ‘arms’, as part of a well regulated militia, but clearly, as long as you can ‘keep’ and ‘bear’ some kind of weapon, the government can regulate what that is. Why have we struggled with this so long?

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