Posts from January 2007

  • If you do any ColdFusion development (shut up!), you should check out this CF Textmate add-on. With this + Transmit, I prefer TextMate to HomeSite now for writing CF.
    filed under: programming, software
  • hooray! Click this link to set a cookie (with cookie technology) to disable those annoying Snap site previews that are popping up everywhere. [thanks torrez]
    filed under: marketing, internet

The Consumer Trap Redux

I extended my review of The Consumer Trap from a week or so ago for J.D.'s excellent personal finance site, Get Rich Slowly. You can read the longer version here: Book Review: The Consumer Trap.

Book: Poetics

Poetics I recently read the Penguin Classics version of Aristotle's Poetics, and holy crap, why didn't anyone force me to sit down and read this sooner? In college I minored in Film Studies and English, and I thought I had a good introduction to deconstructing texts through those years of classes. Little did I know I've been missing a core way to think about stories.

A great book about giving presentations is Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson. (I've mentioned it here before: Public Speaking.) Atkinson has a very useful system for telling a story via Powerpoint that's based on some of Aristotle's ideas in Poetics. He mentions that a couple times in BBB. I've put together a few presentations using the advice in the book, and the ideas were very helpful. So I figured ad fontes (I often think in Latin, heh), and picked up Poetics. I also recently read Eco's Name of the Rose, which tangentially featured Aristotle.

I know next to nothing about Artistotle beyond the fact that his books are sort of teaching notes on various subjects, and only a few survive today. I'm also vaguely aware that Aristotle and Plato had two different ways of viewing the world that continue to split our collective psyche to this day. (Something about Plato's love of ideal forms vs. Aristotle's favored observation of the real world.) I guess this basic understanding kept me from reading Aristotle. Why would I want to read some half-finished ideas? I figured the ideas were probably so remote, abstract, and ancient that they wouldn't have much relevance to me. So I had low expectations going in. I figured I wouldn't even be able to understand it.

I read the introduction to Poetics by Malcolm Heath, and I got quite a bit out of it. Of course it's very dry and academic, but it did help explain some sort of consensus of thinking about Aristotle, some of the issues raised in Poetics that people have been struggling with, and some of the context in which Aristotle was writing. But the real value was Poetics itself.

Aristotle shows how Greek tragic plays like Oedipus are most effectively constructed. He contrasts tragedy with comedy and epic a bit, but Poetics is focused on tragic stories as a form. And he wasn't so concerned with plays as they are performed, but as they are written. So his thoughts translate well to any type of story.

The overriding idea I've been thinking about since reading this is that stories, art, any media we consume, is an imitation of reality—and this imitation is trying to evoke an emotional response so we can identify with it. (And I've been thinking about this in relation to advertising, especially, which are really little stories that evoke emotions about products.) Aristotle says that tragedy should evoke fear and pity, and discusses the best way to evoke these emotions: by having normal characters go from good fortune to bad through no fault of their own.

Aristotle places quite a bit of emphasis on social status which is sort of taboo in our society. And it's a bit uncomfortable to read. But now that I've seen stories through Aristotle's eyes, I can't help but see changes in fortune and differences in status in stories everywhere. It's like seeing a fundamental building block of the content I continually consume for the first time. And this is why I can't believe I haven't read it sooner. I know this sounds obvious, but character status, arc through the story, and emotions evoked should be the first step in analyzing a story. I've found it's very useful when watching a Youtube video, reading a blog, or looking at a billboard to think, "What emotion is this work trying to evoke?" This step back seems so clear that I should have been doing this all along. But analyzing for Aristotelian effectiveness is quite a bit different from "Hot or Not", Love/Hate decisions about stuff I consume.

Anyway, this is my attempt to sit you down and force you to read Poetics, because I wish someone would have made me do it sooner. There's a lot more than what I've described to get out of it, and I think it will help you think about media in a new (old) way.
  • New IBM project for social data visualization and analysis. Could analyzing data with others be more popular than sharing photos and videos? ;) [via O'Reilly Radar]
    filed under: visualization, productivity, design
  • great images from Wikipedia articles. It's unusual to me to see wikipedia content in a slightly different context. Similarly, there's Wikiworld Comics and the Picture of the day (a pod feed is only available offsite because Wikipedia doesn't provide one.)
    filed under: art, history, photography, wikipedia
  • Finding an acceptable "default deny" method for weblog participation. The most exciting developments in the weblog world right now are happening around OpenID. [via waxy]
    filed under: weblogs, identity, spam
  • Photographs of every advertisement in Times Square. [via kottke]
    filed under: marketing, media, visualization, photography

A story in six words

Fellow Corvallian Eric Stoller meme-checked me—A story in six words—which means I'm compelled to tell a story in six words:

Unknowingly, bloggers' links destroyed the Web.

Now in time-honored meme tradition, I pass the torch to stewart, rebecca, jason, J.D., and derek.

Book: The Consumer Trap

The Consumer Trap A few years ago I put together a list of books about media that have helped me understand different pieces of our culture. I'm currently reading a book that I'm officially adding to my Guerilla Media Literacy List. The Consumer Trap by Michael Dawson sounds at first like a personal finance book, and I suppose it might affect readers' buying habits in some ways. But the book is really an examination of the business systems that influence and direct our off-the-job lives.

Before reading this book I was very aware of standard marketing terms such as branding, differentiation, distribution channels, and targeting. I was even aware of psychological advertising methods that were pioneered by Edward Bernays, explored by folks like Vance Packard, and are in heavy use today. (Check out the excellent documentary The Century of the Self for a crash course in psychological advertising.) So I considered myself fairly familiar with the Marketing Machine. But reading Dawson's book brought together these familiar concepts and many more new marketing tools into a complete, coherent picture.

The book starts with a history of both marketing and marketing criticism. Dawson introduced me to Frederick Winslow Taylor, who used methods from science to organize business, and Thorstein Veblen, an economist and early critic of corporate business practices. In one example of scientific observation, Taylor attached lights to workers, filmed them as they worked, and found ways to make their movements more efficient. Taylor's ideas about engineering work environments, objects, and people's actions lead to companies taking a similar, scientific approach to people's off-the-job, product-related activities as well. Veblen, on the other hand, coined the term conspicuous consumption and found that corporate marketers were using "force and fraud" to engineer people's activities in a form of absentee ownership that has existed throughout history. These two figures set up the tension that exists throughout the book.

At times I couldn't tell if I was reading a critique of marketing or a how-to manual. But I think a big part of being a literate media consumer is understanding how the system works. Dawson shows that marketing is about much more than advertising, and that it's marketing that decides which products are produced. He describes marketing strategies such as differentiation between equal products, planned obsolescence that increases the chances someone will buy a new product before an old one is used up, and elaborate packaging that extends the brand.

I don't think we can be completely free from the forces of marketing, and we probably wouldn't want to be. But a greater awareness of the carrots and sticks that are out there can help us make informed decisions. If you're interested in how your media environment influences you on a daily basis, you are the target market for The Consumer Trap.
  • A simple keyboard remapper for Windows that uses the registry. I think this'll be handy for some issues running XP with parallels. [via Nelson]
    filed under: productivity, software
  • Why people hate domain registrars: "Domain name servers were not responsible for lost domain names if holders did not re-register in time, Xinhua quoted a center insider as saying, since the loss was an 'act of God.'"
    filed under: internet, ethics
  • Fantastic article about aggregating current emotion research. "Most neuroscientists now recognise six basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise." (subscription req'd unfortunately)
    filed under: psychology, science

Command Line Zip for Windows

Windows doesn't have a command line utility for compressing files (that I know of), and I had to come up with a way to automate some file transfers today. So I whipped up a tiny Perl script that will zip up a file. I figure someone else might need it. (Or someone might know how to do this in one line.) You'll need the Archive::Zip module, and the following code—which is pretty much right out of the documentation:
# Grab the incoming file
my $argv = join(' ', @ARGV) or die "Usage: [file location]\n";

# Grab the file name
my($dir, $file) = $argv =~ m/(.*\\)(.*)$/;

# Create a Zip file
use Archive::Zip qw( :ERROR_CODES :CONSTANTS );
my $zip = Archive::Zip->new();

# Add the file
my $file_member = $zip->addFile($argv, $file);

# Save the Zip file
unless ( $zip->writeToFileNamed($argv.'.zip') == AZ_OK ) {
    die 'couldn\'t zip';
Save this code as, and you'll be set. Pass in a filename, and you'll get a compressed file of the same name plus the .zip extension. So:

C:\>perl C:\path\to\giant.file

will give you C:\path\to\ It works well with Windows batch files, and will save me a bunch of bandwidth.