Thursday, 20 November 2008

Homecoming Blues

So it's official. After eight years in England Nicole and I are moving home.

We've spoken about this moment with a degree of sadness. I mean, after such a long stay we've sort of gone native. We love the English countryside and we love living in a city where everyone walks. We love taking weekend - even day - trips to europe. Geordie accents are just a good thing and I've got no idea how I'm going to live without the iPlayer or saturdays full of Premiership football. Or curry. My god, the curry rocks here.

Apart from all that, some parts of life in the USA are just irritating. Like ATM's that charge for withdrawls or 2 year mobile phone contracts. Rental car companies that won't rent stick shifts are just silly and cellphone holsters, don't even get me started on cellphone holsters.

But I'm going to an unbelieveably awesome job, (Thanks Rei) and I'll be closer to my family than I've been for 18 years. I'll probably be able to park my car most days. American diner waitresses are, hands-down, the finest souls on earth. People in America sometimes say "Good morning" to strangers and everything is so big, and cheap and clean and easy.

And yet, I can't help but feel that I'm in for a dose of culture shock in my own native land.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Forbidden Strategies

If you've worked in advertising for any amount of time, you will almost certainly have encountered what I've come to refer to as "the usual strategic suspects." These are the handful of propositions can be - and too ofter are - trotted out for nearly any client in any category. They're comfy and familiar sentiments, and so are probably that much easier to sell in. But to the people tasked with writing the ads they're little more than a hospital pass.

Plopped into the creative department with much enthusiasm and PowerPoint, they're met with the wry smile of a team who've heard that song before. But to be fair, these smiles are rooted more in a sense of kinship that condescension. For when the deadline looms and the traffic man takes up residence in your office, it's awfully tempting to reach for the usual creative suspects. Here are just a few:

- Person uses a poor alternative to our client, hilarity ensues. "Looking for a better way?"
- Dopey dad is saved from disaster by the clever mom (or better yet, clever kids)
- White-coated lab technicians carry out comedy experiments.
- Talking animals. Talking babies. Talking baby animals.
- A game of football spontaneously breaks out someplace surprising.

So both planners and creatives know what it's like to aim low. And whether creative or strategic, the usual suspects see the light of day for the same reasons: laziness, ineptitude or poor time management. But clichéd strategies aren't euthanized as quickly as their creative kennel-mates. "It's been done before" is the most common, most lethal criticism that can be leveled at an execution. But strategies seem immune to this criticism. So for the common good, here's a run-down of what I consider the most shopworn, knackered old propositions that have ever wheezed their way into my office. Feel free to add your own.

1. Reject Conformity
This is the grandaddy of all the usual suspects. I've seen it in every agency I've ever worked for. Sometimes it's written as "Break the rules!" Other times "people who buy brand x are highly individualistic" But whether you're extolling PC buyers to think different, convincing teenagers that by living unzipped they're shocking all the prudes at dad's country club, or even just crapping on about how "the rules have changed" in your ad for a mid-sized american car, you're operating in a very, very crowded space -rebellion is the new orthodoxy. As I write this an ad for the Ford Kuga is asking me "Why keep following the same design rules?" To have this strategy driven from your mind forever, read Thomas Frank's painfully astute "Why Johnny Can't Dissent."

2. The Ritual
It seems you can't be an FMCG brand these days without having a "Ritual" associated with how people buy or consume your product. Piffle. So I happen to like to twist off the top of an Oreo cookie before I eat it. And I squeeze my toothpaste from the bottom of the tube. It's not something I dwell on. But because brands tend to take themselves a bit too seriously, habits and preferences like these are puffed up into "rituals." It's an adorable conceit. But not very useful. Religions have rituals. Cults have rituals. Brands just wish they did. Get over it.

3. The World is Now... (insert your product's benefit here)
This one is probably rooted in the same impulses that allow agencies to see habits as rituals. But brands aren't so important to ordinary people that a flexible mobile tariff makes their "world more flexible."

I could go on but I'm stopping with three. Mainly because dinner is on the table. And while I'm not so naive as to think that the usual suspects are going away anytime soon, maybe they'll be easier to kill.

What strategies would you add to this list?

Monday, 6 October 2008

How long before this gets ripped off?

Gentlemen, start your photocopiers. There's a photo essay in the Guardian today featuring snaps by a photographer named Michael Hughes. I wonder which creative team will be the first to rip this one off? There hasn't been such an obvious starting gun since Stefan Sagmeister's talk at St. Luke's in 2oo1. He showed about a hundred creatives "The Way Things Go" and you could just see every team in the room furiously scribbling down their version of the film. Granted, that one took about a year to be ad-ized and played on air, but it was a huge production. And it was at least a novel spin on the idea. 

But mark my words, some team in Singapore (or Soho) will be slapping a logo in the corner of these or similar photos and adding an endline about "Tiny Prices" or some such bullshit. And no doubt the editor of Archive will love it. Well, if that's what flicks your switch, have at it. Just don't confuse that feeling you get with any sense of achievement. And please, at least have the decency to hire Mr. Hughes to shoot (or more likely, license) the photos for you.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

An Embarassment of Riches

Nicole and I went for a walk in some local woodland this morning and came across a real score. At the base of a fallen oak tree we found a MASSIVE fruiting of a species of fungus known as Grifola frondosa, (aka Maitake aka Hen-of-the-Woods.) We've only found this once before in our seven years of mushroom hunting. I can't tell you how excited we are. This fungus is rare, tasty, massively health-giving, and extremely picky about where and when it'll show itself. To top things off, this specimen was in it's peak of ripeness; a day or so later and it would have gone off or absorbed too much rain to be edible. Greedily, we took 4.5 kilos or about a fifth of the fruiting (mainly because we actually couldn't carry any more.) To make up for this shameless pillage, I passed on the location of our find to Hampstead's resident mycologist, Andy Overall.  Now for the lengthy task of breaking up, cleaning and freezing our find. Nicole's planning to make mushroom ravioli. Anyone hungry?

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Doest it matter what a blog looks like anymore?

I've been using Google Reader for about a year now. It's brilliant. I'm subscribed to the feeds of all the blogs that I enjoy reading, and I add more each week. It's so good, in fact, that I almost never leave it to go and visit the actual URL of whatever blog I happen to be reading. That means I never see what the blogs look like. I just get the feed.

Which is a shame, since some blogs look really nice. Especially the if they're built on Wordpress. Take crackunit. Iain's done a lovely redesign and posted about it. But to me, in my reader, it looks the same as it ever has. It's a stream of words, images and embedded video. And I don't mind one bit. That's partly why I've never switched to wordpress.

So will the semantic web kill graphic design?

Monday, 22 September 2008

Every Place I've Ever Lived

Well, nearly. These are Google Street View images of the fronts of the places I've lived in the USA. Street view hasn't come to Amsterdam or London yet. I don't normally approve of "here's what I had for breakfast" posts, but the way that google allows us to drift down memory lane is worth dwelling on, I reckon.
Places I've lived

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Terrifying Military Dogbot.

Behold. the "Big Dog". This thing is going to give me nightmares. It's not a huge leap to mount a weapon on one of these.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Asda could be selling more marlin.

This from a recent Guardian article about endangered fisheries:
Chris Brown, head of ethical and sustainable sourcing at Asda, said more detail risked confusing customers. He said Asda stocked marlin, which features on the MCS's "fish to avoid" list, but claimed it was sustainable because it was not deliberately targeted, but caught as inevitable "by-catch" in a sustainable tuna fishery off Sri Lanka, and would otherwise be disposed of. "I can't write all of that on the label,"
Why on earth not? People who worry about issues like sustainability, waste and the fate of the Portugese Anchovy love a good read on their packaging. Consider Innocent. Or Tazo. Or Keihls. Or even Budweiser.

And that marlin has one hell of a story. It's bycatch. It's wasteful not to eat this marlin. Disrespecting of the sea. And it's wonderful grilled. Paging David Abbott...

Carat Layoffs Memo Wordle

In one of the bigger email blunders, Carat's internal redundancy langage and external comms plan have been sent in an "all-staffer" instead of a "top-brasser". Doh.

The internal line.
The external line.
It's just business.

Late Night Emails...Rude?

Is there a "cut off time" after which it's as rude to send an email as it would be to call someone? Does one need to consider this when emailing an overseas colleague or client? I've seen how bright and loud that 'new message' indicator can seem in a pitch dark room

Or should people be responsible for their own notification preferences? One of the nice things about email communication is that it can be initiated at any time. Time zones are as nothing. Spontinaity reigns. That's surely a good thing.

Friday, 29 August 2008

I take a journalist foraging.

You know, it doesn't all have to be "mobile this" and "open source that" here at pennnyontherail. No sir. Sometimes it's little more than an exercise in vanity. To that end, here's a link to an article in this month's +1Magazine in which your humble correspondent feaures rather centrally. The following links to a PDF. The above mentioned article can be found on pages 29&30.

Those who know me know that I'm a keen forager. But not even my Mom knew that I have "Murder in my eyes."

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Rosetta Disc - Humanity's Analog Backup

About a month ago, I tried to get an old Quark layout off of a Zip Drive. Two problems quickly arose: few people use quark anymore, and fewer still have a functioning zipdrive. I might as well have been trying to read Linear A. This got me thinking about the problem of long-term storage and recovery of data. For example, how do we mark the location of nuclear waste dumps when the waste itself will be hazardous for thousands of years after our markers have worn smooth and the english language itself has died out?

Well, it seem that smarter people than I have been working on a similar problem. Their solution, unsurprisingly, was an analog one. Enter the Rosetta Disc.

"One side of the disk contains a graphic teaser. The design shows headlines in the eight major languages of the world today spiraling inward in ever-decreasing size till it becomes so small you have trouble reading it, yet the text goes on getting smaller. The sentences announce: “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.”

This graphic side of the disk is pure titanium. A black oxide coating has been added to the surface. The text is etched into that, revealing the whiter titanium. This bold sign board is needed because the pages of genesis which are etched on the mirror-like opposite side of the disk are nearly invisible."

Several thousand of these discs will be sent out into the world, complete with a kit that will allow the holders to add their mark in micro-etched lettering. I absolutely love stuff like this. I'm hoping to have one sent to me.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Pictures & Videos found in Apple Store

I was in my local internet café, er, Apple Store and was playing with an iPhone 3G. ( I'm currently waffling between getting one now and holding out for the better, cheaper, sim-free one that's almost certainly coming our way.) I saw that it was full of pictures that customers had taken with the built-in camera. Some of them were interesting. Most weren't. Then I found that lots of the laptops and iMacs had pictures and videos stored in them. Here are a few of the better ones.

I think it would be an fun project to see what pictures you all (all three of you) find the next time you're in an Apple store. Feel free to email them to nick daht strada at gmail dahtcom.

Also, you might find funny videos on the Photobooth application found on all iMacs and laptops. Drag any winners onto the desktop and upload them to Youtube. Send me the link and we'll embed it here. I found this one. This dude is cool in ways that you and I will never be.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Get advance notice of the end of the world.

One of my favorite tinkerers, Tom Taylor, has done it again. He's constructed a twitter feed that sends out a message each time a Near Earth Object comes within 0.2 AU of Earth. To do this he passed a database published by NASA through a few Yahoo pipes. This is the difference between the digital natives like Tom and people like you and me. When I think of something, I draw it or write about it and try to get people excited about it. When people like Tom think of something, they build it themselves.

Sure, this one is a bit silly and pointless. And his next one might be too. But one day he'll build something that catches fire and make a real difference for people. Or if he likes, for a brand. This is why dev guys will take over the world.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Can a fake travel business get you an upgrade?

I've started an experiment. It was inspired by an experience I had a few years ago. My wife and I were on our honeymoon when we noticed that a few of the guests were being fawned over to a much greater extent than any of the rest of us. I learned that this was down to one of them being a travel agent and that such treatment is par for the course when she goes traveling. This didn't seem fair, but at the same time, made perfect sense.

Thinking about this, last night I registered a domain:
Next, I built an astonishingly cheezy website and created a few email accounts tied to the domain. This all took about fifteen minutes and cost £12.99

The wife and I are going to use these email addresses (with the website in the signature) to book hotels on our next few trips. Will we be treated any differently? I have visions of complementary upgrades and sycophantic grovelling. More likely, the canny hoteliers will see through the ruse and give us the room by the ice machine that charlatans such as we must surely deserve.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

I want dumb pipes. (And you should too)

In the next year, open source mobile operating systems like Symbian and Android are going to shake things up in a big way. Already, leigions of developers are furiously coding away, trying to build the next qik, google mobile maps or fring. And that's good news. But until mobile network operators get with the times, the party isn't really going to kick off.

At the moment, my mobile phone is a Nokia E65. It's got a screen, a keyboard and a data connection. Sounds a lot like a computer. But my network operator O2 - one of the more progressive networks, it must be said - is totally out of line with what I want a network operator to be. I want them to be an ISP. A dumb pipe that delivers data to the computer in my pocket.

Plusnet, the ISP that I buy residential broadband from is a great company. For a little money each month they deliver zeros and ones to my laptop. They don't try to sell me any MP3's. They don't want to subsidize the computer I use to get online. And they don't pre-determine which portion of the zeros and ones should be allocated to emails, VOIP or web browsing. To them, I'm not a racoon, a camel, an O2-200 or any other daft label. I'm just a customer that wants data. If I download something that breaks my system, it's my fault and it's my problem. They treat me like an adult and if they started a mobile phone network I'd sign up. They're a lovely, lovely dumb pipe.

Now consider the O2 model. They sell me a tiny computer made by Nokia and subsidize the cost by tying me into a lengthy contract. Then some of the zeros and ones that they sell me are labeled "Voice." Others, "SMS" and others - and this is priceless - are labeled "Data." But it's all data. Every bit of it. So why can't O2 just sell me a lump of data and let me decide how to split it up?

Open source operating systems are going to prompt some wonderful advances in mobile applications, but they're not going to be enough. Until the core flaw in the user/network relationship is sorted out, the mobile computing revolution isn't going to happen.

Monday, 30 June 2008

Why every creative should install Adblock Plus

For the same reason we should use Sky+ or Tivo. We've all got to move on. It's far too easy to keep cranking out shit that interrupts people while they're trying to do something else. It time to stop deluding ourselves that by doing so we're being creative. 

Yes, yes, I know. Banners and buttons and tv ads are all part of the media mix. There's a time and place for everything. Turn, turn, turn. And there's truth in all that. And the pencils for tv ads and web banners look just like the ones the guys at R/GA won for Nike+. And I do wish I had "Sony Balls" on my reel. 

But Jesus H. Christ in a chicken basket, how much more fun is it to make something useful? Something enthralling? Something that people choose to engage with, rather than something they merely tolerate? Maybe if our banners were a "front door" to something more interesting, or if our TV ads played a part in something bigger - maybe then we'd be on to something. But admit it. Most of yours aren't doing that. They're just irritating little rectangles or stretches of time whose highest aim is to amuse someone just long enough to pick their pocket.

So go and download Firefox 3. Install Adblock Plus. Get a TiVo. And then when you've mentally barred yourself from the old ways of doing things, maybe you'll make something wonderful like Nike Photo iD, or BBC MusicCubes or even Wikinear. And then you'd really be creative.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Satellite Tracking of Thresher Sharks.

When I was home last, I went out fishing with my good friend Scott "Scootch" Aalbers. He's a research marine biologist, and his latest project involves the catching, tagging and releasing of Thresher Sharks. His objectives:
  • 1. Estimate a catch-and-release mortality rate for thresher sharks in the Southern California recreational fishery.
  • 2. Analyze the physiological indicators of capture stress (e.g., blood and tissue biochemistry, stress proteins).
  • 3. Investigate alternative gear types and methods (e.g., circle hooks, teasers, break-away tackle) to reduce capture stress and mortality.
  • 4. Develop a strong outreach program that uses public educational seminars and popular literature to discuss best fishing practices.
I was lucky to be asked aboard his research vessel the Fish Tale to take part in his study. At dawn, we steamed out to the ten mile bank and started dragging rapala baits. After a few hours burning diesel, we hooked up with an 11 foot male thresher shark, and that's where I came in. I was handed the pole and given my instructions: "Reel."

Now, Scootch has been on the water all his life. He's got seawater in his veins. So he could have told me to keep my knees bent and my back straight. He could have told me to take line while the boat goes down a wave, and just hold on when it goes up a wave. He could have told me any number of things that would have shortened the fight. But he didn't. And that's because he wanted me to fight the shark like a novice, day-boat passenger. By the way, if you've never fought an 11 foot thresher shark, they're strong. Way stronger than you. In fact, it took me 80 minutes to land that sucker, and that was the whole point of the exercise.

You see, Alopiidae attack their prey with their long, scythe-like tails so they're usually tail-hooked when caught. That means they have all the leverage working in their favor. It also means that they get dragged to the boat backwards. That's not good for sharks and it's why so many die, even when released.

Once we got the beast to the rail, Scootch inserted a satellite tag, took some flesh and blood samples and released him back into the deep. We waited a week for the satellite tag to release itself, pop up and "phone home." When it did, it appeard about thirty miles north of where we released the shark. Much too far for the animal to have drifted. That means it lived. Hooray!

The image below is from the sat-tag tracking website showing where the tag was found. I gotta say, I love this stuff. There's something cool going on when you're doing a mashup of "Old Man and the Sea" and "Wargames" And Scootch gets to do this kind of thing every day. He's the richest man I know.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

I've got to get some dev chops

I've just come across a service so excellent that I'm going to have to learn some basic coding, just so I can build tools for it. It's called Fire Eagle, and it's going to be mega. Basically it's a location broker. It allows users of GPS enabled mobiles to share their location with other services without having to worry about compromising their privacy and security. Any number of location-based mobile apps are going to be built using this bad-boy, and I've got one in mind. (Anyone with any rails experience is welcome to get in touch. Let's build it!)

Oh, and get this: Fire Eagle is from/been bought by Yahoo. I didn't know they had good ideas anymore.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Intergalactic Mix Tape

In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager space probes. Along with cameras, sensors and assorted gizmos, each carried a golden record containing images and sounds from earth. The idea being that any spacefaring civilization that intercepted our maiden deep-space emissaries would break out their Technics, slap down the platter and be intrigued enough to come say hello. Presumably, they wouldn't blast us into atoms upon their arrival.

The Golden Record Project was lead by astronomer, astrochemist and all around polymathic legend Carl Sagan. Among the sounds and images on the record were: a solar locater map, a Bach Concerto, some blues by Blind Willie Johnson, Sagan's son saying hello and a simple calibration circle which would tell the little green men that they had correctly played the record and could get on with enjoying the contents.

The most interesting bit of all of this, to me, is the system they developed for communicating with an alien scientist. I mean, how do you say, "drop the needle and play at 73 rpm" and "we're on that blue speck next to that average-sized star in such-and-such a corner of that galaxy over there" to someone who can't speak any earth language and may not even have ears, eyes, or carbon-based DNA? The answer is simple. Math.
Using constants which they believed to be universal (the transition time between states of hydrogen atoms, the speed of light and the periods of known pulsars.) Sagan and his team did their best to communicate some pretty detailed information.

So, a group of speccy blokes with slide-rules can communicate with alien civilizations, but London-based ad agencies need satellite offices to communicate with the people in Dubai? Something doesn't add up.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Hacking into your mobile

Okay, it's not really hacking, but Nokia Beta Labs has released a nifty little app called Mobile Web Server. It runs on Symbian OS an it lets you wiggle into your mobile from the web. Actually, it creates a webite at

Once in, you can read your messages, view your pictures and check your call logs. You can even take command of your mobile's camera and take a snapshot remotely. I can see how this may develop into an insanely useful piece of software. At the moment the connection is pretty slow and it slurps up battery power, but give it time.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

I saw these on the way to work today. I somehow think that an exhibition of the workwear of different people could be a cool thing for a brand like Timberland.

Remember that walk?

This is a record of a walk that my missus and I took earlier this year. It's provided by an excellent website called Trailino. This lets you upload GPS tracks to a central database and see them represented in several different formats. I particularly like the Google Earth movies.

To me, and to lots of other outdoors-y people, the GPS tracks our our adventures are just as significant and evocative as any photograph. We look at the steep curve of the altitude profile and remember a climb and it all comes flooding back. When will brands tke advantage of this? Or should they?

Mosaic Invaders

Found this in Soho on my way back from lunch. These little guys are all over London, and it seems the world.

Jay-Z hates Qik

Qik lets you stream live videos from your mobile to the internet. Schweet. Soon, every camera/video cam will be doing this, eliminating the possibility of the "bodyguard takes the film from your camera" moment that all paparazzi must enjoy from time to time.