Being Beta

Exercises in the higher banter with One of 26. Elsewhere called 'poet of adland'. By a whipple-squeezer. Find out why being beta is the new alpha: betarish at googlemail dot com

Monday, September 29, 2008

26 recommendations for September

are here.

BTW, apologies for radio silence for previous, and - most likely - upcoming weeks. It has been a wee bit crazy, and no sign of that slowing down any time soon.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Open House London 2008

Just a quick note to remind you that this weekend is a godsend to all you London-based property hounds.

It's Open House time, which means it's your chance to go places where you normally can't.

Two years ago, I wrote:

Open House is almost the perfect form of recreation for the English, combining as it does walking, queuing, snooping and property.

And I think that's still true. Fingers crossed the weather's sunny.

Ms Beta and I are volunteering this year at Highpoint in Highgate, one of the high temples to European modernism. We're on the afternoon shift on the Saturday, so if you're in the area, do pop by and say hi. I think I've been assigned to the tearoom, where I'll have this week's Economist, and maybe The Ghost too.

And plan your snooping here.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Commercial: A new strapline for The Daily Show

I think Thomas Friedman provided them with one last year:

fake journalists presenting what turns out to be the real news.

So: shorten that to 'fake journalists. Real news', and it works a treat, non?

All this because a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair appears on Thursday...


Commercial: Probably the best job in the world

No, really. This makes McJobs sound really cool. BTW, 'p' is Kiwi for Crystal Meth.


Commercial: We're doomed!

Well, it certainly feels that way. Pertinent thought of the day spoken by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution:

It's a little scary that the world's largest insurance company hasn't planned for a rainy day.

Indeed. Scary to the tune of $85bn. Bloody. Hell.

What's the financial equivalent of a tin hat?


Monday, September 15, 2008

In memoriam, w/r/t David Foster Wallace

It seems apposite that the first thing I did (1) upon learning of the news in a relatively unexpected and incongruous manner, eg at the bottom of a ‘campaign diary’ of the interminable US Presidential election, was to spend what was experienced as an ever-expanding amount of linear time, although clearly not much longer than an actual hour of lapsed time (2), using the affordances of HTML to pursue parallel, hypertextual searches for information about, to do with the circumstances of, and more tangentially relating to and do with the death of novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, by what appears to be his own hand, on Friday 12 September 2008 (3).

Apposite because w/r/t to DFW, in my belief, his greatness will be recognised, in two ways – presently, and in some yet-to-be defined canonical status, accepting without prejudice at the moment the arguments with, doubts over and concerns regarding a) said notion of a ‘canon’ and b) his said membership of it.

The underlying argument of his greatness as regards to his insight and relevance to the here and now of the way in which we live our lives in a contemporary fashion comes from recognition of the fact he was able to simultaneously mimic the interior monologues that most of us (4) interact with, control the flow of, react to, dissect, probe and analyse, while overlaying this with judgement that this monologue is in part a reaction to – and caused by - the informational hyperload that is a result of almost unavoidable immersion in today’s modern media, entertainment and working environments. That is to say, he did not just set out to satirise or dissect – although he did – the way in which we can and do consume data now, and use it almost uncritically to frame our reference points, but also demonstrate a) the way in which this crowds out our ability to develop a stream of conscious thought which is actively trying to draw away from or deflect the influence of this meta narrative that others are effectively ‘constructing’ for us (5), which in theory at least suggests that ‘original’ thought is a rare impossibility, and instead true originality, w/r/t striving for ‘truth’ in thought, comes from being alert to the very mental conditioning that we place ourselves under, and trying to break out of it. (6)

That he was able to do this in a way that was, at least on deeper readings of his work, understandable is in no small part his outrageous technical gifts (7) as a writer, in the old-fashioned sense of writerly ‘craft’, where clause upon clause, coinage upon coinage, sentence upon sentence, footnote supra footnote, all built up to form a dizzyingly layered picture of text, upon which two, three, even four readings were both simultaneously possible, desirable – and indeed the only way in which to really understand the true effect that he was trying to achieve – how can one find ‘truth’ in amongst all this ‘stuff’ that is out there, and in your head too – and also in the more didactic sense, as teacher, a grammarian (8), because it is impossible to construct the effects that he did re clauses, sentences, footnotes et cetera without a sure-footed grasp of syntax, stressed vowels, and which infinitives could be split. Rare indeed is the writer who gave the impression of breaking the rules of writing, while not actually doing so. (9)

This regard for form yet seeming disregard for meta-form that his technical ability gives his work leads to the second, more contentious claim; that he will be considered ‘future great’ too. The first claim for the canon is that he appears to the be the first writer since the deconstructionists took hold of our intellectual currents, who appeared to be able to reconstruct the kaedeliscope of modern living, to give a verbal language back to us which, because it was born out of a semiotician’s grasp of visual metaphor, helped us to accurately locate ourselves in the modern, metaphoric world.

But the pyrotechnical virtuosity did something more than just explain: it illuminated. And what it lit up, more often than not, was the fact that he was a humanist: a great big believer in the deep and bigger things, the things that elevate humanity above other species. And as such he was constantly prompting us, reminding us that we the one thing that we could never relax on, give up was the search for humanity – for him primarily delivered through not-religious but still moral (10) hunting for excellence in all its forms, the search for which may mean the unshackling of oneself from wider, received ideas. (11)

And while it can be argued that all writers who enter the canon at root have the between them a concern for discovering what makes us human, what will make DFW unique in said body is the fact that he gave us the first glimpse of what it might take, what it might mean, what we might have to do to achieve this in the age that we currently live in.

These clearly are not easy ideas, or indeed easily digestible ideas. And one does get the sense amongst critics who should know better (hello James Wood) that ultimately the sound of DFW was hollow, all surface no feeling, to coin a phrase; that his inability to necessarily dazzle with a phrase, but instead blind you with learning – which it has to be said he wore as easily as one with a MacArthur Genius Grant could – meant that he was not getting to the bigger questions. And this is wrong. Not just from the obvious evidence – DFW could, and did, write an accessible book about the search for infinity – but also from seeing that, at core, the core of what made him write, was the notion that the search for humanity was, and must be, and always will be (12) infinite, not just because humanity is infinite, but the act of searching was the act that defined us.

A coda: On the way home tonight, I bought Oblivion, his final collection of short stories and novellas. And while the obvious link can and should be drawn regarding a crass form of commemoration, it hints and points at something deeper. Where else as a writer was he to go? This was, after all, a man who had examined ‘infinity’ in fact, and in fiction. That he was able to turn such prodigious gifts of insight and ability into more ‘mundane’ concerns (although no doubt he would argue that it was how one thought in that mundanity that was the stuff of life) was, is, and should be enough for us.


(1) OK, not quite the first thing. Instead, it was to enter the weird state of wired excitement, giddy yet controlled hysteria and a striving for a sense of grief that I, if not others, attain when presented with news of untimely notable/celebrity* deaths, which in turn causes one to wonder quickly what is the correct form that one’s manner and bearing must take when confronted with news appertaining to someone you know of, admire, have come to know through their work, yet do not ‘know’ in any meaningful relationship, or even ‘Hail well, met fellow’ way.

* ‘celebrity’ here used in the sense of ‘a guy you might of heard of or about, but are unlikely to have seen nor heard, and unlikely to know why it is that you might have heard of or about him.

(2) And as of yet, in advertising agencies, there isn’t a billable timesheet entry reference code for ‘Asking the internet about recently dead, white male authors’.

(3) That very weekend, in the September edition of Observer Music Monthly, he was cited as an influence on the band Cold War Kids. While magazine lead times clearly make this reference merely coincidental, an early death appears to give this mention of him a kind of synchronicity that one might consider oooky or odd, depending on how one feels about the possibility of spooky coincidences around death.

(4) By ‘us’ I specifically refer to tertiary educated, probably beyond post-graduate level, working in what were once defined as ‘white collar’ jobs, now more likely better known as ‘Microserf’-gigs, pace Coupland, involving the application of qualitative and quantitative research skills, abstract reasoning capabilities, as well as the ability to build and develop logical arguments, and deliver – or at least deliver a simulacra of – conventional rhetorical tropes, in team and one-to-one interactions, in open plan offices, in professions and industries most commonly known as the ‘service’ sector of the economy.

(5) Although this clearly does not recognise the role that new technologies for the production, dissemination and consumption of media are having in creating a ‘recombinant’ culture in which everyone wishes to ‘publish’ something to some degree.

(6) Part of that analysis draws on the commencement address given at Kenyon College in 2005, which has also influenced some other parts of this memorial analysis.**

** Of course, that address does also make reference to suicide. The manner of death described, and DFW’s own death suggest that ‘foreshadowing’ as a critical argument would be a lazy one to make.

(7) And they really are gifts. This is the second time that I’ve tried to write in the style of DFW. The first is here; neither, you’ll agree, is good.

(8) A ‘snoot’, in the terminology he used in his now legendary Harpers’ essay on English usage.

(9) Did I say he was funny? He was that. And capable of moments of blistering beauty too; see 'Church Not Made With Hands' in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men.

(10) Although not hectoringly so.

(11) This idea is more lucidly expressed in, op cit, his Kenyon College address. In reference to the idea of celebrating excellence, see his essay on Roger Federer, and for the unshackling of received ideas, see his recently re-issued (and indeed final) book on John McCain, who it appears has decided firmly to shackle himself up to win election.

(12) Allowing for expected and unexpected events and cataclysms, eg Black Swan events.



A lovely quote to introduce today's Word of the Day:

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Which, of course, puts one in mind of this.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Linkorama for 12.09.08: More brain food

These should have gone on the list t'other day, but I didn't get round to it:

1. Dan Hill of City of Sound on The Adaptive City.

2. The New York Times on the 'ambient awareness' that digital intimacy is fostering.

3. How Pixar gets to be so damn clever, in the Harvard Business Review.



Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Listorama: Facebook status updates vol 9

BetaRish (is)...

thinks the Dark Knight is savage and beautiful

might dissolve later

back from the MOO party. Thanks for the hospitality guys

starting early

wants to know how he’s going to sleep when it’s this hot

trying not to use the words easy, Sunday and morning

has lots and lots to do today

hearts Tina Fey lots and lots

wants to thank the driver who deliberately speeded up by the burst water main at Oval. You woke me up, and now I will come and find you bastard

slept on his elbow

not bad after a night’s drinking

recovering after running 8k

up early again

will start talking about himself in the third person if it puts him with a shout of the England captaincy

has equity at risk, dammit


wonders why great ideas are green this time round

picks books over cigarettes

has now booked flights to Tokyo

walking on by

asks: Bernie Mac too? While Richard Blackwood still walks amongst us?

will be doing much scribbling today

has seen Ms Beta off. It’s now just him and Treason and Treachery. South London, you have been warned

will go down all guns blazing, dammit

off to Folkestone for the Triennial

back in Stanmore for the day

close to panic stations

delighted that Miss Joan Holloway is now following me

amazed by the story he’s reading in the last issue of The New Yorker

wonders, disarms and generally selects other lesser verbs

trying to reach Marvin Barretto, as I have his mobile. If anyone has a landline number or way of contacting him, please let me know

off to get fitted up

going to start work in a moment

girding himself to get up

a tiger in Niger

discovered that playing LCD Soundsystem really loud on the tube didn’t wake him up, and pissed a lot of people off

*delighted* to welcome back insomnia, to a starring role in the bedroom

delighted to accept the nomination

having fruit salad

keeps trying to tell you, over and over

likes Holly’s new nickname: ‘glitterpony’

missing summer. Can you help him find out?

reckons that ‘Reckoning’ still sounds as daisy fresh as the first time he heard it

wants another piece of chocolate cake, although he already has enough on his plate

has said goodbye to his Coney Island babe

says, ‘rain, stay away from Croydon’

still parsing the poem that came to him at 4am

academic, as decisions go


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Brain Food

Lots and lots of it:

1. Jan Chipchase on designing for social spaces.

2. Rory Sutherland on why advertising is actually democratic.

3. James Whatley on the hierarchy of communications, with an addendum from The Outsidr. (Interesting isn't it that despite all the advances in technology and communications we enjoy, it's still a personal touch - in terms of voice - that people will prioritise. At least for communications from people you know...)

All will give you much to chew over. Enjoy.


Monday, September 08, 2008

There's no orange line on the Underground

When you think about it, it's amazing that these displays don't go wrong more often.


Friday, September 05, 2008

Commercial: Corpoetics by Nick Asbury

I never get post at work. So when Beth delivered this lovely red book this morning, you could say I was made up.

Nick Asbury is an award-winning copywriter who I know through 26, who last year was in the D&AD Annual for his Pentone tone of voice system.

Here he's created something that gently deflates the pomposity of the usual corporate world waffle, while at the same time being genuine works of found poetry. He's taken the generic boilerplate from various 'About us' pages, and then twisted and re-shaped them until something else has emerged.

It's rather wonderful because he appears to have managed to tap the souls of the companies he's written about. For example, of Goldman Sachs he writes:

"Who are you? Are you new?
You will learn who is who.
You will learn to submit to the firm."

Which does rather chime in with the self-image that GS has of itself, and the wider resonance it has of being 'The Firm'.

And needless to say, Corpoetics looks wonderful too, thanks to the work of Sue, his award-winning partner is Asbury & Asbury.

If you write to Nick nicely, I'm sure he might have some spares available. It's well worth having.


Commercial: Brand Rothko

Brand Rothko
Originally uploaded by SgtRock333
This was spotted just off Market Place a few days ago. Some early doors awareness raising for one of the two Tate blockbusters that we will all, no doubt, be crammed into shortly.

I get why Caffe Nero are involved - nice reinforcement as the discerning place to go for coffee. I get why Tate have asked them - gets the word out about a difficult artist to an audience that might not have heard of him.

But I wonder what the Rothko estate think? As tie-ups go, it could have been worse, but when I see 'Light Red Over Black', it's not coffee I'm thinking of. And I'm not sure a perk up at that point would be right.


Linkorama for 05.09.08

1. Mike Reed of Reed Words has a lovely little mailshot which is setting the design blogs alight. Here's why:

Any mailer that quotes Kingsley Amis. And argues in favour of starting sentences with 'and' is right by us.

2. Another euphemism for redundancy: 'right-sizing'. As used by Carat, whose senior staff appear unable to use email properly. Isn't it horrible? Because at least 'downsizing' didn't imply that your employment at the firm was in some way wrong.

3. Peter Bradshaw's been at it again, in his review of Guy Ritchie's latest opus, Rocknrolla.

4. This Recording has a list of the 'ten best speeches that inform our present moment'. With MP3s. Remind yourself of Peggy Noonan's genius, and the words she crafted for Reagan after the Challenger disaster.


Wednesday, September 03, 2008

I did not know that!

(Photo: PostNeo)

First in a series:

Number 1: That 'captcha' (you know, the annoying things you have to complete to prove you're human online - numerical example shown above) stands for:

Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart.”

Makes sense, non? (Hat tip: PSFK)

Number 2: That those degrees of separation are down from six to three, according to research from O2.

Which, by some *lucky* coincidence, means their new slogan, is even *truer* than it was before. Amazing! (Hat tip: TechCrunch).


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Commercial: Another someecard

Or whatever.


Me make info look pretty one day

In discussion with Thunk this morning, around Feltron's involvement in new daily data project Daytum, he asked the question:

"i can't help but wonder whether the use of charts to explain everything is getting a bit... silly."

Which in turn prompted my question:

"The visualisation of data is a new attempt to force objectivity on aesthetics. Discuss."

Is it all that new? Probably not. But the growth of this particular meme of visual culture is easily trackable, certainly since the rise of the web and design thinking and practitioners who, in training and temperament, are almost engineers first and artists second.

And while much of what is being created is certainly beautiful and I accept the argument and need for people to make every more complex sets of data comprehensible, there is also a counter argument that suggests that this meme:

a) is an attempt to try and make more rational something that is fundamentally not rational;
b) attempts to extrapolate relatively unproven ideas about the nature of symmetry vis a vis beauty and attempt to apply these ideas to a more overarching framework;
c) limits our discussion of what we believe to be aesthetically appealing, by hinting that beauty *must* have a degree of explainable predictability about it; and
d) posits the idea that *creation* as a process can fundamentally be tamed, labeled and treated in the manner of objective scientific discovery.

If we take this further, one might suggest that it is a canary in the mine in this sense: we are allowing science and numbers and 'data' and quantitative measures and ROI and league tables and 'value-adds' of all sorts to dominate our discussion of what matters in our society. And this is dangerous. Because while these tools, in their right place, can be useful, they can't explain everything. They can't provide objectivity, and the 'right' answer all the time.

We need a 'Freakonomics' for qualitative insight.

PS: It need not be serious.


Monday, September 01, 2008

Commercial: Selling mistakes

Howies' tone of voice is generally on the money. I thought this example from a few weeks ago was very clever indeed.

Not only did it position 'mistake' t-shirts as a desirable item, it also had a good crack at persuading you to pay more for them than their normal t-shirts of the week. That's very canny indeed. I'd love to know how successful that approach was - the anti-sale, as it were.


Commercial: Second acts in American life

This John Naughton column from yesterday's Observer reminded me that Fitzgerald's canard about there being no second acts in American life really ought to be put out of its misery now.

It also reminded me that rare is the individual who can be said to have changed the world not just once, but certainly twice, and maybe even thrice?

A third act in American life? That would be some going.


The American promise

Whatever your politics, this is well worth watching as a lesson in how a political argument can be made in language that is not dull nor technocratic, but instead in fluting, inspiring and hard-hitting language. For whatever science might be involved in politics, it's still words that ultimately win the arguments.