s3e23: It Looks Like You’re Trying To Write A Newsletter 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Monday, 20th June, 2016. 10:51am at the XOXO Outpost in Portland, Oregon. In an exercise in radical transparency, I will admit to you that the music playing on my headphones at the moment is Christina Perri’s A Thousand Years, from critically acclaimed mormon documentary Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1.

1.0 Grab bag

Yes, lots of people are laughing at the tronc videos [1, 2], where tronc is the corporate organization formerly known as Tribune Publishing. Here’s a transcript of the second one:

Because change is mandatory, but survival isn’t
Because newspapers are printed on light, and the world’s largest newsstand is your phone
Because brilliant journalism and jaw-dropping technology can now share a newsroom: there is tronc
It means mediums change, but the substance remains
It means a storied portfolio of storytelling is pooled, personalized and presented to everyone on earth at the speed of light
It means the next media company is here
Both intellectually distinguished, and radically distinct
From Pulitzers to pixels
tronc: brilliant journalism. Higher intelligence.

… but the first one is worth watching because it’s a talking head explanation from tronc’s Chief Technology Officer and President of New Ventures, and their Chief Digital Officer.

I have an amusing theory that these tronc videos are dual-purpose: on the one hand, they’re supposed to reassure some tronc employees that Everything Will Be All Right[3] and for other tronc employees they’re a sort of dog-whistle to ask them to start looking for new jobs so they can achieve new (reduced) headcount targets through attrition.

Look, the issue I have with these tronc videos is that they don’t say anything and they don’t mean anything. That’s why they’re getting panned in the social medias: peoples’ bosses are saying things like “having a tech startup culture meeting a legacy corporate culture” when to some people that *kind of* sounds like the worst of both worlds. It’s the CTO saying that they produce tonnes of content every day and that they have an opportunity as to how they get that content to people, without speaking as to whether that content is useful or valuable in the first place. It’s their CTO saying that the key to making their content “valuable to the broadest audience possible” – and note, he said *valuable*, not useful – is machine learning, with the CDO adding that it means using artificial intelligence to find the things to “package your stories with”. It’s the CTO saying that ultimately, this machine learning will help produce a) more content, b) better content (note the order and priority). In tronc’s world, they want to get 50% of their article pages having a Brightcove monetisable video player attached to them, which is pretty amusing because part of the whole deal with tronc is, I guess, having more control over their destiny, but I guess this also means that in 2017, 50% of their pages are going to have revenue coming from a partner product?

Anyway. F- for a shallow and limp internal manifesto video explaining what your company is and is about, and also a F- See Me After Class for completely failing to explain what “digital” is and means to tronc and instead hiding behind horrendous buzzwords.

[1] tronc employee video – YouTube, but in case they delete it (for a while, it looked like they had), I uploaded a copy

2.0 Stop Hitting Yourself, Continued

You can fill in the blanks here. An ad agency[0] and a non-profit/non-governmental organisation/charitable organisation[1] work together to produce a hot new App[2] that does something to Activate people. Someone at the charity is persuaded that Digital is a really big opportunity for the charity, invariably by someone at their ad agency. What If, asks the ad agency, What If instead of just running a campaign *raising awareness* about refugees, we made something Digital that both raised awareness and *Activated People* about refugees?

What if, asks the ad agency, what if we could empower the billions of us with smart devices to watch the entire sea and help save lives?

What then? Wouldn’t that be amazing? We’d all get to go to Cannes because everyone knows that Apps that Activate are super hot right now, and anyway, isn’t Doing Something about refugees better than Raising Awareness about refugees?

Oh oh, but Doing Something turns out to be hard, because hey, we’re an ad agency and we’re good at coming up with Big Ideas and making Videos About Big Ideas[3], and winning awards based on Videos About Big Ideas.


One of the big problems that I admit now is that for better or worse, a whole bunch of people in executive and leadership positions – whether in the private sector, the “third” charitable sector” or in government don’t know enough about how technology works, and are happy to let someone else (a traditional govtech vendor, an ad agency, or a Big Consulting Company That’s Probably Better Known By Its Initials Than Anything Else).

Here is a short list of all the things that someone at Grey could’ve done, but didn’t, because as far as I can make out they are either incompetent or maliciously bad at their job:

a) realized that someone already does this (ie: tomnod) and partnered with them
b) put a fucking big “ALPHA” sign all over the app because it *doesn’t actually work* and saying that it’s in “testing” mode makes you look even more stupid
c) not entered it for a fucking award, because it *doesn’t fucking work*
d) partnered with literally any other digital product or service design agency that actualyl knows how hard it is to make these things rather than sit down in a meeting room with a bunch of junior creatives and have the CDs approve something like “man, an app that saves refugees! Approved! Go make the award submission video!”
e) spent more time on actually making the app and figuring out how it would work than they did on producing their fucking award submission video because I bet they spent more time on the SCRIPT for the submission video than they did for the design of the app
f) realized how morally bankrupt the leadership of the ad agency office was because of course this was probably done for near to nothing as a pro-bono piece of work, and intended to be a trophy, but HA HA Grey Global end up looking like idiots and MOAS end up being the latest charity/NGO who might next time around know not to trust ad agencies with digital strategy
g) also: this is fucking PRODUCT or SERVICE, not a fucking AD

[0] Grey Global Group – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
[1] MOAS | Migrant Offshore Aid Station (bonus points: their site is HTTPS)
[2] ASSISTING WITH THE MIGRANT CRISIS | Grey Advertising Singapore
[3] Cannes Lions Winners :: Cannes Lions Archive // BRONZE – CANNES LIONS

3.0 Software Continues To Eat The World

So I get to say that I spotted Nexar off the IEEE Spectrum blog[0]a few days ago, and not when it popped up on Hacker News a few days later, but this doesn’t actually matter in the end because I didn’t write about it until today. And anyway: this isn’t a hot take. I think.

Nexar is one of the apps that’s brain-hittingly obvious in terms of concept and it’s also one of those ones where I’m not entirely surprised that it came out of Israel, because a bunch of super smart things that I’m aware of to do with computer vision have come out of Israel over the last ten or so years (see: Kinect and its subsequent effect on people scanning things in).

Anyway, if I were making up a story behind Nexar, I’d say something like this. A lot [citation needed] of people are using their smartphones in their cars for navigation. These phones are typically mounted near the dash so that you can look at navigation instructions and maps while you’re driving. We’ve also been able to gather a whole tonne of data that the phone can report back while it’s being used for navigation, like helping to provide traffic flow information and better guidance around traffic incidents[2, 3].

But! Phones keep getting more powerful! People keep putting better processors inside them, and those processors even include GPUS – graphics processing units – that are super good at some tasks like running neural networks! And! Those phones also happen to have pretty high resolution cameras on their backs, pointing away from their screens… And, I bet [citation needed] a lot of these phones used for navigation are also plugged in, so we don’t have to worry about throttled-down processing power!

… so (ad agency voice) what if we turned on that front camera while you were using Google Maps or Apple Maps or whatever? What would we see? Would we be able to identify cars based on their number/licence plates? Would we be able to use sensor fusion to figure out a) how fast we’re going (yes), how fast the other cars are going (probably) and what the other cars are doing (maybe?) and if those cars are slowing down (yes?) and if they should’ve had their brakelights on? Would we be able to take advantage of a persistent network connection to upload all that data to The Cloud and crunch it for Super Happy Big Data Funtimes? Probably?

I mean, it’s not like dashcams were going to be a massive thing. Sure, taxi drivers use them, and apparently they’re super big in Russia [citation needed] according to YouTube [ah, okay then] because people in Russia apparently drive crazily [really, citation needed]. But it’s not like there’s a massive market of dashcams to disrupt. But! That doesn’t matter! The phone can eat the potential market for dashcams, because dashcams are dumb! Dashcams make no sense in a world where you’ve got a good camera *and* power *and* a network connection *and* a CPU smart enough to do some local processing! The whole deal with mobile phones is that we’ve got to remember that we’ve got a network-connected 1GHz+ dual core+ processor *wherever we are*, and sometimes that means inside a car.

To which, some questions:

a) all you insurance companies, I get that you have an app so that, I dunno, I can download my insurance card and show it to someone when someone rear-ends me. But are you still seriously requiring me to add extra hardware to my car for mileage-based premium reductions?
b) ahahahaha there’s no way out because you have to opt-out of this, I guess? What if you don’t want to be tracked? The presumption is that Nexar just tracks every car and then you have to go to them and say, hey, I have this licence plate number (how do you prove it?), please DO NOT TRACK me?
c) something to do with the police?
d) something to do with the feds?
e) oh god it’s just another security hole all over again?

But there’s more! Part of the attraction about Nexar is that it gives you information about the *other* drivers on the road and if there’s one thing we all know, it’s that we’re awesome drivers and the other people on the road are dicks. I’m totally interested in an app that will give me a warning if the driver in front of me is going to drive in an assholey fashion and that I get to report them. That’d be cool. I’m less interested if that’s me, though. Maybe?

f) Google knows how many of us probably break the speed limit and I bet it’s super embarrassing from a policy point of view

[0] The AI Dashcam App That Wants to Rate Every Driver in the World – IEEE Spectrum
[1] An AI dashcam app designed to rate every driver | Hacker News
[2] How Google Maps knows about traffic – Tech Insider
[3] Waze – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (also from Israel!)

OK, it’s 3:30pm and I have a bunch of other work to do. I’m also listening to Meredith Brooks’ Bitch because I am stuck in a 1990s playlist hole and I cannot escape.



PS. Also, notes please.