Ledger Domain: How and Why Marketers Can Improve Their Implementations of the Blockchain

Looking At Milky Way, Image by Wall Boat

Is there any product, service or technology out there today that’s just a click away from offering people the virtual equivalent of a cure for the common cold that costs less than a dollar and tastes better than chocolate? No, of course not. But as new innovations inevitably rise and fall along the waves of the tech hype cycle, the true potential of The Next Big Tech Thing often takes years to become fully realized and optimized for a deep and wide variety of markets.

One of today’s leading candidates competing for this top-level billing is the blockchain.¹ It is enjoying massive media buzz, investment and experimentation in configuring it for a diversity of applications including, among many others, food supply chains, financial services and artists rights. This technology is providing new means to accomplish business tasks more securely and reliably, thus increasing operational efficiencies.

Yet whether the blockchain can and will fully and effectively scale in all circumstances still remains to be seen by many sectors of the business world. An inherently key question at the very heart of the blockchain’s growth and acceptance is whether marketers and advertisers can leverage many of its technological virtues and, if so, how they can best accomplish this?

Taking a deeply insightful and informative look at of the latest developments concerning this is a highly informative recent article entitled How Blockchain Can Help Marketers Build Better Relationships with Their Customers, by Campbell R. Harvey, Christine Moorman and Marc Toledo, posted on the Harvard Business Review website on October 1, 2018. I highly recommend a click-through and full read if you have an opportunity.

I will summarize and annotate this, reference in some related Subway Fold posts, and then pose some of my own ad-free questions.

The Benefits of Diminishing Transaction Costs

Economic Gardening, Image by Missy Schmidt

According to a February 2018 CMO Survey, just 8% of its participants rated the usage of the blockchain in their marketing operations as being “moderately or very important”. This technology is still “not well understood” among marketers and perceived as being over-hyped. This has resulted in a “wait and see” attitude about it. Nonetheless, there are compelling reasons to understand the blockchain and build specific marketing applications for it that will be more likely to benefit early adopters and innovators.

The blockchain’s virtues of “transparency, immutability and security” make it very suitable for a wide range of transactional and managerial functions. Likewise, it lowers the costs involved in executing all of these activities and, even more importantly, the need to rely so heavily on the web’s giant advertising intermediaries (primarily Google and Facebook), may be reduced. As well, the means now exist using this technology to permit consumers to better “own and control” their personal data.²

Currently, electronic transactions using credit and debit cards involve significant costs to online and real-world vendors. These associated costs are passed along to consumers. Sellers often set minimum purchase thresholds to maintain their profitability.

However, the transactional costs of using the blockchain are approaching zero. For example, MasterCard and Visa have implemented blockchain-based alternative systems enabling customers to “send money in any local currency”, without using a credit card. This again removes any embedded intermediaries and “connects directly to the banks” involved. Consequently, cross-border fees can be dispensed.

There are other advantages emerging for marketers and advertisers involving exchanges of real monetary value with consumers. Rather than these professionals all relying on third-parties such as Facebook for acquiring troves of customer data, they could instead use a system of micropayments³ to directly reward consumers for their personal data. For instance, under this alternative model, a supermarket chain could provide shoppers with a mobile app that pays them to install it, tracks their location, and use it for special deals on merchandise at personalized prices4.

Similarly, marketers could employ the use of smart contracts that vitiate the “need for validation, review, or authentication by intermediaries”. These can be engaged when participants subscribe to an email newsletter or customer rewards program. (More on this below.) The micropayments here are dispensed to consumers whenever they respond to a vendor’s emails or advertisements.

Like Flamingo Synapses, Image by Donal Mountain

Alleviating Google’s and Facebook’s Dominance in Online Advertising

This direct-reward-to-consumers architecture could similarly be deployed for the engagement of website ads. Presently, most users are put off by the current system of intrusive pop-ups and other forms of unavoidable online advertising. A growing Web-wide push back to this has been the use of ad-blocking browser add-ons.5

New alternatives based upon the blockchain can “recapture” some this lost ad revenue by directly compensating online consumers “for their attention”6. This could potentially diminish Google’s and Facebook’s lock on the majority of online ad and data revenues.7 Blockchain options will also enable individuals to “control their own online profiles and social graphs”.8

Taken together, these possibilities might permit companies to:

  • interact directly with their consumers
  • bypass patronizing the social media and search giants, and
  • avoid relentless email solicitations and “follow-me ads”

Furthermore, meaningful cost savings can be directly passed along to consumers by virtue of this voluntarily consumed advertising via these types of blockchain-supported conduits.

Image from Pixabay.com

Shutting Down Online Frauds and Spam

By 2016, $7.6 billion was appropriated by “fraudulent or deceptive activity” and is expected to increase soon to nearly $11 billion. Nonetheless, marketing teams who deploy the blockchain to “track their ads” can:

  • maintain control over their online activities
  • be more confident that expenditures are going to “ROI-generating activities”, and
  • measure the effects of their efforts on a per-user and per-mail scale

Thus, to the benefit of marketers and vendors and to the detriment of bad actors online are the following technological advantages:

Verification: The blockchain can be used to provide verification of “the origin and methodology of marketers”. It can likewise reduce or eliminate large-scale phishing spam through the use of micropayments to the recipients of marketing emails. This will enable “companies to identify consumers” who are genuinely interested in their offerings. Micropayments could then be dispensed in exchange for access to various forms of onscreen content.

Security: Such implementations could also potentially defeat malicious hacks using denial of service attacks (DoS) and could make social media sites more resistant to automated bot accounts. The former are attempts to overwhelm web servers with a flood of traffic and latter are widely used for massive distributions of deceptive information, as well as to illegally appropriate “online advertising from big brands”.

Authenticity: A user’s bonafides is one of the main cornerstones of the blockchain. Turning this into a service, Keybase.io is a company currently working on reducing social media fraud. Their blockchain-enabled app permits individual users to prove they are the “rightful owners” of various social media account. This makes marketing easier to monitor and advertising expenses more supportable.

“Origami Fish – Made by June”, image by Penny

Increasing Revenues from Media Viewership

Original and editorial web content built upon blockchain technology can potentially permit media companies to increase their “quality control and copyright protection”.9 For example, Kodak has developed a new product called KODAKOne, an image rights and distribution platform. It uses the blockchain to record the ownership rights to individual images. Photographers will be awarded greater control over their work than they currently have with how their pictures distribution online. In the future, photographers will automatically be sent payments whenever their content is used. This could probably also be used for video content creators whose work has gone viral.

A company called Coupit also uses blockchain tech to enable marketers to join loyalty and affiliate programs whereby consumers can opt-in and “trade rewards with each other”. As a result, marketers can increase their “visibility and transparency” in order to distinguish inactive from loyal consumers. They can next sharpen their marketing strategies to distribute “targeted offers” to each of these categories.

In those cases where marketers employ a data aggregator or analytics processor, using micropayments will permit companies to circumvent ad-blocking apps10. For consumers, this gives then more fine-point control over their personal data and privacy, and rewards them for their willingness to view advertising that they have chosen.

Taking an alternative approach to content monetization is a new web browser called Brave. In addition to providing many built-in privacy and security features, it contains a blockchain-based feature called Basic Attention Tokens (BATs). These enable “publishers to monetize value added services” whereby users can dispense these tokens to sites they choose for content they select.

“The Crystal Ball”, Image by Gyorgy Soponyai

Companies and Consumers are Both Beneficiaries

Along with the progression of the blockchain’s reach and capabilities, business “intermediaries will need to adapt” accordingly. As discussed above, consumers will be exercising increased control and discretion over how they decide to engage with advertisers and Web threats such as spam and phishing will become self-limiting as their current tactics will be economically undermined.

Balancing this power and attention shift, companies might be able to exert greater control over the “quality of inbound traffic” to their marketing programs and achieve greater understanding of their customers’ needs and motivations.  When pursuing such “high value customers”, these economic incentives will perhaps result in a correspondingly increase in value.

Given all of these advantages that marketers and advertisers have to gain from further embracing blockchain technology, “finding ways to design and implement” them should be a joint effort among corporate decision-makers not just in marketing but also from the strategy, finance and technology departments. Moreover, innovative applications of the blockchain may ultimately be more beneficially in connecting marketers and advertisers with their intended audiences in ways that may have not been otherwise previously possible.

My Questions

  • Given that Google and Facebook currently have an overwhelming lock on online advertising’s multi-$billion revenue streams, will they meet any potential challenges to this with their own blockchain-founded variants? If so, how might they be different in their approach to benefit both advertisers and consumers? At the very least, do they even perceive this as a legitimate threat to their business models?
  • In addition to rewarding consumers with micropayments for ad clicks and content views, what, if anything, could companies do to correspondingly build incentives into their pricing structures for consumers’ purchasers? How should pricing be affected for repeat or bulk purchases by consumers? What if consumers make referrals of additional interested consumers to these blockchain-based vendors?
  • Would using mixed media such as augmented reality and virtual reality lend themselves to blockchain-based marketing implementations to further attract new potential consumers? That is, in return for micropayments disbursed to capture users’ attention, might enhanced advertising or content consumption experiences benefit both advertisers and consumers who would both end up feeling as though they are receiving added value for their participation?
  • What new entrepreneurial opportunities for goods, services and technologies might arise from these new and extensible blockchain-based marketing capabilities?

 


1.  Some examples of earlier implementations of blockchain technology were covered in these Subway Fold posts.

2.  X-ref to the concluding paragraph of the June 7, 2018 Subway Fold post entitled Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile, concerning another innovative effort to return full control of personal data to consumers called the Hub of All Things. Two other similar startups that have emerged during the past few weeks are Inrupt and Helm. This is starting to become a very interesting and innovative space. Furthermore, there was a fascinating and far-ranging article in The New York Times on October 19, 2018, entitled How the Blockchain Could Break Big Tech’s Hold on A.I., by Nathaniel Popper, exploring the possibility of using the blockchain as a means for individuals to control and distribute some of their personal information to be used in AI databases.

3.  Virtual reality pioneer, Microsoft scientist and author Jaron Lanier presented a persuasive case for this, among many other thought-provoking insights about the digital world, in his book entitled Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2013). Highly recommended reading if you have an opportunity.

4Amazon constantly and widely varies it prices based on all of the personal and market data they have accumulated as reported in an article posted on BusinessInsider.com on August 10, 2018, entitled Amazon Changes Prices on Its Products About Every 10 minutes — Here’s How and Why They Do It, by Neel Mehta, Parth Detroja, and Aditya Agashe.

5.  For example, AdBlock and Ghostery, among others, are browser add-ons that can effectively remove nearly all online ads. These apps are continually updated by their developers.

6.  Columbia University Law School professor and New York Times contributing opinion writer Tim Wu wrote a highly engaging book on the past, present and future of how advertising and mass media compete for our attention entitled The Attention Merchants The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). It is very worthwhile reading for its originality and insights.

7.  See the July 25, 2018 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)” for more detailed coverage on the current state of the online advertising market.

8.  See again the June 7, 2018 Subway Fold post entitled Single File, Everyone: The Advent of the Universal Digital Profile for some of the emerging innovative alternatives in this space.

9.  See also these Subway Fold posts in the category of Intellectual Property.

10.  See the August 13, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Report Finds Ad Blockers are Quickly Spreading and Costing $Billions in Lost Revenue.

Book Review of “Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else)”

“Advertising in Times Square”, image by Dirk Knight

Every so often, an ad campaign comes along that is strikingly brilliant for its originality, execution, persuasiveness, longevity, humor and pathos. During the mid-1980’s, one of these bright shining examples was the television ads for Bartles & Jaymes Wine Coolers. They consisted of two fictional characters: Frank Bartles, who owned a winery and did all of the talking, and Ed Jaymes, a farmer who never spoke a word but whose deadpan looks were priceless. They traveled across the US to different locations in pursuit of sales, trying to somehow adapt their approaches to reflect the local surroundings. Bartles was very sincere but often a bit naive in his pitches along the way, best exemplified in this ad and another one when they visited New York.

These commercials succeeded beyond all expectations in simultaneously establishing brand awareness, boosting sales and being laugh-out-loud hilarious because Bartles’s and Jaymes’s were such charming, aw-shucks amateurs. In actuality, these ads were deftly conceived and staged by some smart and savvy creatives from the Hal Riney & Partners agency. For further lasting effect, they always had Bartles express his appreciation to the viewers at the end of each spot with his memorable trademark tagline of “Thanks for your support”. These 30-second video gems are as entertaining today as they were thirty years ago.

But those halcyon days of advertising are long gone. The industry’s primary media back then was limited to print, television and radio. Creativity was its  cornerstone and the words “data analytics” must have sounded like something actuaries did in a darkened room while contemplating the infinite. (Who knows, maybe it still does to some degree.)

Fast forwarding to 2018, advertising is an utterly different and hyper-competitive sector whose work product is largely splayed across countless mobile and stationary screens on Planet Earth. Expertly chronicling and precisely assaying the transformative changes happening to this sector is an informative and engaging new book entitled Frenemies: The Epic Disruption of the Ad Business (and Everything Else) [Penguin Press, 2018], by the renowned business author Ken Auletta. Just as a leading ad agency in its day cleverly and convincingly took TV viewers on an endearing cultural tour of the US as we followed the many ad-ventures of Bartles & Jaymes, so too, this book takes its readers on a far-ranging and immersive tour of the current participants, trends, challenges and technologies affecting the ad industry.

A Frenemy of My Frenemy is My Frenemy

Image from Pixabay

This highly specialized world is under assault from a confluence of competitive, online, economic, social and mathematical forces. Many people who work in it are deeply and rightfully concerned about its future and the tenure of their places in it. Auletta comprehensively reports on and assesses these profound changes from deep within the operations of several key constituencies (the “frenemies”, conflating “friend” and “enemy”). At first this might seem a bit too much of “inside baseball” (although the ad pitch remains alive and well), but he quickly and efficiently establishes who’s who and what’s what in today’s morphing ad markets, making this book valuable and accessible to readers both within and outside of this field.  It can also be viewed as a multi-dimensional case study of an industry right now being, in the truest sense of the word, disrupted.¹ There is likewise much to learned and considered here by other businesses being buffeted by similar winds.

Frenemies, as thoroughly explored throughout this book, are both  business competitors and partners at the same time. They are former and current allies in commerce who concurrently cooperate and compete. Today they are actively infiltrating each other’s markets. The full matrix of frenemies and their threats and relationships to each other includes the interests and perspectives of ad agencies and their clients, social media networks, fierce competition from streamers and original content producers like Netflix², traditional media in transition to digital platforms, consulting companies and, yes, consumers.

Auletta travels several parallel tracks in his reporting. First, he examines the past, present on onrushing future with respect to revenue streams, profits, client bases served, artificial intelligence (AI) driven automation, and the frenemies’ very fluid alliances. Second, he skillfully deploys the investigative journalistic strategy of “following the money” as it ebbs and flows in many directions among the key players. Third, he illuminates the industry’s evolution from Don Draper’s traditional “Mad Men” to 2018’s “math men” who are the data wranglers, analysts and strategists driven by ever more thin-sliced troves of consumer data the agencies and their corporate clients are using to achieve greater accuracy and efficiency in selling their goods and services.

A deep and wide roster of C-level executives from these various groups were interviewed for the book. Chief among them are two ad industry legends who serve as the x and y axes upon which Auletta has plotted a portion of his reporting. One is Martin Sorrell, who was the founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising holding company.³ The other is Michael Kassan, the founder and CEO of MediaLink, a multifaceted firm that connects, negotiates and advises on behalf of a multitude of various parties, often competitors in critical matters affecting the ad business. Both of these individuals have significantly shaped modern advertising over many decades and are currently propagating some of the changes spotlighted in the book in trying to keep it vital, relevant and profitable.

Online Privacy v. Online Primacy

“Tug of War”, image by Pixabay

The established tradition of creativity being the primary driver of advertising creation and campaigns has given way to algorithm-driven data analytics. All of the frenemies and a myriad of other sites in many other parsecs of the websphere vacuum up vast amounts of data on users, their online usage patterns, and even go so far as to try to infer their behavioral attributes. This is often combined with additional personal information from third-party sources and data brokers. Armed with all of this data and ever more sophisticated means for sifting and intuiting it, including AI4, the frenemies are devising their campaigns to far more precisely target potential consumers and their cohorts with finely grained customized ads.

The high point of this book is Auletta’s nuanced coverage of the ongoing controversy involving the tension between frenemies using data analytics to increase click-through rates and, hopefully, sales versus respecting the data privacy of people as they traverse the Web. In response to this voracious data collection, millions of users have resisted this intrusiveness by adding free browser extensions such as AdBlock Plus to circumvent online tracking and ad distribution.5 This struggle has produced a slippery slope between the commercial interests of the frenemies and consumers’ natural distaste for advertising, as well as their resentment at having their data co-opted, appropriated and misused without their knowledge or consent. Recently, public and governmental concerns were dramatically displayed in the harsh light of the scandals involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.

Furthermore, Google and Facebook dominate the vast majority of online advertising traffic, revenues and, most importantly, the vast quantum of user information which ad agencies believe would be particularly helpful to them in profiling and reaching consumers. Nonetheless, they maintain it is highly proprietary to them alone and much of it has not been shared. Frenemies much?

Additional troubling trends for the ad industry are likewise given a thorough 3-D treatment. Auletta returns to the axiom several times that audiences do not want to be interrupted with ads (particularly on their mobile devices). Look no further than the likes of premium and the major streaming services who offer all of their content uninterrupted in its entirety. The growing ranks of content creators they engage know this and prefer it because they can concentrate on their presentations without commercial breaks slicing and dicing their narrative continuity. The still profitable revenue streams flowing from this are based upon the strengths of the subscription model.

Indeed, in certain cases advertising is being simultaneously disrupted and innovated. Some of the main pillars of the media like The New York Times are now expanding their in-house advertising staff and service offerings. They can offer a diversified array of ads and analyses directly to their advertisers. Likewise, engineering-driven operations like Google and Facebook can deploy their talent benches to better target consumers for their advertisers by extracting and applying insights from their massive databases. Why should their clients continue go to the agencies when their ads can be composed and tracked for them directly?

Adapt or Go Home

“Out with the Old, In with the New”, image by Mark

The author presents a balanced although not entirely sanguine view of the ad industry’s changes to maintain its composure and clients in the midst of this storm. The frenemy camps must be willing to make needed and often difficult adjustments to accommodate emerging technological and strategic survival methods. He examines the results of two contemporary approaches to avoiding adblocking apps and more fully engaging very specific audiences. One is called “native advertising“, which involves advertisers producing commercial content and paying for its placement online or in print to promote their own products. Generally, these are formatted and integrated to appear as though they are integrated with a site’s or publication’s regular editorial content but contain a notice that it is, in fact “Advertising”.

However, Auletta believes that the second adaptive mechanism, the online subscription model, will not be much more sustainable beyond its current successes. Consumers are already spending money on their favorite paywalled sites.  But it would seem logical that users might not be thus willing to pay for Facebook and others that have always been free. As well, cable’s cord-cutters are continuing to exhibit steady growing in their numbers and their migrations towards streaming services such as Amazon Prime.6

Among the media giants, CBS seems to be getting their adaptive strategies right from continuing to grow multiple revenue streams. They now have the legal rights and financial resources to produce and sell original programming. They have also recently launched original web programming such as Star Trek: Discovery on a commercial-free subscription basis on CBS All Access. This can readily be seen as a challenge to Netflix despite the fact that CBS also providing content to Netflix. Will other networks emulate this lucrative and eyeball attracting model?

As Auletta also concludes, for now at least, consumers as frenemies, appear to be the beneficiaries of all this tumult. They have many device agnostic platforms, pricing options and a surfeit of content from which to choose. They can also meaningfully reduce, although not entirely eliminate, ads following them all over the web and those pesky stealth tracking systems. Whether they collectively can maintain their advantage is subject to sudden change in this environment.

Because of the timing of the book’s completion and publication, the author and publisher should consider including in any subsequent edition the follow-up impacts of Sorrell’s departure from WPP and his new venture (S4 Capital), the effects of the May 2018 implementation of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and the progress of any industry or government regulation following the raft of recent massive data breaches and misuses.

Notwithstanding that, however, “Frenemies” fully delivers on all of its book jacket’s promises and premises. It is a clear and convincing case of truth in, well, advertising.

So, how would Frank Bartles and Ed Jaymes 2.0 perceive their promotional travels throughout today’s world? Would their folksy personas play well enough on YouTube to support a dedicated channel for them? Would their stops along the way be Instagram-able events? What would be their reactions when asked to Google something or download a podcast?

Alternatively, could they possibly have been proto-social media influencers who just showed up decades too soon? Nah, not really. Even in today’s digital everything world, Frank and Ed 1.0 still abide. Frank may have also unknowingly planted a potential meme among today’s frenemies with his persistent proclamations of “Thanks for your support”: The 2018 upgrade might well be “Thanks for your support and all of your data”.

 


For a very enlightening interview with Ken Auletta, check out the June 26, 2018 podcast entitled Game Change: How the Ad Business Got Disrupted, from The Midday Show on WNYC (the local NPR affiliate in New York).


September 4, 2018 Update: Today’s edition of The New York Times contains an highly enlightening article directly on point with many of the key themes of Frenemies entitled Amazon Sets Its Sights on the $88 Billion Online Ad Market, by Julie Creswell. The report details Amazon’s significant move into online advertising supported by its massive economic, data analytics, scaling and strategic resources. It comprehensively analyzes the current status and future prospects of the company’s move into direct competition with Google and Facebook in this immense parsec of e-commerce. I highly recommend a click-through and full read of this if you have an opportunity.


1.   The classic work on the causes and effect of market disruptions, the disruptors and those left behind is The Innovator’s Dilemma, by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

2.    Netflix Topples HBO in Emmy Nominations, but ‘Game of Thrones’ Still Rules, July 13, 2018, New York Times, by The Associated Press. However, see also Netflix Drops Dud on Wall St. As Subscriber Growth Flops, July 16, 2018, New York Times, by Reuters.

3.   Sorrell is reported in the book as saying he would not leave anytime soon from running WPP. However, following the book’s publication, he was asked to step down in April 2018 following allegations of inappropriate conduct. See Martin Sorrell Resigns as Chief of WPP Advertising Agency, New York Times, by Matt Stevens and Liz Alderman, April 14, 2018. Nonetheless, Sorrell has quickly returned to the industry as reported in Martin Sorrell Beats WPP in Bidding War for Dutch Marketing Firm, New York Times, by Sapna Maheshwari, July 10, 2018.

4.  For a very timely example, see The Ad Agency Giant Omnicom Has Created a New AI Tool That is Poised to Completely Change How Ads Get Made, BusinessInsider.com, by Lauren Johnson,  July 12, 2018.

5.   Two other similar anti-tracking browser extensions in wide usage include, among others Ghostery and Privacy Badger.

6.   See also  Cord-Cutting Keeps Churning: U.S. Pay-TV Cancelers to Hit 33 Million in 2018 (Study), Variety.com, by Todd Spangler, July 24, 2018.

Charge of the Light Brigade: Faster and More Efficient New Chips Using Photons Instead of Electrons

"PACE - PEACE" Image by Etienne Valois

“PACE – PEACE” Image by Etienne Valois

Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote his immortal classic poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, in 1854. It was to honor the dead heroes of a doomed infantry charge at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War. Moreover, it strikingly portrayed the horrors of war. In just six short verses, he created a monumental work that has endured ever since for 162 years.

The poem came to mind last week after reading two recent articles on seemingly disparate topics. The first was posted on The New Yorker’s website on December 30, 2015 entitled In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All by Om Malik. This is highly insightful analysis of how and why tech giants such as Google in search, Facebook in social networking, and Uber in transportation, have come to dominate their markets. In essence, competition is a fierce and relentless battle in the global digital economy. The second was an article on CNET.com posted on December 23, 2015 entitled Chip Promises Faster Computing with Light, Not Electrical Wires by Stephan Shankland. I highly recommend reading both of them in their entirety.

Taken together, the homonym of “light” both in historical poetry and in tech, seems to tie these two posted pieces together insofar as contemporary competition in tech markets is often described in military terms and metaphors. Focusing on that second story here for purposes of this blog post, about a tantalizing advance in chip design and fabrication, will this survive as it moves forward into the brutal and relentlessly “winner takes all” marketplace? I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own, hopefully en-light-ening questions.

Forward, the Light Brigade

A team of researchers, all of whom are university professors, including Vladimir Stojanovic from the University of California at Berkeley who led the development, Krste Asanovic also from Berkeley, Rajeev Ram from MIT, and Milos Popovic from the University of Colorado at Boulder, have created a new type of processing chip “that transmits data with light”. As well, its architecture significantly increases processing speed while reducing power consumption.  A report on the team’s work was published in an article in the December 24, 2015 issue of Nature (subscription required) entitled Single-chip Microprocessor That Communicates Directly Using Light by Chen Sun, Mark T. Wade, Yunsup Lee, et al.

This approach, according to Wikipedia, of “using silicon as an optical medium”, is called silicon photonics. IBM (see this link) and Intel (see this link)  have likewise been involved in R&D in this field, but have yet to introduce anything ready for the market.

However, this team of university researchers believes their new approach might be introduced commercially within a year. While their efforts do not make chips run faster per se, the photonic elements “keep chips supplied with data” which avoids them having to lose time by idling. Thus, they can process data faster.

Currently (no pun intended), electrical signals traverse metal wiring across the world on computing and communications devices and networks. For data traveling greater national and international distances, the electronic signals are transposed into light and sent along on high-speed fiber-optic cables. Nonetheless, this approach “isn’t cheap”.

Half a League Onward

What the university researchers’ team has done is create chips with “photonic components” built into them. If they succeed in scaling-up and commercializing their creation, consumers will be likely the beneficiaries. These advantages will probably manifest themselves first when used in data centers that, in turn, could speed up:

  • Google searches
  • Facebook image recognition
  • Other “performance-intensive features not economical today”
  • Remove processing bottlenecks and conserve battery life in smartphones and other personal computing platforms

Professor Stojanovic believes that one of their largest challenges if is to make this technology affordable before it can be later implemented in consumer level computing and communications devices. He is sanguine that such economies of scale can be reached. He anticipates further applications of this technology to enable chips’ onboard processing and memory components to communicate directly with each other.

Additional integrations of silicon photonics might be seen in the lidar remote sensing systems for self-driving cars¹, as well as brain imaging² and environmental sensors. It also holds the potential to alter the traditional methods that computers are assembled. For example, the length of cables is limited to the extent that data can pass through them quickly and efficiently before needed amplification along the way. Optical links may permit data to be transferred significant further along network cabling. The research team’s “prototype used 10-meter optical links”, but Professor Stojanovic believes this could eventually be lengthened to a kilometer. This could potentially result in meaningful savings in energy, hardware and processing efficiency.

Two startups that are also presently working in the silicon photonics space include:

My Questions:

  • Might another one of silicon photonics’ virtues be that it is partially fabricated from more sustainable materials, primarily silicon derived from sand rather than various metals?
  • Could silicon photonics chips and architectures be a solution to the very significant computing needs of the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) systems that will be coming onto the market in 2016? This issue was raised in a most interesting article posted on Bloomberg.com on December 30, 2015 entitled Few Computers Are Powerful Enough to Support Virtual Reality by Ian King. (See also these 13 Subway Fold posts on a range of VR and AR developments.)
  • What other new markets, technologies and opportunities for entrepreneurs and researchers might emerge if the university research team’s chips achieve their intended goals and succeed in making it to market?

May 17, 2017 UpdateFor an update on one of the latest developments in photonics with potential applications in advanced computing and materials science, see Photonic Hypercrystals Are Now a Reality and Light Will Never Be the Same, by Dexter Johnson, posted on May 10, 2017, on IEEESpectrum.com. 


1.  See these six Subway Fold posts for references to autonomous cars.

2.  See these four Subway Fold posts concerning certain developments in brain imaging technology.

Summary of the Media and Tech Preview 2016 Discussion Panel Held at Frankfurt Kurnit in NYC on December 2, 2015

"dtv svttest", Image by Karl Baron

“dtv svttest”, Image by Karl Baron

GPS everywhere notwithstanding, there are still maps on the walls in most buildings that have a red circle somewhere on them accompanied by the words “You are here”. This is to reassure and reorient visitors by giving them some navigational bearings. Thus you can locate where you are at the moment and then find your way forward.

I had the pleasure of attending an expert panel discussion last week, all of whose participants did an outstanding job of analogously mapping where the media and technology are at the end of 2015 and where their trends are heading going into the New Year. It was entitled Digital Breakfast: Media and Tech Preview 2016, was held at the law firm of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in midtown Manhattan. It was organized and presented by Gotham Media, a New York based firm engaged in “Digital Strategy, Marketing and Events” as per their website.

This hour and a half presentation was a top-flight and highly enlightening event from start to finish. My gratitude and admiration for everyone involved in making this happen. Bravo! to all of you.

The panelists’ enthusiasm and perspectives fully engaged and transported the entire audience. I believe that everyone there appreciated and learned much from all of them. The participants included:

The following is a summary based on my notes.

Part 1:  Assessments of Key Media Trends and Events in 2015

The event began on an unintentionally entertaining note when one of the speakers, Jesse Redniss, accidentally slipped out his chair. Someone in the audience called out “Do you need a lawyer?”, and considering the location of the conference, the room erupted into laughter.¹

Once the ensuing hilarity subsided, Mr. Goldblatt began by asking the panel for their media highlights for 2015.

  • Ms. Bond said it was the rise of streaming TV, citing Netflix and Amazon, among other industry leaders. For her, this is a time of interesting competition as consumers have increasing control over what they view. She also believes that this is a “fascinating time” for projects and investments in this market sector. Nonetheless, she does not think that cable will disappear.
  • Mr. Kurnit said that Verizon’s purchase of AOL was one of the critical events of 2015, as Verizon “wants to be 360” and this type of move might portend the future of TV. The second key development was the emergence of self-driving cars, which he expects to see implemented within the next 5 to 15 years.
  • Mr. Redniss concurred on Verizon’s acquisition of AOL. He sees other activity such as the combination of Comcast and Universal as indicative of an ongoing “massive media play” versus Google and Facebook. He also mentioned the significance of Nielsen’s Total Audience Measure service.²
  • Mr. Sreenivasan stated that social media is challenging, as indicated by the recent appearance of “Facebook fatigue” affecting its massive user base. Nonetheless, he said “the empire strikes back” as evidenced in their strong financial performance and the recent launch of Chan Zuckerberg LLC to eventually distribute the couple’s $45B fortune to charity. He also sees that current market looking “like 2006 again” insofar as podcasts, email and blogs making it easy to create and distribute content.

Part 2: Today’s Golden Age of TV

Mr. Goldblatt asked the panel for their POVs on what he termed the current “Golden Age of TV” because of the increasing diversity of new platforms, expanding number of content providers and the abundance of original programming. He started off by asking them for their market assessments.

  • Ms. Bond said that the definition of “television” is now “any video content on any screen”. As a ubiquitous example she cited content on mobile platforms. She also noted proliferation of payment methods as driving this market.
  • Mr. Kurnit said that the industry would remain a bit of a “mess” for the next three or four years because of the tremendous volume of original programming, businesses that operate as content aggregators, and pricing differentials. Sometime thereafter, these markets will “rationalize”. Nonetheless, the quality of today’s content is “terrific”, pointing to examples by such media companies as the programs on AMC and HBO‘s Game of Thrones. He also said that an “unbundled model” of content offerings would enable consumers to watch anywhere.
  • Mr. Redniss believes that “mobile transforms TV” insofar as smartphones have become the “new remote control” providing both access to content and “disoverability” of new offerings. He predicted that content would become “monetized across all screens”.
  • Mr. Sreenivasan mentioned the growing popularity of binge-watching as being an important phenomenon. He believes that the “zeitgeist changes daily” and that other changes are being “led by the audience”.

The panel moved to group discussion mode concerning:

  • Consumer Content Options: Ms. Bond asked how will the audience pay for either bundled or unbundled programming options. She believes that having this choice will provide consumers with “more control and options”. Mr. Redniss then asked how many apps or services will consumers be willing to pay for? He predicted that “everyone will have their own channel”. Mr. Kurnit added that he thought there are currently too many options and that “skinny bundles” of programming will be aggregated. Mr. Sreenivasan pointed towards the “Amazon model” where much content is now available but it is also available elsewhere and then Netflix’s offering of 30 original shows. He also wanted to know “Who will watch all of this good TV?”
  • New Content Creation and Aggregation: Mr. Goldblatt asked the panelists whether a media company can be both a content aggregator and a content creator. Mr. Kurnit said yes and Mr. Redniss immediately followed by citing the long-tail effect (statistical distributions in business analytics where there are higher numbers of data points away from the initial top or central parts of the distribution)³. Therefore, online content providers were not bound by the same rules as the TV networks. Still, he could foresee some of Amazon’s and Netflix’s original content ending up being broadcast on them. He also gave the example of Amazon’s House of Cards original programming as being indicative of the “changing market for more specific audiences”. Ultimately, he believes that meeting such audiences’ needs was part of “playing the long game” in this marketplace. 
  • Binge-Watching: Mr. Kurnit followed up by predicting that binge-watching and the “binge-watching bucket” will go away. Mr. Redniss agreed with him and, moreover, talked about the “need for human interaction” to build up audiences. This now takes the form of “superfans” discussing each episode in online venues. For example, he pointed to the current massive marketing campaign build upon finding out the fate of Jon Snow on Games of Thrones.
  • Cord-Cutting: Mr. Sreenivasan believes that we will still have cable in the future. Ms. Bond said that service offerings like Apple TV will become more prevalent. Mr. Kunit said he currently has 21 cable boxes. Mr. Redniss identified himself as more of a cord-shaver who, through the addition of Netflix and Hulu, has reduced his monthly cable bill.

Part 3: Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)

Moving on to two of the hottest media topics of the day, virtual reality and augmented reality, the panelist gave their views.

  • Mr. Sreenivasan expressed his optimism about the prospects of VR and AR, citing the pending market launches of the Oculus Rift headset and Facebook 360 immersive videos. The emergence of these technologies is creating a “new set of contexts”. He also spoke proudly of the Metropolitan Museum Media Lab using Oculus for an implementation called Diving Into Pollack (see the 10th project down on this page), that enables users to “walk into a Jackson Pollack painting”.
  • Mr. Kurnit raised the possibility of using Oculus to view Jurassic Park. In terms of movie production and immersion, he said “This changes everything”.
  • Mr. Redniss said that professional sports were a whole new growth area for VR and AR, where you will need “goggles, not a screen”. Mr. Kurnit followed up mentioning a startup that is placing 33 cameras at Major League Baseball stadiums in order to provide 360 degree video coverage of games. (Although he did not mention the company by name, my own Googling indicates that he was probably referring to the “FreeD” system developed by Replay Technologies.)
  • Ms. Bond posed the question “What does this do for storytelling?”4

(See also these 12 Subway Fold posts) for extensive coverage of VR and AR technologies and applications.)

Part 4: Ad-Blocking Software

Mr. Goldblatt next asked the panels for their thoughts about the impacts and economics of ad-blocking software.

  • Mr. Redniss said that ad-blocking apps will affect how advertisers get their online audience’s attention. He thinks a workable alternative is to use technology to “stitch their ads into content” more effectively.
  • Mr. Sreenivasan believes that “ads must get better” in order to engage their audience rather than have viewers looking for means to avoid them. He noted another alternative used on the show Fargo where network programming does not permit them to use fast-forward to avoid ads.
  • Mr. Kurnit expects that ads will be blocked based on the popularity and extensibility of ad-blocking apps. Thus, he also believes that ads need to improve but he is not confident of the ad industry’s ability to do so. Furthermore, when advertisers are more highly motivated because of cost and audience size, they produce far more creative work for events like the NFL Super Bowl.

Someone from the audience asked the panel how ads will become integrated into VR and AR environments. Mr. Redniss said this will happen in cases where this technology can reproduce “real world experiences” for consumers. An example of this is the Cruise Ship Virtual Tours available on Carnival Cruise’s website.

(See also this August 13, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Report Finds Ad Blockers are Quickly Spreading and Costing $Billions in Lost Revenue.)

Part 5: Expectations for Media and Technology in 2016

  • Mr. Sreenivasan thinks that geolocation technology will continue to find new applications in “real-life experiences”. He gave as an example the use of web beacons by the Metropolitan Museum.
  • Ms. Bond foresees more “one-to-one” and “one-to-few” messaging capabilities, branded emjois, and a further examination of the “role of the marketer” in today’s media.
  • Mr. Kurnit believes that drones will continue their momentum into the mainstream. He sees the sky filling up with them as they are “productive tools” for a variety of commercial applications.
  • Mr. Redniss expressed another long-term prospect of “advertisers picking up broadband costs for consumers”. This might take the form of ads being streamed to smart phones during NFL games. In the shorter term, he can foresee Facebook becoming a significant simulcaster of professional sporting events.

 


1.  This immediately reminded of a similar incident years ago when I was attending a presentation at the local bar association on the topic of litigating cases involving brain injuries. The first speaker was a neurologist who opened by telling the audience all about his brand new laptop and how it was the latest state-of-the-art-model. Unfortunately, he could not get it to boot up no matter what he tried. Someone from the back of audience then yelled out “Hey doc, it’s not brain surgery”. The place went into an uproar.

2.  See also these other four Subway Fold posts mentioning other services by Nielsen.

3.  For a fascinating and highly original book on this phenomenon, I very highly recommend reading
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2005), by Chris Anderson. It was also mentioned in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.

4.  See also the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

Semantic Scholar and BigDIVA: Two New Advanced Search Platforms Launched for Scientists and Historians

"The Chemistry of Inversin", Image by Raymond Bryson

“The Chemistry of Inversion”, Image by Raymond Bryson

As powerful, essential and ubiquitous as Google and its search engine peers are across the world right now, needs often arise in many fields and marketplaces for platforms that can perform much deeper and wider digital excavating. So it is that two new highly specialized search platforms have just come online specifically engineered, in these cases, for scientists and historians. Each is structurally and functionally quite different from the other but nonetheless is aimed at very specific professional user bases with advanced researching needs.

These new systems provide uniquely enhanced levels of context, understanding and visualization with their results. We recently looked at a very similar development in the legal professions in an August 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Startup’s Legal Research App is Driven by Watson’s AI Technology.

Let’s have a look at both of these latest innovations and their implications. To introduce them, I will summarize and annotate two articles about their introductions, and then I will pose some additional questions of my own.

Semantic Scholar Searches for New Knowledge in Scientific Papers

First, the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (A2I) has just launched its new system called Semantic Scholar, freely accessible on the web. This event was covered on NewScientist.com in a fascinating article entitled AI Tool Scours All the Science on the Web to Find New Knowledge on November 2, 2015 by Mark Harris.

Semantic Scholar is supported by artificial intelligence (AI)¹ technology. It is automated to “read, digest and categorise findings” from approximately two million scientific papers published annually. Its main objective is to assist researchers with generating new ideas and “to identify previously overlooked connections and information”. Because of the of the overwhelming volume of the scientific papers published each year, which no individual scientist could possibly ever read, it offers an original architecture and high-speed manner to mine all of this content.

Oren Etzioni, the director of A2I, termed Semantic Scholar a “scientist’s apprentice”, to assist them in evaluating developments in their fields. For example, a medical researcher could query it about drug interactions in a certain patient cohort having diabetes. Users can also pose their inquiries in natural language format.

Semantic Scholar operates by executing the following functions:

  • crawling the web in search of “publicly available scientific papers”
  • scanning them into its database
  • identifying citations and references that, in turn, are assessed to determine those that are the most “influential or controversial”
  • extracting “key phrases” appearing similar papers, and
  • indexing “the datasets and methods” used

A2I is not alone in their objectives. Other similar initiatives include:

Semantic Scholar will gradually be applied to other fields such as “biology, physics and the remaining hard sciences”.

BigDIVA Searches and Visualized 1,500 Year of History

The second innovative search platform is called Big Data Infrastructure Visualization Application (BigDIVA). The details about its development, operation and goals were covered in a most interesting report posted online on  NC State News on October 12, 2015 entitled Online Tool Aims to Help Researchers Sift Through 15 Centuries of Data by Matt Shipman.

This is joint project by the digital humanities scholars at NC State University and Texas A&M University. Its objective is to assist researchers in, among other fields, literature, religion, art and world history. This is done by increasing the speed and accuracy of searching through “hundreds of thousands of archives and articles” covering 450 A.D. to the present. BigDIVA was formally rolled out at NC State on October 16, 2015.

BigDIVA presents users with an entirely new visual interface, enabling them to search and review “historical documents, images of art and artifacts, and any scholarship associated” with them. Search results, organized by categories of digital resources, are displayed in infographic format4. The linked NC State News article includes a photo of this dynamic looking interface.

This system is still undergoing beta testing and further refinement by its development team. Expansion of its resources on additional historical periods is expected to be an ongoing process. Current plans are to make this system available on a subscription basis to libraries and universities.

My Questions

  • Might the IBM Watson, Semantic Scholar, DARPA and BigDIVA development teams benefit from sharing design and technical resources? Would scientists, doctors, scholars and others benefit from multi-disciplinary teams working together on future upgrades and perhaps even new platforms and interface standards?
  • What other professional, academic, scientific, commercial, entertainment and governmental fields would benefit from these highly specialized search platforms?
  • Would Google, Bing, Yahoo and other commercial search engines benefit from participating with the developers in these projects?
  • Would proprietary enterprise search vendors likewise benefit from similar joint ventures with the types of teams described above?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might arise for vendors, developers, designers and consultants who could provide fuller insight and support for developing customized search platforms?

 


October 19, 2017 Update: For the latest progress and applications of the Semantic Scholar system, see the latest report in a new post on the Economist.com entitled A Better Way to Search Through Scientific Papers, dated October 19, 2017.


1.  These 11 Subway Fold posts cover various AI applications and developments.

2.  These seven Subway Fold posts cover a range of IBM Watson applications and markets.

3A new history of DARPA written by Annie Jacobsen was recently published entitled The Pentagon’s Brain (Little Brown and Company, 2015).

4.  See this January 30, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Timely Resources for Studying and Producing Infographics on this topic.

A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process

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Image by Ilonka Tallina

[This post was originally uploaded on November 15, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on February 18, 2015.]

Studying for and then taking the New York State bar exam was about as much fun for me as having a root canal without Novocaine. In fact, root canal might even have been preferable.

Nonetheless, the most extraordinary learning experience I have ever had while studying for anything up to that point was attending a two-day comprehensive lecture on the Federal Rules of Evidence by the legendary law professor Irving Younger. This subject is a challenge to fully master and always a favorite topic throughout the exam. Having attended Professor Younger’s mesmerizing lectures, not only did I feel prepared for the questions on evidence but I left fully convinced that he could have taken in anyone at random walking by the building and taught him or her enough about this subject to pass. Please check out this video on YouTube of his dynamic lecture on 10 Commandments Of Cross Examination at UC Hastings College Of The Law for, well, incontrovertible evidence of this.

For many years during and after Professor Younger’s life, some US law schools kept audio tapes of his lectures on evidence and civil procedures on file in their libraries. If he was lecturing today, it is a near certainty that his classes would now accessible across the Web.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are classes presented on the web so that anyone can learn just about any subject from anywhere across the globe. Universities, public and private schools, and other for providers from many fields have placed video lectures, syllabi, downloadable course materials, and
discussion forums available. Homework assignments and projects are often part of the MOOC experience.

Users can audit these courses, obtain certifications for having attended them and done the course work, and even have degrees conferred. MOOCs related by topic are often group together into pre-packaged options. Of course, the quality of these offerings can vary quite a bit. But to a highly significant degree the web is transforming the process of education.

If you are not yet familiar with this revolution in education, I suggest starting with this report by correspondent Sanjay Gupta on 60 Minutes on CBS that was first broadcast on September 2, 2012. It is about the wildly popular and highly effective classes offered online by The Khan Academy for students around the world on a multitude of subjects. The video classes are largely designed for grade school through high school levels. I think The Khan Academy’s smashing web-wide success with students and educators add new credence and incentive the old adage that a great instructor can effectively teach his or her subject to anyone interested in learning new things.

This Wikipedia page provides an excellent survey of the expanding universe of MOOCs, with a surfeit of valuable links baked in, to help you navigate this rapidly evolving world. As well, an article posted on BusinessInsider.com on November 4, 2014, entitled 15 Free Online Resources That Will Make You
Smarter by Sujan Patel is a terrific reference and fully linked on-ramp to today’s leading MOOC providers for business, finance, tech and academic topics.

During the past year I have had an opportunity to take a number of MOOCs available on Coursera.com (one of the 15 online providers covered in this article). Two of these quickly became Professor Younger-like experiences from which I learned more than I could have imaging at imagined from the course description when I registered, and for which I am deeply grateful for having had the opportunity to participate.

The first was Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization taught by Professor John Lavine of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. (Creating a free membership online will give you access to the links for both classes described here.) This was a brain-bending six-week MOOC that thoroughly defined, explored and demonstrated what exactly “content strategy” is in the rapidly changing world of e-commerce and how to put its best practices into action. The home page for this MOOC does an expert job of describing the particulars.

The second was Understanding Media by Understanding Google taught by Professor Owen R. Youngman, also of Medill. This was a captivatingly deep and wide examination of the numerous services, influences and technologies that have made Google such a pervasive global phenomenon. Again, please see this MOOC’s home page for the flight plan of an educational journey will not soon forget.

In both of these MOOCs the classes were given assignment and projects to provide valuable practical experience that could readily be adapted and applied back in the workplace. Moreover, what I found that really rocked were the discussion forums for these MOOCs. Thousands of participants from across the globe generated and joined into thousands of online discussion threads about the contents of each week’s lectures. A strong sense of community quickly arose and rarely have ever seen such high bandwidth, crackling virtual exchanges of ideas, experiences, commentary and enthusiasm as I did here. The highest levels of civility and respect were also scrupulously maintained by everyone who participated.

Both of these MOOCs will be given again in 2015. I highly recommend checking the Coursera site for their scheduling and then registering for them.

Did I mention that these two MOOCs and all others of Coursera, as well as the majority in the links to Wikipedia and BusinessInsider.com above are reasonably priced to sell: They are available for free!

February 18, 2015 Update

Are MOOCs still being perceived as truly disruptive? Well, maybe not so much for now at least.
Notwithstanding my enthusiasm and appreciation above for MOOCs as a genuine shift in the paradigm of technology-enabled learning, their star might not be shining as brightly as before.

According to an article posted on the Chronicle Of Higher Education’s website on February 5, 2015, entitled The MOOC Hype Fades, in Three Charts, by Steve Kolowich, the latest data gathered about this phenomenon appears to be trending this way. I will sum up some of the key points, and ad some links and comments. I urge you to click through for all of the details and three informative charts.

The Babson Survey Research Group released its 2014 report entitled Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2014 on February 5, 2015. Its initial key finding is that while the number of schools offering MOOCs has steadied at 14%, doubts remain among 2,800 academics surveyed that online courses could generate funds or reduce costs. The first chart clearly shows sentiment in this regard has reached nearly 51%.

The fiscal sustainability of MOOCs depends on these educators’ points of view. A mere 6% actually expected MOOCs to make money or lower costs. Rather, their main motivation for their MOOCs is to raise their school’s profile and enhance student recruitment. They further realize that quantifying this is rather difficult.

The second chart is a bar graph of six factors those surveyed believe will prospectively have the largest effects upon higher education. “Cost/student indebtedness” ranked highest with 62% and “self-directed learning” ranked last with just 9%.

According to the third chart, 20% of the schools also felt that trying out MOOCs would provide “new insights about teaching and learning”. Nonetheless, there has been a steep decline from 50% to 28% in the last two years of the number of schools that felt compelled to learn more about “online pedagogy” (which, in its simplest terms, means studying and implementing the best teach methods).

Thus, according to this Chronicle article, the “hype” surrounding MOOCs has been reduced. Educators are trending towards not seeing MOOCs as quite so transformative. Rather, the consensus is now that MOOCs have their place in recruiting and research for those schools with the resources available. These findings also provide incentives for those schools still reluctant about MOOCs to at least give them a try.

As with any meaningful new online phenomenon sweeping a broad market sector, I remain optimistic about the future of MOOCs for the following reasons:

  • The growing utility and ubiquity of MOOCs can reach people across the web who neither have the time nor funds to attend traditional classes. They are indeed priced to sell and free is a tough price to beat for such a useful and dynamic product.
  • Attending MOOCs helps students to maintain and enhance their levels of skills and knowledge which, in turn, have an upward effect on wages.
  • As educators and MOOC platforms such as Coursera continue to move up the experience curve they will be able to better market their content and shape their course offerings. Moreover, they will continually learn and thus refine how MOOCs are structured, taught and distibuted.
  • As mobile technology, web accessibility and cloud storage capabilities continue to accelerate while getting smaller, faster and cheaper, MOOCs will likewise be able to take advantage of these trends and reaches even greater numbers of students with more expansive offerings. Their economies of scale will continue to be reached and surpassed.
  • Based on my own personal experience with 10 MOOCs during the past year, I have found them to be invaluable in keeping my skills and knowledge current in a number areas. I have learned about subjects, resources and online communities that I might have not otherwise had an opportunity to discover. Surely many other MOOC participants have had the same experience.

Updates on Recent Posts Re: Music’s Big Data, Deep Learning, VR Movies, Regular Movies’ Effects on Our Brains, Storytelling and, of Course, Zombies

This week has seen the publication of an exciting series of news stories and commentaries that provide a very timely opportunity to update six recent Subway Fold posts. The common thread running through the original posts and these new pieces is the highly inventive mixing, mutating and monetizing of pop culture and science. Please put on your virtual 3-D glasses let’s see what’s out there.

The December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market? explored the apps, companies and trends that have become the key drivers in the current global music business. Adding to the big data strategies and implementations for three more major music companies and their rosters of artists was a very informative report in the December 15, 2014 edition of The Wall Street Journal by Hannah Karp entitled Music Business Plays to Big Data’s Beat. (A subscription for the full text required a subscription to WSJonline.com, but the story also appeared in full on Nasdaq.com clickable here.) As described in detail in this report, Universal Music, Warner Music, and Sony Music have all created sophisticated systems to parse numerous data sources and apply customized analytics for planning and executing marketing campaigns.

Next for an alternative and somewhat retro approach, a veteran music retailer named Sal Nunziato wrote a piece on the Op Ed page of The New York Times on the very same day entitled Elegy for the ‘Suits’. He blamed the Internet more than the music labels for the current state of music where “anyone with a computer, a kazoo and an untuned guitar” can release their music  online regardless of its quality. Thus, the ‘suits’ he nostalgically misses were the music company execs who exerted  more controlled upon the quantity and quality of music available to the public.

Likewise covering the tuning up of another major force in today’s online music streaming industry was an August 14, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Spotify Enhances Playlist Recommendations Processing with “Deep Learning” Technology. This summarized a report about how deep learning technology was being successfully applied to improve the accuracy and responsiveness of Spotify’s recommendation engine. Presenting an even stronger case that you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet in this field was an engaging analysis of some still largely unseen developments in deep learning posted on December 15, 2014, on Gigaom.com entitled What We Read About Deep Learning is Just the Tip of the Iceberg by Derrick Harris. These include experimental systems being tested by the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft. As well, there were a series of intriguing presentations and demos at the recent Neural Information Processing Systems conference held in Montreal. As detailed here with a wealth of supporting links, many of these advanced systems and methods are expected to gain more press and publicity in 2015.

Returning to the here and now at end of 2014, the current release of the movie adaptation of the novel Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf, 2011), has been further formatted into 3-minute supplemental virtual reality movie as reported in the December 15, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Michael Cieply in an article entitled Virtual Reality ‘Wild’ Trek. This fits right in with the developments covered in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled A Full Slate of Virtual Reality Movies and Experiences Scheduled at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival as this short film is also scheduled to be presented at the 2015 Sundance festival. Using Oculus and Samsung VR technology, this is an immersive meeting with the lead character, played by actress Reese Witherspoon, while she is hiking in the wilderness. She is quoted as being very pleased with the final results of this VR production.

The next set of analyses and enhancements to our cinematic experience, continuing right along with the September 3, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Applying MRI Technology to Determine the Effects of Movies and Music on Our Brains, concerns a newly published book that explains the science of how movies affect our brains entitled Flicker: Your Brain on Movies (Oxford University Press, 2014), by Dr. Jeffrey Zacks. The author was interviewed during a fascinating segment of the December 18, 2014 broadcast of The Brian Lehrer Show on WYNC radio. Among other things, he spoke about why audiences cry during movies (even when the films are not very good), sometimes root for the villain, and move to duck out of the way when an object on the screen seems to be coming right at them such as the giant bolder rolling after Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of this is intentionally done by the filmmakers to manipulate audiences into heightened emotional responses to key events as they unfold on the big screen.

Of course, all movie making involves the art and science of storytelling skills as discussed in the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?. In a very practical and insightful article in the December 12, 2014 edition of The New York Times by Alina Tugend entitled Storytelling Your Way to a Better Job or a Stronger Start-Up there are some helpful applications for today’s marketplace. As concisely stated in this piece “You need to have a good story.” It describes in detail how there are now consultants, charging meaningful fees, with new approaches and techniques who assist people in improving their skills in order to become more persuasive storytellers. Among others interviewed for this story was Dr. Paul J. Zak, who wrote the recent article on The Harvard Business Review Blog which was the basis for the November 4th Subway Fold post. It concludes with five helpful pointers to spin a compelling yarn for your listeners.

Finally, the best story told on TV during the 2014 season was – – in a fictional world where brains take on an entirely different significance – –  The Walking Dead on AMC in terms of the extraordinary number of tweets about ongoing adventures Sheriff Rick and the Grimes Gang. This was covered on Nielsen.com on December 15, 2014 in a post entitled Tops of 2014: Social TV.  TWD averaged twice as many tweets as its next competitor in the ongoing series category. This follows up directly with the July 31, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled New Analytical Twitter Traffic Report on US TV Shows During the 2013 – 2014 Season.  As I read scores of TWD tweets on the mid-season finale myself, everyone will miss you, Beth.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

As a major fan of TWD, I would like to take the opportunity add my own brief review about the tragic events in Episode 5.8:

I think that in the end, Beth was a form of avatar for the entire show. She traveled many miles from lying on her bed in Season 2 completely unable to function and progressing to Season 5 as a realist concerning herself and the group’s survival. Rather than resigning herself to be held a captive ward in the hospital, she was determined to escape no matter what and was so proud of helping Jonah to escape.

She awakened and arose to be a survivor and a committed member of the Grimes Gang, just as everyone else has done during the past five years. That is, Beth’s journey reflects the entire group’s journey. She, and the Grimes Gang, up to this point have survived all of the threats they faced and endured all of the horrors they have seen. They will all survive but this death with have more serious repercussions than perhaps any other death up until this point. Maggie, Daryl, Rick, Carol and Carl, the core of the GG, will not soon recover from this.

What I still do not understand is why, given that she was finally free in the hospital’s hallway, did she jeopardize her life by going after the lead officer with a scissors. It seemed to be somewhat at odds with Beth’s character as someone who had survived until now on her own determination and close bond with the group. She had nothing to gain by such a reckless act in the middle of a very volatile situation. Was it a sacrifice to save Jonah? Did she realize that the cop was holding a gun at that point? Was she just overtaken by the motivation that desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures?

Consider, too, that she was Herschel’s daughter and her character reflected what she had learned from him: 1. Both learned to see things differently and adapted when the circumstances changed. 2. Both faced sacrifices and danger with great dignity. (Recall Herschel’s acknowledging grin towards Rick right before the Governor murdered the elder of the survivors, and then Beth’s defiant grin when she saw that Jonah had escaped.) 3. Both were resilient insofar as Herschel adapting to the loss of his leg and Beth recovering from her father’s murder. 4. Both sought to comfort others as Herschel stayed with the flu patients and Beth finally drew Daryl out about his terrible family life. Recall also, the three very effective times during her history on the show when Beth’s singing gave great comfort to the others. Indeed, she was a saintly figure but as this story arc wore on, her demise seemed to be foretold.

TWD remains, for me, an absolutely brilliant show in terms of its characters, narrative and presentation.