"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm as Own

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary, scientists reported on Wednesday.

The report, released online by the journal Nature, is the most striking demonstration to date of brain-machine interface technology. Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives.

The findings suggest that brain-controlled prosthetics, while not practical, are at least technically within reach.

In previous studies, researchers showed that humans who had been paralyzed for years could learn to control a cursor on a computer screen with their brain waves and that nonhuman primates could use their thoughts to move a mechanical arm, a robotic hand or a robot on a treadmill.

The new experiment goes a step further. In it, the monkeys’ brains seem to have adopted the mechanical appendage as their own, refining its movement as it interacted with real objects in real time. The monkeys had their own arms gently restrained while they learned to use the added one.

Experts not involved with the study said the findings were likely to accelerate interest in human testing, especially given the need to treat head and spinal injuries in veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This study really pulls together all the pieces from earlier work and provides a clear demonstration of what’s possible,” said Dr. William Heetderks , director of the extramural science program at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. Dr. John P. Donoghue, director of the Institute of Brain Science at Brown University, said the new report was “important because it’s the most comprehensive study showing how an animal interacts with complex objects, using only brain activity.”

The researchers, from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, used monkeys partly because of their anatomical similarities to humans and partly because they are quick learners.

In the experiment, two macaques first used a joystick to gain a feel for the arm, which had shoulder joints, an elbow and a grasping claw with two mechanical fingers.

Then, just beneath the monkeys’ skulls, the scientists implanted a grid about the size of a large freckle. It sat on the motor cortex, over a patch of cells known to signal arm and hand movements. The grid held 100 tiny electrodes, each connecting to a single neuron, its wires running out of the brain and to a computer.

The computer was programmed to analyze the collective firing of these 100 motor neurons, translate that sum into an electronic command and send it instantaneously to the arm, which was mounted flush with the left shoulder.

The scientists used the computer to help the monkeys move the arm at first, essentially teaching them with biofeedback.

After several days, the monkeys needed no help. They sat stationary in a chair, repeatedly manipulating the arm with their brain to reach out and grab grapes, marshmallows and other nuggets dangled in front of them. The snacks reached the mouths about two-thirds of the time — an impressive rate, compared with earlier work.

The monkeys learned to hold the grip open on approaching the food, close it just enough to hold the food and gradually loosen the grip when feeding.

On several occasions, a monkey kept its claw open on the way back, with the food stuck to one finger. At other times, a monkey moved the arm to lick the fingers clean or to push a bit of food into its mouth while ignoring a newly presented morsel.

The animals were apparently freelancing, discovering new uses for the arm, showing “displays of embodiment that would never be seen in a virtual environment,” the researchers wrote.

“In the real world, things don’t work as expected,” said the senior author of the paper, Dr. Andrew Schwartz, a professor of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh. “The marshmallow sticks to your hand or the food slips, and you can’t program a computer to anticipate all of that.

“But the monkeys’ brains adjusted. They were licking the marshmallow off the prosthetic gripper, pushing food into their mouth, as if it were their own hand.”

The co-authors were Meel Velliste, Sagi Perel, M. Chance Spalding and Andrew Whitford.

Scientists have to clear several hurdles before this technology becomes practical, experts said. Implantable electrode grids do not generally last more than a period of months, for reasons that remain unclear.

The equipment to read and transmit the signal can be cumbersome and in need of continual monitoring and recalibrating. And no one has yet demonstrated a workable wireless system that would eliminate the need for connections through the scalp.

Yet Dr. Schwartz’s team, Dr. Donoghue’s group and others are working on all of the problems, and the two macaques’ rapid learning curve in taking ownership of a foreign limb gives scientists confidence that the main obstacles are technical and, thus, negotiable.

In an editorial accompanying the Nature study, Dr. John F. Kalaska, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, argued that after such bugs had been worked out, scientists might even discover areas of the cortex that allow more intimate, subtle control of prosthetic devices.

Such systems, Dr. Kalaska wrote, “would allow patients with severe motor deficits to interact and communicate with the world not only by the moment-to-moment control of the motion of robotic devices, but also in a more natural and intuitive manner that reflects their overall goals, needs and preferences.”

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posted by R J Noriega at 10:38 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, August 22, 2008
The Ad Changes With the Shopper In Front of It

Ad targeting is coming to a store near you.

In the latest effort to tailor ads to specific consumers, marketers are starting to personalize in-store promotions based on products the consumer recently picked off a shelf or purchased -- and in the near future, based on what the shopper looks like.

Dunkin' Donuts is among the first marketers in the U.S. to begin testing the technologies, at two locations in Buffalo, N.Y. People ordering a coffee in the morning can see ads at the cash register promoting the chain's hash browns or breakfast sandwiches. At the pick-up counter, customers see ads prompting them to return for a coffee break in the afternoon and try an oven-toasted pizza.

In a separate test, Procter & Gamble is placing radio-frequency identification tags on products at a Metro Extra retail store in Germany so that when a customer pulls the product off the shelf, a digital screen at eye level changes its message. When a consumer picks out a shampoo for a particular type of hair, for instance, the screen recommends the most appropriate conditioner or other hair products, says John Paulson, president of G2 Interactive, a digital-marketing arm of WPP Group's G2 Network.

This comes as advertisers are spending more of their ad dollars on in-store marketing. Audience fragmentation and the waning power of television ads are forcing marketers to make their pitches and tout their brands when and where consumers are closer to making a purchase: in the store.

Most of the experimentation by marketers is being done with the new digital screens that are appearing next to cash registers and in store aisles. Because cameras are embedded in many of these digital screens displaying the ads, marketers are hoping to serve up ads based on the consumer's appearance.

Many of the in-store targeted-advertising efforts are still in the early stages of development. Marketing executives say that much research still needs to be done to evaluate the best types of ads to display and the way consumers respond to messages. Some fear that the proliferation of screens makes it more likely that they will be ignored.

"I'm a skeptic on technology in the shopping environment," says Andy Murray, chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi X, the Publicis Groupe agency that focuses on in-store marketing. Screens need to be useful to get people to pay attention, and if stores are just using them to sell products, shoppers won't be receptive, he says.

The company powering the screens for Dunkin', YCD Multimedia, is in the midst of deploying facial-recognition technologies that can classify people into certain demographic groups by identifying their approximate age and their sex.

Companies in the securities industries have been experimenting with facial-recognition technologies for some time. The technology often works by capturing an image of a person and using sophisticated algorithms to analyze features like the size and shape of the nose, eyes, cheekbones and jaw line -- against databases of face information. At the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa Bay, Fla., for instance, security officials used facial-recognition technologies to scan for terrorists and known criminals.

Only recently has the price for digital screens dropped enough that retailers could afford to put the screens in stores. Even now, the digital signs operate on a delay in some places, so that marketers have to program their commercials days in advance -- which rules out changing the ads on the fly, based on the characteristics of a given the shopper.

At the 1,400 eight- and nine-foot-tall plasma screens in 105 malls across the U.S. operated by Adspace Networks, there is roughly a two-hour delay between the time an ad is downloaded and its appearance on the screens. In some cases, these ads have achieved their mission of spurring sales too well. When inventories of the advertised products have become depleted, the ads haven't changed to reflect that reality. "One of the issues we have is that we run out of stock," says Adspace Chief Executive Dominick Porco.

New technologies are helping some marketers address that problem. Aroma Espresso Bar, an Israeli café chain that also operates stores in New York and Canada, is testing YCD systems that automatically change the ads people see at the cash register as a way of managing inventory better. If there is a large amount of pastries that will go stale that night, for instance, a manager will switch ads on the screen to promote them, says Gali Goldwaser, marketing manager for Aroma.

Technology firms hope to ward off any potential privacy issues by not capturing and storing any personally identifiable information about consumers.

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posted by R J Noriega at 10:59 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, August 21, 2008
The ClueTrain 95 Theses

Markets are conversations.

Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.

Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.

Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.

People recognize each other as such from the sound of this voice.

The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.

Hyperlinks subvert hierarchy.

In both internetworked markets and among intranetworked employees, people are speaking to each other in a powerful new way.

These networked conversations are enabling powerful new forms of social organization and knowledge exchange to emerge.

As a result, markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organized. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.

People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.

There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone.

What's happening to markets is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called "The Company" is the only thing standing between the two.

Corporations do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations. To their intended online audiences, companies sound hollow, flat, literally inhuman.

In just a few more years, the current homogenized "voice" of business—the sound of mission statements and brochures—will seem as contrived and artificial as the language of the 18th century French court.

Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.

Companies that assume online markets are the same markets that used to watch their ads on television are kidding themselves.

Companies that don't realize their markets are now networked person-to-person, getting smarter as a result and deeply joined in conversation are missing their best opportunity.

Companies can now communicate with their markets directly. If they blow it, it could be their last chance.

Companies need to realize their markets are often laughing. At them.

Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.

Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.

Companies attempting to "position" themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about.

Bombastic boasts—"We are positioned to become the preeminent provider of XYZ"—do not constitute a position.

Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.

Public Relations does not relate to the public. Companies are deeply afraid of their markets.

By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay.

Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what's really going on inside the company.

Elvis said it best: "We can't go on together with suspicious minds."

Brand loyalty is the corporate version of going steady, but the breakup is inevitable—and coming fast. Because they are networked, smart markets are able to renegotiate relationships with blinding speed.

Networked markets can change suppliers overnight. Networked knowledge workers can change employers over lunch. Your own "downsizing initiatives" taught us to ask the question: "Loyalty? What's that?"

Smart markets will find suppliers who speak their own language.

Learning to speak with a human voice is not a parlor trick. It can't be "picked up" at some tony conference.

To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities.

But first, they must belong to a community.

Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.

If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.

Human communities are based on discourse—on human speech about human concerns.

The community of discourse is the market.

Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.

Companies make a religion of security, but this is largely a red herring. Most are protecting less against competitors than against their own market and workforce.

As with networked markets, people are also talking to each other directly inside the company—and not just about rules and regulations, boardroom directives, bottom lines.

Such conversations are taking place today on corporate intranets. But only when the conditions are right.

Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.

Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom. The best are built bottom-up by engaged individuals cooperating to construct something far more valuable: an intranetworked corporate conversation.

A healthy intranet organizes workers in many meanings of the word. Its effect is more radical than the agenda of any union.

While this scares companies witless, they also depend heavily on open intranets to generate and share critical knowledge. They need to resist the urge to "improve" or control these networked conversations.

When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked marketplace.

Org charts worked in an older economy where plans could be fully understood from atop steep management pyramids and detailed work orders could be handed down from on high.

Today, the org chart is hyperlinked, not hierarchical. Respect for hands-on knowledge wins over respect for abstract authority.

Command-and-control management styles both derive from and reinforce bureaucracy, power tripping and an overall culture of paranoia.

Paranoia kills conversation. That's its point. But lack of open conversation kills companies.

There are two conversations going on. One inside the company. One with the market.

In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.

As policy, these notions are poisonous. As tools, they are broken. Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers and generate distrust in internetworked markets.

These two conversations want to talk to each other. They are speaking the same language. They recognize each other's voices.

Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.

If willingness to get out of the way is taken as a measure of IQ, then very few companies have yet wised up.

However subliminally at the moment, millions of people now online perceive companies as little more than quaint legal fictions that are actively preventing these conversations from intersecting.

This is suicidal. Markets want to talk to companies.

Sadly, the part of the company a networked market wants to talk to is usually hidden behind a smokescreen of hucksterism, of language that rings false—and often is.

Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall.

De-cloaking, getting personal: We are those markets. We want to talk to you.

We want access to your corporate information, to your plans and strategies, your best thinking, your genuine knowledge. We will not settle for the 4-color brochure, for web sites chock-a-block with eye candy but lacking any substance.

We're also the workers who make your companies go. We want to talk to customers directly in our own voices, not in platitudes written into a script.

As markets, as workers, both of us are sick to death of getting our information by remote control. Why do we need faceless annual reports and third-hand market research studies to introduce us to each other?

As markets, as workers, we wonder why you're not listening. You seem to be speaking a different language.

The inflated self-important jargon you sling around—in the press, at your conferences—what's that got to do with us?

Maybe you're impressing your investors. Maybe you're impressing Wall Street. You're not impressing us.

If you don't impress us, your investors are going to take a bath. Don't they understand this? If they did, they wouldn't let you talk that way.

Your tired notions of "the market" make our eyes glaze over. We don't recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we're already elsewhere.

We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.

You're invited, but it's our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!

We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.

We've got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we'd be willing to pay for. Got a minute?

You're too busy "doing business" to answer our email? Oh gosh, sorry, gee, we'll come back later. Maybe.

You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.

We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.

Don't worry, you can still make money. That is, as long as it's not the only thing on your mind.

Have you noticed that, in itself, money is kind of one-dimensional and boring? What else can we talk about?

Your product broke. Why? We'd like to ask the guy who made it. Your corporate strategy makes no sense. We'd like to have a chat with your CEO. What do you mean she's not in?

We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

We know some people from your company. They're pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you're hiding? Can they come out and play?

When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn't have such a tight rein on "your people" maybe they'd be among the people we'd turn to.

When we're not busy being your "target market," many of us are your people. We'd rather be talking to friends online than watching the clock. That would get your name around better than your entire million dollar web site. But you tell us speaking to the market is Marketing's job.

We'd like it if you got what's going on here. That'd be real nice. But it would be a big mistake to think we're holding our breath.

We have better things to do than worry about whether you'll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

We have real power and we know it. If you don't quite see the light, some other outfit will come along that's more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.

Even at its worst, our newfound conversation is more interesting than most trade shows, more entertaining than any TV sitcom, and certainly more true-to-life than the corporate web sites we've been seeing.

Our allegiance is to ourselves—our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Companies that have no part in this world, also have no future.

Companies are spending billions of dollars on Y2K. Why can't they hear this market timebomb ticking? The stakes are even higher.

We're both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they're really just an annoyance. We know they're coming down. We're going to work from both sides to take them down.

To traditional corporations, networked conversations may appear confused, may sound confusing. But we are organizing faster than they are. We have better tools, more new ideas, no rules to slow us down.

We are waking up and linking to each other. We are watching. But we are not waiting.

posted by R J Noriega at 4:34 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Thursday, August 07, 2008
slide show
posted by R J Noriega at 10:20 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Monday, August 04, 2008
Condé Nast Femme-Blogs Languish in Cyberspace
At first glance, the Web sites elasticwaist.com, productfiend.com and dailybedpost.com look like garden-variety blogs created by average civilians. There’s little clutter, no ads, links to other sites with similar post-feminist themes (dieting, skin care and sex, respectively) and sporadically updated content.

But upon closer inspection, there’s something suspiciously … slick about the layout of all three, isn’t there? Aha! Down the left-hand side of each loom the logos of Glamour, Allure and Self, rendered in varying shades of pink. And then in size 7.5 Veranda font, tucked away at the bottom of the page, is the telltale line: “Copyright © 2007 Condé Nast Publications. All rights reserved.”

As magazine publishers continue to try and refine their confused, semi-committed approach to the Internet, these little-known sites—in-house name: “The Network”—are a company trial of sorts, a slick repackaging of “girl”-illa blogs edited by Susan Kaplow, previously a director of development at the teen-marketing site alloy.com. Though they all link with mysterious persistence to Condé Nast products and advertisers, Ms. Kaplow refused to call them “Webvertorial.” “They’re separate from the magazines,” she said. “These sites give us the opportunity to create a lot of content and really develop a conversational exchange.”

But is anyone talking? Traffic to the sites seems modest. It would’ve taken 335,000 unique visitors per site for elasticwaist (founded in March 2007) or dailybedpost (which went live in September 2007) to get officially tracked by Nielsen Online, which provides Web statistics, in June 2008; this didn’t happen. On a July 24 post, one blogger with the name Erin Flaherty asked in a poll: Do you ever use makeup remover? As of July 29, 32 people had voted. (In case you want to know, 14 said, “Nope. My cleanser works just fine, thanks.”)

Ms. Kaplow declined to give her own sense of the readership numbers—“We’re not going to get into that,” she said, “we just want the traffic to grow and the usership to grow”—so Off the Record reached out to a variety of bloggers, all of whom were listed on at least one of the three sites’ blogrolls, to get an anecdotal sense of who might be stopping by for a little kvetching and product information.

“Haha I have never heard of them, i’m sorry!” wrote Anna Holmes, editor of Jezebel, in an e-mail.

“I’m not familiar with that site (and didn’t actually know we were on their blogroll, which is always very appreciated), but I will certainly check it out!” wrote Jessica Morgan, the author of Go Fug Yourself, of elasticwaist.

“Quite honestly, I don’t read those sites,” wrote Faran Krentcil, a blogger for Fashionista.

According to one Condé Nast executive, the company is not investing all that much in “The Network.” “They’re not getting a lot of resources,” said this person, “because they are little experiments.”

The authors of all “The Network” blogs are freelancers, according to a Condé Nast spokeswoman, and they keep a low profile. Off the Record managed to locate one former contract worker for productfiend, Saryn Chorney, who called her salary “supplemental.”

“I wasn’t living off of it,” she said.

Last year, Ms. Chorney put together several videos for the site, one of which—a tour of a beauty store in Soho—debuted as recently as July 23.

Asked to address the mission of the site, she responded not in the rah-rah rebel-sister spirit of cyberspace but like a good little company soldier. “The voice on productfiend is witty, it’s not a lot of the blogs like Jezebel or perezhilton,” Ms Chorney said. “Those sites are almost like overly attitudinal. Productfiend is cute. It’s funny—sometimes. It’s about being serious about perfect skin and they do take it seriously. It’s educational.”

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posted by R J Noriega at 9:24 PM | Permalink | 0 comments

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