Email overload

This weekend, I’m clearing out 1200 messages in my inbox, accrued over the last 3 weeks, not counting spam and items already filed or deleted. One distributed start-up company, three non-profit affiliations, attempts to defeat the same bad law in several states, and three social/political mailing lists. All of this adds up to a truckload of mail, much of it interesting and relevant if not immediately urgent.
The “organize-yourself” books tell you to act upon or file each incoming message when it comes in.
Some messages are urgent — they relate to a current project or a customer and require an immediate response. When they come in, I think about them, make a decision, and put them away.
Other messages are less urgent. They’re about a conference in a month. They contain links to interesting-looking articles. They have an interesting-sounding conversational idea. They stay in the inbox.
I don’t have enough attention to think about every interesting idea that crosses my email box at the time.
What do you do? Do you have enough attention to deal with every piece of email every day? Are you bold enough to delete things that you didn’t have attention for that day?

Saul Alinsky: Rules for Radicals

I’ve had Rules for Radicals referred to me by several people and sources, on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s billed as a canonical work on political organizing.
Alinsky published the book in 1971, after over three decades of organizing in impoverished and powerless communities.
The political philosophy, from a leftist of Alinsky’s times, can be shredded any number of ways, and it’s not worth bothering.
What’s interesting about the book is the material on tactics.
The book gives interesting historical context for the confrontational, theatrical 60s activist tactics. I was always puzzled by the demonstrations and teach-ins among the left when I was in school. These rituals seemed unlikely to change anyone’s mind, and seemed more like excuses for the like-minded to party or commiserate. Michael Moore comes from the tradition of provocative activist theater — bother and confuse the powers that be, and they might notice and relent.
The communities Alinsky worked with had nothing, and the powers-that-were were not listening. Shock tactics worked at the time. The powers-that-were did notice, and did give in.
Alinsky himself makes the point that tactics need to change with the times, and expresses frustration that his followers borrowed his tactics, rather than his principles. By 1971, Alinsky notes, sit-ins had lost the power to shock and persuade, and calling cops “pigs” didn’t do anyone any good.
Many of Alinsky’s principles themselves are sensible. Communicate within the experience of the people you’re talking to. If they don’t have the experience, create the experience. Stay within the experience of your community, and work outside of the experience of your opponents. Build a group on multiple issues. Build tactics on the opportunities and choices in front of you.
But Alinsky’s experience is bounded by his work with the poor and powerless. He would come in, help a community solve some desperate problems, and then head on to the next battle. Once the unions, or an African-American community (name the group) gained power, the next step is to use that power. Alinsky never stayed long enough, it seems, to understand the set of tactics to use if you are more than powerless.
Perhaps you demonize the enemy if you’re fighting against the meat-packing plant that offers a perverse parody of health care. But if you use those tactics in neighborhood disputes, you may “win”, but your neighborhood loses.

New Models for Advertising and Art

Doc Searls has an excellent piece on the rise of new advertising models.

So what’s happening here? Simply put, companies like Google and Overture are blowing away everything the old advertising business holds dear. Beautiful images. Attention-grabbing graphics. Awards. Strategy. Even old conventions like branding–a term Procter & Gamble borrowed from the cattle industry, back when they created mass media advertising in the dawn of commercial radio more than 70 years ago. They’re blowing it away by connecting users and advertisers and helping both offer something valuable to each other.

Meanwhile, Dan Bricklin writes about the many ways that artists get paid, including performance, patronage, and commission.
Like Tim O’Reilly, Bricklin writes that mosts artists aren’t famous and would benefit from free exposure. There are many artists who can be economically profitable, if they reach their “natural audience.”
The music and movie industry is shooting itself in the foot by trying its best to preserve today’s mass-media discovery and distribution methods.

A problem with much of today’s pre-recorded media art (such as sound recordings and movies) is the method of discovery. Introduction to new artists and their work is done through advertising, paid placement (narrow radio and TV play lists), and other mass marketing techniques. These are very expensive, and the difficulty of rising above the noise becomes yet more and more expensive. There is a self-fulfilling prophesy where only huge sellers bringing in large revenues are pursued. Small fan bases, even if solid and large enough to fully fund the artist themselves with a very acceptable life compared to other professions, do not fit in this model. A few big hits are viewed as more important than a myriad of small ones, each with a happy artist and happy fans. There seems to be a drive to create a few “superstars” instead of many full-time artists. This is bad economics if in catering to the big players we develop technologies and norms that hamper the “business models” of the smaller players.
Technology is making the cost of practicing many types of art less expensive. For example, recording and editing equipment of high quality that used to cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars is becoming something even a hobbyist can afford and use. Manufacturing and distribution of many media forms is becoming almost cost free. Communications to a widely dispersed fan base has dropped to a minor cost as mailing and the need for advertising is replaced with email and web sites. (Discussing this with someone, he basically asked: “Is the Britney Spears model the mainframe of the music business?”)

The dot coms are gone. Change continues, as long as we don’t let the legal system enforce the old ways. The Ottoman Empire strictly limited printing presses for two hundred years.
via David Weinberger and Doc Searls.

Bamboo and sign art

Talked to Cory at the Green Muse about his vision for the back patio. It will be an Asian-inspired garden, with azaleas in pots, bamboo, and monkey grass. They’ll show films, and have “live music, of course.”
The front sign is being designed and constructed by Faith (?), who did the Blue Genie, Pieces of the Past, and a sculptural sign for a chiropractor of people raising their arms, bending, and touching their toes. Wonderful, playful things that make me smile, make the neigborhood nicer, and are good advertising, too.
At a table next to me, three women were preparing a photo shoot for a landscaping magazine.
I asked Cory about how he learned to garden. “You plant something and it dies, and you try to figure out why. It’s a slow process.”

Software is, well, soft

Tom Coates has something sensible to say about the “wikis are ugly” tempest in a teapot.

I think there’s a an underlying theme behind a lot of reviews of this kind and it’s a rather old fashioned idea of fixed and stable products. The Wiki is considered a thing that works in a way, rather than a rough accumulation of various versions of the same rough concept – each of which has some benefits and some failings. Each of which could be nothing more than the first stage in a longer and more fruitful path of evolution. Each of which could be stripped down to its core and integrated with other sites – small bits of meme DNA grafted into message-boards or weblogs or even more static editorial pages. There is no product to review with finality- there is no here here (as Gertrude Stein might have been misquoted). So we dig around and we take what we like and we make new things – some will bed down and spread, others will not. Many will be spliced with each other once more…”