Archive for October, 2008

Kaleidic moments

Is the economy like a pendulum, gradually oscillating around a fixed point until it reaches a static equilibrium?  This metaphor, borrowed from Newtonian physics, still dominates mainstream economic thinking and discussion.  Not all economists have agreed, not least because the mechanistic Newtonian viewpoint seems to allow no place for new information to arrive or for changes in subjective responses.   The 20th-century economists George Shackle and Ludwig Lachmann, for example, argued that a much more realistic metaphor for the modern economy is a kaleidoscope.  The economy is a “kaleidic society, interspersing its moments or intervals of order, assurance and beauty with sudden disintegration and a cascade into a new pattern.” (Shackle 1972, p.76).    

The arrival of new information, or changes in the perceptions and actions of marketplace participants, or changes in their subjective beliefs and intentions, are the events which trigger these sudden disruptions and discontinuous realignments.   Recent events in the financial markets show we are in a kaleidic moment right now.  If there’s an invisible hand, it’s not holding a pendulum but busy shaking the kaleidoscope.  


Geoge L S Shackle [1972]: Epistemics and Economics.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

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A data architecture for spimes

Thinking some more about spimes, those product entities that exist individually in space and time. I can see they could lead to major changes in the way in which marketing data is collected, collated, stored, analyzed, and used.   Clearly, individual spimes and their wranglers will generate a lot of data as they interact with the world and report back (eg, via RFID and GPS), and that data could usefully form the basis for marketing knowledge and marketing action.   But the web changes everything.  Spime wranglers, being intelligent human beings and companies, could comment and reflect on their interactions; the social web allows them to meet each other, across space and across time, in the same way that a houseowner can “meet” the previous and future occupants of his house.    Likewise,  intelligent spimes could also reflect on their interactions, and even wrangle less-intelligent spimes.

What software architecture is appropriate for this mass of data?   Clearly, we’d want to store all the data, regardless of its format, in databases.  My question is pitched at a higher level of abstraction than that of the databases.  We desire that multiple, independent agents (both people and devices) are able to access the data, to read it and contribute to it, and maybe to over-write it (assuming they have the appropriate authorizations).  Morever, we want to be able to combine and reason-across the data generated by one spime, say a particular motor vehicle, with that of other spimes — say, other vehicles of the same model, or other vehicles owned by the same person, or other vehicles purchased in the same year, etc.   We’d also like to combine and reason-across the data generated by spimes in different product categories — all the durables purchased by the Smith family in their life, for instance, or all the products purchased in Main Street, Anytown, last week.

An obvious data architecture for multiple, independent reading- and writing-entities is a blackboard.  A blackboard architecture is a shared memory space which enables agents sending and receiving messages to be decoupled from one another, both spatially and temporally.   Exactly as a blackboard does, messages left on the blackboard are stored until they are erased, and so the long-dead can communicate to the living, who can in turn communicate to the not-yet-born.   Tuple spaces and the associated Linda language are an example of a blackboard architecture (implemented in Java as Java Spaces).  We could imagine that each spime has its own tuple space, partitioned into secure sub-spaces for different spime-wranglers, from manufacturers, through each spime owner or carer, to after-sales service providers and disposal agencies.  Access to spaces will need to be controlled, so that only authorized agents may write, read and erase data in their allocated partition.   Here we could use something called Law-Governed Linda, an enhancement of Linda designed to add security features, although this may be too rigid for products whose uses cannot be readily predicted in advance.   An architecture allowing access to a tuple space following an appropriate dialogue between the relevant agents may be more flexible.

So far, so good for the data storage and access.  But spimes and spime wranglers will generate enormous quantities of data, and analyzing all this data will require some effort.  Better then, to plan for this effort and automate as much of the data collation, aggregation, processing and analysis.   Here, I suggest we should use so-called Tuple Centres, which are intelligent Tuple Spaces, able to reason over the data they hold.  Because we will want to combine and analyze data arising from different spimes, these tuple centres will need to communicate with one another, and agree (or not) to allow their data to be aggregated. A multi-agent system (MAS) with agents representing each spime-space (ie, the tuple space of each spime), and, for many spimes, each partition of each spime-space, seems the most effective architecture.  This is because the interests of the relevant stakeholders (spime-wranglers, marketing departments, manufacturers and service providers, data protection agencies, the state, the law) will vary and a MAS is the most effective way to formally represent and accommodate these diverse interests in a software system.

There are many details still be worked for this architecture.  But even at this level, it is clear that the traditional marketing data warehouse architecture is not sophisticated enough for what is needed for spimes. Hence, my statement above that spimes could lead to major changes in the way in which marketing data is collected, collated, stored and analyzed.  Use of spime data I will leave for another post.


TuCSon, developed at the University of Bologna, Italy, is a platform which enables fast implementation of tuple centre applications.

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Social networking v1.0

Believers in the potential of Web 2.0, such as we at Vukutu, think it will change many things — our personal interactions, our way of being in the world, our social lives, our economic lives, even our sciences and technologies.   The basis of this belief is partly by comparison with what happened the first time social networking became fashionable in western society.   This occurred with the rise of the Coffee House in western Europe from the middle of the 17th century.

Coffee, first cultivated and drunk in the areas near the Red Sea, spread through the Ottoman empire during the 16th century.   In Western Europe, it became popular from the early 17th century, initially in Venice, becoming known to educated Europeans roughly simultaneously with marijuana and opium.  (An interesting question for marketers is why coffee became a popular consumer product in Europe and the others did not.)  Because of the presence there of scholars of the orient and scientists with an experimentalist ethos, coffee first arrived in the British Isles in Oxford, where it was consumed privately from at least 1637;  the first public coffee house in the British Isles opened in Oxford in 1650, called the Angel and operated by a Mr Jacob.  The first London coffeehouse was opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosee; the same mid-century period saw the rise of public coffee houses in the cities of France and the Netherlands.  For non-marketers reading this, it is worth realizing that opening a coffee house meant first having access to a regular source of coffee beans, no mean feat when the only beans then grew in the Yemen and north-east Africa.

Facing competition, coffee houses soon segmented their market, and specialised in particular activities, types of conversation, or political positions (sound familiar,  bloggers?), and provided services such libraries, reading rooms, public lectures, scientific demonstrations and auctions. Educated people and businessmen would often visit several coffee houses each day on their rounds, to collect and trade information, to meet friends and colleagues, to commune with the like-minded, and to transact business.  The coffee houses were centres for learning and debate, just as blogs are today, as well as places of economic exchange.

What were the consequences of this new mode of human interaction?  Well, coffee houses enabled the launch of at least three new industries — insurance, fine-art auctions, and newspapers — and were the physical basis for modern stock exchanges.  For instance, English insurer Lloyds of London began in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in 1688.  And these industries themselves enabled or facilitated others.  The development of an insurance industry, for example, both supported and grew alongside the trans-continental exploration undertaken by Dutch, English and Iberian merchant shipping fleets:  deciding whether to invest in  perilous oceanic voyages required some rigour in assessing likely costs and benefits if one wished to make a long-term living from it, and being able to partition, bundle, re-bundle and onsell risks to others.

And coffee-houses even supported the development of a new science.  In the decade around 1665, the modern idea of mathematical probability arose, seemingly independently across western Europe, in what is now Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.   There is still some mystery as to why the mathematical representation of uncertainty became of interest to so many different people at around the same time, especially since their particular domains of application were diverse (shipping accidents, actuarial events, medical diagnosis, legal decisions, gambling games).  I wonder if sporadic outbreaks of the plague across Europe provoked a turn to randomness.  But there is no mystery as to where the topic of probability was discussed and how the ideas spread between different groups so quickly: coffee houses, and the inter-city and inter-national information networks they supported, were the medium.

What then will be the new industries and new sciences enabled by Web 2.0?

POSTSCRIPT: Several quotes from Cowan, for interest:

“No coffeehouse worth its name could refuse to supply its customers with a selection of newspapers.  . .  . The growing diversity of the press in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries meant that there was great pressure for a coffeehouse to take in a number of journals.  Indeed, many felt the need to accept nearly anything Grub Street could put to press.  . . . Not all coffeehouses could afford to take in every paper published, of course, but many also supplied their customers with news published abroad.  Papers from Paris, Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam, and Harlem were commonly delivered to many coffeehouses in early eighteenth-century London.  The Scotch Coffeehouse in Bartholomew Lane boasted regular updates from Flanders on the course of the war in the 1690s.   Along with newspapers, coffeehouses regularly purchased pamphlets and cheap prints for the use of their customers.” (pp. 173-174).

“Different coffeehouses also arose to cater to the socialization and business needs of various professional and economic groups in the metropolis. [London]  By the early decades of the eighteenth century, a number of separated coffeehouses around the Exchange had taken to catering to the business needs of merchants specializing in distinct trades, such as the New England, the Virginia, the Carolina, the Jamaica, and the East India coffeehouses.  Child’s Coffeehouse, located conveniently near the College of Physicians, was much favoured by physicians and clergymen.  Because such affiliations were well known, entry into one of these specialized coffeehouses offered an introduction into the professional society found therein.” (pp. 169-170).

“The numerous coffeehouses of the metropolis were greater than the sum of their parts; they formed an interactive system in which information was socialized and made sense of by the various constituencies of the city.   Although a rudimentary form of this sort of communication circuit existed in early modern England (and especially London) well before coffeehouses were introduced in places such as St. Paul’s walk or the booksellers’ shops of St. Paul’s churchyard, the new coffeehouses quickly established themselves at the heart of the metropolitan circuitry by merging news reading, text circulation, and oral communication all into one institution.  The coffeehouse was first and foremost the product of an increasingly complex urban and commercial society that required a means by which the flow of information might be properly channeled.” (p. 171)

Refs and Acks:

My thanks to Fernando E. Vega of the USDA for pointing me to the book by Brian Cowan.

Brian Cowan [2005]:  The Social Life of Coffee:  The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.

Ian Hacking [1975]:  The Emergence of Probability: a Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference. London, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Fernando E. Vega [2008]: The rise of coffee.  American Scientist, 96 (2): 138-145, March-April 2008.

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Friday Poem: Song

A long-standing tradition here which we are starting today is a Friday poem.   Mention earlier this week of the movie  The Good Shepherd reminds me of the scene in which the Jim Angleton character (played by Matt Damon) discovers that his Yale Literature Professor Dr Fredericks (played by Michael Gambon) has plagiarized a poem.  The poem in question, Song, is by a real poet, Joseph Trumbull Stickney, and is about a cuckoo; this is very appropriate for a movie about spies and spying, since many species of cuckoo are brood parasites, laying their eggs in the nests of other birds.   Gambon’s character was at that point in the film pretending to be someone other than he really was. Angleton had studied poetry at Yale and co-founded a poetry magazine, Furioso, while a student.  

Joe Stickney (1874-1904) was a student of George Santayana at Harvard and later friends with him and with Henry Adams in Paris, where Stickney received the first doctorate of letters from the Sorbonne given to an American.  Adams wrote of him: “[in Paris one could] totter about with Joe Stickney, talking Greek philosophy or recent poetry” (The Education, p. 1088) and, “Bay Lodge and Joe Stickney had given birth to the wholly new and original party of Conservative Christian Anarchists, to restore true poetry under the inspiration of the Gotterdammerung.” (The Education, p. 1090).

Stickney traveled in Europe and then taught Greek at Harvard, before dying suddenly of a brain tumour.  Stickney’s poetry has an elegaic, autumnal feel about it, a sense of loss; it is writing from the end of an era, rather than from the start of one, as is Pounds’ or Eliot’s.    Here is “Song“, written in 1902, and very appropriate for the season we in the northern hemisphere are now in:

A bud has burst on the upper bough
(The linnet sang in my heart today);
I know where the pale green grasses show
By a tiny runnel, off the way,
And the earth is wet.
(A cuckoo said in my brain: “Not yet.”)

I nabbed the fly in a briar rose
(The linnet to-day in my heart did sing);
Last night, my head tucked under my wing,
I dreamed of a green moon-moth that glows
Thro’ ferns of June.
(A cuckoo said in my brain: “So soon?”)

Good-bye, for the pretty leaves are down
(The linnet sang in my heart today);
The last gold bit of upland’s mown,
And most of summer has blown away
Thro’ the garden gate.
(A cuckoo said in my brain: “Too late.”)

POSTSCRIPT (added 2008-10-25): Since posting this, I have learnt about a recent setting to music of another elegaic Stickney poem, Mnemosyne, by the Russian-American violist Lev Zhurbin. The song is performed here by Zhurbin’s eclectic gypsy-influenced group, Ljova and the Kontraband, and the poem itself is here.   The poem is about the decay of memories over time, and what I found most appealing about the setting is the final repetition of the central refrain, It’s autumn in the country I remember, a refrain which Stickney varies slightly each time it appears. (Thanks, JS).

POSTSCRIPT (added 2009-09-28): I wonder if Angleton met with Santayana in Rome when Angleton was engaged in espionage after WW II, using illegal bribery and much else besides to ensure (inter alia) that the Communist Party of Italy did not win the post-war elections.  They would probably have agreed on politics.  And, of course, Angleton, like Santayana, was a child of two cultures, American and Hispanic, since Angleton’s mother was Mexican.

POSTSCRIPT (added 2010-11-03):  I encounter something which suggests it would be more surprising for Angleton NOT to have met Santayana in Rome than otherwise.    From M. M. Kirkwood’s account of Santayana’s life and works [1961]:

So Santayana’s sympathy and gay human spirit remained unchanged.  He was responsive and generous always.  Not only [page-break] close friends like Daniel Cory, and distinguished creatures like the Marchesa Iris Origo, were warmly received in Santayana’s room with the Blue Sisters [in Rome].  Tom, Dick, and Harry were also welcomed, for of the numbers of American soldiers who were calling on him in 1945 he wrote in happy vein: “As to society, I have never received so many visits as the American soldiers in Rome have made me.  It has been very pleasant to see so many young faces and to autograph so many books, which is what they usually ask me to do.” [pp. 172-173] 


Henry Adams [1907/1983]:  The Education of Henry Adams.  New York, NY, USA:  The Library of America.

M. M. Kirkwood [1961]: Santayana:  Saint of the Imagination.  Toronto, Canada:  University of Toronto Press.

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Perceptions and counter-perceptions

The recent death of Yuri Nosenko allows me to continue an intelligence arc in these posts.  What is the connection to marketing, I hear you cry!  Well, marketing is about the organized creation and management of perceptions, which could also be a definition of secret intelligence activities.  In any case, the two disciplines have many overlaps, including some coincident goals and some similar methods, which I intend to explore on this blog.



First, let us focus on Nosenko.   He presented himself in Geneva in 1961 to CIA as an agent of KGB willing to spy for the Americans, and then defected to the USA in 1964.  Among other information, he came bearing a firm denial that the USSR had had anything to do with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963.   JFK’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was, after all, one of the very few (perhaps under 1000) people who had defected from the USA to the USSR between 1945 and 1963, and one of the even fewer (perhaps under 50) people who had defected back again.  Nosenko claimed to have read Oswald’s KGB file.

From the start, lots of doubts arose regarding Nosenko’s testimony.   He did not seem to know his way around KGB headquarters, his testimony contradicted other information which CIA knew, there were  internal inconsistencies in his story, and he cast serious aspersions on an earlier defector from KGB to CIA, claiming him to be a KGB plant.   Was Nosenko, then, a KGB plant or was he the genuine defector?   Within CIA the battle waged throughout the 1960s, with first the sceptics of Nosenko and then subsequently the believers in his bona fides holding sway.  Chief among the sceptics was James J. Angleton, who came to see conspiracies everywhere, and who was eventually fired from CIA for his paranoia.   (Robert De Niro’s film “The Good Shepherd”  is based on the life of Angleton, with Matt Damon taking this part, and features a character based on Nosenko.)  Finally, CIA decided officially to believe Nosenko, and he was placed in a protection programme.  He was even asked to give lectures to new CIA recruits on the practices of KGB, such was his apparent acceptance by the organization.

This final position so angered one of the protagonists, Tennent Bagley, that, 40 years later, he has written a book arguing the case for Nosenko being a KGB plant who duped CIA.   The book is very compelling, and I find myself very much inclined to the sceptic case.   However, one last mirror is missing from Bagley’s hall.   What if the top-most levels of CIA really did doubt that Nosenko was genuine?    Would it not be better for CIA to not let KGB know this?  In other words, if your enemy tries to dupe you, and you realise that this is what they are trying to do, is it not generally better to let them think they have succeeded, if you can?    Certainly, more information (about their methods and plans, about their agents, about their knowledge) may potentially be gained from them if you manage to convince them that they have indeed duped you.  All you lose is – perhaps – some pride.    Pretending to be duped by Soviet intelligence is perhaps what Britain’s MI6 did regarding Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess:  it is possible that MI6 knew many years before their defections that  these men were working for the Soviets, and used them in that period as conduits for messages to Moscow.

In the case of Nosenko the dupe arrived bearing a message about the JFK assassination.   For many and various reasons (not all of them necessarily conspiratorial), CIA may have been keen to accept the proposition that KGB were not involved in JFK’s assassination.   How do you convince KGB that you believe this particular message if you don’t believe the messenger is genuine?   So, also for pragmatic reasons, the top levels of CIA may have decided to act in a way which would lead (they hoped) to KGB thinking that the KGB’s ruse had worked.

How then to convince KGB that their plant, Nosenko, was believed by CIA to be for real?  Simply accepting him as such would be too obvious – even KGB would know that his story had holes and would not believe that a quick acceptance by CIA was genuine.   Better, rather, for CIA to argue internally, at length and in detail, back-and-forth-and-forth-and-back, about the question, and then, finally, in great pain and after much disruption, decide to believe in the defector.   Bagley either does not understand this last mirror (something I sincerely doubt, since his book evidences a fine mind and very keen understanding of perception management), or else perhaps his book is itself part of a plan to convince KGB that Nosenko was fully believed by CIA.



Tennent H. Bagley [2007]: Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Robert De Niro, Director [2006]:  The Good Shepherd. Universal Pictures.

Tim Weiner [ 2007]:  Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA.  Doubelday.

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A salute to Dick Bissell


For those who know his name, Richard Bissell (1910-1994) probably has a mostly negative reputation, as the chief planner of the failed attempted invasion of Cuba at the “Bay of Pigs” in April 1961.  Put aside the fact that last-minute changes to the invasion plans (including a change of location) were forced on Bissell and CIA by the Kennedy Administration; after all, as Bissell himself argued in his memoirs, he and CIA could have and should have done more to resist these changes.  (There is another post to be written on the lessons of this episode for the making of complex decisions, a topic on which surprisingly little seems to have been published.)  Bissell ended his career as VP for Marketing and Economic Planning at United Aircraft Corporation, a post he held for a decade, although he found it unfulfilling after the excitement of his Government service.

Earlier in his career, Bissell was several times an administrative and organizational hero, a man who got things done.  During World War II, Bissell, working for the US Government’s Shipping Adjustment Board, established a comprehensive card index of every ship in the US merchant marine to the point where he could predict, within an error of 5 percent, which ships would be at which ports unloading their cargoes when, and thus available for reloading.  He did this well before multi-agent systems or even Microsoft Excel. After WW II, he was the person who successfully implemented the Marshall Plan for the Economic Recovery of Europe.  And then, after joining CIA in 1954, he successfully created and led the project to design, build, equip and deploy a high-altitude spy-plane to observe America’s enemies, the U-2 spy plane.   Bissell also led the design, development and deployment of CIA’s Corona reconnaisance satellites, and appears to have played a key role in the development of America’s national space policy before that.

Whatever one thinks of the overall mission of CIA before 1989 (and I think there is a fairly compelling argument that CIA and KGB successfully and jointly kept the cold war from becoming a hot one), one can only but admire Bissell’s managerial competence, his ability to inspire others, his courage, and his verve.  Not only was the U-2 a completely new plane (designed and built by a team led by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed, using engines from Pratt & Whitney), flying at altitudes above any ever flown before, and using a new type of fuel (developed by Shell), but the plane also had to be equipped with sophisticated camera equipment, also newly invented and manufactured (by a team led by Edwin Land of Polaroid), producing developed film in industrial quantities.  All of these components, and the pilot, needed to operate under extreme conditions (eg, high-altitudes, long-duration flights, very sensitive flying parameters, vulnerability to enemy attack).  And the overall process, from weather prediction, through deployment of the plane and pilot to their launch site, all the way to the human analyses of the resulting acres of film, had to be designed, organized, integrated and managed.

All this was done in great secrecy and very rapidly, with multiple public-sector and private-sector stakeholders involved.   Bissell achieved all this while retaining the utmost loyalty and respect from those who worked for him and with him.  I can only respond with enormous admiration for the project management and expectations management abilities, and the political, negotiation, socialization, and consensus-forging skills, that Dick Bissell must have had.  Despite what many in academia believe, these abilities are rare and intellectually-demanding, and far too few people in any organization have them.


Richard M. Bissell [1996]:  Reflections of a Cold Warrior:  From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.

Norman Polnar [2001]:  Spyplane:  The U-2 History Declassified.  Osceola, WI, USA: MBI Publishing.

Evan Thomas [1995]:  The Very Best Men.  Four Who Dared:  The Early Years of the CIA.  New York City, NY, USA:  Touchstone.

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The resonance of spimes

In 2004, Bruce Sterling coined the term “spime” for an object which tracked its own history and its own interactions with the world (using, for example, technologies such as RFID and GPS).  In Sterling’s words, spimes

“are precisely located in space and time. They have histories. They are recorded, tracked, inventoried, and always associated with a story. 

Spimes have identities, they are protagonists of a documented process.”

Spime wranglers are people willing to invest time and effort in managing the meta-data and narratives of their spimes. The always-interesting Russell Davies has been exploring the consequences of this idea for designers of commercial products.

Several thoughts have occured to me:

As with all new technologies, the future is unevenly distributed, and there have been spime wranglers for some artefacts for a very long time — for instance, for early industrial manufacturing technologies (eg, the 1785 Boulton and Watt steam engine (a diagram of which is above), in use for 102 years, and then immediately shipped by an alert wrangler to a museum in Australia in 1888) and for Stradivarius violins.  The service log books of motor vehicles, legally required in most western countries, are a pre-computer version of the metadata and narrative which a spime and its wranglers can generate. 

Secondly, spime wranglers, like lead-users, become co-designers and co-marketers of the product, because they help to vest the product with meaning-in-the-world.   Grant McCracken has written on the trend to greater democratization of meaning-creation in marketing.  (Note: I’ll try to find a specific post of Grant’s on this topic.)

Finally, it strikes me that the best way to conceive of the narrative and metadata generated and collated by a spime and, working with it, by the spime’s wranglers is through Rupert Sheldrake’s powerful (and sadly neglected) idea of morphic fields.   I hope to explore this idea, and its implications for quantitative marketing, in a future post.

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The second time as farce

Karl Marx was correct, it seems, in predicting that capitalism would suffer recurring crises.  What he seems to have overlooked is the impact of his own predictions (with companies and governments taking steps to eliminate or ameliorate the worst effects of the system), and capitalism’s adaptability.  With the socialization of the means of exchange taking place in much of the western world this month, capitalism has shown that it is even willing to adopt its own antithesis in order to survive.

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