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Messaging vs. Marketing

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As an active activist, I’ve seen this countless times: An effort is being made to bring more people in to the fold. So there is a meeting of some kind and there are new people there. All great so far. Then, one of the new people confesses that they are a “marketing” person, which usually means they have a minor or major in some related area, and work for a big corporation in the marketing department. This is taken by almost everyone else in the group as a signal that this new person is now in charge of the group’s “marketing” by which everyone really means “messaging.” Since some of the most important things a volunteer issue or political activist group can do are a form of messaging (protests, letter writing, speaking to electeds, etc.), this new person, that no one knows, is now in charge of everything. In 98 out of 100 cases this person, who probably understands what just happened better than most of the other folks at the meeting, is never seen again.

One fallacy that this parable exposes is the equivalence between marketing and messaging that many people incorrectly assume. Both do start with the letter “M,” to be sure. And there are certainly overlaps in methodology. But the objectives are very different.

Typically, in activism, messaging has one of two flavors. 1) To convince people to believe something they currently don’t believe. Sometimes this means changing people’s minds, other times it means brining people into a way of thinking in an area where they don’t currently have an opinion. This is very difficult and usually unsuccessful on a person-by-person basis. A blindingly successful activist messaging campaign run over a few months changes a couple-few percent of people’s likely behavior (as in voting for a particular candidate or preferring a specific policy). 2) To get those already in your camp to take some action, like a GOTV (get out the vote) campaign, or a petition drive.*

Marketing has a very different goal. Most marketing can assume the target audience is already leaning towards a decision, perhaps to buy a particular product. Marketing is there to get the person to pick your iteration of the project, as opposed to some other company’s version. Maybe the plethora of car ads helps make more members of the general population want to own a car, but the marketing department at Ford Automotive is mainly trying to get the prospective car buyer to pick an F-100 over a Chevy truck.

If marketing methodology were applied to many messaging needs, it might be like trying to get someone who is about to buy an apple to go to the other side of the grocery store, and instead of buying an apple, pick up some milk. Or, instead of buying the amazing, giant, wonderfully colored, flawless Crispois Wunder-Apple just invented at the University of Podunk and that everybody is eating these days, picking up a bag of locally grown, small, less interesting apples because it is better for the planet.

In other words, marketing is usually getting someone who already wants to do a thing to actually do the thing they want to do, with you instead of with some other company. Messaging in the activist community is often getting someone to act either contrary to, or simply not in accord with, their pre-existing prurient tendency.

Internally, methodologically, marketing and messaging share a lot of research, process, etc. But so do civil engineering and mechanical engineering. But you wouldn’t hire a traffic engineer who would be great at configuring a busy intersection, to design a new helicopter. Just as importantly, that engineer would not want that job. This is why the new volunteer who confesses to be in marketing excuses themselves to go to the bathroom and is never seen again…


  • I’m assuming your petition is a legal or procedural step towards some goal, and not just some useless on-line petition somebody made up.

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The Great Train Robbery, Michael Crichton, Giving The Devil His Due

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Never let it be said that I won’t give the devil his due. Though I prefer not to.

Michael Crichton wrote some very good books, some even being candidates for having been transformative in the world of science fiction. He wrote Jurassic Park, after all. When I was in graduate school, Crichton was on Harvard’s “Vising Committee,” a gaggle of notables with some credentials who provided wise oversight of things, including the Anthropology Department. During this time he hob-knobbed with my at-the-time best friend and advisor, Irv Devore, so I was constantly hearing stories of how movies are actually produced, and such. Crichton was generous. A significant part of my graduate research in what is now PR Congo was funded from his pocket (along with NSF and other funds). Interestingly, the field site I worked at, along with a few dozen other scholars over a decade and a half, seems to have served as a model for much of the framework for his novel, Congo. We did not have odd apes or missing jungle fortresses, but we did experience many of the other things in the book, including pods of hippos, corrupt customs officials, and various jungley things.

Then Michael started to go off the rails. Or, maybe, he started to rub against a third rails (racism and feminism) and caught on fire, in a bad way.

In 1992, he wrote Rising Sun, which touched on Japanese-American relations and contrasts. It might have been insightful and informative. Or, maybe it was a poke in the eye to an emerging American liberal philosophy. One review noted, “he knew Rising Sun would ruffle feathers, the vehemence of the reaction came as a surprise. Challenges to his economic premise – that the United States is selling its future to Japan – failed to materialize. Instead, he recalls with obvious annoyance, American critics labelled him racist.”

We now, of course, recognize eye-poking “I was only asking questions” racism for what it is. Looking back, it seems a little like Crichton helped invent that. Indeed, Crichton’s published response to this criticsm, noted in his AP obituary (oh right, should mention that: he’s dead), included “because I’m always trying to deal with data, I went on a tour talking about it and gave a very careful argument, and their response came back, ‘Well you say that but we know you’re a racist.'” The Wikipedia article on this book, from which I liberally steal the quotes I’m using, notes that “Crichton has gone on record as saying that he intended his novel to be a “wakeup call” to U.S. industry and that he is more critical of the United States than Japan.”

The movie Rising Son met mid-level reviews, and re-ignited the discussion of anti-Asian racism.

Then Crichton really stepped in it when he wrote Disclosure in 1994. This was in a way the reaction by the established patriarchy to the very very early days of the #MeToo movement.

An all too common story is that a man rising in the ranks of power has some sort of initial relationship with a woman, he then exploits her and tries to force her to do his bidding, possibly in a sexual relationship, possibly in a professional setting, or possibly both. This is one of the things HR rules were designed to address.

In Disclosure, Crichton takes this issue head on as the central theme of the novel, but he reverses the sexes of the protagonists, and ends up with the rising woman harassing the poor hapless man. Of course, that happens. But that is an unusual reversal. Unusual reversals are great material in a novel, right? So when Crichton dreams up this scenario for his novel, later made into a movie, he is just being a clever author, right?

Well, one reviewer would not agree with that:

Towards the end of my review of Rising Sun, I said, “Michael Crichton was kind of an asshole, right? I’m not off-base in saying that?”. With his follow-up novel, Disclosure, I can, without reservation, firmly assert that I think Michael Crichton was unquestionably an asshole.

Disclosure … tells the story of Tom Sanders, a department head for Digicom… Sanders’ hopes for a big promotion are foiled by the hiring of Meredith Johnson, an old girlfriend and, now, new boss. On their first day, she sexually harasses him. On her second day, she maneuvers him into being late for a big presentation and accuses him of sexually harassing her. What follows is a convoluted part-time techno-thriller … that is equal parts sermonizing condescension and sexist proselytizing about the evils of women in the workplace.

God. Fuck this book.

My memory of the reception of this book, and the movie made out of it, conforms to this review. (I quickly note that the current Wikipedia page on Disclosure does not fully grok this problem. Any Wiki-writers out there want to look into this?)

Then in 2004, he went and wrote State of Fear. This novel was structured as a sort of documentary, with graphs and data and footnotes, and is a clear and absurd counter-argument over the reality and importance of global warming.

State of Fear was widely criticized by the community of climate scientists, scientific organizations, and science writers. To give a flavor, I’ll quote my friend Chris Mooney:

In the end, State of Fear bears little resemblance to Crichton’s most successful sci-fi thrillers, like Jurassic Park and The Andromeda Strain. Instead, it’s far more reminiscent of Disclosure, Crichton’s perverse attempt to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace by focusing on a case in which a woman harasses a man, rather than vice-versa. Similarly, in State of Fear the specter of a vast environmentalist conspiracy—a problem even less significant than sexual harassment of men by their female superiors—gets trumpeted while real concerns (climate change, for instance) get scoffed at. By the book’s end, one can only ask: What planet is Michael Crichton living on? Because this one is clearly getting warmer.

God. Fuck this book.

Crichton was not only on Harvard’s visiting committee, but he had been an anthropology major in my department, and his undergraduate senior thesis was to eventually turn into a novel, one I strongly recommend. That novel, Eaters of the Dead, was his 14th novel by most accounts, but it was really written far earlier as the thesis.

Published just before Eaters, was “The Great Train Robbery.” It is that novel to which I refer you now. The term “great train robbery” is confusing. There were more than one great train robberies. This one, the one in the Crichton novel, happened in England in 1855. Because the event, which really happened (and was known at the time as the “Great Gold Robbery”) involved the paraphernalia of burial of the dead, Crichton goes deeply into that practice as it was in the mid 19th century. The problem was, dead people regularly came back to life in those days, owing mainly to the preponderance of Type II errors in estimating a person’s live vs dead status. For that and other reasons, I found the novel really fun and interesting to read.

So all this leads us to this: At the time of this writing, and probably for about a day, the Kindle version of The Great Train Robbery is available cheap, for two bucks.


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Horror, Fantasy, History, Cheap Books

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Lovecraft complete collection*

H. P. Lovecraft: The Complete Collection Kindle Edition is probably a amazing horrible book. Or, at least a book of amazing horror.

Lovecraft is classic. Racist. I would say he is misogynistic but his literature regards women as virtually non-existent so maybe it is hard to tell. I find his the craft of Lovecraft so offensive in this regard, but the love of his writing so abiding in the science fiction community, that I decided to re-write The Call of Cthulhu. My version is novel length, and the main characters are two women. The setting is the modern era and there are no benighted wild natives. I’ve written one chapter. It will be a while before you can read it.

In the mean time, get Lovecraft’s complete works and verify my assertions.

In cased you needed the Chronicles of Narnia* in Kindle format for nearly free, here it is.

Burry My Heart at Wounded Knee* buy Dee Brown is also cheap right now, maybe free depending on your account.


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Help flip the Minnesota Senate

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Minnesota is the only state with a divided legislature, and with “off year” election syndrome, it is possible that we will turn all red this November. As one of the few pro-choice island states in a sea of red misogyny, not to mention anti-climate change and anti-gay and anti-trans and all the rest of it, we need to not only stay not-red, but even better, get all-the-way-blue!

Help us please.

Go to the link below and make a donation. This donation will be divided among the dozen or so Democratic Senate candidates that still need to reach a certain small donation minimum to qualify for state funding. This will help one or two of them win, and that is all we need to take the senate!!! While individual donations to a candidate must be a certain size, make whatever donation you want (the larger the better!) and your donation will be automatically divided among the candidates in proper proportion.

So your $50 ()or $500) donation to this link will save America! In part!

Even $10. Whatever you’ve got. There is a deadline, so please do this right away. Must be done by July 18th.

Thank you for saving us all!


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Cheap books of interest to you, I suspect UPDATED WITH GREAT NEW BOOKS

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The Dark Tower I* by Stephen King.

The Sands of Mars* by Arthur Clarke!

Shalimar the Clown* by Salman Rushdie.

The book of unnecessary quotation marks* by “Bethany Keeley” on sale in “Kindle” format!

Also: Stephen Fry’s Mythos* (Ancient Greek Mythology Book for Adults, Modern Telling of Classical Greek Myths Book) is on Kindle cheap. Also the Marvel Encyclopedia*.


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Cheap On Kindle: Vonegut and Marvel

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Cover of Galapagos by Kurt VonegutCheap: Galapagos* by Kurt Vonnegut. If you have not read this novel, just read this novel. Don’t deprive your Big Brain.

Cheap: Marvel Myths and Legends*: The epic origins of Thor, the Eternals, Black Panther, and the Marvel Universe, Kindle edition, by James Hill might be necessary background reading if you care about the origins of Thor, The Eternals, Black Panther, etc. If you use primarily a Paperwhite Kindle, I would not recommend this book. If on the other hand you typically read ebooks on your computer using an open-source ebook reader or the like, or a Kindle Fire*, then you may enjoy the graphics.


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Kolata’s Flu and Shutt’s Heart: Two great books cheap

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Flu* by amazing science writer Gina Kolata, is currently available cheap in kindle form. This book takes you up to a critical point in time in the understanding of the influenza pandemic of 1918. A lot of things were discovered after Gina’s book came out, so it is admittedly not current, but it is nonetheless a classic.

Also on sale, the very recently released Pump* by Bill Schutt (see also our Ikonoklast interview)


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Some really interesting (mostly science) currently cheap on Kindle books about dinos, brains, electricity, and one novel.

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The Complete Dinosaur, an edited volume.* Editors: Thomas H oltz, James Farlo, Bob Walters and Michael Brett, is currently on sale in kindle form, and it looks like a great value. I don’t know the book, but I looked through the sample and bought it.

In a completely different vein, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* the classic best seller by John Berendt is also available cheap in kindle form.

The Spark of Life* by Frances Ashcroft covers electricity’s role in physiology, focusing on the human body.

And finally, What makes your brain happy and why you should do the opposite* by David DiSalvo, newly updated and revised.


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It is wrong to automatically assume an automatic rifle is the worst case scenario

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If you pull the trigger of a rifle and it shoots, and then you have to add a new bullet to shoot again, you might be firing an old fashioned weapon (that may not even be a rifle, technically) and you are probably a hobbyist.

If you pull the trigger of a rifle and it shoots, and then you have to wiggle a metal object around to move a bullet from a storage area within the firearm, into the chamber from which it can be shot, you are using a non-automatic rifle, and you might be living in the old days (as a soldier) or perhaps you are a hunter, because many excellent hunting rifles work this way. It is also possible that you are a sniper of some kind, depending.

If you pull the trigger of a rifle and it shoots a bullet, and then you pull it again and it shoots one more bullet, and so on, with no additional wiggling of metal parts, you are firing a semi-automatic rifle, or at least, a rifle in semi-automatic mode. This is the ideal rifle for accurately hitting several targets, and if the rifle has a couple of additional design features, it may be the ideal rifle for killing the maximum number of people in a given killing bout.

Like for instance, a classroom full of students or a church full of worshippers or a grocery store full of shoppers.

If you choose, instead, to fire a fully automatic rifle in that school room, church, or grocery store, then you are being a firearms idiot. A rifle on a fully automatic setting fires a lot of bullets all in a short time when you pull the trigger. Most of the bullets will miss their targets, and you will run out of bullets really quickly. The students, churchgoers, or grocery shoppers will duck out of the way, and then when you are out of bullets they will (hopefully) swarm you and rip out your liver.

In fact, an automatic rifle is not really designed, while in full-auto mode, to fire at targets, so much as it is designed to fill the air over and near a target.

Does this seem wrong to you? If so, that could be because you, as a non-gun nut, have fallen into a trap frequently set by gun-nut trolls.

You may ask, if a fully automatic rifle is not an effective means of killing school children, then what kind of rifle should I get for that job? (If you were actually thinking that, call 911 and turn yourself in.)

The misconception arises because non experts tend to put rifles on a spectrum, where on one end is the musket like firearm, in the middle are non-automatic and semi-automatic rifles, and at the far end is a fully automatic rifle such as the MG34, one of the earlier fully automatic war machines that could fire over a thousand bullets a minute. Clearly, the rifles on that high-yield end of the spectrum are best for a mass murder, right?

No, actually. Fully automatic fire is not for killing. It is for suppressing. Consider this scenario. Eight or so soldiers are advancing into a village they intend to occupy. A couple of them are carrying radios, or are medics, or in charge, or whatever. Most of them are carrying fully automatic rifles but set on semi-automatic, so they will be shooting one bullet at time. Two of them are carrying the same rifle, but set on full auto.

They are all hiding behind trees and rocks. The enemy is in sight, so if they advance, they will be shot at. So one of the full auto soldiers pulls out from cover an fires a burst of automatic fire in the general direction of the enemy, and ducks back down, while the other full auto soldier then does the same. They take turns doing this, and the enemy keeps their heads down because they are being suppressed. And maybe repressed too, depending.

Meanwhile, while these two are blasting thin air with lead, the other soldiers with the semi-auto settings turned on, don’t fire their rifles, but they run ahead to a better, closer location with a view of the enemy. The enemy did not see this because they were busy ducking. Then, a bit later, the semi-auto soldiers start picking off the enemy, one carefully fired bullet at a time.

The enemy backs off a ways, maybe one or more are wounded or killed, by they are hit by the soldiers firing one bullet at a time, and NOT by the “bam bam bam” fully automatic soldier.

So, when gun nuts* try to tell you that everything is OK because automatic weapons are not legal, only semi-automatic, you may want to tell them that you already know that the ideal killing machine in a school classroom, temple, grocery store, or nightclub is a semi-automatic assault style rifle, not an automatic weapon, and if you are using an automatic rifle, better set it on semi-auto mode to maximize the number of people you are going to tear apart with bullets.


*I chose the term “gun nut” to single out people who are not merely pro-gun, but rabidly so. Pro-gun people are not necessarily anti-gun regulation.


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The Three Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Natural Selection

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Natural Selection is the key creative force in evolution. Natural selection, together with specific histories of populations (species) and adaptations, is responsible for the design of organisms. Most people have some idea of what Natural Selection is. However, it is easy to make conceptual errors when thinking about this important force of nature. One way to improve how we think about a concept like this is to carefully exam its formal definition.

In this post, we will do the following:

  • Discuss historical and contextual aspects of the term “Natural Selection” in order to make clear exactly what it might mean (and not mean).
  • Provide what I feel is the best exact set of terms to use for these “three conditions,” because the words one uses are very important (there are probably some wrong ways to do it one would like to avoid).
  • Discuss why the terms should be put in a certain order (for pedagogical reasons, mainly) and how they relate and don’t related to each other.

When you are done reading this post you should be able to:

  • Make erudite and opaque comments to creationists that will get you points with your web friends.
  • Write really tricky Multiple Choice Exam Questions if you are a teacher.
  • Evolve more efficiently towards your ultimate goal because you will be more in control of the Random Evolutionary Process (only kidding on this third one…)

Continue reading The Three Necessary and Sufficient Conditions of Natural Selection


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