Spring Reading: Lolita, One Hundred Years of Solitude

I finally read Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. I like Nabokov’s effusive prose, so good.

I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, about the rise and fall of the Buendía family over seven generations. At the beginning of the book, I read it as realistic fiction due to the matter of fact tone. But then flying carpets and magical elements were introduced, and I realized these things were taken for granted as completely ordinary, versus to be interpreted as metaphor. Adding to the realism of this fantasy novel, the book interwove actual historical figures and events into the story, such as the banana massacre. Every time I picked up the book, I felt somber afterwards. The decline of the family and their village is foreshadowed and feels inevitable. Buendía family members are born, grow up, live a unique and solitary existence of their own making, then die. In each generation, the children are named after other family members, and so everyone has one of a few names, and the generations follow a cyclical pattern. Events that happened prior in the book are often recalled. The weight of prior generations stack, so that by the end of the book, at the mention of a single room, several generations’ worth of memories in that room are recalled.  At the end of the novel, a mystery introduced at the beginning of the book is finally revealed, and everything comes full circle.

Levels of Life

I read Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes. The novel is a reflection on love and loss, using ballooning as a metaphor.

The book is divided into three sections. The first section, “The Sin of Height,” is presented in historical facts and quotations. Three famous real-life aeronauts are introduced: officer Fred Burnaby, actress Sarah Bernhardt, and inventor Gaspard-Félix Tournachon. Their opinions and motivations are revealed.

The three aeronauts were ballooning when it was relatively new and dangerous. Aeronauts were celebrities.

Barnes states how humans were not meant to fly, but with the advent of ballooning, now people had the ability to. Ballooning is a “moral” activity: the aeronauts have a newfound perspective, that of god looking down. And when Tournachon combined ballooning with the new field of photography, something special had been created, something that transcended the two fields individually.

The second section, “On the Level,” is a fictional account of an affair between Fred Burnaby and Sarah Bernhardt. The real-life Burnaby was a courageous swashbuckler who explored Russia when it was closed to travelers. His life was filled with tales of derring-do in his military exploits and adventures. Burnaby is not portrayed this way in the book. Rather, he is a vulnerable man that is hopelessly in love with the actress. When he tells her his feelings, he is friend-zoned like all of Bernhardt’s past suitors. Then Burnaby dies in a military campaign, his last thoughts somehow tied to his time with Bernhardt.

The third section, “The Loss of Depth,” reads as a memoir, it is Barnes working through the grief over his wife.

Like other novels by Barnes, Levels of Life is extremely well-written, with insightful quotations throughout. The metaphor of ballooning high above ground to love is thoroughly explored. However, I found the novel lacked cohesion, especially the transition between the fictional second section and the narrative third section. Here we have Fred Burnaby being rejected by Bernhardt, immediately followed by Barnes’ emotional train-of-thought discussion on losing his wife. The former was portrayed as some brief fling, how could it possibly be compared to Barnes’ marriage of over thirty years? The book read as three different novels with three distinct styles, forced together through some overarching metaphor that did not quite work. Nevertheless, the book was thought-provoking and made me cry. Success!

Batman: Year 100

I read Batman: Year 100, written and illustrated by Paul Pope. It is a self-contained comic set in Gotham, year 2039. The gist of the story is, Batman witnesses the murder of a federal agent and gets framed for it. He works to unravel the government conspiracy behind the event.
The art style is unique. Batman looks grittier and his costume design is more realistic than the painted-on costume design of other iterations. Pope did a great job conveying movement and action with his messy, flowing line work and coloring.
The plot reminded me of a spy movie. There is a lot of running away from groups of armed men. Batman even infiltrates a building with the directions of a sidekick on the line. There is no character development, only sleuthing, running, fighting, and other general frenetic mayhem. There are interesting villains with strong personalities, but they don’t get backstories and are disposed of easily. Batman is joined by iterations of the usual cast: Robin, Jim Gordon (grandson of Commissioner Gordon), a Batgirl/Oracle-esque computer hacker. The characters don’t evolve or change their moral philosophies as the story progresses, but they do make shocking revelations regarding the incident that Batman is framed for. The plot did not explore any of Batman’s psychological or physical traumas. We see him getting injured, bones broken, even shot, but he quickly bounces back and gets to work saving the day again.
The comic maintains Batman’s mythical persona, as everyone is amazed that in an age where everyone is documented, where there is no privacy, that a masked crusader still exists. Batman manages to crush everyone with raw fighting ability and low tech weapons. And his mind is as amazing as ever, able to recall events in his past with perfect photographic memory, focusing and slowing down his memories like a video player. The comic asked but never got around to explaining the real mystery: how is Batman still alive and moving spritely after 100+ years of crime fighting? Did the original Bruce Wayne figure out how to stay young, did someone else take up the mantle, or has Batman somehow transcended into a myth that defies all logic?
Overall, the comic is entertaining, but it doesn’t add anything to the Batman mythos, and the futuristic setting could have been explored further.

The Life Eaters

I read The Life Eaters by David Brin. The premise of the comic is, near the end of World War II, Norse gods such as Thor and Odin suddenly appear and help the Nazis defeat the Allies. The Nazis created these mythical gods by sacrificing humans in their concentration camps. The Norse gods are not loyal to their Nazi creators, but the deities sustain themselves with war and death, so they side with the Nazis for their own purposes. To combat the Nazis, some countries kill off their own population to materialize their own regional deities. These countries, with assistance from their deities, start a never-ending conflict with each other. Meanwhile, there are rebel tribes in the Middle East that refuse to sacrifice their fellow men, and they struggle for survival, fighting invading countries with conventional weapons.

No side: Asia, Africa, nor Europe, appears to have an upper hand. But the equilibrium of war is threatened when the African nations start burning their oil fields. The deities of Africa prefer heat, while the Norse gods prefer cold. The African nations burn their oil fields to produce greenhouse gases and raise the temperature.  A scientist realizes that the Norse gods could combat this by taking the air pollution to an extreme; by detonating atomic bombs, the pollution in the atmosphere will reflect all sunlight, making the earth cold (this is also why the Allies did not use nuclear bombs against the Nazis). As if the current climate of war is not enough, the scientist fears an impending “weather war” with permanent ramifications for the planet, and he warns the rebel tribes. In a very contrived scene, the rebel groups in the Middle East all forgive each other for any past wrongs and band together. They create a power suit that can best even the deities. As the comic explicitly and repeatedly states, ordinary men are extremely strong and creative, even without superpowers and mythical abilities. A single man can make a big difference, inspire a resistance movement, overcome the temptation of ultimate power. And when people work together, their resourcefulness and strength can conquer anything. At the end of the comic, the war is ongoing, but there is hope that humanity will win in the end.

Persepolis

I read Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi . It is an autobiographical comic book about the author’s life growing up in revolutionary Iran. Her childhood is tense and perilous. Within Iran, there is the threat of religious fundamentalists arresting and punishing people arbitrarily. Marjane’s Communist uncle is executed by the fundamentalists.  Then there is the threat from outside countries. During the war with Iraq, a scud missile hits her neighbors’ house, killing her neighbors. Despite the atmosphere of fear and stifled freedom, Marjane is headstrong and not afraid to speak her mind. She attends rallies, holds illegal parties, and talks back to authority figures. In an environment where people were being severely and arbitrarily punished, I kept expecting Marjane to be punished for her rebelliousness. But she was very lucky. While her friends and acquaintances get attacked or worse, she makes it out relatively unscathed. It seemed her greatest difficulty was assimilating to a different culture during her time studying abroad, dealing with alienation and having no family support.

The art in the comic book is simple (this is no superhero comic with creative and fantastical character design). The characters, too, are simply drawn and rather indistinguishable. During the chapters about Marjane’s childhood, I often could not tell which child was her. I could not reliably tell who she was until she started drawing the mole on her face that appeared when she was an adult. The characters, going by appearances, are forgettable, but it’s their role in Marjane’s shocking stories that makes them memorable. Also, for a comic book, there was an awful lot of narration, too much telling and not enough showing. I would rather read about Batman.

Black Hole

I read the graphic novel Black Hole, by Charles Burns. As far as graphic novels go, it is NSFW graphic. The premise is, there is an STD going around a high school that causes gross body mutations, like growing a tail, a second mouth, shedding skin. Those with “The Bug” end up being ostracized and some leave home and school and live out in the woods. The novel is ultimately about adolescence— fitting in, sex, drugs, and alcohol. The story was nonlinear. The narrator kept changing and it was not always immediately apparent who was narrating.

The illustrations were amazing, crisp black and white with great detail, each individual hair and strand of grass shaded. The panels were chock full of symbolism and unnerving images. I have never tried drugs, but I imagine the illustrations capture how disorienting they are. When I finished the book I was emotionally drained, as though I had just finished watching an intense movie.

I had a couple gripes with the plot. The two main female characters, while under the influence, threw themselves at men they did not know anything about, then became clingy and fell in love with them after hooking up. Maybe the women were supposed to come off as assertive go-getters, but they seemed rather desperate to me. Also, the characters deal with their problems by running away, they don’t confront their issues. The teenagers with “The Bug” run away from their homes. They would not reveal to their parents their deformities, even though the teenagers admit that their parents would still accept them, not drive them away. One women escapes her abusive roommates by running away, which I felt was a legitimate thing to do. But another takes running from problems too far; when he is rejected by his crush he becomes homicidal and kills himself. And then there is the main character, Keith, who runs away from situations all the time, never content to be where he is until the end of the novel. Keith is dissatisfied and frightened by his stoner friends, that they spend their time watching TV like zombies. On a really bad trip, Keith stumbles upon the encampment of people deformed by “The Bug” and befriends them. The people in the encampment seem a lot more understanding and accepting, they listen to his feelings and stories. Later on, Keith is housesitting, and the encampment people move in and mess it up. And then they all get murdered. Keith is just overwhelmed by what he sees and drives away with his girlfriend. They retreat into nature, which the characters appreciate as rejuvenating and free. And yet, it seems Keith running away from those problems is supposed to be a good ending. It is supposed to be a good thing that he left his mentally dead stoner friends and his literally dead friends from the encampment, that he is going on a road trip and starting life anew, but that just doesn’t sit well with me.

Double Cross, The Quiet American

I read Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre. The non-fiction novel tells the stories of the spies in the British Double-Cross system. These colorful and eccentric double agents successfully fooled German intelligence into thinking that the D-Day invasion would target locations other than Normandy and that the invasion would occur later than it actually did. During and following D-Day, German forces were tied up with false threats of Allied troop movements. The misinformation fed by the spies saved thousands of lives. The book was fairly interesting overall. The author took great relish in describing the debauchery of some of the spies, and how on multiple occasions the whole double-cross system came close to being exposed. The spies were not enigmatic; they were loud, selfish people, often partying or engaging in affairs. It was amazing that their often outlandish reports were accepted by their German spymasters literally and without scrutiny. This book reinforced the importance and advantage of information in war, and knowing what your enemy knows. The Allies had broken Germany and Japan’s ciphers; the Allies knew the Axis’ plans, they knew that all of German’s spies in England had been turned into double agents, and they knew that the Germans trusted the agents completely. One interesting tidbit I learned is that the people in the US intelligence system disapproved of the spies’ questionable behavior and thought they were not to be trusted. Instead of turning enemy spies into double agents, they felt they should be eliminated.

I also read The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. The fiction novel is set during the Vietnam War. It is about an English newspaper reporter named Fowler and his relationship with the titular quiet American named Pyle. Pyle reads books by York Harding (a scholar who writes about Asia without any real-world experience) and takes Harding’s opinions as his own. Harding says neither colonialism (from France) nor Communism is ideal for Vietnam, but rather a “Third Force”, a combination of traditions that would have grassroots appeal. Pyle lends American support to a Vietnamese militant named General The to make the “Third Force”,  and as a result, scores of people die. Even though Pyle saved Fowler’s life, Fowler sees that Pyle must be stopped and leads Pyle to his death. Fowler is selfish, curmudgeonly, cynical, all the more to contrast with Pyle’s naïveté and idealism. Despite Fowler’s negative traits and Pyle’s good intentions, Pyle is clearly in the wrong. The novel is full of Fowler’s frequent and heavy-handed criticism of Pyle, and so the novel is a scathing condemnation against American intervention in the Vietnam War (and war in general).

Running with Scissors

I read Augusten Burroughs’ memoir, Running with Scissors. It tells of Augusten’s childhood, his crazy parents, and growing up with the family of his parents’ psychiatrist (a family that is also crazy). I didn’t think the novel was funny in a dark way, as critics on the backcover raved. I was mostly awestruck by the perversity of Augusten’s situations and frustrated by the adults who failed to raise him. Towards the end, the novel gets a little stale and anticlimactic, and the final “shocker” of the book, the reason why Augusten cuts ties with the psychiatrist’s family, is not surprising at all (it seemed likely based on details revealed at the beginning of the book). What this novel did do was reinforce my aversion to messiness, self-delusion, and people who take Freudian theory seriously.

Contagious

I finished reading Contagious, by Jonah Berger. The book is about why things go viral. The author is not very concise; a lot of his examples have extraneous details, and he often repeats himself. Overall, the book had lots of interesting insights, but could have been half as long.

The book starts off by saying that things go viral not because of a small group of influencers, but because it is shared by lots of average people. There are six principles that make things go viral, and most viral ideas have all or a combination of the principles. The principles are:

1. Social Currency
People want to look good, so they share things that make them look good. Also, sharing is pleasurable; sharing personal opinions activates the same brain reward pathways as food and money, so it is a completely natural thing for people to do. Then enabling people to mint social currency, enabling people to make themselves look better, while promoting the business along the way, is a good tool for generating word of mouth. There are three ways to mine social currency:

1. Find inner remarkability to provoke discussion. When someone is talking about something remarkable, they seem more remarkable.
Examples:

  • Snapple drinks have “Real Facts” under their caps, such as “A ball of glass will bounce higher than a ball of rubber.”
  • Blendtec launched a video series, “Will it Blend?”, that showed their blenders were capable of blending things normal blenders would not be able to, such as iPhones and planks of wood.

2. Leverage game mechanics, like loyalty programs do. Intrapersonally, “winning” or getting to the next level of a frequent flier program feels rewarding. Interpersonally, game mechanics encourage social comparison. For example, people would often use Foursquare and check in to become Mayor of a location. People are also encouraged to boast about their rewards. In turn, they spread awareness about the brand or product.

3. Make people feel like insiders. When a product is scarce or exclusive, it is more desirable.

Examples:

  • McDonald’s McRib did not sell well when it was available at every store. But once they started rotating the franchises that had it, it started to sell well because it was scarce.
  • Disney sells older movies such as Snow White for a limited amount of time, then puts them back into the “Disney Vault” and stops selling them.
  • Rue La La has online clothing sample sales and is by invitation only, so it grew from word-of-mouth publicity.
  • There are “secret” bars such as Needle in Thread, that do not have any signs out front and give the impression that their existence is not public knowledge. To get to Needle and Thread, you have to walk through another bar, pick up a phone, then go through a door that looks like part of the wall, and you usually have to make a reservation.

People are perfectly happy to share things for free, without monetary incentive. Take fantasy football. For most people, the monetary incentive is not why they spend hours playing. The social incentive is a lot more important, to look good by winning and to have something to talk about.

2. Triggers
“Top of mind, tip of tongue.” Attaching a product to something else will bring the product to mind whenever they see that trigger. It’s not just whether something is interesting or not that it will be shared. People talk about Cheerios more than Disney World. While Disney World is an amazing experience, people are seldom reminded about it. Whereas Cheerios has lots of ongoing word-of-mouth, because breakfast each morning is a potential trigger. Interesting products receive more immediate word-of-mouth, but do not sustain it. That is not a bad thing; for products such as movies, immediate word-of-mouth is more important than ongoing word-of-mouth.

Examples of triggers:

  • When the NASA Pathfinder landed on Mars, sales of Mars bars increased without a marketing campaign.
  • When supermarkets play French music, people are more likely buy French wine. When supermarkets play German music, people are more likely to buy German wine.
  • Having people vote in a schoolhouse makes people more likely to pass the school budget.
  • Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is most searched/watched on Fridays.
  • Kit Kat lifted sales by 8% by having a low-budget radio campaign that called Kit Kats “a break’s best friend”. These ads featured a Kit Kat bar on the counter next to coffee, or someone buying coffee and a Kit Kat together. This associated Kit Kats with coffee, and coffee is a frequent trigger.

Even if a marketing campaign is considered bad (e.g. corny, not very catchy), if the product is attached to a good trigger, it could lead to higher conversions.

Negative press is good when it makes a product top of mind. For example, books by new authors sell better after a review is published, even if that review is negative, because people are aware that that book even exists.

Competitors can be used as triggers by making the rival message a trigger for your own message. In one famous antismoking campaign, there was a Marlboro cowboy saying to another, “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” In that way, whenever someone saw a Marlboro ad, they would be reminded of the antismoking ad.

Effective triggers are frequent (vs. seasonal or topical). However, there is a tradeoff between frequency and strength of the trigger link. A trigger might already have many things related to it, such as the color red. Red is already related to roses, Coca-Cola, blood, fast cars, etc., so trying to make the color red a trigger is not effective. Also, some triggers already have very strong links, such as peanut butter to jelly, so a more unusual link would be better.
Triggers should consider context, like geography, where people live, where people actually go about buying a product (grocery store? online?), the time of year.

3. Emotion
When people care, they will share. Stories that evoke strong emotions are more likely to be shared. One might think that positive stories would be shared more than negative stories because positive stories make people feel good, but that is not the case. What gets people to share are things that generate high physiological arousal (people are more alert, blood is pumping faster), because in such a state, we are more primed to act. High arousal emotions include positive emotions such as awe, amusement, and excitement, and negative emotions such as anger and anxiety. Low arousal emotions stifle action, so people are less likely to share. Low arousal emotions include contentment and sadness.

Google’s “Parisian Love” campaign told a story and showed the underlying human reasons why people search, while highlighting Google search result features.

On the downside of sharing, gossip, malicious statements, and rumors spread quickly too, so businesses must actively monitor social networks and quickly deal with customers’ negative high-arousal emotions before they spread.

People are more likely to share (or overshare) when they are in an aroused state. Even exercising makes people more likely to share. So ads during emotionally intense TV shows may be more effective, as are ads at the gym. An example application of this is, on crime shows, anxiety peaks in the middle, whereas on game shows, excitement peaks at the end, so ads shown at this time are more likely to be talked about.

4. Public
Something that is built to show is built to grow.

People tend to imitate each other. If other people are doing it, then it must be a good idea, there is social proof. For example, in a new city, given several options of restaurants to eat at, I would be more likely to eat in a restaurant that has a lot of people. In my college, most of my classmates went into finance or consulting because that is what most people did.
Observable (public) things are more likely to be discussed than private things. A good marketing tactic is to take private behavior and make it public. For example, charitable giving tends to be private. No-shave Movember makes this private act public; people grow their beards and raise money for men’s health issues. Even if someone participates in Movember and does not raise money, they are still raising awareness and prompting conversations about men’s health.

Some products advertise themselves, such as clothes with brand logos. Or with iPhones, the default email footer says “Sent from my iPhone”. This spreads brand awareness.
Some products are only consumed at certain times, or privately. Companies can provide behavioral residue, “the physical traces or remnants that most actions or behaviors leave in their wake,” to generate awareness when the products are not being used. For example, Lululemon provides solid reusable bags. When people see these bags, it acts as a trigger to keep the brand at the top of their mind. To encourage people to vote, a private act, polling stations give “I Voted” stickers to voters.

For campaigns that seek to prevent behavior, instead of making the private public, they need to make the public private, they need to make others’ behavior less observable. Ads should highlight what people should do, instead of what they are currently doing. For example, the 1998-2004 “Just Say No” anti-drug campaigns made kids who saw the ad more likely to try marijuana. That is because, though the ads said drugs were bad, it implied that people were doing drugs. And since other people were doing drugs, viewers of the ad were more interested in trying them too. Another example was with Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. They had signs to discourage people from stealing petrified wood. One sign said “many past visitors have removed petrified wood from the Park, changing the natural state of the Petrified Forest.” This sign doubled the number of people stealing wood, because the sign was social proof that others were stealing. The other sign, “Please don’t remove the petrified wood from the Park, in order to preserve the natural state of the Petrified Forest,” reduced theft. Instead of focusing on the fact that other people stole wood, it focused on the positive effects of not taking wood.

5. Practical Value
While marketing strategies that employ Social Currency are about making the sharer look better, sharing things with Practical Value is about helping others. People like to give advice and save each other time and money, “sharing is caring”.

People are more likely to share promotions that seem like better deals. What makes a promotion seem like a good deal? People don’t evaluate things in absolute terms, they evaluate based on relative terms. The size of the discount relative to the original price matters. Many infomercials provide a reference price, then say you’re getting a great deal because you are getting the product for way cheaper than that price. Just marking something as on sale increases purchases, even when the sale price is the same as the original price.

Deals are more likely to be shared when they highlight incredible value. Factors in highlighting value:
1. Expectations. If a sale price is surprising, much lower than expectations, it will be shared.
Example:
Timing and frequency are important. Since rug stores are always having “going out of business” sales, the sale price becomes the norm, the expected price, so the sales will have little effect on demand.

2. Availability. Restricting availability by making a product scarcer or more exclusive will make the product seem more valuable.
Examples:

  • Offering a product for a limited time will encourage people to act so that they can get the product.
  • Limiting the quantity of a product that can be purchased encourages people to buy because people think there is high demand for the item.
  • Restricting access to promotional offers is also a useful tactic, because than the offer is more valuable.

Rule of 100
If an item is <$100, use percentages to describe the discount, because the numerical discount will not be impressive.
If an item is >=$100, use the numerical discount.

Broadly relevant content might be shared more because of the large audience, but content with a narrow audience can be more viral because it is obviously relevant.

6. Stories
Stories provide an easily sharable narrative. Even in idle chatter, these stories share valuable information about products. The product should be an essential part of the story. For example, one bad marketing campaign was when a man crashed the Olympic diving event and did a belly flop in a tutu. He also had a website URL on his chest. But the website URL is not what made the story memorable and the stunt had nothing to do with what the website did, so people would omit that detail when they retold the story.

Superman: Red Son, The Beautiful Ruins

I recently read Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar. The premise is, what would happen if Superman were raised in the Soviet Union, instead of the United States? It was a riveting, plot-driven read, like most comic books. The comic even managed to fit in Wonder Woman, Batman, and the Green Lantern. I found Superman was kind of dull. Most of his battles were easily won or glossed over, as they would only distract from the plot. With few exceptions, he trounces other superheroes and whatever enemies Luthor throws at him like they are nothing. There’s not much character development, as Superman is morally upstanding, despite being a member of the Soviet Union. Rather, the comic shows how Superman’s good intentions lead to his stifling control and micromanagement of society. And even when he loses to Lex Luthor, that only serves to inspire Luthor to conquer all that ails mankind, and Luthor ends up creating a technology-driven utopia (as opposed to a utopia created by Superman’s superhuman vigilance, constant surveillance, and intervention). So all-in-all, there is no great evil. Luthor was not motivated to serve and help others as Superman was, but ultimately Luthor did more to benefit society than Superman did. One thing I didn’t like was that most of mankind is background to the central battle between Luthor and Superman. Only with those two could society be improved. For all the comic’s critique of mankind’s complacency, most people were incapable of doing anything or advancing society. It was either Superman or Luthor who provided utopia, not people working together. I had fun reading the comic. For such a predictable superhero as its focus, the comic was full of jaw-dropping plot twists, especially the final shocking reinterpretation of Superman lore.

I also read The Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walters. The title is as much about the characters as it is about the central setting of the book. There were a few surprises, but otherwise the book was very predictable. The tone was cynical, full of dry humor. Then the novel attempts to end on a positive note (the power of love!) and takes great pains to tie up all loose ends. What happened to that minor character in the beginning that I never really cared about? What was the story of the man who painted in the ruins of Porto Vergogna? All lingering questions and more were answered, everyone got their satisfactory conclusion. I found the main characters were irresponsible to the point where they were difficult to relate to, and their irresponsible choices is what sets up the book and drives the plot forward.