Thursday, November 03, 2016

Sorry, have we met? Adventures in face blindness

Have we met? You look familiar
The New Yorker ran a fascinating story about “super-recognizers,” focusing on a small Scotland Yard team whose skills let them identify suspects among hundreds of faces in the murkiest surveillance videos.

And it included a link to the Cambridge Face Memory Test, one of the tools used to assess officers’ ability to recognize faces. 

The test is about 20 minutes. At the end, you get your result, and this message. “The average score on this test is around 80 per cent correct responses for adult participants. A score of 60 per cent or below may indicate face blindness."

I scored 57 per cent. 

That’s hardly a surprise. I once spotted an acquaintance, a movie reviewer, at a repertory cinema. “Surprising to find you here in the evening, when it’s so similar to your work.” I said. “At least you won’t have to write about it.” I asked about the movie, him being an expert and all, and the entire conversation was based on his work and knowledge of film.

Except he wasn’t the movie critic, but one of his co-workers who looked vaguely like him and and must have struggled tremendously to follow my misdirected comments.

Bumping into another acquaintance at an art opening, I exchanged pleasantries while wondering why he seemed to be cowering in fear. My partner reminded me that I had berated him — with uncharacteristic venom — for an ethical failing a few months earlier. 

And too many times, in my corporate days, I introduced myself to someone at a schmoozing event, only to have him say “yes, I know, you introduced yourself to me 10 minutes ago.”

And those ignore the countless social blunders I never even recognized, and the ones too embarrassing to share.

I was relieved to learn six years ago that I wasn’t just inattentive or indifferent to others when Oliver Sacks wrote about his much more extreme case of prosopagnosia, as it is called, also in the New Yorker.

And it was useful to know that my earlier efforts to learn how to become better at remembering people’s names were doomed. If you don’t remember faces, you certainly can’t put names to them.

I can recognize people if they are part of my life, of course. Context helps tremendously, and so does distinctive appearance or clues like clothing or voices.

And name tags. I wish everyone had to wear name tags, or even better have their names tattooed on their foreheads. That would be a double win, as I could pretend to make eye contact while figuring out who they are.

On the positive side, I’m friendly. When introduced to someone with the common “Do you two know each other?,” I always nod enthusiastically, just in case. I smile at strangers, because they generally look vaguely familiar and might be someone I know. (And because I do believe greeting everyone cheerfully - common in Central America - is preferable to Victorians’ fierce determination to avoid all contact with anyone they encounter. My cheery greetings while walking just seem to alarm people here.)

Some cases of prosopagnosia, following a brain injury or stroke, are fairly easily understood. But the much more common developmental form continues to be mostly a mystery.

It’s hardly a giant disability, especially if you can develop skills to cope.

But our world does value social relationships, those networks of acquaintances and business associates and friends that ease the way through life. And people who can’t recognize people have a much harder time maintaining those loose relationships. And their - our - inability to recognize an acquaintance can seem rude or arrogant.

Sacks notes that up to 10 per cent of people are affected to some degree by face blindness, a rate similar to dyslexia. But, he adds, while we’re aware of the challenges facing dyslexic children, and their strengths, and providing supports, the problems of people with prosopagnosia are ignored.  

It’s not that a big deal for me. (Though, as the researchers note, I have no idea how other people see faces, so maybe it is and I just don't know it.) 

But I’m pretty smart and educated. I had the chance to develop all sorts of coping skills. I’ve figured out how to pretend I recognize people who seem entirely unfamiliar, and decipher identity clues. 

What about people without those advantages? Are they just bewildered and weirdly awkward, with all of the consequences that brings?

Maybe we can talk about this when next we meet. If I recognize you.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Postmedia's strange $50-million bet on Mogo

I wrote about information inequality for The Tyee this week, looking at what's happening as traditional news media fade to black and new business models emerge based on providing high-value information to people and organizations that can pay high prices.

You can read it here.

As part of the research I went through Postmedia's financial report on the last fiscal year, released last week.

It was grim, which is unsurprising given Postmedia's five years of failure to find a solution to the collapse of its business. Revenue down, no positive news and a strategy based on "aggressive and accelerated cost-cutting" and transforming the business model from "selling audience to selling performance marketing solutions and outcomes."

Which could apply to thousands of businesses, from one-person marketing firms to giant media companies, in all sorts of fields.

Postmedia's deal this year with Mogo Finance Technology represents an early attempt to sell "outcomes." In January, Postmedia announced it would provide $50 million worth of "media value" to Mogo over three years — $15 million this year. That's a big boost for a company that spent less than $11 million on marketing last year, but has dreams of becoming the Uber of consumer loans and personal finance.

If the ads and marketing works, Postmedia hopes to benefit from a revenue-sharing deal and a chance to buy Mogo shares at a fixed price.

But the revenue sharing, based on the information available, is likely to provide about $3.5 million to Postmedia this year — less than one-quarter of the value of the services it's providing to Mogo.

And any chance to cash in on an increase in the value of Mogo shares looks remote. Postmedia negotiated a deal that gave it the right to purchase 1.2 million Mogo shares at a price of $2.96, their value at the time of the deal.

Since then, Mogo's share price has fallen by more than 50 per cent, to $1.36. Postmedia's share options are worthless.

On one hand, at least Postmedia is trying something new.

But it is a little puzzling that a company that couldn't figure out its own business has decided it has the expertise to pick winners in entirely unrelated fields.

And while there is no cash at risk, Postmedia's commitment of $50 million in ads and services does involve both real costs and its reputation.

Combine Mogo's ad budget and the contribution from Postmedia and the small company has a marketing budget equal to BC Lotteries, which spent $26 million on advertising and marketing last year. That was enough to encourage British Columbians to lose $2.4 billion - $6.6 million a day - gambling.

If Postmedia's giant marketing contribution doesn't produce results — if you haven't heard of Mogo by now, for example — that undermines the corporation's claims of effectiveness.

Postmedia has already been slashing print advertising rates, down 16 per cent in the last two years, reflecting both its falling circulation and fierce competition from giants like Facebook and Google. If the $50-million boost for Mogo doesn't produce real results, it will be even harder to convince other companies Postmedia should be part of their marketing budget.

But what do I know? Postmedia's board extended CEO Paul Godfrey's contract Tuesday. It was to expire in 2018; now he's to stay on to the end of 2020. Despite five years of decline, an inability to deliver on plans to revitalize the business and massive losses in shareholder value, somebody thinks Godfrey remains the person to lead Postmedia into what is likely its brief future.