Archive for October, 2010

I always complete my own review of a book before I read anyone else’s.

Hopefully that stops me sounding like a book reviewer.

Sometimes, if another reviewer agrees with me, but expresses my feelings better than I could, I’ll quote and link to them in an edited version.

Or I’ll quote and link to someone who has an alternative and interesting point of view.

But these things are edited in afterwards rather than planned into the first draft.

For instance my first draft review of this book would never have included the word “dystopian”.

That’s because I didn’t know what it meant until I read it in another review and looked it up.

And now here I am rewriting the whole introduction to this post around this new word.

Super Sad True Love Story does indeed deliver a dystopian vision of an ultra-connected, ultra-transparent, ultra-privacy-violated not too distant future.

(From the same review that caused me to rewrite my intro)

I bought Super Sad True Love Story after viewing an interview with the author on Edward Boches’ Creativity_Unbound blog.

Like Edward my interest was piqued mainly by Shteyngart’s portrayal of social media and the role of technology in our near future lives.

For other commentators the bleakest aspects of the book are the idea of America fighting an unwinnable war in the jungles of Venezuela, its cap in hand economic subservience to China and Norway, and the almost racist attitude to LNWI’s (Low Net Worth Individuals).

For me the bleakest aspects of the book are the demise of books themselves and the slightly-too-credible-to-be-comfortable world in which the digitally projected you is more important than the real you.

On bleak aspect number one…

Lenny Abramov, the book’s lead character and one half of the true love story, marks himself out as, as best, an oddity and, at worst, a social leper for still buying and reading books (or “bound, printed, nonstreaming media artifacts” as they appear in the latest purchases section of his digital profile).

“You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro,” Vishnu said. ” All those doorstops are going to drag down your PERSONALITY rankings. Where the fuck do you even find those things?”

Which leads me nicely to bleak aspect number two…

(Almost) everyone in the book is permanently glued to their äppärät. The äppärät is Shteyngart’s affirmation that the future really is mobile.

But not in a good way.

Äppäräti, and the way that people use them, make any current concerns about Facebook privacy and the impact of technology on our humanity look relatively trivial.

We might be headed that way but I’m not aware that “malicious provision of incomplete data” is a crime just yet.

And even Facebook’s Terms & Conditions don’t (yet) include phrases like “By reading this message you are denying its existence and implying consent.”

In Super Sad True Love Story you literally are what you äppärät – “I link. Therefore I am.”

Only the lowest of the low, the outcasts, don’t carry an äppärät and “normal” people find it really disconcerting when they can’t instantly access real time and revealing data about a fellow human being.

There was this one guy who registered nothing. I mean he wasn’t there. He didn’t have an äppärät, or it wasn’t set on Social mode, or maybe he had paid some young Russian kid to have  the outbound transmission blocked.

The only other people that don’t carry äppäräti are those in positions of real power. It is an us-and-them privilege and status symbol not to be permanently laid bare to everyone around you.

People form intense emitional attachments to these ultra-evolved mobile devices. (Can’t imagine where the author got that outlandish idea from).

Four young people committed suicide in our building complexes, and two of them wrote suicide notes about how they couldn’t see a future without their äppäräti.

The media hipsters in this super sad world exhibit an American Psycho level of äppärät scrutiny and device envy. (Can’t imagine where the author go that outlandish idea from either.)

Here’s Lenny Abramov’s line manager on his outdated äppärät…

Let me see your äppärät. Good fucking Christ. What is this, an iPhone?

The most extreme form of open social graph behaviour is “FACing”.

I’ll let one of Lenny’s friends explain…

“It means Form A Community,” Vishnu said. “It’s like a way to judge people. And let them judge you […] When you see FAC, you press the EmotePad to your heart, or wherever you can feel your pulse […] Then you look at a girl. The EmotePad picks up any change in your blood pressure . That tells her how much you want to do her.”

And this is what happens when Lenny loses his FACing virginity…

The pretty girl I had just FACed was projecting my MALE HOTNESS as 120 out of 800, PERSONALITY 450, and something called SUSTAINABILIT¥ at 630. The other girls were sending me similar figures.

That’s right. FAC data isn’t just shared between two people. Everyone in the bar can see who you rate, and how you are rated by everyone else, in terms of fuckability, personality and disposable income.

A man uglier than me walked in and, ascertaining his chances, turned right around.

Dystopian or what?

In an ironic twist, a novel in which we witness the prophesied demise of books actually shows how digital channels are breathing new life into book marketing.

Here’s the promotional video for Super Sad True Love Story.

It might not be the literary equivalent of an OK Go video, but it’s an easier and arguably better way of reaching over 90,000 people at the time of writing than hitting the road and signing books for four weeks.

And it’s another example of an author exploring new interactive, social ways to find an audience. Often doing so independently of the big publishing houses.

At Blonde, for instance, we helped historical novelist Philippa Gregory to launch The White Queen on Twitter.

Is the relationship between authors and publishers going the same way as that between musicians and record companies? Interesting times ahead if so.

Oh yeah. The other half of the True Love Story is a Korean girl called Eunice Park.

I haven’t written about her or the love story because I’m more interested in the Super Sadness, which has much more to do with the way in which too much personal information creates a society based on anti-social media than with the ebb and flow of an unlikely relationship.

FACing hell.


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Coffee with an ex-client turned into a conversation about “happening” agencies around the world.

And from there to a revealing, client-eye view of agency marketing, agency models, agency philosophies and the ™ packaging of agency processes.

Said client must have had thousands of cold calls, hundreds of chemistry meetings and dozens of pitches from agencies large and small, in all disciplines, from all around the world.

He likened agencies to religions.

All claiming to represent the one true God of marcoms expertise.

Follow the Shoe™!

Follow the Gourd™!

I have all sorts of mixed feelings about this.

There is never only “one true way” to approach a communications brief. And to suggest that there is only makes you look stupid.

So if you believe that a single approach, a single philosophy, a single positioning can be made to be right for every client, you are deluded.

If, on the other hand, you’re setting your stall out to only work with like-minded clients and brands for whom your philosophy is appropriate then that is not deluded. That is planning. That is targeting. That is segmentation.

Indeed the ideal model for growing an agency profitably and happily is a virtuous snowball. You do a certain type of work for a certain type of client. This attracts more of a certain type of client. For whom you do more of a certain type of work. Which attracts…

N.B. By “a certain type of work” I don’t mean a house style. I mean work that is based on a consistent philosophy. Like TBWA’s disruption model. Or the challenger theory of Eat Big Fish.

From the outside looking in, it always seemed that HHCL worked like this. It set out its stall to do radical work that broke sector rules and that spat in the face of received advertising wisdom. This in turn attracted clients that were looking for radical work. And so on.

But, in an over-supplied market, very few agencies seem to have the financial strength, moral fibre, or marketing nouse to deliberately exclude themselves from doing business with any kind of client.

They’ll happily (and correctly) advise clients that they can’t be all things to all men.

Then conveniently forget to take a dose of their own medicine when marketing themselves.

There’s a particular type of agency marketing about which I have the most mixed feelings.

It’s the ™ packaging of widespread best practice. Taking processes, tricks of the trade, or tools that are used in lots of agencies, giving them a fancy (Fancy™) name and then presenting them as unique Intellectual Property (IP).

The associated mixed feelings go something like this…

From the inside looking out I can’t believe that Packaging™ works. It is so transparently obvious what is going on. Surely clients can see straight through it?

But work it does.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Even though that something is actually “nothing special” repackaged as “That Special Something™”.

Packaging™ is practiced by agencies of all disciplines.

But a good friend of mine once illustrated the issue with a beautifully observed hypothetical media agency example.

Said media agency takes the client’s brief, objectives, audiences, market position, competitive set, brand values etc and feeds them into its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ model.

The farm of mainframe computers that occupy the entire basement of the agency’s building start to run the multi-variable, artificially intelligent, highly complex algorithm that sits behind Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™.

The machines suck power from the national grid to such an extent that lights are dimmed over a several block radius.

People make coffee, have meetings, have lunch, chew pencils, have meetings, and go home for the evening, leaving the model to crunch and run overnight.

In the morning the model presents its Hypernichebespoketailoredplanning™ answer…

“Television for reach. Radio and posters to build frequency.”

A hyper-niche, bespoke, tailored media plan that uniquely meets the need of that client.


This is a funny, made-up story to illustrate a point.

But it’s not hyperbole.

It isn’t “deliberate exaggeration for effect.”

Packaging™ really can be that bad and that brazen. I’ve seen it happen.

I’ve seen it happen. I don’t like it. But it works.

Hence the mixed feelings.

Packaging™ gives agency salespeople something to sell.

Steve Henry talked about the importance of creative people to agency start-ups in a recent Brand Republic blog post.

I think if I were to start an agency I’d want a natural salesperson on board.

Because it certainly wouldn’t be me.

I’ve got a decent track record when it comes to converting pitch opportunities.

And I’ll happily pick up the baton of a warm inbound approach.

Keywords : converting, warm, inbound.

But generating pitch opportunities is an entirely different skill.

Keywords : generating, cold, outbound.

And, in my experience, successful business development people (agencies hate the idea of “salespeople”) are a breed apart.

They are usually cultural misfits. Very important, but different.

Like goalkeepers.

Or hospital managers.

If you want recent evidence of how bad agencies can be at marketing themselves, check out the responses to this challenge from Fuel Lines, a US based new business consultancy.

Responding agencies had to describe themselves in 6 words or less.

It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

“Not like every other ad agency.”

“Top quality marketing that gets results.”

“It all starts with a question.”

For me, the best of a bad bunch is the one that happens to be at the top of the list.

“Big agency vets for half cost.”

At least that statement makes a promise and includes at least two potential benefits to a prospective client. Even if I’m not sure about agencies that overtly position themselves on price.

Fuel Lines then ran a poll to see which statements were preferred by visitors to its site.

My favourite scored only 1% of the vote.

The top ranking statement in this opinion poll was “Fuelling brand activation”, which pulled 27% of the 139 votes at the time of writing.

So what do I know?

For what it’s worth, given how out of touch I am with with popular opinion on these things, my current favourite agency line is this…

It’s Gonna be Awesome is the bold, liberated, twinkle in its eye promise from The Barbarian Group.

I guess you’d have to be American to be entirely comfortable saying this about yourself.

But I love it as a cocksure (not cocky) promise of professionalism, and as an internal yardstick for assessing the company’s output, culture, people and processes. It’s a hard selling and hard working statement of intent.

And their work backs it up.


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I got up at 5.10 a.m. this morning.

I downed a pint of water, which I really didn’t feel like doing.

I looked at email and Facebook for 5 minutes, mainly to kill time whilst I became properly awake.

I changed.

I warmed up.

And by 5.30 I was off and running.

I put in six and a half miles this morning.

I ran under a beautiful, cloudless, star-filled sky. My breath was cloudy and I’m surprised there wasn’t a frost.

It was pitch dark (no moon). The first and last miles of my run are down and up a winding farm track that leads from the main road to our house. In the sections that pass through the woods I could just about see my hand in front of my face, but I couldn’t see my feet. Without 14 years of accrued local knowledge it would be quite dangerous.

The four and a half miles that are sandwiched in between is a circuit of Dalgety Bay. I’m lucky that the main streets of my local town are all lined with grass verges, which are gentle on my creeky, 40 something knees.

Today was my second proper run since the end of The Mongol Rally. And I’m gradually getting back somewhere close to my July 27 fitness level. (This is seven weeks after getting back).

My exercise “regime” consists mainly of half hour sessions on my Concept 2 rowing machine, punctuated by the odd run like this morning.

I knew that 32 days on my arse in an ambulance would take its toll on my fitness. But I lost weight en route to Ulaan Baatar and therefore convinced myself that I’d be slower but basically ok when I got back.

My first row back was a major reality check.

I was thinking the standard 30 minutes at a leisurely pace to allow for the loss of fitness.

But I had to give up after 10 minutes.

I never give up on exercise.

Eighteen rows and two runs later I’m back up to 30 minutes and gradually upping the pace, albeit not to pre-rally levels just yet.

The funny thing is that I don’t really see myself as a fitness fanatic.

I’m vain enough to not want to conform to the stereotype of middle-aged businessman packing a paunch under a stripey shirt.

But fitness for me is a secondary by-product of exercise.

The primary motivation behind the 5.10 alarm calls is self discipline.

I’ve convinced myself that early morning exercise is the thin end of a wedge that links to the rest of my life. If I let that go, I’ll gradually let everything go.

And that ain’t going to happen.

So regime is the operative word in the title of this post.

As in (self-imposed) dictatorial, fascist exercise regime.

To be fair I’m also sold on the idea that there’s a direct link between physical fitness and mental alertness.

That might be my endorphin addiction talking, but the fact remains that I wrote a presentation and this blog post in my head whilst I pounded the grass verges of Dalgety Bay this morning.

Running is a great way to sort things out and remove mental blocks.

Rowing is not the same. I’ve never managed to achieve the same state of mental grace on a rowing machine that I do whilst running. It’s much harder for me to detach myself from the physical pain of rowing. And the rowing machine taunts me with its LCD screen. Some runs are slower than others and you’re kind of aware that you’re not at your best, but the rowing machine instantly and continuously presents you with hard evidence if this is the case. And, if you’re a competitive sod like me, this makes it almost impossible to switch off and let your mind wander.

The combination of the kind of job I do, the fact that I commute to and from said job, and that I have a young family, means that exercising at the end of the working day is a non-starter for me.

So it’s 5.10 or nothing.

Self-discipline or nothing.

Exercise regime or first step to lifestyle anarchy.

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1) PASSION for or about something is inherently attractive.

Genuine passion is highly attractive. You’ll know this if you’ve ever interviewed someone for a job. The stand-out candidates are often those who, either by luck or by design, end up talking about something about which they have a real passion.

Real being the operative word.

Because, in my experience, passion is the marketing equivalent of orgasm.

In that I’ve seen it faked many many times.

I’ve lost count of the number of sponsorship activation briefs I’ve seen that were built around the idea of passion for the sponsored field of endeavour.

“Brand X shares the fans’ passion for sporting event Y.”

Yeah right.

“Brand X has paid to have its name associated with sporting event Y and wants you the fan to like it a bit more than you did before.” would be more accurate.

This is why I think playing the role of patron is a much stronger concept than playing the role of sponsor for brands that want to engage in social spaces. Patronage speaks to me of a whites-of-the-eyes, long term, authentic passion.

Sponsors need an audience to love what they do.

Patrons really do love what they do.

2) BELIEVING IN or STANDING FOR something might not make you to everyone’s taste…

…but it is more likely to make people at least feel something for you.

The alternative is to not stand for anything.

(And have people not feel very much about you either way.)

(Which is not a good place for a brand to be.)

I am reminded of Marty Neumeier’s definition of a Charismatic Brand from his book The Brand Gap.

Among the hallmarks of a charismatic brand are a clear competitive stance, a sense of rectitude, and a dedication to aesthetics.

I love the idea of brands having a purpose so strong that it could be described as a sense of rectitude. What moral crusade is your brand on?

3) SINCERITY has an almost pornographic effect.

This is an excuse to share one of my favourite quotes of all time.

Beyond a certain age, sincerity ceases to feel pornographic.

Life After God : Douglas Coupland

There are so many lessons for brands in that short quote.

Sincerity has the power to arouse.

But organisations shy away from sincerity because it feels raw, risky and taboo.

When you mix these ingredients – passion, belief, sincerity – and stir over a low heat for a while, this (below) is the kind of effect you can have. These video examples do not come from brands per se but they demonstrate what a powerful recipe this can be.

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Well done the Red Bull Formula 1 team for taking first and second places in yesterday’s Japanese Grand Prix.

And well done to the Red Bull social media team for reaching 9,000,000 fans on their Facebook page.

A good week all round for everyone associated with the brand.

Red Bull seems to be doing lots of the right things and doing them well.

It does (lots of) stuff.

(As opposed to saying stuff about itself.)

It has ideas that are worth advertising.

(As opposed to advertising ideas.)

It generates content of high quality in high quantities.

(“Holy Shit” indeed!)

They switch effortlessly between the real and virtual worlds.

It must be one of the most engaging brands on the internet.

9,000,000 fans on Facebook (up to 9,293,146 at the time of writing in the 5 days since the 9 million fans post).

84,745 subscribers to its YouTube Channel, and video content that has been viewed 75,158,750 times.

71,414 followers on Twitter.

But I wonder how it measures and values engagement.

The Facebook posts above highlight the burning issue for packaged goods brands in social spaces.

13,529 people “liked” the 9 million fan post.

In absolute terms 13,529 is a high number of people.

But it’s only 0.15% of the 9 million fan universe.

(That’s 1 in 665.)

(And “liking” is a low effort, low involvement form of engagement).

Commenting on a post like this requires more effort and involvement.

That’s why only 775 people did so, compared to the 13,529 likes.

(That’s only 0.0086% of the universe – 1 in 11,613.)

How really “engaged” are those 9,000,000 fans?

What proportion of them ever “engages” by liking, commenting or otherwise participating after the initial act of liking the page?

What proportion engages more than once?

What proportion of the fan base are “super fans” that regularly engage, however “regularly” is defined?

How do you put a value on this segmented engagement?

And how does that return stack up against the investment in content and active community management?

I don’t have the answers here, but these are the kind of questions that need to be (continually) asked if you’re going into these social spaces with your eyes properly open.

These are particularly tough questions for packaged goods brands.

As an enlightened fmcg client said to me recently, “Why would anyone want to visit my website?”

This question was not reflective of a defeatist attitude on his part, nor of a lack of confidence in his brand. Far from it.

He was quite rightly asking the most important question in digital marketing – “Why?”

As in “Why would they?”

I couldn’t admire Red Bull more. They seem to be asking themselves this question more than most judging by the consistent quality of their content.

But even they are having to work really hard, on Facebook at least, to turn that effort into engagement that is both broad and deep.

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This is a review of the Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

The Girl Who Played With Fire.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest.

Millenium is a monthly magazine, based in Stockholm, with a reputation for investigative journalism whose purpose is to expose corporate wrong-doing.

The principal investigative journalist at Millenium is Mikael Blomkvist and the books track his unusual and uneasy relationship with Lisbeth Salander (The Girl With / The Girl Who) as their paths repeatedly cross during their quests to track down and bring to justice their respective baddies.

Blomkvist and Salander are both singular characters. They both live by unconventional and non-conformist moral codes. They are drawn to each other but their motivations and their definitions of justice are quite different.

The resulting tension is one of the many complex layers  that make this trilogy much more than your average best-selling series of ripping yarns.

I should say now that this is mainly a review of the Millenium Trilogy, with a little bit of The Bourne Sanction by Eric Van Lustbader thrown in for good measure.

Actually, for bad measure would be more accurate.

The Bourne Sanction is awful. God awful. A candidate for the worst book I’ve ever read.

Fortunately I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it to kill time and take my mind of the heat and the dust when I was doing my shifts in the back of the ambulance en route to Mongolia.

That’s the only reason I finished it.

It’s so bad that I was almost moved to write my first negative book review.

But I’ve decided to use it instead as a compare-and-contrast foil for the Millenium books.

(Which are a major storytelling achievement.)

First let’s compare and contrast the Girl and the Bourne.

Both protagonists have issues of the psychological variety.

Jason Bourne, as surely everyone knows by now, suffers from memory loss, headaches and debilitating episodes of guilty introspection as a result of the brutal training that turned him into a supremely efficient CIA wet-worker.

Lisbeth Salander (the Girl) is a socially inept introvert who suffered all manner of physical and emotional childhood cruelty.

Jason Bourne is a super-fit, highly trained, killing machine with the ability to think on his feet and improvise.

Lisbeth Salander is a geeky waif.

Jason Bourne, we have been led to believe, is nigh on impossible to kill.

But Eric Van Lustbader achieves what a whole string of Treadstone and Blackbriar operatives repeatedly fail to do. He takes Jason Bourne out.

He murders him.

It’s as clean and as clinical a literary hit as you’re ever likely to see.

Making The Bourne Sanction a serious contender for the book with the most ironic title.

Admittedly, Van Lustbader isn’t helped by Matt Damon’s portrayal of Bourne in the films of Robert Ludlum’s original three books.

If a personality profiling questionnaire asked me, I’d strongly agree with the statement “The book is always better than the film.” But I’ve never read Ludlum’s Bourne books. And I’m never likely to as a result of having seen the films first. I suspect that they might be the exception that proves the books-are-better-than-films rule.

Damon is the definitive Bourne.

The Bourne persona jointly created by him and director Paul Greengrass is troubled, dark, enigmatic and taciturn.

And Van Lustbader’s Bourne is sadly wanting by comparison.

Lustbader’s Bourne talks too much.

To the point of being far too in touch with his feminine side.

There’s a certain type of unthreatening guy that girls find really easy to talk to. And that’s the mental image that I get from the Bourne Sanction.

An unthreatening Jason Bourne?

Troubled, yes.

Let’s-go-for-cocktails-and-a-good-cry-with-a-friend-who’s-a-boy-not-a-boyfriend, definitely no.

So the characterisation is all wrong.

And don’t even get me started on the writing.

I’m no literary snob. In fact I’m a big fan of the underrated art of populist storytelling as expounded by the likes of Dan Brown, John Grisham, Jackie Collins, Michael Crichton et al.

But Van Lustbader takes populist and then runs it through some dumbing-down filter. He writes like a 14 year old who has been asked to pen an essay in the style of a populist novel. It’s over-egged and unsubtle.

The borrowed copy of The Bourne Sanction disintegrated somewhere in the Gobi Desert. So I can only quote passages that I’ve found on the internet. For example…

Today Moira was dressed in a wool suit, a silk blouse open at the throat. Her face was strong, with a prominent nose, deep brown eyes wide apart, intelligent, curved slightly at their outer corners. Her hair fell to her shoulders in luxuriant waves. There was an uncommon serenity about her, a woman who knew what she was about, who wouldn’t be intimidated or bullied by anyone, woman or man.

Perhaps this last was what Bourne liked best about her. In that, though in no other way, she was like Marie. He had never pried into her relationship with Martin, but he assumed it had been romantic, since Martin had given Bourne standing orders to send her a dozen red roses should he ever die. This Bourne had done, with a sadness whose depth surprised even him.

Settled in her chair, one long, shapely leg crossed over her knee, she looked the model of a European businesswoman. She had told him that she was half French, half English, but her genes still carried the imprint of ancient Venetian and Turkish ancestors. She was proud of the fire in her mixed blood, the result of wars, invasions, fierce love.

Yep, you can file parts of The Bourne Sanction under “bodice ripper”. And Van Lustbader applies the same heavy-handed, gratuitous-adjective-laden approach to the action scenes.

Forget it. Don’t even go there.

Jason Bourne dies at the hand of Eric Van Lustbader. Proof that the pen is mightier than the sword, mightier than the car bomb, various automatic and semi-automatic firearms, knives and all manner of improvised shivs.

By contrast Stieg Larsson brings Lisbeth Salander compellingly to life across 1,850 pages of elegant, perfectly paced storytelling. I hoovered the three volumes in under two weeks.

If the Millenium Trilogy were a piece of music it would be Kashmir by Led Zeppelin. Relentless, rhythmic, hypnotic tension punctuated by sudden crescendos.

And Larsson’s leading lady is all the things that Van Lustbader’s leading man isn’t – properly lonely, properly hard, properly fucked up.

Salander is often described as an unlikely heroine. I disagree.

For “unlikely” read socially inept, moody, judgemental, bisexual, allegedly psychopathic, probably autistic and, at the end of the day, female.

(One of the widely remarked upon delights of the Millenium trilogy is the portrayal of women as strong, central characters.)

But all of the traits that are supposed to make Salander an unlikely lass actually serve to make her more interesting. In the books it’s her against the world, but I was on her side from the beginning.

She is vulnerable and she has super powers. What is unlikely about that?

On the one hand she is a 40kg, 1.5m slip of a girl.

On the other she has a photographic memory, she is brilliant at maths, she’s a world class computer hacker, she acts decisively (sometimes violently) and she has a black and white view of who the bad guys are.

And she is much harder to kill than Van Lustbader’s Jason Bourne.

Salander survives the violent intentions of Estonian hitmen, the Swedish secret police, the Russian mafia, a half-brother who feels no pain, a rapist guardian, a psycopathic mass murderer businessman, and a Hells Angel motorcycle gang.

Her weapons of self defence are a Palm Pilot, her laptop, some self-written computer spyware, a golf club, a taser, mace spray, a video camera, an axe, the occasional gun, a tattoo needle, a nail gun and an anal plug.

(Not necessarily in that order.)

The Millenium books are populated by complex characters, held together by an original and gripping narrative, and distinguished by their head-on approach to a series of moral issues and taboos.

And if all that weren’t enough, you have the relatively unfamiliar and therefore intriguing setting of Sweden as a canvas for the action.

Larsson’s Sweden, like that of Henning Mankell, is at odds with the ill-informed, one dimensional view of the country that I suspect I share with many people.

It is surprising and selfishly reassuring to find that Sweden, that bastion of liberal common sense, has its fair share of corruption, racism, bigotry, perversion and scumbaggery.

So, if you like a lot of makes-you-think chocolate on your damn-good-story biscuit, go join the club of people who have been entertained and edified by these books.

P.S. There is a revealing and tragic back story to Stieg Larsson and his motivation/inspiration for the trilogy that I haven’t mentioned in this review. Find our more here, here and here.

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Anything that can make the view from the office rear window look good has to be worth a mention…

The Hipstamatic app for the iPhone – “Digital photography never looked so analog (sic)” – makes a virtue of the fact that the built-in camera (iPhone 3) isn’t that great.

Mimicking the effect of the original Hipstamatic – a camera that cost less than the film – it seems to make just about anything look cool.

This is a walk in the woods with two of my daughters and our dog. It could have been taken 35 years ago by my dad of me. (Were in not for the ponytail and the bob).

I did say that it could make “just about” anything look cool. But some things are beyond redemption.

Even when it goes wrong it goes right.

I find myself digging the flared out effect from the particular lens/film combo* that took this shot earlier on the same walk as the shot above.

* Kaimal Mark II & Kodot Verichrome

The ability to vary the combination of lens, film and flash is what makes the app really interesting and presumably really commercial.

The basic app costs £1.19 through the iTunes store and comes preloaded with a standard flash (all flash effects are added by the application after you’ve taken the shot) and a few lens/film options.

The user interface is really simple and intuitive and makes for easy browsing through the various options.

And here’s the clever bit.

The browsing options include lenses, films and flash options that don’t come as standard but which can be bought in “Hipstapaks” from within the app.

These Hipstapaks only cost £0.59 and are almost impossible to resist once you’ve had your almost narcotic initial taste of Hipstamaticrack.

I have searched high and low for sales figures for the app itself and for the add-on Hipstapaks, but to no avail thus far.

However, clues to the app’s popularity can be found in the form of well supported, active communities and competitions.

I’d also bet that the proportion of app buyers that subsequently purchase one or more Hipstapaks is very high.

Given that you have to shell out for the app, this isn’t exactly a freemium business model, but it’s pretty close.

The app is very, very good at what it does. It deserves every bit of free word of mouth marketing that it gets.

The unpredictable results are a major part of the app’s appeal. And the low cost Hipstapaks are an easy way to level up on that unpredictability.

I hope these guys are making good money.

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