Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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Remainders: From Maslow to Marshmallows

I’m a little late this week, but it’s time for another edition of Remainders, my chance to share all my favorite internet ephemera from the last seven days. In case you’re new to things, here’s last week and the week before. Before diving in, update on the book front is I finished off How to Think and quickly read the Ursula Le Guin short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (which is around 30 pages and definitely worth the time). I flipped back and forth on what to read next, but think I’ve settled on China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know by Arthur Kroeber (who I first ran into on this amazing podcast episode a few years ago about China and the book, “Arthur Kroeber vs. The Conventional Wisdom“). As always, if you want to get these in posts in your inbox you can subscribe by email. Okay, now for some links.

My talk from Percolate’s Transition Conference in SF is online now. It’s all about applying the theory of constraints from the book The Goal to marketing’s bottlenecks. We’re putting on Transition London in two weeks. If you’re interested in joining us there, please get in touch.

One more thing from me: I was interviewed on Paul McEnany’s excellent Real Famous podcast (iTunes, PocketCasts, Stitcher). I can’t listen to my own voice for that long, but people have told me they enjoy it.

It was a great week for longform. Here are my four favorite pieces:

You know Maslow’s Pyramid? Of course you do. Well, it turns out that the pyramid didn’t come from him at all and, in fact, it disagrees with a lot of what his theory had to say. This comes from a new paper “Who Built Maslow’s Pyramid? A History of the Creation of Management Studies’ Most Famous Symbol and Its Implications for Management Education” which Ed Batista highlighted on Twitter. Here’s quote from the paper:

We identity three specific negative effects in this regard: that the pyramid is a poor representation of Maslow’s [hierarchy of needs]; that the preoccupation with the pyramid obscures the context within which the theory was created and that by focusing exclusively on the pyramid, we miss the other contributions that Maslow’s thinking can make to management studies.

The paper’s authors even put together this handy video explainer.

Steve Kerr is back in the NBA Finals coaching the Golden State Warriors. Last week he had some strong comments about the NFL’s anthem decision. If you’re curious, the Times had a good profile of Kerr last year that tells the story of the assassination of his father in Beirut in the 1980s.

The iconic Ali/Liston photo turned 53 last week.

Favorite podcast episodes:

I ordered a copy of the Toyota Production System, which includes this great inside cover timeline:

Speaking of books, here’s every book Bill Gates has recommended over the last six years.

Twitter pointed out this photo of Rocket’s star James Harden looks like a scene from a renaissance painting and, of course, there’s a subreddit called AccidentalRenaissance.

The New York Times had a good op-ed on how segregation worked in the North. And here’s Jelani Cobb on “Starbucks and the Issue of White Space“.

Would you go to a republican doctor?

Some good stuff in this New Yorker book review of The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies (the author, Ben Fritz, was also on an excellent episode of Slate Money a few weeks ago), a book about the history and current state of the movie industry. This bit about the size of the rental market really surprised me:

Suddenly, there were video stores all over America that needed to purchase at least one copy of every major new Hollywood movie. In “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency” (Custom House), an oral history compiled by James Andrew Miller, Tom Hanks recalls the effect that this had on Hollywood in the eighties. “The industry used to be so flush with free money that it was almost impossible to do wrong even with a crappy movie, because here’s why: home video,” he says. By 1986, video sales and rentals were taking in more than four billion dollars. Income from home viewing had surpassed that of theatrical release.

TILs from this week:

My friend Tim Hwang launched the Trade Journal Cooperative, wherein you pay $60 a year to get random niche trade journals sent to you. I couldn’t be more in.

I was reminded of this great piece about Suck.com and its unique style of hyperlinking.

Mary Meeker presented her yearly state of the internet with lots of data.

From the China book I’m reading, thought this was an interesting nugget:

These are summed up in a motto frequently cited by one of China’s leading economists, Justin Lin, who attributes it to Premier Wen Jiabao: “When you multiply any problem by China’s population, it is a very big problem. But when you divide it by China’s population, it becomes very small.” The point is simple, though easy to miss: China’s size means that any challenge it faces—unemployment, environmental degradation, social unrest, you name it—exists on an almost unimaginably large scale. But it also means that the resources available to tackle the problem are gigantic. The difficulty lies in marshaling all those resources and deploying them effectively.

This question/answer from NYTimes/Gladwell about the kinds of stories that fascinate him fascinated me:

Are there certain ideas that you find yourself drawn to again and again? For example, you’ve used the threshold model of collective behavior to explain both school shootings and why basketball players don’t shoot free throws underhand. I like ideas that absolve people of blame. That’s the most consistent theme in all of my work. I don’t like blaming people’s nature or behavior for things. I like blaming systems and structures and environments for things.

On the subject on blaming systems not people, it looks like the famous marshmallow experiment missed the systemic nature of what allows certain kids to be better at delaying gratification:

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

Finally, after failing to get a recommendation from Consumer Reports because of braking issues, Tesla was able to push out a software update that improved stopping significantly enough that CR upgraded to a recommend. Perfect example of how software is eating the world.

Ok, that’s it for this week. Thanks for bearing with me while I tried to get this out. If there’s anything I should definitely check out that I didn’t mention, please send it my way. Otherwise please share this with your friends and, if you haven’t already, subscribe to the email. Thanks and have a great week.

June 3, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Fortnite to the Fermi Paradox

It’s totally crazy that May is almost done. On the book front I finished up God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which was excellent, and am on to How to Think by Alan Jacobs (which I’ve got a quote from in the roundup this week). As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Oh, and a very very happy birthday to my wife, Leila. Okay, onto the links.

There were a few really amazing pieces I read this week:

  • The New York Times Sunday had a long piece on the very shady conviction of Kevin Cooper for the murder of a family in California 35 years ago. He’s currently on death row and the state has refused to follow up the case with additional DNA testing despite a number of pleas.
  • Another very strong piece from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub about Trump. Here’s a snippet: “The Trump family aspires to mafia status, a thuggocracy, but they are manipulable and bumbling where Putin and company are disciplined and Machiavellian. They hire fools and egomaniacs and compromised figures—Scaramucci, Giuliani, Bannon, Flynn, Nunberg, the wifebeating Rob Porter—and then fire them, with a soap opera’s worth of drama; the competent ones quit, as have many lawyers hired to help Trump navigate his scandals. The Trumps don’t hide things well or keep their mouths shut or manage the plunder they grab successfully, and they keep committing crimes in public.”
  • Nick Paumgarten on the phenomena that is Fornite (I have to admit I hadn’t even heard of it before the article).
  • Masha Gessen is as must read as they come these days. Here she is on embracing the idea of “ordinary” terrorists:
    “In another respect, the drive to identify reasons for committing extreme violence runs opposite to the very logic of terrorism. I am using the term ‘terrorism’ in its broadest possible meaning, to denote acts of violence intended primarily to terrify. This works only when the violence is unpredictable—when it’s senseless. This is as true of state terror and political terrorism as it is of a school shooting—especially one perpetrated by the shy kid who never seemed to say a word about girls. It is so frightening precisely because most of these shy, unpopular kids who are ignored and spurned by others will never hurt a fly. Nor will most other people, including most of those who claim to want to blow up the world, whether because they are not getting enough sex or because they want to live in a caliphate.”

This is from a few weeks ago, but I can’t resist a good piece about some gamblers who cracked horse racing in Hong Kong.

This episode of the podcast 80,000 Hours with computational neuroscientist Anders Sandberg is really fun (if you’re into talking about stuff like the Fermi Paradox). I particularly liked Sandberg’s “Aestivation Hypothesis”. Aestivation is the opposite of hibernation (sleeping during the summer instead of the winter) and the gist of the hypothesis is that maybe the reason we haven’t heard from the aliens is because they’re waiting for the stars to die out so it gets cold enough that they can efficiently run massively complex calculations that would otherwise take tons of power to cool:

So if you imagine the real advanced civilization that has seen a lot of galaxy expanded long distances, once you’ve seen a hundred elliptical galaxies and a hundred spiral galaxies, how many surprises are we going to be there? Now most of the interesting stuff your civilization is doing is going to be culture, science, philosophy, and all the other internal stuff. The external universe is nice scenery, but you’ve seen much of it. So this leads to this possibility that maybe advanced civilization is actually an estimate. They slow down, they freeze themselves, and wait until a much later era because we get so much more. It turns out that you can calculate how much more they can get. So the background radiation of the universe is declining exponentially.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here, David Grann is my favorite writer around. If you haven’t read his stuff it’s all amazing. Anyway, someone recommended I read his story about a “postmodern murder” which I didn’t remember ever seeing before and it’s absolutely amazing. I won’t give anything away, but go give it a read. (Despite how amazing it is, I must have read it in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which I highly recommend. No idea how I forgot this one …)

I was reminded of this really interesting framework for thinking about organizational change:

Good piece from FiveThirtyEight about how a junk statistical measure called “magnitude-based inference” came to rule sports science. This is about as snarky as I would imagine a statistician gets: “It’s basically a math trick that bears no relationship to the real world.” BURN.

Like everyone else I enjoyed the Jordan Peterson takedown profile from the New York Times. Lobster Twitter was not happy with Mr. Peterson’s adoption of their favorite crustacean:

A TILs:

I ran into The Pudding’s NBA draft analysis visualization again. It’s very cool.

This is the coolest bubble video you’ll watch this week. (Unless you watch this one.)

Sad news: Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son and a serious media scholar in his own right, passed away this week.

This GDPR/WHOIS situation sounds like a big mess. (But is it a snafu, a shitshow, or a clusterfuck?)

As promised, here’s an interesting snippet from the book I’m reading, How to Think on how we don’t actually “think for ourselves”:

“Ah, a wonderful account of what happens when a person stops believing what she’s told and learns to think for herself.” But here’s the really interesting and important thing: that’s not at all what happened. Megan Phelps-Roper didn’t start “thinking for herself”—she started thinking with different people. To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for “thinking for herself” they usually mean “ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.”

This David Roth piece from the Baffler on the oppressiveness of the NFL is relevant again thanks to their latest anthem antics.

Are centrists the most hostile group to democracy? Maybe.

Reminds me a lot of this Current Affairs piece on the problem with bipartisanship. Here’s a snippet:

Bipartisan posturing of this kind would be absurd in a healthy democracy, even at the best of times—after all, one of the reasons we elect people is so that they can debate and disagree. If you’re not fighting with anyone, you’re not fighting for anything. But given the stated agenda of the current administration, not to mention countless other Republican-led administrations across the country, bipartisanship is perilous and counterproductive almost by definition.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading and have a great weekend and memorial day.

May 25, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Rubber Rooms to Reply All

Another week with lots more to read. On the book end of things I finished up Play Bigger, finally got around to reading Fun Home (yes, I’m counting graphic novels against my 30 book goal for 2018) and started my first Vonnegut with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (more on that in a bit). Didn’t write anything new this week myself, though I’ve got a few things in the hopper. As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Okay, onto the links.

Favorite article of the week goes to Evan Osnos’s New Yorker piece on the Trump administration’s approach to “restructuring” the way the government works. Here’s a bit:

Last October, Tillerson’s office announced the launch of a “FOIA Surge,” a campaign to process a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, which would require three hundred and fifty State Department staffers. The work was rudimentary (“You could do it with smart interns,” one participant said), but the list of those assigned to it included prominent Ambassadors and specialized civil servants. They quickly discovered something in common: many had worked on issues of priority to the Obama Administration. Lawrence Bartlett had been one of the department’s top advocates for refugees. Ian Moss had worked to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. (Bartlett and Moss declined to comment.) “It seemed designed to demoralize,” one participant said.
Sounds a lot like the New York City rubber rooms This American Life reported on a few years ago. If you like this, you should also give Evan Osnos’s amazing 2017 piece on North Korea a read.
I love just about everything that comes out of McSweeney’s and felt a little starstruck seeing someone I know with a piece there. Give Juno DeMelo’s “A New Mom’s Honest LinkedIn Profile” a read.
There’s been a lot of talk about female head coaches in the NBA thanks to the rise of Becky Hammon on the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff. Pau Gasol, a center on the Spurs, penned a very good piece countering the arguments he’s hearing about the possibility. It’s got a good anti “stick to sports” argument as well:

But I also think it goes to something deeper than that, when people will make this argument — in a way that really bothers me. It goes to this idea that … as we’re making all of these amazing strides in society, in terms of increasing our social awareness, and making efforts toward ideas like diversity and equality, and just sort of creating this more inclusive world … somehow sports should be an exception. It’s this idea, for some people, that sports should almost be this haven, where it’s O.K. to be closed-minded — like a bubble for all of our worst ignorance. And that as athletes, if we have any problems with the way things are, we should (as the saying goes) “stick to sports.”

Tim Harford is one of my favorite economics thinkers. Here he is with his five favorite economics books.

What does it take to shuffle a card deck effectively?

Here’s a list of “ologies” in case you need it.

I had never run into the voting/weighting machine analogy of markets from Benjamin Graham (who was Warren Buffet’s hero and mentor):

The father of value investing, Benjamin Graham, explained this concept by saying that in the short run, the market is like a voting machine–tallying up which firms are popular and unpopular. But in the long run, the market is like a weighing machine–assessing the substance of a company. The message is clear: What matters in the long run is a company’s actual underlying business performance and not the investing public’s fickle opinion about its prospects in the short run.

Some podcasts I listened to this week:

Speaking of Gopnik, she wrote an interesting critique of Steven Pinker’s new book:

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.

And speaking of Julia Galef, I really liked this Tweet of hers:

At some point I’m going to write a rebuttal piece on why content isn’t a terrible term.

A few TIL’s:

Was reminded of this piece from Kevin Slavin on designing for complexity.

The growth of text messaging in chart form:

How did sports come to be so divisive? Hint: It has a lot to do with September 11th. “What was once ostensibly a unifying moment in the country has helped transform sports, with flags and flyovers, kneeling and protests — into the most divided public spectacle this side of Congress.”

As I mentioned, I’m reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Vonnegut from 1965. It feels like it’s all about this moment. I’ll try to put together a bigger post of quotes when I’m done, but here’s a little nugget to illustrate the connection:

And Samuel bought newspapers, and preachers, too. He gave them this simple lesson to teach, and they taught it well: Anybody who thought that the United States of America was supposed to be a Utopia was a piggy, lazy, God-damned fool. Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.

Some “Restaurant Recommendations from Your College Friend“.

What happened to medical spending in the US in 1980?

The 5S’s (not to be confused with the Happiest Baby on the Block approach), is a way to organize workspaces. They are:

  1. Seiri (Sort)
  2. Seiton (Straighten, Set)
  3. Seiso (Shine, Sweep)
  4. Seiketsu (Standardize)
  5. Shitsuke (Sustain)

It’s surprisingly cathartic to watch people organize a hospital supply room using the method.

The FT is no longer requiring it’s journalists to always write data as a plural. Hooray!

Blockchain skepticism FTW!

Song’s issue is that most enterprise-software companies offering blockchain solutions don’t benefit from decentralization. Blockchain technology is supposed to eliminate the need for a trusted third party to verify things like transactions and contracts. But most of the use cases available today still need some sort of third-party involvement, be it a bank, lawyer, or regulatory body.
That’s it for now. Thanks again for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t and please share this around if you’ve enjoyed. I’ll be back next week with more. Have a great weekend.

May 17, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Kanye to El Paquete

Quick update before jumping in. I was in Missoula, Montana for the 11th year in a row last week to do some fishing and teaching at University of Montana. If you find yourself in Montana and are looking for a fly fishing guide I can’t recommend Chris Stroup and his Montana Cutthroat Guide Services enough. My friend Nick and I spent two days on the river with Chris and, once again, he put us on fish with nearly every cast. On the reading side, I finished up the Master Algorithm (fascinating content, dense book) and am on to Play Bigger about category building in marketing. In-between there I also read the short book Probability: A Very Short Introduction (if you’re not familiar with the Very Short Introduction series, The New Yorker had a good piece on it). Travel-wise, I’m in NYC for a two whole weeks before I have to get on another airplane. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, especially my amazing wife Leila and my mom Barbara, who are hopefully both reading this.

If you don’t know the drill, this is everything I’ve read and found interesting over the last week (in this case two). Previous editions can be found filed under remainders and you can subscribe by email to all my posts. Now onto the links.

My writing this week: A post about information theory and a piece over at the Percolate blog about content bottlenecks.

Any time Ta-Nehisi Coates writes something it’s worth reading. Here he is on Kanye:

West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.

Everything you wanted to know about why the US chills its eggs and most of the rest of the world doesn’t. Turns out it’s because we choose to wash the gunk (aka chicken poo) off our eggs. “Soon after eggs pop out of the chicken, American producers put them straight to a machine that shampoos them with soap and hot water. The steamy shower leaves the shells squeaky clean. But it also compromises them, by washing away a barely visible sheen that naturally envelops each egg.”

This hits close to home: Your coffee addiction, by decade. “‘No sugar,’ you declare. ‘I take it black.’ Shoot a side-eyed glance at that kid over there with his blended-ice drink—amateur hour. Sorry they don’t serve Shirley Temples, geez.”

A theory about North Korea and why it won’t give up its nukes that I’ve seen a few times, this one from Nicholas Kristof: “On my last visit to North Korea, in September, a Foreign Ministry official told me that Libya had given up its nuclear program — only to have its regime toppled. Likewise, he noted, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lacked a nuclear deterrent — so Saddam was ousted by America. North Korea would not make the same mistake, he insisted.”

Every time I watched Ben Simmons in the playoffs I was reminded of this excellent SB Nation video about how Giannis Antetokounmpo dominates without being able to shoot. And while we’re on the NBA, the league has partnered with the video game 2K to create an eSports league and Zach Lowe got an exclusive to review the court designs.

If you have a baby and have practiced “The 5 S’s” you’ll appreciate this New York Times Mag profile of Dr. Harvey Karp.

On the podcast front, I’ve been enjoying Real Famous, which features interviews with ad people (many of whom are my friends). Paul Feldwick, author of the awesome book Anatomy of a Humbug, is an excellent listen.

I was reminded of this Atlantic article from last year on the intellectual history of computing.

An argument against multi-tasking:

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I discovered Andrew McLuhan (Marshall’s grandson) on Medium. He’s got some good stuff (plus it makes me feel slightly better about my own struggles to understand McLuhan that his own grandson is still working through it). Here’s two of his pieces: “This post is a juicy piece of meat.” and Configuring Ground (for kids!).

Read a bunch of stuff about incels after the Robin Hason article. This n+1 pieces is the best of the bunch. It spends a lot of time talking about Elliot Rodger, who was responsible for a series of killings near University of California’s Santa Barbara campus in 2014, and has since become a kind of saint to the incels (which, in case you haven’t read about them before, is a group of young men who consider themselves “involuntarily celibate” and blame women and society for that fact). Here’s one of many strong paragraphs:

You could say the trouble for Rodger started when, around puberty, he began to know—and, in writing, recite—the first and last names of every boy he considered a sexual competitor, while at the same time referring to girls almost always collectively. Girls. Pretty girls. Pretty blond girls. Only three girls (or perhaps, by this time, women) are listed by name in My Twisted World, vis-a-vis dozens of boys (I’m not including family members). By the end of his writing and life, he’s failed to distinguish between any groups of humans at all, to the point where he considers his 6-year-old brother yet another budding Romeo who, because “he will grow up enjoying the life [Rodger has] craved for,” must die. “Girls will love him,” Rodger says. “He will become one of my enemies.” Rodger begs our most individuating question—“why don’t you love me?”—by proving himself repeatedly unable to individuate another. In erotic coupling, the ego finds relief in its equal. But had Elliot Rodger ever found his equal and opposite in another human being, he would, by all indications, have been repulsed. Reading him, I kept remembering Rooney Mara’s kiss-off in The Social Network: “You are going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd.1 [Or short. Or half-Asian. Or bad at football, or not a real ladies’ man, or somehow else disappointing to the ur-dads of America.] And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that isn’t true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

I re-read this excellent piece on “El Paquete” the peer-to-peer media network that operates in Cuba from the same friend Nick I fished with in Missoula.

He also turned me onto this Nautilus piece about learning math as an adult. This bit on chunking stood out:

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

I can’t get enough stories about people cheating the lottery. This one is from the New York Times Magazine. Earlier in the year Huffington Post published “The Lottery Hackers” if you’re into the genre. This nugget from the NYT Mag story about how the lottery generates a random number was pretty interesting:

The computer takes a reading from a Geiger counter that measures radiation in the surrounding air, specifically the radioactive isotope Americium-241. The reading is expressed as a long number of code; that number gives the generator its true randomness. The random number is called the seed, and the seed is plugged into the algorithm, a pseudorandom number generator called the Mersenne Twister. At the end, the computer spits out the winning lottery numbers.

I don’t totally understand what this is, but it’s very cool.

Here’s James Gleick on quantum physics.

The New Yorker reviewed books about Hitler.

If you haven’t heard the Google Duplex calls, go have a listen. Some interesting comments from Twitter:

  • Jessi Hempel: “Reading about Google’s Duplex: Design is a series of choices, and creating voice tech designed to let humans trick other humans is a choice humans are making, not an inevitable consequence of technology’s evolution.”
  • Stewart Brand: “This sounds right. The synthetic voice of synthetic intelligence should sound synthetic. Successful spoofing of any kind destroys trust. When trust is gone, what remains becomes vicious fast.”

Before his iconic rainbow NYC subway ads, Dr. Zizmor wrote a terrible book about caring for your skin.

I never thought to look up what lorem ipsum meant, but my friend Tim did.

Last, but not least, a very good piece from n+1 on the relationship between TV & culture that takes a bunch of different turns. This bit on the Weinstein reporting was particularly interesting to me:

The New York Times’s Weinstein report was a believability project years in the making: it systematized abuse, turned it into a pattern your eye could follow. There were interviews, emails, audio recordings, legal documents; facts were double- and triple-checked. But its paradoxical consequence was to set the bar far too high for every subsequent story whose breaking it had made possible. What’s a little masturbation between friends when the king of Hollywood kingmakers had employed former agents of the Israel Defense Forces to silence his accusers? In one final act of gaslighting, Weinstein made all other abuse look not so bad and all other evidence look not so good.

That’s it for this week. As always, let me know if I missed anything and don’t forget to subscribe. Have a great weekend.

May 11, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Information Transportation versus Transformation [Part 1]

Every year I take a trip out to Montana to teach at a weekend seminar series that’s part of the University of Montana’s Entertainment Management. I’m 11 years in and I work really hard to create original content for each year. This time around I talked about mental models, theories of communications and information, and a bit about machine learning. I wanted to try to take a bit of the content I shared there and repurpose it. As always, you can subscribe by email here.

The article I’ve shared more than any other this year is this Aeon piece by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman about Claude Shannon, the father of information theory. I knew basically nothing about information theory before reading this and have since consumed just about everything I could find on the topic. I wanted to talk a bit about why information theory fascinated me and also tie it to my broader interest in communications studies generally and McLuhan specifically.

Shannon and McLuhan were two of the most important thinkers of the 20th century. Without Shannon we’d have no computers and without McLuhan we wouldn’t examine the effects of media, communications, and technology on society with the urgency we do. With that said, they’re very different in their science and approach. Shannon was fundamentally a mathematician while McLuhan was a scholar of literature. In their work Shannon examined huge questions around how communications works technically, while McLuhan examined how it works tactically. When asked, McLuhan drew the distinction as questions of “transportation” versus “transformation”:

My kind of study of communication is really a study of transformation, whereas Information Theory and all the existing theories of communication I know of are theories of transportation… Information Theory … has nothing to do with the effects these forms have on you… So mine is a transformation theory: how people are changed by the instruments they employ.

I want to take some time to go through both, as they are fascinating in their own ways.

Transportation

Of course, information existed before Shannon, just as objects had inertia before Newton. But before Shannon, there was precious little sense of information as an idea, a measurable quantity, an object fitted out for hard science. Before Shannon, information was a telegram, a photograph, a paragraph, a song. After Shannon, information was entirely abstracted into bits.

“The bit bomb: It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return”

The intellectual leaps Shannon made in his paper “A Mathematical Theory of Communications” were miraculous. What starts off as a question about how to reduce noise in the transmission of information turned into a complete theory of information that paved the way for the computing we all rely on. At the base of the whole thing is a recognition that information is probabilistic, which he explains in a kind of beautiful way. Here’s my best attempt to take you through his logic (which some extra explanation from me).

Let’s start by thinking about English for a second. If we wanted to create a list of random letters we could put the numbers 1-27 in a hat (alphabet + space) and pick out numbers one by one and then write down their letter equivalent. When Shannon did this he got:

XFOML RXKHRJFFJUJ ZLPWCFWKCYJ FFJEYVKCQSGHYD QPAAMKBZAACIBZLHJQD

But letters aren’t random at all. If you open a book up and counted all the letters you wouldn’t find 26 letters each occurring 3.8% of the time. On the contrary, letters occur probabilistically “e” occurs more often than “a,” and “a” occurs more often than “g,” which in turn occurs more often than “x.” Put it all together and it looks something like this:


So now imagine we put all our letters (and a space) in a hat. But instead of 1 letter each, we have 100 total tiles in the hat and they alight with the chart above: 13 tiles for “e”, 4 tiles for “d”, 1 tile for “v”. Here’s what Shannon got when he did this:

OCRO HLI RGWR NMIELWIS EU LL NBNESEBYA TH EEI ALHENHTTPA OOBTTVA NAH BRL

He called this “first-order approximation” and while it still doesn’t make much sense, it’s a lot less random than the first example.

What’s wrong with that last example is that letters don’t operate independently. Let’s play a game for a second. I’m going to say a letter and you guess the next one. If I say “T” the odds are most of you are going to say “H”. That makes lots of sense since “the” is the most popular word in the English language. So instead of just picking letters at random based on probability what Shannon did next is pick one letter and then match it with it’s probabilistic pair. These are called bigrams and just like we had letter frequencies, we can chart these out.

This time Shannon took a slightly different approach. Rather than loading up a bunch of bigrams in a hat and picking them out at random he turned to a random page in a book and choose a random letter. He then turned to another random page in the same book and found the first occurance of recorded the letter immediately after it. What came out starts to look a lot more like English:

ON IE ANTSOUTINYS ARE T INCTORE ST BE S DEAMY ACHIN D ILONASIVE TUCOOWE AT TEASONARE FUSO TIZIN ANDY TOBE SEACE CTISBE

Now I’m guessing you’re starting to see the pattern here. Next Shannon looked at trigrams, sets of three letters.

For his “third-order approximation” he once again uses the book but goes three letters deep:

IN NO IST LAT WHEY CRATICT FROURE BIRS GROCID PONDENOME OF DEMONSTURES OF THE REPTAGIN IS REGOACTIONA OF CRE

He could go on and on and it would become closer and closer to English. Instead he switches to words, which also occur probabilistically.

For his “first-order approximation” he picks random words from the book. It looks a lot like a sentence because words don’t occur randomly. There’s a good chance an “and” will come after a word because “and” is likely the third most popular word in the book. Here’s what came out:

REPRESENTING AND SPEEDILY IS AN GOOD APT OR COME CAN DIFFERENT NATURAL HERE HE THE A IN CAME THE TO OF TO EXPERT GRAY COME TO FURNISHES THE LINE MESSAGE HAD BE THESE.

Second-order approximation works just like bigrams, but instead of letters it uses pairs of words.

THE HEAD AND IN FRONTAL ATTACK ON AN ENGLISH WRITER THAT THE CHARACTER OF THIS POINT IS THEREFORE ANOTHER METHOD FOR THE LETTERS THAT THE TIME OF WHO EVER TOLD THE PROBLEM FOR AN UNEXPECTED.

As Shannon put it, “The resemblance to ordinary English text increases quite noticeably at each of the above steps.”

While all that’s cool, much of it was pretty well known at the time. Shannon had worked on cryptography during World War II and used many of these ideas to encrypt/decrypt messages. Where the leap came was how he used this to think about the quantity of information any message contains. He basically realized that the first example, with 27 random symbols (A-Z plus a space), carried with it much more information than his second- or third-order approximation, where subsequent letters were chosen based on their probabilities. That’s because there are fewer “choices” to be made as we introduce bigrams and trigrams, and “choices”, or lack-thereof, are the essence of information.

Khan Academy has a great video outlining how this works:

Here’s how MIT information theorist Robert Gallager explained the breakthrough:

Until then, communication wasn’t a unified science … There was one medium for voice transmission, another medium for radio, still others for data. Claude showed that all communication was fundamentally the same-and furthermore, that you could take any source and represent it by digital data.

But Shannon didn’t stop there, he goes on to show that all language has redundancy and it can be used to fight noise. The whole thing is pretty mind-blowing and, like I said, underpins all modern computing. (There’s a whole other theory about the relationship between information theory and creativity that I’ll save for another day.)

In part two I’ll dive into McLuhan and transformation … stay tuned (you can subscribe to the RSS feed or email for updates). Also, if you are an information theory expert and find I’ve misinterpreted something, please get in touch and let me know.

May 9, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Remainders: From the aesthetic of Kubrick to the advocacy of Heston

Annnnnd here’s my 10th blog post of the month. Hit my goal. (Might even make it to 11 if I have a burst of inspiration.) Thanks again for reading and encouragement. I’m going for 10 again in May. As usual, feedback welcome and you can subscribe by email here (for those of you reading this via email, thanks and sorry about the wasted words, it just emails exactly what I put on the web).

It’s time for another Remainders. This is my chance to share all the stuff I didn’t get a chance to blog about this week. As for me, I’ve been back and forth from San Francisco again. I wrote one long pieces this week on satisficing and the two strategies of marketing. On the reading front I finished up Artemis, which was easy, but nowhere near as good as The Martian. New book is the Master Algorithm, which is all about the different approaches to machine learning. It’s a bit painful at times, but I’m almost to the other side. If you’re interested in machine learning I’d highly recommend this post from Andrej Karpathy on Recurrent Neural Networks.

Okay, onto the links …

By far the best thing I read this week was the New York Times Magazine story “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” It’s troubling and heartbreaking and shocking. Here’s one small bit:

Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel. In one year, that racial gap adds up to more than 4,000 lost black babies. Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.

Skip the time you’d spend reading the rest of my links and go read the whole article. When you’re done, go donate to the Birthmark Doulas.

Good piece from Felix Salmon on why congestion pricing won’t happen anytime soon in NYC (the gist: to do it right you’d have to lower the tolls on the bridges, but that won’t happen because the Verrazano raked in $417 million in 2017). Felix also had a nice Slate Money episode on brands.

The New Yorker on how Kubrick got the aesthetic of 2001 right:

By rendering a not-too-distant future, Kubrick set himself up for a test: thirty-three years later, his audiences would still be around to grade his predictions. Part of his genius was that he understood how to rig the results. Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brands—Whirlpool, Macy’s, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon—which quickly cashed in on their big-screen exposure. If 2001 the year looked like “2001” the movie, it was partly because the film’s imaginary design trends were made real.

Wired on whether two-factor authentication codes are really random. Answer: They are, but we’re wired to see patterns in things.

Emily Nussbaum is the best TV writer working right now. Here she is on the Roseanne reboot:

The show offers a clever finger trap for critics. Call a hit dangerous and you imply that it’s really quite sexy. And, in fact, the seventh episode, which I won’t spoil, pulls a daring switcheroo, one that may offer a new lens through which to interpret Roseanne’s behavior. It’s not enough. The reboot nods at complexity without delivering—there are good people on many sides, on many sides. If you squint, you might see the show’s true hero as Darlene (Sara Gilbert), a broke single mom forced to move in with that charismatic bully Roseanne. But, if that were so, we might understand Darlene’s politics, too. We’d more fully feel her pain and also that of her two kids, transplanted to a place they find foreign and unwelcoming.

This story about a bot Instagram influencer is the weirdest thing I read this week.

Two Japanese words I learned this week:

  • Tsudonku: “Acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.”
  • Genchi Genbutsu: “This is a Japanese phrase meaning ‘go and see for yourself’, which is a central pillar of the Toyota Way, the famous management system adopted by the Japanese car company.”

An interesting critique of AI from an article about Zuckerberg and techno-optimism:

This is where the promise of artificial intelligence breaks down. At its heart is an assumption that historical patterns can reliably predict future norms. But the past—even the very recent past—is full of words and ideas that many of us now find repugnant. No system is deft enough to respond to the rapidly changing varieties of cultural expression in a single language, let alone a hundred. Slang is fleeting yet powerful; irony is hard enough for some people to read. If we rely on A.I. to write our rules of conduct, we risk favoring those rules over our own creativity. What’s more, we hand the policing of our discourse over to the people who set the system in motion in the first place, with all their biases and blind spots embedded in the code. Questions about what sorts of expressions are harmful to ourselves or others are difficult. We should not pretend that they will get easier.

Rukmini Callimachi wrote that great Isis piece from a few weeks ago, here she is with a Twitter thread on the latest announcement from the Isis spokesman.

I liked this definition of speed versus velocity from Farnam Street: “Speed doesn’t care if you are moving toward your goals or not. Velocity, on the other hand, measures displacement over time. To have velocity, you need to be moving toward your goal.”

Fact of the week: “More Americans work in museums than work in coal.” (The whole article on the real America is worth reading and was written by Rebecca Solnit who also wrote “The Loneliness of Donald Trump,” one of my favorite pieces of writing from last year.)

Amazon released an Echo update that encourages kids to say “please” to Alexa.

If you didn’t see Lebron dominate the end of the Cavs/Pacers playoff game on Wednesday night, here’s the last two plays: A block and a three. The guy is amazing.

On the other end of the sporting spectrum, the Times got a hold of tapes from a meeting between players and owners and I can’t imagine it making the NFL look worse. Here’s a small example from Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula: “For years we’ve watched the National Rifle Association use Charlton Heston as a figurehead … We need a spokesman.” These guys are such bad news.

Last, but not least, I had no idea radio buttons were … radio buttons.

That’s it for this week. As usual, let me know what I’ve missed and thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.

April 27, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Two True Marketing Strategies

This is post number nine. Looks like I’m going to make my ten post goal for April. As always, you can subscribe to the blog by email. Thanks for reading.

I’ve had this thought rattling around in my head for awhile and after listening to the latest episode of Slate Money about brands I wanted to take a shot at writing it down.

One of my very favorite mental models in marketing is “satisficing.” The idea comes from Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon and is a portmanteau of “satisfy” and “suffice.” The basic idea is that a much more reasonable model of human behavior than utility maximization is that when we make decisions we ensure that we clear some arbitrary satisfaction threshold (satisfy) and then we give up excess utility for ease (suffice).

Here’s Simon from his 1956 paper “Rational choice and the structure of the environment”:

The central problem of this paper has been to construct a simple mechanism of choice that would suffice for the behavior of an organism confronted with multiple goals. Since the organism, like those of the real world, has neither the senses nor the wits to discover an “optimal” path — even assuming the concept of optimal to be clearly defined — we are concerned only with finding a choice mechanism that will lead it to pursue, a “satisficing” path, a path that will permit satisfaction at some specified level of all of its needs.

What does this mean for brands? Well, first and foremost it means that people are spending way less time thinking about your brand than you hope they are. In most situations brands are a means to an end: A way to ease the burden of choice we all face in our everyday lives. This doesn’t mean that marketing doesn’t matter in the decision-making process, just that we should generally assume people are spending way less time thinking about our brands than we like to think they are.

But I think there’s something much more interesting for marketing strategy at play here. (Please bear with me as I work through some thoughts out loud.) Satisficing says two important things about how people make purchase decisions: First, they ensure that whatever they’re buying clears the threshold and second that they sacrifice excess utility for ease of purchase. (As an aside, I always wondered why it was “suffice” instead of “sacrifice”.)

If that’s true (which I think it is), than you could argue there are only two true strategies for marketing a product: You either have to move the bar or you have to make your brand the easiest to buy. Let’s take those one at a time.

How do you move the bar?

Well, there’s not one bar, so let’s start there. But to be a mass product the bar represents the minimum set of requirements for a category of products. For toothpaste that’s pretty much price (around ~$3), taste (minty for most), and distribution (do they have it at Walgreens/CVS/Walmart/Costco or wherever it is you buy your toothpaste). For cars, where there are multiple categories, the first thing you have to do is narrow down your choices based on use case (compact, SUV, truck) and then price (cheap, regular, luxury). After you choose a category (say luxury SUV), there are a specific set of requirements that make up the threshold. (Four wheel drive? Leather seats? Sorry … not in the market for a luxury SUV, but hopefully you get my drift.)

If your product can’t hit that threshold for whatever reason you’re in trouble. Either you’ve got to change your product to break the bar, switch categories, or you’ve got to attempt to move the threshold.

Take airlines: You could argue Southwest (and Ryanair before it) moved the threshold down by pulling hard on the price lever. They said you don’t have to pay a lot for air travel, but to move the price down we’ve got to remove a bunch of the requirements that the category typically has like reserved seats, free baggage, and even flying into major airports (for Ryanair at least). On the other side, when JetBlue launched 20 years ago, they moved the bar up by saying every plane should have cable TV and tasty snacks.

While it seems like both of these moved the bar different directions (and, to be fair, that’s how I presented them), they actually both had the same effect: They raised the bar and made their competition unbuyable for some portion of the population. While Southwest did away with some of the luxuries of air travel, they raised the bar by saying a flight must be less than this amount. JetBlue, on the other hand, decided to play an experience game instead of a price game, but the outcome was the same in that they made their competition unbuyable to a specific target. The competition is left with the same set of choices: Rejigger their product or move the threshold, thereby making themselves buyable again.

One of my favorite current illustrations of this problem is Airbnb. They did such a great job differentiating themselves and their product that they made themselves unbuyable for business travelers. The threshold for most folks traveling for business is basically the opposite of what Airbnb markets: I want the same room in every city, with coffee in the same place, and most of all I don’t want to have to talk to anyone about my life when I arrive bleary-eyed at 1:30 in the morning with a meeting the next day at 7am. If you look at what Airbnb is trying to do with their Work product it’s basically to change their product by highlighting listings that meet these basic threshold requirements (automatic entry, fast wifi, working space if I remember correctly). The next step, of course, is to convince the world that those things actually constitute the bar.

So that’s the first marketing strategy: Find a way to move the threshold and make your competition less/un-buyable. In essence this is category definition/re-definition work.

Onto the second strategy …

How do you make yourself easiest to buy?

What about for situations where you can’t /don’t want to move the bar? This is where you have to make yourself the easiest to buy. The most obvious way to do this is to ensure you’ve got distribution in places people are and/or spend a ton of money on advertising and put yourself in the front of a shopper’s mind when they’re walking down the toothpaste aisle. This is basically the definition of physical and mental availability from Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow.

But are there other ways to make yourself the most buyable that aren’t about mass reach and also don’t constitute moving the bar? (Again, competing on price, I would argue, is about moving the bar, not making yourself easier to buy.) I think the answer is pretty much no. Obviously there’s stuff like naming and packaging, but changing those can also have the opposite effect (see: Tropicana, 2009). There’s an interesting argument that some of these new ecommerce plays across every industry is about making things more buyable, but I’d actually argue getting a mattress delivered in a box or new razors at your door every month are the definition of moving the bar in an attempt to make your category competition unbuyable.

So what’s the conclusion?

Well, as usual, I’m thinking out loud and not totally sure. One of the interesting questions this raises is whether I’m thinking of things too zero-sum, but while we know consumers try lots of brands in a category, it’s safe to assume any single purchase is almost always zero-sum.

The other question is whether you can/should be doing both of these things at once? Should you be using your reach to try and move the bar. I think the answer to this is almost definitely yes. You should either be using your reach to move the bar or make yourself the easiest to buy and you should be very clear about which outcome you’re trying to drive. Of course, that raises the obvious question of whether you could use marketing to try and raise the bar while at the same time making yourself easier to buy and I think the answer is probably yes, but I’m not sure yet.

One thing it does clearly suggest is that it’s critical that everyone has a sober eye on the threshold requirements and an understanding of whether your product currently meets them or not. Another is that you shouldn’t try to persuade someone rationally if it isn’t towards the end of raising the bar of the category.

Anyway, fun to write some of this out and would appreciate any feedback. Comments are open and I’m @heyitsnoah on Twitter or you can find me via my contact form.

April 23, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Supply Chains to Stephen Hawking

I’ve set (what I originally thought was) a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Two more to go with one week left. Thanks for following along and please let me know what you think. Also, you can now subscribe to the blog by email. Sign up here.

Alright alright alright. Quick status check for me: Spent the week out in SF for Percolate’s Transition Conference where I gave a talk about how to use supply chain thinking and the Theory of Constraints to deal with the content marketing bottleneck (I’ll share the video when it gets online). We’ll be in London in early June, so if you’re around and interested in coming please reach out. I just finished the book Soldiers of Reason which is about the history of the RAND Corporation (I’ve got a half-written post I’ll try to get out about it). I’m taking a break from game theory and nuclear warfare with Andy Weir’s new book Artemis (which I haven’t heard was great, but I liked The Martian a lot and my library hold came through the day I finished the other book). Now onto the links.

The biggest story in advertising was Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP, the largest holding company in the world. I spent a little time on Twitter looking back into the commentary around his original takeover of Wire & Plastic Products. The highlight: The company still makes wine racks.

Speaking of Wire & Plastic Products, here’s the history of the shopping cart, an under-appreciated invention.

On a more serious tip, The New Yorker had my favorite profile of Sorrell. For what it’s worth, I met him once or twice and emailed with him a few times and my takeaway were a) he knows his company and the ad industry inside out, b) he emailed me back immediately, and c) he was a good performer (it was a lot of fun to watch him interview folks on stage and make them wiggle a bit, especially media owners).

Two really excellent long-form pieces from this week:

  1. Wired on a group of video game hackers who took things too far.
  2. The Verge on the mostly failed One Laptop Per Child experiment (I’ve still got one somewhere around the house)

Matt Haughey (who, amongst other things, started one of my favorite sites Metafilter) wrote about his experience trying to recreate just one custom prop from Beyonce’s Lemonade as a way to illustrate her incredible attention to detail.

If you want to get a jump-start on my post about RAND, here’s an article from a few years ago by the author which covers many of the pertinent points (one of the amazing RAND facts is that they’ve had over 30 Nobel laureates as either employees or advisors in their ~70 years of existence).

A few weeks ago I shared an excellent Planet Money video about why Coke cost a nickel for 70 years. Well, here’s another about the economics of graveyards:

While we’re on videos, here’s one from Vox on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Continuing with the audio/visual theme, the best podcast episode I listened to this week exponent from a few weeks ago on Facebook.

Speaking of Facebook, I’m skeptical Zuckerberg doesn’t know what’s going on with the ad business as Wired suggests. The guy is very smart and runs a giant company who makes the vast majority of its money from advertising, I’d be pretty shocked if he just doesn’t know what’s going on as suggested (emphasis mine):

That isn’t to say the hearings went over perfectly, even at home. One mystifying thing to employees was that Zuckerberg frequently seemed to come up short when asked for details about the advertising business. When pressed by Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)—who, Zuckerberg restrained himself from pointing out, was a client of Cambridge Analytica—Facebook’s CEO couldn’t specify whether Facebook tracks users across their computing devices or tracks offline activity. He seemed similarly mystified about some of the details about the data Facebook collects about people. In total, Zuckerberg promised to follow up on 43 issues; many of the most straight-ahead ones were details on how the ad business works. It’s possible, of course, that Zuckerberg dodged the questions because he didn’t want to talk about Facebook’s tracking on national TV. It seemed more likely to some people on the inside, however, that he genuinely didn’t know.

My favorite headline this week: Someone Convince Me That an iPhone Wallet Case Isn’t the Dumbest Idea in the World.

The Register had a good primer on the current economics of bug bounty programs.

The always smart Tim Harford wrote about what made Stephen Hawking great. I particularly liked this bit, “First, he did not patronise his audience: presenting the most complicated ideas was a sign that he respected our intelligence. If we did not grasp everything, we would still be better off for having tried.” I have thought about this a lot in building Percolate, both internally and externally. It’s always been important to me to assume your audience is brilliant and work from there. At Transition over the years we’ve had talks on how cities grow like biological organisms, promise theory, and whether humans will follow the path of bacteria and hit the edge of the petri dish and die. The positive feedback I got on the most complex topics (told well) was always huge.

Finally, I wrote about The New Yorker, basketball, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect earlier in the week and last week I wrote a piece about the idea of an information fiduciary and how it might be a good way to think about regulating Facebook. And, of course, here’s the Remainders post from last week.

Thanks for everything and have a great weekend.

April 20, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, The New Yorker, and Pau Gasol

Yesterday I was reading an article about the first female assistance coach in the NBA in the latest issue of the New Yorker. The piece was moderately interesting and not particularly worth sharing here, except for one paragraph, and really just one sentence within it (emphasis mine):

Because of their success, the Spurs have not been eligible for the highest picks in the draft. Instead of relying on college superstars, they have built their team through some crafty trades and by pushing their young players to the limit. They scout top international players—like Parker, from France, and Manu Ginóbili, from Argentina—and sign N.B.A. veterans like Pau Gasol, from Spain, who is thirty-seven but can anchor a defense and move in a way that creates space on the floor; they also, as in the case of Leonard, hone the raw athletic talent of less experienced players. When the Spurs are at their best, the ball moves fluidly and freely. Duncan, who retired in 2016 and was perhaps the least flashy major star in the N.B.A., was emblematic of the team’s unselfish style. On a given night, almost anyone on the roster can be the leading scorer.

The whole thing seems relatively innocuous and is largely accurate: The Spurs success has been driven, at least in part, by incredibly successful drafting (Manu Ginóbili, a key player in their multi-championship run, was picked in the second round and is widely considered one of the best draft picks ever). With that said, though, Pau Gasol is most definitely not a defensive anchor. He’s a pretty good rebounder and he’s a giant, but he’s slow and famous almost entirely for his prowess on the offensive end of the court. In fact, earlier this season his coach, Gregg Popovich, said in a needling way that, “He likes offense better than defense.”1

Now obviously this is one tiny point in a giant article. But it happens to be an article about a subject I’m kind of obsessed with (the NBA) and that’s pretty rare for a magazine that covers a huge diversity of topics.

Which brings me to the title of this post: The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.

Named after famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Amnesia Effect was coined by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton to describe the act of feeling skeptical as you read a magazine or newspaper article about an area in which you have expertise and then completely forgetting that skepticism as you turn the page and read about something you know less about. If they could get it so wrong for one, why don’t we assume they could get it so wrong for all?

Here’s Michael Crichton explaining it:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

The Gasol slip up put me in a funny state with my favorite magazine: What misportrayals, however small, do I take for granted when I read about topics like Catholicism or pharmaceuticals? What bothers me even more is that I feel some guilt even writing this. In this moment of conversations about fake news, questioning a publication that is unquestionably a beacon of extraordinary journalism (and fact checking!) feels like adding fuel to a fire that’s trying to burn down my house.

But reading with skepticism is something we should all do, not because we don’t trust the publication, but because its our responsibility to be media literate and develop our own points of view. The biggest problem I have with the conversation around fake news is that it makes it more difficult to have legitimately critique the media, something we should all be doing more often.

In the meantime I’m going to hope the New Yorker stays away from basketball …

1 Because I can’t go through this without making it clear: The Gasol thing is opinion and not fact and some might argue that the act of being a center makes you a defensive anchor. I spoke to a friend who is a Spurs fanatic and reinforced my raised eyebrow reaction with a “Umm hell no” to the label applied to Gasol.

April 15, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , ,

Remainders: From Isis to Hippos

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 6! Also, you can now subscribe to the blog by email. Sign up here.

Okay, hopefully you know the drill. Remainders is everything I didn’t get a chance to write about this week. It’s chock full of links and other ephemera. Here’s last week’s edition.

As we all know, Zuckerberg testified before Congress this week. The day before the action I wrote up some thoughts on why we should consider treating Facebook (and the like) as information fiduciaries.

Without a doubt the best thing I read this week was Rukmini Callimachi’s New York Times story on Isis. She collected 15,000 pages of Isis paperwork from Iraq and used it to piece together a story of how they ran the country. The gist of the story is that they were effective bureaucrats and that they used that to fund their operation: “Most accounts of how the Islamic State became the richest terrorist group in the world focus on its black-market oil sales, which at one point brought in as much as $2 million per week, according to some estimates. Yet records recovered in Syria by Mr. Tamimi and analyzed by Ms. Revkin show that the ratio of money earned from taxes versus oil stood at 6:1.”

A few Today I Learned moments:

  • There are apparently lots of weird chess variants including Kriegspiel, where you play blind, and Bughouse, where you pass captured pieces to teammates.
  • ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missiles) were originally called IBMs until the company of the same name asked the Pentagon to change it. (Source: Soldiers of Reason)

I still want to write something bigger about this, but check out the mentions of “coal mining” vs “data mining” in books over the last 200 years:

On the cool things to look at tip, this chart of the evolution of the English Alphabet is amazing.

Most of the media hand wringing about how to best deal with the current news environment is useless, but I liked this Guardian piece on delaying your news consumption. This bit in particular is interesting:

Once, it was the media’s job to sift stories of lasting significance from the rest; today, any publication that sat on a story for a week, to see if it had legs, would get screamed at for suppressing the truth. The passage of time is the best filter for determining what matters. But being late is the one thing no social network, or modern news organisation, can afford.

On the marketing front, this chart about the challenges of trying to communicate more than one message at once is something I wish I had in my toolbox when I was at an agency.

Here’s the explanation from BBH’s Tom Roach:

An analysis by Millward Brown of their Link test database[3] provides evidence of something advertising people have always known instinctively: the more messages you try and communicate, the less likelihood there is of any single message being communicated (‘throw people one tennis ball and they’ll catch it, throw them lots and they’ll drop them all’). And remember this is from people who are being forced to watch your ads in pre-testing research: real people in the real world will remember even less.

This was my favorite joke on Twitter this week:

In case you wondered what it’s like to get swallowed by a hippo, the Guardian has you covered.

And Jason Alexander on Marc Maron’s WTF is really good.

Finally, in case you missed them, here are my most recent posts:

  1. Information Fiduciaries
  2. Remainders: From gold mining to data mining
  3. Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years Video Style
  4. The Fermi Paradox
  5. Why Videogames Tend Towards Post-Apocalyptic

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed. Let me know what I missed.

April 13, 2018 // This post is about: