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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What Tide Was Doing at the Super Bowl

Tide’s Super Bowl ads were too good not to spend a few minutes writing about. To help set the table for what’s going on with it, I’m going to crib the intro of a post I wrote in December:

One of my favorite marketing stories to tell is about how when I was working at an agency early in my career we were doing research for one of the big consumer electronics companies. Specifically, we were testing a new commercial another agency had put together. The commercial was “edgy” (it had snowboarders!) and got high marks by all the random consumers who got pulled into a room in the mall to watch it. That is, until they were asked the last question: “What brand was it for?” To which they all replied with the company’s biggest competitor. The moral is simple, after all that time and money, a commercial had effectively been made for another company. (One of the most well-known stories of this is the famous ad with a gorilla tossing around soft-sided luggage which was for … American Tourister.)

In Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow he talks a lot about ownable brand assets. These are the colors, iconography, and, increasingly, aesthetics that consumers associate with a single brand. The examples are endless: Tiffany’s has blue, Hermès orange, and UPS brown. Starbucks has the mermaid, Pepsi’s yin-yang, and McDonald’s golden arches. Coca-Cola has red, Spencerian script, polar bears, and Santa Claus (seriously, click through on that last one, it’s pretty amazing). There’s some evidence that the more unique assets a brand owns, the more valuable it is.

Sharp has made it pretty deep into the marketing world, particularly with consumer packaged goods companies like Procter & Gamble. Lots of them have taken his advice (and consulting hours) and applied it to how they approach building their brands, particularly media buying (MOAR REACH). But what I found especially interesting about the Tide Super Bowl takeover is that they took things one step further, finding a way to apply Sharp’s principles to both the media and creative execution.

The media part is simple: According to Sharp (and lots of research AND COMMON SENSE), big brands need to be bought by lots of people and, for that to happen, they need to reach lots of casual buyers who may or may not be in the market to buy them. For all the talk about the death of TV advertising (which is hugely overstated), the Super Bowl is an incredibly unique media opportunity. Not only is it a gigantic audience, but it’s also the only time and place they’re actually excited to see ads.

On the creative side what Tide did was pretty obvious (they did explain it after all), but definitely not simple to pull off (imagine convincing a client you’re going to spend $16 million worth of airtime doing nothing original). They used the visual language of advertising, especially Super Bowl advertising, and found a way to link it all back to the brand. The value wasn’t really in the ad itself, but that you were watching every other ad looking for the tropes (and clean shirts of course). If the main goal of advertising is to create and own “brand assets”, Tide went above and beyond by reinforcing their own and finding a way to effectively hijack everyone else’s. What’s more, by splitting things up across the game in the way they did, they made it so you could never watch too many commercials without being reminded that they might be a Tide ad.

Outside of Tide, every other commercial felt pretty unremarkable to me (other than the Dodge/MLK thing, of course). That’s partially because it’s very hard to be unexpected when another company has already predicted your behavior, and partially because most of the themes brands are experimenting with around are the same ones they were playing with last year. For all the talk about the speed of change, brands, especially the big ones, are moving slow as they try to find a safe space in our ever-more polarized world. I suspect the transition will continue to take time.

Until then, we’ll almost definitely get more ads like the one from Toyota, which put a Jew, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist in a car together with the tag line “We’re all one team.”

Your strategy’s showing.

February 5, 2018 // This post is about: , , , ,

Best Longform of 2017

It’s been a year since I last updated this site. Appropriately enough, that update was last year’s best articles of the year list. In the interim I’ve written a few things over on Medium, most notably a long piece about the future of marketing. I’ve also been sending out some stuff via a small email list (if you’d like to subscribe, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to add you).

With that said, I’ve been doing plenty of reading and have compiled a pretty extensive list of favorite longform from 2017. To be clear on the format: I’ve broken the list down by a few big themes. My picks are based on my own preferences, meaning it’s not always the best piece of pure writing, but often the things that stayed rattling around in my head the longest. I’ve tried to contextualize things as much as possible (hence the length). This is one of my favorite things to write every year and I hope you enjoy (and let me know what articles I missed).

For those not ready to commit to my 7,000+ words of context, I’ve included all the picks at the bottom in chronological order (obviously I’d prefer you read all the way through).

Finally, in case you somehow get through all 50+ articles linked here and want more to read, here’s my lists from 2005, 2006 (part 1 & part 2), 2011, 2012, 2015, and 2016. Not quite sure what happened in those missing years …


I assume for many of us the year started out the same way: Trying to figure out what happened on November 8, 2016. I read everything I could find to help me wrap my head around Trump and the state of America, I searched for new voices that had insight into what was happening, and I tried to come to my own conclusion about questions like Russia. I kept an Evernote note titled “Trump Theory” where I copied quotes and links to articles that I felt said something genuinely different, interesting, or useful for understanding the moment.

In that search there were a few voices that felt like they separated themselves from the pack: Masha Gessen writing for the New Yorker and the New York Review of books, Maggie Haberman for The New York Times, as well as Adam Gopnik and Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker. Each offered lots of material for that Evernote note in the early days of 2017. Here’s a pick from each from those first three months (except for Haberman, who put together an insane article in December that was too good not to mention):

The question at the front of my mind was why didn’t I (and lots of others) see Trump coming, take him more seriously when I did, and, having missed it, how should I think about him and interpret his actions?

Ta-Nehisi Coates did an admirable job trying to answer those questions in two pieces this year: “We should have seen Trump coming” in the Guardian (September 29, 2017) and “The First White President” in the Atlantic (October, 2017). (A small aside on Coates: If his December Longform interview came out this year, it probably would have been my favorite podcast episode of the year. After listening I went back and read all his Atlantic pieces and his book Between the World and Me, which completely blew me away. Also, just missing the cut from him was his excellent December piece in the Atlantic, “My President was Black”, which was in the January issue, but came out in December of 2016.)

One place lots of people looked for answers was around Russia, trolling, and the overall role of technology in the election and culture. The first of my favorites in this realm came from Jason Tanz at Wired who wrote “In Trump, Tech Finds a Troll it Can’t Ignore” (February 1, 2017) before all the hand-wringing about tech, Trump, and trolls was in full swing. The second was independent, from Dale Beran who wrote “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” (February 14, 2017), which dug deeper into 4chan than anything I read from more mainstream sources. (I also went back and read Adrian Chen’s 2015 New York Times Magazine piece on Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which is definitely worth it.) Finally, just this week I was turned on to Angela Nagle whose book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4Chan And Tumblr To Trump And The Alt-Right came out this year. Nagle wrote a bunch of essays for The Baffler, my favorite of which – “The New Man of 4chan” – came out last year. Two of her 2017 essays that are definitely worth a read are “Goodbye, Pepe” (August 15, 2017) and “A Tragedy of Manners” (September 4, 2017). She’s a voice I’m looking forward to tracking more closely in the coming year.

Then, of course, there were the digs into Trump’s team and associates. My two favorites of this lot were both from the New Yorker: One a profile of Carl Icahn and his on-again-off-again advising of President Trump from Patrick Radden Keefe (August 28, 2017) and the other a long profile of Michael Flynn from Nicholas Schmidle that came out just as Flynn was stepping down (February 27, 2017).

Of everything, though, the pieces that stuck with me the most were the ones that took interesting approaches to answering the same questions I was trying to answer. In this category I’ve got four articles: Rebecca Solnit’s “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” (May 30, 2017), Matt Latimer’s “What if Trump Had Won as a Democrat” (July 8, 2017), Luke Savage’s “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” (June 7, 2017), and Kelefa Saneh’s “Intellectuals for Trump” (January 9, 2017). The Saneh piece particularly stuck with me as it poses the question of how one would outline a Trump doctrine.

In the end my favorite Trump piece is probably “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” from Current Affairs Magazine. Partly because I like the article, and partly because Current Affairs represents a triumph in my search for new voices. At the beginning of the year I was madly searching for commentary on the left that wasn’t Pod Save America and its ilk (I just couldn’t do it after the collective October victory lap). My search yielded a bunch of stuff that was new to me but ultimately didn’t feel quite right for one reason or another. I started listening to Chapo Trap House (interesting, but way too bro-y), I tried Jacobin Magazine (good, but too socialist), and I got a subscription to n+1 (excellent, but too academic for a regular read). I also started reading Current Affairs, a magazine started in 2015 by Nathan Robinson, who was then a PHD student in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard. Of everything new I discovered it felt most right to me: It was left of the left, but not so far left that I couldn’t see how the ideas could be implemented. It was also funny, which helped. I’m not sure the West Wing article is the best piece of writing I found in Current Affairs in 2017 (I’m guessing it’s not), but it felt like it perfectly nailed a feeling about the current state of liberalism, turned the focus from Russia and external influences to the left’s role, and ultimately burrowed an idea in my brain that I couldn’t extract. Here’s one of many bits that stuck:

It’s a smugness born of the view that politics is less a terrain of clashing values and interests than a perpetual pitting of the clever against the ignorant and obtuse. The clever wield facts and reason, while the foolish cling to effortlessly-exposed fictions and the braying prejudices of provincial rubes. In emphasizing intelligence over ideology, what follows is a fetishization of “elevated discourse” regardless of its actual outcomes or conclusions. The greatest political victories involve semantically dismantling an opponent’s argument or exposing its hypocrisy, usually by way of some grand rhetorical gesture. Categories like left and right become less significant, provided that the competing interlocutors are deemed respectably smart and practice the designated etiquette. The Discourse becomes a category of its own, to be protected and nourished by Serious People conversing respectfully while shutting down the stupid with heavy-handed moral sanctimony.

(For the record, I liked the West Wing, a lot. But I also can very much see how it helped to shape an idea about how politics works – or should work – that is far from the reality of what happens in Washington.)

[“How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” – Luke Savage – Current Affairs – June 7, 2017]


Phew, glad we got Trump and politics (mostly) out of the way. I promise not every section of this is going to be that long. I’ve only got four articles in the tech category and none are about fake news, Uber, or Amazon. Before my pick, here are a few of my favorites that didn’t make the final cut:

Tim Harford had an excellent piece that ran in the Financial Times titled “What We Get Wrong About Technology” (July 8, 2017). Harford is one of my favorite writers and thinkers and he was covering one of my favorite subjects: How to understand the future of technology.

Sarah Jeong at The Verge had a fun piece on the techno-literate judge presiding over some of the biggest technology lawsuits in the world (October 19, 2017). (I also read an amazing article from 2016 by Kyle Chayka at The Verge on what he calls “airspace”, the modern aesthetic that is spreading like a virus thanks to Airbnb and the like. I wrote a short take on the airspace trend at the beginning of December: “Santa Claus, Airspace, & The Modern Aesthetic”.)

James Somers told the story of Google’s audacious attempt to digitize and make available all the world’s books in “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria” (April 20, 2017), which includes wonderful little details like this:

The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano.

In the end, though, my favorite article about technology was a profile of Claude Shannon by Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni for Aeon (August 30, 2017). The piece dives into Shannon’s history and the invention of information theory, which still plays an incredibly important role in computing today. The article is well-told, covers a fascinating subject (both the person and his studies), and manages to explain very complex ideas simply (one of my favorite things). Here’s an excerpt:

Shannon’s ‘mathematical theory’ sets out two big ideas. The first is that information is probabilistic. We should begin by grasping that information is a measure of the uncertainty we overcome, Shannon said – which we might also call surprise. What determines this uncertainty is not just the size of the symbol vocabulary, as Nyquist and Hartley thought. It’s also about the odds that any given symbol will be chosen. Take the example of a coin-toss, the simplest thing Shannon could come up with as a ‘source’ of information. A fair coin carries two choices with equal odds; we could say that such a coin, or any ‘device with two stable positions’, stores one binary digit of information. Or, using an abbreviation suggested by one of Shannon’s co-workers, we could say that it stores one bit.

[“The Bit Bomb: It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return” – Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni – Aeon – August 30, 2017]

Artificial Intelligence

I did a fair amount of reading on AI this year, though I don’t know that much of it actually came from 2017. Inspired by Robin Sloan’s experiments with using a character-based recurrent neural network to generate sci-fi text, I spent some time playing with machine learning myself (I generated some pretty realistic sounding McLuhan for what it’s worth). One piece I ran into that stood out is Andrej Karpathy’s 2015 essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Recurrent Neural Networks”, which offers a good place to start on the specifics of recurrent neural networks and how they work.

But it wasn’t an article that made me think the most about AI in 2017, it was a game. Specifically, a game about paperclips.

Frank Lantz’s Universal Paperclip (iOS version) is an amazing exploration of the role of technology as told through a simple clicker game. The game is based on a thought experiment from AI philosopher Nick Bostrom (explanation via The Economist):

Imagine an artificial intelligence, [Bostrom] says, which decides to amass as many paperclips as possible. It devotes all its energy to acquiring paperclips, and to improving itself so that it can get paperclips in new ways, while resisting any attempt to divert it from this goal. Eventually it “starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities”. This apparently silly scenario is intended to make the serious point that AIs need not have human-like motives or psyches. They might be able to avoid some kinds of human error or bias while making other kinds of mistake, such as fixating on paperclips. And although their goals might seem innocuous to start with, they could prove dangerous if AIs were able to design their own successors and thus repeatedly improve themselves. Even a “fettered superintelligence”, running on an isolated computer, might persuade its human handlers to set it free. Advanced AI is not just another technology, Mr Bostrom argues, but poses an existential threat to humanity.

Universal Paperclips goes beyond imagining it and puts you in the drivers seat as the paperclip maximizer. It’s amazing, and interesting, and teaches you a lot about how the world works (one tiny non-spoiler-spoiler: all companies eventually become finance companies). As John Brindle explains in his excellent writeup (December 6, 2017) of the game:

When we play a game like Universal Paperclips, we do become something like its AI protagonist. We make ourselves blind to most of the world so we can focus on one tiny corner of it. We take pleasure in exercising control, marshalling our resources towards maximum efficiency in the pursuit of one single goal. We appropriate whatever we can as fuel for that mission: food, energy, emotional resources, time. And we don’t always notice when our goal drifts away from what we really want.

All of this sounds pretty highfalutin for a game about paperclips, but somehow it makes sense when you play.

[Universal Paperlips (iOS Version) – Frank Lantz – October 9, 2017]


If there were three or four big stories in 2017, one of them was definitely opioids. There were a ton of worthwhile pieces on the subject this year, but two stood out for me: A story about the family behind oxycontin and another about how a community in West Virginia, one of the hardest hit states, is fighting to save the lives of those addicted.

Patrick Radden Keefe’s “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” (October 30, 2017) tells the anger-inducing story of the Sackler family and their knowing exploitation of people’s addiction to their company’s drug, OxyContin. See if this makes you sick:

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Quinones’s investigation is the similarities he finds between the tactics of the unassuming, business-minded Mexican heroin peddlers, the so-called Xalisco boys, and the slick corporate sales force of Purdue. When the Xalisco boys arrived in a new town, they identified their market by seeking out the local methadone clinic. Purdue, using I.M.S. data, similarly targeted populations that were susceptible to its product. Mitchel Denham, the Kentucky lawyer, told me that Purdue pinpointed “communities where there is a lot of poverty and a lack of education and opportunity,” adding, “They were looking at numbers that showed these people have work-related injuries, they go to the doctor more often, they get treatment for pain.” The Xalisco boys offered potential customers free samples of their product. So did Purdue. When it first introduced OxyContin, the company created a program that encouraged doctors to issue coupons for a free initial prescription. By the time Purdue discontinued the program, four years later, thirty-four thousand coupons had been redeemed.

The other shows the depth to which OxyContin, and the opioid addiction it brought with it, has devastated a place like West Virginia. In “The Addicts Next Door” (June 5, 2017), Margaret Talbot lays out the tragic tale of Berkeley County as a view into what’s happening throughout the rest of the state; “West Virginia has an overdose death rate of 41.5 per hundred thousand people. (New Hampshire has the second-highest rate: 34.3 per hundred thousand.) This year, for the sixth straight year, West Virginia’s indigent burial fund, which helps families who can’t afford a funeral pay for one, ran out of money.”

She describes the damage to West Virginia’s children – “One of the biggest collateral effects of the opioid crisis is the growing number of children being raised by people other than their parents, or being placed in foster care. In West Virginia, the number of children removed from parental care because of drug abuse rose from nine hundred and seventy in 2006 to two thousand one hundred and seventy-one in 2016.” – and how some doctors are teaching regular citizens to use Narcan, a drug that can immediately counteract the effects of an overdose: “[Dr.] Aldis taught his first class on administering Narcan on September 3, 2015, at the New Life Clinic. Nine days later, a woman who’d attended the class used Narcan to revive a pregnant woman who had overdosed at a motel where they were both staying. During the next few weeks, Aldis heard of five more lives saved by people who’d attended the class.”

I know there were many other portraits like this throughout the year, but this is the one I found most affecting.

[“The Addicts Next Door” – Margaret Talbot – New Yorker – June 5, 2017]


Podcasts were a new addition to the list last year. Like many of you, I’m sure, I spend much of my commuting and dog-walking time listening to them. Much of my listening is pretty mindless sports stuff (I’m a big fan of tuning out to the NBA banality of Dunc’d on Basketball), but there’s plenty of really amazing writing, reporting, and interviewing in the 20 or so podcasts that I subscribe to and try to listen regularly.

With that said, a few weeks ago I realized that I didn’t have a good list of favorites and sent out a call on Twitter and Facebook asking for recommendations. What came back was amazing and a bunch of episodes that ended up in my own favorites came from those suggestions. Here’s a few picks:

  • Say what you will about Malcolm Gladwell, but the guy knows how to tell a story. Season 2 of his Revisionist History podcast was excellent and included two stand-out episodes for me: “A Good Walk Spoiled” (June 15, 2017) tells the story of how golf courses exploit tax loopholes to create giant private parks and “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” (August 10, 2017) tells the story of why Micky D’s changed the oil they use for their french fries.
  • When I sent my podcast request out, Felix Salmon insisted I listen to Switched on Pop’s episode about Selena Gomez’s Bad Liar (July 14, 2017) which was amazingly (shockingly?) fascinating. There’s a lot more to that song than you ever imagined.
  • Uncivil, a new Civil War podcast from Gimlet, offers the untold stories of race and the War. The show opened with an amazing episode, “The Raid” (October 4, 2017), telling the story of a covert operation you never learned about in your US History class.
  • Last, but not least, was More Perfect’s “The Gun Show” (October 12, 2017), which explains just how recently we came to interpret the Second Amendment in the way we do today. Here’s a little taste from the description: “For nearly 200 years of our nation’s history, the Second Amendment was an all-but-forgotten rule about the importance of militias. But in the 1960s and 70s, a movement emerged — led by Black Panthers and a recently-repositioned NRA — that insisted owning a firearm was the right of each and every American. So began a constitutional debate that only the Supreme Court could solve. That didn’t happen until 2008, when a Washington, D.C. security guard named Dick Heller made a compelling case.”

I know I’m pretty light here. Still making it through a bunch of recommendations. But that last episode, “The Gun Show”, is an angle on the gun debate I had never heard before and definitely stood out to me as the best I heard this year.

[“The Gun Show” – Radiolab Presents More Perfect – October 12, 2017]

Nuclear War

It’s pretty sad that this year requires a special category for the best article about the increased possibility of nuclear annihilation …  but that’s where we’re at. I read two pieces that pretty clearly separated themselves from the competition in this regard. The first was Evan Osnos’s amazing (and very long, even for this list) piece “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” (September 18, 2017). This pretty well sums up the vibe of the story (and situation):

Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.

The second piece, which was my favorite of the bunch, came from Michael Lewis with his Vanity Fair deep dive into the Department of Energy, “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” (September, 2017). The details are astonishing and describe the governmental organization responsible for our nuclear capabilities as in complete disarray. This bit, about why you don’t want people who dreamed of working on nuclear weapons actually working on nuclear weapons, stuck with me the most:

The Trump people didn’t seem to grasp, according to a former D.O.E. employee, how much more than just energy the Department of Energy was about. They weren’t totally oblivious to the nuclear arsenal, but even the nuclear arsenal didn’t provoke in them much curiosity. “They were just looking for dirt, basically,” said one of the people who briefed the Beachhead Team on national-security issues. “ ‘What is the Obama administration not letting you do to keep the country safe?’ ” The briefers were at pains to explain an especially sensitive aspect of national security: the United States no longer tests its nuclear weapons. Instead, it relies on physicists at three of the national labs—Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia—to simulate explosions, using old and decaying nuclear materials.

This is not a trivial exercise, and to do it we rely entirely on scientists who go to work at the national labs because the national labs are exciting places to work. They then wind up getting interested in the weapons program. That is, because maintaining the nuclear arsenal was just a by-product of the world’s biggest science project, which also did things like investigating the origins of the universe. “Our weapons scientists didn’t start out as weapons scientists,” says Madelyn Creedon, who was second-in-command of the nuclear-weapons wing of the D.O.E., and who briefed the incoming administration, briefly. “They didn’t understand that. The one question they asked was ‘Wouldn’t you want the guy who grew up wanting to be a weapons scientist?’ Well, actually, no.”

[“Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” – Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair – September, 2017]

Race, Gender, and Sexuality

(Quick note: I’ve separated this section from #MeToo as best as I can, though obviously there’s a lot of overlaps in the themes.)

In April, Rahawa Haile wrote “Going it Alone” (April 11, 2017), which describes her experience hiking the Appalachian trail during a moment of political chaos as a queer black woman. Here’s an excerpt:

The rule is you don’t talk about politics on the trail. The truth is you can’t talk about diversity in the outdoors without talking about politics, since politics is a big reason why the outdoors look the way they do. From the park system’s inception, Jim Crow laws and Native American removal campaigns limited access to recreation by race. From the mountains to the beaches, outdoor leisure was often accompanied by the words whites only. The repercussions for disobedience were grave.

In May, Ian Parker wrote “What Makes a Parent” (May 22, 2017) for the New Yorker, the story of a custody battle for an adopted son between a lesbian couple. The question at the heart of the case is what is a parent:

New York’s statutes describe the obligations and entitlements of a parent, but they don’t define what a parent is. That definition derives from case law. In 1991, in a ruling in Alison D. v. Virginia M., a case involving an estranged lesbian couple and a child, the Court of Appeals opted for a definition with “bright line” clarity. A parent was either a biological parent or an adoptive parent; there were no other kinds. Lawyers in this field warn of “opening the floodgates”—an uncontrolled flow of dubious, would-be parents. Alison D. kept the gates shut, so that a biological mother wouldn’t find, say, that she had accidentally given away partial custody of her child to a worthless ex-boyfriend. But many saw the decision as discriminatory against same-sex couples, who can choose to raise a child together but can’t share the act of producing one. Judge Judith Kaye, in a dissent that has since been celebrated, noted that millions of American children had been born into families with a gay or lesbian parent; the court’s decision would restrict the ability of these children to “maintain bonds that may be crucial to their development.”

In July, Masha Gessen wrote “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” (July 3, 2017) for the New Yorker. It’s an absolutely heartbreaking story at every moment.

In August, Jay Caspian Kang wrote about the hazing death of Michael Deng at the hands of an Asian-American fraternity in “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” (August 9, 2017). As the title suggests, Kang turns it into something even bigger than the tragic story of another fraternity hazing death:

“Asian-­American” is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-­American, nobody sits down to Asian-­American food with their Asian-­American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-­America. Michael Deng and his fraternity brothers were from Chinese families and grew up in Queens, and they have nothing in common with me — someone who was born in Korea and grew up in Boston and North Carolina. We share stereotypes, mostly — tiger moms, music lessons and the unexamined march toward success, however it’s defined. My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.

In December, Wesley Morris (who wrote one of my favorites from last year, “Last Taboo”) profiled the director of this year’s breakout movie Get Out in “Jordan Peele’s X-Ray Vision” (December 20, 2017). I’m sure there’s a bit of recency bias with this pick, but I finally got around to watching Get Out this month and, despite my assumption it could never live up to all the hype, it was so interesting and weird that it definitely reached the bar. Then I read this article and Morris writes about race as well as anyone out there and Peele made a movie that tackles questions of race as interestingly as any in recent memory and when you put the two of them together you get stuff like this:

Peele had been talking about the restricted ways bigotry is discussed. “We’re never going to fix this problem of racism if the idea is you have to be in a K.K.K. hood to be part of the problem,” he said. The culture still tends to think of American racism as a disease of the Confederacy rather than as a national pastime with particular regional traditions, like barbecue. “Get Out” is set in the Northeast, where the racial attitude veers toward self-congratulatory tolerance. Mr. Armitage, for instance, gets chummy with Chris by telling him he’d have voted for Obama a third time. “Get Out” would have made one kind of sense under a post-Obama Hillary Clinton administration, slapping at the smugness of American liberals still singing: “Ding dong, race is dead.” Peele shows that other, more backhanded forms of racism exist — the presumptuous “can I touch your hair” icebreaker, Mr. Armitage’s “I voted for Obama, so I can’t be racist” sleeper hold are just two. But Clinton lost. Now the movie seems to amplify the racism that emanates from the Trump White House and smolders around the country.

As with all the other categories, each of these are deserving of a choice (and in the end I’m writing about them all because I think they’re all very worth reading), but I think if I had to pick one I’d go with Kang’s piece about a hazing death at an Asian-American fraternity. It tells a familiar story from a different perspective and draws a spectrum in a space we normally see as singular.

[“What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” – Jay Caspian Kang – August 9, 2017 – New York Times Magazine]


Outside of Trump (and depending on whether you include Russia part of the Trump story or not), this was the biggest news of the year. Time named their Person of the Year “The Silence Breakers” (December 18, 2017), the women who came forward throughout 2017 to name their abusers. Here’s how Time editor Edward Felsenthal explained the choice:

The year, at its outset, did not seem to be a particularly auspicious one for women. A man who had bragged on tape about sexual assault took the oath of the highest office in the land, having defeated the first woman of either party to be nominated for that office, as she sat beside a former President with his own troubling history of sexual misconduct. While polls from the 2016 campaign revealed the predictable divisions in American society, large majorities—including women who supported Donald Trump—said Trump had little respect for women. “I remember feeling powerless,” says Fowler, the former Uber engineer who called out the company’s toxic culture, “like even the government wasn’t looking out for us.”

Nor did 2017 appear to be especially promising for journalists, who—alongside the ongoing financial upheaval in the media business—feared a fallout from the President’s cries of “fake news” and verbal attacks on reporters. And yet it was a year of phenomenal reporting. Determined journalists—including Emily Steel and Michael Schmidt, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Ronan Farrow, Brett Anderson, Oliver Darcy, and Irin Carmon and Amy Brittain, among many others—picked up where so many human-resources departments, government committees and district attorneys had clearly failed, proving the truth of rumors that had circulated across whisper networks for years.

While the reporting was clearly amazing (it’s worth reading or re-reading all the articles mentioned by Felsenthal), two essays on the movement, where it came from, and what it means stood out for me. The first, from November by Claire Dederer in the Paris Review, asks “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” (November 20, 2017).

The second, which I just read this week, opened the Winter issue of n+1 magaizine. “In The Maze” (December, 2018) by Dayna Tortorici covers #MeToo, but also finds a string that goes back before 2017’s women came forward, to a general shift that has left some white men to feel like victims. She makes a compelling case that #MeToo is part of a much broader change happening in the United States and was a big component of the resentment that fueled Trump’s rise over the last few years. It ties together the themes of 2017 as well as anything I read this year:

Must history have losers? The record suggests yes. Redistribution is a tricky business. Even simple metaphors for making the world more equitable — leveling a playing field, shifting the balance — can correspond to complex or labor-intensive processes. What freedoms might one have to surrender in order for others to be free? And how to figure it when those freedoms are not symmetrical? A little more power for you might mean a lot less power for me in practice, an exchange that will not feel fair in the short term even if it is in the long term. There is a reason, presumably, that we call it an ethical calculus and not an ethical algebra.

Some things are zero sum — perhaps more things than one cares to admit. To say that feminism is good for boys, that diversity makes a stronger team, or that collective liberation promises a greater, deeper freedom than the individual freedoms we know is comforting and true enough. But just as true, and significantly less consoling, is the guarantee that some will find the world less comfortable in the process of making it habitable for others. It would be easier to give up some privileges if it weren’t so traumatic to lose, as it is in our ruthlessly competitive and frequently undemocratic country. Changing the rules of the game might begin with revising what it means to win. I once heard a story about a friend who’d said, offhand at a book group, that he’d throw women under the bus if it meant achieving social democracy in the United States. The story was meant to be chilling — this from a friend? — but it made me laugh. As if you could do it without us, I thought, we who do all the work on the group project. I wondered what his idea of social democracy was.

[“In The Maze” – Dayna Tortorici – n+1 – December, 2017]

The Rest

What’s left defies categorization or fell into a category of one. There’s an article about the Pope from October – “The War Against Pope Francis” (October 27, 2017) – and two from the world of sports: The terrible story of a Brazilian football team whose plane crashed – “Eternal Champions” (June 8, 2017) – and Dion Waiter’s delightful open letter to the rest of the NBA titled, appropriately, “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles” (April 25, 2017).

There was an excellent profile of the author, journalist, and writing teacher John McPhee from The New York Times Magazine – “The Mind of John McPhee” (September 28, 2017) – which got me obsessed with McPhee and his process and led me to read his new book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process. There was also Longread’s excerpt from the book The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road titled “A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick” (June, 2017), which is the only article on this whole list that will leave you with a cheatsheet for trucker slang:

There’s a strict hierarchy of drivers, depending on what they haul and how they’re paid. The most common are the freighthaulers. They’re the guys who pull box trailers with any kind of commodity inside. We movers are called bedbuggers, and our trucks are called roach coaches. Other specialties are the car haulers (parking lot attendants), flatbedders (skateboarders), animal transporters (chicken chokers), refrigerated food haulers (reefers), chemical haulers (thermos bottle holders), and hazmat haulers (suicide jockeys). Bedbuggers are shunned by other truckers. We will generally not be included in conversations around the truckstop coffee counter or in the driver’s lounge. In fact, I pointedly avoid coffee counters, when there is one, mainly because I don’t have time to waste, but also because I don’t buy into the trucker myth that most drivers espouse. I don’t wear a cowboy hat, Tony Lama snakeskin boots, or a belt buckle doing free advertising for Peterbilt or Harley-Davidson. My driving uniform is a three-button company polo shirt, lightweight black cotton pants, black sneakers, black socks, and a cloth belt. My moving uniform is a black cotton jumpsuit.

There were two very different pieces from the Guardian. The first, “‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” (March 17, 2017), laid out in amazing detail what will happen when Queen Elizabeth dies. The second, “Why we fell for clean eating” (August 11, 2017), goes deep into the weeds of the clean eating craze and just how crazy much of it is. It also includes what may be the most transferable sentence of 2017: “But it quickly became clear that ‘clean eating’ was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure.” Replace the words “clean eating” and “diet” and you have a pretty good descriptor for everything that seems to be happening around us right now.

But in the end, my very favorite of this category came from the article very hardest to categorize: Kathryn Schulz’s “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” (November 6, 2017). I’m still not sure I can do this justice, but the basic premise is that our ability to rank the “realness” of imaginary beings like Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, or ghosts, is a critical part of our humanity. I love this article partly because I can’t imagine pitching it to a New Yorker editor, partly because it was a nice break from the onslaught of 2017, and partly because it was just super interesting.

Patterns of evidence, a grasp of biology, theories of physics: as it turns out, we need all of these to account for our intuitions about supernatural beings, just as we need all of them to explain any other complex cultural phenomenon, from a tennis match to a bar fight to a bluegrass band. That might seem like a lot of intellectual firepower for parsing the distinctions between fairies and mermaids, but the ability to think about nonexistent things isn’t just handy for playing parlor games on Halloween. It is utterly fundamental to who we are. Studying that ability helps us learn about ourselves; exercising it helps us learn about the world. A three-year-old talking about an imaginary friend can illuminate the workings of the human mind. A thirty-year-old conducting a thought experiment about twins, one of whom is launched into space at birth and one of whom remains behind, can illuminate the workings of the universe. As for those of us who are no longer toddlers and will never be Einstein: we use our ability to think about things that aren’t real all the time, in ways both everyday and momentous. It is what we are doing when we watch movies, write novels, weigh two different job offers, consider whether to have children.

Since there’s a lot here, I’ve got two choices:

[“Why we fell for clean eating” – Bee Wilson – The Guardian – August 11, 2017]

[“Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” – Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – November 6, 2017]

That’s it. Here’s my ten favorites in chronological order (you might sense a bit of recency bias here, which I’m not sure how to fix):

And here are all 47 favorites from 2017 in chronological order:

  1. “Intellectuals for Trump” – Kalefa Sanneh – New Yorker – January 9, 2017
  2. “In Trump, Tech Finds a Troll it Can’t Ignore” – Jason Tanz – Wired – February 1, 2017
  3. “Trump’s Radical Anti-Americanism” – Adam Gopnik – New Yorker – February 13, 2017
  4. “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump” – Dale Beran – Medium – February 14, 2017
  5. Michael Flynn, General Chaos – Nicholas Schmidle – New Yorker – February 27, 2017
  6. “The Bind of Historically Black Schools in the Age of Trump” – Jelani Cobb – New Yorker – March 4, 2017
  7. “Russia: The Conspiracy Trap” – Masha Gessen – March 6, 2017 – New York Review of Books
  8. “‘London Bridge is down’: the secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death” – Sam Knight – The Guardian – March 17, 2017
  9. “Going it Alone” – Rahawa Haile – Outside – April 11, 2017
  10. “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria” – James Somers – The Atlantic – April 20, 2017
  11. “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles” – Dion Waiters – The Player’s Tribune – April 25, 2017
  12. “What Makes a Parent” – Ian Parker – New Yorker – May 22, 2017
  13. “The Loneliness of Donald Trump” – Rebecca Sonit – Literary Hub – May 30, 2017
  14. “A High-End Mover Dishes on Truckstop Hierarchy, Rich People, and Moby Dick” – Finn Murphy – Longreads – June, 2017
  15. “The Addicts Next Door” – Margaret Talbot – New Yorker – June 5, 2017
  16. “How Liberals Fell in Love with the West Wing” – Luke Savage – Current Affairs – June 7, 2017
  17. “Eternal Champions” – Sam Borden – ESPN FC – June 8, 2017
  18. “A Good Walk Spoiled” – Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History – June 15, 2017
  19. “The Gay Men Who Fled Chechnya’s Purge” – Masha Gessen – New Yorker – July 3, 2017
  20. “What if Trump Had Won as a Democrat” – Matt Latimer – Politico – July 8, 2017
  21. “What We Get Wrong About Technology” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – July 8, 2017
  22. Selena Gomez: Bad Liar, Psycho Songwriter – Switched on Pop – July 14, 2017
  23. “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” – Jay Caspian Kang – New York Times Magazine – August 9, 2017
  24. “McDonald’s Broke My Heart” – Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History – August 10, 2017
  25. “Why we fell for clean eating” – Bee Wilson – The Guardian – August 11, 2017
  26. “Goodbye, Pepe” – Angela Nagle – The Baffler – August 15, 2017
  27. Carl Icahn’s Failed Raid on Washington – Patrick Radden Keefe – August 28, 2017
  28. “The Bit Bomb: It took a polymath to pin down the true nature of ‘information’. His answer was both a revelation and a return” – Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni – Aeon – August 30, 2017
  29. “Why the Scariest Nuclear Threat May Be Coming from Inside the White House” – Michael Lewis – Vanity Fair – September, 2017
  30. “A Tragedy of Manners” – Angela Nagle – The Baffler – September 4, 2017
  31. “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – September 18, 2017
  32. “The Mind of John McPhee” – Sam Anderson – New York Times Magazine – September 28, 2017
  33. “We should have seen Trump coming” Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Guardian – September 29, 2017
  34. “The First White President” – Ta-Nehisi Coates – Atlantic – October, 2017
  35. “The Raid” – Uncivil – October 4, 2017
  36. Universal Paperclip (iOS Version) – Frank Lantz – October 9, 2017
  37. “The Gun Show” – Radiolab Presents More Perfect – October 12, 2017
  38. The Judge’s Code – Sarah Jeong – October 19, 2017
  39. “The War Against Pope Francis” – Andrew Brown – The Guardian – October 27, 2017
  40. “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” – Patrick Radden Keefe – New Yorker – October 30, 2017
  41. “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank them” Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – November 6, 2017
  42. “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” – Claire Dederer – The Paris Review – November 20, 2017
  43. “In The Maze” – Dayna Tortorici – n+1 – December, 2018
  44. This Game About Paperclips Says A Lot About Human Desire – John Brindle – Waypoint – December 6, 2017
  45. “Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation” – Maggie Haberman – New York Times – December 9, 2017
  46. “The Silence Breakers” – Stephanie Zacharek, Eliana Dockterman, and Haley Sweetland Edwards – Time – December 18, 2017
  47. “Jordan Peele’s X-Ray Vision” – Wesley Morris – New York Times Magazine – December 20, 2017

January 1, 2018

Best Articles of 2016

This hasn’t been my best year for blogging. My last post was June and, before that, January. Such is the life of an entrepreneur and new dad. However, while I haven’t found time to do the sort of writing I used to, I am happy to say I did a fair amount of reading this year and couldn’t let the holidays pass without sharing some of my favorite longform.

If you haven’t read one of these lists before (2011, 2012, and 2015), the basic gist is it’s a list of the stuff I read this year that I liked the most. Much of it is longform journalism written in 2016, though, as the internet is wont to do, there’s lots of older writing, podcasts, and who knows what else in the mix. (If you’re so inclined, I also have a Twitter account that just tweets out the articles I favorite in Instapaper.)

Without any further ado … (and in no specific order) … the list (lots more commentary below):

On the cost of war

A few years ago I got the chance to spend some time with CJ Chivers, the New York Times war correspondent. His book, The Gun, had just come out and Colin, Benjamin, and I were helping to get him set up on social media. We spent the day hanging out, discussing journalism, signing up for accounts, and talking about how extraordinary war photographers are. Since then CJ has returned home and given up his role as an on-the-ground war reporter (a great longread from 2015) and his latest feature is actually in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. The Fighter is a profile of former Marine Sam Siatta and his post-war struggles. What makes Chivers such an amazing person to cover war, beyond his ability to write and willingness to dig indefinitely for a story (he became the preeminent expert on ammunition serial numbers) is his profound respect for the military and the men and women who serve. Chivers served in the Marines in the 80s and 90s and brings that to every story he writes, but its intensified in a story about a person he clearly believes could have been nearly any Marine.

[The Fighter – C.J. Chivers – New York Times Magazine – December 28, 2016]

On artificial intelligence

The article that probably blew my mind the most was actually written in January 2015. I had heard about Wait But Why’s twopart primer on AI, but hadn’t gotten around to reading the 25,000 word tome quite yet. Once I did, I was not disappointed. I went from knowing basically nothing about artificial intelligence to being unable to carry a conversation without bringing it up. Tim Urban, the author of Wait But Why, read every book and article on the topic and ties it all together concisely (seriously) and with some excellent stick figure drawings. Warning: It’s heavy, like human extinction heavy. A snippet:

And while most scientists I’ve come across acknowledge that ASI [artificial superintelligence] would have the ability to send humans to extinction, many also believe that used beneficially, ASI’s abilities could be used to bring individual humans, and the species as a whole, to a second attractor state—species immortality. Bostrom believes species immortality is just as much of an attractor state as species extinction, i.e. if we manage to get there, we’ll be impervious to extinction forever—we’ll have conquered mortality and conquered chance. So even though all species so far have fallen off the balance beam and landed on extinction, Bostrom believes there are two sides to the beam and it’s just that nothing on Earth has been intelligent enough yet to figure out how to fall off on the other side.

Both James and I liked the article so much that we asked Tim to lead off our Transition conference this year. (If you like the AI article, I’d also highly recommend his article on the Fermi Paradox and just about anything else.)

[The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence Part 1 & Part 2 – Tim Urban – Wait But Why – January 22, 2015]

On immigration

In a year of lots of bombast about immigrants (especially ones with the last name Khan), this incredibly well-researched profile of Zarif Khan, an Afghani who immigrated to Wyoming in the early 1900s, was an intimate profile of the immigrant story of America. The conclusion has to be one of my favorites from the year:

Over and over, we forget what being American means. The radical premise of our nation is that one people can be made from many, yet in each new generation we find reasons to limit who those ‘many’ can be—to wall off access to America, literally or figuratively. That impulse usually finds its roots in claims about who we used to be, but nativist nostalgia is a fantasy. We have always been a pluralist nation, with a past far richer and stranger than we choose to recall. Back when the streets of Sheridan were still dirt and Zarif Khan was still young, the Muslim who made his living selling Mexican food in the Wild West would put up a tamale for stakes and race local cowboys barefoot down Main Street. History does not record who won.

[Citizen Khan – Kathryn Schulz – New Yorker – June 6, 2016]

On politics

Like everyone else, I read a lot about politics this year. Most of it I would never care to subject anyone to again, but along the way there some pieces that stood out. To me, this New Yorker profile of Logan County, West Virginia was the best telling of America’s divide. It’s a story we all know at this point, but part of what makes this article work so well is it’s more than just about Donald Trump or income inequality or the rural/urban divide, it’s really the profile of a state and it’s unique culture.

Rounding out politics articles: The Case Against Democracy (New Yorker) provides context for why our system works the way it does and asks whether it could work better. This Election Was About the Issues (Slate) argues against the refrain that the election was about everything but the issues, suggesting that it was about the issues Americans actually care about:

I’m talking about issues that involve the fundamental arrangements of American life, issues of race and class and gender and sexual violence. These are the things we’ve argued about in the past year and change, sometimes coarsely, sometimes tediously, but very often illuminatingly. This has been, by all but the most fatuous measures, an issue-rich campaign.

Ezra Klein’s amazing profile of Hillary Clinton, Understanding Hillary (Vox), argued that the things that make her a great governor are the same things that make her a bad politician and gave me hope.

It turned out that Clinton, in her travels, stuffed notes from her conversations and her reading into suitcases, and every few months she dumped the stray paper on the floor of her Senate office and picked through it with her staff. The card tables were for categorization: scraps of paper related to the environment went here, crumpled clippings related to military families there. These notes, Rubiner recalls, really did lead to legislation. Clinton took seriously the things she was told, the things she read, the things she saw. She made her team follow up.

And, of course, the “Goodbye Obama” pieces: David Remnick’s Obama Reckons with a Trump Presidency (New Yorker) and Barack Obama and Doris Kearns Goodwin: The Ultimate Exit Interview (Vanity Fair).

[In the Heart of Trump Country – Larissa MacFarquhar – New Yorker – October 10, 2016]

On income inequality

In that David Remnick profile of Obama I just mentioned is probably the best single quote I read this year about income inequality, one of the defining issues of 2016:

“The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work,” he went on. “If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas. All of those things accelerate growth, give you more of a runway. But at some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.”

With that said, my pick comes from economist Branko Milanovic, who wrote an article for Harvard Business Review titled Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization. Though the data has been questioned the conclusion of the article hasn’t: Globalization has spread wealth around the world in some incredible ways … and it has happened, at least to some extent, at the expense of the Western middle class.

[Why the Global 1% and the Asian Middle Class Have Gained the Most from Globalization – Branko Milanovic – Harvard Business Review – May 13, 2016]

On the rest of the world (and podcasts)

It just so happens that my two favorite podcast episodes this year were on foreign affairs. The first comes from the always amazing This American Life who spent time in refugee camps in Greece speaking to people about their lives. As always, This American Life gives the most accurate macro view by focusing on the micro. The second comes from a show I’d never heard of before on China called Sinica. In the episode they talk to Arthur Kroeber, author of China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know, who basically argues that China is actually following America’s growth playbook (called the American System), which included lots of state-led development, high tariffs, and even tons of intellectual property theft (from Europe at that time). Basically he argues we should stop being so surprised by what’s happening there.

Beyond those two, I listened to a lot of Marc Maron’s WTF (always skip the first 10 minutes) and really enjoyed his interview with Louis Anderson, who I didn’t realize was a serious standup. (Part of why I really enjoy WTF is that it’s effectively a show about the creative process. When he goes deep with someone on how they do their craft I find it endless fascinating. While the Louis episode isn’t exactly that, it’s also just loads of fun to listen to anyone serious about anything talk to someone they so clearly respect.) Gladwell’s Revisionist History was pretty good (though sometimes a bit preachy). His episode on Generous Orthodoxy was just a very well told story (and when you’re done, go read the letter the show was based on).

[Are We There Yet? – This American Life – July 29, 2016] [Arthur Kroeber vs. The Conventional Wisdom – Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn – Sinica – June, 2016]

On parenting

As you may or may not know, I became a parent in 2015. Since my daughter was born I’ve been keeping a collection of parenting articles that don’t suck (a surprisingly hard thing to find actually). My favorite of 2016 was probably Tom Vanderbilt’s piece on learning chess with his daughter. It’s both a well-told story and some really good lessons on the differences in learning between adults and children. A snippet:

Here was my opening. I would counter her fluidity with my storehouses of crystallized intelligence. I was probably never going to be as speedily instinctual as she was. But I could, I thought, go deeper. I could get strategic. I began to watch Daniel King’s analysis of top-level matches on YouTube. She would sometimes wander in and try to follow along, but I noticed she would quickly get bored or lost (and, admittedly, I sometimes did as well) as he explained how some obscure variation had “put more tension in the position” or “contributed to an imbalance on the queen-side.” And I could simply put in more effort. My daughter was no more a young chess prodigy than I was a middle-aged one; if there was any inherited genius here, after all, it was partially inherited from me. Sheer effort would tilt the scales.


[Learning Chess at 40 – Tom Vanderbilt – Nautilus – May 5, 2016]

On mental models

While not a longread in quite the way the others are, the piece that has probably dug its way deepest into my brain is this list of mental models from Gabriel Weinberg, Founder & CEO of the search engine DuckDuckGo. He was inspired to write his mental models down because of something Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s business partner, said about them: “80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly‑wise person.” I’ve been pretty obsessed with this idea myself because I think we (as in people who talk about business) often over-emphasize case studies and specific stories, while under-emphasizing the model that can help someone make a decision that can lead to a similar outcome. I’ve been keeping my own list of models since I read this and might share them some time down the road.

[Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful – Gabriel Weinberg – Medium – July 5, 2016]

On genitals

What might be the best essay of the year comes from New York Times culture critic Wesley Morris and explores what he calls “the last taboo”: Black penises in popular culture. Part of what makes for great cultural criticism is exposing you to something that you hadn’t noticed before but can’t ever not notice again, and Morris does just that. Race was obviously a big issue in 2016 and the article explores just one of the many ways racism roots in popular culture and perpetuates itself.

[Last Taboo – Wesley Morris – New York Times Magazine – October 27, 2016]

On sports

Most of the year-end lists I looked at included ESPN’s Tiger Woods profile as their top sports story of the year and it’s pretty hard to deny it. It’s engaging and breaks one of the crazier stories of the year: That Tiger Woods undoing may have been, at least in part, a result of his obsession with the Navy SEALs.

While the Tiger story is the flashiest and probably my favorite, looking back at my list of favorites there are actually a nice collection from a wide variety of sports. Nick Paumgarten’s delightful profile of 14-year-old climbing sensation Ashima Shiraishi made me want to get my 1.5-year-old into the climbing gym. The New York Times profile of Yannis Pitsiladis, a scientist trying to break the puzzle of the two hour marathon, was probably the sports story I talked about the most. Though not strictly a sports story, Deadspin’s profile of the meteoric rise and fall of sportswriter Jennifer Frey was gripping and sad. Finally, though most definitely not from this year, I went back and read John McPhee’s 1965 profile of Princeton basketball sensation Bill Bradley.

[The Secret History of Tiger Woods – Wright Thompson – ESPN – April 21, 2016]

On crime(ish)

Luckily for everyone that writes true crime, David Grann is working on a book, which means he didn’t submit any competition this year. Easily my favorite this year was California Sunday’s article about “Somerton Man”, a nearly seventy year old mystery about a man who washed up dead on the beach in Australia with nothing to identify him but a bit of a poem. Unfortunately this was from last year and I just didn’t find it until January, so I’ll reserve the spot for something actually written in 2016. Also missing out by a year (though I just discovered it) was this excellent story from the New Yorker about what actually happens when pirates take your ship.

That then leaves two crime(ish) articles to chose from: The excellent Guardian piece about the poisoning of Russian enemy of the state Alexander Litvinenko and New Republic’s piece on a mystery man discovered in Georgia. Considering the role of Russia on the world stage in 2016 and the level of reporting in the piece, I’ve got to give the nod to the Guardian on this one.

[Alexander Litvinenko: the man who solved his own murder – Luke Harding – The Guardian – January 19, 2016]

On the way we experience the world

One way I judge writing is to see how it lodges itself in my brain. I know something was particularly good when I find myself thinking and talking about it for weeks and months afterwords. Sometimes the best writing doesn’t hit you right away, it takes some time to percolate. This Aeon piece on how our brains process information happens to be one of those. It argues that our theory that the brain operates like a computer has led us down a path of research that has set back our understanding of the brain. We’ve got a long history of understanding our brains through the lens of the latest tech it turns out:

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.

Speaking of brains, Blake Ross’s very personal essay of how he came to realize he has aphantasia, or no mind’s eye, is an exercise in trying to imagine the unimaginable (for most of us). Ross doesn’t picture things when he thinks about them and didn’t realize the rest of the world did until quite recently.

[The empty brain – Robert Epstein – Aeon – May 18, 2016]

The rest

I’ve got a few favorites left open in tabs that I figure I’ll chose one from. These didn’t quite fit into the previous categories and I’ll try to get through them quickly(ish).

The white flight of Derek Black is the amazing story of the son of a prominent white nationalist who found his views melting away as he exposed himself to the outside world of diversity.

State of the Species is Charles C. Mann’s 2013 essay on human plasticity and the possibility it holds to help us solve the world’s problems. (Charles gave a version of the essay in presentation form at Transition this year.)

Politico’s We’re the Only Plane in the Sky is an oral history of September 11th on Air Force One.

Finally, to end with a bit of inspiration, this Chuck Close profile from the Times Magazine included this amazing bit:

Three weeks earlier, Simon had released a new album, “Stranger to Stranger,” with its cover taken from a portrait that Close painted of the musician a few years back. Then, the day before I saw Close, Simon announced that the album would be his last. “I called him up, and I said, ‘Artists don’t retire,’ ” Close told me. “I think I talked him out of it. I said: ‘Don’t deny yourself this late stage, because the late stage can be very interesting. You know everybody hated late de Kooning, but it turned out to be great stuff. Late Picasso, nobody liked it, and it turned out to be great.’ ” Close reminded Simon that Matisse was unable to continue painting late in life. “Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was,” Close said. “Paul said, ‘I don’t have any ideas.’ I said: ‘Well, of course you don’t have any ideas. Sitting around waiting for an idea is the worst thing you can do. All ideas come out of the work itself.’ ”
He pointed out that Simon is 74, the same age he was early last summer. “I told him, ‘When you get to be my age, you’ll see,’ ” he said with a laugh.

[The white flight of Derek Black – Eli Saslow – The Washington Post – October 15, 2016]

January 1, 2017 // This post is about: , ,

Making a Place “Great Again”

As everyone now knows the UK voted to leave the European Union today. I happen to be in London this week and so have been paying close attention to the vote and having many conversations with family, friends, and colleagues about how it came to this and what it means for the future. I’m no economist or pundit, so I’ll leave those takes to the professionals, but I wanted to take a minute to share a few thoughts on the obvious parallels between what’s happening here in the UK and with Trump in the US.

The two most enlightening things I’ve read about Trump happen to come from FiveThirtyEight. The first, published at the end of April, spells out the difference between what we think of as “normal America” and what the reality actually is:

We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America. But the large metros that today come closest to looking like 1950 America are Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Ogden and Provo, in Utah; and several in the Midwest and South.

Normal America, the article explains, is actually best represented (by similarity to American population across “age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity”) in cities like New Haven, Connecticut or Tampa, Florida. That means when people say that politicians or elites are out of touch with normal America, it may be true, but that’s not because normal America is still small-town America. We are a more diverse, older, and more educated country than we were 50 years ago.

The second bit, also from FiveThirtyEight, is about why Hispanics and other minority groups are more optimistic about America than average Americans:

But for many non-whites, the pattern [not very concerned about the present, pessimistic about the future] is the opposite: They are concerned about the present but optimistic about the future. In the Pew poll, Hispanics were sober about their immediate financial circumstances — 40 percent said their finances were in good shape, compared with 43 percent for the public at large — but they see brighter days ahead. More than 70 percent expect their children to be better off than they are. Previous polls have found similar results for other minority groups: According to 2014 data from the General Social Survey, three-quarters of blacks and Hispanics expect their children to enjoy a higher standard of living than they do, compared to just half of whites. A poll commissioned by The Atlantic last fall found that blacks, Hispanics and Asians were far more likely than whites to report that “the American Dream is alive and well.”

Put those things together and what you get is clear: “Make America Great Again” actually means make America look more like it did in 1960. The problem, of course, is that America was a pretty bad place for a lot of Americans at that point (women, minorities, and LGBT to name a few). But most people don’t remember that, because nostalgia is broken and doesn’t work that way. From a 2013 New York Times article on nostalgia:

Happy memories also need to be put in context. I have interviewed many white people who have fond memories of their lives in the 1950s and early 1960s. The ones who never cross-examined those memories to get at the complexities were the ones most hostile to the civil rights and the women’s movements, which they saw as destroying the harmonious world they remembered.

But others could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others. Some white people recognized that their happy memories of childhood included a black housekeeper who was always available to them because she couldn’t be available to her children.

Put it all together and you have a confluence of circumstances that tells a pretty good story for how both the US and the UK have gotten to now and what it really means to make a country great again. Of course, like others, I don’t have answers of how to combat this, but understanding what we’re up against is the first step.

June 24, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Climbing Rocks

Really enjoyed this New Yorker profile of 14-year-old climbing extraordinaire Ashima Shiraishi.

On what makes great climbers (and specifically Ashima so amazing):

In terms of pure talent—climbers speak of “strength”—she is near the top, but she is not too keen on taking risks. Anyway, her parents won’t allow it. She has small, powerful fingers, a light but sinewy frame, and a seemingly effortless yet peerlessly precise technique. All this enables her to find holds in nearly imperceptible chinks in the rock. A rock climber’s key attribute is a high strength-to-weight ratio, but the ability to create leverage, with subtle geometric variations in body positioning, is the force multiplier. A civilian might think crudely of climbing as something like ascending a ladder—all reach and pull—but watching Ashima adjust the attitude of her hips, shoulders, or heels as she tries to move from one improbable hold to another gives the impression that the human body can arrange itself in an infinite number of forms, each of slightly different utility.

On how you rate different climbing routes:

Another standard is the rating regimen. Sport and trad climbs are given a degree of difficulty, according to the Yosemite Decimal System: 1 is a walk on flat land, and 5 is a vertical climb, or close to it. So actual climbs are rated 5.0 through 5.15, with additional subcategories of “a” through “d.” The hardest routes at the moment are 5.15c—there are just two. (The system is open-ended, so it’s only a matter of time before someone pioneers a 5.16a.) In northeast Spain, last March, when Ashima was thirteen, she became the first woman, and the youngest person of either sex, ever to “send” (complete) a 5.15. It is a route called Open Your Mind Direct, which was recently upgraded from a 5.14d to a 5.15a, owing to a handhold’s having broken off. She spent just four days “projecting” the route—that is, studying and solving all the problems on it by trial and error. The men who had done it before had spent weeks, if not months. Obviously, the rating system is also subjective, but for Ashima this feat was an annunciation. If she could send a 5.15 during spring break from eighth grade, what more could she do?

Related, I read this piece a few weeks ago on the history of indoor climbing and how bouldering problems get designed:

If you think about a climb as a sentence and each move as a word, the holds are individual letters. The most commonly used holds provide a horizontal edge that you can hang from. When the hold is extremely positive, which means it has a large lip or is otherwise easy to grab, climbers call it a jug. A crimp, by contrast, has an edge that’s so thin, you can fit only your fingertips on it. When that edge is oriented vertically and off to the side, it serves as a side pull. Closer in it’s a Gaston, which the climber pulls on with elbow bent, as if prying the lid off a coffee can. If the edge points toward the ground, then it’s an undercling, and the climber must pull up and out to stay on the wall.

January 13, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

Normalization of Deviance & The Growing Organization

A really interesting concept from this blog post on the recent very-avoidable crash of a private jet:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behavior that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety. People grow more accustomed to the deviant behavior the more it occurs. To people outside of the organization, the activities seem deviant; however, people within the organization do not recognize the deviance because it is seen as a normal occurrence. In hindsight, people within the organization realize that their seemingly normal behavior was deviant.

This is a pretty good explanation for what happens inside organizations. At the small and relatively harmless end, you have the slow growth of meetings that happens in every organization (hence Percolate’s meeting rules) and in the large and dangerous end you have something like Enron or VW. The phenomena is essentially about feedback loops: The deviant behavior slowly slips in and over time becomes more and more acceptable, meaning that the intensity can also increase. In the case of meetings what starts as a one-off meeting to discuss something, becomes a weekly meeting for 15 minutes, eventually with more people involved, and eventually you have 15 people spending an hour together without any real sense for what they’re talking about or why.

This is a pretty good picture of what makes it so tough to scale organizations: It’s hardly ever the big stuff you’re watching out for, it’s almost always the small stuff that is built up over time. (As an aside, although I’m not crazy about him, this is also why Clayton Christensen’s boiling frog analogy is such a good one. It’s a perfect way to understand that it’s the slow rolling boil that kills you, not the big explosion.)

January 11, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Transparency and The Executive Review

Aaron Dignan had a nice little 2016 post titled “New Years Resolutions for the Organization”. In it he outlines 5 resolutions organizations could/should take advantage of. I was particularly interested in number 3: Ditch Executive Reviews.

Ditch executive reviews. We have noticed a disturbing trend lately — one where employees view a meeting with senior management AS AN ACTUAL MILESTONE for their project. Not a technical breakthrough. Not an initial shipment. Not a new retail partner. A meeting. A meeting where someone who has less visibility than they do (but hopefully more experience) can influence the fate of their most important project. This signals two problems: first, that the organization still believes in command-and-control decision making, and second, that employees have become so immersed in it they’ve assimilated it as reality. Instead of perpetuating this phenomenon, try asking your teams to work transparently, using tools like Trello and Slack, and share their learnings and metrics regularly (weekly?) in a public place — not just for management, but for everyone. You’ll be amazed what happens next. Not chaos, but true social accountability and a lot more progress. Your job as a leader is no longer about deciding… it’s about making (and protecting) the space for healthy self-organization.

This was particularly interesting to me for two reasons: One, I’m an executive and would love to be able to get away from these and two, the relationship between platforms like Percolate, Slack, Asana, etc. and the ability to make this happen. What I mean by the latter is that the transparency created by workflow tools and platforms allows for a more streamlined way of working. Because I can monitor the entire progress of a project (at Percolate we use Percolate to manage the product development process as well), ideally we can skip the big presentation (and more important the reveal) at the end. Instead, both managers and team members can contribute throughout the life of the project. What’s more, if they don’t contribute that is on them, not on the person who didn’t present the final plan. Obviously there are challenges with keeping up with every moving piece, but that’s kind of the point — keeping up with every moving piece is a fool’s game and the only way to be successful within the organization is to distribute decision-making and trust teams to work independently.

January 8, 2016 // This post is about: , , , ,

Subway Uncertainty vs Coconut Uncertainty

From the MITSloan Management Review article on “Why Forecasts Fail” (2010) comes this nice little explanation of the different kinds of uncertainty you can face in forecasts (and elsewhere). There is subway uncertainty, which assumes a relatively narrow window of uncertainty. It’s called subway uncertainty because even on the worst day, your subway voyage almost definitely won’t take you more than say 30 minutes more than your plan (even if you are trying to navigate rush hour L trains). On the other end, there’s coconut uncertainty, which is a way to account for relatively common uncommon experiences (if that makes any sense). Here’s how the article explains the difference:

In technical terms, coconut uncertainty can’t be modeled statistically using, say, the normal distribution. That’s because there are more rare and unexpected events than, well, you’d expect. In addition, there’s no regularity in the occurrence of coconuts that can be modeled. And we’re not just talking about Taleb’s “black swans” — truly bizarre events that we couldn’t have imagined. There are also bubbles, recessions and financial crises, which may not occur often but do repeat at infrequent and irregular intervals. Coconuts, in our view, are less rare than you’d think. They don’t need to be big and hairy and come from space. They can also be small and prickly and occur without warning. Coconuts can even be positive: an inheritance from a long-lost relative, a lottery win or a yachting invitation from a rich client.

Knowing which one you’re working with and accounting for both is ultimately how you build a good forecast.

Also from the article is a great story into some research around the efficacy of simple versus complex models. A research in the 1970s collected a whole bunch of forecasts and compared how close they were to reality assuming that the more complex the model was, the more accurate it would be. The results, in the end, showed exactly the opposite, it’s the simpler models that outperformed. Here’s the statisticians attempt to explain the findings:

His rationale: Complex models try to find nonexistent patterns in past data; simple models ignore such “patterns” and just extrapolate trends. The professor also went on to repeat the “forecasting with hindsight” experiment many times over the years, using increasingly large sets of data and more powerful computers.ii But the same empirical truth came back each time: Simple statistical models are better at forecasting than complex ones.

January 6, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Trolley Dodgers

I have to admit I never thought much about why the Los Angeles (previously Brooklyn) Dodgers were called that. It’s just not high on my list of things to look into. However, in listening to the excellent Bowery Boys episode on Park Slope, they explained the origins of the name which were just too good not to share (the podcast is generally excellent — another recent favorite is on journalist Nellie Bly’s trip to a mental institution in 1887). The Dodgers, it turns out, were originally called the Trolley Dodgers. The name came from the danger Brooklynites faced in trying not to get themselves killed by the electric trolleys that crisscrossed the borough in the late-19th century.

The aptly named “Early Sports and Pop Culture History Blog” has a pretty extensive writeup of the name and the dangers that surrounded trolleys at the time. Maybe the best quote comes from The Evening World in 1893 who articulated the danger of the trolleys by excitedly reporting that no accidents had been reporting as of mid-day on the opening of a new trolley line in Brooklyn:

The trolley system was put in operation on one more of Brooklyn’s surface roads this morning. . . . This is the first introduction of the system on Fulton street, and the swiftly moving cars attracted a great deal of attention. Up to noon no accidents were reported. The system will be operated on several other roads within a few weeks.

Anyway, seems like a good fact to impress both sports fans and New York City history buffs.

January 5, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

Why It Seems Like Everyone is Doing that Thing

Networks are endlessly interesting. They shape the world around us like almost nothing else, yet we spend very little time thinking about them or recognizing the non-obvious ways effects they have on our world. Because we tend to think in bell curves, we get tricked by networks pretty often. For instance, we’ve all had the experience of feeling like everyone is talking about something when it turns out to be pretty self-contained to your little group. Well, some folks at USC have spent some time looking into just how networks create that illusion, which they call the majority illusion:

The majority illusion occurs when the most popular nodes are colored. Because these link to the greatest number of other nodes, they skew the view from the ground, as it were. That’s why this illusion is so closely linked to the friendship paradox.

Interestingly, the majority illusion can even show up when a node isn’t globally popular:

That might seem harmless when it comes to memes on Reddit or videos on YouTube. But it can have more insidious effects too. “Under some conditions, even a minority opinion can appear to be extremely popular locally,” say Lerman and co. That might explain how extreme views can sometimes spread so easily.

As with most things related to how ideas spread throughout networks, the more popular something is seems to be the only reliable indicator to how popular it will become.

January 3, 2016 // This post is about: , ,

The Economics of Basketball Fads

I’ve become somewhat obsessed with basketball over the last few years. I’m not entirely sure why, though it’s a combination of it being on at a convenient time (I’ve found Sundays harder to swallow over the last few years) and some really interesting work going on around new approaches and analytics (a few years ago the NBA installed a series of motion-tracking cameras in every stadium allowing for some really interesting analysis of how the game works).

Anyway, my basketball interest has crashed headfirst into my new parenthood, and thus being awake in the middle of the night fairly often. As much as I’d love to be reading serious stuff while I’m waiting for a baby to go to bed at 3am, I just can’t make it work, so I’ve been reading some basketball books. This week it’s The Jordan Rules, which covers the Chicago Bulls 1991 championship season (Jordan’s first). It’s a fun and easy read for the middle of the night. 

Anyway, when I read this passage I couldn’t help but fast-forward to today’s conversations around “small ball” (some teams, specifically the Golden State Warriors, are going out and playing without a traditional center and instead running with 5 guys who can dribble and shoot and space the floor). In the mid-1980s the trend was “Twin Towers” (playing with two centers): 

But Cartwright didn’t get much playing time in New York after returning from those foot injuries. Patrick Ewing had come along by then, and Brown tried a twin-towers approach with Cartwright and Ewing. That approach had come into vogue when Houston, with Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson, upset the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference finals; suddenly everyone wanted two centers. But Ewing didn’t care to play forward, and when Brown was replaced, Cartwright took a seat on the bench behind Ewing. He didn’t like it, but he started to get used to the idea. 

At the end of the day, part of what makes sports so interesting to me is that it’s a nearly perfect space for a bunch of economics theories. Advantages are won and lost quickly, new ideas spread through leagues nearly instantly at this point, and at the end of the day all the strategy in the world doesn’t replace talent.

January 2, 2016 // This post is about: , , , , , , ,

Some of my favorite reads of 2015

Did a quick dig through my Instapaper favorites (which also have their own Twitter account, by the way) and picked out a few of my favorite reads from last year. Many were written in 2015, but a few were just read by me for the first time last year. So, without any further ado and not in any particular order, a few of my favorites:

  1. I find snooker oddly satisfying to watch. Every time I’m in the UK and can’t sleep at 3am on the first night I seem to find it on TV and get entranced. Not sure what it is and can’t seem to get excited the same way about pool on TV here in the US. I tried to play once in Ireland with a friend and I was absolutely terrible. The table is about 6 miles long and the cue seems to be about 1/16th of an inch. All of that is just a long preamble to say that I really enjoyed this profile of snooker star Ronnie O’Sullivan from the New Yorker. (Two asides here: First, if you’re interested here’s a bunch of YouTube videos of people having perfect snookers games and second, I just ran across this profile of a darts champion Phil Taylor, which while obviously not the same as snooker, seems like a cousin.)
  2. I’ve always wondered about the East India Company, but have never really dug in much (mostly because I’m intimidated by the size of the books on the subject). As a result, this little Guardian primer was a great introduction into one of the craziest corporations in history.
  3. In the tweets I broke these up, but I’ll file this all here under marketing writing. My favorite marketing writing of last year (and probably favorite marketing writer as well) was from Martin Weigel and was titled “Marketing Crack: Kicking the Habit”. I actually enjoyed it so much I asked Martin to come speak at Percolate’s Transition conference in September (where he did an edited version of the talk). While not an article, my favorite marketing book of the year (and maybe of ever) was How Brands Grow (which I talked about to whomever would listen — sorry about that). If you’re not sure you’re ready to dive in and read it, the FT had a great writeup that built on many of the ideas (though so does Martin’s “Marketing Crack” piece as well as this one from 2010). Oh, and I haven’t read it yet, but there’s an update to How Brands Grow out now that’s on my must read list.
  4. Silk Road has all the components to be a movie you’d never believe. There’s “the dark web” (which movies and TV shows now all seem to love to reference), faked murder scenes, and lots of drugs being delivered by UPS. This two parter from Wired did a fine job telling the whole story (which, if you don’t feel like reading the 20-something-thousand words you could probably wait for a movie version of).
  5. Okay, now for some basketball stuff, which I continued my obsession with. First, a look at how shot arc effects free throw shooting. Second, an oral history of the greatest dunk of all time: Vince Carter’s insane leap over French center Frederic Weis in the Olympics (to be honest, the article isn’t even that good, it’s just so fun to relive and reread about this thing). Third, though not from 2015, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by this look at how the Houston Rockets are experimenting with their NBA D-League team.
  6. Following on the sports theme, I’m not sure what it is about tennis that lends itself to great writing, but this Serena Williams profile from the New York Times was really amazing (as is my all-time favorite piece of sports writing: David Foster Wallace on Roger Federer).
  7. Now for a New Yorker trio that have nothing to do with each other: First, a profile of Ken Dornstein, whose brother died in the Lockerbie bombing (he is also the author of the excellent book about his search for answers The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky). Second, a crazy story of a college couple who murdered their parents. Finally, a profile of Judy Clarke who defends the worst-of-the-worst in court, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
  8. Now a quick trip back to the Eighties for these two: First, it’s Steven Levy on the possibly effects of the introduction of the spreadsheet (1984) and second, Peter Drucker on the organization of the future (1988). Both are pretty spot on.
  9. This one’s a little different, but I really enjoyed this short Upshot piece on the two views of the economy. The challenge with writing about the economy is that while the factors that may drive it are simple, the outcome is incredibly complex. While this piece didn’t blow me away or teach me something new, I thought the debate between himself was a clever way to present a nuanced story.
  10. Finally, and purely for fun, The Good Bagel Manifesto is full of bagel snobbery like this (which I appreciate): “Having tasted bagels around the country and around the world, I understand why toasting is the default for most bagel shops: It’s because most bagel shops don’t serve good bagels. If there is one Golden Rule for good bagels, it is this: A Good Bagel Shall Not Require Toasting. All Else Follows.” (Emphasis theirs.)

There was lots else, but this was a few quick picks from my list. Hope you all had an excellent 2015 and I wish you an even better 2016.

January 1, 2016 // This post is about: , , ,

Brand Management: Past, Present, and Future

Over at the Percolate blog I wrote up a two part series around a talk I gave at our client summit on the history of brand management and the need to create a new system of record for marketing. Part one opens:

Late last week James wrote a post called Moving from Installation to Deployment, where he laid out a framework for thinking how technology moves throughout history and where our modern age fits into the puzzle. As part of his post he introduced some ideas from an economist named Carlota Perez, who argues that each technological revolution (of which we’re in our fifth) follows a similar pattern of installation, where we essentially lay out the new technology in the form of infrastructure, followed by deployment, where we finally get a chance to build upon that infrastructure and realize its value.

Whereas part two dives into the implications and a framework for building this new system of record for marketing:

To approach the problem of scaling marketing at the rate of technology to address the increasing complexity, we have to take a page out of the P&G brand management playbook, Rising Tide: Lessons from 165 Years of Brand Building at Procter & Gamble. It points out how “P&G recognized that building brands is not exclusively or even primarily a marketing activity. Rather it is a systems problem.” This is fundamental. When you’re dealing with a huge amount of change and complexity as tempting as it is to answer the question with a one off solution, the systemic path is always more powerful. This is where we have to start in solving the challenge of rethinking marketing for this new age.

Check out both parts.

February 13, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Becoming an Engineering Manager

One of the most amazing parts of starting Percolate has been the time I’ve gotten to spend with engineers. During that I’ve noticed some interesting patterns as engineers move from individual contributors to managers. I wrote up a thing for TechCrunch on some of those observations and ideas.

Here’s a bit on scale:

Essentially the job of being a manager, beyond the human side (which I’ll get to, I swear), is about building a system of people. As you’re growing a company you should absolutely be thinking about how to make this system scalable. On this point, specifically, you need to think about every decision and task you take control of and how that would work if you had 20 more people reporting to you. Micromanagement, in other words, is bad engineering on your part, not bad behavior on the part of the employee you’re managing (no matter how much you think you could solve that problem better or faster).

Read the rest over at TechCrunch.

January 27, 2015 // This post is about: , ,

The Complex Simplicity of Frisbee

I really like this frisbee explanation for how we handle complexity:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity.Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans.So what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple. Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the frisbee remains roughly constant. Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.

Good to add to the list of ways to explain complexity.

January 19, 2015

Simple, Complicated, Complex

Really like this explanation of complexity from Flash Boys by Michael Lewis:

“People think that complex is an advanced state of complicated,” said Zoran [Perkov, head of technology operations for IEX]. “It’s not. A car key is simple. A car is complicated. A car in traffic is complex.”

Well put.

Reminds me a bit of how Nassim Taleb draws a distinction between robustness, or the ability to withstand disorder, and antifragility, which he explains as actually growing stronger when exposed to those same disorderly forces.

Linked, an amazing book on networks which I’m re-reading explains the difference between Swiss watches and the internet:

Understanding the topology of the Internet is a prerequisite for designing tools and services that offer a fast and reliable communication infrastructure. Though human made, the Internet is not centrally designed. Structurally, the Internet is closer to an ecosystem than to a Swiss watch. Therefore, understanding the Internet is not only an engineering or a mathematical problem. In important ways, historical forces shaped its topology. A tangled tale of converging ideas and competing motivations left their mark on the Internet’s structure, creating a jumbled information mass for historians and computer scientists to unravel.

January 8, 2015 // This post is about: , , , ,

Basketball versus Business

And I’m back …

Thought this was a really interesting comment from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo during the Grantland Basketball Hour in December. He was talking about the moves by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé (also known for Gladwell’s writeup of his all press all the time approach to his daughter’s basketball team) and generally what it’s like for these guys who have made a lot of money in the business world coming into sports.

New owners can’t help themselves because you think about how successful these guys are at amassing their wealth. They go, “I’m the man, and now I’ll just buy a team, I’ll apply the same analytics, the same principles … I’ll just go win.” But the model in business allows many companies to be successful, the model in sports only allows one.

I never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. Although many think of business as being zero sum, it isn’t really, especially in the world of technology where people are bound to use multiple devices and applications (that’s not to say within a specific category it can’t be zero sum). Sports is different in that there is only one winner. Of course the counter-argument here is that something can’t really be zero sum when everyone gets rich, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.

January 6, 2015 // This post is about: , , ,

Is it or isn’t it?

Differing opinions (sort of) from the New York Times over whether technology is or isn’t what the science-fiction writers imagined. From a November article titled “In Defense of Technology”:

Physical loneliness can still exist, of course, but you’re never friendless online. Don’t tell me the spiritual life is over. In many ways it’s only just begun. Technology is not doing what the sci-fi writers warned it might — it is not turning us into digits or blank consumers, into people who hate community. Instead, there is evidence that the improvements are making us more democratic, more aware of the planet, more interested in the experience of people who aren’t us, more connected to the mysteries of privacy and surveillance. It’s also pressing us to question what it means to have life so easy, when billions do not. I lived through the age of complacency, before information arrived and the outside world liquified its borders. And now it seems as if the real split in the world will not only be between the fed and the unfed, the healthy and the unhealthy, but between those with smartphones and those without.

And now, in response to the Sony hack, Frank Bruni writes, “The specter that science fiction began to raise decades ago has come true, but with a twist. Computers and technology don’t have minds of their own. They have really, really big mouths.” He continues:

“Nothing you say in any form mediated through digital technology — absolutely nothing at all — is guaranteed to stay private,” wrote Farhad Manjoo, a technology columnist for The Times, in a blog post on Thursday. He issued a “reminder to anyone who uses a digital device to say anything to anyone, ever. Don’t do it. Don’t email, don’t text, don’t update, don’t send photos.” He might as well have added, “Don’t live,” because self-expression and sharing aren’t easily abandoned, and other conduits for them — landlines, snail mail — no longer do the trick.

But the New York Times doesn’t stop agreeing with itself there (by the way, this is totally fine, I have no problem with the contradictions and actually appreciate them). From “As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up”:

Yet there is deep uncertainty about how the pattern will play out now, as two trends are interacting. Artificial intelligence has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time, with machines now able to learn, not just follow programmed instructions, and to respond to human language and movement. … At the same time, the American work force has gained skills at a slower rate than in the past — and at a slower rate than in many other countries. Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 are among the most skilled in the world, according to a recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Younger Americans are closer to average among the residents of rich countries, and below average by some measures.

My opinion falls into the protopian camp: Things are definitely getting better, but new complexities are bound to emerge as things change. It’s not going to be simple and there are lots of questions we should be asking ourselves about how technology is changing us and the world, but it’s much healthier to start from a place of positivity and recognition that much of the change is good change.

December 23, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Unanticipated Effects

I really like this story of the unanticipated effects of the printing press from Steven Johnson:

Once people started to read, and once books were in circulation, very quickly the population of Europe realized that they were farsighted. This is interestingly a problem that hadn’t occurred to people before because they didn’t have any opportunity to look at tiny letter forms on a page, or anything else that required being able to use your vision at that micro scale. All of a sudden there is a surge in demand for spectacles. Europe is awash in people who were tinkering with lenses, and because of their experimentation, they start to say, “Hey, wait. If we took these two lenses and put them together, we could make a telescope. And if we take these two lenses and put them together, we could make a microscope.” Almost immediately there is this extraordinary scientific revolution in terms of understanding and identifying the cell, and identifying the moons of Jupiter and all these different things that Galileo does. So the Gutenberg press ended up having this very strange effect on science that wasn’t about the content of the books being published.

As I’ve established here, I’m a big McLuhan fan, and this is pretty good evidence that the effect of the medium is often much more important than the specific message. 

December 22, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , , ,

First Mentions

Part two of my strategy presentation is coming soon. In the meantime, a few months ago I went down a rabbit hole of looking for the first mention of various marketing terms and ideas in the New York Times archives. I particularly liked this first mention of brand strategy from 1955:

To eliminate confusion, an agency should set up a four-point plan when handling a product … The Plan would be outlined in a document known as a “brand strategy” containing a concept of operation; an analysis of the opportunities for the product or service; agreement on an immediate plan of action, and agreement on a long-term strategy.

Here’s what it looked like in the newspaper:

Also amusing was that in 1967 we were having problems we’re still seeing today. From coverage of a symposium of agencies and clients:

A couple of the ideas that seemed to get repeated were that both sides should cut through the red tape of advertising approval and that there should be more involvement of creative people in agency-client relations.

December 19, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Thinking About Strategy (Part 1): What is Strategy?

At the beginning of December I gave a talk at Google’s Firestarters event that built on some of the ideas I wrote up in my post about strategy as algorithm. Rather than posting the whole deck, which at some point I will do, I thought I would try to share the slides in groups of a few at a time and tell the story over a number of posts. This is a bit of an experiment and mostly because I’m trying to get all the posts I can out of the deck, so thanks for bearing with me.

What is strategy? Anyone who works in and around brand has run into something called strategy, but seldom do we step back and actually ask ourselves what it is and what it means. A few weeks ago I posted this definition from Lawrence Freedman’s book Strategy: A History (via Martin Weigel):

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Despite that, most of what we talk about when we’re discussing strategy is actually a small set of tools that were all developed before 1970:

  • Market Segmentation (1920): “General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan managed GM’s car models through loosely monitored “divisions,” which operated as separate companies with Sloan’s oversight, laying the groundwork for today’s corporation.”
  • Customer Funnel (1959): “The progression through the four primary steps in a sale, i.e., attention, interest, desire and action, may be compared to that of a substance moving through a funnel.”
  • Scenario Planning (1967): “The practice involves envisioning multiple future events and developing plans for responding to them. Shell first experimented with scenario planning in 1967, helping it navigate the oil shock of the 1970s.”

Ultimately a strategy is an approach for solving a problem. In the case of marketing, a strategy is generally the formula a brand develops to identify the best mix of activities and messages to communicate the positioning of the product or company with the goal of driving growth (either in sales, price, or purchase occasion). Strategy, then, is not the activities, but rather the framework a brand uses for choosing (and not choosing) those activities. (We will come back to this point later.)

For strategy to live in the world it must be paired with execution. The problem with strategy is that it doesn’t work in a vacuum. Strategy without execution is just words on a slide. For our purposes, then, when we talk about strategy we are talking about two things: The approach to solving the business problems and the coordination of resources to execute on that approach.

In the next installment I’ll dive into execution, how it’s changing, and why that matters a lot for strategy. Stay tuned.

December 18, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Building Products

At Percolate we look for five things in product managers: Leadership, ability to get things done, communication skills, engineering knowledge, and product sense. The last is, in my ways, the toughest to interview for as part of what you’re looking for is whether or not someone has a product intuition: Do they have an innate understanding of what makes a great product? This article on how to build great products has some good things to say about where that intuition comes from and how to tune it.

On the value of talking to people:

The best way to build this intuition is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to potential users. What do they think? Talk to people who tried to build a product in your space and failed. What can you learn from their failure? Talk to competitors. How do they approach the problem? Talk to engineers in big companies. What can they tell you about the state of technology? Talk to other entrepreneurs in adjacent spaces, investors, journalists, grad students, professors, even the naysayers. The best way to get a sense of taste in a given space is to inject yourself into the industry and talk to as many people as you can.

On making sure you understand who you’re talking to and separating signal from noise:

Beware of noise. Learn the difference between your users and people who are just commenting. Everyone you talk to will have an opinion. Early on it can be tempting to design a product based on feedback from industry pundits. But a feature is only a gamechanger if the person signing the proverbial check recognizes it as one. Otherwise, it’s a distraction. Industry pundits can be extremely useful for understanding the state of your field, but they’re rarely the ones to buy your product. If you design your product around their feedback, you’ll find that there is nobody to buy it in the end.

(Further on this one is the “5 whys,” which is a Six Sigma approach that suggests asking why five times to understand the root of the challenge/opportunity to ensure that you’re solving for the right things.)

The how to build great products article also offers up a really nice framework for thinking about the different categories of features and products:

A gamechanger. People will want to buy your product because of this feature. A showstopper. People won’t buy your product if you’re missing this feature, but adding it won’t generate demand. A distraction. This feature will make no measurable impact on adoption.

Finally, I should mention that if you’re a product manager looking for a new job, you should apply to work at Percolate.

December 17, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Creativity Requires Networks

A nice explanation of how creativity requires networks from Esko Kilpi:

To say that Thomas Edison invented electricity or that Albert Einstein discovered relativity is a popular, but misleading simplification. These breakthroughs would have been inconceivable without (1) the social and intellectual network that stimulated and advanced their thinking and (2) the people who recognized the value of their contributions and spread them further. A good, new idea is not automatically passed on. From this standpoint a lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather the fire took place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match was one. One cannot be creative alone. These qualities are co-created in an active process of mutual recognition.

It reminds me a lot of scenius:

Scenius is like genius, only embedded in a scene rather than in genes. Brian Eno suggested the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or “scenes” can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: “Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”

In fact Kevin Kelly, who wrote the piece on scenius that Eno quote is from, specifically calls out mutual recognition (he calls it appreciation) as one of the five nuturing factors of scenius: “Mutual appreciation — Risky moves are applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition goads the shy. Scenius can be thought of as the best of peer pressure.”

December 16, 2014 // This post is about: ,

How We Organize: Brain vs Society

I really enjoyed this whole post by Mark Burgess, founder of CFEngine, on the difference between the centralized brain model and the decentralized society model. It articulates a lot of core ideas about complexity theory and emergence by offering the simple brain/society analogy. As the article explains:

A brain model is a signalling model. Signals are transmitted from a common command-and-control centre out to the provinces of an organism, and messages are returned to allow feedback. … The alternative to a brain model is what I’ll call a society model. … There can be cooperation between the parts (often called institutions or departments, communities or towns, depending on whether the clustering is logical or geographical).

As he concludes, “Societies scale better than brain models, because they can form local cells that interact weakly at the edges, trading or exchanging information. If one connection fails, it does not necessarily become cut off from the rest, and it has sufficient autonomy to reconfigure and adapt.”

With all that said, though, what I found most interesting was this point about why big organizations get slower:

Our ability to form and maintain relationships (knowledge) with remote parts depends on them being local. Long distance relationships don’t work as well as short distance ones! Certainly, this depends on the speed of responses. If messages take longer to send and receive, then an organism can react more slowly, so scaling up size means scaling down speed, and vice versa. This certainly fits with our knowledge of the animal kingdom (another centralized management expression!). Large animals like whales and elephants are slower than smaller creatures like insects. The speed of impulses in our bodies is some six orders of magnitude slower than the speed of light, so we could build a very big whale using photonic signalling.

It’s a simple but vivid explanation. The answer, which many have realized, is to attempt to solve this by moving your organizational model closer to that of a society, where decisions can be made independently at the edges. Of course, as the metaphor illustrates, we’re intimately familiar with the centralized (brain) model, so it’s easier said than done.

December 15, 2014 // This post is about: , ,


I was reading Kevin Kelly’s Reddit IAmA from last year and I really liked his definition of “protopian”. In response to the question, “As a radical techno-optimist, what do you think is something people believe technology can/will do that you think it can’t?” Kelly answered, “I am protopian, not utopian. I believe in progress, that things are getting better by a little bit. I don’t believe that we can eliminate problems without introducing new ones.”

Reminds me a bit of Adam Gopnik’s framework for how people think about the internet (and technology generally):

The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others–that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment.

I’m with the ever-wassers and Kevin Kelly. I’m incredibly optimistic, but I am also realistic about the complexities of the world and the challenges that even the most amazing technologies can introduce.

December 12, 2014

The Link Between Brand Management and Product Mangement

Product management is a central discipline in just about every technology company in the world. The job, at least as we describe it at Percolate, is to own the strategy and roadmap for the team product/s and oversee the execution of those products. At places like Google (and Percolate) these jobs are held almost exclusively by people with an engineering background. The thinking here is two-fold: On one side the engineer’s approach to solving problems is generally pretty optimal and on the other, it’s hard to lead a team of talented engineers if you don’t understand what they’re doing at a pretty deep level. (While product managers mostly don’t actually manage the engineers on their teams, they are expected to “lead” the team and make choices around what they’re developing.)

What’s interesting about product management, though, is that it actually came from the world of marketing. The idea was inspired by brand management, which was originally introduced by Proctor & Gamble in 1931. I’ve read bits and pieces alluding to this connection, but this piece on the evolution of the discipline draws the line quite explicitly:

One reason product management has not traditionally been included in engineering curricula is because it did not start as an engineering role. Its earliest form was brand management, a term coined by a young advertising manager named Neil McElroy, who in 1931 wrote a memo to the executive team at Procter & Gamble proposing the idea of a “brand man”—an employee who would be responsible for a product, rather than a business function.3 The role had many similarities to modern-day product management. His memo called out the need to promote processes that work and outline solutions to problems. Above all, it called for the “brand man” to take full responsibility for the product.

December 11, 2014 // This post is about: , , , ,

Planning For Your Next Hire

I posted this over on Medium as well, which I will probably do time to time when it seems relevant. Still experimenting with what it means to have so many places to blog these days.

I was writing something else earlier today and included a bit of an aside about an idea I talk about a lot at Percolate: Thinking about the employee of today and the employee of tomorrow.

To explain, we’re growing pretty fast. We were something like 85 at the beginning of this year and we’re right around 185 now. When you’re adding two or three people a week, like we have this year, you run into some serious challenges. One of the ones that especially struck me (and always surprised me wasn’t discussed more), is how you keep people engaged/educated as you’re growing so fast. So far in December we’ve added something like 12 people. We should add another eight or so before the month is out. That means 10% of the company will be starting this month. That’s obviously great from a growth and talent perspective, but it’s a bit of a pain when you consider that anyone who started in December missed everything that happened in November. That included an offsite, lots of product additions, and a bevy of other new ideas, processes, documents, and lots of other stuff.

How you keep an ever-expanding employee-based abreast of what the company does seems like one of the most important questions of company culture that isn’t really ever asked. Every time you send an email outlining a new idea or process you need to think about how the people that don’t work at the company yet are going to learn about it. That could mean it becomes part of training materials, is presented in a meeting to new hires, or (best of all) is coded into a product you use.

I suspect (though can’t prove), that ultimately this is one of the big things that kills companies operating at high growth. If you don’t keep this in mind you can’t possibly keep the culture feeling cohesive, and without that it’s quite hard to understand how you keep people and the company aligned around a shared mission and vision.

And in the end, that’s really what culture is all about.

If you want to learn more about the Percolate culture, we’ve written about it quite a bit over at our blog.

December 10, 2014

Tech plus Culture

Interesting point of distinction between Google and Facebook’s approach to the world in this long feature of Zuckerberg and Facebook’s approach to wiring the world. Specifically in reference to Facebook and Google buying drone companies as a possible approach to getting internet to rural areas:

Google also has a drone program—in April it bought one of Ascenta’s competitors, Titan Aerospace—but what’s notable about its approach so far is that it has been almost purely technological and unilateral: we want people to have the Internet, so we’re going to beam it at them from a balloon. Whereas Facebook’s solution is a blended one. It has technological pieces but also a business piece (making money for the cell-phone companies) and a sociocultural one (luring people online with carefully curated content). The app is just one part of a human ecosystem where every-body is incentivized to keep it going and spread it around. “Certainly, one big difference is that we tend to look at the culture around things,” Zuckerberg says. “That’s just a core part of building any social project.” The subtext being, all projects are social.

This is a pretty interesting point of difference between how the two companies view the world. Google sees every problem as a pure technical issue whereas Facebook sees it as part cultural and part technical. I’m not totally sure I buy it (it seems unfair to call Android a purely technical solution), but it’s an interesting lens to look through when examining two of the world’s most important tech companies.

December 9, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

The Link Between Brand and Utility

I like this thought from Andrew Crow, head of design at Uber, on the difference between being scrappy and shipping scrappy:

There’s no such thing as minimal viable quality. Each product iteration must stem from a principled approach of creating great experiences regardless of scale or milestone. If it’s a mockup, the level of fidelity typically indicates the level of “doneness”. If it’s a prototype, the level of detail needs to be appropriately matched to the sophistication of the hypothesis you’re testing. If it’s an MVP, the quality put into the product must be at a level that results in the maximum learning for that stage of development. The quality of product you finally ship reflects the caliber of your company and is a measure of the respect you have for your customer.

I think of this as being thoughtful. Every interaction you design should be made with care and respect for the user’s time and attention. Details make design and there isn’t a detail too small to pay attention to.

As Andrew points out, not spending the time and attention on details at early stages can be detrimental in unexpected ways as it might provide you with bad data back on usage (ultimately design choices and brand effect experiences). I think there’s an important lesson here that most people don’t consider (and came up in the old brand vs utility debate). Ultimately things like brand, utility, and design in products are entirely too closely coupled to disconnect. In fact, utility is actually a measure of the relative satisfaction a person gets from consuming something. Since satisfaction is about how much something fulfills your expectations, the utility and brand are inextricably linked.

December 8, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Percolate Product Video

I believe this marks two weeks of blog posts for me, which is a pretty major milestone. In celebration I’m taking the day off and instead sharing our new product video from Percolate. I’ve spent the last four years working with an incredible group of folks building out something that I’m very proud. This video does a really nice job not just showing that off, but also speaking to the Percolate brand.

Without any further ado …

December 5, 2014 // This post is about: , ,

P&G’s Strategy Algorithm

In response to my post on Strategy as Algorithm, Michael Migurski shared this image with me from P&G CEO A.G. Lafley’s book Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works.

These are the five questions Lafley’s used for making major strategy decisions at P&G. In explaining why he uses this approach and why strategy is hard, Lafley explained:

In Roger Martin’s and my view, the essence of strategy is making 5 integrated — sometimes difficult — choices; so 5 choices to win. And a lot of us, a lot of human beings, don’t like to make choices, right? Choices are difficult, we want to keep our options open, choices involve taking risks, and not only risk to the business but personal risk. So I think there’s this sort of human resistance to making choices, and choices are the core of strategy.

Business Insider has a nice breakdown of what each step in the above image means and how they were used. Here, for instance, is how they explain the capabilities question:

What are my core competencies that are going to enable me to win? In order to make the above decisions work, they have to be based on and supported by the things that a company’s best at. For P&G, it was innovating quickly and understanding consumers.

Now that Lafley is back at the helm as CEO it’s interesting to take some of his more recent decisions, like the big one to divest a large number of brands, through the lens of this system.

December 4, 2014 // This post is about: , , , , ,

The Knowledge, Cabbies, and Nostalgia

While I’m definitely not a techno-utopian, I’m also not a big fan of nostalgia. Nostalgia, it turns out, doesn’t work all that well: Over time our brain acts like a game of telephone, memories become memories of memories, and we tend to gloss over the details that surround occasions for the big moments. This idea obviously extends to technology and progress, where often the world pushes back on new ideas because the old way had a certain glamour to it. Ultimately, we all can decide how we want to operate, and fear of change is a person’s right, but great progress doesn’t come without disrupting “comfortable” norms (this is true in technology, politics, and culture — see: email, the Civil Rights Act, and gay marriage to name a few).

One of the areas we’re seeing this fight over nostalgia is with Uber and London cabbies. The famous London black cabs protested en masse over the summer and have voiced strong opposition to the service that democratizes the ability to pick up passengers and drop them off at their destination. (Quick side note: Uber has taken lots of heat lately for their behavior. My points here are about the service and the idea, not a defense of the company itself.) London cab-drivers are famous for their incredible knowledge of one of the most complicated cities on earth. Unlike New York where all you need to get a taxi medallion is a million dollars, in London you need to pass a seemingly impossible test that asks you to memorize “all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.” (That’s from the official London taxi guidebook.)

Of course, if I were to describe Google Maps that way you wouldn’t be particularly surprised. Technology is great at holding a database of locations. In fact, that’s probably just about the most simple thing Google Maps does, after all it’s just a lat-long point and a name (ideally connected to a website for more information like open and close times, menu, etc.). The challenge for Google (and the cab-drivers) is in the routes: Getting from point a to point b isn’t all that hard a problem for either, but getting there in the “best way” is nearly impossible. That, ultimately, is what the London taxi drivers study and what the Google engineers constantly refine (buying Waze is quite clearly a push in that direction as “best” could easily be defined as least traffic). It’s also one of the places where you could argue humans can still outperform machines (for a lot of the same reasons people are still better than machines at certain parts of chess).

Anyway, I’m writing all this because for all my issues with nostalgia, I really enjoyed the New York Times piece on “The Knowledge,” the test every licensed black cab driver in London must take. Here’s a little snippet:

It is tempting to interpret the Knowledge as a uniquely British institution: an expression of the national passion for order and competence, and a democratization of what P. G. Wodehouse winkingly called the feudal spirit, putting an army of hyperefficient Jeeveses on the road, ready to be flagged down by any passing Bertie Wooster. But the Knowledge is less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape. To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are. Every London journey, even the most banal, holds the threat of taking an epic turn: The guy headed to the corner newsagent makes a left where he should have gone right, blunders into an unfamiliar road, and suddenly he is Odysseus adrift on the Acheron. The problem is one of both enormity and density. From the time that London first began to spread beyond the walls surrounding the Roman city, it kept sprawling outward, absorbing villages, enlarging the spider-web snarl of little roads, multiplying the maze. Take a look sometime at a London street map. What a mess: It is a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster.

The article argues, and I agree, there’s a benefit to this vast knowledge and if you need to get somewhere complicated in London very quickly, it’s hard to beat hopping into a black cab. However, the technology is catching, and will continue to do so, and that’s fine too.

December 3, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,

Why was the Paypal mafia so successful?

I was having a conversation the other evening about Peter Thiel’s theory on why the Paypal mafia (all the people that came out of Paypal and started 7 $1 billion+ companies in Silicon Valley) succeeded as much as it did. I couldn’t remember where I read or heard his answer, but basically his point was that Paypal wasn’t so easy as to trick people into thinking building a successful company came without hardship and wasn’t so hard that they failed and wrongly thought it was impossible. After some Googling I landed on this James Altucher podcast with Thiel, which I’m pretty sure I’ve never listened to, but definitely has the answer I was looking for (if you know where else he said/wrote this, please let me know).

Anyway, his answer to why was the Paypal mafia so successful:

Paypal was probably the single company in silicon valley that produced the most entrepreneurs, the most startups … There have been something like 7 companies started by ex-Paypal people worth over $1 billion … I think we had a lot of strong personalities, we found a way for it to work. I think the learning at Paypal was that it was a tough business to build, we had a lot of competition, it was a lot of regulatory challenges, but we sort of figured out ways to overcome them. The lesson of Paypal was that you could build a great company, but it was hard. it was not easy, it was not impossible. I think that when people come out of super successful companies like Google or Microsoft, they’ve often experienced business as too easy and they’re set up to fail. Whereas if you come out of a company that has completely blown and failed, you often learn to set your sights lower and your expectations lower … I think Paypal was this intermediate case where people learned that it was hard but possible to build a great business.

December 2, 2014

Thoughts on India

In October I took my first trip to India. It was absolutely amazing and I came back incredibly excited about how the world is changing. I wrote down a few observations (which I also Tweeted) that I thought I would share here:

  • Driving and crossing streets is amazing: Seems to work against all odds. What seems like chaos is actually reasonably well organized.
  • In a country of 1 billion+ even smaller locales (<1 million) take on city dynamics (local small shops > large chains, heavy traffic).
  • Anecdotally, the smartphone penetration was much lower than I would have thought. Most people haven’t upgraded yet.
  • When I asked why not more smartphones, most people said data services weren’t there. (Slow 3G/no 4G)
  • Really interesting mix of optimism and pessimism. Optimism for growth and world status, pessimism for government and infrastructure.

While I’m on the topic of India, I ran across the interesting article on Uber’s success there. India is Uber’s second biggest market, but it’s currently having a bit of a headache there due to laws around storing credit card numbers. From the article:

India has stringent rules on recurring payments using credit cards: For a “card not present” transaction, as in most online or in-app payments, the RBI requires a mandatory two-step authentication system, with a verification code that is sent to a customer via text message or email. The customer then enters the code to finish the transaction.

I bring this up mostly because these sort of country-specific regulations never really occur to us as we imagine how businesses will scale. It’s not to say Uber won’t get over this (they’re already working with a payment provider to get around the issue), but it does present interesting realities to global scaling that aren’t often discussed.

December 1, 2014

Virtual Luxury Goods

I’m pretty fascinated by this story of watchmakers going after pirates who are copying their faces and giving them away for people with smartwatches.

It’s not so much the lawsuits I’m interested in as the idea of luxury goods in a digital world. It’s interesting to think about watchmakers, who for so long have separated themselves by not just the physical design of their products, but also the mechanics of the movements, starting to become software companies. After all, what better way to know there’s interest in your products than people seeking them out for their own devices. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a company like Rolex or Patek Philippe move into the software world and start selling faces for these new devices?

November 28, 2014

Culture as Algorithm

After a good reception, I decided to build on my strategy as algorithm post from the other day over at the Percolate blog. Specifically I tried to answer what it meant for marketing and culture. Here’s a snippet:

At Percolate we talk about culture as the internal manifestation of brands (more about this in a future blog post). One of the things I talk about with everyone who starts here is that the reason we believe in investing in the culture of the company is that culture is how we teach people to make on-brand decisions. Basically, as the company grows we know we need to distribute out decision-making as much as possible. The goal, of course, is for the decisions people make to be good ones in the eyes of the brand. The way we make sure of that is by ensuring that everyone has a clear understanding of the values of the company.

Read the whole thing over at the Percolate blog.

November 27, 2014

The Fun of HTML Standards

It’s pretty hard to write something interesting about the development of HTML standards, but that’s exactly what Paul Ford did in his New Yorker piece which goes through the history of the W3C and the development of the HTML5 standard. Go read the whole thing and in the meantime, here’s a few snippets.

On validation:

Validity, in this scenario, is an ideological construct. The promise is that by hewing to the rules put forth by the W3C, your site will be accessible to more people than would a less valid page. Both pages work fine for most people; browsers are tolerant of all sorts of folderol. The ultimate function of any standards body is epistemological; given an enormous range of opinions, it must identify some of them as beliefs. The automatic validator is an encoded belief system. Not every Web site offers valid HTML, just as not every Catholic eschews pre-marital sex. The percentage of pure and valid HTML on the web is probably the same as the percentage of Catholics who marry as virgins.

On how the web is evolving:

The Web started out as a way to publish and share documents. It is now an operating system: a big, digital sensory apparatus that can tell you about your phone’s battery life, record and transmit your voice, manage your e-mail and your chats, and give you games to play. It can do this all at once, and with far less grand of a design than you might assume. That’s the software industry: it promises you an Ellsworth Kelly, but it delivers a Jackson Pollock.

November 26, 2014

Strategy as Algorithm

Strategy, like innovation and lots of other business buzzwords, seems to mean less the more it’s mentioned. I thought this definition, from Lawrence Freedman (who I’ve never heard of) via Martin Weigel’s blog is a nice one:

Strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns… The inherent unpredictability of human affairs, due to the chance events as well as the efforts of opponents and the missteps of friends, provides strategy with its challenge and drama. Strategy is often expected to start with a description of a desired end state, but in practice there is rarely an orderly movement to goals set in advance. Instead, the process evolves through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy, including ultimate objectives. The picture of strategy… is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point and not the end point.”

Fits with a thought I have had lately around how strategy is really about building algorithms (rules) that help drive optimal outcomes in decisions. Basically you’ve identified what you ultimately want to accomplish and strategy is how you drive towards that. The challenge, as outlined here, is that nothing’s ever quite as neat and tidy as we might hope. So rather than talking about strategy as a blueprint (or similar), which suggests everything is in its perfect place down to the millimeter, it’s better to think about it as an algorithm that helps you make the right decision as you traverse whatever landscape you happen to encounter. Algorithms are nothing more than a set of rules applied to any information or situation, which takes into account what you understand about the data and tries to find the best answer according to the ideas/ideals the programmer has set forth.

November 25, 2014