Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance 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.

You can subscribe to this site via RSS (the humanity!) or .

WITI – The Nuance Edition

At this point, I hope most of you have figured out that my writing has almost entirely shifted over to my daily newsletter, Why is this interesting? (WITI). I figured I’d post today’s email so you could get a taste. For those of you that subscribe to this site, I didn’t copy any of the emails over, so please go subscribe if you’d like to start receiving it. We’re doing good work and having fun. Separately, I’m hard at work on Variance, my new company, and we’re hiring for a few roles.

I was struck reading this weekend’s New York Times Magazine by calls for more nuance in back-to-back articles. The first came in a piece from Dan Brooks about the narrative around the way violence is portrayed in the new Joker movie:

Legitimate movies are about complicated protagonists who combine good and bad qualities; superhero movies are about two guys, one good and one evil. By combining them into a single guy, won’t this movie cause dummies to think the Joker is good? To ask the question is to argue that nuance is dangerous. By fretting over Arthur Fleck’s sympathetic qualities, progressive-minded critics are demanding the same sort of bright line between good and evil that makes comic-book movies so boring.

The second came from a slightly-more-interesting-than-I-expected interview with Bill Maher. In response to a question about the controversy that surrounded Maher using the N-word in a joke on his show, he answered:

If we were living in a country that could handle nuance, I’d be happy to talk about it, but we’re no longer in that country. There’s no winning there. … We live in an era where I don’t think people’s main focus is the truth and/or sussing out something valuable or teachable. We live in a time in which people are more concerned with scalps and clicks.

Why is this interesting?

Most of the conversation around nuance quickly gets political, and we have a strict no domestic politics rule here at WITI, but I think there’s a broader question about both the word and idea that is worth exploring. Mainly, what do people mean when they talk about nuance? And do we need more nuance or less?

First off, true nuance does exist and we often miss it. This is the point of expertise researcher Philip Tetlock’s (by way of Isiah Berlin) distinction between foxes and hedgehogs (“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”). The fox offers more in the way of shading between black and white than hedgehogs, who have more simplified world views. As I covered in WITI 9/16 – The Foreign Policy Edition, Tetlock’s research also points to the media’s preference for hedgehogs, as their approach to interpreting the world makes them better talking heads. But his view is quantitative, not qualitative.  As a researcher, he is focused on how people make measurable and accurate predictions, not the narratives we build around them, and his preference for foxes comes out of the data.

When it comes to narrative, there’s another side to this story, and it’s much more related to Maher’s stance (a hedgehog if I ever saw one). Calling for nuance is an easy way to derail an argument. In my search to think this through I stumbled on a 2017 paper from the journal Sociological Theory titled, appropriately enough, “Fuck Nuance”. Written by Kieran Healy, an assistant professor at Duke, the paper tracks the rise of the word “nuance” in the discipline of sociology and the dangers that come with its overuse. (If you’re not up for reading the paper, there’s a good interview with the author from the Chronicle of Higher Education.) He offers up three “nuance traps”: The fine-grain trap (“a rejection of theory masquerading as increased accuracy”), the conceptual framework trap (“ an evasion of the demand that a theory be refutable”), and the connoisseur trap (“the insinuation that a sensitivity to nuance is a manifestation of one’s distinctive … ability to grasp and express the richness, texture, and flow of social reality itself”).

It’s a combination of fine-grained and sophistication arguments that we see most often. Calls for nuance are a kind of rhetorical trick: An easy way to derail a disagreement without actually offering any nuance yourself. In the Joker piece Brooks is calling out the media for overusing this technique, and then, just a few pages later, Maher attempts to do exactly that. In “Fuck Nuance” Healy writes, “there is a desire to equate calling for a more sophisticated approach to a theoretical problem with actually providing one, and to tie such calls to the alleged sophistication of the people making them.”

Where do I fall on all this? When it comes to Maher, his kind of reasoning was dispatched with by John Herrman in the same magazine a year ago:

Calling for nuance is an interesting admission: It allows that the person lacking nuance has a strong, if overstated, point. (We rarely request nuance from more powerful enemies; they’re seen as sinister and dishonest, not insufficiently unsubtle.) The nuance-askers tend to be facing people whose anger they cannot fully deny or dismiss. To respond that the issue is “actually a little more complicated than that” can sound an awful lot like saying “calm down,” and is received with according unsubtle fury.

More generally, my as un-nuanced take on all this is: I think you’re almost always better off overestimating rather than underestimating people, but I also like comic book movies, and I think there are plenty of spaces where simplified characters and narratives are perfectly fine. I think the world is more complex than can be accounted for in your average 4-minute cable news interview, but I don’t think it’s so complex that we should throw our hands up and stop trying at cries for more nuance. (NRB)

October 7, 2019

Two Quick Updates

First off, after eight years I’ve moved on from Percolate (we brought on a CEO at the beginning of 2018) and co-founded a new software company called Variance. We want to change the way work gets done by helping employees gain mastery over their tools. It’s early days, so not too much we’re ready to share quite yet, but we Tweeted a few highlights from a workshop we recently held. The name is inspired by the variance spectrum, which you might remember from my framework of the day posts. Also, we’re looking to hire a lead product designer, so if you’re one or know anyone who might be good for us, I’d hugely appreciate the reference (you can email me). Dinner on me if you help us find someone we hire.

Second, my daily email, Why is this interesting?, is still going strong. We’re 100+ editions in and we’ve had a great string of guests to help take some of the load off. Not surprisingly, all my writing energy has gone there, so please subscribe and if you ever have an idea for a guest spot, please let us know.

August 18, 2019 // This post is about: , , , ,

Why is this interesting? – The Evernote edition

In my last post I mentioned that I was experimenting with a daily email and that I’d let you all know when it was out of “beta”. Well, we are a month and a half in now and I feel pretty good about it. It’s called Why is this interesting? and it’s a collaboration between myself and Colin Nagy with the occasional guest post. Subscribe if that sounds interesting. Thanks! – Noah

I keep a backlog of email ideas to help stave off the feeling of despair that can arrive around 3pm when Colin and I haven’t figured out the next day’s edition yet. One of the items on the list for awhile has been “how I use Evernote.” It probably would have remained there if my friend Dave hadn’t messaged me yesterday morning asking to remind him of the name of the “thing I use to file all the articles away”. I told him Evernote and felt inspired enough to write it up as an email.

Why is this interesting?

Digital archiving is a core part of my life. I like to read and research (hence this email), and all those words have to go somewhere. I first became enamored with the idea after reading Steven Johnson write about his use of archiving software to keep track of his book research. From a piece he wrote for the New York Times in 2005:

… if the modern word processor has become a near-universal tool for today’s writers, its impact has been less revolutionary than you might think. Word processors let us create sentences without the unwieldy cross-outs and erasures of paper, and despite the occasional catastrophic failure, our hard drives are better suited for storing and retrieving documents than file cabinets. But writers don’t normally rely on the computer for the more subtle arts of inspiration and association. We use the computer to process words, but the ideas that animate those words originate somewhere else, away from the screen. The word processor has changed the way we write, but it hasn’t yet changed the way we think.

DEVONthink, Johnson’s tool of choice, was bridging that gap. “Having all this information available at my fingerprints does more than help me find my notes faster,” Johnson wrote. “Yes, when I’m trying to track down an article I wrote many years ago, it’s now much easier to retrieve. But the qualitative change lies elsewhere: in finding documents I’ve forgotten about altogether, documents that I didn’t know I was looking for.” Unfortunately, I (and many others) found DEVONthink was way too overwhelming to set up and use regularly.

Some of that was solved by cloud and syncing, but to be honest the space hasn’t developed as much as I thought it would in the last 14 years. I suspect there are two big reasons why. First, personal productivity software is a famously hard nut to crack. While there’s abundant energy to be more productive, motivation can quickly fade and declaring task bankruptcy is never more than a new app away. Second, especially in this realm of archiving, the audience is limited to writers, researchers, and super-nerds like myself. This presents a tough product and business problem, as companies try to find the line between being a personal and a professional system. Evernote’s growth and subsequent challenges are a good illustration of what can happen if you get stuck in the middle. Those challenges have left the space with very few players. Evernote is the leader who leaves much to be desired, OneNote is bundled with Office and seems fine if that’s your thing, and Notion is a new app that does a little of everything, including, they claim, replace Evernote. (I’ve purposely left off the pure note taking apps because I consider that a different category.)

Ultimately I’ve stuck with Evernote for a few reasons: It’s got the best browser extension by far (you can grab full text and add highlights to any article), it offers full text PDF search (I archive a lot of research papers), and the PDF highlighting with cover pages is better than any other I’ve seen (they pull all your highlights out to a cover page with just the good stuff). From there my usage is reasonably simple. Everything I find or read that’s interesting gets put into the system with some loose categorization (since the main purpose is search, I don’t worry too much about that). If I’m on my computer the browser extension does the trick and if it’s my phone, I use mobile Safari reader mode (the four little lines on the left side of the URL bar) and then email the full text to my secret Evernote email with an @ at the end of the subject that the system parses to put it in the right folder. Again, since it’s about finding things again I tend towards over-save, throwing anything that seems moderately interesting into the archive. I also use IFTTT to automate some saving, including pushing all my Tweets and YouTube likes directly into the system.

While it’s far from perfect, I use Evernote multiple times a day and it’s become my outboard brain, allowing me to recall articles I’ve read or papers I’ve discovered in an instant. It’s basically a personal search engine for me.

May 3, 2019

Nostalgia & McLuhan’s Tetrad

I’ve been experimenting with a daily email with Colin Nagy called Why Is This Interesting? This is from today’s edition. If you’re interested in checking it out, drop me a line (I’ll post something here when we launch in publicly).

This weekend the Times ran an opinion piece about the dangers of backup cameras. It was about more than that, obviously, but the gist of the genre is that all this new tech is lulling us into a sense of security that leaves us susceptible to over-reliance, and even forgetting entirely how to do things on our own.

Why is this interesting?

Because this is something we’ve been worried about forever (literally). In Phaedrus, Plato worried about roughly the same thing as it related to writing: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

The reality is that all technology affects culture in expected and unexpected ways. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” is one of my favorite aphorisms (misattributed to McLuhan). The irony, of course, is that the complaints in this article are perfectly expected. We come to rely on automation because it’s mostly better. In fact, the strangest part of the whole piece is the way the evidence of backup camera safety is presented. “Between 2008 and 2011,” the author writes, “the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.” I think the implication is that those numbers aren’t all that impressive, but a 20 or 30 percent drop in backup fatalities seems pretty excellent to me.

Finally, the answers to articles like these almost always come back to the one rule of life: Things change. Technology hardly ever solves all the world’s problems or ruins society. Mostly what happens is it leaves us in a state of flux. We swing the pendulum one way and then we swing it the other. One properly attributed McLuhan-ism is the “Tetrad of Media Effects”. It lays out the four ways technology creates change:

The Times piece is effectively an explorations of McLuhan’s four effects. The backup camera enhances our senses by giving us eyes in the back of our heads, obsolescing the car’s mirrors, and retrieving a time when cars were smaller, but, as the article points out, when pushed to its extreme it reverses our own role as driver, giving control entirely over the tech. While the points are valid, we should be less surprised that this keeps happening and try to keep things in perspective.

March 26, 2019 // This post is about: , , , ,

Exploration vs Exploitation

I’ve been experimenting with a daily email with Colin Nagy called Why Is This Interesting? This is from today’s edition. If you’re interested in checking it out, drop me a line (I’ll post something here when we launch in publicly).

I really liked this post from Richard Huntington aka Adliterate. It’s about the value of deep work, but the gist is captured in this mantra: “You are not paid to be on top of things, you are paid to get to the bottom of them.” (This was inspired by a quote from computer scientist Donald Knuth about email: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”)

Why is this interesting?

If you’ve spent any time working in the age of e-mail (nevermind Slack) you’ve encountered this challenge. One of the things I shared with everyone who started at Percolate for a long time was this post from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham about the schedule a “maker” keeps vs a manager. The point is that the manager has their days broken into tiny bits, 30 minute or one hour meetings, while the maker needs long uninterrupted focus time to do their work. When the manager forces the maker into their schedule they are surprised that the work can’t get done.

One way to think about this divide is as something computer scientists call exploration vs exploitation. The manager is an explorer, looking at information across many different areas, while the maker is an exploiter, using that information to go deep in just one. It’s a little like the story from the Greek poet Archilochus about the fox and the hedgehog: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (if you’re not familiar with the parable, here’s a good primer from NPR).

As Brian Christian points out in his book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, there’s actually tons of interesting stuff that lives in this tension. Do you go to the restaurant you like or try the new one that just opened? Should you load up an old favorite on Spotify or see what they’ve chosen for you this week? The answer, as we have all figured out and computer science has proven, is it depends. To figure out the best approach you’ve also got to know the time limit. In simplified terms, if you have lots of time left, exploration makes sense, if you’re approaching deadline, exploitation is optimal. 

This also explains why people like Sports Gene author David Epstein are pushing to stop early specialization. Childhood is prime exploration time and no matter what Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours might state, the opportunity is to use the abundance of time to stay shallow (Gladwell actually agrees with this). “Childhood,” as developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik explains, “gives you a period in which you can just explore possibilities, and you don’t have to worry about payoffs because payoffs are being taken care of by the mamas and the papas and the grandmas and the babysitters.” For the rest of us, the struggle stays real.

March 19, 2019 // This post is about: , , ,

Best Longform of 2018

If you’re not a regular reader of my site, please do me a favor and subscribe to the email (it comes infrequently — whenever I add a post here). I write about business, technology, history, mental models (a lot of those), and all the random interesting stuff I’m reading about. It’s a hodge-podge and I hope you’ll enjoy.

Update: Most of my writing now happens on my daily newsletter Why is this interesting? If you enjoy this, every email includes lots of interesting stuff to read.

At the beginning of last year I decided I was going to spend more time reading books in 2018. I set myself a goal of 30 on Goodreads and blew past that by year end. While it felt good and something I’m looking to reproduce in 2019, it left me wondering whether I’d actually read enough articles to put together my favorite longform list.

As I was wondering this, a series of plagues befell my house and knocked me off my feet (and computer) for just about two full weeks (it was not fun). When I was finally feeling better this week I thought I’d at least see how many articles I favorited in Instapaper and try to figure out whether a list was feasible. Sixty-something links later I realized I read enough to put it together, so here it is. Some usual caveats apply:

  • This is a list of my favorites. It’s not meant to be conclusive and I know I missed lots of great stuff (especially this year with my focus on books).
  • You’ll notice a concentration of articles from The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. That’s because I get both of those delivered. Again, this isn’t meant to be the definitive list of best articles of the year (if you want that I’d head over to longform.org).
  • The way I put this together is first I just list out all the articles I favorited in Instapaper. You can find those at the bottom of this post and also follow them (and favorites from YouTube) at my @heyitsinstafavs automated Twitter account. After I list them all out I just look over the list again and pull out all the ones I specifically remember with the thought that those were the ones that had the biggest impact on me.
  • Everything is categorized and my picks are in bold throughout. The full list of favorites is at the bottom.

Finally, if you get through this whole list and want more, here are my past versions:

Okay, onto the list:

David Grann

If you’ve ever read one of these lists before you’ll know that I love David Grann. Basically anything he writes automatically makes the cut. In 2012 that was his story about an American who fought in the Cuban revolution titled “The Yankee Comandante” and in 2011 it was “A Murder Foretold”. After a few years off to publish his excellent book Killers of the Flower Moon, he was back in the New Yorker in February with “White Darkness”, an amazing story of a solitary journey across Antarctica. (It’s also out as a book now, though I think it’s just the article with some more pictures.) What’s amazing about Grann’s writing obviously starts with the stories he finds, but as you read you realize it’s more about the characters that make up those stories. Somehow he always seems to discover people who both live amazing adventures and are also poets, or something close to it. (As an aside, if you haven’t read Grann’s book of essays The Devil and Sherlock Holmes do yourself a favor and get on that or at least pick a few from his New Yorker profile page.)

[“The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018]


This is another category where there was really only one entry for me. It comes from the New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, who will show up again when we get to favorite podcasts. Callimachi’s work is pure effort and for her huge feature on the Isis she found and sifted through thousands of internal documents and receipts to piece together the story of how the terror organization actually governed in Iraq. The work in and of itself makes the piece worthy for this list, but what makes the article so memorable for me is how it exposed the banality of Isis’s approach in Iraq. “ISIS built a state of administrative efficiency that collected taxes and picked up the garbage,” she writes. “[T]he group at times offered better services and proved itself more capable than the government it had replaced.” If you had to sum the piece up in one sentence it would probably be this one: “The world knows the Islamic State for its brutality, but the militants did not rule by the sword alone. They wielded power through two complementary tools: brutality and bureaucracy.” (If you’re interested in learning more about how the documents were collected or what’s happening with them, there’s a Q&A on the Times’ site. You should also check out Callimachi on the longform podcast for an inside look on how she approaches her work.)

[“The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018]

Health & Parenting

I’ve got three entrants for this one and they’re all pretty different.

The first is all about parenting. I would have sworn “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” came out last year, but apparently it was from the beginning of this one. It makes sense I wouldn’t have much sense of time, though, since it came out right around when my second daughter was born. The article plainly spells out how big of an industry parenting advice is and how much its foundation is built on bullshit. The bit I remember best is this aside about how statistically insignificant most baby advice really is:

“(Parenting experts who are childless, such as the “queen of routine” Gina Ford, author of the unavoidable Contented Little Baby series, attract a lot of sharp words for it, but this seems unfair. Where Ford has direct experience of parenting none of the 130 million babies born on Earth each year, most gurus only have direct experience of parenting two or three babies, which isn’t much better as a sample size. The assumption that whatever worked for you will probably work for everyone, which is endemic in the self-help world, reaches an extreme in the pages of baby books.)”

The other two are a lot more serious. First is an amazing piece from Guardian writer Hannah Jane Parkinson about her own struggle with mental illness (and specifically bipolar disorder). Parkinson is a very good writer and there’s something about reading an accomplished journalist using her work to explain why her work is so hard that’s particularly impactful. The article’s title “It’s nothing like a broken leg” comes from this passage:

In the last few years I have lost count of the times mental illness has been compared to a broken leg. Mental illness is nothing like a broken leg.

In fairness, I have never broken my leg. Maybe having a broken leg does cause you to lash out at friends, undergo a sudden, terrifying shift in politics and personality, or lead to time slipping away like a Dali clock. Maybe a broken leg makes you doubt what you see in the mirror, or makes you high enough to mistake car bonnets for stepping stones (difficult, with a broken leg) and a thousand other things.

I would also highly recommend this short piece from Parkinson published at the end of December about her riding buses around London in the middle of the night when things get particularly bad.

Finally, my pick for this category comes from a New York Times Magazine story titled “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” The article shocked and saddened me as it spelled out just how inadequate the care pregnant black mothers receive. Education and income, as the article explains, don’t explain it. “In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.” Most shocking to me was this story about how the institutional racism embedded in the system manifests itself in obviously bad science amongst doctors:

In 2016, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia examined why African-American patients receive inadequate treatment for pain not only compared with white patients but also relative to World Health Organization guidelines. The study found that white medical students and residents often believed incorrect and sometimes “fantastical” biological fallacies about racial differences in patients. For example, many thought, falsely, that blacks have less-sensitive nerve endings than whites, that black people’s blood coagulates more quickly and that black skin is thicker than white. For these assumptions, researchers blamed not individual prejudice but deeply ingrained unconscious stereotypes about people of color, as well as physicians’ difficulty in empathizing with patients whose experiences differ from their own. In specific research regarding childbirth, the Listening to Mothers Survey III found that one in five black and Hispanic women reported poor treatment from hospital staff because of race, ethnicity, cultural background or language, compared with 8 percent of white mothers.

Go read the whole thing and when you’re done please donate to the Birthmark Doula Collective who are trying to help change the care black mothers receive.

[“Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018]


As you may or may not know I’m a big NBA fan. The league is as good as its ever been and has been fundamentally transforming the way the game is played for the last ten years or so. I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to explain this to friends and now, thanks to Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton, I can just send them the article “How the NBA got its groove back.” In the piece, the Kevins spell out how much faster the league got over the last decade, starting with the D’Antoni/Nash. In fact, as the article explains, those 2004-05 Suns wouldn’t even be considered a fast team by today’s standards. “Back then, Phoenix’s 98.6 pace was more than a possession per game faster than that of any other NBA team. In 2017-18, the average team had 99.6 possessions per 48 minutes, and the Suns’ 2004-05 pace would have ranked 19th in the league.” It’s a fun time to be an NBA fan. (Honorable mention sports story has to go to The Ringer’s insane “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account”.)

[“How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018]


Society isn’t a perfect title for this category, but it gets at it. I’ve got two pieces here. The first comes from psychology professor Alison Gopnik (who shows up in the podcast list as well). Although not terribly wrong, I thought her review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now offered a really interesting rebuttal to the macro “everything is getting better” story. Gopnik opens the piece by stating her credentials: She’s a scientist, professor, and “card-carrying true believer in liberal Enlightenment values.” But she doesn’t think we can, or should, push aside local needs and values for the global:

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

In some ways there’s a similar theme in my pick for this category. “Pay the Homeless” is all about the local realities. It’s an argument against the idea that giving money to someone asking for it is somehow not good for the system as a whole or that individual specifically:

Yet on the whole, all the evidence, from the statistical to the spiritual, points in one direction: if you can give, you should give. It won’t solve the problems of mass homelessness or impoverishment. But it will improve someone’s life ever so slightly and briefly. “People are in dire straits and raising money for bare necessities,” Jerry Jones, policy director at the Inner City Law Center, told me. They might be trying to collect enough to pay for a room for the night. They might need bus fare or gas to get to an appointment.

[“Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018]


I try to read just about anything Tim Harford writes. His ability to take complicated topics and simplify them are impressive and inspiring. Last year’s piece on Arrow’s impossibility theorem is something I still think about and his BBC Pop-Up Ideas series was absolutely amazing, particularly this episode on the idea of feral cities. This year his FT feature “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” introduced me to the idea of architectural innovation, which I wrote about in some length in my Framework of the Day piece on Conway’s Law. If you enjoy the piece I would also suggest checking out the reading list, which includes links to all the source material.

[“Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018]


There aren’t that many pieces that stood out in the world of politics for me this year. I suspect that’s because I actively avoided them (as opposed to last year). With that said, one writer and two pieces stood out for me this year.

First, the writer. I don’t know of anyone I turned to more this year to get the pulse of the country than the Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan. She doesn’t have a piece on the list because her writing is more ephemeral. In a world where the President is a TV star, it seems appropriate that the most important columnist is someone who has a deep understanding of how the media functions. A few of her pieces that stood out: “Publishing that anonymous New York Times article wasn’t ‘gutless.’ But writing it probably was.”, “It’s high time for media to enter the No Kellyanne Zone — and stay there”, “Don’t forget how the movement that changed Hollywood started: With great reporting”, and “Enough, already, with anything Steve Bannon has to say. We got it the first time.”. She’s who I turned to when I wanted to understand the importance of a moment.

Okay, back to the longform. First up is Jane Mayer’s masterful profile of Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous Trump Dossier. The piece didn’t necessarily break new ground (after all, Buzzfeed had already published the whole thing), but it did paint an interesting picture for the man who wrote it, his credibility, and the accuracy, or lack thereof, that his methods may have led to.

My pick for politics goes to Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine profile of House leader Nancy Pelosi. We’re about to hear A LOT about Pelosi as she battles Trump and the Republicans over the next two years and, for me at least, my knowledge and understanding of her was surface at best. The profile is pretty unvarnished and paints Pelosi as a pure politician who knows how to operate as well or better than anyone out there. I suspect we’re going to see a lot of stereotypical framing of Pelosi because she’s a woman and this felt like a good foundation to build understanding. I thought this bit about how much of her perception, even amongst Democrats I’d argue, has been shaped by the Republicans was particularly interesting:

Still, Pelosi’s foremost liability is the effectiveness of the attacks against her. In 2010, Republicans spent $65 million attacking Pelosi in ads; the Republican National Committee hung a banner from its headquarters that read FIRE PELOSI. The attacks have often borne more than a tinge of sexism; in 2012, when Pelosi, as minority leader, wielded less power than the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, Republicans’ negative television ads were seven times as likely to mention Pelosi as Reid, according to the Wesleyan Media Project, which tracks political advertising. The 2010 onslaught took its toll on Pelosi’s public standing — her favorable rating dropped into the 20s — but otherwise did not faze her. She made clear to her caucus members that they should do whatever it took to win, even if it meant publicly distancing themselves from her. “I don’t know anyone in the world with thicker skin, or anyone about whom more callous things have been said, and she just truly doesn’t care,” a former Pelosi staff member told me. “There’s a small constituency she cares about: her members.”

[“Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018]


I listened to fewer podcasts this year thanks to the introduction of audiobooks into my media diet. With that said, there were a few that stood out. Rather than specific episodes, though, this year my favorites felt more like shows in their entirety. This might be because I explored fewer new podcasts this year or just because there were a few exceptional short series that came out in 2018.

First off is Reply All. As far as week-after-week quality goes, it’s hard to beat these guys. Two (really three) episodes in particular stood our for me:

  1. “Invcel”: “How a shy, queer Canadian woman accidentally invented one of the internet’s most toxic male communities.”
  2. “The Crime Machine, Part 1” & “The Crime Machine, Part 2”: “New York City cops are in a fight against their own police department. They say it’s under the control of a broken computer system that punishes cops who refuse to engage in racist, corrupt policing. The story of their fight, and the story of the grouchy idealist who originally built the machine they’re fighting.”

Next up is American Fiasco, Roger Bennet’s ten-part series on the disaster that was America’s 1998 World Cup.

Finally, and my real pick, is Rukmini Callimachi’s ten-part series Caliphate. The podcast follows Callimachi as she reports on the Islamic State and the fall of Mosul. It’s an extraordinary piece of reporting with the kinds of twists and turns that we’ve come to expect in great podcasts these days. Again, I can’t say enough about Callimachi’s work this year between Caliphate and The Isis Files.

[Calpihate – April, 2018]

Not This Year

Finally, because I can’t resist, I read a bunch of longform that was amazing and didn’t come out this year. Although it doesn’t officially fit my rules, I’m going to include a few picks as a way to wrap things up.

I already talked about David Grann at length, so I won’t spend too much time introducing the amazing 2008 New Yorker story I reread titled “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery.” It’s insane. Go read it.

I think I read “Promthea Unbound” just after I put together last year’s list otherwise I have to assume it would have made the cut. It’s the extraordinary (sorry, I’m running out of superlatives) story of a child genius and her mom and how they got through life together.

Finally, my pick for “Not This Year” maybe shouldn’t officially even count as longform, but I’m making the rules and I say short stories are allowed. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a short story by Ursula Le Guin that feels as appropriate today (if not more) than it must have when it was published in 1973. It’s about the costs were willing to take on to live happily. I’ll leave it at that so you can enjoy.

[“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973]

The Picks

Alright, that’s it, thanks for reading. Here are the picks all wrapped up:

The Full Lists

Articles (in chronological order):

  1. “Parking for Gold” – Geoff Manaugh – The Atlantic – January 2, 2018
  2. “The Case for the Subway” – Jonathan Mahler – New York Times Magazine – January 3, 2018
  3. “Making China Great Again” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – January 8, 2018
  4. “My Father’s Body, at Rest and in Motion” – Siddhartha Mukherjee – New Yorker – January 8, 2018
  5. “The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed” – Alexis C. Madrigal – The Atlantic – January 10, 2018
  6. “The diabolical genius of the baby advice industry” – Oliver Burkeman – The Guardian – January 16, 2018
  7. “The Rising Pressure of the #MeToo Backlash” – Jia Tolentino – New Yorker – January 24, 2018
  8. “To Be, or Not to Be” – Masha Gessen – New York Review of Books – Feburary 8, 2018
  9. “Has Anyone Seen the President?” – Michael Lewis – Bloomberg – February 9, 2018
  10. “Inside The Two Years That Shook Facebook—And The World” – Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein – Wired – February 12, 2018
  11. “The White Darkness” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 12, 2018
  12. “What has really been going on with Markelle Fultz?” – Kyle Neubeck – Philly Voice – February 12, 2018
  13. “Jerry and Marge Go Large” – Jason Fagone – Highline – February 28, 2018
  14. “I Got a Story to Tell” – Steve Francis – Player’s Tribune – March 8, 2018
  15. “Christopher Steele, the Man Behind the Trump Dossier” – Jane Mayer – New Yorker – March 12, 2018
  16. “A $1.6 Billion Spotify Lawsuit Is Based On A Law Made For Player Pianos” – Sarah Jeong – The Verge – March 14, 2018
  17. “Why Earth’s History Appears So Miraculous” – Peter Brannan – The Atlantic – March 15, 2018
  18. “Tragically Lost in Joshua Tree’s Wild Interior” – Geoff Manaugh – New York Times Magazine – March 22, 2018
  19. “When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough” – Allison Gopnik – The Atlantic – April, 2018
  20. “The Isis Files: When Terrorists Run City Hall” – Rukmini Callimachi – New York Times – April 4, 2018
  21. “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis” – Linda Villarosa – New York Times Magazine – April 11, 2018
  22. “The Young and the Reckless” – Brendan Koerner – Wired – April 17, 2018
  23. “Whose Story (and Country) Is This?” – Rebecca Solnit – Literary Hub – April 18, 2018
  24. “How American Racism Influenced Hitler” – Alex Ross – New Yorker – April 30, 2018
  25. “Bad TV” – Andrea Long Chu – n+1 – Spring, 2018
  26. “The Gambler Who Cracked the Horse-Racing Code” – Kit Chellel – Bloomberg Businessweek – May 3, 2018
  27. “The Man Who Cracked the Lottery” – Reid Forgrave – New York Times Magazine – May 3, 2018
  28. “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” – Ta-Nehesi Coates – May 7, 2018
  29. “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul” – Jia Tolentino – New Yorker – May 14, 2018
  30. “How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds” – Nick Paumgarten – New Yorker – May 21, 2018
  31. “Trump vs. the ‘Deep State'” – Evan Osnos – New Yorker – May 21, 2018
  32. “How the NBA got its groove back” – Kevin Arnovitz and Kevin Pelton – ESPN – May 24, 2018
  33. “Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It Somebody had to foot the bill for Anna Delvey’s fabulous new life. The city was full of marks.” – Jessica Pressler – New York Magazine – May 28, 2018
  34. “The Curious Case of Bryan Colangelo and the Secret Twitter Account” – Ben Detrick – The Ringer – May 29, 2018
  35. “The Ultimate Humiliation” – Sarah Nicole Prickett – n+1 – May 30, 2018
  36. “Pay the Homeless” – Bryce Covert – Longreads – June, 2018
  37. “Stephen A. Smith Won’t Stop Talking” – Vinson Cunningham – New Yorker – June 25, 2018
  38. “‘It’s nothing like a broken leg’: why I’m done with the mental health conversation” – Hannah Jane Parkinson – The Guardian – June 30, 2018
  39. “How a Notorious Gangster Was Exposed by His Own Sister” – Patrick Radden Keefe – New Yorker – August 6, 2018
  40. “Why big companies squander brilliant ideas” – Tim Harford – Financial Times – September 8, 2018
  41. “What Termites Can Teach Us” – Amia Srinivasan – New Yorker – September 17, 2018
  42. “The Comforting Fictions of Dementia Care” – Larissa MacFarquhar – New Yorker – October 8, 2018
  43. “This Melissa McCarthy Story Just Might (Maybe? Possibly?) Cheer You Up” – Taffy Brodesser-Akner – New York Times Magazine – October 17, 2018
  44. “What if the Placebo Effect Isn’t a Trick?” – Gary Greenberg – New York Times Magazine – November 7, 2018
  45. “Nancy Pelosi’s Last Battle” – Robert Draper – New York Times Magazine – November 19, 2018
  46. “The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome” – Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson – New Yorker – November 19, 2018
  47. “Carmelo Anthony is the last great American ball hog” – Kirk Goldsberry – ESPN – December 6, 2018

Podcasts (in chronological order):

  1. “The Hollywood Edition” – Slate Money – March 31, 2018
  2. Calpihate – April, 2018
  3. “Jason Alexander” – WTF with Marc Maron – April 5, 2018
  4. “Alison Gopnik on ‘The wrong way to think about parenting, plus the downsides of modernity'” – Rationally Speaking – April 29, 2018
  5. “Invcel” – Reply All – May 10, 2018
  6. “Data, Decisions, and Basketball with Sam Hinkie” – Invest Like the Best – May 22, 2018
  7. American Fiasco – June, 2018
  8. “Charles Oakley Talks MJ Stories, LeBron, and His Favorite Fights” – The Bill Simmons Podcast – June 8, 2018
  9. “General Chapman’s Last Stand” – Revisionist History – June 13, 2018
  10. “The Crime Machine, Part 1” & “The Crime Machine, Part 2” – Reply All – October 11, 2018
  11. “Negative Mount Pleasant” – Reply All – December 6, 2018

Articles [Not 2018] (in chronological order):

  1. “The Last Question” – Isaac Asimov – November, 1956
  2. “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” – Ursula Le Guin – October, 1973
  3. “True Crime: A Postmodern Murder Mystery” – David Grann – New Yorker – February 11, 2008
  4. “The Last Days of Stealhead Joe” – Ian Frazier – Outside – August 21, 2013
  5. “After decades of defeat, Caltech finds formula for winning in conference” – Chris Ballard – Sports Illustrated – November 23, 2015
  6. “The Falling Man: An Unforgettable Story” – Tom Junod – September 9, 2016
  7. “Promethea Unbound” – Mike Mariani – Atavist Magaqzine – October 27, 2017
  8. “Downward Spiral” – David Roth – The Baffler – December 4, 2017

January 2, 2019 // This post is about: , ,

Marketing and the Tension Between Contrarianism and Traditionalism

I started and stopped this post four times as I tried to find the right way to open. Eventually I got tired of searching and figured it was easiest to just jump off the note I wrote to myself in Google Keep after the idea popped into my head:

That might not make so much sense (yet), but like any good note it captured enough of the concept that I remembered what I was thinking when I wrote it. I jotted it down as I was prepping for a webinar I did last week offering up some predictions for marketing in 2019. I was getting worked up (as I’m wont to do) about how much it bugs me when everyone in marketing talks about AI as if they have any idea what it really means or the implications.1 Someone asked why it bothered me so much and my answer, which kind of just poured out, was that once everyone starts agreeing about something (and saying it endlessly) it becomes less and less meaningful. This is not just some soft definition of the word meaning, though, it literally has less information.

Literally how?

A few months ago I wrote about Claude Shannon and information theory. Shannon wrote a seminal paper in 1948 called “A Mathematical Theory of Communication“. In it he defined the measure of information as, effectively, its unexpectedness (he called it entropy). The more random, the more information. This is precisely what bits measure (you can think of it as the number of yes/no questions it would take to get to the answer). What happens when you compress a photo? You take away the randomness. That’s why otherwise complex surfaces like sky or skin might come to look a bit pixelated: The compression algorithm is constraining the number of hues available in order to bring down the entropy (and therefore the file size) of the whole photo.

What does that mean for marketing buzzwords?

Well, as everyone starts to say the same thing and continue to offer little behind it, it becomes more and more expected and, therefore, starts to carry less and less information. When people layer on top of those buzzwords with real examples or alternative ideas, they return some randomness (and therefore information) to the concept. At their best, marketing contrarians are attempting to breathe some life into words and ideas that have otherwise lost their information content.

I don’t really like to think of myself as a contrarian because I think that often carries with it some notion of being different for the sake of being different (and trolling). Rather, I think if everyone is following one strategy or idea, the value of being the next person to jump on board is incrementally less (especially when that idea is poorly defined/understood). In a way it’s like an anti-network effect.

What can contrarians teach us?

That guy with the sad face is former Philadelphia 76ers General Manager Sam Hinkie. He is a contrarian. For the uninitiated, the brief history here is that Hinkie carried out one of the most radical transformation experiments in recent sports history.2 He put aside any notion that his team was trying to win and traded everything away for more ping pong balls in the NBA’s rookie lottery. In basketball, where only five guys from a team are on the floor at any one time, a superstar can have a massive impact on a team’s success. In a 2016 episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell called basketball a “strong link” sport because a team’s success is best predicted by the quality of its best player (as opposed to soccer where it’s based on the worst player on the field he explains). Hinkie figured this out. He also figured out the best way to get one of those superstars was to draft them and to do that you had to have an early first round pick. In the end, he took a lot of heat for his strategy (even though he was following all the rules) and was eventually pushed out by the league office (and replaced by someone whose wife kept secret Twitter accounts where she posted lots of critical comments about players on the Sixers as well as some private medical information … whoops).

Back to Hinkie’s letter. It was leaked and provided an amazing view into the psyche of someone who was willing to be a pariah. In it he paints an interesting picture of the connection between contrarianism and traditionalism.

Here he is on contrarianism:

To develop truly contrarian views will require a never-ending thirst for better, more diverse inputs. What player do you think is most undervalued? Get him for your team. What basketball axiom is most likely to be untrue? Take it on and do the opposite. What is the biggest, least valuable time sink for the organization? Stop doing it. Otherwise, it’s a big game of pitty pat, and you’re stuck just hoping for good things to happen, rather than developing a strategy for how to make them happen.

And on traditionalism:

While contrarian views are absolutely necessary to truly deliver, conventional wisdom is still wise. It is generally accepted as the conventional view because it is considered the best we have. Get back on defense. Share the ball. Box out. Run the lanes. Contest a shot. These things are real and have been measured, precisely or not, by thousands of men over decades of trial and error. Hank Iba. Dean Smith. Red Auerbach. Gregg Popovich. The single best place to start is often wherever they left off.

Let’s bring it back to buzzwords.

So basically Hinkie’s argument is that the most appropriate way to be a contrarian is to also be a traditionalist: To be a respectful student of the underlying principles while also constantly probing and questioning whether they still make sense. One of the things that surprises me about the marketing industry is how often people miss this tradeoff. In an attempt to play the contrarian they shun traditional wisdom, but at the same time they repeat empty phrases and approaches at every conference that will let them on stage.

I actually think one of the reasons Byron Sharp’s book How Brands Grow has picked up as much steam as it has is because it strikes a good balance between these things. It’s a contrarian take (loyalty shouldn’t be a goal because it’s an outcome) but at the same time it’s deeply rooted in some traditional marketing ideas (marketshare, reach, and creativity to name three). This is a tough balance to strike, but when someone hits the spot is has the opportunity to really resonate.

Unfortunately, most of the time the industry misses the market by a lot. What we end up with a bunch  of anti-historical/anti-intellectual slogans that get repeated ad-infinitum. It’s lots of words and  little information.


  1. Here’s the notes I had for the question: “Let me start by saying that I predict in 2019 marketers will continue to talk about AI and ML interchangeably with no idea what the words mean. (I’m particularly salty about this.) I would broadly see we will continue to see ML become more available as different kinds of wrappers are made available that enables folks to use it in more of their everyday work. This seems to be some of what Microsoft and Google are doing with smart integrations into their work suites. In general, my take on AI/ML is it’s a classic case of Amara’s law, “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” In the short term, these things aren’t going to be writing copy and, anyway, that’s not that big a deal. In the long term, the promise of ML is data modeling and coding written by computers, not people. That’s definitely not a 2019 prediction, but it’s the road we’re going down.”
  2. I recognize that the word/idea transformation belongs in the buzzword bucket, but if you read about Hinkie and what he did I think it’s a fair use of the word with real meaning. He was a heretic who questioned the most fundamental law of professional sports (“you play every game to win”) and rewrote the path to building a championship contender.

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

Pre-Committing and The Public Library

This being Giving Tuesday, I thought it was appropriate to write up something up about a non-profit I think is worth supporting: Your local library. As always, if you enjoy these posts please sign up for my email to not miss any posts and always feel free to share with friends. Thanks.

At the beginning of the year I decided I was going to try to read more books this year. I don’t remember it was a resolution or what, but I set a goal of thirty and set on my way, tracking everything on Goodreads (which has legitimately become one of my favorite networks over the last eleven months). This post isn’t about my book list, though (I’ll wrap that up at the end of the year), but rather about the library. Most of the books I’ve read this year have been borrowed using Libby, the app offered by Overdrive which manages e-book borrowing for most libraries (including the New York Public and Brooklyn Public, where I belong).

When I’ve told people about my library habits I’ve gotten two reactions: There’s a group who is amazed that you can borrow Kindle books and promises to immediately go out and get themselves a card and there’s another who tells me they tried it, but the borrowing just didn’t work for them. They can never find books they want, they explain, and when they do finally find a good ebook to borrow, they are always on hold. I can’t say much about not finding books you want except that I’ve managed to find lots books this year that were both well worth reading and immediately available. But that’s not the point of this post. I want to talk about book holds and how they’re better thought of as a feature of the library, not a bug. Let me explain.

Back in 2006 I vividly remember reading about behavioral economics for the first time. I had somehow run across an article about it from Harvard Magazine and there was one bit in particular, about how pre-committing to something can help us work against our instinct to take the easy way out, that fascinated me at the time and still rattles around in my brain to this day. The basic idea, now commonly understood with the rising prominence of behavioral economics, is that humans do a very bad job of the value of things in the future. As a result, we are constantly doing things that give us pleasure in the short term and not the long term. In other words, we promise tomorrow’s self it will read that important book, watch that critically acclaimed film, or finally hit the gym while today’s self enjoys that trashy novel, watches another dumb sitcom episode, and drinks a few beers with friends instead of exercising.

But there’s a trick to dealing with our irrationality and it’s called pre-committing. The article offered up an analogy by way of Homer:

The goddess Circe informs Odysseus that his ship will pass the island of the Sirens, whose irresistible singing can lure sailors to steer toward them and onto rocks. The Sirens are a marvelous metaphor for human appetite, both in its seductions and its pitfalls. Circe advises Odysseus to prepare for temptations to come: he must order his crew to stopper their ears with wax, so they cannot hear the Sirens’ songs, but he may hear the Sirens’ beautiful voices without risk if he has his sailors lash him to a mast, and commands them to ignore his pleas for release until they have passed beyond danger. “Odysseus pre-commits himself by doing this,” Laibson explains.

Sometimes, as the analogy goes, we’ve got to bind ourselves to the mast of what’s good for us to actually make it happen. Back in 2006 my favorite example of pre-commitment was Netflix. If you can remember back to its days before life as a streaming service, you put a DVD at the bottom of your queue as you chose it and it slowly moved up the list as you watched and returned movies. The beauty of the system was that it disconnected what you wanted to watch from what you actually watched by splitting them up as two different functions (largely the result of needing to mail out DVDs). What it meant for me was that I watched a bunch of great films I’d always wanted to see because they showed up in my mailbox and I didn’t have another good choice. Instead of just watching another mindless procedural crime drama (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I finally got around to watching films from Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, and a bunch of other filmmakers that had been permanently relegated to deep depths of my mental movie queue.

So back to the library. If you haven’t borrowed an e-book before it works just like borrowing a physical one: The library has a set number of digital copies and if they’re all out at the moment then you get put on a waitlist. The longest you can borrow a book is 21 days and there are no renewals. That means holds often come through at inopportune times. Sometimes that means skipping the book altogether, but more often I’ve found it was just the push I needed to read something I wanted to read in the past but wouldn’t have necessarily made time for in the present.

In other words, in case you needed a reason to appreciate the public library outside the amazing civic resource it is (one branch of the New York Public Library announced they were lending ties, briefcases, and handbags to people who needed them for job interviews earlier this year), the borrowing mechanism can actually help you fight some of your more irrational tendencies.

Finally, because I can’t resist, if you appreciate the library it’s worth giving a donation if you can afford it. If you think of all the money you spend on Netflix and the like, it’s hopefully not too much of a hardship to offer your local library a few dollars a month. They’d surely appreciate it.

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

Remainders: From Parking Garages to Political Contributions

It’s been awhile since I did a Remainders posts so I figured I’d throw one together. In theory it’s all the other stuff I didn’t get a chance to blog about. In reality, it’s pretty much everything I’ve been reading that isn’t about mental models/frameworks (and even some of that). You can find previous versions filed under Remainders and, as always, if you enjoy the writing, please subscribe by email and pass around.

Let’s start with some books. Here’s what I’ve read in the last three months (in order of when they were read):

Okay, onto some other reading, etc. …

This Wired piece about the possibility of a coming “AI cold war” has two particularly interesting strings in it: One is a fundamental question about the nature of technology and its relationship with democracy (put simply: is the internet better structured to support or defeat democratic ideals) and the other is about how China (and the US) will use 5G as a power play (“If you are a poor country that lacks the capacity to build your own data network, you’re going to feel loyalty to whoever helps lay the pipes at low cost. It will all seem uncomfortably close to the arms and security pacts that defined the Cold War.”)

I’ve been fascinated by the mysterious attacks against Americans in Cuba since I read about them (probably over a year ago now). I was excited to see the New Yorker finally dig in.

We’ve been having lots of trouble convincing our three-year-old to wear a coat in the cold. Turns out its pretty normal.

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked a bunch of academics for their most influential academic book of the last twenty years. Lots of interesting things to read here.

This is from earlier in the year, but it’s worth re-reading Bruce Schneier’s piece on securing elections. More recently he had a good one on mobile phone security.


  • Benoît Mandelbrot (of fractal fame) is apparently responsible (at least in part) for the introduction of passwords at IBM. From When Einstein Walked with Gödel (which I’m reading now), “When his son’s high school teacher sought help for a computer class, Mandelbrot obliged, only to find that soon students all over Westchester County were tapping into IBM’s computers by using his name. ‘At that point, the computing center staff had to assign passwords,’ he says. ‘So I can boast-if that’s the right term-of having been at the origin of the police intrusion that this change represented.'”
  • Also from the same book, the low numerals are meant to be representative of the number of things they are. Since that makes no sense, here’s the quote from the book: “Even Arabic numerals follow this logic: 1 is a single vertical bar; 2 and 3 began as two and three horizontal bars tied together for ease of writing.”
  • When you get helium super cold very strange stuff starts happening.
  • A Rochester garbage plate “is your choice of cheeseburger, hamburger, Italian sausages, steak, chicken, white or red hots*, served on top of any combination of home fries, french fries, baked beans, and/or macaroni salad.”
  • There’s a taxonomy of parking garage design (image below).

Barkley Marathons sound awful.

This hit close to home:

It took 200 years for them to start making brown point shoes for non-white ballet dancers

There’s apparently a big conversation going on in the machine learning community about whether ML is alchemy:

Rahimi believes contemporary machine learning models’ successes — which are mostly based on empirical methods — are plagued with the same issues as alchemy. The inner mechanisms of machine learning models are so complex and opaque that researchers often don’t understand why a machine learning model can output a particular response from a set of data inputs, aka the black box problem. Rahimi believes the lack of theoretical understanding or technical interpretability of machine learning models is cause for concern, especially if AI takes responsibility for critical decision-making.

This is a park covered in spiderwebs:

Tangentially related, here’s how corporate America contributes to politics by industry:

The Article Group email list is worth subscribing to. Back issues here.

I loved this quote from philosopher Daniel Dennet’s talk on what he calls intelligent design (don’t worry, it’s not the same):

Stochastic terrorism is one of those ideas you read once and think about from then on

I don’t know where I fall on this, but I found Douglas Rushkoff’s argument that universal basic income is a scam being put forward by technology companies fascinating:

Uber’s business plan, like that of so many other digital unicorns, is based on extracting all the value from the markets it enters. This ultimately means squeezing employees, customers, and suppliers alike in the name of continued growth. When people eventually become too poor to continue working as drivers or paying for rides, UBI supplies the required cash infusion for the business to keep operating.

Adam Davidson had a good Twitter thread about “both-sidism” in political reporting.

Wired on “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature”.

The changing landscape of business expenses:

It seems like one out of 100 Player’s Tribune articles are amazing. This one from former Clipper Darius Miles fits the bill.

I’ve been really enjoying John Horgan’s Scientific American blog “Cross-Check”.

David Grann, who is probably my favorite author, snuck a book out without me knowing. Called White Darkness, it appears to be an expanded version of his New Yorker article about Antarctic explorers from earlier this year (one of my favorites).

Alright, I’m going to cut this here … I’m only caught up to late October, so look out for a part two. Thanks for reading.

November 12, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Variance Spectrum [Framework of the Day]

If you haven’t read any of these yet, the gist is that I’m writing a book about mental models and writing these notes up as I go. You can find links at the bottom to the other frameworks I’ve written. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the email and share these posts with anyone you think might enjoy them. I really appreciate it.

The vast majority of the models I’ve written about were ones that I discovered at one time or another and have adopted for my own knowledge portfolio. The Variance Spectrum, on the other hand, I came up with. Its origin was in trying to answer a question about why there wasn’t a centralized “system of record” for marketing in the same way you would find one in finance (ERP) or sales (CRM). My best answer was that the output of marketing made it particularly difficult to design a system that could satisfy the needs of all its users. Specifically, I felt as though the variance of marketing’s output, the fact that each campaign and piece of content is meant to be different than the one that came before it, made for an environment that at first seemed opposed to the basics of systemization that the rest of a company had come to accept.

To illustrate the idea I plotted a spectrum. The left side represented zero variance, the realm of manufacturing and Six Sigma, and the right was 100 percent variance, where R&D and innovation reign supreme.

While the poles of the spectrum help explain it, it’s what you place in the middle that makes it powerful. For example, we could plot the rest of the departments in a company by the average variance of their output (finance is particularly low since so much of the department’s output is “governed” — quite literally the government sets GAAP accounting standards and mandates specific tax forms). Sales is somewhere in the middle: A pretty good mix of process and methodology plus the “art of the deal”. Marketing, meanwhile, sits off to the right, just behind R&D.

But that’s just the first layer. Like so many parts of an organization (and as described in my essays on both The Parable of Two Watchmakers and Conway’s Law), companies are hierarchical and at any point in the spectrum you can drill in and find a whole new spectrum of activities that range from low variance to high variance. That is, while finance may be “low variance” on average thanks to government standards, forecasting and modeling is most certainly a high variance function: Something that must be imagined in original ways depending on a number of variables include the company, and its products and markets (to name a few). Zooming in on marketing we find a whole new set of processes that can themselves be plotted based on the variance of their output, with governance far to the low variance side and creative development clearly on the other pole. Another way to articulate these differences is that the low variance side represents the routine processes and the right the creative.

While I haven’t seen anyone else plot things quite this way, this idea, that there are fundamentally different kinds of tasks within a company, is not new. Organizational theorists Richard Cyert, Herbert Simon, and Donald Trow, also noted this duality in paper from 1956 called “Observation of a Business Decision“:1

At one extreme we have repetitive, well-defined problems (e.g., quality control or production lot-size problems) involving tangible considerations, to which the economic models that call for finding the best among a set of pre-established alternatives can be applied rather literally. In contrast to these highly programmed and usually rather detailed decisions are problems of a non-repetitive sort, often involving basic long-range questions about the whole strategy of the firm or some part of it, arising initially in a highly unstructured form and requiring a great deal of the kinds of search processes listed above. In this whole continuum, from great specificity and repetition to extreme vagueness and uniqueness, we will call decisions that lie toward the former extreme programmed, and those lying toward the latter end non-programmed. This simple dichotomy is just a shorthand for the range of possibilities we have indicated.

This also introduces an interesting additional way to think about the spectrum: The left side is representative of those ideas where you have the most clarity about the final goal (in manufacturing you know exactly what you want the output to look like when it’s done) and the right the most ambiguity (the goal of R&D is to make something new). For that reason, high variance tasks should also fail far more often than their low variance counterparts: Nine out of ten new product ideas might be a good batting average, but if you are throwing away 90 percent of your manufactured output you’ve massively failed.

Even though it may be tempting, that’s not a reason to focus purely on the well-structured, low-variance problems, as Richard Cyert laid out in a 1994 paper titled “Positioning the Organization“:

It is difficult to deal with the uncertainty of the future, as one must to relate an organization to others in the industry and to events in the economy that may affect it. One must look ahead to determine what forces are at work and to examine the ways in which they will affect the organization. These activities are less structured and more ambiguous than dealing with concrete problems and, therefore, the CEO may have trouble focusing on them. Many experiments show that structured activity drives out unstructured. For example, it is much easier to answer one’s mail than to develop a plan to change the culture of the organization. The implications of change are uncertain and the planning is unstructured. One tends to avoid uncertainty and to concentrate on structured problems for which one can correctly predict the solutions and implications.2

Going a level deeper, another way to cut the left and right sides of the spectrum is based on the most appropriate way to solve the problem. For the routine tasks you want to have a single way of doing things in an attempt to push down the variance of the output while on the high variance side you have much more freedom to try different approaches. In software terms this can be expressed as automation and collaboration respectively.

While this is primarily a framework for thinking about process, there’s a more personal way to think about the variance spectrum as it relates to giving feedback to others. It’s a common occurrence that employees over-or-misinterpret the feedback of more senior members of the team. I experienced this many times myself in my role as CEO. Because words are often taken literally from the leader of a company, an aside about something like color choice in a design comp can be easily misconstrued as an order to change when it wasn’t meant that way. The variance spectrum in that context can be used to make explicit where the feedback falls: Is it a low variance order you expect to be acted on or a high variance comment that is simply your two cents? I found this could help avoid ambiguity and also make it more clear I respected their expertise.


  1. This paper is kind of amazing to read. It feels revolutionary to actually look at how specific decisions come to be made within a company.
  2. There’s a whole other really interesting area to explore here that I’m mostly skipping over about using the variance spectrum to help decide types of problems and the mix of work. Although I don’t have a specific model (hence why this is a footnote), the idea that you should decide on your portfolio of activities based on having a good diversity of work across the spectrum is fascinating and seems like a good idea. It’s also in line with a point Herbert Simon makes at the very beginning of his book Administrative Behavior: “Although any practical activity involves both ‘deciding’ and ‘doing,’ it has not commonly been recognized that a theory of administration should be concerned with the processes of decision as well as with the processes of action. This neglect perhaps stems from the notion that decision-making is confined to the formulation of over-all policy. On the contrary, the process of decision does not come to an end when the general purpose of an organization has been determined. The task of ‘deciding’ pervades the entire administrative organization quite as much as does the task of ‘doing’- indeed, it is integrally tied up with the latter. A general theory of administration must include principles of organization that will insure correct decision-making, just as it must include principles that will insure effective action.”


  • Cyert, R. M., Simon, H. A., & Trow, D. B. (1956). Observation of a business decision. The Journal of Business, 29(4), 237-248.
  • Cyert, R. M. (1994). Positioning the organization. Interfaces, 24(2), 101-104.
  • Dong, J., March, J. G., & Workiewicz, M. (2017). On organizing: an interview with James G. March. Journal of Organization Design, 6(1), 14.
  • March, J. G. (2010). The ambiguities of experience. Cornell University Press.
  • Simon, H. A. (2013). Administrative behavior. Simon and Schuster.
  • Stene, E. O. (1940). An approach to a science of administration. American Political Science Review, 34(6), 1124-1137.

Framework of the Day posts:

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