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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Framework of the Day: Parable of Two Watchmakers

Another framework of the day. If you haven’t read the others, the links are all at the bottom. I’m working on a book of mental models and sharing some of the research and writing as I go. This post actually started in writing about Conway’s Law, which is coming soon. I felt like I had to get this out first, as I would need to rely on some of the research in giving the Law its due. Thanks for reading and please let me know what you think, pass this link on, and subscribe to the email if you haven’t done it already. Thanks for reading.

This framework is a little different than the ones before as it doesn’t come with a nice diagram or four box. Rather, the Parable of Two Watchmakers is just that: A story about two people putting together complicated mechanical objects. The parable comes from a paper called “The Architecture of Complexity” written by Nobel-prize winning economist Herbert Simon (you might remember Simon from the theory of satisficing). Beyond being a brilliant economist, Simon was also a major thinker in the worlds of political science, psychology, systems, complexity, and artificial intelligence (in doing this research he climbed up the ranks of my intellectual heroes).

In his 1962 he laid out an argument for how complexity emerges, which is largely focused on the central role of hierarchy in complex systems. To start, let’s define hierarchy so we’re all on the same page. Here’s Simon:

Etymologically, the word “hierarchy” has had a narrower meaning than I am giving it here. The term has generally been used to refer to a complex system in which each of the subsystems is subordinated by an authority relation to the system it belongs to. More exactly, in a hierarchic formal organization, each system consists of a “boss” and a set of subordinate subsystems. Each of the subsystems has a “boss” who is the immediate subordinate of the boss of the system. We shall want to consider systems in which the relations among subsystems are more complex than in the formal organizational hierarchy just described. We shall want to include systems in which there is no relation of subordination among subsystems. (In fact, even in human organizations, the formal hierarchy exists only on paper; the real flesh-and-blood organization has many inter-part relations other than the lines of formal authority.) For lack of a better term, I shall use hierarchy in the broader sense introduced in the previous paragraphs, to refer to all complex systems analyzable into successive sets of subsystems, and speak of “formal hierarchy” when I want to refer to the more specialized concept.

So it’s more or less the way we think of it, except he is drawing a distinction to the formal hierarchy we see in an org chart where each subordinate has just one boss and the informal hierarchy that actually exists inside organizations, where subordinates interact in a variety of ways. And he points out the many complex systems we find hierarchy, including biological systems, “The hierarchical structure of biological systems is a familiar fact. Taking the cell as the building block, we find cells organized into tissues, tissues into organs, organs into systems. Moving downward from the cell, well-defined subsystems — for example, nucleus, cell membrane, microsomes, mitochondria, and so on — have been identified in animal cells.”

The question is why did all these systems come to be arranged this way and what can we learn from them? Here Simon turns to story:

Let me introduce the topic of evolution with a parable. There once were two watchmakers, named Hora and Tempus, who manufactured very fine watches. Both of them were highly regarded, and the phones in their workshops rang frequently — new customers were constantly calling them. However, Hora prospered, while Tempus became poorer and poorer and finally lost his shop. What was the reason?

The watches the men made consisted of about 1,000 parts each. Tempus had so constructed his that if he had one partly assembled and had to put it down — to answer the phone say— it immediately fell to pieces and had to be reassembled from the elements. The better the customers liked his watches, the more they phoned him, the more difficult it became for him to find enough uninterrupted time to finish a watch.

The watches that Hora made were no less complex than those of Tempus. But he had designed them so that he could put together subassemblies of about ten elements each. Ten of these subassemblies, again, could be put together into a larger subassembly; and a system of ten of the latter subassemblies constituted the whole watch. Hence, when Hora had to put down a partly assembled watch in order to answer the phone, he lost only a small part of his work, and he assembled his watches in only a fraction of the man-hours it took Tempus.

Whether the complexity emerges from the hierarchy or the hierarchy from the complexity, he illustrates clearly why we see this pattern all around us and articulates the value of the approach. It’s not just hierarchy, he goes on to explain, but also modularity (which he refers to as near-decomposability) that appears to be a fundamental property of complex systems. That is, each of the subsystems operates both independently and as part of the whole. As Simon puts it, “Intra-component linkages are generally stronger than intercomponent linkages” or, even more simply, “In a formal organization there will generally be more interaction, on the average, between two employees who are members of the same department than between two employees from different departments.”

Why is that? Well, for one, it’s an efficiency thing. Just as we see inside organizations, we want to use specialized resources in a specialized way. But beyond that, as Simon outlines in the parable, it’s also about resiliency: By relying on subsystems you have a defense against catastrophic failure when one piece of the whole breaks down. Just as Hora was able to quickly start building again when he put something down, any system made up of subsystems should be much more capable of dealing with changes in environment. It works in organisms, companies, and even empires, as Simon pointed out in The Sciences of the Artificial:

We have not exhausted the categories of complex systems to which the watchmaker argument can reasonably be applied. Philip assembled his Macedonian empire and gave it to his son, to be later combined with the Persian subassembly and others into Alexander’s greater system. On Alexander’s death his empire did not crumble to dust but fragmented into some of the major subsystems that had composed it.

Hopefully the application of this framework is pretty clear (and also instructive) in every day business life. Interestingly, Simon’s theories were the ultimate inspiration for a management fad we saw burn bright (and flame out) just a few years ago: Holacracy, the fluid organizational structure made up of self-organizing teams. Invented by Brian Robertson and made famous by Tony Hsieh and Zappos, the method (it’s a registered trademark) is based on ideas about “holons” from Hungarian author and journalist Arthur Koestler. In his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, Koestler repeats Simon’s story of Tempus and Hora and then goes on to theorize that holons (a name he coined “from the Greek holos—whole, with the suffix on (cf. neutron, proton) suggesting a particle or part”) are “meant to supply the missing link between atomism and holism, and to supplant the dualistic way of thinking in terms of ‘parts’ and ‘wholes,’ which is so deeply engrained in our mental habits, by a multi-levelled, stratified approach. A hierarchically-organized whole cannot be “reduced” to its elementary parts; but it can be ‘dissected’ into its constituent branches of holons, represented by the nodes of the tree-diagram, while the lines connecting the holons stand for channels of communication, control or transportation, as the case may be.”

Holacracy aside, there’s a ton of goodness in the parable and the architecture of modularity that it posits as critical. It’s not an accident that every company is built this way and as we think about those companies designing systems, it’s also not surprising many of those should also follow suit (a good lead-in for Conway’s Law, which is up next). Although I’m pretty out of words at this point, Simon also applies the same hierarchy/modularity concept to problem solving and there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the “latticework of models” Charlier Munger described in his 1994 USC Business School Commencement Address would fit the framework.

Bibliography:

  • Egidi, Massimo, and Luigi Marengo. “Cognition, institutions, near decomposability: rethinking Herbert Simon’s contribution.” (2002).
  • Egidi, Massimo. “Organizational learning, problem solving and the division of labour.” Economics, bounded rationality and the cognitive revolution. Aldershot: Edward Elgar (1992): 148-73.
  • Koestler, Arthur, and John R. Smythies. Beyond Reductionism, New Perspectives in the Life Sciences [Proceedings of] the Alpbach Symposium [1968]. (1972).
  • Koestler, Arthur. “The ghost in the machine.” (1967).
  • Radner, Roy. “Hierarchy: The economics of managing.” Journal of economic literature 30.3 (1992): 1382-1415.
  • Simon, Herbert A. “Near decomposability and the speed of evolution.” Industrial and corporate change 11.3 (2002): 587-599.
  • Simon, Herbert A. “The Architecture of Complexity.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 106.6 (1962): 467-482.
  • Simon, Herbert A. “The science of design: Creating the artificial.” Design Issues (1988): 67-82.
  • Simon, Herbert A. The sciences of the artificial. MIT press, 1996.

Framework of the Day posts:

September 18, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , ,

Framework of the Day: Known Unknowns

As some of you may know I’ve been collecting mental models and working on a book for a little while now (it’s been going pretty slow since my daughter was born in January). This is more notes than chapter, but I still thought it was worth sharing. If you like this I’m happy to do more in the future (I wrote about the pace layers framework in my last post). Oh, and if you haven’t already, sign up to get my new blog posts by email, it’s the best way to keep up.

By all accounts Donald Rumsfeld was a man who didn’t suffer from a shortage of self-confidence. Whether it was Meet the Press, Errol Morris’s documentary Unknown Known (it’s also worth reading the four-part series Morris wrote on Rumsfeld/the documentary for the New York Times), or a grilling from Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, he always seemed supremely satisfied with his own certainty. Which must have made the public response to what’s become his most famous comment all the more vexing. At a Department of Defense briefing in February, 2002, then Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was asked about evidence to support claims of Iraq helping to supply terrorist organizations with weapons of mass destruction. “Because,” the questioner explained, “there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.”

Rumsfeld famously replied:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

While it’s a mouthful and the context shouldn’t be lost, there’s a useful framework buried in Rumsfeld’s dodge. It looks something like this:

(Give the whole article from the Project Management Institute on how to apply known unknowns to project management a read.)

Rumsfeld went on to title his memoir Known and Unknown, and explained his perspective on its meaning early in the book:

At first glance, the logic may seem obscure. But behind the enigmatic language is a simple truth about knowledge: There are many things of which we are completely unaware—in fact, there are things of which we are so unaware, we don’t even know we are unaware of them. Known knowns are facts, rules, and laws that we know with certainty. We know, for example, that gravity is what makes an object fall to the ground. Known unknowns are gaps in our knowledge, but they are gaps that we know exist. We know, for example, that we don’t know the exact extent of Iran’s nuclear weapons program. If we ask the right questions we can potentially fill this gap in our knowledge, eventually making it a known known. The category of unknown unknowns is the most difficult to grasp. They are gaps in our knowledge, but gaps that we don’t know exist. Genuine surprises tend to arise out of this category. Nineteen hijackers using commercial airliners as guided missiles to incinerate three thousand men, women, and children was perhaps the most horrific single unknown unknown America has experienced.

Rumsfeld was obsessed with Pearl Harbor. In his memoir he quotes a foreword written by game theorist/nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling that introduced a book about the attack by Roberta Wohlstetter. Schelling wrote (emphasis mine):

If we think of the entire U.S. government and its far-flung military and diplomatic establishment, it is not true that we were caught napping at the time of Pearl Harbor. Rarely has a government been more expectant. We just expected wrong. And it was not our warning that was most at fault, but our strategic analysis. We were so busy thinking through some “obvious” Japanese moves that we neglected to hedge against the choice that they actually made.

And it was an “improbable” choice; had we escaped surprise, we might still have been mildly astonished. (Had we not provided the target, though, the attack would have been called off.) But it was not all that improbable. If Pearl Harbor was a long shot for the Japanese, so was war with the United States; assuming the decision on war, the attack hardly appears reckless. There is a tendency in our planning to confuse the unfamiliar with the improbable. The contingency we have not considered seriously looks strange; what looks strange is thought improbable; what is improbable need not be considered seriously.

In other words, unknown unknowns.

Outside of politics, the framework is a useful way to categorize risk/uncertainty in life or business. I got interested and dug around a bit to find the historical context for the idea, which led me in a few different directions.

Rumsfeld credits William R. Graham at NASA with first introducing him to the concept in the late-90s, though it turns out to go back a lot further than that. The oldest reference I could find comes from a 1968 issue of the Armed Forces Journal International. In the article “The ‘Known Unknowns’ And The ‘Unknown Unknowns'” about the procurement of new weapons. The article opens like this:

Cheyenne was the first major Army weapon to be developed under DoD’s sometimes controversial contract definition procedures. General Bunker put the process in perspective by pointing out that no procedural system can entirely eliminate “surprises” from happening during development of a complex weapons system, and that contract definition wasn’t expected to. “But,” he pointed out, “there are two kinds of technical problems: there are the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns. Contract definition has helped eliminate the known unknowns. It cannot eliminate completely potential cost overruns, because these are due largely to the unknown unknowns.”

The term pops up throughout the 70s in relation to military procurement. Sometime in there some folks also start using the term “unk-unks” to refer to the most dangerous of the four boxes. Here it is in context from a 1982 New Yorker piece on the airplane industry:

The excitement of this business lies in the sweep of the uncertainties. Matters as basic as the cost of the product — the airplane — and its break-even point are obscure because so much else is uncertain or unclear. The fragility of the airline industry does, of course, create uncertainties about the size and the reliability of the market for a new airplane or a new variant of an existing airplane. Then, there is a wide range of unknowns, for which an arbitrarily fixed amount of money must be set aside in the development budget. Some of these are so-called known unknowns; others are thought of as unknown unknowns and are called “unk-unks.” The assumption is that normal improvements in an airplane program or an engine program will create problems of a familiar kind that add to the costs; these are the known unknowns. The term “unk-unks” is used to cover less predictable contingencies; the assumption is that any new airplane or engine intended to advance the state of the art will harbor surprises in the form of problems that are wholly unforeseen, and perhaps even novel, and these must be taken account of in the budget.

Some are even trying to use it as a kind of code word for breakthrough innovations.

Finally, although it’s not clear they’re connected, there’s a very similar framework from psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham from 1955 called the Johari Window. The model attempts to visualize the effects of our knowledge of self and how that works in relation to the knowledge of others:

Quadrant I, the area of free activity, refers to behavior and motivation known to self and known to others.
Quadrant II, the blind area, where others can see things in ourselves of which we are unaware.
Quadrant III, the avoided or hidden area, represents things we know but do not reveal to others (e.g, a hidden agenda or matters about which we have sensitive feelings)
Quadrant IV, area of unknown activity. Neither the individual nor others are aware of certain behaviors or motives: Yet we can assume their existence because eventually some of these things become known, and it motives were influencing relationships all along.

Despite the context for the original quote, the idea is a useful way to think about strategy and understand the various risks you might face.

Framework of the Day posts:

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

Framework of the Day: Pace Layers

As some of you may know I’ve been collecting mental models and working on a book for a little while now (it’s been going pretty slow since my daughter was born in January). This is more notes than chapter, but I still thought it was worth sharing. If you like this I’m happy to do more in the future. Oh, and if you haven’t already, sign up to get my new blog posts by email, it’s the best way to keep up.

Pace Layers

This one comes from Stewart Brand and is a way to explain the different speed various layers of society moves. The outer layer, fashion, is the quickest, while the innermost layer, nature, moves most slowly. Each layer interacts with one another as inventions and ideas get digested. As Brand explains:

The job of fashion and art is to be froth—quick, irrelevant, engaging, self-preoccupied, and cruel.  Try this!  No, no, try this!  It is culture cut free to experiment as creatively and irresponsibly as the society can bear.  From all that variety comes driving energy for commerce (the annual model change in automobiles) and the occasional good idea or practice that sifts down to improve deeper levels, such as governance becoming responsive to opinion polls, or culture gradually accepting “multiculturalism” as structure instead of just entertainment.

Brand’s inspiration for the framework came from an architect named Frank Duffy who encouraged builders not to think of a building as a single entity, but as a set of layers operating at different timescales. Duffy included four timescales: Shell, services, scenery, and sets (represented below).

Brand picked up on Duffy’s work and adapted it to a kind of proto-pace layer framework in his 1994 book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built, expanding it to six S’s and including this handy diagram:

Brand eventually adapted that into the pace layer framework at the top in his 2008 book The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility (the chapter on pace layers was edited and republished last year in MIT’s Journal of Design and Science). If you want more, here’s a great writeup from Eric Nehrlich on a conversation about pace layers between Brand and Paul Saffo. Nehrlich calls out this slide from the presentation, which is quite helpful for understanding how the layers work:

(The whole talk is posted at the Long Now Blog if you’re so inclined.)

The framework has been picked up and adapted by many, but one of the more notable versions for me comes from Gartner as a way to think about your enterprise software strategy. They break enterprise software into three “layers”:

– Systems of Record — Established packaged applications or legacy homegrown systems that support core transaction processing and manage the organization’s critical master data. The rate of change is low, because the processes are well-established and common to most organizations, and often are subject to regulatory requirements.
– Systems of Differentiation — Applications that enable unique company processes or industry-specific capabilities. They have a medium life cycle (one to three years), but need to be reconfigured frequently to accommodate changing business practices or customer requirements.
– Systems of Innovation — New applications that are built on an ad hoc basis to address new business requirements or opportunities. These are typically short life cycle projects (zero to 12 months) using departmental or outside resources and consumer-grade technologies.

Each layer has it’s own pace of change, lifetime, planning horizon, governance model, and many other unique differentiators:

All in all, the overarching shearing/pace layers framework (many layers which interact with each other and operate at different speeds) is something I’ve found useful in various spheres in addition to the society, architecture, and enterprise software examples above. Inside a company, for instance, you conduct various activities that exist in a similar set of layers ranging from long-term planning and brand building to quarterly goals or roadmaps to two week sprints to weekly exec meetings and then the daily work. It’s a useful way to spot where you’re overloaded with meetings (too many weekly check-ins, not enough monthly lookbacks) or understand where you’re falling down (not doing a good enough job translating the medium term to the long term).

Framework of the Day posts:

August 21, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Systems Thinking to Stephen A. Smith

Been awhile since I got one of these Remainders posts out. For the uninitiated, it’s a chance to share some of what I’ve been reading/seeing. You can find past versions filed under Remainders. Also, if you want to subscribe to the email so you actually find out when things are published here (on the rare occasion they are), please sign up here.

Alright, let’s start with books. Since last time I’ve read:

  • China’s Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Arthur Kroeber): Long and probably way more detail than I needed, but offered an interesting glimpse into how China became the country it is. Definitely start with this podcast before you decide to read the book.
  • Free-Range Chickens (Simon Rich): Simon Rich is funny and I needed a break after the China book. This is an hour or two of reading. You can also just start by checking out his humor writing in the New Yorker (go with Sell Out first).
  • Jennifer Government & Lexicon (Max Barry): Two sci-fi(ish) novels by Max Barry. Jennifer Government is about warring loyalty programs and Lexicon is about mind-controlling words. The latter is better. Fun and easy.
  • Men Explain Things to Me (Rebecca Solnit): Given everything that’s happened with #MeToo over the last year, it’s fascinating to go back and read this as it foretells a lot of what we’ve seen. Also, Rebecca Solnit has become a must-read for me and I’m looking forward to digging through more of her work.
  • Born Standing Up (Steve Martin): Steve Martin talking about his life as a comedian (I did the audiobook for this one, which he narrates).
  • E=mc2: A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation (David Bodanis): This was probably my favorite of the bunch. Sounds dry, but it’s a fascinating account of an equation I didn’t really understand. Takes you through in a step-by-step manner (it literally starts with “e” and then “=” and so on).
  • Thinking in Systems (Donella Meadows): I’ve read most of this once before, but I thought I could use a refresher. This is a foundational text in systems thinking and is actually easier to read than it first seems.
  • Bad Blood (John Carreyrou): The story of Theranos. Couldn’t put this down once I started.

Now onto the links.

Speaking of Donella Meadows and systems thinking, you can find lots of her work at the Academy for Systems Change site. Check out her writing on leverage points especially. Also, here’s her iceberg model:

This New Yorker story by Patrick Radden Keefe on a Dutch woman who testified against her mobster brother is amazing. Her book, which was a bestseller in the Netherlands, just came out in English this week (I thought it was coming out later this month … guess I know what I’m reading next).

Despite it’s $120+ billion market cap, Adobe is mentioned shockingly infrequently amongst the top software companies in the world. This piece by Blair Reeves does a lot to tell the story of how the company has achieved what it has.

For a few years now I’ve had a personal policy to try to give people on the street asking for money something if I’ve got it. This article makes a good case that it’s worth doing:

Much more research exists on giving cash to the poor in developing countries. Jeremy Shapiro examines the effects of giving money to people in need through his work as a co-founder of GiveDirectly and as a researcher with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics. At GiveDirectly—a nonprofit that, as its name suggests, offers cash with no strings attached—he worked on a study in Kenya; between 2011 and 2013, the researchers determined, the program improved people’s food security, allowed them to buy other crucial goods (from soap to school supplies), and was beneficial to their psychological well being. Counter to my childhood lesson, recipients didn’t spend any more than they had in the past on so-called temptation goods like alcohol and tobacco. “The takeaway is surprisingly unsurprising—when you give money to poor people good things happen,” Shapiro said. “People eat more, they invest in businesses; you see people reporting being happier and less stressed out.”

Ray Lewis got inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame this week. 18 years ago he had some involvement in a murder. How he’s avoided talking about it and come to be revered is a story in and of itself.

TIL:

This is a good visualization of roster turnover in this year’s NBA offseason:

Really amazing piece by Guardian writer Hannah Jane Parkinson on her struggle with bipolar disorder.

Podcasts:

This story about a fungi that drugs host insects with psilocybin has everything. This bit is my favorite:

And at some point during this work, it dawned on Kasson that he was working with illicit substances. Psilocybin, in particular, is a Schedule I drug, and researchers who study it need a permit from the Drug Enforcement Administration. “I thought: Oh, crap,” he says. “Then I thought: OH CRAP. The DEA is going to come in here, tase me, and confiscate my flying saltshakers.”

The article that eventually ended up with Elon Musk calling one of the Thai cave rescuers a pedo is worth reading. It makes a case for specialization that’s interesting:

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

I love these pieces by the artist 1010. Here’s one:

Last, but not least, who doesn’t want to read a profile of sports-mouth(???) Stephen A. Smith? Also, if you haven’t already , go and read The Awl on Stephen A., which includes the canonical Stephen A. Smith parody tweet (for those that haven’t heard him before, he has an uncanny ability to get himself into a frenzy about anything and a willingness to always take the other side):

Thanks for reading. Please let me know if I missed anything, feel free to share with others, and subscribe to the email if you haven’t already. Thanks!

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

Athletes: They’re Just Like Us

Source: Your Politics Are Indicative Of Which Sports You Like, Business Insider

On July 1, 2016 DeMar DeRozan signed a 5-year contract with the NBA’s Toronto Raptors for somewhere in the range of $145 million. Last week he was traded for Kawhi Leonard, the NBA’s best perimeter defender and one of the five best players in the league when he’s healthy (which he wasn’t all of last year).

DeRozan was pretty upset about it. He may or may not have been told he wouldn’t be traded and, either way, it seems clear he wanted to stay in Toronto. They drafted him when he was 20 years old and he had hopes of retiring with the team, ideally becoming the greatest Raptor in franchise history (a feat made easier by the fact that nearly every great Raptor has escaped Toronto at the first opportunity).

So far this is all just NBA news you either don’t care about or already know. So why write about it? Because I can’t deal with the “this guy shouldn’t complain, he is making almost $30 million a year” conversation. Of course there were variations, but the gist is that because you’re an athlete and you (deservedly) get paid lots of money you a) shouldn’t have, or b) shouldn’t voice, regular human feelings (this is, in case you haven’t noticed, a stance also shared by our president).

Since I read Alan Jacob’s book How to Think, I’ve had his answer to this question (or a version of it at least) rattling around in my head:

But that’s because Gladwell [in his Revisionist History podcast episode asking why Wilt Chamberlain didn’t shoot underhand free throws], like many of us, seems to have unwittingly internalized the idea that when professional athletes do the thing they’re paid to do, they’re not acting according to the workaday necessity (like the rest of us) but rather are expressing with grace and energy their inmost competitive instincts, and doing so in a way that gives them delight. We need to believe that because much of our delight in watching them derives from our belief in their delight. (In much the same way we enjoy watching the flight of birds, especially big birds of prey, associating such flying with freedom even though birds actually fly from necessity: they need to eat. And yet we have no interest in watching members of our own species drive to McDonald’s.)

That’s nearly perfectly expressed. We need to believe in their delight because of our delight and we can’t stand to think we care more about winning or losing than they do. Or, as my friend Jeff at DaBearsBlog put it, “fans think it should be honor to play pro sports because they all wish they could.” The thing here is it’s still just a job. If we zoom ourselves out for a minute and replace athlete with employee and professional sports league with desk job, we start to see things more clearly. If you hold a senior role at a company there are many in the organization who feel the same way about you as you feel about athletes: That you have it easy and if they could just be in your position everything would be right in the world. Of course you don’t and it wouldn’t.

What’s more, while some of us may have found a way to practice our passion at work (I feel pretty lucky in that regard much of the time), it’s only natural to have moments where we don’t feel like doing the things required of us or can’t find the excitement we know is there somewhere. It’s a normal part of doing the same thing everyday, which is what it means to be a professional at anything. (An interesting analog is the surprising number of startup founders I’ve met who are completely clinical about the industry in which they start their companies. They don’t need to care about the space as long as it offers the right market conditions.)

Getting back to the start, there are two main things people say about professional athletes that get under my skin: They’re rich so they should get over it and they should have known when they signed a contract. Let’s take these one at a time.

They’re rich so they should get over. While it’s true they make an unbelievable amount of money, that can create a whole new set of things to deal with that many of us can’t imagine. There’s lots of documentation that suggests after a certain point money stops making you happier. What’s more, they surely will eventually get over it, but sometimes that takes some time (try to remember back to how effective it was when someone told you “you’d get over it” after what felt like a momentous breakup). DeMarcus Cousins, a superstar NBA player who has earned around $80 million in his career but was forced to take a low-money short-term contract this season after getting hurt put this perfectly recently. When asked whether he was nervous through the free agency process, Cousins answered, “Have you ever been unemployed? Were you nervous then? Alright, that answers the question.”

They should have known when then they signed a contract. Here, again, it’s easy to turn back to all of our regular job experience. Most of us in America are at-will employees, meaning we can be fired at any time for essentially any reason. Despite the fact that we all sign an at-will employment agreement, people are frequently shocked when they’re fired, whether there is good reason or not. Do we wonder why they’re so surprised? Of course not. Sure DeRozan wasn’t fired, but he can still be surprised and sad and frustrated that it happened.

Last, but not least, there’s a much bigger story here about professional sports, money, power, and race. The NBA is a very progressive league, but even there you can’t get away from fan loyalty sitting with teams instead of players. And I’m not advocating it should, that’s the fun of watching sports: You live and die with your squad (there’s a famous Seinfeld joke about rooting for laundry). However, we can enjoy the game and our teams while not questioning the humanity of the athletes who make the whole thing possible. The NBA has made huge strides in becoming a player-centric league, but fan conversations are still lagging behind.

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

Remainders: From Maslow to Marshmallows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The iconic Ali/Liston photo turned 53 last week.

Favorite podcast episodes:

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

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

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

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

Would you go to a republican doctor?

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

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

TILs from this week:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remainders: From Fortnite to the Fermi Paradox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A TILs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are centrists the most hostile group to democracy? Maybe.

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

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

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

Remainders: From Rubber Rooms to Reply All

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

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

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

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

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

What does it take to shuffle a card deck effectively?

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

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

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

Some podcasts I listened to this week:

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

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

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

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

A few TIL’s:

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

The growth of text messaging in chart form:

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

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

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

Some “Restaurant Recommendations from Your College Friend“.

What happened to medical spending in the US in 1980?

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

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

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

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

Blockchain skepticism FTW!

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

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

Remainders: From Kanye to El Paquete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An argument against multi-tasking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s James Gleick on quantum physics.

The New Yorker reviewed books about Hitler.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information Transportation versus Transformation [Part 1]

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

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

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

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

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

Transportation

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

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

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

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

XFOML RXKHRJFFJUJ ZLPWCFWKCYJ FFJEYVKCQSGHYD QPAAMKBZAACIBZLHJQD

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Khan Academy has a great video outlining how this works:

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

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

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

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

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