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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Climbing Rocks

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

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

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

On how you rate different climbing routes:

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

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

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

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

Normalization of Deviance & The Growing Organization

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

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

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

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

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

Transparency and The Executive Review

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

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

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

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

Subway Uncertainty vs Coconut Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trolley Dodgers

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

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

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

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

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

Why It Seems Like Everyone is Doing that Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Economics of Basketball Fads

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of my favorite reads of 2015

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

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

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

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

Brand Management: Past, Present, and Future

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

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

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

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

Check out both parts.

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