Annnnnd here’s my 10th blog post of the month. Hit my goal. (Might even make it to 11 if I have a burst of inspiration.) Thanks again for reading and encouragement. I’m going for 10 again in May. As usual, feedback welcome and you can subscribe by email here (for those of you reading this via email, thanks and sorry about the wasted words, it just emails exactly what I put on the web).
It’s time for another Remainders. This is my chance to share all the stuff I didn’t get a chance to blog about this week. As for me, I’ve been back and forth from San Francisco again. I wrote one long pieces this week on satisficing and the two strategies of marketing. On the reading front I finished up Artemis, which was easy, but nowhere near as good as The Martian. New book is the Master Algorithm, which is all about the different approaches to machine learning. It’s a bit painful at times, but I’m almost to the other side. If you’re interested in machine learning I’d highly recommend this post from Andrej Karpathy on Recurrent Neural Networks.
Okay, onto the links …
By far the best thing I read this week was the New York Times Magazine story “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis.” It’s troubling and heartbreaking and shocking. Here’s one small bit:
Black infants in America are now more than twice as likely to die as white infants — 11.3 per 1,000 black babies, compared with 4.9 per 1,000 white babies, according to the most recent government data — a racial disparity that is actually wider than in 1850, 15 years before the end of slavery, when most black women were considered chattel. In one year, that racial gap adds up to more than 4,000 lost black babies. Education and income offer little protection. In fact, a black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth-grade education.
Skip the time you’d spend reading the rest of my links and go read the whole article. When you’re done, go donate to the Birthmark Doulas.
Good piece from Felix Salmon on why congestion pricing won’t happen anytime soon in NYC (the gist: to do it right you’d have to lower the tolls on the bridges, but that won’t happen because the Verrazano raked in $417 million in 2017). Felix also had a nice Slate Money episode on brands.
The New Yorker on how Kubrick got the aesthetic of 2001 right:
By rendering a not-too-distant future, Kubrick set himself up for a test: thirty-three years later, his audiences would still be around to grade his predictions. Part of his genius was that he understood how to rig the results. Many elements from his set designs were contributions from major brands—Whirlpool, Macy’s, DuPont, Parker Pens, Nikon—which quickly cashed in on their big-screen exposure. If 2001 the year looked like “2001” the movie, it was partly because the film’s imaginary design trends were made real.
Wired on whether two-factor authentication codes are really random. Answer: They are, but we’re wired to see patterns in things.
Emily Nussbaum is the best TV writer working right now. Here she is on the Roseanne reboot:
The show offers a clever finger trap for critics. Call a hit dangerous and you imply that it’s really quite sexy. And, in fact, the seventh episode, which I won’t spoil, pulls a daring switcheroo, one that may offer a new lens through which to interpret Roseanne’s behavior. It’s not enough. The reboot nods at complexity without delivering—there are good people on many sides, on many sides. If you squint, you might see the show’s true hero as Darlene (Sara Gilbert), a broke single mom forced to move in with that charismatic bully Roseanne. But, if that were so, we might understand Darlene’s politics, too. We’d more fully feel her pain and also that of her two kids, transplanted to a place they find foreign and unwelcoming.
This story about a bot Instagram influencer is the weirdest thing I read this week.
Two Japanese words I learned this week:
- Tsudonku: “Acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.”
- Genchi Genbutsu: “This is a Japanese phrase meaning ‘go and see for yourself’, which is a central pillar of the Toyota Way, the famous management system adopted by the Japanese car company.”
An interesting critique of AI from an article about Zuckerberg and techno-optimism:
This is where the promise of artificial intelligence breaks down. At its heart is an assumption that historical patterns can reliably predict future norms. But the past—even the very recent past—is full of words and ideas that many of us now find repugnant. No system is deft enough to respond to the rapidly changing varieties of cultural expression in a single language, let alone a hundred. Slang is fleeting yet powerful; irony is hard enough for some people to read. If we rely on A.I. to write our rules of conduct, we risk favoring those rules over our own creativity. What’s more, we hand the policing of our discourse over to the people who set the system in motion in the first place, with all their biases and blind spots embedded in the code. Questions about what sorts of expressions are harmful to ourselves or others are difficult. We should not pretend that they will get easier.
Rukmini Callimachi wrote that great Isis piece from a few weeks ago, here she is with a Twitter thread on the latest announcement from the Isis spokesman.
I liked this definition of speed versus velocity from Farnam Street: “Speed doesn’t care if you are moving toward your goals or not. Velocity, on the other hand, measures displacement over time. To have velocity, you need to be moving toward your goal.”
Fact of the week: “More Americans work in museums than work in coal.” (The whole article on the real America is worth reading and was written by Rebecca Solnit who also wrote “The Loneliness of Donald Trump,” one of my favorite pieces of writing from last year.)
Amazon released an Echo update that encourages kids to say “please” to Alexa.
If you didn’t see Lebron dominate the end of the Cavs/Pacers playoff game on Wednesday night, here’s the last two plays: A block and a three. The guy is amazing.
On the other end of the sporting spectrum, the Times got a hold of tapes from a meeting between players and owners and I can’t imagine it making the NFL look worse. Here’s a small example from Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula: “For years we’ve watched the National Rifle Association use Charlton Heston as a figurehead … We need a spokesman.” These guys are such bad news.
Last, but not least, I had no idea radio buttons were … radio buttons.
That’s it for this week. As usual, let me know what I’ve missed and thanks for reading. Have a great weekend.
Yesterday I was reading an article about the first female assistance coach in the NBA in the latest issue of the New Yorker. The piece was moderately interesting and not particularly worth sharing here, except for one paragraph, and really just one sentence within it (emphasis mine):
Because of their success, the Spurs have not been eligible for the highest picks in the draft. Instead of relying on college superstars, they have built their team through some crafty trades and by pushing their young players to the limit. They scout top international players—like Parker, from France, and Manu Ginóbili, from Argentina—and sign N.B.A. veterans like Pau Gasol, from Spain, who is thirty-seven but can anchor a defense and move in a way that creates space on the floor; they also, as in the case of Leonard, hone the raw athletic talent of less experienced players. When the Spurs are at their best, the ball moves fluidly and freely. Duncan, who retired in 2016 and was perhaps the least flashy major star in the N.B.A., was emblematic of the team’s unselfish style. On a given night, almost anyone on the roster can be the leading scorer.
The whole thing seems relatively innocuous and is largely accurate: The Spurs success has been driven, at least in part, by incredibly successful drafting (Manu Ginóbili, a key player in their multi-championship run, was picked in the second round and is widely considered one of the best draft picks ever). With that said, though, Pau Gasol is most definitely not a defensive anchor. He’s a pretty good rebounder and he’s a giant, but he’s slow and famous almost entirely for his prowess on the offensive end of the court. In fact, earlier this season his coach, Gregg Popovich, said in a needling way that, “He likes offense better than defense.”1
Now obviously this is one tiny point in a giant article. But it happens to be an article about a subject I’m kind of obsessed with (the NBA) and that’s pretty rare for a magazine that covers a huge diversity of topics.
Which brings me to the title of this post: The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect.
Named after famous physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Amnesia Effect was coined by Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton to describe the act of feeling skeptical as you read a magazine or newspaper article about an area in which you have expertise and then completely forgetting that skepticism as you turn the page and read about something you know less about. If they could get it so wrong for one, why don’t we assume they could get it so wrong for all?
Here’s Michael Crichton explaining it:
Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.
The Gasol slip up put me in a funny state with my favorite magazine: What misportrayals, however small, do I take for granted when I read about topics like Catholicism or pharmaceuticals? What bothers me even more is that I feel some guilt even writing this. In this moment of conversations about fake news, questioning a publication that is unquestionably a beacon of extraordinary journalism (and fact checking!) feels like adding fuel to a fire that’s trying to burn down my house.
But reading with skepticism is something we should all do, not because we don’t trust the publication, but because its our responsibility to be media literate and develop our own points of view. The biggest problem I have with the conversation around fake news is that it makes it more difficult to have legitimately critique the media, something we should all be doing more often.
In the meantime I’m going to hope the New Yorker stays away from basketball …
1 Because I can’t go through this without making it clear: The Gasol thing is opinion and not fact and some might argue that the act of being a center makes you a defensive anchor. I spoke to a friend who is a Spurs fanatic and reinforced my raised eyebrow reaction with a “Umm hell no” to the label applied to Gasol.
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.
And I’m back …
Thought this was a really interesting comment from ESPN’s Ryen Russillo during the Grantland Basketball Hour in December. He was talking about the moves by Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé (also known for Gladwell’s writeup of his all press all the time approach to his daughter’s basketball team) and generally what it’s like for these guys who have made a lot of money in the business world coming into sports.
New owners can’t help themselves because you think about how successful these guys are at amassing their wealth. They go, “I’m the man, and now I’ll just buy a team, I’ll apply the same analytics, the same principles … I’ll just go win.” But the model in business allows many companies to be successful, the model in sports only allows one.
I never really thought about it like that, but it’s true. Although many think of business as being zero sum, it isn’t really, especially in the world of technology where people are bound to use multiple devices and applications (that’s not to say within a specific category it can’t be zero sum). Sports is different in that there is only one winner. Of course the counter-argument here is that something can’t really be zero sum when everyone gets rich, but it’s interesting to consider nonetheless.
A few weeks ago my friend Nick sent me a link to this epic 12-part series on Dennis Rodman’s basketball prowess. While Rodman has been in the news for some interesting reasons lately, prior to that he was a basketball player unlike any we’ve ever seen and this series sets out to prove the point. I was especially part of part 2(a)(i) on “Player Valuation and Conventional Wisdom,” which has a nice explanation on the battle between the eye-test and math-test in sports:
Yet chances are he remains skeptical of the crazy-talk he hears from the so-called “statistical experts” — and there is truth to this skepticism: a typical “fan” model is extremely flexible, takes many more variables from much more diverse data into account, and ultimately employs a very powerful neural network to arrive at its conclusions. Conversely, the “advanced” models are generally rigid, naïve, over-reaching, hubristic, prove much less than their creators believe, and claim even more. Models are to academics like screenplays are to Hollywood waiters: everyone has one, everyone thinks theirs is the best, and most of them are garbage. The broad reliability of “common sense” over time has earned it the benefit of the doubt, despite its high susceptibility to bias and its abundance of easily-provable errors.
I know we’re long past the NBA finals, but I really liked this quote about what actually wins basketball games:
There is nothing that has ever won a basketball game except for turning possessions into points. Both teams have about the same number of possessions — they alternate all game — and one team will turn those into more points. Halftime speeches, energy drinks, blue-chip college pedigrees … nothing matters unless it makes one team better at turning possessions into points than the other team.
One of the things that drives me a bit nuts is people saying Lebron James doesn’t have the killer instinct or whatever else. At the end of the day this is the thing that matters. Moneyball proved it, Wages of Wins is proving it, it’s hard to deny math.
I really like situations that help describe the fact that lots of factors ultimately go into the way you feel about a brand/design/marketing. I wrote a bit about how Jony Ive feels about it last week and I thought this was another interesting example from a very different place. In the early 90s a designer named Alexander Juilian was given the opportunity to redesign the UNC Tarheels basketball uniform. He was a huge Tarheels fan and thus felt a ton of pressure to deliver something amazing. Not wanting to leave things to chance, he looped Michael Jordan into the decision (Jordan, at the time, was just starting his ascent to the greatest player in the history of the NBA but he was already UNC royalty). Ultimately Julian sent all the designs to Jordan to let him sign off on his favorite:
“And guess what? As soon as Michael [Jordan] said that [the argyle design was his favorite], then the entire team also liked the argyle best. So we made the first uniform in Michael’s size, sent it to Chicago, he worked out in it, then we sent it down to Chapel Hill. There was near frenzy, I’m told, in the locker room as to who was going to be the first Carolina player to put it on after Michael because they wanted Michael’s mojo. Hubert Davis (photo, above right) won, he was the same size and he was the model. Now he’s a great sportscaster.
I’ve been reading Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball and in one of the footnotes he mentioned that the NBA (and all the other sports leagues) has a contingency plan in the case of a team losing all its players to a horrific accident. I guess it’s not surprising, but it’s kind of crazy to read the rules from this 1992 New York Times article. Here’s how it would work in basketball:
The National Basketball Association has a contingency plan that goes into effect if five or more players on any team “die or are dismembered,” according to Rod Thorn, the league’s operations director. The league would permit only five players on every other club to be protected, insuring that a fairly good player — the sixth best — could be drafted by the club suffering the tragedy. Each of the contributing clubs could lose only one player.
Bill Simmons has a good article about Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant and leadership. I found the first paragraph especially interesting:
I spent five hours with Bill Russell last week and thought of Kobe Bryant twice and only twice. One time, we were discussing a revelation from Russell’s extraordinary biography, Second Wind, that Russell scouted the Celtics after joining them in 1956. Why would you scout your own teammates? What does that even mean? Russell wanted to play to their strengths and cover their weaknesses, which you can’t do without figuring out exactly what those strengths and weaknesses were. So he studied them. He studied them during practices, shooting drills, scrimmages, even those rare moments when Red Auerbach rested him during games. He built a mental filing cabinet that stored everything they could and couldn’t do, then determined how to boost them accordingly. It was HIS job to make THEM better. That’s what he believed.
The idea of scouting your own teammates is really interesting and clearly has business implications. We tend to spend a lot of time looking at the landscape and understanding our customers, but there’s always an opportunity to better understand the people around us. We sort of do it with reviews and goals inside organizations, but this seems like a different lens on the idea of management and leadership. Instead of just trying to look at people and understand how to help them grow, you look at how competition would exploit your team and use that to try to identity your blind spots.
After last year’s NBA playoffs I got really into the NBA. I attribute it to two big things: First, the busier I am at work the more I want to just go home and veg out and the NBA makes it easy with things to watch every night and second, this season (and last year’s playoffs) is just good basketball.
Anyway, there’s a movement in the NBA (and every sports league at this point) about “advanced metrics”. It’s each league’s attempt to apply Moneyball principles to their sport. In basketball a big part of the point of these type of metrics is to answer the question of how much points are really worth. This is because the public gives an outsized amount of attention to guys that score a lot and not to how they actually get their scoring done (in other words, is someone who scores 30 points on 10 of 15 shooting better than someone who scores 40 points on 15 of 35 shooting). (If you’re bored of this now you can drop off, I won’t be offended.)
A site I enjoyed called The NBA Geek put together a nice primer on this question (and the point of advanced metrics generally). The point he makes is that each missed shot has a price and we need to take that into account in the same way we count the made ones. Regardless of the method of counting you use, you’ve got to be able to accept that basic idea. He sums it up like this:
But one thing is clear, to me at least: just because a player has great talent and is clearly capable of creating easy scoring opportunities, this does not make their bad shots “valuable”. The simple fact is, Carmelo Anthony would be a more productive player if he simply stopped taking shit shots; so would Russell Westbrook. The idea that the bad shots that these players take create value for their team has no basis in evidence at all (nor is there any evidence that these players are reluctant shooters who are shooting so much because “someone has to take the shots”). You can choose to disagree with me on that, but it’s rather like disagreeing with me about evolution and creationism — as far as I’m concerned, prove it or move it.
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