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.
- The origin of inches and centimeters from E=mc2: “The conversion factors seem arbitrary, but that’s because they link measurement systems that evolved separately. Inches, for example, began in medieval England, and were based on the size of the human thumb. Thumbs are excellent portable measuring tools, since even the poorest individuals could count on regularly carrying them along to market. Centimeters, however, were popularized centuries later, during the French Revolution, and are defined as one billionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole, passing by Paris. It’s no wonder the two systems don’t fit together smoothly.”
- Surfers in cold water can develop a condition called surfer’s ear, a condition where additional bone grows in the ear canal, blocking hearing and making them more susceptible to ear infections.
- The cells that helped with finding a polio vaccine (amongst many other things) were taken from an African-American woman in 1951 and the family is only now getting some control over the widespread use of their genomic data.
- Phantom Kangaroo is a report of kangaroos or wallabies in places where there are none.
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.
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!
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:
- The Cut had this totally crazy story of an NYC socialite grifter who went by the name Anna Delvey. “Anna looked at the soul of New York and recognized that if you distract people with shiny objects, with large wads of cash, with the indicia of wealth, if you show them the money, they will be virtually unable to see anything else. And the thing was: It was so easy.”
- The craziest story in sports this week was easily this Ringer piece about Bryan Colangelo, President of Basketball Operations for NBA Philadelphia 76ers, being connected to a set of strange anonymous Twitter accounts. The handles tweeted inside info from the team and bad-mouthed Joel Embiid, the 24-year-old center they just paid $150 million. I legitimately can’t think of another story like this in sports. The Sixers are “investigating” and most expect Colangelo to be fired, although internet sleuths have zeroed in on his wife as the likely culprit, not him. (As an aside, the Sixers were also at the center of what may be the second strangest story of this NBA season: How Markelle Fultz, the number one pick in the 2017 draft, managed to forget how to shoot.)
- Speaking of the the NBA, I’ve been waiting for someone to write a definitive story of how the NBA came to be a “pace-and-space” league full of threes, layups, and free throws. ESPN’s Kevin’s Arnovitz and Pelton are the men for the job: “Through much of the ’90s, a basketball possession was commandeered by a coach on the sideline who shouted the set to the point guard, who transmitted that play call to the other four players on the floor. But today’s fast-paced NBA teams have tossed away most of the playbook in favor of a series of basic principles and patterns that empower the guys on the floor to make decisions based on feel. Gentry, whose teams were ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace five times in his six seasons as a head coach before his arrival in Phoenix to join D’Antoni’s staff, is himself a convert.”
- The New Yorker profile of John Feeley, ex-Ambassador to Panama, is yet another story of a smart and capable person who has left government because of a combination of incompetence and purposefully harmful policies from the Trump administration.
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.
I’ve set (what I originally thought was) a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Two more to go with one week left. Thanks for following along and please let me know what you think. Also, you can now subscribe to the blog by email. Sign up here.
Alright alright alright. Quick status check for me: Spent the week out in SF for Percolate’s Transition Conference where I gave a talk about how to use supply chain thinking and the Theory of Constraints to deal with the content marketing bottleneck (I’ll share the video when it gets online). We’ll be in London in early June, so if you’re around and interested in coming please reach out. I just finished the book Soldiers of Reason which is about the history of the RAND Corporation (I’ve got a half-written post I’ll try to get out about it). I’m taking a break from game theory and nuclear warfare with Andy Weir’s new book Artemis (which I haven’t heard was great, but I liked The Martian a lot and my library hold came through the day I finished the other book). Now onto the links.
The biggest story in advertising was Martin Sorrell’s departure from WPP, the largest holding company in the world. I spent a little time on Twitter looking back into the commentary around his original takeover of Wire & Plastic Products. The highlight: The company still makes wine racks.
Speaking of Wire & Plastic Products, here’s the history of the shopping cart, an under-appreciated invention.
On a more serious tip, The New Yorker had my favorite profile of Sorrell. For what it’s worth, I met him once or twice and emailed with him a few times and my takeaway were a) he knows his company and the ad industry inside out, b) he emailed me back immediately, and c) he was a good performer (it was a lot of fun to watch him interview folks on stage and make them wiggle a bit, especially media owners).
Two really excellent long-form pieces from this week:
- Wired on a group of video game hackers who took things too far.
- The Verge on the mostly failed One Laptop Per Child experiment (I’ve still got one somewhere around the house)
Matt Haughey (who, amongst other things, started one of my favorite sites Metafilter) wrote about his experience trying to recreate just one custom prop from Beyonce’s Lemonade as a way to illustrate her incredible attention to detail.
If you want to get a jump-start on my post about RAND, here’s an article from a few years ago by the author which covers many of the pertinent points (one of the amazing RAND facts is that they’ve had over 30 Nobel laureates as either employees or advisors in their ~70 years of existence).
A few weeks ago I shared an excellent Planet Money video about why Coke cost a nickel for 70 years. Well, here’s another about the economics of graveyards:
While we’re on videos, here’s one from Vox on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Continuing with the audio/visual theme, the best podcast episode I listened to this week exponent from a few weeks ago on Facebook.
Speaking of Facebook, I’m skeptical Zuckerberg doesn’t know what’s going on with the ad business as Wired suggests. The guy is very smart and runs a giant company who makes the vast majority of its money from advertising, I’d be pretty shocked if he just doesn’t know what’s going on as suggested (emphasis mine):
That isn’t to say the hearings went over perfectly, even at home. One mystifying thing to employees was that Zuckerberg frequently seemed to come up short when asked for details about the advertising business. When pressed by Roy Blunt (R-Missouri)—who, Zuckerberg restrained himself from pointing out, was a client of Cambridge Analytica—Facebook’s CEO couldn’t specify whether Facebook tracks users across their computing devices or tracks offline activity. He seemed similarly mystified about some of the details about the data Facebook collects about people. In total, Zuckerberg promised to follow up on 43 issues; many of the most straight-ahead ones were details on how the ad business works. It’s possible, of course, that Zuckerberg dodged the questions because he didn’t want to talk about Facebook’s tracking on national TV. It seemed more likely to some people on the inside, however, that he genuinely didn’t know.
My favorite headline this week: Someone Convince Me That an iPhone Wallet Case Isn’t the Dumbest Idea in the World.
The Register had a good primer on the current economics of bug bounty programs.
The always smart Tim Harford wrote about what made Stephen Hawking great. I particularly liked this bit, “First, he did not patronise his audience: presenting the most complicated ideas was a sign that he respected our intelligence. If we did not grasp everything, we would still be better off for having tried.” I have thought about this a lot in building Percolate, both internally and externally. It’s always been important to me to assume your audience is brilliant and work from there. At Transition over the years we’ve had talks on how cities grow like biological organisms, promise theory, and whether humans will follow the path of bacteria and hit the edge of the petri dish and die. The positive feedback I got on the most complex topics (told well) was always huge.
Finally, I wrote about The New Yorker, basketball, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect earlier in the week and last week I wrote a piece about the idea of an information fiduciary and how it might be a good way to think about regulating Facebook. And, of course, here’s the Remainders post from last week.
Thanks for everything and have a great weekend.
Apparently Zaha Hadid is working on a new building in China and it’s being pirated … AS SHE’S BUILDING THE ORIGINAL. This sounds like a weird William Gibson future world:
But the appeal of the Prtizker Prize winner’s experimental architecture, especially since the unveiling of her glowing, crystalline Guangzhou Opera House two years ago, has expanded so explosively that a contingent of pirate architects and construction teams in southern China is now building a carbon copy of one of Hadid’s Beijing projects.
What’s worse, Hadid said in an interview, she is now being forced to race these pirates to complete her original project first.
[Via Ed Cotton]
This is pretty crazy:
Homeowners Luo Baogen and his wife refused to allow the government to demolish their home in Wenling, Zhejiang province, China, claiming the relocation compensation offered would not be enough to cover the cost of rebuilding. So, adjacent neighboring homes were dismantled, and, bizarrely, the road was built around the intact home, leaving it as an island in a river of new asphalt.
Crazy. Be sure to check out the pictures.
Related (sort of): If you’re interested in China, driving and highways you should check out the book Country Driving. It’s by a New Yorker writer who has lived in China for some time and chronicles the ever-expanding driving culture. Here’s a little snippet:
Many traffic patterns come directly from pedestrian life—people drive the way they walk. They like to move in packs, and they tailgate whenever possible. They rarely use turn signals. Instead they rely on automobile body language: if a car edges to the left, you can guess that he’s about to make a turn. And they are brilliant at improvising. They convert sidewalks into passing lanes, and they’ll approach a roundabout in reverse direction if it seems faster. If they miss an exit on a highway, they simply pull onto the shoulder, shift into reverse, and get it right the second time. They curb-sneak in traffic jams, the same way Chinese people do in ticket lines. Tollbooths can be hazardous, because a history of long queues has conditioned people into quickly evaluating options and making snap decisions. When approaching a toll, drivers like to switch lanes at the last possible instant; it’s common to see an accident right in front of a booth. Drivers rarely check their rearview mirrors. Windshield wipers are considered a distraction, and so are headlights.
Felix Salmon has an excellent piece breaking down the whole Mike Daisey/This American Life thing and what it really means. Included is this quote from Rebecca Hamilton, author of Fighting for Darfur:
To build a mass movement quickly, it helps to have an over-simplified, emotive narrative with a single demand. It also helps to tells people that by doing easy tasks – sharing a link on Facebook, buying a bracelet — they can save lives. Central to the formula is that the agency of local actors gets downplayed to hype up the importance of action by outsiders. But all those ingredients inevitably lead to eventual failure when the simple solutions can’t fix the complex reality. The movement walks away, disillusioned. And in the meantime untold resources have been expended on solutions that have been out of step with what local activists need.