Welcome to the home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Variance and general internet tinkerer. Most of my writing these days is happening over at Why is this interesting?, a daily email full of interesting stuff. This site has been around since 2004. Feel free to get in touch. Good places to get started are my Framework of the Day posts or my favorite books and podcasts. Get in touch.

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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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, The New Yorker, and Pau Gasol

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.

April 15, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , ,

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: , ,

One More Note on Why Brands Aren’t Going Anywhere

Yesterday I posted a few points in response to James Surowiecki’s New Yorker piece on the role of brand’s in a world of better information. I made a specific distinction between research-heavy products like cars and a product like soap or toothpaste, which people generally choose on brand alone. On Twitter someone asked whether that meant car brands are actually less valuable in this new world and I thought it was worth answering here as well as on Twitter.

First, the answer is no, they’re not less valuable even though research does even the playing field to some extent. But there are two important points about how people buy cars that need to be addressed. First, people generally choose out of a subset. If you want a “luxury” car you’re choosing between a BMW, Audi, or Mercedes. You don’t get to that point without brand. If you’re Kia right now, you’re advertising the hell out of your new car because you want to be in that decision set. While your ultimate decision may be purely on product merits (though it’s likely not), you have eliminated 99% of the other car options off brand alone.

Second, just want to reshare something I wrote a few months ago. This argument about brands is part of a larger anti-brand argument that’s best categorized by the quote “advertising is the tax you pay for being unremarkable.” Back in August I explained all the reasons this isn’t true and they still apply here.

February 11, 2014 // This post is about: , ,

Why Brands Aren’t Going Anywhere

This morning Felix Salmon tweeted James Surowiecki’s latest article about brands at me to see what I thought. Basically Surowiecki makes the case that brands are less meaningful in a world of information efficiency thanks to the web. His thesis, roughly:

It’s a truism of business-book thinking that a company’s brand is its “most important asset,” more valuable than technology or patents or manufacturing prowess. But brands have never been more fragile. The reason is simple: consumers are supremely well informed and far more likely to investigate the real value of products than to rely on logos. “Absolute Value,” a new book by Itamar Simonson, a marketing professor at Stanford, and Emanuel Rosen, a former software executive, shows that, historically, the rise of brands was a response to an information-poor environment. When consumers had to rely on advertisements and their past experience with a company, brands served as proxies for quality; if a car was made by G.M., or a ketchup by Heinz, you assumed that it was pretty good. It was hard to figure out if a new product from an unfamiliar company was reliable or not, so brand loyalty was a way of reducing risk. As recently as the nineteen-eighties, nearly four-fifths of American car buyers stayed loyal to a brand.

He then goes in to talk about cars and travel and a lot of other stuff that people spend a lot of time researching. In response I shot off four quick Tweets that I thought were worth sharing here:

1. Using a luxury brand (Lululemon) is fundamentally flawed. Luxury is all brand. You can fall as fast as you rise. I understand calling Lululemon luxury is a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s pretty accurate. But the second part is really the point: However fast a company rises it can fall at the same speed. We’ve seen lots of businesses reach saturation and struggle and this isn’t necessarily what happened to Lululemon, but it could be a part of the picture. To solely say that it was based on consumer’s ability to do research seems odd. Seems like a classic story of a brand growing really quickly and then struggling to maintain it’s growth. Often those brands come back quickly and continue to grow, though, so the story is far from over.

2. Where is the evidence that suggests buying on non-research products has changed? He touches on this a bit towards the end by writing, “This isn’t true across the board: brands retain value where the brand association is integral to the experience of a product (Coca-Cola, say), or where they confer status, as with luxury goods. But even here the information deluge is transformative; luxury travel, for instance, has been profoundly affected by sites like TripAdvisor.” But again, travel has always been a category that a lot of research goes in to. Anywhere people research, that research will move to the web. The fundamental truth of most products is they’re not research-driven. This is why CPG is always near the top of the largest ad spenders.

3. Research-heavy products (TVs, cars) have become much more price-efficient. Duh. Not sure there’s much to say here, but he specifically hits on how cars have been squeezed to be much more efficient. This is not rocket science and is a good thing for consumers. No debate here, just not a very interesting point.
4. Consumers have always been in control. There is more efficiency in the market now, but fundamentals are the same. This is the big piece. I’ve argued this often. Word of mouth always drove purchasing decisions. Certainly this is much more efficient, but I’m not sure I’d say it’s a sea change.

February 10, 2014 // This post is about: , , ,