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.
I could have easily read another 10,000 words on Ed & Steve Sabol and the legacy they’ve created in NFL films. The Atlantic had a really nice profile of how the company came to be and ultimately what it meant to (and how it changed) the game titled “The Taught America How to Watch Football“. Go read the whole thing, but in the meantime, here are two nuggets I found especially interesting. First, on how recording the game changed it:
There’s a degree of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in all this: by observing the game, the Sabols changed it. Their movies taught a generation of kids who became players how to behave onscreen. It made them self-conscious. “I remember the first player who looked into the lens and said ‘Hi, Mom.’ I thought it was the end of everything,” Steve told me. “ ‘We can’t capture it anymore. The players are thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them.’ But I was wrong. In the end, the performance became another part of the game.” If you want to understand football, don’t look at Jim Brown or John Elway or Tom Brady, Steve explained. Look at Homer Jones, a receiver for the Giants in the 1960s. Players used to hand the ball to the referee after scoring, or toss it to the fans. Jones, wanting to distinguish himself, whipped it into the turf instead. The first spike. You can go from there to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s end-zone dance, Ickey Woods’s shuffle, Terrell Owens’s Sharpie, Rob Gronkowski’s antics. In the modern game, the camera is the 12th man, another participant in the unfolding drama.
Next, a theory on why football ultimately surpassed baseball as America’s sport (this one comes in the conclusion):
Why did football surpass baseball? Because football is perfect for the TV screen, which is actually shaped like a football field; because football is at once the most intellectual and the most brutal game in the world, in which the coaches think while the players bleed; because we love to see people knocked silly. But also, perhaps even primarily, because football mints the kind of uniquely vivid images that the Sabols could spin, over and over, into a Kipling poem about war.
I thought this was a really interesting way to look at free agency in the NFL from Grantlant:
The bigger problem is the idea that upgrading at that position, or in that facet of the game, requires a team to throw money at acquiring a talented player, even if it means that the team overspends in the process. Teams approach the problem of having below-average output at a position by saying, “We need to upgrade to something better here, even if it costs us too much.” Instead, they should approach it from the equally compelling, alternative viewpoint of, “We’re already so bad here that we can’t be much worse next season, so upgrading to a superior player is incredibly easy!” Rather than seeing the free-agent pool as being full of players who would provide superior production to the guys on your roster, bad organizations insist on picking one player from that pool and spending more money than they should to obtain an upgrade they can get from just about anyone.
I know you’re not all football fans, but it’s an interesting way to think about how business is run generally (I’m sure there’s a behavioral economics fallacy for this).
If you’re a football fan (American that is), you’ve been following the bounty story about how the Saints were paying out when one player injured an opposing player. Anyway, I’ve been paying attention to the debate with moderate interesting, but I really liked this point about the whole debate from my friend Jeff over at Da Bears Blog:
Here is my big problem with the Saints bounty story. A year ago, during labor negotiations, the players preached solidarity. They preached they were a single organism and ownership was out to limit to their economic intake during their short-term NFL tenures. They were against the 18-game schedule for health reasons and never allowed the issue to be put on the table. They are still against rigid HGH testing and many believe it is because players depend on HGH for muscle regeneration. (Being that football is just 300-pound guys hitting each other repeatedly, I get it.) Now we find out that 1 of the 32 teams was benefitting economically from sending players to the sideline. Not just quarterbacks, either. This was tight ends and linemen and backups. Guys who play less than five years on average in the league. If you knocked ANY player out of a game, you were worthy of a bonus. I don’t get on the moral high horse with these types of issues. But if the Bears had done this I would be incredibly embarrassed.
Football manager is an interesting position. In Europe the job wraps up what is two positions in the United States: Coach and GM. The big difference between a manager of a european football club and the coach of a US football team is final say over personnel decisions. In the US a coach has a say, sure, but it’s the GM who is really making the decision. Obviously that makes the European job much different, more strategic and, probably, harder.
Which makes it all the more impressive that Sir Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, has been at the helm of one of the world’s most successful sports franchises for 25 years. In the US, the average tenure of a coach in one of the four major sports is right around 3 seasons and althought I’m having trouble tracking down good numbers for European football at the moment I have no reason to believe it’s any longer (especially with the addition of relegation, which is one of the more brilliant things in sports).
Anyway, here’s how the article explains Ferguson’s success:
Shuffling his backroom pack has given Ferguson a fresh pair of eyes to see United through and also prevented players, in particular the longer-serving ones, from going stale on the training ground. New ideas, combined with players willing to adapt to them, are essential for the top clubs. Manchester United have not played in the same style for these 25 years; they have bought new players to adapt to new systems, sometimes to pull further away from their counterparts and sometimes to narrow a gap. This season’s style is different again and, in terms of their pressing game, has parallels with the way Barcelona try to win the ball back.
One of the things that always strikes me about NFL coaches (I know the NFL better than any of the other sports leagues) is that they always bring a system with them. In the case of the Chicago Bears and Lovie Smith it’s the cover-2 defense. There are those coaches that bring offensive systems as well, but seldom do you hear about a coach who is adapting their system to the talent on the roster. It sounds like this is exactly what Ferguson has done and, as a result, has helped him keep his gig (I’m sure lots of football fans would argue extraordinary amounts of money to spend on players had something to do with it as well … but Joe Torre still got fired).