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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Remainders: From Rubber Rooms to Reply All

Another week with lots more to read. On the book end of things I finished up Play Bigger, finally got around to reading Fun Home (yes, I’m counting graphic novels against my 30 book goal for 2018) and started my first Vonnegut with God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (more on that in a bit). Didn’t write anything new this week myself, though I’ve got a few things in the hopper. As usual, if you like what you read here you can always subscribe. Okay, onto the links.

Favorite article of the week goes to Evan Osnos’s New Yorker piece on the Trump administration’s approach to “restructuring” the way the government works. Here’s a bit:

Last October, Tillerson’s office announced the launch of a “FOIA Surge,” a campaign to process a backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests, which would require three hundred and fifty State Department staffers. The work was rudimentary (“You could do it with smart interns,” one participant said), but the list of those assigned to it included prominent Ambassadors and specialized civil servants. They quickly discovered something in common: many had worked on issues of priority to the Obama Administration. Lawrence Bartlett had been one of the department’s top advocates for refugees. Ian Moss had worked to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. (Bartlett and Moss declined to comment.) “It seemed designed to demoralize,” one participant said.
Sounds a lot like the New York City rubber rooms This American Life reported on a few years ago. If you like this, you should also give Evan Osnos’s amazing 2017 piece on North Korea a read.
I love just about everything that comes out of McSweeney’s and felt a little starstruck seeing someone I know with a piece there. Give Juno DeMelo’s “A New Mom’s Honest LinkedIn Profile” a read.
There’s been a lot of talk about female head coaches in the NBA thanks to the rise of Becky Hammon on the San Antonio Spurs coaching staff. Pau Gasol, a center on the Spurs, penned a very good piece countering the arguments he’s hearing about the possibility. It’s got a good anti “stick to sports” argument as well:

But I also think it goes to something deeper than that, when people will make this argument — in a way that really bothers me. It goes to this idea that … as we’re making all of these amazing strides in society, in terms of increasing our social awareness, and making efforts toward ideas like diversity and equality, and just sort of creating this more inclusive world … somehow sports should be an exception. It’s this idea, for some people, that sports should almost be this haven, where it’s O.K. to be closed-minded — like a bubble for all of our worst ignorance. And that as athletes, if we have any problems with the way things are, we should (as the saying goes) “stick to sports.”

Tim Harford is one of my favorite economics thinkers. Here he is with his five favorite economics books.

What does it take to shuffle a card deck effectively?

Here’s a list of “ologies” in case you need it.

I had never run into the voting/weighting machine analogy of markets from Benjamin Graham (who was Warren Buffet’s hero and mentor):

The father of value investing, Benjamin Graham, explained this concept by saying that in the short run, the market is like a voting machine–tallying up which firms are popular and unpopular. But in the long run, the market is like a weighing machine–assessing the substance of a company. The message is clear: What matters in the long run is a company’s actual underlying business performance and not the investing public’s fickle opinion about its prospects in the short run.

Some podcasts I listened to this week:

Speaking of Gopnik, she wrote an interesting critique of Steven Pinker’s new book:

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.

And speaking of Julia Galef, I really liked this Tweet of hers:

At some point I’m going to write a rebuttal piece on why content isn’t a terrible term.

A few TIL’s:

Was reminded of this piece from Kevin Slavin on designing for complexity.

The growth of text messaging in chart form:

How did sports come to be so divisive? Hint: It has a lot to do with September 11th. “What was once ostensibly a unifying moment in the country has helped transform sports, with flags and flyovers, kneeling and protests — into the most divided public spectacle this side of Congress.”

As I mentioned, I’m reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Vonnegut from 1965. It feels like it’s all about this moment. I’ll try to put together a bigger post of quotes when I’m done, but here’s a little nugget to illustrate the connection:

And Samuel bought newspapers, and preachers, too. He gave them this simple lesson to teach, and they taught it well: Anybody who thought that the United States of America was supposed to be a Utopia was a piggy, lazy, God-damned fool. Samuel thundered that no American factory hand was worth more than eighty cents a day. And yet he could be thankful for the opportunity to pay a hundred thousand dollars or more for a painting by an Italian three centuries dead. And he capped this insult by giving paintings to museums for the spiritual elevation of the poor. The museums were closed on Sundays.

Some “Restaurant Recommendations from Your College Friend“.

What happened to medical spending in the US in 1980?

The 5S’s (not to be confused with the Happiest Baby on the Block approach), is a way to organize workspaces. They are:

  1. Seiri (Sort)
  2. Seiton (Straighten, Set)
  3. Seiso (Shine, Sweep)
  4. Seiketsu (Standardize)
  5. Shitsuke (Sustain)

It’s surprisingly cathartic to watch people organize a hospital supply room using the method.

The FT is no longer requiring it’s journalists to always write data as a plural. Hooray!

Blockchain skepticism FTW!

Song’s issue is that most enterprise-software companies offering blockchain solutions don’t benefit from decentralization. Blockchain technology is supposed to eliminate the need for a trusted third party to verify things like transactions and contracts. But most of the use cases available today still need some sort of third-party involvement, be it a bank, lawyer, or regulatory body.
That’s it for now. Thanks again for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe if you haven’t and please share this around if you’ve enjoyed. I’ll be back next week with more. Have a great weekend.

May 17, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Kanye to El Paquete

Quick update before jumping in. I was in Missoula, Montana for the 11th year in a row last week to do some fishing and teaching at University of Montana. If you find yourself in Montana and are looking for a fly fishing guide I can’t recommend Chris Stroup and his Montana Cutthroat Guide Services enough. My friend Nick and I spent two days on the river with Chris and, once again, he put us on fish with nearly every cast. On the reading side, I finished up the Master Algorithm (fascinating content, dense book) and am on to Play Bigger about category building in marketing. In-between there I also read the short book Probability: A Very Short Introduction (if you’re not familiar with the Very Short Introduction series, The New Yorker had a good piece on it). Travel-wise, I’m in NYC for a two whole weeks before I have to get on another airplane. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, especially my amazing wife Leila and my mom Barbara, who are hopefully both reading this.

If you don’t know the drill, this is everything I’ve read and found interesting over the last week (in this case two). Previous editions can be found filed under remainders and you can subscribe by email to all my posts. Now onto the links.

My writing this week: A post about information theory and a piece over at the Percolate blog about content bottlenecks.

Any time Ta-Nehisi Coates writes something it’s worth reading. Here he is on Kanye:

West calls his struggle the right to be a “free thinker,” and he is, indeed, championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.

Everything you wanted to know about why the US chills its eggs and most of the rest of the world doesn’t. Turns out it’s because we choose to wash the gunk (aka chicken poo) off our eggs. “Soon after eggs pop out of the chicken, American producers put them straight to a machine that shampoos them with soap and hot water. The steamy shower leaves the shells squeaky clean. But it also compromises them, by washing away a barely visible sheen that naturally envelops each egg.”

This hits close to home: Your coffee addiction, by decade. “‘No sugar,’ you declare. ‘I take it black.’ Shoot a side-eyed glance at that kid over there with his blended-ice drink—amateur hour. Sorry they don’t serve Shirley Temples, geez.”

A theory about North Korea and why it won’t give up its nukes that I’ve seen a few times, this one from Nicholas Kristof: “On my last visit to North Korea, in September, a Foreign Ministry official told me that Libya had given up its nuclear program — only to have its regime toppled. Likewise, he noted, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq lacked a nuclear deterrent — so Saddam was ousted by America. North Korea would not make the same mistake, he insisted.”

Every time I watched Ben Simmons in the playoffs I was reminded of this excellent SB Nation video about how Giannis Antetokounmpo dominates without being able to shoot. And while we’re on the NBA, the league has partnered with the video game 2K to create an eSports league and Zach Lowe got an exclusive to review the court designs.

If you have a baby and have practiced “The 5 S’s” you’ll appreciate this New York Times Mag profile of Dr. Harvey Karp.

On the podcast front, I’ve been enjoying Real Famous, which features interviews with ad people (many of whom are my friends). Paul Feldwick, author of the awesome book Anatomy of a Humbug, is an excellent listen.

I was reminded of this Atlantic article from last year on the intellectual history of computing.

An argument against multi-tasking:

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I discovered Andrew McLuhan (Marshall’s grandson) on Medium. He’s got some good stuff (plus it makes me feel slightly better about my own struggles to understand McLuhan that his own grandson is still working through it). Here’s two of his pieces: “This post is a juicy piece of meat.” and Configuring Ground (for kids!).

Read a bunch of stuff about incels after the Robin Hason article. This n+1 pieces is the best of the bunch. It spends a lot of time talking about Elliot Rodger, who was responsible for a series of killings near University of California’s Santa Barbara campus in 2014, and has since become a kind of saint to the incels (which, in case you haven’t read about them before, is a group of young men who consider themselves “involuntarily celibate” and blame women and society for that fact). Here’s one of many strong paragraphs:

You could say the trouble for Rodger started when, around puberty, he began to know—and, in writing, recite—the first and last names of every boy he considered a sexual competitor, while at the same time referring to girls almost always collectively. Girls. Pretty girls. Pretty blond girls. Only three girls (or perhaps, by this time, women) are listed by name in My Twisted World, vis-a-vis dozens of boys (I’m not including family members). By the end of his writing and life, he’s failed to distinguish between any groups of humans at all, to the point where he considers his 6-year-old brother yet another budding Romeo who, because “he will grow up enjoying the life [Rodger has] craved for,” must die. “Girls will love him,” Rodger says. “He will become one of my enemies.” Rodger begs our most individuating question—“why don’t you love me?”—by proving himself repeatedly unable to individuate another. In erotic coupling, the ego finds relief in its equal. But had Elliot Rodger ever found his equal and opposite in another human being, he would, by all indications, have been repulsed. Reading him, I kept remembering Rooney Mara’s kiss-off in The Social Network: “You are going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd.1 [Or short. Or half-Asian. Or bad at football, or not a real ladies’ man, or somehow else disappointing to the ur-dads of America.] And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that isn’t true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

I re-read this excellent piece on “El Paquete” the peer-to-peer media network that operates in Cuba from the same friend Nick I fished with in Missoula.

He also turned me onto this Nautilus piece about learning math as an adult. This bit on chunking stood out:

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

I can’t get enough stories about people cheating the lottery. This one is from the New York Times Magazine. Earlier in the year Huffington Post published “The Lottery Hackers” if you’re into the genre. This nugget from the NYT Mag story about how the lottery generates a random number was pretty interesting:

The computer takes a reading from a Geiger counter that measures radiation in the surrounding air, specifically the radioactive isotope Americium-241. The reading is expressed as a long number of code; that number gives the generator its true randomness. The random number is called the seed, and the seed is plugged into the algorithm, a pseudorandom number generator called the Mersenne Twister. At the end, the computer spits out the winning lottery numbers.

I don’t totally understand what this is, but it’s very cool.

Here’s James Gleick on quantum physics.

The New Yorker reviewed books about Hitler.

If you haven’t heard the Google Duplex calls, go have a listen. Some interesting comments from Twitter:

  • Jessi Hempel: “Reading about Google’s Duplex: Design is a series of choices, and creating voice tech designed to let humans trick other humans is a choice humans are making, not an inevitable consequence of technology’s evolution.”
  • Stewart Brand: “This sounds right. The synthetic voice of synthetic intelligence should sound synthetic. Successful spoofing of any kind destroys trust. When trust is gone, what remains becomes vicious fast.”

Before his iconic rainbow NYC subway ads, Dr. Zizmor wrote a terrible book about caring for your skin.

I never thought to look up what lorem ipsum meant, but my friend Tim did.

Last, but not least, a very good piece from n+1 on the relationship between TV & culture that takes a bunch of different turns. This bit on the Weinstein reporting was particularly interesting to me:

The New York Times’s Weinstein report was a believability project years in the making: it systematized abuse, turned it into a pattern your eye could follow. There were interviews, emails, audio recordings, legal documents; facts were double- and triple-checked. But its paradoxical consequence was to set the bar far too high for every subsequent story whose breaking it had made possible. What’s a little masturbation between friends when the king of Hollywood kingmakers had employed former agents of the Israel Defense Forces to silence his accusers? In one final act of gaslighting, Weinstein made all other abuse look not so bad and all other evidence look not so good.

That’s it for this week. As always, let me know if I missed anything and don’t forget to subscribe. Have a great weekend.

May 11, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From the aesthetic of Kubrick to the advocacy of Heston

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.

April 27, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Supply Chains to Stephen Hawking

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:

  1. Wired on a group of video game hackers who took things too far.
  2. 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.

April 20, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Remainders: From Isis to Hippos

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 6! Also, you can now subscribe to the blog by email. Sign up here.

Okay, hopefully you know the drill. Remainders is everything I didn’t get a chance to write about this week. It’s chock full of links and other ephemera. Here’s last week’s edition.

As we all know, Zuckerberg testified before Congress this week. The day before the action I wrote up some thoughts on why we should consider treating Facebook (and the like) as information fiduciaries.

Without a doubt the best thing I read this week was Rukmini Callimachi’s New York Times story on Isis. She collected 15,000 pages of Isis paperwork from Iraq and used it to piece together a story of how they ran the country. The gist of the story is that they were effective bureaucrats and that they used that to fund their operation: “Most accounts of how the Islamic State became the richest terrorist group in the world focus on its black-market oil sales, which at one point brought in as much as $2 million per week, according to some estimates. Yet records recovered in Syria by Mr. Tamimi and analyzed by Ms. Revkin show that the ratio of money earned from taxes versus oil stood at 6:1.”

A few Today I Learned moments:

  • There are apparently lots of weird chess variants including Kriegspiel, where you play blind, and Bughouse, where you pass captured pieces to teammates.
  • ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missiles) were originally called IBMs until the company of the same name asked the Pentagon to change it. (Source: Soldiers of Reason)

I still want to write something bigger about this, but check out the mentions of “coal mining” vs “data mining” in books over the last 200 years:

On the cool things to look at tip, this chart of the evolution of the English Alphabet is amazing.

Most of the media hand wringing about how to best deal with the current news environment is useless, but I liked this Guardian piece on delaying your news consumption. This bit in particular is interesting:

Once, it was the media’s job to sift stories of lasting significance from the rest; today, any publication that sat on a story for a week, to see if it had legs, would get screamed at for suppressing the truth. The passage of time is the best filter for determining what matters. But being late is the one thing no social network, or modern news organisation, can afford.

On the marketing front, this chart about the challenges of trying to communicate more than one message at once is something I wish I had in my toolbox when I was at an agency.

Here’s the explanation from BBH’s Tom Roach:

An analysis by Millward Brown of their Link test database[3] provides evidence of something advertising people have always known instinctively: the more messages you try and communicate, the less likelihood there is of any single message being communicated (‘throw people one tennis ball and they’ll catch it, throw them lots and they’ll drop them all’). And remember this is from people who are being forced to watch your ads in pre-testing research: real people in the real world will remember even less.

This was my favorite joke on Twitter this week:

In case you wondered what it’s like to get swallowed by a hippo, the Guardian has you covered.

And Jason Alexander on Marc Maron’s WTF is really good.

Finally, in case you missed them, here are my most recent posts:

  1. Information Fiduciaries
  2. Remainders: From gold mining to data mining
  3. Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years Video Style
  4. The Fermi Paradox
  5. Why Videogames Tend Towards Post-Apocalyptic

Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed. Let me know what I missed.

April 13, 2018 // This post is about:

Remainders: From gold mining to data mining

I’ve set a reasonably modest goal for myself of writing 10 blog posts in April. Let’s see if I can get back on this bike (since I really miss it). This is post number 4.

There’s lots of stuff I read that I either haven’t gotten a chance to write up yet or don’t warrant their own post. This is meant to be my space for all that.

On the one hand, the most popular use of the word mining isn’t really mining at all (“Bitcoin mining, involving pure information rather than raw materials, is just a sexier term (is mining sexy?) for a process that is more like Sudoku puzzles for computers than digging holes in the ground.”), on the other hand it’s 13x cheaper to extract metals like copper and gold from discarded electronics than to actually mine them. (As an aside, go subscribe to Kneeling Bus, it’s great.)

I’ve got to write something bigger about this, but I don’t think people understand just how little we can glean from what’s inside a deep learning neural network. This isn’t about Uber or Tesla specifically, but articulates the problem well:

Getting a car to drive this way was an impressive feat. But it’s also a bit unsettling, since it isn’t completely clear how the car makes its decisions. Information from the vehicle’s sensors goes straight into a huge network of artificial neurons that process the data and then deliver the commands required to operate the steering wheel, the brakes, and other systems. The result seems to match the responses you’d expect from a human driver. But what if one day it did something unexpected—crashed into a tree, or sat at a green light? As things stand now, it might be difficult to find out why. The system is so complicated that even the engineers who designed it may struggle to isolate the reason for any single action. And you can’t ask it: there is no obvious way to design such a system so that it could always explain why it did what it did.

With that said, there are lots of people trying to get a peek inside.

Speaking of self-driving cars, can we stop talking about the trolley problem … please?!?!?

And one last thing on self-driving cars and machine learning:


At the end of last year I ran across this fun excerpt of life on the road as a long-haul mover. I just ripped through the book in a few days. It’s a nice break from biographies of Claude Shannon and parables about bottlenecks in IT.

Here’s a simple sounding question that has a lot more to it: Why did we evolve the ability to reason? “Objectively, a reasoning mechanism that aims at sounder knowledge and better decisions should focus on reasons why we might be wrong and reasons why other options than our initial hunch might be correct. Such a mechanism should also critically evaluate whether the reasons supporting our initial hunch are strong. But reasoning does the opposite. It mostly looks for reasons that support our initial hunches and deems even weak, superficial reasons to be sufficient.”

A few weeks ago I had a long conversation about the relationship between technology and democracy, the core question being whether or not the two were at odds. I haven’t been able to get it out of my brain since. This piece on weaponized narrative is an interesting addition to the conversation as was this Long Now talk asking “Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” (You can find this on their podcast as well.)

Speaking of unintended consequences, Waze keeps sending people down the steepest hill in LA and they keep crashing into things.

Speaking of podcasts, I’ve been really enjoying Felix Salmon’s Slate Money podcast and the latest episodes on the new economics of Hollywood is a great primer on how things have changed.

There’s an especially fascinating bit in this Tim Harford column from last week:

A voter thinking of popping to the polls and then trying out a new pizzeria would be perfectly rational in checking out TripAdvisor, rather than the party manifestos. This is because her vote will almost certainly not make any difference to her life, but her choice of restaurant almost certainly will. We vote because we see it as a civic duty, or a way of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Few people go to the polls under the illusion that they will be casting the deciding vote.

The full explanation for why MIT broke ties with Nectome, a company that promises to store your brain for you (by killing you), is pretty amazing. Here’s a bit to whet your appetite: “Regarding the second point: currently, we cannot directly measure or create consciousness. Given that limitation, how can one say if, for example, a computer or a simulation is conscious?”

While Netcome can legally kill you to store your brain, Starbucks has to warn you about the cancer risks of coffee in California. Statistician David Spiegelhalter presents a pretty good argument for why this is ridiculous.

Just today ran into this interesting essay on the end of authenticity. I particularly enjoyed this bit about Brooklyn (where I happen to live):

At the same time “Brooklyn” has become America’s most significant cultural export. It’s not only 3rd and 4th-tier American cities that adopted the aesthetic. Among many other major international cities, the Shoreditch area of London developed its own version of Contemporary Conformism, as did Daikanyama in Tokyo (where the “Brooklyn” brand possesses cultural cachet as an update to the Americana aesthetic Japanese subcultures have fetishized for 70 years). Of course, America’s other main export during this time was Silicon Valley startup culture and the two found a perfect union and perfect distribution channel in AirBnB and WeWork.

And, last but not least, I wrote three blog posts:

  1. Why Coke Cost a Nickel for 70 Years Video Style
  2. The Fermi Paradox
  3. Why Videogames Tend Towards Post-Apocalyptic

Thanks for reading. Enjoy your weekend.


April 6, 2018 // This post is about: , , , , , , , ,