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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Two Quick Updates

First off, after eight years I’ve moved on from Percolate (we brought on a CEO at the beginning of 2018) and co-founded a new software company called Variance. We want to change the way work gets done by helping employees gain mastery over their tools. It’s early days, so not too much we’re ready to share quite yet, but we Tweeted a few highlights from a workshop we recently held. The name is inspired by the variance spectrum, which you might remember from my framework of the day posts. Also, we’re looking to hire a lead product designer, so if you’re one or know anyone who might be good for us, I’d hugely appreciate the reference (you can email me). Dinner on me if you help us find someone we hire.

Second, my daily email, Why is this interesting?, is still going strong. We’re 100+ editions in and we’ve had a great string of guests to help take some of the load off. Not surprisingly, all my writing energy has gone there, so please subscribe and if you ever have an idea for a guest spot, please let us know.

August 18, 2019 // This post is about: , , , ,

Nostalgia & McLuhan’s Tetrad

I’ve been experimenting with a daily email with Colin Nagy called Why Is This Interesting? This is from today’s edition. If you’re interested in checking it out, drop me a line (I’ll post something here when we launch in publicly).

This weekend the Times ran an opinion piece about the dangers of backup cameras. It was about more than that, obviously, but the gist of the genre is that all this new tech is lulling us into a sense of security that leaves us susceptible to over-reliance, and even forgetting entirely how to do things on our own.

Why is this interesting?

Because this is something we’ve been worried about forever (literally). In Phaedrus, Plato worried about roughly the same thing as it related to writing: “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.”

The reality is that all technology affects culture in expected and unexpected ways. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” is one of my favorite aphorisms (misattributed to McLuhan). The irony, of course, is that the complaints in this article are perfectly expected. We come to rely on automation because it’s mostly better. In fact, the strangest part of the whole piece is the way the evidence of backup camera safety is presented. “Between 2008 and 2011,” the author writes, “the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.” I think the implication is that those numbers aren’t all that impressive, but a 20 or 30 percent drop in backup fatalities seems pretty excellent to me.

Finally, the answers to articles like these almost always come back to the one rule of life: Things change. Technology hardly ever solves all the world’s problems or ruins society. Mostly what happens is it leaves us in a state of flux. We swing the pendulum one way and then we swing it the other. One properly attributed McLuhan-ism is the “Tetrad of Media Effects”. It lays out the four ways technology creates change:

The Times piece is effectively an explorations of McLuhan’s four effects. The backup camera enhances our senses by giving us eyes in the back of our heads, obsolescing the car’s mirrors, and retrieving a time when cars were smaller, but, as the article points out, when pushed to its extreme it reverses our own role as driver, giving control entirely over the tech. While the points are valid, we should be less surprised that this keeps happening and try to keep things in perspective.

March 26, 2019 // This post is about: , , , ,

Exploration vs Exploitation

I’ve been experimenting with a daily email with Colin Nagy called Why Is This Interesting? This is from today’s edition. If you’re interested in checking it out, drop me a line (I’ll post something here when we launch in publicly).

I really liked this post from Richard Huntington aka Adliterate. It’s about the value of deep work, but the gist is captured in this mantra: “You are not paid to be on top of things, you are paid to get to the bottom of them.” (This was inspired by a quote from computer scientist Donald Knuth about email: “Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”)

Why is this interesting?

If you’ve spent any time working in the age of e-mail (nevermind Slack) you’ve encountered this challenge. One of the things I shared with everyone who started at Percolate for a long time was this post from Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham about the schedule a “maker” keeps vs a manager. The point is that the manager has their days broken into tiny bits, 30 minute or one hour meetings, while the maker needs long uninterrupted focus time to do their work. When the manager forces the maker into their schedule they are surprised that the work can’t get done.

One way to think about this divide is as something computer scientists call exploration vs exploitation. The manager is an explorer, looking at information across many different areas, while the maker is an exploiter, using that information to go deep in just one. It’s a little like the story from the Greek poet Archilochus about the fox and the hedgehog: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” (if you’re not familiar with the parable, here’s a good primer from NPR).

As Brian Christian points out in his book Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, there’s actually tons of interesting stuff that lives in this tension. Do you go to the restaurant you like or try the new one that just opened? Should you load up an old favorite on Spotify or see what they’ve chosen for you this week? The answer, as we have all figured out and computer science has proven, is it depends. To figure out the best approach you’ve also got to know the time limit. In simplified terms, if you have lots of time left, exploration makes sense, if you’re approaching deadline, exploitation is optimal. 

This also explains why people like Sports Gene author David Epstein are pushing to stop early specialization. Childhood is prime exploration time and no matter what Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours might state, the opportunity is to use the abundance of time to stay shallow (Gladwell actually agrees with this). “Childhood,” as developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik explains, “gives you a period in which you can just explore possibilities, and you don’t have to worry about payoffs because payoffs are being taken care of by the mamas and the papas and the grandmas and the babysitters.” For the rest of us, the struggle stays real.

March 19, 2019 // This post is about: , , ,