Roblog

Roblog is… navigating uncertainty

Roblog is a blog written by Rob Miller.

It's all about uncertainty, creativity, and sustainability. It helps you (and me!) make sense of a complex world.

Recent posts

  • A simple but extremely powerful telling of a tragic story. This New York Times interactive uses historical photos, overlayed neatly, to tell the story of Gaza’s Great Omari Mosque, which has been destroyed once more by an Israeli bombardment. #

  • Paul Ford is wonderful on the shameless usefulness of AI:

    “So I should reject this whole crop of image-generating, chatting, large-language-model-based code-writing infinite typing monkeys. But, dammit, I can’t. I love them too much. I am drawn back over and over, for hours, to learn and interact with them. I have them make me lists, draw me pictures, summarize things, read for me. Where I work, we’ve built them into our code. I’m in the bag. Not my first hypocrisy rodeo.”

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  • A couple of years ago, Bloomberg published an extraordinary article about the Montenegrin infiltration of the Mediterranean Shipping Co., effectively converting it into a cocaine logistics business. Following on from that is Alexander Clapp’s fascinating account of how Montenegro came to occupy a crucial role in the global drugs trade:

    “…seafarers from places like Kotor – which straddled the Venetian and Ottoman empires – occupied a crucial position in 16th-century Europe. The clans in and around Kotor functioned like ‘linguistic and cultural amphibians’, serving as missionaries, spies, merchants and pirates. The Adriatic clans were often exploited by the empires that encroached on their mountains and occupied their ports – enlisted into naval crews, or forced to convert – but in many ways they benefited from their borderland identity. They played off great powers against one another, leveraged strategic information for court influence, infiltrated imperial ranks and forged valuable mercantile connections.”

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  • The Story of MSG: Redemption

    The scare around MSG began in 1968. Nearly sixty years on, there are signs of a renaissance, a reconsideration of it as an ingredient.
  • Since I’m basically becoming a “history of food” blog (sorry about that), here’s a fascinating article on the history of tinned fish, including the recent hipsterification and renaissance of the stuff:

    “Today’s tinned fish purveyors have updated the romantic aesthetic in keeping with more contemporary tastes, whilst simultaneously keeping alive one of the longest-running storytelling traditions in food commerce and consumer design. The miniature canvases decorating our Insta-worthy tinned gourmet snacks still spin tales of European vacations, handcrafted delicacies and nostalgic coastal grandeur, can by charismatic can. Which is wonderful.”

    (Thanks to Joel Stein for the tip.) #

  • I wrote a few weeks ago about use cases for AI. In a similar vein is this thoughtful piece from the New York Times’ Zach Seward on the role of AI in responsible, thoughtful journalism.

    I love the sentiment that AIs are actually often more useful when they’re not being creative, but instead are interpreting creativity and translating it into something more rigid:

    “People look at tools like ChatGPT and think their greatest trick is writing for you. But, in fact, the most powerful use case for LLMs is the opposite: creating structure out of unstructured prose. [This gives] us a sense of the technology’s greatest promise for journalism (and, I’d argue, lots of other fields). Faced with the chaotic, messy reality of everyday life, LLMs are useful tools for summarizing text, fetching information, understanding data, and creating structure.”

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  • The Story of MSG: Controversy

    In the 1960s, MSG was poised to conquer the world. And yet, by the end of the decade, it had become public enemy number one. Why was that?
  • A strange story from New Zealand, of a father who disappeared with his three children and what it says about Kiwi culture:

    “It was a blustery September Sunday in 2021, and the Hilux pickup sat far down the gray sand in a remote cove on the wild west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The Māori men who noticed the car live in mobile homes and cabins up by the road, on ancestral land near Kiritehere Beach. The truck was parked below the high-tide line, facing the sea, and was nearly swamped by the waves pummeling the shore. The men found the keys, tucked under the driver’s-side floormat, and backed the car up the beach. They couldn’t help but notice empty child seats strapped into the back. If any kids had gotten close to the sea on a day like this, they were long gone.”

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  • The Story of MSG: Adoption

    MSG went from discovery to the dinner tables of half the world in a couple of decades. But how?
  • Last week I linked to an interview with Jonathan Haidt about his new book; it seems only fair, in the interests of balance, to link to this rather savage review of it in Nature.

    “Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University, is a gifted storyteller, but his tale is currently one searching for evidence.”

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  • The Story of MSG: Discovery

    The savoury flavour known as umami is fundamental to the enjoyment of food and has been for thousand of years – and yet we only discovered it a century ago. How did we discover it, and why did it take so long?
  • A fascinating interview with Jonathan Haidt, whose new book explores the relationship between rising levels of mental health issues in young people and the prevalance of social media. In interviewer David Epstein’s words, “we basically ran this kind of grand social experiment starting in 2010. And now we have some of the results. And they don’t look very good, particularly for young people.”

    Haidt’s broad points are that human beings require social interaction and play during childhood in order to fully develop as social animals, and that indoor play and virtual social interactions are no substitutes for the real thing. Social media, with its dopamine-dispensing feedback loops, rapidly accelerates the development of unhealthy behaviours:

    “Social media platforms are the most efficient conformity engines ever invented. They can shape an adolescent’s mental models of acceptable behavior in a matter of hours, whereas parents can struggle unsuccessfully for years to get their children to sit up straight or stop whining.

    “On a phone, you’re endlessly presented with things to touch. And if you touch the right thing in the right way, you get a little hit. You get something that will give you a little hit of dopamine. It’ll either be validation of your social standing, or it’ll be entertainment, or it’ll be funny, or it’ll be sexual. As a parent, if we could implant an electrode in our kids’ brains to give them a little bit of reward when they clean up their room, a little bit of punishment when they drop their underwear on the floor, we could train them very quickly to clean up their rooms – if we had that button to deliver a little bit of pleasure or pain. We don’t have that button, but the rest of the world does… Once you put your kid on social media, you’re saying to the rest of the world: ‘Hey, how about if you train my daughter? You give her rewards and punishments, and I’ll just sit back and see what happens.’ And the result is a generation of girls that are anxious, depressed, self-harming and suicidal.”

    Via John Naughton. #

  • Sam Knight with a brutally clear look at the state of Britain 14 years into Tory rule. He grapples with the impact of austerity, the influences of Brexit, and the prospects for future improvement.

    “On January 14th, a poll of fourteen thousand people, which Frost facilitated, suggested that the [Conservative] Party is on course for a huge defeat later this year. The question is what kind of haunted political realm it will leave behind… It is unnerving to be heading into an election year in Britain with the political conversation so small, next to questions that can feel immeasurable.”

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  • An old but excellent talk from Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho about a quality within video games that they call “juiciness”. A “juicy” game is one that has little details, little moments of surprise and delight; it’s the difference between an experience that feels flat and dull and one that feels exciting and engaging.

    It strikes me that it’s true of game design, but it’s true of almost all things we produce for human consumption that are at all interactive: good copywriting has juiciness, good design does, good websites do. #

  • Taylor Lorenz’s video essay on the emergence of “resentment reels”: Instagram videos that express frustration at the vagaries of the Instagram algorithm and the scant pay-offs for most people in the “creator economy”. Lorenz traces their origins back to the initial emergence of the influencer economy and the subsequent pressure on everyone – regardless of their occupation – to also be a content creator.

    But what has turbocharged this frustration is the shift towards video content in response to TikTok:

    “Online attention had suddenly become the most powerful form of modern currency, but amassing that attention in a video-dominated world was more competitive than ever. Suddenly artists, small business owners and regular users were hit with whiplash. Creating video content is not like creating aspirational photos or making some graphics for a short Instagram story or tweet. It’s exhausting, it’s time consuming, and it requires a level of skill, effort and knowledge about the media landscape that most people don’t have time for.”

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  • Road and Track magazine (somewhat predictably) spiked this brilliant piece by Kate Wagner, who I know for more for her excellent website McMansion Hell than for her cycling coverage. In it, Wagner visits a Formula 1 race as a guest of INEOS and says it like she sees it:

    “I think if you wanted to turn someone into a socialist you could do it in about an hour by taking them for a spin around the paddock of a Formula 1 race. … I saw $30,000 Birkin bags and $10,000 Off-White Nikes. I saw people with the kind of Rolexes that make strangers cry on Antiques Roadshow. I saw Ozempic-riddled influencers and fleshy, T-shirt-clad tech bros and people who still talked with Great Gatsby accents as they sweated profusely in Yves Saint Laurent under the unforgiving Texas sun. The kind of money I saw will haunt me forever. People clinked glasses of free champagne in outfits worth more than the market price of all the organs in my body. I stood there among them in a thrift-store blouse and shorts from Target.”

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  • Pete Paphides on the surreal spectacle that is Mike Read’s Heritage Chart Show:

    “A couple of weeks ago, the UK’s only chart-based music show celebrated its hundredth episode, and yet, there’s every chance you’ve never heard of it. That’s because, in order to watch it live, you’d have to be seated in front of your TV at 3am on Monday morning. Furthermore, you won’t find it on a music channel. It’s not on any of our terrestrial stations. Mike Read’s Heritage Chart Show is, in some ways, an aberration on the schedule of vintage movie channel Talking Pictures. In another sense though, it’s a perfect fit among Talking Pictures’ carefully curated menu of Ealing comedies, monochrome sagas of wartime derring-do, old episodes of 70s daytime staple Crown Court and, on one memorable occasion, a 1954 documentary about the Shippams Fish Paste factory.”

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  • Before this excellent profile by Vittles’ Jonathan Nunn, I had no idea that the same person founded Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, and Monmouth Coffee – the first being enormously commercially successful and the latter two having utterly transformed British food culture. His impact is inarguable, but his curiosity as a character is fascinating too:

    “Even now, it’s hard to pin down exactly who Saunders was, not least because he was so many things at once: a hippy, a capitalist, a pioneer, a property developer, a drugs advocate, a social inventor, a greengrocer, a visionary. Yet a consistent philosophy guided everything he did: he believed, above all, that information should be wrested from gatekeepers and made free for people to use. ‘He didn’t just make information available, but made you feel like anyone has the capacity to go and do it,’ [Neal’s Yard Dairy co-founder Randolph] Hodgson recalls. ‘He lit a fire inside people.’”

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  • Vice, the irreverent and offbeat magazine and publishing empire, announced last week that it was shutting down. Harry Cheadle, who wrote for Vice for years, gets to the heart of where they went wrong:

    “Vice’s founders, [Cory Doctorow] wrote, ‘built a massive, highly lucrative media empire on [young people’s] free labor. … Whatever problems Vice had, they weren’t problems with Vice’s workers—it was a problem with Vice’s bosses.’

    “Doctorow meant to be scathing, but if anything he was too generous. Vice was only ‘highly lucrative’ in the sense that it had a lot of money sloshing around. It had a big fancy Brooklyn headquarters, a dozen or more international offices, and hundreds of people on the payroll, some of whom would fly around the world to report from conflict zones. As it grew, it founded a record label and an ad agency, acquired smaller media companies like Refinery29 and i-D, and had TV shows on MTV and HBO before getting its own cable channel. The company even bought a bar and started brewing its own beer, called Old Blue Last, which tasted like the tail end of a long night out. During one holiday party, co-founder Shane Smith handed out envelopes to employees containing $1,500 in cash.”

    “In ditching its original identity,” Cheadle writes, “Vice gained respectability but couldn’t make respectability work for it.” That’s about the shape of it. The path from counterculture to mainstream culture is well-trodden, but most often ends up in a messy compromise that pleases no-one. #

  • Taking stock of AI progress

    We’ve lived with generative AI for a couple of years now. Has it fulfilled its promise or fallen short of our hopes?
  • Andrew Curry takes apart The Browser’s lightly fictionalised version of the annual World Economic Forum shindig at Davos. “The descriptions of how Davos works seem to have been written by someone who knows more about it than is completely good for them.”

    “The Circle was a handsomely-upholstered comfort zone for people who had already changed the world, not necessarily for the better, and now wanted to cover their tracks. The Doc’s special genius, and the gift which he looked for in his staff, was to create an atmosphere of free-thinking debate while ensuring that everybody understood the limits of that debate and that no White Badge member was ever publicly embarrassed or deeply offended.”

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  • In 1970 the staff at Irish high-street banks went on strike for six months. Ordinary punters found themselves unable to cash cheques or withdraw money, living as they did in those pre-ATM days where all transactions had to be performed in person.

    So local pubs and shops stepped up to fill the need:

    “Pub-goers would bring their salary payments into the pub and convert them into cash from the register, often hanging out for a few pints afterward. While nobody knew exactly when the strike was going to end, pub owners were generally optimistic and willing to trust that their regulars’ checks would be honored post-strike.”

    The actions by pubs kept the economy afloat and saved countless local businesses. It was possible for them to play this role because they had many of the same qualities that a small-town bank would have, namely knowledge of their customers’ creditworthiness and strong social connections to enforce obligations:

    “At this point, pubs were arbiters of actual loans. Pub owners also often had a reasonable idea of their patrons’ level of income, net worth, and reliability in paying bar tabs, putting them in what could be seen as an even better position than a bank lender to evaluate the overall risk profile of a borrower.”

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  • All I want for Christmas are some strategy credits

    Businesses sometimes claim credit for doing the right thing. Before applauding them, you have to figure out whether the right thing was also the easy thing.
  • I’ve been keeping weeknotes since starting my consultancy, Orso. This week is week 21, featuring beans, generic agency propositions, healthy sweets and free cash flow. #

  • I enjoyed this discussion between Rory Sutherland and everyone’s favourite softly spoken coffee YouTuber, James Hoffman.

    One idea that stuck in my mind, from Rory:

    Consumer whimsy in aggregate leads to far better markets. If consumers all bought cars to the same formula, cars would be absolutely wonderful according to the five points that consumers factored in but dreadful according to every other aspect. Consumer whimsy contributes to quality and variety.”

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  • Anne Helen Petersen on “the friendship dip”, that period of life where making and maintaining friendships becomes particularly hard:

    “I call this period the The Friendship Dip. And I think it makes a lot of us miserable. First in our late 20s and 30s, when we don’t really have a name for what’s happening but can nevertheless feel it….and then in our late 30s, 40s, and 50s, as the extent of the wreckage becomes clear and we attempt to rebuild.”

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