Roblog

Archive of posts in category “links”

  • The conflict within US universities over support for and reporting on the war Israel is waging in Gaza has thrown up another depressing case.

    Last November, lawyer Rabea Eghbariah was to be the first Palestinian published in the Harvard Law Review, but he had his essay spiked before it could be published. The editors of the Columbia Law Review stepped in and stepped up, offering Eghbariah a chance to publish a newly updated essay in their journal. The Review’s board of directors intervened, responding not just by censoring the article itself, but by disabling the Review’s entire website. (It currently says, seemingly dishonestly, that it’s “under maintenance”.)

    The worst thing is that Eghbariah’s article, which can still be read here, is not some aggressive polemic. It’s a thoughtful, considered, thoroughly researched essay that argues that the experience of the Palestinian people since 1948 is a category of oppression worthy of its own label, “nakba”. Eghbariah argues that it differs from genocide, from apartheid and from colonialism in important ways, ways that the law should recognise – just as it did following the Nuremberg trials, which prompted the recognition of “genocide” as a special category of crime that could exist in addition to “crimes against humanity”, which predated World War II.

    Whatever you think of Eghbariah’s argument – I happen to find it extremely persuasive, but others may not – it seems deeply troubling that the Law Review of an Ivy League college would stoop to such naked censorship. #

  • A lovely short film from new YouTube channel HowTown, exploring and explaining dog vision in an extremely clear way. A fascinating watch. #

  • A fascinating data project from the Washington Post which investigated which decades people considered to be the “best”. It confirms an intuitive human truth:

    “The good old days when America was ‘great’ aren’t the 1950s. They’re whatever decade you were 11, your parents knew the correct answer to any question, and you’d never heard of war crimes tribunals, microplastics or improvised explosive devices. Or when you were 15 and athletes and musicians still played hard and hadn’t sold out.”

    #

  • 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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  • 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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  • 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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  • 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.”

    #

  • 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. #

  • 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.”

    #

  • 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.”

    #

  • 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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  • I wrote last week about Sam Bankman-Fried and the corruption of noble causes. The LRB just published this tour de force from John Lanchester, reviewing both Michael Lewis’s Going Infinite and Zeke Faux’s Number Go Up. Lanchester is, it’s safe to say, no fan of SBF:

    Going Infinite is wildly entertaining, surprising multiple times on pretty much every page, but it adds up to a sad story, even a tragedy, for its central character and for all the people who lost so much thanks to his actions. Lewis, whom I know, is charming and amenable to charm; he likes SBF and is amused by him. I don’t feel the same, mainly because SBF, as well as being reckless with things that don’t belong to him, and deeply arrogant about his own intellectual superiority, is unredeemably careless about people. ‘The notion that other people don’t matter as much as I do felt like a stretch,’ he once said. A worthy insight, but SBF doesn’t act on it: in Going Infinite he repeatedly, compulsively, acts as if other people don’t matter at all. He plays video games during meetings and conversations, fails to be where he’s said he’ll be and do what he’s said he’ll do, and in general does exactly whatever he feels like doing, all the time. A detail: ‘I watched as Sam entered the empty townhouse, opened a closet, and, without so much as a glance at the row of empty hangers, tossed the ball of clothes onto the closet floor. We then drove together to the airport and returned to the Bahamas.’ The person whose job it will be to pick up those clothes, as far as SBF is concerned, does not exist.”

    …and yet, by the end, he feels oddly sorry for him as he stares down the barrel of decades in prison. I felt exactly the same when reading Going Infinite. #

  • In the spirit of making public predictions in order to get my thinking straight, I had a think about the industry I work in most: the world of communications agencies. What does the future hold for them? Is it possible to feel out what might happen in the next decade? Nothing particularly good, I don’t think:

    “No economies of scale. Limited demand-side growth prospects. A model that delivers the benefit of productivity increases to clients, not agencies. Limited opportunities for further M&A. This all paints a bleak picture of the last decade for the big four, and a bleak picture of the prospects for the industry in general.”

    #

  • I had a random thought today: why haven’t wheels evolved in nature? They’re so straightforwardly useful, hence their ubiquity in human-designed mechanical devices, and yet they don’t seem to have emerged in nature – despite billions of years of evolution and lots of other highly complex things emerging through that process.

    As ever, Wikipedia pulled through. (What a brilliant human achievement it is.) It’s probable that the wheel is unlikely to emerge through evolution because it’s only useful in its full form, rather than its intermediate forms; you’d have to reach it in one fell swoop, rather than gradually. As Richard Dawkins notes in Climbing Mount Improbable:

    “The wheel may be one of those cases where the engineering solution can be seen in plain view, yet be unattainable in evolution because it lies [on] the other side of a deep valley, cutting unbridgeably across the massif of Mount Improbable.”

    #

  • A thoughtful and pragmatic post from the fine-art-trained – but technology-savvy – Sam Bleckley, on the limitations and the plausible future usage of generative AI for illustration.

    “This doesn’t mean illustrators will stop drawing and become prompt engineers. That will waste an immense amount of training and gain very little. Instead, I foresee illustrators concentrating even more on capturing the core features of an image, letting generative AI fill in details, and then correcting those details as necessary.”

    #

  • A beautiful collection of data visualisations, with descriptions, strengths and weaknesses, and a taxonomy that allows you to explore other visualisations that do a similar job. #

  • The Safra family, Brazil’s premier gang of private bankers and secretive mega-billionaires, are in the news at the moment because of a messy succession dispute worthy of… well, Succession.

    “‘It’s Alberto against the world,’ says Robinson, adding that the family will be keen to stop the case going before a jury. She says once you reach court ‘the cat is out of the bag… I can’t imagine anyone, especially people of this enormous wealth and legacy, want their business aired like that.’”

    Given all that, it’s worth digging into this fascinating story from 2000, about the mysterious death of Alberto’s uncle in Monaco and the much-rumoured family links to money laundering, organised crime and the international drugs trade. #

  • Dan Davies recently recalled this blog post from 2004, that was particularly famous at the time in what was then called the “blogosphere”. Davies was fantastically prescient about the Iraq War, correctly predicting the shitshow it was to become. He attributes that correctness to three things, things that he actually learned at business school:

    1. “Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance.” If someone appears to be telling lots of lies about an idea, or seems at least to be fudging the truth slightly, there’s a good chance that the idea is a bad one. Good ideas stand on their merits.

    2. “Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless.” If someone has demonstrated that they’re a liar, you shouldn’t trust anything they have to say. You shouldn’t attempt to “shade downwards” their predictions towards reality; you should reject them wholesale.

    3. “The Vital Importance of Audit.” A public that fails to audit the accuracy of its pundits and its politicians, and gives known liars the benefit of the doubt, gets what is coming to it.

    In summary:

    “The secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most colossal waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed.”

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  • If you’ve ever been to Brick Lane in London, you’ve probably noticed the two bagel shops (or, more accurately, “beigel” shops; the word is spelled and pronounced the cockney way, bye-g’l rather than bay-g’l). Legend has it that the second was started by the brother of the guy who ran the first, who wanted to prove he could make a better bagel.

    Both have flourished; there’s room for two bagel shops in the East End it seems, even after the demographics of the area have shifted, its Jewish population having moved on, replaced by a more South Asian one. They’re particularly popular late at night with the drunken party crowd craving something more kosher than a kebab.

    This short documentary from 1992 interviews the people behind the scenes and the late-night revellers in Beigel Bake, the newer of the two shops, and is an incredible glimpse at a bygone London. #

  • Cory Doctorow famously coined the term “enshittification”, to describe the process by which online platforms – from a combination of apathy and cynicism – tended to start out useful and then eventually become cesspools of awfulness.

    Gary Marcus observes the way that the muckspreaders that are LLMs have gone from covering the internet in a light spray to a gushing torrent. Search engines, social platforms, digital goods; all are becoming less and less useful as they digest and regurgitate incorrect, AI-generated information.

    “Cesspools of automatically-generated fake websites, rather than ChatGPT search, may ultimately come to be the single biggest threat that Google ever faces. After all, if users are left sifting through sewers full of useless misinformation, the value of search would go to zero – potentially killing the company.

    “For the company that invented Transformers – the major technical advance underlying the large language model revolution – that would be a strange irony indeed.”

    Related: Maggie Harrison’s recent “When AI is trained on AI-generated data, strange things start to happen”. #

  • A fun puzzle from Tim Urban at Wait But Why, the solution to which illustrates how simple solving a problem can be if you just find the right framing. (No spoilers here, obviously.) #

  • The singer Lizzo is in the news at the moment, for less-than-savoury reasons. Every time I see her mentioned I’m reminded of this great post from 2019, by Matthew Perpetua who was then at BuzzFeed.

    His thesis is that content that goes viral is often content that fulfils a specific need in its audience’s lives. Sometimes that’s a happy accident, a pleasant side-effect of authentic content made with integrity. But sometimes, when people become aware of the mechanisms of this virality, it’s a more cynical creation, the result of “cultural cartography”, a process of mapping out people’s needs and desires and working backwards from there:

    “Lizzo’s music is perfectly engineered for all of this, to the point that it can seem like it’s already gone through extensive A/B testing and optimization. It’s glossy and immediately accessible, but signals some degree of authenticity and soulfulness. It’s aggressively sincere and every song is clearly about a particular statement or relatable situation. It’s all geared towards feelings of empowerment, and given how many ads, shows, and movies want to sell that feeling, her songs are extremely effective and valuable…

    “I can’t hear Lizzo’s music without recognizing her cultural cartography savvy. A lot of music can achieve these goals without contrivance, often just as a natural side effect of an artist intuitively making resonant work, but Lizzo’s songs all sound very calculated to me… Lizzo has a good voice, and her songs range from ‘pretty good’ to ‘undeniable banger’ but I have mixed feelings about all of it because I know the game being played rather well, and because I’m uncomfortable with this self-consciously audience-pleasing approach to content creation becoming the primary mode of pop culture. I appreciate the value of empowering art… but fear mainstream culture further devolving into nothing but shallow exclamations of self-affirmation. We’re more than halfway there already.”

    #

  • Sam Kriss’s brilliant saunter through the Spectator summer party:

    “So I did some mingling myself. This is how it would go. I would find myself in conversation with a very genial man in a linen suit, who would monologue at me extensively on some subject I’d never once before considered in my life—the different types of tweed and when it’s appropriate to wear them, or the perils and pitfalls of buying a French winery, or how difficult it is these days to find a maker of bespoke fountain pens that hasn’t been poisoned by woke groupthink. Eventually an editor would elbow his way over through the crowd with a smirk. I never thought I’d see the day, he’d say, Sam’s rubbing shoulders with the Tory cabinet. At which point I’d look again at the very genial man in the linen suit. I did recognise him from somewhere, I’d realise; some ministerial scandal, some unflattering papshot in the Guardian. I don’t really follow the news, I’d admit. Eric Gruggins, the editor would say, is the Secretary of State for Torture. Wait, I’d say, torture? The Right Honourable Eric would give a good hearty laugh. Well I don’t torture anyone myself, he’d say. Unless you count civil servants! This would fail to entirely pacify me. It’s about preventing torture, right? I’d say. Eric would smack his lips. With the departmental budgets we’ve got, he’d say, it may as well be! And then he’d discourse in the same jovial tones about how Britain could be Europe’s next big torture hub if only he had the funds, and about the incredible opportunities offered by something he called Torture 2.0.”

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  • A fascinating New York Times look at the growing campaign against the curtailment of the right to roam in England, an inspiring case of civil disobedience and democratic protest:

    “In Devon, local people began holding trespasses every month. As Hayes did while writing his book, they stayed well away from houses and stuck to actions that would be considered trespasses in England but legal in Scotland. Lewis Winks, a researcher and environmental campaigner who helped organize the gatherings, told me that it felt like being a detective in your own backyard: You were figuring out who owned what and why and suddenly realizing that there was a great deal more land around than you ever visited or even really noticed. Moving in a group, you felt empowered, almost immune to signs telling you that you didn’t belong. You also noticed, he added, that a country that some politicians liked to describe as full or overcrowded, and therefore in need of tighter borders, was full of open space.”

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  • Ryu Spaeth ponders the depiction – or lack of one – of Japanese people in the film Oppenheimer, an omission he finds strange given the historical intertwining of the two nation’s fates:

    “The legacy of the bomb, however, is more specific and concrete than Oppenheimer’s final vision of a world engulfed in nuclear fire. At the very same instant that the bomb created modern Japan in a burst of light, it also gave rise to the America we know today – America as superpower. Two new nations were born from this expression of the bomb’s divine power, and the cost of this transformation, like some ghastly blood sacrifice, were those 220,000 human beings who were either incinerated or succumbed to radiation poisoning, human beings Oppenheimer said were necessary to target to show what havoc the weapon could really wreak, which is to say that the inauguration of the American century would not have happened without the Japanese.”

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  • A beautiful reminiscence on the power of grids, by Alexander Miller:

    “When I was a kid, my dad gave me a piece of paper with a grid printed on it. It consisted of larger squares than standard graph paper, about an inch in size. It was basically a blank chessboard. The columns of the grid were labeled with letters (‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, etc.), the rows labeled with numbers (‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, …). My dad then helped me draw a map of an imaginary island within the grid’s boundaries. I sketched the squiggly coastline of my island, forming a splattered blob shape, within which I added the obvious necessary features all mysterious islands require: forests of crudely draw trees, a mountain with a cave entrance leading to a secret underground network of caverns, an abandoned hut on the beach. There were variations of this game: sometimes the map was of a completely imaginary place, but other times we mapped a known area – like our backyard – and added fantastic elements.”

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  • Great life and career advice from Y Combinator founder Paul Graham:

    “Once you’ve found something you’re excessively interested in, the next step is to learn enough about it to get you to one of the frontiers of knowledge. Knowledge expands fractally, and from a distance its edges look smooth, but once you learn enough to get close to one, they turn out to be full of gaps.

    “The next step is to notice them. This takes some skill, because your brain wants to ignore such gaps in order to make a simpler model of the world. Many discoveries have come from asking questions about things that everyone else took for granted.”

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  • Anton Corbijn’s new film, about legendary album cover designers Hipgnosis, looks great.

    “Thorgerson and Powell were very different individuals, but that difference worked perfectly. Corbijn explains their dynamic: ‘They loved making things,’ says Corbijn. ‘One with great ideas and one with the technical skills to execute these ideas.’ He knows first-hand how demanding it is to deliver album design in its entirety: ‘I have done a lot of record sleeves in my life, but I’ve not designed that many. I may have taken the photo on the sleeve. Hipgnosis however, did everything. It’s amazing they came from nothing in a way. Neither of them were educated in the visual sense. They found ways to do the impossible.’”

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  • A fascinating New York Times piece about Guam, a piece of America that both is and isn’t part of the USA:

    “Guam, with its strategic location, quickly became home to Andersen Air Force Base, where B-52 bombers deploy on a rotational basis, and Naval Base Guam was expanded. The Guam tourism board’s slogan, Where America’s day begins!, was everywhere. The Guam Chamber of Commerce proudly proclaimed the island America in Asia! while Guam’s license plates read Guam, U.S.A.; but underneath that they also said Tano Y Chamorro — ‘the land of the CHamoru.’”

    As tensions between China and the USA ratchet up, Guam is uniquely and unfortunately placed:

    “In every iteration of war games between the United States and China run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (C.S.I.S.), Beijing’s first strike on U.S. soil has been to bomb Guam.

    “Yet the island is largely forgotten by most Americans. Guam plays a central role in ‘homeland defense,’ though it rarely shows up on maps or in textbooks about the homeland — no place tries harder to show its patriotism and gets so little recognition in return.

    #

  • An interesting profile in the New Statesman by Katie Stallard of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s dictator and the recent mediator of the Wagner mutiny. It charts his rise from humble beginnings to absolute power in Belarus:

    “Born in 1954 in a poor village in eastern Belarus, Lukashenko was raised by a single mother who worked as a milkmaid, and he was bullied at school by other boys because he didn’t have a father. He served in the Soviet army and worked his way up through the Communist Party ranks to become the director of a collective pig farm in 1985, where he was once accused of beating a tractor driver with a shovel for coming to work drunk.”

    #

  • Paul Millerd reviews Bill Perkins’s fascinating book Die With Zero. Most people plan their lives on autopilot, working hard and saving as much as possible for retirement, but that’s a mistake:

    “This is a push against the default or what he calls ‘autopilot.’ Most people look at life and retirement as a money problem because, well, that is what everyone else is doing. By looking at life as a life energy allocation problem you might make different choices like giving money to your children while they are still alive, deprioritizing work and buying back time before you are ‘supposed’ to retire, and spending lavishly on experiences that might pay ‘memory dividends’ to you and people in your life.”

    Perkins emphasises the importance of making memories while you can:

    “As we get older, we spend more time reflecting on our lives. This is why Perkins argues that more people should think about old age as a combination of savings AND memories. Through this lens, having memorable experiences earlier in life, especially before retirement, can be valuable because they will pay memory dividends. And there’s good evidence that this is what makes people happy.”

    #

  • Related to this week’s blog post about Cynefin, I wrote this early last year: an example from history, in this case the collapse of the Soviet Union, as seen through the eyes of Cynefin. #

  • From my blog over at Orso, a post on understanding the natural variation inherent in data. How do you know if a change in a metric is a cause for alarm, or just business as usual? #

  • Tim Hwang with a great post on long-term scientific experiments:

    “If you’re not already familiar… I highly recommend that you immediately stop what you’re doing and visit the Wikipedia page for ‘long-term experiment’. Then, check out Sam Arbesman’s collection of Long Data. Then, Michael Nielsen’s list of long projects.

    “If you’re anything like me, the scientific efforts that appear on these lists are deeply compelling. That’s due in part to their relative rarity. It’s hard to find cases of an experiment or a data collection effort that grinds away on the scale of decades, and easy to appreciate the uncommon dedication and focus they represent.

    “These efforts are also compelling on an epistemological level. They suggest that there is a wealth of valuable knowledge to be gleaned from even fairly humble explorations that operate over a long, long period of time.”

    Tim reckons that such experiments are under-performed, especially given how simple and cheap they can be relative to the insights they can deliver. He suggests a new way of funding them:

    “One approach could be to popularize a style of grant that I call TILT – tiny investment, long term. Under a TILT grant, a foundation or government agency would award grantees a relatively small stream of money spread out over an extremely long period of time, say twenty or thirty years.”

    #

  • A useful tool from Jay Acunzo, which helps to define how an idea differs from the competition that’s already out there:

    “Unfortunately, most of us get stuck playing comparison games. I think that’s because most of us are quick to spoil the possibilities for ourselves. We can’t wait to see the score. We can’t wait to look in the box at the cat. We can’t wait to figure out the best practice, or else we spend too much time consuming things inside our echo chamber. We adopt a narrow view right from the beginning instead of considering endless possibilities — which should be the hallmark of any creative person. As a result of being so anchored to our peers and competitors, when it’s time to pitch our premises, it sounds like a comparison.”

    #

  • A sobering post from Mark Hadfield, whose “Meet the 85%” agency speaks to real people up and down the UK, seeking to understand what’s going on in their lives. He’s piercing the bubble that lots of businesses and marketers live in.

    “Yet the unfortunate reality is that burying your head in the sand is not an option any more. As our good friend Richard Huntington says: ‘Hope is not a strategy.’

    “Reality is here to stay. And for the foreseeable future – whether you like it or not, regardless if it doesn’t align with your brand onion – the reality people are living now and for a while is pretty grim.”

    #

  • This week I started my own strategy consultancy. It’s called Orso, and it provides commercial, consumer and creative strategy for creative agencies and consumer brands. The website explains more.

    (In case you’re wondering about the name: itsitalianforbear.com.) #

  • I’m sure not everyone – not even a majority, in fact – of the people reading Roblog are into football, let alone in-depth tactical analysis of it. But this is a fascinating video even if you’re not that way inclined.

    Fernando Diniz, the coach of Brazilian team Fluminense, has developed a radically new approach to tactics. Rejecting the systematic, shape-obsessed style of successful managers such as Pep Guardiola, Diniz’s approach appears to be chaotic. But it’s actually incredibly well-drilled – and successful.

    It’s a footballing application of so many things I talk about on Roblog. Like Cynefin (the players are constantly trying to get the game out of the merely “complicated” domain and into something more complex and unpredictable for their opponents). Or the difference between competence and literacy (the players aren’t concerned with playing a role; they’re genuinely improvising). Or systems thinking vs. sensemaking (the players aren’t interested in the system and its boundaries, they’re interested in the relationships between themselves).

    The deeper-dive article that the video mentions, Jamie Hamilton’s What is Relationism?, is also great if this stuff piques your interest. #

  • Myles Karp on why there are so many Thai restaurants in America, far more than the population of Thai-Americans would suggest:

    “Thai restaurants are everywhere in America. Mexican and Chinese restaurants might be more plentiful, but there are demographic reasons that explain the proliferation of these cuisines. With over 36 million Mexican-Americans and around five million Chinese-Americans, it’s no surprise that these populations’ cuisines have become woven into America’s cultural fabric. Comparatively, according to a representative from the Royal Thai Embassy in DC, there are just 300,000 Thai-Americans—less than 1 percent the size of the the Mexican-American population. Yet there are an estimated 5,342 Thai restaurants in the United States, compared to around 54,000 Mexican restaurants; that’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio. So, why are there so many Thai restaurants in the US?”

    I’ve thought the exact same thing about the UK, and had idly assumed that it was because there were lots of Thai-Americans and we were influenced by American cuisine. The actual answer is fascinating. #

  • Samuel McIlhagga strikes a pessimistic note about Britain’s prospects:

    “The overall trajectory becomes obvious when you look at outcomes in productivity, investment, capacity, research and development, growth, quality of life, GDP per capita, wealth distribution, and real wage growth measured by unit labor cost. All are either falling or stagnant. Reporting from the Financial Times has claimed that at current levels, the UK will be poorer than Poland in a decade, and will have a lower median real income than Slovenia by 2024. Many provincial areas already have lower GDPs than Eastern Europe.”

    …and, most interestingly, digs into the long historical context that leads up to this point; this modern malaise has deep roots. #

  • Drew Breunig compares AI to a platypus – usefully, as it happens:

    “When trying to get your head around a new technology, it helps to focus on how it challenges existing categorizations, conventions, and rule sets. Internally, I’ve always called this exercise, ‘dealing with the platypus in the room.’ Named after the category-defying animal; the duck-billed, venomous, semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal.

    “There’s been plenty of platypus over the years in tech. Crypto. Data Science. Social Media. But AI is the biggest platypus I’ve ever seen… Nearly every notable quality of AI and LLMs challenges our conventions, categories, and rulesets.”

    #

  • Lingjing Yin thinks about how to get better at delivering feedback within teams, something that people are generally pretty bad at:

    “How might we treat feedback as an opportunity to learn rather than to teach and go into it with a curious mindset to explore the strengths, gaps and opportunities of each other and the context we are part of?”

    #

  • Clear analysis on the potential upcoming Ukrainian offensive from the peerless Lawrence Freedman:

    “Putin and his commanders cannot afford to get many more of the big strategic decisions wrong. If they do so then they will face the prospect of not only futile stalemate but of humiliating withdrawals. I am less convinced than others that they can continue to brush off one setback after another simply because that is what autocratic police states can do, pretending to their people that nothing seriously has gone wrong. Insouciance and misinformation can take you only so far.”

    #

  • I went to see the crowds at the coronation this weekend, to see if it felt like history in the making. The mood was hard to gauge; the rain really put a dampener on things. But the crowd felt so much less reverential than when the Queen died, so much less moved, so much less interested. If someone travelled back in time and told me that this was in fact the last ever British coronation, I wouldn’t be enormously surprised. #

  • The Gentle Author went with photographer Tom Bunning to see William Oglethorpe, who makes his Kappacasein cheese under a railway arch in Bermondsey. (It’s incredible cheese, if you get the chance to try it; they do a “London Raclette” that’s every bit as good as you’d hope.)

    “‘Cheesemaking is easy, it’s life that is hard,’ Bill admitted to me with a disarming grin, when I joined the cheesemakers for their breakfast at a long table and he revealed the long journey he had travelled to arrive in Bermondsey. ‘I grew up in Zambia,’ he explained, ‘And one day a Swiss missionary came to see my father and asked if I’d like to go to agricultural school in Switzerland.’

    “‘I earned a certificate of competence,’ he added proudly, assuring me with a wink, ‘I’m a qualified peasant.’”

    #

  • I knew that butter lasted for a while out of the fridge, but didn’t realise quite how long – to the point that many people advocate never refrigerating it in the first place:

    “In 2015, Ms. Mertzel sent samples of four brands of butter to a lab for testing. The finding: No sign of spoilage after three weeks of storage at 68 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit [20 to 25 degrees celsius]. She commissioned a similar analysis this year and found no spoilage after 30 days.

    “‘This is a quality issue, not a safety issue,’ said Gina Mode, a butter researcher at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Dairy Research. Butter will eventually go rancid but that won’t make people sick, she said. Ms. Mode in an informal survey of her colleagues found that 24 of 31 keep butter out, a telling data point among experts.”

    #

  • Adam Rutherford showcases five data visualisations that changed the world, for both good and ill:

    1. John Snow’s dot map of Soho, that led to an understanding of the transmission of cholera

    2. Florence Nightingale’s Coxcomb of military deaths in the Crimean War

    3. W. E. B. Du Bois’s graphs of African-American advancement in the years following slavery

    4. Henry Goddard’s Kallikak family tree, used to justify eugenics

    5. Ed Hawkins’s global warming colour stripes

    #

  • Richard Jones, whose Soft Machines blog is a great read on industrial strategy, sets out what the UK should do to build an effective semiconductor strategy – of huge importance given the emergence of compute-hungry AIs. The options aren’t amazing, mainly because we’ve been neglectful in the past:

    “The UK’s limited options in this strategically important technology should make us reflect on the decisions – implicit and explicit – that led the UK to be in such a weak position.

    “Korea & Taiwan – with less ideological aversion to industrial strategy than UK – rode the wave of the world’s fastest developing technology while the UK sat on the sidelines. Their economic performance has surpassed the UK.”

    #

  • Andreas Wagner, in an extract from his new book, details the evolutions – in both biology and human culture – that lay dormant for years before suddenly encountering the conditions in which to become successful:

    “These and many other new life forms remained dormant before succeeding explosively. They are the sleeping beauties of biological evolution. They cast doubt on many widely assumed beliefs about success and failure. And these doubts apply not just to the innovations of nature, but also to those of human culture.”

    This reminds me of the theory of the “slow hunch”, which Clive Thompson wrote about last year. #

  • A couple of months ago a video did the rounds of David Guetta, who’d used AI to conjure up a realistic-sounding sample of Eminem. It was interesting, but also pretty meh: it sounded like Eminem, sure, but the lyrics were nonsensical and it all had a slightly uncanny feel about it. It felt like the jobs of rappers were safe for now.

    Then, a couple of weeks ago, hip-hop duo Alltta released the song Savages, and everything changed. It illustrated how far things have come in just a couple of months, but also how incredible human-AI collaborations could be: it features lyrics by rapper Mr. J Medeiros, delivered in the unmistakeable flow of Jay-Z, backed by a genuinely good beat. It’s amazing and scary in equal measure.

    Over at BuzzFeed News (RIP), Chris Stokel-Walker takes a tour through some of the recent developments in AI-generated hip-hop, and delves into the legal issues that are looming:

    “While a consensus is forming that generative AI is potentially troublesome, no one really knows whether hobbyist creators are on shaky legal ground or not. pieawsome said he thinks of what he does as the equivalent of modding a game or producing fanfiction based on a popular book. ‘It’s our version of that,’ he said. ‘That may be a good thing. It may be a bad thing. I don’t know. But it’s kind of an inevitable thing that was going to happen.’”

    #

  • Brian Feldman on why the slow-motion shambles that is Twitter feels like a throwback to the old web:

    “My current theory of Musk is that he’s a guy who did a lot of coding many, many years ago and it made him very rich and confident, and so nobody who still works at Twitter has the energy to correct him when assumes, ‘If we go into the <img> tag and change twitterbird.png to doge.png, we’ll have ourselves an epic prank.’

    “Being able to sense someone messing with a website in real-time, moving the menu items around and forgetting to close an HTML tag here and there, is a neat feeling. It feels scrappy. I don’t mean to excuse any of this and I feel kinda bad for people who still rely on Twitter. But as someone with no skin in the game, I am enjoying the process, if not the result. I honestly prefer the dynamism of a guy who keeps changing the layout of the world’s most expensive MySpace page to sites of comparable scale promising me a new, inconsequential feature.”

    #

  • Alex Murrell perfectly joins the dots on so many threads of modern culture, and why they’re all so… samey.

    “So, there you have it. The interiors of our homes, coffee shops and restaurants all look the same. The buildings where we live and work all look the same. The cars we drive, their colours and their logos all look the same. The way we look and the way we dress all looks the same. Our movies, books and video games all look the same. And the brands we buy, their adverts, identities and taglines all look the same.”

    Murrell’s argument is that, in an increasingly homogeneous world, there’s a greater opportunity than ever to do something different – greater returns to distinctiveness, if you will. But I wonder whether that’s really the case. The bland world Murrell describes is one of our own making: algorithms serve us content, and we engage with the blandest bits; market research firms ask us our opinions, and they turn out to be pretty bland too; Airbnb offers us the world and we choose to stay in identikit apartments. Does the world really cry out for distinctiveness and diversity? Or is that only the predilection of art directors and aesthetes? #

  • Izzy Miller trained a large language model – similar to GPT – on the entire history of his friends’ group chats, which had been running for years. He then hosted an interactive version of it for his friends, so they could all chat with the AI versions of themselves. It worked surprisingly well:

    “This has genuinely provided more hours of deep enjoyment for me and my friends than I could have imagined. Something about the training process optimized for outrageous behavior, and seeing your conversations from a third-person perspective casts into stark relief how ridiculous and hilarious they can be.”

    The post contains lots of technical details, if you have the urge to do something similar yourself. #

  • Morocco’s king has become increasingly absent over the past few years, to the frustration of the nation’s bureaucrats. A potential cause? His friendship with three Moroccan-German kickboxing brothers. Nicolas Pelham tells the bizzare story in The Economist; it’s illustrative not just of Morocco’s fraught post-colonial history but of its place in the Arab world, too.

    “Five years ago, an unusual image appeared on Instagram. It showed Mohammed VI, the 54-year-old king of Morocco, sitting on a sofa next to a muscular man in sportswear. The two men were pressed up next to each other with matching grins like a pair of kids at summer camp. Moroccans were more accustomed to seeing their king alone on a gilded throne.

    ‘The story behind the picture was even stranger. Abu Azaitar, the 32-year-old man sitting next to the king, is a veteran of the German prison system as well as a mixed-martial-arts (MMA) champion. Since he moved to Morocco in 2018 his bling-filled Instagram feed has caused the country’s conservative elite to shudder. It’s not just the flashy cars, it’s the strikingly informal tone in which he addresses the monarch: ‘Our dear King,’ he wrote next to one photo of the two of them together. ‘I can’t thank him enough for everything he has done for us.’”

    #

  • Emily Hund’s new book examines the organic origins of influencer culture: the world of blogging that emerged in the late noughties.

    “Before there were Instagram likes, Twitter hashtags, or TikTok trends, there were bloggers who seemed to have the passion and authenticity that traditional media lacked. The Influencer Industry tells the story of how early digital creators scrambling for work amid the Great Recession gave rise to the multibillion-dollar industry that has fundamentally reshaped culture, the flow of information, and the way we relate to ourselves and each other.”

    #

  • Lego wasn’t the first stacking brick aimed at kids, but it became overwhelmingly dominant. Why? Phil Edwards explains. #

  • A long read from Bloomberg on a Croatian gambler who seemingly cracked roulette, winning millions at casinos across the world apparently without cheating.

    “It wasn’t the amount of money at stake that made the Ritz security team anxious. Customers routinely made several million pounds in an evening and left carrying designer bags bulging with cash. It was the way these three were winning: consistently, over hundreds of rounds. ‘It is practically impossible to predict the number that will come up,’ Stephen Hawking once wrote about roulette. ‘Otherwise physicists would make a fortune at casinos.’ The game was designed to be random; chaos, elegantly rendered in circular motion.

    “When the Croatian left the casino in the early hours of March 16, he’d turned £30,000 worth of chips into a £310,000 check. His Serbian partner did even better, making £684,000 from his initial £60,000. He asked for a half-million in two checks and the rest in cash. That brought the group’s take, including from earlier sessions, to about £1.3 million. And Tosa wasn’t done. He told casino employees he planned to return the next day.”

    #

  • There’s a P&O advert airing at the moment with a voiceover of Alan Watts spouting platitudes about following your dreams. The choice of Watts for a luxury cruise ad was a decision I found odd, given Watts’s reputation (in my mind) as a schlocky new-age huckster. Gus Carter agrees, in some entertaining detail:

    “Watts’s philosophy is difficult to define. He spoke in aphorisms, linguistically clear but conceptually fragmented reflections on the contradictions of human experience. He rejected the idea of the individual and spoke of the ‘European dissociation’, the feeling of oneself as an outsider in a hostile world. Instead, he argued, we are all the universe and any sense of one’s own desires or exertions are merely an expression of the singular universe unfolding.

    “In one lecture, Watts explains: ‘As you cannot conceive, possibly, of the existence of a living body with no environment, that is the clue that the two are basically one… You are both what you do and what happens to you.’ It is a strange argument: you can easily imagine an environment without humans. How is it then that nature and human experience can be described as one and the same? But his pronouncements aren’t designed to be logically analysed. It’s a philosophy of vibes.”

    #

  • An interesting paper by Samuel M. Hartzmark and Kelly Shue outlining a counter-intuitive aspect of ESG investing.

    The ESG consensus is that you should invest in companies that do good, and not invest in companies that do bad. If you do that, you’ll make it harder to do business for companies doing bad things (by raising the cost of capital for them). That’s then a good incentive for those companies to behave better (and therefore access more, cheaper investment).

    But Hartzmark and Shue argue that this is counterproductive. If you invest in an already-good business, there’s much less scope for them to improve in absolute terms. And if you don’t invest in bad businesses, you make it hard for them to make big investments (which means they won’t create new technologies to reduce emissions), and you put pressure on them to make money in the short term in order to survive (which means they’ll do bad things like mine more coal or produce more diesel engines).

    ESG investing effectively makes bad companies worse, without making good companies better – because it lacks a mechanism for rewarding companies for absolute reductions in impact. #

  • A superb (and apposite) essay from Steve Randy Waldman, writing in 2011, on why finance is necessarily complex and opaque, and why removing that complexity and opacity is impossible and undesirable:

    “This is the business of banking. Opacity is not something that can be reformed away, because it is essential to banks’ economic function of mobilizing the risk-bearing capacity of people who, if fully informed, wouldn’t bear the risk. Societies that lack opaque, faintly fraudulent, financial systems fail to develop and prosper. Insufficient economic risks are taken to sustain growth and development. You can have opacity and an industrial economy, or you can have transparency and herd goats.”

    The “faintly fraudulent” aspect reminds me of Dan Davies’s brilliant book Lying for Money, which I wrote about last year. A certain amount of fraud in a society is desirable; completely eliminating fraud would also completely eliminate all other forms of commerce. #

  • A beautiful building, designed by Marc Thorpe, that appears to float over the surface of Crystal Lake in New York.

    #

  • The great linguist Noam Chomsky outlines his frustrations with the buzz around generative AI: principally, that it might obscure the wonder of humanity and our incredible real intelligence.

    “The human mind is not, like ChatGPT and its ilk, a lumbering statistical engine for pattern matching, gorging on hundreds of terabytes of data and extrapolating the most likely conversational response or most probable answer to a scientific question. On the contrary, the human mind is a surprisingly efficient and even elegant system that operates with small amounts of information; it seeks not to infer brute correlations among data points but to create explanations.

    “Indeed, such programs are stuck in a prehuman or nonhuman phase of cognitive evolution. Their deepest flaw is the absence of the most critical capacity of any intelligence: to say not only what is the case, what was the case and what will be the case – that’s description and prediction – but also what is not the case and what could and could not be the case. Those are the ingredients of explanation, the mark of true intelligence.”

    #

  • Sam Rye with a fascinating comparison between the informal, emergent relationships that become established in organisations and the mycorrhizal networks that link plants within forests.

    “Much like when we began to understand the web of mycelial connections were fundamental to the health of the forest, illuminating relational infrastructure can help us see why leaving relationship building to happen in the coffee breaks is a terrible idea.”

    (Thanks Flo!) #

  • The buzz this week has been about Microsoft’s launch of its AI interface to the Bing search engine. Simon Willison, among others, has documented the frankly insane responses that people have managed to coax out of it; it’s clear that, from a safety perspective, this AI really isn’t ready for prime time.

    But how does it fare on accuracy? Nick Diakopoulos of Northwestern University fact-checked some of Bing’s answers – and the results aren’t pretty:

    “But, when it comes to accuracy it’s a different story. I found factual inaccuracies in 7 of the 15 responses (47%). There were also several responses that provided references for a sentence which did not include evidence of the claim in that sentence. Sometimes the claims were accurate, and other times not accurate, but either way there’s a sort of unwarranted credibility conveyed, where the citations to news outlets give a trust signal, but don’t actually support the claim made.”

    #

  • A charming new film from Dean Fleischer Camp and Jenny Slate, that’s out in cinemas now. From Mark Kermode’s review:

    ”While subjects as dark as separation and death may be faced head-on (a reading from Philip Larkin’s The Trees had me in tears), there’s a comedic quality that reminded me of Aardman’s sublime Creature Comforts animations – a joyous juxtaposition of quotidian, vérité-style dialogue and fancifully inventive visuals that hits a tragicomic sweet spot.”

    #

  • James Vincent on why we keep failing to understand the sentience of generative AIs – why, in effect, we keep failing the “mirror test”:

    “The mirror is the latest breed of AI chatbots, of which Microsoft’s Bing is the most prominent example. The reflection is humanity’s wealth of language and writing, which has been strained into these models and is now reflected back to us. We’re convinced these tools might be the superintelligent machines from our stories because, in part, they’re trained on those same tales. Knowing this, we should be able to recognize ourselves in our new machine mirrors, but instead, it seems like more than a few people are convinced they’ve spotted another form of life.”

    #

  • Abraham Thomas with a well-expressed solution to the apparent contradiction that startups require both stamina and speed:

    “If startups are a marathon, then staying power should count for more than speed. Conversely, if speed is the key, then why worry about stamina and resilience and the long haul?

    “One way to resolve this contradiction is to simply say, this is why startups are hard. You have to do both: go as fast as you can for as long as you can. Sprint the marathon.

    “But I think there’s a deeper resolution, and I found it in events from over a hundred years ago.”

    His examples are from the golden age of Antarctic exploration, and Scott’s and Amundsen’s competing attempts to reach the South Pole. #

  • As the tech industry in particular fires people in their tens of thousands, Sandra J. Sucher and Marilyn Morgan Westner explain something I’ve always felt intuitively about mass layoffs:

    “I’ve studied layoffs since 2009… the short-term cost savings provided by a layoff are overshadowed by bad publicity, loss of knowledge, weakened engagement, higher voluntary turnover, and lower innovation – all of which hurt profits in the long run.”

    #

  • A news story that, in true Ronseal fashion, does exactly what it says on the tin:

    “It began as a way to make myself a little uncomfortable, which I think is necessary in life. I wanted to return to simplicity – eat a cooked chicken every day, with no sauces, no condiments. I never imagined it would take off in the way it did. What captured people’s imaginations? A rotisserie chicken is very evocative: with even just the word, you can smell it, taste it, feel the grease beneath your fingertips. I like that it’s a simple, mundane thing.”

    #

  • A great article by Cedric Chin of Commoncog about the stereotype within the Chinese diaspora of the person who just “gets business”. Chin maintains that it has nothing to do with innate talent:

    “But the perception of ‘business savvy’ or ‘not business savvy’ as an inborn trait, unchangeable by circumstance, is hardcoded into our culture; an inalienable part of the ‘traditional Chinese businessman’.

    “I reject this notion almost as strongly as I reject the notion of pre-ordained destiny.”

    …but is rather the result of a particularly earthy and practical sort of knowledge, hard-won from trial and error. There’s a series of articles that explores this education and decision-making, and there’s lots of interesting gems within them. #

  • The origin story of Microsoft’s Clippy, the animated mascot we all loved to hate in the ’90s:

    “These days, an annoying Word creature might seem eminently tolerable compared to the ghouls on Twitter. Now that Alexa’s in our bedroom and Siri’s in our hand, Clippy’s a throwback to what seems like a more benign digital age.”

    #

  • Nate Jones on the phenomenon of the “nepo baby” – the children of Hollywood stars who fill the current ranks of celebrities:

    “Long before TikTok got ahold of these descendants, scholars had been studying our obsession with multigenerational stars. Austrian academic Eva Maria Schörgenhuber argues that celebrity children function as living links to a shared pop-culture history, connecting us to a nostalgic vision of the past. You can see this keenly in the types of nepo babies the culture does not have a problem with. Stars like Minnelli, Mariska Hargitay, or Freddie Prinze Jr., who all had a parent die in tragic circumstances, garner respect, not scorn, for following in their footsteps. The same way the Kennedys went from nouveau-riche boot-leggers to inhabitants of a fairy-tale castle, so does the passage of time transform a nepo baby into someone ‘from a famous family.’ Few today care that Michael Douglas, Laura Dern, or Tracee Ellis Ross had celebrity parents. The same principle holds true for someone like Dakota Johnson, who reps multiple generations of Hollywood legends and is thus exempt from the tasteless striving that defines celebrity children of a more recent vintage. Paradoxically, the nepo babies we like best are often the ones who are most privileged.”

    #

  • Another bit of self-promotion, if you’ll indulge me. As part of the general mood that’s in the air at the moment, focused on moving away from the internet’s various large walled gardens, I’ve decided that having my photos exist only on Instagram isn’t really much fun. And so I’ve started a little photo blog, focused on my home city of London.

    I’m going to use to it for photo essays about the city, its people, and how it changes over time. There are a few up there already, on London in Lockdown, the Queen’s funeral, the recent Iranian protests, and the final years of Smithfield Market. #

  • I stumble across a lot of interesting oddness on the internet and in books, most of which will never make it into blog posts here on Roblog. So I’ve decided to set up a mini, daily, “Today I Learned”-style blog that captures it. It’s called Tiller.

    Posts will be daily (well, almost), short, and hopefully interesting. So far I’ve got some things about stunts with crocodiles, shockingly filthy blues songs, and trade union blacklisting in the construction industry, so they’ll also be pretty eclectic. #

  • A short (8-minute) documentary about the last trams in India: those of the 149-year-old Kolkota tram system. It’s on its last legs, down to 12–15 trams from its height of 300, and there are suggestions that the government of West Bengal will shut the service down.

    Activists are fighting to save it, both as a symbol of Kolkata’s history and heritage and as a cheap, environmentally friendly and low-congestion method of transport in what is an increasingly crowded and polluted city. #

  • Dan Hancox expertly captures the vibe of Facebook’s boomer nostalgia groups, that yearn for a vague and unspecified time period when men were men, health and safety legislation didn’t exist, and you had to ask your parents for permission to leave the table after your tea. On the face of it, they’re quaint and a little absurd, but they reveal quite a lot of what’s rotten in the English collective psyche:

    “When we talk about the past, we always reveal something about the present. It is hard to imagine a more intriguing or overlooked body of evidence for assessing recent British social history than these Facebook groups: they have given us something like a more chaotic, 21st-century version of Mass Observation. They may not be ‘representative’ in any quantifiable way, but the sample size is vast, and these memes are a canvas for a whole range of contemporary insecurities and collective memories. History is written by the winners, but anyone can share a post on Facebook.”

    #

  • Architectural Review has a great piece on Peter Barber, the revolutionary architect who has designed and built some of the most forward-thinking social housing in the UK.

    Barber himself is a product of an era in which social housing was prioritised and popular:

    “Barber was a student in 1979, the year when the proportion of the British population living in council housing peaked at 42 per cent (today the figure is approximately 8 per cent). Britain’s first few council houses were built in the 1860s… but it was only in the aftermath of two world wars that central government ramped up funding – first in 1919 and then again in 1945 – for council-house building to gain real momentum. Completions peaked with around 150,000 homes built each year.”

    His work is a direct challenge both to the Thatcherite view that social housing is inevitably unpleasant, shameful, and unliveable, and the modernist view that social housing should be built on a towering scale.

    I particularly like the bright-white, Mediterranean-inspired Donnybrook Quarter in Bow…

    Donnybrook Quarter, Bow, London E3

    …and the stately brick car-lessness of this development on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, which cleverly built on a cut-through between two roads while maintaining the pedestrian access:

    Burbridge Close, Ilchester Road, Dagenham

    #

  • Palmer Luckey, inventor of the Oculus Rift VR headset, has designed a headset that will kill its wearer if their character in the video game they’re playing dies:

    ”When an appropriate game-over screen is displayed, the charges fire, instantly destroying the brain of the user…

    “At this point, it is just a piece of office art, a thought-provoking reminder of unexplored avenues in game design. It is also, as far as I know, the first non-fiction example of a VR device that can actually kill the user. It won’t be the last.”

    #

  • Some beautiful explanations, visualisations and animations that form a beginners’ guide to complexity science. So much of what I talk about on this blog touches on these concepts. #

  • I love Helen Rosner, the New Yorker’s food writer, and this interview is great.

    On the challenges that come with developing taste:

    “I think of that as the cliff of connoisseurship. When you start paying attention to something, the margins become much, much, much smaller – you know, the more knowledge and expertise you have, the more experience you have. And these tiny margins start mattering more and more and more and more and more until you’re effectively communicating in a language that is unintelligible to anybody who is outside of your micro subreddit, or whatever it might be.

    “And you know, it’s nice to be obsessed. It’s nice to find joy in knowledge and mastery and expertise.”

    On the idea of “elevating” (typically non-European) cuisines (typically by making them more closely resemble European foods):

    “Even if we accept ‘elevation’ as a term, and even if we sort of engage with the idea on its own, in its own context, I think that elevating is not the same as fixing. I think one way of thinking about elevating is saying, ‘Here’s something that you have perhaps failed to appreciate because of its context.’

    “And so, when somebody is doing that with food… I think that that can be quite powerful. We can debate the merits of whether culinary diplomacy is successful… but it might be a way of reaching the culture, the moneyed people and saying, ‘Hey, pay attention to this thing that you’ve previously dismissed as food that does not rise to your level, and recognize that not only are you worthy of it, but perhaps we’re not even worthy of it, it is greater than you had previously imagined.’”

    #

  • A charming behind-the-scenes look at Saturday Night Live’s team of cue-card writers. Their process is lo-fi, but it works better than technology: it’s more reliable, and it’s easier to fit to the beats and the physical needs of the sketches. (It’s hard to imagine wheeling a teleprompter around some of the tightly blocked, single-shot sketches that feature in the video.) #

  • Wesley Morris celebrates a type of art that America used to specialise in, but has stopped making: trash.

    “I was 11 when Nuts came out, and it helped lead me into a committed relationship with a certain category of movie. The people in them seemed loonier, lustier, louder than we’re supposed to be. Their eyes were wild; their makeup ran. They had hair we were meant to know was a wig, because it was impossible hair. The paint chips for these movies might read: ‘wanton,’ ‘lust,’ ‘paramedic,’ ‘weak bladder,’ ‘mattress,’ ‘steamy,’ ‘do not cross,’ ‘pilot light,’ ‘them drawls,’ ‘brazen,’ ‘lit cig,’ ‘urinal cake,’ ‘Crisco,’ ‘bust.’ In being honest about this volatile, unkempt, uncouth, indecorous, obnoxious, senseless, malicious, unhinged and therefore utterly uninhibited side of ourselves, a certain kind of movie can make an X-ray of what else it is besides a story about some characters. It can identify the mess.”

    #

  • Geoff Dyer, writing in Aperture, summarises the iconoclasm and revolution of photography in the 1970, an era I’ve always found fascinating.

    “Photographers were busy taking photographs, making work, but interesting photographs are always being taken, great work is always being made, whatever the decade. In the ’70s, though, photography was being examined and defined in a way that harked back to Alfred Stieglitz’s pioneering inquiries into… ‘idea photography’.”

    #

  • Beautiful paper-cut artworks by artists Julia Ibbini and Stéphane Noyer that recall the geometry of Islamic art and architecture and are made possible by computer-controlled laser cutters:

    #

  • John Lanchester at his best, comparing the current government to live-action role-players:

    “Until Liz Truss, no one had ever thought to try Larping as a system of government. But it turns out that we in the UK are living inside a full-scale Thatcher Larp, whether we voted for it or not. (For the avoidance of doubt: we didn’t. Check the 2019 Conservative manifesto for proof.) This unhappy discovery was something the country, and the financial markets, learned from Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini-budget’ on 23 September, the latest catastrophic f***-up inflicted on the UK by an over-confident Etonian.”

    This, Lanchester argues, is why the markets had such a catastrophic response to the mini-budget – because it made it unavoidably, unignorably clear that the government was fundamentally unserious:

    “The uncosted new policy became, to markets, a signal that the new government is not serious and doesn’t know what it’s doing. Truss can wear as many pussy-bow blouses and sit on as many tanks as she wants, but while her policies continue to be uncosted, it’s Larp Thatcher, not the real thing. Markets don’t want a G7 economy to be led by people playing ‘let’s pretend’.”

    #

  • There’s a particular phenomenon on Twitter: the “buckle up” thread, in which someone grossly simplifies a historical issue in strident terms. Rosa Lyster suggests these threads are typically:

    “bewilderingly irate, laden with a combination of baroque linguistic flourishes and performatively subversive swearing, assumption of complete ignorance on the part of the audience, fondness for the word “gaslighting,” a powerful youth pastor-like eagerness to “meet people where they are,” high likelihood that it will be retweeted by people who refer to themselves as “Scolds” in their twitter bios, strong urge to lay the blame for the ills of the 21st century firmly at the foot of a basically random actor or event, total erasure of most things that have ever happened.”

    The main problem, Lyster argues, is that these threads are strangely popular:

    “The thing about Buckle Up Twitter, hard as this may be for right-thinking people like me to accept, is that a lot of other people LOVE IT. They absolutely love to be told that they are morons and that all of this is actually Beau Brummell’s doing.”

    #

  • A characteristically thoughtful post from Tom Critchlow on the phenomenon of the “executive offsite” and the annual planning day, with observations about why they so often fail and suggestions of how they might be made to work more effectively. #

  • A compelling website that captures the unbridled joy that the UK’s shadowy right-wing think tanks expressed at Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini budget” a few weeks ago, before the subsequent crash. #

  • Sacha Judd on the “hate engine” that powers so much online fandom, which cropped up most recently with the drama surrounding the film Don’t Worry Darling:

    “In watching all of this unfold, all I could think was that we are overdue a reckoning with the way the online environment is allowing misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods to be increasingly weaponized against women in cinema. And the Hollywood engine is beyond overdue in getting to grips with fandoms and the power they wield, even after over a decade of toxic hate and harassment being leveled at artists of color, widespread blowback over casting choices, and the inability of studios to protect their stars.”

    #

  • A fascinating article by investor Tom Morgan about dealing with uncertain times.

    Resisting the urge to provide false certainty (to yourself or to others) is important. Sometimes you’ve got to just sit with your problems and cogitate. But, Tom wonders, does the length of time you spend struggling with a problem match up in some way with the quality and significance of the insight that you generate? #

  • As Hurricane Ian batters the US, this story from 2017 makes for a staggering read. Its author, Michael Grunwald, visits Cape Coral, Florida – at that point the country’s fastest-growing city, despite it being little more than a swamp and sitting just a few feet above sea level.

    Predictably, the city has its origins in what was basically a real estate scam:

    “Gulf American unloaded tens of thousands of low-lying Cape Coral lots on dreamseekers all over the world before the authorities cracked down on its frauds and deceptions. It passed off inaccessible mush as prime real estate, sold the same swampy lots to multiple buyers, and used listening devices to spy on its customers. Its hucksters spun a soggy floodplain between the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico as America’s middle-class boomtown of the future, and suckers bought it.”

    But, bizarrely, it somehow worked, with disastrous long-term consequences:

    “The thing is, the hucksters were right, and so were the suckers. Cape Coral is now the largest city in America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its population has soared from fewer than 200 when the Rasos arrived to 180,000 today. Its low-lying swamps have been drained, thanks to an astonishing 400 miles of canals – the most of any city on earth – that serve not only as the city’s stormwater management system but also its defining real estate amenity. Those ditches were an ecological disaster, ravaging wetlands, estuaries and aquifers. Cape Coral was a planning disaster, too, designed without water or sewer pipes, shops or offices, or almost anything but pre-platted residential lots. But people flocked here anyway. The title of a memoir by a Gulf American secretary captured the essence of Cape Coral: Lies That Came True.”

    #

  • Another great example of niche businesses made possible by the internet:

    “In the beginning, I figured we would do floppy disks, but never CDs. Eventually, we got into CDs and I said we’d never do DVDs. A couple of years went by and I started duplicating DVDs. Now I’m also duplicating USB drives. You can see from this conversation that I’m not exactly a person with great vision. I just follow what our customers want us to do. When people ask me: ‘Why are you into floppy disks today?’ the answer is: ‘Because I forgot to get out of the business.’ Everybody else in the world looked at the future and came to the conclusion that this was a dying industry. Because I’d already bought all my equipment and inventory, I thought I’d just keep this revenue stream. I stuck with it and didn’t try to expand. Over time, the total number of floppy users has gone down. However, the number of people who provided the product went down even faster. If you look at those two curves, you see that there is a growing market share for the last man standing in the business, and that man is me.”

    #

  • Toby Shorin with a superb long essay, the product of six years’ work, that’s both an eerily accurate summary of the last decade of culture and a vision of the future that it’s hard not to be depressed by.

    Shorin characterises the 2010s as the era of “lifestyle”:

    “The 2010s is what I want to call the era of Lifestyle. You know what it felt like, because you lived through it. And I did too. Since 2014 I have lived in New York, inside the machine where Lifestyle is made. Spending my waking moments moving through these branded experiences, I felt they they pointed to something I could say but not name.”

    Now coming to an end, what replaces it? Shorin argues that brands will begin to manufacture and shape culture far more directly, rather than merely reflecting it:

    “The Lifestyle era was not about creating culture; it was about attaching brands onto existing cultural contexts. It was not about shaping people; it was about sorting consumer demographics into niche categories. The new order we are entering into reverses this. For some organizations, culture has become the product itself, and products have become secondary, auxiliary, to the production of culture.”

    #

  • The South African journalist R. W. Johnson, who The Economist memorably described as “a romantic contrarian liberal”, is no monarchist. Reviewing Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy for the LRB in 1988, he skewered a particular kind of fatuousness exhibited by those who meet royalty:

    “Similarly, Nairn catches Kinnock at the Andy-Fergie wedding delightedly telling the media about how Fergie had smiled and ‘that smile was worth all the rest of it!’ Or Ken Livingstone, after a brief handshake with the Queen: ‘I have always thought that the Queen is a very nice person indeed. Today confirmed that view.’ As Nairn points out, our Ken ‘had no basis whatever for this observation in the normal sense of the words’. We see this phenomenon all the time, even from the leaders of the Left. People are so overcome with pleasure at meeting a royal personage that they seek to rationalise this ecstasy by investing the said royal with impressive human qualities, often appearing to claim knowledge of the royal which they cannot possibly have. Again, monarchy makes them lie. And hence the phenomenon of the Royal Joke during which people fall about in near-hysteria when Philip or Charles say something like: ‘If it rains today we could all get wet!’ People then queue up to tell the TV camera about ‘the Prince’s wonderful sense of humour’. More lies, always more lies. The cultural compulsion is truly strong.”

    #

  • If you’ll permit me a little self-promotion, I spent some time recently assembling a glossary of words and phrases that you commonly encounter in the world of consumer packaged goods. It’s called FMCG.FYI, and it will help you tell your awareness from your emboss and your shelf wobblers from your six-sheets. #

  • Helen Lewis on learning to drive at age 37, and why it’s a singularly challenging – but also rewarding – experience:

    “Everyone I knew told me that the rule for driving lessons is that you need one hour for every year of your age. That reflects the slower reaction times and greater nervousness associated with adulthood, as well as the brain’s dwindling plasticity. From birth to age 2, a baby makes 700 neural connections a second. That process slows as the brain matures, and a psychological shift also occurs: We insulate ourselves from our own weaknesses. I was terrible at team sports at school; today, I no longer play team sports. I once knew what a quadratic equation was; these days, I would fire up my phone’s calculator to subtract 37 from 64. The things that I was always good at? Well, that’s different. I’ve honed those skills so well that people will pay me money for them. But a well-worn groove can become a prison. The better you get at something, the greater the rewards – but the less acquainted you become with humiliation or humility. ‘One of the biggest reasons it gets harder to do new things as you get older is that new things are generally undignified at first (indeed, this is an excellent heuristic for discovering them) and the older you get, the more dignified you’re expected to be,’ the tech investor Paul Graham wrote recently.”

    #

  • A fascinating paper from Stephan Heblich, Stephen J. Redding, and Hans-Joachim Voth that examines the economic effects of slavery on the industrial revolution in Britain.

    They discover that areas of Britain with more slavery-derived wealth adopted industrial practices more quickly, mechanised more quickly and had higher per-capita wealth than areas with less slavery wealth. #

  • A thoughtful and personal essay by Jon Day on the phenomenon of hoarding, something his own father does and that he has a tendency towards himself:

    “You could argue that the hoarder’s tragedy is his inability to convince society that the objects he treasures have value. The line between ‘having a lot of stuff’ and ‘being a hoarder’ is porous, dependent to a large extent on social norms… A hoard that has been curated can become a collection; a collection that has been labelled becomes an archive (just as a collector is merely a hoarder who has space for his stuff).”

    Day draws an interesting parallel between the messiness of hoarding and the idea of western psychology and psychoanalysis:

    “It’s no wonder psychoanalysts have found hoarders so fascinating: making order out of disorder is the hoarder’s problem and the analyst’s process… The psychoanalytic method has a lot in common with the hoarder’s. ‘All psychoanalyses are about mess and meaning, and the links between them,’ Adam Phillips writes in ‘Clutter: A Case History’. ‘If our lives have a tendency to get cluttered, apparently by themselves but usually by ourselves, most accounts of psychoanalysis have an inclination to sort things out.’”

    #

  • “And finally”:

    “Joseph Henney’s emotional support animal WallyGator goes with him almost everywhere, from the grocery store to walks in the park. They hug each other and sleep in the same bed. WallyGator is an alligator.

    “The two watch television together on the couch, and when Henney takes him to the farmers market, WallyGator gives hugs to shoppers – as long as they are OK with being that close to a 70-pound reptile with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.”

    #

  • David Greer explains the importance of plankton, those invisible but essential marine creatures:

    “Tiny and virtually invisible as most plankton are, they make up more than 90% of the biomass in the world’s oceans and are collectively the lowest rung on the marine food chain. Everything we eat that comes from the ocean ultimately depends on plankton for its existence. As if that’s not reason enough to pay attention to the future of plankton, it’s worth considering that about half of the oxygen we take in with every breath also owes its existence to plankton.”

    Like all other life on earth, plankton are threatened by the effects of climate change – with potentially disastrous consequences. #

  • Alex de Waal, who’s covered Eritrea for years, profiles its despotic leader Isaias Afewerki:

    “No country in the world has a purer autocracy than Eritrea. The state of Eritrea is one man, Isaias Afewerki, who for twenty years was the leader of a formidable insurgent army that won a war of liberation against Ethiopia in 1991, and who has since ruled as president without constraint on his power. Three decades after independence, Eritrea has no constitution, no elections, no legislature, and no published budget. Its judiciary is under the president’s thumb, its press nonexistent. The only institutions that function are the army and security. There is compulsory and indefinite national service. The army generals, presidential advisers, and diplomats have been essentially unchanged for twenty-five years. The country has a population of 3.5 million, and more than half a million have fled as refugees – the highest ratio in the world next to Syria and Ukraine.”

    #

  • The late eighties in the US was a time of many things, not many of which have aged well. One of them was the sales promotion:

    “America was in the grip of a sweepstakes mania. The industry had grown to an estimated value of a billion dollars, and every company, from Toys R Us to Wonder Bread, seemed to be running giveaways and promotions. Even Harvard University’s alumni magazine was offering ten thousand dollars in Sony electronics.”

    One company ran countless such promotions. There was just one problem: they were all rigged. Jeff Maysh tells the story, which – like all stories of fraudulent eighties excess – inevitably ends up involving Donald Trump. #

  • Ash Sarkar on the loathsome Andrew Tate, and his place in the “attention economy”:

    “I suspect that the only person more pleased than me about picking up this commission to write about the former kickboxer’s misogyny, the dangers of his online reach, and its impact on impressionable young men is Tate himself. He makes no secret of his thirst for notoriety, nor the seeming pleasure he takes in being a source of distress to others. In the attention economy, there’s not a huge difference between a dedicated critic, or a loyal fan. A follow is a follow, whether it’s motivated by adoration, loathing, or morbid curiosity. A feminist writing for a mainstream publication like GQ about the poisonous influence of Andrew Tate isn’t a challenge to his business model. It’s a sign that it’s succeeding.”

    #

  • I was previously familiar with Murry Gell-Mann only through Michael Crichton’s Gell-Mann amnesia:

    “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.”

    But this interview, from 2003, reveals a thoughtful, interesting, curious and funny man whose first interest was in languages and who retained a humanity and humour throughout his scientific career:

    “I was still discouraged, though, about having to go to MIT, which seemed so grubby compared with the Ivy League. I thought of killing myself (at the age of 18) but soon decided that I could always try MIT and then kill myself later if it was that bad, but that I couldn’t commit suicide and then try MIT afterwards. The two operations, suicide and going to MIT, didn’t commute, as we say in math and physics jargon.”

    #

  • Mike Rothschild on the ongoing developments within QAnon, the loose movement of conspiracy theorists that emerged during Donald Trump’s initial run for president in 2016.

    “In the post-Trump world, the QAnon movement split along two parallel tracks. Sometimes they happened to intersect, but many other times they went their own way…

    “One track was a mainstreaming of Q’s core tenets to the point where the basics of QAnon – the drops, the obscure ‘comms’ – were no longer necessary, or even desirable. Q was no longer the cool, secret club that you had speak the jargon to have a chance of getting into. It was just ‘conservatism’ now.

    “The other track was much farther on the fringe than even most Trumpists were willing to travel. This was where Michael Protzman and his devoted cultists in Negative48 rode, along with other, even more outwardly racist and ant-Semitic new Q promoters. On this track, Q drops were still gospel and the ‘comms’ still were being decoded for all their secrets. And there were a lot of secrets. Trump and JFK Jr. spoke in number codes with Prince and Elvis, quantum medical beds and NESARA would deliver permanent health and prosperity to all, and Trump was still actually the president of a ‘devolved’ military government. Fewer people were in this part of Q’s big tent, but they got a lot of baffled media attention for their bizarre antics – gematria cultists waiting for JFK and drinking industrial bleach out of a communal bowl to fight COVID will get clicks.”

    #

  • The US SEC runs a successful whistleblower incentive programme. If you’re aware of someone who’s breaking financial regulations, you can tip off the SEC. If they’re eventually prosecuted and fined, you can earn a share of the fine – anything from 10 to 30 per cent. Several people have earned individual awards of over $100m for their tips.

    The result, though, is a fascinating case study in unintended consequences and perverse incentives. Alexander I. Platt at the University of Kansas School of Law discovered that the scheme (along with a similar one run by the CFTC) has effectively been captured by a small pool of professional lawyers. Awards are dominated by whistleblowers who are represented by lawyers, but in particular by lawyers from a small set of firms and by lawyers who used to work at the SEC.

    The result is that the capability of sifting through the avalanche of tips that arrive each day at the SEC has accidentally been outsourced to private law firms, who (naturally enough) prioritise their own interests. #

  • An interesting paper from law professor Michael D. Murray that investigates the question of who owns artworks that are generated by computers and AIs:

    “Artists and creatives who mint generative NFTs, collectors and investors who purchase and use them, and art law attorneys all should have a clear understanding of the copyright implications involved with different forms of generative art. This guide seeks to educate each of these audiences and bring clarification to the issues of copyrights in the world of generative art NFTs.”

    He concludes that in many cases they are uncopyrightable – including lots that are the basis for lucrative NFT projects. #

  • A clear and simple article with some clear and simple advice about how to present to senior executives. It starts, though, with an observation that I think is worth its weight in gold:

    “Any given executive is almost always uncannily good at one way of consuming information. They feel most comfortable consuming data in that particular way, and the communication systems surrounding them are optimized to communicate with them in that one way. I think of this as preprocessing reality, and preprocessing information the wrong way for a given executive will frequently create miscommunication that neither participant can quite explain.

    “For example, some executives have an extraordinary talent for pattern matching. Their first instinct in any presentation is to ask a series of detailed, seemingly random questions until they can pattern match against their previous experience. If you try to give a structured, academic presentation to that executive, they will be bored, and you will waste most of your time presenting information they won’t consume. Other executives will disregard anything you say that you don’t connect to a specific piece of data or dataset. You’ll be presenting with confidence, knowing that your data is in the appendix, and they’ll be increasingly discrediting your proposal as unsupported.”

    There are some general guidelines for how to communicate clearly, but nothing will ever beat figuring out who you’re talking to, understanding how they like to consume information, and tailoring what you present as a result. #

  • I saw this brilliant and inspiring documentary this week: Blind Ambition. It’s directed by Australians Rob Coe and Warwick Ross, who made a 2013 film called Red Obsession about the booming demand for fine wines in China.

    This time, they’ve turned their attention to the story of Tongai Joseph Dhafana, Tinashe Nyamudoka, Marlvin Gwese, and Pardon Tagazu. They’re four Zimbabweans who fled the economic meltdown in their home country in the mid-2000s, seeking refuge in neighbouring South Africa. Taking on any kind of work they could, they all ended up in the hospitality industry, where they discovered – completely by chance – an interest in and a talent for wine. They eventually all became sommeliers, getting jobs in top Cape Town restaurants.

    By 2017, they’re at the top of their game, and want to enter the wine-tasting olympics: the World Blind Tasting Championships, held each year in Burgundy. And so they start the first-ever Zimbabwean team, a team for a country with no wine-tasting traditions of its own, made up of people who didn’t even encounter wine until well into adulthood. The documentary follows them on their mission to raise enough money to travel to the competition and throughout the competition itself, and it stirring stuff. #

  • Surreally beautiful double-exposure photographs from the Finnish photographer Christoffer Relander. #

  • An interesting paper from David Gal and Itamar Simonson that investigates our ability to predict consumer choices in an age of “big data”.

    First, preferences are far from static:

    “To be sure, in some cases consumers do have strong, precise, stable preferences for particular products or attributes, and they may habitually buy the same options. For instance, some people prefer to buy a 2% organic milk. Likewise, a few consumers may have self-imposed rule as to the highest price they are willing to pay for a water bottle, which prevents them from buying water at airports. When preferences for products or attributes are strong, stable, and precise, consumer choices are relatively easy to predict, such as by simply asking consumers about their preferences.

    “However, most of the choices made by consumers that are not habitual or routine are not the result of precise, stable preferences for those products, but are constructed (or discovered) at the time a decision is being made on the basis of interactions among many individual and situational factors.”

    After digging into conjoint analysis, recommendation engines, and other predictive tools, Gal and Simonson conclude:

    “In contrast, the conclusions from our review reinforce the view that marketing remains as much an art as science, whether or not the analyses produce seemingly precise numbers. Marketers, as much as ever, must rely on their creativity, insight and judgment, as well as trial and error, and often some serendipity, to identify and develop truly new products (and messages) that match dormant (or “inherent”) consumer preferences.”

    #

  • A thoughtful post about segmentation from Roger Martin. It’s a controversial subject in the marketing world, having been dissed by Byron Sharp and then written off by his adherents.

    Martin reminds us that segmentation is something that’s driven by actual consumers’ actual behaviour, not your own analyses:

    “That notwithstanding, customers decide what segment they are in, not you. Big box mass merchandisers (other than Costco, actually) took a while to figure that out. They thought their segment was low-to-middle income families willing to drive to a more distant retailer than their local supermarket to buy goods at a lower price. But Mercedes and BMWs kept showing up in their parking lots. They shouldn’t have been there! They weren’t in the segment. That is half right. They are not in yours, but they are in theirs. And you don’t generate revenues: they do!

    “Customers decide whether your offering is a sports car, or not; a cool thing to order at a bar, or not; environmentally friendly, or not. While you are segmenting customers, customers are segmenting you. They create categories, put you in one, and consider you accordingly. You may think their segmentation is nuts, but it just doesn’t matter. Again, you don’t generate revenues: they do.”

    He also warns against focusing too hard on the bullseye consumer:

    “Many unsuccessful entrepreneurs design an offering that is extremely valuable to the perfect customer – typically themselves – but the drop-off is so steep that their idea collapses, not because it didn’t create value, but because the steepness of the drop-off makes it impossible to make the economics work. Successful entrepreneurs design their offering in a way that appeals to a much broader audience.”

    #

  • Part of the skill of augmented creativity will be writing good prompts for the AI to follow. With that in mind, Guy Parsons of DALL•Ery GALL•Ery showcases some interesting examples, and offers advice about what seems to work and how.

    One of the most interesting sections is on the ethical quandaries thrown up by DALL•E’s ability to replicate the styles of individual artists:

    “Artists need to make a living. After all, it’s only through the creation of human art to date DALL•E has anything to be trained on! So what becomes of an artist, once civilians like you and I can just conjure up art ‘in the style of [artist]’?

    Van Gogh’s ghost can surely cope with such indignities – but living artists might feel differently about having their unique style automagically cloned.”

    There are no easy answers, morally or legally. #

  • A difficult read from criminal barrister Joanna Hardy-Susskind, explaining just how nightmarish conditions at the criminal bar have become (hence the recent strikes):

    “The finances have never kept pace with the fight. With what is required of me. With what is required of the mass of legally-aided barristers who ultimately have to rely on successful partners, generous families or sheer luck to get by. But, money aside, it is the conditions that deliver the sucker punch. Without a HR department the job takes and takes. There is no yearly appraisal. No occupational health appointment. No intervention. No one to assess the toll. There is a high price to be paid for seeing photos of corpses, for hearing the stories of abused children and for sitting in a windowless cell looking evil in the eye. There are no limits as to how much or how often you can wreck your well-being, your family life, your boundaries. No limit to how many blows the system will strike to your softness. The holidays you will miss, the occasions you will skip, the people you will let down. The thing about words is that they sometimes fail you. When you emerge from a 70-hour week and notice the look in the eyes of the proud parents who propelled you here – but miss you now.”

    #

  • Twitter is awash with “traditionalist” art accounts that profess a yearning for simpler times. They mostly feature figurative paintings, architecture from the gothic to the baroque, lots of Greco-Roman sculpture and, of course, lots of white people.

    James Greig argues that this isn’t just philistinism; it’s part of a broader sweep of far-right propaganda, rooted in our current politics:

    “By comparing modern art with conventional depictions of rural scenes and able-bodied white people, this digital subculture is expressing a specific hierarchy of values. It’s about returning to a lost halcyon age of (implicitly white) western civilisation, which is sometimes Ancient Greece, sometimes the Renaissance, and sometimes Mad Men. It expresses a desire to return to ‘the natural order of things’, which has been degraded by modernity and multiculturalism, and conceptualises beauty as something which is eternal and objective.”

    #

  • Another great usage of GPT-3, like I’ve written about before. This time, it’s for jargon-busting: insert any text, from any field, and it will translate things into plain English.

    For example, this:

    “The three-dimensional structure of DNA – the double helix – arises from the chemical and structural features of its two polynucleotide chains.”

    …becomes:

    “The shape of DNA is called a double helix, and it forms due to the chemical makeup and structural characteristics of the two different strings of molecules that make up DNA.”

    Pretty interesting. #

  • I’ve always admired Stewart Brand, without necessarily ever having dug deep into his story. He’s one of those unavoidable characters who pop up at every historical juncture, influencing everyone from hippie LSD trippers to titans of industry in Silicon Valley.

    My vision of him as a benign sage is certainly at odds with this brilliant profile – or perhaps hatchet job – by Malcolm Harris in The Nation, which paints Brand as a cynical huckster, driven by individualistic greed to sell whatever people were buying and working with anyone who’d pay him:

    “Stewart Brand is not a scientist. He’s not an artist, an engineer, or a programmer. Nor is he much of a writer or editor, though as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, that’s what he’s best known for. Brand, 83, is a huckster – one of the great hucksters in a time and place full of them. Over the course of his long life, Brand’s salesmanship has been so outstanding that scholars of the American 20th century have secured his place as a historical figure, picking out the blond son of Stanford from among his peers and seating him with inventors, activists, and politicians at the table of men to be remembered. But remembered for what, exactly?”

    #

  • From 2019, but perhaps even more relevant now. B. D. McClay argues that we’re in an era characterised by sore winners:

    “Call the 2010s the decade of the sore winner: the underdogs that are top dogs, the upstarts who are establishment. It’s Taylor Swift’s decade as much thanks to her affect as her music. But it’s not just Taylor. Donald Trump is a sore winner. So is Brett Kavanaugh. Every Washington figure who blames ‘Washington’ for their failure to deliver on their promises is a sore winner. Hillary Clinton is not a sore winner – she’d have to win – but she has, it must be said, the vibe. (Recall, for instance, her reaction to being referred to as a member of the establishment.)”

    McClay ponders the causes…

    “The sore winner is a product of the hyper-surveilled and personalized world in which we all now live, one in which people feel both nebulously responsible for everything wrong while also feeling responsible for nothing at all. Power is contextual, responsibility often has to be accepted by people who aren’t at fault, and the grain of irritation around which the sore winner’s elaborate deflections and defenses occur sometimes represents something at least a little bit real.”

    …and has a go at formulating some solutions, too. #

  • Edward Docx’s portrait of Boris as a clown is just about the only way to sum up the absurdity of the last few years in British politics:

    “‘Boris’ became the most famous clown of his time. And yet, when he started out, he would open his act as if from the public seats. He was not one of the people, of course; but he liked to sit among them, awaiting his moment. He would then clamber through the crowd to a plangent arrangement of the national anthem – a pale-faced jester, candy-floss hair, feigning to fall over, carrying buckets of confetti and his little plastic flags. By entering the ring in this way – and with great clatter and furore – he would subvert the expected order and contrive confusion in the expectation of the audience. For a moment, he appeared to come from the same place as the public and therefore to be their envoy among the other performers – whom he would proceed to lampoon and ridicule. At this he was always very successful.”

    #

  • Interesting: although Americans earn more, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1960, the cost of iconic days out like baseball games or Disneyland is less affordable now than it was then.

    Everything is more expensive, but in particular the costs around the periphery have increased to absurd levels: parking at the ball game and Disneyland, popcorn at the cinema.

    It illustrates how difficult it is to measure inflation properly – and justifies the pinch that so many people are feeling. #

  • Tom Critchlow has some interesting thoughts on dashboards in businesses, which in his experience (and mine) tend to suck. That’s mostly because they’re backwards-looking:

    “Company dashboards are designed around metrics and measurement of results - they’re trying to measure what has happened.

    “Measuring what happened is important, obviously. But it’s a bit like driving a car only looking in the rear view mirror…

    “It’s also important, however, to measure what is happening.

    “Unfortunately in my consulting work most companies don’t have any kind of measurement in place for the left hand side of the equation.”

    There’s some great practical advice for what to do about it, too. #

  • Clive Thompson writes about how great ideas can have incredibly long gestation periods, as they roll around our heads and are augmented by bits and pieces of new information as we learn new things. He includes a great example of his own.

    His advice?

    “Treasure your long hunches. Gather wool slowly, and patiently. Keep lots of notes about things you’re learning and thinking about, and don’t worry if you feel like you’re being digressive. If you find yourself reading up on something that seems like a weird side-distraction, let yourself go there. It might be your brain working slowly – very slowly – on a hunch that won’t reveal itself for another ten years.

    “But when it does, it’ll be great.”

    #

  • While I was in Rome recently I took lots of photos and built a little site called Romer to host photos and writing about the city. The first piece is about watching AS Roma in the Stadio Olimpico, the unbelievable atmosphere, and Italy’s infectious – but somewhat problematic – fan culture. #

  • I mean, it’s been all over everywhere, so I’m unlikely to be the first to recommend it to you all, but if you haven’t seen Paul McCartney’s masterful three-hour Glastonbury set, you absolutely must. It’s impossible to even pick out highlights. (Okay, I’ll try: the super-tight band, Abe Laboriel Jr.’s drumming, the Foxy Lady solo at the end of Let Me Roll It, Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, holographic John Lennon, that run of Let It Be, Live and Let Die and Hey Jude before the encore…) It’s a master at work, looking nothing like his eighty years. #

  • A thoughtful review by Richard Seymour of Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s new book “Half-Earth Socialism”.

    The “half-earth” part of the title refers to a radical plan to combat climate change. The authors believe that nature is too complex for humanity to engineer, and that it can only thrive if we leave it alone; so half the earth should be left to re-wild; humanity must survive with the space and resources that remain. Ideally, that would mean doing so in a fair and equitable economy:

    “The ‘half-Earth’ arcadia, as Vettese and Pendergrass acknowledge, is riddled with peril. In the hands of governments and scientific bureaucracies, it is likely to be a ‘colonial’ solution in which the poor are displaced from their land; conflict intensifies between governments using military force to conserve territory, private military contractors, poachers, and those driven off the land; and the drivers of resource extraction are left unaddressed. Vettese and Pendergrass’s solution is not to abandon half-Earth, but to radicalise it as part of a socialist reformation of the global economy, in which democratic planning replaces markets and state bureaucracies. The goal of such a transformation is to use ‘natural geoengineering’ through rewilding to ‘draw down carbon’ – thereby avoiding dangerous options such as solar radiation management – and ‘create a fully renewable energy system’.”

    Seymour digs into exactly what’s problematic with Pendergrass and Vetesse’s analysis, but it’s perhaps the beginning of something interesting. #

  • Glastonbury has been great, but one of the highlights has definitely been the defiant Skin from Skunk Anansie, in a lime-green suit with “CLIT ROCK” on the back and a rubber headcap adorned with ten metre-long inflatable spikes, belting out “Yes it’s F**king Political”. #

  • A documentary, directed by the artist Michael Dweck and the cinematographer Gregory Kershaw, that follows a group of truffle hunters in Piedmont, in northern Italy.

    The hunters, all in their eighties, face intruders on their patch, a spate of dog-poisonings, and their own age and infirmity. But they go out each day regardless, driven by their relationships with their dogs, their love of the hunt, and – you can’t help but feel – a total lack of desire to do anything else. The film is sparsely shot, without narration or interview, and lets the hunters speak for themselves or to each other.

    The result is visually sumptuous and, on a human level, fascinating. It’s on iPlayer (linked), if you’re in the UK; if you’re not, I recommend seeking it out. #

  • In 1950s Rome, the sprawling film studios created by Mussolini were abuzz with American-made productions. The influx of global stars created, inadvertently, both the profession of the paparazzi celebrity photographer and, in many ways, our modern celebrity-obsessed culture itself. Evan Puschak explains. #

  • Craig Mod travels to the Kii peninsula, a sacred region south of Osaka that is home to shrines, sites of pilgrimage, lush forests, and fading villages undergoing demographic collapse:

    “For me, walking through working villages and towns is the great joy of the Kii Peninsula. Being able to cap a day of strenuous mountain routes with a bath alongside locals, wacky though they may sometimes be, is never not interesting. The whole of the experience, however, is one of acute bittersweetness.

    “The countryside of Japan is aging into nothingness, and it’s rare to see people under the age of 50 out and about. Many of the old coastal tea estates have been converted to solar farms – vast fields of trees replaced by gleaming black panels.”

    “Abandoned homes and gardens abound. Part of the reason I’ve walked Kii so obsessively in recent years is because I can feel, palpably, the fading of what once was. In Odai, I missed having a cup of coffee at La Mer, a classic Japanese kissaten-style café, by just two months. The 80-something-year-old owner left a sign outside: ‘I’ve aged out of the business.’ In Tochihara, an inn that has been in operation for hundreds of years may soon take its last boarder.”

    #

  • The news is full of stories lifted straight from scientific papers, lots of which are of dubious quality. David Epstein highlights one recent example – a story with the headline “surgeons who listen to AC/DC are faster and more accurate” – which demonstrates a common abuse of statistics:

    “I recommend that when you see this sort of ultra-nuanced effect in a news article, it may be a sign that the researchers inappropriately (but often not maliciously) sliced and diced their data in order to create some tantalizing positive finding, which – given enough data and enough slicing and dicing – they will inevitably find among the many possible false positives.

    “Let’s say a study starts out asking whether music makes surgeons perform better, but the results show nothing. Dead boring. So then the researchers separate the data into surgeons who heard soft rock versus hard rock. Ok, now the hard rock shows an effect. But, hmmmm, still no effect for soft rock. But if you look only at the data when the music is low-volume, there’s an effect. Interesting! Headlines!

    “But the reality is often that the researchers just sifted the data so much that they were bound to find false positives.”

    #

  • Paul Raven with a significantly better interpretation of “the boy who cried wolf” than the standard one:

    “Or, more simply: assigning a nervy and inexperienced kid to do an adult’s job and assuming you can sleep safely, and then blaming the kid’s false alarms for your sleeping through the eventual and destructive appearance of the thing you set the kid to watch out for, is surely less a story about how kids can’t be trusted to raise the alarm about wolves descending on the fold, and more a story about how fobbing off the hard work of protecting a community on its most vulnerable and inexperienced member is really fucking stupid.”

    #

  • Life advice from the chess hustlers who play in New York’s Washington Square Park:

    “The one thing I tell my students is that when you get to a confrontation of any type, you have to remain calm. When you remain calm, you can see the board a lot clearer. You can see the person you’re playing or arguing with a lot more clearly, for who and what they are. So you don’t even have to entertain that shit. You understand?

    “You have to be very careful. You can’t argue with a fool. You know that, right? Because you know what the fool will do? The fool will drag you down and drown you. And guess what? He’ll drag you down in your own pride and your own stupidity.

    #

  • Geoff Manaugh marvels at the strange geography of suburban Orange County, California:

    “In the process, I noticed some incredible street names. I love this development, for example, with its absurdist, greeting-card geography: you can meet someone at the corner of Luminous and Dreamlight, or rendezvous with your Romeo on the thin spit of land where Silhouette meets Balcony.

    “The same development has streets called Symphony, Pageantry, and Ambiance – and don’t miss “Momento” [sic]. Nearby is a street called Heather Mist.”

    #

  • Jerry Seinfeld being interviewed in HBR (a very strange sentence) produces this gem:

    You and Larry David wrote Seinfeld together, without a traditional writers’ room, and burnout was one reason you stopped. Was there a more sustainable way to do it? Could McKinsey or someone have helped you find a better model?

    Who’s McKinsey?

    It’s a consulting firm.

    Are they funny?

    No.

    Then I don’t need them. If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it – every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.

    I can only imagine the beat between “Are they funny?” and “No”. #

  • Amy Kean on the samey language of modern advertising:

    “The word ‘reimagine’ has crept into the advertising space in tandem with the growing number of brands hiring management consultants to manage their journeys into the future. We’re being sold shoes, reimagined. Laptops, reimagined. Teabags, reimagined. Cars, reimagined. And every single one of them is only slightly different.

    “The word ‘reimagine’ is a tactic. It’s grandiose waffle (which is why management consultants love it). A meaningless word. Style over substance. A preference for what sounds good, versus what actually says something. So why is everyone doing it?”

    #

  • Even a brief jaunt through TikTok will reveal countless videos in which people speak in the same uncanny, unnatural way. Olivia Yallop, author of Break the Internet: in Pursuit of Influence, explores why:

    “And so over time, thanks to the conditioning effects of the algorithm and the prerogative to self-optimise towards virality, TikTok users all end up sounding the same. ‘The way you speak is how you fit in, how you become part of the crowd,’ says Kate. ‘And nowadays, of course, we’re part of the crowd anywhere in the world.’ If everyone is now a broadcaster, everyone now has ‘broadcast voice’. Audrey agrees: ‘Just like I’m getting fillers to emulate [Instagram influencers’] cheekbones, they are altering their pitch so that they can sound similar to me.’ Perhaps, she muses, ‘people have been scrolling for so long, they don’t even realise they’re starting to talk like that.’”

    #

  • A comprehensive statistical analysis of the Wordle phenomenon, which I for one am still hooked on, by Robert Lesser.

    In particular, Lesser explores whether people are less likely to Tweet their Wordle score when it’s poor, which he’s able to do by looking at the rate of tweets vs an objective scoring of the difficulty of the words:

    “A common saying about sharing in the internet age is that social media is a highlight reel. People only post their best moments.

    “Does this apply to Wordle? Are people less likely to share their mediocre performances or failures?

    “Here’s one way to approach the question. If people are less likely to share their results when they do poorly, we would expect fewer people to do so on days with harder Wordle answers.”

    #

  • A timely piece from Patrick Radden Keefe on London’s facilitation of dodgy Russian wealth:

    “The stark implication of ‘Putin’s People’ is not just that the President of Russia may be a silent partner in one of England’s most storied sports franchises but also that England itself has been a silent and handsomely compensated partner in Putin’s kleptocratic designs – that, in the past two decades, Russian oligarchs have infiltrated England’s political, economic, and legal systems. ‘We must go after the oligarchs,’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared after the invasion of Ukraine, doing his best to sound Churchillian. But, as the international community labors to isolate Putin and his cronies, the question is whether England has been too compromised by Russian money to do so.”

    Keefe leans heavily on Oliver Bullough in the piece; his books Moneyland and the recently published Butler to the World are both brilliantly depressing. #

  • Common-sense thinking from Josh Barrie:

    “Next we come to one of the foremost junctures in the rule of pints: having two pints doesn’t exist. To have two pints would be a waste of time. It would be to fail oneself.

    “To clarify, two pints is nonsense behaviour of the highest order. What is the point? Let’s examine the proposition before a more abstract and meandering deliberation – after two pints, you are not even nearly inebriated. But you are a bit drowsy and sluggish, probably, and you’ll definitely need the loo on the way home. Two pints is a suggestion of three, one of the best quantities of pints, and yet isn’t three at all. It’s two.

    “Two pints is the amount drunk by bosses who are trying to fit in with their workers at the pub, staying for 35 minutes or so to seem like they care but leaving before actually committing to any semblance of an evening; it’s a ‘oh go on then’ to peer-pressuring pals before’ driving home illegally; it’s trying to make time for ‘one more’ when there simply isn’t time and having a whisky or rum alongside the first pint would have served perfectly; it’s queuing up at the football for too long and then missing a goal; it’s thinking two before dinner will be okay and then having to go to the loo three times before pudding and everyone thinking you have diabetes or worse; it’s a waste of time because it’s almost impossible not to have two without having three, and in any case it’s almost certainly illegal because of some medieval code.”

    #

  • A great insight from Tom Critchlow: when you’re mid-career, neither at the top nor the bottom of organisations, many of your struggles come from a lack of context. You know enough to benefit from that context, but you aren’t in a position in the organisation where you – or even the people who are assigning you work – have it.

    “As someone who gets given a request from someone more senior - it’s crucial to remember that the more context you are given, the better your work will be.

    “Asking for context is being good at your job, not being needy and ineffective.

    “And said another way, if you’re managing people you should be providing as much context as you can:

    “Providing context makes you a good manager, it’s not micromanaging.”

    #

  • A thoughtful post from Tom MacWright on note-taking:

    “You can feel like you understand something without knowing anything about it, and you can understand something without feeling like you do. Both are problematic. Creating notes and other symbols of knowledge is a way to affect that balance.

    “Maybe the real metacognition isn’t about having a mirror image of your brain encoded in a computer, but just having a mirror. Having a nice birch box filled with notebooks or a nice dense graph that symbolizes all the things you’ve noted, so that you can learn and forget comfortably. The world will always be too big to understand, but my box of notebooks, that I know.”

    #

  • A lovely interview with J. Kenji López-Alt in the New Yorker. Kenji’s long been one of my favourite food writers for his work demolishing myths and improving techniques on Serious Eats.

    I particularly like his distinction between recipes and techniques. It’s deceptively simple, but it applies in lots of disciplines – not just cooking:

    “The technique is something that has wide applications. It’s a method, as opposed to a recipe, which is just the one thing. If I ask my phone, ‘How do I get from here to the post office?,’ it gives me a recipe to the post office. I can just stare at my phone and see how many feet I have to walk this way, which way I turn, and then I get to the post office. Whereas learning a technique is like being handed the map. It allows you to choose other destinations – it allows you to choose alternate routes. That’s basically the difference to me: a recipe is turn-by-turn directions, a technique is a map.”

    #

  • Adam Tooze gets characteristically to the point on the unfolding war in Ukraine and how it might escalate, at what feels like a particularly critical juncture:

    “Over the last week, we have seen how the reality of war, the shock of moving from hypothetical to reality, changes the calculus. That is the stage we are reaching with the economy next week. The shooting has started. What will be the fall out? The truly concerning prospect should be that a general panic in Russia, triggers a further dangerous and unpredictable military escalation.”

    Putin’s nuclear threats might be a tactic – “escalate to de-escalate” – but they might not be, either. As Tooze cautiously concludes:

    “…the worrying thing is precisely that, as far as the economy is concerned, the chaos is just about to get started. Clearly the economy has not been the determining factor in Putin’s calculus so far. Sanctions were intended to get his attention. Next week will reveal how that message lands.”

    #

  • An incredible story of hustle culture, a con artist, and an introduction (for me at least) to the word “jobfishing”:

    “The Zoom call had about 40 people on it - or that’s what the people who had logged on thought. The all-staff meeting at the glamorous design agency had been called to welcome the growing company’s newest recruits. Its name was Madbird and its dynamic and inspirational boss, Ali Ayad, wanted everyone on the call to be ambitious hustlers - just like him.

    “But what those who had turned on their cameras didn’t know was that some of the others in the meeting weren’t real people. Yes, they were listed as participants. Some even had active email accounts and LinkedIn profiles. But their names were made up and their headshots belonged to other people.

    “The whole thing was fake - the real employees had been ‘jobfished’.”

    #

  • As someone who spends roughly half their day raging at Google Slides, this was truly traumatic:

    “Perhaps like you, I naively started out thinking that Google Slides was just a poorly maintained product suffering from some questionable foundational decisions made ages ago that worshipped at the shrine of PowerPoint and which have never since been revisited, but now, after having had to use it so much in the past year, I believe that Google Slides is actually just trolling me.

    “Join me on this cathartic journey which aspires to be none of the following: constructive, systematic, exhaustive. I’m too tired for that, dear reader. Consider this a gag reel. A platter of amuse-bouches. A chocolate sampler box of nightmares.”

    #

  • A fascinating optical illusion; even when you know what you’re expecting, it still works.

    It reminds me of the “selective attention test” by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, but for me at least that effect stops working once you’re aware of it. #

  • Molly White, creator of the fantastic web3 is going just great, explains what seemingly no one else has: the potential for abuse that blockchain/crypto/web3 projects have baked into their technology. It’s concerning stuff, but this lack of regard for the abusive potential of technology is sadly common in the tech world:

    “‘How will this technology be used to harass and abuse people?’ is a form of that question that too often goes unasked, particularly given that the demographics of people who are most at risk for abuse and harassment tend to be underrepresented in the industry. Apple apparently didn’t put much thought into how its AirTag location tracking discs could be misused by stalkers and domestic abusers. Target didn’t realize how its attempts to market to expectant mothers might out pregnant teenagers to their families. Slack didn’t foresee how people might use its invitation feature to send people harassing messages they couldn’t block.”

    #

  • A great story from what’s been a great Winter Olympics so far: Jamaican skiier Benjamin Alexander, who only started skiing six years ago, successfully finished his giant slalom race. Although he finished last and was 1m10s off the pace, his philosophy – “if you finish you beat everyone who doesn’t” – seems like a pretty great one for more than just skiing. #

  • James Greig examines the “concept creep” of the language we collectively use to talk about behaviour in the dating game. “Trauma”, once limited to life-altering events, now essentially means “anything that hurts me”. “Love-bombing”, a manipulative behaviour that involves showering someone with a disorientating amount of affection at the start of a relationship, is now used to describe behaviour that previously might have been called “a bit keen”. Everyone, it seems, is either a narcissist or going on dates with one.

    As well as watering down useful concepts to the point that they no longer hold meaning, this language reinforces problematic relationship dynamics:

    ”Using this kind of language can also lead to ‘moral typecasting’: the idea that the world is split between moral agents (people who do either good or bad) and moral patients (people who have good or bad things done to them). What’s interesting is that studies show that we think of people as either one thing or the other, and very rarely a combination of the two…

    “But if you think of yourself as a moral patient and anyone who hurts you as a moral agent, it means that anything you do to them becomes fair game, because you are constitutionally incapable of inflicting harm, and they are constitutionally incapable of experiencing it.”

    #

  • The fascinating story of Danielle Miller, rich kid turned fraudster.

    “Miller and Blas didn’t interact much, but their meeting set off a chain of events that would draw them both deeper into the criminal world than either had gone before. By the time their friendship fell apart, stolen credit cards would be the least of their troubles. “I was interested to know why this mean girl wanted to be friends with me,’ Miller says now. ‘And in the end I think it was because she wanted to use me for whatever crimes we were accused of.’”

    This kind of profile, interesting though it is, is an example of a phenomenon that Chris Dillow has written about extensively: people, and especially journalists, are bizarrely deferential to criminals from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds. Dillow quotes Adam Smith:

    “We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.”

    As Dillow notes:

    “The sympathy of headline writers is tightly circumscribed. They rarely speak of a downfall or fall from grace after working class people are convicted.”

    #

  • This collection of label designs from Portuguese fish cans is a treasure trove of typography, vernacular design, and wonderful illustrations. There are thousands to get stuck into.

    Three favourites:

    Image of a sardine can

    (Love the gnomes.)

    Image of a sardine can

    (Does what it says on the tin, I suppose.)

    Image of a sardine can

    (The world’s snootiest sardine.) #

  • Andrew Marr, newly anointed chief political commentator of the New Statesman, lays into Boris Johnson and assesses the aftermath of his inevitable departure.

    There’s a sombre, personal thread running through the piece:

    “I have found Johnson personally charming and amusing many times in the past. But at almost exactly the same time as he was hosting his parties in Downing Street, having a high old time lecturing the rest of us, I was burying my father.

    “In the end, it’s all about authority. Belief. Credibility. A prime minister must be able to look his colleagues in the eye, order action, and watch change ripple out. If he can’t do that, what’s the point? You don’t need to be sitting in the grandeur of St Margaret’s, thinking about good men – in my case, my father and Jack Dromey – to feel that politics is at a grubby low point. This is the Tories’ problem. It is patriotic, not partisan, to say it is now their job to clean it up. And fast.”

    #

  • Adam Tooze’s Chartbook newsletter has a great roundup of news on the unfolding tensions in Ukraine.

    In particular, it has a useful explanation for the strange headlines we’ve seen in the last week or so, in which US, UK, and EU sources have been saying that an invasion is imminent, but Ukrainian sources have been playing that down. Tooze quotes Alexander Clarkson:

    “I suspect the crisis timelines US and EU are focused on are out of whack with Russian elite timelines, that could lead to a build up of Russian troops staying on or close to Ukraine’s borders for months and years, and Ukrainian societal timelines focused on survival over decades.”

    In other words: nobody seems to agree on the length of game that’s being played – but Ukraine itself must always play the longest of long games. #

  • From last year, but relevant: the impact of our new working-from-home reality on our posture and the health of our backs:

    “More recently, as the coronavirus continues to keep us mostly indoors, working in improvised offices where ergonomically unsound ironing boards, coffee tables, and laps pinch-hit as desks, our sloppy ways of sitting could be taking a toll. Parked in front of a computer, we tend to tuck under our tailbones, candy-cane our spines, scrunch up our shoulders, and crane our necks forward like wilted sunflowers. According to many experts, for every inch that the head lists off kilter, the force impinging on the neck and the back increases by ten pounds. A survey among seven hundred and seventy-eight software workers in lockdown last spring found that shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain had doubled. Bad posture has been blamed for indigestion, constipation, high blood pressure, cracked teeth, infrequent orgasms, negative thoughts, and difficulty performing arithmetic calculations; somewhere, someone has probably implicated it in the Presidential-election results.”

    #

  • ESG investing on Wall Street is dominated by the assessments of MSCI, which produces the ratings that large institutional investors and funds like Blackrock use to judge their investments.

    The problem with these ratings is that they’re in some strange sense reversed from how one might intuitively imagine them. They don’t measure how positive the impact of a business is on the world; they measure how negative the impact of the world might be on the business. For example:

    “McDonald’s Corp., one of the world’s largest beef purchasers, generated more greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 than Portugal or Hungary, because of the company’s supply chain. McDonald’s produced 54 million tons of emissions that year, an increase of about 7% in four years. Yet on April 23, MSCI gave McDonald’s a ratings upgrade, citing the company’s environmental practices. MSCI did this after dropping carbon emissions from any consideration in the calculation of McDonald’s rating. Why? Because MSCI determined that climate change neither poses a risk nor offers ‘opportunities’ to the company’s bottom line.

    “MSCI then recalculated McDonald’s environmental score to give it credit for mitigating ‘risks associated with packaging material and waste’ relative to its peers. That included McDonald’s installation of recycling bins at an unspecified number of locations in France and the U.K. – countries where the company faces potential sanctions or regulations if it doesn’t recycle. In this assessment, as in all others, MSCI was looking only at whether environmental issues had the potential to harm the company. Any mitigation of risks to the planet was incidental.”

    #

  • Some fantastic sleuthing by Der Spiegel and a German research group called Zerforschung, highlighted here by the BBC:

    “Doubts have emerged over the timing of the positive Covid test Novak Djokovic used to enter Australia to try to compete in the Australian Open. It was provided to exempt him from rules barring unvaccinated people.

    “However, the serial number on his test on 16 December appears out of sequence with a sample of tests from Serbia over this period gathered by the BBC.”

    It’s a great example of what’s known in statistics as the German tank problem, after the most famous instance of it in World War II. #

  • Another thoughtful piece on brand purpose by Nick Asbury, following his first last year. Rather than simply looking externally – focusing, say, on the shallow nature of brand purpose, or the question of whether consumers care about it – Nick instead drills into the ways that purpose can distort the internal culture of a business:

    “Once you’re convinced of the rightness of your cause, it’s easier – consciously or subconsciously – to justify any means towards that end. And right now a lot of companies – whether cynically, genuinely, or somewhere in between – are convincing themselves of the rightness of their cause.”

    In the case of Theranos, focusing on grand missions and purpose actually obscured the fraud:

    “Imagine you’re a journalist or investor quizzing Elizabeth Holmes back when she was in her prime. What would be the harder questions for her to answer? How questions would be tough – how exactly does this device work? When questions would be equally tricky – you’ve been promising this for a while, but when exactly are you doing to deliver? Questions of what, where and who might also demand specifics – what is your current balance sheet, where is your laboratory, who has signed up so far?

    “But ask Elizabeth Holmes why and she will be in her element. She will talk for hours about changing the world, transforming lives, helping our troops on the battlefield, helping our doctors at home… Through a combination of grand vision and personal founding myth, she can hold any audience spellbound.”

    #

  • Sarah Kramer tells the fascinating story of the typeface “Jim Crow”, and the intersection between typography and wider society.

    The typeface is named after the minstrel character Jim Crow, whose name became a shorthand first for Black Americans and then for the system of laws that oppressed and segregated them.

    The typeface has a fascinating history, and it’s fascinating even that it’s been in constant use for over a century. But to my mind the most interesting moment in its history was its reclamation by Black designers in the 1960s:

    “Graphic designer Archie Boston remembers the moment he first came across the Jim Crow typeface. He and his brother, Bradford, were flipping through thick type specimen books in 1967, looking for a typeface to use in the logo for their new advertising and design agency, Boston & Boston. When he came to the page displaying the Jim Crow typeface, he saw it as the continuation of a white joke at the expense of Black people. He wasn’t surprised: ‘You know, we had grown up in a racist society ourselves. We grew up in Jim Crow.’

    “Yet, aesthetically, Archie and Bradford Boston liked the typeface. ‘It’s strong, it has a gradation, which gives it an uplifting feeling’ Archie Boston told me. The boldness and stripes of the typeface felt almost patriotic to him. ‘I have always been a jokester, I do things to try and get reactions, you know, whether positive or negative.’ So Archie and Bradford decided to turn the Jim Crow joke upside down. The Boston brothers would use Jim Crow as their logotype.”

    #

  • A quirky “and in other news” story on the BBC:

    “A man who uses his 72-year-old toaster every day said he was embracing the spirit of the wartime generation.

    “Jimmy James, from Stanwick, in Northamptonshire, said the toaster was manufactured in December 1949 and given to his parents as a wedding present.

    “The 69-year-old said it only needed repairing once every six or seven years.”

    But it makes a good point about the durability and repairability of modern products:

    “He said the age of Mr James’ toaster was actually a benefit: ‘Newer ones aren’t always repairable. Manufacturers don’t want us to be able to mend it. They want people to buy a new one.’

    “Mr May said there was ‘a growing pile of waste across the planet,’ with environment pollution and plastics joined by ‘mountains of white goods’.

    “‘We have been caught up in a race to the bottom with a belief that cheapest is best,’ he said.”

    #

  • Paul Ford summarises the modern disease: not just of buying stuff, but buying stuff for your stuff:

    “Years ago, I asked a friend what kind of case she planned to buy for her shiny new flip phone. She paused, a little offended. ‘I don’t like to buy stuff for my stuff,’ she said. Those words drilled directly into my hippocampus, never to depart. She’s right! I thought. Don’t buy stuff stuff! So simple! I have tried to keep to that principle ever since, and it has gone about as well as you would expect. Sure, I might spend $1,000 on a tech-giant-controlled smartphone, but I only do it every three years (nods sagely) instead of every two. This is how we win.

    Ford isn’t just taking aim at the easy targets, the shiny trinkets of consumerism:

    “I have come up with a personal Theory of Stuffness, a way to structure and understand my local stuff ecosystem, especially the digital stuff. I divide Stuffworld into the Object, the Enhancements, and the Experience… The Object is the phone. The Enhancement is the Spotify app. The Experience is that of listening to music. In the past, you might buy a record player and spend 10 years curating a collection of really good jazz albums. You’d read the liner notes and learn new things over time, boring your friends in the process. Now you pay a fee, and some approximation of every bit of recorded jazz is just there on every device that plays sound. It used to take a lifetime of reading reviews and trips to the record store, or going to jazz clubs, and a ton of money. Now the cost approaches free. This is the Great Stuff Discontinuity. You just parachute in, like my kids playing Fortnite.”

    #

  • Leo Robson thoughtfully pulls apart Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest:

    “The latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson has various things in common with his work of the past fifteen years, an unignorable run… Like its predecessors, Licorice Pizza takes place at a carefully presented historical moment (Southern California in 1973), and derives key details from an existing source, the early life of the producer Gary Goetzman, here given the surname Valentine… Yet for all the continuities, the recourse to dependable methods and motifs, what defines the new film – and makes it such a monumentally frustrating experience – are properties not previously evident in Anderson’s body of work: obstinate optimism, conceptual muddiness, and a near-total lack of stakes.”

    #

  • A few months back I linked to Robin Sloan’s take on web3. As a thoughtful person and a seasoned technologist, his view was nuanced and interesting.

    Well, the same is predictably true for Moxie Marlinspike, the legendary cryptographer and technologist who, among many other things, invented the Signal secure messaging app. As someone who shares many of the same aims that the crypto world ostensibly has, and who’s been around for several attempts to revolutionise the world through technology, he’s well worth listening to. He also put his effort where his mouth is, getting more involved than most people in the underlying technology:

    “To get a feeling for the web3 world, I made a dApp called Autonomous Art that lets anyone mint a token for an NFT by making a visual contribution to it… I also made a dApp called First Derivative that allows you to create, discover, and exchange NFT derivatives which track an underlying NFT, similar to financial derivatives which track an underlying asset.”

    His crucial observation is that web3 doesn’t actually decentralise what it promises to, and for reasons that are structural and inescapable:

    “it seems like we should take notice that from the very beginning, these technologies immediately tended towards centralization through platforms in order for them to be realized, that this has ~zero negatively felt effect on the velocity of the ecosystem, and that most participants don’t even know or care it’s happening. This might suggest that decentralization itself is not actually of immediate practical or pressing importance to the majority of people downstream, that the only amount of decentralization people want is the minimum amount required for something to exist, and that if not very consciously accounted for, these forces will push us further from rather than closer to the ideal outcome as the days become less early.”

    #

  • Derek Thompson neatly summarises the tension many of us are feeling about the coronavirus in early 2022, effectively splitting us into two tribes.

    The tension is between “vaxxed and done” on the one hand, who think:

    “For more than a year, I did everything that public-health authorities told me to do. I wore masks. I cancelled vacations. I made sacrifices. I got vaccinated. I got boosted. I’m happy to get boosted again. But this virus doesn’t stop. Year over year, the infections don’t decrease. Instead, virulence for people like me is decreasing, either because the virus is changing, or because of growing population immunity, or both… As the coronavirus continues its unstoppable march toward endemicity, our attitude toward the virus should follow a similar path toward stoicism. COVID is becoming something like the seasonal flu for most people who keep up with their shots, so I’m prepared to treat this like I’ve treated the flu: by basically not worrying about it and living my life normally.”

    …and “vaxxed and cautious” on the other, who instead say:

    “Why on earth would we suddenly relax measures now, during the largest statistical wave of COVID ever recorded in the U.S.? We shouldn’t treat Omicron like any old seasonal flu, because it’s not like any old seasonal flu. It’s likely deadlier for those without immunity and almost certainly several times more transmissible for everybody else. We have no idea what the effects of Omicron on long COVID will be, but evidence of lingering symptoms should make us wary of just letting tens of millions of people get needlessly infected. Moreover, the health-care system is already worn down and at risk of being overloaded. Record-high caseloads are societally debilitating, creating long chains of infections that are bound to reach some immunocompromised people and the elderly, thus causing needless death. For all these reasons, we should take individual measures to throttle the spread of this virus.”

    #

  • An interesting connection from Marie-Pierre St-Onge. Having too little sleep causes you to over-eat:

    “Our work showed that reducing sleep by about four hours per night, for four nights, led to an increase in eating, amounting to about 300 calories per day (the equivalent of one McDonald’s cheeseburger). The cause, we found, is increased activity in the reward centres of the brain specific to food, along with alterations in hormones that control feelings of fullness. In other words, people who sleep less feel hungrier, and tend to crave foods that are high in sugar and fat.

    …but poor diet also causes you to sleep poorly, creating a vicious cycle:

    “Our studies over the past seven years have shown that eating more fibre and less saturated fat and sugar during the day results in deeper, less disturbed sleep at night.

    “In the end, bad sleep and poor diet can be a vicious cycle: lack of sleep leads to poor dietary choices, which in turn causes low quality sleep.”

    It’s easier to fix your diet than to magically improve your sleep, so St-Onge recommends starting there. #

  • Like the rest of the world, I’ve been enjoying playing Wordle in the past month or so. Being the nerd I am, I did a bit of digging into what the optimal strategies might be and in particular what the best first word choice was. I ended up being quoted in this Ringer article:

    “By its very nature, Wordle inspires competition and comparison with other players. To finish a puzzle is to wonder how, and how efficiently, others did the same. Conversations about Wordle have a way of leading straight into debates over the ideal first word. Some words, surely, leave better clues than others. And if some words are better for kicking off the hunt, could it be that one might be best of all? Somewhere in the maze of 26 letters, is there a perfect diagnostic fivesome?”

    #

  • Netflix’s new series Hype House follows the lives of ten-or-so young content creators, living together in an absurdly ostentatious LA house and producing content for TikTok. It sounds predictably numbing:

    “Hype House isn’t as deliberate with mental health messages as The D’Amelio Show, which is bookended by content warnings and resource lists and witnesses both girls have panic attacks. But it’s an effectively depressing portrait of one’s life as a voracious business. No one appears to be having a good time. The kids are constantly stressed out by the prospect of getting canceled (ie a scandal which prompts a flood of hate messages and sponsorship cancellations) and the lashings of toxic fans (such as when possessive female fans of heartthrob Vinnie Hacker, 18, post death threats for a girl whom he kissed as part of a prank video.)”

    #

  • A remarkable find from Bill McKibben:

    “Last week, I noticed a comment in passing: forty percent of the world’s shipping, one commenter insisted, consists of just sending fossil fuels around the world to be burned.

    “That can’t be right, I thought – what about all the other things we have to ship. There’s grain, and lumber, and iron ore, and cars, and a zillion containers loaded with tennis rackets and dog toys and 70-inch TVs. But no – a little research makes clear that in fact if you add up all the tonnage, something very close to forty percent of all the shipping on earth is just devoted to getting oil and coal and gas (and now some wood pellets) back and forth across the ocean.”

    The optimistic conclusion is fairly straightforward:

    “If and when we make the transition to solar power and wind power, we will not just stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, and not just save money – we will also reduce the number of ships sailing back and forth by almost half.”

    #

  • In the 1980s, Howard Rheingold wrote Tools for Thought, tracing the history of the development of modern computing from Charles Babbage through to Alan Kay. In doing so, he offered a vision of what computers might be in the future that turned out to be remarkably prescient:

    “The forms that cultural innovations took in the past can help us try to forecast the future – but the forms of the past can only give us a glimpse, not a detailed picture, of what will be. The developments that seem the most important to contemporaries, like blimps and telegraphs, become humorous anachronisms to their grandchildren. As soon as something looks like a good model for predicting the way life is going to be from now on, the unexpected happens. The lesson, if anything, is that we should get used to expecting the unexpected.

    “We seem to be experiencing one of those rare pivotal times between epochs, before a new social order emerges, when a great many experiments briefly flourish. If the experiences of past generations are to furnish any guidance, the best attitude to adopt might have less to do with picking the most likely successors to today’s institutions than with encouraging an atmosphere of experimentation.

    “Hints to the shape of the emerging order can be gleaned from the uses people are beginning to think up for computers and networks. But it is a bit like watching the old films of flying machines of the early twentieth century, the kind that get a lot of laughs whenever they are shown to modern audiences because some of the spiral-winged or twelve-winged jobs look so ridiculous from the perspective of the jet age. Yet everyone can see how very close the spiral-winged contraption had come close to the principle of the helicopter.

    “The dispersal of powerful computer technology to large segments of the world’s population, and the phasing-in of the comprehensive information-processing global nervous system that seems to be abuilding, are already propelling us toward a social transformation that we know very little about, except that it will be far different from previous transformations because the tool that will trigger the change is so different from previous tools.”

    The full text is available online; it’s a great read, not just as a history of an industry but as a historical artefact in its own right. #

  • I wrote last month about the strange figure who appeared to be stealing manuscripts before their publication, seemingly without motive.

    The FBI have now made an arrest:

    “On Wednesday, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Filippo Bernardini, a 29-year-old rights coordinator for Simon & Schuster UK, saying that he ‘impersonated, defrauded, and attempted to defraud, hundreds of individuals’ over five or more years, obtaining hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the process.”

    …but without yet gaining an understanding of why the books were stolen:

    “For years, the scheme has baffled people in the book world. Works by high-profile writers and celebrities like Margaret Atwood and Ethan Hawke have been targeted, but so have story collections and works by first-time authors. When manuscripts were successfully stolen, none of them seemed to show up on the black market or the dark web. Ransom demands never materialized. Indeed, the indictment details how Mr. Bernardini went about the scheme, but not why.”

    #

  • One of the downsides of ESG investment, in the short term at least, is that it creates an opportunity for the unscrupulous. (I’ve written about this before.)

    The logic is fairly simple: if a bunch of investors choose not to invest in “sinful” stocks, those stocks will be underpriced; if a bunch of investors choose not to lend money to “sinful” businesses, then the cost of raising capital for those businesses will be higher, meaning higher returns for those who lend to them. Big institutional investors have mostly moved towards ESG principles, which means that – if you’re a sociopath – you can get higher returns by consciously choosing to invest in those sinful stocks. While they’re still around, at least.

    Sadly, private equity (not known for its strong ethical foundation) seems to have got the memo:

    “Private equity firms are lining up to take on the dirty – and highly profitable – assets being divested by publicly traded commodity producers as the world grapples to decarbonize.

    “In the latest example, private equity accounted for most of the 30 so-called western candidates that signed non-disclosure agreements in the sale of Vale SA’s Mozambique coal business, according to Luciano Siani Pires, head of strategy and business transformation at Rio de Janeiro-based Vale.

    “‘The ensuing combination of high commodity prices and low acquisition costs for unwelcome assets may provide these firms the bonanza of a lifetime,’ Siani said.”

    #

  • From 2017 and found via Tom Stuart’s weeknotes, some brilliant and beautiful writing advice from George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo.

    “How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.

    “The artist, in this model, is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?

    “The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in ‘real life’ – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining.

    “And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.”

    #

  • JP Castlin, whose Strategy in Praxis newsletter is well worth a subscribe, explains the Ansoff Matrix, something I’ve always been fond of. But he also eloquently explains its limitations.

    Hope is not lost for the Ansoff Matrix – it can still be useful – but perhaps needs to be put into a broader context:

    “Given its limitations, then, the best way to use the Ansoff matrix is together with a contextual understanding of the business and an already set strategic aspiration… it is a good way of visualizing what one can do – but despite Ansoff’s best efforts and Kotler’s claims to the contrary, it tells us little about what one should do or why.”

    #

  • Clive Thompson has an excellent theory of the emergence of new technologies, which he credits to Bill Buxton.

    Rather than coming from nowhere, new technologies are apparent in the world long before they reach widespread public consciousness:

    “…very few major technologies emerge suddenly. Quite the opposite: They’re usually the product of gradual tinkering and experimentation, with engineers and designers puttering around for years or even decades. Things get slowly refined, and the new tech starts being used in real-world circumstances, but mostly in niche areas.

    “Eventually some mass-market inventor notices these niche uses and realizes huh, this tech really works now. They build it into a mainstream product – which bursts into truly mass adoption.”

    Knowledge of this can enable you to search out technologies that might well reach mass adoption in the future:

    “If you wanted to predict the Next Big Thing, the Long Nose theory suggests that you don’t need to look in top-secret corporate innovation labs or in the latest scientific literature.

    “No, you look in the world around you. As Buxton told me, you go “prospecting and mining” – and see what tools are already being eagerly used in areas that lie just outside the mainstream. Those are the technologies that are being stress-tested to the point where they’re ripe to become a mass phenomenon. And you look for something that has that element of ‘surprising obviousness.’”

    #

  • Dan Luu neatly summarises why treating people as interchangeable is one of the most damaging things you can do to an organisation:

    “A friend of mine recently told me a story about a trendy tech company where they tried to move six people to another project, one that the people didn’t want to work on that they thought didn’t really make sense. The result was that two senior devs quit, the EM retired, one PM was fired (long story), and three people left the team. The team for both the old project and the new project had to be re-created from scratch.

    “As we’ve previously seen, an effective team is difficult to create, due to the institutional knowledge that exists on a team, as well as the team’s culture, but destroying a team is very easy.

    “I find it interesting that so many people in senior management roles persist in thinking that they can re-direct people as easily as opening up the city view in Civilization and assigning workers to switch from one task to another when the senior ICs I talk to have high accuracy in predicting when these kinds of moves won’t work out.”

    #

  • For years, a mysterious figure has been using deception, hacking, and subterfuge to steal unpublished manuscripts from literary agents and publishers.

    The puzzling things is: nobody really knows why:

    “This was a setup Stieg Larsson would have admired: a clever thief adopting multiple aliases, targeting victims around the world, and acting with no clear motive. The manuscripts weren’t being pirated, as far as anyone could tell. Fake Francesca wasn’t demanding a ransom. ‘We assumed it was the Russians,’ Mörk said. ‘But we are the book industry. It’s not like we’re digging gold or researching vaccines.’ Perhaps someone in publishing, or a Hollywood producer, was desperate for early access to books they might buy. Was the thief simply an impatient reader? A strung-out writer in need of ideas?”

    Reeves Wiedeman dug into the story, and found himself tied up in knots, as obsessed as the thief themselves. #

  • John Hanke, who founded the company that developed mobile gaming sensation Pokémon Go, advocates persuasively for a conception of the “metaverse” that involves making our current reality better, rather than escaping it into a fictional world:

    “But now people are babbling and swooning about this thing called a metaverse. Companies like Facebook – well, mainly Facebook – are pitching a more immersive vision where people don hardware rigs that block out their senses and replace the input with digital artifacts, essentially discarding reality for alternate worlds created by the lords of Silicon Valley. ‘Our overarching goal… is to help bring the metaverse to life,’ Mark Zuckerberg told his workforce in June.

    “Hanke hates this idea. He’s read all the science fiction books and seen all the films that first imagined the metaverse – all great fun, and all wrong. He believes that his vision, unlike virtual reality, will make the real world better without encouraging people to totally check out of it. This past summer, he felt compelled to explain why in a self-described manifesto whose title says it all: “The Metaverse Is a Dystopian Nightmare. Let’s Build a Better Reality.” (Facebook’s response: Change its name to Meta so it could focus on constructing Hanke’s nightmare.)”

    #

  • A beautiful short film by Dana Frankoff:

    “Voice Above Water is the story of a 90-year-old Balinese fisherman who can no longer fish because of the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean, instead he collects trash in hopes of being able to fish again. The story is a glimpse into how one human is using his resources to make a difference and a reminder that if we all play our part we can accomplish something much greater than ourselves.”

    #

  • The end-of-year lists are trickling out; Christmas must be around the corner. The Economist’s best books of 2021 is well worth a dig.

    Three highlights from among many:

    “Empire of Pain”, by Patrick Radden Keefe

    “This is the tragic, enraging story of the Sackler family, the previously low-profile owners of Purdue Pharma – which in 1996 introduced the drug OxyContin. The author shows how an epidemic of prescription-opioid abuse morphed into a worse one of illicit heroin and, later, fentanyl.”

    “We Are Bellingcat”, by Eliot Higgins

    “How did a bunch of self-taught internet sleuths help solve some of the biggest crimes of recent years, such as the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine and the Salisbury poisonings? Bellingcat’s founder chronicles some of the outfit’s investigations, and its efforts to galvanise citizen journalists, expose war crimes and pick apart disinformation. An antidote to cyber-miserabilism.”

    “Fallen Idols”, by Alex von Tunzelmann

    “Ranging from George III to Saddam Hussein, India to the Dominican Republic, this account of the fates of controversial statues – variously dumped, destroyed, moved and re-erected – offers insights into the times and places they were put up and taken down. Statues simplify history, the author says; what is really educational are the arguments they provoke.”

    #

  • Tim Carmody has a great collection of links in celebration of the peerless Mel Brooks’s 95th birthday. Few can beat him for staying power:

    “Let’s try to put it in context. Brooks was born in the same year as Queen Elizabeth (II, don’t be cheeky), Marilyn Monroe, and John Coltrane. He’s old enough to have served in World War 2 (which he did), and that he was already in his 40s when he became a filmmaker, with The Producers. People sometimes point out that Barbara Walters, Martin Luther King Jr., and Anne Frank were born in the same year, to note how exact contemporaries can belong to such widely different time periods – yet Brooks is three years older than that trio.”

    #

  • Count me among the confused, who’ve been struggling with the correct pronunciation of “omicron” even after looking it up.

    That’s partly because of the difference between ancient and modern Greek:

    “Even before the pandemic, linguists couldn’t agree on what ancient Greek sounded like, other than that it often didn’t sound like modern Greek. Among scholars, there’s no consensus on how Omicron was pronounced in millennia past. Even in those days, people in different regions spoke their own dialects.

    “‘There isn’t one way of saying Omicron,’ said Armand D’Angour, professor of classical languages and literature at the University of Oxford. ‘First of all, you know, we’re not there, we haven’t recorded it.’”

    It’s not just coronavirus variants; the world is full of Greek-inspired words, most of which we seem to be collectively mangling.

    (When it comes to the name of the coronavirus variant, the least-bad option seems to be “OH-mee-kron”, but it’s probably one of those things – like “chorizo” – where you’re always going to get corrected by someone, and can’t really win.) #

  • The Metropolitan Police employ a team of “super-recognisers”, people who are preternaturally able to memorise and recognise faces. They’re aided by the uniquity of CCTV cameras in the UK:

    “By some estimates, as many as a million CCTV cameras are installed in London, making it the most surveilled metropolis on the planet. Boris Johnson, who before becoming Britain’s Foreign Secretary served as the city’s mayor, once said, ‘When you walk down the streets of London, you are a movie star. You are being filmed by more cameras than you can possibly imagine.’

    “James Rabbett pointed out to me that whereas in Britain people live with the knowledge that ‘ninety per cent of their day’ is captured on camera, ‘a lot of other countries have issues with human rights and that sort of stuff.’”

    At one point, the head of the team talks about the capabilities of computer facial recognition systems:

    “‘It’s bullshit,’ Mick Neville said when I asked him about automated facial recognition. ‘Fantasyland.’ At the airport, when a scanner compares your face with your passport photo, Neville explained, ‘The lighting’s perfect, the angle’s perfect.’ By contrast, the average human can recognize a family member from behind. ‘No computer will ever be able to do that.’”

    #

  • Kevin Kelly takes on the fallacy that the application of more intelligence is necessary and sufficient to solve all problems:

    “Thinkism is the fallacy that problems can be solved by greater intelligence alone. Thinkism is a fallacy that is often promoted by smart guys who like to think. In their own heads, they think their own success is due to their intelligence, and that therefore more intelligence brings greater success in all things. But in reality IQ is overrated especially as a means to solve problems. This view ignores the many other factors that solve problems. Such as data, experience, and creativity.”

    #

  • The late Donella Meadows’s book Thinking in Systems first exposed me (and countless others) to the idea of systems thinking.

    Here’s a great essay of hers that starts from the question of control:

    “For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?”

    Encouraging us to abandon this desire for control and embrace a lack of it, she suggests that working with complex systems is a form of “dance”, before offering us all a superb dance class:

    “I had learned about dancing with great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavors require one to stay wide-awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people.”

    #

  • John Merrick reviews Alberto Prunetti’s new memoir (of sorts), Down and Out in England and Italy:

    “Prunetti is no genteel returnee, instead acting as our Virgil leading us, the latter-day Dantes, deep into the recesses of the capitalist inferno. His leaving and returning is not from the solidity of middle-class life to the working-class of old, but rather from one form of manual labor to another. We follow him from the stable, unionized, masculine labor of his father’s generation in the steel mills of that crucible of the Italian workers’ movement, Livorno, into the new world of dreadful temp jobs, deep into the abyss of long hours and poor pay, followed by heavy drinking and a fight on the weekend. The working-class hero, our Virgil tells us, is no longer the celebrated blue-collar worker on the picket line but the tabarded underclass cleaning p*ss and sh*t from the floors of the nation’s toilets or serving up reheated slop to dead-eyed consumers in suburban shopping malls.”

    #

  • Michael Lorenzos hopefully ends one of the more tedious and intractable debates within marketing: the conflict between brand and performance marketing.

    Brand marketers see performance activity as cheap, short-termist and diluting of the brand; performance marketers see brand activity as ineffective, fluffy, and imposing of unnecessary constraints on creative.

    Lorenzos argues the sensible middle ground: that the dichotomy is a false one. Brand building helps drive sales and generally makes performance marketing perform better. Performance marketing builds brand associations. He ends with some great advice for both camps, and for the CMOs who are tasked with wrestling them into some kind of cooperation. #

  • Markus Strasser spent quite a while trying to build a business that extracted knowledge from academic papers: understanding the insights within them, building relationships between them, throwing up new and interesting connections, and generally automating much of the drudge work of sifting through the published knowledge within a given field.

    His findings were dispiriting, and his business sadly failed. Part of the problem is that ideas alone don’t tend to lead to innovations; you need teams of people, and much of the knowledge within successful teams is implicit and not expressed in the papers themselves:

    “But the complexity threshold kept rising and now we need to grow companies around inventions to actually make them happen… That’s why incumbents increasingly acqui-hire instead of just buying the IP and most successful companies that spin out of labs have someone who did the research as a cofounder. Technological utopians and ideologists like my former self underrate how important context and tacit knowledge is.”

    Strasser’s essay is interesting not just as a deep dive into scientific knowledge and its structure, but also as a personal story of the pain of starting a business that turns out not to be viable:

    “I’ve been flirting with this entire cluster of ideas including open source web annotation, semantic search and semantic web, public knowledge graphs, nano-publications, knowledge maps, interoperable protocols and structured data, serendipitous discovery apps, knowledge organization, communal sense-making and academic literature/publishing toolchains for a few years on and off… nothing of it will go anywhere.

    “Don’t take that as a challenge. Take it as a red flag and run. Run towards better problems.”

    #

  • One churned up by the YouTube algorithms: a soothing and illuminating film of the wonderful and eloquent Mark Knopfler just talking about guitars. Few things can beat a master of their craft, who happens to be a lovely person, being given time to talk. #

  • A fascinating oral history of Processing, a programming language designed for artists:

    “Cooper and Maeda established a long lineage of designers and artists who were interested in pushing the boundaries of what code could create. Among them were Ben Fry and Casey Reas, two research assistants in Maeda’s group. During their time at MIT, Fry and Reas began to question how programming was taught to visually minded students. They wondered: How could they make programming more accessible to designers and artists? And what would it look like for code to become both a creative medium and part of the creative process itself?”

    #

  • Scott Galloway takes on “buy now, pay later” schemes (like Klarna) that have taken over ecommerce in recent years.

    These services have proliferated partly by capitalising on young people’s fear of debt and presenting themselves as being somehow different:

    “Their attraction to BNPL coincides with an aversion to banks and the credit they offer. This is a generation that came of age just before or in the wake of the Great Recession, a global economic crisis precipitated by… way too much credit. Young people love BNPL because, according to the former director of Afterpay, the vast majority of them ‘don’t want to be on credit.’”

    But whichever way you cut it, these services are debt – and they’re driving young people to spend money they don’t have and to get into a cycle of incurring punitive late fees. #

  • Why does Tokyo seem to work so well? It’s a city of nearly 40-million people, but its standard of living is high and it hasn’t suffered either the choking car-dominance of cities like LA or the crazy real estate prices of… well, almost everywhere else.

    Cole Lubchenko asks why, and concludes that Tokyo’s decentralised nature, relaxed zoning rules, and prioritisation of public transport have created a city that’s easy to get around, that isn’t constrained by a focus on a single centre, and that continually reinvents itself to suit its inhabitants’ changing needs:

    “When you take the time to understand what makes the city special, you will begin to notice more and more of the aspects of Tokyo’s urban design that make the city so easy to be in. It is an ever evolving organism that never loses touch of its human-scale. No matter if you are visiting for the first time – or commuting to work daily – you should always find time to explore a new corner of the metropolis and feel for yourself what makes it work.”

    #

  • Nuclear fusion is extraordinarily powerful:

    “…we discovered that fusion powered the stars only about a hundred years ago, when the British physicist Arthur Eddington put together two pieces of knowledge into what was seen at the time as a wild surmise. The facts he combined were that the sun is made up mostly of hydrogen, with some helium, and that E=mc2.

    “Eddington noticed that four hydrogen atoms weigh a tiny bit more than one helium atom. If four hydrogen nuclei somehow fuse together, in a series of steps, and form helium, then a little bit of mass must be “lost” in the process. And if one takes seriously that most famous of equations, then that little bit of mass becomes a lot of energy – as much energy as that amount of mass multiplied by the speed of light, squared. To give a sense of this ratio: If you converted a baseball into pure energy, you could power New York City for about two weeks. Maybe that process – hydrogen crashing into hydrogen and forming helium, giving off an extraordinary amount of energy in the process – was how the sun and all the stars burned so bright and so long. Eddington, in a paper laying out this theory, closed with an unusual take on the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Eddington argued in defense of Icarus, saying it was better to fly too high, and in doing so see where a scientific idea begins to fail, than it was to be cautious and not try to fly high at all.”

    It’s also remarkably safe, and generates no problematic waste – unlike nuclear fission. But it’s always just around the corner, and has never really progressed towards commercial viability. But there are still scientists working on it, still progress is being made, and this New Yorker article looks at one particular team’s efforts to solve the (many) remaining problems. #

  • A thoughtful take on Web3 from Robin Sloan, who usefully approaches it neither from the perspective of cantankerous get-off-my-lawn cynicism nor credulous this-will-fix-everything naïvety.

    Sloan has interesting technical objections:

    “I feel like this simple premise is often lost in the haze: the Ethereum Virtual Machine, humming heart of Web3, is a computer that charges you many dollars to execute a very small program very slowly. It does so in an environment with special properties, and in some cases, those properties are worth the expense. In others… it’s like running your website on a TRS-80 with a coin slot.”

    But his most powerful points are social:

    “A key characteristic – really, a key aesthetic – of most (all?) blockchains is immutability. They are ledgers, after all. But, these days, where the internet is concerned, I find myself more interested in the opposite; in mutability and ephemerality. I like things that can change and grow, then vanish.

    “I am a BIG fan of deletion, an operation basically antithetical to Web3.

    “What do we lose when we lose deletion?”

    Bonus points for the reference to Marx’s excellent Power of Money. #

  • Beautiful, useful, and thought-provoking: what more can you ask for from a building? #

  • A great long read on Wang Huning, China’s éminence grise, the thinker behind much of “Xi Jinping thought”, and a political animal of unparalleled cunning who has managed to remain in a position of unrivalled influence for longer than anyone else in China.

    Interestingly, Wang’s ideas were particularly shaped by a stint in the US:

    “Also in 1988, Wang – having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30 – won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.

    “What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.

    “Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighbourhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.”

    #

  • A neat and incredibly clear explanation of the idea of decentralising power, and the different forms that decentralised organisations and structures can take. #

  • Duncan Austin argues that voluntary, market-led attempts to fix climate change (such as corporate social responsibility initiatives, environmental social and governance-led investing, campaigns to change consumer behaviour, etc.) have failed.

    His analysis is an interesting systems-thinking one. He argues that these attempts represent the “fix that fails” systems archetype, whereby initial attempts to fix a problem trigger delayed secondary effects that make the problem worse. Eventually, the “fail loop” overtakes the “fix loop”, and the system collapses.

    It’s a dense post, but it has some great thinking in it. The idea of the “fix that fails”, the complementary “unmentionable foot” to the market’s “invisible hand”, and the notion of “externality-denying capitalism” are all useful additions to the collective language on sustainability. #

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sadly died last month. Among his many contributions to popular ideas around creativity (such as the idea of “flow”) is this excellent list of ten strangely paradoxical opposing traits that particularly creative individuals seem to possess:

    1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
    2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
    3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
    4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.
    5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.
    6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.
    7. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping [of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’].
    8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.
    9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
    10. The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

    #

  • The world is full of strange borders (like Baarle-Hertog and Baarle Nassau), but the one between Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec is both simple and ludicrous:

    “In the two-sided town of Derby Line/Stanstead there are two streets that cross the line without any checkpoints. Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering. This makes traffic on the streets that cross the line without a checkpoint, Maple Street/Rue Ball and Pelow Hill/Rue Lee, fairly light, as it is more convenient to cross at Main Street/Rue Dufferin, where checkpoints are often set up for ‘drive thru’ service.

    “Pedestrians on the sidewalk are also technically required to report as soon as they cross the line. Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”

    #

  • I saw Tom Critchlow tweet earlier this year about the idea of “rewilding” your attention. That means escaping algorithmic decisions about what you read or view, avoiding both mainstream, popular creators and your own little filter bubble. Instead, you can choose to give your attention to more off-beat and interesting things.

    Clive Thompson writes in more depth about why that’s good and what it involves:

    “Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins – i.e. how their remorseless lust for ‘engagement’ leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

    “But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s ‘interesting’. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else…

    “The metaphor suggests precisely what to do: If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence.”

    As someone who writes off-beat things for a tiny audience, I am of course biased, but this is an approach to the internet that I’ve always subscribed to – literally, in the form of a groaning “newsletters” email box and countless RSS feeds. #

  • David Chapman is writing a book on the meaning of life, called Meaningness, in public on the web. This chapter, on the deceptive lure of nihilism, is particularly interesting.

    The particular attitude that Chapman takes issue with is the idea that, because death is certain, life must lack meaning:

    “In the end, everything is meaningless. Your death is certain, and final. No heaven awaits; you just cease to exist. Life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever. What meaning could that have? You will soon be forgotten, nothing you do can make any difference in the long run, none of it matters.”

    His thoughtful dismantling of this is neatly summarised towards the end:

    “Yes, nothing really matters in the end. But people forget that things often matter quite a lot in the beginning and the middle.”

    #

  • A fascinating paper that analyses how humans navigate cities on foot, and how their routes compare to the optimal ones.

    It turns out that we’re remarkably good at finding near-optimal routes without resorting to complex calculations; we use heuristics and we “satisfice” for a good-enough route. But it turns out that, when our route planning is sub-optimal, it’s sub-optimal in predictable ways.

    One such puzzling way we consistently differ from the optimal route is our tendency to pick asymmetrical routes; we walk a different route on our way to a destination than the one we walk coming back. This reveals a heuristic that we use, which the researchers called the “initial straightest segment” heuristic: we’ll set out on our journey by heading in a direction that’s as close to the direction of our ultimate destination as possible, even if the shortest route actually means taking a slightly different direction first. On the way back, we do the same thing – which often means picking a slightly different route.

    A really neat example of using mobile data to discover fundamental aspects of human behaviour (and in a non-creepy way!)

    Christian Bongiorno, Yulun Zhou, et. al. “Vector-based pedestrian navigation in cities”. Nature Computational Science 1(678–685), October 2021 #

  • Vox writes about the spate of fictional characters on TikTok:

    “In June, the UK tabloid the Mirror published a story about a TikTok video that discussed “the four biggest dating app red flags,” according to a creator named @sydneyplus, who said she worked at a dating site. Said red flags include standing in front of a fancy car (likely not their own), describing oneself as an “entrepreneur,” or being weirdly obsessed with their mom. The article is a typical hastily written web post capitalizing on trending content in order to drive pageviews, and was later picked up by the New York Post. The only problem was that @sydneyplus doesn’t work at a dating site, because @sydneyplus doesn’t really exist.”

    Ryan Broderick covered this this week, taking the time to fall down the rabbit hole of fake-influencer videos:

    “I hadn’t had the time to really sit down and go through these accounts until recently and I really can’t overstate how surreal the whole thing is. The Sydney character just completed a storyline on her account and to see it progress over dozens of short videos is really mind-bending.

    “On her page, Sydney identifies herself as a dating app employee, which, I mean, ethically is, at the very least, weird. In August, Sydney told her followers that she got a ‘report of an account that was unusually active.’ She then discovered the account belongs to her sister’s fiancé. And then, across 37 TikTok videos posted across a month and a half, Sydney chronicled how she tried to tell her sister about the cheating before the couple gets married. It’s totally weird and, once again, none of this is real.”

    Broderick wonders if it’s not part of a long-term shift, a blurring of lines between entertainment and social media:

    “There was this assumption many years ago that YouTubers would eventually graduate to traditional entertainment. There was a brief moment where internet celebrities were given chances to host TV shows or star in movies. But it really hasn’t ever stuck. Even the current wave of TikTok emo is beginning to feel more and more like a flash in the pan. But what if we got it wrong all along? What if, instead of influencers becoming movie stars, scripted entertainment was supposed to morph into formats that fit parasocial online relationships?”

    #

  • Oliver Wainwright sums up the cycles of pessimism that we’ve had when it comes to tall office buildings, ending on a bullish note:

    “But a chorus of urban theorists argue that it will ultimately be impossible for the human species to resist the lure of density. In their new book, Survival of the City, Harvard economics professors Ed Glaeser and David Cutler write that ‘the ability of cities to enable the joys of human interactions and shared experiences may be their greatest protection against urban exodus’.”

    #

  • A wonderful deep dive by Alex Komoroske into the scaling issues that even the best organisations face as they grow. He looks at organisations as complex systems, filled with autonomous individuals whose individual actions can combine in unexpected ways – even when they’re trying their best.

    He makes a surprising comparison: lots of organisations are like slime moulds. But that’s no bad thing!

    “Slime moulds have many challenges, but they also have some amazing abilities. Instead of trying to fight it, maybe lean into what they’re good at? Slime moulds are extremely resilient. They can handle complex and changing conditions well. Creative solutions pop up organically. They can create more value than the sum of their parts.”

    His final note sums up the wisdom of his approach:

    “Focus less on being a builder, frustrated that your building materials refuse to behave. Instead, think of yourself more as a gardener.”

    #

  • An interesting history of the American tradition of “mischief night”:

    “Mischief Night, in my Pennsylvania suburb and in the New Jersey towns of several people I spoke to, involved mild pranks committed on October 30. The perpetrators – typically those who had just aged out of trick-or-treating, so early teenagers – would throw rolls of toilet paper over houses and trees, maybe ring a neighbour’s doorbell and sprint away before the door was opened, maybe throw some eggs at a window.”

    Interestingly, the tradition is highly localised to Pennsylvania and part of New Jersey, but it started as a May Day tradition in Northern England, before mutating over time and distance to become the night-before-Halloween tradition it is now:

    “Mischief Night, or neet, appears to have been most popular in Northern England, particularly in the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. According to Allen, though, it was not originally associated with Halloween, but rather with May Day, a very old festival signalling the beginning of summer. There is already, by the early 1800s, some public panic about the rebellious nature of Mischief Night, which seems to have been (or seen as, by adults) a time for both vandalism and sexual encounters.”

    #

  • Historically, veterinary clinics were local affairs, owned by their partner vets and part of the fabric of the community. Then private equity came along:

    “The company has been on a debt-fuelled expansion in recent years. Since EQT bought IVC in 2016 and merged it with Swedish group Evidensia in 2017, it has been on a clinic-buying spree, snapping up independent practices and small chains and rolling them into what is now Europe’s largest vetcare provider with 1,500 sites.

    “‘It’s a giant acquisition machine,’ says a former employee. ‘IVC was just minting millionaires across the UK.’ A vet who sold his practice to the group says he ‘almost fell off his chair’ on hearing how much it was offering. The vet, who requested anonymity, says IVC mistook his shock for hesitation – and increased its offer.”

    Predictably, prices have increased, staff churn is higher, and the network of vets’ practices is now a teetering Jenga-tower of debt:

    “In the process, the companies typically amass large debts. IVC’s junk-rated net debts and leases total £2bn, or 6.2 times the £322m it earned before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the year to March, according to figures that the company shared with lenders.

    “The rating agency Fitch has categorised IVC’s debts as ‘highly speculative’, meaning that while the company can currently repay them, there is a ‘material’ risk of future default and its ability to repay is ‘vulnerable to deterioration in the business and economic environment’.”

    #

  • A lovely extract from the memoirs of Alan Cumming that’s a paean in its first half to Stanley Kubrick, and in its second to the Spice Girls:

    “So, that summer running around London, laughing, and frolicking with five girls who were at the very zenith of their pop princess potency, being taught the dance moves of the Spice Girls’ songs by the Spice Girls themselves, was golden for me. I felt at home, I felt happy, I was carefree. Every day was an adventure, and anything seemed possible, and that’s how I want all my life to be.”

    #

  • Emma Pattee introduces a brilliantly simple but powerful metaphor for thinking about your individual impact on climate change: your “climate shadow”. More useful than just thinking about your climate footprint, your climate shadow takes into account the secondary impacts of what you do, who you vote for and what you lobby for, and forces us to consider ways of making a far bigger impact than just by changing our own individual behaviours:

    “The problem with the carbon footprint is that… our footprints don’t paint an accurate picture of our true individual impact on the climate crisis. And by encouraging eco-minded people to use their carbon footprints as a ‘guide’ to fight climate change, we risk them spending all of their energy on low-impact individual actions that are easy to quantify, like recycling or turning off lights, instead of putting that energy toward broader, more meaningful work, like lobbying local politicians or speaking up at work about wasteful practices.”

    #

  • The always-fantastic Tim Harford on Britain’s recent spate of shortages, the global supply chain crisis, and all the other things that just aren’t meant to happen in our integrated, globalised, market economy:

    “The complex world of obscure supply chains is a wonderful curiosity when explained by Leonard E. Read’s pencil. It is less wonderful when the shelves are empty and billions remain unvaccinated. ‘Have faith that free men and women will respond to the Invisible Hand,’ declaims the pencil. Should we?”

    #

  • Jonathan Nunn, publisher of Vittles and perhaps the country’s best food writer at the moment, writes brilliantly on the cynical classism of food in Britain, particularly among the right-wing commentariat:

    “You can understand the policing of food boundaries in a few non-food-related ways – the more charitable one is that for a certain type of political commentator, it is extremely convenient to portray the working class as a homogeneous, socially conservative and incurious bloc, whose vision of food corresponds to a kind of political nativism. It’s a bizarrely infantilising view, one that assumes that an interest in better or different foodstuffs is class treason and that puts people in clearly defined boxes, just as much as the identity politics that these commentators supposedly rail against.

    “A less kind analysis, but perhaps a more accurate one, is that assigning middle-classness to cheap staples from other cuisines – hummus, soy sauce, cumin, for instance – usefully disguises the reality that the working class is far more diverse than these commentators understand. The fact is that if a similar inventory of ‘working class’ foods were to be undertaken across contemporary Britain, it would be less ‘gammon, pie and mash and ale’, and more ‘ackee, pierogi and shatkora’.”

    #

  • An interesting look at the psychologist Steven Taylor, who presciently published a book on the psychology of pandemics immediately before the best test-case in human history:

    “[Taylor] wrote a remarkable little book back in 2019 called ‘The Psychology of Pandemics.’ Its premise is that pandemics are ‘not simply events in which some harmful microbe “goes viral”’, but rather are mass psychological phenomena about the behaviours, attitudes and emotions of people.

    “The book came out pre-COVID and yet predicts every trend and trope we’ve been living for 19 months now: the hoarding of supplies like toilet paper at the start; the rapid spread of ‘unfounded rumours and fake news’; the backlash against masks and vaccines; the rise and acceptance of conspiracy theories; and the division of society into people who ‘dutifully conform to the advice of health authorities’ – sometimes compulsively so – and those who ‘engage in seemingly self-defeating behaviours such as refusing to get vaccinated.’”

    It’s not that Taylor had a crystal ball, but rather that the coronavirus pandemic has followed many of the same dynamics of pandemics throughout history, because humans are fundamentally human. As Taylor says:

    “Pandemics bring out all these extremes in behaviour. Anxiety, fear, denial, racism, conspiracy theories, the popularity of quack cures, the ‘you’re not the boss of me’ backlash to health directives – these things have all been seen dating back to the medieval plagues.”

    #

  • Interesting video documenting a grassroots effort to hold back desertification in northern Africa by planting spiral gardens. #

  • A fascinating essay by Tom Stafford on the power of domestication, something humans have done not just to plants and animals, but perhaps also to ourselves, to remarkable effect.

    “Human reason is a miracle resting on top another miracle. That we can persuade with words relies on a platform of communication and understanding that has its own complex origin story. Once that niche exists, reasons acquire their own force, used for good or ill. We can try and persuade, but we risk being persuaded in turn, or even of being tricked. Of pursuing noble goals, or dedicating ourselves to great lies.”

    #

  • The latest generation of university students grew up with ubiquitous search on their computers and devices like iPads and iPhones that don’t reveal the filesystem. Educators are discovering that this means that they generally don’t know where they’ve put their files:

    “Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved – they didn’t understand the question.

    “Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.”

    #

  • The superb story of Ksenia Coffman:

    “When Ksenia Coffman started editing Wikipedia, she was like a tourist in Buenos Aires in the 1950s. She came to learn the tango, admire the architecture, sip maté. She didn’t know there was a Nazi problem.”

    Coffman is almost single-handedly dealing with Wikipedia’s Nazi problem, from overt political bias to subtle glorification of “war heroes”. Wikipedia is full of unsung heroes like Coffman; I linked last year to a piece celebrating them that’s worth a revisit. #

  • It turns out that Mailchimp’s founders, who recently became billionaires after the sale of the business to Intuit for $12 billion, had spent the lifetime of the company promising not to sell and using that as a reason not to give employees any equity whatsoever:

    “When employees were recruited to work at Mailchimp there was a common refrain from hiring managers: No, you are not going to get equity, but you will get to be part of a scrappy company that fights for the little guy and we will never be acquired or go public.

    “The founders told anyone who would listen they would own Mailchimp until they died and bragged about turning down multiple offers.”

    #

  • Jay Rayner’s COVID-related amnesty on bad restaurant reviews seems to be over, and the world is a better place for it:

    “Editors don’t send their journalists to cover wars because they like misery and carnage. They do so because the readers need to know about the carnage. By the same token, albeit with rather less moral urgency, I didn’t go to the pop-up of the Polo Lounge on the rooftop of London’s Dorchester Hotel because I like watching rich people pay ludicrous prices for cack-handed food that’s a gross insult to good taste, manners and commercial decency. I went because some risible hospitality operations need to be called out. Being positive is all well and good, but that shouldn’t mean absolute shockers get a free pass.”

    #

  • Ben Mathis-Lilley explains the bizarre case of Alex Murdaugh (nominative determinism?), “a 53-year-old South Carolina lawyer at the centre of an astounding web of criminal activity and suspected criminal activity, much of it fatal.” #

  • From 2015: Sam Knight’s dispatch from the Welsh war on Japanese knotweed, and the realisation that we’re not so different from the invasive, unkillable pest:

    “Taylor kept talking about the knotweed’s power and versatility, and I thought I detected in his voice some of the admiration that I had heard from other professionals who had dedicated their working lives to controlling the weed, a feeling that Trevor Renals, the national invasive-species adviser at the U.K.’s Environment Agency, described when he told me about the time he saw a shoot of knotweed rise from a plant that he thought he had killed thirteen years earlier. ‘That’s my girl.’

    “But in fact what Taylor was expressing was not admiration but the pain of recognition, another feeling that many people experience when encountering the plant, and one that I found myself suffering from during the summer I spent in its company. There is no weedier or more invasive species than humankind, and the world that we have made is for generalist organisms like us – Norwegian rats, common crows, zebra mussels, long-horned beetles, brown tree snakes – that can thrive on the far side of any mountain. ‘I mean, Antarctica is the only place we’ve not actually gone to and adapted to,’ said Taylor. ‘Japanese knotweed is the same.’”

    #

  • Phil Levin ponders why all our cities are old (even in the US), what it might take to start a new one, and why that might be a good idea. #

  • Hillel Wayne examines the question of whether software developers are “real” engineers, a question that has broader relevance than you might think. #

  • James Roach explains why the marketing funnel is a less than useful concept: it doesn’t reflect the reality of purchase journeys, which are messy and non-linear and highly individual.

    The alternative that Roach suggests is James Hankins’s Hexagon model, which will be food for thought for any marketeer who hasn’t yet encountered it. #

  • A puzzling piece from 2002 about Darius McCollum, a man who is obsessed with the New York subway. McCollum knows every rule and procedure, every timetabled train, every station; problematically, though, his obsession also extends to lengthy spells impersonating workers on the train system, with stolen uniforms and forged permission letters. He does the job properly and to a high standard, but nevertheless is routinely arrested and has spent the better part of twenty years in jail for his crimes. The MTA, who run the subway, are reluctant to employ him for liability reasons – even though he’d likely be the best employee they have. Intriguing and dismaying. #

  • I’d never encountered a Hang before; it’s a musical instrument, two steel pans fused together that produces sound through Helmholtz resonance when tapped. (Helmholtz resonance is the same type of sound produced by blowing over the top of a glass bottle.) The sounds it produces are amazing: percussive but also melodic, impactful but also resonant and lingering.

    This mesmerising duet between Hang players Danny Cudd and Markus Johansson – AKA the Hang Massive – is a great example of what it can do. #

  • An informative look at Ghent’s “circulation plan”, the nimble and low-cost approach to urban planning that vastly increased the number of journeys made by car and foot – and vastly reduced the number of cars in the city centre. More of this, please! #

  • Matthew C. Klein argues persuasively that to be in favour of economic growth isn’t to be anti-environment, but that to be against it is to be anti-humanity:

    “That’s because there is no way to lift living standards for the vast majority of people – including the large number of poor and working-class people in rich countries who would happily enjoy better food, larger homes, a wider array of gadgets, and more opportunities for travel, if provided with the necessary spending power – if humanity as a whole must consume far less. Vastly increasing global production and consumption of goods and services is the only solution to global poverty, and it’s the only acceptable way to reduce inequality.”

    #

  • A fascinating view from Avivah Wittenberg-Cox on navigating one’s career and relationships as a woman in the 2020s, in which she concludes that women need either a truly supportive partner, or no partner at all.

    “‘I didn’t know,’ many of the men I interviewed told me after their wives left. To me, this sounds a lot like what corporate leaders tell me after their most senior female executives quit. They hadn’t expected them to leave, hadn’t quite understood how upset they were by the attitudes, the lack of recognition, or the promotion of the less competent man down the hall.

    “But in the end, underneath it all, it isn’t true that they didn’t know. The reality is they didn’t care. They didn’t listen – because they didn’t think they had to.”

    There’s lots of work to be done by men – and the companies that they still overwhelmingly run – to fix this, and Wittenberg-Cox has a useful starting list. #

  • Tom Whyman looks at the glut of big-name celebrities writing childrens’ books:

    “There is an increasingly obvious problem in the children’s books industry, whereby celebrity authors are able to attract big advances, and outsized promotional pushes, for books which are often simply no good at all.”

    “Children deserve better than this. What they really deserve is artists: writers and illustrators who will provoke them to think differently about the world they are – yes – just beginning to learn about, and who will thus help them to understand it in a better, deeper way.”

    He goes on to recommend a particularly interesting example, one that might make a better choice for a “half-known niece or nephew” than the latest big name. #

  • Scott Galloway unleashes an appropriately vituperative take on Jeff Bezos’s bulbous, compensating-for-something “cocket”:

    “Astronauts, my ass. Apollo 11 and Columbus travelled 240,000 and 3,000 miles to reach the moon and Caribbean, respectively. New Shepard 4 traveled 0.026% of the way to the moon. Put another way, on Tuesday we watched a man plant a flag three feet up from base camp at Mt. Everest and expect to be knighted. This weekend, I’ll be in Montauk. I plan to swim a half-mile from shore (I can do this) and declare I’ve discovered Spain.

    “It’s his money, and he has the right to spend it on what he wants. But if Mr. Bezos was genuine about doing something more than crashing a canary yellow T-top Corvette into a Bosley for Men franchise, he could raise the minimum wage at his firm to $20/hour.”

    (H/T: Max Bray) #

  • In this review of Xiaowei Wang’s Blockchain Chicken Farm, Clive Thompson explores the bewildering, empowering, and alienating forces of technology that are shaping rural China as the country grapples with a deeply cloven urban-rural divide, massive and continuing urbanisation, and the question of how to feed an ever-growing population. The future is here, and not everyone benefits:

    “Wang also finds that, for rural China, tech-propelled business models can produce the grim dynamics of the gig economy, where a far-off tech giant runs your life. The blockchain chicken software? It’s nifty, but the farmer neither understands the technology nor owns it; it’s provided by a tech firm that in the first year of their collaboration ordered 6,000 chickens in advance to sell off to an online supermarket, and in the second year, nothing. Meanwhile, those Taobao villages also contain some embittered merchants who hate the e-commerce platform, because it allows buyers to demand refunds long after they’ve received their goods. One shoemaker has lost so much money this way that he’s forced to make lower- and lower-quality shoes to keep his profits up. ‘It’s all a scam,’ he says.”

    #

  • Holden Karnofsky, founder of the GiveWell project, explains why the question “does X cause Y?” is trickier than you might think. #

  • James Poniewozik writes of a cultural shift, particularly on TV and within that particularly in comedies, from a sort of detached irony – exemplified by The Office – to a sincerity and warmth.

    I’ve certainly found myself recognising this, falling deeply for shows like Schitt’s Creek, Detectorists and – the example that Poniewozik uses – Ted Lasso. They’re shows that are warm, character driven, full of heart. I don’t think it’s about a rejection of irony per se, and certainly not a return to old ways of doing things. These shows aren’t naïve or earnest. I think it’s more of a synthesis of two eras, something that only could have happened now – but I like it a lot. #

  • A fascinating early Japanese cookbook, the Ryori Monogatari dates from 1643:

    “Taken together, the book’s explanations of its dishes open a window on how the Japanese ate during the Edo period, named for the capital city we now know as Tokyo, which lasted from 1603 to 1863.”

    Perhaps surprisingly it contains recipes for several familiar-to-us dishes, such as sushi, udon noodles, and yakitori.

    You can read an English translation here, and notes from its translator here. #

  • A really thoughtful post from Nick Asbury on the phenomenon of “brand purpose”, which has come to dominate the world of branding in the past decade:

    “It’s a hazy fiction that allows people to think well of themselves, even as their decisions are driven by commercial incentives. The defining dynamic of Tech Valley is this outward belief in brand purpose, allied to an inward focus on venture capital and IPO, where you just have to get enough people to believe in your story for enough of the time. IPO is the cashing out of brand purpose.

    “Mark Zuckerberg is the supreme example – brand purpose is the wind beneath his hydrofoil board. But we all live in Zuckerberg’s world. I believe passionately that, each time we lend credibility to brand purpose as a concept, another corporate sociopath gets their wings. It’s time to stop feeding this narrative that has dominated the last decade. Turn off the dry ice machine that provides the corporate atmospherics. See the world as it is.”

    #

  • In a story packed full of interest about taste and evolution, one fact in particular blew my mind:

    “Genetic studies show that the largest group of birds – the oscines, or songbirds – originated in Australia before spreading worldwide. That group now contains about 5,000 of the 10,000 known bird species, including robins, cardinals, thrushes, sparrows, finches, jays, and starlings. All of these birds descended from an ancestor whose voice lilted through Australian trees and whose taste buds were tickled by sweet Australian nectar.”

    #

  • In the 1980s, the Human Interference Task Force set about trying to communicate, across tens of thousands of years, the danger of nuclear waste. Their mission was to develop signs and symbols that could be placed at sites where nuclear waste was buried, that would communicate the danger that lay beneath. One of the proposed solutions was to create long-time nuclear waste warnings, carved into stone and part of a system of hostile architecture and other symbols that would signal to any future inhabitants that these were hostile and dangerous places, not to be disturbed.

    E. Saxey has written a haunting poem in both Old English and modern that restates these warnings, transforming them into something supernatural and other-worldly. #

  • A beautiful song, surfaced to me by the algorithmic vagaries of Spotify: a collaboration between Malian singer Mamani Keïta, Ethiopian band Arat Kilo, and US producer/MC Mike Ladd.

    In its “non-African musicians collaborating with African musicians” capacity it reminded me of when, a couple of years ago, Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project recorded in South Africa. The whole album is great, but the standout for me is this haunting Xhosa-Welsh duet between Zolani Mahola and the Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys: Absolutely Everything is Pointing Towards the Light. #

  • A mesmerising account, from 1998 and via Matt Webb, of François Mitterrand’s orgiastic last meal, including the horrifying and illegal spectacle of ortolan – a tiny songbird, drowned in Armagnac and eaten whole. #

  • An innovative looping video about looping videos, by Marcin Wichary, delivered live at the Ignite conference. #

  • A stunning – and yet in some ways completely intuitive – paper from Ellis Monk, Michael Esposito, and Hedwig Lee that explores the earnings gap between attractive and unattractive people, and discovers that it’s greater than the white–black income gap and the male–female one too:

    “Physical attractiveness is an important axis of social stratification associated with educational attainment, marital patterns, earnings, and more… Notably, the magnitude of the earnings disparities along the perceived attractiveness continuum, net of controls, rivals and/or exceeds in magnitude the black-white race gap and, among African-Americans, the black-white race gap and the gender gap in earnings. The implications of these findings for current and future research on the labor market and social inequality are discussed.”

    #

  • I found this interesting and challenging to my own preconceived ideas. I’ve been strongly in favour of measures to curtail the coronavirus, although I hope I haven’t been judgemental about it. But this piece argues fairly convincingly that an army of middle class professionals, safely ensconced in their working-from-home Zoom palaces, have largely outsourced the risk of the pandemic to working class people and then had the temerity to chide those same working class people for perceived breaking of rules:

    “The Labour Zoomocracy has been quick to call for further lockdowns, harder border controls and has failed to acknowledge the inequalities that they both benefit from, and are complicit in. The middle-class sneers about pubs reopening and the protests against lockdown, whilst happen to attend and support their own protests. This demonstrates how removed many on the left are from the lived experience of suffering. It is easy to call for extended periods of lockdown when you are saving money, baking banana bread and transferring your risk to precarious warehouse and delivery staff.”

    #

  • Women are less likely to negotiate their salaries, earn less than men, and are underrepresented at the highest levels of business. Narratives that explain these problems often focus on what women can do differently – to “lean in”, to negotiate harder, to stop apologising, to be more assertive, and so on.

    Stefanie O’Connell explains how these narratives, problematic in themselves in the way that they blame women for problems they have little control over, can also have unpleasant side effects. Women who adopt these more assertive behaviours, and show their ambition clearly, often face a backlash for doing so:

    “A 2020 study linked this backlash directly to ambition: when women were arbitrarily assigned leadership positions, they were less likely to be found unlikeable. It was only when a woman was actively pursuing a leadership position that she encountered penalties. This suggests that more than power, influence or success, women are penalized for the pursuit of those things. This shows up in tangible outcomes, like the denial of job opportunities, raises and promotions – all of which can make building wealth harder.”

    #

  • Lucy Edwards is a hit on TikTok with her videos explaining her life as a blind person, breezily answering questions from viewers that they might feel awkward asking otherwise. Lots of her videos focus on technology (How does she film herself? How does she read a menu in a restaurant? How does she edit her videos?), and Apple have done a special feature on the apps she uses.

    I’ve seen videos of visually impaired people using iPhone accessibility features before and always found them incredible. This is another great example of a side of technology that most people never see, but that is vitally important as more and more of modern life involves being able to use technology. #

  • A surprisingly engaging – and informative – article on the evolution of the… well, you’ll get the picture.

    “One unusually aerated specimen, a type of polyclad flatworm, sports multiple anuses that speckle its backside like feces-spewing freckles. Two others, a pair of sponge parasites called Syllis ramosa and Ramisyllis multicaudata, will twine their body through host tissues like a tapestry of tree roots, with each tip terminating in its own proprietary butthole; they have hundreds, perhaps thousands, in total. (It’s not totally clear why these animals and others spawned an embarrassment of anuses, but in at least some cases, Hejnol thinks it’s a logical outcome of a branched digestive system, which can more easily transport nutrients to a body’s every nook and cranny.)”

    #

  • A lot of wisdom in a very short post: Andrew Bosworth on the ways that complex systems fail.

    “It has always struck me that the more edifice you build to prevent minor failures the larger the capacity you create for catastrophic ones, just like climbers roped together on a mountaintop… My concern is that many of the efforts we have to defend against failure create catastrophic complexity without meaningfully reducing failure at all.”

    #

  • For those of us who have been running remote workshops during lockdown using platforms like Zoom and Miro, an interesting article from FutureLearn on taking that a step further by running asynchronous workshops – workshops where people don’t gather together at the same time, but rather participate over a longer period of time, batting ideas back and forth between each other. #

  • Like many people, I’ve been captivated by the recent glut of upscaled and enhanced historical films, like the 1911 footage of New York City or the incredible stabilised film taken from Wuppertal’s Schwebebahn in 1902.

    Such footage is incredible, but uncanny; I thought it was simply the glitches and artefacts of the upscaling process, but there’s actually an ethical unease here too, as Thomas Nicholson explores.

    “Digital upscalers and the millions who’ve watched their work on YouTube say they’re making the past relatable for viewers in 2020, but for some historians of art and image-making, modernising century-old archives brings a host of problems. Even adding colour to black and white photographs is hotly contested.”

    Nicholson quotes the film historian Luke McKernan, who says:

    “Colourisation does not bring us closer to the past; it increases the gap between now and then. It does not enable immediacy; it creates difference. It makes the past record all the more distant for rejecting what is honest about it.”

    #

  • Adam Wells writes beautifully on the subject of cider, and the romantic journeys that he takes as a cider writer and that the apples take on their way to becoming the final product:

    “If cider does indeed have a soul, it is locked in the apples, in the trees, in the land and in the slow cycle of seasons that brings all three into the confluence of a unique expression. It is in the unrepeatable patterns of weather; the vicissitudes of fate that make every harvest different from the next, however subtly. It is in the gentle incline of an orchard’s bank that drains water that little more quickly, gives every row of trees that little more, little longer, exposure to sunlight. It is in the crusts of sand or clay or limestone that make each orchard geologically individual. It is in the trees that are forty years older than the trees of the same variety next door; in the small-gains increase in intensity of flavour that every passing year has cultivated. It is in the choice to plant one variety over another, not for reasons of yield or efficiency, but simply because the former variety tastes better; imparts greater qualities into its resultant drink. It is in the trimming back of the hazel thicket that casts shadows onto the apples. It is in the health of the soil, and the ways in which the orchardist chooses to maintain that soil’s condition. It is in the careful winter pruning that gives the trees a better chance of a better-tasting crop. It is in the deliberate selection of apples that are pristine and fully ripened and the rejection of those that are dirty or rotten or unripe. It is in the space between the trees, the airflow between the branches and the time between an apple’s falling and its being picked up. It is in the transfiguration of everything above and more into a liquid in our glass that offers all of the answers, if only we knew what the questions were.”

    #

  • Craig Mod writes beautifully on the healing power of programming computers, a sanctuary of knowable certainty in a world aflame:

    “This work of line-by-line problem solving gets me out of bed some days. Do you know this feeling? The not-wanting-to-emerge-from-the-covers feeling? Every single morning of the last year may have been the most collectively experienced covers-craving in human history, where so many things in the world were off by a degree here or a degree there. But under those covers I begin to think – A ha! I know how to solve server problem x, or quirk y. I know how to fix that search code. And I’m able to emerge and become human, or part human, and enter into that line-by-line world, where there is very little judgement, just you and the mechanics of the systems, systems that become increasingly beautiful the more time you spend with them. For me, this stewardship is therapy.”

    It’s a long time since my time has been mostly occupied by programming, but I still feel the same draw Mod does. Tinkering with this site, writing a little script, withdrawing temporarily from the messiness of the wider world and focusing for a moment on a tiny, knowable part of it – and in doing so achieving something, creating something, and generally pushing some kind of mental reset button. #

  • I can’t believe I didn’t find this when I wrote about augmented creativity: Garry Kasparov coined the term “centaur chess” for a game of chess played by two humans, in which the humans ultimately decide which moves to make, but have access to the full power of a computer before doing so. In theory, it’s a form of chess that combines the creativity and empathy of human players with the raw computing power of the chess engine. #

  • Related to the last link, a post from 2014 by Tim Urban that urges us to consider our life as a series of weeks, and a surprisingly small number of weeks at that – a teaspoonful of irreplaceable diamonds, ours waste or use as we wish. There have been 360 such weeks in all our lives since he published that article; how have you spent yours? #

  • On the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, the always-insightful Phil Gyford looks back at his life, the decisions he’s made, and what he’s learned.

    “A decade used to seem like a huge chunk of time – after all, so much had changed between the ages of 10 and 20 – but now I realise how quickly each one whizzes by. And, ssshh… the rumour is that they keep getting quicker.

    “So I can see that, from the point of view of someone in their twenties, 50 is officially Old. But 50 is only about half-way through adult life, give or take. There is lots of life left. I’ve only done half of what I’ll do. In theory.

    “So, anyway, how have the past 50 years gone?”

    #

  • The word “naff”, uniquely British, is hard to explain or define – one of those concepts that you know when you see it. Sean Wyer has a good go, in an effort to explain something fundamental about us Brits:

    “So if hygge can tell us something important about Denmark, and about tensions between actual and imagined Denmarks, what, I wondered, might naffness reveal about Britain and its culture?”

    He doesn’t perfectly nail a definition, but it’s a subject worth chewing over. #

  • Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, writes an inspiring manifesto on the need for those of us who work in marketing to escape our bubbles, reconnect with real people, staff our organisations more representatively, and rediscover our ability to talk to a broad spectrum of society.

    “And so it is that – privileged, unrepresentative, disconnected and with an overinflated sense of its understanding and common values – marketing and advertising professionals have come to rely on the sweeping platitudes of ‘Millennials’ and ‘Gen Z’, happy to believe that people born within certain years are all the same, happy by implication to reject the concept of segmentation and of consumers holding different perceptions and experiences, and happy to believe that some kind of powerful, magical invisible force is at work that determines that people who are born in the same year will all have exactly the same opinions and attitudes.”

    #

  • The wonderful Craig Mod exhorts us to look – to really look:

    “This act of ‘really looking’ is deceptive. It requires an almost ‘unlooking’ to see closely, a kind of defocusing. Because: We tend to see in groups, not details. We scan an image or scene for the gist, but miss a richness of particulars. I suspect this has only gotten worse in recent years as our Daily Processed Information density has increased, causing us to engage less rigorously – we listen to podcasts on 2x speed or watch YouTube videos with a finger on the arrow-keys to fast-forward through any moment of lesser tension. Which means we need all the help we can get to prod ourselves to look more closely.”

    #

  • It’s interesting observing the vaccine rollout in the US, which seems to be continuing at pace despite some of the structural differences that make it harder than the UK’s rollout (like the lack of a single, coherent, nationwide healthcare provider, with primary healthcare information and the ability to contact virtually the entire population).

    One of the things that seems bizarre is the sheer number of organisations responsible for distributing and administering the vaccine, and the lack of a clear picture for individuals. Where should you go for a vaccine? Who has availability? How do you book?

    The VaccinateCA project is fixing that, in perhaps the most lo-fi method possible. A team of volunteers telephones, every day, California’s vaccination centres and asks them how much vaccine they have, who they plan to administer it to, and how to get an appointment. It then collates that information and makes it available to the public.

    This blog post, which shares learnings from the project so far, is a great writeup of what it’s like to deal with a shifting, complex, emergent situation and to try to make sense of it. #

  • Outrageous:

    “On 4 February the German energy giant RWE announced it was suing the government of the Netherlands. The crime? Proposing to phase out coal from the country’s electricity mix. The company, which is Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon, is demanding €1.4bn in ‘compensation’ from the country for loss of potential earnings, because the Dutch government has banned the burning of coal for electricity from 2030.

    “RWE is suing under the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), a little-known international agreement signed without much public debate in 1994. The treaty binds more than 50 countries, and allows foreign investors in the energy sector to sue governments for decisions that might negatively impact their profits – including climate policies. Governments can be forced to pay huge sums in compensation if they lose an ECT case.”

    Withdrawal from the treaty is tricky but possible; OpenDemocracy urge people to sign the petition started by the Transnational Institute and Corporate Europe Observatory. #

  • The Library of Congress holds literally millions of items, many of which have been digitised. But how to approach such a huge collection? LOC Serendipity is one amazing answer: surface content at random, and allow people to follow whatever rabbit holes they find interesting.

    Even just the randomly selected titles are great, like some sort of Oblique Strategies prompt:

    Miscellaneous studies in prose
    Politics and pen pictures at home and abroad
    Virginia in the making of Illinois
    Interest tables used by the Mutual life insurance company of New York for the calculation of interest and prices of stocks and bonds for investment
    La dame aux perles
    Elements of logick
    Elisa von der Recke
    The present world situation
    Military character, habit, deportment, courtesy and discipline
    Memorial of Mrs. Agnes Renton
    Vade mecum
    Ballot box and battle field

    I’m particularly fond of the “Infinite 78RPM Records” section, which throws up a never-ending stream of old, public-domain records – mostly ’20s and ’30s jazz but also some scratchy gospel, bluegrass, and folk and ancient stand-up comedy. #

  • The transcription of a talk by Maciej Cegłowski that I’ve dug out and re-read over and over again since he gave it in 2016. He addresses the question of whether an artificial intelligence will be developed that far surpasses our own intelligence and, if it will, whether that will mean the destruction of humanity. It’s a question that has absorbed and terrified some notable names in the world of technology:

    “The computer that takes over the world is a staple scifi trope. But enough people take this scenario seriously that we have to take them seriously. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and a whole raft of Silicon Valley investors and billionaires find this argument persuasive.”

    Cegłowski then proceeds to set fire to the arguments in favour of superintelligence in a straightforward and provocative way. (I particularly like “the argument from Slavic pessimism”.) #

  • Why are charlatans listened to, even when they obviously don’t know what they’re talking about? How do bogus ideas spread? Chris Dillow looks at some recent psychological studies and draws a damning conclusion:

    “One implication of all this is that a public service broadcaster as the BBC purports to be cannot be impartial. If you offer people two sides of a story or two talking heads, many will choose the charlatan or false story over the true one. And we’ll get increased polarization – which might make for good TV but not necessarily for good politics or a good society.

    “But I think the implication is more devastating. All this undermines the conventional liberal faith in the marketplace of ideas. John Stuart Mill thought that ‘wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument.’ Experiments, however, confirm our real world experience that in fact the opposite can happen. And this isn’t simply because of our biased and dysfunctional media.”

    #

  • In a story that seems designed to make my eyes twitch, Del Monte have developed a genetically engineered pink pineapple with the intention of creating a buzz on Instagram:

    “But what exactly was it about an Instagram-oriented novelty fruit that had spelled ‘jackpot’ to Del Monte? Even at $49 a pop, won’t it take decades for the company to recoup years of rigorous R&D? How many people are actually in the market for a fruit that costs more than a Spirit Airlines plane ticket? And what could the customer lifetime value possibly be, given how unlikely it seems that anyone would make a regular habit of ordering pineapples online?

    “The answer lies, as it so often does, in the marketing. The Pinkglow™ is not a fungible fruit. It is not even entirely a food. Instead, it is a luxury experience akin to splurging on a destination Airbnb.”

    #

  • Evocative advice on how to combat writer’s block:

    “BUT: sometimes you do everything right and you still have writer’s block. In my opinion, there’s no reason to force it at this point. Writing comes from the deep and complex things happening within your mind. It is an expression of Creativity.

    “It helps to think of Creativity as a force, a capitalized word.”

    #

  • The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, who died in January, is the subject of a fantastic retrospective in Edge that features many of the things she wrote and contributed to the publication over the years.

    If you read only one thing, make it “How to be a Systems Thinker”, from 2018. It’s a goldmine of thoughtful advice about thinking, from the interconnectedness of complex systems:

    “We were doing all sorts of things to the planet we live on without recognizing what the side effects would be and the interactions… Once you begin to understand the nature of side effects, you ask a different set of questions before you make decisions and projections and analyze what’s going to happen.

    “We have taller smoke stacks on factories now, trying to prevent smog and acid rain. What we’re getting is that the fumes are traveling further, higher up, and still coming down in the form of acid rain. Let’s look at that. Someone has tried to solve a problem, which they did – they reduced smog. But we still put smoke up the chimney and think it disappears. It isn’t gone. It’s gone somewhere. We need to look at the entire system. What happens to the smoke? What happens to the wash-off of fertilizer into brooks and streams? In that sense, we’re using the technology to correct a problem without understanding the epistemology of the problem. The problem is connected to a larger system, and it’s not solved by the quick fix.”

    …to the importance of narrative and metaphor in our thinking:

    “It turns out that the Greek religious system is a way of translating what you know about your sisters, and your cousins, and your aunts into knowledge about what’s happening to the weather, the climate, the crops, and international relations, all sorts of things. A metaphor is always a framework for thinking, using knowledge of this to think about that. Religion is an adaptive tool, among other things. It is a form of analogic thinking.”

    …and so much more besides.

    She wraps it up with an exhortation not to neglect bigger-picture thinking:

    “The tragedy of the cybernetic revolution, which had two phases, the computer science side and the systems theory side, has been the neglect of the systems theory side of it. We chose marketable gadgets in preference to a deeper understanding of the world we live in.”

    #

  • Gasper Nali is a Malawian musician who plays infectious, danceable music using nothing more than a cow-skin kick-drum, a home-made bass guitar that he plays with a beer bottle, and his voice.

    “The instrument he’s playing is called a ‘Babatoni’, it’s a home made bass guitar, about 3 metres long, with one string and a cow skin drum as a resonating box.”

    In response to some internet interest in his music back in 2015, Spare Dog Records provided some studio time for him to record a single. He’s since released two albums; the second is raw, unfiltered, and represents him and the Babatoni at their best, I think. #

  • Ben Thompson’s weekly Stratechery article this week is a doozy: it’s a profile of Jeff Bezos, the soon-to-sort-of-retire CEO of Amazon, and what makes him perhaps the most effective and impactful startup founder in history.

    Bezos is one of those interesting characters that’s perhaps simultaneously over- and under-rated. Fawned over by business bros for his (important!) drive and determination, people spend less time focusing on just how visionary he was at several key junctures, and perhaps underestimate the impact of those visions on the global economy. He spotted the unique potential of the internet from a retail perspective, creating a store that could only exist on the internet; he spotted the unique potential of creating computing primitives that could be used internally by Amazon but also be built into the behemoth that is Amazon Web Services; and he spotted the unique potential of becoming a platform rather than merely a retailer. #

  • iFixit have been nobly banging the drum for repairable electronics for years. That debate has often been framed as one of consumer control and what “ownership” really means when it comes to our devices.

    But with their Repair Jobs Revolution, they’ve shifted the focus to the wider societal benefits. Sending electronic waste to landfill doesn’t just waste the components and energy used to create it, and damage the planet; it also takes almost no effort to process and creates no value. Repairing and reusing, on the other hand, creates local jobs that produce genuine value. Good for the planet, good for the local economy. #

  • Olof Hoverfält tracked every item of clothing he wore for three years. The data gathering enabled him to make extraordinary insights into the costs – both to his wallet and to the environment – of what he wore. His writeup is both a joyously nerdy statistical deep-dive and a series of genuinely useful insights, and it demonstrates just how carefully we must work to adjust our gut feelings about sustainability closer to reality. #

  • Andrew Oved of Reformation points out a classic mistake made by venture capitalists: they think that it’s possible to buy their way to a popular brand that’s part of popular culture. In reality, you have to put in the hard yards:

    “When I think about the greatest consumer brands today, here are some of the names that come to mind: Nike, Supreme, Patagonia, Louis Vuitton, Lululemon, Chanel, Revlon. None of these brands raised venture capital. You might say ‘the world is different now’, but I think that’s only partially true. Lululemon was started in 1998, right at the peak of the dot com bubble, the same year that Pets.com launched and WebVan raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital…

    “…deliberately taking a slower approach to brand-building is a prerequisite (though not guarantee) for building a long-lasting consumer product brand. Stated differently: Blitzscaling is not a viable option for iconic brand-building: brand is earned, not bought.”

    Affinity and loyalty don’t come from bombarding consumers with ads; they come from growing a role in their life, from earning hard-won recommendations among friends, from carving out a sustainable place in the wider culture. Easy come, easy go. #

  • Ben Coates explains the baffling inadequacy of the Netherlands’ response to the coronavirus and in particular the rollout of vaccines – baffling considering the Dutch reputation for efficient bureaucracy, a tip-top healthcare system, and the smooth running of complex infrastructural projects.

    One part that struck me was Coates’s identifying of a cultural factor behind this seeming ineptitude:

    “The beloved Dutch trait of ‘nuchterheid’ (sobriety, or a refusal to panic) looks increasingly like a fatal condition.”

    I’ve thought the same about the UK, with our “stiff upper lip”, our “blitz spirit”, and our “keep calm and carry on”. All our cultural tropes around triumphing over adversity venerate the idea of refusing to be affected, refusing to panic, and steadfastly continuing much as before. That’s exactly what we don’t want to do when faced with coronavirus, and yet it’s what we’ve spent the last year doing. Reassuring, in a depressing way, that the Dutch seem to be no different. #

  • David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, founded an editorial project aimed at countering the prevailing negativity of the news media, accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, as the song goes. It’s called Reasons to be Cheerful.

    Their round-up of 2020, a year universally regarded as an irredeemable dumpster-fire, is well worth reading:

    “You could be forgiven for thinking that 2020 was little more than a slow-motion train wreck broken up into 365 individual units. But if you’re a regular RTBC reader, you know that’s not true. Yes, it was a most difficult year. But it was also a year of problems solved, hopes sustained and seemingly insurmountable challenges met.”

    #

  • A sobering look at the seeming paradox that, while untold economic ruin has been unleashed on the world, to say nothing of the human misery, the US stock market has done nothing but climb. In answering that question, Neil Irwin and Weiyi Cai discover who the pandemic’s economic winners and losers have been, and why those who’ve lost out have seen their losses masked by gains elsewhere. #

  • A fantastic, hilarious, film-noir-ish look at the great bucatini shortage of 2020 by Rachel Handler. Every line is quotable, but you can come for the sensual pasta:

    “Of course! It’s me! I have bought them all! Bucatini is the most sensual of the pastas!”

    …and stay for the conspiracy that goes right to the top:

    “As I waited impatiently for the FDA’s FOIA reply, I got another call from Carl from the NPA, who blew my mind with a tale that sounded so Coen brothers–y I could not believe it. The reason behind De Cecco’s fall from FDA grace, he said, could potentially be traced all the way back to the early 1900s and the beginning of what was once called the ‘National Association of Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturers of America.’”

    #

  • Sweden pursued an idiosyncratic approach to the coronavirus pandemic: effectively leaving people to make their own choices rather than imposing rules and guidelines, and aiming for herd immunity. They persevered with that approach even when it became clear that it wasn’t working, and as the death count mounted. Why was that?

    John Gustavsson argues persuasively – and damningly – that it’s because of a peculiarly Swedish brand of exceptionalism:

    “Whereas American exceptionalism is about America’s unique place in the world, Swedish exceptionalism is about being immune to any disasters that may happen in the rest of the world.

    “To understand this idea, you need to understand our history: We survived two world wars unscathed, two wars in which all of our neighbors were partially or completely occupied. While every generation of Americans has suffered at least one major war, Sweden has not fought a war since 1814. The last time Sweden engaged in armed conflict, James Madison was president of the United States.”

    It’s hard to escape something so deep-rooted, and so Sweden looks poised to continue its disastrous approach – and to do so with the enthusiastic approval of the Swedish people. #

  • A lovely metaphor for a common problem:

    “A few years ago, I heard Rob Walling explain the difference between an aspirin business and a vitamin business: in an aspirin business, you don’t try to convince customers that they need your product. Instead your customers have a problem – a “headache” – and they know it. They go looking for a solution – your “aspirin” – to make their problem go away (or at least make it better).

    “On the other hand, if you have a vitamin business, you constantly have to convince your customers they need what you’re selling. Vitamins supplement our diet and supposedly make our lives better in some way – they promise to make us healthier, more vibrant, etc. In a vitamin business, your customers can survive without your product, so your job is to show them how much better their lives will be with it.”

    It’s so easy to kid yourself that your vitamin business is an aspirin one – and to falter as a result. #

  • There’s something strange about Japanese business culture: the country is home to some forty per cent of all the world’s centenarian businesses, and has several that are over a thousand years old. (Perhaps the oldest, Kongō Gumi, went into liquidation in 2006 after over 1,400 years; at the helm was the 50th generation of the founding family.)

    This New York Times article looks at long-lived Japanese businesses, particularly focusing on a charming mochi seller, and examines what makes them so extraordinarily resilient.

    “If you look at the economics textbooks, enterprises are supposed to be maximizing profits, scaling up their size, market share and growth rate. But these companies’ operating principles are completely different,” said Kenji Matsuoka, a professor emeritus of business at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.

    “Their No. 1 priority is carrying on,” he added. “Each generation is like a runner in a relay race. What’s important is passing the baton.”

    #

  • Last year the payment processor Stripe posted a blog post outlining their belief that, if humanity was to tackle climate change, significant advancements in carbon removal technology would need to be made. They announced an intent to fund cutting-edge research into technologies that could help remove carbon from the atmosphere, either by sequestering it in the ground or by converting it into another form.

    This year, they launched an amazing scheme that leverages their core business as a payment processor: Stripe Climate, a scheme whereby merchants who use Stripe can choose to redirect a percentage of their income to carbon removal research.

    Opting in is straightforward for merchants, gives them a positive story to tell their consumers, and has the potential to be much more effective than the wishy-washy carbon offsetting programmes used by some merchants (and in particular airlines). I hope it rolls out beyond the US soon. #

  • The Volkswagen Foundation funds over €100m worth of scientific and research projects a year. In 2018, it announced that it would use lotteries to help decide which projects to fund; apparently, that process has been a success.

    Nature also published an interesting review last year on other funders’ experiments with lotteries:

    “It just takes a lot of angst out of it,” says Don Cleland, a process engineer at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, and a member of the team that oversees the SfTI fund. Given the money to fund 20 projects, an assessment panel doesn’t need to agonize over which application ranks 20th and which comes 21st, he says. They can just agree that both are good enough to be funded and then put them into the hat. “We actually do have a hat,” Cleland says.

    This fits alongside what I was writing recently about using lotteries when hiring people. If there’s no way to make a rational, informed decision, then lotteries can be a useful answer. #

  • Now that the dust is settling – hopefully – on Trump’s time in office, we can begin to reckon with those who collaborated with his regime and his ideology. Who collaborated? Why, and how? What can be learned from other collaborators in the recent past, with Nazism and Communism?

    Writing back in July, Historian Anne Applebaum digs deep in this article. She explains how totalitarianism can take root gradually, and that the nature of collaboration can take many forms – whether that’s misplaced faith, self-delusion, or self-interest. In the end, those who collaborate the closest are often the people you’d least expect to. #

  • Agriculture isn’t my area of expertise, but if you can parse through the bushels and Chicago prices and bpa dryland yields then there’s a really interesting story here. It’s the story of one farmer questioning received wisdom, choosing long-term profitability over short-term convenience, relentlessly experimenting and learning, and adopting methods from the organic world – lessons that can and should be learned in more industries than just farming. #

  • David Brooks argues cogently that the nuclear family – 2.0 parents and 2.4 children – is a historical aberration, a blip that worked only in the 1950s and from which society is yet to fully recover.

    It’s a challenging piece, but not without its positivity. Individuals cast adrift by society’s insistence on the nuclear family are, Brooks argues, increasingly finding refuge in “forged families”, kin relationships formed with those outside their immediate, biological family:

    “These forged families have a feeling of determined commitment. The members of your chosen family are the people who will show up for you no matter what. On Pinterest you can find placards to hang on the kitchen wall where forged families gather: ‘Family isn’t always blood. It’s the people in your life who want you in theirs; the ones who accept you for who you are. The ones who would do anything to see you smile & who love you no matter what.’”

    #

  • Errol Morris’s landmark documentary series First Person first aired in 2000. The whole series is on YouTube, and it’s well worth watching.

    I wondered how Morris achieved the distinctive directness of his interviews: every subject seems always to be talking straight down the barrel of the lens. It turns out that this is possible with a device of Morris’s own invention, which he dubbed “the Interrotron”. It’s a little like an autocue, and uses mirrors to allow the interview subject to look straight at the camera but also see and make contact with the interviewer. Production designer Steve Hardie – who worked with Morris on several films including Fog of Warexplains more. #

  • Craig Mod walked 1,000km across Japan in search of an institution: the Kissaten (lit. “tea-drinking shops”). These are cafés famous for their “morning service” of coffee, toast, and eggs, and for the true object of Mod’s obsession: pizza toast, which is exactly what you’d expect from the name.

    These kissa are wonderful places of human connection:

    “Canadian Coffee House was only open until noon on Sundays, and it was already 1:30 p.m. The other customers had long since left. It was just Sakai and me chatting away. I apologized for keeping him open longer than expected, and he looked at me like I was nuts. It was his pleasure. This was what kissa were for — community, connection, conversation, strange encounters.”

    …but they’re also dying out, victims of Japan’s aging population, flight to the cities, and general cultural shifts. Mod’s journey is a fitting elegy. #

  • Edward Tufte at his searing best, dismantling the cult of PowerPoint. PowerPoint is, to Tufte, a singularly useless form of communication: slow, shallow, and thought-corrupting. He uses the tragic example of the Columbia space shuttle disaster to demonstrate the real dangers of reducing complex issues to bullet points.

    “Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that claimed to make us beautiful but didn’t. Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects: making us stupid, degrading the quality and credibility of our communication, turning us into bores, wasting our colleagues’ time. These side effects, and the resulting unsatisfactory cost/benefit ratio, would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.”

    #

  • Peter Pomerantsev writes perfectly on how the disorienting, time-warping feel of coronavirus is actually just the latest in a slow melting away of the significance of time:

    “We live in a “flat world” where different eras have become squashed together in a mental space where they can’t by definition all fit at the same time, and where there is no History to order them in terms of their level of “development.” Everything is contemporaneous, but with no model of common communication, a synchronization of the incompatible: ISIS and Putin, Trudeau, Kim Kardashian, and Duterte all jostling against each other with no way of saying which represents the past and which the future.”

    #

  • Matt Webb has really been knocking it out of the park lately. His latest is on adaptive long music, with video game music as inspiration:

    Although this gives the impression of a formless improvisational process, because of the way the music reacts in real-time to the player’s actions, the underlying structure had to be meticulously planned. If a dramatic sequence suddenly kicks off, the soundtrack switches to something with greater intensity, while a more foreboding sound is required during moments of suspense.

    I wonder, when I listen to these soundscapes, whether it would be possible to make an album that is intended to be listened to over a full 24 hours, as a kind of live soundtrack to your life?

    #

  • A beautiful and informative data visualisation from Gabriel Goh. It lets you plum in different knowledge about the Coronavirus, and then examine the effect of different interventions at different times. Thanks to the compounding effect of the virus’s transmission, it becomes suddenly clear how quickly even the most powerful interventions can become useless – or how effective early decisions can be. #

  • A beautiful paean to Wikipedia, one of the few unqualified success stories of the web, one of the last remaining bastions of the anarchic, decentralised spirit of the early internet, and the home of facts about Afghanistan’s only pig. #

  • Today I learned that there is – was? – only one, solitary pig in Afghanistan, and his name is Khanzir. #

  • How thieves disgruntled at the financial system pulled off an almost-perfect robbery – a real work of art. #

  • Interesting thoughts about Code of Conscience, a project that geo-fences heavy duty vehicles, restricting their usage within protected wilderness areas, and what that technology might mean for policymaking. For example:

    You can easily imagine… a dystopian scenario in which geofenced medical prostheses cease to operate when they cross an invisible GPS boundary into an unserviced region—perhaps as a way to protect the host company from the illegal installation of black-market, security-compromised firmware updates, but with immediate and perhaps fatal health effects on the user. Or, say, regions of a metropolis—perhaps near centers of governance or military installations—where civilian vehicles or unregistered photographic equipment of a particular resolution can no longer physically function.

    Just as easily, you could imagine something like the spatial opposite of Code of Conscience, where, for example, future GPS-tagged hunting rifles only work when they are located inside permitted wilderness areas. The instant you step outside the field or forest, your gun goes dead.

    #

  • For half a century, the CIA secretly controlled one of the world’s most widely used cryptography companies, using that control to backdoor allies and enemies alike and eavesdrop on their most sensitive communications. This perhaps explains their concern about Huawei. #

  • Geoff Manaugh on a remarkable story of teen journalists in the 1990s uncovering what the “real” press was unable or unwilling to. An example of just what teens are capable of if given a project with meaning, import, and autonomy. #

  • Why do vegans provoke such ire in non-vegans? This interesting article looks at the cognitive biases that might lead to such strong feelings. #

  • Bruce Sterling on AI ethics:

    In the hermetic world of AI ethics, it’s a given that self-driven cars will kill fewer people than we humans do. Why believe that? There’s no evidence for it. It’s merely a cranky aspiration. Life is cheap on traffic-choked American roads — that social bargain is already a hundred years old. If self-driven vehicles doubled the road-fatality rate, and yet cut shipping costs by 90 percent, of course those cars would be deployed.

    Technological proliferation is not a list of principles. It is a deep, multivalent historical process with many radically different stakeholders over many different time-scales. People who invent technology never get to set the rules for what is done with it.

    #

  • Related to the last link is Sayre’s law, which states that “in any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake”. We’re distracted by trivialities and are powerless to effect meaningful change. #

  • A piercing view of modern outrage culture, which sees the opposition to fascism distracted by low-stakes nonsense while society is slowly dismantled. #

  • From five years ago, but still beautiful and resonant: a profile of Ronnie O’Sullivan, the haunted and preternaturally gifted snooker player. #

  • A poignant piece on the passing of Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation) and the precariousness and vapidity of the modern creative industries. #

  • A wonderfully thoughtful and thought-provoking article about the growing culture war in the UK, as we slowly circle the drain. #

  • A useful name for an intuitive fallacy. #

  • I discovered this after writing up my post about Roam Research and, inevitably, it says much of what I wanted to say more effectively than I was able to say it. #

  • It turns out the world of self-published, Kindle Unlimited romance novels is cuthroat and scammy. Algorithm-gaming, fake readers, fake content, all generating millions in revenue. Kindle Unlimited is particularly susceptible because of the way it calculates and shares revenue. #

  • A fabulous paper from the early 1980s. Taking examples from coal-mining, it explains the interactions between people and technology and the evolution and emergence of productive relationships between the two. There are so many lessons here for modern technical teams. #