I work as a business strategist, a software developer, a marketer and a writer. I'm Chief Strategist at big fish®, where I work with consumer businesses to help them solve brand, tech, and marketing problems.
Puzzles are solvable, knowable, with clear rules and objective answers. Mysteries are complex, murky, incapable of resolution. The world is full of both: why is it that we so often fail to distinguish between them? The answer perhaps lies in our mindsets, our biases, and the way we naturally approach problem-solving.
For a while, it seemed like the internet would destroy niche businesses, as power became concentrated in ever-fewer large platforms. But the reality is that those platforms themselves have, in reaching such a huge audience, actually helped niche businesses more than they’ve harmed them – and, in fact, allowed ever-narrower niches to be served.
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 War — explains 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.”
What happens if Amazon goes the way of Uber and Airbnb, and becomes an "aggregator" – with unlimited product selection, a frictionless service, and an incredible user experience? Should food and drink brands be rubbing their hands with glee – or fearing for their lives?
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.