I'm Chief Strategist at big fish®, where I work with consumer businesses to help them solve brand, tech, and marketing problems. I’m interested in uncertainty, creativity, and sustainability – particularly in the world of consumer brands.
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The behavioural economics revolution has been on a quest towards rationality, aiming to recognise our messy, inaccurate cognitive biases and replace them with something more solid. But by throwing out intuition and heuristics, we risk losing a great deal.
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. #
Informal, loosely coupled groups of people often produce a prolific burst of good ideas, changing the worlds of science, art, and music. But why is that? What conditions are necessary for this super-creativity to emerge, and when has it happened in the past?
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.”
All other things being equal, startups are able to innovate more easily than larger, more established businesses. There are lots of ways for existing organisations to involve themselves in startups: startup accelerators, internal startups, and so on. Is the startup studio the most useful model?
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. #
Guilt can be an effective way of inspiring consumers to make sustainable choices, and so the world of sustainability is full of messaging designed to make consumers feel guilty. But should it be? Does it work, and is it right?
“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.”
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
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. #
We’re not at the stage where artificial intelligence can come up with and implement novel, interesting ideas independently. The first computer-generated novel or screenplay that humans actually want to read or watch is still some time away. But what seems to be around the corner is equally interesting: AI-augmented creativity.
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.”
Being an individual concerned with climate change can be pretty demoralising. Is there anything we can do as individuals, or will the answer come from a small number of bureaucratic heroes in the government, universities, and R&D departments?
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. #