Roblog

I’m Rob Miller

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.

Recent posts

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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. #

  • Dedicated innovation

    Dedicated R&D teams are a controversial subject, but so too is the idea that everyone should be innovative in what they do. Which is correct? Is it sufficient – or even necessary – to build a dedicated innovation team in order to develop new ideas? Can people innovate in their day-to-day jobs? And which is better?

  • 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?”

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  • 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.)”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • An unsuccessful coup

    Thirty years ago, Communist hard-liners launched a coup in the USSR. Days later, they’d failed – and Boris Yeltsin had catapulted himself into the heart of power. Why did they fail, why did Yeltsin succeed, and what can we learn from Yeltsin’s navigating of uncertain events?

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.’”

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  • 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.”

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  • The shamrock organisation

    Conventional wisdom encourages businesses to think about their core competencies, and then outsource everything else. But the organisational theorist Charles Handy saw things slightly differently, inspired by his thinking on “portfolio careers”.

  • 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.)”

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  • 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.”

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  • The merits of mêtis

    Why is work-to-rule effective as a way of workers negotiating with employers? Isn’t doing your job according to its description what you’re supposed to do? The answer lies in all the tacit, subtle, commonsensical things that employees do every day – in other words, in mêtis.

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.’”

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  • 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.”

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  • Thermocline to vericline

    Earlier this year I wrote about an idea first expressed by Bruce Webster. In many or even most organisations, there exists a line. Below that line, reality is known and people understand the (usually disastrous) state of the project; above that line, the picture seems rosy, because everyone reports good news upwards in the organisation.

    Webster called that line the “thermocline of truth”, but I wonder if that’s a slightly unwieldy name. I’d like to humbly suggest that we refer to this concept as the “vericline” instead, from “verus” (truth) and “cline” (a graduated continuum).

    Yes, it mixes Greek and Latin, but so does “television” and that’s been pretty successful!