Roblog is a blog written by Rob Miller.
It's all about uncertainty, creativity, and sustainability. It helps you (and me!) make sense of a complex world.
New here? You can browse by topic, or these featured articles might be a good place to start:
When it comes to efficiency, how much is too much?
What makes an organisation succeed can often contain the seeds of its downfall
Why did people keep buying quack medical cures long after the advent of modern medicine, even though they never worked?
How do you build a culture that emphasises solving problems rather than adhering to processes?
Why a strong culture can mean a lack of arguments – and why that’s far from ideal
In organisations, reality is not always what it seems. Why is it that often things look rosy right up until they fall apart?
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.”
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.”
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:
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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”. #
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.’”