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

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.

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  • Drifting into failure

    As businesses grow, they face all sorts of pressures – from shareholders to be more efficient and more profitable, from management to do more with less, and from workers to reduce workload. Unwittingly, these pressures erode the margin of safety that keeps the organisation from making catastrophic errors.

  • 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.”

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  • Conway’s law and brands

    Brands inevitably end up reflecting the organisational structures of the businesses that create them. What does that mean, and how do you fix it?

  • 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?”

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  • 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.’”

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  • The shearing layers of brands

    Brands are strange things. Everything about branding involves keeping things the same: the same logos, the same colours, the same zingy lines. But everything about the real world involves adaptation to changing circumstances. How do you decide what to flex and what to fix? What happens at the different layers of brands, from the most static to the most dynamic?

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • The five-year chunk

    How do you strike a balance between the past, the present, and the future? The trick is finding the right period of time to focus on – not so long that it allows your ambitions to float off into the æther, but not so short that you never tackle anything tough.

  • 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.”

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  • 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’.”

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  • Doing the genba walk

    There’s a feature of many organisations in which those at the top know far less about what’s going on than those at the bottom – with sometimes disastrous consequences. But there’s a cure for it, too.

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • Unintended consequences

    Complex systems rarely respond in predictable ways. Whatever we try to change – companies, other organisations, the environment, technical systems – we run the risk of unexpected behaviour, both good and bad.