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

  • Chesterton’s many fences

    G. K. Chesterton wrote about the mistaken urge that reformers often have: to remove things without fully understanding why they were originally put in place. It’s a lesson that’s of enduring usefulness.

  • One churned up by the YouTube algorithms: a soothing and illuminating film of the wonderful and eloquent Mark Knopfler just talking about guitars. Few things can beat a master of their craft, who happens to be a lovely person, being given time to talk. #

  • A fascinating oral history of Processing, a programming language designed for artists:

    “Cooper and Maeda established a long lineage of designers and artists who were interested in pushing the boundaries of what code could create. Among them were Ben Fry and Casey Reas, two research assistants in Maeda’s group. During their time at MIT, Fry and Reas began to question how programming was taught to visually minded students. They wondered: How could they make programming more accessible to designers and artists? And what would it look like for code to become both a creative medium and part of the creative process itself?”

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  • Scott Galloway takes on “buy now, pay later” schemes (like Klarna) that have taken over ecommerce in recent years.

    These services have proliferated partly by capitalising on young people’s fear of debt and presenting themselves as being somehow different:

    “Their attraction to BNPL coincides with an aversion to banks and the credit they offer. This is a generation that came of age just before or in the wake of the Great Recession, a global economic crisis precipitated by… way too much credit. Young people love BNPL because, according to the former director of Afterpay, the vast majority of them ‘don’t want to be on credit.’”

    But whichever way you cut it, these services are debt – and they’re driving young people to spend money they don’t have and to get into a cycle of incurring punitive late fees. #

  • A chronic case of cost disease

    Businesses worry about keeping costs in check compared to their competitors. But they’re subjected to forces beyond just their own industries – and can suffer from “cost disease” as a result. But is there a cure?

  • Why does Tokyo seem to work so well? It’s a city of nearly 40-million people, but its standard of living is high and it hasn’t suffered either the choking car-dominance of cities like LA or the crazy real estate prices of… well, almost everywhere else.

    Cole Lubchenko asks why, and concludes that Tokyo’s decentralised nature, relaxed zoning rules, and prioritisation of public transport have created a city that’s easy to get around, that isn’t constrained by a focus on a single centre, and that continually reinvents itself to suit its inhabitants’ changing needs:

    “When you take the time to understand what makes the city special, you will begin to notice more and more of the aspects of Tokyo’s urban design that make the city so easy to be in. It is an ever evolving organism that never loses touch of its human-scale. No matter if you are visiting for the first time – or commuting to work daily – you should always find time to explore a new corner of the metropolis and feel for yourself what makes it work.”

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  • Nuclear fusion is extraordinarily powerful:

    “…we discovered that fusion powered the stars only about a hundred years ago, when the British physicist Arthur Eddington put together two pieces of knowledge into what was seen at the time as a wild surmise. The facts he combined were that the sun is made up mostly of hydrogen, with some helium, and that E=mc2.

    “Eddington noticed that four hydrogen atoms weigh a tiny bit more than one helium atom. If four hydrogen nuclei somehow fuse together, in a series of steps, and form helium, then a little bit of mass must be “lost” in the process. And if one takes seriously that most famous of equations, then that little bit of mass becomes a lot of energy – as much energy as that amount of mass multiplied by the speed of light, squared. To give a sense of this ratio: If you converted a baseball into pure energy, you could power New York City for about two weeks. Maybe that process – hydrogen crashing into hydrogen and forming helium, giving off an extraordinary amount of energy in the process – was how the sun and all the stars burned so bright and so long. Eddington, in a paper laying out this theory, closed with an unusual take on the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus. Eddington argued in defense of Icarus, saying it was better to fly too high, and in doing so see where a scientific idea begins to fail, than it was to be cautious and not try to fly high at all.”

    It’s also remarkably safe, and generates no problematic waste – unlike nuclear fission. But it’s always just around the corner, and has never really progressed towards commercial viability. But there are still scientists working on it, still progress is being made, and this New Yorker article looks at one particular team’s efforts to solve the (many) remaining problems. #

  • A thoughtful take on Web3 from Robin Sloan, who usefully approaches it neither from the perspective of cantankerous get-off-my-lawn cynicism nor credulous this-will-fix-everything naïvety.

    Sloan has interesting technical objections:

    “I feel like this simple premise is often lost in the haze: the Ethereum Virtual Machine, humming heart of Web3, is a computer that charges you many dollars to execute a very small program very slowly. It does so in an environment with special properties, and in some cases, those properties are worth the expense. In others… it’s like running your website on a TRS-80 with a coin slot.”

    But his most powerful points are social:

    “A key characteristic – really, a key aesthetic – of most (all?) blockchains is immutability. They are ledgers, after all. But, these days, where the internet is concerned, I find myself more interested in the opposite; in mutability and ephemerality. I like things that can change and grow, then vanish.

    “I am a BIG fan of deletion, an operation basically antithetical to Web3.

    “What do we lose when we lose deletion?”

    Bonus points for the reference to Marx’s excellent Power of Money. #

  • Beautiful, useful, and thought-provoking: what more can you ask for from a building? #

  • Sustainability and strategy credits

    Strategy credits are decisions that are easy for you to make, that make you look good, but that are hard for your competitors to match. You get all the good press without having to break a sweat. Sadly, lots of sustainability initiatives involve companies boasting about things that are fundamentally strategy credits: learning how to spot them, and withholding our most fervent praise from them, will become an increasingly valuable skill.

  • A great long read on Wang Huning, China’s éminence grise, the thinker behind much of “Xi Jinping thought”, and a political animal of unparalleled cunning who has managed to remain in a position of unrivalled influence for longer than anyone else in China.

    Interestingly, Wang’s ideas were particularly shaped by a stint in the US:

    “Also in 1988, Wang – having risen with unprecedented speed to become Fudan’s youngest full professor at age 30 – won a coveted scholarship (facilitated by the American Political Science Association) to spend six months in the United States as a visiting scholar. Profoundly curious about America, Wang took full advantage, wandering about the country like a sort of latter-day Chinese Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting more than 30 cities and nearly 20 universities.

    “What he found deeply disturbed him, permanently shifting his view of the West and the consequences of its ideas.

    “Wang recorded his observations in a memoir that would become his most famous work: the 1991 book America Against America. In it, he marvels at homeless encampments in the streets of Washington DC, out-of-control drug crime in poor black neighbourhoods in New York and San Francisco, and corporations that seemed to have fused themselves to and taken over responsibilities of government. Eventually, he concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.”

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  • A neat and incredibly clear explanation of the idea of decentralising power, and the different forms that decentralised organisations and structures can take. #

  • Duncan Austin argues that voluntary, market-led attempts to fix climate change (such as corporate social responsibility initiatives, environmental social and governance-led investing, campaigns to change consumer behaviour, etc.) have failed.

    His analysis is an interesting systems-thinking one. He argues that these attempts represent the “fix that fails” systems archetype, whereby initial attempts to fix a problem trigger delayed secondary effects that make the problem worse. Eventually, the “fail loop” overtakes the “fix loop”, and the system collapses.

    It’s a dense post, but it has some great thinking in it. The idea of the “fix that fails”, the complementary “unmentionable foot” to the market’s “invisible hand”, and the notion of “externality-denying capitalism” are all useful additions to the collective language on sustainability. #

  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi sadly died last month. Among his many contributions to popular ideas around creativity (such as the idea of “flow”) is this excellent list of ten strangely paradoxical opposing traits that particularly creative individuals seem to possess:

    1. Creative individuals have a great deal of physical energy, but they are also often quiet and at rest.
    2. Creative individuals tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.
    3. A third paradoxical trait refers to the related combination of playfulness and discipline, or responsibility and irresponsibility.
    4. Creative individuals alternate between imagination and fantasy at one end, and a rooted sense of reality at the other.
    5. Creative people seem to harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.
    6. Creative individuals are also remarkably humble and proud at the same time.
    7. Creative individuals to a certain extent escape this rigid gender role stereotyping [of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’].
    8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.
    9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.
    10. The openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

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  • The world is full of strange borders (like Baarle-Hertog and Baarle Nassau), but the one between Derby Line, Vermont and Stanstead, Quebec is both simple and ludicrous:

    “In the two-sided town of Derby Line/Stanstead there are two streets that cross the line without any checkpoints. Technically, any time anyone crosses the international line, they are subject to having to report, in person, to a port of entry inspection station for the country they are entering. This makes traffic on the streets that cross the line without a checkpoint, Maple Street/Rue Ball and Pelow Hill/Rue Lee, fairly light, as it is more convenient to cross at Main Street/Rue Dufferin, where checkpoints are often set up for ‘drive thru’ service.

    “Pedestrians on the sidewalk are also technically required to report as soon as they cross the line. Visiting someone on the other side of the line, even if the building is next door, means walking around to the inspection station first, or risk being an outlaw. Playing catch on Maple Street/Rue Ball would be an international event, and would break no laws presumably, so long as each time the ball was caught, the recipient marched over to customs to declare the ball.”

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  • The three Xs of innovation

    Kent Beck identified three phases of product development: Explore, Expand, and Extract. Knowing which one you’re currently facing changes how you approach your work – and your chances of success.

  • I saw Tom Critchlow tweet earlier this year about the idea of “rewilding” your attention. That means escaping algorithmic decisions about what you read or view, avoiding both mainstream, popular creators and your own little filter bubble. Instead, you can choose to give your attention to more off-beat and interesting things.

    Clive Thompson writes in more depth about why that’s good and what it involves:

    “Big-tech recommendation systems have been critiqued lately for their manifold sins – i.e. how their remorseless lust for ‘engagement’ leads them to overpromote hotly emotional posts; how they rile people up; how they feed us clicktastic disinfo; how they facilitate “doomscrolling”. All true.

    “But they pose a subtler challenge, too, for our imaginative lives: their remarkably dull conception of what’s ‘interesting’. It’s like intellectual monocropping. You open your algorithmic feed and see rows and rows of neatly planted corn, and nothing else…

    “The metaphor suggests precisely what to do: If you want to have wilder, curiouser thoughts, you have to avoid the industrial monocropping of big-tech feeds. You want an intellectual forest, overgrown with mushrooms and towering weeds and a massive dead log where a family of raccoons has taken up residence.”

    As someone who writes off-beat things for a tiny audience, I am of course biased, but this is an approach to the internet that I’ve always subscribed to – literally, in the form of a groaning “newsletters” email box and countless RSS feeds. #

  • David Chapman is writing a book on the meaning of life, called Meaningness, in public on the web. This chapter, on the deceptive lure of nihilism, is particularly interesting.

    The particular attitude that Chapman takes issue with is the idea that, because death is certain, life must lack meaning:

    “In the end, everything is meaningless. Your death is certain, and final. No heaven awaits; you just cease to exist. Life is but a spark in the infinite blackness, a spark that appears, flickers, and dies forever. What meaning could that have? You will soon be forgotten, nothing you do can make any difference in the long run, none of it matters.”

    His thoughtful dismantling of this is neatly summarised towards the end:

    “Yes, nothing really matters in the end. But people forget that things often matter quite a lot in the beginning and the middle.”

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  • Why snake oil succeeds

    Few products in history have been as successful as the “snake oil” of the 1800s and early 1900s. But why did these products succeed, when they didn’t work? Answering that means digging into our capacity for motivated reasoning, manipulative advertising, and wishful thinking – factors that haven’t changed much in the intervening century.

  • A fascinating paper that analyses how humans navigate cities on foot, and how their routes compare to the optimal ones.

    It turns out that we’re remarkably good at finding near-optimal routes without resorting to complex calculations; we use heuristics and we “satisfice” for a good-enough route. But it turns out that, when our route planning is sub-optimal, it’s sub-optimal in predictable ways.

    One such puzzling way we consistently differ from the optimal route is our tendency to pick asymmetrical routes; we walk a different route on our way to a destination than the one we walk coming back. This reveals a heuristic that we use, which the researchers called the “initial straightest segment” heuristic: we’ll set out on our journey by heading in a direction that’s as close to the direction of our ultimate destination as possible, even if the shortest route actually means taking a slightly different direction first. On the way back, we do the same thing – which often means picking a slightly different route.

    A really neat example of using mobile data to discover fundamental aspects of human behaviour (and in a non-creepy way!)

    Christian Bongiorno, Yulun Zhou, et. al. “Vector-based pedestrian navigation in cities”. Nature Computational Science 1(678–685), October 2021 #

  • Vox writes about the spate of fictional characters on TikTok:

    “In June, the UK tabloid the Mirror published a story about a TikTok video that discussed “the four biggest dating app red flags,” according to a creator named @sydneyplus, who said she worked at a dating site. Said red flags include standing in front of a fancy car (likely not their own), describing oneself as an “entrepreneur,” or being weirdly obsessed with their mom. The article is a typical hastily written web post capitalizing on trending content in order to drive pageviews, and was later picked up by the New York Post. The only problem was that @sydneyplus doesn’t work at a dating site, because @sydneyplus doesn’t really exist.”

    Ryan Broderick covered this this week, taking the time to fall down the rabbit hole of fake-influencer videos:

    “I hadn’t had the time to really sit down and go through these accounts until recently and I really can’t overstate how surreal the whole thing is. The Sydney character just completed a storyline on her account and to see it progress over dozens of short videos is really mind-bending.

    “On her page, Sydney identifies herself as a dating app employee, which, I mean, ethically is, at the very least, weird. In August, Sydney told her followers that she got a ‘report of an account that was unusually active.’ She then discovered the account belongs to her sister’s fiancé. And then, across 37 TikTok videos posted across a month and a half, Sydney chronicled how she tried to tell her sister about the cheating before the couple gets married. It’s totally weird and, once again, none of this is real.”

    Broderick wonders if it’s not part of a long-term shift, a blurring of lines between entertainment and social media:

    “There was this assumption many years ago that YouTubers would eventually graduate to traditional entertainment. There was a brief moment where internet celebrities were given chances to host TV shows or star in movies. But it really hasn’t ever stuck. Even the current wave of TikTok emo is beginning to feel more and more like a flash in the pan. But what if we got it wrong all along? What if, instead of influencers becoming movie stars, scripted entertainment was supposed to morph into formats that fit parasocial online relationships?”

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  • Oliver Wainwright sums up the cycles of pessimism that we’ve had when it comes to tall office buildings, ending on a bullish note:

    “But a chorus of urban theorists argue that it will ultimately be impossible for the human species to resist the lure of density. In their new book, Survival of the City, Harvard economics professors Ed Glaeser and David Cutler write that ‘the ability of cities to enable the joys of human interactions and shared experiences may be their greatest protection against urban exodus’.”

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  • A wonderful deep dive by Alex Komoroske into the scaling issues that even the best organisations face as they grow. He looks at organisations as complex systems, filled with autonomous individuals whose individual actions can combine in unexpected ways – even when they’re trying their best.

    He makes a surprising comparison: lots of organisations are like slime moulds. But that’s no bad thing!

    “Slime moulds have many challenges, but they also have some amazing abilities. Instead of trying to fight it, maybe lean into what they’re good at? Slime moulds are extremely resilient. They can handle complex and changing conditions well. Creative solutions pop up organically. They can create more value than the sum of their parts.”

    His final note sums up the wisdom of his approach:

    “Focus less on being a builder, frustrated that your building materials refuse to behave. Instead, think of yourself more as a gardener.”

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  • An interesting history of the American tradition of “mischief night”:

    “Mischief Night, in my Pennsylvania suburb and in the New Jersey towns of several people I spoke to, involved mild pranks committed on October 30. The perpetrators – typically those who had just aged out of trick-or-treating, so early teenagers – would throw rolls of toilet paper over houses and trees, maybe ring a neighbour’s doorbell and sprint away before the door was opened, maybe throw some eggs at a window.”

    Interestingly, the tradition is highly localised to Pennsylvania and part of New Jersey, but it started as a May Day tradition in Northern England, before mutating over time and distance to become the night-before-Halloween tradition it is now:

    “Mischief Night, or neet, appears to have been most popular in Northern England, particularly in the counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. According to Allen, though, it was not originally associated with Halloween, but rather with May Day, a very old festival signalling the beginning of summer. There is already, by the early 1800s, some public panic about the rebellious nature of Mischief Night, which seems to have been (or seen as, by adults) a time for both vandalism and sexual encounters.”

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  • It’s not just about the office

    As well as home and the office, the world is full of “third spaces” where we build connections with others. If we had more of them, what would that mean for offices – and for work more generally? As we navigate the gradual and halting re-emergence from the pandemic and the new world of work, might we be mistaken in thinking just about home and the office?

  • Historically, veterinary clinics were local affairs, owned by their partner vets and part of the fabric of the community. Then private equity came along:

    “The company has been on a debt-fuelled expansion in recent years. Since EQT bought IVC in 2016 and merged it with Swedish group Evidensia in 2017, it has been on a clinic-buying spree, snapping up independent practices and small chains and rolling them into what is now Europe’s largest vetcare provider with 1,500 sites.

    “‘It’s a giant acquisition machine,’ says a former employee. ‘IVC was just minting millionaires across the UK.’ A vet who sold his practice to the group says he ‘almost fell off his chair’ on hearing how much it was offering. The vet, who requested anonymity, says IVC mistook his shock for hesitation – and increased its offer.”

    Predictably, prices have increased, staff churn is higher, and the network of vets’ practices is now a teetering Jenga-tower of debt:

    “In the process, the companies typically amass large debts. IVC’s junk-rated net debts and leases total £2bn, or 6.2 times the £322m it earned before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation in the year to March, according to figures that the company shared with lenders.

    “The rating agency Fitch has categorised IVC’s debts as ‘highly speculative’, meaning that while the company can currently repay them, there is a ‘material’ risk of future default and its ability to repay is ‘vulnerable to deterioration in the business and economic environment’.”

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