Roblog

Roblog: unravelling complexity

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.

Recent posts

  • When complexity defuses disruption

    Why do crypto exchanges struggle with basic accounting, or fledgling social networks with content moderation? They’re both examples of what feel like simple, solved problems but are actually devilishly complex – and that complexity is often the incumbents’ best defence.
  • Another bit of self-promotion, if you’ll indulge me. As part of the general mood that’s in the air at the moment, focused on moving away from the internet’s various large walled gardens, I’ve decided that having my photos exist only on Instagram isn’t really much fun. And so I’ve started a little photo blog, focused on my home city of London.

    I’m going to use to it for photo essays about the city, its people, and how it changes over time. There are a few up there already, on London in Lockdown, the Queen’s funeral, the recent Iranian protests, and the final years of Smithfield Market. #

  • I stumble across a lot of interesting oddness on the internet and in books, most of which will never make it into blog posts here on Roblog. So I’ve decided to set up a mini, daily, “Today I Learned”-style blog that captures it. It’s called Tiller.

    Posts will be daily (well, almost), short, and hopefully interesting. So far I’ve got some things about stunts with crocodiles, shockingly filthy blues songs, and trade union blacklisting in the construction industry, so they’ll also be pretty eclectic. #

  • A short (8-minute) documentary about the last trams in India: those of the 149-year-old Kolkota tram system. It’s on its last legs, down to 12–15 trams from its height of 300, and there are suggestions that the government of West Bengal will shut the service down.

    Activists are fighting to save it, both as a symbol of Kolkata’s history and heritage and as a cheap, environmentally friendly and low-congestion method of transport in what is an increasingly crowded and polluted city. #

  • Dan Hancox expertly captures the vibe of Facebook’s boomer nostalgia groups, that yearn for a vague and unspecified time period when men were men, health and safety legislation didn’t exist, and you had to ask your parents for permission to leave the table after your tea. On the face of it, they’re quaint and a little absurd, but they reveal quite a lot of what’s rotten in the English collective psyche:

    “When we talk about the past, we always reveal something about the present. It is hard to imagine a more intriguing or overlooked body of evidence for assessing recent British social history than these Facebook groups: they have given us something like a more chaotic, 21st-century version of Mass Observation. They may not be ‘representative’ in any quantifiable way, but the sample size is vast, and these memes are a canvas for a whole range of contemporary insecurities and collective memories. History is written by the winners, but anyone can share a post on Facebook.”

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  • Architectural Review has a great piece on Peter Barber, the revolutionary architect who has designed and built some of the most forward-thinking social housing in the UK.

    Barber himself is a product of an era in which social housing was prioritised and popular:

    “Barber was a student in 1979, the year when the proportion of the British population living in council housing peaked at 42 per cent (today the figure is approximately 8 per cent). Britain’s first few council houses were built in the 1860s… but it was only in the aftermath of two world wars that central government ramped up funding – first in 1919 and then again in 1945 – for council-house building to gain real momentum. Completions peaked with around 150,000 homes built each year.”

    His work is a direct challenge both to the Thatcherite view that social housing is inevitably unpleasant, shameful, and unliveable, and the modernist view that social housing should be built on a towering scale.

    I particularly like the bright-white, Mediterranean-inspired Donnybrook Quarter in Bow…

    Donnybrook Quarter, Bow, London E3

    …and the stately brick car-lessness of this development on the Becontree Estate in Dagenham, which cleverly built on a cut-through between two roads while maintaining the pedestrian access:

    Burbridge Close, Ilchester Road, Dagenham

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  • Palmer Luckey, inventor of the Oculus Rift VR headset, has designed a headset that will kill its wearer if their character in the video game they’re playing dies:

    ”When an appropriate game-over screen is displayed, the charges fire, instantly destroying the brain of the user…

    “At this point, it is just a piece of office art, a thought-provoking reminder of unexplored avenues in game design. It is also, as far as I know, the first non-fiction example of a VR device that can actually kill the user. It won’t be the last.”

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  • Cultural complexity

    There are two different views of how company culture forms: one top-down, and the other bottom-up. But are they as contradictory as they seem? And how do you change a culture once it exists?
  • Some beautiful explanations, visualisations and animations that form a beginners’ guide to complexity science. So much of what I talk about on this blog touches on these concepts. #

  • I love Helen Rosner, the New Yorker’s food writer, and this interview is great.

    On the challenges that come with developing taste:

    “I think of that as the cliff of connoisseurship. When you start paying attention to something, the margins become much, much, much smaller – you know, the more knowledge and expertise you have, the more experience you have. And these tiny margins start mattering more and more and more and more and more until you’re effectively communicating in a language that is unintelligible to anybody who is outside of your micro subreddit, or whatever it might be.

    “And you know, it’s nice to be obsessed. It’s nice to find joy in knowledge and mastery and expertise.”

    On the idea of “elevating” (typically non-European) cuisines (typically by making them more closely resemble European foods):

    “Even if we accept ‘elevation’ as a term, and even if we sort of engage with the idea on its own, in its own context, I think that elevating is not the same as fixing. I think one way of thinking about elevating is saying, ‘Here’s something that you have perhaps failed to appreciate because of its context.’

    “And so, when somebody is doing that with food… I think that that can be quite powerful. We can debate the merits of whether culinary diplomacy is successful… but it might be a way of reaching the culture, the moneyed people and saying, ‘Hey, pay attention to this thing that you’ve previously dismissed as food that does not rise to your level, and recognize that not only are you worthy of it, but perhaps we’re not even worthy of it, it is greater than you had previously imagined.’”

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  • A charming behind-the-scenes look at Saturday Night Live’s team of cue-card writers. Their process is lo-fi, but it works better than technology: it’s more reliable, and it’s easier to fit to the beats and the physical needs of the sketches. (It’s hard to imagine wheeling a teleprompter around some of the tightly blocked, single-shot sketches that feature in the video.) #

  • Measurement and mismanagement

    People at the top of organisations often feel out of control. But in their attempts to impose measurements and targets, they only gain the illusion of control – and put their organisations at risk in the process.
  • Wesley Morris celebrates a type of art that America used to specialise in, but has stopped making: trash.

    “I was 11 when Nuts came out, and it helped lead me into a committed relationship with a certain category of movie. The people in them seemed loonier, lustier, louder than we’re supposed to be. Their eyes were wild; their makeup ran. They had hair we were meant to know was a wig, because it was impossible hair. The paint chips for these movies might read: ‘wanton,’ ‘lust,’ ‘paramedic,’ ‘weak bladder,’ ‘mattress,’ ‘steamy,’ ‘do not cross,’ ‘pilot light,’ ‘them drawls,’ ‘brazen,’ ‘lit cig,’ ‘urinal cake,’ ‘Crisco,’ ‘bust.’ In being honest about this volatile, unkempt, uncouth, indecorous, obnoxious, senseless, malicious, unhinged and therefore utterly uninhibited side of ourselves, a certain kind of movie can make an X-ray of what else it is besides a story about some characters. It can identify the mess.”

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  • Geoff Dyer, writing in Aperture, summarises the iconoclasm and revolution of photography in the 1970, an era I’ve always found fascinating.

    “Photographers were busy taking photographs, making work, but interesting photographs are always being taken, great work is always being made, whatever the decade. In the ’70s, though, photography was being examined and defined in a way that harked back to Alfred Stieglitz’s pioneering inquiries into… ‘idea photography’.”

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  • Beautiful paper-cut artworks by artists Julia Ibbini and Stéphane Noyer that recall the geometry of Islamic art and architecture and are made possible by computer-controlled laser cutters:

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  • John Lanchester at his best, comparing the current government to live-action role-players:

    “Until Liz Truss, no one had ever thought to try Larping as a system of government. But it turns out that we in the UK are living inside a full-scale Thatcher Larp, whether we voted for it or not. (For the avoidance of doubt: we didn’t. Check the 2019 Conservative manifesto for proof.) This unhappy discovery was something the country, and the financial markets, learned from Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini-budget’ on 23 September, the latest catastrophic f***-up inflicted on the UK by an over-confident Etonian.”

    This, Lanchester argues, is why the markets had such a catastrophic response to the mini-budget – because it made it unavoidably, unignorably clear that the government was fundamentally unserious:

    “The uncosted new policy became, to markets, a signal that the new government is not serious and doesn’t know what it’s doing. Truss can wear as many pussy-bow blouses and sit on as many tanks as she wants, but while her policies continue to be uncosted, it’s Larp Thatcher, not the real thing. Markets don’t want a G7 economy to be led by people playing ‘let’s pretend’.”

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  • Commodity AI

    With the release of Stable Diffusion and Midjourney this year, AI feels on the cusp of real capability. But who will wield that capability? Will it be controlled by a small cabal of companies with deep pockets and oceans of data? Or will it be something more accessible?
  • There’s a particular phenomenon on Twitter: the “buckle up” thread, in which someone grossly simplifies a historical issue in strident terms. Rosa Lyster suggests these threads are typically:

    “bewilderingly irate, laden with a combination of baroque linguistic flourishes and performatively subversive swearing, assumption of complete ignorance on the part of the audience, fondness for the word “gaslighting,” a powerful youth pastor-like eagerness to “meet people where they are,” high likelihood that it will be retweeted by people who refer to themselves as “Scolds” in their twitter bios, strong urge to lay the blame for the ills of the 21st century firmly at the foot of a basically random actor or event, total erasure of most things that have ever happened.”

    The main problem, Lyster argues, is that these threads are strangely popular:

    “The thing about Buckle Up Twitter, hard as this may be for right-thinking people like me to accept, is that a lot of other people LOVE IT. They absolutely love to be told that they are morons and that all of this is actually Beau Brummell’s doing.”

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  • A characteristically thoughtful post from Tom Critchlow on the phenomenon of the “executive offsite” and the annual planning day, with observations about why they so often fail and suggestions of how they might be made to work more effectively. #

  • A compelling website that captures the unbridled joy that the UK’s shadowy right-wing think tanks expressed at Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng’s “mini budget” a few weeks ago, before the subsequent crash. #

  • The complexity of Kwasi Kwarteng

    Kwasi Kwarteng has had a rough week. But his shortsighted tax cuts, and the response to them, can teach us a lot about what not to do when trying to change complex systems.
  • Sacha Judd on the “hate engine” that powers so much online fandom, which cropped up most recently with the drama surrounding the film Don’t Worry Darling:

    “In watching all of this unfold, all I could think was that we are overdue a reckoning with the way the online environment is allowing misinformation, conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods to be increasingly weaponized against women in cinema. And the Hollywood engine is beyond overdue in getting to grips with fandoms and the power they wield, even after over a decade of toxic hate and harassment being leveled at artists of color, widespread blowback over casting choices, and the inability of studios to protect their stars.”

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  • A fascinating article by investor Tom Morgan about dealing with uncertain times.

    Resisting the urge to provide false certainty (to yourself or to others) is important. Sometimes you’ve got to just sit with your problems and cogitate. But, Tom wonders, does the length of time you spend struggling with a problem match up in some way with the quality and significance of the insight that you generate? #

  • As Hurricane Ian batters the US, this story from 2017 makes for a staggering read. Its author, Michael Grunwald, visits Cape Coral, Florida – at that point the country’s fastest-growing city, despite it being little more than a swamp and sitting just a few feet above sea level.

    Predictably, the city has its origins in what was basically a real estate scam:

    “Gulf American unloaded tens of thousands of low-lying Cape Coral lots on dreamseekers all over the world before the authorities cracked down on its frauds and deceptions. It passed off inaccessible mush as prime real estate, sold the same swampy lots to multiple buyers, and used listening devices to spy on its customers. Its hucksters spun a soggy floodplain between the Caloosahatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico as America’s middle-class boomtown of the future, and suckers bought it.”

    But, bizarrely, it somehow worked, with disastrous long-term consequences:

    “The thing is, the hucksters were right, and so were the suckers. Cape Coral is now the largest city in America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area. Its population has soared from fewer than 200 when the Rasos arrived to 180,000 today. Its low-lying swamps have been drained, thanks to an astonishing 400 miles of canals – the most of any city on earth – that serve not only as the city’s stormwater management system but also its defining real estate amenity. Those ditches were an ecological disaster, ravaging wetlands, estuaries and aquifers. Cape Coral was a planning disaster, too, designed without water or sewer pipes, shops or offices, or almost anything but pre-platted residential lots. But people flocked here anyway. The title of a memoir by a Gulf American secretary captured the essence of Cape Coral: Lies That Came True.”

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  • The irrational institution

    If you were founding a society in 2022, it seems pretty likely that you wouldn’t decide to make a single family its perpetual hereditary rulers-for-life. You wouldn’t design an elaborate system of pomp and pageantry with which to support this family, and you wouldn’t advance religious arguments that claimed they’d been chosen by god for the purpose. Monarchy is, on the face of it, a system at odds with the principles of the modern world.

  • Another great example of niche businesses made possible by the internet:

    “In the beginning, I figured we would do floppy disks, but never CDs. Eventually, we got into CDs and I said we’d never do DVDs. A couple of years went by and I started duplicating DVDs. Now I’m also duplicating USB drives. You can see from this conversation that I’m not exactly a person with great vision. I just follow what our customers want us to do. When people ask me: ‘Why are you into floppy disks today?’ the answer is: ‘Because I forgot to get out of the business.’ Everybody else in the world looked at the future and came to the conclusion that this was a dying industry. Because I’d already bought all my equipment and inventory, I thought I’d just keep this revenue stream. I stuck with it and didn’t try to expand. Over time, the total number of floppy users has gone down. However, the number of people who provided the product went down even faster. If you look at those two curves, you see that there is a growing market share for the last man standing in the business, and that man is me.”

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