Roblog

Roblog is… navigating uncertainty

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

  • Before this excellent profile by Vittles’ Jonathan Nunn, I had no idea that the same person founded Neal’s Yard Remedies, Neal’s Yard Dairy, and Monmouth Coffee – the first being enormously commercially successful and the latter two having utterly transformed British food culture. His impact is inarguable, but his curiosity as a character is fascinating too:

    “Even now, it’s hard to pin down exactly who Saunders was, not least because he was so many things at once: a hippy, a capitalist, a pioneer, a property developer, a drugs advocate, a social inventor, a greengrocer, a visionary. Yet a consistent philosophy guided everything he did: he believed, above all, that information should be wrested from gatekeepers and made free for people to use. ‘He didn’t just make information available, but made you feel like anyone has the capacity to go and do it,’ [Neal’s Yard Dairy co-founder Randolph] Hodgson recalls. ‘He lit a fire inside people.’”

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  • Vice, the irreverent and offbeat magazine and publishing empire, announced last week that it was shutting down. Harry Cheadle, who wrote for Vice for years, gets to the heart of where they went wrong:

    “Vice’s founders, [Cory Doctorow] wrote, ‘built a massive, highly lucrative media empire on [young people’s] free labor. … Whatever problems Vice had, they weren’t problems with Vice’s workers—it was a problem with Vice’s bosses.’

    “Doctorow meant to be scathing, but if anything he was too generous. Vice was only ‘highly lucrative’ in the sense that it had a lot of money sloshing around. It had a big fancy Brooklyn headquarters, a dozen or more international offices, and hundreds of people on the payroll, some of whom would fly around the world to report from conflict zones. As it grew, it founded a record label and an ad agency, acquired smaller media companies like Refinery29 and i-D, and had TV shows on MTV and HBO before getting its own cable channel. The company even bought a bar and started brewing its own beer, called Old Blue Last, which tasted like the tail end of a long night out. During one holiday party, co-founder Shane Smith handed out envelopes to employees containing $1,500 in cash.”

    “In ditching its original identity,” Cheadle writes, “Vice gained respectability but couldn’t make respectability work for it.” That’s about the shape of it. The path from counterculture to mainstream culture is well-trodden, but most often ends up in a messy compromise that pleases no-one. #

  • Taking stock of AI progress

    We’ve lived with generative AI for a couple of years now. Has it fulfilled its promise or fallen short of our hopes?
  • Andrew Curry takes apart The Browser’s lightly fictionalised version of the annual World Economic Forum shindig at Davos. “The descriptions of how Davos works seem to have been written by someone who knows more about it than is completely good for them.”

    “The Circle was a handsomely-upholstered comfort zone for people who had already changed the world, not necessarily for the better, and now wanted to cover their tracks. The Doc’s special genius, and the gift which he looked for in his staff, was to create an atmosphere of free-thinking debate while ensuring that everybody understood the limits of that debate and that no White Badge member was ever publicly embarrassed or deeply offended.”

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  • In 1970 the staff at Irish high-street banks went on strike for six months. Ordinary punters found themselves unable to cash cheques or withdraw money, living as they did in those pre-ATM days where all transactions had to be performed in person.

    So local pubs and shops stepped up to fill the need:

    “Pub-goers would bring their salary payments into the pub and convert them into cash from the register, often hanging out for a few pints afterward. While nobody knew exactly when the strike was going to end, pub owners were generally optimistic and willing to trust that their regulars’ checks would be honored post-strike.”

    The actions by pubs kept the economy afloat and saved countless local businesses. It was possible for them to play this role because they had many of the same qualities that a small-town bank would have, namely knowledge of their customers’ creditworthiness and strong social connections to enforce obligations:

    “At this point, pubs were arbiters of actual loans. Pub owners also often had a reasonable idea of their patrons’ level of income, net worth, and reliability in paying bar tabs, putting them in what could be seen as an even better position than a bank lender to evaluate the overall risk profile of a borrower.”

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  • All I want for Christmas are some strategy credits

    Businesses sometimes claim credit for doing the right thing. Before applauding them, you have to figure out whether the right thing was also the easy thing.
  • I’ve been keeping weeknotes since starting my consultancy, Orso. This week is week 21, featuring beans, generic agency propositions, healthy sweets and free cash flow. #

  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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. #

  • Beware of geeks’ daring grifts

    Sam Bankman-Fried’s trial continues this week, and Michael Lewis’s “Going Infinite” rockets up the bestseller lists. What can it teach us about the corruption of good intentions and the limits of a statistical worldview?
  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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  • A beautiful collection of data visualisations, with descriptions, strengths and weaknesses, and a taxonomy that allows you to explore other visualisations that do a similar job. #

  • Selling peaches in a market for lemons

    Lots of professional service industries demonstrate certain lousy qualities in which hucksters prosper and it’s hard to tell who’s good and who’s bad. Why is that, and what can you do about it?
  • Rebooting Roblog

    Some thoughts on who and what this blog is for, and what I’m going to write about in the near future.
  • 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:

    1. “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.

    2. “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.

    3. “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.

    In summary:

    “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.”

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  • 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”. #

  • A fun puzzle from Tim Urban at Wait But Why, the solution to which illustrates how simple solving a problem can be if you just find the right framing. (No spoilers here, obviously.) #

  • 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.”

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  • The usefulness of constraints

    Understanding constraints is essential to making sense of the world, and knowing when to add or remove them is essential to acting within it.
  • 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.”

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  • 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.”

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