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.
New here? You can browse by topic, or these featured articles might be a good place to start:
“On 4 February the German energy giant RWE announced it was suing the government of the Netherlands. The crime? Proposing to phase out coal from the country’s electricity mix. The company, which is Europe’s biggest emitter of carbon, is demanding €1.4bn in ‘compensation’ from the country for loss of potential earnings, because the Dutch government has banned the burning of coal for electricity from 2030.
“RWE is suing under the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), a little-known international agreement signed without much public debate in 1994. The treaty binds more than 50 countries, and allows foreign investors in the energy sector to sue governments for decisions that might negatively impact their profits – including climate policies. Governments can be forced to pay huge sums in compensation if they lose an ECT case.”
The Library of Congress holds literally millions of items, many of which have been digitised. But how to approach such a huge collection? LOC Serendipity is one amazing answer: surface content at random, and allow people to follow whatever rabbit holes they find interesting.
Even just the randomly selected titles are great, like some sort of Oblique Strategies prompt:
Miscellaneous studies in prose
Politics and pen pictures at home and abroad
Virginia in the making of Illinois
Interest tables used by the Mutual life insurance company of New York for the calculation of interest and prices of stocks and bonds for investment
La dame aux perles
Elements of logick
Elisa von der Recke
The present world situation
Military character, habit, deportment, courtesy and discipline
Memorial of Mrs. Agnes Renton
Ballot box and battle field
I’m particularly fond of the “Infinite 78RPM Records” section, which throws up a never-ending stream of old, public-domain records – mostly ’20s and ’30s jazz but also some scratchy gospel, bluegrass, and folk and ancient stand-up comedy. #
We’re not at the stage where artificial intelligence can come up with and implement novel, interesting ideas independently. The first computer-generated novel or screenplay that humans actually want to read or watch is still some time away. But what seems to be around the corner is equally interesting: AI-augmented creativity.
The transcription of a talk by Maciej Cegłowski that I’ve dug out and re-read over and over again since he gave it in 2016. He addresses the question of whether an artificial intelligence will be developed that far surpasses our own intelligence and, if it will, whether that will mean the destruction of humanity. It’s a question that has absorbed and terrified some notable names in the world of technology:
“The computer that takes over the world is a staple scifi trope. But enough people take this scenario seriously that we have to take them seriously. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and a whole raft of Silicon Valley investors and billionaires find this argument persuasive.”
Cegłowski then proceeds to set fire to the arguments in favour of superintelligence in a straightforward and provocative way. (I particularly like “the argument from Slavic pessimism”.) #
Why are charlatans listened to, even when they obviously don’t know what they’re talking about? How do bogus ideas spread? Chris Dillow looks at some recent psychological studies and draws a damning conclusion:
“One implication of all this is that a public service broadcaster as the BBC purports to be cannot be impartial. If you offer people two sides of a story or two talking heads, many will choose the charlatan or false story over the true one. And we’ll get increased polarization – which might make for good TV but not necessarily for good politics or a good society.
“But I think the implication is more devastating. All this undermines the conventional liberal faith in the marketplace of ideas. John Stuart Mill thought that ‘wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument.’ Experiments, however, confirm our real world experience that in fact the opposite can happen. And this isn’t simply because of our biased and dysfunctional media.”
In a story that seems designed to make my eyes twitch, Del Monte have developed a genetically engineered pink pineapple with the intention of creating a buzz on Instagram:
“But what exactly was it about an Instagram-oriented novelty fruit that had spelled ‘jackpot’ to Del Monte? Even at $49 a pop, won’t it take decades for the company to recoup years of rigorous R&D? How many people are actually in the market for a fruit that costs more than a Spirit Airlines plane ticket? And what could the customer lifetime value possibly be, given how unlikely it seems that anyone would make a regular habit of ordering pineapples online?
“The answer lies, as it so often does, in the marketing. The Pinkglow™ is not a fungible fruit. It is not even entirely a food. Instead, it is a luxury experience akin to splurging on a destination Airbnb.”
Being an individual concerned with climate change can be pretty demoralising. Is there anything we can do as individuals, or will the answer come from a small number of bureaucratic heroes in the government, universities, and R&D departments?
Evocative advice on how to combat writer’s block:
“BUT: sometimes you do everything right and you still have writer’s block. In my opinion, there’s no reason to force it at this point. Writing comes from the deep and complex things happening within your mind. It is an expression of Creativity.
“It helps to think of Creativity as a force, a capitalized word.”
The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, who died in January, is the subject of a fantastic retrospective in Edge that features many of the things she wrote and contributed to the publication over the years.
If you read only one thing, make it “How to be a Systems Thinker”, from 2018. It’s a goldmine of thoughtful advice about thinking, from the interconnectedness of complex systems:
“We were doing all sorts of things to the planet we live on without recognizing what the side effects would be and the interactions… Once you begin to understand the nature of side effects, you ask a different set of questions before you make decisions and projections and analyze what’s going to happen.
“We have taller smoke stacks on factories now, trying to prevent smog and acid rain. What we’re getting is that the fumes are traveling further, higher up, and still coming down in the form of acid rain. Let’s look at that. Someone has tried to solve a problem, which they did – they reduced smog. But we still put smoke up the chimney and think it disappears. It isn’t gone. It’s gone somewhere. We need to look at the entire system. What happens to the smoke? What happens to the wash-off of fertilizer into brooks and streams? In that sense, we’re using the technology to correct a problem without understanding the epistemology of the problem. The problem is connected to a larger system, and it’s not solved by the quick fix.”
…to the importance of narrative and metaphor in our thinking:
“It turns out that the Greek religious system is a way of translating what you know about your sisters, and your cousins, and your aunts into knowledge about what’s happening to the weather, the climate, the crops, and international relations, all sorts of things. A metaphor is always a framework for thinking, using knowledge of this to think about that. Religion is an adaptive tool, among other things. It is a form of analogic thinking.”
…and so much more besides.
She wraps it up with an exhortation not to neglect bigger-picture thinking:
“The tragedy of the cybernetic revolution, which had two phases, the computer science side and the systems theory side, has been the neglect of the systems theory side of it. We chose marketable gadgets in preference to a deeper understanding of the world we live in.”
Gasper Nali is a Malawian musician who plays infectious, danceable music using nothing more than a cow-skin kick-drum, a home-made bass guitar that he plays with a beer bottle, and his voice.
“The instrument he’s playing is called a ‘Babatoni’, it’s a home made bass guitar, about 3 metres long, with one string and a cow skin drum as a resonating box.”
In response to some internet interest in his music back in 2015, Spare Dog Records provided some studio time for him to record a single. He’s since released two albums; the second is raw, unfiltered, and represents him and the Babatoni at their best, I think. #
Ben Thompson’s weekly Stratechery article this week is a doozy: it’s a profile of Jeff Bezos, the soon-to-sort-of-retire CEO of Amazon, and what makes him perhaps the most effective and impactful startup founder in history.
Bezos is one of those interesting characters that’s perhaps simultaneously over- and under-rated. Fawned over by business bros for his (important!) drive and determination, people spend less time focusing on just how visionary he was at several key junctures, and perhaps underestimate the impact of those visions on the global economy. He spotted the unique potential of the internet from a retail perspective, creating a store that could only exist on the internet; he spotted the unique potential of creating computing primitives that could be used internally by Amazon but also be built into the behemoth that is Amazon Web Services; and he spotted the unique potential of becoming a platform rather than merely a retailer. #
iFixit have been nobly banging the drum for repairable electronics for years. That debate has often been framed as one of consumer control and what “ownership” really means when it comes to our devices.
But with their Repair Jobs Revolution, they’ve shifted the focus to the wider societal benefits. Sending electronic waste to landfill doesn’t just waste the components and energy used to create it, and damage the planet; it also takes almost no effort to process and creates no value. Repairing and reusing, on the other hand, creates local jobs that produce genuine value. Good for the planet, good for the local economy. #
Donald T. Campbell, inspired by evolutionary theory, explained the spread of creative ideas in three steps: variation, selection, and retention. What does it look like to build an organisational culture that excels at all three of these phases?
Olof Hoverfält tracked every item of clothing he wore for three years. The data gathering enabled him to make extraordinary insights into the costs – both to his wallet and to the environment – of what he wore. His writeup is both a joyously nerdy statistical deep-dive and a series of genuinely useful insights, and it demonstrates just how carefully we must work to adjust our gut feelings about sustainability closer to reality. #
Tim Hwang argues persuasively that the market for advertising online has eerie similarities with the market for subprime mortgages in 2008 – that it’s a bubble about to burst. But what’s to be done about it? Is this crisis a potential opportunity to recreate the internet’s dominant economic model?
Throughout history, outsiders have solved countless problems, and society has venerated the romantic myth of the heretic, seeing what others can’t or won’t and suffering the consequences of their discoveries. But is there a systemic advantage in being an outsider? Can they see what others don’t? Or are those with inside knowledge more likely to succeed?
Andrew Oved of Reformation points out a classic mistake made by venture capitalists: they think that it’s possible to buy their way to a popular brand that’s part of popular culture. In reality, you have to put in the hard yards:
“When I think about the greatest consumer brands today, here are some of the names that come to mind: Nike, Supreme, Patagonia, Louis Vuitton, Lululemon, Chanel, Revlon. None of these brands raised venture capital. You might say ‘the world is different now’, but I think that’s only partially true. Lululemon was started in 1998, right at the peak of the dot com bubble, the same year that Pets.com launched and WebVan raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital…
“…deliberately taking a slower approach to brand-building is a prerequisite (though not guarantee) for building a long-lasting consumer product brand. Stated differently: Blitzscaling is not a viable option for iconic brand-building: brand is earned, not bought.”
Affinity and loyalty don’t come from bombarding consumers with ads; they come from growing a role in their life, from earning hard-won recommendations among friends, from carving out a sustainable place in the wider culture. Easy come, easy go. #
Ben Coates explains the baffling inadequacy of the Netherlands’ response to the coronavirus and in particular the rollout of vaccines – baffling considering the Dutch reputation for efficient bureaucracy, a tip-top healthcare system, and the smooth running of complex infrastructural projects.
One part that struck me was Coates’s identifying of a cultural factor behind this seeming ineptitude:
“The beloved Dutch trait of ‘nuchterheid’ (sobriety, or a refusal to panic) looks increasingly like a fatal condition.”
I’ve thought the same about the UK, with our “stiff upper lip”, our “blitz spirit”, and our “keep calm and carry on”. All our cultural tropes around triumphing over adversity venerate the idea of refusing to be affected, refusing to panic, and steadfastly continuing much as before. That’s exactly what we don’t want to do when faced with coronavirus, and yet it’s what we’ve spent the last year doing. Reassuring, in a depressing way, that the Dutch seem to be no different. #
David Byrne, of Talking Heads fame, founded an editorial project aimed at countering the prevailing negativity of the news media, accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative, as the song goes. It’s called Reasons to be Cheerful.
Their round-up of 2020, a year universally regarded as an irredeemable dumpster-fire, is well worth reading:
“You could be forgiven for thinking that 2020 was little more than a slow-motion train wreck broken up into 365 individual units. But if you’re a regular RTBC reader, you know that’s not true. Yes, it was a most difficult year. But it was also a year of problems solved, hopes sustained and seemingly insurmountable challenges met.”
A sobering look at the seeming paradox that, while untold economic ruin has been unleashed on the world, to say nothing of the human misery, the US stock market has done nothing but climb. In answering that question, Neil Irwin and Weiyi Cai discover who the pandemic’s economic winners and losers have been, and why those who’ve lost out have seen their losses masked by gains elsewhere. #
A fantastic, hilarious, film-noir-ish look at the great bucatini shortage of 2020 by Rachel Handler. Every line is quotable, but you can come for the sensual pasta:
“Of course! It’s me! I have bought them all! Bucatini is the most sensual of the pastas!”
…and stay for the conspiracy that goes right to the top:
“As I waited impatiently for the FDA’s FOIA reply, I got another call from Carl from the NPA, who blew my mind with a tale that sounded so Coen brothers–y I could not believe it. The reason behind De Cecco’s fall from FDA grace, he said, could potentially be traced all the way back to the early 1900s and the beginning of what was once called the ‘National Association of Macaroni and Noodle Manufacturers of America.’”
Sweden pursued an idiosyncratic approach to the coronavirus pandemic: effectively leaving people to make their own choices rather than imposing rules and guidelines, and aiming for herd immunity. They persevered with that approach even when it became clear that it wasn’t working, and as the death count mounted. Why was that?
John Gustavsson argues persuasively – and damningly – that it’s because of a peculiarly Swedish brand of exceptionalism:
“Whereas American exceptionalism is about America’s unique place in the world, Swedish exceptionalism is about being immune to any disasters that may happen in the rest of the world.
“To understand this idea, you need to understand our history: We survived two world wars unscathed, two wars in which all of our neighbors were partially or completely occupied. While every generation of Americans has suffered at least one major war, Sweden has not fought a war since 1814. The last time Sweden engaged in armed conflict, James Madison was president of the United States.”
It’s hard to escape something so deep-rooted, and so Sweden looks poised to continue its disastrous approach – and to do so with the enthusiastic approval of the Swedish people. #
A lovely metaphor for a common problem:
“A few years ago, I heard Rob Walling explain the difference between an aspirin business and a vitamin business: in an aspirin business, you don’t try to convince customers that they need your product. Instead your customers have a problem – a “headache” – and they know it. They go looking for a solution – your “aspirin” – to make their problem go away (or at least make it better).
“On the other hand, if you have a vitamin business, you constantly have to convince your customers they need what you’re selling. Vitamins supplement our diet and supposedly make our lives better in some way – they promise to make us healthier, more vibrant, etc. In a vitamin business, your customers can survive without your product, so your job is to show them how much better their lives will be with it.”
It’s so easy to kid yourself that your vitamin business is an aspirin one – and to falter as a result. #
The world’s attention tends to be drawn to shiny startups that scale quickly. But there’s something vital to be learned from those businesses that choose to focus on longevity instead – especially from the point of view of ecological sustainability.
There’s something strange about Japanese business culture: the country is home to some forty per cent of all the world’s centenarian businesses, and has several that are over a thousand years old. (Perhaps the oldest, Kongō Gumi, went into liquidation in 2006 after over 1,400 years; at the helm was the 50th generation of the founding family.)
This New York Times article looks at long-lived Japanese businesses, particularly focusing on a charming mochi seller, and examines what makes them so extraordinarily resilient.
“If you look at the economics textbooks, enterprises are supposed to be maximizing profits, scaling up their size, market share and growth rate. But these companies’ operating principles are completely different,” said Kenji Matsuoka, a professor emeritus of business at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.
“Their No. 1 priority is carrying on,” he added. “Each generation is like a runner in a relay race. What’s important is passing the baton.”