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.
New here? You can browse by topic, or these featured articles might be a good place to start:
When it comes to efficiency, how much is too much?
What makes an organisation succeed can often contain the seeds of its downfall
Why did people keep buying quack medical cures long after the advent of modern medicine, even though they never worked?
How do you build a culture that emphasises solving problems rather than adhering to processes?
Why a strong culture can mean a lack of arguments – and why that’s far from ideal
In organisations, reality is not always what it seems. Why is it that often things look rosy right up until they fall apart?
Toby Shorin with a superb long essay, the product of six years’ work, that’s both an eerily accurate summary of the last decade of culture and a vision of the future that it’s hard not to be depressed by.
Shorin characterises the 2010s as the era of “lifestyle”:
“The 2010s is what I want to call the era of Lifestyle. You know what it felt like, because you lived through it. And I did too. Since 2014 I have lived in New York, inside the machine where Lifestyle is made. Spending my waking moments moving through these branded experiences, I felt they they pointed to something I could say but not name.”
Now coming to an end, what replaces it? Shorin argues that brands will begin to manufacture and shape culture far more directly, rather than merely reflecting it:
“The Lifestyle era was not about creating culture; it was about attaching brands onto existing cultural contexts. It was not about shaping people; it was about sorting consumer demographics into niche categories. The new order we are entering into reverses this. For some organizations, culture has become the product itself, and products have become secondary, auxiliary, to the production of culture.”
The South African journalist R. W. Johnson, who The Economist memorably described as “a romantic contrarian liberal”, is no monarchist. Reviewing Tom Nairn’s The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy for the LRB in 1988, he skewered a particular kind of fatuousness exhibited by those who meet royalty:
“Similarly, Nairn catches Kinnock at the Andy-Fergie wedding delightedly telling the media about how Fergie had smiled and ‘that smile was worth all the rest of it!’ Or Ken Livingstone, after a brief handshake with the Queen: ‘I have always thought that the Queen is a very nice person indeed. Today confirmed that view.’ As Nairn points out, our Ken ‘had no basis whatever for this observation in the normal sense of the words’. We see this phenomenon all the time, even from the leaders of the Left. People are so overcome with pleasure at meeting a royal personage that they seek to rationalise this ecstasy by investing the said royal with impressive human qualities, often appearing to claim knowledge of the royal which they cannot possibly have. Again, monarchy makes them lie. And hence the phenomenon of the Royal Joke during which people fall about in near-hysteria when Philip or Charles say something like: ‘If it rains today we could all get wet!’ People then queue up to tell the TV camera about ‘the Prince’s wonderful sense of humour’. More lies, always more lies. The cultural compulsion is truly strong.”
If you’ll permit me a little self-promotion, I spent some time recently assembling a glossary of words and phrases that you commonly encounter in the world of consumer packaged goods. It’s called FMCG.FYI, and it will help you tell your awareness from your emboss and your shelf wobblers from your six-sheets. #
Helen Lewis on learning to drive at age 37, and why it’s a singularly challenging – but also rewarding – experience:
“Everyone I knew told me that the rule for driving lessons is that you need one hour for every year of your age. That reflects the slower reaction times and greater nervousness associated with adulthood, as well as the brain’s dwindling plasticity. From birth to age 2, a baby makes 700 neural connections a second. That process slows as the brain matures, and a psychological shift also occurs: We insulate ourselves from our own weaknesses. I was terrible at team sports at school; today, I no longer play team sports. I once knew what a quadratic equation was; these days, I would fire up my phone’s calculator to subtract 37 from 64. The things that I was always good at? Well, that’s different. I’ve honed those skills so well that people will pay me money for them. But a well-worn groove can become a prison. The better you get at something, the greater the rewards – but the less acquainted you become with humiliation or humility. ‘One of the biggest reasons it gets harder to do new things as you get older is that new things are generally undignified at first (indeed, this is an excellent heuristic for discovering them) and the older you get, the more dignified you’re expected to be,’ the tech investor Paul Graham wrote recently.”
A fascinating paper from Stephan Heblich, Stephen J. Redding, and Hans-Joachim Voth that examines the economic effects of slavery on the industrial revolution in Britain.
They discover that areas of Britain with more slavery-derived wealth adopted industrial practices more quickly, mechanised more quickly and had higher per-capita wealth than areas with less slavery wealth. #
A thoughtful and personal essay by Jon Day on the phenomenon of hoarding, something his own father does and that he has a tendency towards himself:
“You could argue that the hoarder’s tragedy is his inability to convince society that the objects he treasures have value. The line between ‘having a lot of stuff’ and ‘being a hoarder’ is porous, dependent to a large extent on social norms… A hoard that has been curated can become a collection; a collection that has been labelled becomes an archive (just as a collector is merely a hoarder who has space for his stuff).”
Day draws an interesting parallel between the messiness of hoarding and the idea of western psychology and psychoanalysis:
“It’s no wonder psychoanalysts have found hoarders so fascinating: making order out of disorder is the hoarder’s problem and the analyst’s process… The psychoanalytic method has a lot in common with the hoarder’s. ‘All psychoanalyses are about mess and meaning, and the links between them,’ Adam Phillips writes in ‘Clutter: A Case History’. ‘If our lives have a tendency to get cluttered, apparently by themselves but usually by ourselves, most accounts of psychoanalysis have an inclination to sort things out.’”
“Joseph Henney’s emotional support animal WallyGator goes with him almost everywhere, from the grocery store to walks in the park. They hug each other and sleep in the same bed. WallyGator is an alligator.
“The two watch television together on the couch, and when Henney takes him to the farmers market, WallyGator gives hugs to shoppers – as long as they are OK with being that close to a 70-pound reptile with a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.”
David Greer explains the importance of plankton, those invisible but essential marine creatures:
“Tiny and virtually invisible as most plankton are, they make up more than 90% of the biomass in the world’s oceans and are collectively the lowest rung on the marine food chain. Everything we eat that comes from the ocean ultimately depends on plankton for its existence. As if that’s not reason enough to pay attention to the future of plankton, it’s worth considering that about half of the oxygen we take in with every breath also owes its existence to plankton.”
Like all other life on earth, plankton are threatened by the effects of climate change – with potentially disastrous consequences. #
Alex de Waal, who’s covered Eritrea for years, profiles its despotic leader Isaias Afewerki:
“No country in the world has a purer autocracy than Eritrea. The state of Eritrea is one man, Isaias Afewerki, who for twenty years was the leader of a formidable insurgent army that won a war of liberation against Ethiopia in 1991, and who has since ruled as president without constraint on his power. Three decades after independence, Eritrea has no constitution, no elections, no legislature, and no published budget. Its judiciary is under the president’s thumb, its press nonexistent. The only institutions that function are the army and security. There is compulsory and indefinite national service. The army generals, presidential advisers, and diplomats have been essentially unchanged for twenty-five years. The country has a population of 3.5 million, and more than half a million have fled as refugees – the highest ratio in the world next to Syria and Ukraine.”
The late eighties in the US was a time of many things, not many of which have aged well. One of them was the sales promotion:
“America was in the grip of a sweepstakes mania. The industry had grown to an estimated value of a billion dollars, and every company, from Toys R Us to Wonder Bread, seemed to be running giveaways and promotions. Even Harvard University’s alumni magazine was offering ten thousand dollars in Sony electronics.”
One company ran countless such promotions. There was just one problem: they were all rigged. Jeff Maysh tells the story, which – like all stories of fraudulent eighties excess – inevitably ends up involving Donald Trump. #
Ash Sarkar on the loathsome Andrew Tate, and his place in the “attention economy”:
“I suspect that the only person more pleased than me about picking up this commission to write about the former kickboxer’s misogyny, the dangers of his online reach, and its impact on impressionable young men is Tate himself. He makes no secret of his thirst for notoriety, nor the seeming pleasure he takes in being a source of distress to others. In the attention economy, there’s not a huge difference between a dedicated critic, or a loyal fan. A follow is a follow, whether it’s motivated by adoration, loathing, or morbid curiosity. A feminist writing for a mainstream publication like GQ about the poisonous influence of Andrew Tate isn’t a challenge to his business model. It’s a sign that it’s succeeding.”
I was previously familiar with Murry Gell-Mann only through Michael Crichton’s Gell-Mann amnesia:
“Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect. I call these the ‘wet streets cause rain’ stories. Paper’s full of them.
“In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”
But this interview, from 2003, reveals a thoughtful, interesting, curious and funny man whose first interest was in languages and who retained a humanity and humour throughout his scientific career:
“I was still discouraged, though, about having to go to MIT, which seemed so grubby compared with the Ivy League. I thought of killing myself (at the age of 18) but soon decided that I could always try MIT and then kill myself later if it was that bad, but that I couldn’t commit suicide and then try MIT afterwards. The two operations, suicide and going to MIT, didn’t commute, as we say in math and physics jargon.”
Mike Rothschild on the ongoing developments within QAnon, the loose movement of conspiracy theorists that emerged during Donald Trump’s initial run for president in 2016.
“In the post-Trump world, the QAnon movement split along two parallel tracks. Sometimes they happened to intersect, but many other times they went their own way…
“One track was a mainstreaming of Q’s core tenets to the point where the basics of QAnon – the drops, the obscure ‘comms’ – were no longer necessary, or even desirable. Q was no longer the cool, secret club that you had speak the jargon to have a chance of getting into. It was just ‘conservatism’ now.
“The other track was much farther on the fringe than even most Trumpists were willing to travel. This was where Michael Protzman and his devoted cultists in Negative48 rode, along with other, even more outwardly racist and ant-Semitic new Q promoters. On this track, Q drops were still gospel and the ‘comms’ still were being decoded for all their secrets. And there were a lot of secrets. Trump and JFK Jr. spoke in number codes with Prince and Elvis, quantum medical beds and NESARA would deliver permanent health and prosperity to all, and Trump was still actually the president of a ‘devolved’ military government. Fewer people were in this part of Q’s big tent, but they got a lot of baffled media attention for their bizarre antics – gematria cultists waiting for JFK and drinking industrial bleach out of a communal bowl to fight COVID will get clicks.”
The US SEC runs a successful whistleblower incentive programme. If you’re aware of someone who’s breaking financial regulations, you can tip off the SEC. If they’re eventually prosecuted and fined, you can earn a share of the fine – anything from 10 to 30 per cent. Several people have earned individual awards of over $100m for their tips.
The result, though, is a fascinating case study in unintended consequences and perverse incentives. Alexander I. Platt at the University of Kansas School of Law discovered that the scheme (along with a similar one run by the CFTC) has effectively been captured by a small pool of professional lawyers. Awards are dominated by whistleblowers who are represented by lawyers, but in particular by lawyers from a small set of firms and by lawyers who used to work at the SEC.
The result is that the capability of sifting through the avalanche of tips that arrive each day at the SEC has accidentally been outsourced to private law firms, who (naturally enough) prioritise their own interests. #
An interesting paper from law professor Michael D. Murray that investigates the question of who owns artworks that are generated by computers and AIs:
“Artists and creatives who mint generative NFTs, collectors and investors who purchase and use them, and art law attorneys all should have a clear understanding of the copyright implications involved with different forms of generative art. This guide seeks to educate each of these audiences and bring clarification to the issues of copyrights in the world of generative art NFTs.”
He concludes that in many cases they are uncopyrightable – including lots that are the basis for lucrative NFT projects. #
A clear and simple article with some clear and simple advice about how to present to senior executives. It starts, though, with an observation that I think is worth its weight in gold:
“Any given executive is almost always uncannily good at one way of consuming information. They feel most comfortable consuming data in that particular way, and the communication systems surrounding them are optimized to communicate with them in that one way. I think of this as preprocessing reality, and preprocessing information the wrong way for a given executive will frequently create miscommunication that neither participant can quite explain.
“For example, some executives have an extraordinary talent for pattern matching. Their first instinct in any presentation is to ask a series of detailed, seemingly random questions until they can pattern match against their previous experience. If you try to give a structured, academic presentation to that executive, they will be bored, and you will waste most of your time presenting information they won’t consume. Other executives will disregard anything you say that you don’t connect to a specific piece of data or dataset. You’ll be presenting with confidence, knowing that your data is in the appendix, and they’ll be increasingly discrediting your proposal as unsupported.”
There are some general guidelines for how to communicate clearly, but nothing will ever beat figuring out who you’re talking to, understanding how they like to consume information, and tailoring what you present as a result. #
I saw this brilliant and inspiring documentary this week: Blind Ambition. It’s directed by Australians Rob Coe and Warwick Ross, who made a 2013 film called Red Obsession about the booming demand for fine wines in China.
This time, they’ve turned their attention to the story of Tongai Joseph Dhafana, Tinashe Nyamudoka, Marlvin Gwese, and Pardon Tagazu. They’re four Zimbabweans who fled the economic meltdown in their home country in the mid-2000s, seeking refuge in neighbouring South Africa. Taking on any kind of work they could, they all ended up in the hospitality industry, where they discovered – completely by chance – an interest in and a talent for wine. They eventually all became sommeliers, getting jobs in top Cape Town restaurants.
By 2017, they’re at the top of their game, and want to enter the wine-tasting olympics: the World Blind Tasting Championships, held each year in Burgundy. And so they start the first-ever Zimbabwean team, a team for a country with no wine-tasting traditions of its own, made up of people who didn’t even encounter wine until well into adulthood. The documentary follows them on their mission to raise enough money to travel to the competition and throughout the competition itself, and it stirring stuff. #
Surreally beautiful double-exposure photographs from the Finnish photographer Christoffer Relander. #
An interesting paper from David Gal and Itamar Simonson that investigates our ability to predict consumer choices in an age of “big data”.
First, preferences are far from static:
“To be sure, in some cases consumers do have strong, precise, stable preferences for particular products or attributes, and they may habitually buy the same options. For instance, some people prefer to buy a 2% organic milk. Likewise, a few consumers may have self-imposed rule as to the highest price they are willing to pay for a water bottle, which prevents them from buying water at airports. When preferences for products or attributes are strong, stable, and precise, consumer choices are relatively easy to predict, such as by simply asking consumers about their preferences.
“However, most of the choices made by consumers that are not habitual or routine are not the result of precise, stable preferences for those products, but are constructed (or discovered) at the time a decision is being made on the basis of interactions among many individual and situational factors.”
After digging into conjoint analysis, recommendation engines, and other predictive tools, Gal and Simonson conclude:
“In contrast, the conclusions from our review reinforce the view that marketing remains as much an art as science, whether or not the analyses produce seemingly precise numbers. Marketers, as much as ever, must rely on their creativity, insight and judgment, as well as trial and error, and often some serendipity, to identify and develop truly new products (and messages) that match dormant (or “inherent”) consumer preferences.”
A thoughtful post about segmentation from Roger Martin. It’s a controversial subject in the marketing world, having been dissed by Byron Sharp and then written off by his adherents.
Martin reminds us that segmentation is something that’s driven by actual consumers’ actual behaviour, not your own analyses:
“That notwithstanding, customers decide what segment they are in, not you. Big box mass merchandisers (other than Costco, actually) took a while to figure that out. They thought their segment was low-to-middle income families willing to drive to a more distant retailer than their local supermarket to buy goods at a lower price. But Mercedes and BMWs kept showing up in their parking lots. They shouldn’t have been there! They weren’t in the segment. That is half right. They are not in yours, but they are in theirs. And you don’t generate revenues: they do!
“Customers decide whether your offering is a sports car, or not; a cool thing to order at a bar, or not; environmentally friendly, or not. While you are segmenting customers, customers are segmenting you. They create categories, put you in one, and consider you accordingly. You may think their segmentation is nuts, but it just doesn’t matter. Again, you don’t generate revenues: they do.”
He also warns against focusing too hard on the bullseye consumer:
“Many unsuccessful entrepreneurs design an offering that is extremely valuable to the perfect customer – typically themselves – but the drop-off is so steep that their idea collapses, not because it didn’t create value, but because the steepness of the drop-off makes it impossible to make the economics work. Successful entrepreneurs design their offering in a way that appeals to a much broader audience.”
Part of the skill of augmented creativity will be writing good prompts for the AI to follow. With that in mind, Guy Parsons of DALL•Ery GALL•Ery showcases some interesting examples, and offers advice about what seems to work and how.
One of the most interesting sections is on the ethical quandaries thrown up by DALL•E’s ability to replicate the styles of individual artists:
“Artists need to make a living. After all, it’s only through the creation of human art to date DALL•E has anything to be trained on! So what becomes of an artist, once civilians like you and I can just conjure up art ‘in the style of [artist]’?
Van Gogh’s ghost can surely cope with such indignities – but living artists might feel differently about having their unique style automagically cloned.”
There are no easy answers, morally or legally. #
A difficult read from criminal barrister Joanna Hardy-Susskind, explaining just how nightmarish conditions at the criminal bar have become (hence the recent strikes):
“The finances have never kept pace with the fight. With what is required of me. With what is required of the mass of legally-aided barristers who ultimately have to rely on successful partners, generous families or sheer luck to get by. But, money aside, it is the conditions that deliver the sucker punch. Without a HR department the job takes and takes. There is no yearly appraisal. No occupational health appointment. No intervention. No one to assess the toll. There is a high price to be paid for seeing photos of corpses, for hearing the stories of abused children and for sitting in a windowless cell looking evil in the eye. There are no limits as to how much or how often you can wreck your well-being, your family life, your boundaries. No limit to how many blows the system will strike to your softness. The holidays you will miss, the occasions you will skip, the people you will let down. The thing about words is that they sometimes fail you. When you emerge from a 70-hour week and notice the look in the eyes of the proud parents who propelled you here – but miss you now.”
Twitter is awash with “traditionalist” art accounts that profess a yearning for simpler times. They mostly feature figurative paintings, architecture from the gothic to the baroque, lots of Greco-Roman sculpture and, of course, lots of white people.
James Greig argues that this isn’t just philistinism; it’s part of a broader sweep of far-right propaganda, rooted in our current politics:
“By comparing modern art with conventional depictions of rural scenes and able-bodied white people, this digital subculture is expressing a specific hierarchy of values. It’s about returning to a lost halcyon age of (implicitly white) western civilisation, which is sometimes Ancient Greece, sometimes the Renaissance, and sometimes Mad Men. It expresses a desire to return to ‘the natural order of things’, which has been degraded by modernity and multiculturalism, and conceptualises beauty as something which is eternal and objective.”