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

  • 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.”


  • The simplicity of subtraction

    When we’re creating things, keeping them simple is a constant battle. That’s because of how humans think – and how we can get fixated on addition rather than subtraction.
  • 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.”


  • Another great usage of GPT-3, like I’ve written about before. This time, it’s for jargon-busting: insert any text, from any field, and it will translate things into plain English.

    For example, this:

    “The three-dimensional structure of DNA – the double helix – arises from the chemical and structural features of its two polynucleotide chains.”


    “The shape of DNA is called a double helix, and it forms due to the chemical makeup and structural characteristics of the two different strings of molecules that make up DNA.”

    Pretty interesting. #

  • I’ve always admired Stewart Brand, without necessarily ever having dug deep into his story. He’s one of those unavoidable characters who pop up at every historical juncture, influencing everyone from hippie LSD trippers to titans of industry in Silicon Valley.

    My vision of him as a benign sage is certainly at odds with this brilliant profile – or perhaps hatchet job – by Malcolm Harris in The Nation, which paints Brand as a cynical huckster, driven by individualistic greed to sell whatever people were buying and working with anyone who’d pay him:

    “Stewart Brand is not a scientist. He’s not an artist, an engineer, or a programmer. Nor is he much of a writer or editor, though as the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, that’s what he’s best known for. Brand, 83, is a huckster – one of the great hucksters in a time and place full of them. Over the course of his long life, Brand’s salesmanship has been so outstanding that scholars of the American 20th century have secured his place as a historical figure, picking out the blond son of Stanford from among his peers and seating him with inventors, activists, and politicians at the table of men to be remembered. But remembered for what, exactly?”


  • Review: Lying for Money

    Dan Davies’s fascinating look at frauds through the ages reveals much about human nature, risk, and how much we tolerate being ripped off.
  • From 2019, but perhaps even more relevant now. B. D. McClay argues that we’re in an era characterised by sore winners:

    “Call the 2010s the decade of the sore winner: the underdogs that are top dogs, the upstarts who are establishment. It’s Taylor Swift’s decade as much thanks to her affect as her music. But it’s not just Taylor. Donald Trump is a sore winner. So is Brett Kavanaugh. Every Washington figure who blames ‘Washington’ for their failure to deliver on their promises is a sore winner. Hillary Clinton is not a sore winner – she’d have to win – but she has, it must be said, the vibe. (Recall, for instance, her reaction to being referred to as a member of the establishment.)”

    McClay ponders the causes…

    “The sore winner is a product of the hyper-surveilled and personalized world in which we all now live, one in which people feel both nebulously responsible for everything wrong while also feeling responsible for nothing at all. Power is contextual, responsibility often has to be accepted by people who aren’t at fault, and the grain of irritation around which the sore winner’s elaborate deflections and defenses occur sometimes represents something at least a little bit real.”

    …and has a go at formulating some solutions, too. #

  • Edward Docx’s portrait of Boris as a clown is just about the only way to sum up the absurdity of the last few years in British politics:

    “‘Boris’ became the most famous clown of his time. And yet, when he started out, he would open his act as if from the public seats. He was not one of the people, of course; but he liked to sit among them, awaiting his moment. He would then clamber through the crowd to a plangent arrangement of the national anthem – a pale-faced jester, candy-floss hair, feigning to fall over, carrying buckets of confetti and his little plastic flags. By entering the ring in this way – and with great clatter and furore – he would subvert the expected order and contrive confusion in the expectation of the audience. For a moment, he appeared to come from the same place as the public and therefore to be their envoy among the other performers – whom he would proceed to lampoon and ridicule. At this he was always very successful.”


  • Interesting: although Americans earn more, adjusted for inflation, than they did in 1960, the cost of iconic days out like baseball games or Disneyland is less affordable now than it was then.

    Everything is more expensive, but in particular the costs around the periphery have increased to absurd levels: parking at the ball game and Disneyland, popcorn at the cinema.

    It illustrates how difficult it is to measure inflation properly – and justifies the pinch that so many people are feeling. #

  • Tom Critchlow has some interesting thoughts on dashboards in businesses, which in his experience (and mine) tend to suck. That’s mostly because they’re backwards-looking:

    “Company dashboards are designed around metrics and measurement of results - they’re trying to measure what has happened.

    “Measuring what happened is important, obviously. But it’s a bit like driving a car only looking in the rear view mirror…

    “It’s also important, however, to measure what is happening.

    “Unfortunately in my consulting work most companies don’t have any kind of measurement in place for the left hand side of the equation.”

    There’s some great practical advice for what to do about it, too. #

  • Why revolutions rarely work

    What do the rebrand of an orange juice, the new version of a web browser, and the reorganisation of the Chinese economy have in common? More than you might think.
  • Clive Thompson writes about how great ideas can have incredibly long gestation periods, as they roll around our heads and are augmented by bits and pieces of new information as we learn new things. He includes a great example of his own.

    His advice?

    “Treasure your long hunches. Gather wool slowly, and patiently. Keep lots of notes about things you’re learning and thinking about, and don’t worry if you feel like you’re being digressive. If you find yourself reading up on something that seems like a weird side-distraction, let yourself go there. It might be your brain working slowly – very slowly – on a hunch that won’t reveal itself for another ten years.

    “But when it does, it’ll be great.”


  • Focusing further

    The importance of focus is a truth universally acknowledged. But focus isn’t just about having a short to-do list; there’s more to it than that.
  • While I was in Rome recently I took lots of photos and built a little site called Romer to host photos and writing about the city. The first piece is about watching AS Roma in the Stadio Olimpico, the unbelievable atmosphere, and Italy’s infectious – but somewhat problematic – fan culture. #

  • I mean, it’s been all over everywhere, so I’m unlikely to be the first to recommend it to you all, but if you haven’t seen Paul McCartney’s masterful three-hour Glastonbury set, you absolutely must. It’s impossible to even pick out highlights. (Okay, I’ll try: the super-tight band, Abe Laboriel Jr.’s drumming, the Foxy Lady solo at the end of Let Me Roll It, Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, holographic John Lennon, that run of Let It Be, Live and Let Die and Hey Jude before the encore…) It’s a master at work, looking nothing like his eighty years. #

  • A thoughtful review by Richard Seymour of Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s new book “Half-Earth Socialism”.

    The “half-earth” part of the title refers to a radical plan to combat climate change. The authors believe that nature is too complex for humanity to engineer, and that it can only thrive if we leave it alone; so half the earth should be left to re-wild; humanity must survive with the space and resources that remain. Ideally, that would mean doing so in a fair and equitable economy:

    “The ‘half-Earth’ arcadia, as Vettese and Pendergrass acknowledge, is riddled with peril. In the hands of governments and scientific bureaucracies, it is likely to be a ‘colonial’ solution in which the poor are displaced from their land; conflict intensifies between governments using military force to conserve territory, private military contractors, poachers, and those driven off the land; and the drivers of resource extraction are left unaddressed. Vettese and Pendergrass’s solution is not to abandon half-Earth, but to radicalise it as part of a socialist reformation of the global economy, in which democratic planning replaces markets and state bureaucracies. The goal of such a transformation is to use ‘natural geoengineering’ through rewilding to ‘draw down carbon’ – thereby avoiding dangerous options such as solar radiation management – and ‘create a fully renewable energy system’.”

    Seymour digs into exactly what’s problematic with Pendergrass and Vetesse’s analysis, but it’s perhaps the beginning of something interesting. #

  • Glastonbury has been great, but one of the highlights has definitely been the defiant Skin from Skunk Anansie, in a lime-green suit with “CLIT ROCK” on the back and a rubber headcap adorned with ten metre-long inflatable spikes, belting out “Yes it’s F**king Political”. #

  • A documentary, directed by the artist Michael Dweck and the cinematographer Gregory Kershaw, that follows a group of truffle hunters in Piedmont, in northern Italy.

    The hunters, all in their eighties, face intruders on their patch, a spate of dog-poisonings, and their own age and infirmity. But they go out each day regardless, driven by their relationships with their dogs, their love of the hunt, and – you can’t help but feel – a total lack of desire to do anything else. The film is sparsely shot, without narration or interview, and lets the hunters speak for themselves or to each other.

    The result is visually sumptuous and, on a human level, fascinating. It’s on iPlayer (linked), if you’re in the UK; if you’re not, I recommend seeking it out. #

  • In 1950s Rome, the sprawling film studios created by Mussolini were abuzz with American-made productions. The influx of global stars created, inadvertently, both the profession of the paparazzi celebrity photographer and, in many ways, our modern celebrity-obsessed culture itself. Evan Puschak explains. #

  • Craig Mod travels to the Kii peninsula, a sacred region south of Osaka that is home to shrines, sites of pilgrimage, lush forests, and fading villages undergoing demographic collapse:

    “For me, walking through working villages and towns is the great joy of the Kii Peninsula. Being able to cap a day of strenuous mountain routes with a bath alongside locals, wacky though they may sometimes be, is never not interesting. The whole of the experience, however, is one of acute bittersweetness.

    “The countryside of Japan is aging into nothingness, and it’s rare to see people under the age of 50 out and about. Many of the old coastal tea estates have been converted to solar farms – vast fields of trees replaced by gleaming black panels.”

    “Abandoned homes and gardens abound. Part of the reason I’ve walked Kii so obsessively in recent years is because I can feel, palpably, the fading of what once was. In Odai, I missed having a cup of coffee at La Mer, a classic Japanese kissaten-style café, by just two months. The 80-something-year-old owner left a sign outside: ‘I’ve aged out of the business.’ In Tochihara, an inn that has been in operation for hundreds of years may soon take its last boarder.”


  • The news is full of stories lifted straight from scientific papers, lots of which are of dubious quality. David Epstein highlights one recent example – a story with the headline “surgeons who listen to AC/DC are faster and more accurate” – which demonstrates a common abuse of statistics:

    “I recommend that when you see this sort of ultra-nuanced effect in a news article, it may be a sign that the researchers inappropriately (but often not maliciously) sliced and diced their data in order to create some tantalizing positive finding, which – given enough data and enough slicing and dicing – they will inevitably find among the many possible false positives.

    “Let’s say a study starts out asking whether music makes surgeons perform better, but the results show nothing. Dead boring. So then the researchers separate the data into surgeons who heard soft rock versus hard rock. Ok, now the hard rock shows an effect. But, hmmmm, still no effect for soft rock. But if you look only at the data when the music is low-volume, there’s an effect. Interesting! Headlines!

    “But the reality is often that the researchers just sifted the data so much that they were bound to find false positives.”


  • Paul Raven with a significantly better interpretation of “the boy who cried wolf” than the standard one:

    “Or, more simply: assigning a nervy and inexperienced kid to do an adult’s job and assuming you can sleep safely, and then blaming the kid’s false alarms for your sleeping through the eventual and destructive appearance of the thing you set the kid to watch out for, is surely less a story about how kids can’t be trusted to raise the alarm about wolves descending on the fold, and more a story about how fobbing off the hard work of protecting a community on its most vulnerable and inexperienced member is really fucking stupid.”


  • Life advice from the chess hustlers who play in New York’s Washington Square Park:

    “The one thing I tell my students is that when you get to a confrontation of any type, you have to remain calm. When you remain calm, you can see the board a lot clearer. You can see the person you’re playing or arguing with a lot more clearly, for who and what they are. So you don’t even have to entertain that shit. You understand?

    “You have to be very careful. You can’t argue with a fool. You know that, right? Because you know what the fool will do? The fool will drag you down and drown you. And guess what? He’ll drag you down in your own pride and your own stupidity.


  • Drifting into failure

    As businesses grow, they face all sorts of pressures – from shareholders to be more efficient and more profitable, from management to do more with less, and from workers to reduce workload. Unwittingly, these pressures erode the margin of safety that keeps the organisation from making catastrophic errors.