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:
A timely piece from Patrick Radden Keefe on London’s facilitation of dodgy Russian wealth:
“The stark implication of ‘Putin’s People’ is not just that the President of Russia may be a silent partner in one of England’s most storied sports franchises but also that England itself has been a silent and handsomely compensated partner in Putin’s kleptocratic designs – that, in the past two decades, Russian oligarchs have infiltrated England’s political, economic, and legal systems. ‘We must go after the oligarchs,’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared after the invasion of Ukraine, doing his best to sound Churchillian. But, as the international community labors to isolate Putin and his cronies, the question is whether England has been too compromised by Russian money to do so.”
Common-sense thinking from Josh Barrie:
“Next we come to one of the foremost junctures in the rule of pints: having two pints doesn’t exist. To have two pints would be a waste of time. It would be to fail oneself.
“To clarify, two pints is nonsense behaviour of the highest order. What is the point? Let’s examine the proposition before a more abstract and meandering deliberation – after two pints, you are not even nearly inebriated. But you are a bit drowsy and sluggish, probably, and you’ll definitely need the loo on the way home. Two pints is a suggestion of three, one of the best quantities of pints, and yet isn’t three at all. It’s two.
“Two pints is the amount drunk by bosses who are trying to fit in with their workers at the pub, staying for 35 minutes or so to seem like they care but leaving before actually committing to any semblance of an evening; it’s a ‘oh go on then’ to peer-pressuring pals before’ driving home illegally; it’s trying to make time for ‘one more’ when there simply isn’t time and having a whisky or rum alongside the first pint would have served perfectly; it’s queuing up at the football for too long and then missing a goal; it’s thinking two before dinner will be okay and then having to go to the loo three times before pudding and everyone thinking you have diabetes or worse; it’s a waste of time because it’s almost impossible not to have two without having three, and in any case it’s almost certainly illegal because of some medieval code.”
A great insight from Tom Critchlow: when you’re mid-career, neither at the top nor the bottom of organisations, many of your struggles come from a lack of context. You know enough to benefit from that context, but you aren’t in a position in the organisation where you – or even the people who are assigning you work – have it.
“As someone who gets given a request from someone more senior - it’s crucial to remember that the more context you are given, the better your work will be.
“Asking for context is being good at your job, not being needy and ineffective.
“And said another way, if you’re managing people you should be providing as much context as you can:
“Providing context makes you a good manager, it’s not micromanaging.”
A thoughtful post from Tom MacWright on note-taking:
“You can feel like you understand something without knowing anything about it, and you can understand something without feeling like you do. Both are problematic. Creating notes and other symbols of knowledge is a way to affect that balance.
“Maybe the real metacognition isn’t about having a mirror image of your brain encoded in a computer, but just having a mirror. Having a nice birch box filled with notebooks or a nice dense graph that symbolizes all the things you’ve noted, so that you can learn and forget comfortably. The world will always be too big to understand, but my box of notebooks, that I know.”
A lovely interview with J. Kenji López-Alt in the New Yorker. Kenji’s long been one of my favourite food writers for his work demolishing myths and improving techniques on Serious Eats.
I particularly like his distinction between recipes and techniques. It’s deceptively simple, but it applies in lots of disciplines – not just cooking:
“The technique is something that has wide applications. It’s a method, as opposed to a recipe, which is just the one thing. If I ask my phone, ‘How do I get from here to the post office?,’ it gives me a recipe to the post office. I can just stare at my phone and see how many feet I have to walk this way, which way I turn, and then I get to the post office. Whereas learning a technique is like being handed the map. It allows you to choose other destinations – it allows you to choose alternate routes. That’s basically the difference to me: a recipe is turn-by-turn directions, a technique is a map.”
How do you strike a balance between the past, the present, and the future? The trick is finding the right period of time to focus on – not so long that it allows your ambitions to float off into the æther, but not so short that you never tackle anything tough.
Adam Tooze gets characteristically to the point on the unfolding war in Ukraine and how it might escalate, at what feels like a particularly critical juncture:
“Over the last week, we have seen how the reality of war, the shock of moving from hypothetical to reality, changes the calculus. That is the stage we are reaching with the economy next week. The shooting has started. What will be the fall out? The truly concerning prospect should be that a general panic in Russia, triggers a further dangerous and unpredictable military escalation.”
Putin’s nuclear threats might be a tactic – “escalate to de-escalate” – but they might not be, either. As Tooze cautiously concludes:
“…the worrying thing is precisely that, as far as the economy is concerned, the chaos is just about to get started. Clearly the economy has not been the determining factor in Putin’s calculus so far. Sanctions were intended to get his attention. Next week will reveal how that message lands.”
An incredible story of hustle culture, a con artist, and an introduction (for me at least) to the word “jobfishing”:
“The Zoom call had about 40 people on it - or that’s what the people who had logged on thought. The all-staff meeting at the glamorous design agency had been called to welcome the growing company’s newest recruits. Its name was Madbird and its dynamic and inspirational boss, Ali Ayad, wanted everyone on the call to be ambitious hustlers - just like him.
“But what those who had turned on their cameras didn’t know was that some of the others in the meeting weren’t real people. Yes, they were listed as participants. Some even had active email accounts and LinkedIn profiles. But their names were made up and their headshots belonged to other people.
“The whole thing was fake - the real employees had been ‘jobfished’.”
There’s a feature of many organisations in which those at the top know far less about what’s going on than those at the bottom – with sometimes disastrous consequences. But there’s a cure for it, too.
As someone who spends roughly half their day raging at Google Slides, this was truly traumatic:
“Perhaps like you, I naively started out thinking that Google Slides was just a poorly maintained product suffering from some questionable foundational decisions made ages ago that worshipped at the shrine of PowerPoint and which have never since been revisited, but now, after having had to use it so much in the past year, I believe that Google Slides is actually just trolling me.
“Join me on this cathartic journey which aspires to be none of the following: constructive, systematic, exhaustive. I’m too tired for that, dear reader. Consider this a gag reel. A platter of amuse-bouches. A chocolate sampler box of nightmares.”
A fascinating optical illusion; even when you know what you’re expecting, it still works.
Molly White, creator of the fantastic web3 is going just great, explains what seemingly no one else has: the potential for abuse that blockchain/crypto/web3 projects have baked into their technology. It’s concerning stuff, but this lack of regard for the abusive potential of technology is sadly common in the tech world:
“‘How will this technology be used to harass and abuse people?’ is a form of that question that too often goes unasked, particularly given that the demographics of people who are most at risk for abuse and harassment tend to be underrepresented in the industry. Apple apparently didn’t put much thought into how its AirTag location tracking discs could be misused by stalkers and domestic abusers. Target didn’t realize how its attempts to market to expectant mothers might out pregnant teenagers to their families. Slack didn’t foresee how people might use its invitation feature to send people harassing messages they couldn’t block.”
Complex systems rarely respond in predictable ways. Whatever we try to change – companies, other organisations, the environment, technical systems – we run the risk of unexpected behaviour, both good and bad.
Wordle has taken the internet by storm. It’s fun and simple, two qualities that have inspired a host of interesting spin-offs.
A great story from what’s been a great Winter Olympics so far: Jamaican skiier Benjamin Alexander, who only started skiing six years ago, successfully finished his giant slalom race. Although he finished last and was 1m10s off the pace, his philosophy – “if you finish you beat everyone who doesn’t” – seems like a pretty great one for more than just skiing. #
James Greig examines the “concept creep” of the language we collectively use to talk about behaviour in the dating game. “Trauma”, once limited to life-altering events, now essentially means “anything that hurts me”. “Love-bombing”, a manipulative behaviour that involves showering someone with a disorientating amount of affection at the start of a relationship, is now used to describe behaviour that previously might have been called “a bit keen”. Everyone, it seems, is either a narcissist or going on dates with one.
As well as watering down useful concepts to the point that they no longer hold meaning, this language reinforces problematic relationship dynamics:
”Using this kind of language can also lead to ‘moral typecasting’: the idea that the world is split between moral agents (people who do either good or bad) and moral patients (people who have good or bad things done to them). What’s interesting is that studies show that we think of people as either one thing or the other, and very rarely a combination of the two…
“But if you think of yourself as a moral patient and anyone who hurts you as a moral agent, it means that anything you do to them becomes fair game, because you are constitutionally incapable of inflicting harm, and they are constitutionally incapable of experiencing it.”
The fascinating story of Danielle Miller, rich kid turned fraudster.
“Miller and Blas didn’t interact much, but their meeting set off a chain of events that would draw them both deeper into the criminal world than either had gone before. By the time their friendship fell apart, stolen credit cards would be the least of their troubles. “I was interested to know why this mean girl wanted to be friends with me,’ Miller says now. ‘And in the end I think it was because she wanted to use me for whatever crimes we were accused of.’”
This kind of profile, interesting though it is, is an example of a phenomenon that Chris Dillow has written about extensively: people, and especially journalists, are bizarrely deferential to criminals from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds. Dillow quotes Adam Smith:
“We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent.”
As Dillow notes:
“The sympathy of headline writers is tightly circumscribed. They rarely speak of a downfall or fall from grace after working class people are convicted.”
This collection of label designs from Portuguese fish cans is a treasure trove of typography, vernacular design, and wonderful illustrations. There are thousands to get stuck into.
(Love the gnomes.)
(Does what it says on the tin, I suppose.)
(The world’s snootiest sardine.) #
Andrew Marr, newly anointed chief political commentator of the New Statesman, lays into Boris Johnson and assesses the aftermath of his inevitable departure.
There’s a sombre, personal thread running through the piece:
“I have found Johnson personally charming and amusing many times in the past. But at almost exactly the same time as he was hosting his parties in Downing Street, having a high old time lecturing the rest of us, I was burying my father.
“In the end, it’s all about authority. Belief. Credibility. A prime minister must be able to look his colleagues in the eye, order action, and watch change ripple out. If he can’t do that, what’s the point? You don’t need to be sitting in the grandeur of St Margaret’s, thinking about good men – in my case, my father and Jack Dromey – to feel that politics is at a grubby low point. This is the Tories’ problem. It is patriotic, not partisan, to say it is now their job to clean it up. And fast.”
Adam Tooze’s Chartbook newsletter has a great roundup of news on the unfolding tensions in Ukraine.
In particular, it has a useful explanation for the strange headlines we’ve seen in the last week or so, in which US, UK, and EU sources have been saying that an invasion is imminent, but Ukrainian sources have been playing that down. Tooze quotes Alexander Clarkson:
“I suspect the crisis timelines US and EU are focused on are out of whack with Russian elite timelines, that could lead to a build up of Russian troops staying on or close to Ukraine’s borders for months and years, and Ukrainian societal timelines focused on survival over decades.”
In other words: nobody seems to agree on the length of game that’s being played – but Ukraine itself must always play the longest of long games. #
From last year, but relevant: the impact of our new working-from-home reality on our posture and the health of our backs:
“More recently, as the coronavirus continues to keep us mostly indoors, working in improvised offices where ergonomically unsound ironing boards, coffee tables, and laps pinch-hit as desks, our sloppy ways of sitting could be taking a toll. Parked in front of a computer, we tend to tuck under our tailbones, candy-cane our spines, scrunch up our shoulders, and crane our necks forward like wilted sunflowers. According to many experts, for every inch that the head lists off kilter, the force impinging on the neck and the back increases by ten pounds. A survey among seven hundred and seventy-eight software workers in lockdown last spring found that shoulder, elbow, and wrist pain had doubled. Bad posture has been blamed for indigestion, constipation, high blood pressure, cracked teeth, infrequent orgasms, negative thoughts, and difficulty performing arithmetic calculations; somewhere, someone has probably implicated it in the Presidential-election results.”
ESG investing on Wall Street is dominated by the assessments of MSCI, which produces the ratings that large institutional investors and funds like Blackrock use to judge their investments.
The problem with these ratings is that they’re in some strange sense reversed from how one might intuitively imagine them. They don’t measure how positive the impact of a business is on the world; they measure how negative the impact of the world might be on the business. For example:
“McDonald’s Corp., one of the world’s largest beef purchasers, generated more greenhouse gas emissions in 2019 than Portugal or Hungary, because of the company’s supply chain. McDonald’s produced 54 million tons of emissions that year, an increase of about 7% in four years. Yet on April 23, MSCI gave McDonald’s a ratings upgrade, citing the company’s environmental practices. MSCI did this after dropping carbon emissions from any consideration in the calculation of McDonald’s rating. Why? Because MSCI determined that climate change neither poses a risk nor offers ‘opportunities’ to the company’s bottom line.
“MSCI then recalculated McDonald’s environmental score to give it credit for mitigating ‘risks associated with packaging material and waste’ relative to its peers. That included McDonald’s installation of recycling bins at an unspecified number of locations in France and the U.K. – countries where the company faces potential sanctions or regulations if it doesn’t recycle. In this assessment, as in all others, MSCI was looking only at whether environmental issues had the potential to harm the company. Any mitigation of risks to the planet was incidental.”
Going faster means doing things more quickly. But it also means setting a regular, sustainable rhythm. But how do you know how fast is too fast?
Some fantastic sleuthing by Der Spiegel and a German research group called Zerforschung, highlighted here by the BBC:
“Doubts have emerged over the timing of the positive Covid test Novak Djokovic used to enter Australia to try to compete in the Australian Open. It was provided to exempt him from rules barring unvaccinated people.
“However, the serial number on his test on 16 December appears out of sequence with a sample of tests from Serbia over this period gathered by the BBC.”
Another thoughtful piece on brand purpose by Nick Asbury, following his first last year. Rather than simply looking externally – focusing, say, on the shallow nature of brand purpose, or the question of whether consumers care about it – Nick instead drills into the ways that purpose can distort the internal culture of a business:
“Once you’re convinced of the rightness of your cause, it’s easier – consciously or subconsciously – to justify any means towards that end. And right now a lot of companies – whether cynically, genuinely, or somewhere in between – are convincing themselves of the rightness of their cause.”
In the case of Theranos, focusing on grand missions and purpose actually obscured the fraud:
“Imagine you’re a journalist or investor quizzing Elizabeth Holmes back when she was in her prime. What would be the harder questions for her to answer? How questions would be tough – how exactly does this device work? When questions would be equally tricky – you’ve been promising this for a while, but when exactly are you doing to deliver? Questions of what, where and who might also demand specifics – what is your current balance sheet, where is your laboratory, who has signed up so far?
“But ask Elizabeth Holmes why and she will be in her element. She will talk for hours about changing the world, transforming lives, helping our troops on the battlefield, helping our doctors at home… Through a combination of grand vision and personal founding myth, she can hold any audience spellbound.”
Most of the beliefs we hold comes as part of a package, fitting into a broader tradition and forming part of an interconnected web. But what happens when we develop beliefs far outside that web, beliefs that stand in isolation?