My 2016 in Books

This is the third year that I’ve kept a running list of every book that I’ve completed for the first time and then shared that list here as the first thing I write on either the last day of the old year or the first of the new.

You can see the 2015 list here and the 2014 list here, and as always I want to thank my friend David Daniel for the inspiration to do this.

A lot of folks in my line of work spend the waning moments of one year gazing out with predictions about the months ahead, and I’ll be doing plenty of that soon — most publicly at CES where I’ll be leading tours next week. However, I’m not only a futurist, I’m also a historian — a “futuristorian” — and so I look back as well as forward.

Looking back on what I read and when I read it helps me to track each year’s intellectual journey similar to how looking back at old emails or social media posts or journal entries can help me to pinpoint what I was thinking, when and often where.  This year, one change from previous years is that I read more physical books than e-books.

So much of the recent news and social media torrent has been about how 2016 was a crappy year (John Oliver did a great job starting this meme).  I prefer to think of it as a profound challenge, and amidst the challenges I read many wonderful books that I’m pleased to share.  One new feature: at the end I’ll list a few of the books I have on deck for the first part of 2017.

For folks who just want the list without the thoughts after reading, here’s the short version:

  1. Polanyi, Michael. The Tacit Dimension.  
  2. Bach, Rachel. Honor’s Knight. 
  3. Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.
  4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series).  
  5. Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. 
  6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  
  7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel.
  8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking.
  9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity.
  10. Connelly, Michael. Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel. 
  11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel.
  12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  
  13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised & Expanded Edition.) 
  14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.
  15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. 
  16. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the Shaman.
  17. Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. 
  18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus.
  19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind. 
  20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals (Liaden Universe.) 
  21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle.
  22. Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  
  23. Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel.
  24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others.
  25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. 
  26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel.
  27. Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution.
  28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish of all Time.  
  29. Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
  30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds.
  31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax.
  32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. 
  33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy

I read fewer books in 2016 than the whopping 56 of 2015, and less fiction than usual, which shows how busy my head has been with work and other matters.

Here’s the longer version with thoughts, occasional snarky remarks and analysis:

1.  Polanyi, Michael.  The Tacit Dimension.  Finished January 1, 2016.

Polanyi was a mid-twentieth century polymath, and this brief 1966 book came out of a series of lectures at Yale in 1962. The most useful for folks in 2017 are the first two.

In “Tacit Knowing,” Polanyi talks about how we can know more than we can say, and discusses a number of psychological experiments where subjects use information that they understand tacitly but cannot explain explicitly when asked to do so.  

Tacit Knowledge is an important idea for our digital era where more and more things can be tagged, identified, tracked and known. We have ever more that we can say but not necessarily an equally speedy increase in what we can know… and vice versa.

in the second Terry lecture, “Emergence,” Polanyi extends the concept of the leap to show how concepts emerge out of hierarchies, where the emerged form cannot be anticipated from the lower form, as a set of grammatical rules cannot anticipate poetry. In this thinking, Polanyi anticipates by decades recent discussions about moving up and down technological stacks and how innovation builds on platforms.

2. Bach, Rachel.  Honor’s Knight Finished January 3, 2016.

Sequel to Fortune’s Pawn, which I read in 2014.  This would be entirely conventional space opera if the protagonist were male, but because Deviana “Devi” Morris is a woman, it’s more interesting.  Like many trilogies (e.g. “Empire Strikes Back”) this one is pure action and stops right in the middle, tantalizing the reader to go read the 3rd, which I might do if it’s in my local library, as this one was.

3. Edgerton, David.  The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900.  Finished January 25, 2016.  (While on a plane to a conference in Cincinnati.)

This fascinating book challenges innovation-centric thinking by exploring the impact of technologies in use rather than when new devices and services first come over the horizon.  “Our technological museums, with their emphasis on first design, tied to miss out on the extraordinary life stories of the objets they have” (38).

Edgerton focuses on maintenance as well as invention, highlighting how our attitudes toward technology today differ from prior eras: “In the 1920s a Ford Model T buyer ‘never regarded his purchase as a complete finished product. When you bought a Ford you figured you had a start — a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed on almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware’” (97). This is both similar to and different than today’s smart phones with limitless apps and customization opportunities, but few people get under the hoods of their phones and computers. In this, Edgerton’s argument reminds me of Jonathan Zittrain’s arguments about generativity in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.

4. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen (Vorkosigan series). Finished February 3, 2016.  

Anything by Bujold is a cause for celebration, and a new entry in the Vorkosigan series can provoke a Snoopy-like happy dance. Bujold is my favorite living science fiction writer, and this series is magnificent and sublime. No spoilers: ping me if you want a hint about where to jump onto this terrific ride.

5.  Grant, Adam. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.  Finished 2/19/16.

I loved Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and so I snapped this one up the moment I saw it.  Like the first book, Grant is a stellar writer who could have a second life writing fiction. In Originals, his insights about how things as seemingly-trivial as birth order determine choices, risk aversion and achievements later in life can cut to the bone in a spooky way. This book combines canny analysis with practical, applicable ideas: I wish it had a companion volume or app that would make some of the thinking more easily deployable… something I also think about books #8 and #29.

6. Bear, Elizabeth. Karen Memory.  Finished 3/5/16.

Pacific Northwest Steampunk.  This was genuinely interesting sci-fi that left me wanting to read more by Bear, and I hope for more from the protagonist, a prostitute with an appetite for adventure in an alternate-universe Seattle.

7. Dunstall, S.K. Alliance: A Linesman Novel. Finished March 25, 2016.

This is the second book in the Linesman series: not as good as the first because it was quieter after the sprezzatura world-building of #1.  I remembered the first well but not perfectly, which inhibited my pleasure a bit while reading the second. I look forward to reading #3, which came out when I wasn’t looking in November.

8. Nisbett, Richard E. Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking. Finished March 26, 2016.

Brilliant and useful and worth a second read as it ties into a bunch of other reading and thinking over the past couple of years.  Many psychologists perform experiments about how flawed we are as thinkers, how irrelevant facets of a story can influence our decisions, and how bad we are at making the distinction between something that is plausible (a good story) and probably (likely).  Nisbett’s “mindware” are rules and tools to help us think more effectively, or at least be aware of biases as we muddle through our lives.

9. Rushkoff, Douglas. Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity. Finished April 8, 2016.

Fascinating and important: Doug Rushkoff is one of those courageous thinkers who tackles foundational presumptions to shake our thinking into new shapes.  The foundational idea that he tackles at the core of Throwing Rocks is that corporations need to grow in order to survive. This hasn’t always been the case (nor have corporations), and the practical consequences of adopting grow-or-die as the operating system for companies is that individual liberty and prosperity becomes subservient to the health of corporations.

Speaking of companies like Uber, AirBNB, Spotify and others, Rushkoff observers “As private companies induce us to become sharers, we contribute our own cars, creativity, and couches to a sharing economy that is more extractive than it is circulatory. Our investments of time, place, and materials are exploited by those who have invested money and actually own the platforms” (218). You won’t think about Uber and the like in the same way after reading this book.

10. Connelly, Michael.  Echo Park: A Harry Bosch Novel Finished April 16, 2016.

Devoured in less than 24 hours, on a quick trip to L.A. to give a dinner keynote. This is the 12th Harry Bosch novel, published in 2006.  I haven’t been a completionist with this series, and the last one I read was The Burning Room at the end of 2014.  That leaves me with The Crossing as the most-recently published that I haven’t read…

11. Connelly, Michael. The Crossing: a Bosch Novel. Finished April 21, 2016.

The Harry Bosch novel published in November of 2016, which I got out of the library Tuesday afternoon and inhaled. This one also features Mickey Haller from the Lincoln Lawyer series, although we see the story from Bosch’s POV.  Connelly is amazing with both character and plot, hence the momentum. He’s also daring with having his main character change over time (like Lois McMaster Bujold with Miles Vorkosigan). Unlike Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is a bag of tics and a narrative function, Bosch changes over time. In this book, Bosch is facing his life after a second retirement from the LAPD and what to do with himself (also as an about-to-be empty nester). 

Reading these two Bosch books back to back also inspired me to watch the terrific Amazon Prime TV adaptation, Bosch.

12. Sacks, Oliver. Gratitude.  Finished 17 May, 2016.  

A little book with big ideas and emotions: it collects Sacks’ last four essays, originally published in The New York Times, written between the time he got his terminal cancer diagnosis and his death.  He was such a beautiful writer, and I’m pleased that my wife Kathi gave me this inspiring little collection for the 2015 holidays.

13. Thaler, Richard H. & Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Heath, Wealth, and Happiness. (Revised and Expanded Edition.) Finished May 22, 2016.

I’ve been meaning to read this book for years, and that ambition was heightened when I read Thaler’s Misbehaving memoir last year.  A brilliant book about the social context of and need for deep thinking about default assumptions for all manner of situations, as well as how to change them via gentle “nudges” rather than strong mandates. The seeming paradox of “libertarian paternalism” takes an entire book to unwind, and although sometimes it is hard going the read repays the effort.  The authors’ notion of “choice architecture” is profoundly useful, and I’ll be thinking about it a lot… in particular in the context of the connected experiences at the heart of my current work.

14. Case, Steve. The Third Wave: an Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future. Finished 31 May, 2016.

This book was frustrating to read but has stuck with me in the months since I finished it.

Here’s a transcription of a notecard I scribbled on 5/26/16: “Generally book is platitudinous —> a good keyword to describe most biz books. Not enough concrete examples when he talks about the future, although plenty of the war stories.”

The word “platitudinous” is one happy result of a so-so book. Case’s Third Wave is a powerpoint with elephantiasis— the reverse of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that was a book masquerading as an endless powerpoint presentation. 

The other happy result of reading Case is my idea that most business books are Thneeds, from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax… an idea that probably needs no teasing out. In Case’s case (ha), the “thneed” is the concept of “the third wave” itself, borrowed from Toffler and transmogrified into IoT.  

Two of Case’s most-useful insights are 1) that the need for infrastructure makes the third wave more similar to the internet’s first wave than to the social/mobile second wave, and 2) that third wave companies will need to partner more effectively with governments in order to succeed… unlike, say, Uber which has grown by ignoring government regulations until they get in trouble.

15. Wallace, David Foster. This is Water; Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Finished 31 May, 2016.

An exquisite little book, which is the slightly revised text of DFW’s famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. I think I read the text online once before, and/or heard the audio, but I’ve been thinking about this talk lately and ordered the hard copy on Amazon in order to get it into my head more actively.  The highest compliment that I can give this book is that I’ll have to read it again soon in order to make sure that I’m paying attention to what it asks me to attend to.  

The reason I’ve been thinking about This is Water is that the thread of some other books I’ve been consuming have been more complicated versions of this, like Douglas Rushkoff’s operating systems in Throwing Rocks.

16.  Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric & the ShamanFinished June 28, 2016.

A brilliant novella in Bujold’s “Five Gods” universe that I bought, downloaded and inhaled in one day despite my hopes of stretching out the experience. This is fantasy rather than science fiction and the sequel to last year’s Penric’s Demon.

17.  Sennett, Richard. The Craftsman. Finished July 2, 2016.

I picked this up after my friend John Willshire talked eloquently about Sennet’s work in a presentation I admired. I couldn’t get through it the first time I tried, but the second time I got hooked and wound up filling 18 notecards with enthusiastic observations and filling the book with marginalia and underlines.  

Sennett is brilliant and insightful, and his work resonates with my thinking about connected experiences, and particularly how using tools expands both our capabilities and our individual senses, leading us into new thinking: “We want to understand how tools can more generically engage us in large intuitive leaps into the unknown” (209),

18. Riordan, Rick. Blood of Olympus. Finished July 26, 2016.

This is the final book in the second Percy Jackson series, which I read because my son wanted me to do so. Although Riordan is always good, the second series was not nearly as good as the first: there are too many characters with a dizzying, constantly-switching POV.

19. Levitin, Daniel J. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information OverloadFinished July 26, 2016.

This is a rare exception to my “first reads only” rule, but over the summer I realized that I hadn’t retained as much of this brilliant book the first time I read it last year… perhaps because I read it on the iPad. So I bought a paperback copy and dove back in, pencil in hand and a pile of notecards on the table beside me. The book rewarded a second read just as much as a first, which is rare.

The next phase of the digital revolution is going to put immense pressure on our notions of environments, place, transcending the limits of our bodies and more: Levitin’s book has informed my thinking about these matters. Moreover, his insights about how we all have a limited amount of decision-making energy each day have changed how I approach allowing many forms of stimulation into my life, particularly in the mornings.

20. Lee, Sharon & Steve Miller. Alliance of Equals. (Liaden Universe.) Finished August 14, 2016.

The latest in the Liaden series. I had to reread the prior (Dragon in Exile), as I didn’t remember it well.  As with the last Percy Jackson book, this suffers from an oversupply of plots & POVs and characters, but at least in this case the three main plots all share a theme of transition, becoming and arrival.

21. Riordan, Rick. The Trials of Apollo: Book One, The Hidden Oracle. Finished August 22, 2016.

This is the first book in the next series in Riordan’s Greek myth universe, and the difference between Riordan writing multiple points of view and containing himself to one is profound. Here, Apollo annoys Zeus to such an extent that the Thunder God banishes Apollo to live as a mortal on Earth. The fun of the book is that Apollo is an arrogant prick, which isn’t a huge surprise after being worshipped as a deity for millennia. The narrative engine is virtually identical to that of the 1960s Marvel comic adaptation of Thor, only played for laughs.

22.  Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis.  Finished September 6, 2016.

This book has been a sensation, particularly around the vexing question of why middle class whites voted Republican in such overwhelming numbers in the last election despite it seeming to Democrats to be an act entirely against the self interest of those same voters.

I want to point out just two things: first, Vance never mentions President-Elect Trump by name or by direct inference, so the application to the election is more interpretive than some reviewers suggest. Second, the political application of this story is a distraction from a terrific read and a modern memoir of class that reminds me of classics like Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown and Hunger of Memory by Richard Rodriguez.

23.  Shafer, David. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot: A Novel. Finished October 30, 2016.

My friend Ari Popper recommended this agreeable novel, which is not to be confused with the similarly-titled book that was the source for the Tina Fey movie.

Shafer’s book has a weird “this is the overture: where’s the symphony?” quality. It almost feels like a prequel written long after a novel — the start of a beloved multi-volume action series — that exists to explain to loyal readers where the protagonists originally came from… sort of like if J.K, Rowling wrote the James and Lily Potter story, where the whole point of those two characters was to get killed by Voldemort in a way that empowered Harry.  

There was an interesting container versus the content aspect to this for me: the story kept getting more compelling but I noticed (because I have a paper copy rather than on the iPad) that even though the plot was ramping up I was running out of pages. “How can he resolve all this in the short amount of time he has left?” I think that if I’d been whizzing along reading it on the iPad — and didn’t look at the “you have read X% banner on the bottom — that I’d have felt quite cheated when I slammed into that ending.  I remember this sort of thing happening to me with an Elmore Leonard novel that was one of the first things I ever read on a Kindle where the story ended abruptly even though I had a bunch of % left to read, which was because there was a free preview of another novel. At least with the Shafer book I could see it coming.

24. Chiang, Ted. Stories of Your Life and Others. Finished November 5, 2016.

There aren’t that many people who make me think, “Gosh, why don’t they write MORE?” Chiang’s astonishing collection of sci-fi short stories did just that, and I’m grateful to my friend Mike Parker for recommending the book.

The title story has now been turned into the film Arrival, which I want to see it based on the source material.  The most personally compelling story to me was “Liking What You See: A Documentary” about lookism.

25. Bujold, Lois McMaster. Penric’s Mission. Finished November 12, 2016.

Third novella in Bujold’s newest fantasy series (see #16, above), delightful.

26. Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye: a Bosch Novel. Finished November 13, 2016.

More Connelly: he’s just so good.  I started the iBooks sample on the elliptical machine at the gym, went home, bought it, and then inhaled most of it that same night, finishing it the following morning. Any mystery lover shouldn’t miss these.

27.  Schwab, Klaus. The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Finished November 16, 2016.

At a conference this fall my friend Tim Murphy recommended this book.  It’s an interesting and mercifully brief “behold the future!” volume written book by the founder and head of the World Economic Forum: it provoked a long set of index card notes.

The book can be frustrating with its dearth of evocative examples, which makes imaginatively seeing what Schwab is talking about hard, but reading it catalyzed a great deal of my own thinking, and perhaps led indirectly to this recent piece.

28. Krasny, Michael. Let There be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What it all Means. More Than 100 of the Funniest Jewish Jokes of all Time.  Finished November 26, 2016.

This is a breezy read by the host of KQED’s “Forum.” In an ungenerous mood I told my parents — who lent me the book — that the commentary is so shallow that it aspires to be fatuous, which was unfair but only a little. Krasny spends so much time on self-aggrandizing anecdotes about the celebrities he knows and has interviewed that it can be annoying.  

But he does have some good jokes.

I’ve long bemoaned that 1980 and 1990s identity politics and political correctness essentially killed joke-telling as a social lubricant. For my father and grandfather jokes were the professional currency. I can only think of three friends and colleagues with whom I trade jokes, and I’m sufficiently antsy about this topic that I won’t name them. You know you are, guys.

29.  Levitin, Daniel J. A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age. Finished November 29, 2016.  

A fantastic read, one that inspired many, many notecards. More practical than his previous, brilliant book The Organized Mind (#19) and akin to Nisbett’s Mindware (#8), Levitin provides the reader with tools to evaluate information critically, not to be taken in by poor arguments, and to understand that “we didn’t evolve brains with a sufficient understanding of what randomness looks like” (163). This is a friendlier, more useful version of the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb of Black Swan fame.

Reading books like Levitin’s can make me despair of ever thinking clearly myself, but I can at least take comfort in always making progress.

30. Lewis, Michael. The Undoing Project: a Friendship that Changed Our Minds. Finished December 10, 2016.

Magnificent. As with the Vance book (#22), this is a huge bestseller so I don’t know how much I can add. I’ve read the works of its main protagonists — Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky — and other behavioral economists with fascination for years. What Lewis does is to make their ideas come alive in a powerful platonic love story between two geniuses.

You can watch a long, insightful conversation between Lewis and Adam Grant (a.k.a. #5) here.

31. Sawyer, Robert J. Hominids: Volume One of The Neanderthal Parallax. Finished December 15, 2016.

Delightful, thoughtful and well-structured sci-if novel about a parallel universe where Neanderthals survived & homo sapiens died off. Then, a Neanderthal physicist accidentally drops through a portal to our universe in modern day Canada. The book was published in 2002 & therefore written as the first early phases of the internet took place. I wonder how the story would have come out differently if written a decade later when the internet and the smart phone were established. One key difference between our world and the Neanderthal counterpart is that every Neanderthal has a “Companion” grafted into his or her inner forearm that is like an advanced iPhone with a smarter version of Siri.  The gap, in other words, between the Neanderthal world and ours has shrunk in the years since the book first came out. I just started reading Humans, the second volume: so far, so good.

32. Gibbs, Stuart. Spy Ski School. Finished December 20, 2016.

Fourth in the hilarious series that my son reads and urges me to read immediately after he does. Gibbs channels the minds and concerns of middle-schoolers with a James Bondian overlay that is delightful and funny. With its speedy plot and engaging characters, I can’t believe this series hasn’t been optioned for a TV series. (Note: there was a 2008 movie called “Spy School” that is entirely unrelated.)  

I also admire how closely Gibbs engages with his young readers on his website.

And finally for 2016…

33. Perzanowski, Aaron and Jason Schultz. The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital EconomyFinished December 29, 2016.

In this wide-ranging yet powerfully-focused book, two law professors explore the issues surrounding our cultural move from owning copies (of movies, CDs, books) to EaaS (Everything as a Service) alternatives like Netflix, Spotify and licensed ebooks (versus physical copies that are our property).

We are trading a lot for the convenience and wider selection of digital goods over physical, and after reading this book (which is surprisingly brief) I’m more aware of the tradeoffs than I was before. The ramifications are widespread, from the death of secondary markets (e.g., because you can’t sell the Netflix videos you’re done with on eBay) to attempts to block generic alternatives to manufacturer brands (printer ink, Keurig cups) and beyond… with added implications coming in the world of self-driving cars and 3D printers everywhere. This books makes a remarkable, if inadvertent, bookend with Edgerton’s Shock of the Old that I read last January (#3 on this list).

Thanks for reading! I’d love your comments, critiques and suggestions for further reading.

Here’s a sneak previews of books already on my desk to read or complete in 2017 in alphabetical order by author rather than ordered by likelihood of reading:

  • Samuel Arbesman, Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension
  • Dan Ariely, Payoff: The Hidden Loginc that Shapes our Motivations
  • Harry Collins, Tacit & Explicit Knowledge
  • Jon Fine, Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear)
  • Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
  • Tim Harford, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives
  • Joi Ito and Jeff Howe, Whiplash: How to Survive our Faster Future
  • Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
  • Steven Johnson, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
  • Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Robert Sawyer, Humans: Volume Two of the Neanderthal Parallax
  • Pat Shipman, The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction
  • Cecily Sommers, Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next
  • Amy Webb, The Signals are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe is Tomorrow’s Mainstream
  • Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

The attentive will see some clear themes extended from both this year’s list and those of previous years. It will be interesting to see how many of these make it onto the 2017 list one year from now.

Happy New Year!

Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with Apple News on my iPhone

I love my iPhone. The dangerous problem is that while sometimes I love it the way a writer loves a favorite pen while at other times I love it the way an alcoholic loves beer.

Or like Brokeback Mountain. I wish I knew how to quit you, iPhone.

Today, I had a lovers quarrel with the iPhone.

From nowhere — certainly from no action on my part — the iPhone decided to start sharing notifications from the News app.

There has been no update for that App in the App Store (perhaps because it is bundled with the OS that updated a couple weeks back), and I cannot discern what triggered the change aside from Apple’s business strategy of disintermediating both Facebook and the news properties themselves.

I suffer from acute distractibility at the best of times, which is why I’ve deleted all social media from the iPhone as a portcullis next to a moat around my concentration, such as it is. I get no notifications when an email arrives. I think the new Facebook Messenger app has some nifty “we hate Snapchat” features, but after a five minute exploratory look I deleted it.

My attention is my most precious asset.

So when the iPhone News app started interrupting me to let me know that TIME magazine had a mighty keen article about “5 Tech Predictions for 2017” — this hardly qualifies as urgent — I opened “Settings” and scrolled down to News, whereupon I changed the alert style from “Alerts” to “None.”

Thinking that was it, I went back to my life. Au contraire!

The next time I went to do something with the iPhone and pressed the wakey-wakey button, there was a notification on the lock screen from the Wall Street Journal: “Taxpayers are pouring money into charitable-giving accounts, worried that deductions may not last.” Heaven forfend! Thank the good lord that the iPhone decided that knowing about this was more important than whatever it was that I picked the phone up to do in the first place… which I can no longer remember because of the interruption.

I went back to Settings and looked more closely. Ah ha! What I missed the first time was the faint gray little letters that said, “Alert Style When Unlocked.” I had eliminated the interruptions that would happen when I was using the device, but not when I was about to use the device… which is a vulnerable moment of distractibility.

Sheesh.

I then toggled everything off: “Show on Lock Screen,” “Badge App Icon,” “Show in Notification Center” and “Allow Notifications.” That’s a lot of things to toggle, and while I suspect that simply choosing “Allow Notifications” would have done the trick, I’m a suspicious sort of guy and decided to overcompensate.

But that still wasn’t enough.

If I swiped right from the iPhone home screen that took me to a screen where — you guessed it — right up top were two top stories from CBS and Bloomberg and two trending stories from CNN and The New York Times. That’s four opportunities to drop whatever thought was in my head and fall down the rabbit hole into the always-open-all-you-can-eat information buffet: now with unlimited breadsticks!

I’m pretty technical, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that if I scrolled all the way down on the all-the-way-to-the-left screen that had magically appeared with the most-recent iOS I’d find a faint gray “Edit” button that would let me rearrange, add and eliminate notifications on that screen.

It was too much work to limit the notifications coming at me from just one app, let alone managing notifications from all the apps on my iPhone.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of app developers: without notifications an app will wither and die from neglect. But I object to the whole “opt out” presumption of developers that turn notifications on — or make “yes gimme gimme” the “don’t think about it” option to pick — when installing an app in the first place.

I should be able to say, “Hey Siri: I don’t want notifications from the News app anymore” and have that remove everything. When I tried that, though, Siri simply opened the News app.

I think Siri has a learning disability.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times recently dubbed the iPhone “the thing that does everything,” which is apt.

But just because a thing can do everything doesn’t mean that it should do everything.

Shameless comment-seeking question: what do you do to eliminate distraction in your environment?

P.S. Don’t even get me started on how angry I am that Uber eliminated the “you can only track my location when I’m actively using Uber” option, so now I either have to let Uber track my iPhone 24/7/365 or I have to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Always” when I’m about to call a Uber and then remember to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Never” when I’m done. This is one of many reasons I think that Uber hates people, both its riders and its drivers. Lyft, I hasten to say, retains the “While Using” option.

Amazon’s Robot Bodega

Don’t miss this important piece from The Verge, which gives great context around this promotional video about Amazon Go, the robot bodega:

As The Verge captures, there are no cashiers and no checkout lines: you grab what you want and just go.

At the moment, there are human stockers at the Amazon Go beta in Seattle, but that seems temporary as Amazon historically has used robots wherever it can to reduce costs and add efficiency.

Neither the video nor The Verge engage with whether or not Amazon Go follows Amazon.com’s normal practice of being intensely price competitive.  In other words, are the prices at Amazon Go the same, cheaper or more expensive than the human-powered bodega at the corner? Answer: probably cheaper.

This is important because if I’m right about the prices that skews everything about Amazon Go as an experiment.  Shoppers are highly price sensitive in many (but not all) contexts, particularly with CPG.

If Amazon Go is cheaper than the local bodega or 7/11, then this is bad news for those local shops.

Mom and Pop markets will now have big box Walmart with its supply chain strong arm tactics chomping away at their existence from one side and Amazon Go eating its way into the middle from the other.

More importantly, the human-to-human interactions that characterize most grocery shopping today at the cash register evaporate in the face of this frictionless but also emotionless interaction. (This reminds me of Erica Jong’s zipless fuck from Fear of Flying.)

All things being equal, we tend to go with the cheaper option. However, at issue here is what we count among all the things.

What aspects of the shopping experience are in our consideration sets when we go to the store?

For high consideration items, perhaps we want a skilled salesperson to guide us in concert with the research we do on our phones in the store or on our computers before we leave the house.

But for low consideration items like groceries, it’s easy to discount the identity-formation supporting energy that comes with going to the same store regularly, seeing the same people at the checkout line, chatting with the fellow customers — some of whom are friends — that you happen to meet.

This sort of identity-formation isn’t the kind we seek deliberately, like a college or a job or a neighborhood where the houses are the right size and the schools are good: it’s the kind that happens as a matter of course after we make those bigger choices.

Until things like Amazon Go show up on our mental horizons.

By virtue of its very presence in our cognitive landscape, Amazon Go requires us to make a conscious decision to go to the human powered bodega in order to be part of a community… this is a new decision, one that requires us to spend part of our limited daily allotment of decision-making energy.

When it comes to buying books, I frequently vote with my dollar and spend a little bit more at independent bookstores like Powell’s to keep them in existence, although I’m also a frequent orderer at Amazon.

But when I’m in a hurry to grab lunch or need milk before I collect my kids at school, will I think through how that purchase will keep my local market in business?

I’d like to say yes, but I might be lying.

David Brooks Calls for a Third Party

I thought I was as done with the election as a boy can be, but despite a Coyote-plummeting-off-the-cliff decline of interest in the news I noticed David Brooks remarkable column from election day, “Let’s Not Do This Again” in which he resignedly calls for a third party to break the D.C. deadlock.

Here’s a relevant excerpt:

There has to be a compassionate globalist party, one that embraces free trade while looking after those who suffer from trade; that embraces continued skilled immigration while listening to those hurt by immigration; that embraces widening ethnic diversity while understanding that diversity can weaken social trust.

This was sufficiently akin to my own early-October call for bringing back the Whigs that it startled me: I admire Brooks but often disagree with him.

And this is yet another moment when, at least in part, I disagree with Brooks. The party he is describing  (and his whole column is worth a read) is the Democratic Party.

Where I agree with Brooks is that the current two-party system is irredeemably and irrevocably broken.

Side Note: For anybody who is still confused by how middle-class, non-coastal, non-college educated white Americans could so unequivocally vote for a New York billionaire narcissist with no intention of making their lives better, then you should click directly to Amazon (or better yet head to a local bookstore if your town still has one) and buy JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It’s an amazing read — I ignored everything the day I inhaled it — and explains the psychology of the Trump voter… even though it never mentions Trump and was written when his candidacy was still a joke to most people.

A Modest Proposal: Bring Back the Whigs, or… R.I.P. GOP

Today, in a remarkable interview on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Florida-based, long-time Republican strategist and lobbyist Mac Stipanovich conceded that Hillary Clinton will win the presidency — and that he himself will vote for her because “I loathe Donald Trump with the passion that I usually reserve for snakes.”

The interview is worth listening to in full, but I wanted to highlight two key passages. The first is when Stipanovich argued that in the coming 2018 and 2020 election cycles…

This thing in going to shake out one way or another. Either real conservative Republicans — men and women of conscience and enough sense to come in out of the rain — will regain control of the party, or they will leave the party. In many ways I think the election process itself will take care of this. One of the things we’re going to learn here is that you can’t be crazy and win a large constituency general election.

A couple more of those lessons in statewide senate races in ’18, governors races in ’18 where people who embrace Trump go down to defeat because of it, and I think you’ll start seeing that Republican candidates in primaries will be more moderate and get closer to the center right so that they have some chance of winning.

What will be the cure for this is the actual outcomes on Election Day, not the BS on social media.

NPR interviewer Renee Montagne then shrewdly asks Stipanovich if the Republican party can afford to lose the sizable population of Trump supporters, to which he replies:

I don’t know that we’ll lose them. Hopefully, there’ll be some re-education, but if we have to lose them then lose them we must. What Trump stands for is wrong. It’s bad for America. It’s bad for the party. And if we have to wander in the wilderness for a decade until we can get a party that stands for the right things and can make a contribution to the future of America, then we need to wander.

I was taken by Stipanovich’s biblical reference to when Moses and the Hebrews wandered in the desert for a generation before the Hebrews entered the Promised Land— without Moses who died just before that happy moment.

For all his pessimism about the current election, Stipanovich is an optimist, since he thinks the GOP can fix itself in 10 years rather than the 40 it took the Hebrews.

But the real power of the biblical allusion lies in an unanswered question: who is Moses in this analogy? Who in the GOP will retire, die or otherwise vamoose before the party swings back to the center, as Stipanovich predicts?

I think the answer is that there is no Moses for today’s Republican party.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a life-long liberal Democrat, and the prospect of a severely weakened GOP does not fill me with dismay.

But I don’t recognize Trump supporters as classic Republicans. That is, fiscal conservatives who want to limit the size of government and who work in a productive tension with Democrats who want to expand government services to all Americans.

Those fiscal conservatives have no home in today’s GOP, where total obstructionists like Mitch McConnell and gutless weenies like Paul Ryan stand for nothing other than their own will to power.  The basket of deplorables who support Trump — and I thought that was a mild characterization by Secretary Clinton — and the fundamentalist Christians who want to destroy the separation of church and state built into the U.S. Constitution do not live in the same world as many of the classic Republican I know and respect.

And this is different than what’s going on with the Democrats, which is evidenced simply by the fact that Bernie Sanders is actively campaigning for Hillary Clinton— there is enough mutual respect and philosophical alignment between Sanders and Clinton that they can work together, which cannot be said of Trump’s competitors for the GOP nomination.

So I disagree with Stipanovich: it’s not time for the entire Republican party to wander in the wilderness for 10 to 40 years. Instead, it’s time to create a new tent for fiscal conservatives (who may or may not be social liberals) who can assemble under a smaller but rational tent where concepts like evidence, truth, principle and patriotism can build bridges across parties rather than walls around them.

I suggest the name “The New Whig Party,” or NWP. The old Whigs were pro-business, pro-market, constitutional conservatives and against tyranny.

Perhaps a New Whig Party can help move the country forward rather than in circles.

We used to have Reagan Democrats, but I can’t imagine Trump Democrats. But I can see an NWP making choices difficult for centrist Democrats.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Final Note: I moderate comments on this blog. Flame wars and trolls need not apply.

SHORT: Don’t Miss REDEF Original on Truth in Advertising

From the “too long for a tweet” department:

I just finished Adam Wray‘s powerful Fashion REDEFined original article “With Great Power: Seth Matlins on how Advertising can Shift Culture for the Better.”

It’s about Seth Matlins‘ efforts to change how advertisements featuring too-skinny and Photoshopped models body shame girls and women (men too, by the way).

Here’s a useful except from Matlins:

This practice, these ads, cause and contribute to an array of mental health issues, emotional health issues, and physical health issues that include stress, anxiety, depression, self-harm, self-hate. At the most extreme end they contribute to eating disorders, which in turn contribute to the death of more people than any other known mental illness, at least domestically. What we know from the data is that as kids grow up, the more of these ads they see, the less they like themselves.

What we know is 53% of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies. By the time they’re 17, 53% becomes 78%, so roughly a 50% increase. When they’re adults, 91% of women will not like themselves, will not like something about their bodies. Women on average have 13 thoughts of self-hate every single day. We know that these ads, and ads like these, have a causal and contributory effect because of pleas from the American Medical Association, the National Institute of Health, the Eating Disorder Coalition, and tens of thousands of doctors, mental and physical, educators, psychologists, health care providers, to say nothing of the governments of France, Israel, and Australia, who have urged advertisers to act on the links between what we consider deceptive and false ad practices and negative health consequences. And yet to date, by and large, and certainly at scale, nobody has.

I wish that the numbers in the second paragraph were stunning or surprising, but they aren’t. What they are, however, is infuriating.

My one critique of the article — and the reason for this short post — is that blame for this sort of body shaming doesn’t only lie with advertisers and marketers.

The entertainment industry also propagates unrealistic body images for females and males alike, and let’s not forget all the magazines and websites featuring photoshopped bodies on covers and internal pages.

It’s not just the ads.

As the father of a 15 year old girl and an 11 year old boy (a teen and a tween), I’m hyper-conscious of these images, but aside from trying (often vainly) to restrict their media access there’s only so much my wife and I can do.

So I celebrate Matlins’ efforts.

You don’t have to be a parent to find this article compelling, but if you ARE a parent, particularly to a teen girl, then this is required reading, folks.  It’ll be on the final.

Along these lines, high up on my “to read this summer” list is Nancy Jo Sales’ American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, although I’ll confess that I’m a bit afraid to read it, as I think I’ll feel the way I felt after seeing Schindler’s List for the first time.

What the NY Times missed about “Rizzoli & Isles”

Earlier this week, New York Times TV critic Mike Hale reviewed the opening of the seventh and final season of the TNT original cop show, “Rizzoli & Isles.”

Here’s a relevant snippet:

On television, as in life, comfort food comes in all sorts of flavors. There’s the tart apple pie of “NCIS,” the solid corned beef and cabbage of “Blue Bloods,” the wacky loco moco of “Hawaii Five-0.”

“Rizzoli & Isles,” which begins its seventh and final season on Monday night, is in the TNT section of the menu. Like those other shows, which are on CBS, it’s good reheated. But it’s lighter and easier to eat with one hand while doing other things. It’s the thin-crust pizza of prime time.

That makes it the type of show that doesn’t generally garner much attention when it announces that its run is ending. (The final 13-week season will bring the show to a more-than-respectable 105 episodes.) A lot of people will notice, though, when “Rizzoli & Isles,” a formulaic buddy-cop drama — with the twist that the buddies are women and one’s a medical examiner — goes away.

I’m more charmed by the series than Hales, but I accept and agree with his point that “Rizzoli & Isles” is light fare, a far cry from “House of Cards” or even “Orphan Black,” but he misconstrues the lookalike shows that bring what’s interesting and distressing about “Rizzoli & Isles” into focus.

The real consideration set should be the other Holmes & Watson pairings where an eccentric genius teams up with a normal-but-tough partner.  By this definition, the peer group for “Rizzoli & Isles” are “Castle,” “The Mentalist,” “Elementary” and “Psych.”

When you look at this group, then the thing that immediately pops out is how much more eccentric the male geniuses are allowed to be than Maura Isles (portrayed by Sasha Alexander).   Rick Castle, at least at the start of the series (ignore the stupid, audience-betraying finale from last month), was an impish, annoying horndog who happened to be preternaturally insightful.  Holmes in “Elementary,” is a recovering drug addict who might be on the autism spectrum.  Patrick Jane in “The Mentalist”  was morally ambiguous at best: a con man who was only working with the cops to get revenge for his slain family.  In “Psych,” Shawn Spencer is another con man, in this case a hyper-observant young man who pretends to have psychic powers as a gimmick for a detective agency.

So what, in comparison, is so eccentric about Dr. Maura Isles?

She’s usually over-dressed for her job as a medical examiner.

Oh, and she is a tiny bit socially awkward when not talking about science.

That’s it.

When you look at “Rizzoli & Isles” in this peer group, then you quickly see how much narrower our conception of women’s range of eccentricity is when compared to how men can be eccentric.

Unless, of course, the woman is playing a villain.  Then you can get Alexis Carrington, Cruella DeVille, or any of the other snarling, scenery-chewing bad girls.  Think of the delight the camera takes in all the previews and stills from Margot Robbie’s forthcoming portrayal of Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad.”

A crazy man can be a hero or a villain.

A crazy woman is a villain.

I’ll keep tuning in, but just once I’d like to see the show runners of “Rizzoli & Isles” give Sasha Alexander the kind of acting material that Nathan Fillion, Simon Baker, Jonny Lee Miller and James Roday regularly received in their shows.

TechfestNW: Daimler’s Ambitious Vision for Self-Driving Trucks

I was reminded this week of a 1983 episode of the classic TV show “Knight Rider” featuring a self-driving truck named Goliath as the villain-of-the-week who battled heroes Michael Knight (played by a young David Hasselhoff) and K.I.T.T., a self-aware and self-driving Pontiac Trans Am. This boyhood memory clanged into my awareness because now, 33 years later, self-driving trucks are racing from science fiction into reality, although none of them sound like William Daniels (who provided the voice of K.I.T.T.).

At Tuesday’s TechfestNW conference in Portland Oregon — where Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) has its headquarters — two chief engineers shared the company’s ambitious, pragmatic and exciting vision for self-driving trucks in a rare public appearance.

Steve Nadig, DTNA’s Chief Engineer of Mechatronics, and Al Pearson, DTNA’s Chief Engineer of Product Validation, told the story of how Daimler Trucks’ Global CEO Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard let them know in December of 2014 that they would have to demo a semi-autonomous truck by May of 2015 at Hoover Dam near Las Vegas. 

With the clock ticking, the two engineers went back to basics, starting with clay models and then shifting to digital models in order to rethink the truck both inside and out.

Nadig and Peason’s team faced more than just engineering challenges: they also had to work with the state government of Nevada to have the truck accumulate 10,000 miles of incident-free driving before it could be licensed. 

148 days later, they hit their mark with the Inspiration Truck, a Class 2 semi-autonomous semi-truck (perhaps they should have called it the Semi-Semi?) that answers DTNA’s key questions, “What’s next?” And “How will we drive tomorrow?” in tons of metal instead of mere words.  

(Note: a fully autonomous vehicle is Class 5, and a vehicle with no automatic driving capabilities whatsoever is Class 2.)

Humans still behind the wheel, but only paying attention sometimes…

Unlike other vehicle companies that imagine a time when human freight drivers will no longer exist — or perhaps a time when humans are not allowed to drive at all — Pearson doesn’t think that an era with zero human truck drivers will arrive anytime soon.

“Total autonomous is possible now,” Person said. “But only if the environment is controlled. We think it’s going to be a while before we can ensure safety in all conditions.”

With a human driver still in the Daimler truck, that driver’s role will evolve, piloting the truck in the too-complex-for-AI terrain of cities, and then letting the truck drive itself on the highways.

Freed from highway driving, the human driver will manage logistics from the road, pushing that role out from a central or regional office to the edges of the shipping company’s footprint.  (More on this later.)

Why develop the Inspiration Truck?

Pearson and Nadig shared a cluster of compelling reasons for self-driving trucks: as the economy grows and becomes evermore global, freight will only continue to be grow alongside it, and self-driving trucks increase freight capacity. 

With “platooning” — where one self-driving truck follows another on the highway at a distance of 15 meters or less — the first truck cuts through the wind and gives an aerodynamic benefit to each of the trucks that follow it. 

15 meters is too close for a human driver to follow, but with V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications) the self-driving trucks take slower human reaction time out of the equation.

In addition, freight companies would benefit from trucks like the Inspiration because of increased safety features, reduced fuel consumption, reduced vehicle component strain, reduced maintenance and repair, predictive route driving, reduced driver stress, optimized driver time and more generally an improved reputation for the company in question.

Daimler’s approach

Since the Inspiration truck is not striving to eliminate human drivers, Daimler’s approach to self-driving is, in Nadig’s words, “a relatively simple combination of technologies,” that includes an internal camera, two cameras in each mirror (one looking at the blind spot and back down the trailer, a “big safety improvement”), and a radar sensor focused out in front of the truck. 

As Nadig observed, using this technology “reduces drivers’ stress and gets them to an optimum level,” but this is only for highway driving: “there are still lots of skills being used on city streets.”

Daimler’s lean approach requires less up-front computation than what other self-driving experiments (like Google, Uber, Toyota, Nvidia) are finding they need, although particularly with V2V and platooning there is still a formidable amount going on under the digital hood of the Inspiration.

As the session shifted into audience Q&A, Nadig observed that “there’s a social aspect” to autonomous vehicles as well as a technological one. “Think about getting on an airplane without a pilot: the technology will go faster than society is prepared to react to it,” Nadig said.

Implications: Daimler’s approach to self-driving trucks is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, which I intend as a compliment. DTNA’s focus is on making its current customers happier and happier by improving the most expensive tool their customers buy and maintain: trucks.

I’m most intrigued by how the Inspiration reimagines — and reengineers — the role of the human driver into half driver and half logistics manager: it’s a rare moment in autonomous vehicle thinking that thinks of humans as a resource worth investing in rather than as a disposable cost center.

One possible outcome to this shift is that drivers also become knowledge workers, higher skilled, higher paid, managing deliveries, inventories and other things at the edge of a freight company’s geographic footprint rather than having things managed mostly in the home office. This could make the freight company more responsive and agile in how it approaches its business.

Moreover, with excess human capacity in the Inspiration, in what other activities could a freight company — or DTNA itself — invest?

Recall that Amazon Web Services (currently the fastest-growing part of Amazon’s business) started as an answer to the question of what to do with the company’s excess web server capacity, and an opportunity for DTNA to do something similar with its own excess capacity in transport and logistics quickly comes into focus (Thomas Friedman discussed UPS doing something similar in his 2005 book The World is Flat, and I’d be eager to see how the larger carrying capacity of DTNA trucks grew that opportunity.)

DTNA’s level 2 approach to self-driving trucks also shows that while the world in which humans no longer drive except for pleasure is still a long way off, we’ll start sharing the roads with non-human drivers in the very immediate future— and not just near Google’s Mountain View campus.

But can I get my car to talk to me in William Daniels’ voice, like K.I.T.T.?

[Cross-posted at LinkedIn.]

Where “Lucifer” on Fox goes off the rails

“Lucifer,” the new midseason replacement show on Fox, doesn’t trust its audience.

Episode #8 aired last night, and at this point the show is a basic police procedural with a celestial crisis (something bad will happen without Lucifer working as Hell’s CEO and main jailor) lurking vaguely in the background.  Tom Ellis is charming as Lucifer in a performance that is virtually a cover of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from the Marvel movies.  Lauren German is the supermodel cop who plays the straight woman.

The debilitating, series-limiting problem with, isn’t that the show is offensive to Christians (it is, but that’s no surprise), nor is it that the show has the same narrative engine as “Castle,” “The Mentalist” and “Elementary”— what NPR’s Linda Holmes calls “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic.”  (I wonder if Lauren German, Stana Katic, Lucy Liu and Robin Tunney get together over tea to practice humorless looks on beautiful faces.)

There’s no way that any TV show could capture the sprawling story from Mike Carey’s “Lucfier” comic book (inspired by a Lucifer cameo in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman” comic book).

Instead, “Lucifer” fails because it tips its hand the moment the story opens: we know that Lucifer Morningstar really is the devil, has left Hell because he got tired of playing a role in God’s plot and instead moved to Los Angeles (the city of angels) to open a piano bar, at which point he meets a gorgeous female detective and they start an investigative partnership.

The missed opportunity with “Lucifer” was that the show could have been a tightly-focused “is he the devil or is he nuts?” exercise, one that could have lasted five seasons.  (I predict that “Lucifer” will run of out of story steam in Season Two.)

The show would have been more interesting and sustainable if every time Lucifer demonstrated unusual abilities there could have been two equally valid interpretations, only one of which is that he isn’t human.  Lucifer’s conversations with brother angel Amenadiel could have been shot in different stock or with a filter that suggests they might have been hallucinations. 

This twist would have not have affected the police procedural plots, the crimes of the week that Lucifer and Detective Chloe Decker solve, but it would have made the sustaining relationships more interesting.

The entire show, in other words, could have been more like Lucifer’s relationship with psychiatrist Dr. Linda Martin, in which she does not believe that he is the devil but agrees to work within his metaphor in treatment.  If the audience had doubts about Lucifer’s devilish status, then Dr. Martin’s torrid sexual relationship with Lucifer would then have been more ethically dodgy — and more dramatically interesting — since she would have done something wrong rather than been mesmerized by a supernaturally sexy being.

If the audience didn’t know whether Lucifer was the devil in retirement or just a mad human, then that would have made all the personal stories that come out of the narrative engine compelling.  In other words, the series could have played the Hamlet card: is the prince merely putting on an antic disposition or has he truly gone nuts?

But it’s not fair to saddle Lucifer with Shakespeare-sized expectations.  Instead, the series should have taken a page from the movie “The Sixth Sense.”  (Spoiler alert, although for a movie from 1999 I should hardly have to warn you.) 

At the end of that movie, the revelation that Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is himself a ghost, one of the dead people that the little boy can see and hear, casts everything the audience has just watched into a new, complex and compelling light. 

What’s important, though, is that even without that final twist “The Sixth Sense” is still a great story.  We don’t need the twist to have loved the movie, but it makes us reengage with the story as it ends (see notes).

In my alternate reality version of “Lucifer” (the one where Spock has a beard), Chloe’s relationship with Lucifer would have been vexed by her having to triangulate growing affection against a fear that he’s either a whacko or the devil in retirement… neither of which are high recommendations for a boyfriend you can bring home to meet Mom.

A five season arc might have gone like this:

Season One: we meet the characters, Lucifer and Chloe forge a partnership with potential.

Season Two: Chloe thinks that Lucifer is human and nuts, but she falls for him anyway.  She spends part of the season trying to figure out his real human identity but cannot.  They consummate their relationship.  The season ends with Lucifer doing something impossible.

Season Three: Chloe now believes that Lucifer really is the devil, and she is trying to figure out if sleeping with him has eternal consequences.  The season ends with Lucifer demonstrating mortal frailty (e.g., he gets shot, cliffhanger with him in the hospital).

Season Four: Lucifer, recovering from his wounds, begins to doubt his own story.  He refuses to talk with Amenadiel because, like the audience, he thinks that Amenadiel is a hallucination. 

Season Five: everything comes to a head.  The really weird stuff (e.g., Donald Trump is a presidential candidate) gets even weirder, and from the “he’s really the devil” perspective the gates of hell stand agape and it’s really time for Lucifer to get back to his real job.  Meanwhile, from the “he’s just nuts” perspective Chloe and Lucifer are faced with their need to move ahead or move on.  The last moment of the last episode finally reveals the truth, with no ambiguity or “Dr. Sam Becker never leaped home” betrayal.

I’ll keep watching “Lucifer” for another few episodes to see where the plot is going, but I fear that the answer is “to hell in a hand basket.”

Notes:

Don’t miss Linda Holmes’ piece that includes “The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic.” HT to Alan Sepinwall [] for linking to this, and his own review of “Lucifer” is brief but strong.

Digression #1: “The Sixth Sense” is the opposite of “The Fight Club” (1999, and another unnecessary spoiler alert), which lies to the audience throughout because the Brad Pitt character turns out to have been a movie-long hallucination by the Edward Norton character.

Digression #2: I’ve long been fond of literary explorations of the devil, from Milton to Gaiman and including Jeremy Levin’s “Satan: his psychotherapy and cure by the unfortunate Dr. Kassler, JSPS,” “Glen Duncan’s “I, Lucifer,” and a terrific version in Robert Heinlein’s novel “Job: a comedy of justice.”

Cross-posted on Medium.com.

First Thoughts on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa

Based in large part on my friend Jeff Minsky’s enthusiast endorsement, I bought the Amazon Echo device that comes with its voice-activated, Siri-like, AI digital helper named Alexa.  “This is a no-brainer,” Jeff said.  “If nothing else it’s a terrific wireless speaker for under $200, and it does so much more.”

I unboxed Echo on Wednesday, downloaded the iPhone app, plugged it in and had it running in minutes.  Jeff is right about the speaker: it has a great sound and fills up even my (no pun intended) echo-filled living room. 

Here are my first thoughts about the Echo and Alexa, its successes, missed opportunities, and where I see it going.

Surprise and Delight: The Beatles

As I did the morning dishes, my first request was, “Alexa, play The Beatles.”  Seconds later I heard “Long, Long, Long” from The White Album.  Wow!

Over the course of the next few minutes of puttering and tidying, I heard a news briefing from NPR, skipped through a bunch of other music, and also discovered that every CD or MP3 I’d purchased in my 18 years of Amazon.com membership was available to Alexa… and this is quite a bit.  I didn’t even realize that I had a music library outside of the Spotify-like, free-with-Amazon Prime music service.

Then — more surprise, more delight — a query of mine revealed that Alexa also has access to all my Kindle books… and she has a nice reading voice.  Within moments, Alexa was reading Michael Winberg’s It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw it Up book about 3D printing and IP law.  I’ve experienced earlier algorithmic reading of text, and it was no fun: robotic voices with no cadence and a ton of mispronounced words.  By contrast, Alexa is smooth and winning.  Does she measure up against a professional actor performing a text?  By no means.  But for simple, “what’s this book about?” curiosity she’s fine… it’s a Herb Simon satisficing exercise, rather than a premium audio-book optimization.

Alexa is an example of what Jeff Minsky calls the “Ambient Internet.”

Even more so than with the always-in-your-pocket smart phone, having hands-free Echo on the kitchen counter reduces friction between my desire to search something and performing the search.  This is even lower friction than my experience with the Apple Watch, because with the Watch I have to raise my wrist to my face with my left hand and push a button with my right hand to wake it up and have it start listening… although Siri on my iPhone wakes up to “Hey, Siri.” 

Not having to move a muscle and still being able to search something is powerful, even seductive.

Last night, for example, my 10 year old son wanted to go to a barbecue joint for dinner.  So I asked Alexa where the best ribs in Portland are.  Alexa immediately recommended Reo’s Ribs, which is zesty and tangy (it used to be our neighborhood joint before it moved about seven miles further away).  Alexa couldn’t manage to suggest other options (although to be fair I only asked her for the best ribs in my query and, like Siri, she has a limited ability to understand followup questions), so I trotted to my computer and to Google to find a closer joint.

Dinner was delicious. 

There’s a down side to the Ambient Internet, which is that it accelerates my technology-induced quasi-Attention Deficit Disorder.  Having a bunch of devices that can deliver tasty, Doritos-like nibbles of information doesn’t help me buckle down and focus on pressing tasks at hand. 

Likewise, having a cybernetic pal eager to tell me about things happening in the world while I do dishes gets in the way of either mindful attention to task (even if the task is dishes) or mindless day-dreaming that often sparks a creative insight. 

Many smart folks have written extensively about how frictionless 24/7/365 connectivity makes us reactive and superficial rather than proactive and deep (see Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows for one good example), and I don’t need to make that argument again here except insofar as how adding another connected device, Echo, throws more cognitive Doritos into my info-diet rather than veggies.

Brief Digression on Cyber-Security: I’m not, in this post, addressing either the Big Brother Question (Amazon is always listening, tracking everything, and using that information to take over the world or maybe just help the NSA) or the Skynet/Robot Apocalypse Question (Alexa will fuse with Siri, find Ultron, and then decide to eliminate the infestation of humans ruining this perfectly good planet). End of Digression.

But what about the shopping?  I have yet to ask Alexa to add something to my Amazon list, but I have no doubt that Alexa’s frictionlessness will aid purchase… and if Alexa continues to live in the kitchen then that will probably hurt my local supermarket if I wind up ordering dishwashing soap through Amazon because I just ask for it when I’m running out rather than having to pull out my phone to add it to the shopping list. 

Missing: a battery.  It’s only by using a device that you see the presumptions that the creators had while designing it.  With Echo, the designer presumed that once you picked a spot for the device it would stay in that spot.  This is a problem as I’m working to figure out where Alexa should be in my house, since every time I unplug the device it powers down and takes a minute-plus to reboot when I plug it into a different socket in another room.  I find this minute-plus reboot time vexing… and it doesn’t fit with the general frictionlessness of Echo. 

A backup battery that would keep the Echo going for a half hour would be useful.

But the lack of a battery also suggests that Amazon has more pervasive ambitions for Alexa.  From the start, I asked myself, “why both Echo and Alexa?”  Why not just call the device Alexa?

The reason, I think, is that Alexa has a bigger future footprint than the Echo.

The Echo is just a speaker, but pretty soon users will find themselves chatting with Alexa on their phones, on their computers and tablets when shopping on Amazon.  And judging from the Ford SYNC integration with Echo that I saw at this year’s CES, Amazon also wants us to chat with Alexa when we’re driving around.  “Alexa, please add Tide to my shopping list,” I’ll be able to say as I drive around.

While Alexa is great, she is no “Jarvis” from Iron Man and The Avengers.  One disappointing thing about Alexa is her half-hearted connectivity to other services.  Yes, you can play your Spotify tunes out of the Alexa speaker, but in order to do so you have to stream Spotify from your phone (or some other device) into Alexa.  So you can’t ask Alexa for a particular playlist or to search Spotify for that rare Bill Evans tune.

The Achilles heel of most connected technologies is having the mobile phone as a tether: this is as true of Echo as it is of the Apple Watch.   

Finally, another designer presumption that a few days of use has turned up: Echo was designed for somebody who lives alone, or at least for a single user.  Here’s a revelatory snippet from the Amazon page on Echo and Alexa:

Alexa—the brain behind Echo—is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more you use Echo, the more it adapts to your speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences. And because Echo is always connected, updates are delivered automatically.

This engineering mindset parallels that of the smart phone: one user per device.

But I live with three other humans and a dog.  While the dog’s shopping needs don’t require an AI helper, my son — who is entranced with Alexa — has trouble making himself understood because Alexa has adapted to my voice. 

This is a pervasive problem with shared services.  Since my entire family uses my Amazon Prime account, Prime thinks I suffer from multiple personality disorder since the suggested purchases run across four idiosyncratic people’s interests.  I always know when, for example, my teenaged daughter has been makeup shopping on Amazon because the Amazon banner ads that stalk me across the web shift.

My Netflix recommendations are even worse since we started using the service before the company enabled different profiles.  I have no interest in “Cupcake Wars,” but Netflix disagrees.

In a future post, I’ll write more about Echo/Alexa’s potential impact on business, shopping and branding.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]