The Fall and Rise of the Visual Internet

I’m pleased to announce that my role with the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg has expanded, and I’m now the Chief Strategy Officer. This column is cross-posted from the Center’s website, and is the first of many regular pieces from me and my colleagues. And now, onto the column… 

Bennett and I have been friends since we were eight. Over a recent late-night dessert we compared notes about how thinly spread we each felt across work, family and life. Bennett then shared an insight from a counselor he sees: “Y’know how in Kung-Fu movies the hero stands in the center and all the villains gather into a circle around him and take turns attacking him one by one? Life isn’t like that.”

Neither is technology.

Technologies don’t take turns arriving in our lives. Instead, they’re locked in a Darwinian struggle to clutch and hold onto a niche in our lives. Sometimes it’s a head-to-head struggle, like VCR versus Betamax, where the differences are slight and one technology wins because of marketing and luck. Sometimes different trends slam into each other and that collision creates a new thing — like the way that mobile phones ate digital cameras, email, notebooks, calendars, music collections, powerful microprocessors, decent battery life, email and the web to become smart phones.

A new collision is gaining velocity with the emergence of digital assistants and heads-up display. Both new technologies are changing how users interact with information, particularly visual information. As these technologies give users new ways to behave, those behavior changes will pressurize the business models and financial health of digital media companies, particularly ad-supported companies.

Voice-Interfaces Reduce Visual Interaction

Even though newer Echo devices have screens and touch interfaces, the most compelling use case is eyes free and hands free for Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri in the HomePod, and the Google Assistant in Google Home.

For example, I often use my Echo device when I’m doing the dishes to catch up on the day’s events by asking, “Alexa, what’s in the news?” Or, if I’m about to wade deep into thought at my desk and don’t want to miss a conference call starting an hour later I’ll ask Alexa to “set a timer for 55 minutes.”

I’m a failure at voice-driven commerce because I have yet to ask Alexa to buy anything from Amazon, but I have used IFTTT (the “If This, Then That” service that connects different devices and services) to connect Alexa to my to-do list so that I can add something just by speaking, which spares me from dropping everything to grab my phone or (gasp!) a pen and paper.

Alexa’s answers are pleasantly clutter-free. If I use my desktop computer to search Amazon for the latest John Grisham novel, then along with a prominent link to Camino Island, Amazon serves up a results page with 24 distracting other things that I can buy, as well as hundreds of other links. With Alexa, I just get Camino Island. (With commodity products, unless you specify a brand Amazon will send you its generic house brand: CPG advertisers beware!)

Right now, most queries to smartphone-based digital assistants result in a list of results that I have to look at, switching my attention from ears to eyes, but as these rudimentary artificial intelligences get better my need to look at a screen will decline. Today, if I say, “Hey Siri, where’s a Peet’s coffee near me?” the AI will tell me the address and ask me if I want to call or get directions. If I choose “directions,” then I have to look at my phone. In a short amount of time, Siri will seamlessly transition to Apple Maps and speak turn-by-turn directions, so I won’t have to look away from the road.

The challenge the rise of voice interfaces poses for ad-supported digital companies is that those companies make their money from propinquity— from the background clutter that is near the thing I’m looking at or searching for but that isn’t the thing I’m looking at or searching for.

Google, Facebook, the New York Times, AOL (excuse me, “Oath”), Reddit, Tumblr, Bing, LinkedIn, and others make much of their money from banners, pop-up ads, search results and other things we see but often don’t consciously notice: that is, online display adverting.

Amazon’s Alexa can already read news stories aloud in a smooth, easy-to-follow voice. It won’t be long until all the digital assistants can do so, and can navigate from article to article, site to site without users having to look at anything.

We can listen to only one thing at a time, so there aren’t background ads for Siri, Alexa and their ilk. Moreover, despite decades of conditioning to accept interruptive ads in radio, it’ll be game over the moment Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant says, “I’ll answer your question, but first please listen to this message from our friends at GlaxoSmithKline.”

The most powerful ad blocker turns out to be a switch from eyes to ears as the primary sense for media interaction. As voice-interface digital assistants grow in popularity and capability, the volume of visual inventory for these businesses will erode.

This erosion follows the decline in visual inventory that already happened as users moved most of their computing time to the smaller screens of mobile devices with less visual geography and therefore less room for ads.

In a recent Recode Decode interview, marketing professor and L2 founder Scott Galloway observed, “advertising has become a tax that the poor and the technologically illiterate pay.”

Since wealthier people will have voice-activated digital assistants first, that means that the people more exposed to visual advertising will have less disposable income and will therefore be less desirable targets for many advertisers. This creates more pressure on the display-ad-based media economy.

On the other hand, remember the Kung Fu movie quip? There’s another technology making changes in the visual internet at the same time.

Smart Glasses Increase Visual Interaction

Smart glasses are, simply, computer screens that you wear over your eyes. In contrast with voice-interfaces that are already popular in phones and with speakers, smart glasses haven’t become a big hit because they’re expensive, battery life is limited, and many people get nervous around other people wearing cameras on their faces all the time. (Early Google Glass enthusiasts were sometimes dubbed “glassholes.”)

Some pundits think that just because Google Glass didn’t sweep the nation it means that all smart glasses are doomed to failure. But just as Apple’s failed Newton (1993) presaged the iPhone 14 years later (2007), Google Glass is merely an early prototype for a future technology hit.

Smart glasses come in a spectrum that gets more immersive: augmented reality puts relevant information in your peripheral vision (Google Glass), mixed reality overlays information onto your location that you can manipulate (Microsoft’s HoloLens, with Pokemon Go as a phone-based version), and virtual reality absorbs you into a 360 degree environment that has little relationship to wherever your body happens to be (Facebook’s Oculus Rift, HTC Vive). The overarching category is “Heads-Up Display” or HUD.

What’s important about HUDs is that they increase the amount of digital information in the user’s visual field: not just the visual inventory for ads (like in this clip from the film, “Minority Report“), but for everything.

Wherever you’re reading this column — on a computer, tablet, phone or paper printout — please stop for a moment and pay attention to your peripheral vision. I’m sitting at my desk as I write this. To my left is a window leading to the sunny outdoors. On my desk to the right are a scanner and a coffee cup. Papers lie all over the desk below the monitor, and there are post-it reminders and pictures on the wall behind the monitor. It’s a typical work environment.

If I were wearing a HUD, then all of that peripheral territory would be fair game for digital information pasted over the real world. That might be a good thing: I could have a “focus” setting on my HUD that grays out everything in my visual field that isn’t part of the window where I’m typing or the scattered paper notes about what I’m writing. If I needed to search for a piece of information on Google I might call a virtual monitor into existence next to my actual monitor and run the search without having to hide the text I’m writing. This is the good news version.

In the bad news version, ads, helpful suggestions, notifications, reminders and much more colonize the majority of my visual field: I think about those moments when my smart phone seems to explode with notifications, and then I imagine expanding that chaos to everything I can see. In some instances this might be a maddening cacophony, but others might be more subtle, exposing me to messages in the background at a high but not-irritating frequency in order to make the product more salient. (“I’m thirsty: I’ll have a Coke. Wait, I don’t drink soft drinks… how’d that happen?”) This isn’t as creepy as it sounds, like the old Vance Packard “subliminal advertising” bugaboo, it’s just advertising. Salience results from repetition.

Regardless of what fills the digital visual field, an explosion of visual inventory will be a smorgasbord of yummies for ad-supported media companies.

But there’s a twist.

Filters and the Decline of Shared Reality

Just sitting at my desk as I work is an overly-simplistic use case for wearing a HUD: the real differences in all their complexity come into focus once I leave my office to wander the world.

With Heads-Up Display, every surface becomes a possible screen for interactive information. That’s the output. Since the primary input channel will still be my voice, there’s a disparity between the thin amount of input I give and the explosion of output I receive. This is the digital assistant and HUD collision I mentioned earlier.

Walking in a supermarket, the labels on different products might be different for me than for the person pushing his cart down the aisle a few yards away. The supermarket might generate individualized coupons in real time that would float over the products in question and beckon. If my HUD integrated with my digital assistant, then I might be able to say, “Hey Siri, what can I make for dinner?” and have Siri show me what’s in the fridge and the pantry so that I can buy whatever else I need.

Smart glasses won’t just stick information on top of the reality on the other side of the lenses, they will also filter that reality in different ways.

We can see how this will work by looking at the technologies we already use. For example, businesses will compete to put hyper-customized articles, videos, and ads in front of you, similar to how ads pop-up on your Facebook page today. But these articles and ads will be everywhere you look, rather than contained on your laptop of phone. This is algorithmic filtering based on your past behavior.

Likewise, your digital assistant will insert helpful information into your visual field (such as the name of the person you’re talking with that you can’t remember) that you either ask for or that it anticipates you might find useful. The Google app on many smart phones already does versions of this, like reminding you to leave for the airport so that you aren’t late for your flight.

Finally, you’ll be able to add your own filters by hand, changing people’s appearances or names in real-time. If you’ve given one of your smart phone callers an individual ring tone, changed the name of a contact to something else (“What a Babe” or “Don’t Answer Him,”), or watched a teenager put a dog nose or kitty ears on top of a photo in Snapchat, then you’ve already seen primitive versions of this in action.

An unintended consequence of this visual explosion is the decline of shared reality. We already spend much of our time avoiding the world around us in favor of the tastier, easier world inside our smart phones. But even if the latest meme coming out of Instagram is the funniest thing we’ve ever seen, the majority of what surrounds us is still analog, still the flesh and blood world untouched by digital information.

That changes with HUDs.

In the near future where HUDs are common, you and I might stand side by side on the same street corner looking at the same hodgepodge of people, cars, buildings and signs — but seeing different things because we have idiosyncratic, real-time filters. Each of us will be standing on the same corner but living inside what Eli Pariser calls “filter bubbles” that have ballooned out to surround our entire worlds.

Common knowledge at this point becomes rare because a big part of common knowledge is its social component. In the words of Michael Suk-Young Chwe from his book Rational Ritual, a society’s integration is the result of coordinated activities built on a set of shared information and messages.

For a society to function, Chwe writes, “Knowledge of the message is not enough; what is also required is knowledge of others’ knowledge, knowledge of others’ knowledge of others’ knowledge, and so on — that is, “common knowledge.”

It has been challenging enough in our shared analog reality to achieve things like consensus in politics or word-of-mouth awareness in business. As we each move into new, idiosyncratically personalized environments where we don’t know what other people know, we’ll need to work harder to hear other voices than our own, to connect with each other as friends, family members, customers and citizens.

That may be a tall order.

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.

Don’t Miss Adam Grant’s new book “Originals”

Of the many compliments that I can give to Adam Grant’s remarkable new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, a rare one is that I will have to read it again soon.  Grant is an unusual social scientist in that he’s also a terrific writer, a gem-cutting anecdote selector of real-life stories that illuminate his points with a breezy, swallow-it-in-a-gulp momentum so I found myself racing through the book with a smile on my face.  I didn’t even take notes!  That doesn’t happen.  So, I’m going to read it again, slower, pencil in hand.
In the meantime my first tour through Originals haunts my waking life, an insightful shadow nodding in at unexpected moments— as a professional, a thinker and as a parent.
For example, when an academic friend told me she was trying to salvage as much as she could from her recent articles to put into a book she needs to write for tenure, I replied, “Don’t do that. You are prolific and have tons of ideas: only chase the ones that still excite you.”  That’s lifted straight from Grant, who talks about genius as a surprisingly quantitative endeavor: it’s not that creative masters have better ideas than the rest of us, instead they have have a much greater number of ideas so the odds go up that some of those ideas are terrific.
One of Grant’s opening anecdotes explores a non-causal correlation between success in a call center and an employee’s decision to change the default web browser on her or his computer.  If the employee switched away from Internet Explorer to Firefox or Chrome (this isn’t hot-off-the-presses data, I think), then that switch demonstrated a kind of “how can I make this better?” mindset that led to higher job performance.  I’ve thought about my own default choices repeatedly since then. noticing how sometimes I work around the technology when it’s too much bother to make the technology serve me.  Looking at the pile of remote controls near the entertainment center in my living room is one example: I haven’t bothered to research, buy and program one universal remote.
Grant’s notion of strategic procrastination has also proved actionable faster than I might have predicted.  I’ve often been a pressure-cooker worker, mulling things over for a long simmering period before rolling up my sleeves.  Grant has persuaded me, though, that getting started first and then taking a mulling break at the halfway point leads to higher quality outcomes, and I’ve used this to my advantage — and the advantage of the work — on a research project that is taking up most of my time.
Originals isn’t perfect but it’s always provocative.  Another phenomenon that Grant explores is the correlation between birth order and creativity, with younger children — particularly the youngest of many children — often becoming more successful as ground-breaking creatives because they inhabit a different social niche in their families than rule-making parents and rule-abiding oldest children (of which I am one).  Grant’s birth order argument focuses so much on the nuclear family that I wonder if it’s too Western, too settled, too suburban.  My mother, for example, grew up in a close, hodgepodge, overlapping community of immigrant parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and oodles of cousins.  Her closest peer group were her cousins, with whom she roamed her city neighborhood unsupervised.  The cousins, with whom she is still close decades later, influenced her as much if not more than her sister, eight years her senior and a more distant presence in her childhood than, say, the presence of my 14 year old daughter in my 10 year old son’s day-to-day in our little suburb.  Still, Grant’s birth order research has made me rethink some of my own parenting choices with my older child.
Perhaps my only real complaint with Originals is that I want some additional product that will help me to apply its powerful insights in my everyday life.  As I gobbled up the book, I wanted something like a deck of playing cards with distilled versions of the chapters that I might rifle through to help sharpen my thinking… something like the Oblique Strategies or Story Cubes.
I was a big fan of Grant’s first book, Give and Take, and Originals is just as good if not better.  It was a pleasure to read the first time, and I’m eager to dive in once again… perhaps I’ll make my own deck of helpful playing cards using my friend John Willshire’s product, the Artefact Cards.

The FOMO Myth

In my last post I wrote about how Facebook’s business need to have more people doing more things on its platform more of the time is in tension with how human satisfaction works.

In today’s post, I’m going to dig a little deeper into the satisfaction math (for those of you with a “Math, ewww” reflex, it’s just fractions, man, chill) and then use that to argue that there’s really no such thing as FOMO or “Fear of Missing Out” for most people when it comes to social media.

Here again for your convenience is the whiteboard chart sketching out my sense of how the Facebook satisfaction index works:

chart

I’m less concerned with where the hump is on the horizontal axis (50 connections, 150, 200, 500) than with the shape and trajectory where as you have more and more connections your overall satisfaction with any single interaction moment on Facebook (or any other social networking service) approaches zero. 

Most people’s response to this is to jump onto an accelerating hamster wheel where you check in more and more often hoping for that dopamine rush of “she did THAT? cool!” but not getting it because the odds get worse and worse.

This is because most people, myself included, aren’t interesting most of the time. 

As a rule of thumb, let’s follow Theodore Sturgeon’s Law which argues that 90% of all human effort is crap, and you spend your whole life looking for that decent 10%.*

By this logic, your Facebook friends will post something interesting about 10% of the time— with some people you love this is a comedic exaggeration because a lot of the time we don’t love people because they are interesting: they are interesting because we love them.

Now let’s say you have 150 Facebook friends, which is both close to the average number of Facebook connections and also happens to be psychologist Robin Dunbar’s Number (how many people with whom you can reasonably have relationships).

Next, let’s say you glance at Facebook once per day and see only one thing that a connection has posted with attendant comments. (BTW, I just opened Facebook full screen on my desktop computer and, to my mild surprise, I only see one complete post.)

If we combo-platter Sturgeon’s law with Dunbar’s number then the odds aren’t great that you’ll find the post interesting: 10% of 1/150, or a 1/1,500 chance.

Wait, let’s be generous because we all find different things worthy of our attention at different moments (we are wide, we contain multitudes), and let’s say that in general you’ll find a post interesting for one several reasons:

The poster says or shares something genuinely interesting

You haven’t connected with the poster in a while

The poster says or shares something funny

You think the poster is hot so you’ll be interested in what she or he says regardless of content due to ulterior motives

You just connected with the poster on Facebook (or Twitter, et cetera) recently, so anything she or he says will be novel and therefore interesting

So that’s now a five-fold increase in the ways that we can find a single post interesting, but the odds still aren’t great: 5/1500 which reduces down to 1/300. 

That’s just one post: if you keep on scrolling and take in 30 posts, which you can do in a minute or so, then you’re at 30/300 or a one-in-ten chance that you’ll find something interesting.  (These still ain’t great odds, by the way: a 90% chance of failure.) 

At this point, cognitive dissonance comes into play and you change your metrics rather than convict yourself of wasting time, deciding to find something not-terribly-interesting kinda-sorta interesting after all.

Remember, though, that I’m deriving this satisfaction index from a base of 150 friends: as your number of connections increases — and remember that Facebook has to grow your number of connections to grow its business — to 1,500 (close to my number, social media slut that I am) then your odds of finding something interesting in 30 posts goes down to 1/100 or a 99% failure rate.

Multiply this across Twitter, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, Vine, Tumblr and every other social networking service and you have an fraction with an ever-expanding denominator and a numerator that can never catch up.

Or, to translate this into less-fractional lingo, even if you spent all day, every day on social media the days aren’t getting longer but your social network is getting larger, so the likelihood of your finding social media interactions to be satisfying inexorably decreases over time.**

This is different than FOMO.  Sure, pathological fear of missing out exists: people who check the mailbox seventeen times per day, who can never put their smart phones down for fear of missing an email, who pop up at the water cooler to listen to a conversation. 

But with social media it’s not FOMO, it’s DROP: Diminishing Returns On Platform.

Most importantly, there’s a conspiracy-theory-paranoiac interpretation of how people talk about FOMO when it comes to social media: if you attribute checking Facebook too much to FOMO, then it’s a problem with the user, not with Facebook.  The user needs to develop more discipline and stop checking Facebook. 

As I discussed in my last post, this pernicious argument is similar to how Coca-Cola — which needs to have the 50% of the population that drinks soda drink more soda to have business growth — dodges the question of whether it is partly responsible for the U.S. obesity epidemic by saying that people just need to exercise more.

Facebook could create better filters for its users with ease, making a Dunbar filter of 150 that the home display defaults to and letting users toss people into that filter, and remove them easily later.  This is what Path was trying to do, but there’s no business model in it for a startup like Path.  With Facebook’s dominance in social media, it could and should value user satisfaction more than it does.

Right now, though, the only ways to increase your satisfaction with Facebook are either to reduce your number of friends or to reduce your time on platform.

* The Third Millennial Berens Corollary to Sturgeon’s Law is that only 1/10 of 1% is truly excellent but that our signal to noise ratio makes it almost impossible to find excellence.

** This line of thinking is similar to the opportunity costs that Barry Schwartz discusses in his excellent 2004 book “The Paradox of Choice.”

The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t terrible, isn’t great

Over the weekend I zoomed through the new David Lagercrantz novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which is the not-written-by-Stieg-Larsson sequel to the Millenium Trilogy that started with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I’ll start with some thoughts about the book itself — so you have your spoiler alert — but I’ll wind up this post with some thoughts about the the aesthetics of ephemera and vice versa.

About the novel: It’s a good gulp-it-down novel, quickly plotted and dark in similar ways to the Larsson books (although not nearly as dark as Larsson’s third, which sucked the light of out the room where I was reading it).

But the book feels unnecessary. After the riveting revelations about Salander’s childhood in Larsson’s third book, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, there’s not much left to say about Lisbeth Salander’s past, and any changes to the character in service of a future would risk betraying the readers who want more of the same. This is a terrible trap for a novelist.

Lagercrantz couldn’t escape the trap, so he has reduced Salander to a series of narrative functions rather like what happened to Sherlock Holmes in the Holmes stories written by others after Conan Doyle’s death (and there are thousands). In most of these stories, Holmes is a pastiche of narrative-advancing tricks (he deduces that Watson been to the horse races from a bit of straw on Watson’s shoe, causing gullible Watson always to be astounded yet again) rather than a character that interests the reader himself. With the exception of Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Percent Solution, talking about Holmes as a character is like talking about Batman’s utility belt as a character— it’s not all that useful.

In the post-Larsson world of the Lagercrantz, Salander is an angry superhero, superhacker, protector of innocents who bursts onto the scene regularly, makes things happen, and then disappears. 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a misleading title for this book, since Salander is never caught, never motionless, never the prey despite being hunted— she is the predator.

I don’t regret reading the book — despite my sense that it serves the publisher’s greed rather than the readers’ need — but I probably won’t read the next one, and I’m sure there will be a next one.

The aesthetics of ephemera: Perhaps more importantly, I don’t regret reading the book last weekend— my satisfaction index will never be higher than just a few days after its August 27th release date. The longer I wait, the more information from the world will trickle in to spoil my fun.

This isn’t just true of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, of course. The reason that a movie’s lifetime economic success usually is a function of its opening weekend is that the water cooler conversation about a movie is at its frothiest after opening weekend. 

I love to see movies (particularly popcorn movies) opening weekend — although I rarely get to do so — because that’s the moment of maximum potential for having that explosive moment of connection in my own head to other movies and works, and it’s also the moment of maximum potential for having fun discussions with other people about the movie and its broader context.

But the longer I wait to see a movie, the more likely I’ll hear something about it that will diminish that connection-making pleasure for me. I’m not talking about classic “the girl’s really a guy!” plot spoilers, although those suck. Instead, I’m talking about those trying-to-be-helpful hints that come from people who’ve already seen the movie. “I’m not going to tell you anything, but you have to stay all the way to the end of the credits: it’s really cool!”

This is a horrible thing to say to somebody going to a movie you’ve already seen since it means that the viewer will detach from the climax of the movie early, in order to focus on the extra coming after the end.

The ephemera of aesthetics: We don’t have good language to talk about this phenomenon, the very short half-life of the water cooler effect on how we experience culture.

We’re good at talking about the work itself, the creation of the work, the background and previous efforts of the creators of the work.

But we’re bad at talking about how we are a moving point in time relative to the work, and how satisfaction decays with some works but deepens with others.

For example, I’ve been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series for about 20 years now, and they merit re-reading. I see new things in the characters, the plot, and her writing when I revisit the books. Although Bujold’s books are masterfully plotted, I can’t reduce my satisfaction with her books to the plot, and this is good.

Lagercrantz’s book is entirely about the plot: at the end of the story all the energy has been released from the plot, a bunch of the characters are either dead or narratively exhausted, and Salander will need to be released into a new situation to exercise her narrative function.

Some sorts of aesthetic experience, then, are fragile in Nasism Nicholas Taleb’s notion of fragility and antifragility.

Plot is fragile. Character is not inherently, but for a character to be antifragile that character must exceed the needs of the plot in which the character embedded. 

Ironically, inside the world of The Girl in the Spider’s Web Lisbeth Salander is indestructible: nothing stops her. Meanwhile, for this reader the experience of reading about Salander’s latest adventure is soap bubble ephemeral.

Pop.

[Cross posted with Medium.]

Stewart, Cosby, Williams: Tough Times for U.S. Comedy

Take heed, sirrah, the whip.
   King Lear to his Fool

Jon Stewart’s farewell episode of The Daily Show last night proved joyful rather than sad as dozens of people whose careers took root and bloomed under Stewart’s watch turned up to celebrate and — despite his resistance — to thank him.

For the under-30 crowd, last night was their May 22, 1992: Johnny Carson’s last episode of The Tonight Show.  Unlike Carson, Stewart has no plans to disappear from public life; yet more dissimilar Stewart is universally reported to be a great guy rather than a jerk.

No reasonable person can fault Stewart for wanting to do something new after brilliant 17 years, but it’s a stabbing loss to nightly political commentary and to comedy. 

Funny people abound in U.S. comedy — and I’ve now reached my tautology quotient for the day — but in different ways we’ve lost three icons in the last year, Stewart the most recent.

Bill Cosby was the second: like Stewart, Cosby is alive, but since Hannibal Buress put the spotlight on Cosby’s history of sexual assault last fall all the joy Cosby had brought to us over the decades tastes sour.  Don’t get me wrong: Buress was right to do it, and it’s a shame on us all that until a man said it nobody took alleged attacks on women seriously. 

And I mourn the loss of the joy.  For most of my life, Cosby’s voice hasn’t been far from my inner ear.  Just this morning I found myself thinking about an early routine called “Roland and the Roller Coaster,” but then frowned as all the stories of his assaults on women rolled into my mind. 

I’ve heard stories of Cosby’s infidelity since I was in high school.  One of the dubious privileges of growing up in L.A. is knowing a lot of celebrities and their kids.  I was in a play with the kid of a famous woman who knew Cosby well.  I don’t know how it came up — I must have been merrily quoting a Cosby routine — but the kid said, “you know he cheats on his wife all the time, right?”  I don’t remember having an intelligent response beyond, “oh.”  Even then, infidelity was something that struck me as being an issue among the people directly involved rather than the public’s business. 

I remained a Cosby fan, and his observations intertwined with those of George Carlin as a running commentary in my head.

Now when I hear Cosby’s voice in my head I change the mental channel with a flinch.

It’s the second time that I’ve found myself dancing across the minefield of my own responses to Cosby: the first was after the mysterious 1997 murder of his son Ennis just a couple of miles from where I grew up.  After that, I couldn’t listen to any of Cosby’s routines about his kids, and particularly his son, without sadness. 

But I still listened. 

Not anymore.

Next week bring the one-year anniversary of the third and most grievous loss, the suicide of Robin Williams. 

A friend stumbled across LIFE magazine’s tribute issue to Williams at a garage sale and bought it for me, as she knew I was a huge fan.  I’ll read it on Tuesday, on the anniversary of his death, but I haven’t been able to open it yet.

I had the privilege of seeing the incandescent Robin Williams perform live onstage three times and saw or listened to him numberless other times.  The speed and depth and genius of his wit will never leave me.  His 2001 appearance on Inside the Actor’s Studio with James Lipton was the most astonishing display of mental gymnastics that I’ve ever seen.

Darkness always lives in comedy, and when the light is that bright the simple math of it says that shadows must go deep.  I wish I could have done something for him, even though we never met.  I understand this but I still can’t accept it: the funniest man in the world killed himself.

Dustin Hoffman captured the unfathomable, unacceptable, incomprehensible nature of Willams’ suicide in an unguarded moment during an onstage interview with Alec Baldwin that later became a June episode of Baldwin’s wonderful Here’s the Thing podcast.  Hoffman was talking about Lenny Bruce, and how Bruce didn’t prepare set material.  The only other person Hoffman could think of who was like Bruce was Robin Williams.  As he said the name, Hoffman broke down in a sob that hit him like a lightning bolt from a clear blue sky, and it took him several seconds to collect himself.  I cried too.

Good luck, Jon Stewart, and thanks. 

Bill Cosby, I wish you were as good a man as you are a funny man, although that’s a tall order.

Robin Williams, rest in peace.  You deserve it.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

Against Disruption: Louis Menand, Douglas Adams, Books and Technology

Have you ever smacked into a glass door when you didn’t realize it was closed?  I have.  It hurts.  The intersection of my face and a glass door happened at my great aunt’s tiny desert house in the 80s, where the mix of a trick of the sunlight and my distracted boyhood mind made the door invisible.

More alarming than the pain was the surprise.  A barrier I could not see had prevented me from making progress in the direction I wanted to go.

Many people and many businesses have this problem.

Sometimes life throws you glass doors, and the trick is to find your gratitude.  You need to appreciate that now you know about the barrier while you’re rubbing an aching schnoz. 

I felt this way after reading Louis Menand’s insightful, generous and intelligent piece “The Birth of Pulp Fiction” in the latest (January 5th) issue of The New Yorker, which shows that the paperback book and the bookstore itself were relatively recent developments in the United States:

Back when people had to leave the house if they wanted to buy something, the biggest problem in the book business was bookstores. There were not enough of them. Bookstores were clustered in big cities, and many were really gift shops with a few select volumes for sale. Publishers sold a lot of their product by mail order and through book clubs, distribution systems that provide pretty much the opposite of what most people consider a fun shopping experience—browsing and impulse buying.

Allen Lane created the mass-market paperback in England when he founded Penguin Books in 1935, and Robert de Graff brought it to the United States in 1939 when he launched Pocket Books.

Menand synthesizes several books in this article, leading to useful nuggets like:

The key to Lane’s and de Graff’s innovation was not the format. It was the method of distribution. More than a hundred and eighty million books were printed in the United States in 1939, the year de Graff introduced Pocket Books, but there were only twenty-eight hundred bookstores to sell them in. There were, however, more than seven thousand newsstands, eighteen thousand cigar stores, fifty-eight thousand drugstores, and sixty-two thousand lunch counters—not to mention train and bus stations. De Graff saw that there was no reason you couldn’t sell books in those places as easily as in a bookstore.

The mass-market paperback was therefore designed to be displayed in wire racks that could be conveniently placed in virtually any retail space. People who didn’t have a local bookstore, and even people who would never have ventured into a bookstore, could now browse the racks while filling a prescription or waiting for a train and buy a book on impulse.

Reading Menand’s terrific piece, I kept waiting for him to connect the dots between the birth of the mass-market book seventy or eighty years ago and the rise of Amazon.com over the last few years.  Perhaps the fact that I was reading The New Yorker on an iPad made this all the more compelling a connection, but Menand is a historian rather than a futurist, so he didn’t make the link and the article pivots instead into a discussion of censorship.

So what was my glass door?

A lifelong book lover, I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, in Encino in the San Fernando Valley.  Back then, L.A. was a great bookstore town from tiny little specialty shops like Scene of the Crime for mysteries, Dangerous Visions and A Change of Hobbit for science fiction, to broader bookstores like Alpha Books, the Bookie Joint and Midnight Special… to name just a few of my then favorites now long shuttered. 

For years, I’ve blamed Crown Books, Borders, Barnes and Noble and, of course, my own love/hate relationship with Amazon.com for the death of the independent bookstore in one of the biggest — and most readerly — cities in the country.  Intrinsic to my resentment was a conviction that until these black mustachioed villains skulked onto the scene my beloved bookstores had been there forever.  They were institutions!  Instead, Menand shows compellingly that they’d just been around since around the time my parents were born.  If my grandparents were still alive they could have told me this… if I’d thought to ask them.

Smack.

The glass door connects to a perspective on technology and innovation that Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams articulated in his hilarious and smart 1999 London Times article, “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” —

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

(Add smart phones, tablets, wearable computers, 3D printers and automated homes to Adams’ list to update it for 2015.)

For me, bookstores were “just normal” because they were already there when I started reading, but my normal is different than my grandparents’ normal was. 

This is like the conversation I have with my kids about how back in the stone age before they were born people had to watch television shows when they were on rather than record them and watch later, and how it wasn’t that big a burden because there weren’t that many channels anyway.  My son looks at me like I rode a brontosaurus to the office.

The book-selling and business that Amazon is so effectively pressurizing hasn’t actually been around that long, similar to how general literacy hasn’t been around that long.  That  means that rather than think about how Amazon disrupts the book-selling business, it might be more useful to think about how the mass-market book-selling business is still pretty new and still evolving.

This might seem like a subtle distinction, but the problem with disruption as a buzzword — and oh boy is it a popular buzzword lately — is that it sets up binary* David versus Goliath dynamics where the realities are more complicated.

Life is easier when you only have to worry about two entities: the Empire and the Rebellion, the Federation and the Klingons, the Ducks and the Buckeyes, Russia and the USA.

But the reality is that more than two entities are in play most of the time.

Over the course of the last few decades: book selling, buying and reading has increased by many orders of magnitude.  More people buy books and read for pleasure now than they did when my grandparents were born.  This happened because of the reduction in costs in the creation of books and the ease of distribution in the selling of books, first with paperbacks and then with Amazon.com.

That’s not a disruption.

It’s an eruption.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]

* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.

My 2014 in Books

I read a lot — magazines, two newspapers, email newsletters, and countless social-media-shared links I chase down digital rabbit holes. I’d never know anything, for example, without Jason Hirshhorn’s magnificent daily Media Redefined.

But I’m lost without books.  Actual books.  Whether paper or digital, if I’m not reading at least two books then I get grumpy and feel IQ points oozing out of my ears and down the shower drain.

So one year ago, inspired by my friend David Daniel who keeps a list of books he wants to read, I decided to keep a list of books I finished in 2014. Since it is now 12/31/14 and I’m not going to finish any of the three books I’m reading at the moment, what follows is my 2014 list with brief remarks added.

Note: with the exception of My Side of the Mountain I am not counting re-reads. Often, at night, or when I’m in need of a visit with an old friend, I dive back into a novel I’ve already read. My kids are the same way. Since I tell the two of them that this doesn’t count for their reading, I’m not counting it towards my own.

Looking back, there’s a lot of fiction in this list.  I need fiction like I need oxygen (except when I’m writing fiction), and most of the business writing I read comes in articles.  I wonder what the fiction/non-fiction balance will be next year?

So here’s the list:

Dashner, James.  The Maze Runner.  Finished 1/1/14.

I read a fair amount of YA or children’s books, usually in quest of reading matter for my kids, but in this case it was for a project a friend and I were contemplating. Not bad but not good enough for me to read any farther.

Sloan, Robin. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Finished 1/4/14.

A fun ride, albeit only pancake deep. I inhaled this over a day or so at the start of last year. A good yarn for any of the digerati who mourn the loss of bookstores and wonder about the future of book-length reading in a digital age.

Elberse, Anita. Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking & the Big Business of Entertainment. Finished 1/22/14.

Interesting and thoughtful, and powerfully presented. What I wanted, though, were more connections outside of entertainment to the rest of business and human endeavor. A missed opportunity.

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle. Finished 1/23/14.

A frustrating book… it annoyed but compelled me in a similar way to Aaron Sorkin’s just-finished HBO show “The Newsroom.” There’s a smugness to Eggers that grates, and I don’t think he understands how companies like Facebook and Google work.

Asaro, Catherine. The Spacetime Pool.  Finished 2/5/14.

Novella in Asaro’s fantastic “Saga of the Skolian Empire” series, which is great fun for people who like space opera with good physics and a bit of romance.

Aaronovitch, Ben. Broken Homes: a Rivers of London Novel. Finished 2/15/14.

#4 in Rivers of London. I saw #5 on the shelves at Foyle’s in London last week and am excited to read it when the e-book comes out in a few days. This series is delightful fantasy set in modern-day London, written by one of the many “Doctor Who” alumni who go on, like Douglas Adams, to write novels.

Semmelhack, Peter. Social Machines: the Next Wave of Innovation; How to Develop Connected Products that Change Customers’ Lives. Finished 3/09/14.

A good introduction to the Internet of Things, more practical than visionary.

Craighead George, Jean.  My Side of the Mountain.  Finished 3/11/14.  

I read this when I was a kid, found it on my son’s shelf, and re-read it with lip-smacking pleasure.  I was looking in particular for a discussion of how you want a machete rather than an axe, which I remembered from a book I read decades ago, but didn’t find it in this terrific book. Anybody out there know what I’m talking about?

Thomas, Rob.  Veronica Mars: the Thousand-Dollar Tan Line.  Finished 4/3/14.

Loved the Veronica Mars movie that came out around the same time and couldn’t get enough of it, so I read the novel. Fun. Nailed the voice and sensibility of the series. I look forward to the next one, which comes out soon.

Grant, Adam. Give and Take: a Revolutionary Approach to Success. Finished 4/11/14.

One of the best business-y books I’ve read in the last few years, I tore through this after Dana Anderson praised it at the AAAA’s, and had the pleasure of trading notes with Adam Grant subsequently. I can’t say enough nice things about this book. It’s brilliant, and — perhaps more importantly and certainly a surprise coming from a social scientist — it’s beautifully written.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Cocaine Blues.  Phrynne Fisher #1.  Finished May sometime.

Between May and July I inhaled seven of these murder mysteries set in Victorian Australia.  Karen, a woman who practices Tae Kwon-do with my son back in Oregon, and I talk books, and she was flying through them. These are like McNuggets: I kept tearing through them at high speed until I hit a satiation point and stopped.  Formulaic and with a bit of the Ensign Mary Sue about them, I recommend these to historical mystery lovers who also like a recurring cast of characters. The Australian TV series based on these (streaming on either Netflix or Amazon Prime) isn’t bad, although not as good as the books. Things rarely are.  Just this note for all this series.

Greenwood, Kerry. Flying Too High. Phyrnne Fisher #2.  Finished May sometime.

Greenwood, Kerry.  Murder on the Ballarat Train.  Phrynne Fisher #3.  5/28/14.

Greenwood, Kerry. Death at Victoria Dock.  Phynne Fisher #4. Finished 6/13/14.

Greenwood, Kerry.  The Green Mill Murder. Phynne Fisher #5. Finished 6/16/14.

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Finished 6/20/14.

A friend — either Ari Popper of Sci Futures or Brian Seth Hurst of Story Tech — recommended this to me at CES.  Good popular science journalism, but I don’t have clear memories of it now, which is a bit of a ding.

Deaver, Jeffrey. The Skin Collector. Finished 6/24/14.

I read it because of my affection for The Bone Collector, but it wasn’t very good.

Miller, Derek B.  Norwegian by Night.  Finished 7/13/14.

My friend Rishad Tobaccowala recommended this to me when he found out I was moving to Norway for the school year.  It’s fantastic: an emotionally engaged and heart-stopping thriller starring an 80 year old Korean War Vet set in Oslo. I can’t believe this hasn’t been made into a movie yet. Clint Eastwood should direct and star.

McKeown, Greg.  Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.  Finished 7/13/14.

This book taught me a lot about how I sabotage my own productivity: I read it with passionate intensity in paper, and then bought a digital copy to bring with me to Norway. It’s on my “to re-read in January list,” which isn’t a long one.

Greenwood. Kerry.  Blood and Circuses. Phynne Fisher #6. Finished 7/18/14.

MacLeod, Hugh.  Ignore Everybody and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  Finished 7/23/14.

I admire MacLeod and hadn’t gotten around to reading the book for no good reason. It’s short, sweet and smart. Don’t miss, particularly if you like his cartoons.

Greenwood. Kerry. Ruddy Gore.  Phynne Fisher #7. Finished 7/24/14.

Russ, Joanna.  The Adventures of Alyx.  Finished 8/14/13.

Back in college, my friend Keylan Qazzaz wrote her senior thesis about women in science fiction with a particular focus on this book. I picked it up a few years later, but never got around to reading it.  Then, as I was packing for Norway and grabbing books from the “I’ve been meaning to read this” pile (a big pile), I saw this.  Turns out, it’s a collection of short stories and novellas featuring a terrific protagonist who seems to have amnesia between each story.  More strong space opera.  A bit hard to find now, but quite good.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf.  Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.  Finished 8/31/14.

I enjoyed the Atlantic excerpt of this book and decided to read the whole thing, which I did in short order.  It’s a powerful antidote to the “genius alone is his garrett” Romantic myth that still pervades western notions of creativity and genius. However, I’d have liked more on how groups collaborate, and think that his focus on the pair is unnecessarily limiting.  Still a worthwhile read, and in addition it lead me to Carse (see below).

Huizinga, Johan.  Homo Ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Finished 9/9/14.

Play is important to how I think about disruptive technologies (much more about this in 2015), and a few years ago my friend and partner Susan MacDermid mentioned this book from the 1930s.  It’s a tough read — continental philosophy that seems deliberately, almost hermetically sealed away against non-specialist readers — but worthwhile and interesting and useful for my thinking.

Powers, Tim.  Expiration Date.  Finished 9/20/14. 

Powers wrote my all-time favorite time travel story, The Anubis Gates, but I never managed to get into this one or it’s quasi-sequel (see below) even though I’ve had them for years.  Powers’ imagination is powerful and intricate, and it takes time to settle into the worlds he creates.  By the time I made it to page 50 I was hooked, and then I was sorry when it ended.  Don’t give up on this one too easily.

Wilson, Daniel H.  Robopocalypse.  Finished 10/10/14.

My friend Renny Gleeson recommended this, and it’s yummy sci-fi candy along the lines of the Terminator movie series only updated to include how the world works post-internet.  For paranoiacs worried about AI, this is either something to embrace or something to avoid for fear of never sleeping again.

Carse, James P.  Finite and Infinite Games: a vision of life as play and possibility. Finished 10/12/14.

As I mentioned, the Shenk book turned me onto Carse.  Like Huizinga, this is far from an easy book to read or understand, but it’s an important meditation on play.  It’s particularly important for Americans, I think, with our cultural tendency to bottom line everything and be more concerned with the final score than how the game was.

Gawande, Atul.  The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. Finished 10/21/14.

Gawande is one of those people who does so much in a day to make the world a better place that he makes me feel like a loser, even though I’m sure that if I said this to him in person he’d charm me into feeling like a superhero until the next morning.  He’s a terrific writer, and in our information-overload era this book is both moving and useful for anybody who despairs of getting the important things done.

Mann, George.  The Affinity Bridge: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation. Finished 10/28/14.

The Steampunk genre and movement appeals to me, but I keep holding back because it feels like it will turn into an addictive time-suck that will pull me far deeper than just reading the novels.  Suddenly, I’ll be going to maker fairs and dressing in lots of metal-studded leather.  I just don’t have that kind of time.  This is also why I rarely play video games and don’t drive a motorcycle.  Still, I ran across this book at Books, Inc. in Palo Alto and was so interested that I found myself reading it while walking down El Camino Real on my way to a dinner.  For Sherlock Holmes lovers as well as Steampunks, this is great fun.  I also read the sequel immediately thereafter (see next entry) and a cluster of free short stories on Mann’s website.  Like Ben Aaronovitch, Mann is a Doctor Who alum.  I’ll read more of this series eventually.

Mann, George.  The Osiris Ritual: A Newbury & Hobbes Investigation.  Finished 11/6/14.

Scalzi, John.  Lock In. Finished 11/16/14.

Fascinating notion about telepresence for quadriplegics (a reductive description, I admit) as background for a compelling near-future science fiction adventure story.  Scalzi’s voice is the closest to a 21st century Heinlein that I’ve found, particularly with the Old Man’s War series.

Bach, Rachel.  Fortune’s Pawn. (Paradox Book 1.) Finished 11/22/14.

IO9 compared this to Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, and since she is my favorite living science fiction writer I immediately bought the first one.  Bujold it ain’t, but it’s not-bad space opera.  One key difference (literature geek spoiler alert) is that while Bujold practices Austen-like free indirect discourse, Bach’s narrative is first person, which is harder to carry off if you’re not practicing the skaz a la Mark Twain in Huck Finn.  I really like how Bach’s protagonist is a kick-ass woman mercenary soldier, but I wish the writing was better.

Catmull, Ed.  Creativity, Inc. Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Finished 11/29/14.

Rishad and Renny both put this on lists of influential books, and I loved every page both as a Pixar fan and as a consultant who watches businesses get in the way of their own success time and time again.  I managed creatives for many years, and wish I had this book on my desk when I started. Don’t miss. Like Adam Grant’s book, this one will stick with and help any business leader.

Powers, Tim.  Earthquake Weather. Finished 12/22/14.

See above note on Powers’ Expiration Date.  I was delighted to discover that Earthquake Weather was a quasi-sequel, because that made it easier to get over my usual 50 page learning curve with Powers.

Connelly, Michael.  The Burning Room: A Harry Bosch Novel. Finished 12/29/14.

My last completed book of 2014, which I finished on a plane this Monday.  Is there anybody who doesn’t love these books?  Connelly seems to be easing Bosh towards retirement or a dramatic death, and while I’m eager to see how it all ends I despair at the notion of a fictional Los Angeles without Harry Bosch solving crimes in it.

Looking forward to 2015: I’m currently reading four books that I hope to finish in January or February:

Daniel J. Levitin’s Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston’s Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

(After I finish these two, I’m ambitious to dive into Daniel Goleman’s new Focus, which seems to be along similar lines to both of these.)

James H. Carrott and Brian David Johnson’s Vintage Tomorrows: A Historian And A Futurist Journey Through Steampunk Into The Future of Technology.

And although I haven’t read it, I picked up Lamentation, the sixth Matthew Shardlake novel by C.J. Sansom in London. If you want murder mysteries set in the same time as Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, don’t miss this excellent series. 

Any must-reads for the coming year?  Please share in comments below…