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:
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.”
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.
[Cross posted with Medium.]
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.
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.]
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.
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.
* Americans love binary arguments: Deborah Tannen talked about this is her useful 1998 book, The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.
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…
Here is the view of the shop across the street from our flat in Paris’ Le Marais district early this morning, the day before Christmas, when I was the first one up and could watch the city come to life with a cup of coffee in one hand and my iPad-provided New York Times in the other:
As the white-uniformed chef or assistant arranges food on a tray in the background, the woman on the ladder scrapes dirt and grime from the windows and ledge above the shop.
A commitment to aesthetics — and how that commitment draws a special form of attention from the viewer — defines my experience of Paris this trip.
Summertime, back home in Oregon we have friendly, yummy Farmer’s Markets with sumptuous fruits and foods, and if you go to buy tangerines you’ll see overflowing boxes of them at every stand.
Here, at a market near the Eiffel Tower that emerged clanging and thumping during our first night at a nearby hotel (before we moved to Le Marais), the December fruits were ripe and wet, the fish was fresh, the breads warm and the cheeses— oh, the cheeses!… but it was the display that moved my heart above my rumbling stomach.
Instead of a random box of tangerines, we saw delicate pyramids. The meats were laid out with loving and artistic precision.
The high incidence of casual beauty in Paris amazes me: the only other place I’ve seen this is Tokyo.
(Note: this is not to say that Americans are bad at aesthetics: we aren’t. But function and efficiency trump aesthetics in our priorities most of the time.)
For W (my nine-year old son) it’s his first trip to Paris. Yesterday the four of us went to Versailles. W and I talked a lot about aesthetics, as well as how Versailles was a remarkably conceited compliment that the French kings paid to themselves, enforcing a way of seeing their power. We haven’t had that conversation in the US, or in Vancouver, or in Bergen, or in Amsterdam, or in Krakow.
Paris invites aesthetic attention, almost demands it.
A few years back the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wrote a remarkable book called “How Pleasure Works,” where he showed that how we approach experiences defines our ability to take pleasure in them.
Bloom deploys Gene Weingarten’s famous story about how violinist Joshua Bell didn’t get a lot of tips when he performed anonymously in the DC Metro — in contrast to his sold out performances at great concert halls — to show how cognitive frames make pleasure possible.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet anticipated this four centuries ago when he said, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Paris is one big cognitive frame that flips my aesthetic contemplation switch to the “on” position and keeps it there.
Next stop, taking the children to the Louvre after brunch.
P.S. You can see a TED talk by Paul Bloom about how pleasure works here.
Our two most precious currencies are time and attention. Money, our more conventional currency, helps to focus attention and to make us chary of how we spend our time.
I write this sitting in Chaos Coffee, perched at the edge of the University of Bergen campus and a block from Nygård Skole where W, my 9-year-old son, is in a Norwegian-language immersion program. Tuesday, the school lets out at noon, so I’ve made Chaos my hangout: they have plentiful wifi and don’t mind if I nurse a drink for a couple of hours while typing at a quiet table between a shelf of books on my right and the bright yellow door that leads into the back kitchen on my left.
Buying my second latte is a reckless extravagance. Then I throw all fiduciary sanity over my shoulder and add a small piece of dark chocolate cake.
It tastes better than it deserves. I wouldn’t pay attention if this were happening at a Peet’s in America, but in Norway the cake and latte cost 60 Kroner. Ten dollars! And I already spent nearly that on my first latte and an apple.
The cake feels ropy between my tongue and the roof of my mouth, then the chocolate lights up the taste buds at the sides of my tongue as that first mouthful heads south towards my esophagus.
Cognitive dissonance at play: regardless of the cause I’m experiencing this as mighty fine chocolate cake. The latte’s not bad either.
It’s just us boys for the next couple of days. Kathi, my wife, is at a conference in Oslo for Fulbright winners. H, our 13-year-old daughter, and J, our visiting 23-year-old nanny/niece/auxiliary kid, are on the train to join Kathi for the night. W & I plan to watch “X-Men First Class” on the laptop later, and there is talk of a post-school surgical strike to acquire some McDonald’s fries (a rare treat).
Today is my 13th day in Bergen and my second Tuesday morning at Chaos. Liat, who comes to Bergen from Tel Aviv, runs the café on these days.
She manages the music with a disk jockey’s care, pouncing on the stereo to manage sound levels and selecting a range of easy listening, orchestral, classic U.S. rock (Springsteen, Tracy Chapman), a smattering of current music (Passenger), Norwegian lounge music and more. At first, I was the only one here and she mentioned that “Vamp” was a famous Norwegian pop group. I’ll check them out on Spotify later.
Back to focused attention. I only vaguely recognize the Passenger tune “Let Her Go” and want to identify it, so I grab my iPhone and hit Shazam, then wince as I feel precious data trickle away. Oh no! What have I done? Until Kathi gets her Norwegian identity card (and, perhaps much later, we get ours) we can’t get bank accounts or mobile phone accounts, so we’re on pay-as-you go SIM cards. We are non-people living in a cash economy. Not a big deal in the long term, but I’m used to all-you-can eat data back home in the U.S.
Indeed, I only bought the pay-as-you-go SIM cards yesterday when I realized that the girls would be in different parts of Oslo and would have no way of reaching each other (or me) without them. The cost-per-TXT is .69 Kroner (about 11 cents), so we all use Skype for real-time communications.
I don’t miss having chronic mobile access and regret having it back now. Without the magic mirror in my pocket I pay more attention to my Norwegian surroundings, although the millisecond I find myself in a pocket of wifi (stand outside any Burger King and you can log on even without buying something, I learned) I grab the iPhone and peer into my digital other life. My info addiction is not subtle.
Now, with a SIM card, Skype bleeps whenever family and friends in the U.S. want my attention. It doesn’t happen often with the time difference (9 hours from the west coast), but I quickly have become accustomed to experiencing only local interruptions. In the same way that I’ve shed a few stubborn pounds because now I’m a pedestrian I had shed a few distractions by not having a smart phone. Now they are creeping back, forcing me to choose mindfully to turn off data or resist the urge to Google something, whereas yesterday geography made that choice for me.
Second meetings seem important in Norway. Liat and I had a pleasant interaction a week ago, but today I learn more about her. She is Israeli, married and still mourns the loss of her gigantic English mastiff a year ago.
Liat calls me to the front of the store to meet Marlis Bühler, who has just published a beautiful, poetic photography book of people with dolphins called “Dolphin Love.” Marlis, I think, is leaving Bergen tonight. She has come to Chaos to give Liat a copy of her book and say goodbye. That says a lot about the kind of coffee shop this is. Liat introduces me as “my new customer” to Marlis, which I find a unexpected and welcome compliment.
Right now, my time is chopped up seeing to the kids and the house and maintaining contact with various people and projects back in the U.S., so face-to-face human contact is at a premium.
It’s even harder for H, my daughter. Norwegian secondary schools are on strike and have been for nine weeks. The union and the administrators seem to get more sclerotic in their positions with each passing day, so I don’t know when the strike will end. So while W happily greets his buddies in the schoolyard at Nygård each morning, H doesn’t have a peer group.
Last Sunday, a colleague of Kathi’s with L, his 12-year-old daughter (and two 9-year-old boys for W) came to visit. Heaven. H lit up to have another girl to chat with, and they were quickly comparing notes on books, TV shows (who knew that “Gravity Falls” was an international hit?), YouTube videos, Instagram and more.
The moment I knew the visit had gone well came towards the end when we’d all gone out for an evening walk. As we approached our new friends’ car, L announced that she had to go back to our house because she had left her beloved iPad Mini there. We turned towards the house and I spied L quietly opening her coat to H in a “first one’s free” gesture that revealed the iPad in her pocket. L didn’t want to leave just yet. The two girls caught me catching them. We shared a conspiratorial smile.
We’ll find more girls for her to hang out with while we wait for school to start.
Less than two weeks into our 10-month stay here in Bergen it’s just thinkable for me to write about it. Until now, I’ve been too busy, too close, able to stick the occasional photo onto Facebook, but not able to do real thinking.
Bergen is a medieval city with a third millennial overlay. If Oslo, the business capital, is New York then Bergen is San Francisco or Boston. There is no Los Angeles equivalent in Norway: it isn’t sunny enough. Modern day hustle bustle squeezes through narrow, crooked and meticulously cobble-stoned streets. An ancient castle complete with dungeon sits next to a Radisson Blu mini hotel. There are more hair salons per capita than there are heads, which is odd because it’s not like this is a city of terrific haircuts. Everything is so expensive here that if I bother doing the Kroner-to-Dollars equation I’m frozen in place: how much for a pack of gum?
And with that, ‘tis time to get the boy from school.
Old dogs can learn new tricks. So can people young and old. Behavior is metamorphic, although we seldom recognize that plasticity in the moment. Instead, we think the world changes while we stay the same, that our children are less responsible than we were at their age but that we threw crazier parties. We think TV today isn’t as good as the programs we watched when we were younger, forgetting how many nights we spent on “Night Court.”
Sometimes, though, the planets align and we see our own behavior as it changes in the moment.
Here is one such story.
The Jawbone UP has decorated my wrist and recorded my physical activity since mid-March of 2013, but I did not reckon with how I depended on its steady flow of information and quiet alerts until it stopped working. Ironically, this happened last week when I was guiding tours for Story-Tech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, where wearable computers were a key technology with massive year-over-year growth, and I could no longer demonstrate how it worked to my tourists.
But the real impact of my UP’s absence didn’t hit until both my wife Kathi and I returned home from overlapping business trips, mine to CES and hers to the Modern Language Association.
Kathi is a night owl working late and I’m an early bird (it’s a mixed marriage), so the unheralded killer feature of the Jawbone UP and its kindred gadgets (Nike FuelBand, Fitbit Force) is the silent alarm that vibrates on my wrist when I get up before dawn to work while the world is silent and all the thoughts are mine to think.
Before the UP, a clock radio or smart phone would chime, blare or buzz, disturbing Kathi and sometimes failing to wake me (the first five or six times). It took time getting used to sleeping with a bracelet, but I came to depend on that quiet buzz to get me up and let me lurch from the bedroom and pad towards the coffee machine like a sneaky zombie.
The UP’s death didn’t much affect me in Vegas because the Aria let me program the windows to open and the TV to pop on at a designated time. Before Kathi got back from the MLA I simply used my old nightstand clock radio to wake myself. But since her return I find myself waking up every couple of hours because I am so anxious about my iPhone’s coming bleep.
So I haven’t slept well, feel my stress level rising, and await the arrival of a replacement UP with less than graceful patience. This is now the third time I’ve had to write to Jawbone for a replacement in less than one year, and so I find myself wondering if I should give the Fitbit Force a try just because I don’t want to go through this again.
This put me in mind of a fascinating article in December’s Scientific American: “How Google is Changing Your Brain” (preview link here but subscription required and recommended). The internet’s infinite laundry pen memory has eroded our need to rely on other people to remember things and erodes the difference between information we store in our heads and the information we know is waiting in the cloud.
We’ve always perceived of our possessions as parts of ourselves. The comic book visionary Scott McCloud observed in his brilliant book “Understanding Comics” that when another car bumps your car from behind we don’t cry out “his car hit my car!” but “hey! he hit me!” The difference is that with computers and particularly with wearables the devices on our bodies talk back to us in new ways.
As I’ve written elsewhere, I have outsourced most of my remembering tasks to Evernote and Instapaper, but my morning wakeup routine isn’t information— it’s action. And so it’s only a minor exaggeration to say that the UP band has become a part of myself, so much so that when it’s gone I have to adjust in surprising ways.
“Never trust anybody over 30,” a cliché of the mid-1960s free speech movement, mistook an perceived mental inflexibility in the generation of the protesters’ parents with an age-related unwillingness to think and behave in new ways. This is a common mistake and we make it in both directions, substituting life stage behaviors for generational ones and vice versa.
So, the pundits who claim that Millennials will never care about their privacy and will always overshare on Facebook are wrong: the Millennials just didn’t need to think about why not to overshare until they were on the job market and had to cleanse their profiles of the sexy selfies with the bong in the background. Behaviors can change.
As a youth I would not have expected my behaviors to change so quickly when I had hit middle age, but they did with the UP band.
According to the UPS tracker my replacement UP should arrive today. If it doesn’t, I think I’m buying the Fitbit Force.
Just published a short piece on Season 2 of HBO’s “The Newsroom” over on Medium.com –“’Newsroom’ Season 2 Delivers: The problems of S1 turn into triumphs in S2.”
Here are the first few paragraphs:
I was crankily devoted to the first season on HBO of Aaron Sorkin’s latest intense one-hour drama featuring geniuses who have memorized entire statistical manuals, are unstoppably right at work and terminally dysfunctional in their personal lives.
“Crankily” because, as I’ve written elsewhere, the smug knowitallness of the characters rendered them irksome, and the two-year head start that Sorkin gave them by setting the show in the recent, memorable past amplified the smugness because of course they always got everything right— they were talking about things that just happened.
My friend Gary Saul Morson in his magnificent 1996 book “Narrative and Freedom: the Shadows of Time” calls this sort of thing “backshadowing,” which “turns the past into a well-plotted story” and removes from the past the hazy contingency, moment-to-moment panic and uncertainty and sheer improvisation of how we tactically moved in and out of the what we chose to focus on and the decisions we made at the time.