Reading List Email Update

October 12, 2010 — 2 Comments

I sent out the most recent installment of my reading newsletter last week. I realized because it has some time since I discussed it here on the site and with the recent redesign a bunch of you probably don’t even know that it exists. More is better so I wanted to explain the concept again:

After getting many requests for reading recommendations, I put together a regular email of book suggestions for anyone that wants them. Each book has a few sentence review, connections to similar or related books and a thought or two on why I feel the book is important. I also try to put a few questions at the bottom to tie all the suggestions together. This all comes from my personal email address so anyone is free to respond directly just by hitting reply and I always try to get back to you. Because of what I do for a living (researching and working for bestselling authors, marketing at an innovative fashion company and advising a handful of successful musicians), I’m always stumbling on unique and interesting books that I never would have otherwise found. This has meant everything from books out of print for 80 years, review galley’s of future bestsellers, the Classics, and so on. My goal with this newsletter is to recommend things that stick with you after you’ve put them down—or better yet, draw you down into the same rabbit hole that I was when I found it. This normally means an email every month or so, with the occasional gap in between. Some recent examples can be seen here, here and here and of course my Reading List here.

If this is something you’re interested in, you can sign up in two ways. You can send me an email at [ (at)] with the subject line “Reading Newsletter” or you can submit your email via this link. Either way is fine. If you already get the email and like it, maybe you could do me a big favor and forward the next one you get to a friend. Like I said, more is better.

What I’ve learned most clearly from blogs is that the majority of them write about the problems from the outside for a reason—because they are missing the abilities that allow people to move to the inside. It holds true for so many of the categories, from self-improvement to design to media criticism on down. Of course, there is a lot of value in different angles of perspective but for most of us this kind of analysis (outsiders writing for other outsiders) is disconnected enough from reality that it is essentially meaningless. I think that’s why I was so impressed by this piece on boarding pass redesign by Timoni West.

Like the Dustin Curtis’s post on the American Airline website, the topic was kicked off by a smarmy nerd who laughably failed at what he set out to do [unsoliticted]. Then, thankfully, a better designer weighed in and actually put together something we can learn from. Honestly, I can’t even figure out why the original writer linked to it because it makes him look that bad in comparison.

Doing Analysis Right
What I notice first is that Timoni begins by examining the constraints. This is too rare. If we’re honest, I think we can actually admit that most of her creative insights come out of the discussion of these limitations. It’s how she defines what exactly she’s trying to overcome and then finally that if she’s able to do so, it’d be of use to someone. Alinsky famously said that we must start with where “the world is, as it is, not as we would like it to be” and that this makes no judgment on our desire to change it. In fact, starting where Timoni did—with an inventory on the limiting factors—is how you figure out how to get around them.

Next, she does what she calls “walking through the details.” Another word for this exercise is Empathy. She considers the effectiveness of her design from the perspective of several different actors who are plainly not her. Again, this is rarer than we want to admit. Where is this exercise in the original article or in Curtis’s AA redesign? I think its possible here because Timoni actually knows who she is (a single, childless traveler who self-checks bags) and is aware enough to admit that that sets her apart from fellow travelers.

Finally, she proposes one last addition in case airports are ever convinced to improve their printers: a much more exciting version using Helvetica. I see this as her nod to the latter part of Alinsky’s model for change. This is the seamless ability to move between the insider and outsider perspective—this is what I like as a designer, this is what I like as a designer on this specific project and I have the wisdom to demarcate the difference.

After publishing, comes what Gary Klein would call a Pre Mortem. In a second post, she critically reviews her design and hypothetically examines its failures and successes. Say this design had actually been tested by an airline, any idiot would have been able to incorporate the direct feedback from the users. But that’s not possible here. To hypothetically anticipate where her significant problems would have arisen and consider how to change the plan to avoid them is much more difficult. This is probably why most people don’t do it.

What I like about her is that in one most she shows so clearly what almost every other blog post misses: empathy, self-awareness, and phronesis. In other words, the things that matter in real life—those which get things done. And if we want to illustrate what the online world values, compare the traffic and comments to her page and the one she responded to. We have to ignore these signs because to read the others is a waste. It’s more than masturbatory—it is to pretend you’re learning something when you’re really being entertained like you would be with any other fiction. Not only could nothing ever come of that kind analysis (as in it could never be made), the worst part is that you internalize their logic.

The Use of Abandoned Shells

September 18, 2010 — 21 Comments

Picture a movie poster for a film that wants you to think it’s artsy. (here’s one) It probably features the laurel leaves icon. These markers originally symbolized a handful of important film festivals. Then it became important for every city, even neighborhoods inside cities, to have their own film festival. There also the significant differences in the “winners” and the few dozen or even hundreds of “selections.” The festival laurels conjures to the viewer the implicit value associated with scarcity despite the potential vast gap between the connotation and reality.

This is what George W.S Trow called the “use of abandoned shells.” In a world of no context, invoking the image of great things is very powerful, even if those things are fractions of what they once were. As media has fragmented and become abundant, we become more dependent on symbols. We turn to markers that are hollow. Why? Because there are no alternatives. There is no new sense of scarcity—that this matters because it was one of the few that made it.

One of the potential promises of the internet was the idea that all the great stuff being created by people in every corner of the world would be collaboratively filtered and recommended to us. The reality has been somewhat different. Our filters have utterly failed us. Or, we have failed ourselves. It’s natural that algorithms that are supposedly more in tune with what we “like” would be incapable of judging the things we do not yet know we desire. Our resentment towards “editing” or “editors” undermined the skills and authority in the process of recommendation, leaving us with only algorithms (or aggregation without endorsement) And we celebrate algorithms because they seem great compared to nothing.

You write a book. Or release a movie. Record an album. Sell a product. A blogger at the Los Angeles Time’s reviews it, what does your blurb about it say? It says “‘A true gem!’ – LA Times”. You hide the qualifier. You shouldn’t need the superlative at all. Collaborative filtering should have got it to your audience.

The bill of goods we’ve been sold is unsatisfying. It’s false too. Because the reality is most blog posts came from press releases, planned announcements, conferences, “leaked” documents, spokespeople, filed lawsuits, launch dates, the interview circuit—pseudo events. This was supposed to go away when everybody was a reporter. We have more boots on the ground, authentic artists, the long tail…

There are hundreds of these hollow shells whose meaning has fallen away while the demand for their association has risen dramatically. We need them badly. This isn’t my opinion; this is apparent in how we continue to return to them despite championing their demise. It tells me that deep down we have trust issues. We love our blogs and self-publishers and yet we don’t believe them. We pretend to want an economy of abundance where all content is all of equal quality—everyone is an artist and deserves their muse. Secretly, we crave to hear what is good, what is worth our time, that someone smart looked at this and placed it in its proper context. We salivate for this and the marketers exploit and pander to it.

What these people are trying to do is trying to find some, any, stamp of approval. They desperately need something that says “this is not like those other things.” You’d trust just about any print publication before “as featured in the Huffington Post” but in a pinch it’ll do. Especially before you bothered competing on merits or the importance of the subject matter. The other day I saw a book that had been blurbed by people without titles after their names. It was not because their reputation was self-evident. The author knew what he needed and an empty allusion to it was better than nothing.

In case you think its just marketing materials, look closely. Reporters use what I think are best called “substance words” to give status to flimsy stories. The weaker the subject, the more blogs lean on words like exclusive, official, “documents show”, “we’ve learned”, or “sources say.” Nicholas Carr complained that in line linking is a cognitive distraction but he’s actually been tricked by the swindle; often it’s to evoke the image of direct sourcing when the connection between the speculation and the facts is tenuous.

Try to think about music as more than just a set of prescribed notes. It’s the interplay between the notes, the resonance of the various sounds coming together and a sense of a generative order. Now, try to think about it back the other way. It seems empty—not like music. Banks have rules to limit their exposure to risk. They may require investing in bonds above certain ratings, capping the amount of leverage traders can use or hedging assets in one industry with assets of similar value in another. This ideal portfolio becomes a kind of symbol of risk-avoidance, an allusion to the past when finance was comprehensible, when it is really a simulacrum. Welcome to the economic meltdown of 2007-2008. Or, an oil rig has safety reporting mandated by their lawyers or government regulations. Each of these guidelines is designed to the end of not having to think about surprises anymore. The notes are hit, the end state is experienced but in the middle is reality where shells become inadequate or meaningless or feigned. Just like putting laurel leaves on a movie poster.

So it’s hypocritical and bankrupt and a lame part of our internet culture. Why should that matter. For starters, it becomes a lot more common as media gets worse because crap needs to be dressed up. Critically though, it lays a subtle but pervasive distortion over our reality. Everyone is selling and conning and we hardly even know it. Our emotions are being triggered by simulations—unintentional or deliberate misrepresentations—of cues we’ve been taught were important. We read some story and it feels important, that the news is real and the principles of reporting took place, but it’s not. Each part of it was an illusion stacked on top of a slightly less illusionary notion until the final product floats as its own self-creation.

But most importantly, it’s a ponzi scheme that is running out of new investors. It’s more than just ironic to see products from new media depend on old media for credibility. After a time, the old symbols cease to mean anything. They’ve been taken for all they are worth. Apart from a handful of exceptions, there isn’t anything coming to take their place. Concepts like iterative journalism trade on bad incentives. They favor what is now, over brand, reputation or trust. (the root of the power of what they usurped). In algorithmic editing every featured piece is replaceable by another (and it in turn by another), leaving the aggregator with no authority to call its own. We’ve taken the infrastructure of context for granted and lost the imperative generate more of it.

Schemes & Scams Pt II

September 8, 2010 — 7 Comments

“The con man does give you something. It is a sense of your own worthlessness. A good question to ask: “Does this event exist without me?” If the answer is no, leave. You are involved in a con game. When the con man tells you that he is about to present you with “a wide range of options,” ask for one thing he will absolutely stand behind. Or beat him up. If he has some authority, you have the right to see what it is. If he is only describing the authority he sense in you, then do as you please.

The idea of choice is easily debased if one forgets that the aim is to have chosen successfully, not to be endlessly choosing.” Within the Context of No Context by George W.S Trow

Metaphors & Philosophy

September 1, 2010 — 4 Comments

Daniel Boorstin wrote that throughout history, philosophers have looked for new handles by which they could grasp the world around them. Technology and advancement became the source of new metaphors, new analogies, new explanations for who they were and why. The clock, for instance, became a vehicle through which they could explain a world that seemed to allow more and more autonomy—God as the clockmaker, who created life that could operate on its own.

The Epicureans, in 300 BC, developed the theory of atoms. Though they stumbled, primitively, on the physics of matter thousands of years before modern science, they weren’t what we’d consider today to be scientists. They were humanists. Epicurus used the theory to explain the degradation of the human body—why we age and die and what that means for our lives. Atoms helped explain dissolution. They explained infiniteness and placed man in his place, in the context of a world that was bigger and more complicated than he was.

Montaigne, for his part, loved to read about the recently discovered tribes of South America. He read whatever he could get his hands on, not because of some misguided notion about noble savages, but because the material showed the absurdity in all kinds of traditions. His essays are full of anecdotes from travelers and books that put the perspectives from the “cannibals” to good philosophical use.

Last week, I attended a dinner with a group of prominent people in the paleolithic health community. Though I’ve begun to question some of my initial skepticism towards the ideas behind it, it still struck me at moments how much focus and energy people are willing to spend on this field. To see grand theories reduced to comparatively minor personal actions just seemed like a misappropriation.

What I’ve started to wonder is what the ancient philosophers would have done had they know about evolution (which is also to point out how little our modern “philosophers” have done with it). Would they have obsessed over trivial improvements to our health or our sex lives? Would they have used it to justify or rationalize or pretentiously “discover” things we have always known to exist in human nature? I’m thinking of attempts to explain altruism or sex differences that are nothing more than common sense dressed up in jargon. What philosophers have done throughout history is to use the advances in science and technology to properly communicate better ways to live our lives. What we do now is fill up our time discussing the implications of theories in their least applicable way—or worse, apply them only in relatively meaningless settings.

I think they would have made much of natural selection as a metaphor. The concept of “shared ancestors” conjoins nicely with the philosophical notion of unity in nature, in addition to making a empathic case for humility and perspective. The same goes for themes like extinction, random mutation, tit-for-tat, and so on. Philosophers, especially the Stoics, registered early warnings against the Naturalistic Fallacy and and I think it goes without saying that they’d have benefited even more from knowing what makes us act the way we do. But the difference in practice: they wrote to contemplate death, not whether drinking or not drinking helps you live a little bit longer.

Ironically, paleolithic lifestyle advocates are guilty of the same inconsistent application as the scientists they criticize. Just as biologists originally accepted that other species were shaped by evolution but not humans, and then that all human organs were but not the brain, paleos seem to only question whether our eating and exercise habits are natural. But what of the rest of modern life? Maybe jobs or cities are well-intentioned but toxic inventions. That we subject ourselves to barrages of information that our minds can’t possibly break down properly, for instance, is an obvious missed metaphor for a movement that came to the same conclusions about food.

This is what Seneca said when he criticized how people tend to read. What does it matter whether Odysseus was in Italy or Sicily when he was hit by a storm, or whether early man ate many vegetables, when we have worse storms in our own lives. The key is to read and learn and study in a way that the words can become works. To use whatever you study, be it science or health or literature or mathematics and, use it to address the larger issues that we face. He meant that what mattered was what made you a better person—not physically or rhetorically, but spiritually and emotionally. And to be careful of the line where curiosity and self-improvement transition into wankery.