Required Reading, Fourth Week of November 2015

This week was Thanksgiving, and with family in from out of town I barely had any time to read. I did, however, catch this Vice interview with the Eagles of Death Metal about the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris. 90 fans were murdered during their November 13th concert. The band members barely escaped the stage alive. Their stories are horrifying, and hearing them recount their experiences bring this atrocity to life in a way that a news article fails to capture:

“Trading Up” by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske


This is a book about the shift in consumer purchase behavior towards either really nice, luxury goods or cheap alternatives in the areas the individual consumer considers expendable. For example, someone might buy cheap underwear in order to save up enough to buy that set of premium golf clubs. Although Trading Up was written in 2003 and revised in 2005, this phenomenon is in full-swing and evident at any retail store.

They also go through great lengths to describe the reasons a consumer would strive for what they call a New Luxury good. Namely, New Luxury goods have significant emotional appeal instead of Old Luxury’s appeal to status anxiety. These emotional spaces of appeal can take several angles, such as “Taking care of me”, “Connecting with others”, “Questing and exploration”, and “Individual style”. All four emotional spaces are profiled in the book and read like a marketing primer for the Internet Age.

The authors detail the evolution of the use of expendable income through case histories of different industries. I hadn’t known that wine was considered a cheap drunkard’s drink before premium alternatives came along that appealed to consumer’s emotional needs. Other surprises are hidden throughout this book, and in a strange way thinking about consumer behavior has given a lot of products and advertising copy I see in the aisles of grocery stores a fresh perspective.

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Required Reading, Third Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

The Doomsday Invention, via The New Yorker—A portrait of Nick Bostrom, the futurist-philosopher at Oxford who is so mired in the future that the present is meaningless to him:

Bostrom had little interest in conventional philosophy—not least because he expected that superintelligent minds, whether biologically enhanced or digital, would make it obsolete. “Suppose you had to build a new subway line, and it was this grand trans-generational enterprise that humanity was engaged in, and everybody had a little role,” he told me. “So you have a little shovel. But if you know that a giant bulldozer will arrive on the scene tomorrow, then does it really make sense to spend your time today digging the big hole with your shovel? Maybe there is something else you could do with your time. Maybe you could put up a signpost for the great shovel, so it will start digging in the right place.” He came to believe that a key role of the philosopher in modern society was to acquire the knowledge of a polymath, then use it to help guide humanity to its next phase of existence—a discipline that he called “the philosophy of technological prediction.” He was trying to become such a seer.
“He was ultra-consistent,” Daniel Hill, a British philosopher who befriended Bostrom while they were graduate students in London, told me. “His interest in science was a natural outgrowing of his understandable desire to live forever, basically.”


Why People Keep Saying, “That’s What the Terrorists Want”via Harvard Business Review—here is a quick lesson about how and why people attach their own emotions to explain the actions of other people:

How is everyone so savvy when it comes to knowing what terrorists want?

One explanation comes from a cognitive bias called correspondent inference theory. It was developed in the 1960s and 1970s by the social psychologist Edward Jones to explain the cognitive process by which an observer infers the motives of an actor.

The theory comes from the foundational work of Fritz Heider, the father of attributional theory. Heider saw individuals as “naïve psychologists” motivated by a practical concern – a need to simplify, comprehend, and predict the motives of others. Heider postulated that people process information by applying inferential rules that shape their response to behavior. In laboratory experiments, he found that we tend to attribute the behavior of others to inherent characteristics of their personality — or dispositions — rather than to external or situational factors.


Comic Explodes the “DNA Is Just Source Code” Metaphorvia MIT Technology Review:

Required Reading, Second Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows is the one I found most interesting (along with a political speech and short documentary):


How The Mad Men Lost The Plotvia Financial Times—This article is about marketing, the ineffectiveness of “brand engagement” and the residing power of old media. I’ve always been curious about how/why advertising works and this take is refreshingly honest. I mean, no WAY are Google and Facebook ads so effective that they can justify those companies finances! Truth is, building sales by targeting previous customers isn’t a great way to build your user base:

Sharp’s first law is that brands can’t get bigger on the back of loyal customers. Applying a statistical analysis to sales data, he demonstrates that the majority of any successful brand’s sales comes from “light buyers”: people who buy it relatively infrequently. Coca-Cola’s business is not built on a hardcore of Coke lovers who drink it daily, but on the millions of people who buy it once or twice a year. You, for instance, may not think of yourself as a Coke buyer, but if you’ve bought it once in the last 12 months, you’re actually a typical Coke consumer. This pattern recurs across brands, categories, countries and time. Whether it’s toothpaste or computers, French cars or Australian banks, brands depend on large numbers of people — that’s to say, the masses — who buy them only occasionally, leave long gaps between purchases and buy competing brands in between.

If you work for a brand owner, the implications are profound. First, you will never increase your brand’s market share by targeting existing users — the task that digital media performs so efficiently. The effort and expense marketers put into targeting their own customers with emails and web banners is largely wasted; loyalty programmes, says Sharp, “do practically nothing to drive growth”. What seems like a prudent use of funds — focusing on people who have already proved they like the brand — is actually just spinning wheels.


The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions, Abraham Lincoln—I’ve been enjoying reading American political speeches lately, and Lincoln is widely regarded as the finest speech writer who ever lived. This early speech of his, written in 1938 when he was a 28-year old lawyer, had some particularly interesting passages in it. It covers themes like the corrosive nature of unjust laws, and the timeless question every young generation has to ask: namely, how to best use the advantages previous generations fought to gain and pass on:

“In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American people, find our account running under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession of the fairest portion of the earth as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them; they are a legacy bequeathed us by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed, race of ancestors.”

” At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.”

“When I so pressingly urge a strict observance of all the laws, let me not be understood as saying there are no bad laws, or that grievances may not arise for the redress of which no legal provisions have been made. I mean to say no such thing. But I do mean to say that although bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still, while they continue in force, for the sake of example they should be religiously observed. So also in unprovided cases. If such arise, let proper legal provisions be made for them with the least possible delay, but till then let them, if not too intolerable, be borne with.”


Whistling Smith: and finally, Whistling Smith, a fascinating documentary from 1975 that follows a Vancouver policeman through the city’s most downtrodden streets:

Click HERE to see the film.

Saturday Morning Rock ‘n Roll

Leave it to Bob Lefsetz to remind you that great music is still being made, but it’s buried in an infinite record pile. Only the pop hits rise to the top, you’re going to have to dig for the interesting tracks. The ‘deep cuts’ are deeper than ever.

His blog ‘New Release Paradigm’ sent me down the YouTube rabbit hole this morning. His glowing recommendation of Kurt Vile reminded me that rock ‘n roll can still happen and I went from there. I’m posting these videos here so I don’t forget them:

Kurt Vile, “Pretty Pimpin'”

Gary Clark Jr. “When My Train Pulls In”

Henry + The Invisibles – “My Love Is For You”

“If you want to be bigger than you are, you have to deliver a catchy track that grabs the listener in four seconds or less that they not only want to hear again, but tell everybody about. You don’t get more time. People judge immediately. And good is not good enough. If your album doesn’t have a hit, you’re preaching to the converted, whose size probably won’t grow, but shrink, because people are drawn to that which is hot. Once again, a hit is not necessarily something that plays on the radio, but something that gets someone to jump out of bed, toss their pajamas, dress up and walk to the all night record shop to buy. That’s what Ahmet Ertegun said, the only difference today is you grab your mobile and search for it on Spotify or YouTube. The essence is the same, you’ve got to hear it again. Everybody’s overloaded with input, you can only break through with your work, no media campaign, no amount of imploring can make you a star anymore, you either have the goods or you don’t. And if you don’t, you’ll know right away and need to go back to the drawing board immediately and make new music. Don’t beat a dead horse, it’s sad and ineffective.”

Required Reading, First Week of November 2015

Throughout the week, I read a LOT of online articles. What follows are the two I found most interesting:

Someday, Tech Will End Our Dumb Two-Party Systemvia—Drew Curtis, founder of the irreverent news website, offers his perspective on running a (losing) campaign for the Kentucky gubernatorial seat. Regardless of how the race turns out, he’s a smart and engaged citizen who deserves to be listened to:
Most politicians start with a theory, and then use that to determine their policies. For example, candidates are routinely asked to weigh in on charter schools. Most start by stating their theoretical approach—I’m broadly in favor of or opposed to charter schools. That immediately tells voters where you stand, but it does nothing to find actual solutions. As soon as you’ve signaled which camp you belong to, both sides start yelling at each other, accomplishing nothing.

I always tried to answer questions on issues pragmatically, either: 1) I’ve seen an implementation that works and we should copy it or 2) I have yet to see an implementation that works but do you have one you could share with me? If you read a campaign 101 primer it will tell you not to do this, but I found that voters responded very strongly to this strategy. It allowed people who didn’t agree 100 percent with my viewpoints to realize that even though we weren’t entirely aligned, all ideas had a place at the table. Any idea that was provable was worth looking at, regardless of the source.

The good news is, if you understand technology at all, you have access to new tools and ways of thinking that might change the discussion around public policy. For example, in northern Kentucky there’s an argument around tolling on a proposed bridge between Kentucky and Ohio. One idea is to charge locals $1 and everyone else $5. Right now, everyone is arguing about who should be considered local—how far out are we talking? My solution is to use technology to decide. Offer transponders and give drivers the opportunity to buy them. People who drive over the bridge regularly will pick them up. (I have a transponder for Chicago even though I don’t live there, because it makes my twice-yearly visits much more manageable.) Others can get charged a higher rate using license plate photo technology, like they have in Denver. Throw in Los Angeles-style fast lane surge pricing on top of this. Then turn all the tolls off once the bridge is paid for.

The advantage here is you get a huge leg up on the career politicians by demonstrating you’re thinking outside of the box, when in reality you’re just taking decades-old technology and applying it to government. Which I guess actually is thinking outside the box from a public sector perspective.

The Value of Universityvia The Economist—Not only does this article provide different results than most college ranking lists, it also gives a detailed breakdown of how they arrived at their results: 

A well-known economics paper by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that people who attended elite colleges do not make more money than do workers who were accepted to the same institutions but chose less selective ones instead—suggesting that former attendees and graduates of Harvard tend to be rich because they were already intelligent and hard-working before they entered college, not because of the education or opportunities the university provided.

On September 12th America’s Department of Education unveiled a “college scorecard” website containing a cornucopia of data about universities. The government generated the numbers by matching individuals’ student-loan applications to their subsequent tax returns, making it possible to compare pupils’ qualifications and demographic characteristics when they entered college with their salaries ten years later. That information offers the potential to disentangle student merit from university contributions, and thus to determine which colleges deliver the greatest return and why.

The Economist’s first-ever college rankings are based on a simple, if debatable, premise: the economic value of a university is equal to the gap between how much money its students subsequently earn, and how much they might have made had they studied elsewhere. Thanks to the scorecard, the first number is easily accessible. The second, however, can only be estimated. To calculate this figure, we ran the scorecard’s earnings data through a multiple regression analysis, a common method of measuring the relationships between variables.

Data Mining Reveals the Extent of China’s Ghost Cities and Facebook App Can Answer Basic Questions About What’s In Photosvia MIT Technology Review—The first of these articles is about the deserted infrastructure built up during China’s ill-founded real estate boom (perhaps a symptom of that inflated growth rate that crashed and caused that market scare here in America a few months back). The other one details an impressive technological breakthrough: a computer program that can recognize what is happening in a picture. Combine this with Facebook’s face recognition algorithm and you can know what everyone is doing all of the time.