Compress to impress

One of the funniest and most implausible things in movies is the grand speech by the general, usually the film's protagonist, in front of thousands of soldiers in the moments just before a critical battle. Examples abound, and the punch lines lodge in the memory, from Henry V ("We band of brothers") to Braveheart ("They will never take away...our freedom!") to Lord of the Rings: Return of the King ("There may come a day...but today is not that day!"). 

[Does this actually happen in real life? Did generals ride back and forth before the start of battles in the Civil War and give motivational speeches? I'm genuinely curious.]

The reason these scenes always strike me as absurd is that the character giving the speech is never using a megaphone or a microphone. The speech is almost always given outdoors, in the open air, so his voice carries for a radius of, what, thirty or forty feet? I imagine a soldier standing in the last row of the army about a mile away from the front lines bugging everyone around him, "What did he say? Can anyone hear?" and being shushed by everyone. Maybe only the first row or two of soldiers needs to hear the motivational speech because they're the first to run into a hail of bullets and arrows?

Even with modern communication infrastructure, however, any modern CEO deals with amplification and distortion issues with any message. Humans learn about this problem very early on by playing telephone or operator, or what I just learned is more canonically known outside the U.S. as Chinese whispers. One person whispers a message in another person's ear, and it's passed on down the line to see if the original phrase can survive intact to the last person in the chain. Generally, errors accumulate along the way and what makes it to the end is some shockingly defective copy of the original.

Despite learning this lesson early on, most people in leadership positions still underestimate just how pervasive this problem is. This is why any manager or executive is familiar with how much time they spend on communicating the same things to different groups in the organization. It feels like it's all you do sometimes, and yet you still encounter people who feel like they're in the dark.

I hadn't read Jeff Bezos' most recent letter to shareholders until today, but it was just what I'd expect of it given something I observed in my seven years there, which are now more than a decade in the rear view mirror. In fact, one of reasons I hadn't read it yet was that I suspected it would be very familiar, and it was. The other thing I suspected was that it would be really concise and memorable, and again, it was.

I suspect that very early on in his career as CEO, Jeff noticed the Chinese whispers problem as the company scaled. Anyone who is lucky enough to lead a successful company very quickly senses the impossibility of scaling one's own time to all corners of the organization, but Jeff was laser focused on the more serious problem that presented, that of maintaining consistent strategy in all important decisions, many of which were made outside his purview each day. At scale, maintaining strategic alignment feels like an organizational design problem, but much of the impact of organizational design is centered around how it impacts information flow.

This problem is made more vexing by not just the telephone game issue but by the human inability to carry around a whole lot of directives in their minds. Jeff could spend a ton of time in All Hands meetings or with his direct reports and other groups inside Amazon, explaining his thinking in excruciating detail and hoping it sank in, but then he'd never have any time to do anything else.

Thankfully, humans have developed ways to ensure the integrity of messages persists across time when transmitted through the lossy mediums of oral tradition and hierarchical organizations.

One of these is to encode you message in a very distinctive format. There are many rhetorical tricks that have stood the test of time, like alliteration or anadiplosis. Perhaps supreme among these rhetorical forms is verse, especially when it rhymes. Both the rhythm and the rhyme (alliteration intentional) allow humans to compress and recall a message with greater accuracy than prose.

Fe fi fo fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.
 

It's thought that bards of old could recite epics like Homer's Odyssey entirely from memory because the stories were in verse form (and through the use of memorization tricks like memory palaces and visual encoding). I don't know many people who can recite any novels from memory, but I've occasionally run across someone who can recite a long poem by heart. That's the power of verse.

It might be impossible to recite The Great Gatsby by memory regardless of what heuristics you employed, but it would certainly be easier if it were written by Dr. Seuss.

I do not like them,
Sam-I-am.
I do not like
Green eggs and ham.
 

I never chatted with Bezos about this, so I don't know if it was an explicit strategy on his part, but one of his great strengths as a communicator was the ability to encode the most important strategies for Amazon in very concise and memorable forms.

Take one example "Day 1." I don't know when he first said this to the company, but it was repeated endlessly all my years at Amazon. It's still Day 1. Jeff has even named one of the Amazon buildings Day 1. In fact, I bet most of my readers know what Day 1 means, and Jeff doesn't even bother explaining what Day 1 is at the start of his letter to shareholders, so familiar is it to all followers of the company. Instead, he just jumps straight into talking about how to fend off Day 2, which he doesn't even need to define because we all can probably infer it from the structure of his formulation, but he does so anyway.

Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.
 

An entire philosophy, packed with ideas, compressed into two words. Day 1.

He then jumps into some of the strategies to fend off Day 1. The first is also familiar to everyone at Amazon, and many outside Amazon: customer obsession. Plenty of companies say they are customer focused, but Jeff articulates why he chose it from among the many possibilities he could have chosen for the company, giving it a level of oppositional definition that would otherwise be lacking.

There are many ways to center a business. You can be competitor focused, you can be product focused, you can be technology focused, you can be business model focused, and there are more. But in my view, obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.
 
Why? There are many advantages to a customer-centric approach, but here’s the big one: customers are always beautifully, wonderfully dissatisfied, even when they report being happy and business is great. Even when they don’t yet know it, customers want something better, and your desire to delight customers will drive you to invent on their behalf. No customer ever asked Amazon to create the Prime membership program, but it sure turns out they wanted it, and I could give you many such examples.
 

The second strategy to ward off stagnation is a newer codification (at least to me) of a principle he hammered home in other ways when I was there: resist proxies. 

As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2.
 
A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.” A more experienced leader will use it as an opportunity to investigate and improve the process. The process is not the thing. It’s always worth asking, do we own the process or does the process own us? In a Day 2 company, you might find it’s the second.
 

There are many ways one could have named this principle, but this one is just novel and pithy enough to be distinctive, and from now on I'll likely refer to this principle as he formulated it: resist proxies.

The next principle is the one that needs the most work: embrace external trends. Doesn't really roll off the tongue, or lodge in the memory. This is also universal enough an idea that someone has likely already come up with some exceptional aphorism, some of you may have one on the tip of your tongue. It maybe that it's just too generic to be worth the effort to stake a claim to with a unique turn of phrase.

The last principle I also remember from my Amazon days: high-velocity decision making (inside of it is another popular business aphorism: disagree and commit). This could be named "ready fire aim" or "if you don't commit, you've basically quit" or "if you don't really know, just pick and go" or something like that, but "high-velocity" is distinctive in its own sense. It's an adjective that sounds more at home in physics or in describing some sort of ammunition than it does in a corporate environment, and that helps an otherwise simple principle stand out.

Go back even further, and there are dozens of examples of Bezos codifying key ideas for maximum recall. For example, every year I was at Amazon had a theme (reminiscent of how David Foster Wallace imagined in Infinite Jest that in the future corporate sponsors could buy the rights to name years). These themes were concise and memorable ways to help everyone remember the most important goal of the company that year.

One year, when our primary goal was to grow our revenue and order volume as quickly as possible to achieve the economies of scale that would capitalize on our high fixed cost infrastructure investments and put wind into our flywheel, the theme was "Get Big Fast Baby." You can argue whether the "baby" at the end was necessary, but I think it's more memorable with it than without. Much easier to remember than "Grow revenues 80%" or "achieve economies of scale" or something like that.

Another time, as we looked out and saw the $1B revenue milestone approaching, one of Jeff's chief concerns was whether our company's processes could scale to handle that volume of orders without breaking (I'll write another time about the $1B revenue scaling phenomenon). To head off any such stumbles, we set aside an entire year at the company for GOHIO. It stood for "Getting our house in order".

As the first analyst in the strategic planning group, I produced an order volume projection for $1B in revenue and also generated forecasts for other metrics of relevance for every group in the company. For example, the customer service department would have to handle a higher volume of customer contacts, and the website would have to handle a greater traffic load.

Every group had that year of GOHIO to figure out how to scale to handle that volume without just linearly scaling its headcount and/or spending. If every group were just growing their headcount and costs linearly with order volume, our business model wouldn't work. The exercise was intended to find those processes that would break at such theoretical load and begin the work of finding where the economies of scale lay. An example was building customer self-service mechanisms to offload the most common customer service inquiries like printing return labels.

I could continue on through the years, but what stands out is that I can recite these from memory even now, over a decade later, and so could probably everyone who worked at Amazon those years.

Here's a good test of how strategically aligned a company is. Walk up to anyone in the company in the hallway and ask them if they know what their current top priority or mission is. Can they recite it from memory?

What Jeff understood was the power of rhetoric. Time spent coming up with the right words to package a key concept in a memorable way was time well spent. People fret about what others say about them when they're not in the room, but Jeff was solving the issue of getting people to say what he'd say when he wasn't in the room.

It was so important to him that we even had company-wide contests to come up with the most memorable ways to name our annual themes. One year Jeff announced at an All Hands meeting that someone I knew, Barnaby Dorfman, had won the contest. Jeff said the prize was that he'd buy something off the winner's Amazon wish list, but after pulling Barnaby's wish list up in front of the whole company on the screen, he said he didn't think any of the items was good enough so instead he went over to the product page for image stabilized binoculars from Canon, retailing for over $1000, and bought those instead.

I have a list of dozens of Jeff sayings filed away in memory, and I'm not alone. It's one reason he's one of the world's most effective CEO's. What's particularly impressive is that Jeff is so brilliant that it would be easy for him to state his thinking in complex ways that us mere mortals wouldn't grok. But true genius is stating the complex simply.

Ironically, Jeff employs the reverse of this for his own information inflows. It's well known that he banned Powerpoint at Amazon because he was increasingly frustrated at the lossy nature that medium. As Edward Tufte has long railed against, Powerpoint encourage people to reduce their thinking to a series of bullet points. Whenever someone would stand up in front of Jeff to present, Jeff would have rifled through to the end of the presentation before they would've finished a handful of slides, and Jeff would just jump in and start asking questions about slide 35 when someone was still talking to slide 3.

As a hyper intelligent person, Jeff didn't want lossy compression or lazy thinking, he wanted the raw feed in a structured form, and so we all shifted to writing our arguments out as essays that he'd read silently in meetings. Written language is a lossy format, too, but it has the advantage of being less forgiving of broken logic flows than slide decks.

To summarize, Jeff's outbound feedback was carefully encoded and compressed for maximum fidelity of transmission across hundreds of thousands of employees all over the world, but his inbound data feed was raw and minimally compressed. In structure, this pattern resembles what a great designer or photographer does. Find the most elegant and stable output from a complex universe of inputs.

One of the great advantages of identifying and codifying first principles is how little maintenance they need. Write once, remember forever. As testament to that, ever year, Bezos ends his Letter to Shareholders the same way.

As always, I attach a copy of our original 1997 letter. It remains Day 1.
 

It's his annual mic drop. Shareholders must feel so secure with their Amazon shares. Bezos is basically saying he figured out some enduring principles when he started his company, and they're so universal and stable that he doesn't have much to add some twenty years later except to point people back at his first letter to shareholders.

Other CEO's and leaders I've encountered are gifted at this as well ("Lean in" "Yes we can" "Move fast and break things" "Innovation is saying no to a thousand things" "Just do it" "I have a dream") but I gravitate to those from Jeff because I saw them arise from distinct needs in the moment, and not just for notoriety's sake. As such, it's a strategy applicable to more than just philosophers and CEO's. [Sometime I'll write about some of the communication strategies of Steve Jobs, many of which can be gleaned from his public keynotes. He was an extremely skilled and canny communicator, and in many ways an underrated one.]

Tyler Cowen named his latest book The Complacent Class. It's a really thought-provoking read, but the alliteration in the title helps. Now economists everywhere are referring to a broad set of phenomena by the term "complacent class." It wouldn't be nearly as memorable if called Complacent People or The Dangers of Self-Satisfaction. Can you name the subtitle of the book? It's "the self-defeating quest for the American Dream" but no one remembers that part.

Venkatesh Rao once wrote a memorable post about management principles encoded in the American version of the TV show The Office. Anyone familiar with the post probably remembers it by the first part of its title: "The Gervais Principle." Very few, I'd suspect, remember the rest of the title—"Or The Office according to The Office"—though it does employ a clever bit of word repetition.

Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton as compared to Donald Trump as Presidential candidates, I'd venture that more people can recite Trump's mantra—Make America Great Again—than Clinton's. I don't know if she had a slogan, or if she did I don't remember what it was. Her most memorable turn of phrase from the campaign trail was probably "then deal me in" at the end of a much longer phase, “if fighting for women's healthcare and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in." It's difficult to think of a phrase more emblematic of her problems in articulating what she stood for. The first part of the sentence is long and wonky, and I couldn't recall it from memory, and she never followed up on the second enough.

If she'd used it repeatedly in a speech, it could have been a form of epistrophe like Obama's "Yes we can" or Martin Luther King's "I have a dream." Imagine if she had an entire speech where she kept hammering on what other cards she wanted to deal. "If ensuring that everyone in the country has an equal opportunity to reasonable healthcare is playing the [?] card then deal me in. If ensuring everyone in this country has the right to a good education is playing the [?] card then deal me in." And so on. But she would only use it once in a while, or once in a speech, whereas Obama had entire speeches where he would circle back to "Yes we can" again and again. [Maybe there isn't an equivalent to "woman card" that makes this epistrophe scalable but the broad point about her weak use of rhetoric holds.]

That's not to say "Make American Great Again" is some slogan for the ages, but it is succinct and has a loose bit of trochaic meter (MAKE ah-MERIC-uh GREAT a-GAIN) which grants it a sense of emphatic energy which all political movements need. His supporters compressed it into #MAGA which became a more liquid shorthand for social media. In general it seems the populist backlash and the alt-right are stronger at such rhetorical tricks than the Democrats or the left, but perhaps it is bred of necessity from being the opposition party?

Rhetoric can get a bad name because some lump it in with other language tricks like those used in clickbait titles. "You won't believe what happened next" or "This will restore your faith in humanity" or "ten signs you're a Samantha." Those aren't ways for making something stick, those are ways for making someone click. [Quiz: what rhetorical techniques were used in that last sentence?] Rhetoric isn't inherently good or bad; it can be used for ideas both inspiring and appalling.

There will come a day when you'll come up with some brilliant theory or concept and want it to spread and stick. You want to lay claim to that idea. It's then that you'll want to set aside some time to state it distinctively, even if you're not a gifted rhetorician. A memorable turn of phrase need not incorporate sophisticated techniques like parataxis or polysyndeton. Most everyone in tech is familiar with Marc Andreessen's "software is eating the world" and Stewart Brand's "information wants to be free." Often mere novelty is enough to elevate the mundane. You've spent all that time cooking your idea, why not spend an extra few moments plating it? It all tastes the same in your mouth but one dish will live on forever in an Instagram humblebrag pic.

If you're stuck and need some help, I highly recommend the delightful book The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase, whose title I remembered as simply Eloquence, which might, come to think of it, be the more memorable title.

Hazard disgrace

In a master class, director Walter Hill tried to summon a quote from memory:

There is a great quote I’ll get wrong of Samuel Johnson, the English poet and essayist, that: ‘We come to the arena uncalled, to seek our fortune and hazard disgrace. That’s the game, those are the rules.’
 

Hill was correct: he got the quote wrong. The original, by Johnson, is this (source):

He that writes may be considered as a kind of general challenger, whom every one has a right to attack; since he quits the common rank of life, steps forward beyond the lists, and offers his merit to the public judgement. To commence author is to claim praise, and no man can justly aspire to honour, but at the hazard of disgrace.
 

However, both versions are lovely, and in some ways Hill's version is more succinct and memorable.

Remember both next time you write something and many people disagree with you, because if you offer an opinion online, through a blog or on Twitter, and no one disagrees with you, it's probably because no one read it.

Globalization and its discontents

Among the structural cracks in contemporary societies in which Trumpism flourishes is a rapidly growing cleavage between cities and their deindustrialized, more or less rural, hinterland. Cities are the growth pole of postindustrial societies. They are international, cosmopolitan, and politically pro-immigration, in part because their success in global competition depends on their ability to attract talent from all over the world. Cities also require a supply of low-skilled and low-paid service workers, who clean offices, provide for security, prepare meals in restaurants, deliver parcels, and take care of the children of dual career families.21 The white middle class can no longer afford ever-rising urban rents; they find themselves living in growing communities of immigrants, or they leave and move to the small-town provinces.
Geographical separation has deeply divisive cultural and political consequences. Urban elites can easily imagine themselves moving from one global city to another; moving from New York to Ames, Iowa is another matter. National borders are less salient to urban elites than the informal borders between urban and rural communities. As urban labor markets turn global, job applicants from the national hinterlands must compete with talent from all over the world. Globalization creates an incentive for governments and employers not to invest too much in education. Why bother? They can always poach skilled labor from other countries. This is how the United States combines one of the worst school systems in the world with the world’s best universities and research centers.
 
There is an almost insuperable cultural barrier between the city and the country, something long known to city and country dwellers alike. City dwellers develop a multicultural, cosmopolitan outlook. As their values converge on their interests, what used to be social liberalism edges into free-market liberalism. Seen from the perspective of the provinces, of course, elite cosmopolitanism serves the material interests of a new class of global winners. Mutual contempt is reinforced by self-imposed isolation, both sides speaking only to and within their camps, one through the media, located in the cities, the other through self-constructed private internet channels.
 

Wolfang Streck on Trump and the Trumpists (he defines Trumpism as a particular strain of populism).

The primacy of the urban/rural divide resonates. Whenever I chat with friends about where they might move if they left their current home, it's always a list of what most would consider a list of the world's leading urban centers—New York, Tokyo, London, Sydney, Berlin, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Paris, to name the most commonly cited—and rarely the rural regions of the United States, despite the lower cost of living and other potential benefits.

We see how hard it is even for a large company to put the global maximum above the local maximums of various fiefdoms within the corporate hierarchy, it's not surprising that the same problem exists when trying to elevate globalization above nationalism. It's easier to hold to high minded principles of globalization, especially the free movement of labor, when the existing system seems to be working well for you.

On the difference between class and status:

Almost a century ago, Max Weber drew a distinction between class and status.12 Classes are constituted by the market; status groups by a particular way of life and a specific claim to social respect. Status groups are home-grown social communities; classes become classes only through organization. The Trumpist electoral machine mobilizes its supporters as a status group. It appeals to their shared sense of honor more than to their material interests.13 In this, Trumpism follows New Labour and New Democrat neo-liberalism, which deleted class from their political vocabulary. In its stead, they redefined the struggle for social equality as one over identity, that is, over the symbolic recognition and collective dignity of an indefinite number of ever narrower status groups. Neoliberalism had failed to anticipate that the discovery by experts and politicians of ever new minorities may make the demobilized working class feel abandoned in favor of special interests. Their discovery and celebration inevitably demoted the interests of the working class. As the United States was transformed into a polity of status groups, the working class lost its sense of identification with the country as a whole, if only because it is this class, reduced to one identity and interest among others, that is now blamed for a rich variety of social malignancies, from racism and sexism to gun violence and educational and industrial decline.14
 

In many ways, Barack Obama was a unicorn whose election misled the Democratic Party into thinking they had some demographic mandate to push Hillary through. Obama and Trump share one quality (likely the only one), they symbolized change for their supporters. Hillary never clarified what she stood for, but for many she stood for the opposite, a career politician born from and deeply embedded in the status quo. For enough people, that is no longer tenable.

Movies I've watched recently

Some SPOILERS in each discussion, so skip ahead as you please.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

More thematically rich than the previous installment, though the rhythm of the jokes is now familiar; many punchlines seem to land a beat late because we've seen around the corner. In this sequel, Peter Quill finally finds his absent father who's played by Kurt Russell (channeling peak 80's Kurt Russell, he's just missing an eyepatch). His father is named...Ego. It's rare that a movie telegraphs its theme with such blinking neon signage but less surprising when it's doing so in a pop movie franchise like the Marvel Comics Universe, especially one whose color palette is all digital day-glo colors from the 80's.

Not only is his father named Ego (though when Quill asks if he's a God Russell, he replies with a smirk, "God with a lowercase g."), it turns out his goal is to transform all life in the universe into himself. To do so, he's been planting his seed throughout the universe for millions of years. Literally. First he impregnates each planet he visits with a glowing blue seed, and then he impregnates various women throughout the universe in the hopes of bearing progeny who can join with him to power his galactic takeover. The only one of his children who can do this, it turns out, is his son Peter.

If this allegory of the biological impulse to spread one's genetic material far and wide sounds heavy, it is lighter in the handling. At one point, Ego teaches his son Peter to summon this life force from Ego's planet (also named Ego, of course), and it manifests as a glowing blue substance which they start to toss back and forth like Ray Kinsella and his father in Field of Dreams. Later, when we see that this blue substance sprouts from the seeds Ego has planted all over the universe and threatens to overrun planets like some tsunami wave, we realize Peter and his father were essentially tossing a ball of their metaphoric semen back and forth like a baseball. Boys really do just want to spread their jizz on everything in the universe.

Thankfully, being raised largely by a single mother, and having found the fulfillment of caring for others in his travels with his surrogate (and diverse, not just racially, but in the sense of species) family, Peter forges a path out from the destructive, self-replicating nature of the white male patriarchy (see my notes on Fate of the Furious below).

The movie is overstuffed. It has five end credits easter egg scenes. Five. It's as if Disney and Marvel are dangling potential sequels and spinoffs in front of an audience to market test which to make. Every character needs some story arc, which means a lot of plot mechanics to jam into the run time, and it's exacerbated by a script which splits up the characters, requiring plot scaffolding be built separately for each of them. Even at nearly 2.5 hours the movie feels too dense by half.

In addition, this is not an indictment of just this film, but most special effects heavy movies of this age: everything looks so cartoonish. We may look back on this decade as one long uncanny valley where very few stakes felt real since almost the entire environment around the actors felt like some bad simulation.

Still, it's refreshing to have a comic book movie that isn't so self-serious, even if this installment steers towards the more melancholy territory of family reconciliation. This is one comic book franchise which remembers to try to make you laugh every few bars, and it does so with the earnestness of Chris Pratt's Parks and Rec character and the classic rock mixtape blaring behind most scenes. One good joke rescues you from every one that makes your eyes roll.

The Lost City of Z

A movie for entrepreneurs. Tyler Cowen might have something to say about this movie and what it says about finding a way out of complacency.

Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is locked into an unremarkable future. His father's drunken misbehavior tarnished the family name, so the ceiling is the roof, as Michael Jordan recently said. He is not a born entrepreneur, but he wants a better future than English society of that time will offer someone of his lineage. When the Royal Geographic Society offers him the chance to lead an expedition into the jungle to map an unknown territory in the Amazon jungle, Fawcett leaves his pregnant wife (Sienna Miller) and child behind to forge a new destiny.

What he undergoes in the jungle is apt metaphor for what entrepreneurs often encounter in their search for product-market fit: trying to manage the morale of a staff who don't share his conviction (and to whom he can't really articulate what it is they're searching for at first) fending off arrows from incumbents (the Amazonian natives), fleeing the voracious appetites of flesh-eating fish, coughing up black substance from unknown jungle diseases.

Just as successful companies often emerge from startups who pivot more than once along the journey, Fawcett only lands upon the quest that will consume his life at the end of his first expedition. He hears of a magnificent city of gold out in the jungle and later finds some shattered pottery and tree carvings that seem to confirm its existence. Is it conclusive? No, but like an entrepreneur following some ill-defined conviction, Fawcett is hooked.

The cost of leaving one's complacency behind ripples out beyond him. His wife Nina has to raise their children largely on her own for years at a time, and his eldest son Jack (played at his oldest by the next Spider Man Tom Holland) resents the father he hardly knows. Many of the Royal Geographic Society question his belief in the existence of this lost city of Z, as he dubs it, plenty familiar to any entrepreneur who's had everyone from investors to press and everyone else in the peanut gallery cast doubt on their business plans.

Other parallels to Silicon Valley bubble up, perhaps more so to this current resident of the Bay Area. Nina helps find some documentation which supports Percy's case, and later asks to accompany him on one of his expeditions. She's not physically fit enough for the journey, he says, and besides, she has to stay with their children. The members of the Royal Geographic Society are all white males who scream and shout at each other. The expeditions make use of enslaved natives. Percy argues that the his lost city may be a more advanced society than his peers believe possible of the natives of South America, but he's not free of his own blind spots to his own privilege.

Though one might wonder why one would venture into hostile, disease infested jungles, the film also illustrates the structured, institutional complacency that is alternative. The film opens with a highly structured hunt in the English countryside, a sort of artificially constrained outlet for the adventurer's spirit, and flows soon thereafter into a society dance in which Percey and Nina and other society goers twirl in perfectly learned routines. If staid English society is to expand its horizons, it needs people like Percy to bear the cost of these dangerous expeditions into the unknown.

Young male ambition needs an outlet, and soon enough Jack pushes his father to take him on the next expedition to try and find Z once and for all. This last stretch of the film is the strongest, evoking something that is less the fever dream of the last chapter of Apocalypse Now and more a transcendental vision. The last lines Percy speaks in the movie, to his son Jack, are a sort of meditation on the consolations of the entrepreneur's journey, and the final shot of the movie, like that in James Gray's previous film, The Immigrant, will haunt you like a realization slipping out of the grasp of your memory into the void.

The Fate of the Furious

The eighth installment of what is now one of the more enduring, profitable film franchises of our time, though the series has always been bucketed in the category of dumb fun, cinematic cotton candy. Critical praise for various installments is qualified, at best.

And yet it is massively appealing to a male and female youth audience globally, and I suspect there's more to its resonance than just high end cars that go fast and girls in much-too-cutoff jean shorts.

  • The Fast and the Furious franchise is one of the most effortless post-racial works of pop culture anywhere. The gang of street racers at the heart of the series are as racially diverse as any set of protagonists in entertainment today, but it's never with a wink nor a congratulatory back slap. Their camaraderie feels genuine and casual despite checking just about every box on the ethnicity survey; it's as close to a vision of post-racial harmony as exists. When Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) speaks to the importance of family, he's talking about his extended family, which reaches far beyond his blood relatives, and what their group has hints at the promise of broader social harmony which liberals speak of but so rarely embody in any believable manner.
  • Relationships cross racial lines. In the romance of Han (Sung Kang) and Gisele (Gal Gadot) the series offered perhaps the most appealing depiction of an Asian male romantic lead on screen in a major Hollywood movie. Granted, Hollywood has a terrible track record on this front, but with the looming importance of the Chinese market to global box office, perhaps this won't remain such a glaring exception.
  • The diversity of the franchise reflects itself even in the selection of vehicles, which comprises Japanese rice rockets, American muscle cars, and Italian supercars, all of which seem to echo some aspect of the gang's varied personalities.
  • More notably, the diversity extends to equality of the sexes. The gang has always had a mix of women and men, all of equal competence, and on the road the women are assigned the same levels of jobs and accorded equal levels of trust and respect. It's a good looking bunch, to be sure, but the one actual real life model in the group, Tyrese Gibson, is constantly ribbed for his incompetence at various tasks. 
  • Vin Diesel always seems to be in some American muscle car, beginning his father's 1970 Dodge Charger in the first film. It's a symbol of a less complacent, more dynamic age for America, when we made and drove cars with manual transmission. Many of the films show them all working together to modify and improve on their vehicles. Contrast that to today, when we sit in the back of ride sharing vehicles scrolling through social media on our smartphones, or the future, when we may be doing the same in the back of self-driving vehicles.
  • Throughout the series, the gang has assimilated people who started out trying to take them down, from Paul Walker in the first installment to The Rock and most recently Jason Statham. All of those began as foes who were won over by the values and mission of Dom and his team. In doing so they illustrate a path out of the cycle of violence and conflict to something more like a pluralist, race-blind community unified by shared meritocratic norms. In The Fate of the Furious, Dom does this explicitly in the opening segment. On behalf of his cousin, he beats a competitor in a street race in Cuba to erase a debt. Rather than call the bet and take ownership of his defeated foe's vehicle, Dom is content with having earned his competitor's respect. Later in the movie, that grateful Cuban helps him pull off a gambit against Charlize Theron's terrorist organization. Dom essentially flipped a cycle of violence into one of cooperation (see notes below on John Wick 2). 
  • It's a set of values that sits above any nationalist loyalties, and the team seems to be living in a different country every other movie or so.
  • Many believe the future belongs to the synthesis of human and machine intelligence, and the Fast and the Furious franchise has always appreciated that merger. “You know it doesn’t matter what’s under the hood. The only thing that matters is who’s behind the wheel,” says Dom before the Cuban street race. However, even he knows he can't beat the fastest car in Cuba in his cousin's beater. Having not fallen prey to the modern worker's abstraction from the tools of the trade, he and Letty quickly strip down his cousin's beater to lessen the weight and rig up a makeshift NOS.
  • Car racing is shown to be a universal sport, with a common language that unified kids across all continents, the franchise having now visited North and South America, Europe, and Asia. Despite the quality of signal provided by overly expensive sports cars, street racing is still, ultimately about the fastest guy to the quarter mile. It has meritocratic underpinnings. "For those 10 seconds, I'm free," says Dom about the quarter mile race. Free from the cares of the world, yes, but also free from race, money, gender, and anything that matters other than who crosses the finish line first.

By now, this franchise is either for you or not. I've enjoyed some installments more than others, but for something considered lowbrow the franchise is more breezily post-modern in its ideology than it might seem at a casual glance.

John Wick: Chapter 2

It's been quite some time since I saw this, and much of it has faded from my memory. At some point the novelty of a hitman twirling like a ballet dancer with handguns and shooting each of seemingly hundred of foes with two shots, always one finishing shot to the head, wore a bit thin for this viewer.

What lingers, though, is the film's conceptual construct of its assassin society. What it becomes is an allegory of how easily the peace between nations breaks and ripples down through history as a series of debts to be repaid. Everything in this assassin universe is seemingly paid off with a single coin, whether it's a drink at the bar or a high level hit. This makes no sense economically but speaks to how difficult it is for various entities like nation-states or mob bosses to see their grievances as anything less than equal to those of others, and how a complex web of rules can perpetuate a cycle of violence.

John Wick is wronged at the start of each of the movies in this franchise. In the first film, they kill his dog and steal his car. In America, those are two crimes about as equally grave as anything short of murder. Recall this conversation from Pulp Fiction:

Lance: Still got your Malibu?
Vincent: Aw, man. You know what some fucker did the other day?
Lance: What?
Vincent: Fucking keyed it.
Lance: Oh, man, that's fucked up.
Vincent: Tell me about it. I had it in storage for three years, it was out for five days and some dickless piece of shit fucked with it.
Lance: They should be fucking killed. No trial, no jury, straight to execution.
Vincent: Boy, I wish I could've caught him doing it. I'd have given anything to catch that asshole doing it. It'd been worth him doing it just so I could've caught him doing it.
Lance: What a fucker!
Vincent: What's more chickenshit than fucking with a man's automobile? I mean, don't fuck with another man's vehicle.
Lance: You don't do it.
Vincent: It's just against the rules.
 

So of course, Wick takes righteous vengeance and kills the guilty parties. This initiates a cycle of revenge which concludes at the start of the sequel, but as just as Wick seems to have cleared his ledger, someone comes calling with a Marker. He now must repay the favor that allowed him to settle down to a peaceful domestic marriage.

There is no retiring from the assassin's life to domestic bliss. Once caught up in the cycle of violence, which has only two simple rules (1. No killing on Continental grounds. 2. All Markers must be honored.), it's unclear how one can break out if someone along the line does not voluntarily forgive and break the ping pong volley of revenge (see note on the Cuban drag race in the Fate of the Furious, above).

Wick is sent to assassinate by Santino D'Antonio to assassinate Gianna D'Antonio to settle his Marker. Santino wants Gianna's seat on the High Table, some sort of United Nations of crime lords. When Wick finds his way to her, Gianna chooses to kill herself, in theory offering Wick a clean slate. But no, Gianna's bodyguard Cassian now feels obligated to avenge her, and Santino places a global bounty on Wick for the supposed assassination, to cover his own complicity in the plot.

And so on and so forth, the plot escalates. Wick can't find a way out of this complex web of rules, as artificial as they are. In the end, he shoots Santino at the Continental hotel, rejecting the whole game and its silly rules. But he cannot become Switzerland. The High Table puts a huge global bounty on his head, and as the movie concludes he is given a one hour head start before assassins the world over come after him.

How little it takes to transform finite into infinite games that pit one generation of players against the next ad infinitum. I'm hopeful the franchise explores possible answers to this cycle in Chapter 3 though all movie franchises now are subject to their own high commandments. Chief among them is this: whatever you do, preserve the cycle of revenue at all costs, and when you can no longer do so, you'll get a bullet in the head and a reboot will take your place.

Thermodynamic theory of evolution

The teleology and historical contingency of biology, said the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, make it unique among the sciences. Both of these features stem from perhaps biology’s only general guiding principle: evolution. It depends on chance and randomness, but natural selection gives it the appearance of intention and purpose. Animals are drawn to water not by some magnetic attraction, but because of their instinct, their intention, to survive. Legs serve the purpose of, among other things, taking us to the water.
 
Mayr claimed that these features make biology exceptional — a law unto itself. But recent developments in nonequilibrium physics, complex systems science and information theory are challenging that view.
 
Once we regard living things as agents performing a computation — collecting and storing information about an unpredictable environment — capacities and considerations such as replication, adaptation, agency, purpose and meaning can be understood as arising not from evolutionary improvisation, but as inevitable corollaries of physical laws. In other words, there appears to be a kind of physics of things doing stuff, and evolving to do stuff. Meaning and intention — thought to be the defining characteristics of living systems — may then emerge naturally through the laws of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics.
 

One of the most fascinating reads of my past half year.

I recently linked to the a short piece by Pinker on how an appreciation for the second law of thermodynamics might help one come to some peace with the entropy of the world. It's inevitable, so don't blame yourself.

And yet there is something beautiful about life in its ability to create pockets of order and information amidst the entropy and chaos.

A genome, then, is at least in part a record of the useful knowledge that has enabled an organism’s ancestors — right back to the distant past — to survive on our planet. According to David Wolpert, a mathematician and physicist at the Santa Fe Institute who convened the recent workshop, and his colleague Artemy Kolchinsky, the key point is that well-adapted organisms are correlated with that environment. If a bacterium swims dependably toward the left or the right when there is a food source in that direction, it is better adapted, and will flourish more, than one  that swims in random directions and so only finds the food by chance. A correlation between the state of the organism and that of its environment implies that they share information in common. Wolpert and Kolchinsky say that it’s this information that helps the organism stay out of equilibrium — because, like Maxwell’s demon, it can then tailor its behavior to extract work from fluctuations in its surroundings. If it did not acquire this information, the organism would gradually revert to equilibrium: It would die.
 
Looked at this way, life can be considered as a computation that aims to optimize the storage and use of meaningful information. And life turns out to be extremely good at it. Landauer’s resolution of the conundrum of Maxwell’s demon set an absolute lower limit on the amount of energy a finite-memory computation requires: namely, the energetic cost of forgetting. The best computers today are far, far more wasteful of energy than that, typically consuming and dissipating more than a million times more. But according to Wolpert, “a very conservative estimate of the thermodynamic efficiency of the total computation done by a cell is that it is only 10 or so times more than the Landauer limit.”
 
The implication, he said, is that “natural selection has been hugely concerned with minimizing the thermodynamic cost of computation. It will do all it can to reduce the total amount of computation a cell must perform.” In other words, biology (possibly excepting ourselves) seems to take great care not to overthink the problem of survival. This issue of the costs and benefits of computing one’s way through life, he said, has been largely overlooked in biology so far.
 

I don't know if that's true, but it is so elegant as to be breathtaking. What this all leads to is a theory of a new form of evolution, different from the Darwinian definition.

Adaptation here has a more specific meaning than the usual Darwinian picture of an organism well-equipped for survival. One difficulty with the Darwinian view is that there’s no way of defining a well-adapted organism except in retrospect. The “fittest” are those that turned out to be better at survival and replication, but you can’t predict what fitness entails. Whales and plankton are well-adapted to marine life, but in ways that bear little obvious relation to one another.
 
England’s definition of “adaptation” is closer to Schrödinger’s, and indeed to Maxwell’s: A well-adapted entity can absorb energy efficiently from an unpredictable, fluctuating environment. It is like the person who keeps his footing on a pitching ship while others fall over because she’s better at adjusting to the fluctuations of the deck. Using the concepts and methods of statistical mechanics in a nonequilibrium setting, England and his colleagues argue that these well-adapted systems are the ones that absorb and dissipate the energy of the environment, generating entropy in the process.
 

I'm tempted to see an analogous definition of successful corporate adaptation in this, though I'm inherently skeptical of analogy and metaphor. Still, reading a paragraph like this, one can't think of how critical it is for companies to remember the right lessons from the past, and not too many of the wrong ones.

There’s a thermodynamic cost to storing information about the past that has no predictive value for the future, Still and colleagues show. To be maximally efficient, a system has to be selective. If it indiscriminately remembers everything that happened, it incurs a large energy cost. On the other hand, if it doesn’t bother storing any information about its environment at all, it will be constantly struggling to cope with the unexpected. “A thermodynamically optimal machine must balance memory against prediction by minimizing its nostalgia — the useless information about the past,’’ said a co-author, David Sivak, now at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. In short, it must become good at harvesting meaningful information — that which is likely to be useful for future survival.
 

This theory even offers its own explanation for death.

It’s certainly not simply a matter of things wearing out. “Most of the soft material we are made of is renewed before it has the chance to age,” Meyer-Ortmanns said. But this renewal process isn’t perfect. The thermodynamics of information copying dictates that there must be a trade-off between precision and energy. An organism has a finite supply of energy, so errors necessarily accumulate over time. The organism then has to spend an increasingly large amount of energy to repair these errors. The renewal process eventually yields copies too flawed to function properly; death follows.
 
Empirical evidence seems to bear that out. It has been long known that cultured human cells seem able to replicate no more than 40 to 60 times (called the Hayflick limit) before they stop and become senescent. And recent observations of human longevity have suggested that there may be some fundamental reason why humans can’t survive much beyond age 100.
 

Again, it's tempting to look beyond humans and at corporations, and why companies die out over time. Is there a similar process at work, in which a company's replication of its knowledge introduces more and more errors over time until the company dies a natural death?

I suspect the mechanism at work in companies is different, but that's an article for another time. The parallel that does seem promising is the idea that successful new companies are more likely to emerge in fluctuating nonequilibrium environments, not from gentle and somewhat static ones.

Gelernter

The best scientists are often the ones who are plainest about their non-scientific interests. Feynman's intro physics books are the best of all physics intros in part because he talks freely about beauty: Here's a beautiful theorem. Here's a beautiful fact. My own small contributions to software were guided at every step by my search for beautiful design. More important, as I argue in my recent book on the spectrum of consciousness: who knows most about the human mind? Today it's John Coetzee, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick. That’s why the book turns to novelists and poets at least as often as to neurobiologists and psychologists. I've had far more sustained, intense reaction to my one novel (1939) than to anything else I've published.
 
The short stories I've published over the years in Commentary have been read by maybe six people each; but the reaction from readers of those stories, in seriousness, intelligence, and depth, swamps the reaction to any science, tech, or political piece I've published.
 

From 20 ideas from David Gelernter.

Beauty is objective.  
 
Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.
 

What replaces religion for teaching ethics?

It used to be that nearly all American children were reared as Christians or Jews. In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
 
As a result American were not paragons; but they had a place to start.  Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught? Many on the left say “none, and it doesn’t matter”—a recipe for one of the riskiest experiments in history.  
 
The left, and my colleagues in the intelligentsia, need to come to terms with this issue. Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it.
 

I did a year of policy debate in high school. The topic we debated that year nationally was whether the United States should increase space travel. The entire format is too specifically niche, and winning relied too much on speaking at unreasonably high speeds, past the point of comprehension, flooding your opponent with too many points to counter. It was interesting to learn, throughout the season, of what cases the top teams in the state were building and to try to find vulnerabilities in those cases through research and logic, but in hindsight, teaching kids to defend a broader set of topics across philosophy, logic, and ethics would've been a more useful exercise.

I'd enjoy a site that posted one such debate each week, with two leading thinkers trading blows in written form, with judges, or perhaps the public, voting on a winner at the end. More interesting might be to let a coin flip determine who'd argue the pro or con side.

Waack

Via Wikipedia:

Waack/Punk is a form of dance created in the LGBT clubs of Los Angeles, during the 1970s disco era. This dance style was named punking because "punk" was a derogatory term for gay men in the 1970s. Naming the style punking was a way of turning this negative term into something positive. Within punking, a whack was a specific movement within the punking style. Although the heterosexual dance community enjoyed punking, they did not want to associate themselves with the negative, violent, and sexual connotations of punking and therefore called the dance genre "waackin". Later, Tyrone Proctor added the "g" to waackin to make it "waacking".
 
Waacking consists of moving the arms to the music beat, typically in a movement of the arms over and behind the shoulder. Waacking also contains other elements such as posing and footwork. Waacking puts a strong emphasis on musicality and interpretation of the music and its rhythm. It also took inspiration stylistically from movie stars such as Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis and James Dean.
 

Sometimes a rabbit hole just wanders across your path and you stumble in. I had never heard of waacking until I tried an episode of Steven Universe in which one of the characters Garnet dances that style to, well, it's hard to explain and I'm not sure I understand what's going on in that show.

A YouTube search turned up videos like this one, which is like...wow. I can't even fathom dancing like that to Prince (or some weird cover of Prince, license fees are a bitch) but the world is richer for the fact that someone can. Also, I don't know much about dance and even I could tell that Ibuki is a master of the form. At times it seems as if the footage is sped up, she moves so quickly. Amazing, and plenty more of her work on YouTube, including many examples of her destroying her competition. Is there such a title as best pound for pound waacker in the world?

If so, maybe Ibuki's competition is Yumeki, who also has quite a body of work on YouTube, including plenty of duets with and face-offs against Ibuki. They call themselves Bad Queens. Indeed.

I asked my sister, who loves dance and So You Think You Can Dance, if she had heard of this style. Of course she had, courtesy of an SYTYCD audition tape.

I'm very sad that such performances aren't available for me to attend in person here in the Bay Area.