Catch up

It has been some time since I posted here. Outside of lots of meetings around the country and some trips with family and friends, a few creative projects have stolen the lion's share of my free time.

While I won't publish some Medium screed on how spending less time on social media transformed my life, it is an unavoidable truth that one's free time is a zero sum game. For infovores, Twitter is a bit like heroin, and for all the other gaps in one's time, other social media apps are like some Cerebro-like viscous membrane that gives off a mild contact high from the vibrations of ambient social intimacy.

As presently constructed, though, all these apps are certainly well into the point of diminishing returns for me, and so less time spent there, redirected offline, has been good for my general productivity and well-being. I'm not certain, but it seems that's it not a question of mix as it is of finding the optimal frequency for all the various activities in my life. To take one example, almost certainly I see huge returns to shifting conversations with folks on Twitter offline.

Some of that time has been spent continuing to wend my way through Emily Wilson's brilliant new translation of The Odyssey. What's fascinating is how it remains resonant with modern times, speaking to its universality. Ironically, what it reminded me of, perhaps because the topic was still top of mind, was social media.

Take the famous episode in which Odysseus and his men sail past the Sirens and then between Scylla and Charybdis. What surprised me was how short the entire episode is, only occupying a few pages in Book 12, titled "Difficult Choices."

The goddess Circe gives Odysseus a preview of what he and his men are about to encounter.

First you will reach the Sirens, who bewitch
all passersby. If anyone goes near them
in ignorance, and listens to their voices,
that man will never travel to his home,
and never make his wife and children happy
to have him back with them again.
 

"If anyone goes near them in ignorance, and listens to their voices..." But this is what happens on social media all the time! Never have we dilettantes in just about every subject had such a forum to lord our "expertise" over others. Circe warned us long ago what would happen, how insufferable we'd all be to our loved ones.

The song of the Sirens is irresistible, and Circe knows it, so she advises Odysseus thus:

...Around about them lie
great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones,
their skin all shriveled up. Use wax to plug
your sailors’ ears as you row past, so they
are deaf to them. But if you wish to hear them,
your men must fasten you to your ship’s mast
by hand and foot, straight upright, with tight ropes.
So bound, you can enjoy the Sirens’ song.
 

It's as if Circe is speaking to my irresistible urge to open and read Twitter at the slightest hint of boredom, warning me of the great heaps of men, flesh rotting from their bones, who'd done so before me. As for her firm guidance that Odysseus be bound to a mast? That's just the antecedent to today's "Never tweet."

Thus, in my moments of weakness, I open Twitter but bind myself to a metaphoric ship's mast so I cannot reply to the trolls, as tempting as it is to join the chorus of people letting their outrage loose. Some days it feels to me that half my timeline is just people posting witty and savage rejoinders to Tomi Lahren or Trump or Dana Loesch and so on. Twitter should just move all of that to a separate tab, it has become a sort of performance art.

Alexis Madrigal wrote of how he turned off retweets in his Twitter timeline and it improved for him.

Retweets make up more than a quarter of all tweets. When they disappeared, my feed had less punch-the-button outrage. Fewer mean screenshots of somebody saying precisely the wrong thing. Less repetition of big, big news. Fewer memes I’d already seen a hundred times. Less breathlessness. And more of what the people I follow were actually thinking about, reading, and doing. It’s still not perfect, but it’s much better.
 

Farhad Manjoo wrote that for two months he got his news only from print.

It has been life changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.
 
Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.
 

Is this much different than Circe urging Odysseus to plug his mens' ears with wax? Homer got there first. I am weak so I have not gone full cold turkey on social media. Instead, I am still occasionally there, tied to the mast, flailing against self-administered bonds, listening to the Siren song. May the gods help me.

[Wilson herself recently posted a series of tweets observing something else intriguing about the Sirens, the idea that they were some sexy seductresses. Reading Wilson's translation, you realize there is no mention of the Sirens' appearances. The seduction is all in their song, and that makes them an even more appropriate metaphor for social media.] 

After the Sirens, Odysseus and his men meet even more formidable adversaries. Circe foretells of an inescapable passage between Scylla and Charybdis, the original rock and a hard place. There, she says, it's best to pick the lesser of two evils and to sail closer to Scylla, a twelve-legged six-headed monster who will eat six of his men. It sounds terrible, but the alternative is allowing Charybdis to swallow his entire ship. For my money, it's the most famous leadership parable about minimizing one's losses.

Odysseus, upon hearing this, pleads to no avail.

I answered, ‘Goddess, please,
tell me the truth: is there no other way?
Or can I somehow circumvent Charybdis
and stop that Scylla when she tries to kill
my men?’
 
The goddess answered, ‘No, you fool!
Your mind is still obsessed with deeds of war.
But now you must surrender to the gods.
She is not mortal. She is deathless evil,
terrible, wild and cruel. You cannot fight her.
The best solution and the only way
is flight.
 

Is Circe the best life coach, or the best life coach? She's the original Tony Robbins.

Can you read social media and emerge with your senses and emotional well-being intact? "No you fool!" We may not be able to avoid it, but at least we can heed Circe's words. "The best solution and the only way is flight."

Odysseus and his men proceed as Circe warns, and, tied to the mast, our titular hero hears the song of the Sirens.

‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.’


Their song was so melodious, I longed
to listen more. I told my men to free me.
I scowled at them, but they kept rowing on.
 

What is this but the siren song of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all the other addictive apps on our phones, luring us with the comforting and self-affirming dopamine hits of likes and followers and readers. "...they go on their way with great knowledge since we know everything...and we know whatever happens anywhere on earth" is nothing if not the tagline for Twitter written in another age (copyright Homer).

"Their song was so melodious, I longed to listen more." My Siren is my iPhone, always within arms reach, always with the promise of "greater knowledge." Have I been disciplined and avoided its call? Not always. And like Odysseus, who does end up losing six men to Scylla, I've lost a few chunks of flesh along the way.

I do have a few long posts incubating, however, which I hope to finish soon. In the meantime, a bit of catch up.

***

I was lucky enough to be invited onto two podcasts, both of which were recorded in person during my recent trip to New York City for meetings and to visit family. The first was Khe Hy's Rad Awakenings podcast. The second was the Internet History Podcast hosted by Brian McCullough. I didn't have a book or anything to promote, so they're both a bit free-ranging, as I am here. Check them out if you're interested and let me know what you think.

It's fascinating to watch the explosion in podcasts, and it's somewhat apparent when you see how easy it is to record one with just a computer and two small microphones. Given the economics of text are so lousy, and given how challenging it is to produce compelling video, the most lucrative vector for media companies is not a pivot to video but a pivot to podcasting. Every day it seems a media company is releasing a new daily news podcast recap.

In time, the marginal return will decline, but perhaps not before we see a second wave of growth in podcasting's total addressable market (TAM) from improved discovery (the first explosion in podcasting TAM was, of course, the rise of the smartphone, which opened up a ton of podcast surface area in one's daily schedule, most notably in commutes).

***

I kid not, one of the most fascinating videos I've watched since I last posted here was this episode of Trashcast discussing Logan Paul. For some reason the original version of this video was pulled by YouTube so as of right now, this newly uploaded version has all of...63 views. It taught me more about the Logan Paul phenomenon than anything else I've read or watched, and its presentation is of a style that is extremely meta, like a young person's Vox explainer.

The temptation, when something like the Logan Paul scandal drops, is to post "Who the f*** is [Logan Paul]?" on Twitter or Facebook. I saw probably a dozen or more such posts, and while I resisted the urge, I myself had no idea who Logan Paul was until he was the latest person to take his turn in the public pillory.

I'm less interested in Logan Paul than I am in all the superstar vloggers who can turn out audiences of tens of thousands young kids everywhere they go. Their particular pull to children of that age, the visual grammar of their content, the syntax of their speech, their distribution frequency, it's all quite instructive.

One can read near-future sci-fi, or one can just spend some time with some of today's youth, who already live in the near-future. The latter is much more vivid. I spent several hours watching my nephews play Fortnite and message on Snapchat and surf on Instagram while in NYC recently, and it was as if I'd crossed over through some alien border into a cultural Shimmer. As with Natalie Portman, every one of my visits there leaves me altered in some inexorable ways.

***

One of my recent (okay, not so recent) posts was on the shift in entertainment from the shift to infinite content supply. I opened with a brief discussion of Will Smith.

A few readers sent me a link to this excerpt from Ben Fritz's new book The Big Picture: The Fight For the Future of Movies. The excerpt is about the rise and fall of the A-List movie stars Will Smith and Adam Sandler during Sony's motion picture heyday in the 2000's.

Of Sony's top 50 movies from 2000 to 2016, more than two-thirds were "star vehicles," in which the talent involved was as big as or bigger than the movie title or the franchise. More than one-third came from just two people: Will Smith and Adam Sandler. Movies they starred in or produced grossed $3.7 billion from 2000 to 2015, generating 20 percent of Sony Pictures' domestic gross and 23 percent of its profits. No other studio was as reliant on just two actors. Their rise and fall illustrate what has happened to movie stars in Hollywood.
 
...
 
Sony paid both stars handsomely for their consistent success: $20 million against 20 percent of the gross receipts, whichever was higher, was their standard. They also received as much as $5 million against 5 percent for their production companies, where they employed family and friends. Sony also provided Overbrook and Sandler's Happy Madison with a generous overhead to cover expenses — worth about $4 million per year. To top it off, Sandler and Smith enjoyed the perks of the luxe studio life. Flights on a corporate jet were common. On occasion, Smith's entourage necessitated the use of two jets for travel to premieres. Knowing that Sandler was a huge sports fan, Sony regularly sent him and his pals to the Super Bowl to do publicity. Back at the Sony lot, the basketball court was renamed Happy Madison Square Garden in the star's honor. When anybody questioned the endless indulgence given to Sandler and Smith, Sony executives had a standard answer: "Will and Adam bought our houses."
 

I wrote:

I'm wary of all conclusions drawn about media in the scarcity age, including the idea that people went to see movies because of movie stars. It's not that Will Smith isn't charismatic. He is. But I suspect Will Smith was in a lot of hits in the age of scarcity in large part because there weren't a lot of other entertainment options vying for people's attention when Independence Day or something of its ilk came out, like clockwork, to launch the summer blockbuster season.
 
The same goes for the general idea that any one star was ever the chief engine for a film's box office. If the idea that people go see a movie just to see any one star was never actually true, we can stop holding the modern generation of movie stars to an impossible standard.
 

Of course, this is a counterfactual, so hard to establish conclusively. Perhaps, in the age of scarcity, A-List stars really did exist. Regardless, that age has passed, and banking on its continued viability is a shaky proposition at best.

A further thought, which I first made in a presentation at a Greylock Product Summit a few years back, is that the rising supply of content means that exceeding the noise floor favors a different type of film or television property. In the heyday of the three and eventually four major networks, the golden age of broadcast television, the dream show was one with broad appeal. The economics of television were heavily dependent on advertising revenue, and the larger the audience, the larger the revenue. A show like The Cosby Show or The Beverly Hillbillies, that attracted a broad audience through a sort of non-offensive if somewhat bland sensibility was the dream.

Again, though, it's important to recall how scarce entertainment options were in that age relative to today's cornucopia. It isn't just the economics of carriage fees and pay TV that helped drive the rise of much more distinctive and niche appeal shows like Mad Men; it's what you'd expect when the overall information noise floor rises. The risk of trying to make a broad appeal show is that it is mildly appealing to many people but not strongly appealing to any audience segment, and that is a losing strategy if the noise floor is so high that only high appeal shows can poke their head above it.

Is it any surprise that two of the most successful showrunners in recent history are Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy? Watch any of their programs and, whether you like them or not, you won't fault them for pulling their punches. Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, American Horror Story, Nip/Tuck, Glee, The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, these are programs that are engineered to mash people's buttons.

Two of the bigger hits of recent memory that aren't from either of those two showrunners are  Empire and This is Us. The former was, like many of Rhimes and Murphy's shows, crazy. Double crosses, murders, affairs, all of it. Cray cray. As for This is Us, I watched two episodes with my sister-in-law while in NYC, and while it might seem to fit the template of a more classic, broad appeal broadcast network show, it is bonkers in its own way. Its genre is melodrama, and the episode design is a tear-jerker in every episode. Every one. No exceptions. If you are a writer on that show and your episode doesn't the audience cry they fire you and then everyone has a good cry over it.

In a world of infinite content, the ideal bundle, then, isn't a basket of broadly appealing programs, something that may be impossible to engineer anymore. Instead, it's a bundle of shows with very strong niche appeal to particular but different audience segments. This, as many of you will note, is not some new concept. The conditions have just made it a more critical one.

In the Hollywood Reporter, Marc Bernardin observes the success of films like Wonder Woman, Get Out, Black Panther, and Coco, and notes:

No, the reason we're in the midst of a halcyon age of representational storytelling that's resonating on a historic scale is that a far more diverse pool of storytellers — black filmmakers, female filmmakers, Asian filmmakers — are getting empowered to tell their stories their way with all the resources usually reserved for white, male creatives. Black Panther isn't just the story of a handsome prince taking the throne of a fictional, advanced African nation, it's also the story of a filmmaker reckoning with the disconnect that lives in the hyphen between "African" and "American." It's about a man who grew up around women of strength and grace and power who didn't think twice about populating both his art and his set with those same kinds of women. It's about a kid from Oakland dreaming dreams that the world told him he couldn't.
 
Similarly, Thor: Ragnarok would never have been both a balls-out buddy comedy with a perfectly timed anus joke and a trenchant examination of the paved-over sins of colonial expansion without the half-Maori New Zealander Taika Waititi at the helm. And we have proof positive of how Jenkins' centering of Diana in Wonder Woman is different from Zack Snyder's treatment of the same character in Justice League: More openness, innocence and resolve … fewer gratuitous shots of Gal Gadot's ass.
 
And there's no one who could've conceived of Get Out but Peele, who spent years exploring the ways race and genre collide on TV's Key & Peele, is a student of horror and has definitely found himself navigating the frothy waters of meeting a white girlfriend's parents for the first time.
 
The way forward isn't simply to decide to greenlight stories about diverse people. It's to cultivate a generation of writers, directors and producers who see the world through their own unique lens and then bring that perspective to bear. If Marvel didn't have someone like Nate Moore in its producer ranks, someone who knew who T'Challa was and what he could mean, you'd never get a Black Panther. If Pixar didn't elevate story artist Adrian Molina to co-director and co-writer, Coco might've seemed more like a Day of the Dead theme park ride than a haunting, heartbreaking exaltation of Dia de los Muertos.
 
What audiences are responding to, in every movie that's popped in the past year, is a sense of truth. Just as we can tell, somehow, when CG is spackled on a little too heavily, we can sense when something feels inauthentic. We can tell the difference between 12 Years a Slave and Amistad, between The Joy Luck Club and The Last Samurai, between Selma and Mississippi Burning. One of them feels true — and truth, ultimately, is what makes something universal.
 

I believe in the power of film as a medium, and so it's no surprise that I believe in the underrated power of representation. It's not underrated by those of us who've never seen ourselves on screen, but I recall talking to some white men about Wonder Woman, and they remarked how they didn't see what the fuss was about. I couldn't help but think of the group of women I saw Wonder Woman with; half of them left the theater in tears, the experience of watching a woman on screen was so viscerally moving. I think of the Mexican family seated next to me at a screening of Coco, who spent half the film sobbing audibly.

The only Asian men, let alone Chinese men, I saw on screen growing up were Mickey Rooney's bucktoothed caricature of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles. If you've ever wondered why Bruce Lee is a near deity to Chinese men, it's simply that he was the only powerful representation of themselves they ever saw in American entertainment.

The archetype of almost every hero and leader I saw growing up was a white man, and it continues today, where the leadership team of almost every company in Silicon Valley is dominated by white men. Someone asked me once whether I could name a single Chinese CEO of a tech company who had been promoted into the role, rather than having founded the company. I couldn't think of one.

It's a blessing to me, then, that the age of infinite content has made culturally specific and truthful representation good business practice for Hollywood. I'd prefer we arrived by some more progressive route, but, as Russian writer Viktor Pelevin has noted, the chief protagonist of pop culture today is a briefcase of money. We've seen many a film with a whitewashed cast bomb recently, and it doesn't strike me as a coincidence. When we have an near infinite supply of content at our disposal, no one needs to settle for the bland, the milquetoast, the emotionally false.

***

In that same post about the shifting dynamics of entertainment in the age of abundance, I wrote about the Instagram account House of Highlights. Fast Company cited it in an article about House of Highlights.

The past week, I've been watching carefully to see which outlet picks up March Madness buzzer-beaters the quickest, and it is, more often than not, House of Highlights on which I see the first video replay.

Social networks go through several phases of evolution on their path to maturity. First, they need to get people to use it even when the graph is sparse. This is the single-player value problem. If they solve that, then the next efficient evolution is some sort of feed, usually populated by all content from people you follow. It's the easiest way to increase the surface area for each user, and it's the easiest way to amplify your service's network effects. The only way to increase a user's frequency of usage is to increase the volume of content to serve them, and aggregating content from all the people you follow is a simple way to personalize the feed, to create value for the lurkers who want to watch but not post, and to send addictive feedback signals to the creators of that content. It's the tried and true social network positive feedback loop.

Then, at some point, if the network is successful enough, the problem becomes one of too much content. This is typically when networks move from a chronological, exhaustive feed to an algorithmic feed on some relevance dimension. It's typically when some segment of early adopters complains about the loss of said chronological feed.

The algorithmic feed is social networks' counterpart to Inbox Zero. Social networks realized that an "inbox zero" solution to social network overload would never work; too few people would do the necessary work. Arguably, Inbox Zero has about the same adoption issue with regards to email.

GMail has a version of the algorithmic email inbox, it's the Important email box, and various other programs have tried to filter out unimportant emails from the inbox using a variety of strategies, but I'd be interested to see software go even a step further and prescribe more drastic measures for solving the signal-to-noise problem of that medium. If you're rich and powerful that solution is a stern administrative assistant but we've yet to scale that with AI. The closest I've come is my GMail's spam filter. I went in there recently and found a bunch of email I had actually subscribed to, but while the false positives were mildly annoying, I couldn't argue my life was harmed in any meaningful way. If you're waiting to hear from me, you're probably in my GMail spam folder, for some reason it's become increasingly aggressive.

Content services tend to try their own filtering solutions, tailored to their medium. Video streaming services use some mix of personalized and generic categorical recommendations to populate their interfaces, while news sites lean towards some matrix of chronology and importance overlaid with light categorization. Common to all of these is an acknowledgment that users don't tend to browse sideways through interfaces when exploring through the limited screen real estate of the smartphone screen, so maximizing relevance on a single infinitely scrolling interface window is the most profitable vector. Is it any surprise every video service seems to have autoplay turned on by default now?

This is all a roundabout way to say that House of Highlights will someday soon hit bump against the the limitations of the single news feed, despite all of that interface's advantages in aggregating eyeballs for content consumption and advertising on a smartphone screen. Like all providers, House of Highlights depends on the algorithm to push its content to people at the right time, and for those users to pull the content. I suspect that the next frontier for all these large and mature social networks is additional levels of in-feed structure.

We've already seen glimpses. The idea of stories, which made its first appearance in Instagram, solve the supply-side problem of social media. That is, in an exhaustive chronological feed, many users are shy about flooding the feed. This caps content supply.

Stories, by putting the onus on the viewer to pull the story, unlocks a flood of content. Post frequently, guilt-free! I'd guess that the demand on that content is limited, but paired with the regular algorithmic or chronological feed, you essentially create two marketplaces of content in one interface.

Instagram now allows multiple photos per post, another example of added structure. But for now, the algorithms largely restrict themselves to either choosing to display a piece of content or not. It's all candidate selection. 

I suspect the next breakthrough for all our most used mobile apps, all of whom have achieved massive scale, from Facebook to Instagram to Twitter to YouTube to Snapchat and so on, will be an evolution of the algorithm beyond pure content selection, and an evolution of the presentation of said content from into a broader array of templates.

It's a topic for another post.

***

Justin Fox of Bloomberg posted a piece related to my post and its discussion of brittle narratives. He notes that some folks have tried to address the problem of brittle narratives when it comes to sports. As an example, he links a video from Ben Falk's Cleaning the Glass, a popular new subscription service for basketball junkies from a former NBA front office staffer.

Writes Fox:

As with my experience in reading about and then watching UVA's Pack Line, it is also a reminder that there are narratives to sports events that go deeper than what can be plausibly condensed into standard highlight reels, and that casual viewers can be taught to appreciate them. I really am not much of a basketball fan, but Falk's explainer makes me want to observe James in action over extended periods to see if I can detect other such episodes of quiet brilliance. I probably won't; I've got way too many other things going on to add regular watching of the Cleveland Cavaliers to my schedule. But I am at least thinking about it.
 
In soccer, the sport I watch most on TV except in years when the Oakland A's are good, the highlight moments are so rare that you really can't appreciate the games unless you have some understanding (mine is admittedly pretty rudimentary and inarticulate) of the dramas playing out on the field between the scores and near-misses. In other sports, there have always been a few announcers who capably weave these background narratives into their work. I know Tim McCarver was driving most viewers crazy by the time he retired from calling baseball games in 2013, but I can remember him adding layer after layer to the game-watching experience in earlier years. From what I hear (I really don't watch much football), former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo did that in his first go-round as an NFL analyst for CBS last season.
 
Right now, basketball seems to be generating the most such explanation, though. Maybe that's just because it's basketball season! But I also think there's a happy convergence of the sport's usually-in-motion nature; the emergence of a group of expert, articulate superfans that probably began with the rise of Bill Simmons; the NBA's willingness to accommodate superfans who know how to splice video; and the presence of stars who are not only very smart about the game (I imagine most basketball stars have always been that) but also willing and able to explain how it's played with startling clarity (a friend pointed me to Simmons's series of interviews with the Warriors' Kevin Durant, and what I've heard so far is pretty amazing). 1  If sports are in fact in a battle with narrative brittleness, this is how you fight it.
 

He hits on something important. All the sports leagues have to deal with an onboarding problem with their televised content, and that is the learning curve of appreciation. If you haven't grown up watching and/or playing a sport, it's difficult to appreciate a lot of the moment to moment skill on display in any sporting event.

I did not grow up playing soccer, so I find so much of it boring to watch outside of the occasional spectacular goal. The ability of a team to keep possession, the skill of a single player like Messi to evade a gauntlet of defenders, so much of that skill is lost on me. The same goes for hockey, or cricket, or so many sports I didn't grow up with.

On the other hand, while many find baseball unbelievably boring, I played growing up, and so even a pitch that isn't swung is seen, by me, as one in a fascinating game theory exchange between pitcher and batter. One of the most exciting plays of the 2016 World Series to me was when Kyle Schwarber laid off a tantalizing slider from Andrew Miller because I knew what a great pitch it was and how much skill it took to not offer at it. For most viewers, it was just another ball, another twenty seconds of inconsequential activity.

The Olympics face this problem in spades because they include so many niche sports, but luckily for them, many of the events are short in nature, and the nature of the contest easily explained. When it isn't, the networks lean heavily on personal narrative, something that almost all viewers understand. We can debate until eternity whether Alina Zagitova or Evgenia Medvedeva deserved the gold medal in the women's figure skating final, but it didn't take an expert on figure skating to feel the tension backstage as each skater tried to get in each other's heads.

More forward-thinking sports leagues should consider, in the future, making it easier for analysts of all sorts to provide alternative broadcast commentary for their broadcasts. I'd be shocked if it didn't happen in my lifetime. Viewing your sports as broadcast platform with API's allowing for such diversity of integrated analysis would broaden the appeal to different audiences. As it is, some audiences cobble together such alternate peanut gallery chatter from Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, and other social media. I predict leagues will start integrating this content; it makes much more sense than Twitter licensing those video rights to try to facilitate such water coolers. The water cooler is heavy, it's plugged into the wall, and it's expensive; easier to go walk over there to chat than to try to carry the water cooler over to the discussion.

Exceeding this learning curve of appreciation isn't sufficient, however. Beyond that, there still exists the problem of rendering your content more culturally relevant, at this moment, than anything else on a person's phone. Anyone who's sat across from someone, only to see that their companion turn their attention to a smartphone, understands this modern conundrum.

This isn't just a problem for sports. In an age where Netflix is producing some 700 original series next year, not to mention all the ones from HBO and Amazon and Hulu and FX and on and on, every content provider has to become more thoughtful and creative about how to manufacture desire on the part of the viewer. The temptation, in tech, is to use some recommendations and machine learning to pick content to present to any one viewer, but that is going to be wholly insufficient.

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, they say. When what you possess is lots of software engineers gifted at crunching large data sets, everything can look like an ML problem. That leaves huge swaths of human psychology on the table. There are still so many opportunities for so many services to render their content more relevant to a larger audience, a scary proposition to those who already find so many of their apps addictive.

Again, different categories of content tend to resort to the same narrow band of strategies as their competitors, but when we live in an age where almost all content across all mediums act as substitute goods for each other, companies and creatives should be widening their net to learn from outside their category. The competition won't wrestle on your terms, the battle is asymmetric.

A full list of such strategies is a topic for another day, but I'd argue every company should be looking at everything from House of Highlights to infomercials to Buzzfeed to Disneyland theme parks to high fashion to Costco to Beyonce and Rihanna to the fine art world to YouTube vloggers like Logan Paul to the design of Fortnite to just about everything about Las Vegas to pop-up restaurants to limited edition sneaker drops to folks like Tyler Cowen and Ben Thompson.

If we, as consumers, are fighting to resist the Siren song, then on the flip side is a pitched battle to spin the Siren song that will rise above the din.

Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths.

Revisiting The Odyssey

What a pleasant surprise, to have something wonderful that you hadn't heard of just drop out of the sky one day, like Beyonce's Lemonade. That's how I felt about Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, which arrived on my Kindle yesterday (a physical copy isn't due on my doorstep until next week; this is the rare book for which I wanted one of each format).

So far, I've read more about Wilson's thought process behind her translation than the actual translation itself, but even that is delightful:

In planning to translate the poem into English, my first thoughts were of style. The original is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse. Many modern poets in the Anglo-American tradition write free verse, and modern British and American readers are not usually accustomed to reading long narratives with a regular metrical beat, except for earlier literature like Shakespeare. Most contemporary translators of Homer have not attempted to create anything like a regular line beat, though they often lay out their text as if it were verse. But The Odyssey is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud. The original is in six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters), the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse. I used iambic pentameter, because it is the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse—the rhythm of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Keats, and plenty of more recent anglophone poets. I have spent many hours reading aloud, both the Greek original and my own work in progress. Homer's music is quite different from mine, but my translation sings to its own regular and distinctive beat. 
 
My version is the same length as the original, with exactly the same number of lines. I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer's nimble gallop. Moreover, in reading the original, one is constantly aware of the rhythms and the units that make up elements of every line, as well as of the ongoing movement of the narrative—like a large, elaborate piece of embroidery made of tiny, still visible stitches. I wanted my translation to mark its own nature as a web of poetic language, with a sentence structure that is, like that of Homer, audibly built up out of smaller units of sense. There is often a notion, especially in the Anglo-American world, that a translation is good insofar as it disguises its own existence as a translation; translations are praised for being "natural." I hope that my translation is readable and fluent, but that its literary artifice is clearly apparent. 
 
Matthew Arnold famously claimed that translators of Homer must convey four supposedly essential qualities of Homeric style: plainness, simplicity, directness of thought, and nobility. But Homeric style is actually quite often redundant and very often repetitious—not particularly simple or direct. Homer is also very often not "noble": the language is not colloquial, and it avoids obscenity, but it is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer's language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious, The Odyssey relies on coordinated, not subordinated syntax ("and then this, and then this, and then this," rather than "although this, because of that, when this, which was this, on account of that"). I have frequently aimed for a certain level of simplicity, often using fairly ordinary, straightforward, and readable English. In using language that is largely simple, my goal is not to make Homer sound "primitive," but to mark the fact that stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric. I also hope to invite readers to respond more actively with the text. Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement. A consistently elevated style can make it harder for readers to keep track of what is at stake in the story. My translation is, I hope, recognizable as an epic poem, but it is one that avoids trumpeting its own status with bright, noisy linguistic fireworks, in order to invite a more thoughtful consideration of what the narrative means, and the ways it matters.
 

I'm with her on all of that. Iambic pentameter! Be still my bleeding heart.

Nodding along when she makes choices like this:

The formulaic elements in Homer, especially the repeated epithets, pose a particular challenge. The epithets applied to Dawn, Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and the suitors repeat over and over in the original. But in my version, I have chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand. I do not want to deceive the unsuspecting reader about the nature of the original poem; rather, I hope to be truthful about my own text—its relationships with its readers and with the original. In an oral or semiliterate culture, repeated epithets give a listener an anchor in a quick-moving story. In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one's own interpretative position, and can send a reader to sleep. I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.
 

I try not to spend too much time fetishizing craft, but when it comes to translation, it is inseparable from the thing.

This past Sunday's NYTimes Magazine included a feature on Wilson's accomplishment. In this age where we celebrate women breaking through in fields previously occupied by only white men, being the first woman to translate one of the great works of Western literature resounds at many levels.

The NYTimes feature spends some time laying bare the translator's hand. Take, for example, the thought that went into the opening line of the epic itself, and how varied its forms in all the translations that had been come before Wilson's. Just one line and already so many forks.

The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”
 
Of the 60 or so answers to the polytropos question to date, the 36 given above couldn’t be less uniform (the two dozen I omit repeat, with minor variations, earlier solutions); what unites them is that their translators largely ignore the ambiguity built into the word they’re translating. Most opt for straightforward assertions of Odysseus’s nature, descriptions running from the positive (crafty, sagacious, versatile) to the negative (shifty, restless, cunning). Only Norgate (“of many a turn”) and Cook (“of many turns”) preserve the Greek roots as Wilson describes them — poly (“many”), tropos (“turn”) — answers that, if you produced them as a student of classics, much of whose education is spent translating Greek and Latin and being marked correct or incorrect based on your knowledge of the dictionary definitions, would earn you an A. But to the modern English reader who does not know Greek, does “a man of many turns” suggest the doubleness of the original word — a man who is either supremely in control of his life or who has lost control of it? Of the existing translations, it seems to me that none get across to a reader without Greek the open question that, in fact, is the opening question of the “Odyssey,” one embedded in the fifth word in its first line: What sort of man is Odysseus?
 

All that variation in just one word. Let's telescope out to the entire opening paragraph or stanza (the Paris Review published an excerpt from the opening of Wilson's translation), the invocation of the Muse:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
 

Here is how another popular translation, by Robert Fagles, handles the same passage:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns ...
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.
 

Here is Richmond Lattimore's opening. I can't remember if I had to read this or Fagles' in high school or college, it was one or the other.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming.
From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus,
speak, and begin our story.
 

While they all have their virtues, it's impossible to ignore the startling directness of Wilson's version. It is direct, more concise, and has a lyrical momentum from the iambic pentameter that adds to its muscularity. "He failed to keep them safe" is stronger in tone than "he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove" or "he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to." Wilson may choose to leave out the striving because, in the previous sentence, as all the translations include, it is already noted that Odysseus suffered many pains to save his life and bring his men home. How hard he strove is somewhat repetitive, so Wilson just nixes it.

"Complicated man" is about as tidy a way to characterize a character who contains multitudes. Fagles' "the man of twists and turns" doesn't register much to me except the image of a pretzel. Lattimore's "the man of many ways" is intriguing, less precise than Wilson's "complicated man" but hinting at both Odysseus' resourcefulness and complexity.

Direct does not mean Wilson dispenses with fun. Later in the opening we have this:

So why do you dismiss Odysseus?”
 

Let your tongue tap over that like a rock skip-skipping o'er a pond.

I could not help flipping ahead to what I consider one of the most iconic scenes in Western literature, in which Odysseus and his men, having blinded the one-eyed monster Polyphemus, are in a boat, escaping the island where the creature had held them hostage. Polyphemus does not know where they are, he is beside himself with pain and fury. Just as Odysseus and his men are about to escape unharmed, he turns back to face his vanquished foe. He cannot help himself.

When I had gone as far as shouts can carry,
I jeered back,

‘Hey, you, Cyclops! Idiot!
The crew trapped in your cave did not belong
to some poor weakling. Well, you had it coming!
You had no shame at eating your own guests!
So Zeus and other gods have paid you back.’

My taunting made him angrier. He ripped
a rock out of the hill and hurled it at us.
It landed right in front of our dark prow,
and almost crushed the tip of the steering oar.
The stone sank in the water; waves surged up.
The backflow all at once propelled the ship
landwards; the swollen water pushed us with it.
I grabbed a big long pole, and shoved us off.
I told my men, ‘Row fast, to save your lives!’
and gestured with my head to make them hurry.
They bent down to their oars and started rowing.
We got out twice as far across the sea,
and then I called to him again. My crew
begged me to stop, and pleaded with me.

‘Please!
Calm down! Why are you being so insistent
and taunting this wild man? He hurled that stone
and drove our ship right back to land. We thought
that we were going to die. If he had heard us,
he would have hurled a jagged rock and crushed
our heads and wooden ship. He throws so hard!

But my tough heart was not convinced; I was
still furious, and shouted back again,

‘Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind,
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
destroyed your sight.’ 
 

This is, for my money, one of the seminal moments in Western literature. It's the birth of ritualized trash talk and boasting, the defining instance of taunting in the Western canon. Every time you see a basketball player get all up in the mug of some opponent after dunking on them, every time Cam Newton pantomines opening his jersey to reveal the Superman cape, every time a rapper refers to himself in the third person after performing lyrical violence on a nemesis, every time Roy Jones Jr. gave a shout out to Pensacola after one of his boxing victories, it all traces back to this moment when Odysseus can't help claiming personal credit for having outwitted the beast, giving himself a title (city-sacker) and naming himself in relation to his family (Laertes' son) and his home (Ithaca).

When Danaerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones introduces herself as "Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons," she should credit Odysseus,, the city-sacker, Laertes' son, who lives in Ithaca. When we use the term "making our name," we call back to Odysseus, who in that moment established the now familiar tradition of referring to oneself in the third person.

It comes with a cost. His pride and arrogance not only endanger his men by revealing their location and allowing Polyphemus to better target his next rock throw, but in making his name, Odysseus gives Polyphemus a specific target. As anyone who has read mythology or fairy tales knows, a specific name is needed to target curses from afar. Polyphemus' father just happens to be Poseidon, a god, and it's to poppa that he turns for help.

But he prayed
holding his arms towards the starry sky,
‘Listen, Earth-Shaker, Blue-Haired Lord Poseidon:
acknowledge me your son, and be my father.
Grant that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
will never go back home. Or if it is
fated that he will see his family,
then let him get there late and with no honor,
in pain and lacking ships, and having caused
the death of all his men, and let him find
more trouble in his own house.’

Blue Poseidon
granted his son’s prayer.
 

And so Odysseus brings a curse upon himself, his family, and his men. All of the above comes true, as prophecies are wont to do in stories like this.

I'd be inclined to chide him for his hubris, but wouldn't the internet be better today if trolls didn't hide like cowards behind the veil of anonymity? Face your critics, and name yourself, anonymous neo-Nazis. Rereading this passage, I couldn't help but think of Peter Cvjetanovic, the student who marched in the Charlottesville protests and was identified in a photo.

I am Peter Cvjetanovic,
Charlottesville city sacker,
neo-Nazi sympathizer
University Nevada Reno student
and campus escort service driver,
or used to be.

Let's not end there. Let's leave with a more pleasant example, when Russell Crowe removes his mask in perhaps the most iconic arena of battle in Western myth, the Colosseum, and names himself, as his ancestor Odysseus once did. If you're looking for inspiration for the next draft of your Twitter bio, now you have it, all you tweeter of tweets.

Watership Down

A few people I follow on Twitter acknowledged the recent death of Richard Adams, author of Watership Down. I read the book in grade school for a class and remember being thoroughly absorbed by it, but the details of its language have, for the most part, faded from memory.

However, a passage someone cited from the novel was so poetic as to elevate the book in my memory all at once. It might not be the children's book I recall it to be.

“The full moon, well risen in a cloudless eastern sky, covered the high solitude with its light. We are not conscious of daylight as that which displaces darkness. Daylight, even when the sun is clear of clouds, seems to us simply the natural condition of the earth and air. When we think of the downs, we think of the downs in daylight, as with think of a rabbit with its fur on. Stubbs may have envisaged the skeleton inside the horse, but most of us do not: and we do not usually envisage the downs without daylight, even though the light is not a part of the down itself as the hide is part of the horse itself. We take daylight for granted. But moonlight is another matter. It is inconstant. The full moon wanes and returns again. Clouds may obscure it to an extent to which they cannot obscure daylight. Water is necessary to us, but a waterfall is not. Where it is to be found it is something extra, a beautiful ornament. We need daylight and to that extent it is utilitarian, but moonlight we do not need. When it comes, it serves no necessity. It transforms. It falls upon the banks and the grass, separating one long blade from another; turning a drift of brown, frosted leaves from a single heap to innumerable flashing fragments; or glimmering lengthways along wet twigs as though light itself were ductile. Its long beams pour, white and sharp, between the trunks of trees, their clarity fading as they recede into the powdery, misty distance of beech woods at night. In moonlight, two acres of coarse bent grass, undulant and ankle deep, tumbled and rough as a horse's mane, appear like a bay of waves, all shadowy troughs and hollows. The growth is so thick and matted that event the wind does not move it, but it is the moonlight that seems to confer stillness upon it. We do not take moonlight for granted. It is like snow, or like the dew on a July morning. It does not reveal but changes what it covers. And its low intensity---so much lower than that of daylight---makes us conscious that it is something added to the down, to give it, for only a little time, a singular and marvelous quality that we should admire while we can, for soon it will be gone again.”
 

I will have to revisit it this year. I seem to recall a colony of rabbits who choose to live under authoritarian rule. That seems somewhat relevant now, no?

Through the eyes of a burglar

Geoff Manaugh's upcoming book A Burglar's Guide to the City sounds great:

Encompassing nearly 2,000 years of heists and tunnel jobs, break-ins and escapes, A Burglar's Guide to the City offers an unexpected blueprint to the criminal possibilities in the world all around us. You'll never see the city the same way again.
 
At the core of A Burglar's Guide to the City is an unexpected and thrilling insight: how any building transforms when seen through the eyes of someone hoping to break into it. Studying architecture the way a burglar would, Geoff Manaugh takes readers through walls, down elevator shafts, into panic rooms, up to the buried vaults of banks, and out across the rooftops of an unsuspecting city.
 
With the help of FBI Special Agents, reformed bank robbers, private security consultants, the L.A.P.D. Air Support Division, and architects past and present, the book dissects the built environment from both sides of the law. Whether picking padlocks or climbing the walls of high-rise apartments, finding gaps in a museum's surveillance routine or discussing home invasions in ancient Rome, A Burglar's Guide to the City has the tools, the tales, and the x-ray vision you need to see architecture as nothing more than an obstacle that can be outwitted and undercut.
 
Full of real-life heists-both spectacular and absurd-A Burglar's Guide to the City ensures readers will never enter a bank again without imagining how to loot the vault or walk down the street without planning the perfect getaway.
 

The book streets April 5, 2016.

Why weren't they grateful?

Robert Caro looks back on The Power Broker 40 years after it was published.

Why weren’t they grateful? As I recalled that Exedra scene in 1969, as I was trying to organize my book, I suddenly knew, all in a moment, that that question would be its last line. For the book would have to answer that very question, would have to answer the riddle posed by the Moses Men: How could there not be gratitude, immense gratitude, to the man who had dreamed a great dream — of Jones Beach and a dozen other great parks, and of parkways to reach them — and who to create them had fought, and won, an epic battle against Long Island’s seemingly invincible robber barons? How could there not be gratitude to the man who had built mighty Triborough, far-­stretching Verrazano, who had made possible Lincoln Center and the United Nations? And yet there were ample answers to that question. Did I think in that moment of Robert Moses’ racism — unashamed, unapologetic? Convinced that African-Americans were inherently “dirty,” and that they don’t like cold water (“They simply didn’t like swimming unless it was red hot,” he explained to me confidentially one day), he kept the water temperature deliberately frigid in pools, like the ones at Jones Beach and Thomas Jefferson Park in Manhattan, that he didn’t want them to use. Did I think of the bridges he built that embodied racism in concrete? When he opened his Long Island parks during the 1930s, the only way for many poor people, particularly poor people of color, to reach them was by bus, so he built bridges over his parkways too low for buses to pass. Or of the “slum clearance” projects he built that seemingly created new slums as fast he was clearing the old, or of the public housing he placed in locations that cemented the division of New York by race and class? Did I think in that moment of the more than half a million people he dispossessed for his projects and expressways, using methods that led one observer to say that “he hounded them out like cattle”? Did I think of how he systematically starved New York’s subways and commuter lines for decades and blocked proposals to build new ones, exacerbating the region’s dependence on the automobile? I don’t remember exactly what I thought of when I remembered Robert Moses’ speech at the Exedra — only that in that moment, seeing the book’s last line, I suddenly saw the book whole, saw the shape of everything that would lead up to that line. I began organizing the book, the thoughts coming faster, I recall, than I could write. Over the next days, I outlined the book — in a quite detailed outline — from beginning to end. Some parts of what I wrote from the outline would later have to be truncated or cut out entirely so that the book could fit into one volume; aside from these deletions, “The Power Broker” as it was published follows that outline all the way through.

Past imperfect

Yet apparently none of this – not the demographic facts, Atticus’ denial of being a radical, nor the iconoclast’s commentary – prepared readers for the July publication of Go Set a Watchman, which depicts Atticus as a reactionary defender of Jim Crow set against the advance of civil rights. Many readers of Mockingbird never fully accounted for the fact that we receive our understanding of Atticus through the eyes of his eight-year old daughter, whose failure to make the above inferences is not evidence that Atticus is free of racism, but of her limited understanding. These readers projected their own views of racial equality onto Atticus, willing into existence the anachronism of a southerner born in the nineteenth century having the racial views of, say, a liberal baby boomer. I suspect that some readers only remember the film version in any event, which does not contain Atticus’ convincing denial of radicalism. And it may be particularly difficult to imagine the liberal Californian Gregory Peck, who portrayed Atticus (listed by the American Film Institute in 2003 as the greatest hero in American film), as thinking about race as a 1930s white southerner did.
 
While it might then appear that I am in accord with the iconoclastic critics of the Mockingbird Atticus, I am not. I understand the misreading of Atticus in a way that parts company with them. The problem is not, as these critics seem to think, that Mockingbird readers saw Atticus as a hero because they mistakenly thought he was a true racial egalitarian. The problem is that the readers saw Atticus as a radical egalitarian because, for other reasons, he was a hero, and it alleviates cognitive dissonance to believe our heroes are unsullied and uncompromised. Which is to say that, despite my criticisms of the Mockingbird Atticus, he is heroic. Facing considerable risks, he tried to save a man he hardly knew from a false charge of a capital crime.
 

I have not read Go Set A Watchman, but I'm fairly confident I won't read a more intriguing review of it than this one. The early reviews, at least among my peers, was unanimously harsh. Richard McAdams offers a more complex verdict on the book, one well worth reading to the end of his review for.

I also enjoyed this bit.

When it comes to preventing or correcting injustice, sometimes the world works this way: the courageous but compromised individual accomplishes more than the principled but timid one. Here, I think of the fact that the Yad Vashem in Israel bestows the honorific “righteous among the nations” on non-Jews for having risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, not for holding the best, most enlightened views of Jews. There was never reason to think Atticus had the most enlightened views of African-Americans, but when the racist mob came for Tom Robinson, he did more than speak out.

The bizarre Yelp top 100 restaurant list

Will Oremus has a good explanation for why Yelp's just released second annual top 100 places to eat in America list is so strange.

Only a handful or restaurants in the world rate three Michelin stars. But more than 40 percent of all Yelp reviews are perfect scores, suggesting that five stars on Yelp entails satisfaction rather than perfection. Average hundreds of reviews of the same establishment, and you’ll find that its overall rating is influenced far more by the number of dissatisfied customers than by how much the five-star reviewers loved it. The best-rated restaurants on Yelp, then, are not so much the most loved as the least hated.

No wonder Yelp’s top 100 restaurants tend to be down-home joints specializing in distinctive cuisines like poke, barbecue, tacos, and hot dogs. Customers know exactly what they’re looking for when they go there, reducing the chances that they’ll order something unfamiliar and end up disliking it. They also know not to expect the world when they pull over at outside a roadside stand on the highway home from Lake Tahoe, or a condominium complex in Hawaii.

Oremus also notes the impact of exogenous factors like weather, neighborhood demographics, and time of year in customer ratings.

Makes sense to me. Of restaurants I love, the only ones that get 5-star average ratings on Yelp are the low-priced, comfort-food types. Most of the higher end eateries I favor have 3.5 to 4 star ratings on Yelp. Trust your gut.

The same applies for books on Amazon. Almost none of my favorite books have an average review of 5-stars on Amazon, and in fact I look on books that have such a high average rating with suspicion. Unlike restaurants, which attract many random samplers, many books are only read and reviewed by true believers, and that selection bias can be death on the signal quality of the average rating.

Steven Soderbergh's 2014 media diet

Steven Soderbergh posted a list of everything he read and watched in 2014. His media diet is as diverse as his artistic output, and no day epitomizes that as much as Dec. 4.

Reading his list, I wished I had kept such a log myself. Is there a website or app that makes that easy? I suppose Letterboxd could have been that for movies, but apparently I haven't been using the Diary function correctly because it shows my last activity as having occurred years ago.

It's still surprising to me that there isn't a better website for tracking books I've read. I tried Goodreads, I was really hoping it would be the one, especially since Amazon bought it and most of my reading is on the Kindle, but that site is an eyesore and a mess. That Amazon hasn't built a great social network for reading, especially with their dominant market share of ebooks and their ability to track highlights across the community, is such a wasted opportunity.

Anyone have any alternatives to suggest?