Things I learned from The Defiant Ones

Despite believing myself fairly in tune with the pop culture scene, I missed a lot of promotion for The Defiant Ones until I started seeing recommendations on social media from folks who'd watched it. I finally blitzed through the four episodes recently, and it's kind of a banger.

I typically don't love documentaries which comprise so many talking head interviews because it feels like the default Powerpoint template of documentary filmmaking. But Iovine and Dre and all the other musicians are such compelling, scene-filling personalities that it's a treat, and often a lark, to see them play to the camera. Allen and Albert Hughes interview all the principals individually, but as with all oral histories, they ask all of them about the same events so they can use shots from one interviews as a reaction shot to a shot from someone else's interview. Or as a reaction shot to historical footage, like Puff Daddy recalling his reaction to Suge Knight's acceptance speech at the 1995 Source Music Awards.

In part, I was an easy mark because so much of that is the music of my youth. I was an intern at Procter and Gamble, living with a bunch of the other interns in a corporate apartment, the summer The Chronic came out. My roommates and I listened to that album just about every day, on loop, for no other reason than to mainline its hooks.

The Defiant Ones is also fascinating as a case study of two immensely successful people, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. It is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from a documentary like this. Survivor and selection bias influence the narrative, and two people does not a large sample make. The mere act of narrative construction is a con game, and always will be, even when it isn't hagiography, which first person narratives like this always veer towards. So take the following with a Himalayan salt block, because I do.

And yet...

If I lump the stories in this documentary with what I know of other successful people, a few things stood out to me. Call this a Malcolm Gladwellian attempt at teasing out a few lessons from anecdotal evidence.

The first is that people who are really good at what they do stand out from others by not only recognizing when something is exceptional immediately but articulating why it is so, especially when no one else believes it is. Designers experience this when they show a design to someone else, maybe a peer, maybe an executive, and that audience member immediately notices something the creator is particularly proud of. Stories of Steve Jobs moments like this abound, which is why everyone who has met Jobs even once seems to speak of it as some mystical experience.

Filmmakers all have stories of screening cuts for others and having the sharpest among the notice a particular bit of directorial intent, maybe something in the choreography of the actors, or the camera's movement, or even something in the sound design, that no one else picks up on.

Whether that pattern recognition is innate or trained over many years, and likely both, we see it again and again in The Defiant Ones. It's Jimmy Iovine cribbing "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" from Tom Petty for Stevie Nicks. It's Iovine hearing Trent Reznor and fighting tooth and nail to grab Nine Inch Nails for Interscope from TVT Records. Or Iovine meeting Gwen Stefani and telling her she'd be a star in six years, and having No Doubt release Tragic Kingdom exactly six years after that conversation.

[Remember my caveats up front? Steve Gottlieb of TVT records disputes the way the Nine Inch Nails story is framed in the documentary. I certainly don't think Iovine and Dre are the only ones in the music industry who possess this skill, but this documentary is their story so I'll roll with these examples for those who have or will watch the documentary.]

The most memorable aha moment in the documentary, for me, is when Dre hears one bit from a demo tape from among hundreds of demo tapes stacked in Iovine's garage. 

"Back in those days, I didn't have an artist to work with. I'd go to Jimmy's house, and we'd have listening sessions. He was trying to help me figure out where I was going to go with my music. He'd take me down to his garage. There was cassette tapes everywhere. And I remember him picking up this cassette tape. He pops it in. I was like 'What the fuck, and who the fuck is that?!"

Who he was was an unknown white rapper from Detroit. In the documentary, in the recreation of that seminal moment, the label on the cassette tape reads Slim Shady. I'm not sure if that's actually true to history, but it's remarkable both ways. In one, it's a wonderful bit of historical trivia, in another, it's a laughably on the nose historical recreation.

Again, we have this pattern, the flash of recognition, picking out this tape from all the demo tapes, and hearing what no one else heard. With things like music, or even food, the articulation of excellence isn't as critical as the recognition. As in the excerpt above from Dre's memory of that moment, it was probably just a series of expletives, perhaps a literal WTF as he recalls.

The moment where Dre recognizes the kid's talent isn't online, but this clip from Eminem and Dre's first meeting is, and it's amazing because it contains footage of the end from their first session in the studio. The tail end of this clip reveals what happened when Dre started playing a few beats he was working on for Eminem, and it's gobsmacking because so rarely is the moment of creative conception captured on video. See for yourself.

"Like yo. Stop. Shit's hot. That's what happened our first day, in the first few minutes of us being in the studio," remembers Dre.

Because Eminem was a scrawny white rapper from Detroit, many resisted. He didn't look the part. That brings up the second lesson.

"My gut told me Eminem was the artist that I'm supposed to be working with right now," Dre recalls. "But, I didn't know how many racists I had around me."

"Everybody around me, the so-called execs and what have you, were all against it. The records I had done at the time, they didn't work, they wanted me out the building. And I come up with Eminem, this white boy."

As in many moments in their long collaboration, Iovine and Dre persisted and profited yet again by arbitraging the biases of the herd.

"We weren't looking for a white, controversial rapper," Iovine says. "We were looking for great."
"Great can come from anywhere."

He means it.

"Lady Gaga walked into my office, Italian girl with brown hair, started telling me about Andy Warhol, and dance music, but yet industrial, and paintings. I don't know, she confused me so much that I signed her."

None of the other Interscope execs thought Gaga had breakout appeal. Iovine did.

"I was at a club with Timbaland, and I saw the room move. It felt like pop music. It felt like it could break through."

Perhaps not a snap judgment, but no one would confuse Lady Gaga for Eminem. When Iovine says great can come from anywhere, his diverse roster of artists backs him up.

How do you find alpha in an otherwise efficient market? Iovine and Dre arbitraged the biases of the market, of which one is rampant pattern recognition.

Much of this makes it sound as if identifying hit music is Iovine and Dre's talent. But plenty of evidence exists that much of cultural taste is socially constructed and is subject to path dependence.

The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. However, most people underestimate how much It is possible to socially hack popularity since some of popularity is a social construction and has nothing to do with any inherent quality of the goods being sold. This is a third lesson which the documentary reinforces.

Derek Thompson's Hit Makers, which I will write up soon, and Michael Mauboussin's The Success Equation, both of which I loved, both cite Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik's MusicLab experiments. The key finding of that study was that people rank some things higher simply because they were given randomly generated hints that those things were already popular with other people.

This Kevin Simler post offering an alternative explanation for how ads work is actually how many people who work in advertising understand ads to work, at least in part. Simler theorizes that ads create common knowledge, and much as Watts and Salganik's experiment reveals, so much of human behavior is socially constructed. In the case of the MusicLab study, it's popularity. In Simler's examples, ads cue consumers on which products are likely to be the most effective signals in a world which status is socially constructed in large part through such consumer product totems.

Iovine understands this, and nowhere is it more evident than in the latter part of the final episode of Defiant Ones, the Beats Headphones saga. 

Dre spends some lots of time engineering Beats headphones for a particular sound. More on that later. I'm a moderate headphone geek; enough so that I own more than four pairs of over ear headphones (I prefer the sound of some for specific types of music) and two headphone amps, so I appreciate what Dre understands, which is that the personality of headphones can be a matter of personal taste.

Iovine cuts to what's far more important in the headphone decision. Most people don't give a hoot what the response curves of a headphone are measured at, what they sound like. People wear them as fashion accessories, and people want to be cool.

Iovine and Dre set up a day where they test all the leading headphones on the market. They're not impressed.

"We realized that all headphones sound boring and looked like medical equipment. We wanted more bass in these headphones to exaggerate all of it. We wanted to put it on steroids," Iovine said.
Producer Jon Landau recalls: "The Bose headphones, they were advertising noise canceling, total quiet. Jimmy says, 'Noise canceling?! Yeah, they're the headphones if you want to go to sleep on a plane. Our headphones are the where's the party headphones.'"

The distribution and marketing leverage was to be found through Iovine's celebrity friendships, so he starts smiling and dialing, or perhaps more appropriately in Iovine's case, dialing and cajoling. He gives those headphones away to all his artists and asks them to wear them in their music videos, in public, anywhere a camera or a human eye is present. Anyone famous walking in Iovine's office has to don a pair of the headphones and submit to a photo. The design of the Beats headphones, like the iconic white headphones for the iPods, is brilliant. The iconic b imprinted on each colorful molded plastic ear cup is like a walking billboard.

After artists, Iovine moves onto athletes, and soon it's rare to see Lebron benching in any of his workout videos on Instagram without his Beats by Dre headphones. I almost can't picture Ronda Rousey walking into the ring or out of the ring without picturing her with her Beats headphones draped around her neck. Who can forget Michael Phelps staring down Chad Le Clos in the 2016 Olympics, his Beats headphones blasting what must surely be some angry heavy metal that would ripple the surface of the Olympic pool.

All PR isn't good PR, but when the sports leagues like FIFA and the NFL and the Olympics issue bans on the Beats headphones, it's a dream come true for a product seeking renegade cachet.

It works. Any self-respecting audiophile considers Beats to be an absolute scam from a sound quality perspective and yet Beats dominates the premium headphone ($99 or greater) market.

Not every product market sees market share driven by socially constructed popularity, but headphones are perhaps the perfect fashion accessory and cultural signal in the age where everyone can listen to music through their smartphone at any time.

Iovine pushes the headphones so much that Eminem admits it annoyed him.

"There would be times where we would be shooting a video until like six in the morning, and we had to do one more take with me or somebody in the video wearing some goddamn [Beats] headphones. Are you fucking kidding me?!"

Iovine is a great producer, but he's also a consummate marketer.

"The only person that does it better than him is me," says Puff Daddy.

There may be a line which is shameful to cross when it comes to marketing, but who knows where that line is if you have no shame.

"He's got good instinct, and he's shameless," says Trent Reznor about Iovine.

In fairness to the documentary, Dre does talk a lot about tuning the sounds of the Beats headphones, so why do audiophiles dislike the sound? Beats are notoriously bass heavy. Dre grew up listening to music in cars in LA, with subwoofers so heavy that people outside the car can feel their organs being jostled.

Music, especially for young people, is raw emotion and energy. Not that audiophiles don't also love to turn up their music, but the bass-heavy sound Dre and Iovine amplifies the primal elements of the music, something that non-audiophiles can feel. In a revealing scene, Dre demos the mix of an album by taking Iovine to a garage to listen to the album in a tricked out van. Dre knows that the music of the street is often heard, literally, on the streets, coming through some car stereo, bass pumping, car rocking. Dre isn't above understanding the social transmission of music, it's just that he understands a particular form of that virality, when it comes through the original social network, the streets of the neighborhood. If it weren't likely to render its listeners deaf, Dre would probably want his headphones to sound like those cars which wake the neighborhood, the bass so powerful that the subwoofers seem to shake windows and cause a car to bounce up and down.

The last bit, which is a meta point, and one I've been thinking about a lot recently, is how many more entrepreneurs The Defiant Ones will reach and teach than any single book on entrepreneurship. Video may be a lossy medium in terms of how much it leaves out in service of the narrative structure, but its inherent visual and "autoplay" quality are proven to be much lower friction as an educational medium than text. We need more like this and less like the typical MOOC video which replicates all the excitement of your median classroom lecture.

1 personal update and 10 browser tabs

I haven't spent much time on personal updates here the past several years, but it matters on some topics to know what my personal affiliations are, so I wanted to share that I've left Oculus as of mid July. I'm not sure what's next yet, but I've enjoyed having some time to travel to see friends and family, catch up on reading, and get outside on my bike the past few weeks.

It's also been great to have the chance to connect with some of the smart people of the Bay Area, many of whom I've never met before except online. Bouncing ideas around with some of the interesting thinkers here is something I wish I did more of sooner, and I'm trying to make up for lost time. It has certainly helped me to refine my thinking about many topics, including my next venture, whatever that turns out to be.

Please ping me if you'd like to grab a coffee.


One of my goals during this break is to clear out a lot of things I've accumulated over the years. I donated six massive boxes of books to the local library the other week, and I've been running to a Goodwill dropoff center every few days. 

The other cruft I've accumulated is of a digital nature, mostly an embarrassing number of browser tabs, some of which have been open since before an orange president became the new black. Such digital cruft is no less a mental burden than its physical counterparts, so I'm going to start to zap them, ten at a time. I have to; my Macbook Pro can no longer handle the sheer volume of tabs open, the fan is always on full throttle like a jet engine.

Here are the first ten to go.

1. The War Against Chinese Restaurants

Startlingly, however, there was once a national movement to eliminate Chinese restaurants, using innovative legal methods to drive them out. Chinese restaurants were objectionable for two reasons. First, they threatened white women, who were subject to seduction by Chinese men, through intrinsic female weakness, or employment of nefarious techniques such as opium addiction. In addition, Chinese restaurants competed with “American” restaurants, thus threatening the livelihoods of white owners, cooks and servers; unions were the driving force behind the movement. 

The effort was creative; Chicago used anti-Chinese zoning, Los Angeles restricted restaurant jobs to citizens, Boston authorities decreed Chinese restaurants would be denied licenses, the New York Police Department simply ordered whites out of Chinatown. Perhaps the most interesting technique was a law, endorsed by the American Federation of Labor for adoption in all jurisdictions, prohibiting white women from working in Asian restaurants. Most measures failed or were struck down. However, Asians still lost; the unions did not eliminate Chinese restaurants, but they achieved their more important goal, extending the federal policy of racial exclusion in immigration from Chinese to all Asians. The campaign is of more than historical interest. As current anti-immigration sentiments and efforts show, even today the idea that white Americans should have a privileged place in the economy, or that non-whites are culturally incongruous, persists among some.

The core of the story of America is its deep seated struggle with race, not surprising for a country founded on the ideal of the equality of all even as it could not live up to that itself, in its founding moment. That continual grasping at resolving that paradox and hypocrisy is at the heart of what makes the U.S. the most fascinating social experiment in the world, and one reason I struggle to imagine living elsewhere right now.

2. Two related pieces: The revolt of the public and the “age of post-truth” and In Defense of Hierarchy 

From the former:

A complex society can’t dispense with elites.  That is the hard reality of our condition, and it involves much more than a demand for scarce technical skills.  In all human history, across continents and cultures, the way to get things done has been command and control within a formal hierarchy.  The pyramid can be made flatter or steeper, and an informal network is invariably overlaid on it:  but the structural necessity holds.  Only a tiny minority can be bishops of the church.  This may seem trivially apparent when it comes to running a government or managing a corporation, but it applies with equal strength to the dispensation of truth.
So here is the heart of the matter.  The sociopolitical disorders that torment our moment in history, including the fragmentation of truth into “post-truth,” flow primarily from a failure of legitimacy, of the bond of trust between rulers and ruled.  Everything begins with the public’s conviction that elites have lost their authorizing magic.  Those at the top have forsaken their function yet cling, illicitly, to their privileged perches.  Only in this context do we come to questions of equality or democracy.
If my analysis is correct, the re-formation of the system, and the recovery of truth, must depend on the emergence of a legitimate elite class.

From the latter:

To protect against abuse by those with higher status, hierarchies should also be domain-specific: hierarchies become problematic when they become generalised, so that people who have power, authority or respect in one domain command it in others too. Most obviously, we see this when holders of political power wield disproportionate legal power, being if not completely above the law then at least subject to less legal accountability than ordinary citizens. Hence, we need to guard against what we might call hierarchical drift: the extension of power from a specific, legitimate domain to other, illegitimate ones. 
This hierarchical drift occurs not only in politics, but in other complex human arenas. It’s tempting to think that the best people to make decisions are experts. But the complexity of most real-world problems means that this would often be a mistake. With complicated issues, general-purpose competences such as open-mindedness and, especially, reasonableness are essential for successful deliberation.
Expertise can actually get in the way of these competences. Because there is a trade-off between width and depth of expertise, the greater the expert, the narrower the area of competence. Hence the best role for experts is often not as decision-makers, but as external resources to be consulted by a panel of non-specialist generalists selected for general-purpose competences. These generalists should interrogate the experts and integrate their answers from a range of specialised aspects into a coherent decision. So, for example, parole boards cannot defer to one type of expert but must draw on the expertise of psychologists, social workers, prison guards, those who know the community into which a specific prisoner might be released, and so on. This is a kind of collective, democratic decision-making that makes use of hierarchies of expertise without slavishly deferring to them.  

What would constitute a new legitimate elite class? It's a mystery, and a grave one. When truth is largely socially and politically constructed, it weighs nothing. The whole psychology replication crisis couldn't have hit at a worse time. With the internet, you can Google and find a study to back up just about any of your views, yet it's not clear which of the studies are actually sound.

At the same time, we can't all be expected to be experts on everything, even if, with the internet, everyone pretends to be.

3. Why Men Don't Live As Long As Women

Evidence points at testosterone, which is useful for mating but costly in many other ways. I maintain there is nothing more frightening in the world than a bunch of single young men full of testosterone.

This does not mean, however, that men cannot evolve other reproductive strategies. Despite their propensity to engage in risky behavior and exhibit expensive, life-shortening physical traits, men have evolved an alternative form of reproductive effort in the form of paternal investment—something very rare in primates (and mammals in general). For paternal investment to evolve, males have to make sure they are around to take care of their offspring. Risky behavior and expensive tissue have to take a backseat to investment that reflects better health and perhaps prolongs lifespan. Indeed, men can exhibit declines in testosterone and put on a bit of weight when they become fathers and engage in paternal care.10, 11 Perhaps, then, fatherhood is good for health.

Perhaps we should be extolling the virtuous signal that is dadbod to a much greater degree than we have. And, on the flipside, we should look with a skeptical eye on fathers with chiseled abs. How does one get a six pack from attending imaginary tea parties with one's daughter for hours on end?

4. Increasing consumer well-being: risk as potential driver of happiness

We show that, even if, ex ante, consumers fear high risk and do not associate it to a high level of happiness, their ex post evaluation of well-being is generally higher when identical consequences result from a high-risk situation than from a low-risk situation. Control over risk-taking reinforces the gap between ex ante and ex post measures of happiness. Thus, our article provides empirical evidence about a positive relation between risk and individual well-being, suggesting that risky experiences have the potential to increase consumer well-being.

While I'm not certain what I'm going to do next, I would like to increase my risk profile. It seems a shame not to when I'm fortunate enough to live with very little downside risk.

5. “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear.”  —  Lao Tzu

There is some debate over the provenance of this quote but I have rarely read the second sentence, the first part is the one which has had the more enduring life, and for good reason. It's a rhetorical gem.

The second half is underrated. The best coaches know when stepping aside and pushing the student to new challenges is the only path to greater heights. Rather than becoming some Girardian rival like Bill Murray in Rushmore, the best teachers disappear. In the case of Yoda in Return of the Jedi, he literally disappears, though not until giving Luke his next homework assignment: to face Darth Vader.

6. The third wave of globalisation may be the hardest

First we enabled the movement of goods across borders. Then the internet unleashed the movement of ideas. Free movement of people, though? Recent nationalist backlashes aren't a promising sign. Maybe it will happen in its fullest online, maybe in virtual reality.

I am pro-immigration; my life is in so many ways the result of my parents coming to America in college. For decades, the United States has had essentially first pick of the world's hungriest, most talented dreamers, like a sports team that gets to pick at the top of the draft year after year despite winning the championship the year before. Trust the process, as Sam Hinkie might say.

On the other hand, taking off my American goggles, the diversity in the world's cultures, political and social systems, and ideologies is a source of global health. It feels like everyone should be encouraged (and supported) to spend a year abroad before, during, or after college, prior to entering the world, just to understand just how much socially acquired knowledge is path dependent and essentially arbitrary. 

7. Tyler Cowen's Reddit AMA

What is the most underrated city in the US? In the world?
Los Angeles is my favorite city in the whole world, just love driving around it, seeing the scenery, eating there. I still miss living in the area.

I don't know if I have a favorite city in the world, but I'd agree Los Angeles is the most underrated city in the U.S. considering how many people spit on its very mention. Best dining destination of the major U.S. cities.

8. What are the hardest and easiest languages to learn?

Language Log offers a concise scale as a shorthand answer.

1. Mandarin (spoken)
2. Nepali
3. Russian
4. Japanese
5. Sanskrit
6. Chinese (written)

9. Under mentioned side effect of global warming

Time was, the cold and remoteness of the far north kept its freezer door closed to a lot of contagion. Now the north is neither so cold nor so remote. About four million people live in the circumpolar north, sometimes in sizable cities (Murmansk and ­Norilsk, Russia; Tromso, Norway). Oil rigs drill. Tourist ships cruise the Northwest Passage. And as new animals and pathogens arrive and thrive in the warmer, more crowded north, some human sickness is on the rise, too. Sweden saw a record number of tick-borne encephalitis cases in 2011, and again in 2012, as roe deer expanded their range northward with ticks in tow. Researchers think the virus the ticks carry may increase its concentrations in warmer weather. The bacterium Francisella tularensis, which at its worst is so lethal that both the U.S. and the USSR weaponized it during the Cold War, is also on the increase in Sweden. Spread by mosquitoes there, the milder form can cause months of flu-like symptoms. Last summer in Russia’s far north, anthrax reportedly killed a grandmother and a boy after melting permafrost released spores from epidemic-killed deer that had been buried for decades in the once frozen ground.

Because we don't already have enough sobering news in the world.

10. Why do our musical tastes ossify in our twenties?

It’s simply not realistic to expect someone to respond to music with such life-defining fervour more than once. And it’s not realistic, either, to expect someone comfortable with his personality to be flailing about for new sensibilities to adopt. I’ve always been somewhat suspicious of those who truly do, as the overused phrase has it, listen to everything. Such schizophrenic tastes seem not so much a symptom of well-roundedness as of an unstable sense of self. Liking everything means loving nothing. If you’re so quick to adopt new sentiments and their expression, then how serious were you about the ones you pushed aside to accommodate them?
Oh yeah, and one more thing: music today fucking sucks.

I still pursue new music, despite being past my twenties, driven mostly, I suspect, by a hunger for novelty that still seems to be kicking. At some point, I can't really recall when, the signaling function of my musical tastes lost most of its value. Once most of your friends have kids, you can seem cultured merely by having seen a movie that's released in the last year.

My most popular posts

I recently started collecting email addresses using MailChimp for those readers who want to receive email updates when I post here. Given my relatively low frequency of posts these days, especially compared to my heyday when I posted almost daily, and given the death of RSS, such an email list may have more value than it once did. You can sign up for that list from my About page.

I've yet to send an email to the list successfully yet, but let's hope this post will be the first to go out that route. Given this would be the first post to that list, with perhaps some new readers, I thought it would be worth compiling some of my more popular posts in one place.

Determining what those are proved difficult, however. I never checked my analytics before, since this is just a hobby, and I realized when I went to the popular content panel on Squarespace that their data only goes back a month. I also don't have data from the Blogger or Movable Type eras of my blog stashed anywhere, and I never hooked up Google Analytics here.

A month's worth of data was better than nothing, as some of the more popular posts still get a noticeable flow of traffic each month, at least by my modest standards. I also ran a search on Twitter for my URL and used that as a proxy for social media popularity of my posts (and in the process, found some mentions I'd never seen before since they didn't include my Twitter handle; is there a way on Twitter to get a notification every time your domain is referenced?).

In compiling the list, I went back and reread these posts for the first time in ages added a few thoughts on each.

  • Compress to Impress — my most recent post is the one that probably attracted most of the recent subscribers to my mailing list. I regret not including one of the most famous cinematic examples of rhetorical compression, from The Social Network, when Justin Timberlake's Sean Parker tells Jesse Eisenberg, "Drop the "The." Just Facebook. It's cleaner." Like much of the movie, probably made up (and also, why wasn't the movie titled just Social Network?), but still a good example how movies almost always compress the information to be visually compact scenes. The reason people tend to like the book better than the movie adaptation in almost every case is that, like Jeff Bezos and his dislike of Powerpoint, people who see both original and compressed information flows feel condescended and lied to by the latter. On the other hand, I could only make it through one and a half of the Game of Thrones novels so I much prefer the TV show's compression of that story, even as I watch every episode with super fans who can spend hours explaining what I've missed, so it feels like I have read the books after all.
  • Amazon, Apple, and the beauty of low margins — one of the great things about Apple is it attracts many strong, independent critics online (one of my favorites being John Siracusa). The other of the FAMGA tech giants (Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Google) don't seem to have as many dedicated fans/analysts/critics online. Perhaps it was that void that helped this post on Amazon from 2012 to go broad (again, by my modest standards). Being able to operate with low margins is not, in and of itself, enough to be a moat. Anyone can lower their prices, and more generally, any company should be wary of imitating any company's high variance strategy, lest they forget all the others who did and went extinct (i.e., a unicorn is a unicorn because it's a unicorn, right?). Being able to operate with low margins with unparalleled operational efficiency, at massive scale globally, while delivering more SKUs in more shipments with more reliability and greater speed than any other retailer is a competitive moat. Not much has changed, by the way. Apple just entered the home voice-controlled speaker market with its announcement of the HomePod and is coming in from above, as expected, at $349, as the room under Amazon's price umbrella isn't attractive.
  • Amazon and the profitless business model fallacy — the second of my posts on Amazon to get a traffic spike. It's amusing to read some of the user comments on this piece and recall a time when every time I said anything positive about Amazon I'd be inundated with comments from Amazon shorts and haters. Which is the point of the post, that people outside of Amazon really misunderstood the business model. The skeptics have largely quieted down nowadays, and maybe the shorts lost so much money that they finally went in search of weaker prey, but in some ways I don't blame the naysayers. Much of their misreading of Amazon is the result of GAAP rules which really don't reveal enough to discern how much of a company's losses are due to investments in future businesses or just aggressive depreciation of assets. GAAP rules leave a lot of wiggle room to manipulate your numbers to mask underlying profitability, especially when you have a broad portfolio of businesses munged together into single line items on the income statement and balance sheet. This doesn't absolve professional analysts who should know better than to ignore unit economics, however. Deep economic analysis isn't a strength of your typical tech beat reporter, which may explain the rise of tech pundits who can fill that gap. I concluded the post by saying that Amazon's string of quarterly losses at the time should worry its competitors more than it should assure them. That seems to have come to fruition. Amazon went through a long transition period from having a few very large fulfillment centers to having many many more smaller ones distributed more broadly, but generally located near major metropolitan areas, to improve its ability to ship to customers more quickly and cheaply. Now that the shift has been completed for much of the U.S., you're seeing the power of the fully operational Death Star, or many tiny ones, so to speak.
  • Facebook hosting doesn't change things, the world already changed — the title feels clunky, but the analysis still holds up. I got beat up by some journalists over this piece for offering a banal recommendation for their malady (focus on offering differentiated content), but if the problem were so tractable it wouldn't be a problem.
  • The network's the thing — this is from 2015, and two things come to mind since I wrote it.
    • As back then, Instagram has continued to evolve and grow, and Twitter largely has not and has not. Twitter did stop counting user handles against character limits and tried to alter its conversation UI to be more comprehensible, but the UI's still inscrutable to most. The biggest change, to an algorithmic rather than reverse chronological timeline, was an improvement, but of course Instagram had beat them to that move as well. The broader point is still that the strength of any network lies most in the composition of its network, and in that, Twitter and other networks that have seened flattening growth, like Snapchat or Pinterest, can take solace. Twitter is the social network for infovores like journalists, technorati, academics, and intellectual introverts, and that's a unique and influential group. Snapchat has great market share among U.S. millennials and teens, Pinterest among women. It may be hard for them to break out of those audiences, but those are wonderfully differentiated audiences, and it's also not easy for a giant like Facebook to cater to particular audiences when its network is so massive. Network scaling requires that a network reduce the surface area of its network to each individual user using strategies like algorithmic timelines, graph subdivision (e.g., subreddits), and personalization, otherwise networks run into reverse economies of scale in their user experience.
    • The other point that this post recalls is the danger of relying on any feature as a network moat. People give Instagram, Messenger, FB, and WhatsApp grief for copying Stories from Snapchat, but if any social network has to pin its future on any single feature, all of which are trivial to replicate in this software age, that company has a dim future. The differentiator for a network is how its network uses a features to strengthen the bonds of that network, not the feature itself. Be wary of hanging your hat on an overnight success of a feature the same way predators should be wary of mutations that offer temporary advantages over their prey. The Red Queen effect is real and relentless.
  • Tower of Babel — From earlier this year, and written at a time when I was quite depressed about a reversal in the quality of discourse online, and how the promise of connecting everyone via the internet had quickly seemed to lead us all into a local maximum (minimum?) of public interaction. I'm still bullish on the future, but when the utopian dreams of global connection run into the reality of human's coalitional instincts and the resentment from global inequality, we've seen which is the more immovable object. Perhaps nothing expresses the state of modern discourse like waking up to see so many of my followers posting snarky responses to one of Trump's tweets. Feels good, accomplishes nothing, let's all settle for the catharsis of value signaling. I've been guilty of this, and we can do better.
  • Thermodynamic theory of evolution — actually, this isn't one of my most popular posts, but I'm obsessed with the second law of thermodynamics and exceptions to it in the universe. Modeling the world as information feels like something from the Matrix but it has reinvigorated my interest in the physical universe.
  • Cuisine and empire — on the elevation of food as scarce cultural signal over music. I'll always remember this post because Tyler Cowen linked to it from Marginal Revolution. Signalling theory is perhaps one of the three most influential ideas to have changed my thinking in the past decade. I would not underestimate its explanatory power in the rise of Tesla. Elon Musk and team made the first car that allowed wealthy people to signal their environmental values without having to also send a conflicting signal about their taste in cars. It's one example where actually driving one of the uglier, less expensive EV's probably would send the stronger signal, whereas generally the more expensive and useless a signal the more effective it is.
  • Your site has a self-describing cadence — I'm fond of this one, though Hunter Walk has done so much more to point to this post than anyone that I feel like I should grant him a perpetual license to call it his own. It still holds true, almost every service and product I use online trains me how often to return. The only unpleasant part of rereading this is realizing how my low posting frequency has likely trained my readers to never visit my blog anymore.
  • Learning curves sloping up and down — probably ranks highly only because I have such a short window of data from Squarespace to examine, but I do think that companies built for the long run have to come to maintain a sense of the slope of their organization's learning curve all the time, especially in technology where the pace of evolution and thus the frequency of existential decisions is heightened.
  • The paradox of loss aversion — more tech markets than ever are winner-take-all because the internet is the most powerful and scalable multiplier of network effects in the history of the world. Optimal strategy in winner-take-all contests differs quite a bit from much conventional business strategy, so best recognize when you're playing in one.
  • Federer and the Paradox of Skill — the paradox of skill is a term I first learned from Michael Mauboussin's great book The Success Equation. This post applied it to Roger Federer, and if he seems more at peace recently, now that he's older and more evenly matched in skill to other top players, it may be that he no longer feels subject to the outsized influence of luck as he did when he was a better player. In Silicon Valley, with all its high achieving, brilliant people, understanding the paradox of skill may be essential to feeling jealous of every random person around you who fell into a pool of money. The Paradox of Skill is a cousin to The Red Queen effect, which I referenced above and which tech workers of the Bay Area should familiarize themselves with. It explains so much of the tech sector but also just living in the Bay Area. Every week I get a Curbed newsletter, and it always has a post titled "What $X will get you in San Francisco" with a walkthrough of a recent listing that you could afford on that amount of monthly rent. Over time they've had to elevate the dollar amount just to keep things interesting, or perhaps because what $2900 can rent in you in SF was depressing its readers.

Having had this blog going off and on since 2001, I only skimmed through through a fraction of the archives, but perhaps at some point I'll cringe and crawl back further to find other pieces that still seem relevant.

I Will Always Love You

Sorry for the radio silence here recently. I thought I was dying there for a bit but it turned out to be just a really bad bout of pneumonia. Not having contracted it before, I thought it was just a return of the flu, but that changed when I started coughing up blood. It knocked me sideways for weeks, I still have muscle pains from the violent coughing fits. Two weeks of antibiotics have set me back on my feet, with just a lingering cough and shortness of breath still to conquer.


This excerpt from Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture is a lovely piece of music writing (even as the excerpt just ends abruptly). I love this passage on Whitney Houston's cover of Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" from the Bodyguard soundtrack. It remains the all-time bestselling single by a female recording artist.

From the outset, Parton’s lyrics and melody become secondary to Houston’s modulations on them. Whitney inserts pauses, extends syllables, redraws the melody to fit the moment. Her arabesque vocalizations become something in their own right, codependent and contingent yet emotionally, viscerally, musically real. The ornament swells to become the heart.
These effects flow from her masterful use of a technique called melisma. Technically speaking, melisma occurs when vocalists use melodic embellishment to extend a single syllable. Emotionally, it’s something else entirely, a mode of expression that bucks against the very limits of language. Indeed, the crushing power of “I Will Always Love You,” its meaning in sound, results from how Houston’s melisma activates a mysterious, even mystical relationship between overflowing emotion, life’s vicissitudes, and ultra precise self-control. Rather than simply sing about the bittersweet conflicts involved in saying goodbye to a lover, Houston deploys melisma to enact in sound a heart-felt struggle between holding on and letting go. Like life as it unfurls, each moment is un-anticipatable until it happens, whereupon we can’t possibly imagine it any other way.
Such is the power of melisma. The technique breathes life-flow into fixed text. Melisma is vocal embellishment’s purest form, almost always improvised and therefore rarely written down. Melisma locates meaning in the instant. It reveals to us the risk and control of a singer at her most unpredictably alive.

I love learning terms like melisma which refer to very specific and arcane things in various fields. Linguistics is full of them, like anaphora, synecdoche, and metonymy. The rest of this passage takes an unexpected, almost Seinfeldian turn to discuss how Auto-Tune rose to prominence in North Africa.

Though Kevin Costner got dragged for playing a white savior of sorts in Hidden Figures, this is one time where he earns partial credit for fighting for the a cappella opening of Houston's cover.

Houston begins unaccompanied, as if the string section and other instruments have, like me, been stunned into silence by the quality of movement inside the filigreed pathways of her voice. Houston doesn’t stretch each word out so much as give it wings to fly around in. I and you—these brief words can last for seconds here, long enough to make sure we all know just how large they really are. The vulnerability of her naked voice ups the bravura. It’s a tightrope walk without a safety net (Auto-Tune hadn’t been invented yet). As with Cher’s Auto-Tune innovation, the record company executives were dead set against the now-famous a cappella opening. It took protests from Houston and Bodyguard costar Kevin Costner to keep it intact. (Tone deafness or outright hostility toward music as an art form may not be required to land a job as a major-label exec, but all indications suggest that they sure won’t hurt your chances.)

Magic iPod

Everyone has been passing around the Magic iPod this month. First Deep Blue beat Kasparov, then AlphaGo beat Lee Se-dol, and now we have Magic iPod taking down Girl Talk.

When you read stories about how artists come up with mashups (finding works with compatible BPM and keys, among other things), or how the Swedish pop factory mad scientists like Max Martin conjure pop hits, it seems inevitable that in our lifetime we'll have algorithms creating real pop hits.

How such work is received by a human audience is about more than its intrinsic qualities, however. In an objective competition like a game of Go, or when considering a mashup which is simply the synthesis of existing creative works, I suspect humans will be comfortable with acknowledging the achievements of an algorithm.

With original creative works, however, like music, novels, movies, I suspect humans will recoil from even intrinsically appealing creation if it was written by a computer program. Call it some variant of the uncanny valley effect.

We have a romantic attachment to human creation, and it may take a generation of people passing on before we overcome that cultural aversion. When a waiter places a beautiful dish in front of you at a restaurant, we like to imagine that a chef toiled over the plate in the kitchen, conjuring that beautiful, delicious entree from raw ingredients, fire, and ingenuity. When we read an engrossing novel, we picture a tortured writer banging on an old typewriter in a cabin by the sea, stopping from time to time to put out a cigarette and gaze out the window at the ocean waves trying to claw up the gentle slope of the beach.

When Beyonce drops Lemonade or any one of her jaw dropping awards show performances on an unprepared world, I like to believe the work was birthed from what is surely a vagina with mystic powers, belonging as it does to our modern icon of feminism and black empowerment.

It's not quite as appealing if the truth was that an algorithm finished processing in some computer lab somewhere. A progress bar on a monitor finally reaches 100%, and a file is deposited into a directory.

That's why if humans ever comes up with algorithms that are capable of creating popular works of culture, it's financially wise for the creators to claim the credit themselves, at least until many years of critical and popular embrace have accumulated. Then, and only then, spring the truth on the world.

We live in a Skinner box, and it was of our own making.

Spectre by Radiohead

James Bond movies have enlisted a diverse set of artists across the years for its theme songs, but I wouldn't have put Radiohead on that list. But I listened to their rejected theme song offering for Spectre, and it's not bad. I can almost picture a retired James Bond, making some spiked, artisanal hot chocolate in a log cabin, snapping a selfie with his hot young wife to post to Instagram.