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.

Last dance

Growing up, Keats was on my Leaving Cert English. One of the poems I loved was Ode on a Grecian Urn. It’s a lovely poem and the last few words are “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
That’s what I mean. He epitomises physical beauty in the way he plays and for anything we see that is beautiful in life we always feel there is a certain truth in it. It is an exposing of truth and that’s why people love sport. 
In a world of greys where nothing is clear, sport is clear. Sport defines stuff. We get winners and losers, villains and heroes. We get beautiful and ugly. He is the closest definition to beautiful as you can imagine playing any sport. Ali in his prime would have been a beautiful way to watch boxing. Definitely.
Roger also reminds me of a super hero in comic books. Real super heroes like Superman; even when he is under extreme pressure he never looks fully extended. If there is an avalanche or he has to lift up a mountain, he never looks like he is straining. 
He lifts the mountain with one hand. He never sweats. That’s Federer: you never feel that he is fully, fully extended. You always feel there is something left in reserve.

That's Mario Rosenstock on Roger Federer ahead of last weekend's Australian Open showdown with Rafael Nadal.

I stayed up until 5:30am watching the match. I had not seen near peak Federer and Nadal play in ages, and I'd given up hope that it would ever happen again. It felt like a privilege, a one time entry pass to a time machine that would take me to see two greats clash in their prime. I had some caffeine, to which I'm very sensitive, and plopped down in front of my TV for the night.

Perhaps they are a step slower than before. No one would expect anything less given their ages and accumulated wear and tear. And yet, to my eye, they seemed as good as ever.

I agree with Rosenstock that Federer's chief appeal has always been the aesthetic elegance of his game. Every shot of his seems choreographed for slow motion in an art gallery, like a piece of Bill Viola video art. That he never seems rushed or over-exerted implies that when you master the physical action of something, it becomes easy, not just in practice but in form. 

I disagree that Federer has never been fully extended, though. While his physical movements have never seemed strained, it is Nadal above all who has pushed Federer past his redline. I'll never forget the time Federer cried, after losing the 2009 Australian Open to Nadal, another match I stayed up all night to watch. Nadal owns a 23-12 edge vs. Federer head to head, but more than that numeric edge it's the way he's beaten Roger, almost physically overpowering him, to the point where he's seemed to break Federer's will. Rarely do you see Federer concede sets or go on strategic tilt, except vs. Nadal.

It's such a stylistic contrast, Nadal with almost no strokes that seem as effortless as any shot in Federer's arsenal (watch the highlights from their match and note that Nadal grunts after each stroke while Federer never makes a sound except for the occasional squeak of his sneakers). Every shot Nadal hits seems to require his full exertion, none more so than his forehand, which he hits with more topspin than anyone has ever hit a forehand . His follow through is so severe, the racket whipping up over his head and then back down over his opposite shoulder like a priest trying to whip himself on the back, that even without seeing the RPM statistics it is easy to believe they are unmatched in history.

It is that forehand, aimed at Federer's backhand wing, that has been decisive in so many of their matches. The one handed backhand is beautiful, especially Federer's, but it's a stroke uniquely vulnerable to shots with extreme topspin. Because of the way the human body is engineered, it is difficult to handle high balls, but the alternative, to stand closer and try to take those shots earlier off the bounce, requires incredible timing, strength, and coordination.

That's what was so incredible about Federer's win last weekend. In the past, he'd often shank backhands trying to handle Nadal's forehand, but in this match, I've never seen him hit his backhand so cleanly and aggressively. He sometimes won exchanges in which Nadal hit forehands at his backhand repeatedly (see for example the exchange that starts at 5:37 in this video), something that seemed unimaginable in the past.

More importantly, Federer finally changed tactice. Watch the highlights and look at where Federer's feet are in each exchange. Right up against the baseline. Now go back and watch Federer play Nadal in the French Open in 2007, to take an earlier confrontation between the two, and stare at Federer's feet again. He's several feet behind the baseline. He was taking backhands on the rise off the court, and whether it was his new, larger racket, which he switched to in recent years, or just improved timing, he was hitting the backhand as clean and as hard as he's ever hit it.

Commentators have long remarked that they'd love to see him switch up his strategy to challenge Nadal, his nemesis. Attack more second serves, approach net more, anything but trade with Nadal from the baseline. He did some of that in the Aussie Open final, but quite he was the aggressor while staying at the baseline. It was a surprise. The faster courts in Melbourne helped, but to switch things up at age 35 required, most of all, a fluidity of mind. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks?

The chief obstacle to seeing them meet like this again is probably their health, and so I hope they start taking more extended breaks between the majors to rest rather than work themselves to death in practice or in other tourneys on the circuit. They've done the grind in the past. What we want now are just the peaks.

Will Federer adapt?

In the past six months, Federer has beaten Juan Martin del Potro and taken sets from Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. But he's also had some shocking results. He's not only losing now to guys who are younger and stronger. Hewitt, after all, is 32, the same age as Federer — in fact, a few months older than Federer. Tommy Robredo, who beat Federer at the U.S. Open in September, is 31. The problem isn't just that Federer has more days now where he wakes up with a stiff back or in need of an extra cup of coffee. The problem isn't just that his movement is a microsecond slower, or that he doesn't quite have the flexibility he once did, or that he doesn't anticipate as well as he did when he was dominant. It's not just his body. It's his head. The shanks are what you notice; that whiff is what you remember. But the shanks aren't why he lost that first set to Hewitt — nor why, after settling down, playing decently, and winning the second set, he went on to lose the match. He has lost because he bunted his returns and tried to rip his groundstrokes, and it was hard to see any purpose, any plan. The standard advice, almost always, for almost anyone, is to be aggressive, but the way he tried to be aggressive was bizarre. He took big risks at strange moments, unloading on forehands that should have been defensive shots. He mistook pace for boldness, ran through standard forehands, and seemed to have no clue what he wanted to do with the ball next. He lined up a rally ball and hit it two feet long and five feet wide. He hesitated before charging the net and then hit approach shots that turned him into a sitting duck. I'm being unfair — sort of. In the second set he found his range. But it wasn't enough. And when the pressure was on most, when he had break points on Hewitt's serve, his shots once again broke down.


Louisa Thomas in Grantland on Roger Federer.

Federer is old for a tennis player, and he also plays in one of the most competitive ages for men's tennis. What's difficult for an athlete, I imagine, because I am not one, must be facing up to the fact that one must change one's strategy because of the a decline in physical skills. Federer is not the tennis god he once was, and yet the memory of those days must still be so vivid. He's only 32, after all, he's not that many years removed from making the semifinals of every Grand Slam with frightening regularity.

But tennis is a game of slim margins. Winners of matches usually win by the slightest of margins on total points. In last year's U.S. Open, for example, in which Nadal beat Djokovic in four sets, Nadal won 121 points, Djokovic 102, and it was one of the more decisive Nadal wins versus the Djoker. Often just a few points separate the winner from the loser.

Federer's declining hand-eye coordination, stamina, and foot speed all mean that he can't beat other top players just by trying to outplay them in long rallies. The longer the rally, the more his physical deficits are likely to factor into the point's outcome. He has to be more clever, take more smart risks, try to shorten points.

In the past I've been skeptical that Federer would be willing to shift his strategy significantly, but he's at least said some of the right things following the worst year of his career since he ascended to the tennis elite. He's promised to serve and volley more this year. He hired serve and volley great Stefan Edberg as his coach. He's committed to using a larger 98-inch racket from Wilson this season.

I'm skeptical that attacking the net in the modern game is a winning strategy. With modern racket and string technology, it's much easier to pass than in previous ages of tennis, and Djokovic in particular has a devastating return. However, I'm glad to hear Federer acknowledge that he has to try something. I'd love to see him run around more backhands on his return and try to seize the advantage on points using his forehand which remains his most dangerous stroke, albeit not as reliable as in years past.

Changing one's strategy after achieving some level of success, to speak nothing of the historic greatness Federer put on his resume, is so difficult. Perhaps embracing his role as the underdog now will loosen him up to be a more dangerous opponent.

Federer and the paradox of skill

[CORRECTION: I originally titled this Federer and the paradox of luck, but it's actually more correctly termed the paradox of skill, so I've amended the title of this post. It's a term I first read in Michael Mauboussin's The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing, a book I highly recommend.]

I was curious about a moment in the Federer-Murray Australian Open semifinal when the commentators and cameras caught Federer saying something to Murray and giving him a brief menacing stare after a long rally at 6-5 in the fourth set.

Without microphones on court, the commentators weren't sure what he said or why, but they briefly showed Murray responding with a exaggerated nod and smirk. The commentators did detect and remark on that brief moment of tension, and given how rarely we see tennis antagonism manifest itself in a visible way on court, it stuck in my brain as curious mystery.

My buddy Ken sent me this article which clarifies the incident a bit.

Murray prevailed in 15-stroke rally with a forehand winner, with both players finishing the point near the net. But Federer, on the brink of defeat, appeared to have taken issue with a slight mid-rally [hesitation] by Murray, and shouted “you [expletive]-ing stopped!” across the net. Murray appeared at first surprised, then amused, twisting his face into an exaggeratedly satisfied smirk, laughing and nodding toward his player’s box.

Federer was known for being a hothead early in his career, but I never saw much of it firsthand. Since his ascension into tennis immortality, he's largely been seen as a very level-headed sportsman.

One thing I have noticed a few times that seems to bother Federer is that when he plays one of the other Big Four (Djokovic, Murray, Nadal), he is particularly sensitive to any points they win by luck. The article above mentions that BBC commentators had to apologize on air for audible obscenities from Federer during the semi against Murray.

Federer’s first clearly audible obscenity in his semifinal loss to Andy Murray came with Murray serving at 4-5, 15-30. Murray fired a body serve which Federer could just get his backhand in front of and sent him into mostly indistinguishable muttering, punctuated with a loud, hard expletive in the middle.

Federer’s second audible offense came with Murray serving at 3-4, 40-40, in the fourth set. Murray won a 17-shot rally, and Federer exclaimed that his opponent had been “lucky,” preceding that word with a choice adverb.

I suspect most of you are thinking of the same adverb I am, so if I don't write it out I hope you don't see it as "ducking" the question [rimshot].

But a more memorable example is that extraordinary forehand return Djokovic hit against Federer in the 2011 U.S. Open semifinal. Down match point and 5-3 in the fifth set, Djokovic crushed a sideline-grazing crosscourt winner off of a Federer first serve (you can see it at 8:12 of this video).

In the press conference after that match, which Federer eventually lost , he was unusually testy when asked about that Djokovic shot.

"It's awkward having to explain this loss," a tetchy Federer said, "because I feel like I should be doing the other press conference."

There followed a string of excuses and justifications which not only were barely sustainable given the evidence but seriously disrespected the winner.

Asked about the quite remarkable forehand winner Djokovic hit to save match point, Federer reckoned the Serb did not look at that point like someone "who believes much anymore in winning. To lose against someone like that, it's very disappointing, because you feel like he was mentally out of it already. Just gets the lucky shot at the end, and off you go."

Djokovic was honest enough to admit the shot was a gamble – but Federer was reluctant to give him credit even for that courage in a crisis, preferring to regard it as desperate.

"Confidence? Are you kidding me?" he said when it was put to him the cross-court forehand off his first serve – described by John McEnroe as "one of the all-time great shots" – was either a function of luck or confidence.

"I mean, please. Some players grow up and play like that – being down 5-2 in the third, and they all just start slapping shots. I never played that way. I believe hard work's going to pay off, because early on maybe I didn't always work at my hardest. For me, this is very hard to understand. How can you play a shot like that on match point? Maybe he's been doing it for 20 years, so for him it was very normal. You've got to ask him."

Translated, Federer hates that tennis might be decided in any way by luck rather than skill. It makes sense, that someone who might be the most skilled tennis player of all time might be disgusted that luck plays any part in outcomes of majors.

It will be fascinating to see if Federer alters his game in any way this next year or two given his age and the competition from his three chief rivals. I suspect deep down Federer has always believed he is more skilled than any of his opponents, and that might explain one of his chief weaknesses, an unwillingness to be more aggressive on service returns. If you believe you are better than your opponent in every aspect of the game, it's sufficient to put the ball back in play on the return because you believe you'll win the subsequent point more often than not.

But the paradox of skill is that the more evenly matched opponents are in skill, the more of a role luck plays in determining the final outcome. As beautiful as Federer's game remains (in a sense, the continued aesthetic beauty of his shots makes it hard to measure his decline), in today's power baseline game, his rivals are a close match to him in both movement and groundstrokes. You can make a strong case that one or more of them are superior to him in areas like serve, return, footspeed, and the backhand.

Given that he no longer has that discernible skills gap to his chief rivals, a healthier acceptance of the role of luck might shift his strategy in ways that help him capture that next major. For example, it wouldn't hurt him to be more aggressive on return, to take some chances to go for the big winner and shorten some points. Can someone who is still so good and who can still recall with vivid detail the time when he had no rival be self-aware enough to change?