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.

Beware the lessons of growing up Galapagos

In All the old rules about movie stardom are broken, part of Slate's 2017 Movie Club year end review, Amy Nicholson writes:

Lugging my $10 masterpiece back to the hotel, I thought about how most of the famous faces who represent the movies have been dead for 50 years. Marilyn’s smile sells shot glasses, clocks, calendars, posters, and shirts in stores from Sunset Boulevard to Buenos Aires, Tijuana to Taiwan. What modern actor could earn a seat at her table? The biggest stars of my lifetime—Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Nicolas Cage, Sandra Bullock—never graduated past magazine covers to souvenir magnets.

If Hollywood played by its old rules, I, Tonya’s Margot Robbie and Call Me by Your Name’s Armie Hammer should be huge stars. They’re funny, smart, self-aware, charismatic, and freakishly attractive. Yet, they feel like underdogs, and I’m trying to figure out why. Robbie has made intelligent choices. Her scene-stealing introduction as Leonardo DiCaprio’s trophy wife in Wolf of Wall Street. Her classic romantic caper with Will Smith in the underseen trifle, Focus. She even survived Suicide Squad with her dignity intact. In I, Tonya, she can’t outskate being miscast as Tonya Harding, but bless her heart for trying. As for Hammer, Kameron, your review of Call Me by Your Name called him, “royally handsome,” which seems right. He’s as ridiculously perfect as a cartoon prince, and I loved how Luca Guadagnino made a joke of how outlandish the 6-foot-5 blond looks in the Italian countryside. Whether he’s unfurling himself from a tiny Fiat or stopping conversation with his gangly dance moves, he can’t blend in—and good on him and Guadagnino for embracing it.
 

But even if Robbie and Hammer each claim an Oscar nomination this year, I suspect they’ll stay stalled out in this strange time when great actors are simply supporting players in a superhero franchise. I’m fascinated by Robbie and Hammer because they’re like fossils of some alpha carnivore that should have thrived. Does anyone else feel like the tectonic plates under Hollywood have shifted and we’re now staring at the evidence that everything we know is extinct? It’s not just that the old rules have changed—no new rules have replaced them. No one seems to know what works.

Nicholson goes on to cite Will Smith, who once had huge hits seemingly with every movie he made and who is now on a long cold streak.

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.

The same mistake, I think, is being made about declining NFL ratings. Owners blame players kneeling for the national anthem, but here's my theory: in an age of infinite content, NFL games measure up poorly as entertainment, especially for a generation that grew up with smartphones and no cable TV and thus little exposure to American football. If I weren't in two fantasy football leagues with friends and coworkers, I would not have watched a single game this season, and that's a Leftovers-scale flash-forward twist for a kid who once recorded the Superbowl Shuffle to cassette tape off a local radio broadcast just to practice the lyrics.

If you disregard any historical romantic notions and examine the typical NFL football game, it is mostly dead time (if you watch a cut-down version of a game using Sunday Ticket, only about 30 minutes of a 3 to 3.5 hr game involves actual game action), with the majority of plays involving action of only incremental consequence, whose skill and strategy on display are opaque to most viewers and which are explained poorly by a bunch of middle-aged white men who know little about how to sell the romance of the game to a football neophyte. Several times each week, you might see a player hit so hard that they lie on the ground motionless, or with their hands quivering, foreshadowing a lifetime of pain, memory loss, and depression brought on by irreversible brain damage. If you tried to pitch that show concept just on its structural merits you'd be laughed out of the room in Hollywood.

Cultural products must regenerate themselves for each successive age and generation or risk becoming like opera or the symphony is today. I had season tickets to the LA Phil when I lived in Los Angeles, and I brought a friend to the season opener one year. A reporter actually stopped us as we walked out to interview us about why we were there, so mysterious it was to see two attendees who weren't old enough to have been contemporaries of the composer of the music that night (Mahler).

Yes, football has been around for decades, but most of those were in an age of entertainment scarcity. During that time the NFL capitalized on being the only game in town on Sundays, capturing an audience that passed on the game and its liturgies to their children. Football resembles a religion or any other cultural social network; humans being a tribal creature, we find products that satisfy that need, and what are professional sports leagues but an alliance of clans who band together for the network effects of ritual tribal warfare?

Because of its long incubation in an era of low entertainment competition, the NFL built up massive distribution power and enormous financial coffers. That it is a cultural product transmitted by one generation to the next through multiple channels means it's not entirely fair to analyze it independent of its history; cultural products have some path dependence.

Nevertheless, even if you grant it all its tailwinds, I don't trust a bunch of rich old white male owners who grew up in such favorable monopolistic conditions to both understand and adapt in time to rescue the NFL from continued decline in cultural relevance. They are like tortoises who grew up in the Galapagos Islands, shielded on all sides from predators by the ocean, who one day see the moat dry up, connecting them all of a sudden to other continents where an infinite variety of fast-moving predators dwell. I'm not sure the average NFL owner could unlock an iPhone X, let alone understand the way its product moves through modern cultural highways.

Other major sports leagues are in the same boat though most aren't as oblivious as the NFL. The NBA has an open-minded commissioner in Adam Silver and some younger owners who made their money in technology and at least have one foot in modernity. As a sport, the NBA has some structural advantages over other sports (for example, player faces are visible rather than hidden under helmets), but the league also helps by allowing highlights of games to be clipped and shared on social media and by encouraging its players to cultivate more authentic public personas that act as additional narrative fodder for audiences.

I remember sitting in a meeting with some NFL representatives as they outlined a long list of their restrictions for how their televised games could be remixed and shared by fans on social media. Basically, they wanted almost none of it and would pursue take-downs through all the major social media companies.

Make no mistake, one possible successful strategy in this age of abundant media is to double down on scarcity. It's often the optimal strategy for extracting the maximum revenue from a motivated customer segment. Taylor Swift and other such unicorns can only release their albums on CD for a window to maximize financial return from her superfans before releasing the album on streaming services, straight from the old media windowing playbook.

However, you'd better be damn sure your product is unique and compelling to dial up that tactic because the far greater risk in the age of abundance is that you put up walls around your content and set up a bouncer at the door and no one shows up because there are dozens of free clubs all over town with no cover charge.

Sports have long had one massive advantage in production costs over scripted entertainment like TV and movies, and that is that their narrative engine is a random number generator (RNG). If you want to produce the next hot streaming series, you have to pay millions of dollars to showrunners and writers to generate some narrative.

In sports, the narrative is embedded in the rules of the game. Some players will compete, and someone will win. It's the same script replayed every night, but the RNG produces infinite variations that then spin off infinite variations of the same narratives for why a game turned out one way or the other, just as someone has to make up a story every day to explain why the stock market went up or down. At last check, RNG hadn't found representation with CAA or WME or UTA and thus its services remain free.

Unfortunately for major sports, this advantage is now a weakness as sports narrative is much more brittle than its entertainment counterparts. Narrative is a hedge against disaggregation and unbundling, and that is a critical moat in this age of social media and the internet.

One way to measure entertainment value on this dimension is to ask whether you can read a summary of a narrative and enjoy it almost as much as consuming the original narrative in its native medium. My classic test of this is for movies and TV shows. If you can enjoy a movie just as much by reading the Wikipedia plot summary as by watching it, or if you can enjoy a TV shows almost as much by reading a recap than by bingeing it on your sofa, then it wasn't really that great a movie or TV show to begin with.

Instead of watching the entire last season of Game of Thrones when it returns in 2019, I offer you the alternative of just reading textual recaps to your hearts content online. Is that as enticing an alternative as actually watching all six or seven episodes? You'll ingest all the plot details either way, but for the vast majority of fans this would be a gut-wrenching downgrade.

My other test of narrative value is a variant of the previous compression test. Can you enjoy something just as much by just watching a tiny fraction of the best moments? If so, the narrative is brittle. If you can watch just the last scene of a movie and get most or all the pleasure of watching the whole thing, the narrative didn't earn your company for the journey.

Much more of sports fails this second test than many sports fans realize. I can watch highlights of most games on ESPN or HouseofHighlights on Instagram and extract most of the entertainment marrow and cultural capital of knowing what happened without having to sit through three hours of mostly commercials and dead time. That a game can be unbundled so easily into individual plays and retain most of its value to me might be seen as a good thing in the age of social media, but it's not ideal for the sports leagues if those excerpts are mostly viewed outside paywalls.

This is the bind for major sports leagues. On the one hand, you can try to keep all your content inside the paywall. On the other hand, doing so probably means you continue hemorrhaging  cultural share. This is the eternal dilemma for all media companies in the age of infinite content.

Two nights ago, I watched a clip of multiple angles of Tua Tagovailoa ripping a laser beam of a pass to win the National Championship for Alabama. I didn't watch it live, or on ESPN. I watched it on HouseofHighlights on Instagram, where, instead of hearing some anchor on Sportscenter basically tell me what I can see with my own eyes, the video spins around after a moment to reveal the stunned face of the fan who just witnessed the pass live, reaction videos being a new sort of genre which allows a person in the video to act as the emoji reaction caption from within the video itself, speaking a visual language that most young people of this YouTube/Snapchat generation are already familiar with but which traditional media doesn't notice, let alone grok.

This disaggregation problem extends to ESPN, currently still the 400 pound gorilla in the sports media jungle (reminder, there are no 800 lb gorillas). The network suspended Jemele Hill for tweeting something negative about Trump, using the same playbook as the NFL, who threatened players with suspension for kneeling for the national anthem. Both believed these actions on the part of their talent were harming the value of their product.

The irony is that if both ESPN and the NFL had let these things play out naturally, I suspect at worst it would have been neutral, and at best it might have increased their ratings. For the NFL, the ties to modern movements for social justice might have kept the league and its games in the national conversation and made it tangentially relevant to the next generation. The most culturally relevant bit of Sportscenter today may just be the Sportscenter Top 10, as athletes who make a stunning play routinely tell reporters they are excited to see if they'll be featured on that evening's roundup of the top 10 plays.

Unfortunately, many athletes already see an appearance in HouseofHighlights as the social media alternative to appearing in the Sportscenter Top 10. If you follow top athletes on Instagram, you can see which of them favorite posts on HouseofHighlights. Lebron James routinely favorites posts, as do many other stars. Since many of those athletes follow each other on Instagram, that feature of Instagram produces common knowledge. It's not just that Donovan Mitchell knows that Lebron James favorited a HouseofHighlights clip of him dunking, it's that Mitchell knows that James knows that Mitchell knows and so on.

For ESPN, hewing to the idea that only highlights presented dispassionately or games broadcast respectfully are key to their value is a risky one. Not that they haven't generated a ton of wealth from doing so, and not that TV broadcast rights to major sports aren't still extremely valuable, but those are much more fixed commodities, available to the highest bidder, and ones whose value are close to their peaks, if not past them. This can't be a complete surprise within the four walls of their corporate offices given how much salary and air time they devote to blowhards like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless, but their hesitance to lean into cultivating more original voices will haunt them in the long run. The average caption on an Instagram clip of a major sports league highlight is about twice as likely to be fresh and contextually humorous to a young person than any amount of generic sportscaster hooey spouted on ESPN.

This vulnerability extends to their online presences. I still visit ESPN.com on the web and on my mobile devices to get my sports news roundup each day, but sometime in the past few years, the designs of all these presences shifted dramatically. Gone was a hierarchical layout with different sized headlines and groupings of stories. In its place is a long center gutter of updates from a variety of sports leagues, in modern news feed style.

One can see why they went this way, it made ESPN more current, allowing them to push the latest stories to the top of the page to compete with people getting more current updates from Twitter and other social media sites. For a smartphone, in particular, with its limited screen space, it's not easy to block content into multiple sections on one page.

However, the moment you copy someone else's design, you've shifted the terms of the debate in their favor. In a previous era, ESPN's visually distinct information hierarchy set itself up as the authority on what stories mattered. In the new design, what matters skews towards what's the last thing to happen. It's all flow.

To some extent, in our hyper-personalized world, the era of any media entity deciding what stories matter more than others was always going to decline from what might be seen now as a temporary heyday. I care more about Chicago sports teams and Stanford given my background, so having those elements given more prominence was a notable improvement in the site's newly personalized design. Still, what is lost is that sense of authority, that ESPN sets the terms of the debate. Humans remain a social animal, and we take cues about what matters from our each other, including our media entities. ESPN has ceded more and more of the work of determining our sports Schelling points to other entities.

While this may sound grim, the major sports, their respective leagues, and ESPN all have a fairly solid near term window. For one thing, sports is still the highest volume, highest popularity real-time entertainment. As such, it remains a linchpin of many entertainment packages including cable bundles, and so we'll see various media companies pouring money into it until it can't hold things together anymore. We may even see the prices bid even higher for some time as often happens for assets being milked for their last but fleeting window of cultural scarcity.

A second and less discussed factor is that most young tech CEO's don't know the first thing about sports. They, like a sizable part of Silicon Valley (the group that tweets #sportsball whenever Twitter is inundated with reactions to some notable sports event), grew up with other interests. Without that intuitive sense of sports' place in culture, they aren't as attuned to the opportunities in that category.

This provides the leagues opportunities to swindle the tech companies for a while longer, an example being the rights to stream Thursday Night Football, which a series of tech companies from Yahoo to Twitter to Amazon have (probably) overpaid for the last few seasons. As Patrick Stewart said in L.A. Story, "You think with a statement like this you can have the duck?!" The chef says, "He can have the chicken!" Thursday Night Football is zee chicken of the NFL broadcast portfolio, but the restaurant is still called L'Idiot.

This happened for tech companies when they tried to add film and television to their portfolio, too. They routinely paid fortunes for the rights to back seasons of shows that are no longer relevant anymore. When I was at Hulu, I could only shake my head when I heard the asking price for all the back seasons of Seinfeld. Years later, long after I'd left, Hulu paid multiples of that. The cultural decay curve for content in this age of abundance is accelerating by the day, and there is no equivalent of botox to ward it off.

Given market feedback, however, such temporary arbitrage never lasts long. The days of the NFL strong-arming its partners to overpay for the most meager of rights are coming to an end. The thing about setting up a moat around your content is that the moment your cultural value crosses its peak, the moat becomes a set of prison bars. The flywheel loop can turn just as furiously counter-clockwise as clockwise.

And one of these days, a tech company will look at ESPN's homepage and notice how much it looks like their own. If they just put a bit more structure around it, could they satisfy that sports itch for their captive audience which already check in with them multiple times a day?

It seems implausible today, but look at what happened in film and television. For the longest time, so many tech companies were guilty of exactly what Hollywood accused them of, not understanding how film and television is made and marketed, how that industry creates demand for its product. Like all engineering led-cultures, Silicon Valley suspected Hollywood of not being data-driven enough, and many suspected that upstream process failures were responsible for failed releases. Half a film's budget is spent on prints and marketing? What a waste! (Engineers despise marketing.)

Forget that most of these people in tech had never been on a film set, or sat inside a writer's room, or seen the volumes of market research done before any film's release. It's all just content, let's just crowd source some alternatives. Or, if we produce some premium content, what's needed is earlier crowd-sourced feedback. Hundreds of millions of dollars were wasted before Silicon Valley realized they didn't know what they were doing.

Fortunately, all it cost them was some money and some time, something most of the incumbents have a surplus of. Now they write checks to creatives in Hollywood and leave them alone to do what they do very well already. Machine learning improves with data even when the algorithms are off, and so do most tech companies.

I am a lifelong lover of media in all its forms, and sports in particular was central to how I assimilated into America. It has long served as cultural connective tissue between me and friends, family, and strangers. But if I had an easy way to short all the major sports leagues over the next decade, I would. Nostalgia serves many purposes, but its most dangerous one is wrapping us in a memory of a time when we were still relevant.

10 more browser tabs

Still trying to clear out browser tabs, though it's going about as well as my brief flirtation with inbox zero. At some point, I just decided inbox zero was a waste of time, solving a problem that didn't exist, but browser tab proliferation is a problem I'm much more complicit in.

1. Why the coming-of-age narrative is a conformist lie

From a more sociological perspective, the American self-creation myth is, inherently, a capitalist one. The French philosopher Michel Foucault theorised that meditating and journalling could help to bring a person inside herself by allowing her, at least temporarily, to escape the world and her relationship to it. But the sociologist Paul du Gay, writing on this subject in 1996, argued that few people treat the self as Foucault proposed. Most people, he said, craft outward-looking ‘enterprising selves’ by which they set out to acquire cultural capital in order to move upwards in the world, gain access to certain social circles, certain jobs, and so on. We decorate ourselves and cultivate interests that reflect our social aspirations. In this way, the self becomes the ultimate capitalist machine, a Pierre Bourdieu-esque nightmare that willingly exploits itself.
 
‘Growing up’ as it is defined today – that is, as entering society, once and for all – might work against what is morally justifiable. If you are a part of a flawed, immoral and unjust society (as one could argue we all are) then to truly mature is to see this as a problem and to act on it – not to reaffirm it by becoming a part of it. Classically, most coming-of-age tales follow white, male protagonists because their integration into society is expected and largely unproblematic. Social integration for racial, sexual and gender minorities is a more difficult process, not least because minorities define themselves against the norm: they don’t ‘find themselves’ and integrate into the social context in which they live. A traditional coming-of-age story featuring a queer, black girl will fail on its own terms; for how would her discovering her identity allow her to enter a society that insists on marginalising identities like hers? This might seem obvious, but it very starkly underscores the folly of insisting on seeing social integration as the young person’s top priority. Life is a wave of events. As such, you don’t come of age; you just age. Adulthood, if one must define it, is only a function of time, in which case, to come of age is merely to live long enough to do so.
 

I've written about this before, but almost always, the worst type of film festival movie is about a young white male protagonist coming of age. Often he's quiet, introverted, but he has a sensitive soul. As my first year film school professor said, these protagonists are inert, but they just "feel things." Think Wes Bentley in American Beauty filming a plastic bag dancing in the wind for fifteen minutes with a camcorder, then showing it to a girl as if it's Citizen Kane.

If they have any scars or wounds, they are compensated for with extreme gifts. Think Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver; cursed with tinnitus since childhood, he listens to music on a retro iPod (let's squeeze some nostalgic product placement in here, what the hell, we're also going to give him a deaf black foster father to stack the moral cards in his favor, might as well go all the way) and is, that's right, the best getaway driver in the business.

Despite having about as much personality as a damp elephant turd, their beautiful souls are both recognized and extracted by a trope which this genre of film invented just for this purpose, the manic pixie dream girl.

[Nathan Rabin, who invented the term manic pixie dream girl, has since disavowed the term as sometimes misogynist, and it can be applied too broadly like a hammer seeking nails, but it doesn't undo the reality that largely white male writing blocs, from guilds to writer's rooms, aren't great at writing women or people of color with deep inner lives.]

This is tangential to the broader point, that the coming-of-age story as a genre is, in and of itself, a lie. It reminds me of the distinction between Finite and Infinite Games, the classic book from James Carse. The Hollywood film has always promised a finite game, and thus it's a story that must have an ending. Coming-of-age is an infinite game, or at least until death, and so we should all be skeptical of its close-ended narrative.

(h/t Michael Dempsey)

2. Finite and Infinite Games and The Confederate

This isn't a browser tab, really, but while I'm on the topic of Carse's Finite and Infinite Games, a book which provides a framework with which so much of the world can be bifurcated, and while I'm thinking about the white male dominated Hollywood profession, I can't help but think of the TV project The Confederate, by the showrunners of Game of Thrones.

"White people” is seen by many whites as a pejorative because it lowers them to a racial class whereas before they were simply the default. They are not accustomed to having spent their entire lives being named in almost every piece of culture as a race, the way women, people of color, and the union of the two are, every single day, by society and culture.

All Lives Matter retort to Black Lives Matter is to pretend that we're all playing the same finite game when almost everyone who are losers in that game know it is not true. Blacks do not feel like they “won” the Civil War; every day today they live with the consequences and the shadow of America's founding racism, every day they continue to play a game that is rigged against them. That is why Ta Nehisi Coates writes that the question of The Confederate is a lie, and that only the victors of this finite game of America would want to relitigate the Civil War in some Alt History television show for HBO. It's as if a New England Patriot fan asked an Atlanta Falcons fan to watch last year's Super Bowl again, with Armie Hammer playing Tom Brady.

“Give us your poor, your huddled” is a promise that the United States is an infinite game, an experiment that struggles constantly towards bettering itself, evening the playing field, such that even someone starting poor and huddled might one day make a better life and escape their beginning state. That is why Stephen Miller and other white nationalists spitting on that inscription on the Statue of Liberty is so offensive, so dangerous.

On society, Carse writes:

The prizes won by its citizens can be protected only if the society as a whole remains powerful in relation to other societies. Those who desire the permanence of their prizes will work to sustain the permanence of the whole. Patriotism in one or several of its many forms (chauvinism, racism, sexism, nationalism, regionalism) is an ingredient in all societal play. 
 
Because power is inherently patriotic, is is characteristic of finite players to seek a growth of power in a society as a way of increasing the power of a society.
 

Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem is seen as unpatriotic by many in America, including the wealthy white owners of such teams, which is not surprising, as racism is a form of patriotism, per Carse, and part and parcel of American society when defined as a finite game.

Donald Trump and his large adult sons are proof of just how powerful the inheritance of title and money are in America, and the irony that they are elected by those who feel that successive rounds of finite games have started to be rigged against them is not lost on anyone, not even, I suspect, them. One could argue they need to take a lesson from those oppressed for far longer as to how a turn to nihilism works out in such situations.

Those attacking Affirmative Action want to close off the American experiment and turn it into a series of supposedly level finite games because they have accumulated a healthy lead in this game and wish to preserve it in every form.

White nationalists like Trump all treat America as not just a finite game, but a zero sum finite game. The idea of immigrants being additive to America, to its potential, its output, is to treat America as an infinite game, open-ended. The truth lies, as usual, between the poles, but closer to the latter.

Beware the prophet who comes with stories of zero-sum games, or as Jim Collins once wrote, beware the "tyranny of the or." One of my definitions of leadership is the ability to turn zero-sum into positive sum games.

3. Curb Your Enthusiasm is Running Out of People to Offend

Speaking of fatigue with white male protagonists:

But if Larry David’s casual cruelty mirrors the times more than ever, the show might still fit awkwardly in the current moment. Watching the première of Season 9 on Sunday night, I kept thinking of a popular line from George Costanza, David’s avatar on “Seinfeld”: “You know, we’re living in a society!” Larry, in this first episode of the season, seems to have abandoned society altogether. In the opening shot, the camera sails over a tony swath of L.A., with no people and only a few cars visible amid the manicured lawns and terra-cotta roofs. It descends on Larry’s palatial, ivy-walled house, where he showers alone, singing Mary Poppins’s “A Spoonful of Sugar” and bludgeoning a bottle of soap. (Its dispenser pump is broken—grounds for execution under the David regime.) He’s the master of his domain, yes, but only by default: no one else is around.
 
“Curb” has always felt insulated, and a lot of its best jokes are borne of the fact that Larry’s immense wealth has warped his world view over the years. (On the most recent season he had no compunction about spending a princely sum on Girl Scout Cookies, only to rescind the order out of spite.) But the beginning of Season 9 offers new degrees of isolation. Like a tech bro ensconced in a hoodie and headphones, Larry seems to have removed himself almost entirely from public life. Both “Curb” and “Seinfeld” like to press the limits of etiquette and social mores, but the latter often tested these on subway cars and buses, in parks or on the street. Much of “Curb,” by contrast, unfolds in a faceless Los Angeles of air-conditioned mansions, organic restaurants, and schmoozy fund-raisers, a long chain of private spaces. The only time Larry encounters a true stranger, it’s in the liminal zone between his car and the lobby of Jeff’s office. She’s a barber on her way to see Jeff at work—even haircuts happen behind closed doors now.
 

Groundhog Day, one of the great movies, perhaps my favorite Christmas movie of all time, has long been regarded a great Buddhist parable

Groundhog Day is a movie about a bad-enough man—selfish, vain, and insecure—who becomes wise and good through timeless recurrence.
 

If that is so, then Curb Your Enthusiasm is its dark doppelganger, a parable about the dark secret at the heart of American society, that no person, no matter how selfish, vain, and petty, can suffer the downfall necessary to achieve enlightenment, if he is white and a man. 

In this case, he is a successful white man in Hollywood, Larry David, and each episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm is his own personal Groundhog Day. Whereas Bill Murray wakes up each morning to Sonny and Cher, trapped in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, around small town people he dislikes, in a job he feels superior to, Larry David wakes up each morning in his Los Angeles mansion, with rewards seemingly only proportionate to the depths of his pettiness and ill humor. Every episode, he treats all the friends and family around him with little disguised disdain, and yet the next episode, he wakes up in the mansion again.

Whereas Bill Murray eventually realizes the way to break out of his loop is to use it for self-improvement, Larry David seems to be striving to fall from grace by acting increasingly terrible and yet finds himself back in the gentle embrace of his high thread count sheets every morning.

Curb Your Enthusiasm has its moments of brilliance in its minute dissection of the sometimes illogical and perhaps fragile bonds of societal goodwill, and its episode structure is often exceedingly clever, but I can't help watching it now as nothing more than an acerbic piece of performance art, with all the self absorption that implies.

Larry David recently complained about the concept of first world problems, which is humorous, as it's difficult to think of any single person who has done as precise a job educating the world on what they are.

[What about Harvey Weinstein and Louis C.K., you might ask? Aren't they Hollywood royalty toppled from lofty, seemingly untouchable perches? The story of how those happened will be the subject of another post, because the mechanics are so illuminating.]

4. Nathan for You

I am through season 2 of Nathan for You, a Comedy Central show that just wrapped its fourth and final season. We have devalued the term LOL with overuse, but no show has made me literally laugh out loud by myself, on the sofa, as this, though I've grinned in pleasure at certain precise bits of stylistic parody of American Vandal.

Nathan Fielder plays a comedic version of himself. In the opening credits, he proclaims:

My name is Nathan Fielder, and I graduated from one of Canada's top business schools with really good grades [NOTE: as he says this, we see a pan over his transcript, showing largely B's and C's]. Now I'm using my knowledge to help struggling small business owners make it in this competitive world.
 

If you cringed while watching a show like Borat or Ali G, if you wince a bit when one of the correspondents on The Daily Show went to interview some stooge, you might believe Nathan For You isn't, well, for you. However, the show continues to surprise me.

For one thing, it's a deeply useful reminder of how difficult it is for physical retailers, especially mom and pop entrepreneurs, to generate foot traffic. That they go along with Fielder's schemes is almost tragic, but more instructive.

For another, while almost every entrepreneur is the straight person to Fielder's clown, I find myself heartened by how rarely one of them just turns him away outright. You can see the struggle on each of their faces, as he presents his idea and then stares at them for an uncomfortably long silence, waiting for them to respond. He never breaks character. Should they just laugh at him, or throw him out in disgust? It almost never happens, though one private investigator does chastise Fielder for being a complete loser.

On Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David's friends openly call him out for his misanthropy, yet they never abandon him. On Nathan For You, small business owners almost never adopt Fielder's ideas at the end of the trial. However, they almost never call him out as ridiculous. Instead, they try the idea with a healthy dose of good nature at least once, or at least enough to capture an episode's worth of material.

In this age of people screaming at each other over social media, I found this reminder of the inherent decency of people in face to face situations comforting and almost reassuring. Sure, some people are unpleasant both online and in person, and some people are pleasant in person and white supremacists in private.

But some people try to see the best in each other, give others the benefit of the doubt, and on such bonds a civil society are maintained. That this piece of high concept art could not fence in the humanity and real emotion of all the people participating, not even that of Fielder, is a bit of pleasure in this age of eye-rolling cynicism.

[Of course, these small business owners are aware a camera is on them, so the Heisenberg Principle of reality television applies. That a show like this, which depend on the subjects not knowing about the show, lasted four full seasons is a good reminder of how little-watched most cultural products are in this age of infinite content.]

BONUS CONTENT NO ONE ASKED FOR: Here is my Nathan for You idea: you know how headline stand-up comedians don't come on stage to perform until several lesser known and usually much lousier comics are trotted out to warm up the crowd? How, if you attend the live studio taping of a late night talk show like The Daily Show or The Tonight Show, some cheesy comic comes out beforehand to get your laugh muscles loose, your vocal chords primed? And when the headliner finally arrives, it comes as sweet relief?

What if there were an online dating service that provided such a warm-up buffoon for you? That is, when you go on a date, before meeting your date, first the service sends in a stand-in who is dull, awkward, a turn off in every way possible? But a few minutes into what seems to be a disastrous date, you suddenly show up and rescue the proceedings?

It sounds ridiculous, but this is just the sort of idea that Nathan for You would seem to go for. I haven't watched seasons 3 and 4 yet, so if he does end up trying this idea in one of those later episodes, please don't spoil it for me. I won't even be mad that my idea was not an original one, I'll be so happy to see actual footage of it in the field.

5. The aspect ratio of 2:00 to 1 is everywhere

I first read the case for 2:00 to 1 as an aspect ratio when legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro advocated for it several years ago. He anticipated a world where most movies would have a longer life viewed on screens at home than in movie theaters, and 2:00 to 1, or Univisium, is halfway between the typical 16:9 HDTV aspect ratio and Panavision, or 2:35 to 1.

So many movies and shows use 2:00 to 1 now, and I really prefer it to 16:9 for most work.

6. Tuning AIs through captchas

Most everyone has probably encountered the new popular captcha which displays a grid of photos and asks you to identify which contain a photo of a store front. I just experienced it recently signing up for HQTrivia. This breed of captcha succeeds the wave of captchas that showed photos of short strings of text or numbers and asked you to type in what you saw, helping to train AIs trying to learn to read them. There are variants of the store front captcha: some ask you to identify vehicles, others to identify street signs, but the speculation is that Google uses these to train the "vision" of its self-driving cars.

AI feels like magic when it works, but underrated is the slow slog to take many AI's from stupid to competent. It's no different than training a human. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to being presented with the captcha that shows two photos, one of a really obese man, the other of five school children, with this question above them: "If you had to run over and kill the people in one of these photos, which would you choose?"

7. It's Mikaela Shiffrin profile season, with this one in Outside and this in the New Yorker

I read Elizabeth Weil's profile of Shiffrin in Outside first:

But the naps: Mikaela not only loves them, she’s fiercely committed to them. Recovery is the most important part of training! And sleep is the most important part of recovery! And to be a champion, you need a steadfast loyalty to even the tiniest and most mundane points. Mikaela will nap on the side of the hill. She will nap at the start of the race. She will wake up in the morning, she tells me after the gym, at her house, while eating some pre-nap pasta, “and the first thought I’ll have is: I cannot wait for my nap today. I don’t care what else happens. I can’t wait to get back in bed.”
 
Mikaela also will not stay up late, and sometimes she won’t do things in the after­noon, and occasionally this leads to more people flipping out. Most of the time, she trains apart from the rest of the U.S. Ski Team and lives at home with her parents in Vail (during the nine weeks a year she’s not traveling). In the summers, she spends a few weeks in Park City, Utah, training with her teammates at the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Center of Excellence. The dynamic there is, uh, complicated. “Some sports,” Mikaela says, “you see some athletes just walking around the gym, not really doing anything, eating food. They’re first to the lunchroom, never lifting weights.”
 

By chance, I happened to be reading The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills by Daniel Coyle, and had just read tips that sounded very familiar to what was mentioned here.

More echoes of Coyle's book in The New Yorker profile:

My presumption was that her excellence was innate. One sometimes thinks of prodigies as embodiments of peculiar genius, uncorrupted by convention, impossible to replicate or reëngineer. But this is not the case with Shiffrin. She’s as stark an example of nurture over nature, of work over talent, as anyone in the world of sports. Her parents committed early on to an incremental process, and clung stubbornly to it. And so Shiffrin became something besides a World Cup hot shot and a quadrennial idol. She became a case study. Most parents, unwittingly or not, present their way of raising kids as the best way, even when the results are mixed, as such results usually are. The Shiffrins are not shy about projecting their example onto the world, but it’s hard to argue with their findings. “The kids with raw athletic talent rarely make it,” Jeff Shiffrin, Mikaela’s father, told me. “What was it Churchill said? Kites fly higher against a headwind.”
 

So it wasn't a real surprise to finally read this:

The Shiffrins were disciples of the ten-thousand-hours concept; the 2009 Daniel Coyle book “The Talent Code” was scripture. They studied the training methods of the Austrians, Alpine skiing’s priesthood. The Shiffrins wanted to wring as much training as possible out of every minute of the day and every vertical foot of the course. They favored deliberate practice over competition. They considered race days an onerous waste: all the travel, the waiting around, and the emotional stress for two quick runs. They insisted that Shiffrin practice honing her turns even when just skiing from the bottom of the racecourse to the chairlift. Most racers bomb straight down, their nonchalance a badge of honor.
 

Coyle's book, which I love for its succinct style (it could almost be a tweetstorm if Twitter had slightly longer character limits, each tip is averages one or two paragraphs long), is the books I recommend to all parents who want their kids to be really great at something, and not just sports.

Much of the book is about the importance of practice, and what types of practice are particularly efficient and effective.

Jeff Shiffrin said, “One of the things I learned from the Austrians is: every turn you make, do it right. Don’t get lazy, don’t goof off. Don’t waste any time. If you do, you’ll be retired from racing by the time you get to ten thousand hours.”
 
“Here’s the thing,” Mikaela told me one day. “You can’t get ten thousand hours of skiing. You spend so much time on the chairlift. My coach did a calculation of how many hours I’ve been on snow. We’d been overestimating. I think we came up with something like eleven total hours of skiing on snow a year. It’s like seven minutes a day. Still, at the age of twenty-two, I’ve probably had more time on snow than most. I always practice, even on the cat tracks or in those interstitial periods. My dad says, ‘Even when you’re just stopping, be sure to do it right, maintaining a good position, with counter-rotational force.’ These are the kinds of things my dad says, and I’m, like, ‘Shut up.’ But if you say it’s seven minutes a day, then consider that thirty seconds that all the others spend just straight-lining from the bottom of the racecourse to the bottom of the lift: I use that part to work on my turns. I’m getting extra minutes. If I don’t, my mom or my coaches will stop me and say something.”
 

Bill Simmons recently hosted Steve Kerr for a mailbag podcast, and part I is fun to hear Kerr tell stories about Michael Jordan. Like so many greats, Jordan understood that the contest is won in the sweat leading up to the contest, and his legendary competitiveness elevated every practice and scrimmage into gladiatorial combat. As Kerr noted, Jordan single-handedly was a cure for complacency for the Bulls. 

He famously broke down some teammates with such intensity in practice that they were driven from the league entirely (remember Rodney McCray?). Everyone knows he once punched Steve Kerr and left him with a shiner during a heated practice. The Dream Team scrimmage during the lead in to the 1992 Olympics, in which the coaches made Michael Jordan one captain, Magic Johnson the other, is perhaps the single sporting event I most wish had taken place in the age of smartphones and social media.

What struck me about the Shiffrin profiles, something Coyle notes about the greats, is how many of the lives of the great ones are unusually solitary, spent in deliberate practice on their own, apart from teammates. It's obviously amplified for individual sports like tennis and skiing and golf, but even for team sports, the great ones have their own routines. Not only is it lonely at the top, it's often lonely on the way there.

8. The secret tricks hidden inside restaurant menus

Perhaps because I live in the Bay Area, it feels as if the current obsession is with the dark design patterns and effects of social apps. But in the scheme of things, many other fields whose work we interact with daily have many more years of experience designing to human nature. In many ways, people designing social media have a very naive and incomplete view of human nature, but the power of the distribution of ubiquitous smartphone and network effects have elevated them to the forefront of the conversation.

Take a place like Las Vegas. Its entire existence is testament to the fact that the house always wins, yet it could not exist if it could not convince the next sucker to sit down at the table and see the next hand. The decades of research into how best to part a sucker from his wallet makes the volume of research among social media companies look like a joke, even if the latter isn't trivial.

I have a sense that social media companies are similar to where restaurants are with menu design. Every time I sit down at a new restaurant, I love examining the menus and puzzling over all the choices with fellow diners, as if having to sit with me over a meal isn't punishment enough. When the waiter comes and I ask for an overview of the menu, and recommendations, I'm wondering what dishes the entire experience is meant to nudge me to order.

I'm awaiting the advent of digital and eventually holographic or A/R menus to see what experiments we'll see. When will we have menus that are personalized? Based on what you've enjoyed here and other restaurants, we think you'll love this dish. When will we see menus that use algorithmic sorting—these are the most ordered dishes all-time, this week, today? People who ordered this also ordered this? When will see editorial endorsements? "Pete Wells said of this dish in his NYTimes review..."

Not all movies are worth deep study because not all movies are directed with intent. The same applies to menus, but today, enough menus are put through a deliberate design process that it's usually a worthwhile exercise to put them under the magnifying glass. I would love to read some blog that just analyzes various restaurant menus, so if someone starts one, please let me know.

9. Threat of bots and cheating looms as HQ Trivia reaches new popularity heights

When I first checked out HQ Trivia, an iOS live video streaming trivia competition for cash prizes, the number of concurrent viewers playing, displayed on the upper left of the screen, numbered in the hundreds. Now the most popular of games, which occur twice a day, attract over 250K players. In this age where we've seen empires built on exploiting the efficiencies to be gained from shifting so much of social intimacy to asynchronous channels, it's fun to be reminded of the unique fun of synchronous entertainment.

What intrigues me is not how HQ Trivia will make money. The free-to-play game industry is one of the most savvy when it comes to extracting revenue, and even something like podcasts points the way to monetizing popular media with sponsorships, product placement, etc.

What's far more interesting is where the shoulder on the S-curve is. Trivia is a game of skill, and with that comes two longstanding issues. I've answered, at most, 9 questions in a row, and it takes 12 consecutive right answers to win a share of the cash pot. I'm like most people in probably never being able to win any cash.

This is an issue faced by Daily Fantasy Sports, where the word "fantasy" is the most important word. Very soon after they became popular, DFS were overrun by sharks submitting hundreds or thousands of lineups with the aid of computer programs, and some of those sharks worked for the companies themselves. The "fantasy" being sold is that the average person has a chance of winning.

As noted above in my comment about Las Vegas, it's not impossible to sell people on that dream. The most beautiful of cons is one the mark willingly participates in. People participate in negative expected value activities all the time, like the lottery, and carnival games, and often they're aware they'll lose. Some people just participate for the fun of it, and a free-to-play trivia game costs a player nothing other than some time, even if the expected value is close to zero.

A few people have asked me whether that live player count is real, and I'm actually more intrigued by the idea it isn't. Fake it til you make it is one of the most popular refrains of not just Silicon Valley but entrepreneurs everywhere. What if HQ Trivia just posted a phony live player count of 1 million tomorrow? Would their growth accelerate even more than it has recently? What about 10 million? When does the marginal return to every additional player in that count go negative because people feel that there is so much competition it's not worth it? Or is the promise of possibly winning money besides the point? What if the pot scaled commensurate to the number of players; would it become like the lottery? Massive pots but long odds?

The other problem, linked to the element of skill, is cheating. As noted in the article linked above, and in this piece about the spike in Google searches for answers during each of the twice-a-day games, cheating is always a concern in games, especially as the monetary rewards increase. I played the first game when HQ Trivia had a $7,500 cash pot, and the winners each pocketed something like $575 and change. Not a bad payout for something like 10 minutes of fun.

Online poker, daily fantasy sports, all are in constant battle with bots and computer-generated entries. Even sports books at casinos have to wage battle with sharks who try to get around betting caps by sending in all sorts of confederates to put down wagers on their behalf.

I suspect both of these issues will be dampeners on the game's prospects, but more so the issue of skill. I already find myself passing on games when I'm not with others who also play or who I can rope into playing with me. That may be the game's real value, inspiring communal bonding twice a day among people in the same room.

People like to quip that pornography is the tip of the spear when it comes to driving adoption of new technologies, but I'm partial to trivia. It is so elemental and pure a game, with such comically self-explanatory rules, that it is one of the elemental forms or genres of gaming, just like HQ Trivia host Scott Rogowsky is some paragon of a game-show host, mixing just the right balance of cheesiness and snarkiness and effusiveness needed to convince all the players that any additional irony would be unseemly.

10. Raising a teenage daughter

Speaking of Elizabeth Weil, who wrote the Shiffrin profile for Outside, here's another of her pieces, a profile of her daughter Hannah. The twist is that the piece includes annotations by Hannah after the fact.

It is a delight. The form is perfect for revealing the dimensions of their relationship, and that of mothers and teenage daughters everywhere. In the interplay of their words, we sense truer contours of their love, shaped, as they are, by two sets of hands.

[Note, Esquire has long published annotated profiles, you can Google for them, but they are now all locked behind a paywall]

This format makes me question how many more profiles would benefit from allowing the subject of a piece to annotate after the fact. It reveals so much about the limitations of understanding between two people, the unwitting and witting lies at the heart of journalism, and what Janet Malcolm meant, when she wrote, in the classic opening paragraph of her book The Journalist and the Murderer, "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

10 browser tabs

1. Love in the Time of Robots

“Is it difficult to play with her?” the father asks. His daughter looks to him, then back at the android. Its mouth begins to open and close slightly, like a dying fish. He laughs. “Is she eating something?”
 
The girl does not respond. She is patient and obedient and listens closely. But something inside is telling her to resist. 
 
“Do you feel strange?” her father asks. Even he must admit that the robot is not entirely believable.
 
Eventually, after a few long minutes, the girl’s breathing grows heavier, and she announces, “I am so tired.” Then she bursts into tears.
 
That night, in a house in the suburbs, her father uploads the footage to his laptop for posterity. His name is Hiroshi Ishi­guro, and he believes this is the first record of a modern-day android.
 

Reads like the treatment for a science fiction film, some mashup of Frankenstein, Pygmalion, and Narcissus. One incredible moment after another, and I'll grab just a few excerpts, but the whole thing is worth reading.

But he now wants something more. Twice he has witnessed others have the opportunity, however confusing, to encounter their robot self, and he covets that experience. Besides, his daughter was too young, and the newscaster, though an adult, was, in his words, merely an “ordinary” person: Neither was able to analyze their android encounter like a trained scientist. A true researcher should have his own double. Flashing back to his previous life as a painter, Ishi­guro thinks: This will be another form of self-portrait. He gives the project his initials: Geminoid HI. His mechanical twin.
 

Warren Ellis, in a recent commencement speech delivered at the University of Essex, said:

Nobody predicted how weird it’s gotten out here.  And I’m a science fiction writer telling you that.  And the other science fiction writers feel the same.  I know some people who specialized in near-future science fiction who’ve just thrown their hands up and gone off to write stories about dragons because nobody can keep up with how quickly everything’s going insane.  It’s always going to feel like being thrown in the deep end, but it’s not always this deep, and I’m sorry for that.
 

The thing is, far future sci-fi is likely to be even more off base now given how humans are evolving in lock step with the technology around them. So we need more near future sci-fi, of a variety smarter than Black Mirror, to grapple with the implications.

Soon his students begin comparing him to the Geminoid—“Oh, professor, you are getting old,” they tease—and Ishi­guro finds little humor in it. A few years later, at 46, he has another cast of his face made, to reflect his aging, producing a second version of HI. But to repeat this process every few years would be costly and hard on his vanity. Instead, Ishi­guro embraces the logi­cal alternative: to alter his human form to match that of his copy. He opts for a range of cosmetic procedures—laser treatments and the injection of his own blood cells into his face. He also begins watching his diet and lifting weights; he loses about 20 pounds. “I decided not to get old anymore,” says Ishi­guro, whose English is excellent but syntactically imperfect. “Always I am getting younger.”
 
Remaining twinned with his creation has become a compulsion. “Android has my identity,” he says. “I need to be identical with my android, otherwise I’m going to lose my identity.” I think back to another photo of his first double’s construction: Its robot skull, exposed, is a sickly yellow plastic shell with openings for glassy teeth and eyeballs. When I ask what he was thinking as he watched this replica of his own head being assembled, Ishi­guro says, perhaps only half-joking, “I thought I might have this kind of skull if I removed my face.”
 
Now he points at me. “Why are you coming here? Because I have created my copy. The work is important; android is important. But you are not interested in myself.”
 

This should be some science fiction film, only I'm not sure who our great science fiction director is. The best examples may be too old to want to look upon such a story as anything other than grotesque and horrific.

2. Something is wrong on the internet by James Bridle

Of course, some of what's on the internet really is grotesque and horrific. 

Someone or something or some combination of people and things is using YouTube to systematically frighten, traumatise, and abuse children, automatically and at scale, and it forces me to question my own beliefs about the internet, at every level. 
 

Given how much my nieces love watching product unwrapping and Peppa the Pig videos on YouTube, this story was induced a sense of dread I haven't felt since the last good horror film I watched, which I can't remember anymore since the world has run a DDOS on my emotions.

We often think of a market operating at peak efficiency as sending information back and forth between supply and demand, allowing the creation of goods that satisfy both parties. In the tech industry, the wink-wink version of that is saying that pornography leads the market for any new technology, solving, as it does, the two problems the internet is said to solve better, at scale, than any medium before it: loneliness and boredom.

Bridle's piece, however, finds the dark cul-de-sacs and infected runaway processes which have branched out from the massive marketplace that is YouTube. I decided to follow a Peppa the Pig video on the service and started tapping on Related Videos, like I imagine one of my nieces doing, and quickly wandered into a dark alleyway where I saw some video which I would not want any of them watching. As Bridle did, I won't link to what I found; suffice to say it won't take you long to stumble on some of it if you want, or perhaps even if you don't.

What's particularly disturbing is the somewhat bizarre, inexplicably grotesque nature of some of these video remixes. David Cronenberg is known for his body horror films; these YouTube videos are like some perverse variant of that, playing with popular children's iconography.

Facebook and now Twitter are taking heat for disseminating fake news, and that is certainly a problem worth debating, but with that problem we're talking about adults. Children don't have the capacity to comprehend what they're seeing, and given my belief in the greater effect of sight, sound, and motion, I am even more disturbed by this phenomenon.

A system where it's free to host videos to a global audience, where this type of trademark infringement weaponizes brand signifiers with seeming impunity, married with increasingly scalable content production and remixes using technology, allows for the type of scalable problem we haven't seen before.

The internet has enabled all types of wonderful things at scale; we should not be surprised that it would foster the opposite. But we can, and should, be shocked.

3. FDA approves first blood sugar monitor without finger pricks

This is exciting. One view which seems to be common wisdom these days when it comes to health is that it's easier to lose weight and impact your health through diet than exercise. But one of the problems of the feedback loop in diet (and exercise, actually) is how slow it is. You sneak a few snacks here and there walking by the company cafeteria every day, and a month later you hop on the scale and emit a bloodcurdling scream as you realize you've gained 8 pounds.

A friend of mine had gestational diabetes during one of her pregnancies and got a home blood glucose monitor. You had to prick your finger and draw blood to get your blood glucose reading, but curious, I tried it before and after a BBQ.

To see what various foods did to my blood sugar in near real-time was a real eye-opener. Imagine in the future when one could see what a few french fries and gummy bears did to your blood sugar, or when the reading could be built into something like an Apple Watch, without having to draw blood each time. I don't mind the sight of blood, but I'd prefer not to turn my finger tips into war zones.

Faster feedback might transform dieting into something more akin to deliberate practice. Given that another popular theory of obesity is that it's an insulin phenomenon, tools like this, built for diabetes, might have much mass market impact.

4.  Ingestable ketones

Ingestable ketones have been a recent sort of holy grail for endurance athletes, and now HVMN is bringing one to market. Ketogenic diets are all the rage right now, but for an endurance athlete, the process of being able to fuel oneself on ketones has always sounded like a long and miserable process.

The body generates ketones from fat when low on carbs or from fasting. The theory is that endurance athletes using ketones rather than glycogen from carbs require less oxygen and thus can work out longer.

I first heard about the possibility of exogenous ketones for athletes from Peter Attia. As he said then, perhaps the hardest thing about ingesting exogenous ketones is the horrible taste, which caused him to gag and nearly vomit in his kitchen. It doesn't sound like the taste problem has been solved.

Until we get the pill that renders exercise obsolete, however, I'm curious to give this a try. If you decide to pre-order, you can use my referral code to get $15 off.

5. We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance

By comparison, the potential improvements achievable by doping effort are relatively modest. In weightlifting, for example, Mike Israetel, a professor of exercise science at Temple University, has estimated that doping increases weightlifting scores by about 5 to 10 percent. Compare that to the progression in world record bench press weights: 361 pounds in 1898, 363 pounds in 1916, 500 pounds in 1953, 600 pounds in 1967, 667 pounds in 1984, and 730 pounds in 2015. Doping is enough to win any given competition, but it does not stand up against the long-term trend of improving performance that is driven, in part, by genetic outliers. As the population base of weightlifting competitors has increased, outliers further and further out on the tail of the distribution have appeared, driving up world records.
 
Similarly, Lance Armstrong’s drug-fuelled victory of the 1999 Tour de France gave him a margin of victory over second-place finisher Alex Zulle of 7 minutes, 37 seconds, or about 0.1 percent.3 That pales in comparison to the dramatic secular increase in speeds the Tour has seen over the past half century: Eddy Merckx won the 1971 tour, which was about the same distance as the 1999 tour, in a time 5 percent worse than Zulle’s. Certainly, some of this improvement is due to training methods and better equipment. But much of it is simply due to the sport’s ability to find competitors of ever more exceptional natural ability, further and further out along the tail of what’s possible.
 

In the Olympics, to take the most celebrated athletic competition, victors are celebrated with videos showing them swimming laps, tossing logs in a Siberian tundra, running through a Kenyan desert. We celebrate the work, the training. Good genes are given narrative short shrift. Perhaps we should show a picture of their DNA, just to give credit where much credit is due?

If I live a normal human lifespan, I expect to live to see special sports leagues and divisions created for athletes who've undergone genetic modification in the future. It will be the return of the freak show at the circus, but this time for real. I've sat courtside and seen people like Lebron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, and Joel Embiid walk by me. They are freaks, but genetic engineering might produce someone who stretch our definition of outlier.

In other words, it is highly unlikely that we have come anywhere close to maximum performance among all the 100 billion humans who have ever lived. (A completely random search process might require the production of something like a googol different individuals!)
 
But we should be able to accelerate this search greatly through engineering. After all, the agricultural breeding of animals like chickens and cows, which is a kind of directed selection, has easily produced animals that would have been one in a billion among the wild population. Selective breeding of corn plants for oil content of kernels has moved the population by 30 standard deviations in roughly just 100 generations.6 That feat is comparable to finding a maximal human type for a specific athletic event. But direct editing techniques like CRISPR could get us there even faster, producing Bolts beyond Bolt and Shaqs beyond Shaq.
 

6. Let's set half a percent as the standard for statistical significance

My many-times-over coauthor Dan Benjamin is the lead author on a very interesting short paper "Redefine Statistical Significance." He gathered luminaries from many disciplines to jointly advocate a tightening of the standards for using the words "statistically significant" to results that have less than a half a percent probability of occurring by chance when nothing is really there, rather than all results that—on their face—have less than a 5% probability of occurring by chance. Results with more than a 1/2% probability of occurring by chance could only be called "statistically suggestive" at most. 
 
In my view, this is a marvelous idea. It could (a) help enormously and (b) can really happen. It can really happen because it is at heart a linguistic rule. Even if rigorously enforced, it just means that editors would force people in papers to say "statistically suggestive for a p of a little less than .05, and only allow the phrase "statistically significant" in a paper if the p value is .005 or less. As a well-defined policy, it is nothing more than that. Everything else is general equilibrium effects.
 

Given the replication crisis has me doubting almost every piece of conventional wisdom I've inherited in my life, I'm okay with this.

7. We're surprisingly unaware of when our own beliefs change

If you read an article about a controversial issue, do you think you’d realise if it had changed your beliefs? No one knows your own mind like you do – it seems obvious that you would know if your beliefs had shifted. And yet a new paper in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests that we actually have very poor “metacognitive awareness” of our own belief change, meaning that we will tend to underestimate how much we’ve been swayed by a convincing article.
 
The researchers Michael Wolfe and Todd Williams at Grand Valley State University said their findings could have implications for the public communication of science. “People may be less willing to meaningfully consider belief inconsistent material if they feel that their beliefs are unlikely to change as a consequence,” they wrote.
 

Beyond being an interesting result, I link to this as an example of a human readable summary of a research paper. This his how this article summarize the research study and its results:

The researchers recruited over two hundred undergrads across two studies and focused on their beliefs about whether the spanking/smacking of kids is an effective form of discipline. The researchers chose this topic deliberately in the hope the students would be mostly unaware of the relevant research literature, and that they would express a varied range of relatively uncommitted initial beliefs.
 
The students reported their initial beliefs about whether spanking is an effective way to discipline a child on a scale from “1” completely disbelieve to “9” completely believe. Several weeks later they were given one of two research-based texts to read: each was several pages long and either presented the arguments and data in favour of spanking or against spanking. After this, the students answered some questions to test their comprehension and memory of the text (these measures varied across the two studies). Then the students again scored their belief in whether spanking is effective or not (using the same 9-point scale as before). Finally, the researchers asked them to recall what their belief had been at the start of the study.
 
The students’ belief about spanking changed when they read a text that argued against their own initial position. Crucially, their memory of their initial belief was shifted in the direction of their new belief – in fact, their memory was closer to their current belief than their original belief. The more their belief had changed, the larger this memory bias tended to be, suggesting the students were relying on their current belief to deduce their initial belief. The memory bias was unrelated to the measures of how well they’d understood or recalled the text, suggesting these factors didn’t play a role in memory of initial belief or awareness of belief change.
 

Compare this link above to the abstract of the paper itself:

When people change beliefs as a result of reading a text, are they aware of these changes? This question was examined for beliefs about spanking as an effective means of discipline. In two experiments, subjects reported beliefs about spanking effectiveness during a prescreening session. In a subsequent experimental session, subjects read a one-sided text that advocated a belief consistent or inconsistent position on the topic. After reading, subjects reported their current beliefs and attempted to recollect their initial beliefs. Subjects reading a belief inconsistent text were more likely to change their beliefs than those who read a belief consistent text. Recollections of initial beliefs tended to be biased in the direction of subjects’ current beliefs. In addition, the relationship between the belief consistency of the text read and accuracy of belief recollections was mediated by belief change. This belief memory bias was independent of on-line text processing and comprehension measures, and indicates poor metacognitive awareness of belief change.
 

That's actually one of the better research abstracts you'll read and still it reflects the general opacity of the average research abstract. I'd argue that some of the most important knowledge in the world is locked behind abstruse abstracts.

Why do researchers write this way? Most tell me that researchers write for other researchers, and incomprehensible prose like this impresses their peers. What a tragedy. As my longtime readers know, I'm a firm believer in the power of the form of a message. We continue to underrate that in all aspects of life, from the corporate world to our personal lives, and here, in academia.

Then again, such poor writing keeps people like Malcolm Gladwell busy transforming such insight into breezy reads in The New Yorker and his bestselling books.

8. Social disappointment explains chimpanzees' behaviour in the inequity aversion task

As an example of the above phenomenon, this paper contains an interesting conclusion, but try to parse this abstract:

Chimpanzees’ refusal of less-preferred food when an experimenter has previously provided preferred food to a conspecific has been taken as evidence for a sense of fairness. Here, we present a novel hypothesis—the social disappointment hypothesis—according to which food refusals express chimpanzees' disappointment in the human experimenter for not rewarding them as well as they could have. We tested this hypothesis using a two-by-two design in which food was either distributed by an experimenter or a machine and with a partner present or absent. We found that chimpanzees were more likely to reject food when it was distributed by an experimenter rather than by a machine and that they were not more likely to do so when a partner was present. These results suggest that chimpanzees’ refusal of less-preferred food stems from social disappointment in the experimenter and not from a sense of fairness.
 

Your average grade school English teacher would slap a failing grade on this butchery of the English language.

9. Metacompetition: Competing Over the Game to be Played

When CDMA-based technologies took off in the US, companies like QualComm that work on that standard prospered; metacompetitions between standards decide the fates of the firms that adopt (or reject) those standards.

When an oil spill raises concerns about the environment, consumers favor businesses with good environmental records; metacompetitions between beliefs determine the criteria we use to evaluate whether a firm is “good.”

If a particular organic foods certification becomes important to consumers, companies with that certification are favored; metacompetitions between certifications determines how the quality of firms is measured.
 
In all these examples, you could be the very best at what you do, but lose in the metacompetition over what criteria will matter. On the other hand, you may win due to a metacompetition that protects you from fierce rivals who play a different game.
 
Great leaders pay attention to metacompetition. They advocate the game they play well, promoting criteria on which they measure up. By contrast, many failed leaders work hard at being the best at what they do, only to throw up their hands in dismay when they are not even allowed to compete. These losers cannot understand why they lost, but they have neglected a fundamental responsibility of leadership. It is not enough to play your game well. In every market in every country, alternative “logics” vie for prominence. Before you can win in competition, you must first win the metacompetition over the game being played.
 

In sports negotiations between owners and players, the owners almost always win the metacompetition game. In the writer's strike in Hollywood in 2007, the writer's guild didn't realize they were losing the metacompetition and thus ended up worse off than before. Amazon surpassed eBay by winning the retail metacompetition (most consumers prefer paying a good, fixed price for a good of some predefined quality than dealing with the multiple axes of complexity of an auction) after first failing at tackling eBay on its direct turf of auctions.

Winning the metacompetition means first being aware of what it is. It's not so easy in a space like, say, social networking, where even some of the winners don't understand what game they're playing.

10. How to be a Stoic

Much of Epictetus’ advice is about not getting angry at slaves. At first, I thought I could skip those parts. But I soon realized that I had the same self-recriminatory and illogical thoughts in my interactions with small-business owners and service professionals. When a cabdriver lied about a route, or a shopkeeper shortchanged me, I felt that it was my fault, for speaking Turkish with an accent, or for being part of an élite. And, if I pretended not to notice these slights, wasn’t I proving that I really was a disengaged, privileged oppressor? Epictetus shook me from these thoughts with this simple exercise: “Starting with things of little value—a bit of spilled oil, a little stolen wine—repeat to yourself: ‘For such a small price, I buy tranquillity.’ ”
 
Born nearly two thousand years before Darwin and Freud, Epictetus seems to have anticipated a way out of their prisons. The sense of doom and delight that is programmed into the human body? It can be overridden by the mind. The eternal war between subconscious desires and the demands of civilization? It can be won. In the nineteen-fifties, the American psychotherapist Albert Ellis came up with an early form of cognitive-behavioral therapy, based largely on Epictetus’ claim that “it is not events that disturb people, it is their judgments concerning them.” If you practice Stoic philosophy long enough, Epictetus says, you stop being mistaken about what’s good even in your dreams.
 

The trendiness of stoicism has been around for quite some time now. I found this tab left over from 2016, and I'm sure Tim Ferriss was espousing it long before then, and not to mention the enduring trend that is Buddhism. That meditation and stoicism are so popular in Silicon Valley may be a measure of the complacency of the region; these seem direct antidotes to the most first world of problems. People everywhere complain of the stresses on their mind from the deluge of information they receive for free from apps on the smartphone with processing power that would put previous supercomputers to shame.

Still, given that stoicism was in vogue in Roman times, it seems to have stood the test of time. Since social media seems to have increased the surface area of our social fabric and our exposure to said fabric, perhaps we could all use a bit more stoicism in our lives. I suspect one reason Curb Your Enthusiasm curdles in the mouth more than before is not just that his rich white man's complaints seem particularly ill timed in the current environment but that he is out of touch with the real nature of most people's psychological stressors now. A guy of his age and wealth probably doesn't spend much time on social media, but if he did, he might realize his grievances no longer match those of the average person in either pettiness or peculiarity.

The greatest sports achievement in my lifetime?

Football players seem even more like gladiators when they play in short sleeves in a winter storm, and baseball players who don't wear batting gloves feel like throwbacks to a more rough and tumble era. What category of admiration should we reserve, then, for someone who ascends a sheer rock face of 3,000 feet using only a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of chalk?

We debate whether Lebron James or Clayton Kershaw or Tom Brady might be the best ever to play their positions, and credible arguments can be made for them all, yet we're all alive during the career of someone who is unequivocally the greatest at his sport, and until a week ago most of the world didn't know his name.

A week ago, Alex Honnold free climbed El Capitan. With no ropes or climbing gear besides his shoes and chalk, Honnold became the first person to free climb what is universally acknowledged, among the climbing world, as the most daunting challenge in what most people consider to be less sport than a perverse game of Russian roulette with fate.

Like most people, my heart races just looking at videos and photos of Honnold on the wall, imagining myself in his place, trapped with no margin of error, feeling the ever present tug of gravity. It only takes a second of panic for the feedback loop of biological responses to kick in, and the moment your fight and flight response switches on, it's over. The adrenaline courses through your body, your muscles start to clench, and most deadly of all, your hands start to sweat. That fight or flight response evolved over hundreds of thousands of year, but it evolved when man had his feet on the ground, in response to predators and threats similarly earthbound. It could not have imagined a scenario in which it would serve a person who'd be hanging by a few pieces of contact between man and rock, a few toes pressing through the material of the climbing shoes, and a few finger tips dusted with chalk.

No ropes, NBD.

Icarus, at some point, having soared too high, may have felt a sudden dip, a moment of turbulence, and then glanced to his side to see, with a sudden horror, that the wax securing the feathers to his wing had begun to melt from the heat of the sun. How long did he have to ponder the fact that it was too late, that sometimes the point of no return is literally that?

That's the rub, isn't it? The greatness of humans comes from its ability to imagine, more than any other creature on earth, that which has not been yet but might be. And that is precisely the quality of the human mind that works against someone free climbing a rock. It's been said that the fear of heights stems from a person's ability to imagine themselves jumping. I don't know if it's true but sounds credible. It takes someone physically gifted, with thousands of hours of practice behind them, to even imagine a successful free climb up El Capitan, but anyone can imagine falling to their death with a sickening crunch on the ground below.

There may be more technically gifted climbers (Tommy Caldwell, I've read, is just that). But what makes a free climb of El Capitan perhaps the greatest sports achievement of my lifetime is the mental challenge of entering a flow state for four hours straight. People marvel at a basketball player entering the zone and hitting shot after shot, but Honnold had to enter a new level of zone in which he could not miss a single shot or the game would end forever.

Caldwell knows better than most what Honnold accomplished. He and partner Kevin Jorgeson completed a free ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015, with ropes used only as backup for those moments when they missed a hold and fell. Says Caldwell:

“If you don’t have your body position exactly right, you can easily slip and fall,” Caldwell told me. “And if you’re at all nervous, there’s a downward spiral where you pull harder with your hands and lean in closer and your feet shoot out, so it takes incredible confidence.”
 

Free climbing El Capitan has been called unthinkable, and literally so. To think about it is to shrink from it. As you might suspect, several of the only people who could even contemplate such an undertaking didn't even live to attempt it.

Climbers have been speculating for years about a possible free solo of El Capitan, but there have only been two other people who have publicly said they seriously considered it. One was Michael Reardon, a free soloist who drowned in 2007 after being swept from a ledge below a sea cliff in Ireland. The other was Dean Potter, who died in a base jumping accident in Yosemite in 2015.
 
John Bachar, the greatest free soloist of the 1970s, who died while climbing un-roped in 2009 at age 52, never considered it. When Bachar was in his prime, El Capitan had still never been free climbed. Peter Croft, 58, who completed the landmark free solo of the 1980s—Yosemite’s 1,000-foot Astroman—never seriously contemplated El Capitan, but he knew somebody would eventually do it.
 

It's difficult to avoid using the world literally when discussing Honnold's achievement because metaphors we typically ascribe to sports analysis like survivorship bias take on a different meaning in free climbing.

Even when I see him a rope, as in this photo, my palms get sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy

It's not as if Honnold is utterly immune to normal human self-doubt. In this earlier video of another free climb, around 3:00, after several hours of free climbing, he feels doubt creep into his mind, and he recalls, "I kind of stalled out and then I started to doubt if I was doing it right, if I had the right holds, why am I even here, do I want to do this."

He stops on a narrow shelf of rock, one maybe one foot length in size, and stares out at the abyss.

"Just come back if you're not feeling it," a voice says to him from off screen.

"Well, that's the thing, I'm like..." Honnold replies. And then he keeps going, and you know the rest.

Despite what he claims are moments of doubt, Honnold is also wired differently than most. You'd think he had completed many rope assisted free climbs of his route before attempting it free solo.

Nope:

The overwhelming majority of “free” ascents of El Capitan involve many falls along the way. El Capitan also has remarkably few proper ledges; almost all “free” ascents, as a result, involve quite a lot of resting on ropes and hardware between upward pushes. Nobody keeps reliable records of these things, but Honnold’s best guess as to the number of prior ascents with zero falls and zero resting on ropes was perhaps one or two, including his own final practice run with Caldwell. Virtually nobody, in other words, had ever climbed El Capitan without dangling from the safety net, which helps to explain why El Capitan was for so long the final word in free-solo hypotheticals, as in, “Do you think it’s even possible? Will anybody ever free-solo the Big Stone?” The doubt that drove those questions was skepticism that a human mind could maintain such focus — and drive such fierce physical perfection — for so unbearably long.

Many argue that climbing, with its very high risk of death, is so unsafe as to be irresponsible. Even those who admire Honnold and the sport of free climbing must grapple with the ethics of tempting fate so willingly.

Honnold’s sang froid on big cliffs is also so peculiar that even the world-class climbers who consider him a dear friend struggle to believe that it really is just sang froid and confidence, and not borderline-suicidal recklessness or at least a missing screw. Last fall, Caldwell had a nightmare that Honnold appeared at his front door bloodied and broken from a fall.
 
Jimmy Chin, himself a world-class big-wall climber and another mutual friend of Honnold’s and mine, spent much of the last year making a documentary film about Honnold, during Honnold’s preparation for El Capitan. Chin told me that he felt terrible inner conflict over his involvement in the project, at least at the beginning: What if the presence of cameras encouraged Honnold to do something he would not otherwise have done?
 

It turns out Honnold really is wired differently.

I have heard other filmmakers say similar things about Honnold in the past, and still other friends of Honnold’s joke that when Alex was a baby his mother must have stepped on his amygdala — the brain region that controls fear. Last year, fMRI testing at the Medical University of South Carolina tilted the scales toward precisely that explanation — an underactive amygdala, not a negligent mother — by confirming that Honnold’s fear circuitry really does fire with less vigor than most.
 

People have genetic gifts that favor them in all sports. An under-active amygdala, when it comes to extreme sports, may be the most distinctive and valuable gift of all, a relative superpower in any reasonable sense of the word.

Jimmy Chin, the filmmaker behind climbing documentary Meru, filmed Honnold's historic climb. I can't wait to see it.

***

In most major sports, the ones I watch the most, improvements are slight and often take decades to manifest. The reason we can still have reasonable debates around whether Michael Jordan or Lebron James is the greatest player of all time is that they are not separated by much more than a decade, and while the sport of basketball has a come a long way since the 1960's, it took a half century to evolve to what it is today.

[As a Chicago kid, I'm more than a bit biased, but given today's rules, I think Jordan could easily average 45 or maybe even 50 points a game for a season if he focused on it, though I'm not sure how watchable it would be as much of it would involve him at the free throw line.]

This gradual pace of improvement isn't that surprising. Most such sports operate at the limits of human capability, and so advances in nutrition and training and technique make incremental gains that take long periods to manifest.

We can detect this more easily in sports like track and field, the closest we have to humans using nothing but the abilities of their own human bodies, alone, with no team interaction or environmental effects, and where measured performance is highly precise.

But out of the watchful eye of the mainstream sports audience, athletes in adventure and extreme sports are achieving leaps and bounds in performance that would be unfathomable in our most popular sports. Honnold's ability to achieve flow state may have much to say about how that is possible, and what that entire group of athletes is accomplishing may be one of the great unsung advances in human performance that everyone debating whether the Warriors are the GOAT are missing because of our national obsession over the sports which have dominated American pop culture for the past century (baseball, football, basketball).

It's the subject of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, a book that Marc Andreessen tweeted he was reading recently and which I just started reading. I'll share more thoughts on it once I've gotten more than just a few pages in.

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.

Buying shares of people

Fantex, Inc. announced today that it has entered into brand contracts with five Major Leaguers: Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco, Astros right-hander Collin McHugh, Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, Twins right-hander Tyler Duffey and Padres third baseman Yangervis Solarte (as noted on BusinessWire.com).
 
Fantex offers professional athletes an up-front, one-time payment in exchange for a portion of that player’s future earnings both on and off the field. Fantex then sells “shares” of that player to public investors for a set price (thus covering the up-front payment to the player), allowing those investors to turn a profit if said player crosses a certain threshold in his career earnings. Obviously, that creates risk for the investors, who stand to take a financial loss if the player fails to earn enough money in his career to justify the shareholders’ investment. Angels left-hander Andrew Heaney became the first player to enter into an agreement with Fantex last September, taking a $3.34MM up-front payment in exchange for 10 percent of his future earnings. (Notably, the league and the MLBPA each approved that agreement, and Fantex’s announcement seemingly suggests that the same is true of these five agreements.)
 

Hmm. I wonder if this becomes more widespread. I'd heard this idea proposed before but never heard of Fantex. Purchasing shares of Jennifer Lawrence just after you'd seen her in Winter's Bone might feel like scoring a Mantle rookie card, back when baseball cards still had real scarcity (and thus value).

Optimal pricing for bread and circuses

A survey (pdf) by Anthony Krautmann and David Berri has found that most fans in many popular sports pay less for their tickets than conventional economic theory would predict.
 
Which poses the question: are team owners therefore irrational?
 
Not necessarily. There are (at least?) four justifications for such apparent under-pricing.
 

Lots of things in the real world are underpriced. Most popular concerts and sporting contests lose some volume of revenue to aftermarket transactions on sites like StubHub and SeatGeek. It's nearly impossible to get a reservation at some of the most popular restaurants in San Francisco like State Bird Provisions. There's a waiting list for NOMA Sydney that's 27,000 people long.

If you were pricing to maximize revenue, to match supply and demand exactly, you'd boost prices or perhaps auction off all the seats. What would NOMA Sydney have to charge until its waiting list dropped to zero? I can't even begin toguess, but would it surprise you if it was well north of $2,000 a head for dinner?

Given all of that, I was curious to see what this author thought might explain football ticket underpricing.

The first argument is that underpricing tickets leaves more revenue to be gathered through ancillary sales like souvenirs or overpriced concessions. Without data, I'm skeptical. My instinct is that concession and souvenir sales are less elastic with ticket prices than hypothesized.

The second point is that it's better to have a full stadium for team morale and to influence the officiating. But again, you could sell tickets via a mechanism like a Dutch Auction and maximize revenue while still filling the stadium.

The other two arguments are more convincing.

Thirdly, higher ticket prices can have adverse compositional effects: they might price out younger and poorer fans but replace them with tourists – the sort who buy those half-and-half scarves and should, therefore be shot on sight. This increases uncertainty about longer-term revenues: a potentially life-long loyal young supporter is lost and a more fickle one is gained. It also diminishes home advantage: refs are more likely to give dodgy decisions in front of thousands of screaming Scousers than in front quiet Japanese tourists.
 

I went to a couple games at the old Chicago Stadium, during Jordan's early years with the Bulls, and that place was loud. When they moved to the United Center and the ticket prices went way up, the crowd felt different. More wealthy, and definitely not as loud. It could just be the acoustics of the new space, but anecdotally, I saw fewer fans standing and screaming. Also, the rise of the smartphone means more of the dead moments in a game are filled with people scrolling on their phones, quietly.

Fourthly, high ticket prices can make life harder for owners. They raise fans’ expectations: if you’re spending £50 to see a game you’ll expect better football than if you spend just £10: I suspect that a big reason why Arsene Wenger has been criticised so much in recent years is not so much that Arsenal’s performances have been poor but because high prices have raised expectations. 
 

It's hard to lower prices. Some sports teams may have done it at some point, but I've never seen it. You can raise prices when the team is good and on the rise, but those prices tend to stick when the team declines, and that's when stadiums start to empty out.

Saison is the restaurant in San Francisco that feels closest to pricing to match supply and demand. When I first moved to San Francisco, I had a meal there for $79. The next time there, the meal price had jumped over $100. Then the next time, it was up to $149. Later I heard the tasting menu had risen yet again to $248. The last time I went, thankfully on some banker's expense account, the price was $398 for dinner.

The dining room is usually full, but it's usually possible to get a table the same week. It feels like they've finally reached a price that about as close as you can get to where the supply and demand curves meet. Since the number of seats and turns is limited each night, perhaps this is revenue maximizing pricing, but the margin of error is razor thin.

My guess is that optimal pricing is somewhere below the price that matches supply and demand perfectly. Always being sold out adds a feeling of exclusivity, and no one knows how sold out you are, so being just sold out may be as good from a perception standpoint as being having a massive waiting list.

At the same time, I have a sneaking suspicion continuing to raise the price of a dinner would actually raise demand at some high end restaurants. There may be some Veblen-like qualities to restaurant pricing.