It’s just doing something really, really, really well and relating incredibly well to your consumer,” says Joel Cutler, a managing director at General Catalyst Partners and a board member at Warby Parker. “It’s what separates an okay investment from a great investment.
When artists betray us…by growing up
Everyone mellows. When someone mellows before we do, we feel betrayed. This is most acutely felt when artists mellow. The art that we love when we are young is almost always made by people older than we, which means they’ll mellow—i.e. sell out—before we do. And they leave us, abandon us and our principles, and they can go fuck themselves, thank you very much.
We fear death and the artist’s aging is our aging by proxy, a few years ahead of our schedule. This is Freud’s narcissism of small differences applied to our art: we hate the mellowing artist because we identify with the artist so, and the change hurts because the artist is our idealized, romanticized self.
This is why artists should—for the sake of those who idolize (and will idolize) them—die just before reaching peak youth.
(Written while reflecting on a recent conversation among friends about early good REM albums vs later, occasionally capable of being appreciated REM albums.)
Letter to Radiolab re: Jonah Lehrer
Dear Radiolab staff,
Jonah Lehrer appeared on the “Music Language” episode of your program, where he talked about the premier of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” He refers to—just after 34:30—the following:
- “…old ladies hitting each other with canes…” and
- “…there was blood.”
For the last few months, whenever I go to the Strand, I check to see if they have a copy of Proust was a Neuroscientist, so I can check Lehrer’s references. Do you have any reason to believe that he wasn’t making these things up? Have you checked into this? Do you have a fact checking policy?
I have never come across references to old ladies hitting each other with canes or bleeding in accounts of the premier. I am a bit of fan of Stravinsky.
I have a day job, but I’m eventually going to look into this and write something up.
Regards, Edwin Watkeys
In retrospect, perhaps not a genius move
HFT seems to be, to use a term I’ve been bandying about a lot recent, going sideways. For reference:
Which got me to thinking after a colleague of mine sent me this oldie-but-goodie:
And while we’re at it, add this to the pile:
Where are the best and the brightest going to perform rocket surgery if not in the advertising or finance industries? I’m going out on a limb here—and feel free to give me a “I told you so!” when I’m proven to be deeply wrong, but I’ve begun tossing around an idea.
Big Data is dead.
What do I mean? The idea of using enormous collections of data to turn an otherwise-low-quality collection of things into a high-quality collection of things just isn’t going to happen. The picture that comes to mind more than anything is Maxwell’s demon, the entropy-destroying character of James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment. Big Data is about creating a data analog of this demon, who picks each customer, each set of eyeballs, each data point, and matches it with the perfect product, the perfect offer, the perfect set.
It is not clear to me that this can be done profitably. It is not clear to me that it can be done reliably. This is not to say, of course, that data is bad, or that data cannot be plumbed for insights. But having spent time in the trenches trying to actually do such things, it is extremely difficult. Michael Wolff, writing back in May, laid out a a compelling case against Facebook:
Data is a big deal, but Big Data is over-sold, based on too much optimism, too much hype, and too little humility. Whenever anyone suggests that something is a small matter of crunching a few petabytes of data, ask them for results.
Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich.
When a person speaks, he sometimes says things where the intended audience is not the person to whom he is speaking but the speaker himself. Such statements can provide insight into the speaker’s values, his deepest hopes and fears, into his self-concept. They are telling, so much so that asking the person, “Are you saying that to me or are you saying that to yourself?” will often elicit a thoughtful pause and followed by self-reflection.
During Microsoft’s Surface event, Steve Ballmer and the rest of the Redmond crew could be heard saying “PC” over and over—and over—again. They went to great pains to emphasize that the Surface is a PC, that it represents the continuation of Windows. PC, Windows, Microsoft.
One could argue that Microsoft is trying to make an argument to its customers that Microsoft understands PCs, Windows is what runs on PCs, a tablet is a PC, therefore trust Microsoft and buy Microsoft products. One could argue, basically, that Steve Ballmer and friends were on stage talking to their customers.
But I would argue that Microsoft’s best and brightest were onstage talking to themselves, telling themselves that a tablet is a PC, that a tablet without Windows is like a bicycle without a chain, that a world without Windows is inconceivable. And to them, a world without Windows, a world where PCs are not the center of gravity of people’s technology experiences is indeed inconceivable.
It was this—even more than the unsuccessful attempt to out-Apple Apple, in form and philosophy and content—that made me feel genuine sympathy for those guys up on stage.
On not owning the relationship with the customer
My parents owned a stained glass business. They started out teaching classes. Then they started selling kits of supplies. Then they opened a retail store. And then they became wholesalers. I have vivid memories of my parents struggling to get their customers, the retail stores, to properly market, merchandise, and promote not just particular products but the hobby itself. As the Internet came along and encouraged the delusion that passively consuming content constituted a hobby, the stained glass business withered, like so many other businesses that require engagement with the real world.
Being principled people, they did not undercut their retail stores by selling directly to consumers, putting them in the unfortunate position of watching as retail stores failed to connect with consumers.
Microsoft is now in a position very similar to the one my parents faced, though Microsoft arrived not by being principled, but by effectively sucking the vast majority of profit out of the desktop computer ecosystem, leaving hardware manufacturers in a position where they turned to junking up Microsoft’s products with bloatware that provided a way to stay in the PC business.
One could argue that any business run by amoral, talentless MBAs would ultimately attempt to exploit every revenue opportunity, ignorant of the larger truth that relentlessly optimizing for a local maxima leaves unexplored the rest of the curve, where Everest-like peaks dwarf their bloatware-based sand dune. But I won’t make that argument.
I belong to the Whitney. I went to the biennial last week. What I found was an exhausted building holding objects exhibiting the exhaustion of the art world.
It’s not as if our culture does not create beautiful, thought provoking things. I pointedly did not write above of the exhaustion of Western Civilization, of which I am an unrepentant admirer, but of the art world.
As I live my life, I regularly come in contact with human-made objects, designs, and experiences of beauty. The hand-made and the manufactured. The simple and the highly complex.
As this article argues (or perhaps asserts), the art world is not about art. Or beauty. I don’t know what it is about. It’s not about Ideas; the ideas embodied in the works, as announced by the Whitney’s tour leader, who I had the opportunity/misfortune to overhear, are facile in the extreme. To give the vast majority of these works even passing notice is to disrespect all of the other things in the world that are worthy of a little attention, of things that you might actually learn something from if you looked at them, listened to them, experienced them.
As is so often the case, it is the museum shop at the Whitney that is the most aesthetically satisfying part of visiting. Who knows, maybe the restaurant also has good food.
Returning to the building, I need to point out that it is basically a Postmodern Le Corbusier-ian anti-human monstrosity that looks more than anything like a prison and has the depressing air of an under-funded elementary school.
During my visit I had the misfortune of finding myself behind a couple of women in their twenties whose behavior seemed more in character for twelve year-old girls. They would simply not stop talking and did not deign to more than glance at the works as they glided through the exhibit. In retrospect, the murderous rage I felt toward them was unjust. They were experiencing this heap of works in way more appropriate than I was. I made the mistake of taking it seriously.
Score one for the curators and their ability to sucker me, at least for a while.
There have been several leaps forward, adding wholly new dimensions to our basic finding. For one, we found that willpower gets depleted not just by acts of self-control but also by other key things the self does: making choices and decisions, exerting initiative, perhaps planning and executing plans. This has led us to cast about for an even bigger umbrella than self-control, and it has gotten us into the interdisciplinary debates about free will. Some new work being published this year also showed that people suffer from ego depletion on an almost daily basis, outside the laboratory, and away from experimental manipulations, in the context of their everyday lives and normal activities. This has been a very welcome extension.