Through A Glass, Darkly

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At The Verge, Josh Dzieza pinpoints the verité nature of contemporary life that has made Black Mirror so unsettling:

The bewildering escalation of events is a key part of Black Mirror, and it's a phenomenon this year was rich in — that how did we get here? Is this real life? feeling that so many of 2014's events had. Did some kids upset about critiques of their games really just threaten women from their homes and turn the internet into a hellscape? Did a dumb bro-comedy really become a matter of national security? Did the president just commend Seth Rogen?

This is the paranoia at the heart of Black Mirror: we’re building systems the full repercussions of which we don’t yet understand, and the idea of opting out of them is a myth. It’s the suspicion that even as technology is making life better and better — and I believe it is — it’s exposing us to dangers we won’t understand until it’s too late to do anything about them.

At times this year has felt like a Black Mirror clarifying moment, which is to say, it felt like the future, but in an ominous way. Everything is connected now, which turns out to mean that pretty much everything is getting hacked. Anyone can talk to anyone now, which means everyone risks getting harassed by trolls. Our news is increasingly curated by algorithms whose biases and blind spots we’re just beginning to understand. Oh, and also those algorithms can inadvertently inflict pain, and they’re kept relatively clean by an army of foreign laborers traumatized daily by the worst humanity has to offer. Of course, I’m still saving everything to the cloud, still on every social network and signing up for new ones, still not really sure where my data is going.

Story: I can't stop comparing everything to Black Mirror 

Doing It For The Lulz

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The BBC profiles scientist Delroy Paulhus, a specialist studying why some people have an unusual propensity to be selfish, manipulative, and unkind.

If you had the opportunity to feed harmless bugs into a coffee grinder, would you enjoy the experience? Even if the bugs had names, and you could hear their shells painfully crunching? And would you take a perverse pleasure from blasting an innocent bystander with an excruciating noise?

These are just some of the tests that Delroy Paulhus uses to understand the “dark personalities” around us. Essentially, he wants to answer a question we all may have asked: why do some people take pleasure in cruelty? Not just psychopaths and murderers – but school bullies, internet trolls and even apparently upstanding members of society such as politicians and policemen.

It is easy, he says, to make quick and simplistic assumptions about these people. “We have a tendency to use the halo or devil framing of individuals we meet – we want to simplify our world into good or bad people,” says Paulhus, who is based at the University of British Columbia in Canada. But while Paulhus doesn’t excuse cruelty, his approach has been more detached, like a zoologist studying poisonous insects – allowing him to build a “taxonomy”, as he calls it, of the different flavours of everyday evil.

He turns his eye to a particularly vexing problem for those who create online communities as well:

He thinks this is directly relevant to internet trolls. “They appear to be the internet version of everyday sadists because they spend time searching for people to hurt.” Sure enough, an anonymous survey of trollish commentators found that they scored highly on dark tetrad traits, but particularly the everyday sadism component – and enjoyment was their prime motivation. Indeed, the bug-crushing experiment suggested that everyday sadists may have more muted emotional responses to all kinds of pleasurable activities – so perhaps their random acts of cruelty are attempts to break through the emotional numbness.

Story: Psychology: the man who studies everyday evil

Infinitely Improbable

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Lewis Packwood at Kokatu recounts an amusing and unusual tale of an online community rising up and thriving unexpectedly. Although considering the involvement of Douglas Adams perhaps the improbable should have been considered routine. The story comes from the early days of the internet (late 90's) and the building of a promotional website for a video game based on Starlight Titanic, a lesser known entry in the Douglas Adams universe:

Yoz was busy adding content to the nascent website, and one such feature was an employee forum for the fictional company Starlight Lines, the owners of the Starship Titanic.

"The idea was to present a read-only Senior Management forum in which you'd see some of the key backstory characters getting on each others' nerves. But we figured there should probably be a writeable forum for the lower-level employees, so I spent half a day hacking up a stupidly basic forum system."

Fans who had signed up for the mailing list received a cryptic email granting them password access to "the restricted Titanic Project Intranet Websiteand then a follow up email apologizing for "the accidental email leakage." All of this in character of starship management of course, in the obtuse bureaucratic language Adams was famous for.

Satisfied with their humorous promotion, the team moved on. 

Yoz then quickly forgot all about the employee forum, but six months later he happened to take a quick peek. And there were ten thousand posts in there.

Bearing in mind that the forum was buried deep within the website and was (just about) password secured, this was a phenomenal result. But even more fascinatingly, the forum had evolved into an extension of the game itself.

Visitors to the forum had created fictional employees and passengers on the Starship Titanic and begun role playing as them. Someone would make up an implausible, Adams-esque scenario, and everyone else would react to it in character, resulting in some enormously complex storylines and in-jokes that developed and diversified over years. And this strange fictional world had appeared entirely spontaneously, without any input from Douglas Adams or The Digital Village. Indeed, Yoz was as surprised as anyone when he stumbled across it: "It was like ignoring the vegetable drawer of your fridge for a year, then opening it to find a bunch of very grateful sentient tomatoesbusily working on their third opera," he says.

Story: "The Secret Douglas Adams RPG People Have Been Playing for 15 Years"

Quick Tips To Become A Better Writer

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  1. Read, read, read, read, read, read. Everyone always says that because it's true. But don't necessarily read just anything, read various styles of writing and create a basic taxonomy of those stylesthat you can refer to mentally, in a mindset that's more like concentrated practice than just breezy reading. Pay attention to structure, tone, form, use of (or wilful disregard for) grammar, and cadences.
  2. Learn how to break down basic sentence structure. Know what a gerund phrase and subordinate clause are, or how to spot a sentence splice. You can ignore the "rules" but you need to know them.
  3. To expand on number 2: Be able to instinctively identify the subject, verb, and object of your sentences. Every sentence has 'em, at least a subject and a verb. This isn't a firm rule, but there's an excellent chance that your sentence's perceived meaning hinges on them, no matter how complicated. And for reference subject, verb and object of the last sentence by the way were "there" "is" and "chance" respectively, not the thing that looks like a sentence and follows the word "that." Now that you know what they are exploit them. Most likely there's a better verb than variations on "to be" such as "is" "was" "has been" and the like.
  4. Write. But don't just write whatever comes to mind (though you should do that too): write to form. Now that you're being observant of how certain styles are structured and their conventions you can try for yourself. Attempt to mimic the way certain kinds of prose are written.

Here are a few examples of the same thing in various styles picked at random: 

"Triangle" – straight news format aka New York Times or AP style

Wilson Phillips, an internet user from Skokie, Illinois, visited the popular online site Quora today in an attempt to learn how to write. In a visit  Mr. Phillips described as "disturbing," site contributors were alleged to have committed several acts of hostility, including accusations he was an disgruntled former employee of Myspace, a claim Mr. Phillips denies. 

"Time Magazine" – famous backwards construction used in features

The clicks on the keyboard started out even, but soon picked up in speed. As comments were added, tempers flared. A voice rang out. "They should be so lucky as to work for Rupert!" it said, as minutes became hours. Broad daylight gave way to a dim monitor glow, and a grim realization took hold. It was almost midnight, and Wilson's secret was out. 

"Gawker" – ie snarky news/blog style

It looks like Wilson won't be getting off this island any time soon. Sources tell us the ex social-ite had a run in with the valley mafia late last night on Quora, which is quickly turning from a minor Mike Arrington masturbatory obsession into a digital mob. 

"Gonzo" – Hunter S. Thompson, the master

They're a vile bunch, mean on a good day and as vicious as a badger when cornered. And to them Wilson was prey. A life and reputation torn into meat and bone, the bastard never had a chance. Of course for predators that's the price of a meal, and he wasn't even the first that day. 

Heh. The details matter. Ask most people to write the first sentence of a story about a run of the mill news event like a house fire and they'll probably do something like "A house on Main Street burned down today" when in real life those stories usually come at the news sideways. For example: "Broken windows and car alarms were among the unpleasant sights this morning at the site of a residential blaze that claimed three downtown homes".

And so on… ya get the point. And that's just journalism; do the same with modern fiction, magical realism, classic literature, your favorite writers, etc. Once you can separate style from subject you have a set of tools that can evoke a mood. Like a musician practices ear training to identify pitch or major from minor keys you should know the mechanics that underpin a certain feel or tone, and use them, even when you forget you're using any style and just have your own voice.

Making a Mint With The Value of Press

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The story shows that often what people feel is an avalanche of “word of mouth” is really just great press.

OK, fine I'll admit it, I'm the last human in the world to dive into As an OCD spreadsheet wielder with every penny I have or don't have tracked and sliced and diced I never really thought it was for me. But today I decided it might be worth giving it a shot. It had some features I wanted to try and let's face it, no matter how good your spreadsheet is, chances are you're no match for a well designed application.

I have to say, I was more than impressed, and my turbocharged spreadsheet feels like a bicycle sitting next to a Porsche 911. I had dim memories of first being tipped by Jason Calacanis via his TechCrunch event with Michael Arrington, and was trying to remember the story of Mint getting off the ground. A quick google revealed this article and sure enough, it was only two years or so ago. They've certainly blown things out since. But reading the interview with founder Aaron Patzer lent even more insight:

We didn’t have money for advertising, so we started a blog. We didn’t have money for writers, so most of our original blog content then was guest posts from other personal finance blogs, plus a couple of columns on people’s worst financial disasters.

To build demand, we started asking for email addresses for our alpha 9 months in advance of launch. Then when we had too many people sign up, we asked people to put a little badge that said “I want Mint” on their blogs to get priority access. We got free advertising and 600 link backs which raised our SEO juice.

When it came time to launch, we choose TechCrunch 40 – why pay $20k for DEMO?

We decided not to do SEM – it’s too easy and too additive. Instead, we relied on press. It’s where I spent 20% of my time. I’m spending it right now while writing this.

The net result has been millions of visitors and 1.5m users essentially for free. Mint is not inherently viral like a social network – but all good things are viral by word of mouth.

And so here we are two years later. We’ve attracted over 1.5 million users, found over $300 million in savings, managed $50 billion in assets, and helped people track nearly $200 billion in purchases.

Notice the interesting way he uses the terms "viral" or "word of mouth" and "press" almost interchangeably. It's a great illustration of a common misconception — which is this idea that all you need is to build something truly impressive and people will beat a path to your door. 

Granted, there's more than a grain of truth to that, brilliant ideas really do spread virally, and with lightning speed. 


But often what people feel is an avalanche of "word of mouth" is really just great press. Sure, often the press is "following" the word of mouth buzz. A classic example, perhaps the opening shot of the Web 2.0 era (or the final screaming death of the 1.0 era, depending on how you look at things), is F*, which Phil Kaplan famously created for the hell of it over a long weekend, emailed as a link to six people, and woke up a couple days later to find tens of thousands of visitors beating a hole in his servers. 

So, it happens. But more often than not when people say they "keep hearing" about something, or that "everyone's been telling me about" something, they don't mean real actual conversations. Most people move in pretty close-knit circles. What they mean is that everyone in the media has been telling them about it. What feels like word of mouth often isn't so much the presence of tremendous chatter from close, trusted friends and but rather the absence of an over the top, in your face marketing blitz. To be specific, paid marketing, like advertising. Like Superbowl ads. Like

And to go back to the F* example, the viral pass-along for that site was nothing short of remarkable, it was like a direct conduit into the zeitgeist. But if my memory serves, it made the Wall Street Journal within the week, and was on to Time, Newsweek, The Today Show, Rolling Stone, and just about everywhere in the media universe in a short amount of time. How many people discovered it through an email forward or water cooler conversation vs. the number that learned about it via some kind of "proper" media channel?

That's something you can only guess at, but it's one example of many. is another that comes to mind in the online/startup space, and there are more examples than you can count in entertainment, music, film, etc. 

In all cases they've hit a trifecta, that combination of a great product (yes, that's still the prerequisite, if you don't have that the rest of this is meaningless) with a core evangelical base of initial users and a successful effort to get that positive word of mouth coming from those who measure their audiences in millions. 

You bet the media has changed, these days the personality with the huge megaphone might be a tech hero with a six figure Twitter follower count. But social media is media. And that personality is a media personality, the underlying point isn't diminished one inch. 

It's not strictly impossible to see success happen purely organically, without any organized plan for publicity. Though I'd say it's nearly always when a founder or principal happens to be naturally press-savvy. But exceptions aside, more often than not it's a thoughtful, considered — and experienced — person or team at the helm, managing the media strategy. 

So, to bring it home with a pun — if you'd like to make a mint, you might want to think about who's minding your press. 


Credit where credit is due.

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Damm, I should post more often huh. Note to self: get with the program, buddy. 

But this email I just got inspired me to write. If you're going be that guy to trash someone in public, even if it ain't personal and just academic, then you have to give credit where credit is due. This post by Jason Calacanis is one of the most insightful and forward thinking things I have ever read on the subject of online interaction, and its effects of interpersonal and hyper-non-personal relationships. Just read it. 

I remember coming across something that reminded me of the Milgram Experiment last year and thinking that the internet was like a giant accelerant to the basic human condition laid bare by that study. But Jason's taken a vague concept rattling around and crystallized it and made it compelling, personal, and persuasive — and I suspect may have just kicked off a discussion we'll be hearing more and more about in the near future. 

Quality economics advice? Well we've been over that already. But when it comes to online communities, Jason has to be considered perhaps the most intuitive and insighful expert out there — if this is any indication. 

I'll be mulling it over for awhile.