Posted by: holdenlee | May 16, 2014

Weekly summary, 5-16-14

I’m starting a weekly post where I write about or link to some interesting articles I’ve read or interesting podcasts I’ve listened to in the past week (just podcasts for this week). I’ve tried a few new podcasts (and also continued my staples of Radiolab, 99% invisible, This American Life).

99% invisible

  • 109 Title TK: Naming is so important that there are companies that specialize in it. There’s a spectrum of naming, from descriptive names like “Raisin Bran” to suggestive names to abstract names (empty vessels) like “Kodak.” Two companies have different philosophies: one come up with thousands of names (and analyzes them linguistically), the other focuses on a few at a time and focus on choosing names that tell a story.
  • 110 Structural integrity: How the Citicorp building was built on stilts, how an undergraduate architecture student noticed a critical flaw, and how they repaired it while keeping all the building’s residents were completely oblivious to the danger.


I don’t know (transcript); on the virtues of experimentation: Many people would try to BS an answer to a question rather than admit that they don’t know. This is especially true when talking to higher-ups.

One of the first steps in learning to think like a freak is learning to say “I don’t know.” Why? Because until you can admit what you don’t know, it’s virtually impossible to learn what you need to. Because if you think you already have all the answers, you won’t go looking for them.

What should we do instead?

…the only way to learn is through feedback. That whether you’re a human being, an animal or an organization, the way that you learn is by trying different things and seeing the outcome when you try different approaches, and comparing those outcomes.

The way to do this is by experimentation. While people would agree in theory that experimentation is a good idea, Levitt found that the pressure to “be an expert” means they don’t actually put it into practice:

But in order to be willing to run the experiment you have to say, well, geez, I don’t know the answer. Wait, but you are the expert. You are in charge of marketing. You are in charge of pricing. You are supposed to know the answer. And so the people in the firms we were working with felt so much pressure to be the expert that they wouldn’t run the experiments because that was an admission that they weren’t really as expert as they maybe had been pretending to be or as other people wanted them to pretend to be.

They give one example: A company was spending millions of dollars on paper ads without knowing whether they were effective. When Levitt suggested they try advertising in 20 cities and not advertising in 20 cities as an experiment, the ad department told him, “Are you crazy? We’d all get fired.” They told the story of how one guy forgot to run ads in Pittsburgh and got fired. But then they looked back at the sales records and found that actually, the failure didn’t decrease the sales.

How do we change? The best thing is for people at the top of the hierarchy to establish a culture of “I don’t know, but it would be good to find out.” But doesn’t happen often, as many people got up there by pretending to know in the first place.

[Some of my own rambling thoughts: Experimentation requires time and space, and not being judged moment to moment. You have to take a long-term view; for instance, taking the time to ascertain what doesn’t work wastes time in the short run (and would get you criticized if you’re being followed too closely) but will save time in the long run because you have a definite rather than fuzzy idea of how different approaches compare. I think a lot about how to allow more “experimentation” into my life (because I’m really not that good at it unless I feel there’s an explicit context set up for it), a lot of it seems to be the mindset of not caring what’s awkward or graceful* in the moment, but keeping a longer view in mind, and also starting things long before an obligation to perform (e.g. a due date) sets in.]

*From a previous episode of The Moth: People in this generation think about what’s awkward and graceful, in the parents’ generation think about what’s appropriate and inappropriate, and from the grandparents’ generation think about what’s moral and immoral.

TED Radio Hour

Brand over brain: When we buy certain brands, we’re buying into the experience of the product, or the “dream” behind the product, ex. Apple is more creative (See also Predictably Irrational (Ch. 9-10); our expectations influence our experiences). We dismiss advertisers as manipulative, and want instead to observe some objective measure of quality, but experience is itself subjective. It’s good to understand the psychology behind this experience, and how our beliefs shape it.

  • Spurlock talks about a documentary about product placement that is itself fully of product placements.
  • Bloom argues that we are “essentialists,” forever trying to find the origin, stories, and hidden nature of the things around us, and taking pleasure in doing so.
  • Pine defines authenticity. It’s knowing the origin of something and being able to feel it. (For instance, Starbucks does this well because it tells you where the beans are from, and you can even feel them in your hands in the shop.) Authenticity has to feel rooted in place, and ubiquity goes against the grain. Authenticity is not the same as reality: Disneyland is a fake, manufactured reality but an authentic experience because it stays true to a certain dream. Because our feelings shape our experiences, authenticity is a worthwhile pursuit.
  • Sutherland argues that lots of problems can be solved if we simply improve the attractiveness of certain actions or products change people’s perceptions of  rather than the products themselves – getting people to take their antibiotics by coloring the 6 of 24 blue and telling them to take those last, for instance; or making “impulsive spending” a thing. There’s a discussion of the placebo effect. 

    Quotes from the end:

Poetry is when you make new things familiar and familiar things new, which isn’t a bad definition of what our job is – to help people appreciate what is unfamiliar, but also to gain a greater appreciation and place a far higher value on those things which are already existing.

We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders, which, I think, for anybody involved in technology, is perfectly true.

Some cool examples throughout: getting children to eat carrots and milk by saying they’re from McDonald’s; making adults like wind more by putting it in a fancy bottle; Germany getting its people to eat potatoes by only allowing the nobility to grow it but not guarding it too closely, so that people will steal it and want it (cf. Predictably Irrational Ch. 2).


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