Becoming over time becomes being

“The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us,” Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, once famously said.

(source is this Vanity Fair article).  The ancient sages and strategists would’ve enjoyed that one.  The intersection of becoming and fighting.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting

Sun Tzu said. Maybe.  Can’t vouch for the translation.  Elsewhere rendered as:

To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.


to defeat the enemy without battle is the whole of my art

Nanette and Domino’s Pizza and Taxonomies

Really interested in this Schumpeter column in a recent issue of The Economist:

NOT many businesspeople study post-war French philosophy, but they could certainly learn from it. Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, argued that how you structure information is a source of power. A few of America’s most celebrated bosses, including Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett, understand this implicitly, adroitly manipulating how outsiders see their firms. It is one of the most important but least understood skills in business.

Foucault was obsessed with taxonomies, or how humans split the world into arbitrary mental categories in order “to tame the wild profusion of existing things”. When we flip these around, “we apprehend in one great leap…the exotic charm of another system of thought”. Imagine, for example, a supermarket organised by products’ vintage. Lettuces, haddock, custard and the New York Times would be grouped in an aisle called “items produced yesterday”. Scotch, string, cans of dog food and the discounted Celine Dion DVDs would be in the “made in 2008” aisle.

I’m always into it when CEOs have a bold claim on what kind of company they are, redefining their own classification.  Here are some examples:


Or in Ugly Delicious when Dave Chang says Domino’s is a technology company:


Was thinking about how important taxonomy is.  Take, for instance, Nanette:

How much of the staggered, overpowered reaction to this special comes from approaching it in the taxonomy “standup comedy” / “Netflix comedy special” and then having that classification broken/subverted?

Would it have a different effect if you experienced it in the category “Edinburgh Fringe Festival-style personal show,” an overlapping but different taxonomy?

What about how the Emmys has the categories “comedy” and “drama,” when it seems to me the cool nominees in both categories tend to blur and push the limits of those definitions?

Another example of taxonomic power from Charles C. Mann’s Reddit AMA:

I am so grateful for the W&P book. Thank you for exploring these issues. I work in Oil and Gas and I’m very concerned about that unfortunate byproduct climate change. I’m also tired of being the bad guy at dinner parties. Is responsible oil and gas development a contradiction in terms? I’m wondering if you could sketch a possible social imaginary in which people like me have a beneficial role in contributing to our needed energy switch, while at the same time, you know, maybe keeping my job for a few years???

AMA Author

16 points·10 days ago·edited 9 days ago

My son is in the energy business, too. He worries about this.

I always tell him, there is no reason to be the “bad guy” at parties. First, fossil fuels have contributed immensely to human well-being—there’s just no question about that. And, until we learned about climate change, there was little reason to doubt they had, on balance, a good ecological role. I live in a cold place (Massachusetts) that requires heating for people to survive. It would be a wasteland if people were still heating with wood. Wood heat denuded the entire NE, causing massive erosion and soil loss. Fossil fuels had in this case profound positive effects.

Now… climate change is a different matter.

Broadly speaking, it seems to me that there are two kind of fossil fuel companies, those which have decided they are energy companies, and those which have decided they are oil and gas companies. The former are adapting to the new reality, heavily investing in alternative energy and working to innovate; the latter are fighting progress. (I hope you are lucky enough to work for one of the former!) The former will continue to be indispensable to modern society. Note that almost all of the essential development of solar panels–what transformed them from laboratory curiosities at Bell Labs to a workable product–was done by oil and gas companies, which needed to power offshore oil platforms. Until China entered the market, Big Oil made the overwhelming majority of solar panels. Some companies will continue in that tradition and eventually build and maybe operate huge renewable facilities, especially with technologies like offshore wind.

What about the latter type of company? They will become, eventually and grudgingly, suppliers of raw materials for other industries–oil, gas, coal tar, etc., are essential modern raw materials. That’s a smaller role, but not one to be ashamed of. Still, I’d rather be working inside one of the first type, working to push the transition to renewables, which is what my son is doing.

Readers, what do you think about taxonomies?

Glenn D. Fogel, CEO and the significance or not of headset mics

Got interested recently in Bookings Holdings (BKNG) when I learned the company that owns is the seventh largest internet company in the world (and largest in the category “travel”).

An early step if you are curious about a company is to do a Google image search of the CEO. 

Let’s run this test for Glenn D. Fogel, CEO of Booking Holdings. 

On first two rows of first page: one two three photos where Glenn Fogle is wearing a TED talk style headset mic.

Is this:

  1. the sign of a successful CEO in a booming field in 2018?
  2. possible mark of a true TED talk era huckster?

There may be more options than that, such as “both.”

What about CEO Gillian Tans?

Tans was ranked by the organization Inspiring Fifty on their 50 Most Inspirational Women in Dutch Technology list.


Warren Buffett on why Coke is so good

jump to 6:42:

(h/t Naval Ravikant.  )

Ended up watching this whole Buffett Q&A.  If you watch other Buffett talks he does tend to repeat himself.  This one is good.

Interesting to me how much Buffett talks about two companies, See’s and Coca-Cola, that have an emotional connection to the consumer.  The results of that might be in the balance sheet, but the reason is beyond numbers.  A genius of Buffett to combine cold technical investment analysis with being, like, the ultimate late 20th century American consumer.

As for Coke, the only new drink I know of that people drink five or six of a day is:


John Lanchester

One example I saw when I was researching Whoops!, my book on the crisis, was in Baltimore. There people going to buy houses for the first time would turn up at the mortgage company’s office and be told: ‘Look, I’m really sorry, I know we said we’d be able to get you a loan at 6 per cent, but something went wrong at the bank, so the number on here is 12 per cent. But listen, I know you want to come out of here owning a house today – that’s right isn’t it, you do want to leave this room owning your own house for the first time? – so what I suggest is, since there’s a lot of paperwork to get through, you sign it, and we sort out this issue with the loan later, it won’t be a problem.’ That is a flat lie: the loan was fixed and unchangeable and the contract legally binding, but under Maryland law, the principle is caveat emptor, so the mortgage broker can lie as much as they want, since the onus is on the other party to protect their own interests. The result, just in Baltimore, was tens of thousands of people losing their homes. The charity I talked to had no idea where many of those people were: some of them were sleeping in their cars, some of them had gone back to wherever they came from outside the city, others had just vanished. And all that predatory lending was entirely legal.

strikes again in LRB (link, free).

Napoleon said something interesting: that to understand a person, you must understand what the world looked like when he was twenty. I think there’s a lot in that.


I notice, talking to younger people, people who hit that Napoleonic moment of turning twenty since the crisis, that the idea of capitalism being thought of as morally superior elicits something between an eye roll and a hollow laugh. Their view of capitalism has been formed by austerity, increasing inequality, the impunity and imperviousness of finance and big technology companies, and the widespread spectacle of increasing corporate profits and a rocketing stock market combined with declining real pay and a huge growth in the new phenomenon of in-work poverty. That last is very important. For decades, the basic promise was that if you didn’t work the state would support you, but you would be poor. If you worked, you wouldn’t be. That’s no longer true: most people on benefits are in work too, it’s just that the work doesn’t pay enough to live on. That’s a fundamental breach of what used to be the social contract. So is the fact that the living standards of young people are likely not to be as high as they are for their parents. That idea stings just as much for parents as it does for their children.


Shake Shack fries

The fries at Shake Shack are what I hoped Micro Magic fries would taste like, in my boyhood:

Anybody ever eat things?  The packaging was attractive.  They fooled me quite a few times.

Perhaps they failed in attempting to live up to an idea of a “fry.”  A fry is firm, and Micro Magic just couldn’t get there.  But they were making a salty mushed potato product that might’ve been attractive on its own terms.

A taxonomy error, perhaps.

Google led me to that image of Micro Magic fries on the website of New Adult Contemporary Romance author Jennifer Friess (don’t know if it’s a coincidence that her name is fries)

There was really a period there where the expectations put on the microwave were insane.  Supermarkets were full of hallucinatory projections of what was gonna come out of the microwave.


The word amid

In attempts to make narratives out of the movements of a stock’s price on a given day, the word “amid” does a lot of work.

Other articles at different places cited the Trump administration’s confused policies towards Chinese investment in tech as “stoking investor fears.”

That’s another phrase you come across a lot.

“Making investors jittery.”  “Market jitters amid fears of…”

I’m struggling to decide whether, when we talk about why a stock or the stock market does something, we’re all that much different than those ancient diviners who pored over sheep entrails for clues to the future.

Jastrow on Wikipedia did the service of taking this photo of Akkadian liver models at the Louvre (of Jay Z and Beyonce fame)

In the popular business press, the explanations given for stock price movement are so often oversimplified or misleading. The gun stocks fallacy an insidious case.

‘Twas ever thus I guess.  “Amid” is a safe choice if the real answer is “who can say why it went up or down?”

I here perceive a bias towards narrative in a world that’s absurd and often ridiculous.

Reminded of E. M. Forster in Aspects Of The Novel.

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. “The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot.

Amid is a word that lets you muddy up the distinction between story and plot.