Watch ‘The Big Short’, then read ‘Being Wrong’

Last week we went to see The Big Short (Adam McKay), about a group of outsiders who find a way to profit off what they accurately predict to be the housing bubble of 2007.

For a Hollywood production, ‘The Big Short’ tells its story in a strange way. Big names like Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell routinely break the fourth wall, ham it up only to tell you “it all actually happened exactly like this”, and wear silly wigs. Presumably, ‘The Big Short”s unconventionality is another way to explore its Cassandra theme of outsiders and underdogs speaking an untimely and unpalatable truth. – Well, whatever the reason, I thought it made for a funny movie.

On ‘Being Wrong’

As a portrait of that Big Wrong of our time, ‘The Big Short’ makes a great side dish to Being Wrong, by Kathryn Schulz. Which is the book the Amsterdam Nonfictionados are currently reading for their 3rd meetup. (Naturally, Schulz references the financial crisis a number of times, seeing how many people were wrong back then.)

Schulz has a TED Talk about her book (see below). But you’d be wrong to conclude from there being a TED Talk that ‘Being Wrong’ is some upbeat plea tailored to startup CEOs about the life-altering lessons you can only learn through failing. It’s actually a very philosophical book, quoting the likes of Plato, William James, and modern age neurologists, and carefully navigating the sandbanks surrounding concepts like ‘belief’ and ‘fact’. 

Why are we wrong so often? Why does being right feel so good? Why are we willing to bankrupt entire nations, instead of practicing some humility? What does our endless capacity for error tell us about the world out there? And why do our errors make for such funny stories and movies?

Schulz goes into all that, and more. So go read it, and then join us!


First short story in a long time: ‘GLAN party’

I spent December 2016 writing ‘GLAN party’, my first short story in a long, long time. It’s about a LAN party in the future.

The story is in English, and though it’s not entirely done yet (I’m waiting for reactions from some critical readers and I might still edit a bit), you can read ‘GLAN party’ on Medium.

‘GLAN party’ started out as a Twine game, but I quickly soured on Twine’s unsatisfying blend of narrative and game play. There are some great Twine games out there, but they’re not something I enjoy writing.

Here’s what I learned:

  • To write a short story, basically you have to sit down and write. That’s the only real requirement. You can make the process as convoluted as you like, and I’ll want to tweak mine a bit more. But the story will never exist if you don’t sit down (or stand up, sure) and write every word of it. I find that an empowering thought: because that means if you can find the time to sit down long enough, you can write anything you like.
  • Start with the end in mind. They told me over and over again, and I didn’t listen. Turns out they were right. I think it ends okay, for a simple A to Z plot. But for my next story, I going to think about the end a bit before I start writing.
  • Try to solicit some more criticism, earlier in the writing process. I recently met ‘hybrid novelist’ Niels ‘t Hooft, who polls his readers during his writing and after their reading. Seems like a good idea.

Here’s what I’m happy with:

  • The English used in the story, though rather cryptic according to some early reactions, is very much how I wanted it for this story. I like puzzling over fiction, as the higher payoff you get from that has been one of the joys for this non-native speaker wrestling through Melville and Nabokov. Also, it helps sustain the futurism angle, by creating a bit of distance between it and the English of our familiar world. For a next story in English, though, I might tone it down a bit. (Actually, my first story after this one will be in Dutch, at the request of Niels.)
  • The idea of mobile computers morphing into brightly colored, childlike replicants in our lifetime (or a lifetime that closely resembles ours). To go online, pull them on your lap and cuddle them.

Here’s what I’m unhappy with:

  • The world is a bit tongue-in-cheek, with tubers riding around (get it?), and krilldogs, and embodied computing. The story was meant as a new look at the frustrating yet satisfying experience of organizing a LAN party. But because of those ‘funny’ ‘ideas’ it will now be read as satire. That’s on me.
  • The ending. How do LAN parties end?  The same way you go broke: gradually, then suddenly. So that means the party had to end with a bit of an anticlimax. Say your goodbyes, and that’s that. True to life perhaps, but not a very satisfying read per se.

What I’m going to do next:

  • Write another story, again with a science fiction angle (sorry!), but in Dutch.  I’m reworking a dream I had last year into a setup right now, and want to write the story, start to finish, in February. (So expect it in March.)

Charles seems to like it.

Data, learnings, $$$

Best thing from the Facebook Instant Articles story, for me, was that I discovered this interview with BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, from re/code.

In it, Peretti explains how the company thinks about online publishing and making money. (Which BuzzFeed does: the company was valued at $850 million, based on earnings of around $120 million for 2014 alone.)

How does BuzzFeed make money? They make content, learn what works, then use that knowledge to make ads. Not bad ads, not informercials. BuzzFeed makes the best ads there are: an article or video you’ll want to read and share. The brand might not even have to get mentioned – that’s how good an ad it will be. Example 1, example 2. (Via. BuzzFeed’s so good, I had trouble finding examples.)

Eyeballs follow content

BuzzFeed gave up on the idea of the website as the destination as of March 2015. BuzzFeed officially no longer cares where people view their articles. Because they’re not in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers. And yet, BuzzFeed makes money regardless.

This in itself will sound revolutionary to some publishers. A lot of publishers think online publishing is about pageviews, literally people looking at your webpage. Strange idea, really: People never bought a newspaper because it was made of paper. People bought a newspaper because of the articles in it. If those articles were printed on a cow, they’d read cows. Likewise, people don’t come to your site because it is a website. People visit a website because there’s content on it.

Still, this is how a lot of publishers think: people visit websites. And if you think people visit your website, you’ll also want to make money off that website. You’ll show banners, next to the content. Then suddenly it becomes important where visitors view your content. Because your webpage is the only place you have control over what ads are shown.

If this is your model, Facebook Instant Articles may seem like a threat. (Kind of: Facebook will still pay you a share of any money they make off your content.)

As BuzzFeed figured out early on, however, online publishing was never about pageviews. People don’t ‘visit sites’ for fun. People want an interesting read, or a well-produced video, never mind where. Online publishing is about getting people to look at your content. Never mind where they read it. So to BuzzFeed, Facebook Instant Articles looks like a giant opportunity.

Data first, learnings second, money last

Why do people read your content? Why was it shared? Once you figure out how to capture people’s attention in a sustainable way, you can sell that knowledge. That’s what BuzzFeed sells to advertisers.

So it’s only natural BuzzFeed would care so much about this form of knowledge, that they named it 1 of the 2 essential resources they get from publishing content. Below is BuzzFeeds own illustration of their business model. Content out, money and data in. It’s not advertisers: it’s through continuous learning that BuzzFeed makes money.

I love that they actually made an infographic to share this insight with their writers:

Data, learnings, money.

Data, learnings, money. Picture: BuzzFeed


Adieu Android, Hello iPhone!

I was going to write a long post about why I’m switching from Android to iOS, but then Nick Pierno read my mind.

Sure, there are some differences: For example, he’s turning in his Nexus 5, I had a 2 year old HTC One S (more on that below). He’s getting a 6, I’m getting a 5S. But we’re turning to iPhones for the same reasons:

  • Better camera
  • TouchID
  • Better hardware
  • Early access to great software (1)

Then there’s the fact that Apple and Google have totally different views on technology. In his interview this week with Charlie Rose, Tim Cook said: “We have hundreds and millions of customers. So it’s a very rare instance that there’s been any data asked. And one of the reasons is, we don’t keep a lot.” Apple already made their money when they sold you the iPhone. They don’t need to store your messages on their servers to milk them for keywords.

To me, that illustrates a broader theme, that started to emerge very clearly after this year’s WWDC and Google’s I/O: Google uses technology to do cool but strange stuff (Google Glass!, Project Tango!), Apple uses technology to create great consumer electronics (iPad!). In the last couple of years, at least as far as consumer electronics are concerned, I realized I actually like Apple’s view point better.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that iOS8 finally adds Extensions and 3rd party keyboards. It will make the transition much easier. I can’t imagine how you iPhone people lived without being able to swype-input text.

I’m looking forward to my new iPhone. But to really make a clean transition, I need some closure first…

HTC: You did this to yourself

You screwed me over, HTC. No updates? For a year-old phone? After all those years I had been telling people HTC made the best Android phones?

We both know the One S could have used that update, too… Crashes, laggy widgets, that thing where the phone would think my head phone had a mic, and would start calling my contacts. And all those 3rd party apps that you can’t uninstall? Is this my phone, or theirs? I paid for that storage space! You robbed me, HTC! Not only of my phone’s storage space – you robbed me of my hopes for Android being a contender…

1. Semil Shah spoke the truth on ‘iOS first’