You are not so smart

A brilliant, readable and humbling guide to the way our brains work. And the ways they don’t.   

Mad Men finale (spoilers)

Don’t read this if you’ve not seen the final episode.

I’ve just finished watching the finale and what an unexpected finish. But yet it all makes perfect sense and we’d been given clues all along the way.

Don has spent the final series trying to find love and family life and been rebuffed at every turn. He gets divorced, Sterling Cooper leaves him, his dying wife rejects him and even the daughter of the woman who’s husband’s name he steals is too messed up to be family for him.

In the final episode, he only connects with his inner pain through a stranger’s dream – the tale of how an ordinary man thinks everyone else is having fun and he’s left on the fridge shelf locked away – like an unwanted product.

Don’s can’t find inner peace by chanting Om with the seekers on the clifftop, but he recognises how such moments move other people. His sudden smile is not soulful enlightenment, but for a marketing insight. It literally dawns on him, “Well this would make a great Coke ad”

He has failed at finding true happiness, so he goes back to selling it to other people.

He leaves the retreat, goes back to McCann and makes that Coca-Cola ad.

As Peggy says, he’s gone home.

Apple Watch and remote control eject buttons

We didn’t have tech culture magazines back in the 80s. There were things like Computer Shopper and probably Tandy catalogues, but, with perhaps the exception of nascent video game mags, no-one loved the change of experience that was coming – it was all about hardware and tech specs. God, it was dull.

I distinctly remember reading an article about a new CD player in a solemn hi-fi publication. The reviewer found it hilarious that the remote control had an eject button. He thought it must clearly have been an oversight as what was the point in ejecting a CD from across the room? You had to go to the machine anyway, so who needed such a button?

Of course, all remote controls now have such buttons. No-one needs them, but little, marginal conveniences all add up to a better product experience.

But people don’t like change. It makes them uncomfortable. And it’s much easier to direct that inner discomfort externally with left-brain scoffing about why something won’t work and asking whether people realy need them.

The Apple Watch reminds me of that review. I took delivery of mine this week and I know this is the start of something.

The killer benefit of the Watch is that you spend less time needing to fish your phone out of your pocket, unlocking it and navigating to the app you need.

Now text messages, sports scores, walking directions and more are a simple glance away. Leave the phone in your pocket, your bag or on the kitchen table.

That doesn’t sound like a huge existing problem being solved, but when you experience the simpler, smoother experience, you don’t want to go back.

It’s a bit like having the CD already ejected by the time you’ve walked over to the player.

An authentic brand tone of voice

Bob Dylan, speaking at Musicares

Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.”

Charging for services : value v cost

A guy wakes up one Sunday morning to find the kitchen flooded. Water is spurting everywhere and things are getting ruined. 

He tracks down a plumber who arrives to a fraught family scene. ‘Thank god you’re here’, says the dad. 

The plumber surveys the situation, pulls a tool out of his bag and stops the burst immediately. 

‘That’s fantastic’, says the guy, ‘how much do I owe you?’

‘£100’ says the plumber. 

‘£100?’. says the dad. ‘It only took you two minutes!’

‘No’, says the plumber, ‘that took me 25 years’ 

Ogilvy on the unconscious

I totally love (and belive in) this:

Asked about where he gets the big ideas of his campaigns, he replied that “big ideas in all fields come from only one place: the unconscious. Nobody’s ever had a big idea by a process of rational thought.” He described his process of digesting as much research material as possible, followed by “a good dinner and a bottle of claret, and then I got the idea from my unconscious. I won’t say I was totally unconscious after the claret, but I wasn’t at my best — except my unconscious mind was working and sent a telegram to my conscious mind.”


Tech wishlist for 2015

10. A Whatsapp client for Mac 

9. The Instagram app to allow multiple accounts

8. Twitter to let good developers use the APIs again (we love Tweetbot)

7. Apple Messages to play properly with SMS

6. The FT to make friends with Apple and release a native app

5. Zynga to fix the bugs in Words with Friends

4. An Apple TV app store

3. Pocket/Instapaper to allow offline video capture

2. iTunes to get a proper redesign

1. Things 3 to finally be released

MotU #6: Babel fishes, colour clocks and really secret santas

Stuff you knew you needed to know… and stuff you didn’t

What colour is it? 
Specific colours are described by hex numbers. This is a neat way to catalogue 16.7m possibilities in just six characters. But what colour is #063551? Wonder no more with this web clock that constantly changes its background to match the hex equivalent of the current time. Put it on your second monitor and see when it’s time for teal.  
Douglas Adams foresaw our tech future perhaps better than anyone else. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was itself a premonition of Wikipedia, and contained wondrous – but surely impossible – concepts such as the real-time translating Babel Fish. Well, hang on to your comfort towels because the resurgent post-Ballmer Microsoft has had a go a doing this with Skype Translator – described by some as the most futuristic thing I’ve ever used.   
Fascist dystopian iPad game of the week 
Papers Please really shouldn’t work. In this showy, freemium era, charging $8 for a totalitarian border guard sim with 8-bit graphics from the ZX Spectrum era sounds crazy. But the game works by disconcertingly putting you in the shoes of a lowly passport checker, making life-changing decisions under pressure whilst protecting your family. The moral dilemmas hit home hard.  
Privacy international has created a neat bit of content marketing to highlight issues of personal freedom in an era of government spying. Santa has been ordered to turn over his nice or naughty list and has discovered unsettling modifications to the children’ presents he’s delivering…  
Mails of the Unexpected will be back in the new year. Merry Xmas.

MotU #5: Beautiful, untranslatable words

Stuff you knew you needed to know… and stuff you didn’t

It’s probably testament to the dangers of pride, but aren’t we often told how wonderful English is, how rich it is, and how its speakers are the only ones who really get puns? That is, of course, nonsense. The human condition consists of far too dense a weave to be defined by any single language. This humbling incompleteness is demonstrated brilliantly by Lost in Translation: an illustrated catalog[ue] of beautiful untranslatable words from around the world. How many of us recognise the bittersweet pleasure of Trepverter? 

Coca-Cola is getting into milk. If this feels slightly startling, it’s worth remembering that the Real Thing does far more than just the Real thing. It’s already a market leader in carbonates, energy drinks and water. The nationwide launch of premium priced Fairlife is due next year. 
Still on the topic of beverages, can the colour of cups affect your perception of flavour? This coffee-tasting study suggests that it can. Apparently, that flat white will seem more bitter in a white cup. Smileys are taking over the world. Emojis, those colourful little characters we add to messages, have become so popular that the gatekeepers of text standards arehaving to evolve their thinking to keep up. Not only are there now more diverse characters available, but a new system will ensure the Unicode standard is quicker at responding to new suggestions. Check out the wonderful Emojipedia (yes, really) for the most requested new characters.

Blockchain is bigger than you think

Blockchain is looking like a seriously transformative technology – maybe as big an idea as http or bittorrent. 

Here’s a great primer. It looks techy, but is very readable.


Sample wow quote, “Companies like Ebay, Facebook and Uber are very valuable because they benefit tremendously from the network effects that come from keeping all user information in centralized in private silos and taking a cut of all the transactions. Decentralized protocols on top of the blockchain have the potential to undo every single part of the stacks that make these services valuable to consumers and investors. They can do this by, for example, creating common, decentralized data sets to which any one can plug into, and enabling peer to peer transactions powered by Bitcoin.”


MotU #4: Why we wear lucky pants

Stuff you knew you needed to know

Unfeasibly, there are people still watching Gangnam Style. So many in fact, that YouTube have had to update their view counter to 64 bits after after the video passed 2,147,483,647 views –  the largest integer presentable in 32 bits. The new max is a lasso-twirling nine quintillion. Op, op, op, op.

Microsoft closed the clipart library. What will leaden 60 page corporate decks be without 2D images of handshakes? Never forget – power corrupts, and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.

Google is getting rid of CAPTCHAs – those annoying identity checks where you have to re-type images of distorted text. Spambots have got too good at them, so they’ll be replaced by background algorithmic boffinry instead. Btw, did you know that CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart?

… and stuff you didn’t

The great glass elevator is real Remember Willy Wonka’s scary lift that could move up, down and sideways? Well, ThyssenKrupp, everyone’s favourite German multinational conglomerate, just announced a magnet-guided, ropeless system that will free architects from the tyranny of vertical shafts and open up options for very different building shapes.

One way that sci-fi movies convey a sense of otherness is through typefaces. Dave Addey did a quite beautiful teardown on 2001: A Space Odyssey earlier in the year and this fantastic look at the iconography of Alien has just, er, burst out of him.

Podcast of the week covers the Post Hoc fallacy and explains why pattern-matching humans can’t help linking up things that just shouldn’t be linked up (and how con men use it to rip us off). As no schoolboy these days knows, the full latin phrase is post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) but you can think of it as ‘why people wear lucky pants’.

MotU #3: How many coins in the jar?

Stuff you knew you needed to know

About 10 years after the term was coined, are podcasts entering a golden age? Certainly, intelligent content is no longer the preserve of the BBC. 99% Invisible has been impressing for a while, but this season’s mega-hit is Serial – a real-life crime documentary where Twin Peaks meets the Wire. Do try it. Apps are getting better too – Overcast calls out to be trialled with its clever smart speed feature
Amazon appears to be getting into travel. Skift reports that the retailer-phone-maker-cloud-computing giant has approached hoteliers about listing on Amazon Travel. Does their brand and expertise stretch that far? 
Under Steve Jobs, Apple didn’t do societal stuff. Tim Cook has changed that enormously. The company finally started charity donations and campaigns for workplace equality (see also Cook’s beautiful coming out essay). This year, for World AIDS day, they’re promoting special (RED) editions of apps. It’s very impressive. The peerless Monument Valley special edition is a must.

… and stuff you didn’t

Passwords are our private diaries. Memorable and unguessable by necessity, they become a safe haven for our personal in-jokes and unspoken fantasies. The Secret Life of Passwords delves into what they say about us. 
App of the week. Remember Draw Something? If you liked the smash hit Pictionary-style drawing/guessing game, then check out Draw Type – it’s a keyboard add-on for iPhone that takes Emojis one stage further by letting you draw cute (or unsavoury) images for sending by SMS or WhatsApp. 
Can the internet count coins as well as a bank machine? An experiment at Stanford University is testing the wisdom of crowds by inviting all-comers to guess the value of coins in this jar. Make your guess by Dec 8.

MotU #2: Edison and the brass balls

Stuff you knew you needed to know

Hotel California has been found in Cupertino. Sir Jony Ive revealed that the design team at Apple is a suitably minimalist 18 people. And no-one has ever left. That tight-knit crew just unveiled Apple Watch kit – the tool for making apps for next year’s wearable wonder. Two new UI concepts to note: Glances and Actionable Notifications.

Hoodie-fan Mark Zuckerberg has been cracking the whip at Facebook. After successfully (but not without friction) spinning off Messenger into a separate app, he’s rumoured to be working on Facebook for work and has also just released a separate Groups app. This is very on-trend and reflects the move to single-purpose apps. Making an app for your company? Beware the false idol of the ‘one stop shop’.


Monetising content has long been a thorny problem. Startups like Millipay are focusing on micropayments for publishers whereas Google is testing Contributor – a paid service that replaces ads with thank you messages. 

… and stuff you didn’t

25 years ago, an artist installed an encrypted sculpture called Kryptos outside the CIA’s headquarters. It contained four encoded puzzles designed to challenge the spooks eating their lunch. Three of these brain teasers have longed been cracked, but the fourth has withstood all-comers. The artist this week revealed a clue that might finally uncover its hidden secrets. Cryptography is arguably the most important science of this century, and I recommend Simon Singh’s book as a readable primer.

Alongside managing distraction mentioned last week, another theme I expect to return to regularly is accessing creativity. John Cleese is (not?) surprisingly a champion of this, and this week told a wonderful anecdote about the prolifically inventive Thomas Edison,

“[Edison] thought that he got his best inventions when he was on the verge of falling asleep, and he used to sit in a chair holding ball bearings in his hands, with a brass bowl under his hands, so that when he fell asleep he’d drop the ball bearings and the noise would wake him up, and in that way he could spend quite a long period of time in that twilight area between being very tired and actually falling asleep, and that’s when he said he got most of his ideas”

Mails of the Unexpected

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Stuff you knew you needed to know

Twitter released the most awkward strategy statement in interweb history to widespread snorting.

Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.

Surely the sweating fruit of an overlong meeting, it waddles in at 220 characters and ambitiously contains the word ‘world’ three times. As Jon Gruber points out, if any company should be able to fit its strategy into a single tweet, it’s Twitter.

Generate your own Twitter Strategy Statement here

The reinvention of Microsoft continues apace. Things that would have been previously undoable are blinking into the Redmond daylight. Office for iOS is now (sort of) free and whilst the Microsoft Band may not be as tasteful as the Apple Watch, it is here.

And what’s up with Amazon? The Fire phone appears to have been a damp squiband the new Kindle disappeared off my wishlist after this review. Their new “Siri in a can” Echo device feels like a solution in search of a problem. Imagine the faff of moving it from room to room when you already have a phone with you.

… and stuff you didn’t

Managing distraction is something I expect to return to regularly. I think history will characterise this era as when we struggled to balance the sudden, wonderful access to everything with finding the protected calm we need to process thoughts.

That’s why the Hemingwrite is both brilliant and contrary. A typewriter with a simple screen, it reimagines the word processors of the 1980s and creates a distraction-free writing environment. The kicker is that it does have internet access, but only for Dropbox and Google Drive backup.

Spot when a salesman is playing you. Be aware of the feel, felt, found sales technique. I understand that you don’t want to click that link, but I showed someone yesterday – and he loved it!

Simplifying things. I love the anecdote that design isn’t finished when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away. This calculator app is beautifully minimalist and even manages to remove the ‘equals’ button.

Inventing a past for a brand of the future

There’s an excellent interview in the FT Weekend [requires registration, but worth it] with restaurateur Jeremy King. He’s about to open his first hotel, and during the interview he displays an excellent approach to brand and experience building.

The Beaumont Hotel is a new name and a totally new build, but by imagining a convincing backstory, he’s got a tool he can use to explain to everyone else in the project what the vision is. It’s a great technique and I’m sure will lead to an appealing and coherent customer experience.

He tells me the story he imagined for his new hotel, complete with fictitious founder James “Jimmy” Beaumont. Jimmy, an American mid-westerner from farming stock, was working as the general manager of the Carlyle in New York.

“One day he is chatting to some guests, bemoaning that there he is in New York and it’s 1926, prohibition’s really taken hold and the only people having fun are at the speakeasies. New York’s getting violent, the hotel is quiet and incredibly boring because you can’t serve a drink and he says to these ladies, ‘I’ve had enough. I want to get out of the business’ and they persuade him not to. They say, “Go abroad, everybody’s getting excited about the Caribbean or Cuba, go somewhere else – Paris? No, the language. Well, how about London?”

King imagines the “original” hotel was peopled by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, legendary CBS reporter Ed Murrow . . .

“Of course,” says King, “you’d never know this but the photographs, the art in the hotel . . . they all tell this story.”