March 17, 2018 in 5,074 words

The difference between a snafu, a shitshow, and a clusterfuck


Let’s say the situation at work is not good. The project (or product, or re-org, or whatever) has launched, and the best you can say is that things aren’t going as planned. At all. It’s a disaster, though the best word for it is the one you drop over drinks with your team and when venting at home: it’s a clusterfuck.

Clusterfucks hold a special place in public life, one distinct from the complications, crises, and catastrophes that mar our personal and professional existences. The F-Word, former Oxford English Dictionary editor Jesse Sheidlower’s comprehensive history of the term, defines a clusterfuck as “a bungled or confused undertaking or situation.” Stanford business professor Bob Sutton goes further, describing clusterfucks as “those debacles and disasters caused by a deadly brew of illusion, impatience, and incompetence that afflicts too many decision-makers, especially those in powerful, confident, and prestigious groups.”

The term dates at least as far back as the Vietnam War, as military slang for doomed decisions resulting from the toxic combination of too many high-ranking officers and too little on-the-ground information. (The “cluster” part of the word allegedly refers to officers’ oak leaf cluster insignia.)

“I have a weird obsession with clusterfucks,” Sutton tells Quartz At Work. He and Stanford Graduate School of Business colleague Huggy Rao took on the topic directly in their 2014 book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, though publishers demanded that the softer substitute “clusterfug” appear in the final text. (This was not Sutton’s choice: His other books include The No Asshole Rule and The Asshole Survival Guide.)

To appreciate what a clusterfuck is—and to understand how to avoid one—it is first helpful to clarify some of the things a clusterfuck is not

We’re All Watching the Donald Trump Show

And that’s just how he likes it.

The Donald Trump Show starring America’s Shithole

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the latest torrent of “White House in chaos” headlines is the degree to which President Trump seems to be enjoying it all.

He isn’t lashing out in anger over the breathless Beltway speculation about which aide or cabinet secretary he will fire next. He isn’t acting swiftly to tamp down coverage of the ongoing shakeup, or to change the news cycle, or to return the administration to a state of relative calm and stability. Instead, it appears, he’s leaning into the maelstrom—relishing it, joking about it, maybe even courting it.

“So many people have been leaving the White House,” Trump said at the Gridiron Dinner earlier this month. “It’s actually been really exciting and invigorating ’cause you want new thought. So, I like turnover. I like chaos. It really is good.” Then, he joked, “Now the question everyone keeps asking is, ‘Who is going to be the next to leave? Steve Miller or Melania?’

This week, as cable-news talking heads obsessed over the tumult in Trumpworld, the president took in the coverage “with amusement,” according to the Associated Press. Discussing the staff shakeup in the Oval Office with his vice president and chief of staff, Trump reportedly laughed and quipped, “Who’s next?”

And on Thursday, Trump did little to cool the fevered D.C. chatter about more impending departures, telling reporters, “There will always be change.”

The Nazis fooled the world for 16 days in 1936—and we’re allowing it to happen again


He only spoke once.

During just 16 days in 1936, Adolf Hitler reinvigorated the Nazi party in one of his most successful propaganda coups—hosting the Olympic games in Berlin. Using the sporting event as a platform to shape the party’s image in a more favorable light, Hitler had “every reason to be satisfied” after he and Nazi officials charmed their global counterparts, the historian Oliver Hilmes told Quartz.

“In the 1930s, Nazi Germany had a major image problem after a series of provocations and broken promises,” he says. “But the Olympic games played a major role is showing his ‘friendly face’ and presenting the country as an open-minded and tolerant one, even as a friendly member with the wider community.”

This was quite a feat because only months before the Olympics, the unified forces of Nazi Germany, the Wehrmacht, basically wiped its feet with the Treaty of Versailles and marched into the demilitarized zone of Rhineland.

This is worth remembering today. After a year in which North Korea put the rest of the world on edge with its frequent missile tests and chilling propaganda, there was much cooing over the authoritarian state marching in unison with South Korea at the Winter Olympics, and the presence of some hermit state officials. Meanwhile, two countries with horrendous track records for human rights and corruption, Russia and Qatar, are gearing up to host football World Cups in 2018 and 2022.

The hottest trend in AI is perfect for creating fake media


Real talk on fake news.

Artificial intelligence researchers have a new best friend: the “generative adversarial network.” But the flip side of this technology, which can help us enhance images and train medical algorithms, is that GANs will make hoaxes, doctored video, and forged voice clips easier to execute than ever before.

At a basic level, a GAN is two neural networks trying to trick each other. But to understand why this technology is so applicable to “fake news,” or faked media of any kind, you have to know how it works. Let’s break it down in reverse order, which is counter-intuitive but will make more sense in the long run.


Two neural networks pitted against each other—what does that mean?

Neural networks take data and break it into tiny pieces, then calculate the relationships between those pieces to understand the data. That might be confusing, but it’s basically the idea that allows a machine to look at two pictures of dogs and discern that they are different individual animals, but both dogs. Think of it like memorizing the mathematic formula for the idea of a dog: four protruding structures for legs, plus triangular ears, plus a shape like a snout, plus a tail, plus fur. Equals a dog.

One neural network is taking these formulas and applying them to generate what it thinks the answer for “dog” is, based on all the dogs its creator has shown it in the past. The second network has also been trained on real dogs; it judges whether what the first network came up with is a real dog or not. That second network doesn’t know that a fake dog is fake, or that the whole system is built to create fake-dog images. It’s just determining whether what it sees is a real dog, by its understanding, or not.

Reddit and the Struggle to Detoxify the Internet

How do we fix life online without limiting free speech?

Which Web sites get the most traffic? According to the ranking service Alexa, the top three sites in the United States, as of this writing, are Google, YouTube, and Facebook. (Porn, somewhat hearteningly, doesn’t crack the top ten.) The rankings don’t reflect everything—the dark Web, the nouveau-riche recluses harvesting bitcoin—but, for the most part, people online go where you’d expect them to go. The only truly surprising entry, in fourth place, is Reddit, whose astronomical popularity seems at odds with the fact that many Americans have only vaguely heard of the site and have no real understanding of what it is. A link aggregator? A microblogging platform? A social network?

To its devotees, Reddit feels proudly untamed, one of the last Internet giants to resist homogeneity. Most Reddit pages have a throwback aesthetic, with a few crudely designed graphics and a tangle of text: an original post, comments on the post, responses to the comments, responses to the responses. That’s pretty much it. Reddit is made up of more than a million individual communities, or subreddits, some of which have three subscribers, some twenty million. Every subreddit is devoted to a specific kind of content, ranging from vital to trivial: r/News, r/Politics, r/Trees (for marijuana enthusiasts), r/MarijuanaEnthusiasts (for tree enthusiasts), r/MildlyInteresting (“for photos that are, you know, mildly interesting”). Some people end up on Reddit by accident, find it baffling, and never visit again. But people who do use it—redditors, as they’re called—often use it all day long, to the near-exclusion of anything else. “For a while, we called ourselves the front page of the Internet,” Steve Huffman, Reddit’s C.E.O., said recently. “These days, I tend to say that we’re a place for open and honest conversations—‘open and honest’ meaning authentic, meaning messy, meaning the best and worst and realest and weirdest parts of humanity.”

On November 23, 2016, shortly after President Trump’s election, Huffman was at his desk, in San Francisco, perusing the site. It was the day before Thanksgiving. Reddit’s administrators had just deleted a subreddit called r/Pizzagate, a forum for people who believed that high-ranking staffers of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, and possibly Clinton herself, were trafficking child sex slaves. The evidence, as extensive as it was unpersuasive, included satanic rituals, a map printed on a handkerchief, and an elaborate code involving the words “cheese” and “pizza.” In only fifteen days of existence, the Pizzagate subreddit had attracted twenty thousand subscribers. Now, in its place, was a scrubbed white page with the message “This community has been banned.”

The reason for the ban, according to Reddit’s administrators, was not the beliefs of people on the subreddit, but the way they’d behaved—specifically, their insistence on publishing their enemies’ private phone numbers and addresses, a clear violation of Reddit’s rules. The conspiracy theorists, in turn, claimed that they’d been banned because Reddit administrators were part of the conspiracy. (Less than two weeks after Pizzagate was banned, a man fired a semiautomatic rifle inside a D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong, in an attempt to “self-investigate” claims that the restaurant’s basement was a dungeon full of kidnapped children. Comet Ping Pong does not have a basement.)



Sondra Perry, Installation view, Typhoon coming on.

Sondra Perry is an abstract artist known for using technology to examine systematic, racialized violence. Her latest offering is an all-consuming installation that, in many ways, feels inescapable, yet necessary in this day and age.

Videos showing violence against black people (usually at the hands of white authority figures) crop up on social media like clockwork. These grainy videos—of young black girls being slammed to the floor, young black men being kicked in the head and punched in the face, and black people being shot, often fatally—are nestled between memes and articles vilifying millennials for their avocado consumption. They are often accompanied by viral hashtags, anger that spills onto the streets in the form of protests, which are displayed, dissected, and vilified on the 24-hour news cycle. These images are everywhere, easy to access, and despite the deluge of daily, shocking content, they are, more remarkably, easy to ignore. People can scroll past, change the channel, and most simply, just look away. Like white noise, the violence is ever-present but has since dissipated into the background, like elevator music—it’s there, but easy to tune out.

Perry, a 32-year-old artist from New Jersey, forces visitors of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, London to confront the daily reality of violence against black people and the fraught relationship between black identity and technology. There is no turning it off or turning away. Her latest installation Typhoon Coming On, delivers wave after wave of dread and discomfort. The name of her installation isn’t just metaphorical, it’s one that’s also intimately tied with Britain’s role in the North Atlantic slave trade.

The title Typhoon Coming On is derived from J.M.W Turner’s 1840 famous painting Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On (often known simply as Slave Ship). The 1840 masterpiece depicts one of the worst atrocities committed by the British during the north Atlantic slave trade; in 1781, a ship captain threw sick enslaved Africans members overboard for the insurance money. Some enslaved prisoners jumped willingly. A judge would later rule in that captain’s favor.

China to bar people with bad ‘social credit’ from planes, trains

China said it will begin applying its so-called social credit system to flights and trains and stop people who have committed misdeeds from taking such transport for up to a year.

Passengers wait to board trains ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, at Nanjing Railway Station in Jiangsu province, China January 31, 2018.

People who would be put on the restricted lists included those found to have committed acts like spreading false information about terrorism and causing trouble on flights, as well as those who used expired tickets or smoked on trains, according to two statements issued on the National Development and Reform Commission’s website on Friday.

Those found to have committed financial wrongdoings, such as employers who failed to pay social insurance or people who have failed to pay fines, would also face these restrictions, said the statements which were dated March 2.

It added that the rules would come into effect on May 1.

The move is in line with President’s Xi Jinping’s plan to construct a social credit system based on the principle of “once untrustworthy, always restricted”, said one of the notices which was signed by eight ministries, including the country’s aviation regulator and the Supreme People’s Court.

5 Common Household Products (That Have Crazy Dark Secrets)

We don’t mean to be alarmist, but everything and everybody is trying to kill you. If nuclear winter and climate change don’t get you, auto-erotic asphyxiation certainly will. Really, the only safe thing to do is barricade yourself in a shelter and commit to a life of hermitage and normal, boring wanks. But even embracing life as a bunker weirdo won’t save you. That’s right, your impending death is coming from inside the house.

5. Scented Products Leave Behind Particles That Turn Into Formaldehyde

After a long day, what’s better than lighting a few scented candles, sinking into a hot bath, and surrendering yourself to the sweet smell of death? That’s essentially what you’re doing if you use scented candles, air fresheners, or any number of products that exude fragrant chemicals into the air. These chemicals, once released, react with the ozone to produce formaldehyde — you know, the stuff they use to pickle corpses. Turns out it’s not great to breathe in, causing anything from minor irritation to cancer.

How can any of this be legal? Well, the thing is, the products don’t contain the harmful chemicals themselves, and under the correct circumstances, it’s not a problem. In ye olden days, when people had to endure the horrors of a slight draft now and then, household air circulation was good enough that the formaldehyde particles went right out the window, along with any money you spent on heat. Now those particles are trapped by our energy efficient windows, slowly entombing us with the smell of cinnamon buns. There is hope, though. Certain houseplants can counteract these effects by absorbing the chemicals, so that’s one way to keep your home smelling like an old lady’s purse without risking a slow death.

Though one of those is the spider plant. The last thing you need is some toxic chemical reaction mutating that thing.

Why your work life is so much harder than everyone else’s


The folks in marketing probably didn’t have to wait this long for a train.

“There’s this unbelievable bias and prejudice against quote-unquote good-looking people,” the actor Rob Lowe told the New York Times a few years ago. Directors wouldn’t give Lowe complicated male roles when he was younger, he said, because he was too attractive to be taken seriously.

“Oh, please,” you’re probably thinking. In anticipation of that exact response, the Times titled the interview, “Rob Lowe on the problems of being pretty.”

But, say the authors of a 2016 paper that cites Lowe as an example, the actor’s seemingly clueless response is actually perfectly human. “Lowe’s blindness to how blessed he has been should not be dismissed as a reflection of unusual vanity or a peculiar lack of self-awareness,” write psychology professors Shai Davidai, at The New School of Social Research, and Cornell University’s Thomas Gilovich. In fact, they propose that we all fall victim to the same mode of thinking, highlighting the negative, when we assess what’s working in our lives and what isn’t. They call it the “headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry” phenomenon.

In the introduction to their study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the authors invoke the image of a long-distance runner or cyclist. When runners have an obstacle to overcome, a literal headwind, their minds are naturally more primed to pay attention to it. The forces working in their favor, the tailwinds they experienced earlier, are easily forgotten or minimized, because all those things did was make the run easier. No threat there.



On the wall of a handball court in Brooklyn is a distinctive piece of art created by the graffiti artist Jason Williams, who goes by the name Revok. It looks a bit like a staff in musical notation, squiggling and twisting up and down the wall.

H&M chose to feature Williams’ artwork as the backdrop in a shoot to promote its New Routine activewear line. When Williams saw the ad, he wasn’t happy, and he embarked on a battle that wound up pitting a fast fashion mega-chain against the rights of street artists.

An attorney for Williams first contacted the company, claiming copyright infringement since Williams had never given H&M permission to use his artwork. But H&M fired back, claiming that it didn’t need permission, since Williams had painted the wall illegally. In fact, before H&M shot the video, it asked the New York City parks department if the graffiti belonged to a particular artist, to which a parks representative replied: “This graffiti should NOT have been on the hand ball [sic] wall. Whom ever placed this on the wall caused me to fail this feature when inspected last week.”

A post shared by @_revok_ on

Ultimately, H&M filed a suit asking for a judgment declaring that Williams does not own any copyright on work that was painted without the city’s permission. What it wound up getting was serious heat from artists and others online who thought H&M was using a loophole to steal Williams’ work, potentially setting a bad precedent in court. H&M has now withdrawn the suit voluntarily.

Does anyone have the right to sex?

On 23 May 2014, Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old college dropout, became the world’s most famous ‘incel’ – involuntary celibate. The term can, in theory, be applied to both men and women, but in practice it picks out not sexless men in general, but a certain kind of sexless man: the kind who is convinced he is owed sex, and is enraged by the women who deprive him of it. Rodger stabbed to death his two housemates, Weihan Wang and Cheng Hong, and a friend, George Chen, as they entered his apartment on Seville Road in Isla Vista, California. Three hours later he drove to the Alpha Phi sorority house near the campus of UC Santa Barbara. He shot three women on the lawn, killing two of them, Katherine Cooper and Veronika Weiss. Rodger then went on a drive-by shooting spree through Isla Vista, killing Christopher Michaels-Martinez, also a student at UCSB, with a single bullet to the chest inside a Deli Mart, and wounding 14 others. He eventually crashed his BMW coupé at an intersection. He was found dead by the police, having shot himself in the head.

In the hours between murdering three men in his apartment and driving to Alpha Phi, Rodger went to Starbucks, ordered coffee, and uploaded a video, ‘Elliot Rodger’s Retribution’, to his YouTube channel. He also emailed a 107,000-word memoir-manifesto, ‘My Twisted World: The Story of Elliot Rodger’, to a group of people including his parents, his therapist, former schoolteachers and childhood friends. Together these two documents detail the massacre to come and Rodger’s motivation. ‘All I ever wanted was to fit in and live a happy life,’ he explains at the beginning of ‘My Twisted World’, ‘but I was cast out and rejected, forced to endure an existence of loneliness and insignificance, all because the females of the human species were incapable of seeing the value in me.’

He goes on to describe his privileged and happy early childhood in England – Rodger was the son of a successful British filmmaker – followed by his privileged and unhappy adolescence in Los Angeles as a short, bad-at-sports, shy, weird, friendless kid, desperate to be cool. He writes of dyeing his hair blond (Rodger was half-white and half-Malaysian; blond people were ‘so much more beautiful’); of finding ‘sanctuary’ in Halo and World of Warcraft; being shoved by a pretty girl at summer camp (‘That was the first experience of female cruelty I endured, and it traumatised me to no end’); becoming incensed by the sex lives of his peers (‘How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half-white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves’); dropping out of successive schools and then community college; and fantasising about a political order in which he ruled the world and sex was outlawed (‘All women must be quarantined like the plague they are’). The necessary result of all this, Rodger said, was his ‘War on Women’, in the course of which he would ‘punish all females’ for the crime of depriving him of sex. He would target the Alpha Phi sorority, ‘the hottest sorority of UCSB’, because it contained ‘the very girls who represent everything I hate in the female gender … hot, beautiful blonde girls … spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches’. He would show everyone that he was ‘the superior one, the true alpha male’.

How Cheese, Wheat and Alcohol Shaped Human Evolution

Over time, diet causes dramatic changes to our anatomy, immune systems and maybe skin color

You aren’t what you eat, exactly. But over many generations, what we eat does shape our evolutionary path. “Diet,” says anthropologist John Hawks, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “has been a fundamental story throughout our evolutionary history. Over the last million years there have been changes in human anatomy, teeth and the skull, that we think are probably related to changes in diet.”

As our evolution continues, the crucial role of diet hasn’t gone away. Genetic studies show that humans are still evolving, with evidence of natural selection pressures on genes impacting everything from Alzheimer’s disease to skin color to menstruation age. And what we eat today will influence the direction we will take tomorrow.

Got Milk?

When mammals are young, they produce an enzyme called lactase to help digest the sugary lactose found in their mothers’ milk. But once most mammals come of age, milk disappears from the menu. That means enzymes to digest it are no longer needed, so adult mammals typically stop producing them.

Thanks to recent evolution, however, some humans defy this trend.

Around two-thirds of adult humans are lactose intolerant or have reduced lactose tolerance after infancy. But tolerance varies dramatically depending on geography. Among some East Asian communities, intolerance can reach 90 percent; people of West African, Arab, Greek, Jewish and Italian descent are also especially prone to lactose intolerance.

If you judged the state of tech by what happens at tech conferences, you’d be very worried


An attendee getting activated at SXSW 2018.

I am very tired.

I’ve spent far too much of 2018 on the road at technology conventions. I’ve been to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show; Barcelona for Mobile World Congress; and most recently, Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. Over the course of these weeklong tech bacchanalia, I’ve helped document the biggest announcements, keynote speeches, and experiences that people have been talking about for our pop-up Daily Briefs. It’s been quite a difficult task to sift through the bluster of brand activations, marketing jargon, and buzzy trends to find out what is actually important.

The role of technology should be to improve the quality of our lives in some meaningful way, or at least change our behavior. In years past, these conferences have seen the launch of technologies that have indeed impacted our lives to varying degrees, from the launch of Twitter to car stereos and video games.

And now, we have things like this:

People always ask me what trends I see at these events. There are the usual words I can throw out—VR, AR, blockchain, AI, big data, autonomy, automation, voice assistants, 3D-printing, drones—the list is endless, and invariably someone will write some piece on each of these at every event. But it’s rare to see something truly novel, impressive, or even more than mildly interesting at these events anymore. The blockchain has not revolutionized society, no matter what some bros would have you believe, nor has 3D-printing. Self-driving cars are still years away, AI is still mainly theoretical, and no one buys VR headsets. But these are the terms you’ll find associated with these events if you Google them.

Tillerson was reportedly on the toilet when he got canned

Rex Tillerson, probably not toileting

His career really went down the toilet.

Outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was reportedly sitting on the loo when the White House chief of staff called to deliver the bad news.

Tillerson, who was on a trip to Africa, was suffering from a stomach bug when Chief of Staff John Kelly informed him to return to DC and be on the lookout for a presidential tweet, according to the Daily Beast.

Kelly was speaking in an off-the-record meeting with reporters when he made the potty revelation. It was later leaked to the website.

During the call, the chief of staff told Tillerson to cut short his diplomatic trip and added, “You may get a tweet,” The New York Times reported.

Days later, President Trump delivered the message via the social media app.

Video Goodnesses
and not-so-goodnesses

Christopher Wylie, who worked for data firm Cambridge Analytica, reveals how personal information was taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters in order to target them with personalised political advertisements. At the time the company was owned by the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, and headed at the time by Donald Trump’s key adviser, Steve Bannon. Its CEO is Alexander Nix How Cambridge Analytica turned Facebook ‘likes’ into a lucrative political tool.

View the video at…

The U.S. has joined Britain, France and Germany in condemning Russia for the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England. They’re still in the hospital. The British government concluded they were exposed to a nerve agent called “novichok” — developed by the Soviet Union. VICE News sat down with one of the scientists who helped create it.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz talks about writing his first children’s book, “Islandborn,” and discusses the identity struggles that immigrants face in the U.S.

In honor of Women’s History Month, Desi Lydic and Dulce Sloan highlight Marion Donovan, the criminally unsung hero who invented the first disposable diapers.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah for making this program available on YouTube.

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller zeroes in on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, Jordan sits down with him to find out exactly what he doesn’t know.

THANKS to Comedy Central and The Opposition with Jordan Klepper for making this program available on YouTube.

Bill recaps the top stories of the week, including more White House personnel changes and the recent Democratic win in Pennsylvania.

Former ‘Today’ show co-host Billy Bush joins Bill to discuss the conversation with Donald Trump that sidelined his career.

THANKS to HBO and Real Time with Bill Maher for making this program available on YouTube.

Everything’s a cat bed!

The hyacinth macaw is the largest parrot by length in the world. With a beak that can crack a coconut and beautiful striking blue plumage, this bird is truly one of a kind. But a shrinking habitat and the illegal pet trade are taking their toll. Can this magnificent macaw survive?

Max is busy courting his slipper until he sees me watching.



An adult human male (left) and female (right) in Northern Thailand.

In 1972, Carl Sagan was preparing to send humans into space. The Pioneer missions were unmanned, sure—but NASA had asked Sagan to design a depiction of Earth’s inhabitants for the trip, just in case the spacecraft ran across some aliens. He designed two nude figures with the help of his wife, Linda Salzman Sagan, and his friend Frank Drake. Linda drew the woman to have Asian features, and the man African, according to Carl’s memoirs—though both ended up looking suspiciously European, with haircuts characteristic of the 1970s. Not unlike Sagan himself.

The Sagans were encountering an old problem. Any time the brains behind an encyclopedia (or a SETI mission) need to represent humanity, they have to somehow encompass the whole of the species in a single form—a type specimen, as biologists would call it.

Which is why the editors of the “human” entry on Wikipedia were having such a hard time in 2003. The crowdsourced encyclopedia, in theory, offers a solution to the problem of representation; no single writer has control over the way in which a subject is presented. But still: They had to choose a single image to lead the entry. And whatever photo they went with would inevitably leave out most of the diversity and cultural nuance that makes humanity beautiful and interesting.

At first, they chose the Pioneer plaque, which stayed in its privileged position for about five years. But the editors weren’t satisfied.

Ed. More tomorrow? Probably. Possibly. Maybe. Not?