Five Things: February 3, 2022

Happy anniversary! I started this newsletter on a lark last February, so this is the start of Year Two. Thank you for encouraging me by reading it, here or in your inbox! Sign up to get it first via email every other Thursday: As in Guillotine


Your attention didn’t collapse. It was stolen | Johann Hari

“I learned that the factors harming our attention are not all immediately obvious. I had been focused on tech at first, but in fact the causes range very widely – from the food we eat to the air we breathe, from the hours we work to the hours we no longer sleep. They include many things we have come to take for granted – from how we deprive our children of play, to how our schools strip learning of meaning by basing everything on tests.”

Harri makes a strong, arguably obvious case that technology is systemically degrading our cognitive abilities, primarily driven by business models that demand nonstop engagement: the so-called attention economy.

I’ve been aware of it for years now, but it became crystal clear last summer after my stroke, when everything slowed down out of necessity, and I found myself thinking more clearly than I had in years. The physical need to slow down, take daily walks, and limit stressful activities brought an unfamiliar sense of clarity, and I can’t wait for winter to be over so I can get back on track!

(Running and video games have long been my primary escapes that allow me to focus on one thing for a long period of time, so I’ve been playing a lot more video games since the temperature dropped. Sadly, longform reading takes a level of focus I can rarely muster these days.)

I agree with Harri’s conclusion, though; individual changes won’t solve the problem. My ability to focus started wearing off again after a few months as I fully re-engaged in work, but it did subtly change my relationship with social media in ways that are mostly holding up, even as 2022 makes doom scrolling a seemingly unavoidable activity. Unfortunately, I don’t share his optimism that things can change, but maybe we can stop actively trying to make them even worse?


The Brain: The Charlie Brown Effect | Carl Zimmer

“Many people would consider tracking Peanuts or Calvin and Hobbes comic strips unworthy of scientific inquiry, but Cohn begs to differ. His evidence suggests that we use the same cognitive process to make sense of comics as we do to read a sentence. They seem to tap the deepest recesses of our minds, where we bring meaning to the world.”

I have a particular interest in the role comics [can and do] play in engaging readers of all ages and am consistently annoyed whenever their use in supporting visual learners gets twisted into meaning they’re best suited for younger and “challenged” readers. While Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is a seminal classic that destroys that myth, I’d love to see more scientific research that backs him up.

Ironically, I’ve had Neil Cohn’s Who Understands Comics?: Questioning the Universality of Visual Language Comprehension, sitting on my wish list for more than a year, so this issue just cost me $36! Credit author platform and the long tail for another sales conversion.


(Even More) Comics In Your Mailbox | Graeme McMillan

“While the company is understandably not going to reveal just how much it’s investing in comics, we can surmise that it’s a substantial amount, with creators rumored to be receiving six-figure grants for one year. Multiply that by the number of creators already signed up, and that’s a chunk of money to spend for something where the company isn’t claiming any intellectual property or media rights on the work created. So, what does Substack get here? What’s a win, for them?”

McMillan’s new newsletter has quickly found itself on my short list of must-reads, and although I think Substack gets way more attention for all of the wrong things, he does a good job putting all of their visible chips on the table and attempts to sort them out.

Personally, I don’t think it’s all that deep. As is often the case with VCs, books are a relatively cheap medium to experiment in, especially if you’re in the content and/or data game. The fact that they’ve yet to even hint at evolving their platform to support actually reading comics, so creators are sending out long emails full of embedded images or attaching CBZ files, tells me they’re not really serious about the comics themselves. Not yet, at least.

The subsidies they’re paying creators are a big deal for comics, but it’s a rounding error for a VC-backed platform with deepish pockets that’s under pressure to grow beyond newsletters ASAP. That they’re continually mentioned alongside Webtoon or even comiXology in some media coverage is an embarrassment.

Hot Take: Substack is the new Medium, without the UX expertise. Pick your favorite pivot; they were all ill-considered, hubristic attempts to reinvent the wheel that ultimately treated “partners” like guinea pigs.


Ubisoft Executive Says Users ‘Don’t Get It’ In Extraordinary NFT Interview | Luke Plunkett

“We absolutely get it, Nicolas, and we want nothing to do with it. It’s telling that this is a sales pitch coming from someone in the crypto space, since it has the same dangerous and soulless hallmarks, of condescending hucksters who want to turn everything into a market, to transform even your leisure time into something that can and by divine right should be commoditised.”

The only thing more annoying than pretending Substack is doing anything interesting in comics is the mainstream NFT / blockchain discourse, partly because very legitimate concerns with the underlying technology and politics are often casually brushed aside, but mostly because its evangelists are so bad at framing it because their primary motivation is just old-fashioned greed, or worse, they fetishize the technology itself and don’t care about ripple effects.

Gaming is one area with some intriguing potential, but it’s not gaining any real traction yet despite multiple attempts. I’m not convinced any of that potential needs to be attached to new and unproven technologies, either. A more natural starting point might be the ability to re-sell digital content, an update of GameStop’s very successful used games model that digital content killed and could actually benefit publishers by generating additional revenue that comes back to them. Or, as a friend suggested, enabling the lending of digital content, which is already possible with existing technology but would only generate goodwill and potential sales.


Refuting the Book of George | Me

and I find myself hoping

for Boba Fett to return

remove his mask

and look something like me

I saw Star Wars seven times in theaters as an impressionable kid, and it remains one of my favorite franchises despite its highs and lows over the years. Boba Fett was one of my favorite characters from the beginning, partly because he looked so cool, but mostly because he was a Rorschach blot for so long. I didn’t engage with his extended universe adventures beyond a few forgettable comics, so he remained relatively pure in my mind.

I wasn’t terribly anxious for him to return, and I definitely didn’t want the mystery spoiled with a clumsy “Dances with Tuskans” plot line, but here we are. I don’t hate The Book of Boba Fett (yet) but I definitely don’t love it, and I’m still not convinced it should even exist. I’m hoping they’ll stick the landing, but I’m fully prepared for Solo levels of underwhelming ambivalence. As I’m writing this, I haven’t watched episode 6 yet, but episode 5’s unexpected interlude only made me think Boba should have stayed in the Sarlacc Pit, living on only in our individual memories of his potential.

The poem linked above has nothing to do with the show, though. It was written back in 1999, in response to the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace; a movie review, news article and poem, all wrapped up in one. I think it’s relevant again, though, and not just because Boba did end up looking something like me.

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