Vaughn Tan | August 24, 2020

Why is this interesting? - The Monday Media Diet with Vaughn Tan

On uncertainty, repeat readings, and pizza

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Vaughn Tan (VT) is someone I’ve been following for a while and am excited to have him joining us for today’s MMD. His email, The Uncertainty Mindset, is always a fascinating read (and the inspiration for February’s Maintenance Edition). He’s also got a brand new book out with the same name, which explores culinary innovation. — Noah (NRB)

Tell us about yourself.

I’m a London-based strategy consultant and author, and a strategy professor at University College London’s School of Management. Mainly I try to understand how people and organizations can handle uncertainty better. I have a new book out about restaurants, innovation, and uncertainty. My other slow-burn research projects are on understanding what quality really means, on productive discomfort, and on design parameters for innovative cities. I drink more low-intervention wine than I should, but not as much as I’d like. (What low intervention means for wine is contentious and eludes any explanation that fits in a paragraph or even a page. To get an idea of what it is philosophically, you could do worse than reading a few of the producer profiles on Wine Terroirs.)

Describe your media diet. 

2% substantive reading and 98% fun stuff designed to wash over me quickly and leave little trace. Haven’t subscribed to a periodical in over ten years, don’t watch any television at all (haven’t had one in 25 years), and haven’t gotten into podcasts.

The fun stuff is from Instagram and Twitter, and hundreds of RSS feeds (only about 50 of which are active) that run into a single stream ordered chronologically on a feed reader. I try to look at this feedstream as late in the day as I can but inevitably cave almost immediately after waking up. Most of this content (I just did a qualitative assessment) is photos or videos of animals, buildings, weird things seen on the street, food, wine, or recipes. 

The fun stuff also includes undemanding fiction, frequently in e-book format. By undemanding, I don’t mean to imply that these books are unworthy of attention. Instead, they are writing often excellent prose but without the express intention of producing a Work of Great Weight and Importance. Authors I like include Ben Aaronovitch, Alexander McCall Smith, and Rex Stout (that last link goes to a newsletter issue in which I concisely appreciate Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books).

The substantive stuff is almost always text and not images or video, and usually isn’t about topics I should be professionally interested in. It comes from books (including a lot of fiction) and a few blogs and newsletters. These are usually personal outlets that focus on a narrow topic like transit, low-intervention wine, or the intersection of pop culture and ancient history, or which simply present an idiosyncraticpoint of view. I most often find these when people point me at them. This is an extremely good indicator of expected quality … for a small handful of people.

What’s the last great book you read?

The Death of Picasso. It’s a collection of sometimes interconnected pieces (some are stories set in what appears to be the same world)—each individually explores facets, sometimes counterintuitive or initially transgressive, of what it means to really be free. The book repays slow and repeated reading.

What are you reading now?

I’m reading In Praise of Blandness (which promises to be a great book), Art in the Making, and My Italian Bulldozer. And re-reading Arctic Dreams, Inversions, Bridge of Birds, and Home Cooking. By which I mean I go through 20-50 pages every day, chosen semi-randomly from across these books.

What’s your reading strategy when you pick up a print copy of your favorite publication?

Haven’t picked up a print copy of a periodical in several years.

Who should everyone be reading that they’re not?

People whose ideas or politics they disagree with. (Easy to say—I try but don’t do this very often myself.) 

What is the best non-famous app you love on your phone? 

I don’t use fancy apps because I despise my phone and wish I could ditch it but of course am in thrall to it like everyone else.

Plane or train?

Train. But, sadly, often plane from necessity.

What is one place everyone should visit?

A place where there’s nothing to do, which is remote enough to make it infeasible to casually visit the nearest urban or suburban center. I’ve found it useful for figuring out what happens when (and how to deal with the situation in which) most of the usual and habitual forms of social stimulation are not available. The particular place I like is in France, about 2 hours drive from the nearest big city. 

Tell us the story of a rabbit hole you fell deep into. 

A few years ago, I had a pizza at Dada in Kamakura, then maybe two years later another at Ops in Bushwick. Each was progressively more unlike a Neapolitan-style pizza, progressively shifted my baseline for pizza quality, and modified my framework for understanding quality in pizza. Because of the Ops pizza, I got sucked into doing way too much research on flour, milling, wheat, dough fermentation, dough shaping, and the dynamics of pizza cooking. Turns out, pizza illuminates many issues I care about, like quality, the intentional pursuit of uncertainty, and the strategic importance of tradeoffs. I’m still in this rabbithole and make too many pizzas at home.

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Vaughn (VT)

PS - Noah here. Variance, my new company, is just getting going with our Alpha. If you work in sales, services, marketing, or engineering and want to try out/give feedback on a tool to help your team work more effectively with their apps, please request an invite on the site. Thanks.

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