Tech: Links for 17th September, 2019

  1. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“.
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  2. Jason Snell reviews the iPhone launch event.
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  3. … as does Ben Thompson.
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  4. The importance of the U1 chip.
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  5. I don’t quite remember how I landed up here, but this was interesting for a variety of reasons. On a company called OKCredit.

Tech: Links for 2nd July, 2019

Five articles from tech, but about something that took place about twelve years ago.

  1. “One of the most important trends in personal technology over the past few years has been the evolution of the humble cellphone into a true handheld computer, a device able to replicate many of the key functions of a laptop. But most of these “smart phones” have had lousy software, confusing user interfaces and clumsy music, video and photo playback. And their designers have struggled to balance screen size, keyboard usability and battery life.”
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    Thus began Walt Mossberg’s review of the first ever iPhone. That review is fun to read in order to understand how far smartphones have come since then, and we we took for granted then, and do now.
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  2. “With the iPhone XS and Apple Neural Engine, the input isn’t an image, it’s the data right off the sensors. It’s really kind of nuts how fast the iPhone XS camera is doing things in the midst of capturing a single image or frame of video. One method is to create an image and then apply machine learning to it. The other is to apply machine learning to create the image. One way Apple is doing this with video is by capturing additional frames between frames while shooting 30 FPS video, even shooting 4K. The whole I/O path between the sensor and the Neural Engine is so fast the iPhone XS camera system can manipulate 4K video frames like Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix.”
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    That was then, this is now – well, this is also last year. John Gruber on how far we’ve come – he reviews the iPhone XS, and reading both reviews one after the other points to how far we’ve come.
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  3. “…I’m not convinced that anyone at Google fully thought through the implication of favoring Android with their services. Rather, the Android team was fully committed to competing with iOS — as they should have been! — and human nature ensured that the rest of Google came along for the ride. Remember, given Google’s business model, winning marketshare was perfectly correlated with reaping outsized profits; it is easy to see how the thinking and culture that developed around Google’s core business failed to adjust to the zero-sum world of physical devices. And so, as that Gundotra speech exemplified, Android winning became synonymous with Google winning, when in fact Android was as much ouroboros as asset.”
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    It’s not just technology that changed then – entire ecosystems and business models had to be changed, updated, pilfered. Microsoft, obviously, but most significantly, Google.
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  4. “There’s that word I opened with: “future”. As awesome as our smartphones are, it seems unlikely that this is the end of computing. Keep in mind that one of the reasons all those pre-iPhone smartphone initiatives failed, particularly Microsoft’s, is that their creators could not imagine that there might be a device more central to our lives than the PC. Yet here we are in a world where PCs are best understood as optional smartphone accessories.I suspect we will one day view our phones the same way: incredibly useful devices that can do many tasks better than anything else, but not ones that are central for the simple reason that they will not need to be with us all of the time. After all, we will have our wearables.”
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    One risk that all of us run is to think of the future in terms of what exists now – which is one reason why 2007 was such big news for tech and then for all of us. What might a similar moment be in the near future? Earlier, you had to have a computer, and it was nice to have a smartphone. Now, you have to have a smartphone, and it is nice to have a computer. When might it be nice to have a smartphone, while you have to have a ‘wearable’?
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  5. “The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a new “Molecular Informatics” program that uses molecules as computers. “Chemistry offers a rich set of properties that we may be able to harness for rapid, scalable information storage and processing,” Anne Fischer, program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office, said in a statement. “Millions of molecules exist, and each molecule has a unique three-dimensional atomic structure as well as variables such as shape, size, or even color. This richness provides a vast design space for exploring novel and multi-value ways to encode and process data beyond the 0s and 1s of current logic-based, digital architectures.” ”
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    Not just the rather unimaginable (to me, at any rate) thought of molecules as computers (did I get that right?!), but also a useful timeline of how calendars have evolved. Also note how the rate of “getting better” has gotten faster over time!

Tech: Links for 25th June, 2019

I have linked to some of these piece in the past, but this set of posts is still useful in terms of creating a common set of links in one place for you to understand how to think about Aggregation Theory. If you can afford it, I heavily recommend Stratechery!

  1. “What is the critical differentiator for incumbents, and can some aspect of that differentiator be digitized?
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    If that differentiator is digitized, competition shifts to the user experience, which gives a significant advantage to new entrants built around the proper incentives
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    Companies that win the user experience can generate a virtuous cycle where their ownership of consumers/users attracts suppliers which improves the user experience”
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    Begin here: this piece explains what aggregation theory is all about, and why it matters.
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  2. “Super-Aggregators operate multi-sided markets with at least three sides — users, suppliers, and advertisers — and have zero marginal costs on all of them. The only two examples are Facebook and Google, which in addition to attracting users and suppliers for free, also have self-serve advertising models that generate revenue without corresponding variable costs (other social networks like Twitter and Snapchat rely to a much greater degree on sales-force driven ad sales).”
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    Aggregators on steroids: what exactly makes Google and Facebook what they are? This article helps you understand this clearly. Also read the article on super aggregators itself.
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  3. “There is a clear pattern for all four companies: each controls, to varying degrees, the entry point for customers to the category in which they compete. This control of the customer entry point, by extension, gives each company power over the companies actually supplying what each company “sells”, whether that be content, goods, video, or life insurance.”
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    This article explains the FANG playbook, and how they became what they are today: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google.
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  4. “To explain why, it is worth examining all four companies with regards to:Whether or not they have a durable monopoly
    What anticompetitive behavior they are engaging in
    What remedies are available
    What will happen in the future with and without regulator intervention”
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    Ben Thompson states just above this paragraph that he is neither a lawyer nor an economist. But the last two questions in the list above show that he’d make a pretty good economist. He is, in essence, asking what is the opportunity cost of breaking up these firms. As the song goes: with the bad comes the good, and the good comes the bad.
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  5. “All those apps are doing is providing an algorithm that lowers search costs and makes booking easy. Expedia didn’t design, build and maintain the airplane that flew him to Sydney; build or operate the airport; train pilots; or find, produce, refine and transport the necessary jet fuel to power the plane over its continental voyage. Uber didn’t design and manufacture the car used to transport him to his hotel; find, produce, and process the raw materials that go into it (such as steel and aluminium); or actually drive him from the airport to his hotel. AirBnB didn’t design, build, maintain, or clean the house he stayed in, nor supply it with electricity. UberEats and OpenTable didn’t grow and process any raw foodstuffs, or use them to cook a meal, and TripAdvisor didn’t design, manufacture or operate any of the tourist attractions he visited.In fact, all these companies did was write some pretty simple code that made matching buyers with sellers easier and more efficient, and the real question that should be being asked is whether these platform companies are extracting too much value from the supply chain relative to their value-add, and whether that is likely to be a sustainable situation in the long term, or will invite potential disruption and/or an eventual supply-side/regulatory response.”
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    BUT, on the other hand, perhaps this is just old wine in a new bottle?

Etc: Links for 14th June, 2019

  1. “But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”
    Ezekiel J. Emmanuel on how long he wants to live. Worth reading to ponder questions of mortality and what it means to each of us. Also worth reading up on: memento mori.
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  2. “Indeed, the German hyperinflation was not even the worst of the twentieth century; its Hungarian equivalent, dating to 1945-46, was so much more severe that prices in Budapest began to double every 15 hours. (At the peak of this crisis, the Hungarian government was forced to announce the latest inflation rate via radio each morning, so workers could negotiate a new pay scale with their bosses, and issue the largest denomination banknote ever to be legal tender: the 100 quintillion (1020) pengo note. When the debased currency was finally withdrawn, the total value of all the cash then in circulation in the country was reckoned at 1/10th of a cent. [Bomberger & Makinen pp.801-24; Judt p.87])”
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    I wasn’t aware of what the topic of this essay is about – which is not contained in the excerpt above. Somewhat shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of the Hungarian episode quoted above! Read more, sir, read more!
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  3. “Consider the first time a right-handed player tries to dribble with the left hand. It’s awkward, clumsy. Initially, the nerves that fire off signals to complete that task are controlled in the front cortex of the brain. Over time, with countless repetitions, those nerve firings become more insulated. The myelin sheath builds up. Eventually, less effort is required to use that left hand, and the brain processes it as second nature.The same is possible with pressure, according to neurologists. With repetition, stress can be transformed into fortitude.”
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    Put yourself in pressure situations, and repeatedly. That’s the only way, this article says, to handle pressure. Lovely read!
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  4. “The project in Colombia, a partnership with the nonprofit Conservation International, involves protecting mangrove forests, which can store 10 times as much carbon as terrestrial forests. In its first two years, the program is expected to reduce carbon emissions by 17,000 metric tons, roughly equal to the next decade of emissions from the lidar-equipped survey vehicles that update Apple Maps. “This is rare for Apple to say, but we are telling other companies to copy us on this,” Jackson says.”
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    I have only glanced through this article, and haven’t come close to reading all the entires (a true rabbit hole), but there’s lots of small interesting snippets here about creativity. Not so much, based on what I’ve seen of the “how to be creative”, but rather descriptions of folks who are creative.
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  5. “The (c)rapture I felt was likely a case of “poophoria,” explains Anish Sheth, the gastroenterologist and coauthor of toilet-side staple What’s Your Poo Telling You? “Some have compared it to a religious experience, others an orgasm,” he says. The exact science is unknown, but Sheth thinks the sensation may result from “a slightly prolonged buildup, an overdistension of the rectum, and immediate collapse by passing a sizable stool, which fires the vagus nerve and releases endorphins.” Lights-out pooping, Sheth adds, may “help with a proper rate of exit.””
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    Truly etc., this. The Wired magazine on, well, pooping in the dark.

Links for 10th May, 2019

  1. “Thus in his famous 1969 paper “Information and Efficiency-Another viewpoint” (reprinted in his The Organization of Economic Activity, vol.2, Blackwell, 1988), Harold coined the notion of the “nirvana fallacy” in criticising Kenneth Arrow’s claim using the Arrow-Debreu framework (in his Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Invention) that with ‘market failure’, government intervention could make markets more efficient. Demsetz argued that this assumed a perfect government whilst failing to consider if the actual intervention could be perfect. “Those who adopt the nirvana viewpoint seek to discover discrepancies between the ideal and the real and if discrepancies are found, they deduce the real is inefficient.”
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    Deepak Lal on the passing of two economists, one of whom I am enjoying reading more of these days.
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  2. “So while Spotify might get the better of Apple in this particular fight, it’s no angel. Its excessive collection of user data forced its CEO to apologize after a consumer backlash in 2015. It is one of several targets of a complaint under Europe’s stringent new GDPR data privacy rules. And let’s not forget that its own business model tends toward market dominance. An antitrust victory in the battle with Apple would be welcome for Spotify shareholders; for suffering musicians it would mean far less.”
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    If you have been following the Spotify – Apple debate/drama about Apple taking a 30% cut  – this is an article that does a good job of arguing both sides of the story.
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  3. “What is the best way to protect and restore this public commons? Most of the proposals to change platform companies rely on either antitrust law or regulatory action. I propose a different solution. Instead of banning the current business model — in which platform companies harvest user information to sell targeted digital ads — new legislation could establish a tax that would encourage platform companies to shift toward a healthier, more traditional model.”
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    A Pigouvian solution to a modern day problem?
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  4. “But Mr. Munger was there to talk about anything on his mind, which is just about everything. His favorite activity, he says, is figuring out “what works and what doesn’t and why.””
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    Anything that helps you understand how Charlie Munger thinks is worth a read. Clicking through tot hat link will give you a full transcript of the interview, and I’d recommend you do so.
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  5. “Preventing an impact is possible — theoretically. Humans need only change the asteroid’s velocity by a few centimeters per second; over the course of several orbits around the sun, that change adds up to push the rock fully in front of or behind the Earth. But the proposed methods for deflection are expensive and untested.”
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    Not that I mean to get your weekend off to a bad start

Links for 8th March, 2019

  1. “The canonical source for enforcement is Facebook’s public community guidelines — which consist of two sets of documents: the publicly posted ones, and the longer internal guidelines, which offer more granular detail on complex issues. These documents are further augmented by a 15,000-word secondary document, called “Known Questions,” which offers additional commentary and guidance on thorny questions of moderation — a kind of Talmud to the community guidelines’ Torah. Known Questions used to occupy a single lengthy document that moderators had to cross-reference daily; last year it was incorporated into the internal community guidelines for easier searching.A third major source of truth is the discussions moderators have among themselves. During breaking news events, such as a mass shooting, moderators will try to reach a consensus on whether a graphic image meets the criteria to be deleted or marked as disturbing. But sometimes they reach the wrong consensus, moderators said, and managers have to walk the floor explaining the correct decision.”
    The Verge (Casey Newton, specifically), reporting on Facebook moderators – the human ones. This article is about the troubles they go through, and the costs they have to bear while doing so. A sobering read.
  2. “Our international panel of judges — Pete Souza, Austin Mann, Annet de Graaf, Luísa Dörr, Chen Man, Phil Schiller, Kaiann Drance, Brooks Kraft, Sebastien Marineau-Mes, Jon McCormack and Arem Duplessis — gave some insight on why they loved these shots. ”
    Worth it for at least two reasons – make that three. One, how skilled would you have to be, in the not too distant past, to take photographs as good as this? Two, the photographs themselves are quite breathtaking. Three, the commentary after each photograph helps you understand why those photographs are, in the opinion of the judges, so good.
  3. “India has the potential to be the single largest democratic free market economy in the world. But it needs to simultaneously cut down on its corruption, create jobs for millions of new entrants to the labor economy every year, stand up a new generation of digital-first behemoths, all the while balancing the needs of an incredibly diverse and cacophonous democracy buffeted by global markets and tastes. That’s ultimately a tall order, but if India wants to migrate from a “billionaire raj” to an “entrepreneur raj,” it will have to do all of that — at once.”
    The tech website TechCrunch, on India’s challenges in terms of becoming the next – not Silicon Valley – but China. If you want a more in-depth analysis of what is being spoken about here, I’d highly, highly recommend How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell.
  4. “Econocrats and academic scholars need to take a hard look at the rising implications of intellectual property law, cooperative agreements and proprietary agglomerations of data in stifling competitive behaviour and mobility of new firms. Aggregating more information on firm-level growth narratives and better information dissemination (for researchers) will help analyse firm-level productivity impacts on market growth and overall industrial productivity levels over time.”
    Somewhat related to what is linked to above, but also linked to a Twitter thread I linked to this past Saturday by Atif Mian. An interesting, if somewhat complicated read.
  5. “The National Company Law Appellate Tribunal ordered that no lender can declare its exposure to embattled IL&FS Group as nonperforming without its permission – even if there is a default. The ruling by the bankruptcy court, which is overseeing the government-sponsored $12.8 billion insolvency of the infrastructure financier-operator, undermines the Reserve Bank of India’s powers to make banks and nonbank finance firms present a truthful account of their financial position at all times.”
    This isn’t getting quite the coverage it should, but we’re putting a lot of stuff under what is very quickly becoming a very large blanket.

Links for 4th February, 2019

  1. “The classic example in language is that a doctor is male and a nurse is female. If these biases exist in a language then a translation model will learn it and amplify it. If an occupation is [referred to as male] 60 to 70 percent of the time, for example, then a translation system might learn that and then present it as 100 percent male. We need to combat that.”The Verge interviews Macduff Hughes, the head of Google Translate. Worth reading for understanding applications of AI, the amount of bias that exists in our culture (along various dimensions), and the garbage in, garbage out problem.
  2. “This was a great year for iPhone customers, but perhaps not for Apple itself… Technology is outpacing customer need and phone lifespans are ever-longer, which we saw hurt Apple’s bottom line.”Keeping a tab on Apple makes sense, and this is a good place to start. Apple has had a difficult year for many reasons, but the most important reason has been a multi-year phenomenon – Apple has gotten too good for its own good.
  3. Ben Thompson tells it like it is:
    “While I know a lot of journalists disagree, I don’t think Facebook or Google did anything untoward: what happened to publishers was that the Internet made their business models — both print advertising and digital advertising — fundamentally unviable. That Facebook and Google picked up the resultant revenue was effect, not cause. To that end, to the extent there is concern about how dominant these companies are, even the most extreme remedies (like breakups) would not change the fact that publishers face infinite competition and have uncompetitive advertising offerings.”
    Worth reading for an excellent discussion of the law of conservation of profits, the Buzzfeed firings that took place recently, and the future of media.
  4. As Tyler Cowen never tires of saying, “solve for the equilibrium“:
    “The content industry spent years trying to battle piracy via all manner of heavy handed-tactics and lawsuits, only to realize that offering users inexpensive, quality, legitimate services was the best solution. Many users flocked to these services because they provided a less-expensive, more flexible alternative to traditional cable.Now, if the industry isn’t careful, it could lose a sizeable chunk of this newfound audience back to piracy by making it overly expensive and cumbersome to access the content subscribers are looking for.”
    Worth reading for why piracy may yet re-emerge, a good understanding of market entry and exit, and competition and its implications.
  5. “The market valuation of Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) is more than a quarter of India’s GDP.”
    What a stunning statistic. The rest of the blog post is a good way to acquaint yourself with how China has seen it’s internet ecosystem grow, and where India could improve.