Nilay Patel interviewed Marques Brownlee, and I took notes. Lots of notes.

I’ve been watching MKBHD videos for a while now, but a favorite activity for my daughter and I this past summer has been to watch them together.

As anybody who has watched them will attest to, they’re impeccably produced, and always manage to strike that perfect balance between being fun and informative. And trust me, getting that balance right is hard. But my daughter, who notices these things much more than I do, also points out his (Marques Brownlee‘s) diction, the way he sets up his backgrounds (or set, or whatever you call it) – and also how much better his voice seems to be than in other videos.

And since she’s mentioned it, it’s hard to ignore. It’s clear that a lot of work goes into producing these videos – and to put out over a hundred of them in one year is seriously impressive – which his channel did last year. What’s even more impressive is the fact that he plans to launch more channels this year, let alone videos.

I got to know about this in a very well done podcast, in which Nilay Patel spoke with Marques about what I wrote about in the preceding paragraph, and a whole host of things besides. Reading the transcript as an economist was interesting, for a lot of things resonated with concepts we teach (and don’t, but should) in class. They weren’t referring to the concepts, of course, for both are (probably) blessedly unaware of boring ol’ econ texts – they were just solving, or thinking, about the challenges they face in the course of their work.

But if you’re somewhere between the age of 18 to 24, and wondering where the hell (and how) to apply things we teach you in your classes – well what better way to learn than this? Ec101 applied to MKBHD videos – whatay way to learn, no?

Notes and brief explanations follow:

  • “You’ve got to embrace uncertainty.”

    A point that both of them agreed upon, and the context was noise in the background. As a statistician, when I think noise, I’m thinking randomness, and that makes this quote even better. You can have the most refined system in the world for doing stuff, but you have to make leeway for unanticipated stuff. Things can go wrong, pandemics can spread, neighbours can make lots of noise. Anticipate it: embrace it!

    The larger point, in simpler words: make a plan, of course, but budget for chaos. It’s always there.
  • “I couldn’t believe I was finding something that I didn’t see in those other videos. So I was like, the obvious answer is to add to that collection of information, so when someone else is choosing what to buy, they can make a better choice than I did.”

    Scratch your own itch is advice that you often hear in entrepreneur world, and Marques is speaking about exactly that over here. Except of course, he isn’t just speaking about it, he is quite literally doing it. In fact, he did it 11 years ago, and has just kept at it ever since. That’s a pretty good business model, if you ask me.

    Teach like you wish you had been taught is what I want to do in life, by the way, although I cannot claim to have come anywhere close to figuring a business model out.
  • “So there’s a lot more going on, but I think the teamwork of it all is something that can be pretty underrated.”

    Marques says this in the context of how he plans to scale up his work this year. Here’s the thing – learning how to do something (assuming you want to learn it in the first place) is a lot of fun. Teaching others how to do it is also a whole lot of fun.

    Building a team of such people, and getting them to do what you want to get done – and that too, just so – that is oh-my-god-hard. “Pretty underrated”? That’s pretty understated!
  • “We have a big cast of characters at The Verge. MKBHD, that’s just you. You are a pretty unscalable property. That group of people you’re bringing in and hiring, is that to help you spend more time in front of the camera or is that an attempt to scale you in a different way?”

    Marques’ answer is pretty instructive, but if you’re looking to start a business, and looking to scale it, one challenge you will face is getting folks to do what you want them to do, plus anticipating the fact that in businesses such as this one, Marques himself is the biggest draw. Imagine The Seen and the Unseen without Amit Varma, or Mark Wiens’ videos without Mark Wiens. You have two choices: plan on not scaling, or fight a very hard battle. It’s easy to draw a diagram that teaches you the theory of scaling – doing it in the real world is bloody hard.
  • “You were just intently focused on completing a motion graphics course that you had been taking. And now it’s several years later and you’re not that deep in the weeds. You’ve just hired a motion graphics person and you’re talking about scaling your business and using your facilities in a different way.”

    That’s part of a question that Nilay asked Marques, but if you’re not thinking pin factory, your econ prof and you need to talk. One important part of scaling is what Adam Smith referred to as the division of labor. You can’t – nobody can – do every single thing in a business. Some parts of it need to be outsourced to lawyers and PR firms, as they speak about in the interview later, some parts to motion graphics persons – whatever.

    But you have to let certain tasks go. Which tasks? To whom? How to recruit the most perfect person possible? How to get that person to stay? How to get that person to work with the other folks on the team? Pretty underrated indeed!

    Oh and by the way, this part we don’t teach you in college. We should, if you ask me, but we don’t.
  • “We’ve basically shot all of our videos with my directors on Zoom and I’m just like, “man, this is not even close.” It’s very fun, and then that novelty fades and you just miss having everybody there.”

    This might not be true (hopefully!) after 2021, but if you’re looking to intern this summer, or start work this year, this is a real problem. Americans have this thing they call “watercooler conversations”. If you’re Indian, we’re talking about chai/sutta breaks. Doesn’t matter if you’re a smoker or not, that’s not the point. Conversations in a more relaxed environment after you’ve been in the heat of battle together is where informal debriefings happen, and that is going to suffer this year. There are businesses trying to virtualize this – but color me skeptical. In person is always better, and that’s the worst part of graduating in this of all years.
  • “One question from our video team that I thought was really interesting: as you’ve been on the path of growing bigger and bigger, you haven’t had a boss. How do you grow and improve when the audience is overwhelmingly telling you that you’re great? Where do you find the incentive or the self-criticism to improve? You’ve obviously wildly improved over time, but where does that really come from?”

    Marques’ answer to this question is worth reading in its entirety, but the larger point is that you need people who have the ability to give you frank feedback. That’s hugely underrated. A spouse, a friend, a significant other, a business partner, a junior – whoever. But you need it!

    This reminds me of a reply that Seth Godin gave to a question Tim Ferris asked him in a podcast some years ago:

    “But the other kind is so rare, so scarce, so precious I only get little dribs of it now and then. Which is someone who gets you, someone who can see right through to your soul who, with generosity and care, can look you in the eye, hand you back something and say: I think this would be better if you did it again. I had a business partner, Steve, who was like that in 1979 and ’80, ’80 and ’81. And finding that again in a consistent way is really precious and really hard.”

    (It goes without saying: listen/read the whole interview. Just wonderful.)
  • “We’ve never really set view count goals, but we did have a goal to make 100 videos in the calendar year and we did end up doing that, which is great. A lot of that stuff that we’re aiming for is more, I guess qualitative is the word, but it’s hard to define.”

    What are you optimizing for? This is related to yesterday’s post, and it ought to be a question you ask yourself everyday. I don’t ask myself this question everyday, but I wish I did. It really and truly helps, because if what you are doing isn’t helping what you’re optimizing for, then you shouldn’t be doing it.

    Marques isn’t optimizing for views. He’s not looking to maximize hits, views or any of those metrics. He’s setting a target for quantity, as he says in the quote above, but he also is (implicitly in the quote, but trust me explicitly in his work) optimizing for quality. As I said towards the end of yesterday’s post, get the process right. The rest takes care of itself. (See also: Goodhart’s law)

    Also read this excerpt from Tyler Cowen’s interview of Jimmy Wales:

    “When we think about things at Wikipedia — for example, we could probably increase engagement if we use some of the very basic machine learning techniques to start showing people random promotional links to other things than Wikipedia and then have the machine learn over time how to show you links that are more interesting so that you end up staying on the site longer.

    Now, it might turn out that that’s completely normal and thoughtful, in fact, if you go to a well-known economist, that it turns out that the way to keep you on the site longer is to show you other concepts of economics and economic theory. But it might turn out, and probably would turn out, the best thing to do is, when you go to look up Tyler Cowen, to show you on the sidebar links to Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, whatever the hot topic of the day is and so on, which is not really what you want from an encyclopedia.

    When we think about that, our incentive structure at Wikipedia is not to optimize time on-site. It’s to say, look, every now and then, normally at the end of the year, we say, “Hey, would you donate some money?” Nobody has to donate. The only reason people do donate — and this is what donors tell us — is they think, “This is meaningful. This is important to my life. This should live. This should exist.”

    Bottom-line: If you are not clear about what you’re optimizing for, you will struggle. Get that clear, for yourself, and be ruthless about sticking to it. (It’s easy for me to say this, but it is very difficult for me to do it. Just so we’re clear!)
  • “I live inside of Google Calendar and Google Tasks. I would be a lost human without those things. I kind of think about this a lot — how much time I spend doing the thing versus managing how we make the thing. And it turns out that the management part has become a lot more of my job, but almost necessarily, to make it a better thing.”

    Managing time is hard. It is really, really, really hard. I have tried I don’t know how many different things, apps, methods and what not, but it is hard. If you are going to make a plan (for spending your day, for studying for your exam, for starting a business, whatever) budget twice the amount of time you think you will take to do something, because you will waste time. That, I am sad to say, is my lived reality.

    Nilay’s next question is about exactly this, by the way.
  • “I think I tweeted a couple of weeks ago how many emails I get that are just like, “Hey, this is us. We’ve got this idea. When can we hop on a call?” But I don’t really want to do that. If you can’t get your idea down in a couple sentences in an email, it’s probably not a good enough idea.”

    Something that I have started to do over the last two years or so: whenever I have to give an assignment, it’s usually along these lines.

    “Write in fifteen sentences (or lesser) your understanding of [whatever it is that they’re supposed to write about]. No conjunctions, no colons, no semi-colons.”

    It is fascinating to me how what seems to be good news to the students turns out to be a problem, because Pascal.
  • “We say no to 99 percent of the things that we get offered to do. But that last 1 percent of things, we think very deeply about, and work with a lot of people to try to make the right decisions and pull it off well.”

    Derek Sivers has an interesting book about this.
  • “If it’s a bad product, it’s not worth doing it at all, even if we would’ve made a ton of money. If it’s a bad integration or if it’s a bad company to work with, I have to say no, because it just doesn’t fit. So that fit is often more important than the math of the per-minute or per-project basis.”

    The preceding questions (to this quote) are about what metrics Marques uses, and you should read about it if you are in this business, but the larger point is what Marques is saying here – and this was referred to earlier in this post as well. Metrics are all well and good, but do the work – and work means quality work. The rest follows.
  • “I know celebrity culture is different in everyone’s heads, but I look up to Michael Jordan the athlete and nothing else about him.”

    My personal opinion, but that is exactly how it should be. But that is a separate post in its own right.
  • “The way I see YouTube is, it’s kind of like driving for Uber. If you stop driving for Uber for a week, you won’t make any money that week. And I think adding more people to this team makes it feel like putting that Uber on autopilot so I’m not doing quite as much of the lifting, but it still has to drive.”

    Read The Four Hour Work Week.

Up until the last bullet point above, this post was 2,455 words in length. That, I suppose, is about enough for a blogpost. But there’s more, much more, in this interview. So please, read/listen to it in its entirety.

But hey, I’m clearly on a roll, so I cannot resist one final piece of advice. Take notes, and write down your thoughts about what you’ve consumed. Even if nobody else is ever going to read it.

It really and truly helps.

Links for Friday, 23rd Oct, 2020

Human evolution produced gossip. Cultural anthropology sees gossip as an informal way of enforcing group norms. It is effective in small groups. But gossip is not the search for truth. It is a search for approval by attacking the perceived flaws of others.

http://www.arnoldkling.com/blog/gossip-at-scale/

Arnold Kling writes an excellent essay about gossip and (as he puts it), the ISS. That, to be clear, stands for Internet, Smart Phones and Social Media. Excellent essay, well worth your time.

Low level of CRAR not only hampers bank health but also restricts smooth transmission of monetary policy. Injection of capital by the Government of India in public sector banks is likely to increase the credit flow to the real sector and help in smoother transmission of monetary policy.

https://rbidocs.rbi.org.in/rdocs/Publications/PDFs/RBIWPS12.PDF

How much of this paper is signaling/laying the groundwork, and how much of it is a genuine addition to what we already know about monetary policy? The link comes via Amol Agarwal

This is exactly why I am so pleased to see how narrowly focused the Justice Department’s lawsuit is: instead of trying to argue that Google should not make search results better, the Justice Department is arguing that Google, given its inherent advantages as a monopoly, should have to win on the merits of its product, not the inevitably larger size of its revenue share agreements. In other words, Google can enjoy the natural fruits of being an Aggregator, it just can’t use artificial means — in this case contracts — to extend that inherent advantage.

https://stratechery.com/2020/united-states-v-google

The concluding paragraph from this blog post by Ben Thompson is even better, and I was tempted to go with it, but this works too! Please read the whole thing – excellent writing, as always.

If you’re looking to get an iPad right now and can afford it, the new $599 iPad Air is the best tablet for most people. Apple has taken the design from the more expensive iPad Pro and brought it down to a more reasonable price point. It’s $100 more than it was last year, but in return this year’s iPad Air has a bigger, better screen and a faster (and very intriguing) processor.

https://www.theverge.com/21525780/apple-ipad-air-2020-review

Dieter Bohn’s review of the iPad Air (2020). If I could, I would!

Miniature paintings are among the most beautiful, most technically-advanced and most sophisticated art forms in Indian culture. Though compact (about the same size as a small book), they typically tackle profound themes such as love, power and faith. Using technologies like machine learning, augmented reality and high-definition robotic cameras, Google Arts & Culture has partnered with the National Museum in New Delhi to showcase these special works of art in a magical new way.

https://blog.google/around-the-globe/google-asia/india-miniature-masterpieces

This is a must have app on your phone. I mean, it was always a must-have app on your phone, this latest collection only makes the argument stronger!

Tech: What, exactly, is CES?

Five links to help us understand CES better, along with some information about why reading about it matters in the first place.

  1. CES (formerly an acronym for Consumer Electronics Show[1]) is an annual trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association (CTA). Held in January at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las VegasNevada, United States, the event typically hosts presentations of new products and technologies in the consumer electronics industry.
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    The first CES was held in June 1967 in New York City. It was a spinoff from the Chicago Music Show, which, until then, had served as the main event for exhibiting consumer electronics. The event had 17,500 attenders and over 100 exhibitors; the kickoff speaker was Motorola chairman Bob Galvin.[2] From 1978 to 1994, CES was held twice each year: once in January in Las Vegas known for Winter Consumer Electronics Show (WCES) and once in June in Chicago, known as Summer Consumer Electronics Show (SCES).”
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    As always, let’s begin with Wikipedia.
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  2. No excerpt, but here’s the official website. Have fun clicking through the topics. Think of CES as the harbinger of what is going to come up in tech this year or in the near future.
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  3. A photo essay showing you what earlier CES’s looked like.
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  4. Steven Sinofsky, who is absolutely worth following if you are interested in technology, on his impressions of CES from the previous year. Also contains a very cool idea for doing away with editors!
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    “Some years CES feels like a deep technology show with everyone talking about something that requires hardware, new software, and a lot of work to even do something (3D TV, WiFi, home disk storage)Some years CES feels like attendees are overwhelmed with one specific technology no matter which way we look (HD, 4K, internet). Over the past couple of years we have seen a lot of ingredients working to come together as products — virtual assistants, home automation, sensors to name a few. CES 2019 is a kind of year that sort of screams “we’re ready for the products that really work.” In that spirit, CES 2019 is a year where products are close, but seem a product manager iteration away from being a product that can reach a tipping point of customer satisfaction and utility. Products work in a “thread the needle” sort of way, but a lot of details and real life quickly cause things to become frustrating.”
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  5. I am scheduling this post on the 9th of January, and Dieter Bohn (another person you absolutely should follow if you are interested in technology) hasn’t as of yet written a post summarizing CES 2020. But he did write an excellent piece on how one should think about CES – this year, and perhaps in general.
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    “Every year, like clockwork, as tech journalists head to Las Vegas, some portion of them and some other portion staying at home will talk about how CES doesn’t matter anymore, how it’s awful, and how little that gets announced here actually gets released.

    These complaints always frustrate me because registering a disagreement with them ends up sounding like you believe the exact opposite: that CES is very great and what happens here is very consequential.
    For me, the opposite of “CES is bad” isn’t “CES is good” but rather “CES is not what you wish it was.””

Tech: Links for 26th November, 2019

  1. “Basecamp says Basecamp Personal is designed “specifically for freelancers, students, families, and personal projects,” and with it, you can make spaces for up to three projects, work on these projects with up to 20 users, and store up to one gigabyte of data in those projects. The new tier seems to put Basecamp in direct competition with free tiers from other project management tools like Asana and Trello, as well as workplace chat software like Slack and Microsoft Teams.”
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    Basecamp launches a new, free tier of its project management software – and it is certainly worth signing up.
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  2. “The bus ticket theory is similar to Carlyle’s famous definition of genius as an infinite capacity for taking pains. But there are two differences. The bus ticket theory makes it clear that the source of this infinite capacity for taking pains is not infinite diligence, as Carlyle seems to have meant, but the sort of infinite interest that collectors have. It also adds an important qualification: an infinite capacity for taking pains about something that matters.”
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    Lots to  unpack in this latest essay by Paul Graham.
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  3. “As Kristal’s business grew, she needed help with all this unboxing and re-boxing, so she started looking for a prep center. There were about 15 at the time, she says, mostly in New Hampshire, Oregon, and Delaware, which have no sales tax. That way, sellers can enter the address of their prep center when they buy from Target’s website and pad their margins by a couple percent. Montana has no sales tax either, Kristal mused, and there wasn’t a single center in the online directory. Sensing an opportunity, she decided to give prepping a try. She chose a name — Selltec — and put it up on the directory, too.”
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    Who ever gets bored learning more about Amazon? Heard of a town called Roundup?
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  4. “These newfangled warehouses have come up in Bhiwandi — known for its century-old power looms industry which still exists in the interiors of the city — only in the last five years or so. Here, online retail companies such as Amazon, Flipkart, Nykaa, Pepperfry, Grofers and Bigbasket, among others, store their goods in what the industry calls fulfilment centres or FCs. When a customer places an order on one of these online platforms, the item ordered is packed in these FCs, sorted according to the delivery location and dispatched in a delivery vehicle for its final destination. Third-party logistics companies (called 3PLs) such as DHL, Blue Dart, DTDC, Safexpress — the entities that deliver these goods to the customers’ doorsteps — also have their own FCs here. Like a local train on a busy Mumbai station, a delivery truck enters and exits these centres every 30 seconds.”
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    Meanwhile, in Bhiwandi
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  5. “But Musk says he knows what went wrong, and explained things on Twitter. Right before the metal ball test, von Holzhausen smacked the door with a sledgehammer on stage to prove its durability (and unlike the glass, it was fine), and Musk says this impact “cracked base of glass,” which is why the windows subsequently smashed when hit by the ball.”
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    Ah ok then.

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.