Links - April 03, 2018
Here I am, keeping my promise, and posting less links, more often:
- For VCs, Your Thesis Is Your Portfolio Page, Everything Else is Just Hopes and Dreams Hunter Walk
This is definitely targeted at someone, but I can’t figure out who. Over the years I’ve realized that VCs, are not really gatekeepers, and they follow the same patterns of competition as everyone else. This post by Walk is an example of that dynamic. I like the idea of the VC portfolio page as a lagging indicator of what the VC wants to invest in.
- How referendums break democracies Tim Harford
A thousand times yes. The average citizen knows nothing, is easily manipulated, and does not consider second and third order consequences. The 95 percentile citizen is not that different either. We outsource policy decisions and let politicians take care of things not because people are dumb, but because understanding the nuances of policy takes time and effort. Modern society believes in specialization and, by extension, if we let politicians be politicians while dentists take care of teeth and farmers take care of farms, everyone is better off.
- Trade and the Cities (Wonkish) Paul Krugman - The New York Times
Krugman discusses how running a deficit vs. a surplus is about math and accounting and not about winning or losing, but just plain accounting. Then he goes on to compare international trade to inter-state trade. Inter-state and inter-city interactions are super interesting. I’ve always wondered why there isn’t more research along these lines. Made me wonder whether there is a dataset that could be used to replicate the methodology of Dirk Brockmann’s research on mobility and effective communities, but capturing trade instead of commerce.
- We Need Mandatory Enduser APIs for Social and Search Systems Albert Wenger - Continuations
An extension of Albert’s well known idea of bot representation. For most people “bot representation” is too abstract, but his rephrasing to “any system with 1 million+ users should by law be required to issue users with personal API keys” is quite clear. Brings up questions about the boundary of one user’s data and the next user’s data (ie, MY post on YOUR profile), what constitutes enough APIs to meet said standard, and who gets to decide these terms. These systems do things on many layers, not all available via UI. They’re different per user and change over time. The data that the API consumes and produces today looks different than it will tomorrow. The software engineering side would be a nightmare. But that can be solved with incentives. The more interesting question is whether we get access to the derived data, or just the raw. Am I only allowed access to my data points, or also the aggregates computed over time and in relation to other users? It’d be awesome to see something like this implemented.
- The Death of the Newsfeed Benedict Evans
A discussion of how we consume information, and the cyclical nature of how we share things online. Evans’ comparison of the number of items in your news feed to the number of invitees to a party is a clever analogy (kinda like Big O!) but the essay is fraught with uncharachteristically bad assumptions. Stories are less so about “units of content” than about market segmentation. Stories are a news feed, even if in a different format, and don’t solve the oversharing problem - you still get N*M pieces of content.
- Facebook's Ideological Imperialism Robinson Meyer - The Atlantic
This problem has existed for ages. Technologists and scientists work on things because they are cool, and because they want to push science forward, regardless of the implications. The debate about whether technology is inherently good or not will keep going.
- The many traditions of non-governmental money (part I) Nick Szabo - Unenumerated
When people in 2018 think of money, they think of it much like we think of the nation state - this is how things work in the world, we are all citizens of some country, and that country issues its state-sponsored currency. Most people don’t consider that history has followed different paths, and that we’re not at the end of history. Within our lifetimes these institutions will probably shift shapes.
- It's time for an RSS revival Brian Barrett - Wired
I still use RSS daily. It aggregates the tiny blogs that produce content at a very slow rate, which I have no motive for visiting between posts, as well as socially ranked content from sites like Hacker News. The volume that I consume is relatively high, but the top of the funnel is limited on purpose, in ways that maybe it shouldn’t be. Going back to Evans’ post above, I think that having something with levers and knobs would be amazing, but I know I’m part of the fringe. The closest I’ve gotten is RSS.
- Is Python interpreted or compiled? Yes. Ned Batchelder
This is one of those topics that confused me for a long time about Python. Ned’s post is more of a description of the lay of the land than an explanation of how and why things work the way they do in Python, but it has inspired me to go and dig through those bytecode talks he linked to, and learn more about Python internals.
- Everything I know about life I learned at Al's Deli Kate Bernot - The Takeout
If you went to Northwestern, Al’s was a staple. I walked in front of the shop daily, on my walk from home to school, and I probably had their sandwiches at least once a week while I lived in Evanston. This essay made me nostalgic about college life, and now I’m craving their croissant with baked ham and swiss.
- Evolving Alien Corals Joel Simon
An amazing procedural generation piece. The fact that it is both 3D, and animated, makes it all the more interesting.
SF Cityscapes March 30, 2018
I have been making an effort to carry my camera with me whenever I take public transit to work in the morning. I usually bike, but a couple of weeks ago, my bike got stolen. The result? An upset Avy. The other result? More city photos from downtown San Francisco. More...
Links - March 26, 2018
I have been awful at sharing links lately, and I haven’t quite figured out why. Partially it is because my consumption patterns have changed. I’m reading more books on paper, spending more time reading tweets, and devoting many many hours a week to listening to podcasts - according to my phone’s stats, I’m spending 8 hours per week on Overcast (at 1.5x, not counting smart speed!) and another 4 hours per week on Twitter (plus however long I spend scrolling on my laptop). That’s a ton of content, and sifting through to decide what’s worth sharing is tough.
I’ll try to go back to sharing a bunch of smaller posts instead of these huge lists going forward. We’ll see how that goes.
Anyway here they are:
- Let’s Get Better at Demanding Better from Tech Cory Doctorow - Locus Magazine
This column asks questions about the future of technology, and which technologies are worth supporting. As you’d expect, it brings in some “marginal cost of 0” ideas, along with questions about what the structure of society should be, and what should be the role of corporations in a financialized world. Ultimately, it pushes us to remember human agency. Being a cog in one of these machines, I can tell you how easy it is to forget we have that.
- Dorm Living for Professionals Comes to San Francisco Nellie Bowles - The New York Times
These are re-branded and remodeled SROs, but people on both sides are doing mental gymnastics to convince themselves otherwise. On the one hand, you have the residents, signaling that their (probably annoying) neighbors are their best friends, and on the other you have the developers who are selling the renewal of these buildings as a good thing for the neighborhood (which I agree with) and a good thing for the residents (which, eh…). Honestly, I was suprised that the NYT was not more critical of this. It adds another layer to San Francisco’s patina of dystopia.
- Pierre Menard, Inventor of LISP Alvaro Videla
If you haven’t read Borges’ Pierre Menard (that’s the original, for an English translation, click here), you should. The text provides amazing commentary on authorship, creativity, and intellectual property. In his piece, Alvaro takes it a step further - Pierre Menard’ing Menard, and rewriting the story as an allegory of computer science in the spirit of Borges. It’s just amazing.
- The DACA and immigration debates are about whether Latinos are "real Americans" Will Wilkinson - Vox
In these days of political craziness, it’s good to remember history. “Trump supporters who thrill to the idea of a ‘big, beautiful wall’ on the border largely fail to grasp that the ancestors of many of the people they want to keep out have been here all along, and that people cross back and forth over the border in part because the border crossed a people.”
- Doctors, Revolt! Rich Joseph - The New York Times
Reading this reminded me of this piece on measuring surgeons’ skills and making decisions on who gets to perform surgeries based on that. Medicine is a very tricky industry (is it even ok to call it an industry? or is that healthcare?), where we don’t set up incentive systems that we know lead to better outcomes because it’d reveal that we don’t really trust our doctors. Doctors are people, and if we give them something to optimize for, they’ll optimize for it. Let’s pick the right thing: patients.
- How is the world ruled? Branko Milanovic - globalinequality
Bottom up or top down? I think neither. Lately I’ve been really conflicted about this idea of whether single humans can effect change in the world, and how.
- Batching Mental Transaction Costs Elaine Ou
This post describes one of the reasons why “micropayments” just don’t work. Yes, I’m in theory willing to pay a cent to read some article or blog post, and I could spend $N/month on content, but having to think about whether or not I want to pay for something or not adds significant friction. This is also why you’d rather open Netflix and scroll for ten minutes through bad content instead of opening the iTunes Movie Store and scroll for two.
- Fitter, Happier, More Productive... and other fantasies of millennial life. Slightly Marxist Founder
A good essay on productivity and lifehacks, and the stories we tell ourselves about human life in 2018 through the lens of Radiohead’s Ok Computer. The accompanying art is worth it on its own, too.
- The Moral Life of Babies Paul Bloom - The New York Times
I took a psychology/philosophy class on the moralities of everyday life on Coursera, and out of all the research that was presented this was one of the more interesting projects. Bloom, who taught the class on Coursera, presents evidence to show that babies are not really clean slates, but instead come with a built-in genetic morality. From a really young age, kids understand empathy, and can discern good and evil. This innate morality is limited, but it appears in babies across cultures, which is just mind blowing.
- The War on Reason Paul Bloom - The Atlantic
Another one by Bloom, from the same class described above. I didn’t even remember having read this one, but when I put it in Pocket I got a little star next to it, which warned me that not only had I read it, but I had really liked it. It brings up great arguments for and against determinism, moral objectivism, and free will.
- The Brain on Trial David Eagleman - The Atlantic
And yet another one that I got from that same class.
- Nothing Is "Standard" Fred Wilson - AVC
The realization that things are the way they are because of path dependence has become more and more prescient in my life lately. This anecdote is a good example of someone side stepping inertia.
- Who Gets to Graduate? Paul Tough - The New York Times
I recently signed up to volunteer with Scholar Match. Their intake process is long, so I have not yet done any actual volunteering yet, but I did have to read this piece for their training. It’s about leveling the field for incoming freshmen in college who come from underprivileged backgrounds via mentoring and tutoring programs. According to the article, the research was quite positive with their test groups, so much so that they extended the process to include the whole incoming class to U.T. that year, which is about to graduate now. I wonder what those numbers look like.
- It's still hard for beginners to get started with Python Vicki Boykis
I constantly remind my team to try to get into a beginner’s shoes when writing documentation, and to think carefully of every word they’re using when documenting code. My go to is “What would you think if you read that on your day 1 at the office?” Thinking about this problem at a more macro scale (i.e., all people learning python, not just seasoned engineers learning the ins and outs of a large system they’ll help develop) makes for an interesting change of perspective.
- World After Capital Patrick O'Shaughnessy, Albert Wenger - Invest Like the Best
On a previous episode of Patrick’s podcast, the conversation turned to the role that attention plays in consumption. Naturally, that led to talk about Albert’s book, World After Capital, and how we’re shifting to a world where the scarcest asset is human attention. I tweeted back saying I’d like to hear them discuss further, and they did!
- Economics for the 21st Century (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Arnold Kling - EconTalk
Most economics taught in school is based on ideas that are hundreds of years old. In most colleges,(including my own) courses at the undergraduate level are focused on the theory, and the idealized models that describe the interactions between firms, labor, and widgets, which don’t really apply to our reality today. In many ways, this is related to the conversation between O’Shaughnessy and Wenger linked to above. Our world is full of intangibles. Our economics education should evolve to deal with them.
- The Case Against Education (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Bryan Caplan - EconTalk
When I took a class on public finance in college, we devoted a total of an hour and a half to this topic. From the minute I heard about signaling theory, I was completely convinced. If you are at all interested on education, and how people make decisions about their lives, listen to this.
- The Enemies of Modernity (Podcast) Russ Roberts, Helen Pluckrose, and James Lindsay - EconTalk
Yes, a third EconTalk episode. Sorry, not sorry. I have to confess I have not yet read the manifesto, but I soon will. Pluckrose and Lindsay make a strong argument to embolden science, reason, democracy, the rule of law, and moral progress. It’s crazy that these are things that need to be argued for, but we live in strange times.
- Bijlmer (City of the Future, Part 1) (Podcast) 99% Invisible
Lately, Roman Mars and his friends at 99PI have been doing great work explaining the evolution of cities, urban planning, and state sponsored development projects. This one on CIAM’s Bijlmer project reveals a lot of the problems of modernist architecture. Having just read Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Scott’s Seeing Like a State, made this extra interesting. Don’t miss part two.
- Fordlandia - (Podcast) 99% Invisible
This one, about Henry Ford’s failed project in Brazil was also fascinating. It’s packed with great tid bits of economics, culture, and incentives management. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s something similar happening with American corporations setting out for a modern equivalent in China today.
- Networks, Power, and Chaos (Podcast) Sam Harris and Niall Ferguson - Waking Up
I’ve been on a Sam Harris binge lately, and it all started from this podcast episode. I’ve been meaning to read Ferguson’s work for years, and this discussion of his latest book gave me an even stronger reason to do so. At first I was interested because of the analysis of power networks and institutions throughout history, but when I realized that the use of the word network was not casual, but actually referring to network science, I was totally sold. I’ll make a big effort to read it this year.
- Rigging The Economy (Podcast) Planet Money
Protectionism and lobbying are staples of the American economy. Here, more so than in many other countries, the government is structured in a way that incentivizes this. In this episode, Lindsey and Teles, come together from different sides of the political spectrum and show why the captured economy is a problem. For a more academic in-depth version of this, you can also check out the EconTalk episode interviewing the same two guys.
- P Is For Phosphorus (Podcast) Planet Money
Everyone needs food to live. Most food comes from fertilized fields. Most fertilizer is made with phosphate, which is derived from phosphorus. Most phosphorus comes from Morocco. Morocco is a monarchy. How insane is it that the future of humanity is so tied to a single person’s whim, and no one knows about it?
- The Evolution of Payments (Podcast) a16z
Stripe is a really interesting company, and hearing John Collison talk about where it is going is fascinating. First, he talked about the idea of pitching a company for customers that don’t yet exist, which is kind of crazy, but by definition visionary. Then, they also discussed being seen as a value-add or a toll-taker. I’ll probably re-listen to this one in a few years, just like this other a16z episode on marketing and positioning. Neither is relevant to my current role, but eventually they will come in handy.
- Five Women (Podcast) This American Life
Hannah listened to this before me, and insisted that I had to hear it. I truly don’t understand how this has been acceptable behavior for so long.
- The Walls (Podcast) This American Life
Episodes of TAL are divided in several acts, and for the most part the various acts are of similar quality in any given episode. On this one, act one knocks it out of the park with a story of immigration into Europe via two tiny Spanish enclaves in Africa.
- Voyages in sentence space Robin Sloan
I work in a tangential field to NLP, and constantly deal with experts in the field, whose explanations can go over my head. Any time I’m pointed to good resources on the topic, I get happy. This is one of them. Additionally, for a good intro to word vectors in general, and how to compute them, you can check out Understanding word vectors, a Jupyter notebook by Allison Parrish.
Q1 Hikes March 25, 2018
A collection from the last few months around the Bay Area.
Friends moving to SF, family members visiting, and great weather are all good excuses for day trips around here. More...
Links - February 10, 2018
- The Strange Brands in Your Instagram Feed Alexis Madrigal - The Atlantic
This one is a rollercoaster. Madrigal decides to buy a cheap coat off of an Instagram ad, and upon receiving the item starts wondering how it got to his home. He digs further, only to fall in the rabbit hole of modern e-commerce. Beacuse the front-ends are shiny squares on Instagram and Shopify, we usually don’t think of the cross country supply chains fed by Chinese entrepreneurs on Alibaba, or who is even doing that Instagram marketing in the first place. This is a good peek at the bowels of the machine.
- The Follower Factory Nicholas Confessore, Gabriel J.X. Dance, Richard Harris and Mark Hansen - The New York Times
As a heavy Twitter user, this is not at all surprising. The platform does not try to hide its spam. Notifications for automated likes, follow/unfollow schemes, and unrelated replies from random bot accounts are daily staples. Twitter staying away from politics has nothing to do with them not addressing the bot accounts. The reason this has not been fixed is that the yardstick Twitter gets measured with is the number of active accounts, and being able to say there are millions of accounts pumping content into the network is valuable to them - it props up their stock price, and keeps investors interested. Don’t get me wrong, I think some bots are valuable to the platform, and have coded up a few myself, but bots that merely amplify the reach of someone else’s account don’t improve the experience of any Twitter user. Of course all these bots disappered right after the NYT published this piece.
- A Glitch in the Theocratic Matrix Venkatesh Rao - Ribbonfarm
People hold all sorts of bizarre unfounded beliefs. People also tend to think that their bizarre beliefs are more valid than others’ bizarre beliefs. When reality fails to agree with our mental models, and we’re pushed to reconcile those gaps, we crash. Rao watched Jake Tapper’s interview with Ted Crockett (the one where Crockett insists that elected officials must be sworn in on a bible) and proceeded to write a whole essay on how hard Crockett crashed, and why.
- The Making of Apple’s Emoji: How designing these tiny icons changed my life Angela Guzman - Medium
One of the amazing things of working at a large corporation like Apple is that a seeminlgy small or inconsequential task can end up affecting the way millions of people interact with the world. In this post, Guzman tells the story of her internship at Apple ten years ago, and how she and her mentor changed language forever. The way we communicate with each other is now permeated with their ideas, forever. Emoji are essential to language today. This is the story of the couple of people at Apple who made the first icons on our phones.
- It’s Time for Apple to Build a Less Addictive iPhone Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
We’re all obsessed with our phones. Notifications come and go, and we’re glued to the screens. There isn’t much new in this piece, but I agree with Manjoo that if anyone is strategically placed to do something about it, it is Apple.
- Craft Beer Is the Strangest, Happiest Economic Story in America Derek Thompson - The Atlantic
Regulation and deregulation should cause serious market restructuring. This is a good article by Thompson on how the market for booze was designed to value morals over efficiency, and how that’s changed in the last few years. It is interesting to put this trend in perspective around the rest of the labor market.
- Inside Amazon Go, a Store of the Future Nick Wingfield - The New York Times
One of the most interesting stories of the last year or two has been Amazon slowly going from a fully online store into various brick and mortar experiments. I have little sympathy for cashiers losing their jobs (as Matt Bruenig quipped on Twitter, what’s the difference between this and self checkout?), they’ll find new ones, but I am afraid of losing what Jane Jacobs calls “eyes on the street”. Those cashiers do more than just charge you when you check out, and that disappears with something like Amazon Go. There’s a story to be written there.
- Ten Year's Worth of Learnings About Pricing Tomasz Tunguz
As an engineer working many layers away from the actual money-making part of the business, I have noticed I’ve almost fully stopped thinking about how sales work, and how people decide to spend their money. This is a problem, and I’m making an effort to read more about sales, marketing, and business development these days. This was a good start.
- The Art Of The Broken Deal Paul Krugman - The New York Times
Limits on a ruler’s power strengthen a country’s credibility. Krugman compares the English and French monarchies, and explains how, back in the olden days, the English king was constrained by parliament while the French king didn’t have an equivalent division of powers, leading to healthier politics in London than in Paris. He then continues to make an analogy with the US today, where Congress should be the one reining in the executive. What’s the point of having a division of powers if people are not willing to stop toeing the party line?
- Democracy in question Chris Dillow - Stumbling and Mumbling
And on that note… “Politics has become like a game of football in which the only thing that matters is that our side wins and nobody cares about the quality or even basic honesty of the game. Most of us have forgotten that we are citizens as well as partisans.” Dillow is talking specifically about Brexit, and the relationships between capitalism and democracy, and the fact that news and information markets don’t lead to the most informed citizenry.
- Beyond the Bitcoin Bubble Steven Johnson - The New York Times
Yes, crypto. If you’ve been following along for a while, and have read about the ideas behind Bitcoin, there isn’t much new here for you, but it’ll be a good refresher. If you want to get a good introduction to the topic, this is a good place to get started.
- The Case for Ethereum Elad Gil
Yes, more crypto. I’ve slowly started to become more bullish on the idea of the Ethereum network taking over Bitcoin, and Gil makes several good points in that direction here. In a vacuum, I think that Ethereum has more fundamental value, making it stronger even without the network effects that come from being the first mover, but what will end up deciding whether the number one network is BTC, ETH, LTC or some other coin, is a substantial reduction transaction costs while increasing throughput. Whether that means Lightning, Plasma, Truebit or something else (Gil mentions Bulletproofs), will matter just as much as other versions of SGML matter to us today when using HTML on the web.
- How To Think About Sellofs Fred Wilson - AVC
Ok, last crypto one. The last month or two have been crazy, but I still think we have a fundamentally different thing going on with the crypto market. And when I say fundamentally that’s exactly the word I’m looking for. When people discuss valuations, cash flows, and discount rates, they’re using concepts that were invented by people to explain prices. Humans made these up, too. That the current model doesn’t apply here doesn’t mean there isn’t fundamental value underneath, it means it is time we come up with a new way to explain prices.
- Towards a Bra-free Instagram Experience Lauren Hallden - NewCo Shift
Men and women have substantially different experiences as they interact with the world, off and online. We’re addressed in different ways, we’re seen in different ways, and we’re marketed to in different ways. Hallden’s argument is that this last one is especially exacerbated on platforms like Instagram, where she is constantly barraged with hyper sexualized advertisements. So much for hyper-targeted ads from companies that know everything about us. This is why you need diverse teams. How did no one at Instagram catch this and say “maybe there’s a problem here”?
- SF tourist industry struggles to explain street misery to horrified visitors Heather Knight - San Francisco Chronicle
SF spent $275M on homelessness efforts in 2017. Where did they go? This city is insane. Collective action problems like this one are exactly the kind of things governments are meant to address, but San Francisco is dropping the ball. (I fully agree with Stephen Merity, who pointed me to this article on Twitter)
- Smart homes and vegetable peelers Benedict Evans
Having had an Echo for quite some time, and a HomePod for a few weeks, I agree with Evans’ view of voice not being the next platform. His analysis on the incentives of different players is probably the most interesting part of the essay - Samsung fighting within itself when trying to figure out how to position itself and how to design its new products, Shenzhen leveraging the supply chain and pushing complexity onto hardware while the SV startup does the opposite and tries to differentiate on software. It will be interesting to see this one play out.
- Gig Economy Grows Up as Lenders Allow Airbnb Income on Mortgage Applications Laura Kusisto - The Wall Street Journal
As Airbnb becomes more and more mainstream, this was bound to happen. Institutions, like people, must adapt.
- A Crazy Idea for Funding Local News: Charge People for It Farhad Manjoo - The New York Times
The main point here is that people are willing to pay for niche content that is relevant to them - this is not news. You’d assume that the spending patterns would be different for finance and tech (where money flows more freely) than for individuals and their local news, but in the end its the same people. People paying for Stratechery or The Information probably care about their kids schools, the local events on their neighborhood, and whatever else their hyperlocal publication has to offer. This is why I’m so interested in initiatives such as Hoodline’s hyperlocal news wire.
- Creative Investing (podcast) Patrick O'Shaughnessy with Ali Hamed - Invest Like the Best
My friend Leon got me hooked on O’Shaughnessy’s podcast. This one is full of interesting ideas about how to value online assets such as accounts on Airbnb or Instagram, and how one could potentially set up an incentive system to transfer the cashflows of these accounts without corrupting the quality of the underlying service being provided by the creator. See also the episode with Chris Dixon on the future of tech.
- Thermal Delight (podcast) 99% Invisible
A great episode on the surprising origin story of air conditioning. I never would have thought that the original purpose of A/C was to control moisture content in the air for publishing plants, where paper and ink alignment would constantly go out of whack. Human pleasure quickly took over, of course.
- Three Miles (podcast) This American Life
A strange quality of the education system is that most people don’t really know (nor have a way to know!) what are opportunities that are available for them. It can be a kid who imagines herself only as a doctor, because that’s what her parents do, or a kid who thinks he’d be lucky if he can become a janitor, because its more than his parents ever accomplished, but at any and all levels of the spectrum, this notion of understanding the availability of choices is tough. In this episode of TAL, they talk about the life of young students from low income backgrounds, their shock when learning how the upper class lives, and how that experience changes the course of their lives years later.
- Chip In My Brain (podcast) This American Life
A story about religion, cults, and how our experiences of what we see as “normal” when we’re children affects us for the rest of our lives. Since you’re here, you probably know that I’m highly skeptic of religion. Listening to this made me think of a quote by Max Weinreich that Mangi Jay tweeted a few days ago: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy” A riff on that might be “A religion is a cult with a thousand years of history.”
- One Nation, Under Money (podcast) More Perfect
I had no idea that desegregation in the US was pushed through congress via the commerce clause. There are some really interesting questions on how far the federal government can reach into state actions, and individual decisions. Making everything about money has its issues, and this episode does a good job of poking holes into some basic tenets of the US political system.