101: The Best Business in the World?, Patrick Collison of Stripe, My NFT Questions, Twitter's Kayvon, AmazonBasics Attacked, Bruce Berkowitz, and Microsoft's Flaw

"Most systems get worse in at least certain ways as they scale."

Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well, and it is magic.  A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot. [...]

It doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in a worthless direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity and usually almost ignored. So think about it more! [...]

Don’t fall into the trap of productivity porn—chasing productivity for its own sake isn’t helpful.  Many people spend too much time thinking about how to perfectly optimize their system, and not nearly enough asking if they’re working on the right problems.  It doesn’t matter what system you use or if you squeeze out every second if you’re working on the wrong thing.

The right goal is to allocate your year optimally, not your day.

—Sam Altman, Productivity

Usually, stocks go up taking the stairs, and come down taking the elevator (if you’re lucky! Sometimes it’s just base-jumping).

But sometimes, they go down with the elevator, and then they come back up with the elevator. Yesterday was a good example of this.

🤔 Good tweet by David. I don't necessarily think it’s universally true —

Some people definitely have a lower tolerance for risk and uncertainty and feel much better inside a big organization that acts as an armor around them for a lot of life’s ups and downs; small is typically more volatile and uncertain, so not for everyone

— but I think it's certainly true for me, and probably for many of those wired similarly enough to be able to get through one of my letters-to-no-one/everyone.

So hey there, Small-Scale Gang 👋

Do we need to create an elaborate secret handshake, or is that something only a larger organization would do anyway..?

🌍 You want to stimulate the economy and fight global warming? Tighten standards for HVAC and insulation efficiency for new and old buildings, with incentives for retrofitting.

Negawatts are the greenest watts, and better ventilation helps fight airborne viruses, so there’s gotta be support for that these days.

Of course, the most elegant way to do this is by taxing what you want less of (carbon, particulate matter pollution, the release in nature of various toxins like mercury, lead and cadmium, etc), but that can be hard politically, especially in the US.

Seems to me like if it was explained well and done in a revenue-neutral way (you reduce taxes on one side by as much as you raise on the other), it could happen, but laying the groundwork for this hasn’t even begun.

Hopefully someday we’ll be smart enough to use incentives to help make the default choices the beneficial ones, rather than tax/make more expensive the good things (like labor, education, healthcare) and subsidize/externalize the costs of bad things (corn/high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, oil, coal, etc) so that the cheapest/default choice is usually the worst option from an environmental/social point of view.

💚 🥃 Thank you to all the paid supporters! Not a big group yet, but all quality people, and from small beginnings…

Investing & Business

Ooh! That sweet sweet CAGR!

I've been feature-requesting this for years, making myself insufferable I'm sure, but here it is, automatic period compound-annual-growth-rate in Koyfin!

Ooh, and they’ve also updated the Transcript view so that it’s now full-width. Very nice.

Interview: Patrick Collison, Stripe co-Founder & CEO (and Good Guy Polymath)

Noah Smith did an interview with Patrick Collison (a few years ago, my fingers used to always type “Collision” until someone pointed out my mistake — very embarrassing, almost like writing “Warren Buffet” — I mention it because apparently I’m a glutton for punishment who likes to rub his nose in his mistakes so the lesson sticks better…):

Some highlights:

[asked about things that excite him about the 2020s]

First, the explosive expansion in access to opportunity facilitated by the internet. Sounds prosaic but I think still underestimated. Several billion people recently immigrated to the world's most vibrant city and the system hasn't yet equilibrated. When you think about how YouTube is accelerating the dissemination of tacit knowledge, or the number of creative outsiders who can now deploy their talents productively, or the number of brilliant 18 year-olds who can now start companies from their bedrooms, or all the instances of improbable scenius that are springing up... in the landscape of the global commons, the internet is nitrogen fertilizer, and we still have a long way to go -- economically, culturally, scientifically, technologically, socially, and everything in between.

He makes a "scenius” reference, a term coined by Brian Eno.

I wrote about the Internet a Mature-State Scenius? in edition #68.

As an aside, only Patrick starts a sentence with “As a prefatory point”. I had to look it up. If you google that sentence fragment, you only get 146 results. Now that’s some low-entropy writing…

What we call "science" has changed immensely since WWII. For one thing, it’s way bigger. In 1950, the federal government gave about $100 million per year (in 2021 dollars) to universities for the purpose of basic research. That’s now more than $20B per year. If we look at R&D across the economy as a whole (though that's harder to measure reliably), nominal spending has supposedly grown by a similar magnitude. If we look at numbers of researchers, same story: about 10x more research doctorates are awarded every year today than were in 1950. [...]

A priori, I think it's completely plausible that many of the changes we've made have not been for the best. Most systems get worse in at least certain ways as they scale. The idea that science could have gotten worse in significant ways sometimes sounds strange to people -- like, we’re doing so much more, how could that be bad? -- but I think that misses the many examples of sensitivity of scientific processes to institutions and culture.

Science and technology are clearly some of the highest leverage activities that humans do, so almost anything that we can do to make their pursuit better is worth seriously considering.

The problem is, a lot of the issues don’t appear to be solvable by some decree or law, but require cultural changes in how things are done and how institutions are run. That’s long and hard work, and while the best time to start was a long time ago, the second best time is now.

the major open problems in many domains involve emergent phenomena and complex/unstable systems that often have lots of complex couplings and nonlinear effects and so on. In biology, cancer, autoimmune conditions, anything involving the microbiome... these are all just intrinsically harder problems than individual infectious diseases. In computing, modern machine learning is much more about experimentally figuring out what works in an emergent sense than, say, operating system or network protocol design, which are more about top-down architecture

On how to get more progress and innovation:

most cultures through time haven't been, I think, especially conducive to progress or innovation, so I'd also invert -- maybe we should just identify those that were and try to figure out what it was that was special about them

So it’s not necessarily what is stopping us, but what made us go when we were at our best… There may not be an automatic reversion to greatness if the greatness was the anomaly and the mean is actually being bad at it.

my single biggest science policy suggestion would be to pursue far greater structural diversity in our mechanisms. More different kinds of grant making institutions, more different kinds of research organizations, more different career paths for participants, etc. That's not easy to do -- bureaucracies by their nature seek to standardize which this fosters homogeneity.

This is very brilliant, which is probably why I almost never hear anyone else push for this approach.

My NFT Questions

So I’m just a dummy who hasn’t looked that much at NFTs, so I’m probably missing something… But:

Why does it matter that it says in a fancy distributed database that you own a digital asset if everyone else can have access to exactly, bit-for-bit, the same thing and use it/enjoy it equally and make infinite copies?

Is what you're paying for basically the ability to try to re-sell that database entry later for a higher price? What part of the monetary value comes from something other than the ability to speculate on price?

Seems to me like digital and physical assets are inherently different, and trying to force digital assets to have some of the attributes of physical ones can only go so far, and they remain very different even if you've printed 50 NFT entries in a database with ownership tags.

Another way to think about it may be: With physical goods, the concept of “original” and “copy” is very clear. I can look at photos of a Rembrandt, I can look at prints of it, or even a hand-made copy, but the original remains a separate thing.

With digital goods, I’m not even sure the concept of “original” makes sense except in a very abstract and conceptual way, kind of like how in physics, all electrons are considered to be exactly the same. What’s the original copy of Microsoft Office? What’s the original copy of that Mad Men GIF? What’s the original copy of the Google logo?

Like, if 50 wealthy art aficionados want to hang a Picasso in their living room and you had an auction, they'd still bid against each other to a pretty high price even if they had to promise on their kids’ lives to never resell it. Doubt the same would happen for a NFT key that could never be resold.

Or here’s another angle to think about it, maybe another intuition pump: With physical art, the scarcity and the experience of the art are tied. There’s only one original, a photo or a print isn’t quite the same. With NFTs, they’ve uncoupled the scarcity and the experience of it; anyone can see a digitally exact copy, there’s not even really an original, they’re all the same, but they’ve made scarce what they call the “ownership” of it.

But as I said, what you own isn’t really control of the thing — it’s always out there as perfect copies — it’s an entry in a database that says it’s yours. Does it really work to separate these two things? I’m not sure…

But what do I know, I’m not the one making millions selling my digital artwork ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Also, check this out (turning NFT digital paintings into rugs — what other mischief is coming?).

Amazon Needs to Tweak Its AmazonBasics Strategy

I get that the bigger you are, the bigger a target you are for everyone else (ie. The #1 in an industry will usually get 100x more crap than the #2, even if the #2 has objectively worse practices), but I still think Amazon needs to tweak its strategy here.

I think that the Kirkland approach can work well. Customers love to have cheaper batteries and soap and stuff that isn’t too differentiated, and merchants can’t say too much about that, because hey, it’s just good ol’ competin’.

But when you get into more differentiated products, you run the risk of stepping on the toes of the kinds of merchants that will have a lot more public sympathy than Duracell and Tide, and they’ll be pretty effective at painting you as a mustache-twirling villain.

So by all means, Amazon, compete in whatever verticals you want, but don’t do outright copies. Make your own, distinct stuff, and don’t copy names even if that’s worse SEO. kthx

Bruce Berkowitz

Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time, as Obi-Wan would say…

For a while he was followed extremely closely in the value circles where I hung out, then the Sears debacle, and not much since…

Hadn’t thought of him for years, to be honest, but something reminded me of him and I wanted to see how his fund was doing. Looks like he’s been beating the S&P 500 and is having a good year, but what jumped at me is that he basically just owns cash and St. Joe now. Is that a strategy?

The Best Business in the World?

So today I learned that Michael Buffer — an announcer for boxing and pro-wrestling — has made over $400m from his trademark phrase “let’s get ready to rumble” (as of 2009! that number is much higher today I’m sure).

And he’s milking it nicely too:

he has used variations of the phrase in advertisements, including the popular commercial for Mega Millions in which he says "Let's get ready to Win Big!" and the Kraft Cheese commercial in which he says "Let's get ready to Crumble!" and most recently for Progressive Insurance in which he says "Let's get ready to bundle!"

Good for him. That has to rank up there for the highest $ return on the lowest amount of work ever (I don’t mean his announcer work, that part he probably also got paid well for, I mean just saying a phrase a bunch and then trademarking it).

Talk about good ROIC.

h/t Bob Brinker

Interview: Kayvon Beykpour, Head of Product at Twitter

I enjoyed this interview by Nilay Patel:

It certainly seems like what we’re seeing now are the fruits of the changes that have started a few years ago, possibly largely because of the culture and direction change caused by both Jack and later Kayvon.

I certainly find what they’re doing very intriguing and exciting, I just hope they don’t screw it up and revert back to their old habits.

Interview: Ian Cassel

Good interview by Bill Brewster (Ok, I was bored of my own stupid joke):

Ian’s a good dude, who can simultaneously convince you that micro-caps are the place to be and that you should probably stay far away from them. But most of what makes the episode enjoyable is that Bill magic of Ye Ole Art of Conversation.

I like how The Brew balances out some of the other podcasts that, while quite good, can feel like the guest is “on” and selling and pitching and showing the glossy, positive side of their story. Sometimes you gotta lose the suit & tie, so to speak…

Science & Technology

TikTok Doing Better Public Education on mRNA Vaccines than the WHO

Video here (can’t embed these — Come on Substack, don’t be a boomer!). h/t Rohan

‘More than 20,000 U.S. organizations compromised through Microsoft flaw’

However super-super-important IT security was claimed to be in recent times, it’s even more important than that, because as the world is increasingly relying on the internet and software, the surface area of attack is increasing, the value of what can be attacked is increasing, and the potential damage that can be done is increasing. And these increases aren’t linear…

More than 20,000 U.S. organizations have been compromised through a back door installed via recently patched flaws in Microsoft Corp’s email software [Exchange], a person familiar with the U.S. government’s response said on Friday.

The hacking has already reached more places than all of the tainted code downloaded from SolarWinds, the company at the heart of another massive hacking spree uncovered in December. [...]

installing the patch does not get rid of the back doors, U.S. officials are racing to figure out how to notify all the victims and guide them in their hunt. (Source)

‘human body uses 30% to 50% less water per day than our closest animal cousins’

Well, we may not be able to out-compete most animals on most things — we’re soft and weak and don’t have scary teeth or claws. But our squishy brains more than make up for all that, and it turns out, we’re also pretty efficient when it comes to water:

research published March 5 in the journal Current Biology shows that the human body uses 30% to 50% less water per day than our closest animal cousins. In other words, among primates, humans evolved to be the low-flow model.

An ancient shift in our body’s ability to conserve water may have enabled our hunter-gatherer ancestors to venture farther from streams and watering holes in search of food [...]

“Even just being able to go a little bit longer without water would have been a big advantage as early humans started making a living in dry, savannah landscapes,” (Source)

Via Reddit

As some commenters point out, this is another area where our brains came in handy:

-This also highlights how much of an advantage even fairly simple technology like a water skin confers.

-Yeah, I imagine water storage and transport was probably up there with fire among the most impactful primitive technologies.

-It's one of the reason we regularly consider Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ancient China such critical successes in our growth as a species. Their mastery of water resource management set the stage for civilization as we know it.

The Arts & History

‘wood burl, a growth in a tree that causes deformed grain, beneath the bark of a burned tree’

Ok, this is probably the coolest yet in my “weird tree stuff” series.

Source. Via Massimo

Don’t Believe Your Eyes