103: Fermi Paradox, Stripe@$95bn, Amazon Logistics, Video Games, Alibaba, NFT, Hempton, Neural Nets 101, Browser Marketshare, Mad Men, and Everyday Bayesian Thinking

"daylight saving time is stupid"

Pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.

—Antisthenes (the patron saint of short-sellers?)

👽 My thoughts on the Fermi Paradox (probably nothing original, I’ve not really read up on this, so I’m probably re-inventing the wheel):

Some context: The Fermi Paradox is basically the idea that even if life is extremely rare and unlikely, the universe is so big, there are so many stars and planets, that there should be lots and lots of life anyway (see also the Drake equation). But when we look around, we’re not seeing signs of it, so what’s going on?

The first thing that seems plausible is that advanced civilizations probably don’t keep broadcasting high-energy electromagnetic signal in all directions for very long. When Fermi started thinking about this, it’s what we were doing with the invention of radio and television, but that’s kind of like a 1900 person thinking that aliens had to be burning coal and moving around in steam locomotives. I’m not sure it makes much sense…

Why wouldn’t advanced civilizations move on to more elegant and less wasteful modes of communication? Even point-to-point lasers and fiber optics are an improvement, or maybe some stuff we’ll only figure out in the future, like harnessing quantum entanglement or whatever.

Or maybe all of that happens inside a Dyson sphere anyway, so it’s not easily detectable from the outside.

Another plausible explanation is sublimation into virtual worlds. Uploading biological minds into AI-run simulations and escaping the constraints of the “real” world for something more interesting/safer, and once you’re in there, you can have a very different subjective perception of time that isn’t limited by biological processes (our neurons are firing at something like 200hz — very slow).

In other words, to someone inside that world, one of our minutes could be a million subjective years (a good way to “gain” time as our universe runs down toward entropy and a low organization state), making any communication with us pretty much impossible, or just impractical/boring and not worth attempting.

🕰 🤬 This is your twice-yearly reminder that daylight saving time is stupid and should be abolished. Time should not change. Whatever benefits exist are swamped by the downsides1. kthx

🤒 Ok, I don’t want to turn this into a Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routine, but I was thinking about the expression “working feverishly” (Nvidia’s CFO used it in a presentation), and I don’t know about you, but when I have a fever, I tend to work a lot less, or even not at all.

It’s probably one of those things where we all know what the person means, so we don’t really think about the words anymore.

f.ex. “sleeping like a baby”. Anyone who has kids knows that babies wake up all the damn time and it’s cause for celebration when they can finally get through a whole night…

🐦 Everybody’s talking about how wonderful Twitter is these days… Did you know you can download an archive of all your account’s data? Every tweet and DM. If you feel that has value and you’d be sad to see it disappear, it may be a good idea to keep a local copy of everything, just in case…

Here are the instructions on how to do it.

(Caution, if you’ve posted a lot, the .zip archive could be quite big. Mine is 1.6 GB)

💚 🥃 A very deep bow, with maximum respect and gratefulness, to all the new supporters who joined the club since last week.

🎤 I’ve been mulling a new project… One skill I wouldn’t mind improving is my comfort speaking into a microphone (especially if at some point I’m going to want to dip my toe in that social audio stuff that is all the rage these days).

It took a lot for me to be convinced to do the one podcast interview I did. Classic introvert, I dislike most phone calls (or rather, I dislike the moments before a phone call — once I’m in I’m usually ok), prefer text where I can revise or delete if I change my mind before hitting “send”.

But I want to make sure that if I don’t do something, it’s because I don’t want to, and not because I’m not good at it or intimidated or afraid. There are good reasons not to do something, and bad reasons.

There’s also the whole Cal Newport angle about how we like what we’re good at, so maybe if I put a little effort into improving, I’ll start liking it more..? Probably worth experimenting, since there’s no real downside except some time investment and discomfort.

I’m thinking of doing mini-podcasts episodes of just me riffing about an edition of this newsletter for a few minutes.

Not reading it, because it doesn’t quite work like a a Ben Thompson or Packy McCormick essay. More like hitting ‘record’ with the newsletter on my screen, and doing the director’s commentary on it, talking about whatever comes to mind or about some of the topics, what triggered an idea or whatever.

I’m not sure yet, but maybe I’ll just publish these to paid supporters, so it goes out to a smaller audience. Probably easier to try to learn this skill in semi-public/semi-private. 🤔

Knowing myself, I could probably spend the whole first episode just on the tools used to podcast (I’m thinking of recording/editing in Garageband or maybe Audacity, and doing the metadata/encoding on Forecast).


Investing & Business

Really Good Video on Amazon’s Behind-the-Scenes Logistics

h/t Aanand B.

Stripe Raises Money at $95 Billion Valuation

In April 2020, they raised some capital at a $36bn valuation, and many were impressed at how big they were getting, especially for a private company. Now they’ve just raised $600m at $95bn.

Still “no plans” to IPO, according to John Collison. The company was founded in 2010.

Video-Game Sales Record in February

Spending across the gaming industry was up to $4.6 billion, which is a 35% increase compared to last February. Hardware sales alone were up 121%, marking the best February for console sales since 2011. [...]

The Nintendo Switch was the month’s bestselling console, rather than the elusive PS5 or Xbox Series X. Its February sales were the best for any gaming console since the Nintendo Wii in 2009. The Switch is now Nintendo’s second-bestselling console of all time, exceeding the Nintendo DS. Meanwhile, the PS5 came in second and is now the fastest-selling console in history. [...]

As for software sales, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury topped the charts. (Source)

‘Alibaba: From growth to value’

Interesting post by Lillian Li about some of the challenges faced by Alibaba:

Outside of China, we often hear about how dominant they are, and while lately we’ve heard about the troubles they’re having with the government, I don’t think we often get such a detailed perspective on the competition and growth avenues going forward.

Interview: John Hempton (again)

In edition #102 I posted a good interview with John Hempton, and reader ‘PB’ (hi!) recommended this other interview with John that I had missed:

There’s also an earlier one by the same interviewer, also quite good from what I remember:

And while we’re doing Hempton-mania, here’s a 2017 blog post he wrote about “When do you average down?” (resurfaced by Gavin Baker — thanks!).

Interview: Gabe Czegledy, Portfolio Manager at Vela Software (Constellation Software)

A portfolio managers at Vela Software, one of the groups at Constellation, talks about his career, what he looks for in vertical market software businesses, the competitive situation in Canada vs US vs Europe, etc.

Not an interview that will blow your mind, but if you’re interested in the space, it’s a nice inside view:

$69m NFT Digital Artwork Follow-Up

So now we kinda know who spent 69 million clams on Beeple’s NFT:

Metakovan’s real identity is not known, but the investor is the co-founder of the NFT collection called Metapurse, which collects NFTs to display in the metaverse through virtual museums. Metakovan already owns the largest collection of Beeples, and fractionalized the ownership of one collection of Beeples with a special token called the B.20 Coin. [...]

Twobadour said they don’t know their exact plans for this work, but options include fractionalizing it or offering it as a new token. He said the goal is not to make money, but to decentralize and democratize art so token holders everywhere can share a piece of history and share the wealth.

For example, it’s like if people could go to the Museum of Modern Art and actually own some of the work, he said.

We made history and we created a god” in Beeple, he said. (Source)

Wow, there’s a lot of late-night bong-rip logic in there, but again, I think we’ll see a lot of this kind of stuff because of this.


Science & Technology

How Neural Networks Work (Primer Videos)

Two excellent videos explaining the basic concepts underpinning deep learning/neural networks in a way that most interest laypeople can understand. Above is part 1, and here’s part 2.

This whole Youtube channel by Grant Sanderson aka 3Blue1Brown looks quite good to learn about math-y and scienc-y stuff.

(If you’re curious about the name of the channel, there’s a cool story behind it:

“The channel name and logo reference the color of Grant Sanderson’s right eye, which has blue-brown sectoral heterochromia.”

You can see a photo of his eye here and the logo here.)

If the video above is still a bit too intimidating and technical for you (and that’s fine! don’t feel bad. Everything that anyone knows, they had to learn for the first time at some point too), this one by CGP Grey also provides a good introduction to what is going on with machine learning:

Browser Marketshare

‘Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement’

Daniel Kahneman has a new book coming. Neat.

In Noise, Kahneman, Sibony, and Sunstein show the detrimental effects of noise in many fields, including medicine, law, economic forecasting, forensic science, bail, child protection, strategy, performance reviews, and personnel selection.

Old CPUs never die, they simply fade away…2

Found my old Athlon 64. Makes for a nice fidget toy to keep on the desk...

It has a few bent pins. You can kind of see it on the second picture, on the left.

Wouldn’t it be cool if CPUs had the equivalent of a car odometer, and you could know how many calculations they had done or how much data had passed through them over their life?

Short Video by Julia Galef about Applied Everyday Bayesian Thinking

If Baye’s Rule isn’t familiar, you can go up an extra level in context by watching her previous video “A visual guide to Bayesian thinking”.

Zeynep Showing Us How to Think, Long-Covid Edition

The NYT wrote about a study:

[Sub headline:] An analysis of electronic medical records in California found that 32 percent started with asymptomatic infections but reported troubling aftereffects weeks and months later. [...]

The study, one of the first to focus exclusively on people who never needed to be hospitalized when they were infected, analyzed electronic medical records of 1,407 people in California who tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 60 days after their infection, 27 percent, or 382 people, were struggling with post-Covid symptoms like shortness of breath, chest pain, cough or abdominal pain.

Zeynep Tufekci looks at this, and shows us some of that applied Bayesian thinking that I wrote about above:

Troublesome, right? Even asymptomatic infection seems to potentially create “Long Covid” sufferers in large proportions. [...]

The findings were drawn from electronic health records: i.e. people who were interacting with the hospital system. So the study necessarily excludes anyone who didn’t feel the need to interact with the hospital after their positive test. Who is still interacting with the hospital sixty days after their diagnosis? People who don’t feel great. Who is not? People who don’t feel the need to because they feel fine. Hence, clearly, this is not a representative group whatsoever. These are people who sought follow-up, by definition. Their problems are real, for sure, but they don’t form a basis from which to report percentages, really. This is called a “selection effect” — if you only include people who select themselves into a group, you have little idea of what’s actually going on besides some people selecting themselves into that group.

The rest of the post is good, and she uncovers more problems with this story, but I wanted to highlight just this part to shows how easy it is to be misled by faulty assumptions if you don’t question the methodology and how conclusions were reached.

Keep your guard up, Balboa.


The Arts & History

‘The Green Mile’ (1999)

My parents got their first DVD player around 1999-2000. I remember because it came with ‘The Green Mile’, Frank Darabont’s other excellent Stephen King prison novella.

I have fond memories of that film, even though I haven’t seen it since those years.

I rarely ever see it mentioned anymore. I don’t know why it kind of disappeared from the popular consciousness. Maybe it’s just a hard film to watch — 1930s’ death row isn’t exactly uplifting.

Because it was the only DVD we had for a while, I’ve seen it way more often than if it had just been one of the many films that we rented from video stores in that era (yes, video stores that you had to drive to, and browse what they had available on the shelves, drive back home with your films and then try not to forget to bring them back because there were late fees).

Earlier, as a younger kid, I saw the original Star Wars trilogy a hojillion times on VHS tapes that my parents had recorded from a TV broadcast, with ads and everything (some ads are forever imprinted in my brain — there’s a Peptobismol one where they dip a rose in acid and it wilts, and then cover it in pink pepto-liquid and then dip it back, and it’s fine), and also, somehow, a film called ‘Tank’ (1984) that I was probably too young to be watching…

Anyway, I was thinking of this while wondering what my kids’ ‘special’ movies will be in the coming years, the stuff that they will see over and over during their most impressionable years, and realized that somehow The Green Mile had slipped in there for me even though I was much older, just because it was the only thing to watch in “high quality” (which at the time was 480p on a Sony Trinitron CRT TV — you kids don’t know how good you have it, says old man screaming at the clouds).

1904 Summer Olympics’ Men's Marathon, Crazy History Edition

This is so bonkers. Here’s Aella’s summary:

Let me introduce you guys to the utterly WILD 1904 summer olympics men's marathon, in which 32 men competed, but only 14 actually finished.

The winner cheated; he hitchhiked on a car through most of the race, almost got gold, and when he was caught he insisted he was joking.

The race planners for some fucking reason decided not to include water stations in the event to deliberately induce dehydration. There was only a single well in the 25-mile run, and the temperature was over 90F on super-dusty roads.

The actual winner barely made it.

He ate rat poison mixed with brandy along the way in an attempt to keep going because it's also kind of a stimulant apparently? He had to be dragged by assistants across the finish line, and lost EIGHT POUNDS over the course of the marathon.

Another guy hitchhiked to participate in the race, cut his pants into shorts, but he hadn't eaten in 40 hours so he grabbed some apples along the run. They were rotten, so he got sick and had to lie down to nap... but still ended up getting 4th place.

Another guy got chased a mile off course by aggressive dogs. Another guy almost DIED after inhaling too much dirt kicked up by race officials cars.

In conclusion, can this please be a movie?

You can read the whole thing here.

Mad Men — Season 3’s Final 3

Continuing my rewatch of 'Mad Men'.

Saw S3 episodes 11-12, which were excellent. And I remember the finale being one of the best episodes of the whole series, so I’m really looking forward to it.

What a trio of episodes, one after the other. Bam-bam-bam.

That JFK assassination moment makes me feel like I was alive back then, and it triggers the visceral memory of similarly significant moments that I did live through (9/11, for example)...

Update: After writing the above, I had the chance to watch the season 3 finale, "Shut the door. Have a seat." Sooo good.

It has plenty of emotional ups and downs, and the characters are stretching in new directions, just as the show itself does. Very satisfying.

As @Roboco23 pointed out, it’s very much structured like a heist.

1

Matthew Walker cites studies on how the sleep disruption leads to a statistically significant increase in things like heart attacks and car accidents. Think of all the lost productivity in the days that it takes to get used to the new time.

At least before I had kids there was “a good one where you can sleep more”, but now both changes are bad because kids still wake up at the same time, and it then takes them a week to get used to the new time, during which they are crankier (I'm sure teacher see it with their students).

2

The phrase “Old soldiers never die, they simply fade away” was used by General Douglas MacArthur in his April 19, 1951 farewell address to the U.S. Congress. More context here.