106: Empathy vs Narcissism, Microsoft Excel, Visa/Facebook Antitrust, Tech + Military, Reverse-Engineering B-2 Stealth Bombers, Singapore Organ Donor Incentives, and Last Words

"the human brain doesn't have a good mechanism to update"

Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.

—Anaïs Nin

(Her full name is amazing:

Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell

“Nin is hailed by many critics as one of the finest writers of female erotica [in the 1930s]. She was one of the first women known to explore fully the realm of erotic writing, and certainly the first prominent woman in the modern West known to write erotica. Before her, erotica acknowledged to be written by women was rare, with a few notable exceptions, such as the work of Kate Chopin.”

Pioneers in everything.

🤔 I can’t be the only one who does this…

So when a stock price gets in the triple digits, I tend to imagine that it’s still only two, because that somehow makes price moves easier to understand for my puny brain.

For example, a stock trading for $410 and moving up $20 to $430, I’ll translate it to a $41 stock moving to $43.

😎 / 🥺 I was recently thinking about how much humans seem to start out with the “narcissism” dial turned relatively high, and the “empathy” dial turned relatively low.

To me, a major ingredient of wisdom is turning down the narcissism dial and turning up the empathy dial:

This happens either through deliberate self-improvement or just accumulated life experience that teaches us about our place in the world (not that important) and other people’s worth and experiences (just as real as our own).

It’s a process, not a destination, but I think it’s win-win. If you board that train, it leads to a better life for you, and for others. 🚂

🤨 In my Substack referral stats, I'm seeing 1 hit from "plagiarismdetector.net".

Does it mean someone plagiarized something I wrote and got caught by a teacher? What's going on?

Don’t cheat, and if you do because it’s a stupid make-work assignment, don’t get caught!

🤖 Ok, this is a bit of a sci-fi, speculative one… I was thinking about how the big things that humans debate and consider as a society are all reduced to pretty simple things.

There may be uncertainty, unknowns, and other factors that make them hard, and there may be complex underlying issues and phenomena, but the actual things that are discussed and debated by politicians, the media, and and millions of people on the internet are pretty simple.

This or that. Because of this or that. I think things work like this, no I think things work better like that. Most people fall into 2-4 big camps inside their local culture/context, and there’s a relatively small % of people who will go further than the big neon signs on most societal ideas and issues (of course I’m not talking about you, dear reader — we’re all exceptions here).

Now imagine how a society of super-intelligent beings could be organized and deal with ideas/issues at the societal level instead.

Let’s picture AIs that are way smarter than us; that can hold more than 7-9 numbers in short term memory (hard to beat, I know!) and have perfect recall of everything they ever learned and access instantly all the knowledge of their civilization on their own version of the internet (but theirs has more breadth and depth by orders of magnitude, of course, since they’re smarter and likely have been around at a high level of advancement for a while).

Basically, the preamble to sharing a thought for them may be the equivalent of an advanced physics textbook for us, or maybe a whole physics bookshelf.

Then they’d exchange back and forth proposals that are like a few libraries of congress of data, to capture the full nuance and detail of the situation, and of their thoughts and proposed solutions, with everything weighted by probability and the reasoning for each belief fully transparent and justified by logic chains. Each individual on every side of the debate would think/compute to figure out an answer based on all sides’ full knowledge and thoughts on the matter with perfect recall and fidelity.

So yeah, I think an advanced civilization would look quite a bit different from ours.

🧠 How many people on the planet have heart attacks on any given day? How many faint or have shortness of breath or weird unexplained rashes or aneurysms or blood clots?

See, if you’re going to vaccinate billions of people, statistically you’ll get plenty of all kinds of things happening to people during the days after they get their shot. It doesn’t mean that it’s caused by it (some people will also have car accidents, get pregnant, get robbed…).

But sadly, the human brain doesn't have a good mechanism to update. For most people, once they believe something, it's really hard to make them un-believe it, especially if it fits well in a cluster of beliefs that are wrapped up with their ego/identity…

Most people also don’t understand base rates and bayesian statistics.

Combine these things, and you can see why things like the recent AstraZeneca headlines are so terribly bad and damaging to public health.

While it may have been literally true that researchers investigated the possibility of blood clots, the way that the scientists meant that (well, we gotta look to make sure) and the way the general public understands it are not the same story at all.

Some people will die because they refuse to take a perfectly good and safe vaccine just because they saw a headline that they didn’t understand and now can’t be convinced to change their minds.

💉 My parents just got their vaccine appointments for April 15th.

After waiting for something for so long, it kind of feels weird when it starts to happen, because I think I subconsciously kind of started to think it would never *actually* happen…

Update: They found a slot for March 30th at a different location!


Investing & Business

'Justice Department Investigating Visa Over Debit-Card Practices’

The department’s antitrust division has been gathering information and asking whether Visa, the largest U.S. card network, has limited merchants’ ability to route debit-card transactions over card networks that are often less expensive, the people said. Many of the department’s questions have focused on online debit-card transactions, but investigators have asked about in-store issues as well, the people said.

The probe highlights the important role of the so-called network fees that are invisible to consumers, lucrative for card companies, but a weight on merchants, who often pass on the fees in the form of higher prices to customers. (Source)

Can they also investigate how much it costs retailer to deal with cash (security, theft, logistics of handling it, lost productivity because it takes more time to pay, count, etc)?

‘Facebook faces antitrust probe by UK regulator’

Visa’s not the only one…

Britain’s competition regulator is preparing an antitrust investigation into Facebook within the next few months, marking its latest crackdown on Big Tech’s dominance after launching similar probes into Google and Apple earlier this year.

People close to the investigation said the Competition and Markets Authority would take a sweeping look at the way Facebook allegedly uses customer data to squash rivals in social media and online advertising. [...]

The UK probe, which also focuses on the Marketplace, is likely to examine Facebook’s status as a so-called gatekeeper for its ability to collect data from its users to boost its competitive advantage over rivals. (Source)

Interview: Alex Danco, Scenes & Building Things & Abundance

Ok, this is a really really good interview. I highly recommend it.

To me, Alex is an intimidating guy, because I’m just barely smart enough to see how much smarter he is than I am (they say you can only see a couple of levels up above you — more than that and you can’t tell apart the geniuses from the super-geniuses).

Really interesting stuff on scenes (I wrote a bit about Brian Eno’s concept of the ‘scenius’ and how it applies to the Internet in edition #68) and some of the counter-intuitive empirical evidence on what works, and on the systems thinking/exploration and buildings vs the linear cause & effect training we get in school… Fascinating high-level stuff:

I also liked “the real Hallmark of abundance is not quantity, it's variety”. I don’t know if Alex was paraphrasing Michael Pollan or someone else, but it’s a good insight about this internet world where there’s an endless long-tail of niches being constantly created .

Jim also does a great job as more a conversation partner than interviewer.

Alex published a partial transcript if you prefer to read the part on scenes (but you should listen to the whole thing):

Interview: Josh Wolfe and Gen. Tony Thomas, Military & Tech

One thing I like about Josh Wolfe and Lux capital is that they go into a lot of the harder tech and science crevices to find problems to help solve. I wish way more VCs did that.

As an avid reader of military history and someone who enjoys the design and engineering of a lot of military hardware, I’ve always felt the dichotomy between how war is a really interesting topic that touches on so many of the biggest themes of the human condition and the strongest human emotions1, but it also really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really really sucks.

Over time I’ve settled on the position that war should be avoided at almost all cost, but that if it has to happen, then I’d much rather have countries like the US win than countries like Putin’s Russia, for example. I also think the idea of deterrence, and that the most effective way to have sustained peace is to be ready for war probably makes the most sense from a game theory POV (can we even write the words “game theory” anymore without thinking of that twitter meme? Has it been ruined like “flywheel” and “compounder” and “platform company”? Soon we won’t have any words left…).

Anyway, T2 (as retired 4-star General Tony Thomas is known) and Josh do a pretty good job of giving an overview of the challenges and opportunities for the tech world to help the defense world deal with modern challenges (assassin drones and EMP blasts and satellite killers and such).

If nothing else, this convo will be very different than the past 10 podcasts you’ve heard about investing in Facebook and Twitter (good job again by Patrick O’Shaughnessy):

Ode to Microsoft Excel

Packy went all in:

Excel may be the most influential software ever built. It is a canonical example of Steve Job’s bicycle of the mind, endowing its users with computational superpowers normally reserved for professional software engineers. Armed with those superpowers, users can create fully functional software programs in the form of a humble spreadsheet to solve problems in a seemingly limitless number of domains. These programs often serve as high-fidelity prototypes of domain specific applications just begging to be brought to market in a more polished form. 

If you want to see the future of B2B software, look at what Excel users are hacking together in spreadsheets today.


Science & Technology

Just a B2 Spirit Stealth Bomber Refuelling in the Air

Note near the end, around 58 seconds in, you can see the fuel receptacle rotate back inside the plane, leaving a perfectly smooth fuselage to keep as few radar waves bouncing back as possible:

In this case, the clip is particularly interesting as it clearly shows the Spirit’s rotating dorsal receptacle: once the refueling has finished the fuel intake required to connect with the tanker’s flying boom can’t remain exposed as it would become RCS “hotspot” rendering the B-2 less than completely stealthy.

For this reason the aircraft has an internal system which rotates the receptacle and hides it in such a way the aircraft is once again completely stealth. (Source)

h/t Massimo

The US Air Force Needs to Reverse-Engineer Its Own Plane for Spare Parts

While on the topic of the B2, here’s an interesting read (h/t to Madman):

Twenty-one years after the last Spirit was delivered, the Air Force is working out how to build the exotic spare parts the bomber requires. [...]

This engineering effort is to reverse engineer the core of the B‐2 Load Heat Exchangers, develop disassembly process to remove defective cores, develop a stacking, vacuum brazing, and welding process to manufacture new heat exchanger cores and to develop a welding process to install the new cores on existing B‐2 Load Heat Exchangers.” [...]

While it’s hard to say exactly why this approach is being taken now, it indicates that the original plans for these components are unavailable or the manufacturing processes and tooling used to produce them no longer exists. This could be the result of them having been so secretive that, at some point, they were inadvertently destroyed altogether. They could also have been simply misplaced, or the parts may have been produced by a smaller contractor that has long since disappeared, taking the bespoke tooling with it.

Elephant in the Brain, Book Review

I enjoyed this review of the book ‘Elephant in the Brain’ (written by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson) by Steven Lee:

If you haven’t read the book and want to get a good idea of the main concepts, check it out.

We are all aware that people can have bad motives. They can be greedy, selfish, lazy, deceptive, and generally terrible. It’s so obvious! What’s weird is that we rarely think to ourselves, “I’m doing this because I am a huge jerk, but that sounds bad, so I’ll say that I’m actually doing this for the children”. The authors posit that even though we never explicitly think we have bad motives, we lie to ourselves and others to make ourselves seem better. At worst, we aren’t even aware that we are lying to ourselves! The book goes through our various institutions and sacred ideas, finding that we spend lots of time and money pursuing status and signalling our own greatness. This explains why most groups with a goal seem to be less good than they could be.

Nature is Clever, Woodpecker Tongue Edition

A problem with a long tongue is where to store it when it’s not in use. Woodpeckers came up with a creative solution. Rather than terminate below the skull, the hyoid horns continue over the back of the skull, just under the skin, and continue over the top of the skull. The two horns then join, extending forward as necessary — sometimes inserting into the right nostril. (Source)

Singapore Opt-Out Organ Donor List, Incentives Edition

What is HOTA?

The Human Organ Transplant Act (HOTA) allows for the kidneys, heart, liver and corneas to be removed, for the purpose of transplantation, in the event of death from any cause.

HOTA covers all Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents 21 years old and above, who are not mentally disordered, unless they have opted out. [...]

[If you opt out:]

Do note that you will not receive priority should you require an organ transplant.

Source. Via Reddit

Interview: Drew Endy, Bioengineering and synthetic biology

I enjoyed this interview of Drew Endy by Kevin Scott, the chief technology officer at Microsoft:

The first part is about his life journey and how he got to looking at biology with an engineering lens, but after that the really good stuff starts. I think he raises many good points and philosophical + practical questions about how our society has been looking at biological problems, and our blind spot when it comes to investing in preparedness and truly transformational vision.


The Arts & History

‘Last Words’ by Steve Earle, My Story

I discovered Steve Earle because he played the role of a musician on one of my favorite TV shows, ‘Treme’ (HBO, 2010-2013, David Simon — I’ve seen it 3x), and because one of his songs was featured during the credits of an episode, and it was just perfect in that context:

I’m not super familiar with all his music, only a few of his albums, but I have a soft spot in my heart for him as a person. He’s kind of like Rick Rubin for me (hopefully not just because of the beard — he’s also got a zen thing going when he speaks and I like his personality).

So I was listening to my “new music” recommendations by Apple Music, and a song stood out to me, the voice was familiar. Ah! It’s Steve. Good to hear from you, man.

So I look into his new album that came out, and it was like a punch to the gut:

Steve Earle & the Dukes pay tribute to Steve's son Justin Townes (J.T.) who passed away in 2020.

Of the 11 songs, ten are covers of JT songs, while "Last Words" is written by Steve himself.

Note that all money gained from the album goes to a trust for JT's three year old daughter, so this is an honest way - and maybe only way for a musician - to say goodbye to a child who left too early.

The song I was listening to was “Last Words”, the one written by the father to his son:

(it’s a tragedy that this video only has 500 views as I write this)

After reading the tragic context, I paid attention to the lyrics, and they just killed me:

I was there when you were born
Took you from your momma's arms
Stood in awe, a witness to
The first breath that you ever drew
I wish I could have held you when
You left this world like I did then
Last time we spoke was on the phone
And we hung up and now you're gone

Last thing I said was, "I love you"
And your last words to me were, "I love you too"

(I suspect this’ll hit differently if you have kids or not…)

Hold your loved ones in your arms today. Tell them what you want to tell them.

Take care everyone. 💚

1

I don't think I could love my wife and kids more strongly than if I knew I had to leave for battle and didn't know if I was coming back, or if they were living in a war zone and unsafe. Also at their strongest in wartime are the bonds of friendship, as the Bard wrote about: "

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother