108: Can't be Static, Time in the Market, Google Meet + Silicon Design, Intel's Driving, Amazon's Internal Debate on Ads, Audio Gear, and Expectations vs Reality

"information wants to be expensive"

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

—Stewart Brand

(this is the full quote — everybody just knows the “information wants to be free” part… Thanks to Byrne Hobart for reminding me of the full context)

🏭 In business, anything static is bound to fail over time, because the underlying substrate — the world in which you do business — isn't static.

The ability to adapt to change is crucial.

And this ability starts with a good perception and sense-making apparatus, because if you don’t even see what is going on (because of hubris, or you don’t really look, or you look at just the part of it that reinforces what you already believe, etc), there’s no chance you’ll get to the part of the process where you have to orient yourself and decide where to go next.

There are more ways to fail than to succeed, so if you’re not making decisions based on sound foundations, on a map that matches the terrain fairly well, the odds are pretty damn low that you’ll succeed by accident (though I’m sure it happens too).

Granted, this isn’t some breakthrough original thought, but the important things in business (and life) aren’t secret or complex, they’re obvious things that we keep paying a price for forgetting.

Keep re-learning the same proven principles over and over, and you’ll likely do better than those seeking the secrets to success…

🛀 Would you appreciate your favorite emotional song less if you learned now that the writer was insincere while writing it? 🤔

🔝 Or even that the "up/down" axis is the most important.

It's more important to climb the right ladder than the rate at which you are climbing, or your starting point on it.

It’s one thing I try to periodically ask myself; not just “how well am I doing what I’m doing”, but “am I doing the right things in the first place?”.

🤠 Warning: Deadwood section. 🐴

I was speaking on the phone with a fellow Deadwood fan recently, and I recommended this great podcast about the show:

I’ve actually listened to all the podcast episodes more than once.

A few years ago, for months, I listened to 15-20 minutes of it before bed every night; I just love the chemistry of the two hosts, their ability to do impressions of the characters doing all the best lines, point out interesting non-obvious stuff about each scene, etc.

As someone who’s seen the show multiple times but doesn’t have much free time to re-watch it (cuz young kids), it was a great way to re-live and re-discover the show in a different way.

If you do listen to it, you’ll note that they mention me a few times in it, because I was stanning them on Twitter, so I got the title of “number one fan”, which I’m very proud of.

Anyway, what I forgot to recommend is this upcoming book by Matt Zoller Seitz, a film critic who has also written books about Mad Men, The Sopranos, the works of Wes Anderson, etc, and who went to the set of Deadwood multiple time during filming and has interviewed show creator David Milch and many of the actors.

Basically the perfect person to write the Deadwood bible!

It was financed as a kickstarter and you can pre-order your copy from here.

(the person who I was talking to on the phone is a reader, so I figured, I may as well recommend it to them here, and everybody else at the same time, because spreading the Deadwood love is a life mission for me)

💚 🥃 Here’s your 1980s movie quote that sounds very different after the year we’ve had:

Fezzik: Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid, or something like that?

Man in Black: Oh no, it's just that they're terribly comfortable. I think everyone will be wearing them in the future.

‘Thank you’ to all the new supporters (💚) in the past week, it really means the world to me.

I like making this thing and sharing it with you, and you guys & gals allow me to keep doing it by putting coins in the tip jar.

According to my Stripe dashboard, 76% of you pick the annual option and 24% the monthly. Didn’t know what to expect going in, but that’s a cool stat.


Investing & Business

Follow-Up: Another Benefit of Finding the Right Balance in Investing

In Mini-Podcast #2, my first segment is about something I wrote about 60+ editions ago, Investment Style and Stock Selection as Lifestyle Design.

Friend-of-the-show and supporter Nicholas H. made a very good point via email. So good that I wish I had thought of it myself and had included it:

There’s another obvious way in which it matters that you get the right balance between trying to optimize for best returns vs. optimizing for what you find interesting to read and think about all day:

🌟 Time in the market 🌟

If you can achieve very high returns by going wherever the returns are regardless of your personal interests, and just power through any tedium just to get it done, but you burn out or drop out of investing after 10 or 15 years, you may have both had less fun and done worse in absolute numbers than someone who doesn’t have the same CAGR but sticks with it for 30-40 years.

If compound interest is magic, keeping it going is a huge part of the trick.

Because of the way it works — look at any long term chart where there’s a steep climb on the right — most of the returns in absolute dollars come in the last few years (it’s the old thing about Buffett becoming a billionaire only when he was around 55 years old, and by 80 he was worth over $50bn).

Anything you can do to increase your odds of sticking with it and getting there has a great value.

Google Meet as a Business

Considering the pandemic year and how much Zoom has grown as a business, and how much the product has evolved during this period, I'm surprised1 that Google Meet hasn't apparently gotten that much product love, even if I'm sure usage is through the roof (as the free alternative to Zoom and Teams).

Don’t get me wrong, it works fine. My friends and I use it once in a while.

I just don’t see that much progress since it first came out as Hangout in 2013. They’ve added backgrounds and the presenting feature is a bit better… But why is Google apparently ceding the higher-end of the space to Zoom and Teams and not even trying to match their features or innovate? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Intel has a Roadmap, Now Comes the Driving Part

Ben Thompson has a good post on what Pat Gelsinger, Intel’s new CEO — really new! 1 month in the job and he’s already making epic changes — announced about the future of the company. Ben made the post free to non-subs:

I haven’t been excited about Intel in a while, but I really hope they succeed, and not just for the obvious geopolitical implications of diversifying the world’s supply of leading-edge semiconductors, but also because as an interested observer and user of technology, the most exciting things happen when there’s lots of competition.

AMD has been doing really well lately (technologically, I mean), and I wish Intel was doing just as well so they could both push each other to do even better and to sustain the innovation streak.

As Ben writes:

The thing about Moore’s Law is that it wasn’t a law at all: it was a choice, one that Intel made to push the entire industry forward year after year after year. 

And the same applies more generally to all the player in the industry. We need them all — AMD, Intel, Qualcomm, Apple, Nvidia — to crack the whip and aim high and run like the devil’s on their tail <insert more clichés>…

Update: At first I had embedded the wrong video above. My apologies. Now it’s the correct one one the site (I can’t fix it in the emails that went out).

Interview: ‘Mostly Borrowed Ideas’ & Andrew Walker

That’s neat, I get to hear from two friends of the show and get some learnin’ about Autodesk at the same time.

Andrew had a good line when talking about reinvestment and R&D and the danger of doing what IBM did:

I love financial engineering, but if you’re not getting the business right, you’re just levering up a zero.

On the discussion about Autodesk’s 12 million “non-compliant users” (an euphemism for pirates — aka arr, not A.R.R.), it reminds me of Microsoft, how they have a huge installed base of pirated Windows and Office software, and despite the lost license revenue, it still brought them benefits because it helps with their network effect (file formats), platform value (more potential customers/users for software built on the Windows API), and importantly, it sucks oxygen away from competitors. It’s harder for them to sell their product when they’re competing with both the paid and a free pirated version of the dominant OS/app.

That oxygen-sucking one is prob similar to how Netflix thinks about all the password-sharing. They may not be paying us, but at least they are watching us instead of a competitor, and forming the habit, which increases the chances that they’ll pay later (either because they get tired of being on someone else’s account or because Netflix tightens the screws on the practice).

Both A.W. and A.A-R. have websites that you should check out: Yet Another Value Blog (some subscription research/analysis, free blog, podcast… basically a media empire) and MBI Deep Dives (subscription, 1 deep dive into a company per month).

Follow-Up: Amazon Ads

I wrote about Amazon Ads in edition #107, and friend-of-the-show and supporter Mostly Borrowed Idea (interviewed above) found this interesting piece in his archives, from a 2019 NYT article (that I think I had read at the time, because it sounds familiar, but you know, memory is that faculty that forgets…):

For years, the question of whether Amazon should push ads on its site generated fierce debate among senior managers and executives inside the company, according to eight current and former Amazon employees. In memos and fiery meetings, they disagreed on what was best for a company that preached obsession with serving customers.

One camp believed that ads would erode customer trust, because shoppers expected Amazon to show them popular products with strong reviews and a good price.

The other camp saw ads as a cash machine Amazon could tap to drive down prices and fund new innovations for customers. The financial potential was obvious. When people shop online, they more often turn to Amazon than Google to start their search, according to multiple studies. And every brand wants to get in front of them.

Workers eventually got word that Mr. Bezos had settled the debate, according to two senior employees. Mr. Bezos said that Amazon had two options: Sell ads, and use the cash for investments. Or shun ads, and get beaten by competitors. [...]

Mr. Wilke said the internal hesitation to ads was overcome by the results.

“It turned out they worked,” he said. “And by worked, I mean the ads help customers find what they’re looking for. And the reason we know that is cause they buy more stuff.”


Science & Technology

Google’s Chip Design Work

Good piece about Google’s hire of Uri Frank from Intel, and what it may mean for Google’s own silicon/datacenter design (because these things are increasingly designed together and as an integrated unit). Some highlights:

normally, when Google talks about something “new” it has already solved the problem five years ago and is only now telling the world about it. This happened with MapReduce, which spawned Hadoop; then BigTable, which spawned Drill; then Spanner, which spawned CockroachDB.

That’s a good line.

On Google’s custom vs tweaked silicon:

Google did not announce that it is creating its own instruction set and custom chip, as it did in 2015 with the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) for running machine learning training and inference algorithms on its TensorFlow framework or in 2019 as it created its own Video Processing Unit (VPU) to handle video transcoding on media servers. As Hölzle has reminded us more than once, Google only makes custom silicon when it absolutely has to, and more times than not it has gotten semicustom CPUs with a few tweaks here and there for specific workloads or worked with partners to create semi-custom disk drives, flash drives, network interface cards, or network switches.

On why customization/specialization often doesn’t make sense:

Back in the day, when things were getting faster exponentially, at just a massive clip, it didn’t make sense to specialize for individual workloads,” explains Vahdat. “Back then at Google, we had a smaller number of workloads, too. So specializing for a couple of them was sufficient. In the cloud world, and also given the number of services that we host, it is no longer the case that one particular application dominates. So this model of being able to integrate the best of breed IP, buying as much of it as possible and partnering with others everywhere that it makes sense, lets us be able to rapidly specialize for individual applications.”

On the chiplets path:

This does not necessarily mean chiplets from different vendors integrated into a single package, but that could be part of what Frank and his team will be exploring. [...]

what Google really wants to do is teach the chip makers to cooperate in a way that they really do not, and have not historically. Imagine if you could take bits and pieces of technology from Intel, AMD, IBM, and Nvidia and make the right kind of specific compute device. This is the kind of thing Google is dreaming about, and maybe it can happen if Google buys some IP here and there and integrates it to prove it works. Maybe it will happen at the chiplet level first.

Podcasting Gear Note File

This is what my Notion file with notes about podcasting equipment looks like. I also have a section about software…

Turns out, like with any technical field where software and gear is involved, theres’s a lot to learn, but I like research.

I don’t know what I’ll do yet, but so far, if I was going to buy some stuff, it’s what you see above.

The Rode PodMic has the benefit of having an integrated pop filter and shock mount for a price similar to the Audio-Technical ATR2100x that is also highly recommended at that price range, the Focusrite 2i2 audio interface has the benefit that I can plug a second mic in, if I eventually want to do an episode in person (remember the concept of seeing people in person?), and the Rode PSA-1 boom arm seems to be very good at this price point, and very silent even if you move it around to adjust it (probably overkill at first, though, so I’d probably start with a small desk stand).

I’ve also been watching some Audacity tutorials (audio editing software) and I now know how to use audio compression (reduce the dynamic range between the peaks and valleys in the audio waveform) and normalize volume and do fade-ins and fade-outs… Fun!

So no idea where it’s all going, but I’m learning a bunch about audio, which was the point of all this.

Oh, also, now that everyone is talking on Zoom/Teams/Meet all day, here’s the cheapest way to sound decent based on my research so far:

This is a dynamic mic that you can plug straight into your computer via USB, so no extra audio interface required, or you can use a XLR cable if you want to get fancier.

It’s inexpensive but sounds about as good as the highly recommend Audio Technica ATR2100x according to this review, and it even comes with a little desk stand and a foam ball.

If you’re still speaking into a computer microphone or earbuds, get one, all your listeners will thank you!

It’s airborne, but we can’t get that through our thick skulls

It’s been clear for a little while that SARS-CoV-2 is overwhelmingly transmitted through the air.

Yet so much effort still goes to ‘deep cleaning’ and partial plexiglass separation, and relatively little goes to better ventilation, air filtering/purifying, and getting everyone better masks (cloth was great when there was no supply of N95/KN95, but that time has passed).

The excellent Zeynep Tufekci on this:

Apparently, some libraries in the United States are still “quarantining” books for as long as 14 days before checking in and recirculating them. [...]

In this newly-published study, scientists in New Zealand examined in detail one of the few suspected cases of fomite transmission—transmission through touching a surface. [...]

for the longest time, suspicions had fallen on a lid on a garbage bin. The hotel has close-circuit TV though so they could trace when people had touched what, and it turns out that the most likely scenario is that the infection occurred via aerosol transmission that happened when doors to both the hotel rooms—facing the same corridor—were briefly open at the same time when the travelers were being swabbed without masks. [...]

A commissioned review of the ventilation system found that the rooms in question had a net positive pressure compared with the corridor. Fomite transmission through use of communal bins in the corridor was considered to be a less probable route of transmission because contact with the bin lid by case-patient D was >20 hours after it was touched by case-patient C. [...]

The study was notable not just because it knocked down one of the few known and strongly-suspected cases of fomite transmission, but because it showed, once again, that aerosol transmission can occur even during very brief periods and over long distances. For clarity: most aerosol transmission also occurs near the person doing the exhaling/talking/singing—producing those aerosols. However, these “floaty” particles can also linger, waft, get around, especially in poorly ventilated spaces, and accumulate. Also, the longer people share air in an enclosed space, the more likely the transmission. [...]

we need to pay more attention to ventilation and aerosols, and less to “deep cleaning” and fomites

One thing we’re learning this year is how hard it is for us to update and change our minds about things, even in the face of new information.

I don’t know if it’s particularly hard when the imprinting of the previous idea was as vivid as the hygiene-craze was at the height of panic las Spring, but what I wrote in the intro of edition #106 applies:

“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”

This is also an important point by Zeynep:

absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.” It’s generally true and it’s an important corrective to a tendency we sometimes see in medicine and in science where a scientist or a press person states “there is no evidence that X causes Y,” when what they actually mean is that is that we don’t yet know if X causes Y. Maybe it does, maybe it does not. The phrasing is important because the way language works colloquially—how it operates in the world—means that “there is no evidence that X causes Y” uttered by scientists is heard by many people as “X does not cause Y.” [...]

But of course, if you keep looking hard for something for a whole year, and end up not finding much, if any, at some point absence of evidence does start implying evidence of absence.


The Arts & History

Expectations vs Reality, Rhye Edition

Friend-of-the-show and supporter Louis C. emailed me after hearing my Mini-Podcast #1 experiment:

I now am going to be reading/hearing all of your newsletters with a slight French accent in my head 😊.  It’s like reading a book, having your own images in your head of how things look, then watching the movie, and then everything in the book is now viewed through the lens containing the images from the movie. 

This reminded me of something.

There’s a band called ‘Rhye’ that I stumbled upon a few years ago (I have no idea if they’re super well-known or they’re underground — that’s a thing with the super-fragmented long-tail of the internet, it’s harder to know how popular things are).

I suggest you listen to the video I embedded above to get an idea. At least skip forward until you hear the singer.

So for a few years, I listened to that album many times, enjoyed it. Had never seen photos of the band, but it didn’t matter, there’s tons of bands that I’ve never seen. And Rhye doesn’t have any band photos on their artwork, and you don’t see the band in the videos that I’ve seen…

So imagine my surprise when at some point I looked up a live performance on Youtube.

See for yourself with this one:

Can you guess what made my brain explode, and required a pretty big mental recalibration?

I was certain the singer was a woman. There’s plenty of men doing high-pitched vocals that sound kind of feminine, and that’s cool, but Mike Milosh evokes this more with tone and timbre than purely with pitch, at least to my ears…

Anyway. Just thought you may enjoy this one, and maybe go through the same 🤯 journey in accelerated form!

1

Ok, maybe not that surprised…