128: Best Way to Lower CAC, Amazon's Targeted (?) Box Ads, 2010's Semiconductor Shortage, Bezos' 1994 Classified, Ransomware, and Physics Approach to Corp Organization

"We all have supercomputers that often feel slower than my childhood PCs"

Listen to those you regard as enemies, take them seriously.

If they are even a little bit right you may revise your worldview to avoid costly errors.

If they are entirely wrong you may study their thinking for tactical weaknesses. Silencing them ensures your own ignorance.

—Stoic Emperor

☁️ Cloud computing is great, web apps are great, SAAS is great…


Having spent a lot of time in Obsidian lately, it’s reminding me just how nice a native app running locally can be (and I mean real native apps, not Electron apps that are basically a Chromium rendering engine wrapper running Node.js JavaScript code, masquerading as a native app — ever wondered why chat apps like Slack or Discord will use a gigabyte+ of RAM over time and feel less responsive than a complex AAA 3D game?).

We all have supercomputers that often feel slower than my childhood PCs… And you don’t realize how slow everything has gotten until you use a really fast app for a while.

Don’t get me wrong, I get the reasons why we end up with these bloated, slow apps — and there are some good reasons — but that doesn’t make the downsides any less real.

In Obsidian, everything is instant, all the time. No network latency, no progressive rendering on screen, no weird delay once in a while when there’s network congestion or some server hiccups at AWS-US-EAST-1…

It feels glorious.

My document-graph is evolving nicely too. Getting that slime mold look:

🚘 Random tip for those of you who have cars (electric or internal combustion): There’s a recommended tire pressure for each vehicle, and a max pressure from the tire-maker. For example, my car’s recommended pressure is 32 PSI.

I figure that they have to account for extremes, so they test it such that the tires are fine even if you have 4 obese adults in the vehicle and a pile of bricks in the trunk, while driving fast through the scorching heat of Death Valley.

I never go anywhere near these extremes, so I’d rather trade some of that headroom for energy efficiency. I don’t go as far as the hypermilers who push things to the very limits to eek out that extra MPG, but I usually inflate my tires to around 36-38 PSI.

If you want to reduce your CO2 emissions a bit/save a few bucks at the pump/on the electricity bill, this is a no-cost way to do it. I mostly do it because waste feels inelegant and ugly to me, so I avoid it whenever I can.

☃️ An important message that I’m happy to amplify in my own little way:

“Some schools are trying to get rid of snow days and replace them with distance learning. It's a crime against childhood! We cannot let this stand!”

⚠️ Life pro tip: If your pool heater breaks, or anything pool-related breaks, check to see if Amazon carries the part the repair-person tells you is needed. It’ll likely be less than half the price of what the repair-company will charge you for it. You can hire them for the installation, but provide the part.

Of course, I realized this after paying for their expensive parts — but let my mistake be your opportunity!

💚🥃 I wonder if anyone (other than me) has read every single edition of this project, either because they've been around from the start (OG), or came later and went back through the archive, completionist-style (OCD? 🤨).

For those who did, if any, that's getting to be a pretty big corpus of shared-knowledge. If that’s you, please drop me a line (hit reply on email or leave comment on the site), I want to hear from you!

Regardless of how long you’ve been reading, if you like it, you can support the project, it takes 20 seconds:

💙 Subscribe now 💙

Investing & Business

‘Well-capitalized Seattle start-up seeks Unix developers’

Adrián Hernández with a fun thread showing some early internet postings by today’s big names:

I don’t know why, but I find it kinda funny that Bezos had a @netcom.com email address. This domain doesn’t even seem to be live anymore, I get a 502 error on it.

Note that the physical mailing address is to Cadabra Inc (which was changed because it sounded too much like “cadaver” when you spoke it on the phone, if I remember correctly).

There’s also this one by Larry Page in 1996.

Best Way to Lower CAC is Love ❤️

I guess I've been thinking a lot about note-taking apps lately — or if you want to be fancy about it, you can call it Personal Knowledge Management (PKM).

Digging around, it rapidly becomes obvious how the best apps have an army of evangelists making Youtube videos, posting on forums and blogs, creating their own plugins and themes, answering questions on Twitter, etc...

There's the Notion Nation and the Roaman Empire, and I'm not sure what Obsidian fans are called yet (are we the Obsidious people?), but all these people are the best onboarding-ramp to these apps, and made me think about this phenomenon.

You certainly can’t plan it out, but if you do make something that your customers love enough, there’ll be no better marketing campaign or customer support that you could buy than the organic community that forms around your stuff.

It’s probably why Tesla never spent the billions on ads that other automakers have to pay, or why every time Apple does a launch, it gets free coverage in almost every media outlet and on the ecosystem of news sites and podcasts that grew around the company to discuss its every move.

How valuable is that?

The Physics’ Approach to Company Organization

The smart folks at NZS (two which are paid supporters 💚 🥃 to this newsletter — that’s how smart they are!) have a new paper on company organization, and as is their habit, they take the systems thinking approach to the question and try to boil it down to the primary variables and the permutations that seem to work best in practice:

There is no easy answer, and often we disappoint people when we explain just how intangible uncovering excellent corporate culture is: we know it when we see it.

But, there are questions you can ask and signals you can look for around the structure of a company itself that yield insights. Having the right structure in place allows an organization to slow down time and get more done than the competition.

Or as they say in the paper, “how can we slow down time compared to everyone else running around as if their hair is on fire?”

That’s such a good question to ask. Very good framing, from the point of view of the operators, not from outside.

There are three elements of any network inside an organization: the number of nodes in the network (few or many), the style bias (how many things the network is trying to accomplish), and connection structure (hierarchical or dense). 

It turns out there are only three combinations that work sustainably while creating the potential for healthy culture: 1) few nodes with a narrow style bias and dense connections; 2) many nodes with a narrow style bias and dense connections; or 3) many nodes with wide style bias and a hierarchical structure.

As I often say, life is about trade-offs, and the non-linear nature of large organizations mean that as you turn one dial somewhere to get effect X there, you can’t help but have some impacts elsewhere in the organization, often in unforeseen and negative ways:

This exponential increase in possible states relative to the size of the network acts as a double-edged sword: with increased network complexity comes a greater potential for innovation; however, because the number of interdependencies (node connections) grows faster than the network itself, positive changes in one part of the network are likely to result in chaos or other negative effects elsewhere in the network. In other words, as we increase network size, we get more innovation AND more potential for dysfunction owing to the extreme interconnectedness of the network. [...]

Balancing the two opposing forces of innovation and bureaucracy can be achieved through appropriate network structure, i.e., by limiting the possible range of outcomes through narrowing style bias and/or strategically reducing the density of connections. For example, the network can be governed in a central manner (e.g., a strong CEO or dictator), which places constraints on the possible decisions that can be made by any one individual or team lower in the hierarchy.

You can read the white paper here, it goes into more detail on each stable-healthy configuration.

Amazon’s Targeted (?) Box Advertising

I think I’ve seen ads on the packing tape before, but not the actual box.

What’s interesting is that they know who they’re sending each box to, so in theory, they can target these ads and not waste those no-doubt more expensive boxes on the wrong demographics…

It’ll be interesting to see if this keeps going and expanding and we frequently see all kinds of “box ad” campaigns, or if it’s just too expensive to be worth it.

Rhyming Semiconductors Shortage, 2010 Edition

Friend-of-the-show and supporter (💚 🥃) Jon Bathgate points out that the current chip shortage echos what happened in 2010, coming out of the GFC:

The chip shortage has now hit the smartphone industry, reports Associated Press, with Sprint Nextel unable to supply HTC’s 4G phones because of shortages of ICs; Verizon short of supply of Motorola Droid phones for the same reason; and a three week wait at retail for the Apple iPhone 4.

The shortage started last autumn with some SDRAM parts going onto allocation and a number of standard analogue parts like op amps and converters on 20+ week lead-times. [...]

“We continue to see challenges in procurement of components this quarter,” says Cisco CEO John Chambers, “supplier lead times now appear to have stabilised, but are still longer than we would like.”

Texas Instruments, which is putting in place enough new capacity to support $4bn in additional analogue revenues, says it’s lead-times have stabilised. [...]

Ericsson claimed it had lost $400m as a result of component shortages. (Source)

Jon writes: “There is a lot more media fanfare this time around, but there are almost always shortages during market recoveries...”

Science & Technology

Samsung Jumping on the ARM PC Chip Wagon

Following the company tradition of doing what Apple is doing (but worse), Samsung will be taking their mobile Exynos ARM core and creating a version for laptops.

There isn’t much detail yet, but here’s we know so far:

the South Korean tech giant will unveil a premium Exynos chip that can be used in laptops as well as smartphones in the second half of this year.

Samsung would become the first modern Windows laptop manufacturer to launch its own processor that works as the brain in its machines. [...] utilizing a 5-nanometer processing technology [...]

The new Exynos chip for laptops will use the graphics processing unit (GPU) jointly developed with US semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) to offer improved graphical technology, according to the sources.

So it’ll be packaged as a SoC with an AMD integrated GPU.

It’ll be interesting to see how good it is, and how popular it becomes. The more PC makers go to ARM, the more pressure that’ll put on Microsoft to improve its ARM version of Windows and its big apps (Office, etc).

The transition from x86 is still in early days, but as Intel is trying to right its ship, it’ll be running against the clock to offer something worth staying in that ISA’s camp

Linux Support for Apple’s M1

Speaking of ARM chips, it looks like the latest Linux kernel is in the process of adding support for Apple’s M1:

The most interesting addition to Linux kernel 5.13 is preliminary support for Apple's M1 SoC, something that developers have been working on for months now. While Linux does support Arm and can run on various SoCs such as the Raspberry Pi, Apple's M1 is considerably different from other processors, so making Linux run on this chip was a tough challenge.

At this point Linux 5.13-RC1 can boot on an M1-based system, but does not support all features of the SoC. For example, GPU support is still not even half-baked. (Source)

This isn’t surprising, Linux runs on toasters and fridges, so it was going to run on the M1 at some point. But still going to be nice for devs who want to run their favorite penguin distro on their shiny new laptop.

Smart Pipelines! + DarkSide’s M.O.

Kevin Kelly in 2018 (via friend-of-the-show Muji):

When you see the adjective "smart" applied to things, as in smart home, smart clothes, smart toys, smart phone -- substitute the term "hackable." They always come together.

Brian Krebs:

In response to public attention to the Colonial Pipeline attack, the DarkSide group sought to play down fears about widespread infrastructure attacks going forward.

“We are apolitical, we do not participate in geopolitics, do not need to tie us with a defined government and look for other our motives [sic],” reads an update to the DarkSide Leaks blog. “Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society. From today we introduce moderation and check each company that our partners want to encrypt to avoid social consequences in the future.”

First surfacing on Russian language hacking forums in August 2020, DarkSide is a ransomware-as-a-service platform that vetted cybercriminals can use to infect companies with ransomware and carry out negotiations and payments with victims. DarkSide says it targets only big companies, and forbids affiliates from dropping ransomware on organizations in several industries, including healthcare, funeral services, education, public sector and non-profits.

Like other ransomware platforms, DarkSide adheres to the current badguy best practice of double extortion, which involves demanding separate sums for both a digital key needed to unlock any files and servers, and a separate ransom in exchange for a promise to destroy any data stolen from the victim.



Question: how many decimals of the mathematical constant pi (π) NASA-JPL scientists and engineers use when making calculations?


For JPL's highest accuracy calculations, which are for interplanetary navigation, we use 3.141592653589793. Let's look at this a little more closely to understand why we don't use more decimal places. [...]

The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. It is about 12.5 billion miles away. Let's say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size (or 25 billion miles in diameter) and we want to calculate the circumference, which is pi times the radius times 2. Using pi rounded to the 15th decimal, as I gave above, that comes out to a little more than 78 billion miles. We don't need to be concerned here with exactly what the value is (you can multiply it out if you like) but rather what the error in the value is by not using more digits of pi. In other words, by cutting pi off at the 15th decimal point, we would calculate a circumference for that circle that is very slightly off. It turns out that our calculated circumference of the 25 billion mile diameter circle would be wrong by 1.5 inches. [...]

Let's go to the largest size there is: the visible universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom (the simplest atom)? The answer is that you would need 39 or 40 decimal places. (Source)

h/t Massimo

The Arts & History

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Hearing Through the Ears of a Composer/Decomposer

I love hearing music through the ears of either experts, or total newbies to a genre who have never even heard the song.

This composer and musician above fits in the first category. It's amazing to me how many details he can pick up and remember clearly enough to talk about on a first listen — but that's the power of experience and lots of points of reference.

The latter category is also fun, if done with an open mind, like the Lost in Vegas guys. They are primarily hip hop/R&D fans who will sometimes listen to rock/metal tracks recommended by their viewers and give their real-time reaction (if you follow the chronology on the channel, they start from almost nothing and are progressively turning into metalheads and really dig pretty heavy stuff like Gojira, haha).