133: Feynman Moment, Cloudflare Frugality & Innovation, Solar Efficiency, Allulose & Global Health, Regulatory Cut & Paste, Pirate Branding Lessons, Snap, and Parasite Rock

"until the 70s, Nairobi’s building regulations required roofs that can withstand six inches of snow"

Adults are often stumped by naive questions from children.

Basic questions reveal basic errors.

Kids will question the “obvious” because they want to know more than they want to appear “in the know.”

Socially aware adults mostly speak to display their knowledge, not expand it.

—Stoic Emperor

🛀👨‍🔬🧪 I had kind of a Feynman moment.

If you’ve read the excellent ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman’, you may remember the part where Richard’s father teaches him about the difference between knowing the names of things, and knowing the actual things.

A more generalized rule that I’ve seen elsewhere is that you want to understand things, not just ‘guess the teacher’s password’:

There is an instinctive tendency to think that if a physicist says “light is made of waves,” and the teacher says “What is light made of?” and the student says “Waves!”, then the student has made a true statement. That’s only fair, right? We accept “waves” as a correct answer from the physicist; wouldn’t it be unfair to reject it from the student? Surely, the answer “Waves!” is either true or false, right?

Which is one more bad habit to unlearn from school. Words do not have intrinsic definitions. If I hear the syllables “bea-ver” and think of a large rodent, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the syllables “bea-ver.” The sequence of syllables “made of waves” (or “because of heat conduction”) is not a hypothesis; it is a pattern of vibrations traveling through the air, or ink on paper. It can associate to a hypothesis in someone’s mind, but it is not, of itself, right or wrong. But in school, the teacher hands you a gold star for saying “made of waves,” which must be the correct answer because the teacher heard a physicist emit the same sound-vibrations.

So my moment came when thinking about a few famous scenes in ‘Breaking Bad’ where they dissolve corpses and other pieces of evidence in Hydrofluoric acid.

They make a joke in the show — the upstairs bathtub scene — about the fact that this acid will dissolve almost anything, except some very common types of plastics.

When I saw the show I thought “Oh yeah, I knew about this, certain acids can’t dissolve certain plastics, I had heard that somewhere — har har, clearly the acid can’t dissolve its own container…” and then never really questioned it more because I thought I knew this fact.

But now — years later — thinking back on it, I realize I don’t really know anything about this.

*Why* is this acid not dissolving plastic? So I had to look it up. There are some good answers here, here and here if you’re also curious.

☀️ 🛰 You’ve probably seen, in a science-fiction movie or maybe a NASA video, a satellite or space station deploy its solar panels.

That’s what I was thinking about lately as every tree and plant around me went from barren branches to fully-deployed solar panels (aka leaves).

Made me want to look up conversion efficiency:

For actual sunlight, where only 45% of the light is in the photosynthetically active wavelength range, the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%. In actuality, however, plants do not absorb all incoming sunlight (due to reflection, respiration requirements of photosynthesis and the need for optimal solar radiation levels) and do not convert all harvested energy into biomass, which results in a maximum overall photosynthetic efficiency of 3 to 6% of total solar radiation

I had the number ˜2% in mind from vaguely-remembered research I did years ago, so I guess the average — not max — is probably closer to that.

What about photovoltaic panels? You can see the latest records at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, which is part of the DOE):

As you can see, the latest record for what seems to be a 6-junction cells is 47.1%. Impressive! And look how long it took to climb to that level… Every 1-2% increment takes years and lots of R&D.

But solar is going to power a large part of the world, so I’m very grateful to the solar researchers who often toil in obscurity on this extremely high-leverage technology.

Hat’s off to you, guys & gals! 🎩

🛀 What if Steve Ballmer had spent all his M&A billions on buybacks instead?

What kind of IRR would that have gotten since?

During most of his tenure, Microsoft had a market cap in the 200-billion range. By my quick napkin math, Ballmer spent over $30bn on M&A (and tried to do a $44bn deal for Yahoo that didn’t go through). Let’s say he had been able to buy back 12% of the company… Today that’s over $215bn. How did Nokia and Skype do?

📡 My avatar image has been a radio-telescope dish from the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) for about a decade now.

Pythia mentioned on Twitter “to me, he's the Pixar Lamp but a dish”, and I just had to fire up Pixelmator Pro:

💚 🥃 156 editions a year for 77 cents per email, you won’t find a better bargain anywhere, especially if just *one* idea from one of those helps you make a better decision this year (but you can’t know which one in advance! that’s the fun of it!):

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Investing & Business

Muji in his latest piece (sub $ required) on Fastly:

Loss of faith in management reminds me of the Upside-down in Stranger Things; once that crack is opened, it is difficult to close.

I can’t find a sub-title for this, but I kinda dig the analogy.

Cloudflare: Frugality & Efficiency -> Innovation

In its relentless quest to improve network efficiency, CloudFlare management also pushed its engineering team for innovative software solutions to network capacity crises (e.g., traffic spikes due to novel DDoS attacks), rather than overcoming capacity constraints by investing in more servers. Prince explained his aversion to relying too much on buffer capacity, which he viewed as “throwing money at problems”:

If we constantly stay near our capacity limits, then we’ll always be learning. Whenever we encounter a new type of attack, we are forced to ask if we can handle it by creating a new, proprietary software response. If we can develop an automated response, then we won’t need to scramble to manually reconfigure our capacity the next time we see that type of attack. We should spend money on new hardware only when we absolutely have to.

These approaches yielded a great deal of proprietary intellectual property for CloudFlare in the form of software solutions for identifying threats and optimizing site performance

h/t to a reader — you know who you are! thanks — for sharing this (I won’t say who to make sure I don’t get them in trouble)

Related is this thread by friend-of-the-show and supporter (💚 🥃) Rishi Gosalia going all the way back to Henry Ford:

“Scale economies shared" is not a new business model concept.

Henry Ford figured this out a 100 years ago. The low prices came first resulting in exponential sales growth, which in turn led to production efficiencies, further reinforcing low prices.

"Our policy is to reduce the price, extend the operations and improve the article. You will notice that the reduction of price comes first. We have never considered any costs as fixed. Therefore we first reduce the price to the point where we believe more sales will result."

"Then we go ahead and try to make the prices. We do not bother about the costs. The new price forces the cost down. The more usual way is to take the costs and then determine the price;" [...]

"But more to the point is the fact that, although one may calculate what a cost is, and of course all of our costs are carefully calculated, no-one knows what a cost ought to be."

"One of the ways of discovering this is to name a price so low as to force everybody in the place to the highest point of efficiency. The low price makes everybody dig for profits."

"We make more discoveries concerning manufacturing and selling under this forced method than by any method of leisurely investigation."

[Source:] My Life and Work, Henry Ford (1923)

Allulose + Entrepreneurship in Everything, Andrew Wilkinson Edition

I love how certain people can create a business out of almost anything. I don’t mean anything as in “any random idea” — the ideas are good — I mean more that the idea can come from anywhere in their lives, and then they actually run with it and make something happen, unlike most of the rest of us.

Friend-of-the-show and supporter (💚 🥃) Andrew Wilkinson (of Tiny capital, which is a good example of starting/buying lots of businesses and making a lot happen) recently shared the story of how hearing Peter Attia talk about the sugar-replacement molecule called allulose (I’ve written about it in edition #62), and experimenting with a continuous glucose monitor, lead him to kind of accidentally starting a sugar-free bakery.

I dunno, I just love that kind of stuff.

You can read the whole story in this thread. And if you’re in the Victoria area in BC, Canada, give them a try and let me know what they’re like — I wish I could order some here, the kids would love that…

As for allulose, I feel like if it can be made really cheaply (no reason it can’t over time), and turns out to be as safe as everything points to so far, that it can have a huge positive societal/planetary effect on health.

You’ll never convince everyone to eat healthy all the time, and even if you convince them, sugar is very addictive and hard to cut.

But if you can remove a ton of the sugar in everything yet keep the taste, you’ll get huge benefits, especially with the people who need it the most and are fighting metabolic syndrome and don’t have much dietary knowledge, or are fighting other disadvantages (very addictive personality types, etc).

Baker’s Dozen, Everywhere Else Edition

Speaking of baking, I liked the most recent email by George Mack where he wrote about the concept of the baker’s dozen (given an extra unit for free, “the act of going above and beyond to give an unexpected gift the other party wasn't expecting”):

If we view the world via a Game Theory lens, they've given more to you than you had anticipated.

This gift results in customer delight, which further results in you more likely to return Five Guys + positive word of mouth.

If looking to improve satisfaction to another party, ask yourself - "Where can I give a bakers dozen?"

That’s a really good question. I’m sure there’s lots of businesses that could delight their customers with the well-known “under-promise, over-deliver” and yet leave that opportunity on the table, not because it would have bad ROI, but because they just lack the imagination to do it (as I wrote in edition #131: “Most companies just copy what others are doing rather than thinking of “what’s the best thing we could do here?”).

Continuous Glucose Monitor Side-Track

Friend-of-the-show and Extra-Deluxe supporter (💚💚💚💚💚 🥃 ) Byrne Hobart shared a really cool experience:

I just wrapped up 28 days of The Glucose Challenge: wager $700, get $25/day for every day you keep your blood glucose below a certain level.

I recommend this; it's very interesting to get quantifiable data on how your eating and exercise affect you.

WearableChallenge.com

And it's also an important way to think about the business of health. There's an unfortunate tendency for the health care industry to be long chronic lifestyle illness. (And that applies in socialized systems, too; problems = power for someone with a monopoly on problem solving.

But the right way to think about health is to align long-term incentives with current behavior. You can do some of this on your own, by cultivating habits, but it's useful to have financial incentives that kick-start the process.

(I got the $25 every day. Ketosis plus frequent exercise, easy!)

Regulatory Cut & Paste

Shahrukh Wani:

until the 70s, Nairobi’s building regulations required roofs that can withstand six inches of snow. all because the colonial officer assigned to draft the regulations decided to copy the rules from his hometown in England —replacing "Blackburn" with "Nairobi" and calling it a day

thought: this isn't excessively different from the 'best practices' at times pushed today by some in the development policy space. so many examples of promoting isomorphic mimicry.

This applies to so many fields…

Do your meetings finish on time? That’s a sign of failure!

Well, I’m glad I don’t have meetings anymore, because they were mostly a big waste of time (and why do people insist on making them recurring? Have them when you need them… I like Shopify’s approach of cancelling all recurring meetings periodically).

Anyway, I digress. I liked this thought by Tomas Pueyo (one of the smartest people at analyzing the pandemic in its early days):

Parkinson's Law:

"Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Corollary:

"If your meeting takes the allotted time, you likely failed."

What's the likelihood that a meeting requires EXACTLY 30m? Or 1h?

It was either too long (could have been more efficient & finish earlier) or not long enough (not concluded and you need to continue).

Branding & Game Theory, Pirates Edition

Ok, this is fun, but educational too!

Also check out the quartermaster’s point of view on the business model, crew contracts, and booty allocation (gotta allocate that booty).

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Science & Technology

Good way to visualize aerodynamic drag, ad from the 1930s

Source.

Ant Parasite is Life-Extending, but Induces Freeloading

Interesting one:

The tapeworm-laden ants didn’t just outlive their siblings, the team found. They were coddled while they did it. They spent their days lounging in their nest, performing none of the tasks expected of workers. They were groomed, fed, and carried by their siblings, often receiving more attention than even the queen—unheard of in a typical ant society—and gave absolutely nothing in return. [...]

Down to the molecular level, the parasite is pulling the strings. Sara Beros, Foitzik’s former doctoral student and the paper’s first author, told me she has split open Temnothorax abdomens and counted up to 70 tapeworms inside. From there, the worms can unleash a slurry of proteins and chemicals that futz with the ant’s core physiology, likely impacting their host’s hormones, immune system, and genes. [...]

The deal the ants have cut with their parasites seems, at first pass, pretty cushy. Foitzik told me that her team couldn’t find any overt downsides to life as an infected ant, a finding that appears to shatter the standard paradigm of parasitism. Even the colonies as a whole remained largely intact.

But like in any movie where things seem too good in the first act, there’s a turn in the second act (the Goodfellas template):

Only when the researchers took a closer look did that tapestry begin to unravel. The uninfected workers in parasitized colonies, they realized, were laboring harder. Strained by the additional burden of their wormed-up nestmates, they seemed to be shunting care away from their queen. They were dying sooner than they might have if the colonies had remained parasite-free.

The infected ants kind of themselves become parasites on the larger organism that is the colony. It’s the freeloader problem… Don’t let others carry all the weight.

h/t nick (locked account on Twitter)

New Augmented Reality Glasses by Snap: Deal with it!

This has to be on-purpose, right?

I can’t be the only one seeing it.

Looks like a product designer was looking at memes one night and went “I know, I got it!


The Arts & History

Parasite. Watercolor and acrylic.

By Vanessa McKee. If you want to buy the original, you can do so here (as well as other paintings in her store).

I like this one of Leonard Cohen and this one of Audrey Tautou as Amélie.