177: Worthy Buybacks, Microsoft's DEFCON Moment, Solana, Tesla's Dojo, Apple's Epic Court Decision, Elisabeth Bik vs Cheaters, Permissionless Collaboration, and Soap

"you should *want* to be convinced by stronger arguments"

There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.

—Russian Proverb

🛀 Can you imagine living before the invention of soap?1 🧼

🎹 I was recently watching a video of someone who has perfect pitch show some of what he could do, like play a song that he had never heard before on the piano seconds after hearing it for the first time, etc.

What a ‘magical’ ability that must be to have.

I’m a big music fan as a listener, and used to play guitar in my teens, but my lack of innate ability to play by ear always held me back. I think it may be because I have synesthesia, and not the kind that “shows” me the notes in order, but the kind that shows a bunch of colors, shapes and textures all tangled — more like modern art than a staircase.

Sometimes I really wish I could just sit at a piano, or pick up a guitar, and jam a bit… In fact, I still have dreams about playing the guitar fairly regularly, except in my dreams, I’m much better than I actually was in real life. 🎸

🤔 Multivitamins cost more than Netflix. We forget how inexpensive scaled digital goods are.

Think of everything you can watch on Netflix, then think of how many people-hours went into the making of each (writers, cast & crew, capital equipment, travel to locations, building sets, post-production, special effects, musicians, hotel stays, caterers, etc). You can have access to all that in glorious 4K a second after pressing a button for less than the cost of a couple burgers…

💡One of the best moves that my wife and I made when we first moved in together was to get a fridge that is 100% fridge from top to bottom, without a freezer section (you lose so much volume to the freezer components).

I never feel like we have too much fridge space, and I’m glad we don’t have a clunky old “beer fridge” in the garage that uses more electricity than an aluminium smelting plant.

We have an efficient fridge in the kitchen, and an efficient chest freezer downstairs, and to me it seems like a good balance. Some people will say “isn’t the freezer too far away?”, but the way I look at it, it’s the perfect excuse to walk and go up & down the stairs more, which is good for me.

🥳 I want to celebrate friend-of-the-show Mule and his big accomplishment, hiking the Continental Divide Trail that goes from Mexico to Canada. Amazing!

💚 🥃 If you’re getting value from this project — and remember that even just one good idea can end up being worth thousands or millions — please consider contributing.

I know to most of you the money’s immaterial, what stops you is the hassle of entering your credit card info. I promise, it’s really quick, you can even use Apple/Google Pay:

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Investing & Business

‘Very few companies actually retire shares cheaply these days’

Post Market posted this in a discussion with Ho Nam about how OG Henry Singleton was, buying back ˜98% of Teledyne shares over 12 years:

Very few companies actually retire shares cheaply these days. It’s rare to find such an adept team that buys when cheap and out of favor. Lots of companies mostly using buybacks to offset rich option grants. Andy Brown at Cedar Rock has been preaching this gospel for years

This made me wonder about the recent high-profile examples of this. I won’t mention Oracle, just because that’s what you get Larry, but Apple is a pretty good example among the best-known and biggest companies at buying back a lot of shares back over the past decade and getting really good IRRs.

I’m sure there are better examples (share your picks in the comments).

Microsoft President Brad Smith on Historic SolarWinds Hacks, DEFCON 2 Edition

Brad Smith wrote a piece to describe what it was like inside Microsoft as they were trying to contain and flush out the malware injected into the US and other countries’ software supply chain by Russian intelligence in one of the biggest known hacks (“with the Treasury Department, the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Energy Department, and parts of the Pentagon among the agencies confirmed to have been infiltrated”):

At Microsoft we quickly mobilized more than 500 employees to work full­ time on every aspect of the attack. Other tech companies scrambled into action as well. Given the potential breadth of the incident, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella convened a meeting each evening of our most senior security leaders to run through the day’s work, what we had learned, and what we needed to do next. [...]

The SolarWinds engineers shared the source code for their update with the security teams at the other two companies, which revealed the source code of the malware itself. The technical teams in the U.S. government swung into fast action, especially at the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at the Department of Homeland Security.

At least they had access to the source code, because it had been injected into Solwarwinds’ code for a new version patch. I’m sure it would’ve been harder to reverse-engineer if all they had was a binary blob, even though there are techniques to obfuscate uncompiled code pretty well too.

Within 48 hours we created a map of the world that lit up every location where SolarWinds’ Orion program had been updated with the malware

As the security teams at FireEye and Microsoft studied the source code shared by SolarWinds, they discovered that the code installed on the initial command-­and­-control server at GoDaddy had a “kill switch” that would automatically shut off the malware on an organization’s server under specific conditions. Armed with this knowledge, the security teams worked together to transfer control of the C2 server from GoDaddy to Microsoft, activate the kill switch to turn off any ongoing or new uses of the malware, and identify any organizations that had computers that continued to ask the server for instructions.

The kill switch takeover move was pretty badass.

It’s too bad that the Russian software installed a separate payload that got instructions from a separate server that was unique for each target when it came to the targets that they were actively trying to exploit. So basically, the kill switch prevented them from “activating” new targets, but it didn’t protect the already breached ones.

Wow that conclusion:

A coun­try like the United States can no longer rely on large oceans to separate it from its rivals. The internet has made everyone each other’s next­-door neighbor. And software that can be used for espionage can equally be used as ransomware or a weapon to disable a nation’s electrical grid or water supply. Ultimately, it’s easier to send code into battle than troops and missiles.

h/t Extra-Deluxe supporter (💚💚💚💚💚 🥃) Byrne Hobart

Solana Isn’t on Wikipedia?

Maybe I’m the only one who finds it strange that the latest darling of the crypto world doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page despite having a “market cap” of something like $45bn?

This makes me think about how artificial scarcity is an important argument for crypto (‘there will only be 21 million bitcoin, ETH will only inflate/deflate at x% year, etc’), the total supply of crypto coins and assets (including NFTs and whatever’s next — CDO^2 on crypto loans, maybe?) is going up pretty fast, and they’re competing for narrative space and marginal buyer dollars.

What happens when there’s 15 or 30 of these “next big things” all trying to get people’s attention? Does the spotlight whipsaw between one hot thing to the next forever? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Update: Wow, between the time I wrote the above and publication, a Wikipedia entry was created:

Apple v Epic: Court Orders Permanent Injunction Against Restricting External Payments & Communications

This is big enough that it’s worth showing the primary source:

This is BIG. You could even say, it’s EPIC.

I’ll leave the analysis of the ramifications of such a change to the Ben Thompsons (💚 🥃) and John Grubers of this world, but hopefully this leads to a lot more business models being viable inside the app ecosystem.

This can ultimately be win-win longer-term for both Apple and those who use and build on their platform, even if there’s some short-term pain. Better apps = more useful hardware.

It’s too bad that Apple couldn’t get to that point themselves and had to be forced to do it, though. There’s a lot to admire Apple for, but their iOS platform stewardship isn’t one of those things.

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Science & Technology

Tesla’s Dojo AI Training Chip

This strange beast out while I was on vacation, and I didn’t really have time to look too much into it until now.

Dylan Patel has a good overview of what makes it interesting, a lot of which has to do with how things are packaged and interconnected. I like that the two pieces show both sides of the coin (🤯 and 🤨):

I think it’s really cool to see Tesla throw their resources at this. It can only be good for the AI/ML space to have more big players with deep pockets and huge datasets try different approaches and push the limits.

Obviously the hyperscalers have their own use-cases, there are startups like Tenstorrent and Cerebras trying to push things at the extreme, and the Nvidia juggernaut that is aiming for something less extreme, with broader appeal.

But whenever someone does something innovative, the others are paying attention and learn from it, so we’ll all eventually benefit.

Elisabeth Bik is Keeping Life Scientists Honest

Science works because it’s an iterative, and self-healing process. Exploration + error correction.

You never get everything right at first, but if the process encourages openness, questioning, skepticism, and checking other people’s work, you eventually get there, which is more than can be said of other systems.

The process is neater in theory than in practice, as the replication crisis in the social sciences is showing, but as bad as that ongoing SNAFU is, it’s the system working.

It’s worse not to know when there’s a problem.

I’m really glad that there’s more sunlight going everywhere these days. It reminds me of this great thing by Eugene Gendlin:

What is true is already so.
Owning up to it doesn't make it worse.
Not being open about it doesn't make it go away.
And because it's true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
Anything untrue isn't there to be lived.
People can stand what is true,
for they are already enduring it.

Anyway, enough of this intro, what I want to share is this New Yorker piece about Elisabeth Bik, who is bringing some very valuable scrutiny to the life sciences:

Using just her eyes and memory, Elisabeth Bik has single-handedly identified thousands of studies containing potentially doctored scientific images.

This brings me to an aside that I often think about:

There’s a weird dynamic between scientists and the anti-science people.

Because good scientists are extremely careful, measured, cautious, skeptical, and will happily point out all the limitations of their knowledge and theories, and point out past errors and flaws, it’s easy for their opponents to cherry-pick and use these extremely valuable qualities against them to try to convince bystanders that scientists have no idea what they’re talking about, are always wrong, or even that they’ve ‘admitted’ things that they haven’t actually said (because a lot of stuff is hard to understand, so you can easily confuse people by selectively quoting things).

Scientists are also limited by evidence and experiments, while the anti-science crowd can just make stuff up and pivot over and over again from one made-up position to another as their crap is shot down. This makes them very nimble and hard to pin down.

The thing to remember at the end of the day is that even as flawed as real world science is, the question isn’t “do we replace it with this other 100% perfect system or not”, because that alternative doesn’t exist.

Rather it’s: do we take this thing that works really well and has given humanity so much, and try to make it even better, or do with go with the people who’s system demonstrably doesn’t work and is more akin to pre-modern tribal magical thinking than rational thought.

(ie. many people join what is functionally an anti-vax or Qanon sect, and once they’re deep in, there’s almost no amount of evidence that could convince them, because it wasn’t evidence that convinced them to get in to begin with. It’s about identity and tribalism and an outlet for strong emotions. If you show them that the foundational “research” of the anti-vax movement was a literal fraud and is fully debunked or that there’s no difference in autism in places that had or didn’t have Thiomersal, no problem, they can just make something else up, because that “theory” wasn’t the reason they believed what they believe in the first place. It’s just a placeholder, because they “already have the answer” and just need to fill in reasons afterwards to have something to say, and the priests of their sect can provide more stuff to stay at a moment’s notice, because making stuff up is much easier than spending years rigorously testing hypotheses in the lab.)

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The Arts & History

Permissionless Collaboration, Redux

Back at the bottom of edition #163, I wrote about how the internet is turning the world into an idea & collaboration incubator, and that a new form of “blind” collaboration was emerging, where people make art together without having ever met, communicated directly, or even without knowing that the collaboration was happening for some of the artists.

This video is another good example of 2 + 2 = 5.

Some people made a really fun instrumental track playing their brass instruments out in what looks like the tundra (?).

And an amazing singer added vocals, turning this into a great permissionless collab. Check it out:

This is Audrey Callahan’s website.

1

Now that is *literally* a shower thought…