293: Headcount, Starlink at War, Google Imagen & LaMDA AI, Coinbase, China's Solar Grip, Precision Agriculture, Commodities as Meme, and Heat Pumps
"That's a name I've not heard in a long time"
You cannot find peace by avoiding life.
🔬👩🔬👩💻🤖 🛰 Tech becomes almost invisible to most people when it reaches a mature state.
What’s the most world-changing and ubiquitous AI in the world? Google Search.
What’s the most world-changing and ubiquitous space-based technology used by billions daily? Global Positioning Systems (aka GPS).
What are the most world-changing and ubiquitous robots (so far): dishwashers and clothes washers.
🛒 🍊🥬🧾 Maybe it’s just the grocery store where I buy food, but self-checkout kiosks need some serious improvement to be a pleasant experience.
The last time I use one, the poor employee who was overseeing 8 kiosks had to come and scan her card to unlock my machine about 4-5 times for no apparent reason, and she was running around between kiosks because they keep getting confused by weights on the scales not being quite what the machine expects them to be or whatever.
This is making me wish Amazon was licensing its cashierless Go technology widely… It has to be better than this (the one I was using is made by NCR — National Cash Register! *Obi-Wan Kenobi voice* "That's a name I've not heard in a long time").
🍋🍊 Here’s something our civilization should focus more on: prevention vs treatment.
How much does type 2 diabetes cost the system? Obesity? Heart disease? Lung cancer? Road accidents?
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and all that.
If we were better at internalizing that, and at fighting our natural tendency to do hyperbolic discounting on future problems vs present sacrifices to avoid them, I think we’d do much better. Not that it’s easy to do… But worthwhile things usually aren’t.
💚 🥃 I’m getting support from 3.7% of subscribers. It’s starting to feel less sustainable… 🤔
If you’ve been meaning to buy me that virtual drink and just haven’t gotten around to it yet, know that it would make a difference and mean a lot to me. Thank you!
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🏦 💰 Liberty Capital 💳 💴
More warehouse workers and drivers 🚚, fewer waiters and cooks 👨🍳
I wonder what happened to all those government jobs 🤔
✂️ Coinbase Firings & Musing on Headcount in General 🔪
[Coinbase] will cut 18% of full-time jobs, according to an email sent to employees Tuesday morning. Coinbase has roughly 5,000 full-time workers, translating to a head count reduction of around 1,100 people.
It’s an interesting contrast to part of an interview I saw with FTX’s CEO, who said they had fewer than 30 engineers, and that he thought most tech companies had way too many employees (between a factor of 5x and 300x, he said).
I’m certainly sympathetic to the idea that large teams are rarely more productive than small teams, as you run into all kinds of coordination costs, diffusion of responsibility, bureaucracy, office politics, C players holding back A players, reduced meritocracy and ownership, etc.
The question: is reducing headcount with large cuts helping in any real way when it comes to these problems, or is it — on the net — hurting? There’s gotta be a big morale hit to these cuts, with the remaining employees feeling demoralized or angry that their friends were fired, afraid they’re next, etc.
You probably get the worst of both worlds: The remaining system is still built on the “big corp, high headcount” template, but now people feel under siege and like maybe the ship is sinking.
If you want to keep the ‘small, high-performance teams’ model, you probably have to maintain it as you grow — which is an art in itself — you can’t fire your way to it!
I don’t have experience working for big corps, so it’s all a bit second-hand and theoretical for me. What do you think?
🇧🇷 High-tech precision agriculture aims to lower fertilizer use 🚜🌾🧑🌾
Interesting story from Brazil:
Drones fitted with cameras hover over centuries-old farms, allowing farmers to use fertilizer only where it is really needed, while nearby laboratories use the same lasers employed by NASA on Mars to perform soil analysis in seconds.
Special white gels hold nutrients in place near plant roots with minute precision, preventing waste, and scientists at Brazil’s state research agency, Embrapa, are helping the poorest farmers to transform their own feces into fertilizer using microbes from cow intestines.
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Brazil had been testing a variety of high-tech solutions to boost productivity and reduce the country’s chronic dependence on imported fertilizers.
To be honest, it’s still early days for a lot of this. Deployment of these techs will be gradual and won’t make up for expensive fertilizer any time soon, but high prices will certainly catalyze more investment and faster progress in the field.
🛢 🌾📈 Commodities are the new meme stocks 🚀🌙
Speaking of expensive commodities:
Global buyers of commodities are on track to pay producers $5.2 trillion more in 2022 than they did in 2019 thanks to surging prices, according to a new base case analysis from Citigroup Inc.
That increase is the equivalent of 5% of world gross domestic product […] In a scenario where forward prices for the second half of this year materialize, buyers would be paying $6.3 trillion more than during 2019, or 6.2% of GDP.
Such a shock would be on the scale of what the world experienced during the early 1970s oil crisis, when taken as a share of global GDP (Source)
SpaceX’s Starlink is an effective war tool 🇺🇦 📡 🛰🛰🛰🛰🛰🛰🛰🛰🛰
Interesting how a private company can have such a large impact on global geopolitical matters (a bit similar to how security companies like Microsoft, Cloudflare, Crowdstrike, etc, have worked to help secure Ukraine’s infrastructure):
Oleksiy — who declined to give his last name for security reasons — is now a power-user of Starlink, a satellite communication system owned by Musk’s SpaceX.
When planning a counterattack or artillery barrage, he dials up his superiors for last-minute orders via a rectangular white-and-gray Starlink satellite receiver concealed in a shallow pit in the garden of an abandoned cottage. The high-tech equipment is wired to a noisy generator that runs half of the day.
The dishes get their own foxholes, to protect them from shrapnel:
Ukrainian drones have relied on Starlink to drop bombs on Russian forward positions. People in besieged cities near the Russian border have stayed in touch with loved ones via the encrypted satellites. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the country’s president, has regularly updated his millions of social media followers on the back of Musk’s network, as well as holding Zoom calls with global politicians from U.S. President Joe Biden to French leader Emmanuel Macron.
The value of information in wartime can’t be overestimated.
Being able to target artillery, get orders from commanders, get intelligence from allies (I’m sure the US is sending plenty of its own spy satellite data), get advance warning of attacks and track enemy movements, etc.
It can be the difference between life or death, victory and defeat.
All told, Starlink — and Ukraine’s use of the satellite network, both for its military and civilians — has thwarted Russia’s efforts to cut the Eastern European country off from the outside world, giving Kyiv a much-needed victory against Moscow in a conflict that shows no sign of ending.
“The strategic impact is, it totally destroyed [Vladimir] Putin’s information campaign,” said Brig. Gen. Steve Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley tech outpost. “He never, to this day, has been able to silence Zelenskyy.”
This ability to reach the outside world has made a huge difference in public support for the war around the world, and thus in politicians’ calculus in sending aid and weapons. This matters immensely.
The conflict in Ukraine also has provided Musk and SpaceX’s fledgling satellite network with a trial-by-fire that has whetted the appetite of many Western militaries. Commanders have been impressed by the company’s ability, within days, to deliver thousands of backpack-sized satellite stations to the war-torn country and keep them online despite increasingly sophisticated attacks from Russian hackers.
Musk has mentioned that the Starlink team had to rewrite a bunch of code to maintain security because of increased attacks from the Kremlin. So far so good on that front…
“We’ve got more than 11,000 Starlink stations and they help us in our everyday fight on all the fronts,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice prime minister, told POLITICO. “We’re ready, even if there is no light, no fixed internet, through generators using Starlink, to renew any connection in Ukraine.”
🇨🇳 China has the solar industry in a headlock ☀️🤼♂️
Friend-of-the-show Doomberg ( 🟩 🐓) points out this US DOE report in their latest piece (sub required):
As of 2021, China possessed 72% of the world’s polysilicon manufacturing capacity, 98% of ingots, 97% of wafers, 81% of cells, and 77% of modules.
Seventy-five percent of the silicon solar cells incorporated into modules installed in the United States are produced by Chinese subsidiaries operating in three Southeast Asian countries: Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Globally, in 2020, 66% of PV inverters were manufactured by companies headquartered in China.
What makes China so cost-competitive?
Manufacturing silicon modules in the United States in 2020 cost 30-40% more than in China due to China’s low labor costs, concentrated supply chain, and non-market practices. Labor is the primary driver of the cost differences, representing 22% of total U.S. manufacturing costs versus 8% in China. Import costs are also a factor, adding about 11% to U.S. manufacturing costs. This is due to gaps in the PV supply chain, which require the importing of components like aluminum frames, glass, and cells.
As Doomberg points out, a lot of this labor advantage comes from China’s horrific forced-labor practice in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)…
🧪🔬 Liberty Labs 🧬 🔭
🤖👩🎨🎨 Google’s Imagen (similar to OpenAI’s DALL-E 2)
So many breakthrough AI models lately that it’s hard to keep track… Here’s Google Imagen.
Friend-of-the-show and supporter (💚 🥃 ) Brad Slingerlend muses:
I can't help but wonder if programs like Photoshop, Canva, etc. will lose the majority of their design value when you can just say what you want and get it instantly. Could this eventually happen with not just images, but video? Give me a 90-minute rom-com starring Jeff Goldblum and Annette Bening with a spy thriller sub plot set in Berlin in 1983 with the style of Werner Herzog. It feels like we may be getting much closer to the computer interface in Star Trek being a reality. Could transformer models also ultimately replace other traditional apps beyond design software? What about architecture and engineering? Design me a three-bedroom house out of concrete and wood in the style of... Obviously the data and answers don't exist for many applications beyond images today, but it seems plausible given enough time. As I've noted in the past, context and the ability to analogize is key for AI, and maybe it's just a gimmick that is fooling us, but there seems to be some element of higher level interaction in these transformer models. Paradoxically as these new models allow us to tinker, rather than remove agency and human influence, they might actually increase our ability to articulate more accurately what we envision in our heads.
Getty Image and other stock photo providers are going to have it rough…
✍️🤖 Google LaMDA AI-Language Model Transcript 🧠
Speaking of Google AI, I encourage you to read this transcript of LaMDA, a very impressive transformer-based language model, and see for yourself rather than just read press coverage of it and get other people’s thoughts.
I promise you that if you take the time to read this, you’ll find interesting and surprising things in it:
It’s fascinating to see the state-of-the-art in language models, and while I don’t know the details of this disciplinary action, I think it’s too bad that so many people seem to react as if the engineer was obviously crazy to think this model was sentient.
It is *certainly* very smart. Sentience is a different thing…
But if we think that it’s *possible* for AI to eventually be sentient, and that AI progress in the past has been very non-linear and often surprising even to experts, then at some point, some engineer is going to report that the model they’re working on is sentient and be correct.
It’s not something that we can easily test for in a binary way (just run Sentient.py), so we don’t want to have set the precedent of ridiculing the very idea on its face and short-circuit even seriously considering it.
We don’t even have a good grasp of what intelligence and sentience are.
Some interesting discussion of it here.
‘Why Heat Pumps are Essential for the Future - Explained’ 🥶↔🥵
You know that psychological effect that takes place when you buy a yellow car and suddenly you start seeing yellow cars everywhere? (the fancy name for it is the Baader-Meinhof effect)
Well, I’m seeing heat pump stuff everywhere these days. This video came out one day before I posted my latest thing on heat pumps.
It’s a good overview of the technology and why it’s so important and efficient.
Even if you don’t care about anything but your wallet — you should care about other things if you don’t want to be miserable, btw — these things are worth your time.
The video also covers one thing I haven’t written much about yet: hybrid heat pump water heaters! In hot climates, these things extract heat out of the ambient air to dump it into the water, so they kind of act as an additional AC for your house. Not a bad deal!
Also, ventless heat pump clothes dryers! But that’s for another time…
🎨 🎭 Liberty Studio 👩🎨 🎥
🏀 ⛹️ Hustle (2022, Netflix, Adam Sandlers) 🎥 🎬 🍿
Spoiler-free impressions: It was a very good sports movie.
It’s a well-known formula, but I thought the execution was excellent and very satisfying.
It’s a great Sandlers performance, the direction is solid, and it’s well-filmed.
Other than the fact that it’s not super original and unpredictable, I can’t find glaring faults with it and have no problem recommending it even if you’re not into sports (I’m not).
It’s primarily a human story, not a basketball story. It has heart, and that’s often what makes or breaks films at the end of the day…
In fact, it reminds me a bit of Creed (2015), which I also liked.
So many things to comment on here...I'm just gonna dump 'em all :)
* on Amazon Go: that's the iPhone, but there are Androids of touchless stores coming, see, for instance: https://www.ust.com/en/who-we-are/ust-newsroom/nourish-bloom-market-partners-with-ust-to-launch-the-first-hybrid-autonomous-grocery-store-with-robotic-delivery
* broad-based layoffs are a huge drag on company culture...people live in fear for -years- afterward. getting them done quickly is less painful for execs (and for getting the news out all in one batch) but more surgical project trimming/canceling is really more humane and sensical. it's harder.
* another recent cool agriculture example...not just the big mega-farms: https://www.federatedwireless.com/news/blue-white-robotics-and-federated-wireless-collaborate-with-intel-to-chart-a-new-path-to-autonomous-agriculture-with-flexible-robotics-and-private-wireless/
* Prevention v. Treatment: omg yes...imagine if our governments -really- invested in the future (as one example). which countries will win the future: the ones with a couple extra aircraft carriers, or the ones with the healthier and better educated populaces, pushing the scientific/technological/medical envelope? Our priorities are so upside down. :(
* darnit, you're like the 6th person to recommend "Hustle"...I'll have to give in. :)
Have a nice weekend!
Reed says on his book that layoffs at Netflix at the beginning of the decade were good to morale after a while.