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381: OpenAI's Army of Contractors, Amazon SSD Scam, China's Aging, Bad Gas Stove Science, iPhone Crash Detection, and The Last of Us
"and *poof*, I disappear like in Back to the Future"
One should expect to find the genius, and the defects, of the human mind in its creations, as one always finds the autobiography of the artist in the art-work.
—Robert Anton Wilson
👨👩👦👦 🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲🎲 I was discussing children and grandchildren with a friend-of-the-show. After I sent him a photo of my family, my friend said that I was “a lucky man”.
This sparked the thought that it’s indeed veeeeeery unlikely for me to be here with these people.
When I think about the odds of my own existence, they seem extremely remote. A chain of events that goes back to the very first unicellular lifeform had to take place in an unbroken way for me to be typing this right now.
Anyone or any pre-human ancestor in that billion-year family tree gets eaten by a predator or dies from infection and *poof*, I disappear like in Back to the Future.
But then, if I add on top of those long odds the probabilities of the existence of my family — my wife, my kids — that’s just stacking improbabilities.
What are the odds that I exist multiplied by the odds that my wife exists multiplied by the odds that we meet multiplied by the odds these specific kids were born out of all the combinatorial space of ovum and sperm?
It’s kind of mind-boggling.
But it’s also a variant of the anthropic principle: if I wasn’t here and my family wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be here asking this question about it, so it had to happen for me to wonder about this specific situation happening (maybe in some alternate universe, a different me is wondering the same thing about different people 🤔).
🗣️🤖🎶 I really don’t understand how after years of development with thousands of employees and billions in R&D, Alexa and Siri still don’t understand simple commands like “play track 7 from album X by band Y” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
🧑🏽🍳🍳🔥 At the periphery of my awareness, I noticed the whole “gas stoves are terrible for indoor air quality and cause 12,7% of childhood asthma in the United States” news cycle controversy.
At the time, I made a note to further investigate at some point.
It turns out, waiting was the right decision because many others did a better job than I could explaining why the study (which was actually a meta-analysis) on which these claims are based is *highly* flawed and more rigorous studies do not show the same correlation.
If you’ve also seen the headlines and sensational claims and want to dig deeper, here are some good sources:
The Health Risks of Gas Stoves by Sarah Constantin
Bad Stove Science Is a Roadblock on the Path to Electrification by the Breakthrough Institute
Home Cooking by Doomberg (sub required)
This is reminder #67,958,543 that you should not automatically believe every headline you see.
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OpenAI hires an army of data-labeling and programming contractors 🤖🧠
It looks like some of Microsoft’s cash is being used:
OpenAI has ramped up its hiring around the world, bringing on roughly 1,000 remote contractors over the past six months in regions like Latin America and Eastern Europe, according to people familiar with the matter.
About 60% of the contractors were hired to do what’s called “data labeling” — creating massive sets of images, audio clips, and other information that can then be used to train artificial intelligence tools or autonomous vehicles.
Clean data is the new oil… 🧼🧽🛢️
The other 40% are computer programmers who are creating data for OpenAI’s models to learn software engineering tasks.
GitHub Copilot, which is based on the Codex model, was mostly trained on code from public repositories.
That may be changing, at least in part:
OpenAI appears to be building a dataset that includes not just lines of code, but also the human explanations behind them written in natural language. [...]
A software developer in South America who completed a five-hour unpaid coding test for OpenAI told Semafor he was asked to tackle a series of two-part assignments. First, he was given a coding problem and asked to explain in written English how he would approach it. Then, the developer was asked to provide a solution. If he found a bug, OpenAI told him to detail what the problem was and how it should be corrected, instead of simply fixing it. (Source)
If you want a model that can go back and forth between English descriptions and code, it probably helps a lot to have a clean corpus of training data that contains both and makes the human intentions/logic behind the code more explicit, rather than just have the code.
🛒 SSD Hard-Drive Scams on Amazon 💾
If I search Amazon for “portable SSD 10TB” in the US or Canada, I don’t get much. But the same search in the UK version of Amazon reveals a crapload of them that all sell for £79.99.
If you know anything about solid state drives (SSDs), you’ll first note that this price is way too low, and that 10TB portable SSDs *don’t really exist*.
You may be able to get an 8TB SSD for around $650-800, but certainly not under $100.
All these listings are scams — this is one of the trade-offs that Amazon made when it opened up its platform to 3rd party sellers. A lot more selection, but there are lots of unscrupulous people out there, and they’re always looking for ways to circumvent the rules and safeguards to make a quick buck.
Here’s a HN comment describing how the scam works:
I saw a "16TB SSD" for $70, figured it was a scam, but was curious so I bought it. It turned out to be a metal box with a 60GB SD card inside (although actually, I couldn't even get the card to work properly when I took it out). The SD card was on a carrier board that made it present as 16TB, although I couldn't create any partitions on it. I posted a review saying it was a scam and the product disappeared quickly. I got approved for a return, but it said "seller will send you a return label within 5 days." They didn't. I got on chat support and got a full refund without having to return the product.
Amazon really should step up its countermeasures. Here’s another loophole that is being exploited to get a high-star ranking with lots of reviews:
> Note the reviews refer to all different stuff - phone chargers, arm slings, extension cord organisers. This is an exploit which has been abused for years -- as I understand it, Amazon sellers can list their products as a "variant" of another, often unrelated, product which is no longer available for sale. When they do so, their product inherits all of the reviews from the previous product, and no obvious indication is given that the other variant ever existed (because it's not available).
I know it’s hard when sellers just churn new accounts as soon as they get caught — you don’t want to create so much friction creating a new account that legit sellers are dissuaded.
But the balance is probably not quite right when scammers can get through that easily. The brand damage to Amazon must be enormous, even if they provide easy refunds.
The economic impact of an aging China 🇨🇳 (spoiler: the rest of the world is in the same boat) 🌐👴🏻🧓🏻
It made headlines recently that China’s population was peaking, and entering a period of decline. 📉
But this isn’t just China.
Noah Smith has an interesting piece on this. Here are some highlights:
But if aging demographics are a source of national weakness, then the developed democracies are in much the same boat as China. Median ages have actually converged, and all the industrialized countries are expected to age substantially in the decades ahead [...]
In other words, it’s not just China. Every single country on Earth is either having to deal with population aging, or soon will have to deal with it.
Does it matter that much?
The most obvious way that aging harms a country’s living standards is just by increasing the old-age dependency ratio — that is, the ratio of people over 64 to people aged 15-64. Retirees are retired, and hence they’re not adding much economic production to the country. So when a country gets older, it means that a shrinking percentage of workers has to support a growing percentage of retirees — that’s just simple arithmetic. [...]
In a 2022 paper, Maestas, Mullen, & Powell do this for U.S. states. They find a strong negative effect of aging on growth for a number of economic variables.
They find that a 10% increase in the share of the population that is 60 and over reduces economic growth by 5.5%!
Is immigration the answer? Maybe temporarily:
If countries are smart, they’ll replenish their young populations with immigration. But even domestic political reluctance can be overcome, immigration is only a temporary stopgap; fertility is already fairly low everywhere except Africa, where it’s falling at an accelerating pace.
We should also look into pushing harder on increasing productivity through robots and automation, and consider raising the retirement age since people are living healthier longer. Some countries are already doing this. It also makes sense to remove barriers to having kids, like via more affordable childcare, housing, etc.
My own prescription would be to do an Apollo/Manhattan type of push to find cures for the diseases of aging.
I don’t want to take too much space to describe what that would look like here (I’ve talked and written about it before, and will again in the future), but let’s just say that the benefits would be so enormous — economically and in reduced human suffering — that we should be investing a lot more R&D into this than we are.
There’s already some research into it, but with a real vision and a concerted push, I’m sure the time it takes to get there could be shortened by many years (kind of like what SpaceX and Tesla did for reusable rockets and EVs — these things were going to exist, but probably would’ve taken many more years to mature).
Each day that passes represents over 150,000+ people who could have been helped, could have had more healthy years, could’ve shared their knowledge and experience, been in the life of their grandkids, etc.
The first step would be to believe that it’s even possible, because as long as people think it’s not even a possibility, there won’t be resources available in a quantity commensurate with the scale of the problem *and* the opportunity.
I like Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon Tyrant to explain the psychology of even thinking about this…
👷🏗️ Making Media: A New Colossus Show 🎧🎧🎧🎧
They don’t call it Colossus for no reason: It’s getting pretty big!
This new show is just the kind of inside-baseball that I love. Creative people, in almost any field, talking about how they do what they do. That’s catnip to me.
It’s why I also quite like Nathan Barry’s podcast where he interviews mostly writers, podcasters, and YouTubers.
The first episode of Making Media is an interview with Patrick O’Shaughnessy (🍀), in which he talks about turning his podcast into a business, how it got to where it is and where it may be going next, how he thinks about interviews, etc:
I particularly liked his riff on ‘magicians’, a derivative from Arthur C. Clarke’s line, but applied to people:
"Not only is any sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic, any sufficiently advanced technologist seems like a magician."
The line says “technologists”, but it applies more widely.
Someone who is good enough at what they do will be enough steps ahead of you that you simply won’t know how they do what they do.
You can only see one, maybe two levels above where you are. People who are further ahead than that just seem Jedi-like, even if from their POV there’s no magic involved and it all makes sense.
🎧🎙️ Podcasting Roller-Coaster Follow-up 📈📉
Speaking of podcasts, back in edition #377, I posted a neat graph showing a huge spike in the number of podcasts during the pandemic, followed by a massive drop.
Friend-of-the-show and supporter (💚 🥃) Matt Reustle shared a piece that adds some important context to those numbers:
Paid podcast directory service Listen Notes reports a dramatic drop in new podcasts, down from over 1m new launches in 2020 to just 219,000 new shows in all of 2022.
Does this 80% drop mean that podcasting is in decline, or podcasters are giving up, as some industry commentators have suggested? [...]
Daniel J Lewis, who runs Podcast Industry Insights, supplied similar falling numbers sourced from Apple Podcasts to Podnews. However, Daniel pointed out that new Anchor shows used to be auto-submitted to Apple Podcasts: and are no longer. [...] These auto-submissions to Apple Podcasts stopped in the middle of 2021 [...]
The cessation of the automatic submission and approval of these low-quality podflash shows from Anchor was possibly the biggest reason that the total number of new shows available via RSS in Apple appears to have dramatically dropped. [...]
the number of new episodes per year on Listen Notes hasn’t slowed nearly as much.
Remove the pandemic years, and 2022 seems to follow the growth trajectory of previous years. In short - the number of new shows has declined; but the number of new episodes appears to be relatively unchanged. (Source)
It’s true that the pandemic had an effect, but there’s *also* a technical issue distorting the numbers and making the drop appear much larger than it actually is.
Good to know.
‘Each American needs more than 39,000lbs of minerals and fossil fuels annually to maintain their standard of living.’
Look at that cute little 0.15lbs of Uranium per capita powering about 20% of the US grid! ⚛️
🧪🔬 Liberty Labs 🧬 🔭
Theseus! That’s Claude Shannon’s mouse! It all started somewhere! 🐁
🇪🇺 European public opinion on nuclear power doing a 180 ⚛️
Over the last twelve months, the shift in European public opinion towards the promotion of nuclear energy has significantly accelerated. The percentage of those in favour of nuclear power – who say the technology should produce very much or much energy – has increased from 26 percent to 40 percent. Among those with a moderate stance — who have chosen the options of not too much or little — the rate has remained unchanged at 35 percent. Compared to the previous rejection rate of 26 percent, the proportion of those with an anti-nuclear stance has decreased to 15 percent.
Over a longer period of time, the change is even more noticeable. In six years, the proportion of those supporting and opposing nuclear energy have reversed: while in 2016, 41 percent rejected and 15 percent supported the technology, the proportion of those in favour of nuclear power has now increased to 40 percent, and that of those against nuclear power has decreased to 15 percent. Interestingly, the proportion of those who have taken a moderate stance can be considered stable over time: in 2016 it was 36 percent, and in 2021 and 2022 it was 35 percent.
In Germany specifically, the proportion of the population that rejected nuclear energy decreased from 65% in 2016 to 20% in 2022. It is quite uncommon to see such a rapid shift in opinion!
Hopefully, this will be reflected in the actions of the politicians, if they have not all been bought by Russian gas interests…
‘iPhone 14 Crash Detection helped rapid police response to crash that left victims unconscious’ 🔥🚘📱 ←🚑
The iPhone 14 Crash Detection feature has been credited with helping bring about a rapid police response to a pickup truck crash in the early hours of the morning, which left one or more occupants unconscious.
(Unless the crash happened because the driver was texting as they were driving… Well, they probably still would’ve been doing that even if the phone had no crash detection, so it’s still a benefit)
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📺 The Last of Us (HBO, 2023) — My Thoughts on the first two episodes (no spoilers) 🍄🎮 and 2022’s Game Remake
Note: There’s no spoilers in what I wrote below, but if you watch the video above, you can get spoilers from the video game footage.
I saw the first two episodes of The Last of Us.
So well-executed. Kudos to Craig Maizin, one of the best writers/producers working in TV right now. I really liked his previous show, Chernobyl, even though it wasn’t entirely accurate from a scientific point of view. But as TV drama, it was hard to beat!
Back to Last of Us: I’m so glad they used the music from the game. It’s perfect, and I have such strong associations with it. When it started in the intro credits I felt a huge wave of emotions wash over me. And they sprinkle them here and there in the episodes — these musical cues always get me. Every time.
I gotta listen to that soundtrack again. 🤔
Episode 3 is getting rave reviews, but I haven’t seen it yet.
I’m very happy to see that they’ve already been renewed for a second season.
I doubt that they’ll try to stretch the story. So if I had to guess, S1 will be the first game, and S2 will be the second game (which I’m not familiar with — it came out after I had kids, so haven’t found the time for it…).
There’s an interesting dynamic because one of the co-hosts has played the game 5 times, and the other has never played it and is a newcomer to the story.
File under “good business sense”:
Naughty Dog, the gaming studio that made The Last of Us, released a *remake* of the game in 2022. This isn’t just a “remaster” as they did in 2014 when they ported the PS3 game to the PS4.
They’ve actually rebuilt the game with more modern technology and changed some environments and scenes to improve them on an aesthetic/artistic level. The video at the top shows what kind of changes they made (be warned, the game obviously has spoilers for the TV show).
Considering the popularity of the TV show, they must be rolling in 💰 these days. They deserve it.
I’ll leave you with what it looked like to record a scene with the actors for the game Last of Us Part 2: