74: My Thoughts on Wandering vs Sprinting, Constellation's Topicus Spin-Out, Eugene Wei's JPEG Ideas, Alibaba's Mysteries, Datadog's Bark, Notion 101, and Matt Levine

"A little urgency, please..?"

Intellectual vs. visceral understanding is an important distinction to me.

This is why most children end up touching a hot stove despite being warned not to do this.

It is *very* hard to learn from the mistakes of others.  One of the many tragedies of the human condition.

Learning from the mistakes of others = intellectual understanding.

Learning from your own mistake = visceral understanding.

Gavin Baker

🍺/☕️ I like this piece by David Perell about the two modes of working, “beer mode” and “coffee mode”.

Beer mode is a state of unfocused play where you discover new ideas. In contrast, coffee mode is a state of focus where you work towards a specific outcome.

The problem with traditional productivity advice is that it doesn’t take beer mode seriously. Standard tropes like turn off the Internet, tune out distractions, and turn towards your goals are all examples of coffee mode thinking. The productivity world is oriented around coffee mode because it’s easy to define, easy to measure, and therefore, easier to write about.

Meanwhile, beer mode is filled with surprises that are impossible to predict. On most days, you feel like you wasted time because you don’t make a breakthrough discovery. But once in a while, beer mode leads to an intellectual breakthrough that you would’ve never discovered in coffee mode. In turn, they improve how you allocate your coffee mode time.

Don’t take it too literally (to me it’s almost always green tea mode, anyway), but I think it’s a good way to compress the idea (more on that below) and make it more memorable and available to mind.

Back in the “before times”, pre-pandemic, when I had more control over my days, I could clearly see the cycles come and go. For a while, a random walk through ideas and information, and once in a while an idea really grabbed me. Then I switched to focus mode and did a sprint in a particular direction (read everything I could find about something, talked to people I know about it, etc).

Once the new thing is digested, back to wandering for a while…

Of course, it’s not that clear cut. I always have lists of things I want to get through and the wandering is never 100% random, and the focused sprint isn’t always uninterrupted by other things.

Wandering vs Sprinting: It maps pretty well on a broader timeframe (days, weeks) to beer mode and coffee mode.

I like it. I think the words resonate for me.

Funny, when I started writing this intro, I thought it was just about Perell’s beer/coffee modes, I hadn’t thought of wandering/sprinting yet. You just witnessed the power of thinking things through while writing about them ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

💉 🤬 Canada has inventory of 420,000 doses of mRNA vaccines, but only 143,000 have been injected (0.3% of population), said the prime minister.

Meanwhile, where I am there's talk of an imminent new lockdown for 3-4 weeks (kids have been home since Dec 17).

A little urgency, please..?

I know it's hard. But do it like lives and the economy depend on it, like it's wartime. Don't stop for weekends and holidays, don’t do it like a regular government project, we don't want excuses, just results.

Why don't more politicians just copy best practices? Cut & paste Israel's decentralized and results-oriented approach (rather than our centralized and paperwork-oriented system) and tweak to adapt to local realities. That would go a long way (not saying we'd have exactly the same results because there’s many other variables, but we'd do much better than now for sure).

It's one thing to lose your parents or your favorite uncle at the beginning of a pandemic when there isn't much you can do. It's much much worse to lose them when they could've been vaccinated but we just couldn't be arsed to de-bottleneck things so the limiting factor is dose manufacturing and not actually poking people’s arms.

It’s funny, I’ve received literally no direct feedback on my thoughts about the ethics of Google’s core product, and I don’t think it’s because nobody has any feelings on it… I think a lot of people — especially investors — have conflicted thoughts and/or blind spots on this one.

Investing & Business

‘JPEG Your Ideas’: Eugene Wei’s Essay on Idea Compression

I’m a few years late, but I finally read Eugene Wei’s ‘Compress to Impress’ essay (funny to see the URL slug showing the original title, “JPEG Your Ideas” — another good title).

I think it’s a powerful and useful idea. Our feeble monkey-brains can only retain and recall and keep in working-memory so many ideas and concepts, and as they get repeated and transmitted from one person to the other they get distorted, so it makes a huge difference to package things in ways that are heavily compressed, easy to recall, and to transmit.

Take one example "Day 1." I don't know when he first said this to the company, but it was repeated endlessly all my years at Amazon. It's still Day 1. Jeff has even named one of the Amazon buildings Day 1. In fact, I bet most of my readers know what Day 1 means, and Jeff doesn't even bother explaining what Day 1 is at the start of his letter to shareholders, so familiar is it to all followers of the company. Instead, he just jumps straight into talking about how to fend off Day 2, which he doesn't even need to define because we all can probably infer it from the structure of his formulation, but he does so anyway.

Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.

An entire philosophy, packed with ideas, compressed into two words. Day 1.

Eugene gives lots of examples of this at work and the various yearly themes that Amazon used to get the whole company aligned on the right things while he worked there. It reminds me of this CGP Grey video on personal yearly themes — they work because they also compress complex ideas in ways that make them more available as constant guides/compasses.

But back to the idea I want to highlight:

What Jeff understood was the power of rhetoric. Time spent coming up with the right words to package a key concept in a memorable way was time well spent. People fret about what others say about them when they're not in the room, but Jeff was solving the issue of getting people to say what he'd say when he wasn't in the room.

It was so important to him that we even had company-wide contests to come up with the most memorable ways to name our annual themes. [...]

I have a list of dozens of Jeff sayings filed away in memory, and I'm not alone. It's one reason he's one of the world's most effective CEO's. What's particularly impressive is that Jeff is so brilliant that it would be easy for him to state his thinking in complex ways that us mere mortals wouldn't grok. But true genius is stating the complex simply.

It reminds me of the classic Mark Twain line: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

Does this mean you should simplify and compress everything? Not quite. Like most tools, it works best when it’s applied to the right things, and not indiscriminately:

Ironically, Jeff employs the reverse of this for his own information inflows. It's well known that he banned Powerpoint at Amazon because he was increasingly frustrated at the lossy nature that medium. [...]

Jeff's outbound feedback was carefully encoded and compressed for maximum fidelity of transmission across hundreds of thousands of employees all over the world, but his inbound data feed was raw and minimally compressed.

You can read the whole thing here.

Matt Levine is Back

Welcome back, hope you had a nice parental leave!

Highlight from his latest:

“Sexual harassment is securities fraud” is an idea that will buy a big yacht for the lawyer who came up with it. It’s so much better—for the lawyer—than suing directly for sexual harassment. If you sue for sexual harassment you have to recruit individual plaintiffs who were harassed, and you have to prove their cases, and they’re all probably different so it’s harder to make it a lucrative class action, and they are actual individual humans who have been harmed and you have to be sensitive to their trauma. If you sue for sexual-harassment-as-securities-fraud, the plaintiffs are easy to find (big shareholders), you don’t really have to prove harassment (just refer to news accounts), your clients are only in it for the money, everything is clean and simple and easy

Amazon Buys 11 Boeing 767-300s

Used planes, of course. They may not have that new plane smell anymore, but it’s the frugal way to buy a fleet of cargo planes, I guess.

What’s notable here is that so far they’ve only leased:

Amazon.com Inc. is buying 11 used Boeing 767-300 planes, the first time the online retail giant has purchased, rather than leased, aircraft for its fast-growing air cargo operation. [...]

seven aircraft from Delta and four from WestJet. The WestJet aircraft are currently being converted from passenger to cargo [...]

By the end of next year, Amazon expects to have more than 85 planes in service [...]

The deals announced Tuesday mark the second time Amazon has taken advantage of the depressed market for aircraft since the Covid-19 pandemic crippled air travel and sent many aircraft into storage. In June, Amazon said it was leasing an additional 12 planes. (Source)

Constellation’s Topicus Spin to Trade Feb. 1st

The purchase of the old Topicus by Constellation is now official, and the new Topicus (which includes CSI’s TSS group) has a new website:

The Spin-Out Shares have been conditionally approved for listing on the TSX Venture Exchange, subject to Topicus.com’s fulfillment of final listing requirements. Trading of the Spin-Out Shares on the TSX Venture Exchange is expected to begin on or about February 1, 2021.

The prospectus is here. I always like this table showing organic growth for the various segments:

Investing Lessons from George Vanderheiden

Good piece by Gavin Baker about things he learned from George Vanderheiden (yes, it’s a double-Baker day, with the quote in the intro). A few highlights:

It is important to start the year thinking about where one could lose the most money, rather than where one can make the most money. George spoke to the analysts and fund managers from time to time after he retired. During one of those talks, hosted by Will Danoff, George observed that while most fund managers began the year thinking about which stocks they should own to make the most money, he began the year with the knowledge that roughly 50% of his positions were mistakes, tried to carefully think about which of those mistakes would cost him the most money and eliminate those positions. Minimizing mistakes is essential given that almost all investors — even the best ones — are wrong circa 50% of the time. I really love the humility inherent to this mentality, which is aligned with my increasing belief that “I don’t know” are the three most important words in investing, not “margin of safety.” [...]

Being too early is the same as being wrong. Analysts and fund managers often say that “they were early,” rather than wrong. George’s point was that being too early is a mistake rather than a defense. Time in the market is more important than timing the market, but timing does matter for individual stocks as the “price you pay determines the return you get.” [...]

Read the whole thing here.

Healthcare JV Between Berkshire, J.P. Morgan and Amazon Shuts Down

The company began informing employees Monday that it will shut down by the end of next month, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

Many of the Boston-based firm’s 57 workers are expected to be placed at Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway or JPMorgan Chase as the firms each individually push forward in their efforts, and the three companies are still expected to collaborate informally on healthcare projects, the people said. [...]

A spokeswoman for Berkshire Hathaway said the company has no “additional comment.” (Source)

Too bad it didn’t succeed, but I’m still glad they tried. More companies should do these types of high-risk/reward projects.

When you attempt something really hard, the expected outcome is failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Or that once you’ve failed, it retroactively makes trying a mistake (ie. Annie Duke’s “resulting”).

If you think you understand Alibaba, you don't understand Alibaba...

Jamie Powell:

re: Jack Ma -- this is your daily reminder that no one knows who controls Alibaba's VIE. Ma gave it up in 2018 because...he just did

2018 Financial Times piece on that:

Jack Ma has quietly relinquished his ownership of the legal entities at the heart of Alibaba, symbolically handing back the keys to the Chinese technology giant he founded 19 years go. [...]

The filing detailed a switch in ultimate control from two men, Mr Ma and co-founder Simon Xie, to a group of five. It did not disclose names of the new owners, leaving investors to assume Mr Ma’s ownership was simply being diluted and spread among a wider group of executives.

More recently:

Jack Ma's businesses are under enormous pressure right now. But the co-founder of China's most successful tech empire and legendary billionaire entrepreneur hasn't been heard from in months.

Ma hasn't made a public appearance or social media post since late October, just over a week before a much anticipated stock market listing of Alibaba's financial affiliate, Ant Group, was blocked at the last minute by Chinese regulators. (Source)

Pythia Capital posted a post from 2018 going through some of the company’s filings

Note that I’m not making any judgement on the company as an investment either way. I’m just frequently puzzled by how weird and opaque things surrounding one of the biggest businesses in the world can be.

Update: After writing the above, this came out:

Alibaba founder Jack Ma is lying low for the time being, but he’s not missing

After reports speculating about Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s whereabouts, CNBC’s David Faber reported Tuesday that the billionaire is not missing, according to a person familiar with the matter. Instead, Ma has been lying low for the time being, Faber reported.

When you even have to say it, it's a bit like a bank assuring you they have plentiful liquidity. Maybe they do, but it reminds you that it could go the other way too..

Basically implying: "This deca-billionaire founder hasn't been disappeared. He could've been, but it's not the case this time."

The Asian Times Financial:

[Ma] has disappeared from his reality TV show, and was also removed as a judge on the show. No reasons were given, but Ma’s details are gone from the programme’s information.

Usually known as "Uncle Horse" – as his Chinese surname 'Ma' means horse – he has recently been damned as a money-grabbing 'vampire' who exploits the poor, in state media outlets strongly criticising him, even the People’s Daily.

For a tycoon acclaimed around the world for his entrepreneurial brilliance, as well as generosity and flamboyant promotional activities, that is an extraordinary turnaround.

Jack Ma is now "embracing supervision" at an undisclosed location, the CCP mouthpiece has reported.

Ma, a member of the Communist Party, had been advised by the government not to leave the country, Bloomberg reported about a week ago.


Science & Technology

Notion 101

I mentioned that I use Notion for some of my note-taking in the intro of edition #73.

If you’re curious about it and want an overview of what it can do, here’s a couple videos that I like of fairly sophisticated users explaining what they do in the app, showcasing some of the main features:

It’s pretty powerful but there’s a learning curve, especially if you want to get into some of the fancier features, so it definitely helps to see experienced users do stuff (at least it helped me).

That's clever

Not quite putting-wheels-on-luggage clever, but it'll save lives, especially if the idea spreads around the globe over time.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark… Now Barks

Ok, bad title. Attempting a kind of Sherlock Holmes security joke here, but it doesn’t quite work. But I’ll keep it, they can’t all be bangers ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Datadog’s Runtime Security (now in beta) detects threats to your production workloads in real time, as a part of your broader observability platform. Complimenting Datadog Security and Compliance monitoring, Datadog Runtime Security monitors file and process activity across your environment, meaning that it can detect threats to your infrastructure (like AWS EC2 instances) and workloads (like Kubernetes clusters) in real time at the kernel level, helping catch infrastructure-based attacks before they propagate into downstream logabble events.

Moving beyond observability (their main thing) and SIEM into workload protection. This is being added (in beta) to their existing agent, so friction to adoption should be pretty low. Similar to what Splunk also added, moving more in the direction of Crowdstrike, but probably more in the way that Elastic also added security stuff, but isn’t really doing what CRWD’s doing.

Source. h/t Muuuuujiiiii

Neo Neo


Here’s another good one with a similar concept

The Arts & History

‘This self-portrait from SSgt Alexander Cook’


Bird on a Wire Sheet Music (and I don’t mean the Leonard Cohen song)

Here’s the Soundcloud of what the birds sound like.