2: Software Insights, The Purpose of Technology, and The Future

"Not being open about it doesn't make it go away."

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.

—Eugene Gendlin

P.S. This edition contains a little swearing at the very end… But it’s from Deadwood, so it’s well-written swearing.

Investing & Business

-Interview with Eric Vishria: SaaS & Software

Patrick O’Shaughnessy, one of the best interviewers in finance*, shared this conversation with Benchmark General partner Eric Vishria.

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A few choice highlights:

Eric Vishria: One way to think about it is, what’s the competitive frontier [where you will fight for your next customer]? If you think about any company, think about retail, a bank, entertainment… In every case, the competitive frontier has shifted to digital.

Eric Vishria: Nike said that in their last quarter, 30% of their revenues was direct, direct to consumer digital. That was their 2023 goal. Literally, the future got accelerated by 3 years, and now they’ve increased their goal to 50% direct to consumer digital.

Eric Vishria: If I think about a bank. 10 years ago, I may have chosen a bank based on which one is closest to me, who has the most ATMs, etc. Now, I’m choosing who has the best digital experience… Companies are realizing, wait a minute, we have to get this right… This is existential for us.

Eric Vishria: Businesses have historically used software. But now, businesses are basically becoming encoded in software. What you need is not a person necessarily using software, but you have software using other software… It’s not interacting through a user interface, it’s interacting with other software through an API.

Eric Vishria: In a traditional software company… A good 30% of the engineering and product development resources were backwards-looking. They were supporting old versions, fixing bugs on old versions, back-porting bug fixes, they were supporting customers on old versions. You always had to think about backward-compatibility. You had these windows in your contracts saying “we’ll support version 6 for two years after version 7 comes out.” There was this huge tax that you paid in the traditional software world of product development resources being backward-looking. What happened in the SaaS world… whether the customers know it or not, they are getting upgrades continuously… The product development resources all are forward-looking… You get 30% or so of your engineering back, that’s a huge deal!"

But you should listen to the whole thing. You can follow Eric on Twitter.

*There may be a genetic component. Jim O’Shaughnessy also has a very good podcast called ‘Infinite Loops’ (it’s not about Apple, despite the name), check it out. The episode with my friend Liz Hall is a good place to start.

-’Mostly Borrowed Ideas’ on The Power, Peril, and Plight of The Big Tech

Mostly Borrowed Ideas is an account that you should definitely follow on Twitter, one of my faves. He recently launched a newsletter too, and the first post is a monster:

-Parts of Minecraft Still Use AWS, but Not for Long

Minecraft Realms Comes To Pocket Edition & Windows 10 ...

For those who don’t follow the space, Microsoft owns Minecraft:

Since 2014, Mojang has used AWS to offer Minecraft Realms. The $8 per month subscription service allows players to create private play spaces for their friends and them without having to deal with the challenges of setting up and hosting a private server.  [...]

The move makes a lot of sense for Microsoft. With 126 million monthly active playersMinecraft is one of the most popular games on the planet.

Source.

Did it take that long because of lock-in (ie. once you built something using a certain vendor’s tools and APIs, it can be hard to rip it out unless it’s explicitly designed to be portable)? Or because Microsoft leaves a lot of autonomy to its acquisitions and doesn’t force them to “purify” themselves quickly?

I think either way, it’s a good sign for Microsoft, because it either makes them benefit from similar lock-in of their customers at Azure, or makes them more of a choice acquirer for many companies that don’t want to lose all autonomy, or both.

-Apple commits to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its supply chain and products by 2030

Already carbon neutral today for corporate emissions worldwide, the company plans to bring its entire carbon footprint to net zero 20 years sooner than IPCC targets (source)

There is no doubt that we’ll see more and more companies do this, partly because clean energy has become so much cheaper over the past few decades that it’s now not much of a sacrifice to do, but also because once something becomes common enough that it’s “table stakes” (as is slowly happening), if you don’t have it you expose yourself to backlash.

I don’t mean just ESG and financial pressures, but also in how your brand is perceived by customers in the marketplace. Nobody wants their products to be painted as “dirty” and “bad for the Earth”, especially consumer products.

-When You’re Right, You’re Right, Tim:


Science & Technology

-How Undersea Fiber Optics Cables Are Protected

This website shows a map of submarine cables around the world. Very cool. (Source.)

-A Short GPT-3 Overview

Everybody’s talking about OpenAI’s GPT-3 lately. If it all sounds like arcana to you, this non-technical explainer by the Technically newsletter is a good place to start. This is the most technical part:

the OpenAI team trained it with 175 billion parameters, which, according to them, is “10x more than any previous non-sparse language model.” They used a 45TB dataset of plaintext words (45,000 GB), filtered it down to a measly 570GB, and used 50 petaflops/day of compute (1020 operations per second, times 50).

-The Purpose of Technology, by Balaji S. Srinivasan

A new essay on where this is all going, eventually:

If the proximate purpose of technology is to reduce scarcity, the ultimate purpose of technology is to eliminate mortality.

Think about how a breakthrough is described: faster, smaller, cheaper, better. All of these words mean that with this new technology, one can do more with less. [...]

Now for second half of the sentence, the logical implication. Is the ultimate purpose of technology to eliminate mortality? Well, mortality is the main source of scarcity. If we had infinite time, we would be less concerned with whether something was faster. The reason speed has value is because time has value; the reason time has value is because human life has value, and lifespans are finite. If you made lifespans much longer, you'd reduce the effective cost of everything. Thus insofar as reducing scarcity is acknowledged to be the proximate purpose of technology, eliminating the main source of scarcity – namely mortality – is the ultimate purpose of technology. Life extension is the most important thing we can invent.

Balaji goes on to make the very good point that for this, and other types of progress to happen quicker, they must be explained clearly to people who aren’t working in the field, both to gather support and diminish reflexive, unthinking opposition; and smart young people must be inspired to want to contribute to science and engineering. Really difficult things don’t happen on their own, they need a support system that directs resources and talent their way.

On the topic of defeating the diseases of aging and aiming for much longer healthy lifespans, this adaptation of Nick Bostrom’s ‘Fable of the Dragon Tyrant’ is worth watching (13 minutes, but it’s watchable at 1.75x without problem, so really just 7 minutes):

My way of supporting this aim has been to donate to the SENS Research Foundation for 10+ years (it used to be part of the Methuselah Foundation).

-“An AI reconstructs Newton's second law and discovers a previously unknown formula for mass calculation of dark matter. Can AI automate science?”

The idea that we could use AI/ML/GNN to accelerate discoveries, or eventually discover the answer to questions that we weren’t even asking, is one of the most fascinating ongoing developments in the field:

At the core of science are two essential components: observation and logic. The former generates data from which we can then use logic to identify regularities and formulate them in the language of mathematics.

Once formulated, the mathematical formula is more than just a description of the data - it enables us to make predictions and discover previously unknown relationships. […]

If AI is like Columbus, computing power is Santa Maria
Can artificial intelligence accelerate the discovery of mathematical descriptions? If it's possible to automate science with computing power , scientific progress could be bound by Moore's law and increase so much. […]

Symbolic regression is carried out as a genetic algorithm. Equipped with variables and mathematical operators, the algorithm searches for the simplest mathematical formula with which known data can be reproduced.

To do this, it generates a large number of formulas, compares their predictions with the known data and only adopts formulas that approximate the real data. The surviving formulas are then modified and measured again against each other. At the end of the process there is usually an approximately correct reproduction of the existing data and a simple mathematical formula. […]

The researchers led by PhD student Miles Cranmer have now trained a GNN and have used symbolic regression to derive the basic equation of mechanics - force is mass times acceleration - from the network.

Source.

-In Honor of the 51st Anniversary of Apollo 11

We don’t realize just how tuned to Earth’s gravity our bodies and minds are. It must feel a bit like being drunk to try to do regular movements on the Moon and constantly miss things, stumble around and fall. I wonder how long it took Astronauts to get used to it…

If you’re interested by the Apollo Project, I highly recommend the book ‘A Man on the Moon’ by Andrew Chaikin.

A decade in the making, this book is based on hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews with each of the twenty-four moon voyagers, as well as those who contributed their brain power, training and teamwork on Earth


The Arts

-’Nick Cave and the Dirty Three would like you to know that "0" is also a number’

There's a great Nick Cave & Dirty Three song called 'Time Jesum Transeuntum Et Non Riverentum'. It probably never got the audience it should've, because it's not on any regular album (as far as I know, anyway), but is a 'hidden' track on a X-Files soundtrack album from 1996 called 'Songs in the Key of X: Music from and Inspired by the X-Files'.

The track is hidden "before" the first track. On your CD player, you had to rewind into negative time to get to it, which is a beautiful hack of the Redbook CD format in itself. There was a hint somewhere in the booklet, letting you know that "0" is also a number.

Here's the beautiful, epic song, best enjoyed at night, with no distractions.

(This one's for you, Ohio Capital Ideas)

-Obligatory Deadwood Reference

Hugo: Had you vision as well as sight, you would recognize within me not only a man, but an institution and the future as well.

Steve: Fuck you, fuck the institution, and fuck the future!

Hugo: You cannot fuck the future, sir. The future fucks you.