'Tis the season-within-a-season where "Out of stock" or "Arrives after December 25th" starts to show up on more and more online product listings—but not on digital ones! If you've been enjoying The Diff and want to give a gift that will get opened again and again, you're in luck; we're running a 20% off holiday holiday discount for gifted subscriptions.
- Scholia Pugillātōria is a wonderful independent academic journal detailing the history and sociology of boxing. Start here and read on. This newsletter writes a bit about economics and a bit about laws, both of which are ways for people to settle otherwise intractable disputes about who is entitled to have what, and who is entitled to do what. But these disciplines are at least partly descended from older ways of settling disputes.
- Murray Shanahan has a nice little paper called "Talking About Large Language Models," which is a great overview of how they work: "a great many tasks that demand intelligence in humans can be reduced to next token prediction with a sufficiently performant model." It's an important reminder that while the output feels like what a human would do in response to a similar question, the process is not really humanoid—it's a statistical model guessing what the next token from a stream of tokens looks like. In many cases, this corresponds to the output of a knowledgeable person answering a factual question, but that's only true to the extent that the LLM's training data has mostly truthful statements in it. The article also has a fun riff on the question of whether LLMs can reason, separately from whether or not they can believe.
- Noah Smith of Noahpinion has a roundup of pieces on NEPA, which is, depending on who you ask, either an essential tool for protecting the environment from disruption or a set of rules that pathologically hold back investment in clean energy and mass transit.
- Patrick McKenzie (patio110 has a long and wonderful retrospective on VaccinateCA, a project he worked on to improve vaccine access. This is, in part, a story about stereotype inversion—the tech people were the ones who realized that vaccine distribution was hard to automate and would require lots of repetitive phone-banking, while the policy solution was a set of if/then statements that were trusted to reliably produce the correct output. This piece has a lot of horror stories about inefficiency, and a lot of the-opposite-of-horror stories about imposing a working system on a broken process.
- Once again relevant given current events, this 2001 Michael Lewis profile of teenage market manipulator Jonathan Lebed is a good look at what's changed and what hasn't in the decades since. Lewis is a bit sympathetic to his subject—most notably, when describing how Lebed hyped up stocks, what he omits (but what the complaint he's citing notes!) is that Lebed also bought share aggressively late in the day, so the stock would look like it was moving. Market manipulation will always be with us, because while it's hard to be the first person to spot a unique opportunity, it's incredibly tempting to feel like you're one of the first few to jump on something that's about to get very popular, and good manipulators tap into this desire.
(This piece is also funny for one bit of long-distance foreshadowing. Casting about for examples of big companies, Lewis says " Xerox and AT&T and the rest needed to put the right spin on their quarterly earnings. The goal at the end of every quarter was for the newspapers and the cable television shows and the rest to announce that they had 'exceeded analysts' expectations.'" AT&T just agreed to pay a fine for telling analysts to lower their estimates so it could beat them.)
- Napoleon: A Life: midway through this book, I realized that Napoleon, if he were alive today, would have been an absolutely fanatical user of Superhuman. Napoleon's life is well-documented partly because he spent so much of it dictating letters to people, and loved micromanagement—there are moments in the book where he's simultaneously planning a military campaign and suggesting that the government set up a formal pan-French horse-racing contest. This book uses written records in another helpful way, with the price of French bonds providing a periodic quantitative sentiment check. Well worth reading, and well worth thinking about: Napoleon was a singular figure, but one reason he advanced so quickly (army captain at 23, ruler of France at 30) is that older institutions were falling fast at the same time.
Books of the Year
It's been a great year for reading. Some of the best books I found this year (many are recent, some are timeless):
- The Power Law: a great history of the venture business, with some unique interviews.
- The Laws of Trading: probably the most recommended book in The Diff this year.
- Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency: a political history told through presidents' relationship with the media
- The Reckoning: why did the American auto industry get blindsided by imports? It's a long story.
- Railroader: this is partly a story about the importance of operations and partly a story about expectations—if investors and executives are convinced that railroads are a bad industry, there's less competition and the stocks are cheap. A potent combination!
- Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube's Chaotic Rise to World Domination: the most important thing to pay attention to in this one is how frequently YouTube came close to dying.
- Embracing Defeat: a deep history of Japanese culture in the wake of the Second World War.
- The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America: a phenomenal history of the last century of retail in America.
- Money Games: The Inside Story of How American Dealmakers Saved Korea's Most Iconic Bank: a blow-by-blow look at a complex leveraged buyout, written by one of the participants.
- Chip Wars: a good overview of an increasingly important industry.
- Paper Belt on Fire: the backstory of the Thiel Fellowship, and an inside look at the case for betting on outsiders.
- Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine: an unexpectedly entertaining look at deification. Perhaps the highest density of weird but true anecdotes of any book I've ever read.
Thanks to Jordan at ChinaTalk for suggesting the end-of-year book recommendation post.
- Drop in any links or comments of interest to Diff readers.
- What's everyone's candidate for Black Swan of the Year in 2023?
A Word From Our Sponsors
When you give to charity, how much impact will your donation actually have? This question can be hard, if not impossible, to answer. What programs does the charity implement? What is the evidence that those programs are effective? Can the charity absorb additional funding and use it productively?
GiveWell is an independent nonprofit that spends over 40,000 hours each year searching for the charities that save or improve lives the most per dollar. GiveWell reviews academic evidence, models cost-effectiveness, interviews charity staff, and forecasts future charity spending so that any donor can make a high-impact donation.
Over 110,000 donors have used GiveWell to donate more than one billion dollars. Rigorous evidence suggests that these donations will save over 150,000 lives and improve the lives of millions more.
All of GiveWell’s research is free for anyone to use or review. GiveWell allocates your tax deductible donation to the charity or fund you choose without taking a cut.
First-time GiveWell donors from The Diff will have their donations matched up to $100 before the end of the year or as long as matching funds last. Go to https://www.givewell.org/diff to claim your match.
Companies in the Diff network are actively seeking talent! If you're interested in exploring growth opportunities at unique companies, please reach out. Some top current roles:
- A fintech startup that basically lets investors trade any theme as if there were an ETF for it is looking for a senior backend engineer. (NYC)
- A company that helps emerging tech businesses identify and hire top talent—and that gets paid in equity—is looking for new team members. A great way to build a startup portfolio and a great network without an in at a VC firm. (US, multiple locations)
- A venture-funded financial data company with 20% month-over-month revenue growth is looking for a staff-level frontend engineer. Experience with React, as well as knowledge of JS data visualization tools, is ideal. (Remote, US)
- A well funded early stage startup founded by two SpaceX engineers is building the software stack for hardware companies. They're seeking a frontend engineer who can build powerful visualization tools for monitoring real-world devices. (Los Angeles)
- A company bringing machine learning tools to everyone is looking for experienced ML engineers with strong product sense. (NYC)
If you’re looking for talent, we should talk! Diff Jobs works with companies across fintech, hard tech, consumer software, enterprise software, and other areas—any company where finding unusually effective people is a top priority.