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- Stephen Witt profiles Nvidia's CEO Jensen Huang in The New Yorker. There's always a question when mainstream outlets profile tech people: is this the peak? But even if The New Yorker doesn't quite get in at the ground floor, they tend to write about people well before they peak: Mark Zuckerberg in 2010, Bill Gates in 1993, Sam Altman in 2016. So, no worries there. In terms of the article itself, it's a good look at what makes someone determined (an unpleasant childhood seems to help) and how Nvidia can be so agile (no org chart, lots of management-by-walking-around, frequent pivots). There's even a data point in favor of the hypothesis that gamers are disproportionately likely to become good founders (once they stop gaming so much): Huang chose to work on graphics because he liked video games, and was a nationally ranked table tennis player in high school. That's a different kind of gaming, of course, but if you ask ChatGPT to rank sports based on how much results are tied to reaction time, it puts table tennis at the top, and reaction time correlates with other good stuff.
- Sam Hammond on why he is not exactly an Effective Altruist, very much in alignment with my own thinking. As I noted on a podcast a few weeks ago, EA was overrated pre-FTX, because of a lack of moral guardrails given sufficiently high expected value, but is underrated today—they really do a lot of good, and they do it in a systematic way. You can free-ride on some of the helpful things EAs do, like measuring the impact of charitable donations, without buying into the entire ideology.
- Patrick McKenzie on "The Bond Villain Compliance Strategy" of having no fixed ties to any physical location in order to avoid being regulated by anyone in particular. In defense of crypto, it's Bond Villain by default in this sense, in the same way that gold is: the protocols don't have a notion of states, locations, or laws other than what's already in the code, so crypto has to get regulated at the point at which it interacts with more traditional financial systems. Fortunately for regulators, crypto is fairly useless without those interactions.
- Caity Weaver profiles Stephanie Courtney, one of the most famous celebrities on earth (you may know her as "Flo" from the Progressive ads). She started doing commercials to pay the bills for a comedy career. It's surprising how often people fall backwards into the career that ends up defining them. (Danny Meyer of Shake Shack took a cooking class because he was looking for a girlfriend, but decided that the food was more appealing.) The piece is full of reflections on the nature of ads, particularly ads for abstract products like insurance, and has some wonderful riffs:
"If my visit to the “Superstore” set can be taken as representative, being closely involved with the production of popular TV commercials for large national brands is the best possible outcome for a human life. The scale and complexity of the operation at the center of Courtney’s work is eye-popping. Every fleeting football-game-interrupting Progressive ad is the product of hours of labor from more than a hundred people. On set, a cat wrangler stood just out of frame, ready to pounce with a backup cat if the primary cat failed. Trays of lickerish delights — crostini with prosciutto, cups of ethereal parfait — were discreetly proffered, at frequent intervals, to people scrutinizing monitors. Every lens, light and politely anxious face was turned heliotropically toward Courtney, in a rented living room, trying to remember, while delivering her line, that Progressive was offering deals “for new parents” rather than “to new parents” — a possibly meaningful distinction. This wasn’t a critically acclaimed Hulu series; there was actually a lot riding on this. It needed to be the same, but slightly different, and every bit as successful as the 200 that had come before it, so that everyone would be asked to return to this job — not necessarily, perhaps not exactly, the job of their dreams, but a better job than anyone could ever hope for, bolstered by friendly faces and fantastic catering and a sumptuous corporate budget — in perpetuity."
- Eric S. Raymond on things hackers used to know and no longer do. Backwards compatibility is very visible to people who are building something new, and completely invisible to people who've been using it for a while. Often the answer to "why does it work this way?" is that "this way" is compatible with some kind of limitation that no longer applies. This can have a surprisingly long life. For example, coding style guides that mandate lines 80 characters or less ultimately derives from the most common kind of punched card. And why is it that your first "Hello, world!" program is probably going to call a function named
print()? Because it's descended from a language that assumed the output was being printed on paper rather than displayed on a screen.
- A bumper crop of podcasts this week: episode four of The Riff features discussions of hedge funds, crowding, risk management, and how different asset classes are implicit bets on the yield curve (listen with Spotify/Apple/YouTube). And on The Splinter I talked talked about risk, bubbles, alternative legal systems, and degrowth.
- In this week's Capital Gains, a look at economic externalities, and the three broad ways to deal with them: ignore whatever you don't ban, tax them, or have the legal system create ever finer-grained property rights. As a bonus: the last option is the most economically efficient if transaction costs are low (your neighborhood nuisance might be my neighborhood charm), but it turns out that companies engaging in price discrimination are sometimes implicitly doing exactly this.
- Facebook: The Inside Story: A reread from early 2020, this book looks at Facebook's growth from startup to major global company. One point the book hammers home is that not only do companies look less impressive than they'll turn out to be from the outside, but they sometimes feel that way from the inside: at one point, Mark Zuckerberg recalls moving to Silicon Valley, seeing all the billboards for tech companies, and thinking that some day he might start one—even though he'd moved there to spend a summer working on Facebook! It's also worth a reread because it shows how long he's been thinking about AI: Zuckerberg's first famous project was a music recommendation tool that worked with WinAmp. It had "AI" in the brand name and URL. Another thing the book illustrates is that the company has, in many different cases, overshot on something, recognized its mistake, and backtracked.
Disclosure: Long META.
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