March 2019


SAVE THE LEMURS! EAT THE CRICKETS!

They specifically needed a cricket that was more sociable—in other words, that didn’t turn cannibal when crammed in with its fellows—and that was less finicky about food. The species the researchers landed on is called Gryllus madagascariensis. Then it was just a matter of recruiting the brave six-legged founders of the colony, so they passed around pictures of the cricket for local kids to identify and collect. They ended up with 50 individuals. “We started one-and-a-half years ago with those 50 specimens, and now we have about 350,000 new crickets each day,” says Sylvain Hugel, an entomologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. “It's just crazy.” As of this moment, there are perhaps a million crickets hopping around a facility in the capital city of Antananarivo, yielding 140 pounds of powder a week for the people of Madagascar.

When it comes to feed, crickets are 10 times more efficient than cattle and 100 times more efficient when it comes to water.

Whether edible insects actually take the pressure off endangered lemurs, humans the world over are coming around to the fact that if we want to keep having a world, edible insects are going to be on the menu.


Do you have a self-actualised personality? Maslow revisited, experiment (n=500) with Mechanical Turk workers

‘Taken together, this total pattern of data supports Maslow’s contention that self-actualised individuals are more motivated by growth and exploration than by fulfilling deficiencies in basic needs,’ Kaufman writes. He adds that the new empirical support for Maslow’s ideas is ‘quite remarkable’ given that Maslow put them together with ‘a paucity of actual evidence’.

Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Kaufman said that this last finding supports ‘Maslow’s contention that self-actualising individuals are able to paradoxically merge with a common humanity while at the same time able to maintain a strong identity and sense of self’.

A belief in meritocracy is not only false: it’s bad for you

Although widely held, the belief that merit rather than luck determines success or failure in the world is demonstrably false. This is not least because merit itself is, in large part, the result of luck. Talent and the capacity for determined effort, sometimes called ‘grit’, depend a great deal on one’s genetic endowments and upbringing.

In competitive contexts, many have merit, but few succeed. What separates the two is luck.

In addition to being false, a growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways. Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.

Perhaps more disturbing, simply holding meritocracy as a value seems to promote discriminatory behaviour. [Researchers] found that, in companies that explicitly held meritocracy as a core value, managers assigned greater rewards to male employees over female employees with identical performance evaluations. This preference disappeared where meritocracy was not explicitly adopted as a value.

However, in addition to legitimation, meritocracy also offers flattery. Where success is determined by merit, each win can be viewed as a reflection of one’s own virtue and worth. Meritocracy is the most self-congratulatory of distribution principles. 

Despite the moral assurance and personal flattery that meritocracy offers to the successful, it ought to be abandoned both as a belief about how the world works and as a general social ideal. It’s false, and believing in it encourages selfishness, discrimination and indifference to the plight of the unfortunate.

While Everyone Is Distracted By Social Media, Successful People Double Down On An Underrated Skill

Right now, somewhere out in the world is a paragraph, chapter, or book that would change your life forever if you read it. I call this kind of information “breakthrough knowledge,” and mastering the ability to find breakthrough knowledge in our era of information overload is one of the most important skills we can develop… 

Key Question:

How do we use the limited time we have to find breakthrough knowledge in a sea of distraction? 

A 2007 essay by novelist David Foster Wallace coined the word Total Noise as “a tsunami of available fact, context and perspective” which provides a sensation of a “loss of autonomy, of personal responsibility for being informed.” He concludes the essay with the following call to action for all of us:

Part of our emergency is that it’s so tempting… to retreat to narrow arrogance, pre-formed positions, rigid filters, the ‘moral clarity’ of the immature. The alternative is dealing with massive, high entropy amounts of info and ambiguity and conflict and flux; it’s continually discovering new areas of personal ignorance and delusion.

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The Servant Economy, “ten years after Uber inaugurated a new era for Silicon Valley, we checked back in on 105 on-demand businesses”

Of 105 Uber for X since 2009, which raised $7.4B in VC, 4 are unicorns, 47 are gone, 53, somewhere in between.

In March 2009, Uber was born. Over the next few years, the company became not just a disruptive, controversial transportation company, but a model for dozens of venture-funded companies. Its name became a shorthand for this new kind of business: Uber for laundry; Uber for groceries; Uber for dog walking; Uber for (checks notes) cookies. Larger transformations swirled around—the gig economy, the on-demand economy—but the trend was most easily summed up by the way so many starry-eyed founders pitched their company: Uber for X.

This micro-generation of Silicon Valley start-ups did two basic things: It put together a labor pool to deliver food or clean toilets or assemble IKEA bookshelves, and it found people who needed those things done. Academics called this a “two-sided market,” but to a user, it meant tapping on a phone and watching the world rearrange itself to satisfy your desires. Convenience drove consumer demand. Economic need and work flexibility drove the labor supply. At least in theory.

As a group, all of these companies have brought hundreds of thousands of people into new work arrangements that are more than a gig but less than a job. They’ve rearranged the way people get basic tasks done, and they’ve wired those in local industries—handymen, house cleaners, dog walkers, dry cleaners—into the tech- and capital-rich global economy. These people are now submitting to a new middleman, who they know controls the customer relationship and will eventually have to take a big cut, as Uber drivers would be happy to tell them. 

And even when venture capitalists are willing to buy growth for these companies, they still tend to pay their workers close to minimum wage—especially after considering expenses—and generally don’t provide the nominal security of an actual job.

The Sharing Economy Was Always a Scam, “‘Sharing’ was supposed to save us. Instead, it became a Trojan horse for a precarious economic future.”

Sharing was supposed to transform our world for the better… Sharing would help reduce overconsumption and our impact on the environment… Sharing also promised social benefits… Sharing would be the instrument by which we’d be able to know one another again, a counterbalance to the alienation of a burgeoning tech dystopia… The new opportunities to earn money by freelancing part-time as a handyman, innkeeper, or taxi driver would bridge the wealth gap and ameliorate global inequality.

What came next wasn’t sharing. Power and control wasn’t decentralized — it was even more concentrated in the hands of large and valuable platforms.

The new trust never materialized… Sharing didn’t deliver broad financial stability either.

WHEN TECH KNOWS YOU BETTER THAN YOU KNOW YOURSELF (video w/ transcript, Wired interview with Yuval Harari and Tristan Harris, Centre for Humane Tech/Time Well Spent, October ‘18)

  • 70% of what’s watched on YT is algo-driven, which can even be manipulated by foreign govs rather easily: they could point browsers from video A to B, YT algo would then recommend people watching A to B

  • our problems today = result of not updating philosophical ideas of the 18th century, for science/modernity

  • end of the poker face: computers know us better than we know ourselves, and this ability will continue to grow, e.g. eulerian video magnification, which can detect pulse from face; how much more hackable will we become?

  • past decade characterized by smartest people working on how to get humans to click on ads, in the beginning this was harmless, products were vacations to the Caribbean, now selling political ideology / ways to think, dangerous; race to the bottom of the brain stem

    • e.g. weight loss on YT -> anorexia b/c most popular v.s what’s good  / original intention

    • arms races, in advertising, and now in AI also, a race to the bottom

Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.

  • building an AI sidekick that has our best interests in mind, a fiduciary relationship of sorts

OK, now that we realize that our brains can be hacked, we need an antivirus for the brain, just as we have one for the computer. And it can work on the basis of the same technology. Let’s say you have an AI sidekick who monitors you all the time, 24 hours a day. What do you write? What do you see? Everything. But this AI is serving you as this fiduciary responsibility. And it gets to know your weaknesses, and by knowing your weaknesses it can protect you against other agents trying to hack you and to exploit your weaknesses. So if you have a weakness for funny cat videos and you spend an enormous amount of time, an inordinate amount of time, just watching—you know it’s not very good for you, but you just can't stop yourself clicking, then the AI will intervene, and whenever these funny cat videos try to pop up the AI says no no no no.

If a system is asymmetric—if you know more about me than I know about myself, we usually have a name for that in law. So, for example, when you deal with a lawyer, you hand over your very personal details to a lawyer so they can help you. But then they have this knowledge of the law and they know about your vulnerable information, so they could exploit you with that. Imagine a lawyer who took all of that personal information and sold it to somebody else. But they're governed by a different relationship, which is the fiduciary relationship. They can lose their license if they don't actually serve your interest. And similarly a doctor or a psychotherapist. They also have it. So there's this big question of how do we hand over information about us, and say, “I want you to use that to help me.” So on whose authority can I guarantee that you’re going to help me?

So we're actually thinking about how do we navigate to an actual state of affairs that we want, we probably don't want an AI sidekick to be this kind of optional thing that some people who are rich can afford and other people who don't can't, we probably want it to be baked into the way technology works in the first place, so that it does have a fiduciary responsibility to our best, subtle, compassionate, vulnerable interests.

Status as a Service, Eugene Wei’s (head of video @ Oculus) 20,000 word article from Feb 19 has been making rounds on the internet and for good reason: it belabors and explores in depth many important features of social capital (or what he calls social capital theory), the phenomenon that drives social, i.e. much of tech today: FB/Snap/Twitter; Casey Newton does a good summary here; as a digital native myself, his observations struck home:

  • Assumption 1: People are status-seeking monkeys

  • Assumption 2: People seek out the most efficient path to maximizing social capital

  • Value in social networks is tied to scarcity, which is derived from some form of proprietary proof of work (like in crypto), in

    • Instagram, this is composition, subject matter, etc.

    • Twitter, it’s how pithy, on-point, the 280 characters are,

    • TikTok, it’s how original / funny the 6-second clip is

  • Network effect traps (path dependency) vs reverse network effects

  • On social capital ROI and social capital inequality

The same way many social networks track keystone metrics like time to X followers, they should track the ROI on posts for new users. It's likely a leading metric that governs retention or churn. It’s useful as an investor, or even as a curious onlooker to test a social networks by posting varied content from test accounts to gauge the efficiency and fairness of the distribution algorithm.

It's not that the existence of old money or old social capital dooms a social network to inevitable stagnation, but a social network should continue to prioritize distribution for the best content, whatever the definition of quality, regardless of the vintage of user producing it. Otherwise a form of social capital inequality sets in, and in the virtual world, where exit costs are much lower than in the real world, new users can easily leave for a new network where their work is more properly rewarded and where status mobility is higher.

  • 3-dimensions: social, utility, (entertainment)

    • Messenger: high utility, low social

    • Facebook: high social, low utility

    • The Holy Grail (Instagram): high utility + social

  • Snapchat’s recent change in strategy which aims to build utility at the expense of social capital

    • Snapchat’s initial Best Friends -> Streaks, a clever move to unbound social capital accumulation and to turn a zero-sum game into a positive sum game, broadening the number of users working hard or engaging, Snapchat deprecated the very popular Best Friends list and replaced it with streaks.”

  • Google+, high utility / low social

“The same inherent social myopia applies to Google which famously took a crack at building a social network of its own with Google+. Like Apple, the team in Mountain View has always seemed more suited to building out networks of utility rather than social capital. Google is often spoken of as a company where software engineers have the most power. Engineers, in my experience, are driven by logic, and status-centered products are distasteful or mysterious to them, often both. Google will probably always be weak at social, but as with Apple, they compensate with unique strengths.”

  • Why executives need to be users:

“However, there's another reason that senior execs at most companies, even social networks, are ill-suited to designing and leveraging social features. It’s a variant of winner's curse. You'll hear it again and again, the easiest way to empathize with your users is to be the canonical user yourself.

  • Applications to Reddit, imdb, Wikipedia, Yelp, Amazon (reviews), TripAdvisor, Google Local Guides

    • “You can think of social capital accumulation incentives like these as ways to transform the potential energy of status into whatever form of kinetic energy your venture needs.”

    • i.e. a reframing of the usefulness of social / status gamification

  • In a really interesting section “Social Capital Interest Rate Hikes,” Wei discusses the winner’s curse in social media, which is a unintended consequence of popular use leading to devaluation, i.e. lack of scarcity…

One of the common traps is the winner's curse for social media. If a social network achieves enough success, it grows to a size that requires the imposition of an algorithmic feed in order to maintain high signal-to-noise for most of its users. It's akin to the Fed trying to manage inflation by raising interest rates.

The problem, of course, is that this now diminishes the distribution of any single post from any single user. One of the most controversial of such decisions was Facebook's change to dampen how much content from Pages would be distributed into the News Feed… Facebook snapped its fingers like Thanos and much of that dependable reach evaporated into ash. No longer would every one of your Page followers see every one of your posts. Facebook did what central banks do to combat inflation and raised interest rates on borrowing attention from the News Feed.

  • News Feed + social capital theory:

In the annals of tech, and perhaps the world, the event that created the greatest social capital boom in history was the launch of Facebook's News Feed.

By merging all updates from all the accounts you followed into a single continuous surface and having that serve as the default screen, Facebook News Feed simultaneously increased the efficiency of distribution of new posts and pitted all such posts against each other in what was effectively a single giant attention arena, complete with live updating scoreboards on each post.

  • Generation gap + social capital theory:

Young people look at so many of the status games of older folks—what brand of car is parked in your garage, what neighborhood can you afford to live in, how many levels below CEO are you in your org—and then look at apps like Vine and Musical.ly, and they choose the only real viable and thus optimal path before them. Remember the second tenet: people maximize their social capital the most efficient way possible. Both the young and old pursue optimal strategies.

  • Wei refers to Musical.ly founder’s comments that building a new social network is like founding a new country and attracting citizens from established citizens, i.e. you attract them with the promise of status thanks to first mover advantage

The Bell Curve, 2004 New Yorker article from Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) the importance of statistical indicators of performance in medicine and how we often end up ignoring them

It used to be assumed that differences among hospitals or doctors in a particular specialty were generally insignificant. If you plotted a graph showing the results of all the centers treating cystic fibrosis—or any other disease, for that matter—people expected that the curve would look something like a shark fin, with most places clustered around the very best outcomes. But the evidence has begun to indicate otherwise. What you tend to find is a bell curve: a handful of teams with disturbingly poor outcomes for their patients, a handful with remarkably good results, and a great undistinguished middle.

In ordinary hernia operations, the chances of recurrence are one in ten for surgeons at the unhappy end of the spectrum, one in twenty for those in the middle majority, and under one in five hundred for a handful. A Scottish study of patients with treatable colon cancer found that the ten-year survival rate ranged from a high of sixty-three per cent to a low of twenty per cent, depending on the surgeon. For heartbypass patients, even at hospitals with a good volume of experience, risk-adjusted death rates in New York vary from five per cent to under one per cent—and only a very few hospitals are down near the one-per-cent mortality rate.

It is distressing for doctors to have to acknowledge the bell curve. It belies the promise that we make to patients who become seriously ill: that they can count on the medical system to give them their very best chance at life. It also contradicts the belief nearly all of us have that we are doing our job as well as it can be done. But evidence of the bell curve is starting to trickle out, to doctors and patients alike, and we are only beginning to find out what happens when it does.

Epsilon Theory’s response to The Atlantic’s “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable”

The problem isn’t that we derive too much of our worth and value from work. The problem is that our jobs are becoming increasingly abstracted from work.

Consider the jobs of the construction worker and the banking analyst for a moment. The construction worker builds and then he comes home. His job and his work are more or less the same. His job is to make and he makes…

The banking analyst, on the other hand, will have a little more difficulty telling you what his work is – what he produces. If he’s got more years of college telling him how to answer this question than he has experience actually doing it, he’ll give you the something something matching capital with those who can deploy it answer (exactly what my dad tells me bankers do in terms of societal contribution). Even then, he will have some difficulty explaining how the things in which he invests his mind and body during the average day contribute to that result. Over time, he comes to understand that his job function is explicitly this: to permit his immediate boss to signal competence to her immediate boss, a chain of signaling which ultimately ends with a client who wants to do something (e.g. buy another company) while offloading some of the various types of risk and accountability associated with that thing to the most credible third-party sources (i.e. you).  Sure, in rare cases the matching function may be the kind of thing that wouldn’t have happened without their help, but generally speaking, banking and consulting make nothing – not even ideas, not even connections. Their service is to shift and allay the career risk of institutional decision-makers.

Pallets, Quartz Obsession, related The Box, and how the shipping container made the world smaller

“The magic of these pallets is the magic of abstraction,” Jacob Hodes writes at Cabinet. “Take any object you like, pile it onto a pallet, and it becomes, simply, a ‘unit load’—standardized, cubical, and ideally suited to being scooped up by the tines of a forklift. This allows your Cheerios and your oysters to be whisked through the supply chain with great efficiency.”

Ikea redesigned its iconic “Bang” mug three times to ensure more would fit on a single pallet, increasing the total from 864 to 2,204 mugs per pallet, for a 60% reduction in shipping costs.

The Justice Department is having more success at prosecuting banks than going after the bankers who work for them, related Eisinger’s The Chickenshit Club

Sean Hecker, a defense attorney for Mr. Bogucki, says the remarks were taken out of context and has argued prosecutors are improperly using an insider-trading theory to go after legal transactions. Some of Judge Breyer’s courtroom comments suggest he is skeptical that individuals can be held accountable for activity that is at least implicitly condoned by the bank.

Many in the Justice Department knew the case would be difficult because Mr. Gardiner, the government’s star witness, didn’t believe, at the time of the alleged conspiracy, that he had done anything wrong. Those fears were realized at trial, when Mr. Gardiner said the traders believed they were executing widely accepted practices in the industry.

“You didn’t think you were cheating any customers?” an attorney for one of the traders asked Mr. Gardiner. “I didn’t think I was cheating anyone,” he responded.

After four hours of deliberation, the jury acquitted all three traders.

FINTECH: SoFi, Square and Twitter as the Horsemen of the Fintech Apocalypse, and when is something really free?

The business model implication for Music was to give away the very core offering, and to charge for t-shirst, concerts, and the convenience of using Spotify's neat interface. The business model implication for investment management is to give away the very core offering, and to charge for asset allocation, planning, and a subscription to an easy-to-use financial services bundle. There is more to be said about hiding monetization, about making it hard to see and quantify. Arguably, Google, Facebook and the other web companies have made this trade-off opaque; we get the core offering for free, and pay invisible, unfelt things that aggregate into monstrous compromises. Similar dangers lurk here -- from Robinhood's liquidity selling to algo traders to Fidelity's "infrastructure fee" of 15 bps to mutual funds on its brokerage shelf. Money will be made somewhere, and as a mere human consumer, you likely won't see how.


Life and society are increasingly governed by numbers, book review of recent translation (from original German) discusses how “objective” numbers are increasingly ruling our lives… from the outset

Take the World Bank’s annual comparison of business regulations around the world. One country stood out in its latest ranking: China, which had languished in 78th place the previous year, jumped to 46th. India seemed to have improved, too, rising 23 spots, to 77th. Those remarkable ascents have less to do with the ease of doing business in those places than with their governments’ determination to achieve good grades. Some 40 people work in a Chinese government unit dedicated to improving its World Bank score; perhaps 200 toil in India’s. At least 60 countries have teams that focus on the index. Conversely, a change in methodology can lead to precipitous falls. In 2016 Chile’s performance slumped after one such rejig, which some attributed to political machinations.

Imagine there’s no jealousy

Reflection cannot completely tame jealousy because our vulnerability originates in arational attachments to other people, but we can tame jealousy’s worst manifestations through indirect emotional management. Slow and incremental exposure to the idea of a beloved flourishing with others fosters resilience since we have more opportunities to feel competent, and for affirmation and support to resonate. We can also strive to communicate openly and to discuss some of our uglier feelings because jealousy, like fear, thrives in silence. And we can work to identify and criticise recurring thought patterns – ‘What if they never come back?’ ‘What if he is better than me?’ Finally, we can maintain nurturing homes and community by talking to friends, practising rituals of affirmation, and expressing love. These practices are discussed frequently in self-help books on nonmonogamy.