Learning curves sloping up and down

One of the great inefficiencies of humanity as a species is the need to re-educate every successive generation. I think of this when playing with my nieces and nephews and my friends' children. Adults have to spend so much time teaching infants and children things we've already learned, and the process of knowledge transfer is so lossy. The entire education system can be seen as a giant institution for transferring knowledge from one generation to the next, like some crude disk drive, and these days it's rising in price despite not measurably improving.

Artificial intelligences need not go through this because they don't die abruptly like humans, they can evolve continuously without hard resets. This is one of its chief advantages over human intelligence. To take a modern example, self-driving cars should only improve from here on out, and each new one we build can be as smart as the smartest self-driving car as soon as it's assembled. Every node on the network has access to the intelligence of the network.

All this human intelligence cut short by mortality is a curse, but given human nature, it is also critical to forward progress. People's views calcify, so death is a way of wiping the slate clean to make way for ideological progress. Part of why racism and sexism, to take two social ills, decline over time is simply that the racists and sexists die out.

This plays out at a corporate level, too. Companies can have both too long and too short a memory. New employees have to be taught the culture and catch up to what others before them learned so they can be as productive as possible. On the other hand, institutions can become set in their ways, less adaptive as their environments evolve. New blood can bring fresh eyes.

One form of this is institutional trauma. A company tries to enter a space, fails, and doesn't venture into that space ever again, even if the timing for entry shifts to a more favorable one. I look at a product like Google Wave and think that if Google had stuck with it, they might have built something like Slack.

Why do companies slow down as they grow larger? One reason is that in a hierarchical organizational structure, the more people and more levels you pile in, the more chances someone somewhere will say no to any idea. Bureaucracy is just institutionalized veto power growing linearly with organizational size.

One theory for why evolution gives us just enough of a lifespan to bear offspring but not stay around too long is that it reduces competition for resources for our offspring. Old timers who rise in an organization can compete for resources with new employees, but without the disadvantage of old age. Most who survive at a company have risen to the level where they have disproportionate institutional power. It's often deserved, but it's also dangerous. True disruption of a company is difficult to counter because it attacks the strongest part of your business, and that division or unit tends to be the one that has the most power in the organization.

Companies try to counter this by dividing themselves into smaller units even as they grow in the aggregate. Jeff Bezos tried localizing decision-making power at Amazon in what he called two-pizza teams (the size of the team being one that could be fed by two pizzas). Facebook acquires companies like Instagram and WhatsApp but lets them run largely independently. Google's new Alphabet org structure breaks itself into a looser coalition of entities where each division has more degrees of freedom strategically. All are attempt to keep the weight of bureaucratic middle management off of the creatives, to preserve greater dimensionality and optionality throughout the organization.

Amazon is one company which often wins just by being more patient than its competitors, playing games on a much longer time scale than most. It tends to be less susceptible to institutional trauma than most. Of course, part of this is the result of the unique ownership structure that companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google have managed to pull off: ultimate decision-making power rests in the hands of the founders even as they leverage the benefits of the public market.

However, it's more than that. When Bezos was asked at Recode last year how he decided when to give up on a project, he said something striking: we give up on something when the last high judgment person in the room gives up on it.

What a brilliant heuristic. Simple and memorable. Of course, deciding who is high judgment is its own challenge, but this concept reverses the usual problem of bureaucracy, which is it takes only one person saying no to kill something. Jeff reverses that; he wants the company to be as smart on any topic as its single smartest person. 

At some point in life, it probably is rational to be that old dog who eschews new tricks. If you're going to die soon anyhow, you're more likely to just suffer the discomfort of having to adjust and then die before you can reap any awards. The corporate version of this is the concept that most executives should just squeeze the maximum profit out of their existing thinking and not bother trying to stave off disruption. It might be more energy and resource efficient to just have some of the stalwarts die off rather than shift the thinking of tens of thousands of employees, or change a culture which has evolved over decades.

The path of least cost/energy

We've passed that inflection point in the cost/quality curve of visual effects where it is almost always more cost effective now to use compositing than to use physical locations, props, and extras. Not the case yet for actors, but you can still save a lot of money on everything else. It's amazing how much of the mundane shots in almost every TV series now are just executed in a computer.

This a precursor of what virtual reality will do to reality given all the shadow costs of reality. A producer ordering VFX in place of sending a crew on location is pursuing the most cost-efficient strategy. What Tyler Cowen refers to as the complacent class of people sitting at home watching Netflix on a Friday night rather than paying to go out to a crowded public place is also just cost efficient (or energy efficient) behavior.

IKEA's Billy bookcase

Now there are 60-odd million in the world, nearly one for every 100 people - not bad for a humble bookcase. 
 
In fact, so ubiquitous are they, Bloomberg uses them to compare purchasing power across the world. 
 
According to the Bloomberg Billy Bookcase Index - yes, that's a thing - they cost most in Egypt, just over $100 (£79), whereas in Slovenia you can get them for less than $40 (£31).
 

A few of the interesting stats on Ikea's Billy bookcase series.

To get as rich as Mr Kamprad has, you have to make stuff that is both cheap and acceptably good.
 

And to get even richer, you make stuff that is both cheap and the best in its class, though that's not as easy with furniture as it is with software.

IKEA is an interesting example of disruption that I haven't read as many think pieces on as the usual suspects in tech.

Magic iPod

Everyone has been passing around the Magic iPod this month. First Deep Blue beat Kasparov, then AlphaGo beat Lee Se-dol, and now we have Magic iPod taking down Girl Talk.

When you read stories about how artists come up with mashups (finding works with compatible BPM and keys, among other things), or how the Swedish pop factory mad scientists like Max Martin conjure pop hits, it seems inevitable that in our lifetime we'll have algorithms creating real pop hits.

How such work is received by a human audience is about more than its intrinsic qualities, however. In an objective competition like a game of Go, or when considering a mashup which is simply the synthesis of existing creative works, I suspect humans will be comfortable with acknowledging the achievements of an algorithm.

With original creative works, however, like music, novels, movies, I suspect humans will recoil from even intrinsically appealing creation if it was written by a computer program. Call it some variant of the uncanny valley effect.

We have a romantic attachment to human creation, and it may take a generation of people passing on before we overcome that cultural aversion. When a waiter places a beautiful dish in front of you at a restaurant, we like to imagine that a chef toiled over the plate in the kitchen, conjuring that beautiful, delicious entree from raw ingredients, fire, and ingenuity. When we read an engrossing novel, we picture a tortured writer banging on an old typewriter in a cabin by the sea, stopping from time to time to put out a cigarette and gaze out the window at the ocean waves trying to claw up the gentle slope of the beach.

When Beyonce drops Lemonade or any one of her jaw dropping awards show performances on an unprepared world, I like to believe the work was birthed from what is surely a vagina with mystic powers, belonging as it does to our modern icon of feminism and black empowerment.

It's not quite as appealing if the truth was that an algorithm finished processing in some computer lab somewhere. A progress bar on a monitor finally reaches 100%, and a file is deposited into a directory.

That's why if humans ever comes up with algorithms that are capable of creating popular works of culture, it's financially wise for the creators to claim the credit themselves, at least until many years of critical and popular embrace have accumulated. Then, and only then, spring the truth on the world.

We live in a Skinner box, and it was of our own making.

The hardest punch to dodge...

...is the one you don't see coming.

The paper attributes one-third to one-fifth of the decline in work hours by less-educated young men to the rising use of technology for entertainment — mainly video games. The new study has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the researchers say they are continuing to refine the precise figures. But other prominent economists who reviewed it for this story said it raises important questions about why so many young men have abandoned the workforce.
 
Alan Krueger, a former chairman of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, said the research presents “strong evidence that the increase in the number of less-educated young men who are not working is not entirely a result of weak demand for their services.” He added, “They find evidence that a portion ... of the decrease in work time of less-educated young men can be a result of the appeal of video games.”
 
A few decades ago, an unemployed person might be stuck on the couch watching TV, isolated and depressed. Today, cheap or free services such as Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube and Netflix provide seemingly endless entertainment options and an easy connection to the outside world. Video games, in particular, provide a strong community and a sense of achievement that, for some, real-world jobs lack.
 

Excerpt from Wonkblog. Not a recent piece, but I thought of this thesis today during a conversation about declines in ratings for a variety of things from televised sports to movies and so on. It's much easier to assess a threat when it comes at you head on, in your exact industry. It's much harder to spot a threat that comes from an oblique angle, or in the case of business, from adjacent industries you know nothing about.

The marketplace for a person's time has gotten so crowded that competitors may not be aware who is stealing their market share. Who would've thought video games might cause some non-trivial percentage of young male unemployment?

Humans may be most attuned to this. We've never been so aware, at every moment now, of how charismatic and engaging we are as compared to another person's cell phone.

Last dance

Growing up, Keats was on my Leaving Cert English. One of the poems I loved was Ode on a Grecian Urn. It’s a lovely poem and the last few words are “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”
 
That’s what I mean. He epitomises physical beauty in the way he plays and for anything we see that is beautiful in life we always feel there is a certain truth in it. It is an exposing of truth and that’s why people love sport. 
 
In a world of greys where nothing is clear, sport is clear. Sport defines stuff. We get winners and losers, villains and heroes. We get beautiful and ugly. He is the closest definition to beautiful as you can imagine playing any sport. Ali in his prime would have been a beautiful way to watch boxing. Definitely.
 
Roger also reminds me of a super hero in comic books. Real super heroes like Superman; even when he is under extreme pressure he never looks fully extended. If there is an avalanche or he has to lift up a mountain, he never looks like he is straining. 
 
He lifts the mountain with one hand. He never sweats. That’s Federer: you never feel that he is fully, fully extended. You always feel there is something left in reserve.
 

That's Mario Rosenstock on Roger Federer ahead of last weekend's Australian Open showdown with Rafael Nadal.

I stayed up until 5:30am watching the match. I had not seen near peak Federer and Nadal play in ages, and I'd given up hope that it would ever happen again. It felt like a privilege, a one time entry pass to a time machine that would take me to see two greats clash in their prime. I had some caffeine, to which I'm very sensitive, and plopped down in front of my TV for the night.

Perhaps they are a step slower than before. No one would expect anything less given their ages and accumulated wear and tear. And yet, to my eye, they seemed as good as ever.

I agree with Rosenstock that Federer's chief appeal has always been the aesthetic elegance of his game. Every shot of his seems choreographed for slow motion in an art gallery, like a piece of Bill Viola video art. That he never seems rushed or over-exerted implies that when you master the physical action of something, it becomes easy, not just in practice but in form. 

I disagree that Federer has never been fully extended, though. While his physical movements have never seemed strained, it is Nadal above all who has pushed Federer past his redline. I'll never forget the time Federer cried, after losing the 2009 Australian Open to Nadal, another match I stayed up all night to watch. Nadal owns a 23-12 edge vs. Federer head to head, but more than that numeric edge it's the way he's beaten Roger, almost physically overpowering him, to the point where he's seemed to break Federer's will. Rarely do you see Federer concede sets or go on strategic tilt, except vs. Nadal.

It's such a stylistic contrast, Nadal with almost no strokes that seem as effortless as any shot in Federer's arsenal (watch the highlights from their match and note that Nadal grunts after each stroke while Federer never makes a sound except for the occasional squeak of his sneakers). Every shot Nadal hits seems to require his full exertion, none more so than his forehand, which he hits with more topspin than anyone has ever hit a forehand . His follow through is so severe, the racket whipping up over his head and then back down over his opposite shoulder like a priest trying to whip himself on the back, that even without seeing the RPM statistics it is easy to believe they are unmatched in history.

It is that forehand, aimed at Federer's backhand wing, that has been decisive in so many of their matches. The one handed backhand is beautiful, especially Federer's, but it's a stroke uniquely vulnerable to shots with extreme topspin. Because of the way the human body is engineered, it is difficult to handle high balls, but the alternative, to stand closer and try to take those shots earlier off the bounce, requires incredible timing, strength, and coordination.

That's what was so incredible about Federer's win last weekend. In the past, he'd often shank backhands trying to handle Nadal's forehand, but in this match, I've never seen him hit his backhand so cleanly and aggressively. He sometimes won exchanges in which Nadal hit forehands at his backhand repeatedly (see for example the exchange that starts at 5:37 in this video), something that seemed unimaginable in the past.

More importantly, Federer finally changed tactice. Watch the highlights and look at where Federer's feet are in each exchange. Right up against the baseline. Now go back and watch Federer play Nadal in the French Open in 2007, to take an earlier confrontation between the two, and stare at Federer's feet again. He's several feet behind the baseline. He was taking backhands on the rise off the court, and whether it was his new, larger racket, which he switched to in recent years, or just improved timing, he was hitting the backhand as clean and as hard as he's ever hit it.

Commentators have long remarked that they'd love to see him switch up his strategy to challenge Nadal, his nemesis. Attack more second serves, approach net more, anything but trade with Nadal from the baseline. He did some of that in the Aussie Open final, but quite he was the aggressor while staying at the baseline. It was a surprise. The faster courts in Melbourne helped, but to switch things up at age 35 required, most of all, a fluidity of mind. What is it they say about old dogs and new tricks?

The chief obstacle to seeing them meet like this again is probably their health, and so I hope they start taking more extended breaks between the majors to rest rather than work themselves to death in practice or in other tourneys on the circuit. They've done the grind in the past. What we want now are just the peaks.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics

I love Steven Pinker's response to the 2017 Edge Question: what scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?

He chose the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I'm not sure that's a concept that needs more publicity, unless you consider almost all of science underrated, which is fair. It's his reason why he chose the law which is so striking:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.
 
To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.
 
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.
 

As Shelley once wrote:

"Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."