Cosmic Brain

Remember this video? In it you start with a person lying on the ground looking up at the sky. The camera zooms out exponentially into space showing the immense scale of the galaxies. Then, we quickly zoom back in to molecular scale

Notice the similarity of the Cosmic Web at 1 billion light years and Quarks at 1 femtometer

I immediately recalled the Cosmic eye video when I read this headline:

The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks

The article is written by an astrophysicist and a neuroscientist on the similar complexities and structures of the brain and the cosmic web.

The task of comparing brains and clusters of galaxies is a difficult one. For one thing it requires dealing with data obtained in drastically different ways: telescopes and numerical simulations on the one hand, electron microscopy, immunohistochemistry, and functional magnetic resonance on the other.

It also requires us to consider enormously different scales: The entirety of the cosmic web—the large-scale structure traced out by all of the universe’s galaxies—extends over at least a few tens of billions of light-years. This is 27 orders of magnitude larger than the human brain. Plus, one of these galaxies is home to billions of actual brains. If the cosmic web is at least as complex as any of its constituent parts, we might naively conclude that it must be at least as complex as the brain.

Complexity of the brain and cosmos “can be quantified by counting how many bits of information are necessary for building the smallest possible computer program that can … predict its behavior.” We do this using an equally fascinating measurement tool: Computers. “independent studies have concluded that the total memory capacity of the adult human brain should be around 2.5 petabytes, not far from the 1-10 petabyte range estimated for the cosmic web!” Petabytes are huge.  This means the amount of information needed to predict the behavior of a human brain is roughly equivalent to the amount of data required to stream the first two seasons of Stranger Things 50 thousand times.

Does this fact tell us something profound about the physics of emergent phenomena in the two systems? Maybe. But we must take these findings with a grain of salt. Our analysis has been limited to small samples taken with very different measurement techniques.

But it’s fun to think about.

Catching up on Stratechery

My Instapaper reading list was piling up. Nearly half of the articles were from Stratechery, so I decided to knock them all out at once (well, over the course of a day or two).

https://stratechery.com/2017/goodbye-gatekeepers/

From Weinstein and movies to the NYTimes and YouTube

In a world where the default news source is the Facebook News Feed, the New York Times is breaking out of the inevitable modularization and commodification entailed in supplying the “news” to the feed. That, in turn, requires building a direct relationship with customers: they are the ones in charge, not the gatekeepers of old — even they must now go direct.

YouTube produces an astounding amount of fame.

YouTube represents something else that is just as important: the complete lack of gatekeepers. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on an earnings’ call earlier this year that “Every single day, over 1,000 creators reached the milestone of having 1,000 channel subscribers.” That is an astounding number in its own right; what is even more remarkable is that while Hollywood has only ~3,500 acting slots a year (including all movies, not just major studios), YouTube creates 100 times as many “stars” over the same time period.

https://stratechery.com/2017/tech-goes-to-washington/

Did he say 330 million?

https://stratechery.com/2017/why-facebook-shouldnt-be-allowed-to-buy-tbh/

Requiring Facebook to offer its social graph to any would-be competitor as a condition of acquiring tbh would be a good outcome; unfortunately, it is perhaps the most unlikely, given the FTC’s commitment to unfettered privacy (without a consideration of the impact on competition).

https://stratechery.com/2017/stitch-fix-and-the-senate/

Negative churn

existing customers were increasing spend by more than the revenue lost by those leaving

https://stratechery.com/2017/pro-neutrality-anti-title-ii/

The most famous example of an ISP acting badly was a company called Madison River Communication which, in 2005, blocked ports used for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services, presumably to prop up their own alternative; it remains the canonical violation of net neutrality. It was also a short-lived one: Vonage quickly complained to the FCC, which quickly obtained a consent decree that included a nominal fine and guarantee from Madison River Communications that they would not block such services again. They did not, and no other ISP has tried to do the same; the reasoning is straightforward: foreclosing a service that competes with an ISP’s own service is a clear antitrust violation. In other words, there are already regulations in place to deal with this behavior, and the limited evidence we have suggests it works.

https://stratechery.com/2017/free-daily-update-light-touch-cable-and-dsl-the-broadband-tradeoff-the-importance-of-antitrust/

The equation is straightforward: there is wide consensus amongst economists of all political stripes that regulation imposes costs on both innovation and society through regulatory capture; I would prefer to avoid bearing that cost until we are certain it is necessary, particularly since the evidence to date suggests after-the-fact regulation is working.

The question that must be grappled with, though, is whether or not the Internet is “done.” By that I mean that today’s bandwidth is all we all never need, which means we can risk chilling investment through prophylactic regulation and the elimination of price signals that may spur infrastructure build-out (that being the elimination of paid prioritization).

If we are “done”, then the potential harm of a Title II reclassification is much lower; sure, ISPs will have to do more paperwork, but honestly, they’re just a bunch of mean monopolists anyways, right? Best to get laws in place to preserve what we have.

But what if we aren’t done? What if virtual reality with dual 8k displays actually becomes something meaningful? What if those imagined remote medicine applications are actually developed? What if the Internet of Things moves beyond this messy experimentation phase and into real-time value generation, not just in the home but in all kinds of unimagined commercial applications? I certainly hope we will have the bandwidth to support all of that!

The problem with regulating broadband in this way, though, is that the definition of acceptable broadband is much more of a moving target. As Marc Andreessen memorably put it on Twitter:
@mattyglesias @binarybits Because sewers and electricity are far more static markets than broadband. You don’t shit 10x as much every 3 yrs.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) February 23, 2014

https://stratechery.com/2017/the-pollyannish-assumption/

Documenting why and how these platforms have power has, in many respects, been the ultimate theme of Stratechery over the last four-and-a-half year: this is a call to exercise it, in part, and a request to not, in another. There is a line: what is broadly deemed unacceptable, and what is still under dispute; the responsibility of these new powers that be is to actively search out the former, and keep their hands — and algorithms and policies — off the latter. Said French Revolution offers hints at fates if this all goes wrong.

https://stratechery.com/2017/disney-and-fox/

This is a remarkable look at how Disney could leverage 21st Century Fox to compete against Netflix in the years ahead. One of the most insightful articles with a clear line of how we could get to a future where Netflix and Disney are massive content aggregators.

The best sort of acquisitions, though, are best described by the famous Wayne Gretzky admonition, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been”; these are acquisitions that don’t necessarily make perfect sense in the present but place the acquirer in a far better position going forward: think Google and YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, or Disney’s own acquisition of Capital Cities (which included ESPN).

 

The problem now is obvious: Netflix wasn’t simply a customer for Disney’s content, the company was also a competitor for Disney’s far more important and lucrative customer — cable TV. And, over the next five years, as more and more cable TV customers either cut the cord or, more critically, never got cable in the first place, happy to let Netflix fulfill their TV needs, Disney was facing declines in a business it assumed would grow forever.

 

… differentiated content is Disney’s core competency, as demonstrated by its ability to extract profits from cable companies.

 

   Consider the comparison in terms of BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement): for distributors the alternative to not carrying ESPN was losing a huge number of customers who cared about seeing live sports; that’s not much of an alternative! Netflix, on the other hand, can — and is! — going straight to creators for content that viewers can watch instead of whatever Disney may choose to withhold if Netflix’s price is unsatisfactory.
Clearly it’s working: Netflix isn’t simply adding customers, it is raising prices at the same time, the surest sign of market power.
Therefore, the only way for Disney to avoid commoditization is to itself go vertical and connect directly with customers

Will it go through?

If one starts with a static view of the world as it is at the end of 2017, then there may be some minor antitrust concerns, but probably nothing that would stop the deal. Disney might have to divest a cable channel or two (the company’s power over distributors would be even stronger; basically the opposite of the some of the concerns that halted the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner), and potentially be limited in its ability to make operational decisions about Hulu (Disney would have a controlling stake after the merger; Comcast was similarly restricted after acquiring NBC Universal, but there the concern was more about Comcast’s conflict of interest with regards to its cable TV business competing with Hulu). The Hulu point is interesting in its own right: Disney could choose to focus its streaming efforts there instead of building its own service, but I suspect it would rather own it all.

That’s it for now. Keep reading. Keep connecting.

Netflix and Coinbase Engineering Cultures

I watched a few QCon videos on the InfoQ YouTube channel. The presentations are from conferences over the last year or so, but the videos were all uploaded within the last month.

A blueprint for organizational success- case study Netflix

I’m pretty sure this is a re-upload, but it caught my eye again. (Here’s another great session by Josh Evans Mastering Chaos – A Netflix Guide to Microservices) Josh Evans begins the talk with with focus on how the organizational structure at Netflix led to internal struggle and dictated the engineering process. Tribalism and the expression of Conway’s law meant the way Netflix shipped code mirrored the team hierarchy. It wasn’t until upper management got involved that the teams sorted out their differences and began to put the architecture before the org structure.

These quotes stood out to me:

Organizational Scalability: The ability for an organization to easily add people and domain responsibilities in response to increased work and complexity. The ease with which an organization or team can adapt to shifts in business strategy

For an organization to grow, the culture must be able to adapt to changes and fluctuations in daily tasks. Netflix grew from prioritizing DVD through the mail to online streaming, two starkly different business models. Looking back at the change, it is easy to place explainations on how things went, but what seemed to be constant is the engineering culture. As Evans mentions:

We have a culture of creativity and self discipline, freedom and responsibility.

Once defined, culture is not easily changed, but setting the right culture from the beginning is crucial to and validated by success.

If you get a chance, be sure to watch (or at least listen) to the video.

Crushing Tech Debt Through Automation at Coinbase

This session with Rob Witoff at Coinbase from March 6, 2017 details how the startup is growing its technology with the interest in cryptocurrencies. The nine month distance in timing gives more perspective in light of recent events. Things are constantly evolving with Bitcoin, but just look at the comments relevant to the week the video was published on November 30, 2017. While cryptocurrency is its own fascinating discussion, the engineering culture at Coinbase is of paramount importance to the company and worth investigating.

Engineering Velocity requires tools and guardrails to empower engineers to work without fear.

And what is the Coinbase engineering velocity? Devs deploy an average of 4 times per week and 16 times a month. This rate of code movement requires heavy investment in testing and tools to ensure changes are good. Not every deploy succeeds (by design) and each failure is an opportunity to improve the product. Bugs in successful deployments is an opportunity to improve the deployment pipeline, and catch similar errors in the future.

Coinbase avoids a culture of blame to ensure people have the freedom to learn and grow. The engineering systems support this ideal and allow the company to scale. People like to compare market caps of Bitcoin and publicly traded companies, and we’ll have to see if the culture at Coinbase allows it to scale similar to Netflix

Again, I won’t spoil it all, as it’s worth the watch.

Post note

The InfoQ youtube channel used to be NewCircle. NewCircle specialized in tech training videos, and InfoQ has a similar focus. I originally subscribed to the NewCircle channel, and when the channel switched over to InfoQ I was happily surprised by the new QCon session videos.

Two Weeks in Review – November 5, 2017

4:45 and its dark outside

Podcasts

The Finnish (UBI) Experiment – 99 Percent Invisible

The Psychology of Self-Righteousness – Jonathan Haidt – On Being
An interesting psychological take on political leanings

Readings

Bitcoin uses a lot of energy. Why not a solar powered rig?

The World’s Happiest Places – National Geographic

Tech

Xbox One X

iPhone X

A raspi cluster looks fun, and so does gaming on a plane.

And so many video games: BF1, Fortnite and TF2.

Food

Challah French toast

Donut or doughnut?

Two Weeks In Review – October 22, 2017

Deep work and lots of travel with many podcasts and a little reading the past two weeks.

Listen

Watch

Read

Rounding out the classic fiction review: It Can’t Happen Here

Week in Review – October 8, 2017

Readings

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Thich Nhat Hanh via Lion’s Roar

Teach tech with cartoons by Julia Evans

Why We Contradict Ourselves and Confound Each Other with Daniel Kahneman via On Being (listen)

On Overuse of Technology

Follow Cal Newport. He lead me to Jony Ive’s talk at the New Yorker Tech fest. Here’s the transcript

Jony Ive’s thoughts on Focus

I tend to be so completely preoccupied with what we’re working on at the moment. That tends to take the oxygen. Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse.

This isn’t a new phenomenon that we have to exercise a modicum of self-control to try and find the right balance. I do think sometimes, it’s just nice to have space. I think we fill space because we can and not because we should.

If I get to sit down for two hours with one of the world’s best silicon chip designers, I could not be happier. And what connects us is a curiosity, and also sort of sense of the authentic pursuit of excellence.

The art of focus is even if it is something you care passionately about, focus means ignoring it, putting it to the side. And often, it’s at real cost. And [Steve Jobs] was remarkable at that. And there have been a few occasions, a few periods where I felt have achieved that focus, and it’s a little eerie. You do have a sense — boundaries before impedance, before that seems insurmountable, seems trivial. And it takes so much effort and is exhausting to sustain, but all of the good things we’ve done have required that sort of focus.

If you’re going to do something new that means that the reason it has not been done before is that is there’s 55 reasons why it hasn’t been done before. And so you have to be so focused and so resolute, and in some ways almost blinkered, but you have to be so determined, but then you have to move between these two behaviors that are almost on the polar opposite.

I am confident that the mistakes weren’t born from laziness or some self-satisfied belief that it’s inevitable that they will be successful. I think we’re bunch of very anxious, worrying individuals who generally assume it’s not going to work unless we can prove otherwise.

Smartphone habits and addiction transforming into information dystopia

via The Guardian

This is classic Nir Eyal

One morning in April this year, designers, programmers and tech entrepreneurs from across the world gathered at a conference centre on the shore of the San Francisco Bay. They had each paid up to $1,700 to learn how to manipulate people into habitual use of their products, on a course curated by conference organizer Nir Eyal.

His book Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products is a recipe book to shows how to game human psychology to get people addicted to your product, or as he puts it:

“Just as we shouldn’t blame the baker for making such delicious treats, we can’t blame tech makers for making their products so good we want to use them,” he said. “Of course that’s what tech companies will do. And frankly: do we want it any other way?”

But there is a line between solving a problem through satisfying a need and engineering products for more usage. Read Don Normans’ The Design of Everyday Things instead.

And push notifications, turn them off:

Brichter says he is puzzled by the longevity of the feature. In an era of push notification technology, apps can automatically update content without being nudged by the user. “It could easily retire,” he says. Instead it appears to serve a psychological function: after all, slot machines would be far less addictive if gamblers didn’t get to pull the lever themselves. Brichter prefers another comparison: that it is like the redundant “close door” button in some elevators with automatically closing doors. “People just like to push it.”

Sometimes psychology can make boring situations a little more convenient, even elevator rush hours and grocery store queues.

On the Open Office

Open offices are overrated via Vox

The idea is worth executing well because it matters too much to stop trying to fix it. By that we mean the 40 hours a week, the 8700 hours, the nearly 10 full years of your life you spend inside the four walls of one room.

The Office Gets Remade Again via NY Times

Salesforce’s new skyscraper campus in San Francisco, for example, has areas on every floor for meditation, partly inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk.

Create things so others can create

Getting to the Future Faster from Exponent

The conversation starts with a discussion on long term thought development via writing on a blog instead of cementing a momentary mindset in a book. In a blog, the audience can learn and grow with the author, while the author can support writing with a subscription business model. They move into universal basic income, single person businesses with an audience of 100s and Etsy as a model for unlocking creative potential of people across the world. Also, Instagram and YouTube stars are entrepreneurial in a job that did not exist five to ten years ago. How can we build technology that enables more people to create?

Week in Review – October 1, 2017

Read

The Handmaid’s Tale (no, don’t just watch the show)

Write

Book or blog? Unfinished and developing thoughts fit best in a blog. Plus one can use WordPress and Stripe for subscriber payments.

https://stratechery.com/2017/books-and-blogs/

Because aggregators deal with digital goods, there is an abundance of supply; that means users reap value through discovery and curation, and most aggregators get started by delivering superior discovery.

Then, once an aggregator has gained some number of end users, suppliers will come onto the aggregator’s platform on the aggregator’s terms, effectively commoditizing and modularizing themselves. Those additional suppliers then make the aggregator more attractive to more users, which in turn draws more suppliers, in a virtuous cycle.

This means that for aggregators, customer acquisition costs decrease over time; marginal customers are attracted to the platform by virtue of the increasing number of suppliers. This further means that aggregators enjoy winner-take-all effects: since the value of an aggregator to end users is continually increasing it is exceedingly difficult for competitors to take away users or win new ones.

https://stratechery.com/2017/defining-aggregators/

Sleep

This article was popular this week: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why do we sleep less?

We electrified the night, and light is a profound degrader of our sleep.

There is the issue of work: not only the porous borders between when you start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead.

We have stigmatized sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honor.

You should sleep more

I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours: if there is one thing I tell people, it’s to go to bed and to wake up at the same time every day, no matter what.

Hey, you know who else says that? Ray Dalio. He says it helps keep an even keel.

Take away?

Need to wake up at 7. Go to sleep at 11 sharp. Recently, 11 PM turns to 11:45, so 7 AM becomes 7:30.

Speak

Here be Sermons from Melting Asphalt

Thoughts

Is a blog a sermon or a lecture? Does the faceless audience denote a congregation or group of individuals?

Suppose Feynman’s physics lectures were never recorded, and you were (somehow) the only person in attendance as he was delivering them. In other words, he’s lecturing to an audience of one. Well, you might feel sad for everyone else who’s missing out — but at least you’ll learn some things, and Feynman is probably happy to teach you. (It might even be a competitive advantage for you to learn directly from the master

How does aggregation theory apply to sermons?

Moral communities often benefit from upholding a so-called meta-norm: an injunction to punish anyone who doesn’t punish others for their transgressions. As you can imagine, this kind of recursive rule requires commensurately recursive knowledge in order to get off the ground.

Ride

Best Electric Bikes 2017
Copenhagen Wheel on The Verge
Rad Power Bikes

Week in Review – September 24, 2017

A lot of work this week, possibly fueled by too much caffeine (3 cups in 4 days is a lot for me). But I am practicing deep work techniques to avoid email, single task and stay in the flow.

How to answer questions in a helpful way

Jvns post from a couple days ago caught my attention. Just today I encountered both sides of how to answer questions in a helpful way.

How you phrase a question is important:

  • Rephrase a more specific question back at them (“Are you asking X?”)
  • Ask them for more specific information they didn’t provide (“are you using IPv6?”)
  • Ask what prompted their question. For example, sometimes people come into my team’s channel with questions about how our service discovery works. Usually this is because they’re trying to set up/reconfigure a service. In that case it’s helpful to ask “which service are you working with? Can I see the pull request you’re working on?”

When asking a question, you need to be cognizant that the other person may not know your level of understanding. Set the state by giving them some insight into your point of view. Maybe start with a drawing.. Visualizing the problem often makes it easier to communicate.

Figuring out what your question-asker knows already is important because they may be confused about fundamental concepts (“What’s Redux?”), or they may be an expert who’s getting at a subtle corner case. An answer building on concepts they don’t know is confusing, and an answer that recaps things they know is tedious.

Building on the idea of visualizing the problem, when talking about how you solve a problem, try to show what you did and explain your thought process

New person: “I’m seeing errors on the site, what’s happening?”
More Experienced Person: (2 minutes later) “oh that’s because there’s a database failover happening”
New person: how did you know that??!?!?
More Experienced Person: “Here’s what I did!”:
Often these errors are due to Service Y being down. I looked at $PLACE and it said Service Y was up. So that wasn’t it.
Then I looked at dashboard X, and this part of that dashboard showed there was a database failover happening.
Then I looked in the logs for the service and it showed errors connecting to the database, here’s what those errors look like.

High Frequency Trading

If this doesn’t seem like a company run by a Bond villain, I don’t know what does: Citadel

And Reading for the Emmys

The Handmaid’s Tale

Week in Review – September 10, 2017

Book, Articles, and Readings

Are Your Lights On? Thanks DHH

On Writing Well

Telling people what you are working on

To determine what is not a hotdog, use Keras 

It’s all a hack

The fall of Juicero and ICO Fever

If a Silicon Valley executive does something, it is “hacking.” Doing your laundry? That’s a life hack. Eating lunch? A biohack. Not eating lunch? Sure, yes, also a biohack.

Skepticism not cynicism

And Multicultural USA: The 200+ year experiment
Dan Rather on The Ezra Klein Show

Just focusing on being the best offensive lineman in the NFL I can be

John Urshel on Freakonomics

WordPress did this

The Internet Is the Uncanniest Valley. Don’t Get Trapped in It

LA Weekend Musings

I’m on the plane to LA. We are about to land. I read the September issue of Nat Geo on the flight, and I have a lot on my mind. The main article was about the brain and addiction. Technology creates new stimuli not before considered, and there is ongoing research into how the internet affects our brain. Plus there’s an article about how agriculture in the Netherlands yields more food per square mile than any other country.

I also listened to podcasts on the way to the airport. The Ezra Klein show with Dan Rather had a relaxed, calming pace (I didn’t realize Rather had an issue at CBS for bad sources). Then I started the 99PI podcast on algorithms. Not too far into yet, but kicking someone off a United flight was an unexpected example of algorithms in the real world. It makes me consider my status on airlines as an infrequent flyer. (The flight attendant just asked me to put my seat back up, but I never reclined. Ahem Ryan Holiday).

The article most on my mind is from Ezra Klein on the Google memo. What struck me as different about Klein’s perspective is how he critiques the lack of refinement and supporting arguments for the claims presented. It left me thinking a similar thought to Zinsser’s on Writing Well about editing. I could see Klein thinking about what he wrote while planning and reviewing his own writing. It’s a meta, writing about writing, that makes me think about how I can be more expressive as a writer.

I am thinking a lot about how people can clearly articulate their ideas, and tell stories about their experiences. John Urshel impressed me in his interview on Freakonomics. He told a compelling tale about his life as a full time PhD student and full time NFL lineman for the Ravens. The podcast focused on risk vs uncertainty, which was interesting in itself, but his background added intrigue.

Wrap up

More fun included Disneyland, two football games, burgers, fries, ice cream, hotdogs, chicken, enchiladas, and a brewery in a dentist office.

 

Random

This happens far too often