Category Archives: Other

Wednesday Misc and Stuff

  1. In 1810, the use of nails in the US economy was 0.4 percent of nominal GDP. To put this share into perspective, in 2019 household purchases of personal computers and peripheral equipment amounted to roughly 0.3 percent of GDP and household purchases of air travel amounted to about 0.5 percent. That is, back in the 1700s and early 1800s, nails were about as important in the economy as computers or air travel purchased by consumers are today. [AEA]
  2. “It has become one of the main occupations of mankind just watching other people… Everybody has become porous. The light and the message goes right through us… When you are on the air and on the air we do not have a physical body. You are just an image on the air. When you don’t have a physical body you are a discarnate being. You have a very different relation to the world around you. And this I think has been of the big effects of the electric age. It has deprived people really of their private identity…. Everybody tends to merge their identity with other people at the speed of light. It’s called being mass man.” [Twitter video]
  3. Famous photos and the cameras they we shot on [Twitter thread]
  4. If an article has these two images, you have to read it! [Reuters’ Dark Arctic]
Svalbard’s SvalSat downloads time-sensitive data from most of the world’s commercial and scientific satellites.

The impact of bad geography

From “the race to be the gateway to Eastern and Central Africa.” Below is a wild example of how geography matters and affects surprising aspects of life. Landlocked countries import a lot more stuff so their inbound roads get noticeably distorted from all the weight.

Historical economic stunting means that landlocked countries typically import more than they export and ship small volumes (thereby missing out on economics of scale). The stark disparity in imports/exports is often visible in the form of disproportionate road damage from overweight trucks (or poor engineering) on inward-bound lanes (see image of the road near the Kenya/Uganda Malaba border post).

For more details on how to this might change:

Kenya and Tanzania are in a race to be the gateway to Eastern and Central Africa, an economic catchment area with a population of 200m and GDP of $250b (USA=$23t). The DRC current accounts for the largest share of transit cargo through Tanzania. Uganda accounts for the lion’s share of transit cargo through Kenya. However, the spirited competition between Kenya and Tanzania risks creating over-capacity in the short run (population growth will guarantee demand in the long run)

Tuesday Misc and Stuff

  1.  Tony Zhou on Tampopo in The Amateur and the Craftsperson. From Michael Chabon, “amateurs are people who combine obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in.”
  2. Tout-à-Coup Jazz was a musical group formed in Burkina Faso in the 1970s. In French, tout à coup is an adverb meaning “suddenly” or “out of the blue”. The band included Captain Thomas Sankara on guitar and his close friend, Captain Blaise Compaoré, on the microphone. In 1983, Compaoré led a military coup against Major Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo, placing his friend Sankara as President… On 15 October 1987, Sankara was killed in a military coup orchestrated by Blaise Compaoré, who succeeded him as President. Affected by Sankara’s death, [Fela Kuti] wrote “Underground System” as a musical tribute to the only African leader to embrace him and his music.

The only answer to a LLM is another LLM

From the @vebaccount‘s substack:

The thing is, [asking an LLM something] is just a radicalization of something that has been known about since the development of poetry as a method of language use. This is maybe a bit of an idiosyncratic view, but i’ve always understood the “point” of poetry to be in the demonstration that the image-arrangements or “argument” of the poem are already laying “in the language as such” in ways that are evidenced by their expressibility in rhyme and meter.

This is basically the old Emersonian point at the top of the page: a “poem” is when an argument is so much itself that it can simply appear, and take a metrical form as an indication of its always-already having been present in the language, but just not organized into a poem yet. What the poet does is notice the concatenation of the geometric “fact” of the poem’s possibility within a particular rhyme-and-meter space, and point that out. This is why I have always considered poetry to be a version of nonfiction: the poem is the words that are there where there is a pointer labeled “poem”.

That’s from A Short Note On Large Language Models. And:

What’s funny about this way of looking at it is that it correctly moves all anxieties about these models and their use into anxieties about the political construction of societies and the intentional construction of audiences. The answer isn’t really to restrict them per se, but to respond with a combination of Nelson Goodman-inflected Audience Development and Deweyan Democracy. But then, that’s my answer to every problem. I think it is good for political things to be openly political, and for the political uses of less-than-political things to be identified as such.

And:

“For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem, – a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.”- Emerson, “The Poet”

Sunday Misc and Stuff

  1. “the cornerstone of internet success is not intelligence or novelty or outrageousness or even speed, but regularity.” — Max Read on the WashPo Yglesias [Max Read Substack]
  2. Pettis on Poznar: “The key to global currency “domination” is not how excited the political elite say they are about having their currency dominate. It is how willing they are to allow clear and transparent foreign ownership of domestic assets and, even more importantly, how willing and able they are to give up control of their capital and trade accounts. Beijing has made it clear it wants none of those things, and while I think they are right to reject these, it also means that the RMB cannot really act as a major international currency.” [@michaelxpettis thread]. And Pettis on Fighting Global Protection: Why the Economist is Mistaken

Notes from Money, Real Quick

Money, Real Quick: Kenya’s Disruptive Mobile Money Innovation (Amazon)
Tonny K. Omwansa, Nicholas P. Sullivan

Chapter 2: The Human Network
“The cash merchant is the connection between the ethereal world of e-float and the real world of cash”
“The value they add is trust.”

What other business processes can be described as adding trust? Do uber for x businesses just “app-ify” that trust? Taxis? Hotels?

Maybe that is a way of thinking of what biz/management/technology does: Reduce transaction costs and increase speed, convenience, and safety. Take models that rely on stocks and shift them towards ones that rely on flows.

Won’t even pay a môrô

The following advertisement copy gave a non-native French speaker at my company some trouble when trying to translate the bolded word:

Actuellement si tu envoies jusqu’à 20.000F à quelqu’un, même môrô tu ne paies pas.

Moro is a nickname for the 5 CFA (“say-fa”) coin, the smallest value CFA coin. So the translation reads: “Now, if you send 20,000F to someone, you won’t pay even 5F.”

CFA (which stands for Communauté Financière Africaine (“African Financial Community”) is the currency of the West African Economic and Monetary Union. $1 USD is about 620 CFA so 5 CFA is about $0.008. So you won’t even pay a penny to send thirty bucks!

Moro or 5 CFA coin.

Here are some other nicknames I learned:

5F : Moro
25F: Gross
50F: Deux Gross
100F : Togo
500F: Gbesse
1000F: Crica or Bar
5000F: Gbon
10000F: Dieze
1000000F: Keuss or Baton

And some phrases:

“meme moro cassé, je n’ai pas” >>> “I don’t have even a broken coin of 5f”
“tu n’a pas des gbrin gbrin pour moi” >>> “do you have some coins”

Thoughts on thinking too much about where to live

Do I care about where I live? I certainly think about it and change it enough.

In the time since I signed my last lease in NYC, I ended up in a remote job. With my income no longer linked to my location, I have been thinking a lot about where I want to live. I swing back and forth between the the pros and cons of big cities (NYC, London, SF), medium cities (Austin, Chicago, Miami, and small cities (Bentonville, Lancaster, mountain towns). I have a certain about of heartburn about how beneficial it is to live in a big city versus a small or medium sized one. So when I see material on the future of work/mobility, I pay extra attention.

Tyler Cowen recently interviewed Marc Andreesson and this quote jumped out at me:

Take a step back on this. The office is an artifact of the technology of a time and place. I mentioned the Second Industrial Revolution. The office is a derivation of the factory. There was the factory and the idea of mass production, and then there was the idea of all the time-and-motion studies and all these guys who did that. And out of that, you go back, look at the history — you’ve got schools, you’ve got jails as you see them today, and then you’ve got offices. It’s this idea that you have to bring people together in this highly orchestrated, mechanistic, mass way.

Marc Andreesson

Cities have clear been successful at least in part because of the commercial and cultural benefits of clustering: agglomeration benefits, spontaneous interactions, scale. But maybe another way to think about the success of cities is simply as a management practice to scale up knowledge production. The city scales up the benefits of the office and the office is an effective mechanism for mass production of knowledge products. To-date, “office factories” have made the most sense to cluster in cities.

There is nothing good or bad about this but it might lower the future relative value of big cities compared to small/medium cities if part of their success is simply that they are an effective mechanism for mass production. Until a few years ago, big cities were the only way to produce a certain type of work. But now with new remote-work technology and norms, new types of knowledge factories might be possible. As Marc Andresson points out after the above quote, there is nothing necessary about offices and complex societies:

Empires — fun historical fact: The Roman Empire was not run out of offices. They ran the world, yet there was no office. There was no office building. The Roman aristocrats worked out of their homes, and then they went to the Senate, and then they went to their country house. There was no office building for administering the Roman Empire. I don’t know about the British Empire. I’m guessing they probably didn’t have a lot of offices. They maybe had a couple of offices in London, but they probably didn’t have a lot of offices either.

Marc Andreesson

So are big cities more a mere historical artifact and less a natural outcome of the best way to collectively create value together? Or is this all just me over reading an observation about offices?

There is also a difference between not needing to be in an office and not needing to be in a city. In 2008 Paul Graham observed that “great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.”

This phenomenon pre-dates the Industrial Revolution with Renaissance Florence as the classic example and shows that this is not merely an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. Cities give you the benefit of an environment that cares about what you care about which has social and cultural benefits in addition to commercial ones.

No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do. There’s an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Most people overvalue negative amounts of money: they’ll work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain one. Similarly, although there are plenty of people strong enough to resist doing something just because that’s what one is supposed to do where they happen to be, there are few strong enough to keep working on something no one around them cares about
You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have

Paul Graham

This is a striking observation but also a tough one since it sort of just pushes you down a level to now discern what you care about and what sort of ambitions you hold. And I think that is maybe at the root of the anxiety I have about figuring out if and where to move. I used to have fear, uncertainty, and doubt if I was doing the right sort of work. Now that I feel good about work, I am less distracted from thinking about my ambitions and values. Champagne problems for sure but important ones to explore, I think.

Good times to turn off your camera

I am enjoying Talent by Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross. The book is about identifying talent but it’s also a fun self-reflection exercise.

A section I particularly liked was “When We Avoid Face-to-Face Contact.” TC and DG point out that in many areas of life, we conduct eye-contactless communication to encourage people to open up and enhance information flow. Some examples are Catholic confessionals, laying on the couch therapy sessions, and walk-and-talk meetings.

The advantages of these “eye contact off” physical meetings can carry over to “camera off” virtual meetings. Here are two other scenarios when a camera-off call might be the right move.

1) Getting inside someone’s head

Some sorts of collaboration require maximum “communicative empathy.” Though the added information from the visual elements of video calls are useful (especially for interviews/talent evaluation), these elements can also distract. There are moments when we really need to focus solely on the substance of what someone is saying. In these situations, going camera-off can encourage you to shift from looking at a person to “looking with them.”

This brought to mind a point New Yorker profiler Larissa MacFarquhar made while discussing why she avoids describing what people look like in her profiles:

But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.

And what sometimes — though not always — I’m trying to do is give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be inside that person’s head. And the more that you describe the physical person, the physical circumstances of the person, anything that involves being outside the person, looking at them, the less you cultivate that sense of intimacy that comes from being inside their head and looking out through their eyes.

A camera-off call gets you inside a person’s head and for certain sorts of dense collaboration, this can be useful. But it is more of an open question for me if this is useful for talent evaluation.

Blind auditions. Blind resume reviews. The new wave of entry level job interviews for consulting and finance where students record answers on camera. These are all sort of camera-off evaluations (with noted pros and cons). Maybe a hybrid model is valuable where it is possible to collect both points of view.

2) Limited bandwidth

Another reason a camera-off call can be good is if you are talking to people in countries with limited bandwidth.

I have a remote job where many of my colleagues sit in West Africa (I’m in on the Eastern Seaboard). Back when I started it confused me that almost without exception my coworkers in West Africa take zoom calls camera-off and coworkers in Europe and North America take them camera-on. Camera-on felt so much more collaborative and helped build trust in a remote environment.

A few months into the job, a colleague who works in Dakar asked everyone to turn their cameras off during a call to minimize lag due to limited bandwidth. I realized that the norm of having your camera off was a practical consideration, not a social one. I had been decreasing the quality of many calls though my uniformed attempt to increase the quality.

I took this as a good reminder to always assume best intentions and never assume you have all the context!

[movie] After Yang

Kogonada’s After Yang

Amazon description: When a young girl’s beloved robot-companion suddenly becomes unresponsive, her father searches for a way to repair it. As he digs into the issue, however, he finds that his relationships with his wife and daughter are in need of repair as well.

Kogonada’s latest movie is After Yang. IMBD trivia points out that Kogonada found himself returning to a passage from Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” that has always stayed with him:

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everyday-ness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Colin Farrell's Sci-Fi Weepie 'After Yang's a Post-Human Heartbreaker -  Rolling Stone
Collin Farrell sunk everyday-ness of his own life or onto something?

I liked the movie because of its title sequence dance number (compare it to the below title sequence Kogonada said he was referencing) and Colin Farrell’s performance. But I loved it because it takes a device like sci-fi AI that on its own could be tired and uses it to call attention to the search.

The artificial intelligence theme of After Yang could distract. It could be boringly cliche. But Kogonada employs it to direct attention to quieter themes like belonging and purpose. Familiar but mysterious snapshots from the near-future world of the movie dislodged me just enough from my expectations about what an AI movie should do. It left me primed to engage with less visited terrain on grief and passion. I entered the movie ready for trippy sci-fi thought experiments. I left the movie thinking about life’s search.

This is best captured during a scene where Collin Farrell references another movie, All in This Tea.

*****

Collin Farrell’s character is a tea seller. In the movie the AI “technosapian” Yang asks why Farrell has “given his life to tea” which Farrell observes “sound pretty serious.”

Farrell goes on to explain how he has acquired a liking to tea but was initially drawn in by “the idea of tea.”

He talks about watching the documentary All In This Tea (which is weirdly hard to find online but you can rent on vimeo) about an American’s search for the best tea in China.

“I think it was his searching that compelled me… The pursuit of this elusive thing, this process that is connected to the soil, the plants, the weather, to a way of life.”

But he also “likes the taste.” Farrell goes on to do an all-time impersonation of an all-time Werner Herzog moment from the documentary.

In the scene, the American tea search says that there are no words to describe the tea he and Werner are tasting. Werner replies ***in Bavarian Werner Herzog voice***:

“Yes, but I imagine things like walking through a forest and there’s some leaves on the ground and it just had rained and the rain has stopped and it’s damp and you walk and that, somehow, that is all in this tea.”

After delivering the line, Farrell says how he loved that so much. I loved it so much too.

“Somehow that is all in this tea.”

*****

After the impersonation, Yang asks Farrell if he believes it: “That a cup of tea can contain a world. That you could taste a place, a time?”

Farrell replies that he is not sure if he can taste the forrest. I suspect most of us have at times felt some version of that.

And that’s what I think After Yang does so well. Kogonada’s “sleight of hand” does just enough to take the viewer out of the everyday-ness of their own life and point them onto… something.

*****

Is Werner’s description actually how tea tastes? Not superficially. But it certainly gestures towards some ecstatic truth. And that is cinema at its best. It does more than simply record motion through a camera. Though the manipulation of motion, it exposes new places and explores emotionally resonant truths.

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everyday-ness of his own life” and that is somehow all in After Yang.

(Check out this interview with Kogonada and this review of After Yangfrom Filmspotting for these points all made more thoughtfully. That interview also introduced me to After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda which I watched after listening and I think is one of the best movies I have ever seen.)

A Stretch Connection to The French Dispatch

In a scene towards the end of The French Dispatch, Jeffrey Wright’s Baldwin-esque character is talking to the chef played by Steve Park (underrated, imbd). Wright says he admires Park’s bravery for eating the poison mushrooms to save the day.

Wes Anderson's “The French Dispatch” and the Legacy of Afro-Asia

The chef replies he wasn’t brave. “I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody. I’m foreigner you know.” Wright replies that he too is a foreigner. This exchange follows:

Park: Seeking something missing. Missing something left behind.

Wright: Maybe with good luck, we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.

That’s the best part of the whole movie. And something about it rhymed with After Yang for me.

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everyday-ness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Bonus: Like Columbus but Different

Columbuswas Kogonada’s first movie. The 100 minute film about big questions in a small town hypnotized me when I watched it back in 2018.

The movie is set in a small town called Columbus in Indiana filled with eye catching modern buildings. The dazzling buildings contrast almost too well with the quiet tone of the movie. The characters search after life’s big questions under the presence of striking modern architecture. While watching the movie I assumed this was a fictional place created with CGI.

The Precocious Genius of “Columbus” | The New Yorker
Characters search after life’s big questions in the presence of striking modern architecture.

But after reading more about the movie and learned that Columbus, IN is a real place. It is 30 minutes south of Indianapolis and the headquarters of Cummins, a company that makes engines and does over $20B in annual sales (Twitter did $5B last year).

During the post-war period Cummins was run by J. Irwin Miller. Luckily for the residents of Columbus as well as a bunch of mid-century architects, Mr. Miller really liked a good looking building (and living in a good looking place that attracted top talent). He established a foundation that paid architects’ fees so Columbus ended up filled with buildings by the likes of like Eero Saarinen, Harry WeeseKevin Roche, and I.M. Pei.

Photo by exhibitcolumbus, caption reads: Today we thought of landscape architect Dan Kiley, who once wrote that the greatest contribution a designer could make was to ''link the human and the natural in such a way as to recall our fundamental place in the scheme of things.'' A nice reminder on Earth Day. 🍃🌿
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Images 📷 @hadleyfruits Miller House and Garden (1953) and North Christian Church (1954). Quote: nytimes.com/2004/02/25/us/dan-kiley-influential-landscape-architect-dies-at-91.html
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#exhibitcolumbus #earthday #columbusin #columbusindiana #dankiley #dankileylandscape #landscape #landscapearchitecture #millerhouse #millerhousemonday #millerhouseandgarden #northchristianchurch #eerosaarinen #modernarchitecture
Wikipedia says a resident said, “Some people have a tombstone at the head of their gravesite or at the foot of it. Mr. Miller had the whole town as a monument.”

I watched the movie a few weeks before moving from Chicago to Austin so I dropped in on the “Athens of the Prarie” during my drive to Texas. It lived up to its nickname. It is a cool model of commerce supporting art and vice versa. I’ve gone back once since and can’t wait to go back again.

*****

I still think about this movie years after seeing it. And obviously the setting of Columbus is memorable. But the architecture is not what left the lasting taste in my mouth.

Columbus performs a similar sleight of hand to the one in After Yang. A could-be distracting element (striking modern architecture/sci-fi AI) is used to pull the viewer out of the everyday-ness of their own life and become aware of the search.

For objectively quiet movies, Kogonada’s films really keep you on your toes.