Sunday Snapshots (3rd May, 2020)
Sketches, Economy as evolution, AI x Table Tennis, Eric Schmidt's second act, Kevin Kelly's advice, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi
Greetings from Evanston!
It’s been a slow week for me. I’ve made a little progress on my upcoming book, went on a few walks, and mostly just did some reading. For my morning meditation, I’ve been doing small sketches of random photos. While no Picassos, drawing helps me meditate for longer than 5 minutes. I feel weird sharing such mundane details, but the mundane is what comprises so much of our lives that they must be cherished for their importance. Thanks for helping me share mine.
In this week’s issue of Snapshots, I want to talk about:
Revising the The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker
Taking a look at how AI is conquering the sport of Table Tennis
How Google’s Eric Schmidt is planning his second act
Kevin Kelly’s advice on his 68th birthday
The lessons to be learned from the best sushi chef in the world
Book of the week
Last week, I introduced The Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker. It’s a book on how the frameworks of traditional economics are anachronistic and we should move to the realm of complexity economics.
This week, I want to talk about the second half of the book where Eric takes the reader through the realms of evolution, search algorithms, and behavioral psychology. Here were my two main takeaways:
Evolution as a search algorithm: There are a large but finite number of configurations of living cells – think of how many different ways all the cells in your body could be rearranged. The number of viable configurations are low –think of how many different animals there are. The number of good configurations are even fewer – think of how rare it is to be a human being. Eric proses that we can think of evolution as a search algorithm that looks for good solutions across the space of possible configurations. Typically, this is where someone will bring up divine intervention or an all-knowing watchmaker. What Eric argues is that given the framework of a fitness function, this would be unnecessary. Combine an adaptive walk and some randomness – both in plentiful supply during the early stages of evolution – and you’ve got everything you need. It’s an impressive and tightly constructed argument.
Complexity economics: Eric’s ultimate argument that the economy should be treated as a complex adaptive system that plays by the rules of evolution is strong. It brings up important factors like path dependence, the emergence of business cycles, and many more. He talks about a move from Big Man economics where a few people would control how the world operates to a market economy, and then links the growth of important social technologies to this change. It’s an impressive feat of scholarship.
This is an important book with some very interesting cross-disciplinary work. Check it out if you’re interested in all things networks, simulations, and economics.
Long read of the week
Growing up, I was never a team sports person. Whether it was my lack of skills or a natural consequence of being an only child, I just never was that into soccer or basketball or any other team sport. I loved Tennis, Badminton, and Table Tennis. That last one is something I am still able to play reasonably frequently because of the comparative lack of infrastructure required.
So it’s not a surprise that this paper about AI conquering the sport caught my eye. The paper in focus is written by the Observatory on Society and Artificial Intelligence (OSAI) and explores how a combination of low-level trajectory tracking and an increasing the rate of data acquisition can dramatically improve scoring. It lays the groundwork for beating the best humans in the sport – a feat that AI has already achieved in Chess and Go.
The software works in two parts. First, an encoder takes in data and segments it into the necessary actors – ball, player 1, player 2, audience, the table, the floor, etc. Second, these are compiled to detect “events” like player 1 hitting the ball on the table to the side of player 2. This allows the software to keep score by keeping track of the interactions.
While we are still some time away from seeing the World AI Table Tennis championships, every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This is one of those steps.
Business move of the week
I’m fascinated by changing narratives. Think Bill Gates from anti-competitive CEO to save-the-world crusader. Or George W. Bush from warmonger to Ellen’s best friend.
Eric Schimdt might be the next story in re-making. Known for being one of the first “adults in the room” at Google, he led the company for more than a decade. And the platform he’s chosen to direct this next chapter of his life is one of the largest platforms of all time – the US military.
Specifically, Eric Schmidt wants to modernize the apparatus that has kept the modern world order together since WW2. It’s an important cause: you want the institutions responsible for keeping us safe to be on the cutting-edge against an increasingly hostile world with too much power in the hands of unpredictable actors. The authorities are fighting against the networks.
But first, we must ask some important questions. How does Eric’s relationship with Google (he still owns billions of dollars of stocks) impact his work? Is Google going to be prioritized when it comes to military contracts? If so, this is the biggest business move of the year – government contracts are some of the most steady, lucrative sources of revenue. How do we reconcile this Google’s sometimes complicit relationship with the Chinese government which is inevitably going to be under fire in the coming years?
So many questions, no clear answers.
My guess? This combination of a legacy play and an inability to retire of one of the best business minds of our generation. In some ways, that’s a dangerous combination. In others, there’s no better combination as he doesn’t have anything to prove.
If it sounds like I’m confused, you’re 100% correct. I can’t quite decide how to analyze this. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts – just reply to this email.
Random corner of the week
68 bits of unsolicited advice by Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly is one of the few people that calls his shots and has an almost perfect history of making them. For his 68th birthday, he shared some of his hard earned wisdom.
Here are a few that really caught my eye:
Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.
Treating a person to a meal never fails, and is so easy to do. It’s powerful with old friends and a great way to make new friends.
Rule of 3 in conversation. To get to the real reason, ask a person to go deeper than what they just said. Then again, and once more. The third time’s answer is close to the truth.
Before you are old, attend as many funerals as you can bear, and listen. Nobody talks about the departed’s achievements. The only thing people will remember is what kind of person you were while you were achieving.
Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.
Movie of the week
I re-watched a documentary that I have probably watched more than 20 times now – it is probably my favorite piece of film ever. This is Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It chronicles the life of Jiro Ono, the world’s best sushi chef. It’s also about the cast of characters around him, most importantly his son Yoshikazu. While the culture of deference in Japan wouldn’t allow for a Succession-styled coup, you do feel bad for Yoshikazu as he slaves away in the shadow of his legendary father.
But if you watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the thing that stands out the most is how much Jiro cares about continuous improvement and the elevation of his craft. And the bedrock of this continuous improvement is his emphasis on high standards. Meticulous head-scratching over the order of seating of the guests? Check. Observing how the guests’ mouths are shaped to make the perfect-sized sushi for them? Check. Massaging the octopus for 45 vs. 30 minutes so it tastes just a little bit less rubbery? Check. Apprentices having to perfect how to properly hand squeeze a hot towel before touching a fish? Check. Taking 10 years to optimize the order of the different sushis to create the best possible umami? Check. Jiro is his own harshest critic. There is always something to be improved upon.
I highly recommend you watch it. It’s streaming on Netflix.
Meal of the week
I’ve been a big fan of cooking fried rice this past week. It’s a simple 3 step process: sauté the vegetables with soy sauce, cook some brown rice, and break up an egg in the middle after mixing the vegetables and rice. Add sesame sauce to top it with a touch of extra flavor. Nothing fancy – but it’s easy, it takes less than 10 minutes, and you can typically cook for multiple meals. All qualities necessary for a good quarantine dish.
As a side note, two series of cooking videos I’ve really enjoyed during the quarantine are J. Kenji López-Alt’s cooking show and Gordon Ramsay’s Under 10 series. Kenji has unparalleled culinary and cultural knowledge which you can take in while he tells you a recipe in his lullaby-like voice. Gordon Ramsay is Gordon Ramsay and it’s endlessly hilarious to watch him interact with his daughters who give him a pretty tough time. Oh, how the tables turns!
That wraps up this week’s newsletter. If you want to discuss any of the ideas mentioned above or have any books/papers/links you think would be interesting to share on a future edition of Sunday Snapshots, please reach out to me by replying to this email or sending me a direct message on Twitter at @sidharthajha.
Until next Sunday,