Links on the Margins — August 27th
GPT-3, The California Apocalypse, Better Calendars, and TikTok
Hi folks, Can here.
I know we collectively keep saying this, but seriously, what a week! And it’s still going! It has been truly relentless here in the Bay Area, and it’s definitely taken a toll on me. Is anything ever going to get better, or should we just get used to living in hell? I kid, but only a little. I feel grateful and lucky to be up and healthy, but the entire country seems like it’s teetering on the edge of something.
This week we have an assortment of reads for you. There are GPT-3 things, iPod things, and of course fire things. But also, on the lighter side, you can read about new media heroes, calendars, and also financial covenants!
Singular: Possible Futures of the Singularity in Conversation with GPT-3
Are you even a technologist these days if you don’t use GPT-3 for something? Is having access to it a flex? I don’t know. But, James Yu has one of the most fascinating demos I’ve seen with it so far — he not only uses it to generate passages in his stories, but he also chats with it (what is the correct pronoun for an AI that’s practically trained on all of the world’s written content?) about the passages it has written. James has been a long time reader of Margins, and I’ve always enjoyed his fiction too. You should give Singular a look, and then hop over to see more of his work.
My AI Timelines Have Sped Up
OK, let’s talk a bit more on AI. This is an interesting read from Alex Irpan, a software engineer on Google’s Brain (lol, what?) team. He gives a good, slightly technical but definitely approachable overview of the main techniques used in machine learning that give rise to tools like the aforementioned GPT-3. We are approaching a point where unsupervised learning, where machines learn without much help, might yield good enough results and that is something to be both scared and excited.
Enter unsupervised learning. These methods are getting better, and what “label” means is shifting towards something easier to obtain. GPT-3 is trained on a bunch of web crawling data, and although some input processing was required, it didn’t need a human to verify every sentence of text before it went into model training. At sufficient scale, it’s looking like it’s okay for your labels to be noisy and your data to be messy.
Amid Wildfires, an Apocalyptic August in California
Anna Wiener, The New Yorker
Living in California, and especially in the Bay Area has been a relentless, sustained attack on our respiratory systems. First we had to Stay Home (TM), because the virus was spreading. And then, stay outdoors, because, again, the virus was spreading but apparently better indoors than outdoors. But now, we have the fires and we have to stay in again. Anna Wiener, in her dreamy prose as usual, captures the mood of living in San Francisco right now but also ties it back to what it means to be witnessing the struggles of a country that had it priorities messed up for decades and now watching it all fall apart.
It’s hard not to see all this in terms of a cascading series of national failures: the chaotic, politicized, fabulistic response to the virus; the political influence of oil and gas conglomerates; the fecklessness of private utility companies; cruel immigration policies and weakened labor protections; environmental rollbacks; a weakened social safety net. Some failures, like global warming, are bigger than any one country’s, although the United States has failed here, too. According to meteorologists, last week’s dry lightning was connected to the heat wave, which was generated by winds from Tropical Storm Fausto. Colorado is also experiencing a spate of wildfires, one of which is the second-largest in its history. These are the conditions for secondary environmental and public-health crises. Smoke from the fires in California and Colorado is uncoiling across the country. Plumes have already drifted as far as Kansas.
the arc of the covenant
Off the Run, Mary Childs
OK, look, I love reading smart people explain complicated things in…let’s say casual language. It’s a tone I try to hit, but can rarely do so. Mary Childs hits it right out of the park. Filing this one under newsletter goals.
lol ok I get that Brigade is doing an argument here, but I … is it more believable that Citi randomly had a fit of pity? like “ohhh poor hedge funds :( maybe they are right about that default, that was so mean of us/Revlon, let’s go ahead and, unprompted, make it right” ? That would be an exciting development in capital markets, but … I’m not convinced.
The Case of the Top Secret iPod
David Shayer, The Tidbits
One of the joys of working at a big enough firm is being called in every once in a while for projects that are very cool, but must be kept under the wraps. I am not even kidding, it’s just cool. You can sort of imagine from the first paragraph where this is going to go, but I couldn’t help smile through this entire thing. It’s definitely quite a technical read, so skim over to the end for the good stuff.
It was a gray day in late 2005. I was sitting at my desk, writing code for the next year’s iPod. Without knocking, the director of iPod Software—my boss’s boss—abruptly entered and closed the door behind him. He cut to the chase. “I have a special assignment for you. Your boss doesn’t know about it. You’ll help two engineers from the US Department of Energy build a special iPod. Report only to me.”
Everybody hates digital calendars, so everybody’s trying to build a better one
David Pierce, Protocol
Having to manage relationships with a number of clients involves a lot of calendar management. When Calendly came on the scene (a tool I imagine a lot of Margins readers have had some exposure to) it felt like a bit of a revelation. The more people are working remotely, the more we need good calendar tools. I loved this Protocol piece that apparently started with:
Tools like Calendly exist entirely to make scheduling easier, turning a long chain of emails into a simple point-and-click exercise. These apps test certain unwritten rules about calendars, though. How many people should be allowed to put time on your calendar? And is it rude to send someone your Calendly link, as if to say, "Look how few slots I have open, good luck fitting into my enormously important life?" (Some say yes, but the growth of Calendly and others says otherwise.)
New media platforms are enabling a new creator type: Digitally Native Vertical Creators
Eric Feng, Media by Medium
As someone who writes a Substack newsletter and runs a consulting business advising people on content products and monetization, I’m certainly paying close attention to this whole passion economy/follow-your-dreams-and-go-indie movement. This Eric Feng post laid out this strategy in a really creative way (more so for people who follow the DTC /retail worlds closely and know the famous Andy Dunn term):
“Returning back to the media industry, the exact same phenomenon is happening here. A new class of content creators has emerged that is writing, recording, filming, and producing incredibly unique and compelling media and then connecting directly to audiences to showcase and sell their creative products. I call them Digitally Native Vertical Creators or DNVCs. And just like their retail DNVB counterparts, DNVCs are also building off a new wave of technology platforms that have democratized access to capabilities across the entire media product lifecycle for this new breed of content creators.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Stoked Washington’s Fears About TikTok
Georgia Wells, Jeff Horwitz, and Aruna Viswanatha, The Wall Street Journal
The big FB news story from the WSJ this week that revealed Zuck had planted the seed of “TikTok = evil” last Fall is not surprising to me at all (but I’m still glad is now somewhat in the public record). I had previously written how, for all the talk about AI in content moderation, the way Facebook approaches content is as human as can be. Except, rather than driven by some editorial sensibility, it’s driven by business strategy.
At this point, how do those who still argue Facebook is simply a platform that should not be the arbiter of the truth reconcile the revealed decision after decision of the company making very editorial decisions when it benefits them? I’m not being facetious here - please reply as I’m genuinely curious about what our Margins’ readers would think?
“This Plane Is Not Going to Land in Cairo”: Saudi Prince Sultan Boarded a Flight in Paris. Then, He Disappeared
Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, Vanity Fair
I read this Vanity Fair article in Instapaper, so it was text only. As I was reading about a Saudi prince who living the life of a “libertine”, one detail jumped out at me: he weighed nearly 400 pounds. I forced myself to wait to do a google image search until I had finished the longish piece.
With armed guards, six full-time nurses and a doctor, rotating “girlfriends” hired from a Swiss modeling agency, and an international assortment of hangers-on, Sultan spent millions of dollars a month. From Oslo to Berlin, Geneva, and Paris, the modern-day luxury caravan ate only the finest food and drank only the best wine. After a few days or weeks in a city, Sultan would order butlers to pack his bags and call the Saudi embassy for an escort to the airport. They’d hop on a rented plane and set out for the next city”
If Facebook is going to proactively arbitrate truth, who should be in charge of determining what is "truth"? The reason Zuck keeps punting on this no matter what he determines to be "truth", either Republicans or Democrats will criticize him for it and push for regulatory action. Zuck's inaction is him doing his best to avoid regulatory action.
Sure, their algorithms will indirectly shape how we view reality but for the most part, Facebook's internal teams are focused on measurements like engagement, not truth. The News Feed almost definitely had an impact on the 2016 election but that was hardly what Chamath's growth team had in mind when they were laying down the foundations for it.
The only way that Zuck would feel comfortable having an honest conversation about truth is if the politicians lay down their regulatory rifles. And we all know that isn't going to happen.