Friday, June 14, 2019

Lessons in Counterintuition

1. A popular survey question purports to expose our innate irrationality. It goes like this: you can have 100,000 USD if your enemy or your ex-spouse gets 1 million USD. Apparently, most respondents declined the offer. 

But all one has to do is add more nuance to the scenario to get a different overall response, thereby exposing the original question as meaningless. Try this: you have non-dischargeable debt of 50,000 USD. You can have 55,000 USD if your enemy receives 550,000 USD. Answers to the second question will be more varied, indicating short-answer surveys don't offer enough nuance to justify their cost or relevance. 

When such deficient "research" is passed off as newsworthy, serious journalism has died in America, but I'm also worried about inattention to the sociology field. Medical advances, especially in neuroscience, are leading governments and academics to focus on psychology and pharmacology departments without the involvement of independent entities focusing capable of institutional knowledge. Absent relevant and reliable anecdotal evidence, scientific researchers may spend taxpayer and other funds chasing chimeras. 

2. Speaking of a failure to appreciate nuance, people are worried about AI's ability to increase unemployment. 
One person believes AI may wipe out 47% of existing jobs in America,
an astoundingly specific number.
Yet, the AI problem may be even bigger than unemployment if the world's technological AI race gives existing leaders--not necessarily in power by merit--the potential to cement their advantage over others, snuffing out change from local sources. 
Roberto Unger's Free Trade Reimagined (2007).
Imagine a robot that can scan all local residents for weapons as well as criminal records. No longer would a rural recruit dropped in a foreign land need be in a position to kill unarmed civilians. No longer would a wary security guard at a private establishment need assume every patron a potential threat. 

But let's fast-forward to the future. This same technology makes it easier to invade and occupy different lands if only to prevent another competitor from doing the same. Thus, while such technology would make the weak and unarmed safer in the short-term, the long-term picture is not clear. Nevertheless, if modern history is any indication, one can imagine this technology leading to more occupation, then removal of armed resistance to foreign culture, and finally the supplanting of local culture, beliefs, and methods. In one fell swoop, the same AI technology that protected the weak and unarmed has now extinguished the capacity for the same residents to achieve Roberto M. Unger's "diversity" component--leading to perpetual dependency on a foreign power. 
From Unger's Free Trade Reimagined (2007). 
Unger discusses diversity in ways unlike any other economist or political thinker. In order for workers not to be left out as innovation and creative destruction are financed by larger players, he argues it is imperative that 1) local entities are able to innovate in their own ways, unconstrained by centralized norms (another way of saying local culture ought to be supported through "collective experimentation" rather than subservience to centralized market forces); and 2) all entities are able to disregard prior norms if doing so would improve conditions for both capital and labor. 
From Roberto Unger's Free Trade Reimagined (2007)
Unger's "economic diversity" is the characteristic most under threat with advanced AI--despite not a single politician articulating this potential problem apart from anti-trust concerns. 

3. More lessons in counter-intuition: Country A has an 80% poverty rate. Country B has a 50% poverty rate and a democratic political system. Without knowing more, which country has the better chance of avoiding societal cohesion problems in the next 50 years? 

You'd think it would be the country with less poverty, but America in 2019 proves that when at least half of a country is able to structure the tax code, government funding, and housing inflation in ways that benefit existing interest groups, anyone outside those groups is left behind not just relatively but absolutely. (For the economics wonks: I use these two terms informally, but Unger uses David Ricardo's comparative advantage vs. Adam Smith's absolute advantage as an overall framework, at the same time casting doubt on Ricardo's ideas due to their limited scope, i.e., trade between just two countries using just two popular products.) 

Where economic theory typically fails is its inability to properly incorporate the social costs of underinvestment, meaning over time, absent some mechanism--such as widespread and cost-effective public transportation, genuinely merit-based and affordable colleges, etc.--segregation occurs, cementing physical and abstract (e.g., communication) gaps and reducing opportunities for reconciliation. Worse, as existing winners gain more affluence, they begin to see others outside their increasingly closed-loop system as morally deficient, eventually rejecting public institutions as the costs of reconciliation increase exponentially every year effective solutions are not implemented. (American acceptance of exorbitantly expensive private K-12 schooling is one example of such a breakdown--as if even one K-12 school not properly educating future voters in a democratic system providing equal votes to each citizen is acceptable.) As I've written before, "Generally, long-term costs of exclusion, even if unintentional, far exceed the costs of inclusion on the front end." 

In contrast, a country with an 80% poverty rate cannot easily segregate the country excessively or irreversibly. Any public works program must consider more rather than fewer residents by demographic default. Moreover, the cost of essential items such as housing cannot be inflated beyond a point of no return even with the assistance of the banking sector unless wages also rise among a greater percentage of the population. In short, it is better for individuals to be rich than to be poor, but not necessarily for countries. 

© Matthew Rafat

Bonus I: "Free trade will flourish when the rules of the world #trading system are designed to reconcile openness and diversity, not to suppress diversity in the name of openness." -- Roberto M. Unger 

Bonus II: "Humanity can become more unified only by seeking to develop in different directions... [so as] to establish a machine for the creation of collective difference [that supports] alternatives by making the world safer for them." -- Roberto M. Unger 

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Tesla's Annual Shareholder Meeting (2019)

I won't spend too much time on Tesla's 2019 annual shareholder meeting, because it was a well-oiled (pun intended) marketing job, and as a great writer once said, "All marketers are liars." 
Having attended Apple shareholder meetings when Steve Jobs was at the helm, I'm familiar with the cult of personality, which often arises when an individual, against all odds, goes his own way. Like Elon Musk against Big Oil--one of America's linchpins in its military-industrial complex--Jobs was alone in making iOS more of a closed-loop system than a less secure, open-ended, Android one. Unlike Jobs, however, Musk has no charisma (perhaps due to Asperger's) and does not seem to view the supply chain as vital to innovation. Ironically, according to Dan'l Lewin, CEO of the Computer History Museum--where the meeting was held--Jobs' "focus on supply chain and inventory and those things was phenomenal." Unfortunately, no one would say the same about Musk, a deficiency that will surely allow competitors to catch up

Musk's lack of organization--a common trait in highly-performing individuals without disciplined support teams--was such that he missed his own entrance at the meeting, forcing the emcee to walk through a door to get him. Musk's obvious idealism and intelligence have earned him the benefit of the doubt; indeed, it is because of Musk that traditional combustion engine companies have been forced to play catch-up, no longer able to argue EV consumer demand fails to justify major investment. And yet, despite all of Tesla's positive points, Musk's work in SpaceX and with satellites are the most innovative--so of course no one asked him how the 1967 Outer Space Treaty should be updated, or what obstacles private companies faced in space exploration when most satellites are still government-owned. (I didn't get a chance to ask a question because too many shareholders representing third parties (VC funds? Marketing firms?) decided to ask softball questions.) 

I'll summarize Musk's most interesting comments below: 

1. The Model 3 is the best-selling car by revenue, with second place belonging to the Toyota Camry. 10 years ago, no one would have believed it. [Note: I wasn't impressed. "Best-seller by revenue" is a made-up metric. It was originally designed to convince corporations to invest in lithium battery technology for cars, a much higher return on capital than just laptops.] 

2. The Model S will be able to go up to 370 miles on a full battery charge, while the Model X can achieve 325 miles. The sturdier-looking Model Y, scheduled for Fall 2020, can go 300 miles. [Note: research any other major car company's EV claims, and all of them claim similar mileage, indicating Tesla no longer enjoys a clear competitive advantage.] 

3. The most energy-efficient cars are all Teslas. [Again, the definition of the metric is key. How does one define "most energy-efficient"?] 

4. Operating costs of electric vehicles are much less than gas cars due to the ongoing maintenance required for a "regular engine" car. (e.g., no oil changes, fewer moving parts needing replacement, etc.)
5. On self-driving capable cars: Tesla has a goal of "one million robotaxis by 2020," but still needs regulatory approval. 

6. Tesla claims to have the world's largest battery factory and discussed opening new production facilities in Shanghai, China and Europe. [From 10K, pp. 4: "We have also pioneered advanced manufacturing techniques to manufacture large volumes of battery packs with high quality at low cost.] 

7. Tesla Energy, which makes products primarily for home/consumer use, is working on integrated, renewable energy ecosystems that last thirty years. 

8. On news reports of Tesla's safety record, Musk blamed a "crazy disinformation campaign," saying every year, about 200,000 gas fires are reported in combustion engine cars [but no one seems to focus on those instances]." 

9. Tesla has discovered "two critical selling points" in a consumer's decision to buy an EV: 1) charging stations within a reasonable distance of the consumer's home; and 2) the presence of charging stations on routes drivers want to take (so they're not accidentally stranded).
10. "When you buy a car, you're buying freedom," and any unexpected repairs interfere with more widespread acceptance of Teslas (and EVs). To that end, Tesla seeks to provide insurance directly to help achieve customer satisfaction, including a mobile repair service. (Bonus: from 10K, pp. 58, "Cost of services and other revenue increased $651.3 million, or 53%, in the year ended December 31, 2018 as compared to the year ended December 31, 2017. The increase was primarily due to the increase in the cost of our new service centers, additional service personnel in existing and new service centers.") Musk cited one instance where a repair was completed in less than one hour, later disclosing Tesla needed to complete a "small acquisition" but was "close" to selling insurance. 

11. In response to a complaint that production has been battery-constrained for some time, Musk said, "I'm sometimes [overly] optimistic. I wouldn't be doing this if I wasn't optimistic." 

12. SpaceX's satellite antenna won't be linked to Tesla's cars due to the large size of the receiver required but could be used generally for under-served and poorly served reception areas. 

One last point: Tesla continues to be a beneficiary of large tax credits, some of which don't expire until 2033(!). Check out these two pages from its 2018 annual report. 
Like Musk, I hope in time, all the car companies will "go electric," but I wonder if it's possible without government subsidies and pressure on local and state governments to continue to invest in public infrastructure. While Musk has prospered in California, the state government has failed to complete a high-speed rail project, leaving it behind Tokyo and other Asian cities. Low-cost insurance, if delivered effectively, will help reduce some of the burden on the poor and middle-class, but at the end of the day, if state governments are relegated to subsidizing the private sector for public needs, the future remains as it was before Tesla: uncertain, cloudy, and stratified. 

© Matthew Rafat (2019) 

Disclosure: as of the date of publication, I own one share of Tesla (TSLA) stock. 

Bonus: if you think Tesla Inc. has always been associated with Elon Musk, look up Martin Eberhard (who claims by 2020 or 2022, EVs will be cheaper than legacy vehicles) and Marc Tarpenning. Elon Musk receives credit for Tesla because his "passion" and marketing teams are able to raise money from venture capitalists more fluidly than the original founders. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

Book Review: Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project

Most people have never met anyone autistic. Their perception of autism is usually from Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man (1988), 
Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, or my favorite, Abed from the Community series. (South Korea's Marathon (2005) and Britain's A Brilliant Young Mind aka X + Y (2015) are also excellent, with the female lead in A Brilliant Young Mind perfectly written.) 
Given the popularity of some autistic characters, as well as greater interest into autism by neuroscientists, numerous fiction books now involve autistic protagonists. Sadly, all their authors have failed to present works both respectful and interesting, except two: Graeme Simsion and Helen Hoang

At first glance, techie-turned-author Graeme Simsion looks exactly like a stereotypical mad scientist. If a gargoyle could turn human, or if Moe Szyslak had a Ph.D. in data modeling and an ever-present smile, Graeme would be the result. 
Graeme knows autism well--he jokes his thirty years in information technology provided him ample research--and he's conformed his behavior to the autistic world, a welcome form of empathy. For example, many autistic people are paradoxes in that they adore unusual behavior (that increases efficiency) and despise rules, but once a logical rule is presented, they demand strict adherence. At 7:29pm, Graeme looked at his watch and did not stop looking at it until 7:30pm, when he promptly started. (Logical rules followed? Check.) Before his presentation, he disregarded the standard procedure of making people wait in line to get their books signed and went around the room, multiple pens available, to sign anyone's book upon request. (Noncomformist? Check.) 

Graeme and I discussed the book, which I had just finished, for a minute. I found the ending confusing, but he said the identity of the father "was meant to be clear." In retrospect, it probably should have been clear, but I was not prepared for deception from Don Tillman, the protagonist, which threw me off. (A recent Star Trek movie with Spock featured the same trick.) 

The Rosie Project is not an entirely original idea. Johannes Kepler, a gifted astronomer, approached finding a wife in almost exactly the same way, generating a mathematical answer to "The Marriage Problem." (His answer worked for him, surely creating bias.) Though most of us would sneer at Kepler's or Tillman's methods--Rosie, at one point, accuses Don of objectifying women--an approximate 50% divorce rate in most Western countries indicates the usual procedures aren't working well. 

My chief complaint about Graeme's book is although the first half is written like a novel, the second half panders excessively to Hollywood--even including the cliché of all clichés, a Disneyland trip. Nevertheless, I was sufficiently amused in the first half to keep reading, and the book is good. Not great, but few of us can claim to have written great books. Indeed, Graeme admitted he wrote the book as a screenplay and is hoping for a movie. His first two books are bestsellers, and "studios use [bestselling] books for adaptations because sales are established," so there's a better-than-average chance you'll see him on a red carpet someday. 

To explain some of Don's nontraditional behavior, especially in the second half of the book, Graeme delivered a profound observation: 

In romantic comedies and in real life, people do crazy things when they're in love, and the only unrealistic part is the "happily ever after." 

Other Graeme Simsion highlights: 

1. Autism is "not a disability, it's a difference." 

2. When you get to the end of the book, what do you think about Don? The "comedy doesn't detract from Don's good character," so we're not laughing at him. 

3. There's a "difference between empathy and not reading [social] signals." 

4. On the writing process: I won't stop until I've done 1,000 words, which I review first thing in the morning. (Sometimes it takes longer to write the 1,000 words, so I don't know what time I will finish.) I repeat the process for 90 days, after which I have the first draft of a book/screenplay. Then, I ask friends "to mark any passages they'd be tempted to skip," which I consider for deletion. 

5. After publication, I consider "what worked, what didn't work, and what to do differently next time." 

All in all, it's hard not to wish Graeme well. He has the advantage of being Australian, which makes his behavior easier for foreigners to handle--they can't tell if he's a bit off or just acting like an Aussie. Me, I can see his behavior is deliberately tailored to make autistic people or Aspies more comfortable, and it's nice to know at least one person gets it, even if everyone else doesn't. 

Bonus, on the dangers of generalizing: "If you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person." 

Bonus II: Rosie was not written with Rosie McGowan in mind. In the original draft, Rosie was "Klara," a Hungarian physicist. 

Bonus III: if you like Simsion's character, you may also like the nonfiction book Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's (2008) by John Elder Robison. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Facebook Shareholder Meeting (2019): Begging for Regulation

Facebook held its annual meeting today in trendy Menlo Park-based Hotel Nia. 
Hotel Nia is behind the angry emoji balloon
Shareholders were treated to Clover yoghurt, pastries (mostly croissants), tea, coffee, and a granola mix.
Zuckerberg entered with the board of directors, smiling. An employee introduced the shareholder proposals and their advocates. After one advocate spoke about a shooting at her religious institution, which she believes was fueled by Facebook's failure to adequately police "hate speech," the emcee immediately acknowledged the horrific event and "evil" acts of extremism. He vowed Facebook would not allow people to attack others based on religious, ethnic, racial, or other legally-protected classes
No photos allowed.
I don't know exactly how this photo was taken.
Zuckerberg's speech was the highlight. He said 2019 was a busier year than usual, with the company (unwantedly) being at the center of social issues. Though he didn't mention that Facebook removed 2.2 billion (fake) accounts this year, the company's worldwide reach is still potent: 2.7 billion people use Facebook once a month, and over 1 billion people use it daily. 

Zuckerberg said the company was focusing on four areas: 

1. Progress on social issues. (e.g., content and safety, election interference, privacy controls, data portability)

2. Qualitative new experiences. (e.g., new platforms, new ways of communicating) 

3. Serving small businesses around the world. (90 million small businesses worldwide now use Facebook's marketing tools for free.) 

If Facebook deserves kudos in any area, it's this one. I've seen numerous small businesses, especially restaurants and cafes, advertising to English-speaking tourists with both the Twitter and Facebook logos, no small feat given the translation and mapping issues inherent in international advertising. 

4. Be more transparent. (Give people a voice but keep people safe.) 

Executive bonuses will be tied to performance in the above four areas, but it's common for compensation committees everywhere to create key performance indicators (KPIs). 

Zuckerberg's most poignant comment related to the current state of social media

If the rules for the internet were getting re-written from scratch today, I don’t think that most people would want private companies to be making so many decisions by themselves about what constitutes acceptable speech.

Following this welcome admission, Zuckerberg practically begged governments worldwide to create regulatory frameworks, later mentioning he'd discussed these issues in Paris with France's Emmanuel Macron. 

Moving forward, Facebook's vision is to build a privacy-focused social platform over the next five to ten years, adding the digital equivalent of a "living room." Whereas Facebook and Instagram have been akin to a "town square" (at one point Zuckerberg misspoke, using "Times Square," an interesting slip given the massive advertising in that particular NYC area), the goal is to provide users with a more private setting should they want one. 

While earnest, Zuckerberg has not proposed a dramatic change. Years ago, users could create private groups within Facebook and restrict posts based on self-made filters, but it was time-consuming and non-intuitive. Furthermore, creating a separate, more private space with "different controls" within Facebook and Instagram seems contrary to Facebook's stated aim of gathering all posted data to assist it in selling ads and exposure. Even so, Zuckerberg consistently promoted the creation of "private platforms as developed and rich as public ones today," giving users the "ability to interact with people privately." 

Interestingly, in a speech transmitted from Russia into Canada today, Edward Snowden had this to say: "Everyone thinks Facebook is spying on them... they're absolutely right, but so is Amazon [and everyone else online]. But now we are aware of the problem." 

Snowden didn't stop there: "Facebook is in flagrant violation of [the EU's privacy law of] GDPR, [they] haven't made their site compliant because they know they [their lawyers] can drag it out for 10 years, after which the laws will have changed." 

The Q&A session was limited, and Facebook cut off about six people who wanted to speak. Troublingly, the rules only allowed each shareholder one minute to ask one question, far below the usual two to three minutes given to shareholders, as well as a more liberal stance on follow-up questions. 

Sheryl Sandberg, one of the most insipid executives in American history, commenced her usual strategy of avoiding questions and giving as bland or broad a response as possible. In response to one shareholder, she said, we "don't allow hate in any form," not bothering to address how Facebook would avoid being arbitrary or overbroad in the application of such a general policy. 

In contrast, Zuckerberg was measured and nuanced, openly asking, "What is the right framework..." "that will enable us to solve this issue?" He seemed to answer his own question when he mentioned an independent tribunal that would issue binding decisions (without appeal), taking the matter out of Facebook's purview. 

A shareholder asked about voice-based applications, prompting Zuckerberg to say voice will be more important over the years, but he had "nothing specific today" [to showcase].  
I pointed out that Facebook's Board of Directors had no one with experience in journalism, ethics, or books--all dying fields, in no small part because of Facebook. 

Out of the seven directors not named Sandberg or Zuckerberg, three (Marc Andreessen, Kenneth Chenault, and Peggy Alford) had finance or VC backgrounds, while the others worked in philanthropy (Susan Desmond-Hellmann), surveillance (Peter Thiel, Palantir), and politics (Jeffrey Zients). I said it wasn't Zuckerberg's fault that Facebook--despite its funding by In-Q-Tel to advance facial recognition technology--had reduced privacy. Issues had begun with the Church Committee investigations in the 1970s, but it was indeed his fault that Facebook had destroyed journalismand I asked what he planned on doing about it. After a second, Zuckerberg threw up his hands, a signal for Sandberg to get involved, and she delivered an asinine answer about the "internet" making journalism's business model more difficult. (Sandberg might want to talk to Marc Andreessen, who nurtured internet consumer use, about journalism from 1995-2010, when the internet brought readers new websites like Salon.com.) 
I had slipped in a question about spinning off WhatsApp into a separate, independent company, and Sandberg brushed off this question, too, referring me to Facebook's previous statements on the matter.

Overall, it was an interesting shareholder meeting, though too short, and not as nuanced as it should have been. Given its selection of directors, it seems likely Facebook will be moving aggressively into digital payments and financial platforms, leaving ethics and journalism behind. If I'm right, expect more of the same in 2020 as in 2016. In the meantime, I'll be over on Twitter, where CEO Jack Dorsey has more effectively upheld user privacy while railing against government surveillance. 
Disclosures: I own an insignificant number of Twitter (TWTR) and Facebook (FB) shares. Nothing herein constitutes investment advice. As of the date of publication (May 30, 2019), I was not paid for this post by anyone, nor did I receive or anticipate receiving advertising dollars for it. 

© Matthew Rafat 

Bonus, from New York Times' 2018 annual report, pp. 26. 

Current Mood

M&M's, owned by a private American company, were invented in 1941. To date, they are one of the most successful examples of creative marketing. While Las Vegas is known for gambling, buffets, and the mob, I always thought its M&M's World store was a must-see. Meanwhile, the London store is set up to mimic famous scenes from British icons, including James Bond and the Beatles.
Beatlemania or M&Mmania?

Friday, May 17, 2019

Pico Iyer in Menlo Park, CA

Oxford-born travel writer and Kyoto then Nara, Japan transplant Pico Iyer was at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, California tonight. 
Two quotes stood out: 1) There are "72 seasons in Japan and religion in Japan is the seasons, a religion without dogma." 2) "California is about possibility, Japan is about reality."

Iyer lit up when discussing his wife, clearly still in love after decades together. (In the book, he describes her voice as "made for singing" on the very first page.) Why did he settle down after so many years single? A seminal moment occurred when Hiroko explained he's impossible, so she just had to adapt to him. This non-Western philosophy of dating--accepting a person "as is" instead of forcing change--softened Iyer, causing him to adapt to his wife in turn. Out of this dance of reciprocity, and despite his limited Japanese and her average English, came relationship success, travels together, and a daughter. (I'm reminded of Pablo Neruda's lines in Love Sonnet 17: "I love you as one loves certain obscure things, secretly, between the shadow and the soul... I love you directly without problems or pride.")

Interestingly, before discussing his relationship with Hiroko, Iyer discussed playing ping pong at a community center, where everyone tries as hard as possible--but not to win. The idea is to challenge each other and oneself, to adapt to each other's styles, and to be joyful. It's difficult not to draw parallels between Iyer's description of dating and a ping pong match between two equals, playing as hard as they can, never wanting the game to end. If you are a fan of travel and/or Japan, you may enjoy one of Pico Iyer's books. I just bought The Lady and the Monk (1991) and hope to read it before his latest work. 

Bonus I: many people outside of Japan are confused by the country. Japan is difficult to understand because outside perspectives differ based on whether one is discussing corporate Japan--an unforgiving, monolithic entity--or familial Japan--its patient, considerate side. 

Familial Japan is like this quote from Yoshimoto Mahoko (aka Banana Yoshimoto): "Quality is always more important than quantity. This is true for everything. Even if you write only one line in your life, if it stays in someone’s mind forever, it is satisfactory."

Corporate Japan is the drunk group of men at the local bar, unnecessarily loud, unjustifiably loud, and opposed to change.

Bonus II: an interview with Pico Iyer is HERE, but no transcript posted. 

Monday, May 13, 2019

X-Men Day

Growing up, X-Men, Batman, and the Amazing Spiderman were my favorite comic book series. Today, X-Men is my clear favorite, and I have yet to read all of the new Jean Grey novels by Dennis Hopeless


From 1988