Monthly Links, January 2024
Res Extensa #54 :: Incremental progress, Hotelling's Law, Sinofsky on CES, ChatGPT for writing
This approach, of incremental humanism, is also a necessary part of the ideals of progress. Imagining a better future and incrementally improving towards this, even in an undirected manner, is the way of managing the veil of progress. As Rabbi Tarfon noted in the Talmud, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” We are part of a long chain of improvements, all part of a tech tree that we can’t see and which involves a balance of innovation and maintenance (for we must preserve what we already have if we hope to be able to build on what has come before us). Revolution is the quick bandage that sounds appealing, but don’t be led to think it will necessarily result in enduring change. Big ideas can be seductive, but incremental change is the only way to live under uncertainty.
"Incremental humanism" is fantastic. Progress happens incrementally, sometimes so incrementally that we have a hard time identifying where big inflection points happen. Because most of the time we advance without the contribution of massive phase-change discovery! It's nearly all muddling through. I love this quote he includes from’s book A Thousand Small Sanities:
“Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities.”
I studied "store siting" problems in business geography classes: how to geospatially determine the optimal store locations for retail, gyms, etc. It's an interesting challenge to incorporate enough dimensions of data to make predictions — demographics, spending data, drive time/walk time computations, routing. Even after formally studying it I never knew the broader terminology of Hotelling's Law. Nice explainer piece from:
Hotelling's simplified model describes an iron law: under the right set of assumptions, sellers end up homogenizing their products, and niche interests end up under-served. In the real world, there are countervailing forces, and in practice the dimensions on which companies compete are messy enough that "adjacent" doesn't really work. But Hotelling's Law also illustrates why there's relentless pressure for homogeneity: if some people like product A and some people prefer product B, something halfway between the two will capture part of that audience. And the producer of A or B is probably in a better position to make this new compromise product C.
No one can uncover the rich detail of seemingly mundane subjects like. When he's asked a question, he's completely okay with going incredibly deep and following every thread to the connecting ideas, systems, and effects. In this interview with , they dive into the reasoning on signing credit cards, Coase's theorem, debt collection as a business, why bank parking lots are empty, and more.
I look forward to’s annual CES reports every year. It's the next best thing to getting to see it in person, and he does a phenomenal job of distilling the incomprehensibly-large show into a readout that gives you a sense where the industry is. From this year, I liked his point against those that say the innovation market is "boring" or that there's "nothing groundbreaking":
The “stuff” that is CES are all the products and technologies that influence everything that gets built. Stuff that looks silly today might very well vanish, but even if it does it will influence the stuff that shows up and transforms the world. There was an incredible timeline of CES on the wall from LVCC to the Westgate hotel illustrating “stuff” from every year of CES (it was too difficult to photograph). Likewise, the IEEE (yes that one) had an exhibit of long but forgotten gadgets from decades past, even voting on which one should be erased from our memories. In reality as silly as some of these look today, such as the laser disc player or cable TV tuners, each were just part of “gadgets and stuff” that came in past years. If you ever want to wind me up, then say there was nothing transformative at CES.
CES's collection of experimental and (after hindsight) silly failed product ideas showcase how technology innovation works: thousands of companies out there trying new things, sampling the waters in the market, failing, trying again. It's the backstory of all interesting innovations ever.
“Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky
I think this observation is brilliant. It reminds me of the clarity of the Peter Principle, which says that a person in an organization will be promoted to the level of their incompetence. At which point their past achievements will prevent them from being fired, but their incompetence at this new level will prevent them from being promoted again, so they stagnate in their incompetence.
The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem.
This is a rampant positive feedback loop within institutions. Without explicit limiting agents created at initiation (think federalism and the balance of power between our 3 branches of government), all institutions become self-perpetuating, and putting up enough resistance to counteract them after they have inertia becomes a collective action problem. When a new institution spawns, does its charter need to have pre-programmed failsafe? A "best by" date that predefines its success criteria?
This video gives the best example I've seen of how to use ChatGPT for exploration. I've never thought about the idea of prompting ChatGPT to interview you. Amazing results.
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