Weekend Briefing No. 337

Welcome to the weekend.

Last week, my inbox was on fire! It seems the lead story struck a chord. It was an open letter by academics and writers asserting that the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. I loved all the feedback. And I was receiving criticism from the left and the right. (In my book, that means I’m doing something right.) Many people sent me an article rebutting the open letter in Harpers, which is the first story in the briefing below.

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Prime Numbers

2.1 B—Elon Musk unlocked a $2.1 billion award as Tesla hit a key milestone this week. 

23—An ATM manufacturer is warning banks about a hardware hack that can lead to “jackpotting,” an incredibly descriptive term of the coolest thing an ATM could ever possibly do. Thieves can connect a black box device to an ATM and issue commands that would result in the dispensing of 40 bills in just 23 seconds.

12.4—Nearly 12.4 percent of decision-makers at U.S. venture capital firms are women, up from 9.65 percent in a similar study conducted in February 2019. Prior marks were 8.93 percent (2018), 7 percent (2017) and 5.7 percent (2016).

Justice & Open Debate

The signatories of the Harper’s Magazine letter—many of them white, wealthy and endowed with massive platforms—argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country. But they miss the point: the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia and publishing. The Harper’s Magazine’s letter cites six nonspecific examples to justify their argument. It’s possible to guess what incidents the signatories might be referring to, and it’s likely that if they listed specific examples, most wouldn’t hold water. But the instances they reference are not part of a new trend at all, as they explain. My (Kyle) thoughts on both pieces are as follows: They are talking past each other, not to each other. The first letter is saying: free speech is good, and we must be aware of the power of cancel culture to censure open debate. The second letter is saying there are not enough diverse voices on powerful platforms. Yes and yes, I agree with both. Neither of these points is mutually exclusive, or really even in conflict with the other. However, I have a strong aversion to ad hominem attacks. The second letter’s opening paragraphs were basically this: You are rich, white, powerful and anti-union. The fact that the authors of the second letter lead with an ad hominem attack as a strategy for persuasion, rather than addressing and debating the premise of the Harper Magazine’s letter, makes it less persuasive to me. Ironically, this approach is kind of proving the point of the letter. The medium is the message. Then again, I may be wrong. That’s also a possibility. (I’m sure this will stir up some debate, join our last Bourbon & Briefing today if you want to discuss.) The Objective (13 minutes)

Testing, Testing

We need, above all, an effective national testing strategy—something the nation sorely lacks today. Millions who want and need testing can’t get access quickly. Overburdened clinical labs take days to return results that are accurate but too late to support informed decision-making and effective contact tracing. Businesses and schools that are trying to reopen, as well as many communities that are hard-hit, are trying to use screening tests—but have little practical guidance for who, how and when to test. The cost of tests and concerns about the reliability of many tests adds to the failures of current testing approaches to achieve containment of the virus. An effective testing strategy will require the country to ramp up to where it can administer at least 5 million diagnostic tests and 25 million screening tests a week within three months, with the acknowledgment that we will still need more than that. This must be combined with rigorous and extensive contact tracing and supported isolation. Getting to the goal of at least 30 million weekly tests, with the majority of those being screening tests, is the only way to beat back COVID-19. If professional baseball and basketball players can get routine tests, so should our teachers, students, essential workers, nurses and bus drivers—every American, free of charge. Investing in the creation, delivery and administering of these tests will be far cheaper for the nation than the incalculable fiscal and social costs of another economic shutdown. Rockefeller Foundation (20 minutes)

GPT-3

OpenAI, an artificial intelligence (AI) research foundation started by Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Greg Brockman and a few other leaders in machine learning, recently released an application programming interface and website that allows people to access a new language model called GPT-3. What’s incredible about the tool is you can feed it almost any context—a script about a gay couple in Italy, an interview between two tech luminaries, or even a political column about an election—and it is able to put together decently coherent arguments. Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t some sort of general AI, and the machine doesn’t really have a way of understanding if what it is outputting is true or not. The simplest way to explain how it works is that it analyzes a massive sample of text on the internet and learns to predict what words come next in a sentence given prior context. Based on the context you give, it responds to you with what it believes is statistically the best answer based on learning from all this text data. This is a strategy that OpenAI and other researchers have been pursuing for quite some time, by starting off with a “simple” problem like trying to predict the next word in a sentence. We have now steadily built up to where they are today, where a model like GPT-3 can complete several paragraphs or more. Though an incredible result, even GPT-3 at some point may lose direction and wander aimlessly. Despite its massive size (over 175B parameters), it still may struggle with keeping a long-term destination in mind or holding logical, consistent context over many paragraphs. This means, in my opinion, although there’s debate on this, that while this tool is very impressive, and GPT-4 will likely show further improvements, there are probably diminishing marginal returns to this approach. They can keep getting better at running really complicated statistics on all of the text people have ever written, but the AI is still not capable of “reasoning.” Operators and Delian’s Ramblings (7 minutes)

Remote Hiring

Hiring quality talent is probably the most important job of any company. How do you do that well over Zoom?  Soft signals are in short supply. It’s tough to judge a candidate’s body language, their poise as they enter a room and the personal rapport built over a coffee shared in person. But, as more of the hiring process moves online, we might find new ways to measure talent. Which tools and techniques might give superpowers to hiring managers? (1) Scalable sourcing. Novel approaches, such as Swyg’s peer-to-peer interviewing (is the best person to rate a CFO another CFO, and would they do it?) are worth checking out. Such products must sensitively address the risk of algorithmic bias and considerations about the appropriate handling of personal data. (2) Products such as Retorio are now enjoying accelerated demand, offering more objective analysis of a candidate’s performance. These may enjoy widespread distribution via video tools’ app marketplaces and via integrations with HCM / applicant tracking systems. Either would enable quick adoption, but might present platform risk compared with a standalone video interviewing product. Outside of video, products that use reinforcement learning to increase the efficacy of psychometric tests over time: Alva Labs is showing strong early promise here. Mosaic Ventures (4 minutes)

Coal Demand

Even the world’s top coal exporter is struggling to make money from burning the fuel. A surge in new wind and solar capacity is driving wholesale electricity prices as low as A$40 ($29) a megawatt-hour in some parts of the network—in many cases lower than it costs the plant to buy its coal. Australia’s coal power plants, which make up more than half of the nation’s generation mix, are facing increased pressure as rooftop solar hollows out daytime demand. That could mean early closures among the country’s aging fleet, giving energy planners the tricky task of ensuring energy security while replacing the steady, predictable flow of power with more variable renewable generation. Bloomberg (8 minutes)

1918

It’s hard to imagine what the world will look like when COVID-19 has passed. So this episode of RadioLab looks back to the years after 1918, at the political, artistic and viral aftermath of the flu pandemic that killed between 50 and 100 million people, and left our world permanently transformed. I was surprised to learn that literally the two most important people in the world at the time almost died from the Spanish flu. I won’t spoil it for you by saying more. Just listen. RadioLab (72 minutes)

FOMO

If you’re alive today, you’ve experienced the fear of missing out (FOMO). One client told me how his daughter puts her phone in a plastic bag so she can take it into the shower, so she doesn’t miss out on anything. However, what if we flipped our mindset on FOMO and made it a positive? Enter Patrick McGinnis who has bragging rights on the subject. He was the first person to mention the term online, and 10 years later the word is in the dictionary. Seriously, you’ve never talked with someone who has thought more deeply about this and what to do about it than Patrick. Listen to the episode here. You get to choose whether this hurts or serves you by following these tiny steps: (1) Notice the next time you are feeling FOMO. (2) Ask, “Is this just jealousy or could it be revealing something I am feeling called to do?” (3) Take one minute to schedule white space on your calendar in the next week to explore this in more depth. You have an essential mission. The fear of missing out can either distract you or take you closer to it. The choice is yours. Essentialism (3 minutes)

Bookshelf

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown is her first encounter with a racialized America at age 7. She discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools and churches, Austin writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker and expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion. In a time when nearly every institution (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claims to value diversity in its mission statement, Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice. Her stories bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric—from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations. Amazon

Most Read Last Week

Hamilton—Just because I love Hamilton and because you’ve been on Zoom all week, here’s the best Zoom call ever for one young Hamilfan.

French Elites—This is a fascinating article on the making of French elites.

Canceling Cancel Culture—The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides. The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway—Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose. Photo by Nathan Dumlao.

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Weekend Wisdom

I always think it’s a sign of victory when they move on to the ad hominem.Christopher Hitchens

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