Remains of the Day (June 1, 2024)

A beach in Hualien, Taiwan. Photo by Danny Crichton.

I’m back from two weeks in Taipei, but no column this week as I catch up. Lots of recommendations from 32 hours of flying though.

Podcast: How Applied Intuition used the Valley’s hardest lessons to upgrade automotive with autonomy

Photo via Applied Intuition.
Photo via Applied Intuition.

Qasar Younis and Peter Ludwig built Applied Intuition differently from most other startups. At a time of profligate spending at the peak of the tech bubble, they kept expenses low — and the company cash-flow positive for several years now. When every other company was moving toward remote work or a hybrid setup, they doubled down on the in-person, five-days-per-week office (while continuing a no-shoes philosophy). And when it comes to culture, they don’t just post their corporate values on a wall, but encode them right into the very software that runs the company.

The results? Applied reached a new milestone valuation earlier this year of $6 billion as well as announced a strategic partnership with automaker Porsche. It’s a moment of success years and even decades in the making, with both Qasar and Peter growing up amidst the milieu of America’s auto capital Detroit. Yet, it wasn’t just friends and family working in the auto industry that led them to invent the future of the car, but also a willingness to learn from Silicon Valley’s most thoughtful startup growth practices.

Joining me and Bilal Zuberi, we weave a conversation about automotive and autonomy while we discuss the key decisions that founders must make when building a startup. We talk about the pressure of capitalism on company execution, using software to manage a growing organization, why Google exported so much talent in the early 2010s, how to protect engineering productivity with a customer-centric culture, how to construct a useful board of directors, and finally, why markets just “whomp” any other factor of success for entrepreneurs.

🔊 Listen to the episode

Orthogonal Bet Podcast: A technology vibe shift from utopian Star Trek to absurdist Douglas Adams?

Design by Chris Gates.
Design by Chris Gates.

This is the inaugural episode of an on-going mini-series for the Riskgaming podcast we’re dubbing the Orthogonal Bet. Organized by our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman, the goal is to take a step back from the daily machinations that I generally host on the podcast to look at what Sam describes as “…the interesting, the strange, and the weird. Ideas and topics that ignite our curiosity are worthy of our attention, because they might lead to advances and insights that we can’t anticipate.”

To that end, today our guest is Matt Webb, a virtuoso tinkerer and creative whose experiments with interaction design and technology have led to such apps as the Galaxy Compass (an app that features an arrow pointing to the center of the universe) and Poem/1, a hardware clock that offers a rhyming poem devised by AI. He’s also a regular essayist on his blog Interconnected.

We latched onto Matt’s recent essay about a vibe shift that’s underway in the tech world from the utopian model of progress presented in Star Trek to the absurd whimsy of Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Along the way, we also discuss Neal Stephenson, the genre known as “design fiction,” Stafford Beer and management cybernetics, the 90s sci-fi show Wild Palms, and how artificial intelligence is adding depth to the already multitalented.

🔊 Listen to the episode

Lux Recommends

  • Orange juice prices have doubled over the past twelve months, and it’s a fascinating case study of the kinds of complex and combinatorial risks that make riskgaming so interesting. Per a new article in The Financial Times: “Today’s supply squeeze dates back 20 years to when citrus greening — an incurable disease spread by sap-sucking psyllid insects that makes the tree’s fruit bitter before killing it altogether — was first detected in the US.” But it’s not just disease — the orange crisis is also about climate change, evolving consumer preferences, and poor farming techniques unable to meet global demand. The industry’s solution? Don’t make orange juice from oranges anymore.
  • Having just spent two weeks in Taipei, I witnessed the mass protests currently underway across the city in opposition to controversial legislation that was ultimately passed by the Legislative Yuan. The New York Times has a good overview of the stakes, which gets at Taiwan’s democratic dilemma: for the first time, the country has a president with a minority in the legislature, promising years of discord and sclerosis until new elections are held. It’s paralysis at just the worst time.
  • Sam recommends a new research paper from a trio of writers on "Is it getting harder to make a hit? Evidence from 65 years of US music chart history.” “Here we show that the dynamics of the Billboard Hot 100 chart have changed significantly since the chart's founding in 1958, and in particular in the past 15 years. Whereas most songs spend less time on the chart now than songs did in the past, we show that top-1 songs have tripled their chart lifetime since the 1960s, the highest-ranked songs maintain their positions for far longer than previously, and the lowest-ranked songs are replaced more frequently than ever. At the same time, who occupies the chart has also changed over the years: In recent years, fewer new artists make it into the chart and more positions are occupied by established hit makers.”
  • A pair of articles on the book industry were enthralling to me. First, a major deep dive into the Penguin Random House antitrust lawsuit data by Elle Griffin showing the near impossibility of publishing a bestseller in the United States. “The publishing houses may live to see another day, but I don’t think their model is long for this world. Unless you are a celebrity or franchise author, the publishing model won’t provide a whole lot more than a tiny advance and a dozen readers. If you are a celebrity, you’ll still have a much bigger reach on Instagram than you will with your book!” And then a shorter corrective from Lincoln Michel on why the data from the trial can be over-analyzed. “Print book sales have not been decimated by digital sales/streaming. That’s right, despite the introduction of ebooks, various Netflix for books services, and endless cries about the death of publishing…. overall print sales have held pretty steady. And when we add in ebook sales, that means overall book sales are actually increasing.”
  • Sam got a pre-release copy of John Strausbaugh’s new book “The Wrong Stuff: How the Soviet Space Program Crashed and Burned.” “These achievements were amazing, yes, but they were also PR victories as much as scientific ones. The world saw a Potemkin spaceport; the internal facts were much sloppier, less impressive, more dysfunctional.”
  • In a major new investigative piece by Matthew Karnitschnig, we are starting to finally stitch together how Jan Marsalek, the fugitive who was once COO of Germany’s high-flying fintech Wirecard, is now assumed by Western intelligence sources to have been one of the most influential agents of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services. His goal? Undermining Austrian institutions. “If Moscow really was behind the effort to take over Austria’s spy service, as Western intelligence officials claim, it’s clear that the Russians regard the country as an important prize and are willing to go to great lengths to influence its politics.”
  • Ina Deljkic recommends an interesting medical discovery of what appears to be the first removal of a brain tumor by the Egyptians thousands of years ago. “But while this evidence from antiquity was well studied during the 19th and 20th centuries, 21st century technologies, such as those used in the new study, are revealing previously unknown details about ancient Egypt’s medical arts, [Dr. Ibrahem Badr] added. ‘The research provides a new and solid direction for reevaluating the history of medicine and pathology among ancient Egyptians,’ he said. The study authors’ methods ‘transition their results from the realm of uncertainty and archaeological possibilities to the realm of scientific and medical certainty.’”
  • Sam recommends Anthony Lane’s piece in The New Yorker on “Can You Read a Book in a Quarter of an Hour?,” a piece that is a meditation on the popular book summarization platform Blinkist. “The most potent enemy of reading, it goes without saying, is the small, flat box that you carry in your pocket. In terms of addictive properties, it might as well be stuffed with meth. There’s no point in grinding through a whole book—a chewy bunch of words arranged into a narrative or, heaven preserve us, an argument—when you can pick up your iPhone, touch the Times app, skip the news and commentary, head straight to Wordle, and give yourself an instant hit of euphoria and pride by taking just three guesses to reach a triumphant guano.”
  • Finally, Andy Matuschak has a great lecture with a well-integrated set of captions on the subject of “How Might We Learn?.” “These synthesized prompts can vary each time they’re asked, so that Sam gets practice accessing the same idea from different angles. The prompts get deeper and more complex over time, as Sam gets more confident with the material. Notice also that this question isn’t so abstract: it’s really about applying what Sam’s learned, in a bite-sized form factor.”

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.