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Conan’s Newsletter: No. 5

TikTok


Trump’s deadline (09/15) for TikTok to sell its US business is approaching. What is TikTok Worth to Whom and Why is a great essay by Kevin Xu about the potential buyers of TikTok and their motivations. Chinese Government recently put new AI trade rules that prevent TikTok to sell its recommendation algorithm. Unfortunately without the algorithm, the deal would be much less attractive to the US buyers. With only three days left, it is very unlikely that a deal could be made before the deadline.

Other than the recent drama, TikTok is very fascinating because of its fast growth. In fact, it is the fastest social app to reach 1bn users worldwide. Here is a youtube video that visualizes the growth of social network platforms from 2004 and 2020. TikTok appeared only at the end of the video, but its explosive growth was jaw-dropping.

Another interesting thing about TikTok is that it’s the first social network platform to reach popularity both in Chinese and International Markets. This is very unique because previous generations of successful Chinese Internet companies copied their business models from the US, and their successes were mostly limited to China.

TikTok is also much more than a social app. For this topic, I recommend you to read The Video-First Future of eCommerce, a great essay by Connie Chan and Avery Segal on the video eCommerce popularized by TikTok.

Amazon and the impact of technology on gig workers


Let us switch the topic to the largest eCommerce player in the US. Amazon’s Profits, AWS, and advertising is a great essay by Benedict Evans about Amazon’s business models. One interesting fact is that Amazon is much more than just an eCommerce platform now (a pattern for big companies!). In fact, in addition to eCommerce, it becomes the largest 3rd party eCommerce platform and the largest cloud provider, and it also has a thriving “search Ads” business that threatens Google.

As the big tech companies become more and more powerful, they become more and more impactful to human life — not only for their employees/customers but also equally important for their gig-workers. One interesting article I saw this week is that Amazon Drivers Are Hanging Smartphones in Trees to Get More Work. This may sound funny to us, but the people who are doing this are very serious because they depend on the platform for their main income.

When the rules of the platform are unfair to its gig workers, it also will significantly harm their life qualities and eventually backfire the platform. This week a viral article about the miserable life of the couriers who work for Meituan-Dianping — the uber eats in China — puts it under the fire. Please see this TechCrunch report for more details.

Interesting Facts

The New York City Evolution Animation. This great animation show how New York City grew from a small town to the big metropolitan as of today.


Maya Lin is the FIRST woman to design a memorial on the National Mall. In 1981, Lin, then still was an undergraduate, submitted a proposal for the Veterans Memorial, to be built on the National Mall in Washington D.C. H. The design was initially controversial for several reasons: its untraditional design,, Lin’s Asian ethnicity, and her lack of professional experience. Lin defended her design before the US Congress, and a compromise was reached: The Three Soldiers, a bronze depiction of a group of soldiers; and an American flag were placed to the side of Lin’s design.

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Conan’s Newsletter: No. 4

📚Articles:

  1. The Global AI Talent Tracker. This great analysis from macropolo.org shows how AI talents migrate among different countries. The United States has a large lead over all other countries in top-tier AI research, with nearly 60% of top-tier researchers working for American universities and companies. The result also clearly shows the US lead is built on attracting international talents as more than ⅔ of the top-tier AI researchers received undergraduates in other countries.
  2. Taming the Tail: Adventures in Improving AI Economics. This impressive essay by Martin Casado and Matt Bornstein, two analysts of Andreessen Horowitz, discusses the economics of AI.
    • AI development often feels “closer to molecule discovery in pharma” than software engineering. This is because AI development is a process of experimenting and the job of an AI developer is to fit a statistical model to a dataset, test how well the model performs on new data, and repeat.
    • One of the complexities in the real-world data is that a lot of them have long-tail distribution. Intuitively, what this means is that that there are a lot of edge cases that appear infrequently yet important. This essay presents a guideline to tackle the issue and other similar ones.
    • Another interesting thought that I have after reading this essay is that the common metaphor of “data is oil” is not quite accurate. The energy of one barrel of oil is always the same regardless of the amount of oil you have used. In contrast, the benefits of extra data diminish as the size of data increases. The reason is that although training with more data helps the handling of new edge cases, the chance of seeing new cases decreases as you move further down to the tail. As a result, it is an art to find a balance of the predictive power and the complexity when we decide how much data we need.
  3. AI job listings plummet as COVID-19 recession appears imminent. François Chollet, the creator of Keras and a researcher at Google Brain, posted a tweet that shows that AI jobs plummeted since the start of the COVID-19 recession. One of the reasons is for the correction of the hype in the past few years. However, this doesn’t mean that we should be bearish for the future of AI. Instead, COVID19 has been a catalyst for technology adoption for many industries (e.g., Zoom for video conferencing). I am optimistic that the pandemic would actually make more traditional companies start to embrace AI technologies.
    • 📌 We (Intellimize) are hiring for ML & AI scientists/engineers. Please shoot me an email if you are interested.
  4. A lot of teams have moved to be fully remote during the pandemic. This blog lists a lot of virtual games that may be helpful to increase the bonding of the team and. In addition to those listed in the blog, I also highly recommend the drawphone game, I have tried it many times and enjoy it a lot.

🍭 Interesting Facts:

  1. The Salton Sea is the largest lake within California and it is fascinating to see that it was created only in 1905 purely because of an engineering mistakeUnfortunately, it is dying because of the reduction of the input water recently. 
  2. This is possibly how the Moai statues on Easter Island were moved in ancient times.
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Conan’s Newsletter: No. 3

Dear readers,

I hope you’ve had a great week! Here are the recommendations for this week:

  1. Making sense of MVP (Minimum Viable Product) – and why I prefer Earliest Testable/Usable/Lovable. This great essay from Henrik Kniberg explains minimum viable product (MVP), an important concept in lean development. An MVP is a product that is released to collect customers’ feedback as early as possible for product iteration. Because the main purpose of an MVP is to learn customers’ feedback rather than to build the final product, it needs to be minimum yet COMPLETE. The figure above is a metaphor for the idea: if your goal is to build a sedan, your MVP should be a skateboard, which helps collect customer’s feedback on transportation tools, instead of a perfect tire. From the early adopters who try the skateboard, you may learn that customers want to enjoy fresh air while moving. As a result, you could build a convertible car that fits customers’ needs better than the original design.
  2. The e-commerce surge
    1. This essay from Benedict Evans gives concrete data about the surge of e-commerce during the pandemic in the UK and the US — The UK e-commerce penetration went from 20% to over 30% in two months, and the US from 17% to 22%. Prior to the pandemic, e-commerce penetration in the two counties has been increasing at a quite steady pace. However, the pandemic lockdown has pulled forward a huge amount of future adoption within a short period. It would be interesting to see how much of those adoptions would stick to.
    2. As the e-commerce boom continues,  Amazon itself has become one of the largest shipping carriers in the world and shipped 415 million packages in July alone. Besides, other US shipping carriers also saw a surge in the volume. UPS saw volume grow 26% in July compared with the average monthly growth of 23% in the April to June period. FedEx volume rose 22% compared with 19% average growth in the first three full months of the coronavirus pandemic.
  3. Many software companies are lining up for IPOs as the capital market is booming. One particular interesting thing is that the percentage of enterprise software companies is super high in this round of IPOs. In the past decades, the enterprise and consumer software industries in the US have diverged into two directions. Most of the consumer businesses like Facebook and Google build walled gardens, making it very difficult for new players to enter the market. In contrast, enterprise software companies are embracing specialization and eagerly integrating with other enterprise vendors. This makes it much easier for new enterprise startups to reach IPO stages. Besides, this review of high-growth SaaS IPOs in 2019 would give you an idea of the enterprise companies that went public in 2019. 

Funny tweets:

  1. Taylor Swift as B2B software…a thread. A hilarious tweet that shows how the Taylor Swift and Software Company CEOs have similar tastes of colors.

Other interesting facts:

  1. A flood in 1762 made the whole California central valley a lake. Another bad news is that this event happens every 100-200 years and the next event could come anytime.
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Conan’s Newsletter: No. 2

Recommendations for this week:

  1. Highly recommend this video created by Phil Libin, the co-founder of Evernote and recently the mmhmm app, to explain the motivation behind the new app’s name. The mmhmm app has been generating a lot of buzzes recently but its name sounds ridiculous to many people. In this video, Phil describes his philosophy of the naming: A ridiculous yet interesting name is way better than a boring one. It is better to create a product that is loved by someone and hated by some others than a product that nobody cares about. Besides, mmhmm is really fun to use. If you haven’t tried it out yet, you should!
  2. The Passion Economy and the Future of Work. We are in a world that the definition of jobs has changed significantly, and the process has been accelerating since the pandemic. In the new world, individuality is respected and encouraged, and people could and should earn their living from their individuality.
  3. Defining Interactive Ecommerce – Pinduoduo [53 slides] – Recommendation driven China e-commerce”. Pinduoduo is a miracle: Imagine the chance of someone in the US builds a second Amazon in only 3-4 years, which is what Pinduoduo has done in China. This detailed report gives great insights into why Pinduoduo could make a dent in a market with a strong incumbent.
  4. An article about Steve Blank’s Customer Development Manifesto. I love Steve Blank’s opinion that “A Startup Is a Temporary Organization Designed to Search for A Repeatable and Scalable Business Model”. Can’t agree more!

Funny tweets:

  1. Impressive commit history. Hope you won’t start to count tiles next time when you take showers!

Other interesting facts:

  1. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt officially named the Executive Mansion the “White House” . This is much later than I thought.
  2. This is a 393-years old Greenland Shark that was located in the Arctic Ocean. It’s been wandering the ocean since 1627. It is the oldest living vertebrate known on the planet.
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Conan’s Newsletter: No. 1

Books

  1. Startup CEO: This is a great book about startup management and is very useful for people who are first-time CEOs or aspire to be CEO one day but don’t have any experience yet.

Startup

  1. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) startups have been following a roller-coaster this year. The SaaS companies had rapid devaluation in the face of a global pandemic, but the valuation went up significantly after it became clear that SaaS may be benefited from the pandemic
  2. Roadmap to a SaaS IPO: how to unicorn your way to $100M revenue
    1. This is a useful article on the growth trajectory of SaaS companies. One useful information from the article is the T2D3 rule. From $2M, you need triple the revenue for two years and double the revenue for three years to reach the $100M revenue mark.

Artificial Intelligence

  1. TikTok and the Sorting Hat
    1. A great article by Eugene Wei on how TikTok became a phenomenon worldwide. One interesting idea of the article is one of the key things for the success of TikTok outside China is that it used algorithms to break the cultural barrier. More and more Chinese companies were trying to follow TikTok. At the end of the article, Eugene mentioned non of the engineers in the NewsDog App, a popular news app in India, could speak the local language. 
  2. Here’s why Apple believes it’s an AI leader—and why it says critics have it all wrong
    1.  This article demystifies Apple’s AI efforts, which is least well-known among the big five (a.k.a Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, and Google or FAANG). John Giannandrea (JG), the head of AI at Apple, was the lead of Google AI before he took the job. We had a short overlap before he left and he was very popular among the AI team in Google.

Interesting Things

  1. Here is an interesting tweet from Jeff Dean about the metrics system in the US v.s rest of the world. There are only three countries in the world using the imperial metric system.
  2. A really fun tweet about another usage of excavating shovels .
  3. See Japanese Shibuya city from a first-person game view
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What AI practitioners could learn from Tesla

This is the second blog about Tesla, please also read the blog of The Rise and Fall of a Great Inventor if you are interested to learn more about Tesla’s life.

Tesla is one of the key figures in the early evolution of the electrical industry. Tesla has good showmanship and is very good at attracting public attention through jaw-dropping demos.  In one such public demo, Tesla ignited light bulbs using his body. Those demos helped Tesla raise funding for his Alternating-Current motors, which greatly extended the applications of electricity.

0_tc81proTFGVIpWqC.pngTesla’s Magnifying transmitter 

In Tesla’s later years, his focus shifted to wireless energy transmission. Tesla planned to set up a set of energy transmission towers in the world, and any person could receive energy through a hand-held device. It was a grand project. Tesla raised some initial funding from J.P. Morgan to implement a prototype. Unfortunately, an Italian physicist and radio pioneer Marconi finished the wireless telegraph across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901, which attracted most of the public attention and overshadowed Tesla’s work. What’s worse, Tesla spent all the funding to build a huge tower in Wardenclyffe but failed to deliver a workable solution. He was turned down when trying to request more funding from J.P. Morgan. He was never able to fulfill this dream for the rest of his life.

0_5ASkdPah11dXRjfb

1904 Image of Wardenclyffe Tower.

Although it happened one century ago, Tesla’s story is still very relevant in the contemporary world in which AI is the new electricity. As an AI practitioner, I think there are several lessons we could learn from Tesla’s experience.

First, even for a super ambitious project, it is still important to make sure there are reasonable deliverables in the process. An ambitious vision may be crucial to get the initial resources. But in order to keep the marathon running, it is always good to plan a sequence of deliverables throughout the journey. The anti-pattern of promising too much while delivering too little needs to be avoided. Tesla was a visionary Inventor, but he lacked the practical mindset to manage the expectation of investors and showing deliverables.

Second, it is super important to be mindful of the relevant opportunities and be flexible for the plan. The development of technology is never a linear process. Tesla’s technology was very similar to what Marconi used for telegraph across the Atlantic and Tesla had much more experience than Marconi. Why didn’t he become the inventor of the telegraph? He failed to realize another important application of his technology — information transmission — and went straight to the grand goal of wireless energy transmission. Had he realize that achieving wireless communication was equally important and may be helpful for his final goal, he probably would invest more in the direction. 

For AI, the 2016 game between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol played a similar role as Tesla’s public demonstrations. The game attracted huge public attention and made many people realize the potential of AI. Under this hype, a lot of companies were founded with super ambitious goals that require decades to fulfill. And a lot of investors invested without a good understanding of this. What’s worse, a lot of the companies didn’t set up reasonable deliverables in a typical cycle of an investment fund. When those investors realized this gap, they may pull back investments, which will make the industry enter another winter.

It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t work on moonshot AI projects. On the one hand, a lot of advanced AI projects will and should take place in universities under public support. On the other hand, for AI moonshots that are done in companies, we need to balance the grand vision with concrete milestones that are associated with the company’s core business. For example, one of the fields that AI works very well so far is the recommender system (e.g. the algorithm behind and Youtube or Instagram Feeds). The main reason for this is that its deliverables are very quantifiable (e.g., improve the daily activities users by x percentage) and directly contribute to the core business of the company, which is crucial to ensure continual support. I hope other fields could also find a similar positive feedback loop. It won’t be an easy path, but it is something that industrial AI  practitioners need to figure out.

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The Rise and Fall of a Great Inventor

Recently I finished the book “Tesla: Inventor of Electrical Age” by W. Bernard Carlson and I highly recommend this book. I will write multiple blogs about the book and this first one will focus on historical facts and my thoughts on the rise and fall of Tesla.

tesla.jpg

Nikola Tesla was born in 1856 in the Austra-Hungarian empire. He came to the US in June 1884 to work for Edison Machine Works and left the company after a short-stay of 6 months. Later, he was approached by businessmen Benjamin A. Vail and Robert Lane to form a company but the two persons abandoned Telsa after a year. In the fall of 1886, Tesla was rescued by two other business partners Peck and Brown, who underwrote Tesla’s efforts to develop inventions into practical devices. On July 7, 1888, Peck and Brown sold the Tesla patents to Westinghouse for a lucrative deal and Tesla started to serve as a consultant for Westinghouse. Tesla left Westinghouse in August 1889 and in 1891 Westington tore apart the contract with Tesla under the pressure of investors. From 1892, Tesla started to give consultation on the Niagara fall powerhouse project, which finished in 1895 and established Tesla’s reputation as one of America’s leading inventors.

During 1895 and 1898, Tesla investigated some other things, like X-ray and radio-controlled boats. In 1899 and 1900, Tesla stayed in Colorado to perfect the wireless transmission system. In Nov 1900, Tesla was able to meet with the most powerful man on Wall Street, J.P. Morgan, and convinced Morgan to loan him $150,000 to support his wireless network. Around the same time, the Italian inventor Marconi was also working on a competing technology. In Dec 1901, Marconi finished the transmission of Telegraphy through Atlantic. The loss of the competition with Marconi forced Tesla to bet all-in on an even bolder project of wireless transmission of power. After the project failed in 1905, the life of Tesla as a bold inventor came as an end. Tesla spent most of this remaining life as a recluse in a New York hotel and was forgotten soon.

Telsa’s inventor career could be divided into three stages: Rise, Plateau, and Downfall stages. The first phase (Rise) is from when Tesla started to work for the Edison company and ended at the time when his sponsor Peck died. In this stage, Tesla, as a young immigrant, challenged the industry with his innovative thoughts of AC transmission. Tesla built his reputation by showing many magical demonstrations of electricity. Despite the dramatic promotion, Tesla’s work at this stage was pretty practical.

After Peck’s death that marked the start of the second stage (plateau), Tesla struggled to create a project that had commercial potential. Different from the first stage, Tesla at this time had more resources and still did a lot of amazing demonstrations to the public. However, a lot of his efforts like X-ray and Radio-controlled boats went nowhere. The biggest achievement this time is Niagara fall. However, Tesla’s role in the project is only a consultant and this is more a continuation of his work in the first stage. The lack of evidence to bring his innovative ideas to concrete commercial success restricted his ability to find patrons. 

The third stage is when Tesla got into the building the wireless energy transmission. He was able to secure some funding from patrons (like Astron and JP morgan) to pursue his dream thanks to his fame. However, none of his patrons at this stage was as serious and devoted as Peck and Brown were. To make matter worse, Tesla had to make bolder and bolder claims because he couldn’t catch up with new innovators like Marconi. The claims he made (like establishing a global wireless energy network) eventually backfired and cost him the credibility that was essential for him to raise funding.

Like everything in this world, the rise and the fall of Tesla are likely to be caused by many factors. I want to mention two of them in this blog:

A fundamental reason is that Tesla changed from a challenger to be a defender.  The rise of Tesla is because of his great contribution to Alternating Current (AC) technology. When Tesla first came to the US, Direct Current (DC) was more popular because it had a headstart in both research and industry. Notably, Edison was an ardent supporter of DC. However, AC had technical advantages over DC for long-distance transmission of electricity. Edison probably also realized the potential of AC. However, as the stakeholder of the Edison electric company (later became GE), which had already invested heavily in DC, Edison had to defend his commercial interests. In contrast, As a penniless immigrant, Tesla had no such burden so he chose to focus on the less-popular AC technology. In addition, like Steve Jobs, Tesla had the ability to create a Reality distortion field around him and to change people’s views. For example, Peck and Brown initially wanted Tesla to focus on DC that already had a market. Tesla organized a dramatic demonstration of using AC to make a copper egg spin by themselves that turned Peck and Brown into ardent supporters of AC. Through those demonstrations and continuous improvement of the technology, Tesla successfully challenged the status of DC.

The situation became completely different when Tesla was competing with Marconi for wireless technology. Similar to Edison in the 1980s, Tesla has been blinded by the sunk cost. Tesla’s long-term success in using electricity as a medium of energy transmission made him unable to realize the significance of wireless communication. Although he did propose a plan of using his technology for information transmission, it was mostly a strategy to secure funding and energy was still the main focus. Eventually, Tesla failed in the competition because of the complexity of wireless energy transmission. The newcomer Marconi didn’t have this burden and set wireless communication as the primary focus from day one. 

Another reason is that Tesla couldn’t find another strong business partner to fill the gap after Peck’s death. It was Peck who helped Tesla set up the strategy of patent-promote-sell that Tesla used throughout his career. However, the recipe wouldn’t work without any of the three ingredients. Tesla is very good at innovating and patenting. However, Tesla lacks the business acumen to execute the promotion and sales strategies.

Undoubtedly Tesla has a great talent for showmanship. However, the key to promotion in this context is to establish credibility among the professionals and managers in the electrical industry, who are the decision-makers for Tesla’s patents. Peck knew it very well so he tried to secure the endorsement of Professor Anthony, a well-established figure in the community, as the first step of the promotion campaign. After Peck passed away, Tesla relied mostly on mass media, which eventually portrayed him as a magician instead of a serious inventor. The mass media coverage helped Tesla in the beginning but eventually backfired and made him harder to secure financial support. Tesla also lacked sales and negotiation skills. For example, Peck helped Tesla negotiate the deal with Westinghouse, which was very favorable to Tesla himself, but Tesla allowed Westinghouse to tear it apart in 1891 after Peck passed away. Later, Tesla negotiated a very unfavorable deal with J.P. Morgan, which allowed Morgan to take the majority stake without a clear clarification of Morgan’s duty in the partnership. The ambiguity eventually damaged the partnership and the deal became a blocking stone when Tesla tried to raise funding from other investors.

Despite the enormous legacy he has left us, Tesla was forgotten for a long time. It was only in recent years that he re-entered people’s attention thanks to the electric car brand named after him. Interestingly, the founder of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk, shares a lot of characteristics with Tesla. Both are bold innovators and are good at showmanship. As a great disruptive innovator, Tesla and his story are still relevant in our contemporary world. 

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Why we need to fight unitedly and what we should learn from Wuhan

I know it is hard to be spared from covid19 news but please pardon me for another one. The virus, now officially declared as a global pandemic, has turned the world upside down in the past months. More than 200K people have been infected and 10K people have died, with the number drastically increasing day by day. It is a pity that the containment of the virus has failed in the western world, but we should still keep our chin up and fight unitedly to mitigate the consequences. As a person who grew up in Hubei, studied in Wuhan for college and now lives in the US, I have some words to share.

 

First, we should take this virus extremely seriously because people (both young and old) do die from it. There have been a lot of great articles about why social distancing is critical. The next couple of weeks would be critical for mitigating the consequence of the virus. Without strong measures, the number of infections increases by 10x every 8 days. What this means is that by April 19, there will be 90M infections in the US alone if no strong measure is taken. Please also refer to this great article for more information.

 

Second, we need to be strategical and to learn from past lessons. In particular, I want to share what happened in Wuhan in the early days of the outbreak. As the first location of the outbreak, Wuhan suffered a lot, but it looks like the western world has very little knowledge of the mistakes that were made in Wuhan. Here are some pieces of advice based on what I know:

 

  1. Keep calm. Don’t rush to hospitals. Stay away from panic groups. Use tele-diagnostics options if possible. In the early days of the Wuhan outbreak, a lot of people who got common code rushed to hospital but the waiting hours could be extremely long because the hospital system was crowded. Many people got infected in the tiring waiting process during which their immune system was impaired. Hospitals need to provide an appointment system to minimize the number of people who go to hospitals at the same time. People who have symptoms should trust the system and don’t panic.
  2. Staying at home is not sufficient, you need also protect your families, especially if you have any symptoms. The very first measure of Wuhan city government was to advise people to self-isolate at home. What happened after that? The situation got much worse because people who stayed at home infected their families. When young kids or old people got infected, then people had to visit hospitals in person, which transmitted the virus to other families. If you have symptoms, please distance yourself with your families and do whatever you can to minimize interaction with them. There would be some inconveniences but it would be life-saving. The government needs to take strong actions to provide shelters for people who have symptoms for isolation. People who have been in contact with infected persons or have symptoms should go to the shelters instead of staying at home. Extended testing needs to be made to guide who should stay at home and who should go to the shelter.
  3. Don’t think that only old people get the virus and young people don’t have responsibilities. A common misconception is that young people won’t get serious symptoms from the virus so won’t be in trouble. If the hospital is crowded, nobody could be spared. Besides, young people do die from the disease. Widespread of the virus also makes it more likely for older people to get infected and the virus may also mutate in the process.
  4. Most importantly, be gentle, nice and supportive to other people. I know this is a difficult time and a lot of people are frustrated, confused and panicked. However, as a human community, we shouldn’t point guns to each other during this difficult time. Certain government officials want to take advantage of the situation and promote their political agenda. This is NOT a time for that.

 

I want to end the article with a positive note. With a strong measure, we could reverse the course of the virus spread. Yesterday Wuhan has reported 0 new case. Wuhan people have achieved it with 2 months of efforts, so every country and community should be able to do the same. The critical thing is to stay united and learn from each other.

 

God bless every human in the world!

 

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A Better Future for Everyone

I recently finished the book the war on normal people written by Andrew Yang, who is a democratic presidential candidate for the 2020 election. The normal people in the title refers to the silent majority of Americans who haven’t received higher education and have suffered in the recent technological development and globalization. As a “techie” who lives in Silicon Valley, I am very thankful for Andrew to share his thoughts and opinions. This book is a great way for people like me to have a realistic view of America, a view Andrew developed after he worked many years to foster entrepreneurship outside Silicon Valley.

My first question when I saw the title was: Aren’t we living in a peaceful time? Who is waging the war to normal people? According to Andrew, we are in a “war” created by the nature of capitalism to achieve efficiency and the new technology that favors high-skilled workers at the cost of the normal people. Andrew feels that normal people lack the ability to stand on their own foot in this “war.” As a result, the government needs to step in and to give normal people a hand. The solution Andrew proposed is the  the universal basic income (or so-called freedom dividend), which is to give $1000 to every American citizen. While there may be a better solution, Andrew has got the problem right — there is a massive job shift in terms of both skill requirements and locations. Unfortunately, not everyone could adapt to the shift. 

More than 5 million manufacturing workers lost their jobs after 2000, and it was the emotion behind this massive job loss that sent Trump to the white house in the 2016 election. In the first part of the book, Andrew focuses on where and why the jobs have gone. There are two reasons for the job loss — automation and globalization. The former allows employers to replace a lot of human workers with machines, the latter allows employers to outsource many jobs to countries of lower labor costs. The American workers now need to compete with both machines and cheap labors overseas.

The underlying driving force is the desire for companies to maximize profit for shareholders. In spite of Andrew’s grudges, I think private companies should not be scrutinized for this. After all, it is the same force that propels the machine of the market to operate and it is the government’s duty to set the rules of the market and private companies are not and should not be wealth fare programs.

Another point mentioned in the book is that fewer jobs are created by the new technology than those that were eliminated. The example it cites is that while Walmart employes over +1 million works, new tech giants like Google or Facebook employes a much fewer number of people to reach the same scale. Although arguably this is true, the point is less clear if we consider the total number of job opportunities they provide. Google or Facebook are also platform companies that enabled many more job opportunities. If you count contractors, gig-workers and content creators, the number of job opportunities created by these platforms is much larger than the number of full-time employees they hire. Besides, more than 4 million enterprises rely on Google and Facebook and they provide many more job opportunities. 

Although the total number may not change, there are still significant changes in jobs. On the one hand, new jobs require much higher skills than the ones they replace. On the other hand, New jobs appear in different geographical locations than the old ones.

While globalization and automation are shifting the nature of jobs, there is no mechanism to help people, especially less educated people, to adapt to the shift. Two decades have passed since the job losses started. As two decades is a long time and if the adaption still doesn’t happen, we couldn’t expect the trend will automatically be reversed. The losers are deprived of their representative rights in the market. They will eventually stop looking for job opportunities. 

It is right that the government needs to step in to help bridge the gaps. However, instead of distributing money unconditionally, the government should give stronger incentives and guidance for people to adapt to the change.

First, the government should invest in education and ensure it is affordable and accessible. Since new jobs generally require higher skills. Equal education is the key to ensure every person has equal access to the new opportunities created by technologies. STEM education in the US is considerably lagging. Student debt is a serious issue. The quality gap of education in public and private schools needs to be narrowed. Also, adult education should be subsidized by the government because, arguably, adults who decide to continue education need more incentives and encouragement than kids. 

Second, the government should help bridge the gap among different geographical areas. Currently residing in a place outside Silicon Valley and New York means a huge loss of job opportunities. When I graduated, I couldn’t find a good job in Boston so had to come to Silicon Valley. Most of my friends had similar experiences. Given that Boston is already a talent hub and a college city, the situations of other cities could only be worse. For this issue, I recommend another book The New Geography Of Jobs, which is authored by Enrico Moretti and also discusses the geographical shift of jobs in the united states. 

One joke is that why silicon valley becomes the tech hub is that VCs like the good weather of the area. Although this is a joke, it is certainly true that VCs have a preference for certain places over others. If VC lacks the incentives to go to other cities, the government should step in and either provide venture fundings or adjust the legislation to give VC more incentives to invest in other communities. 

At the same time, for those who want to relocate to a technological hub, the government should also provide the necessary help. This is tricky because we need to make sure this won’t cause too much pressure to the communities outside the existing technical hub. 

Although I don’t agree with the plan of giving freedom dividends unconditionally, I do think the government should play a more active and positive role to create a better future for every person in the upcoming new technological society. I am glad to hear that Andrew is on the way to find a solution and his campaign has already increased people’s awareness of the issue a lot. Best wishes to Andrew for his journey.

2019-12-15

Categories
English

Why people write less nowadays?

When I was a kid, I used to write a lot. I wrote diaries daily to snapshot my thoughts and articles weekly to express my opinions. Remember that this was the time when computers were rare and when I could only write using pens and papers.

Nowadays, I have much better writing equipment yet I am much less prolific. I have been thinking to write an article for a long time. Unfortunately, I have been procrastinating, and my last post has been a few years ago. I also observed similar trends among my close friends. I feel this is a contemporary trend. When was the last time you write a love letter, a travel diary? People write much less than before, and even when they write, most of the writings are utilitarian, i.e., they convey facts but no emotions. I am talking about the writings that force authors to squeeze every emotion and creativity from the bottom of their brain to touch the audience’s soul.

There are simply so many distractions nowadays. We are such a deeply connected species — smartphones feel like our external body parts and everyone is online 24×7. Smartphones are great for killing times but unfortunately not so good tools for writers. Computers are much more useful for report writing, which requires extensive searches of information, but less so for pure literature writing. Besides, more and more smartphone applications are grabbing people’s attention by dividing information into small pieces to fit people’s fragmented calendar. As a consequence, people are accustomed to superficial thinking and spend less time on meditative writing.

It doesn’t mean that there is nothing we could do. A simple anti-dose for this is more self-discipline. We are lured but thankfully are not forced to live in a fragmented way. Just block your calendar, lock your phone and pick up your pen from today. This is not a perfect solution but it works if executed well. Good luck and enjoy being a writer!

Jing Conan Wang

2019/11/23