Author: Continuations by Albert Wenger

Not-Yet-Full Self Driving on Tesla (And How to Make it Better)



We have had Full Self Driving (FSD) Beta on our Tesla Model Y for some time. I had written a previous post on how much the autodrive reduces the stress of driving and want to update it for the FSD experience. The short of it is that the car goes from competent driver to making beginner’s mistakes in a split second.

Some examples of situations with which FSD really struggles are any non-standard intersection. Upstate New York is full of those with roads coming at odd angles (e.g. small local roads crossing the Taconic Parkway). One common failure mode is where FSD will take a corner at first too tightly, then overcorrect and partially cross the median. Negotiating with other cars at four ways stops, which are also abundant upstate is also hilariously entertaining, by which I mean scary as hell.

The most frustrating part of the FSD experience though is that it makes the sames mistakes in the same location and there is no way to provide it feedback. This is a huge missed opportunity on the part of Tesla. The approach to FSD should be with the car being very clear when it is uncertain and asking for help, as well as accepting feedback after making a mistake. Right now FSD comes off as a cocky but terrible driver, which induces fear and frustration. If instead it acted like a novice eager to learn it could elicit a completely different emotional response. That in turn would provide a (Read more...)

My Super Short Twitter Wishlist



Elon Musk has successfully acquired Twitter. Many people seem convinced he will ruin it in short order. And while that’s of course conceivable, it is also possible that he will fix some long running problems. It’ s not like Twitter had been a well-run company. So now seems like a good time to resurface what I had tweeted in April.

Restoring full API access would dramatically shift power back to endusers. We could run apps other than the official Twitter client for interacting with Twitter, which would enable, among other things, a proliferation of different timeline algorithms. I first started speaking about this seven years ago and have an entire section on it in my book The World After Capital.

Fixing the blue check mark mess is something I first wrote about in 2017. Here is a quote from that post:

The net result of all of these mistakes was that the verified checkmark became an “official Twitter” badge. Instead of simply indicating something about the account’s identity it became a stamp of approval. Twitter doubled down on that meaning when it removed the “verified” check from some accounts over their contents …

Twitter had conflated identity verification with this account is “important” or “good” in a completely arbitrary fashion. And yes this has been allowed to fester for five years which is a perfect example of the failure of prior management to address basic problems in the service. I sure hope this gets fixed quickly and my (Read more...)

Burning Man: Experiencing Rationing



Susan and I went to Burning Man this year for our first time. We had a wonderful experience together with our friends Cindy and Robin (who is an experienced Burner and acted as our guide). There are many justified criticism of Burning Man and the festival will likely to have to change substantially over the coming years (a subject for a future post).

Today I want to write about the absence of prices at Burning Man. Once you get to Black Rock City, everything is free (well, not everything, as ice was $20/bag – more on that shortly). People have written about hopes and aspirations for a gift economy before but my key takeaway was about the importance of allocation mechanisms.

Without prices at Burning Man everything is rationed. You can go have a free drink at any of the bars (remember to bring your own cup and your ID – yes, that’s strictly enforced). But the bartenders will pour you a limited amount and then send you on your way. Same goes for all other goods and services. There are defined quantities available and that’s what you get.

Now “rationing” has a negative connotation but it isn’t inherently bad. It is a different allocation mechanism that has pros and cons when compared to the price mechanism. One advantage is that rationing treats people equally independent of their financial means, which can be desirable from a social cohesion perspective (well, rationing does that at least in theory – back (Read more...)

Burning Man: Experiencing Rationing



Susan and I went to Burning Man this year for our first time. We had a wonderful experience together with our friends Cindy and Robin (who is an experienced Burner and acted as our guide). There are many justified criticism of Burning Man and the festival will likely to have to change substantially over the coming years (a subject for a future post).

Today I want to write about the absence of prices at Burning Man. Once you get to Black Rock City, everything is free (well, not everything, as ice was $20/bag – more on that shortly). People have written about hopes and aspirations for a gift economy before but my key takeaway was about the importance of allocation mechanisms.

Without prices at Burning Man everything is rationed. You can go have a free drink at any of the bars (remember to bring your own cup and your ID – yes, that’s strictly enforced). But the bartenders will pour you a limited amount and then send you on your way. Same goes for all other goods and services. There are defined quantities available and that’s what you get.

Now “rationing” has a negative connotation but it isn’t inherently bad. It is a different allocation mechanism that has pros and cons when compared to the price mechanism. One advantage is that rationing treats people equally independent of their financial means, which can be desirable from a social cohesion perspective (well, rationing does that at least in theory – back (Read more...)

The Low Energy Trap



I recently read Joseph Tainter’s outstanding book “The Collapse of Complex Civilizations,” which I recommend. It should be required reading for all politicians. Tainter’s theory is one of diminishing returns to bureaucracy, which we are clearly experiencing across many societies today. He also proposes one historic escape mechanism from such a collapse: a big energy unlock. We had a shot at that in the 1960s when we started building nuclear power plants, but then starting in the 1980s we instead chose to focus on energy efficiency. That has us now caught in a low energy trap.

It is extraordinary to see energy prices spiking in many parts of the world at the same time. Yes, there is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And we are experiencing a big heat wave as part of the accelerating climate crisis. But these are ultimately just excuses. We should have built an energy system with so much capacity that these events would just be blips that barely go noticed. Instead we are facing brownouts and blackouts and prices at ruinous levels for individuals and companies.

Degrowth advocates would have you believe that the answer is less. Less consumption. Less production. Less energy. I suppose that all of that is fine if you want to go backwards. If you advocate for that you should be required to spell out what human carrying capacity you believe is sustainable under degrowth, because it certainly isn’t 8 billion people. If a degrowth advocate (Read more...)

The Meaning of Machine Creativity



For a long time there was a narrative that computers would only be good at automating routine tasks, leaving creativity to us humans. I never believed this because creativity isn’t some kind of magic but rather much of it is based on exploring variations either based on known rules or based on precedents. For example, I titled a post in 2016 “Machine Creativity: Possibly Sooner than Anticipated.” Also in my book The World After Capital, I have a section on the universality of computation that includes a few paragraphs on creativity.

Recently we have had several breakthroughs, first starting with large language models that can tell stories, and now with DALL-E2 and midjourney, two models that can generate amazing imagery based on textual input. For example, here is an image “imagined” by midjourney based on the prompt “Sailing across the alps”

It is mind-bending to sit with this image for a while. A machine created it and did so within a space of minutes, yet it is full of imagination and detail and could easily be on the cover of a book or the walls of a museum.

So what does it mean that we now clearly and demonstrably have creative machines?

First, more than ever it means that we need to come up with a new social contract. People who have earned a living with logo design, or illustration, or music composition, or code authoring, or any number of other creative pursuits are suddenly facing stiff (Read more...)

Progress vs. Categories



As humans we like to put things into categories. It makes communicating and thinking easier. Scratch that. It makes communicating and thinking possible. Categories go hand in hand with words as providing us with crucial compression of reality. Just like a 1:1 map is completely useless (it is the terrain itself), so would be a need to describe every detail of every person or object before being able to make a point. We would never get anywhere.

Not surprisingly then, categories are everywhere. For instance in venture we tend to put things into boxes such as “B2C” or “enterprise software.” Or in academia people study a discipline like “physics” or “chemistry.” The government classifies workers as “contractors” or “employees.” But here’s the tricky part: the world isn’t static and progress undoes categories.

The admonition to “think out of the box” when it comes to innovation is apt. Such thinking is both a source of progress and necessitated by progress. Here are just some examples. As we have deepened our understanding of what matter consists of, some of the historic boundaries between chemistry, physics and biology have stopped making sense. With computers dispatching labor we have erased many of the distinctions between contractors and employees. Self-service consumer grade software is taking over the enterprise market with product-led growth companies outperforming sales-led companies.

If you are trying to invent the new (or fund it), it helps to let go of existing boxes, instead of trying to jam innovative ideas into them. One (Read more...)

Happy 4th of July: Think Independently!



Every 4th of July I like to reflect on what it means to be independent. Today I wrote nearly an entire post on production independence, starting with energy independence. But I have decided to post that another day because there is a different type of independence that I have decided is more important at this particular moment in time: independent thinking.

It has never been easy to be an independent thinker but it has become considerably more difficult in our always online, always connected world. There are several reasons for this. First, we are surrounded by suggestion algorithms that drive us ever deeper into clusters. One really has to make a strong conscious effort to follow people of different views, or one will not see those views as at all. I have long argued for what I called the “Opposing View Reader” and would happily use that if it were available as a product. In the meantime, I have added people to my Twitter feed who I strongly disagree with on almost everything.

Second, whatever we post ourselves is scrutinized and deviation from what the bulk of one’s followers think takes an extra level of conviction. So often people will stay silent on a topic rather than express their opinion for fear of having to deal with an online backlash. And of course when one does post something there are also the other type of comment (mostly from non-followers) that tries to for “guilt by association” through throwing (Read more...)

Joseph Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies (Book Review)



Given the ongoing decay of our institutions and their utter failure to address the climate crisis it is not far fetched to ask whether we are headed for some kind of societal collapse. A highly relevant book is Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, published in 1988. I had two key takeaways from reading it.

First, there are way more examples of complex societies collapsing than I was aware of. I was of course familiar with the collapse of the Roman Empire and was also aware of Mayas in the Yucatan (having visited there) but Tainter provides at least a dozen examples, including several societies that I had never heard of before. He also rightfully points out that complexity so far is the historical exception and widespread complexity (meaning the world being dominated by complex societies is a particularly recent phenomenon). So the takeaway here is in part that we really aren’t very deep into the current complexity phase and that the past track record over longer time periods isn’t exactly encouraging.

Second, Tainter proposes a very simple and general mechanism leading to collapse: declining marginal returns to complexity. Over time the benefits of complexity diminish and its costs increase. When that happens societies become prone to collapse from (a) having not enough reserves to deal with shocks and/or (b) parts of society that are bearing a disproportionate share of the cost of complexity resisting. He then analyzes the role of this mechanism in three collapses in some (Read more...)

How Much is Enough?



I had lunch the other day with a friend. He has a has a reasonably high paying job in consulting which he sort of enjoys but would rather be an artist. So the question he posed was “How much is enough?” – meaning how much money does he need to become an artist. We spent the rest of the lunch talking about different options for approaching this.

Here’s a recap of what we have come up with so far:

1. Don’t wait, just start trying to sell some art right now on the side while going full steam with his work. We concluded this was hard given the demands of his job, which involves a fair bit of travel and dinners with clients. So this makes it difficult for him to carve out time consistently to work on art. We agreed though that with a high degree of will power this might still be possible. There are some examples of people having succeeded this way, notably singer John Legend who was at BCG while also launching his music career.

2. Dial back work a lot but keep some income going. This will require him going freelance and losing health benefits. Definitely felt more doable than option #1 but also somewhat riskier. Two conditions seemed important here. First, making sure his expenses were low enough / his income high enough to not require digging into savings (see next option for that). Second, having fairly reliable repeat clients so that there isn’t a (Read more...)