The Five Best Things: June 20, 2021

I've got two tickets to paradise

Happy Juneteenth and Father’s Day to those that celebrate. I feel a little whiplash seeing Juneteenth go from being a Texas-only tradition to a national holiday in the course of a year.

Some interesting (unconfirmed) rumors came up this week: Intel might be buying startup SiFive. SiFive is perhaps the most interesting manifestation of the Open Core/Open Source strategy, since it is built off the free open source RISC-V Instruction Set. Interesting geopolitics also, in that the RISC-V foundation deliberately domiciled in Switzerland to appear to be neutral to China and the US.

Some close contacts have shared with me a couple of unique ML product management roles - if you are on the job market and have skillsets in ML frameworks and/or healthcare, please reach out.

The Five Best Things

  1. WSJ: U.S. Launches Task Force to Study Opening Government Data for AI Research

    • In order to boost AI research, the Biden government has formed a task force to share anonymized public datasets more broadly and freely with researchers. This would include for eg vehicle sensor data from the transportation department and census data. Huge datasets are a critical factor in ensuring better performing ML models, and thus widening access ensures success is not concentrated among a few.

    • This comes on the heels of the Senate passing a $250B funding bill to boost national technology competitiveness vis-a-vis China, with $52B earmarked for jumpstarting semiconductor production in the U.S. Appropriately titled the CHIPS act, this is a win for the semiconductor lobbying group that counts Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Google, HPE, GE, Verizon, AT&T among others. Time for us all to move to Arizona.

  2. The Batch Special Edition: Machine Learning in Production

    • A great edition of the Batch newsletter, with a focus on production ML and the capabilities required to operationalize models (also called MLOps). It includes a cameo from Craig Wiley, director of MLOps for Google Cloud, a look at how Nestle uses ML for monitoring email-based phishing attacks, and how Indian-founded startup Freshworks - a Salesforce competitor - builds, deploys, and maintains tens of thousands of customized models.

    • Excerpt from Wiley’s interview

      The Batch:People have different definitions of MLOps. What is yours?

      Wiley: MLOps is a set of processes and tools that helps ensure that machine learning models perform in production the way the people who built them expected them to. For instance, if you had built models based on human behavior before Covid, they probably went out of whack last March when everyone’s behavior suddenly changed. You’d go to ecommerce sites and see wonky recommendations because people weren’t shopping the way they had been. In that case, MLOps would notice the change, get the most recent data, and start doing recommendations on that. 

      The Batch:Describe an experience that illustrates the power of MLOps.

      Wiley: In 2019, Spotify published a blog saying it used some of our pipelining technology and saw a 700 percent increase in the productivity of its data scientists. Data scientists are expensive, and there aren’t enough of them. Generally we would celebrate a 30 percent increase in productivity — 700 percent borders on absurd! That was remarkable to us.

    • And from FreshWorks

      How it works: Freshworks’ system trains and fine-tunes models to order for each client. It uses the client’s data if possible. Otherwise, it uses a model trained for the client’s industry, both industry and region, or both industry and language. The company’s user interface queries models through an API.

      Results: The automated system reduced training time from about 48 hours to about one hour. It boosted accuracy by 10 to 15 percent while cutting server costs by about 66 percent.

  3. William Dudley: The Fed Is Risking a Full-Blown Recession

    • It’s a good idea to pay attention to what people say just after they retire from their jobs. Bill Dudley, former president of the Federal Reserve of New York (one of 12 Federal Reserve banks in the US) argues that the US Federal Reserve is risking a recession with continued loose money policy and tolerance for long period of >2% recession. Dudley raising believes the Fed will be forced to raise rates abruptly to control inflation, which will lead to volatility, tighter lending standards, and increase unemployment rates back up. Over the past 75 years, every time the unemployment rate increases by more than 0.5%, there is a recession.

    • For more nuanced perspectives on inflation, I encourage you to read this 2-pager (starting on page 3 of the full write up) and pay attention to the Atlanta Fed published sticky price index, for consumer staples. Definitely do not pay attention to a profane sock puppet on Reddit shilling for a SPAC.

  4. Brian Potter: Another Day in Katerradise

    • Softbank-backed construction startup Katerra, which was valued at $4Billion last year and raised $1.4Billion from Softbank alone, filed for bankruptcy. This essay by an ex-employee at Katerra is a bittersweet look back at what draws talented employees to bold missions, the surprising bureaucracies that fester even in small companies, and how scaling too fast and too wide before signs of product-market fit is a fatal problem.

    • The collapse of another Softbank-backed fund, Greensill capital, which was also a a major lender to Katerra, was the final nail in the coffin.

      Katerra temporarily avoided having to ask SoftBank for more money and it quickly ran up a $440 million tab at the London-based firm’s expense. Greensill packaged those loans into securities and sold them to clients of Credit Suisse’s supply chain finance funds.

      Then the pandemic struck, interrupting construction and making Katerra’s finances worse. Troubles of its own making hurt the company’s ability to raise more money. Potential improper revenue recognition practices were identified at a renovations subsidiary, internal disciplinary action followed and Katerra informed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about the situation. No restatement of its financial results was required.

  5. Ask Me Anything: An Internet Q&A with the Guy who was Swallowed by a Whale

    • Yes, a Massachusetts resident was swallowed by a whale near Cape Cod and spat back out. He was not eaten, because whale throats are too narrow to for human bodies. Whale guy answered questions on Reddit, and this article cherry picks the best. He’s clearly lived an interesting life, having also survived a plane crash. There are no eyewitnesses for either incident, so this whole thing is a test of the reader’s cynicism.

    • I also enjoyed reading about David Dushman, who was among the group of soldiers that liberated detainees at the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. He died this month at age 98. Of his 12,000 person division, only 69 survived WWII. He went on to coach the Soviet Union’s women’s national fencing team for four decades, and was present during the attack by Palestinian terrorists on the Israeli contingent at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

      “Skeletons everywhere,” he recalled in a 2015 interview with Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “They stumbled out of the barracks, they sat and lay among the dead. Terrible. We threw them all of our canned food and immediately drove on, to hunt fascists.”

      More than a million people, most of them Jews deported there from all over Europe, were murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945.

Honorable Mentions

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not represent my employer.