The Five Best Things: Sept 12, 2020

A peek inside TikTok's "killer" algorithm, surprising champions for worker's rights, and unsurprising responses from our civic bodies

Hi everyone - last week’s post was a tad too long so I will attempt to keep this week’s short and sweet!

  1. This article on Axios provided some details on TikTok’s algorithm, which is the latest snag in this spinout saga. The ML algorithm appears to use engagement signals to hone in on a user’s preferences, then surface other content they might like to create a viral loop. There are occasional surprises thrown in to help users break out of “filer bubbles”.

    • TikTok’s magical unicorn black box algorithm is being touted as a huge piece of the acquisition. If what is being reported in this article is accurate, my assessment is that the algorithms being deployed are collaborative filtering (aka, what Netflix uses to suggest new movies and TV shows), decision trees (a widely used technique to categorize inputs), K-means clustering (a technique to group similar users), with occasional pruning to avoid over-fitting (aka keeping from crossing the creepy line).

    • None of these techniques are rocket science, and any big tech company should be able to replicate them. Thus, to me, the value of TikTok seems largely in its creator tools, its brand, and ever expanding content library. Is that worth the rumored $30B price tag? I don’t know. Will the value hold up if the product is going to be geographically splintered, as is being proposed? I don’t think so. This will diminish the content and reduce the economies of scale effect. Time will tell.

  2. Well-known conservatives such as Marco Rubio, Jeff Sessions and JD Vance signed a statement in support of workers having a seat at the table. Among the suggestions - “conservatives should seek reform and reinvigoration of the laws that govern organizing and collective bargaining." ; Right-to-work, sectoral bargaining, works councils, board representation, benefits provision, regulatory overrides.

    • This was a pleasant surprise coming from these prominent voices. They’re almost starting to sound like Elizabeth Warren! Time will tell if this is merely for show, or proposals that will take effect and help re-invigorate workers rights in America.

  3. While we’re on the topic of government - this thread uses the historical example of AT&T and more recently, the European Union’s GDPR to demonstrate how ham-fisted regulation can end up having the unintended consequence of strengthening the Big Tech incumbents instead.

    • I found the history lesson on AT&T’s practices to be very helpful context, as we hear rumors of the DoJ rushing to close its antitrust case against Google. Unintended consequence of regulation is one of my favorite topics. It reminds me of Richard Dawkins’ work on evolution and how it produces some truly nonsensical traits in species.

  4. I finally caught up to this Exponent episode from June, covering the pandemic and BLM protests. It delves into how some aspect of our slow Covid-19 response was preordained due to our culture of debate and deliberation prior to decision-making. So too it is with our response to systemic racism. But ultimately, the American system of dealing with problems is slow precisely because it takes many voices into account, which is a good thing.

    • I felt particularly hopeful after listening to this during a bleak week. The United States have always been a grand ongoing experiment in self-governance, and what seems to be huge societal issues now WILL lead to progress one way or another.

  5. This discussion between investor Morgan Housel and WSJ’s Jason Zweig on the psychology of investing. Housel covers the history of investing and dives into how our behavior patterns manifest in how we invest. Individual investors shouldn’t ignore this but use it to assess investing appetites in the future. Risk has 3 sides - the odds of an event occurring, the average consequences, and the tail-risk consequences. He also highlighted how trends are ever-accelerating in the internet-era; for instance 4 of the 10 largest swings in the stock market have occurred since the year 2000.

    • This touched upon a couple of themes I mull upon, including modeling the real world as non-linearities, and the level-playing field and faster consensus enabled by the internet.

Honorable mentions -

  • The effect of inequities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic will be felt for decades. A Barron’s analysis estimates closed schools will cost 3.5% of GDP, and cause nearly 50% of early childcare centers to go out of business.

  • I’ve found Emily Oster’s practical, data-driven approach to parenting very helpful; this is a good primer on probabilistic thinking.

  • I think this year’s holiday season shopping will be bonkers, as families over-compensate for not being able to meet in person. Meanwhile our package delivery systems are sagging and snapping under the weight of the pandemic. Get your orders in early this year!

  • The first paragraph of this Atlantic article is beautiful prose - a fantastic setup for a great article.

  • I’m going to be keeping a close eye on this partnership between Tencent and Tim Hortons!

  • This also made me feel hopeful during the hell fire orange sky day in the Bay area this week.