A phenomenally good walkthrough of the proof for the FLP Theorem.
Notes from the Jim Rogers talk at Tembusu
Jim Rogers is shorter than I’d imagined him to be, and is dressed completely in white. He has an adorable little daughter with him, one of two, and she speaks flawless Chinese. We got to ask him questions.
Here are some notes I made:
History and Philosophy
History is useful. History teaches you how often everything that you think is right, today, would be totally wrong in 15 years. Pick any period of time in the past, and wind the clock forward 15 years, and you’ll see that what people thought would be completely wrong. History may not repeat itself, the saying goes, but it sure as hell does rhyme.
Philosophy is useful. Philosophy teaches you how to think for yourself. (Note: Rogers seems to emphasise this continually throughout the session. It is very important, he argues, to think for yourself, working from facts that you know are true. Very few people can do that. Studying how knowledge is constructed seems to be one good way of learning to do that.)
Real world goods vs Finance
The next big thing will not be in finance. If people want to be rich, Rogers asserts, you should go into mining, or agriculture. Why? The world tends to work in cycles: 20, 30 years of real goods, then 20, 30 years of finance. Rinse and repeat.
(I’m not quite sure what to think of this assertion. It may be true that the world works in cycles, but up close, it appears to happen as a result of laws (and therefore, the swinging of public opinion on finance). People got sick of the financial industry destroying Main Street, so they signed Glass-Steagall in 1933. Then real goods for a few decades. Then, in the 1970s, as Glass-Steagall was repealed, another boom for finance. Rogers’s assertion implies public opinion would vote a Glass-Steagall into law again.
These things seem less clear when you’re living in the present. I need to read more history, for sure - I have no idea what first-order causes might exist for a shift from finance to real goods.)
An additional argument for real goods: the rise of developing countries (sometimes framed as the shift east of the economic centre of the world) is a phenomenon that nobody can ignore. The growth of these nations will result in accelerating demand for real goods - consequently, mining and agriculture will do well to serve their needs.
Farming, in particular, seems full of opportunity. It’s a horrible place to be right now: most farmers are old, there’s very little talent going into the field, arrangements with the governing bodies and large corporations like Monsanto are archaic and somewhat feudal. It’s seems likely that there’s unexplored opportunity to change things here, especially since nobody is paying attention.
China is still going to be the next big thing. Sure, there are going to be huge problems. China has corruption, pollution, inefficient government, untested economic policies and huge income disparity. But if you look at the US’s rise from the late 1800s through the 1900s, they had to go through two World Wars, multiple bad governments, and countless depressions. Up close, this is how the rise of a super power is supposed to look like: messy.
China’s leaders, at the very least, seem competent. It’s not easy to rise up in the dog-eat-dog world of the CCCP. It’s not the best system in the world but it seems to work. (Of course, the implicit message here that Rogers is pushing is: think for yourself. This is not set in stone, work things out for yourself. The facts may change. Your opinion should change with them).
There are strong signals, though: China has got a high savings rate, which means it has more money for the growth it’s experiencing, and that money will be in the hands of its people for investing. These conditions have historically matched periods of good, explosive growth in countries.
Opportunities in China:
- Pollution. Someone is going to make a lot of money cleaning up China.
- Tourism. People in China now have money. And the older generation have been kept in China, unable to see the world for most of their lives. They’ll want to get out. This boom is already happening - travel-related businesses are going to become very lucrative, very quickly (if they haven’t already).
- Agriculture. Chinese farming was wiped out by Mao Zedong during the cultural revolution. It’s still got a long way to go to match the growth they’re currently experiencing.
Travel changes the way you see things. Seeing the world from the ground up is very different from being told how the world works. You absorb different things, listen to different stories, feel the zeitgeist. So: see the world from the ground up.
Countries on the rise
Countries that will be big soon:
- North Korea
The reasoning for these countries seem to be similar: natural resources and a shift to real goods. The Chinese have been buying up large holdings in Africa for some time now; it is not a secret that Africa is going to be booming, and soon.
North Korea and Myanmar are more interesting predictions. North Korea is currently ruled by people who have been trained outside of North Korea. Jong-un was educated in Switzerland; his generals were educated in Russia and China. They’ve seen what capitalism can do to countries. North Korea is thus opening up.
It’s worth remembering that till as late as the 1960s North Korea was more prosperous than South Korea, due to natural resources (Rogers asserts - I need to check this). If North Korea is opening up, this can only be a good thing for the country.
Communism can really ruin a country.
Myanmar has similar logic: till rather recently Myanmar was one of the most prosperous countries in South East Asia. (Two - three generations ago, they had the best university in the region.) Now they’re opening up, and competing for trade.
(But, Rogers says again: these are my conclusions. Think for yourself.)
Natural Tensions in Product Development
I’ve noticed a few (rather natural) tensions in product development. Here are some of them.
Engineering vs Business Requirements - this is an old one. A good example of this tension: how much testing is too much testing? Obviously writing tests are good. But when you’re a small company, or you’re building out a new product, it’s not clear how much of what you’re building is going to be important in a few months time.
User Experience vs Growth - There’s a natural tension between getting the most growth via optimising each step of every conversion funnel vs giving the user a good experience. An example of this tension in action is Quora - where users have to log in to view answers. This is probably good for growth, but results in such a horrible user experience.
I’ve heard this phrased as ‘try to get to around 80% optimisation, any more and you’ll kill the user experience.’ And the analogy to go with it (from Jason Calacanis): ‘you can get a plane to be twice as fast … if you point the nose towards the ground.’
Building the right thing vs getting the word out - if you don’t have any users, how do you know if this is because your product sucks, or because people aren’t hearing about your product? How can you tell?
I’m sitting in the math lab, and the girl next to me is on the phone with her friend.
"Can we go now? I’m sick of looking at numbers. I feel so tired, and I’m so lost, and I feel so stupid."
"Don’t stop!" I say. "It’s 10% of the grade!"
And I feel compelled to point out, though I never quite say it: "And feeling stupid’s how you know you’re getting smarter. Feeling stupid means you’re stretching yourself. Feeling stupid is how you know you’re in the right course."
But of course I don’t say it, and she gets up and leaves. “I think I’ll S/U this module.” she says, smiling, “Math is not for me.”
In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man’s expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. Society is an illusion to the young citizen. It lies before him in rigid repose, with certain names, men, and institutions, rooted like oak-trees to the centre, round which all arrange themselves the best they can. But the old statesman knows that society is fluid; there are no such roots and centres; but any particle may suddenly become the centre of the movement, and compel the system to gyrate round it. …
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, Politics
… what important truth do very few people agree with you on? To a first approximation, the correct answer is going to be a secret. Secrets are unpopular or unconventional truths. So if you come up with a good answer, that’s your secret.
Here’s mine: I’m starting to think Silicon Valley is an aberration.