Roundup #5: The AI Epoch

Hello again! These are my latest thoughts on the areas I’m interested in. I hope you’ll enjoy learning more.

In this roundup:

  • 🤖 A.I.
    • Essay: Thoughts on the AI epoch — An idea maze for LLMs; Punctuated Equilibrium; The AI revolution; Where’s the moat?; The fate of Google.
    • My thoughts on AI (as a podcast!)
    • The BuffettBot Experiment
  • 🚀 Space — 4 photos and a link to summarize 2022.
  • 🔗 Interesting Links — Other takes on AI; Derek Thompson essays; and Choosing Good Quests.

🤖 A.I.

Continue reading “Roundup #5: The AI Epoch”

Creating Creator

The following is a short case study on “Creator”, a cloud-based content management system I built at Mashgin, where we make visual self-checkout kiosks that use computer vision to see items so you don’t have to scan barcodes.

In the years since launch, it has given location managers the ability to customize their menus in ways they were unable to in the past. This empowers them to make frequent changes, tailoring the menu to customer needs rather than just “using the default”.


Mashgin Creator is a tool for operators to build and manage their menus, from items to discounts, schedules, and more.

Mashgin customers have been able to easily edit their checkout items in the cloud since we first launched in 2016. But when we began to design our mobile and in-person ordering app, we realized customers would need an easy way to design more complex menus, with custom item options, photos, nested categories, scheduling, and more. This is where the idea for Creator came in.

Creator is what they call in the industry a “CMS”, or content management system. Any software tool used to manage content of any type could apply.

In the food service industry, a CMS is used to manage their menu items, pricing, discounts, taxes, etc. The scope could be anywhere from an individual cafe to a nationwide chain of stores.

Most existing CMS software for food service was cumbersome to use and poorly designed. It was really just a simple layer on top of a database, allowing users to edit basic item information. Some software didn’t even allow for real-time syncing of data — any changes are “submitted” and someone behind the scenes has to deploy them to the menu.

The output of these menus is very simple: it’s just items in some nested menus, each with its own data like price, type, options, etc. But the work and consideration that has to go into building each menu is anything but simple.

It was clear that our customers needed something much better.

Designing the app

Believing that all the existing tools weren’t very good, we chose not to base the core design off of any other examples or prior work. Creator would be rethought from the ground up based on the needs and jobs of its users.

Continue reading “Creating Creator”
Featured

Welcome!

Thanks for visiting! Here’s a quick intro if you’re new here.

FutureBlind is devoted to covering four general topics: business, investing, tech, and design. It was initially launched in 2007. Here’s some examples of areas I’ll cover:

  • Technology — in particular frontier tech like AI, Space, Bioengineering, etc.
  • Progress — how we can make faster progress, in particular how we can tell better stories that drive progress
  • Business & Investing — mental models about startups, investing, and business analysis
  • Design — how to design better experiences and how new tools drive better design

Below are some featured posts to get started with. If you like any of them, please subscribe to the newsletter — it goes out every 2-3 months. I’m hopeful you’ll learn something and come away more optimistic.

Read more about the blog and my beliefs…

Join 400+ other friends who receive the newsletter:

Subscribers will get a roundup of posts and other things I find interesting about every quarter. I’ll also do the occasional post as a podcast episode.

Featured posts to get started with:

Hiring Memo (2017)

I wrote the following memo 5 years ago (November 2017) immediately after Mashgin raised its Series A. It summarized my thoughts and learnings on hiring at the time. I also added a few updated comments as I read over it 5 years later (all of my 2022 comments are [bracketed] and italicized). Hopefully others find it useful!


Interviewing is actually not very helpful. Or at the very least it is extremely difficult to judge how someone will perform with just interviews, especially when unstructured. (See here, or all the data Google collected.)

Why?

  • People interviewing usually have relatively little experience, and thus have a poor “base rate” to judge the candidate against.
  • Answers to questions generally have very little correlation with actual performance.
  • It’s difficult to extract enough information (even in long interview processes) to make a proper call. Imagine going on a 3-hour date, thinking it over for a few days, then asking the person to get married.

So what are other ways to know if someone will be good?

  • You’re friends with them or have worked with them already.
  • Pointed reference checks from trusted people.
  • “Trial” side project or task requiring interaction with team. Getting as close as possible to a real working environment.
  • Recruiter who is both (1) very familiar with your needs/culture, and (2) specialized in hiring for that role.

But short of these things interviews are still necessary. Regardless of the specific process, it is important to have a set plan and follow it for every candidate.

Some advice:

  • Prepare: don’t go into an interview cold. Know what you want to get out of them and have a clear plan for how to evaluate them.
  • Let them do the talking. You should only guide them and push them. Ask follow ups: Why? What did you do about it? How come?
  • Brain teasers don’t work, and aren’t indicative of anything.
  • The most effective questions are situational rather than just having them recall the past. “Instead of asking candidates to describe how they handled a unique situation in a previous job or organization, it’s more fruitful to describe consistent situations that candidates could face in this job or organization, and ask them what they would do — or how they would reason.
  • Encourage them to ask questions — about your questions, you, or the company.
  • Be transparent and open about your entire hiring process.
  • Get away from your desk or room: Take them out, take a tour of offices, etc.

The main things you’re trying to get are:

  • Excitement test. Would hiring this person make you more excited to work at the company?
  • What can they do now, and how quickly could they be productive?
  • How is this person going to be performing in 1 year from now?
    • How long does it take for them to learn something new?
    • What’s their growth mindset and can they continually get better?
  • Will they work well with the team?
  • How long are they willing to keep pushing on a good project until giving up?
  • How hard is it for them to change their mind or adjust course?
  • Do they do the right thing even when they don’t have to?

Aside from specific skills, what traits are the best indicators of these?

  • Integrity: not just honesty, but integrity with themselves, their ideas, and “doing the right thing” when necessary. They seek out truth and embrace failure.
  • Social intelligence: works well with others and is empathetic/caring.
  • Intelligence
    • Raw intelligence
    • Creativity in problem solving
    • Adaptability
    • [One of the best ways I found to test for this is to ask about something they really enjoyed working on. Then grill them with questions about it, diving as deep as possible into the details.]
  • Drive: is self motivated and can push themselves to get things done, even if it’s not enjoyable work (grit). More internally motivated than externally.
  • [Curiosity: This could be part of intelligence or drive, but it needs to be tested for somehow. I liked to ask questions like “What things are interested in outside of work?” or even better “Pick a topic that’s not part of your day job (hobby, book, subject) and take a few minutes to explain it.”]

Warren Buffett: “In looking for someone to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. Without the first the other two will kill you.

There’s also a problem with hiring the “best” — they are either extremely expensive or have unlimited options so will want to work elsewhere. This is like the Moneyball problem in baseball: the best teams will have the best reputation and most resources to get the best players. But these players aren’t necessarily the only best — they are just the ones who look really good based on the most obvious metrics.

So what do you do? Look for talent in places with low competition, that require more work, or who are too “different”:

  • Growth potential — people who are young or with little experience in the area, but are smart, driven, and internally motivated. You want people at the start of their “performance curve” — in the 80th percentile that can move up to the 97th over time. [I think I’d change these numbers now. Finding someone in 80th percentile is too low. If inexperienced, you still want them in 90th with ability to move to 99th.]
  • Interest — people with unusually strong interest in your product or mission.
  • Small fish in a big pond — picked-over, under-utilized talent in large companies who can thrive on a smaller team. [You have to be careful here. Many people, although talented, can work under the bureaucracy of a big company for years and it drains them of the ability to get things done fast.]
  • Different — too outside the traditional track to be easily seen or picked up by others.

What about at the team level? What’s the right mix of people?

  • Diversity of thought and backgrounds is very important. You want people with good traits (good character, drive, etc.) and driven toward the same goal(s) but with a wide variety of experiences/backgrounds, and hence ways to think about problems. You don’t want to hire a bunch of clones — that may work short term for some problems but will break when things change. See here for facts about workplace diversity in general. [Addendum: this is less important at the very beginning (seed) stage of a startup. With only a handful of people you may want similar types to get along better.]

Good materials:

Stripe is a good case study of hiring processes:

Roundup #4: 15th Anniversary Edition

Greetings FutureBlind readers!

This month marks the 15th anniversary of my first post on the FutureBlind blog. This is such a long time in the internet age that I feel like an old man now. I started the blog in college as a place for my thoughts on investing and business case studies. What I’ve written about over the years has morphed along with my interests, and I continue to enjoy putting my thoughts out there. I’ll keep going as long as I’m able to and hope readers continue to find it enjoyable! 😄

In this roundup edition:

  • Essay: Take the Iterative Path — How SpaceX innovates by moving fast and blowing things up.
  • 🖼 The AI art renaissance — What kinds of crazy applications will the AI art models lead to?
  • ⚡️ Energy! — Energy superabundance and Mark Nelson on nuclear.
  • 🚀 Space updates — Will we see SLS and Starship launch the same month?
  • 🧪 What negatives does technology cause? — How do we distinguish potential risks of new tech?
  • 🔦 Company Spotlights — Rocket Lab and Perimeter Solutions.
  • 🔗 Interesting Links — All about Polaroid, why American can’t build, and the little ways the world works.
  • 📚 Book notes — How Innovation Works, Where Good Ideas Come From
Continue reading “Roundup #4: 15th Anniversary Edition”

Take the Iterative Path

How SpaceX innovates by moving fast and blowing things up.

Take the Iterative Path FutureBlind Podcast


One of the greatest business successes over the last 20 years has been SpaceX’s rise to dominance. SpaceX now launches more rockets to orbit than any other company (or nation) in the world. They seem to move fast on every level, out executing and out innovating everyone in the industry.

Their story has been rightfully told as one of engineering brilliance and determination.

But at its core, the key their success is much simpler.

There’s a clue in this NASA report on the Commercial Crew Program:

SpaceX and Boeing have very different philosophies in terms of how they develop hardware. SpaceX focuses on rapidly iterating through a build-test-learn approach that drives modifications toward design maturity. Boeing utilizes a well-established systems engineering methodology targeted at an initial investment in engineering studies and analysis to mature the system design prior to building and testing the hardware. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.

This is the heart of why SpaceX won. They take an iterative path.

Taking the determinate path

Let’s talk about the Boeing philosophy first, which is the most common approach taken by other traditional aerospace companies. “There are basically two approaches to building complex systems like rockets: linear and iterative design,” Eric Berger writes in the book “Liftoff” about the early history of SpaceX:

The linear method begins with an initial goal, and moves through developing requirements to meet that goal, followed by numerous qualification tests of subsystems before assembling them into the major pieces of the rocket, such as its structures, propulsion, and avionics. With linear design, years are spent engineering a project before development begins. This is because it is difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to modify a design and requirements after beginning to build hardware.

I call this the “determinate path” — in trying to accomplish a goal, the path to get there is planned and fixed in advance.

Continue reading “Take the Iterative Path”

Roundup June ’22 Edition

Greetings FutureBlind readers!

In this roundup edition:

  • ✈️ To Increase Progress, Change Culture: Why progress needs better marketing.
  • 🎡 We need a new World’s Fair
  • 🔦 Company (Startup) Spotlights: Hadrian, First Resonance, and Mashgin.
  • 🎙 Request for Podcast Series
  • 🔗 Interesting Links: “The man in the arena”, Grid scale energy storage, Kevin Kelly’s advice, the metaverse, jobs-to-be-done for investing, and how companies die.
Continue reading “Roundup June ’22 Edition”

To Increase Progress, Increase Desire

The key to faster progress is increased desire for more. That’s my theory, at least.

In all the commentary on the “Great Stagnation”, much is written about the lack of progress in tech areas like transportation. Commercial airplane speeds, for example, have decreased on average since the ‘70s:

Since 1973, airplane manufacturers have innovated on margins other than speed, and as a result, commercial flight is safer and cheaper than it was 40 years ago. But commercial flight isn’t any faster—in fact, today’s flights travel at less than half the Concorde’s speed. (Airplane Speeds Have Stagnated for 40 Years, by Eli Dourado and Michael Kotrous.)

There are clearly many contributors to this. Regulation is cited in the above post and seems to be most common reason mentioned. Rising energy costs is another major one. The less-talked-about contributor is consumer demand.

Most things are “good enough”

Clayton Christensen’s theory on disruptive innovation shows that as average performance demanded goes up, the performance level supplied by products generally goes up faster, eventually surpassing the majority of the market.

As a technology improves, its performance surpasses most market demand, and things became “good enough” over time. Customers aren’t willing to pay more for better performance. This leaves the market open for disruptors — either on the low-end (good enough performance but cheaper), or by having better performance on a completely different metric.

Back to airline travel. Flying from NYC to LAX in 6 hours became good enough for most people. Sure, less would be better, but not at much more cost. Only high end, richer users truly needed more. So airplane makers moved on to other attributes that weren’t good enough: safety, flexibility, price.

Continue reading “To Increase Progress, Increase Desire”

Let’s jumpstart the new industrial revolution

There is as much headroom in physics and engineering for energy as there is in computation; what is stopping us is not lack of technology but lack of will and good sense. — J. Storrs Hall

There have been three industrial revolutions. The first two spanned from the late 1700s to the early 1900s and essentially created the technological world we know today. Energy, transportation, housing, and most “core” infrastructure is pretty similar now as it was at the end of this period — especially if you extend it into the 1970s. The third revolution, the “Digital Revolution”, started around this time and as anyone reading this knows has made computing and communication ubiquitous.

There were bad things that came from these revolutions: pollution, environmental destruction, war, child labor, etc. But the good overwhelmed the bad, leading to GDP per capita (”resources per person”) doing this, which we can use as a proxy for progress in a host of other areas like longer/healthier lifespan, lower child mortality, less violence, lower poverty, and more.

Wikipedia describes the potential Fourth Industrial Revolution as “…the joining of technologies like artificial intelligence, gene editing, to advanced robotics that blur the lines between the physical, digital, and biological worlds.”

These things are great, but we need more. Much more.

As just one example, it’s become abundantly clear over the past few weeks the importance of energy independence. But why don’t we already have it?

The cost of PV cells has collapsed over the past few decades. We also know it’s possible to build nuclear reactors far safer and more productive than any in the past. There should be solar panels on every home, geothermal wells in every town, and multiple nuclear fission (possibly fusion?) reactors in every state. A setup like this would lead to redundant energy at every scale, not reliant on geopolitics or over-centralization.

We should want to consume more energy, not less. (And unlike the second industrial revolution, it can be clean energy with minimal externalities.)

What else could a new industrial revolution bring? Just imagine what you’d see in a typical sci-fi movie:

Space parks/hotels/colonies, limb regeneration, flying cars, supersonic jets, same-day shipping to anywhere on Earth, self-replicating nanobots, new animal species, plants everywhere, infrastructure made out of GM trees, universal vaccines for all viruses, mobile robotic surgeons that can save lives on-location, convoys of self-driving cars, batteries with 50x current power, etc. etc.

To build these things — or even to see if they’re possible — a lot needs to change. Here’s just a few I’ve been thinking about:

  • Create a pro-progress culture. Pro-progress means anti-stasis. We’ve come a long way, and things are pretty good now. But they could be better. Far more people should be optimistic about the future and what they can do now to make it better.
  • Find more ways to celebrate and fund scientists and inventors like we do founders, celebrities, executives and sports stars. More crazy ideas should be funded, and even if they don’t succeed, the culture should be accepting of it.
  • Take more risks as a society. Incremental progress is great but even over long periods it can lead to a local optimum. To get to a higher peak, we need more exploration, experimentation, and invention. With this comes risk. We should do whatever we can to be conscious of and mitigate these risks, but in the end if the precautionary principle is applied to everything, we’ll be stuck in stasis until a global catastrophe forces our hand.
  • Allocate more resources to efforts that have high expected return to life on Earth. Nuclear fusion, for example, may have only a small probability of succeeding in the next 10 years. But if it does, it could bring enormous benefits to the world (to humans, animals, plants, you name it). The probability-weighted return to life on Earth is thus very large, and yet minimal resources are being devoted to it. The industrialization of space is another example. Concerned about depleting Earth’s resources or peak “X”? You wouldn’t be if we could mine asteroids and move potentially harmful processes off-planet.

If you agree with any of the above or are interested in similar ideas, here’s a few good resources I’ve enjoyed recently: