Tesla is finding the limits of “naive innovation”

“If that car was made anywhere else, and Elon wasn’t part of the manufacturing process, they would make a lot of money,” Munro said in an interview. “They’re just learning all the old mistakes everyone else made years ago.”

From an interesting Bloomberg article. A group of analysts tore apart a Tesla 3 and were impressed by the technology, but found the execution lacking.

This is a really common narrative out of Silicon Valley. It’s a place that lauds “naive innovation” – that an outsider can come up with solutions the experts just overlook.

“Munro found that Tesla reduced the amount of wiring snaking through the car by concentrating a lot of the electronics in small circuit boards. That’s knowledge from Silicon Valley that the carmakers don’t have. The trick now is turning this established technological advantage into consistent profits—and to do that Musk needs to hire executives with experience in the nuts and bolts of carmaking…”

In some respects naive innovation has served Silicon Valley well. SpaceX is a perfect example. But it can discount valuable experience.

My favourite is this interview with Spotify co-founder Daniel Ek:

When Google turned him down for a job, he thought, “I’ll just make my own search engine, it can’t be that hard,” he said. “It turns out it’s really, really hard.

It also reminds me of many anecdotes in Bad Blood, the story of biotech startup Theranos. The founder of which has since been indicted for fraud.

Theranos aimed and claimed to have invented a device that could do myriad blood tests on just a drop of blood. But there’s a reason the many well-capitalised and incentivised biotech companies had failed.

From Bad Blood:

“The ability to perform so many tests on just a drop or two of blood was something of a Holy Grail in the field of microfluidics. Thousands of researchers around the world in universities and industry had been pursuing this goal for more than two decades…”

“But it had remained beyond reach for a few basic reasons. The main one was that different classes of blood tests required vastly different methods. Once you’d used your micro blood sample to perform an immunoassay, there usually wasn’t enough blood left…”

“Had Steve Burd been allowed inside the East Meadow Circle lab, a network of rooms located in the center of the low-slung building, he would have noticed that it didn’t contain a single Theranos proprietary device. That’s because the miniLab was still under development and nowhere near ready for patient testing. What the lab did contain was more than a dozen commercial blood and body-fluid analyzers made by companies such as Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories, Germany’s Siemens, and Italy’s DiaSorin…“

The experts quoted in the Bloomberg piece gush about Tesla’s technology. But there’s a reason many of us are bearish about Tesla – 150 years of institutional knowledge isn’t something to be scoffed at.

What makes a good shot?

When we observe a success or a failure, we are observing one data point, a sample from under the bell curve that represents the potentialities that previously existed. We cannot know whether our single observation represents the mean or an outlier, an event to be on or a rare happening that is not likely to be reproduced.

This is another passage from The Drunkards Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. It highlights a common bias, especially in the public space; that we judge actions purely by their results.

We readily assign praise for success and blame for failure, despite not knowing the probabilities and tradeoffs, or how the decision was made.

Take basketball for instance. The NBA regular season is just about to start and so we can expect plenty of ooing and aahing. But a shot going in is not what makes it good. Just as a missed shot is not necessarily bad.

A good basketball shot is one that maximises the expected value – taking into account both the probability of scoring (the player’s skill, whether they are guarded etc.) and the value of the shot (one, two or three points). A good shot is one that you can take again and again, regardless of whether you miss one or even a sequence, leaving you ahead in the long run.

A good shot is unlikely to be the one that makes you gasp, or that you remember later. A high degree of difficulty isn’t what we are looking for. Hitting an off-balance shot with time running out should be the exception.

It’s time for other arguments about climate change

The “debate” about climate change is so poisoned it has brought down at least two Australian prime ministers, and the very term is redacted from US government websites.

So maybe it’s time to retire, or at least rein in, this line of argument. The externalities produced by burning coal and oil, from factory farming etc., have many facets that can be tackled. Notably, health.

Take this recent study on air pollution from researchers at Arizona State:

“We find that a 1 microgram-per-cubic-meter increase in average decadal exposure (9.1% of the mean) increases the probability of receiving a dementia diagnosis by 1.3 percentage points (6.7% of the mean). This finding is consistent with hypotheses from the medical literature.”

“Burgeoning medical literature provides reason to suspect that long-term exposure to elevated pollution levels may permanently impair older adults’ cognition, especially in the case of particulates smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, commonly known as “fine particulate matter” or “PM2.5”. The small size of PM2.5 allows it to remain airborne for long periods, to penetrate buildings, to be inhaled easily, and to reach and accumulate within brain tissue. The accumulation of particulates in the brain can cause neuroinflammation, which is asso-ciated with symptoms of dementia…”

So, emissions are not just harmful to the environment, but human health as well. The suffering isn’t only in the long term, evident only in a computer model, but in the health of real people living right now.

It’s also worthwhile thinking about who bears the brunt of this. The workers in industries like mining, obviously. But as a recent hurricane in North Carolina showed, polluting industries are also often situated in poorer areas:

“Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors — and even without a hurricane — life expectancy in southeastern North Carolina communities near industrial meat growers is lower than in places without these hog operations. A recent study published in North Carolina Medical Journal found that residents near the industrial animal operations had higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia, and higher rates of emergency room visits than the residents in the control group.”

As Ketan Joshi has noted, denying climate science is now akin to being an anti-vaxxer both in the scientific illiteracy required as well as the harm being wrought. But we can’t expect to win this fight, especially in the short time we have to take action. Instead, we should change the subject. There are plenty of other arguments to make.

Why I don’t use the phone on my phone

“Not picking up the phone would be like someone knocking at your door and you standing behind it not answering. It was, at the very least, rude, and quite possibly sneaky or creepy or something. Besides, as the phone rang, there were always so many questions, so many things to sort out. Who was it? What did they want? Was it for … me?”

This is an interesting piece by Alexis C. Madrigal on the demise of phone calls. But I don’t think he does enough to drive home the shift that has taken place.

Phone calls are an especially violent form of communication. This is in part because they are strictly synchronous – all participants have to take part at the same time – but also because a ringing telephone is incredibly distracting.

Unless it has been scheduled beforehand, a phone call by definition places the caller’s needs above the recipient. Without the screening technology of newer forms of communication, anyone with your number can impose their consciousness onto yours.

Even if you don’t answer. No matter what you are doing.

But the plethora of asynchronous communications methods – text messages, email, social media etc. – means the bar to phone calls is now higher. Or at least it should be.

If it isn’t life or death, or you don’t need an answer five minutes ago, then don’t call me. There are plenty of ways to communicate that don’t prioritise one person above another.

Calling when it isn’t necessary is, in fact, quite rude.

“No one picks up the phone anymore. Even many businesses do everything they can to avoid picking up the phone… There are many reasons for the slow erosion of this commons. The most important aspect is structural: There are simply more communication options.”

Unfortunately, society hasn’t quite caught up to this new norm. Or, at least, older generations haven’t.


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