Q&A 088

Published on:
November 16, 2022

Dear Q&A friends,

Our current edition focuses on the liminal state we're in. We've outgrown our current structures, bouncing into its boundaries on economical and ethical fronts. A new order has not manifested itself yet, but amongst the debris, signals of what's to come emerge. Enjoy!

📅 Structure

Right after the Summer, we wrote about how hard it can be to really get started after a solid break. Having structure and meetings in your diary seems to have its merits to support this process of getting back into high-gear. At the same time, we often write about the value of having downtime to process thoughts and spur creativity.

Contemplating these observations, the word 'balance' popped up, again 😉. Both shutting down completely as well as going all-out with back-to-back meetings doesn't seem to be productive. There is a certain optimal dosing, which in itself you should probably administer in a non-constant way to have it fluctuate over time. Even if this means you'll have meetings during a holiday or an empty diary in the week before Christmas break.

Still, my personal experience is that once there is something in the diary during a holiday, this 'something' is determining the entire day. I find myself not starting a new activity, because it may not fit the schedule, which subsequently results in a form of inactivity and creating the feeling of time lost. It certainly is not my best day.

Everyone thrives on different ways of working. I guess my most important message is to experiment and figure out what works best for you, keeping in mind that there may be more than one modus that works well. Wouldn't it be great if you could choose from a menu full of recipes that taste nice? Like figuring out the best Christmas dinner menu, be sure to enjoy that exercise and invite others to evaluate.

📈 Never-ending

Here's a man with a clear mission: Brad DeLong. He is an economic historian, writes daily economic blogs since 1999 (before the word 'blog' even existed) and recently completed a book covering the history of the "20th century". He spent more than two decades writing it. While writing, he kept discovering new things and couldn't stop. Larry Summers (the former US Treasury secretary and Harvard president) describes him:

“Brad is the person you want to write with if you want a collaborator doing something that’s bold, potentially important, possibly wrong, and unlikely to satisfy pedantic academic referees”

The book is called "Slouching Towards Utopia" and has been recommended to me by multiple persons. I haven't read it yet but an article in The Atlantic made me even more curious.

First of all, Mr. DeLong defines the 20th century as starting in 1870 and ending around 2010. He notes that it is in this period, for the first time in history, that human beings seem to have managed to create more than enough to sustain themselves. But there is also a tragic part; this era has brought weapons of mass destruction and atrocities on a scale never seen before.

That is fascinating, but what also fascinates me is the author himself and what makes him tick.

“I can start reading a book, and then from it I can spin up in my brain a sub-Turing instantiation of the author’s mind, which I then run on my wetware, [...] I can ask it questions, and it answers. ‘A rich inner life’ is one way to put it. Or perhaps a slight absence of grip on what is the real world and what is not.”

It's a never-ending story on multiple fronts. Inequality and distribution of wealth being one of the most profound. And I feel that we can learn a lot of from his mindset in trying to make the next century a successfull one as well. As DeLong admits:

“We may have solved the problem of production [...], we certainly have not solved the problem of distribution, or of utilizing our extraordinary, immense wealth to make us happy and good people.”

History and human happiness are never-ending stories. Fascinating ones.

😈 Evil

The other night, I saw Dutch comedian Lebbis (actually called Hans Sibbel) perform the final part of a trilogy (part I on Netflix here) about our growing consumerism. Comedy turned into Theatre College, as he unpacked a ton of our world's issues, with a mix of sincere eye-openers as well as absurd solutions that made me laugh out loud.

He started his exploration using the book 'Ideas' by Peter Watson, highlighting inventions like 'credit', its origins and ways it is now overstaying its welcome in the wonderful realm of value-adding concepts. Money, and our addiction to it, is at the source of many things evil, so Lebbis argues.

As an illustration, he explains how our translation of real world issues into 'money' can misinform our decisions. After explaining how he painstakenly keeps his warm showers under 5 minutes (a practice he started well before current prices for natural gas), he shares how an informative TV programme explained how showering 2 minutes less each day would save him 80 euros each year. Turning the tables on this idea, he shares how his first thought ('for just 80 euros a year, I can shower 2 extra minutes per day!') can lead us to wrong decision making in the long run. Our ability to pay for something is often the main decision factor behind our consumption.

Lebbis likens our main set of guiding ideas to a carnival attraction we're in. Right now, he argues, the attraction is broken. We should consider getting off this one, moving to another.

🎨 Artificial Creativity

The pace of AI-assisted creativity tool developments is clearly picking up these past years. A little over a year ago we explored GPT-3 and Codex as examples of mind-blowing generative models, able to create proza or computer code from simple directions. Half a year ago, OpenAI's Dall·E 2 blew our minds with image generation, driving illustrators worldwide close to madness and starting discussions on the role of human creativity in the future.

Two weeks ago, Google CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated another major step in generative art; prompt-created video using their Imagen model. A description of a scene ('a blue balloon stuck in the branches of a Redwood tree', 'Camera pans to the zoo entrance') lead to a movie clip showing those exact prompts.

If you want a great overview of generative AI applications, Anne-Laure Le Cunff created a great overview in a NESS labs article. She asks great questions on the limits of AI-generated art, as bonding with artificial life forms does not seem beyond the realm of the possible:

"As a child, I was genuinely concerned about the well-being of my Tamagotchi, and I can imagine how many people will develop such a connection with AI characters who share their own “life” stories."

While my working hypothesis on AI remains in the 'Great Tool' domain, professing Augmented Intelligence instead of Artificial Intelligence, I am intrigued to see where this technology will take us. Why can't something we created have human characteristics after all?

That's it for this week! If you got forwarded this newsletter and like what you read, get your own. Or get an impression of everything else we shared in our renewed, searchable archive.

As always, we would love to hear your thoughts and tips. Just reply to this e-mail to get in touch with us.

Have a great week!

Quinten & Alphons