Capitalism, intellectual property, and artificial scarcity

January 10, 2023 Leave a comment

From Benn Jordan (aka The Flashbulb):

The streaming business model simply does not work… it’s still completely botched. Capitalism only works when there’s scarcity… Capitalism, above all things, requires growth, and the function of intellectual property is the opposite of growth. It’s about monetizing intangible things and then trying to profit by limiting who has access… The sooner that artists, intellectual property holders, and investors can accept and digest this, then the sooner we can build a music industry that doesn’t collapse every single decade… There’s nothing further from the purity and beauty of making music than the dumpster file of a company blitzscaling. When the music streaming mode collapses — and it will — we will still have this gift.

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“But the schools have to stay open!”

Joseph M. Adelman, author of Revolutionary Networks, posted this to Twitter on Jan. 5, 2022:

As a parent, as an educator, and as someone who teaches future educators, I am seething at the ways in which American society this week is telling teachers they don’t matter, shouldn’t use their voices, shouldn’t have an opinion.

There is a point where there aren’t enough healthy teachers available to be in classrooms with students, regardless of the ventilation, masking, vaccination status. None of that matters if adults are out sick. There is a point where there aren’t enough healthy kids in a classroom to make academic progress possible, creating a vexing dilemma for a teacher: do you keep going and double back? Stop and wait for everyone to return?

And just to be clear: switching to a remote format on zero days’ notice creates *more* work for teachers, not less. I had two weeks in Spring 2020 and college classes with lots of leeway and it was a Herculean task to figure out.

One (flawed) analogy that keeps coming to mind are the harshest winters we’ve had—in 2015 in MA, a few when I was growing up in NY. Constant snow days made Jan/Feb chaotic; it was difficult to learn when we didn’t know from one day to the next whether we’d have school. Which is to say that the question is not “do schools stay open or close?” The question right now is: “How do we best manage the next 3-6 weeks so that students have the stability and continuity available to them to keep learning until the Omicron surge subsides?”

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“Comparison is the death of joy.”

A couple of bits of wisdom from the founders of Basecamp, during this Q&A session on their new e-mail product, Hey (lightly edited for conciseness):

Jason Fried (at 1:02:25):

If you compare yourself to another company and define your success based on whether or not you’ve beaten them, taken them on, on whatever, you’re just in a bad spot to begin with. There’s a famous quote: “Comparison is the death of joy.” I absolutely believe that this is not about “taking on” anybody. This is about building something that we believe is excellent, and that we want other people to see and use, because we think it’s really gonna change people’s daily habits. People are in email every single day, and if we can make that better, that’s meaningful. I’m not saying we’re changing the world; but, if we can save you an extra half hour a day, that’s a real improvement. This is not about beating Gmail. Gmail is 1.5 billion accounts. We’ll never get there. I don’t want to get there. We couldn’t run that company. Success for us has always looked looked the same way: would we want to do this same thing again? It is not measuring against anyone else’s yardstick, anyone else’s success, dollars, numbers, none of that stuff; that doesn’t get you anywhere. You got to really want to do the thing again, and if you, do then it was successful.

We know we can’t beat Gmail. Gmail has at least 50% of the U.S. email market. We’re never gonna get that. We don’t want that. We couldn’t have that. So if that was our only measure, we are going to fall down every day and be exhausted doing so. That’s not the business I want to run.

David Heinemeier Hansson (at 1:05:20):

Not interested in a billion users, not interested in running an ad-supported product. We make these decisions consciously that limit the potential — some people would say the “ambition” — of the product, but our ambition is focused on making the best product, not getting the most people, not beating everyone, not dominating anything. If we can make a great product, that’s profitable and sustainable, with a great bunch of people, that’s success.


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Our first duty as professors is the safety and well-being of our students

It’s not something we explicitly think about often, but our first duty as professors, above all other concerns, is the safety and well-being of our students.

Georgia Tech has sometimes failed in this duty. We failed Scout Schultz. We failed in our response to Covid-19 near the beginning Spring Break.

One of my first thoughts upon reading about the events of this weekend was “well, at least we’re already all off campus and in distance learning mode because of the pandemic.”

On January 1st, I didn’t really have “pandemic” on my 2020 bingo card. I didn’t have “desperately searching for a tiny bright side of a pandemic” either.

There’s no shortage of middle-aged suburban white men offering opinions right now, so I’m not sure I have anything useful to add. I’ll just note that in almost two decades of working at Georgia Tech, often far late into the night, I’ve never once had the police, or anyone else, question my right to be there. And I’ve never felt like I had to worry about it either. The same is not true for all of my colleagues. Having “white privilege” isn’t having something that I don’t deserve; it’s people who don’t have that privilege being denied something that they do deserve. It’s not me getting a bonus on my saving throws; it’s others getting a penalty on theirs.

The news was full of horrors before the Coronavirus arrived. All of those horrors are still there. And now, the horrific murder of George Floyd, and the aftermath, have largely pushed the pandemic across off front page — but the Coronavirus hasn’t heard the news, and it wouldn’t care if it did.

To any GT students reading this: please, please, please try to stay safe. I am worried about you when I (eventually) wake up. I am worried about you when I lie in bed trying to go to sleep. And I am worried about every minute in between.

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“You want to be like you. Because acting is hard.”

In an interview on the Love Your Work podcast by David Kadavy, Basecamp co-founder and Rework author Jason Fried said:

If you believe in doing things your way, and it doesn’t compute with the rest of the world, do things your way. If you want to take a certain chance, and everybody else thinks you’re crazy, and you believe in it, then do it. You really have to get to know yourself and answer to yourself, versus letting other people define your own limits and your borders… Something I hear from people, when I speak, is “oh I want to be like you guys!” No you don’t. You want to be like you. Because acting is hard. Acting makes you have to hold a bunch of things in your head about a different state of the world that is not natural to you. And once you stop acting, everything becomes a lot easier; you may succeed, and you may not, but at least you’re being honest and true to yourself.

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The opposite of Harry Potter’s tent

The Chair of the School of ECE at Georgia Tech, Magnus Egerstedt, wrote this in his Spring 2019 end-of-semester message to the School:

…it is very important that we create an environment where we are supportive of each other, where collaborative research is second-nature to how we do business, and where faculty, students, and staff share a common vision for the school. In fact, I have started referring to this (to the consternation of some of my colleagues) as the opposite of Harry Potter’s tent. Harry’s tent was tiny on the outside but spacious on the inside. I want our School to be the absolute opposite of this — we should look massive to the outside world in terms of the scope, reach, and impact of our work, yet be small and cozy on the inside.

I love this analogy.

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Should all startups strive for exponential growth?

On pp. 22-23 of Rework, 37Signals (aka Basecamp) founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson write:

What is it about growth and business? Why is expansion always the goal? What’s the attraction besides ego? (You’ll need a better answer than “economies of scale.”) What’s wrong with finding the right size and staying there?… Maybe the right size for your company is five people. Maybe it’s forty. Maybe it’s two hundred. Or maybe it’s just you and a laptop. Don’t make assumptions about how big you should be ahead of time. Grow slow and see what feels right — premature hiring is the death of many companies. And avoid huge growth spurts too — they can cause you to skip right over your appropriate size. Small is not just a stepping-stone. Small is a great destination in itself.

I’ve been thinking about that in the context of venture capital firms pouring money into a bunch of startups. They’re all seeking exponential growth. And the VCs are willing to risk a lot of of those startups failing, since they only need a couple of those startup to hit the “big time” to recoup their losses from the failures.

But, this leaves out an entire range of potential businesses, with novel products and services, that could provide value to a lot of people, but wouldn’t necessarily turn into the next Amazon or Facebook. There should be a place for unconventional small businesses — not just typical suspects like restaurant franchises, nail salons, day care centers, and dentist offices, but truly groundbreaking enterprises — that can comfortably stay small (and in fact might break if they grow too much).


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University professors insult cognitive scientists when we ignore their findings

There is something horribly, profoundly, utterly broken about our “system” — both at Georgia Tech and at other universities — if it reduces our students to tears on a semiregular basis.

Cognitive scientists have learned many things about how people learn: how they learn poorly, and how they learn well.

Yet, at the start of every school year, the faculty and staff at colleges and universities gather to collectively slap all those cognitive scientists in their faces and tell them that their life’s work is worthless, since we do so many things that are exactly opposite of how we know people best learn.

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10x programmers, according to Ruby on Rails creator and Basecamp co-founder

Debates about the existence or non-existence of “10x programmers” — programmers who are 10 times more productive than most programmers — continue to rage.

David Heinemeier Hansson, Basecamp co-founder and creator of Ruby on Rails, had a take on the 10x topic in this interview by Jellyvision (at the 7:51 mark) that I found so insightful that I wanted to transcribe it and share it:

I don’t think that the 10x productivity things is a myth. What I think is a myth is that somebody can write 10x as much code as somebody else and that all be good and well tested and wonderful. Where I think the 10x thing comes in is by deciding what to do. What to program. How do we create that feature… When you look at any given feature, there’s a version of that feature that can be done in 200 hours, there’s a version of that feature that can be done in 100 hours, and there’s a version of that feature that can be done in 7 hours. The high productivity people are the people who figure out how to deliver value by picking more 7 hour implementations than 200 hour implementations. It’s not that you do the same work faster, it’s that you do different work, and that different work is more valuable.

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“The answers to most of our problems are already here, they’re just in other people’s heads.”

I love this quote by Evan Williams at the 3:30 mark about the goals of his company Medium:

“The intention…at the most succinct and ambitious, the goal is to make the world wiser. You know that William Gibson quote, ‘the future’s already here, just not evenly distributed?’ The answers to most of our problems are already here, they’re just in other people’s heads. The internet’s the best system ever for getting things from one person’s brain into another person’s brain at a massive, global scale.”

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