Like he was never there

February 12th, 2019  |  General

During an idle lunch chat at work yesterday somebody said that they enjoyed reading “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” book and wondered if the movie would be any good. I looked it up on IMDB and mentioned that the lead actress Jessica Brown Findley was in “Downton Abbey”, and they said that the movie also features Lily James from the same show. As these random conversations go, Lily’s thick eyebrows were mentioned, and that reminded me – of all things – how thick and bushy Leonid Brezhnev’s eyebrows were.

So I pulled up image search with his photos on my phone to show what I meant. And as I was idly scrolling his Wikipedia page, I then mentioned how, in the mid ’80s when I was growing up, there were a couple of old guys who were in power for only 12-18 months before passing on. So that brought me to this Wikipedia page to check the exact numbers. And I was shocked.

Growing up in the fifteen or so years of USSR, we were obviously exposed to a lot of propaganda. And a lot (and I mean holy cow of a lot) of history of the communist party and its glorious deeds stretching all the way back to 1917. Statues of Lenin were everywhere. Statues of Stalin were everywhere – despite Khrushchev’s campaign to dismantle Stalin’s cult of personality. And despite shallow mentions of repression, purges, forced labor camps and great famine that, collectively, killed over 20 million people between 1935 and 1953 (when he died) – a figure that does not include another 20 million that died during World War II.

We were taught that Lenin’s brief time at the top was succeeded by Stalin’s 30 years of power. Followed by about a dozen years of Khrushchev and almost 20 by Brezhnev. Three towering figures that have ruled the Soviet Union over 60 years.

And here was the name that I never heard of – Georgy Malenkov. Right there between Stalin and Khrushchev. His swift ascension through the party ranks as a close associate of Lenin. Eventually becoming Stalin’s right-hand man and second in command in early 1950s. And succeeding Stalin as Premier of the Soviet Union the day after his death.

A week later he was forced to resign from the Secretariat by Khrushchev. Following a short political struggle, he was forced out from all top party offices two years later. And in 1957, he launched an unsuccessful attempt at a coup against Khrushchev.

He was exiled to his hometown in Kazakhstan. He later was given a two-bedroom apartment in Moscow where he lived quietly, with no political ambitions, until his death in 1988. There were no eulogies on state television. And there was no grand state burial service to honor his achievements. First books about him were published after Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

They say the history is written by the victors. His name was never mentioned in Soviet history books that we read at school in the 1980s. As far as those books were concerned, Khrushchev succeeded Stalin as the leader of the country. There was never that gap of a week – or a couple of years – depending on what political position we’re talking about. It was like Georgy Malenkov never existed.

By the time the first books about him were published, I was out of school and Soviet Union did not exist anymore. The whole structure of societal order and market forces that people knew in the last 75 years collapsed. People were forced to adapt to the new world after 3 or 4 generations of living in a state where everything was owned and controlled by the government. Nobody had either time or inclination to go back and revisit the country’s history. Even though, for the first time in generations, the old archives were finally wide open for historians to read about everything that was kept under tight wraps by the party apparatus.

It was like Georgy Malenkov never existed.

Amazon and traditional retailers

February 8th, 2019  |  Technology

I don’t think I’ll see self-driving cars in the next 20 years (see here for my definition of what a self-driving car is).

I don’t think I’ll see general artificial intelligence in the next 20 years. The sort of general AI that can distinguish between what it means when you drive a car and see a soccer ball bouncing into the street, and see a empty plastic bag floating into the street. The sort of general AI that can understand that the former has a much higher chance of a small kid running into the street to chase that ball. The sort of general AI that we would need for that self-driving car utopia.

But I am 99% certain that in the next 5 years Amazon will have a fully automated warehouse that does not have any human presence on the floor. I keep on thinking about how “I, Robot” portrayed fully automated highway traffic at 180+ mph with barely any space left between vehicles. And I keep on thinking how much money Amazon will be able to shave off of every single physical purchase when they remove the last human operator from that chain. Except for the delivery vehicles of course. I don’t for a second believe that we’ll see automated delivery of any sort, be it ground vehicles or drones, in the next 20 years.

At that point, it’s pretty much game over for anybody else in the retailer space. I don’t think that anybody else – be it Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Office Depot, JC Penney etc – has the right blend of warehouse coverage and technological research into warehouse automation. And how likely is it that Amazon would be willing to share that automation technology with their competitors?

Of all the individual tech stocks that we own, I am by far the most optimistic about Amazon.

Self-driving cars

February 6th, 2019  |  Technology

Three things that are highly unlikely to happen within the next 20 years (be sure to read the disclaimer after the list before jumping in to comment):

  1. SkyNet-style machine uprising or any similar “at which point the technology has became self-aware and decided to eliminate the humanity” event
  2. Self-driving cars
  3. George R.R. Martin finishing the “A Song of Ice and Fire” books

And now the disclaimer. By self-driving cars I mean the combination of technology and legislature that would give me the option, owned, leased or on-demand, to have a vehicle for myself and my family to get me from point A to point B at my time of choosing. The only mandatory condition is that it would not require me to pay any attention to what is happening during the trip.

If I am required – by technology or by law – to be able to take over the control of the vehicle at any point in time, that is not a self-driving car in my world. If the technology is only available on specific roads (highways, for example) or under very specific weather conditions, that is also not a self-driving car in my world.

Pay to enjoy

January 31st, 2019  |  General

I’ve been playing a couple of games from the same developer, and along the way talking to my not-quite-yet teenage son about paying money for games.

The thing that I tell him about in-app purchases, as well as paying money for stuff in general is to think about what you’re getting out of it. Let’s forget for a second that behind every decent game there’s a whole bunch of people – designers, testers, programmers, managers – without whom this piece of entertainment that keeps you occupied wouldn’t exist. Let’s forget for a second that not only those people expect to be paid for their effort, but the nature of capitalism dictates that a profit is expected to be made on top of that as well. So let’s put that aside.

The concept of pay-to-win (or p2w) is that you pay to get things that make you more powerful. You get to beat the game quicker or more easily. You get an advantage on non-paying players (more on that in a moment). And, at least for me, you get to enjoy more of the game sooner.

When I talk with my son about in-app purchases, I talk about what he expects to get out of it. Is it a one-time purchase for something that is gone, so to speak, after you use it? Is it a one-time purchase for something that you can use for as long as you want until you get something better. Or is it, perhaps, something that gives you ongoing benefits for a fixed amount of time – like in these two games where you pay $2.99 and have certain daily benefits for 30 days.

And I always tell him that entertainment is in the vast majority of cases not free. I tell him that when we go to a movie theater, we pay $8-12 for a ticket for something that lasts about a couple of hours and might not even be that good by the end of it. I tell him that watching his favorite soccer team or the last episode of Spongebob comes with a three-digit monthly bill from Comcast. I tell him that if I want to enjoy the latest book in “The Expanse” novel series, I need to pay.

And I also tell him that some of that entertainment can be enjoyed if you’re willing to wait longer. That movie will eventually find its way to basic cable, heavily peppered with ad breaks. That book will eventually find its way to the nearest library, with an additional healthy wait if it gets too popular with other readers. But that some entertainment might never be free, such as top-level sports competition or anything Disney.

Instead, I say that it is the “pay to enjoy” model. I pay to enjoy movies on the big screen instead of waiting a few months until they’re available in digital formats to be watched at home. I pay to enjoy reading books from my favorite authors as they are released instead of waiting until they get to the library. I pay to enjoy albums from my favorite performers instead of trying to catch a song or two on free streaming networks peppered with, you guessed what, ads.

And here’s the argument that I’ve been toying with in the last few days.

Specifically in the realm of games, and especially mobile games – how much difference is there between advancing in the game by paying with money and paying with time?

Most people advance by putting a lot of time, grinding through the “obstacles” carefully placed by the game designers. People in this group have what I consider to be disposable time. For this group, putting in 12-16 hours a day to hone a perfect execution without using any extra resources is a cause for celebration in forums.

And some people advance by putting some (dolphins) or a lot of (whales) money into it, triggered by the “opportunities” carefully placed by the game designers. People in this group have what I consider to be disposable money.

So far I have failed to find an argument that people in the first group use to look down, or even rage, at the second group – that can’t be turned on its head and used in the exact opposite way.

If you say that people who put a lot of money into your favorite game have an unfair advantage over free-to-play participants, the same argument goes for people who put a lot of time to grind through it. If somebody is willing to put 10-12 hours every day, would you consider that to be an unfair advantage over somebody who “only” plays for an hour or two? If that is not unfair, how different is paying a couple of bucks to get the same advantage?

If you say that people who are new to the game should “pay their dues” before they get to the same level of achievement as those who have been at it for a while, let me introduce you to the history of guilds and unions. Let me also point at how “well” Europe (on average) is doing in these unprecedented times of technological innovation. But that’s a side note.

You might say that people who “rush” though the game by paying for everything and skipping the important basics end up being pretty terrible at playing it. That you need to grind the basics to “properly” enjoy the more advanced things. Let me tell that there are some pretty terrible players out there in every game, no matter if they paid anything or not.

And the most ridiculous argument that I read just the other day was that the money the whales spend on games should instead by donated to charities, or at least done as 1-to-1 match. Makes me wonder if the person who wrote that comment spends one hour of community work for every hour they spend on playing games. If so, kudos.

I wonder if there’s an argument to be made against pay-to-win players that can’t be turned on its head. Note that I say players and not game developers. I am not asking you to rage against studios that focus on subscriptions, loot boxes, add-ons etc aka the greedy bunch. Focus only on people who are willing to pay to enjoy their games as they see fit. Convince me that I’m wrong.