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October 2023 BenGoldhaber.com Newsletter
The point of barbarity, progress on AI governance, and an emo nite playlist.
Congratulations on making it through October. This newsletter is arriving a tad late because, in part, I tried and failed to avoid doomscrolling the news around Israel, and I wasn’t excited about going back through it all for the roundup. I’m not going to repost all of them, but a few articles I found particularly valuable:
Radical Islamic Terrorism in Context: I couldn’t understand the strategic logic of kidnapping and massacring civilians, posting your atrocities on telegram, and how from any rational actor model that could be beneficial for Hamas’s strategic goals. Scholars Stage advances a theory, originally about ISIS but applicable to Hamas, that reactionary forces are fighting on two fronts - against their stated enemies, but also against the largely complacent go with the flow majority of the population that is concerned with their day to day livelihood. Savage barbarity forces the fence sitters to pick a side and disempowers modernizers:
A much larger group cannot be bothered to agitate for anything, but are content to let history take its course. This second group are the people who keep Arabian reactionaries from sleeping properly each night. They know that letting history run its course is to declare defeat. They also know that they alone do not have power to derail history from this chosen path. Defeat seems assured.
… The most committed are willing to go to extreme measures to awaken the apathetic to their senses…
This is the social context that gives birth to radical Islamic terrorism. From the radical’s perspective, compromise is just another step towards defeat; moderation or apathy from inside the system pose greater dangers than pressure from outside it. Thus the central aim of radical groups is to create a political environment where moderation and compromise is not possible.
This is what barbarity is for. This is why innocent men, women, and children are being gunned down in malls and blown up in market places. It forces everyone to take a side. Barbarity precludes compromise. It takes advantage of the old tribal urge to unite and defend the near us from the far other. And if these savage tactics de-humanize Muslims in eyes of the rest of the world – well, all the better. In the traditional Islamic system pressure from the outside is business as usual.
The Ethical Case for a Siege of Gaza: I endorse Hanania’s take that the decimation of Hamas and the demilitarization Northern Gaza should be the goals for Israel. It is a brutal conclusion, but the two state solution died with the failure of the Clinton Camp David Accords, and the Ireland solution of de-escalating the conflict and winning one another over with economic growth and civil society ties ended on Oct 7th.
The recent attack has in any event shown that the status quo is untenable, by making it impossible to deny the ultimate ambitions of Hamas, while reminding us that their capabilities are likely to only increase over time. Israel has tried the path of seeking to ensure that Gazans suffer as little as possible for the actions of their government, based on the theory that they are not responsible for what Hamas does. This moral intuition is correct, but it does not give guidance regarding how to go forward.
Swift Centre predictions. The superforecasters at Swift Centre, shortly after the conflict began, made a general and conditional set of predictions about the conflict. The general take was this would be the deadliest war in the last 75 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict:
61% chance there will be over 25,000 deaths in Gaza
20% chance Hamas retains de facto control of Gaza City
56% chance Israel–Hezbollah fatalities will exceed 500.
I hope these predictions are wrong and that there is a swift and just end to the war.
Looking away from the Middle East, October has seen tremendous progress on international cooperation on AI Safety. It is really quite something to hear the King of England promote the need for urgent action on AI, and to see so many statements and government action:
International Dialogue on AI Safety: “Coordinated global action on AI safety research and governance is critical to prevent uncontrolled frontier AI development from posing unacceptable risks to humanity” .
Executive Order on AI from the White House: “Protect against the risks of using AI to engineer dangerous biological materials by developing strong new standards for biological synthesis screening”.
Bletchley Declaration from the UK Summit: “There is potential for serious, even catastrophic, harm, either deliberate or unintentional, stemming from the most significant capabilities of these AI models.”
It’s heartening to see the beginning of real international coordination on the risks from advanced AI.
Elon's decision making: an anecdote compilation: Nintil compiled a set of anecdotes on how Elon Musk has approached decisions and the heuristics he uses. It’s great to see mental models of famously competent people actually grounded out in the specific examples.
Anecdote: Elon wanted to move servers from a twitter data center in Sacramento to another in Portland. He was told it would take 6-9 months for a variety of reasons. He went to the data center, got together some people and U-Hauls and got the servers moved within weeks instead.
A success? In a way yes and in a way no: the servers did get moved faster than the "default setting". However, Elon later judged that moving the servers (to close that datacenter) had been the wrong move
Shopify Memo: I like reading a good, concrete investment thesis - it is a a window into a well articulated description of the world and the future. This, from a VC, is a reproduction of their original investment memo in Shopify, as well as notes from the author looking back on the decision years later.
Shopify is a SaaS application for setting up and running an online store. In many ways, its strength lies in its simplicity, which is ideally suited to small businesses. A non-techie can start taking orders from a professional-looking online store in a few hours after sign-up.
Customize storefront’s look & feel. Select a design template from their “Theme Store”, which includes templates created by their community of 500 web designers. Those who want more flexibility can edit make direct edits to HTML or CSS. A customer can switch out a template and have their site dynamically updated.
They were one of the first cloud companies to successfully create a third party app ecosystem that enabled customers to get access to functionality without having to rely on Shopify to develop it. However in the early days they didn't have many customers so it was difficult to attract third party developers. They resorted to running contests for the best third party app, taking a page from our portfolio company Twilio which has also had success building an ecosystem of third party apps.
Enhancing Self-Therapy with Internal Family Systems and AI: I really love the careful design that the author shows to the creation of an Internal Family Systems oriented AI therapy tool, and the way they walk through the design inspiration for the tool. There have been a lot of AI Therapist startups recently, and my impression is they are moving fast and loose in an area that deserves more care. Creating a tool for thought, one you are trusting with people’s deep vulnerabilities, deserves a thoughtful approach, not just to avoid messing with peoples heads, but also because if you don’t people won’t use it.
It’s an extremely similar idea to a vision I had back in 2021 for an IFS/Focusing assistant - I called it a phenomenological field journal, which I still love as a name - but the AI capabilities wasn’t there yet. I think they are now!
espanso: A good open source text snippet app - if you often find yourself typing the same thing a lot you can shorten it to a single keyword. TextExpander is the closed source version that requires less file system knowledge.
Zinc Lozenges: Cold and Flu season is here, and right now the only intervention I know of to reduce the severity of colds is Zinc. I take Zinc Lozenges when traveling or when I feel a cold approaching, and while this is just conjecture on my part, I think they also have a prophylactic quality, preventing colds (which intuitively makes sense in that the mechanism of action is coating areas where viruses tend to take up residence and disrupting their function). This is another case where More Dakka is helpful - this particular brand is huge and provides a lot more Zinc Acetate than the generic zicam variety.
Barbie: I finally watched it and I must say, it was great; far better than it had any right to be. The plot was fast and fun, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are excellent in their roles, and while it has third act problems who cares, it’s just great to have another cultural movie phenomenon that’s not about superheroes.
Gen V: Another show set in The Boys universe, it keeps the fun irreverent tone, and pairs world building and character drama well. If you liked the Boys, this is worth a watch (though, warning, same gross over the top violence aesthetic).
Emo Nite: My favorite live music performance of the year was attending a band and DJ covering the Emo and Pop Punk songs of my generation. A truly top tier collection of songs from back when music was good (when I was 15).