Sources and Methods #42: Parsing Complexity with Zavain Dar

 
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Zavain Dar 101:

Zavain on Twitter: https://twitter.com/zavaindar

Email: zavain.dar@luxcapital.com

Blog: http://beardedbrownman.com/

Show Notes:

3:00 - The firm created a name for ourselves as one of the first funds specifically focused on deep tech, or emerging tech. Over the years, that’s really encompassed anything from nanotech to metamaterials, spaceships, crypto, satellites, biotech, AI, blockchain, nextgen manufacturing, autonomous cars. All sorts of weird and wonky ideas that are out there.

You’re not only an allocator of capital, but it does feel like you’re pulling the metaphysical strong forward that connects the future or science fiction to the present.

I focus on complex software systems that may or may not be coupled to the real world.

5:21 - How do we not fund the next Theranos? It’s a great question. I’m lucky to be part of a team that’s not scared of primary literature. All of us taken pride in having the ability to scour and read and understand from a first principles basis, a lot of the technologies and engineering systems we invest in.

I wouldn’t say we’re only bottoms up. A lot of what we talk about internally is ‘If this works, then what?’ If this technology is actually able to get off the ground, are there real, applicable strong market forces that this dictates that this captures value, that it’s great for the entrepreneurs, for investors, and for our investors as well. Candidly, that can be the harder part to asses.

12:16 [On advice / lessons from his first startup] Trust your instincts. Be intellectually disciplined to think through all of your decisions without relying on high level proxies, like what’s on TechCrunch or what else in the ecosystem is getting funded, what’s hot or what’s not. Those things are fads and often times its layered iterative processes of others peoples proxies for what other people are thinking over and over again, which ends up being decoupled from reality. If there’s one thing in my career I’ve looked back on, and wished my former or past self had done more of, it would be that I wish my younger Zavain had listened to his instincts with greater enthusiasm or confidence.

The other is to surround yourself with phenomenally intelligent people.

14:02 - That company was acquired by Twitter, and Given my own disposition against social media, or at least working at a social media company, I obviously left. That was really the catalyst towards my future in venture capital.

16:20 - Todd Davies at Stanford first gave me that quote, that capitalism is a phenomenal tool but not a great ideology, it’s not a dogma. I often think in the Valley and in the US at large, we confuse the two. That the laissez-faire capitalist outcome is the moral or ethical outcome. While it’s true you can point to capitalism and say wow, it’s phenomenal for its ability to drive distributed decentralized innovation across various groups - and I think inarguably is one of the most impressive systems to do exactly that, and we have empirical data for that - it doesn’t equate the end outcomes as necessarily the just outcomes.

17:30 - If you walk around San Francisco, there’s a very clear separation between the Haves and the Haves Not. Generally, the Haves are the folks in Tech and the Have Nots are everyone else. For a region with the ability to create so much value and capture such a large portion of that value, it’s frankly disappointing. I think it’s a failure that we have such a large number of people on the streets. That’s not necessarily something that capitalism points at as a problem to solve.

There’s more capital and more upside in optimizing e-commerce on Instagram. I don’t say that in a pejorative way I just say that that’s actually the case. So we need to be honest with ourselves about what capitalism is actually geared towards. If at all moments in time all firms are geared towards increasing profits or increasing revenue or margins, at what moment in time do we actually solve issues in society for classes that are most vulnerable?

21:52 - The advancement of technology - it’s an awesome tool and an awesome outcome. But we should sit there and really think about how it affects society at large.

29:09 - Some truths are simply out of the realm of complexity that potentially a human brain can actually access. Two examples here:

  1. AlphaGo - We saw a computer Go player start to access strategy that not even the best of the best of the best of the best experts of Go in real life could understand. It might be the case that one day some genius Go player will look back at those games and understand exactly the strategies that AlphaGo was employing. But it also may not be the case. It might just be beyond the level of cognitive ability of humans.

  2. I’m an investor in a company called RecursionPharma. They took pictures of human cells and they track how - based on various genetic changes to the human cell - how those genetic changes manifest morphologically or structurally in the pictures of the cells. Often times, what you get is images of 10,000 cells, all with 5,000 features in each cell, all with highly complex, highly non-linear relationships between the features and the cell. And there’s absolutely no way even the most expertly trained pathologist could look at these 10,000 cells and finds all the correlations. It’s not feasible. If you allow a computer to do that, it can find  interesting, highly complex formulas that split apart perfectly the diseased cells from the non-diseased cells. It’s really interesting, and feels like we are in fact coming to something that is scientifically valid and scientifically true even if it’s maybe beyond the capacity of a human to understand. Candidly, I think most of biology fits in that realm.

32:07 - So for the majority of human history, that’s what we’ve had to rely on as true - the the metaphysical, the language, the epistemological. And what we’re starting to see now with advancement in AI, Machine Learning and Data Science is that you can one by one mix all three of those assumptions.

34:28 - [On investing time to learn about these changes in technology] My own suspicion is that technology is only increasing in its power to rapidly drive change and command attention. Such that if you have the time and the resources to invest in learning about it, it’s absolutely worth learning about it. That’s everything from learning about how networks emerge, what network effects are, to really thinking through and trying to understanding how emergence and connectivity of data will affect the types of problems we can solve. And also of course how that too gives rise to all sorts of social, political and anthropological effects.

37:41 - I look back on my training in philosophy and theoretical computer science as the most impactful for the ability to do my job day to day.

45:24 - Mehran Sahami’s inspirational speech on Computer Science

47:40 - [On his work with the Philadelphia 76ers] - The work there was around understanding this new modality of information coming into the league. If you think about the history of most sports, most sports data is recorded in what we refer to as box scores. If you read a newspaper the day after a game, you’ll get these box scores - who the players are, what their numbers are, maybe how many shots they took, how many shots they made, etc.

At this point now, we’re tracking players at the specificity of where every player is on the court at every moment in time. So you end up with a very big, unstructured data set, where at each moment in time - for basketball, you’re getting 11 geo-coordinates. Where are each of the 5 players on each team, and where’s the ball. And the question was - how do we actually manage this?

There are two problems we want to solve:

  1. One is portfolio management. What players are undervalued, who are overvalued, who should we get off our team, who should we draft.

  2. And the other is game ops. You are the Warriors and you’re playing LeBron James and - at this point - the Lakers tomorrow. What’s the best defensive matchup you can have based on how he’s trending over the last 10 games and how your defense has been playing in some prior window in the past.

So the question was - how do we move towards a radical empiricism in sports?

Sources & Methods #40: Data Science with Eric Schles

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Show Notes:

6:50 - [On working at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York] There is some emotional burnout when the work that you do involves slave traders. That can be challenging for a lot of folks. But overall, the ability to know that the work you’ve done has made someone’s life better - there’s nothing like that in the world. It’s better than any other possible thing you could do.

10:07 - The General Problem is that we don’t want people enslaved. Fairly simple. People are not property. People are people. At a high level, that’s the goal. To have no one in the world treated as property.

This [slavery] problem is fundamentally an economics problem.

[On parents enslaving their kids or family members to beg] If you lift people out of poverty, then that doesn’t happen anymore. That’s a path forward to removing that form of slavery. Because that’s not motivated by malice or cruel intent. It’s motivated by simply not having means to do anything else. And this extreme desperation.

13:30 - There are some things we can do within traditional economic stimulus-style things for developing countries that will alleviate a great deal of the problem space. So I originally tried to work on that. The problem there is that economists aren’t particular interested in this. I don’t think they’re disinterested, I want to be clear. I think that their research dollars come from very specific sources and it’s hard to find research dollars for this.

14:29 - In international development, there’s plenty of money and everyone’s interested in this. But you can’t do this only from an aid perspective. You have to stimulate economies. There have to be network effects. Aid can help and lift specific people out of poverty. But we’ve seen that aid can be detrimental. There’s well documented evidence on this. If you give people aid, they become dependent on aid. And if the aid dries up… and the aid goes away, the cycle of dependence basically leaves these people worse off than they were originally.

15:23 - I was lucky enough while I was in the federal government to see how truly well intentioned so many federal employees really are. And I had the specific pleasure of interacting with someone from USAID. They were working on a project in West Africa. What they did was - it’s mind boggling how simply and brilliant and effective this was - was give folks really old cell phones and really old laptops with Excel. They were able to use this to coordinate crop outputs. And look at the weather.

They leveraged basic technology and they were able to get crop outputs up like crazy. And they brought these subsistence farmers up substantially.

These people didn’t need our help the next year.

If you give people standard tools and you are well intentioned, you can actually make a lot more change. Especially for third world or disadvantaged groups.

22:34 - I really recommend checking out the Polaris Project on Global Modern Slavery.

1:04:04 - Research Question #1: We need to figure out the frequency of trafficking

Research Question #2: I’m very interested in the discovering the probability that someone is being trafficked. How likely is a specific neighborhood to be an area for trafficking?

1:09:30 - Specialization is how I determine what problems to solve. I will usually work on issues that have technical solutions.

1:13:07 - I think understanding how automating works is a great skill, not least because it makes you highly employable. People need to make a living.

Follow Eric’s Work on Github: https://github.com/EricSchles

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericschles

Eric Schles on LinkedIn

Sources & Methods #39: Mastery-based Learning with Chris Lee

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Launch School 101:

Chris Lee on Twitter

Launch School

Launch School blog on Medium

Show Notes:

4:27 - (On leaving ‘ad tech’) Most software engineering jobs pay really well, of course, but - and this is probably the case with most jobs, period - you have to reconcile your personal beliefs with the primary goals of a money making enterprise. Everybody has to go through that. Ad tech in particular, especially in san francisco, is focused on growth, and focused on numbers.

It’s hyper focused on money, especially with regards to increasing conversions and eyeballs for the customers of the ad tech company. Which is a fine goal, but not my personal reason for getting up every morning. So it was hard for me to get excited for it. I was excited about my paychecks at first, but eventually you get numb to that.

6:18 - In the search for something different and more meaningful, we decided to focus on education (which led to LaunchSchool). My partner, Kevin, works on this with me, and I’ve known him since 2002. Early in our careers we were both computer engineers at IBM in Austin, Texas.

Early on, we read a book called Good to Great by Jim Collins and he talks about getting the right people on the bus.

9:18 - This is one of the things that makes us unique (in teaching coding skills), is our approach to Mastery Based Learning. It’s about making sure that people know what they’re doing each step of the way, and taking indefinite time on each step.

Ours is a curriculum where you have to demonstrate you understand each topic every step of the way. And we don’t know how long that will take. And we’re a 100% Mastery based program. We evolved over the past 3 to 5 years to that system because we were unhappy with the results we were seeing.

I think we are the only place where Mastery Based Learning is taught.

13:13 - We started this to try to figure out education. It was not a money making endeavor. So to us, teaching became the engineering problem to solve. I was not a proponent of Mastery Based Learning before LaunchSchool. Mastery Based Learning or Competency Based Learning is not unique to LaunchSchool, it’s a well known pedagogy in academic papers. But it’s really hard to implement.

Think about a physical classroom. Mastery Based Learning means that a student gets to occupy a seat in that classroom for an indefinite amount of time. That’s a really hard promise to make when our schools are tasked to usher through students. It’s not about training students and making sure they understand every topic, but getting people through.

15:39 - Complexity grows exponentially if not handled linearly. You have to handle one concept at a time, otherwise the complexity grows out of control.

16:49 - So, everyone wants to talk about algorithms. Well, there’s no point in talking about algorithms and solving complex algorithmic problems if you can’t handle loops. And lots of people can’t handle loops. Or nested loops. There’s no point. So to cover an advanced topic is pointless.

22:24 - I see a lot of people go from Explore - and bypass the Fundamentals - and head straight into Advanced. And then they realize there are so many knowledge gaps they have to plug in, and they spend years fixing that.

25:21 - We chose a pedagogy, and then built a pricing model around that.

27:30 - The value that students get from their education has such a lag from when they pay. There’s a tremendous lag. Think about Uber. You pay for an Uber ride, and you derive the value immediately. I view education almost like a restaurant that serves healthy food, and the restaurant says something like, ‘If you have eat here for 5 years, you’ll live an extra 10 years.’ It doesn’t taste great.

Coding bootcamps can make a big promise - ‘in a few months, you can get a job.’ And they have been getting away with that because the job market is so good. It’s so good - and there’s such high demand for software programmers - that they can take people who are just in that ‘Explore’ phase (of learning) and pay them. And that’s why bootcamps are very successful.

If you think about long-term though, it’s dangerous. Because you have a lot of people who are underskilled. 2 months, 3 months, that’s just not enough time to develop context or nuance for some of these problems. So if there’s a downturn, people are not going to be able to get these jobs. So it’s very dangerous.

I think coding bootcamps are a marketing success. It’s market forces that allow this to happen, and it’s the marketing - it appeals to people's’ desires for fast results. Lasting education needs to last decades, a career. So that’s the hard part of education.

32:14 - You don’t just want a job doing programming. Because most programming jobs, as I alluded to earlier with ad tech, are not very good, are not very satisfying. What you want to do is develop enough mastery so you can dictate some of your own terms on your own career. In order to do that though, you need to get pretty good. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.

Fail State Movie - Documentary on for profit higher education.

36:10 - The key word in higher ed these days is ‘retention.’ It isn’t learning - it’s how do we get students, and how do we get them to stay. Because the attrition rates in a lot of schools are close to 50%. Which is astounding if you think about it. So they’re trying to retain students any way they can. One way they do that is to through grade inflation. So everyone gets a good grade now. A C nowadays is a Fail. If a professor fails too many students, that professor will get pulled into the Dean’s Office and be told ‘What are you doing? If you do that, these students won’t come back.’

38:21 - You’re starting to see companies not demand a college degree anymore. Google doesn’t demand that. Deloitte said recently they won’t demand a college degree. And it’s because the college degree has begun to lose any meaning as far as quality. And part of the reason for that is because schools need to retain all the students, otherwise they can’t make money, so for that reason, they’re letting everyone through. It’s a compound effect here.

It means more than ever that a Mastery Based system is required. Learning institutions have to hold the bar, and educate students on why that is. I spend most of my time talking about Mastery Based Learning for this reason.

47:50 - (On international students in some countries) - It’s pretty easy in the United States to say, if you want to work at Google, you need to learn this (x). That’s a fairly straightforward statement to make. And you can decide, that’s too hard or I don’t want to do that. But when you don’t have that context, it’s really difficult to convince people to learn things deeply unless they have this natural intellectual curiosity.

53:10 - Everyone needs to learn to code just from the perspective of awareness.

Does everyone need to become a software engineer? That I don’t know, it’s more of a career choice. But programming concepts will touch more and more things.

More and more jobs will require how data flows and how systems connect.