nighttime, good quests, audience capture, and the genius of no name's brand
Jason Shen down the generative AI 🐇🕳️
Welcome to the startupy newsletter, a laid back column about very serious ideas.
Cool things curated in our universe
A beautiful essay on nighttime, by Jeanette Winterson
I have noticed that when all the lights are on, people tend to talk about what they are doing – their outer lives. Sitting round in candlelight or firelight, people start to talk about how they are feeling – their inner lives. They speak subjectively, they argue less, there are longer pauses. To sit alone without any electric light is curiously creative. I have my best ideas at dawn or at nightfall, but not if I switch on the lights – then I start thinking about projects, deadlines, demands, and the shadows and shapes of the house become objects, not suggestions, things that need to done, not a background to thought.
ON AUDIENCE CAPTURE
Matt Klein was the recipient of a startupy microgrant last year. He since went on a self-publishing and printing journey and just released a printed zine exploring the topic of Audience Capture: How online audiences and platform metrics control creators, and how we can each maintain our artist integrity.
The zine was was just nominated for “Best Independent Publisher” by the Webby Awards. Please please support him by voting here!
And if you want to pre-order the zine, it’s a wonderful gift for any creator in your life that wants to keep doing what they love without compromising their sanity.
THE GENIUS OF NO NAME’S BRAND
No name is a supermarket brand in Canada. It’s also what happens when you strip away all the fluff and are left with the essential.
Adding is favored over subtracting in problem-solving. But as Pablo Picasso said, art is the “elimination of the unnecessary.”
Curated in #simplicity.
CHOOSE GOOD QUESTS
CB Insights published a list of the 1,200 private companies valued at over $1B. This was an interesting Twitter exchange between Paul Graham and Elon Musk on the list. Paul notes the preponderance of software companies, Elon responds that this is a major misallocation of capital and there is not enough talent in manufacturing heavy industries.
The whole thread reminds me of Trae Stephens’ Choose Good Quests, which is worth a read.
Today, we are in a crisis. Silicon Valley's best — our top operators, exited founders, and most powerful investors — are almost all on bad quests. Exiting your first startup only to enter venture capital and fight your peers for allocation in a hot deal is a bad quest. Armchair philosophizing on Twitter is a bad quest. Yachting between emails in de facto retirement at age 35 is a very bad quest.
In a podcast interview with Patrick O’Shaughnessy, Trae argues that many high-margin software businesses have no impact on society, and sometimes can even have a negative impact on society by pulling talented engineers away from working on more important problems, which are often solved by low margin businesses building with atoms, not bits.
There is an excellent piece by Dan Wang that offers a convincing case for engaging more actively with the material world.
I regret this abstraction of the material world. Most of our living standards are tied to the world of atoms. Even when we spend a lot of time online and on our phones, we go to work in cars and subways; keep ourselves warm and cool using machinery and electricity; surround ourselves with objects that let us cook or relax; and on and on.
OVERCOMING THE NEED TO BE EXCEPTIONAL
Ambition is complicated. We want people choosing exceptional quests, but it’s interesting to consider that the high achievers may in fact be the unwell ones, via the school of life:
It’s a rather simple question that quickly gets to the core of someone’s sense of well-being and legitimacy: did your childhood leave you feeling that you were – on balance – OK as you were? Or did you somewhere along the way derive an impression that you needed to be extraordinary in order to deserve a place on the earth?
It seems odd to look at achievement through this lens, not as the thing the newspapers tell us it is, but – very often – as a species of mental illness. Those who put up the skyscrapers, write the bestselling books, perform on stage, or make partner may, in fact, be the unwell ones. Whereas the characters who – without agony – can bear an ordinary life, the so-called contented ‘mediocrities’, may in fact be the emotional superstars, the aristocrats of the spirit, the captains of the heart. The world divides into the privileged who can be ordinary and the damned compelled to be remarkable.
Founder, PM, & Exec coach
Helping people find the courage to do work that matters
Why is Generative AI interesting?
Generative AI is a catch-all term to describe machine learning technologies that can coherently generate images, video, music, text and other outputs in response to plain english prompts. In December 2022, millions of people have now encountered this technology with the release of Open AI's ChatGPT. Having dodged most of the crypto hype, I feel comfortable saying it is one the most important technological advances I've seen in my lifetime, right next to the web and smartphones. The quality of Gen AI outputs are remarkably high and keep getting better quickly, which is both exciting and also sobering for many artists and tech workers who are realizing how this technology may threaten their livelihood.
Something worth watching on the topic
This YouTube video from ColdFusion is a great primer on Generative AI. It focuses on the release of ChatGPT but ties in some of the controversies of AI art. It also features some prescient quotes from Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI and other leaders in the industry.
Projects worth following on the topic?
I'm a big fan of Midjourney and have seen them improve their image generation models multiple times in the last few years. Yes, you can argue they are just extending Stable Diffusion, but that's like saying Apple's OSX is just extending Unix. They've built a powerful yet intuitive tool that only gets better and you learn more about it (which is absolutely worth it).
I'm biased but I'm also really obsessed with this workflow I created which turns voice memos into full on mini-essays, along with suggestions on how to improve what I wrote. Every time I use it, it feels like magic. I documented exactly how to replicate what I'm doing here.
How will humans show the eminence of our species when AI becomes better than us at everything?
I'm still bullish about humanity because as long as human beings are the customers (aka AI can't spend money), there will be things that only human beings can offer. These include personal narrative—comedy specials, memoirs, group therapy—these rely on real people having real experiences that you can relate to. Another is conviction & accountability. ChatGPT can come up with business ideas, but only a person can decide to work on that business for years and years—and recruit you to join them. Similarly, only a person can be held responsible if their actions lead to harm. AI can't be sued or arrested. I wrote a whole thread about this.
Generative AI may still be harmful in terms of putting a lot of people out of work, because a really smart editor / creative director / strategic can now do the work of a whole team of freelancers or full-time employees. But the value of art or creativity will not go away—the bar just gets raised, which is presumably good for consumers. Chipotle may put a bunch of mom & pop burrito joints out of business but raises the standard for a "decent meal".
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I love the good quest idea, and like the idea that a drive to achieve is not better than a well-adjusted “ordinary” life. Thank you for this.