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TiB 181: Tech heist of the century; obscure books; curating talent; and more...

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September 7 · Issue #182 · View online
Matt's Thoughts In Between
This week: How physical possession became more than nine tenths of the law for Arm China; how to curate the world’s best talent; the world’s bets obscure books; and more…

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"The tech heist of the century"
Two favourite TiB themes are the geopolitics of semiconductors and what I’ve called “the stubborn persistence of the physical” in an increasingly virtualised world (see, e.g., TiB 109161 and 162). If these interest you, this extraordinary piece in SemiAnalysis is a must-read - and certainly the wildest story you’ll read this week. In short, Arm - the world’s leading semiconductor IP company - has lost control of its China subsidiary to Allen Wu, its CEO-gone-rogue.
Despite being formally removed by the Arm China board (which includes prominent and politically connected Chinese investors), Wu remains in control because he physically possesses its company seal, which functions as a sort of bearer bond for corporate control. This all happened last year, but last month Arm China held an event to declare its independence formally - complete with rebranded IP. Arm insists that no IP has been stolen, but it cannot license its IP to customers in China directly, only through its now-rogue subsidiary. SemiAnalysis calls it “the tech heist of the century”.
There are a number of interesting implications. First, it’s unclear what this means for NVIDIA’s proposed acquisition of Arm. At least one commentator think it’s possible it makes regulatory approval more likely in China, though that’s unlikely in other key jurisdictions. Second, it points to the possibility of (even) deeper splintering between the Chinese and Western tech worlds (arguably semiconductor IP is currently a common layer). And third it highlights the complex interplay between old and new institutions in creating legitimacy (see TiB 158). The future looks less evenly distributed than ever.
How to curate the world's best talent
Tony Kulesa has a great new post entitled, “Tyler Cowen is the best curator of talent in the world”, which focuses on Cowen’s Emergent Ventures (EV) grant programme (which has many superb recipients, including some readers of this newsletter). I continue to think that the science of identifying and selecting very early career talent is - as Cowen would put it - underrated, so as someone who invests in talent for a living, I wanted to add some thoughts from our experience at Entrepreneur First (EF).
I generally think Kulesa’s analysis is excellent, so wanted to highlight one point of disagreement. Kulesa says:
Emergent Ventures appears to be designed against anyone looking for credentials, large amounts of cash, or status/attention
I think this is almost but not quite right. EV does in fact confer an elite credential and very significant status to the recipient - but only within a narrow group of insiders who know its value. And, crucially, that group of insiders is precisely the group that Cowen’s ideal applicants want to impress. This is the secret of building elite talent communities: find a dimension of excellence that is undervalued by existing conveyors of status and build a community of people who value (and excel on) that dimension more than anything else. For EV that’s, Kulesa says, earnestness; at EF it’s ambition.
The challenge then becomes maintaining focus and standards as you scale. Daniel Gross, Cowen’s co-author on a forthcoming book on talent, recently told me about his riff on Conquest’s Second Law as it applies to talent institutions: “Any organization not explicitly disagreeable sooner or later becomes agreeable”. I think that’s right: there is huge pressure to expand your definition of excellence over time. Cowen avoids the problem by being the sole decision maker (see this recent post) and avoiding scale, but it’s a big challenge for aspiring elite institutions, and one worth pondering.
What are the best obscure books?
Michael Nielsen
Please recommend an obscure book you absolutely love!
Michael Nielsen supplies what is almost certainly the richest Twitter thread of 2021 by asking this simple question. There are over a thousand (!) replies and even the first dozen or so will fill your reading list for the next year. I thought I would have a go at giving my own answers. “Obscure” is a relative term, so I’ve arbitrarily defined it as books that are currently listed outside the top 250,000 on the Amazon UK sales rank. I’ve chosen three fiction and three non-fiction that I think are relatively little known but many TiB readers might enjoy.
Fiction
  • Life is a Dream by Calderon de la Barca - a 17th century Spanish Golden Age play and one of the great meditations on dreams and reality. It’s quite celebrated among aficionados of the era, but I feel deserves to be as celebrated as Hamlet or Lear
  • Baudolino by Umberto Eco - Eco is justly famous for The Name of the Rose (my favourite novel), but Baudolino is much less well known and almost as good. It’s an epic journey through the world of Frederick Barbarossa and Prester John through the eyes of a deeply unreliable narrator
  • Lent by Jo Walton - Lent was my favourite novel of 2019 and one I think about often. A retelling of the life of Savonarola, it’s a book so surprising and innovative that I strongly recommend that you don’t read anything else about it before beginning, for fear of spoiling it
Non-fiction
  • The Invention of the Modern World by Alan Macfarlane - A beautiful and compelling walkthrough of the unique conditions that led the industrial revolution to happen where and when it did. Macfarlane is an eminent historian, but this book is far less well known than it should be
  • Entrepreneurial Economics by Alex Tabarrok - Tabarrok is, of course, not obscure, but this brilliant book is (and sadly that means it’s out of print and expensive). This was hugely influential on me as an undergraduate: innovative thinking on designing markets to solve big problems
  • Nostalgia for the Absolute by George Steiner - A book-length write-up of a lecture series Steiner gave in 1974, it’s perhaps the most provocative and compelling explanation of the attraction of irrationalism and, in turn, some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century
I would love your recommendations (and do feel free to use your own definition of obscurity: what’s well known to you may well be obscure to me!)
Quick links
  1. The most consequential “to do” list in history? Robert Oppenheimer, 1943.
  2. In praise of disobedience? Fascinating chart from a study on how what parents want for their children has changed over time.
  3. Entropy wins again! Intriguing piece on classifying 140,000 pieces of art using machine learning.
  4. Sad? Sick? Wicked? Negative words evolve more quickly than positive words, across languages and time.
  5. A leading exponent. Nuclear fusion is getting a lot better, fast (which reminds me - do pick up Azeem Azhar’s book Exponential - review coming to the TiB podcast and newsletter soon)
BONUS: We’ve started a new podcast in my day job - the first episode is on Building Billion Dollar Companies and features Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in conversation with Alex Dalyac, co-founder of Tractable, the first unicorn incubated at Entrepreneur First
How you can help
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If you have comments, questions or recommendations, I’m always happy to hear from readers - just hit reply.
Until next week,
Matt Clifford
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