Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #14

Softbank's Vision... or madness

The Economist has a long profile of Softbank's Vision Fund. If you don't work in tech, the short version is that this is a $100 billion fund investing in late stage startups and public tech companies, by far the biggest VC or private equity fund ever raised. It's now the biggest shareholder in Uber, the owner of ARM (the biggest designer of chips for mobile phones) and a major investor in NVIDIA (the most important maker of chips for machine learning), among many others.

The Economist profile does a good job of explaining how Softbank might go about returning such a massive sum. Particularly interesting is the idea that Softbank can help category winners grow more efficiently. For example, by being a large shareholder in Uber, Grab (the dominant ride sharing app in South East Asia) and Didi (ditto for China), Softbank can push its portfolio to exit unprofitable markets and spend less competing with each other.

The idea of a VC mindset with a public markets opportunity set is intriguing. Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund explores this idea in another context in this excellent post. But whenever I start to think that Masayoshi Son is pursuing a rational strategy, I take another look at this deck he presented to his institutional shareholders eight years ago. It must be one of the most extraordinary - and wonderfully mad - documents ever issued by a public company. It's worth your time. I, for one, am looking forward to instantaneous human-dog translation...

It turns out the aliens are asleep

The Fermi Paradox is an endlessly fascinating idea: there are trillions of stars in the observable universe, so where are all the aliens? Lots of people have proposed answers. As well as the list in the Wikipedia article, there's the possibility that we're just doing the maths wrong. This paper from Jodrell Bank (easier to follow text summary here) suggests actually there's a decent chance we really are the only intelligent life out there. I'm also quite fond of the suggestion that runaway consumerism explains the radio silence: when civilisations reach a certain stage they become much more interested in video games than exploring space.

I was thinking about this because it's the topic of another excellent 80,000 Hours podcast episode, in which Rob Wiblin interviews Anders Sandberg. Sandberg runs through some of the standard explanations for the lack of evidence of extraterrestrial life and introduces an amazing one I've not heard before: computation will be much, much more energy efficient (10^29 times so, apparently) in a few trillion years when the universe has cooled down a lot, so perhaps aliens are just "aestivating" (like hibernating, but in summer) until they can do more... If this kind of thought experiment sounds even vaguely appealing to you, you'll love this podcast.

The strange state of US-China relations

There was a geopolitics story that seems as though it should have been huge last week, but got hardly any attention. The US Government charged a former CIA officer with giving up more or less the entire CIA operation in China. Reports suggest that his spying led to the deaths of at least 20 CIA agents and informants in China.

At the same time, there was a long, excellent piece in the NYT about the apparent demise of ZTE, a once enormous Chinese electronics manufacturer, that has been labelled a threat to US national security and banned from using US components. The article described the move as part of a "new cold war", which seems consistent with the CIA story.

But apparently that's not what Donald Trump thinks. He tweeted on Sunday and then again on Monday that he would help ZTE get back into business - which he said reflects his "personal relationship with President Xi". That might not be the strangest tweet to come out of the White House since January 2017, but it's certainly emblematic of the very ambiguous role that China now occupies in the world.

Quick links

  1. What is it like to be a sperm whale? Amazing thread
  2. Narrative violation threads. The white working class is doing ok. And the refugee migration in Germany has had little negative impact on crime.
  3. Like the internet in 1994. Where are we in the cryptocurrency adoption cycle?
  4. What are the best AI universities? Jeffrey Ding has some thoughts
  5. They don't know what they want. Public opinion in the UK seems deeply unsatisfied with the major parties and really rather confused. More fuel for the "new party" fire?

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Until next week,