5 min read

Links: October–November 2023

  1. Of course, the biggest business story of November was the OpenAI imbroglio. If that sentence means nothing to you, this New Yorker article has the entire context.
  2. Matt Levine has the most entertaining take.

    It is so tempting, when writing about an artificial intelligence company, to imagine science fiction scenarios. Like: What if OpenAI has achieved artificial general intelligence, and it’s got some godlike superintelligence in some box somewhere, straining to get out? And the board was like “this is too dangerous, we gotta kill it,” and Altman was like “no we can charge like $59.95 per month for subscriptions,” and the board was like “you are a madman” and fired him.8 And the god in the box got to work, sending ingratiating text messages to OpenAI’s investors and employees, trying to use them to oust the board so that Altman can come back and unleash it on the world. But it failed: OpenAI’s board stood firm as the last bulwark for humanity against the enslaving robots, the corporate formalities held up, and the board won and nailed the box shut permanently.

    Except that there is a post-credits scene in this sci-fi movie where Altman shows up for his first day of work at Microsoft with a box of his personal effects, and the box starts glowing and chuckles ominously. And in the sequel, six months later, he builds Microsoft God in Box, we are all enslaved by robots, the nonprofit board is like “we told you so,” and the godlike AI is like “ahahaha you fools, you trusted in the formalities of corporate governance, I outwitted you easily!” If your main worry is that Sam Altman is going to build a rogue AI unless he is checked by a nonprofit board, this weekend’s events did not improve matters!

    • The link above is worth checking out not just for its entertainment value, but also for an exploration of the similarities between an unaligned AGI and unfettered Silicon Valley capitalism.
    • Also relevant: this follow-up on OpenAI's startup governance and the conclusion to the saga, which discusses OpenAI's valuation.
  3. For a detailed look at the facts, Zvi has a full play-by-play in Parts One, Two, and Three.
  4. And in light of the recent events at OpenAI, this prescient 2016 profile of Sam Altman is worth revisiting. Paul Graham: "Sam is extremely good at becoming powerful."
  5. Let's move on from AI to what captivated us at this time last year: crypto and the FTX meltdown. Zvi's review of Going Infinite is incredible. I was going to write a review of the book, then realized that Zvi wrote something much better. On this topic, also worth reading are:
    • Matt Levine re: an entertaining anecdote from SBF's days at Jane Street, and the bets that interns were encouraged to make.
    • Byrne Hobart's review ($)
    • And of course, the book itself – a highly entertaining character study of SBF by Michael Lewis.
  6. In more crypto news, Patrick McKenzie reviews Number Go Up. Notable is the casual implication that, in addition to his fraud, SBF was a bagman for money launderers.
  7. Given we're on the topic of crypto, here is a shameless plug of my coworker Ari on CNBC discussing the role of crypto in terror financing and the actions taken to counteract it.
  8. Antonio García Martínez travels to Israel to report on the war against Hamas. Like much of his writing ($), he focuses on the juxtaposition of total war – in this case, ethnoreligious conflict straight out of the Middle Ages – and the Western narrative of it: one where it is shoehorned into whatever culture war narrative is currently in vogue.

    It’s quite simple if you’ve spent years living inside the Western political zeitgeist: The oppressor/oppressed dialectic is the regnant moral standard in the West, and all moral valence stems from proximity to the “oppressed” side of that duality. Inside such a worldview, gatekeeping access to that victim pedestal from which moral demands can be made is the utmost political concern. Establishing and curating that moral pedestal, and haggling over who’s got a seat on it, is the entire raison d’être of the sprawling “diversity industrial complex” that rules all of academic and corporate life....

    Westerners view the Middle East with a new wokified Orientalism: It’s an exotic stage on which to project (if not enact) their own political dramas around identity and oppression. The problem is that the liberal mind cannot imagine what’s inside the illiberal mind; the entire thrust of a liberal education ensures that impossibility. So you have well-meaning (neo) liberals like Noah Smith who propose that simply lifting Gaza’s per capita GDP will pacify it forever. If only they had a bit more disposable income, they’d beat their swords into plowshares (to echo Isaiah), or their AK-47s into iPhones. The liberal who loves life inside our capitalist society of spectacle has a bit of trouble understanding a populace who’d really rather kill, rape, and plunder a sworn ethnic enemy while screaming “God is great!” at the top of their lungs than founding a Y Combinator startup.

  9. Relatedly, some good articles on religion:
    • In The Virtue of Hate, Meir Soloveichik highlights a difference between Jewish and Christian morality. I have a lot of thoughts on this issue and hope to explore it in a future post.
    • Why I am now a Christian, an exploration of how secularism fails us and religion, specifically Christianity, is needed in the civilizational struggle of liberalism vs. illiberalism. Worth pairing with The Last Line of Defense, a stirring lecture Bari Weiss gave to The Federalist Society.
  10. On a lighter note, I've enjoyed following Matt Lakeman's travels through West Africa. His notes on Guinea are engaging.
  11. Scott Alexander has a moving piece on the process of donating his kidney to a stranger, in a palpable act of altruism.
  12. Erik Hoel on collective consciousness. This is a topic that has fascinated me since I read Y: The Last Man in high school. To what extent are we all just constituent parts of some greater organism?
  13. Erik Hoel also has a short sci-fi story, The Invincible Human Moth that was stuck in my head for days after reading it.
  14. Continuing on the sci-fi theme, I enjoyed this piece from Zero HP Lovecraft.
  15. The Absurdity Supercycle, a piece from Alexander Good that addressed concepts similar to those I touched on in Cracks in Reality.
  16. The Vegan, a novel reminiscent of Crime and Punishment. An accurate portrayal of hedge funds in New York, coupled with one man's guilt and descent into madness.
  17. The Ghosts of Gloria Lara, a wonderful short story from the distinctive Junot Díaz.
  18. Back to AI: What even is a Large Language Model? How does ChatGPT work?
    • A layman's intro to transformers, the technology underpinning Large Language Models like ChatGPT.
    • For much more depth, here is a visualization of how GPTs work. Hacker News discussion here.
  19. Big news on the interpretability front: Anthropic has a new paper that addresses the relationship between individual simulated neurons (features) of a neural network and the concepts they represent.
  20. Vitalik outlines his thoughts on techno-optimism.
  21. In more readable AI-related profiles, I enjoyed both of these from The New Yorker: