Generative Instinct

Remove the legend to become one (30 min read)
by Eugene Wei

I’ve been reading Eugene’s outstanding blog for many years but he posts rarely these days. I can’t remember how this post got on my reading queue but I’m happy it did. It’s about a topic close to my heart — creating an effective dashboard chart.

I had never used Excel until my first job as a trading clerk. Most of our models and workflows were in workbooks that had dozens of tabs and masochistically linked to workbooks in other drives (“Hey did you save your workbook so I can pull the fresh data into mine?”)

By following the formulas through the gridded labyrinth I learned both Excel and the pricing models. In my second month as an assistant, I started getting the hang of my post, market-making a relatively new ETF spelled es pee wye, so I asked my boss, Reggie Browne (yes, that Reggie) if I could rebuild our spreadsheets from scratch. I was a bit nervous to even ask since Reggie built them but I was the one using them all day as he was in the pit trading. My job was to make sure we had the right pricing of the ETF NAV based on the daily composition of the baskets and the cash/futures basis.

[I was also in charge of calling the Chicago futures pit to hedge our positions and dealing with daily DKs. A DK or “don’t know” is an error — you thought you bought and hedged 1.2 million shares the prior day but your statement in the morning says something different. Doh. You spend a few hours before the open making sure every share and every cent reconciles. Maybe Reggie thought he bought 67,000 shares from some other badge and only 6,700 cleared. Somebody made a mistake, there’s now an “error p/l” that needs to be sorted out. The mistake could have been me keying in the wrong share amount and have nothing to do with the traders or brokers. There was a lot of looking for needles in haystacks so that you knew your position by the time the bell rang. The grunt work of tiny details, communication with so many traders/clerks on the floor, and ultimately negotiating repeated interactions was a lot of the job back then.]

Reggie was totally supportive. He said building the sheet from scratch would be a worthy learning exercise. From then on, I was hooked. I could always be helpful by whipping sheets up for others. Being useful in a determinate way helps at the margins in a career that is heavily given to the whims of chance.

In my last gig, building dashboards and models was a form of therapy in between the steady stream of voice trades. Still mostly Excel and VBA. I was a bit OCD about aesthetics so my sheets were overkill in that department. You could click on a row in my daily volatility monitor table and it would highlight, sort and pop out cells that were relevant to the user. Sliders that would animate dynamic time series. My instincts around charts were to build them in general ways so the user could easily manipulate parameters to visualize data sets from various angles.

But I was leaving a lot on the table. The sheets could bog down or even crash. I was settled on a Swiss Army Knife because I didn’t prioritize yanagi skills. Weak but true.

Eugene’s post confirms what I had felt. Excel, out of the box, was not ideal for charting. His post is both a set of tips and a narrative worth the journey for anyone who has wondered how to visually compress the hallowed metrics that drive key decisions. I’ll share a few excerpts below (I’m also pleasantly stunned that I arrived at many of his conclusions on my own. One of the fun things about reading the post is finding a fellow psycho. If I ever meet Eugene I’ll ask if he does what I do when I open an Excel workbook — immediately uncheck gridlines.)


  1. Remove the legend; use data labels
  2. In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Tufte uses very little color.
  3. Tufte advocates reducing non-data-ink, within reason, and gridlines are often just that.

And this is immediately one of my favorite sets of sentences ever strung together:

The reason the book [Tufte] influenced me so deeply is that it is actually a book about the pursuit of truth through knowledge. It is ostensibly about producing better charts; what stays with you is the principles for general clarity of thought. Reading the book, chiseling away at my line graphs late nights, talking to people all over the company to understand what might explain each of them, gave me a path towards explaining the past and predicting the future. Ask anyone about any work of art they love, whether it’s a book or a movie or an album, and it’s never just about what it’s about. I haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; I’m guessing it wasn’t written just for motorcycle enthusiasts. A good line graph is a fusion of right and left brain, of literacy and numeracy. Just numbers alone aren’t enough to explain the truth, but accurate numbers, represented truthfully, are a check on our anecdotal excesses, confirmation biases, tribal affiliations.

From My Actual Life

[If you’re in a rush, this is just skippable personal exhaust. I used to do these more but I struggle to be brief hence the fig leaf-shaped warning]

The last few days have been really pleasant. My 10-year-old’s soccer team won their first game at the end of the season. They scored 3 goals and Zak had 2 plus an assist. He scored from both wings, once with the left foot and the other with the right. But the part I was most stoked about was when he pointed that fact out to me after the game because he’s been working on that (he didn’t need to point it out — the left was a great shot from a tough angle). Nothing beats watching someone, especially a kid, feel paid off for effort. Even if it’s a meaningless rec soccer game. As Gucci Mane once said, you either practice quitting or you practice winning.

Later that night I met up with close college friends who were in town. We ate at Rintaro in SF followed by drinks at Charmaine’s. Both spots are great (although the area around the Proper Hotel isn’t fit for a stroll by Satan himself). The highlight of that evening — my friend, a senior engineer at Waymo, taking us on a 30-minute ride around the city in a fully autonomous Jaguar i-Pace. 25 years ago, almost to the day, we were shotgunning beers in our stinky Ithaca apartment just before it burned down (he was the first person to smell the smoke and start knocking on neighbors’ doors) and now he’s getting to answer our questions about the future!

[In hindsight it’s no coincidence that he also happened to be one of the engineering students who built Cornell’s HEV in the late ‘90s and is flat-out one of the smartest and daring humans I’ve ever met. Big surfer — got his Ph.D. in physics in Hawaii, high diver, snowboarder, Muay Thai fighter. Since he was a teen could quite literally rig up any mechanical thingamajig you needed — the most MacGuyver person I’ve ever met so I wasn’t shocked when he was building lasers in grad school. He is so happy to have matched with this career and work with “smartest people he’s ever met”. Don’t worry J, I’m not offended.]

He couldn’t make it to to Napa with the rest of us the following day but we were still high from the experience and appreciating how much joy he’s found at work. And I realized how deeply the rest of our crew silently cradled that same aspiration — to feel like you’re doing the thing you should be doing. We weren’t envious but just so, I don’t know, inspired and happy to know that it even exists. I feel like I don’t see those fits too often and when I do it’s someone I don’t know as well as J so it doesn’t hit quite the same way. I know where he’s been so I know what this means.

And to wrap the cheese parade, Yinh and I went to Vancouver for a date night (14-year anniversary) to see Alice In Chains, my favorite band from my high school years, open for GnR, my favorite band from my middle school years. A rec for Vancouver — the restaurant/bar called the Botanist. We went for lunch. We’d go back.

Also, this bar is opening Nov 1. I talked to the manager because I couldn’t not weasel my way inside. Turns out it’s the former home of the Vancouver Stock Exchange.

Ok, I leave you with a video now. I’m a huge AIC fan and only recently discovered their pre-Dirt era concert at the Moore in Seattle is on YT. It’s a mere 27 minutes.

Never seen/heard a better version Layne.

Stay groovy ☮️

A postscript observation:

When I first started in options trading, I told that friend now at Waymo, that he should leave Silicon Valley where he took his first job out of college at a chip company. You need to come work on the options floor in NYC. He is a brilliant combination of brains, competitiveness (to an obsessive degree), and sheer will. My pitch was rooted in the money.

Poorly played.

He could care less about that.

He didn’t see the point of doing something where you hadn’t physically built something. I dismissed this at the time and about a decade later when I left the floor and went to a HF I understood.

He had, what I have started calling, a strong generative instinct. An instinct I actually shared to a lesser degree but didn’t realize until I started building infra and trading tools and later writing. Synthesis and creation were more rewarding than the video game that trading itself was.

I’ve thought about this distinction quite a bit. Some jobs don’t build anything. It doesn’t mean they aren’t creative. From poker players to teachers, there are creative jobs that don’t leave behind some tangible artifact or physical product. And I can how someone might find that particular form of expression intrinsically rewarding. To see your thing in the world with others using or enjoying it.

This instinct is a sub-dimension of satisfaction that people may not recognize until it’s explained in that way. When I talk to someone early in their career looking for guidance (one of the weird things that this letter has done is had parents ask if I’d talk to their kids — it happened again recently so I’ll probably share my notes from it in case they’re more widely useful), I explicitly mention this just to see if it pulls something from their unconscious up to the level of self-awareness.

Anyway, the whole pull towards being generative is something that we encourage at home. Be a producer not a consumer. If the extent of your intellectual habits is knowing everything about your favorite sports team, then your sense of agency in a world that is quickly commodifying non-creative tasks will feel threatened.

A darker pull on that thread:

Fear comes from lack of agency.

Ask any middle-aged person who chose a “safe” box-checker career at age 22, who has long since forgotten how to learn, how hemmed in they feel right now. Don’t be surprised when the common theme of their politics reduces to “pull the ladder up” under the guise of “I worked hard to get here”.

As you read this, LLMs are solving real-time language translation. The world’s chaos aside for a moment — a world without language barriers is a flattener. A homogenizer. The less equipped you are to differentiate yourself on some value-creating axis the less claim you stake from the bounties of technology. You’ll have a low Kolmogorov complexity score under the gravity of capitalism. Compressed to a token in some grand computation that takes in souls and spits out GDP.

Resisting the paperclip optimizer entails risk. And courage. If you are doing comfortable, safe things in all parts of your life, there’s a form of technical debt building. It’s insidious because you don’t feel it until it’s close. If you’re old and boring but rich you’ll probably outlast a dwindling sense of control but recommending what appears safe and sensible today to a 22-year-old rather than a wider framework for taking risk intelligently feels like guidance malpractice to me.

Also, I have no basis, training, or credentials to guide anyone. I quoted a convicted (yet seemingly reformed) felon earlier.

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