Bits and stuff: panels, politics and pastry – December 4, 2017

And so a whirlwind November draws to a close. As predicted, Web Summit was intense – the best part for me was catching up with some great people, making new friends and having many memorable conversations. I thoroughly enjoyed the panels I was on, and hats off to the organizers for coordinating such a massive event.

websummit

Last week I was on a panel (there are soooo many blockchain conferences these days) at The Blockchain Summit in London. Although I lived in London for a few years, I’d never been to the Olympia center before. Big. Packed. I especially enjoyed the round tables, and recommend to all conference organizers that you set some up – small, intimate groups discussing predetermined topics.

blockchain summit panel

As I mentioned before, I no longer do the newsletters for CoinDesk – the Daily has been taken over by editor Pete Rizzo, and the weekly is in the capable hands of managing editor Marc Hochstein. He’s doing a brilliant job, and the takeaway essay in yesterday’s email is excellent – if you don’t get the weekly newsletters (what????), look out for it on the CoinDesk website.

I’m embarking on a month-long sabbatical to finish a research project, focus on reading and catch up on some learning. Already the month is going by too quickly.

In January I re-join CoinDesk to work on new products. It’ll be interesting…

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The Financial Times is upping its blockchain coverage, both in quantity and quality. It used to be just the Alphaville team (specifically Izabella Kaminska) that produced insightful and original comment – but now a slew of sections are casting their gaze on the concept. Unsurprisingly, the focus is on bitcoin, the ingenuous darling of the investment market. And while they lack Izabella’s caustic aspersions on the blockchain hype, they are (in general) doing a fairly good job of conveying the surreal protagonism of cryptoassets.

Gary Silverman, Hannah Murphy and John Authers gave a good overview of bitcoin as an investment, conveying that even professionals don’t seem to understand it.

And capital markets editor Miles Johnson attempted to extract some political meaning from the tea leaves of bitcoin mania.

“Financial professionals who fail to comprehend why someone would risk their wealth investing in bitcoin when it appears to them so obviously to be a bubble can be compared with the political analysts who believed it was impossible the UK would vote to leave the EU.”

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The South China Morning Post, however, misses the point completely by contrasting bitcoin’s “lack of residual value” with the utility inherent in copper, silver and gold.

True, metals can be used for things. But so can bitcoin: it’s a secure means of transferring information without relying on a central authority. That is useful, arguably more so than pretty jewellery (and most industrial uses are being innovated away by new synthetic materials).

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When I head outside for some exercise these days, I’m listening to the audiobook of “Sapiens”, by Yuvah Noah Harari. It’s surprising how different the listening experience is from reading – I’m noticing totally different points. That could, however, just be down to my erratic attention span…

Anyway, last night the following jumped out at me – the conquistadors have just invaded Mexico, and the Aztec natives are perplexed as to why they keep jabbering on about a certain yellow metal:

“What was so important about a metal that could not be eaten, drunk or woven, and was too soft to use for tools or weapons? When the natives questioned Cortés as to why the Spaniards had such a passion for gold, the conquistador answered, ‘Because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.’”

This ties in with my previous point about intrinsic value. Metals have some utility, yes. But most of their market value comes from the fiction (by that I mean “invented reality”) that they’re pretty.

I think gold is pretty. But I think clear water is prettier. A sunset, a butterfly, an orange maple leaf… they’re prettier, also – in my opinion. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, no?

It could be argued that metals are more durable, therefore they are a much better store of “prettiness”. And that’s a fair point, assuming that durability of “prettiness” warrants such a premium over utility.

But it’s not much different from the rationale that bitcoin’s premium is due to perceived value, not residual usefulness. So, why is one totally rational but the other is “market madness”?

As Harari explains, the Aztecs – who did not see gold as scarce – were puzzled by the aliens’ lust for it. So, while I don’t pretend to be able to justify bitcoin’s current market value, I would like us to stop holding gold up as an asset/safe haven/store of value that “makes sense”.

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Bloomberg is also upping their crypto game, and that’s from an already high level.

As well as an argument for central bank cryptocurrencies and a summary of the positions of the warring bitcoin factions, the Gadfly column gave a good explanation of why the emergence of liquid bitcoin futures markets could explain the price buoyancy.

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From the stratospheric to the sublime, Bloomberg also shows us how a renowned Parisian pastry chef is creating sweet delicacies that look like apples, and taste like apples, too.

image by Céline Clane for Bloomberg (click for link)
image by Céline Clane for Bloomberg (click for link)

I’m all for culinary experimentation, but I can’t help but wonder why, if what we want is something that looks and tastes like an apple, we don’t just eat an apple.

That said, they are gorgeous. I do love the spectacle. And I wouldn’t say no to trying one.

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