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Aesthetics Finance Internet Culture

Day 128 and Financial Aesthetics

Humans have imbued money with so much significance over the centuries that financial spaces (merchants, traders, banks, trading floors, brokers, hedge funds) show us the style of their times better than almost anywhere else. Even when power centers have shunned money directly (democracies), and sometimes even because of it, money has dictated the soft powers of perception and relevance.

This makes investigating the styles of finance particularly fun as their signifiers tend to hum with unsaid anger, greed and resentment. Sexy stuff generally as we fixate on ever finer granular details to indicate that our taste shows us to be worthy of holding power (and hopefully money).

There is a reason popular culture loves the Hollywood treatment of Wall Street. Even if some of the most iconic touchstones like American Psycho were meant as dark comedies we didn’t perceive them at way. We were supposed to laugh at the business card scene not get turned on. When Gordon Gecko bellowed “Greed is Good” we were supposed to know he was the villain. We didn’t. We don’t particularly like watching these heros get their comeuppance. Giovanni Ribisi in Boiler Room ratting out the pump and dump scheme doesn’t leave a very satisfied audience but oh how we loved the second act when the gambling prodigy finds a way to go “legitimate” and become a millionaire. Just ignore the crash at the end.

Americans in particular love to fetishize our villains. Our media is littered with anti-heroes that over time become our actual heroes. We throw jealous narratives at the preppy alpha males but love it when their power is subsumed by someone who plays their games better than them. We are riveted when a protagonist emerges that knows how to best the alphas at their own game and emerges victorious. Just be careful you don’t overplay your hand and remain a villain (sorry Martin Shkreli you deserved better) as we need you to be seen as the good guy. It’s a delicate tension.

Think poor savant Bobby Axelrod in Billions becoming the titan of industry. Sure you know he didn’t start out as a classic alpha male (that hard knock upbringing) but I doubt you could tell at the end as he styles himself in the cashmere of his former enemies. Sure now it’s a hoodie but that’s a small inversion of the original sweater. The WSJ has an extensive shoppable feature on the style of the show. Now that’s cultural relevance. Turns out we do want cosplay Carl Icahn or Bill Ackman.

I’m particularly excited about the aesthetics of the next phase of financial heroes emerging from the financialization of cryptocurrency. Scrappy upstarts that want to make a more just and free financial system free of cronyism and accessible to the entire world is a beautiful narrative arc. The chaos of outsiders making the system their own has an ending we all know. You might start out in a tee-shirt and hoodie like Axe but beware the creeping encroachment of luxury goods looking to ride on your newfound wealth.

Turning doge gains into jokey NFT art is just a hop skip and a jump away from getting subsumed into the Art Basel scene. Lest you one day turn up and wake up in a new Bugatti. And while right now it may seem funny to buy a Lamborghini remember the narrative the world wants. You may just claim the mantle of a new kind of power. Or the Feds will come for you. Have fun out there!

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Startups

Day 112 and Unknowability

Human minds seem to prefer predictably. The back brain craves knowing what is coming even as our flighty consciousness seeks novelty. Talk about a tension that sucks. We’ve all seem just now much this is a recipe for misery when you live in a world with no predictability but easy access to low stakes novelty during the pandemic. We are twitchy, bitchy and miserable as we have no idea what our world will be like but we can dopamine drip our pleasure seekers with social media, food and substances for an enjoyable now.

I’ve written at length in this experiment about my frustrations with unreliability especially when it comes to my own body. It’s one of the hardest aspects of managing a recovery from an autoimmune disease. I need to be mentally strong enough to not let bad days shake my routines so I keep building towards the wider goal. I can’t be distracted by one data point. It’s about movement towards the goal. Ironically this is a skill I learned from startup life.

While the entire planet is getting a crash course in unpredictable futures now, startups are defined by their desire to solve problems that don’t yet have defined solutions. No one in a startup knows if the predictions will be right. If they are working on something that will have the intended outcomes is unclear. You work on faith. You trust that over a longer time frame the daily tasks and routines you push (sometimes we give them dumb names like OKRs to fake a sense of control) will actually get you where your mind’s horizon sees.

I sometimes wonder if those with religious faith would do better on average in startup life. We have some degree of comfort with the inscrutable. Mysteries are sources of joy rather than fear. We trust that there are things beyond our knowing and our control and yet we must live on despite that.

The obsession with data and trend lines and the potential for prediction, surety or knowing amuses me. Sure sometimes you can plan a lot. You should plan. You have some inputs that consistently deliver the predicted outputs. Your best guess are better than other people’s facts (thanks Spock!) But if it were all so neatly defined there would be nothing new to create. We wouldn’t be able to build value. It’s the undiscovered country that we seek.

In faith, in life, and in startups you must manage your squishy human mind that is constantly tortured by its own biology. We want to know and we want it to be predictable. But we also love the tickle of a new experience against our dopamine seeking biology. The spike of pleasure we find pleasure in the newness. That’s why we do it. And it’s on us to balance the tension between our need to predictably build and our addiction to novelty. Manage that and you may get far in your journey. Or it’s a miserable sine-wave that makes you nauseous as you go up and down trying desperately to bring the future forward between impulse and planning. It’s usually both if I’m honest. So if you don’t enjoy roller coasters I wouldn’t get on this ride. But if you do well you just might see God.

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Finance Startups

Day 96 and Founders Who Don’t Want to Be CEO

My Twitter has been going viral with reply guy friendly topics like taxing high earners and public vaccine demand so I needed to get some niche startup content in today to clear my palette of the reply guys. So I’m going to think about founders, professional management teams and venture’s role in supporting founders. You know, a topic that won’t have strong feelings.

A non zero number of my founder. friends would probably pay to be extracted from certain stages of startup growth, especially later stage scaling, but somehow being founder friendly has come to mean keeping these founders in charge all the way through. Many excellent zero to one founders have to actively change their entire style, skill set and value proposition once they get a company past about employee 25. Obviously there are many inflection points in startup growth and many founders relish the opportunity for constant skill growth. But plenty of early stage founders hate stuff like Human Resources and operations. Shit a good chunk hate sales and marketing too.

Early stage work is a speciality. It’s a professional niche and hard to train folks for as it’s part personality and part dysfunction. I think we should value early stage founding for its disproportionate impact on value creation instead of forcing these early stage specialists to train to become generalists, great managers or scaling operators. Of course it’s more likely they will fail once you take them away from the stage where they are genius.

Recently a friend of mine who works in venture said of another investor “oh that VC is old school” and clarified it meant they like to bring in executive teams for their B rounds companies. Which honestly sounds like a dream to me. There has to be a middle ground between firing visionary but scattered founders once they’ve raised and trying to coach a mediocre manager into great growth CEO.

I think we should normalize founders being churned in on new ideas rapidly and churned out on scaling quickly. Let them get back to founding. Let them create more faster. Great scaling venture funds can provide more value by bringing in a scaling leadership team and easing the founder out to areas where they can focus on vision and direction. I say let the professionals run your team.

Obviously some founders dream of going from idea all the way to IPO but I don’t know if it’s the dominant path they desire. It could just be one of many. I have very little interest personally in shit like operations, process and scaling. I literally married a COO rather get good at it (insert joke about literally anything to avoid therapy). However it shakes out the “founder friendly” venture firm will remain. What it means to be founder friendly may need to be rethought.

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Aesthetics Chronicle Finance Internet Culture

Day 89 and The Real Fake Fendi

What is real? Do originals exist? Can we determine the source of creative genesis when we stew in the folklore of cultural memetics? A knockoff has its own reality steeped in the accretion of culture.

I was once was asked by a tourist for direction’s to find “a real fake Fendi” when I lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I was honestly stumped by this inquiry. Was there a fake that had inherent realness that other knockoffs did not possess? Was there a vendor who sold the most authentic mimicry of Fendi which the tourist wished to find? I had no clue how to answer. Did they mean the realness one sees on the catwalks overseen by RuPaul? But which kind of realness? The creation that evokes the spirit of its inspiration? A realness so over the top and yet absolutely true to its essence. Or perhaps the blunt direct feedback that no construction no matter how convincing is the original artifact. Is is serving realness? I honestly didn’t know. I just told them Canal was one block north.

But perhaps authenticity isn’t the issue. In drag authenticity is manufactured. In fashions’ knockoff districts the question of authenticity is a layered confect of replication adhering to the aesthetics of the original. In some cases it actually is the original conveniently lost from some faraway inventory count. The real fake Fendi might in fact be real.

I bring this all up because in Illegal.Auction’s second collection we have curated a selection of the most outrageous instances of authenticity being the commodity sold in the NFT space. None of what we have posted are originals. They are all knockoffs. But like the real fake Fendi how can you tell? What makes something original in digital spaces. All is perfectly replicable. And no we have no new answers from Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction either. But maybe you will. You can buy a token of these real fake NFTs. Like the real Fake Fendi realness is in the eye of the beholder.

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Chronicle Internet Culture

Day 85 and Collective Progress

I am extremely online. I think it’s the best place to spend time if you want to thrive. Hands down nothing has ever beaten internet communities at improving the quality of my life on every metric. I know it sounds a little utopian but every skill I’ve acquired, job I’ve had and crucial piece of knowledge can be tracked back to the web.

I could have had a slower path in life with regular credentials and prestige building jobs with the right signals but none of those old rules have hung around long enough that I’m confident I would have made it as far in life. I needed the extra edge from living extremely online. I think we all do.

Life moves too quickly in modernity for us not to come together to survive it. Progress is going to be collaborative. Individual efforts and silos with us all competing for place and resources. Competition maybe served its purpose in a world of resource scarcity but as wealth is less dependent on rent seeking and property ownership and more on innovation and technical progress, then collaborative work has better incentives.

This may sound a little stupid but every time I ask Twitter for a ridiculous piece of advice like “ does anyone lift while high” I get incredible pieces of insight. It sounds like a dumb question and like click bait but I’m probing for similar cases of physiological response, chronic pain and a desire to biohack to better health. And yes it turns out if you have inflammation lifting weights while stoned is a great way to encourage a behavior that promotes lower inflammation with an inflammation lowering drug. It’s a virtuous cycle. And I would never have known without shitposting health nuts on Twitter. I’m not going to get that nuanced a piece of information with specific context out of a doctor or any credentialed body that works to reduce risk. I’d love to see a double blonde study proving the benefits of toking and squatting. Some knowledge is meant to be epistemic. The internet is our culture now. So share your weird finds with your tribe. It gives us all a better shot at better lives.

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Chronic Disease Chronicle Startups

Day 64 and Addiction

I’ve been working through unconscious mindset issues and self limiting belief systems as an active exercise the past few months.

I’ve been really hung up on the value of pain and discomfort. Somewhere along the line I became convinced that working hard is morally good. And over time that developed into an addiction to work. I got off on being seen as someone who never quits.

This workaholism eventually had the consequences of forcing me into quitting everything in order to survive my addiction. I didn’t have a choice at a certain point as it was stop being a workaholic or quite literally die. My health failed me so I could have a second chance. I’m still grateful that I chose life but not a day goes by where I don’t wonder if it was the wrong choice. What is living if I’m not killing myself?

Realizing that rock bottom was a choice was a bit of a shock to me. I always thought it was an external forcing mechanism that finally freed you from your addiction. I had a very Augustinian “make me good but oh not just yet” understanding of my addiction.

And because my addiction is considered virtuous I’ve had a lot harder time seeing the value of letting it go. We look down on drinking, drugs and other sins. Work isn’t on the list of seven deadly sins. Sure I get pleasure from working but I can’t separate it entirely from the external validation I got from being “good” especially from people I perceived as my betters. And because I had a challenging relationship with my father as a child (he is also a workaholic) this put me in a precarious position when dealing with older white men. In other words, anyone who will ever finance me or mentor me, as technology and finance has an extreme demographic skew. I was constantly in a place where I wanted validation from these elders to soothe my inner child. I would do anything to show them I was good and worthy. I’m sure there is a Biblical or Greek tragedy angle to a child so deeply committed to being sacrificed for their father.

All this was compounded by the feeling I got when people who were my peers put me on a pedestal. They wanted me to be a martyr as much as I wanted it. And some of them will likely never forgive me for not being their own personal Jesus.

This all leaves me with very mixed feelings as I know I hit my rock bottom and it’s time to leave behind my addiction. And it’s very much time to rid myself of enablers who pleasured and profited off my disease. But it’s so much a work in progress. I feel the desire to jump back in to work and say yes to everyone who wants my work. I love it and they want it. But I need to find a way to only ever commit to those who want me to be well and thriving.

Too many people profit off of the deep desire workaholics have to always be producing. Capital and eager teammates can easily see a workaholic as a better bet for making money. I’m sure most don’t realize it is predatory because they assume we can stop. The sad truth is I’m not sure I would have stopped. I just got lucky I became too sick to carry on. So this is me committing to only working with those who want me on their team if I’m healthy and “sober” because I’m not going back on the “bottle” ever again. I just hope it means my work will be better for it. I think it will but it’s one day at a time.

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Aesthetics Chronicle Finance Internet Culture Media Startups

Day 62 And Who Can Make Art

My ego dislikes debate, but my heart leaps at tension.

Over the weekend, my friend Phil and I decided to make a functional art installation called Illegal.Auction. The premise is simple: we are selling Fungible Tokens (or NFTs) of Culture. 

Unsettled ideas of generation and representations colliding with abstractions like finance are important issues both culturally and practically.

Art is for itself, so who cares either way. A certain dogmatic insistence that “medium is the message” is pervasive in the critiques. Are movies different than books? I don’t think they have anything to do with the price of milk. It reminds me of the classic Annie Hall scene (speaking of artistic intent and harm) where Marshal McLuhan explodes on a chattering group “you know nothing of my work.” Woody Allen’s character concludes the scene if only real life were like this. Well on Twitter you can recreate this scene everyday!

It is funny because commentary is distinct from creation. And a lot of people have takes on McLuhan that he himself doesn’t agree with. But who cares right? Interpretation of art is ostensibly art.

It’s very interesting to see just how angry people get about the worth and value of culture in particular. As if it’s some monstrosity to comment on the abstract financial value of some creation with worth that cannot be extracted.

If it were so easy to make value judgments about art then we would trade it on the Chicago exchange like pork bellies and orange juice. Not that we don’t already sell art and trade it and frankly it has been a massive tension through the history of human creation how we value that work, but now many have decided to insist that art is non-fungible. Not interchangeable on a one to one basis like an apple. And yet we are acting like everything can be valued and traded so easily with NFTs. By making art tradeable on exchanges, we have made some thing inherently non-fungible, fungible.

This is ultimately where Illegal.Auction came from. These conversations are important and transformative. That we choose to represent the tensions with representations of reproductions of jpgs of art is part of the art installation. That it is a functional sale is in inherent to the tension.

There is a part of me that is really worried that because I am not a practicing artist that is paid for work or represented in a gallery, that I don’t have a right to comment on these issues. I am a technologist and I do work in finance and the overlap of disciplines makes this an inter-disciplinary question in my mind. It seems like some people disagree with my right to create art (and certainly the morality of remuneration).

But if we insist that only artists can make art I don’t have any right to make installations remixing software and representations. But I’m not sure anyone reading this is comfortable with that world. I am not.

I think people want there to be simple yes no questions to these things. Is it legal? Did you steal? Is it a transformative remixing of a cultural artifact? Is it worth $1 million? And the truth is is that there is no easy answer to what political system is best or how much some thing is worth. Trillion dollar industries are based around the fact that we don’t have clear answers. Irate commentary doesn’t help any of us understand the infinite questions of worth and creation. It is good to do and helps further understanding but its crucial to remember indignation and moralizing is a function of ego.

Personally I don’t think that wealth has any moral value. I don’t want to have to be wealthy in order to be valuable. Or if a piece of art I make does make money do you have a right to tell me it is objectionable because this isn’t how you make money? I guess you do. Whether you can stop me from doing it is a central questions for the ages and also literally why it is important to create pieces like Illegal.Auction in the first place.

This commentary I think is worth having. Not whether speculative infinite land grabs with financial instruments make you worth more to billionaires. They probably do. That’s fine! I think people are mostly offended by the idea that non-artists can make art. Especially if a transaction takes place. If we had stamped illegal on the jpgs and blocked out NOT ART on them would it have made it better? Conceptually I’m not sure that that’s true and probably reflects the viewer’s own sense of value and worth more than a legal, political or moral reality. Also I personally think it cheapens the point just to make concessions to dogmatic insistence on ownership in a space that isn’t settled because frankly it cannot be.

Much of the narrative and coverage around NFTs is that they delineate ownership, value and origination more cleanly. I’d argue that they are actually having the opposite effect. NFT’s are ripping away edifice and abstractions that we use to assign value and worth. And that makes people uncomfortable.

Categories
Internet Culture Startups

Day 59 and Throwaway Days

The worst part of being in your thirties is no one tells you that won’t be able to sleep past 7am.

So this morning, right after sunrise, I’m plotting all the ways I’ll get to work on new projects today. Never waste a good Sunday. As if time has any meaning in the pandemic.

Here I am sliding back into workaholic ways, excited by the pace of change. But then you are reminded that routines and nutrition and supplements need to be done. So the tension between the allure of work and the practicality of needing to care for your body split. So I stop to mix a supplement smoothie and take some stuff. Then the sun is out so a hike up the front range trail is a must. Nutrition and exercise keeping the tension in check.

Maybe somedays it is ok to prioritize the long haul. The body that need to be strong for the next big shifts. That chaos is coming at us so fast a firm anchor for mind is a must. Techno-progressives need to believe in the positive outcome because we must cheerlead for a better future.

It’s nice to feel like even on throwaway days, you can cheer for all the outcomes

Categories
Chronic Disease Chronicle

Day 58 & The Line Between Progress and Woo

While I spent my childhood deep in the western canon, now I spend my leisure hours reading science fiction. I’m just gaga for space operas, singularity stories, transhumanist breakthroughs and anything else you might put in a paperback to showcase “the future” right around the corner.

I’m what you might call an old fashioned technical progressive. Everything the future brings has a bright side. It’s probably the counter cultural hippie heritage I have. A better life is just around the corner.

Add in the additional nuance of having a chronic autoimmune condition and you can see how the line between science fiction and woo is a little blurry for me. One day a supplement is part of your favorite biohacking routine and the next it’s in the business papers making news as the latest breakthrough for life extension. That’s a real drug by the way. It’s called metformin and I take it every day.

I play around with a lot of weird “science-not-yet” stuff like a pulsed electromagnetic field to produce an analgesic effect in my spine. And I get made fun of pretty regularly by scientific method folks who scoff at basic studies that haven’t fully satisfied their curiosity.

But I honestly don’t care. I want to feel well. I want to thrive. Why wouldn’t I be trying out the latest treatments, supplements and pharmaceuticals? Why wouldn’t I experiment on myself. I don’t want to wait for everything to be double blind studied to death in twenty years. Will it kill me? No. Great let’s go.

We’ve given up on the joy of progress in my generation. We’ve let our imagination sour on the birth right of scientific advancement for the human race. It’s sad we’ve become so cynical. And sure, I often critique predatory health care that sell shame cures to the worried well. But are we confident we understand the line? I’m not. That electromagnetic device I thought was woo? My fancy upper east side New York rheumatologist used to have one in his office but found patients would rather take a drug than spend an hour on a machine even if the efficacy was the same.

Why is it so impossible that I might cure my spinal pain and reset my immune system? Is that crazier than landing Perseverance on Mars? I don’t think so. Sure I don’t like hucksters or charlatans either. And I still think places like Goop prey on desperation. But do I want to believe? Yes! Because progress happens. And it is making our lives better. We can expand our lives. Live better ones. It’s not a hopeless spiral to the destruction of the planet and our species. But if you want to come along for the ride you might have to tolerate me doing some weird shit. Till we prove it of course.

Categories
Chronicle Politics

Day 48 and Rush

My high school years had some ups and downs, which is how I ended up in Manhattan as an 18 year old, making up credits from the year I dropped out. I had an interest in news, so I talked my way into a job at a talk radio station 77WABC.

I’d take the 1 train down from 116th St to Penn Station and l, without even going outside, went up into one of the Penn Plaza towers where I screened calls for the block of radio programs that took the afternoon and evening hours. Some of the programs were pretty shoddy “left wing white guy vs right wing white guy” and announcing for New Jersey Devils hockey games.

But the marquee talent was Rush Limbaugh.

In the back of the rabbit warren of sales team cubicles and behind the other recording studios for B-list talent (which at the time included Sean Hannity), Rush had his own recording studio. And yes, the golden microphone was real. It stunk of smoke. His producer had somehow struck a deal with building management to allow him to smoke his cigars when the rest of the station had to plod down to 34th street for a cigarette.

The funny part of him having his own private recording studio is that Rush had already moved to Florida. Sure he recorded at the station, but even at the time he was enough of a star that he maintained multiple private studios. Such was the power of the EIB Network. Dittoheads had made Rush a fortune even before 9/11 and the rise of the neoconservatives. I can still recite the ditties. I can hear Rush recording his commercials. The way he would say Ruth Chris Steaks will stay with me till I die.

I have complex feelings about having spent time in talk radio. I didn’t stay long, I saw the money wasn’t particularly good in media and I decided a college degree was worth pursuing. Conservative chit chat hadn’t yet fully diverged from the overall skepticism of mainstream media into its own behemoth yet. 6 o’clock news on broadcast probably still mattered. Facebook hadn’t been invented. People got their hard news from real television and the side opinions of grumpy white men hadn’t fully turned to grievance culture yet. Sean Hannity was still partners with Alan Colmes.

Seeing what Rush Limbaugh wrought on America has been hard. I don’t doubt that without him January 6th wouldn’t have happened. Trump might not have been president.

But without Rush and my experience in talk radio maybe I wouldn’t have studied economics. Maybe I wouldn’t have pursued business. I might have stayed a comfortable Silicon Valley liberal. But spending my afternoon talking to the weirdos that call into talk radio was an experience I value. I had come from crunchy hippie comfortable white upper class towns like Palo Alto and Boulder. I hadn’t ever considered the kind of politics that bred Republicans and subsequently Tea Party reactionaries and eventually Trumpist alt righters. A lot of ground got covered in the years.

I doubt Rush (or Sean) would have liked where my politics landed. Libertarians are frowned on in “real” conservative circles. Probably worse than the kind of pleasantly socialist left wing politics I had when I arrived.

I hope no one takes any of this as affirmation or justification or even acceptance of what talk radio culture birthed. I’m not even sure how to feel about Rush Limbaugh’s passing. Not that we were close, heck I doubt he knew my name. I was a teenager doing shit work and I spent much more time on other programs. But I still had to take the afternoon off as social media rushed to rejoice in his death. Even knowing the scope of his legacy I just couldn’t take it. My life path might have looked very different without encountering the EIB Network.