The following advertisement copy gave a non-native French speaker at my company some trouble when trying to translate the bolded word:
“Actuellement si tu envoies jusqu’à 20.000F à quelqu’un, même môrô tu ne paies pas.“
Moro is a nickname for the 5 CFA (“say-fa”) coin, the smallest value CFA coin. So the translation reads: “Now, if you send 20,000F to someone, you won’t pay even 5F.”
CFA (which stands for Communauté Financière Africaine (“African Financial Community”) is the currency of the West African Economic and Monetary Union. $1 USD is about 620 CFA so 5 CFA is about $0.008. So you won’t even pay a penny to send thirty bucks!
Here are some other nicknames I learned:
5F : Moro 25F: Gross 50F: Deux Gross 100F : Togo 500F: Gbesse 1000F: Crica or Bar 5000F: Gbon 10000F: Dieze 1000000F: Keuss or Baton
And some phrases:
“meme moro cassé, je n’ai pas” >>> “I don’t have even a broken coin of 5f” “tu n’a pas des gbrin gbrin pour moi” >>> “do you have some coins”
Do I care about where I live? I certainly think about it and change it enough.
In the time since I signed my last lease in NYC, I ended up in a remote job. With my income no longer linked to my location, I have been thinking a lot about where I want to live. I swing back and forth between the the pros and cons of big cities (NYC, London, SF), medium cities (Austin, Chicago, Miami, and small cities (Bentonville, Lancaster, mountain towns). I have a certain about of heartburn about how beneficial it is to live in a big city versus a small or medium sized one. So when I see material on the future of work/mobility, I pay extra attention.
Take a step back on this. Theoffice is an artifact of the technology of a time and place. I mentioned the Second Industrial Revolution. Theoffice is a derivation of the factory. There was the factory and the idea of mass production, and then there was the idea of all the time-and-motion studies and all these guys who did that. And out of that, you go back, look at the history — you’ve got schools, you’ve got jails as you see them today, and then you’ve got offices. It’s this idea that you have to bring people together in this highly orchestrated, mechanistic, mass way.
Cities have clear been successful at least in part because of the commercial and cultural benefits of clustering: agglomeration benefits, spontaneous interactions, scale. But maybe another way to think about the success of cities is simply as a management practice to scale up knowledge production. The city scales up the benefits of the office and the office is an effective mechanism for mass production of knowledge products. To-date, “office factories” have made the most sense to cluster in cities.
There is nothing good or bad about this but it might lower the future relative value of big cities compared to small/medium cities if part of their success is simply that they are an effective mechanism for mass production. Until a few years ago, big cities were the only way to produce a certain type of work. But now with new remote-work technology and norms, new types of knowledge factories might be possible. As Marc Andresson points out after the above quote, there is nothing necessary about offices and complex societies:
Empires — fun historical fact: The Roman Empire was not run out of offices. They ran the world, yet there was no office. There was no office building. The Roman aristocrats worked out of their homes, and then they went to the Senate, and then they went to their country house. There was no office building for administering the Roman Empire. I don’t know about the British Empire. I’m guessing they probably didn’t have a lot of offices. They maybe had a couple of offices in London, but they probably didn’t have a lot of offices either.
So are big cities more a mere historical artifact and less a natural outcome of the best way to collectively create value together? Or is this all just me over reading an observation about offices?
There is also a difference between not needing to be in an office and not needing to be in a city. In 2008 Paul Graham observed that “great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.”
This phenomenon pre-dates the Industrial Revolution with Renaissance Florence as the classic example and shows that this is not merely an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. Cities give you the benefit of an environment that cares about what you care about which has social and cultural benefits in addition to commercial ones.
No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do. There’s an imbalance between encouragement and discouragement like that between gaining and losing money. Most people overvalue negative amounts of money: they’ll work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain one. Similarly, although there are plenty of people strong enough to resist doing something just because that’s what one is supposed to do where they happen to be, there are few strong enough to keep working on something no one around them cares about… You’ll probably have to find the city where you feel at home to know what sort of ambition you have
This is a striking observation but also a tough one since it sort of just pushes you down a level to now discern what you care about and what sort of ambitions you hold. And I think that is maybe at the root of the anxiety I have about figuring out if and where to move. I used to have fear, uncertainty, and doubt if I was doing the right sort of work. Now that I feel good about work, I am less distracted from thinking about my ambitions and values. Champagne problems for sure but important ones to explore, I think.
A section I particularly liked was “When We Avoid Face-to-Face Contact.” TC and DG point out that in many areas of life, we conduct eye-contactless communication to encourage people to open up and enhance information flow. Some examples are Catholic confessionals, laying on the couch therapy sessions, and walk-and-talk meetings.
The advantages of these “eye contact off” physical meetings can carry over to “camera off” virtual meetings. Here are two other scenarios when a camera-off call might be the right move.
1) Getting inside someone’s head
Some sorts of collaboration require maximum “communicative empathy.” Though the added information from the visual elements of video calls are useful (especially for interviews/talent evaluation), these elements can also distract. There are moments when we really need to focus solely on the substance of what someone is saying. In these situations, going camera-off can encourage you to shift from looking at a person to “looking with them.”
This brought to mind a point New Yorker profiler Larissa MacFarquhar made while discussing why she avoids describing what people look like in her profiles:
But I’ve started avoiding describing what people look like, not because it results in looksism — though I’m sure that’s true — but because, unconsciously or not, it puts the reader in a position of being outside the person, looking at them.
And what sometimes — though not always — I’m trying to do is give the reader a sense of what it’s like to be inside that person’s head. And the more that you describe the physical person, the physical circumstances of the person, anything that involves being outside the person, looking at them, the less you cultivate that sense of intimacy that comes from being inside their head and looking out through their eyes.
A camera-off call gets you inside a person’s head and for certain sorts of dense collaboration, this can be useful. But it is more of an open question for me if this is useful for talent evaluation.
Blind auditions. Blind resume reviews. The new wave of entry level job interviews for consulting and finance where students record answers on camera. These are all sort of camera-off evaluations (with noted pros and cons). Maybe a hybrid model is valuable where it is possible to collect both points of view.
2) Limited bandwidth
Another reason a camera-off call can be good is if you are talking to people in countries with limited bandwidth.
I have a remote job where many of my colleagues sit in West Africa (I’m in on the Eastern Seaboard). Back when I started it confused me that almost without exception my coworkers in West Africa take zoom calls camera-off and coworkers in Europe and North America take them camera-on. Camera-on felt so much more collaborative and helped build trust in a remote environment.
A few months into the job, a colleague who works in Dakar asked everyone to turn their cameras off during a call to minimize lag due to limited bandwidth. I realized that the norm of having your camera off was a practical consideration, not a social one. I had been decreasing the quality of many calls though my uniformed attempt to increase the quality.
I took this as a good reminder to always assume best intentions and never assume you have all the context!
Amazon description: When a young girl’s beloved robot-companion suddenly becomes unresponsive, her father searches for a way to repair it. As he digs into the issue, however, he finds that his relationships with his wife and daughter are in need of repair as well.
Kogonada’s latest movie is After Yang. IMBD trivia points out that Kogonada found himself returning to a passage from Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer” that has always stayed with him:
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everyday-ness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
I liked the movie because of its title sequence dance number (compare it to the below title sequence Kogonada said he was referencing) and Colin Farrell’s performance. But I loved it because it takes a device like sci-fi AI that on its own could be tired and uses it to call attention to the search.
The artificial intelligence theme of After Yang could distract. It could be boringly cliche. But Kogonada employs it to direct attention to quieter themes like belonging and purpose. Familiar but mysterious snapshots from the near-future world of the movie dislodged me just enough from my expectations about what an AI movie should do. It left me primed to engage with less visited terrain on grief and passion. I entered the movie ready for trippy sci-fi thought experiments. I left the movie thinking about life’s search.
This is best captured during a scene where Collin Farrell references another movie, All in This Tea.
Collin Farrell’s character is a tea seller. In the movie the AI “technosapian” Yang asks why Farrell has “given his life to tea” which Farrell observes “sound pretty serious.”
Farrell goes on to explain how he has acquired a liking to tea but was initially drawn in by “the idea of tea.”
He talks about watching the documentary All In This Tea (which is weirdly hard to find online but you can rent on vimeo) about an American’s search for the best tea in China.
“I think it was his searching that compelled me… The pursuit of this elusive thing, this process that is connected to the soil, the plants, the weather, to a way of life.”
But he also “likes the taste.” Farrell goes on to do an all-time impersonation of an all-time Werner Herzog moment from the documentary.
In the scene, the American tea search says that there are no words to describe the tea he and Werner are tasting. Werner replies ***in Bavarian Werner Herzog voice***:
“Yes, but I imagine things like walking through a forest and there’s some leaves on the ground and it just had rained and the rain has stopped and it’s damp and you walk and that, somehow, that is all in this tea.”
After delivering the line, Farrell says how he loved that so much. I loved it so much too.
“Somehow that is all in this tea.”
After the impersonation, Yang asks Farrell if he believes it: “That a cup of tea can contain a world. That you could taste a place, a time?”
Farrell replies that he is not sure if he can taste the forrest. I suspect most of us have at times felt some version of that.
And that’s what I think After Yang does so well. Kogonada’s “sleight of hand” does just enough to take the viewer out of the everyday-ness of their own life and point them onto… something.
Is Werner’s description actually how tea tastes? Not superficially. But it certainly gestures towards some ecstatic truth. And that is cinema at its best. It does more than simply record motion through a camera. Though the manipulation of motion, it exposes new places and explores emotionally resonant truths.
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everyday-ness of his own life” and that is somehow all in After Yang.
(Check out this interview with Kogonada and this review of After Yangfrom Filmspotting for these points all made more thoughtfully. That interview also introduced me to After Life by Hirokazu Koreeda which I watched after listening and I think is one of the best movies I have ever seen.)
A Stretch Connection to The French Dispatch
In a scene towards the end of The French Dispatch, Jeffrey Wright’s Baldwin-esque character is talking to the chef played by Steve Park (underrated, imbd). Wright says he admires Park’s bravery for eating the poison mushrooms to save the day.
The chef replies he wasn’t brave. “I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody. I’m foreigner you know.” Wright replies that he too is a foreigner. This exchange follows:
Park: Seeking something missing. Missing something left behind.
Wright: Maybe with good luck, we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.
That’s the best part of the whole movie. And something about it rhymed with After Yang for me.
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everyday-ness of his own life. To become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Bonus: Like Columbus but Different
Columbuswas Kogonada’s first movie. The 100 minute film about big questions in a small town hypnotized me when I watched it back in 2018.
The movie is set in a small town called Columbus in Indiana filled with eye catching modern buildings. The dazzling buildings contrast almost too well with the quiet tone of the movie. The characters search after life’s big questions under the presence of striking modern architecture. While watching the movie I assumed this was a fictional place created with CGI.
But after reading more about the movie and learned that Columbus, IN is a real place. It is 30 minutes south of Indianapolis and the headquarters of Cummins, a company that makes engines and does over $20B in annual sales (Twitter did $5B last year).
I watched the movie a few weeks before moving from Chicago to Austin so I dropped in on the “Athens of the Prarie” during my drive to Texas. It lived up to its nickname. It is a cool model of commerce supporting art and vice versa. I’ve gone back once since and can’t wait to go back again.
I still think about this movie years after seeing it. And obviously the setting of Columbus is memorable. But the architecture is not what left the lasting taste in my mouth.
Columbus performs a similar sleight of hand to the one in After Yang. A could-be distracting element (striking modern architecture/sci-fi AI) is used to pull the viewer out of the everyday-ness of their own life and become aware of the search.
For objectively quiet movies, Kogonada’s films really keep you on your toes.
I enjoyed this picture of The Getty’s Senior Paintings Conservator Ulrich Birkmaier inpainting. Look at that focus. Inpaiting is a process where a conservator repairs a damaged piece of art. This painting, Willem de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre,” needed repairing because on Thanksgiving Day 1985 someone cut it straight from its frame in broad daylights. This story gives the detail of the bizarre theft.
This strikes me as a slightly strange concept. According to wikipedia:
traditional inpainting is performed by a trained art conservator who has carefully studied the artwork to determine the mediums and techniques used in the piece, potential risks of treatments, and ethical appropriateness of treatment.
But what about untraditional inpainting? So much of art hinges on authenticity. So it strikes me as funny that Ulrich Birkmaier can touch up this painting but most people can’t with desecrating it.
I guess my question is why. I get that this is mainly an element of training. But how much of it more ceremonial. If by luck I imparted the same strokes as Ulrich, would I be inpainting or vandalizing?
Is inpainting a consequentialist or deontological practice? Which other crafts or professions depend so much on framing?
While reading Marc Rubinstein’s Net Interest I had one of those Wait-Why-Don’t-People-Talk-About-This-More moments when I read this:
When the Scottish banking system was formally brought under the control of the Bank of England in 1845, Scottish banks retained the right to issue their own banknotes but they were required by law to set aside assets that are worth at least the value of all of their banknotes in circulation. To this day, the Bank of England employs a small team of staff within its Notes Directorate to monitor compliance. The team conducts physical checks of the assets ring-fenced to back the notes – which can include £1 million Bank of England notes known as Giants and £100 million Bank of England notes known as Titans – and analyses daily data reported by the authorised banks.
A quick search confirmed that £1M Giants and £100M Titans are indeed a type of English banknote which is delightful.
For some reason this made me think of a video game I have never actually played but have always thought sounds ultra cool, Eve.
Eve is a MMO where players buy digital spaceships and organize into factions that compete across a virtual galaxy (why this hasn’t been thoroughly crypto-tized is beyond the scope of this proposal and is left as an exercise to the reader). There is a Byzantine system of increasingly powerful ships, the strongest of which can cost thousands of real world dollars.
If the ships people buy in the game are destroyed, they are permanently lost. This combination of no respawns and the outrageously high cost of the most powerful ships is the reason I have always liked the game. There are real stakes. Surprise raids on these mega ships can have major political economy consequences within the game (or at least this is all my impression).
But back to the proposal.
Central Bank Digital Currencies were were an opening act. The Bank of England needs to finish what it started with Giants and Titans and further gamify its bank notes. The people don’t want a digital quid, fiver, or tenner. They want supercarriers, dreadnoughts, and ugh, titans.
I hope Andrew Bailey will acknowledge the arbitrary nature of money and do the right thing by embracing a bold new naming scheme for banknotes that is based on a more future-oriented view of money. Pre-decimal money was fun. Galactic money will be a blast.
British galactic banknotes nomenclature:
£1 note: quid is now Comet Frigate
£5 note: fiver is now Vexcor Cruiser
£10 note: tenner is now Ikitursa Heavy Assault Battlecruiser
£20 note = score is now Supercarrier
£50 note = bullseye is now Dreadnought
£1,000,000 note = giant is now Giant (no change needed)
£100,000,000 note = titan is now Titan (no change needed)
Macbeth has been on my mind because of the new-ish movie by the Coen brother and a Broadway production with Daniel Craig. So when I recently saw that Shakespeare scholar Paul Cantor had died, I checked out his lecture series on how (among a lot of other things) Macbeth’s tyranny is deeply connected to his sense of destiny. This dynamic also maps uncomfortably well to some startup founders.
Cantor explores “what happens politically when you start to think you’re destined, that there is a kind of current of history that’s behind you.”
It’s the source of Macbeth’s tyranny… And that’s what I find most extraordinary about the play, that Shakespeare seems to intuit something about tyranny in the modern world, that is going to take the form of men destiny… What’s most peculiar about it is that it is a transformation of a Christian principle and specifically it involves taking the idea of heaven and now searching for heaven on earth.
In the play, three witches present a future to Macbeth where he is king. To Macbeth, this is heaven on earth. Macbeth obsesses over this vision of the future until he ends up rationalizing killing the King of Scotland. Cantor explains how Macbeth sees this blatant betrayal as bringing about “the be-all and the end-all” today. The promise of heaven-after-death is transformed into heaven-on-earth-today.
If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly: if the assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch With his surcease success; that but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all here, But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We’ld jump the life to come.
Cantor emphasizes that promising heaven-on-earth-today is the formula for lots of modern tyrannies. Do this bad thing in the name of this “grand vision, a higher purpose, a noble mission!” It is also the formula for lots of modern startups.
I just finished reading John Carreyrou’s “Bad Blood,” the story of the fraud at Theranos Inc. and his work to uncover it… There are a lot of passages in the book about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes inspiring and cajoling her employees to work harder, to get with the mission, to override their moral objections to faking the technology and push ahead. None of those passages mention shareholder value or profit maximization. They mention Holmes’s vision of revolutionizing health care to save lives and treat cancer patients. If you want to inspire people to do terrible things, it is very useful to sell them on a grand vision, a higher purpose, a noble mission. Shareholder value is nobody’s idea of an inspiring mission. That’s what’s good about it!
I am pro mission. Working on stuff that is self-evidently aligned with enabling people to thrive is a very satisfying job if you can find it. But the trouble with mission (i.e., destiny) is the tendency for weightings of the future’s value to overwhelm the practical and ethical constraints of today.
Private markets might be resetting. And this could lead to some Shakespearean choices for startup employees.
As founders must work harder to stretch into valuations they were meant to grow into, incantations of “Double, double toil and trouble” might become more common. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well It were done quickly” also works as a response to justifying shifting the goalpost to hit a quarterly metric or an aggressively reading a contract to avoid customer churn. Anything to make sure that Uber-for-the be-all-and-the-end-all achieves its grand vision, its higher purpose, its noble mission!
Founders and employees alike should prepare themselves for Act V of the private market cycle. If fleeing to England or gathering boughs from great Birnam Wood are not available options, those employed in the private markets should at least try to set away enough savings to avoid rationalizing regicide or having to make choices they are ethically uncomfortable with.
As Samuel Johnson said (Money Stuff once informed me…): “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” At the very least, getting money is more innocent employment than being a thane in Scotland.
I suspect the benefits of limited liability outweigh its costs. But I can see how in its maximalist corporate form limited liability can become too much of a good thing.
Regardless of the relative benefits of corporate limited liability, the asymmetric features of limited liability provides a useful lens through which to view optimism and pessimism one’s my personal life.
Being “correctly optimistic during good times” (COGT, right) generally has unbounded upside and being “incorrectly optimistic during bad times” (IOBT, wrong) generally has capped downside. But the absolute value of the upside of being “correctly pessimistic during a bad time” (CPBT, right) tends not to exceed the absolute value of being “correctly optimistic during good times” (COGT, right). And many times the downside of being “incorrectly pessimistic during good times” (IPGT, wrong) actually exceeds the downside of being “incorrectly optimistic during good times” (IOGT, wrong).
This is obviously subject to a thousand exceptions and assumptions but in general aligns with my lived experience. In fact, this might just be me trying to find a framework to support the not so complex observation that in general being positive tends to be a good thing.
Mixed bag. A whole lot of stuff developed fantastically, I think… By and large, when I was optimistic about stuff, I turned out to be right, and when I was pessimistic about stuff, I turned out to be wrong often enough that it has kept optimism alive.
Stewart Brand is empirical proof that optimism maps well to the structural features of limited liability. His life seems to have benefited immensely from the structural advantages of optimism outweighing the less advantageous features of pessimism.
Clamping financial language onto all features of everyday life sometimes feels nasty to me (death by optionality, etc.), but I will always take another reason to be optimistic. I found the broader Cowen and Brand conversation moving in a way that has been hard for me to articulate. Brand’s experience with optimism and pessimism is at least a part of it.
And the interview with Stewart Brand will give you 999 other non-financial reasons to feel optimistic. If you prefer to stay hungry and foolish while leaving the limited liability debates for the finance types, consider giving the whole interview a listen.
I finally got around to seeing Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal and it lived up to the hype around Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci (!), and the sound design (plus shots of the middle Midwest that can never be under-observed by the movies).
But Paul Raci’s message three quarters of the way into the movie about “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the Kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you” even as the world keeps moving hits hard. Riz Ahmed’s Ruben’s in that moment cannot keep still. He leaves that garden and returns to a world that is moving and passing.
At the end of the movie Ruben is in Paris and he is a far as from silence as can be. His new cochlear implants distort the sounds of everyday life. Sitting on a park bench, the distortion of church bells ringing drives him to remove his implants and he sits still.
Bells are symbols of sound: bellowing, ringing, “voice, soul, the breath.” But most of the time, these instruments of noise-making are quiet. They sit still and hold silence.
The carol of the bells would be less beautiful if you were forced to hear it non-stop, or worse… forced to ignore it non-stop. Maybe it is only by holding on to the stillness that we can cherish the carol of bells, the carol of life.
Sound of Metal is the story of a bell learning to remember stillness, the place that never abandons you. It ends on a hopeful note that maybe the song of everyday life can find balance with the eternal stillness from which all things come.
I really liked the ending credit song and assumed it was a recent song I somehow missed. But no! It it is the director’s brother and co-screenwriter Abraham Marder’s original song .
“The charge of writing a credit song for Sound of Metal was uniquely difficult,” Darius Marder says. “How do we break the silence? Can we treat our credit sequence, less as an end and more as an additional scene in the film—a final piece of sonic poetry that allows us to stay with Ruben for another 4 minutes and 22 seconds? I knew only Abraham could author such a journey. Abraham’s voice, both in song and in word, is singular, raw and pure.”
“‘Green’ is meant to serve as a final unexpected psalm at the end of Ruben’s hard-fought experience,” Abraham Marder says. “It’s meant to allow us a collective, final moment where we can join him in this final stage of surrender and recognize that we all go this road alone and in this way, we are joined.“