Category Archives: Other

Giants, Titans, and the video game Eve: A bold new proposal for the Bank of England

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.

Victoria Cleland, former Chief Cashier signing £100 million Titan note (Good reminder that money is made up).
Source: BoE’s flickr account? Wait, does the Fed have a flickr account? Yes, yes it does.

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)
Gamify the Fed.

Nice Sentiment

If there were a ranking of quotes’ ratios of (Quality of Sentiment)/(# of Google page results), I think this would be towards the top:

I well knew that one could break one’s arms and legs before, and that then afterwards that could get better but I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better too.

https://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let743/letter.html

If you google this quote, there are only four page results. That’s too few for such nice a sentiment! Maybe it is because of the sad ending two years later.

Martin Bailey’s weekly column is a favorite and he recently highlighted this quote in his story “behind the exuberant spring landscape Van Gogh painted just weeks after slashing his ear.”

Here is the full letter.

Exuberant indeed: Van Gogh’s Peach Trees in Blossom (April 1889).

Macbeth as Founder

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.

Man of Destiny

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.

http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html

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.

Matt Levine made this point covering the Theranos story:

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!

Elizabeth Holmes playing Macbeth in upcoming off-Broadway production (would work better as Hamlet that is the question joke but we are talking about Macbeth!…)

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.

Blog of a newspaper in London (a very good blog…)

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 of the King of Scotland.

Limited liability as optimism

Depending on who you ask, limited liability is either “the greatest single discovery of modern times” or “a substantial, regressive cross-subsidy to capital at the expense of tort creditors, tax authorities, and small businesses.”

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.

I think this might be why I enjoyed this part of Tyler Cowen’s recent conversation with Stewart Brand. Tyler asked Stewart if his younger self would ” be disappointed in the future that has come to pass.” Brand replied:

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.

Sound of Metal, Darius Marder

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.

What else has a soul singing in the apparent silence if you take the time or have the tools to listen?

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.

Note:

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 .

From an interview:

“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.

Walt Disney as Collector

This weekend a friend and I saw a new exhibit at the Met on different sources of inspiration for Walt Disney.

It opens with how a trip to France in Walt’s formative years ended up having the French Decorative Arts influence the style of Beauty and the Beast. It was hard not to delight in the collection of visual inspirations and other curios that followed: The Cloisters’ Unicorn Tapestries and Sleeping Beauty; The Swing and Tangled; a table sized drawing of Disneyland drawn over a weekend as a visual pitch deck to investors in 1953; and lots more.

But others will probably ask the question my friend asked when we stepped out of the cinematic exhibit – is it art?

People have asked this for decades. In 1938 Walt Disney gifted a picture of two vultures from Snow White to the Met. Wolf Burchard, a curator at the Met, recently commented how the expected “public relations coup” instead caused a minor controversy:

“Disney’s water color[s] … will be hung under the same roof with the greatest works of the greatest masters of painting, and the Metropolitan isn’t blushing about it.”

The Philadelphia Record

One reply to this sort of criticism is to point out the similarities between Disney’s studio process and the studios of different artistic masters throughout the ages: Walt Disney as studio maestro. Is there a comparable combination of artisan, craftsman, technologist, manager, and businessman? I’m not sure.

But I think this new exhibition at the Met provides another answer to the “It’s Disney, but is it art” question. Walt Disney was a collector.

Tyler Cowen recently asked artist David Dalle to recommend “one actionable step tomorrow to learn more about art.” Salle replied with some advice the first curator of contemporary art at the Met, Henry Geldzahler, gave about the “taboo subject” of acquiring taste:

Start collecting. “Okay, but I don’t have any money. How can I collect art?” You don’t have to collect great paintings. Just go to the flea market and buy a vase for 5 bucks. Bring it back to your room, live with it, and look at it.

Pretty soon, you’ll start to make distinctions about it. Eventually, if you’re really paying attention to your own reactions, you’ll use it up. You’ll give that to somebody else, and you’ll go back to the flea market, and you buy another, slightly better vase, and you bring that home and live with that. And so the process goes. That’s very real. It’s very concrete.

Walt Disney was talented at going to the cultural flea market and making distinctions about it. Transforming the raw materials displayed in the current exhibit into the Disney oeuvre may or may not be art, but it is close to magic. Though maybe not greater than, it as least different than the sum of its parts (in a good way).

In some ways, Disney films are a very commercial deconstruction of cultural codes at the most popular mass market level. Is that art? I don’t know. But as Cogsworth says: “if it’s not baroque, don’t fix it!

August 8, 2021 Sunday links

  1. The three-or-four-hours rule for getting creative work done – exactly what it says
  2. The Tigray conflict began last November, as the world’s attention was focused on the US presidential election; In late June, the TPLF took control of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray; its forces have since pushed east into neighbouring Afar and south into Amhara, where Lalibela is located.
  3. Grinling Gibbons

Consumption > ??? > Production

Why do this? Inputs and outputs. My life has been heavy on the former and light on the latter. Cultivating my media inputs brings me pleasure. But there is no moral virtue in consuming the right blogs and art. The more I collected inputs, the more I suspected that some sort of output was required to make it mean anything.

Producing outputs has always loomed in the distance somewhere after these articles, that podcast, this book. Over the last year, it further receded to something I would pursue after graduate school. But as I took lots of time meander around the USA and my mind, I realized that graduate school would not put me closer to learning and growing everyday. And if anything it might make it harder to pursue what I value outside my intellectual interests.

A graduate degree wasn’t necessary or sufficient to convert my inputs to outputs. But I think this project might be. So this is a place for me to do that — output. By publicly learning, maybe slowly connections will be made, novelties gleaned, and questions raised, and hints towards what sorts of output I might want to product.

Thanks for reading!

-Thomas Frank