Mulling: Multivocality, Cities, Currency

This might not seem like the kind of urgent material that would require immediate posting, but I prefer to record my readings and reactions roughly as they occur, in whatever incomplete form they take. I might make prettier, denser posts if I collected myself first and edited longer after, but that hasn’t been how I’ve really conducted myself here thus far. Maybe in a month or two I may try my hand at a longer form essay, but right now the more stochastic style is suiting me. 

I started Unit Operations this past week (first post next week), and I’ve finished Intensive Science (final post tomorrow).

Below: On the power of inscrutability, a piece on Pittsburgh’s rebirth, a warning about Austin’s mortality, an interesting take on “money v. power”,  and anti-system parties.

I. A Sphinx Without a Secret

Most interesting read this week: Abandoned Footnotes on Francisco Franco’s bizarre cult of personality, characterized by non-commitment and inscrutability, which I’m still digesting and may type on later.

“It is said that if you meet a gallego on a staircase, it is impossible to deduce if he is going up or down. Franco perhaps embodied that characteristic more than most gallegos.”

It makes survival sense for Franco, as the coalition he assembled was wildly contradictory. His enemies (and his allies) would over-commit to their own actions and crash-and-burn around him.

From a paper on the Medici in Renaissance Florence:

“We use the term ‘robust action’ to refer to Cosimo’s style of control. The key to understanding Cosimo’s sphinxlike character … is multivocality-the fact that single actions can be interpreted coherently from multiple perspectives simultaneously, the fact that single actions can be moves in many games at once, and the fact that public and private motivations cannot be parsed. Multivocal action leads to Rorschach blot identities, with all alters constructing their own distinctive attribution of the identity of ego. The ‘only’ point of this, from the perspective of ego, is flexible opportunism-maintaining discretionary options across unforeseeable futures in the face of hostile attempts by others to narrow those options.

Crucial for maintaining discretion is not to pursue any specific goals [my emphasis]. For in nasty strategic games, like Florence or like chess, positional play is the maneuvering of opponents into the forced clarification of their (but not your) tactical lines of action. Locked-in commitment to lines of action, and thence to goals, is the product not of individual choice but at least as much of others’ successful ‘ecological control’ over you … Victory, in Florence, in chess, or in go means locking in others, but not yourself, to goal-oriented sequences of strategic play that become predictable thereby.”

 

II. Pittsburgh

The Robots That Saved Pittsburgh made me feel warm and fuzzy. Familiar names and places. I miss the common areas more than I thought I would (nobody told me those things stop existing after school), and I miss my quiet areas in the HCI offices (huge whiteboards!) and the Project Olympus building off of South Craig street.

The environment around Carnegie Mellon was certainly special. I don’t remember dwelling much on history in Georgia, but Pittsburgh was rich with it. The city’s dependency on so few big names and industries likely contributed to Pittsburgh’s own fragility- the booming industrial period, the three-decade winter of decline, the resurgence nominally based on robotics, energy, and healthcare. I wouldn’t be surprised if more diverse cities, like New York, suffered far shorter crisis periods.

President Obama would come to campus pretty regularly, heralding Pittsburgh as a model for other cities (presumably rust-belt cities that resemble Old Pittsburgh). I am skeptical that Pittsburgh can be replicated. We were built on top of a ton of dying culture, in a special geography, at a particular time. I don’t think all things can be disassembled and packed and moved and put back just so. 

Detroit will be interesting to follow.

 

III. Austin

(Weird: The Texas Archive Wars; Video: Texas Secession Possibility)

Bruce Sterling at SXSW (transcript):

[Austin] got politically gerrymandered by the Texas right. So that, this city, the left-leaning capital of the State, would have next to no political influence. Austin’s political enemies just split the city up, very cleverly, so that any Austin congressional district can stretch all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, or even to Mexico.

So what you’ve got here in Austin is a blue pond in a red sea. It’s like a West Berlin. Austin is under constant cultural siege.

Every Austinite knows this in their bones. They know that if they ever stop being weird, they will be Dallas in thirty days.

It’s not all peach cobbler and microbrew beer around here, okay? When South By SouthWest occurs, it’s like that awesome scene in Lord of the Rings when the Riders of Rohan appear at the Gates of Minas Tirith.

Austinites are not the only people who suffer by this Civil Cold War situation. Raleigh is a lot like that — if you’ve ever been to Raleigh, North Carolina. Ann Arbor is very like that.

If you want to know what Austin would look like without this kind of tremendous Civil Cold War pressure: Boulder, Colorado. They’d all be Buddhists here. Very Zen, very yoga here, unperturbed.

If you want to know what the worst-case scenario is for us, what would happen if Austin conclusively lost? Waco. Waco, Texas. The defeated Austin. Waco, Texas used to be the “Athens of the Southwest.” That was its name. Waco was an intellectual center of education, of science, art, culture, and radical publishing.

Yes, in Waco — but the fundies got Waco. They just took it down. They won conclusively. Waco went down with all hands.

Even a lot of Austinites don’t know that stark truth. It’s a subterranean tragedy.

I’ve always liked a good Sterling speech. It has some preacher-like qualities to it.

 

IV. Flows Upon Flows

Excerpted, with permission, from privately shared comments from Michael Tsai, of whom I know little but from whom I’ve read much in recent weeks:

 “Capital flow as fundamental measure of power, capital is but the shadow of capital flow.” To the “money vs power” dynamic, money is the lowest, most impoverished form of wealth (“money is for poor people”). Power/capital flow is measured not by how much money you HAVE, but how much money you (can) MOVE. At the lowest level, if you HAVE $1M you are capable of moving AT LEAST $1M. Beyond that is a measure of “punching above your weight.” In this sense, VCs and other market movers/makers (CEO talks, capital moves in/out accordingly) are prime examples of punching above your weight. A VC with $1B net worth is more powerful than a thousand “work and save money” millionaires, because the actions he takes and signals he makes can cause far in excess of $1B to be moved, whereas all the actions of the 1,000 combined at most cause a little more than $1B to be moved. Financial muscle isn’t how much money you have, but how much money you move. In general, the weightlifter with greater muscle mass is capable of moving a greater amount of mass. But two weightlifters with the same amount of muscle mass may vary widely in how much mass they can move.

 

YESTERDAY’S FLOW IS TODAY’S STAGNATION

Flows build upon flows, layers upon layers, like programming languages – yesterday’s flow is tomorrow’s stagnation. Humanity began with stagnant physical assets – meat, fruit, which would literally become stagnant and useless if not consumed almost immediately.

Meat and fruit started being bartered – stagnation moved into flow. Barterware ate the world – people could now specialize in their production.

Barter is layer one.

But barter had high transaction costs. Meat and fruit would spoil. It would squish. It had to be specifically wanted at a time and place. Barter was yesterday’s flow, and today’s stagnation.

So hard currency was invented as a primitive analog transaction protocol to lower the transaction costs of barter. Due to efficiency, security, and convenience (mostly efficiency), gradually moneyware ate the world. Barter is the flow of goods, and hard currency is the flow of barter.

Currency is layer two.

But over time, people began to accumulate massive sacks of hard currency that was just sitting there, stagnant. Currency values would shift along with economic tides and political shifts (example might be Confederacy losing a battle and its currency going down, or Libyan vendors during the Arab Spring constantly calling in to check the value of Libyan currency to decide on price before making any sale). Currency was yesterday’s flow and today’s stagnation.

So some visionaries invented banking(/ investing), to turn the stagnant currency piles into flow investment streams. Bankware ate the world. Currency is the flow of barter, and banking is the flow of currency.

Banking is layer three.

But banking had a great deal of problems. There was government interference and political intrigue. There was corruption and toxic assets. It was plagued by robbers, fraudsters, and macroeconomists. It held societies hostage and required bailouts and set off Occupy movements and conspiracy theorists. Banking was yesterday’s flow, and today’s stagnation.

So to deal with the high frictions and transaction costs of banking, some visionaries invented cryptocurrencies and the technological infrastructure to support them, building on the foundation of the now-commodotized capital flow. Banking is the flow of currency, and BitCoin is the flow of banking.

CoinBase is layer four.

 

V. Counter-Establishment

Via Politico:

This kind of counter-establishment movement is common enough that comparative politics has a term for it: the “anti-system party”—a group that seeks to obstruct and delegitimize the entire political system in which the government functions. As explained by Giovanni Sartori, the Italian political scientist who coined the term in 1976, an anti-system is driven not by “an opposition on issues” but “an opposition of principle.”

“An anti-system party would not change—if it could—the government but the very system of government,” Sartori wrote. “[A]n anti-system opposition abides by a belief system that does not share the values of the political order within which it operates.”

Sartori had foremost in mind the various communist parties active in Western Europe during the Cold War, but the concept has been applied to movements as varied as right-wing nationalists, radical libertarians and ethnic separatists all across the world.