Chopin in Dubai: Or How to Go from Defying to Defining

Last week, I was invited to speak at the Alternative Asset Management Summit in Dubai to talk about crypto assets as a new asset class in investing.

On the flight from London, I was captivated by “Chopin’s Piano” by Paul Kildea which I had recently picked up at a Vancouver bookstore and saved for the long journey.

Chopin’s music not only defied the conventions of the Classics, but defined Romantic music for decades to come.  Hae looked back and forward at the same time, standing on the shoulders of the greats who came before him (Bach in particular, whose Welltempered Clavier was the only score Chopin carried with him on a desolate trip to Mallorca in 1838-39 where he composed the wondrous Preludes on a ramshackle local piano) but also defied them, in a playful dialectic of respect and provocation of past masters, setting his music free from conventions and in doing so, defining a future sound through the sheer gift of his unbounded imagination.

Chopin and Beethoven: They could never have walked together, but talked a lot in music.

His travel companion and femme terrible George Sand watched him compose, a touching snapshot of a frail, diminutive and sickly Chopin forcefully willing his music into the world, iterating his way to aesthetic perfection: 

It was a train of efforts, waverings, frustrated stabs at recapturing certain details of the theme that he had heard; what he had conceived as a unity he now over-analyzed in his desire to get it down, and his chagrin at not being able to rediscover it whole and clear plunged him into a sort of despair. He withdrew into his room for days, weeping, pacing up and down, breaking his pens, playing measure a hundred times over, changing it each time, then writing it out and erasing it as many times, and beginning all over again on the morrow with painstaking and desperate perseverance. He would spend six weeks on a page, only to hark back to what he had first roughed out.

George Sand

Anybody who writes or codes will recognize Chopin’s creative agony Sand describes!

His struggle speaks to the universal theme of how our imagination collides with real-world constraints, the perpetual tension between freedom and form that when resolved, as in Bach’s music, Cicero’s speeches or elegant math, results in true greatness.

Imagination first defies form and form subsequently defies imagination in some perpetual dance we call progress.

At a more mundane level, when asked at the Dubai conference how crypto and blockchain would change the world, I answered that “the thing with the future is that we cannot imagine it”, commenting how blockchain is the “rebel child of capitalism” but that we simply lacked the imagination to know what’s around the corner.

We do know however that those who, like Chopin, willed their imagination into the world are the ones who go from defying the existing paradigm to defining the next one.


Blockchains on Planes

The Air Canada flight into San Francisco had a documentary on blockchain I hadn’t come across before, produced by Alex Winter.

It’s not a bad film, and even if it was, it’s great to see this on a plane ride. Joe Lubin appears but Vitalik doesn’t, he probably declined.

Approaching San Francisco there’s a detectable film of thin smoke from the wildfires just north in Sonoma County hanging over Golden Gate Bridge, but the sky in the Bay Area is as glorious as always.

I am skipping tomorrow’s and Friday’s Blockchain conference: too much shilling on stage. Even Libra has got a slot.


Surveillance Capitalism: Leading to Fascism 2.0 or to a Privacy Revolt?

I finished reading Surveillance Capitalism, which I had been carrying with me since I picked it up last month at booksinc.net in Mountain View, ironically the home of Google.

Zuboff’s 691 pages do much more than introducing the concept of Surveillance Capitalism: it’s an analytical framework that rather magisterially dissects its origins (at Google) and its modus operandi. 

The book is also an ode to analogue humanity, to our “right to the future tense” which it sees under threat from the behaviour modification logic of this new capitalist model.

It’s prophesies about such future are spine-chilling: a world in which we live our lives in the delusional freedom of “the first text” whilst our lives are being lived for us according to the “shadow text” composed by machines who harvest each and every data point about us via our phones, our computers and all the digital paraphernalia we surround ourselves with.

The greatness of the book, apart from the truly terrific choice of words throughout, comes from the intellectual tools and analytical framework it gives readers to help understand how industrial capitalism is morphing into surveillance capitalism.   Reading this book feels like you’re given a new set of glasses.

Its minor weakness is that the narrative seems to be largely based on an anti-libertarian intellectual background that places too much hope in the State.

As a result, for all its merits in analysing the evils of corporate surveillance capitalism in which advertisers are the most prominent bidders for our “future tense”, the true horror will come once these behaviour modification tools are used by political bidders (cfr. Cambridge Analytica) or states (cfr. China).  

Such extrapolation can only herald Fascism 2.0, in which our futures will be manipulated by political puppet masters with their hands on the algorithms and big date currently at the service of purely commercial ends.  

This usurpation could be so unforeseen it may surprise us with the same suddenness as the rise of Mussolini and Hitler.  

In this light, Zuboff’s book is also a 691-pages long pamphlet of sorts, warning of humanity’s fate if we accept surveillance capitalism as inevitable and urging readers to “be the friction”: remain indignant and revolt.


Bay Area

Long immigration queues yesterday at SFO didn’t allow me to make it to meetings in Mountain View so I charmed the United Airlines lady into changing my ticket and stayed overnight in Mountain View.

Feels like I made full circle back where I left things a couple of years ago when I hatched the idea for Otonomos but didn’t have the funds to bring the family here. Instead we chose Asia and I feel all the richer for it in many ways.

Despite having all the high-tech names within a couple of miles radius from here, the Bay Area can feel very quaint. Retail is stuck in the past and visiting a bank with their 70s fit-out is so retro it’s modish again. 

The golden sun though makes one forgive all of the Peninsula’s shortcomings, only the Côte d’Azur and Lisbon rivals this place for the sheer translucency of its blue sky. Waking up here with this California sky every day of the year induces optimism. Whatever rivals there may be, Silicon Valley will continue to dominate because of its mindset and because they made building and scaling a business a true craft. 

It’s been nice to walk Castro Street and have a cuppa at Red Rock, buy a book at Books Inc and eat a taco further up the street. People seemed relaxed, content and comfortable, and not all young.  Coupa Cafe hasn’t changed and it seems neither has Sand Hill Road’s business model!


Ten Dollar Cohiba in Panama

Typing this on morning flight to San Francisco from Panama.

Yesterday was all work had a ceviche brought up to the room for lunch and only got ready around dinner time.

Walked the Casco Antiguo to get a bite and found a $10 Cohiba in some local version of a 7-11 run by Chinese.

I first thought it would be a fake cigar but it smoked well. I enjoyed it with a stiff Negroni at the rooftop bar of the Casacasco opposite the hotel, a place that seems popular for corporate outings.

I amused myself reading tweets about Facebook’s hearings in DC on its planned Libra currency and retweeted a Hayek clip in which he urges not to leave issuance of money in the hands of Governments. 

I don’t think he had Libra in mind as an alternative, a corporate currency issued by surveillance capitalists. 

Bitcoin may have been closer to his idea of a private currency and the trustless technology behind it. 

BTC came through relatively unscathed from the congressional hearings. Lawmakers seem to prefer a decentralised currency they can’t control over a “ZuckBuck”.

The Bitcoin price stuck at around USD 9,400 didn’t seem to benefit much from this regularly reprieve. 

The crypto community should be careful what it wishes for if it wants more regulatory attention to BTC. 

It could be made illegal or killed by a thousand knives. Few talk about the role of Internet Service Providers, they could be made (probably already are) instruments of surveillance and tools to restrict access.  

Blockchain may not be as unstoppable as they seem if their hardware backbone is targeted. Will Governments let them flourish as a freedom tool or use them as instruments for repression?