[VIC – 101] A look back…

When thinking about 2017, the most obvious trend to talk about is cryptocurrency and the blockchain. And it’s really interesting because regular people are making tons of money by way of a transformational technology, yet most people have no idea what it is or why it’s important. I’ve written about it here on VIC a number of times, but many of you have told me you still don’t get it. So with this year-end post, I will attempt to rectify my mistake and start at square one.

Business & Money

So what is bitcoin and what is the blockchain? I’ll stay away from technical details because it honestly is just not that important for everyone to understand (plus I don’t understand it in great detail). Similarly, I’d bet that many of you have no idea how the internet works from a technical perspective, but you have no problem understanding why it is so important. So let’s start there.
The central idea to understand here is trust. If you think back to the origin of trade and “money,” you basically start out with a barter system. If you live in a small tribe or group of just a handful of individuals, it’s easy to acquire some milk by trading some grain. You give me a few gallons and I’ll trade you a few bushels from my harvest. Pretty straight forward and no need for much trust and security. I know who you are and I can look at the milk and smell it to make sure if’s not spoiled. In order to keep track of these “transactions,” I can just write them down in a notebook that says on such and such date, we traded such and such items. Everything is listed there in one neat column.
When the groups started getting larger, and the items being traded more numerous, the simple barter system started to break. If my farm has grown in size and I want to sell grain to the entire village, it doesn’t make sense to trade different items with everyone and write it all in a notebook. You need a means of exchange, or “money,” in order to transact in an efficient manner. Everyone can use the same beads, shells, or coins to buy and sell whatever they need. Additionally, with a much larger number of transactions to keep track of, my simple one-column notebook entries would be hard to manage. So now I start to keep track of things in two columns, credits and debits. In the milk example, I would add a debit for the cash spent, then a credit for my new gallons of milk (enter double-entry bookkeeping).
Another word for my notebook in the above examples would be “ledger,” the record of all transactions. And that system worked great for a long time, until it didn’t. The glaring problem was that it wasn’t very hard to cheat the system. With only one party holding the ledger, it’s easy to cheat. Simply erase an entry here, or add a 0 there, and there’s no way to prove that something’s amiss.
So as things continued to grow and get more complex, our answer to this was independent 3rd parties that would manage the ledgers for everyone else. Enter banks, brokerages, insurers, accounting firms, and the like. But when you think about it, the problem still persists. A bank is just one company, so you still have the trust issue and the single point of failure, albeit a bigger one.
So what if, instead of one bank tracking credits & debits to your account, what if all of your transactions could be independently verified by 5,000 different parties all across the globe. And for a transaction to be verified, there would need to be a majority consensus across the entire network. Even if you bribed one party to erase an entry, that ledger would be out of sync with the other 4,999, so the majority consensus would remain accurate. It becomes much harder to manipulate this system when the ledger is distributed across so many independent participants.
That’s what bitcoin and the Bitcoin blockchain bring to the table. A distributed ledger system that allows for transactions between non-trusted parties, without the need for anything to be verified by financial institutions or 3rd parties. There are lots of independent parties holding copies of the same digital ledger, and it’s a lot harder to compromise a large number of parties than it is to compromise one.
Hopefully that makes some sense without getting into the weeds.

Human Progress

So why is this technology so transformative and so important for the progress of humanity? Using the US dollar and banking institutions seems to work fairly well. You can easily open an account, transfer funds, transact with merchants, and do basically anything else you need to do with your FDIC insured dollars. However, you have to realize that as one of 300 million Americans, you’re thinking is incredibly biased. As the most privileged 5% of the world’s population, you’re completely insulated from things that most people experience.
If you want to think about the average consumer in the world, that’s probably closer to a Chinese male in his mid-twenties. And in China you have communism, corrupt governments, dictators, totalitarian rule, and serious capital controls. That’s a very different picture.
Or maybe you hail from Greece. In 2013, they had FDIC insurance for banks deposits as well. Then one day the banks closed on a Wednesday (not sure if that was the actual day), and reopened on the following Monday to a different version of reality. 20% of money had evaporated while the banks were closed, and even when the banks reopened there were withdrawal limits. What about the FDIC insurance? What insurance? Never happened. Let’s not talk about that.
Or what about what happened with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks in the same year. Because the US government was not in agreement with what Assange and his crew were up to, they basically coerced Visa, MasterCard, Amex, PayPal and all of the major payment providers to cut off WikiLeaks from the global financial system. In other words, WikiLeaks was basically deemed guilty until proven otherwise without any conviction or due process. This was a complete perversion of our judicial system. Ironically, WikiLeaks moved to bitcoin as a result and has now made a 50,000x return on their investment.
Global financial crisis anyone? How many examples do you need of financial institutions and governments behaving badly and betraying our trust before you realize that the current system is broken?
The reality is that 90% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to the financial system in the way that US citizens do. 2.5 billion people have no access to banking at all. Another 4 billion are what we refer to as “under-banked.”
What we need is a system where governments and large financial insinuations can’t rig the game. Can’t print money whenever it suits them.
What we basically need is the separation of state and money in the same way that we currently have a separation of church and state. It’s a no brainer why the separation of church and state makes sense. The Crusades, WWII, Islamic Terrorism…. examples of religion perverting politics and politics perverting religion are innumerable.
We’ve arrived at a point where the same is true of money. It has become a system of mass surveillance and control. Financial institutions, payment processors, clearing houses, all of these are political by nature. In order to operate, these companies have made a bargain with governments that they must do whatever they say if they wish to continue operations. It’s not that these institutions can be manipulated or coerced, it is that they MUST.
And what’s really exciting is that we all get to witness this tipping point during our lifetimes. I can’t see how this technology doesn’t fundamentally change things. There’s no turning back.

Philosophy

Of course, it can’t all be rainbows and butterflies. Blockchain technology is far from perfect in its current instantiation, and will surely undergo many iterations before we get it right. Again, I’ll stay away from the technical limitations, in favor of touching on the philosophical.
The one I’m thinking most about of late is the issue of anonymity. People behave poorly when they’re anonymous. The fact is simple and true.
Social networking is a great example. Some of you may have heard of the anonymous and localized social network called Yik Yak back in 2013. It was largely used at high schools and universities and exploded to 1.8 million downloads in a few months. But the dirty underbelly of the app quickly took center stage. Because there was no real identity tied to profiles, the app quickly went from friendly social network to ground zero for bullying, hate space, and threats of violence. This is a big reason why Facebook requires real names and real pictures to create a profile.
When large groups of people congregate together for protests, to celebrate big wins in sports, or any other reason, these events often turn violent and unruly because people lose the sense of individual identity in favor of the crowd’s.
When people rob banks or commit other crimes, they often wear masks. The feeling of anonymity empowers people to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do.
India’s president, Narendra Modi, recently removed the largest bills from circulation to cut down on tax evasion and to eliminate payments to fund terrorism & government bribes.
When people buy drugs, guns, or other people, they use cash because it’s anonymous and untraceable.
It’s an ugly fact, but a true one. Anonymity breeds bad behavior. Not from everyone, but from a lot of people and organizations.
If we move money to a truly private and untraceable protocol (e.g. Monero), I’m not so sure about the future of that system. Would you pay your taxes if there was no way to prove how much money you made or no way to enforce it?
Don’t answer that.

My Latest Discovery

Shortcomings aside, these are exciting times. There’s ton’s of noise and coverage about the leading protocols (Bitcoin, Ethereum, LiteCoin, Ripple, ZCash, etc), but there are tons of other really exciting projects out there.
One that I find especially interesting is Augur. Augur is a decentralized prediction market that’s built on top of the Ethereum network. The most obvious application is betting. You can make a wager on any future event, as long as someone in the world is willing to take the other side of that bet and the outcome is publicly verifiable. Now gambling is fun, exciting, and there’s a big market (~$240 billion in the US), but this application is also somewhat short-sighted.
With Augur, you could basically create a futures market for anything. Today we have future’s markets for commodities and financial instruments. For example, if you grow corn, and you sell a pound of corn for $10 to your customers, you’ll want that revenue to remain flat and predictable. So you could buy a futures contract that says if the price goes to $5, you will still get your $10 and the investor pays the difference. If the price goes to $15, then you would only get the $10 and the investor would keep the additional profits. So it’s pretty obvious and straightforward why futures contracts make sense.
But for many things, there are no futures markets. For example, what if you decide to work for the Trump Whitehouse. If he stays in office, your future is pretty bright. But if he’s impeached, your political career might be over. So perhaps you might want to hedge that bet by wagering some amount that he’ll be impeached. And of course, no one would know about it.
What about foreign stock markets? Currently, as an American, I have no exposure to foreign markets (unless there is an American Depository Receipt [ADR] or something similar). With Augur, you might bet on the appreciation of a foreign security.
Or what about access to private markets. If you have a ton of conviction, you might bet on monthly active users, revenue numbers, or the IPO price for Uber.
So think Vegas + DraftKings/FanDuel + futures markets + anything else you can imagine.
I’ll say it again. These are exciting times!!

It’s a Wrap!

I hope this issue was somewhat useful and that 2017 was good to you. I urge you to spend some time in deep reflection about the past year. I imagine there were a few things that didn’t go as planned, people you grew apart from, and less than ideal circumstances. I imagine there were also a ton of reasons to smile and be grateful. In your reflections, look at those two categories, and think about the actions or events that brought both about. You don’t always have control over outcomes, but you do have control over inputs. Focus on the areas you have control over, and that’s all you can really do. Falcon speed in 2018! (Falcon’s are the fastest creatures on the planet and their existence is provable)

[VIC – 87] Power of defaults. App layer vs protocol layer. Intellectual flexibility. No dairy experiment.

Business & Money

Apparently, Google is paying nearly $3 billion per year to be the default search engine on iOS devices.
This reminds me of when AOL was included as the default internet service on Windows when Windows 95 launched. You could search for and use a separate service, but there was a ton of friction in those days (remember software was sold on cd-roms in physical retail stores).
Being the default option is powerful. You don’t have to have the best product if you’re the default. You only have to be good ENOUGH. There are countless examples of this. Going back to Windows 95, it also came with Internet Explorer, which was Microsoft’s web browser. IE was not even close to being as good as Netscape Navigator. But it didn’t matter. IE was free and it was the default. Netscape’s dominant position in the browser market evaporated seemingly overnight.
Tied to this idea of being the default, is distribution. Again here, the product can be inferior if the distribution strategy is spot on. The direct to consumer model has started to change this a bit, but not by much. Distribution still matters a ton.

Human Progress

There’s something interesting happening with the development of blockchains. If you think about the internet in its current incarnation, there is no value capture at the protocol layer. No one got rich solely by creating or investing in open protocols (HTTP, TCP/IP, etc). Instead, all of the value has been captured at the application layer. The big internet companies that have built successful applications on top to the protocols have made all the money.
The reverse is true with blockchain. The market cap of Ethereum is north of $30 billion and Bitcoin is over $70 billion. But the most valuable companies that have built interesting applications on top of the leading blockchain networks might be worth a couple hundred million dollars, at the high end. Most of the value is accruing at the protocol layer.
This suggests that the internet of tomorrow might look vastly different than it does today. With data replicated and shared across a decentralized network, perhaps massive monopoly platforms will not grow to dominate their markets as they do today. Perhaps competition will be more vibrant as barriers to entry come down and new creators can emerge. Perhaps this is how it was always meant to be.

Philosophy

For a long time, I’ve been doing a certain thing a specific way. Recently, some one suggested I do it another way. I gave feedback that I didn’t think it would work for all of these conceptual reasons (not based on any evidence). Then a bit later, I witnessed some one else doing it the way it had been suggested to me. It worked perfectly and made complete sense.
I stretch a lot in the gym these days, sometimes even devoting an entire day to just doing it. But it’s clear my intellectual flexibility needs work. If someone that you trust and admire makes a suggestion, it often makes sense to give it a try, at least once or twice. Of course, there’s no guarantee that what works for them will work for you. But there’s a reason that that person holds your respect and admiration in the first place.

My Latest Discovery

I’ve been trying a bit of an experiment for the last couple of weeks. I’ve removed dairy from my diet to see if it makes me feel materially different (outside of one scoop of cookie dough ice cream that I couldn’t resist 😞 ). So no cheese on my chicken parm, no yogurt in my protein shakes, and I’ve even swapped out my normal whey protein supplement with a plant based protein substitute. Overall, I’d say I’ve noticed better digestion, a bit more energy, and my allergies seem to less of a problem. Planning to keep this up to see if the changes persist.

[VIC – 78] A master plan. The evolution of free speech. Pause and begin again. The most enjoyable book.

Business & Money: a master plan

Do you remember back in 2006 when Elon Musk posted his master plan for Tesla? In short, the steps were as follows:
1) Build a high-end electric sports car
2) Plow all of the $ from sales back into the company in order to move down market with a more affordable model
3) Make consumers “energy positive” (produce more than you consume) via electric cars + other sustainable products like solar panels.
While Elon is killing it and following his plan to a T, he’s not the only one with a master plan. Brian Armstrong, founder & CEO of Coinbase (the largest cryptocurrency exchange), published his own version this week. Brian is on a mission to “create an open financial system for the world” (aka bring digital currency to the masses). I’d recommend taking 4 minutes to read the entire post, but just in case you’re feeling lazy, I’ll summarize it for you.
1) Make it really easy for normal people to invest in digital currency via a retail exchange (Coinbase’s product in its current form).
2) Make it easy for professional traders and institutions to participate in the exchange. Professional traders = higher trading volumes = more liquidity = lower volatility.
3) Create a mass market application to allow regular people to start getting real value from the payment network. In other words, build the killer app for digital currency. (just like the web browser did in facilitating the explosion of the consumer internet)
4) Pour gasoline on the fire by building/investing in/partnering with new applications for digital currency.
I can’t wait to look back on this moment in 10 years and see where things stand. Exciting times we live in!

Human Progress: the evolution of free speech

One of my primary news sources is the Economist. In reading a European publication, and also in speaking with European friends, it seems there are still remnants of social democracy across the pond. By that I mean that there is some memory of shared public space and the public good.
By contrast, individualism reigns supreme in the American context. It’s a core tenant of liberal democracy. Free speech is an excellent example of this. Any person should be able to say anything at any time via any medium (with rare exceptions like saying “bomb” on a plane). This is all good and well. Except for when it’s not.
We now live in a time of so-called “fake news” or “alternate facts.” So, regardless of truthfulness or verifiability, anyone can post a story on social media that has the potential to reach millions in an instant.
It seems we may have arrived at a point where we need a progression or evolution of the concept of free speech. It seems we are in need of shared standards around the quality of information. And these standards should not illicit feelings of an encroachment on the first amendment. I don’t believe a commitment to high quality information and truth equates to censorship.

Philosophy: pause and begin again

I wanted to share a snippet from a guided meditation session a few days ago. (you’ll have to imagine that dreamy guided meditation type of voice)

Just to help you maintain that focus on the breath,
just silently starting to count the breaths as they pass.
One with the rising sensation.
Two with the falling sensation.
Then three, then four.
Just up to a count of 10.
When you get to 10, you can stop,
then start again at 1.
Just try that a couple of times through.
Remember to allow thoughts to come and go,
but the moment you get distracted,
just gently bring the attention back again,
to that physical sensation of the breath

It’s perfectly normal for the mind to wander off.
Remember as soon as you get distracted,
as soon as you realize that the mind has wandered off,
just gently bringing the attention back again
and just picking it up on the number you left off on.

This is such a powerful idea. Many people say that the hardest part about meditation is calming the mind. You have so many thoughts running around at any given moment. How can you possibly just sit and think about nothing?
But that’s exactly the point. It’s perfectly normal to get distracted. It’s not about being perfect, but instead just allowing the distraction to come and go. As soon as the mind wanders off, just refocus the attention and begin again.
There are so many of these moments in life. For me personally, I lose deals at work, get upset with my fiance, have disagreements with family and friends… the list is never ending.
Whenever these things happen, meditation has made it easier to simply pause, refocus, and begin again.

My Latest Discovery – the most enjoyable book

Surely You Must Be Joking Mr. Feynman is one of the most fun and enjoyable books in existence. It’s not often that I’m constantly chuckling and smiling to myself as I flip through the pages of a book.
The book is about the life of the world renowned and Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman. It’s really just Feynman telling short stories throughout his life in very simple and informal terms. He has an unbelievable way using seemingly frivolous events to convey profound ideas. It’s truly amazing!
BUT WAIT!! If you decide to check it out, watch this video first.

It’s Feynman talking about light. Seeing his quirky mannerisms and hearing how excited he is allows you to really see and hear the stories while you read.
If you don’t laugh while reading this, leave me a comment and I will reimburse you for the cost of the book. Scouts honor!

[VIC – 76] Running 🏃🏃 for the exits. Early = wrong. Toasters as teachers 📝. Filter by unread. Do dreams 😴 mean anything?

Business & Money

Take a look at Best Buy and Home Depot over the last year:

At a time when most retailers seem to be hemorrhaging, these guys are both trading at all times highs. This fact reminds me of 2 key points in investing:
It’s not an abstract philosophical game. Regardless of what people are saying, you simply have to think deeply about the business and analyze the numbers. It’s purely rational.
Second, and more importantly, when everyone is running for the exits, it’s a great time to look for cheap opportunities to buy. When the housing market crashed, it was a great time to buy real estate. After the internet bubble burst, great engineers and companies could be acquired for next to nothing.
If investing was about consensus, everyone would be rich.

Human Progress

I want to talk about cryptocurrencies and the underlying technology today. But before we dive in, I realize I’ve written on this subject before without providing adequate context and background to why it’s really important.
First, let’s consider banks. Banks have essentially unfettered control over money. They can print it (causing the value to fall). They cash restrict your access to it (e.g. in the case of a run on the bank = close banks when too many people are attempting to withdraw cash). They prey on the poor with myriad fees and predatory loans. The list goes on and on. And the best part, when they screw up, there are basically no repercussions (hence the term “too big to fail”).
Long story short, the incentive structures are all messed up. And given that these centralized institutions control our financial system, we’re basically forced to simply sit on our hands and pray they do the right thing (don’t hold your breath).
It is here that we arrive at the central tenant of the blockchain (the technology behind cryptocurrencies): it’s decentralized nature. There is no central entity (person, company, government, etc) that controls the entire system. Instead you have a distributed system (think ledger or database) where each entry is verified by lots of independent and self-interested parties (“miners”). As a result, you have inherent trust baked into the system. All participants rely on all other participants for the safety and integrity of the system. Incentives are beautifully aligned. (The implications go far beyond money, but this core tenant provides enough context for now)
So why are we revisiting the subject this week? Because of the price action of course.

This past week, 9 different people hit me up asking where/how to buy cryptocurrency. And many were people completely outside of the crypto.. actually the technology industry altogether. This is a telltale sign that we’re in bubble territory. Speculators and uninformed consumers are artificially inflating the value of cryptocurrency right now. And moreover, we don’t have any mainstream consumer application that would equate to higher demand (and higher prices as a result). It reminds of the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s when regular people were sinking their life savings into internet stocks, only to have it all evaporate overnight.
But the dot-com bubble is a prudent analogy for another reason. While companies were going bust left and right, many were actually incredible ideas that would later become valuable in their own right. Remember WebVan? It was FreshDirect before FreshDirect. Or what about the spectacular failure of Pets.com? Just a few months ago PetSmart acquired Chewy.com for $3.35 billion. It’s too bad that being early is synonymous with being wrong.
Similarly, I am a blockchain bull all day every day. It seems obvious that this technology will be absolutely revolutionary. But how many real consumer applications are viable today? Maybe a few. But there are a ton of things that need to be figured out first. What’s happening right now is speculation, plain and simple. Don’t be a sucker! If you want to get involved, park 1-2% of your portfolio in a secure crypto wallet and let it sit there for the next 10 years. In the meantime, it’s a good time to start educating yourselves about what’s coming.

Philosophy

So I wanted to show you my toaster:

You’ll notice that the power is set to level 5. This is a recent change. Up until last week, it was set to level 3. I think it came that way when I bought it. And level 3 was a great setting. It cooks waffles perfectly. The only downside is that you to run it twice to achieve said perfection. So when the waffles pop up, I would simply push the button down again for one more cycle and viola. Perfect waffles.
One day last week my fiance noticed this pattern and asked, “why don’t you just increase the power setting so that you only have to run it once? Wouldn’t that be faster?”
“Blasphemy,” I thought to myself. I already had a fool proof system of cooking waffles.
For some reason, I kept thinking about the toaster at random moments throughout the day. Of course it would be better to find the optimal power setting, but that would force me to venture into uncharted territory (a.k.a. untested power settings).
The next morning I decided I was in a risk-taking mood. I switched the power setting to 6 and pushed the button down. It was a grueling 90 seconds of weighting. Then pop! They were too done! Not burnt per say, but more done than I preferred. I knew I should have stayed with my system!
The next morning I was at it again, but with level 5 this time. To my surprise, the waffles were perfect. That wasn’t so bad after all. One false start the day before, but now back on solid ground.
While this is a pretty trivial example, fear of change is a real thing. I spent almost 4 years avoiding the power setting on a toaster due to fear of change. If an obstacle this small can cause such cognitive dissonance, one can only imagine what happens when larger ones present themselves.
I appreciate my toaster for this much-needed reminder.

My Latest Discovery

I’m either an oblivious idiot, or you will thank me effusively. Did you know that this little icon filters your inbox by “unread.”

I’ve wondered so many times why there was no easy way to do this. All the while, it’s been right here in front of me.

Question Of The Week

Whenever I have a dream, I tend to journal about it the next day to parse it for meaning. I’ve always felt that dreams were a great way to listen in on your unconscious mind. What do you think? Do you place any value or meaning in your dreams?