Wednesday 16 March, 2022

Quote of the Day

”Cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a purpose.”

  • Garrison Keillor

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Bob Dylan & Van Morrison | And It Stoned Me | BBC Outtake, Athens 27.06.1989


Two of my favourite singer-songwriters in the open air on a hill in Athens, with the Parthenon in the background.

I love outtakes. They show how the magical sausage is made.

Long Read of the Day

In my Observer column last Sunday I wrote about DAOs — Distributed Autonomous Organisations, the latest crypto-obsession. I said that the Gadarene rush into this crypto wormhole reminded me of the 1960s and early 1970s hippie obsession with communes. “There’s something touching about the DAO idea”, I wrote.

It seeks to break the stranglehold of hierarchical organisations dominated by a few and replace them with more democratic structures. In that sense, they’re reminiscent of 1960s and 1970s attempts to create communes for breaking the grip of the nuclear monogamous family and creating more collegial structures for domestic life. Those experiments often broke up because the alpha males couldn’t hack real egalitarianism. And DAOs are now riven by similar conflicts. The only difference is that some members are more equal than other, not because of gender but because they own more of the cryptocurrency tokens and can therefore determine what happens. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

This struck a chord with Dave Birch (Whom God Preserve), who has an enviable talent for making complex ideas clear by finding material examples. In a lovely blog post he told the story of a British football team, Ebbsfleet United, a “proto-DAO” which was taken over by an online community of fans in 2008 and initially did well in the league in which it was located.

The fan voting evolved in what I imagine many social anthropologists would regard as an entirely predictable way. After the investment, the fans voted on who should pick the team, themselves or the manager: they chose the manager every time. This is exactly what I would do: If I had a vote in how Manchester City should line up at the weekend, I would inevitably delegate that vote to someone who knows what they are doing (in this case, one of the most successful managers in the history of the game, Pep Guardiola). Why on earth would I allow people like me to decide on something that they have no demonstrable aptitude for?

Will Brooks, who was behind the idea in the first place, later said that “one of my biggest conclusions is that perhaps the idea was more exciting than the reality”. I think this probably going to be true of any other DAO as well. Even if there was a wisdom of crowds to be tapped, people have other things to do. Such communities tend to evolve rapidly into groups where a small number of people co-ordinate action and the majority are happy to delegate responsibility. You get, in effect, cabals or councils who direct the organisation. Thus there is what SEC Commissioner Hester Peirce called “shadow centralisation”.

Dave’s point is that “truly decentralised systems just do not survive, they mutate into centralised systems (ie, representation and republic) or an anonymous oligarchy (whales and warlords)”.

I think he’s right, but his blog post is worth reading in its entirety for pleasure as well as wisdom.

Niall Ferguson on ‘Czar Vladimir Putin’ and MAFD

Interesting interview in Nikkei Asia which is behind some kind of impenetrable paywall. But two things in it struck me as interesting.

First, Ferguson’s guesses about Putin’s misjudgement of the possibility of effective Ukrainian resistance:

These are miscalculations, not signs of madness. They’re the kind of miscalculations you make if you are very divorced from reality, because you lead the life of a czar, in vast — if hideous — palaces, surrounded by people who are terrified of you and tell you what they think you want to hear. If I put myself in Putin’s position, I don’t think he’s trying to resurrect the Soviet Union. He’s looking back even further and trying to bring back the Russian Empire, with himself as “Czar Vladimir.” It’s an ideology of conservative, orthodox nationalism that Putin offers, that has nothing to do with the Soviet legacy. A lot of people get this wrong.

Secondly, how will Putin’s difficulties be interpreted in Beijing? In particular, what are the implications for Taiwan?

Ferguson: Xi Jinping has, as his ultimate goal, to bring Taiwan under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, and I assume that he will conclude from observing the events in Ukraine that the West is weak, in military terms, and reluctant to fight, but it is strong in economic terms and prepared to use sanctions to punish aggression.

The question he will ask himself is: “Can they do to me what they are doing to Russia?”

And the answer will be no. Unlike Russia, China is a huge economy that is still, despite Cold War tendencies, deeply bound up with the U.S. economy, with very large U.S. investments in China. If you did to China what we’re currently doing to Russia, it would hurt us a lot more. That is what I’ll call the “mutually assured financial destruction” problem.

My commonplace booklet

  • Restoring and attributing ancient texts using deep neural networks An imaginative use of machine-learning.  Nature report 

  • People are being arrested in Russia for demonstrating with blank posters Link. This reminded Ben Evans of an old Soviet joke. A man hands out leaflets on Red Square, and the KGB arrest him. But when they get him to the station, they find that the leaflets are all blank. And he says “Well, everyone knows what the problem is, so why bother writing it down?”

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