Crypto is the biggest ponzi scheme of all time

    Ben McKenzie, an actor turned anti-crypto activist, argues in his new book Easy Money that while cryptocurrencies highlight legitimate flaws in the financial system, they are essentially a Ponzi scheme.

    He criticises the “Hollywoodisation” of crypto and the lack of regulatory oversight, warning that the tech utopianism surrounding crypto and now AI could leave many losers in its wake. It’s funny how people seamlessly move from one grift to the next without ever being properly called out on it.

    The secret behind most conspiracy-driven movements is that there is often a glimmer of truth at the centre of their beliefs. Anti-vaxxers, for instance, can point to the past behaviour of large pharmaceutical companies as evidence that the medical establishment can’t be trusted. This glimmer is what’s used to ensnare you, says Ben McKenzie, the actor and cryptocurrency critic.

    […]

    After a friend urged him to buy Bitcoin, McKenzie – a former economics student with a degree from the University of Virginia – took a 24-part online course on cryptocurrencies, taught by the current US Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler. He came away thinking the entire cryptocurrency thing was a scam. Worse, it was a scam with a lot of momentum behind it. “Advocates will tell you there is no ‘Bitcoin marketing department’,” McKenzie said. “But of course, if Bitcoin and crypto doesn’t have a product, if there is no actual tangible asset behind it, then in fact, Bitcoin and crypto is only marketing. It’s only a story.”

    […]

    During the peak of 2021, some of the most recognisable people in the world – including Matt Damon, Reese Witherspoon and Kim Kardashian – began promoting cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

    McKenzie told me this is part of a more aggressive “hustle culture” in which people use their social contacts to promote products. Multi-level marketing (or MLM) and pyramid-selling schemes have existed for at least a century, but they have been transformed by technology. “In the 1950s, if you wanted to sell someone Mary Kay Cosmetics or Tupperware, you would need to invite them over to your house, cook them dinner, spend three hours trying to convince them [to buy products].” Now, he said, “the MLM can be done through TikTok and Instagram.”

    Though McKenzie is openly critical of the celebrities who have pushed these products, he reserves ultimate blame for the sluggish regulators that allowed it to happen. “I think in many cases the celebrities didn’t really understand what they were selling. Which is not to absolve them of a moral, ethical [or] potentially even legal responsibility for their actions. But they don’t need to be bad people – they just see easy money, right?”

    Source: “The biggest Ponzi of all time”: why Ben McKenzie became a crypto critic | New Statesman

    Psychological hibernation

    I can’t really remember what life was like before having children. Becoming a parent changes you in ways you can’t describe to non-parents.

    Similarly, if we tried to go back in time and explain how the pandemic has changed us, how we’re more susceptible to burnout, less up for meeting with other people, it would be almost impossible to do.

    One term that might be useful, however, is ‘psychological hibernation’ — as this article explains.

    Was it always like this? Can anyone actually remember what it was like before? For some reason, coming up with an answer to that question is like recalling a boring dream: the more you attempt to remember the details of life before Covid, the quicker it fades, as if it never happened at all.

    In 2018, a group of psychologists in the Antarctic published a report that may help us understand our current collective exhaustion. The researchers found that the emotional capacity of people who had relocated to the end of the world had been significantly reduced in the time they had been there; participants living in the Antarctic reported feeling duller than usual and less lively. They called this condition “psychological hibernation”. And it’s something many of us will be able to relate to now.

    “One of the things that we noticed throughout the pandemic is that people started to enter this phase of psychological hibernation,” said Emma Kavanagh, a psychologist specialising in how people deal with the aftermath of disasters. “Where there’s not many sounds or people or different experiences, it doesn’t require the brain to work at quite the same level. So what you find is that people felt emotionally like everything had just been dialled back. It looks a lot like burnout, symptom wise.” Kavanagh continued: “I think that happened to us all in lockdown, and we are now struggling to adapt to higher levels of stimulus.”

    Source: The great Covid social burnout: why are we so exhausted? | New Statesman

    Friday flickerings

    I've tried to include some links here to other things here, but just like all roads read to Rome, all links eventually point to the pandemic.

    I hope you and people that you care about are well. Stay safe, stay indoors, and let me know which of the following resonate with you!


    Supermensch

    Our stories about where inventiveness comes from, and how the future will be made, overwhelmingly focus on the power of the individual. Such stories appeal to the desire for human perfection (and redemption?) recast in technological language, and they were integral to the way that late-19th-century inventor-entrepreneurs, such as Tesla or Thomas Edison, presented themselves to their publics. They’re still very much part of the narrative of technological entrepreneurism now. Just as Tesla wanted to be seen as a kind of superhero of invention, unbound by conventional restraints, so too do his contemporary admirers at the cutting edge of the tech world. Superheroes resonate within that culture precisely because they embody in themselves the perception of technology as something that belongs to powerful and iconoclastic individuals. They epitomise the idea that technological culture is driven by outsiders. The character of Iron Man makes this very clear: after all, he really is a tech entrepreneur, his superpowers the product of the enhanced body armour he wears.

    Iwan Rhys Morus (Aeon)

    A really interesting read about the link between individualism, superheroes, technology, and innovation.


    The Second Golden Age of Blogging

    Blogging was then diffused into social media, but now social media is so tribal and algo-regulated that anybody with a real message today needs their own property. At the same time, professional institutions are increasingly suffocated by older, rent-seeking incumbents and politically-correct upstarts using moralism as a career strategy. In such a context, blogging — if it is intelligent, courageous, and consistent — is currently one of the most reliable methods for intellectually sophisticated individuals to accrue social and cultural capital outside of institutions. (Youtube for the videographic, Instagram for the photographic, podcasting for the loquacious, but writing and therefore blogging for the most intellectually sophisticated.)

    Justin Murphy (Other LIfe)

    I've been blogging since around 2004, so for sixteen years, and through all of my career to date. It's the best and most enjoyable thing about 'work'.


    NASA Fixes Mars Lander By Telling It to Hit Itself With a Shovel

    NASA expected its probe, dubbed “the mole,” to dig its way through sand-like terrain. But because the Martian soil clumped together, the whole apparatus got stuck in place.

    Programming InSight’s robotic arm to land down on the mole was a risky, last-resort maneuver, PopSci reports, because it risked damaging fragile power and communication lines that attached nearby. Thankfully, engineers spent a few months practicing in simulations before they made a real attempt.

    Dan Robitzski (Futurism)

    The idea of NASA engineers sending a signal to a distant probe to get it to hit itself, in the midst of a crisis on earth, made me chuckle this week.


    Act as if You’re Really There

    Don’t turn your office into a generic TV backdrop. Video is boring enough. The more you remove from the frame, the less visual data you are providing about who you are, where you live, how you work, and what you care about. If you were watching a remote interview with, say, Bong Joon-ho (the South Korean director of Parasite) would you want him sitting on a blank set with a ficus plant? Of course not. You would want to see him in his real office or studio. What are the posters on his wall? The books on his shelf? Who are his influences?

    Douglas Rushkoff (OneZero)

    Useful advice in this post from Douglas Rushkoff. I appreciate his reflection that, "every pixel is a chance to share information about your process and proclivities."


    People Are Looping Videos to Fake Paying Attention in Zoom Meetings

    On Twitter, people are finding ways to use the Zoom Rooms custom background feature to slap an image of themselves in their frames. You can record a short, looping video as your background, or take a photo of yourself looking particularly attentive, depending on the level of believability you're going for. Zoom says it isn't using any kind of video or audio analysis to track attention, so this is mostly for your human coworkers and boss' sake. With one of these images on your background, you're free to leave your seat and go make a sandwich while your boss thinks you're still there paying attention:

    Samantha Cole (Vice)

    As an amusing counterpoint to the above article, I find it funny that people are using video backgrounds in this way!


    A Guide to Hosting Virtual Events with Zoom

    There are lots of virtual event tools out there, like Google Hangouts, YouTube Live, Vimeo Live. For this guide I’ll delve into how to use Zoom specifically. However, a lot of the best practices explored here are broadly applicable to other tools. My goal is that reading this document will give you all the tools you need to be able to set up a meeting and host it on Zoom (or other platforms) in fun and interactive ways.

    Alexa Kutler (Google Docs)

    This is an incredible 28-page document that explains how to set up Zoom meetings for success. Highly recommended!


    The rise of the bio-surveillance state

    Elements of Asia’s bio-surveillance revolution may not be as far off as citizens of Western democracies assume. On 24 March an emergency bill, which would relax limits on urgent surveillance warrants, went before the House of Lords. In any case, Britain’s existing Investigatory Powers Act already allows the state to seize mobile data if national security justifies it. In another sign that a new era in data rights is dawning, the EU is reviewing its recent white paper on AI regulation and delaying a review of online privacy rules. Researchers in both Britain (Oxford) and the US (MIT) are developing virus-tracking apps inviting citizens to provide movement data voluntarily. How desperate would the search for “needles in haystacks” have to get for governments to make such submissions compulsory? Israel’s draconian new regulations – which allegedly include tapping phone cameras and microphones – show how far down this road even broadly Western democracies might go to save lives and economies.

    Jeremy Cliffe (New Statesman)

    We need urgent and immediate action around the current criss. But we also need safeguards and failsafes so that we don't end up with post-pandemic authoritarian regimes.


    The economy v our lives? It's a false choice – and a deeply stupid one

    Soon enough, as hospitals around the world overflow with coronavirus patients, exhausting doctors, nurses, orderlies, custodians, medical supplies, ventilators and hospital cash accounts, doctors will have to make moral choices about who lives or dies. We should not supersede their judgment based on a false choice. Economic depression will come, regardless of how many we let die. The question is how long and devastating it will be.

    Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Guardian)

    Not exactly a fun read, but the truth is the world's economy is shafted no matter which way we look at it. And as I tweeted the other day, there's no real thing that exists, objectively speaking called 'the economy' which is separate from human relationships.


    How the Pandemic Will End

    Pandemics can also catalyze social change. People, businesses, and institutions have been remarkably quick to adopt or call for practices that they might once have dragged their heels on, including working from home, conference-calling to accommodate people with disabilities, proper sick leave, and flexible child-care arrangements. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh, if you’re sick, stay home,’” says Adia Benton, an anthropologist at Northwestern University. Perhaps the nation will learn that preparedness isn’t just about masks, vaccines, and tests, but also about fair labor policies and a stable and equal health-care system. Perhaps it will appreciate that health-care workers and public-health specialists compose America’s social immune system, and that this system has been suppressed.

    Ed Yong (The Atlantic)

    Much of this is a bit depressing, but I've picked up on the more positive bit towards the end. See also the article I wrote earlier this week: People seem not to see that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character


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    Header image by Sincerely Media.

    Friday foggings

    I've been travelling this week, so I've had plenty of time to read and digest a whole range of articles. In fact, because of the luxury of that extra time, I decided to write some comments about each link, as well as the usual quotation.

    Let me know what you think about this approach. I may not have the bandwidth to do it every week, but if it's useful, I'll try and prioritise it. As ever, particularly interested in hearing from supporters!


    Education and Men without Work (National Affairs) — “Unlike the Great Depression, however, today's work crisis is not an unemployment crisis. Only a tiny fraction of workless American men nowadays are actually looking for employment. Instead we have witnessed a mass exodus of men from the workforce altogether. At this writing, nearly 7 million civilian non-institutionalized men between the ages of 25 and 54 are neither working nor looking for work — over four times as many as are formally unemployed.”

    This article argues that the conventional wisdom, that men are out of work because of a lack of education, may be based on false assumptions. In fact, a major driver seems to be the number of men (more than 50% of working-age men, apparently) who live in child-free homes. What do these men end up doing with their time? Many of them are self-medicating with drugs and screens.


    Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’ (The Guardian) — “More than 100,000 documents relating to work in 68 countries that will lay bare the global infrastructure of an operation used to manipulate voters on “an industrial scale” are set to be released over the next months.”

    Sadly, I think the response to these documents will be one of apathy. Due to the 24-hour news cycle and the stream of 'news' on social networks, the voting public grow tired of scandals and news stories that last for months and years.


    Funding (Sussex Royals) — “The Sovereign Grant is the annual funding mechanism of the monarchy that covers the work of the Royal Family in support of HM The Queen including expenses to maintain official residences and workspaces. In this exchange, The Queen surrenders the revenue of the Crown Estate and in return, a portion of these public funds are granted to The Sovereign/The Queen for official expenditure.”

    I don't think I need to restate my opinions on the Royal Family, privilege, and hierarchies / coercive power relationships of all shapes and sizes. However, as someone pointed out on Mastodon, this page by 'Harry and Meghan' is quietly subversive.


    How to sell good ideas (New Statesman) — “It is true that [Malcolm] Gladwell sometimes presses his stories too militantly into the service of an overarching idea, and, at least in his books, can jam together materials too disparate to cohere (Poole referred to his “relentless montage”). The New Yorker essay, which constrains his itinerant curiosity, is where he does his finest work (the best of these are collected in 2009’s What The Dog Saw). For the most part, the work of his many imitators attests to how hard it is to do what he does. You have to be able to write lucid, propulsive prose capable of introducing complex ideas within a magnetic field of narrative. You have to leave your desk and talk to people (he never stopped being a reporter). Above all, you need to acquire an extraordinary eye for the overlooked story, the deceptively trivial incident, the minor genius. Gladwell shares the late Jonathan Miller’s belief that “it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found”.”

    A friend took me to see Gladwell when he was in Newcastle-upon-Tyne touring with 'What The Dog Saw'. Like the author of this article, I soon realised that Gladwell is selling something quite different to 'science' or 'facts'. And so long as you're OK with that, you can enjoy (as I do) his podcasts and books.


    Just enough Internet: Why public service Internet should be a model of restraint (doteveryone) — “We have not yet done a good job of defining what good digital public service really looks like, of creating digital charters that match up to those of our great institutions, and it is these statements of values and ways of working – rather than any amount of shiny new technology – that will create essential building blocks for the public services of the future.”

    While I attended the main MozFest weekend event, I missed the presentation and other events that happened earlier in the week. I definitely agree with the sentiment behind the transcript of this talk by Rachel Coldicutt. I'm just not sure it's specific enough to be useful in practice.


    Places to go in 2020 (Marginal Revolution) — “Here is the mostly dull NYT list. Here is my personal list of recommendations for you, noting I have not been to all of the below, but I am in contact with many travelers and paw through a good deal of information."

    This list by Tyler Cowen is really interesting. I haven't been to any of the places on this list, but I now really want to visit Eastern Bali and Baku in Azerbaijan.


    Reasons not to scoff at ghosts, visions and near-death experiences (Aeon) — “Sure, the dangers of gullibility are evident enough in the tragedies caused by religious fanatics, medical quacks and ruthless politicians. And, granted, spiritual worldviews are not good for everybody. Faith in the ultimate benevolence of the cosmos will strike many as hopelessly irrational. Yet, a century on from James’s pragmatic philosophy and psychology of transformative experiences, it might be time to restore a balanced perspective, to acknowledge the damage that has been caused by stigma, misdiagnoses and mis- or overmedication of individuals reporting ‘weird’ experiences. One can be personally skeptical of the ultimate validity of mystical beliefs and leave properly theological questions strictly aside, yet still investigate the salutary and prophylactic potential of these phenomena.”

    I'd happily read a full-length book on this subject, as it's a fascinating area. The tension between knowing that much/all of the phenomena is reducible to materiality and mechanics may explain what's going on, but it doesn't explain it away...


    Surveillance Tech Is an Open Secret at CES 2020 (OneZero) — “Lowe offered one explanation for why these companies feel so comfortable marketing surveillance tech: He says that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle, so barring federal regulation that bans certain implementations, it’s increasingly likely that some company will fill the surveillance market. In other words, if Google isn’t going to work with the cops, Amazon will. And even if Amazon decides not to, smaller companies out of the spotlight still will.”

    I suppose it should come as no surprise that, in this day and age, companies like Cyberlink, previously known for their PowerDVD software, have moved into the very profitable world of surveillance capitalism. What's going to stop its inexorable rise? I can only think of government regulation (with teeth).


    ‘Techlash’ Hits College Campuses (New York Times) — “Some recent graduates are taking their technical skills to smaller social impact groups instead of the biggest firms. Ms. Dogru said that some of her peers are pursuing jobs at start-ups focused on health, education and privacy. Ms. Harbour said Berkeley offers a networking event called Tech for Good, where alumni from purpose-driven groups like Code for America and Khan Academy share career opportunities.”

    I'm not sure this is currently as big a 'movement' as suggested in the article, but I'm glad the wind is blowing in this direction. As with other ethically-dubious industries, companies involved in surveillance capitalism will have to pay people extraordinarily well to put aside their moral scruples.


    Tradition is Smarter Than You Are (The Scholar's Stage) — “To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways... are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result... are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.”

    One of the books that's been on my 'to-read' list for a while is 'Seeing Like a State', written by James C. Scott and referenced in this article. I'm no believer in tradition for the sake of it but, I have to say, that a lot of the superstitions of my maternal grandmother, and a lot of the rituals that come with religion are often very practical in nature.


    Image by Michael Schlegel (via kottke.org)