We Need a New Story

In the long run, the greatest story wins.

Christianity grew from a tiny Messianic Jewish sect to the cultural backdrop of all of Western civilization with a radical message: that all human life is valuable and capable of redemption. In fact, it goes one step further, revering the poor, sick, and outcast; in the next life, “the last shall be first”. That is a powerful story.

But in our postmodern world, we have lost faith in both God and reason. We no longer dream of going to the stars and populating the universe; rather, we squabble over the taxes paid by the only man trying to make us multi-planetary. We face a dearth of unifying narratives, resulting in feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and alienation. We yearn for a story that gives our lives meaning. We want to know that we matter.

This context makes the events of the past two weeks so compelling. The story currently playing out in Ukraine, a story with forcible Biblical parallels – from David vs. Goliath, to the invasion of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple, to the final battle at Armageddon – is perhaps the strongest narrative I’ve seen in my lifetime.

Ukrainian Flag over Kharkiv

Image via Mstyslav Chernov

Ukrainian Self-Determination

“On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées.”

– Victor Hugo

The Ukrainian cause has united nearly every country on Earth. It has shaken American politicians out of their myopic political point-scoring and rallied the world around a good vs. evil struggle the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War II.

In short, Ukraine’s story is superior to Putin’s. While Russian soldiers fight due to dictate, Ukrainians fight for ideals like democracy and freedom. They fight for their way of life and very lives. They are defending their homeland and asserting independence.

This story is more powerful than any conqueror’s.1 And Ukraine has done a masterful job in crafting the narrative.

Putin at Table

Image via Alexei Nikolsky

A month ago, Putin was considered the quintessential strongman. Over the course of the past two weeks, he’s gone from projecting strength to showing distrust and weakness. His physical distance is indicative of his isolation from the world.

Contrast this with Zelenskyy, who embodies a Servant of the People.

Zelenskyy is just a man put in hard circumstances. But with each day that passes, his legend grows. His daily addresses to the Ukrainian people as a show of strength, a speech to the European Parliament so powerful that it causes a translator to choke up, the epic line: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride” – all of these contribute to his legacy and tug on our heartstrings.

Zelenskyy at Table

It’s not just Zelenskyy. Individual stories serve as an inspiration, and demonstrate the moxie and chutzpah of the Ukrainian people. Foreigners are flocking to Ukraine to fight for democracy and freedom, reminiscent of the international volunteers who bore arms against fascism during the Spanish Civil War.

These stories give Ukrainians, and the world, hope. They will last for generations in the hearts of those directly affected.

Our Stories No Longer Serve Us

And yet, stories require constant retelling. The power of narrative decays exponentially with time and distance.

“We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as a backbone to a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline.”

– Colonel Jessup, A Few Good Men

The American people have become effete. And the stories foundational to our nation – freedom from tyranny, “all men are created equal”, representative democracy – have become a punchline.

The West may talk about defending freedoms, about supporting Ukraine, but stands by and watches a European power annex lands from its neighbors. Appeasing the last leader who pulled that stunt sure worked out nicely.2 At the same time, it directly contributes to the Russian war effort with its purchase of Russian energy.

We defend our ideals when it’s convenient for us. We care about Ukrainians about as much as we care about the plight of the Uyghurs: enough to say that it’s very sad, but not sad enough for us to pay double for our iPhones. It’s great that the Ukrainian people are struggling for democracy…as long as we don’t need to pay more than $5 per gallon for gas.

We pat ourselves on the back for sanctions, but what is the endgame? In the most charitable interpretation, politicians are thinking several moves ahead and giving Russia an out. They’re trying to not squeeze so hard that Russia snaps and lashes out, à la Japan in 1941.

But will sanctions truly pressure Russian oligarchs to overthrow Putin? Will they lead to a decrease in Russian morale and end the war? Or do they only serve as a deterrent to other nations thinking of doing the same (see China vis-à-vis Taiwan). If sanctions are meant to be a future deterrent, we need another solution to get out of the current crisis.

“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

– Leon Trotsky

We are no longer a serious people. Our politicians are concerned about what the electorate will think of them at this year’s midterms. Meanwhile, Putin releases a literal essay on his plans to reunify the Soviet Union and we collectively yawn. He can’t possibly stand for a prosperous Ukraine bordering Russia, so he’ll drop so many bombs that life in a sanctioned Russia looks great by comparison. And he won’t stop there. We’re already in World War III. We just haven’t realized it yet.

The most likely scenario is that Ukraine goes the way of the Syria. People will be sad about it for a few months, donate some money to help with the refugee crisis, and then forget about it. The world will do nothing while an entire country disintegrates under Russian rounds. Russia has ignored both the principles of jus ad bellum in invading an independent nation for the sake of empire-building and jus in bello in its blatant perpetratration of war crimes against civilians.

Syria was a much less clear-cut moral dilemma: with ISIS fighting on one side and a dictator on the other, perhaps it was best that the West largely remained uninvolved. But Ukraine is not Syria. Ukraine is a nation that dared to have a democracy, that ventured to operate outside of the sphere of influence of an authoritarian state, that is now struggling against an evil empire.

The very least we owe ourselves and the Ukrainian people – who are fighting for their lives, for the very freedoms that we supposedly hold dear – is the truth: We no longer believe in our principles. Sure, we’ll fight if the war comes to American soil, but the post-World War II world order is dead. Raise an army, develop nuclear weapons. Because you’re on your own. Treaties mean nothing; no other country is coming to bail you out. With every day that goes by, I agree more and more with Zelenskyy:

Ukraine knows its story. It believes in its story. The Ukrainian people are fighting and dying for that story. In the long run, they are likely to prevail – Russia will not be able to hold a hostile Ukraine. Still, how many will die in the interim?

But their story is not good enough for us. We’ve forgotten that freedom requires sacrifice. We have no story worth fighting for.

We need a new story.


Notes:

  1. For a recent example of the power of narrative, look at Afghanistan. The most powerful military the world has ever seen was no match for the religious zealotry of the Taliban. 

  2. As an aside, “Never again” sure seems to happen again and again: Cambodia, Rwanda… 

Be Clever and Lazy

From Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord’s military officer classification scheme, presented without comment:

I distinguish four types. There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage.

Why We Moved to Austin – A Clichéd Millennial Story

In June 2020, I packed the contents of my Chinatown apartment into a rented minivan.

I parked the minivan on the curb with its flashers blinking. Then I raced back and forth between my 4th floor apartment and the van with all of my earthly possessions. I had to physically stop passerby from stealing my furniture, dodge a drunk man who spat at me and pounded on the door of my building for at least 15 minutes, and triage which items would remain on the curb (as I lack both the prudence to adequately predict how many items from a one-bedroom apartment will fit in a Dodge Caravan and the spatial awareness to efficiently pack said Dodge Caravan), all while wearing a bandanna around my face as a symbolic, if not entirely functional, talisman against COVID.

It was chaos.

But my partner and I made it out of town, arriving late the next day at my parents’ house in Chicago. There, we plotted our next steps: buy a car and take a road trip around the country.

On the Road

Living nomadically at the beginning of the pandemic was a great decision. I was in the sweet spot of life where I had a stable relationship (i.e., a default travel buddy) and a good job where I could work remotely, but no kids or family obligations tying me to a specific location. And with many people afraid to travel in late 2020 and early 2021, long-term Airbnb prices were quite reasonable – little more than what we had spent on rent in New York.

We drove across the country: first south from Chicago through St. Louis and Tulsa to Austin, then west. We snowboarded in Colorado, hiked in Utah, and surfed in California.

Train tracks in Moab

Train tracks through Moab

Leaving New York was one of the best things I could have done for my mental and physical health. When your baseline is a one-bedroom apartment quarantine, getting outside in the sun, not following the news, and experiencing the diversity of land and people in the United States is delightful.

Lonesome Traveler

That said, life on the road became tedious after a while.

Everything that is nice about a vacation is annoying when you need to work from a new place. The lack of a routine and office setup led to decreased work productivity. At the same time, because we were working, we had limited hours to explore the places that we were visiting.

It took time and mental energy to repeatedly plan where we live in the next month. Once we agreed on where to go and found an Airbnb, we’d spend an entire weekend packing the car, driving to a new city, and unpacking in the next rental. It was essentially the stress of a move, every month.

Then, we’d need to figure out where to go grocery shopping, find a new gym, and see which restaurants in the area that we liked. But just as we were settling into our new routine, we would pack up the car and do it all over again. We found that constantly changing our environment was not the best way to have a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet, or a consistent workout routine.

We also ended up spending a lot of time in our parents’ homes. We had to weigh whether or not to spend $3,000 to rent an Airbnb for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Was it really worth the cost when we’d be driving back so soon?1

Cows grazing

Cows on the open road

Additionally, the trip was at times quite lonely. During the majority of our travels, vaccines weren’t yet available, meaning a lot of in-person events were cancelled. So there were not many opportunities to meet new people.2 Pandemic aside, it is hard to build a community when you know you’re only in a city for a month. If we were to do this again, we’d get a WeWork membership and head into the coworking space each day to help develop a work routine and have at least a bit of human interaction.

The Town and the City

After traveling around the country, we realized that we had a few priorities for where we wanted to live long-term. We wanted to be somewhere with good weather, where we wouldn’t mind riding out more COVID lockdowns. We also wanted to be near friends and family. It is difficult to move somewhere where you start from scratch — we wanted the beginnings of a social network to build a community.

This narrowed down our options to either Southern California or to Austin. We loved Orange County…who doesn’t? Some of my best friends live there, the weather is perfect, and you can go surfing in the middle of the workweek. But ultimately we chose Austin for a few reasons:

  1. Cost of living. Orange County was significantly more expensive than Austin. Rent is 50% higher. And with a 0% income tax rate, living in Texas gives you an immediate ~10% pay bump vs. living in California.

  2. Good weather. Well, good weather for about nine months of the year. However, see point #1. If we are craving the SoCal lifestyle and want to escape the summer heat and humidity of Austin, the tax savings from my salary alone will pay for a three-month sublet in Orange County.

  3. Job opportunities. Austin has a great tech and startup scene. There are a ton of other people working in crypto and building cool companies. Many companies are moving their headquarters to Austin from the Bay Area (Tesla, Oracle, etc.), or at the very least, opening huge satellite offices here. I only see this trend accelerating in the next few years, and think at this point Austin is just as good as the Bay Area for ambitious people working in technology.

  4. Excellent culture. People are really nice here! Austin feels like a mix of Midwestern friendliness and Southern hospitality. There is also a live and let live attitude and self-reliance mindset that strikes me as very Texan.

  5. Diversity. Austin has true intellectually and political diversity when contrasted with New York. (Let’s hope this holds up with the influx of new residents.) Austin, while a fairly liberal city, is still part of Texas. This leads to an interesting dynamic where you don’t know where people stand politically. I find this refreshing, after being in a work environment in New York where everyone’s politics were assumed and discussions could become a virtue signaling competition. Essentially, the reasons Tim Ferriss had for moving to Austin a few years back hold up.

  6. Tremendous food. I am happy eating tacos and barbecue for every meal.

  7. COVID concerns. If we are to lock down again, we want to be in both a red state (to minimize restrictions) and somewhere with a lot of outdoor space and activities.

  8. Personal network. Both my partner and I have friends in Austin. With her family in New York and mine in Chicago, it’s also close enough to home to go back for a weekend. There is a big difference between a six hour flight and three hour time difference from LA to New York, vs. a three hour flight and one hour time difference coming from Austin.

  9. The downsides…aren’t so bad. People talking about how the rent is too high here have never lived in NYC. People talking about how bad the traffic is have never driven in LA or Chicago.

Austin

So, like many who fled San Francisco and New York in the past two years, we’re Texans now. Giddy up. 🤠


Notes:

  1. Here, the sunk cost fallacy that comes with paying for a yearly lease can work in your favor, at least when it comes to the mental health improvements that come with controlling your environment. 

  2. It’s hard in general to make friends as an adult, but that’s the subject of another post. 

The Value of the NFT Bundle

I’d never join a country club.

Golf seems like an expensive waste of time, the food isn’t that great, and I’m not trying to network with any of the people there. On top of that, the country club in the town where I grew up has a six-figure initiation fee and still doesn’t accept women as members. Hard pass.

But I will spend thousands of dollars on a cartoon image of a monkey that I could download for free. What gives?

Bored Ape Yacht Club

If I owned these apes I wouldn't need to credit this image (via The New Yorker)

A Killer Bundle

“Gentlemen, there’s only two ways I know of to make money: bundling and unbundling.”

Jim Barksdale

I am a native of the digital realm. I spend 12 hours per day on my laptop – working, coding, writing, hanging out on Twitter, Slack, Discord.

For those of us already living in the Metaverse, NFTs combine several distinct value propositions:

  1. A display of wealth. Premium NFTs are the digital equivalent of driving a Ferrari or wearing a Rolex. If you spend the majority of the day online, you can make an impudent show of your NFTs far more often than your luxury physical goods.1

  2. An elite social network. With a CryptoPunk or a Bored Ape as your Twitter avatar, you gain prestige and legitimacy in the crypto world. This unlocks a network of people who otherwise may not interact with you. Contrast this with private art collection – as far as I know, there is no Discord for people who own original Picassos.

  3. A signal of good taste. Picking the right NFT project to back early on gives you tastemaker status. You liked it before it got cool.

  4. A limited collectible. Baseball and Pokémon cards are just printed pieces of paper. Yet people pay thousands of dollars for them. Similarly, Supreme makes a fairly basic T-shirt. But people wait overnight in line for the next drop. NFTs induce the same behavior.

  5. The excitement of roulette. Much like trading options on meme stocks, there is the chance that your your investment will 10-100x in value in a short period of time. This gives NFT collectors the anticipation of art appreciation, on steroids.

In other words, NFTs are one of the best bundles ever created. They vastly expand the traditional bundle of art collection, while layering on the dopamine rushes of social exclusivity and a good wager.

And that’s just on the demand side. On the supply side, NFTs are a no-brainer. An additional revenue stream for creators? A cut of secondary sales? Giddy up.

But This Is Stupid

Yes, it is. So is traditional art. Art is just a delusion we’ve agreed to share.2

Rabbit, Jeff Koons

Is this rabbit worth $91 million?

Matt Levine criticizes NFTs for having almost no consumption value outside of participating in a bubble. Sure. But if that is your bear case, you need to extend that to all markets in 2021. The days of me buying a stock because I think the present value of its future dividends are higher than its current share price are long gone. Reflexivity reigns.

As Byrne Hobart writes,

The strongest bull case for NFTs is that the bear case is boring: you can right-click and “save as” to get access to any NFT’d image you want, and yet people pay for the social status of being able to claim they’re the true owner. This is, of course, quite silly, but it’s obviously silly and people still pay for NFTs. A bear case the bulls are perfectly aware of is no bear case at all.

So what is the true bear case of NFTs? I’m not sure. But people are engaging with NFTs with a fanaticism that rivals a soccer hooligan’s support of his club or the devotion of the Hells Angels to Harley-Davidson.

I won’t bet against that fervor.3


Notes:

  1. Instead of flaunting jewelry or cars, Post Malone buys a Bored Ape at the beginning of his recent music video

  2. See also: money, forms of government, and any idea created by humans. 

  3. Further reading: 6259’s Twitter thread, A16Z’s NFT Canon

You Already Live In the Metaverse

Consider how you spend your time. Place each activity into one of two buckets:

Bucket A consists of all of the time you spend online. E.g.,

  • Zoom
  • Instagram
  • Reddit
  • Video games
  • Peloton classes
  • Coding

Bucket B consists of the time you spend offline. E.g.,

  • Face-to-face interactions with friends and family
  • Cooking
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • IRL workouts and sports
  • Manual labor

If you’re reading this blog, I’m willing to bet that the entirety of your job and the vast majority of your waking hours fall into Bucket A. Further, with a supercomputer in your pocket sending you dozens of push notifications per hour, you are always online.

Enter the Metaverse

Portrait of a Very Online Person

The Metaverse is here – and you already live in it.

A Brief History of the Internet

Much like coffee or feminism, the internet has come in three waves.

Web 1.0 was open, decentralized, and optimistic. People created their own digital worlds to share weird blogs, artwork, code, whatever. But you had to be highly technical to be a creator Web 1.0. And for the most part, creators captured little or none of the value they added.

Web 2.0 solved the openness problem: anyone can create a Facebook page or a Gmail account. And for all of the criticisms, this is incredibly powerful – with minimal budget you can start a company by deploying a site on AWS, marketing on Instagram, and processing payments with Stripe. However, the drawback is that the system is now closed. We operate in walled gardens that are paid for by advertisements.

Web 3.0 aims to be the best of both worlds. Its stated vision is to empower creators and participants by monetizing the protocols themselves, rather than monetizing via advertising in the application layer of the stack.1

But is this vision for the internet achievable?

The Metaverse as a Cautionary Tale

Read Snow Crash. The cyberpunk world Neal Stephenson constructed is cool, no doubt. But it is also a cautionary tale.

Governments have collapsed, leaving society in a state of anarcho-capitalism. Liberty, justice, law and order…these are all principles that are alive and well, they’re just for sale to the highest bidder. You get only what you can pay for, whether in the base reality burbcaves or in the Metaverse.

This is the vision for the Metaverse that Zuckerberg et al. are pitching.

Enter the Metaverse

I work in crypto. It’s fucking awesome. We’re building a whole new financial infrastructure, a whole new reality. There is so much potential in the internet – we’ve barely scratched the surface.

But if we’re not careful, Web 3.0 can easily become the worst of Web 1.0 combined with the worst of Web 2.0. A world that is cool if you can pay to play, buy leaves most people on the outside looking in. If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, $100 in gas fees to buy a NFT on OpenSea are not negligible.

We have the challenge and responsibility to build a Metaverse that is great for all people – not only for Meta (née Facebook), the crypto projects funded by A16Z, or the people with the bankroll to trade NFTs full-time.

This is the opportunity. And if we don’t get it right?

We may see a decline of the internet that mirrors the decline of America writ large – a place where justice, property rights, and morality are determined by wealth and power, rather than by shared fundamental principles. The Disney World-ification of the web, where the internet becomes “an online theme park where everything costs a ticket.”


Notes:

  1. Antonio García Martínez explores whether the original sin of the internet is avoidable, or even in fact desirable, here (paywall).