Thursday, May 15, 2014

bitcoin's essential--and possibly insurmountable--obstacle

A startup whiz told me something yesterday that I can't get out of my head. He thinks Bitcoin won't go mainstream because most people aren't tech savvy. They can use their phones, sure, but to trust Bitcoin you have to know a little about how it works. That's hard for most people. Without that trust, of course, you don't get widespread use, which--last time I checked--is a must for a viable currency. 

He may be right. But I'd add that for Bitcoin to go big, people also need to learn how monetary systems work. That is similarly difficult, not to mention the fact that it sounds so damn boring. What do you think, Honey: Should I dig in to a great detective novel tonight or read about monetary systems?

Unquestioning acceptance of the USD (or national currencies generally) as the only game in town has meant that people engage in the monetary regime without necessarily having to understand how it works. They aren't going to hop over to some other regime without a high level of confidence in that new system. This is hard earned money we're talking about, after all. Then again, there is the case of the euro. Still wrapped up in government(s) in all the ways Bitcoin isn't, yet perhaps there are useful parallels as far as how to convince everyday people that this newfangled thing has value.

Anyway, it was an unexpected perspective coming from a tech guy, and it has been nagging at me ever since. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It's here!

I'm thrilled to announce the arrival of my new baby, Firsthand, a compilation of stories and book chapters remastered for the Web.

Here's a little background. Over the past decade, I've managed to define a substantial body--of work, anyway. But articles and books are scattered across the internet in various forms of design, readability, and freedom.

I searched for someone or something that could provide a solution to that problem, but came up empty. So I became the someone and Firsthand became the something. (It was built with the magnificent publishing toolkit developed by the wizards at Creatavist).

I've posted a little more explanation over at Medium. My hope is that with enough traction, compilations like this will become a thing, and soon enough you'll be buying similar works produced by many of your favorite writers. Let me know what you think!

Monday, April 21, 2014

filthy lucre in the news (again)

In honor of NYU’s Dirty Money Project, I’m posting a few particularly germ-laden paragraphs from The End of Money:

In the science-fiction novel The White Plague by Dune author Frank Herbert, a molecular biologist decides to exact revenge for his family’s murder by poisoning paper money and distributing it in countries where the bad guys in the story live. The contamination spreads out of control and becomes a global plague. At one point, the U.S. president declares: “We’ve decontaminated and replaced the money to the point where we can start lifting the quarantine on the banks.” Unfortunately, the plan falters.

Banknotes and coins harbor all kinds of bugs.2 Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills. In 2003, hysteria in China that banknotes could spread the SARS virus proved to be unfounded, but the Bank of China still decided that any bills it received would be held for twenty-four hours—the estimated lifespan of the virus—before being released back into the ocean of circulation. And Swiss researchers have found that moderate concentrations of flu virus could survive on banknotes for up to three days. When they tested the same bugs “in the presence of respiratory mucus,” which sounds like a really fun experiment, they determined that the virus lived for up to seventeen days. “The unexpected stability of influenza virus in this nonbiological environment,” wrote the scientists, “suggests that unusual environmental contamination should be considered in the setting of pandemic preparedness.” Could circulating banknotes help spread a
future plague?

When I forwarded that study to a friend at the Centers for Disease Control, she was unimpressed. “Are the researchers sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses?” she asked. Without a perfect storm of transmission conditions—someone sneezes on a banknote, doesn’t allow it to dry, stores it someplace dark and humid, doesn’t rub it on other material like a leather wallet or pants pocket—maybe, and only maybe, enough viral particles could survive to infect the next person handling those bills. Unless people start using greenbacks as handkerchiefs, she told me, whatever germs do reside on cash or coins should die a quick death.*5 That was reassuring, yet a friend who recently returned from Africa was kind enough to inform me that people in some of the more dangerous parts of the continent store cash in their underwear. As smart as my contact at the CDC might be, I suspect that when assuring me of cash’s harmlessness, not even she was thinking of banknotes stored in skivvies.

final countdown

Firsthand launches April 29. Get ready.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

chasing homo economicus

My 4-year-old son is obsessed with cool. Let’s be clear: His understanding of the concept is limited. He knows it’s positive. He knows his friends say it about carnivorous dinosaurs. He knows its alternate use—opposite of warm—but he’s lukewarm on that usage.

Instead, he keeps asking me: “Dad, is this Lego cool? Is that cooool? Do you think this one is so cool?” I’m tempted to have a conversation with him about value and the human impulse to judge things as attractive, fashionable, or somehow-or-other impressive, but he’s just not quite ready. Maybe when he’s 5. And when he’s 6 we can delve into the pitfalls of grossly overused adjectives.

His interest in cool has come to mind recently because the tech world has the same obsession—and it isn’t always a good thing. One criticism I have of tech culture that applies to money-related startups is that supposedly disruptive ideas and innovations often fail to do anything more than offer already wealthy people a slightly different way to wirelessly transfer value when buying a coffee.

That’s not to say that innovation has to have lofty goals to matter, that it has to be about the bottom of the pyramid and financial inclusion for it to be anything but navel gazing. That would be ridiculous. But there is often a real disconnect between what consumers want and need, and what companies are developing for them. Read more


This post was originally written for Smart Money, a new outlet based in Milan that's bringing fresh thinking to the continent and into its most cash-addicted enclaves. Like Italy, for instance.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

the simple sale

My latest post for the New Yorker is about banking startup Simple. These guys are doing some truly awesome things, many of which I couldn't detail in this post. The challenge for them going forward will be to keep doing great, innovative, and--ahem--ethical things, now that the company was bought by BBVA.