The Black Wave, Mimetic Desire and FinTech 3.0

June 15, 2021

Welcome to another issue of “A Few Things”, where I distill 44 years of life experience into a weekly email.

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“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

- William Arthur Ward

“One absolutely cannot tell, by watching, the difference between a .300 hitter and a .275 hitter. The difference is one hit every two weeks.”

- Michael Lewis in "Moneyball."

“Always assume incompetence before looking for conspiracy.”

- Niccolo Machiavelli

“When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

- Eric Hoffer


A. A Few Things Worth Checking Out:

​1. I’ve been trying to better understand the forty years of Saudi-Iran rivalry better and how that has created a mess across the entire Middle East.

One of the best books I’ve found to help me understand the region is Kim Ghattas, who is a journalist & author based in Beirut, as well as a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

This is just an amazing history and key players in the region, and will go a long way in helping you put some perspective around the names and news you hear daily.

The 15 hour audiobook is well summarised in this 1-hr session she did with the Duke Department of Political Science.

2. Paul Marshall is a co-founder and Chairman of Marshall Wace Asset Management, which is Europe’s largest hedge fund overseeing $48 billion. Paul recently authored the book 10 ½ Lessons from Experience: Perspectives on Fund Management.

He was on the Ted Seides podcast last year, where they discussed Paul’s thoughts on quantitative and qualitative investing, and internal and external fund management.

I learnt a ton about how to think about alpha generation in today’s markets and how fundamental managers can use quantitative tools and data to outperform.

3. Atlantic on the Winners and Losers of the Work-From-Home Revolution.

4. Another great one by Packy - Zero Knowledge.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Zero-Knowledge Proofs (ZKPs) over the next few years.

Every so often, a technology comes around with the right combination of promise, nebulousness, inscrutability, and abstractness to fully capture and incept the hive mind’s imagination. These technologies aren’t just going to change a few things; they’re going to change everything.

5. Adam Grant was on the Knowledge Project Podcast discussing Rethinking Your Position. We had summarised his latest book here.

6. Systems thinking is the study of how parts of a system are all interrelated and how outcomes arise from those relations. This brief essay from Russell Ackoff on systems thinking contains some devastatingly sharp observations about how organizations fail to function and how reframing the problem can help.

Here are a few excerpts:

a) “The healthcare system of the United States is not a healthcare system; it is a sickness and disability-care system.”

b) “The educational system is not dedicated to produce learning by students, but teaching by teachers—and teaching is a major obstruction to learning.”

c) “Identifying and defining the ways we can control the future: vertical integration, horizontal integration, cooperation, incentives, and responsiveness.” And,

d) “All learning ultimately derives from mistakes...Since mistakes are a no-no in most corporations, and the only mistakes identified and measured are ones involving doing something that should not have been done, the best strategy for managers is to do as little as possible. No wonder managerial paralysis prevails in American organizations.”

7. The Mogul and the Monster: Vanity Fair did a detailed article on Jeffrey Epstein and his biggest client.

8. Bessembinder found that only 4% of all equities accounted for 100% of the overall stock market's outperformance vs. 1 month T-Bills since 1926. 0.3% of all equities generated 50% of this outperformance.

9. Dan Rose, now Chairman at Coatue Ventures, was previously at Amazon and Facebook. He had a great thread on Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook journey.

10. The Tyranny of Time: There are two kinds of time: body time and mechanical time.

Body time moves by the rhythm of your heart. You eat when you're hungry and sleep when you're tired. It moves fast when we're in the flow and slowly when we're bored.

Mechanical time is the opposite. It always moves at the same speed and does not respond to the needs of individuals.

Though people used to protest against time, we've accepted it as an inevitable part of the modern world. This essay shows how that happened.


B. Mimetic Desire Is Everywhere....

I was reflecting on the memes, trends, bubbles that develop in markets.

One of the reasons I think we see and will continue to see more bubbles form, more intra-group conflicts and rewards to outrage are Rene Girard’s concept of Memetic Desire discussed in his book: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (recommended by Peter Thiel).

This was actually a reason why Peter Thiel was so eager to invest in Facebook (Facebook was a company that had fully harnessed and weaponised Memetic Desire). You can see him discuss it here.

The key idea being that man doesn’t know what to want or desire, so he desires what others desire. We learn what to do and desire from those around us - we want what others want, we want what others have.

We are simply mimetic creatures.

This is especially true now, with most of our needs being met, it is increasingly about what we desire, versus what we need.

Mimetic Desire leads to competition, because we are the same and desire the same things, this creates conflict, as we try to differentiate while we all compete for the same things.

This leads to Memetic Rivalry: We are defined by who we choose to compete with.

This is true as much of for as individuals as it is for companies and start-ups. Because there are few real differences is why we compete so fiercely. 

This Memetic Rivalry can be seen across societies and can lead to trends, bubbles and even physical conflict. We copy each other, while also competing against each other.

But eventually, we wake up, a scapegoat is found. Someone to blame our rivalry on so society can survive and heal itself.

Once the scapegoat is found, peace is restored.

A simple example would be:

You go to a restaurant, because it’s popular with your friends. When it comes time to order, you overhear your neighbouring table ordering the dish of the day, and decide to get it too. But when it’s your turn to order, the waiter tells you that dish is sold out because the table next door ordered the last one. Now you find yourself unhappy with those people and resentful - you are in conflict.

You look for a scape goat - you might resent your partner for delaying you (if you were a little earlier you could have gotten that last dish) or maybe even resenting the person who recommended the restaurant. Once you decide the scapegoat, peace is restored.

This leads to me to ask a few questions whenever I’m considering a decision or action.

Am I being memetic - are my desires my own or others ?

Am I competing with others because I am competing for the same thing - the same totem ?

If you want to go deeper on Mimetic desire, check out the latest episode of Hidden Forces. Lukis Burgis is the founder and director of Fourth Wall Ventures and author of “Wanting,” a book about the power of mimetic desire and how it impacts our behaviour in markets, politics, and culture.

Back to you and and me.

How do we escape from Mimetic Desire and think for ourself?

1. Seek innovation not competition.

2. Do what others aren’t doing and think long term.

3. Believe in a bigger vision, take risks by really committing.

4. Build a differentiated skill set and pursue timeless wisdom

Coming back to the markets today, what or who will be the scapegoat we will find for the insanity in interest rates and short term thinking ?

It seems to be China at the moment…..


C. The Crypto Section:

1. Marc Rubinstein writes the whole Net Interest blog, covering all things financial. He spent 25 years in the financial sector, both as an analyst and hedge fund manager.

In his latest he discussed: Reinventing the Financial System, focusing on Maker DAO, the decentralised bank.

A MUST READ.

2. Continuing this theme of the future of financial services, this piece on FinTech 3.0 Re-Architecting Financial Market Infrastructure & DeFi discusses the journey from Fintech 1.0, including: PayPal, Square, Adyen, Affirm, even Coinbase, to Fintech 2.0, which he calls “embedded finance”, including companies such as: Brex, Ramp, Treasury Prime, to Fintech 3.0, which he calls DeFi-ReArchitecting.

A great and detailed article that really breaks out DeFi.

3. Many of you are buying crypto for the first time, this tweet storm outlines security best practices to keep your assets safe.

4. Garry Tan is an interesting guy. He helped co-found the financial analysis platform at Palantir Technologies, he then sold another business to Twitter, became a partner at Y Combinator, and then started Initialized Capital. One of their biggest successes was turning $1.3 million in invested capital into Coinbase, into a stake valued at $680 million.

5. Ari Paul is a partner at BlockTower Capital and shared a great crypto education thread: