Warp Speed

The Year of the Cock is almost done.

China lives by twelve-year cycles, and as we greet 2018, that’s a useful benchmark for a quick historical review.

It’s unclear why the zodiac of the Middle Kingdom contains twelve animals, although an ancient legend states that these were the only beasts that showed up to bid farewell to Buddha when he departed for the heavens—as a token of gratitude, they each named a year.

A twelve-year cycle provides perspective—most of us will only see six appearances of our sign, a sobering thought.

The last Year of the Cock was 2005—I was spending a lot of time in China back then. When I take stock, in these twelve years the world has moved at warp speed.

Seven times around the earth in under a second? Now that’s warp speed.

For trekkies, warp speed holds no secrets—for everyone else, it means traveling faster than the speed of light.

A child born this year is part of a world that differs immensely from 2005—so much, in fact, that it seems impossible to predict what the next Year of the Cock will look like.

Perhaps the most striking aspects of this change are the speed at which it occurs, the directions it takes, the ways humans adapt to it, and the ever-widening gap it causes.

A few days ago, I was having a quiet lunch at a local restaurant—nothing fancy, a little fish, a little wine. The place was almost empty, in post-Christmas slumber. The dishes, the waitress, the wine jugs hooked on a cork board, the rough table and hard benches, were a pastiche from a forgotten century.

As I eat, I read a newspaper on my cellphone—the paper attempts to make me pay for what I read, but I hacked my cellphone to circumvent that. While this game of cat and mouse progresses, two little girls have escaped from their parents’ vacuous conversation. They have climbed some stairs leading to a rooftop terrace, and are perched on the top step. They are about four years old, and both intently peer into their cellphones, fingers whizzing across the screen—they are completely comfortable with the technology, and their parents are clueless.

On my screen, there’s a story about Bitcoin. That, too, is a paradigm shift that reached warp speed in 2017. There’s a classic book about stock markets which speaks of the madness of crowds, and the present craze over cryptocurrencies is a good example.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas around cryptos are fascinating. The mining of cryptos is an allegory of every rush on precious metals, diamonds, and other scarce commodities.

That scarcity secured the value of currency until Bretton Woods, when the greenback became a proxy for gold—at the time, following the massive US gold purchases in the mid-1930’s, the United States held about three-quarters of the world’s gold reserves.

Where is the gold? By 2009, only one-seventh of the US money supply was guaranteed by gold.

The M1 is a metric for the money supply of different nations, and in the States it’s been increasing at a rate of three hundred billion dollars per year since 2009. It stood at 1500 billion back then, so the gold value supporting it was about 210 billion dollars. Without correcting for gold price oscillations, the multiple for M1 is now about seventeen—only six percent of money, whether digital or paper, is supported by the underlying asset.

Crypto mining is based on scarcity, but in this case the scarcity of certain numerical combinations—not a tangible product such as gold, platinum, or coffee, which makes it far more difficult to grasp, if you excuse the pun.

But the reaction of the major world powers is the most fascinating aspect of crypto—global finance and big government have gone after these anarchic currency schemes with guns blazing, in the hope that regulation and prohibition will stamp them out.

Every time a democratic society has tried this approach, the people it represents have defeated the idea, so 2018 will be a bellwether  for what lies in store.

This year’s kids have witnessed change at a dizzying rate, with new ideas, tools, and outcomes becoming a day-to-day event. In 2018, we will all need to run as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.

My conclusion for the year that ends tomorrow? Amazement. I can just about see one year down the road—after that anything is possible and everything is fiction.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

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