18 February 2022


An interesting article (subscription required) from champion stockpicker Quentin Lumsden, about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a new kind of digital asset class which — like Bitcoin — depends on blockchain technology. Last year Twitter founder Jack Dorsey sold the NFT of his first tweet to Malaysian billionaire Sina Estavi (via auction website Cent) for the princely sum of $2.9million. NFTs seem to be hot right now in the art world.
The pandemic has brought much of the doggedly analogue art world kicking and screaming into the 21st century, and NFTs are benefitting from that seismic shift. "Covid is definitely a big piece of this frenzy, people are sitting at their computers all day — they’re locked inside and have fewer options. If there was no Covid-19, I honestly don't think the space would have accelerated this fast," Winkelmann says. (Winkelmann is the real name of an artist known as Beeple, one of whose images sold at Christie's for $69m.) Another Beeple piece, Crossroad — a 10-second video NFT showing animated pedestrians walking past a giant, naked likeness of Donald Trump, collapsed on the ground and covered in graffiti — sold for $6.6m in Ether on Nifty Gateway. The seller was Miami-based art collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, who had bought the piece in October for about $67,000.
   The fact that it's considered possible to hold assets as intangible as a person's 'autographed' tweet, and that serious money is changing hands for NFTs, gives me more confidence that blockchain technology is reliable, which in turn makes me feel less suspicious of cryptocurrencies.
   (I've given a link to Simple Wikipedia's article on blockchain ... even that will probably be above most people's heads ... like the cloud, it's a concept that will gradually become comprehensible as people rely on it more.)

'recreation centres'
Britain used to have places called recreation centres. They were sites financed and run by local councils where individuals could engage in a range of leisure activities, from sports to adult education. I hadn't visited one for some time but recently happened to be passing one and thought I would look in. A couple of people were coming out, chatting in a relaxed way and casually dressed, which boded well. There were plenty of posters up near the doors, the most prominent of which warned visitors to wear face masks in the building. Like a good citizen I donned my face mask and entered as the two people were leaving. Having passed the first set of automatic doors, there was a second set which did not open. A red light was showing and there was a spycam, so I guessed one had to be visually vetted to enter. I realised then that the first set of doors was similarly secured and so found myself trapped between two sets of doors, waiting for the light to go green so I could go in. After about a minute, an officious-looking agent arrived and grimly advised me that the recreation centre was not open to the public. Fortunately she permitted me to leave the way I had come.
   Looking more closely at the posters near the door, I saw one that said the recreation centre was closed to the public for the foreseeable future. I was left wondering: if there are no actual leisure activities taking place at our recreation centres, what exactly is going on at these sites? Secret government research? I think we should be told.

music streaming
Is the music streaming business model starting to crack? Trialling Apple Music again a year after a previous trial, I was surprised to find a number of key recordings have disappeared from their catalogue, or have gone partial — you can listen to some of the tracks from an album but not all.
   Artists have been grumbling for some time about lower revenues in the digital economy, though not much in public, presumably for fear of sending the wrong signal. (It has been estimated that it takes about 200 streams of a whole album to generate the same revenue for an artist as the sale of a CD.) With far lower income from live performances under the COVID regime, the grumbling has become more audible.
   While the finger is being pointed at streaming providers and record companies, the main source of the problem is surely the internet ethos which has everyone used to the idea that content is, by default, available without charge.
   People have been illegally sharing MP3 files for decades, but the blatant copyright breaching tacitly endorsed by YouTube since 2005 seems to have established in people's minds that music is essentially free — though you may expect to pay to gain full control over what you listen to, or to have it free of ads.

time to push back
Tolerating intolerance is dangerous. (The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil etc.) And free speech needs to be supported whether you agree with what is being said or not. (I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death etc.) A culture of punishment has developed, in which anyone saying anything that might upset someone is an excuse for others to roll out intimidation tactics. This needs to be actively opposed or it will only get worse.
   I was appalled, for example, by the attempt to shut down British empire researcher Professor Nigel Biggar using bullying on social media, and I expressed my disapproval in an article which received significant attention. But obviously I cannot write an article every time this happens. For lesser transgressions, I've decided to start a blacklist (see sidebar). When I come across an organisation, or other group, that have tried to use their own supposed respectability to penalise an individual for saying something they don't like, or who otherwise try to boycott free speech, they will be added to the list. It's a small way of pushing back.
   What has triggered this was my coming across the story about the American Humanist Association stripping Richard Dawkins of his humanist-of-the-year award (granted in 1996). His supposed crime? Speculating about gender definitions on Twitter. This kind of action is not only unethical, it stifles any meaningful scientific discussion. (Note to celebrity intellectuals: J.K. Rowling returned her award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center after the Center's president criticised her views on gender. Why not go one better and preempt any withdrawal of rewards by not accepting them in the first place, at least not without some kind of 'pre-nup' clause preventing clawback.)
   I am also adding the Chicago Review of Books which in 2017 tried to use its influence to stop Simon & Schuster (and, by implication, other top publishers) from issuing books that are too rejecting of liberal ideology.
   Other miscreants will be added as and when I come across them. Removal from the list is simple: issue a public apology, and reverse any action as required — e.g. restore an award inappropriately withdrawn. (Actually there's an argument that an award or an honour should never be withdrawn. If you can't issue such a thing without it being conditional on future behaviour, or you're not sure you'll be able to stand up to external pressure for it to be rescinded years later, don't issue it in the first place.)