✉ Afghans, speculators, and Timothy Snyder

I just published the first draft of the second chapter of A short walk beneath a long white cloud, where we plunge into Raetea forest and (spoiler) emerge mostly unscathed, so go ahead and read that. Photos will be added in due course.

Of course, looking back over the trip makes me hungry for another, and for now my interest centres on Afghanistan: the Khyber Pass, Nuristan, and the Hindu Kush. It will probably be some time before travel restrictions and the eternal obstacle – money – permit me to explore the land where empires go to die, but that hasn’t stopped me poring over the atlas’ in the library or reading accounts from other roamers. With dubious merit, I can now name each of the six countries that Afghanistan borders. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy soothed my yearning this month. Murphy’s 1963 odyssey, the richest pages of which concern her time in Afghanistan, is staggering in its rendering of the landscapes she passes through. The book is regrettably marred by her frequent racism but if, like me, something about Afghanistan calls to you then I recommend that you read it anyway, because the beauty between the bigotry is nourishment for the itinerant soul. For an unsullied gambol through the region, read A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush: eight years before Murphy, in 1956, Eric Newby fled the world of high fashion and set about climbing the peaks of the Hindu Kush in ill-fitting boots, with a companion who, like him, had never climbed before. I recommend it without reservation, except perhaps with the caveat that it’s a very English memoir. I read it first late last year in the middle of my own short walk, and have several times dipped back into it to vicariously reminisce.

Here in Nelson I am soon to return to the world of work, having been forced to take a month off by a shoulder injury. If all goes to plan I should start planting next week as part of New Zealand’s effort to plant a billion trees by 2028.

With work back on the brain, it occurred to me that I am always either accumulating or losing money. Always working and saving or anti-working and anti-saving. Never at a steady state. For the last four years that has taken the shape of working solidly for about three months of each year to support my frugal lifestyle and slow-travel ambitions for the remaining nine. Maybe it’s time I started looking for a steady state, whatever that may be. All that is immaterial for now, I expect I will work the winter through here in the southern hemisphere, but it bears thinking about.

Speaking of money, as I write this, sitting in the Elma Turner library at 5.30pm on a Friday, a middle aged Englishman is showing his well dressed, earnest, and unskeptical young partner how to buy cryptocurrencies. He’s anxiously biting on the knuckles of his left hand while he repeatedly refreshes the page with his right, muttering about which coins have bulled and beared since yesterday. His partner looks on credulously and asks, “is that good?”. Since yesterday! If you care what the market did yesterday or what it will do tomorrow you’re not investing, you’re speculating, and speculating chiefly on other people’s gullibility, on the FOMO that drives this cockamamie market. The novelty of Bitcoin, and of cryptocurrencies in general, is not in it’s suitability as a decentralised value-store, but in it’s creation of a global, distributed ponzi-scheme.

The experience of literally watching one naive ‘investor’ indoctrinate another put me in mind of that famous adage that emerged in the boom/bust of 1920’s America:

If shoe shine boys are giving stock tips, then it’s time to get out of the market.
— Joseph Kennedy

Not that there are any shoe shine boys here, but there has been a great proliferation of people touting the merits of an asset class they don’t understand. Whether you believe cryptocurrencies have the potential to displace fiat currencies or not, at present they remain a purely speculative vehicle, not the much vaunted means of democratising finance that a great many charlatans and their devotees loudly proclaim them to be.

Rant over. Angry replies welcome.

This month I was introduced to Sharon Olds, or rather to her work. Satan Says, the title poem of her first published collection (1980) is captivating. I had thought to include my lay analysis here, but I haven’t managed to knock it into shape just yet, and it might have felt a little incongruent – out of place – anyhow. Look for it in the next one, or perhaps I’ll publish it standalone.

The pearls this month are more varied/less thematic than last week, follow only what takes your fancy…

Please think of these links, always, as the vendors at a night market. Most of them you pass by, simply enjoying the fact that they’re there; a few grab your attention; one or two actually provide nourishment.
Robin Sloan

Come for the Network, Pay for the Tool
Toby Shorin 2020, 4000 words

Our long read comes from Toby Shorin who offers a pretty thorough exploration of the growing number of smaller, paying communities and the implications of this new funding model for the web.

The Elusive Male Smile
Timothy Snyder 2021, 1300 words

A poignant look at the effect of covid on a parent raising children in a foreign country. In humble tones, Timothy explores being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar systems he must navigate to support his kids learning, and of the power of the “everyday smile”.

Timothy Snyder 2021, 8mins audio

I know, two links to the same writer, unconscionable! But justified by the beauty of this, besides, this one is audio so you don’t even have to read it. Timothy’s son’s school project, a collage, inspires a soothing journey through the relationship between the letters C and L in so many words. I’m not usually one for audio, but Timothy’s spoken voice is the perfect companion to his written voice. If you’re not normally one for audio either take this as a solid recommend from someone who was sceptical going in besides, at eight minutes it’ll be no great robbery of your time. It’s tempting to quote from it here, but you deserve to hear it in his voice and unspoiled, so I wont.

Thoughts on total openness of information
Daniel Paluska 2009, 400 words

What if all your private information was public? Sharp, provocative, a nice follow on from People Staring at Computers which featured among last months pearls.

Are the hyper-specialist shops of Berlin the future of retail?
Philip Oltermann 2019, 2000 words

I tend to avoid linking to major publications, they get enough traction as it is, but this street-level look at the history and future of retail in Berlin and the lessons that it might have to offer in a world where Amazon is becoming synonymous with shopping is both comforting and affirming. Maybe there’s room for passion yet, even if the suffocatingly sterile landscape of western globalisation often makes it hard to believe.

Incremental note taking
Linus Lee 2021, 3600 words

This one’s definitely not for everyone, but if you have an interest in note-taking/thought-capture that borders on the fanatical (as I do) you’ll likely gleen a few good nuggets and a hefty dose of satisfaction from Linus Lee’s condensed, cruft free dive into the ideals by which we should evaluate any tool entering this space.

That’s all my pearls for July. I’m not so pleased with this issue as I was with the last, mostly because of my ugly little rant and also because it doesn’t feel focused enough, but I’m using it as a forcing function so it must go out, the next one will be better, and every one after that I can hope.