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Month: April 2017

A Shift in the Wind

I think that Exolymph is ready to change. In retrospect, I’ve been getting bored with my “dystopia is real and we’re living it” thesis since writing “The Cyberpunk Sensibility” last October. (Luckily I didn’t call the project A Cyberpunk Newsletter, so the inscrutable name will stay. Besides, it’s more like I want to zoom in on a particular niche topic, not ditch everything.)

“Cyberpunk is now” was an exciting revelation a year ago — at least to me, although I certainly didn’t come up with the idea. Now it feels banal. The mainstream press is covering cyberpunk themes more and more, and other blogs are doing my schtick better than me. I talked around this when I made a list of cyberpunk content sources back in February.

Most of the publications that I mentioned then don’t delve into the sociopolitics of cyberpunk, but anecdotally the topic is more prevalent than it used to be. Today someone posted on Hacker News, “Would you be interested in a ‘cyberpunk’ inspired news site?” In the comments people pointed out that Wired covers a lot of this territory, as do fringe outlets like those I listed months ago, and N O D E.

So anyway. Like I said, the dissatisfaction has been simmering in my head for months. But reading David Auerbach’s latest essay on the Trump regime is what flipped the switch and made me realize that I need to change Exolymph’s editorial mandate. (No, I’m not going to join #TheResistance and write about Trump all the time — let me explain before you roll your eyes.)

In his essay, Auerbach laid out the relationship(s) between the American overculture (his preferred term) and the country’s surging undercultures. “If you went on 4chan in 2016, you were part of the underculture. If you read about 4chan in the news and believed what you read, you were part of the overculture,” Auerbach quipped.

As it happens, I tend to bounce between these realms more than the average person. Subcultures have long fascinated me, since I’m an incorrigible drama voyeur (like any good journalist). That’s what I want to concentrate on now: How subcultures relate to the mainstream in the twenty-first century.

The internet has transformed the way that social information (memes, if you will) travel up and down between subculture and mainstream. Traditionally, the elites of the mainstream directed the grand narrative. The geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths of subcultures provided the components that were used to compile that grand narrative. But now the elite gatekeepers have lost so much of their power — not all of it, but enough for Auerbach’s underculture to shake things up.

These are the questions that I want to explore:

  • Who is able to travel up and down the cultural stack?
  • What do they bring with them?
  • Do the messages that they carry change along the way?
  • How much do they change?
  • Is it on purpose?
  • When are travelers able to make the trip safely, and when are they hijacked?
  • How do the different levels govern themselves?
  • How do they govern each other?
  • Which factions are able to go vertical, encompassing cross-sections of multiple strata?

On a concrete level, the newsletter probably won’t feel very different. For example, here’s an issue that I would have covered before that will be even more relevant given the new focus.

And now, an abrupt ending! I have an early flight tomorrow and honestly that’s all I have to say.


Header artwork by Albert Ramon Puig.

Bitcoin Buzz: How Does It Actually Affect the Price?

The following is an article about cryptocurrencies that I wrote back in February, intended for Mattermark. Right around the same time, Inc. hired me and my editor Alex Wilhelm left Mattermark, so the story got swallowed in the upheaval. I think it’s a decent fit for Exolymph, although the tone is much more impersonal and newsy than my usual dispatches. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this or find it thought-provoking.


Let’s say there’s a cryptocurrency called ExampleCoin, abbreviated as EXC. What would you expect to happen when stories about EXC are published in Coinbase and the mainstream financial press? You might say it depends on the tenor of the stories — are they positive or negative? That should determine how the publicity affects EXC’s price. Or you might say that raising awareness of EXC will be good for the price regardless, because some people who didn’t know it existed will find out, or some people who weren’t paying attention will start.

The influence that media attention has on real cryptocurrencies is less straightforward, regardless of which EXC hypothesis you find most convincing, according to a recent study of five cryptocurrencies. Authors Jean-Philippe Vergne and Sha Wang are associated with the Ivey Business School and economics department at Ontario’s Western University, respectively. Their research was supported by the Scotiabank Digital Banking Lab. Vergne and Wang suggest that media hype may depress the price of Bitcoin and the four other cryptocurrencies they examined.

The researchers explain, “While it has often been assumed that greater visibility in the public sphere, including in the media, would create a buzz affecting cryptocurrency prices positively, our models do not support this idea. To the contrary, we find that a one [standard deviation] increase in public interest […] corresponds to a 10% decrease in returns” (the term “public interest” is quantified in the study). This finding emerged when the researchers controlled for other variables, namely supply growth and liquidity, in an attempt to isolate the effect of media attention. Furthermore, Vergne and Shaw write, “[W]e do not find any evidence that bad press affects price.”

By contrast, Vergne and Wang found that ongoing technological development positively correlates with cryptocurrency returns. The authors hypothesize that greater security, new features, and evidence of a robust technical community that will continue to add to both, are the factors that actually increase the expected practical value of a given cryptocurrency — and thus drive up its price. Vergne and Wang summarize thus:

[T]he innovation potential embedded in technological upgrades is the most important factor associated (positively) with cryptocurrency returns. By contrast, we find that, after controlling for a variety of factors, such as supply growth and liquidity, the buzz surrounding cryptocurrencies is negatively associated with weekly returns.

In a phone interview, Jean-Philippe Vergne pointed out that it doesn’t make sense to expect a cryptocurrency to be valued in the same way as a fiat currency or a commodity like gold. What the US dollar does, in a concrete sense, hasn’t changed in a very long time, and there’s no reason to expect the dollar to develop more “features,” so to speak. Similarly, gold is gold — we can figure out new ways to use it as a material, but the substance itself remains the same. Not so with cryptocurrencies, the structural capabilities of which are always being extended by dedicated development teams.

Vergne acknowledged that this paradigm would lead us to predict that newer cryptocurrencies, with innovative technical approaches and new features, will eventually outpace Bitcoin. He pointed to Ethereum’s trajectory as an example. “People were saying, ‘Okay, in a few months the price of Ethereum will be higher than the price of Bitcoin,’ in terms of the total market cap. A lot of people started to believe that Bitcoin was dead and Ethereum was gonna be the new Bitcoin. Because of its more advanced technology team, it had more potential for future improvement.”

But then a high-profile project called The DAO got hacked, exposing Ethereum’s fundamental technical weaknesses, and the dream came crashing down. (It took a year for Ethereum to reclaim the highs it climbed to in early 2016, which it has now exceeded.) “The code underlying Ethereum was so complex that it had many more flaws than what people imagined, and it was not ready yet for large-scale implementation,” Vergne explained.

Presumably a new cryptocurrency that can excite investors and prove out its potential will not be subject to the same boom-bust oscillation, although Bitcoin’s first-mover advantage is formidable. Bitcoin has the largest number of miners and developers, providing improved cybersecurity and greater liquidity. Its name recognition also far-and-away outstrips the competitors. Up-and-coming cryptocurrencies will be hard-pressed to battle that reputation.

Tony Arcieri, a software engineer at the blockchain network company Chain, discussed the study via Twitter DM. He hopes that Bitcoin and blockchain buzzwords “are past the peak of the media hype cycle.” If so, “true technical merit should hopefully start dominating the reasoning and conversation.” Arcieri emphasized that Bitcoin’s stability, both technically and as a community, will be key to its longterm success, alluding to recent contention over a large technical update.

Joon Ian Wong, a reporter for Quartz who formerly worked at Coinbase, was a little more skeptical of Vergne and Wang’s conclusions. “I think it is accurate to say technical developments increase the value of a crypto in the long run — but its price is still driven by speculators, and media buzz plays a big part in that,” he said in an email.

“It’s analogous to the fundamentals of say a publicly traded company. Ultimately if a company has for instance a strong balance sheet, good cash flows, and strict cost controls of course it’s worth more in the long run. But its stock price is still determined by the vagaries of market rumours, trends among hedge fund managers, and the news cycle.”

In their paper, Vergne and Wang propose that the perception that publicity encourages speculators may actually be what drives reduced returns, writing, “[A] sudden increase in the ‘buzz’ surrounding a cryptocurrency could be interpreted as a signal of increasing volatility. If market participants are risk-averse, given the same expected mean returns, they would be less willing to hold the cryptocurrency if future volatility increases, which would drive prices down and affect returns negatively.”

Angel List partner Parker Thompson remarked on the state of various non-Bitcoin blockchain projects, such as Ethereum and Zcash, “These use cases are still very speculative, and these projects don’t have the maturity of Bitcoin, but my belief is that the market cap of BTC is small enough that it could be wiped out in six months by a true consumer-facing killer app built on top of one of the blockchains I mentioned, or one that does not yet exist.”

Gwern Branwen, an eclectic researcher who has studied Bitcoin in the past, was unimpressed by Vergne and Wang’s study. Branwen responded to a request for comment via Reddit comment:

[T]o sum up my problems with this analysis, the big ones are that it uses an unrepresentative and redundant set of cryptocurrencies, over a short and unrepresentative time period, to investigate a model which ignores all feedbacks and interactions between variables and returns […] to make causal claims which are not and cannot be supported by the model and data, in support of an interpretation […] which lack[s] any face validity[.] Maybe buzz and hype and the media matter a lot less than most people think to Bitcoin’s growth. But this paper doesn’t affect my beliefs on the matter one bit.

Regardless of whether you agree with how Vergne and Wang have manipulated and interpreted the data, it’s important to remember that Bitcoin and its ilk are in fact technologies. Cryptocurrencies resemble standard money — “currency” is right there in the name! — but there’s a lot going on in the code itself, and the community developing that code, that influences how the market will behave.


Header photo by BTC Keychain.

Indignities of Late Capitalism

I prefer capitalism to the alternatives, but I’ve still gotta laugh (and cringe) at some of the results. Modern life is fucking weird. Links links links…

Juicero is a startup that raised more than $100 million to “reinvent juice” or whatever bullshit. A ground-breaking scoop showed that Juicero’s machines are basically unnecessary. You can squeeze the pre-filled juice bags by hand and get essentially the same result.

The whole Juicero saga made me snort audibly at least once. Thank you, venture capitalists. (Maybe Juicero’s valuation is actually justified because of the amount of amusement it caused?!)

Another tidbit from Silicon Valley; this one is a #shortread: “Investing in Snapchat is something that no one responsible should ever do. Snapchat is the equivalent of driving drunk.”

Tweet by Sarah Jamie Lewis. Insert "this is fine" dog here.

Tweet by Sarah Jamie Lewis. Insert “this is fine” dog here.

Tay Zonday of “Chocolate Rain” fame articulated what’s wrong with journalism better than just about anyone else. He’s also very woke, which somehow surprised me. Man, remember when that video went viral? I did not take him seriously, but apparently I should have.

Sophia Amoruso’s #Girlboss rally creeps me out. Examined through a feminist lens, the name is demeaning — how about a hashtag-less boss who just happens to be a woman? Also, yeah, I’m a woman, not a girl. Plus all the ~omg inspiration~ smacks of multi-level marketing schemes or infoproduct “how to be an entrepreneur” sellers.

There’s more to the Wall Street bull and newly added Fearless Girl sculptures than most of us realized. Capitalist guerilla art + pernicious marketing + the author is dead so who cares anyway. (Every possible take will be written, as the commandments of the internet say!)

Tweet by Charlie Warzel.

Tweet by Charlie Warzel.

Lastly, Louise Mensch thinks that everybody is a Russian agent. She’s pretty close to being Alex Jones for liberals. It honestly seems possible that she’s undergoing some kind of psychotic break and broadcasting the whole process on Twitter.


Header photo by Anthony Quintano.

Will the Digital Future Be Human Enough?

It’s easy to get tired, isn’t it? I heard today that a company is implanting its employees with microchips. Is that a PR stunt or just run-of-the-mill creepy management? Another company, called ObEN, emailed me about its unsettling 3D digital avatars (pictured above). According to the company’s website:

ObEN’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology quickly combines a person’s 2D image and voice to create a personal 3D avatar. Transport your personal avatar into virtual reality and augmented reality environments and enjoy deeper, social, more memorable experiences.

The company is owned by HTC VIVE. ObEN’s about page says, “ObEN was created out of a personal desire for the founders to remain connected to their families by ‘leaving behind’ a virtual copy of themselves during long travels.” Obvious Black Mirror parallel is obvious.

The PR person’s email said, “Knowing it’d be their biggest hurdle, the company has already transformed voice personalization using AI and speech synthesis — so now your virtual doppelganger not only sounds like you, but it can also sing like you, but better… and in Chinese.”

I don’t know why these things depress me. There are infinite issues in the world to be upset about, and in fact ObEN isn’t doing anything wrong. I’m the asshole, honestly, for making fun of their technology. People are devoting years of their lives to working on the project. Getting past the Uncanny Valley is hard.

I guess tonight I’m reflecting on how the internet can be a medium of alienation just as much as a medium of connection. Default engagement modes like snark, which is so prevalent on Twitter and Reddit, generate a lot of good jokes by making people feel bad. The targets are abstracted away as obscure names on screens, so it’s easy to do.

Ironically, VR avatars like ObEN’s are supposed to address the problem of compassion collapse. We’ll find out whether they work soon enough…

Eroge, Chopped and Screwed

I interviewed @DataErase, AKA Maddison, for this week’s dispatch. You can also find her on Tumblr and her website. Full disclosure: I commissioned an artwork from Maddison before undertaking this interview — that’s not really a conflict of interest but you might want to know anyway. The text below has been lightly edited for readability.


Exolymph: What got you into glitch art?

@DataErase: I had a NES as a kid, around the same time that everyone else had N64s and stuff, so the games weren’t really in great condition. We had a copy of Super Mario 2 that eventually stopped showing the graphics correctly. I’d say that was a pretty early memory of me having an attachment to “glitch” as this sorta spooky aesthetic. Like computer ghosts trying to talk to you or something.

When I started making these images, back in 2012, out of screencaps from old PC-98 eroges, I started using that term to describe what I was doing.

Exolymph: Some of your source material is erotica that was made within the particular constraints of the time and the technology. if it’s not too personal, can you talk about the theme of sexuality in your own work?

@DataErase: I like anime and I’m a queer girl. Sometimes that has a lot of baggage attached to it. My work is kinky, for sure, but I see it more as an exploration of where I fit into these things. It’s more about subverting this kinda banal iconography that hentai during that time was made up of — and pulling a deeper, more meaningful thing out of it. Pulling flowers out of decaying flesh. Corrupting the corrupted, if you will.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: In many of your pieces there’s a sort of visual cacophony — lots of colors, lots of detail. Is that an aesthetic you consciously set out for, or did it evolve over time?

@DataErase: It was something that was always there, but I think over the years it definitely accelerated and got more intense. Personally, I really like over-detailed stuff! And very complex patterns! Those are things that I get excited about in art.

Exolymph: What drew you to making art with computer tools as opposed to a more traditional form?

@DataErase: I’m not very good at things involving the real world, I guess you could say. My drawings are very, very bad, hehehe. But I still get a kind of catharsis out of doodling. I’ve spent a long time having a relationship with computers and the internet, so using them to do most things feels more natural to me.

artwork by @dataerase

Exolymph: Do you remember when you first started using computers? Was it for games, or something else?

@DataErase: Probably like elementary school? It wasn’t until I was eleven or so that I started fooling around on one of my dad’s old Mac desktops that he stopped using. It ran, like, OS 8. I played with a lot of retro game console emulators on it. I think the first games I played were the fan translations of Final Fantasy 5 and The Secret of Mana 2…

Exolymph: What do you struggle with when you make art? Are there parts of it that are difficult, or does the flow come easily?

@DataErase: Lately it’s been really hard to initiate the whole art-making process. Entering the mental space that I make art in. It’s a different mode of operating altogether! I don’t really think when I make my glitch collages, it just sorta happens?


So endeth the lesson. Maddison also has a Patreon that you can support!