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The value of money

The value of money

moneyMy money’s worthless. But that’s ok, because so are yours. Or rather, they have exactly the value you think they have. Which is a pretty neat trick to pull for a piece of paper.

The main purpose of any commercial enterprise in this world is to make money. Or, to translate in marketspeak, to create value for their customers, and thus create value for themselves. This value is created by you, me, and anybody else who works for a living, by converting our time and skills into products that are useful for other companies and/or other human beings. This has always been so. In the past it was worth knowing how to plow a field, how to shoot a bow, how to distinguish the really bad mushrooms from the merely poisoned ones. These were all skills one could turn into profit.

Enter the banks. Banks do not create value directly, by themselves, but rather help create value, by lending money to active companies and individuals that need money to exercise their skills in order to create value. In return, a portion of this value returns to the bank. Banks also help people save money, and pay interest for the right to use those money for lending. In effect, banks are vast meeting places, where the people that need money meet the people that have money to the mutual benefit of both parties.

Or at least, that’s the theory. In reality banks are no longer safeguarding and managing other people’s money. Banks have and produce value in themselves, above and beyond what is needed to function as a bank. They use their guarantees and deposits as assets, which can themselves become guarantees if the bank itself needs to borrow money. And past events teach us that this reality is quite prone to abuse, often with catastrophic results.

It all boils right back down to value. Since value is a subjective property, driven by the marketplace’s two opposing forces, Fear and respectively Greed, there is always a risk factor involved when evaluating the value of an asset or investment. Take salt, for example.

Salt is now by and large a commodity, to be picked up once a month at the grocer’s and passed around at the dinner table. But it wasn’t always so. Before we discovered how to extract salt from the sea, the only way to acquire salt was to dig deep in the earth an pray for a salt vein. Salt was expensive, treasured. Wars were fought for control over salt mines. And to spill the salt was to invite serious trouble upon oneself.

Now imagine that you would buy a salt mine mere days before the sea salt extraction process came into power. Your rock-solid investment, 100% guaranteed profitable by a thousand years of history will become a loser overnight. Your net worth would plummet accordingly. Any loans that may have been available to you against that mine are now a pipe dream, and if you’re really unlucky you have your creditors knocking at your door.

Those were the salt bubble days. We’re now in the housing bubble days. There also were a dot com bubble, an Asian market bubble, an African lending bubble and lots and lots of other smaller bubbles, distanced about 10 years apart. Each of these bubbles was new and unexpected. Each of these bubbles taught us absolutely nothing about risk management in the marketplace. And if you disagree, get in touch; I can tell you all about some really hot opportunities – biotech startups, gene sequencing, next-gen targeted viruses… the way of the future, man! You can’t afford to miss it!

Teach your children to lie

Teach your children to lie

lieNo, no, no – you say. Lie? We should teach them to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help them, cross their heart and all that. They have to be honest to a fault, you know, straightforward and trustworthy. That is, just like their parents.

Sounds familiar? Almost every one of you reading these words has heard the sermon about lies and liars and (if you were lucky enough) the eternal rewards set aside for the good honest children. Your parents tried in their own way to teach you that lying is bad for you. And in 99.999% of cases, they failed utterly.

If truthfulness is such a praised and desired quality in today’s society, why aren’t the liars the exception, rather than the rule? If everyone was better off telling all of the truth, all of the time, why aren’t we living in a world where lies and deceit are things that belong to an ancient, unenlightened past? I’ll tell you why. Because that in itself is the biggest lie of all.

Indeed, unless you’ve spent your tender years in a vegetative state – in which case, you have my sympathy – you first leaned how to lie from your own parents. They lied to you, willingly or not, and when you lied to them, they rewarded you, thus reinforcing the behaviour. And when you got caught with a lie, they punished you for it, thus forcing you to learn to lie better next time. And so you lied, and so it went, and if anything, you should be thankful to them for teaching you. After all, your own ability to function in society is solidly based upon your ability to lie.

There are indeed degrees to a lie, and you went through them all. First there was the blatant, stupid lie, when you painted the walls with your mother’s cosmetics and then denied vigorously – while wiping rouge off your hands. Your parents’ feedback made you give that up pretty early in your lying career, and you should be grateful for that.

Then you learned about the difference between telling the truth and being polite, like that time when Aunt Irma brought you that horrid pink sweater for your birthday, and not only you had to thank her, you had to wear the damn thing until she was gone. Or when you had to spend a whole day in your room for telling your daddy’s boss that he’s ugly and he smells – because he did, and it was the truth, and why weren’t you supposed to tell it all of a sudden?

In time you also learned that you can protect your parents from certain aspects of your young life that they strongly disapprove. Like hanging out with friends they don’t like – “Where were you?” “Oh, out playing, ma'” “Not at Johnny’s?” “No, I was with Paulie and Amber with the bikes around the park”. It’s just a little white lie, and they’re now happier for it. Or, if your parents were really strict about lying, you would just “forget” to mention some parts of your day. Lying by omission is not technically a lie – after all, you haven’t said anything untrue. And so it goes.

Of course you’ve seen your parents do it. You’ve seen your mum being all nice and sugary the new neighbour, only to talk trash  her with her girlfriends afterwards. You’ve seen dad handling door-to-door salesmen. You’ve seen them engaged in a million social interactions where they lie and hide and smile about it, because that’s how it’s done.

That’s how we’re able to function as a society. There was a film called “Liar Liar” where a young Jim Carrey was compelled by his son’s birthday wish to tell the truth for one whole day. The results were hilarious – in the movie – but also quite scary, when examined in depth. We tell a hundred lies a day and never even think about them. They are ingrained in our social persona, part of the reason we are able to live among people. Ever tried spending one whole day telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Try it, and tell me how you failed.

So teach your children to lie. If you’re squeamish about the word “lie”, call it something else, but teach them anyway. Teach them how to lie and how to recognize a lie. Teach them about self-serving lies, social lies, political lies, attorney lies and advertiser lies. Teach them how to recognize the intent behind a lie. Teach them how to use lies, fight lies and go beyond lies to find out who they can and cannot trust.

And if you want to teach them to always tell the truth to their parents, you have to make yourself worthy of their trust. Teach them that your love for them is unconditional and not affected by what they say or do. That being your children is reason enough for you to help them and support them to the best of your abilities. Everybody makes mistakes in life – I know you did – and the best you can do is learn and move on. And if you love them enough, and care about them enough, you will teach them above all this one important lesson.

Everybody lies.

The fast food culture

The fast food culture

Fast foodThere is this myth that circulates among the finer circles of art aficionados nowadays. It amounts to ancestor worship, really, and in a nutshell, it can be described as this: it’s the classics that really matter; only the classics are worthy of our attention. It shuns the current crop of art as it were a bothersome itch after a rowdy row with some alley girl. Modern art is rubbish, pop culture is neither (at least in our circles it isn’t), my dear boy, have another helping of Strauss or Yeats or Hugo and ponder on the woes of those of us endowed with a yearning for the finer things in life. Comparing those with the artists today? Why, it’s like comparing La Noisette with McDonalds.

Fast food culture. That’s what it’s being called. That’s what it boils down to for some people, this powerful, all-encompassing current that sweeps around the globe, this accumulation of creative potential unlocked in people that are better fed, better educated and with more free time on their hands, all thanks to the industrial revolution. And then there came the telegraph, the radio waves, and now the Internet, information links that ultimately brought people together, allowing them to see and hear what other minds have created in lands they only ever dreamed of.

Take photography, for instance, which evolved so much in a decade thanks to digital imagery that now a mere mortal with some time on their hands can create what masters of half a century past could only ever dream of. Sites like DeviantArt and Flickr allow anyone to showcase their work for the world to see, art galleries and critics be damned. And its so simple that even a 3-year old could do it, provided that a 3-year old would take enough time off from writing the next great American novel on his blog to indulge in such menial activities.

Of course there’s lots of bad art out there. There’s bound to be. For starters, there’s so much more of it. It’s bound to happen that people become fed up with the abundance of cat pictures over the Internet (or cat porn, as it is endeared by the fans of the genre). They can’t stand another overweight, yet not-that-cute Dutch teenage kid dancing away on some obscure Romanian hit song. Or yet another writer wannabe bashing them away on his blog. So they turn to the classics, the true artistic values, the ones that stood the test of time.

Ah, time. The great equaliser. Let enough time go by and Homer will stand next to Shakespeare, Aristofan next to Lev Tolstoi and Handel next to Debussy and no one will question this unnatural closeness. Yet they are centuries, even millennia apart. They were the finest of their generations, of their cultures, and they endured through the ages, so that we learn of them today. Is it fair then , I ask, to compare them with all of the artists in the world today? Is it not a bit hypocritical to conveniently forget that some of those artists were never a la mode in their time – indeed, some were discovered after they passed away – and compare them with the whim of today’s art consumers? It is my firm belief that we’re unfair.

For time is also the great filter. It gives us Mozart and takes away Salieri. It gives us Baudelaire and Robert Frost, but buries the thousands of poets de salon that bundled pretty rhymes together to win the hearts (and more) of frivolous demoiselles. Keats died of consumption, attacked on all sides by his critics, only to later be enshrined as one of the greatest that English Romantism has to offer. Where are his critics now? Their words are dust, subjects of dusty papers written by dusty scholars. We’re left with Endymion and a nostalgy of ancient, happy days. But ancient as they may well be, they were never that happy.

Who’s to say that not the same will happen in a hundred years time? Perhaps people will look back fondly towards the 20th century and say: “ah, those were the days”. The birth of rock’n’roll, ah, what I wouldn’t give to see those times. The rebels, the bards, the poets, baring their souls, burning their lives away on the altar of artistic expression. The great pioneers of information technology, the first feeble expressions of Web culture, that led all the way to the full sensorial sharing that we have today. Which we don’t like, there’s so many people sharing sensyms of them banging their heads to the walls on, all in the name of art. Art? Garbage I say. Now give me the 2010’s… ah, those were true artists then.

Because it’s oh so easy, can’t you see? With classics we don’t have to judge, because they’ve already been judged. We don’t have to choose, for they have already been chosen, and so they stand before us already validated by the hands of time. None of our friends would dare comment on our taste, because we stand on the shoulders of generations that valued the same art. Not to say that there are no true admirers of the classics. But its such a convenient hiding spot for the snobs of our time.

I dare say: there is no real fast food culture. There is no real fast food art. There is just man’s drive to create and express his innermost feelings and desires. There may have been performers with greater talent than Beethoven, wasting their life away between one fair and the next. Born in the wrong place or at the wrong time, not lucky enough to win the patronage of nobles, dying in squalor and misery because those were the times. And for every one of those there were hundreds of thousands of mediocre dabblers, which are best left forgotten as far as The Art is concerned.

And you have the unique chance to have a real understanding of today’s artistic manifestation. You live here. You have the background knowledge, an unique understanding of the environment that fosters and nurtures today’s art. Don’t be ashamed to be drawn by your contemporaries’ artistic manifestations. Enjoy it. It’s history in the making.

Time, the great deceiver. Indeed.