Infinity. Perplexity. Resentment.

On a chilly 1st December, Sam takes us to the Bermudas (only virtually, sadly) – to the “Jurassic Park of crypto” that Michael Lewis (of Moneyball, The Big Short and so much more fame)  describes with trademark virtuosity in his fly-on-the-wall tale of almost-first-trillionaire-cum-felon, Sam Bankman-Fried (“SBF”), of FTX-Alameda infamy.

A self-declared Lewis fanboy, Sam introduces Going Infinite, an account of the life and times of SBF, the people in his cash-fueled orbit, and the fraudulent practices of his crypto business ventures which are now likely to have earned him decades in prison.

I share Sam’s adulation for Lewis and his work, but it is fair to say that especially in the case of Going Infinite, many feel that the investigative journalist as participant observer got a bit too close to his object, to the detriment of objective and critical portrayal.

Not a serial Lewis reader, Neville expresses interest in the underlying story, but won’t put Going Infinite on the Christmas wish list.

A small collection of SBF’s glamourous backers: Giselle Bundchen, Tim Curry, Tom Brady, Larry David, Shaquille O’Neal

SBF is not the only crypto bro to have fallen on his digital sword: just days ago, Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao (“CZ”) plead guilty to breaking US anti-money laundering laws. He paid a $50m fine and stepped down as CEO of Binance, which itself has to pay a hefty $4.3bn fine.

Ah, CZ and SBF – former Masters of the Universe, jostling for top spot on the global rich list. Sometimes, the mighty are falling. Of course, ‘effective altruist’ SBF only ever wanted to maximise his capacity to do good in the world. He even invited his friend and mentor, Oxford philosopher and effective altruism thought leader William MacAskill to become an adviser of FTX’s Future Fund. Perhaps another one getting too close.

The comet-like rise and fall of all involved, and SBF’s money-induced appeal – a Google Image search for snaps of SBF shoulder to shoulder with the rich and famous does have a distinct Forrest Gump vibe – will make for brilliant Jurassic-Park-meets-House-of-Cards style TV drama.

One can only assume how Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV and Disney+ must have been battling it out for the rights: one trillion! 10 trillion!! Sixty gazillion!!! All in keeping with the topic. In fact, it seems that Apple have sealed a deal for a meager $5m. Harry Melling (Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter) appears to be an early contender for the role of SBF.

From young Dudley Dursley in Harry Potter to crypto titan SBF? Harry Melling’s transformation

The Fascination of Perplexity

We switch from crypto to generative AI. Neville recently discovered Perplexity AI, “an ‘answer engine’ that provides concise, accurate answers backed up by a curated set of sources. It uses large language models (LLMs), artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and machine learning to enable users to ask questions in natural language and receive relevant responses.” That was Perplexity answering the question “what is”, by the way.

It turns out all three podnosticators are active and (so far) satisfied users.

While Neville describes his user experience with what might well become ‘the future of search’ – contextual, interactive, providing relevant citation links and turning search into something closer to asking your most knowledgeable friend a question – Sam asks the omniscient online oracle about the SmallDataForum. And we all raise an eyebrow in appreciation of how on-point the responses are.

Perplexity AI.
It’s an ‘answer engine’

The time may not yet have arrived for an AI-enabled fridge coming up with the perfect recipes based on its contents – though Neville thinks we’re close (and Buzzfeed agrees), I’m disturbed by the prospect of a Nutella anchovy beetroot fondant.

We all agree that these are fascinating times in the world of applied generative AI, and on ChatGPT’s one year-anniversary it does feel like the 30th November 2022 was indeed a bit of a Gutenberg moment.  

Examining the Reality of Resentment

If only Perplexity had an actionable solution for society’s susceptibility for simple slogans problem.

But alas: to the question “How do we address the recurring problem of right-wing populism in western societies?”, the answer is that it requires a “multifaceted approach”. No shit, Sherlock.

Admittedly, there is more – which points to “the centre-left’s core values”, “addressing underlying drivers”, and “promoting evidence-based political strategies”. Yeah, well.

El Loco and Captain Peroxide. Leaders of our times?

The opponents of El Loco in Argentina, and Captain Peroxide in the Netherlands surely knew about all of this. And still Javier Milei and Geert Wilders romped to victory with their performative anger and populist slogans.

The Dutch result shocked me – like many ‘woke centrist progressive’ observers, I had expected a correction to the sensible centre, as recently in France and Spain. Neville, who lived in the Netherlands for eight years, was not totally surprised. He experienced what he calls an “anti-diversity” move after the turn of the Millennium – and just like everywhere else, there’s a marked difference in perception and sentiment between multi-national diverse urban centres, and a more traditional, homogenous rural hinter(Hol)land.

And that is just one facet of a very complex problem to which populist slogans and policies do not offer workable solutions. But that doesn’t undermine their appeal.  

An article in El Pais Europe provides insightful analysis: “There are no waves in politics: reality is more incoherent. What does exist are undercurrents: dissatisfaction with politics. The rejection of the elites. Economic and territorial inequalities. The feeling of a threatened identity. Resentment. And, in this first-quarter of the 21st century, few have been able to capture this discontent and these fears as well as the Trumps, Wilders and Mileis of this motley ideological family.”

Maybe it’s time to revisit that great German philosopher of ressentiment, Friedrich Nietzsche. Just in case we’re not disturbed enough already.

RIP Henry Kissinger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Alistair Darling, Shane MacGowan

And finally – within 24 hours, the world lost Henry Kissinger, Sandra Day O’Connor, Alistair Darling and Shane MacGowan. Relevant for different people, for different reasons, in different contexts.

May they rest in whatever peace means for them.

Listen to episode 79:

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