Virtual Currencies, War and Peace: This Week in LA, Volume XVIII

Virtual Currencies, War and Peace: This Week in LA, Volume XVIII


Every January I inevitably attend that certain genre of business meeting that purports to predict the year ahead. The such and such Outlook or Forecast. If you asked me whether anyone can predict the future, I’d respond with a resounding no. I would never patronize any of the countless psychics operating in the open light of day here in the City of Angels. Who keeps these people in business, I wonder?

And yet, at the same time, the quest to know the future allures all of us. I must admit that in dark hours I’ve resorted to asking the online 8 Ball questions. These typically, and embarrassingly, center on the usual suspects like “will I ever get back together with so and so?” or “will I get rich one day?” The nice thing about the 8 Ball is that you can re-phrase the question until you get the answer you want. For example, if it tells me I won’t get rich, I can ask it whether I will own a mansion in Malibu.

I’m pleased to report that today that I asked the 8 Ball whether readers would find this blog post entertaining and it said Decidedly So. Pertinent to the remainder of the blog, I also asked it whether Bitcoin would explode this year and it said Most Likely.

That was also the consensus of the panelists on Tuesday night at TechZulu’s 2014 Startup Forecast in Santa Monica. The cheerleading on Bitcoin was led by panelist Brock Pierce, the Managing Director of the Clearstone Gaming Fund. Pierce called Bitcoin the biggest technological invention since the Internet and, of its developments he said that “we are in only in the second inning.” No one on the panel challenged him and panelist Richard Wolpert, the Managing Director of Amplify.LA added that all of the “top tier VC’s were investing into it.”

My mom would always ask us if we would jump off a cliff just because our friends were doing it. So on the subject of Bitcoin I am torn. A growing torrent of capital and interest into virtual currencies makes me skeptical. And yet, with the work I have done on my own company, Owlaxy, when I first considered the concept of a virtual currency it made intuitive sense to me. Our old currencies keep us chained to national borders and constrain trade. Further, in this day and age what are equity securities other than a virtual currency now that almost no one has physical share certificates? In the longest run I think virtual currencies will prevail, but I predict tremendous growing pains.

The panel in turn visited other topics. Everyone seemed to agree that Google Glass was ahead of the market and would go nowhere. Heather Wilburn, the Biz Dev Manager Channel Sales at Google was left defending the product. She said that Google liked taking “moon shots” and then told a heartwarming story about a woman who had become nearly blind. Using Gooogle Glass, this woman been able to take up her photography work again.

I would not wish to disparage anyone creating technology that enriches the lives of the nearly blind. My sarcasm has limits. But, Wilburn’s story about this specialty usage of the product did little to persuade the audience that mass adoption of Google Glass waits for us around the corner.

For observers who believe there’s another California tech bubble in our midst, I found some evidence to fuel your fears. One of the panelists, Peter Csathy, served as the CEO for Manatt Digital Media Venutres. The law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, of course, is widely respected in Los Angeles. According to its “Media Manifesto” the venture arm launched on May 15, 2013. This, however, was the first I had heard of it.

I was, alas, too young to remember the last dot com bubble on my own accord. But, as I understand it from partners that I worked with at Baker & McKenzie, towards the end many big law firms started taking on greater risks like equity from clients in lieu of fees. The most spectacular law firm bust of the era is covered here.

In Kennedy family lore, of course, Papa Joe Kennedy said he knew it was time to get out of the stock market when a shoe shine boy started giving him stock tips. I will assume only the best about Manatt Digital Media Ventures and history doesn’t always repeat itself. But it makes me wonder . . . is Big Law in this instance like the shoe shine boy?

After the panel I had the pleasure of meeting Antti Pasila, the Founder of Kiosked. The idea behind Kiosked is that publishers, like a fashion magazine, will partner with Kiosked so that readers can shop online from the photos in the magazine. Personally, I don’t see photos of celebrities and think to myself that I must own their shoes/watch/shirt et cetera, but I know people who do. If a reader clicks through and purchases the product, then Kiosked splits the referral fee with the publisher.

What I like about this business is that at the front end it’s essentially a B to B play. What publisher wouldn’t want to increase the likelihood of monetizing existing content? However, once embedded in publishers’ platforms it becomes a B to C proposition. Predicting the ultimate consumer behavior, of course, proves extraordinarily difficult for everyone, but it seems like this could work.

On Thursday night a client invited me to a Los Angeles World Affairs Council dinner at the Lowes Hotel in Santa Monica. I advocate for peace whenever I can, so I was a little squeamish about walking in to a dinner that featured Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates as the main speaker.

I was pleasantly surprised.

Gates recently published his autobiography Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. He entertained the audience with humor and tales from the book. But he also provided sobering doses of commentary about the state of our military. Of both Presidents Bush and Obama he was respectful. As to be expected, his disagreements with Obama were deeper than with Bush, but he stressed Obama’s great civility.

His only scathing comments were for Congress, which he called arrogant and provincial. He expressed deep frustration that any defense facility in a members’ district was sacrosanct. He further said that in televised investigations, members of Congress were like werewolves under a full moon.

I am not sure how to reconcile the depth of his experience with my own opinion that Congress by design is supposed to be provincial. Especially because this current Congress infuriates me.

Several times in the speech he expressed frustration that too often our foreign policy response has been a military one. His tone reminded me a little of Prince Feisal at the end of Lawrence of Arabia. Old men make the peace and Gates told the audience that the most important general that we had never heard of was Major General Fox Conner. Conner set forth three rules of war for a democracy:

• never fight unless you have to;
• never fight alone; and
• never fight for long.

If we want the future to continue to allure us, I suggest we start following these rules again.

Los Angeles, California

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