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A whiff of grapeshot

Coin Rivet columnist Jo Debono crosses swords with a French adversary who leaves him both bewildered and impressed in equal measure

There is a Gallic trait that shines in the best and worst of the French. They do know how to make people love to hate them.

Marc Fleury is blessed with this quality to a generous degree. He swaggered into the hall with all the confidence of an Imperial Guardsman on the morning of Waterloo. Eager batmen scurried in his wake. If excitement had been absent at his entry, he would have dragged it in by the iron force of his will.

While distinguished academics introduced him all aflutter, he stood coolly in the middle of the stage. And when they ceded him the mic, he started off with a set of yoga exercises more in the vein of California than of the Bhagavad Gita. I disliked him from the word go.

Marc Fleury looks like an officer of the Garde Impériale for a reason. For the sake of exactitude, he was an officer, but of France’s 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment rather than the Imperial Guard. He was delivering a guest lecture to Master’s degree students of the University of Malta – not in this capacity, but for his work on open source software and his current work in blockchain.

Marc is the creator of Jboss – a Java enterprise edition application server that he sold to Red Hat in 2006. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Physics, and a Master’s degree and PhD in Theoretical Physics. It is quite a combination.

This soldier, with a PhD in Theoretical Physics and significant achievements in software engineering, also comes with a passion for art, and intellectual and spiritual growth. That gives him more than a passing claim to the title of Renaissance Man.

Interdisciplinary

Marc’s audience comprised the first intake of the University of Malta’s MSc in Blockchain and DLT. The degree is an interdisciplinary one, offered to holders of first degrees in Law, Business, Economics, Finance, Computer Science, and IT. It is intended to stimulate research in DLT in the intersection of the disciplines to whose graduates it is offered.

The goal of the degree is, in fact, the production of hybrid expertise that can begin to tap into the multifarious potential of DLT beyond the prevailing climate of nebulous thought and immediate gratification that plagues the sector. In some ways, it’s a bit of a Renaissance degree, which is why it attracted me in the first place. And now a guest lecture by Marc Fleury.

Turns out it was an attack on the conventional wisdom on blockchain, and it caught me completely off guard. Marc delivered what he called “twelve truths on crypto” that lacerated the hearts of the assembly before him, and he did so with force and passion in equal part. In brief, Fleury’s twelve truths are that:

  • The killer apps of crypto have already arrived, and they’re all financial in nature.
  • Cryptocurrencies are not currencies, and centralised fintech already successfully serves billions of people.
  • Ten years in tech is a lifecycle, and DLT has already gone through such a lifecycle without producing an app to shake the world.
  • Traditional banking is decentralised.
  • Bitcoin is centralised and inequitable.
  • The fiat economy works because of debt.
  • Nobody cares that Bitcoin has lost 60% from its peak because most of the ones in the space have invested long before this peak.
  • Fiat lost 90% over the past 100 years but equally nobody cares.
  • Quantitative easing preserved savers in 2008, and quantitative easing is mostly beneficial.
  • Security related to DLT is a mess.
  • Current consensus mechanisms are either destroying the earth (Proof of Work) or worsening inequality as measured by the GINI coefficient (Proof of Stake).
  • Crypto needs to grow the hell up.

 

I admit, that swaggering French so-and-so got me wound up. My childhood heroes were Horatio Nelson and Arthur Wellesley. The guiding lights of my philosophy are Aristotle, Friedrich Hayek, and Karl Popper. All five of them were outraged.

Detritus of battle

My blood was up for battle, but before I moved in to engage, I looked around the room. And all I saw was havoc, detritus of battle akin to the broken banners of Russia and Austria on the field of Austerliz.

All throughout the room, the tears of shattered certainties, and the confusion of little miss advocates fresh to the bar, mingled with the confusion of traders and iGaming employees thrown into disarray.

The impish Dr Joshua Ellul, who is both the director of the institute offering this Master’s programme as well as the Chairman of Malta’s DLT regulator, and who, among other things, had put Saifedean Ammous at the very top of our required reading, looked on with amusement. It dawned on me then. We had been trolled, and very nicely so. Well played, well played indeed.

As whines and moans started to ripple across the room like the thunder of cannon in the prelude to battle, Dr Fleury crossed swords with all in turn, delivering other lessons in the process.

His primary lesson was not his twelve truths, but the importance of questioning preconceived notions. It is beyond the scope of this column to analyse these twelve truths. They were largely an exercise in dialectic education.

Marc’s real lesson was about the importance of shattering old orthodoxies, of challenging received wisdom, and of striding out into the unknown. It is a lesson damn worth learning for this ecosystem, in which most projects and efforts I see are either driven by greed or are the products of tediously unimaginative and legacy thinking.

Marc’s lesson was one truly worthy of a scientist, for to challenge orthodoxy is really that method of scientific progress that epistemology calls by different names, but is largely the same beast – paradigm shift, falsifiability, heresy – the obliteration of the current tyrant of our thoughts.

Questions and challenges

That was not Marc’s only lesson. Piece by piece, bit by bit, as he blew away the questions and challenges put to him by his dazed audience, he outlined a philosophy of action for the ‘techpreneur’, as well as a state of mind, that were of equal value to his first lesson. For Marc challenged his audience to fail.

“If you don’t fail, you don’t learn,” he said. “Come on,” he told us, “do you know the three things an entrepreneur needs? You need to be mad; you need to fail. And you need to have the capacity to learn.”

He looked at us, “how can you learn if you don’t question? How can you learn if you don’t fail?”

And then he went on. “How can you learn if you don’t let go of your ego? Can you learn to fail, and learn from your failure?”, he asked.

How should blockchain entrepreneurs act? Marc urged us to use blockchain to build native fintech applications first, to step boldly, to watch out for the snake in our path, and to learn from our mistakes.

“The other applications of blockchain will come in time and as a consequence,” he said.

Touché, Marc.

The ego. The last lesson of Dr Fleury, and in many ways, the most resonant. Fleury’s gait is strutting testimony to outrageous self-confidence. But he delivered an unequalled lesson on the importance of humility.

In the middle of one debate with a student, he said that it had taken him five years to understand a particular concept. Somewhat later, this PhD in Theoretical Physics discussed all the babble about quantum superimposition with reference to DLT cryptography.

Quantum superimposition

“What is all this about?”, he asked. “A lot of this talk on quantum superimposition, I really cannot figure it out.”

Dr Fleury is a brilliant man, a PhD in Theoretical Physics from France’s École Polytechnique for work done as a visiting scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Yet he was comfortable in stating that it had taken him years to understand an idea, and that he couldn’t really understand all the talk about a fundamental issue in his field of expertise.

Yet too many people regurgitate ideas that they have not grasped, lose heart in the pursuit of knowledge because it takes time to acquire, or read uncritically and gullibly the nebulous tripe that they encounter. This is the sword of humility, the sword that we desperately need to cut through all the crap in this field.

I am grateful for this encounter with this swaggering paradigm of polymathy. Dr Fleury is a truly remarkable man, likewise the lessons he imparted to us – without heresy, you cannot learn; without spirit, you cannot learn; without humility, you cannot learn. These are the lessons needed to shake up an environment in which the obsession for rapid turnover and quick profit rubs shoulders with wind and bluster.

No less remarkable in all this is Dr Ellul, the amused academic who invited Dr Fleury over – the Grand Poohbah of Malta’s DLT industry, who combines scientific expertise, and academic rigour, with imagination, vision, and a subversive sense of humour. With this kind of education, perhaps the Blockchain Island really has the legs to run this course.

 

Joseph Debono is a Blockchain/Emtech consultant for Zeta, a Financial and Corporate Service Provider based in Malta and the UK, and has been active in this space since 2016. He is also an academic researcher in Emtech, focusing on native fintech solutions and business innovations. He has contributed numerous articles, papers, translations to various fields of the Humanities, and has  co-edited two books. His latest publication, co-edited with fintech pioneer Patrick L. Young, is “DLT Malta: Thoughts from the Blockchain Island” (ISBN: 8362627026). In a past life, he was a Historian and Classicist, passions for which continuously inform and inspire his life and mind.

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