Roundup: Space updates, Progress studies, New World’s Fair, Web3, DAOs, and “The First Tycoon”
Greetings FutureBlind readers!
It’s been a while. Although I have 3 or so posts outlined and in various states of completion, life has gotten in the way. My wife and I’s first child is due in a few months (Are we in the thick of a post-Covid baby boom?) and in an act of complete lunacy this summer we started a major home renovation. This has, to put it mildly, put a damper on my free time.
Nonetheless I really wanted to write a bit and put something out there. So instead of the typical focused post, I’m doing it roundup style. Each section below is an area I follow or find interesting.
Here’s an outline of the roundup so you can jump to whichever section sounds interesting:
Space updates 🚀
Progress Storytelling & a New World’s Fair
Web3, tokens, and the future of governance
Solving big problems
What I’ve been reading
Quotes from “The First Tycoon”
Space updates 🚀
It’s now been 6 months since my last posts reviewing where the commercial space industry is headed. Let’s check in on some of the updates since then.
Starship is progressing; bottleneck is regulatory now. Here's a visualization of the current status of all their builds courtesy of @_Brendan_Lewis. Starship was fully stacked for the first time on August 6th. The sight was something to behold — the scale of this rocket is still hard to comprehend. Here's the hi-res version of the amazing photo from the stacking above. Vacuum Raptors on the upper stage (the engines needed in space) were also successfully tested. If all goes well according to Elon, they'll be ready for the first orbital flight next month pending regulatory approval. This flight would send the full rocket up, put the upper stage into orbit, then bring it down for a soft water landing off the coast of Hawaii. Hearings and debates from the FAA continue, with environmental concerns being the biggest potential for hold up. Finally, 📹 check out this great video on potential demand and economics of Starship and an essay on why the implications of Starship are still not understood.
Dragon continues to prove it's by far the best way to get people to space. Boeing's Starliner, the only potential US competitor to SpaceX's Dragon, continues to be delayed. Meanwhile Dragon keeps making improvements — whether they be cupola capsules or bathroom facilities. In 2014, three years after the Shuttle retired, the head of Russia's space program said "I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline." Now, Roscosmos is saying they are open for Russian astronauts to fly on Dragon. Something something about tables turning. Crew-3 is due to launch on Wednesday — check the Reddit thread here if you're curious for more.
Civilian missions ramp up. There was a lot of hype from July through September around civilian space missions, both good and bad. 📹 Virgin Galactic sent Richard Branson and crew up (though still below the Karman line) and Blue Origin has sent 2 missions up, the first with Bezos, the 📹 second with William Shatner. Cool as they may be, they still pale in comparison to what Dragon + Falcon 9 are capable of. In September, the Inspiration4 mission launched into an orbit higher than the ISS. This was the first all-civilian orbital space mission. I recommend checking out the 🎥 Netflix series on it, or at least the last episode or 2. Given the marketing around this I think we're going to see a lot more in the years to come, upping the ante's as they go.
New commercial space station competition. Plans were announced for a 📹 new commercial space station called Orbital Reef, a joint venture with Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Boeing, Redwire, and Genesis Engineering. Similar to what I mentioned in prior posts, this will be like a business park in space. There are now 3 "competing" well-funded commercial station plans: Orbital Reef, Axiom Space, and Nanorocks/Lockheed. Once Starship starts making regular flights, given that it can likely be converted into a station, will this obsolete the other plans?
Space empires. Check out Anton Howes' post comparing the new space era with the age of exploration, and the potential for new space empires. It's really good. (As are the rest of his posts — see "Progress media" section below.)
SpaceX vs. everyone. Why has SpaceX been able to move so quickly relative to other launch companies, or aerospace in general? The simple answer is that they have a culture of rapidly iterating. This may seem too easy or common sense — but the truth is that traditional aerospace firms don't. At SpaceX, an overall goal/plan is chosen, and through many "OODA loops" of iterating, progress is made. They build and then they test as quickly as possible — what they call in the Agile approach "fail fast". At other companies, all the specs are sketched out and planned ahead of time, investments are made in equipment, etc. For more insight into this, read this section on Blue Origin's 2018 internal memo about why they were (and are) so far behind SpaceX.
Progress Storytelling & a New World's Fair
Progress Studies is a movement that sprung up after Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen published a short article in 2019 about how progress is understudied and why we need to change that. It's about not only studying not only how we make progress but the specific actions we can take to increase our rate of progress. I consider myself a card-carrying member.
Adjacent and overlapping to Progress Studies is what I like to call "Progress Storytelling". This is storytelling — both fiction and non-fiction — and other content or events meant to: get people excited about progress, inspire more inventors and entrepreneurs, and improve the stigma of people who build things. I hope to contribute to this through Explorist Productions in the near future.
One way we can tell the story of progress and promote innovation is by holding a new World's Fair. Not the recent "World Expo" versions that are just lame quasi-marketing events for nations (although it looks like Dubai has some interesting architectural exhibits).
I'm talking more of a future fair, like a combination between CES, Disney's Tomorrowland, and the grander World's Fairs of the past. The KPI for this fair would be something like "the number of people who leave in complete wonder with the intention to take action".
Cameron Wiese is trying to do just that with The World's Fair Company. He's raised a seed round already (with small participation from my fund) and is currently exploring ideas, concepts, and partnerships to get the ball rolling. If you're interested, subscribe to get updates. I plan to not only follow along, but to contribute whatever I can.
Web3, tokens, and the future of governance
It seems the consensus has settled on "Web3" as the catchall term for crypto, blockchains, tokenization, and all the use cases they'll enable. Web 1.0 was pre~2004 internet. Web 2.0 was interactive, social, "browser as your operating system". Now web3 factors in artificial scarcity from distributed blockchains. In other words:
This allows new currencies, tokens, financial instruments, native payment infrastructure, identification methods, databases, etc. Things are changing so fast in this area that unless you're reading about it daily or on a dozen Discord servers you'll fall behind. Here's a few good resources I use:
a16z has a bunch of good posts, on web3 in general and their specific investments.
🎙 Modern Finance is a podcast by Kevin Rose on all things web3. Goes a little more in-depth than others.
While I was writing this 🎙 Tim Ferris released an interview with Naval and Chris Dixon on web3. I haven't finished it yet but recommend it from what I've heard.
We've clearly entered the web3 hype phase now, and a lot of it is a bubble: NFT art, random speculative currencies, etc. But just like the '90s bubble the underlying tech is legit and will have wide reaching effects. Which ones, and how much value they'll create remains to be seen.
(It's a bit of a pet peeve of mine hearing people saying things like "I'm in web3" or "I quite my job to work in crypto". It's the same to me as "I'm working in corporations now" or "I'm getting into the internet". Ok, but like... what are you actually working on? Anyway, I guess we're just in that part of the cycle but we'll grow out of it.)
The two sub-areas here that interest me the most are tokenized securities (see my essay from a few years back about blockchain tokenization of financial securities), and DAOs (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations).
I'm still learning but my best description of DAOs is that they're like programmatic corporations, where the charter is coded on whatever blockchain it exists. Tokens (think "shares") can be owned, and depending on what the charter says can direct what the org does.
In this sense DAO seems like a misnomer give it can be centralized and isn't really autonomous. The best way I can put it is that Decentralized means it doesn't exist in a single location/legal district/company, and Autonomous means that many functions of the org, like accounting, payroll, cap table, voting, etc. are done automatically.
The only assets most existing DAOs own are digital. This may change soon. Wyoming is the first state to allow DAO LLCs, giving them an interface to the existing legal system. CityDAO is an example where they're looking to acquire real estate through their LLC, which will be owned and managed by the DAO (🎙 listen here for more). ₡ABIN is doing the same thing for live- and work-spaces.
Recently when reading the book "The First Tycoon", a lot of the innovations and developments at the time reminded me of what's going on in web3, particularly with DAOs. Check out the passages at the end of this post for more.
Solving big problems
Our supply chain has issues, if you haven't heard by now. But why? Ryan Peterson, founder and CEO of Flexport, broke it down in a few tweetstorms recently (disclosure: the fund I manage is an investor in Flexport). Both are great examples of systems thinking and on-the-ground reporting that should be done by journalists. In the second one, Ryan suggested a handful of solutions that would help release the bottleneck now. Amazingly, within hours, the major of Long Beach actually went through with one of them.
Fires. Another big complex problem that California bears the brunt of. José Luis Ricón writes a great essay on wildfires, what causes them, potential solutions, and if they truly are getting worse.
What I've been reading
Wanting, by Luke Burgis — A really great primer on Mimetic theory. I've read about Rene Girard's ideas here and there for a long time but this was the best summary, with stories and practical advice scattered throughout. Mimetic desire and scapegoating can be heavy, sometimes depressing topics but Luke writes about them in a very relatable way. Andrew Wilkinson had a good thread on it a few weeks back.
Transforming the 20th Century, by Vaclav Smil — Similar to the first book in this series, "Creating the 20th Century", this is packed with history and technical descriptions of major innovations of the 20th century. Great sections on energy, transportation, and computing. Not for everyone though — it can get pretty dry given the lack of "storytelling" but still good.
The Wizard and the Prophet, by Charles Mann — I'm only ~half way through this but really enjoying so far. A good supplement for "progress studies" and thinking about what we want our future to look like. The book explores the pros and cons to 2 sides: environmentalist / Malthusian / progress is dangerous vs. grow at all costs / everything has a technical solution / progress is everything. As usual, I think the best approach falls somewhere in the middle.
A Hunter-Gatherer's Guide to the 21st Century, by Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein — This one was thought-provoking, and might come with a little controversy. There were some views in this I strongly agreed with, and others I strongly disagreed with. Either way I think any reader would benefit from examining a wide range of practical areas through the lens of evolutionary biology and cultural history. Each chapter is on a specific area of life and includes convenient summaries of what to do / what not to do.
The First Tycoon — See the full section on this below.
Quotes from "The First Tycoon"
The following are passages from the book The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles. The book is a biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who built a steamship and railroad empire in the mid-1800s.
More than that, it's a history of the early corporation and the beginning of the era of modern business. This is the subject of the quotes below. While reading them, I was constantly reminded of recent (and ongoing) innovations in blockchain tokenization, corporate governance, and new financial mechanisms.
There are a ton of other interesting stories in the book — one epic business battle after another — so I highly recommend it.
On the birth of the corporate structure:
This was the birth of a kind of abstract thinking never before required in everyday life. It sparked a fierce resistance. On a daily basis, most Americans rarely interacted with corporations; they still lived in a society of farms, small businesses, and independent proprietors. Jacksonians viewed corporations in much the same way that the evangelists of the Second Great Awakening saw the Masons or popery: as a corrupt conspiracy, a mysterious encrustation on the beautiful simplicity of the true religion. As artificial beings, Gouge intoned, “corporations have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned.”
If ever corporations were necessary, it was now, for railways were far more costly and far more complex than textile mills (almost all of which were owned by individual proprietors or partnerships).