Monday, September 7, 2020

On creativity vs talent

I don't think of myself as natively artistically talented.

While I strive to make art that touches somebody else, aside from my masonry restoration projects, I'm not holding my breath.

And yet, I persist in making music, writing, and engaging in other creative expression forms.

The reason is it makes me happy. I find creativity to be a healthy outlet.

For some, creativity might be the fact of raising a family, for example. I can see that. Or whatever other manifestation it takes. No matter the form, I wish upon anyone to lose themselves in creative/artistic pursuits to counteract the turbulence that permeates our world.

Here are some of the art forms I indulge in, although I am not a master in most cases. They are the creative outlets that make me happiest.
The brickwork on this house was in a sorry state before I restored it.

This softcover is my first fiction novel.

I've designed and partly built a guitar. And I would say it is my best one in terms of playability and (arguably) tone out of a collection of 15 specimens -- most of them high-quality units from Gibson, Fender, Martin, Warwick, and Jackson.

The rest of the pictures show my recording studio, where I am currently writing, recording, mixing, and eventually mastering an upcoming music album.

Even though my art won't realistically be the best of its kind in most of these endeavors, it is gradually getting better and better, and it is fostering an inner sense of well-being for me. And that ultimately is why I do it.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Awakened in the Future Vol.1 -- The Rise of Isabel Bella Monte is out

Back in 2016, I set out to write a sci-fi novel about the venture capital industry and the disruptive technological breakthroughs it is fostering -- even though I had no prior experience as a novelist.

Doing a short story or a novella wouldn't have sufficed. No, I had to go straight to the novel to satisfy my ego.

To add to the hubris, over the course of figuring out how to actually be a writer, I decided to dispense altogether with any and all professional services which might help me produce a more polished finished product. As a consequence, I did all the research, writing and editing on my own, and self-published through an online service. I've even designed the cover myself.

As you can imagine, the odds of producing a quality book weren't all that high, given my lack of credentials in every aspect of the task. My list of items to get right included: a good story written well-enough within reason, compelling characters, a killer social commentary, and an insider's look at the VC industry that tended to elicit various conclusions on the part of the reader.

In order to prevent spending many thousands of hours writing a book without knowing what the reception would be, I broke down the story into parts and only wrote the first volume, reducing the workload to a more manageable 45,700 words. That still took well over 1,000 hours.

Although I completed the final draft some months ago, I let it simmer for a while as I waited for a trusted friend of mine who enjoys prominence within the venture capital industry to give me his unvarnished opinion. In the meanwhile, I've read and re-read my work so as to try and catch as many typos as I could before commissioning the printing a very small run of softcover copies.

Today, I have finally received the feedback I had been coveting for what seemed to be so long. It's one thing to have an opinion about one's work, but getting an external assessment from the right individual(s) is crucial in order to achieve a sense of perspective, as I have discovered for myself.

So what's the verdict?

Well, based on that single piece of feedback from my venture capitalist and avid reader friend (which I give much weight to), although there are rough edges in my writing -- which was graciously attributed to the fact that it's my first book after all -- it would appear that I have checked out all the boxes on my list of what I had largely hoped to achieve.

Apparently, the book "is dynamite" and I have produced "spectacular near term sci-fi with a 500-year jump!" My friend goes on to say that "The characters are fun, the plot is strong and the social commentary is right on the money for this moment in time." He mentions also having enjoyed the boatload of Easter eggs I have sprinkled throughout the story.

If you have somehow stumbled upon this blog and are interested in checking my novel out, here is the link to buy the e-book version from your favorite store (Apple, Kindle, Barnes & Noble, etc.):

You can also read it for free if you'd be so kind as to take the time to send me your impressions after you've finished it. It doesn't have to be a long deal, just the key points such as the bits that are the most jarring to you, as well as what you think are the gems, if any.  If that interests you, please DM me on Twitter: @mariocantin

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Getting to the why behind the Golden Rule

“Do unto others…”

We’ve all heard the Golden Rule in one form or another. But as with all overly idealistic admonitions, we all too often end up merely pay lip service to it, don’t we?

What if instead we worked out why such a rule is in our best interest to follow? In other words, I’m suggesting resorting to the good old “What’s in it for me?” framework.

Lately, I was having one of my occasional “excogitations” — aka mental meanderings — as I was reflecting on some basics of interpersonal relationships.

A few days prior, someone had accidentally (and unknowingly) overpaid me for a transaction. As a matter of course, I immediately contacted them and arranged to return the superfluous funds, which as you would expect, earned me some thank you’s for my honesty, etc.

Now, there are many reasons why one might want to follow the straight and narrow path.

For example, it could be out of religious belief. However, it’s not personally my cup of tea.

Up until now, I would have told you that I did it because I believe in Karma. I wrote about it way back here.

But such reasoning is arguably still hinging on a belief system, rather than facts.

What would constitute a logical reason for treating others as one would wish to be treated by said others?

So in my recent moment of mental clarity, I came to the conclusion that, since no one can ultimately lie to themselves, treating others justly earns one respect and trust in their own self. If I’m to be my own best friend, I want to know at a deep level that I respect and trust myself. If I genuinely treat others like I would like to be treated, even when they wouldn’t know any better either way, I personally would know that I am this person, and that’s all that would matter.

At that point, I would basically be doing it because my good opinion of myself, being one of my most valuable assets, is what I would want to protect for the gem that it is.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Back to the fiction writing

After putting my aspirations of writing a science-fiction novel to rest a couple years ago, it has but to caused the book to incubate in my head further and develop into something perhaps richer. The story lives on and bits and pieces of it burst into my consciousness from time to time, whether I like it or not ... and as of late, with accelerating frequency.
It is kind of a twisting path I find myself in, but in many ways, it is coming full circle. When I was in my early teens, I have been accused by one of my teachers of having had one of my essays written by my mother as I “could not possibly have written it on my own.” My lovely mother’s response was that she couldn’t never in a hundred years have written it so well (I have a humble mother). I was an avid reader throughout my childhood all the way into my teen years and beyond. It was a common scene to find my entire class paying baseball, while I, parked at a safe distance, could be observed devouring a novel; or I would sit in class completely ignoring the teacher and the topic at hand, be in math, physics, economics, etc., and let myself get engrossed in my book “du jour”. When teachers would call my mom about it, the consensus was generally, “since he doesn’t bother anybody, let’s just let him do it.” As life went on, the obligations of existence largely pried me off of my intellectual binging, although it never stopped. Then, come around 2010, I decided to do a startup, although I had no name at the time for what that activity was supposed to be called. I plunged in and three iterations of it later, I now understood why it was not be the path I would be best suited for. The pursuit had already paid off as it had caused me to find out and invest in bitcoin early (although the benefit only became apparent years later during the 2017 crytpo boom cycle). I had been maniacal about following and aiming to understand the tech ecosystem, and more precisely, the VC industry. To this day, I can’t — or won’t — stop reading blogs, listening to podcasts, reading books, listening to interviews and more on this topic: I’m fully “tuned in”. But this world of knowledge wants to burst into a book, revealing in the process what a hunch tells me could be my true calling: writing.
And what is writing? It is a manifestation of creativity, of course, my long-time source of happiness and joy. Years ago, I turned my masonry business into a creative endeavor, restoring historic homes so they looked as though they had been time-kissed. I have built a music studio in my home and learned on my own to do recording and sound engineering for my own music. I have built a guitar last year, which is my best-playing one yet, out of a collection of fifteen specimens. Creativity is what keeps me going. It might just be that writing is the form of it I end up doing best at. We’ll find out.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Trust… so hard to earn, so easy to lose and so precious

First of all, there is something eerily interesting about committing one’s quasi-personal journal to the internet using the blog medium for all to see (although there’s no readership per se) and read posts from the previous years. Once on the internet, it’s indelible, and in my case, that has a way of rubbing a few facts in my face about my journey. It’s also embarrassing in some ways, but it’s all part of the experiment.
As we’re about to depart for the picturesque Eagle Beach in Aruba, where my wife and I will be staying for an extended vacation for the second winter in a row, thanks to having invested early in cryptocurrencies and having liquidated enough of our position just as the the bubble started to burst; I’m reflecting on where I stand on the bullish-to-bearish scale with regards to crypto.
So is Bitcoin over?
Personally, “hardly” I’d say.
If you know a little bit about Carlota Perez’s work, then you can appreciate the notion that technological revolutions tend to follow a pattern of boom and bust followed by a resurgence.
My personal take is that it’s probably far from being over for cryptocurrencies.
Bitcoin is about trust, or rather about the lack of a need for trust, thus the word “trust-less”.
Trust is not doing too well lately in society. From the bank bailout efforts of 2008–09 to Trump’s “fake news” propaganda onslaught of the last two years, to the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and on and on, trust erosion might be at an all-time high.
Trust is evaporating.
So taking a high-level view, I believe that trustless systems are the new gold, and they shall raise in demand and in value.
If the incentives aren’t aligned between the governments and crypto-assets such as Bitcoin, then who knows what the former will do to try and remain in power. No one knows history before it happens, but at a macro level, to me, betting on crypto is the safer choice, given all the factors.
I therefore remain bullish on crypto and am following the market and have been and will continue to invest in it.
Let’s see what I write in a year from now…

Friday, January 26, 2018

Past the tipping point

I set out in January 2010 to re-invent myself from being a restorative / heritage masonry contractor running my own small business in Toronto, Canada, to intending to be doing a startup.
This was in order to achieve a long-time goal of mine, and in recent years, it also became obvious that my body wouldn’t hold for a very long time doing hard labor anyway.
I haven’t been able to gain traction with my startup in three iterations of it; however, spending tens of thousands of dollars of my own money financing the project has been the best education program for this college-drop out. Throughout this marathon, I have learned enough about technology and business, by going through the motions of doing a bootstrapped startup, as well as consuming a large volume of content in the form of incessant reading of books, blogs, Twitter feeds, listening to podcast episodes and even conference attending, to appreciate what it takes to do a startup and how unlikely I would be to succeed all the way with one given the fact that I am a non-technical solo founder, without a degree, in his 50’s at the time of writing. Not impossible, of course, but I can feel what the odds factually are in my bones at this point.
But this is a journey, and along the way, the proverbial “luck is opportunity meets preparation” had to manifest itself, as I always knew it would as I was persisting forward; and thus entered cryptocurrencies.
I found out about Bitcoin in late 2013 and bought a bunch in 2014 and sort of put it all on the back burner. Even as I wrote my last blog post in early October 2017, I was only thinking of crypto as an emerging opportunity, and not as my new calling having arrived.
Things went parabolic shortly after though. Having time on my hands, I quickly rounded up all my free air dropped coins: meaning that as the owner of a bunch of Bitcoin, I also received equivalent amounts of Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin Gold, SuperBitcoin, Bitcoin Diamond, etc., and I put those to work by trading them for other crypto, for example, buying a ton of Verge (XVG) for a fraction of a penny in November, only to see it explode to $.27 cent in December.
Having followed hundreds of VCs on social media in the last seven or eight years, in addition to consuming all the related content I could ingest, has really been key to forming my own crypto-investing thesis. I was able to predict at least four times which coins were about to explode, as well as place many other bets that I know will pay off handsomely in the future.
My thesis looks like this at this point:
1) Be as early as possible investing in a coin.
2) Never sell at a loss, so hold on to those coins.
3) Be perceptive as to when to sell each coin so as to maximize returns without being too greedy — more art than science.
4) Maintain a diversified portfolio of coins that can be expected to generate a high yield, keeping in mind that, on the long run, the projects that will do best are the ones that can execute on delivering value and creating utility.
5) Skim off a portion of the profits to be taken off the table.
6) Do the work: study every coin on as well as every upcoming ICO, study the offerings, do as much due diligence on the team as is available on the internet, go through the social media info related to the coins I’m interested in to get a sense of the team’s dedication level as well as the community’s involvement and sentiments. Watch the market like a hawk.
About ICO’s, I pass on 99% of them, but there are some gems in there too.
I’ve also learned a thing or two about cashing out: it can be a bit of an ordeal. First — and I’m not sure about the rest of the world — but for us in Canada, if one expects the fees to be reasonable and the transaction safe, it has to be done gradually due to the $25,000 daily and $200,000 monthly limits imposed by Kraken (one of the two main Canadian exchanges) for Tier 3 verified users; and $500k monthly for Tier 4. There are other ways for doing it, such as selling your Bitcoin at specialized ATM’s, or selling in person through a third-party website, but the fees are excessive in the case of the former, and the transaction is obviously riskier in the case of the latter; and both are not suited to be doing large amounts at one time.
The process of cashing out was also made trickier than I had originally anticipated as my bank manager wasn’t feeling comfortable at first with cash showing up into my accounts from an overseas corporation. Once I proved I wasn’t up to anything nefarious, and once he checked with “the powers that be”, it was fine.
And don’t forget the tax implications to cashing out one’s crypto. In my case, I’m being taxed for my crypto profits on a capital gain basis. Speaking of which, I was slightly ‘vexed’ initially about how much tax I had to set aside and will have to remit to the government. It’s one thing to ‘pay-as-you-go’ yearly with your income tax when you own a small business, but it’s quite another thing to pay off a quarter of a lump sum that you’ve totally made happen through your decisions of what to trade and precisely when. It feels like robbery at first, but my takeaway is this: for the middle class, income tax is something one is subjected to; whereas, when you’ve made more money, it becomes the price of living in your country. In other words, the more a person has the power of choice as to where to live, paying taxes just becomes a part of the cost of living in that country and is something you get to have more control over, as you could move off to another country, for instance Thailand, once you have your ‘fuck you’ money.
So where does this leave me? Well, after soon-to-be spending the bulk of February in Aruba with my wife, I will go back to masonry work this year but only to do those projects that I am creatively drawn to and that will artistically fulfil me; and only for clients that I really like. Furthermore, I reserve the right, in the not-too-distant future, to figuratively throw my trucks and equipment off of a cliff…. :-)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Marching on once again....

Another season of masonry work has passed yet again, leaving me free to pursue “higher” interests during the course of the winter.
Looking back at the last seven years, I’m nowhere near as far along as I had hoped I’d be at now. But by what measure?
Everyone’s journey is different.
I may materially not be better off, but by not giving up the pursuit, I have continuously been adding to my inventory of what Reid Hoffman calls “soft assets”, and in a not-entirely-subjective way, I find the build up to date to be of substance.
I went on a weird digression of sort last year by starting to write a science fiction novel out of the blue. I couldn’t help it in fact: the book started writing itself. Although I’d love to “get back to the prose” and get it finished, I recently snapped back into action mode relating to my goal of metamorphosing into a technologist by profession.
The opportunity I currently see is cryptocurrencies — more specifically, ICO’s, or perhaps, more aptly named, token generation events. That’s what I’ve decided to be working on in the weeks and months to come.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Not taking our way of life for granted

I hope that by now everyone realizes that we’ll be very lucky if some form of a global crisis, the like of which we have never seen, does not hit us before the end of the current US administration.

 I typically tend not to take things for granted; therefore, I’ve caught myself at various intervals in my life appreciating the fact that there wasn’t anything dramatic going on in the world — such as WW3 — to upend our collective existence and ruin my life and everyone else’s.
But I’ve been uneasy lately about the unfolding of the recent political landscape. It’s been incessantly gnawing at me. It’s been in the background of everything else that I’ve put my mind to. It’s been there when getting out of bed and when getting back into it some 16 hours later.
It’s particularly unnerving to think that the White House agenda is being pushed by a white supremacist, Bannon, who worships the Fourth Turning ideology — and in fact hopes for armageddon to set humanity right again — as he controls a mentally unhinged President with no moral compass that carries a nuclear football wherever he goes.
It hasn’t helped my frame of mind reading all the social media coverage, I must admit.
Nonetheless, I have faced the tune for myself and made the anxiety go away by simply deciding to deal with whatever happens, and by accepting the fact that things could go really wrong, and we could, at the extreme end, lose our freedom and even our modern way of life — we could basically lose it all.
It could happen. I sure hope it doesn’t, but if it does, bring it on baby.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Keeping the flame alive somehow

This is my first post in over ten months. I was working from March to October 2016 in my masonry business, and that took priority over anything else; but at around August, one morning, the idea struck me to write a fiction book centering around the role of venture capital and entrepreneurship in the creation of a brave new world in answer to an approaching armageddon.
What had happened is that I had been obsessively reading on the topic of entrepreneurship and venture capital since 2010 in preparation of running my own startup, which, after three iterations, had be put on hold until such a time as an opportunity to be seized would present itself again.
In the meanwhile, all this build up needed an outlet, hence the book. Ideas kept coming out on their own for it throughout that month and even afterwards, compelling me to conclude that I “ought to” pen it down.
I had the idea to compose, play and produce a music album to go along with the book.
And so in October I started, being drawn more to the music at first. After 5 songs, I realized that doing both was too arduous and so I concentrated only on the written story from November onward.
I had assumed that writing a book wouldn’t be too hard “for a guy like me” — the arrogance!
To complicate the matter, it is a science-fiction book and it required that a fair deal of scientific research be done to bring the credibly factor to a certain level.
I sent the first chapter to someone prominent who is an avid reader, and who I respect and trusted not to bullshit me and tell it as it was.
With more diplomacy and tact than were required, the message came across loud and clear: “I have read this,” and “Have you ever read ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King?” he said. In other words, it sucked big time.
Now I was facing the fact that there was more than I had thought to being a fiction writer … if I was to induce someone else to read my work.
I then set out to put myself through a crash course so as to bring my writing up several notches, and went back to work, getting up to and through Chapter 10 before deciding to scrap it all and restart from the beginning.
The second start was much better, but as I was running out of allocated time this winter, I decided to push through getting the first draft all done without bringing each chapter to a satisfactory result, just so I could nail the basis for the book. This episode was painful and filled with self-doubts. At one point I decided that the book should not be written, and I forced myself to finish the rough draft, just for the discipline of completing an action and not merely abandoning something started mid-course.
By the time the first draft was done, I felt liberated; and when I looked at the first chapter, I liked it a lot, even though it would undoubtedly benefit from some polishing should the actual novel be written in the future. I sent it to my trusted reader, who said it was “much, much better”, causing him to want to read Chapter 2, when it’s ready.
So where does that leave me?
I have to imminently go back to my masonry business; however, after several months of steady, albeit part-time work, I now have one good chapter, better writing skills and another 32,500 words to draw from to inspire the novel proper — or the novella — or the short story — to take me where it will, as I continue to unearth its story, characters and secrets.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

On diversity and biases

Looking at the Donald Trump circus playing out right now, it’s abundantly clear that biases are alive and well in our society.
Trump is not creating these feelings in people, he’s simply harnessing them.
I see this as a wake up call to double down on working to eliminate biases in our society, if anything.
Trump is blatant and in your face. What most people usually do, though, is keep their biases well-hidden below the surface, suppressed by political correctness and other social norms. But that doesn’t get rid of them. And it’s not much better than what Trump is doing if you ask me, to put it bluntly.
I personally see Trump’s affronts as an opportunity to publicly acknowledge that biases still exist and to recognize that they should be worked on so as to be eventually eliminated.
It takes real work to do this.
Take me as an example, I’ve been raised in a borderline rural, predominantly white, area outside of Quebec city; and when I grew up, biases and racist comments were not uncommon. They were a way of life, sadly.
They consequently were ingrained deeply in my upbringing and I’ve been fighting them all my life and I still uncover some of them at times. I didn’t put them there. They were seeded by my environment. But it’s up to me to rid myself of them.
But what I’ve come to realize is not to try to pretend that they’re not there — that’s easy to do — but to me, the right thing is to tackle them head-on when they come up and confront them. And to not let them get by me "unscathed".
One of the problems is that often people aren’t even aware that they have gender, religious or ethnic biases.
A few Saturdays ago, I went downhill skiing and went relaxing in the resort’s outdoor spa afterwards, soaking in the hot water with my head exposed to the winter temperatures — lovely.
Anyway there was also a couple in the spa and I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. They were discussing plans to add more living quarters for the mother of one of them and were contemplating how this would be a subsequent source of income when they would eventually rent the space to the “ideal tenant”: a single white female.
That’s two biases in a four-word phrase, but the lady was very-matter-of-fact about uttering those words.
Once casually discussing the career of a woman that both my father and I know, he said to me, “She’s making pretty good money for a woman.” There’s actually a good amount of baggage that goes with this one. The world was very different when my father grew up in the 50’s. When he got married in the 60’s, there were values to take pride in in supporting a wife and a child, and having the woman under the man’s wing. You were a good man if you did those things. And so I know that if I try to bring up this bias with him, I’m in for a long conversation that might lead to nowhere, as it’s below his awareness level to even consider. You’d have to peel the onion slowly one layer at a time. And you’d be in for several bottles of hard liquor — or beers, in his case!
In many ways, it comes down to one’s comfort zone and stepping outside one’s bubble. Stepping out of the zone can be hard — more for some than others, I suppose. It’s a conscious effort that may require an initial effort.
Throwing myself in intimate relationships with women at the other end of the religious / ethnic spectrum has gone a long way to help me embrace diversity.
I was once engaged with an African-Arabic Canadian woman. Her parents were Muslims. I met them once as they lived far away. We were eating buffet-style, and they would repeatedly slap her on the wrist during the meal if she had failed to serve my food and I therefore had to reach for it myself. Then they absolutely insisted that she put my boots on for me before we left. Normal for them, way out there for me. I wanted her skinny, they gave her shit for letting herself getting so thin. She said it was what I wanted. They looked at me with disbelief and even contempt. Normal for me, way out there for them. But we could have work it out. 
By the way, racism goes both ways. When I would drop her off at home after a date in the early days, before we moved in together, black guys would often approach her after I had left and ask her why she bothered going out with a “white trash”.
Or, when we would walk down a public street holding hands, we quite often had “Jungle fever” thrown at us as we would walk by a couple of black dudes.
That relationship didn’t ultimately work out and I ended up marrying a Chinese-Vietnamese girl instead. We’ve been together 17 years, as of a week ago today.
Getting married is hard enough in its own right, but with someone who is very culturally different and with different religious views, it can be a much wilder ride, as I have found out.
We also live in a profoundly diversified neighborhood: as a white guy, I’m the minority. There are no majorities in fact. There are Cambodians, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Latinos, Indians, East Europeans, you name it.
What I have discovered is that it takes real work to break down the barriers of ethnicity and religion if you make the effort to step outside of your bubble and really bust those walls and truly connect; but it’s worth it.
Having gone through it in our marriage has given me a lot of experience.
The same thing goes for the gender issue to a large degree, IMO.
You have to be willing to work at it, you have to communicate it out and develop enough empathy to understand what’s it’s like to be the other person.
That’ll be too much work for some to consider pursuing, but it’s up to the rest of us to get the ball rolling in earnest.
Being blunt, politically incorrect and “in your face”, as Donald Trump would have you believe, is not what is going to make “America great again”, but having become bias-free through collective soul searching is what can make the world at large great at last.