Posts filed under Technology and Internet Culture

Bitcoin got back.

I don’t have any utopian expectations about Bitcoin. The protocol design is thoughtful, and the underlying technology is kind of cool, especially if you’re interested in peer protocols or in cryptography. It’s an alternative form of money, which allows for near-instant transfers and substantial anonymity in transactions across long distances. Like other alt-currencies and like other craftily designed peer protocols, it may become a useful component in developing counter-economic institutions and helping to build social and economic infrastructure beyond the control of the state-capitalist status quo. I hope it will. But if so, it will be because it is one useful hack among many that we can employ. Bitcoin is not magic; it’s not the only thing that’s important; it’s not a revolution by itself. It is a tool; and one that I’ve found it a useful one from time to time. Evidently other people do, too.[1]

As people have become more interested in Bitcoin, a lot more articles have been published about it. It’s common for gold bugs to publish increasingly shrill apriori denunciations of Bitcoin because it is (they claim) not backed by a scarce commodity of independent economic value; and (they are convinced) only money that’s backed by a scarce commodity of independent economic value can be sustainable in the long run. I think that idea is probably wrong from the get. But even if it’s correct, it’s irrelevant: Bitcoin is backed by a valuable commodity. Or more precisely, Bitcoin blocks are a valuable commodity; they are constituted by scarce, computationally-expensive, cryptographically useful calculations performed by participants in the network (especially by Bitcoin miners). Those are scarce resources (it takes computing equipment and network communications and electricity to generate them). And they are valuable goods. They are valuable in virtue of the computational work they make possible. Almost none of the blanket attacks on Bitcoin take the value of cryptographic computation, or of the communication protocols that it establishes, into account; see, for example, this silly article from Gizmodo, which starts out by pointing out some really pretty awesome facts about the power of distributed computing, and how much dispersed computational work is being harnessed to keep the Bitcoin network and blockchain in working order:

According to Bitcoin Watch, the whole Bitcoin network hit a record-breaking high of 1 exaFLOPS this weekend. When you’re talking about FLOPS, you’re really talking about the number of Floating-point Operations a computer can do Per Second, or more simply, how fast it can tear through math problems. It’s a pretty common standard for measuring computer power. An exaFLOPS is 1018, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 math problems per second. The most powerful supercomputer in the world, Sequoia, can manage a mere 16 petaFLOPS, or just 1.6 percent of the power geeks around the world have brought to bear on mining Bitcoin. The world’s top 10 supercomputers can muster 5 percent of that total, and even the top 500 can only muster a mere 12.8 percent.

— Eric Limer, The World’s Most Powerful Computer Network Is Being Wasted on Bitcoin
In Gizmodo (May 13, 2013)

… and then bizarrely concludes that, therefore, this awesome computational power is being wasted, when it could have been devoted to an awesome real problem, like processing SETI@Home data:

. . . because the new ASIC miners—machines that are built from scratch to do nothing but mine Bitcoins—can’t even do other kinds of operations, they’re left out of the total entirely. So what we’ve got here is a representation of the total power spent on Bitcoin mining that could theoretically be spent on something else, like real problems that exist naturally.

Because of the way Bitcoin self-regulates, the math problems Bitcoin mining rigs have to do to get more ‘coin get harder and harder as time goes on. Not to any particular end, but just to make sure the world doesn’t get flooded with Bitcoins. So all these computers aren’t really accomplishing anything other than solving super difficult and necessarily arbitrary puzzles for cyber money. It’s kind of like rounding up the world’s greatest minds and making them do Sudokus for nickels.

Projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home use similarly networked power for the less-pointless practices of parsing information that could lead to more effective medicines or finding extra-terrestrial life, respectively, and either are hard-pressed to scrounge up even half of a percent of the power the Bitcoin network is rocking. And with specialized Bitcoin-mining hardware on the rise, there’s going to be an army of totally powerhouse PCs out there that are good for literally nothing but digging up cybercoins.

It’s incredible to think about the amount of power being directed at this one, singular purpose; power that’s essentially being “donated” by thousands of people across the globe just because they have skin in the game. It’s by far the most computational effort that has ever been devoted to a single purpose. And sure, Bitcoins are fine and all, but can you imagine what we could do if this energy was put behind other tough problems? We’ll you’re going to have to imagine, because so long as mining Bitcoins can earn you money and folding proteins can’t, it’s pretty clear which one is gonna get done.

— Eric Limer, The World’s Most Powerful Computer Network Is Being Wasted on Bitcoin
In Gizmodo (May 13, 2013)

I guess that would be a pretty big waste, if the Bitcoin network did not provide a useful service with the results of that work.

But it does.

The implicit claim that maintaining the blockchain in working order, — a computationally-expensive task which provides an anonymous, cryptographically-verified international account ledger and a free peer-to-peer global money transfer service to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, — somehow provides less of value to the world than SETI@Home is of course completely unsubstantiated by anything in the article, and is really pretty laughable.

For what it’s worth the article’s other direct claim — that Bitcoin mining is somehow taking up scarce spare cycles that might otherwise have been put to use on other distributed computing projects — is also an odd claim, and not one substantiated by anything in the article. What is far more likely is that the opportunity cost of Bitcoin mining is something completely different — if miners weren’t building ASIC rigs, they would almost certainly not be spending the money on equipment and electricity for Folding@Home or other distributed computing projects; they’d be spending it on some other money-making venture, or on leisure.

  1. [1] I have no idea whether or not the current, massive jump in Bitcoin prices means that it is in the midst of a speculative bubble; or whether it just means that demand is increasing because more people have a genuine use for what Bitcoin provides. I don’t think much turns on this unless you’re trying to make money by timing the market. Which is probably not a great idea in the first place.

Technological civilization is awesome. (Cont’d.)

In which some engineers develop a billboard, ideally suited to environmental conditions in Lima and similar cities in Peru, which can pull clean drinking water out of thin air.

See also.

Hypertext Wants To Be Free

From an article a couple weeks back, on anniversaries and Resurrected Landmarks, by Eric Meyer. Boldface mine.

It was just last week, at the end of April, that CERN announced the rebirth of The Very First URL, in all its responsive and completely presentable glory. If you hit the root level of the server, you get some wonderful information about the Web’s infancy and the extraordinary thing CERN did in releasing it, unencumbered by patent or licensing restrictions, into the world, twenty years ago.

That’s not at all minor point. I don’t believe it overstates the case to say that if CERN hadn’t made the web free and open to all, it wouldn’t have taken over the net. Like previous attempts at hypertext and similar information systems, it would have languished in a niche and eventually withered away. There were other things that had to happen for the web to really take off, but none of them would have mattered without this one simple, foundational decision.

I would go even further and argue that this act infused the web, defining the culture that was built on top of it. Because the medium was free and open, as was often the case in academic and hacker circles before it, the aesthetic of sharing freely became central to the web community. The dynamic of using ideas and resources freely shared by others, and then freely sharing your own resources and ideas in return, was strongly encouraged by the open nature of the web. It was an implicit encouragement, but no less strong for that. As always, the environment shapes those who live within it. . . .

— Eric Meyer, Resurrected Landmarks
meyerweb.com (May 8, 2013)

It’s worth noting that as hypertext technologies go, the web stack (HTTP, HTML 1) wasn’t the most sophisticated implementation; in many ways it still isn’t. But it was operational, and available, and learnable, and it was free and open. And that has made all the difference between science-fiction dreams and a fundamental, transformational shift within world culture, society and learning.

In other news, thanks to Eric for reminding me to wish a very happy belated 10th anniversary to CSS Zen Garden.

Lovebird

From Jono at Mozilla Labs, Lovebird is ready for beta testing:

I wrote a Thunderbird add-on to make the email interface I’ve always wanted — one that helps me remember to stay in touch with people I really care about, instead of always distracting me with the newest incoming trivia.

The add-on is called Lovebird and you can download it here.

. . . About a year ago, I wrote a post about how much I hate email. I was frustrated that the few relevant messages from people I care about quickly get buried under a flood of distractions and nonsense. Not spam, even; just trivia.

There’s a saying that “Life consists of what you choose to pay attention to.”

Software encodes values, biases, assumptions, often unconscious, of the people who create it. The more that software becomes our filter on the world, the more that the unconscious biases of the software determine what we pay attention to.

. . . My email interface should be helping me remember to stay in touch with old friends and distant family. But instead, email buries the important conversations under a flood of auto-generated GitHub and eBay notifications, political mailing list ACTION ALERTS, charities begging for money, etc. etc.

Maybe I opened my email interface with a thought in mind about what email I wanted to write. But my thought is soon lost as the interface bombards me with distractions — all the newest, unread stuff.

Meanwhile that thoughtful, in-depth conversation from an friend I haven’t seen in years is down on the third or fourth page. I didn’t respond right away because it deserved a considered, crafted response. I starred it, sure, but… I guess I star a lot of things, most of which rapidly lose their relevance.

Unless I make a concerted effort, that conversation’s going to get buried forever and I’m gonna forget about it. Now I’m gonna die with regrets because my email interface focuses my attention on what’s new instead of what’s important!

So I decided to do something about it. I started hacking around with an idea for an email client that would put that conversation with the old friend front and center of my interface, keeping it in my attention.

I built it as a Thunderbird add-on. Since its purpose is to help me stay in touch with the people I love, I named it “Lovebird”.

Since it’s people I care about, not messages, the Lovebird UI is built around a list of people, not a list of emails.

— Jono at Mozilla Labs, Lovebird is ready for beta testing,
at Not the User’s Fault (25 February 2013)

This add-on / rewrite is really kind of a beautiful thing, and I think in more or less every way an important step in the right direction as far as thinking about user interfaces for e-mail goes. It’s strongly tempting me to spend some time back with Thunderbird again.

War on the Informal Sector (Cont’d)

  • Neutron Bomb Urbanism, from Stealth of Nations by Robert Neuwirth: in which Babatunde Fashola, arbitrary but energetic State Governor of Lagos, Nigeria, possessed of a gleaming vision and infrastructure and housing projects for Lagos, cordons off and destroys 10,000 people’s homes in the shantytown neighborhood of Badia East. This comes on the heels of his government’s destruction of homes and displacement of more than one million people in largely unannounced, government slum clearances [sic]. The same government has also demolished squatter communities in Makoko, razed street markets and criminalized street selling in the name of his gleaming visions and the socioeconomic cleansing that will scour his city of poor people’s homes, lives and livelihoods.

  • You will be assimilated: State of Illinois vs. Technological Progress and Human-Scale Trade, from Cameron Scott at SocialTimes. The company behind the Square credit-card processor — one of the single most beneficial developments in years for small-scale sellers, ranging from storefront small businesses to informal hawkers and yard sales (I use it myself for ALL Distro tabling events — is being targeted with a cease-and-desist order and a threat of massive overkill fines from the State of Illinois, because they offer an unlicensed alternative to existing businesses for transmitting money under the State of Illinois. Since they haven’t complied with the right paperwork for a state license that they couldn’t possibly have known they needed, based on the State Government of Illinois’ arbitrary declaration that it will classify them in the category of transmitting money rather than a merchant payment processor, the State of Illinois will now shake them down for a no-doubt expensive and certainly legally burdensome licensing settlement, or else it will assess a fine of $1,000 per transaction, $1,000 per day, and 4× the transaction amount for continuing to process credit card payments for individuals and small businesses. As usual, the state’s mad insistence on compliance at all costs, with a maddeningly complex, largely arbitrary and in practice completely unpredictable set of bureaucratic requirements, means an assault on any disruptive technology or low-overhead upstart, even those that maintain a superficially respectable corporate front; the only way to survive is to call in yet more lawyers, fill out more forms, and to sink yet more time and money into making yourself indistinguishable from every other financial business in operation. Before the Law stands a doorkeeper, and you must be made to see that he is mighty; after all, the clash-of-the-titans competition between oligopolistic bureaucratically managed, government regulated finance industry has of course served us all so well that its business model must be locked in and secured against upstart alternative business models, at every opportunity, no matter the cost to low-overhead alternatives and infrastructure and services that community businesses and human-scale commerce have come to depend on.

Also.