People Should Listen to Me More Often

You can look at every major financial crash since tulip bulbs and find the underlying fiction that created paper wealth without any value behind it. Handshakes and winks and it’s fun while it lasts.

In April of 2021, I wrote that Bitcoin was a terrible solution to an interesting problem. It is called a cryptocurrency, but it does not match any previous definition of the word “currency”. As an investment it is, in fact, slightly below “bag of magic beans that aren’t actually magic”. At least with those you could make a nice soup. Soon after that episode, the price of a Bitcoin tumbled, then briefly rose to new dramatic heights in November of the same year, and has since steadily eroded.

It is late and rather than sleep I thought tonight I’d read about the latest crypto disaster. Roughly One Trillion Dollars vanished this week. Poof. Gone. Retirements destroyed, hedge funds cratered. Those investors should have listened to me.

Time magazine (wow has that brand been dragged into the dumpster) included this in an article about crypto volatility:

Given that crypto derives some of its value from people’s belief in it, markets can be rattled by surrounding skepticism or policy changes.

Time.com

So, close, yet so far. In fact, crypto derives all of its value from people’s belief in it. There is absolutely no other source of value. If you were to buy gold, and then suddenly everyone decided gold had no value, you could at least make something pretty out of it.

What drove this week’s meltdown is complicated on the surface, and simple in substance. There was a cryptocurrency that was, through elaborate mechanisms including game theory, always supposed to be worth a dollar. While my first question is “why would anyone buy that shit instead of just buying dollars,” apparently plenty of people thought that was a good idea.

So how do the people flogging this investment plan to control the value of the tokens they sell? Part of it is by holding investors hostage – people with a vested interest in maintaining this dollar parity will buy up other people’s tokens to maintain their value. But you can’t always rely on that, so these companies also keep reserves so they can maintain the price by buying up tokens when there is a bunch of people selling.

But… whoops! What if your reserves are in other crypto tokens? What if you need to sell all your Bitcoin ($1.7 billion worth, maybe), but Bitcoin is also falling because someone is trying to sell a shit-ton of it, and even when you’re done, it’s just not enough? Everything goes to shit, is what happens.

It’s a regular cycle. Someone finds a way to create an illusion of value where no value exists. Before crypto, it was weird real estate loan guarentee instruments that created an entire market unto themselves, and led to a near-collapse of our banking system in 2008. That was done by bankers who should have known better, and there were (for a little while) regulations in place to keep it from happening again. In 1929 it was shell companies that all owned each other but not any company that actually made a profit.

Crypto, on the other hand, is a much more egalitarian fraud. Anyone can play! Elon Musk used the power of his twitter account to rob countless less-wealthy people through Bitcoin price manipulation (he claims he was not being corrupt, just stupid – but both can be true).

One thing that none of the press I read tonight mentions – Bitcoin uses lots and lots of electricity. When the cost of power goes up, ultimately that has to effect the value of their tokens.

Universally the press has treated the crypto crater just like they would any other investment issue. Treating crypto with the same words they would use for something that has intrinsic value. That’s simply not right. None of them are saying “This is all fake! Get out while you still can!”

I could create a crypto tonight, call it “eco-coin” and vaguely suggest that we only accept electricity from windmills, or at least I’ve seen some pretty bitchin’ windmills, windmills are cool, so you should invest in eco-coin. If I could catch the ear of the Master Influencer at Credulous Weekly, eco-coin would be off to the races.

In terms of actual value, my new crypto would be worth exactly the same as Bitcoin: zero. I’ll finish this episode with the same words I used to start it: You can look at every major financial crash since tulip bulbs and find the underlying fiction that created paper wealth without any value behind it. Handshakes and winks and it’s fun while it lasts.

A Message I Wrote Tonight to Dev Davis, who Wants to be My Mayor, about Tough Love

Edit for context: Dev Davis wants more cops as part of her solution for homelessness – although saying that finding shelter for the homeless is a county problem.

This whole ‘tough love’ thing is based on some pretty shaky premises. Underneath it all, you are saying it’s a county problem, solved by county programs. Not your budget, and if the county falls short of helping these people then lets get some more cops to move them out.

Your assumption is that if the county safety net misses someone, they WANT TO BE HOMELESS. They want to live each day without running water, or shelter, a good meal, or even the protection of the police you want more of to protect US from THEM. They must not want access to health care. So your “love” is to kick them around until… what? What even is your ideal outcome?

The entire idea that withholding services from people who have NOTHING will make things better is laughable.

Go down to the river, Dev. Meet those people. Children, elderly, purple-heart vets. Tell them to their faces about your tough love.

1

Donald Trump Accepts the Presidency of Ukraine

First of all, I’d like to say — and you know who I’m talking to — that elections should always have tanks. They’re so cool! And Black Lives matters doesn’t drive tanks. And if you defund the police they won’t have tanks either.

But Ukraine is a place I know. I love Ukraine. I sent my best pal Rudy over to make sure the country was “secure”, and “paying me.” Ukraine loves me right back. So when they asked me to be their president I had to say yes. I couldn’t let them down, not after what they’ve been through the last few years, with the nazi president who is jewish and all.

All of Ukraine is thanking my best friend Vlad! And they should! Because he is a genius to think of invading a country saying it was a peace-keeping mission! It blew my mind what genius stuff that was! No one has ever done that before in the history of mankind! So then Vlad said, “You know what, Ukraine? You deserve the best president in the world. You deserve Donald J. Trump.” I was flattered, a little bit, but not too much, because I am the best president and I have never lost an election without tanks and I will make Ukraine special.

When Vlad asked me I wasn’t sure at first, because America needs me too, but the women here are completely hot. At my reception there was one woman and I thought looks like I’m getting divorced again but even better I think she won’t tell.

Also, while I’m the president of something, I can’t be tried for the countless instances of fraud I’m being investigated for.

When I was American President I knew all about that Ukraine place. My buddy Vlad explained it all to me. They stole Hillary’s emails, did you know that? Ukraine did that. Vlad said so himself. Despicable. Russia would never do something like that. Vlad told me, and he’s a genius.

But now I am president here and I promise this country, if it’s really is a country, will not be the Mexico of Russia. Because we all know what Mexico is like, and I’d never be president of something like that. There will be no taco stands in my Ukraine.

There are people who say I should not be president of Russia Ukraine who think this is bad but it can’t be bad because I will be president and I am almost a big a genius as Vlad. Some days I am! and Vlad says “Donald you are such a smart man” and I know it’s true because he is a genius.

I am a genius too, and now I will make everything better here in Ukraine. Somebody told me I tried to extort this country once, but I don’t remember anything like that, and if I did it was because of Crooked Hillary or that Vlad told me to. It is time now to:

MAKE UKRAINE GREAT AGAIN

2

A Reminder

These are gravestones for soldiers who fought for the United States of America. These are “the troops” that everyone is so eager to support. These soldiers lived through conditions that no modern US soldier has ever known. They were as likely to die in a friendly camp as during battle.

What were they fighting for? They fought and starved and marched and died to keep idiot hooligans from waving confederate battle flags in the halls of Congress. You are looking at the graves of soldiers of the United States Army who gave everything to preserve this nation, and anyone who glorifies the slavers whom they fought is a traitor as well.

Happy belated January 6th, my friends.

3

Mired

I occasion Discord, a chat-oriented social media platform that allows you to hang with people with whom you have some connection. I am part of three groups there, by far the most significant the Kansas Bunch — a very small community of writers anchored around some brilliant people in Lawrence, Kansas. They don’t actually know that we are the Kansas Bunch.

My membership in that group seems at times to be honorary; I celebrate the achievements of others while I struggle to restructure my novel once more. But I love those guys and I love hanging out with them.

But things got gnarly at work as they sometimes do (I am well-compensated for these times), and I posted a desperate message to my Kansas Pals saying “please give me an anchor at least once in a while.” Since I wrote that, I have not opened the Discord app on my laptop.

Actually I should say I’ve not successfully logged in. Maybe a month ago I tried to log in, failed, tried again on my phone, failed again, went through tech support, found where I had hidden my secret unlock-in-case-of-emergency keys, and then hesitated.

I still haven’t logged in.

When I do, there may or may not be answers to my plea from months ago. There may or may not be any messages at all. Probably there are friends of mine pushing forward as writers, working on great things. Things you may read someday. There’s no shortage of talent in the Kansas Bunch.

But I’m actually behind where I was when I last communicated with The Bunch. My project is less structured, more vapor than ever. I’ve been working the last few days to put some sort of parameters on the first book, with a tight focus on providing a great beginning, middle, and end, while accepting that this is just the first stone to hop to get across the river.

There’s a bunch of people on Discord who would love to help. But the last few weeks I’ve just been stuck. NaNoWriMo was awesome this year, but when it was over I just flopped and stopped writing entirely. I also stopped riding my bike. I just stopped pretty much everything except work.

None of this conforms to my idea of who I am. Well, that’s not true — I hold more than one idea of who I am in my head, and fat, lazy, slob is one of those images. I’m fitting that one pretty well.

So I guess I am who I imagine myself to be, just not the best version. I even know exactly what to do to break out of this quicksand. But part of the quicksand is sapping your will to escape.

13

My Chat With Aptera (updated a second time)

Update March 2022: I got a response from Aprera more than three months ago, and it is frankly as open and honest as you could hope a small company to be. It is on me that it has taken this long for me to publish it I have put it in a new episode just so it gets the attention it deserves.

Update November 18, 2021: I got a response after I sent the link to this article. The full response is below, but to summarize, it said “Dude, you’re asking the wrong people.” Hm. Fair enough. But I have some thoughts on that as well, which I have added to this episode.

Please note there is a second update at the foot of this episode, where all the efforts of Tom and Jess to do their jobs turned out to be futile.

For background, there is a company that is trying to introduce an ultra-light electric vehicle covered with solar panels. I am, without reservation, the exact profile of the financially-secure boomer-hippie driver they are catering to.

I have read all the words on their Web site. For 100 clams I can hold a place in line for the privilege of buying one of these things some time in the future. But not that distant of a future! they plan to start serious production in 2022. Or, at least they planned to. Do they still?

The thing is, we here at Muddled HQ already have more cars than we strictly need. Even before the plague, the times when both cars weren’t in the garage was vanishingly rare. So even if one of our cars is retired, the replacement is more likely to be a workbench than something with wheels. (Although I did see a sweet workbench that was on wheels, so you never really know.)

Here’s the split between me wanting to own something and me very much wanting that thing to exist. Rather than hand them $100 for a place in line, I could simply invest in the company. They make it easy (minimum investment $1000).

So here was a chance to help make this whole thing happen, without ending up with a vehicle I don’t need. I was excited enough to start reading the SEC filings about the offering. Those things require the company to list pretty much everything that could possibly go wrong, and all the ways the board of the company could legally dick you over later.

I’m not an expert on those filings, but the few I’ve perused have all been pretty scary. Investing in an under-capitalized car company is top of the scary heap, however.

But back to my motivation: I want cars like this to exist. If I can pitch in a bit of cash to increase the odds of success (or, prolong failure to improve the chances for the next attempt), I’m willing to consider it. So I kept reading, and eventually I contacted the company with some questions (some formatting lost to WordPress suckyness:

Congratulations on the full-media press release in The Washington Post! I found the coverage exciting but pretty dang credulous.

I am intrigued by this vehicle, and I think the world will be better when something like this is real. Should I ever buy another car, I’d like it to be one like this.

So I’m more of a crazy-eyed hippie investor than a sound financial decider of things. I try to put some of my money into companies that I think should succeed, while worrying less about whether they will. I don’t tell my investment professional about these.

Having said that, and having spent some time with the offering circular, one thing jumps out at me: The circular mentions targets for Q3 and Q4 2021. Perhaps there is an addendum to the circular I lacked the patience to uncover, but it seems like some measurable milestones have passed since that circular was drafted.

Specifically:

• Have the “Betas vehicles” been built?

• How is test validation going?

• Strangely, the Gamma body was due in Q3, and supply chain sorting-out for Q3 and Q4.

• Gamma production in Q4.

It goes on, but you get the idea. I get a feeling that one of the other lessons you learned from Tesla is an optimistic timeline. Falling behind on this schedule is not a blocker to my investing, but I do need to know that the executive level of the company is setting its own expectations realistically.

Also, I’ve seen it a dozen times now, where a startup electric vehicle company comes out with a planned price point and ultimately they just can’t hit it. You don’t need me to go down the list. How is that part of the plan holding up?

Potentially your friend,

Jerry Seeger

The third bullet point was mainly due to me misreading something in the circular, realizing my error, then botching the editing of the question. But those were my questions. Specific, lifted from their own filing, and ripe for the answering. In response, I got this from Jess (Aptera Motors’ Reg A Offering Support):

Hi Jerry,

Thank you for contacting Aptera Motors Investor Support.

Unfortunately, we can only answer questions related to the investment process.

For questions regarding the product, please contact [email protected] so the team can best assist you.

Please let us know if you have any additional questions regarding the offering or investment process & we will be happy to assist!

Best, 

Aptera Motors Investor Support

Huh. If you ask “did you hit your targets?” and the answer is “I can’t discuss that,” you’re not talking to a company that takes transparency with its investors as a core value. It starts to feel more like a company looking for money that doesn’t ask questions, and Wall Street is looking the other way so they’re turning to crowdfunding.

Which sucks. As much as I’d like to see a solar-electric vehicle, I’d also like to see a startup that embraces the true community feel of crowdfunding. But that means you have to treat all those little investors like they matter, like they’re part of something, and that means being ready to tell them the truth.

So I wrote this back:

I hate to be pushy, but I was asking for concrete information about the performance of Aptera and whether it was hitting its goals as a prelude to investing. Granted, that is not the “investment process”, but it is completely normal due diligence. The questions I asked were not product questions.

So I guess, yes, I do have “questions regarding the offering”. Those questions are listed in my original message. I am interested in investing, but I would be an idiot to invest in a startup based on months-old projections that have come and gone without any review.

I am just a small investor, and whether or not I buy in to your company will not make or break you. I get that. But you are courting the small investor, and honestly you should be more ready to answer questions from people who have read the SEC filings. Some of them might be bigger than me.

Jerry Seeger

You will not be surprised to learn that I have not heard back.

Edit to add: After I informed them of this episode, Tom (Aptera Motors’ Reg A Offering Support) sent a reply which just said in much clearer (to me) terms what Jess had said previously:

Hello Jerry, 

Aptera Investor Support has no comment on your blog post. 

Keep in mind we are agents working on behalf of Aptera therefore we don’t have the “insight” on the company you are looking for. You need to contact the Aptera Team directly for questions related to the product which was iterated by the past agent. 

Please let us know if you have any additional questions regarding the offering or investment process & we will be happy to assist!

Best,

Aptera Motors Investor Support

So the tenor of the response was more “we don’t know” than “we don’t want to discuss it”. To be honest, I may have taken the phrase “questions about the product” in the first response too literally – I have questions about the company.

Also I was kind of assuming that as agents working on behalf of Aptera on an investment offering, that questions about company performance would be anticipated and prepared for, and that a process would be in place to unite questions with the people who can answer them.

So it’s clear that Jess and Tom and any other agents working on behalf of Aptera are just doing what they can. But it would have been so much better if the response had been “we can’t answer, but we have forwarded your query to the people who can.” Aptera should anticipate questions like this, and therefore should have a resource allocated for handling them. Then it would be simple to instruct their agents where to redirect questions.

While my ire was certainly misdirected, there is still a gap in this whole process that demonstrates failure by Aptera to embrace the small investor. Still, I hope they succeed.

Another update: I sent a very dry and businesslike message to the address “iterated” by Jess. Just asking for who to talk to about performance against stated milestones. As of November 28, 2021, a full week after sending the inquiry, I have been met with stone cold silence. If I ever do get a response, I’ll add my full query and their full response.

2

The Future of Plague

I came down with a cold yesterday, and used one of the COVID testing kits I have on my desk to make sure I wasn’t a threat to others. Yeah, that’s a thing now. And while they aren’t that common yet (I don’t think they are, anyway, but I could be wrong), it’s easy to imagine them becoming common as this whole pandemic thing drags on.

I write Science Fiction stories, but now is there any future that does not include tests like this as a part of everyday life? Will the kids born today ever know a time without ready tests for the latest plague?

1

Get-Poor-Quick, Done Wrong

Or done right. It’s hard to tell.

Recently I read about a high-tech venture called Juicero. It failed. Big.

I haven’t contributed to the get-poor-quick category here at MR&HBI for quite some time, so if you’re not familiar with it, that’s OK. The conceit of this category is that I get an idea that seems good on the surface, and might actually be good, but that building a business on it would certainly lead to failure.

But all these years, I failed to recognize one simple fact: You can fail and still get rich. You just have to fail with someone else’s money.

Juicero: a high-tech device controlled from your phone, connected to the internet for some reason. After you paid a few hundred dollars for this machine, you could subscribe to a service to get sent bags of stuff. Fruit, specially-prepared veggies and whatnot, and you could put the bags into this high-tech machine and it would… squeeze them. And then you could drink juice.

Were I a venture capitalist listening to this pitch, the first axiom I would apply is “give them the razors, sell the blades.” But I am not a venture capitalist, and before long Juicero had attracted millions of dollars of VC money, presumably on the promise that Juicero would disrupt something. Because disrupting is sexy.

Eventually it came down that consumers realized they could just squeeze the packets with their bare hands, and the ridiculous WiFi-Internet-Bluetooth app-controlled machine could easily be replaced with an iron device with a lever. And the business cratered.

The venture capitalists expressed dismay, saying (I’m paraphrasing) “We expected the ridiculous ripoff to be less easily exposed.”

That is not the lesson I take away from this. See my razor/blade statement above. They thought they were selling squeezing machines, but they were selling juice packets. The high-tech device with needless configuration steps was not the product. Sell a cast-iron enameled device with a lever on the side. Sell a kitchenaid accessory. Shit, give them away. Sell the juice.

I have digressed from my original intent in this episode. I started by using Juicero as an example of failing but getting rich — I promise the techbros who invented Juicero managed to pocket plenty of the idiot investment money — and instead I turned to how to have succeeded at Juicero.

But there are literally a dozen ideas on this blog that eclipse Juicero. Some have, in the intervening years, been implemented to great profit for others. But even if the idea is a bad one, that doesn’t mean you can’t get rich from it. Just ask the folks at Juicero.

2

A Very Ordinary Genocidal Sociopath

I thought I’d celebrate the day with a link to an article about Cristopher Columbus over at defector.com: Christopher Columbus And The Replacement-Level Historical Figure. If you’re not a sports fan, you might not have seen the phrase “Replacement Level” that is used in the title. In sports, as statistics become ever-more sophisticated, you come across the question “how much better (or worse) is this athlete compared to a completely average person doing the same job?”

Patrick Wyman likes to ask that same question, but not about athletes, but about political and historical figures. Was Henry VIII exceptional, or was he just another Wealthy Asshole doing Wealthy Asshole stuff? What Wyman has discovered is that it is much more informative to look at the class of person who did something big, rather than to dwell on the name of the particular member of that class who actually did it. If it wasn’t them, it would have been someone else.

Back in the 1480’s, there were dozens of Christopher Columbuses sailing around. The one we remember might have been a little dumber than most of his peers (just about everyone else was correctly certain his estimate for he size of planet Earth was way off the mark), and maybe a bit more consumed with social climbing, but in every significant way he was a perfectly ordinary sociopath getting rich off the suffering and subjugation of others.

He would hang out with other, now forgotten sea captains, trading tips on how to most efficiently destroy civilization in Africa and how best to suck up to the various navies deployed to protect their evil trade.

Chris was just dumb enough to try something his peers hadn’t yet, but it was only a matter of time.

Would anything have been different if another captain had made the voyage? About the only difference is that other captain would have been smart enough to realize he had stumbled on an unknown continent and named it after himself, and the natives in this land would not be called “Indians”.

Other than that, the replacement-level sea captain would have still have been a genocidal racist, willing to kill thousands of people if it meant he could sell dozens. He would have used disease, intimidation, and rape to get what he wanted. Back home, he would tell outrageous lies.

Yet we have a day in this country named after one slightly-below-average member of this club. We learned in school that he was a hero, now we are learning something closer to the truth. But both these narratives make Columbus someone special. He was not. There was a swarm of flies, and he just happened to be the first fly to land on the new world.

2

The Car in the Camp

There is a homeless camp near the Children’s Museum. I ride through it on my trips that start to the North. The camp is growing, as are all the tent cities along the river. We can all take credit for that.

The city does what it can to limit the harm, providing portable toilets and looking the other way when a chain of extension cords or even a hose reaches from the museum to the camp. In one of the most expensive towns in the world, it doesn’t take much to knock a family out of their home. At least some here are more concerned with protecting people and environment rather than assigning blame.

You see some pretty nice cars in the camps these days, reminders of where these people were before they lost everything. Tricked out rice rockets, European luxo-mobiles, big-ass SUV’s. The cars are memories now, tires going flat. Time, poverty, and desperation inevitably overcome all things, especially cars; decay is accelerated. The minivan parked by the tracks one day is a burned-out hulk the next.

In the camp by the children’s museum, there was a car on a trailer. I am not an expert on antique automobiles. My first guess was a 1950’s MG, but looking at pictures now, this car lacks the signature fender->running board line of the MG’s.

But it is a classic roadster of that form, and at first it was on a trailer. The trailer is gone now.

It is a negotiation I think I understand. Job is gone, home is gone, but there is one thing you hold on to. But even being homeless is expensive, especially if you want to escape it. Fees on everything. Do you keep your phone account or do you eat? The trailer is sacrificed to keep the idea alive that this is just temporary. That on the other side will be a life where the classic car means something again.

I wonder that someone down on their luck can’t find a friend with a garage to hold their car until things get better. But although this car is more conspicuous, as I said above there are many nice automobiles in this place, and the number is growing. And friends are hard to find when you have nothing.

I dread the day I ride past and the accelerated entropy has overcome this vehicle. It’s just a thing, metal and rubber and whatnot, and its only value is what we assign it. But it’s also a dream. It’s hope. It’s a lifeline someone is clinging to. I just wish I shared that hope.

3

A Sign of the Times

My local bike shop published a nice intro to indoor bike trainers today, breaking down the different types and the pros and cons of each. There was one section of the article addressing why one might want an indoor trainer, that included this:

You can get a great ride in regardless of rain, wind, smoke, or snow.

Smoke. A new weather condition driving us indoors. One we created all by ourselves.

Almost There

The Official Sweetie of Muddled Ramblings & Half-Baked Ideas cut my hair today. She did a good job, but when done said, “I’m not an expert, and I hope never to be.” Amen to that.

I had gotten pretty shaggy, as the pile of hair in the picture will tell you. We thought, Official Sweetie and I, that my next haircut would be by a trained professional. We were almost there.

But it turns out we weren’t almost there. The groundhog poked his head up, saw rich people exploiting fear of the vaccine for profit and political power, and dove back into his burrow for six more months of plague.

As a result, I got my best home haircut since I was a kid this afternoon. I hope it’s my last.

 

Bitcoin is Cool, but It’s not Money

The subject of blockchain technology in general, and cryptocurrency in particular, has come up a few times lately, and I’ve been doing some reading. When you look, you mostly find stuff that does a bad job describing what blockchain is, before jumping to some particular use for it – generally cryptocurrency, and why you should buy some.

But “blockchain” is the second-least important word in this discussion. “Cryptocurrency” is the least important. Blockchain is a way to achieve a utopian dream, and it’s the dream we will talk about today. The dream is the Distributed Ledger – a system where there isn’t some central institution who decides who owns what, instead that information is all kept in an encrypted ledger that we all share and maintain, and magically we can only read the parts of the ledger that are our business to read.

All the blocks and chains and whatnot are an implementation detail that is not really that important. But… later we will see that some implementation details matter a lot.

Let’s talk about the distributed ledger. Instead of some bank tracking how much money is in everybody’s account, there are thousands of copies of the ledger, spread around the world, immune to deprivations of institutions who use the ledgers to control us. It’s a pretty sweet idea. Better yet, ideally even when the ledger is spread around the world, only the right people can read the parts about you. For all the rest, the ledgers just have to agree.

To make this happen there are two key concepts: redundancy and consensus. Redundancy we just spoke of. Thousands, maybe millions of instances of the ledger, all verifying that they are the same, even if they can’t see the individual transactions.

But imagine if Ronald McDonald decides to give a Bitcoin to Mayor McCheese. He duly records the transaction and that information propagates through the network as all the instances of the ledger are updated. But at the same time, on another ledger it is recorded that in fact Ronald gave that same Bitcoin to the Hamburgler! I heard that gasp of horror, and it is well-placed!

With every distributed ledger, there has to be a way to resolve discrepancies that through sloppiness, bad timing, or malice will inevitably arise. Eventually all those ledgers have to concur about what actually happened. Therefore, the people who run the system need to make it difficult for the bad guys to overwhelm the honest transactions. They need to allocate deciding power based on some resource they control that makes the holders invested in the success of the platform.

In the case of Bitcoin, that resource is pure computing power. Solve math puzzles, get Bitcoins. Once you have Bitcoins, you will protect them. So to push false transactions onto Bitcoin, you would have to to solve those math puzzles faster than everyone else on the network combined.

That would not be easy. I read an estimate today that the current Bitcoin puzzle-solving economy, which uses extremely efficient hardware designed to solve these particular problems and nothing else, is currently chewing through the amount of electricity consumed by the entire country of Austria – at the low end. So to fool Bitcoin, you’d need about 1.1 Austrias (at the low end) of power. That’s pretty impractical, and that’s what keeps your Bitcoins safe.

Or, to defraud the system you could find a different way to generate sha256 hashes (that’s the Bitcoin puzzle). If you came up with a new way to do that calculation that took 1% of the power, you could destroy Bitcoin. Quantum computing would trash Bitcoin, but the latter will be long gone before the former arrives on the scene. Yep, Bitcoin will be long gone.

There are other ways for distributed ledgers to form consensus that are far less carbon-awful. In fact, there’s a currency that was recently announced that awards blocks (coins) for each ton of CO2 sequestered. And away from cryptocurrency, the distributed ledger promises to transform some really complex problems like adaptive energy grids and a world filled with self-driving cars. All the new cryptocurrencies are finding less ecologically-disastrous ways to manage consensus. Etherium is launching a new less-eco-awful version of their currency, and leaving their old version to the winds of fate. The power bill will eventually destroy Bitcoin.

I mentioned above redundancy and consensus. We have seen that consensus can be extremely expensive. New distributed ledgers are working to reduce that cost. But redundancy also has a cost.

All the ledgers have to share information, constantly updating each other. For the blockchain implementation, each update itself requires a great deal of computation to ensure security — digital signatures, hashes, more signatures. Recording a single transaction in thousands of ledgers eats up CPU time, to the point where processing a single Bitcoin transaction takes the juice to run your house for a week. (Actually, a German house for a week, whatever that means.)

And this is where we get to “Bitcoin is not Money”. Despite demanding the power of a European nation to operate, Bitcoin can only process a few transactions per second. Like, less than ten. How many credit card transactions take place every second? A global-scale distributed ledger makes each transaction very expensive. It is simply impossible for Bitcoin to be a factor in everyday commerce.

EDIT: In fact, bitcoin intentionally adjusts the difficulty of adding a block to the chain so that one 1MB block is added every ten minutes, so that transactions can be “digested” and shenanigans rooted out. This puts a very hard limit on the number of transactions that can be added to the chain, and as computing power increases, the difficulty of adding a block to the chain increases with it. Bitcoin by design cannot handle the transaction rate of an actual currency.

(Although I have to say that since you can know the entire history of each coin, you could, for instance, simply refuse to accept any coin ever touched by a company that dealt with blood diamonds, effectively making their money worth less. That is the true power of the distributed ledger. Someday it will be real.)

When it comes right down to it, our current attempts at the distributed ledger are way better at things that aren’t money – things where there is value in decentralizing, but they don’t move as fast as we need money to move. Or things that move fast but in a smaller context, like an office or a company.

Or, God help us all, Non-Fungible Tokens. A topic for another day.

When you hear about the ways blockchain technology will change the world, quietly, to yourself, substitute the term “distributed ledger”. That is the idea that has the power to change so many things for the better, and it’s a lot easier to fit in your head. Blockchain is an implementation of that idea, but it’s got warts big enough to mostly obscure the magical toad underneath. Moore’s Law may finally get us to the promised land, but computers will literally have to be a million times faster than they are now to turn blockchain-based cryptocurrency into actual money. My bet is now that we have seen the value of the distributed ledger, we will find a better way to accomplish it. And that’s pretty exciting.

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Google’s New Evil

Google, Facebook, and their pals make big money because companies believe that carefully-targeted advertising is more effective than plain ol’ marketing blitzes. While there is some debate about that, it hasn’t stopped Google from harvesting and reselling enormous amounts of information about people. About you. One of their primary tools has been the third-party cookie. When you go to myfavoritesite.com, you are the first party. myfavoritesite.com is the second party. But they can also send cookies your way on behalf of Google et. al., and allow those behemoths to track your every move.

Nowadays, those third-party cookies are falling into deep disfavor. The abuses they enable are vast, including institutional discrimination, predatory marketing, and deep invasions of privacy.

The handwriting is on the wall; third-party cookies are on the way out, and Google is stepping nimbly to repackage its evil. Never forget, fundamental to their business is their ability to package and sell you.

Their latest initiative is the “privacy sandbox”, which means that some information about you is never sent to the mother ship. Instead, an algorithm in the Chrome browser will wrap up your browsing history for the week and assign you to a group. Google won’t be selling you, they will be selling a group. That makes it private.

Now mind you, that group won’t be useful to advertisers unless they know some of the qualities of the group. And don’t forget, if the site you visit knows you’re one of a few thousand people, it’s much easier for them to pin exactly who you are than if you were one of many millions.

And now you’re in a “cohort”, defined by google. You cohort might shift a bit, week to week, which is especially interesting to the sites who can tell exactly who you are.

Brief aside on “knowing exactly who you are”: two browsers have built-in systems for thwarting those efforts. Tor is one, the official browser of the Dark Web, and Safari is the other. Firefox has some great add-ons that accomplish the same thing. But none of those browsers can keep you anonymous in a pool of only a few thousand.

Less brief Twitter anecdote: Twitter offered users the choice to opt out of a particularly invasive form of tracking. But after a while they discovered that there was a bug in their software and that in fact they had been sharing that stuff with advertisers anyway. Oops! They fixed the bug and revenue plummeted. Turns out that information was what they were being paid for. Their solution: Change the Terms of Service! Users can no longer opt out of sharing that information. It was pitched as being required to keep Twitter a free service. Twitter is not free, and is not a service.

Anyway, back to Google. They say that they will watch the cohorts, to make sure that people who are in “sensitive interest categories” aren’t bunched together in a too-exploitative manner.

First, that means that there will not be a privacy sandbox on your computer, because the mother ship will need to monitor the cohorts. Second, there is a corporation deciding what the sensitive interest categories are, and how to protect them, and each iteration of their algorithm may expose another “sensitive” group. Third, I may or may not be part of any of the sensitive groups as defined by Google, but that doesn’t make my privacy less a right. Finally, It just won’t work, because if someone can figure out that other people in my cohort have visited places I consider part of my private life, they will be able to assume the same about me. That includes medical sites, mental health advisors, and lawyers.

This is all just bad. Google is offering different surveillance as an answer to what we have now. The stuff I describe above is in beta testing in the Chrome browser right now. While I don’t know the scope of this beta test, if history is a guide with Google “beta” means “it’s out there.”

Long ago, Apple and Google worked together on a thing called WebKit, the software that underpinned both browsers. I watched as schism formed between the two companies, as Apple engineers found security and privacy exploits in many of the new features Google wanted to implement. It was esoteric at the time, very abstract discussions about how some drawing tools could be used to read the screen underneath, which could include private information. Eventually the partnership split, and now Google has way more features than Safari, and Safari offers way more protection for you. Some sites don’t work so well with Safari, but that’s the cost of privacy.

Use whatever browser you like, but remember one thing: Chrome is the core tool (along with Android) created by a company that makes money by watching everything you do.

For a more detailed discussion of the new Google shenanigans, please visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

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Gotta Ride, Part 6: The Crash

I have set a goal for myself: Get to the top of Mount Hamilton by bicycle before I turn 60. It is a well-known climb in these parts, and it has the advantage of being a serious ride that I don’t have to start with a ride in the car. It’s only a few miles from home to the foot of the climb. It’s about 1300 meters from where I live to the top. Routine for some, the achievement of a lifetime for others.

I have given myself three years to get fit enough to make that climb, and let me tell you, kids, I am extremely excited about this goal, and I’m sure I can do it.

If I survive those few urban miles between me and the mountain.

December 19 was, mostly, my best ride ever. I had planned to do a small loop up the first couple of miles of the climb. That would be a preview to a bigger loop I would build up to. Not even remotely close to the full climb, but more than I had done on the last trip.

Man, I had fun. I told myself there was no shame in stopping for a breather a couple or times, and I missed the turn for the smaller loop and kept on going up. I found the larger-loop road down and took it easy heading back; this wasn’t a time trial. It was a chance to enjoy the day, and when my tire hissed and spat angrily I pulled over only to find that the sealer goo I had reinforced just prior to the ride worked perfectly.

It was a tiny road down, twisting and turning, but there were almost no cars. There were many junior-high level kids slogging up the other way, pedaling at absurd gear ratios but moving forward and up. A club? A team? Just what kids do up there to get around?

I had a song in my heart when I returned to the foot of the mountain. An epic day, for small values of epic. I’ve mentioned before how much I love a good day on the bike; this was the best day ever.

Until the crash, at least. I was back on urban roads and looking over my shoulder to check traffic as I approached an intersection, when I hit a massive ridge of pavement in the bicycle lane. According to software, I was moving at somewhere between 17 and 18 MPH when it all went to hell.

The Death Berm. It’s taller than it looks in this photo.

My first thought, as my reflexes fought to control the bike, was utter surprise. That didn’t last long. Given the distribution of my injuries, it’s pretty much a miracle that I didn’t break a wrist or leg or you-name-it trying to break my fall. I wobbled, I tipped, and I smashed to the curb and slid across the sidewalk to wrap myself around a tree in its oh-so-soft mulch.

Somewhere in there I heard the sound of my helmet whacking against the pavement. It seemed, in that time-dilated moment, that I had been waiting for that sound.

Finally I was at rest, against the tree, and I hurt in a very non-specific way. I just hurt. My watch asked for my attention. “It seems you have fallen,” It said. “Do you need help?” I wasn’t sure at that point how to answer.

A bystander came close, but not too close. He asked if I was OK. I was still trying to figure that out, as I lay on my back and looked into the clear sky. My watch asked me about my status again, ready to call 911 on my behalf if I was unable to answer. I selected “I did fall, but I’m OK.” I still wasn’t sure that was true.

Once the bystander was sure I was not going to die, my Samaritan turned to humor. “You need last rites? Because my friend here is a priest.” I wasn’t ready to laugh, but I was glad he was. When I told him I was wearing a brand-new helmet, one with new technology for better brain protection, he was effusive. “Wow! that’s great! Thank God for that.” He couldn’t offer physical aid, but he was working as hard as he could to throw spiritual aid my way.

Eventually I convinced my electronics and my helpful bystanders that I would be all right. I just needed to lay on the grass for a bit. After a short while I got up, documented the death berm in the bike lane, and started my ride home.

That was a long six miles. There was enough blood coming off me that motorists at intersections waved me along and waited for me to cross. I couldn’t (and still can’t) signal my right turns; my shoulder won’t allow it. My front derailleur is either damaged or knocked out of whack; I tried a shift that left my chain flopping around my bottom bracket, and in my state that nearly dumped me over again. There is also quite a bit of cosmetic damage to my brand-new bike.

Perversely, I’m a little proud of those six miles. Not in the same way I’m proud of the climb that came before; but proud nonetheless. Two miles from home I called the Official Sweetie and said that when I got home I needed to go to urgent care.

As my Samaritan was quick to tell me, it could have been a lot worse. I had a good helmet and somehow managed to hit the concrete with my fleshy parts, and not break any bones. My brain survived unscathed, judging by subsequent code reviews. I have a massive hematoma on my thigh, a bulge larger in span than my fully-extended hand, that ripples when I tap it. The doctor says it will probably go away, and almost six weeks after the wipeout it seems a little smaller. I have a separated shoulder that is pissing me off and making it difficult to sleep. But I am alive.

I am alive, and I really, really want to get back to climbing that mountain.

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