How the Bitcoin Protocol Could Help Improve Copyright

April 15th, 2014

couple of weeks ago i posted the observation below on my tumblr. reposting this here since i have just come across an article in Slate (‘How the Bitcoin Protocol Could Help Improve Copyright‘) that makes the interesting argument that what i characterized as an ‘evil’ property might just as well be turned into something really useful.

have been thinking a lot about this short exchange from a planet money podcast on bitcoin from a few weeks back. Makes me suspect that the one bitcoin that i am keeping for my own amusement somewhere on my laptop is more evil than i initially thought it was (it is also worth much less then when i bought it but that is much less surprising)

David Kestenbaum: Ben why do you think that bitcoin does have a future? Ben Horowitz: So it’s a real computer science breakthrough. So this is a problem that we have been trying to solve in computer science since the early 80s, which is how do you prevent the double spending problem Ben Horowitz: How do you make sure that it is only in one place at one time Ben Horowitz: Right David Kestenbaum: One of the problems with trying to make digital money is that, like if you have a movie online everybody can copy it and it can be in a 100 different places at once, Money that cannot happen with, right you have to, it has to… Ben Horowitz: …that would be a bad problem, that would pretty much defeat the money. David Kestenbaum: So that was the break-through basically, someone figured out how to do that. Ben Horowitz: Exactly, exactly! David Kestenbaum: So that is one reason why Ben likes bitcoins: you cant make extra copies of them, there is no way to counterfeit them, no way for bad people to use the same bitcoin to buy two different things at once or 20 different things at once. It makes online cash possible.

Unsurprisingly there is a discussion on where people are hatching not so clever BC as DRM schemes.

eliminating the advantage of speed

April 1st, 2014

the NYT has this longish article on the story behind IEX, a ‘fair’ stack exchange explicitly designed to neutralize the advantages of high speed traders (at the core this involves the 38-mile coil of fiber optic cable in a box) depicted below. In this article an IEX employe lays out a theory of why there are so many Russians involved in high speed trading operations, which pretty much confirms my theory on the relation between high speed trading and soviet economics from 2012:

Sokoloff was Russian, born and raised in a city on the Volga River. He had an explanation for why so many of his countrymen wound up in high-frequency trading. The old Soviet educational system channeled people into math and science. And the Soviet-controlled economy was horrible and complicated but riddled with loopholes, an environment that left those who mastered it well prepared for Wall Street in the early 21st century. “We had this system for 70 years,” Sokoloff says. “The more you cultivate a class of people who know how to work around the system, the more people you will have who know how to do it well.”

coil of fiber optic cable in a server rack

This box kept at the facility in Secaucus, N.J., contains a 38-mile coil of fiber-optic cable that creates a slight delay in the processing of orders, which levels the playing field among traders. Credit Stefan Ruiz for The New York Times Photo by: Stefan Ruiz for The New York Times

How pushing for more copyright is harming the Internet

March 31st, 2014

over on his blog Mike Linksvayer has reviewed a new paper titled IP in a World Without Scarcity by Mark Lemley. Based on his review i will definitely read the paper (i am writing this just after take off on a 10 hour flight and i am cursing myself for not downloading the paper) and it seems that so should pretty much anyone who is working on IP (or as mike would prefer: commons) issues.

In hs review Mike takes a small detour in which he lists the ways of how the Internet has been damaged by the IP owners’ fight against the Internet:

  • Chilling effect on P2P research, result: more centralization;
    Services police user content; expensive, barrier to entry, result: more centralization, near monopoly platforms;
  • Services cut rare and unfavorable deals with IP owners, result: same;
  • Innovative services fail to cut deals, or sustainable deals, with IP owners, result:
  • less innovation, more Internet as TV;
  • Monopoly abets monopoly; creates opportunities for bundling monopolies, result: threat to net neutrality;
  • Copyright-based censorship provides cover for all kinds of political censorship, result: political censors have additional justification, doing what Hollywood does;
  • All of above centralization and monopoly makes dominant entities a target for compromise, result: mass surveillance and non-state cybercrime abetted;
  • Our imagination and expectation of what the Internet makes possible is diminished, re sult: DRM TV and radio and silos organized for spying are seen as the norm, information organized for public benefit such as Wikipedia, unusual; this flipping of democratic hopes for the Internet, a partial AOL scenario, is collateral damage from the IP owners’ war on the Internet.

All of the points that Mike lists here, but especially the last one do a great job in explaining why we are currently facing a situation wherein our policymakers are incapable of imagining the internet as something better than a pervasive content delivery platform. This is something that i had complained about a couple of weeks ago (in the context of European efforts to modernize copyright rules) and Mike does an excellent job at explaining how we ended up in this situation. thanks Mike! (also read the rest of Mike’s review, it is really worth it).

Europa Prima Pars Terrae in Forma Virginis

December 29th, 2013

Europa Prima Pars Terrae in Forma Virginis

Europa Prima Pars Terrae in Forma Virginis (1582) by Heinrich Bünting

found this in yesterdays newspaper, next to an article comparing the current state of the European Union to the state of the Habsburg Empire right before its collapse. Not sure about that comparison, but the map is amazing.

on self driving cars

November 17th, 2013

In his most recent deezen column Dan Hill provides some much needed perspective on the self driving cars hype. I completely agree with him, that while endlessly fascinating, self driving cars are rather problematic idea. Instead of improving the way personal mobility is organised they primarily attempt to improve a deeply flawed system:

Here we see such companies are not actually interested in genuine change, for all their bluster about “radical disruption”. Self-driving cars are a sticking plaster over existing conditions. They actually reinforce the ‘Californian Ideology’ that underpins today’s mobility problems: suburban sprawl, based around the possibility of lengthy car-based commutes, in turn predicated on a highly individualistic view of society. It is an entirely conservative move. Self-driving cars provide a way of changing the veneer of this system, as no-one is brave enough to suggest changing the system itself. They replace who, or what, is holding the steering wheel, but not the underlying culture that contributes to mass depression, obesity epidemics, climate change and economic crises.

[...] The real way to prevent accidents would be to have fewer cars on the road, not just the same number with different control systems. But is the car industry really going to suggest that? Self-driving cars may move traffic a little more efficiently, but the laws of induced demand suggest that the supply of cars might also increase to counter any such benefits.

The most interesting question arising out of this observation is if this is just short sightedness of the people involved in pushing self driving cars (very much in the way that the first cars were advertised as ‘horseless carriages‘) or if this is a genuine attempt to extend the social acceptance of a failed system:

Few industries could get away with as much blood on their hands as the automobile business does. That we are prepared to expend so many lives – 1.24 million killed each year on the roads, and who knows how many other lives ruined – for the sake of our freedom to drive to work is fairly objectionable.

In his column Hill points to existing alternative to this failed system. Cities designed in such a way that individual car ownership does not make sense:

[...] Yet imagine the possibilities of a city oriented around people living closer to their work and play, and so built around cycling, walking, quality public transport and a massively reduced number of electric cars for individual errands. It doesn’t exactly have the airbrushed sheen of Google X, but it would be a city with a lower carbon footprint, healthier people, safer streets, more frequent social interaction, better air quality, quiet enough to hear conversations, to hear birds and to build lighter, more experimental building envelopes, with a higher economic performance through serendipity, agglomeration, richer mixed-use land use, and with increased citizen engagement in the city itself. The benefits are virtually endless, and few are even addressed by self-driving cars, never mind achieved.

[...] You choose the vehicle fit for your needs at that point, thus reinforcing the idea that mobility is a bespoke, mass-customised on-demand service shared across bike-sharing, public transport, and through shared self-driving cars for those times when you really need one.

For people lucky enough to live in places like Amsterdam this is not something that needs to be imagined. My personal mobility arrangements include pretty much all of the above: two different bikes (depending on what needs to be transported), a car2go account, a uber account, a car rental company around the corner and a yearly subscription for all public transportation in this (admittedly tiny) country.

I have never owned a car and will very likely never own one since proximity of work and home is one of the most important considerations i apply when considering alternative scenarios for the future.

So why am i fascinated by self driving cars then? Firstly because of the technology involved, but also because they are probably nicer (read more predictable) to deal with when cycling in the city. More importantly though, i would expect them to unify the rental-car/car2go/uber/taxi part of my mobility mix at some point. That will probably be to the detriment of the taxi drivers (in the end they are robots replacing manual labour), but should make shared individual mobility more attractive (hopefully to more people outside of my early adopter demographic). In his column Hill suggests pretty much the same:

[...] Folding self-driving systems into car-sharing schemes, as part of a wider rethink about how we live together in cities, however? I could share that vision. So again, what is the real question that suggests self-driving cars are the solution?

Hamiltonian cathedrals and the the Jeffersonian bazaar

September 4th, 2013

Tumblr pointed me to a fascinating essay on the structure of our economic system. In ‘The American cloudVenkatesh Rao explores the economic system of the United States by applying the much hyped cloud metaphor to the production, flows and consumption of goods. While it is not without flaws (reading it one might be tempted to believe that the USA are a self sufficient economy without any connections to the rest of the world) the essay provides an interesting perspective on our times.

At the core of his essay is Rao’s analysis of the US as an assemblage of Hamiltonian cathedrals and a Jeffersonian bazaar[1]:

Over the course of two centuries, the Hamiltonian makeover turned the isolationist, small-farmer America of Jefferson’s dreams into the epicentre of the technology-driven, planet-hacking project that we call globalisation. The visible signs of the makeover — I call them Hamiltonian cathedrals — are unprepossessing. Viewed from planes or interstate highways, grain silos, power plants, mines, landfills and railroad yards cannot compete visually with big sky and vast prairie. Nevertheless, the Hamiltonian makeover emptied out and transformed the interior of America into a technology-dominated space that still deserves the name heartland. Except that now the heart is an artificial one.

The makeover has been so psychologically disruptive that during the past century, the bulk of America’s cultural resources have been devoted to obscuring the realities of the cloud with simpler, more emotionally satisfying illusions. These constitute a theatre of pre-industrial community life primarily inspired, ironically enough, by Jefferson’s small-town visions. This theatre, which forms the backdrop of consumer lifestyles, can be found today inside every Whole Foods, Starbucks and mall in America. I call it the Jeffersonian bazaar.

Structurally then, the American cloud is an assemblage of interconnected Hamiltonian cathedrals, artfully concealed behind a Jeffersonian bazaar. The spatial structure of this American edifice is surprisingly simple: a bicoastal surface that is mostly human-habitable bazaar, and a heartland that is mostly highly automated infrastructure cathedrals. In this world, the bazaars are the interiors of cities, forming a user-interface layer over the complex tangle of pipes, cables, dumpsters and loading docks that engineers call the last mile — the part that actually reaches the customer. The cities themselves are cathedrals crafted for human habitation out of steel and concrete. The bazaar is merely a thin fiction lining it. Between the two worlds there is a veil of manufactured normalcy — a studiously maintained aura of the small-town Jeffersonian ideal.

Assuming that this is analysis is (at least partially) true for the US it would be extremely interesting to map his idea of a bicoastal cloud surface onto Europe. Europe has a much more complicated geography than the US. We have no bicoastal population centres and the notion of heartland is difficult to establish in terms of geography. It might very well be the case that the geography of the European cloud is the inverse of what Rao describes: the human-habitable bazaar is found in the very centre while the feeder infrastructure can be found at the edges. More likely the european cloud would look like a accumulation of smaller clouds that take very different shapes, which is very illustrative of the growing pains that Europe is experiencing in trying to establish an single digital market.

Still it is clear that the separation between population centres and production and distribution centres that Rao highlights also exists over here. Rao ends his essay with a recommendation to the inhabitants of the Jeffersonian bazaar to venture out and explore the inside of the cloud:

To the Jeffersonian sensibility, Hamiltonian cathedrals are often little more than infrastructure porn. But to establish a direct, appreciative relationship with these technologies, unmediated by instrumental metaphors and currencies of interaction, you have to walk among them yourself. You have to experience train yards, landfills, radio-frequency ID-tagged seven-day cows and other such backstage oddities in the flesh.

This is something I can indeed recommend. My last, rather unexpected, experience with Hamiltonian cathedrals was a family vacation during which the vacation farm that we were staying on turned out to be a (indeed well obscured) industrial production facility for organic produce and diary complete with the above mentioned radio-frequency ID-tagged seven-day cows and semiautonomous, GPS guided robot tractors.

  1. The terminology is obviously borrowed from Eric S. Raymond’s influential essay ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar‘ that referred to two competing software development models. In Rao’s essay the the two models are not competing. Instead the bazaar can only exist by virtue of the cathedral. ?

young and reckless / bye bye facebook

August 20th, 2013

so I finally killed (well deactivated) my Facebook account this morning after not using it for a month. in order to do so I had to log on one last time. Turns out that while I was away had tagged me in this picture taken at the 1st human powered rollecoaster in Vancouver in 1996:

Guess this is facebook’s farewell present to me: A picture where I am young, reckless & blond! If my memory serves me correctly this shot was taken after I had been eliminated in the semi (or quarter) finals of the main competition in Vancouver by crashing my bike so badly that i twisted my rear wheel. At that point I had been the last rider competing on a fixed gear bike after having edged out a victory from Riche Ditta (on the left with the white cap) in the previous round. Richie helped me finding a replacement rear wheel (with tubulars!) so that we could have another race in the fixed gear only competition, which he then won from me.

Bonus: probably also the earliest photographic evidence of me wearing the bicycle chain wristband which I am still wearing on this day about 17 years later.

paper maps as backup for when the network is down

June 10th, 2013

Stumbled across this picture of a helicopter crew surveying flooding along the Elbe while reading the news this morning:

helicopter cockpit with maps

As far as I am concerned this is a perfect illustration of the fact that paper maps have been relegated to being a backup solution for when the battery is empty or the cellular network is down (guess as a helicopter pilot you can’t really afford this). Also amazing how much the military (or paramilitary, not really clear from the picture if this a federal police or an army helicopter) seems to rely on of the shelf consumer technology these days.

1+8 [the room is a map of the territory]

April 7th, 2013

Yesterday we saw 1+8 at the opulent Galata branch of SALT. 1+8 is a dynamic eight-screen video installation about Turkey and her eight neighbours based on the feature film of the same name directed by Cynthia Madansky and Angelika Brudniak. I usually do not have much patience for video installations but 1+8 managed to capture my attention for quite some time. If you are to believe the catalogue text this thanks to an the brilliance of a ‘custom made algorithmic computer program’ powering the display:

“The installation invites the audience to become immersed in the contemplation of life at the eight borders of Turkey. The multi-screen projection lends itself to experience simultaneity and inter-connection on a physical level. The choreography of video’s on the eight screens, is created dynamically with the help of a custom made algorithmic computer program allowing for a unique viewer experience, whereby the projections will never appear the same way twice.”

Not sure in how far the algorithm contributed to my enjoyment here. Being a bit obsessed about maps i was much more delighted by the way the room (a large rectangle) was used as a map of the territory, with the videos projected on those parts of the wall that correspond with the actual borders between Turkey and its eight[1] neighbours (this of course only works with a country like turkey which is an even bigger rectangle):


click to enlarge

Also, it appears that the border regions between Turkey and its six Asian neighbours are really fascinating/beautifull which makes me want to travel there at some point in the future

  1. One of the things learned here is that the Turkish consider the Autonomus Repubic of Nakhchivan a neghbouring country (which – it should be noted – has the tiniest possible border with Turkey).  ↩

An unlikely group of social innovators: The Amish

March 16th, 2013

Planet Money has a gem of a story on ‘the Business Secrets Of The Amish‘. The story zooms in on how the Amish, who have made their living through small plot farming for centuries, have adapted to an environment that does not allow for this lifestyle anymore:

What you see in this hall is the transformation of Amish culture. Up until certainly the 1970s the vast vast majority of amish men were farmers. They lived at home, typical plot size would have been about a 130 acres, which is enough for a family, you know a dad and a few boys to farm using horse-powered machinery. But they lived in places like Lancaster county and Holmes county, Ohio where land prices have gotten bigger and bigger, the Amish have doubled in the last 40 years because the have so many children and what has happend is more and more kids can’t afford to buy farms and the fathers can only divide the farms so many ways. If you have 7 boys your 130 acres pretty quickly becomes too small to even be worth farming and then what happens to their boys? So for the first time ever a majority of Amish men in America are not farming, they are finding other ways to make a living.

So right trough the 1960s into the 1970s all of these guys’ fathers or grandfathers would have been farmers and there might have been in any community one or two guys who farmed but also did a little carpentry on the side or a little blacksmithing on the side. But now you have tens of thousands of amish businesses, tens of thousands of people who have industry, this convention center here in a few months this is going to be the Amish furniture show and it is not for the general public, it is not ‘oh lets go down to Amish country and get a nice dressoir’, this is serious business: Walmart, Sears, JC Penny come here to buy, to place orders with huge amish factories, this is serious business. [...]

The flexibility that the amish have shown in adapting to this new social reality is quite remarkable (especially if you compare this to the way the entertainment and publishing industry react to the change in economic fundamentals in their business environments). Who would have thought that a 320 year old religion that is known for it’s adherence to a strict set of behavioural rules (referred to with the delightful Germanism ‘Die Ordnung’) would turn to what is currently hyped as ‘Social Innovation’ to ensure their survival?