Mixed bag – 4 links

This is just a really pleasant read. I was aware of the Burning man festival when it was still a fairly unknown event in the freak calendar. I was young enough, although not terribly young to be honest, to imagine I would go. Not this year, of course, next year, next year would be the year I’d get it together and get out there. The rather ironic desire to get organised enough to get out to Burning man was not something that hit me with the same laconic amusement that it does right now.

This rather wonderful recounting of a trip to Burning man tells the tale of Wells Tower, his 69 year old father, and 2 of their friends, and what they encountered when they got there. Tower senior, an economics professor with a voting record that included support for George W Bush, and his son are not the kind of people you might expect to see at such a hippie mecca, but that combined with the simple fact of the enthusiastic immersion of Tower senior, and the nervous, sceptical but sincere engagement of Tower junior makes this a true delight.

It also reassures me that I’ve still got plenty of time to book my own Black Rock experience. Next year. I’ll be organised enough next year.

Burning Man

 

 

This is a short interview with Michael Wolff taking a small, but forensic and caustic, sledgehammer to the state of play for digital media in 2014. He doesn’t go into depth here but this is a quick read that should give you pause for thought when you consider the challenges that lie ahead for the health of digital publishing. I think we can turn the corner, that we can find a way to retain some quality in the landscape (quality publishing environments…as Wolff points we aren’t suffering for quality of information) but Wolff holds a bleaker vision than I do, even though we overlap on a great deal of what is happening.

Harsh words

 

 

Ian Bogost had been somewhat critical about the world, as he perceived it, of social games. The push for monetisation, the unthinking assumed ownership of a players time (he observes that deadlines, driven by absolute time, not game time force a user to play through the imposition of dread. Miss that harvest point….no sir, you don’t want to do that), among other things. Anyway he was challenged, not unreasonably, to experience the developers side of the experience. And so, part game, part art and fully satirical, he created cow clicker, a game where you are allowed to click your cow every 6 hours. It was never a huge success by social game standards but it still pulled 50,000 users at its peak. This article gives us the detail.

Cow Clicker

 

 

Finally a long exploration of what happens when opiates hit a community and what subsequently happens when those opiates are taken away again through invasive and draconian law enforcement. This is the story of Subutex, and what happened when it took over the drug scene in Georgia (Europe not the US), and then when a deliberately aggressive government program more or less eradicated its usage.

There are no folksy tales here that either side of the drug debate can take solace from. Those that advocate for a loosening of drug regulation must surely be appalled by the widespread adoption of Subutex abuse prior to the legal crackdown, while those that seek zero tolerance regimes must acknowledge that a safer (but not safe) drug that really doesn’t kill many people (even compared to the likes of methadone) has now been replaced by the sheer horror of krokodil.

Instead of retiring his syringe, he injected krokodil, a homebrew so vile that I had to ask him twice to repeat the recipe. It is simple. First get codeine from a pharmacy. Then mix it with toilet-cleaner, red phosphorus (the strike-strips on matchbooks are a good source), and lighter fluid. Voilà, your krokodilis served.

You did read that right.

Subutex

 


r/pics July 2014


links again, 4 of ’em

Earlier this year Netflix and Comcast had a little contretemps about their peering agreement. Unless you spend time trying to keep up with the various layers, and the players therein, that make up the technical infrastructure of the internet then that statement potentially means absolutely nothing to you whatsoever, but actually its all quite important.

Peering is the name given to the agreements that cover the terms for transferring internet traffic between networks and they are a fundamental cornerstone of the modern internet. Because there is not one single network that covers the whole world it is important that traffic can be exchanged, as required by the needs of the user, with the least possible friction. Historically these agreements were made between engineers and each network simply agreed to open to each other as required, no money involved. Comcast decided that they wanted to buck that history and demanded payment from Netflix. Netflix suggested that prior to this negotiation Comcast were deliberately allowing congestion in certain parts of their network to negatively affect Netflix’s customers (something Comcast denied) and that they had no choice but to pay the ransom.

Level 3 is one of the big global internet backbone companies that carry enormous amounts of web traffic. They are the one of the companies that pay for, and own and maintain, the cable that runs under the oceans. This post on their blog lays out some of the dynamics that go into peering agreements and even though this post doesn’t deal directly with the situation between Netflix and Comcast it should probably give you enough information to understand who is playing the shithead and who isn’t.

Level 3

 

I never did try playing Go the ancient Chinese strategy game, and after reading this article i’m starting to think that that is no bad thing. Like chess its a 2 player war game, but unlike chess its a game (possibly the only game left) that retains an unbeaten crown in human vs computer match-ups. Machines beat humans at checkers in 1994 and chess was added to the list in 1997. Now, 17 years later Go still holds out, and holds out with comfort. Every year the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo hosts the UEC cup where computer programs compete against each other for the opportunity to compete against a Go sage, who will be one of the world’s top Go players. The challenge is not one of brute force computing power, its more about strategic understanding and the fact that by all accounts we don’t really understand what goes into being a great Go player, human or otherwise.

Wired

 

Ever wondered why the airwaves are licensed by the government? If you think about it a little, the chances are you will come to what seems like a very simple and straightforward conclusion, which is that the airwaves are licensed so that broadcasting signals don’t interfere with each other. To ensure that when you tune in to 97-99 FM here in the UK, you will receive radio one, not some other outfit broadcasting on the same frequency. Which is all well and good except that electromagnetic waves simply don’t interfere with each other. This concept of interference seems to imply that there is only so much space on any particular frequency that can carry signals, that there is only so much spectrum available. Colours are on the same spectrum as radio waves, separated only by their different frequencies, to suggest that spectrum is limited is to suggest that there is only so much Red to go around, which is clearly a farcical concept.

All of that, which is sound and uncontroversial 6th form physics, does raise some interesting questions about our radios and TVs and mobile phones, all of which broadcast across licensed electromagnetic frequencies. It turns out that the problem of interference is a problem of the broadcasting and receiving equipment not the natural scarcity of the airwaves. We have a system that limits access to frequencies because we are still using a technology base optimised to an old technical paradigm.

This piece published in Salon gives you the full detail and quotes extensively from the work of David Reed an important and prominent scientist from MIT, famous for writing the text that nailed the modern architecture of the internet. Understanding what is actually going on here turns out to be entertaining and enlightening.

Salon – The myth of interference

 

I don’t know whether this last link is being serious or not, and that alone might be the best observation I have to make about the state of modern economics.

Alex Tabarrok is a right leaning economist who authors the blog Marginal Revolution with Tyler Cowen, both are professors at George Mason University in Virginia. This short post, one of many from the right responding to the fuss being made by Piketty’s Capital, offers “2 surefire solutions to inequality”. One is to increase fertility among the rich, dilute the inheritance and reduce capital concentration. The other surefire way? To reduce fertility among the rich! The author of the post puts a lot more detail into this position than I do here. I’m leaning towards the opinion that he is simply having a laugh, but then as he is an economist i’m really not so sure.

Marginal Revolution

 

 


Links – High frequency trading, poison and Jimmy Carter

I’ve had my eye on high frequency trading (HFT) for a little while. I was initially fascinated by the overwhelming need for connectivity speeds driving up the cost of real estate near the exchanges. If you could locate your trading operation next to the exchange the tiny fractions of a second saved by geographical proximity were worth huge amounts in naked profit.

The whole thing struck me as another example of short term profiteering taking precedence over the more sensible longer term allocation of risk and investment capital (which is after all what stock markets are supposed to do).

The long term trend of shareholding periods has been in decline since the 1960’s when shares were held on average for 8 years. The following 2 links are in disagreement about what the average holding period was in 2012 but whichever data point you prefer, 5 days according to Businessinsider or 22 seconds according to London’s Daily Telegraph, it is clear that we are using the mechanic that is the stock market, in a radically different way than we have ever done before.

Part of the overarching societal philosophy of share ownership was that the long term incentives held by investors, via shareholding, would act as a brake on the incentives for larceny, held by the professional management class. But those long term incentives can only act as a brake if the shares are held in a long term pattern, and today that is not the case. To be fair this is not a triumph of the managerial class over the investor class, this is driven by the profiteering of Wall street and London’s City too. Simplistically more trading generates more trading income, but there are other factors acting here too.

Firstly we have a global capital investment paradigm that is focused on the needs of finance capital not production capital. This so called casino approach to capitalism, and its relationship to production capital, is best understood through the analysis of Carlota Perez in her stunning, and surprisingly accessible, Technological Revolutions and Financial CapitalThis is a very quick summary of her ideas.

Secondly, and something that has only surfaced into popular discourse recently, it appears that there is a fraudulent mechanic in widespread use as a result of HFT. Michael Lewis has penned the expose in his book Flash Boys.

In essence the advantage bestowed on certain traders as a result of their proximity to certain exchanges generates more than quicker sight of price movements. The original story of HFT was that this small advantage generated thousands of small arbitrage trades, but the window of opportunity to make these trades was so small that it could only be accomplished by computers acting autonomously via algorithms.

Among other things Lewis has showed that the various routings around the multiple exchanges are illegally skirting regulations that are designed to present the same price on all exchanges at the same time. This means that a trading outfit that operates on multiple exchanges can make trades based on the market intelligence of a received order. If a client instructs the trader to buy all 10,000 shares at the price they are listed they will need to buy them from multiple exchanges, but the trader’s ability to communicate to the furthest exchanges faster than the official price channels sees them instruct their machines at those locations to buy what is available. The end result is that the original client will only receive say 4000 of the shares they wanted. The differential 6000 shares are now owned by the trader, but only because of the inherent value generated by knowledge of the instruction for the original 10,000 transaction.

Interestingly a key component here is the difficulty of verification.

This lack of human insight about what is occurring through these technical networks, obscures knowledge of what is happening so much so that fraud can flourish. In this regard it is very similar to the fraud rife in the ad tech networks for digital display advertising.

This link from the Washington Post sets the scene very well, explaining the nature of the wider problem.

This piece, published by the NYT is actually an adaptation from Lewis’s book and details how the situation was eventually understood and the actions being taken to rectify the problem. Its long but really good.

 

 

In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London with the lethally radioactive chemical Polonium. If you recall the incident at the time you will remember that it took a long time before anyone was able to understand what was happening to him, what the poisoning agent was and where he was poisoned. The original location was believed to be the Itsu sushi restaurant in Piccadilly although it eventually turned out to be the Pine Bar in the Millennium hotel in Grosvenor square.

The story is much more involved than any 5 minute news segment could possibly have hoped to portray, which I guess is not a surprise. Litvinenko himself was no innocent, with a history in the feared FSB and the KGB before that. He took a stand in favour of Boris Berezovsky over Vladimir Putin, something that no ordinary man would do, and maybe ultimately was contributory to the situation he found himself in.

This article is very long but if you enjoy a spy story, fictional or otherwise, then you will certainly enjoy this. Something I didn’t understand was how much concern was raised by the presence of Polonium in London. The decontamination program employed a staggering 3000 people and operated across 50 different sites, 2 simple numbers but they invoke images of a Men in Black style clean-up operation happening under our noses but with no obvious sign whatsoever that it was happening.

The article also describes the strange world of the Russian Oligarchs and as a result tells part of the recent history of the post cold war Russian experience.

It’s worth finding the time to read this. For fun.

How radioactive poison became the assassin’s weapon of choice

 

 

This next piece is also a pleasure to read if only because it is so refreshing to hear an American president (ex) talking so candidly about the role and position of America in the world today and issues within the scope of American domestic politics as well. Jimmy Carter never was like all the rest, whether you agreed with him, whether or not you are a natural republican or a natural democrat it is difficult to fault his sincerity and his integrity. There aren’t many world leaders that it’s easy to say that about.

On the topic of religious persecution of women’s rights.

Well, they actually find these verses in the Bible. You know, I can look through the New Testament, which I teach every Sunday, and I can find verses that are written by Paul that tell women that they shouldn’t speak in church, they shouldn’t adorn themselves and so forth. But I also find verses from the same author, Paul, that say all people are created equal in the eyes of God. That men and women are the same before God; that masters and slaves are the same and that Jews and Gentiles are the same. There’s no difference between people in the eyes of God. And I also know that Paul wrote the 16th chapter of Romans to that church and he pointed out about 25 people who had been heroes in the very early church — and about half of them are women. So, you know, you could find verses, but as far as Jesus Christ is concerned, he was unanimously and always the champion of women’s rights. He never deviated from that standard. And in fact he was the most prominent champion of human rights that lived in his time and I think there’s been no one more committed to that ideal than he is.

I’m not a religious man but I do wish there were more prominent leaders who hold a strong faith, willing to call out the contradictions within their religious texts and simply choose the side that is kind caring and decent instead of aggressive and divisive.

Jimmy Carter

 


4 videos about technology

This is a fun way to look at the concept of lag. What we have here is an Oculus Rift, headphones, a webcam and a Raspberry Pi all put together to increase the lag from a third of a second to 3 seconds. It’s actually an advert for a Swedish fiber ISP selling fast connectivity, but that is easy to forgive as the message is well delivered and amusing. Its not about virtual reality at all, but it does nonetheless bring home how important latency is in the VR experience.

 

Ok, so this next video is VR as VR, as in it doesn’t show the Oculus interacting with the real world. Still great though. Its early days for the Rift but this is a good start, a taster if you will.

 

This video combines a few different development memes from the computing world. The internet of things, interface development, home automation, office automation, projection. It also shows some of the development directions that I discussed in my recent post about mobile. Its a table, 3 lights, a wall and a computer than can hear and see. Very interesting.

 

Finally a small change of direction. This is a group of kids reacting to Walkmans. There is lots in here and it is a joy to watch (particularly the one kid smarter than the others who seems to know his own mind, most are appalled at the observation that a Walkman cost $200, he calmly observed that an iPad costs $700). Perhaps the biggest take out is that the paradigm of mechanical, not computational, functionality is just beyond them. They poke the buttons gently, as you would with a touchscreen, there is no concept of opening the device, no expectation that another item is required (the cassette itself), or even headphones, and horror that a cassette might only hold 16 songs! There is some succour here for the older among us, if you have ever been confused by a new technology, or watched a parent in a similar situation, then this video will have some ringing similarities. Clearly, misunderstanding technology goes both ways.


r/pics May 2014


3 ways to look at the world, past, present and future

I’ve read this essay twice now, some months apart. On both occasions it has irritated and enthralled me at the same time. It is an odd experience to be enthralled by something (the ideas in the essay) that simultaneously causes feelings of extreme discomfort. There are some great ideas here, but I can’t help feel that the solutions suggested are overly influenced by the very young world view of the American model of governance and administration.

Venkat lays out 2 eye opening concepts for understanding the way a state seeks to govern a population.

Firstly a reduction of the state’s requirements (in order to exist), to counting the population, conscripting the population and taxing the population. Obvious once you think about it maybe, but one of those ideas that is huge once you do.

Secondly, that technologies are always the medium by which government’s gain the consent of a population to be governed. To be fair consent is not necessarily the right word, as the first such technology that Venkat mentions is the sword, but the idea (semantics apart) is still a powerful filter for looking at the relationship between a state and its population (even if at times the picture is ugly).

The broad argument is that a population that is inherently gaining mobility (virtual and geographic), causes problems for the current model of governance which is significantly based on knowing that most people in a population don’t move in and out of administrative boundaries on a regular basis. As this mobility increases, goes the argument, then if we accept that a government will have to govern (counting, conscripting, taxing) then with increased mobility must come increased surveillance. Hence the consent of the surveilled.

It’s a long essay, and you will have to stop and think along the way to follow every idea presented (as usual with Venkat the piece is very dense), but it is worth it.

Upfront I suggested that I had a concern with the piece, and I do, but it does not diminish what is a very rich piece of writing that can spark much involved thinking of your own. I do feel that much of what is written is informed by an immature model of American governance, based on the history of that country. The 50 states of the USA have always struck me as a slightly odd model built by a young country still obsessed in strange measures with the idea of a wild west. As a child even, I remember feeling a peculiar dissonance watching the movie Porkies, where to evade the police the high schoolers merely needed to cross county lines.

If, however, you consider these ideas as factors affecting the global stage, we can start to think about how political globalisation will inevitably be influenced. Maybe that’s a 30 year horizon, maybe it’s a 300 year horizon, either way there is lots to get your teeth into here.

Consent of the Surveilled 

 

Crypto-currencies are really nothing new, they’ve been around as concepts for a long long while and as real available commercially exchangeable entities since 2009 when the Bitcoin code was released. Nonetheless we are this year starting to see a significant maturation of how Bitcoin is being reported. More specifically we are seeing the emergence of stories about the blockchain, the idea at the core of the Bitcoin protocol. Particularly there is significant activity in the VC sector driving much of this interest.

Bitcoin is often misconstrued as an anonymous currency, which simply isn’t true. In fact the whole secret sauce is that in the absence of a central banking authority your transactions are actually made very public indeed. It is possible to obfuscate your link to any particular bitcoin transaction but this is not an inherent part of the protocol at all.

The excitement is around the idea of distributed consensus systems. The heart of a distributed consensus system, in this reading, is the idea known as the blockchain. Essentially a public ledger of transactions, the blockchain cleverly solves many of the problems that are commonly dealt with by centralised authority.

Distributed consensus as an idea potentially impacts many more sectors than just currency. Any societal entity that depends on a centralised authority could be in the cross hairs, one example is Namecoin, an alternative to the DNS, which can allocate .bit domain names on a decentralised basis.

This article does a superb job of explaining the blockchain itself and how it solves the problems of centralisation. If you have any interest in technology, and emergent trends therein, then this is something you need to read.

How the Bitcoin Protocol Actually Works

 

In contrast to Venkat’s pragmatic reading of the oblique structures that inform modern governance models, this essay from Yanis Varoufakis of the University of Athens (currently resident at University of Texas at Austin), explores the question of what the internet can do to ‘repair’ democracy.

The hunch underpinning this paper is that, behind voter apathy and the low participation in politics, lays a powerful social force, buried deeply in the institutions of our liberal democracies and working inexorably toward undermining democratic politics. If this hunch is right, it will take a great deal more to re-vitalise democracy than a brilliant Internet-based network linking legislators, executive and voters.

His approach is informed by an examination of the original democracy of Athens, paying attention to both its structures and its hypocrisies (Athens was a state built on slavery), and how that differs from the underpinning historic influences that structured modern western liberal democracies.

His aim is not to discourage those that seek to use modern technologies to reinvigorate democracy, but to point their innovations in the right direction. Thus he explores the perceived issues with direct democracy, the idea that we can all vote on all the issues, and the subsequent conclusion that voter apathy is not a bug of a governance model built on the needs of a mercantilist ruling class, but a feature.

In contrast to the Athenian model, whereby the poor but free labourer was empowered equally alongside the richest man, in a system that has evolved to devalue citizenship while massively extending its reach (no slaves in liberal democracies, at least not mandated by law) whilst simultaneously transferring real power from the political sphere to the economic, solutions that simply make political connection between our governing institutions and the people more efficient, will likely make little difference.

In this reading the changes required are economic, not political, with subsequent change in the political sphere only plausible once such changes within the economy are in place.

This may not be the most optimistic reading of today’s political landscape, but it is a well constructed and researched argument worthy of your time. Must read reading.

Can the Internet Democratise Capitalism