24 May 2019

Let's Talk about Bitcoin

What is Bitcoin? Well, if you're a coder you've probably read the 2008 eight-page 'Whitepaper' by someone calling themselves Satoshi Nakamoto here. There it is called a "Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System," and that is a clear and precise description. If you haven't read the paper, you should. It is an elegant schema laying out a proposal for an internet of money that avoids the controls of both the private and public banking and monetary systems. If, for example, I am somewhere in the Amazon basin and you are in Outer Mongolia and I know your bitcoin address, I should be able to transfer bitcoin to you (or, at least, transfer to you the permission to use a certain segment of bitcoin I happen to control at the moment) almost instantaneously—without having to go through multiple steps involving various banking systems and clearinghouses, each of which takes an inordinate amount of time and energy and, importantly, an intermediary cut.

The basis of bitcoin lies not in any underlying value or commodity like gold or silver reserves or sow belly futures or even the "full faith and credit" of some government but in mathematical logic. Transactions are bundled together, permanently encrypted or "hashed", and memorialized into a publicly available 256-bit block. Each subsequent block includes within it the hash of the previous block, thus bootstrapping a functionally unalterable chain, i.e., a blockchain. Ultimately, the blockchain is a database or ledger of every electronic transaction. [NB. Clever greedy folks have been trying to hack the math and the code and chip away at the blockchain for over a decade now, and it seems to be holding. So far.]

There are tons of issues with bitcoin that we've all read about. Ethically, all bitcoin transactions are anonymous thus inviting criminality and international laundering beyond the controls of governmental authorities. Politically, of course, this is probably the major issue for the powers that be. Financially, volatility due to bitcoin's lack of underlying "real world" or tangible value—linked to some commodity or so-called fiat currency—makes it a potentially risky investment. Functionally, the irreversibility of transactions can create problems where one party is preying fraudulently on another unsuspecting party. Further, the proliferation of other types of cryptocurrency creates confusion for those not actively involved in the space. Likewise, practically, the necessity of understanding and implementing appropriate digital security measures is a significant barrier to entry for many. And physically, the amount of energy required to digitize the monetary system is daunting. [NB. Cleverer folks than me are working on systematic ways to deal with these and other issues.]

Notwithstanding, there is something profoundly interesting about bitcoin. (And here, I talk only about bitcoin and its blockchain.) First, it stands the current monetary system on its head: trust resides in the certainty of each and every individual transaction instead of in the financial system—Fort Knox, Wall Street, Federal Reserve, government central banks, the IMF, the World Bank, etc. (I only need mention 2008, the year Nakamoto's Whitepaper appeared, to emphasize the importance of this.) Each bitcoin transaction, no matter how large or small, is considered a contract. And the only criterion for the transaction to be memorialized to the blockchain is the validity of that contract as determined by a fixed, public set of protocols. A transaction either satisfies the protocols and is valid, or it doesn't and isn't. Bitcoin democratizes trust. Or, if you prefer, de-colonizes or de-imperializes the international monetary system. Each individual is his or her own bank. Bitcoin empowers individual smart phones to do everything a Citibank or a financial clearing house does. Instantaneously and without intermediation.

Second, and this is what I find most interesting (and promising), ultimately bitcoin seeks to monetize information. It's right there in the name: BIT + COIN. According to Wikipedia, "[a] bit (short for binary digit) is the smallest unit of data in a computer. A bit has a single binary value, either 0 or 1." The world is witnessing an explosion of digitized data as we move from the Googlized web of text searches and cat videos to the internet of things and 5G where, e.g., dumb appliances communicate with each other and with the energy systems that power them without human intervention. It is almost impossible to describe how vast these systems of information transfer are becoming, from driverless automobiles to smart refrigerators, from always-broadcasting, always-interfacing social media to interoperable energy grids, from online voting systems to Mars colonization. And the list goes on. Yet, each bit of data transfer requires a measurable amount of energy to execute. Theoretically, if you can put a price on the energy required for the transfer of a single bit of information—no matter how minuscule the monetary increment—you are creating a potential system of wealth that is, at least for me, incalculable. And this, it seems to me, is bitcoin's great promise.

What's interesting about this is that though the systems of digitial data transfer will proliferate exponentially over time in ways we cannot begin to imagine, there is only ever going to be a fixed amount of bitcoin. For complicated mathematical reasons, there can only exist 21,000,000 bitcoins. That's it. And the last of these will not be mined until sometime around 2140. (Practically, a number of these have been or will be lost due to poor digital hygiene, but that's beside the point.) Twenty-one million is woefully inadequate—by orders of magnitude—to account for each bit of information involved in all these digital transactions, thus Bitcoin has been subdivided into units called Satoshis. Each Satoshi is equal to one hundred millionth of a single bitcoin (0.00000001 BTC). And as a corollary, there will only ever exist 21 quadrillion Satoshis.

The idea here is that instead of an inflationary currency, one which like our own continually prints more money (which devalues and discourages saving: think about the interest you are currently getting on your savings account), bitcoin is deflationary: it's value will only increase as its applications expand because there can never be more bitcoins. This encourages saving and speculation but may disincentivize spending and transactions. Again, bitcoin has no inherent value; its value is entirely transactional, that is to say, its agreed upon value at the time of transaction. Recall that the first "real world" bitcoin transaction was 10,000 bitcoins for two pizzas. Nowadays, such a transaction would be measured in thousandths of one bitcoin. Due to its essentially transactional nature, bitcoin will continue to have, for good or ill, a relativistic and unstable valuation.

The amount of energy required not only to hash and mine each and every transaction (a problem the Lightning network seeks to address by ledgering many transactions off-chain) but to link a monetary value to each and every bit of information transferred would seem to be astronomical, and some amount of abstraction is inevitable. Beyond buying pizzas or clothing or cars or even houses, one can imagine that a user might choose to pay a Satoshi or two to like a Tweet or put a smiley emoji on a Facebook or Instagram post (with the cash going directly to the original poster) rather than having their online personal data surreptitiously mined and sold by social media advertising corporations. Similarly, one can imagine YouTube paying users a few Satoshis for each second they watch an ad or users paying Satoshis per second of streaming music or video. These are literally the simplest sorts of internet transactions imaginable. Or think about putting a precise cost on the amount of energy (down, say, to the milliwatt) a smart refrigerator or HVAC system uses or the exact number of bits of data required to manage a city full of self-driving Übers. The possibility of increasingly precise and timely measurements, i.e., costing, of energy usage and data processing is not negligible. And it's easy to imagine that much of the accounting for these sorts of things could be automated and bottom-lined both to reduce fees and expedite transactions. But the question remains whether the cost of that energy provides sufficient value to make its ultimate, universal application worthwhile. The answer to that question will impact the ultimate viability of bitcoin.

Bitcoin seems to put the lie to the idealism of the early internet attributed to Stewart Brand, to wit: "Information wants to be free." That statement seems as hopelessly naive today as the 'Peace, Love, and Rock 'n' Roll' hippie movement of the Sixties. Information transmittal is rapidly being automated. If it can be automated, it can be commoditized. And if it can be commoditized, it will be monetized. Down to the very bit. This feels like an economic inevitability—certainly in a capitalistic economy, something I don't foresee changing any time soon. And it's not difficult to envision bitcoin as a globalizing force in the current, increasingly fractious, nationalistic mood of the world.

I'll leave off this discussion with a question for mathematicians, physicists, coders, and engineers smarter than me to resolve. Bitcoin is specifically tied to electronics, that is to say binary computing based on base two 0's and 1's. Bits. New and more powerful computing that goes a level below electrons and bits is emerging rapidly though: quantum computing and DNA computing, to name two such. A hundred or so years from now, when the last bitcoin is scheduled to be mined, one wonders whether an economy based on bits and electrons will still be viable. Whether bitcoin might be replaced by, I don't know, a self-ledgering Qubitcoin (NB. Something by that name apparently already exists; I have no idea what it is or does.) or self-replicating RNAcoin is an open question. [Comments welcome.]

Notwithstanding, I believe there's a lot of potential in this whole blockchain paradigm, and bitcoin seems poised best to capitalize on it at the present moment and for the foreseeable future.

[Disclaimer: This is one man's opinion. I'm just a blogger. Nothing herein should be construed either as legal advice or financial investing advice. Bitcoin and cryptocurrency investing is extremely risky in the current climate, and should be undertaken cautiously and with the advice of a trusted professional investment advisor, i.e., not me!]

17 April 2019

Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote

I can't even begin to tell you how down I am for this! Apparently out this week.



Edit: Saw it! Plaza Theater, Atlanta. 9:30 pm, only showing in town. I'd forgotten what it was like for a movie to be fun. FUN! Gilliam does phantasmagoria better than pretty much anyone out there, and there's plenty to be had here. Pryce = Brilliant, wonderful. Made me forget the High Sparrow altogether. Driver = meh. Kinda' wooden which worked wonderfully in Paterson—his best by far. Some subtle allusions to Kylo Ren though—the kind of stuff that made this so much fun. The original story is obliquely identifiable throughout, something else which made this so much fun. Didn't love the twist at the end, but that's mere quibbling. I was mesmerized for the full 2 1/2 hours and plan to see it again. Also, landscapes and castles!!!

14 February 2019

Hoodoo You, Love

It's that time again. Happy St. Valentine's Day from Ellas Otha Bates (McDaniel) aka Bo Diddley. And don't forget to Hoodoo Your Love!

First, the ORIGINAL:



Now, the COVERS. My favorite first, from The Woolies—Detroit!!:



Killer version from Dr. Feelgood, too—Wilko!!:



This is probably the biggest, most well-known cover from George Thorogood—and it's most def thoroughgood:



Giant Sand tearing into it:



Some straight up Rock 'n Rolling from The Milkshakes:



Guaranteed to garner some hate, The Doors:


Live version from The Band's The Last Waltz (with Ronnie Hawkins):



If you're feeling self-indulgent, here's a Quicksilver Messenger Service performance. Psychedelic, man:



Ladies and Gentlemen, The Morlocks:



From Down Under, Oz-land: The Hoodoo Gurus lighting it up:



And in glorious Shoegaze style, it's The Jesus & Mary Chain:



Robin Thrush, Jr.'s noodling version:



Townes Van Zandt with a country folk version:



And you didn't think someone would do a Prog version, well you would be wrong. The Misunderstood:



How about UFO:



Tom Rush:



From A Group Called Smith:


Here's Johnny Winter, a real player:



Some Rockin' from The Preachers:



Brian Curran did a version:



Here's kind of a cool karaoke version by Ken Tamplin Vocal Academy:



Juicy Lucy, getting hard:



And from the Randy Bachman/Burton Cummings 100% Canadian Content Jukebox:



Dutch Mason, killin' it Rockabilly style, yo:



Santana style:



Barb Jungr. Moar of this!



Listen to Paul Roland:



Rory Gallagher, shredding:



Golden Earring did a live version:



And lastly, here's the master himself with some guy from some other band:





06 February 2019

A Heart Not Necessarily Left Though Certainly Lent

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit I've never been to the Bay Area. Until now. San Francisco is one of this country's great cities. I connected with friends I haven't seen in decades, friends who acted as personal tour guides as we caught up on each others' lives. Great food, great coffee, decent beer. Dined at friends' homes in Alameda, Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond Point, as well as restaurants in Chinatown and several places in the city. In my four days there, I walked a tad over 25 miles. I'm not ashamed to say I enjoyed being a tourist and doing touristy things for a few days. For example, I learned the original name of San Francisco was Yerba Buena, which translates to 'Mint' or, more literally, Good Herb. Did not know that! Of course, with the legalization of marijuana in California, that whole 'Good Herb' thing takes on a whole new twist. Next visit, I can get deeper. Here's a few snaps. [As always, click pic to embiggen slide show.]
A rising sun limns the canyonlands en route.
The skeletal remains of a buried giant?
Mono Lake from the sky. A different perspective.
Buster Posey, Canine Operating Officer, greets me in my hotel room. SF Giants catcher from ATL.
Sunset drinks at Land's End. Camera Obscura. Vertigo setting.
Fern, Moss, Redwoods: Muir Woods.
Tram through Fishermans Wharf.
They're scarier than the look. Mechanical brakes, steep hills. Be prepared!
Arch frames ship. Prime selfie spot.
Num num num.
It is what it says it is.
Yes. This is what I've been trying to tell you.
And more of this, please!
Botanical Gardens, Golden Gate Park.
A sacred site.
Note the birds, man.
Note the graffiti from the 1969 Indian takeover.
Inside.
Down on the Bay.
Berkeley by Night.

08 January 2019

Flushed

I am absolutely distraught.

I just found out the local county wants to re-route a sewer main through my back yard—one acre with ~400' creek bank. That could involve condemnations, easements, competing appraisals, and possibly eminent domain—and law suits. I suspect it would mean digging a trench at least 15' deep between my house and the Peachtree Creek which runs through my property.

My house and a couple flower/shrub/tree beds sit on an outcropping of granite bedrock. The proposed main would cut through it, possibly requiring dynamiting within 20' of my home which could shake the foundations of my house and cause cracks in the otherwise watertight basement.

The lawn falls off into the creek past the bedrock boulder raising issues of creek bank erosion and collapse. Ten or 15 years ago, the county provided us 200 tons of granite riprap which we had laid by hand (!) to prevent further creek bank erosion and prevent our yard from slipping into the creek. The creek provides a major runoff when it rains here. And this year we've had upwards of 70 inches of rain. During major storms, what is normally a two-feet deep clear running stream becomes a muddy 15-20 feet deep Class 2 rapids.

We have a number very large, old trees anchoring the creek bank. Before we shored up the bank, we lost one of those giant trees when its root system was undercut by the water. The proposed trench would undermine all that protection, and we would stand to lose actual acreage.

This is not to mention my goldfish pond, fountains, established plantings (e.g., specimen fringe trees and dwarf Japanese maple as well as giant azaleas and a moss lawn) 20-25 years old as well as canopy trees that block the fierce afternoon sun, a sidewalk, trellis, pier, and bridge, underground electrical and sprinkler and gas lines and installations, fences, etc.

Across the creek from me are 70+ acres of county green space woods it seems they could route this thing through. As I understand it, the county's surveying crew that has been here since before the holidays is doing a "feasibility" study. I must convince the decision-makers that the current proposed route is not feasible and that it would be cheaper, easier, and more feasible to re-route the project across the creek.

The previous resident of the house was a landscape architect who had access to all manner of ideas and designs and equipment. He did a marvelous job, and we are lucky to have this Secret Garden 'inside the perimeter' of metro Atlanta. We moved here nearly 20 years ago and have done our dead level best not to destroy his creation—not easy for a couple who'd always lived in Manhattan apartments and had trouble keeping potted plants going more than a year at a time! It's a mature haven we do not want to lose. There's no way, once 100 year-old trees and 25 year-old plantings are destroyed to replace them and return them to their current glory in what remains of our lifetimes. We've had trouble sleeping the last few weeks, and nearly every morning I wake up worrying about how to keep this from happening.

Stay tuned. Here are some pictures of the place and the proposed route of the pipeline.

02 November 2018

Somewhere in the Swamps of...South Carolina


Some pics from last week:

Gyrfalcon with its handler at Stone Mountain Highland Games. Largest falcon in the world. Amazing eyes!
Salt Marsh on Kiawah Island, SC. A unique ecosystem.
Bike path on Kiawah. Note the Live Oaks with Spanish Moss. 
Live Oak, Saw Palmetto, Deer. What the biking is like on Kiawah.
Some sort of spongey thing on the beach at Kiawah in the rosy light approaching sunset.
Kiawah Sunset!
Cypress Trees in the Swamp at Congaree National Park.
Kayaking along the Cedar Creek in Congaree NP.
Tupelo and Cypress on the Boardwalk Hike in Congaree NP. Note the Cypress Knees.
Congaree Denizen. What a beauty!
Another contribution to my 'Things Growing on Other Things' collection.
This brought back all the feelings. My first job, at the age of 13, was picking cotton. Picked for 2 or 3 summers. My cuticles have never recovered! (If you've ever picked a boll of cotton, you'll know what I mean.)
Beagle hunting with attached radio collar so his owner can locate him.
Someone suggested an upscale restaurant near Santee where we were staying. But when I saw this place, I insisted on eating here. Country Cooking: Beef hash with local rice, BBQ pork, Fried Chicken, Fried Okra, Corn Bread Hush Puppies, Apple Cobbler, Banana Pudding. Just like mama used to make!
Approaching twilight on Lake Santee.

22 October 2018

Northwest Passage — Pt. 9: Whistler/Blackcomb, BC

The last big hike of the trip. We stayed overnight in Whistler, a major ski resort in British Columbia. In summer, the slopes and the area around them are turned into mountain biking trails and hiking trails. There was a major BMX championship going down in the town itself. The gondolas and chairlifts were packed with bicycles and their riders, who rode down the precipitous slopes on groomed trails. Not my thing, but looked like tons o' fun if that's your thing.

We opted for the High Note Trail, described below. Very few other hikers. Cannot recommend this hike enough. It was glorious. The altitude was not so high that it was totally disorienting, but the air was rarified. We were above all the smoke and haze from the wildfires. The day was, in a word, perfect.

As sometimes happens, I opted for a short-cut trail back to the main lodge. The trail somehow petered out in a jumble of rocks. I negotiated my way across the rubble and up a small slope only to discover it was the wrong slope in the wrong direction. After a brief discussion with the kind, helpful folks on the Emergency Hotline, I re-oriented, backtracked down the slope and back across the morraine, skirting a few glaciated patches, and back up the slope on the other side of the saddle until I found my way back to the trail which led to the lodge where I met up with the rest of the crew who were already there! Turns out my short cut was longer than their hike. HaHa. LOL. Silly me! That'll teach me a lesson!

A very important photo. After I got "lost", i.e., the trail disappeared into a pile of rocks, I called the number there, and they helped orient me. Thanks!
Precisely the sort of thing that activates the amygdala fear response region of my brain. Yet, reader, I crossed it!
Distant glaciers. Mid-August.
Hiking the slopes and rocks. (Not my stick, btw. Don't use one.)
Patches O'Glacier.
What is this I see down in the valley?
Cheakamus Lake, tree line, distant glaciers.

Typical trail view.
Wait, where'd the trail go? Guess I'll just have to negotiate this rocky rubble and maybe I'll come across it.
Alpine meadow back on the trail again.
Waterfall near Squamish on the way back to Vancouver.
And...ketchup flavored potato chips. Don't try this at home.