Technology

Bitcoin reward cut in half again, with much less effect than one should expect

Chart of the last year of Bitcoin hashrate

On May 11, a major event took place in the bitcoin world, yet it had no negative effect on the price of the coin and much less effect on mining than it would seem it should. This event is known as the "halving," and it means the reward for mining bitcoins was suddenly cut in half.

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Guide to having a good ZOOM video meeting

A Zoom 9 person meeting with smiling attractive people professionally lit and not wearing headsets.

People are doing huge amounts of videoconferencing during the Covid crisis. The tools keep improving, but there's a great deal that individual participants can do to make the meetings better. They take some effort but it's worth it.

In car navigation needs to learn to shut up

I think driving navigation is a great thing, but the UI is all wrong. It needs to work to understand me, to see the routes I have driven with it 100 times, and only tell me when there is something unusual I need to know, not where to turn to get to my house (or telling me "You have arrived at your destination" at my driveway.) The ideal navigation system, on a commute, won't even say a word to me unless there is traffic that means I should not take my standard route. How do we make it smarter?

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Reflections on 30 years of the dot-com

Tomorrow, June 8, marks the 30th anniversary of my launch of ClariNet.com. In the 1980s, there was a policy forbidding commercial use of the internet backbone, but I wanted to do a business there and found a loophole and got the managers of NSFNet to agree, making ClariNet the first company created to use the internet as a platform, the common meaning of a "dot-com."

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HODL is bad for Bitcoin

You've probably heard the catchword in the bitcoin/crytpocurrency world of "HODL!" Based on somebody's typo, it is an encouragement to hold on to your bitcoins rather than sell them as the price ramps up to crazy levels. If you're a true believer, you will HODL. Don't cave in to the temptation and pressure to sell (SLEL?) but be sure to HODL. (Previously I wrote about the issues which occur should Bitcoin's price actually stabilize.

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What happens if/when Bitcoin stabilizes in price

I've been doing some analysis of the "HODL" movement (which attempts to use social pressure to convince people to hold on to Bitcoin and other holdings, rather than taking the normal profit-taking steps after such a large appreciation.) I believe that HODL goes against what a cryptocurrency is supposed to be about, since to be valuable it has to be useful, and to be useful, people need to be using it, not holding it. I will explore this in another article next week.

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Using video and telepresence for below-average academic conference talks

A sad reality today at most academic conferences is that it's fairly common for at least one speaker to not make it due to visa problems. This is not just true because of the USA's reduced welcome to foreigners, it happens in other places as well.

Could digital money offer a new solution to addiction and gambling?

I've been mulling a bit over the philosophy of law, and one concept I have been exploring is that a key to understanding a major class of immoral acts is to look at attempts to exploit flaws in human cognition and physiology. There's been a reasonable amount of scientific study of the "bugs" in the way humans think by economists, game theorists and psychologists, and while some of the bugs are debatable, some are fairly undisputed. This might help build moral codes.

A cryptographic solution to securely aggregate allegations could make it easier to come forward

Nobody wants to be the first person to do or say a risky thing. One recent example of this is the revelations that a number of powerful figures, like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly and Bill Cosby, had a long pattern of sexual harassment and even assault, and many people were aware of it, but nobody came forward until much later.

People finally come forward when one brave person goes public, and then another, and finally people see they are not alone. They might be believed, and action might be done.

Eleven years ago, I proposed a system to test radical ideas, primarily aimed at voting in bodies like congress. The idea was to create a voting system where people could cast encrypted votes, with the voter's identity unrevealed. Once a majority of yes votes were cast, however, the fragments of the decoding key would assemble and the votes and the voter identities could be decoded.

This would allow, for example, a vote on issues where a majority of the members support something but few are willing to admit it. Once the total hit the majority, it would become a passed bill, with no fear in voting.

I still would like to see that happen, but I wonder if the approach could have more application. The cryptographic approach is doable when you have a fixed group of members voting who can even meet physically. It's much harder when you want to collect "votes" from the whole world.

You can easily build the system, though, if you have a well trusted agency. It must be extremely trusted, and even protected from court orders telling it to hand over its data. Let's discuss the logistics below, but first give a description of how it would work.

Say somebody wants to make an allegation, such as "I was raped by Bill Cosby" or "The Mayor insisted I pay a bribe" or "This bank cheated me." They would enter that allegation as some form of sworn legal statement, but additional details and their identity would be encrypted. Along with the allegation would be instructions, "Reveal my allegation once more than N people make the same allegation (at threshold N or less.)"

In effect, it would make saying "#metoo" have power, and even legal force. It also tries to balance the following important principles, which are very difficult to balance otherwise:

  1. Those wronged by the powerful must be able to get justice
  2. People are presumed innocent
  3. The accused have a right to confront the evidence against them and their accusers

How well this work would depend on various forms of how public the information is:

  • A cryptographic system would require less (or no) trusting individual entities or governments, but would make public the number of allegations entered. It would be incorruptible if designed well.
  • An agency system which publishes allegation counts and actual allegations when the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps allegation counts private until the threshold is reached.
  • An agency system which keeps everything private, and when the threshold is reached discloses the allegation only to authorities (police, boards of directors).

There are trade-offs as can be shown above. If allegations are public, that can tell other victims they are not alone. However, it can also be a tool in gaming the system.

The allegation must be binding, in that there will be consequences for making a false allegation once the allegations are disclosed, especially if the number of existing allegations is public. We do not want to create a power to make false anonymous allegations. If it were public that "3 people allege rape by person X" that would still create a lot of public shame and questions for X, which is fine if the allegations are true, but terrible if they are not. If X is not a rapist, for example, and the threshold is high, it will never be reached, and those making the allegations would know that. Our system of justice is based important principles of presumption of innocence, and a right to confront your accusers and the evidence against you.

To make video-meetings work, force people to stay engaged

Our videoconferencing tools have been getting better, but meetings with remote video participants still don't work very well. One problem is poor use of the technology (such as a lack of headsets) which I outlined in my guide to room based video meetings. These can be worked on and the tech keeps improving.

The other big area for improvement is the discipline of the people in the meeting. The big challenge in typical meetings is that some of the participants are 2nd class. This is obvious when you have a meeting room with multiple local people and some remote users. It can also happen when people have differing levels of technology. In an ideal meeting, everybody in the meeting is on the same footing as far as their presence and ability to communicate. In addition, everybody should be as fully engaged with the meeting as if they were in a single olde-tyme meeting room.

We break this rule often. It is quite common to have remote attendees turn off sending video, or mute their audio, for example, making them be more like a TV audience than members of the meeting. It makes sense because it saves bandwidth, and people don't like being watched. We also tolerate having some people present just on the phone, while others are there in person and others are on low and high quality video systems.

If you hope for a good meeting, you also want to express that the main value of the conferencing system is to let people attend without travel. It is not there to let them attend without the same effort and engagement they would put into a meeting they did travel to. The things I describe may seem minor, and they may veto features of great convenience, but those features are actually bugs and disrupt meetings more than people realize.

Here are some principles to get around this:

No meeting room

In an ideal video meeting, everybody is on their own personal video station. There is no meeting room. This means that even if several of the attendees are in the same building, they don't go to a room, they stay at their desks and join the meeting just like any other remote.

This is obviously hard to do if the majority of participants are in the building, but it can be worth it. It also means you don't need room-based videoconferencing systems, which are expensive and don't work well. But if only 2 or 3 of the participants are in the same place, definitely consider having no meeting room. The big benefit is that when everybody has their own microphone, everybody hears everybody really well.

Today you can't have people in the same room using their own computer because they hear the other people both via their headset and through the air. Perhaps some day a smart videoconferencing system will understand that some people are in the same room (you can tell because some sounds do get into the microphones) and adjust. It would allow those who still want a physical meeting room to get the great audio and video that comes from everybody using their own computer and headset. Those in the room together would still be higher-level participants, but remotes would not be that badly off.

Headsets at all times

We have gotten seduced by how well some voip systems handle speakerphone mode in one on one conversations. Don't be fooled. They don't do group meetings well at all. They seem like they do, but quickly you realize that now everybody hears all the random noises from the location of a speakerphone user. They do things like step away from their desks to eat, chat or take a phone call, and everybody hears it. Keyboards and mice clickety-clack. Sirens go by. It's easy to ignore this in a one on one call, but it disrupts a meeting.

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