More on CryptoKitties

Continuing the saga of CryptoKitties:

Last week I wondered about the business model and governance of the Ethereum swamping CyptoTulipsKitties game.  This week we learn a bit more.

Rachel Rose O’Leary reports that the game isn’t quite as “decentralized” as many might assume from it use of the Ethereum blockchain and executable contracts. <> It is mostly open source, with a few bits of game logic kept secret (for sound reasons of playability).

She reports that there are also some secret commands that lets the “core” organization (“Kitty Corp”) backdoor everything.  And playing the game requires agreeing to conventional terms and conditions that give the “core” the right to terminate or modify your assets as they will.   She also reports that the interface actually runs on a conventional server, i.e., a “centralized” architecture.

In short, in many ways, this is a conventional game that uses Ethereum as a database. This is a shocking betrayal of the basic philosophy of crypto, though, it appears to be good game design.

O’Leary quotes developers who endorse this design because “trying to run an app on the ethereum blockchain without using some help from central servers is UX suicide.” (quoting Griff Green)  I.e., as I said “smart contracts” are heinously slow and gawky, and completely unsuitable to use in a game.

So, this highly successful game “Isn’t Quite Ethereum’s Vision for Apps”.  Worse, it is sucking down resources, crowding out others from the common blockchain and consensus protocol.

Furthermore, as I noted last week, there is no barrier to cloning the game. In fact, the open source code means that pretty much anyone can make their own version of this tulip factory. Ethereum may be able to survive one CryptoKitty app, but how will it handle hundreds or thousands of them?

The bottom line is that Ethereum is by far the leader for CryptoTulip of the year.

  1. Rachel Rose O’Leary,  Scratch That: CryptoKitties Isn’t Quite Ethereum’s Vision for Apps. Coindesk.December 13 2017,


David Gerald: Bitcoin Is a Joke

Picking on many points that I have also made this year (and some I hadn’t seen), David Gerald (who blogs at “Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain”) reviews cryptonews for 2017.

He quips that Bitcoin is “the one true, digital, comedy gold.”

His piece is delicious, leaving few unscathed.  He hits the nail on the head when he says,

The bitcoin world is relentlessly optimistic, in the face of all news, positive or … differently positive.

No matter what the reality, cryptoenthusiasts are excited about their digital tulips.

Commenting on the explosion of exciting opportunities to buy into opaque ICOs, he quips:

(ME: Why am I doing this book rubbish, I could just set up an ICO and —
ME: But it could be —
WIFE: No.)

My own version of the joke is something like:

ME:  Great news!  I bought some numbers today!
WIFE:  Really??
ME: It’s OK, they’re really valuable!
WIFE: Where are they?
ME: It’s great!  They’re out there on the Internet!

  1.  David Gerard, 2017: The ‘Butt’ of Bitcoin’s Joke. Coindesk. December 12 2017,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

Cool Origami-based Muscles for Soft robots

“Soft Robots” are kind of cool, for lots of reasons.

A number of labs are working on one of the key technologies is actuators—how to move with no motors, girders, wires.  This might be done with responsive materials (e.g., shape memory wires), and with pneumatic and hydrolic power.  Much of this work is inspired by natural biological systems, which have evolved “soft” muscles that power living systems.

This winter, researchers from Robert J. Wood’s Harvard Lab report on their artificial muscles inspired by Origami [3].  These hydrolic or pneumatic powered systems are really, really powerful.


This is really, really interesting work indeed.

Artificial muscles are generally simple single action systems, e.g., a fluid driven contraction or extension. Creating a complex mechanism requires design of many different muscles,  linked together.

The research group uses principles from Origami* as a flexible framework for creating many kinds of fluid actuated muscles.  Basically, the elements are a stiff skeleton and thin balloons which can be filled with fluid. Connecting these elements in different ways creates a “muscle” that bends in different ways.

A pressure difference between the internal and external fluids induces tension in the flexible skin. This tension will act on the skeleton, driving a transformation that is regulated by its structural geometry.” (p. 3)

This concept is captured in a mathematical model, which, combined with models of materials and processes, is used to design and fabricate different designs.

A variety of motions can be achieved by programing the geometry of the skeleton” (p. 4)

The geometric principles of Origami serve to define structures to achieve the require movement [2].

The resulting system is awesomely powerful – many times more power per weight than puny human muscles. Combining two old technologies, hydrolics and Origami, the result is absurdly strong, yet cheap and light structures.  Wow!

This technique allows us to quickly program, fabricate, and implement actuation systems for very specific working environments at multiple scales

As their press release says, “Artificial muscles give soft robots superpowers”.

* I think that Origami should be added to the foundational curriculum for engineering students.

  1. Lindsay Brownell, Artificial muscles give soft robots superpowers, in Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering News. 2017.
  2. Robert J. Lang, Origami Design Secrets: Mathematical Methods for an Ancient Art, Boco Raton, CRC Press, 2012.
  3. Shuguang Li, Daniel M. Vogt, Daniela Rus, and Robert J. Wood, Fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017.


Robot Wednesday

Transparent Photovoltaic Power

This fall, a team from Michigan State reviewed recent developments in the important up and coming transparent photovoltaics (TPV) technology.  This cool solar tech is similar to conventional PV materials, except clear as glass.  If this can be made to work well, then every window and glass surface could be harvesting solar power, yet function just as well as non-generating glass.

(Earlier posts on specific technologies: here, here.)



Traverse and colleagues review the current technology in considerable detail, recounting the work of a number of labs and companies [1].

A key piece of the puzzle is to let visible light pass through, while harvesting wavelengths outside human vision.  Conventional PV cells harvest visible and invisible light, so this restriction limits the comparative theoretical efficiency, though there is still plenty of potential.

There are several strategies that are being investigated.

  • Non-wavelength-selective, spatially segmented PV. I.e., patches of opaque PV with clear spaces in between
  • Non-wavelength-selective thin-film PV <<example form blog?>>  semi-transparent film
  • Wavelength-selective thin-film PV e.g., absorbs in near infrared, but transmits visible spectrum

Another strategy is to concentrate the light by capturing incident light and redirect it to conventional PV at the edge of the window. This might be done through dyes that capture photons and fluoresce toward the edge. Similarly, material may scatter incident light toward the edges (making a milky or foggy glass).

PV systems with various degrees of transmission. (From [1])
The paper sketches key technical problems to get useful PV out of polymers, including moving the electrons out of the film, and issues such as angle and ruggedness.

The authors are rather firm on the point that the transmission should “be reported as the integration of the trans- mission spectrum weighted against the photopic response of the human eye as accepted by the window industry”.  (I gather there is considerable variability in what is reported in the literature.)

They advocate a new metric which they call “light utilization efficiency (LUE).”  This metric characterizes the overall performance, including both PV and light transmission.

These technologies are promising for several applications. Obviously, building windows might contribute to the over power available for consumption. (Theoretically, this might amount to 100GW across the whole US—a significant fraction of current production.)   TPV might also self-power “smart windows” that contribute to conservation and comfort.

Another application is for electronic devices, where a TPV display screen contributes to powering the device, allowing charging while in use. This is also promising for wearable electronics.  I would add small robots and IoT sensor nets.

Another important possibility would be TPV windows that extend the range of electric vehicles.

These applications have varying demands, but TPV technology is already in range of some, providing that it can be made durable and mass produced.

  1. Christopher J. Traverse, Richa Pandey, Miles C. Barr, and Richard R. Lunt, Emergence of highly transparent photovoltaics for distributed applications. Nature Energy, 2 (11):849-860, 2017/11/01 2017.

A Ducklike Dinosaur?

Dinosaurs occupied all of Earth, including the skies and waters.  Just as contemporary avian dinosaurs, ancient dinos evolved a plethora of bodies, specialized for different environments and ways of life.

This month, a team from Europe and Mongolia report on a new analysis of what appears to be a unique and weird looking aquatic dinosaur [1].  The particular specimen has an uncertain provenance, having been sold on the black market, and only recently examined by scientists [2].  Such a history screams “fake”, and the features of fossil are so unexpected that any reasonable person would assume it is phony.

However, careful examination with X-rays revealed that Halszkaraptor escuilliei is real, if unusual and, indeed mysterious. About the size of a Turkey, the specimen is clearly adapted for swimming – sort of.  Flipper like wings? Check.  Webbed feet? Nope?  Crocodile like snout? Check.

This is a reconstruction of Halszkaraptor escuilliei. The small dinosaur was a close relative of Velociraptor, but in both body shape and inferred lifestyle, it more closely recalls some water birds like modern swans. (Lukas Panzarin, with scientific supervision from Andrea Cau)

The paper offers an interesting diagram comparing the anatomy of Halszkaraptor to other animals. It seems to be partway between specialized swimmers and land animals. With only one specimen, and working only from the skeleton, it is difficult to know how to interpret this finding.

Morphometric analyses of aquatic adaptations in the Halszkaraptor forelimb. a, Binary plot of length ratios among manual digits I–III in aquatic and terrestrial sauropsids (n = 84): Halszkaraptor clusters with long-necked aquatic reptiles. b, Binary plot of principal components 2 and 3 from a morphometric analysis of ten skeletal characters of the forelimb and sternum in birds (n = 246; principal component 1 describes body size variation and is therefore not considered; see Supplementary Information): Halszkaraptor clusters with wing- propelled swimming birds. Silhouettes in a provided by D. Bonadonna and L. Panzarin.


This specimen is in the raptor family, which is the first aquatic raptor known. Indeed it is a rare swimming dinosaur.  Most of the dinosaur age sea life are not actually in the dinosaur family (they are related to turtles, et al.)

This study is a great example of how imaging technology is increasing the ability to understand fossil remains. Intensive but non-destructive examination made it possible to determine that this is not a fake, and to pull out details within the rock. Almost every paleontological report these days includes some form of “see through” imagery. This is a tremendous advance, and we can hope that methods will continue to improve.

(Many reports also include statistically constructed taxonomic trees, which I consider less of a boon. These family trees are as much art as science, and the visual appearance suggests far more certainty than is generally justified.)

Anyway, the dinosaur of the week is Halszkaraptor escuilliei!  (the designation “esculliel” honors the person who returned the fossil to Mongolia.)

  1. Andrea Cau, Vincent Beyrand, Dennis F. A. E. Voeten, Vincent Fernandez, Paul Tafforeau, Koen Stein, Rinchen Barsbold, Khishigjav Tsogtbaatar, Philip J. Currie, and Pascal Godefroit, Synchrotron scanning reveals amphibious ecomorphology in a new clade of bird-like dinosaurs. Nature, 12/06/online 2017.
  2. Nicholas St. Fleur, This Duck-Like Dinosaur Could Swim. That Isn’t the Strangest Thing About it., in New York Times – Trilobites. 2017: New York.


Book Review: “The Adventurist” by J. Bradford Hipps

The Adventurist by J. Bradford Hipps

Hipps has worked as a software engineer, and this novel is set in a contemporary corporate software division.  Work life is described fairly realistically.  The protagonist is unhappy, though apparently not about work, per se.

I thought this story might be another of the growing “Revenge of the English Majors” genre, ferocious fictional accounts of the horrors of contemporary high tech capitalism (such as Touch, Startup, The Assistants, or even Sourdough).

But Hipps seems to be sympathetic to corporate life, however gawdawful it seems in his portrait.  Mostly he’s worried about lonely, lost people, who don’t seem to know what they want, let alone how to get it.  If anything, work offers a stage for lost people to act and interact.

Also unlike the emerging “revenge of the English majors” genre, the protagonist does not drop out to start a new, more humane life.  At the end, his troubles are unresolved (though his career does seem to be over).

Overall, this is a depressing and unsatisfying story. Everybody is unhappy, and there is no solution.

  1. J. Bradford Hipps, The Adventurist, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2016.


Sunday Book Reviews

VR for Bacteria?

A group of researchers in Austria report an interesting immersive computer environment – for individual bacteria [1].

The key problem is to connect between the computer and the ‘sensory’ and ‘motor’ apparatus of the user-bacteria.  Touch screen and ear buds?  Not so much.

In the case of the E. coli, the I/O channels are chemical and light.  In particular, the subject bacteria have “a light-regulated gene transcription module.” (p.3 ) As this gene is switched on and off, the bacteria fluorescence changes (output detected by a microscope). Inputs are various nutrient chemicals.

The overall apparatus pins the individual bacteria in a channel with chemical input and outflows to sustain it for days under the microscope.  Immobilized this way, the bacteria’s environment is controlled by a computer, and its responses picked up by the computer.  I.e., this is a fully immersive computer interface for the E. coli!


This apparatus was designed to aid experimentation, but their paper shows various demonstrations that manipulate the bacteria into human recognizable patterns.  Interestingly, thee look a lot like the patterns generated by Conway’s Game of Life, which is a completely artificial digital “organism”.

Ironic demo of the year:  implement Game of Life with a grid of real E. coli!

The Institute for Science and Technology press release described this work as “Virtual Reality for Bacteria [2]. <lnk>> That’s an interesting claim.  It is true that the device creates an environment where the computer controls the perceptual input of the “user” bacteria, and the “user” interacts through natural behaviors in the environment, which are detected.  These are the essential features of and “immersive” computer interface.

Is it “virtual reality”?  It hard to say, because the essential feature of VR is that it “fools” the user, and is accepted as “real”.  These concepts are iffy for humans, and beyond dubious for E. coli.  My own view is that this is a questionable use of the term “virtual reality”.

Anywy, this is a great case to think about, because it really pushes the concepts to the very logical limits.

  1. Remy Chait, Jakob Ruess, Tobias Bergmiller, Gašper Tkačik, and Călin C. Guet, Shaping bacterial population behavior through computer-interfaced control of individual cells. Nature Communications, 8 (1):1535, 2017/11/16 2017.
  2. IST Austria, Virtual Reality for Bacteria, in IST Austria – News. 2017.

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