Category Archives: Sociotechnical

Does Quantum Computing Kill Bitcoin?

Quantum Crypto Is Upon Us

We know it is coming. Probably.

For the last 25 years and more, we’ve known that quantum computing is coming, and that one of its first uses will be code breaking.

Much of the cryptographic infrastructure of the Internet is based on methods that are proven to be so hard to compute that a brute force or guessing attack is “infeasible”. Generally, this means that with current and projected technology, it would take a long time, years or centuries, to work it out.

But quantum computers should be zillions of times faster at certain kinds of computations, including the beating heart of key crypto algorithms. Uh, oh!

This cuts both ways. Quantum encryption might well be unbreakable by conventional computers (good for the defense, bad for the offense). But much of conventional computing and networks will be effectively clear text (bad for defense, good for offense).

I assume the NSA and all the other technically advanced powers are on the case, though I certainly don’t know exactly what is going on. We do know, for example, that there is a public effort in China to deploy quantum cryptography on a backbone network. Google has announced it has the technology. It is likely that high security nets have already got such technology, long before any public announcements. The future is already here.

Mark Kim writes this month in Quanta Magazine about these developments [3]. In particular, he discusses a paper by Bernstein, Daniel J. and colleagues, which looks at “Post Quantum RSA”, i.e., what happens to RSA encryption in a quantum computing world [1].

The thrust of this paper is proposals for “RSA parameters can be adjusted so that all known quantum attack algorithms are infeasible while encryption and decryption remain feasible.” ([1], p. 1)  As they say, their ideas are “not what one would call lightweight cryptography”. The case they analyze involves a 1 Terabyte key! This is expensive and awkward, but the point is that for cases that demand extreme measures (e.g., guarding root keys, critical backbones, and other vital secrets) there may be ways to protect against quantum decryption attacks, even with conventional computing.

This is a cool idea, assuming it bears out. If nothing else, it dilutes the aura of magical invincibility that surrounds quantum cryptography.

But these measures and other possible approaches, don’t really solve the problem for the bulk of the Internet. It may soon be true that well endowed actors, nation states and googles, can crack any crypto they need to.

What Happens to Bitcoin, blockchains, and other Cryptocurrency?

These developments potentially have serious implications for cryptocurrencies and blockchains, all of which depend on cryptography and, equally important, cryptographically-secured systems.

I’m not sure exactly what parts of the Nakamotoan mechanisms might be affected by quantum computing, some might even be improved. But the big two to worry about are the hashing scheme (the basis of ‘mining’) and the ‘addresses’ which are cryptographic public keys. These mechanisms are secured by algorithms that depend on the speed and cost of computing, so a major disruption of speed could breach the entire basis for Bitcoin.

I don’t know if there are ways to subvert the hashing scheme with quantum computing, and I certainly don’t know what the cost/benefit analysis might be for any such scheme. Quantum computing is likely to be more expensive, so who knows when it is cost effective? (Note that the argument that “it’s too expensive to be reasonable” simply does not apply to state actors.)

One potential problem is if it becomes reasonable for some wealthy miners to have systems that are much, much faster, and thereby to accumulate a large fraction of the total hashing power, then that would be a very serious problem.

An even bigger problem is that governments and large companies will soon be able to crack public keys, and therefore probably will be able to mess with Bitcoin addresses. Yoiks! Unfriendlies not only reading your mail, but manipulating your Bitcoins and your “smart contracts”, too. Again, arguments about supposed economic and cost barriers don’t apply to state actors.

Worst of all, anyone actually using Bitcoin or a blockchain for any normal purpose (i.e., other than mining or currency exchange), relies on the general security of the network and nodes. Even if the blockchain, servers, and wallets aren’t cracked (which they will be), the network itself is likely to be unsecure.

It’s hard to know what might happen, but if unfriendlies can insert man-in-the-middle attacks between nodes, then all bets are off. Anyone trying to actually use Bitcoin with a wallet and local connection would be vulnerable in any number of possible ways.

Game over.

Time’s Up For Cryptocurrencies?

The official Bitcoin wiki pages have a short note on “Quantum computing and Bitcoin”, which whistles past the graveyard. They suggest that there is a decade or more to do something, which is probably optimistic. But even this Pollyanna-ish page notes that there aren’t any solid solutions known at this time.

This isn’t great news, especially given Bitcoin’s disfunctional governance system, which has been spinning its wheels for two years over much simpler technical issues. How in the world will the crypto community cope with the existential threat of QC?

Obviously, I’m far more concerned about the collapse of the whole Internet.

Perhaps Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies might turn out to be canaries in the coal mine, keeling over just before the the big explosion.


  1. Daniel J. Bernstein, Nadia Heninger, Paul Lou, and Luke Valenta, Post-quantum RSA. Cryptology ePrint Archive: Report 2017/351, 2017. https://eprint.iacr.org/2017/351
  2. Bitcoin Foundation. Quantum computing and Bitcoin. 2016, https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Quantum_computing_and_Bitcoin.
  3. Mark H. Kim, Why Quantum Computers Might Not Break Cryptography. Quanta magazine.May 15 2017, https://www.quantamagazine.org/why-quantum-computers-might-not-break-cryptography-20170515

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Open Source Alternatives to Uber?

There is considerable excitement these days about Platform Cooperativism, with good reason (e.g. see earlier posts here, here, here). This concept can be dressed up fancy , but it boils down to the fact that the technology used by exploitative for profit platforms such as Uber can be used equally well to build on other “business models”, including worker and user owned cooperatives.

The tools are already in the hands of the workers, all we have to do is pick them up. Lean in, hell! Waltz right in and take command!

“Replacing Uber” is the poster child for this idea. We all understand it, and most of us need transportation. The problem is, Uber is a great service and an evil business. We all understand why we’d like to have a saintly Uber.

The Platform Cooperativism case is this: Uber is not really rocket science. it’s easy enough to replicate Uber’s technology. The basic tools are already freely available. Heck, even I could whack together a Uber clone, and I’m way out of practice.

The question is, can people build successful alternative businesses?

The Technology is Out There

In the past I have looked at “sharing economy” platforms out there already, such as here, here, here.

This month, Nithin Coca iinterviewed Roman Pushki, the creator of LibreTaxi, an “open source alternative to Uber or Lyft”.  This project is open source (and hence, hackable), and aims to substitute for the viciously exploitative ride hailing services.

The key features for LIbreTaxi are:

  • Free for drivers
  • Anyone can use it
  • Cash payment on arrival

In short, LibreTaxi is completely unregulated, unlicensed, and uncontrolled. There is no quality control on drivers or cars. There is vetting of either drivers or passengers. No one is responsible, you are on your own.

All this is a “feature” for, say, undocumented workers, people with junk cars, and drivers without driving licenses. But it is a “bug” from the point of view of safety, fair competition, and the rule of law.

LibreTaxi itself has no payment system, so it is up to the users to pay upon arrival.*

In my view, this cash payment makes the service much less friendly than Uber/Lyft, which handles the payment in the background. When the driver and customer don’t have to deal with money in person it makes the whole experience much friendlier. Sensei Claire Marshall has observed the psychological value of taking cash out of the relationship,

the most startling thing I found in my month in the sharing economy. When money was taken out of the equation everyone was happier.” ([3], Pp 90)

Clearly, LibreTaxi is a bare bones technology, and is certainly not a full replacement for Uber.  But you could build a replacement on this base.


* It would be perfectly possible technically to hack in connection to a payment scheme or, more likely, to cryptocurrency transactions. This would be a very logical extension of LibreTaxi.

Replicating the Business is Hard

In an earlier article, Coca discussed other “ethical” alternatives to the hated Uber. Of particular interest are taxi cooperatives  or an increasing number of ride hailing services. These offer services technically similar to Uber/Lyft, with varied ownership and business models. Unlike LibreTaxi, these services embed the technology in some kind of organization, a cooperative or a local business, so they are legal and responsible, as well as “ethical”.

This all seems great, though it isn’t easy to be sure who’s who and just how “ethical”—for your own ethical standards—any given alternative is. Just because it’s not Uber doesn’t make it angelic—see Lyft.

It is also true that these services are far from universally available. The technology works pretty much everywhere, and we want these to be local coops and businesses rather than Earth striding colossi. But most of the alternatives are available only in major cities, and in some cases, only a handful of cities.  This does most of us very little good, and leaves us at the mercy of the plunderers.

The tools are there, but there is a lot of work to do.


  1. Nithin Coca,  Five (More) Reasons to #DeleteUber — And Some Ethical Alternatives. Sharable.February 24 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/five-more-reasons-to-deleteuber-%E2%80%94-and-some-ethical-alternatives
  2. Nithin Coca,  Q&A: LibreTaxi’s Roman Pushkin on Why He Made a Free, Open-Source Alternative to Uber and Lyft. Sharable.March 22 2017, http://www.shareable.net/blog/qa-libretaxis-roman-pushkin-on-why-he-made-a-free-open-source-alternative-to-uber-and-lyft
  3. Claire Marshall, How to Make Money (and a whole lot more) by Sharing. 2015. http://www.sharestories.net/

 

What is Coworking? Trying To Be Kidful Downunder

I have commented before that one of the unsolved problems for coworking is how to accommodate kids. Day care for working parents is a hard problem for conventional organizations, and most coworking spaces don’t have any provisions at all. A few have tried and faced problems. But the list is growing, all around the world.

Robert Ollett blogged recently about Happy Hubbub in Melbourne (Australia), which offers a conventional array of coworking services, plus on site day care. There are some details that depend on local policies, other aspects are pretty universal.

Even with subsidies, daycare is expensive, much more expensive than coworking. The information indicates that Hubbub charges about four times as much for daycare as for coworking! This is typical. The cost of kid care is so much higher, I have seen coworking spaces that offered free coworking when you buy day care, sort of like free coffee or fee mints.

For coworking spaces which are operating at the lowest cost possible, day care is way, way outside the reach of their members.

One reason childcare is expensive is that the facilities and staffing are regulated by local authorities. This is a very good thing, but compliance costs money.  In addition, childcare generally requires competent and trained human staff, another cost driver.

You can set up coworking in almost any space, with almost no staff, but that isn’t true for child care.

For that matter, the little ones have their own requirements. Catering needs to be age appropriate, and they need interesting activities while mum is busy working. And so on. This is all standard stuff for day care operators, but it’s totally alien to coworking operators!

Even the coworking facilities themselves probably have different requirements. Parking is probably much more important for parents bringing in their kids. The work space needs to be close to, but isolated from, the children. There probably should be parent plus child lounge areas, separate from both work and child care area.  Handling kids of different ages might require some creativity. And so on.

Hubbub has been successful so far, though it is actually pretty small (sixteen slots for kids). Compared to some “commodity coworking” sides with hundreds of desks, it is tiny. Could you scale it up? How big is too big for this kind of site?  I’m not sure, and I’m certainly not telling you that bigger is better.

Community, community, community

Erin Richards of Hubbub comments that establishing a trusted reputation is essential for the child care service. This is a completely different kind of reputation from the coworking side.

I think the deeply tricky problem fo solve in all of this is that this is not only two businesses in the same location, but that the two businesses are both about community—but two very different kinds of community.

Coworking is all about community, a community of like-minded peers—workers with similar skills, needs, and goals. Drop-off child care is about trust, and ideally about a community of like-minded peers—parents and care givers with similar needs and goals.

“Coworking with kids” must really be about a community that is both peer workers and peer parents. That’s easy enough to say, but it’s not that easy to do. It’s kind of a Venn diagram, looking for the intersection of the group of simpatico independent workers, and the group of parents who want this kind of child care.

This is a niche, and it cuts both ways. Richards notes that the double draw is attractive for some, “These parents try the coworking space for the childcare, but keep coming back because of the community.” On the otter hand, workers who might otherwise be pleased may be disinclined to participate. “There’s definitely a psychological barrier for people who don’t have kids to come here”.

Thinking about this, I can see that it is not likely that you can have successful coworking and “sprinkle on” some child care, nor have successful childcare and “drop in” some coworking. Making this work is hard, but Hubbub and other sites are beginning to show how to make it work.

One key is the right kind of community leadership, people who are “peers” in both the target communities. The greatest community wrangler in the world may be useless with kids, and the finest tot wrangler might be hopeless at office management.   In the case of Hubbub, this challenge is addressed by the partnership of two leaders, with the right combination of skills.

I think that is their secret, and I’m betting that the success they have seen so far is due to having the right leaders.


  1. Happy Hubbub. Happy Hubbub – coworking with children. 2017, https://www.happyhubbub.com.au/.
  2. Robert Ollett, Coworking Heroes: Happy Hubbub, in habu. 2017. https://www.habu.co/blog/coworking-heroes-happy-hubbub

 

What is Coworking?

Note:  please stay tuned for my new ebook, “What is Coworking”, coming in 2017.

Blockchain Use Cases: Theme Parks?

Jegar Pitchforth writes in Coindesk about “5 Ways Theme Parks Could Embrace Blockchain” [1]. His basic idea is that theme parks are historically “early adopters” and pioneers of technology, and should pioneer the use of blockchain technology.

He specifically identifies five use cases:

  1. Ticketing
  2. “Fastpass tickets” (i.e., specific deals)
  3. Theme Park Currency (Branded)
  4. Audience Surveys
  5. Pay audience to advertise

Hmm.

These are scarcely new ideas. Indeed, the entire article refers to existing programs. The point must be, and the question is, what does blockchain technology bring to the table? How would a blockchain be better than current technology?

Let’s look at his use cases to see what value blockchain brings, if any.

In the case of ticketing, it seems that the main advantage is that a blockchain system can be securely accessed by any smartphone.   Current systems work fine, as far as I know, and wearable technology makes it even more convenient than a smartphone.

The “Fastpass” use case has the potentially interesting wrinkle of using “smart contracts” to implement markets for these ‘rights’. Guests could trade and bargain for seats on rides, and so on.  Or there could be various conditions attached (“You can ride if you and 3 of your friends show up in 15 minutes….”)

Assuming that this kind of activity is a desirable feature (and for some fantasy worlds, I’m not sure that you want people diverting attention to such matters), it isn’t clear that blockchain is any better or worse than any other technology. After all, so called “smart contracts” are really, really simple logic, which can easily be built into a conventional database.

The idea of Theme Park Currency is nothing more or less than digital tokens or coupons, with a ton of general purpose overhead. Since these ‘coins’ are essentially private tokens issued by the park, they aren’t “decentralized” at all. In that sense, blockchain is a terrible choice, completely incongruent with the use case.

The last two hinge on using the cryptocurrency as loyalty points to incentivize the victims guests. This may or may not be desirable thematically (and is certainly ethically problematic when children are involved), but you don’t need a blockchain or private cryptocurrency to make it work.

Overall, there is little technical or logical reason why blockchain technology is especially well suited for any of these use cases. Indeed, to the degree that blockchain is generic and invites attention to commerce it is interfering with the effort to create a magic world and to command total attention and immersion.

It is true that a blockchain-based solution might be cheap and easy compared to creating a secure private network. However, much of the cost and effort must go into the user experience not the back end details, so I’m not sure if there would be much cost savings.

Most of the features of the blockchain are actually irrelevant to these use cases. The data systems of a theme park are extremely private and highly localized. What is the advantage of using an open, internet-wide data system?

Above all, the entire theme of a “theme park” is trust. We hand over part of our life to the designers, trusting them to give us a safe and enchanting experience. Ticketing, tokens, and whatever else must all be integrated to be part of this trusted experience. What is the advantage of using a “trustless” technology to implement this deeply trustful system?

Overall, it looks to me like you could use blockchain technology, but there is hardly a compelling case to do so. And if you do, it will be necessary to integrate it into the overall magic, which likely will mean that the blockchain should be invisible. If it is done right, you’ll never know it is there.

Actually, a successful deployment would be very good for blockcahin technology in general, because it would have to create a safe and wonderful user experience.  To data, the “user experience” with blockchains is very, very weak. A Disney quality interface would lift all boats.

For example, a blockchain system requires guests (including children?) to manage cryptokeys  In the theme park this must be safe, intuitive, and generally invisible.  Developing cool metaphors and UI to do this would be a great thing to see, and would advance the whole field.


  1. Jegar Pitchforth, 5 Ways Theme Parks Could Embrace Blockchain (And Why They Should) May 16 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/5-ways-theme-parks-embrace-blockchain/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Close Reading Apps: Brilliantly Executed BS

One of the maddening things about the contemporary Internet is the vast array of junk apps—hundreds of thousands, if not many millions—that do nothing at all, but look great. Some of them are flat out parodies, some are atrocities, many are just for show (no one will take us seriously if we don’t have our own app). But some are just flat out nonsense, in a pretty package. (I blame my own profession for creating such excellent software development environments.)

The only cure for this plague is careful and public analysis of apps, looking deeply into not only the shiny surface, but the underlying logic and metalogic of the enterprise. This is a sort of “close reading” of software, analogous to what they do over there in the humanities buildings.  Where does the app come from? What does it really do, compared to what they say it does? Whose interests are served?

Today’s example are two apps that pretend to do social psychology: Crystal (“Become a better communicator”) and Knack (“for unlocking the world’s potential”).

[Read Whole Article]

Mauritius Invites Blockchain Ideas for Offshore Finance

From the very first, cryptocurrency and the underlying blockchain technology was designed to offer the benefits of offshore finance via the Internet. Nakamoto’s “decentralized” design is effectively “offshore from everywhere”—accessible anywhere, but resident nowhere. This central purpose has been dressed up ad spun in many ways, but in the end, “trustless” really means “out of the reach of governments”.

It is no surprise, then, that among the usual crypto stories about exchange rates and frauds there is news about physically offshore, hot-money centers that are very interested in cryptocurrency and blockchains. It is a perfect fit.

This spring, the infamous Indian Ocean pirate lair business friendly island paradise has been encouraging blockchain projects to set up in Mauritius, using their laissezfaire Regulatory Sandbox License process. Officials and promoters have been touting Mauritius as a great place to do this kind of business in Coindesk and many other outlets.

I have never been to Mauritius, so I mainly know about it from news headlines about mercenaries, Russian arms dealers, and baffling big power jostling to secure a navy base there. For a tiny little island, far from anywhere, Mauritius seems to enjoy a robust financial system, as well as a reputation as the suspected destination of cash.

The financial industry is very interested in blockchain for many reasons, so there is every reason for Mauritius to get in the game. But I’m sure that they will be very eager to develop easy to use financial instruments and distributed autonomous organizations. This will automate (and harden) the swift movement of money “off shore” and DAOs are ideal for the formation of opaque shell companies.

Naturally, this isn’t what their public relations offensive talks about. The promoters tout Mauritius as being close to India and Africa, which is true but irrelevant for blockchain technology. They recount how Mauritius has a great reputation for clean government, though they are playing in the Africa league, and globally, 49th in the world ain’t that great (that’s just behind Mexico in the league tables).

There is also some smoke about how Mauritius is ideally situate to “jump into new markets on the African continent – where many of the world’s largest unbanked populations exist.” Mauritius may be politically focused on African markets, but there is no reason to locate a blockchain business there rather than anywhere else in the world.

Well, there is a reason: it is a “business friendly” government out of the reach of local regulators in notoriously the difficult African nations. I completely understand why a company would prefer to be in Mauritius that, say, Kenya.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that having the financial system controlled by an unaccountable off shore company, with its own very cozy government, is going to be good for the “unbanked” or anybody else on the continent, except for tax avoiders and fraudsters.

And, of course, this won’t be Mauritians running things, but Americans, Europeans, Chinese, and who knows, exploiting Africans through opaque cut out companies hosted by Mauritius.

Blockchain: the next phase of colonialism in Africa?


  1. Aaron Stanley, Mauritius: The Tropical Paradise Looking to Become a Blockchain Hub. Coindesk.May 7 2017, http://www.coindesk.com/mauritius-the-tropical-paradise-looking-to-become-a-blockchain-hub/

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Yet More Outsourcing You

Catherine Snowdon reports for the BBC about businesses that let you “outsource yourself”, as Patricia Marx so aptly put it [1]. Evidently, this concept has not gone away since Marx tried it out, and has moved into more and more transgressive areas.

Snowdon is particularly interested in The Breakup Shop (covered earlier here), “Bad Relationship? Let us help you end it.” Sigh. Apparently still in business, the product list includes a “Breakup phone call”, “Breakup Text”, and “Breakup Letter”. (Who in the world sends anyone letters anymore??)

As Snowdon reports, this is a somewhat contested area of social norms, and rapidly changing. We can watch this evolution from academic research over the last decade.

In the age of dating apps, of course people will use digital mediation for break ups.

And Catherine, there is far more weirdness out there than are dreamt of in your philosophy, including intimate spyware, stalking tech, real time coaching, and, of course, dildonics haptics.


I’m not exactly sure what the point of this piece is. It isn’t new (I’ve blogged about this for years), and she doesn’t break any new ground (see earlier posts for much, much more transgressive products).

Perhaps the point is to show how clever people create businesses out of the littlest things. But that’s kind of silly, because these are very small, marginal enterprises. These are microtasks, with microrevenue. Even if you add everything up, it doesn’t amount to much. And it’s not all added up, it’s distributed in tiny drips across thousands of people. It’s hopeless as a real business model, its little more than a game. It would be nice for the Business reporter to acknowledge that.

I might also point out just how risky this business model is. Associating yourself with unpleasant situations is a sure way to get people to hate you and the mobile phone you rode in on. We probably all know someone who has dropped off Facebook entirely after a seriously bad experience there. Breakup may or may not be a viable business, but it certainly isn’t one that people will really like very much.


There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear

Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth” (1966)

Of course, the real interest is anthropological and psychological, and for good reason! [3-7]

It is so cool to watch things change right under our noses!

On a scale from 0-10, how tacky/creepy is breaking up by phone? By text? By email?

And how tacky is hiring someone to do it for you?

The norms surrounding this judgment have obviously shifted rapidly over the last decades. (I am so-o-o-o glad I’m not in the dating pool any more!)

Does this technology change things? Other than making a tiny amount of money for some companies, I doubt it. Men are still clueless, and women inscrutable.

Being dumped still sucks, and I’m pretty sure doing it “efficiently” doesn’t make it much better or worse, or even more common.

In the end, whatever the original design goals, people will use technology for the things that matter most. Sharing music and snapshots. Arguing politics and religion. Spoiling and smothering their children.

And, above all, meeting, dating, and breaking up.

What else would we expect to happen?


  1. Catherine Snowdon,  Would you pay a stranger to dump your partner for you? BBC News – Business.May 5 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-39351286
  2. Patricia Marx, “Outsource Yourself”, The New Yorker, January 14, 2012, pp. 32-35.  http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/01/14/130114fa_fact_marx
  3. Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance, New York, Penguin Press, 2015.
  4. Ilana Gershon, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting over New Media, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2010.
  5. Richard Ling, New Tech, New Ties: How Mobile Communication is Reshaping Social Cohesion, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008.
  6. Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press, New York, 2015.
  7. Moira Weigel, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.