Category Archives: Sociotechnical

Coworking Researchers Meet In Warsaw [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

The Coworking Library held a “meetup” in Warsaw in November [1].  The speakers discussed their current research on coworking in Europe.  I’m very glad to see that coworking is (finally) attracting attention of social scientists.  I’ve been saying for a long time that there is a lot of interest here, and these investigators are taking interest.

This particular meetup was fairly informal, a sort of “what have you been working on” session, rather than refereed papers.  (There are papers associated with the research, but those are reported elsewhere.)

So what have these folks been working on?

The overall impression is that the big picture hasn’t changed.  Coworking is still about “community, community, community”.  And the reported benefits are about the same as reported many times before, including in my book.

One of the speakers (Marko Orel) discusses a taxonomy of coworking, i.e., what do people mean by the term?  As he points out, the terminology has been evolving and mutation rapidly.  And, I would add, the terms were never sharply defined in the first place.  While creative ambiguity is beneficial for marketing and Internet yapping, it is problematic for academic research.  It’s not clear that any two studies are even talking about the same thing.  I look forward to his result in the future.

Another speaker (Viktoria Heinzel) is looking at “rural” coworking, which I’ve written about.  It’s not clear from the slides how this concept is defined or which specific “rural” areas were studied.  The summary of points seems consistent with other work on the topic, including the potential for ”recruitment & return of skilled workers/ young talents”.

Anita Füzi examined what attracts workers to a specific space.  The basic finding is that social factors; i.e., “community, community, community”; are what matters most.  And she points out that “One space is not better than the other”.  As I have said many times, there is no one right way to do it.

The fourth speaker (Miryana Stancheva) explores the idea of looking at coworking spaces as “a living organism”, specifically, through the ideas or Erik Erikson.  I’ve never studied Erikson in any detail, though I am familiar with the general topic.  This approach requires applying concepts such as “ego development” to coworking.  She seems to be trying to create improved coworking communities through this analysis.

I strongly agree with the importance of a developmental model.  She also considers the development of satisfaction and happiness, not just numbers and revenue.  But, I’ll have to reserve judgement as to whether this particular interpretive framework works well.

I mean, maybe a coworking community is like a child or a family, in some ways.  But maybe not in others.  For one thing, coworkers can walk away at any time.  For another, there is usually very little hierarchy.  And for another thing, the community is usually largely self-selected.  These features probably have a major impact on both happiness and the development over time.


Overall, it is useful to have this kind of academic exchange.  Too much of the discussion of coworking is Internet-grade natter, with little attempt at academic rigor or clarity.  Me, I like footnotes.

It is unfortunate that there isn’t an equivalent effort on this side of the Atlantic.  Perhaps it would be possible to add a virtual component, for those who don’t mind video-ing in from far away.


  1. Coworking Library. Researchers Meetup Warsaw November 13 2019. 2019, https://coworkinglibrary.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Researchers-meetup-presentation-2019-Warsaw.pdf.

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Blockchain drone tracking to prevent theft?

Blockchain is the solution to so many problems, including problems that no one actually has yet.

This fall IBM patented a concept not for delivering packages via drone, but for preventing a drone from stealing your package.  As Danny Nelson writes, “It is unclear how prevalent drone heists are in America.” [2]

(However, this does make me imagine aerial hijacking.  Pirate drones, perhaps with intelligence from sniffing records on a blockchain, swoop in, snatch the cargo and fly away.  Cool!)

Basically, this technology is an electronic sensor that uses GPS to detect unauthorized movement.  In particular, if it is lifted above a certain altitude, that’s not likely to be normal use, so the device switches on and signals it’s position repeatedly.

This is all fine, though surely overkill for many applications. For one thing, once the package is inside a controlled space, it’s going to be really hard for the snatcher drone to get it.

How does blockchain come into the picture?

Well, the status and tracking information has to be kept in some kind of secure database, readable by relevant parties.  One way to do that is a blockchain, so let’s be trendy and say that’s how to do it.   Of course, as the patent document makes clear, there are plenty of ways to implement the required database besides blockchain.

Note, too, that this needs a secure database, and the tracking information is not supposed to be public.  To me, it seems that a public blockchain is probably a poor platform for this application.

So here is a clear case where blockchain is a non-solution to a non-problem.


  1. Michael Bender, Jeremy R. Fox, Todd R. Palmer, and Manjari  Roy, Preventing anonymous theft by drones. US Patent Number 10,475,306, 2019, International Business Machines Corporation: United States of America.
  2. Danny Nelson (2019) IBM Patents Blockchain to Stop Drones From Stealing Packages. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/ibm-patents-blockchain-to-stop-drones-from-stealing-packages

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Stablecoins Are Going To Be Regulated

There has been a lot of excitement and nonsense this year about “stablecoins” – crypto tokens that are (supposedly) backed by other assets.  Facebook’s Libra is promised to be the stablecoin to end all stablecoins.

Bitcoin is worth whatever people think it is worth, and the exchange rates with dollars, euros, gold, etc. fluctuate day to day, minute to minute.  (All the noise about the “value” of Bitcoin is mostly nattering about exchange rates against the dollar et al.  Ironic, considering that Bitcoin is supposed to “disrupt” and make fiat currencies obsolete.)

In contrast, a “stablecoin” is supposed to be something like a bank note or a CD:  guaranteed to be tradable for a specified amount of some other asset.  How is this different from conventional financial instruments?  It really isn’t, except for the technology.

Now, conventional money markets are highly regulated, to maintain safe and sane economies.  Among other things, transactions are monitored in detail, to detect and prevent criminal activity.  Money handlers are also monitored to assure that they maintain sufficient reserves to cover their obligations.

Apparently, some people believe that if it uses a blockchain, then it doesn’t need to follow the same rules as other systems that do the same thing.

News Flash:  The financial gendarmes insist that the rules apply.

Danny Nelson reports on comments from US regulators that make it clear that “Stablecoin Issuers Are Money Transmitters, No Matter What.” [1]

He quotes Kenneth Blanco of U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) to say tha, the same rules apply to  “any activity that provides the same functionality at the same level or risk, regardless of its label.

“It is not what you label it, it’s the activity you actually do that counts.”

In general, this means that these crypto systems must have requisite licenses, must identify the source and destinations of transactions, and generally must do whatever governments say.

I’ll note that this is not just the law, it is the only way that these systems can work.  Without adequate regulation, they will explode in a shower of fraud, mismanagement, and debt.

So good.

Maybe blockchain-based stablecoins will be useful, maybe not.  But they have a better chance of being useful if they are properly regulated by the same rules as everything else.


  1. Danny Nelson (2019) FinCEN: Stablecoin Issuers Are Money Transmitters, No Matter What. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/fincen-stablecoin-issuers-are-money-transmitters-no-matter-what

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

What is Coworking? Goodman on “The Coworking Canvas” [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Cleo Goodman writes for the Coworking Accelerator about “The Coworking Canvas”—a descriptive framework for the things you need to do to develop “a thriving coworking community” [1].

(The Coworking Accelerator aims to help coworking leaders lead coworking communities.  One of their products is “Coworking In A Box”.)

coworking-canvas-worksheet
From [1].
This “Coworking Canvas” has six main areas (links to blog entries):

For readings of my book and this blog, these topics are not new.  In this case, Goodman explains these topics from the perspective of the community of workers and community leaders.

Notably, she breaks out the benefits (to workers) of peer support, networking, learning, and co-location from the “space”.  In fact, the main things she emphasizes about space is really “first impressions”, and appearances in general. If you have co-location, networking, etc. going on, the community will be strong in any space.

A community leader has a role to facilitate all these facets, though “hosting” is all about the specific activities of the community leader—introductions, connections, promulgating the “culture” of the community.

Goodman offers a sort of theoretical description of how “vibrant” coworking communities work.

  • “Belonging: People unleash their potential and become resilient when they develop a true sense of belonging.

  • “Nurturing: People and businesses grow and endure when talent, relationships and opportunities are nurtured.

  • “Place-making: Place-making happens and communities thrive when people, spaces and places create a joined-up ecosystem.”

    (From [1])

This seems to me to be a good summary of the key benefits of a coworking community.  “Belonging” plus “Nurturing” is the opposite of “loneliness and isolation”.   “Place-making” is precisely and exactly what a coworking operation is all about.

These blog entries don’t have footnotes or anything like that, I assume these are based on experience.

I’d say they have their heads screwed on the right way.  This is certainly the right stuff to worry about.

I’m not sure how you put this “in a box”! : – )  I guess you just have to check out their products to see.


  1. Cleo Goodman, What is the Coworking Canvas? 2019. https://www.coworkingaccelerator.network/blog/what-is-the-coworking-canvas

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Cryptocurrency Winter Follies, Bitcoin-Cash Edition

One of the innovations of Emperor Nakamoto’s Bitcoin is the “consensus” mechanism, which let’s everybody do whatever they want, ultimately settling on the most agreed version of reality to be the consensus reality [2].

This mechanism makes updating the software a weird and wacky process.  A proposed new version is completely implemented and deployed, and then users either use it or not.  If enough people pick up the new code, it becomes the official version.  But people can continue to use the old version, effectively “forking” off an alterative version of the currency, and a new branch of alternative history.

What a way to run a railroad!


In the Bitcoin world, one of the most notorious “splitters” is Bitcoin Cash (a deliberately confusing name), which split from the original Bitcoin circa 2017, implementing larger block sizes.  There has been a second split, driven by perennial pest Craig Wright, to create Bitcoin SV. (“SV” stands for “Satoshi’s Vision”—Wright himself claims to be Satoshi, so you can parse that how you want.).  And, to boot,  earlier this year the BCash people fixed an oopsie by deliberately subverting the consensus protocol to rewrite history.  (That is not supposed to be possible.)

These earlier splits were deliberate, driven by disagreements among developers and users.

This month Bitcoin Cash experienced an unexplained fork.

There was a scheduled software upgrade which was not backward compatible.  Most of the users picked up the change as expected, but at least one large mining operation did not upgrade.  This means that the mystery miners are crunching away, still adding records to the old branch instead of the new, creating a new fork of Bitcoin Cash, and generally sowing confusion.

Sigh.

It isn’t clear who is doing this or why.  As William Foxley puts it “Unknown Mining Pool Continues Old Chain” [1].  This could be an accident.  It could be deliberate.  Who knows?

Whatever the reason, this fork is a hazard for users who might accidentally use the old branch instead of the new. And it is a pain for developers who might have to support both versions, adding to the confusion of the crypto world.  On the other hand, so far as we know, the old branch isn’t being maintained anymore, so bugs are not being fixed, ports aren’t being kept up, and the two branches will soon diverge even farther as changes are made to one and not the other.

This definitely is not the way to run a railroad!


Bcash and its dysfunctional family are certainly in the running for the 2019 CryptoTulip of the Year, though Libra may stomp everybody.


  1. William Foxley (2019) As Bitcoin Cash Hard Forks, Unknown Mining Pool Continues Old Chain. Coindesk, https://www.coindesk.com/as-bitcoin-cash-hard-forks-unknown-mining-pool-continues-old-chain
  2. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday

Alex Hillman On How to Start a Coworking Space [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Sensei Alex Hillman is an ancient grey headed sage, dating back to the dawn of coworking. Famous for founding and sustaining Indy Hall in Philadelphia, he continues to teach and consult in the theme of “community”.  Or as Chapter 3 of my book puts it, “Community, Community, Community”.

Sensei Alex tags himself as a “community builder”, and he teaches that this is what really matters.  In recent weeks, he has snarked to the effect that he neither knows nor cares what is going on with WeWork or other “industry news”.  What they are doing is simply not coworking, or at least not the kind that matters.

This month Hillman pointed readers to a piece he wrote in 2016, giving advice on how to start a coworking space [1].  It is quintessential Hillman, and highlights just how non-WeWorky his world view is.

His tips for starting a coworking space is basically, “forget the workspace, find your community first”.

His four tips are:

1 – Start by finding a few places where people are already gathering.
2 – Look for patterns in what people have in common.
3 – Look for ways to bring those people together.
4 – Lead by example.

The first two sound like anthropology, which they are.  (And that’s part of why Coworking is so interesting.)  But this is, of course, the essence of “bottom up” organizing. No matter what you think people do and want to do, you’ll be better off finding out what real people really do.

Item 3 gets into “community organizing” territory. It also cuts right to Sensei Alex’s core value:  “bringing people together” makes things better.  Period.

Underlying these tips is the understanding that the right way to do coworking is to meet the needs of the community of workers that participate.  There is no one right way for everyone, you need to find your community and do what is right for all of you.

Item 4 is, of course, the essence of leadership in any context.  (The US Infantry School develops officers whose hard duty will be to lead troops into the teeth of enemy fire.  Their motto: “Follow me”.)

But this is more than just being a good example. Alex is famous for leading from within, being part of the community. “Of the workers, for the workers, by the workers” could be his motto.

“The best way to create a collaborative space is, well, collaboratively.”


I can’t resist drawing the obvious contrasts with the splashy saga of WeWork.  This company and others like it are in the workspace business.  Alex is in the community business.  As he says, “You can do this literally anywhere”.

Furthermore, Sensei Alex tells that if you take the time to find and cultivate your community, to pull together “people who would be upset if the space couldn’t open”, then

“You might open later, but you’ll stay in business longer”

This point is even more telling as we watch WeWork megafail.  Indy Hall is still in business after more than a decade, WeWork will not last out this year.  Indy Hall makes enough money to stay healthy.  WeWork is setting worlds records for getting rid of money.

Why did WeWork fail?

Well, they definitley didn’t follow Sensei Alex’s advice, did they?

And the bottom line is:

“The biggest mistake you could make right now is opening an empty space without a community.”

I’d say that the biggest mistake you could make, period, is trying to run a workspace without a community.


  1. Alex Hillman, Wanna start a coworking space? Start here. , in Alex Hillman: better coworking, better business, and better communities. 2016. https://dangerouslyawesome.com/2016/04/the-first-advice-i-give-to-almost-everyone-starting-a-new-coworking-space/

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Byzantine agreement algorithm for a Better Bitcoin?

One of the few actual innovations in Nakamotoan cryptocurrencies is the “consensus protocol”, which is a fully distributed algorithm to solve the classic Byzantine agreement problem [3].  The challenge is to reach agreement, or at least consensus, when there are many messages and it is impossible to know which messengers are honest and which are dishonest.

Emperor Nakamoto’s new clothes involve broadcasting proposed updates to all participating nodes. Each node checks the validity (using checksums), and accepts an update that agrees with its own history.  Basically, all participating nodes “vote” on the results, and in the event of alternative proposals, the one with the most votes is taken as the consensus of the network.

It should be clear that this simple protocol is also extremely conservative with a small ‘c’.  Any record that is accepted by this consensus protocol is surely well supported. I will have been confirmed thousands of times over, eventually, by all nodes.  (This is a fine semantic point, because the definition of “participating” is that you accept the consensus up to now, which is somewhat circular logic.  Everyone who counts is in agreement because only those who agree really count.)

It should also be clear that Nakamoto’s approach does not scale well.  The number of messages and decisions is linear with the size of the network, and the network is intended to be very large to make cheating difficult.  (To dictate the result you need 51% of the votes—which is more difficult when there are a large number of votes.)

The upshot is that classic Nakamotoan consensus is very expensive and takes a long time, and becomes more expensive and slower as the network grows. In short, Bitcoin is isn’t scalable, and probably isn’t sustainable.

(This result is no surprise to anyone who has studied computer science.  As a matter of fact, you can learn a lot in college, if you stick with it and take it seriously.)


This summer researchers at Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) report a suite of probabilistic algorithms that could replace Nakamotoan consensus [2].  The basic idea is to use a probabilistic sample of nodes, rather than all of them.  Just as probability sampling can reliably get very near the result of a complete canvas, these algorithms make it possible to achieve confidence in a blockchain from only a fraction of the whole network each vote.

These Byzantine algorithms scale as the square root of the number of nodes, and use negligible computation and power resources [1]. <<link>>  Clearly, you could make a better Bitcoin with these algorithms.  It would be just as secure, just as decentralized, and way more sustainable, with way less latency.  So, as Charles Q. Cho and others imply, this could be a “new alternative to Bitcoin”.

This technology joins many other variations on Nakamoto’s ideas, including permissioned blockchains, zero-knowledge blockchains, and zillions of alt-coins.

The question is, would this new thing be “Bitcoin”, or something else?  It would do the same thing, just as the plethora of cryptocoins and blockchains do.  But could you still call it “bitcoin”?


Some enthusiasts might well want a better engineered Bitcoin.  We’ve seen many proposals for “2.0”. But experience has shown that something this basic would not be supported by many Nakamotoans (e.g., this, this, this, this).

There are many reasons for this resistance, most of them non-technical.

First, Nakamoto (2009) [3] is scripture, it is the very definition of what Bitcoin is.  Whatever these Byzantine protocols are, they simply aren’t Nakamotoan.  (Though, Nakamoto’s protocol is probably a degenerate case of the general Byzantine Reliable Broadcast family.)

Second, the probabilistic protocols are complicated and require a certain level of “trust” in the mathematics and the laws of chance.  Nakamoto’s simple, brute force approach is easy to understand and requires little math to believe in its correctness.  For those concerned with “trust”, it may be difficult to lean on such relatively difficult math.  (What if those sneaky Swiss guys are pulling a fast one, and there is a back door for “the man” to secretly control the results?)

Third, this protocol would surely scramble the mining economy, at least in the short run.  I think it would come out with similar results for everyone, but a lot of current investments would probably be misplaced, and current business models upset.  There is little chance that miners would agree to such a radical reworking of Bitcoin, even though it would probably benefit everyone in the long run.

And finally, there is an intangible value in the inefficiency of Bitcoin.  For those who view Bitcoin as “virtual gold”, it is psychologically good for Bitcoin to be expensive and inconvenient, just like gold is expensive and inconvenient.  For that matter, gold bugs are happy with poor scaling and long latency.  This keeps Bitcoin “scarce” and therefore, in this mindset, “valuable”.


So this Swiss study joins many other schemes for how you might redo Bitcoin to get a better system.  However, it is much more likely to become a competitor to Bitcoin than to be incorporated into the Nakamotoan Empire.


  1. Charles Q. Choi, New Alternative to Bitcoin Uses Negligible Energy, in IEEE Spectrum – Energywise. 2019. https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/computing/software/bitcoin-alternative
  2. Rachid Guerraoui, Petr Kuznetsov, Matteo Monti, Matej Pavlovic, and Dragos-Adrian Seredinschi, Scalable Byzantine Reliable Broadcast (Extended Version). arXiv arXiv:1908.01738 2019. https://arxiv.org/abs/1908.01738
  3. Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

 

Cryptocurrency Thursday