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


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,


Cryptocurrency Thursday

CuddleBits: Much More Than Meets The Eye

Paul Bucci and colleagues from University of British Colombia report this month on Cuddlebots, “simple 1-DOF robots” that “can express affect” [1] As Evan Ackerman says, “build your own tribble!” (Why hasn’t there been a zillion Tribble analogs on the market???)

This caught my eye just because they are cute. Then I looked at the paper presented this month at CHI. Whoa! There’s a lot of interesting stuff here.[1]

First of all, this is a minimalist, “how low can we go” challenge. Many social robots have focused on adding many, many degrees of freedom, for example, to simulate human facial expressions as faithfully as possible. This project goes the other way, trying to create social bonds with only one DOF.

“This seems plausible: humans have a powerful ability to anthropomorphize, easily constructing narratives and ascribing complex emotions to non-human entities.” (p. 3681)

In this case, the robot has programmable “breathing” motions (highly salient in emotional relationships among humans and other species). The challenge is, of course, that emotion is a multidimensional phenomenon, so how can different emotions be expressed with just breathing? And, assuming they can be created, will these patterns be “read” correctly by a human?

This is a great piece of work. They developed theoretical understanding of “relationships between robot behaviour control parameters, and robot-expressed emotion”, which makes possible a DIY “kit” for creating the robots – a theory of Tribbleology, and a factory for fabbing Tribbles!

I mark their grade card with the comment, “Shows mastery of subject”.

As already noted, the design is “naturalistic”, but not patterned after any specific animal. That said, the results are, of course, Tribbleoids, a fictional life form (with notorious psychological attraction).

The paper discusses their design methods and design patterns. They make it all sound so simple, “We iterated on mechanical form until satisfied with the prototypes’ tactility and expressive possibilities of movement.” This statement understates the immense skill of the designers to be able to quickly “iterate” these physical designs.

The team fiddled with design tools that were not originally intended for programming robots. The goal was to be able to generate patterns of “breathing”, basically sine waves, that could drive the robots. This isn’t the kind of motion needed for most robots, but it is what haptics and vocal mapping tools do.

Several studies were done to investigate the expressiveness of the robots, and how people perceived them. The results are complicated, and did not yield any completely clear cut design principles. This isn’t terribly surprising, considering the limited repertoire of the robots. Clearly, the ability to iterate is the key to creating satisfying robots. I don’t think there is going to be a general theory of emotion.

I have to say that the authors are extremely hung up on trying to represent human emotions in these simple robots. I guess that might be useful, but I’m not interested in that per se. I just want to create attractive robots that people like.

One of the interesting things to think about is the psychological process that assigns emotion to these inanimate objects at all. As they say, humans anthropomorphize, and create their own implicit story. It’s no wonder that limited and ambiguous behavior of the robots isn’t clearly read by the humans: they each have their own imaginary story, and there are lots of other factors.

For example, they noted that variables other than the mechanics and motion While people recognized the same general emotions, “we were much more inclined to baby a small FlexiBit over the larger one.” That is, the size of the robot elicited different behaviors from the humans, even with the same design and behavior from the robot.

The researchers are tempted to add more DOF, or perhaps “layer” several 1-DOF systems. This might be an interesting experiment to do, and it might lead to some kind of additive “behavior blocks”. Who knows

Also, if you are adding one more “DOF”, I would suggest adding simple vocalizations, purring and squealing. This is not an original, this is what was done in “The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967) [2].

  1. Paul Bucci, Xi Laura Cang, Anasazi Valair, David Marino, Lucia Tseng, Merel Jung, Jussi Rantala, Oliver S. Schneider, and Karon E. MacLean, Sketching CuddleBits: Coupled Prototyping of Body and Behaviour for an Affective Robot Pet, in Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 2017, ACM: Denver, Colorado, USA. p. 3681-3692.
  2. Joseph Pevney, The Trouble With Tribbles, in Star Trek. 1967.


Robot Wednesday

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]

Baby Bison Born!

I’m a long time Bisonophile and enthusiastic supporter of restoring wild Buffalo herds to North America. I’m particularly happy with the strong role of various Native America tribes, working through the political and technical barriers, and finding land to host the new herds. It almost goes without saying that this restoration has immense symbolic and cultural significance for the peoples who once lived with the Buffalo.

There has been a steady stream of reintroductions, notably to Banff earlier this year and  Blackfeet Reservation and Ft. Peck Reservation in earlier years This month was marked by another milestone, the birth of a calf on the Eastern Shoshone Wind River Reservation.

The birth of the bison calf catalyzes important conversations to be had about tribal protection of this spiritually important ungulate on tribal lands. CREDIT COURTESY OF JASON BALDES

You go little guy!

As part of a twenty year project to restore buffalo to tribal lands, the Eastern Shoshone received ten buffalo last fall. The new baby is a welcome sign that the Bison are settling in, and a promise of a permanent presence in the future.

Jason Baldes considers this to be more than wildlife management, for him it is a form of restorative justice. He commented on Yellowstone Public Radio,

What happened to Native people similarly happened to buffalo and we’re now isolated on former pockets of our once vast territories, you know, Indians on reservations and buffalo on national parks and refuges. And we’re kinda in a time now where we can handle that different.

At a time when knuckle draggers and latter day Medicis in Washington are plunging down a deeply destructive path, we can only hope that this little guy and his small tribe of buffalos can survive and thrive.

I’ll end with a culturally mixed welcome to the young one in Lakota, Taŋyáŋ yahí.

(I know very well that Lakota is not the same as Shoshone. But I have an online translator for Lakota, and this was an opportunity to learn a new word. I’m sure Lakota people are happy at the birth as well.)

  1. Brie Ripley, Eastern Shoshone Tribe Celebrate First Baby Buffalo Born On Reservation In Over A Century Yellowstone Public Radio.May 8 2017,


Book Review: “Startup” by Doree Shafrir

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Yet more Revenge of the English Majors  (and also  this, this)

Silicon Valley has grabbed vast amount of mental and cultural capital, especially among the best and brightest youngsters. World champion self congratulators, the Valley crew has made enemies on many fronts, not least among the hordes of talented people sucked into the startup culture.

Amazingly enough, the new way of work doesn’t look as great from bottom as from the top. And now we are getting a stream of stinging cultural commentary from disenchanted English Majors and others.

And many of there are-gasp-girls!

Shafrir’s novel is a highly realistic description of Startup life in NYC. There is little need to exaggerate, much of this stuff is self-satirizing. Shafrir is a frequent reporter and commentator on tech life, so she has plenty to draw on, and she doesn’t seem terribly sympathetic.

The setting is a tech company about to get VC funding for its pointless app, and also a media company in the same building, obsessed with traffic and twitter mentions. The details are fictional, but I’m sure many people easily recognize the real life nonsense of the new economy.

Much of the story involves the hazards of sexual politics in the office. “New economy” or not, Boys and girls are still boys and girls, and trouble is likely to ensue. This book is, unfortunately, a pretty realistic rendition of what kind of trouble can ensure. In places, it’s basically a text book for what not to do.

This story is definitely focused on several female protagonists who all face the double standards and icky pressures dealing with male bosses, colleagues, and significant others. Shafrir is almost certainly writing autobiography here.

These women are neither trivial nor superheroes.  They all have flaws and make mistakes.  And they are all struggling to make it, what ever that means.

One of the best features of the story is that Shafrir gives reasonable amounts of sympathy to many of the male characters. Even when they are being hypocritical and/or clueless bastards , she lets us see some depth and a glimmer of likability

On the other hand, the business school twats get little sympathy. Shafrir has sympathy for imperfect and naïve people who are creating something. She has less sympathy for people who are just moving money or selling stuff. One suspects that this, too, may be passed on personal experience.

There is a certain amount of whining about how NYC is just as good as Silicon Valley, and how SV steals all the talent, and so on. The vast majority of us really don’t care about this competition, and many of use hate the tech industry on both coasts.

There quite a bit of sighing and complaining about these feckless twenty somethings, who aren’t the way we were when we were 26—ten years ago. Kids today have no respect, they dress like bums, and their music—its just noise. They certainly have no clue about raising kids.  All this from thirty somethings.

I suppose this is supposed to be  humorous social comment, but it wasn’t all that entertaining for those of us in even older demographics. You are all feckless kids to me.

Finally, I have to say that there are places that are outright preachy and boring. Actually, quite a few places. Shafrir has some messages about the fate of journalism, sexual harassment, and other serious topics, and she has here characters lecture us about them. I agree with a lot of what she is driving at, but its not that interesting to read.

Overall, this is yet another in the growing shelf of contemporary fiction set in the nutty world of the new economy.   She leaves the whole story hanging, so perhaps there is a sequel coming.

  1. Doree Shafrir, Startup, New York Little, Brown and Company, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Off Rock” by Kieran Shea

Off Rock by Kieran Shea

Shea’s third novel isn’t quite as punch-em-up as his earlier stories, but he’s still out there on the ‘gratuitous violence’ spectrum (heralded by one blurb as ‘king of badass’). Don’t expect deep and meaningful.

This story involves the not-especially-plausible escapades on an asteroid mine (or comet or moon—some small rock). During clean up, aging miner Jimmy discovers a valuable load apparently missed by mining operations. He decides to try to sneak it “off rock”, as a retirement stake.

Are you out of your mind, Jimmy??

This cunning plan becomes tangled with several other individuals, including a hit woman and his ex. Stuff happens. Fights. Explosions. Lucky escapes. Etc.

The plot moves along pretty well., The shallow characters and “action packed” story were OK. After all, what do you expect?

I had some serious problems with the future technology, though. This is supposed to be hundreds of years from now. Yet the tech was less advanced than the original Star Trek. The IT is basically the same as in any office today. That’s pretty silly for SF.

There are other massive implausibilities. This mining operation is not only not 100% robotic, but has a crew of dozens if not hundreds. That’s just insane, both technically and economically.

The plot hinges on the supposed value of the seam of gold that Jimmy finds. I’m finding it hard to believe that an economy that is harvesting asteroids for centuries will still care about gold or any other specific metal. Frankly, I took the chunk of gold to be a symbolic “big, valuable thing”.

I guess I’m telling you that this isn’t deep stuff.

On the other hand, we kind of like Jimmy are kind of rooting for him, even if nothing makes much sense.

  1. Kieran Shea, Off Rock, London, Titan Books, 2017.


Sunday Book Reviews

Astronomy Leads The Way In Big Data

Jay Kremer and colleagues at University of Copenhagen write in IEEE Intelligent Systems about, “Big Universe, Big Data: Machine Learning and Image Analysis for Astronomy [1].

This article is a nice survey of the kinds of data that astronomers collect, and the challenges of analyzing, and, indeed, simply handling it all.

I have worked with Astronomers in the past, and one of the coolest things is that when they have a dataset that covers “everything”, they really mean everything—the entire Universe, at least as much as we can see from where we are. And it is so romantic. Every study deals with space and time, matter and energy, theory and observation. Astronomical data makes you feel tiny and insignificant. Yet we are part of this gigantic picture, and our brains are capable of learning so much about it.


Kramer walk through many aspects of  contemporary Astronomical data. They describe the data (visible light and spectrographic measures), which are captured in detailed images of the sky. Billions of pixels recorded from signals that have travelled incomprehensible distances over inconceivable time spans, to intersect with us here and now.

No human could view all this information, nor make sense of it. The data is run through pipelines that use algorithms to clean up the data and look for “interesting” stuff. These days, the processing also automatically generates catalogs of objects in the image, i.e., tries to find everything interesting in the image. Of course, the details depend on the data source and what you are looking for—stars, galaxies, planets, asteroids, or many other possible targets.

Over the years, astronomers have employed all kinds of image analysis, including machine learning techniques to automate these processes. In fact, many techniques pioneered by astronomers have been adopted for other uses. Astronomers have also pioneered the use of crowdsourced “citizen science” to aid the development and validation of these algorithms. Galaxy Zoo was one of the first and most successful such citizen science project, and has spawned dozens of clones.

In order to understand and answer questions about these massive datasets, e Astronomers have also pioneered statistical methods and search techniques. Kramer also discusses the difficult challenges of creating models that connect theory to the observational data. Much of astronomy is about trying to go from theoretical physics to “pixels in the image”, and vice versa.

Finally, they note that most of the data is openly available (though you really can’t download a copy, because it too freaking much). Most of the software is available, too. (This openness is possible largely because no one knows how to make money off astronomy, not even astronomers.) This means that there is opportunity for anyone to get into the game, to create new analyses, or to discover new science. Much of the data has hardly been studied at all, so who knows what you might be able to do?

In one sense, this article is nothing new. For centuries, Astronomy has led the development of instruments, data analysis, and theory. Looking out at the universe is both the hardest, and the most informative, scientific observations of all, and Astronomers are always working at the edge of what is technically possible.

In the past few years, there has been an accelerating trend to cut pubic funding for scientific research. The remaining funds are ever more tightly rationed, forcing hard choices, and difficult arguments about the relative benefits of different activities. Inevitably, there are strong pressures to reduce activities that have little obvious and direct benefit for people or important political interest groups.

One of the prime targets has been large-scale astrophysics, which requires expensive equipment and is, by definition, not about current life on Earth. It doesn’t even employ large numbers of people, at least once construction has finished. What good is it, except to fill the curiosity of a few egg heads?

This political picture is important to keep in mind when reading this article. They are responding to the “Why should we pay for these large investigations?”

In short, one reason to support Astronomy research is that this work can drive many data technologies that are increasingly important in may fields closer to home (and more profitable).

This is not the most romantic reason to do Astronomy, but it is a valid and important point.

  1. Jan Kremer, Kristoffer Stensbo-Smidt, Fabian Gieseke, Kim Steenstrup Pedersen, and Christian Igel, Big Universe, Big Data: Machine Learning and Image Analysis for Astronomy. IEEE Intelligent Systems, 32 (2):16-22, 2017.


Space Saturday

A personal blog.

%d bloggers like this: