Local Music: Amasong

A local ensemble Amasong is performing a spring show and CD launch this weekend.

This amateur group is familiar in the area for some two decades, and is famous for beautiful renditions of music from many cultures and times.

If you are in the area, consider attending (info at http://amasong.org/)



Cryptocurrency Narrative: Elite Students Get Free Stuff….

It must be nice to have all the money in the world.

The privileged elite of MIT are planning an “airdrop” to give each MIT undergrad $100 in Bitcoin.  Apparently funded with a half million in donations.  (Am I the only one who can imagine other uses for $500K?)

One hopes they will do more than just hand out presents–MIT is quite capable of doing some significant research on such an airdrop.  One might even think of some comparison and control conditions.  E.g., hand out dollars or coupons.  Oh, wait.  We’ve done that for many years.

They might even take a look at the underlying political economics.  Who benefits from this project?  (Hint:  the wealthy few who have large holdings of Bitcoin will surely benefit most.)

Prediction:  this will accomplish almost nothing except publicity.  Then it will be declared an unvarnished success.

Why not hand out something else, such as Dogecoin, or even make their own MITcoin?  (OK, I get that “The Bitcoin club” is a bit myoptic.)

I predict this will start a trend. Every campus in the country will do this.  Sigh.

(PS.  I’m hoping for drug, pornography, and–dare I hope–prostitution scandal at MIT.  Fingers crossed.)

(PPS.  This was unplanned, but I’m happy to have this bolshie screed appear on May Day.

“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of BITCOIN.”)

April Fiction Roundup

Fiction I’ve been reading, mostly

Metatropolis edited by John Scalzi (Tor, 2009)

Five authors, Jay Lake, Tobias S. Bucknell, Elizabeth Bear, Karle Schroeder, and John Scalzi created a shared world, and then constructed mutually consistent stories. Altogether, much better than a collection of unrelated stories, and an all star team, to boot.

The Metatropolis is sort of what “occupy wall street” should have been (notably, this was written before the occupy demonstrations), with themes of sustainable/decentralized/open technology; operating outside and overlaying the formal power structures; mainly “reputation-based” economies.

These stories are far from utopian, there is plenty of conflict, for both base and noble reasons. Few people are happy, some are miserable.

We get lot’s of arresting images of technologies, societies, and events. An episode where genetically enhanced crops are “liberated” via a fleet of drones was memorable.

One of the stories also has an interesting Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which overlays real land and metacities with a virtual city. This was even more interesting, because there is an ARG nested within (accessible only through) the ARG, and, indeed, an ARG nested in the nested ARG.

This is a fascinating idea, clearly analogous to the layers of virtuality inside most software, extended all the way to the human interfaces (i.e., “the future of work” is “frictionless marketing your skills”, without barbaric relics such as “jobs” or “contracts”)

The ARGs can touch on the “real world” in various hidden ways (as seen in other tales such as Halting State by Stross and This is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams). An arresting image in this story is one ARG that is completely self sufficient, controlling its own energy, food, and fabrication economy.

This concept makes sense both ways: it lays a culture over the economy to enforce the needed discipline (i.e., use only the in-game resources), and, as the story suggests, it also let’s “more than one world” exist in the same place and time. Interesting.

This is a fascinating idea, though who knows if it is worth the trouble? Recursion is hard work, so I don’t think it is humanly possible to create and deal with more than necessary levels of overlay.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead Books, 2014)

An interesting story about a future world that is far too easily recognized in today’s emerging oligarchy: gated communities for the rich, most people left adrift in climate ravaged wildlands.

The story of the young woman Fan is fairly simple, as she seeks her missing lover. But the writing is complex and beautiful, but maddening. Fan is faced in one of many tense situations, but we are led on a long, poetic consideration of other topics before we can read what happens next.

At times, I was tempted to skip ahead. But the writing is so very good, and the situation so deep and complex, I was glad to work through it.

Naturally, we grow to really care about Fan, and the people she influences. She has a remarkable calm and patience, and an astonishing fundamental goodness, amid her terrifying and horrible circumstances. We can’t know her whole future, but we ache for her to be safe and happy.

One of he best stories I’ve read in 2014.

The Bend of the World by Jacob Bacharach (W. W. Norton & Company, 2014)

Strange doings in Pittsburgh, PA.

A story with positively a 1970’s feel, with all our old favorites of the New Age, up to date via the Internet. Drugs have got a lot more complex, though casual overuse thereof is pretty much unchanged by the decades.

(But why are we still interested in Nazis, UFOs, even Orgone Accumulators, and the other childish nonsense from the twentieth century? C’mon, man. We have Google/Apple/etc. literally taking over our entire lives, why do we care about low tech Illuminati nonsense?

The narrator Peter Morrison deals with weirdness on many fronts; a pointless but sinister job, weird family history, and old and new friends, in a mystically enhanced Pittsburgh that certainly resembles the city one can visit. What’s going on is not at all clear.

Stuff happens, but it’s hard to say what exactly is going on or why. Perhaps that’s the point, I dunno.

Bacharach uses a brisk style, laced with lots of snide commentary which kept me reading. One memorable aside:

I flirted with [designing my own major] in college, a tantalizing prospect that involved movies and books and trips abroad, which amused my dad and infuriated my mother, who’d suggested that I might also design my own funding mechanism for tuition, which in turn sent me scuttling back to econ. In retrospect, in made no difference: economics was a far more elaborate fake than anything an undergraduate could come up with on his own; it inhabited a world of Tolkienian depth and ingenuity, a mythic creation with its own gods and greater and lesser spirits and heroes and conflicts and magic: a monument of imaginative world creation.” (p. 131)

Can you tell he studied English and business?

Fun stuff, but I was left wanting more. Perhaps this is a promise of future stories.


NSA Narrative: Excellent WH Post on Cybersecurity

This week Michael Daniel wrote in a White House blog about US government policies about cyber vulnerabilities. The item, “Heartbleed: Understanding When We Disclose Cyber Vulnerabilities”, is well worth reading. When the government becomes aware of a security vulnerability in widely used systems, what should it do? Keep quiet? Reveal it? Help fix it? Use it when needed for espionage? As, Daniel says, “the answer may seem clear to some, but the reality is much more complicated.”

Bear in mind that the NSA, FBI, and other agencies are saddled with impossibly conflicting missions: they are charged with protecting the communications and IP of the US, with penetrating the same systems of adversaries, and, on occasion, disabling or compromising systems to achieve other goals.   Since “our systems” and “their systems” have no clear boundary these days, and use the same components, how can the same people play both defense and offense at the same time on the same field? It’s not simple.

The post is partly in light of questions surrounding the recent revelations of a security hole in OpenSSL (code name Heartbleed). Many believe that the NSA know about the bug—if it didn’t put it in itself!—and kept quiet in order to exploit it to penetrate systems of interest. The NSA has flatly denied either, via Twitter, no less.

(For fans of the NSA Narrative  we note that the denial does little to settle the facts, but greatly helps to keep the stories alive. If our most trusted, openest, whitest hatted, software could have such a bug, possibly deliberately placed there by “someone”, we must assume that the NSA knows about it and takes advantage of all such holes.   “The NSA is watching everyone, everywhere.” Nothing on the Internet is safe!)

Daniel gives a list of question that are supposedly weighed in deciding what to do about security vulnerabilities:

    • “How much is the vulnerable system used in the core internet infrastructure, in other critical infrastructure systems, in the U.S. economy, and/or in national security systems?
    • Does the vulnerability, if left unpatched, impose significant risk?
    • How much harm could an adversary nation or criminal group do with knowledge of this vulnerability?
    • How likely is it that we would know if someone else was exploiting it?
    • How badly do we need the intelligence we think we can get from exploiting the vulnerability?
    • Are there other ways we can get it?
    • Could we utilize the vulnerability for a short period of time before we disclose it?
    • How likely is it that someone else will discover the vulnerability?
    • Can the vulnerability be patched or otherwise mitigated?”  (from Daniels)

This is a sensible list, and is actually familiar to anyone who has worked in system admin. We have to make similar decisions all the time on greater or lesser scales.

The essential challenge is to weigh what is known, the risks of action (or inaction), and benefits of actions (or inaction).

While a humble system admin will mostly worry about his or her own domain, and weigh financial costs, the US government has additional factors to consider. Multiple risks must be weighed (damaged web sites versus nuclear sabotage? Domestic versus overseas impacts?), and sometimes there may be dark “benefits” for espionage to weigh against losses.

Note, too, that there is always a timing issue. For defense, it is usually best to report bugs as soon as possible (along with countermeasures). Sometimes, though, if you wait a few hours or days someone else will discover the same bug. If so, then is there a reason to reveal what you have learned, possibly revealing what you are up to?

Worse, if there is no easy fix, then revealing the problem will assure that adversaries will be able to attack the systems you are charged with defending. Perhaps the problem should be kept quiet until there is a countermeasure? But, in the mean time, can we know if a system is already compromised? Yoiks!

Of course, the exciting, James Bond case is when there might be very important short term need (e.g., to penetrate particular adversaries) that argue for inaction until a later time. There are many folk tales and some evidence that these cases have occurred in the past, and presumably today and in the future.

As I said, this is a very good post, worth reading.  And the fact that it was posted is interesting, as well.

It is also an interesting contribution to The Narrative. It openly acknowledges that there are means, motives, and opportunities for the NSA to Know About Bugs Than Noone Else Knows, which they use to spy on you and turn your systems against you.

Methodology Note: How to Study Cryptocurrency Phemonmenon

A quick note, mostly to note this topic for future reference.

As I’ve been reading various Big Data/Analytics stuff (see upcoming book reviews) at the same time I’m sampling the cryptocurrency sagas, I realize that I probably need to think about ways to characterize and measure what is going on with various cryptocurrencies.

The current state of play focusses on several “metrics”.

First, cryptocurrencies are tracked and ranked by the exchange rates, especially to dollars. We also see frequent references to “market capitalization”, which includes the effects of mining. These metrics are everything for speculators, but pretty meaningless for generic commerce.

A second stream of news involves uptake: companies selling “mining rigs”, software for wallets, and merchants who accept particular currencies.  These topics speak to the technological and commercial feasibility of cryptocurrencies, though they are ephemeral.  It could all go away in a flash.

These “metrics” are closely related to the technical function of cryptocurrencies, and therefore are pretty similar across the various currencies.  Sure, currencies have different exchange rates, and some are more widely used at this date.

My own view is that the real differences, and the interesting features, of various cryptocurrencies are their cultural narratives, and communities that surround them.  So–how do I examine this aspect?

I’ve been looking at various content analysis methods, which could reveal dominant themes in writing and other communications.  I have done a bit of this, but much more could be done.

A second common method would be network analysis, which could illustrate aspects of the human networks involved.  I have no idea if this can be done, given the decentralized and loosely organized communities.

Skaar Comments on “How Bitcoin Is Inspiring Spinoffs Outside The Realm Of Money”

In a blog item, Ole Skaar comments on uses of cryptocurrency other than money.

One of the interesting things about cryptocurrency protocols is that it has many uses other than use in the role of “currency”.  These uses have received relatively little attention, and  comparatively little narrative development.

Skaar describes “three examples of how cryptocurrency protocols are being repurposed by innovators”.   The use of the word “repurposed” is interesting, endorsing the narrative that the “purpose” of the protocols is to implement currencies.

His narrative takes “Bitcoin” as equivalent to “cryptocurrency”, and calls out the actions of “innovators”, and the action is “spinoffs”. Notably Bitcoin has “inspired” these innovators.

He correctly asserts “at the basic level, they all use a variation of the Bitcoin protocol” as I have repeatedly pointed out.

He comments that there are a lot of instances of cryptocurrencies, citing Wikipedia (which lists about 30), and bitcointalk has even more.  There are clearly many more than easily tracked here:  for instance, neither of these sources includes Auroracoin or Mazacoin, which I have discussed earlier.

Still, he identifies three examples which have even more radically different narratives built on the cryptocurrency technology.

Here are his three narratives:


This is “bittorrent stored in blockchians”!!  Whoa!

“Datacoin is a reliable, censorship-free currency that can be used for transactions and data storage within its sophisticated blockchain.”

“Data is stored in the blockchain forever and can be retrieved using a transaction hash as an identifier.”

This isn’t the most efficient storage method ever, but it’s a cool idea for long term, highly redundant, storage that can not only not be lost, it can’t be erased–ever.


I’m not sure why regular money or Bitcoin won’t work for this application, but the basic idea is: micropayments for education.

As the first bitcoin-based digital currency for education, EduCoin aims to be the worldwide standard for transactions between students, educators, and third parties.”

EduCoin has the potential for use across the education economy: school fees & scholarships, microtransactions on campus, kickstarting education, tipping in MOOCs, crowdfunding research, and above all, generating wider access to world class education.


Proposes to use a cryptocurrency block chain to manage public keys for secure messaging.  A message is sent to a “Bitcoin” address, and can only be accessed by the holder of the address.

This is actually even cooler than stated, because this is also a way to use micropayments to manage spam-the same way that paying postage keeps junk mail within limits.

So, Skaar shows us that, in addition to narratives about money, dogs, community, and nation, we can tell stories about education, file sharing, and note passing.

Cooler and cooler.

A personal blog.

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