Wednesday, April 11, 2018

The Pointless Feel-Good Madness of the Rising Facebook Fury

Wow. Everybody hates Facebook, and they'd like something bad to happen to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, because - um - some bad stuff happened, and nobody's doing anything, and we really need to BLAME somebody or something for the bad stuff that happened. Here's the key question: What did Facebook do to earn such bitter enmity and loathing? If you can't explain it in a couple of sentences, and instead fall back on shouting "Privacy!" or "He SOLD our data" or "FAKE RUSSIAN NEWS", you need to go back, do some serious research, and think about it a little harder. Perhaps I can help.

There are two issues here. One is the Facebook business model. When you run the largest multi-datacenter consumer internet site in the world, your growth models are premised on offering billions of dollars of technology services for free, and you base your revenue models on advertising, you need to deliver effective advertising. The way to do that is to understand as much as you can about every user, so that you can deliver the ads they are most likely to click on. Those advertisers will recognize the higher response rates on your platform and pay you correspondingly higher advertising rates. Let's be very clear - THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THIS. Companies have ALWAYS sought to know as much as they could about their customers - when you use your loyalty card at the grocery store, they give you a discount, because the information they are collecting about your purchasing habits is valuable to them.

The key to this discussion is that there are two kinds of data. There is PII - Personally Identifiable Data - and there is masked or aggregated data, where the trends and characteristics of a user or group of users can be analyzed and shared without exposing WHO those users are. Every company has PII in their internal systems. Whether it's payment data, address, banking, age, health, financial status, home ownership etc - it's impossible to work with people without collecting information about them. Social media is it's own thing - people, in the course of using the platform, tell the system a great deal about themselves, both directly (I have two kids and another on the way, I have four dogs, I live in Cleveland etc) and indirectly (Likes, Emojis, Quizes etc).

Google uses the information they collect to provide ad targeting services too. But there's ONE big difference. Google provides the targets themselves - no PII every leaves their possession to go to the advertisers. Facebook has at least one program where they will provide PII to the ad networks to do their own targeting. This is 100% of the problem, and will likely be reduced in light of the firestorm. But that's it - all the screaming about privacy and data protection and "selling" data comes down to nothing more nefarious than who is using the data to target the ads. It's not optimal, but it's really not the end of the world. And if you think it's sufficient reason quit using the Facebook platform, or if you think it makes Zuckerberg uniquely evil, you really should look hard at the other online platforms and tools you use.

The other issue is the ad content itself. How can they rapidly identify those ads that are problematic, that represent foreign electoral influence, for example? And is it even desirable for them to take it upon themselves to filter ad content? This gets really dicey. Yes, as a private company they are not obligated to provide unfettered speech a la the first amendment. But as a content and messaging company, they MUST retain credibility. If people feel their voices are being silenced, the platform itself will lose credibility, and thus users. And make no mistake, this would be a 'both sides' problem. If we demand that Facebook silence certain kinds of content, they're going to make absolutely certain that there is NO hint of political bias in the decision. That means they're going to silence at least one liberal for every conservative. And because content guidelines can never cover every eventuality, these decisions are going to be seen as crude and arbitrary, and there's just no way that a company the size of Facebook could provide sufficient resources to arbitrate every complaint.

The argument about "Fake News" is just a complete red herring. Yes, the Russians used Facebook (and Twitter and Instagram) to attempt to influence the 2016 US Presidential election - and they did so with both paid advertising and straightforward user postings. If you want to prevent foreign money from paying for these kinds of ads, great, but don't pretend that money can't be moved around in such a manner as to conceal its source. Russians won't purchase the ads directly, Americans will. The question of where the money actually came from, as with all campaign finance questions, will ultimately go unresolved. And, once again, if you want to empower Facebook to arbitrarily silence controversial users, don't get all weepy on me when they silence YOU too. They don't want to be in the censorship business, and if we force them to take on that role, they're, once again, going to make sure it doesn't look slanted, and that means silencing voices we want to hear.

At the end of the day, all consumers of political and public policy news should be skeptical. If you read something, and it's something you REALLY want to believe, that's the moment you should be extra-cautious about just accepting it at face value. Do your due diligence or accept that you're being lied to and used. Pizzagate was a stupid, irrational conspiracy theory with zero evidence to support it. People who believed it WANTED to believe it. People who took a moment to check other authoritative and primary sources quickly discovered the truth. This is called 'motivated reasoning' and it has NOTHING to do with Facebook or social media. Fox News is the greatest example of a propaganda outlet that KNOWS it's audience only wants to hear certain things, even if they are untrue.

So, does this mean there are no problems with Facebook and the larger social media ecosystem? Of course not. What it DOES mean is the current hysterical freak-out has much less to do with Facebook policies and processes and much more to do with our own frustration and sense of helplessness. I would think that the spittle flecked hatred of all things Zuckerberg will die down after the midterm elections, when there are more actual functional checks on Trump's madness. But ultimately, don't expect much to change, because there's really not very much to BE changed.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Kevin Williamson Saga - Ur Doon It Worng

So, at long last, our long national nightmare has come to an end. Kevin Williamson is no longer employed as a writer at The Atlantic. Your children can come out of the safe room and you can all sleep sound tonight.


I find this whole thing to be distasteful, and I am particularly disappointed with the behavior of so many of my fellow liberals. What Williamson said was foul, but I have two important reasons why we should have attacked his content (and encouraged him to produce more of it) rather than screaming for his head. The first is based in values I believe are critical to the American experience - values that are rapidly disappearing from both sides (yes, I said it) of the political spectrum. The second reason is more calculated, more pragmatic, and more important in the specific sense of women's rights and the abortion argument.

First, let's talk about writing. Williamson hasn't been silenced, exactly. He can still write a blog, and offer pieces as a free lancer. It was The Atlantic that was silenced, shouted down by a mob for doing what they believed was best for their commercial organization. They might have been wrong about that in the long run, but we'll never get to find out. Williamson was pushed out of a professional writing job. As someone who views himself as a writer first, I find that simply unacceptable. In America we have always believed that you have a right to sell your services to the highest bidder, and if that resulted in content that we found offensive, we had the option of not patronizing that particular purveyor of ideas, or of even writing our own piece denouncing the positions offered. Too often I see my fellow lefties shrieking in fury over a writer with whom they do not agree getting offered a job by a major outlet. I can only imagine how awful they would feel if some conservative hate mob ran them out of THEIR dream job for offering a political position that they found offensive. I guess I can't speak for all the people I thought I knew, but I don't want to do that.

Which brings us to the more pragmatic argument. There is NO reason why we should be arguing about women's reproductive rights in 2018 - Roe v Wade was decided almost fifty years ago. But one of the more 'powerful' (to some) arguments on the right is that abortion is murder. Indeed, they often compare abortion in America to the Holocaust or genocide. This is a stupid, specious argument, but we keep letting them get away with it.  Why? Just like this instance. What Williamson said - that a woman who had an abortion should be hanged - is really nothing but the logical outgrowth of this kind of rhetoric. In that sense, it's both logically consistent and brutally honest. In the Summer of 2016, the politically ignorant Donald Trump said the same thing on the campaign trail. Why? Because it's OBVIOUS, and he had no grounding in the tactical political messaging of the anti-abortion rabble. They KNOW this is toxic - they can go as far as suggestion some limited punishment for doctors, but the logical consequences of their "abortion is murder" stance is something that will kill their movement almost instantly.

So Williamson put it out there. It was a HUGE opportunity for the pro-choice community to engage and put other conservatives on the spot. "Is Williamson wrong? If abortion is murder, isn't he actually RIGHT?" The big, ugly secret behind criminalizing abortion would out on the table for all to see. Religious nutjobs would agree with him, politicians would run from him, but they all would have to explain how to adjudicate the mother in a world where abortions were criminalized. I would have encouraged him to speak out further on how women should be prosecuted and executed for a medical procedure. He'd do more damage to their neanderthal misogynist views on women's rights then anybody would have imagined. And for that matter, I KNOW The Atlantic quite well. I've been friends with James Fallows for over a decade, and they welcome engagement from both sides. Williamson's pieces would have opened up a major debate in their pages, and thoughtful people would have had a chance to speak to women's rights in front of an audience prepared to consider what they have to say.

So congratulations, fellow lefties. You took a major opportunity to advance the dialog on women's reproductive rights and threw it in the dumpster, all while you took an unnecessarily illiberal, authoritarian approach to speech. And in the battle to get ideologues fired from writing jobs, I suspect the Conservatives will be coming hard after this. We got our scalp, shot ourselves in the foot and ended up silencing ourselves.

It's just not a good look...

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Knowledge is Power, but Stupid is Eternal

One of the dumbest arguments you see in the gun rights debate is the insistence that if you don't have a deep, specific knowledge of guns, their components and characteristics, and the jargon that describes it all, you can't have a considered opinion on the topic. As someone with a typically higher level of mechanical expertise on the subject than your typical wingnut gun rights absolutist, please allow me to weigh in on the subject.

First, it's a specious argument, really a category error, because we aren't against 'guns' in this argument, but against gun violence - the killings and suicides are are destroying so many lives in our country. The obvious fact that the easy availability of modern firearms is the direct cause of the gun violence in the US - NOT just  the high profile mass shootings, but the endless nightly death and horror that occurs every day and every week, like clockwork - is the reason we'd like to see some strong limitations on the right of the people to keep and bear arms. Vigorous gun regulation works to massively limit gun violence in every nation that has tried it, and the tighter gun regulations in other nations don't seem to be causing any loss of 'liberty'.

But even in the context of this debate, it's a false imperative. YOU know what you're against. You know what a gun is, what it looks like, what it does. You are trying to stop murders - indeed, our people would never stand in the way of the kinds of regulations we'd pass if we hadn't at some point lost our collective minds as a population. You don't need to know what caliber cartridge is being used to slaughter kids. You don't need to know the difference between an upper and lower receiver. You don't need to know the make and model of the handguns that take hundreds of American lives - and destroy thousands more - every single day.

That said, the ONE exception to this rule is if you are advocating for a 'type ban'. It's fine to talk about an 'assault weapons ban' because we all know what it is we're asking for. But if you want to debate the actual functionality of the legislation - and you should, because there would be significant efforts to build in large-scale loopholes that prevent it from doing what we want it to do - then you'll have to get serious about learning what it is you want to ban. You can't ban 'assault rifles' because there is no legally agreed-upon definition for that phrase, and as soon as the NRA lobbyists get their input in the legislative language, it will be essentially meaningless anyway.

Nope, you're going to have to learn about stocks and grips and mechanisms and barrels and flash suppressors and all of the parts and pieces that will make up the meat and potatoes of your bill. You're going to have to figure out how to think like the manufacturers and include language that prevents them from designing the same rifle with different features. In that case, you're going to need to take a deep dive into the topic.

The exception to THAT, however, is if you want to advocate for a ban on semi-auto firearms. As an old-school revolver guy, I'm totally OK with that, but it's not something I'll be putting any effort into. No way congress passes it, no way a President signs it, and no way it gets through the courts who would strike it down as 'overly broad'.  Seriously, if we can move the needle on the gun debate so far that this becomes a viable solution, it will mean that some pretty effective gun control measures have already passed and the problem is still growing despite them.

I just wanted to put up this quick post because this seems to be a trending argument among the pro-gun absolutists on social media, and it's simply another attempt at obfuscation. If somebody tells you that you don't know enough about guns to argue against their easy availability, just tell them you know all you need to know because what you're really arguing against is murder.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Something Must Be Done!!!

Or maybe it should read
Get Pissed and Do Something
So today we find ourselves with two ongoing narratives battling for their share of popular outrage. One is yet another mass shooting, this time at a school in Florida, and the other is Russian social media based interference in the American (and other) democratic election process. In these cases, the outrage is expressed in remarkably similar terms - that is people demanding action. Enough is enough, they scream, and they demand somebody DO SOMETHING. And that's fine, as far as it goes - in both cases we find ourselves helpless, and in the face of that kind of helplessness, angry. And we know that, as citizens, we have no real power to change the rules, to somehow turn the world from this crazy, destructive, unsustainable path it has somehow gotten onto, and make it better, make it make sense.

Both of the outraged demands that somebody DO SOMETHING have something noteworthy in common. In both cases, nobody ever offers any real thoughts or suggestions about what it is we should do. Instead - particularly in the case of the gun murders - the best they can do is demand some magical end-state, without ever even thinking about how to get there, what it might take politically and how much time it would require. I note this partly because it is the same with demands for government funded single payer health care - we want a functional system up and running, but absolutely refuse to do the hard work of thinking about what it would take for us to get to that point.

Let's first consider the election interference, because in the case of these two impossible demands it is probably the easier one to approach. American elections are tremendously costly primarily because they require a full-spectrum advertising blitz. Not just television and radio, but internet, social media and rallies on the ground. There is nothing we can do to prevent Americans from posting political advertising and messaging, and meeting with others in support of their candidates and issues. The Russian intelligence agencies recognized this early on, and set up a group to impersonate Americans and sew chaos and division. It was incredibly effective, and probably was partially responsible for the election of the most unqualified idiot imaginable to the most powerful position in the land.

Make no mistake, 2016 was a learning process for them. In many ways they were sloppy, making only a minimal effort to cover their tracks and spending only a million dollars a month on the effort. This year, they will do a better job of hiding the source of funding and recruiting Americans to be the front men for an operation that will then supply content - both stolen (and possible altered) private messaging and emails, and social media posts of the most ugly and outrageous kind possible. Remember, the goal is to create a level of hate and discord that makes a democratic electoral system break down under the weight. The playbook is written, they are coming for us again in 2018, and they will do a better job than they did last time.

So what can we do about it? Obviously, we're not going to ban political social media messaging and posts, and while we can try to make certain that those posts that are paid advertising are purchased by Americans, but that kind of loose limitation is easily bypassed by the professionals in Russia. It's already clear that won't be near enough. Education won't work, because so many Americans WANT to believe the things they believe, and anything that reinforces those beliefs (crooked Hillary) will be believed, liked and shared. I'm wide open to suggestion, but I believe that the only option that remains is active measures.

The US - both in the NSA and in the Military - has an offensive cyber operation in place. (So, it should be noted, does every other country.) We have the option of breaking systems, destroying networks and erasing data. Every time we can target the source of this kind of interference, we could shut it down and force them to reconstitute those capabilities. Seems like that might be effective, right? Of course, with any escalation, you're going to get a counterattack. As mentioned above, they also have an offensive cyber warfare capability, and could respond with their own active measures. What will they come for? State electoral systems? Banking systems? Railroads? Electrical grid? Then how do we respond, and where does this escalating cyber war leave us? And does any of it actually protect our fragile democratic elections?

As to guns, what we hear is 'ban AR-15s', 'ban semi-auto weapons', ban ammunition types and the old standbys, improve background checks and address our mental health crisis. And of course, none of these things are bad, per se. But they are desired end-states, not anything like a plan or a course of action. If you demand one of these end-states, shouldn't you be obligated to at least offer a rough outline of how you're going to get there? In trying to game out a path to a solution, at least you come to understand how desperately difficult solving these problems is going to be in our current political environment.

The short answer to the gun problem is going to be nothing less than a shift in political belief systems. At some point, Americans are going to refuse to go along with the status quo. Right now, a significant portion of Americans have decided that this slaughter of innocents is a reasonable price to pay in exchange for unfettered access to modern firearms. But now we're on a path that leads to more slaughter, and higher body counts. Las Vegas was a breakthrough in high-volume murder, and all the people who will commit similar crimes in the future are paying attention. It's almost certain that we will - at some point - experience our own "Australia Moment" when the carnage becomes so sickening, and comes to so many otherwise 'safe, white' places, that we demand that our leaders - at least at the State level - simply ignore the arguments about the 2nd amendment and do the draconian things we need to do to put an end to this madness.

At the end of the day, demanding action - that somebody DO SOMETHING - isn't a particularly effective political strategy. It just reinforces the understanding of the power imbalance, and lets those 550 legislators in Washington know that nobody actually believes that they will act. But to be fair, this is where we are in the process. The 2nd amendment is toxic, and it's killing Americans at an alarming rate. If enough people get out and demand action, and vote in pro gun control candidates, then change will someday be possible. So yeah - I'd like to hear concrete suggestions, but today I'll settle for anger and outrage.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Blogging in the Age of Trump and Twitter

Once upon a time, everyone was doing it
Trump ruins everything. Blogging, for me, was a kind of an extended conversation where I could think about trends and events and try to derive meaning or even understanding from them. And we had a little informal group - our 'Bloggerhood' - that would read and comment, providing feedback and input and helping the process of turning knowledge into wisdom go forward. It was fun, often hilariously funny, thought provoking and endlessly fascinating. Blog posts went from a few sentences to a few thousand words - you could easily read, digest and comment on a number of them throughout the day.

Blogging, in general, is dying today. Nearly dead. Part of it is Trump - people are so appalled and gobsmacked at his corruption, ignorance, arrogance and vicious hatred that they can't look away, they can't let a day go by without 'reporting' on his hypocrisy or damage to democracy. So that's what many blogs in my beloved Bloggerhood have become - just another website that rehashes the latest Trump outrage. It's like everybody I know has lost the ability to think about the world, and can only focus on the news from yesterday.

But here's the thing. We ALL read the news yesterday. I don't need my friends to tell me a brief tl;dr version of the news reports I read. There's seldom any thoughtful analysis provided with these days old outrage reports - which is understandable because at this point there is very little left to be learned. We know what we've got, we know what the rules are, we know that our American small-d democratic experiment is very sick - perhaps terminally so.

Today, more than ever, thinking about the intersection of society, culture, economics, technology and public policy is desperately important. These are the sources of power for individuals and groups, and the way those groups form and relate creates communities - and wars. Now would be a great time to accept that we've ALL heard the outrageous stories, and we are - to the extent of our ability to sustain outrage at this point - outraged too. PLEASE think about, instead of telling me that Trump or Hannity or Nunes or Gowdy did something awful, which we already know, tell me what it MEANS. How it fits. What it might lead to. Please think about THINKING again - there is no value in reporting yesterday's news - that's why print newspapers are dying too.

Now, to be fair, Trump isn't the only suspect in the death of blogging as a broadly democratic publishing platform. In fact, Twitter is the MAIN suspect. There is apparently a belief among many that one can do the same thing on Twitter that one could do on blogs, but it would take only a fraction of the time and effort. Of course, that turns out to be a false assumption, but ease and convenience will trump time and effort every time. One of the things that amuses me no end is the proliferation of 20, 30, even 50 part Twitter 'threads'. These are blog posts, chopped up to fit within the 280 character limit, and often incoherent as a result. But just write a blog post and link to it from Twitter? I suspect that most of the people who will read the fifteen hundred word Twitter thread would never click on that link. Blogging is SO last decade, amirite?

Obviously, this has affected me too. I write a lot less - with so much Trump overload, it's hard to come up with other, interesting topics that might engage a readership. And while my readership numbers have stayed about the same, nobody comments anymore, so the whole interactive learning thing is no longer an option. But I mostly write to work out my own beliefs and understanding of events - I've always thought you can't really know even what YOU actually think until you set out to write it down. Then you'll very likely discover that even YOU don't believe precisely what you thought you believed. But I'll never just repeat the same news I read yesterday - that's just not interesting for me or anyone else. If there's a lesson to be learned (other than Republicans in America are craven hypocrites, which we already know well), I might START with a newsworthy event, but that would never be the point of the piece.

[Tomorrow we'll see lots of blogs talking about how the GOP demanded Democrats return the Weinstein donations, but say nothing about returning the Wynn donations. Seriously, do you really think that's an interesting topic?]

Blogging is magical because it removed the barrier between the writer and publication. You no longer needed an intermediary to make your work available to a global audience. That's the most democratic thing I can think of - if the fax machine brought down the Soviet Union, then blogging changed all the rules for information management forever and ever, amen.

I'm not ready to give it up for dead quite yet.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Helping My Favorite Bastard

Don't be afraid. Bitcoin is your friend.
Last week my fellow blogger Big Bad Bald Bastard wrote a piece expressing his contempt for Bitcoin. It was, as a useful analysis goes, pathetic, uninformed claptrap. Now, I'd ordinarily just ignore that - people hear about a technical topic, they hear people TALKING about it, and they form opinions based on nothing so much as a feeling, a sense that it is somehow dangerous or evil. But Mr. Bastard is different. I've known him for more than ten years, and he is one of the smartest people I know, well-read and broadly informed across multiple domains and topics. To be fair, he seldom writes about technology - and make no mistake, cryptocurrencies are complex technologies - but for him to go so far off the rails struck me as stunning, and I just feel like I need to help him understand why he needs to re-visit the topic in some deeper detail.

I'm not going to do yet another cryptocurrency explainer here - any of you can go read the Wikipedia article and there's no dearth of authoritative information sources if you want to go deeper. Instead I want to take issue with the Bastard's premise, and challenge some of his conclusions.

The Big Picture
The first question is about the concept of a digital currency itself. It's unclear from his piece what the Bastard thinks about the idea writ large, and yet I struggle with this ambiguity. Setting aside any problems with implementation, is there any reason why an anonymous digital currency - essentially a cash equivalent for use across the internet - should not be welcomed, even embraced? Right now, if you want to transfer funds digitally for any reason, you have to use a bank or financial company as an intermediary. All the details of the transaction are available to business, corporations, marketing companies and governments. We still have cash - even if we use it less than we used to for convenience sake - why shouldn't that option at least be available on the wire?

Pick an Argument
Part of the Bastards distaste for Bitcoin (and presumably all other cryptocurrencies) is that he sees it as an embodiment of the whole Ayn Rand/Ron Paul/Libertarian project, which he hates. I'm sympathetic to this conclusion, even though it is largely incorrect. Why? Well, to whatever extent he finds Libertarians stupid, unrealistic, racist and cruel, I either agree with him or even exceed him in contempt for this 'ideology'. But does this argument truly apply to cryptocurrencies? Well, it's true that they do tend to like the fact that it is not issued by any government or agency, and that it DOES provide a mechanism for avoiding government fees and taxes. But is a solution like Bitcoin really the Libertarian ideal? No, it's not. In general, a currency must meet two often incompatible requirements. It must be a:

1.) Reliable store of value
2.) Functional medium of exchange

Bitcoin is not a reliable store of value. The value of a Bitcoin floats on the exchanges, in a daily dance that all currencies and commodities go through called 'price discovery'. Commodities are worth exactly what people will pay for them, so they are traded on exchanges precisely so that the market can decide how much that is. In short, Libertarians like gold, because its value is intrinsic, rather than based on government backing.

But make no mistake - Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are highly functional as a medium of exchange, and are used as such thousands or millions of times every day - to the complete satisfaction of the parties to the transaction.

But People Steal Bitcoins All The Time
Mr. Bastard raises the point that hackers have stolen a lot of Bitcoins. This is true. The primary exchange, Mt. Gox, actually collapsed when hackers were able to take possession of all their Bitcoins. None of their customers could clear any transactions. This is all very true - but is it in any way reflective of the value or worthiness of a cryptocurrency? Actually, no. Hackers are constantly trying to steal anything of value on the internet. They have stolen orders of magnitude more regular dollars and Euros than they have stolen Bitcoins, and they steal intellectual property and pretty much anything they can get their hands on. If you're stupid, lazy, sloppy or just plain unlucky, you could lose anything you have on your computer or in the cloud. Interestingly, it's actually EASIER for a regular user to secure their Bitcoins than it is to secure their bank account. You are completely reliant on your bank to secure your money, but you don't have to store your Private Key online. You can put it on a thumb drive or even print it out, and put it in a home safe or safe deposit box. Hell, if you wanted to, you could print out your key and turn it into a book cypher.

The Greed Factor
The reason that Mr. Bastard chose now to write his Bitcoin piece is very likely because Bitcoin has been in the news quite a bit due to an extraordinary runup in the value of Bitcoins expressed in US Dollars. He clearly finds this troubling, but I can't even begin to imagine what he thinks it tells us about cryptocurrencies. Investors are always looking for a way to diversify their portfolio, so as a high-risk investment, putting some dollars into Bitcoins in a rising market makes perfect sense. The market is volatile, and some people are going to lose money. But that happens all the time, with copper, and oil, and soybeans. Exchanges exist for just this reason - to determine the current market price for a given commodity - and it is no reflection on the underlying commodity. When the price stabilizes, the commodity is still there.

The Blockchain - The Answer to All Your Cryptocurrency Questions
Another highly surprising argument that Mr. Bastard raised is that Bitcoins aren't 'real'. That's false, although the reason it's false is fairly hard to understand. Bitcoin is not a technology - it is a currency, or perhaps a product. The technology that enables cryptocurrencies is a cryptographic-based transaction monitor called the Blockchain. Every Bitcoin that has ever existed, and every transaction that has ever been executed is recorded in the Blockchain. The Blockchain can't be altered, it can't be tampered with, it can't be erased. It is the Blockchain that makes Bitcoins real - they can't ever disappear. Mr. Bastard wrote (referencing the Tulip panic of the seventeenth century) that at least, unlike Bitcoins, tulip bulbs were 'real' and still had value as tulip bulbs. Again, he's talking about the inherent value of a currency. Take your wallet out of your pocket. Look inside. You'll see pieces of green paper, cut to a uniform size and printed with a picture of a dead president. What is the inherent value of a $20 bill? I'm pretty sure it's zero. That is the magic of fiat currency - the money is representative of value. It doesn't carry that value in and of itself. Once again, this is why Libertarians prefer gold.

Let There Be Bitcoins
Speaking of fiat currency - and man, do Libertarians HATE fiat currency - the government produces those pieces of green paper using a printing press. So how the hell do you produce Bitcoins? Unsurprisingly, the Blockchain provides an answer to that question. It's called 'mining', and by providing the distributed computing power required for the large scale calculations made within the Blockchain, a user is periodically rewarded with one Bitcoin. It's exactly like a printing press turning paper and ink into money, but it's digital, so it uses processing power and connectivity instead. Once again, Mr. Bastard seemed to have a problem with this process, but he never really made it clear what that problem was.

Lions and Tigers and Mobsters, Oh My
And, of course, there's the standard complaint. If you have an anonymous digital cash-equivalent, then people will use it for criminal purposes. Of COURSE they will. Let me tell you a quick story. Back in the early '80s, I let a friend of mine use my apartment in San Rafael as the operational headquarters for a very large cocaine transaction being shipped to Alaska. I was not a known drug dealer, and I had the defensive wherewithal to protect both the cocaine and the money. So on the appointed night, I had five guys crawling around on my living room floor, carefully arranging foot-high stacks of US Currency from the wall to the kitchen. It was a SEA of money - more than I have ever seen in one place before or since. It was striking, really. But it occurs to me that nobody ever suggested that we get rid of cash dollars because they get used for purposes like that. That's not ALL they're for, and we like the freedom of using cash anytime we want that reassurance that our purchase is untracked.

The idea of a cryptocurrency was easier than the execution. This is a whole new concept, and it was based on some programming and a bunch of math and it was hard. There have been some birthing problems, but they're getting addressed. When we finally have a solid, stable, broadly accepted cryptocurrency, it probably won't be Bitcoins at all. But Bitcoins is where we learned how to do this, how to roll out a Blockchain based payment solution and manage the process.

But it seems like an important - perhaps even necessary - part of a modern digital economy. I just can't for the life of me understand why someone would think that the right answer is to make sure that banks and governments should be permitted to know everything about everything we buy, every dollar we transfer, every charitable contribution we make. I'm hopeful that in having this conversation I can convince my friend to think about this a little harder, and perhaps re-evaluate his position.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Super Villain du Jour

Eric Schmidt. Elon Musk. "Tech Bros". Gamergate. If you're an American liberal, your new favorite target of hatred and opprobrium is people who have had some success in the tech industry, particularly in Silicon Valley. And if you examine a highly competitive industry-specific locale and are shocked - SHOCKED I say - to find some bad actors, some arrogant people (many of whom found something they were unusually good at, and like star athletes or musicians or actors, invested their entire self-worth in that set of skills), and some foul human attributes like bigotry and misogyny, well, maybe you had an unrealistic set of expectations.

But come on. It's not a horrible, dystopian place full of rich people harming others. It's actually a place where the excitement of invention and the opportunity to build something of value from nothing has been embraced by going on three generations. I started working in tech in 1986, and moved to Silicon Valley in 1990. I've been there through Apple, Sun, Oracle, Ashton-Tate, Intel, Novell, the rise of Windows, the Browser wars, the rise and fall of the UNIX workstation, tape cartridges, optical media and the internet. Believe me when I say it, "I've SEEN things you...people...would not believe".

Are there some rich people doing awful things? SURPRISE!! Of course there are. Are there some priviledged assholes saying ugly things online? Wow. Never saw that coming. But to paint the entire region and the amazing things that are done there every day as some kind of fundamental evil is not only wrong, it's stupid.

One of the funniest things I see - typically from people who have spent little to no time in the valley themselves - is the description that this is somehow correlated with the generalized evil of 'white men' (or white cis men in common usage). I've worked in the valley for years, and you know what we don't have much of? White men. Asians, South Asians, Germans, Eastern Europeans sure - but in most companies I've worked at white men were the least numerous demographic category represented.

One of the things I have always LOVED about the valley - although it's kind of fading out now as things become more 'corporate' - is that it was entirely meritocracy based. I was a building products salesman with zero college when I started working in tech. Immediately, from my very first employer (Polaroid), my supervisors noticed that I seemed to be able to figure technical and process things out quickly. Everywhere I went, I got raises and promotions not because I had this degree from that University or I know those people, but because at the tip of the spear, operating on the bleeding edge of the technology envelope and living on our own dog food, I was able to make things work and convince people to buy them.

The same was true of women in particular, and people of color. There was never enough time, never enough resources, never enough knowledge. If you walked in the door and started making things work, you became a star.

Now, big companies all suck. Polaroid, Google, Apple, Facebook - the suits come along and make a bunch of rules and all of a sudden there's a place for pay discrimination and some weird version of the 'Good Ol' Boys Network' that in this case extends to Hyderabad and Guangdong. But what we're talking about here is an institutionalized set of limitations and restrictions that affect the entire Fortune 1000 equally. It's not a 'tech' phenomenon, it's a CORPORATE phenomenon. But there are thousands of brilliant, exciting little startups full of interesting, smart people who only want to see their vision brought to market. They don't CARE who helps them, and they will work with - and reward - anyone who can drive that process.

One of the things you learn very quickly working in a venture-funded startup, is that a LOT of the direction and guidance comes from the VCs themselves. They are very hands on, and if you work at a company like that the portfolio owners are going to talk to you and your team. Regularly. And I'm going to tell you - if they've got $10 million real US dollars invested in your company, and they see you fucking with a woman or a gay guy or a black guy instead of all pulling on the rope in the same direction - well, you're not going to enjoy the conversation. You're going to get told to leave your horseshit at the door, develop the product and build the company.

Or get out.

THAT is the reality of Silicon Valley.