On Creativity and Innovation

A friend (Dave Freeman) whom I met while I was involved with the indie game development scene back in 2007, posted this today on Facebook:

Let me tell you a little story about innovation and creativity. Years ago, I worked on a wiki-based project to find the first instance of ideas/techniques in video games (like the first game to use cameras as weapons, or the first game to have stealth as a play element). It excited me to dig to give credit to those who laid the foundations of ideas that we now take for granted. I couldn’t wait to show the world how creative and innovative these unknown game designers/developers were. 

I went into it with much passion and excitement, but unexpectedly, it turned out that there were almost no “firsts”. Every time someone put up a game that was the first to do/contain something, there was another earlier game put up to replace it with a SLIGHTLY less sophisticated, or SLIGHTLY different version of the same thing. The gradient was so smooth and constant that eventually, the element we were focusing on lost meaning. It became an unremarkable point to address at all. We ended up constantly overwriting people’s work with smaller, less passionate articles, containing a bunch of crappy games that only technically were the first to do something in the crudest manner. Sometimes only aesthetically.

After a lot of time sunk into this project, I came to the conclusion that I was mistaken about innovation/creativity. It would have been a better project to track the path of ideas/techniques than to try to find the first instance of an idea/technique. I held innovation so highly for years before that, but after this project, I saw just how small it was. How it was but a tiny extension of the thoughts of millions before it. A tiny mutation of a microscopic speck that laid on top of a mountain. It was a valuable experience that helped me very much creatively.

I’ve learned this to be true as well, and this example articulates it so well. Coincidentally, had a discussion with another friend last night about Bitcoin (what’s new?). It really is a perfect storm of ideas that incrementally came together. There were proof-of-work systems before (Hashcash), and all the technology existed for quite a while. The incremental innovation here was combining the technology (cryptography), the proof-of-work system with the idea of a public shared ledger.

Ultimately. Creativity and innovation happens when ideas meet. And to make that happen, you need to become a vessel for ideas. No matter how mundane, or arbitrary, you need to want to learn and enquire. You want to talk to people, learn what ideas are in their minds, and combine it with your own ideas (sort of like Sylar in Heroes, but for ideas). You’d want to get other people together so they can share their ideas. And you’d want to openly share your ideas so they can manifest themselves in other people’s minds. I’m starting to sounds like Jason Silva here.

"RADICAL OPENNESS" - for TEDGlobal 2012 by @JasonSilva from Jason Silva on Vimeo.

As Jack Dorsey also says in his foundation interview with Kevin Rose (starts at 14min):

One of the best things you can do as an entrepreneur is to not only rely luck. You have to cultivate the ability to recognise fortunate situations when they present themselves.

To innovate, you must become a vessel for ideas and realise the fortunate situations when they present themselves.

The Bar (of the future).

I look down. I’ve got my favourite shirt on. There are more people than usual tonight. The sip of beer tastes refreshing and slightly bitter. Just the way I like it: South African style.

The room next door fills with the usual playlist. Old-school tunes! My brother is already here, sitting at at a table. Schweet. He is sipping a guinness. It’s been ages! I should get one after this.

He says ‘hi’, and I greet with the usual ‘how’s it hanging?!’. We talk. The usual. What’s new, how’s life, what’s the plans? what music are you listening to? what’s up with Bitcoin? etc.

It’s a great night. People around us move in and out of periphery, faces I haven’t seen before. At the end I instinctively reach out for a handshake, and we miss. Our hands pass through each other. I recall this happening. I should be used to this by now! Being a little drunk, you forget that we are a few thousand kilometres apart.

This reality isn’t far away. Using the Oculus Rift for visual immersion and using Kinects for creating 3D representations of your body, you can create environments where people can share realities in ways we haven’t thought of.

In our current shared time-space, the only thing that’s really indicative that we are physically close is that I can touch a person and get physical feedback. Until haptic interfaces get more advanced, this is it. A lot of the interactions you make with people doesn’t involve a lot of touch. If you are in a bar of club, you are ‘physically’ close, but they are simple a few meters away.

If we can make virtual realities and map our bodies (using technology like the Kinect), we can create shared virtual environments on unprecedented scales! I can sit, and get drunk with my brother who is literally a few thousand kilometeres away, but it won’t feel different than sitting across from him in a bar. It’s strange, and exciting!

The possibilities are endless. These virtual environments and meeting places won’t be limited to bars. We’ll have magnificent views. We’ll have DJ’s playing to crowds of thousands. We’ll have architecture that won’t be able to exist in current space and time.

Exciting!

Enabling amateur creators through Bitcoin.

image

Photo credit: MIH Media Lab

If you’ve been following me on Twitter (or seen me in real life) you know I’ve probably mentioned Bitcoin a bit too often lately.

My parents are one of the few unlucky ones, especially my dad. He is a financial advisor here in South Africa, running his own company and sits on a few boards of investment funds. To speak to him about Bitcoin has always been an absolute pleasure. It’s often easy to get completely carried away with all the techno-crypto-future-utopia ideals, and to have someone always keep you grounded, and questioning and being skeptical is refreshing. Understandably so, especially considering you are always dealing with other people’s money.

In the process of explaining the Bitcoin side-project I am working on with my brothers (@nieldlr, @fassadlr), he kept questioning the value of it, especially the use of Bitcoin. Through the conversation and useful introspection, a realisation dawned on me that once again gives me faith in Bitcoin: the ability for people to easily receive value (exchange) over the internet. Especially for the long tail of amateur creators.

I remember back in high school, creating games, I would’ve loved the opportunity to easily experiment and try and sell my game. In South Africa at that time it was near impossible and incredibly difficult to understand how, especially as a high school boy. PayPal wasn’t available yet, and I had to look into sites such as Plimus and Moneybookers. It was overly difficult. Thousands of forms, and stuff that really just impedes creators from trying to sell the stuff they create.

Forward to 2013, and in South Africa it is still stupidly difficult. While I appreciate our exchange control laws (it saved us from a nasty hit in the 2008 recession), it impedes people wanting to sell their digital goods over the internet. I have to sign up for a separate account at FNB (which is not my primary bank), and then arrange to have it paid out to my bank account (through PayPal), etc, etc. Even for an adult, it takes time to understand how to do it. For a boy in high school wanting sell his game, it’s even more difficult, irritating and frustrating.

With Bitcoin, I can start receiving payments from all across the world, in less than 10 minutes. Even if you had to worry about price volatility, for a boy in high school, anything is better than nothing. For amateur creators, especially in the digital space, anything is better than nothing. That’s why pay-as-much-as-you-want has been so successful online. Cost of sales is practically 0 these days (hello cheap cloud storage) for selling digital goods. It enacts purer price discrimination per individual.

I can then eventually keep it, and eventually cash out into fiat, or start spending it in the ecosystem, buying other indie developer’s games. As Fred Wilson from USV puts it (in this interview): Bitcoin is cash for the internet. If cash was the preferred way of paying for something (vs credit cards, or other forms of money), then Bitcoin is its equivalent on the web. As another (oft-quoted) slogan of Bitcoin puts it: “The local currency of the internet.”

For a boy in high school, creating games for fun, Bitcoin is exciting. For the hobbyist musician, creating beats on weekends, Bitcoin is exciting. For the designer creating icon packs to learn new skills, Bitcoin is exciting. For the amateur creator, Bitcoin is exciting.

And that’s what we are hoping to build! And we are excited to share it hopefully within the next month!

An Open Source, Blockchain, Math-based Society.

If there’s something about Bitcoin that’s really exciting to me, is the potential it holds for establishing a new era in the way society trusts systems and each other.

One of the core things Bitcoin solves is the Byzantine Generals Problem. This answer by Paul Bohm explains it eloquently. In short, Bitcoin’s philosophical approach means we can decentralize things we thought we couldn’t decentralize in the past. Large systems that had trouble reaching a consensus can now more easily make it happen by adopting this decentralized approach. I recommend reading this post on Priceonomics as well on this topic.

What this means, is perhaps bigger than we think. Infused with our technology and math, we can start exploring new avenues in industries/systems previously thought undecentralizable (is that a word?). 

This thread on Reddit explores some of these ideas. For example, could we build a new form of governance on this idea? Mike Hearn, a Bitcoin enthusiast also explores the possibility of smart property, allowing ownership to be transferred through the Bitcoin blockchain.

The beauty of this whole system is also its radical openness/transparency as a feature, while simultaneously being (semi)-anonymous. You can go to blockchain.info and see every single transaction that has happened! Everyone is open-handed, because we trust the technology, and we trust the math so that we can trust each other. It is all open source.

Just think… it would be amazing to live in a society where we first trust the math, then we trust the technology and then we infuse systems around it (bridging time and space), so we can enable ourselves. Right now, the possibilities are endless, and very very exciting.

Bitcoin is systems theorist’s wet-dream.

(Image is from this Bitcoin explainer video).

Unfeasible micro-transactions in Bitcoin.

As I delve deeper into Bitcoin, some fascinating things start surfacing.

Bitcoin is unprecedented, and still in beta (for those that don’t know). It has to adapt to new challenges such as an increasing blockchain.

One interesting problem is that micro-transactions become unfeasible if the accepted the transaction fee isn’t dynamically adjusted.

Let me explain. Bitcoin is close to $100 now, so let’s assume that’s the value for ease of explaining.

$1 is thus 0.01 BTC.

Transaction fees serve 2 purposes in the Bitcoin network. It rewards the miners for confirming transactions and also sets a priority on the inclusion of your transaction in the next block. ie, if you pay a higher transaction fee, chances are greater you will be included in the next block so that it can be verified and confirmed. For faster confirmations, spend more on the transaction fee.

It is not in the interest of the network (currently) to not incentivize small transactions. If you have 40 000 BTC and send 0.1 BTC’s all over, you will clog up the blockchain with massive amounts of transactions. This in fact an ‘attack’ strategy that someone can use on Bitcoin, greatly increasing the overall blockchain size. But, legitimate micro-transactions are being penalised.

The protocol is such, that you basically have to pay a transaction fee (https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Transaction_fees). You don’t have to, but if you don’t, your transaction can wait for hours until it’s eventually confirmed.

The problem is, is that the protocol has a ‘static’ minimum transaction fee of 0.0005btc (see the wiki page above). If you don’t pay that, you greatly decrease your changes of being included in the next block.

As website or start-up that wants to deal with fast micro-transactions, you will want to pay that. The problem: That fee was determined 2 years ago! Now at prices close $100, it’s becoming quickly more substantial. A service, if I want to take a cut, I won’t be able to provide a fast service if I want to make any kind of return.

So a quick recap:

Bitcoin transaction fees are quickly becoming too expensive for micro-transactions to remain feasible.

How to solve it?

Off the top of my head. One way to solve it, is by bringing supply/demand market forces to transaction fees. Want a faster transaction and want to be included in the next block? Check what the current average is, and pay more than that. This way compared to Bitcoin’s actual value it would hopefully self-adjust as well as to the market forces surrounding faster and slower transactions.

Bitcoin (originally) wasn’t designed to work with micro-transactions. However, if Bitcoin is supposed to become the next big thing, it has to adapt to work with this. When the blockchain size can be drastically reduced (which is in dev), ‘spammy’ transactions impact on the network can be decreased. If it is to deal with the internet’s exchange and transactions it will have to adapt to work around this.

EDIT: There seem to be ways around this which I still have to wrap my head around.

http://codinginmysleep.com/exotic-transaction-types-with-bitcoin/ and https://en.bitcoin.it/wiki/Contracts#Example_7:_Rapidly-adjusted_.28micro.29payments_to_a_pre-determined_party

Also: by using the sendmany command you can group transactions and decrease the transaction size and thus pay a lower transaction fee.

Oculus Rift for otherworldly meditation.

One form of new technology that’s really exciting to me, is the Oculus Rift. It seems like VR tech is finally maturing to be really immersive.

See the above video. One of the more exciting prospects of it (for me), is the concept of just pure exploration games. This is what I’ve liked the most about games I’ve played. This immersive, escapist, exploratory feeling is just awesome!

I can imagine creating a game in which you walk around an island of an ancient civilization, trying to discover it’s history, what happened to it and the people. As you progress, the spirit of the place slowly comes alive, as the more you discover, the more you become immersed into what it once was. That’s exciting.

Another thing that crossed my mind, is creating these amazing landscapes, where you can only sit and “perceive” from your vantage point. And then, add some realistic sounds and effects and you are “in” another world. And then you can meditate in this other world.

This picture and song (by Eskmo) captures some of that idea. Imagine sitting there with your Oculus Rift, hearing the water lap against the shore, wind slowly blowing. The giant colossus glows and emanates a soft hum over the world.

Magical. Just would be incredibly magical.

Why I love Bitcoin. A grand experiment.

There’s a thread on Reddit (on r/economics) on Bitcoin. The top comment succinctly states why I love Bitcoin. I’m quoting it here:

The status quo is simply unacceptable. Companies such as paypal and visa have cornered the entire market for paying for things; goods and services, online - taking a good share of the money for doing very little, with them.

This is the internet and if you believe in some of the ideology that founded it and drives much of the major technology that it’s based on, you probably accept the need for open source software. In many ways bitcoin is similar. We absolutely NEED a secure, trustworthy way of exchanging money that companies, countries, banks and big business cannot mess with. Think of all that has happened in the last 10 years.

Moreover, behind bitcoin’s controversial and complex veneer is some truly nifty advancements in technology. For more than a while a big philosophical and technological hurdle to decentralizing network systems (be it computers, or people) has been the issue of trust : if there is no central authority, can we create a system in which most ( 51% or more) of the network can trust each other (see the two generals problem). The bitcoin methodology is one, fantastic solution that may have practical implications beyond currency (see the bitcoin DNS system or the new bitmessaging software to name but two).

Along with that advancement in trust and decentralization, bitcoin brings a great deal of features including anonymity (not guaranteed, but very possible), security, divisibility (for once, micro-transactions are truly possible) and portability (i.e. it can go anywhere the network reaches) to the way we trade.

So whilst for now it’s main use might be as a store of value, and that i can see, is questionable - ultimately it’s true test will be day to day transacting. There is a great deal more to do in order to make it easier to use for the average person - i.e. to develop and promote the software required for business and individuals to use it effectively. But we’ve come a long way in 5 short years.

But ultimately, bitcoin is a grand experiment, a test to see if crypto-currencies can work. It might fail, eventually, but be under no illusions that not too far from now, something similar will eventually become mainstream -> this is the future.

On personal note, it’s also incredibly fascinating to watch and i’m rooting for it.

It’s a grand experiment. It brings together technology, philosophy, economics and psychology. My brain becomes warm and fuzzy about all the fascinating intricacies of it!

Speculation about Bitcoin’s future.

image

Disclaimer: I’m not a market expert, or economist. I’m purely speculating.

—-

Bitcoin is at an interesting junction. It recently reached a new high after stabilising at around $4-$10/btc for most of last year.

I was involved in the initial rise and burst of 2011. I got a few bitcoins in hand (reasonably below that bubble of $30/btc). When it dropped, it dropped to something like $2-3/btc from $30.

It didn’t drop to zero, which to my mind, meant that bitcoin still had an inherent value besides the speculators who gamed the market. In other words, it’s value as a quick, boundary-less p2p cryptocurrency. After that crash, Bitcoin underwent lots of growing pains. Large exchanges got hacked (note: not bitcoin itself, only the exchanges), but yet it still survived and kept growing.

There are a few reasons why I think we are seeing the new rise in prices:

1) SatoshiDice. A gambling site.

You send bitcoins to a specific address. When it receives the transaction, it rolls a dice. Depending on the address, you bet below a certain number. If the rolled number is below the limit, you win returns. The higher the number, the lower the returns, and vice versa.

This is big. When it launched, it was off to a slow start, but slowly gained massive market share. It is responsible for more than 50% of bitcoin traffic. Watch the transactions here. It’s ridiculously easy to play.

2) Bitcoin reward per block halved end of 2012.

Here’s a handy guide on what it means. To explain in short: Bitcoin rewards miners who help verify the block-chain with bitcoins. This is how bitcoins come into the system. It started with 50btc. Over time, this decreases to stop run-away inflation (one of the ideologies of bitcoin). More than 50% of bitcoins are already in circulation. By 2140 all of it will be mined. End of 2012 it halved to 25, decreasing supply. With basic economics 101: if demand stays the same and the supply decreases, the price increases.

3) Big names starting support of BTC (Reddit/Mega).

Both Reddit and Mega subscriptions can be bought with bitcoins. It gives more credibility to the ecosystem and increases demand.

4) More real-world use.

Bitcoin has been synonymous with ‘illegal’ activity such as the Silk Road deep web drug exchange. It was used primarily online, and for purposes digital goods. It’s starting to interface more with the ‘real’ world. Stuff like small atm’s to turn dollars into bitcoins, and bitcoinin (‘amazon’ of bitcoin). In other words, you can be paid in bitcoins and shop with it. Namecheap is consdering bitcoin support also.

So, basically in the short term, demand has increased and supply has decreased. This will push the price up. Speculators will jump along with this trend as usual. I suspect in the near short term, it will drop again, but not to the previous low.

As for the long-term future, I’m hedging my money on its success.

The biggest hurdle I think is still it being a very difficult concept to understand. I mean, if people like Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics) don’t understand it, then how are most people supposed to understand it? But, with much like new technology, people don’t have to understand, only need to be convinced of it’s use and trustworthiness. Few people understand how the internet works, but they still use it. Bitcoin still needs a killer service on top of it that allows people to use it without knowledge of stuff like using hashes as addresses, why you need to download a massive blockchain before you can start, etc. It’s going to be interesting marketing/user experience exercise!

Another interesting thing that will happen, sooner than later, is governments are going to try and clamp down on it. Unfortunately, stopping it completely will mean killing off the internet. Not possible. Governments can discourage it’s use, but it will still be used. In fact, if they do start using it, it will lead to a Barbara Streisand effect. It will only spur it’s usage on.

Bitcoin is still though in it’s infancy. The whole money supply is supposed to only be in circulation in 100+ years (although it’s logarithmic). The price of bitcoins into the future will only rise (even when governments clamp down). The current $30+-/btc won’t be highest it will get. The eventual ‘lowest’ point in the future will be higher than $30 (in current value). This is probably the most unsubstantiated part of the whole post, but it just seems inevitable.

Either way, it’s going to be an interesting ride. Given how far it’s come and matured in the past 2 years, the ride feels a lot more safer.

I won’t be surprised if it eventually hits upwards of $1000/btc in the next 5 years.

Your smart device of the future: the river

image

After our Twin Tech Talk discussion on Phablets with @nieldlr, there was one idea that stuck with me. The basic gist: Instead of having separate devices for a phone/tablet/desktop/etc, you will only have one device, and then the screens will be “dumb” interfaces to your one device.

The first trend of this is already starting to happen: with Galaxy Note 2 being used as a PC replacement and the Ubuntu Phone turning into a thin client when docking. However, one of the form factors (ie a phone), is still the main device.

Go smaller, just create a processing unit with a link to the internet (perhaps with a sim card as well). Short of doing invasive surgery, just keep in on your body (a wristband, in your wallet, wherever). The ideal though is for it to be embedded somewhere, potentially using your body as an energy source.

For lack of a better word, let’s call it the “river” (a name that got stuck in my head).

Then. Any screen/interface connects with the river and becomes an interface to it. These devices will thus be responsible for only keeping the screen powered and making sure data can be streamed between it and the river.

A few use-cases:

It’s a board meeting and everyone has rivers attached to them. There’s a presentation that works through a “dumb” tablet. You realise you have a key point of information that can add to the discussion, but it’s on your dropbox. When you grab the tablet, you login with your biometrics, it recognizes your river and immediately changes to connecting with yours. You login with dropbox and show it to the board.

You are at a music festival and you have a smartphone form factor connected to your river. Because it’s always sunny, it’s difficult to see what’s on the screen. This device purposefully makes it clearer, so you can Instagram/Vine to your heart’s content. However, as with all smartphones at festivals, the battery just doesn’t last. It dies. However, you brought along another dumb phone with a smaller screen and lower quality (think old Nokia’s). It can basically call and message. Now you are still connected, by simply swopping out (ie, just “touching” and “logging in” with the new phone). No need to pull our your sim card.

You are at a train station in a new country. You only brought your phone with. However, you realise, you need information to get to that art museum. You are kinda lost. You walk up to a large public screen and connect your river to it. You are now presented with a much larger screen to view maps with and get extra information such as walking time, etc.

You are at home, catching up on your articles you saved on Pocket. You see someone posted an awesome HD documentary. When you are close to home, all your other devices in your home automatically connects with your river. You simply turn on the TV and it plays this HD documentary in all its beautiful goodness.

You decide to go rock-climbing. At the start of the climb you stumble and break your watch. The next day you buy a new version (or just 3D-print one) and reconnect it to your river. You remember you bought a new pack of designer software watch-faces last week, so you simply slap a new one on (a la Pebble).

—-

As you can see, there’s plenty of use-cases where it’s useful to switch between form factors, without having to own expensive independent forms. The dumb devices will be cheaper, and once you go out of range, it automatically deactivates. It’s basically impossible for someone to steal your river.

Will this inevitably happen? I suspect so. I suspect before we get embedded devices, it will initially go the way of the smartphone as “main source” such as we are seeing with Ubuntu phone. As another example of how something like this is already happening: look at the Pebble. The Pebble is simply an extra interface to your phone that’s sitting idly in your pocket.

Hipsterism, Connection and Identity

I love Grimes. Her album, Visions, is one my favourites of 2012. She recently put up a tumblr post detailing her top songs of 2012 which included pop hits such as Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe (<3) and Psy’s Gangnam Style. Being the epitome of ‘weird’ and ‘arty’ and ‘hipster’, she received lots of flack. See the Forbes post on it (thanks @rianvdm for sharing it).

I’m fully behind her. Although I have a very eclectic music taste, I really love my pop bangers such as Call Me Maybe (<3). I listen to music primarily because of well… the music. In the past I’ve dealt with people who’ve run up to me (a friend) and shouted: “Simon, Black Keys is going to be on the new Twilight movie soundtrack! No!” I simply don’t care. In the very least, now more people can discover how awesome they are. Now, I’ve even seen tweets (after the Grammys) from people saying: “Remember when the Black Keys was cool?” Yes. They still are. Their old albums didn’t suddenly disappear. Their new album is spectacular. What’s the problem?

So it got me thinking. Why is there this backlash towards artists becoming mainstream? Why when they get big, the ‘hipsters’ all go ‘BOOO!’?

I think it boils down much deeper than the music itself. While ‘hipsters’ do sometimes have a sense of elitism and superiority over their taste of music (“I understand and appreciate more nuances than the usual 4-bar 3-chord songs”), I think the distaste towards popularity actually has to do with connection and identity. Let me try and explain:

If you are human, you crave connection and understanding from people. Primarily we do this through language. It’s pretty decent, but we have to adopt similar vocabulary to convey what we think means the same things.

Art, or appreciation of certain expressions, does something similar. I make an emotional connection to a painting (for example). If someone else gets it, we immediately form a bond/connection. The emotional response is “proxied” through the art to another individual. We can connect on levels that language doesn’t allow us to. It is intangible, but meaningful.

This is exactly the case with music as well. If you meet someone with your intense love of that one b-side of Radiohead or Beck’s early slacker-blues albums, you form a connection that transcends what language can provide. “You like Lewis (Mistreated) as well?! No way. Me too!”

If it is only you and handful of people that “get it”, that appreciates this new and unknown artist, you form a deep and intimate connection (regardless of emotional connotation to the song). When it suddenly pierces into mainstream too many people have connections to this song/band. The sense of intimate understanding and connection is diluted and lost. Now that everyone “gets it”, an individual has lost the connection to the few people who understood them. And so, the “hipster” goes to the next new artist to find people to connect with in ways which language can not. If everyone likes the same things, it doesn’t become something to connect with. “Oh you like Gangnam Style? What’s new? You drink water? Big deal.”

To create the law of “Hipster Connection”: The more obscure and deeper down the rabbit hole of music you go, the deeper and more intimate connections between individuals become.

At the turn of 21st century, music became less an art form controlled by labels and radio and one everyone could do and share. This allowed it to flourish. Expression went past shared cultural trends such as Grunge in the 90’s, to smaller and more intimate shared identities (witch house trend, chillwave trend, etc).

In this light, I reckon: Hipsters, do your thing. I don’t want ascribe ways in which you want to connect with people, but for the better, I advise to not tie your identity too much to music (or anything else for that matter).

So, to end off: Has anyone heard this track by a new artist called “Casually Here”, called “Settle”? He only has like 74 likes on his FB page and 2700 listens. It’s awesome.