A post on medium and a new tumblr.

Quick update.

Tried out Medium.com. I put up a post on there talking about tenacity vs iteration. When do you stop with something when it doesn’t work out, and when do you keep going? I really enjoy the writing experience, but it’s not enough to convince me to move platforms.

Then. I’ve started a new tumblr. It’s more in the vain of how tumblr is generally used. I’ve always had a fascination for spaces and the meanings we imbue it with. From maps, cities and abandoned buildings. Follow it here: A Place for Spaces.

Cheers.

WWW 2013 and Rio de Janeiro.

At the end of last year, after doing some data collection on my thesis, I checked around for conferences to submit preliminary results to. The first one that popped up, was the premier www conference. It always attracts great speakers, great research and great people. This year, it was hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Another fantastic reason to try! So I did, and got a poster accepted with my supervisor, Kobus!

I was both nervous and excited about the trip. Apprehensive and amped! Although I’ve been to several countries, it was my first time solo travelling to another country. Adding to the ‘firsts’, I also opted for trying new things such as trying Airbnb. So here’s what went down:

Friday, 10 May.

Leave early early morning with a lift from my brother. Flight was CPT-JHB-Sao Paulo-Rio. Pretty chill flight. I arrive in Sao Paulo, and have to check my bags in again for the domestic flight to Rio. I walk through… and forget my poster tube at the baggage reclaim. Epic fail. So there I was running through Sao Paulo airport trying to figure out how to get back in and get it. Luckily, I found the SAA lost luggage office. The man there was extremely helpful and managed to call a guy working at the baggage reclaim to find it. Luckily it was still standing there. Phew. Successfully retrieved!

I arrive at night in Rio. I opted to try Airbnb and stay in this little place. After getting lost in the building, I found the place. The caretaker of the apartment was a woman living next door… She only spoke Portugese. But I manage to do just fine. Sleep.

Saturday, 11 May.

(view from airbnb apartment)

An acquaintance, Pri, was going to show me around the city. Unfortunately, family issues arose and she couldn’t anymore. I’m still really grateful for her open-ness and willingness to show a gringo around!

Went to see Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. Amazing views! The tram ride to the top of Christo Redentor is pretty interesting as you slalom through forests and buildings. The combination of navigating a foreign city in a warm summer’s day and lack of human communication left me exhausted. Crashed.

Sunday, 12 May.

Woke up and missioned to Copacabana. Walked along the beach and had a beer and lunch.

Became a bit overwhelmed by all of it: solo travel, can’t talk, foreign city, random apartment (with no hotel creature comforts). Felt anxious and exhausted (also somehow developed complete lack of appetite). Wanted to just get a blanket and crawl under it, which I did.

Monday, 13 May.

Conference time! :D

After struggling to speak with the caretaker and difficulty hailing a taxi, I managed to arrive at the Windsor Barra (a bit outside the main city).

Amazing venue! Attended some talks. And then checked in at 12. Some time before the conference, I checked the #www2013 hashtag on Twitter and saw that a guy (Ted Benson) was looking for a roommate. I thought why not. Cheaper bill, meet cool people!

Also met Ulrich, another South African, currently at Xbox. Was great to also be able to speak Afrikaans. Went to grab dinner and caipirinhas! 

Tuesday, 14 May.

Attended early morning session with Bert Bos (one of the creators of CSS), talking about CSS3. Quite interesting. Although… some new features of CSS3 seem really arb, such as the plethora of gradient tools. Gradients feel very 90’s… Attended linked data workshop and REST workshop (this was quite cool). The night, there was a party hosted by Facebook (recruiters + employees). Don’t really know how they choose to invite people (feels a bit like high school, vying to be ‘popular’), but got in as a +1 with Ted. Met cool people, had free beer and snacks.

Wednesday, 15 May.

Conference only started at 1pm today, so went for a morning run along the beach. Took a swim. Leisurely breakfast and lunch and then attended first keynoye from Luis von Ahn (recaptcha and duolingo).

Great talk. Afterwards attended an entrepreneur focused Q&A with Luis. Was great to hear his advice! Attended a session on web economics and monetization and a Q&A with Tim Berners-Lee. DRM and copyright was a hot topic. Someone even asked timbl about Bitcoin! The night was poster reception time. There was more caipirinhas. Had a few interested people stop by! I’m just surprised there were actually other people doing research about lists on Twitter!

Thursday. 16 May.

Same as yesterday. Walk along the beach. Go to breakfast, and see that Max (a friend I met earlier) was sitting there. Fun guy. More people joined, included Tim Berners-Lee that sat next to me. For academics in the web circuit it might have been normal, but for me it was pretty surreal. The topic somehow went from weather to gulf streams and South Africa. Great to have met him!

Day went from surreal to mind-blowing as Dr. Miguel Nicolelis spoke about brain-to-machine interfaces. From monkey’s brains being able to develop virtual limbs to control, to mice’s brains being connected (as one) across time and space. Bizarre, sci-fi-ish! See this TED talk about it. (very similar talk). What was awesome: this tech is planned to be used at the Brazil 2014 world cup opening. A paraplegic person, connected to a robotic exoskeleton will stand up and kick a ball. Spectacle! FUTURE.

Afterwards there was net neutrality panel discussion (more DRM + copyright talk). Attended a session on social network analysis.

Then, one of the best moments of the trip: the gala dinner. After a lengthy bus trip, we arrived at the venue. Samba band was playing, caipirinhas was had. Fun. Then the meat extravaganza! So. Much. Meat. Then everyone headed back out for what was one the coolest live gigs I’ve seen. A Beatles cover band adding a samba twist. The people in the group were all young. I was so envious, as the cool guys and cute girls jammed it out. It seemed like a such fun thing to do. They handed out masks, confetti, hats and bowties, and the party kicked off.

There was plenty of conga-lines (at one stage I somehow led one). And at the end, a rather punky version of Yellow Submarine led to a mosh pit. The “It’s Saturday night at the indie stage at a music festival. It’s 9pm, everyone’s a bit drunk” kind of mosh pit. The fun kind! Perfect way to end it.

Friday, 17 May.

Due to my flight leaving early, I couldn’t attend Friday’s sessions. I left on the first rainy day I saw (luckily). All in all. Great fun.

Conclusion:

Overall. It was what I expected. It was going to be a whirlwind of experiences! And boy was that the case. The conference itself was amazing. Loved every minute of it. Met incredible people and saw fascinating research! Rio de Janeiro is a picturesque city. In some ways, it reminds me of South Africa. Incredible natural beauty. But poor people live right next to rich people. The brazilian people I met were all really friendly, even though I couldn’t speak Portugese. Would I try Airbnb again? Yes. But for specific reasons. One thing you kinda forget, is that hotels include stuff like breakfast. Being in a foreign city, finding great breakfast is a mission. Foursquare helped a bit, but I still had to try and order with broken Portugese. So it depends. Airbnb would be a perfect fit for a group of people, and when you are sure you know more about the area (like finding convenience stores to buy breakfast cereal or eggs to make).

Overall, unforgettable experiences. And on that note, would just like to express gratitude towards my lab (MIH Media Lab) that offer these travel  opportunities to us. I don’t know how to say thank-you enough!

Upwards and onwards.

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!