Saturday, November 30, 2013

"What was that bright light in the sky last night?"

While looking for information on comet ISON, I ran across an interesting project by NASA: the All Sky Fireball Network, a network of (currently) 12 black-and-white video cameras able to image the whole night sky.  The images from these cameras are processed by ASGARD (All Sky and Guided Automatic Realtime Detection), developed for a similar effort in Canada.  These astro folks sure love their acronyms.

A "fireball" is any meteor brighter than venus.  These are not rare events.  There are several on most nights, and nights with a dozen or two are not uncommon.   As there is deliberately quite a bit of overlap in the cameras' fields of view, most fireballs are caught on multiple cameras, making it possible to calculate the three-dimensional trajectory of the meteor, and from that determine its orbit. posts a graphic of the night's calculated orbits.  I believe they produce that themselves from the raw data on the NASA site, which just seems to show the orbital elements as text.

It's pretty easy to see why this data is of interest to NASA.  Not only does it provide information about the composition of the Solar System, it's of practical use in designing satellites.  But even without that, it's a just plain neat hack.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Straight dope on Comet ISON

In a few days, a highly unusual comet will pass within a million miles or so of the Sun's surface.  That in itself is not unusual.   Comets pass that closely reasonably often and thousands such are known.  However, this comet is a "dynamically new" comet, meaning it has never been close to the Sun before, and no dynamically new comet has come so close to the Sun in at least 200 years.

This rare combination offers an unprecedented chance for astronomers to observe an object which has basically been sitting in a deep freeze since the formation of the Solar System react to close contact with the heat of the Sun.  That in turn will reveal much about what the comet is made of and thus offer clues about how the Solar System itself was formed.  Dozens of major observatories, on Earth and in space, will be watching.

As I write, the comet is visible to the naked eye in the pre-dawn sky, but only if you're in a dark place and know just where to look.  It's a little point of light, not your classic image of a comet.  At least not yet.

While ISON's orbit is known quite precisely, it's not at all clear what happens next.  On November 28th it will reach perihelion, its closest point to the Sun's center.  It will be moving at about 400 km/s, or about 900,000 mph, and experiencing intense heat and significant tidal stress that may or may not destroy it.  If it survives, it may reappear as anything from a point of light to a real spectacle.

If you've seen reports of a "comet of the century" likely to be "brighter than the full moon", this would be it.  The press has a habit of taking the "this could maybe happen if we're really lucky" scenario and running with it.  If you prefer to know what actual astronomers are saying and seeing and what the comet is up to, along with informative discussions of why we don't really know what the comet will do, you'll want to check out CIOC, NASA's Comet ISON Observing Campaign.

CIOC is a coordinating group.  It's not performing the actual observations, but it is a serious scientific collaboration, promoting research and gathering results for all the to see.  This is classic Web, the kind of thing TimBL had in mind, I have to think, when putting up the first HTTP server way back when.

You may be wondering: What kind of a name is Comet ISON anyway?  It's named after the International Scientific Optical Network, a collection of 30 or so telescopes in about 20 countries that has been used in quite a bit of research, including but definitely not limited to detecting the comet in the subject line, formally known as C/2012 S1 (ISON).

UPDATE: Comet ISON appeared to disintegrate just before perihelion, and when it dropped behind the occluding discs of the SOHO (SOlar and Heliospheric Observatory) cameras that have been the main source of images for it in the past few days, the consensus was that there was a good chance that nothing would come out the other side.  When the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory) and PROBA (PRoject for On Board Autonomy) scopes that had been pointed at what should have been ISON's path failed to detect anything, the folks at CIOC did the only reasonable thing and declared it dead, vaporized in the heat of the sun (around 2800℃/5000℉).  And then it re-appeared.  At this writing, it is a fuzzy blob headed away from the sun, nowhere near as bright as it had been, but possibly bright enough to be seen with the naked eye when it gets far enough away from the sun.  We shall see.

UPDATE:  ... and it's gone.  On December 18th, the Hubble telescope was pointed at where Comet ISON ought to have been.  We can be quite sure of the location since anything solid remaining would have continued to follow the original orbit -- a solid object moving that fast is not going to be affected significantly by outgassing, the solar wind or other such effects.  The HubbleSite ISON blog has the full details, including photographs annotated to point out things you might think could be comet remains but definitely aren't.  Cosmic rays, stars streaking because the telescope is moving to follow the orbit of the comet, reflections on the lens and so forth.  Plenty of that, no comet.

Two ways to value Bitcoin

I really should find something to write about besides Bitcoin, but while I'm figuring that out …

Timothy B. Lee of the Washington Post has an interesting take on Bitcoin (now trading around $370 as I write this, off its all-time high of $395 -- and now more like $325 as I proofread), modestly entitled Everything you need to know about the Bitcoin "Bubble".  The gist appears to be, "No, Bitcoin is not and will never be a reserve currency, but that doesn't matter.  It can still be intrinsically worth something."

The basis of this is an analogy with the internet.  Like Bitcoin, the internet was once the province of cutting-edge technophiles and other such.  Like the early internet, Bitcoin has a few adventurous players trying to build commercial applications on it.  And, Lee argues, like the early internet, Bitcoin is an open platform.  Specifically, Bitcoin is a payments platform, and companies like Bitpay and Coinbase are working to build payment applications on top of that.

Because Bitcoin isn't really acting as a currency -- but rather, businesses using Bitcoin price in other currencies and convert back and forth to Bitcoin -- the usual arguments against Bitcoin as a currency don't really matter.  The deflationary aspect of a fixed money supply doesn't matter because no one's savings or salary are denominated in Bitcoin.

The price volatility doesn't matter greatly because Bitcoin transactions are ephemeral.  As the payments systems become more mature, the amount of time between the money -> Bitcoin transaction and the Bitcoin -> money transaction should become shorter, and if volume is decent, there are ways of netting out most transactions and minimizing one's exposure to swings in the price.

That's fine, but it says little or nothing about what the actual price of Bitcoin should be.  As long as there are enough Bitcoin in circulation, keeping in mind that there is good incentive for parties using Bitcoin in payment to minimize the amount they keep on hand, it hardly matters whether a Bitcoin is worth $1 million or a penny.  This makes me particularly skeptical about Lee's assertion that "[I]f Bitcoin becomes an important part of the global financial system, its value would need to go a lot higher to accommodate the millions or billions of Bitcoin-based transactions that might occur in the future."

The current dollar value of all Bitcoin is around $325 * 12 million, or just under $4 billion.  By comparison, MasterCard moves about $1 trillion per year, or around $3 billion per day.  Since the same Bitcoin can be re-used over and over again in different transactions, it seems very likely we have well more than enough dollars worth of Bitcoin in circulation right now to last for a very long time, even assuming it becomes a major factor ["same Bitcoin" is not quite accurate, but I believe the point still holds -- we care about the maximum amount in a payment handler's account, and that will deliberately be kept low].  By comparison the current background level of Bitcoin trading, when it's not in a speculative froth, is a small number of millions of dollars.

In any case, how much is a platform worth?  If the analogy is to the internet and the web, how much is HTTP worth?  I'd argue it doesn't have a value, per se.  People make money writing applications that use it, and producing better implementations of it and other protocols, by providing bandwidth for it to run on and so forth, but you can't buy or sell HTTP.  Even if it were patented -- in which case it would almost certainly not be the universal standard it is today -- the value of the patent would only be indirectly related to the value of the business being done on it.

Likewise, just as you can put a value on a company like Bitpay or Coinbase, by looking at how much actual money they bring in, you can't really put a value on Bitcoin as a platform.

Which brings us back to the same two ways to value Bitcoin:
  • How much dollar value needs to be in circulation for it to work as a payments platform -- something
  • How much speculators are willing to pay for it -- a lot
It's not that Bitcoin can't have intrinsic value.  It does, just not very much compared to its current speculative value.  Who knows what that value will be tomorrow, or a year from now?  Could be in the thousands, could be next to nothing.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The still-curious case of Bitcoin

Bitcoin appears to be on another run, though it's hard to tell because it's also become considerably more volatile over the past couple of days.  Volume overall is thinner than it was in the last major run-up, which means even more likelihood of funny business in the price -- by which I mean behavior you wouldn't expect to see in something like a Dow or S&P 500 stock, not necessarily outright manipulation, though that's certainly not out of the question.

Clearly Bitcoin is something of value to at least some people, but what kind of something?

First, let's dispense with what Bitcoin is often claimed to be: an alternate reserve currency that could come to supplant "fiat" currencies like the dollar, euro, pound or yen.  Not only is its price hair-raisingly  volatile and its money supply tiny, so far as I can tell no one actually prices in Bitcoin.  People who sell things for Bitcoin figure out a price in a reserve currency and then convert to BTC at the going rate.  For example prominently displays its dollar-to-bitcoin exchange rate, generally substantially below MtGox's quoted price, and shows the dollar cost of every item below the BTC cost.  The dollar prices tend to be stable.  The BTC prices, therefore, not so much.

By the way, what is the Bitcoin money supply?  According to, there are currently about 12M Bitcoin in existence, which currently equates to around $2B.  That's a lot of dosh to you or me, but far smaller than the smallest measure of the dollar supply.  There are currently about 1.2 trillion dollars in circulation, and several times that not in circulation, stowed in checking and savings accounts and such.

It really only makes sense to measure the supply of a currency in that currency, so the BTC supply is currently about 12M BTC.  But which USD supply would that equate to?  I can buy stuff with money in my checking account without ever pulling out paper dollars, and conversely most Bitcoins in existence are not in active circulation, even if there's no formal notion of a Bitcoin money market account.  So probably we want to compare with the M3 money supply, basically anything that's in some account somewhere redeemable for dollars.  M3 is around $10T, or about 5000 times the supply of BTC at the current price.

It's actually pretty remarkable that something someone wove out of pure crypto could have that much value -- 0.02% of a major economy, but it's not really meaningful to multiply the current price by the number of Bitcoin in existence.  If, for example, someone tried to convert all 12M BTC to dollars in short order, that is, sell them, it's highly unlikely that the dollar price of Bitcoin would stay at its current levels.  On its most active days, MtGox was handling about 1% of that.  Flood the market with a hundred times peak volume and it's not gonna be pretty.  So who knows what those 12M Bitcoin really equate to.

The same issue applies, in theory, to reserve currencies.  What would it mean to try to convert the entire US money supply to Euros?  Nothing good, certainly.  But there's a difference.  Reserve currencies are regularly converted, directly, to real goods and services.  We can therefore compare, say, the price of an hour of labor in the US to an hour of the equivalent labor in the Eurozone and get at least a rough cross-check on the relative value of the two money supplies.

But enough amateur economics.  What is Bitcoin?

There would seem to be two major possibilities:
  • An anonymous online payment system.  If I want to buy something online anonymously, I can convert money to Bitcoin and send it to the seller, who then converts it back to money.  Though each Bitcoin transaction, by design, is public knowledge, only the exchanges know which real money accounts are involved, so as long as they're not paying attention, or hacked, or subpoenaed or such, there is no way for the seller to know who I am (There are designs for layering real anonymity on top of Bitcoin, to the extent that it would not be possible to tell which particular person participating in the scheme owned a particular Bitcoin in the scheme, but as far as I'm aware no one's actually doing this).
  • A speculative vehicle.  It's possible to tell unambiguously who made what Bitcoin transaction, and therefore who owns how much Bitcoin, with the understanding that "who" means "the holder(s) of which private key" and that it's at least theoretically possible for someone or someones with enough computing power to hijack the whole system.  Leaving that aside and thus assuming there's clear ownership, Bitcoin can be traded just like baseball cards, sparkly pieces of rock or mortgage securities.
Ideally an anonymous payment system would maintain a stable exchange rate between the tokens of payment and actual money, but as long as the exchange mechanism is fairly liquid, and the total amount given up in the money - token - money loop is not too much, people will continue to use it, and it appears that people still do.

On the other hand, a speculative vehicle doesn't even require that much.  It only requires that something can be bought and sold and at least some people want to buy and sell it.

That would make sheer speculation the simplest answer.  One crucial question is, how much of the volume in Bitcoin trading is from Bitcoin as a payment system, as opposed to trading Bitcoin for its own sake?

In the last couple of months, daily volume on MtGox has varied from around 5,000 on slow days to twenty times that during major selloffs.  Trading resulting from conversions for payments ought to be fairly steady over the short term, or in other words, it's probably not more than the minimum daily volume, and it's probably less.

That leaves quite a bit of room for speculation.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Welcome back, APOD!

A couple of days ago I went to NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day ( to catch up on goings-on in the sky.  The site wouldn't load.  Hmm ... is my network connection OK?  And then, I realized that I was trying to access NASA's site, at a, and it was down because, well, the government was down.

Because I don't live under a rock, or at least not all the time, I already knew the federal government was (partially) shut down, and that even with only a partial shutdown, many people were experiencing effects a good deal worse than not being able to load a favorite web site.  What I'd forgotten -- despite the .gov in the URL -- was that APOD was run by a government agency.

That's probably partly because we don't notice URLs so much these days, which is a theme worth revisiting here one of these days, but it's also because a government web site just isn't that much different from any other.  My city's web site, and my school district's, the National Hurricane Center's, and APOD are just web sites, just as government officials from the federal level on down have social media accounts, home pages and so forth just like other people.

I don't think there's any profound lesson to be drawn there, just one of those things you notice every once in a while when the occasion arises.

Lessons or not, it's nice to see APOD again.

[Note: Because APOD is only hosted by NASA, the same content was available during the shutdown from various mirror sites]

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Field notes off the web

In St. Louis, Henry Goldkamp spends his weekends on the streets writing poetry for passersby, using a Smith-Corona manual typewriter.

I find this really cool, if only for the very concept, and so did St. Louis's Riverfront Times.

Goldkamp has gone one step further, though, and installed about 40 typewriters, with paper, at various places around the city, inviting St. Louisans to answer the question "What the hell is St. Louis thinking?"

Now, I have to admit, something in the back of my tech-saturated head was thinking "Hey, that would make a cool project, put a bunch of keyboards around the city, pipe the results back to a server somewhere and show them on a web page in real time ..."

Um, no.  We already have that, more or less.  It's called Twitter.

What Goldkamp is doing is getting people to interact with technology that, to many of them, comes from another age, almost as though from another planet.  "How do I work this thing?" seems to be a common response.  Having learned to type on some combination of IBM Selectric, Smith-Corona and my grandfather's manual Underwood (I loved that thing), I have to chuckle a bit, but by the same token I can understand why it might be daunting at first.

Besides having to fuss with paper and the carriage return, and mash on the keys to get the typebars to move, the most distinctive feature of a typewriter as opposed to a computer keyboard is that you can't delete anything.  There's a backspace key, but that just moves the paper one space to the right.  About the best you can do is type Xs over what you already typed (on the other hand, you can have fun combining letters to make little icons).  If you were writing professionally, you'd generally type double-spaced (i.e., with a blank line after each line of words), mark up the results with a pencil, literally cut and paste to rearrange, and then retype the whole thing for the next draft.

So if you're sitting at one of Goldkamp's typewriters, expressing your thoughts, you're making a record of every typo and every false start,  all in the order it came out, on a nice, tangible piece of paper that you produced yourself.  At least at first, it will be the only copy of those words in the world, and if someone wants to read it, they'll have to come see it.

Pretty much the antithesis of publishing on the web, and pretty much the way things were for around a hundred years until the "Personal Computer" came along.

Goldkamp is by no means a technophobe.  Among other things, he runs the web site,  where you can see "A selection of poems that turned out okay", such a typically Midwestern way of putting it, and one of the best page titles I've ever seen.   For my money, the poems I looked at did come out okay, if not better.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

1,259,997-way tie for last

Honestly, I'd forgotten all about Technorati.  Back in 2007, a friend suggested I create a Technorati profile, and so I did.  For a while I watched closely for signs that I was rising in the ranks.  Sure enough, I soon reached a Technorati authority of ... two.  At the time, there were several million blogs listed on Technorati, and that was enough to lift me out of the bottom million or so.  Eventually the link that had lifted me to authority two fell away and I was back at the bottom.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

In 2010 I removed the Technorati widget in favor of something else, which has since been itself replaced  (I now have the usual suspects: email, Blogger, Twitter, FB and g+).  And then I forgot all about it.  At one point, I thought, I'd heard that Technorati had been acquired or shut down or such.  More on that in a bit.

Looking through a search for what links to Field Notes (not very much at all), I saw that it was still listed on Technorati, which, of course, meant that Technorati was in fact still around.  Even more surprising, Field Notes had rocketed up to a rank of 71,375 out of 1,331,372, with an authority of ... one.  As I said on the other blog, I don't put that much stock in ranking statistics, but ... interesting.

Hmm ... I thought.  There must be a lot of blogs with authority zero below a bunch of blogs with authority one.  But no.  There are lots and lots of blogs with authority one.  Everyone from 71,375th place on down.  That's one long tail.

I did a little binary searching.  The rank of  71,375 first appears in the middle of page 2885, with 25 listings to a page.  I make it to actually be 72,145, but maybe I missed something.  Right before the rank 71,375 blogs start is a block of rank 57,611 blogs with authority ... 79.  So basically rank one is "we have no idea who you are and no one else seems to", and 79 means "you're in our universe, but at the bottom".

What changed from the "number of blogs linking to yours in the last six months?" days? Actually, the half-rumor in the back of my head about Technorati's acquisition or demise was really my misremembering that they'd done a redesign sometime in 2009.  They changed their look a bit, but they also changed how authority was calculated.  Instead of being a count of links in the past six months, it was a number assigned from 1 to 1000 based on link activity in the past month.  This change was designed to make Technorati more responsive to trends in the blogosphere.  Presumably, recent activity is weighted more heavily in the calculation.

This fits with the rankings I found.  Evidently, almost all of the blogs in the Technorati database are islands unto themselves, and Technorati only tracks about 70,000 blogs in any meaningful way.

Hey, I don't really care.  I've made myself immune to the vagaries of blog ranking entities by the simple expedient of not making any money off this blog and instead being happy that people read it at all.  Amateur status has to be good for something hasn't it?  But it does seem a bit underwhelming that a site that claims to be keeping its finger on the pulse of a millions-strong blogosphere really just seems to be tracking how a much smaller number of blogs, many of them already well-known major players, point at each other.

Considered as a portal into a collection of blogs, with an entertaining front page and "what's hot" listings, Technorati seems fine, but as a measure of where a particular blog is in the world, not so much.  For that, I'd probably turn to Alexa.  Field Notes is #28,898,459 there, out of "over 30 million websites" (not just blogs).  That I can believe.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Spam links and the economics thereof

I can't remember the word for this, but I know I don't like it ...

You go to a more-or-less reputable news site, say for a mass-market but not-quite-tabloid newspaper, and read an article.  To the side of the article is a list of related articles.  Towards the bottom of the list, or maybe in a different section that looks pretty much identical to the first list, are links to a few more articles, with catchy headlines and/or pictures.

Except they're actually external links to infomercial-style ads, or fluffy articles with ads in every direction, or fluffy articles that want you to wade through an extra page of ad links before you can even see them.

Nothing illegal or immoral going on here, just annoying, and somehow more annoying because there's generally some hint on the original page -- fine print, an "elsewhere on the web" section header or such -- to let you know that these are not from the same source.  If you're looking.

It's a trade-off of reputation for revenue.  Roughly, the levels are
  • Top news sites (at least "top" in my estimation), just don't do this.
  • Many sites link to sites with somewhat more ads and somewhat less substantial articles, and make it clear that "that's them, not us, but try this if you're looking for mindless fun"
  • Some sites link to outright crap and make only a minimal "see, it says right here" effort to disclose it.
  • And then there is outright phishing, which is immoral, and often illegal.  Sort of an informational bait-and-switch.
The interesting territory is in the middle.  You can probably tell something about how a site is faring if it shifts one way or another on this scale.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Still here, not much to report at the moment ...

... but it has recently come to my attention that Wikipedia has an article devoted to fictional actuaries.

Can your online crowdsourced reference work say that?

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just when I thought I understood this "e-commerce" stuff ...

... I was looking for clothes on a major retailer's web site.  Scrolling down, I see a bunch of "sponsored links" at the bottom.  For other stores.

For the same items I'm looking for.

For less.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

A piece of history

Saw this on my g+ feed: CERN has re-posted the first web page ever (or at least the first one they put up for public consumption), 20 years after the fact.  I'm not sure if it's under the original URL, but sure looks like it could be.  Anyone remember "hypertext"?

Like a lot of efforts in the early stages, much of the content is about the project itself.  For example, there's a "Line Mode" browser:
The LineMode Browser is suitable for use on dumb terminals, requiring no control sequences except for carriage return and line feed.
"Dumb terminals"?  "Control sequences"?  "Carriage return"?  What language are they speaking? (Of course, Lynx is still in business.)

In any case, it says something that CERN can bring back the original web page from the archives twenty years later, in all its textual glory, and it still works, and people really can see it, world-wide.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Vires in numeris, or salsipuedes?

After the last few days, it's pretty clear there are some significant obstacles to Bitcoin becoming a widely-adopted currency.   Recapping a bit:
  • Its exchange rate against reserve currencies is extremely volatile.
  • It is fairly illiquid.  I've watched several Bitcoin exchanges now.  I've seen significantly slow servers, extremely thin order books, huge spreads and significant price differences across exchanges (arbitrage, anyone?).  This is simply not a mature market by any stretch.
  • There does not appear to be very much of a pure Bitcoin economy.  For the most part, a price quoted in Bitcoin is actually a price in some reserve currency converted at the going rate, and quite likely the seller is going to turn around and convert the proceeds to a reserve currency at the next opportunity.
  • While the Bitcoin protocol appears reasonably secure, there are plenty of other ways to lose Bitcoins, and once they're gone, they're gone.
  • While Bitcoin aims to be a decentralized currency free from the influence of banks and governments, most Bitcoins are held by one of a small number of accounts.
  • Right now The Man does not seem particularly interested in trying to control Bitcoin use.  That could change.
  • Bitcoin's deflationary model, under which the money supply will never be more than about twice what it is now, has drawn considerable fire from economists.
  • Bitcoin is far from the first attempt at establishing a private currency, or an internet currency (anyone remember Flooze, or Beenz?).  It may well be the first, or one of the first, with its particular technical characteristics, but it's not clear at all that that buys anything.  Private currencies as a whole do not have a great track record.
And yet ...

A currency works if enough people want it to work.  If a solid cadre of core Bitcoin users arises (or has already arisen), doing its business entirely or almost entirely in Bitcoin, then (as the Economist's Free Exchange blogger points out) they would not need to care much how many dollars a Bitcoin was or wasn't worth.  In the ideal case, it becomes more and more convenient for someone who accepts Bitcoin in payment to turn around and use it directly for something else of value, rather than exchanging it, the economy grows and we're off.

The acid test is whether there can be stable Bitcoin prices, that is, whether someone offering an item for X Bitcoins today will be offering the same item for X Bitcoins tomorrow, and roughly X next week, and next month.  This would allow people to save or invest Bitcoin like an ordinary currency.  This probably still requires stable exchange rates with reserve currencies.  If Bitcoin appreciates, that X Bitcoin price starts to look expensive and buyers will be strongly tempted to buy from someone who takes dollars or Euros.  Likewise, if Bitcoin depreciates, sellers will be strongly tempted to raise the Bitcoin price, lest outsiders take advantage of the low prices.

To make all this work, we need some combination of
  • Stable exchange rates with reserve currencies
  • Significant ecosystems of items available only in Bitcoin
  • Enough people with a strong determination to use Bitcoin no matter what, regardless of the financial consequences
My feeling, personally, is that the odds are stacked pretty heavily against this, but I've been wrong many times before.

(Vires in numeris, Latin for strength in numbers, is Bitcoin's semiofficial motto.  Salsipuedes is informal Spanish for "Get out if you can.")

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A note on Bitcoin foreign exchange

Bitcoin has been extremely volatile of late.  That doesn't speak well for its potential as a currency, but the  Economist's Free Exchange blogger makes a good point:  Volatility is only a problem to the extent you have to exchange with other currencies.  If the virtual nation of Bitcoinia can transact its business in pure Bitcoin, then it matters much less how many dollars people think a Bitcoin is worth.  Even so, the examples of volatility cited in that article, as much as 20% in a matter of weeks, are far, far below what Bitcoin has experienced over the past month or so.

Right now we don't seem very close to such a scenario.  There don't seem to be a lot of places where goods or services are priced purely in Bitcoin.  Rather, the real price is in some reserve currency and the Bitcoin price is based on the going rate.  For at least some period of time, transacting in Bitcoin will generally involve converting to and from reserve currencies.  Bitcoin foreign exchange, if you will.

That's a bit of a problem.  To use one of the several existing Bitcoin exchanges, you have to provide an account in conventional currency, subject to conventional banking regulations and so forth, which is pretty much the opposite of what Bitcoin is supposed to accomplish.  Besides that, having a single point of failure that can bog down or fall over at any point (and is more likely to just when the need for it is most urgent), seems silly.  Finally, I've seen complaints that exchanges can tend to charge fairly heavy transaction or withdrawal fees, which Bitcoin is supposed to eliminate.  Can we do better?

It shouldn't be a problem to track bids, offers and trades in a distributed manner.  Bitcoin already does much the same with its blockchain, and there are various flavors of distributed hash table running around.  I'm sure someone could come up with something.

The bigger problem, I think, is escrow, since this is all supposed to be pseudonymous.  Suppose I call myself Mr. Blue and I own a Bitcoin wallet.  Ms. Green is willing to give me $X for one of my Bitcoins.  We can both make sure the world knows this without going through a central exchange.

But how do we actually settle the trade?  I need to give Ms. Green one Bitcoin.  Bitcoin makes that easy.  I initiate a transfer and few minutes to an hour later the Bitcoin world agrees that that Bitcoin is hers (or, more precisely, is now in the wallet whose identity she gave).  Ms. Green then disappears and I'm one Bitcoin poorer.

To make this work, Ms. Green needs to put $X in a safe place.  At that point, the dollars are no longer hers, but neither are they mine.  When the Bitcoin transfer settles, and only then, I get access to the dollars and transfer them to my account.

What we need, then, is is a way of moving currency from one conventional bank account to another, securely, anonymously and cheaply, without having to trust any particular third party.

I don't know if that's technically feasible or not, but if it is, it's not clear why we would need a virtual currency.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dollars accepted here

Having grown tired of waiting for MtGox to update, I had a look at Bitfloor [which folded not long after I wrote this].  Its order book seems to work considerably better.  From that, it looks like the Bitcoin market is moving again, which does not come as a great surprise.

Then I had a look at Bitcoin Store, where you can use your Bitcoin to buy goodies like digital cameras, memory and other such.  Prices are quoted in dollars and Bitcoin.  The Bitcoin price is simply the dollar price converted at the going rate from MtGox.  That is, if Bitcoin moves against the dollar, it's the Bitcoin price that changes.  The dollar price stays the same.

While it's perfectly legitimate for Bitcoin Store to say that it's accepting Bitcoin, and it is taking on some risk in the doing so, if it's pricing in dollars, it's effectively accepting dollars.

Bitcoin -- aftermath

At this writing, Bitcoin's price appears to have stabilized to around $170, but realistically who knows what will happen next?  I spent entirely too much time today watching the action, or at least what of it I could watch., which gathers market data from the various exchanges, was down for much of the day, apparently due to overload.  MtGox, the major exchange for Bitcoin, was running slow all day and printing all over the place.  $120 one minute, $180 the next.  It was hard to tell what was going on, which must have been extremely frustrating if you wanted to buy or sell (Disclosure: I have no position in Bitcoin, nor do I plan to take one).

The price chart, which is like none I've ever seen, sheds a little light on what was going on.  Up to about noon (this and all times UTC) on the 10th, BTC is continuing its steady climb.  It then starts to break back downwards.  This looks like a normal correction for a while.  Dropping back from 260 to 240 or 220 after a tremendous run-up doesn't seem unreasonable.  When the price drops below 210, though, things start to go haywire.

BTC starts to oscillate rapidly between a steadily dropping floor price and a series of higher levels, first 210, then 200, 180 and eventually 150.  One possibility is that someone is trying to support it by putting out a bid of, say, 200, but when that order is filled, the next highest bid is considerably lower (and dropping) and it fills before the next bid of 200 goes out.  After a while of this, a bid of 200 starts to look too expensive to maintain, so the bid goes down to 180, etc.

One thing to keep in mind is that volume here is quite thin.  Even when MtGox got back on its feet, trades were on the order of a dozen or so Bitcoin, and sometimes as small as a single Bitcoin (or smaller; Bitcoins can be subdivided very finely).  It's not out of the question that some of the higher-level trades were someone putting out a high asking price from one account and then filling it from a second account whenever their sell order was the only one showing.  I'm not claiming this is what happened, but such things can happen in thin markets.

Overall volume for the 10th was around 200,000, or about one Bitcoin changing hands every second.  This volume is about 2% of the total pool of 10 million Bitcoin currently in circulation (but bear in mind the same Bitcoin can change hands multiple times in a day).  This looks to be about three times average volume.  Turning over on the order of a percent on an average day is not unusual.  It's the total float that's smallish.  If Bitcoin were a stock, it would be considered small-cap (it was briefly into mid-cap territory at today's peak).

Back to the chart: Between about 6 and 8 pm, it would be fair to say that the price of Bitcoin was not well defined.  I couldn't bring up the order book on MtGox, but when there's that much fluctuation in a price, with the trade price jumping multiple percentage points from trade to trade, the bid/ask spread is effectively quite large.  Large spreads mean that a market maker should be able to make good money by buying at the low end and selling at the high end.  Again, it's not clear that anyone actually was doing that, but the opportunity was there on paper.

What is clear is that if you were trying to trade Bitcoin during that interval, there was a sizable risk that you would end up with a price far off of what you were aiming for.  This is a classic hallmark of a market crash, which, in any reasonable analysis, is what we had today.  Not a healthy correction.  A full-on crash.  There's not really anything else you can legitimately call a 50%+ price drop in a few hours with a huge spread for most of the duration.

After about 8 the spread narrowed down to more normal levels.  When the price crossed back above 150, it settled into a longer-scale damped oscillation (which appears actually to have started around the time the price dropped below 210 and the short-scale fluctuations began to grow).  Again, this is not something that one usually sees in heavily traded instruments, but it seems to have died down now.

I should mention that MtGox claims that its market has been manipulated by DDOS attacks, in particular that hackers have been swamping the exchange so that legitimate traders can't get through, causing said traders to panic and sell at low prices.  The hackers then back off, goes the theory, to let the price recover so they can sell high.

This seems a little implausible to me.   Even if it's true, it's not particularly reassuring.  I would not rest easily if I knew that a small group of hackers could cause my bank account to lose, say, 10% of its value whenever they liked.  It seems more likely, though, that under circumstances like today's the exchange will get much more web traffic in general, since people want to see what's going on, and at the same time the spread will widen because the price is moving quickly and the market is small and not particularly liquid.  But I don't have their server logs.  It's quite possible that Bitcoin is trading erratically for perfectly good financial reasons, and MtGox is getting DDOSed.

[Update: MtGox is now saying that, while they're nearly always under DDOS attack, today's problems were the result of there being more legitimate traders than the system can handle.  That seems more plausible.  It's not clear how many trades MtGox can handle per second.  As far as I can tell it's not a large number, but I can imagine any number of reasons the system might melt down anyway.]

[Another note: It's also possible that some of the funny-looking price action is due to lag in MtGox's servers.  If the price is dropping steadily but the ticker is printing old trades interleaved with more recent ones that might explain some of the small-scale jitter in the chart.  I can't quite come up with a scenario of that sort that would explain the particular pattern on the chart, but I find the general idea that the technical characteristics of the servers can have their own effects on the reported price action pretty plausible.  MtGox seems to be saying basically that.]

[And finally (I hope): Watching the order book on Bitfloor, it's pretty clear what was happening.  Someone (or ones) was sitting on the ask at (say) 120, either trying to support the price, or just trying to get out at the best price they could.  Meanwhile, the bid kept dropping.  Most of the time, someone would go ahead and sell at the low bid price.  Every so often, someone would go ahead and take the higher price, either deliberately or by mistake.  When that dried up, the ask moved down.  That looks adequate to explain the short-term fluctuations without appealing to technical glitches.  The sinusoidal movement towards 160 or so is a different matter.]

So far, I've been describing price action as for any random stock or commodity, but let's consider what this means for Bitcoin as a currency.  Suppose I were to offer you a Bitcoin certificate of deposit.  You give me 100 Bitcoin today, and 90 days from now I give you back 101 Bitcoin.  That's just over 4% annual return, compounded, not too bad these days.  Personally, I wouldn't touch such a thing with a 10-foot pole.  I have no idea what 100 Bitcoin will be worth 90 days from now.  Maybe $100, maybe $100,000.  Who knows?

That's a problem for a currency.  Stability is good for a currency.  Falling by half in short order is not, obviously, but neither is doubling in short order.  Why should I pay for anything in Bitcoin if everyone believes that Bitcoin is going to be worth twice as much in a week?  Bitcoin's price was a problem on the way up, not just on the way down.  Deflation -- which is built in to Bitcoin's fundamental model -- is every bit as troublesome as inflation, and in some ways more so.

Neither inflation nor deflation, though, is nearly as big a problem as volatility.  When the British pound dropped from 2.8 Deutschmarks to 2.4, about a 15% drop, the Conservative party's poll numbers plummeted and did not recover for over a decade.  Though there were other factors, of course, "Black Wednesday", when the government's efforts to prop up the pound failed, is widely considered to be one of the major ones.

By contrast, Bitcoin has settled down to the point where it has been bouncing back and forth in a window of 150-180, about 16%, and still a third or more off its high, while I've been writing this post.

Bitcoin may yet become a stable currency.  The boom and bust of the Dutch tulip mania wasn't the end of tulip farming as a business.   Today's gyrations may not be the end of Bitcoin as a unit of exchange, but if Bitcoin wants to become a serious currency, as opposed to a means of speculation, the recent run-up and general volatility are not how it will happen.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Two more comments on wild and wooly markets

  1. Intrade and Bitcoin are two entirely different markets, with little in common beyond operating on the web and more or less separately from the more conventional financial markets.  I don't mean to imply anything more than that by mentioning them in the same post.
  2. Much of the recent excitement about Bitcoin has been due to its value increasing sharply lately.  Its value, that is, in dollars.  Just sayin'.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Markets on the wild and wooly internet

Two data points, which I'm not going to try to analyze in detail just yet:
  • The market for Bitcoin, which proposes to be an online, anonymous currency, has been on a tear lately, doubling in the last month (at this writing), more than quintupling in the last two and increasing tenfold in the last four months.  Good news if you bought or received Bitcoin four months ago, scary news if you bought yesterday.  The word "bubble" has been cropping up more and more lately, along with the usual explanations why it's not a bubble.
  • Intrade, the online betting market which attempts to use the wisdom of crowds to predict events like elections and scientific discoveries, is closed while it tries to sort out some kind of financial irregularity and return to solvency.  The statements on the company's website are optimistic, and they may be right, but such things in general don't have a good record.
The whole point of markets like Bitcoin and Intrade is that they are not (as) subject to the regulations and restrictions of the conventional markets.  But that cuts both ways.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The infinite scrollbar

It's somewhat annoying when sites decide to show, say, the first 20 items of a list on a web page and to get more you have to find the "next" button.  It's nicer to bring up a list you can scroll through.  As you scroll, the size and location of the scroll bar will tell you how much you've got left.

Except when it won't.  Some sites -- particularly social sites, it seems -- will give you a scrolling list, but when you get near the bottom, they hit the server and bring in more items.  Suddenly your scroll bar gets smaller and the space below it grows.  After a while you realize that no matter how much farther you scroll, there will still be some left.  But by then you're hooked.  Just one more page ...

Technically, it's not a bad call.  Browsers can handle pretty big scrolling lists these days, but they probably wouldn't deal well with the full list of, say, hundreds of thousands or millions.  Bringing items in on demand is a nice compromise.  Chances are the human doing the scrolling will grow bored long before the browser's memory limits are seriously tested, and if not it can always throw out items from the top that are now well out of sight.  Score one for AJAX.

Psychologically it's pretty clever, too.  The nice large scrollbar at the beginning says "Come on in!  Just a little bit to look at here.  Won't take too long."  As noted, by the time you see what's really going on, you're drawn in.

Overall, I'm not sure I have a strong feeling about this style of widget.  I guess the convenience outweighs the subtle feeling I've been played.  But not by a lot.

Film studios ... not dead yet.

A few years ago I ran a series of posts (starting with this one) questioning a 60 Minutes piece on online video piracy.  My take was that 60 Minutes was parroting the MPAA's stand on piracy at the time without critically examining it as one might expect from an investigative news program.

I stand by that.

In one segment, director Steven Soderbergh doubted whether films like The Matrix could be made any more, since piracy was putting the studios out of business and keeping them from financing original works from outsiders.  At the time of that interview, Avatar was on its way to grossing an all-time record 2.8 billion dollars on a budget of $237 million.  Granted, James Cameron is not exactly a hollywood outsider (more on that below), but if the studios aren't financing new faces, it doesn't appear to be for lack of money.  Six of the top ten highest-grossing films have been made since that interview, and ten of the top twenty.   Comcast (owners of Universal) has nearly tripled its stock price.  Disney, Time-Warner and Viacom (owner of Paramount) have approximately doubled.

Overal box-office grosses have been basically flat since that interview, which would indeed be bad news for studios, if that were the only way that they made money.  But it isn't.  Video on demand and DVD/Blu-ray releases, with much lower overhead than the box office, have been a standard part of movie releases since before that interview was done.

Home video numbers seem harder to come by than box office grosses, but there's no doubt that, however much illegal copying may be going on, there's plenty of legal rental going on as well.  It doesn't look like the ability to copy bits online is hurting the film industry any more than the ability to copy them on videotape did.

In fact, the folks at South by Southwest seem to think that video on demand is actually helping get original films from outsiders made and seen.  The title of the panel, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love VOD, is itself instructive.

Nor do I think anyone seriously sees this as a triumph of the brave heroes at the MPAA against the evil pirates.  Rather, the industry has adjusted to the new technology and figured out how to make money off of it.  Which is their job.

I am not my IP address

It appears that the major ISPs have decided to launch an "education campaign" about copyright violation.  If their filters determine someone using your IP address is uploading copyrighted content, you will get a series of increasingly firm warnings telling you that you may be breaking the law.  And, as some have pointed out, to let you know that your ISP is watching what you're doing and to leave a nice, visible paper trail saying "you were warned".

I say "copyrighted content", but in practice that probably means video, .mp3 files and such.  I doubt that they're trying to catch people uploading the text of The Hunger Games or whatever, even though that's just as copyrighted as, say, Thrift Shop.

Before going on, I suppose this is a good opportunity to repeat the disclaimer: I don't speak for my employer.  I speak for myself, at least on a good day.  Let's throw in the "I am not a lawyer" spiel while we're at it.

On the one hand, I'm not horrified by this.  It certainly seems like a better approach than previous attempts to crack down.  The ISPs certainly have some right to do such things.  Your agreement with your ISP is a private contract.  As much as we value free speech as a principle, when you're paying a private company to convey your speech, they get some say.  Restrictions imposed by your ISP are not laws of congress.  Not to say that there shouldn't be some sort of protection, but any first-amendment case would have to be aimed at the laws regulating ISPs, not at the ISPs themselves.   Outside the US, your mileage may vary ... hmm ... how do you say "your mileage may vary" outside the US?

Likewise, the studios and record labels have a right to protect their copyrights (that is, the copyrights they acquired from the people who actually created the content).  Whatever we may think of studios, record labels, publishers and such, there is a legitimate business to be done in financing, publicizing and selecting content.  The question is whether it's done well or badly, ethically or not-so-ethically, and in what cases it makes sense for the creator to take on that role personally or hire it out.

That said, I'm leery of the basic approach of tying activity to an IP address.  In a typical household, any of several people may be using a given address, and the person paying for the service is generally not going to be aware of what every person in the household is doing at all times.

Neither is it safe to assume that the only people using the IP address in question are living in the house to which the IP address is assigned.  There are plenty of insecure wifi routers out there.  For that matter, there are plenty of deliberately insecure routers out there.  Is a coffee shop with free wifi also liable for whatever its guests choose to upload?

Nor is it that hard for someone uploading copyrighted material to disguise that fact, or plausibly deny it -- and it's a good bet that someone who makes a habit of distributing copyrighted material illegally would positively enjoy confounding The Man.

In short, it looks very easy to get false positives (someone notified of suspicious uploading when it's not their fault) and false negatives (someone up to no good going unnoticed).  If the idea is to "stop piracy", it's unlikely to work any better than previous attempts.  On the other hand, if the idea is to remind people that copyrighted material is protected by law, or start a discussion between the person legally on the hook for the internet bill and the rest of the people using it, that could probably work.

Behind all this is the issue in the title: to what extent can an IP address be identified with a person?  A reasonable analog in the real world is the distinction between a car's license plate and a person's driver's license.  A license plate is associated with a person, and that person bears some legal responsibility for what happens with that car, but if you loan your car to a good friend and that friend gets pulled over for speeding, the points go on the friend's license, not yours.

If the friend runs a red light and gets caught by a camera, though, you'll get the notice, as registrant of the car.  What happens next is a bit unclear, particularly if your maybe-not-so-good friend doesn't feel inclined to step up.

The ISP case seems more like the camera case than the pulled-over case.  Just as (generally) only the car can be positively identified, only the IP address, and not the person, can be positively identified [that is, the numeric address is known for sure ... there are ways, at least in theory, to spoof addresses in the sense that the packets sent to and from that address aren't going where the system thinks they're going].  Again, if the idea is to educate people about copyright law and remind them that yes, companies take this seriously and, by the way, we can see what you're doing with your IP connection, that's probably OK.  But if it comes down to fining and arresting people, the IP address involved had better be just one piece of evidence in a stronger case.

Not that that's much comfort if you have to hire a lawyer anyway.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Password reductio ad absurdum

I was just now logging into a site I hadn't logged into in several months, one for which I wanted to be sure I had a unique password.  Naturally, I'd forgotten the password.  So I clicked on the forgotten password link and chose the email option.  There was also a security questions option.  I should remember to make up some random lies for that, since I'm not going to use it and would prefer no one else did either.

Before too long, an email arrived with a clearly randomly-generated sequence of twelve upper- and lowercase letters.  That's about 68 bits of entropy.  If you could guess a trillion passwords a second [which, scarily enough, is not at all far-fetched], it would still take about 12 years to guess all the possibilities.  I'm not a great fan of passwords in general, except when used locally to unlock something that's actually secure, but that's a pretty reasonable password generation scheme.

So I log in with my new password.  Before I actually get in to the site, I'm told I need to change my password.

Because it's too weak.

Because it doesn't have a letter and a number.

But I'm free to make up any seven-character or longer sequence that does contain a number and a letter,  which does at least filter out all but two of SplashData's top 25 list of weak passwords (all but trustno1 and password1).  Let's just say it's 92% effective at improving password security and leave it at that.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Bad news, good news

Bad news: I'm still getting, shall we say, spurious comments.

Good news: They're pretty much all adhering to The Post I Shall Henceforth Endeavor To Avoid Referring to by Title.

Moral: Be careful how you title your blog posts.

Bonus: The hardly-ever-helpful spell correction I've never bothered to turn off seems to think that when I type "blo..." in a blog post, I really mean "boo".

Note to self: Figure out how to turn that "feature" off.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Hedwig and the Mobile Web

I had no idea of this until I ran across it in a Sporcle quiz:  Actress Hedy Lamarr, best known for her Hollywood roles in the 40s and 50s, and inspiration for Anne Hathaway's interpretation of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises, was also co-holder of a patent for "spectrum hopping" technology that eventually came to be used in WiFi, Bluetooth and CDMA.  The actual names on the patent are Hedy Kiesler Markey (Lamarr's legal name at the time) and avant-garde composer George Anthiel, a neighbor of hers who developed a means of controlling multiple player pianos.

This doesn't seem to be the first patent for such technology.  Earlier work by Otto Blackwell et. al. uses essentially the same idea.  Both use multiple frequencies, and both use a shared key to determine how to shift between frequencies.  The main difference appears to be that Blackwell uses telegraph tape as a keying mechanism while Lamarr and Antheil use player piano rolls.  However, there is little doubt that Lamarr's contributions to the invention were real and that the invention is significant.

It's interesting that both patents are presented as secret communication systems, as someone listening on only one frequency would only get part of the message.  However, it doesn't seem like it would take long for an enemy to hit on the idea of listening on more than one frequency and combining the signals.  So maybe I'm missing something [if power consumption isn't an issue, you could fill all the bands with padding -- anything that statistically looked like the real signal -- which would make the combined signal much less useful].  Today we use spread spectrum technology to increase bandwidth or decrease "power flux density" -- which I assume means about what it says.

It's also worth noting that Lamarr and Antheil didn't benefit significantly from their invention, which was not used in practice until after the patent had expired.  Lamarr did receive stock in a wireless technology company two years before her death, but it's not clear whether that came to anything.  Having made and spent millions over the course of her career, Lamarr spent much of her later years broke, and was twice arrested for shoplifting.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

One more Twittery data point

The LA Times is clearly comfortable with Twitter, or at least its online version is.  A recent article on the Boeing 787 (aka Dreamliner) seems to consist mostly of tweets.  We see tweets from stranded travelers and tweets from not-stranded travelers commenting on their predicament.  Most significantly, I think, is that Boeing's official reaction is given in the form of tweets.

This seems to be more the exception than the rule, judging by a few other LA Times articles I clicked through to.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

What do we mean "mobile device"?

It's pretty clear that mobile devices ... hang on a sec.  What's a mobile device?  According to Wikipedia, it's, um, a small electronic device you can carry around.  But not a laptop.  So a smart phone, a not-so-smart phone, a tablet computer, a camera, an MP3 player, a handheld video game, a pager ...

A few of those have been around a long time, at least by electronic standards.  Somehow, I don't think that most people have devices like this in mind when they speak of mobile devices.  For practical purposes, "mobile devices" means "smart phones, tablets and stuff like that".  More precisely, it's not just mobility that people care about.  It's mobile connectivity, the idea that your mobile device can connect to the world at large and interact with it in arbitrary ways.  The mobile web, that is.

So where was I?

It's pretty clear that mobile devices are playing a bigger and bigger role in people's lives these days.  Lots and lots and lots of people have cell phones, quite a few people have tablets, and more and more do every day(*).  It's also clear that people have adapted to having ready access to the web.  One sure way to know you're out in the boonies, whether for the good of getting away from it all or the ill of being cut off from it all, is not having any bars.

When I was a kid, not that long ago, I like to think, if you wanted to meet someone at a large public place, you would have to pre-arrange -- "Meet me on the west side of the station near the stairs for the subway line."  Now you can just call up your party and ask "Um, hey, where are you? ... oh, there I see you."  If you broke down at the side of the interstate, you'd have to wait for someone come by (unless you had a CB, and a lot of people did, though not necessarily for that particular reason).  Now you just call someone.  And, of course, all the behavioral changes brought on by the web, like pulling down news you're interested in instead of waiting for the evening paper or news broadcast, are possible whether or not you happen to be near home.

So if a mobile device is something mobile that can hook you up to the web, then what we have is a series of less-tethered-to-a-particular-place ways of connecting:
  • Ancient times:  If you could connect to a remote system at all, it was through work, or a university or other such institution.  Maybe you could dial in to that system from home, using a honking big dumb terminal.  One way or another you were essentially going over phone lines (even the backbone of the time was a bunch of T1 lines, if I understand correctly).
  • BBSs (Bulletin Board Systems) and online services such as Compu$erve begin to appear and personal computers with modems become commercially available.  Now you can connect from home, generally to a world completely different from what you'd encounter at work, assuming your line of work even involved the internet.
  • Laptops become widespread.  Now you can connect from anywhere you can lug your laptop, assuming you can tie up a phone line.  By this time you can also plug your laptop in to people's local networks.  Cell phones exist, but using them to connect to the internet is cumbersome at best, and almost certainly very expensive.  Internet cafes pop up.
  • WiFi becomes widespread.  With municipalities airports, hotels and commercial chains putting up hotspots here and there, the concept of an "internet cafe" becomes somewhat moot.  Many people can connect from wherever they are much of the time.  Phones are becoming webbier, but in a limited way.
  • Present day: Smart phones become widespread.  Apps are developed so that you can interact with your favorite sites without squinting at a web site through a browser.  Phones have enough horsepower to provide a nice, snappy experience, at least where you have coverage.
If mobile connectivity is more important than whether a device will fit in your shirt pocket, and I think in this context it is, then mobility starts somewhere around the spread of laptops.  Certainly by the time WiFi is widespread and home "broadband" access is commercially available, the difference from the present day is more degree than kind (understanding that a big enough difference in degree is essentially a difference in kind).

That's not to say we're not entering a new phase.  We are.  A location-aware phone that is always on and always with you is significantly different from a laptop you have to plug in, power on, log in, etc.  From a technical point of view, designing for a small touch screen is significantly different from a laptop screen, much less a 30" monitor.  Nonetheless, the current phase is just the latest in a series of steps making it easier and easier to connect from anywhere.

(*) It's not always clear what "lots of people" or "widespread" should mean.  Widespread among affluent technophiles?  Lots of people in the developed world?  Widespread in a large portion of the world -- which may be ahead of parts of the developed world when it comes to mobile communication?  I'm bravely sidestepping such questions here, but I wanted to at least call them out.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Were you born mobile?

(Not to be confused with Goin' Mobile, wherein you can play the tape machine, make the toast and tea ...)

Qualcomm has received a lot of attention for its keynote at CES, and not necessarily the good kind.  Apparently, they were trying to invoke some inspirational vision of a new generation -- "Generation M", they called it -- untethered from antiquated wired connections, claiming the mobile web as their birthright.  And they, um, missed.

Verge has a typically scathing writeup (typical for coverage of this event, not necessarily for Verge), complete with Tweets from various Twitterati doing their best snark.  Overall reaction seems to run from "Hey, whizzy technology.  Kinda strange presentation, though" to "Oh ... my ... God ... what ... were ... they ... thinking?"

Disclaimer: I didn't watch the whole thing. I'm not sure I could.  I'm pretty sure I got the gist from the intro (up to Paul Jacob's "... or a CEO.") and excerpts of the rest.  I certainly haven't come across anything saying "Never mind the cheesy intro.  It gets better."  Even if it did, Qualcomm chose its lead-in to set the tone for all that followed.  For better or worse, the face of Qualcomm for some time to come will be thisthis or this (I mean the characters here.  I don't know anything about the actors, but I do know that if I were an unknown actor and someone offered me the keynote at a major consumer electronics show, I'd jump at it.  Just maybe not quite so quickly now.)

Qualcomm has been around for quite a while, even if not in the limelight.  Indeed, that was one of their points.  Nor are they completely incompetent at marketing in general.  I wouldn't expect this ad for their Snapdragon processor to win any Clio awards, but it's kinda fun and gets the point across.  That ad was, in fact, part of the keynote.  Sadly, it seems to have stood out for its non-cringeworthiness.  So why did it all go so badly awry?

Off the bat:
  • If there were any real geeks on the writing staff, they must have been acting under duress.  For that matter, if there were any actual social-networking popular-types on the writing staff, they must have gone out for lattes while that part was being put together.  Who talks like those three?  Put any of them in their supposed native element and they would be driven from the room by howls of "Who is this poseur?" or whatever.  It's like watching a 70s after-school special where the dad tries to "be cool" with the kid and the child actor is thinking "Get my agent on the phone!" Or like rapping public service announcements in the 80s and 90s.  Tornado92?  Really?
  • One does not simply declare a new generation.  "Generation X" was taken from a 1991 novel title that caught on, no doubt with a little help from the association with Billy Idol's old band (who took their name from an older use of the term).  "Generation Y" came out of an Ad Age editorial, and has sort of caught on, though no one really knows when it started or whether to call it that or something else.  "Baby Boom" was a demographic term used in various contexts since the 19th century that ... caught on.  And so forth.  Besides, the whole "Generation ___" thing has been done to death already.
  • If there really is a "Born Mobile" generation or "Generation M", it's going to be younger than the actors on stage.  Looking at US statistics for example, there were essentially no wireless-only households until around 2005.  Granted, the US is not cutting-edge when it comes to mobile adoption, but even in Scandinavia, home of Nokia and Ericsson, cell phone usage doesn't really start to take off until the turn of the millennium.  Smart phones, which is what Qualcomm is really talking about, are even more recent.
  • But at the same time, this is all old news.  The time to announce a new, "Born Mobile" generation is before everyone has a cell phone.  The penetration rate in South Korea has already passed 100%, or one cell phone per person.  Suburban malls in the US don't just have cell phone stores, they have specialized kiosks hawking teen-friendly cell phone accessories.  Have had for years.  We didn't have a generation "Born Mobile".  We've got a generation born sessile that has picked up mobile technology in a considerable hurry.  Except, it's not just one generation. You don't get to 100% penetration that way.  Three generations of my family have cell phones, and that's hardly unusual.

Not that a trade show opening event is supposed to be a technical symposium, but tell me something I don't know.  I know mobile technology is important.  I'm sure your processors are fast.

But there's something else, cultural, here.  The whole show hearkens back to a long-ago time when no one knew how to sell technology.

Time was, I seem to recall, that a furry geek from another planet could stand up in front of an audience of business people and stammer something like "Um, our new system has a 6502 processor running at 1MHz, 64K of RAM expandable to one megabyte, and a BASIC interpreter in ROM, so we think it's pretty cool," and the business people would scratch their heads, mutter "what's a RAM?" and somehow figure out what to buy.

Then the professionals came in.  There was, I believe, a brief period of feeling around in the dark, of figuring out whether to say "slash" or "backslash" or to mention that you need a browser to get to a web site, to take a couple of more recent, webbier examples, but this didn't last.  Professional marketers may not have known tech at first, but they do know what works and doesn't work in marketing and will adjust accordingly.

Somewhere in that early mix was a time when no one, not even the geeks, knew what to do with these "computer" things.  There was a grasping on the part of the geeks toward "real people" ... moms and neighbors, say, and a grasping on the part of the marketing folks toward, well, markets.  For some reason, one popular thing to say about a personal computer was that you would have one in your kitchen to help you organize your recipes.  I don't think anyone really believed that, but at least it was something to grab onto.  The intro to the Qualcomm presentation has something of that feel to it, which is odd coming from a company that had had enormous success selling wireless technology for decades.


Toward the end of the intro, the "entrepreneur" tells you about his billion-dollar idea -- because, you know, any college graduate can come up with a billion-dollar idea these days.  Of course, he's not really going to tell you what it is, but his cover story is "funny cat videos meets Gangnam style".  Because that's as up-to-date as you could possibly get, right?

Gangnam Style long ago passed from quaint goofy-looking video from across the ocean to cultural phenomenon to "please, please, don't play that again" on its way, I'm sure, to weapon of choice for drunk and clueless wedding guests, but there's actually something to it.  I've always found that culture shock is much worse coming back to one's own country, and here is Psy, returning to his native land and creating what, on closer examination, is a sly but sharp satire of a lifestyle.  A lifestyle of young, hip, heavily debt-ridden twentysomethings whose lives are much, much less than meets the eye.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Processed meat product update

Following my announcement that I had turned off anonymous comments in response to an uptick in obnoxiously irrelevant comments, I saw another rash of such comments, more noxious than usual.  Normally I get a sprinkling of unwanted comments spread across recent posts, and not many, but this was several times the usual volume, and all concentrated on that particular post.

I'm curious whether this was just because the problem commenters had temporarily gained the upper hand against Blogger's filters and were focusing on the most recent post, or because that post used a popular four-letter word for unwanted messages in its title.  Which is why I'm specifically not using that word in this post or its title -- or its labels, at least for now.  If this post (or the most recent at the time) collects bothersome comments, then it's probably the former case.  If they continue to stick to the old post, it would be the latter.

Fitting Twitter into the bigger picture

I've just re-read the nineteen previous posts labelled Twitter on this blog and I think I've sufficiently hammered on two main points:
  • There's no more reason to believe a "Twitter and new media will supplant traditional news media" narrative than in so many other "Everything is Different Now" cases that have come along.
  • Twitter is not particularly self-correcting and there's no clear way to sort fact from fantasy beyond good old-fashioned skepticism -- or referring back to other sources.
So once we dismiss the usual strawmen, where does that leave us?  What is the real relationship between Twitter and traditional media (which themselves have adapted significantly to the web)?  The easy answer is "it's complicated", which seems true as far as it goes but really doesn't say much.  So how about a few random data points?

Item: Tweeting is now a standard part of the celebrity publicity machine.  In turn, gossip magazines and sites routinely report on celebrity's tweets.  It would be interesting to know to what extent celebrities and their publicists are tweeting directly to fans and to what extent they're tweeting to magazine/web site editors.

Item: In the recent scandal leading to the resignation of George Entwistle the head of the BBC, one of the more devastating points of John Humphrys' interview of the soon-to-be-outgoing head was Entwistle's admission that he was unaware of a highly relevant tweet about an upcoming BBC Newsnight documentary (that, and his also having been unaware of the documentary itself).  Humphrys goes on to assert that even if Entwistle hadn't been personally following Twitter, someone on his staff should have been.

With further prompting from Humphrys, Entwistle then goes on to admit he also missed the front-page story in the Guardian denouncing the Newsnight piece, leaving one to wonder what, if anything, Entwistle was aware of.  Nonetheless the presumption, coming from a well-respected traditional journalist in a rather high-stakes context, was that Twitter was something that the head of the BBC, and journalists in general, should pay serious attention to.  (Lest this post present too one-sided a view of Entwistle, here's a transcript of the interview -- the Torygraph uses a less annoying format than the Grauniad article I complained about.)

Item:  Swirling in the same cloud of scandal, was the shockingly prolific criminal behavior of a recently deceased well-known television personality.  The resulting public outrage included, as one would expect by now, a major Twitter storm.
Item: Twitter continues to be an important means of smuggling information out of repressive states.  I'm glad to say that Google's Speak2Tweet service has played a role in helping bypass state internet crackdowns, most recently in Syria (I have nothing personally to do with providing this service, and I don't know anything about it that you don't, but I'm happy to be associated with it indirectly as a Googler).  On the other hand, a fair bit of mis- and dis- information makes its way into the unfiltered feed.  Considering the stakes, it seems wise to be more cautious than usual in judging the reliability of tweets, to say nothing of acting on them.

Item: A recent Twitter spat between an American economist and the president of Estonia is being made into an opera.  The opera will premiere in Tallinn, to be performed by an Estonian mezzo-soprano, so one can imagine that the Estonian side might come off rather better.

For the most part, Twitter seems more like a parallel channel to the traditional media, rather than something likely to supplant them.  In all but one case, Twitter looks like one more tool in the box.  Publicists have always promoted their clients by any means available, the public has always complained by whatever means is at hand, dissidents have always found ways to get their story out, and pop-culture oriented artists have always grabbed on to whatever was floating by.  To the extent that it's harder for regimes to prevent suppressed information from leaking out, credit should go mostly to the internet and web as a whole, acknowledging that Twitter has been particularly effective.

The second item is more intriguing.  In this case, Twitter looks more like something new intruding in the traditional media game.  Imagine radio journalists in the mid twentieth century realizing that they needed to pay attention to this wild and wooly new "television" thing, and print journalists some time before that realizing that there really was something to these new "radio" devices or, for that matter, the current interplay between traditional outlets and blogs.

The key here is not the technology, but who's involved and how.  In the first item, Twitter is effectively acting as a new medium in the traditional publicity structure.  Likewise, in the last three items, the people, or the artists, are making use of Twitter as they would any other medium.  In the second item, the whole point is that Entwistle should have been treating Twitter as another medium for gathering information (or perhaps he did, by ignoring it).  The implication, really, is that treating Twitter as another medium among many is the normal thing to do, and by not doing so, Entwistle showed himself to be woefully out of touch.