Criticism and Progress

A troll is just a critic in charge of a keyboard. Someone who is content to liberally spray criticism across the internet that would otherwise fall on deaf ears in a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation.

Groundless or not, it’s never pleasant to hear those chirps from the big bad world. But then again, few critics ever create anything of note themselves.

That might make you feel better. But flip it round and the point is much more concerning. If you’re not being criticised, it’s likely that you’re doing nothing of note. And considering just how short time is, unless you plan on living a life of quiet isolation, that is surely far more terrifying than the alternative.

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I had one quote blu-tacked to my wall for over a decade.  If you’ve never read it, now’s a good time:-

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

(The Man in the Arena speech, Theodore Roosevelt, 1910)

Sugar and the Mythical Hyper Kids

Shocking discovery of the day: finding out that the well-known parenting fact that if you give kids lots of sugar, they become hyperactive turns out to be….well, a myth.

OK, so if you’re reading this and you don’t have kids – or you’ve not spent any time around young kids since you were of a similar vintage –  it’s maybe not quite as surprising to you.  But it appears that ingesting the industrial amounts of sugar doesn’t actually make your descendants go bananas after all

It turns out that it’s a myth that is endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 50 per cent of teachers and 39 per cent of those with some form of neuroscience training. In other words, even those with specialised education get it wrong…But the real interest for all the parents out there is probably this quote:-

“Some researchers suggest that simply expecting sugar to affect your child can influence how you interpret what you see. A study published in the August 1994 Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology showed that parents who believe a child’s behaviour is affected by sugar are more likely to perceive their children as hyperactive when they’ve been led to believe the child has just had a sugary drink.”

Something to consider the next time you leap to a conclusion about your child’s (or anyone else’s) actions without being aware of the full context.

Story Telling and Conspiracy Theories

I’m fascinated by stories – not so much with the content but with their role in society and the ways in which they bind us together in groups (and, as a result, also divide us).  With the rise of fake news, it’s very easy to put what seems like an unstoppable torrent of conspiracy theories as being peddled by the ignorant few (albeit, in some cases, a huge number in itself).

Yet is that too simplistic?

In ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human’, Jonathan Gottschall makes an interesting point which I’ve been thinking about recently:-

“It’s tempting to blame general backwardness or ignorance for this epidemic of conspiracy. Tempting, but wrong. As David Aaronovitch explains in his book ‘Voodoo Histories’,

‘Conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and middle class. The imagined model of an ignorant, priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious and superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the managers, the journalists, and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.’

Conspiracy theories are not, then, the province of a googly-eyed lunatic fringe. Conspiratorial thinking is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience”.

First Man

I took a rare trip to the cinema today to watch First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong’s life leading up to the first moon landing back on 20th July 1969. I’m a sucker for anything to do with space exploration and an unashamed advocate of piling more of our collective money into any pursuits that have even the slightest possibility of expanding humanity’s notion of what is possible in reality.

The topic was historical (despite still seeming futuristic almost 50 years later) and it interests me how divisive the subject can be. Some people are  passionately against piling back into something which became, for a period of time, a global obsession.

In fact, taking a quick look online, there seem to be a range of views about why we shouldn’t fund further exploration – including the high cost in relation to the actual practical returns, the brain drain into the space industry away from other high-impact research, the risk of inadvertently making contact with another intelligence which leads to our extinction (directly through being attacked or indirectly by becoming best buddies but inadvertently being wiped out by some form of alien bacteria that accompanied said little green tourists).

But the film itself was great. It gave a real sense of just how difficult and dangerous the whole endeavour was from start to finish. It reminded me that quote by John Young when asked whether he was nervous about making the first space shuttle flight in 1981:

“Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fuelled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried, does not fully understand the situation.”

When it comes to space exploration, there’s a couple of great books that are definitely worth checking out. The first is Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Right Stuff’ which focuses on the first Project Mercury pilots that were selected for the NASA space program. A fascinating tale of what made a group of men literally sit on top of rockets with no guarantees and the heavy-drinking environment that surrounded the scene. The second is ‘Moondust’ in which the author Andrew Smith travels to interview every man alive who has ever walked on the moon. Which is only twelve people –  in the history of mankind. Each of whom agrees: once you’ve seen that tiny blue sphere hanging in the dark void of space, your relationship with your home planet has changed forever.

So I’ll wrap up with the words of JFK, back from when the space race was really heating up back in 1962:-

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too…”

“…But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold…”

“…Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there.”

Why The Internet Needs to Evolve (Again)

Earlier this week I posted a few thoughts on the MaidSafe Medium account on the evolution of Web3. Thought I’d share them more widely here as well.

Today, the Internet stands for two things in the minds of the masses. To some, the term means a foundational infrastructure, a technology that enables computers to communicate around the globe. But for the majority, the word conjures up something far more amorphous. You only have to ask different people around the world to describe the Internet to see the evidence. For many millions, the entire online experience exists solely inside the Facebook app on their mobile. We all have differing experiences of the world online and descriptions become far more subjective.

The Evolution of the Internet

A Network Of Networks

In the early days, the Internet was very much defined by its functionality. The world that saw the creation of the ARPANET was one where US government funding drove the construction of a communications network that would scale vast distances. And it was this niche focus that led to a vital innovation in the form of the creation of the TCP/IP packet-switching protocol almost exactly 45 years ago to the day.

https://twitter.com/MIT_CSAIL/status/1059139965609627648

Continue reading Why The Internet Needs to Evolve (Again)

I Want To Scan Your Brain

I recently read a great book by Daniel Levitin called “This Is Your Brain On Music”. Levitin was a session musician, sound engineer and record producer before becoming a neuroscientist.

The book’s full of fascinating insights but for me, there was one key takeaway: it is only in very recent times that music has changed from being participatory to being a spectator sport for the majority of our civilisation. Some of the oldest artefacts discovered are musical instruments (such as bone flutes and drums). On almost every single occasion that humans come together for a purpose, music is just – there.

Of course, only a very small minority of the human population can classify as expert musicians. But we need to remember something else. The evidence shows that we are all expert listeners: we’re all able to decide on what we like, and dislike, when it comes to music, even if we can’t articulate the reasons why.

Amazing when you actually think about it: after all, pretty much all the songs that we’ve ever heard – or ever will hear – are made up of just twelve musical notes (ignoring octaves).

If you have any interest in music whatsoever (spoiler: unless you’re some kind of AI reading this blog, you do…) it’s well worth a read. But I’ll leave you with my favourite piece of trivia from the book:-

” Because the haemoglobin of the blood is slightly magnetic, changes in the flow of blood can be traced with a machine that can track changes in magnetic properties. This is what a magnetic resonance imagine machine (MRI) is, a giant electromagnet that produces a report showing differences in magnetic properties, which in turn can tell us where, at any given point in time, the blood is flowing in the body.”

“The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ might well have been titled, ‘I Want To Scan Your Brain’.”

ScotChain 2018

I’m just back in from ScotChain 2018. The annual blockchain conference in Scotland once again saw a varied lineup, predominantly (but not exclusively) focused on the enterprise and business applications of blockchain technology.

It’s coming up to five years since that first meetup in Scotland. That was a pivotal night for me for a whole number of reasons (including the fact that I was introduced that night to the project that I now spend all of my working hours on – the SAFE Network). But being honest, all those years ago, I’m not sure I ever envisaged the main RBS Conference Centre at Gogarburn as being one of the future meetup venues for 200-odd folk…

I really spend very little time indeed around the permissioned/enterprise blockchain sector now – but the fact that it is in itself a sector only serves to underline the difference between then and now.

Chatting with folk during the day, there was a definite sense that the atmosphere had evolved from the exuberance of last year’s event. Much of the focus at the event may have been on business use cases – ERP, BPR, CRM’s, BAAS, the role of CIO’s and a whole plethora of other three-letter acronyms – but I’d hazard a guess that the more measured approach comes from a combination of two things. First, the reality that shipping software, particularly in large organisations, is hard. And its not helped by the fact that each passing day only serves to remind the Exec of how little progress you’ve made with that budget they agreed to give you to do ‘some of that cool blockchainifying stuff‘ in 2017 towards that utopian business offering for customers by 2018…

And secondly, the bearish crypto market all year. Because as much as some might try to hide it, even those who view permissionless systems as marginally less appealing than a rollercoaster with broken seatbelts, the price across the market does matter. The value of crypto-currencies/assets focuses enthusiasm in a way that we’ve rarely seen before.

But anyway, back to the day. The general message was positive: collaborate, don’t shut up shop. I’m hopeful but realistic about what can happen in practice mind you when it comes the flexibility that some businesses will have towards co-creation, rather than empire building. But it was good to see the event once more in Scotland. I certainly gain a lot from just having those face-to-face conversations rather than online so well done to those who took on the mostly thankless task of organising and bringing the community together.

The Southpaw Advantage?

Most boxers prefer to both fight in an orthodox stance. In other words, have his or her left foot and hand further forward. The reasoning is simple: most people are right-handed so whilst your weaker left hand is free to wear out your opponent over time with speculative jabs, you’re then free to load up the power on your more powerful right hand and unleash the shots that will win the competition.

But studies suggest that around 10% of the world is left-handed. So what happens when an orthodox boxer meets a southpaw – a left-hander who leads with the weaker right? In many cases, the southpaw fighter will come out on top.

The reason’s quite simple. The southpaw must have spent a far greater proportion of his life fighting right-handers than any orthodox fighter. On top of that much greater experience, shots will come flying in during the heat of battle from the opposite angles to the ones that the right-handed boxer is used to.

This alone has caused many boxers over the years to have hangups over taking fights against southpaws – and years ago, it wasn’t unheard of for southpaws to learn how to fight orthodox in order to be able to secure fights.

It makes sense. As with anything difficult, the more focused practice you undertake, the better you’ll become. However the story is even more fascinating.

It turns out that statistically neither southpaws nor orthodox boxers are more successful. But both southpaw and orthodox boxers stood a better chance of winning against orthodox boxers than southpaws.

And to top it off, a greater proportion of the highest rated boxers are southpaw than you would expect.

I came across an interesting study from 2013 (‘The Southpaw Advantage: Lateral Preference in Mixed Martial Arts‘). A few of the key ideas:

“Performers with a left-orientation have a greater likelihood of obtaining elite levels of performance in many interactive sports.”

“the proportion of ‘lefties’ in the general population has remained stable over 10,000 years and the stability of this effect over time suggests some consistent advantage to being left-handed. otherwise evolutionary mechanisms would have removed this polymorphism from the population. Sport may reflect an environment where these advantages are demonstrated: for instance, left-handedness is associated with a greater likelihood of obtaining elite levels of performance in many interactive sports including baseball and tennis with significant over-representations of left-handed players at the highest levels of competition.” 

Another hypothesis is that being left-handed is particularly useful in sports where the speed of reaction is important. In other words, the less time your opponent has to react to your left-handed ways, the greater your advantage might well be.

So maybe it just all comes back to one thing. Perhaps left-handedness has survived the evolutionary chopping block precisely because it makes some of us just pretty darn good at fighting.

Post-Truth Politics and Parenting

Some of you might have noticed that there’s some kind of voting thing taking place in the US today. And as ever there’s a battle raging to mobilise supporters of both persuasions to get out today and vote since whoever gets the voters out, wins the election. It’s easier said than done. But’s it’s kind of the way things work…

But a couple of things to consider. Let’s start with Time Magazine’s Word of the Year for 2016, ‘Post-Truth’. We’ve already seen Twitter take action in deleting 10,000 bot accounts and Facebook has blocked, er, 115 accounts that were attempting to influence the results. But if all that is happening is that you are managing to get people out to vote who have been misinformed by fake news, then does that ultimately deliver us a better world?

It’s become a real issue and yet another thing to add to the list for any parent as they try to guide their offspring into a world that is vastly different from their own experience of youth. Surveys have shown that often it’s the youngest who can be attracted to populist positions (see cynicism, authoritarianism, nativism and xenophobia) and it’s obvious that the YouTube algorithms will reward the most extremist views in front of anyone, not just the young.

Without going in over my head into the depths of political science, I did find this idea of continuous voting by Steve Randy Waldman fascinating. Part of the problem is that elections are predictable – you know they’re coming and that gives the power brokers the ability to attempt to manipulate the narrative by crafting a variety of high-profile and factually inaccurate media stories in the run-up which reflect favourably on a particular candidate.

This thought experiment suggested having 5% of the electorate vote each month on candidates; then the results of such elections only being delivered according to the random flip of a virtual coin resulting in heads. Put simply: no politician knows when he or she may be replaced, which encourages each one to work with his or her constituency to provide value over the long terms, rather than focusing on the more superficial ‘marketing sprints’ that we tend to see in democracies around the world these days near election time.

Bitcoin and the Lindy Effect

Last week Bitcoin celebrated its 10th anniversary. At least in terms of the  original White Paper which was released all the way back on October 31st 2008. Of course, there’s a strong argument that the date of the Genesis Block is the true birthday – but that doesn’t really matter for these purposes.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the Lindy Effect. Like many, I originally came across this idea in both of Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s books ‘Black Swan‘ and ‘AntiFragile: Things That Gain From Disorder‘ but last week the phrase popped up again whilst reading Ryan Holiday’s ‘Perennial Seller‘.

The Lindy Effect is a simple heuristic that states the longer something has survived, the more likely it is to survive for at least the same period of time again. So the rate of mortality actually decreases with each additional year of life passed. Taleb has a good post explaining the concept in some detail but this quote sums it up nicely:-

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years.”

“This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “ageing” like persons, but “ageing” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”

It seems to me that Bitcoin as a non-perishable technology is a prime candidate for the Lindy Effect. And in surviving a decade without collapse or fatal security flaw, the signs are good that it very well still by the time October 2028 rolls around.

(As an aside, I’ve just realised I’ve been writing about Bitcoin since 2013. 5 years ago. Does that mean I’ll still be writing about it in 5 years’ time?! I suspect so. Not sure that can be said to qualify as the Lindy Effect though…)