The Madness of Rice

I was out speaking about the SAFE Network at The Cryptograph Meetup at Strathclyde Uni in Glasgow tonight, which was followed by the obligatory trip to the pub where we all know the real conversation always takes place. It’s very much a crypto-focused group and always enjoyable to be surrounded with others who want to talk about crytocurrency and decentralisation (as opposed to a more permissioned/corporate/consultancy blockchain focus, for example). Partly because it reminds me of the good old days – but also because, I don’t think I’ve ever been to one of those meetups over the past five years that had people who focused on those sorts of issues that hasn’t left me with some food for thought.

And tonight was no exception. In fact, it quite literally has left me with some food…for thought. Albeit totally unrelated to crypto…

Somehow I missed this piece of internet folklore when it originally started doing the rounds over the past. But in summary, there is an experiment that people have been carrying out where you take two identical jars of newly cooked rice. You label one something along the lines of ‘Thank You Rice’ and the other ‘Stupid Rice’. And now you keep them in their jars, apart from each other and you, er, speak to them every day (at least once a day) for a period of twenty days. To one you give encouragement and generally positive vibes. To the other, you hurl dog’s abuse and generally unleash the worst verbal assault you can imagine. Each day. (I’ll let you guess which one’s which….)

Now if, you’re like me, your initial thought is probably – this sounds utterly crazy. But the outcome is supposedly even weirder. After 20 days, the Thank You Rice should remain fresh and fine. As for the Stupid Rice? It should be overrun by fungus.

So on the train back from Glasgow, I made the decision. Every rational part of my being is saying that this can’t possibly work – that there must either be some clear scientific reason for the consistency of test results (which have apparently been replicated hundreds of times around the globe) or perhaps it’s just attributed to a normal random distribution of results where those whose results are in line with the predicted outcome are incentivised by the internet to share their amazing results, whilst those for whom the experiment is a let-down are motivated to shut up and keep it quiet (perhaps wishing to avoid being seen as stupid for doing it in the first place).

But then I came to a far more important realisation. Which was: I’d already started to search the internet for evidence that could disprove it (or, as an outside chance,  prove it with a supporting explanation). Yet surely the answer was right there? Instead of going for a quick fix, why not just carry out the experiment itself? Why do we always tend to rely on the shortcut of simply searching for evidence produced by others and trusting those results?

Sure, part of the reason is because instinct says this can’t have any truth to it. And yet, by writing it publicly on my blog and committing to set loose the full extremes of the dictionary at both samples (by happy coincidence I was making rice this evening to accompany a spectacularly spicy lentil and sweet potato curry that I’d made), there’s no way of hiding from the fact that I’m doing it. And just as importantly, if it all turns out to be utter nonsense, then this post will serve as a reminder and a lesson to me. Not sure precisely what of, mind you, but I’ll figure that out over time when it becomes clear…

I’ll check back in around the New Year and let you know how it went.

Now, must dash. I’m off to slag off some rice…

 

Productivity and Deliverables

I came across and interesting (old! 2017) Tweetstorm today about productivity that’s making me think. It’s worthwhile reading the whole thing here.

Basically, make sure every group project finishes with a specific deliverable. Common sense, but from experience that are many projects that just kind of gradually fade away for one reason or another after they get almost completed.

Sounds like common sense – but, much like how we all know Deep Work is important, I wonder how many times this actually ends up happening in practice?

How to Define Decentralisation

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Master Switch’ by Tim Wu. It’s a history of information empires, covering radio, telephone, satellite television and the internet. One of the recurring themes is the constant evolution in each case between open and closed, centralised and decentralised systems – something that Wu calls ‘The Cycle’.

It’s a topic that’s permanently relevant to the nascent crypto industry where despite many of the ideological claims to the contrary, true decentralisation remains for the most part far away in practice. And it’s one that I spend a fair amount of time thinking about given the work we’re doing with the SAFE Network.

So it was interesting to read the ‘Four Horsemen of Centralisation’ by Ali Yahya of a16z Crypto today. It’s a good companion piece to Vitalik’s ‘The Meaning of Decentralization’ from last year. He focuses on the fact that in practice, decentralisation comes down to a fairly simple question: how large the number of actors with power over the Network is. The bigger that number is, the less likely corrupting power can be wielded over such centralised actors. But it’s not as simple as saying a big number must be good. It also requires parties to be independent of each other plus those who do exercise power being broadly representative of the different stakeholders across the Network as a whole.

But who could these powerbrokers be? Yahya breaks it down into four memorable categories:-

  • The Gatekeeper
    Any party that controls access to the network (letting newcomers join as miners, validators or similar). This is a crucial requirement for any network that claims to be censorship-resistant and permissionless. But is it perceived or actual freedom? Proof-of-Work systems might see centralised hashing power or restricted access to the best mining chips. And Proof-of-Stake systems might see a concentration of validators. In either case, it’s clear that there’s a powerful difference between permissionless and equal opportunity for involvement.
  • The Enforcers
    Never to be underestimated, the enforcers are crucial for ensuring that rules are followed. They do this by running the code and centralisation is inevitable if they aren’t acting independently in a way that is a constant check on the actions of the others.
  • The Architect
    Who controls governance  (on-chain, off-chain) – and are they truly representative of the wider community on that network?
  • The Profiteer
    These might be early founders, perhaps with significant token holdings, thought-leaders – put simply, those in a position of influence over the other three classes of participants.

There’s often an overlap between the four in many crypto-networks at present but then again, the lines are often blurry when discussing decentralisation in any event. As Yahya writes in the post:

In the end, the question that matters when thinking about decentralization is the following: ‘Who exactly do you have to trust to believe that your interactions with a network will be fair?’ The vision that underlies the crypto movement suggests that the answer to this question should be “nobody”.

So it’s not a precise science (despite some attempts to move further in that direction). But it’s an important concept, if only to ensure that we are all broadly talking about the same topics when decentralisation comes up – and to ensure that people aren’t glossing over certain areas amongst the marketing hype.

Friday Quote of The Day

Friday quote of the day to ponder comes from E.O. Wilson, an American biologist, theorist, naturalist and author:-

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology. And it is terrifically dangerous.”

“We’re a mixed up and, in many ways, still archaic species in transition.”

Bonus fact: Wilson is seen as the world’s leading scientific expert on ants – so now you’re safe if anyone ever forces you at gunpoint to name a notable myrmecologist

Consumer DNA Testing: Why?

Why would you ever take part in consumer DNA testing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to know as much as anyone about some of my ancestry. To dig out any to date unknown skeletons in the generational closet. To learn more about that South American bloodline…

But when it comes to the vast quantities of data that have been generated by consumer DNA testing over the past few years, the implications are significant. Somewhat reminiscent of the way that Facebook tracks you even if you don’t have an account (I guess we all know that by now – but if you didn’t…yes, you read that correctly), the reality as shown by a recent study is that the data that’s been collected can now identify the majority of people in the US of European descent (6 out of 10) who haven’t ever given a sample.

It’s a fascinating area and that’s appealing to many for a whole raft of reasons. But giving personal data – and not only personal data but arguably the single most personally descriptive data that exists in the world – to a startup chasing the rocket ship to global domination has so many problems for anyone who has any requirements for privacy today (or, more importantly, ever again).

The combination of genetic data with other personal information can lead to unwanted consequences. And that’s before you even start thinking about how one of these startups could possibly be better placed to defend itself from hacks of your genetic records when much larger companies are incapable of doing so.

If you want to read something scary, try taking a look through some of terms and conditions provided by companies such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA. Basically, the companies retain the right to share your genetic information in some circumstances with third parties for research and business purposes.

It’s not too fantastic a jump to move from here towards a requirement for job interview DNA testing that are used to identify recruits with the propensity to develop in certain ways (which doesn’t feel a million miles away from being arrested for pre-crimes a la Minority Report)

The Pinnacle of Civilisation

There’s a great quote that goes something along the lines of the following:-

“The man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilisation”.

The origins of the phrase might be in dispute (Freud?) but it jumped to mind when I saw this on Twitter earlier on today.

Historians Versus Economists

Tyler Cowen rarely disappoints in either the quality or quality of information and commentary that he generates. The man is a machine. And his recent post on the difference between how historians and economists view dangerous world events certainly made me think.

It’s an oversimplification but the argument appears to be that historians are likely to be far more negative than economists when it comes to assessing the importance of current events. Partly that’s because economists always have a belief in the ability of the economy to bounce back. Regardless of which shade of armageddon may be visited on a country or society, the power of financial incentives and the human desire to improve on any situation is such that, given a sufficiently long timescale, most economic disasters can be recovered from in full. For most, boom will inevitably follow bust and innovation is often forged out of necessity in the direst of circumstances.

But historians? These are people whose job it is to research topics in which the overwhelming evidence proves just how random (and often senseless) life can be. It is not difficult to imagine that the very same events that left a permanent scar on the course of world history may, with only the slightest of variation in circumstances, resulted in a completely different (and by implication, more positive) outcome. Think of an assassination: a missed shot, the early arrest of a suspect, inclement weather conditions, getting lost en route, a final change of a politician’s plans……the list goes on forever.

The revolutions started with such sudden violence could just as easily been avoided. As Cowen writes about historians:

“If you think about these questions enough, you can end up very nervous indeed. Historians have seen too many modest mistakes spiral out of control and turn into disasters.”
So which viewpoint is more likely to be the valid and/or useful one to take onboard?

The Value of Podcasts

I’ve been a heavy listener of podcasts for probably about five years or so. I remember the Let’s Talk Bitcoin podcast was essential listening back in 2013 as one of the fastest and most reliable ways to get up to speed with all manner of crypto news whilst walking to and from work. It soon became one of only a few podcasts over the past five plus years that’s occupied that hallowed position of being essential listening with no excuses for missing an edition.

Over the years, the subscriptions have varied (slightly – the list tends to get longer but few get culled entirely) but the appeal of the medium is, if anything, stronger than ever. Somehow choosing to listen to conversations rather than music whilst walking/running (something that only 6 or 7 years ago I would have laughed at), I can’t even hazard a guess as to how much content I’ve consumed as a result over the last 5 and a half years or so.

The signs are strong that the appeal of podcasts is continuing to build. Amazingly, I read that China’s podcast market is worth $7.3 billion (compared to $314m in the US). The reason seems to be because many podcasts in China are focused on paid subscriptions to educational programmes as opposed to the eclectic mix of conversation, entertainment, hobbies, news, long-form storytelling (and everything in between) that you find in the West.

Done correctly though, podcasts are incredibly powerful – as tools to inform, educate and entertain – but also, crucially, to help build communities. Outside of your immediate social circle and work, can you think of any other format where you’ll happily spend maybe a couple of hours a week listening to the same people that you don’t know – and what’s more keep coming back for more?

It’s fascinating to watch just how much power some of these very successful podcasts have – for the most part, power that is concentrated in the hands of the individual(s) who present and choose the content. It’s been responsible for something that’s been particularly interesting, the rise of movements as the Intellectual Dark Web, for example. Who honestly knew that the thing that was missing from the lives of millions of people around the world was in-depth lengthy discussions on the nature of politics, personal choice and science?

It really doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with their views. Because the reality is that their impact across the wider global populace is growing and – crucially – none of it is reliant on membership of a wider organisation that is vetting and homogenising the conversations that are taking place.

I’m calling it now – you’ll see a future President of the US come from a podcasting background in the relatively near future……

Content discovery still remains challenging for podcast listeners, mind you. The sheer quantity of data and variation in topics discussed in hour-long conversations make it a far, far tougher gig for an algorithm to successfully recommend podcasts that you’ll like based on your previous listens (although progress is starting to be made – for example Pandora’s attempt to map the podcast genome for precisely this purpose).

This year, I’ve been a guest on a few podcasts. Whilst some of the interviewers are far better to deal with than others, overall I can say that they’re pretty good fun. And there’s one thought that I keep coming back to ever since I read it on Twitter a while back:-

I can’t help but think this is true. Maybe there are just so many variables at play for a presenter during a podcast, the only thing that he or she can really focus on coincidentally happens to be precisely the one thing that will be guaranteed to make the content better, regardless of who the guest is – i.e. making sure that the conversation is natural and flows well.

The art of conversation is ingrained in most of us from an early-ish age. And during a conversation you have a huge amount of real-time feedback with which to guide/improve/save any conversation before it’s over. That’s very different to writing a blog post where you’re forced to rely for feedback on analysing the metrics after the event.

The Podcast Hitlist

Oh, and if you’re wondering, here’s where I get my regular podcast fix (I’ve left out the ones that I dip in and out of infrequently in favour of the ones that I’ve listened to the most):-

Darwin Sacked Via Twitter

Following on from my earlier post about a couple of things to consider when hiring, this tweet by Paul Graham touches again on the employment relationship. Graham is the founder of Y Combinator but crucially the author of some of the best long-form essays you’ll find online about all manner of things.

Whilst our modern communication platforms have empowered us, they have also created a great deal of what I think of as brittleness. Should we choose to flick the power switch, each and every one of us today has access to a megaphone that can reach across the world for free. Yet if you make a statement that is out of the familiar or accepted and you can expect to be scythed down online. What’s more, you may be held accountable for your statement or belief for many years to come.

I’m a strong advocate of the school of strong opinions, weakly held. You should try to think hard enough to have beliefs that you stand up for – yet never be too fixated to refuse to change them in the face of contrary evidence. Beating down innovative, wacky or counter-intuitive thought seems to be a road that’s fraught with dangers for the rate of our collective progress as a species.

There’s a risk of some of our most wacky ideas as a culture being suppressed – not by regulation but by a digital mob attack arranged via social media.

Perhaps we need to hope that the next Darwin isn’t using social media today.

You Are Your Own Employer

A post that isn’t mine tonight – but a classic from almost a decade ago that if you haven’t yet read it, is well worth a few minutes of your time.

It’s by Seth Godin in 2010 called ‘The World’s Worst Boss’.  And yes – that’ll be you.

“Even if you’re not self-employed, your boss is you. You manage your career, your day, your responses. You manage how you sell your services and your education and the way you talk to yourself.

Odds are, you’re doing it poorly.

If you had a manager that talked to you the way you talked to you, you’d quit. If you had a boss that wasted as much of your time as you do, they’d fire her. If an organization developed its employees as poorly as you are developing yourself, it would soon go under.”

It reminds me of another quote from Charlie Munger, who once remarked:-

“Whenever you think that some situation or some person is ruining your life, it’s actually you who are ruining your life. It’s such a simple idea. Feeling like a victim is a perfectly disastrous way to go through life. If you just take the attitude that however bad it is in anyway, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can … I think that really works.”

So it’s all about taking responsibility really. Easy you’d have thought 😉