A Lost Opportunity

This is a lovely story.

‘Opportunity’ was the name of the rover that NASA landed on the surface of Mars back in 2004. It was designed to last just 90 Martian days and travel 1,000 metres.

Instead, it survived for almost 15 years and broke the record for the furthest distance travelled off-world (ie Earth) at over 28 miles.

This little overachiever did many things – not least of which was sending us confirmation that the history of Mars included time as a wet planet that was suitable for habitation.

So it’s not surprising that the folk responsible for coaxing that little rover across the darkness for many years felt a tug at the heartstrings when it – finally – gave up the ghost following a particularly heavy Martian sandstorm last year.

The last signal was received on June 10th 2018. All subsequent attempts to communicate failed – and NASA have finally now pulled the plug.

It’s not hard to imagine that if we get this all wrong – the overpopulation, the nuclear game theory, the global warming – we’ll end up sealing our own fate here on Earth. And many years down the line, some other civilisation will stumble across one of our furthest explorers and be struck with exactly that same sense of wonder in considering what became of us as we hold today about that hot red planet.

The Romance of Valentine’s Day

Rather than crafting a beguiling paean to love on Valentine’s Day today, I thought I’d share a couple of much more interesting facts for all you non-romantic types out there. Both newsworthy events happened somewhat bizarrely on exactly the same day back in 1929.

The Valentine’s Day Massacre

Yeah, about as far from red roses and heartfelt chocolate sentiments as you can imagine. In 1929, the final big gang battle took place in Chicago between the forces of crime bosses Al Capone and Bugs Moran.

Capone’s team tricked Bugs’ crew into taking part in a bootleg whisky deal. Dressed up as policemen, they tricked them into lining up against a wall without weapons – before gunning all seven down in cold blood. Bugs himself only escaped when he saw the police uniforms entering the garage in front of him and scarpered before it all kicked off.

It was the last big confrontation between the two gangs and shocked the public who started to question whether banning whisky was more important than overturning the Prohibition that gave criminals such as Capone the power to build little empires in the first place….

Sir Alexander Fleming Discovers Penicillin

But whilst the headlines were being written in Chicago, a far more quiet revolution was starting in the UK. On 14th February 1929, Scottish bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming made one of the greatest discoveries of the modern medical age when he discovered penicillin.

It’s hard to overstate just how significant this discovery was. It heralded the dawn of a new antibiotic age. Before then, anyone could end up with a fatal infection from a simple cut or scratch. And all because Fleming returned from holiday to find a blob of mould growing on one of his petri dishes which seemed to have stopped the growth of the bacteria. It’s impossible to estimate just how many lives have been saved so far by penicillin. But that number can only be described as one thing: humungous…. (technical term)

So for all you non-romantic types, resolutely resisting any tugs on your heart strings by your loved one this evening, I hope that’s cheered you up. After all, this is a day that gets its title from the beheading of St. Valentine in 278 A.D. He was a priest in Rome who defied Emperor Claudius’ ban on all marriages and engagements since it was believed that they were making men far too attached to their wives and reluctant to join the army. Valentine was all too happy to perform marriages for young lovers in secret….until the Emperor found out and order him to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded.

Ah, the romance.

Bitcoin Sent Across Borders Using Radio

This is pretty amazing – a Bitcoin transaction that didn’t need the internet or satellite.

To translate, the sender used a free protocol for shortwave communications called JS8Call shortwave radio to send bitcoin. That protocol lets you connect a shortwave radio to a computer in order to send and receive shortwave-transmitted text messages between JS8Call users – with no special licence required.

You can see the transaction where the recipient took the money here if you’re interested. The sender sent the recipient his private key and the recipient used this to transfer the funds to his wallet. As an alternative, he could have prepared a signed transaction to send to the recipient who could then have broadcast that to the blockchain.

This image shows the data from the sender’s shortwave radio. These radios hear static (electromagnetic noise) continuously. The picture shows when there’s an interruption in that background noise caused by a recognisable signal – which in this case was the signal that the private key had been received.

So, why’s sending Bitcoin via radio so cool?

It’s already been sent via mesh networks and satellites. And it was only a brain wallet that was used in this proof of concept (i.e. where you just remember a seed phrase in your head – not the most secure but great if you’re running from a collapsing country or economy).

In short, it’s worth taking notice of because it’s yet another string to Bitcoin’s bow when it comes to its original superpower – censorship-resistance.

Technology, Behaviour Control & The Removal of Freedom

You’ve probably heard of B.F.Skinner. He was an American who made some important discoveries in the 1930’s as he developed operant conditioning: in other words, how to change people’s behaviour with either reinforcement or punishment. If you haven’t heard of the man, you might still have heard of the Skinner Box (which, contrary to urban legend, he apparently didn’t place his daughter into after all…).

In many ways, those ideas and his body of work represented the spiritual forebears of today’s digital world. Particularly for the two billion Facebook users and countless Amazon customers whose daily interactions online are guided in unseen ways by the platforms they rely on for ‘entertainment’…

That superpower could be used for good (as with Number 10’s Behavioural Insights Team). Yet these vast commercial digital behemoths are financially incentivised to remain laser-focused on continually improving their ability to accurately predict your behaviour in real-time throughout each day. Because doing this enables them to serve you more profitable advertising – whilst a more positive use of the technology is left in the wake of the relentless drive towards profit.

Looking back at history, this perhaps isn’t as new a problem as it seems. Over 45 years ago, there was public outrage in the US when behaviour modification techniques, first practiced in military and government-funded institutions were applied to captive individuals who fell outside their original scope (prisoners, pyschiatric wards, classrooms and the like). Check out this quote from a report of the time referred to in Shosanna Zuboff’s latest book – it’s taken from a federal investigation into the issue (‘Individual Rights and the Federal Role in Behaviour Modification):-

“When the founding fathers established our constitutional system of government. they based it on their fundamental belief in the sanctity of the individual….They understood that self-determination is the source of individuality, and individuality is the mainstay of freedom….

“Recently, however, technology has begun to develop new methods of behaviour control capable of altering not just an individual’s actions but his very personality and manner of thinking…the behavioural technology being developed in the United States today touches upon the most basic sources of individuality and the very core of personal freedom… the most serious threat… is the power this technology gives one man to impose his views and values on another….

“Concepts of freedom, privacy and self-determination inherently conflict with programs designed to control not just physical freedom, but the source of free thoughts as well… The question becomes even more acute when these programs are conducted, as they are today, in the absence of strict controls. As disturbing as behaviour modification may be on a theoretical level, the unchecked growth of the practical technology of behaviour control is cause for even greater concern”.

The idea that such vast power could ever be in the hands of anyone other than the state was beyond comprehension at that time – let alone in the hands of such unregulated superpowers as Facebook. The impact of the surveillance capitalists is particularly scary in this context however – because the greater the extent to which others can prove to be able to manipulate and redirect your behaviour, the shakier the foundations of your freedom as an individual become.

The more these companies develop the power to control your life, the fewer options you have in practice to interact with the world that lies in front of you. This issue isn’t simply a worry about your phone being able to identify that you’ve just returned from a run and therefore likely full of positive endorphins and more likely to make an impulse purchase if the right advert is served to you in this context. It is that this desire – partially manifested today, but becoming increasingly fully established – of others to control the decisions in your day has the very tangible outcome of removing the freedom you have to define your own life.

Reason #2345 to consider #DeleteFacebook.

David Deutsch and Knowledge

Another day, another great podcast! This time, a TED Interview of David Deutsch by Chris Anderson (here’s the transcript, if you’re a reader rather than a listener).

I can’t pretend I understand everything he says by any means. I suspect he’s lost more brain cells throughout his life than I could ever aspire to grow in my own tiny skull-sized kingdom. But there are a couple of sections that I found particularly interesting.

The first is the difference between humans and, say, monkeys when it comes to imitation. Whereas an animal with the intelligence of, say, a monkey will imitate a human that unlocks a safe, it will copy the behaviour exactly. So if a man opens the safe with his toes, the monkey won’t think to attempt to open the safe with his fingers, for example.

The second is a point that I’ve heard a few times before but this time stuck in my head. The history of human civilisation shows that a couple of times previously humanity appeared to reach a tipping point of educated curiosity – in the sense that knowledge continued to survive for more than a couple of generation – before it somehow all collapsed.

In other words, it’s important not to forget that all collective knowledge has a certain fragility to it. Think of how advanced Ancient Athens was for example. Or the Roman Empire which, following its collapse resulted in the democratic, economic and cultural deterioration in Western Europe more popularly known as The Dark Ages.

Perhaps we’ve somehow passed that tipping point today? But it’s also very possible that we haven’t. A somewhat sobering thought…

There’s also a great piece on the podcast on The Fermi Paradox (or the Fermi Problem as Deutsch calls it as he says he can see no paradox there), one of my favourite puzzles. In other words, if there is indeed other forms of intelligent life out there in the universe, then where are they all? Because there is almost a zero chance of any civilisation having been created at exactly the same time as ours so, in intergalactic terms, the fact that one civilisation would be so far advanced (taking into account the exponential development that will likely take place with the accumulation of knowledge and technology) that, if they wanted to settle the whole galaxy, it would have been done already in the blink of an eye (in the timescale of the universe). So they must be millions of years ahead of us. But if that’s the case, where are they?

One explanation of course is that we’re the first civilisation to reach this state of advancement in the universe. Again, not entirely comforting when you think about what the chances are of the first one actually making it through further time to thrive successfully. Plus we reject this kind of explanation as it’s, well, kind of boring.

I’ll park that topic there as I’ve been meaning to write a proper post on it for a while. Plus I’ve also just bought a book to dig into the many different theories on the topic (‘If The Universe Is Teeming With Aliens, Where Is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to Fermi’s Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life’ by Stephen Webb).

But in summary: it’s our job to consistently seek to gain knowledge. If things go wrong, it’s down to the fact that we simply haven’t understood what’s going on – and therefore it’s incumbent on us to ensure that we work out why.

Lucky Entrepreneurs

Some very wise words on a Sunday evening from the Marc Andreessen blog archive:

Luck is something that every successful entrepreneur will tell you plays a huge role in the difference between success and failure. Many of those successful entrepreneurs will only admit this under duress, though, because if luck does indeed play such a huge role, then that seriously dents the image of the successful entrepreneur as an omniscient business genius.

However, it’s not as passive as it may sound. Yes, there’s blind luck where good things happen entirely out of the blue. But there’s also the far more exciting type – the luck that is more likely to occur to those who are consistently ‘busy’ (I guess that’s why that quote – “The harder I work, the luckier I get” – has such resonance).

And then? There’s also luck that appears in disguise – opportunity that only presents itself to those who have trained themselves to look out for the chance happenings that will benefit them. A great excuse for people to work hard at both training and focus on a speciality.

In other words, random luck; luck that rewards the curious who throw themselves about with enthusiasm; luck that helps those who’ve worked on their special abilities from learning and joining the dots; and luck that comes to those with ‘eccentric hobbies and personal lifestyles’ .

So, a few tips for a Sunday evening: be curious, energetic, look at how many different things fit together and don’t just follow the crowd but develop your own point of view.

And get lucky.

Seven Human Traits In Successful Society

I came across some interesting research from Oxford University that argues that everyone everywhere shares seven basic human traits.

The research shows that across 60 cultures, we still have certain cornerstones of positive, collaborative behaviour that holds successful societies together. It’s an interesting point because there are so many ways in which modern society runs increasingly counter to those traditional, hierarchical structures.

In short, the universal rules are: help your family, help your group, return favours, be brave, defer to superiors, divide resources fairly and respect the property of others.

It seems to me that there’s a lot of resonance here with the sort of topics talked about by Dr Jordan Peterson. And whilst the world becomes increasingly secular and hierarchies get flattened, the need for structures in a society that used to rely predominantly on religions are becoming increasingly attractive to many.

As ever, a lot of this is no more than simple common sense. But it seems that sometimes common sense just ain’t so common after all.

100 Days In A Row

Today’s the 100th day I’ve blogged in a row. I’ve written on and off over the past seven years or so but only consistently written every single day for more than 100 days once before. You can check out most of them here, here and here.

Some have served as timeless lessons. Some have helped me learn more about things I already knew a lot about. Some have been rushed. A couple have been about running. Most of them have forced me to think, and some have even changed my mind.

There are two things that are self-evident to me after going through this process for a second time.

One: writing something every day means you don’t have time to write nicely or with any great consideration – and you have to be happy with whatever you produce.

Two: writing something every day means that, with no time for endless prevarication and tweaking, you’re forced to think about a specific subject every day and, on occasion, the habit produces something that you’d never get if you simply waited for ‘the muse’ to hit you.

I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up the ‘daily’ routine. But I can’t ever see myself stopping blogging overall. It’s just too useful.


Freedom: An Alarming Perspective

Thought from the day from the always thought-provoking Nassim Nicholas Taleb:

Two things to consider:

1/ Are you getting up and leaping out of bed, enthusiastic to get to work?

If not, is it lack of sleep (poor short-term planning) or because you have an uninteresting job (poor long-term planning).

2/ Or should people seek the discipline of a fixed wake up call to instil accountability and a sense of forward progress from the very moment the day starts (whether that comes in the form of the crazy-early Jocko workouts or the 5-second rule)?

I’ve been wearing an Oura ring for the last few weeks (I blame a combination of Matthew Walker and Peter Attia…). I’ll write about it properly in a few weeks but all I know is today is that it tends to give me a hard time every morning for not getting the sleep I need. A useful reminder. But as someone who both loves their job and needs an alarm clock, I’m still working out which way to interpret this tweet.

And I guess that’s the sign of a good tweet….

Malcious DNA Hacking

This might be a few months’ old but it’s a pretty crazy story:

So in other words, it’s now theoretically possible to encode malicious software into strands of human DNA that can then be used to take over a computer system.

It’s true what they say. Sci-Fi plots are really writing themselves these days…