Cryptocurrency Platform Cardano & Ada Coin

Disclosure: I own Ada. This is a condensed summary of what convinced me to start buying cryptocurrency, specifically Ada. I’m happy to share what I learned, but this is not investment advice. I don’t know you. I don’t know your situation. Cryptocurrencies are a speculative investment, and you could lose all your money. If that’s not something you can live with, then do something relatively safe, like invest in an index fund, a certificate of deposit at a major bank or U.S. Treasuries. Also, if you are making investment choices based solely on the suggestions of some random blog on WordPress, written by The Deity knows who, without engaging your own mind and taking responsibility for your own choices, then you deserve to lose all your money. Caveat emptor!

Cardano is an open source crypto platform that runs a decentralized public blockchain for the implementation of smart contracts. The native cryptocurrency, or coin, of Cardano is Ada. There are 45 billion Ada coins, something like 32 billion are in circulation at the moment. It is currently capable of 1,000 transactions per second, and with a future upgrade, it will be capable of millions, on the level of global payment systems like Visa. As a point of comparison, Ethereum and Bitcoin are both less than 20 transactions per second. It is also able to complete these transactions at a fraction of the cost of Ethereum and Bitcoin. But, the killer app for the Cardano platform is the Plutus integrated development environment (IDE) for smart contracts, which allows for programmers to write and “run end-to-end tests on their program without leaving the integrated development environment or deploying their [Haskell] code.”

All of these features will be available as of August 2021. Right now, the Plutus IDE is being tested for the August 2021 deployment. Once the new upgrades launch in August, there will also be a staking system that will allow holders of Ada coins to stake their coin in a pool that verifies the distributed ledger – a function that earns returns, a bit like interest or dividends. Cardano also has the capability of hosting other coins or minting new ones.

Right before Cardano launches, Ethereum will launch Eth2, which will move Ethereum to a proof of stake model like Cardano’s and introduce many of the same features. However, it won’t have is the integrated development environment Plutus. Ethereum also uses Solidity and Vyper programming languages to program their smart contracts. The criticism section from the Solidity Wikipedia page basically says that Solidity is a hot mess.

Compare Solidity to Cardona’s Haskell language, which is an industrial strength language used in cryptography algorithms, semiconducter design, and was used to formally verify an OS microkernel. As a functional language, it doesn’t have side effects. It has type-safe operators and type inference. Basically, it is powerful and has many features designed to cut down on bugs in the code.

Of course, Haskell has drawbacks. It’s hard to learn, and the universe of people that can code in it is relatively small to other programming languages. Depending on your use case, there are other problems as well. But, every choice implies trade-offs, and Haskell is a good language for the implementation of smart contracts.

If you wanted to implement smart contracts into your business workflows. The more money, the higher the stakes, the more likely you’ll be to want to make sure you are not going to have problems later. You’re going to choose the best option available, Cardano.

Ethereum will have more name recognition, as the second highest capitalized cryptocurrency. It’s smart programs will be easier to implement, and they’ll, more often than not, be good enough for a given purpose, probably one that isn’t mission critical.

The good news is that these two systems, and others that come down the pike like PolkaDot, will likely all work together and have different niches. To illustrate, Occum.fi announced a liquidity bridge between Ethereum and Cardano, designed to encourage fund transfer between the two systems, which suggests there could be a symbiotic relationship between them in the future?

Anyway, I think this is going to change the world. These are the two choices in smart contracts, at the moment. And, one has clear advantages.

The current price of Ada on Sunday night, April 11, 2021 was $1.28. You can buy Ada coin through Coinbase.com and most other cryptocurrency exchanges.

This is the video that sold me on Cardano, Plutus and Ada.

For a slightly longer discussion, see this recent Reddit thread.

Meritocracy, Intelligence & Education

“…we need to dismantle meritocracy.

DeBoer is skeptical of “equality of opportunity”. Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you’ll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent…

…One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it’s also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we’re finally left with what really determines your value as a human being – how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid’s achievements in math, science, etc, “and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, ‘This one, he is maybe not so smart.'” DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn’t have thought twice if she’d dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence – isn’t this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. 

-Scott Alexander, “Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
.” Astral Codex Ten. February 17, 2021.

There’s a lot going on in this review. I’d highlight that Fredrik’s DeBoer’s blog has an RSS feed, which you can add to your RSS reader. I’m looking forward to reading more of his commentary.

Open Question: Is education an unqualified good?

I recently had an online discussion with someone who, in broad strokes, seems to agree with the above position, i.e., if we only had enough education, we would solve much of society’s problems. I think this is a standard U.S. liberal stance, which positions educational attainment as the means for advancement into the middle class.

Education is the great lie of U.S. liberal politics. Lest you think I’m a conservative trying to own the libs, let me first talk about the great lie of U.S. conservative politics in order to draw parallels.

The great lie of U.S. conservative politics is that you can have a global war-fighting capability and small government. The U.S. conservative lie is easy to grasp. There’s obviously a tension between government size and the ability to fight any war, much less a capability that involves nearly a thousand foreign military bases and nearly a trillion dollars of military spending every year, more if we include the debt servicing for past wars.

But, how is education like war? Isn’t education an unqualified good? The similarity is that just as small government caps one’s ability to fight wars, there is a demand limit on education. Most education is vocational instruction. People go to school in order to get a credential that gives them a better chance of getting a job. The education is, in large part, a secondary effect to the real demand for better employment opportunities.

It’s also possible to juice this demand. For example, I know of one university, and I imagine it is a feature of most universities, where jobs that used to employ people straight out of high school now require a university degree. The university, by implementing this requirement, increases demand for its product. But, does being an administrative assistant in the university organization really require this level of training? Does one need a Bachelor’s degree in communication, business, English, etc. in order to answer the telephone, write a Word document or navigate an Excel spreadsheet? Aren’t these skills acquired in the high school curriculum these days (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?

And you can see this happening at a broader scale as university administration has become professionalized. Instead of professors running university business in addition to their teaching, professors teach and the university business has been outsourced to administrators.

And, it’s not just universities. The same phenomena is happening across industries. It’s true of every level of government. It’s true of most industries, but particularly those that are tied closely to government. Look through the top industries by GDP in the United States: healthcare, durable goods manufacturing, food & travel, retail, etc. Almost everywhere you look, advancement implies management.

So, people go to school to learn a vocation. You get in the door, and then, in order to advance, no matter what industry you are in, you need to get into management. Leaving us to wonder, what exactly is vocational education for? Further, how large is the real need for managers, as opposed to front-line workers?

If you think it through, it is obviously a con, no different in its contradictions than talking about small government and global war. Management, by definition, has to be small. So, no amount of education is going to improve the lot of people getting educated to qualify for those relatively few positions. The only way that education works is if there are paths of advancement that actually require an education and aren’t management.

For example, if Dragon Naturally Speaking has taken over all the transcriptionist jobs, if Level 5 artificial intelligence has taken over from the teamsters, if 3D printing technologies have reduced the number of people working at construction sites, if fast food can become a largely automated process, etc., what will become of those people doing those jobs?

The most likely outcome is that there will be a compression of people into low skill jobs, driving down wages for everyone. There will be some people that will move into positions of managing machines. Someone will have to check on the artificial intelligence drivers, to make sure the results are as intended and to intervene when it starts to become very Sorcerer’s apprentice. But, the net is less jobs for people and more jobs for machines.

And, this is where the education argument starts to look plausible. People can be trained and are needed to supervise and inspecting the work of machines. In some ways, we are already preparing for that world, where people in low skill jobs are treated as if they are machines. For example, see some of the discussion about the conditions in Amazon warehouses and how that is breathing new life into the labor movement.

But, in the end, there is limited demand for education. Most people go through the process of getting an education credential for the vocational dividends that pays. But, it is clear that the university model and the push for education doesn’t deliver on its promise. And, when people are sitting on a mountain of debt and cannot find work, are they going to sell the educational dream to their children?

Another detail worth consideration, did the COVID-19 pandemic finally show that the promise of MOOCs are not something that can be delivered using the university model and university price points? At the very least, the focus on education and how it is delivered needs to be completely rethought. And, as DeBoer points to a deeper problem, our society’s focus on intelligence and expanding it through education is a fundamentally flawed project, as bad as small government and global war-fighting.

Fascists in Need of a Punch

“Fascism: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

—Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “fascism,” accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fascism.

When I think of fascism, I think of uniforms and the threat of violence. Want to wear a Hawaiian shirt with tactical gear and carry a gun? Into wearing a white hood and burning a cross on someone’s yard you don’t like? You might be a fascist.

In the United States, there are fascist elements baked in. We have ideas that “America” is exceptional. After the Capitol riot of 2021, there was a great deal of talk about the Capitol building being “sacred”. Sacred can mean dedicated to a specific use. But, the more common use implies religion and a deity. What religion is the Capitol building dedicated to? The religion of America.

It is understood that America is white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. America might be a melting pot, but there’s no question what the dominate flavor should be, at least among the fascists.

Then, we have a system of government that has concentrated much of its power into the hands of the President, putting the “sacred” functions of government into the hands of one person. There are even ideas like the unitary executive theory that argue that the President has complete authority over executive functions.

Autocratic control by a dictatorial leader is a feature of the U.S. system. It only requires someone to use it that way with sufficient cooperation from the other branches of government to make it a reality. The 45th President demonstrates the point.

Once you have autocratic government, then severe economic and social regimentation and forcible suppression of the opposition is not far behind. Who is the opposition? It can be some specific group: Jews, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, aborigines, Germans, Arabs, Igbo, etc. Or it can be a group fabricated whole cloth, a catch-all term indicating an ideology or an imaginary distinction: Jacobians, anarchists, socialists, communists, terrorists, or antifa.

Every age has its opposition to the status quo, whether it’s anarchists organizing for an eight hour work day; the American Taliban, pushing for the return of a white, Christian orthodoxy; American revolutionaries and/or reformers fighting George III, Lincoln or Jim Crow; etc. All are dangerous to the established order. Whether you think the danger is good or not depends on your values. However, fascist values, with an authoritarian leader and a strong state subordinating the individual or individual states, are also American values. The United States has had its fair share of cult of personality leaders, and in some ways, great man (or woman) narratives tie into the individualist streak of our culture.

Labeling opposition as socialists or neonazis is standard in every kind of politics. It is a time-honored way of reducing nuance and creating The Other that can serve as a catalyst for cohesive action. The target of these labels largely doesn’t matter. They just have to be The Other and someone that opposes, or could oppose, the political project. Fascists do have a unique advantage that such thinking is built into their philosophy of authoritarian control and a national culture.

At the level of the nation, there is little an individual can do. You can only hope in institutions and in good people.

However, the process described above also happens in microcosm at the interpersonal and local levels. Local chapters of Proud Boys, booj and other fascist groups precede the appearance of those ideas on a national stage.

Look for the uniforms. It could be as simple as a color, an article of clothing, etc. Of course, these are also signs of tribalism. The key questions are whether these groups use violence and how.

Neo-nazis may have bad ideas. But, you cannot kill ideas, even bad ones. You can kill and arrest people, however. Sometimes, this is necessary, out of a sense of self-defense of the body politic.

Targeting people raise the stakes on violence. Generally, non-violent resistance raises the moral stakes. It reaches good people by creating opportunities to engage their conscious. But, again, there are individuals that do not respond to this approach. Some people aren’t in touch with their goodness or their conscious. Some people only understand the language of social censure and/or violence.

Violence is a dangerous tool. It is often self-perpetuating. But, it sometimes cannot be avoided. Some fascists, the violent ones trying to dominate a local space who don’t heed non-violent resistance, simply need to be punched. You need to speak to people in languages that they can understand, whether they be moral, violent or other.

Trauma & Transformation

Psychologists like to talk about trauma. If you have experienced X, then it must have been a traumatic experience. But, this is a function of the lens with which they view the world.

Our experience of the world tends to form a lens of interpretation. An emergency room physician — who, by definition, sees emergencies in their community — will think emergencies are normal. It will shape they way they view the world.

The same is true of every line of work. If you are a police officer, you will have developed a heightened sense of whether a situation matches a pattern where people are likely to be breaking the law. If you are an insurance claims adjuster, you will have seen a lot more outlier events and might view certain activities as more risky than others, when they might not be.

The same phenomena applies to psychologists and psychiatrists. They have seen people in their worst psychological condition, and they know to what depths we can all sink. But, the selection bias is such that the people that don’t need their help might be viewed as damaged people that just don’t know that they need their help. But, how often, in most circumstances in life, do we need help and not know it? This situation is unusual, not commonplace.

The problem is that trauma is just one story. We have the ability to overlay onto our experience a whole host of manufactured fictions. And while trauma may have a time and a place, I’d argue that trauma as a primary narrative should be reserved for experiences and situations which truly require assistance from a professional. Most situations don’t.

One person’s apocalypse is another’s day-to-day. If you need help, by all means, get it. There’s nothing wrong with getting it from psychologists or most any other place, if it benefits you. However, I’d argue that we are all much more resilient than we know, that trauma below most thresholds is the means through which we trigger the adaptation response and become stronger – mentally, physically, etc. – in response to our environment. This is not a negative nor should the focus be on the trauma, but in the adaptive response to it.

Of course, there’s taking it to the level of Neitzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” If you have had a limb cut off, it is unlikely you will become “stronger” in any meaningful sense of the term. But, on the other side, painful experiences do help to build psychic muscles. Doesn’t it make more sense to view most negative experiences as positive forces driving our development over the narrative of trauma?

Why Do We Talk to One Another?

Open Question: Why do we talk to one another?

“…To varying degrees, there is an uncrossable chasm between you and everybody you care about.

There are two ways you can interpret this. One is the depressing route: to believe that your friends are not really your friends and that you don’t really know them. That you will never really know anybody at all. Or you can take the more optimistic route: it’s not that you know your friends less than you thought you did, it’s that you know strangers more. You don’t need to have an established relationship to help someone. Even transient moments have meaning.

This second route is the one my colleagues and I take every time we pick up the phone. Conversations on a phone helpline are different from normal conversations in two ways: we make few assumptions about the caller or their background, and our goal is for the caller to reach a better emotional state than when the conversation started.”

-Natalia Dashan, “Working on a suicide helpline changed how I talk to everyone.” Psyche.co. November 9, 2020.

I find this quote interesting. For me, conversations are about ideas. I talk to people because I want people to know something, or I want to know something. However, I generally view people’s emotional states as their own problem. Managing our emotions is, arguably, one of the defining features that separate human beings from animals.

On the other hand, I recognize that my view is certainly the minority, if not an outlier. Most people’s conversations is primarily emotional in nature, where they are talking about their feelings and want other people to talk about theirs.

My experience is shaped by my relationships with people with Cluster B personality disorders. I have many posts on this topic, e.g., A Narcissist’s Prayer, Hoodoos, Toxic People, Psychic Vampires, Sucking Black Holes, The Unhappy & The Unlucky, etc. The common tactic of people that manipulate others is to get them to talk about themselves, and then, they use this information to their advantage.

In my view, trying to manipulate someone else’s emotional state, even if you are doing so with their benefit in mind, is still manipulation. In certain circumstances, such as when you are working on a suicide help line, this may be appropriate behavior. People are calling in crisis are because they need help. You are there to help them. So, these kinds of interactions are kind of built in.

However, I’m not as comfortable thinking about helping the people in my life this way. This is the kind of behavior that underlies the paternalism that most parents engage in with their children, that what they are doing is for their own good. However, it is often “their own good” from our perspective and not theirs, which can often not be their good but our own. How is this different from the behavior of a Cluster B personality? I’m not sure it is different.

Yet, on the other hand, creating environments where people can grow and be supported emotionally is something most of us want. Individually, we can increase our vocabulary that helps us describe, understand and experience our feelings, using tools such as The Feeling Wheel or the guidebook, “Staying With Feelings“. But, maybe one piece I’ve been missing is that this kind of development ultimately has to be processed through our relationship with others.

The rub, and the thing that is very much not clear to me, is how do you make sure that what you are doing is about getting to a better emotional state for everyone rather than getting a better emotional state for ourselves or manipulating other people’s emotions for some other ends. I find this question difficult, one where I have thought it is best to let people deal with their own emotions and try not to be involved with it. But, I’m thinking, in this moment, that this is naive. Every conversation has an emotional component, and we cannot pretend that we don’t have, at least, some responsibility for the kind of emotional environment we are creating, both for ourselves and others.

I don’t have any answers here. However, I do think these are good questions worth much deeper exploration.

The Extraordinary Intruding on the Ordinary

The only thing differentiating the extraordinary from the ordinary is frequency, quantity and volume. If you were a Sherpa climbing Mt. Everest every day, helping tourists get their one minute at the pinnacle. What would the value of summiting Everest be to you?

I remember reading Bernard Moitessier’s “The Long Way”, where he describes being in a Round the World Race for single handed yachts. This was a man who was leading the race, had all the difficult sections behind him, and instead of coming back through the Atlantic Ocean to Europe to claim his prize, he kept circling the globe in his vessel.

What kind of person decides to enter a race to sail a yacht, by themselves, around the world to show that it can be done? What kind of person, in the middle of this race, decides that the race is less important than the journey of the race, and then continues on for the experience and abandons the race?

It’s an extraordinary moment. But, in that moment, he was living in the ordinary, the repetitive existence of sailing in the open sea. The extrapordinary intruding on the ordinary, and vice versa.

Reflect on this long enough, and the inevitable conclusion, at least it seems to me, is that there is no difference. That extraordinary moments are no different from ordinary ones, the difference is the story that we end up telling to ourselves.

Ultimately, we can decide which story to tell. If you want your life to be extraordinary, then change your story to an extraordinary one. Everyone wants to believe that they are unique. That they matter. And they only have to decide which story to tell that highlights that narrative.

But, perhaps, therein lies an extraordinary opportunity. To identify with the ordinary, to continue on as not the first person to accomplish some feat, but in the commonplace repetition that makes up the bulk of our lives and that truly defines our experience.

Is being an astronaut more extraordinary than being a sailor of the high seas? The answer depends on the perspective of the person judging, usually from within the context of the historical moment. Two hundred years from now, assuming humanity doesn’t destroy itself in the interim, there will be far fewer sailors than astronauts. And, the opposite, two hundred years ago, the idea of an astronaut was largely unthinkable. Does this shift change the experience? Is one truly less or more extraordinary than the other?

Apocalypse is the Suburb of Utopia

The land of the possible has many paths, and we can know only one. Everything’s stochastic and impermanent. Our lives are packed with luggage, the vast majority of which would be best left at the side of the road.

Utopia is a place with kind and reasonable people using coalition-building, science and determination to solve their problems. How many of us can hope to live there? Grass so much greener than where we live, day-to-day.

But, even utopia rests on the cliff-edge and can easily change into apocalypse. Change some of the underlying structure. Change some of the personnel. Change the culture. And apocalypse will come like a fell wind pushing you from safety to calamity.

Life is subtle, glacial shifts that happen as we migrate from the youthful land of promise to one defined by limits: physical, of our historical moment, or of imagination. No one escapes transformation nor comes out alive.

Our destiny, in part, is to confront what we fear. Alone, insane, destitute and defeated. The catastrophe we think is going to happen has already happened, in our heart-mind. Truth is secondary to stories and opinion, a half-truth of unengaged labels, objectification and prejudices. A lack of common sense and gullibility are the red flags of alienation. The stink of fear and cries on the unsympathetic ear. But, these are also the tools of our survival.

But, even among the horror, beauty. Holding faith with the sun in a sunless place. Seeking perfection in the flawed. Loving the broken. It is our stories, our half-truths and deluded fictions that redeem the world.

Forgive me, dear friends. I was neither as strong, capable, or honorable as I wished. A mixed dish, contrary flavors, but I can be no more than myself. Why should I think you would be any different, even though I desperately wished it? Maybe if I wished enough, I could make it so, with the strength of my belief, smaller than a mustard seed.

The Impossibility of Comparative Consequences

A calculus of comparative consequences is impossible. Every effort to develop one is a process of rationalizing bias.

Consequentialism assumes, based on experience or thought experiments, that it can assess the consequences of a particular act. This position implies that one act causes consequences. These consequences can be evaluated, reduced to some kind of common metric, and then compared to other actions and their consequence to determine which action is best.

At the most broad philosophical level, consequentialism raises the problem of causality and induction. The problem of causality is one can never be certain that one event causes another. The problem of induction comes up when one makes assertions about circumstances where one has no experience by assuming that they are similar to circumstances where one does have experience, e.g., actual events are similar to counter-factual ones.

Therein lies sufficient grounds to reject consequentialism. One can never be certain consequences were caused by a particular act. Further, even if one wanted to pretend that one can draw a line between an act and a consequence, there is no way to be certain one is accounting for all relevant consequences.

Suppose it is possible that one can draw a line between an act and a consequence and that all morally relevant consequences can be accounted for. Consequentialism also claims that it can compare among the many different possible outcomes and determine which is “best” according to some criteria.

This assumes two things. One, it assumes that not only can one account for all relevant consequences in circumstances that actually occurred, but one can also do so in evaluating the consequences of actions that were not taken. This is the problem of induction, where one assumes that some possible course of action would happen with consequences similar to what one has experienced in the past.

Consequentialists defend against the problem of induction by saying that consequentialism is not intended as a guide for decision making but as a standard for evaluating consequences after the fact. Yet, the standard still requires making comparative judgments about acts that did not happen, which is as impossible to know as knowing all consequences in advance before acting. Making this distinction does not help them.

Pretend for a moment that even if one’s sense of consequences is not perfect, it is enough to draw useful moral distinctions. Now, suppose one has a billion US dollars, and one decides to invest it developing a space elevator. Based on consequentialist moral standards, which out of the infinite number of ways or combination of ways one could have spent that money is best? For example, it could have been used to provide clean water and food to people starving or suffering from food insecurity, eliminate disease through vaccination programs, train physicians, etc. Ultimately, any assertion of which way is best is based on a value judgment that comes before the consequences. If one thinks eliminating suffering right now is more important, then one is going to think an action aimed at addressing the here and now, such as alleviating hunger, is preferable to a space elevator even if, in the long run, the space elevator may have better consequences.

Consider the Trolley problem, where a trolley is out of control and going to kill five people and you only have the option to throw a switch which will turn the trolley down a track to kill one person. What is the “best” outcome? Aside from moral questions about the responsibilities of the actor and committing harm, how does one value the lives in this and other hypothetical scenarios? If these five people being saved are a criminal gang, then it seems difficult to argue that saving them would result in the most happiness for everyone. Or, perhaps the person being sacrificed is a once in a generation talent of some kind and the other five bring less happiness than this gifted person on one’s consequential scale. On the other hand, perhaps the criminal gang will eventually turn into good people that bring better net consequences than the person that was sacrificed. The only thing that is certain is that all lives do not have equal consequences, and it is impossible to tell what they are if some of those consequences remain in the future, and every action of current moral import will have future implications.

So, what is consequentialism really doing when it says it is evaluating consequences, when in fact it cannot? It is cherry picking moral options and which consequences are relevant. If one dictates the premises, one can dictate the conclusion. It’s a system for rationalizing bias. At base, consequentialism is a morality market with only one buyer determining the value (consequences) of different products (actions). And, like any market, there are externalities that are not factored into the price that are borne by society at large or are simply ignored. It’s a terrible basis for a morality.

The Rating Rabbit Hole

Note: This was written in August of 2015, before cafebedouin.org existed. I rediscovered it recently and thought the point is still a valid one and worth sharing.

tl;dr:  Algorithms have a bias toward the status quo and present a threat to our cultural production. (2,600 words)

Shortly after the start of the Afghanistan war, Osama Bin Laden fled the city of Kandahar. An Afghani family picking through the abandoned Bin Laden property found a collection of 1,500 mix tapes comprised of “songs, sermons and intimate conversations” he used for his brand of extremist propaganda. In places like Afghanistan, mix tapes are good vehicles for propaganda because they are not subject to censorship and can be easily duplicated. Cassette players are an important medium in places where there is a dearth of other entertainment. The local cassette shop owner that bought the Bin Laden tapes from the family was convinced by a CNN cameraman to keep the collection together, and the tapes eventually found their way to Flagg Miller, who is an expert in Arabic literature and culture from the University of California, Davis. He subsequently spent 10 years listening to the tapes and writing a book about them, entitled “The Audacious Ascetic“.

The idea that the cassette player could be a powerful modern medium for propaganda is intriguing. So, I went to GoodReads to mark “The Audacious Ascetic” as a book I’d like to read when it comes out. While doing that, I noticed that GoodReads already had one rating for the book, for one star. [Note: It currently has a rating of 2.57 out of 5, with 7 ratings in. The only written review gives it a 5.]

While it is possible that someone got a hold of a review copy, evaluated the book and found it to be worthy of a single star, it seems unlikely. Given the book is not going to be released for two more months, the rating was more likely given independently of the book’s merits and rated instead based on the initial impression of the book and how well it conformed to the worldview and the personal/cultural identity of the person rating it. This possibility made me wonder. I have come to rely on rating systems like GoodReads. What exactly is being rated? What larger implications do using these rating systems have to our society, our culture and to ourselves?

In our house, we often use a minimum of an All Critics >80% Tomatometer score from Rotten Tomatoes to determine whether we will watch a movie that we are unfamiliar with. I rationalize this approach with a variation of Linus’s Law, i.e., “Given a large enough audience and critic base, almost everything ratable will be characterized quickly and its quality will become obvious.”

In Rotten Tomatoes, there are different ratings for top critics, all critics and for the general audience. Consider the ratings for the top movies for last weekend (August 14-16, 2015):

Title Top Critics All Critics Audience
1. Straight Outta Compton 78% 89% 96%
2. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 95% 93% 91%
3. The Man From Uncle 47% 67% 80%
4. Fantastic Four 5% 8% 22%
5. The Gift 96% 93% 81%
6. Ant-Man 72% 79% 90%
7. Vacation 25% 28% 57%
8. Minions 29% 54% 53%
9. Ricki and the Flash 51% 62% 54%
10. Trainwreck 83% 86% 75%

Looking over this table, we might hypothesize that if “Top Critics” represent some approximation of an objective baseline, then maybe movies based on established franchises (e.g., Fantastic Four, Vacation, and The Man From Uncle) get an audience bump of at least +15%, when they are of average quality. On the other end, unsettling movies like The Gift seem to take at least a -15% hit, even if they are excellent because the content is either unfamiliar or challenging.

Further, the Audience rating is hiding an important detail. There aren’t just “Top Critics”; there is also a “Top Audience”. Frequent movie-goers, defined as people that go to a movie theaters at least once a month, make up only 11% of the U.S. population, but they account for over 50% of movie ticket sales. The average American, in contrast, watches less than four movies a year in the theater.

If there are ~520 films released in the United States every year and if we suppose frequent movie-goers average no more than one film per week, they are watching no more than 10% of the movies released in a given year. How do they decide what to watch, showing-to-showing? If someone needs to evaluate 40 new movies every month, then they are going to rely largely on reviews. Using a meta-review site like Rotten Tomatoes that aggregates reviews combined with reading or listening to a particular trusted critic or two is a sensible approach to choosing. However, this approach is overkill for someone watching only four films a year. The selection process for the general audience is largely driven by popularity, and known franchises are more popular.

What impact does this have on film production? Primarily, the blockbuster becomes most important. These films see ever-increasing budgets and their content focuses on spectacle, established franchises and storylines that can translate across multiple geographic markets and with the broadest audience appeal possible, even if the quality is mediocre. Second, films not targeted to a large general audience need a defined audience demographic and has to balance expenses against an anticipated return. In order to turn a profit, this often means looking at the tastes of frequent movie-goers and making films that appeal to them. It also means creating niche movies to pull in niche audiences.

A recent Vox article stated that Universal made more money this year than any movie studio ever. How did they do it? Consider the top 12 films they released thus far, in order of gross revenue: Jurassic World (re-boot), Furious 7 (seventh installment), Minions (spin-off from Despicable Me), Pitch Perfect 2 (sequel), Fifty Shades of Grey (best-selling book), Trainwreck (niche celebrity), Ted 2 (sequel), Straight Outta Compton (biopic), The Boy Next Store (niche celebrity), Unfriended (genre), Seventh Son (genre), and Blackhat (genre).

The top five films were existing franchises. Trainwreck probably got greenlighted according to whatever logic is behind the Saturday Night Live comic pipeline, and while Trainwreck is more original than most SNL derived films, the studio was banking on the popularity of Amy Schumer and the built in audience that watches her show. Straight Outta Compton could be Exhibit A for a film targeting a specific audience, but at the same time, exhibiting a lot of general crossover appeal. Want to take bets that Straight Outta Compton is going to provide a template for future biopic films? Jennifer Lopez isn’t really a bankable star, but maybe has enough of a fan base to push her over the line to more likely than not to be profitable. The remainder are conventional genre pictures with unsurprising poor performance at the box office.

Netflix provides another interesting example. They invest in a series like House of Cards in order to appeal to a wide audience and differentiate Netflix from other streaming services. Comedy specials are for a niche audience. Netflix has produced dozens. They are fairly inexpensive to produce, and there’s probably significant overlap between people that would go to comedy show and those regularly going to movie theaters.

The Universal and Netflix examples show that there is a content continuum that moves from expensive blockbusters with high returns to niches with a modest expense/profit profile to original concepts, genre films and art house gambles that often lose money. Unique films with a new or an alternative vision do not have predictable audience appeal, which means studios have to pay for multiple failures out of a few successes. If a studio has $100 million to invest, it’s clear from looking at Universal’s list what content pays. Comfortable and familiar content for predictable audiences means money. Capitalism works best when you have a consistent, reproducible product, and if you grow up on a diet of Twinkies, you’re going to prefer Twinkies.

But, what about the “long tail”, or the idea that given enough of these niches over time, there will be a diversity of content and voices? The problem with the “long tail” is there is rarely enough profit in it for any but a small minority to make a living making content for it. Imagine trying to find funding for the modern equivalent of a cult movie like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Will the argument be that over decades, streaming, merchandising and other sales will provide a sizable return? Or, will it be viewed as disposable content that will never find an audience, but maybe interest investors in the producer’s next project or lay the groundwork for a successful Kickstarter campaign?

Movie studios are corporations. Why would anyone believe that a corporation would want to invest in films with profitability measured in decades rather than films that make a profit in a few years? Try to name an example of that ever happening. Consequently, film studios are not good at developing alternative viewpoints or funding the creation of challenging works of art. The market value of “the alternative” is only realized when it becomes the mainstream or solidifies into a predictable, profitable niche. Easier to bet on “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” than the original “Clerks”.

While a few people like Kevin Smith (director of “Clerks”, “Chasing Amy” and “Dogma”) or Shane Carruth (director of “Primer” and “Upstream Color”, both movies I would highly recommend) show it is possible to achieve a level of success in the “long tail”, their films are often made outside the traditional studio systems, television networks or even emerging production and distribution channels. The “long tail” may largely be a process of creating a portfolio and carving out a niche audience that can be pitched to investors. Creating content for these audiences is perhaps easier in an era where films can be shot on a consumer grade “smart phone” and uploaded to YouTube. But, then, what happens when the “long tail” gets longer, and film production moves from a hundred films or even several hundred films a year to a market of millions? What does that look like? The book market might provide some insight.

In the United States, ~300,000 books are published every year. According to Pew Research, Americans read, on average, 5 books a year. Best seller lists indicate that the books with the most sales top out at around a million copies. What does a popular book look like compared to most of the others? According to BookScan numbers, Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices” was No. 20 on the Non-Fiction best seller list and it sold 260,814 units. How many books does the No. 10,000 spot sell?

One indication is that it is typical for self-publishers to print somewhere between 7,500-10,000 volumes for around $16,000. If you sell your book for $5, then you need to sell 3,200 books to cover production costs. If you sell it for $25, then it’s only 640. Most books, if they have an audience at all, will fit a small niche. In GoodReads, they have few ratings, often a 100 or less, and sales of a few thousand, at most. You don’t need to be an accountant to figure out that there’s not a lot of room to make a living writing books, and the people doing it seem to be doing it on the Kevin Smith and Shane Carruth model. They are funding the “long tail” with jobs, second mortgages and credit card debt.

Most writers are living in the tail, and the deeper into the tail you go, the question starts to be less about the quality of the work and more about whether the reader (and rater) is the intended audience. For example, there is no other source to learn about the Bin Laden tapes. The quality of professor Flagg Miller’s prose is largely irrelevant. As long as it meets a certain minimum standard, it’s going to be good enough. And once you get to that point, raters are making judgments on the work based on how well it conforms to their worldview or whether they find it interesting, rather than an objective evaluation of the work. How do you untangle the objective judgments about the work from subjective judgments about how well the rater conforms to the niche audience of the work, particularly in an environment where 300,000 new works are made every year, each with relatively small audiences?

One of the primitive ways we check our compatibility with a niche is through word-of-mouth and the development of genres, and sub-cultures. If I say something like: “György Pálfi’s ‘Free Fall’ is my Discordian film pick for 2014,” people that self-identify as Discordian will know that it’s probably going to get weird in a way they might like. To everyone else, it won’t mean anything. In the technology space, there is a similar thing going on with linked recommendations: “People who bought this book also bought X”. On the more sophisticated end, algorithms are creating taste profiles and making predictions based on pattern matching preferences, and this is where the problem with ratings really start down a troublesome path.

If Netflix is using algorithms to both make recommendations to you and also looking through datasets of your watching behavior to determine what is profitable to produce, then at some point, you have to start wondering when a feedback loop will come into play. For example, Netflix thinks I like movies featuring “Strong Female Leads” but is this my preference? Or, is this because I almost always watch movies with my wife? What happens when Netflix sees a broader pattern of interest in creating content with “Strong Female Leads” and produces “Grace And Frankie”? Now, whose interest is Netflix recommendations serving? Is it win/win or is there subtle interplay, where if something is produced based on a collective viewership dataset, then how can that not feed right back into the recommendation predictions I am receiving?

Then, there’s the dynamic I get into by looking at the predicted results and comparing them to how I felt about a particular film. I find myself trying to game my own ratings of Netflix titles, so it shows me more options of what I think I want to watch rather than more of what I actually do watch. I may have a thing for Gladiator or Clint Eastwood movies, but it doesn’t mean I want endless exercises on the genre. More to the point, how can I coax the algorithm to help me to find content that challenges me and develops my interests rather than recommending things that are great for the person I am today? I am not sure it can.

Rating systems are imperfect. Authors are paying for positive reviews on Amazon, which is understandable when you get your mind around the razor thin margins writers live on. There are examples of people clearly gaming the systems for fun, profit and in the pursuit of various agendas – such as our one star rater for “The Audacious Ascetic”. But, I think the thing that concerns me most as I think about the various rating sites I use is how much influence they have over what is created. In some sense, rating systems are a way of rating ourselves, and it changes both our cultural landscape and our very selves. It is tempting to see meta-ratings and reviews as a ticket to some strange Wonderland of “The Best” content, products or whatever. But, these ratings may serve as a chrysalis of stasis, trapping us in a cocoon of the generic, the popular, the profitable, and the established average with its +15% bump with a sprinkling of easily defined niches, celebrity vehicles and genre exercises. What, besides the “long tail”, will emerge from this environmental envelopment and this narrowing of our vision? What will it mean to the kind of people we will become? I don’t know, but on balance, I don’t think the path leads to more interesting, flourishing lives. Caveat evaluator.

Freedom & Limits: The ASUS C201 with libreboot and Parabola Linux

March 2020 Update: If you wish to use an ASUS C201 as a laptop computer and usability is an important consideration along with freedom, I now recommend PrawnOS. See my March 2021 update for discussion.

Unfree BIOS Software

Surfing the web one day, I came across a mention of libreboot, a free software replacement for BIOS firmware used to load and run operating systems that’s been around since December 12, 2013. For many years, the only system you could buy with a free BIOS that could run free software was the Lemote Yeelong. Prior to that, every system ran nonfree BIOS system to initialize the computer prior to starting the operating system.

Unfree Software Everywhere

Unfree BIOS software is not a unique problem. Most elements of a computer are run using software that’s secret. For instance, none of the modems that are responsible for cell phone network communications run on free software. No one knows exactly what that software does, except, perhaps, the people that created it.

Same is true of wifi. There are also only two wifi chips with free software drivers. The rest require blobs. Blobs are black boxes. You can know what goes in. You can know what comes out. But, you’re not entirely sure what happens in the middle.

Controller firmware, CPU microcode, graphic acceleration and many other elements of a modern computer system are almost always proprietary. Unfree software is the norm.

Free Software: Who Cares?

If it is a norm, why should anyone care about free software? People in the free software world often talk about free as in beer, i.e., it does not cost anything, opposed to free as in freedom, which enables people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.

One example is a car. All modern cars have a series of electronic systems that control every facet of the car’s operation. When those electronic control systems are proprietary, it can mean that owners of the car can be compelled to see an auto mechanic rather than repair the car themselves. Or worse, a manufacturer could decide to not share information with auto mechanics and establish a system where car owners would have to go to a dealer to get their car repaired.

Proprietary software puts the owner of the software’s copyright in control. Free software, at minimum, reliquishes the copyright and gives that control over to the user of the software or the hardware it powers. In some cases, it tries to exert control over the process, making it a requirement that improvements also have to be shared under the same conditions that the original software was shared.

Free software is fundamentally about empowering people. You might not care about the code running your car, but you likely do care if that code limits the supplier of repair services to a monopoly that charges significantly more than it would if it had competition.

Enter libreboot

Looking over the libreboot site, it is clear the BIOS problem persists. There are a handful of systems that can run libreboot. Most computer systems run a lot of proprietary software, e.g., BIOS, device drivers – such as wifi, controller firmware, CPU microcode, graphics acceleration hardware, etc. Under these conditions, is it even possible to run free software? If there is going to be compromises, what is an acceptable level? How much inconvenience will it entail?

Freedom always comes at a cost. In the modern world, the cost is often in convenience or capability. But, the reality is that we often have no idea what something costs us, as individuals or as a society. It’s not until we struggle with a different, perhaps even radical position, that the standard quo has a foil to make these costs visible.

I found such a foil while looking at the libreboot site and read this quote in the documentation for the only ARM laptop compatible with libreboot, the ASUS C201:

In practise, you can (if you do without the video/wifi blobs, and replace ChromeOS with a distribution that respects your freedom) be more free when using [an ASUS C201 than other libreboot systems that are Intel based].

What does “more free” mean? On the ASUS C201, the embedded controller firmware is free software, and there is no microcode. On ARM CPUs, the instruction set is implemented in circuitry, without microcode. If you choose not to use the wifi/video blobs, you can make the system about as free as is possible in the modern computing landscape.

Getting There From Here

It’s a bit of work to make the ASUS C201 run with free software. I bought one with faulty wifi from eBay for $52 dollars and a wifi dongle with a free Artheros chipset for $31 from Think Penguin. I then got the low end iFixit tool set to take apart the laptop for $25, removed the write protection screw, installed libreboot, installed Arch Linux on a SDCard I bought for $20 and then converted Arch Linux into Parabola by switching the depositories. For ~$130, there was a lot of educational value in the exercise, and the end result was a usable laptop that is my daily driver. Not bad. But before you go off and try it yourself, let me share some of the bad news.

All the instructions mentioned the possibility of making the computer unusable or damaging it while installing libreboot. In my case, I did manage to put a small crack in the top of the laptop in the course of prying it open. I ended up covering it with a sticker. Problem solved.

It is also possible to make a mistake flashing the firmware with libreboot and “bricking” the machine, which is always a possiblity when flashing firmware. It didn’t take the first time for me, but it didn’t seem to cause any problems either.

There are also other issues that can come up. For example, if you are not familiar with the command line and mounting usb or sdcards, you might not know that you need to use a set of commands like the following to transfer the libreboot files from a usb drive to the C201 in the first place, which the instructions assume you know how to do and don’t specify:

# cd /
# mkdir libreboot
# mount /dev/sdb1 /libreboot
# cp /libreboot/libreboot.img /

You can also make mistakes when installing the operating system, such as missing part of the long command to partition the table properly. Assuming you can get the whole thing to boot, then you have to set-up the Arch Linux distribution from scratch.

Arch Linux starts with a minimal distribution, and it is built around the idea of you create the distribution you want, with only the most up-to-date software. Prior to this experiment, I used primarily Debian. Arch Linux showed me was how many decisions Debian was making for me during the installation process. You could say that Debian is more focused on stability and ease of use.

July 2019, Update: After installing Arch, Parabola and Devuan on my ASUS C201 machine. I finally got the Debian-based distribution PrawnOS working from internal storage. At this point, this is the distribution I would recommend for this machine.

So, the initial process was reevaluating software. On Debian, Gnome is the default, but it will not run on an ASUS C201 because it doesn’t have the video acceleration required to run it well. I found myself trying a number of window managers and eventually settled on ratpoison, a tiled window manager, that would work well with the limitations that free software on the ASUS C201 required. Hot tip: “ctrl-t :” will bring a text box up in the corner, then you can type “quit”, without quotes to exit. It took me a bit to learn that detail.

The graphics limitations of the ASUS C201 tended to encourage the use of the command line, just as working with OpenBSD did. The command line is something every user of a UNIX derivative should know in some detail, including Macs.

Debian also does some of the basic set-up for you, such as creating users, installing base software like sudo, or getting wifi to work. Arch Linux largely doesn’t, although setting up wifi through wifi-menu was easy.

Then, there is switching your distribution from Arch, which allows some proprietary drivers, to Parabola, which doesn’t. This leads to additional issues, like an update of the machine made a fully-functional touchpad useless. Was it a software upgrade of X or a firmware upgrade to the touchpad driver? Probably the latter, but the end result is that I try to keep to the command line where using a mouse isn’t necessary.

Another thing cutting down on my use of graphics? Apparently, the icu package (International Components for Unicode) updates every 3 months, but it breaks iceweasel, the only free software graphical browser that will run javascript and render pages correctly. I’ve since learned how to downgrade packages from cached packages on the machine. However, in the process of learning, I cleared the cache. I ended up having to wait six weeks to get an unbroken graphic browser package. Part of the delay is because the dependencies in the browser are written for specific versions of icu, and so they break every time it is updated. Part is because the ARM architecture doesn’t get the same kind of support as other architectures, because the number of people using it is much smaller.

The Point

So, what’s the point of this long litany of issues with making an ASUS C201 a free software machine? I think the main value is the exercise of rejecting the default option and choosing for ourselves. That’s what free software offers. You may not want the freedom, but sometimes just making an effort in that direction helps us to evolve into people that appreciate options beyond those that are offered by default.

In this case, the default is to use ChromeOS. It provides a safe, relatively secure computing environment where people can browse the web, read email, use networked Google software applications and such, and the price for the machine is minimal. However, there is a price to be paid in freedom. Convenience is offered in exchange for agreeing to become the commerical product of Google. For some people, this doesn’t bother them. They might even view it as a benefit. Since Google knows so much about them, the advertising driven by Google might help them to make better purchasing decisions.

Trying to swim against the default stream, whether it is the defaults of Google or a particular Linux distribution such as Debian, means a lot of work. It also means inconvenience, where hardware doesnt work like it should or graphical browsers remain broken for months. But, I would argue that taking the risk of bringing your computer, accepting a restraint like “free software only”, having to try new alternatives, etc., all leads to a mindset worth cultivating.

Even if you think concerns about free software is a kind of zealotry, there are kinds of knowledge that only a zealot can know because they are willing to accept limits others will not. There’s an education to be obtained in doing it. The only question is whether it is worth it to you.