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Telegram cryptocurrency

I come across so many interesting links every day that I can only post a handful of them. Right now, and only a couple of months after starting this approach to Thought Shrapnel, I’ve got around 50 draft posts! This was one of them, from early January.

Telegram is great. I’ve been using it for the past couple of years with my wife, for the past year with my son and parents, and the past three months or so with Moodle. It’s an extremely useful platform, as it’s so quick to send messages. Reliable too, which my wife and I found Signal to struggle with sometimes.

The brothers behind Telegram made their billions from creating VKontakte (usually shortened to ‘VK’ and known as the ‘Russian Facebook’). They’ve announced that Telegram will raise millions of dollars through an ‘ICO’ or Initial Coin Offering. This uses similar terminology to an Initial Public Offering, or IPO, which comes through a company becoming publicly listed on a stock exchange. An ICO, on the other hand, is actually more like equity crowdfunding using cryptocurrency:

Encrypted messaging startup Telegram plans to launch its own blockchain platform and native cryptocurrency, powering payments on its chat app and beyond. According to multiple sources which have spoken to TechCrunch, the “Telegram Open Network” (TON) will be a new, ‘third generation’ blockchain with superior capabilities, after Bitcoin and, later, Ethereum paved the way.

It could lead to some quite exciting features:

With cryptocurrency powered payments inside Telegram, users could bypass remittance fees when sending funds across international borders, move sums of money privately thanks to the app’s encryption, deliver micropayments that would incur too high of credit card fees, and more. Telegram is already the de facto communication channel for the global cryptocurrency community, making a natural home to its own coin and Blockchain.

Whereas the major social networks kowtow to governmental demands around censorship, that doesn’t seem to be the gameplan for Telegram:

Moving to a decentralized blockchain platform could kill two birds with one stone for Telegram. As well as creating a full-blown cryptocurrency economy inside the app, it would also insulate it against the attacks and accusations of nation-states such as Iran, where it now accounts for 40% of Iran’s internet traffic but was temporarily blocked amongst nationwide protests against the government.

I don’t pretend to understand the white paper they’ve published, but:

The claim is that it will be capable of a vastly superior number of transactions, around 1 million per second. In other words, similar to the ambitions of the Polkadot project out of Berlin — but with an installed base of 180 million people. This makes it an ‘interchain’ with so-called ‘dynamic sharding’.

Exciting times. As I was explaining to someone recently, Telegram are taking a very interesting route into user adoption. They couldn’t go with the standard ‘social network’ approach as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter mean that market is effectively saturated. Instead, they started with a messaging app, and are building out from there.

Source: TechCrunch

"A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral." (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)

Platform censorship and the threat to democracy

TorrentFreak reports that Science Hub (commonly referred to as ‘Sci-Hub’) has had its account with Cloudflare terminated. Sci-Hub is sometimes known as ‘the Piratebay of Science’ as, in the words of Wikipedia, it “bypasses publisher paywalls by allowing access through educational institution proxies”:

Cloudflare’s actions are significant because the company previously protested a similar order. When the RIAA used the permanent injunction in the MP3Skull case to compel Cloudflare to disconnect the site, the CDN provider refused.

The RIAA argued that Cloudflare was operating “in active concert or participation” with the pirates. The CDN provider objected, but the court eventually ordered Cloudflare to take action, although it did not rule on the “active concert or participation” part.

In the Sci-Hub case “active concert or participation” is also a requirement for the injunction to apply. While it specifically mentions ISPs and search engines, ACS Director Glenn Ruskin previously stressed that companies won’t be targeted for simply linking users to Sci-Hub.

Cloudflare is a Content Delivery Network (CDN), and I use their service on my sites, to improve web performance and security. They are the subject of some controversy at the moment, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation note:

From Cloudflare’s headline-making takedown of the Daily Stormer last autumn to YouTube’s summer restrictions on LGBTQ content, there’s been a surge in “voluntary” platform censorship. Companies—under pressure from lawmakers, shareholders, and the public alike—have ramped up restrictions on speech, adding new rules, adjusting their still-hidden algorithms and hiring more staff to moderate content. They have banned ads from certain sources and removed “offensive” but legal content.

It’s a big deal, as intermediaries that are required for the optimisation in speed of large website succumb to political pressure.

Given this history, we’re worried about how platforms are responding to new pressures. Not because there’s a slippery slope from judicious moderation to active censorship — but because we are already far down that slope. Regulation of our expression, thought, and association has already been ceded to unaccountable executives and enforced by minimally-trained, overworked staff, and hidden algorithms. Doubling down on this approach will not make it better. And yet, no amount of evidence has convinced the powers that be at major platforms like Facebook—or in governments around the world. Instead many, especially in policy circles, continue to push for companies to—magically and at scale—perfectly differentiate between speech that should be protected and speech that should be erased.

We live in contentious times, which are setting the course for a digitally mediate future. For every positive development (such as GDPR), there’s stuff like this…

Sources: TorrentFreak / EFF

Decentralisation is the only way to wean people off capitalist social media

Everyone wants ‘decentralisation’ these days, whether it’s the way we make payments, or… well, pretty much anything that can be put on a blockchain.

But what does that actually mean in practice? What, as William James would say, is the ‘cash value’ of decentralisation? This article explores some of that:

Decentralization is a pretty vague buzzword. Vitalik considered its meaning a year ago. In my estimation, it can mean a couple of things:

  1. Abstract principle when analyzing general power structures of any kind: “Political decentralization” means spreading political power among differing entities. “Market decentralization” refers to outcomes being produced without being coordinated by a central authority. It’s a philosophical idea that can be interpreted broadly in a lot of different contexts.
  2. Bitcoin, mostly. Lots of credit for the buzzword’s current popularity traces back to cryptocurrencies and blockchains, and I think the term “decentralization” without context is rightfully claimed by the yescoiners and defer to Vitalik’s interpretation for its meaning. I call this “financial decentralization” in contexts where my definition is dominant.
  3. A second, specific implementation of (1) that I want to talk about.

The author goes on to discuss a specific problem around social networking that decentralisation can solve:

Fundamentally, the problem with the web ecosyste

m is that consumer choice is limited. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other tech giants “own” a large part of the social graph that both powers the core digital connection goodness and sustains the momentum that they will keep owning it, due to something called Metcalfe’s law. If you want to connect to people on the internet, you have to play by their rules.

So what can we do?

A “web decentralized” system looks like thus. You start with bare-bones replicas of social networking, publishing, microblogging, and chatting. You build a small social graph of your friends. This time, the data structures powering these applications live on your computer and are in a format you can easily grok and extend (Sorry, normies, it will be engineers-only for the next year or two).

[…]

The solution is technological standardization. Individuals, mostly engineers, need to expend a lot more effort contributing to the protocols and processes that drive inter-application communication. Your core Facebook identity — your username, your connections, your chat history — should be a universally standardized protocol with a Democracy-scale process for updating and extending it. Crucially, that process needs to be directed outside the direct control of tech companies, who are capitalistically bound to monopolize and direct control back to their domains.

It’s worth quoting the last paragraph:

Ultimately, decentralization is about shaping the the balance of power in digital domains. I for one would not like to wait around while the Tech overlords and Crusty regulators decide what happens with our digital lives. There’s no reason for us to keep listening to either of them. A handful of dedicated engineers, designers, a organizers could implement the alternative today. And that’s what web decentralization is all about.

Source: Clutch of the Dead Hand

Europe is being taken over by crayfish that can clone themselves

I was a teenager when Dolly the sheep was cloned. It made me wonder why evolution seemed to favour species producing offspring from two parents. Why don’t creatures just clone themselves?

Well, it turns out that a new species of crayfish is doing exactly that:

Before about 25 years ago, the species simply did not exist. A single drastic mutation in a single crayfish produced the marbled crayfish in an instant.

The mutation made it possible for the creature to clone itself, and now it has spread across much of Europe and gained a toehold on other continents. In Madagascar, where it arrived about 2007, it now numbers in the millions and threatens native crayfish.

It looks like the mutation may have occurred in a German aquarium, and owners just haven’t known what to do with them:

For nearly two decades, marbled crayfish have been multiplying like Tribbles on the legendary “Star Trek” episode. “People would start out with a single animal, and a year later they would have a couple hundred,” said Dr. Lyko.

Many owners apparently drove to nearby lakes and dumped their marmorkrebs. And it turned out that the marbled crayfish didn’t need to be pampered to thrive. Marmorkrebs established growing populations in the wild, sometimes walking hundreds of yards to reach new lakes and streams. Feral populations started turning up in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Croatia and Ukraine in Europe, and later in Japan and Madagascar.

They’re not likely to completely take over the earth, however. Having the same DNA, they have the same susceptibility to disease and changing environmental conditions:

There are a lot of clear advantages to being a clone. Marbled crayfish produce nothing but fertile offspring, allowing their populations to explode. “Asexuality is a fantastic short-term strategy,” said Dr. Tucker.

In the long term, however, there are benefits to sex. Sexually reproducing animals may be better at fighting off diseases, for example.

If a pathogen evolves a way to attack one clone, its strategy will succeed on every clone. Sexually reproducing species mix their genes together into new combinations, increasing their odds of developing a defense.

I’m not eating meat at the moment, but I am eating (shell)fish. So I’m imagining a sustainabile source of tasty, tasty crayfish…

Source: The New York Times

Alzheimer’s is a kind of ‘type 3’ diabetes

My Great Aunt, who we were close to, developed Alzheimer’s Disease towards the end of her life. This article claims that scientific evidence points to a link between the condition and diabetes:

A longitudinal study, published Thursday in the journal Diabetologia, followed 5,189 people over 10 years and found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar—whether or not their blood-sugar level technically made them diabetic. In other words, the higher the blood sugar, the faster the cognitive decline.

And the reason?

Schilling posits this happens because of the insulin-degrading enzyme, a product of insulin that breaks down both insulin and amyloid proteins in the brain—the same proteins that clump up and lead to Alzheimer’s disease. People who don’t have enough insulin, like those whose bodies’ ability to produce insulin has been tapped out by diabetes, aren’t going to make enough of this enzyme to break up those brain clumps. Meanwhile, in people who use insulin to treat their diabetes and end up with a surplus of insulin, most of this enzyme gets used up breaking that insulin down, leaving not enough enzyme to address those amyloid brain clumps.

Really interesting, and another reason to avoid sugar and heavily-processed foods.

Source: The Atlantic

Puertopia

Dudes make millions (or billions) of dollars via cryptocurrency. Hurricane hits Puerto Rico. They decide to build a new state.

They call what they are building Puertopia. But then someone told them, apparently in all seriousness, that it translates to “eternal boy playground” in Latin. So they are changing the name: They will call it Sol.

Oops.

Puerto Rico offers an unparalleled tax incentive: no federal personal income taxes, no capital gains tax and favorable business taxes — all without having to renounce your American citizenship. For now, the local government seems receptive toward the crypto utopians; the governor will speak at their blockchain summit conference, called Puerto Crypto, in March.

Of course it does. But look at what they’ve got planned:

Some are open to the new wave as a welcome infusion of investment and ideas.

“We’re open for crypto business,” said Erika Medina-Vecchini, the chief business development officer for the Department of Economic Development and Commerce, in an interview at her office. She said her office was starting an ad campaign aimed at the new crypto expat boom, with the tagline “Paradise Performs.”

Others worry about the island’s being used for an experiment and talk about “crypto colonialism.” At a house party in San Juan, Richard Lopez, 32, who runs a pizza restaurant, Estella, in the town of Arecibo, said: “I think it’s great. Lure them in with taxes, and they’ll spend money.”

Andria Satz, 33, who grew up in Old San Juan and works for the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico, disagreed.

“We’re the tax playground for the rich,” she said. “We’re the test case for anyone who wants to experiment. Outsiders get tax exemptions, and locals can’t get permits.”

Interesting times.

Source: The New York Times

"Decide whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying." (Amelia Earhart)

Creating media, not just consuming it

My wife and I are fans of Common Sense Media, and often use their film and TV reviews when deciding what to watch as a family. In their newsletter, they had a link to an article about strategies to help kids create media, rather than just consume it:

Kids actually love to express themselves, but sometimes they feel like they don’t have much of a voice. Encouraging your kid to be more of a maker might just be a matter of pointing to someone or something they admire and giving them the technology to make their vision come alive. No matter your kids’ ages and interests, there’s a method and medium to encourage creativity.

They link to apps for younger and older children, and break things down by what kind of kids you’ve got. It’s a cliché, but nevertheless true, that every child is different. My son, for example, has just given up playing the piano, but loves making electronic music:

Most kids love music right out of the womb, so transferring that love into creation isn’t hard when they’re little. Banging on pots and pans is a good place to start — but they can take that experience with them using apps that let them play around with sound. Little kids can start to learn about instruments and how sounds fit together into music. Whether they’re budding musicians or just appreciators, older kids can use tools to compose, stay motivated, and practice regularly. And when tweens and teens want to start laying down some tracks, they can record, edit, and share their stuff.

The post is chock-full of links, so there’s something for everyone. I’m delighted to be able to pair it with a recent image Amy shared in our Slack channel which lists the rules she has for her teenage daughter around screentime. I’d like to frame it for our house!

Source: Common Sense Media

Image: Amy Burvall (you can hire her)

GDPR, blockchain, and privacy

I’m taking an online course about the impending General Data Protection Regulatin (GDPR), which I’ve writing about on my personal blog. An article in WIRED talks about the potential it will have, along with technologies such as blockchain.

People have talked about everyone having ‘private data accounts’ which they then choose to hook up to service providers for years. GDPR might just force that to happen:

A new generation of apps and websites will arise that use private-data accounts instead of conventional user accounts. Internet applications in 2018 will attach themselves to these, gaining access to a smart data account rich with privately held contextual information such as stress levels (combining sleep patterns, for example, with how busy a user’s calendar is) or motivation to exercise comparing historical exercise patterns to infer about the day ahead). All of this will be possible without the burden on the app supplier of undue sensitive data liability or any violation of consumers’ personal rights.

As the article points out, when we know what’s going to happen with our data, we’re probably more likely to share it. For example, I’m much more likely to invest in voice-assisted technologies once GDPR hits in May:

Paradoxically, the internet will become more private at a moment when we individuals begin to exchange more data. We will then wield a collective economic power that could make 2018 the year we rebalance the digital economy.

This will have a huge effect on our everyday information landscape:

The more we share data on our terms, the more the internet will evolve to emulate the physical domain where private spaces, commercial spaces and community spaces can exist separately, but side by side. Indeed, private-data accounts may be the first step towards the internet as a civil society, paving the way for a governing system where digital citizens, in the form of their private micro-server data account, do not merely have to depend on legislation to champion their private rights, but also have the economic power to enforce them as well.

I have to say, the more I discover about the provisions of GDPR, the more excited and optimistic I am about the future.

Source: WIRED