Category: How stuff works (page 1 of 3)

Blockchains: not so ‘unhackable’ after all?

As I wrote earlier this month, blockchain technology is not about trust, it’s about distrust. So we shouldn’t be surprised in such an environment that bad actors thrive.

Reporting on a blockchain-based currency (‘cryptocurrency’) hack, MIT Technology Review comment:

We shouldn’t be surprised. Blockchains are particularly attractive to thieves because fraudulent transactions can’t be reversed as they often can be in the traditional financial system. Besides that, we’ve long known that just as blockchains have unique security features, they have unique vulnerabilities. Marketing slogans and headlines that called the technology “unhackable” were dead wrong.

The more complicated something is, the more you have to trust technological wizards to verify something is true, then the more problems you’re storing up:

But the more complex a blockchain system is, the more ways there are to make mistakes while setting it up. Earlier this month, the company in charge of Zcash—a cryptocurrency that uses extremely complicated math to let users transact in private—revealed that it had secretly fixed a “subtle cryptographic flaw” accidentally baked into the protocol. An attacker could have exploited it to make unlimited counterfeit Zcash. Fortunately, no one seems to have actually done that.

It’s bad enough when people lose money through these kinds of hacks, but when we start talking about programmable blockchains (so-called ‘smart contracts’) then we’re in a whole different territory.

smart contract is a computer program that runs on a blockchain network. It can be used to automate the movement of cryptocurrency according to prescribed rules and conditions. This has many potential uses, such as facilitating real legal contracts or complicated financial transactions. Another use—the case of interest here—is to create a voting mechanism by which all the investors in a venture capital fund can collectively decide how to allocate the money.

Human culture is dynamic and ever-changing, it’s not something we should be hard-coding. And it’s certainly not something we should be hard-coding based on the very narrow worldview of those who understand the intricacies of blockchain technology.

It’s particularly delicious that it’s the MIT Technology Review commenting on all of this, given that they’ve been the motive force behind Blockcerts, “the open standard for blockchain credentials” (that nobody actually needs).

Source: MIT Technology Review

Individual steps to tackle climate change

Tomorrow, pupils at some schools in the UK will walk out and join protests around climate change. There are none in my local area of which I’m aware, but it has got me thinking of how I talk to my own children about this.

The above infographic was created by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas and is featured in an article about the most effective steps you can take as an individual to tackle climate change.

While these are all important steps (I honestly didn’t know quite how bad transatlantic flights are!) it’s important to bear in mind that industry and big business should bear the brunt here. What they can do dwarfs what we can do individually.

Still, it all counts. And we should get on it. Time’s running out.

Source: phys.org

Implicit leverage

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution asks how well we understand the organisations we work with and for:

Most (not all) organizations have forms of leverage which are built in and which do not show up as debt on the balance sheet.  Banks may have off-balance sheet risk through derivatives, companies may sell off their valuable assets, and NBA teams may tank their ability to keep draft picks and free agents in their future.

In other words, every organisation has people, other organisations, or resources on which it is dependent. That can look like event organisers not alienating a sponsor, universities maintaining their brand overseas so they can continue to recruit lucrative overseas students, and organisations doing well because of a handful of individuals that win investors’ trust.

When it comes to politics, of course, ‘leverage’ is almost always something problematic. In fact, we usually use the phrase ‘in the pocket of’ instead to show our opprobrium when a politician has close financial ties to, say, a tobacco company or big business.

In other words, understanding how leverage works in everyday life, business, and politics is probably something we should be teaching in schools.

Source: Marginal Revolution


Image by Mike Cohen used under a Creative Commons License

A reminder of how little we understand the world

“The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” (William Lawrence Bragg)

Science is usually pointed to as a paradigm of cold, hard reason. But, as anyone who’s ever studied the philosophy of science will attest, scientific theories — just like all human theories — are theory-laden.

This humorous xkcd cartoon is a great reminder of that.

Source: xkcd

Designing calm products

As I mentioned on last week’s TIDE podcast, recorded live in the Lake District, this article from Amber Case about designing calm products is really useful:

Making a good product is an important responsibility, especially if the product is close enough to someone that it can be the difference between life and death. Even though the end result might by calm, designing a calm, human-centered product requires some anxiety and perfectionism from everyone on the team, not just the designer.

She’s designed a Calm Design quiz, gives a score card for your product. As the quiz applicable to every kind of product, not just apps, it has questions that you can skip over if they’re not relevant — e.g. whether the products has physical buttons with a blue screen.

It’s a clever way to package up design principles, I think. For example, without reading her book, and over and above regular accessibility guidelines, I learned that the following might be good for MoodleNet:

  • Stable interfaces
  • Grouping frequently used icons
  • Allowing users to prominently display favourite commands
  • Turning Notifications off by default (except the most important ones)
  • Plain-language privacy policy
  • Allow export of user data at any time
  • Include different notification types based on importance
  • Maintain some functionality even without internet connection

It’s a great approach, and it would be very interesting to score some of most favourite (and least favourite) products. For example, as I said to Dai during the podcast when we discussed this, my Volvo V60’s driver display would score pretty highly.

Source: Amber Case

Are tiny conferences and meetups better than big ones?

Over a decade ago, a few Scottish educators got together in a pub for a meetup. This spawned something that is still going to this day: the TeachMeet. I’ve been to a fair few in my time and, particularly in the early days, found them the perfect mix of camaraderie and professional learning.

Does the size of the event matter? I think it probably does. While you can absolutely learn a lot at much larger events that carefully curated such as MoodleMoots, there’s nothing like events of fewer than one hundred people getting together. If it’s less than fifty, even better.

I’ve been reminded of this thanks to a post on ‘tiny conferences’ that I found via Hacker News:

I find that I get so much more value and enjoyment from conferences with less than 30 people than I do from most of the 200+ attendee conferences I’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent, well-run, “real” business conferences with plenty value.

But if I compare and evaluate them based on this criteria: “Did I get what I wanted out of this trip?” … “Will my business benefit because I went?” … “Did I have fun and enjoy my time there?” … “Would I go again?”, then I choose Tiny Confs every time.

The author of the post gives eight pointers for running a successful ‘Tiny Conf’:

  1. Keep it ‘tiny’
  2. Make it application and invite-only
  3. Pick a fun location with an activity
  4. ‘Sessions’ not ‘talks’
  5. Plan everything in advance
  6. Manage the money
  7. Keep in touch before, during and after the trip
  8. You do you!

There’s some solid advice in there. It actually reminded me of the MountainMoot I went to earlier this year, which ticked all of these boxes. It was a great event, and one that I’ll remember for a long time!

At this time of political upheaval and social media burnout, it might be nice to even call this kind of thing a ‘retreat’? I’d certainly be attracted to go something like that.

Source: Brian Casel


Update: Thanks to Mags Amond who mentioned CongRegation which looks excellent!

How do people learn?

I was looking forward to digging into a new book from the US National Academies Press, which is freely downloadable in return for a (fake?) email address:

There are many reasons to be curious about the way people learn, and the past several decades have seen an explosion of research that has important implications for individual learning, schooling, workforce training, and policy.

In 2000, How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School: Expanded Edition was published and its influence has been wide and deep. The report summarized insights on the nature of learning in school-aged children; described principles for the design of effective learning environments; and provided examples of how that could be implemented in the classroom.

Since then, researchers have continued to investigate the nature of learning and have generated new findings related to the neurological processes involved in learning, individual and cultural variability related to learning, and educational technologies. In addition to expanding scientific understanding of the mechanisms of learning and how the brain adapts throughout the lifespan, there have been important discoveries about influences on learning, particularly sociocultural factors and the structure of learning environments.

How People Learn II: Learners, Contexts, and Cultures provides a much-needed update incorporating insights gained from this research over the past decade. The book expands on the foundation laid out in the 2000 report and takes an in-depth look at the constellation of influences that affect individual learning. How People Learn II will become an indispensable resource to understand learning throughout the lifespan for educators of students and adults.

Thankfully, Stephen Downes has created a slide-based overview of the key points for easier consumption!

How People Learn from Stephen Downes

It would have been great if he’d used different images rather than the same one on every slide, but it’s still helpful.
 
Source: National Academies / OLDaily

An incorrect approach to teaching History

My thanks to Amy Burvall for bringing to my attention this article about how we’re teaching History incorrectly. Its focus is on how ‘fact-checking’ is so different with the internet than it was beforehand. There’s a lot of similarities between what the interviewee, Sam Wineburg, has to say and what Mike Caulfield has been working on with Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers:

Fact-checkers know that in a digital medium, the web is a web. It’s not just a metaphor. You understand a particular node by its relationship in a web. So the smartest thing to do is to consult the web to understand any particular node. That is very different from reading Thucydides, where you look at internal criticism and consistency because there really isn’t a documentary record beyond Thucydides.

Source: Slate

Childhood amnesia

My kids will often ask me about what I was like at their age. It might be about how fast I swam a couple of length freestyle, it could be what music I was into, or when I went on a particular holiday I mentioned in passing. Of course, as I didn’t keep a diary as a child, these questions are almost impossible to answer. I simply can’t remember how old I was when certain things happened.

Over and above that, though, there’s some things that I’ve just completely forgotten. I only realise this when I see, hear, or perhaps smell something that reminds me of a thing that my conscious mind had chosen to leave behind. It’s particularly true of experiences from when we are very young. This phenomenon is known as ‘childhood amnesia’, as an article in Nautilus explains:

On average, people’s memories stretch no farther than age three and a half. Everything before then is a dark abyss. “This is a phenomenon of longstanding focus,” says Patricia Bauer of Emory University, a leading expert on memory development. “It demands our attention because it’s a paradox: Very young children show evidence of memory for events in their lives, yet as adults we have relatively few of these memories.”

In the last few years, scientists have finally started to unravel precisely what is happening in the brain around the time that we forsake recollection of our earliest years. “What we are adding to the story now is the biological basis,” says Paul Frankland, a neuroscientist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. This new science suggests that as a necessary part of the passage into adulthood, the brain must let go of much of our childhood.

Interestingly, our seven year-old daughter is on the cusp of this forgetting. She’s slowly forgetting things that she had no problem recalling even last year, and has to be prompted by photographs of the event or experience.

One experiment after another revealed that the memories of children 3 and younger do in fact persist, albeit with limitations. At 6 months of age, infants’ memories last for at least a day; at 9 months, for a month; by age 2, for a year. And in a landmark 1991 study, researchers discovered that four-and-a-half-year-olds could recall detailed memories from a trip to Disney World 18 months prior. Around age 6, however, children begin to forget many of these earliest memories. In a 2005 experiment by Bauer and her colleagues, five-and-a-half-year-olds remembered more than 80 percent of experiences they had at age 3, whereas seven-and-a-half-year-olds remembered less than 40 percent.

It’s fascinating, and also true of later experiences, although to a lesser extent. Our brains conceal some of our memories by rewiring our brain. This is all part of growing up.

This restructuring of memory circuits means that, while some of our childhood memories are truly gone, others persist in a scrambled, refracted way. Studies have shown that people can retrieve at least some childhood memories by responding to specific prompts—dredging up the earliest recollection associated with the word “milk,” for example—or by imagining a house, school, or specific location tied to a certain age and allowing the relevant memories to bubble up on their own.

So we shouldn’t worry too much about remembering childhood experiences in high-fidelity. After all, it’s important to be able to tell new stories to both ourselves and other people, casting prior experiences in a new light.

Source: Nautilus

On ‘instagrammability’

“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” (John M. Culkin)

I choose not to use or link to Facebook services, and that includes Instagram and WhatsApp. I do, however, recognise the huge power that Instagram has over some people’s lives which, of course, trickles down to businesses and those looking to “live the Instagram lifestyle”.

The design blog Dezeen picks up on a report from an Australian firm of architects, demonstrating that ‘Instagrammable moments’ are now part of their brief.

The Six Universal Truths of Influence

I’m all for user stories and creating personas but one case looks like grounds for divorce, Bob is seen as the servant of Michelle, who wants to be photographed doing things she’s seen others doing

One case study features Bob and Michelle, a couple with “very different ideas about what their holiday should look like.”

While Bob wants to surf, drink beer and spend quality time with Michelle, she wants to “be pampered and live the Instagram life of fresh coconuts and lounging by the pool.”

In response to this type of user, designers should focus on providing what Michelle wants, since “Bob’s main job this holiday is to take pictures of Michelle.”

“Michelle wants pictures of herself in the pool, of bright colours, and of fresh attractive food,” the report says. “You’ll also find her taking pictures of remarkable indoor and outdoor artwork like murals or inspirational signage.”

It’s easy to roll your eyes at this (and trust me, mine are almost rotating out of their sockets) but the historian in me finds this fascinating. I wonder if future generations will realise that architectural details were a result of photos been taken for a particular service?

Other designers taking users’ Instagram preferences into account include Coordination Asia, who recent project for restaurant chain Gaga in Shanghai has been optimised so design elements fit in a photo frame and maximise the potential for selfies.

Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger told Dezeen that he had noticed that the platform was influencing interior design.

Of course, architects and designers have to start somewhere and perhaps ‘instagrammability’ is a useful creative constraint.

“Hopefully it leads to a creative spark and things feeling different over time,” [Krieger] said. “I think a bad effect would be that same definition of instagrammability in every single space. But instead, if you can make it yours, it can add something to the building.”

Instagram was placed at number 66 in the latest Dezeen Hot List of the most newsworthy forces in world design.

Now that I’ve read this, I’ll be noticing this everywhere, no doubt.

Source: Dezeen