Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Open Source Appliance (a 2002 retrospective)

Today the library of congress adopted exemptions (or here) that recognize consumer's rights to modify (jailbreak) their owned devices regardless that device's use of copyrighted software.  In recognition of this event, here is a document I wrote in 2002 on the subject.  Its pretty interesting to compare this to what actually happened.

The Open Source Appliance: A Manifesto

Rev 0.5 12/5/2002

The advent of inexpensive connectivity technologies1 has promised to drastically change the way home appliances operate. By communicating with a home computer, appliances will have the ability to provide a much richer user interface and a larger set of features then is available with the front panel buttons and the LCD display common in most appliances. By communicating with each other, appliances may be able to implement coordinated behaviors (inter-operate), creating a better, safer living environment. Interoperability will also allow appliances to use each other’s features, resulting in simpler and cheaper individual appliances, and provide [], creating features which are greater then provided by any individual appliance.
The ideal end result is a “unified” appliance that has no unnecessary or redundant parts, and is aware of its environment, providing greater flexibility and more features at a lower cost then appliances that do not inter-operate.


But lets be realistic: what will REALLY happen is that you’ll have appliances made by different companies and so will be almost entirely incompatible. For example, you may have an Acme (just a made-up company name) VCR and a Paragon phone system. Both of these systems will have a nifty Windows program (sorry, they only support windows2) that allows you to control the appliance. However, when you try to call from work to record a show you’ll realize that the Paragon phone software can’t talk to this version of the Acme VCR software. Or maybe the call won’t even be picked up because Windows has crashed (again!).
Although some systems will interconnect as advertised, especially if all of your home appliances are made by the same manufacturer, the sheer number of different home appliances and different manufacturers make it impossible to test all configurations, so many will not inter-operate. As an example of corporate ineffectiveness in ventures of this sort please examine your coffee table. How many remotes are sitting there? Unless you bought a special “universal” remote that was specifically created to communicate with many manufacturer’s devices, you probably have 3 or 4. And if you DID buy a “universal” remote, I think you’re already convinced…


The purpose of having appliance connectivity is to allow your devices to act in concert to implement coordinated behaviors or to allow devices to share resources. Through these behaviors, devices can provide enhanced features. For example, your stereo could mute when the phone rings (coordinated behaviors), and your answering machine could store its messages in your computer (resource sharing). Your answering machine would no longer need a cassette tape to record incoming messages, making it cheaper and more reliable. You could then view your messages through the computer’s display, and listen to them through the computer’s speakers (enhanced feature). In this way, connectivity improves quality of life and reduces appliance cost.
But how are a bunch of engineers (probably under great schedule pressure) going to implement the behavioral or resource sharing features that fit your lifestyle and your appliances? Although I am certain that a minimum functionality will be implemented, such as your basic connect-VCR-to-cable-box functionality, many features exist that would be great to have but do not fuel a marketing campaign. For example, I have an oven and a microwave with alarms that can’t be heard from everywhere in the house. So I would like them to beep (a different sound than ring!) my phones when the alarm goes off. And my phone could also “ding-dong” when the doorbell is rung.
I want to use my cordless phones as an intercom system. I want to use them to control what music is playing through my CD player (since the remote won’t reach far enough), either through a touchtone voice menu interface, or directly via the buttons on the phone. I want to put callers on “speaker phone”, causing music that happens to be playing to pause and the phone’s output be routed though my living room speakers. I want my answering machine to display the history of received calls on my PC and let me listen to the messages through my main speaker system. I want incoming calls to be answered by a machine before the phones actually ring, and callers be told to hit “1” for me, and “2” for my girlfriend, and then ring all phones with two different sounds… no scratch that – I don’t want the bedroom phone to ring at night.
I’m just warming up! And this is only what I think I want. I won’t really know until I use the system for a while. You almost certainly need other features. Perhaps you run a small business and want your PC to run an inexpensive touch tone help or ordering system attached to your incoming line, or individual cordless phones that can call each other for interoffice communications. Or maybe you want to automatically store your favorite TV shows on your computer’s hard drive and allow fast forwarding through the commercials, essentially turning your PC into a digital video recorder.


No company is going to fully inter-operate with all other companies.
No company is going to give you the features you need.
No company is going to act against their self-interest to solve your individual problem.

The software is developed and sold before it is USED. This is always the case, which is why the first versions of software are so notoriously poor. Companies will also develop the software for a fictitious “average” user, so it is often too simple for technically savvy users, and too complicated for “please just work when I plug it in” types. It frequently is not well tested against rival components. Arbitrary restrictions are imposed so that “professional” or “small business” versions can be sold at 10 times the home consumer price.

What can be done?

Why wait until the corporations have failed to bring us usefully inter-operating products? We must take the initiative and solve these problems now!

The solution is to create open source home appliances.

The idea that consumers can actually fix faulty products is not radical outside of the software industry. For example, consumers are responsible for the maintenance of their houses and cars, and a large “home improvement” and “automobile after market” industry exists to help consumers in this task. In fact, under pressure from congress, the [automobile association] recently released the diagnostic codes for cars’ internal computers so that individuals and independent repair shops can continue to fix all automotive problems (
It is possible to fix traditional home appliances (such as blenders). They often come with a parts list, so replacements can be ordered.
As with other products, the owner of a home appliance should have the right to fix or modify it. As software becomes central to the operation of an appliance (as in information or media appliances such as DVD players and phone systems), this right will be lost unless the appliance is based upon open source.
Open source is not a new idea. Significant open source projects currently exist. For example over half of all internet web sites are served by an open source program called Apache (see Apache itself is often run on an open source operating system (Linux). Also, the Netscape web browser is based on an open source project called “Mozilla” (see ). Furthermore, many embedded systems (basically the computer industry’s term for all non-personal computer devices that contain software, such as DVD players, cell phones, or portable mp3 players) are developed using open source development tools (gcc, gnu make, gdb, emacs, etc. see

A user would not need to purchase only open source home appliances to derive benefit from purchasing one open source appliance. A single open source product could communicate with other products, and code could be written to compensate for bugs or problems with the other product. For example, an open source phone system with an infrared light (IR) communicator accessory (essentially how the VCR’s remote control works) could be used to control a proprietary VCR. A consumer can then write a program to control the VCR through the phone system so that, for example, the consumer could literally telephone the VCR from work and tell it to record a show.

But I cannot program. How will Open Source help me fix a faulty appliance, add connectivity, or create a new feature?

An intrinsic part of Open Source projects is the existence of associated online communities. By “community,” I mean that users of the product communicate with each other about issues and problems with the product. A normal corporation’s product support site does not qualify as a “community” because all communications take place between individual users and the corporation. This makes it very difficult for users with similar problems to swap notes, especially since it is in the corporation’s interest not to report the number or severity of bugs in a product (lest it scare purchasers away). But in an open source user community, it is likely that you will find other users with the same problem, one of whom may be a programmer that can post a fix.
However, with open source, it is also possible to imagine groups of users hiring an independent programmer to implement special features or fix certain bugs. With a large enough user community, one could envision a market of programming consultants serving the user base. This has not previously occurred, perhaps because historically most users of Open Source products are programmers. However, a step has been taken in this direction – companies currently exist that provide support, add features, and fix bugs in Open Source projects. But instead of dealing with individual user groups on a bug-by-bug basis, they generally sell complete packages of the software (that contain all fixed bugs), and large, multi-user service contracts.
Over the long run, programming languages are becoming easier to use. Furthermore, the number of programmers is continually increasing, with the burgeoning computer industry. Ten years from now, adding a software feature to an open appliance may be a fun weekend project for the “software hobbyist,” just like wiring a surround speaker system or installing an after-market muffler is for the electronics and automotive hobbyist today.
Finally, mature open source programs generally have fewer bugs than their counterparts because more programmers become involved in fixing the bugs and more configurations can be tested. So you are less likely to have a problem in the first place.

Is an Open Source Appliance Company Possible?

While the purpose of this document is not to present a business case, this section is included to show that an open source appliance product is not incompatible with a profitable company.

The survivability of companies whose revenue or product line is significantly based upon open source software has been demonstrated by companies such as Wind River Systems, Cygnus, Red Hat, and many other Linux-based startups. As first stated by the Free Software Foundation’s “Free Software Definition” (, the “free” aspect of open software refers more to the concept of “freedom” and less to that of “price.” These companies have traditionally made money either by providing an essential adjunct to the open source software, selling well-packaged easy-install versions of the open source software, or by selling maintenance and support contracts.
The business case for open source appliances is even stronger due to the fact that the open source appliance software is essentially useless without a hardware and firmware platform to run it on. The customer must purchase the company’s hardware in order to run the software, thus ensuring revenue. Although competing companies could start producing compatible hardware to take advantage of the software (as happened to IBM corporation and the IBM PC computer architecture), or could port the software to their hardware, this is not necessarily bad. First of all, companies who restrict free enterprise in their product lines often fail. As an example, note that the other early PC architectures (Apple, Amiga, Commodore, Apple Macintosh), are either gone or have little market share. Secondly, note that other companies only copy successful products, implying that the open source company would have to be successful before attracting copycats. Finally, the original company by definition has market leadership, a position that is easier to keep than to gain.

Research, Development, and Marketing

It would require a large company to produce a line of home appliances from scratch, and a huge company to market and support them. A small startup would need to use a different strategy. One strategy that would shorten research and development would be to license the hardware platforms from an existing manufacturer. In fact, many consumer electronic devices are currently OEMed, so the only nonstandard part of an agreement would be the negotiation to “open” the programming interface for the hardware. Of course, this approach makes it much easier for a competing company to sell compatible hardware (they can also license it), potentially eroding the advantage proprietary hardware confers (as described in the previous section).
In terms of marketing, it would probably be best to start small and to create high quality versions of the core A/V appliances: a cordless phone network, infrared controller, CD/DVD player, digital video recorder, and A/V receiver could make up the initial products. Until the open source community starts submitting code, the software will not deliver the features, interoperability, and stability promised by open source. Therefore, it does not make sense to “launch” the product line to the general department store consumer right away. In fact, a web interface selling to programmers and audiophiles (with perhaps some PR in audiophile and programming magazines) would give the products the necessary “incubation” period, and give a company the low overhead and reasonably high margins required for low volume business. Many people are already having a lot of fun modifying their home appliances – a pastime that has become especially popular on DVD players due to the DVD region encoding fiasco (see these links for examples, This is an untapped customer base, requiring exactly the sort of niche product envisioned as a first release. When the software stabilizes and the feature set becomes greater than that of competitors’ appliances, a product “launch” could be undertaken.


In the near future, the computer shall be an intrinsic part of all devices. For open source to remain a viable and powerful concept, it must make the transition from the desktop into the world. Home appliance interoperability and intercommunication will enable this transition, both by allowing new software to be easily “downloaded” to the appliance, and by creating additional software complexity most easily solved by the open source methodology. The alternative cannot be repaired, has features that you don’t need, is missing those that you do, and is limited in interoperability by corporate feudalism. Let’s build a revolution!

1 The 900Mhz and 2.4Ghz radio bands (like wireless phones), power plug serial communications (like X11, IBM home director), Bluetooth, and the USB serial protocol (the next generation computer to peripheral connection)
2 The windows operation system is run on the vast majority of home computers because of its rich set of document processing applications, so it is unlikely that a company will support other operating systems. But there are reasons for consumers to use other operating systems, like greater reliability, higher performance, or less cost.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Orange PI Plus Ubuntu 14.04 FAQ

The OrangePI Plus is a RaspberryPI-like piece of hardware that has awesome features at a great price point.  I bought a few of them to create a small ARM cluster.  Unfortunately the software needs some help (as is expected for a $39 board), but the open source community is delivering what is needed.

I chose to use the Ubuntu 14.04 XFCE distribution on my board because I wanted something solid with long term support.  This is what I discovered in my efforts.  Perhaps this FAQ will save you some time.

Kernel and Distribution

Use kernels provided by loboris described here:

Source code is here:

The kernels and distros provided by Xulong (OrangePI mfg) are not well supported, have no cleanly documented build procedure, etc.

Changing the display resolution in Lubuntu

Testing your monitor's capability

Boot your OPI+.  Now run:
sudo fbset -xres [horizontal resolution] -yres [vertical resolution]

for example:
sudo fbset -xres 1920 -yres 1080

(default password is orangepi)

This won't really work.  It will resize the screen without resizing the desktop so your desktop will now appear on the upper left area of the screen and a black or repeated desktop will appear on the bottom and the right.  But it proves that your hardware is capable of the resolution.

Setting the screen resolution in OrangePI Lubuntu

Your flash card is separated into two partitions "/" and "BOOT".  Guess what, the BOOT partition is NOT mounted at /boot, but a copy of the files in BOOT are there.  It is actually located at /media/boot.  You can verify this by running "df"

If you put your flash card in a DIFFERENT computer, you should see 2 volumes, one is called "BOOT".  Click on that and you will see a bunch of files like:

Rename the resolution you want to "script.bin" and reboot.


Enabling the Ethernet 

If your wired ethernet is not working (does not initialize and no blinky lights on the jack), you probably forgot to use the OPI+ kernel.  As above, put your flash card in a DIFFERENT computer and look at the BOOT partition.  Copy the uImage.OPI-PLUS file to "uImage".  This is the name of the linux kernel in machines that use u-boot (ARM machines).

You also need the proper kernel to use many of the other OPI hardware features...


Adding GPIO, LED, I2C and SPI access

sudo modprobe gpio_sunxi

To control the LEDs:

RED OFF: /bin/echo 0 > /sys/class/gpio_sw/normal_led/data
RED ON: /bin/echo 1 > /sys/class/gpio_sw/normal_led/data
GREEN OFF: /bin/echo 0 > /sys/class/gpio_sw/standby_led/data
GREEN ON: /bin/echo 1 > /sys/class/gpio_sw/standby_led/data

Add "gpio_sunxi" to /etc/modules to get it to autoload on boot.

Adding IR Remote Controls

sudo modprobe sunxi_ir_rx

Add "sunxi_ir_rx" to /etc/modules to get it to autoload on boot.

Enabling the analog audio output

sudo alsamixer
hit F6 (select soundcard)
select 0 audiocodec
Move right to "Audio Lineout"
Hit "m" to turn it on (should show 00 in the above box)
Hit ESC to exit 

Switching between analog and HDMI audio output

In XFCE choose XFCE Menu -> Sound & Video -> PulseAudio Volume Controls.  Go to the configuration tab.  Disable the one you don't want and audio will pop to the other.

Adding a SATA Hard Drive

This describes how to add a hard drive as additional data, not how to boot from it (you can boot from the 8GB EMMS).  There's nothing special; this is standard linux stuff:

Plug it in using SATA cable.  Power up board.

mkfs.ext4 -b 4096 /dev/sda
mkdir /data
mount /dev/sda data

(verify by ls /data.  You should see lost+found.  Also run "df")

nano /etc/fstab
/dev/sda /data ext4 defaults 0 0

WIFI Command Line Configuration

sudo nmcli -a d wifi connect
(will ask which SSID, etc)

kswapd process using almost 100% of cpu

This is a bug in the kernel.  The easiest solution is to make some swap space:

sudo -i
dd if=/dev/zero of=/swap bs=1M count=1024
chmod 600 /swap
mkswap /swap
swapon /swap  
You can then tell the system not to use swap unless it absolutely must:

sysctl vm.swappiness=0
The number is a percentage from 0 to 100 indicating how much Linux should preemptively move RAM into swap.

Don't forget to add the swap to /etc/fstab so swap is enabled on boot:

/swap swap swap defaults 0 0


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Network Neutrality and Bitcoin

Allowing the internet to provide different services for different applications is a more efficient use of existing resources and will result in higher quality of experience for end users.  Unfortunately telephone/video/internet service to the home is often a monopoly or near monopoly and service providers have a proven history of taking advantage of this fact with inferior service and high prices.  So as a society we cannot trust a for-profit monopoly-granted organization to not take advantage of service differentiation to confer unfair advantages to incumbent or internal services. This is why network neutrality is important.

However, there is another solution.  It is now technologically possible to create an automated marketplace that allows applications running at the end user or in the web-application to purchase an end-to-end pathway with specific quality guarantees.  It would look like this when connected to cable networks (mobile, etc networks are very similar):

This marketplace needs to be available to any customer and be the only way to purchase service.  This creates a "level playing field" that fosters innovation.  Through this marketplace an internet startup has access to the same bandwidth as an incumbent or internal web service provider.  Services sold in the market can be tracked to ensure that it does not affect existing "baseline" contracts with customers.

The Bitcoin network is the only payment processor that can service this network due to its security model, pseudo-anonymous transactions, continuous micro-payment capabilities (payment channels), and irreversible transfers.  With Bitcoin "payment channels" customers can continually pay fractions of a penny (pay-as-you-go) which ensures that the the payment matches the service provided.  To protect the service provider, irreversible transfers are needed to eliminate chargebacks, fraud, and the overhead of collecting and storing the identity and payment information required with traditional trust-based payment networks.  Pseudo-anonymous transactions ensure the "level playing field" -- the market cannot offer a particular company a better deal if it does not know who is purchasing the service.

In short, it is not feasible to use traditional payment processors for this marketplace because of high fraud rates for digital goods, communication of identifying information (which could be used to offer cheaper service to favored customers), and inability to cost-efficiently handle continuous micro-payments. 

Introduction:  If you could trust your ISP, you would not want Network Neutrality

To understand this, you need to understand that there are multiple metrics used to measure network performance.  And services really do have different requirements.

This is called QOS or Quality of Service, and the 3 most common metrics are bandwidth, latency, and jitter.    Bandwidth is the one that you know -- its how many bytes you'll receive per second, on average.  Latency is if you send a message, how fast will you get a response?  Jitter is how much the time between packet arrival varies.

So if you are uploading or downloading all your photos from DropBox, all you care about is bandwidth.  If no bytes are transmitted for a few seconds, you don't care.  All you care about is when the interminable upload will be over!

If you are playing a twitch video game you care about latency -- you need to dodge that incoming RPG so you need the game to react to your keystroke as quickly as possible!  Its good to minimize jitter, but remember the game world is simulated on your system so it will not freeze.  However if you have ever seen other characters suddenly "pop" somewhere else, that is caused by a large packet gap (high jitter).

If you are watching a movie through a set-top box, you mostly care about jitter.  The set-top box does not have much memory; it can only hold a few seconds of the movie before playing it on the screen.  So you need a steady, unchanging stream of data or the movie will freeze and jerk.  Bandwidth is the second most important -- a higher bandwidth means clearer, HD video.  Latency is completely unimportant (within reason).  It does not matter if it takes the data packets .5ms or 1000ms to get to you -- the only difference is that the movie begins 1 second later.

From a consumer perspective, it does not make sense to pay for a connection that can simultaneously handle HD movies, massive uploads, and "twitch" video games 24 hours a day 7 days a week when you only use these services a few hours a day.

There is no technical barrier

Today it is technically possible to create custom QOS data flows into your home.  This is why your ISP does not need to fiddle with your cable box when you upgrade service and why when you don't pay your bill, nobody needs to drive by to shut off your service.  In the mid 2000s, I helped specify the cable network protocol that enables this (its called PCMM or Packet Cable MultiMedia) and worked at one of the first companies enabling PCMM services.  Today, similar protocols exist for mobile networks, and OpenFlow is an effort to create a unified protocol that will allow the creation of QOS flows across the entire network.  At the same time NFV (Network Function Virtualization) is an effort to move the source of the data closer to the consumer -- this ability could be part of the same marketplace.

But here is the problem

Network Service Providers* (NSP) have a monopoly on the data into your home.  Given the opportunity, they will behave no differently than any other for-profit company and abuse that monopoly to provide inferior service at high prices.

For example, when Fiber-to-the-Home entered my neighborhood, my current cable data provider offered to double my bandwidth for free.

And I have personal experience with how painful it is to deploy the simplest services into NSP networks.  In the mid 2000's I worked at a small cable-industry startup company.  We were demoing a program that sat in your system tray (where all the little icons are on the right) that looked like a speedometer.  But rather then just telling you the network speed, you could grab the needle and drag it higher to get more bandwidth to your home.  Pretty awesome right!  Surely there would be a market for this... but have you ever actually seen it?

The two key reasons for network neutrality are:

  1. Permission-less innovation:  The network service provider should not be placed in a position where it can offer or withhold bandwidth from a service, or negotiate differentiated pricing based on the service type or provider. If it is in this position it can influence or outright control what services run over its network.  In fact, by taking an active role in "allowing" a particular type of data on its network, it may find itself legally required (or scared by litigation) into acting as a "policeman" of this data.  Additionally, it may offer better pricing to incumbent or in-house services which will have a terrible effect on the technological innovation that has driven our economy for the last 15 years.  Netflix would not exist because it is stealing cable TV revenue...

The market described above solves this problem...

  2. Breaking currently negotiated contracts:  If I am paying for 10mb/s, I paid for 10mb/s TRAVERSING the entire ISP network.  The contract did not say "10mb/s only if nobody else is paying more at that moment", or "we'll send you 10mb/s if packets magically appear on our network, but we are limiting what Netflix can send to us so in reality you'll only get 1mb/s."

I believe that point 2 is not an issue long term.  Do "coach" airline seats cost more because first class reduce the total number of coach seats?  Does "bleacher" seating at the ball game cost more because of box seats?  In my experience the opposite is true; companies are able to offer reduced "basic" prices and expanded capacity due to their high margin offerings.   As network capacity increases to fill high-margin QOS demand, ISPs will be able to meet their baseline promises and have extra bandwidth left over.

The real problem today is that the lack of a marketplace for QOS on-demand has caused ISPs to "oversubscribe" their networks -- that is they have collectively promised much more bandwidth to all their customers than they actually can provide.  So this ISP contractual "promise" is actually more of a maximum, when customers actually want a promised minimum.  The existence of a QOS market aligns what the customer wants to buy (guaranteed minimum performance for a certain time) with what the ISP is selling.

* In this blog post I'm going to use the term "service" to mean any company that provides a web site or other internet accessible service (like video streaming, instant chat, etc).  And I'll use "network provider" instead of ISP (internet service provider) because my observations apply to every networking company in the route from the service provider to the customer, not just the ISP that the customer has signed up for.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Advanced Software Language Design Concepts

Minimal Specification

A minimally specified program is the idea of describing exactly what is needed to accomplish an algorithm and nothing else.  For example, extraneous statements are often added to software and include inefficiencies (conceptual mistakes), debug or logging.  These should be indicated as extraneous within the language.

As all of these statements are essentially commentary, let us propose "/:" to prefix in inessential line, "//" to prefix a traditional comment, and "/?" to prefix a documentation comment.  We'll prefix use "/*" rather than "/" to specify multi-line.

// Let's log now...
/: log(INFO,"This is a log message");

/*: log(INFO,"Contents of list");
for l in list.items()

But extra statements do not constitute the entirety of unnecessary information.  What about statement ordering?  Rather than specify unnecessary order, let's specify different syntax for lexical scoping rules that allow different ordering:
[] = any order
() = specific order
{} = only one of

So for example:

Point add(Point a, Point b)
    x = a.x+b.x;
    y = a.y+ b.y;
  return Point(x,y);

This is a very succinct way increase parallelism in software.  A clever compiler can use this information to reorder instructions for optimization, spawn threads or even start "micro-threads" (a short simultaneous execution on 2 processors of a multi-core machine which share the same stack before the moment of separation).

If the concept of minimal specification is applied throughout the language, there are quite a few other interesting language ideas that emerge.

Syntatic Specifications


Interfaces exist in one form or another in many programming languages.  However, the related type systems suffer from a lack of flexibility that causes them to be less than fully utilized.

Type specifications should be parametric.  That is, be able to specify multiple types simultaneously:

type Point({int, float, double} ElemType ) =
  ElemType x,
  ElemType y

(we don't need template <> notation, types are parametric)

You could quickly define a grouping of types (remember that {} means "one of"):

type Number  = {int, float, double}
 In cases where the constituent types do not implement the same interface (do not have the same member operators), the operators available to Number is the intersection of the operators available in its constituent types.

Aside: This is very different than the following 3-tuple:
type triple = (int, float, double)

Let's define a keyword: the "any" type means any type!

Let's specify the addition function, where the parameters can be heterogeneous Point types:
Point Add( Point a, Point b);

Let's specify the addition function where all objects must be the same fully-realized type:
ParamType Add( (ParamType = Point) a, ParamType b);

Interface Reductions

Languages today almost exclusively allow programmers to add to the existing symbol table.  The only notable exception is the use of public, private, and protected in C++ and other object-oriented languages.

However, these "canned" namespaces are based on program structure assumptions that miss the complexity of modern software development.  For example, an API may have multiple levels of interface, depending the application programmer's chosen power/complexity trade off.  The implementation of the API may have specific functions needed to interface with an optional component.  These functions and related member variables, could be removed during compilation if the other component is not part of the build, resulting in space and time efficiencies.  The implementation may have a debugging interface...

Instead, let us define interface groups and allow classes to include specific prototypes and interfaces into the group:

interface group API;
interface group GUI;
interface group data;

A module can choose what interface groups to present to other software layers.  It can combine pieces of other interface groups into an new group and present that.  This has the effect of reducing the namespace. 

Given an extremely flexible syntax parser, you should be able to specify most modern languages in a single language.

Semantic Specifications

Interfaces constitute syntatic specifications.  What about semantics?  A semantic specification defines how an object should behave.  Today we get away with concepts like "assert" and "unit test"; but there is no formal specification of semantics.  Without a formal specification engineers cannot write adhering implementations or formal proofs and compilers cannot apply logical reasoning for optimization.

  For example:

  semantic stack(any a) = assert(a == a.push(x).pop())

  semantic queue(any b) =
    any (x,y,first,second);
    a.push_back(x),     a.push_back(y),
    first = a.pop(),
    second = a.pop(),
    assert(x == first),
    assert(y == second)

An interface actually consists of both syntax (interface) and test (semantic) specifications:

type List(any T) =
  def add(T a) {...},
  def remove(T a) {...},
  def push(T a) {...},
  def T pop() {...},

  semantic(List a, assert(a == a.add(x).remove(x))),
  implements semantics stack;
  implements semantics queue;

Performance Specifications

Performance specification is an important part of the semantic specifications from a practical perspective, although it is (generally) not part of the minimal specification (so we'll use the /: prefix).

Why is performance specification important? A programmer is confronted with multiple implementations of an interface (say a List, or Map).  To pick the optimal implementation he must match the usage patterns in his code with the implementation that implements those member functions most efficiently.  To do so correctly, he needs classes and member functions to be annotated with performance specification.

type MyList(any T) =
   int length;
   def push(T a) {...}, //: O(p=1,m=1)
   def find(T a) {...}, //: O(p=length/2, m=1)
   def quickSort(T a) {...}, //: O(p=length*log(length), m=1)
   MyList(T) clone() {...}, //: O(p=length, m=length)

Note, given these performance specifications it may be possible for the profiler to feed back data into the compiler to recommend the best implementation.

Computer-Assisted Development

Integrated IDE

The language should not be defined solely in ASCII format.  Today's computers are fully capable of displaying binary data (pictures, music, etc) in human-consumable format inside the context of a traditional program editor and so languages should allow this data to be included.

var Image SplashImage = [[actual image here]]

Computer Annotated Source

Continuing the philosophy of minimal specification let us NOT specify the specific list required for this task.  Let us just specify that it must be an object with a list and GUI interface:

var (List, GUI) choices,

choices.push_back("last choice"),

The compiler can choose any object that provides both the List and GUI interfaces.  During profiling execution, the compiler keeps track of how often each API was called.  Although this is not the case in the above example, let us imagine that the push_back() function was called repeatedly in a performance sensitive area.

After execution, the system notices this and chooses an implementation of choices that optimizes the push and push_back functions based on the performance annotations that are part of each classes' definition (see above).  It annotates the source code to this effect, using the "inessential" marker "/" with the computer-can-change annotation "|":

var (List, GUI) choices,  //| instantiate DoublyLinkedList(string)

choices.push_back("last choice"),

If the programmer wants to override this choice or stop it from ever changing he can remove the computer-can-change annotation:

var (List, GUI) choices,  /: instantiate MyDoublyLinkedList(string)

Or of course, using the traditional method:
var MyDoublyLinkedList(string) choices;

Compiler Interpreter Equivalence

Thursday, July 17, 2014

My Network Neutrality Comment

I have been a telecommunications engineer for the past 20 years, building equipment for data, cable and wireless networks.

Network Neutrality is an absolutely critical component of the modern internet and the great innovation that we have seen in the last 20 years is due entirely to the ability of start-up companies to offer interesting services with no ability for carriers to throttle block or in any way discourage/encourage one service over another. 

Carriers themselves have benefited dramatically from Network Neutrality.  I have personal experience in how long it takes to deploy the simplest services into these networks, and it is literally years.  The existence of a fast/slow lane will rapidly cause the slow lane to degrade to the point where every usable service must go across the fast lane, with the permission of the carriers.  As soon as a carrier authorizes content into the fast lane, some question of legal responsibility over that content will soon follow, squelching innovation and teaching carriers about the law of unintended consequences.

In today's and tomorrow's broadband and fiber-to-the-home world, arguments about prioritization of real time traffic (like movies or audio) are specious.  There is plenty of bandwidth.

Please save the carriers from themselves and the public from a monopoly-driven "cablized" internet by declaring that Carriers cannot discriminate in ANY WAY in regards to traffic flowing over their network!

And finally, I PAID for 10mb/s.  It is not right for my ISP to only give me 5mb/s because netflix or amazon didn't bribe them enough.

  1. Should there be an outright ban on fast lanes? YES
  2. Should broadband access be classified as a Title II common carrier? YES
  3. Should the new Open Internet provisions also cover wireless (mobile) broadband? YES

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The global trade and reserve currency problem, Bitcoin, and why you should care

I am no economist but this is pretty clear to all who read about world events: the fact that the US dollar is currently used as a global medium of exchange brings both tangible and intangible benefits and responsibilities to the United States.  You can find endless discussion about this via a quick Google search.  However, just by looking at the debt of various economies, it should be clear to all involved that there is a non-trivial chance that the dollar's reign as the global medium of exchange will end in the next 5-10 years. 

You may debate whether the US has been a good steward of this trust, however that is not the purpose of this post.  Instead I would like you to consider what will replace it.  Most bets are on the Chinese Yuan, simply because since they export so much stuff they own a lot of gold and other nation's currencies.

As a member of a free nation, as a citizen (not a subject) protected by a bill of rights, I would be deeply worried if the currency of a nation without these concerns starts to be used as the global medium of exchange, conferring the power and influence that comes from being "first among equals" to that nation.  Since I have no direct experience with China I will let you make your own decision about whether China should be that nation.  Go ahead and start with the concept of "Leftover Women" here and then please search for "human rights violations".

Recently the central bank of China (PBOC) has significantly discouraged the use of Bitcoin within the country.  Anonymous reporters from inside China say that the main reaction to this has been mystification -- why would this organization that oversees the entire 10 trillion USD Chinese economy worry itself over an obscure technology with a total economic activity of a few billion bucks?

I think that the reason is because Bitcoin, and ONLY Bitcoin, is capable of becoming the next global reserve currency.  Why this is true is complex and cannot be fully discussed here.  I'd prefer that you trust me or your technologist friend about this.  However, in short, Bitcoin is like gold that can be sent electronically.  Nobody controls it, nobody decides how much can be printed.  There is no "central bank of bitcoin".  For these same reasons, gold is a great choice (in fact HAS BEEN the defacto international medium of exchange and is still used as a reserve) for an international currency except for one problem; it cannot be sent electronically.  It must be physically moved, which is slow, expensive and vulnerable to theft.  Bitcoin solves these problems.  It is the first engineered sound money; gold is natural sound money, national currencies are engineered but unsound.

Therefore if you can see ANY possibility, no matter how small, of the end of the petrodollar and the beginning of the petroyuan, if you are a woman or not a member of the Chinese ruling class, if you care about personal freedom, human rights or due process of law, I strongly urge you to give Bitcoin a try!  Buy some at a Bitcoin ATM and then pay your friend for your half of lunch in Bitcoin.  Buy some gyft cards, attempt to use them for ebay or etsy purchases by contacting the seller.  Search the web for merchants that accept bitcoin and buy your stuff there.  In this, think globally, act locally: sure its a cliche but in this case totally appropriate.  Your use of Bitcoin makes it stronger, and this nascent currency must get stronger if it is to be ready to challenge the Yuan as the defacto international trade and reserve currency.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Advanced Snowboard Turns: Carving, Cross-under, and Quad-point turns with a digression into the flats

I have briefly searched the web for snowboard turns and no-one really addresses the subject well so here is my take.  I am going to briefly review basic sliding, carving and cross-under turns to create a common basis but then move into concepts that I have never seen described.  For brevity, I am going to mostly discuss toe-side initiation but of course heel-side is similar but opposite.

Sliding (windshield wiper) Turns

Sliding turns are the first turn that you learn.  The easiest way to do it is to put your weight on your front foot and slide the back foot perpendicular to the axis of the board (push it "out", or pull it "in") and go on edge.  This makes the board "slide" or "skid" -- you are moving in one direction but the board is oriented in another.

99% of snowboarders do this even when they think they are carving. 

The problem with sliding turns is that:
  • you lose speed (this is an advantage too in steep slopes)
  • you can't ride rough terrain or "bad" snow because you hit the bumps or ice chunks broadside.
  • it isn't nearly as fun!
If you hear a scraping noise when you turn or a lot of snow is kicked up, you are doing a sliding turn.

Carving Turns

Carving turns are when you put the board on its edge and let the natural curvature of the board dictate the turn.  Your direction of motion and the board are aligned throughout the turn.

A good way to learn a carving turn is to go straight down a beginner slope (or runout) and put your board on its toeside edge, without trying to turn.  Don't lean much,  just try to ride straight on a steep toe side edge.  The board will turn on its own and you'll probably fall the first time :-).  You'll leave a sharp curved groove in the snow rather than a sliding mark.  YOU don't turn the board, you put it on edge and it turns itself; its a bit of a scary feeling at first but its ultimately awesome!  As you build up speed, you will need to lean so far over to counterbalance the turn that you can reach out and touch the slope toeside.  This makes toeside a lot easier -- you can use your arms if your balance is off but heelside is possible (if you are losing your edge carving heelside, bend your knees more).

The advantages carved turns is:
  • you do not lose speed.  Even if you aren't a speedy rider, this is important so you don't have to walk on run-outs and cat trails.
  • you hit rough, crusty snow head on.  This is very stable.  You can't slide turn crusty snow...
  • it looks and feels awesome!
  • You can control your speed by doing a partial slide, partial carve turn.

Cross-under Turns

Cross under turn are quick, linked carved turns.  Rather than physically moving your body to lean into the carve, you achieve the lean by moving the board to one side and then the other.  This allows you to turn quite quickly, and there is a fun "pop" feeling coming out of each turn.  It is important to master Cross-under turns in order to do moguls well...

Quad-point Turns

Quad-point turns allow you to turn maybe 3-4 times faster than cross-under turns (several turns per second), optimize your body position in other subtle but important ways, and execute extremely tight turns.  The board carves so fast and cleanly that there is a sensation of swimming down the slope.  Its almost like the turn is pushing you downslope.  Your feet are acting independently which makes them feel separate -- no longer connected to each other by the board.  More importantly, a quad-point initiation into a carved turn provides much greater control.

To introduce quad-point turns, let's talk a little theory.  In all prior turns you either went toe-side or heel-side.  But with your two feet there are actually 4 edges (points) that can be used, front-toe, front-heel, back-toe and back-heel.  Also, your front or back foot could be in neutral position (not on edge), giving you 6 basic positions.  By going front-toe and back-heel, you are putting a twist on the board.  The core of quad-point turns and quad-point riding is the understanding that you can use this twist to independently put different edges in contact with the slope to great effect.

To start a Quad-point turn, begin on your heel-side edge.  Now, go neutral on your front foot while holding the back-heel (edge) hard.  No longer gripping the snow, the front of the board will slip downslope while the back continues to track.  This will drive the board to turn downslope.  After initiating the turn, move your front foot from neutral to toe-side and your back foot to neutral.  This will cause your front edge to carve, pulling you through the turn.  Your back foot now goes toe-side to finish into a toe-side carve.  You've done a Quad-point turn!

As you can see, your feet edge independently which is the hallmark of a quad-point.

To link turns quickly, the neutral time is minimized into a smooth transition and you will never be fully toe or heel-side; your front foot needs to be initiating the next turn as your back foot completes the prior.

Besides awesomely fast linked turns, quad-point turning proactively drives the board during turn initiation and completion.  This results in faster turn initiation and a sharper, more stable and consistent turn.

Flats and Moguls

Have you ever been riding fast and flat (neutral position) on a run out only to catch the front edge and do a neck-breaking faceplant?  If you have, I'm sure you've heard the advice to lean back when riding flat (or to never ride flat, if you got bad advice :-)).  By thinking about riding using the quad-point theory, you can understand why leaning back works. 

First, understand the problem; you catch your toe edge if your board starts to slip very slightly toward the toe rather than going straight down-slope.  Eventually this motion digs a groove in the snow and you catch the edge.  But if you lean back, you will catch the back edge only,  this will knock your back foot back under your body, rotating the board.  This rotation corrects the slipping motion that caused you to catch the edge in the first place. 

You can actually use this to turn; its essentially a rear-foot initiated turn and can be very useful, especially in deep light powder where you need your weight a bit back to ride on top.   A neutral front foot and back-toe will catch the back front edge, causing the rear of the board to go underneath you, rotating the board and allowing you to go full-toe.  This happens quicker than weight transition to toeside (it moves the lighter board rather then your heaver body) so allows you to initiate turns quicker.


I am still learning to ride moguls quickly on a board like a skier does -- not like the snowboarders you see on YouTube.  I think that the basic problem is that a snowboarder has a harder time rotating the board compared to a skier and fast turns are essential for mogul riding.  The technique I use is quad-point and takes advantage of the rotational power generated by catching the leading edge of the rear of the snowboard, just like we used to straighten out on flats.

I'll describe it starting with the heel-to-toe transition.  As you approach the face of the upcoming mogul heel-side, position yourself on the slope so that the front of the board is going to miss the mogul face (its in the groove between moguls), and be neutral on the front foot, heel-side on the back.  As you hit the face, relax your back foot heel-side, keeping your weight somewhat forward and toeside. You will hit the mogul face and due to its angle, you'll hit it either flat or on the toe-edge, just like catching an edge on the flat.  However, you are expecting it and so be prepared because this will kick your rear foot HARD under your body rotating the board into a toeside turn.  Make SURE the front foot is neutral and outside the edge of the mogul. If you hit the mogul with both front and back toeside edges, or you weight is not far enough forward, you'll go flying :-).

Now you are toeside so you use that edge to line up your front foot so it will miss the hard face of the next mogul; your weight and upper body is already turning forward and twisting to look backside over your front shoulder, releasing the front foot toeside while holding hard to the back foot toeside.  When you hit the mogul face with the rear foot, it will catch the back foot heel side and kick the back of the board hard underneath you, rotating it heelside for your next turn.

If you are doing it properly, it will seem like the board is kicked left, then right, then left again with little active control on your part.  Your upper body won't move much depending on your flexibility, while your lower body is whipping back and forth through the turns.  And a point about 6 inches to a foot in front of your front foot will be strangely stable; this is the point of rotation.  It feels awesome, like you are a marble in a groove.

Good Luck and Always Have Fun!!!

Friday, September 27, 2013

Bitcoin Blurbs

These are collected comments about Bitcoin that I have made to questions that seem to come up often...

Why use Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is not about tax avoidance. Its about buying stuff from China (or other countries) with no fees.  Its about empowering the unbanked. Its about the nervousness you feel when waiting for card "authorization" verses the certainty of a 20 dollar bill. 

Its about "opting out" of the "race to the bottom" that countries seem engaged in with their currencies.

Human technological progress is the story of tools that progress from the use of natural substances with desirable (and undesirable) properties to engineered solutions highly optimized to the problem. The stone axe becomes the chainsaw.  
Gold/silver is "sound money" but a natural substance. The dollar and other currencies are engineered but unsound (no guaranteed scarcity). Bitcoin is the first engineered sound money.

Using a credit card is exactly like making a payment by copying the key to your vault, handing it to a random stranger and having THEM take out your money.  Many times per day.  When you charge something, you give the merchant every piece of information that they need to run a different "card-not-present" (i.e. online) charge.  And then those merchants store that information in a database available forever to anyone who can get into their computer...

Your bank account is like a post office box.  Each box looks secure from the front, but its completely open in the back.  If you sneak over the counter, you could shift people's mail around or take it for yourself.  Similarly bank employees (or criminals with access) can add or remove money from your bank account with just a few clicks.  

Bitcoin is like the blue curbside drop box (only stronger).  Mail (bitcoins) can be placed into the box by anyone, but ONLY the person with the key can remove them.

On Mining and the Security of the Bitcoin Network

There is a distributed network of computers that validate all transactions, including coin creation (inflation).  Coin creation is not variable; it follows a schedule that is an intrinsic part of the currency and cannot be change.  If you change it, your transactions are rejected.  This computer network is currently more powerful than the top 100 most powerful computers COMBINED.  This network creates a "history" that is then essentially "watermarked" using a process that consumes the entire processing power of the network.  To rewrite this history you would need a computer network that can make a stronger watermark -- it must be faster then the sum of this network's speed since the beginning.
But even if you had this amazing network, you could not take MY coins (but you could stop me from spending them).  These are secured in my account using cryptography that is so strong that if you built a computer powered by the entire energy output of the sun, the sun would burn out before you cracked my account.  BTW, this crypto is similar to what secures your online and "wire" banking transactions anyway.  So if someone did crack it, they would likely prefer to steal trillions of USD rather than a few bitcoins.

When people steal bitcoins, they do it via traditional means -- they break into your house/computer and find the piece of paper/file you wrote your password on, for example.
Gold/silver/platinum is good diversification, but is easily detected due to its density and can't easily be used in today's economy.  Your Bitcoin account password can be carried in your head.  A very conservative investment in Bitcoin could increase your financial diversity and security.  This is not financial advice, I am not your financial advisor, etc etc blah blah blah.

Trading Bitcoins

Bitcoin is a financial TRANSFER network, not a financial TRADE network.  You can't TRADE anything on the bitcoin network.  That is, you can't exchange bitcoins for something else.  You can only send bitcoins.  Its like SWIFT or other wire transfer services.  So to TRADE you must use an exchange -- a place where people agree to trade X for Y and have facilities for handling both X and Y.  These places certainly allow extremely fast trades, because they are holding your bitcoins in their account just like Schwab holds your dollars.

There have been lots of issues with these exchanges (hackers, going out of business, etc), but none with Bitcoin itself.

Confirmation Time

No one is correct who says that it takes up to an hour for "confirmations" of transfers on the bitcoin network.  In fact, transfers are NEVER confirmed in an absolute sense, its just that the probability of them being reversed becomes vanishingly small.  The "hour" number you hear quoted is just an arbitrarily chosen consensus value in the same sense as "statistically significant" is arbitrary.   In analogy, you are trying to apply absolute Newtonian physics to a probabilistic quantum mechanical system.

In practice, this means that people can safely sell a $5 coffee instantly, but for a million dollar sale I would for many more then just 1 hour!  Essentially, you want to wait until the cost effort required to overwhelm the probability is greater than the price of the item.


You don't have to wait before spending.  Actually in the bitcoin network you could process thousands or even more transactions using the same money much faster than a day.  So HFT *could* exist on the network (if it allowed trading).

How?  You can actually spend money before it is "confirmed".

There IS NO "confirmed" just vanishingly small probabilities.  But there is no rule saying you can't spend $ when it still has a larger say .000001% probability (in practice some small number like that is as big as it gets, see end).  People could create entire chains of "unconfirmed" transfers, each one predicated on the prior ones being "confirmed".  This is how the betting "service" Satoshi Dice is able to respond instantly with a win or loss result -- it pays you back with $ from your own transfer.  So if your bet transfer is invalidated the return payout transfer is similarly invalidated.

The "in practice" probability of a transfer being invalidated is incredibly low with no waiting at all.   There has been exactly one case in the entire history of Bitcoin, and that case occurred because humans decided to intervene to solve a bug in a new release of the bitcoin software.

3 fundamentals of production, decentralized:

1. Information: What to build, how to build it efficiently, how to market your product  (Web)
2. Exchange: How to efficiently get value for your product (Bitcoin)
3. Fabrication: efficiently constructing the product (3d printing baby steps)

A decentralized system moves faster and is more efficient.  Without the web, I have to submit my product to a catalog or brick&mortar purchasing agent, then evaluation, market testing, haggling, purchasing, warehousing, catalog printing,mailing/retail shelving, and finally sales to end user.  With the web, I can post on forums, run google ads, find my customers and sell directly to them.  When (and only when) volumes increase do I need to do all the pre-web steps.  This model is also more efficient socially/environmentally because it eliminates undesired products early -- before they are mass produced.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The institutionalization of OSHW -- a disturbing trend

Yesterday the Open Source Hardware Summit was held at Eyebeam in New York City.  While there was a lot of awesome projects, in this post I want to write about a disturbing trend of some of the largest players.

Open Source Hardware

First, just to set the stage, as I'm sure everyone in the community knows, MakerBot is closing some of the files in the Replicator 2.  AFAIK what portions exactly were not announced until the summit, and to credit Bre (or cynically, to credit him for backpedaling), it turns out that only the plans for the steel structure and the GUI will be closed.  But once that door gets opened...

This was not the only presentation on this topic... in fact there were several talks presenting an attitude along the lines of:  "Well, 99% of our customers just change the software so as we explore business models, maybe we'll just open source that...".  For example, in the keynote speech (of all places) Chis Anderson mentioned that some of his planes' extruded parts are not open because nobody but knock-off fabricators have extruders.  Well, nobody except this guy who made a DIY extruder I guess.  And couldn't you print them in a Reprap?

Ok fine, I understand the need to discourage knock-offs.  But if you do this you are NOT 100% Open Source Hardware.  You are trading the openness of some aspects of your design for the ability to make a good profit on your work, which you use to fund more cool projects!  Its actually great in many ways.  You've rediscovered the motivation behind intellectual property.  But let's not lie about it.  Let's be honest and let the customers decide whether your product is open enough.

FCC Compliance

A bit later, a representative from Sparkfun stepped up to speak about FCC compliance.  He explained to us what he called the "good news":  its actually only about 1000 bucks to get tested (ignoring your time and effort to get it done) if you are an "unintentional radiator" (that is you don't use wireless).  If you do, I may misremember but its 10k USD.  And by the way, kits, partial products, etc are not exempt so pay up!  Also, amazingly enough if you make 5+ items for your personal use, pay up.  But 1-4 is fine.  Of course this is only for the USA.  There's a similar but different regulatory body in every other country.

A chilling effect settled over the crowd.

All of this was delivered in a happy cheery tone because as we learned, "straight from the horse's mouth" so to speak, this guy previously worked for the FCC for 5 years!

I can't resist a momentary troll:  I'm imaging this guy running around the OSHWA demo area on his mobile reporting us to his cronies in Washington.  Sorry Sparkfun, but you should not hire an ex-FCC guy to do the FCC-compliance job.  You should hire a protestor.  And not just to prove a point -- but because enthusiastic people tend to magnify their jobs.

Did you sit under that LED dome? -- turn it off -- it was made from 5 identical driver modules.  How about those fabric artists and electric ink?  Turn 'em all off.  And there was an amazing talk about testing radioactivity levels in Japan after the nuclear disaster  And not surprisingly, it was discovered that the Japanese government was not reporting these radiation levels.  If this had happened in the USA, as far as I can tell the FCC could have shut them down under the 5 unit rule.  The problem with a technicality is that it can and has been used to keep the truth from the public. 
 While clearly some small oversight to ensure reasonable electronic emissions is needed for mass consumer devices (say greater than 50k units) the 5 unit rule (and many others) is clearly obsolete.  After all, I can get 10 PCBs from Seeedstudio for about 15 bucks.

You may roll your eyes a bit, but these sort of things really do have "a chilling effect".  In other words, an effect not instantly obvious but one that is certainly dampening innovation in America.   I would imagine that the effect happens most especially in areas such as education or outreach.    People won't go the next step and bring these PCBs to a school, etc.  Why get fined 7000 bucks for volunteer work?  And of course schools are incredibly sensitive to possible litigation, since the cost comes straight from the pockets of the townspeople who hire principals.

And even if in practice nobody will see your prototypes at home, let me point out that it is a very dangerous social situation to have citizens living in a constant state of breaking the law.

USB Connectivity

Next, we got to hear about USB from DangerousPrototypes.  Ian at least presented the information mostly neutrally.  (summary: 2000 bucks to get your company registered; nope nobody can sell you an ID).  However, it is clear in his opinion that squatting on an address is for hack-ups and should only be done by raw (never sold) prototypes.

Ian, I guess you forgot about sit-ins as a method of protest.

At an OSHWA summit meeting, I would have preferred a more critical treatment.  I have done a lot of research on this, since my Lightuino 5 board uses a USB microprocessor.  Everything presented is easily discovered on the web.  But unfortunately, the key issue was not addressed and barely mentioned:

If you choose to squat (vid: 0xF055 FTW!) is there ANYTHING the USB consortium can do about it?

Currently the answer seems to be no -- they have no legal control over those particular bits in the USB protocol.  In fact there seems to be no mechanism to even gain such control (hooray!).  And history seems to prove this out; all that they have ever done is kicked companies out of the consortium (in fact one such company is still selling VID/PIDs).

But if I was invited to take up ten minutes of 450 peoples' time, I would have presented a legal opinion.

So, its getting pretty clear that the many of our most prominent OSHW members and companies are growing up.

And let's be clear, I do not blame them for following these laws -- it is important to be a productive member of the society you choose to live within.  But I blame them for following them enthusiastically.  A person's ability and proclivity to make things is literally as much a part of us as is our hands.  Similarly, economic theorists affirm that a person's right to trade goods is fundamental to any society.  Please do your part to ensure these freedoms are not taken from us.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Bit on Bitcoin

Bitcoin is simultaneously an amazing and very scary technology.  It has a lot of potential, but seems to be doomed to repeat all the mistakes and scams that have been seen in traditional banking.  This guide is for people who are interested in Bitcoin but still wondering about it.

Why use Bitcoin?

In a nutshell, it is essentially internet cash.  This means:

1. It transfers value extremely efficiently worldwide.
2. It is usable for intangible goods like music or video game items.
3. If you are very careful, transactions can be anonymous.

It is quantity limited (more like a commodity then a modern currency) and stored/transferred via a peer-to-peer internet protocol.  This means:

4. It is likely a good long-term store of value.
5. Your ability to spend cannot be "frozen" or otherwise inhibited, other than by depriving you of internet access.
6. The peer to peer nature means that it will be extremely difficult to disrupt, even for large organizations.
7. It can be transferred across borders during times of strife easily since it it possible to hold the "combination" to your bitcoins in your head.

So, if you are looking for a shelter against high inflation, a mechanism to inexpensively pay for goods from China (or other locations), or just want a "rainy-day" nest-egg, then Bitcoin might be for you.

However, please note that Bitcoin is still an experimental currency, so do not purchase more then you can afford to lose!

Is it legal?

This is a strange question because in this world truly "new stuff" is assumed legal and needs to be explicitly declared illegal.  For example, it was not necessary for the Wright brothers to get a pilot's license to fly their airplane and TiVo skirted copyright issues to bring DVR technology to the world without getting a legal ruling a-priori.  

A better question is whether it is likely that Bitcoin will some day be declared illegal.

While there has been no determination of its legal status in any country (edit: looks like an official in Finland affirmed its legality in that country), it is generally considered by lawyers to be legal to hold bitcoins.  Essentially Bitcoin can either be considered a commodity, a currency, or pedantically just a bunch of (uncopyrighted) digital bits!  If a commodity, certainly it is legal to own just like you can buy a bushel of corn.  If a currency, no issue; it is legal in most countries for citizens to hold another country's currency.  And while Bitcoin is not a particular country's currency, in the USA (for example) there are ample instances of corporations issuing currencies, like the Disney Dollar or the Second Life Linden Dollars.

Is Bitcoin a deflationary currency, and does that presage disaster?

Right now, Bitcoin is in fact highly inflationary -- a lot of new coins are being created every year.  However, the inflation rate will decrease as the years go on and eventually stop altogether.

If you are like me, you have been inculcated to believe that a deflationary currency is "evil", causes recessions, and even may have caused the great depression.  Keynesian economic theory claims that a deflationary market causes people to stop consuming to the point where the economy shudders to a halt.  But the "Austrian" school of economic thought questions this gospel for many reasons:

First computer technology is massively deflationary; if you haven't noticed you can read about Moore's law which states that if you just wait a few years, you'll get a much better computer for the same price (or the same one for half price).  And I'm sure people have deferred purchases to wait for the "next great thing" (I know I did).  But did this deflationary environment hamper technology innovation?  In fact, IT technology's contribution to GDP growth in the USA has equaled the contribution of all other sectors combined.

Second, unlike what we learned in school, it is now theorized that the recessions of the 1800's that culminated in the great depression were not in fact caused by the gold standard, but by over-regulation of the currency market.  See this lecture (start a few minutes earlier then the link to get the full picture).

Finally, an argument against a deflationary currency like physical gold is that in practice it cannot represent all other economic activity.  The reason is simply because if the price of gold increased to the point where it DID represent all other economic activity, it would require an infinitesimally small amount to purchase something cheap like a piece of gum.  This amount would be too small to coin!  However, Bitcoin does not have this issue; it is divisible by 8 decimal places today, and in fact a reasonably painless protocol change could extend this by as many more decimals as needed.  Therefore even if all but one bitcoin (or .1 bitcoin, etc) were taken out of circulation, there would STILL be enough to simultaneously represent both the smallest transactions and all the economic activity in the world.

Whether you believe these arguments or not is immaterial -- you need only recognize that Bitcoin is a currency with unique properties; properties that have never been tried before.  Therefore it is not possible to look at prior deflationary currencies and conclude that Bitcoin behave similarly.

Is Bitcoin itself a ponzi or a scam?

Bitcoin has been called a ponzi scheme because a bitcoin has no inherent value (and the early adopters "mined" a lot before others jumped in).  But in fact unbacked paper money also has no inherent value, so are they a Ponzi scheme?  (actually, they often end that way...)

Additionally, while value-store commodities like gold and silver have industrial use (that is, "marginal utility"), the price of these commodities so far exceeds that justified by the intrinsic "marginal utility" value that they might as well have no inherent value.  Is investment in gold and silver a Ponzi scheme?

A Ponzi scheme or other scam is not defined simply by an unfortunate massive loss of value, but by whether the scheme provides or attempts to create any value or provide any service.  Like the Spruce Goose, if it attempts but fails it is not a ponzi or scam -- it is just a mistake.

Bitcoin in fact has tremendous "marginal utility".  It is both a "coin" and a worldwide, free, instant transfer, 10-minute confirm transaction network.  It therefore out-competes other transaction networks like Visa/Mastercard (worldwide but exclusive, 2% fees, instant, 30-60 days to confirm), bank transfer (worldwide exclusive, 25-30 USD + 1-3% currency exchange fees, 2-3 business day transfer, 30-60 day "confirm" with the never-ending low-but-non-zero chance of a "clawback"), and finally Paypal (worldwide exclusive, 2.5% + .30c + 1-3% currency exchange fees)

Additionally, Bitcoin is much easier to get started in then these other systems.  Since no credit is extended, anyone can create a Bitcoin "account" (wallet) instantly and with nobody's permission.

Finally, Bitcoin is/will be very valuable for the purchase of digital commodities like music, video game items, etc.  Traditional transaction networks essentially stop fraud with "chargebacks".  This is the ability to reverse a transaction once the theft is discovered.  The reversal passes through every step of the financial network like a hot potato and ultimately lands on the merchant.  The merchant theoretically has law enforcement follow the purchased goods to the address they are being sent to and arrests whoever picks them up.  But this technique does not work for immaterial items -- the items are not sent to a physical address!  In fact, so much fraud occurs in certain digital commodities that some traditional financial service providers (paypal, ebay) refuse to allow purchases of them.

The genesis of this unfortunate situation  -- that financial networks are forced to use the chargeback mechanism -- is because all the information needed to charge a credit card or access a bank account is passed to merchants and middlemen every single time money is spent.  Therefore many instances of fraud are not the account holders fault but actually caused by some person working in the institution that was paid. 

This is the digital equivalent of storing your money in a safe, but telling every single person you pay your combination and letting them take out the cash!

Bitcoin solves the fraud problem by NOT telling every payee the combination of the safe.  Therefore if someone steals your combination, you have only yourself to blame.  Instead of issuing chargebacks that end up costing the merchant, you must report the loss and hopefully recover your own money when the thief is caught.  Or more likely, responsibly safeguard your combination so your money is not stolen in the first place.

So Why Do I Hear About So Many Hacks and Scams?

In fact, the Bitcoin network and currency has never been "hacked".  It is secured by the same advanced cryptographic techniques that secure your normal electronic bank transfers.  However, online services that use bitcoin have been hacked.  This is equivalent to saying that people have broken into banks and stolen money, but that the money itself has never been counterfeited.  So Bitcoin is thought to be more secure then paper dollars...

But bitcoin is a fledgling currency.  Teenagers from China, hackers from England, and moonlighters in NYC have built currency exchanges.  These people perhaps were not the best choice for the public to entrust with the handling of hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Additionally, one of the features of Bitcoin is that, like cash, it can't be taken back without asking. And, also like cash, it can be used anonymously if care is taken to access the internet anonymously.

These two features are very convenient on a daily basis for legitimate use.  Yes even the "anonymous" feature.  While waiting in line at the checkout counter, have you ever suddenly grown fearful and embarrassed that your credit card would be declined for some reason?  Perhaps you were out to lunch with your boss.  But if you held cash you carry peace of mind, secure in the knowledge that you can pay.  Requiring proof-of-identity (and by extension declining payment from some identities) will always admit the uncertainty that some glitch in the system will halt a perfectly credit-worthy individual's ability to pay.

But the media amplifies the problem.  In fact, to date I've managed to avoid opening accounts with Chinese teenagers, investing in obvious Ponzi schemes, contributing to scams, or losing a single Bitcoin.  It was not hard.  It was obvious from the beginning that money should not be kept on Bitcoin exchanges like they were bank accounts due to "counterparty" risk.  These are not FDIC insured institutions and do not claim to be.  In fact, the great advantage of Bitcoin is that you can easily and safely hold your own money.  So hold it; don't hand it to someone else!

Honestly, given how obvious the scams have been, the real question in my mind is why other people are falling for them.

OK, I'm Convinced.  So How Do I Get And Hold Bitcoins?

You need to start doing your own research now.  But...

Its really easy to get a few Bitcoins in an account on your Android phone (or desktop web browser), but these should be your "spending" account -- like the cash in your wallet, if they are lost you should not be too upset.  Try for one (they also have a great Android app).  Sorry iphone users -- Apple feels Bitcoin threatens their monopoly on phone payments and so have removed all Bitcoin apps from their store.  [Personally, I think you should research this and other heavy-handed Apple tactics, realize that personal choice is more important then incremental convenience and put your iPhone up on ebay...]

Compared to buying a wallet or purse, its a lot harder to buy, take delivery of, and install a secure safe for holding valuables -- and its a lot harder to do the same for Bitcoin.  Well, actually, if you choose to trust just one service, it can be quite easy.  Please research "bitcoin paper wallet" for a primer on the subject.

An intermediate option is to download and use the original Bitcoin client.  This client is capable of storing an encrypted wallet on your computer, and you can back that wallet up.  By the way, you actually only need to back up any wallet once.  The "bitcoin wallet" is actually more accurately described as the key to a safe held on your behalf in a distributed peer to peer network.  That is, if you back up your bitcoin wallet, deposit more coins, and then restore your wallet from the backup you will NOT lose the coins you just deposited -- they are still in the safe, you just restored the file containing the safe's key.

But if you delete this wallet (this key), ALL YOUR COINS ARE LOST (so make backups)!  If you forget your password, ALL YOUR COINS ARE LOST (so don't forget it)!  This is not document "encryption" where if you ask the company that produces the software really nicely they'll crack it open for you.  This is more like if all the energy that the sun will EVER produce was used by the largest, fastest, most efficient computer theoretically possible, the sun would burn out long before it found the key to the safe containing your coins.

On the bright side, this makes it very hard to steal someone's coins.

Good luck Bitcoiner!