Three Lessons

By Kord Campbell · April 7, 2015

I'm 48 years old. I said to my son the other day that I was only a 28 year old wiser than he was, which isn't saying much one way or the other. The most valuable lessons I've learned, I've learned over the last few years paying for therapy. If you haven't had therapy before, I highly recommend it. Just be prepared to 'shop around' for the right person to talk to.

If you don't have the spare income to pay for therapy, here are three basic lessons I've learned that will go a long way in helping reduce your suffering load. Suffering is basically any time you spend not experiencing or seeking joy.

Lesson One: Be Present

There a crap ton of stuff on the Internet about being present. The way I think about being present is to focus on what's happening around you right this very second. Examine something in your field of vision closely. Watch small insects buzz around your backyard. Notice how the water runs down a plate when you are washing dishes. Pay attention to the reality around you. I challenge you to do this for 5 minutes.

Be warned: Being present is fucking hard.

It takes brain power to focus your attention on this moment. Your brain, if it's like most brains, is way happier simulating a reality that is nowhere as complex as the one you perceive around you. Your brain is fantastically good at filtering out a lot of that input as well, so thinking about what's around you takes practice and focus. This is the spirit of meditation, yoga, and a hundred other mind-clearing techniques developed by cultures all over the world to make people more present.

When you (or more specifically your brain's ego) attempts to simulate something-that-has-yet-to-happen, or something-that-just-recently-happenend-alternatives, you consume a good quantity of the total operating capacity of your brain on simulating that reality. The fact is, that reality isn't real, it's internal to you, and nobody else can know it like you do. Treating that alternate reality as important (given you are allowing yourself to think about it) removes processing power from being present in the reality we all share.

This is the basis of real world phenomenon like Distracted Driving and our tendency to be Hooked on Gadgets. Be aware your attention and ability to be present is affected by thinking about things that are less important than what is immediately around you.

If you've ever had your computer run slow because of a misbehaving program, you know what I'm talking about here!

Lesson Two: Say How You Really Feel

There is also a crap ton of stuff on the Internet giving advice to about saying how you feel. Most people are pretty bad at saying how they really feel about something because our feelings tend to be 'locked up' with a bunch of memories about past experiences. It would take an immense amount of brainpower and concentration to be consciously aware of all your memories over the last year.

Feelings don't have that restriction; they can easily bubble up to the conscious level with very little effort.

In order to determine what you are feeling (emotion) and why you are feeling it (cause of emotion) you have to practice a technique which is iterative in nature. The most important part about the iteration is that you try hard to be present while doing it. That's why being present is step #1!

To start, realize that most negative emotions are lead by anger, so they tend to be the ones that confuse us the most. Anger allows you to get shit done, but it rarely tells you why you are doing it. Figuring out why you are angry is the first step:

  1. Realize irritation, annoyance, rage, or raw anger are all basically the same emotion. Don't nitpick the level of annoyance when in a discussion with someone - that's simply your brain trying to rationalize what action to take based on the level.
  2. State why you are angry by saying "I am angry because...". I'll use the following statement to illustrate: "I am angry because someone moved my cheese."
  3. Search for an emotion that seems appropriate for you in response to realizing someone moved your cheese. An easy way to do this is simply go around the horn on the Plutchik wheel. In my case, "I'm bored and sad people keep moving my cheese."
  4. Ask yourself who is responsible for making you feel the way you do. Nobody makes you feel any way. People do shit to each other all the time, but nobody climbed inside your head and made you sad about moving your cheese.
  5. Run through steps 1..4 a few times until you feel certain you understand why you feel the way you do. Be sure to substitute the root emotion for 'anger' in step 2. "I'm bored because Joan keeps moving my cheese. I think I have trust issues with her."

One you exhaust exploring your emotions and have arrived at a statement that isn't blaming (i.e. pulling crap out of your alternate reality by not being present), try telling the person who is involved with the memories behind these emotions how you feel.

Step 3: Fucking Shut Up and Listen

"There is a complete lack of anything meaningful on the Internet about listening because the Internet is full of blaming statements."

If you'll look closely, you'll see I made a huge blaming statement there. There's not way I can look at all the Internet and even if I could, I sincerely doubt that everything written has a blaming statement in it. Avoiding blaming statements will help someone hear you and, conversely, help you listen to someone work through the bits in step #2.

As with the other steps, it's important to be present when listening to someone. If you thought being present was hard, just wait until you try doing it with someone else. Two people being present is more than twice as hard as just doing it alone!

The end goal of listening is to acknowledge a statement of feelings from someone which itself is devoid of a blaming statement. If you note a blaming statement from someone, simply state "I think you may be making a blaming statement". Attempt to guide the person talking back into the workflow in step 2 and see what happens. They may get stuck, or they may get free. Try to remain unbiased and present in your listening activity.

Shutting up and listening is probably the hardest thing you'll ever do. It can be very difficult to listen to someone openly when they are struggling with being present and making blaming statements, especially if those blaming statements blame you personally.

That's it. If you can successfully execute on these three steps, your trust levels with the people you practice these steps with will increase beyond all expectations, or alternately, you'll find yourself moving on from those who are incapable of practicing them.

Sometimes moving on is the only solution the the problem.

On the Origins of Bitcoin's Polarization

By Kord Campbell · January 21, 2015

The scientific discovery of polarization isn't attributed to a single individual. The Vikings likely used Icelandic Spar to craft sunstones, which helped them navigate on cloudy days by determining the position of the sun through an entoptic phenomenon called Haidinger's brush.

The term polarization may have been coined by Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a French engineer and physicist, around 1817, when working out the mathematical models showing light waves resist longitudinal vibration as they propegate through the ether. His work in this area was built upon and credited to Thomas Young, a polymath from London. Young used his wide range of skills to make a number of original and insightful innovations in the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs, including ones that helped crack the mystery of the Rosetta Stone.

Fresnel went mostly unnoticed during his lifetime and was only credited for his work after his death, most famously by James Clerk Maxwell when assembling his seminal theory encompassing electricity, magnetism, and light. Maxwell's Equations were inspired, in part, by Michael Faraday's experimental observations in the areas of electromagnitism and electrochemistry.

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, Faraday may be the most influential scientist of all time. In addition to a slew of other discoveries, which included the invention of the first electric motor, he was singlehandedly responsible for discovering electricity can directly interact with light; a behavior we now call the Faraday effect. Faraday figured out certain materials, dielectrics, can polarize light when an electric current is run through them. If you want to learn about the history of this invention, you should watch Cosmos: The Electric Boy. It's superb.

Just to twist your noodle a bit, the Faraday effect allows us to build what is known as a optical isolator, essentially a diode for light, allowing it to travel in one direction but not the other. We plan on using these devices, conceived by Faraday in the 1800s, to build the next generation of computers. In theory, optical computers will be more thermally efficient than electric computers, which means they may run cooler and much faster.

Heated Topics

Cooling hot computers has gotten more challenging over time. Interestingly enough, the materials we use to increase cooling are themselves dielectrics. These non-electrically conductive materials include thermal paste and mineral oil, a common coolant used for direct immersion techniques. Here's a guy who stuck his entire cryptocurrency mining rig in mineral oil to keep it cool:

Last year I heated my house using a slew of graphics cards mining Dogecoin. I stopped mining back in the Spring given the price of Bitcoin took a hit. Today, I'd be lucky to make 1/3 of the direct cost of electricity for the mining rigs from the coins I mined. The people who are still mining Dogecoin are able to do so because they presumably have access to cheap power or very deep wallets.

After noting the continued retracement of Bitcoin's price, my friend Lew Moorman emailed me with a subject line saying "I'm feeling good about my original insights on Bitcoin". Feeling a bit snarky, I replied with a link to my recent post on unproductive paranoia. Truth be told, over the last few years Lew and I have had some lively discussions on the value of cryptocurrencies for compute-based technologies such as those used to build cloud technologies. That's interesting for a variety of reasons, including the fact he's the one that got me thinking about trust to begin with.

I shared this post with him before publishing it. He reiterated that he was bullish on the blockchain technology itself, but bearish on the value of using Bitcoin for stores of value. I argued back that anything worth storing in a blockchain has value, and by extension, the blockchain itself becomes more valuable. Just like a startup!

Regardless, that original post on trust was the beginning of me starting work on utter.io, a decentralized cloud framework based on the Bitcoin blockchain. It also marked the beginning of my struggle with the polarized views around cryptocurrencies.

Trust is Polarizing

Trust is a challenge for any technology based on crypto. The Germans trusted Enigma could secure conversations about war strategy. Cryptographers trusted SSL could secure our logins to websites. Turns out they were both wrong.

Cryptocurrencies are difficult for humans to trust because their ability to understand the implementation of the systems themselves varies from individual to individual. In order to trust Bitcoin, for example, one must either fully understand how it works from a technical standpoint, or implicitly trust it based on information provided by others who fully understand the technology themselves.

When I tell you that you can trust a technology and you do so in good faith, we use my credibility and knowledge with the technology to establish your own trust in the technology. Credibility, or karma, can be thought of as 'stored work' I do while learning and understanding something to establish trust in it. If the topic deals with a subject that provides no gains in advantage over another, credibility can be an easy way for someone else to trust something implicitly. When dealing with matters that represent advantage over another, such as a crypto finance, cognitive biases frequently replace credibile statements. There will always be those who deceive for personal gain.

This becomes the essence of my thesis: Individuals become polarized on the topic of Bitcoin because they sense people with credibility trust it, which implies they will eventually have to use it to buy things. Given they have no way to fully understand the technology and implementation behind it and they are healthy skeptical of trusting financial matters via implicit trust, they end up being put into a dilemma that causes cognitive dissonance as a result of their inability to resolve the issue externally.

In short, human sentiment about Bitcoin flops between two discrete states: they love it or they are angered by it. That becomes self evident when you look at Bitcoin news stories.

Building Trust through Education and Discovery

Implementing global trust for cryptocurrencies is difficult because understanding how they work requires skills that go well beyond a typical layman's abilities. Note I'm not talking about trusting the price of Bitcoin here, but simply trusting that the technology can do what it says it can do: transfer stored value from one person to another in a reliable and trustworthy way.

A key contributor to these challenges involves understanding how the various layers of a coin work together to provide security. Simplifying things considerably, you can think of cryptocurrencies as a conglomeration of technologies that A) secure a public ledger of accounts through cryptographic hashes (what causes all that heat in miners), B) providing access to individual ledger entries through cryptographic key pairs, and C) occasionally providing access to those key pairs through traditional SSL based technologies. From what we know about the math behind all of it, we suspect that A is VERY secure, B is quite frequently secure if you are careful, and C is a crap shoot, depending on who you trust to do it for you. I would mention C is also optional, but opting out of it is difficult for most people to do effectively, given managing private keys is hard.

The fact that B and C continue to show themselves as problems with Bitcoin becomes a driving factor for mis-trust in the technology. Repairing this trust is difficult, requires additional work, and takes time.

The answer to our dilemma, perhaps, is education. Like those innovators that came before us, if those of us who trust cryptocurrency technologies build on the effort to educate others about the technologies we are building, maybe, just maybe, we can swing the tide of trust in a positive direction.

Like Fresnel, I struggle with the challenges in teaching others my field of interest. As he best put it, "that sensibility, or that vanity, which people call love of glory" became blunted when faced with the fact that "of all the compliments I have received, none ever gave me so much pleasure as the discovery of a theoretic truth".

Thanks to the like of Fresnel and Faraday, we now have a new tool of immense power we can bring to bear on the problem of bringing theorietic truths about cryptocurrencies to others: The Internet.

I coded and made revenue on a project in a single day.

By Kord Campbell · January 16, 2015

My daughter and I have recently been playing Minecraft on the Bitquest server, a Minecraft world with an economy based on Bitcoin. I love Bitcoin.

I've gotten to know a few of the players on the servers through chat and the Reddit forum. If you haven't played Minecraft before, know the chat interface for it is notoriously bad. Chat logs scroll over the top of the world view and a decent history or search is mostly non-existent without modding.

If you don't know me, know I loath logs.

For the last year, my day job at my scrappy startup StackMonkey has consisted of building the Utter.io decentralized cloud framework. While researching credit card enabled forms for StackMonkey I ran across a site called Digital Nomads and found their Typeform site for signing up to the Nomad's Slack organization. The form uses Stripe for credit card processing. They also wrote a great blog post detailing how they integrated Typeform with Slack's API.

Sometime yesterday morning, it dawned on me using Slack would be a perfect alternative for Minecraft chat. I sat down and spent the rest of the day copying the forms and coding up the invite calls to add users with the Slack API using an AppEngine Python project. I also added a few 'features' to the code to have the bot look up the user's Minecraft avatar and post it to the #_newbie channel.

Right before going to dinner, I put a post up on the Reddit for Bitquest explaining why I was charging for application and that the first 25 users would be allowed to skip the credit card section. To my sheer delight, about an hour later I got an email from my Stripe account saying someone had signed up and paid me. Today, there were 5 signups!

I've been so jazzed up about the experience that I added streaming outbound chat to the code last night.

At the end of the day there's really nothing better than being passionate about what you love to do and man, do I love coding.

Oh, here's the form I made.

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