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Losing Your Way

I don’t expect it surprised many to get confirmation this week that America does in fact torture suspects of terrorism. The post 9/11 pattern has been clear for some time now – the end is defeating “terror”, the means don’t matter. To this end the alternative tragedy to people getting killed in a terrorist attack is America continually becoming less so.

The Patriot Act passed with a single dissenting voice in the Senate, signing away unprecedented liberty in the name of security. Our government has since continued to spy on their own citizens, initiate programs of mass surveillance, subvert cryptography standards, and compromise the integrity of American businesses, all done behind closed doors in secretive courts.

We’ve involved ourselves in wars that have killed an order of magnitude more Americans than 9/11 itself did. We torture terror suspects and call it “enhanced interrogation” despite it involving things that I don’t even want to publish here. None of it matters because we are fighting terror.

Elected officials bald face lie to their electorate.

Appointed officials perjure congress with impunity.

No one is held accountable for this. No one will be held accountable for this.

It’s hard to even discuss these things publicly because partisanship chokes reason and patriotism beats restraint. Under the guise of “protecting our freedom” nearly anything has become permissible. This has mostly just become a marketing expression that signifies “see, it’s for FREEDOM!”, or is parroted by corporations and people alike to signify what a good dude they are. This isn’t a red or blue thing, in case you are trying to decide where to add the tally. I want nothing to do with that. This is about human rights.

And since I’m dangerously close to touching the third rail, let’s clarify:

  • You can denounce violence in our government without denouncing America.
  • You can call out police brutality and question their use of lethal force without hating cops.
  • You can value your civil liberties without having something to hide.

More troubling to me though is how ardently swaths of my personal network have defended the most Machiavellian shades of current events. Friends who are justifying war crimes, condoning torture, shrugging at gross abuses of power, saluting the deaths of unarmed black men. America is in many ways steeped in violence and lawlessness, so I shouldn’t be surprised when it trickles down.

I know, I know – log off bro, and I usually do. I’m not one to sit back and just point out stupidity, but sometime it’s just relentless. Sometimes it’s soaked in racism. Sometimes it’s tribal politicking that stands for nothing more than the inverse of the other guy. And it’s almost always missing the point.

Bitcoin is Broken

There are plenty of neckbeards who will tell you differently, but you should consider what incentives they have in place. I know many people who have plenty of wealth tied up in Bitcoin, and even know people who have become millionaires at the hand of Bitcoin and/or other cryptocurrencies. Good for them. Many of them are technologists who took on considerable risk because they believed in this particular version of the future. But they are pot committed at this point, and I wouldn’t expect them to say much more than don’t worry about it nothing to see here when confronted with some of Bitcoin’s most troubling weaknesses.

I won’t bury the lede here: Bitcoin is broken largely because mining centralization has threatened the key tenants of Bitcoin – to be both trustless and decentralized.

But first, a little history. In 2008 a person or group of people or organization published a whitepaper and reference implementation of the Bitcoin protocol under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. People toyed with virtual currency implementations previously, but Satoshi’s implementation was the first that could provide a currency that was completely decentralized, lacking the lynchpin of trust. This is significant. It is the invention of a monetary system that can stand on it’s own without the meddling of incorruptible folks like bankers and politicians. Whereas traditional currency balances are maintained on centralized servers owned by banks and governments, Bitcoin’s ledger is entirely public and owned by everyone. The protocol enforces consensus and prevents cheating.

So how does it work ? Here is where you probably get insulted if you understand Bitcoin because I am going to gloss over tons of details, but hopefully if cryptocurrencies are alien talk to you this will be a high enough level overview to get you started. But first, some terminology:

Transaction: A transfer of ownership of a coin, or fraction of a coin. e.g., Alice sends 5.2 Bitcoins to Bob.

Block: A group of transactions.

Blockchain: The distributed public ledger that serves as the database, consisting of a chain of blocks that has been growing since the very first block created, known as the genesis block. You can trace any bitcoin’s ownership all the way back to its creation by following the transaction history in the blocks in the blockchain.

When someone running a Bitcoin client initiates a transaction, it broadcasts it to all other bitcoin clients. These transactions get bundled until the next block is created. But generating a block has to be prohibitively difficult because if you could generate one whenever you wanted, you could easily publish a block that says you gave 1 Bitcoin to Bob, receive what you paid for, and then quickly publish a new block on a fork of the blockchain that pretends that you never sent the 1 Bitcoin to Bob, and instead sends it to Cindy. This is called double-spending, and preventing it is Bitcoin’s biggest innovation.

Enter Mining. To make it difficult to publish a block, the Bitcoin protocol enforces the rule that to create a block, you must first solve a mathematical puzzle. The only way to solve the puzzle is to input random guesses into an algorithm that produces hashes, and hope that the resulting hash satisfies a certain criteria. The difficulty of this puzzle resets every 2016 blocks (roughly two weeks) based on how many total guesses are being made on the network, with the goal of keeping block creation time at roughly 1 block every 10 minutes. If you can find an input that produces a hash that meets the criteria, you publish the block and the input you used to solve the puzzle with to the network. Each client on the network will then verify that your solution works, and that all the transactions in the block are valid (e.g., the sender has sufficient funds, the transactions match those that their client has collected, etc). Once a client sees that the block has been solved, they will give up work on it and start working to create the next block.

To incentivize people to participate, miners are given a reward if their computer is the one that solved the puzzle first. This reward started at 50 Bitcoins and halves every 4 years. That means it is currently at 25, will be at 12.5 in 2017, 6.25 in 2021, etc, with the total supply of Bitcoins eventually ending up at roughly 21 million.

Working together. So we’ve seen that mining is crucial to securing Bitcoin because it makes creating blocks prohibitively difficult, controls the rate of coin creation, provides a means of transaction validation, and incentivizes people to secure the network. But what a miner really wants is that block reward. Initially, you could have success mining alone on a standard CPU. Shortly after, people realized they could get more hash/s using a GPU. Then it was programmable FPGAs that vastly outperformed GPUs. Now, companies are making custom silicon for the sole purpose of computing hashes, and it’s big business.

Sure you could mine by yourself, but the amount of hashpower on the network is so huge that your chance of solving a block is very small. Instead, miners join a mining pool to decrease their variance and receive more regular payouts. There are plenty of payment schemes, but they all work roughly like you would expect – everyone in the pool contributes their hashing power, and if the pool solves a block the reward is distributed proportionally to the amount of hashing you contributed.

So what’s the problem? In a picture, this:

51%

In June 2014, the mining pool GHash.IO grew to the point of receiving 51% of the entire Bitcoin network’s hashing power, which is significant because it means that it had control over the Bitcoin network. Here are just a few of the privileges having such power can afford you:

  • Double spending
  • Blocking transactions from any address you want
  • Ignoring block formation from anyone else, effectively bringing the Bitcoin network to a halt.

I remember reading the response of Bitcoin’s chief scientist, Gavin Andresen when this happened. He’s a smart guy, and I generally like him. But this response seemed disingenuous. The crux of his argument was that sure, a pool with 51% could double spend, or shut down the network all-together, but it is not in their economic interest to do so, and even if it was we could probably fix it somehow. Ignoring the fact that those are not the only attacks a pool with 51% could carry out 1) I have seen no such changes to the protocol to prevent these attacks and 2) It doesn’t take much imagination to invent a scenario in which they were incentivized to abuse their power. Here are a few off the top of my head:

  1. A mining pool takes out a massive short position on Bitcoin, flipping their economic incentives
  2. The mining pool itself is hacked by people with malicious intent.
  3. State based coercion

So I don’t take his response very seriously. As an ambassador and holder of Bitcoin he took it upon himself to quell panic, and it worked. But implicit in his message was assurance that we could trust GHash.IO to behave while simultaneously acknowledging an attack vector that was no longer theoretical. For their part, GHash.IO’s official response essentially amounted to ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. If Bitcoin is no longer trustless, then Bitcoin is neither relevant nor interesting.

And the brokenness remains. The hash distribution currently looks a little better, but nothing has really changed. The state of mining remains vulnerable to pools amassing 51%. While 51% is the worst news, there are various other attacks that can be carried out with as little as 25% of the hashing power, which both Discuss Fish and GHash.IO have at the time of writing this.

Mining has become so consolidated that instead of a handful of nerds MacGyvering rigs in their basement, you have this:  

mining

There are tons of warehouses just like this one, mindlessly chugging away computing insane numbers of hashes per second, consuming enormous amounts of electricity. These calculations being performed are in-and-of themselves entirely useless, unless one of them happens to unlock the block reward. And even if a million mining facilities like the one above came online, the retargeting nature of the algorithm means that there will still be, on average, 1 block created every 10 minutes. The only advantage to insaneness like this is that it makes it that much harder for any one actor to amass enough hashing power to gain a meaningful percentage of the network 1)Current estimates are that a 51% attack could be achieved with just over a half of a billion dollars. Chump change for governments or large entities who see Bitcoin as a threat.. Pooled mining has made this point moot, however.

Burn it all down. Well, not yet. To my eyes, Bitcoin is in this weird spot. It currently has all the momentum, and VCs are dumping millions of dollars into startups based around this alternative economy. But you can appreciate the genius of Bitcoin while still thinking, “hmm, maybe there is a better way”. In fact, lots of people are exploring alternative consensus algorithms that are resistant to mining centralization and aren’t stupidly inefficient. I will talk more about some of these in a future post.

The Bitcoin protocol itself is innovating at a snail’s pace, and I get it. There is considerable value to protect and the developers tread lightly when it comes to adding features that could put that at risk, but I can’t help but feel that in terms of technology it’s getting left behind. A currency is a great place to start your experiment to see if the blockchain can be a secure store of value. It has largely worked. But limiting the blockchain to currency is unimaginative and selling it short. The most exciting things in this space are applications and features that are being built on top of blockchains to enable decentralized applications, autonomous corporations, and distributed asset exchanges. The blockchain as a currency is far less interesting than the blockchain as a platform, and that is hopefully where we are going.

Ultimately, I don’t want Bitcoin to fail because that would be bad for crypto in general. But if some serious concerns aren’t addressed, I ultimately hope it gets phased out, replaced by improved protocols. The incandescent was brilliant, but I hope you aren’t still using them in your home.

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1. Current estimates are that a 51% attack could be achieved with just over a half of a billion dollars. Chump change for governments or large entities who see Bitcoin as a threat.

Looking Down

looking down

The King

the king

Secrets Huatulco

We were sitting on the patio of a restaurant in Chicago enjoying the first perfect day of Spring watching the people who were out in droves, finally dethawing from a punishing winter. Two girls rode a tandem bicycle, kids were climbing the trees, and women everywhere were pregnant (because winter). Somewhere else, someone was crapping into a paper bag and passing it around. Earlier that day we showed up at the airport on time, only to discover that our flight was rescheduled from 8AM, to 7AM. The airline said they sent out notifications. My travel agent said they never heard from the supplier. The supplier said they said they never heard from the airline. They had to schedule us on the next available flight which wasn’t until the next day, but of course without reimbursement for the non-refundable night at the resort we’d already paid for. Everyone points at everyone until I’m the bag holder sitting on a patio watching everyone enjoy their afternoon.

A few weeks earlier, I tweeted something that would probably surprise some people who know me.

Usually, I’m the guy rooting for the robots. I trust algorithms more than humans, but algorithms struggle with curation. This is why librarians aren’t extinct. We can shed a tear for Dewey and his obsolete decimal system, and any hard-knock can put books on a shelf. But the real value in librarians is in local expertise and specialization. Google is suitable for 99.9% of your queries. But when I have a really technical or specific problem, I always end up on a forum or IRC channel or among some other community of experts. And whenever someone comes up with a way to approximate the specialized knowledge of a community via automation and indexing, it isn’t long before Google is writing them a check and they are exchanging their desk chairs for exercise balls.

In my case I booked an agent (that doesn’t charge a fee), because I had specific questions about a resort I was familiar with that was bought by a different parent company and re-branded and completely redone, and I wanted more details about what all had changed. Specific knowledge from people on the inside, without having to slog through pages of trip advisor comments of people complaining about how they wanted a queen but got two doubles, etc.

Next time I will probably just book it myself. A travel agent may still be useful if your trip is complicated, or you have specific questions. But the model itself is broken. Worse than just introducing a middleman, in my case they introduced TWO layers of indirection – the airline who sells to the wholesaler who sells to the travel agency who sells to me. And none of them can be bothered to send me a text message when my flight time changes. Travel agencies aren’t dead, they just smell funny1)Frank Zappa originally said this in reference to jazz, and I like jazz. But jazz musicians are still mostly broke. .

Oh right, vacation. We went to Secrets Huatulco to celebrate a year of marriage. Huatulco is Pacific Mexico, pretty dang close to the equator (~15° N) which means hot. The view is what sold us. I mean…

view from sky bar

The resort sprawls along its own private coast, flanked by the rock formations, and built into the side of a foothill of the Sierra Madre del Sur Mountains which means even the cheap seats have an ocean view.

All Secrets resorts are adult only. This makes a big difference.

All-inclusive is a trojan horse. Plenty of resorts are all-inclusive and we generally prefer traveling this way for resort vacations. It probably ends up being a wash anyway, but the psychology of not having to constantly reach for your wallet works. The problem though is that all-inclusive is more of a metric for quantity and implies nothing about what is actually being offered. Cheap buffets, watered-down drinks, etc – all included.

Secrets tries to separate themselves by calling it “Unlimited Luxury®”. It’s marketing speak, sure, but they are really trying. This particular resort had 5 restaurants and a buffet – an Italian, Mexican, Asian/Sushi, French, and Steakhouse. The service in these restaurants was on par with some of the nicer places we’ve been in Chicago, and in general the food was fantastic. The Secrets Resort we stayed at in the Mayan Riviera was trying a bit harder with some molecular gastronomy techniques – various foams were common, and this unfortunate chocolate reduction thing made its way onto far too many of our entrees. The dining experience here was a bit more vanilla, and I don’t mean that negatively. Though the restaurants share the same name across all resorts, the food varies in step with the sensibilities of the chefs.

Tipping for fun and profit. Your tips are already included in the price of your stay, but you should tip anyway. A dollar a drink, 5-10 dollars for a 2 hour 5 course meal is enough and is much appreciated, and in some cases they will show it. At the Mexican restaurant, I requested for the waiter to choose a Mezcal that would pair nicely with my entree. This turned into a tasting with Mezcals paired with various citrus fruits and spices and eventually “saltamontes” which I learned means grasshoppers. They were small and cured and fine, I guess. Not particularly gross, and the texture wasn’t offensive, but they were mostly just a transport vessel for salt. Whatever though, it was a memorable experience afforded by a rapport that was built up with the employees there.

Lots of the restaurants had special off-menu items that they would surprise their favorite guests with. At the French restaurant (would you believe our favorite meal in Mexico was at a French Restaurant?), our waiter brought us snails that were maybe the best I’ve had.

Liquor before beer. Included in your stay of course is unlimited drinks. A handful of guests seemed to have a go at testing this, but in general it was a fairly tame bunch. Bartending was hit and miss. Some of them had trouble with much beyond the basic sugary blended mess of the day, but you could find a guy to make you a passable Negroni if you tried. I don’t know, I’m probably not the right guy to judge this. They have grey goose and Captain Morgan and 1800 and Patron and Modelo and whatever 2)Who are these people who get excited about vodka. I just can’t understand this. Their best scotch is Johnnie Red. All the stuff that people get excited for because they have their twenty-dollar all-you-can-drink “top shelf” wristband at the dingy bar down the street serving free tater-tots. I’m not saying I’m above it, but maybe just on some parallel plane that values iterations of a craft over sweet brandz bro. It isn’t barrel sludge by any means, but if you prefer interestingly crafted beverages it may not be your thing. Play around with cocktails.

Preferred Club is just ok. We paid to upgrade to the preferred club. The main benefit is the upgraded room. For us this meant we got a Jacuzzi on our porch. You could also choose a swim out porch pool. There were apparently other benefits, so I’m told. We got “expedited check-in”, but besides them taking us into a private lounge this didn’t feel any different. We had access to a private self-serve bar/lounge, but why? At that point it is just piling excess on excess, and they still couldn’t be bothered with a single malt. What else. We had upgraded toiletries apparently? One day they brought us a comically large breakfast in bed that we could eat about a quarter of and we were unhappy they did that knowing how much would be wasted.

Really, it ends up only being worth it if you care about the room upgrade. At some Secrets resorts, this is the difference between and ocean view and not. At this one where they all are ocean views, we would probably pass if we do it again. We used the porch jacuzzi 2 or 3 times, but it was oddly not that private and when it is 95 outside you pretty much don’t want to be in a hot tub anyway.

Don’t hold your breath for the diving. It really was unremarkable. Visibility was mostly poor, the water was green, wildlife was sparse, and the formations were largely rocks and not coral. We’ve been spoiled by some fantastic diving in the Gulf, and maybe this is just how it goes in the Pacific. It is always fun to get underwater,  but if we return we may skip the diving all together.

On the upside, it gave me a chance to play with some new toys. This was my first time diving with my new diving computer. The main benefit is being untethered from the dive master’s computer, but the charts are fun too. Upon uploading the data though, I immediately regretted not splurging on a computer that has integrated air. I’m a slave to the stats man.

As you can see from the charts, these were pretty shallow dives. The max depth I recorded was 71 feet. The deepest I’ve ever been is 110 feet, which is right at the edge of my certification. In general I usually prefer shallow dives anyway because 1) Life is more abundant 2)Colors are more saturated and 3) you go through air a lot slower. You can see #3 in action on the second chart – this was our shallowest dive and our longest, at 65 minutes underwater.

Huatulco Dive 1

 

Huatulco Dive 2

 

Huatulco Dive 3

 

This was also my first time diving with my GoPro. I bought a red filter to put over the lens. The idea here is that the deeper you dive, the more red light is filtered out. The red filter absorbs some of the blue spectrum, resulting in a more balanced color representation. It makes your shallow videos look silly though.

That spa tho. A year ago I tried to explain what bacon tasted like to a friend who has never had it. This is a surprisingly difficult exercise. Salt, and caramelized fat, and crispy pork. This sounds reasonable, good even. But really you just need to eat bacon to know how good bacon is. I won’t put too much effort into explaining this spa, because it is bacon. All treatments begin with an included, hour-long hydrotherapy session. At the previous Secrets spa we went to this was basically a free-for-all, but here it was a guided tour through saunas and steam rooms and showers and a battery of jets designed to blast specific muscles. Once our meat was sufficiently tenderized, they walked us upstairs to our massage room that was suspended over the ocean with a panoramic view of the nearby bluffs and waves. Bacon.

White whines, first-world problems, etc.: 

We asked for a queen but got two doubles. I’m sure we could have gotten this fixed, but we just never bothered.

So you are a city who apart from tourism, is known for their coffee production. So why would you not serve coffee from Hautulco in Huatulco? And while I’m on it, yes, they did have a café with a nice espresso machine, but the espresso and lattes were a major letdown.

Trust me, I’m annoying myself too. But sometimes when you pay for a fifth star you heighten your expectations a bit.

The poolside entertainment staff was great, but the evening performances were just a few steps above choreographed karaoke. This was in contrast to Secrets Maroma, where the shows were largely great. I also think that they cut some staff due to the resort being so quiet. Normally there is at a minimum a guy on the piano in the lounges during cocktail hour, but not this time.

And finally, getting to Huatulco is just a major pain. We had a layover in Mexico City, which probably isn’t for the faint of heart. There is only one flight into the small Huatulco airport each day so if you miss it you are out of luck (We missed it, and were out of luck). There isn’t a ton to complain about but if there is something that prevents us from returning, this is probably it.

 

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1. Frank Zappa originally said this in reference to jazz, and I like jazz. But jazz musicians are still mostly broke.
2. Who are these people who get excited about vodka. I just can’t understand this

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