The dot com bubble and the bitcoin boom

In the 90s the internet boom happened. It was two things: a revolution in the way we create, organise and share information, and a speculative investment mania dubbed the dot com bubble. One of those things survived and grew, the other popped.

Right now the bitcoin boom is happening. It is two things: a revolution in the way we transfer and store money, and a speculative investment mania yet to be dubbed. Predicting the long term value of a bitcoin is a mug’s game. If/when the bubble pops it won’t be the end though, just like with the dot com bubble.

The more interesting part of bitcoin is the part that will endure no matter what happens to the price. Bitcoin is a decentralised system of transferring money. No central authority is in control, no one can arbitrarily decide that an organisation is illegal and cut off payments. This is both a good and a bad thing depending on the organisation and your personal politics; for example I think that bypassing the financial blockade on wikileaks is great, but that bypassing local gambling regulations and making money off of problem gamblers is bad. Either way it’s certainly interesting, because it’s very hard to stop it. Regulation and illegality could make using bitcoin inconvenient, but it’d probably still be more convenient than using cash for the same purposes. Bitcoins are like cash you can send overseas as quickly and easily as an email.

Bitcoin also cuts out the financial middle-men to a degree. There are no banks, paypal, or visa networks to take their cut. There are some small fees to keep the network going (currently less than 10c per transaction) which get paid to the distributed network of people verifying all these transactions to make sure no one double spends their bitcoin balance. There are payment processors like bitpay which take their cut in return for making it easy for merchants to accept bitcoin, but using them is entirely optional.

In addition to just cheaper transactions, there are some applications where I would find bitcoin more useful than traditional currency/payment processors. Sending money to relatives overseas? Want to buy stuff from overseas to avoid the ridiculous regional pricing, but don’t have a US based credit card? The other day I paid for a couple of coffees at a nearby cafe with bitcoin, and was surprised at how quick and easy it was. Visa paywave still beats it, but it’s comparable to counting coins or pin/sign credit card transactions and given that bitcoin point of sale systems are still in their infancy this will no doubt improve. I’d be sceptical when people say that bitcoin is going take over a good proportion of the payment processing / money sending market, but I think it will at least get a tiny slice of something. Until an even better alternative is invented of course.

Finally the USA style libertarians jumping on the bitcoin bandwagon will tell you that all governments will eventually print so much fiat money that it will be devalued, or just go the way of Cyprus and freeze everyone’s bank accounts. By contrast they say that bitcoin is deflationary (there can only ever be 21 million of them “printed”) and they can’t be seized as long as you keep the password to yourself. Sure bitcoin is deflationary in the sense that supply is limited, but that doesn’t mean the value can never drop; the other side of that equation, demand, is completely untethered. And while no one can seize your bitcoins, the downside of no centrally trusted bank / government is that you might lose your bitcoins to hackers, hard drive failure, forgetfulness, death or the dust bin and you’ll never get them back.


A programmer’s guide to recipe writing

A computer program is nothing more than a list of instructions that the computer follows, a “recipe” if you will. The thing is, computers are stupid. They follow instructions to the letter, like good little robots, with no understanding of what you (the programmer) is trying to achieve.

Computer programmers like myself are therefore experts at writing instructions that are easily understandable, unambiguous, and hard to screw up. Which is why I fucking hate cookbooks.

Let’s take a look at some recipe excerpts. First up, “free” beer:

Sparge with 15,5 L of 78 °C water.
Collect 22,7 L of wort.
Remember to add Northern Brewer hops at the beginning
of sparge a.k.a. First Wort Hops/FWH.

Ok so first I sparge, then I collect wort, then I… “remember” to have done something at the start of the sparging process. Fuck! Don’t provide instructions out of order. The people following your recipe are not as good as modern CPUs. You’ll see this a lot in recipes where they will say “put it into an oven preheated to 180 degrees”. People read recipes top to bottom, they shouldn’t have to pour over the whole thing to find the instruction they should be doing first (pre-heating the oven) at the end of the recipe.

Next up, vegan pancakes:

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add the fruit and toss to coat the fruit with the dry mix.
  2. Combine the wet ingredients in a measuring cup.

Step 1 includes multiple instructions! I know when I am cooking, I can’t handle MIMD. Either break it down into multiple steps like so:

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl.
  2. Add the fruit and toss to coat the fruit with the dry mix.
  3. Combine the wet ingredients in a measuring cup.

Or do it all 1 sentence per instructions like this:

Mix the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Add the fruit and toss to coat the fruit with the dry mix. Combine the wet ingredients in a measuring cup.

Next we have Stef’s Lemon rosemary olive oil cake:

Make a well, and pour in:
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (for the flavour)
2 tbsp arrowroot or cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp water to dissolve (this is a good binding agent)
1 tbsp baking powder mixed with 1/2 cup of soy (or other preferred) milk to dissolve and get a bit frothy (raising agent)
Juice and grated zest of 1 lemon with 1/2 cup of preferred milk and sit for a sec til it curdles (another raising agent)

Oh, Stef, I expected more from you. It’s so ambiguous! Do I mix the ingredients separate container and then add them to the well? Do I mix them after I put them in the well? And what is “making a well anyway”?

I could go on with a few more examples, but I’ll leave it there. No wait, I hate it when they put instructions in the ingredients section, e.g. “Ingredients: 1 tomato, blanched peeled, and lightly fried”. Ok I’m done.

Random shit I like

Here is some stuff that has been keeping me entertained lately.

First up we have Madonna’s single “Like a prayer” which has been on heavy rotation in my brain lately.

Next we have Oblivion mod Nehrim.

Nehrim is awesome, better than vanilla oblivion in many ways, and for a free mod it is unbelievable how big it is. I have put 30 hours into it so far and I’ve barely scratched the surface. In a recent jaunt I decided to trek to the mountains at the edge of the game just to have a look, only to tumble down the other side and realise that those red lines on the map aren’t the edge of the game, they are just the borders of each region. The only downsides are the dreadfully long and linear opening segment, and the woeful cpu limited performance when outdoors in some cities (11 fps).

Lastly we have a book that I read ages ago and liked, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

I am mentioning it now mostly because I am annoyed that they are turning it into a movie starring Thomas Fucking Hanks and Sandra Fucking Bullock.