Old Media Needs to Die, and SpaceX Just Proved Why

Far too often, I see blogs and comments online complaining that the “mainstream media” isn’t covering their particular pet issue, for example ignoring a particular story because it doesn’t suit a certain narrative, and that this is a sign of their tribe’s persecution. I am not interested in engaging in a bravery debate, but I want to draw attention to something very disappointing, and in my opinion, very dangerous, about what information our biggest media outlets choose to focus on.

On Monday this week, the aerospace startup SpaceX successfully placed the ORBCOMM constellation of 11 communications satellites into orbit, and in the process landed the first stage of its Falcon-9 rocket so that it could theoretically be refueled and reused. Here’s the video of the event. Watch it now before reading on, I can wait. For those of you not already hip-deep in space news, this is, objectively, an event of gigantic significance. Not only is this completely new in aerospace history, but this promises to slash the cost of a launch, granting us unprecedented access to space. Yet it was barely mentioned in traditional media. This was a misstep on their part. In this post I will attempt to explain why, and what you can do about it. Read more Old Media Needs to Die, and SpaceX Just Proved Why

The Forever War

This is another Hugo and Nebula award winner, a story of interstellar war by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman.

It’s no secret that The Forever War is a spiritual retelling of Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam, although I have apparently been living under a rock and hadn’t known this when I picked the book up. Its connection to Vietnam is palpable for anyone even somewhat familiar with the history of that war, or even just the experiences of American veterans.

The protagonist William Mandella skips across time on relativistic interstellar deployments as the ages fly by back home. Before I realized what context the author was writing from, I found myself thinking about how Mandella’s experience was an exaggerated version of how those who fought in Vietnam must have felt. They came back to a home that had marked cultural changes, whose people often did not comprehend the sacrifices they made, or even know why they made them.

But the book is more than a parable about a particular war. It showcases the insanity of war in general, as viewed by those in the trenches. The book gives a front-row view of what it’s like fighting and dying for commanders who are far removed both from the grim realities of the fight, and from the civilization you’re fighting for. Haldeman’s world-building and storytelling style places you right in the action, with a visceral and inescapable sense of realism.

Military friends tell me there is much about Mandella’s life that a modern soldier can relate to. If Joe Haldeman’s goal was to make me hope no soldier ever again has to experience the alienation and waste of life that unnecessary wars cause, he was successful.

Life, Death and Fear in Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga

I recently finished reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl, and its sequels. I was immediately swept into the sequels, because Pohl uses a tactic Ben Bova would later articulate in Writing Science Fiction that Sells. Pohl set up a grand question that the story gradually answers. I’m a sucker for this formula. Every Asimov book I’ve read has done it, and Clarke was a master at it.

In Gateway, human explorers had stumbled upon an asteroid filled with abandoned, ancient starships. The long-gone aliens are dubbed Heechee and the asteroid earns the name Gateway. Humans start using the ships to explore the cosmos, but their ignorance about how the ships work make these sojourns deadly just as often as they are profitable.

The grand question was simply this: Why did a hyper-advanced spacefaring civilization totally vanish, leaving behind no artifacts whatsoever except their starships? The journey we take in the course of finding out follows the life of Robinette Broadhead, a prospector who plans to pilot one of these ships in search of riches.

But it wasn’t merely this cosmic, scientific question that drove the story in Gateway. There were other, much more intimate mysteries, which carried through in different forms through the whole series. In Gateway the primary theme was fear, and how the terror of death or failure can prevent you from living.

The story is told in a first-person, extended flashback form, and the scenes occurring in the “present” are in the office of Robinette “Bob” Broadhead’s robotic psychiatrist. Broadhead makes regular visits to this psychiatrist but persistently refuses to tell him anything about his experiences at Gateway. Fortunately, he does tell the story to the reader. At first it is a complete mystery what has put Broadhead into the shrink’s office, and his evasiveness with Sigfrid is obvious. The question here is, “What’s eating Bob?” The answer to that question in Gateway provides a moment of pathos at the climax of the book, and drives the plot of its sequels, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous.

The third, and for me the most excruciating, question throughout Gateway had to do with Robin Broadhead’s indecisiveness. Broadhead comes from a very poor background, working in shale mines in North America for subsistence wages. Much of the earth is on the brink of starvation. He wins the lottery and uses his winnings, in an uncharacteristically bold entrepreneurial move, to buy a ticket to Gateway. As a Gateway prospector, he would have at least a remote chance at riches. Of course, life as a prospector could just as easily kill him.

Once he arrives on Gateway, Broadhead spends almost all his time procrastinating. He delays. He languishes. He even lingers indecisively in his romantic relationships. Like anyone afraid of failure, he keeps waiting for a perfect opportunity that never comes. When will he finally commit?!

His ultimate decision and its consequences have a lot to do with why he’s visiting Sigfrid in the first place.

Gateway dealt a great deal with fear, living in spite of your fears and getting on with life in spite of guilt. Sometimes, mistakes cannot be undone, and hopefully we can all learn — as Robin eventually does — to carry on anyway.


The Sequels

The sequels to Gateway deal with similar themes, but Broadhead is a very different person after his adventure on Gateway. Robin has to deal with mortality, the question of his own life’s purpose, and of course with the grand question set up in the first installment. Who were the Heechee and where did they go? The books are exploring the Fermi Paradox from an angle you don’t often see. The hard-science pieces of the puzzle rely on some outdated physics (like a contracting universe) but overall the answer to the grand question was worth the journey.

The Martian by Andy Weir

Prose changes over time. Popular fiction has always been influenced by other popular forms. Early novels borrowed structure from the epics and plays that came before, and some of those techniques still persist in the books and movies of today.

For better or worse, as attention spans for the written word have gradually shortened, it only makes sense to see fiction fitting itself into the abbreviated forms we’ve grown accustomed to in the age of the tweet.

The Martian is written mostly in the form of protagonist Mark Watney’s personal log, beginning on the day his team was forced to leave him for dead on Mars due to catastrophically bad luck.

With the main character in such complete isolation, his log entries are centered on himself, his thoughts, and the record of his own activities, written down without knowing whether anyone out there will ever read his words. So in effect you’re reading his blog. Some entries are rich with technical information, others are short, informal observations. Some are jokes that would fit into a tweet. All of it drips with a dark sense of humor that would be completely at home in social media.

If you’re the type who insists on traditional literary forms, where the tale is told in objective third-person and has a definite first, second, and third act, this style might feel un-literary. If you expect an almost allegorical level of metaphor — as we’ve seen in popular young adult fiction lately — the story may feel pointless.

But I assure you on both counts: it isn’t. The story comes at you in small, rapidly-digestible chunks, each one ending at the cusp of yet another one of Mark Watney’s life-and-death conundrums. There are larger conclusions about life and humanity one could draw from the story, but except for a one-paragraph homily toward the end, the author isn’t trying to thrust any of them on you.

You should read this book for the adventure, and for the utterly convincing realism. You will be transported to Mars, under some of the worst conditions, and you’ll love it.

Neuromancer: Digital Poetry

One can’t read Neuromancer today without noticing the strong influence it had on the writer(s) of The Matrix. Not only in terminology, but in the aesthetics of the story’s world. The universe of Neuromancer is not quite dystopian, but it is a world where technology, biological life, and artificial intelligences jumble together in an existence rife with conflict and death. As the novel that practically invented the cyberpunk genre, this should be no surprise.

The obvious piece of terminology borrowed from Neuromancer is the matrix itself. Except in the case of this novel, it is the word used to describe the digital realm, like the Internet, except it is experienced as direct sensory input. The matrix is a glowing three-dimensional world of fantastical colors and movement. Someone adept at navigating it, such as Case, the story’s protagonist, can break into storehouses of data the same way a master burglar might break into a museum. And that is the primary plot of this story: An epic digital heist orchestrated by a shadowy, unknown figure with consequences that are cosmic in scope.

If you want to see an author demonstrate a poetic ability to describe altered-consciousness experiences, you should read this book. For me, the single most striking feature of the book was the author’s treatment of Case’s experiences with mind-altering drugs and the world of the Matrix. It had a visceral clarity I normally associate with excellent poetry. Gibson’s flourishes of sound and timing created the sensation that I was in Case’s head, feeling his euphoria, his disorientation, or even his pain. I can remember setting the book down after one of Case’s harrowing episodes with drugs and saying to myself, “Well, now I know what it’s like to be on LSD.”

Rushing through the Matrix to steal an AI program or suffering the comedown from an acid trip were some of the book’s more exciting parts, but there was a more abstract reason I feel this book is best described with the phrase “digital poetry.” This digital world was a living universe of extremes, of danger and adventure. Most people picture the world of technology as stark, lifeless and harsh: like HAL9000, the merciless creature of logic in 2001: A Space Odyssey. For William Gibson the future technological world will cross-pollinate with our organic lives so completely it will be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. He sees a future where artificial intelligences not only exist, but are in a sense more alive than we are. Over a century and a half before, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, wherein technology produces something monstrous and irreconcilable. Neuromancer is far more optimistic: Technology produces a world that is more real (for some people at least) than reality, and produces creatures that are bigger, more intelligent, and possibly more alive, than human beings. In the world of Neuromancer, technology augments human bodies, extends the reach of their senses, and amplifies their minds.

The concept of a superior artificial being is used in many science fiction stories, so often in fact that it seems as though we assume one day our creations will surpass us, and almost certainly kill us. In most cases the artifice turns on us, as in 2001The Matrix, and a thousand other dystopian futures where the robots take over. For Gibson, most of those expectations of mankind’s digital progeny are there, including their high intelligence, incredible speed, and mastery even of manipulating human minds. But absent is much of the menace, malice or vengeance. Indeed, the characters fear and distrust the AI even while it employs them, but one of the great surprises of the novel is what it does with its power.

I take this to mean the author sees technology not as a Pandora’s Box, but as a beautiful and inevitable part of mankind’s future.

Where Should Bitcoin’s Default Decimal Be?

Around the time the price of a bitcoin rose into the high 900s late last year, some exchanges and bitcoin websites chose to offer the option to display bitcoins in terms of “milli” bitcoins. Bitcoinity, for example, made it their default display mode for the price, which persists today and has seen a great deal of adoption among bitcoin wallet applications. Bitcoin-qt, Blockchain.info and Electrum all offer mBTC as a display option for your bitcoin balance. This list isn’t exhaustive, but you get the idea. Bitcoin-qt does offer microbitcoins (uBTC) as a display option, but the others do not.

With the exchange rate of one standard BTC in the triple digits in most Western currencies, and higher still in Yen, Rubles or Yuan, hardly anyone disagrees that bitcoin’s ergonomics would be well-served by a move of the decimal. Based on implementations seen so far, it would appear the community’s consensus is to use mBTC for the time being. That may be, but the move to mBTC appears to be a move of expediency made somewhat in haste. As Jeff Garzik said today on the bitcoin development mailing list:

Shipping with mBTC defaults was decidedly unwise, considering that — like BTC — it fails to solve existing, known problems that uBTC can solve, and considering the inevitable mBTC to uBTC switch.

In other words, mBTC may temporarily solve the problem of appearances, but leaves other existing issues unresolved. Issues that can interfere with adoption, and the standardization the world expects from a currency. For example, currency formats in commonly-used software are almost always two decimal places. Neither the traditional BTC denomination nor millibitcoins fit this restriction. Microbitcoins do. Attempting to fit mBTC or BTC into systems not designed for more than two decimal places in currency could result in incorrect calculations. If the bitcoin software’s numbers do not exactly match those of the financial software, it will make audits very difficult. The reality of legacy financial software being what it is, a final move to uBTC seems inevitable.

The best argument in favor of sticking to millibitcoins for now is that it appears everyone is already doing it anyway. Further, microbitcoin balances would look very high compared to the numbers most people see every day, while the same number expressed in mBTC fits our day-to-day much better. In the words of Mike Hearn:

If you have to export to financial packages that can’t handle fractional pennies, then by all means represent prices in whatever units you like for that purpose, but in software designed for ordinary people in everyday life mBTC is a pretty good fit.

Besides, fractional pennies crop up in existing currencies too (the famous Verizon Math episode showed this), so if a financial package insists on rounding to 2dp then I guess it may sometimes do the wrong thing in some business cases already.

In one sense, the products we are talking about are software, so there is no technical reason we can’t do uBTC in one context and mBTC in another. It just might confuse people. We do see fractional cents from time to time in fiat currencies so it’s possible going all the way down to microbitcoins is unnecessary at the moment.

Regardless, with Wall Street knocking on bitcoin’s door more intently by the day, the decisions that go into the development of client software are only going to get more important. This is open source software, so the decisions will be made by those who choose to act and implement a solution.

Bubbles and Bitcoin

Every time the price of bitcoin rises sharply there is a lot of talk about whether or not it is “in a bubble.” Naysayers and true believers alike squawk that they’re right and everyone else is wrong. Bitcoin is either going “to the Moon!” or into the gutter. One side grumbles about speculators and the other seems blithely ignorant their influence. The same stock phrases are shot back and forth and nobody ends up understanding the situation any better. There seems to be lots of talk about bubbles but very little understanding of what actually comprises a speculative mania, so I hope you find my contribution helpful.

The Nature of Bubbles

Anyone interested in the subject of “bubble” economics should pick up Douglas E. French’s book Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply. What we can learn from French’s research is that speculative bubbles are first and foremost monetary phenomena. The infamous case of tulip mania, for example, had its origins in a Dutch policy where the government would subsidize the transformation of any gold into the national currency. Combined with pirating operations and burgeoning foreign trade, gold rushed into the Dutch economy literally by the boatload. The book covers a number of other cases, but to make a long story short, rapid expansions in the money supply can instigate speculative manias, depending on what catches investors’ fancy during that time.

Bitcoin’s price has been on a sharply upward trajectory again, but as others have written before, new technologies don’t have linear adoption curves. Since bitcoin’s price is inextricably tied to its level of adoption, movements in price like this should be expected if the technology is indeed gaining traction.

A price graph alone isn’t enough to predict a bubble, and a bubble isn’t merely a rapid rise and fall of price. Bubbles are a specific kind of phenomenon and they include a few characteristics I haven’t yet seen in the bitcoin market. According to Antonin Murphy, the sequence of events in a bubble looks something like this:

  1. An exogenous shock, like the start or end of a war, a technological or natural resource discovery, or a precipitous drop in interest rates suddenly creates new opportunities for profit, and a boom begins.
  2. The boom is nurtured by an expansion of the money supply, or the velocity of circulation increases.
  3. As demand increases so do prices, and with higher prices come more profit opportunities. Multiplier and accelerator effects interact and a “euphoric state” begins. Overtrading may also happen.
  4. Overtrading might take the form of pure speculation: the buying of assets for capital gain as opposed to income return from the asset. It may also take the form of buying on margin or installment purchases.
  5. Newcomers anticipating easy money become numerous. The insiders start to recognize the risk and start selling.
  6. A “financial distress” period sets in when the newcomers realize that if there is a big sell-off, prices will collapse. The race to exit hastens.
  7. Revulsion for the asset develops as banks start calling in loans and selling collateral.
  8. Finally, panic sets in as the market collapses. Some may start looking to government for a bailout.

We’ve seen big price swings, but if we use the above as a rubric I wouldn’t say we’ve seen any “bubble” activity. Perhaps the exogenous shock might be the Federal Reserve’s “QE infinity” program, FinCEN’s announcement in the US, China’s announcement of non-regulation, or the invention of bitcoin itself. It is, after all, an unprecedented new technology. As for a growing money supply, the world’s central banks are doing that all the time. But that money hasn’t been going into bitcoin yet. From the evidence before us, bitcoin’s price explosions can be more easily attributed to the volatility of a small market gaining interest. In April we saw an 80% drop in the price, from $260 down to the neighborhood of $50, yet here we are at a multiple of that previous high. In a bubble, the crash occurs because everyone discovers that the high price was completely, idiotically, unrealistic. Once it pops there’s little reason to get back in for years. It is much more plausible that that particular case was just temporarily overzealous new money.

In the end, everyone who got in still believes bitcoin has a future. I have yet to hear someone say “I got burned and I’m never using bitcoin again!” Anyone who tries it discovers how empowering it is to have a cash-like asset that can be teleported across the globe at a moment’s notice, without the risks posed by credit cards or the limits imposed by the legacy banking system. The euphoric period of a bubble produces prices that are outlandishly beyond a logical valuation of the asset. But what’s the logical valuation of a bitcoin? It totally depends on what kind of future you anticipate for the technology. If it merely ends up being half of one percent of worldwide e-commerce, that’s still going to mean far and away more demand than we see today. If entrepreneurs and technologists can build the infrastructure that bitcoin needs for widespread adoption, and the world agrees that it wants bitcoin, a price of $800 per coin will seem like a bargain. Maybe that won’t happen. Either way, the price will respond accordingly.

Anecdotally, there don’t seem to be very many people taking enormous, deluded risks on bitcoin, which is the sort of thing you would see in a bubble. There certainly hasn’t been enough of that to call it “widespread.” It is still a difficult currency to get into, difficult to handle, and for most people who hear about it, the very concept is still confusing and arcane. It can take days or weeks to get fiat funds into a bitcoin exchange. You can’t buy bitcoin futures, buy them on margin, or anything else that speculators use other than making straight purchases. The financial ecosystem of bitcoin just isn’t developed enough to facilitate a real bubble.

Even if we did see a bubble, the cat is out of the bag. We now know that a distributed, headless payment network is possible, and there are just too many benefits to give up on the idea. If bitcoin turns out to be a failed implementation, then the crytpography hackers who have been working on it will either adapt it or come up with something better. Now that cryptocurrency is here, it’s not going away. The only question is: what role will it play in the future? With the rapid changes that took a geeky invention like email from university laboratories to your grandmother’s kitchen, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suspect bitcoin can have a similar trajectory.

“Bubble” is Not an Epitaph

People will cry “bubble” as if it’s a knock against bitcoin or a sentence of doom. But the bubbles of history always had more to do with inflationary monetary policy than they did with any of the asset’s flaws. The Dutch tulips didn’t do anything wrong. Stocks in the 1920s didn’t do anything wrong. In 2007 the houses didn’t do anything wrong. We still have tulips, stocks and real estate today. The problem instead was bad monetary policy, which bamboozled entire industries into producing too much of the wrong thing.

We may yet see that happen with bitcoin, but it will only happen once the institutions closer to the central banking money spigots get involved. Unusually high growth in the money supply has always been the lifeblood of speculative bubbles. If and when it does happen, all it means is that some self-deluding gamblers are probably going to lose money. But the technology will still be there, with better and better infrastructure all the time.

But here’s my prediction: if there are ever assets priced primarily in bitcoin, you will not see speculative bubbles in them the way we’ve seen bubbles happen on Wall Street. Why? Because big artificial boosts in the money supply are just not possible with bitcoin. Under the current Dollar regime, the Fed can pin interest rates to the floor, and this easy money can breed bubbles. Bitcoin doesn’t do that.

Try not to Think About Price so Much

It’s fun to see your balance in fiat grow by leaps and bounds overnight, but bitcoin is about something much more important. Bitcoin is about bringing some wonderful traits money used to have into the 21st century. Once upon a time the value of the currency was determined by the marketplace, not centrally managed by a government. Once upon a time the growth of the money supply happened at a predictable rate not set by a central planner. Instead, it happened commensurate with the time and effort spent making more of the currency and the uses it could be put to. Once upon a time, the money itself was not an instrument governments could use to impose shadow taxes on its people.

Bitcoin is about bringing those features back, in a form ready for the demands of a technologically sophisticated world. The price can zip up and down and do loop-de-loops every day for all I care, as long as the right features and infrastructure can keep developing and adoption grows.

Rand Paul is not his dad, and that’s a good thing

What sad times are these that all a man must do to rock the boat is refuse to sit down.

When I learned last Wednesday about Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan’s appointment as CIA chief, I was thrilled that someone, anyone, in Congress was standing up against a war policy that should have every American fuming. To have our own government take the killing of mere suspects so cavalierly should have us very worried indeed.

I wasn’t as interested in the filibuster as I was in how it would be received in the media, or how it would affect the political discussion. Ron Paul has made many a lengthy speech in front of Congress, most of them more damning of horrific policies than Rand’s talkathon, and for all Ron’s eloquence and erudition, those seem to have moved the political needle none whatsoever. Would Rand’s gambit be any different?

John McCain denounced it as a “political stunt.” He’s not wrong that it was a political stunt. It was just as much as stunt as his “detainment” at the hands of the TSA. Nearly everything that happens in the in political news in America is a stunt of some nature. The real question is: what does it do to the news narrative? Does it benefit the cause of liberty or detract from it? Does it draw attention to a genuine issue we should care about or doesn’t it? Does it move the discussion towards freedom or away from it?

Ridiculous political stunts about irrelevant nonsense abound, but Rand Paul has managed to generate buzz about something that’s actually important. And this isn’t the first time he’s done it. Last year he faced off with the TSA. Just as it did this time, his outlandish stand alone struck a chord with a lot of Americans who don’t consider themselves libertarians. Unlike his first stand alone, he was eventually joined by the likes of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and even Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus.

I expected to see universal mainstream media condemnation for the Senator. The Wall Street Journal certainly came through on that count but it is heartening to see the positive spin in places I didn’t expect. Since last week, some have described him as a new GOP leader. To others it is increasingly clear that he will be a strong contender for the Republican Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.

One NYT blog writer rightly states that while the topic of Rand’s filibuster was quite narrow, the important takeaway is this: A paleo-conservative with a sane foreign policy is growing in influence in the GOP.

This is what we sorely need. Great party influence is something Ron Paul never really achieved, but his years of work did open the door. The libertarian ideals have needed an advocate who knows how to proactively navigate the world of political power and influence. That man was not Ron Paul, power just isn’t his style. But maybe it is Rand.

To read more about how the filibuster was received, I recommend this post by Jack Hunter.

A Deepness in the Sky: A Fable of Liberty and Tyranny

A Deepness in the Sky is easily in my top three favorite science fiction novels of all time. It is a story that envisions what humanity’s spacefaring future might be, and the questions we’ll have to answer when making first contact. Best of all, it is about the eternal struggle between liberty and tyranny.

Vernor Vinge has a remarkable talent for world-building. In this book he constructs a universe in which planetary civilizations rise and fall, while a culture of traders called the Qeng Ho (pronounced “Cheng Ho”) shuttle across the cosmos in great ramscoop fleets. The traders themselves live on their ships in a commercial meritocracy, and through their extensive travel and trade manage to spark settled human planets that have fallen into poverty, and glean the best advances from worlds that have come up with new inventions.

The story begins with the discovery of a non-human intelligence orbiting a mysterious star making its first radio signals. A Qeng Ho fleet rushes to investigate, only to be met by a fleet calling themselves Emergents. The Emergents come from an authoritarian society, as opposed to the free-trading meritocracy enjoyed by the Qeng Ho. The Emergents are not merely totalitarians. They have invented a unique technology that allows them to hijack human minds, and turn those humans into highly efficient automatons. This process called “focus” is a form of slavery, and appears to be more than a match for the sophisticated technological automation used by the Qeng Ho.

From the very first meeting of these two societies, there is tension. The two are competitors. Whoever is able to open trade first with the newly discovered race of “Spiders” on the planet below will enjoy unheard-of profits. Cooperation would benefit them both, but as in real life, authoritarians are not as interested in cooperation as they are in domination. Read more A Deepness in the Sky: A Fable of Liberty and Tyranny


This is a story I wrote a few years ago. This is so far my only foray into a type of science fiction I could describe as “horror.” It came from wondering about how a machine might react when given a purpose but no moral context with which to fulfill it. The lead character has had something terrible happen to him, but at first he does not know what. As he slowly recalls, he is forced to decide whether or not to tell his friends. Would they accept the kind of monster he has become — has always been?

You can purchase it at Amazon for a dollar, or download Former in MOBI or EPUB formats.