Schneier on Blockchain. AOC’s Green New Deal resolution. Three layers of identity. Purpose. VR. And a vegetative Faraday cage. — No.66

Because I’ve been meaning to try it again and time was a bit short this week: a different format for this issue, no categories, just a series of my most interesting / note-worthy finds.

A year ago: The House That Spied on Me.

No Good Reason to Trust Blockchain Technology

Bruce Schneier with a methodical tear down of the trust claims of Blockchain tech, how they relate to real world trust (and what it is), the ways in which it doesn’t work in Bitcoin, etc. Very well argued and explains some angles often not covered.

What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure. […]

In many ways, trusting technology is harder than trusting people. Would you rather trust a human legal system or the details of some computer code you don’t have the expertise to audit? […]

These issues are not bugs in current blockchain applications, they’re inherent in how blockchain works. Any evaluation of the security of the system has to take the whole socio-technical system into account. Too many blockchain enthusiasts focus on the technology and ignore the rest. […]

Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.

The Green New Deal: Ocasio-Cortez and Markey introduce resolution

David Roberts (@drvox) with a detailed deconstruction of the proposed Green New Deal resolution that was introduced last week. Goes over the big priorities (justice and investment), the fights it smartly avoids (carbon pricing being one), some policies it avoids, and “aspirational illusions” it includes. A very long shot but imagine if enough progressives were elected next year, and some version of this passed. Potential global game changer.

Given all those demands, the resolution does a remarkably good job of threading the needle. It is bold and unmistakably progressive, matched to the problem as defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while avoiding a few needless fights and leaving room for plenty of debate over priorities and policy tools. […]

The goals — achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, creating jobs, providing for a just transition, securing clean air and water — are broadly popular. The projects — things like decarbonizing electricity, transportation, and industry, restoring ecosystems, upgrading buildings and electricity grids — are necessary and sensible (if also extremely ambitious). […]

Creating dense urban areas with ample public spaces and multimodal transportation options — deprioritizing private automobiles and reducing overall automobile traffic — serves multiple progressive goals. […]

But take a step back and appreciate: The progressive movement has, in rather short order, thrust into mainstream US politics a program to address climate change that is wildly more ambitious than anything the Democratic Party was talking about even two years ago. One hundred percent clean energy, investment in new jobs, and a just transition have gone from activist dreams to the core of the Democratic agenda in the blink of a political eye. There’s a long way to go, but the GND train has come farther, faster than anyone could have predicted.

Your digital identity has three layers, and you can only protect one of them

Very good explanation of the three layers of our digital identity. What we actively and knowingly share (although most don’t know the impacts). What our behaviour tells “them” (surveillance capitalists). “These are not so much choices you consciously make, but the metadata that gives context to those choices.” And what “the machines” think about us. “Your data are analyzed by various algorithms and compared with other users’ data for meaningful statistical correlations.”

The author calls the last two our digital shadow but doesn’t mention the shadow profile that companies like Facebook compile on us, whether we are on the platform or not. The conclusion is good, more transparency, but it shouldn’t only be about perfecting the data about us but deciding if it’s to be deleted.

The bad news is that when it comes to your digital profile, the data you choose to share is just the tip of an iceberg. We do not see the rest that is hidden under the water of the friendly interfaces of mobile apps and online services. The most valuable data about us is inferred beyond our control and without our consent. It’s these deeper layers we can’t control that really make the decisions, not us. […]

The task of these profile-mapping algorithms is to guess things that you are not likely to willingly reveal. These include your weaknesses, psychometric profile, IQ level, family situation, addictions, illnesses, whether we are about to separate or enter in a new relationship, your little obsessions (like gaming), and your serious commitments (like business projects). […]

The only way to regain full control over our profiles is to convince those who do the profiling to change their approach. Instead of hiding this data from us, they could become more transparent. Instead of guessing our location, relationships, or hidden desires behind our backs, they could ask questions and respect our answers.

VR and the Problem of How We Talk About Tech

Jaron Lanier rambles on a bit about his personal history with VR, the role of technologists, and what tech can and could do. Still an enjoyable read with some good threads in there and definitely some good quotes to ponder.

You don’t perceive the world pristinely; instead, you perceive how your personal history, philosophy, culture, and cognitive habits mix with the world out there beyond your head. […]

Technologists unambiguously make the future different from the past, irreversibly, and fast enough to have it whack us in the face in our own lifetimes, even when we’re still young. Sure, once in a while, other people can redirect history through politics, war, culture, or ideas — but technologists do it all the time. […] ?

Any program that can be thought of as an A.I. program can also be thought of as just a program people wrote, generally using data stolen from other people to manipulate those other people. If you think that’s too cynical an interpretation, then put the rhetoric aside and look at what A.I. programs are actually being deployed in the real world today. […]

Virtual reality was supposed to be like that. The original idea, for me at least, was that it would be a giant new space opening up that people would use to either build new bridges between each other with fabulous “post-symbolic” forms of waking state, shared dreams — or to avoid each other, as if we were in deep space, where there was plenty of room for everyone.

Let’s get real about purpose

Mariana Mazzucato going over some of the “purpose” statements in recent years, like from Blackrock CEO Larry Fink, opining that we should go further and find ways of making actual progress beyond words. She lists “three key steps that would make this new sense of purpose for ‘real’”: What to create, citing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a good example; How to evaluate (see second quote below); How to share, about public institutions sharing not only the risks but also the rewards, one of her repeated battle cries.

To get real about purpose we need to concentrate on purpose throughout production, recognise that value is created collectively, and build more symbiotic partnerships between public institutions, private institutions and civil society. […]

Governments should worry less about handouts and more about using instruments like procurement and prize schemes, to nurture the bottom up solutions within companies needed to address the development goals. Less picking winners and more picking the willing.

?? Computational Landscape Architecture

Geoff Manaugh attaching a bunch of technical articles about wifi into a kind of magically realistic little series of fantasies about forests and computers.

You can imagine, for example, vindictive foreign governments purposefully surrounding an American embassy with trees unpermissive of signal propagation, even deliberately donating specific indoor plant species known for their negative effects on electromagnetic signals. A kind of living, vegetative Faraday cage.

Read their paper to find out more, but what seems so interesting in the present context is the idea that forested landscapes could be grown to cultivate their WiFi computational ability. Like botanical pinball machines, you could design, plant, and grow entire forests based on their ability to reflect future WiFi signals in very specific ways, artificial landscapes destined to perform computational tasks.


I love this concept of the Elderblog; re-inventing an old blog as a second level. Re-using it as compost for a late-style or elder blog.

An elder game tends to be more open-ended than the nominal game. In the ideal case, it is a mature infinite game that can go on indefinitely.