Month: April 2014

Not Safe

“I’m not a gun-slinger”, he hissed at me, “I’m an assassin. It’s not a predilection, it’s a service.”

“Either way, you kill for money”, I said. “If they had money, you’d kill me.”

He stared through the grill where the window had once been, and out into the dark. His hangdog face gave away nothing. “Oh, they got money. This is different.”

“So you’ll help?” I asked.

“Help?” he replied, “You think this is help? Kid, this isn’t help, this is preservation. They’re coming for me just as much as they’re coming for you.” Then he turned to me and grinned, the first I’d ever seen from him. His face didn’t look like it did it often – or even liked it, “They just want you a little more.” He nodded to the corner, then turned back to the dark, waiting, “Don’t you have something to do?”

I had thought we would be safe out here, quietly existing among the dusty mix of trees and rocks, minding our own business. But I was wrong, and we weren’t safe. They were coming for us now, and I realised that despite all my efforts, there was simply no escape – the past was about to catch up with me very quickly and very violently.

I moved across to the small bench in the corner, took a breath, paused, and let it out slowly. Then I set to work on the pipe bombs. Just as I’d learned all those years ago.

Bitcoin and its Environmental Impact

I was recently asked about how I felt about the environmental impact of virtual currencies, given that the energy required to mine the coins gets almost exponentially higher as fewer remain.

I don’t think for a minute that environmental impact will ever be the limiting factor in Bitcoin mining (I could wax lyrical on the human condition and its all-consuming need for power, to the detriment the environment, for paragraph after paragraph), and here’s an example of why.

GPU performance requirement for mining the remaining bitcoins is so high that it requires significant investment to make it feasible to do so. And that’s a continual investment, as it means replacing your GPU board each time a faster one is released. And that probably means you’ll need a new PSU into the bargain (the forthcoming Radeon R9 295X2 8 GB from AMD will be priced around the $1500 mark – no UK prices available as yet – and has an un-clocked power draw of 500W). So it’s no longer commercially viable for home users to mine what’s left, even with dedicated hardware (no more “I bought the hardware for gaming, and I mine overnight”). The hurdle is financial, and that finance is all Bitcoin-oriented.

So the scarcity of bitcoins requires increased processing, leads to increased investment, increased power consumption, and the inevitable increase in Environmental impact. Sadly it won’t be the environmental impact that will put people off mining (or make it problematical), it will only ever be the diminishing ROI that the necessary increase in more powerful hardware dictates.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria (Miller)…

It’s rare that I’m moved to write to an MP, as I generally find that they’re odious creatures, oozing self-importance, and with whom contact will only result in the overwhelming and immediate need for a shower. However, yesterday I sent an email to Maria Miller. She’s the Member for Parliament for Basingstoke, and has mis-claimed over £45,000 in expenses, but only required by her peers to pay back £5,800 of it and give a formal apology to the house (which she duly did – it was in front of an almost notional level of attendees, and lasted 32 seconds).

Dear Maria

Can I call you Maria? I do hope so – I’d like us to be friends, and hopefully I can kick-start that friendship by asking for some advice.

How do you manage to not get arrested, prosecuted, and then incarcerated for stealing £45,000? I’m amazed that you’re still “at large” (as they would probably say on Crimewatch), never mind still employed. If I’d stolen £45,000 from my employer, I wouldn’t be sat here now wasting my time writing you an email that, no doubt, one of your minions will protect you from, no – I’d be ‘banged up good and proper’ with my fellow criminals. And you’d probably agree that I should be there, and quite rightly too.

Your audacity is a wonder to behold, and I applaud you for it. By that, I mean I wish you all the very worst that life can throw at you. You have betrayed the public of this nation with your deceit and hubris.

Shame on you.

Warmest regards
Pinky

PS: Do please get in touch, I really do see a future in this relationship – I’d love to come and visit you. By the way, what is the nearest women’s prison to Basingstoke?

I received an automated reply, which was more than I’d bargained for, it has to be said. The thing that really made me chuckle (it happens) was that, the instant I sent it, I received an email regarding a petition on Change.org demanding her resignation (or a return of the £45k). I signed it. Obviously. Of course, subsequent searches for “Maria Miller” on change.org now return pages of petitions in which she’s mentioned, a half-dozen of which call for her resignation/arrest.

I’m off to watch my sing-along copy of “The Sound of Music”. No points for guessing which part gets the most noise complaints from the neighbours…

THEY’RE MADE OUT OF MEAT

by Terry Bisson

“They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“Meat. They’re made out of meat.”

“Meat?”

“There’s no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat.”

“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”

“Maybe they’re like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage.”

“Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take long. Do you have any idea what’s the life span of meat?”

“Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside.”

“Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through.”

“No brain?”

“Oh, there’s a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“So … what does the thinking?”

“You’re not understanding, are you? You’re refusing to deal with what I’m telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat.”

“Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat!”

“Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?”

“Omigod. You’re serious then. They’re made out of meat.”

“Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they’ve been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years.”

“Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?”

“First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual.”

“We’re supposed to talk to meat.”

“That’s the idea. That’s the message they’re sending out by radio. ‘Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.’ That sort of thing.”

“They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?”
“Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat.”

“I thought you just told me they used radio.”

“They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat.”

“Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?”

“Officially or unofficially?”

“Both.”

“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”

“I was hoping you would say that.”

“It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?”

“I agree one hundred percent. What’s there to say? ‘Hello, meat. How’s it going?’ But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?”

“Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can’t live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact.”

“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the Universe.”

“That’s it.”

“Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You’re sure they won’t remember?”

“They’ll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we’re just a dream to them.”

“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.”

“And we marked the entire sector unoccupied.”

“Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?”

“Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again.”

“They always come around.”

“And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone …”

Bitcoin – Revolution or Evolution?

It’s been around a while, but it seems that Bitcoin is continuing to make its presence felt, and hasn’t, as some predicted, simply passed away in the night, but instead seems to be growing in popularity. Or perhaps that should be notoriety? Because it does, however, seem to be followed around by a fairly dogged cloud of controversy – arguments abound between its supporters and opponents, and accusations of money laundering, cheating and stealing fly around the financial marketplace like nobody’s business (even Nouriel Roubini, the respected US economist, recently called it a “Ponzi game”). So it’s a bit like “real” money, if you stop to think about it.

And that’s the thing – whatever you think about it, whatever your opinion of cryptocurrency – there’s no getting away from the simple truth. It’s certainly a disruptive technology, but it’s also money. It’s starting to do the same job as money – people and businesses accumulating it in order to exchange it for goods and services, thieves wanting to steal it, and what’s perhaps more important, it’s being traded just like money, or any other currency or commodity. Yes, okay, for now it’s probably more of a commodity, but in exactly the same way that gold or diamonds are (think Krugerrands). So, if it sounds and looks like a duck…

Bitcoin operates on the principles of a distributed network, which is used to store details of every single transaction ever made in a huge version of a general ledger, called the block chain, or block. It’s the miners’ job to confirm those transactions, and write them into this block. A constantly updated copy of the block is then distributed across the network. The miners’ processing (or hashing) generates 25 bitcoins for each successful hash. However, the Bitcoin protocol says that bitcoins are created at a decreasing and predictable rate. The number of new bitcoins created each year is automatically halved over time until creation comes to a halt, with a total of 21 million bitcoins in existence. The ability to mine (generate these hashes) is governed by the processing power of hardware (needless to say, it’s ever-expanding).

So, bitcoins are low in volume, because of the way in which they’re mined, and it’s this rarity that makes it so appealing to commodity traders. And therefore it’s this commodity style of trading that makes the price index of currency equivalence fluctuate so wildly. In just this week the price index has fluctuated between $605 and $665 (US dollars per single bitcoin), although prior to October 2013, it primarily held steady below $150, but maxed out the year at over $1,100. You’d be hard pushed to find anything else on the markets quite that capricious. Of course, lack of regulatory control is no doubt contributing to such volatility – or at least that’s what the regulators seeking to apply it will certainly say, and they’re probably not wrong – but there’s also the fact that it’s an emergent market. There’s always going to be flux at the stage it’s currently at – it’s decentralized, so it’s likely to be a tad unruly.

That’s all well and good, but its detractors have a point – the volatility isn’t to be found just in the price index. Mt.Gox, once the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, recently declared itself bankrupt, citing the loss of around 750,000 of its clients’ bitcoins to hackers as the sole cause. And they haven’t been alone – there have been other such collapses. These losses aren’t indemnified, either (it’s decentralised and unregulated, remember?), so those pockets are likely to stay well and truly picked, at least for the foreseeable future. But then this behaviour isn’t exactly unprecedented when it comes to currencies. Fiat currencies (i.e. currencies unsupported by gold or silver, which in reality is pretty much all currency these days) have collapsed throughout history – even the Euro had a difficult 2013. It strikes me, however, that these bitcoin “collapses” are anything but. They’ve been security breaches, pure and simple.

So should we adopt it more wholeheartedly? I’m not convinced we shouldn’t, but I’m also reserving judgement for now. Not what you were looking for, I know, but I’m not by nature an early adopter (I update my model of iPhone a year later than everyone else, for goodness sake). I know I want it to succeed, though. I guess it needs people who aren’t like me to help with that.

My advice is this: if you’re the sort of person who can’t wait for the iPhone 6 to come out, then you should probably get into Bitcoin. Just don’t invest too heavily for now. And, at the risk of suggesting that you just can’t trust the banks these days, you should keep your bitcoins on thumb-drives (with backups).