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People are Dumb: Part 3 – Seatbelts

Thursday, May 17th, 2018

Today, sadly, there was a horrific bus accident. Probably one of the worst ones so far this year – the impact actually ripped the bus off its frame. A bus in Paramus hit a dump truck almost head-on.

It brought me back to a time in the not-so-distant past when my son’s school was being renovated and there was a danger that the debris from the construction would be in the air. So, the school’s parents – a loud, kicking screaming faction of them – petitioned the Board of Ed to have the kids moved to a more healthy environment. Across town.

So I said, Hey:

  1. We’ve consulted with health experts whose job is to be health experts in fact that’s literally how words work, and they say the kids are in no danger
  2. Actually, for a tenth the cost, we could improve their current classrooms with air purifiers – which we don’t even really need – and the kicker is, the construction company would pay for it
  3. Also, in order to keep our kids safe, you want to have them get on busses and travel across the city during rush hour?

And they did. Because no one gets deeply passionate about the guy looking up stats and calling engineers.

I mention this not just because it’s important to remember that loud stupidity is often more powerful than facts, but because it’s really relevant to another debate that we would also have. Seatbelts. On busses. And it goes like this.

Pro: Seatbelts save lives. It just makes sense that they would save lives on busses like they do in cars.

Con: The numbers say that they don’t. Morons.

Let me dive into that con just a bit more with a fact that matters, even though it might be hard to swallow in light of the tragedy I just referenced. In fact, there are like… twelve deaths… on school busses… in our country… every year. Just think about that for a second. Just want to say this loud and proud: Every year, 7 times as many are killed by coconuts.

You are safer on a school bus than basically any form of transportation ever.

And yet, every year, some group of well meaning and of course moronic parents gets together a petition and screams and shouts about the safety of their kids. Some states even… dumbly… mandate them. And when faced with the fact that they should really be worried about coconuts, they turn and look you in the eye and say:

Why don’t you care about your child’s safety?

The same argument I hear when I talk to my friend in California who, not like, in danger of being TOO intelligent, insists his ten-year old will be in a car seat until He Is Convincedhe’s ready not to be.

And he looks down on anti-vaxxers.

Which he should.

***

All this to say that one more thing that makes us dumb is the irrationality of our fear. And while I’ll explore this in the second part of this series, I wanted to post this now because at least among my townie parent friends, someone is going to see this crash as a reminder of how important seatbelts are on busses.

Oh, and just before I close up, let me explain why they’re dumb. First, busses aren’t just safe because they’re just… statistically fantastically safe. Though that should be enough reason. In fact, it’s because of the Compartmentalization – which is another way of saying that every single kid is in their own, bumper-ed cage on the bus. And, they’re much higher than most of the cars they’d hit. And busses are bright yellow. There’re even more reasons, but suffice it to say busses are just great. And seatbelts could actually hurt. This is because wearing them improperly could cause choking or neck injuries, particularly because kids vary so much in size, it’s nearly impossible to make them work for every kid. So, we use lap-belts which we already know are more likely to cause spinal injuries. Also, when a bus does tip over, the already safe kids are now trapped in the bus.

So let me show you the school bus that happened just today.

Just look at that. Look at it. Totaled. Just smashed to bits.

No one was killed. Two kids are in the hospital. That’s it. School busses are a triumph of design over time. We should be building statues to the engineers who design and build them. Instead, we titter around them like they’re a late-model Civic, asking, Okay, but is it safe enough? Hey, Parental, your brand new Mercedes SUV is, statistically speaking, more likely to harm your kid than this twenty year old school bus. Stop asking for seatbelts on school busses and read a book or something.

People are Dumb: Part 2 – Bitcoin

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Crosspost

This is a very technical subject and those in the know will be enraged by missing figures – from the dawn of modern cryptography and the Diffie-Hellman to elliptic curve cryptography and the small block big block schism. If you’d like to discuss those things, it would be my pleasure. My daily consultancy rate is more than you think, and I don’t take crypto.

This is part two of my Dumb Series. Check out the first part here.

****

What is Bitcoin?

Now, if you’re still here and you want to understand how Bitcoin works, or, if you just want to be able to explain it at parties, here’s my best effort:

Bitcoin and basically any blockchain-based currency work like this: When the very first users started buying and selling the currency, they wrote their transaction down. Who sold what to whom? Nearby miners then competed to write that transaction down to a block, or list of transactions. That block was limited to 1MB and on average that transaction takes about 495 bytes, so that block was full after about 2019 more transactions. Once that block was full, the miner who built the cleanest block – using a great deal of computer horsepower – won and could take a little of the top. So finally, there was the one block. When someone made a new transaction, the process started over and another block was created. Currently, there are over 150 gigs of these blocks.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine a train station where people come in to get on a train. But the train isn’t built yet. Nearby, builders are sitting around, waiting to build train cars. They all simultaneously build cars every time around 2000 folks enter the train station, and the cleanest car gets put on the track. The builder who built it gets to keep a set amount for their trouble. Then, when more people come in, another car is built. In order to build a car, though, builders need to keep an exact replica of the whole train in their workshop, and every time a new car is added, they add that to their replica as well. Currently, the train – and the trains in their shops – has over 153,000 train cars on it.

The reason that this is called decentralized is that at any time, if you wanted to find a passenger – or a transaction – you could look anywhere. Every builder or miner has a copy of every single item, from the first train car to today. In contrast, the way my bank knows I have $5 is that they have paper and electronic references to a unit of currency that is maintained by the US government. It’s centralized.

In fact, Bitcoin is favored by economic libertarians like its founder under the assumed name Satoshi Nakamoto who argued that governments – like those in Venezuela or North Korea – shouldn’t be trusted with managing currency. In a sense, Bitcoin has no middlemen – and no politics. It’s just pure transaction. Further, they argue, with low transaction costs and nearly infinite redundancy, it’s an un-hackable yet purely egalitarian endeavor.

Some Problems with Bitcoin

There’s a somewhat existential problem with Bitcoin that I’m not going to put on my formal list, but just explain here. As I explained above, every single transaction from the very first one is stored on every single Bitcoin computer. If you were to crack the code – and I assure you someone will eventually do this – you could see every single transaction. Bitcoin – which in its early days was used to fund less than savory endeavors – is the exact opposite of anonymous.

Think about this: If someone hacked American Express, they could theoretically tie you to that 2AM My Little Pony Box Set purchase. If they hacked Chase, they could find out about your cash withdrawals. But if you use bitcoin, they would have uncovered literally every purchase you’ve made, ever all in one go. It’s not like hacking one bank, it’s like hacking the concept of the dollar itself. And it’s not just that you bought the Pony Criterion Collection, but also that you received the money to buy it when you sold your home-made doll house bidet to Joseph in San Antonio. Now imagine that the hacker wasn’t some random criminal, but Russia – and the hacked… wasn’t you.

There’s another hack that’s actually even more feasible – the 51 attack. This is an interesting attack because it requires a lot of local computing power and relies somewhat on odds, but it is a well-known and completely accepted facet of Bitcoin logic. It works like this: Remember that the cleanest car gets put on the track, and then everyone copies that in their workshops. In this case, a large hacker group creates their own car and puts that on the track simultaneously. Now, there are two basically identical cars on the track – so it would be impossible to tell if the owners of the bad one just happened to steal everyone and everything riding in their car. Think about who, on the world stage, has that kind of hacker firepower.

But these are not even making the list, because just like every cryptography ever, Bitcoin basically claims it’s impossible to crack. So taking them at their word, here are three crucial problems with Bitcoin:

  1. It doesn’t scale. Remember how every engineer had to keep a copy of the train in their workshop? Right now, it requires 153GB of storage to keep that train. In fact, every month we add about 4GB – or 4000 cars. But think about how many times you’ve made a Bitcoin transaction. Never you say? Well, most people haven’t. In order for it to be as valuable as it claims, Bitcoin has to be used by more people. And that means more train cars per month. And that means that replica train, which again every miner needs to have, gets so large that fewer and fewer people can afford to process it. And then suddenly, as it grows, it becomes less and less egalitarian. And at some point, it becomes so expensive, that we develop large, heavily funded organizations to manage it. You know – like… banks.
  2. It’s basically unregulated. Above, I mentioned the idea of fiscal libertarians. These are folks that worry about economies collapsing and the need for a safe, real currency. Bitcoin was founded right during the crash of 2008, and it solves a problem that wasn’t really the problem. We didn’t lose our shirts because the banks controlled the cotton, we lost them because no one regulated the banks, and they gambled all our cotton away. But Bitcoin is even more wild west than the markets were ten years ago. You can legally fix prices. You can legally inside trade. Just think – if Martha Stewart had been trading in Bitcoin, she would never have gone to jail. And above all, Bitcoin can’t easily beregulated – since by definition it exists outside of the government. Of course, there are people reading this going, That’s the way it should be! And to them I say, Oh yeah? How did that work ten years ago?
  3. It’s desperately inefficient. Remember that no one has really found this train station, and so the numbers below are just before rush hour. But even as of ’17, bitcoin consumed as much energy as Denmark. This actually might be one of those figures that’s so big you can’t be scared by it since it’s so out there. So here’s another way to describe it: Every single transaction – every time you pay in Bitcoin – that singletransaction is enough to power a home for nine days. This isn’t per train – this is per passenger. Bitcoin is so mind-bogglingly expensive on resources that you might question how true that is. But remember – every single builder has to keep the entiretrain in their workshop. But think on this – for every ONE builder who gets to put their car on the track, there are likely over 150,000 others who are just maintaining workshops. This might make sense if every builder were contributing to the economy, but in fact, almost all of them are just trying to build cars and failing, scrapping them, and then just syncing up their copy of the train for the next go. So, people are using real electricity and real money to pay for it – to create and inflate the concept of another currency. I will be unapologetically dramatic when I point out that those same computers could be processing the human genome, searching for intelligent life, or hosting Minecraft servers. Anything would be less ridiculous.

These problems can and may be solved. Right now, there are whole camps within Bitcoin with different ideas as to how to make it more scalable and maybe even more efficient. In fact, the proliferation of sub-currencies and other nifty solutions proves that there is a whole legion of people looking to do just this. This, however, isn’t the point.

So, What is the Point?

The point is that there is nothing inherently valuable about Bitcoin.

There’s a lot above to digest. The whole concept of decentralized currency, the gorgeous use of Blockchain, the horrifying scale and security implications. But go back to the idea of spending a Denmark of electricity – and then ask yourself, Okay, why? It’s one thing to do something because you like the idea – but adults invest their money in something because it will… give them more money. Why put so much in if there’s no actual product being returned?

Is it worth it because of Blockchain?

Blockchain is elegant and kind of an excellent way to solve problems. For example, if you want to store secure data and yet have it be redundant and publicly accountable. Many financial transactions will be made better by using blockchain. Bitcoin is the most visible user of this logic and it’s not an inherently bad idea. Except that it’s not a good idea either. It’s chaotic neutral. It’s funny money. And you can like blockchain and still wonder at Bitcoin. They’re not the same. Blockchain is the nicest Lego package you’ve ever seen, Bitcoin is what happened when a tinfoil hat with a math degree built the first building out of these great Legos.

So Why?

Bitcoin and many of those who invested in it lost a ton of money in recent months for a very good reason. A very Pets.com reason. It didn’t make any damn sense. All those kilowatts. All that security. All those exchanged and blogs and that just plain awful friend on Facebook who won’t shut up about it. All of these things solve a problem that would only seem real about ten years ago, when complex financial packages in a newly unregulated banking industry created an inevitably mortal instability in the core of our economy.

But if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t believe in market regulation – or the fact that after Glass Steagall the United States enjoyed the greatest economic expansion in the history of history – and that almost immediately after its repeal we got… the worst recession since… the big one – if you’re the sort of person who by constitution or red hat refuses to believe that, then you’re going to do one of two things: buy gold or make up your own currency.

This is what makes people dumb. It’s not that you could power your home for days for every transaction you make. It’s not that hackers could destroy the economy with a few clicks. It’s not that replacing a currency doesn’t have inherent value, since by definition the value of a currency is just what people make it. It’s that Bitcoin is just a techie version of buying gold because you think there’s going to be a zombie apocalypse and you figure that in one hand you’ll have your shotgun and in the other, your duffel bag filled with gold bullion bars.

And what happened with the ecstatic news coverage and the huge speculative buys was just that… no one remembered what it was actually built to do. If you go back to the source – to Satori – even back to Diffie – you get the same argument. Here’s Whitfield Diffie:

And given government proposals, I thought I had a clear view that they were antagonistic to human freedom.

This is fine – and Diffie is a great guy – but he and Nakamoto held a very deep conviction that the government couldn’t be trusted and that things like Bitcoin were the solution. That was the value it brought to the table. That was it. But this is a view and a valuation that is not likely shared by the average investor who, like some of my older but still hip relatives who ask me about it over Thanksgiving dinner or just put in a little around November when it was looking hot.

Bitcoin might regain its value. And it has a place as a kind of shadow economy that will allow terrorist and drug dealers and freedom fighters alike to do their business with relative impunity. But that’s no place for my aunt to put a few grand – at least not any time soon.

Most people, most of the time, don’t invest in an idea whose founders were hedging against the US dollar. But a kind of mass delusion takes place every so often and rational people make really dumb decisions. Why? I’ll be exploring that in upcoming pieces.

People are Dumb: Part 1 – Sticky Accelerator

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Crosspost

Corporate Greed, The People Fight Back

At the height of the Toyota sudden acceleration debacle, Consumer Reports – easily one of the most trusted publications in the world – published this advice: “Put your foot on the break firmly and don’t lift off.”

This was, as many probably remember, just under a decade ago when there were several high-profile cases, tragically many ending in death, of Toyota and Lexus drivers losing control of their vehicles as the accelerator wouldn’t let up – sending them into walls, intersections, and down embankments. Toyota, the biggest automaker in the world, fought desperately to save face and cover the problem up. They claimed over and over again that there was no way these problems could be caused by the accelerator itself, and finally, that it was perhaps just a problematic floormat. Nonetheless the NHSTA under Ray LaHood bravely held them to account. In fact, as this Times piece points out:

Executives at Toyota “were dragging things out, and we’d had it,” a senior American transportation official said in recounting new details of the talks. “We were getting excuses that didn’t make sense anymore.”

There were thousands of pages of ink, hearings, and exposés. ABC’s Brian Ross produced a segment actually showing the unintended acceleration on camera. Eventually, after so much press and public outcry and personal admonitions from LaHood, Toyota engaged in the largest automotive recall in history and was forced to pay 1.26 billion dollars, the largest fine ever for an automaker.

Justice was served.

Except, Everything You Just Read was Bullshit

As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his excellent Podcast, there was never a problem with Toyota’s accelerators. As the DOT would later confirm, as you can examine in this great Car and Driver piece – it was just… human error. Even the ABC video was completely staged.

Which of course, might be hard to swallow. Here’s a quick bulleted explanation for why it’s… definitively and obviously true:

  • There have been tons of cases since way before the Toyota cases of sticky accelerators.
  • They all match a similar pattern EVEN in the Toyota cases, which is that the drivers were usually new to the car [think valets, loaner cars etc.] and there was NO correlation between models – that is to say, it was just as likely a fancy complex system in a Lexus as it was a simple analog one in a Corolla
  • Brakes beat Engine – and this is an experiment you can but should not do yourself – If you’re in a car and you pretend the accelerator is stuck at full throttle [with your foot on it hard] and you then also put your foot on the brakes – your brakes win. And not just a little. And not after a minute. But immediately. And these were Camrys not Corvettes. Though… it’s also true in a Corvette.
  • Many cars by this time had EDRs – or what you’d call a Black Box. This was a system that recorded every action taken before a crash. And these EDRs confirmed that during virtually all of these accidents, no one was hitting the brakes. See above.

It wasn’t the accelerator. It was the driver.

And there are a great number of psychological reasons that account for this – and in no way to I wish to disparage the victims of this tragic time. In short, there’s a kind of panic-induced mental block that sometimes causes this kind of thing to happen. Actually, as my father can attest, this happened to me when I was 15.

[I didn’t want to learn how to drive stick anyway, Daaad!! I’m taking Mom’s car.]

So everything above – from the think-pieces on the danger of car automation to the billions in fines and recalls, to the general public distrust of the world’s largest automaker – every single one of these things was just… wrong.

Now go back in time and picture LaHood responding to then current news reports about Toyota trying to cover up the scandal – in fact, don’t picture it – it’s… right here:

LaHood says he’s going to get to the bottom of it! In fact, off camera, LaHood publicly recommends that Toyota drivers should consider not driving them until they were fixed.

Here’s what’s incredible about that: By this point, LaHood already had the same information I present above. By this point they already had black boxes. They already knew what any car person knows – brakes beat engine every time. But LaHood and Kucinich and news reports – even years later – stick with this story. This utterly false story. Right now, if you ask your aunt about the sticky accelerator, she’ll likely tell you how about those Toyota deathtraps.

Why it Matters

Let’s go back to where we started. Let’s ignore the fact that every one of those greedy, sleazy corporate bigwigs at Toyota was in fact… in this case… completely right. Because there was no programming error or bad mechanical, there was nothing to cover up. And they apologized knowing that they were apologizing for nothing. Ignore LaHood blatantly and inarguably lying to the American public. Ignore how that lie cost hundreds of millions in one day on the stock market. And just go back to that advice from Consumer Reports:

Put your foot on the break firmly and don’t lift off.

Given what we know, this is bum advice. The thing that caused me to mow down a street sign when I was 15 and tragically costs several lives every year in Toyotas and Kias and Fords everywhere – is that your brain has crossed a signal. It firmly and irrationallybelieves that your foot is in fact already on the correct pedal. But it’s not. So, if you were to keep your foot firmly on the brake you would be exacerbating the problem.

*****

And so I begin my series on rational thought with a provocative but I think crucial understanding: People are dumb. They think they’re smart, they think they should put their foot down on the pedal. But they shouldn’t because what feels right and what seems right have nothing to do with what is right.

The truth is we don’t want to believe it’s on us. No one wants to impugn the dad who killed his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in a loaner Lexus. No one wants to use the phrase That could have been me and then immediately follow that up with And it was not my car’s fault.

But it’s not the complex answer that’s correct. There are millions of lines of code that go into your car’s driving system, and it just seems so right to believe that somewhere in there is the code that LaHood or Kucinich or anyone thought was the culprit.

There’s a quote from Usual Suspects that I think is worth repeating:

To a cop, the explanation is never that complicated. It’s always simple. There’s no mystery to the street, no arch criminal behind it all. If you got a dead body and you think his brother did it, you’re gonna find out you’re right.

That’s actually the way the world works. People want it to be more complex. They need the problem to be the car and not the driver. People are dumb.

This series will examine what this means for investors, for executives, and for anyone who is trying to solve problems. I’m going to argue that the best answer is always the simple one. That people are irrational but it’s okay. And I’m going to explore what I think is the most important question this brings up. If people are dumb, if I’m dumb, what can be done about it?

Leap Proof of Concept Game

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

game

It’s here! I’ve finished my first proof-of-concept.

Check it Out

So, to explain… (more…)

The Third Wave

Wednesday, January 9th, 2013

wave

 

I think it’s time to talk about the way we communicate with our computers. To do that, we need to look at the ways we have in the past. Forgetting about punch-cards and switches, I think it’s fair to look at the technology that most people recognize as input devices. Then, I want to look at what’s next – how do we interact with a computer in ten years. I believe that this is something that’s starting to take shape right now – and I like to call it the Third Wave.

(more…)

Super Duper

Friday, May 18th, 2012

As John Cooper said on his FB posting, “This is one of the coolest “flash dances” ever! It’s 2012 and young people in Moscow have put on a “flash mob” happening, dancing to an 83-year-old American song written by a Russian-born American
Jew (Irving Berlin).” I’d add that all those people holding Korean tablets and wearing Australian boots and using Japanese cameras tell an even bigger story. We live in a small world. A small fucking awesome world.

Jared Alessandroni, Teacher

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Back in the day, when I was first teaching, I taught at one of the best schools in the South Bronx – PS 31. I later moved up to become the director of Gifted and Talented before I helped found South Bronx Charter SChool. PS 31 had its flaws – many caused by an awkward collocation in what can only be described as a prison-like building from the seventies. The school was successful, though, and the staff highly skilled. Shortly after I left, a new Principal came in, Liza Diaz. I remember seeing her when I visited my old school – she was a slow-moving woman who took long lunches. But the part of this story that means anything to me is not this woman (whom I can literally see doing nothing else but ordering lunch) – but rather the slow degradation of my PS 31. They are currently being described as a “C” school – which is in itself sad, since many schools get Cs in the school ranking system and are not degraded that way. But PS 31 used to be the pride of the South Bronx, and it would still be today with stronger leadership, and especially if they hadn’t brought in this lazy, ridiculous woman and at the same time given her the task of turning 31 into a middle school. This decision happened around ’05, and when it did, Carol Russo (the old and venerable principal) and I sat in her office and predicted this – almost to the point of seeing some corruption being unearthed. The DOE under Bloomberg wanted to fix some bad middle schools in the Bronx, so they took a working elementary school, trashed it, and now they’re cleaning up their mess. It’s a shame, and it didn’t have to end this way.

Bree Sharp

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

My bud and super-talented performer is producing an amazing cover EP and you can help! There’s not much time, but it’s totally worth it! Go go go!

Safer Bus

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

http://www.dnainfo.com/20111130/chelsea-hells-kitchen/school-bus-app-aims-help-parents-track-kids

Been busy creating apps and… maybe trying to watch the entire series of Star Trek the Next Generation on Netflix. One app, Safer Bus, is starting to get some press. Very exciting!  Visit safer.us to learn more.

Family Van

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

I kinda forgot to post this three weeks ago when we left! Visit my family and our tripping times here:

http://familyvan.tumblr.com

In Utah now – then Arizona then non-stopping back home.