Reflection · Tech

#TrumpHeartsBitcoin

I’m not usually one to remark on the president’s tweets. But this is a ‘yuge’ exception. For the first time ever, a sitting US president made a public statement about Bitcoin.

Of course Mr. Trump is not a fan of Bitcoin…

Bitcoin is free speech money. Bitcoin cannot be censored. Bitcoin cannot be used to reliably tax Americans. The Federal Government has no monetary authority in a Bitcoin economy.

Volatility

Trump states that Bitcoin’s value is volatile. This is true. But it’s a special kind of volatility. Its a volatility that trends upward.

The yearly lows of Bitcoin’s price have consistently been getting higher and higher. For 10 years, the value of BTC has been trending upward and the rate at which it grows is increasing.

Bitcoin is volatile because it is a pure reflection of the market. Based purely on supply and demand. The value of USD is artificial. Set by the Federal Reserve and through a mess of unnecessarily complicated schemes like fractional reserve banking and federal interest rates, is the value of USD kept relatively stable. Albeit, the USD looses 1-3% of its value each year to inflation.

If you held Bitcoin for 3 years starting at any point since it’s inception, you have gained significant value. Imagine if you knew that your money would be worth more tomorrow than it is today! You’d probably save more of your money and only spend on what is necessary to live. If you saved it long enough, you might treat yourself to a new car, or nice house.

Oh no! What about the economy?! Surely, theres no room for economic progress under a Bitcoin-backed economy! Who would work, if their money was working for them?

It is true that the economy would suffer initially. But not in the way we’re used to seeing the economy suffer.

We use GDP as a measure of economic health. GDP is a terrible measure of economic health. GDP measures how much stuff a country produces. Optimizing GDP leads to a short-term (high time preference) mentality. Optimizing GDP is why our oceans are filling with plastic, most people hate their jobs, and most people are in debt.

A Bitcoin economy would lower society’s time preference. We would make less stuff, but the stuff we did make would be of better quality.

Based on Thin Air?

Trump says Bitcoin’s value is based on thin air. This seems to be the case, until you start to dig in to what really makes Bitcoin valuable.

People value scarcity.

An artist sells prints at lesser price than the original. Limited editions cost more than the factory model. There will only be 21 million BTC.

People value connectedness.

Bitcoin is money to connect the world. Before BTC, sending money to another country was difficult. Sending BTC to my neighbor is no different than sending it across the world.

People value security.

Banks charge fees to protect your money. People pay those fees. Bitcoin is secured by the fundamental laws of physics using math carried out by an astronomical amount of computing power. It’s getting more secure every day.

So you’re a Criminal then?

I can guarantee that more criminal activity is funded with USD than BTC. This is mostly because BTC is very easy to trace. There are methods to increase privacy with bitcoin but bitcoin is not yet private by default. It’s much easier to achieve sufficient privacy through in-person cash transfers.

Society is just starting to wake up to privacy cancers thanks to some royal goofs over at Facebook Inc. We’ve given up much of our privacy online but stop and think about how much we give away every time we swipe our credit card.

The fact that Bitcoin is used for criminal activity is a sign that it’s better at guarding your private data than PayPal or wire transfers. Private money is a tool just like free speech. You can use it for good like anonymous donations or protesting or you can use it to break the law like laundering money or yelling “fire!” in a theater.

The fact that our president is against such liberties as free speech money shows how far our country has deviated from its founding values.

First they ignore bitcoin. Then they laugh at bitcoin. Then they fight bitcoin. Then bitcoin wins.

Reflection

Open Source, Open for Business: Eric Raymond’s 9 Open Source Business Models

A the start of one of my first Open Source Software (OSS) classes, the professor invited the students to mark three personal learning objectives for the course and she would gather them and display the results anonymously. I don’t remember what all three of my points were except that I may have been the only student that wrote: “how to make $$$ with OSS”. Knowing this, imagine my excitement when the assigned reading from Eric S. Raymond’s  The Cathedral and the Bazaar was about open source business models!

Raymond highlights 9 open source models. I’ll list each with a paraphrased summary.

  • Cost-Sharing

Competing software users discover that they all stand to benefit by pooling their efforts to produce a better product, at a lower cost than they could produce alone.

  • Risk-Spreading

In-house software carries the risk of becoming obsolete with evolving technology. Also, maintainers can leave the company for a number of reasons leaving the project stranded. By open sourcing software, companies have a continuing community of maintainers.

  • Loss-Leader/Market Positioner

If a company is losing market share of a software product to a closed source competitor, opening the software’s source can be a last-ditch effort at attracting users/developers and leading the charge in innovation.

  • Widget Frosting

For hardware companies, their profit comes from sales of equipment. Open sourcing drivers and operating systems used with the hardware ensures maintenance and removes overhead.

  • Give Away the Recipe, Open a Resturant

This is the RedHat model. Open source the software but charge for the support and additional services.

  • Accessorizing

Sell swag (t-shirts, mugs, stickers, etc.) or information (O’Reilly).

  • Free the Future, Sell the Present

Sell software now with the promise of open sourcing it in the near future.

  • Free the Software, Sell the Brand

Open source the software but retain a test suite or set of compatibility criteria. Then sell users a brand that certifies that this piece of software is compatible with all others of the same brand.

  • Free the Software, Sell the Content

Some software is only useful with a dataset or some third-party information. In which case, open source the software and sell the retained information.

However, these models are not mutually exclusive. I can imagine a case where the first two models could be deployed together.

Throuought this chapter, Raymond expounds the economics that drives open source beyond the “gift culture” described in a previous chapter. For hackers, open source means complete control over their software. As they improve the source for their own benefit (or to scratch their own itch) it makes sense to go ahead and push the patch to the base project.

In this way, the value provided by the software is offset by the time invested and continuous improvement by contributors.  As for non-techies, they can either enjoy the financial benefits of free software or pay a company operating in open source to provide a superior product for a lower price and support them through.

Reflection

New Learnings in Marketing

Every successful marketing campaign and “viral” video exhibits one or more of the six principles outlined in Stanford School of Business graduate and professor at the Wharton School of Business, Jonah Berger’s Contagious: Why Things Catch On. In Contagious, Berger provides the mnemonic STEPPS which stands for Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories – together forming the six principles of a contagious viral idea. Berger’s use of narratives throughout the book to illustrate each of the principles in action is itself a use of “Stories” and is part of what makes the book such an enjoyable read. Below, I will draw connections between Berger’s STEPPS and formal marketing principles. I will also reflect on how reading Contagious affected our product launch promotions and my own personal goals.

In the realm of promotions, product placement is an easy to understand idea but its effects are less apparent. Take GAP for example, most of GAP’s clothing clearly branded with the letter’s “G”, “A”, and “P” on the front of the item. Further, when those letters appear on Jesse Eisenberg’s hoodie in Columbia Picture’s The Social Network in 2010, you know that GAP paid a pretty penny for that wardrobe choice. Product placement is an effort to employ that first “P” in STEPPS – publicity. When millions of people saw Mark Zuckerberg wearing a GAP hoodie perhaps they thought nothing of it. Zuckerberg isn’t known for his style, after all. The audience’s thoughts didn’t matter; all that mattered was that they saw it. GAP projected its brand name to millions of people on a Hollywood screen signaling to them that the brand exists and that it’s the brand of choice for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs or, at least, a college-aged Mark Zukerberg.

The main promotion strategy for our product, Juke! (a service package marketed to privately owned restaurants and bars that allows customers to choose what songs are played at the venue for a fee), was the Juke! Box tour. Every weekend for two months, the Juke! Team would travel to a new city and open a tab at a local bar. At the bar, Juke! Would be temporarily installed and customers who use Juke! would get a free drink billed to our tab. This guerrilla marketing strategy was partly inspired by two of the elements of Contagious.

The idea is to create social currency for those who choose to use Juke! at one of the Juke! Box events. Not only do you get to choose your favorite song and take control of the mood of the bar for three minutes, but you also get tons of high fives (from our Juke! team) and a free drink. This special treatment makes others want to join the club.

We know getting people to use Juke! when they are rewarded with a free drink is almost a guarantee. However, how will we ensure that the customer uses Juke! in the future? Triggers. Think of how often you think of a song that you want to share with others when you’re partying or staying late at the bar. Those are all extremely powerful triggers that are likely to incur a purchase. Furthermore, the idea of the Juke! Box is to create an extremely memorable night for hundreds of people, that way the next time they’re in their local bar, they’ll ask “Why haven’t you got a Juke! Box?”.

Lastly, I’ve begun applying the principles of story and emotion to my personal and professional life. As a logically minded student of mathematics and computer science, I am more often rewarded for very concise and straightforward thought patterns. I’ve come to find that this structured thinking tends to reveal itself most in my speech and writing. I’m learning to craft my everyday experiences into a story. This makes for more interesting small talk, which in turn, makes me more interesting.

For the last three years, I’ve really wanted to be an entrepreneur. I like to take control and lead others. I also get bored and/or disinterested very quickly. The challenge and diverse set of activities involved has been attractive to me. As such, I’ve been stewing over potential ideas to turn into my business. Each time I embark on a new software venture, I quickly discover that someone else is/has already tried it and is either succeeding or had already failed. This can be frustrating and demotivating to a fledgling entrepreneur.

In the software industry, it is difficult to use many of the principles of STEPPS. Software tends to market its features above all else. However, there are some excellent examples of software firms that used the other elements beautifully. Google’s How to Impress a French Girl beautifully employed emotion and story to illustrate the features of Google beyond Google Search. Contagious showed me that there is more to a product (like software) than its use alone. There is a narrative there waiting to be crafted and stowerd away in the mental recesses of millions of people. I believe through the work done in this class, I’ve gotten closer to crafting that narrative for a product of my own.

Reflection

4 Lessons from a K-12 Robotic Competition

The buzzing of Lego NXTs servos. Dozens
of nervously excited kids hovering around the robot arena with their robot
creation moving Lego models, flipping intricate switches, and sometimes just
ramming through everything.

This Saturday, I volunteered as a judge for the a state robotics competition for
K-12 hosted in Farristown Middle School in Berea, Ky. It was awesome. I’ve
worked with Lego NXTs before but never have I seen such ingenious engineering
and passionate young people together.

My job was to make sure that the kids and their robots followed the strict
regulations while the robot ventured into the course trying to complete various
missions. Since my job was to watch everything so carefully, I made four
observations that I’ve formed into worthwhile lessons.

Be excited

These kids spent weeks designing, prototyping, programming, and testing their
robots all in preparation for this event. You could see the excitement and
nervousness on their faces.

This is the big moment. Relish it. Celebrate.

I saw many of the younger teams fueled by their enthusiasm and
excitement. Meanwhile, the high-school competitors were much calmer and
reserved. I remember thinking why don’t they celebrate the same as the elementary
kids when their robot successfully throws an object on a target?

I’ve been there. I rarely show excitement. Finding that childish excitement after
it has been lost is a difficult but worthwhile endeavor.

Plan for failure

The biggest difference between the teams that did well in the competition and
and those who’s bot did little more than wreck the course was the teams ability
to adapt to failure.

Often, the first attempt that a bot made was catastrophic. The bot’s alignment
was off just a tad and instead of collecting little red barrels, it stampeded
through the set, knocking over other items and obstructing other paths to items.

The teams who calmly took failure and adapted rather than revolting were the ones
to recover from disaster. One team used a program designed to collect a barrel to
clean a path by pushing stray bits on the path out of the way in preparation for
another more complicated mission.

This was innovation. Innovation that is hard to come by when frustrated at your
failures. Frustration is real and sometimes inescapable, but the ability to
quickly recover and learn makes for an apt recovery.

General purpose or specialize

The robot’s designs were quite varied. Some had a singular scoop on the front
for collecting and pushing bits around. Others had specialized replaceable
attachments that were swapped out between missions. One arm designed to flip a
switch, another to throw a bit on a platform, etc.

Since the event was timed, those who spent valuable time swapping parts found it
quite expensive. Those who had only a scoop were limited in the number of tasks
they could complete.

The best teams found the value in multi-purpose bots. A bot may go on a run to
collect barrels and along the way raise its collector scoop to flip a few
switches. These multiple use devices are much more intricate than the simple ones
and are more error prone. The simple devices are less error prone but take
longer to switch out.

A balance must be found between general purpose and specialization to reach
maximum efficiency.

Go big

The kids had dozens of challenges/missions to complete and it was their
responsibility to decide which ones to pursue. The most difficult challenge was
to make their robot climb an elevated platform four inches from the rest of
the arena.

One team attempted this. Their strategy was to instruct the robot to carry a
Lego ramp to the platform, place it and ascend the robot up the ramp. By robot
programming standards, this is quite difficult. The team’s robot fell off the ramp
during its ascension but their attempt was impressive.

By choosing to do the hard things we prepare ourselves for future challenges. For
the rest of the competition, that team knew they had tried the hardest part.
Everything else is easy. I’m sure that during prototyping, that robot did, in fact,
make it up that ramp and brought that team the confidence to do well in the
competition.

Reflection

Communication and Me

I have never considered communication to be my strong suit. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. I grew up as an only child in rural/backwoods North Carolina. I didn’t speak much with my parents about day to day things. I attended a small private school after 2 years of homeschooling. I had only three fantastic friends until high school. My high school was a slightly larger charter school. Still less than a thousand enrolled students but it felt huge to me.

During this period, I had maybe five friends but I would only talk and visit with two of them regularly. I didn’t participate in sports, clubs, or any other activities. Nor did I attend any school or local events. To be honest, my primary reason for not doing these things was that it would subtract from the time that I could spend playing Halo: Reach and Minecraft.

My secondary reason (as if a teenage boy needed another) was that these events terrified me. The idea of being part of a crowd and not belonging. Having to talk to strangers. What would I talk about? I’ve spent years of childhood with everyone I talked to. I knew my friends, as well as I, knew myself. But I had never had any practice talking to strangers.

This wasn’t an issue for me for most of my life to this point. I was comfortable and happy playing video games all day to care about my social abilities. This all started to change when I moved out of my comfort zone and into college.

Ever since my acceptance to Berea College I had been mentally preparing myself for this experience that was going to shake up the world as I knew it.

It frightens me to think what my life would look like if Dr. Peter Hackbert hadn’t been one of my professors my first semester.

Dr. Hackbert introduced me to startup culture, entrepreneurship and innovation. He took notice of my interest in technology and suggested that I attend a Startup Weekend in Lexington. I promptly Googled “Startup Weekend” and liked what I saw. I was still in my first few months of college and was getting used to new experiences so I said “what the heck” and signed up.

That first Startup Weekend was one of the first instances where I was forced to communicate. Mostly it was the kind of communication that I was used to. Persuasive arguments, opinions, public speaking, etc. But there was a bit of small talk and playful communication that I was not used to.

Besides other personal accomplishments I walked out of Startup Weekend feeling inspired and capable.

Soon after I was beginning to see the value of networking. This seemed impossible to me and I still haven’t quite figured it out. I’ve attended a handful of networking events and come into contact with some highly influential people. But I have failed to make any meaningful connections. Not because I failed at communication but because I failed to even try.

I may be a special case but even everyday speech, small talk, and pleasantries didn’t feel natural to me for the longest time.

Most of my day to day communication was email correspondence and the occasional phone call or scheduled meeting. These conversations had a distinctly defined and often urgent purpose and small talk and pleasantries were kept to a minimum.

It is only now that I have made the conscious decision to branch out more from the new comfort zone I have created during my stay at college. I have begun to ask people how their days are going and what they’re up to. Crazy right? I’m realizing that this must sound like I must be a heartless machine. I’m also beginning to think that is true.

My empathy and social skills are some things that need the most practice in my life right now and it’s time to stop avoiding situations or conversations that could potentially develop them.

I was supposed to write about a time in my life that I succeeded in communicating effectively. Instead of dodging another chance to face my lack of strength in communication I decided to face it head on and face reality.

Reflection

Stereotype Threat

An interview with Claude Steele, a researcher well known for his work on stereotype threat.

Question

What does this notion of stereotype threat make you think about in your own experience? Is it something that resonates with your schooling experience before you came to college? At college? Within your area of study? How do you think this has manifested, for you?

When I think of stereotype threat in this notion, I cannot help but feel a bit guilty. In my field of Computer Science and Mathematics, I fit the stereotype perfectly. Although I recognize that women and other nationalities are equally as capable of learning and performing in these fields, I find myself being a part of this threat in subconscious and indirect ways.

Claude Steele recounts a story of a collegiate African American feeling ostracized from his campus because he felt that the white people were threatened by his presence. He noticed the little things, like people taking another path to avoid walking past him. When I watched this video I realized that I take another mindset when talking to others in my classes and in my field.

To explain what exactly goes through my head I will first attempt to explain how I feel that stereotype threat has affected me personally.

As I mentioned before, I fit the stereotype of the computer scientist. This does not mean that I don’t feel pressure in my field. I feel a different kind of pressure, a pressure to perform. I feel like because I fit the stereotype of a computer scientist I am obligated to be the best I can in my field. Sometimes not just the best that I can be, but better than other students in my field. This kind of thinking very rapidly leads to a feeling of privilege and genius. This is reinforced when all of my idols in the field of computer science and the most famous and successful names in computer science are mostly the names of white males.

I firmly believe that everyone; no matter what gender, ethnicity, or background are equally able to learn and perform in any field. Competition, ego, and expectations are barriers that prevent me from eliminating stereotype threat in the learning community. Stereotype threat manifests itself in the little things. Avoiding someone on the street, using a different tone of voice or choice of words when speaking to someone, or just having a certain look on your face can reinforce stereotype threat.

The path to eliminating stereotype threat starts with adjusting your own behavior and ends with a full-hearted and complete recognition of equality. No one is immune but we all have the cure.

I will certainly work on adjusting my behavior in the future. Both in how I present myself and how I communicate to others.

This was a difficult topic for me to talk about. Putting something socially abstract and something that I feel I am guilty of into words was hard. Deciding to publish it on my blog was even more difficult to bring myself to. I did this to hold myself accountable for my decision to improve the way I handle these situations.

Thank you for reading and please discuss below; do you feel pressure from stereotype threat? How to fight stereotype threat in your field?

Reflection

Reflection: On Being Wrong

Kathryn Schultz’ TED talk, “On Being Wrong” has been very popular on TED.com, totaling nearly 3,000,000 views. On a site about “ideas worth spreading” this gem seems to have been well worth it indeed.

Kathryn Schultz shows us the value that being wrong has. “I’ve spent the last five years thinking about being wrong. “, she says. Schultz points out that the terrible feeling we have when we are wrong does not occur when we make a mistake but when we realize that we are wrong. She makes an allusion to the classic Looney Toons Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff only to fall when he realizes he is not grounded. Schultz’ talk was among the more humorous TED Talks I’ve seen and is worth the watch even if just for the banter.

I live my life assuming I’m wrong about everything until proven otherwise. This causes me to explore and question everything. It makes me think things like “I wonder if a processor built entirely from NAND gates is faster than one built with higher-level chips?” and many another far less technical questions. I often take my profound questions to my friends or a colleague and either get a quick answer or a 4-hour conversation out of it. (I like to think my friends like these questions but perhaps not so much when I insist on continuing the conversation during their free time).

If I get a quick answer to one of those profound questions, I think it over for a bit then return with a counter argument trying to spark a noteworthy conversation. Often the results of these conversations prove that (wouldn’t you know it) I was wrong about something. So what. I learned something that I didn’t know before. This college thing is paying off at every turn!

In class, I tend to keep out of the discussion until the professor poses a real stumper and several seconds go without an answer. At this point, I make the jump. It’s a chance to see if what I’ve gathered so far has been effective. I make my conjecture and sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t. None the less, I’m certain that at least one other student thought similarly. The professor’s explanation of why I was wrong will benefit the whole class.

I’d say I’ve got this being wrong thing down. As Kathryn stated, when someone doesn’t agree with us, we immediately think they are either misinformed, stupid, or lying. But not taking the moment to consider someone else’s view, or holding on too tight to one’s own beliefs makes them the ignorant fool who lies to themselves. Be wrong. Be happy. Learn.

“I err therefore I am” – St. Augustine

Reflection

Reflection: The Voices Inside You

“Has there ever been a time when “the voices in your head” have kicked in and worked against you, even when you know you’re more than capable/able?”

I’ve proven to be the kind of person who lunges head first into things I’m not ready for. I pick up what I can and take note of everything I miss so I can make up for it later and make my comeback.

My freshman year in college is filled with such experiences. I’ll focus on the professional side of things.

There I was, 18 years old, less than a month in college. In the big city (of Berea) out of the woods of solitude at home in North Carolina. My advising professor, Dr. Peter Hackbert recommended that I participate in a Startup Weekend event after noting my interest in technology (and hoping to recruit me for the summer program he leads, Entrepreneurship for the Public Good. To which he was successful).

I reflect on this event almost exactly one year late able to reflect on my experience and determine why I did what I did during that weekend.

Arriving at Awesome INC (the local startup incubator in Lexington Kentucky) on Friday, I did not know what to expect. I had heard that this was an event where people pitched an idea for an invention or something. Then they worked on it for 3 days. So like “Shark Tank” but actually building stuff. I was also warned that the average age at these events was mid 20’s and that I would likely be the youngest person there.

The first day I was hyped with anticipation, enthusiastic and it showed. I had no ideas to pitch so I watched the others carefully then when it came time to choose a team to work with I presumptuously asked: “Why should I work with you on this project.” (mind you that I was fresh out of high school with only a month of general prerequisite classes under my belt and no experience.

Regardless, I “got hired” by a team and we immediately commandeered the most envied office space in the building and began the “brain dump” I found myself leading the conversation and throwing out ideas left and right. It was going great and I could sense the respect I was getting from the much older members of my team.

The day came to a close and everyone retired for the night. I left exhausted and my mind racing. However, I began to do the thing that I do best. Overanalyzing and self-degradation. I began to point out all my flaws and reason that these people with college degrees must have thought I was something to be throwing out ideas and not have any experience. Hell, one of the members of my team mentioned that he already owned a successful startup. He must have thought everything I said was stupid. Maybe I’ll let the others take over and I’ll just chime in when needed.

The next day I could almost feel the concern when I didn’t speak up. Almost. I was too busy listening to myself say how I was inferior to these people and could never contribute anything useful. Later my team was digressing to the point that we spend hours on one non-essential detail about our product. It was then I really wanted to say something, but I reasoned that I hadn’t spoken in so long that they surely wouldn’t listen to me.

Needless to say, I didn’t perform my best that weekend. I began the next week filled with more self-hate because I let myself ruin an opportunity. It wasn’t until after many weeks of reflection that I began to realize that the experience was a learning opportunity and my head first approach still works. I began to develop my confidence and gain skills on my own time so that, one day, when I go back to Startup Weekend, I will be my very best.

“It’s ok to fail, as long as you learn from it.”

“Those voices in your head are not always on your side.”