Bitcoin: It’s Not Too Late To Send Me Money

When I was a boy, I recall my dad telling me of seeing an ad in the local newspaper classifieds section that simply said, “IT’S NOT TOO LATE! SEND $1 TO…” followed by a P.O. Box. There was no further identifying information, and no promise was made for any goods or services in return. The story goes that whoever placed the ad made a tidy sum. If this story is true, perhaps people who sent in their dollar were just idiots who expected to receive something exciting. But I’d actually prefer to think that most of them were people who decided to send some money out of amused gratitude for the entertainment they’d just enjoyed.

Money is a slippery thing. We take it for granted, like the air we breathe. Also, like air, we’d be pretty helpless without it. But what is money? Briefly, money is:

  • A medium of exchange: You can buy things with it and sell things for it.
  • A unit of account: You can divide it into smaller pieces (divisibility) and any unit of a currency is just the same as any other (fungibility).
  • A store of value: It can be saved, stored, and retrieved, and still be usable with it’s value pretty much intact.

One of my favorite books, Your Money or Your Life, defines money very simply:

  • Money is what you will trade your life energy for.

We get so much for free from the Internet these days that it’s almost as if we live two lives: the mundane life of working to earn a living and paying for the things we need, and a separate, magical life we lead in a land where everything is free. We almost take offense when someone suggests that stuff we get for free now is actually worth, you know… money.

And yet we all know in the back of our minds that the people who create music, movies, books, comics, software, newspaper articles, podcasts, or blog posts are spending their life energy to do it. And even if they consider doing it a labor of love, we all know they could do what they love that much better if they didn’t also have to worry so much about paying the bills.

But let’s get something straight: the only reason that the things we get off the Internet can even project an illusion of being “free” is that once they are created, the cost of distributing them is essentially zero— lost in the noise of the fees we pay just to be online.

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The reality is that nothing is free— at a minimum the people who create these things are spending their precious life energy.

Most of us are raised with a strong ethic that we should get what we pay for, and conversely that we should pay for what we get. And we are getting so much— our lives have been immeasurably enriched by the communication, collaboration, and culture that the Internet makes possible— I don’t know anyone who denies this. At the same time, we are daunted by the logistics of directly and materially expressing our gratitude to the people who, every day in little ways, make our lives better with their creativity. On the other side of the equation, thousands of creative people turn away from their potential because they know there’s no good way to be noticed sufficiently to break through to earning a decent living doing what they do.

The need for a way to bring these creative producers and consumers together directly has, over the past 15 years, been slowly pressurizing our culture with a sense of cognitive dissonance. As I browse the Internet, I often find myself thinking things like “That was a good video! I hope she does more.” I take the time to leave an encouraging comment, but also in that moment, I know that if I had the ability to drop a nickel (or a penny, or a dollar) directly into that person’s pocket, I would. Like Johnny Appleseed I would happily repeat this sowing of tiny amounts of money everywhere I went. I would sleep more peacefully knowing that thousands of other people like me were doing the same— encouraging the creators to wake up the next day, find their hats full of nickels, and keep creating.

But I can’t. At least, not so far. The introduction of true, sub-dollar micropayments has failed repeatedly. So far the closest successful examples are eBay’s PayPal and Apple’s App Store. But in these cases, there is a middle man with a monopoly taking a large chunk of the transaction, and with a corporate mandate to veto any transactions that seem the least bit risky. These factors make tiny, anonymous transactions infeasible with either, and they have been the major reason why no micropayment system has succeeded… yet.

The situation I have just described is but one of a number of compelling reasons that a new form of electronic currency is required. And finally, a brilliant new invention now exists that fulfills all the requirements I listed above: Bitcoin.

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I’m not exaggerating when I call this a brilliant invention. I’ve spent the past several days in complete and utter geek awe over its beauty and simplicity. Bitcoin is real money. It can easily play the role of the nickel I anonymously toss into the pocket of a deserving musician, writer, or artist, as it can play the role of the fees I earn for writing software, or for the revenue I earn for selling my software directly to users. It can also be used to buy real-world hard goods. Like gold, silver, or other commodities, the price of Bitcoin fluctuates against the dollar and all other currencies. Like fiat currencies such as the dollar, it is not “backed” by anything except peoples’ desire to use it for the things that every other currency is used for. But unlike other currencies, Bitcoin has no central banking or fractional reserve system that controls the money supply. Like gold and silver, the amount of Bitcoin in the world is governed by the laws of physics and mathematics, not the whims of governments.

And Bitcoin is available now. You can download the software and be up and running in minutes. You can get a few Bitcoin cents to play with for free from the Bitcoin Faucet or buy a few dollars worth of Bitcoin from Mt. Gox. If you have goods or services to sell then you can learn how to start accepting Bitcoin for them. With some Bitcoin in your wallet, you can shop for goods and services from merchants who accept Bitcoin, or simply start dropping nickels into the pockets of deserving charities around the net like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and deserving creative types… like me.

It’s not too late! Send whatever you like to my Bitcoin address:
1EBbuVTcLNfn9d3T6vXU3SfAb7HQw4gr1E

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Autonomous Robots

The thing that all these robots have in common is that they have a certain amount of autonomy— they are given goals and strategies for achieving those goals, but the particular movements they will make at a given time are not known in advance.

Dexter, from Anybots

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BigDog, from Boston Dynamics

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Asimo from Honda, programmed at Carnegie Mellon

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Robot Fish, from Essex University

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Better Than Free?

In an age where a major portion of the economy is based in “digital goods,” that are transmitted through a system— the Internet— where they are of both necessity and choice endlessly and perfectly copied, and from which they can never be fully erased, why would anyone pay for these goods? After all, they’re basically free, right?

As a kid I did on occasion copy game software I wasn’t supposed to. As an adult I still have a few tracks in my music library that I’m really not sure where or from whom I got them. And as a software author, my livelihood depends on people actually ponying up for my digital goods. So I’ve been acutely aware of issues of copyright, and the ancient and seemingly endless technical and legal cat-and-mouse games played by producers and consumers of digital goods.

Take Linux for example: it’s a great operating system. It is widely used in both business and academia. It is more stable than Windows. It runs on almost any hardware. And unlike my favorite operating system, Mac OS X, it is free. So why hasn’t Linux taken over the world? The short answer is that although Linux is “free,” commercial OSes like Mac OS X are often “better than free.”

Kevin Kelly, in his article Better Than Free in the latest Edge, points out that not only is the number of digital goods available “for free” rapidly increasing, but so are the number of types of goods becoming digital, and hence free to store and copy. These products include the formulas for drugs and our own genetic codes.

So what will people pay for? Kelly’s article describes eight so-called “generative” qualities that keep people ponying up even when the goods themselves can be had for free. These qualities point to new business models that anyone who makes their livelihood from goods that are digital (or that will become so) should keep in mind. Here are my distilled summaries of these qualities— read his article for more detail and examples.

Immediacy “I’ll pay to have it now.
Personalization “I’ll pay to have it my way.
Interpretation “I’ll pay to get the most out of it.
Authenticity “I’ll pay to get the creator’s mark and warranty on it.
Accessibility “I’ll pay to have someone keep it safe and bring it out when, where, and how I want it.
Embodiment “I’ll pay to experience expressions of it that are highest-quality, or most unique and rare.
Patronage “I’ll pay to reward the creator for it, and encourage them to continue creating.
Findability “I’ll pay to easily find what I want, even when I don’t know what I want.

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A Little Bird Told You

twitter.pngI now have a Twitter account, so if you want to tune into my ongoing answer to the question “What are you doing now?” then feel free to follow my tweets. The sidebar of my blog now also includes my latest tweets. I plan to keep them to two to three per day, and I’ll see whether I can make them interesting. But no promises.

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Catalog Choice: Stop the Flood of Catalogs

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I’m not as badly off as some. I only throw away about 8-10 catalogs a week that arrive at my office. Over a year, that’s around 500 catalogs. Now scale that to the entire U.S.: Americans are printing, distributing, and throwing away (mostly unused) about 19 billion catalogs each year.

53 million trees per year.

3.6 million tons of paper per year.

Enough energy to power 1.2 million homes per year.

Annual emissions equal to 2 million cars on the road per year.

81,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of waste water per year.

For catalogs.

How many catalogs do you receive that you never look at, don’t really want, and aren’t even sure about how to go about no longer receiving them?

Catalog Choice is a new, free service that allows you to decide what gets in your mailbox. Use it to reduce your mailbox clutter, while helping save natural resources.

Catalog Choice is a sponsored project of the Ecology Center. It is endorsed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Take back your mailbox! Catalog Choice.

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The Zeusaphone Singing Tesla Coil

I’ve seen tesla coils live at Burning Man numerous times— they’re incredibly loud.

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Quoth Doc Brown: “If we could somehow harness this lightning, channel it into the flux capacitor, it just might work…”

Introducing the Zeusaphone.

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A Zeusaphone Mario Bros. duet…

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Dr. Zeus playing with the Zeusaphones. Or are they playing with him? Or does the water get him instead?

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Flying Logic: Software for Visual Thinking

Whew! Today I’m finally ready to talk about the secret software project I have spent more than three years on: Flying Logic.

Flying Logic logo

I’ve had a really great client for the past several years: a small independent think tank near where I live in Los Angeles that has major clients in industries ranging from entertainment to automotive to furniture to defense. This little think tank is where these big players come when they want “imagineers for hire—” in other words, when they want some of the most highly skilled out-of-the-box thinkers to put their heads together and come up with some really innovative concepts— and prove that they will really work. (Sorry, these companies must remain nameless for now.)

So, one of the tasks their defense contractor client gave them was that of creating a better tool for Course of Action Analysis (COA), an essential part of the process in any military venture. My client in turn specializes in finding people like me— who have experience innovating in areas ranging from robotics to architecture to software interfaces (my specialty) and turning them loose on these problems demanding creative solutions.

Now, military planning is something I know very little about. But I could tell two things right off the bat: 1) It shares a lot in common with business process improvement, and 2) The artist conceptions of a new COA tool they had shown their client would never work (although they did get their client’s imagination moving in the right direction.) So (as is often the case) I found myself in the usually unenviable position of telling the client what they really want.

Fortunately, this wasn’t your usual client. Since this is imagineering, they were quite open to my ideas.

A couple of years before this time, I was VP of Engineering for a startup in the late dot-com boom era. Although they cratered like so many of their peers, the CEO of that company fatefully introduced me to a set of remarkable techniques and practices known as the Theory of Constraints. In particular, he recommended a book called Thinking for a Change: Putting the TOC Thinking Processes to Use. It was an easy yet exciting read: it described a visual language of cause and effect used for improving any dynamic system— business or personal.

This was great! I am a very visual person, and here were a set of visual techniques that could be used to describe a seemingly intractable situation, discover what needed to change, discover what to change to, and finally discover how to cause the changes that will lead not just to incremental improvement, but often to radical improvement. The techniques can be used by children to resolve conflicts, couples to improve marriages, or Fortune 500 companies to streamline manufacturing and multiply their markets, and they are especially applicable to groups containing diverse points of view. I remember thinking that for a complex situation, the diagrams needed could also become quite complex, and the suggested tools for creating these diagrams (whiteboards and typical drawing software) really weren’t up to the task: what was really needed was a sort of visual spreadsheet for rational thought.

But I was busy with other things at the time, and shelved the idea… until my client asked me for my take on a new COA tool. I showed them Thinking for a Change and pointed out that the techniques it described— using cause-and-effect reasoning to create new realities— closely mirrored the methods used by military planners. I said I wanted to create software where someone working with these cause-and-effect techniques could just say what boxes needed to be in the diagram and how they were related, and have the boxes and lines all fly around by themselves into the best configuration— the software would take care of all the little graphical details no matter how complex things became, and leave the human to do what they do best: creatively solve the problem at hand. To their great credit that they gave me full creative control over the project pretty much from the time I began my fanatical handwaving.

Of course, being a “Mac person,” and knowing that my client doesn’t produce finished, commercial products for their clients but only takes them to the proof-of-concept stage, I wrote the software as a native Mac application. Here again my client had no problem— they believe in giving the creative talent all the best tools that they’re comfortable with, and no-one wants to get real work done with a mere proof-of-concept. …At least that’s what we all thought until the software reached the stage where I could really demonstrate how it worked. Then their clients and the various government planners I gave demos to (even inside the Pentagon) began to ask for copies— they actually wanted to start using it right then! They were offered copies of the existing version but pretty much everyone in government uses Windows, and my software just wouldn’t play there— although I did get a few reports of executives justifying the purchase of Macs so they could run it.

We discussed what to do. My client wanted to be able to put the technology into the customers’ hands, but I wasn’t about to start writing native Windows software, so that was out. However, I did have a lot of experience writing in Java, although I had never used it to write anything so graphically intense— one of my selling points for going with the Mac in the first place was its great facility for graphics. Would Java be up to the task?

I did some research, and concluded that Java technology had advanced a long way since I had last looked at it— enough that the graphics could be drawn smoothly and the animation required might be fast enough. After a few more weeks of experimenting, I knew we had a winner— my software could be re-written to run anywhere Java would run (including Mac and Windows), and the performance would be excellent.

One of the sayings we programmers have is “Plan to throw one away. You will anyway.” So I embarked on writing version 2.0 of my software in pure Java, which became version 1.0 of Flying Logic. One of the great advantages of having to do something all over again is that you get to apply all the lessons learned you learned the first time around— and I had gotten plenty of excellent feedback on my Mac-only version.

From early in the project, I had come to understand that neither my client nor my client’s client (the defense contractor) were in the business of publishing shrink wrapped software— their speciality is integrating useful technology into larger systems for defense and other government customers. The results of my work would be broken into bits and used as they saw fit. But unless something was done, a stand-alone product would probably never see the light of day.

But I’ve never liked doing something cool and then just shelving it (especially something having such great potential), so I began a conversation with my clients about a deal to distribute the software as a finished commercial product. To my delight (and to make a long story short) they agreed and today I launched Flying Logic.

I am convinced of the critical importance of sound reasoning and its role in building solid paths to improvement in every facet of society. This opportunity has put me on a professional and personal mission to increase awareness of these essential subjects. If you are of like mind I hope you’ll check out my software and tell others about it— selling rational thought has never been an easy task!

Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” I hope you’ll agree that Flying Logic is like a great lever with your mind at one end, and the world at the other.

— Robert McNally

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I can’t respond to everything, but I do read everything!