The Arecibo Message was just the start! This humorous design imagines what a message from today’s geeks to alien civilizations might look like. Can you decipher all the references?
The following article dates from the late 1990s, and used to live on my old web site. As I’m slowly moving my old content into modern tools, this is its new permanent home.
I grew up Christian. In the Spring of 1995 at 30 years of age, I began a completely self-honest inventory of what I really believed and why. Although I think that the sweeping doctrinal changes taking place in my church (the Worldwide Church of God) at that time probably acted as a catalyst for my undertaking this review, I feel I would have followed the same course eventually anyway. For this evaluation, I put none of my past beliefs off-limits from critical examination. I began a review of the laws of rational inquiry, and for the first time in my life I began to seriously study atheist refutations to theistic arguments for belief.
I also studied Christian apologetics for the first time in my life. The field of apologetics deals with Christian scholars presenting the best rational reasons and evidence for why an intelligent person should come to the logical and necessary conclusion that
- some kind of “supernatural” being must exist,
- that this is the judeo-christian monotheistic God,
- that God must have certain specific attributes, such as omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence, and
- that the tenets of Christianity are true.
—And they must do this all without resorting to the Bible. (The reason resorting to the Bible won’t work to convince a non-believer is that since the authority of the Bible is what the apologist wants to prove, requiring that someone else accept it beforehand would be committing the logical fallacy of circular reasoning, or “begging the question”).
In the balance, I found the apologists’ arguments unconvincing, and came to the considered conclusion that I didn’t have any credible evidence or irrefutable reasons to support the idea that God exists, or even “just have faith” that some kind of god exists. Rather than stop at simply lacking a positive belief in God, however, I realized that people allege the existence of other entities (such as unicorns, UFOs, ghosts, or gods from religions other than what I was raised in), and that I cannot absolutely prove the non-existence of these entities, but I nonetheless positively deny their existence. It is notoriously difficult to absolutely prove the non-existence of anything, but you also probably don’t believe in lots of things which you can’t absolutely prove don’t exist. For instance, imagine attempting to prove to someone who firmly believes in leprechauns that they simply don’t exist.
An excellent saying I have heard is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I can positively deny that leprechauns exist because no credible evidence has been presented for their existence, and because claims or stories of the exploits of leprechauns have plausible explanations based in the realm of what we already know. Some explanations could be:
- The person telling the story lied to cover up an embarrassing truth,
- The person telling the story lied to protect someone else,
- The person telling the story misperceived or misremembers reality,
- Someone deliberately deceived the person telling the story,
- The person is deceiving themselves into believing something they find comforting or simply want to believe,
- The person draws upon mythology to explain an event for which they have no other good explanation,
- The story has been told and retold by many people and has gotten “better” in the telling.
I don’t think many would deny that all of these things happen quite often to well-intentioned people, and must be ruled out before stories or anecdotes can be accepted as supporting an extraordinary premise.
The procedures of scientific investigation such as experimentation (a premise needs to be testable), falsifiability (a premise must suggest ways to show that it is or is not true), and verifiability (a result needs to be repeatable by independent experimenters) are designed to make sure that conclusions reached are not contaminated by any given experimenter’s personal biases or faulty methods. In my opinion, humankind has developed no better way than the scientific method to advance knowledge.
So, if extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, why then should I make an exception for the claim that God exists?
At this point, many would point out that the entire universe exists, and surely it must serve as extraordinary evidence for an extraordinary creator of some kind? Actually, I used to primarily base my belief on this point. I used to believe that since the universe was such a wonderful place, it must have had a creator, and that’s that. I came to realize, however, that this explanation replaces the big question of the physical universe’s existence with an even bigger one of God’s existence. If we claim that God simply exists as a neccessary fact, but can’t directly show his existence experimentally, then why can’t we simply believe that the physical universe simply exists as a necessary fact? Another useful scientific principle in this regard is “parsimony” (also known as Occam’s Razor), which says that when you observe a phenomenon (such as the existence of the universe), but have more than one theory to explain it (such as “God made it,” or “a committee of ten trillion gods made it,” or “it simply exists as a necessary fact”), choose to believe the simplest one that fits the observed facts, until the observed facts necessitate a more complex theory. God (as described by those who believe in him) would obviously be a very complex entity (at least as complex as the universe itself). And so accepting the idea of “God” merely increases the complexity of the theory without providing any really fundamental answer.
So, do I have a fundamental answer as to why the universe exists? No. Do I think humankind will ever come up with a good one? I don’t know. Part of my transition to atheism has involved reaching a place in my life where I don’t demand pat answers to fundamental existential questions.
In short, I decided I must base my life on the principles of evidence and reason, rather than those of mysticism and irrationality. In other words, for lack of evidence, skepticism (open-minded non-belief) becomes the default position, and is the only position which now makes sense to me. So, I am now a non-believer, and no longer live as if “God” exists any more than I live as if “unicorns” exist.
There are other related questions I have had to grapple with, such as “Can a person lead a moral life without believing in an absolute moral standard?” (my conclusion was yes) and “Can a person lead a positive, meaningful existence without believing in an externally-defined ‘higher purpose’, or life after death?” (again, yes).
Coming to this worldview has not been purely a cold, calculated process, however. I have also had to deal with feelings of anger directed at religion in general for the pain and suffering it has caused humankind throughout history as well as many of my personal friends, and grief resulting from no longer believing promises of a glorious-but-vague life after this one: the only life I truly know.
Probably the hardest part of my transition has been coming to terms with what I have heard called the “horror of being,” that is, the realization that we will all, as individuals, each in our own time, die and cease to exist. To greater or lesser degrees, we all find our personal annihilation “unthinkable”; we find it very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a future in which we do not exist. Furthermore, we have all lost loved ones and have wished to be reunited with them in some distant time and place. I too like that idea, but I have no evidence it will happen.
I don’t blame people for believing in an afterlife and a “God” to offer them a way into it. My choice is now to content myself with the positive impact my loved ones have had on my life, to live as long and as well as I reasonably can, and to try to leave a positive impact on those who will be around after me.
Overall, I feel that life is now more precious to me than ever, and my life is meaningful and happy.
Steve Jobs shaped my career more than any other single person. In 1977 at age eleven I started on the Apple ][ by learning to write programs in Basic and 6502 assembly language. Thanks to that early exposure I found my career path and got my first full-time programming job when I was fourteen. I learned 68000 assembly and C when the Mac came out. I learned Objective-C when the NeXT cube came out, and I got to work (play, really) with a host of other amazing technologies along the way.
But far more importantly, in those early years I became an ardent student of how a man’s passion can become manifest in his work. Through the years, Steve also showed me over and over what it looks like to successfully meld technology, art, and business— and present them together with utter simplicity.
The lessons I learned (and continue to master) by studying the work of Steve and his amazing colleagues at Apple and Pixar have been incredibly valuable to me personally and professionally. Though I never met him, Steve Jobs was my mentor from afar… and I will miss him.
I’m not going to explain what Bitcoins are or why I find them interesting— I already did that here. I’m also not going to discuss general issues related to the anonymity of Bitcoin. Finally I’m not going to discuss tools like Bitbills here, which may be useful, but aren’t in themselves a true and complete Bitcoin transfer.
In this posting I want to clarify a term of art surrounding Bitcoins that I think can be misleading and confusing to people who are just learning about the technology, primarily due to its familiarity from other contexts: the idea that Bitcoins are “sent” from one person to another like conventional money. We’re used to the idea that physical goods or money (coins or bills) can be physically “sent” by a sender, via a courier, to a receiver. In the case of electronic money, the courier is a “trusted” third party like a bank or Western Union which handles the digital or physical instruments involved in the transaction. In the case of e-mail, sending involves copying a message from the sender’s computer, to a third party’s mail server (the courier), which is trusted to give a correct copy of the original message to the receiver’s computer.
But no one ever “sends” a Bitcoin (or fraction thereof) in any way that resembles those existing schemes— this is a big part of what makes Bitcoin different from all previous forms of currency. True, from a user’s perspective you just click “Send Bitcoins”, enter the amount and the receiving address, and click OK. In a few minutes, the Bitcoins show up in the receiver’s wallet. It looks like something has been “sent,” but this is just a useful fiction.
Behind the scenes, the “sender’s” client software makes a public (yet thanks to cryptography both anonymous and non-repudiable) declaration that one or more (usually several) anonymous identities they control, and that previously had a certain amount of Bitcoin value assigned to them, no longer control that value because it is now being assigned to one or more other anonymous identities. This declaration is broadcast by the sender’s client software to the peer-to-peer network ultimately consisting of everyone running the Bitcoin client software, which then forms a collective consensus over whether that declaration is valid based on the log of the accepted history of all previous transactions (the “block chain.”) Assuming that consensus is reached on the new transaction, the network collectively enters it, along with a number of other accepted transactions (together called a “block”) into the log. While it takes very little computing power for the Bitcoin clients to verify that a new block is valid, it deliberately takes a lot of computational power to create new blocks that will be accepted as valid by everyone else, and exponentially greater levels of power to fabricate a version of the log that changes its history (this is what Bitcoin “miners” are busy doing— securing the block chain by creating blocks that are easy for everyone to verify, but extremely hard for anyone to change after the fact.) The log is copied by everyone who’s Bitcoin software cares— currently this is practically everyone, but that will change as more people use Bitcoin, especially where small mobile devices are concerned. The system as a whole works because virtually everyone’s copies agree, and anyone attempting to make new declarations based on logs that don’t agree (accidentally corrupted or deliberately forged) is simply ignored by everyone else.
So Bitcoins are a lot more like the giant stone coins of Yap than anything that jingles in your pocket. On Yap the coins, once made, were never moved— people knew the history of the coins and shared a consensus about their value and who owned which ones, and that consensus was all that mattered. Transferring a coin was a matter of public contract. Bitcoin takes it a giant step further, and lets anonymous identities (often many per user) own any fraction of these digital coins and assign them to other anonymous identities by public declaration and cryptographic contract. Unlike conventional currencies, the “trusted third party” is the consensus of the entire network, which ceases to be a single point of failure like a bank or government. Unlike on Yap, the “sender” and “receiver” never actually need to know each other’s true identities. Nothing is “sent” between them— not even eye contact— so there is nothing that a third party can intercept along the way in an attempt to block or modify the transfer.
It’s May 21, 2011, 6:00 PM on the Pacific Coast, and no apocalypse. But relax, I’m sure Family Radio’s Harold Camping can explain everything! (Update: Yep, here it is! Mark your calendars for October 21st.) The only question is, who now remains that is gullible enough to believe anything he says? Sadly, probably quite a few.
Even sadder, most “mainstream” Christians console themselves with the idea that their interpretation of the Bible forbids the prediction of dates for Jesus’ return, while conveniently ignoring the biblical authors themselves, who confidently made predictions that the Savior would return within their own lifetimes— failed predictions that set the tone for the ensuing procession of failed predictions that continue to this day. Oh, not predictions about specific dates to be sure. But even the Christians I know who refuse to commit to specific dates insist that we are living in the “end of days” and that Jesus’ return is imminent… to some personalized approximation of “imminent.” This itself is a form of prediction: a prediction which fails again and again as each generation of Christians watches their children grow up, and as they desperately indoctrinate them to carry forward that same defective prediction.
To Christian readers, whether or not you followed Harold Camping, or even if you don’t believe in “apocalypse soon” in some form, I hope that times like this can be “teachable moments” for you. And here is the lesson that I, as a former Christian, had to learn from times like this: to the extent that your beliefs promote the idea that this life is but a rehearsal for another, you become correspondingly more schizophrenic— dissociated from life and the people with whom you share the world. Please consider studying your beliefs from a more healthy, skeptical viewpoint. I guarantee that many of Harold Camping’s (formerly) most fervent followers are doing just that right now… and for good reason.
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.
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.
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:
I recently saw Tim Minchin perform live in Los Angeles, and I came away inspired to spread the gospel of my favorite musical satirist. So here are my favorite YouTube videos of Tim, arranged in a nice playlist— just click play, sit back, and enjoy. Unfortunately, the sound level is uneven, but you know where the volume control is, right? I’ll add the the coolest new ones I find as they appear (he’s got some great new material I can’t find videos for yet.)
Oh, and as Tim would say, “If anyone here is easily offended, you might want to pop out for the next five minutes.”
Last month I was asked to be a technical consultant on an upcoming episode of the hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory (TBBT). This episode, entitled The Bus Pants Utilization, airs tomorrow, January 6, at 8:00 PM on CBS. The reason I was asked for my expertise is that I live, breathe, and sleep iPhone app development— and while the main characters in TBBT are theoretical physicists and engineers, in this particular episode they decide to write their own iPhone app. One of the things that makes TBBT unique is that the show’s creators insist that the science discussed in the series be plausible (unless the characters are actually discussing science fiction, which they do a lot.) Whiteboards are often in the scene containing the geniuses’ mad, yet completely accurate scribblings. In this case, they needed the scribblings of an iPhone app developer, and through good fortune that turned out to be me.
Prof. David Saltzman is the regular science consultant for TBBT, and publishes a blog on the science mentioned in the series: The Big Blog Theory. He has graciously offered to link people interested in learning more about the iPhone app aspect of things here to my blog, and I would be happy to field any questions in the comments. Click here for Prof. Saltzman’s article about this episode.
Professionally, I am Senior iOS Engineer for eHarmony.com (and by the way, nothing in this post or web site represents the views of my employer.) If you’d like to see the apps I’ve made on my own, click here. My current bestseller is Harp. If you’d like to find out more about my professional background, click here.
Update: Now that the episode has aired, I can mention that I designed the same app twice (once for Leonard’s version, and once for Sheldon’s take on it), including class diagrams and code snippets for both of them, and also designed another set of mockups for Penny’s “Project Shoe” app at the end. Unfortunately, my favorite board, which was a more developed version of the “Shoe” mockup, did not get a good angle in the last scene.
The other night I was soaking in my apartment building jacuzzi listening to four young women in their early-to-mid 20’s— neighbors of mine and some of their friends— chatter amongst themselves. They’ve all got glasses of wine with them. They’re bank tellers and managers, and one is a nursing student. They’re chatting about their jobs and their boyfriends and their trips to Vegas and parties. They casually mention the weed they smoke in their off hours. At this I cheerfully comment, “So, you’ll all be voting for Proposition 19 then?” After a momentary awkwardness they all admit that none of them vote— that none of them really feel like their vote matters. “Oh,” I think to myself, “so that’s why Prop 19 won’t pass.”