December 4, 2013

Thoughts on Bitcoin

Posted in Political, Recreational, Technical at 11:39 pm by Ian

I first heard about Bitcoin a few years ago. I was reading Hacker News, and there was a story about someone ordering a pizza with them. Over the next few months, there were many more stories, mostly about the rapidly rising value. I started to learn a little bit more about it, and found the entire concept fascinating.

Near the first price peak around $30/BTC, I remember reading an article written by a guy who had put his entire life savings into it. Wonder if he had the guts to hold all the way through.

When the price dropped down to a few dollars each, I decided to throw $20 at it.

At the time, there were a few ways to get bitcoins:

  • Mine them.
  • Find someone in person to give money to and have them transfer bitcoins to you.
  • Get some money onto an online exchange and buy them.

I didn’t want to deal with the (potential) technical complexity of setting up a mining rig for a short experiment, and even then, the days when a standard computer could generate any reasonable amount of them were waning.

In retrospect, finding someone in person would probably have been the simplest option, but at the time I didn’t really even know how to verify that things had worked and wanted to be able to comfortably nose around a website for a while without the social pressure of someone who probably just wanted to get my $20 and move on.

So I tried the online exchange method.

The process of buying them was complicated and required me to trust a variety of third parties that I had no real reason to trust.

At first, I tried going through an online virtual currency exchange that specialized in currencies from multiplayer video games. I Paypal’d some money over, then somehow managed to convert USD into Linden Dollars (the Second Life video game currency), but was unable to then convert to Bitcoin. I backed out and started over.

Then, I tried to use Mt Gox. I set up a Dwolla account, verified who I was, and waited. Then verified some more things. After a week or two, I was hitting the “buy” button. I downloaded a Bitcoin client on my computer generated a key and some addresses, and tried transferring some back and forth. The numbers decreased in one location and increased in another. Cool. I have successfully exchanged dollars for math.

At every step of the way I felt like I was on the verge of sending my money into a black hole. The addresses are meaningless strings of characters. The software was full of rough edges and The protocol is complicated and I had no real understanding of how the system worked or what I was doing.

And, for a time, they were forgotten.

Last week, the exchange rate broke $1000/BTC. And all of a sudden, they were remembered. All of a sudden, my $20 experiment was worth thousands of dollars.

I’m not sure how to feel about that. Clearly, I didn’t earn that money in any sense of the word.

If anyone tells you they can predict the future of Bitcoin, hold on to your wallet. It’s too different from anything that’s come before for existing economic models to have much predictive power. Is it currently in a bubble? Almost certainly. But that’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is what it means for the future of money. I won’t pretend to know. But I am fascinated by it. It’s an amazing and brilliant experiment at the intersection of technology and math and economics and I’m loving every wild moment of it.

I just reread Ender’s Game, and I was struck with the parallels between Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, and Locke and Demosthenes, the internet personalities created by the elder Wiggin children to influence public discourse on the internet. In the story, they leverage their fame and readership into political power. Nakamoto leveraged some clever math, a bit of code and some spare CPU cycles into a fortune of billions. This is what it looks like to have an idea so powerful that it changes the world.

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April 9, 2007

Scenes from Santa Barbara, on an Early Morning Bike Ride

Posted in Recreational at 10:51 pm by Ian

In the parking lot next to the old bathhouse: A dozen men, ranging in age from twenty-something to forty-something, standing around in a circle while others arrive. They are all wearing blue jeans and grey sweatshirts, but it’s not a uniform. Some have hoods. Some have hats. Some are curled up around steaming cups.

Coming down Cabrillo, along the bird refuge: A person—I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman—buzzing past me on a Vespa clone, wearing a leather-lined helmet, a light grey suit, and flip-flops.

In the park near the edge of East Beach: A seagull standing defiantly and protectively atop an intact bag of garbage on a picnic table while seven other gulls pick through the strewn-about contents of several others. I think of him as Orderly Seagull, a compatriot of Smokey Bear and Woodsy Owl. He’s taking a stand for park cleanliness against the baser instincts of his kind.

March 2, 2005

The Magic Was… Not Strong With This One

Posted in General, Recreational at 8:57 pm by Ian

Went to the Extended PTQ for Philly a few Saturdays ago, armed with Meddling Mage-less GrowAtog, many dice that didn’t match, and a Red Bull. Buddy Ryan accompanied, armed with Red Rock (that link’s actually to Ryan’s deck, whereas the other one is just an approximation of mine) and a substantially better ability to play said deck. He ended up in the quarterfinals, with a T8 pin and half a box of Betrayers to his name. I eventually managed a winning record of 4-3, after going 1-3 in the first four rounds.

I could tell that it wasn’t my day after I lost the first round. Now, it’s certainly possible to lose the first round and still go on to do great things. Yet, it’s incredibly disheartening to lose to someone who obviously has no idea what he is doing and was just given the deck 10 minutes before the tournament started. It’s like realizing in the middle of a race that you’re trailing someone who didn’t put his shoes on the right feet.

We went back last weekend. I again started off with a 1-3 record, a testament to my refusal to spend extra money so I could play a good deck. I did manage to pull out a 3-3 final record. ::sigh::

At least the next season is limited. I’m good at limited.

June 21, 2003

Gaming: Part II

Posted in Recreational at 11:09 pm by Ian

The other game that I’ve been playing recently is Puerto Rico, a resource management game set in colonial Central America. Each turn consists of each person picking a job, and then all players get to use the benefits of that job. The trick is that whoever picks the job gets a benefit or discount on their own use, and they get to use it first. For example, when you pick Captain everyone gets to ship goods. However, you get a bonus for your shipment, and you get to place your goods on the ships first, which is important, because space may run out.

The trick of the game is managing to work off of what other people decide to do, and picking jobs in the right order. But its very tricky to do in practice. In addition, the points are hidden during the game, so it’s tough to figure out who is actually winning until the end. My first game, everyone was so certain that I was winning. However, the end of the game came around with all its bonuses and so forth, and I ended up in last place.

The game looks incredibly complicated to the casual observer, but once you start playing, you pick it up very fast. And you can play a whole game in an hour or so. lots and lots of fun.

The most interesting part to me, from a design perspective, is how the end-of-game state is reached. There are a number of endgame triggers (someone fills up all their building spaces, there are no more colonists left, etc.), any one of which is sufficient to cause the game to end, and people to start counting up their score. Every round, at least one of these endgame triggers gets closer to going off, so the game is necessarily limited to about 10 or 15 rounds at the most. The amazing thing is that the game is so well balanced that most games end with all of the endgame limits happening in one round.

April 21, 2003

It Matters if You’re Black Or White

Posted in Recreational at 12:23 am by Ian

We just got Ikaruga. It came out for the Gamecube, which we saw as a sign that the gods were pleased with us, or at least thought we were working too hard. Previously, it was only available via extreme measures on the part of unbalanced individuals. Now, it has spread to the masses.
The game seems to be one of those standard (you look down upon a smallish ship with immense firepower as it dodges slow-moving bullets and slow-witted enemies) shooters that are usually a dime a dozen. But it is so much more. The real problem with those games is that they are unbelievable. We are supposed to believe that a single fighter was able to penetrate the most labyrinthine and diabolical defenses of the enemy, which, judging by his arms expenditures and poor planning, is clearly some sort of Evil Empire. Really, though, the defenses are a sham. How could they ever expect that these defenses would repel a little schoolgirl, let alone a tactical fighter!
The difference with Ikaruga, as AB poignantly noted, is that they had every reason to expect that no one could ever get through them.
The game has three difficulty levels: Hard, Impossible, and We Haven’t Even Tried This One Yet. My guess is that in the last one they make you play with one hand, or maybe you don’t get to shoot or something.
More importantly, the game has two colors. That’s what makes it so cool. You, along with everything else in the game, are either black or white, with weapons to match. The trick is that you can change your color whenever you want (and, in my case, many times that I really didn’t want to), and you are only vulnerable to attacks of the other color. This removes the classic difficulty the Evil Empire had, which was that the rebel fighters got all pissy when there were too many bullets on the screen and refused to play. Now, though, all they have to do is make it so that there are places on the screen where you are only getting hit with one color’s worth of bullets at a time, and the rebels have no choice but to rise to the challenge. As a result: Oh My God.

April 18, 2003

I Can Quit Whenever I Want

Posted in Recreational at 1:26 am by Ian

AARRRrrrgh!
Somebody trade me some goddamn cards!

MODO

Posted in Recreational at 12:53 am by Ian

I’ve started playing Magic again, in it’s online manifestation, which for reasons that are unknown to me is called “MODO.” I’m dragging AB down with me, too. He just played his first tournament tonight. It went… not excellently. Unfortunately he lost one game due to inexperience with the interface, which is pretty common for beginners to the program. It’s not at all like playing the cardboard version. That game was enough to put him out of the tourney 😦
The funny thing is that we don’t have to pay to play this game. I mean, we do, but it’s easy enough to come into the necessary funds without actually working. How, you ask? Arbitrage.
The Magic Online economy is strange. The medium of exchange is the event ticket, which costs $1 when you buy it from WotC, but can usually be bought in bulk from traders for a little less. Most importantly, though, there is no fractional currency. Thus, something will trade for a whole number of tickets only. Given that there are no transfer costs, it is easy enough to exploit any discrepancy in price. Since the real price point is usually somewhere between two whole dollar amounts, we just buy at $x and sell at $x+1. We probably make around $20 a week doing that. Now, I’m not exactly about to quit school here… but it does afford us the opportunity to play magic for free, something that I dearly miss from the old days.
You see, I used to be good at this game. Sadly, I haven’t put in the time or effort to stay on top of my game, so I can’t coast on my winnings anymore. Now I have to coast on market forces. C’est la vie.

April 14, 2003

Cosmic Monopoly

Posted in Recreational at 9:01 pm by Ian

This is the one that died last night.
So, this is the first time I’ve talked about games on this site, but I expect it’ll happen much more. Specifically, I’m likely to wax poetic about one particular game, Cosmic Encounter. If you’ve never played the game, you’ll just have to take my word that it is, hands down, the greatest game ever created. And I really mean that, because, odds are, you will not get a chance to play it. The game is, tragically, almost completely unavailable. It has been made by a half-dozen game manufacturers in the past 25 years, and is currently produced by Avalon Hill. However, their game is a limited and watered down version of the game that, at best, captures the nostalgia of old players and deceives new players into thinking that’s all there is.
The real game, the good one, was made by Mayfair Games about 10 years ago and routinely goes for over $150 on ebay. I’ve been looking for one for the last few months, and only 2 have sold for less than that. Both were missing pieces.
So anyway, I was wandering around a fan site devoted to Cosmic Encounter the other day, and I found a list of powers for Monopoly that let you play it like Cosmic Encounter.
I must explain: The basic idea of Cosmic Encounter is to take a simple game structure (which involves declaring attacks and playing cards) and complexify it by adding Alien Powers, which allow players to break the rules in a certain way. Each player in a game of Cosmic Encounter has a special power that allows them to tweak the rules in their favor slightly. The amazing part of the game is the complicated interactions between powers and between players. The game is prone to large swings in the late game, as it becomes a rivalry of The Guy Who’s About To Win vs. Everyone Else.
So there are these powers for Monopoly. We played with them on Saturday night, and it was really cool. There were 6 of us in the game, and 4 of us lasted until very late in the endgame. I started out in a strong position, with the first monopoly, but others followed, and there were strong swings in power near the end.
Some of the powers are unbalanced, so we’re working on how to balance them. One thing I’m starting to really enjoy doing is game development. I’ll put some updates here soon if people want to get involved in playing around with this.

April 6, 2003

I wish I had a cool name

Posted in Recreational at 3:55 am by Ian

I was playing the Warcraft Beta last night and ran into a guy with the name DancesWithN00bs, which I have since decided is one of the coolest gaming handles I’ve ever seen.
His impressiveness was sullied only slightly by the fact that he was apparently the victim of some kind of degenerative nerve disease that left him incapable of operating a mouse.
::sigh::