Archive for March, 2018

The latest trend seems to be reading what the rich and powerful read. I regularly peruse these lists of recommendations and occasionally an interesting title catches my eye. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert is one of those books.

For a while now this book has been in my ‘highly parallel reading queue.’ This is to say that my usual method of reading consists of a bookshelf of a hundred or so books that I’m somewhere in the midst of reading. From this bookshelf, a subset of about 20 find their way to a smaller bookshelf. These will be read randomly a chapter or so at a time until I’ve worked my way through them and have to reload from the primary bookshelf. Occasionally, as with my last reviewed book, I’ll do a cover-to-cover in a burst, but that is the exception. I’ve got some books that I’ve been reading for the better part of 30 years (75% footnote material).

Needless to say, by the time I’ve finished a book there has been a fair amount of reflection and integration that’s taken place. The material in The Sixth Extinction is fairly heavy stuff. It’s not that the science is particularly difficult or that the writing requires you to keep a tablet handy for side exploration (I love side exploration). The thing is that if you have a decent understanding of the history of the planet (so far as we have come to understand it) and appreciate the impact that man can and does have on the biosphere, then by the time you finish the book, you’ll come away with a sense of profound sadness.

I’m a fan of John Brunner‘s work. He had a way of making the large scale personal. He also had a habit of killing off all his main characters within the first ten pages of his books (yes, this is a bit of hyperbole). In many of his works there is a sense that things aren’t going to work out, but you keep pulling for the hero anyway.

The Sixth Extinction is a methodical tour of the effects of the age of man (Anthropocene epoch). It takes us around the world, unblinkingly moving from one die-off in progress to the next. It puts a face and a context to each creature we’re introduced to. If the books thirteen chapters were made into a season of television, it would be the most stunningly depressing series ever. Whereas Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos appealed to our better nature and James Burke‘s Connections left us asking if we were any more than cogs, The Sixth Extinction ends with rats inheriting the Earth.

This may all sound like a bit of a downer, but it’s one of those mirror books that is a distinct departure from all the wishing that we lived back in 1950’s America or how can we become millionaires by eating the same breakfast as Warren Buffet or Mark Zuckerberg. We need to read books that show us the big picture. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

Many books on bad situations leave us with a call to action. Realistically though, the damage has been done. The question is one of how long it will take for all the dominoes to fall. For the vast majority of people, asking them to look further than their tribe is near unto impossible. Asking people to consider the planet, therefore, represents an intractable problem.

Read the book, if for no other reason than to come away with a greater appreciation of the impact of man on the planet.

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There’s been a lot of churn lately over the price of Bitcoin. There’s also been much talk about uses (commercial and otherwise) for the blockchain technology that underlies it. I’ve taken an interest, as of late, in the subject and I found a promising source of information in the Michael J Casey, Paul Vigna book The Truth Machine.

If you’re looking for a book on how to write blockchain software. This book isn’t going to be of much interest to you. If you have interest in the history of the technology, its applications and societal impacts, you will find it to be a solid read.

Bitcoin and  Ethereum, and the like are discussed with enough depth to provide non-developers a good sense of use cases. This is after all the point of a technology. Otherwise you’ve got yourself shelfware. All the major players are discussed running the gamut from crypto-anarchists to Wall Street bankers. I find the dynamic of these two extremes battling over this technology fascinating.

One definitely comes away with the sense that the technology is still very much a work in progress. Personally, I find it unfortunate that the public sees it as another get-rich-quick methodology. This loops back to the volatility of the Coin markets.

Another, and arguably more important, takeaway is that the systems currently in place do not scale (or at least have yet to be proven to scale). That Bitcoin can process six transactions per second in a world where Visa processed ten thousand is quite telling.

The underlying problem of who’s in charge comes to mind. Without some form of human governance, poor programming will result in bad actors taking advantage of the system. Nowhere does the book address the issue of longevity. The thing about paper (or animal hide for that matter) is that it has a permanence that has proven itself outside of our advances in storage technology. If we did move to a blockchain-based system of ownership tracking, what happens when another, better one comes along? What will the impact of quantum computing be in a world where work is proportional to CPU expended? What happens when people decide that it’s easier to steal the resources used to mine the coin?

I only have a few issues with the book.

First, for a book on a complex technological subject, I expect extra fact checking. I noticed two rookie mistakes in this department. ASIC is defined as ‘Application-Specific Integrated Chips’ whereas it should be ‘Application-Specific Integrated Circuit.’ It also doesn’t require quotes. In the realm of techno-history, the authors attributed Public-Key Cryptography to Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman. This is of course incorrect. That distinction belongs to James H Ellis (at least until the NSA owns up to when they started using it). Although his work was once classified, it have been publicly recognized for some time now.

Second, the book wanders off the path of techno-history and into the realm of  conspiracy theory and political opinion when they introduce ‘speculation’ of hacking in the MH370 incident and spend the bulk of the last chapter on the latter.

On the whole, I found the book to be a very good and current survey of the landscape of blockchain technology and its history.


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