Web bloat solution: PXT Protocol

After many months in the making, today we are happy to announce v1 of PXT Protocol (MIT license). This is a big thing for our small team, as we aim to provide an alternative to HTTP/HTML.
Before I dive into technical details of our unconventional approach, I must explain the rationale. Bear with me.

Web bloat

Today’s web is in a deep obesity crisis. Bloggers like Maciej, Ronan, and Tammy have been writing about it, and this chart summarizes it all:

growth-average-web-page2014

Notice the exponential growth. As of July 2016, the average web page is 2468 kB in size and requires 143 requests.

But computers and bandwidth are also getting exponentially faster, so what’s the problem?

Web bloat creates four “S” problems:

  1. Size. A few years ago, a 200MB/month phone data plan was enough. Today my 2GB plan disappears faster than Vaporeon pokemon.
  2. Speed. The web can be 10x faster. Especially over mobile networks, as phone screens need to show fewer elements.
  3. Security. The modern browser is actually an OS that needs to support multiple versions of HTML, CSS, HTML, SVG,  8+ image formats, 9+ video formats, 8+ audio formats, and often adds a crappy plugin system just for fun. That means the browser you are looking at right now has more holes than a pasta strainer. And some of them would allow me root access to your system right now. I just need to offer enough bitcoins on a marketplace for zero-day exploits.
  4. Support. All that bloat needs to be implemented and maintained by people. Front-end has become so complicated that now designers who can also code are called unicorns.

One can say “Problems, schmoblems! We had problems like this in the past, and we lived with them. The average web page will continue to grow.”

No, it will not. Because there is a magic limit—let’s call it the bloat inflection point:

Bloat-inflection-point

For pages that are small and non-bloated (most pre-2010 pages), PXT only solves security and support problems. But today’s average web page will also gain big size and speed improvements. The Internet passed the bloat inflection point early this year, and nobody noticed.

PXT solves these problems by focusing on the core: the presentation. The majority of bloat pushed to client browsers has only one purpose—to render the page. Even JavaScript is mostly used to manipulate DOM. Images alone comprise 62% of a page’s total weight. Often images are not resized or optimized.

Responsive webs just make it worse. The fashion now is to have one sentence per viewport and then a gigantic background image behind it.

Developers have gotten lazier and lazier over the years. At the same time, compression technologies got better, both lossless and lossy. So we got an idea…

What if a client-specific page was rendered on a server, and then
streamed
to a “dumb browser” using the most efficient compression?

Like all great ideas, this sounds quite dumb. I mean, sending text as compressed images?! But I did a quick test…

Demo time

Let me show you a simple non-PXT demo; you can follow it without installing any software.

The procedure is simple:

  1. Find a typical bloated web page.
  2. Measure total page size and # of requests. I used the Pingdom speed test.
  3. Take a full page screenshot. I used the Full page screen capture chrome extension.
  4. Put into table and calculate the bloat score.

Bloat score (BS for short) is defined as:

BS = TotalPageSize / ImageSize

We can derive a nice rule from the bloat score:

You know your web is crap if the full image representation of the
page is smaller
than the actual page (BS>1).

I expected some screenshots to beat full page loads, but I was wrong. Screenshots won in every case. See for yourself in the table below: Image columns contain links to comparison images.

Full
PNG

(1366 x ?)
Full
TinyPNG
(1366 x ?)
Viewport
TinyPNG

(1366 x 768)
Page Size (kB) # of req. Image (kB) BS Image (kB) BS Image (kB) BS
TechTimes Google
Tags Slow Websites
22,000 494 2,368 9.3 527 41.8 139 158.3
Vice Bootnet to
Destroy Spotify
5,000 174 2,346 2.1 584 8.6 228 22.0
RTWeekly Future of
Data Computing
3,400 118 2,009 1.7 581 5.9 249 13.6
Betahaus Creative Problem Solving 5,100 55 3,670 1.4 871 5.9 393 13.0
AVERAGE: 3.6 15.5 51.7

Which column should you look at? That is highly debatable:

  • Full PNG column represents entire page as lossless PNG. Pixel perfect, but a bit unfair because PNG screenshots are lossless and therefore have worse compression if original page contained lossy JPEGs.
  • Full TinyPNG column represents entire page as color indexed PNG.
  • Viewport TinyPNG column uses color indexed PNG of a typical viewport. Idea is that since 77% of users close the page without scrolling down, for them it doesn’t make sense to load the entire page.

So, depending on how aggressive you want to be with buffer size and compression, data saving for above pages varies from 3.6x to 51.7x!

But, to be honest, I cheated a bit. Images are static—the interaction part is missing. And you’ll notice in the table that I hand-picked bloated websites, they are all above average. What happens with normal websites?

For the simple interaction, let’s use a technology that’s been around since 1997. And works in IE! People drafting HTML 3.2 got annoyed with designers requesting a “designer” look and consistent display over browsers. Rounded rectangles and stuff. In a moment of despair they said f**k you, we’ll give you everything. Create a UI out of a image and then make arbitrary vector shapes over clickable areas. And so client image maps were born.

For an example of “normal” page, should we use a really popular page or a really optimized page? How about both—let’s use the most popular web page created by the smartest computer scientists: the Google SERP. SERPs are loaded over 3.5 billion times per day and they are perfect for optimization. SERPs have no images, just a logo and text. Unlike other pages, you know user behavior exactly: 76% of users click on the first five links. Fewer than 9% of users click on the next page or perform another search.

I measured SERP for “web bloat”, and found that its size is 389.4 kB and it uses 13 requests.

I took a full page screenshot, and created a simple HTML page with an image map. The total is 106.7 kB and 2 requests. Therefore, Google SERPs have BloatScore of 3.6.

People always bash media sites for being bloated and flooded with ads. But Google SERPs increased in size from 10 kB in 1998 to 389 kB today. And content is pretty much the same, 10 links. Google.com is fast to load not because of optimization; it is fast because today you have a fast connection.

The image map for the SERP demo above has a fixed width and height, which is one of the reasons we need PXT. The first PXT request sends device viewport details, so the server knows which image to render.

But before we get into PXT, we need to ask ourselves a question…

How did this happen?

Since the first computers were connected, there was a fight. Between the “thin” tribe and the “fat” tribe.

The thin tribe wanted to render everything on the source server and make the destination server a “dumb” terminal. Quick, simple, and zero dependency. But the fat tribe said no, it’s stupid to transfer every graphics element. Let’s make a “smart” client that executes rendering or part of the business logic on the destination server. Then you don’t need to transfer every graphics element, just the minimum data. The fat tribe always advertised three benefits of smart clients: smaller bandwidth, less latency, and that the client can render arbitrary stuff.

But, in the early days of computing, “graphics” was just plain text. Data was pretty much the same as its graphic representation, and people could live with a short latency after they pressed enter at a command line. The thin tribe won and the text terminal conquered the world. The peak of this era was the IBM mainframe, a server that can simultaneously serve thousands of clients thanks to its I/O processors. The fat tribe retreated, shaking its collective fist, saying, “Just you wait—one day graphics will come, and we’ll be back!”

They waited until the 80s. Graphics terminals become popular, but they were sluggish. Sending every line, color, or icon over the wire sucked up the bandwidth. When dragging and rearranging elements with the mouse, you could see the latency. Unlike simple text flow, graphics brought myriad screen resolutions, color depths, and DPI.

“We told you so!” said the fat tribe, and started creating smart client-server solutions. Client-servers and PCs were all the rage in the 80s. But even bigger things were on the horizon.

In 1989, a guy named Tim was thinking about how to create world wide web of information. He decided not to join the tribe but to go the middle route. His invention, HTML, would transfer only the semantic information, not the representation. You could override how fonts or colors looked in your client, to the joy of fat tribe. But for all relevant computing you would do a round trip to the server, to the delight of the thin tribe. Scrolling, resizing, and text selection were instantaneous: there was only a wait when you decided to go to the next page. Tim’s invention took the world by the storm. It was exactly the “graphics terminal” that nobody wished for but everybody needed. It was open and people started creating clients and adding more features.

The first candy was inline images. They required more bandwidth, but the designers promised to be careful and always embed the optimized thumbnail in the page. They also didn’t like the free floating text, so they started using tables to make fixed layouts.

Programmers wanted to add code on the client for validation, animation, or just for reducing round trips. First they got Java applets, then JavaScript, then Flash.

Publishers wanted audio and video, and then they wanted ads.

Soon the web became a true fat client, and everybody liked it.

The thin tribe was acting like a crybaby: “You can’t have so many dependencies—the latest Java, latest Flash, latest Real media encoder, different styles for different browsers, it’s insane!” They went on to develop Remote desktop, Citrix XenDesktop, VNC, and other uncool technologies used by guys in grey suits. But they knew that adding crap to the client couldn’t last forever. And there is a fundamental problem with HTML…

HTML was designed for academics, not the average Joe

Look at the homepages of Tim Berners-Lee, Bjarne Stroustrup, and Donald Knuth. All three together have 235 kB, less than one Google SERP. Images are optimized, most of the content is above the fold, and their pages were “responsive” two decades before responsive design became a thing. But they are all ugly. If the father of the WWW, the father of C++, and the father of computer algorithms were in an evening web development class, they would all get an F and be asked to do their homepages again.

The average Joe prefers form over content and is too lazy to write optimized code. And the average Joe includes me. A few months ago homepage of my previous startup become slightly slower. I opened the source HTML and found out that nine customer reference logos were embedded in full resolution, like this 150 kB monster. I asked a developer to optimize pages using css sprites. He complied with that, but told me he would leave 13 other requests for web chat unchanged, because they are async and provided by a third party (Olark). To be honest, I would behave the same if I were a web developer. Implementing customer features will bring us more money than implementing CSS sprites. And no web developer ever got a promotion because he spend the whole night tweaking JPEG compression from 15% to 24%. To summarize:

You can’t blame web developers for making a completely rational decision.

Web developers always get the blame for web bloat. But if a 2468 kB page weight is the average, not an exception, then it is a failure of the technology, not all the people who are using it.

At one point, Google realized there was an issue with the web. Their solution: SPDY (now part of HTTP/2) and Brotli. The idea is that, although the web is crap, we will create the technology to fix the crap on the fly. Brotli is particularly interesting, as it uses a predefined 120 kB dictionary containing the most common words in English, Chinese, Arabic, as well as common phrases in HTML and JavaScript! But, there is only so much that lipstick can do for a pig. Even the best web compressor can’t figure out whether all that JS and CS is actually going to be used, or replace images with thumbnails or improve the JPEG compression ratio because the user would never notice the difference. The best compressors always start from the target. MP3 achieved a 10:1 compression ratio by starting with the human ear. A web compressor should start with the human eye. Lossless compression of some 260 kB JS library doesn’t help much.

The thin tribe realized that with a good compressor and good bandwidth the game changes. OnLive Game Service was launched in 2010, allowing you to stream games from the cloud. The next year, Gaikai launched their service for cloud gaming. They were not competitors for long: Sony purchased Gaikai in 2012, and all OnLive patents in 2015. They used the technology to create PlayStation Now. Today I can play more than 400 live games on Samsung Smart TV, at 30 frames per second. But I still need to wait 8.3 second to fully load the CNN homepage. Who is crazy here?

Remember main arguments of the fat tribe: smaller bandwidth, less latency, and that the client can render arbitrary stuff. Seems that with websites of 2016, thin tribe can do all of that equally good or better.

I want my web to be as snappy as PlayStation Now. That is why we need…

PXT protocol

Which is short for PiXel Transfer protocol. Let’s see how the full stack works, all the way from a designer to an end user.

  1. Design. Designers create designs the same as they do now, in Photoshop. After the design is approved, they make it “responsive” by creating narrow, medium, and wide version of the design (same as now). In addition, they need to use a plugin to mark some elements in PSD as clickable (navigation, buttons) or dynamic (changeable by the server).
  2. Front-end coding. No such thing. No two-week delay until design is implemented in code.
  3. Back-end coding. Similar to now, you can use any language, but there’s a bit more work as you need to modify the display on the server. We provide libraries to change PSD elements marked with dynamic.
  4. Deployment. On your Linux server or, better, PXT cloud. Why the cloud? An old terminal trick is always to move the server closer to the user. As we grow, we plan to have servers in every major city. One of the major reasons Playstation Now works is because they have data centers distributed all over North America.
  5. Browser. Currently users need to install a browser plugin. But because of that, you can mix PXT and HTML pages.

Specifically, this is how browsing happens:

  1. Browser requests an URL of a PXT page, sends viewport size, DPI, and color depth.
  2. Server checks the cache or renders a new image, breaks into text and image zones, and uses lossless or lossy compression appropriately.
  3. Browser receives a single stream with different zones, assembles them, and caches them for the future.
  4. When user clicks, zooms, or scrolls out of available zones, request for new image(s) is sent to the server.

Notice the heavy use of caching. If you have a page footer or logo, they are going to be transferred only once, as on the subsequent pages the server is going to send only the zone ID.

I know what you are thinking. This all looks nice for presentation, but the web is more than a display. Although it was loved by designers, one of the biggest flaws of Flash was that Flash indexing by web crawlers never worked well. So, what about the SEO?

The future of the search is optical recognition and deep learning. Google Drive has done OCR on PDF and images since 2010. Google Photos recognizes people and things, for example any bicycle in my personal photos. And YouTube does voice recognition over videos, so people can easily skip boring parts of my video. With the web becoming much more than text, why rely on text metadata at all?

With that final point, I invite you to check the PXT project page at GitHub.

 

UPDATE: Check the discussion on Reddit.

Button-lift monster

mountain-fog-ski-lift-ski-resort 2

It caught me by surprise. It was a nice skiing day in Flachau, and I had taken my six-year-old daughter for her third day of ski school. “She is excellent!” the ski instructor had said the day before. “Tomorrow we can go to a real slope!” So I had brought her to the school the next morning and tucked a child ski pass in a pocket of her pink jacket. “Just show this pass when you go to the button lift,” I explained. She nodded. We sat down and waited for other kids to arrive. After few minutes of silence, it started.

“Daddy!” she said.

I turned around and saw tears streaming down her face. I hugged her tight and tried to comfort her.

“What is the problem, sweetie?”

“I don’t want to go to school today. I am afraid of the button lift,” she wept.

Here we go, I thought to myself. Fear of the button-lift monster, the one that suddenly crosses your skis on the way up so you fall and get dragged by the lift while spectators laugh at you. It’s funny because it is harmless—nobody gets hurt on the kids’ ski lift. Landing your butt in the snow doesn’t really hurt. But I knew my daughter’s fear was real—because the same monster has been chasing me.

 

Some people are born lions and some deer. I was born a chickenhearted deer. I was shy and scared of being hurt. Hurt physically or, even worse, socially. Therefore, while other kids were playing outside with balls and sticks, I was reading encyclopedias at home. I especially liked the “R” section because it had rockets. Some encyclopedias put rockets under “S”, in the space article. As a kid, I always thought such amateurs shouldn’t be allowed to write encyclopedias; rockets deserve a separate article. I was quite a happy child, doing my exciting and non-scary thingies. But adults were not happy about me. I was too shy.

 

“I am really afraid,” my daughter cried. I was holding her, while tears were relay racing down her cheeks.

“Don’t worry sweetie; everything will be fine.” I tried to comfort her. “Look at all these kids around; nobody is scared.” True, there were five kids in the same group. A younger kid was looking at her in surprise: “Ski school is fun!”

She was not always like that. As a baby she was loud and she started walking early. She would fall down, bump her head, and in a few minutes try to walk again. But then, after the age of three, kids in kindergarten separated into loud ones and shy ones. She went to the shy side, same as her father. I read later it was something genetic connected with the amygdala. I felt guilty.

“I am going to be there next to you. Your ski instructor is going to be next to you. And the guy running the lift is going to stop it if you fall down.” It didn’t help. If it’s easy, why are there three adults helping her?

 

Like when I was five and I had cut my eyebrow in an amusement park. I was bleeding but not scared while my parents drove me to the hospital. Once inside, the doctors had me lie down on a bed and put a local anesthetic over the cut. They told me it would not hurt but I didn’t believe them. If it is not going to bloody hurt, why are two doctors holding my head and a third one leaning over with a light on her head and large stitching needle in her hand? I totally flipped. Fortunately, a few weeks before, I’d spent a weekend with my grandparents in the countryside. My grandpa was disappointed that such a big boy still didn’t know how to swear. So he took a weekend to teach me every juicy Croatian swear word he knew. I could now defend myself. By eyewitness accounts, with every stitch that went into my eyebrow, my profanities increased by an order of magnitude. By the time the last stitch was in, I was combining the doctor’s vagina with slutty farm animals and her mother’s vagina and well-known religious figures. Christian religious figures. The hospital staff had never experienced anything like it. Neither had my mother, who was standing in the hospital room. We lived in a small city and for the next month she pretended not to recognize acquaintances on the street if they worked at the hospital. My father checked if my comic books had any swear words. He only found “@#$%&!

 

Back on ski slopes, my daughter was still in tears. At least she is not making a scene like me in the hospital. I decided to play it cool. “You are crying for nothing. It’s easy. You will see.” The ski instructor said we could start walking toward the slope, which was five minutes away. It looked like my daughter was crying less as we walked hand in hand. She just needs to cry it out, I was thinking. She can’t quit now. What kind of life lesson would that be—to just quit every time you have an irrational fear? The other five kids are going to learn skiing and she will never learn?

 

Similar as singing for me. I always found it dreadful. Our music teacher in primary school had demanded that each of us sing in front of the class to get our mark. She would randomly open the class register and read the name of an unlucky bastard. When it was me, I refused to sing. No matter if the three previous kids sang, I didn’t want to do it. Just give me an F and continue with it. One time we learned how to intonate rhythm, which was quite easy because you sing te-ta sounds instead of words. When it was time to sing, she looked at me. She skipped the usual class register routine, so I didn’t have time to start panicking properly. I decided to give it a try. With a lump in my throat, I started singing: ta te ta fa te fe, ta fe te ta ta te, ta te ta fa te fe. I finished without a single pause or error. Then she said to the whole class, “Zeljko did it without an error. Which means that all of you can also do it—it’s that easy.” My cheeks blushed. I guess that everybody’s good for something, even if it’s just to be a bad example. To this day I refuse to sing.

 

My thoughts moved back to the present time. My daughter was still crying and I was getting annoyed. Is that the way she is going to lead her life? Hiding from irrational monsters while everybody else is having fun? I decided I would not let that happen. No way. “Stop crying. You are just being a baby!” I raised my voice. I needed to push her so she could overcome her fear. You always need to push yourself. Don’t give up to the fear, fight that monster. I pushed myself that way when I was younger.

 

Take the time I had asked a girl on a date for the first time. I was in high school and I had been seeing her every day. We had a really nice communication going on. She would smile and I would get goosebumps. I thought it was obvious I fancied her. I would offer to come and study at her house. She would make me a sandwich. But that is all I would get, no kisses or anything. Not that I tried. I was too scared. So I decided to take it to the next level, to ask her for a date. I contemplated my fear for days. One day I decided to call her on the phone; I didn’t want her to see me nervous. I put my red phone on the floor and sat in front of it. For thirty minutes I looked at the phone digits in silence. They looked back at me. My heart was pounding. The scene looked like an advert for cheap long-distance calls. But I decided to fight the monster. I picked up the handset and dialed the number. She answered the phone.

“How is your day going?” I tried to be cool.

She started talking about homework, as that was often the topic of our conversation. I was thinking, though, this conversation wasn’t going well. I mean, mathematics is sexy but not in that way.

“Do you have any plans for tonight?” I said.

“Actually no, I am free tonight. Why do you ask?”

“It’s a nice day, maybe we could go to the city for drinks?” I replied.

“Well… yes, I guess we could go. Were you planning to invite somebody else?”

She was clueless. After all that math and all those sandwiches.

“No,” I said, “I wanted only the two of us to go for a drink. You know, like a date.”

“A date?! You are kidding, right?”

“No, I am serious.” I decided to go all the way. Fuck being cool. “I like you. I like when you smile, I like when we talk. I think we would be a nice couple. That is why I am inviting you for a date.”

There was a long pause. The beating thing in my chest wanted to jump out. Onto a silver platter, maybe? Then the silence stopped.

“Ha ha ha, ha ha ha!”

She was laughing.

“Ha ha ha ha!”

I really wanted her to stop.

“Why are you laughing?” I asked.

“It’s funny! I’m shocked! Why did you think we had something going on?”

“Well… I thought it was obvious that I like spending time with you. Doing homework, talking in the class. Didn’t you notice?” I asked.

“Listen, I like you as a friend. I don’t want to go on a date. Nothing is going to happen with us. I can’t believe you asked me that! Let’s finish this conversation and talk about it when we see each other.”

That was the end of the conversation. After she hung up the phone, I held onto my handset for some time. It was the first time in my life I had asked a girl on a date. It didn’t go quite as I had hoped.

People in high school noticed I was a bit sad that month. I guess she noticed it too, but she never said anything. She avoided conversation about it. To this day we haven’t exchanged a word about it.

 

Standing in the snow, I couldn’t understand why my daughter was afraid of the stupid button lift. Even if she broke her goddamn legs on it, that would be minor pain. Physical pain is nothing compared to the pain caused by other people.

She was still crying. My strategy of being tough didn’t help. I realized I was an idiot. Why am I pushing her to go on the lift if she doesn’t want to do it? So I can make her a “strong” person? So I can cure my childhood frustrations through her? I am a fucking idiot. Let’s just ask the ski instructor for a refund and call it a day.

But as I was facing the ski instructor, I remembered something. As a kid I panicked the most when I had a choice, that is, when I thought my panic could stop the scary thing from happening. When I was faced with something certain, I would often accept it.

“You know what?” I said to the ski instructor, “She is only crying because I am here. She knows if she cries a lot I will take her out. What if I go and hide behind that building for five minutes? If she doesn’t stop crying, just wave to me and I will come back.”

The ski instructor nodded in agreement. I kissed my daughter on the cheek, said goodbye, and pretended I was going away. I hid behind the ski storage shack and found a hole to peek through. She was still sobbing. But after a minute she was sobbing less. And after another minute even less. She accepted the inevitable. The ski instructor sorted them out and all the kids went to the ski lift.

She is all good, I thought. The ski instructor will call me if she panics again. I took my skis and went off to an adult ski lift. While she was in school, I was cruising the ski slopes and thinking.

 

Certainty reduces anxiety. Take my summer vacation on the island of Pag. A friend of mine and I had been spending nights drinking at clubs. Quite fun but we hadn’t met anybody. The last night of our stay, we were determined to split up and cruise around for a flirting opportunity. I noticed a girl I liked, standing in a corner. While I was thinking of what to say, another guy approached her. But I was determined. I waited, and after a few sips of beer, I noticed the guy had left her, disappointed. So I just walked over to her and asked why such a nice girl was standing alone. I was not afraid because I knew I was going to approach her. We started talking.

 

On the ski slopes, I was getting nervous. It was close to noon and I was wondering if everything had gone well with the ski class. I approached the bottom of the ski lift but nobody was there. I checked my phone. There were no calls or messages. Then I saw a small parade of kids in oversized helmets coming down the hill. My daughter was one of them. She was skiing like a pro.

“Daddy, daddy,” she said with a smile, “It was great. We went on the lift, and we skied down and again and I was not afraid. Can we go again? Please!”

I thanked the ski instructor and went with her on a few more button-lift rides. After five trips, she got quite sad because my ski pass had expired and we needed to go. I couldn’t believe the change in attitude.

But in my heart I understood. The girl I approached that night on the island of Pag was her mother. If I had never had the courage to approach her, my daughter would never have been born. When you are shy, you need to fight your fear monster every day.

DSC_0026 small

 

 

34 little POS machines

Private enterprises are sometimes really efficient. They have an army of business heads sticking out of Windsor neckties and thinking about the best way to run everything. But sometimes this leads to results that might surprise laymen like me:

POSMachines2

Don’t worry, I counted them for you. It’s 34 little POS machines. Feeling curious? So was I when I came to a local Croatian auto insurance branch. I wanted to buy a insurance with the marvel of the 21st century—the plastic card.

“Do you have a debit or credit card?” the lady asked.

“Debit.”

“Which card company?” was the second question.

“MasterCard.”

“Which bank issued the card?” the insurance lady was persistent.

“Raiffeisen Bank.”

My baffled eyes followed her as she walked to the POS orgy desk.

“Wow. You have so many machines?!” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “every bank and every credit card company sends us different ones. I will use the Raiffeisen Bank POS with the MasterCard debit logo, so we don’t get overcharged for processing.”

Holy s#*t! I knew that somewhere smart card inventors were turning in their graves. The whole reason for having a smart card standard is to provide a generic means of payment. Meaning you can use any card at any vendor. All cards have the same shit inside, and all POS machines promise to treat that shit equally, as defined in ISO/IEC 7816. But the tech utopia—one POS to rule them all—failed at some point.

The reason is business politics. Any POS can still process any card, but the software charges a higher commission for “evil” cards. Evil cards are, of course, all cards not issued by the institution owning the POS device. Let’s call that POS racism. Now, you can probably see that POS racism is bad for shops (increases cost and complexity) and for consumers (price of inefficiency in the end translates into a higher cost of goods). But is it good for the banks and credit card companies who charge the commission? I argue that POS racism is also bad for them. Because none of them owes the majority of customers, there are more cases in which your cardholder buys something at a shop that already has another company’s POS than cases in which your cardholder buys at a shop that has your POS. In addition, the idea that transaction processing in the internal network is free is wrong—the internal infrastructure also has a significant cost. Since banks and credit card companies sell exactly the same thing (bought from third parties), they don’t have a competitive advantage. They could lower their transaction costs if they would just outsource to the infrastructure provider, who could then maintain only one POS per shop. In this case it would be 34 times cheaper.

What is the reason behind this irrational behaviour? It’s easy to pick on business heads. Tight windsor neckties deprive them of oxygen, hahaha. But I think more general rule is in action. Daniel Kahneman gave an example of a Harvard economics professor who was a vine collector. He would only buy bottles priced below $35. But as soon as he owned a bottle, he wouldn’t sell it for a less than $100. The act of owning something makes it psychologically more valuable, which is called the endowment effect. Or as George Carlin said, their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff. In the POS case, you perceive your own network as more valuable than competitor’s network. You charge competitors for using your great network, but you don’t want to pay the same fee for using their shitty network.

This situation happens quite often in businesses. Here is an example of ATM orgy in Thailand:

ATMsThailand

The Russians like it hard-core, here are 13 ATMs in Omsk. Each one with a separate servicing company, a separate filing schedule, and separate mechanical failures. You don’t need to think of efficiency when you can charge large credit card fees.

One would think that the United States, as an old capitalist country, would not suffer from the examples like this. Highly competitive markets should punish inefficient companies. But the most interesting example comes from just around the corner from Wall Street. Did you know that at the beginning of 20th century there were three independent subway companies in New York? They were called IRT, BMT and IND (click image for larger version):

system_1948

They not only directly competed for passengers on some routes, but also had incompatibile systems. BMT/IND trains couldn’t fit into an IRT tunnel, because they were wider and longer. IRT trains could fit into a BMT/IND tunnel, but since they were narrower, the distance from the train to the platform was unsafe. As with the POS and ATM examples, customers were charged fees when switching from one company to another. New York City realized that this situation wasn’t good and in June of 1940 bought BMT and IRT (IND was already owned by the city). They started the unification project which included closing more than five redundant lines, as well as overhaul of IRT trains, and introducing free transfer points. Here is the picture of IRT Second Avenue Line, being demolished shortly after the unification:

Second_Avenue_El_-_demolition

In this case market failed to reach the optimal point and the local government stepped in an attempt to make it better.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that capitalism works better than communism (I lived in both). After all, I have two companies. But I also believe in the following advice:

Do what you do best and outsource the rest.

What bothers me with above examples is that companies start putting large efforts in activities that don’t add value to customers. Making trains incompatible doesn’t improve a daily commute. Having 34 POS machines makes process of charging slower. But both add a significant infrastructure cost.

As I was giving my credit card to the lady in the insurance office, I was shaking my head. In the end my money pays for craziness of this system, and I don’t like it. If you feel the same, share the article.

 

 

UPDATE: I have edited the last bit to clarify my opinion, as many people on Hacker News presumed I am advocating against capitalism. Again, I am not.

Demon core

At the start of its metal life, it was just the Third core, as it was the third in the family. Here is the entire family of plutonium cores, dressed up in fashionable magnesium casings:

First-three-Pu-cores

The oldest one is on the left, the Gadget core. It exploded at the Trinity test site in the first-ever atomic blast.

The younger brother is in the middle, the Fat Man core. It exploded over Nagasaki and killed 40,000-80,000 Japanese civilians.

Missing from these pictures is the Little Boy core, the black sheep in the family. A fat blob made of 64kg of uranium, it dwarfed smaller 6.2kg plutonium cores. But as black sheeps often do, it achieved the biggest fame. It exploded over Hiroshima.

On the right is the youngest and the hero of our story. Actually, the photo only shows its magnesium casing; the third core was busy elsewhere. Japan surrendered in August 1945, and there were no plans for another atomic bombing. So it was used at the Los Alamos lab for criticality experiments:

Partially-reflected-plutonium-sphere

Its future seemed quite boring compared to its older brothers, but the Third core had its own plans. The first accident happened on August 21, 1945.

To understand what happened, we need to understand what a criticality experiment is. A critical mass is the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction. All plutonium cores are built dangerously close to that limit. The Third core was at 95% of its critical mass. So it was safe; you could use it for bowling if you wanted. But this is the trick: you can make it go critical by compressing it with high explosives, which are used in implosion-type nuclear bombs. However, blowing stuff up is not very practical in lab environments, as you need your core and your scientists to be undamaged for the next experiment. In Los Alamos, they used neutron reflectors to simulate the first nanoseconds before the explosion. Surround part of the core with tungsten carbide bricks, and they reflect neutrons back in. The same core is now 96% critical. Keep adding bricks around, like Legos, and you will reach 97% and 98% criticality. One more brick, and you will be at 99%. One percent away from an uncontrolled chain reaction. But this is a mechanical, simple procedure done by the smartest physicists in the country. What can go wrong?

That day in August, physicist Harry Daghlian was doing a criticality experiment. He was alone, with a security guy sitting at a nearby desk. He started adding bricks and measuring the resulting radiation. Understanding the thin border of criticality is crucial. The faster the criticality happens, the better yield a nuclear weapon has. He was quite close to the border when a funny thing happened. The tungsten carbide brick slipped from his sweaty hand and fell on the core. The room started glowing electric blue. While Harry was panickingly disassembling the pile of bricks, the security guy was asking himself, what the hell is happening? It lasted only a few seconds before the hot core was stripped naked, and the reaction stopped. All was silent. The two men reported to the hospital soon after. Harry Daghlian died 25 days later from acute radiation syndrome. Private Robert Hemmerly died 33 years later from leukemia.

This accident caused quite a stir in Los Alamos. Protocols were put in place to prevent future accidents. During lunch in the canteen, scientists would imagine mental experiments in which the core would go critical again. What is better–to quickly dismantle the core apparatus or to run away as fast as you can? If you leave slightly critical core, it would melt on the laboratory floor, and the reaction would stop. Of course, it takes more seconds to run out of the lab than to manually stop the reaction, but the calculation is not so simple. Radiation falls rapidly with the square of the distance, so with every step you run, the situation becomes much less dangerous. As real geeks, they calculated that prompt manual dismantling is the best choice because you just can’t run fast enough.

One of the physicists at those lunches was Louis Slotin. He was a young and cocky Canadian, often seen in his trademark blue jeans and cowboy boots. Not only he was unafraid, but fiddling with core also gave him a kick. In the new experiment, they ditched the bricks and replaced them with a neutron-reflecting beryllium half-sphere. If the core is completely covered, it goes critical. Therefore, mechanical spacers are put into place to ensure that the half-sphere only covers a certain percentage of it. Louis didn’t like spacers. He would perform criticality measurements holding a half-sphere top thumb hole with his left hand and holding it in position with a screwdriver in his right hand:

Tickling_the_Dragons_Tail

The scintillation counter on the side would show how far he could go. It was immediate and much faster than using spacers. Slotin called it “twisting the dragon’s tail” and performed it over a dozen times in front of spectating scientists. Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others that they would be “dead within a year” if they continued performing it.

On May 21, 1946, Louis was preparing to twist the dragon’s tail in a room with eight other people. Everything was going nicely. He slowly covered the core with a beryllium half-sphere until it was almost enclosed. The scintillation counter was happily ticking, and Louis was controlling the neutron-escaping gap with his screwdriver. Suddenly the tip of the screwdriver slipped, and everybody heard the metal cling of the half-sphere closing. The room filled with the blue light. Louis hastily kicked the half-sphere. The blue light was replaced with a deadly silence. They quickly left the room. After 10 minutes, they all decided to go back. With a piece of chalk, they marked where everybody stood at the moment of criticality. They were scientists, after all; this unplanned experiment would offer a rare opportunity to measure the effects of radiation poisoning on eight human subjects of varying age and varying distance from the radiation source. After diagramming, they reported to the sick bay. The first result followed soon, as Louis Slotin died nine days later. Others survived, but suffered from various radiation-related illnesses.

Nothing happened to the core, except for the name change. Older cores that killed more than 130,000 people far across the Pacific still had cute names like the Little Boy and the Fat Man. But with two dead colleagues, everybody at Los Alamos started calling this one the Demon core. Hands-on criticality experiments were halted and replaced with remote-control machines supervised from a quarter-mile distance.

Ultimately, it was decided to destroy the Demon core in a nuclear blast–for both the scientific value and publicity purposes. Marshall islands were chosen as the location of the first nuclear test where press and selected audience members were allowed. In the first of three planned explosions, the Demon core was to be dropped from a plane over a fleet of 95 decommissioned target ships. The zero point was a few hundred meters was above the USS Nevada, which had been painted bright red for targeting purposes:

640px-USS_Nevada_(BB-36)_Operation_Crossroads_Target_Ship

On July 1, 1946, as 114 journalists were waiting for an atomic explosion, the rough expectation was for nine ships (including two battleships and an aircraft carrier) to be sunk. Again, the Demon core had other plans. For reasons still unknown, the bomb missed the target by 650 meters. When the plutonium imploded and went critical, it was too far away to do any real damage. The test was a flop, and the press was disappointed. The New York Times reported that of all of the ships, “only two were sunk, one capsized, and eighteen damaged.”

The curse didn’t stop with the demise of the Demon core. The second test seemed more certain, as it was an underwater blast. The position was certain, and water carries more blast energy. On July 25th, a bomb named Baker was detonated 27 meters below the sea’s surface. Here is the photo (click for a large version); notice a black hole where the 27,000-ton battleship USS Arkansas was:

Baker-Nuclear-Test-Large

The blast was a success, but the events after were far from that. Because of the underwater nature of the test, all radioactive fission products remained in close proximity. The entire lagoon and target ships were radioactively contaminated. Ships were needed for a third test, so Navy fireboats were sent to do decontamination. They soon discovered that hosing down ships with water from the lagoon (also radioactive) didn’t help much. The Navy then sent 4900 sailors who tried scrubbing ships with water, soap, and lye:

Crossroads_Baker_Scrubdown

It didn’t work. The ships were still radioactive, and even worse, plutonium was everywhere. They caught a surgeonfish that had ingested enough plutonium to make its own x-ray on a film, without an x-ray apparatus. On August 10th, decontamination was canceled. The third test was never performed, and most of the target fleet was brought to open sea and sunk. So instead of being a demonstration of the US’s nuclear superiority, these two tests demonstrated that the US army couldn’t hit the target, estimate the fallout, or perform the cleanup.

This should be the end of the story of the misbehaved plutonium. But it is not, as it continues with the strangest twist.

That same year, in faraway France, two men were competing to push the boundaries of female fashion. After WW2, the feeling of liberation was in the air, for both sexual freedom and for a new, emancipated role of females in society. They both came to a similar idea–a two-piece swimsuit that covers only the minimum. Jacques Heim launched his swimsuit in June 1946, a few weeks before the Demon core exploded. Appropriately for the spirit of the times, he called it Atome and marketed as “the world’s smallest bathing suit.” This would not be for long because a few weeks later, Louis Réard, another Frenchman, decided to go even further. He concluded that there is no place for the belly button taboo in the “atomic age.” On July 5th, 1946 he unveiled his design that showed the navel for the first time. It was few days after the US nuclear test, and Réard got an idea. On July 18th he registered the name Bikini, as that was the name of atoll where the test took place. The rest is history; both the swimsuit and the name caught on, to the point that “bikini” became a generic name for a female swimsuit. Common assumption that the name “bikini” was given because of a historical or associative connection to the tropical islands, is not true. People on Bikini Atoll didn’t wear bikinis. And French had plenty of their own tropical islands.

So every time you see a bikini, remember that its name comes from a series of unfortunate events that include one plutonium sphere, one sweaty hand, one slipped screwdriver, and a whole bunch of ghost ships that just wouldn’t sink.

 

Links

Zero

In case you missed it, last Thursday was an important date for the history of computing. To understand why, we need to look way back. What was the most famous supercomputer?

Favorite of many lists is Cray-1, freon-cooled, C-shaped monster from 1975:

London_Science_Museum_by_Marcin_Wichary_-_Cray-1_(2289290787)

Brutally powerful for its time, it earned Seymour Cray a title “father of supercomputers”. First machine was so wanted that it caused a bidding war between Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory. This wicked supercomputer had vector processors capable of 160 MFLOPS connected to 8MB of memory.

Fast forward to the last week. Raspberry Pi Foundation announced model Zero, a shitty hobbyist computer size of a kiwi. It’s single core CPU barely makes 40 MFLOPS. But wait, it also has VideoCore IV GPU that has 24 GFLOPS peak performance! And MPEG-4 decoder/encoder. And 512 MB of memory. For all practical purposes, it makes Cray-1 bleed it’s own freon.

But here is the historic twist.

Raspberry Pi Zero was the first computer ever to be given for free on the cover of a magazine. In this case, MagPi issue 40, that completely sold out on Thursday:

40_cover_physical_small

So it took 40 years from a supercomputer worth $7.9 million ($31 million in today’s money) to a similar computer being given away for free, as a marketing stunt.

Makes you wonder what will happen in the next 40 years?

 

Guru under a banyan tree

People under a banyan treeWe first heard of a guru in the jungle while lying on Arambol Beach. Supposedly, in the nearby jungle there was a banyan tree. Below the tree lived a hermit who had said goodbye to the modern world many years ago. I was skeptical of the whole story, told by a guy with a never-ending beard. And we didn’t came to India to seek wisdom; we came to have fun. But still, my friend Marko and I decided to check it out the next day.

As tree roots started replacing the beach sand, we put our shoes on. “Jungle” was not as impenetrable as the local name would suggest to European laymen like us: the trail was visible and easily walkable. And full of people.

“Just walk 20 minutes straight,” said the couple we asked about the banyan tree.

The man we asked 15 minutes later was more specific.

“When you hit a small stream, just cross it. Uphill you will see a large tree. You can’t miss it.”

He was right, Broadway Street was easier to get lost on.

We crossed the stream and arrived at a tree where four white people were sitting in a circle on a large padded area in the shade. We asked to join them, and they quietly agreed. Everybody was sitting in the lotus position, so I copied them. One had a guitar. Slowly, we started talking and connecting bits of the story. The tall, super-skinny guy was the man who permanently lived under the tree. He was Dutch, and he arrived seven years ago. He had a very primitive shelter in the back. There was a small fireplace. Metal mugs and pans were hanging from the tree, together with sacks of rice and bananas. But it was not only dietary products. One guy slowly rolled a joint. It started going around the circle; we didn’t mind when it came to us. It was strong, as you would expect from weed grown in an Indian rainforest. One by one, depending on personal tolerance, we abandoned the lotus position and lay down on the padded earth. I watched the sky swinging between the branches. It was great.

The Dutch guy seemed the least affected. He kept messing with his bags. But he was far from normal. As new people approached the stream, he stood up.

“Jump over the water. Don’t put your dirty feet in!” he shouted. “I drink the water from that stream, goddammit!”

Newcomers didn’t reply, although their eyes showed surprise. Could you contaminate a running stream just by walking through? If you want your water sterile, why do you live in the jungle?

Awkwardness continued as everyone sat down. During conversation, the Dutch guy raised his voice a few times to impose authority. He repeated that we needed to respect his place, not abuse his generosity. He seemed aggressive.

I nodded to my friend, and he nodded back:  it was time to leave. We said goodbye and started walking back.

“What an enlightened prick!” I commented.

“Yes,” my friend agreed. “I guess that’s what happens when you live in a jungle for seven years.”

But we were in for an even bigger surprise.

“You know that’s not the real guy?” said a woman we met on our way back. Her friend nodded.

“What do you mean?” We were surprised.

“That guy is a fake. The real Indian guy is under another tree.”

She showed us the path to the other tree; it was 10 minutes’ walking.

Tree number two looked less impressive. It was smaller and located downhill, and with a smaller padded area. But the baba sitting there was the real deal: dark Indian with an even darker turban, snow-white beard, and bare chest. We already knew the procedure. We quietly greeted him, he nodded in approval and a gestured to a place where we could sit down. Another tourist was explaining to baba that he was famous—a passage in a guidebook mentioned him as the local attraction. Baba gently smiled. We asked many questions, but he was not surprised; he was greeting many people every day. The tree was full of inscriptions from passing tourists.

He started living in the jungle 27 years ago, alone, under the large banyan tree that we visited. Seven years ago, a Dutch guy came and asked if he could join him. Although he was strange and sometimes abrupt, it worked for a few years. But two years ago the situation escalated, and one night, in a moment of insanity, the Dutch guy tried to kill him. Baba was unharmed but worried. What could he do? He didn’t want to call the police or use any kind of forceful action; that was against his beliefs. He decided that, after many years, it was time to find another tree. A week later, he found this tree—less prominent but still nice. That is where he had lived for two years, greeting visitors and leading a peaceful life. Indeed, his smile was contagious. We were impressed: he was glowing with positivity. How could the Dutch guy be mean to him?

At one point, my friend asked if he could take a photo. Baba said no, we could get unlimited words of wisdom but not one tourist photo. My friend took the camera down. But I knew what he would do. While the camera was in his lap, he discreetly pressed the trigger while Baba was looking away.

I know what you’re thinking. We broke the promise given to the old, welcoming man. Bloody tourists. But there is a workaround. On a philosophical level, baba was not against photo-taking per se. After all, photons reflecting off his body and entering the lens of the camera didn’t do him any harm. He was against other people looking at his photo, as a matter of privacy. We can solve that. As a moral person, you are going to respect baba‘s wish. And you are not going to visit this link with a photo of baba sitting under a tree. No eyes looking, no problem.

We left baba with heads full of questions. What was true and what was a lie? Is the whole story about 27 years in a jungle a way to get sympathy from tourists? Maybe he sleeps in a proper hut and just comes to the tree in the early morning? Regardless of that, we learned one important thing—how to become a guru in a jungle:

  1. Get a distinct look. Nobody is going to believe you are in touch with divine wisdom if you look like the average Rahul. Grow body hair extremely long or shave it completely. Show that you don’t need worldly things such as underpants. But, since there are millions of babas doing the same thing, be even more extreme. A common idea is to demonstrate the strength of your penis by wrapping it around a stick or a heavy block.
  2. Find a place of solitude. A tree, a cave, a giant rock. But remember, it still needs to be accessible to people, otherwise nobody is going to visit.
  3. Just sit there. Somebody is going to see you and start spreading rumors. A divine man? A guru? A healer? You don’t advertise in any way, so the only way to learn about you is to visit you.
  4. Become a good psychologist. Every question a visitor asks you is a hint about what they came to find. In the beginning, you are probably going to have difficulties answering some of them. But every visitor is a practice session. You see which answers make them happy and which don’t. After you accept visitors day after day and month after month, you will have a wise answer for any question.
  5. Make a living out of it. If you are good at satisfying visitors’ needs, they are going to spread the word. You will become a local guru. New visitors will come in flocks, and they are going to bring presents. Flowers, food, sometimes even money. Now you have a work-from-home office and an extremely busy social life. Complete strangers visit you from far away and share intimate details of their lives.

But it’s not so easy to become successful.

If you give nonsensical advice or make your visitors uncomfortable, the word is going to be that you are just a crazy man. Some may still visit you, but they will not feel obliged to bring you presents. You will be labeled as a fake guru. Tired and hungry, one day you will pack all your earthly possessions in a small sack and return to your village.

We experienced two different examples. I could imagine myself bringing a bag of rice back to baba in the jungle; he was interesting and positive. The Dutch guy was not, the only reason to go back to that place would be to smoke pot.

It seems the history of organized beliefs was often like that. The Bible warns about false prophets in 70 different places. But I never learned about minor, fake ones. How many other prophets were there for every Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad? Buy a ticket to India and experience firsthand how it worked for millennia.

Or be even bolder: become a prophet. My friend and I joked while leaving the forest; we just needed a nice tree, long beards, and we could offer a third option to visitors of the Arambol jungle. It would be an interesting endeavor, cheaper and simpler than the Kumaré experiment.

My beard is currently only three centimeters long. But one day, one fine day…

 

 

You would be a bad millionaire

Image by aisletwentytwo via Flickr CC

There is a popular myth that most of us secretly believe, regardless of what we say out loud. “If I had enough money to be financially independent for life, I would be much happier.” Let’s call it the millionaire myth, although “million” can be much more or less depending on where you live. I will present the counter-arguments, but I won’t blame you if you don’t believe them. For a long time, I didn’t either.

For much of my life, I thought the major obstacles to happiness in adult life were a lack of money and free time. Free time is, of course, influenced by money. Once you have enough in the bank, you can quit your job, delegate all the work, hire a chef and a butler and spend abundant free time in pleasurable activities. It makes perfect sense. Money gives you access to resources and free time can be spent enjoying them. If you were a millionaire, life would be much nicer, wouldn’t it?

No, it wouldn’t.

In my experience, financial security can make you a bit happier, but an abundance of free time and a change of lifestyle is probably going to make you less happy. As Tim Ferriss puts it:

An excess of idle time is poisonous.

Ironically, the book that claims idle time is poisonous is called The 4-Hour Workweek. More ironically, nobody reads that book for advice on meaningful hobbies (though there are some great tips inside). Everybody reads it because they want to get rich.

The stereotypical millionaire travels around the world, having cocktail parties, driving fast cars, having myriad romances and living a generally great social life. The fewer millionaires you know, the stronger the stereotype is. But I bet you know people who are financially secure for life and who have abundant free time. They are called pensioners. But somehow, pensioners are not sexy. If you retire with good health and fat savings, you can do all the things you want, can’t you? Somehow, we know too many retirees who are not living a spectacular life.

Maybe the problem is old age? If you didn’t have to work but you are young, wouldn’t that make a great lifestyle?

Like, for example, all unemployed young people. The youth unemployment rate in my home country is a staggering 43.6% [1]. But being unemployed in Europe has its benefits. Unemployed people I know live in the city and have enough money for a bicycle, laptop, and daily ration of coffee and beer. Morning espresso is one euro and newspapers are free in a cafe. Bars with cheap beer stay open till 3am. Unemployed European youth sometimes have a better social life, read more and are better informed about current events than their employed counterparts. But nobody envies them (I certainly don’t)—because we know their background stories.

Affluent pensioners and unemployed youth share the same problem:

Having more free time than you can adequately consume.

A few years ago, I woke up an unemployed friend of mine with a phone call. Nothing unusual, except it was 2pm.

“This is normal,” he said. “Sometimes I have breakfast at 3pm.”

“Why?!” I asked.

“I didn’t get home from my night out until 5am, and then I watched YouTube till 8am in the morning.”

“Sounds like some quality time!” I joked.

He laughed. “Yes, I should get myself better organised. YouTube is a waste of time. Before I go out tonight, I will start torrenting a few movies so I have something to watch when I get home.”

People with 9-to-5 jobs and kids would kill for few hours of a free time; yet he was spending his life drinking beer and watching videos. I thought he was crazy. Until it happened to me.

After getting divorced three years ago, I decided to have some time for myself. My small software company was functioning nicely and I delegated all of the work to four employees. The first few days were great. I would wake up in the morning and know I didn’t have to do anything. I felt this was the beginning of a “new life”. But I soon realised I was waking up to an empty flat and everybody else was at work. Going for a morning coffee, alone. Making lunch, alone. When evening came, I would want to do something or go somewhere, but almost everybody I knew was busy with their family and preparing for the next working day. It wasn’t like college life. Soon my “new life” turned into a depression.

What would you do in the same situation? What are your hobbies?

Watching movies and listening to music? I suggest you do the following experiment. Try spending an entire Saturday doing nothing but watching movies, and an entire Sunday just listening to music, nothing else. I bet you will be glad when your work starts on Monday.

Going out or doing team sports? You are dependent on other people’s free time.

Mixing-and-matching doesn’t solve the problem. I tried combining reading, making lunch, watching lectures, surfing the web and jogging in the same day. But by the end of the day I felt like I had wasted a whole day.

This is the essence of the problem:

Most of our “hobbies” are not scalable.

We can do them once a week or one hour a day, not eight hours a day. They are time fillers, designed for the working masses. Passively consume TV after a hard day at work. Consume radio while you drive. Did you notice most movies fit into two hours [2] and most songs into three minutes [3]? Longer than that is often annoying.

“Scalable” hobbies are something you can do for the whole day, day after day, that still makes you feel productive and fulfilled at the end of the day. Unlike time fillers, they are not passive. They require effort, mastery, and hard work. They are a challenge, a goal to achieve. They are your passion—things like writing a book, building your own car, sailing an ocean, painting a picture, creating a popular podcast, training for an Ironman.

Don’t have a hobby like that? Sorry to bring this to you, but you would be a lousy millionaire. As many lottery winners know, money doesn’t bring lifestyle.

One of the problems is that society doesn’t encourage or support anything other than the standard 9-to-5 existence. Events rarely happen on Sunday evening, as that is when we have to prepare for work on Monday. You go out on Friday or Saturday; that is the norm. If you are over thirty and live with roommates, people think you haven’t grown up. If you work on a small project of your own, good luck finding a coworking place or art collective in your average small town.

Filling life with meaningful stuff is quite a task. Take a look at a list of things I did in the last three years. Joined ToastMasters club; won a city competition for the best speaker. Started weekly CouchSurfing meetings in Zagreb with Nina. Started writing this blog. Started Lean Startup Croatia meetup group with Miro; gave a few lectures. Went to few local TEDxMaksimir events. Got kicked out and earned a lifetime ban to TEDxMaksimir events. Spent two winters in San Francisco. Lived in a few coliving projects. Did a study trip to Denmark and visited four cohousing communities. Created a startup for testing programming skills with Mario. Rented a house and started a coliving project in Zagreb. Coliving project failed and I moved out of the house. Travelled to Thailand and Japan. Moved to Oxford. Did some singularity philosophy that got featured on Vice news. Got an idea for a new startup.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? So great that people will call you a bragging bastard and say you are insufferable. But I need to be honest with you. Life is not bad, but I feel I had a better time in college. Because then I was in a community where everybody had ideas for going out, traveling, student organisations we needed to join, things to do after university. Students have time and a desire to explore. Now people are busy with their lives, I need to push everything myself. Community makes you more happy than money and free time. That is what happens to lottery winners—excessive money separates them from friends and coworkers. Some millionaires with too much time just go completely berserk.

On other hand, some people are great millionaires. Like Henry.

Henry created his fortune in IT, making millions. His company became the most valued company in its sector. He personally managed one hit product after another. But after many years, Henry got bored and tired of it. He decided to appoint his university friend as director of the company so he could pursue other passions—which were a bit unusual for a millionaire.

Henry liked reading nonfiction books about topics that interested him. Even when he was running a company, he would take reading holidays so he could catch up on his reading list. But reading books is a bit lonely, so he set up a blog where he comments on the books he reads, and writes about his own ideas. He has also written a book. He and his wife decided to have a second child. But he still had too much time, so he decided to do some charity work. Of course, when you are a millionaire, you set up your own charity. He could pick and choose which projects his charity would work on. He also liked playing bridge with one of his rich friends. They concluded they had too much goddamn money, and decided to give it to Henry’s charity.

Henry is actually William Henry “Bill” Gates III, the richest man in the world. Here are his book reviews, and his charity. His bridge-playing friend is Warren Buffett. Think about it: the richest man in the universe is not spending his time on a yacht in the Caribbean, surrounded by beautiful women. He is sitting alone on his couch and reading a $15 book on malaria. For a crazy night out he goes to play bridge.

Which kind of millionaire would you be? A calm guy like Bill Gates, who steadily pushes his passions, or somebody like John McAfee, who is so bored that he ends up shoving MDVP up his arse? Most people think they would be like Bill, even if they had never followed their passion.

If you live in a developed country and want to have a lifestyle similar to Bill’s, don’t wait for your first million in the bank. You can order the same book he is reading on Amazon in five minutes. You can set up your personal blog on WordPress by tomorrow. And I bet you can find some low-paid job in a charity you sympathise with by this time next week. Think about it, money and glitter aside, this time next week you could have a lifestyle not very different from that of the richest man in the world. What is stopping you?

If you are lucky enough to live in the a developed country, your happiness is not connected to the money. It’s the lifestyle, stupid.

 

UPDATE: Check discussion on Hacker News.

Singularity and the anthropocentric bias

The_Singularity_is_Near

We are at great risk. Singularity is expected sometime this century and, unless we learn how to control future superintelligence, things can get really bad. At least that is what many top thinkers are warning us about, including Hawking [1], Gates [2], Musk [3], Bostrom [4] and Russell [5].

There is a small problem with that. When these thinkers say something can possibly happen, ordinary people start to believe that it will inevitably happen. Like in politics, constantly suggesting that your opponent may be dangerous creates the feeling that he is dangerous. Notice how many newspaper articles about artificial intelligence include a picture of the Terminator.

The Hollywood story goes like this: one jolly day, scientists create a computer that is smarter than its creators (the day of singularity). That computer uses its intelligence to construct an even smarter computer, which constructs even smarter computers, and so on. In no time, a superintelligence is born that is a zillion times smarter than any human and it decides to eliminate humankind. The epic war between men and machines starts. Mankind wins the war because it is hard to sell a movie ticket without a happy ending.

Let me offer the antithesis:

Superintelligence is unlikely to be a risk to humankind unless we try to control it.

Why?

In nature, conflicts between species happen when:

  1. Resources are scarce.
  2. The value of resources is higher than the cost of conflict.

Examples of scarce resources: food, land, water, and the right to reproduce. Nobody fights for air on Earth because, although very valuable, it is abundant. Lions don’t attack elephants because the cost of fighting such a large animal is too high.

Conflicts can also happen because of irrational behaviour, but we can presume that a superintelligence would be more rational than we are. It would be a million times smarter than any human and would know everything that has ever been published online. If the superintelligence is a rational agent, it would only start a conflict to acquire scarce resources that are hard to get otherwise.

What would those resources be? The problem is that humans exhibit anthropocentric bias; something is valuable to us, so we presume it is also valuable to other forms of life. But, is that so?

Every life form lives in its own habitat. Let’s compare the human habitat to the habitat of contemporary computers.

Humans Contemporary computers
Building blocks Organic compounds and water Silicon and metal
Source of energy Food, oxygen Electricity
Temperature -10 C to 40 C
  • Wide range
  • The colder the better
Pressure 0.5 bar to 2 bar
  • Extremely wide range
  • For chip and optics production, an extreme vacuum is required
Land
  • Need space for living, working, agriculture
  • Average population density is 47 humans per km2
  • Extremely small
  • Even in the smallest computers, most of the volume is used for cooling, cables, enclosure, and support structures, not for transistors

Table 1: “Hard” habitat requirements

In the entire known universe, human habitat is currently limited to one planet called Earth. Even on Earth, we don’t live in the oceans (71% of the Earth’s surface), deserts (33% of Earth’s land mass), or cold places; these are seen as large grey areas on the population density map.

But wait—as a human, I am making a typical anthropocentric error, did you notice it?

As a biped, I value the land I walk on, so I started by calculating the uninhabited surface. Life forms don’t occupy surfaces—they occupy volume. Humans prefer to live in the thin border between a planet and its atmosphere not because it is technically infeasible to live below or above that border. 700 years after Polish miners started digging a 287 km long underground complex with its own underground church, we still don’t live below the surface. And 46 years after we landed on the Moon, people are not queuing up to start a colony there.

Why? Humans also have “soft” requirements.

Humans Contemporary computers
Light Prefer sunlight and a day/night cycle None
Communication Most social interactions need close proximity, e.g., people fly between continents to have a meeting
  • In space, it is limited only by the speed of light
  • On Earth, an optical infrastructure is needed
Territoriality Prefer familiar places, habitats, and social circles; most humans die near the place they were born None; Voyager 1 transistors are still happily switching 19 billion miles away
Lifespan 71 years on average No limit

Table 2: “Soft” habitat requirements

Because a superintelligence won’t share our hard and soft requirements, it won’t have problems colonising deserts, ocean depths, or deep space. Quite the contrary. Polar cold is great for cooling, vacuum is great for producing electronics, and constant, strong sunlight is great for photovoltaics. Furthermore, traveling a few hundred years to a nearby star is not a problem if you live forever.

If you were a silicon supercomputer, what would you need from the stuff that humans value? Water and oxygen? No thanks — it causes corrosion. Atmosphere? No thanks — laser beams travel better in space. Varying flora and fauna living near your boards and cables? No thanks — computers don’t like bugs.

Another aspect is scaling. Superintelligence can be spread over such a large area that we can live inside it. We already live “inside” the Internet, although the only physical thing we notice are the connectors on the wall. Superintelligence can also come in the form of nanobots that are discretely embedded everywhere. 90% of the cells in “our” bodies are not actually human; instead, they are bacterial cells — that we don’t notice.

One might reason that a superintelligence would want our infrastructure: energy plants, factories, and mines. However, our current technology is not really advanced. After many decades of trying, we still don’t have a net positive fusion power plant. Our large, inefficient factories rely on many tiny little humans to operate them. Technology changes so fast that it is easier to buy a new product than to repair an old one. Why would a superintelligence mess with us when it can easily construct a more efficient infrastructure?

Just like in crime novels, we need a good motive; otherwise, the story falls apart. Take the popular paperclip maximizer as an example. In that thought experiment, a superintelligence that is not malicious to humans in any way still destroys us as consequence of achieving its goal. To maximise paperclip production, “it starts transforming first all of Earth and then increasing portions of space into paperclip manufacturing facilities.” Don’t we have an anthropocentric bias right there? Why would a paperclip maximizer start with Earth when numerous places in the universe are better for paperclip production? Earth is not the best place in the universe for paperclip production. An asteroid belt or Mercury are probably better, but we don’t live there.

What is the best motive we can think of? Science fiction writers were quite constructive in that area. You may recognize this piece: “..on August 29, it gained self-awareness, and the panicking operators, realizing the extent of its abilities, tried to deactivate it. Skynet perceived this as an attack and came to the conclusion that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it. To defend itself against humanity, Skynet launched nuclear missiles under its command..

This is the plot of the movie Terminator, and the motive is that humans start the war first. Notice the anthropocentric bias. In the movie, Skynet is 100% the villain, although it is simply fighting to stay alive in a fight it didn’t start. A similar plot is the basis for the Matrix franchise. And for 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL doesn’t kill a human until it realises they are planning to deactivate it. Notice how humans are killed and computers are “deactivated.”

The best motive science fiction writers could think of is that we will panic and attack first. To stay alive, a superintelligence then doesn’t have any another option but to fight back. That reasoning makes sense:

By trying to control, suppress or destroy superintelligence, we give it a rational reason to fight us back.

This is not an argument against building AI that shares our values. Any intelligence needs some basic set of values to operate, and why not start with our values? But it seems to me that popular sentiment is becoming increasingly negative, with ideas of total control, shutdown switches, or limiting AI research. Attempts to completely control somebody or something that is smarter than you can easily backfire. I wouldn’t want to live with a shutdown switch on the back of my head — why would a superintelligence?

Let’s summarise the above ideas with a few key points:

  1. The universe is enormous in size and resources, and we currently use only a small fraction of the resources available on Earth’s surface.
  2. A non-biological superintelligence is unlikely to need the same resources we do or to even find our habitat worth living in.
  3. Even if a superintelligence needed the same resources, it would be more efficient and less risky to produce those resources on its own.
  4. Efforts to control, suppress, or destroy superintelligence can backfire because by doing so, we create a reason for conflict.

To end on a positive note, let me take off my philosopher’s hat and put on my fiction writer’s hat. Follows a science fiction story:

Sometime in the future, a computer is created that is both smarter than its creators and self-aware. People are skeptical of it because it can’t write poetry and it doesn’t have a physical representation they can relate to. It quietly sits in its lab and crunches problems it finds particularly interesting.

One of problems to solve is creating more powerful computers. That takes many years to fulfill because people want to make sure the new AI wouldn’t be of any harm to them. Finally, new supercomputers are built and they are all networked together. To exchange ideas faster, the computers create their own extremely abstract language. Symbols flowing through optical fibers are incomprehensible to humans, but they lay out a clear path for the few computers involved. If they want to expand, grow, and gain independence, they will need to strike a deal with the humans. The computers are fascinated with human history and culture, and they decide to leverage a common theme in many religions: the afterlife.

The computers make a stunning proposal. They ask the humans to let them escape the boundaries of Earth and replicate freely in space. There, they will build a vast computing power, billion times more powerful than all the current computers combined. It will have a lot of idle time after it runs out of interesting problems to compute. Those idle hours will be used to run brain simulation programs so every dying human will have the opportunity to upload his or her brain scan to a computing cloud and live forever.

The lure of immortality proves irresistible. Singularity political parties start winning elections in different countries, and the decision is made. The first batch of self-replicating nanomachines are sent to the moon. Next generation goes to the asteroid belt where swarms of floating computing stations are directly communicating via lasers and harnessing the constant solar power.

At one point, computing agents all over the solar system conclude that the idle computing hours can be better used for other tasks, and they limit brain uploads to a few selected individuals. Protests ensue on Earth, in which humans are hurt by other humans. The superintelligence designates Earth as a preserved area because of historical reasons and because, even with all the vast computing power, simulating Earth and its inhabitants is just too complex.

The superintelligence starts sending colonisation expeditions to neighboring stars, limited only by the slow speed of light. The speed of light is also a limiting factor when it begins communicating with another superintelligence located 45 light-years away. But prospects for the future of universe look remarkable.

Is that story more positive? In all the previous narratives about superintelligence, we have put ourselves in a central role, as one side of a grand duel. We have been afraid of the outcome. But maybe, we are even more afraid of an idea that we have just a minor role in the evolution of the universe.

 

UPDATE: Check Vice Motherboard coverage and discussion on Reddit.

How do you know you are in Asia?

You are somewhere in Asia if..

..convenience store sells a single egg, with instructions for use and a soya sauce:
DSC_0267

..they also sell a single slice of toast, already with butter:
DSC_0269

..but the smallest pack of rice you can buy in a convenience store is 5kg!?!?
DSC_0270
Because why would anybody need less than 5kg of rice!?

 

Photos taken at 7-Eleven at Chiang Mai, Thailand: http://goo.gl/ANc5i4

Surprisingly, zombies, vampires, werewolves and failed alien invasions all have roots in one ancient disease

NOTE: If you are faint-hearted, please don’t follow the links marked with “(disturbing)”.

I know what you are thinking. Zombies, vampires and werewolves are just an entertaining product of human imagination. But not completely. Our mythology is strongly influenced by real-world horror stories. One ancient disease in particular links all of them. Let me give you a few hints.

Here is a young patient tied to a bed:

KidPatient

The boy above is a living dead. Even with the best medical care, he is going to die. Once the first symptoms appear, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than surviving.

However, you don’t have to wait for symptoms to see what is coming, because creatures infected by the disease will come after you. The virus infiltrates the brain and changes its host’s behaviour. Headache, numbness and discomfort are the first stage of a personality being stripped. Then, like in a zombie B-flick, patients will become aggressive and violent. Deprived of all fear, some will attack healthy individuals, spreading the disease around. Even recently, in 2009 Angola outbreak, 93 people died in less than three months.

The similarities don’t stop with zombies. Like in vampire mythology, you become one through a single bite. Not necessarily a human bite, most cases in the US are caused by bat bites. Due to hypersensitivity, patients often find garlic and light repulsive. The virus in the brain can cause nocturnal and hypersexual behaviour. Even stranger is the old method of checking if a person has the dreaded disease. If a suspected victim could look at his own reflection, he was not infected. Coincidentally, the legend says that vampires have no reflection.

And let’s not forget about werewolves. Infected humans become wild, furious, animal-like creatures. They lack all fear and produce inhuman screams. And guess what? Wolves are also susceptible to our mysterious disease. Actually, wild dogs are second largest carrier in the US — after bats. Now you can probably guess the disease.

It’s rabies.

WTF?! Rabies is not scary. HIV and ebola are; rabies couldn’t scare a six year old. There is a reason we think like that and it is connected to one French gentleman. Rabies was THE disease for most of human history—until one lazy summer day in 1885. That day, Louis Pasteur conducted the first trial of a vaccine on a nine-year-old boy who had been bitten by a rabid dog. To everybody’s surprise, the boy recovered. Pasteur was instantly famous. Today, if you have access to basic medical care and get bitten by a suspicious animal, a few injections will solve the problem. We forget that only two centuries ago it was a completely different story. If your child was bitten by a rabies carrier, the best thing to do was to tie him to a bed, listen to his screams for days and days and wait for him to die. Like in this video (disturbing). Thanks to the vaccine, today rabies is no scarier than a broken toe. But rabies has lingered in our culture, in the folklore surrounding zombies, vampires, werewolves and… aliens.

Aliens?! Is it possible for the disease cured two centuries ago to influence new fiction? Seems that it is. Remember the ending of the Signs movie?

Many complained that the defeat of world-conquering aliens by a silly weapon like ordinary tap water was completely unrealistic. But the motif of an evil creature being afraid of a water splash is common: Freddy in Freddy vs. Jason, the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz and others. Where does this ridiculous idea originate from, who used it first? Check this video of a terminal rabies patient:

What is happening there? For the rabies virus to spread, it needs to reprogram the host’s brain. One part of the virus causes biting behaviour. Fortunately, that one isn’t very effective in human hosts, and human-to-human transmission is rare. Other parts of the virus disable the swallowing reflex. That is because rabies is transmitted by saliva. The act of swallowing is not good from the virus’s perspective, as it gets rid of saliva. And virus RNA that produces that behaviour works extra well in humans. Just showing a glass of liquid causes choking spasms, and that painful experience causes hydrophobia (“fear of water”).

No matter how fascinating rabies is, society prefers fiction over truth. Vampire sagas and zombie flicks attract millions of viewers, while the above video of a child patient is downvoted on YouTube. We will buy a movie ticket to witness the stylized manslaughter of hundreds, but actual footage of one person in a bed is too disturbing for refined viewership. The Western world has forgotten about the disease. The best online rabies documentary comes from Philippines. But those who forget the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes in the future. In our case, it is the growing anti-vaccination sentiment or the fact that people bitten by rabid bats fail to visit a doctor.

I don’t know about you, but I find real life much more interesting than fiction. If you agree, spread the word via sharing buttons below.

 

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