It's Surprisingly Easy to Make a Cryptocurrency
Future Tense covers a lot of cryptocurrency news because the topics are interesting but also complicated. It's hard to know exactly what the implications of cryptocurrency are and who should be using it, if anyone. But keep in mind that the code that underlies bitcoin, the world's biggest and oldest cryptocurrency, is open source. That means that "altcoins" can use the bitcoin code as a jumping-off point to develop their own currencies. To figure out what it takes to start a cryptocurrency, the staff of the tech blog Ars Technica started arscoin.
Business editor Cyrus Farivar led the initiative. He writes, "As the new year began, I found myself writing about several new (and often ridiculous) altcoins ... It got me thinking: if anyone can just up and create a new altcoin, how hard can it be?" Because it's for education, the arscoin system is locked down so people can't exchange arscoins for goods outside Ars Technica channels. But they can use them to buy things like colorful usernames on the Ars site or digital username hats. You also pay to change or remove your username color or hat.
Arscoin is a normal cryptocurrency in the sense that more arscoins enter the system by mining them, and the more arscoins that exist, the more computing power it takes to mine one. Farivar writes:
Arscoins, like any altcoins, are worth whatever the market will bear. This is worth emphasizing: they’re worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them, whether it's $5, $500, or $5 trillion. One evening early in our experiment, I asked my wife what she would trade for 5,000 Arscoins. Her answer: “A kiss?” Boom! A market had been created.
The Ars Technica team went from puzzling over the bitcoin source code to a make-your-own altcoin service called Coingen.io to mining and setting up a storefront that accepts arscoins. "After experimenting with Arscoin, we learned that it's fairly easy to get a cryptocurrency going," Farivar writes. But that doesn't mean you should. The piece points out that more altcoin currencies means less "digital scarcity," aka less value and usefulness. But it also notes that making altcoins easy to create could lead to interesting microeconomies and more diversity. If it's all still seeming abstract and esoteric, join the arscoin community and mess around.
Judge Clears Path for Beer-Delivery Drones—Almost
For many dark, droneless years, breweries and other companies have been stymied from developing airborne delivery to consumers by the Federal Aviation Administration’s insistence that commercial drones are illegal. But in a victory for beer-drone justice, the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal entity that hears appeals of FAA enforcement actions, overturned the FAA’s $10,000 fine against Raphael Pirker. In 2011, Pirker flew a drone over the University of Virginia in Charlottesville to shoot a promotional video for commercial purposes. On Thursday, Judge Patrick Geraghty found that “there was no enforceable FAA rule” against Pirker’s aircraft.
So soon we’ll be able to have a six-pack of our favorite brew flown to our doorstep, right? Not so fast.
Though the ruling looks good for commercial drone operators, Geraghty expressly limited the scope of his decision to “model aircraft.” Any unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, that exceed that definition would not be not covered by the ruling.
Geraghty’s opinion also falls short of stating affirmatively that the FAA does not have the authority to regulate drones. In reviewing FAA documents governing UAS, the judge wrote that the documents were not substitutes for any regulatory process and were only meant for internal FAA guidance, not the general public. In a 2007 Federal Registry publication, the FAA attempted to “set forth the current FAA policy for UAS operations,” according to its policy statement section. But because this intent was self-defined as a statement of policy, “it cannot be considered as establishing a rule or enforceable action, since … policy statements are not binding on the general public,” Geraghty said. The FAA can appeal Geraghty’s ruling.
I suspect that Geraghty is conscious of both the fragile legal foundation for the FAA’s current drone regulation and the need for the FAA to regulate drones. As I wrote earlier this week, the FAA arguably does not have the authority to create its current permitting and regulatory system for drones. However, it is possible that there will be tens of thousands of drones in the air in the next 10 years. We don’t want them flying around—and into the ground—with no oversight. Of all federal entities, the FAA should have the authority to regulate them, and the apparent intent of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 was to grant the FAA that authority and remove the existing doubt.
What the current controversy confirms is the need for us to update and amend our laws to accommodate technological breakthroughs—drones, autonomous technology, artificial intelligence, etc.—that do not conform to the assumptions of our existing laws. If we don’t, our laws will become ineffective in the face of change with potentially serious consequences. And that will drive anyone to drink.
U.K.’s “War on Porn” Leader Arrested on Allegations Related to Child Porn
Earlier this week, amid increasing media pressure, the U.K. prime minister’s office confirmed that authorities arrested top David Cameron aide Patrick Rock on Feb. 13 on suspicions related to child pornography. Authorities have not yet formally charged Rock, citing the ongoing investigation as the reason behind the prolonged silence at 10 Downing St. Details surrounding the arrest timeline have fueled speculation that Rock, who resigned from his position on Feb. 12, may have been tipped off by colleagues before his arrest. But that isn’t the only troubling circumstance surrounding the already disturbing scandal. For those in the tech community, Rock is well-known as one of the main proponents of the U.K.’s controversial “war on porn.”
Apparently the Media Are Pursuing the Bitcoin Guy in a Car Chase Across Los Angeles
This morning, Newsweek outed Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto as a 64-year-old man from Temple City, Calif. who goes by Dorian S. Nakamoto. Some feared for the privacy of a man who clearly preferred to be left alone, while others shrugged. But I think it's safe to say at this point that privacy is no longer in the cards for Nakamoto.
At present, the poor guy—sorry, wrong word—the rich guy is apparently being pursued across Los Angeles by a pack of ravenous media. Nakamoto is in the lead car with an Associated Press reporter whom he agreed to meet for sushi after a large group of journalists staked out his home today. Behind him are all the other reporters he scorned in favor of the AP reporter. (Hell hath no fury like a journalist scorned.) All of this is according to Los Angeles Times deputy business editor Joe Bel Bruno, who has been live-tweeting the O.J.-like spectacle as it unfolds.
I should note upfront that it is perhaps conceivable that Bel Bruno is putting us all on, and that I'm making myself complicit in a hoax—something I often scold other reporters for—by republishing his tweets here. If that's the case, I will apologize. But Bel Bruno is a real guy, he seems to be getting firsthand information, and this whole affair is just too wild and 21st-century-ish not to share. Stay tuned for updates, or better yet, stay tuned to Bel Bruno's Twitter feed. Tweets are the new news choppers.
UPDATE, 5:07 p.m.: Nakamoto is apparently safely ensconced in the AP's Los Angeles bureau office. And Bel Bruno has now posted pictures of the scene outside. Meanwhile, he reports that Nakamoto is denying being the creator of Bitcoin.
Previously in Slate:
Privacy Group Calls for Federal Investigation of Facebook's $19 Billion WhatsApp Deal
An information-privacy nonprofit is asking the Federal Trade Commission to investigate and possibly even block Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of the wildly popular messaging service WhatsApp.
The complaint comes from the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that has also filed complaints in the past over things like Google’s acquisition of the ad service Doubleclick, Microsoft Passport, and changes to Facebook’s privacy policies.
EPIC’s complaint about the Facebook/WhatsApp acquisition alleges that WhatsApp has made data-privacy promises to users that it will be unable and/or unlikely to keep now that it’s owned by Facebook. Julia Horwitz, EPIC’s lead lawyer on the case, told me via email:
WhatsApp users rely on WhatsApp to maintain the privacy of their communications. Facebook has a proven record of collecting user data form companies that it acquires. So users are worrying about what happens to their data now that Facebook and WhatsApp have announced the deal. Our complaint urges the FTC to investigate whether there are sufficient privacy protections in place to continue to shield the data of WhatsApp users from access by Facebook—which (for many users) was the very feature that made WhatsApp so appealing in the first place.
The complaint asks the FTC to investigate WhatsApp and block the Facebook deal until the issues it raises are resolved. If the deal does go forward, EPIC further asks that the FTC to “order Facebook to insulate WhatsApp users’ information from access by Facebook’s data collection practices.”
Note that this is not a lawsuit—just a complaint filed with the FTC, with the same legal standing as any complaint an individual consumer might file about a company’s trade practices.
EPIC notes that the FTC has “responded favorably” to several of its complaints in the past. That said, the FTC did approve Google’s Doubleclick acquisition over EPIC’s privacy objections. And generally speaking, mergers and acquisitions are reviewed for their effects on competition, not consumer privacy. It would therefore be unusal for deal like this to be a blocked on privacy grounds.
The FTC does, however, have the authority to bring a suit against a company for unfair or deceptive trade practices, under the Federal Trade Commission Act. Typically the FTC will not confirm or deny its investigations until they’re over, and sometimes not even then if it decides not to bring a case.
Facebook has insisted in the wake of the deal that it will leave WhatsApp alone, at least for the time being. And Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg says he has no plans to bring ads to the messaging service. Still, critics point out that privacy was one of WhatsApp’s biggest selling points, whereas Facebook makes billions by mining its users’ data. Some WhatsApp users simply don’t trust Facebook to keep its hands off their messages.
As communications scholar and privacy blogger Nicholas John has pointed out, WhatsApp’s terms of service clarify that they don’t keep the contents of your messages: “Once a message has been delivered, it no longer resides on our servers,” the terms say. “The contents of any delivered messages are not kept or retained by WhatsApp.” But they do keep your metadata: "WhatsApp may retain date and time stamp information associated with successfully delivered messages and the mobile phone numbers involved in the messages, as well as any other information which WhatsApp is legally compelled to collect."
John speculates that Facebook could use that information to figure out which of your friends you’re genuinely close to. That could be a big asset in the company’s quest to build the world’s most comprehensive social graph.
Asked for comment on the complaint, a Facebook spokesperson sent me the following statement:
Facebook's goal is to bring more connectivity and utility to the world by delivering core internet services efficiently and affordably—this partnership will help make that happen. As we have said repeatedly, Whatsapp will operate as a separate company and will honor its commitments to privacy and security.
Oscar Mayer's Alarm Clock Sounds and Smells Like Bacon
Waking up to the smell of bacon is a beloved fantasy. It's partly appealing because it implies that you slept late enough for someone else in your life (a family member, a friend, an invasive Paula Deen neighbor) to take responsibility for cooking breakfast. But most of the hype comes from the bacon itself. So why not be woken up this way every day? Oscar Mayer is going to make it happen.
The Oscar Mayer bacon alarm clock has two components: the Wake Up and Smell the Bacon iOS app and the iPhone scent dongle. You set the alarm on the app and plug the dongle into the headphone jack on your smartphone. When your alarm goes off, the app produces the sound of bacon sizzling, and the dongle works like a Glade PlugIn that draws some power from your phone to release some bacon-rific scent.
The dongle is only available to winners of an Oscar Mayer contest (you can enter on the Wake Up and Smell the Bacon website), but the iOS app is free to download. Honestly, Slate testers agree that the bacon sound leaves something to be desired. It sounds more like a rain track than bacon in a skillet. Also, the voice from the promotional video (below) says dramatic things about bacon—"baconisms"—as part of the alarm sound, which is kind of disconcerting. Luckily you can turn the talking off.
The Oscar Mayer dongle isn't the only device to bring bacon scent to a smartphone, but you can't beat the endorsement of being manufactured by a major bacon player. The main concern here is that the magic and wonder of waking up to bacon will be lost if you can have it every day. Sure, there are fewer calories this way, but there's also less excitement and pure joy.
Facebook Is Paying for a Beat Cop Who Somehow Won't Be a Facebook Cop
When you see a cop on the street in the U.S., your mind might go a lot of places, but you're probably not wondering who's paying her. Police salaries in the U.S. come out of public money (and some cops do off-duty security for large events so they can make extra money). Except now Facebook has committed to paying $200,000 a year for three years to finance a new police officer position in Menlo Park City, Calif. It's the first time a private company has ever bankrolled a police officer.
Critics are concerned that the initiative could be a Crisco-covered Slip 'N Slide of a slippery slope toward an uncontrollable corporate police force with no public accountability. Alessandro De Giorgi, a justice studies professor at San Jose State University, told NBC Bay Area: “I find this particularly concerning.” But the Menlo Park City Council is trying to make it clear that the Facebook cop is not a Facebook cop. The officer (who has yet to be hired) will work out of a neighborhood substation near Facebook but will be focused on making security plans for large business gatherings and school events. The cop will also work on identifying local gang and drug-dealer movements and will do earthquake and fire safety presentations at schools.
Facebook will paying the officer's $108,000 salary (the rest of the $200,000 per year will go toward benefits and other costs associated with the position), but it will not have anything to do with who gets hired for the position, what the officer works on, or how the officer is managed. There is definitely concern that Facebook could get special treatment when it comes to enforcement or other favors, but the goal is transparency for a position that Menlo City can't afford to pay for on its own.
Jim Bueermann, the president of the nonprofit Police Foundation, told NBC Bay Area: “It’s safe to say this is unprecedented, but this may be the model of the future.” Law enforcement is gonna get weird if companies like McDonald's and Monsanto join Facebook in paying for officer salaries.
Back to the Future’s Christopher Lloyd Apologizes for Hoverboard Hoax
On Tuesday, tech nerds scratched their heads at an expensively produced viral video purporting to show a “real” hoverboard, with earnest testimonials from Tony Hawk, Moby, Terrell Owens, and even the great Christopher Lloyd. I ripped the hoax for being unfunny and pointless, and for tediously insisting at several points that it was not a hoax, which is just bad form. “Everyone involved in making this video should be ashamed of themselves,” I wrote.
Believe it or not, it seems they listened. Today the humor website Funny Or Die brought Lloyd himself back in to confess and apologize—sort of. In a new video titled “Funny Or Die Is Sorry for Lying About Hoverboards,” Lloyd feigns contrition and pretends that he too was duped by “those rascals over at Funny or Die.”
I'll give Lloyd credit: He hams it up pretty well, perhaps getting in some implicit digs at people who (like me) were annoyed rather than amused by the stunt. It’s still not clear, though, what the point of the whole thing was.
As my fellow not-impressed blogger Matt Novak at Gizmodo observes, driving traffic to the Funny Or Die Facebook page for a nonfunctional hoverboard giveaway “seems like a rather flimsy reason to go to so much trouble.” Now, not only have we been reminded that all hoverboards are fake, but it looks like we might not even get a new Back to the Future movie out of the deal.
Newsweek Thinks It Found the Real "Satoshi Nakamoto" ... and His Name Is Satoshi Nakamoto
The first revelation of the day is that Newsweek still exists—or rather, exists again. (The print edition of the recently resuscitated magazine is expected to hit newsstands tomorrow.)
But the bigger revelation is that Newsweek believes it has found the shadowy figure who created bitcoin, the world’s most popular crypto-currency.
For years bitcoin’s invention—detailed in this seminal paper—has been credited to “a pseudonymous person or group of people” who went by the name of “Satoshi Nakamoto.” Efforts to find the real Satoshi Nakamoto have been numerous, and suspects have run the gamut from a Finnish economic sociologist named Vili Lehdonvirta to a Texan security researcher named Dustin Trammell to a Japanese mathematician named Shinichi Mochizuki. All have denied being Satoshi Nakamoto, and for good reason: The real Satoshi Nakamoto, according to Newsweek, is actually a man named … wait for it … Satoshi Nakamoto. From the magazine:
Far from leading to a Tokyo-based whiz kid using the name "Satoshi Nakamoto" as a cipher or pseudonym (a story repeated by everyone from Bitcoin's rabid fans to The New Yorker), the trail followed by Newsweek led to a 64-year-old Japanese-American man whose name really is Satoshi Nakamoto. He is someone with a penchant for collecting model trains and a career shrouded in secrecy, having done classified work for major corporations and the U.S. military.
When Newsweek’s Leah McGrath Goodman tracked Nakamoto to his humble family home in Temple City, Calif., he apparently panicked and called the cops. Eventually he let slip a few words about his relationship to bitcoin before clamming up for good:
“I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it," he says, dismissing all further queries with a swat of his left hand. "It's been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection."
If this is indeed the real Satoshi Nakamoto, it seems he has eluded identification until now in part because he changed his name at age 23 from “Satoshi Nakamoto” to “Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto” and now goes by “Dorian S. Nakamoto.” The full story, in which Nakamoto is described as both “brilliant” and “an asshole” by people close to him, is well worth your click. Among the fascinating tidbits: Nakamoto's second wife suspects he may have created bitcoin in part because he was frustrated by the bank fees and exchange rates he faced when wiring money to buy model trains from overseas.
The bitcoin fanboys at Reddit, meanwhile, are outraged that Newsweek has “doxxed” their hero. Or, some have suggested, perhaps they’re just sucking on sour grapes because a traditional print journalist succeeded where they had failed.
Again, McGrath’s full story is here.
Previously in Slate:
1 in 9 Americans Thinks HTML Is an STD, Which Is Funny, Not Surprising, and Maybe Untrue
When you first hear that 11 percent of Americans think that HTML is an STD, it sounds like Americans are hilariously dumb. HTML is a markup language for Web pages that's been around since 1993. But if you think about it, 10 percent of people is not a lot. More than 50 percent of people in this 2012 study thought that cloud computing was negatively affected by bad weather. Perhaps more importantly, you should be wondering where the study is from and how it was conducted.
Over the last few days, journalists and bloggers have been writing about the HTML/STD study. Its big hit came in the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. But until iMediaEthics and other watchdogs began poking around, no one had actually seen the study itself, and even the press release was hard to find because it hadn't been publicly posted anywhere. It came from the public relations firm 10 Yetis, which represents Vouchercloud, a British coupon service. Now the press release and the study itself have surfaced, but the chain of events is troubling.
First of all, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, many Americans have little or no understanding of how programming works, much less what gives browsers directions about how to display Web pages. Furthermore, 10 percent of Americans probably believe pretty much anything. For example, 18 percent thought Barack Obama was Muslim in August 2010.
The popularit of the story speaks to debates about lack of fact-checking in online journalism, as everyone rushes to publish. But it also touches on an equally worrisome point: Do journalists and readers know how numbers work?
The survey polled 2,392 Americans 18 and older over the course of seven days and asked: "Please check the correct definitions of the items listed below:" The three options for "HTML" were "The main road structure in England," "Sexually-transmitted disease," and "Programming language used to make websites." Seventy-nine percent of respondents got it right. Ten percent thought it was the English roads thing. That seems weirder than the STD answer, especially if you're guessing: After all, there are a lot of STDs that start with the letter "H."
But going back to interpreting numbers, there are other problems with this story. Leanne Thomas, a senior account executive for 10 Yetis, has given a statement to the Los Angeles Times, saying that the survey is "100% genuine" and "valid." But it's still unclear what the methods were for selecting the participants, and whether they are a representative sample of the U.S. population.
A majority of Americans should feel free to proceed with knowing what HTML is and having safe sex, but maybe everyone needs to bone up on basic statistics. And apparently fractions.