Monday, December 11, 2017

Connecting the recent developments of Patreon and bitcoins

These last few days have been intense, online-wise. Patreon did what they did, and the price of bitcoins soared way above the limits of reason and sanity.

It is tempting to see these two things as connected. It is even more tempting to connect them. Because it is a very easy thing to do.

The thing about what Patreon did is that it underscores the need for what bitcoin supporters claim bitcoins do. Patreon gave - gives - everyone the opportunity to donate money at people without too much fuss, and it provided a social vehicle for accepting these donations. At the heart of Patreon's raison d'etre we find the sending and receiving of money.

In short, online transfers of money is kind of a big deal. For Patreon and bitcoin both.

If we go back to the olden days of bitcoin evangelism, we find that the emphasis was much more on the crypto than on the currency part of cryptocurrency. It would be possible to perform transactions in secret, without the prying eyes of government surveilling every transaction. You didn't have to justify why you used your digital moneys the way you did - you could do what you want with them. Including donating them to others for no particular reason whatsoever. No borders, no taxes, no limits, no donation fees.

There is no reason bitcoins could not have evolved to fill a similar role Patreon fills: donations freely given to those who are deemed worthy of them. There could have been an active crowdfunding culture within the bitcoin community.

But there isn't. And there can't be.

The reasons are manifold, but they all revolve around the fact that bitcoins fundamentally do not work as money. The recent dramatic rise in value of bitcoins, with values eclipsing $16 000, only serves to underscore this fact: if you bought something with bitcoins a week or two ago, you would have lost out on this increase. The deflationary nature of bitcoins mean that any use of them that is not getting more bitcoins is an irrational use. Buying things with bitcoins is always a losing proposition; the only winning move is to sit on them until their value inevitably rises.

The most extreme example is the bitcoin pizza, bought for 10 000 bitcoins; the estimated value of that pizza is now $137,408,583.

Moreover, the wildly fluctuating value of bitcoins make it hard to price things. You might try to sell a pair of socks for what currently seems a reasonable price, only to discover mere hours later that it now amounts to thousands of dollars. Sellers cannot set prices, buyers cannot gauge if the prices that are set actually make sense, and the usual market mechanisms determining prices are in effect nullified. Prices carry no information, and in conjunction with the deflationary process mentioned above, it makes using bitcoins as currency a wager at best and a guaranteed loss at worst.

Adding to all this is the cost of conducting bitcoin transactions. Turns out there is in fact a transaction cost to bitcoins, aptly named a fee. Sending money without paying the fee will either take a long time, or simply fail. The minimum fee is 0.00001 bitcoins, or a $1.52; more if you want the transaction to complete with any degree of certainty and/or quickness. It is not unheard of for fees to reach the twenty dollar mark.

Needless to say, buying a ten dollar pizza for thirty dollars is the opposite of a good deal.

The list goes on. The bottom line is that bitcoins do not work as money, and by extension that they cannot work as a replacement for Patreon.

At this point, I suspect that there might be a non-zero amount of readers going: why does any of this even matter? What is the connection between bitcoins and Patreon?

The trivial answer is that there is no connection. The more interesting answer is that by juxtaposing these two things with each other, we find out something useful. On the side of Patreon, we have an actually existing real usecase in the world, which might very soon be in need of a replacement; on the side of bitcoins, we find an utter fucking failure to be even theoretically relevant to this usecase.

This has implications for the "currency" part of cryptocurrency. Given that I am not part of the bitcoin community, I leave it to those readers who are to grapple with these implications best they can.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The economic utility of dry feet

Patreon has made an announcement about some upcoming changes to their fee structuring, and this has caused quite a stir. To understate it slightly, these changes are somewhat unpopular and inexplicable to creators and patrons alike. I expect there to be continued discussions about these changes in the days to come.

In a strange chain of associations, this made me think about the economics-related term 'helicopter drops'. In short, a helicopter drop consists of giving everyone a one-shot amount of money, in order to stimulate the economy. The main component of an economy is people spending money on things, and they cannot spend money they do not have. Thus, ensuring that everyone has slightly more money than before would subsequently ensure that they spent more, which would have ripple-effects all through society, as the increased economic activity would spur even more economic activity.

Further along the chain of associations, this made me think about the many things we postpone to do due to a lack of funds. Not because it isn't necessary, but because we cannot comfortably afford doing it quite yet. By pushing these things into the future, we ensure that the money we do have can be spent on the things that are acutely necessary, rather than long-term necessary. A slight discomfort in the present is the price to pay for being ready to face the future, when the time comes.

My shoes are an example of this. There are holes in them, and my feet get wet every now and again. They are broken, but it is not critical, and I can squeeze another month of use out of them if I mind my step.

There are any number of similar examples, most of which we have stopped thinking about due to having gotten used to them. I suspect that a modest helicopter drop, in the range of some $5000, would be funneled directly into the equivalent of new shoes. It would not make anyone rich or change the fundamental structure of society, but it would ensure that people had less holes in their shoes. The benefits would be impossible to measure with econometrics, but they would at the same time be immeasurably tangible to those involved.

I do not know if this thought is useful to you, but here it is.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Learning for uneducated people

The academic discipline of Education is caught in a weird place. On the one hand, the powers that be want it to be a handmaiden to the educational system, providing it with ever more refined and efficient tools. On the other hand, it is seen by other academics as a handmaiden to the educational system, and thus understood as a specialized local field of knowledge, akin to accounting; it is something that takes a certain degree of skill and knowledge to perform, but it does not translate into academic credibility.

This might seem a subtle difference, and in some ways it is. It mostly depends into who you're arguing with at a particular moment. Which, as you might imagine, changes everything.

When arguing with the powers that be, the issues that come up tend to focus on budgets, more specifically the cutting of them if particular results are not delivered on time. Be it in relation to the international measurements that are conducted regularly - such as PISA - or some political debate touching upon education that rages at the time, there are always demands to give backing in some form. Questions such as "how can we teach our kids better so we will win the next round of measuring?" or "what do you have that can support our current political position on educational policy that we made up yesterday?" are frequently thrown our way, and not responding appropriately is budgetary bad news bears.

When arguing other academics, two challenges emerge. One is to remind them that we exist, and  another is - as mentioned - to convince them we're not just mere technicians and managers of the bureaucratic beast that is the educational system. Most attempts at either is usually met with annoyance, indifference, or some interesting combination of both which defy classification.

This peculiar state of things means that it is particularly difficult to assert the academic autonomy of the discipline. Part of being autonomous means other recognize you as such. The powers that be have no interest in that, given that they only ever ask for input in relation to nudging the educational system (or the discourse about it) in this direction or that. Other academics have no propensity to acknowledge it either, seeing as they do not interest themselves in the educational system, and thus their interest is effectively shut down. It is, as the saying goes, a tough crowd.

Thing is. Education is not, in fact, about education. It is about learning.

This difference is anything but subtle. Lowercase e education as an activity is something that takes place in a defined span of time at a defined location. It's something that happens in school. It's a process you go through, and then you are done. Sometimes you know more afterwards, sometimes you do not. It depends.

Learning, though. Learning can happen anywhere at any time, and in fact does happen everywhere at all times. It is the main way human beings interact with the world: some sort of sensation happens at them, and is subsequently processed into memory. Next time this same sensation is encountered, the previous experience is used as a reference point for how to proceed. Learning occurs everywhere.

An example is someone starting a new job. On the surface level, one might assume that what they learn is how to perform that job - the logistics of getting it done and the terminology that goes along with it. But that is not all that is being learnt. The learning process also involves noting who the coworkers are, how they relate to each other and their work, which things are proper and which are not, which values are (implicitly and explicitly) endorsed, and so on in a long list of impressions and sensations. A new person in a workplace does not simply learn how to do the job, but also an entire way of being in the world.

Understanding how this learning process works allows you to better understand what happens when things go wrong. Or when things go right. If someone doesn't get with the program, then you can analyze the situation and pinpoint where in the process the mismatch happened. Conversely, if someone learns the ropes faster than expected, then you can identify the thing that went right and try to replicate it with future new employees.

The focus here is not on individual capacities. A "smart" person can fail to fit in, and a "dumb" person can learn the ropes at record speed, depending on the social circumstances of the workplace in question. Learning happens when sensations occur, and sometimes this sensation can consist of a social environment (such as a workplace) communicating that you belong here - or do not belong here. Getting the message is very much dependent on which message is being sent, and many people decide that a particular career is not for them after learning that they are not welcome within it.

These are the kinds of things we study in capital e Education. Yet this is hard to convey, since so many have gotten the message that Education is merely a handmaiden to the educational system. -

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The best book you ever read

No book is ever as good as that one you read as a teenager. You probably remember it - that one which you picked up and just couldn't stop reading, which then formed the basis of your emotional core for years to come. You read it once, and then probably several times afterwards, each time reinforcing its imprint upon your very being.

How would one go about finding another such book?

One approach might be to look at that first important book, to see if it has any particular qualities that distinguishes it from other books. It is easier to find things when you know what to look for, after all.

Thing is. Upon returning to the book of one's youth, there is a non-zero risk that one might discover it to be less impressive than it is in memory. The years between then and now have included many things - books, experiences, life events, deaths - which put things in perspective, and changes one's outlook on things. There is a risk that, upon returning, the book turns out to be the most bland, generic, run-o-the-mill piece of prose there ever was.

This does not diminish its value or the validity of your experiences. It does, however, draw attention to the importance of context. When a book is read is as important as what is in it: in the hands of a young person in search of meaning, any book can become an ontological and emotional foundation.

If you happen to have kids of your own, the thought of leading them towards a similar book might have occurred to you. This, again, actualizes the question of how to find such a book, and how to introduce it.

Simply telling them to read something might do the trick. Sometimes, life happens in straightforward ways.

More often than not, though, it will be something unexpected. They will pick up a book, read it, and - wham - that's the one. There is no telling which one it is, but that's the one it is now, until they become old enough to remember that book they read as a teenager.

The key, then, is to give them ample opportunity to stumble upon a good book. Keep your home well-stocked with good books, and allow access to them at all times. Play the odds. Make it more likely that the book they stumble upon is something by, say, Gloria AnzaldĂșa rather than by - I shudder to think - Ayn Rand.

Life is full of surprises, strange turn of events and curious edge cases. Sometimes, it is no accident that we stumble upon them. -

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Evolutionary psychology for the masses

There are a non-zero amount of people who proclaim to be adherents of evolutionary psychology. More often than not, those who are most vocal about this tend to follow up with the least interesting statements possible. Preferably about how some arbitrary gender attribute found today goes way back to primal times; for instance that women wear high heels because something something biology.

This seems to me something of a wasted opportunity. There is a great buildup - the human organism evolved over millions of years to a very specific set of environmental and social circumstances, and this has implications for how it works today - and all that backstory is wasted on making an observation about the present condition that doesn't even hold water if you have more than a passing knowledge of history and/or fashion. You do not need to invoke millions of years of gradual adaptation to be wrong - there are more direct and efficient routes to achieve that end.

A more interesting take is that the aforementioned gradual adaptation adjusted humans to a certain set of conditions, and that the modern circumstance ain't it. The disconnect between what is and what our evolutionary gestalt expects to be, is bound to create a not-insignificant amount of discomfort in actually existing human beings, and addressing this discomfort ought to be a non-trivial part of evolutionary psychology. If nothing else, it would be a more useful take than attempting to reinforce increasingly outmoded gender stereotypes.

But then again.

What could we expect from barely evolved monkeys?

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Small logistics

There are a large number of small things that are easy to learn, yet which at the same time are utterly impossible to figure out. If someone shows them to you, them look like the easiest thing in the world, but if you have to speedlearn them on your own, difficulties ensue.

A dramatic example of this is a young man finding himself in the situation of having to unclasp a bra. It is a very small thing indeed, and the logistics involved can be performed without much thought, and yet. Difficulties ensue. Possibly also a non-zero amount of fumbling.

Similar (possibly, but not always, less dramatic) instances of small logistics occur just about everywhere, most of them having become so routine it takes an act of effort to notice them. Computer interfaces, what to say when ordering fast food, the art of performing an academic citation - these are all instances of small logistics where the knowing of how to get it done has merged into the back of one's mind. Once upon a time you had to learn these things, before they became obvious.

It pays off to pay attention to these things. Not only do you become aware of what you are (quite literally) doing, but you also gain the opportunity to think about other ways of doing these very things. And, if you notice someone not quite knowing how to move things along, the insight into just what they need to learn for future reference.

It's the little things, as the saying goes.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Count me in

It's been a hectic couple of weeks at the university, and there has been little time for writing. Or, rather, there has been too much writing, and a body can only use a keyboard for so many hours a day.

Which is another way of saying that if you wonder where the posts are, they went into methodology papers. Science stuff, you know.

One of the recurring themes in my particular course is that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative science really does not make sense any more. There are different paradigms, to be sure, but the dividing line is not between qual and quant, and they can more often than not be combined to create new insights about various things. It is somewhat counterproductive to think of these things as completely separate entities which only rarely interact, when they do in fact interact more often than not. It is also counterproductive to get into arguments about whether one is better than the other, when the simple truth is that sometimes there is a need for the one and sometimes the other.

Which, to be sure, is a very sociology thing to say. But it rings true.

Here is something to mess up the categories. Imagine a thousand deep interviews, conducted at length, with follow-ups as needed. Imagine then that the results of these interviews are (through some procedure of quantification) condensed into a series of graphs. Would that be a qualitative or quantitative study?

If your thought process is "I wish we had those kind of resources", you are ahead of the game.

Here is another category-disturbing thought. When designing surveys, a traditionally quantitative endeavor, the aim is usually to get some numbers out of it. But in order to ensure that the numbers actually mean anything, a lot of thought has to go into the questions. The respondents only have the words on the questionnaire to work with, and thus those words have to be crafted very carefully to avoid confounding factors. This is a task that requires a non-trivial amount of careful attention, empathy and understanding. In order to get something quantitative out of the ordeal, a qualitative approach has to be baked into the process.

Then there is the whole thing with getting people to actually answer the darn things. Turns out just handing them out willy-nilly is less effective than one might think.

A third category-bender is, surprisingly enough, what has happened in physics. As the units of analysis have become smaller, we run into non-trivial limitations of the hardware used to measure things. On the one hand, this is countered by building ever larger instruments (atom smashers take up a surprisingly large space). On the other hand, this is also countered by admitting that subatomic processes simply do not make sense to human beings, and the admission that we will have to think long and hard about this in order to even know what we are knowing.

As the common refrain among physicists goes: it does not make sense, you just get used to it.

These three examples might be interpreted as arguments for the supremacy of the qualitative method. But that would be to try to answer the wrong question. Determining whether one is better than the other is slightly beside the point if you will end up using both of them anyway. What is more interesting is what it means that this distinction is insufficient in describing the actual work of actual scientists, and what other line of thinking we might replace it with.

To be sure, we have interesting times ahead of us.