I love what I do

on 20 April 2016

I’m a developer. I write code that does things. I also have to do a lot of design. Sometimes I’m designing visual items - like icons, logos and buttons. But I spend most of my thinking time not on the way things look, but on the way things should work.

This morning I’m exploring how to store a sentence and its translation in a data structure that a computer program can understand. I have the same sentence in English and French:

There is no easy road. Il n'y a pas de route facile.

What I need is to represent the connections between these words. For example,

There is no => Il n'y a pas de
easy        => facile
road        => route

But you’ll see that the word order is different - it’s route facile or road easy. So what I need to do is to represent the idea that these chunks of a sentence, or tokens to use the linguistic term I’ve just learned, are reordered in a whole sentence.

I think what we’ll end up with is a piece of data like this:

sentence = { tokens: [ { id: 1, english: 'There is no', french: 'Il n'y a pas de', }, { id: 2, english: 'easy', french: 'facile', }, { id: 3, english: 'road', french: 'route', } ], english_structure: [1,2,3], french_structure: [1,3,2], }

This might work, and it might not. So I’ll start with this idea and explore it for a while. I’m sure I’ll come up against problems - off the top of my head I can see trouble with punctuation like commas and full stops. I can also immediately foresee problems with verbs that are wrapped:

``` He doesn’t like it. Il ne l’aime pas.

Il => He ne l’aime pas => (he) doesn’t like it. ```

That’s not ideal. We really want to subdivide this sentence so that it is explained more clearly:

Il => He ne ... pas => doesn't aime => he likes le => it

So more thought is definitely needed!

I really enjoy the variety of things that I work on. Last week I developed a system to convert animated GIFs into video files. This past weekend I wrote a quick program to extract the most recently restaurants from Foursquare in my home city. All these things are like little puzzles that teach me something new along the way. It’s wonderful.

"Two years in Bitcoin" by a mildly interested outsider

"Two years in Bitcoin" by a mildly interested outsider

on 6 April 2016

Two years ago I sold exactly One Bitcoin at a newly installed Bitcoin ATM in Mountain View. There was some excitement: This was the first day of operation for Silicon Valley’s first Bitcoin ATM, I was the first person to sell a coin and the owner was sitting anxiously to see how his newly acquired contraption worked out. A local TV crew had just rolled up. The high spirits were only tempered by the BTC price tumbling from $1,200 over the prior two months.

I flew to Europe the next day and put my $500 proceeds in a box. I forgot all about it until last week, when I grabbed it on my way to the airport bound for Miami. I just bought a coffee with the last banknote from this little haul, and it got me thinking about what’s happened in Bitcoin over the past two years from the perspective of a mildly interested outsider. (I still hold a small amount of Bitcoin.)

I should say that although I understand the basic concepts behind Bitcoin, I don’t spend any time following the community or really diving into the technology. So this article isn’t an attempt at a technical guide - it’s more a summary of what has stuck in my mind from the previous two years. I don’t write it with any real objective other than being able to look back at it in another two years.

The Bitcoin ATM I used was removed and the company that made it stopped production. Robocoin, which made the machine that I used, received a lot of criticism over its service and products, and stopped manufacturing the ATMs. The process of me selling a bitcoin took around 30 minutes. I had to scan my face, my palm, and my passport, and then wait for all these to be processed. It was the least anonymous transaction I’ve ever done. This ATM was removed around 8 months ago and since then I’ve not seen any other machines where you can sell bitcoins for cash, but I have seen many where you can buy bitcoins.

The price of bitcoin dropped, recovered a bit and then stablized. From its December 2013 peak of $1,100, the price spent just over a year falling, bottoming at $200 in January 2015. From there it’s been a year of slow, but reasonably steady, rises to today’s price of $426.

The volume of transactions might risen have reasonably steadily. I’m not sure how much trust can be put in figures like these because an increasing number of transactions probably occur off the blockchain at exchanges like Coinbase.

Mt. Gox collapsed taking $450million and remains still unsolved. In February 2014, as I was scanning my hand at the Robocoin kiosk, Mt. Gox was in the midst of collapsing. Around $450million of Bitcoin went missing - and is still unrecovered. The CEO, Mark Karpeles, time has been charged with embezzlement in relation to using $2.6million of company funds for his own personal projects. The media seems to be largely disinterested now, although the liquidation process of Mt. Gox continues. I can’t find any information on whether Mark Karpeles is in jail, on bail, or acquitted. From the technical analysis I saw it did seem he was strongly suspected of having taken the money.

Ross Ulbricht was sentenced to life without parole for running Silk Road. Many other dark markets have sprung up to replace it, but none have the public notoriety/branding that Silk Road enjoyed at its peak. Two years ago Ulbricht’s $80m Silk Road fortune must have looked tempting to any would be marketeers - not so much today (within the reach of the US legal system in any case.)

CryptoLocker brought ransomware into the mainstream, and was closed down. Early 2014 saw mainstream media coverage of a computer virus which encrypted victims hard drives and then demanded payment of a ransom in Bitcoin for recovery of the user’s data. It seemed a runaway train at the time with estimates of $30million in proceeeds before globally co-ordinated action seized its command infrastructure. Clones of Cryptolocker targeting computers and phones have continue to appear since that time. Bitcoin is remains the currency of choice for payments.

Bitcoin killers have failed to kill Bitcoin. Alternative currencies which have spun up to tackle some of the perceived shortcomings in Bitcoin haven’t really gained much traction, although some have accrued high market caps. My feeling is that much of this is made up of people diversifying their Bitcoin holdings in the hope of another 1000x return like Bitcoin saw in its earliest days.

There is some kerfuffle about the size of the blockchain. I don’t really fully understand this situation but Bitcoin is going to hit a limit on transactions and there are two competing camps of developers for how to solve it. This is apparently going to result in the Bitcoin protocol being changed, but last I heard it was nothing to worry about and the hubbub has died down. I’m not sure this is because it’s solved, was never an issue, or no-one cares.

Satoshi Nakamoto remains totally unidentified. A bumbling Newsweek article outed retired programmer Dorian Nakamoto, who turned out to have absolutely nothing to do with Bitcoin. More recently Wired has embarrassed itself with the article “Bitcoin’s Creator Satoshi Nakamoto Is Probably This Unknown Australian Genius” wherein they identified Colin Wright, an Australian ‘businessman’. Mr Wright’s background turned out to be largely self-fabricated bullshit, probably with the aim of securing some sort of tax rebate on investment in a (probably) fictional supercomputer. Other than that, we’re no further along in knowing who created Bitcoin than we were two years ago.

Stripe started accepting Bitcoin payments. This was actually quite exciting for me. I enabled it on How a Car Works but then Stripe changed their rules and I could only accept Bitcoin if I had a US bank account, which I don’t. So I went back to credit or debit card only. I can only assume it’s a tiny, tiny part of Stripe’s business because if it was in any way meaningful I would expect some announcement of number of transactions, or attempt to scale it out beyond the US. Neither has happened to my knowledge.

Mainstream adoption has stagnated. I don’t see usage of Bitcoin increasing at any level at the moment. Buying and selling Bitcoin for fiat currency remains an absolutely enormous pain in the ass. I think this stagnation is because many of the proposed advantages of Bitcoin are just not being borne out:

  • Buying and selling Bitcoin is far from anonymous. Any exchange requires a copy of your ID and linking to your bank account or debit card.
  • Transacting in Bitcoin is quite trackable.
  • Fees to exchange fiat currency are higher than credit cards, and money transfer services like Western Union. The ID requirements are more onerous.
  • It’s future is unclear so as store of value it has significant risks.
  • The promise of the underlying Blockchain is an even more complicated concept than that of Bitcoin itself. I can’t even get my head around what many businesses in this space are doing.
  • The novelty and excitement have worn off. I feel like the evangelists are basically done.

I’m not sure where this even leaves us. Now that the world has tasted a decentralized, digital currency there is always going to be a demand for one - whether it’s Bitcoin or something else doesn’t really matter. I traded some BTC for Ethereum a few weeks ago in case it turns out to be huge. I’ll probably some Monero for the same reason. I’ve no idea of the practical uses of either - I’ll just be speculating because it’s easier to do that than the sell my remaining BTC for fiat.

On the other hand, Bitcoin is the undisputed gold standard of the digital currency world. New entrants are valued with reference to Bitcoin, and they have an easier launch because they can be acquired using bitcoin without the need for complex fiat exchange gateways.

And over the past four months the BTC price has remained fairly stable.

But I’ll stick to something I tweeted quite a while back, and note that in the past few months there’s been renewed interest in giant airships.

The time I got paid $16,000 to replace a single character

on 2 April 2016

Nearly nine years ago I set up a news website for the UK insolvency industry. It was reasonably successful. About nine months after I started it, the site was acquired by a publisher of several related industry magazines.

The acquirer had their site running on Coldfusion which was an old technology even then. The design and functionality were actually usable, but they told me the sites only worked in Internet Explorer, and so the decision had been taken to contract a development house to rebuild everything. As part of the purchase, we agreed a deferred consideration of $16,000 for me to help them find a competent agency and provide some technical guidance on what was needed.

A few weeks after the agreement was signed, they’d received some quotes and asked would I come in for a second round of pitching. I finally got round to taking a more detailed look at the sites.

Exactly as they said, everything worked perfectly in Internet Explorer, but no links were clickable in Firefox or Chrome. I checked the consoles for errors and found nothing. But viewing the source, I noticed that every a tag was being rendered with a href which looked something like http://trademagazine.com\articles.cfm.

I got the server’s FTP details - pulled down the code, found a ROOT_URL variable that was set to http://trademagazine.com\, changed the backslash to a / and emailed to say their sites now worked in all browsers. The tender process was cancelled, and six months later the money landed in my bank account.

The SIM card shuffle

The SIM card shuffle

on 1 April 2016

I arrived in Miami last night, and first port of call this morning was Walmart to get myself a US Sim Card. It’s very frustrating that I still have to dance through hoops to pay a reasonable price for mobile data while abroad for even just a few days.

This makes me appreciative of the European Union, who have repeatedly and successfully spanked mobile operators into finally offering sane roaming prices throughout Europe. Outside of Europe the regulators are toothless so EE, my operator (who I already pay $50 a month), want to fleece me out of $1.60 a minute to make a phone call, and $4.50 for 20mb of data (expiring after 24 hours).

Today I paid $38 for a T-Mobile SIM with 5GB of data, and a super helpful woman at Walmart got it activated for me in five minutes. Apple don’t help things by changing the size of their SIM cards on an almost yearly basis - last time I was in San Francisco there was an epic quest to track down a micro SIM.

I know there are loads of businesses servicing this roaming market, but really the mobile industry just needs to sort its shit out and charge me 3x my home rate which would be nicely profitable but not daylight robbery. Apart from businesses, almost everyone I know defaults to turning off roaming completely rather than come back to a phone bill that costs more than their flight.

Facebook is the new Excel

Facebook is the new Excel

on 17 March 2016

If you’re building a SaaS startup, then your biggest competitor isn’t a competitor. It’s Microsoft Excel. That was the mantra a few years ago. Add in Google Docs and it still holds true. Contact lists, mailing lists, accounts, invoicing, market research, budgets, checklists, schedules, timetables: Excel is the hammer of choice for anything that looks like data in a business, large or small.

Today, if you’re building a service for communities or individuals then Facebook is almost certainly your biggest competitor. B2B: Excel, B2C: Facebook.

People are increasingly using Pages, Groups and Albums for all kinds of things that would previously have justified a whole startup.

Job hunting? There’ll be dozens of job groups in your city. Working on a car restoration? There’s a group for that. Looking to buy or sell something? Local groups. Add in the fact that every Facebook group and page basically comes with a free mobile app (albeit embedded in Facebook’s app).

There’s an increasing threshold of utility for people to move away from Facebook: the place where everyone already has accounts, receives notifications and visits on a daily basis.

By threshold of utility I mean the features that make your service better than a Facebook group or page. Pitching Squarespace against Facebook Pages, for example, Squarespace provide better search engine discovery, and more scope to express branding and convey detailed information. For some businesses that’s important, but for many others it’s of zero benefit. They get everything they need from a Facebook page - opening hours, a map, and some photos.

Similarly with groups: A Facebook group listing apartments to rent will lack any form of domain-specific search fields. You can’t search by rooms or area. But it’s very accessible and you can search by keyword easily enough. You can also see other people’s comments on places, which might be an advantage over a standalone property search site.

One piece of good news though, is that contacting people through these groups and pages is actually easier than ever now. So if you’re not frantically spamming everyone, then you’ve a great opportunity for engaging with customers.

Any startup should include Facebook in its competitive analysis. How are people using it? Does it work? What’s missing? And be open to the idea that a Facebook group that does even 80% of what people want might easily be your toughest competitor. You can guarantee that Facebook has already signed up 99% of your potential userbase.

I’m starting to write a little more frequently - follow me on twitter @alexmuir if you like the way I waffle!

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