Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Intro to Crypto

Not for you, for me.

If you ended up here looking for any form of introduction to cryptocurrency, this is probably not the right place - this is a more a share of my experience of being introduced to the basics. Nothing very useful here. Move on.

Phase 1: Get Bitcoin!

At present, crypto is crazy. Social media is buzzing with it, everyone is getting in or considering getting out. My first comment on the topic was a few months earlier this year - I was a late adopter. It was something along the lines of "It's not gonna last" or "it's a short up and down". I was met with a fair amount of evidence to the contrary and decided to take a little (emphasis on little) bit of extra cash that I had available and was willing to part with and hop on for a little ride. I asked about what platform to use on social media and Luno (shameless link to my referral code right there) came back as quite a popular local option. I downloaded the app, signed up and sent off the required documents. A couple of days later my account was active so I parted ways with traditional currency and into my BTC wallet.

Right on cue.... this happened...
As if the digital gods were watching me... waiting for me.... to drop it. But 1 thing I've heard enough of in the small amount of exposure I've had to the investing world is that any investment should not be emotional; and knee-jerk reactions to market changes can cost lots. So I sat tight. And cried a little inside as my little venture lost 35% in 4 days. And then I did something bravely foolish - I threw a bit more ZA Ronds at it. I think the gods favoured my foolishness because it turned. From R60k per coin to over R100k in about 3 weeks, BTC was in the news with another upwards rampage. Subconscious calls for bicycle upgrades started surfacing into my consciousness. I spoke to my kids about it and they wanted to put their pocket money in. I explained that if they put anything in, they must be willing to loose it. "Oh, so Bitcoin is like gambling" they surmised perfectly. And they hopped on the wagon a bit too.

And that is the start of my crypto journey - forex trading on a very hot currency (currently R170k/BTC)

Phase 2: The questioning

Ok - so now this crypto thing is actually holding something of value to me. I've past the "Let's play" part and am having fun skating on a frozen lake with no idea of how thick the ice is or cold/deep the water underneath. And my mind starts turning to questions - "How does it work". "Why is there such a demand for it / such value being given to it" and "Where does it come from".

The concept of the underlying Blockchain technology is built on solid principles - it's an unmodifiable (from a practical sense), open ledger of transactions validated cryptographically. The Wikipedia link explains it pretty well. Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency based on this technology. There are many others now. The properties of the currency is a decentralized, peer-to-peer, trust-based value system - no central institution controlling it. The nature of "What it is" or "How does it work" answers the second question of rapid adoption of the technology.

But where does it come from? If there's no central institution, how is it made? I began reading. And so I started learning about mining. Miners are the peers of the network - members of the general public using computers to validate and timestamp transactions, adding them to the ledger. The idea is that it takes a lot of work to calculate the transaction but not a lot of work to validate it. So 1 computer will calculate something and submit it to the network; and a few other computers will validate it and confirm that work was done to get to the result. The calculating computer / node is then rewarded for its work.  But what work? "Miners solve complex problems" - aaah great - the value proposition. Coins are being awarded for doing something useful, right? I wanted to get a better understanding of these "complex problems" and where they came from. The problems are relatively arbitrary! Pretty self-contained to the crypto network. 1. Pick a hash. 2. Work out how to get there. That's it. So we're running computers that use lots of energy to calculate something and then proof that they did the calculation. But the calculation serves no purpose other than proof that it did the calculation! To prove that power must have been consumed. What?? This didn't sit right - a fundamental flaw in the proposal of the value system. Global mining is using more power than 100's of countries at time of writing. Generating a coin using this model takes a few days at least with some pretty specialized hardware. What a waste. I wanted to get out.

I started chatting to friends - ranting on the phone. "It's not sustainable, it will never last!" (sorry bwot). But the shock settled and after some sleep and more thought I got a different perspective on it. It's not an underlying flaw in the technology, it's just an inefficiency. I work and earn traditional currency through what I do. This is a representation of value in a centrally controlled system (government, tax man, banking system). Energy is a transfer mechanism of this value representation from 1 system to another: I pay my power utility. They give me electricity. I use electricity. I get Bitcoin. The value is now out of the traditional system and into the decentralized, peer-validated system. Quite clever. But still something wrong. Why do so much work for nothing?

Reward models

The mining model described above that led to somewhat fevered phone calls is referred to as Proof of Work (PoW). The peer network can validate that work was done easily, and the node that did the work is rewarded. I wanted a more efficient system. Some way of doing the same thing as mining, but instead of solving arbitrary problems, the compute power could be used to solve real world problems; problems like identifying cancer markers; analysing LHC collisions; or mapping the galaxy. And I'd find a way to do it. Revolutionary thoughts. I'm not a revolutionary though, and some smart people had already thought of that.

There's another way of generating tokens of value in a cryptocurrency network. It's a model called Proof of Stake. The idea of this model is that members of the network are given more opportunities to create the next block the more coins they own and/or the longer they wait (owning more coins increases opportunities to earn more coins instead of owning more mines to earn more coins). Combing this with a system of distributed consensus on the calculations, you can now use the compute energy to do REAL work and solve problems facing humanity. And this is where I'm exploring now.

Phase 3: The present and the future

So a PoS system seems much more efficient but has some flaws. So do PoW systems. The best value seems to be in networks that somehow leverage both. One system that uses a combination of both is Gridoin's Proof of Research which I quite like fundamentally. It gives an opportunity to generate coins while doing something useful

And it seems a little less volatile than BTC or Ethereum:

So that's where I am at the moment. Gently throwing a little bit of energy at modeling the Milky Way, solving cosmological problems and analysing LHC collisions, while increasing stake in a slightly more efficient and hopefully sustainable currency system.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

From Dusk to ... Dusk

February 22nd - a lazy Sunday morning. Open up Facebook and notice a post from Rob van den Bergh in the Pretoria East MTB Facebook Group:

Hi all - I am looking for MTB riders to join me on a ride from Cullinan2Tonteldoos. This amazing adventure is open to 50 cyclists who either want to 'go the distance', 'hop-on, hop off' or even do the last 80kms - you choose. The places will be taken VERY quickly - so be quick to Book your Seat!

My interest perked. 220km - it would be a stretch. I'd only cracked the 100km MTB mark a few months back in September on a ride from Van Gaalens to Breedts Nek, and put in 3 triple digit rides since (albeit just over the 100km mark). It was also Easter weekend, and the never-ending family / cycling conflict played in the back of my mind. But to be safe, I put in my entry.

On the afternoon of April 3rd, I headed through to Pretoria to meet up with Robert. Robert was also doing the ride - on a 26" single speed! From there, we headed through to Cullinan to meet up with some of the other Pretoria guys with whom I've had the privilege or riding with before: Christiaan and Heinz, who I'd met at a WTF hill challenge, Wilhelm who had broken his 100km cherry with me in September and a couple of others. Bikes were unloaded, lights attached, kit donned and quickly wolfed down a couple of pizza slices before a brief briefing and then we were off.

More prepared than usual....

The ride started off with a 20km roll from Cullinan mine entrance to the Onverwacht school to drop off soft toys and Easter egg marshmallows. Riding into the school gave me goosebumps as we high-fived the kids lining the road, with lit candles, singing and chanting. A quick delivery, and we were off the tar and heading east.

Race Briefing with Paul and Rob.

The evening's riding was pleasant - easy paced and relatively flat with gently rolling hills. The ride had an eery feel as we turned off our lights on some sections, guided by the almost-full moon. It was good to get to know some riders better and meet new ones (thanks to Christiaan, Wilhelm and Rob, could not have asked for better company). A quick stop at the 35km WP1 and we continued east. 1 of the few unpleasant patches of the evening ride was a strip of soft sand around 45km in - easy gear, weight off the front wheel and high cadence needed to spin through the momentum drain. I'd pumped my wheels up to 2.5 bar to lesson the rolling resistance which wasn't great for this environment. But, we all got through and carried on. We could almost smell the cappuccino’s at the 70km WP2, the perfect drink at 1am after a few hours riding!

 Waterpoint 2 @ 70kms - Cappuccinos and snacks

We reached a road crossing around 2am / 85km after my first twinges of tiredness, and I'd reached there a couple of minutes ahead of the riders heading up the rear. I figured it was time for a quick 3 minute power nap, the first of the evening. I had barely closed my eyes, when the Debbie from WildTrail on the support quad was waking me up. "Excuse me, are you ok". I sat up with a start to see the tail lights of the group disappearing into the night, nearly being left behind! The combination of 5 minutes of shut-eye and an adrenaline-boosted awaking nicely shook the bit of fatigue I'd started feeling.

The rest of the evening's riding was soul-food: solo mission in my own rhythm and time for some mental / intellectual filing. It felt like the most uneventful section - 1 short wrong turn, and the 1 or 2 slightly steeper climbs. Another stop at 100km to refuel, after which I decided to stretch my legs a bit for 23km, reaching the Loskop Dam Nature Reserve gate in just under an hour. This gave me time to slip in a 20 minute power nap, very welcomed at 4am. Little did I know that Murphey was also riding this section, and we turned around to ride back a whopping 500m into the gate, with a 1 hour wait for the reserve's representatives to meet up with us and confirm the route to the end of Stage 1. No warm clothing or blankets in the cool outdoors can be overcome by tiredness, and the 60 minute snooze recharged me even more. Experiencing the descent from the reserve boundary to the stage 1 / stage 2 transition area was rich and fulfilling: a loose, rocky, steep drop down (13km, -350m) while watching red-orange burning clouds suck the sun up over the horizon, only to blanket it with greyness shortly after had some parallels to how body and mind were feeling.

We spent just over an hour at the transition, with delicious bacon / egg wraps, a shower and a change of kit, and then headed off on the next leg: supposedly 80km with a fair amount of climbing.

Transition: fed, showered, and ready to go...

Rob had mentioned that there was a 9km climb about 20km in - enough of a ride to warm up the legs before stretching again. I decided to use a bit of a boost for it, and had 1 Gu down about 10 minutes before reaching the gate. The timing was perfect, and the 300m ascent was almost enjoyable. Even more enjoyable was the treat waiting for us at the top, at Farmer Marius' Emangweni Game Farm. Peanut butter sarmies, easter eggs and a cold pool to relieve aching knees were just what the doctor ordered, complimented by a stunning view of Mpumalanga

Good to go: 172km to Emangweni Game Reserve

The next section was where the wheels started their first wobble: the field was narrowed down a fair bit as many riders opted for a "hop off" to the next WP (which was on top of another serious climb) and 1 or 2 other logistical issues cropped up (e.g. Robert's single speed was loaded onto a support vehicle and then taken to the end instead of the next WP, counting him out of any more riding). WP7 at an abandoned farm was never seen (not sure if I missed it, or it wasn't there...), but the 18km / 400m ride to WP8 was another strong 1 for me, reaching it in under an hour. Waiting for the rest of the group, mother nature decided to have a say, and a cool wind and drizzle started picking up. Sitting and waiting in the wet and cold is not pleasant after 200km of riding. But... only 20km to go... or so I thought.

The group of now 20 riders were eager to get going, with more riders still due to reach the stop. With the weather playing up, we changed routine, and rode on before the support vehicles had caught up with us. This proved to nearly end the ride prematurely for me, as I had only loaded up enough snacks to get to WP8. Coupled with a misunderstanding of "only 15km to the end", I started the last haul in now steady rain and cold wind with only a handful of fruit/nuts for sustenance.  24km later, after a knee-deep river crossing and some unridden climbs through rocky veld, my Garmin beeped it's last beep for the ride, having fully discharged itself. My body, seemingly somehow connected, followed suit about 3 minutes later - I hit a wall comparable to that of China's; or, in the words of Alex Harris: The Uruk Hai had come.

Crawling along, I passed some other riders, either waiting for their partners or waiting for a rescue mission. 1 rider was kind enough to share some biltong with me, giving enough of a boost to trodge along for another 3km or 4km while kindly informing me that there was still 15km and a big climb ahead. When I saw Paul's (Rob's son) car, a mixed sense of relief and defeat filled me. A lift home! In retrospect, it was fortunate for me that his car wasn't able to carry my bike. Waiting in the sanctuary of his back seat for his brother Mark to pick me up, with heaters on, slowly but consistently munching on baked potatoes, topped up the carbs and settled the mind enough to decide: I must go on, time to unpack the spare sense of humour.

8km more - in just over 40 minutes, I reached the top of Where the f#@k is Tonteldoos, passing Rob and shouting out the segment name as I passed, slowly rolling in to the show grounds, with Robert and his wife patiently waiting in the cold for the trip back home. 

Distance: 240km
Elevation gain: 2,800m
Moving time: 12h30
Elapsed time: 20h

Friday, April 26, 2013

One of the reasons why I love where I work

This was taken from one of our planning systems...