Insert Bitcoin

Bitcoin (Wikipedia) has all the ingredients to make it a wet dream for libertarians. A secure, open source, potentially anonymous cryptocurrency that’s sustained by a peer-to-peer network — that’s the kind of big idea that appeals to the net community. In the last couple of weeks, bitcoin mania has reached a peak, with largely positive articles in Technology Review, Techcrunch, and others (see those articles for a basic explanation of the system).

The bitcoin wiki, meanwhile, is abuzz with activity and enumerates many ways to earn/purchase and spend bitcoins. Currency exchanges sell individual bitcoins for more than $8 per coin.

I, too, would love to be excited about bitcoin. Although I’m not a libertarian and I see risks associated with unregulated new currencies, this is the kind of experiment that can really drive forward society’s thinking. Moving away from national currencies and central banks to a single, global medium of exchange is an immensely powerful idea. While managing the risks of such a new currency would be challenging, it could surely be worth it.

Unfortunately, once one looks behind the curtain of the system, one conclusion seems inevitable: it was deliberately designed as a pyramid scheme to enrich early adopters, not as a currency to trade goods and services. This Quora discussion explains it at some length, but basically, because a) the total currency supply is limited, b) it gets harder and harder to mine bitcoins over time, there’s now a small elite of bitcoin owners. The wealthiest own hundreds of thousands of bitcoins. Nobody will match them in wealth at this point without a prohibitive investment of money and time, and the gap between rich and poor will continue to widen indefinitely as a new bitcoin owner must spend dollars to purchase mere fractions of a coin (or contribute to its growing ecological footprint by becoming a “miner” who wastes computing cycles on the generation of coins).

Indeed, if exchange rates at sites like Mt. Gox (link deliberately omitted) are to be believed, there are already several theoretical bitcoin owners who would be dollar millionaires.

Unsurprisingly this has turned bitcoin into an investment and speculation vehicle above all else. An example of the fantasy about future wealth that bitcoin owners indulge in is this thread in the bitcoin forums, “The $1000 Bitcoin“. Simply put, the theory is that, as goods and services offered for bitcoins expand, while the supply remains almost constant, the value of coins will keep increasing, enriching early investors.

Bitcoin defenders argue, of course, that the early investors should be rewarded for their risks in trying out and promoting bitcoins, and that this is simply the normal growth of a new business. Even at face value, a global metacurrency that renews social inequity at an extraordinary scale should raise flags for anyone concerned about the promotion of social justice. Regardless, this is a tacit admission that bitcoin doesn’t serve first and foremost as a currency, but as an investment vehicle that’s designed to enrich the few at the expense of the many. The facade of a currency is part of the confidence trick, one which every investors is incentivized to help maintain. Meanwhile, Bitcoin’s elusive inventor is laughing all the way to the brick-and-mortar bank.

And while it’s important to not feed into fear, it does seem that one other group besides speculators and enthusiasts that’s likely to get excited about bitcoin is made of criminals who are looking for simple mechanisms to launder money or to trade in illegal goods and services. For money laundering in particular, the growing network of exchanges seems to offer plentiful opportunities for mischief.

To be sure, it’s a fascinating story to watch unfold, and likely one that will find its way into the history books. The real question to me is what’s going to be the first nail in the coffin of the bitcoin experiment: an internal economic collapse, a software failure, government shutdowns of exchanges, or the association with illegal activities? Whatever it is, I hope the idea of a global Internet currency will live on.

2 months in Blender

Blender is one of my not-so-secret obsessions among open source projects. Historically the result of a fundraising campaign to liberate an originally proprietary application, it’s got a successful non-profit organization behind it and has executed two amazing open movie projects, Elephants Dream and Big Buck Bunny. While these projects were funded through grants and donations, I find it heartwarming to see individuals create high quality projects using Blender in their own free time.

Freddy’s World by Fabien Weibel is an example of an animation created by a bright 19-year-old in just 2 months of elapsed time. Fabien has also documented his progress in a work log (recommended reading after watching the video). Fabien’s other projects are also worth a look.

Powerful authoring tools like Blender, Inkscape, and Krita are an incredibly important part of the free software ecosystem and will enrich our culture for years to come. Like Wikipedia, they have international communities behind them. Where possible, I encourage you to donate to such projects. For Blender, you can do so here.

Global Voices on

Global Voices has posted an interesting summary of discussions in the Arabic-speaking blogosphere regarding the recently launched Egyptian Arabic Wikipedia. In short, it’s a typical dispute between those who think it ought to be recognized as a separate language, and those who believe that doing so divides the community. The quoted voices seem to lean more towards the latter opinion, though one commenter expresses the interesting notion that Egyptian Arabic could function as a scratchpad for the Arabic Wikipedia among speakers who find it easier to write than formal Arabic. [via ethan]

The Power of Free Content

David Shankbone, who has contributed countless photos to Wikimedia Commons (including many very hard to obtain shots of celebrities), has written a very interesting blog post about how his photos get used throughout the universe of Wikimedia languages and projects: The global reach of just one photo. If you want to see where a photo you’ve uploaded is used, you can use the CheckUsage tool. This kind of global usage is a true testament to what’s possible when content is shared with few copyright restrictions.


Can open source games be any good? Most open source games are relatively small and simple, but the open source movement has produced some gems over the years, such as Battle for Wesnoth and Neverball. Blender’s Project Apricot is an example of a game developed using a new model of collaborative funding (DVD pre-orders) which was previously successfully used for open source 3D movie productions.

If you’re interested in keeping track of the progress of open source gaming, LibregameWiki is a great place to go. Sadly, many of the open source games it reports on aren’t considered notable enough for Wikipedia. In addition to the games themselves and the people who make them, LibregameWiki also writes about game development contests like RubyWeekend, which have recently become a source of lots of nice, open source mini-games.

Towards A True Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Foundation CTO Brion Vibber recently added a very neat feature to the development version of MediaWiki. In order to enable it, all you need is a snippet of code in your LocalSettings.php configuration file:

$wgForeignFileRepos[] = array(
   'class'            => 'ForeignAPIRepo',
   'name'             => 'shared',
   'apibase'          => '',
   'fetchDescription' => true, // Optional

Your wiki installation will now have full access to Wikimedia Commons in the same way any Wikimedia wiki does. You can embed image thumbnails of any size, and they will be automatically generated and loaded from Commons. You can click images and see the file description (including the wiki description page, file history and EXIF metadata) loaded from Commons. I haven’t tried to make the embeddable video/audio player work yet, but any file type will be accessible.

This is wonderful, because it makes the nearly 3 million freely licensed files in Commons easily accessible to potentially thousands of wiki users, while retaining the critical licensing information. This implementation does not cache the data in the local wiki, so is not yet suitable for large scale installations. Caching the data intelligently is a significant challenge, as it could be a vector for denial of service attacks and also raises the questions how/when cached files should expire, etc. I wrote a proposal called “InstantCommons” a couple of years ago which included some notes on the issue. After an incomplete first implementation of InstantCommons, I’m glad that we now have a working, simple mechanism for third party use of Commons media. Given that the foreign repository can be any MediaWiki installation, it will also be interesting to see what other wiki-to-wiki exchanges might result from it.

Spam test

Even though I’m using the latest WordPress version now, my blog has been hammered by some nasty spam-bots, going so far to overwrite the actual content of posts with spam. I’ve disabled all suspicious user accounts & reset passwords; this is a test to see if a random new post will still get spam injections.

(Compare the relevant WordPress forum thread.)

R.I.P. Arthur C. Clarke

Thanks for helping us imagine.

The Rise of the Trash Blogs

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is being dragged through the mud by a new type of trash blog. Tabloid journalism has always existed, but the new marketplace of ideas online allows for the rapid evolution of the most effective types of trashy pseudo-journalism: Those blogs that find the right tone — that combination of malicious insinuations, salaciousness, and half-truths — will develop a large audience; those that are just boring (like Kelly Martin rambling about Jimmy’s mortgage) will whither and die.

The recent attacks against Jimmy allege that he had some huge conflict of interest when it comes to editing the “Rachel Marsden” article. Jimmy routinely asks people on our ticket-system, OTRS, to look into articles that are one-sided when people ask him to. He had a conflict
of interest here, which, for obvious reasons, he didn’t want to disclose – so he suggested a smaller conflict of interest in his e-mail to OTRS as a reason for recusing himself from editing it. It would have been better to stay away from the matter entirely, obviously, but I don’t see it as a big deal. I’ m more worried that the community will now massively push it in the other direction as a reaction against perceived bias.

As for his personal life, it is just that: his personal life.

There are two real stories here, IMHO:

* a destructive, trashy kind of pseudo-journalism that invades people’s personal lives under the pretense of a real story;

* the destructiveness and maliciousness on the fringes of our own community.

Jimmy not only created an extraordinary project — he decided to base it on the principles of the open source / free software movement, and turned it over to a non-profit organization. This was, by no means, the obvious thing to do: Had events played out a little differently, Wikipedia would today be a dot-com with ads, probably a subsidiary of Google, Microsoft or Yahoo.

As community leader, Jimmy has developed and emphasized the values that we cherish: the assumption of good faith, the importance of neutrality in open collaboration, and the belief in a shared purpose. When he talks about bringing education to those who cannot afford it, he’s not just trying to impress. Anyone who spends 5 minutes with him will understand that this is his personal life goal.

Moreover, Jimmy stepped back graciously as Chair of the Foundation when he no longer could dedicate as much time as needed to the role. He’s helped us connect with philanthropists here in the Bay Area — donations like the recent 500,000 dollars from the last fundraiser were only possible because of his outreach efforts. His international network of contacts has helped us to build our Advisory Board, really smart people who have supported us on many occasions. In short, he’s been humble and helpful, and has always acted in the best interests of the organization.

When people try to create a malicious caricature of the man, then please remind yourself that actions speak louder than words. And also ask what the self-interest is of those who make the attacks. Whether it’s for personal reasons (15 minutes of fame, a vendetta, or simply an inherently destructive nature) or because of advertising revenue — spreading lies, insinuations and half-truths is in many people’s interest. The emergence of the new open media also means that we, as readers, have a greater responsibility to distinguish the bottom of the barrel crap — designed to stir up trouble — from honest inquiry.

Not too long ago, Jimmy and Tim O’Reilly proposed a Blogger’s Code of Conduct that we, bloggers, would voluntarily adopt. I am increasingly agreeing with him: If we want the emergence of an honest, responsible, but dynamic and healthy new media sphere, we will need a new code of ethics and a set of principles to subscribe to. We need to indicate that we are different from the trash blogs. As such, I am hereby adopting the following modules from the proposed Code of Conduct:

1. Responsibility for our own words

2. Nothing we wouldn’t say in person

3. Connect privately first

4. Take action against attacks

6. Ignore the trolls

8. Keep our sources private

9. Discretion to delete comments

10. Do no harm

I encourage you to do the same.

Of Gutsy Gibbons

The upgrade of my desktop from Ubuntu Linux “Feisty Fawn” to “Gutsy Gibbon” was moderately sucky. Aside from some odd package dependency issues that I had to resolve forcefully, the upgrade messed up my X server configuration, resulting in an unusable desktop. After some fiddling and some searching, the culprit turned out to be the xserver-xgl package, which doesn’t work with my ATI graphics chipset. ATI’s poor Linux support is hardly an excuse for leaving the user’s system in a worse state than it was before. As long as basic upgrade procedures can lead to such results, we can’t seriously hope to make inroads on the desktop.