Memorial Day Thoughts

🇺🇸I had only been in the US one year when I went back to India for a short trip. On my way back to the US I was wearing my blue Michigan hoodie with the big golden M on the front. In my mind I was still feeling more Indian, reflecting on the trip as I dozed off on the long flight. When the flight landed and I got up, this man a few rows from me had his face lit up and he smiled brightly as he made eye contact and yelled “Go Blue”!

I was taken aback. A little confused initially. And then it all came back that I am in the US now and I go to school at the University of Michigan. And this person felt kinship with a complete stranger based just on either the sport team or the alma mater.

You see in India that would have not happened like this. People are way more likely to feel kinship based on religion or where you are from than where you study. Which is why when I meet an Indian I’m more likely to feel a lack of connection because of the baggage that creeps into how people relate. Maybe it’s different for people who don’t grow up as minorities in India. But in the US as a brown Muslim person I have felt more accepted by every day people than I ever felt in India.

Capitalism sucks and has its vices. But in the absence of that we usually end up with some form of tribalism; which sucks even more.

I am very proud to call the US my home. A lot of Americans, especially on the left, tend to focus so much on the negative aspects of the US that they genuinely start believing that it’s worse than other countries. It’s good to be self-critical else we can become complacent and stop making progress. But the US is also (likely) the most transparent country in the World (by my subjective standards). And the effect of it is captured in “familiarity breeds contempt”. What has happened now is there’s a false perception, relatively speaking, that the US is evil. I challenge people to find me one country that isn’t “evil”. And if you can name it, be prepared as I will embarrass you for your ignorance.

The US has a lot to offer the world. And I am in the camp that it has been a net positive for the world. Yes, I’m absolutely not blind to all the bad that it has also caused or participated in. But high impact turns up the volume on everything – good and bad. The US experiment can definitely improve; just like anything else that can always be improved.

The recent war has been a good reminder of how 1) avoiding conflict but 2) being ready to fight when needed are both equally important to protect everything we value. I thank everyone who is willing to give up their lives so that others can have theirs. There is no right or wrong in the absolute sense when it comes to any conflict; just that most of us would prefer not to have to fight.

But the Bhagvad Gita – one of the most revered religious text in India – is literally premised on war to help us make sense of it. Its central character is a warrior who finds himself on the battle field facing the enemy army that is commanded by his own uncles and cousins. He feels an existential crisis – how can I fight my own brothers, uncles and teachers? He says he’d rather give up his arms and get killed. His charioteer is Krishna, an incarnation of God. That’s when he starts to speak to him. He promises him that he will show him the true nature of reality to help him in that situation. That’s the Bhagvad Gita. Their conversation on the battle field.

I won’t summarize the result of the conversation. Because that’s the point. Knowing the duty and performing it comes from a deeper and higher sense of Self / lack of Self than mere reasoning.

Documenting California Precipitation 2023: Full Lake Folsom and Snowcapped Sierras

The effect of all the precipitation in the past 5 months in California can be easily seen in this pic. That’s Folsom Lake. That tree has been on dry ground for the past few years when you could hike up to it just walking on the lakebed of rocks and pebbles. Now a good chunk of it is below the water level. In the background are the Sierra Mountains, covered in snow.

Full Lake Folsom and Snowcapped Sierras. By Sameer Halai

Mt Shasta juxtaposed with our consumerist selves

Mountains can be teachers. They can show us our place, help keep our ego in check, and give us the dose of awe we need to stay grounded.

We were driving back from Mt Lassen when we stopped for a coffee and from the parking lot of a Starbucks I caught this view of Mt Shasta.

It was interesting to see the juxtaposition of things like this. I proceed the image in Lightroom Mobile to selectively pop just the red to enhance the visual contrast between the subjects. What do you think?

Why I now believe that Bitcoin introduces catastrophic systemic risk rather than mitigating it

I have been a very strong believer in Bitcoin. First for transactions. I even sold a robomop to someone on Craigslist back in 2014 and got paid in Bitcoin for it. I used the first Bitcoin ATMs in Belgium and Amsterdam to withdraw my BTC in Euros in 2015 and really believed BTC was going to take off soon.

I tried to convinced everyone I knew back them to buy just one bitcoin (it was $250 then) and then just sit on it.

But then as it started to take off the transaction cost was so high that it couldn’t be used for regular transactions.

So the new thesis then was that it was a good store of value – occasional transactions on the main blockchain for transfer of large value. It seemed like a good idea. It’s obviously lighter than gold, can be moved faster than gold, protected in more sophisticated ways than gold and is really finite by pure math so is a verifiable constrained resource. The expectation was that in times of volatility it would be seen as a stable asset and be a hedge against it.

There was also development of 2nd chains that work of the main blockchain but reduce the cost of transactions down to nothing. Of course the transaction is not “settled” until it’s batched with others and then registered on the main blockchain. So there’s always now a layer of deep, unavoidable risk if you transact on these second chains. Which can be mitigated by adding systems that then start to resemble ways we already do with credit card transactions and ACH transactions. If we don’t care about fraud than even credit cards and bank transactions can be blazing fast.

So a lot of the shine in Bitcoin’s armor has faded lately. People who observe this closely, however, would correctly point out that governments have exerted heavy control that significantly limits its potential. That a lot of opportunists have created such an aura of fraud around it that it unfairly drags bitcoin down.

I agree with all of that. But knowing the reasons why BTC isn’t working doesn’t solve those issues. And I don’t see anything that will eliminate those issues so it’s a systemic, long term risk to it that as of now doesn’t seem to have any solution.

Bitcoin’s key strength is that it’s truly decentralized and the person who created it is unknown. Satoshi Nakamoto could be a person, a group we will never know. 1 million BTC are in Satoshi’s wallet (5% of all BTC). That is known.

But we don’t know how much of other BTC is also in wallets that Satoshi controls. For all we know, 51% of all BTC is controlled by the group that created it. And effectively it could be the most elaborate Ponzi scheme when institutional investors all over the world buy into BTC and then this group of anonymous people this we don’t know control 51% of all wealth in the world.

It’s also truly decentralized in the sense that mining is done by several different entities so no one entity controls the hashrate. This is important as it makes it resilient to bad things happening.

But we now have proof that all it takes is a secret group chat on Signal for these mining entities to collude. There’s no way to protect against that. And there’s a very very very very strong incentive for these entities to collude to benefit themselves. And the incentive to interfere is so strong that all it would take is a state actor to blow up a few mining operations to now control the hashrate.

These two things – not knowing who actually controls most BTC and not being able to guarantee that nodes can’t collude or be severely compromised means uncertainty is intrinsic to BTC.

I really really loved the idea that we can create an algorithmic entity that can exist forever. But we have yet to create software without bugs. It’s a myth. Even private keys can be reverse engineered by “listening” to RF signals around a chip. So I now think it creates huge systemic risk if the world adopts a decentralized store of value that is at the mercy of private keys and algorithms only.

And yet we have been unable to, so far, hack gold. We can’t yet create gold molecules cheaply.

I feel like the long term solution will not look much different from what we have now. Different networks with an agreed upon value within their trust graphs (fiat currency) and the abilty to transfer value across trust graphs (currency exchange). The mechanisms can be modernized for sure. But if you want to bet on crypto – fine companies that are solving problems that actual customers are willing to pay for with fiat. That’s real value being created.

People swimming inside an energy reactor: Stable Diffusion AI to

I had tried a similar prompt to evaluate Dall-E earlier. So wanted to see how Stable Diffusion worked for it. The difference here is that all these images were created locally on my machine (not in the cloud). It’s getting easier and easier to run advanced AI models with limited technical knowledge thanks to work by people like Divam Gupta whose DiffusionBee is what I used for this.

Stable Diffusion: People swimming in a public swimming pool inside a giant nuclear reactor (via DiffusionBee). See all on ArtHub

Here’s a few of them scaled up for a closer look. Which one do you like the most?

Testing how DALL-E layers on to prior art

DALL-E is quite impressive and it’s been fun to see all the different images it has been conjuring up.

I am still on the waitlist but a few friends have access to it. One of them helped run a couple of queries on my behalf and it was quite interesting to see the result.

So the first query was “a public swimming pool inside a nuclear reactor”. That one got rejected due to violating the content policy. So we revised it to “a public swimming pool inside an energy reactor”

“a public swimming pool inside an energy reactor” – Dall-E

That was super impressive! But in my mind I had also imagined people in it. So my friend graciously ran another query “people swimming in a public pool inside a nuclear reactor”. And here’s what we got.

“people swimming in a public swimming pool inside an energy reactor” – Dall-E

Pretty neat right? It was interesting to see how the images changed when it layered on people to the previous set.

It’s interesting to realize that today I’m writing a blog post about just a couple of images generated this way. But in a few years this will probably be so common and taken for granted by many.

Using a mirror effect on drone footage

I was out on a hike recently with my folks and took some drone footage of the area. I decided to try out a mirror effect on the drone footage and it came out rather nice.

This is a first rough cut at it on a low resolution version of the footage. The entire thing is a single shot with no cuts.

What do you think?

The terrain reminded me of this other video I had shot many years ago in Tanzania, also a single shot with no cuts.

Experiencing Macchu Picchu in National Geographic’s VR

So I have been to Macchu Picchu in person, doing the whole 4 day Inca Trail hike. But I just revisited it via VR using National Geographic’s experience and it felt more intimate. Maybe the fact that it was just me and no one else there. And that I was able to experience a digital reconstruction overlaid onto the buildings.

And I had a virtual digital camera with me inside the experience. I used that to take this picture. It was quite meta (now I understand better why they chose that name)!

I have a referral link from Oculus for a $30 credit if you decide to get one.

Theory: Musk interest in Twitter is about crypto

Update 28th Apr 2022: Balaji also sees this angle and here’s his suggestion to Elon to do a coin drop to all users

Musk is one of the smartest people alive. His ability to see long term and execute towards it is inspiring.

Which is why I have been baffled by his interest in Twitter for “protecting free speech.” Watching him speak at Ted last week, it became quite obvious he actually hasn’t put a lot of thought into that aspect of his interest. “Bring the edit button” and “make the algorithm more transparent” etc are just not the kind of game changing, bold things Musk usually spends time on. Anyone watching would notice his brilliance and passion for what he is doing at Tesla and SpaceX, and relative cluelessness of the problems & opportunities at Twitter.

So I have a theory now on what this might be about: Musk has been focusing a lot more on influence building. His appearance on SNL was part of that strategy. He probably realizes that we live in a post-factual world and that any reality we want can be created by consensus. Memes and social media are the infrastructure on which reality is now built. He has had mixed results on this. He has added volatility to Tesla’s stock price using Twitter and it worked out though he has gotten into trouble due to it. He tried to pump up Dogecoin using Twitter and SNL but failed.

For crypto to take off, the core ingredient is community. That’s why every crypto project invests so much in their communities on Discord etc. If you don’t have critical mass your project won’t go anywhere. Former Twitter CEO and current Block overseer Jack Dorsey and Musk have a new joint venture: constructing a Bitcoin mine in Texas powered entirely by renewable energy.

Jack left Twitter not in the best way. His vision was to be all in on crypto. And right now Jack is supportive of Musks bid. Putting this all together, what Musk is likely really after is the social graph. Owning unfettered access to a large social graph where new realities can be fabricated is the ultimate power play. We may recall that Facebook already tried that and failed (Libra/Diem) due to regulatory concerns getting in the way. Twitter as a private company may be able to get away with it.

What do folks think?

image source: shetcoin