Searching for Satoshi

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So it seems as if the famously pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto has finally been discovered – and his name really is Satoshi Nakamoto. At least that’s what Newsweek is claiming. But Newsweek isn’t the first publication to go searching for Satoshi – back in 2011, the New Yorker published a piece claiming that Satoshi was actually Irish computer science PhD candidate Michael Clear. Here’s my interview with Clear, published a few days after the New Yorker story broke.

From The Irish Times, October 8th, 2011

When we hear politicians and business leaders talking about the need to create a knowledge economy, they probably don’t mean our brightest and best should go out and literally create a new economy using their knowledge.

But that is exactly what the New Yorker magazine accused one of the country’s brightest and best students of doing this week in a lengthy article on the virtual currency Bitcoin. 

High-profile US technology writer Joshua Davis went sleuthing for “Satoshi Nakamoto”, the pseudonymous figure who revolutionised virtual currency and electronic finance when he announced Bitcoin in 2009. Davis combed through the world’s best programmers and cryptographers and eliminated them until he had what he thought was a plausible suspect, unveiling his likely Satoshi in the New Yorker as . . . 23-year-old Trinity College computer science postgrad Michael Clear.

Clear, understandably, was mightily surprised – when Davis contacted him at a cryptography conference in California in August, Clear thought he made it plain that he wasn’t Satoshi. “I thought I might feature in one paragraph as a possible candidate who was quickly eliminated,” he explains over a coffee, equal parts bemused and amused by the whole thing – he had no idea that Davis would paint him as a prime suspect. He has spent the week since the article was published denying he is Satoshi, writing on his website that “Although I am flattered that Josh had reason to think I could be Satoshi, I am certainly the wrong person…It seems that even limited searches yield candidates who fit the profile far better than I think I do.”

Clear pointed Davis towards a Finnish virtual currency researcher as a more likely Satoshi, more as a light-hearted illustration that even a cursory search could yield a huge number of credible Satoshi candidates who might be considered a closer fit.

“I think he didn’t get my sense of humour there, maybe it was a little dry and Irish for him,” Clear says. Above all, though, Clear points out that “I’m not even very interested in economics.”

And economics is clearly central to Bitcoin – it is controlled by peer-to-peer software, with a finite number of bitcoins to be created over the next few years, earned or “mined” by people using the software to crunch numbers and help with the decentralised accountability such a system requires, so they can’t be duplicated or stolen. Bitcoins can be bought and sold in online exchanges, or even be used to buy things – some real-world cafes and motels accept the things. By all accounts, it’s a masterpiece of programming. As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman described it: “Bitcoin has created its own private gold standard world, in which the money supply is fixed rather than subject to increase via the printing press.”

As interest in Bitcoin increased and its value rose – at its peak it was worth nearly $33 before tumbling back down to about $5 – the mystique about its creator became a core part of its appeal. But there was no evidence that Satoshi ever existed – he was the Keyser Söze of digital currency creation. So when Davis revealed that he finally had a suspect, it created a huge flurry of interest in the online tech and economics press, with many of the subsequent articles and blog posts removing the ambiguity of Davis’s piece altogether, despite all of Clear’s denials.

In true New Yorker style, Davis’s article is a very compelling narrative, reminiscent of those pieces where some Catcher in the Rye fan would go hunting for JD Salinger – Clear himself says he enjoyed it, despite what he felt were some misrepresentations. But plenty of Bitcoin observers have also cast doubt on Davis’s detective work, questioning the rigour of his search among other things – he relied on Satoshi’s excellent use of the Queen’s English to limit his search to British and Irish researchers, and settled on Clear because Davis expected to find Satoshi at that Californian conference.

There is no doubting Clear’s capabilities, that’s for sure – he was elected a Trinity scholar in 2008 (not top undergraduate, as the New Yorker said); graduated with a gold medal in 2010; and won the computer science category of the Undergraduate Awards, for which he’ll be getting another gold medal from President McAleese at the end of the month. “I like talking about projects that I was actually involved in, or things that I have designed and developed,” he says, happily discussing his security software start-up and his PhD research on something called “fully homomorphic encryption”, but he has no interest in taking credit for other people’s work.

Despite the hassle of having to fend off allegations of being the man who invented Bitcoin, Clear does now have a reputation as a world-class programmer and cryptographer, which might be a consolation when the dust settles. And it also says a lot about the high standards being set by Trinity’s computer science department that one of their own could be so easily mistaken as the mastermind behind a vastly ambitious virtual currency. Maybe that long-promised knowledge economy isn’t so far-fetched after all.

Growing old in the age of social apps

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In the wake of Facebook’s gargantuan acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp, time to revisit a column I wrote for The Irish Times at the end of last year about the inevitable plurality of social apps.

From The Irish Times, December 2nd, 2013

At a certain point, everybody who writes about technology has to attempt to capture a developing trend in a pithy phrase and hope that it enters into such widespread use that it becomes a universally recognised principle.

So here’s my effort at coining Davin’s Law: “Technological old age is the point at which you have more social apps on your smartphone than you have friends whom you actually want to communicate with on a regular basis.”

Admittedly, this is partly a tongue-in-cheek observation of how even the most ardent of social butterflies inevitably finds their social circle dwindling with every passing year, but more than that, it is supposed to point to the seemingly endless profusion of social and messaging apps that keep pouring on to the market.

You wouldn’t have to be a particularly voracious early adopter to be faced with a choice of Gmail, iMessage, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Line, Viber, BBM, MessageMe, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Branch, LinkedIn or Instagram the next time you wanted to shoot a message off to someone. Some people apparently even make use of Google+, for God’s sake.

The bewildering unbundling of the digital communications market is certainly worthy of a punchline or two, but it’s also worth pointing out because it paints Facebook’s huge $3 billion bid for private messaging and photo-sharing app Snapchat in a rather unflattering light.
There was no shortage of sceptics who looked at Snapchat’s current revenues – zero dollars, there or thereabouts – and thought Mark Zuckerberg had taken leave of his senses.

But I can’t help but feel that Zuckerberg’s huge bid for Snapchat isn’t eye-poppingly daft just because it’s inflated, though it certainly seems to be that. No, I reckon the real reason the bid is daft is because Zuckerberg basically offered to pay $3 billion for something he already had and intentionally destroyed – the trust of his users.

Before its IPO last year, I wrote a column about the failure of Facebook – a failure not in a business sense, obviously, but a more elemental sort of failure. Initially, if we recall the days of enthusiastic early adoption circa 2007, Facebook promised to build a platform to help people to keep in touch with their friends in a remarkably low-friction way.

But the relentless series of Facebook privacy fiascos marked a betrayal of that promise. “Rather than being about sharing content with a chosen circle of friends, it was attempting to coerce its users into essentially curating public blogs,” I wrote.

Our “social graph” had been a way of maintaining contact with friends we would otherwise lose touch with, and therefore a source of joy and indeed comfort. But all those privacy changes undermined that, and in the process turned the site into something vaguely threatening, a potential trap that needed to be constantly negotiated, forever just beyond our control.

Snapchat, which is evanescent by design, at least appears to offer a corrective to that anxiety, returning a sense of control, security and privacy to its users.

In that sense it is very intentionally an anti-Facebook, and the decision of founders Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel to reject Zuckerberg’s offer is eminently sensible when seen through that prism.

Ultimately, it’s important to realise that privacy isn’t merely about who has access to our data. It is in fact much more fundamental, and elusive, than that – the level of perceived privacy and control determines the level of our trust in the medium, and that in turn determines the way we communicate with one another on the medium.

It is this way with all our speech and communication – we behave one way in public and another in private; write one way in a work-related email and another way texting a friend; speak one way with our boss and another way with our family. The tonal variations are often subtle and subconscious, on occasions more obvious and determined, but controlling such variations is a fundamental part of what it is to be human.

And this is one reason why we have a never-ending variety of “social” apps – they fulfil different uses, facilitating variations in tone in different social contexts, albeit digital social contexts. Thus, our tone in workplace emails is decidedly different from our tone on Tumblr; the character of our text messages might be different to the character of our tweets; the sort of photos we post to Tumblr might be different than those we post to Instagram, and they are most definitely different to the photos we swap on Snapchat.

I’m sure Zuckerberg is aware of this – he’d need to be a veritable automaton not to. But both his statements regarding the dwindling importance of “privacy” and his actions, such as building an ill-fated Facebook email and buying every new social app that grows fast, suggest that he really thinks that Facebook can achieve a sort of hegemony in digital social communications apps. Zuckerberg’s vision is a world where the only “social” app on our smartphones is the Facebook app.

But that vision disregards our natural inclination to converse in infinitely varying ways using infinitely varying tools. And while that law I just coined is more facetious than fact, it is probably closer to reality than Zuckerberg’s dream of a Facebook-centric digital social universe ever will be.

Exploring Obama’s Victory Lab

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Barack Obama’s re-election has prompted a lot of shock among American conservatives, convinced they were about to get their man back in the White House. In some of the rancorous fallout, Mitt Romney’s ground game software, Project Orca, has come in for some serious criticism – this Ars Technica piece details how poorly it performed. But for anyone who has read Sasha Issenberg’s terrific look at the growing field of microtargeting and data-driven politics, it’s really no surprise that Obama had a massive advantage in getting out his vote, and that Romney failed to make up the difference in just a few months. Here’s an interview I did with Issenberg from a month ago where he reveals how Obama’s team has changed the science of winning elections forever.

 

From The Irish Times, October 11th, 2012

The US presidential election is the world’s most keenly followed political soap opera, and this year’s bout is proving no exception. But beneath the surface of this seemingly conventional campaign a revolution is occurring, shaping the contours of the race in ways that are barely perceptible to outsiders but which is likely to change the nature of electioneering forever.

On both sides of the aisle, armies of statisticians and number crunchers are transforming the art of campaigning into a science. Huge amounts of data is being processed and a wide array of experiments are being undertaken, all with the aim of bringing empirical rigour to a field that has long relied on hunches and intuition. Disciplines as diverse as behavioural psychology, econometrics and data analytics are being combined to more accurately target and influence potential voters. Welcome to the era of data-driven politics.

US journalist Sasha Issenberg has detailed this largely unheralded upheaval in his fascinating new book, The Victory Lab. It is rather snappily being described as Moneyball for politics, and it does share some characteristics with Michael Lewis’s celebrated look at how statistical analysis transformed baseball. However, instead of analysing baseball players, the statisticians and social scientists that Issenberg profiles are analysing both the electorate and electioneering itself, with potentially dramatic results.

“All the interesting moments occur when the rather insular world of thinking about campaigns becomes shaped by interesting thinking and problem-solving from outside campaigns,” says Issenberg over the phone, describing the genesis of the revolution. The Victory Lab sketches the history of such innovations, but pinpoints the George W Bush re-election campaign of 2004 and the groundbreaking Obama campaign of 2008 as watershed moments. “In 2004, it was the Bush world looking to the commercial world both for data and ways of thinking about marketing,” he says, “and 2008 I think the Obama campaign was really shaped by expertise from academia and technology.”

That external expertise naturally took a fresh approach to the traditional problems that every campaign faces. In terms of the fabled “ground game”, the two big issues facing US political campaigns has long been determining who to target, and how. Identifying those voters who can be persuaded to vote for your candidate, and identifying those who are definitely going with your rival, means you can be much more efficient in targeting mail-outs, email blasts and canvassing efforts. And determining what issues in particular will resonate with any given voter can allow you to refine your message to a remarkable degree – an Obama for America fundraising email from last May came in 11 different varieties, each tailored for the individual recipient. How did they decide which voters would receive which mailout?

This is where so-called microtargeting comes in – there is a vast and growing industry in the US that collects data on citizens, culling information from public records, such as voter registration records and gun licence applications, as well as private databases owned by direct mail marketers, magazine publishers, “loyalty-card” operating retail giants and the financial industry, which assiduously tracks credit scores. (This is not to mention the goldmine that is Facebook, which will undoubtedly play an increasingly prominent role in the data-harvesting trade in years to come.) Collating and analysing this data, campaigns can search for patterns and correlations, allowing skilled analysts to extrapolate a frighteningly accurate picture of any given voter’s values, priorities, even their likely level of political engagement. The result is the ability to identify the interests of individual voters and tailor campaign messaging specifically for each one of them.

“At the core of microtargeting, and what the Obama campaign really refined, is looking at the interplay between all these thousands of variables, and using it to arrive at a unique prediction for each voter’s behaviour,” Issenberg explains. “What the Obama campaign did was, through these scores, come to a prediction of your likelihood as a voter of turning out to cast a ballot at all, or of supporting Barack Obama, or holding a particular position on abortion, for instance. By updating those weekly, they were able to have a really molecular interaction with the electorate.”

The effect was largely invisible to those of us following the race between Obama and John McCain, but it was nonetheless tangible. “I quote Ken Strasma, who was Obama’s top microtargeting consultant in 2008, and he said ‘We knew who people were going to vote for before they did,’” says Issenberg. That’s an unimaginably powerful tool for a political campaign.

But the new approach doesn’t end there – the 11 different email variations sent last May were not just tailored for each voter, they were also most likely contributing to an ongoing experiment testing the efficacy of various topics and phrases. After all, what good is it to identify likely or possible voters if you can’t also identify the most effective means of persuading voters, encouraging participation and donations, and boosting turnout among your likely supporters.

“Campaigns now have tools to confidently assess cause and effect through the use of field experiments,” says Issenberg. “Our understanding of what works and what doesn’t used to be reliant almost entirely on who is the best storyteller. Because there is so much going on in a campaign in a given moment that we in the press or the public have trouble understanding what was moving votes. The use of field experiments, which are basically drug trials but which are using voters as guinea pigs, have given campaigns tools to actually measure movement in voters’ opinions and behaviour in the real world.”

To this end, an entire body of research has sprung up to rigorously test and measure the efficacy of different approaches, from robocalls to TV ads to knocking on doors. For instance, it has been demonstrated that a letter thanking someone for voting in the past can boost turnout by more than 2 percentage points; and a knock on the door from a canvasser is far more effective than a call from a phone volunteer.

“When put together the campaigns have far better tools for sorting through the electorate, and knowing whom they should engage and when, and because of experiments, have much better confidence that they know how to engage them in ways that will actually impact their behaviour,” says Issenberg.

How likely is it that these tools and techniques will be applied here? We have much stricter information privacy rules in Europe, preventing much of the data collation that microtargeting relies on. But as one senior Irish political organiser put it to me, we already have a highly accurate and granular understanding of the electorate in this country, and it comes from the tallies from every ballot box in every election – combined with the electoral register and the record of who has voted, these tallies give an invaluable map of the electorate’s voting habits, one that every party in the democratic world “would kill to have”, as the organiser put it. Furthermore, the nature of proportional representation means that Irish parties have to appeal to a much broader spectrum of the electorate in order to attain enough preferences, which renders a lot of the advantages of microtargeting redundant.

But undoubtedly some elements of this approach will catch on here. As Issenberg describes it, the benefits are just too significant to ignore. “These all affect races at the margins – they won’t get people to vote for candidates they don’t like, or think the economy is good if it’s bad or make them change their impressions of a party. But they are things that can make campaigns a lot more efficient about knowing where they should devote their resources, whom they should be trying to persuade and whom they should be trying to mobilise, and have given them a much better understanding in behavioural terms about how you motivate people to vote…All these experiments are things that can get you a boost of one point or two points or three points, but if this race is that close, then those interventions add up.”

It remains to be seen if Obama’s lead in data-driven campaigning will make the difference on November 6th, but his role in transforming the fundamental approach to running an election campaign might end up being his most surprising legacy.

Who invented the iPhone?

So Apple won a sizeable victory against Samsung in the big patent trial of the year/decade/century. Fair play for originality, I think, but still no vindication for the barmy patent system. But as I put it in this recent Irish Times column, “if Samsung could have invented the iPhone, Samsung would have invented the iPhone”….

Why Microsoft is losing the battle and the war

Microsoft have just announced their first ever quarterly loss in their corporate history, losing $492 million, albeit with a $6.2 billion write-down after its ill-fated (read: stupid) purchase of online advertising business aQuantive. That write-down is enough to get an asterisk beside this loss, although Microsoft’s ludicrously misjudged Online Services strategy meant something like this was only a matter…

RIM and Nokia’s grand unravelling

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Facebook floats away…

The reaction to Facebook’s IPO is pretty extraordinary, with coverage akin to a major sporting event. This is what we’ll have to live with, now, this FB ticker watching, an unholy extra element to consider every time there’s another cack-handed redesign or privacy-smashing misstep. I think we’d all do well to ignore the minutia of…

Can magazines go iPad?

This is an illuminating, and rather dispiriting, account of creating iPad versions of print magazines from Jason Pontin, the editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review, whom you’d think would be pioneers of iPad publishing. The reality is a lot more problematic: We fought amongst ourselves, and people left the company. There was untold expense…

Minority Report Syndrome: Picturing the future and making it happen

  My Innovation Talk column from yesterday, about Google’s smart glasses and the mystery of concept videos. “ROSE-TINTED FANTASIES NOT AT ALL BETTER THAN THE REAL THING” From The Irish Times, May 7th, 2012 Last month, Google gave the world their vision of the future, almost literally. Project Glass was unveiled in a stylish concept…

A billion-dollar Easter Monday

Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram has taken everybody by surprise, but a few hour’s of analysis seems to have come to the consensus that it was both obvious and obligatory for Zuckerberg to make his move: Instagram was cornering the mobile photo-sharing game, and it had something else that Facebook doesn’t have any more, though I…