Found in Translation

One of my favorite parts of the open source WordPress software is that written language is so easy to translate. Don’t forget to click the button on the bottom of this page to display these words in the language of your choice.

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Ense petit placidam sub libertate quietem

The above latin words are written on the seal of the Republic of Massachusetts that recently granted my company a certificate of good standing.

The translation means “this hand, an enemy to tyrants, seeks with the sword a quiet peace under liberty.”

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My Tech Stack

People passionate about tools, tend to ask what tools an expert uses. Here are some of my favorite current tools:

*Edit Oct 2021:

Synology NAS replaces Cloud Services, Web Server, VPN, File Sharing, and even DNS registration. WOW!

———–

Keychain Based Password Manager

Siteground hosted web server

WordPress for Publishing and Ecommerce

DNS registrations via NameSilo

TextWrangler for code edits

Cloud Services from Box, Google, and iCloud

Apple hardware

Proton VPN

Sharing my tech stack reminds me of a saying that “loose lips sink ships”. This saying applies to zero-sum games. In collaborative games where the participants success does not take from the success of others, the objective, rather than secrecy, is learning. *Possibly from Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games.

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Privacy Evangelism 2.0

Here is an exchange many of us can relate to either because of tax forms, or employment forms.

This is a text message exchange about a website that we both use to securely maintain records of employment, and payroll, and tax fillings. Employees are supposed to be able to access their own records, and exchanging and securing data like employment and taxes, is what I meant when I was discussing privacy and information security being an important future opportunity for the internet.

Imagine the data was either your data, or another entity, or another entity, and that your data property copies always existed on YOUR own server, instead of within walled garden belonging to a gatekeeper. Imagine if you could initiate permission and revocation, with the technology able to revoke access to your data when your contract expired? Inside the document, for example, your SS number visibility only existed within the context of the predefined contract to share it.

Tim Berners Lee is credited with creating the world wide web. By mapping 3rd party lists of name servers to file exchange protocols and architectural presentation standards, we see web pages like this, pulled from a computer not our own. He created a new privacy-focus project to roll out this internet architecture, calling it Solid, relating to the words social linked data.

Solid is a set of open specifications, built on existing open standards, that describes how to build applications so that users can conveniently switch between data storage providers and application providers and take the data generated along.

Here is an article about the project in TIME relating it to healthcare

Here is the main project page.

Here is an example Solid server you can run on your own server.

Here are some interesting videos about the Solid project and the need for internet privacy.

Here is a company building commercial applications for Solid

Solid is not the project that offered me a job, instead the project that I spoke with seems much earlier on in its commercial development cycle. It does seem actually farther ahead in the intellectual assumptions about the nature of what constitutes privacy however.

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Toll Roads

One of the first principles in economics is that incentives matter.

When most people think of incentives, they usually think of the price of a product or service. However there are many other incentives. One is time. For example, the first ever economics joke is that there is no free such thing as ‘free lunch.’ Meaning that even if someone wanted to give away free lunch, for example out of altruism, that it would be impossible because it would quickly attract a line. In fact even for the first person who might avoid the line, there would be the risk that the food would make you sick, or was given away for free because it didn’t taste very good.

There are many other incentives as well. One of them is related to pollution. All things equal, people avoid pollution, and prefer clean air and water. Especially parents of young children. Did you know that one of the biggest risk factors for autism is growing up near a major road?

Today I am reminded of a really clever incentive called a highway toll. This is something that gets economists really excited because it actually solves a lot of problems all at the same time.

The first incentive is that it encourages someone to build the road. This is pretty obvious. However urban planners also know that a road ends up flattening the transportation gradient, making it quicker to escape the city, and quickly encourages the city to flatten, aka spread out. So the toll helps solve this problem, because generally speaking dense cities are preferable to really spread out ones for a number of reasons. Another problem that a toll solves is that it lets people travel on a road without a lot of traffic. Meaning, the people who choose to use a road get more utility from the road because it isn’t so congested.

I am currently driving through Turkey and learned about the E87 highway project. One of Erdogan’s big investments in Turkey was this toll road. The pricing on it makes it a very tricky choice for most economic investors. However, I am really happy to see that economists have a big influence over Turkey’s urban and regional planning efforts.

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Testing

I am checking to see if I can share photos with you securely from my Google Drive account. I seem to have it set up but am still waiting for the image files to sync.

This is exciting because Google sells cheap storage and I would love to share files directly from their servers rather than move them or duplicate them on my own web server.

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Sundowners

One of my favorite parts of the Florida snowbird culture was something I learned from my mother. The tradition in Southwest Florida was to celebrate a sunset with a toast with your mates and your beverage of choice, and to clap after the sun completed its descent for the day. I do my best to share this culture where I find myself watching a sunset, especial one over the sea. Here I am in Kas, Turkey, amongst the olive trees and sheep, right along the water, celebrating the end of a beautiful day with my in-laws!

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Privacy Evangelism

I believe that privacy, and by extension, information security, is the most valuable part of the internet in 2021 and onward. Most people and companies who use the internet have little to no private ownership of their data. And they typically have tenuous security once they do decide to share data with others. Why? Because unrestricted access to data about you is so valuable to advertisers, that it pays for a massive array of supposedly ‘free’ services. In much of the world, the internet is free or highly subsidized if you limit yourself to using only Facebook. In those same markets, the per gb data broadcast fees are astronomically high outside of that gated ecosystem.

Organizations that sell data can’t simultaneously sell privacy, because it would be a conflict of interest economic interest. Shoshana Zuboff at Harvard compares asking Facebook and Google to offer privacy as analogous as asking Henry Ford to produce cars by hand. Jaron Lanier, explains in the movie “The Social Dilemma (featured on Netflix), that there is only one product advertisers pay for, and that is to change your behaviors. The data about each person is what allows the companies to change our behavior so effectively, and this valuable feedback loop reinvests in the companies’s infrastructure to extend a lack of privacy.

Obviously, many advertising financed or algorithmic inspired changes in behavior are purely good, such as an unknown musician paying to promote her album that will appeal to a new, larger audience. But by extension, this exact same mechanism can have nefarious purposes as well, such as driving division between neighbors, sponsored by geopolitical actors or purposes, according to political analyst Peter Zeihan. Drug dealers and social media companies are the only two industries that refer to their customers as users, and this semantic choice is part of a systematic process to dehumanize the economic relationship.

So, if privacy is so valuable, what am I, Gerald, doing about it? After all, where there is an inflection point, there is massive economic opportunity for those who build a better widget. Well, I have exiting news to share. Yesterday an engineering organization (that for now will remain private) offered me a job, and a blank check on my title. They have been looking for an entrepreneur to help them build their secure, private, internet infrastructure.

Why did I earn this job offer as a somewhat obscure artist and entrepreneur? Because despite my lack of actual cryptography credentials, I have the empathetic experience of running a business, the economic experience of creating a new market, and I’m enough of an engineer to speak about the confluence of cryptography, economics, and humane business models to potential customers of privacy and security. For example, I created a new market in the natural stone industry, despite the industry already existing for thousands of years. Likewise I will create new markets in the privacy world despite an entrenched and powerful infrastructure devoted to monetizing your lack of privacy. As someone born in the early 1980s, I came of age with the internet and so its evolution is part of my own DNA now.

The internet was originally an American military invention driven by the legitimate fear of nuclear war destroying our otherwise top-down military communications. Ultimately the technology made the leap to the private sector, because of the obvious social benefits. And while I was a young boy, my father wrote a book called The Business Internet in 1994, predicting that the internet would eventually become a globally significant set of technologies for commerce.

Therefore the internet is decentralized and functions without a government, and therefore by nature has no privacy or built in security. There is now even a portion of the internet called the dark web that functions completely via p2p nodes without any organizational oversight or individual accountability. This is because the internet is simply a computer system architectural standards that allow computers / or devices to communicate with each other, regardless of geography. It’s architecture won’t or can’t change, but there is an opportunity to build a secure layer for those who do want privacy and security and the same tools we already think of regarding the internet.

Behind each device and data is ultimately a person. If this person wants actual privacy for themselves and their accumulated data, and secure ways to share data with others, they need to think about the internet from the ground up.

If you are like most people I know, you probably have a feeling that you like privacy, and don’t want Facebook spying on you and selling your personal data. Even if you like the idea of Facebook showing you certain target ads, such as for an upcoming musician, you want tight, accountable control. For example, if you go to a pharmacy and buy a pregnancy test, you would likely find it creepy and an invasion of your privacy to start seeing ads for baby clothes when you surfed the web the next day.

Or, maybe you are already a cypherpunk and you love decentralized money like Bitcoin, and the smart contracts that block chains enable. But you also want tight security so that your digital savings aren’t hacked and doesn’t disappear into the literal ether. Unless you are at the top of the engineering food chain, there is a shark looking to eat you for dinner. So how do you swim in this ocean securely, as part of a school of benevolent fish?

The question now, is what technology architecture offers both privacy when you connect on social media, and security when you start exchanging money over decentralized blockchains?

Before I can answer that question, I have a more fundamental question for you to ask yourself. Are you willing to be accountable for your actions?

For example, if you are a contract killer, sell illegal drugs, or want to destabilize a a foreign or your own government for profit, then the architecture I would propose is not going to appeal to you. That is because you would obviously want to hide your identity online, because there are lots of laws about murder, theft, and terrorism.

However, if you are someone who sold Bitcoin for a profit and happily paid your taxes, that means you are fundamentally willing to be accountable for your actions.

It is possible to keep your Bitcoin transactions secure and social media private from advertisers, but a truly secure architecture also means that if you break certain rules specific to those systems, ie tax avoidance, or you try to hire a hit man on Facebook, then you will also be accountable for violating those rules. In fact, the more secure the system architecture, the more likely you will be accountable for bad behavior. The flip side, is that the other people around you will be held to account as well. Is that a deal you would take?

Vice versa, if Facebook breaks your privacy or your Bitcoin exchange gets hacked, you won’t even necessarily know that happened right away. And because those systems Terms of Service never promised you privacy or security, you would have no authority to hold accountable for either breach of trust. So new systems of cryptography applied to the internet will hold both you accountable and your organizations accountable to you.

What is ironic about currently non-private internet architecture today, is that it is so different from probably THE most exciting technology many of us already use regularly. The car! When you drive on public roads, your identity is private until there is a reason for a third party to securely procure your identity. Only very rarely, such as in sparsely populated areas, are there events called a hit and run accident. And even then, usually there are clues that hold the offender to account. For example, when you go through a toll booth, the government gets your identity either from a transponder or a license plate, and you pay the toll that justified building the road. Or if you get in an accident, only then do you exchange your registration or your license plate with the other driver. But for the most part, you drive around with a plate visible to everyone, and there is no breach of your privacy. Cryptography is the science of how these systems operate.

However on the modern internet, the hit and run attacks are widespread. What I will be building and sharing, should the team and the role be a good fit for all parties, will be a set of standards for people who want to be accountable, to do so safely, without fear of hit and run attacks. Wish me luck!

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Searching for Answers

Search engines return a set of results to a query. However, some search engines track their users, allowing the technology to customize the results sent to a particular user. Different users can/do get different results. That might seem nice at first glance, but there is problem with that approach from a technical standpoint of learning.

Remember, you are using a search engine to find something. Therefore, you want the truth, and nothing but the truth. By definition, customized results means you don’t really know if the results you are getting are the same as everyone else who uses the same tool for the same query. And over time, you couldn’t compare one query to other queries, and slowly compile a consistent map of your known universe.

Therefore a number of years ago, I switched to a search engine called DuckDuckGo. I did this because the service offers privacy without tracking. Early on, I occasionally had to supplement the results (I suspect the tech was powered by Bing) with a Google search to find something particularly esoteric.

However I liked this tradeoff because I knew that all my answers were treated the same, and therefore DuckDuckGo was getting me closer to the truth than an inconsistent input-output system.

Some people see data storage as an invasion of privacy. Others, like me, actually like the idea that I can someday look back on a lifetime of searches to re-examine and remember my life. However, I do want to control my data and control who gets it. Luckily, I can still do this on the browser side of the equation.

Lastly, if you are like me and believe that the world is generally good, private is not always better than open. For example, certain systems are like nets and they help the right fishermen find the right fish. By sharing openly, we make it easier to be found and emerge as a big fish in our chosen body of water.

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Don’t think, Do the Economics

There was a news article about an uptick in violence in a community in South Florida.

“There’s been an uptick in violence and most of it we know what’s going on, it’s poverty.  It’s economics,” said Daniella Pierre, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP. “They have failed to address the economic wellbeing of the black community.”

Ted Scouten

It reminds me of my college economics professor, Prof Yezer, who loved the quote, “Don’t think, do the economics.” His point was that the mathematics system wasn’t an intuitive, emotional system.

Now, what I recognize in the world today is that there is a surprising lack of actual economics shared in everyday life. For example, at one point in time in America, doctors typically earned less than tradespeople, and that taxes were once only levied on international trade, not on citizens’ hourly work.

As devastating as it is for Ms. Pierre to witness the violence in her community, I agree that economics can be part of the solution.

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