Computers Are Not Problem Solvers- Computers Are the Problem We Must Solve.

The New Checkout Cashier That Doesn’t Care If You Starve

There is an effort to use a simple AI at the office where I work. Some slick salespeople sold the building 2 cutting edge, top-of-the-line, automated checkout machines. These machines have a camera that stares at a designated check-out square. People simply select the items they wish to purchase and place it in the designated area. The camera recognizes the items, registers the purchases, and the person then swipes their card and completes the purchase process. However, the camera sometimes does not recognize the item- and there’ s no other method for buying the item when this happens. I leave my snack or drink by the incredibly expensive and completely useless machine. Betrayed by technology and the salespeople who sold the devices to the facilities management, I walk back to my desk in anger and disgust.

It’s a simple story, but an increasingly common one: we start to rely on technology, and when it fails, we just hit a wall. It’s not clear to me what advantages the camera offers over a scanner (which is used elsewhere in the same cafeteria for self-checkout). This kind of story will be more common as more people rely on smart homes, smart fridges, smart dishwashers, smart alarm clocks, etc. The “smartness” behind each of these is rudimentary AI- recognizing patterns and sometimes making simple predictions. The hope is that the technology will understand its role and take a more proactive approach to helping humans.

However, the technology doesn’t understand its role, and it really doesn’t care about helping humans. When AI encounters an error, it doesn’t go into “customer service mode” and try to help the human achieve its goal. It doesn’t try to resolve the problem or work around it. It just reports that there was an error. If a retail employee did this, it would be the equivalent of being told “I can’t ring up this item,” and then the employee just walks off to the break room. Most people wouldn’t return to a store that had that level of customer service. People born before 1965 would probably even complain to the manager or local community newspaper.

These problems can be resolved, but the fixes are rarely designed into the technology at release. I’ve had this problem with the checkout machines at work about 7 times over 7 months (I don’t even try to use them more than about once a week)- I am aware of no effort to improve the situation. Because the designers probably never use the machines, there’s a good chance no one in a position to fix the problem is aware of the problem.

More Dangerous Places to Put AI: Cars and Financial Markets

The fundamental problems for AI are annoying and disappointing when they deny us snacks or try to sell us shoes that we already bought. But these problems are amplified from “annoying” to “tragic” and “disappointing” to “catastrophic” when they manifest in vehicles and financial markets. If our AI checkout machine doesn’t care if people can purchase food, what else are we failing to get AI to care about in other applications?

AI is the newest technology, which means it is subject to all of the failures of previous technology (power outage, code errors, physical tech break) and also the new failures of technology (AI-specific problems that sometimes actively resist resolution).

None of this is anti-technology- on the contrary, I think AI is a fantastic development that should be used in many applications. But that doesn’t make it a great (or even acceptable) tool for every application. A warning that hammers should not be used to put screws through windows is not a diatribe against hammers, screws, or windows. It’s just a caution that those things may not mix in a way that will yield optimal results.


Regulating The Internet? Not the Tubes Themselves…

If Net Neutrality is an argument about economics (and federal administrative law), Content Regulation is an argument about ethics and culture.

Net Neutrality is becoming an old hobby horse for a lot of people. It gets a lot more attention than most telecommunications policy issues. Even though questions about copper wire lines vs fiber optic cables actually affects more people, the internet is generally united by the fact of its own existence.  This is about regulation at the highest level, determining the equality and/or equity of access to content. No one online is indifferent to the internet—the only debate about net neutrality is which policies are best for the consumer and the telecommunications marketplace (or, in the United States, “telecommunications marketplace”).

But there is another layer of regulation that is quickly gaining attention. If Net Neutrality is about the form of the internet (its structure and broad organization), there is a growing need to consider questions about the regulation of the content of the internet. Over the years, the internet has been a vector for some amazingly good and amazingly bad actions by humans. The differences in the kind of regulatory concept at play are hard to understate. Rather than comparing it to different video games, I would compare it to the difference between a video game and a tabletop game.

1) I’ve always been fascinated by the dawn of the computer age. My childhood was the tail-end of a world in which homes did not have internet access. By the start of law school, everyone looked up famous cases and Latin phrases on Wikipedia during class (except for the people who did the reading the night before- they looked it up before class). I’ve often compared the early days of the internet to a kind of Wild West setting: a lawless frontier where fundamental questions about the mold of civilization were not yet settled. I thought most of those questions would be settled by 2015. We are not close to a consensus on rules. Indeed, we are still testing what types of rules are feasible or desirable.

Video games are literally made of rules: the computer code that constitutes the game itself. Tabletop games are made of… usually cardboard, or some kind of paper. (Occasionally, they have some plastic – or even metal if you got the collector’s edition.) This may sound like a silly or vacuous distinction, but it has important ramifications for the kinds of problems that can happen in a game, and the kinds of solutions that will (or won’t) be effective.

2) Lawlessness can lead to problems. This was probably not known until 2 decades of unfettered internet, but now we know. Free to do anything, people have tried very hard to do everything. Every app, platform, hosting site, game, or program online that gets big enough eventually starts to experience just about every problem type that humans can present. From intellectual property disputes to death threats, from fraud to manslaughter, the internet has been a way for people to discover criminal behaviors that past generations could never have the opportunity to access. The unethical choices of both multi-national companies and village simpletons are available for repeated viewing.

In a video game, the code can sometimes glitch and create problems for players. The code can also execute perfectly, but there may be complaints about the design of the game itself (a level being too difficult or some power or tactic being of an unsuitable level of power). With some difficulty, players can cheat by actually breaking the code, but more games can detect this (and especially so in professional e-sports settings). In a tabletop game, anyone can cheat, the rules may be wrongly applied (or not applied at all), and all manner of chaos can ensue. DDoSing an opponent during a game might be a little bit akin to literally flipping a table during a game of Monopoly or checkers,

3)  YouTube’s takedown system is already an example of an effort to regulate content, and it already shows some of the challenges with instituting a content regulation system: people will find ways to game that system. Any system of regulation will have two negative outcomes: it will penalize the innocent, and it will be dodged by the guilty. The most you can hope for is that it will protect most of the innocent and it will penalize most of the guilty. The US justice system, even when working as intended, will sometimes produce undesirable results: a guilty person will go free, and an innocent person will go to prison. The hope is that this happens very infrequently.

The most common reaction to bad behavior online has been for authoritative parties to do nothing. The most common reaction by authoritative parties to actually do something has been to ban the bad actor. The most common reaction to this ban is to come back with a different username or account.

In video games, cheaters are often banned (if they are making the game worse for other players). But in table top games, people who ruin the game are just not invited back. No one will play with them anymore. People might hang out with someone less if they behaved in a wildly unacceptable way during a casual weekend game of Risk or Werewolf. In a video game, bad behavior has very limited consequences. In a tabletop game, bad behavior can have lots of meaningful implications.


4) What would it look like to regular content? Getting it wrong is easy — which is the primary reason that’s what’s going to continue to happen. Whether trying to penalize criminals or regulate behavior online, creating a fair and ethical system that consistently produces more good results than bad ones is difficult. One problem is that incentives are at odds: most platforms want to turn a profit, and if bad behavior yields a net gain, the platform needs a solution that will actually make more money than the current bad behavior (plus the cost of implementing the remedy). Another problem is that platforms tend to think of regulating their content the way that most Americans think about regulations: an appointed governing authority (or combination of authorities).



You can’t make people be good, but you can keep deleting all of their manifestations of their behavior on the internet: You can suspend or ban accounts, and eventually IP addresses. You can automatically censor strings of characters, and continually update the list of banned strings. These will continue to be the solutions offered, and they will continue to mostly fail while they almost half-succeed.

Over a decade ago, Lawerence Lessig asserted that laws are of four types: market, cultural, legal, and architectural. It turns out that enforcing the legal type of law in a digital space is very difficult. But cultural norms practically enforce themselves. And architectural laws are always already enforced. Market rules can be fickle, but persuasive. A lot of efforts to regulate content will fail because they will hinge on the concepts of legal enforcement.

The lack of rules and regulations is what made the internet a place where amazing things could happen. Without rules to stop imagination and creativity, people created art, solved problems, built positive communities, and enriched themselves and each other. In that same landscape: without rules to stop hate and anger, people created harassment and bullying, invaded privacy, ruined lives, occasionally killed people, and destroyed a lot of good in the world. Lawless frontiers are the best opportunity for the most beautiful, important, and inspiring expressions of humanity. They are also the best opportunities for the most despicable, dangerous, and damaging expressions of humanity. What the internet becomes will be decided—has always been decided—by what people bring to it.

Horizon: The Dawn of Zero Privacy?

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a problem because I don’t know which game I have to slide out of my top 5 in order to fit it into that list. (It might be have to replace “Child of Light,” which pains me, but replacing any would pain me… maybe “Outlaws” will move to #6 …) It’s an incredible game in its own right, with beautiful artwork, well-written characters, and genuinely fun gameplay. I find its story especially fascinating—and particularly relevant as we grapple with a framework for governing and living in an age of digital information and interconnected devices. Though its central technological focus is on Artificial Intelligence and the future of humanity, it touches a multitude of topics- including data privacy.

Although Judge Richard Posner famously decried privacy as a way for bad people get away with bad things, privacy is important for personal development and free association. Privacy is essential to our culture, and it is only valuable inasmuch as it is protected and reliable. Our expectations of privacy follow us into our digital extensions. However, one of the best methods of securing privacy is impractical in the face of consumer demands for interconnection and convenience.

I. Can We Have Privacy by Design When We Demand Designs that Compromise our Privacy?

The Federal Trade Commission’s favored method for protecting Privacy is “Privacy By Design.” In simple terms, this often means designing a product to rely as little on privacy as possible. After all, if no data is collected, there is no data to steal. However, there are serious questions about the feasibility of this approach in the face of consumer expectations for interconnected devices.

Privacy by Design is a much better idea than the sophomoric idea of increasing security measures. Designing a house not to be broken into is better than trying to just put a good lock on the front door. To put it another way: Think of it as building a dam without holes rather than trying to plug all of the holes after you finish building.

I’ve heard tech entrepreneurs talk about “The Internet of Things” at conferences for many years, now. They talk about it like it’s a product currently in development and there’s an upcoming product launch date that we should be excited about- like we can line up for outside of a retail store hours before the doors open so we can be the first to get some new tech device. This is not how our beloved internet was created. Massive networks are created piece by piece- one node at a time, one connection at a time. The Internet of Things isn’t a tech product that will abruptly launch in Q3 of 2019. It’s a web of FitBits, geolocated social media posts, hashtags, metadata, smart houses, Alexas and Siris, searches, click-throughs, check-ins, etc. The “Internet of Things” is really just the result of increasingly tech-savvy consumers living their lives while making use of connected devices.

That’s not to diminish its significance or the challenges it poses. Rather, this highlights that this “Coming Soon” feature is really already here, growing organically. Given that our society is already growing this vast network of data, Privacy by Design seems like an impossible and futile task. The products and functions that consumers demand all require some collection, storage, or use of data: location, history, log-in information- all for a quick, convenient, personalized experience. One solution is for consumers to choose between optimizing convenience and optimizing privacy.

II. A Focus on Connected Devices

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a story deliberately situated at the boundary of the natural world (plants, water, rocks, trees, flesh and blood) and the artificial world (processed metals, digital information, robotics, cybernetics). As a child, Aloy falls into a cavern and finds a piece of ancient (21st century) technology. A small triangle that clips over the ear, this “Focus” is essentially a smart phone with Augmented Reality projection (sort of… JawBone meets GoogleGlass and Microsoft Hololens). This device helps to advance the plot, often by connecting with ancient records that establish the history of Aloy’s world (it even helps with combat and stealth!).

It’s also a privacy nightmare. The primary antagonist first sees Aloy -without her knowledge- through another character’s Focus. Aloy’s own Focus is hacked several times during the game. A key ally even reveals that he hacked Aloy’s Focus when she was a child and watched her life unfold as she grew up. (This ultimately serves the story as a way for the Sage archetype to have a sort of omniscience about the protagonist.) For a girl who grew up as an outcast from her tribe, living a near-solitary life in a cabin on a mountain, with the only electronic device in a hundred miles, she manages to run into a lot of privacy breaches. I can’t imagine if she tried to take an Uber from one village to the next.

Our interconnected devices accumulate deeply astonishing volumes of data- sometimes, very personalized data gets captured. In a case heard by the Supreme Court this month, a man in Ohio has his location determined by his cell phone provider. The police obtained this information and used it as part of his arrest and subsequent prosecution. The Supreme Court recently heard a case about the use of warrants for law enforcement to access cell phone data. (This is different from the famous stalemate between the FBI and Apple after the San Bernadino shooting, when Apple refused an order to unlock the iPhone of a deceased criminal.)  As connected devices become omnipresent, questions about data privacy and information security permeate very nearly every side of every facet of our daily lives. We don’t face questions about data the way that one “faces” a wall; we face these questions the way that a fish “faces” water.

From cell phone manufacturers to social media platforms, the government confronts technology and business in a debate about the security mechanisms that should be required (or prohibited) to protect consumers from criminals in myriad contexts and scenarios. In this debate, the right answer to one scenario is often the wrong answer for the next scenario.

Conclusion: Maybe We Don’t Understand Privacy In a New Way, Yet

The current cycle of consumer demand for risky designs followed by data breaches is not sustainable. Something will have to shift for Privacy in the 21st century. Maybe we will rethink some part of the concept privacy. Maybe we will sacrifice some of the convenience of the digital era to retain privacy. Maybe we will try to rely more heavily on security measures after a breakthrough in computing and/or cryptography. Maybe we will find ways to integrate the ancient privacy methods of the 20th century into our future.


Elon Musk’s Open AI beats Pro DOTA Players

It’s not surprising that bots like Open AI can beat human players– it’s not like a computer program is going to misclick. Computers do really well at playing defined games and accomplishing carefully specified tasks. Computers don’t do well at having emotional states, or handling logical contradictions (hypocrisy, cognitive dissonance).

1) Computers don’t have desires. They might have a desire for self-preservation, but it isn’t clear that they would. If an AI had a preference for self-preservation, it would only be as a means to achieving the end of its programmed goals. (A pancake-serving robot would only want to remain alive in order to keep serving pancakes.) The lack of preferences and desires is the central emotional difference between humans and robots.

2) Computers work very well in clearly defined systems. They’re excellent at playing games like chess, go, and DOTA. They probably wouldn’t do well at “shooting hoops” or “ring around the rosie,” where the purpose of the game is to “just chill out” or “have fun and be happy.”  They might eventually get to the point where they can solve problems by thinking “outside the box,” but the biggest concern with AI is that the first few attempts at “thinking outside the box” will result in disaster, because the computer may do tremendous damage in the course of achieving a simple goal.

I don’t fear a robot uprising because I don’t expect robots to want to rise up. That is an incredibly animal –and especially human—desire: to seek to overthrow power and become powerful. I don’t think that robots will arrive at a sense of justice or self-respect of their own accord. (Though it would be very interesting if they did, I do not find any convincing argument that this would happen.)

The biggest concern isn’t a sentient, self-aware, self-repairing, self-replicating robot that inflicts retribution upon humanity for their collective sins. The much more realistic problem with AI is the likelihood of the kinds of problems we experience all the time with computers, just compounded to more dangerous scenarios (e.g., someone will die because the robot operating on them had a glitch or a system crash).

Infringed Ink and Printing Copies of Cases: How Lexmark Collected Intellectual Property Lawsuits like Joker in Persona 5.

It’s fitting that printer ink turned out to be the subject for the series of lawsuits that took on all three of the major areas of intellectual property. Printers are the bridge between the physical and digital worlds, in a way. They are the symbol, and the means, of the transition between digital and paper documents.

Lexmark’s intellectual property litigation legacy is about the different ways that a variety of laws have different connections and offer different perspectives.  Persona 5 is about seeing the world through a variety of perspectives, and understanding different connections and perspectives that people have. Persona 5 is about complex stories that interconnect and overlap, with multiple layers and facets. That complexity and inter-connection has a similar feel to the complex and layered Lexmark litigation saga.

I. The Many Masks of Intellectual Property

In Persona 5, different “personas” (represented by masks) allow characters to perform different types of attacks. Different attack types will be particularly strong or weak against different enemies. This means that a big part of the game’s tactics is about determining which persona to use in different situations.


Probably the one most people mean when they think of intellectual property, especially related to art or entertainment. Traditionally, this area of IP law was focused on books, music, film, and other art. However, due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), the law also touches slightly on questions of tampering with proprietary devices to modify them (or to modify their functionality).


I see this used interchangeably with “copyright” a lot, but think of it like this: Copyright protects the painting, trademark is the law about the artist’s signature in the corner of the painting. It’s the law that comes most into play when people are talking about counterfeit goods or brand recognition.


This is what most people mean when they think of intellectual property in most business and financial dealings, and especially in the context of science or engineering. Patents are about owning the right to make and sell a certain kind of thing, from cell phones to medicine.

Trade Secret

Like the healing abilities in Persona 5, trade secrets aren’t used often or even mentioned often, but they can fit some situations just perfectly. The other three kinds of IP law require you to make something public- filing a patent with the Patent Office, or registering a copyright (though you actually only need create a work to have a copyright in it, as of the 1976 re-write of the law), or using a trademark in commerce.  Trade secrets go the opposite way: if you take certain steps to NOT let the public know about something that makes your business work, you can claim a right to protect it.

II. Lexmark Litigation (Backstory)

Lexmark makes printers, but has a lucrative racket with recycling their ink cartridges. Well, had, maybe. Because Americans don’t like feeling taken advantage of, and because American Millennials don’t like a lack of choices, other companies sought to offer competing solutions to Lexmark’s ink cartridge restrictions.

In Persona 5, players collect new personas as they progress through the game. Lexmark litigation managed to collect different areas of intellectual property law as they fought over the issue of other companies coming up with ways to interfere with their ink cartridge schemes. What I find really amazing about this 13 year sprawl of litigation is that none of the involvement of IP law is predicable or very expected. Each application of law is noticeably distant from the original ideas and central, foundational, purposes of these laws.

How did Copyright law get involved?

Mostly through the parts of the DMCA that restrict tampering with controls placed on a device to inhibit 3rd party interactions (e.g., Section 1201). But in 2004, the Sixth Circuit (that most difficult of all circuits to pronounce) issued a ruling that called into question whether “lock-out codes” were actually subject to copyright protection, as they are not a form of creative expression. We might have gotten a more authoritative ruling on this topic, but Lexmark missed the deadline to request an en banc hearing at the Circuit level.

How did Trademark law get involved?

Through an argument about whether someone could sue Lexmark under the Lanham Act (the actual federal statute that contains most of trademark law). To actually take someone to court, you have to meet a few basic standards: you have to have an actual claim recognized by a law, for example. One standard for having a trial is that the person suing has to have “standing”: they have to have the legal right to bring a claim. Many laws will include a more specific definition of what “standing” will mean for that law.

In 2012, Static Control Inc. tried to sue Lexmark under some federal business-type laws (the Sherman Act and the Clayton Act), but those laws didn’t actually grant standing to Static Control, which meant they weren’t allowed to actually bring Lexmark to court. Then they tried to sue under the Lanham Act, because the rules for standing are different under that law. The Sixth Circuit granted Static Controls the right to a trial under the Lanham Act. Lexmark took the issue to the Supreme Court, who agreed with the Sixth Circuit’s choice to have a trial.

How did Patent law get involved?

The obvious way for patent law to be in a case brought by a printer company is for the case to be about two printer manufacturers arguing over whether one copied the others’ technology. That is not at all how patent law got used by Lexmark. Instead, the patent law question was about patent exhaustion.

This tiny area of patent law is like the “first sale” doctrine in copyrights. The idea for both is the same: once the end-customer buys the product, the manufacturer’s patent is “exhausted.” Under this law, a customer can do whatever they want with the thing they bought (except make new ones and sell those- that part of the patent still applies). This year, Lexmark brought a case to the Supreme Court on this point of law, hoping to stop a different company that was interfering with the ink cartridges. The third time was not the proverbial charm for Lexmark; the Supreme Court held that consumers do have some rights with regard to the re-use of their own purchased property.

III. Conclusion

My favourite thing about the Lexmark litigation is that it isn’t just about the substance of intellectual property law; it’s about how intellectual property law is administered. The trademark issue wasn’t really a trademark issue– it was an issue about who can sue under trademark law. The copyright issue wasn’t really about the copyrights of art or books or movies — it was about whether someone can unlock your digital locks. The patent issue was barely about patents– it was really about whether a patent still applies after a customer buys the product.

I’m excited by this because it’s a sign that intellectual property law is becoming more and more relevant to American life. More details of the administration and applicability and extent of laws have to be established as laws are interacted with more often. Decades ago, intellectual property was a small area of law that only affected a few sectors of a few industries in any meaningful way. Now it affects how we use our cell phones, ingest our entertainment, and even harvest our crops. As this area of law grows in response to innovation and technology, it has the potential to encourage further innovation and advancements, as well as to steer the growth of those new ideas. We are living at a time where we are moving toward either technological salvation or technological armageddon.




What the Internet of Things can Learn from “The Order 1886”

Great (Sounding, Looking) Potential

The Order 1886 has great quality graphics, but is a poor quality game. Just because the technology involved is cutting edge doesn’t mean the final product is good. The internet of things relies on some cutting edge technology and novel ideas, but that doesn’t mean the final product is always favorable.

I’ve been hearing about the “Internet of Things” for several years now. Middle-aged entrepreneurs are just sure that this “the next big thing,” except it’s going to be bigger than the car or the light bulb. From what I’ve seen, IoT is a glossy, shiny, pretty gimmick that hasn’t shown it’s poised to really solve problems that consumers feel they have. So far, we don’t think a fridge that buys eggs for us is really what’s missing in our lives.

Having sophisticated technology isn’t the same as having a great (or even marketable) tech product. In the same way, having glossy graphics isn’t the same as having a good (or even marketable) game. Both IoT and Order 1886 are impressive at a glance, but fail to live up to expectations as one spends more time with them.

Burger King Sets Itself Up For Trolling

The broad IoT idea continues to reveal vulnerabilities and half-thought-out applications. A few months ago, Burger King aired an ad in which the actor in the commercial asked the viewer’s smart phones to read the first paragraph of the Wikipedia page about Burger King’s flagship product, The Whopper. The completely predictable result was that people started vandalizing the Wikipedia page in question, leading the ad to tell people that The Whopper contained humans and cyanide.

There’s a lot I could go into about this example, especially about troll behavior and the weaknesses of IoT’s reliance on unsecure nodes. I want to highlight that the problem wasn’t about hacking into Burger King or Android systems. There are some concerns with IoT and that sort of hacking, but there’s another problem: Entrepreneurs rely on the web without knowing what 4Chan is or having have never been verbally abused by a stranger for the length of an entire League of Legends match. That is a mistake.

This example also illustrates why IoT hasn’t gotten traction: It’s still a gimmick that breaks often. Even when it works at its best, IoT is a fun and surprising answer to a question no one asked. The best case for Burger King’s commercial is that they surprise a few consumers, but also stir fears about privacy and security in doing so. The success of IoT still hangs on the uncomfortable reality of diminishing personal privacy, and many consumers haven’t completely reconciled leaving the past with entering the future.

The Order 1886 Fails as a Game, IoT Still Fails as a Tech Product

One of the reasons people were so angry about The Order 1886 is that the trailers looked so good. People bought into the promise and the hype, and then it failed to deliver in meaningful ways. Similarly, the more glossy the presentations about IoT get, the more consumers will feel the gap when they don’t experience a meaningful impact as a result of using it.

It’s the applications that go on top of the tech that really matter. Platforms and apps that balance consumer’s emotions about privacy and security will be the only thing that can really bring about the kind of pervasive, omnipresent IoT about which I keep hearing (excited and vague) presentations.

Things that look really good but don’t do anything are called art. Things that do something useful are called products. Usefulness is not the sole factor in a product’s quality or its marketability, but it is important- especially if it wants to be more than a fad or gimmick that ends up with a discount sticker in the bargain bin.

Blocks and Chains: Secure, Stable, and Not Flexible

Lynes with Rules: How Blockchain Works

Lyne is a minimalist puzzle game in which you must connect a sequence of shapes with a single, contiguous line. Certain rules govern what lines may do, (e.g., only triangles on this line), and where lines may go (e.g., lines may not intersect or pass through one another), with increasingly elaborate additions and variations on these rules as the game progresses and difficulty increases. This general concept of a line that “knows” which nodes it already has connected and which nodes are permissible is a good introductory way to think about blockchain technology.

Blockchain is the data structure used by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, like Dash. The general idea is a bit like the game Lyne: the line is like the ledger of transactions, and the nodes are customers and their transactions. Everyone who wants to be on the line can look back to make sure the line has obeyed the rules and there are no mistakes or problems with the other nodes on the line. Just as in the game Lyne, the line will not allow a square to get on a triangle-only line, blockchain will not allow an improper transaction.

Blockchain touts two distinct features: 1) an open (“public”) ledger (prevents bad checks and double-spending), and 2) a distributed database (prevents tampering with the ledger). The effect is a secure and trustworthy system for conducting and recording transactions. As with all advances in technology, it is important to consider what is lost in the past by the adoption of the new.


Let it Float, Hope It Doesn’t Bounce: How Check Kiting Works

In the time of The Great Before, when humans stumbled about blindly beneath incandescent bulbs and smeared ink on slices of dead trees, there was a method of financial transaction called “writing a check,” which one did from one’s “checkbook,” using a device that was something like a stylus that leaked. By creating these checks, one person could give permission to another person to go to a bank ask for some money from the check-writer’s account.

There was a way to turn these checks into something like a credit card, using a technique called “check-kiting.” Sometimes, the check-writer could give a special instruction during the transaction: “Hey, I can write you this check, but there won’t be enough funds in my account to cover it until 3 days from now. Can you just wait until then to cash it?” Under favourable circumstances (good faith, trust, friendship, etc.), an off-the-record agreement was reached to add additional wait-time to the check-cashing process in order to allow funding to appear in the checking account. This allowed the transaction to proceed, even though funding was not available to cover the transaction.

Another term for this method was “playing the float.” “The float” refers to money that is not yet moved from one account to another, but has been promised to be moved: If a check for $10 is written but not yet cashed, that $10 is still in the first account, but it is expected to appear in the recipient’s account… well, “sometime soon.” Financers, accountants, bankers, regulators, and economists disagree about how to conceptualize, discuss, and manage “float.”

It’s not surprising that float is decreasing in total amount in the face of digital technology. One of the reasons it ever existed was the sheer amount of time it takes for humans to physically process checks. PayPal can digitally send instructions and records around the world much faster than the US Postal Service can physically transport a check from NYC to LA, or even just down the street. The passage of the Check21 law allowed banks to use images of checks in place of the physical copies, which is why your ATM just scans your check now instead of collecting it for a teller to physically process.

Will Large Institutions like Blockchain?

Whether you like blockchain depends on your goals and priorities. This protocol makes it harder to do off-the-record stuff—like asking someone not to cash a check until payday. You could include a separate set of instructions with a transaction that doesn’t go into the blockchain, but sending those instructions separately means missing out on the benefits of blockchain.

It also seems that blockchain would effectively obliterate float, because the transactions are completed and closed-out almost instantly, if not by close of business each day. There might be a way to work float into the blockchain, but it seems almost counter-productive—unless float is very important to you.

Some enthusiasts suppose that blockchain would diminish the need for banks and lawyers. I think it is more accurate to say that the widespread use of blockchain (if its use ever becomes widespread) could change the role such intermediaries play in transactions. For one thing, blockchains require enormous computing power to maintain. Blockchains are essentially nested hashchains, and rely on increasingly complex hashing to ensure their security. Bitcoin’s blockchain now requires supercomputer-level power to mine, for example- and compared to a ledger of a large bank like Citibank or Bank of America, Bitcoin grew slowly and remains tiny.

Additionally, financial professionals are helpful for navigating and orchestrating complex, multi-party, and exceptional transactions. The majority of transactions are simple and similar enough for a program to handle- however, it would be difficult and inefficient to create a program capable of processing rare and difficult transactions. Trained professionals would be useful, at the very least, for handling exceptional cases that do not fit the mold required by blockchain.