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.

Are Trademarks a Data Security Alternative to Sad, Weak, Outdated Copyrights?

If you’ve been on the web for a while, you’ve seen an advertisement that looks like the user interface of the website you’re viewing- or maybe an ad that has a false close button, and clicking it just navigates you to the advertised page. These are blatant ways to trick consumers into taking actions they don’t want to take. Sometimes, these inadvertent actions can create security vulnerabilities such as malware.

Despite all of the focus on applying copyright law to the internet, I wonder if there are hints of trademark and trade dress protections that could become relevant to data privacy issues. I will cautiously, even timidly, explore a few of those possibilities (which several others have explored over the last few years).

I. Trademarks: When it Comes to Data Privacy, Accept No Imitations.

Trademarks have a simple purpose: to let consumers know the origin of a good or service. Trademarks are often a word, phrase, or image (logo), but can also be a sound or smell (on rare occasion, it can get a bit more abstract ).

A major category of trademark infringement is counterfeiting. That $20 “ROLEX” watch from the guy in the alley? That’s a counterfeit (sorry), and one of the legal issues involved in the sale of that watch is the use of a trademark without the legal right to use it. There haven’t been a lot of counterfeit websites on the internet, especially since SSL and other authentication processes got better. However, there are plenty of imitation apps and games. One of the reasons such apps and games fail and are quickly removed from distribution is that they infringe trademarks.

However, some countries do not have the same standards regarding trademark (or copyright) enforcement. Consider an imitation League of Legends game, lampooned here. At the end of the video, the player says “Oh, and it’s also a virus,” as his security software reports malware after playing the game. This humorously underscores the point that many infringing* products pose a security and privacy threat. Using trademark law to limit the proliferation of readily accessible, easily confused programs is a valuable practice in maintaining computer security for consumers.

II. Trade Dress: No One Really “Owns” That Icon… But You Know Who Owns That Icon.

Trade dress is a sort of sub-category of trademarks. It’s rarely talked about or used, but it can be thought of as the totality of design and aesthetics that go into a product, place, or service that make consumers identify the source. Color palette, patterns, shapes, and other factors go into the evaluation of trade dress. Crucially (and perhaps fatally), elements of a trade dress must be considered “non-functional.”  For example, the major case in trade dress concerned a Tex-Mex restaurant that used the same colors and layout of another Tex-Mex restaurant.

Here’s the controversial idea I think deserves consideration: Could misleading, camouflaged web content be considered an infringement of trade dress? (Think of the kinds of ads that make you believe you’re not clicking on an ad, but rather some piece of actual content on the site- especially regarding navigation buttons that match the navigation icons of the site.)

The reason I look to trade dress for a solution is that icons and interfaces, even stylized ones, are not subject to trademark, copyright, or patent protections. Furthermore, websites are increasingly treated as the digital equivalent of stores and offices of businesses- so much so that designs and layouts can come to be the trade dress of that business. Thus, there is a gap in the legal protection of user interfaces, and a need to cover that gap.

(Treating websites as subject to trade dress might have the added benefit of discouraging UX and UI designers from fiddling with the location and arrangement of navigation tools every other month just to justify their paycheck. And that’s the kind of change this world really needs.)

Conclusion: Trademark Protection is Already Working, Trade Dress is Still Vague and Untested

Trademark law is already quietly making the digital ecosystem a little bit safer by eschewing threatening knock-off games and apps. I think there’s a case to be made for applying trade dress to websites and UIs, but it would be a novel application and courts may be hesitant to apply the law so creatively.

 

* “300 Heroes” Infringes both copyrights and trademarks, but it’s the funniest example.

 

The Potential Dangers of Minds Getting Played

I clearly remember hearing about a new kind of game back in the late 90s- a friend handed me a magazine while I was playing Descent. The article detailed a new genre of game: Alternative Reality, in which the content of the game connected with the real world, and the gameplay was woven through physical space as much as game space. The article focused on a game called Majestic. Even before law school secured my youthful cynicism, I was already concerned about the potential for disaster with this game: trespassing, distracted operating of motor vehicles, unfortunate confusion with actual crime- by both police and criminals, etc. The game, and the genre, never really took off, and so a lot of the issues got pushed aside and ignored for a decade and a half.

Then Pokemon Go came out.

I) How do we Distinguish Alternative, Augmented, Virtual Realities from Plain Ol’ Boring Reality?

As Jerry “Tycho” Holkins has pointed out, when someone is experiencing a reality that differs from the reality that others are experiencing, we usually conclude that the singular experience of reality is a hallucination of some kind. So, inviting a parallel version of reality is a bit ambitious for a species that still has some fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the capacity to perceive it. But humans tend to be ambitious.

Metaphysics has tried for several millennia to explain what reality is, and epistemology and philosophy of mind (now backed up by nascent efforts of neurobiology) have tried to understand how the human mind interacts with whatever reality is. These kinds of questions seem tiresome and sophomoric because they seem to be trying to solve a problem that we don’t have. Fortunately for philosophers, scientists, and lawyers, humans are good at creating interesting problems.

II) Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Social Media, and AI: A Combination for Confusion

The biggest danger isn’t really just immersing the human mind in an alternative reality. Literature and media have been doing that since the first tools of imparting imagination were created. However, there have always been clear markers about the borders of fiction and reality: the edges of pages, the entrance to the theater, the “play” button. Since video games started making recognizable depictions of reality, political bodies have been concerned with the ability of the mind to keep the fiction of the game separate from reality.

Some games have recently made a deliberate effort to blur the distinction between the game and reality. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the villain Scarecrow created a visual effect that looked to the player as though the game-machine itself was having technical problems. Metal Gear Solid villain Psycho Mantis had similar behaviors, interfering with the usable controller ports on the Playstation, reading memory cards to learn what other games the player plays, and giving the appearance of technical problems with the visual display.

The connection of games to social media platforms and profiles perforates some barriers between games and reality. These perforations tear wider the more the game uses them. How much more of a leap would it be for a game to read the social profiles of a player and allow a villain to make threats against the actual friends and family members of the player?

This trajectory, combined with increasingly better artificial intelligence programs that can learn and affect both game worlds and real worlds, creates the potential for some bizarre problems that will still seem like science fiction even after the first time we read an article reporting on why a 22 year old is dead after a cat walked across her keyboard while she got a soda. It may not be long until someone is arrested in real life for a murder committed in a game due to a bug or an AI program getting out of control. Or, perhaps even more likely, some hacker will make use of the obfuscated and blurred boundary between the game and reality to either commit a crime or frame someone for one.

III) Pokemon Go: Traps, Muggers, Molesters

If these possibilities seem like pure fantasy, we should remember that we’ve already seen some of the first iteration of the dangers of people trying to handle two realities simultaneously. Pokemon Go serves as an example the nature of the problems and the sometimes tragic stakes of not handling the problems well. There have been reports of muggers and sex offenders using the game to their own malicious ends, as well as reports of accidental deaths and car accidents from the simple carelessness of distracted (or overly-ambitious) players.

If you die while playing Pokemon Go, you die in real life.

IV) Philosophy is still relevant

In 1967, Phillipa Foote introduced the famous “Trolley Problem”: a hypothetical dilemma of choosing to allow a train (or trolley) to kill several people, or choosing instead to intervene and divert the train to kill only one person. The problem was meant to probe people’s moral intuitions, as the goal was not so much the answer to the problem but the justification for the choice. Many people outside of philosophy dismissed this hypothetical as irrelevant nonsense that showed how stupid and meaningless academic philosophy had become in the enlightened, advanced age of the 20th century. Then, in the early 21st century, automotive engineers and programmers confronted the exact problem in determining how to program self-driving cars when confronted with similar dilemmas.

The story for the philosophical field of Aesthetics (the area concerned with understanding art and beauty) is similar. In the coming years, the interactive entertainment media industry will have to confront problems of understanding the boundaries of how, when, and why fiction is experienced. The analysis of essays on the use of the fourth wall and meta-humor will be important to cutting-edge games looking to balance novel thrills with consumer safety.

V) Solutions: Design for Safety, Be Helpful

The law can make some efforts to protect the public, but it’s almost always going to be reactive, not proactive, in these matters.

Developers should design for Audience Meta-Awareness. Yes, the much-touted quality of immersion adds fun to the experience. However, it is necessary to provide safety outlets for that immersion. The game creates a space- players need to always be able to see the door to the space and get out of it. They need to be clear about when they are in that space and when they are not. Games that actively seek out players to update them about the game undermine that distinction. Games that don’t allow players to put down the game, or don’t allow players to know when they have put down the game, are looking for problems.

The community can create safety nets, as we saw with Pokemon Go players acting as safety guards in potentially dangerous scenarios. However, if we’ve learned anything from the internet, it’s that groups of people knit together by cyberspace are not always a recipe for safety and well-being. Still, the more that games resemble mind-altering drug experiences, the more important it is to have a sober friend nearby.

 

4/14/17 UPDATE: One of my favorite web series on game design, Extra Credits, apparently also thinks this is an interesting subject. They provide a lot of examples of the concepts I addressed.

 

[Part 4] StarCraft II in the World: How Korean E-Sports Power Makes Us “Foreigners”

All of these approaches are played out in answering the oft-asked question: “Why is South Korea so good at e-Sports?”
The answer begins with the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997. After a devastating economic collapse, governments like South Korea’s were faced with questions of rebuilding and moving forward. South Korea invested heavily in telecommunications infrastructure. As the economy steadily rebounded, one small business plan that grew around a strong telecommunications infrastructure was computer gaming cafes. These became so numerous and omnipresent that they became a major element in the culture of young people growing up in South Korea around 2000. As the culture integrated computer gaming as an important social medium, the quality of players grew. In the late 90s, there were not as many games that lent themselves to the kind of competitive, head-to-head, high-speed gameplay that fit the cultural need of young people gathered in a social setting, but StarCraft was a near-perfect fit. Just as Brazilian children gravitate towards soccer fields and so many American children hang out near basketball courts, sizable portions of Korean children spent free time at gaming cafes. It follows quite obviously that spending time practicing and learning leads to excellence. That excellence is so dramatic that it is even noted in the parlance of StarCraft II tournaments: competitors are either Korean or “Foreigners.”

[Of course, there are other factors that led to S. Korean unique dominance in e-sports—Japan’s anti-gambling laws undermined the growth of a competitive gaming scene, the US was sold on consoles like Xbox and PS2 over computer gaming, etc.]

There is a simple analysis of the story of South Korea’s success in e-Sports: Economics, legal possibility, and technological availability lead to the creation of a new infrastructure (Terran). This infrastructure was integrated into the culture, leading to the development of a specific kind of power (Zerg). The path of past events created a direction for power to be used (Protoss).

There is so much more to talk about in StarCraft II. Its rich story is filled with characters and ideas, and the storytelling and gameplay add depth and perspective to further enhance the potential subjects of discussion. For the considerations on power, there is a takeaway lesson about understanding and recognizing the inorganic structures and organic cultures that produce certain types of power, and realizing the direction that power wants to go. Whether it’s telecommunications, biotechnology, energy management, or sports and entertainment, these points are relevant and recognizable. Future outcomes will depend on how we make our systems and culture, and how we allow our creations to shape us.

Employer Facebook Checks: How the Law Struggles with Culture and Ignores Metaphysics

Question of privacy in cyberspace cover a vast range of applications. One that I find interesting is the use of social media as a tool by potential employers to research prospective employees. This is interesting because it is at an intersection of cultural, technology, law, and metaphysics.

It is increasingly common for employers to check on a prospective employee’s Facebook page (or other social media). I like to use the case study of Stacy Snyder in this NYTonline article: http://goo.gl/bMw0Kl

The issue is that a student-teacher was dismissed over a photo on her MySpace (that dates the example a bit, eh?) that was captioned “Drunken Pirate.” This situation becomes the image of concern: an employer delving into your personal (yet published) photo album to look for objectionable material.

Let me divide up the issues:

1) The legal and/or cultural claim to privacy. Before Facebook or MySpace, it would be extraordinary for an employer to ask to see photos from your latest party as part of the application process (barring government security clearance checks). Although social media has allowed us to share such personal material with a wider range of friends, we are not culturally comfortable simply surrendering previously private/personal material to the entire public sphere.

2) Context is everything. Bill Waterson’s iconic character, the rascally 2nd-grader Calvin, once explained that people are wrong to assert that “photos never lie,” for, in fact, all they do is lie. To illustrate, Calvin clears one area of his room and puts on a tie to have himself photographed as a clean, tidy young boy (he is normally dressed in a t-shirt and has a notoriously messy bedroom). So it may be argued with Facebook photos, Tweets, etc: Can a single snapshot, sentence, or post represent an individual- even partially? Can it be completely incorrect? Without further explanation, how badly can it be misinterpreted? This claim speaks not only to the protection of the poster, but also raises the question of whether investigating an applicant’s social media is truly helpful in obtaining accurate data about the applicant. A related issue here is the notion of Performance Identity online (see: Life on the Screen by Sherry Turkle). Many posts and photos may be uploaded not as a reflection of actual identity, but as an effort to entertain or amuse a particular audience.

3) The Metaphysical puzzles of being and identity over time. One of the core points of the NYTonline article linked above is that the internet makes possible the storage of everything we say or do- FOREVER. One question is whether applicants ought to be judged by high school or college photos or posts. Indeed, the question is founded on an ancient metaphysical quandary: what is the relationship with one’s self over time? We have a cultural concept of “not being the same person” at age 15 as at age 30. Yet right now, many 30 year old job applicants could be in the position to defend the digital traces left by their 15 year old selves.

The final point to note here is that Facebook was not designed to be a massive social media platform through which employers scouted and screened applicants. It was a way for college (and later high school) students to communicate and make limited broadcasts to a select audience. It was a kid’s toy, really. To me, it still is- I think that’s why my generation sometimes feels weird that our parents have Facebook profiles. The platform was never made for “grown-ups” or “grown-up things.” That was an accident, and treating it otherwise is a mistake.

Is “Good” Design Worse for Everyone?

 (A personal background note:  I was raised by an engineer and a linguist. Two persistent frustrations I face in life are poor design decisions and misuse of language.)

As we design technologies to be more “user-friendly,” we demand less of the user. This means the user needs less knowledge to use the product. Those who used computers in the 1970s-1990s needed some measure of understanding of the computer to use it. In today’s point-and-click interfaces, everyone can use the computer without understanding a thing about how it works. This is the kind of democratization that leads to ignorance.

There are two ways to open something up democratically: 1) Elevate the populace to meet the entry standards, 2) Lower the entry standards so that more people can meet them in the people’s current state. The enthusiastic talk about how digital technologies democratize is not necessarily encouraging because it is often another way of saying that people need to know less in order to participate. All that means is the average participant is more ignorant.  The great hope is that digital technologies can be used to challenge and educate the populace rather than to coddle and welcome their ignorance.

Are Concise and Precise Mutually Exclusive?

To be concise is to minimize the amount of time and language to communicate a concept. To be precise is to make clear the boundaries of meaning- to make it impossible (as much as possible) to misunderstand how much is covered by one’s words but also how much is not covered. It is to tie down every loose end, to anticipate and pre-emptively answer and resolve every possible question, concern, contradiction, confusion, and counter-argument. It is simply a fact that this takes more time and more language than to not do it. We can also be more concise if we take on smaller tasks: if we keep our subject matter extremely narrow, and simply cut potential areas out of the discussion as “extra-topical.”

Another shortcut is to make assumptions about what the audience simply won’t be confused about—to assume that the audience will not be misled on certain points and omit that relevant discussion.  Explanations take more space if they include proofs of the premises used in the primary argument. If we simply assert them as axiomatic and let our primary argument remain conditional upon the validity of the premises, we can save time. However, this comes at the cost that our argument is less powerful, less clear, and more open to misinterpretation and abuse.

In “Amusing Ourselves to Death” (1985), Neil Postman notes the difference in length between the Lincoln-Douglas debates (several days of multi-hour speeches) and present-day political debates (one hour, split into few-minute sound bites and slogans). Postman’s analysis is that news, social/political discussion, and other public discourses are reduced to quick, pithy sound-bites in the latter 1/3 or ¼ of the 20th century. My additional analysis is that the quality of discussions, debates, and overall understanding of issues has declined drastically. (For examples, consider 4chan, YouTube, Reddit, Facebook, or other community discussion opportunities online.)

We may see this as a tension between a cultural environment which emphasizes speed (`a la Virillo) and the slow and steady requirements of human understanding (which is unwilling to yield to cultural demands of speed). As a sped-up culture pushes for the “quick-and-easy” sound bites and summaries, areas of society that demand deeper comprehension will be increasingly at odds with the tech-culture. Law is one such area.

In law, explanations must be precise. Laws and contracts must be clear enough to be understood, and should strive to be so clear as to not be misunderstood. If law sacrifices clarity and precision, problems multiply. The grand value in a technological capitalist society is efficiency. The precision required by law can be seen as “front-loading” the efficiency because greater inefficiency results from resolving problems created by imprecise law. In this way, both precision and conciseness can be mutually exclusive yet both serve the end goal of efficiency when applied in different contexts.