Monday, May 21, 2018

Notes on Speed Reading

A friend of mine recently responded very favorably to my concern that I read pretty slow for someone who wants to do well on the LSAT.  He researched some speed reading apps and found one written by some people in Minsk.  He's been playing with it, his wife loves the exercises, and I've been playing around with it too.  With his help and some prodding from the app itself, I've discovered a few things about myself which I imagine are true for most people.

When we read, we have a tendency to pronounce the words we read in our heads, our "mind's ear" if you want, and that takes time - time we don't need to use that way.  If you successfully suppress that tendency, you can read faster.  I see two reasons behind this.  First, you're not waiting for the pattern of sounds in the word you just read to finish playing in your mind before playing the next one, and second, you're not using any mental energy to form those sounds in the first place.

There is an important third element to this that I have not heard of or read about anywhere.  This third element is actually forming the meaning of the word we just read in our mind.  Obviously, we have to do this, but I hadn't recognized it as a discreet step until I played with this app ("Speed Reader" by "Speed Reading Team").  Normally, we let the squiggles on the paper (letters) become sound patterns (words) and then the sound patterns give rise to the meaning.  The trick is to feel the meaning come without waiting for (or even allowing) the sound pattern to come.

It is difficult to ignore the meaning
of a few lines of text even if we don't
read them in a way that produces the
sounds of the words in our minds.

That is the insight that I had yesterday or today.  I have learned to pay more attention to the meaning that arises from seeing text without actually reading it (meaning, saying all the words to myself).  The brain is a pattern matching machine, and because we learned to read (translate squiggles into sound patterns), and we learned to communicate verbally (translate sounds patterns into meaning), the squiggles have consistently led to the meanings for us, but we have to actively suppress the sound patterns so that A) they don't take up our time, and B) they don't take up any mental energy.

Landmark likes to say that we are "meaning making machines" - and we are.  We can use that to our advantage when we want to read a lot of text quickly.  It takes practice.

Some of the insights in this post came from Graeme Blake, whose website is full of good info for getting smarter (all with the intent of getting readers higher scores on the LSAT, but smarter even if you never intend to take any test).

Friday, May 18, 2018

How Can I Make a Unit of Currency?

I wanted to identify a question anyone can ask when they hear about a new currency.  It is likely that the U.S. will create a new currency at some point, and if you ask how you can make one, the answer will be: You Can't. You're not allowed to make one.  That's the point.  It's also the point of cryptocurrencies: You Can.  You may need to buy hardware and get software and configure it, but there's nothing illegal about doing any of that.

If you want to make a Bitcoin, you can enlist the help of a Bitcoin Mining company.  If it's a good company and you have enough patience, you will help to create a bitcoin.  You'll probably be helping to create 12.5 bitcoins.  You don't have to use a Bitcoin mining company though.  You can create a bitcoin by purchasing bitcoin mining hardware and running the software yourself.  If you do that, then you will be working on creating a package of 12.5 bitcoins - by yourself.  That's about $100,000 worth of Bitcoin right now, so you can expect to spend about that much to get the job done.  Caveat! The process involves a lot of randomness, so it's possible to spend millions and never actually make any bitcoin.  This is why most people go through a bitcoin mining company, called a "mining pool."

A lot of the money you'll be spending to make your package of bitcoins will be spent on electricity to run the hardware.  What the hardware does is to create a fingerprint for a bunch of data that is strung together in a "block."  I say "fingerprint" but the technical term is "hash."  You may be familiar with the fact that when you enter 16 random digits into a field on a webpage that asks for a credit card number, it usually responds right away that the number is invalid.  You might also know that this is because the first fifteen digits determine what the 16th digit should be, so only one out of ten random 16-digit sequences can be a valid credit card number.  That last digit is a kind of "hash" or fingerprint of the first 15.

The data being strung together into a "block" is transaction data.  Everyone who wants to spend bitcoin has software they use to do it.  The software makes a little packet of data that indicates what bitcoin is being spent and what the new rule is to spend it next time.  That new rule is identified by the bitcoin address to which the bitcoin is being sent.  The bitcoin address is based on the secret key that the receiver has; their "bitcoin private key."  The sender uses their own bitcoin private key to cryptographically sign the packet of data (a "transaction") and then it goes public on the Internet where bitcoin miners can collect it and add it to their block.

Here's why the miners fingerprint those blocks: A fingerprint, or hash, of a block is a number with about 77 digits.  Let's consider that it's between 0 and 1.  So, for example the fingerprint might be 0.123456...77, where that last 7 is the 77th digit.  The actual result is a very large integer, but if we divide it by 2 raised to the 256th power, it will be a number between 0 and 1, and it will have more than 77 digits, but the digits after the 77th one aren't important.  In order to create bitcoins, the hash has to be very small.  For example, the hash I suggested, 0.123456...77, regardless of what digits are represented by the ellipsis, is way too big.  If it were 0.0000...12345677, and the ellipsis represented several more zeroes, then it would be small enough.  What do they do if the fingerprint is too big?  Well, they change the data and recompute it.

The block contains a bunch of transactions along with a piece of data called the "nonce."  It's just a number that starts at 0, and they add one to it each time they get a hash that is too big, and then they recompute.  The block also contains a timestamp, and the nonce only goes up to about four billion (2 raised to the 32nd power), so when the nonce gets to the highest value it can be, it rolls back to zero and the miner has to change something else.  There are many things they change, but usually it's the timestamp, and it's really the software that changes it automatically.  If they've received new transactions to add to the block, they can restart their nonce back at zero.

The very first transaction in each block currently specifies that 12.5 new bitcoins, plus all the "extra" bitcoin from all the included transactions (called "transaction fees") now belongs to the bitcoin address entered by the miner.  So if you do "mine bitcoin" you can create 12.5 bitcoins and also earn some transaction fees.  I hope you're curious about the transaction fee because here's an explanation: If I identify exactly one bitcoin and declare that 0.9999 goes to your bitcoin address, that leaves 0.0001 on the table.  That's the transaction fee.  If I specified that you get the whole 1.0, then miners wouldn't bother including my transaction in their blocks, so no permanent, globally accessible and cryptographically protected record of the payment would exist and you will never be able to spend it.

Way back before I (or anyone else alive today) was born, anyone could make a unit of currency.  That was before the advent of "legal tender" laws which barred courts from ruling that the stuff anyone can make (like gold coins) must be handed over in a lawsuit.  If you want, you can still get some gold or silver and make a unit of currency, but the government will most likely pretend that what you made looks like a unit of currency that only the government is allowed to make and prosecute you for it.  That's what happened to Bernard von Nothaus who created the "Liberty Dollar."  So people who want to be free went digital.

Banks and governments are now scrambling to make something they can say is based on "blockchain," because they crave control.  My aim with this post was to arm you with a question you can use to avoid being under that control.  Whatever currency they make, ask them how YOU can make a unit of their currency, and see if it requires licenses or permits or privileges or whatever, or if they just ignore your question.  That's what the IRS does when you ask the important questions.

When a currency exists that anyone can make, currency production is "decentralized" and thereby protects those who use it from the corruption inherent to power.  This is why I love cryptocurrency.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Beware of Legalese

This is not a sob story.  This is an appeal.  I'm appealing to you to speak up.  You've probably received several notices from websites that tell you the "Terms of Service" and/or "Privacy Policy" has been updated to reflect recent changes, such as the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union.  What we need to speak up about is something that most people don't know about, so I'm going to tell you.  This is a copy of the text I sent to LocalBitcoins, and I'm inviting you, beseeching you, and imploring you to send it along to any outfits that tell you they are updating their policies.
An important legal concept is that a law which defines a term causes that term to be completely stripped of its common meaning wherever in that law the definition declares that the definition applies.  Can you clarify where you use terms as defined in a law (and provide a reference to that law)?  The language could be as simple as:

   - Language of our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service
LocalBitcoins recognizes that the legal jurisdictions of our members may have laws that define certain terms.  Except where indicated, the language used in these Terms of Service and in our Privacy Policy uses only the common understanding of these terms.  A URL and the specific legal terms defined there have been provided where appropriate so that you can look up the definitions.

Specifically regarding the GDPR, a handy URL in this effort is 

I received this lovely response from LocalBitcoins, and I'd love to hear if any of you get something similar.
Hi David,

thank you for the feedback!

I will pass the suggestion to our legal department and hopefully, we will be adding it when doing next update to the TOS.
Lawyers constitute the "Ruling Class" of our planet now, which is why I'm taking the LSAT in June and planning to join that class.

From an evolutionary perspective, I'm already in the ruling class because A) I take responsibility for my own life and B) people see value in my thoughts and incorporate them into their own lives.  The law degree I seek will simply create a paper credential that I can use to help people who rely on such things (sadly, a very large portion of our species).  While I don't have the paper, my thoughts are easy for them to dismiss, and so they lose out on the benefits I offer.  This blog entry is being sent out to people who have joined my mailing list too, and you can check that out at and/or read over the archives at