Scott Alexander says crypto is not just a pile of scams waiting to happen

By now, there have been so many crypto scams and even outright fraud — like the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried’s FTX and its sister trading company, Alameda — that it’s tempting to write all of cryptocurrency and the blockchain off as a snakepit of potential fraud waiting to happen. But Scott Alexander, who writes at Astral Codex Ten (an anagram of his name) says there are a few reasons why he doesn’t think we should write it off completely:

  • Crypto is full of extremely clear use cases, which it already succeeds at very well, including the use of cryptocurrencies in countries such as Venezuela, Ukraine, and Vietnam:

“Vietnam uses crypto because it’s terrible at banks. 69% of Vietnamese have no bank access, the second highest in the world,” Alexander says. “I’m not sure why; articles play up rural poverty, but many nations have more rural poor than Vietnam. There’s a history of the government forcing banks to make terrible loans, and then those banks collapsing; maybe this destroyed public trust? In any case, between banklessness and remittances (eg from Vietnamese-Americans), Vietnam leads the world in crypto use.”

  • Big crypto projects are rarely scams:

“I searched for articles called things like The Top Crypto Projects Of 20XX, and then I checked how many of those projects, years later, had turned out to be scams. I chose four articles for this experiment, which bBetween them described 54 different crypto projects. Looking back at these from our position in late 2022, as best I can tell zero of them have been revealed to be outright rug-pull-style scams.

A few fizzled out for lack of interest, like any business can. Two of the ten stablecoins lost their pegs, going to 70 – 80 cents instead of the expected $1¹. One exchange got in trouble for money laundering, although this didn’t negatively affect users. But overall this doesn’t seem worse than any other industry. If you split $1000 and invested it equally in all the top crypto projects of 2015, you would now have $25,400.”

  • Crypto is valuable insurance against authoritarianism:

“Freedom of speech is hollow if you can’t pay the print costs for your magazine. Freedom of religion is hollow if you can’t pay the rent on your church. The freedom to protest is hollow if you can’t pay bus fare to the protest site. If the government hates Islam, it’s hard from a legal and PR perspective to imprison imams or ban the Koran. But it’s easy to subtly convey to banks that it will regulate them out of existence unless they ban transactions to imams, or to any bookstores that carry Korans. And this has pretty much the same effect. The most obvious example of this is the way Paypal bans sex workers

Lebanon’s dams power a community of crypto miners

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After decades of what the World Bank has called “colossal failures,” and two years of hyperinflation, Lebanon’s state-owned power supplier has collapsed, and little electricity is generated or delivered in most of the country. Except, that is, in the Chouf. Here, as part of a mandate which also includes irrigation, drinking water provision, and local economic development around its namesake river, the local river authority runs three antiquated hydro-power stations. These provide 20 hours of electricity per day to around 200 villages in the vicinity. That has made the Chouf an anomaly in an otherwise electricity-starved Lebanon — and a veritable magnet for crypto miners.

Behind the scenes at a used bookstore

Shaun Bythell writes about his experiences as a used bookseller: “There are, essentially, four or five ways people bring books to the shop. The most common is in cardboard boxes, and generally this means of conveyance will contain the best books, and in the best condition. Then there is the plastic laundry basket, which usually means that the books are the relics of a dead great-aunt’s house, from which the best have been extracted and the laundry basket is the only means of transporting the books. Finally, there’s the bundled and tied with garden string category. That’s the kind of thing you never want to see as a bookseller, particularly after the tightly pulled string has damaged the covers.

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Who knew that the numbering of popes named John could be so complicated

There’s a whole Wikipedia page devoted to the topic of the numbering of the 21 or so different popes who have been named John something, with the last one being John XXIII, who reigned (or whatever they call it) from 1958 to 1963. As the article explains: “Although there have been twenty-one legitimate popes named John, the numbering has reached John XXIII because of two clerical errors that were introduced in the Middle Ages: first, antipope John XVI was kept in the numbering sequence instead of being removed; then, the number XX was skipped because pope John XXI counted John XIV twice.”

European cities at the same latitude as North American ones

Someone created a map that positions major European cities at the same latitude as they would be if they were in North America, and it’s kind of fascinating. I’m probably not the best person to assess this kind of thing, because I am terrible at geography, but I had no idea that Paris is actually quite a significant distance north of Toronto latitude-wise, or that Toronto and Florence are about the same latitude. Lisbon and Athens are at about the same latitude as northern California and Tripoli is around San Francisco.

Facebook falls out of love with journalism

Note: This was originally published at the Columbia Journalism Review website, where I am the chief digital writer

In March of 2019, the company now known as Meta announced the Facebook Journalism Project, a plan to spend $300 million over three years “supporting local journalists and newsrooms with their newsgathering needs in the immediate future, and helping local news organizations build sustainable business models.” At an event in Denver that same month, called the Accelerate: Local Media Summit, Facebook’s news partnerships team insisted their commitment to helping journalism was genuine, and that this commitment was shared at the highest levels of the company, including the CEO, Mark Zuckerberg. “This is something Mark cares about,” one staffer said.

If that was true, it doesn’t seem to be the case any more, as Meta has spent the past year cutting funding for and downsizing most of its journalism efforts. Last month, it laid off a number of the staffers in charge of its journalism programs, including several who were in charge of local news partnerships, as well as Meta’s director of international news partnerships, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. Campbell Brown, who was previously in charge of news partnerships for Meta, was recently moved into a role handling partnerships with everyone from entertainment companies to sports teams.

In June, the Wall Street Journal said Meta was “reconsidering” its payments to publishers as part of the Facebook News program, which featured news stories from certain outlets in a special News tab. The company reportedly paid annual fees of more than $15 million to the Washington Post, just over $20 million to the New York Times, and more than $10 million to The Journal. Those payments have since been halted and are not expected to resume.

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Do trees talk to each other? A German forester says yes

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author, has become an unlikely publishing sensation. His book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, written at his wife’s insistence, sold more than 800,000 copies in Germany, and has now hit the best-seller lists in 11 other countries, including the United States and Canada. A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of trees, and Wohlleben is the first writer to convey its amazements to a general audience. The latest scientific studies, conducted at well-respected universities in Germany and around the world, confirm what he has long suspected from close observation in this forest: Trees are far more alert, social, sophisticated—and even intelligent—than we thought.

Margaret Atwood’s vision of Utopia

Shortly before she turned 83 last month, the author Margaret Atwood taught an eight-week course, “Practical Utopias,” on an online learning platform in Canada called Disco. About 190 students from 40 countries imagined how to rebuild society after a cataclysmic event — say, a pandemic or rising sea levels. Ms. Atwood, who taught the class from her home in Toronto, surprised students by submitting her own vision for a post-apocalyptic community, called Virgule. “It’s a community, so I expect they will vote,” Atwood said. “To prevent tyrants, the community is divided in two. Each half rules for a year. So they will have to enact laws while they are the rulers that will benefit them when they are the ruled.”

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How devious can copyright maximalists get? Ask Sony

I remember hearing a little about this when it happened, but not as much as I probably should have. I was reminded of it by a recent interview with Cory Doctorow, the science-fiction author and activist, in which he mentioned the secret Sony “rootkit” scheme, which the music and technology giant implemented in 2005 or so. Believe it or not, this involved Sony sending out tens of millions of music CDs with not one but two secret software programs on them. Both of these programs that were essentially what programmers call “rootkits,” meaning they gave Sony access to the deepest levels of a user’s operating system and allowed it to make changes without informing the owner.

As Doctorow explained, one of the programs that secretly installed itself actually changed the user’s operating system so that it couldn’t recognize any program that began with a specific string of characters, and then installed software that used that same string of characters in order to make it impossible to copy the content from the CD. The other secret program sent regular reports on the user’s listening habits to Sony without telling the computer’s owner. In a really killer twist, the software was configured to do this even if the user refused the the company’s end-user license agreement (EULA).

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Former master of disguise helps disfigured people

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

It looks like there are body parts everywhere. That’s how Steve Butler knows he has come to the right place. There are at least three noses on the counter. There’s a stack of eyes, and a box full of ears and fingers. In the corner, there’s the lower half of a man’s face, complete with a moustache. “It’s like something out of a movie,” Steve says, as he looks around. Barron’s modest Virginia office downplay the miracle of his work. When people walk through the door, they’re often desperate. Some have told him they are suicidal. By the time they leave, their physical differences are practically invisible to the outside world.

Why frogs survived the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs

No creature could have prepared for the disaster. When an asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago, the world was shaken up as earthquakes reverberated out from the impact site and falling debris from the collision heated the air to the equivalent of an oven on broil. Three years of “impact winter” followed; temperatures plummeted, and photosynthesis nearly ceased. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction wiped out roughly 75 percent of known fossil species virtually overnight. Not only did all the non-bird dinosaurs go extinct, but mass extinctions also decimated lizards and mammals. But frogs fared better than average.

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Neanderthal footprints in Spain could be 275,000 years old

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

A little over a year ago, scientists reported on a large area at the foot of the Asperillo cliff, on the coast of the Doñana Natural Area in Huelva, Spain. There, along with numerous animal footprints, other footprints had been found – those of hominids. Until then, the only time reference that allowed the age of the site to be established was the dating of one of the dunes that covered the surface to around 106,000 years ago. The researchers dated them in line with the environment in which they were found, and the first hypothesis was that they belonged to Neanderthals, who lived in the Upper Pleistocene. However, in the course of the investigation, they sampled the surface where the footprints were found, and the dunes above. It turned out to be about 295,800 years old (Middle Pleistocene)—this is to say, much earlier than previously thought.

The intelligence of swine

Over the past few decades, research has demonstrated pigs’ capacity to comprehend symbolic language, plan for the future and discern the intentions of others. Studies have found them to rival chimpanzees in their ability to learn and play joystick-operated video games, despite the fact that their feet and snouts are inevitably less adept at handling the mechanisms. “The average intelligence of a pig on our farm is somewhere between a four-year-old and a fourth-grader,” says Greg, who insists that humans have not grasped the depth of their internal lives. Measuring nonhuman intelligence is a sticky business, but those who try typically categorize swine alongside dolphins, elephants and higher primates in terms of memory, spatial reasoning and capacity for abstract thought.

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