What is Bitcoin, and why does it matter?

Bitcoin has been holding my interest for a few years now, and I find myself frequently trying to express my fascination to others. In the following, I will try to give an overview of what I find interesting about it and why it could matter to you.

What is Bitcoin?
Let’s first talk about, what is money? Money is something that is used as a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and as a store of buying power. By this definition, Bitcoin is money. It is a complementary currency: An agreement of a community to accept bitcoins as a medium of exchange for goods, services, and other currencies. Bitcoin is not backed by any government and therefore not legal tender.

What gives it value then? Bitcoin’s characteristics make it superior than existing payment systems for some applications, which generates a demand for Bitcoin. In fact, the growth in demand has outweighed supply to an extent that the value of Bitcoin has grown about 30-fold in the past year. Continue reading

TIL why Americans invented Cruise Control

Yesterday I rented a car to visit family in upstate New York. I was a bit nervous driving in the US for the first time and figuring out an automatic car at the same time. – Turns out both is very easy.
As the highest speed limit I encountered during my trip was only 65 mp/h (104,6 km/h), you hardly ever have to speed up or slow down and cruise control is invaluable to contain the urge to speed. (At first I was trying to drive without cruise control and caught myself going 75 mp/h.)
While it is relaxing to travel at such low speeds it takes you forever to get anywhere, and the downside is that your task of driving is reduced to keeping your car in the lane, which is somewhat of a mental underload. :)
Anyway, I arrived safely and just had breakfast with my two aunts, which I have both not seen in a very long time! My aunt also has lots of pictures of my relatives and ancestors in her house which is a lot of fun to see.

Funny story: I had reserved a small economy class car for the trip, but the company asked me whether I could take this car with Canadian plates up North instead and swap it for another car there. I thought about the added fuel cost, but since gas is 0.69€ per Liter I decided to consider it a free upgrade! ;)P1000233 P1000232

Exploring Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, named Steel City for its legendary produce, was one of the global industrial and economic centers especially in the first half of the last century and today sports more than 2.6 million inhabitants. Set between the Monongahela and the Allegheny, which create the Ohio, it has 446 bridges. In its past it attracted a number of famous architects, which created numerous architectural interesting buildings.

With the University of Pittsburgh, the Carnegie Mellon University and twenty-nine more Universities and colleges, more than 1600 tech companies, Pittsburgh is a R&D center and the national headquarters for robotics. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History sports some of the most complete dinosaur skeletons ever found.

Recently, the Penguins, Pittsburgh’s Ice Hockey Team started ranked number one into the Eastern Conference Play-Offs and caused some excitement with their 5:0 win today against the New York Islanders in the first Play-Off game.

I have shot a few pictures while exploring the city:
Exploring Pittsburgh – Cathedral of Learning
The Architecture of Pittsburgh

Getting to Pittsburgh

After finishing a few little things I spent most of the afternoon packing and then took the train to Frankfurt together with  Zsófi. We got a bite to eat, and while Zsófi and Wolf went to bed, I was still busy setting up my netbook. Well, I had read that many companies don’t allow their workers to have unencrypted data on laptops when traveling to the US, as sometimes border controls would extend to laptop searches. Of course they didn’t look at me twice. – But I am getting ahead of myself.

So I slept about four hours and then got back up to go to the airport. The airline suggested being there three hours ahead of time and a number of people told me that with American Airways it could take a bit longer ahead of time. The thing is, I got my luggage checked in about ten minutes after getting off the train at the airport and after hanging out a bit longer with Zsófi, I decided to plan some reserve time for any further controls before the gate. However, that was pretty quick as well, so while I was happy to play it safe, I actually spent more than two hours just killing time at the airport (even after not counting the half hour, which it is reasonable to be at the gate in beforehand). I thought about buying a newspaper at the gate when that kiosk finally opened, but alas I didn’t have enough Euros to pay for any newspaper I’d actually want to be seen reading – my dollars on the other hand I didn’t want to break into yet as I was unsure about the last leg of my trip.
It turned out that things had changed a bit since my last transatlantic flight in 2002. Instead of a handful of TVs with a single program each set had it’s own screen and access to a multitude of electronic entertainment options. I watched Taken 2 and two more movies I can’t even remember, programmed a bit on my netbook and tried to doze a bit. The flight was literally only half-full so my neighbor had moved up a few rows and gotten a pair of seats for himself as well.
The whole cabin was pretty dim as almost everyone was watching something or sleeping, so pushing up a shade to look outside did not find a lot of love – when I did after we were flying over North America I almost expected my travel mates to hiss at me…
Philadelphia was very welcoming… NOT! About  eight or ten border officials were on duty to check passports of all passengers from all international flights. I had about two hours between arrival and connecting flight. It took a good whole hour to get to the head of that line… And this was the US citizen line, the international was probably even a bit slower. One might see why I was increasingly nervous as I still had to get my stuff from the baggage claim, go through customs, recheck my baggage all the while boarding was scheduled to start twenty minutes later. The good customs officers saw me racing with my bagged 17kg backpack on my right shoulder, skidding to a halt, drawing a breath. “Do you have anything to declare?”, I answered with “One bottle of beer.” and was off running again after a scant “Off you go.”. I stood in line for a moment to get my bag rechecked then a bit longer again for being searched. This time I even had to take off my shoes… welcome to the US, home of the brave paranoid. My gate was the last one of maybe three dozen in that terminal. I arrived there shortly after the scheduled boarding time. While I stood there perspiring I noted that the gate was packed – and the composition of lean to overweight people had definitely keeled over. Boarding finally started five minutes before the scheduled takeoff, the taxi began twenty minutes after takeoff time and then we stood in line behind a dozen airplanes waiting for their turns to take off. What still fascinates me most was how all four lines waiting to take off had to wait several minutes for one airplane to land on the very same runway. As expected the airplane was full to the last seat. My neighbor made a severe first impression on me, but she turned out to be fairly affable. Nonetheless, I was more than happy to land in Pittsburgh after traveling sixteen hours from Wolf’s in Frankfurt i.e. almost a day after I had left our own flat in Karlsruhe with just a few hours of rest.

I’ll have to expand this tomorrow, and tell you about my adventures at the Pittsburgh airport, how I met Ron, Mark, John, Mike, and An, as well as my first exploring of Pittsburgh.
For now: Good night and good luck!

Neo: A look at an alternative keyboard layout

Some of you might already have run into this topic at some point or another, but it is somewhat of interest of mine, and I’d just like to throw this out in to the open here.

If we look at it objectively, Qwerty is not a good keyboard layout:
Qwerty was developed by Christopher Latham Sholes in 1868 in order to spacially separate letters that were typed in succession often. At that time fast typing could cause the typebars to entangle, which was reduced by the spacial separation. However, Qwerty overtaxes the outer fingers and also puts a greater burden on the left hand. Due to the layout of the keys, the fingers have to travel very far using the touch system, which is theorized to be one of the causes for repetitive strain injury syndrome and tenosynovitis.

The Neo (recursive acronym for Neo ergonomisch optimiert, engl. Neo ergonomically optimized) layout was developed in 2004 to provide an ergonomic layout optimized for German, English, programming and shell commands(in that order).

Continue reading

Noch mal einen Blick auf die Hintergründe von Facebook

Wenig überraschend gewann Facebook 2011 den BigBrotherAward in der Kategorie Kommunikation.
Die Laudatio von Rena Tangens ist sehr lesenswert: Sie vergleicht darin Facebook mit einer Gated Community, die zum Schutz und gesteigerten Komfort ihrer Bewohner bewacht und überwacht wird. Ebenfalls greift sie einige interessante politische Motivationen auf, die hinter Facebook stehen. So entstammen die ersten Risikokapitalgeber radikal-konservativen Kreisen und dem Dunstkreis des CIA, welche schon 2008 durch Tom Hodgkinson in seiner Analyse der Politik hinter Facebook im Guardian beschrieben wurden. Spannend ist vor allem die Feststellung, dass nicht nur Werbung durch Freunde kanalisiert besonders erfolgreich ist, sondern auch politische Meinungen durch Freundeskreise mitgeformt werden.

Nachtrag zu Facebook und Datenschutz

Nachdem ich schon vor einigen Tagen über Facebook geschrieben habe, geht es gleich mit dem Thema Datenschutz weiter: Im einen Moment stehen einige Dienste, vor allem Twitter, Foursquare und weitere im Zentrum des nächsten Datenschutz-Skandals, da sie sich nach Installation ihrer App auch mal eben das ganze Adressbuch hochladen.

Facebook zieht mit und erhöht: Man liest zusätzlich noch den gesamten SMS-Verkehr von Smartphones mit.

Das Problem an Facebook

Facebook und Social Networks allgemein sind ein Thema mit dem ich mich zur Zeit wieder viel auseinander setze. Soziale Netzwerke sind sowohl als Software, wie auch als Kommunikationswerkzeuge faszinierend. Allerdings hat der Umstand, dass ich mich viel damit beschäftige auch den Effekt, dass ich wieder den Gedanken mit mir rumtrage, meinen Facebook-Account zu schließen:
Während die Möglichkeit sich mit Freunden, Bekannten und Verwandten aus der ganzen Welt auszutauschen genial ist, stoßen mir einige Dinge sauer auf. Continue reading

Inspiring architectural project

The environmental architect Michael Pawlyn, known for his work on the Eden Project, gave an inspiring talk for TED. He spoke about how bio mimicry could provide solutions to some of the direst global problems. Especially interesting is the project that resulted from his advance, the Sahara Forest Project backed by Norway and Jordan, combining the production of energy, fresh water and agricultural produce in a symbiotic installation. Additional effects and “waste products” include reversing of desertification, building materials and rare metals, such as lithium, which could be used for high energy batteries.

Right now the feasibility analysis is proceeding and as soon as next year, they should be starting on a small scale test installation.

If you have the time I recommend you to watch his talk (about 13 minutes).