On this page you can read about me, my education, my interests, what I’m currently working on, and what I’ve worked on in the past.
- Current State
- Computer Science
- Human Behavior
- Entrepreneurship & Startups
We invested a lot of our energy into researching decentralized technology, starting the Stanford Bitcoin Group in the process:
We wrote a privacy-focused local bitcoin exchange that anyone could launch.
We researched techniques for replicating relational databases onto the blockchain.
- we abandoned this when bitcoin’s protocol was changed to discourage dust outputs
We researched mixing services like Bitcoin Fog. We were interested in learning (1) if there were any mixing patterns we could identify as a observer without coins in the mix, and (2) how much we could learn about other coins in the mix when we controlled for how many coins we had in the mix and how long they were in the mix.
We built BitRemit with the hope of using bitcoin to drop the costs of sending money across borders. We ended up abandoning BitRemit because of the regulatory costs involved.
After clashing with the regulatory barriers associated with BitRemit, we started working on BlockScore with the goal of making lowering regulatory barriers and making the process as painless as possible. A lot of the people we met in the Bitcoin community liked what BlockScore aspired to fix and we started picking up customers quickly after launching the product. Roughly one year after I met Alain we dropped out of Stanford to continue running BlockScore full-time.
“People think that computer science is the art of geniuses but the actual reality is the opposite, just many people doing things that build on each other, like a wall of mini stones” Donald Knuth
“Companies in every industry need to assume that a software revolution is coming. This includes even industries that are software-based today.” Marc Andreessen
These two quotes together exemplify one of the two big reasons I love Computer Science:
- Computer science stacks, meaning that its very easy to pull together every thing that has already been created and start building something genuinely new from day 1.
- Computer science is general enough to be applicable in almost any industry. Combine this with the ease of expanding on top of existing work and you have a very powerful tool for rapid innovation
The other reason is that I have found computer science to be one of the few academic fields both with a short enough feedback loop to be continually engaging in the short term as well as productive enough to be valuable in the long term.
“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work - whereas economics represents how it actually does work.” Steven Levitt
I like this quote not because I think it is 100% accurate (it would be more accurate to say, “… whereas [traditional economics] represents how [the world would work under ideal efficiency]”), but because I think it touches on one of the most important takeaways that an introduction to economic thinking provides. I think it’s natural for humans to be disgusted by mass layoffs. Empathetic judgement is the human default, but it isn’t always the right tool, and sometimes people have to lose their jobs in order to sustain a firm that is overall doing good for society. In other words economics can be a powerful crash course for people on the value of utilitarian thinking which I think a lot more people need to have in their tool chest.
Government vs. Politics
“Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy.” Eliezer Yudkowsky in Politics is the Mindkiller
Related to the importance utilitarian thinking vs. our empathetic default, I think that one of the most fundamental political flaws is that government and policy is not decided by deliberate rational decision making, it is decided by emotion:
So the titling of this section is intentional: I like discussing government ideology and theory, not politics. “Politics is the mind-killer.”
We have not seen a sizeable nation experiment with radically new forms of limited government since roughly the American revolution. In the few hundred years since the American revolution, we have acheived incredible technical achievements on all fronts (in terms of fundamental movements like the industrial revolution as well as the ongoing modern movements like the emergence of modern computing). I think that
- modern economics, and
- the ubiquity of internet access in developed nations
will enable the next radical experimention in government by enabling forms of democracy that are actually effective, minimized governments that won’t be seduced by centralization, and competitive law that is not biased to grow in size and scope over time.
The American revolution’s experimentation with federalism and constitutionally limited federal government were fantastic mechanisms for limiting the scope of government and decentralizing authority. Unfortunately,
- the poor incentive structure of representative democracy, and
- the lure of centralization
have helped undermine decentralization and the limited federal government it requires.
If the slogan of the American revolution was “No Taxation without Representation”, the modern equivalent should be “No Legislation without Good Representation.” Representative democracy was certainly a step up during the American revolution, in fact it was most likely the best representation you could provide in a large nation where direct democracy is too difficult to coordinate. We now know that, in practice, representative democracy simply turns our politicians into a metaphorical rope for a tug of war between special interests groups. By “special interest groups,” I mean both
- well-funded interest groups that are absolutely necessary to succeed in a significant election, and
- regions of voters (for congressional elections) that will benefit from rent-seeking legislation.
Both examples of special interests create the same effect: a small tax on the population to benefit a small faction of the population. Individually, this effect is insignificant in cost to the voters, but in aggregate when examined over generations the effect is a massive inefficiency that benefits no one.
With modern technology, there is no reason for us to restrict ourselves to only periodically electing a small and fixed set of representatives that go on to represent us for years on a massive set of issues. Using the internet and some form of decentralized identity, we can imagine a simple system where everyone gets one vote for every issue that would have otherwise been voted on by congress. Representatives do save us time though, so this system could also be expanded to let us defer to other individuals (friends, family, or formal politicians if you want) that get to vote for us. The system wouldn’t require a full sacrifice of voting power to another person though, it could defer voting power on a set of issues while retaining it for the issues an individual cares about the most. This system (“delegative democracy”) would eliminate a lot of the special interest conflicts that exist today.
“Decentralization may not always be efficient, especially for standardized, routine, network-based services. It can result in the loss of economies of scale and control over scarce financial resources by the central government. Weak administrative or technical capacity at local levels may result in services being delivered less efficiently and effectively in some areas of the country.” World Bank - “What is Decentralization”
In 1861, when the United States government was not issuing a standard currency, there were roughly 7,000 unique state bank notes in circulation.1 Without modern technology, bank notes “[depreciated] in proportion to its distance from [the issuing bank].”2 The greenback was issued in 1862 to fund the Civil war, but having a central legal tender at the time was also somewhat beneficial because, as long as it wasn’t inflated into the ground, it made doing business across the country much easier and removed the unintentional location tax that decentralized bank notes created.
Decentralization without technology can create logistical headaches like managing a massive number of competing bank notes that depreciate when you travel. Coupled with the need to fund the civil war, centralization seems preferrable if you have some degree of trust in the federal government not abusing the power.
“People-based trust systems don’t scale beyond Dunbar’s number. Technology-based trust systems scale virtually without limit” Johann Gevers in The Four Pillars of a Decentralized Society
As the video “The Four Pillars of a Decentralized Society” (above) argues, centralization might have been a useful scaffold to achieve a wealthier society, but technology should allow us to return to our decentralized nature. With modern technology, we should shift to decentralizated communication, law, production, and finance.
Bitcoin decentralizes currency without creating the massive logistical inefficiencies that depreciating regional bank notes presented. Like email, bitcoin can be used to pay someone on the other side of the world for the same amount of time and money as paying your neighbor. Even without bitcoin though we can assume that, being able to contact anyone in the online world, the logistical issues of the 1860s would be far less pronounced with modern technology. The conclusion is clear: modern technology makes a decentralized society far more realistic and far less costly.
“We are rapidly entering the age of no privacy, where everyone is open to surveillance at all times; where there are no secrets from government” William O. Douglas
It might seem contradictory for me to be interested in privacy given how much I am sharing about myself in this page. To be more specific, I am interested in being able to choose to be private when you want. The amount of effort and knowledge required to live privately has grown in proportion to technology’s role in society. I don’t think this trend will change any time soon, so instead I’m interested in exploring technology that
- allows people to opt back in to privacy and
- makes opting back in to privacy easier for the layperson
“The greatest discovery of my generation is that human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” William James
“Human behavior” is incredibly engaging to study and extremely valuable to understand. Between
- understanding the behavior of others
- the evolutionary underpinnings of behavior
- the science behind persuasion and
- the flaws that can lead to irrational behavior
1. Social Psychology
“Situational variables can exert powerful influences over human behavior, more so that we recognize or acknowledge.” Philip G. Zimbardo
Humans are social creatures, we can learn an outstanding amount about how we behave and how others will behave when placed into certain circumstances. Findings in research on priming, deindividuation, and the bystander effect all seem counter-intuitive to how we expect to behave. Knowing the intricacies of social psychology can be immensely valuable for improving your ability to predict your own behavior and others’ behavior.
2. Behavioral Economics
“There are 3 factors that the science shows lead to better performance … autonomy, mastery, and purpose”
Contrary to traditional economics humans are far from rational actors, and behavioral economics is the essential psychological complement to traditional economics.
Behavioral economics is valuable because it both gives examples of when we should override our instincts in favor of rational economic thinking:
Sunk Cost Fallacy
The Misconception: You make rational decisions based on the future value of objects, investments and experiences.
The Truth: Your decisions are tainted by the emotional investments you accumulate, and the more you invest in something the harder it becomes to abandon it.
You Are Not So Smart Blog - The Sunk Cost Fallacy
and provides insight on when our instinctive behavior may sometimes be preferable to the economic alternative:
The ultimatum game is a game often played in economic experiments in which two players interact to decide how to divide a sum of money that is given to them. The first player proposes how to divide the sum between the two players, and the second player can either accept or reject this proposal.
In industrialized cultures, people offer “fair” (i.e., 50:50) splits, and offers of less than 20% are often rejected.
Since an individual who rejects a positive offer is choosing to get nothing rather than something, that individual must not be acting solely to maximize his economic gain. … Similar results from other small-scale societies players have led some researchers to conclude that “reputation” is seen as more important than any economic reward.
Wikipedia - Ultimatum Game
3. Evolutionary Psychology
Homo sapiens were not designed for modern society. I think the way our behavior & personality is driven, in part, by evolutionary preference and biological variables is fascinating. The fact that higher testosterone levels promotes selfish and antisocial behavioral raises questions about identity, free will, self-control, and responsibility. Research on female preference across ovulatory cycles brings the validity of societal constructs like marriage into question.
4. Influence & Persuasion
Understanding how you can shape the language and presentation of your requests to boost compliance rates has obvious value. For example understanding people’s preference to act consistently might be a useful tool for informing how to frame a request like asking a friend a favor.
Beyond studying psychological influence as a tool to persuade others, the topic is also very useful for suppressing common instincts that can hurt rational decision making and allow others to take advantage of you. For example, being aware of the fact that you, as a human, have the same strong preference for consistency is useful when it comes to evaluating new information that contradicts a long-held belief. By understanding how your mind will want to respond you can attempt to counteract the effect by giving contradictory new information a bit more attention. In terms of self-defense, being cognizant of the power of reciprocity can be very useful for thwarting a salesman’s attempt at taking advantage of this instinct in order to sell something.
5. Rationality & Cognitive Bias
“Order makes it easier to be a person, to navigate this sloppy world. You’re born looking for clusters where chance events have built up like sand into dunes. Picking out clusters of coincidences is a predictable malfunction of a normal human mind.”
“Rational” decision making has obvious benefits, but spending even a few minutes reading about cognitive biases and common fallacies makes it painfully obvious that humans are naturally terrible at rational decision making. I think humans are a long way away from perfect rationality, but I think there is a lot of value in studying common patterns of irrationality with the hope of being reducing my frequency of irrational thinking over time.
Entrepreneurship & Startups
Entrepreneurship is often treated as an umbrella term and has grown fairly ambiguous as a result. “Entrepreneurship”, “business”, and “startup” all carry a lot of societal baggage through the numerous associations people tend to tie to the topics. These facts compel me to clarify my language before moving further in to the topic. Entrepreneurship, at its core, is simply taking the risk of starting a business. Startups are a subset of businesses with high growth potential as well as products and business models that can scale with growth.
Beyond these more strict definitions I would say that a business also inherently creates value for society in some fashion. Thus, a business must either create something new or otherwise improve upon an existing process, product, or service. This may seem to go without saying, but there are many product spaces that have nearly identical products introduced on a regular basis. For example google “social discovery iphone app startup” or checkout posts on TechCrunch tagged “Photo Sharing”.
Entrepreneurship is incredibly enticing because successful businesses do improve society in some fashion. Startups specifically are attractive because their optimization for growth amplifies their potential for societal benefit. Internet / computer science startups are even further stacked for potential societal impact. Stanford’s Startup Engineering course breaks down these variables very well:
The Key Features of Internet Startups (Paraphrased)
- Operational Scalability - For the ﬁrst time in history, it is now feasible for an average person to asynchronously trade with someone across the globe at any time of day without special hardware.
- Market Size - Even from a purely national perspective, a business in North Dakota can suddenly market its wares over the internet to the entire country, no longer constrained by mere geography (or protected by it). It’s still not trivial to scale across borders or states, but the practically addressable market size has never been larger.
- Generality - Software is the most general product imaginable. Software encompasses ideas (news, blogs), entertainment (music, movies), material goods (3D printing, CAD/CAM), communications (email, social networks, mobile phones), transportation (electric cars, self-driving cars), energy (smart grids, adaptive braking), medicine (genomics, EHRs), and more besides.
- Low Capital Barriers - When a mechanic needs a special kind of wrench to ﬁx a car, he needs to order that physical object and hope it’s in stock. By contrast, when a computer scientist needs a special kind of tool to ﬁx a ﬁle format, he needs only to type furiously into a keyboard to fashion that tool out of pure electrons.
- Low Regulatory Barriers - Unlike virtually every physical arena, the internet is still mostly unregulated, especially for smaller businesses.
- Open Source - The internet is built on open-source technologies such as Linux, Apache, nginx, Postgres, PHP, Python, Ruby, node, Bittorrent, Webkit, and the like.
- The Long Tail - The sheer scale of the internet enables a second phenomenon: Not only is it possible to address markets of unprecedented size, it is now feasible to address markets of unprecedented speciﬁcity.
- Failure Tolerance - When a car crashes or a drug is contaminated, people die and new regulations are inevitably passed. The presumption is often that crashes are due to negligence or proﬁt-driven, corner-cutting malevolence rather than random error or user error. Yet when Google or Facebook crashes, people generally yawn and wait for the site to come back up.
- Amenable to Titration - In addition to all of the above features, it is possible to build a hybrid business in which some aspects remain constrained by the physical world with aspects of the internet startup titrated in to the maximum extent possible.
Balaji S. Srinivasan - Introduction to Startup Engineering
Using the literal meaning of prefix “trans”, transhumanism simply means beyond human. More specifically, transhumanism is “an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal at fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” The topic sounds very sci-fi, but taking a few steps back from every day life makes it much more clear how services we take for granted, like Wikipedia or Google, act as incredible scaffolds for drastically enhancing human intelligence, memory, and learning. One could argue that these services do not enhance human intellect themselves, but instead provide greater access to information, but along with advancements in access to information humanity is also creating tighter integration of these services into the every day human life.
Google glass, for example, is designed so that its display always sits in the users peripheral vision and actually transmits audio through vibrations in the user’s cranial bone, effectively making it one of the first pieces of technology to be omnipresent in the user’s conscious mind while still being practical in every day life and potentially marketable to the average consumer.
With the rapid progression of technology how long will it be until we see the first equivalent product that is indistinguishable from traditional glasses? What about contact lenses and audio implants? It’s not like people aren’t experimenting.
Beyond technological integration and access to information: what about cognitive and physical enhancements to the natural human state? There are communities growing rapidly around Nootropics, Biohacking, and the Quantified Self Movement, all with the common generalized objective of using technology to improve their mind and/or body for the better.
On a personal level, my interest in transhumanism is a means of discovering and implementing new ways to make my life and myself better. At its core transhumanism is an interest in the future and participation in the transhumanist movement is the choice to take risks with technology in order to be one of the first that reaps the benefits.
I ended up putting The Regulated on pause to work on BitX, and now that I am working on BlockScore I’ve stopped paying for hosting for The Regulated. I really hope to get back to this project in the future.
Feel free to send me an email or connect to me through any of the mediums above.