Friday, October 14, 2016

Using Electrum on an air-gapped machine

Securely storing bitcoin is hard. Most people trust a third party, like Coinbase, to keep their bitcoin safe. But these third parties are big targets for hackers and indeed many have been hacked and lost their clients' funds. People who are truly security conscious keep their own wallet on an air-gapped machine that never connects to a network.

I like using Electrum for my wallet software but I've had trouble figuring out how to use it on an air-gapped machine for two reasons. First, the Ubuntu installation instructions for Electrum use apt-get and python setup tools, both of which require a network connection to download dependencies. This is a no-go if you want to have an air-gapped machine which has never touched the network.

Secondly, Electrum translates data into a custom base 43 format before encoding it in QR codes. QR codes are a secure way of transferring data such as signed transactions off of an air-gapped machine. But I ran into a problem that other software doesn't recognize bitcoin data in base 43 strings and there weren't online tools for translating from base 43 to a more common format.

Let's tackle the second problem first. I wrote a little web tool that will convert Electrum QR data into a format that bitcoin understands. It's at

So let's say you transfer a transaction off of an air-gapped machine using an Electrum QR code and you get data that looks like this:

If you paste that into, it will translate the data into a hex string that bitcoin understands. You can then decode that data into a human-readable json object here or broadcast it to the bitcoin network here

So that's one problem taken care of. What about installing electrum onto an offline Ubuntu machine? Electrum installation requires two Debian packages (python-qt4 and python-pip) and a host of python dependencies that are usually handled by network-enabled package managers. After much digging, I've found a way to do that and I wrote a guide here

I hope this helps you keep your bitcoin secure with Electrum. Stay safe and have fun with bitcoin!

Thursday, October 6, 2016

My Interchange Journey

Like a lot of people I know, I used to be afraid of experiencing other people’s emotions. At restaurants, I said my food was good when it wasn’t so that the staff wouldn’t experience anger or shame. I avoided talking about problems in my relationship with my girlfriend because who knows what box of emotions that would unleash. If I saw someone in visible distress, I avoided them. I figured it was someone else’s responsibility to help them. What could I do?

That changed drastically over the last 12 months. I am a hundred times more free in expressing my thoughts and feelings in all sorts of situations. Whatever outcome I feared would happen doesn’t happen. Most of the time kindly expressing my opinions makes my relationships more real and satisfying. 

Ignoring emotions didn’t make them go away. I used to have this voice in my head ruminating on all the things I wished I had said but didn’t. But when I speak up, I find that inner neurotic voice is silenced. In some circles, they call this achievement “inner peace”. The trade-off is that I live a more vulnerable life because people know what I really think. It's a worthwhile trade. 

Another big change for me is that I go towards people in distress instead of away from them. I think I’m a pretty good person to have around when you need somebody. This change in my self-concept still feels new to me and I'm proud of it. 

I trace these changes back to the year-long counseling training I went through at Interchange. I learned from some other places too[0], but Interchange was the biggest piece. It bills itself as a counseling and personal growth program. But what I learned about was how to be a human. I learned how to let people see my emotions and how to be with other people’s emotions. My EQ went through the roof.

It turns out to be easy to be useful to people in distress - acknowledge what they’re going through and don’t try to fix them! Americans need to be trained out of fixing people and denying negative emotions. You have to be able to tolerate what’s there instead of pasting happy faces all over everything. The first counseling practice at Interchange is literally sitting in attentive silence while the client tells you about their problem for a few minutes. If you can do this successfully then you are in the 90th percentile of the population in terms of counseling.

Me and Steve at Interchange, demonstrating an exercise designed to examine our anger through simulated road rage

The most valuable thing about Interchange is that it provides a safe container for people to practice being real with each other. During the training, I spent hundreds of hours having real interactions with people. We helped each other explore our inner emotional landscape. They cried. I cried. It was intense, magical, and cathartic. 

Interchange was great to me and at the center of my life over the past 12 months, so I want to tell people about that specific program and endorse it on my blog. The next year-long training starts on October 22nd[1]. It’s the best way I’ve found to rapidly increase your emotional intelligence. 

But on a larger scale, I think all people need safe spaces to be real with each other. We have a massive deficit of it in our society - it’s emotional malnourishment. Most of us hide what we’re feeling from our friends and family, some of us hide our emotions from our fucking therapists. 

Our culture still suffers from the idea that therapy is something you do when there is something wrong with you. You are broken and need to be fixed. For a lot of us, the only time we open up to anybody is when something is terribly wrong. It’s the same way we mistreat our bodies by only caring about health when we get sick. 

Humans are not machines that sometimes break and need a mechanic. Humans are organic creatures that are constantly growing and changing. If you’re going to use a metaphor, use a plant. It constantly needs a certain amount of water and nutrition and if it gets what it needs it grows. We need some amount of constant emotional nourishment to stay healthy.  

Modern life is confusing. Things have changed so fast. We’re not built for it. The institutions that people relied on for emotional nourishment for centuries are disappearing or changing. And maybe they were never very good to start with. We need to help each other feel like we aren’t alone and have a home in this world. 

I feel uncomfortable giving a full-throated endorsement of something, even Interchange. It's the best program I've ever done but it isn't perfect. So I want to end with some criticism to provide you with a balanced cross-section of my judgements of it. 

Interchange is based on an optimistic humanism that comes from people like Carl Rogers and Harvey Jackins. In the program you practice believing that other people are fundamentally good, interesting, and capable. It’s a powerful counseling stance. But sometimes it sounds naive and it might not be the right approach for a counselor working with a smart, skeptical client. 

I worry about groupthink at Interchange. There isn’t much nuance in what is taught and there aren’t many skeptical voices. This is partly because a community based on this kind of Humanism feels so nice to be in. When I brought up a skeptical point of view, I was the one harshing the good vibes.

Also, most of the students came from similar ideological places. I grew up in a cult so I feel uncomfortable being around unanimous ideological agreement. But when I expressed this discomfort, other students reached out to me and didn’t push me away. There may not be a lot of critical discussion but it feels like Interchange can handle it when it does happen.

Interchange is a great place to practice emotional intelligence and learn counseling. It is not a complete source of all the spiritual nourishment that you need to grow as a human. In particular, between the humanism and the social justice, it’s an epistemically sloppy place. Truth is not highly valued besides the supposed "truths" taught by humanism and social justice. If there were a package deal with Interchange and CFAR training together, that would balance out Interchange with the values that are missing.

Being founded by a progressive teacher named Steve Bearman, Interchange promotes some ideas from the social justice movement which are divisive and, in my opinion, poorly supported[2]. It's a harsh note mixed in with the humanism. White men were unkindly singled out and stereotyped a few times. Marxist models of the world are presented without consideration of other points of view that better map to reality. I spent a few nights lying awake and composing angry messages to the Facebook group. Gradually, I built more social and emotional resources and it bothered me less.

Most of the time when social justice and humanism conflict at Interchange, the humanism wins. For example, during exercises where we were instructed to practice radical honesty with each other, one of the more radical progressive students inevitably objected to the exercise on the grounds that people who aren't white men might be exposed to "oppressive" opinions. In response, Steve gently expressed that he had faith that the students could handle it. Learning goals were valued ahead of progressive orthodoxy.

Between the bitter taste of righteous anger in social justice and the sweetness in humanism, the sweetness wins out by something like a 9 to 1 ratio. Interchange is a personal project of Steve's and this reflects his background and values. You can't really change Interchange without changing Steve, and Steve's been into social justice for 2 or 3 decades. I've made my peace with it and I highly value my experience and expect to learn more from Interchange. 

Despite these caveats, I found Interchange to be a brilliant, daring, creative program. It catalyzed an incredible year for me. I believe in myself and I believe in my capacity to grow and change for the better. Check it out, or something like it. In terms of happiness, investing in your emotional intelligence is the highest-yield investment you can make.

[0] Stanford Business School's "touchy-feely" class, Nonviolent Communication, Buddhism, and eXperience the Game were other resources that led me down this path.

[1] Full-disclosure, Interchange offers referral incentives to graduates. So if you take the course and tell them you heard about it from me, I get money.

[2] For example, Steve often uses the concepts of class conflict, oppression, and privilege to model how the world works. These are a staple of the social justice/progressive worldview, but I think they are simplistic and overused.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Time Orientation of Politics

The two major political orientations in American politics are conservative and progressive. But this pattern is not distinctly American - it is widespread throughout history. Late Republican Rome had their own conservative and progressive factions: the Optimates and the Populares. These orientations are persistent because they derive from basic psychological attitudes towards time.

Conservatives love what is. They delight in the present and the particular. They tend to be older than progressives. People become more conservative as they age and fall in love with the world. Conservatives in different places have little in common with each other because they want to preserve different things. Conservatism is local.

Progressives are in love with the future. Progressive thought tends to be abstract and speculative. It measures the present against its ideals and finds it wanting. At its best, progressivism is the conscience of society. At its worst, it is an overactive, guilty conscience that turns into puritanism. Young people, filled with a desire to leave a dent in the universe, tend to be progressive.

Reading these descriptions you might be tempted to pick which side is right. But this is the wrong way to go about it. These are two basic poles of the human psyche and they need each other to be whole. Every human institution is polarized in this way. Even a group of progressive activists will have its more conservative and progressive members*. Split a magnet in half and what you have is two half-sized magnets, fractally, down to the polarization of individual atoms.

It is the task of wisdom to balance these two impulses within individuals and within human institutions. Both orientations have failure modes when they are allowed to dominate.

The failure mode of conservatism is latching on too tightly to the existing arrangement of things. When conservatism is well balanced, it is the skeleton of society, defender of things worth defending. When it becomes too entrenched it calcifies the body politic. The society fails to address a building problem until it is too late and bursts forth into catastrophe.

The failure mode of progressivism is impatience. When progressives change things too quickly, they destroy pieces of the old order without regards to their value. The fragile, irreplaceable beauty of the world is sacrificed in service of some promised future utopia. Often, there is great bloodshed, such as in the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Iconoclasm in its old sense - the destruction of icons - is solely an actively of progressives.

In the abstract, both suffer from impossibility. The conservative must make peace that the present cannot stay the same and the progressive that the task of eliminating evil eventually generates negative returns.

The continuum of time is split into past, present, and future and so far we have discovered political attitudes that correspond to two of the three: present -> conservative and future -> progressive. There is one other basic political orientation but it is less common: the reactionary. Reaction is in love with things past.

To explain reaction and how it influences modern politics would be a large tangent that would distract from the elegant model so far developed in this post. So I will leave that for later. But a healthy psyche or good society will also balance reactionary feeling with conservative and progressive.

* Progressive movements, driven by the fuel of righteous anger, are especially tempted to purify the whole by purging more conservative members. See the infighting of the modern social justice movement, or more spectacular bloody purges of the past:

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Stuck in the Muck

I have a hard time organizing my life in the adult world. How do I choose what to spend my time on? This is a difficult question.

If I have a pressing physical need, then the answer is obvious. I will try to address that physical need in a graceful way. For example, if I need money to pay for rent, I will find a job doing some good in the world, in a way that uses my existing talents and helps me develop new ones. That is how I chose my last job.

Over the last year I did not work at a job. I was able to take a year off thanks to money I saved, support from loved ones, and a little bit of luck. Without the constraint of work I come into direct confrontation with the burning question of how to spend my time.

I thought being jobless would be a paradise. Sometimes it is a blessing. I am grateful for the freedom to pursue experiences, retreats, and courses of study that are hard or impossible for the employed to enjoy.

But other times the jobless life is hell. I wallow in agony with how to spend my time. I hit the back of my head against the wall behind my bed and groan.

The problem is not lack of options. I can think of so many worthwhile ways to spend my time. On a typical day I rapidly fluctuate back and forth between 5 of them. I practice guitar for 5 minutes. I start on an essay. I start writing a list of friends I want to spend time with. I open up a code editor.

In the swamp of infinite choices, I get stuck. I make no forward progress on any one thing and I start to feel frustrated. This is where the groaning and banging my head against the wall comes in. So much is started but nothing is finished. Another day went by with nothing to show.

My energy starts to flag and along with it my will. I might start to read articles on the internet - never just one piece, but about eight articles at a time. My attention will flow back and forth between the tabs, split into tiny pieces. Maybe in despair I will go for a walk or find a friend. Then I feel better for awhile.

I think to myself that I should multitask less and single-task more. So over the weeks I make progress in fighting one media addiction or another. But it is not enough. I crave some ordering principle, something to work towards, something that will limit the infinite possibilities that each day presents to me.

Over the months, I make a little forward motion. But it is condensed into 4 or 5 days a month that feel worthwhile. In those, I have some new experience in which I feel that I make forward progress, such as teaching a workshop or attending one. Most of my time is spent on little of importance.

I am operating well below peak capacity. For a man, this is a slow death. We are creatures meant to be used. I feel of little use to anybody.

I am disconnected from the web of meaning. The most meaningful things I do are trainings that I hope will give me skills that one day may be useful to people. But I am not much use now.

The times of my life I felt the least lost were college and grad school. The several classes I took at any one time gave my life structure and variety. My daily efforts pointed to a long-term goal of earning a degree. I had flexibility - between each rigorous semester there was a long break to recharge and travel. And I had the social support of friends who were working with me.

I think to myself that with the infinite freedom of the real world I could craft a program of learning that was more gratifying than any college could offer. But I need help. I can’t craft it on my own. There is too much flexibility, too many good options.

I need a guidance counselor for life.

My money will run out eventually and I will need to get a job. Probably. That will solve my problem. But I would much rather solve it by learning how to live gracefully as a free soul.

Friday, July 29, 2016

"Too Far"

A common obstacle in personal growth work is the fear of going too far.

For example, I recently attended a retreat to learn how to be more open to connection with other human beings. I had an impulse to hold back. I thought, what if I’m 100% open to everybody? I live in a crowded city full of human suffering. My life would become unlivable if I stopped to take in the humanity of each person that I passed. I would have to become like Jesus or something.

I see the same type of worry about “going all the way” among the participants in a workshop I teach based on the book Radical Honesty. Wouldn’t it be hard to live 100% honest all the time?

As we stretch into new ways of being, the fear of going too far is mostly unfounded. Naturally, I’m about 5% open. Most people are probably ~10% honest (I’m just a little bit more, and I practice it). The chances are tiny that any person will achieve 100% openness or honesty even for a second.

The purpose of personal growth activities is to give ourselves more options for how we relate to the world - more tools in the tool kit. It takes purposeful effort to hold ourselves in the new practice for the hours or days that a workshop lasts. At the end, we naturally return to our old ways of being. Our default patterns of behavior have momentum.

If all goes well, your growth process will look something like this:
So don’t sabotage your learning by holding back. Commit to the practice for a set period of time and play hard. Commitment is an important meta-skill in personal growth.

At the retreat I attended, commitment worked well for me. I went into it knowing that I had some philosophical differences with the leader. But rather than spend the week in philosophical debate I made a commitment to fully engage with the teachings. I’d try it on and see what was good about it.

I caught myself in a cynical mindset holding back from the practice about once every two days. But my commitment to fully engage helped me become mindful of my internal state and dive back into the practice.

The result was that I achieved a new state of openness and empathy that feels good to inhabit. I'm a low-empathy, "tough", independent male who has been shaped that way by circumstances. Practicing empathy is good for me - it corrects my natural imbalances. Having the memory of this new empathic state, I have the option of choosing more empathy in other parts of my life. And I’m still comfortably far from Jesus levels of empathy.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Fog of Confusion

I live in a fog of confusion. I don’t know, I can’t know, everything about a topic before I speak. And yet I speak anyway. I find that expressing my viewpoint brings me into contact with the viewpoints most important for me to hear.

In order to speak, I must at some point accept my imperfection, accept ignorance, accept certain shame that I was not more diligent before speaking. This is the fastest way for me to learn what I do not know.

In the programming world, there is a saying “RTFM”: “Read the Fucking Manual”. It means that you should do your own research and attempt to answer your own questions before asking others.

But in life wisdom, in politics, in society, what is the manual? It is impossible to RTFM. Let us be ignorant together and have compassion for each others’ ignorance.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Liberty in the Reputation Economy

Libertarianism is a perfectly fine ideology, one crafted with loving care. It’s joints are bound together with impressive internal consistency, it boasts a number of high-status followers, and its long heritage lends it gravitas like an Elizabethan clock.

But it’s old. The world has changed. Our needs have changed. Who needs a hand-wound clock the size of a cabinet when we’ve got digital watches that read tweets to us?

Sadly, the piece that’s most showing its age is the very core of the system - the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP). For the benefit of the uninitiated, the NAP is the central feature of libertarian moral and legal reasoning. It states that it’s wrong to harm another person’s body or property through force or fraud. A prohibition against “force or fraud” is pretty much the whole of the libertarian law. Otherwise do what thou will.

Not all libertarianisms are NAP fundamentalists, but all of them are influenced by the NAP. I believe the NAP is a great start for a good society. Safety from violence makes possible the exploration of many different kinds of social arrangements - commercial and noncommercial. The NAP or some approximation to it is essential for human flourishing.

Once upon a time, when the economy was made up almost exclusively of physical goods, the NAP was almost a sufficient legal code for a good society. But now it feels incomplete. There’s a hole in the ideal legal code where something more is needed. If the word “libertarianism” needs to remain as a static pointer to NAP-based philosophies for reasons of historical legibility, then I recommend upgrading your label to something else - “post-libertarian” perhaps.

Where does this hole come from? We live in the age of the reputation economy. Much of what we value is not physical and we are vulnerable to harm from non-physical means. Our reputations are among the most valuable capital we possess, and they are online, global, permanent, and auditable by anyone we encounter.

And these reputations are vulnerable. An assault on our reputation can be devastating without doing anything that qualifies as “force or fraud” under the NAP. The target of a social media mob can lose their job, reputation, funding, and social connections. Attempted assaults succeed and fail without much regard for whether they are justified or not. They are semi-random acts of destruction.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be mugged than suffer a reputation assassination. A twitter mob can do much more psychological and financial damage to me than a street tough that takes my wallet and iphone. Even the physical toll can be higher, as some victims of online mobs are bullied into suicidal ideation.

The job of the State is to maintain a monopoly on violence. An ideal libertarian state will use this monopoly to enforce the NAP (how to create such an ideal state is an exercise left to the reader). When the State loses its monopoly on violence things of value are lost. People come together in groups of armed bandits. Social trust disappears and commerce dries up. A society ruled by a violence monopolist is much nicer than a society ruled by a thousand petty tyrants.

“A thousand petty tyrants” exactly describes the state of the reputation economy. Social media is an anarchy, a wild-west.

Gawker media was one such petty tyrant. It has made a business out of shaming, outing, and attacking people. Founder Nick Denton’s plan to make millions of ad dollars is right there in the business name: people are drawn to gawking at the pain of others, so report on that. If there isn’t enough pain in the world, create more of it.

The Non-Aggression Principle offers no basis from which to criticize Gawker. I’ve seen a few self-styled libertarians defending its actions. Sure, sometimes it publishes outright lies, e.g. by accusing celebrities of rape. But a lot of what it prints is true. A video of a person being raped is fact. Outing a gay person is reporting fact. Sharing a non-consensual sex tape is fact. But it’s still incredibly damaging.

There is a way out of this dilemma. First we note that not all anarchies are the same. Social norms against violence can make them relatively safe and productive environments. In the American old west, the nearest law enforcement official was often far away and most people were armed. But violence was relatively rare. In the absence of formal law, a network of informal agreements and cultural norms made it unprofitable to be a violent thug.

In the analogy of the Wild West, Gawker media is like a drunk gunman opening fire indiscriminately in a saloon. They’ve hurt a lot of people - some powerful, some not, and seldom for a good reason. For the good of everyone, and to set an example, they needed to suffer some consequences.

Fortunately, the formal law recognized a right to privacy which allowed Hulk Hogan to successfully sue Gawker media. The reputation economy isn’t quite the Wild West. This isn’t enforced much of the time, but high profile verdicts like the Gawker case might encourage some to play nice.

In the absence of formal law, group norms that limit aggression would make society a better place. Reputation assassination is a kind of power and power competitions without rules are a recipe for scorched-earth conflict.

Not all reputational attack is bad. Sometimes it is justified. But it shouldn’t be without cost - that's a recipe for an internet overrun by sadistic trolls who get their lulz out of attacking people. If there were some risk of a cultural backlash against people who are too enthusiastic about attacking others, we would all be more safe.

The principle I suggest for determining whether or not an attack is justified is probably something like a right to privacy. Privacy is a fundamental plank of liberty, as enshrined in the fourth amendment to the US Constitution.

The legal philosophy demonstrated embedded in the Fourth Amendment is incredibly pro-liberty. It protects a sphere of private action from government surveillance. This renders overly intrusive laws as unenforceable. The state can ban, mandate, and regulate whatever activity they like. But if that activity doesn’t impact the public sphere in some way, there is no way for the state to know it is happening.

Privacy allows the evolution of civil society outside the watchful eye of the state. Every activity which was ever decriminalized happened because a culture of its practice grew in private. Without privacy, the state could reach 100% enforcement and bans against alcohol, marijuana, or sodomy likely wouldn't have been overturned.

Most libertarians support the Fourth Amendment. But the Fourth Amendment only protects us from the government. A good society also demands privacy protection from the multitudinous warlords of social media.