Schoolkid fights, blockchain and smart contracts

So I’ve been trying to understand the whole blockchain thing better, since people nowadays seem to be wanting to use it for all kinds of contracts (even the investment bankers are taking interest, which suggests there’s some potential out there 😛 ).

One of the things I’ve been doing is to read this book (PDF) on Blockchain by Arvind Narayanan and co at Princeton. It’s an easy to read, yet comprehensive, take on bitcoin and cryptocurrency technologies, the maths behind it and so on.

And as I’ve been reading it, I’ve been developing my own oversimplified model of what blockchain and smart contracts are, and this is my take at explaining it.

Imagine that Alice and Bob are two schoolkids and they’ve entered into a contract which states that if Alice manages to climb a particular tree, Bob will give her a bar of chocolate. Alice duly climbs the tree and claims the chocolate, at which point Bob flatly denies that she climbed it and refuses to give her the chocolate. What is Alice to do?

In the conventional “contract world”, all that Alice can do is to take the contract that she and Bob had signed (assume they had formalised it) and take it to a court of law (a schoolteacher, perhaps, in this case), which will do its best possible in order to determine whether she actually climbed the tree, and then deliver the judgment.

As you may imagine, in the normal schoolkid world, going to a teacher for adjudicating on whether someone climbed a tree (most likely an “illegal” activity by school rules) is not the greatest way to resolve the fight. Instead, either Alice and Bob will try to resolve it by themselves, or call upon their classmates to do the same. This is where the blockchain comes in.

Simply put, in terms of the blockchain “register”, as long as more than half of Alice and Bob’s classmates agree that she climbed the tree, she is considered to have climbed the tree, and Bob will be liable to give her chocolate. In other words, the central “trusted third party” gets replaced by a decentralised crowd of third parties where the majority decision is taken to be the “truth”.

Smart contracts take this one step further. Bob will give the bar of chocolates to the collective trust of his classmates (the adjudicators). And if a majority of them agree that Alice did climb the tree, the chocolate will be automatically given to her. If not, it will come back to Bob. What blockchain technologies allow for is to write code in a clever manner so that this can get executed automatically.

This might be a gross oversimplification, but this is exactly how the blockchain works. Each transaction is considered “valid” and put into the blockchain if a majority of nodes agrees it’s valid. And in order to ensure that this voting doesn’t get rigged, the nodes (or judges) need to perform a difficult computational puzzle in order to be able to vote – this imposes an artificial cost of voting which makes sure that it’s not possible to rig the polls unless you can take over more than half the nodes – and in a global blockchain where you have a really large number of nodes, this is not feasible.

So when you see that someone is building a blockchain based solution for this or that, you might wonder whether it actually makes sense. All you need to do is to come back to this schoolkid problem – for the kind of dispute that is likely to arise from this problem, would the parties prefer to go to a mutually trusted third party, or leave it to the larger peer group to adjudicate? Using the blockchain is a solution if and only if the latter case is true.

Selling yourself for job and consulting

So for the first time in over eight years, I’m looking for a job. This was primarily prompted by my move to London earlier this year – a consulting business where you rely on networks rather than a global brand to get new business cannot be easily transplanted. Moreover, as I’d written a year back, a lot of the objectives of the “portfolio life” have been achieved, so I’m willing to let go of the optionality.

While writing a “Cover Letter” for a job application yesterday I realised what makes selling yourself for a job so much harder than selling yourself for a consulting assignment – in the former case, you need to also communicate a “larger purpose”.

For the last 5-6 years I’ve been mostly selling myself for consulting assignments, and while it hasn’t been easy, all I’ve needed to do to sell has been to convince the potential client that I’ll do a good job solving whatever problem they have, and that my fees is a worthy investment for them. And to some extent I’ve become better over the years making such arguments.

When you’re applying for a job, you not only have to convince the counterparty that you’ll be good at whatever you need to do, and that you are worth the salary that you are asking for, but also need to argue how the job will “improve your life”. You need to explain to them why the job fits in to the list of stuff you’ve already done in your life. You need to talk about where you see yourself 5/10/50 years from now. You need to actually express interest in the job, and irrespective of how mundane the job description, you need to act like it’s the most exciting job ever.

And this is a part I haven’t been good at, basically since I haven’t done any of it for a long time now. And in any case, this is a part of the cover letter that people routinely bluff about, so I don’t know if recruiters even take this part seriously. In any case, I’ve been filling most of my cover letters so far with explanations of how I’ll do an awesome job of the job, and keeping only a cursory line or two about “how the job will improve my life”!

Giving up your seat

So the wife has done a kind of sociological analysis of who offers seats to baby-carrying people on the London Metro. Based on the data points she’s collected over the last three months we’ve been in London, she concludes that people who are most willing to give up their seats are those who have been beneficiaries of similar actions in the past – basically a social capital kind of argument.

I don’t have such an overarching thesis on who gives up seats, but one major observation based on my collection of data points. Most of my train rides with Berry have been between Ealing Broadway, the station closest to where we live, and St. Paul’s in Central London, close to Berry’s nursery and Pinky’s office.

The Central Line, which I take for this journey, is typically crowded in both directions, since most of my trips are during peak office commute hours. However, my experience in terms of people offering me a seat (I’ve never asked for it) has been very different in terms of where I’ve boarded.

What I’ve found is that people have been far more willing to give up their seats when I’ve boarded at St. Paul’s (or anywhere else in the city), than at Ealing. In fact, in about 30-40 train rides originating in Ealing when I’ve been carrying Berry, I only recall one occasion when someone has offered me their seat. On the other hand, it’s rare for me to board at St Paul’s and NOT have someone offer me their seat.

I have one major hypothesis on why it happens – on what goes into getting a seat, and a sense of entitlement. Essentially, Ealing Broadway is a terminus for the tube, and thus an originating station for journeys into town. And I’ve seen people work hard in order to get a seat.

So you have people who leave multiple trains in order to find one where they can find a seat. They get to the station well in advance of a train leaving so that they can get a place to sit. And having invested so much effort in occupying the seat, they feel entitled to the seat, and don’t want to give it up so easily.

On the other hand, St. Paul’s is right in the middle of the Central Line, and people who have seats when the train arrives there are typically those who got them somewhere along the way. Now, while there exist strategies to figure out where a seat might fall empty, and grabbing it, finding a seat in a non-empty train after you’ve boarded is more a matter of luck.

So if you think you got your seat by sheer luck, you feel less entitled to it, and are more than happy to give it up for someone who might have need it more!

Feel free to draw your own analogies!

How children change your lives

Over the years I’ve developed this fairly elaborate process of eating curd rice. First I serve myself the rice, and then allow it to cool. Then I pour over curds, and then mix it with the rice. I then serve myself pickles, which should be served on TOP of the curd-rice mixture, and then mix it in. Then I serve myself a fried snack (such as spiced groundnuts or bhujia or a mixture) on the side, and vary the quantity of it I take with each spoon.

So I’m at home with Berry today and decided to have curd rice for lunch. I’d just served myself the rice and curd and mixed it when she decided to wake up from her late-morning nap. Realising she was hungry I decided to feed her first, and first fed her rice mixed with a dal I’d made for her. The normal course of action would have been to then feed her curd rice, and then get on with my meal.

But then I was hungry and feeding her curd rice before I ate it would have made me impatient. In any case, I figured that since we were both going to eat the same thing, I might as well feed her off my plate (I’m quite used to sharing utensils with her, though I haven’t been able to ask her what she thinks of it – she doesn’t speak yet). The only problem was that I could mix in the pickle, since that would have made the mixture too spicy for Berry.

So for the first time in I don’t know how long, I mixed my curd and rice and moved it to one side of the plate. At the other end (our rice plates are elliptical), I served myself a little pickle on one side and mixture on the other. As soon as I started eating, Berry made her way to my knees, and we started eating alternate spoons – I’d add pickle and mixture separately to each spoon of mine, and feed her the curd-rice mixture alone when it was her turn.

She ate well enough for me to get myself a second helping! The only downside of this process (feeding her off my plate) was that I couldn’t measure how much she ate, but I’m not too obsessed with that.

When they tell you that you never know the ways in which kids can change you, I’m not sure people were talking about the way they eat curd-rice!

13/13: kONamari

A popular story that Pinky tells people is about how I “maintained” our house while she was away doing her MBA. She talks about how I used to tell her that I had maintained the house “as it was”, and my “as it was” meant that I even left the dust where it was.

When Pinky returned for her term break, she was mostly horrified by what she saw, with the wardrobes full of dust, and parts of the house that can’t easily be seen hardly be clean. The house was anything but “Pinky clean” she said, and then spent a day or two bringing it back to the state where she had left it.

Since childhood, Pinky has had an obsession with tidying things up. She says she frequently threw her sister out of their shared room because the latter wouldn’t maintain the room to Pinky’s satisfaction. Pinky also got into trouble with her parents for throwing away stuff that wasn’t being used in one of her tidying attempts.

It wasn’t long before she brought this tidying obsession to our house. I remember this time when I’d returned from an outstation trip, and Pinky was so horrified to see the state of my house (this was before she had moved in) that she spent an entire Saturday cleaning it, only to be saddled with a bad cold at the end of it since the house had been so dirty.

If you’d seen my house any time during 2010, when I was living alone, and then again sometime in 2011, you would have noticed a massive difference. Of course we’d got lots of better furniture after we got married (that deserves a post of its own), but the importance difference was how tidy the house was now.

Everything had its own place now. The kitchen was logically organised. Wardrobes would be cleaned every couple of months after “inventory checks”, where clothes that weren’t being used would get discarded. You wouldn’t find anything lying around the house.

It wasn’t long before Pinky’s penchant for tidying got to me as well, and (I thought) I got obsessed with tidying as well. I started going mental every time I saw things not in their place, or lying around, and would tidy up stuff before I got to any work of my own. I stopped throwing things around in random places. I started making an effort to at least maintain the house the way Pinky had left it, though that turned out to be grossly inadequate when she was gone for a long period of time.

Sometime last year I’d gifted her a copy of Marie Kondo’s Spark Joy. The book was supposed to be revolutionary in terms of its prescriptions on tidying up houses. Pinky glanced through it once, and dismissed it all as “obvious stuff”. She obviously knows her tidying!

PS: The title is a pun on Marie Kondo’s technique, which is known as “konmari” and the Kannada word for a baby he-buffalo, which is normally used as an abuse towards children.

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

5/13: Cookers

6/13: Fashion

7/13: Dashing

8/13: Dabba

9/13: UnPC

10/13: Pep

11/13: Support

12/13: Family

12/13: Family

As I got to know Pinky, one thing I was surprised with was how much of a family person she was. From the little I knew her I expected her to be of the rebellious sort, but she harboured no such thoughts, and was (and is) really close to her family.

She’s a massively home person, likes to spend her weekends lazing at home, eating traditional South Indian food and watching TV. She had once told me (long before we met) that her dream Sunday consisted of watching a Kannada movie on TV while sitting with her mother-in-law tying flowers into a garland.

That, of course, would never come to be, as a month after I met her, my mother passed away. My mother never met Pinky, though I’d told her about Pinky just before she was going in to what was to be her final surgery. So it goes.

Over the course of time, Pinky has gotten really close with a large number of my relatives. While I’m slack at keeping in touch with them, and almost never call, she makes sure to call a couple of my aunts and one cousin every week, and compels me to call them as well. She makes sure that I go to all family gatherings, and also keep in touch with parts of my extended family I don’t normally keep in touch with.

Her connection with my extended family has grown to such an extent that several of my relatives have made her the main contact person in our family, while strictly speaking I’m related to them by one lesser degree (to use one of Pinky’s crazy phrases, she’s our family’s “responsible PIC”).

Last January was my grandfather’s 100th death anniversary, and it was Pinky’s idea that we organise a celebration on that account. The event was a massive success and everyone who attended (basically the remaining descendants of my grandfather’s parents) loved the idea of having this kind of a memorial. And after the event was over, it was Pinky who wrote the match report.

That is just one example of how Pinky has kept in touch with my side of the family, and makes sure that I keep in touch as well. If she were yet another rebellious types, I’m not sure how much contact I would’ve continued to keep with my family. and for this, I need to thank her immensely!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

5/13: Cookers

6/13: Fashion

7/13: Dashing

8/13: Dabba

9/13: UnPC

10/13: Pep

11/13: Support

11/13: Support

Careful readers of this blog might remember that things weren’t going very well for me on the health front at the beginning of the decade. Increasing stress from a job that was in hindsight not all that stressful led me to seek help, and I’d gotten diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Soon a diagnosis for ADHD followed. This was immediately after I’d quit my (supposedly stressful) job and was trying to establish myself as a consultant.

As I’ve documented on this blog earlier, I came through this difficult phase of life fairly successfully. I managed to use the medication I was on as some kind of a “stimulus“, and then built upon my later success to pull myself out. I also made necessary changes to my lifestyle and working style to take advantage of my brain being supposedly wired differently.

What I’d failed to mention in that post about coming out of depression was the role that Pinky had played in helping me back then. The biggest impact on her was in terms of my erratic behaviour. The medication I was taking, while helping me get out of depression, was also altering my mood in ways I hadn’t imagined, and she increasingly became the target of a lot of my outbursts.

Moreover, she was also really young at the time, and having yet to see the quarter life crisis, found it hard to empathise with what I was going through. She started with the reaction that most relatives of people with mental health issues start off with – denial followed by accusation that I was using it as an excuse. It’s to her extreme credit that she soon came to understanding things from my perspective, and appreciating what she was going through.

After that, she was a constant pillar of support for me as I battled my depression and ADHD. She helped me talk over any fears I had (it turned out I had a lot of them, mostly irrational). She was nice to me when I wasn’t being nice to her. She put up with my outbursts and fights. She forgave my once frequent transgressions, and took my side in fights where she could’ve easily turned against me.

She even regularly accompanied me to the psychiatrist which was never a particularly pleasant experience for her, and stood by me as I made fairly important decisions about life and mind-altering substances. And finally, when in January 2013, I decided to get off the medication, she made sure she was accommodative in case my old behaviours took off again.

I’m still not “perfectly okay”, and possibly will never be. And there are transgressions and bad behaviour on my part from time to time. Pinky, while not condoning such behaviour, has remained patient with me, and constantly helped me improve myself. She has stayed positive through the process, and made extreme efforts to make sure that our relationship remains intact.

And for all this, I can never thank her enough. If I were the religious sort, I would’ve said that I could never thank her enough either in this life, or in our next seven lives!

1/13: Leaving home

2/13: Motherhood statements

3/13: Stockings

4/13: HM

5/13: Cookers

6/13: Fashion

7/13: Dashing

8/13: Dabba

9/13: UnPC

10/13: Pep