No internet at the Dolder Grand

Today was our wedding anniversary. We usually celebrate this with a meal in a nice restaurant. Last year we went to the Swiss Chalet in Merlischachen. It was very nice and delicious. The reason we went there was that they accept payments in Bitcoin. So I decided to make this a tradition. Thing is, The Swiss Chalet was already so nice, it would be hard to top. I know most restaurants in our vincinity that accept BTC. But only last week, I was reminded that this is the case for the Dolder in Zürich. It is one of the fanciest places in Switzerland, and I was a bit worried that it would be super expensive. But if I can pay with BTC, I’m usually willing to spend a bit more. Their booking website had temporary technical difficulties, but we went anyway.
The place really looks super nice. The meal was delicious and the service was very good, even the prices were reasonable. On top of that, I could also charge the car. When I told the waiter that I’d like to pay with bitcoin, he had to get the device from another of the restaurants. In the meantime, I tried to get Internet on my notebook. Since there is still no usable Bitcoin wallet for Mobian nor for UBPorts, I mostly use my mobile computer for paying. The waiter advised me to use the open WiFi, and opt for “Tagesgast” (visitor) in the captive portal. Unfortunately, this portal had a bad day. I was unable to create an account. Neither with eMail nor with OAuth. All I got were error messages like “Beim Erstellen des Gastbenutzerkontos ist ein Problem aufgetreten. Wenden Sie sich an Ihren Netzwerkadministrator (Database query error (1b77a6f1))“. The waiter tried to help, and even wanted to use his account. But all he could tell was, that usually it would work. And no I couldn’t create a hotspot on my phone, as I have no mobile data plan. Well, I’m not your average consumer 😉
It happened to me before, that I went to a restaurant, because they advertised to accept BTC, and it didn’t work. Usually, the software was not properly set up. But that I was not even able to get internet was the first time. And this time was especially disappointing, because of the bigger than usuall bill, and the longer trip to get there.

a decade of accepting Bitcoin for paragliding

Today marks the 10th anniversary of an important blog post. It was the announcement that I started accepting Bitcoin for paragliding tandem flights. I had interest in the nascent internet currency for a couple of months prior to that. And I felt that what was missing were places where people could spend their coins.

Only very few people came to me and wanted to pay a flight with BTC. But since I went full in on BTC for my paragliding hobby, I convinced a couple of customers to send me BTC instead of a bank transfer. For some of them it was the first time. It’s cool in this regard, that you can buy BTC on every train ticket machine. Unfortunately nobody paid with Lightning so far, despite announcing a special in 2019.

Many things have happened in the last decade. In the meantime lots of people call it digital gold, and being mainly for investing. While for me it is still primarily the best, most reliable, censorship resistant, easy to use form of money. I never really liked credit cards, but seeing how much more secure and reliable BTC is for payments, I cancelled my last credit card seven years ago, and I never looked back.

Through Bitcoin I learned so much about the nature of money, and the shortcomings of our current financial system. And a year ago I started as Blockchain Engineer at SEBA Bank, turning my longtime hobby into my job.

Every time I buy something, I check out where I can pay with Bitcoin. While still not as abundant as I would like, the number of places that accept BTC have grown tremendously over the years. Some of these purchases, I would not have been able to afford, without the value of BTC raising in an unprecedented manner. But I still value the freedom and self-determination that BTC gives more than the wealth.

  • Gold is the money of kings
  • Silver is the money of gentlemen
  • Barter is the money of peasants
  • Dept is the money of slaves
  • Bitcoin is the money of sovereign people

Bitcoin Advanced Course by 21lectures

Last week I attended a Bitcoin Advanced Course that was hosted by 21lectures. Lucas who is also the president of the Bitcoin Association Switzerland initially wanted Jimmy Song to teach his Bitcoin courses also in Switzerland. But when that didn’t work out, he decided to build the classes himself, with the help of great quality teachers and developers from the local community.
To guarantee fruitful interaction, the groups are kept small. But when I arrived, the group was even smaller than I expected. What surprised me even more, was that a good portion of the students came to Zurich from other countries especially for this course.
The biggest part of the course was taught by James Chiang. He is preparing a bigger course that he will host online. It consisted of theory and practical exercises.
Setting up the environment for the exercises proved to be almost as challenging as the hardcore crypto theory.
For me, the most interesting part was the last day, which was about the Lightning Network. As it is still new technology that is in heavy development, there is not a lot of learning material around. All the more valuable was the first hand information we received from Christian Decker.
An important part of the whole experience were the lunches. Most of the times, the teachers joined, so that we could ask additional questions and have interesting discussions.
If you are interested in Bitcoin and programming, I can definitely recommend this course.

A somewhat interesting aspect was also how to get to Zurich. Downtown parking during office hours is really expensive, and there can be traffic jams. The venue was very close to the main train station. So it would appear to be reasonable to get there by train. But a return ticket for one day costs CHF 56. Lots of Swiss people have a half price card for public transport. They changed their terms a couple of years ago. I made the mistake of reading the new terms and discovered that they are really not acceptable. So I drove there by car, which cost CHF 4.15 for the electricity and CHF 36 for the parking. Still a lot, but also a lot cheaper then by train.

Run and fly with the XXLite2

Before I participated in the rollibock trophy in Fiesch last October, I thought my paraglider equipment was fairly lightweight. The glider is a regular Mac Para Marvel, but the Advance Lightness 2 harness is optimized for weight as the name implies, as well as the accompanying backpack. With helmet, gloves, sun glasses, flight computer and clothes, the equipment is slightly less than 14.5kg. When I started paragliding in 2002, a normal equipment was about 20kg. For reference, My tandem equipment is around 30kg, and my competition equipment also was in that ballpark.
When I looked around the participants at the rollibock, I was astonished by the small and light backpacks they had. They were literally running up the mountain. When single skin gliders were first released, it didn’t spark my interest. They were a strange appearance, and the flight characteristics looked slightly frightening to me. But a lot has improved since then. Some models have tubes along the leading edge, others from front to back. They have a lot better characteristics and performance than the first models. I started my research in the internet. Some models weight only 1kg.
Best of all, I started thinking how cool it would be to combine hill running with paragliding. I try to run once a week from Brunnen to Morschach and back. Depending on my daily condition, I make it up to the cable car, or I turn around shortly before I reach Morschach. I always prefer running uphill. Especially since I started getting cramps in my forearms on the descent, sometimes even extending from there. It only happened on longer tours, and only on the descent. After a while I found out that it was caused by dehydration, and I took detours to water sources. I didn’t want to carry anything when I go running. But carrying an ultra light paraglider is something entirely different.
So I asked the loal flying school for an Ozone XXLite 2 glider for a test flight. November is the worst month for flying in Switzerland. The weather is mostly bad with lots of fog, and most cable cars are closed for revision. When the weather was finally flyable, somebody else grabbed the wing already a couple of times. In early December, I finally got to try it. I didn’t really know what to expect. Some people I talked to, praised single skin gliders as great and fun, while others dismissed them as falling out of the sky like a stone. I completed two flights from the Rothenflue. Take off was very nice both times. With the slightest blow of light wind, you can bring it above the head and maintain it there. Also without wind it was easy to get airborne. The handling was surprisingly similar to a regular paraglider. It doesn’t flare as well as a regular wing, but it does flare somewhat. I didn’t know beforehand, but most single skin gliders apparently don’t flare at all. Apart from the handling, I was mostly interested in the performance of the glider. Of course it was not made for performance, and is far from regular gliders in that respect. The teacher from the school providing the glider told me to expect something in the range of a school glider at the time I started flying. When I checked my XCTrainer in the air, I mostly saw glide ratios between 6.5 and 7 with speeds around 35km/h. For comparison, my regular glider has a glide ratio of around 9 and a current high end comp glider is slightly above 10. The trim speed again seems to be different from other single skin gliders that apparently mostly fly less than 30km/h.
My resume after the first two flights was that the flying characteristics are good enough, and the small and ultra light package is just astonishing. In short, I ordered one on the same day. Luckily the forecasted delivery time was was much shorter than I expected.
A week after ordering, I picked up the new wing including the super light harness that I didn’t see before. Of course I bought the glider at the flying school where I can pay with Bitcoin.At home, I installed the special lightweight carabiners and the speed system. But the weather really didn’t look good. We had occasional rain and very strong wind for days. I added a ribcap and gloves to the kit. With this addition, the backpack now weights 1.8kg.
As the first chance of getting good enough weather, I went to the Zugerberg. Instead of the usual walking to the takeoff, I ran. The light backpack really doesn’t bother at all. Even with light wind from behind, the glider took off flawlessly. The gliding ratio was enough to clear the trees halfway down. When I started paragliding, some school gliders had to land before the trees here because they didn’t glide good enough. Also the landing was smooth. The only thing that was strange was the cold wind flowing around my butt. Usually it is very comfy in my cocoon harness. The equipment is packed rather quickly into the backpack, and I was ready to run up to the train. From the train of course I ran again to the car. So my first flight with the new kit was not a pure “run and fly”, but I can say that it works as I envisioned. Now I’m ready for the real “run and fly” adventures.

Generating solar electricity at home

After I switched to an electric car, I started to care much more about where the energy we consume comes from. With petrol and diesel you don’t really have that option. We are in a comfortable situation that we have some small hydro electric dams nearby. Thus all the electricity we use at home and for driving around, comes from 100% renewable, local production. When you meet with other E.V. drivers, renewable energy production is always an interesting topic. Lots of these folks have their own solar panels on the roof. Solar is especially interesting as it has no moving parts, and can be employed by private people. It becomes more problematic however if you don’t own a house. We live in a rented apartment, thus we have no option to put our own solar panels on the roof. Not all is lost fortunately. Recently I learned about panels with an integrated micro inverter that can be plugged directly into a regular plug on your balcony. According to Swiss law, up to 600W can be installed by private individuals. They only have to notify their power provider.
So I ordered an ADE Geranium from Energiegenossenschaft that I could pay with Bitcoin. Last week it arrived, and I immediately installed it in our garden. It can feed up to 250W into the plug. I don’t expect to feed a lot of this into the grid. It is more to reduce the standby consumption by refrigerators and computers. 250W is peak anyway and not often reached. In the first week after installation, it only produced 3.5 kWh. So it will likely take 10 years for it to amortize. But it comes with a 25 year warranty.

Spending Bitcoin while charging the car

When I go some place new, I always check out what Bitcoin accepting venues there are. I usually try to prioritize shops that accept crypto currency.
When I drive some place far away, I have to charge the car on the way. No big deal, usually I can eat, drink or go to the toilet. All those activities, I prefer not to perform in the car while driving anyway. When I’m done, the battery is charged enough to continue the journey.
But how cool would it be to combine the two. If there was a restaurant that accepts BTC next to a supercharger, I would eat there for sure. Unfortunately finding this information manually is a hassle. That is how the idea was born to write a simple script to correlate charging stations and Bitcoin shops. I did it only quick and dirty. It could be improved a lot, but I’m not sure that is necessary.
You can visit a map with the correlated locations on ZeroNet: Bitcoin shops at car charging stations
If you want to have a look at the script that compiles the list or improve it, you can do so at: bitcoin_supercharger.py

Green Technology Tour

Charles and I are going to participate in the WAVE (world advanced vehicle expedition) along the Grand Tour of Switzerland. This years tour will take place from June 8th to 16th and is titled “Green Technology Tour”.
We enter the trophy as Team Bitcoin with a big BTC logo on the frunk.
The tour will have well publicized stops at approx 40 cities. I’m very excited to spread the word about decentralized payments, and that Bitcoin is so much more than speculation…

You can follow our team blog directly on ZeroNet:
zero://wavebtc.bit
or through a proxy:
http://zeronet.ulrichard.ch/wavebtc.bit
https://zero.acelewis.com/#wavebtc.bit
The proxy links may not work every time. The second one randomly redirects to different proxy servers, some of which can be temporarily down, or don’t allow adding new sites. If you get an error, just try again, or better yet install ZeroNet.
In that respect ZeroNet is very similar to Bitcoin itself. Both networks are incredibly reliable and resilient. Unfortunately that doesn’t apply to the connection to the old world: The exchanges for Bitcoin and the proxies for ZeroNet.

General info about the WAVE is at:
wavetrophy.com

The mother of all hackathons

I just returned from #hack4climate. Even if it was just my third hackathon, I can state with certainty that this one was unlike any other. None of the 100 hackers from 33  countries experienced anything remotely comparable before.

The topic of the event was to develop solutions how blockchain technology can help fighting climate change.

First let me explore how the event differentiated from other hackathons. The hacking session was 24 hours, but the whole event lasted four full days. There were pre-workshops around the world. 100 participants were selected and invited to Bonn. Travel expenses were covered. We stayed on a five star hotel ship. It was adjacent to the UN climate conference. We had balcony suites on the ship. The food was appropriate for a 5 star ship, complete with wine to every dinner. The days before and after the hacking session were filled with interesting talks, a guided city tour, interesting discussions and lots of networking. There were so many interesting people and so much to talk about. At the last day they wanted to make a photo of us on the boat in front of the UN building. Drones were forbidden in the security zone, so the photographer rented a crane to get the perfect shot.

I knew nobody from the event in advance. But I knew that out of the sub topics, I was most interested in “sustainable transportation”. At the team building session, I headed straight to the guy with the most interesting pitch that contained something about cars. Our team was formed soon after, and I had a good feeling from the start. Two were from Singapore who already knew each other. Two were from India one living in San Francisco and the other in China. And one was also from Switzerland, but we didn’t know each other before.

When the hack session started at Tuesday noon, we shaped our rough ideas into a project that we could realize in the short amount of time. Then everybody stated what he would like to do. It all seemed to fit together wonderfully. I wanted to implement the smart contract. I didn’t have much experience in that area, and was grateful that the others could help me and answer my questions. Rather than drawing large diagrams, we collaborated on the interfaces, and then worked towards these. We didn’t hit mayor roadblocks or problems, everything seemed to flow in place. Most of us agreed that we are not productive after 2AM and that is is better to get some hours of sleep. In the morning we went out to shoot a video of our product in action.  The guys from SBB (who was a sponsor of the event) were around us most of the time. They helped where they could, and were generally very interested and engaged. We had many great discussions with them.

Our project was about end to end transportation. On the mobile app, you select a destination, and it identifies legs to use different means of transportation. We focused on car sharing, but other options include trains, bikes or buses. Our smart contract abstracts a car that can be rented over the ethereum blockchain. The owner of the car registers it by creating an instance of the smart contract. A person who wants to rent it can do so by sending ether. The required amount is determined by the price per km the owner wants, times the number of km the renter wants. If he doesn’t use up the credit, the rest is reimbursed at the end of the trip. But if he drives too far, the cars performance is degraded by the smart contract. The car was represented by a RaspberryPi running an ethereum node and our backend running on nodejs. Initially opening the car was indicated by an LED attached to the RPI. But to make it more realistic, the RPI then called the Tesla API to open a real car. At the end of the trip the RPI collected information about the car such as odometer and battery level as well as firmware version, stored it on the IPFS and registered the IPFS address with the smart contract to form an unfalsifiable audit trail. Last but not least, one of our team members used data from moving cars and turned it into an appealing 3D animation that highlights the hot spots in a city.

We were thrilled all along, even more after all the positive reactions to our presentation. And hooray, we made it into the finalists! That meant, we could present our project at the COP. That’s the fair for NGO’s which is attached to the UN climate conference. The team that won the hackathon, did so deservedly. Their project was about incentivizing land owners not to cut their trees. They used blockchain and game theory for the monetary part. In addition they trained a neuronal network to predict areas which are endangered most of deforestation, and need special attention.

A first official video appeared here, and I’m sure others will follow on the official website.

Update Dec 16 2017

The official after movie of #hack4climate was released:
https://youtu.be/UOANny6i0QM

Choose your bleeding edge

Are early adopters usually interested in only one new technology, or generally forward looking and open to innovation?
I encountered multiple startups that seem to assume the former. As a company you want to make your product available for a large number of potential users. But who are your potential users? Sometimes you have to choose one or more platforms where you make your product available. This decision is especially important for startups with limited resources. It might be a difficult choice. Either exclusively opt for an established platform with a large user base. Or add support for an emerging contender with fewer users. Now I would argue those fewer users are more likely to try your new product. This is because if you already use bleeding edge technology in one field, you are more likely to experiment with innovative new ideas in other areas as well. But this is only my humble opinion. Of course there are more potential users on the legacy platforms. But how many of them are there because they were told so, and would never venture into something new on their own?
Let me list a couple of examples I ran into:

  • Ubuntu phone is still a relatively new operating system for smart phones. Canonical canceled their efforts on it last week. I’ll keep using it because it is still the best option if you value your freedom. But there are a few things about it that I really don’t understand. For somebody to choose ubuntu phone, one has to be dissatisfied with the existing, well established alternatives. Probably you don’t like the paternalism on the iOS platform, and the privacy intrusions on Android. So why does UP ship with no real email app installed, but only a gmail web app? This is not giving them what they are used to, but trying to force them into the very thing they are trying to escape. Why would they ship with google as the only option to synchronize PIM data from the settings screen? And why would they still after 2 years only add OwnCloud to the GUI? Is it really so hard for Canonical to imagine that people store their contacts and appointments on a standard CalDAV store using their own Ubuntu server product? Don’t get me wrong on that. It is great to be open to competing platforms. But to penalize your own users is clearly not the solution.
  • Tesla make awesome cars. They are at the forefront of innovation for electric vehicles. And they are pushing the boundaries of autonomic driving for consumers. Yet they still only accept ancient forms of payments for their products and services. Out of all the stories of cars bought with Bitcoin, Tesla is mentioned most often by a big margin. Yet all those stories are with resellers and/or used cars. They also have no public plans to include a modern BTC wallet into the car software for paying electricity, parking or roads. Since the car runs on Linux and Qt, it should be relatively easy to integrate a light wallet like electrum. In addition, their remote control app is available only for Android and iOS.
  • There are many options to pay for the electricity when charging an electric car. None of them is convenient. One should assume that companies that are innovative enough to provide services to modern cars involving some form of value transfer should be open to the latest (eight year old) advances in payments technology. Yet I am not aware of a single charging station that is in production where I could pay with Bitcoin for the charge. Instead there is a company that develops a blockchain based solution that introduces even more friction rather than to remove it. They offer their proprietary app for (you guessed it) Android and iOS. You have to buy their tokens beforehand and you can only pay them with credit card or paypal.
  • Steemit is a social platform that rewards users for writing and curating. They want to differentiate themselves from the giant centralized networks. With their ties to blockchain, they seek to please a decentralized crowd. But you cannot sign up if you don’t have neither a facebook nor a twitter account. That’s like a horse is required to acquire a car.

Turns out if you want to make use of innovative new technology on multiple orthogonal fronts, you can have a really hard time.
I really don’t get it why technology seems to advance in any given directory in isolation. It is like saying you can either have a color TV or stereo sound, but not both. Things converge eventually, because you can have AC in your car and not just at home. But why aren’t they bundled at an early stage?
The largest group of people does not necessarily contain the largest number of people to potentially experiment with new products. They might have left the old world already. Sure you want to have them all as customers at last, but the early adopters might help you to get there. And the early adopters have slightly different requirements than the eventual end users.

Charging electric vehicles with Bitcoin

In my last post I ranted about the current payment methods for charging E.V.s. The electricity for a full charge of an electric car costs something in the range of $2 to $20. But most of the time, we only need a partial charge. Credit cards impose enormous fees on low value transactions, and require expensive equipment. PayPal even adds on top of that. This is why some energy providers opted to use RFID membership cards. Unfortunately there are many of these. Most have excessive annual fees. They are mostly incompatible island solutions and they usually offer bad deals. So let me explain why Bitcoin offers the perfect solution here.

Machine to machine

Some car manufacturers are already looking into equipping their vehicles with digital wallets. And some power companies are looking already into blockchain payments. So the car could pay directly for the power. This can be done exactly and trustlessly with use of Bitcoin payment channels. The cars already communicate with the charging terminals, so payment would be just one more stream of information. Because Bitcoin accounts don’t need to be tied to a person, and you can create as many accounts as you like, it is no problem to have a separate account for the car. Or you can share an account between your car and other devices. Whatever fits your use case best. The same goes for the infrastructure provider. He can maintain a separate hierarchical deterministic wallet for every charging station. It would even be relatively easy to put a protocol in place where the charging station doesn’t even need an Internet connection by itself. Instead the car or the consumer could present a proof that was signed by the energy provider that a valid payment was made. The possibilities are endless.

Accessibility

Bitcoin wallets exists on almost every operating system. Most of them are open source. This is in stark contrast to proprietary apps that some charging providers advertise. If they have one for Android and one for iOS, I’m out of luck. It won’t run on my Ubuntu phone.

Transaction costs

When I started with Bitcoin in 2011, transaction costs were really neglectable. They were optional, and usually a fraction of a penny. For a long time they were at about two pennies, which is still minor. Only recently they started to raise to about 20 pennies for an average size medium priority transaction. This is still comparable to Maestro cards, and way below credit cards. But it is not so great at the moment for micro transactions. The reason for this is that the block size is capped and the limit was reached. Thus a fee market emerged, where you pay a higher fee to have your transaction included in a block sooner. The Bitcoin community is in deep crisis over this. It is not as bad as it sounds though. Because Bitcoin is an open, distributed system, there is no dictator or board of directors who decides the course behind closed doors. Instead the discussion is held publicly. Everybody who feels he has something to contribute, can take part. It can take longer to come to an agreement, but the chances of getting a good solution are maximized this way. Consensus is something sacred with a trustless distributed network such as Bitcoin. So trust me, the fees will decrease again one or another way. If we can even call it a problem when comparing with other options.

User agreements

Do you know somebody who likes user agreements? Do you know somebody who reads everything he signs? I don’t, eventhough I force myself to read more than I would like to. If a multi page agreement is required to sell something or to make use of a service, that is a clear indication that there is something wrong with the design of the product. If I see an overly lengthy agreement before I can use something, I get offended and run away. The occasions where it is difficult to find a better alternative are few and far between.

If I buy a hammer in a store, I don’t have to sign neither the seller nor the producer off a liability in case I break something with it. If I buy a power tool, I don’t have to sign a letter to make nobody reliable if I electrocute myself. Even the company delivering the electric power cannot be held responsible if I get an electric shock. And I don’t have to sign them off before they would deliver electricity to me. This is because there are rules and regulations and certifications. We know how these tools are supposed to work, and we make sure they do so.

So why do I have to sign pages of incomprehensible legaleeze before opening a bank account or applying for a credit card? Why do I have to sign a user agreement when I want an RFID from one of the power providers for E.V.s? Why do I have to sign off my privacy rights before using an online service? Because the product is poorly designed!

I don’t have to sign anything to open a Bitcoin account. Not even if I want to create a million Bitcoin accounts. I can just do it. Bitcoin is asset based. So whoever or whatever is in control of the private key can spend the funds. Clear and simple.

Clear and simple

Charging an electric vehicle should be at least as simple as fueling a gasoline car. You can usually pay in cash or debit card. I heard that there are charging stations that you can pay in cash. So far I found only one. During a short flight yesterday I charged the car at the Swiss Holiday Park. This was actually the first time I payed for a charge. It was a good service at a reasonable fee.
Only Bitcoin could make the experience even better.

Update Jan 2018:

Meanwhile I have had a charger in the garage at home for half a year. Charging like this is awesome!
All my reservations against the RFID cards at the public charging stations were just confirmed by a talk at the 34c3:

Ladeinfrastruktur für Elektroautos: Ausbau statt Sicherheit

Update Jan 2019

It seems some things are moving into the right direction, albeit at a slow pace:
A Security Model for Electric Vehicle and Charging Pile Management Based on Blockchain Ecosystem
Building a Private Bitcoin-based Payment Network among Electric Vehicles and Charging Stations
Japanisches Unternehmen testet Bitcoin-Zahlungen im Lightning Network