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
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.
After the good experience last year at the six fintech hackathon, I was trilled to go to hack the valley which is even closer geographically and whose subject is even closer to Bitcoin. My goal was to gain experience with ethereum. So far I only completed the tutorials. I found the technology very interesting, but in the past, I couldn’t come up with a good idea how to make use of it. Neither did I learn of a killer product that went live. This is in stark contrast to Bitcoin. When I first learned about Bitcoin, it was immediately clear to me that this was something very special, something that I waited for without knowing.
In contrast to the hackathon last year, most people already showed up as teams. I estimate that only about three of the fourteen teams were formed on site. I joined three guys from a bank in Paris, along with another French guy and a South African who lives in Zurich. First we had to decide on a project. We went through a list with a couple of ideas. But it turned out that for a lot of them it was hard to justify what benefit a blockchain would bring compared to a more traditional approach. That is something I see a lot in the current blockchain hype. Showing up as a team with a formulated idea is a big advantage, as the technology and possible problem areas can be explored before. But In both occasions I enjoyed it to meet new and interesting people and see what we can achieve together in this limited time.
We settled on the challenge “fighting fraud in the supply chain” with a project that puts smart locks on containers. The devices log all open and close operation on a blockchain. Unlocking operations would have to be authorized by a smart contract. The locks communicate with bluetooth low energy with an app on a smart phone. This in turn communicates to a backend that talks to the blockchain.
Shortly after we had the rough concept, the other team members stated that they would feel more confident implementing the smart contract in java, rather than solidity. That’s why they voted for using hyperledger instead of ethereum. Setting it all up and getting the docker containers to work proved a lot more difficult than anybody anticipated. Not only had some team members Windows machines, but also on linux we faced a problem. Namely the docker containers were configured to use the google nameservers, while apparently all outside DNS was blocked by the Thomson Reuters network. The connectivity was generally very flaky.
I enjoyed working with the team. But that we didn’t know the infrastructure we were working on, complicated our work considerably. The last time I programmed seriously with Java was probably 15 years ago. And we didn’t have good tool support within the environment. I’m sure it is possible to set everything up to work comfortably, but that would have cost us more time even than we lost with the complicated turnaround cycles. In the end, we couldn’t complete our prototype in time. Sure, that is is not a strict requirement of a hackathon. But it’s the pride and goal of every software developer to have the thing perform in a live demo.
Presentations and prize giving
As is common for events like this, the quality of the projects varies wildly. I think nobody in our team expected to be in the top ranks. Even though I must say the presentation looked better than my code.
The project that I liked the most was about subleasing parking spots while people don’t need them. I could imagine something like this generalized to become a decentralized form of AirBnB.
The winners were the same people that won the London HackEthon. During the presentation I thought it rather boring. It was about heart rate sensors publishing directly to ethereum. A smart contract would then take action if the data was out of order. Only after they received the price, I thought some more about it. In hindsight I can see the value in it, and that it was probably implemented better then most other projects.
Thanks to Thomson Reuters and all others involved for organizing this great event!
I hear a lot from Bitcoin maximalists that all other chains can’t compete with the one true blockchain. I’m also invested most in Bitcoin, but I want to be open to the possibilities of other blockchains and smart contract platforms in special. Although I must admit, I never saw a compelling reason for permissioned ledgers and private blockchains. A week before the event I learned about Bitcoin uncensored, and listened to a couple of the episodes. They essentially debunk most of the altcoins and blockchain projects. Calling them ponzi schemes and frauds. This made me skeptical of the blockchain boom, but all the more I was keen to discover good uses at and event full of blockchain hackers. I’m still positive that there are applications that can be improved with blockchains. But most of the ideas have to be descarded upon closer inspection. The only three practical uses for blockchain so far are monetary, timestamping and naming. I am looking forward to expand this list, but it’s not as easy as it seems at first.
“Cool idea, but to be of any use, it would need more functionality and more content” was my impression when I first looked into zeronet. Back then static web pages were all there was, and no UI support for any managing tasks. The next time I checked, probably more than half a year later, it had a blog engine, subscription on the welcome page, mail, chat, forums, wiki, boards and more. Blogs was what hooked me this time. The interesting feature was that you could subscribe, and have the news listed on the hello page. So I started to write new blog posts both on wordpress and on zeronet. True, wordpress has lots of more functionality than the zeronet blog engine. Some things are nice gimmicks, but none of it is really essential. ZeroBlog is really all you need.
Some people started to leave twister for zeronet, but I couldn’t quite understand why. For me, it filled another niche. They are both very nice in their own way.
How it works
To create a site, you can execute a python command on the commandline, or simply clone an existing zite. In both cases, a private key is generated that you need to later sign the content. Signing is really easy, but you better take good care for your private keys. Make sure not to share them, but do make backups for yourself. From the private key, a public key is derived and from that a BitCoin address. The BitCoin address serves as the unique identifier for your zite. If this identifier looks too complicated, you can register a shorter name on the NameCoin blockchain, and link it to your bitcoin address for the zite. Once you sign and publish your zite, you can give the address to your friends, or publish it where other people can pick it up. Whenever another zeronet user requests your address, he sends the query into the mesh. Whoever is closest, serves the files anonymously. Now the user who visited, becomes a seeder who also serves your content. No central server required. Now you can switch off all your computers, and your zite is available. Your zite stays online for as long as there is at least one other user seeding it.
To visit zeronet sites, or simply zites as they are called, you should run the zeronet client. The software is written in python with few dependencies. So it is really easy to run. You can either run it locally, or on a personal server. Then just visit the entry page with the browser and navigate from there. But if you want to visit a zite without installing any software, there are also public proxies. There are many reasons why running the software is better than using these proxies, but I won’t go into the details now. And I don’t list the proxies here.
Then came merger zites. I read about the concept before the release, and was really curious. Some things are not as easy to accomplish with a decentralized anonymous system as with a centralized architecture. But when I had my first play with ZeroMe, my reaction was “Wow this is what I have been waiting for”. I don’t use most social media because of the centralized architecture, and because they own all the data of the users and can make with it whatever they please. There have been decentralized social platforms before, but they were usually a hassle to install and maintain or not so great from a usability standpoint. Now with ZeroMe you choose a hub to store your data, an identity provider, and a presentation. So you have three orthogonal aspects to your experience.
You can subscribe to as many hubs as you wish, but store your data to only one of them per identity. They can be organized by region, language or interests. The more you subscribe to, the more data will be stored on your harddrive, and the more bandwidth will be consumed. You can also run your own hub, and use it only with your friends.
The identities existed for a while. You needed an identity to write a blog, to comment on other people’s blogs, to write and receive ZeroMail, to write to boards and chats and talks and wikis. Again different identity providers have different requirements. For ZeroId you have to register your handle on the namecoin blockchain. For Zeroverse you had to send a bitmessage. For KaffieId no external proof is required. You can maintain as many identities as you like. Some can be more credible, others totally anonymous.
The official frontend is Me.ZeroNetwork.bit. But as it is all opensource. The first forks or clones started to appear. There is the darker themed Dark ZeroMe. There is ZeroMe Plus which adds some nice features.
I have lots of good memories from youth camps. Some involve playing Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers while sitting on trees. Another classic video game was Asteroids. When I recently read an article in a German magazine about building an Asteroids clone with an Arduino and an OLED, lots of old memories resurfaced. The source code was provided, and the build was simple. As the control was used as digital, I didn’t use an analog joystick. When I gave it to the kids to play, they didn’t share the same enthusiasm that I had back then. But that’s probably because they grow up with lots more tiny computers than we had. So I wanted to involve them some more, and give them a sense of how this thing works. I don’t know how well they understood, when I explained them the concept of a pixel.
So I grabbed pen and paper, read the source code and drew the pixel art. Next, I told them they could modify the images to their liking, but still preserve the mechanics of the game. It was essentially the spaceship with one frame, the asteroid with three frames and the explosion with four frames. Seven year old Levin understood immediately, and painted his versions. For five year old Noah it might be a bit early, but he also participated enthusiastically.
All I had to do was transform their paintings back into source code and load it onto the AtMega chip. Now they were hooked a lot more to the game than before.
It has been more than 14 months since my XPS 13DE notebook was stolen. Ever since, I was on the hunt for a replacement. I have just some simple requirements that seem so difficult to meet:
Payment in BitCoin
Swiss German Keyboard with back light
Ultrabook (slim and powerful)
The natural choice would be to go with the successor of the model that I was so fond of. Dell does accept BitCoin, but only in the US, UK and Canada. Unfortunately they don’t sell Swiss keyboards in those markets, and I don’t know where to get a keyboard to retro fit.
There are a few vendors selling devices that fulfill some of the requirements, but I found only one so far that can achieve them all.
The best choice at the moment seems to be a Librem13 or Librem15 from purism. The 13inch model has only an i5 processor, and no backlit keyboard. So I would opt for the 15inch model. They have difficulties getting the display panels. And lots of the devices they shipped internationally didn’t reach their destination. This an unfortunate situation, but they seem very friendly and responsive. From what I can observe, they give their best to resolve the situation as good as they can. At the moment It looks like I have to wait two more months to get a Librem15.
I learned of hackathons before. It sounded interesting, but either they were too far away, the topic was not interesting enough, or the date was already booked. This time was different. The topic is really what made it interesting enough. FinTech is about new technology in finance. I’m sure there was innovation in the financial industry in the last 50 years, but it was not very visible, and not as fast as in other industries. Recently I read about an employee in a bank that was asked upon his retirement, what was the biggest change in the last 40 years in his job. His answer was : “air conditioning”.
With the advent of BitCoin, the financial sector started feeling some pressure to innovate. I don’t really know how the term FinTech was born, but this all might have contributed. So one thing was clear for me about the hackathon from the beginning: The project had to be about BitCoin.
SIX is probably one of (if not the) biggest service providers in Swiss finance. They run the Swiss stock exchange, most card terminals in brick and mortar shops and PayNet where people can receive electronic invoices in their online banking. These are only the most visible products. They organized the hackathon for the first time a year ago. This time it was in two locations: Zürich and London. Watching last years videos I realized that the event would be organized much better than I expected. And the actual event was even better than the videos promised.
So I went to the Schiffbau which is a former ship building factory turned into theater. Everything was prepared, and we were welcomed with a dinner. The opening ceremony included a very entertaining speech from an editor of the Wired magazine. Next were presentations for the four workshops. I watched “Blockchain, Smart Contracts and Beyond” and “Cognitive Computing in Fintech”. Both were interesting, but not exactly what I expected.
Some teams were already formed, the others went to the match making session. Everybody who had an idea for a project could present it in a few sentences. Then the teams were formed. The Idea I presented to implement a bridge between PayNet and BitPay didn’t spark a lot of interest, so I helped implementing another endeavor.
Our team set out to implement a bridge between PayMit and BitCoin, thus we named it BitMit. I knew the name was familiar, but it took me a while to remember that BitMit was also the long defunct Marketplace that worked like eBay, but with BitCoin. The responsibilities were quickly found: Iwan would implement the IOS app, Mark would implement the management dashboard, Roger was responsible for the Presentation of our project and I implemented the backend.
We received an API for PayMit that came with an example app. The app had buttons for buying certain products. So Iwan replaced the buttons for different denominations of popular crypto currencies. When a button was clicked, the app would first execute the payment using the PayMit API and then communicate with our BitMit backend. Finally it displays a receipt including the BitCoin transaction ID. Apparently working with Apple’s XCode is a very special experience that is far from intuitive.
The back-end was responsible for providing a simple API for the IOS app, interacting with the BitCoin blockchain and managing a BitCoin hot wallet. We chose python and flask to do the task. Most members in our team were familiar with python and flask. I only implemented a very small project with flask a few years ago, but that knowledge was almost enough for the task at hand. I wanted to make use of electrum servers to have it lite weight. But Friday and Satturday we wanted to use the BitCoin testnet, and unfortunately there are no electrum servers for testnet. So I went with BitCoinCore.
At first we were not so sure where the backend would run. My notebook would be good enough for the time being. But then the guy from IBM offered to have it running on their cloud. He helped me setting everything up. When connecting with ssh to the ubuntu machine, I didn’t even realize that it ran inside a docker container. And the beast was fast! With the 48 cores and a fast internet connection, the BitCoin blockchain was synchronized in less than six hours.
Compliance and auditing is very important for Banks. Thus our Service has to have a means of keeping track what is going on. Mark implemented the front-end using React. I certainly heard this buzzword before, but never saw actual code. It’s quite cool how simple the code looks when the task fits the framework.
The presentation or pitch was allowed two minutes max. And a gong would terminate it abruptly on stage. The first iterations were roughly twice that long. It was hard to cut it down to the right duration. Too valuable all the information we wanted to communicate. Roger had a very good opening, which I don’t even know if it was still part of the final pitch.
Before entering the final, we gave the pitch a couple of times. Most important was the presentation to the jury. After the pitch the judges could ask us questions. One guy obviously had no clue about how BitCoin works. When this guy was later presented as member of the board and announced the winners, I felt our chances dramatically dwindling.
I took a video of the pitch Roger and Iwan gave for the final on the main stage. It is streaming from the ipfs.
Our project might be not the most novel idea, but it fills a need. Other projects that were presented sound very funny at first but after thinking it through you don’t think anybody would use it. Still others had only fancy slides but nothing functional to show. But there were also projects that made a really good impression. That is probably the expected outcome from a hackathlon.
For me it was a fun and entertaining experience. I will surely participate in other hackathlons. A big thanks to SIX for organizing the event and for all the good food and drinks we enjoyed.
An interesting fact that I observed was the computers used by the participants. About 90% of them were from apple. Most of the remaining computers ran some kind of flavor of linux. And I saw a single one running Windows.
Since I drive my vintage XJS not too often, I disconnect the battery. This is to prevent if from going flat before I want to use it the next time. Of course it would be better to install a special charger for classic cars. But there is no outlet in the underground car park. The car starts when I want to use it, so one could say: mission accomplished. If only there was no clock in the dashboard. It doesn’t run when the battery is disconnected. Having to adjust the clock every time is not the solution I was looking for.
My first idea was to get a DFC77 radio clock with hands, and put it inside the case of the original dash clock. All the clocks that had hands were too big to fit into the case. So I ordered a small module with an LCD. The problem was that it had good reception at home, but not inside the car. The long waves seem to have a hard time penetrating the Faraday cage of the car body.
The next option that delivers exact time over the air is GPS. So I ordered a cheap GPS receiver from China, and built a prototype with an AtMega microcontroller and a small OLED. The prototype kind of worked, but after the first drive, the GPS module failed completely. So I ordered a better one from an AdaFruit reseller in Switzerland. This module still works very well, but I found out the hard way that it needs a very clean power source. The next problem were random failures and reboots of the micro controller. This turned out to be caused by memory overruns. They are harder to detect on a micro controller than on a regular computer. The display needs a framebuffer in RAM, and for the GPS I need enough space to store and parse the full NMEA sentences. I tried to reuse and re-initialize the same memory for every reading, but that didn’t work out. Neither didn’t I find a similar controller with more RAM. If I was going to produce a number of devices I would for sure use a better controller, but as it is a one off prototype, I just used two AtMegas. One for the display, and one for the GPS.
GPS has no reception in tunnels and underground parking garages. So I planned to implement a simple counter that just increases the time when GPS reception was lost. But then I decided it was not important enough. Instead I wanted to proceed, and have the device ready in the car. But I couldn’t resist to display a leaper for when there is not reception.
In a classic car, everything should be in original condition, so I didn’t want to destroy the original clock. Instead I was looking to buy a used clock that didn’t have to be in working condition. The ones I found in Switzerland were too pricey for only the case. So I found one on ebay for £22 that was shipped from the UK.
The problem that remains is that the OLED sometimes initializes with a random dot pattern and stays that way until the next power cycle. It happened more when I had it connected directly to the main battery. But since I connected it the the dash back light, it never happened again. So maybe it is important how fast the voltage increases when power is switched on.
Lately while browsing through thinkgeek, I stumbled upon the infinite dungeon corridor. It looks cool, but they still have no affordable shipping options. That got me thinking that it should be possible to make an infinite mirror with the kids. It didn’t take long to find a recipe for how to go about it. Finding a mirror was easy, but regular window glass is a bit harder these days. The first try was with plexiglass that I had laying around. The effect was really bad, because it had a matt finish. When I asked for real glass, I got security glass. Trying to cut it to the right size, it disintegrated into a thousand tiny parts. So it was plexiglass again, this time with clear finish. I also was not sure about the window film. I bought the film that is used to taint the car windows. An LED stripe was readily available and waiting for a new purpose.
The kids were involved in all construction steps. Cutting the wood for the case, drilling, screwing, sawing, cutting the mirror, tacking the LED stripe … But one thing was entirely up to them: Usually those infinite mirrors have the two windows relatively close. But to be in the style of the dungeon corridor, I created the case with some room where the kids could paint what should look like the walls of a castle.
The effect is not as good as we would have liked it to be. I’m not sure if it is because of the plexiglass, the increased distance or the wrong type of window film. But it works, and was fun to construct. Most importantly the kids learned not just how to construct such a thing, but also about optical illusions, and how light behaves.
It all started about two weeks ago when my wife discovered water on the kitchen floor that kept coming. The plumber who came immediately, found out that two parts of the waste pipe shifted out of each other, leaving a gap open. He told us that this must have happened two or three weeks earlier. During this time, the waste water filled up the base of the kitchen, which turned out to be water tight. He sucked out all the water, and left one part of the base open, so that some air could ventilate. He also told us that probably we would get a giant hair drier installed to get the rest of the moisture out. Nothing happened for more than a week. The smell was disgusting, and we apologized to the guest at Levin’s birthday party. Our neighbour told us that the same thing happened to them last summer, and that they had 40° for some weeks in their kitchen as a result.
When the craftsmen came to inspect the kitchen, they discovered one giant mold fungus. Immediately, they sealed the kitchen from the rest of the flat and all the cupboards. They started to disassemble the kitchen and removed the appliances. Most of it would be replaced. They sprayed some poison to contain it. After they told us the whole flat would have to be sprayed, the house management together with the insurance decided that it would be best for us to move to a hotel for two weeks. The insurance organized it for us. It appears they asked some other hotels first which were fully booked. So we ended up in the best hotel in town, the Waldstätterhof. The breakfast is included, and it is a very nice and delicious buffet. The funniest part for us was the Prosecco bottle next to the fruit juices. We usually don’t make holidays in such exclusive places, but we know it from special events such as the Musical we go to almost every year.
The insurance even pays for the additional costs we have because we can’t cook at home. But he asked us not to eat at the noble restaurants downstairs all the time. Of course we don’t want to exploit the situation, but because Levin had a surgery the day before we had to leave home, we cannot go outside all the time. The first day we ordered some food from lieferservice.ch at seewendays.ch that I could pay with BitCoin. The second day, I bought a warm chicken in the local grocery store. For the rest of the week, Mirella organized to have the meals delivered from the hospital. I must confess, it feels awkward to walk into the lobby of a four star hotel with a hot chicken in the backpack to eat at the room. But yesterday we went to the restaurant downstairs for once. It wasn’t cheap, but delicious.
The kids enjoy the adventure, especially because we rarely have so much time to play with them. Levin got a dinosaur skeleton to excavate from Santa Claus the day we left. So we went to the big hotel terrace to carve out the artificial bones from the enclosing gypsum. He was totally excited as the bones started to get released. Yesterday, we assembled a KAKU robot. Putting the parts together was easy. I had to do most steps, but the boys could help here and there. Noah walks around full of pride with the enclosed emblem. As all the manuals and information I found are in Chinese, its not always easy to find the required information. But the programming system ArduBlocks is exactly what I have been waiting for since I learned about the Scratch programming language.