The Raven and The Owl

One of the oldest English translations of the Jia Yi 贾谊 poem 鵩鸟赋 (On The Owl) makes a curious connection to the Edgar Allen Poe poem The Raven, written two thousand years later. William Alexander Parsons Martin even went so far as to name the poem A Chinese Raven, which does seem a little unfair to Jia Yi: really Poe’s poem should be called An American Bird of Fate. (The translation can be found on p32 of this free book.)

The Raven has a famously haunting quality, in part due to its distinctive trochaic octameter (DUM da, DUM da, eight times in a line). It is a meter which is rare in English, but isn’t hard to fit ordinary English language into. I find that after reading The Raven, or sometimes even thinking about it, my own words start to fall into the same pattern, in a kind of poetic Tetris Effect. The same effect is presumably related to the many parodies and reworkings of the poem, as well as the many accusations of plagiarism it suffered in its heyday.

There is some similarity to the two stories. In a translator’s note, Martin, who was a 19th century missionary in China, explains the parallels of the evil bird harassing the depressed scholar, and why he found writing his translation in the style of Poe irresistible. He doesn’t mention the form of the original, which after a prose introduction, is mostly in alternating lines of five and four syllables. Poe himself claimed his poem was in a mix of catalectic and acatalectic meters. Given it is easy for an English speaker to read a five syllable line as two and a half feet, I wonder if that pattern helped put the idea in his head too.

I do like connections like this. Once taken by the conceit, Martin did take more than a few translation liberties. He moved April to November so he could rhyme with remember, for one thing. Rather more brutally, he decided to truncate the historical references that decorate the end of the poem, a bit like a carpenter who declares the corpse fit the coffin perfectly once the feet were cut off. On the other hand, he explained what he was doing: it’s not a translation, it’s a Victorian cross-cultural remix.

Carbon Refactoring

The logic of carbon pricing is explained by economists as pricing in an externality. The problems of climate change in this view is one of deep insincerity – a computational civilization continually lying to itself about the ecological substrate at its foundational layer. We have been professionally fooling ourselves for decades. Networks of sensors are in place to measure the state of the system but adjustments only weakly feed back. Carbon pricing has sputtered along without entrenching a self-reinforcing process, while container-based political systems, stuck in Westphalian tile-borders, flap unsteadily through variations of supporting legal regimes. This is exacerbated by what Bratton terms the capitalist pricing problem: the tendency for markets to mistake short term liquidity signals for long term plans, or as Keynes put it, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”.

Carbon debt is technical debt. Technical debt is a term coined by Ward Cunningham and widely used and recognizable in software development. It represents the difficulty of working with the accumulated design limitations of a highly mutable system, including bugs, but also many partial and mutually irreconcilable models of the world in code. Working on a legacy system, one ridden with technical debt, is to face a human created artifact which evades human comprehension, let alone control. Carbon is a technical debt megastructure.

Addressing problems of technical debt involves redesign. An important set of software redesign techniques, those changing the design without change of function, are termed “refactoring”. Michael Feathers describes refactoring legacy code as establishing a design seam, and tests, then changing the system on one side of the seam without changing the behaviour. Each layer of a stack establishes such a seam, and they are omnipresent in software, at all scales. The point of refactoring is not to freeze the function of the system, but to improve the design in small steps to a point where functional improvements are safe, or perhaps just possible at all. Climate change, the long financial crisis begun in 2008, and technical debt are all crises of addressability: of being unable to trace causal relations through a massive codified system.

The story of renewable energy so far has been that of constantly working against the established infrastructure of the industrialized world: every improvement seems to require some other piece to be ripped out. Power stations have been the clearest and most successful point of intervention because the variation of power station inputs facing the need for power distribution creates design pressure for standard interface points at seams. For instance, power plug and voltage standards decouple network endpoints from each other. Though price points of solar vs coal tipped a year or two ago, that this happened despite the cancer-belching external costs being barely priced-in shows the immaturity of the system.

Bratton notes that Bitcoin inadvertently created a more direct link between exchange currency and carbon through the CPU- and hence energy-intensive process of proof-of-work mining. Other designers and startups are since sketching how similar Earth-to-User links could become more established parts of the Stack. Proof-of-stake coins like (some) Ethereum cut the energy usage by cutting the Earth-to-User link. More speculatively, Edward Dodge has proposed using the blockchain as a distributed ledger of carbon account, with mining based on a ton of sequestered CO2. Altcoin CarbonCoin (now seemingly deceased) replaced distributed mining of difficult to calculate numbers with mining by an environmental trust that uses six orders of magnitude less energy and puts profits into carbon mitigation.

A possible system linking these starts with carbon consumption endpoints. Forests and oceans are major carbon sinks, and prospecting rights could be claimed for blockchain coin mining, with satellite photography and other sensors providing the requisite proof of carbon. The mining claim is more important to the network than the legal title to the land, because double-claiming the carbon sink would make the carbon accounting invalid. For natural assets, the mining device need not be in the same location as the trees, though a maturing platform demanding more precision might call for devices on the ground, linking the Wood Wide Web to the internet and the blockchain.  This could be an Internet of Things (IOT) device that mints coins. A larger network of miners might demand a stricter proof of carbon, to retain the advantages of decentralized mining, including the incentives to participate. A previous post covered a design sketch for such a system.

Proof of carbon definitions can be captured as public software contracts, using Ethereum or a similar platform. A related idea is proof of location. The system is not totally trustless – it depends on independently observable weather data, and this might include state bureaus of meteorology for reference temperatures. (Neither is Bitcoin trustless for that matter – there is trust in the development team maintaining the protocol and in the open source process they run.) This also gives locals to the forest or ocean concerned a co-location advantage similar to that of high frequency trading systems to stock exchanges. The world’s greatest carbon sinks are not found in rich world finance capitals: this would give a small home town advantage to those local to say the Congolian rainforest, somewhat mitigating the colonial character of much international finance. (Introducing internet and trading connectivity to forests, who the most radical botanists are now arguing have cognitive processes, suggests future design mutations where animals or forests are also present as users of social and financial networks, perhaps in a mutually incomprehensible way.)

Other such designs are possible, including more centralized ones: the main feature is establishing a direct carbon-tracking data structure touching Earth layer carbon sequestration, Earth layer carbon emission and User-layer action (in the jargon of Bratton’s The Stack).

Refuge Stack

The Stack is a computational planet-system terraforming itself. Managing it is absurd, and changing it happens everyday. Humans working to deflect the system away from climate change processes that would kill them isn’t hubris so much as self-defense. Energy and commodity networks have always accumulated social power. Now it is here, computational society has obligation spam and sincerity leveraging algorithms organized in networks, and power also accumulates around them. To computationally address one from the other is an act of geopoetical network realism. If it results in gangs of telemarketing red guard killer whales demanding carbon coin reparations, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.

Proof of Carbon

Bitcoin inadvertently created a more direct link between exchange currency and carbon, through the CPU- and hence energy-intensive process of proof-of-work mining. Can we make a better link?

Edward Dodge has proposed using the blockchain as a distributed ledger of carbon account, with mining based on a ton of sequestered CO2. Let’s follow that suggestion but make each coin represent a kilogram of carbon.

Altcoin CarbonCoin replaces distributed mining of difficult to calculate numbers with mining by an environmental trust that uses six orders of magnitude less energy and puts profits into carbon mitigation. It relies on trusting that single third party organization, though. We want to have more decentralized platform management, as in many cryptocoins, while establishing this same carbon link.

There are a couple of other projects like Dovu or Treecoin which focus on particular types of carbon sequestration, but this sketch takes a different tack.

A Design Sketch

I wrote this design sketch a few years ago and then put it in a box called THINGS TO THINK ABOUT – URGENT. I’m not launching a billion dollar crypto play using it right now, so I figured I may as well share it here. I think we should have more public design sketches in software.

Basic Protocol and Squatting

We can push these initiating ideas a bit harder. As noted, forests and oceans are major carbon sinks. Prospecting rights could be claimed for mining, with proof of work replaced with an empirical proof of carbon. For each carbon sequestering device or location, you can associate a different allowed carbon coin mining rate. A corresponding proof of carbon could require 1) making the claim first 2) providing time and location specific weather information.

For secondary tropical rainforest, Bonner et al estimate 7.5-15 tons per hectare per year (via). That’s a pretty wide band, but let’s run with the lower figure for now and make that a claim worth 7500 coins per year. That’s 20.53 coins a day, which we’re going to round down to 20 for whole coin mining. We’ll also halve it, to 10, for reasons explained later.

For other types of carbon sinks, different rates would apply, but the protocol is the same.

Once a day, a miner can claim the right to mine the claim for that day. It has to provide

  1. The location in latitude and longitude.
  2. Proof the location is still a tropical rainforest through a public satellite photograph. Initially this could be from Google Earth.
  3. The temperature and humidity at 10 am that day in that timezone, at the nearest location providing a trusted source for that information. Initially these would be bureaus of meteorology and similar institutional sources. 

Otherwise the process is the same as claiming a bitcoin – it is advertised to the network and validated by other miners.

A miner has to obtain a mining license. This can be bought for 1 coin from any miner that has minted a coin in the last month within 5km of the desired location. If there are no miners for the last month in that area, it is free, and can be self-certified. This is to discourage mining spam. Given the computational costs are much lower than bitcoin mining, there would be a possibility to create a miner for every hectare on earth, and spam a coin attempt at every possible temperature and humidity for a given day. The license mitigates this, and cost might vary over time to manage it.

A miner using the basic squatter protocol doesn’t need to demonstrate any legal connection to the land or ocean involved. It’s a mathematical mapping only, as with the large numbers in bitcoin. The carbon coin mining claim is more important to the network than the legal title to the land, because double-claiming the carbon sink would make the carbon accounting invalid. For natural assets, the computer where the mining software runs need not be in the same location as the trees, though a maturing platform demanding more precision might call for devices on the ground, linking the Wood Wide Web to the internet and the blockchain. These specifically designed sensors can also have more openly validatable code, connecting as part of the Internet of Things (IOT).

Proof of carbon definitions for a type of sequestration can be captured as public software contracts, using Ethereum or a similar platform. They would need to be more dynamic than the bitcoin protocol because valid earth data sources would vary over time. 

The local weather data requirement gives people local to the forest or ocean concerned a small co-location advantage similar to that of high frequency trading systems to stock exchanges. The world’s greatest carbon sinks are not found in rich world finance capitals: this would give a small home town edge to those local to say the Amazon or Daintree rainforests, and encourage more diverse locations and owners for miners.

Legal Title Protocol

The basic squatter protocol described above allows fast-moving mining organizations to get going with very low upfront costs and similar bootstrap dynamics to bitcoin. 

There are advantages in linking legal title to the land to mining rights in the network, though. Miners have a financial stake in the carbon sequestering income of the land they claim – if trees are cleared, proof of carbon is lost. Owners of land have much more direct control over what’s growing there. Mining rights would even be an incentive to reforest cleared land.

Legal systems are complicated systems varying widely by location. There are problems of language and legal expertise. Legal title is often hard to validate in software, and even where such interfaces exist, title searches have significant charges, which could easily multiply with independent validation by network participants. Imposing these as barriers to entry for all mining would make participation uneconomic until the coin value was relatively high.

The solution in this protocol is to treat the two types of miners as complementary and have both. 

With both proof of title and proof of carbon, a miner can mine a second coin for each corresponding kilogram of CO2 sequestered by the underlying hectare of land. This gives no squatting protocol rights. The first coin is still determined by speed.

Title rights would often be shared, and any proof that does not rely on a central trusted source seems implicitly tied to proof of identity by an authority, and impossible to be anonymous, if published on a publicly verifiable blockchain, or through intermediaries such as banks or governments. Techniques for doing this in general, and the codification of proof regimes for each jurisdiction, will grow over time, and aren’t detailed here.

Deflation, Re-emission and Redistribution

Atmospheric carbon isn’t sequestered forever. Trees are cut down or eventually die. Ocean sinks and old coal mines leak. Tundra melts in the summer.

The simplest way to reflect this in a carbon coin is to make the coins expire. Those mined from a given type of carbon sink have an expiry date based on the ecological infrastructure that minted it. For secondary tropical rainforest, we use the example mean lifespan of 60 years.

The second way a coin can expire is if the sequestration source that backed it is destroyed, eg, the corresponding hectare of forest is cut down. This intensifies the economic incentive to preserve carbon sinks, as not just future revenue but existing wealth can be destroyed.

When this happens, it has the monetary effect of deflation. A fixed amount of commodity-like currency corresponding to the actual carbon stock is desirable in this case, as it would make market actors responsive to the actual carbon limits of the ecological layer of the economy.

We suggest the market would respond to expiry dates in a similar way it responds to expiry of options contracts or dividend rights, by value declining to zero near the end of their lifespan. Since it’s not desirable to have cash expire in your wallet, or to lose significant chunks of wealth because coins happened to come from the same source hectare, it would also create a demand for portfolios of coins balanced across many sequestration sources. Algorithmic balancing wallets seem a reasonable solution to this problem. This would also keep coins in greater circulation and discourage hoarding, which is more of a feature than a bug.

Linking Emissions

At this point you already have a commodity-based exchange currency platform equivalent to Bitcoin, including distributed mining. All of the usual financial and software infrastructures can be built on top of it. The main missing feature is money supply management available in central banking. That is deliberately designed out of Bitcoin too, out of libertarian grumpiness with the state. For carbon cryptocurrency it would be omitted for a more sincere representation of the foundational geophysics the whole planetary stack runs on.

That the coin is based on carbon allows extensions which reinforce carbon homeostasis. Carbon-emitting endpoints such as power stations, petrol service stations or factories could have corresponding IOT devices requiring spending carbon-backed coins to operate, basically acting as IOT smart meters connecting to a carbon exchange. Governing such a mechanism, and avoiding tampering to evade it, would likely involve both taxation enforcement and digital rights management, whether implemented by state or corporation. Because carbon emission would result in a transaction on a public blockchain, it would also be publicly auditable, depending on how much detail the emitting device is configured, or mandated, to disclose. This latter consumption piece isn’t necessary for the currency to work, but it does look like a good feature.

Permissive Licenses Are Gifts

Harrison Ainsworth, who is always interesting on software matters, has a recent note arguing permissive software licenses are unethical. I disagree. Such software is a non-toxic gift, like free cake.

All open source licenses allow access to source code and some kind of copying and modification. Permissive licenses, such as the MIT license, have no restrictions. You may copy, alter and share the source code and anything built with it as you please, including making other things that are not shared back to the community. This is in contrast to “copyleft” licenses like the GNU Public License (GPL). If GPL code is changed, is built into other things, that code must also be released.

There might be times when a gift is unethical. Giving someone an animal they can’t look after is unfair to the animal. Giving something leaking toxic chemicals could hurt people. Some gifts create an obligation of work.

Open source software doesn’t seem to be in any of these categories. People may adapt and contribute back if they wish – or choose not to use it at all. With a permissive license, people not in a position to contribute back today can still use the tool, and perhaps be able to contribute back tomorrow. Many developers working for conservative corporations or governments were and are in that position.

The exception would be open source code embedding adware and trojans, like Clipgrab (which claims to be GPL but took down its open repository years ago), or malicious NPM packages, or cryptominer embeds. These are all the equivalent of gifting your sister a nice bucket of plutonium slurry for her birthday. But this is not most open source software, and it’s not what Ainsworth has in mind.

Ainsworth says the permissive license boils down to “I should share, but others should not.” But it’s really “I should share, but those who cannot need not”. I’m sure this basic argument is already known to Ainsworth, and so his primary point is about consequences: permissive licenses create an ecosystem of freeloading corporations. But the alternative, if everyone were a GPL purist, is likely not a world of free GPL software; it’s a world of worse software, with less good tools available, and corporations and other rich bad actors continuing to skive anyway. The corporations that contribute back to open source are mostly more technically sophisticated ones; the ones who understand software development dynamics, though a Google or Facebook may mix the two together and often skirt the freeloading line.

Python is an interesting test case for permissive licenses. Would Python be as dominant in data science today if it hadn’t been given away, with no license headaches? I doubt it would, or that data science would really exist in its current productive form at all. This continued to foster openness in the rest of the Python ecosystem. Likewise for maven, the Apache webserver, and so on. It is good that the GPL and open licenses exist. The famous GPL ratchet, that forces openness on software using GPL libraries, is a good thing. The two work together to some degree, permissive licenses softening a reuse culture up, copyleft forcing it open. There was, and still is, a problem of basic literacy for open source values in many companies. This way we did not all need to hold our breath waiting for them to learn.

Is it unethical to take free gifts, over and again, make money off the use of it, and never give back? Sure, and that freeloading should socially embarrassing and bad for business. For software and content developers: it’s your gift to the world. Leave the strings unattached if you want.

Surprised To Find Them There

There are neat parallels, where assumed supremacy left old property rights intact, in both McGirt v Oklahoma, the case where East Oklahoma is recognized as a Muscogee (Creek) Indian reservation, and Mabo v Queensland No 2, where ‬Australian native title was first recognized.

In both cases the court held that the relevant power could have extinguished title at any time by passing a new law. But the government never got around to it, so the court found the balance of continuity lay with the original, indigenous claim.

In the Australian case, Queensland parliament had the power, and there was no explicit treaty. So it turned on recognizing something like ordinary title property rights based on continuous occupation from before British settlement, and that they were not changed by transfer of the sovereign power.

In Oklahoma, Congress, ie the US federal government, had the power, there was an explicit treaty, and the case turned on rights of self-government not being undermined by sale of ordinary property title within the granted reservation.

The success of these moments of self-determination depend on an inherent tensions in conservatism: fidelity to old written law versus preservation of settled arrangements versus interests that happen to hold power today. Conservatism’s devotion to history is also its vision of the future: the idea that certain old practices and values, perhaps hard to explicitly name, are part of the world to come.

You see this in both cases. The arguments in Mabo include a long history of different forms of property title across the world. McGirt rests on originalist fidelity to the legal text, argued by the conservative Justice Gorsuch. Note too that justice and self-determination here emerges from the messiness of the law: the legislative remnants of a colonial project not carried to its logical rectilinear endpoint.

Oklahoma replies that its situation is different because the affected population here is large and many of its residents will be surprised to find out they have been living in Indian country this whole time. But we imagine some members of the 1832 Creek Tribe would be just as surprised to find them there.

– Neil Gorsuch, McGirt v Oklahoma