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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bitcoin for teens

Ever heard of bitcoin? It's the hip cryptocurrency that made headlines earlier this year when it's value jumped from $30 per BTC to $230 in about two months, before it crashed abruptly to $60 (as I write this it's at $116). The rapid increase in price may have had to do with the crisis in Cyprus and subsequent speculative interest. It's crash apparently had to do with technical difficulties at the overwhelmed bitcoin exchange websites, like MtGox.com. Its price continues to be volatile, but that's no reason to shun it, especially for teenagers. It's your escape from financial adolescence.

Modern American teenagers are stymied by societal restrictions, which include financial restrictions and labor laws. Truth is, you can do a lot more than we give you credit for or allow you to do. And you (and we) are missing out on your full potential (read more).


Bitcoin can help. Bitcoin is interesting not only because of it's exciting trajectory, but because it is 100% electronic, secure money that can be instantly transferred from person to person online, without the need for bank accounts, credit cards, or PayPal accounts, which can be difficult for teenagers to obtain. It is created by a complex online "mining" process and cannot be counterfeited. Each bitcoin basically has its own unique code and carries its own history of every transaction it has undergone (read the original paper that created bitcoin here, or click here for a quick intro). It can be instantly transferred from person to person just by sending it to the desired "wallet" address, and... VoilĂ ! Electronic payment, 100% independent of parents or other adults, and you are a giant leap further toward financial freedom (and response-ability).

There was a time when it was used mostly at the clandestine "black market" website called The Silk Road, but it is accepted at more and more places every day. At the Bitcoinstore.com, you can buy laptops and everything electronic, Bitmit.net is the Ebay of bitcoin, Foodler.com allows you to spend bitcoin at 12,162 restaurants, and Bitspend.net apparently allows you to use bitcoin even at websites that don't accept it. You can work for bitcoin, trade bitcoin, and buy it with cash at Walmart (through their Moneygram service and Bitinstant.com).

Of course, chances are you can't spend it at the local grocery store just yet. Forbes.com writer Kashmir Hill is wrapping up an experiment with living on bitcoin for a week, and she hasn't found it easy (though her articles are full of helpful tips). But even before it's more widely accepted, bitcoin can make you free to buy and sell online, work and trade, without a bank account or credit card. (And in fact, using bitcoin to cash transfers, you could be 100% financially independent.)

So all you need is something to sell or a service to offer, and a bitcoin wallet. For ideas of what to do for money, check here, here, here, here and here. And to get started with bitcoin, click here or here. I simply downloaded the wallet for my computer from bitcoin.org, and bought some bitcoins through BitInstant.com, using their "cash deposit" to "bitcoin address" options. Follow the steps at BitInstant and it will give you a slip to bring to Walmart's customer service desk, where you'll give them the cash. Within a few hours, it will show up in your wallet and you'll be ready to go--free to get paid and spend money like the independent young adult you are.

A word of caution: As I mentioned at the beginning, bitcoin's value is HIGHLY volatile right now. You could lose money even between the time you pay at Walmart and the time the bitcoin gets sent to your wallet. You could easily lose up to your entire investment. In fact, I would not recommend using bitcoin as an investment at all, but simply as a currency. And realize that I am not a finacial advisor, but a high school chemistry teacher, so take all of this with a grain of salt, and use your own powerful mind to weigh the risks and benefits. Do some research. Bitcoin is just one more way for you to exercise response-ability and escape adolescence. The risks and reward are yours with the freedom.

A second word of caution: The world of bitcoin is a world of great freedom, and with great freedom comes great responsibility. Bitcoin is like the internet itself: There are many people who use it to do and buy illegal things. I am not endorsing this, and you will have to exercise your careful judgment as you cautiously enter this new world, if you choose to do so. We all have to make decisions for ourselves to steer clear of things that are harmful and toward those that are beneficial to ourselves. If you want perfect safety, look elsewhere, but if you want freedom and opportunity, proceed (with caution).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Don't let Google do the thinking

Don't let Google eat your brain. Don't let the internet do your thinking for you. It's a great way to gather facts, but facts must be interpreted. This is true in all of life. A blood glucose measurement of 130 mg/dl is a meaningless fact without an interpretation (diabetes). A huge dark wall of clouds approaching from the west is a meaningless fact without an interpretation (thunderstorm). And the explosively expanding pool of facts searched by Google also need interpretation...

Read more

Monday, August 20, 2012

The beast and/in me

by Dimitar Hristov
Sometimes it's like my intellect is a rider on a bigger part of me, a part with its own ideas about what it wants to do and not do. The rider knows I should get up, get to work, get off the internet, stop eating, choose the salad, delay gratification, be kind, plan ahead, be patient, but the bigger part of me doesn't seem to care about any of this. It wants immediate gratification. It wants to sleep in, eat junk food, procrastinate, avoid work, and to heck with the long term. It's like an animal.

I know I'm not alone in this. Plato viewed the rational soul as a charioteer pulled by the horses of boldness and desire. For St. Paul, it was his inner man and the members of his body. And in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt pictures us as rider on an elephant. For Haidt, the elephant is our  subconscious, an older part of us we inherited from our ancient ancestors. It includes reflex, instinct and intuition. The rider is conscious verbal thought and the ability to reason and plan far ahead, which came along later as an aid to the elephant.

If he's right, developing reason was like gaining a new sense, like the first worm that grew eye spots and suddenly a whole new perspective opened up, like a man who sees a lion through his binoculars that he didn't see without them. Logical conclusions extended tentacle like from the subconscious, "seeing" further than our eyes or even intuition ever could. With reason, we could see that we would be happier if we denied ourselves some things now so we could have something better in the future. We could save. We could work for things. We could wait. We could plan. But reason is not all we are, or even the biggest part. Our bigger part is still there in all of its intuitive, emotional power. It just has a new, extended sense.

The way I think of it, my subconscious is constantly looking at all of the options before me--all the possible things I can do, eat, see, think, etc., weighing them according to the amount of pleasure and pain they will get me. It's also weighing in the time factor, adding weight to pleasures that are closer in time and subtracting from pleasures that are further out. And it's weighing pleasures more heavily if they are likely than if they are unlikely. Sometimes the beast buys what our conscious mind is telling it. Just as often, it doesn't.

Jonathan Haidt says we have to train the elephant. He recommends meditation, cognitive therapy, or Prozac. To me, it boils down to this: If my subconscious is not budging, though my "mind" says get off your butt, it tells me that there's a disconnect somewhere. Let's say I am a teenager who is having trouble with my high school classwork. I may "know" I need to do well in high school so I can get into college or get a good job, but somehow I can't get off the video games or tear myself away from friends to actually do the work. My elephant is not convinced about this whole high school thing. My logical side says it's important, but my subconscious is not buying it.

There are two possibilities at this point: My elephant is right or I need to do a better job of convincing it or training it. I need to start by throwing out all my preconceived notions and cherished beliefs about the situation, about the world, about myself, and do some research and some serious thinking--be open to being wrong, question everything. Not easy, but it has to be done. I have to see things as they really are or I will respond inappropriately. Is high school my best option, or is there a way that fits better with my needs and desires?

If after careful consideration I'm convinced my logical conclusions are right and my subconscious is wrong, there are two things I can do: re-frame and train. First, I can try to change the elephant's perspective, identify the problem thoughts and address them, re-frame my situation, talk to people, do some research, really think things through, long and hard. Do this until the horse or elephant or whatever it is, whatever I am, sees it my way. I may have to do this again and again as my elephant responds to each new day or week or semester of challenges. This is the approach of cognitive behavioral therapy: learning to see the distorted automatic thought patterns that are causing the problem, examining, and addressing them.

But the problem may go deeper than a wrong perspective. My inner horse develops bad habits that are very hard to break--patterns of thought and behavior, unhealthy habits, stress relievers, and time killers. It gets used to things that are really not good for me in the long run, like a high carb diet or smoking or too much alcohol. These patterns get hard-wired into our brains. Research has shown the brain can change with our behavior: Addictions, including internet addictions, can change the brains sensitivity to dopamine, increased sensitivity to addiction related cues, decreased impulse control, decreased ability to foresee consequences, and changes in brain circuitry. Maybe that's why I can't get off the computer.

Fortunately the brain has plasticity. Good habits can undo the changes caused by bad habits. We can train our beasts. The horse may have a mind of its own, but for all its passion and impulse, it can't lift a finger without our conscious consent. I really can get up off the chair and turn off the computer if I want to. And then I can choose to do something else that will stimulate the reward circuitry in my brain, relieve the stress, something healthier and more constructive, something that will help build better habits. I can build something, finish that paper I've been putting aside, go primal, have that talk with that friend I've been avoiding, go for a hike, make a salad, stack some wood, weed the garden, mediate, read a book, do art, or do some push ups or sprints. My inner horse can be pretty good at convincing me to let it do what it wants to, but studies have shown that self-control becomes easier with practice, and I can train it by giving it pleasures and stress relievers I know are beneficial, training it to enjoy and desire this instead of the junk I've been feeding it.

To me, this is why it's helpful to think about myself as a rider on an elephant or horse, because it helps me understand where these impulses come from and why it is so hard to control them, and it points the way toward helpful strategies. Eventually, through a combination of perspective checks and good habits, maybe I can get to where I am in sync with myself.

But all analogies break down sooner or later. It turns out I am not really two, but one. The horse and rider are intertwined. This makes it all so confusing sometimes, but I wouldn't have it the other way. It is the horse that feels, after all. Reason doesn't experience emotions, love, joy, pleasure, fulfillment--and these are the things that make life worth living. But reason can help me experience more of these--live better, and that's what I'm shooting for.



3 reasons for a new hunger


Since I first read about Suzanne Collins’ generation-defining, classic trilogy, I was excited. The books did not disappoint, and neither did the movie, which I just watched on DVD Saturday night. Though the book was better, the movie was a thrill. Here are three reasons why.
  1. Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence does a perfect job portraying this gritty, powerful, and refreshing character. Katniss is not a run-of-the-mill teen heroine. She is real. She is complex. She thinks and feels deeply. She cares about more than boys and wealth. She is like an arrow shot defiantly at the heart of a superficial society and overweening government.
  2. The plot. As a libertarian and more than a little pessimistic, I am drawn to dystopian novels and movies. Some of my favorite books are 1984,Withur We by Matthew Alexander, Atlas ShruggedRebelfire: Out of the Gray Zone, by Claire Wolfe and Aaron Zelman, Molon Labe by Boston T. Party and Kenneth W. Royce, and Patriots by James Wesley Rawles. And I love movies like The MatrixThe Island, and Serenity. But it’s more than that. I feel like our current government-corporate-military complex is oppressive. It may not be the Soviet Union, but there can be little doubt that "the Capitol" lives parasitically off of the rest of us, here as in Collins’ novels. So for me the Hunger games are personal.
  3. The trend. The marketing for the movie was brilliant. Marketing folks will probably be talking about it for generations, but I think there is more to the movie's success than that. Part of me thinks it sees an encouraging trend in the younger generation: Disillusionment with American culture and government and a hunger for something more. They may be catching fire. When was the last time a book about rebellion against the government became a teen culture phenomena? These are difficult times for many, but maybe they will be a catalyst. We may just see bold changes in our lifetime. True, the end may be just like the realistic end of Mockingjay, but in the struggle, we may find fulfillment if we act boldly and according to principle, like Katniss.

This year can be easier


High school is hard. Here are ten quick ways to make this year easier.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Summer: freedom to pursue happiness

Summer is a great time for the teen who feels the need to escape adolescence. Two months of freedom from school and all that goes with it. Two months to pursue meaningful goals unhindered by bells and predetermined schedules.

Even if you have a job (and of course, jobs are great ways to escape adolescence), you still probably have more free time to work with.


I jotted down some ideas for cool summer projects at my tutoring blog. Check it out if you are in the market for something to work on this summer that means something to you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Our virtual demise

http://www.flickr.com/photos/icofuma/3105686650/
He was supposed to be reviewing for his exam. Instead, he was playing a video game on his iPhone. I had just finished reading The Demise of Guys by Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan on my Kindle, and their disturbing analysis of the effects of video games and internet porn on young men was fresh in my mind.

I said, “You’ve got to pull yourself away from that thing.”

He replied, “But I’m the manager of a pro soccer team, and I’m $150,000 in the hole.”

What could I say to that?

How can high school biology compete with the exciting virtual world in which he spends 4 hours per day, by his estimation? After all, as Zimbardo and Duncan point out, “To a young man, the thrill-packed worlds of online porn and video games are far more exciting than real life.” And so it’s no wonder teens spend so much time there. The authors note that:

Jane McGonigal, director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., estimates that the average young person will spend 10,000 hours gaming by age 21. To put this figure in context, it takes the average college student half that time — 4,800 hours — to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Guys spend an average of 13 hours per week (compared with 5 for girls) playing video games and two hours per week viewing porn. As someone who remembers the birth of Atari, I have an intuitive feeling that this can’t be good. But is this just a distrust of the unfamiliar, or might this immersion in the digital world really be having a negative impact on teens?

Zimbardo and Duncan think so, noting the correlation between this digital revolution and declining male academic performance:


Girls outperform boys now at every level, from elementary school through graduate school. By eighth grade, for instance, only 20 percent of boys are proficient in writing and 24 percent proficient in reading. Young men’s SAT scores, meanwhile, in 2011 were the worst they’ve been in 40 years...boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to drop out of both high school and college. In Canada, five boys drop out of school for every three girls who do. Nationally, boys account for 70 percent of all the D’s and F’s given out at school. It is predicted that women will earn 60 percent of bachelor’s, 63 percent of master’s and 54% of doctorate degrees by 2016. Two thirds of students in special education programs are guys...boys are four to five times more likely to be labeled as having attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder (ADHD)...
There are probably many reasons for male decline. Zimbardo and Duncan discuss decoherence of families, lack of fathers and male role models, “helicopter” parenting (extended childhood, anyone?), media images, a culture of entitlement, changes in sexual culture (“why buy the cow...”), economic forces, stimulant medications (which may damage the motivation center of the brain), and changes in diet, but they zoom in when they get to video games and porn. The digital world, they say, may be rewiring boys’ brains.

Research suggests overstimulation of our brains with dopamine, the pleasure chemical, can cause our brains to become desensitized to it. That’s why addicts always need more and more and more. Video games and porn are dopamine machines, with the added twist that the arousal of porn and video games is based on novelty, and so they also train their brains to need new and new and new. The end result is apathy toward the real world, social isolation and increasing social awkwardness, and the inability to form, maintain, and enjoy real relationships and life in general.

Ironically, the social component may be part of the impetus for immersion into the virtual world. Taking the blue pill probably seems like a no-brainer to a typical young male, a sentiment recently expressed by Dilbert cartoonist, Scott Adams, when he predicted the demise of real relationships:


As soon as sex and marriage in the simulated world ... become better than the real thing, no one will bother with the expense, stress, and inconvenience.... Humans aren't becoming any more enjoyable whereas the Internet is getting more addictive. The crossover for some folks has already arrived.... As the Internet learns to anticipate and feed your desires with increasing accuracy, your addiction will deepen.

From a teen male perspective, I can see how the real world is getting scarier, less certain. Nothing can be relied upon. Societal norms are changing every day. Gender roles are unclear. The typical young male has no idea what he is even aiming at in life. And the virtual world is so much easier. No real relationships to work on and struggle with. No real job to find. No real mouths to feed. No real work. No worries. But plenty of arousal, excitement, novelty, and adventure. It seems a foregone conclusion--to heck with real people. All you need is more and new digital stimulation, and fortunately (or unfortunately), more is coming, and faster and faster, like food on a giant conveyor belt. The porn industry brought in 13.3 billion in 2006 and the video game industry is estimated to pull in 68 billion this year. In a world so full of stress strangely mixed with boredom, the virtual world spells relief, and the market delivers.

But like drugs and alcohol, the fix it provides comes at a high price: our ability to enjoy the real world. Like alcohol and drugs, it is toxic, addictive, and life-destroying when used without moderation. And though it provides short term, immediate stimulation, it is out of synch with our nature, and so produces a net negative effect in the long run. It seems we’re built for something else: real relationships and the real world.

We can’t pin all the blame for adolescent behavior on video games and internet porn, because the problems of adolescence began before the internet and Atari (although we may be able to link the onset with TV), but the potential negative impacts are becoming clear. And really, it all fits together. Young people need responsibility and opportunity for real contributions to society and relationships. Societal restrictions and regulations do not allow it, and rather encourage the opposite--extended childhood. All the while, their nature remains unchanged, and so they seek fulfillment in other ways, boys seek it in video games, where they can be significant and responsible for imaginary worlds, or in porn where they can be the fulfillment of an attractive female. They are drawn to these exciting virtual worlds like moths to flames, and they’re getting burned.

And teens are not alone. Throughout this article I have been pointing to young males, all the time seeing myself also immersed in the digital world, seeing the symptoms of digital addiction in myself, and feeling the need myself for more balance, more time in the real world and real relationships. I see that I too am a moth drawn to the digital flame. And aren’t we all, in this runaway train of a culture that so often seems like a handbasket. As James Altucher puts it:
From here on in, we have to realize that the plane is going down and we have to put the oxygen mask on our own face first. The mega changes that occurred in the past 10 years turned the world upside down; we are in a different planet now, one that requires adapting, new ways of thinking, and of breathing. So get on your own mask, see how it feels. Breathe again.