Documentary Notes

Over the holidays I watched some documentaries on Netflix. I thought I'd share some of the things I found interesting for my first post of 2018.

To start with, here are a couple of great clips from some BBC nature documentaries:

Human Planet showed a traditional narwhal hunt from kayaks:

Planet Earth 2 had an incredible "hyperlapse" of Hong Kong:

Aside from rewatching parts of those incredible series, another science/nature documentary series I watched was Alien Deep. It follows the underwater explorations of Dr. Robert Ballard—best known for his discovery of the wreck of the Titanic. The series consists of five episodes of around 45 minutes each.

The first episode visits what they dub "Hawaii's next island", an underwater volcano next to the Big Island. The research team did a carefully-coordinated two-sub dive to the volcano; the episode also provided explanations about plate tectonics.
In the second episode, they were looking for shipwrecks in deep water (but still in sight of land, it appeared) in the Mediterranean north of Rhodes. The purpose of this was to prove that ancient seafarers were willing to cross open water instead of always hugging the coast. Additionally, shallow wrecks have often been visited by divers so deeper ones are better preserved. They found a Byzantine and a Greek wreck (and also a modern sailboat). Most of the extant remains of these ships were amphorae, still clustered in the outline of the holds. This episode reminded me of things I read in the book The Sea & Civilization.
In the next episode three crews visited hydrothermal vents in the Pacific, Atlantic (mid-ocean ridge), and Mediterranean. Hydrothermal vents represent food chains completely isolated from the energy of the sun. The ocean is continually renewed with key elements as water recirculates through them. Dr. Ballard made the point that Iceland is at the terminus of the mid-Ocean ridge and its unique landscapes are echoed underwater. At the end of the episode they visited a new volcanic island to witness early succession ecology.
The fourth episode was about rogue waves. I learned that the tallest wave on record was 23 metres! Dr. Ballard visited Lloyd's of London to look at records of shipwrecks, investigating whether storms and waves are getting bigger; boat pilots at the mouth of the Columbia River and surfers in Tahiti who were interviewed in this episode both think so. This episode also had good descriptions of swell formation and ocean circulation (the global conveyor) that reminded me of a book I read called Waves and Beaches. Finally, they interviewed researchers investigating how much animals are responsible for mixing water between layers in the ocean.
The final episode promoted colonizing "inner space". It was focused on the view that ocean explorations/colonies make more sense than going to Mars. I'm in favour of both, so I don't see why it needs to be a competition. Ballard thinks we need to turn to the ocean to feed the world: he highlighted modern offshore aquaculture (Kona Kampachi) and long-standing Chinese techniques that are still in use. Late in the episode it gets into the concept of seasteading by showing a project in Galveston to refurbish an oil rig as a 300-person habitation in the Gulf of Mexico.

Alien Deep doesn't have as polished cinematography as the BBC nature documentaries I refer to above or as Earth: A New Wild, but it gives a glimpse behind the scenes of how underwater research is done so it is worth watching if the subject interests you. Plus the enthusiasm of Dr. Ballard is contagious.

The last documentary I'll discuss here is completely different from the ones I've mentioned above. Banking on Bitcoin tells the story of the origin and early years of the first successful cryptocurrency . The movie was released early in 2017, so it is fairly up-to-date (although things moved very quickly for Bitcoin toward the end of last year).

Here is the trailer; the complete movie is 1h23 long and is currently available on Netflix:

After a discussion about what money is (getting the views of school children and a Wall St. Journal reporter), the documentary explains how Bitcoin works: it is based on a shared, open ledger instead of relying on a central bank (i.e. it's distributed rather than centralized). Every transaction is recorded in the "blockchain"; "miners" verify and update the blockchain. The documentary includes some helpful explanatory animations.

Banking on Bitcoin made the point that the exchanges (where Bitcoin interfaces with traditional currencies) are the weak link in the system. The infamous case of Mt. Gox was covered. Of course, it is not as if more conventional financial institutions have been immune to fraud and failure. Bitcoin was coincidentally launched shortly after the Lehman Bros. bankruptcy and lots of comparisons to the 2008 financial crisis are drawn in the documentary.

The documentary mentioned that 2.5 billion adults around the world don't have access to bank accounts so something like Bitcoin that people can just put on a cellphone could help fill that gap. In that regard, remittance payments that are more accessible compared to using companies like Western Union could be an important role for Bitcoin. However, as the documentary points out, Western Union can process two orders of magnitude more transactions per second than Bitcoin (and Visa dwarfs Western Union).

(I looked up their respective market capitalizations and found that at current prices Western Union is around $10 billion USD, Visa is around $270 billion USD, and Bitcoin is around $255 billion USD—though keep in mind that stocks vs. currency isn't an apples-to-apples comparison).

The best part of the documentary is probably its recounting of the history of Bitcoin. The story is told by interviewing people who have been heavily involved, as well as journalists who have been following it (such as Nathaniel Popper of the New York Times). Banking on Bitcoin effectively shows how its early years were really a wild west, with all the risk and potential reward that entails. The potential of Bitcoin attracted a very disparate cast of characters:

  • The documentary opens with Charlie Shrem who ended up serving time for money laundering for selling Bitcoin to a third party who was selling it to Silk Road users (Silk Road was a "crypto-anarchist utopia" as a journalist from Wired put it, where users could buy almost anything—but especially drugs and guns—anonymously using Bitcoin).
  • The Winklevoss twins (who you may recall if you've ever seen The Social Network) invested in Shrem's company (and other Bitcoin endeavours). But they have taken a more pragmatic approach to working with regulators.
  • Benjamin Lawsky was the financial superintendent in NY state and led some hearings into Bitcoin in 2014 that led to the development of regulations there. Now he's a consultant, helping people navigate the licensing application.
  • Erik Voorhees is a Bitcoin entrepreneur who is the voice in this documentary of the more ideological side (wanting more freedom from big banks and financial regulation) of the cryptocurrency scene.

The most intriguing character involved with Bitcoin is its founder/inventor Satoshi Nakamato. Banking on Bitcoin explores some possible identities for this individual (or team) but there are no conclusive answers, which adds a lot of mystique to Bitcoin's origins.

Overall I thought this was a great documentary. It is fascinating and paced just right.

In addition to watching this documentary, I've done some further reading about Bitcoin/cryptocurrencies recently:

  • This article suggests some security practices for Bitcoin users.
  • Here is an index site that tracks the price of Bitcoin in Canadian dollars.
  • Transaction times and fees (to the miners) are good to be aware of if you're using Bitcoin.
  • Mining Bitcoin uses a lot of electricity, which mainly gets dissipated as heat; if you have a use for low-grade heat like these guys, then it doesn't have to be wasted (making for a more environmentally-friendly setup).
  • Banking on Bitcoin discussed how a lot of the foundations for Bitcoin came from the "cypherpunks", who this article (which I haven't fully read yet) delves into further.
  • I thought this Reddit comment had some insightful criticisms.
  • Bitcoin has spurred the development of many other cryptocurrencies; the most significant ones are summarized in this infographic I found:
Courtesy of: Visual Capitalist


Over the holidays I also got into an old computer game, which I'm planning to write about next week.