Website generates off-the-shelf cryptocurrencies (so of course NewStatesmanCoin now exists)

It's completely useless, though. Don't bother downloading it. There's no point.

Things are very weird right now for those of us living in the future. Dogecoin - a digital cryptocurrency based on a funny picture of a shiba inu - has a market cap of more than $5m. We were promised jetpacks, we got dog-themed money.

There are so many new Bitcoin ripoffs (mostly by those hoping to make a fast buck) that it was inevitable that someone would create a site that automatically generates them. Coingen, created by a reddit user called Blue Matt, lets users customise their own cryptocurrency (taking either Bitcoin or smaller cousin Litecoin as inspiration), download a wallet, and get mining.

For this, users pay a fee of between 0.05 and 0.2 BTC (roughly £30 to £122 as of writing, going by the average trading price on Mt Gox), with fees for removing Coingen’s logo or getting access to the source code. That’s a tidy fee considering you can only tweak four numerical values for each coin, and the source code for Bitcoin is open and available for free already. Perhaps Blue Matt is taking inspiration from the California Gold Rush, where the biggest profits weren’t in looking for gold, but in selling equipment like picks and buckets to prospectors.

Very Dogecoin. Much currency. So zeitgeist.

And, because why not, we’ve created NewStatesmanCoin - you can download a wallet and start mining here. That’s its rather half-hearted logo up top (we considered replacing the Queen on a pound coin with a picture of deputy editor Helen Lewis, an effort you can enjoy here).

Don’t ask what the block halving rate is, or which mining algorithm it uses - random, now forgotten, numbers were used. We can probably assume from their names that many of the other coins created using Coingen use values that are just as arbitrary: jesuscoin, arbitrarycoin, starvingartistcoin, wethepeoplecoin, silvioberluscoin, realcoin, beercoin, and the catchily-named “wake_up_sheeples_banker_owned_federal_reserve_notes_equals_more_debt”. (There are also a lot of coins with racist names on there. Really, you’ve been warned.)

NewStatesmanCoin is just a joke, but the fact there are so many people who have created their own silly coins - and paid for the privilege - is worth noting. There are dozens of alternatives to Bitcoin, a tiny minority of which have support from any kind of community, and fewer still of which have any practical real-world purpose. While there are uses for cryptocurrencies, they're niche, and not without competition from more traditional companies or other technologies. Not for nothing are people like Gigaom's David Meyer asking what the point of Bitcoin is.

Looking over the transaction volume day-by-day since Bitcoin launched, it's clear that the value of the cryptocurrency has been faster and unlinked from its growth as a medium of exchange. Speculation is still the main drive of Bitcoin value, and the entire drive of Litecoin, Namecoin, and even Dogecoin value, and thus there's surely demand for Coingen's new coins, off-the-shelf and ready to, perhaps, become the next £xm-worth market. While Bitcoin's certainly popular, it's tempting to instead think that it may be the first iteration of a concept yet to be perfected.

You don't have to tell us it's a crappy logo.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”