Six bedtime stories from 2017

[Note: I neither own nor have any trading position on any cryptocurrency.  I was not compensated by any party to write this.  The views expressed below are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my employer or any organization I advise.  See Post Oak Labs for more information.]

2017 taught us many things, including the fact that no one reads (or writes) or pays for long-form content any more.  Even with lovable memes and animated gifs, keeping an audience’s attention is hard.

Already too distracted to read further?  How about a quick video from JP Sears on how to appropriately Bitcoin Shame your friends and family:

The other takeaway for 2017 is that, if in doubt, open up hundreds of social media accounts and shill your way to riches.  The worst thing that could happen is no one buys your coin.  The best thing that happens is that someone buys your coin and you can then convert the coin into real money, retire, and act like you are super-wise thought leader with oodles of entrepreneurial and investing experience.

Some other stories with revisiting from the past year:

(1) “Legitimization”

If we were being intellectually honest we would say that the only goal post anyone cared about this year was that the price of cryptocurrencies, as measured in real money, and how high they soared.1 And that the main reason this occurred is because Bob knew Alice and Carol were both going to buy a lot of say, bitcoin, thereby pushing up the price, so he did too.  The Economist called it “the greater fool theory.”  But The Economist are great fools for not buying in at $1, so let’s ignore them.

Basically none of the feel-good goals about lowering remittance fees or increasing financial inclusion promoted in previous years by enthusiasts have really materialized.  In fact, at-risk users and buyers in developing economies probably got screwed on the ICO bandwagon as insiders and sophisticated investors who were given privileged early access to pre-sales, dumped the coins on secondary markets and hoi polloi ended up holding the bag on dozens of quarter-baked ICOs.2

Oh, but transaction fees for Bitcoin are at all-time highs, that’s a real milestone right?

There are many reasons for this, including the fact that Bitcoin Core’s scaling roadmap has thus far failed to achieve its advertised deadlines (see section 5 below).3 Maybe that will change at some point.

Shouldn’t higher fees be a cause for celebration with “champaign” (sic)? 4

Some Bitcoin Core representatives and surrogates have created an ever expanding bingo card of scapegoats and bogeymen for why fees have gone up, ranging from:

  • blaming Roger Ver and Jihan Wu as demonic-fueled enemies of Bitcoin
  • to labeling large chunks of transactions as ‘spam attacks’ from nefarious Lizard-led governments5
  • to flat out bitcoinsplaining: higher fees is what to expect when mass adoption takes place!

I’m sure you’ll be on their bingo card at some point too.

Just like Visa and other widely used payment network operators charge higher and higher rates as more and more users join on… oh they don’t.6 But that’s because they censor your freedom loving transactions!  Right?

So what’s the interim solution during this era of higher fees?  Need to send a bitcoin payment to someone?

You know how supermarkets used to hold items on layaway?  They still do, but it’s not as common to use, hence why you googled the term.  Well, in light of high fees, some Bitcoin Core developers are publicly advising people to open up a “tab” with the merchant.  You know, just like you do with your favorite local bartender.

Fun fact: the original title of the Satoshi whitepaper was, Bitcoin: a peer-to-peer electronic layaway system.

This faux comparison didn’t age well.  In 2014 this was supposed to be a parody. (Source)

For example, the ad above was promoted far and wide by Bitcoin enthusiasts, including Andreas Antonopoulos who still tries to throw sand in Western Union’s eye.  Seriously, watch the linked video in which Antonopoulos claims that Bitcoin will somehow help the poor masses save money such that they can now invest in and acquire clean water.  It’s cringe worthy.  Did Bitcoin, or Bitcoin-related businesses, actually do any of the things he predicted?  Beyond a few one-time efforts, not really.7 Never mind tangible outcomes, full steam ahead on the “save the world” narrative!

Many enthusiasts fail to incorporate in their cartoonish models: that the remittance and cross border payment markets have a set of inflexible costs that have led the price structure to look the way it does today, and a portion of those costs, like compliance, have nothing to do with the costs of transacting.8  There may be a way of reducing those costs, but it is disingenuous (and arguably unethical) to pull on the heart strings of those living on subsistence in order to promote your wares.9

Rather than repeat myself, check out the break down I provided on the same Western Union example back in 2014.  Or better yet, look at the frequently updated post from Save on Send, who has the best analysis bar none on the topic.

Back to loathing about ‘adoption’ numbers: few people were interested in actual usage beyond arbitrage opportunities and we know this because no one writes or publishes usage numbers anymore.10 I’ll likely have a new post on this topic next quarter but for a quick teaser: BitPay, like usual, still puts out headline numbers of “328% growth” but doesn’t say what the original 2016 baseline volume was in order to get the new number today.

I don’t strive to pick on BitPay (to be fair they’re like the only guys to actually publish something) but unfortunately for them, the market still has not moved their way: Steam recently dropped support for Bitcoin payments and a Morgan Stanley research note (below) showed that acceptance from top 500 eCommerce merchants dropped from 5 in 2016 to 3 in 2017.11

“This is possibly the saddest bitcoin chart ever” – BI. Source: Morgan Stanley

Due to a lack of relevant animated gifs, a full break down on the topic wouldn’t fit in this article.  But just a quick note, there were a number of startups that moved decisively away from their original stated business case of remittances and instead in to B2B plays (BitPesa, Bitspark) or to wallets (Abra). 12  These would be worth revisiting in a future article.13

So what does this all have to do with “legitimization”?

If you haven’t seen the Godfather trilogy, it’s worth doing so during or after the holiday break.14

This year we have collectively witnessed the techbro re-enactment of Godfather: Part 3 with the seeming legitimization of online bucket shops and dodgy casinos, aka cryptocurrency intermediaries, you wouldn’t talk about in polite company.

All of the worst elements of society, like darknet market operators, hate groups, and malware developers, effectively got eff you money and a cleansing mainstream “exit” courtesy of financial institutions coming in and regulators overwhelmed by all of the noise.15  Just like in No Country for Old Men, the bad guy(s) sometimes win.  This isn’t the end of that story but the takeaway for entrepreneurs and retail investors: don’t work or build anything. Just shill for coins on social media morning, noon, and night.

(2) Red Scares

I am old enough to remember back in 2013 when Bitcoin “thought leaders” welcomed Chinese Bitcoin users.  In late 2013, during the second bull run of that year, there were frequent reddit threads about how mainland Chinese could use Bitcoin to route around censorship and all the other common civil libertarian tropes.

Guess what happened?  On December 5th, 2013, the People’s Bank of China and four other ministries issued guidance which restricted activities that domestic banks could do with cryptocurrencies, thereby putting spot exchanges in a bit of a bind, causing panic and subsequently a market crash.  Within days there were multiple “blame China” threads and memes that still persist to this day.  Case in point: this thread titled, “Dear China” which had Mr. Bean flipping off people in cars, was voted to the top of /r/bitcoin within a couple months of the government guidance.  Classy.

As I detailed in a previous post, earlier in the autumn, several state organs in China finally closed down the spot exchanges, which in retrospect, was probably a good decision because of the enormous amounts of scams and deception going on while no one in the community was policing itself.16 In fact, some of the culprits that led Chinese exchanges into the dishonesty abyss are still around, only now they’re working for other high-profile Bitcoin companies. 17  Big surprise!

For example, Reuters did an investigation into some of the mainland exchanges this past September, prior to the closure of the spot exchanges.  They singled out BTCC (formerly BTC China) as having a checkered past:

Internal customer records reviewed by Reuters from the BTCChina exchange, which has an office in Shanghai but is stopping trading at the end of this month, show that in the fall of 2015, 63 customers said they were from Iran and another nine said they were from North Korea – countries under U.S. sanctions.

It’s unclear how much volume BTCC processed on behalf of North Koreans, one former employee says the volumes were definitely not zero.18 These were primarily North Koreans working in China, some in Dandong (right across the border).

For perspective: North Korea has been accused of masterminding the WannaCry ransomware attack and also attacking several South Korea exchanges to the tune of around $7 million this year.  Sanctions are serious business, check out the US Department of Treasury resource center to learn more.19

Isn’t China the root of all problems in Bitcoinland?

Source: Twitter

The sensationalism (above) is factually untrue yet look how many people retweeted and liked the quickly debunked conspiracy theory.  It’s almost as if, in the current mania, no one cares about facts.

As Hitchens might say: that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.  So to are the conspiracies around Bitcoin in China:

  • Is the Chinese government nationalizing Bitcoin?  No.
  • Is the Chinese government responsible for Bitcoin Cash.  No.
  • Is the Chinese government behind the rise in CryptoKitties. No.

In this bull market it is unclear why Paul has to resort to PR stunts, like making fearmongering tweets or opening a strike/call option at LedgerX with the bet that bitcoin will be worth $50,000 next year.20 There are many other ways to better utilize this capital: rethink investing in funds run by managers who are not only factually wrong but who spread fake rumors around serious issues like nationalization.

For instance, I don’t normally publicly write about who I meet, but this past July, while visiting Beijing I sat down with about a dozen members of their ‘Digital Money‘ team (part of the People’s Bank of China group involved in exploring and researching blockchain-related topics). 21 They had already spoken with my then-current employer as well as many other teams and companies (apparently the Zcash team saw them the very next day). While I don’t want to be perceived as endorsing their views, based on my in-depth discussion that day, this Digital Money team had clearly done their homework and heard from all corners of the entire blockchain ecosystem, both cryptocurrency advocates and enterprise vendors. They were interested in the underlying tech: how could the big umbrella of blockchain-related technology improve their financial market infrastructure?

Look at it another way: the Chinese government (or any government for that matter) has no need to nationalize Bitcoin, what value would it bring to them?  It would just be a cost center for them as miners don’t run for free.22  In contrast, their e-RMB team, based out of Shenzhen, has been experimenting with forks/clones of Ethereum.  This is public information.

But what about Jihan and Bitmain?  Aren’t they out to kill Bitcoin?

I can’t speak on his intentions but consider this: as a miner who manufacturers and sells SHA256 hardware that can be used by both Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash (as well as any SHA256 proof-of-work coin), Bitmain benefits from repeat business and satisfied customers.  It is now clear that the earlier Antbleed campaign effort to demonize Bitmain was a massive PR effort to create a loss of confidence in Bitmain as it was promoted by several well known Bitcoin Core supporters and surrogates to punish Bitmain for its support for an alternative Bitcoin scaling roadmap and client.  In fact, as of this day, no one has brought forth actual evidence beyond hearsay, that covert ASICBoost is/was taking place.  Maybe they did, but you’d need to prove this with evidence.

Speaking of PR campaigns and mining…

(3a) Energy usage / mining

Over the past two months there have probably been more than a dozen articles whitewashing proof-of-work mining energy consumption numbers.  Coin Center, a lobbying group straight out of Thank You for Smoking, has its meme team out on continuous social media patrols trying to conduct damage control: no one must learn that Bitcoin mining isn’t free or that it actually consumes resources!

Source: Twitter

The title of the article above is complete clickbait BS.  Empirically proof-of-work mining is driving miners to find regions of the world that have a good combination of factors including: low taxes, low wages, low energy costs, quick time-to-market access (e.g., being able to buy and install new hashing equipment), reliable energy, reliable internet access, and low political turmoil (aka stability).23  Environmental impact and “clean energy” are talking points that Van Valkenburgh allege, but don’t really prove beyond one token “we moved to renewables!” story.  The next time Coin Center pushes this agenda item, be sure to just ask for evidence from miners directly.24.

Another example is in a recent Bloomberg View column from Elaine Ou (note: the previous company that she co-founded was shut down by the SEC).  She wrote:

Digital currency is wasteful by design. Bitcoin “miners,” who process transactions in return for new currency, must race to solve extremely difficult cryptographic puzzles. This computational burden helps keep the transaction record secure — by raising the bar for anyone who would want to tamper with it –- but also requires miners to build giant farms of servers that consume vast amounts of energy. The more valuable bitcoin becomes, the more miners are willing to spend on equipment and electricity.

Mining a proof-of-work coin (such as Bitcoin) can only be as ‘cheap‘ or ‘efficient’ as the block reward is worth. As the market price of a coin increases so too does the capital expended by miners chasing seigniorage.  This, we both agree on.

In the long run, proof-of-work miners will invest and consume capital up to the threshold in which the marginal costs of mining (e.g., land, labor, electricity, taxes, etc.) roughly equals the marginal revenue they receive from converting the bitcoins into foreign currency (aka real money) to pay those same costs.  This, we also both agree on.

What Ou makes a mistake on is in her first sentence: digital currencies are not all wasteful, only the proof-of-work variety are.  Digital currency != cryptocurrency.25

I know, I know, all other digital currencies that are not proof-of-work are crap coins and those who make them are pearl-clutching morons.  Contra Ou and Coin Center, it is possible for central banks, and even commercial banks, to issue their own digital currency — and they could do so without using resource intensive proof-of-work.26  The Bank of International Settlements recently published a good paper on the various CBDC models out there, well worth a read.  And good news: no mountains of coal are probably used in the CBDC issuance and redemption process.27

Back to proof-of-work coins: a hypothetically stable $1 million bitcoin will result in a world in which miners as a whole expend up to $1 million in capital to mine.  If the network ever became cheaper to operate it would also mean it is cheaper to permanently fork the network.  You can’t have both a relatively high value proof-of-work coin and a simultaneously non-resource intensive network.

While it is debatable as to whether or not Bitcoin mining is wasteful or not, it empirically does consume real resources beyond the costs of energy and the externalization of pollution onto the environment.  The unseen costs of hash generation for a $20,000 bitcoin is at least $13 billion in capital over a year that miners will eventually consume in their rent-seeking race albeit from a combination of resources.

Data source: BitInfoCharts

I quickly made the chart (above) to illustrate this revenue (or costs depending on the point of view).28 These are the eight largest proof-of-work-based cryptocurrencies as measured by real money market prices.

There are a few caveats: (1) some of the block rewards adjust more frequently than others (like XMR); (2) some of the coins have relatively low transaction fees which equates to negligible revenue so they were not included; (3) the month of December has seen some very high transaction fees that may or may not continue into 2018; (4) because block generation for some of these is based on an inhomogeneous Poisson process, blocks may come quicker than what was supposed to be “average.”

How to interpret the table?

The all-time high price for Bitcoin was nearly $20,000 per coin this year.  If in the future, that price held stable and persisted over an entire year, miners would receive about $13 billion in block rewards alone (not including transaction fees).  Empirically we know that miners will deploy and consume capital up to the point where the marginal costs equals the marginal value of the coin.29  So while there are miners with large operating margins right now, those margins will be eaten up such that about $13 billion will eventually be deployed to chase and capture those rewards.  Consequently, if all 8 of these proof-of-work coins saw their ATH extended through 2018, ceteris paribus, miners would collectively earn about $32.6 billion in revenue (including some fees).

There are a variety of sites that attempt to gauge what the energy consumption is to support the network hashrate.  Perhaps the most frequently cited is Digiconomist.  But Bitcoin maximalists don’t like that site, so let’s put together an estimate they cannot deny (yes, there are climate change denialists in the cryptocurrency world).

For the month of December, the network hashrate for Bitcoin hovered around 13.5 exahash/second or 13.5 million terahash/second (TH/s).

To get a lowerbound on how many hash-generating machines are being used, let’s look at a product called the S9 from Bitmain.  It is considered to be the most “efficient” off-the-shelf product that public consumers can order in volume.30 This mining unit generates around 13.5 TH/s.

So, if we were to magically wave our hands and replace all of the current crop of Bitcoin mining machines into the most efficient off-the-shelf product, we’d need about 1 million of these to be manufactured, shipped, installed, and maintained in order to generate the equivalent hashrate that the Bitcoin network has today.  Multiply 1 million S9’s times the amount of energy individually used by a S9 and you’d get a realistic lowerbound energy usage for the network today.31

Note: this doesn’t factor in land prices, energy costs, wages for employees, building the electrical infrastructure (e.g., installing transformers), and many other line items that are unseen in the chart above.  It also doesn’t include the most important factor: as more mining hashrate is added and the difficulty rating adjust upward, it dilutes the existing labor force (e.g., your mining unit does not improve or become more productive over time).

(3b) Energy usage upperbound

So what are the upperbound costs?

Source: Twitter

The tweet above is not a rare occurrence.  If you are reading this, you probably know someone who tried to mine a cryptocurrency from an office computer or maybe their computer was the victim of ransomware.

You may not think of much of the externalization and socialization of equipment degradation that is taking place, but because mining is a resource intensive process, the machines used for that purpose depreciate far faster than those with normal office usage.32  To date, no one has done a thorough analysis of just how many work-related computers have been on the receiving end of the mining process but we know that employees sometimes get caught, like the computer systems manager for the New York City Department of Education or the two IT staffers in Crimea.33

Even if miners eventually fully utilize renewable energy resources, most hash-generating machines currently deployed do not and will not next year.  These figures also do not factor in the fully validating nodes that each network has that run out of charity (people run them without any compensation) yet consume resources.  According to Bitnodes, Bitcoin has around 11,745 nodes online. According to EtherNodes, Ethereum has around 26,429 nodes online.

So is there an actual upperbound number?

There is, by dividing hashpower by cost and comparing to costs of various known processor types.  For instance, see this footnote for the math on how two trillion low-end laptop CPUs could be used.3435

Just looking at the hash-generating machines, according to Chen Min (a chip designer at Avalon Mining), as of early November, 5% of all transistors in the entire semiconductor industry is now used for cryptocurrency mining and that Ethereum mining alone is driving up DRAM prices.

This is not to say you should march in the streets demanding that miners should forgo the use of coal power plants and only use solar panels (which of course, require consumption of resources including semiconductors), there are after all, many other activities that are relatively wasteful.

But some Bitcoin and cryptocurrency enthusiasts are actively whitewashing the environmental impact of their anarchic systems and cannot empirically claim that their proof-of-work-based networks are any less wasteful or resource intensive than the traditional foreign capital markets they loathe.

In point of fact, while the traditional financial markets will continue to exist and grow without having to rely on cryptocurrencies for rationally pricing domestic economic activity, in 2018, as in years prior, Bitcoinland is still fully dependent on the stability of foreign economies providing liquidity and pricing data to the endogenous labor force of Bitcoin.  Specifically, I argue in a new article, that miners cannot calculate without using a foreign unit of account; that economic calculations on whether or not to deploy and consume capital for expanding mining operations can only be done with stable foreign currency.36

Keep in mind that cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin only clear (not settle) just one coin (or token) whereas traditional financial markets manage, transact, clear and settle hundreds of different financial instruments each day. 37  For comparison, the Federal Reserve estimates that on any given day about 600 million payment, clearing, and settlement transactions take place in the US representing over $11 trillion in value.38  But this brings up a topic that is beyond the scope of this article.  Next section please.

(4) MIT’s Digital Currency Initiative

On the face of it, MIT’s DCI effort makes a lot of sense: one of the world’s most recognized institutions collaborating with cryptocurrency developers and projects worldwide.

But beneath the slick facade is a potential conflict of interest that has not been looked at by any media outlet.  Specifically, around its formal foray into building tools for central bank digital currency (CBDC).  Rob Ali, a well-respected lawyer turned research scientist (formerly with the Bank of England), was hired earlier this year by DCI to build and lead a team at MIT for the purpose of continuing the research he had started at the BoE.  This is no secret.

Less known is how this research has now morphed into a two-fold business:

  1. DCI charges central banks about $1 million a year to be a partner.39  What this allows the central bank to do is send staff to MIT and tap into its research capabilities.  This includes MIT representatives co-authoring a couple of papers each year focused on topics that the central bank is keen to explore.  Multiple central banks have written checks and are working together with DCI at this time.
  2. Building and licensing tools and modules to central banks and commercial banks.  DCI has hired several Bitcoin developers whom in turn have cloned/forked Bitcoin Core and Lightning.  Using this code as a foundation, DCI is building IP it aims to license to central banks who want to build and issue central bank digital currency.

Where is the conflict of interest?

DCI is housed within MIT’s Media Lab, whose current director is Joi Ito.  Ito is also the co-founder and director of Digital Garage.  Digital Garage is an investor in Blockstream and vocal advocate of Lightning; coincidentally Blockstream is building its own Lightning implementation. Having made several public comments in favor of Bitcoin Core’s hegemony, Ito also appears to be a critic of alternative blockchain implementations.

In looking at his publicly recorded events on this topic Ito does not appear to disclose that the organizations he co-runs and invests in, directly benefit from the marketing efforts that Bitcoin Core and Lightning receive.  Perhaps this is just miscommunication.

I’m all for competition in the platform and infrastructure space and think central bank digital currencies are legit (again check out this BIS paper) but this specific DCI for-profit business should probably be spun off into an independent company.  Why?  Because it would help reduce the perception that Ito – and others developers involved in it – benefits from these overlapping relationships.  After all, Bitcoin Core arguably has a disproportional political clout that his investment (Blockstream) potentially benefits from if/when Lightning goes into production.40 And again, this is not to say there shouldn’t be any private-public partnerships or corporate sponsorships of academic research or that researchers should be prohibited in investing in companies, rather just a recommendation for disclosure and clarity.

(5) Lightning Network

If you haven’t seen The Money Pit (with Tom Hanks), it is well worth it for one specific reason: the contractors and their staff who are renovating Hanks’ home keep telling Hanks that it will be ready in two weeks.

And after those two weeks are over, Hanks is informed yet again that it will be ready in another two weeks.

The Lightning Network, as a concept, was first announced via a draft paper in February 2015. Its authors, Tadge Dryja and Joseph Poon, had initially sketched out some of the original ideas at their previous employer Vaurum (now called Mirror).

Lightning, as it is typically called, is commonly used in the same breath as “the scaling solution,” a silver bullet answer to the current transactional limitations on the Bitcoin network.41 Nearly three years later, after enormous hype and some progress, a decentralized routing version still has not gone into production.  Maybe it will eventually but not one of its multiple implementations is quite ready today unless you want to use a centralized hub.42  Strangely, some of the terminology that its advocates frequently use, “Layer 2 for settlement,” is borderline hokum and probably has not been actually vetted to see if it fulfills the requirements for real “settlement finality.”43

And like multiple other fintech infrastructure projects, some of its advocates repeatedly said it would be ready in less than 6 months, several times.  For instance:

  • On October 7, 2015, Pete Rizzo interviewed multiple developers including Tadge Dryja and Joseph Poon regarding Lightning.  Rizzo wrote that: “In interview, Dryja and Poon suggested that, despite assertions project development could take years, Lightning could take as little as six months to be ready for launch.”
  • On April 5, 2016, Kyle Torpey interviewed Joseph Poon regarding expected time lines, stating that: “Lightning Network co-creator Joseph Poon recently supplied some comments to CoinJournal in regards to the current status of the project and when it will be available for general use. Poon claimed a functional version of the Lightning Network should be ready this summer.”
  • A month later, on May 5, 2016, Kyle Torpey interviewed Adam Back regarding his roadmap.  Torpey wrote that: “While all of these improvements are being implemented on Bitcoin’s base layer, various layer-2 solutions, such as the Lightning Network, can also happen in parallel. The Lightning Network only needs CHECKSEQUENCYVERIFY (along with two other related BIPs) and Segregated Witness to be accepted by the network before it can become a reality on top of the main Bitcoin blockchain.”
  • On November 12, 2016, Alyssa Hertig interviewed several developers including Pierre-Marie Padiou, CEO of ACINQ, one of the startups trying to building a Ligthning implementation.  According to Padiou: “The only blocker for a live Lightning implementation is SegWit. It’s not sure how or when it will activate, but if SegWit does activate, there is no technical thing that would prevent Lightning from working.”

Segregated Witness (SegWit) was activated on August 24, 2017.  More than four months later, Lightning is still not in production without the use of hubs.

Source: Twitter

Not to belabor the point, just this past week, one of the executives at Lightning Labs (which is building one of the implementations) was interviewed on Bloomberg but wasn’t asked about their prior rosy predictions for release dates.  To be fair, there is only so much they could cover in a six minutes allocation.

“Building rock solid infrastructure is hard,” is a common retort.

Who could have guessed it would take longer than 6 months?  Yes, for regular readers of my blog, I have routinely pointed out for several years that architecting and deploying financial market infrastructure (FMI) is a time consuming, laborious undertaking which has now washed out more than a handful of startups attempting to build “enterprise” blockchains.

For example, Lightning as a concept predates nearly every single enterprise-focused DLT vendor’s existence.  While not an equal comparison (they are trying to achieve different goals), there are probably ~5 enterprise-focused, ‘permissioned’ platforms that are now being used in mature pilots with real institutional customers and a couple could flip the “production” button on in the next quarter or so.4445

For what it is worth, enterprise DLT vendors as a whole did a very poor job managing expectations the past couple of years (which I mentioned in a recent interview).  And they certainly had their own PR campaigns during the past couple of years too, there is no denying that.  Someone should measure and quantify the amount of mentions on social media and news stories covering enterprise vendors and proposals like Lightning.46

Better late than never, right?  So what about missed time frames?

In a recent (unscientific) poll I did via Twitter (the most scientific voting platform ever!) found that of the more than 1,600 voters, 81% of respondents thought that relatively inexpensive anonymous Lightning usage won’t really be good to go for at least 6+ months.

Just as Adam Back proposed a moratorium on nebulous “contention” for six months (beginning in August), I propose a moratorium on using the term “Lightning” as a trump card until it is actually live and works without relying on hubs.  But don’t expect to see the crescendo of noise (and some signal) to die down in the meantime, especially once exchanges and wallets begin to demonstrate centralized, MSB-licensed implementations.47

With that suggestion, I can see it now: all of the Lightning supporters flaming me in unison on Twitter for not being a vocal advocate.  Sure beats shipping code!  To be even handed, Lightning’s collective PR effort was just one of many others (hello sofachains!) that could be scrutinized.  A future post could look at all funded infrastructure-related efforts to improve cryptocurrency networks.  Which ones, if any, showed much progress in 2017. 48

Interested in reading more contrarian views on the Lightning Network?  See Gerard and Stolfi (and Stolfi2x) (and Stolfi3x).  Let’s revisit in 6 months to see what has been launched and is in production.

(6) Objective reporting and analysis

Without sugar coating it: with the exception of a few stories, coin media not only dropped the ball on critically, objectively covering ICO mania this past year, but was largely complicit in its mostly corrupt rise.  This includes The Information, which is usually stellar, but seems to have fallen in the tank with the ICO pumpers.  That is, unless you’re a fake advisor and then they’ve got your number.

It took some time, but eventually mainstream and a few not-so-mainstream coverage has brought a much needed spotlight on some of the shady actions that took place this year. There were also a number of good papers from lawyers and academics published throughout 2017.

Your holiday reading list in no particular order:

One of my favorite articles this year should be yours too:

Just a few short months after Stephen Palley published the article above, a lawsuit occurred in which, surprise surprise, the plaintiffs highlighted specific claims in the white paper:

Source: Twitter

Note: that the SEC’s order against the Munchee ICO also relied on highlighting specific claims in the white paper.

Concluding remarks

Unfortunately 2017 will probably go down as the year in which several generations of nerds turned into day-trading schmucks, with colorful technical charts and all.50 This included even adopting religious slogans like:  Buy the dip!  Weakhands!  HODL!  We are the new 1%!  The dollar is crashing!  It’s not a bubble, it’s an adoption curve!

A few parting bits of advice: unfollow anyone that says this time things are different or the laws of economics have changed or calls themselves a “cryptolawyer” or who previously got shutdown by the SEC or who doesn’t have a LinkedIn page.  Rethink donating or investing funds to anyone who makes up rumors about mining nationalization or who was fired for gambling problems or has a communications team solely dedicated to designing memes for Twitter.51

Cryptocurrencies aren’t inherently bad and ideas like ERC721 are even cool.52 But as neat as some of the tech ideas may be, magic internet coins sure as heck continue to attract a lot of Scumbag Steves who are enabled by participants that have turned a blind eye.  It’s all good though, because everyone will somehow get a Moonlambo after the final boss is beaten, right?


I will have a separate post discussing predictions for 2018 but since we are reflecting on 2017, below are a few other areas worth looking into now that you’re a paper zillionare:

  • We have real empirical observation of hyperdeflation occurring: in which it is more rational to hoard the coin instead of spend it.  As a result, Bitcoin-focused companies that have accumulated bitcoin are still raising capital from external financial markets denominated in foreign currency instead of deploying (consuming) their own bitcoin. And these same startups are receiving valuations measured, not in terms of bitcoin, but in terms of a foreign unit of account.  What would change this trend?
  • Bitcoinland, with its heavy concentration of wealth, looks a lot like a feudal agrarian economy completely dependent on other countries and external financial markets in order to rationally deploy capital and do any economic calculation. Is there a way to build a dynamically adjustable cryptocurrency that does not rely on foreign capital or foreign reference rates?
  • How much proof-of-work related pollution has been externalized and socialized on the public at large due to subsidies in various regions like Venezuela?  What are the effects, if any, on global energy markets?
  • As traditional financial markets add products and solutions with direct ties to cryptocurrencies (futures, options, payments, custody), by the end of 2018 how much of the transactional activity on Bitcoin’s edges will be based on non-traditional financial markets (e.g., LocalBitcoins)?
  • There were a lot of publicity stunts this year.  Working backwards chronologically, the Andreas Antonopoulos donation could have been a publicity stunt, it also could be real.  The argument goes: how is someone with a best selling book, who charges $20,000+ for speaking engagements, and who has been receiving bitcoins for years (here is the public address), still in debt.  Maybe he is, maybe his family fell on hard times.  But few asked any questions when an anonymous person sent what amounted to $1 million in bitcoin enabling him to reset his tax basis.  (Hate me for writing this?  As an experiment, earlier this month I put up a Bitcoin and Ethereum address on the sidebar of the home page, feel free to shower me with your magic coins and prove me wrong.  I promise to convert it all into dirty filthy statist bucks.)  A few months prior to that, Jamie Dimon was accused of everything but eating babies after he said “Bitcoin is a fraud.”  Dozens of “Dear Jamie” letters were written begging him to see Bitcoin with their pure rose-tinted eyes.  At what point will Bitcoin enthusiasts grow some thick skin and ignore the critics they claim don’t matter?  And while we can continue to add PR stunts forever, the “fundraiser” for Luke-Jr’s home after Hurricane Irma had zero proof that it was his house, just a picture that Luke-Jr. says it was and the rest of the Bitcoin Core fan club promoting it.  Trust but verify?

[Note: if you found this research note helpful, be sure to visit Post Oak Labs for more in the future.]


Many thanks to the following for their constructive feedback: VB, YK, RD, CM, WG, MW, PN, JH

End notes

  1. Bitcoin fans basically walked onto the field before the football game, toppled the goal posts, and carried it outside the stadium declaring themselves victorious without having actually played the match. []
  2. How many of these unsophisticated buyers have subsequently lost the corresponding private keys?  See “Nearly 4 Million Bitcoins Lost Forever, New Study Says” from Fortune []
  3. I am sure I will be accused of being a “Bitcoin Cash shill” (which obviously I must be, there is no other explanation!) for pointing this out, but last week, one vocal Bitcoin Core supporter even proposed a commit to change the wording on surrounding low fees: “These descriptions of transaction features are somewhat open to interpretation; it would probably be best not to oversell Bitcoin given the current state of the network.” []
  4. As an actor on a classic Saturday Night Live sketch said: “You may ask how we at the Change Bank, make money? It’s simple, volume.” []
  5. I take issue with anyone claiming to be able to label transactions specifically as spam without doing an actual graph analysis.  See Slicing Data for more. Proof-of-lizard is not to be conflated with lizardcoin. []
  6. Note: this is not an endorsement of Visa, I do not have any equity or financial stake in Visa. []
  7. One reviewer commented: “One problem that affects all cryptocurrencies whether proof of work or of stake: What reason do most people have for using them that won’t run afoul of social policy objectives? As long as people need to convert them to regular fiat currencies, they have a distinct disadvantage. The only exception would be in failed economies where stable fiat currencies are restricted, until those governments see a cryptocurrency as a potential substitute and ban it. It is not even clear why a government would need to issue a cryptocurrency (not a CBDC). If it wants to serve unbanked people it could open or subsidize a bank for them which is what is being attempted in a few developing countries.” []
  8. One reviewer commented: “Fully peer-to-peer without banks ultimately leads to creating a new currency. A new currency means that for international payments you have the additional costs of converting into the currency and converting out of the currency. A currency not linked to a real world economy is always going to have a more volatile price (assuming it has any price at all). Volatility in FX always, always leads to higher transaction costs for exchange because the bid offer spread has to be wider. This is before you even get into the mining proof or work model and all its inherent flaws, which again ultimately result from trying to build a financial system without banks.” []
  9. One reviewer noted that: “Transferwise, Currency Fair, Revolut, Mondo and other startups are already doing it. And they’re doing it without having to break the rules and laws banks and Western Union have to play by. They’re building actual real, potentially sustainable businesses that are useful to society. They’re just not grabbing the headlines like the greater fool / Nakamoto Scheme is. When you build a real business, your scope for false promise making behind incoherent computer science jargon is pretty small.” []
  10. I even stopped aggregating numbers 18 months ago because fewer companies were making usage numbers public: it’s hard to write about specific trends when that info disappears.  Note: if you think you have some interesting info, feel free to send it my way. []
  11. BitPay has diversified its portfolio of services now, expanding far beyond the original merchant acceptance and recently closed a $30 million funding round.  However, the problem with their growth claims is they are typically measured in $USD volume. So, as the value of bitcoin has grown 10-20x (as measured in USD) in the past year, it is unclear how much BitPay has really grown in terms of new customers and additional transactions.  Note: the same can be said for most Bitcoin-specific companies making big growth-related claims, BitPay is just one example. []
  12. Movements occurred in other areas too, on the enterprise side, Chain was perhaps the most well known company to pivot away from that vertical. []
  13. One reviewer commented: “2017 was a good year for B2B players with some prominent funding rounds (e.g., Bitspark, Veem, BitPesa) and some claimed growth on blockchain “rails” (but also on non-blockchain) namely Veem and BitPesa. A big surprise of 2017 was a much broader awareness of cryptocurrencies, i.e., free massive PR. The Coinbase app became more popular than Venmo (and far ahead of any bank). As a result, one of the most intriguing questions right now for 2018 is if/how Coinbase could capitalize on this opportunity to become a full-fledged bank leveraging the best of banking-like services from players like Xapo, Uphold, and Luno?” []
  14. I suppose it is safe to assume that if you’re reading this, you are coin millionaire so you don’t worry about fiat-mandated holiday breaks like the rest of us. []
  15. Not all medium-to-large coin holders are the adopters you now see wearing suits on television talk shows.  Most coin holders, including the abusive trolls and misogynists on social media, have seen a large pay raise, enabling the worst elements to continue their bullying attacks and illicit activities.  See Alt-right utilizes bitcoin after crackdown on hate speech from The Hill []
  16. Worth pointing out that Ryan Selkis is attempting to push forward with a the self-regulatory effort called Messari.  See also: The Brooklyn Project. []
  17. Earlier this year, right after the law enforcement raids in China, one of the senior executives left BTCC but still remains on the board of the parent company that operates BTCC.  He quickly found a new senior role at another high-profile Bitcoin-focused company and uses his social media accounts to vigorously promote Bitcoin Core and maximalism. []
  18. As explored in a previous post, fake volumes among the Chinese exchanges was not uncommon and several of the large exchanges attempted to gain funding from venture capitalists while simultaneously faking the usage numbers. As one former employee put it: “That was an extraordinary attempt at fraud — faking the numbers through wash trading and simply printing trades, while using that data to attract investment and establish their valuation.” []
  19. Coinbase got into some problems in early 2015 when one of its investor decks highlighted the fact that cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, could be used to bypass sanctions. []
  20. Ari Paul runs a small “crypto” hedge fund called BlockTower Capital (estimated to have between around $50-$80 million AUM) that like many companies in this space, faces an ongoing lawsuit.  Unclear why LPs didn’t just buy and hold cryptocurrencies themselves and cut out the hysteria and management fees. []
  21. Yea, I know, “money” is already digital… I didn’t give them that name, they did. []
  22. One reviewer noted: “The fact remains that if you replace the mining process with a a centralized system for validation of transactions and up-to-date of balances you could run the whole thing on an ordinary sized server for a few thousand dollars per year. Centralisation and a more logical data model are vastly better technically speaking. And it would be far easier to add in compliance and links to banks for more robust and honest methods for exchanging between a centralized bitcoin and fiat. What would the Chinese government gain from mining?” []
  23. One of the often overlooked benefits of setting up a mining farm in China is that many of the parts and components of mining equipment are either manufactured in China and/or final assembly takes place in China.  So logistically it is much quicker to transport and install the hardware on-site within China versus transport and use overseas. []
  24. I know a bunch and could maybe introduce them though some of them make public appearances at conferences so they can usually be approached or emailed. []
  25. In fact, many regulators, such as the ECB, categorize cryptocurrency as a type of “virtual currency,” separate from a “digital currency.” []
  26. There is often confusion conflating “transaction processing” and “hash generation,” the two are independent activities.  Today mining pools handle the transaction processing and have sole discretion to select any transactions from the memory pool to process (historically there have been thousands of ’empty’ blocks) — yet mining pools are still paid the full block reward irrespective of how many transactions they do or not process.  Hash generation via mining farms has been a discrete service for more than 5 years — think of mining pools as the block makers who outsource or subcontract the hash generation out to a separate labor force (mining farms) and then a mining pool packages the transactions into a block once they receive the correct proof-of-work.  Note: “fees” to miners is a slightly different but related topic. []
  27. CBDCs have their own issues, like the risk of crowding out ordinary banks in market for deposits in a low interest rate environment but they have little in common with anarchic crytocurrencies. []
  28. Many thanks to Vitalik Buterin for his feedback and suggestions here. []
  29. See also: Some Crypto Quibbles with Threadneedle Street from Robert Sams []
  30. There are other mining manufacturers, including some who only build for themselves, such as Bitfury. []
  31. Interestingly enough, the market price for one of these machines is around $2,000.  And if you do the math, you’ll see exactly what all professional miners do: it’d only cost $2 billion to buy enough machines to generate 100% of the network hashrate and claim all the $13 billion in rewards to yourself!  In other words, the seigniorage is big, fat, and juicy… and will attract other miners to come and bid up the price of mining to the equilibrium point. []
  32. There are many walk-throughs of bitcoin mining facilities, including this video from Quartz. []
  33. In the process of writing this article, a new story explained how more than 105,000 users of a Chrome extension were unknowingly mining Monero.  Heroic theft of CPU cycles, right? []
  34. In theory, and practice, the upperbound is not infinite.  We know from the hashrate being generated that there are a finite amount of cycles being spent repeatedly multiplying SHA256 over and over.  Perhaps a possible, but improbable way to gauge the upperbound is to take the processing speed of a low-end laptop CPU (which is not as efficient at hashing as its ASIC cousins are).  At 6 MH/s, how many seventh generation i3 chips would it take to generate the equivalent of 13.5 million TH/s?  On paper, over 2 trillion CPUs.  Note: 1 terahash is 1 million megahashes.  So 1 million laptop CPUs each generating 6 MH/s on paper, would collectively generate around 6 TH/s.  The current network hashrate is 13.5 exahash/s.  So you’d need to flip on north of 2 trillion laptop CPUs to reach the current hashrate.  In reality, you’d probably need more because to replace malfunctioning machines: a low-end laptop isn’t usually designed to vent heat from its CPU throttled to the max all day long. []
  35. One China-based miner reviewed this scenario and mentioned another method to arrive at an upperbound: “Look at the previous generation of ASICs which run at 2-3x watt per hash higher.  The previous generation machines normally get priced out within 18 months.  But with differing electricity costs and a high enough price, these machines get turned on.  Or they go to cheap non-petrodollar countries like Russia or Venezuela. So your base load of 1 million machines will have an upperbound of 2x to 3x depending on prevailing circumstances.” []
  36. It may be also worth pointing out that the “evil Chinese miners blocking virtuous Core” narrative is hard to justify because Bitcoin’s current relatively high fees are a direct result of congestion and has consequently increased miner revenue by 33% (based on December’s fees).  So in theory, it’s actually in the miners interest to now promote the small block position.  Instead, in reality, most miners were and are the ones advocating for bigger block sizes, and certain Bitcoin Core representatives were blocking those proposals as described elsewhere but we’re not going down that rabbit hole today. []
  37. One reviewer commented: “Financial instruments that either directly perform a service to our economy and even indirectly via speculation, enable price discovery for things that are important to people’s lives. Who’s lives is Bitcoin really important to right now? To this day the only markets it can claim to have any significant market share in, let alone be leader in, is illicit trade and ransomware. The rest appears to be just people looking to pump and shill.” []
  38. It’s also probably not worth trying to start a discussion about what the benefits, if any, there is for society regarding cryptocurrency mining relative to the resources it collectively consumes, as the comments below or on social media would simply result in a continuous flame war.  Note: colored coins and metacoins create distortions in the security assumptions (and rewards) for the underlying networks.  Watermarked tokens are neither secure nor proper for financial market infrastructure. []
  39. It is not $1 million straight, there are multiple levels and tiers. []
  40. There is an ongoing controversy around key decision makers within Bitcoin Core (specifically those who approve of BIPs) and their affiliation with Blockstream.  One of Blockstream’s largest investors, Reid Hoffman, said Blockstream would “function similarly to the Mozilla Corporation” (the Mozilla Corporation is owned by a nonprofit entity, the Mozilla Foundation). He likened this investment into “Bitcoin Core” (a term he used six times) as a way of “prioritiz[ing] public good over returns to investors.” []
  41. Because it is its own separate network, it actually has cross-platform capabilities.  However, historically it has been promoted and funded for initial uses on the Bitcoin network moreso than others. []
  42. Yes, I am aware of the demo from Alex Bosworth, it is a big step forward that deserves a pat on the back.  Now to decentralize routing and provide anonymity to users and improve the UI/UX for normal users. []
  43. To start with, see the Principles for Financial Market Infrastructures. []
  44. This is not an endorsement of a specific platform or vendor or level of readiness, but examples would include: Fabric, Quorum, Corda, Axcore, Cuneiform, and Ripple Connect/RCL. []
  45. While Lightning implementations should not be seen as a rival to enterprise chains (it is an apples to oranges comparison), the requirements gathering and technical hurdles needed to be overcome, are arguably equally burdensome and maybe moreso for enterprise-focused companies.  Why?  Because enterprise-focused vendors each need approval from multiple different stakeholders and committees first before they deploy anything in production especially if it touches a legacy system; most Lightning implementations haven’t actually formally defined who their end-customer is yet, let alone their needs and requirements, so in theory they should be able to “launch” it faster without the check-off. []
  46. For instance, CoinDesk currently has 229 entries for “lightning,” 279 entries for “DLT,” and 257 entries for “permissioned.” []
  47. It bears mentioning that Teechain, can achieve similar KPIs that Lightning can, via the use of hardware, and does so today.  BitGo’s “Instant” and payment channels from Yours also attempt to achieve one similar outcome: securely transmitting value quickly between participants (albeit in different ways). []
  48. We’d need to separate that from the enterprise DLT world because again, enterprise vendors are trying to solve for different use cases and have different customers altogether.  Speaking of which, on the corporate side, there is a growing impatience with “pilots” and some large corporates and institutions are even pulling back.  By and large, “blockchain stuff” (people don’t even agree on a definition still or if it is an uncountable noun) remains a multi-year play and aside from the DA / ASX deal, there were not many 2017 events that signaled a shorter term horizon. []
  49. Note: both the Fedcoin and CAD-coin papers were actually completed and sent to consortium members in November 2016 then three months later, published online. []
  50. One reviewer commented: “There seems to be a whole new wave of both suckers and crooks to exploit the geeks. I have read some the Chartist analysis on forums for more traditional forms of day-trading such as FX day-trading and it is exactly the same rubbish of trying to inject the appearance of intelligence and analysis into markets that the day-traders (and those encouraging them) simply do not understand.” []
  51. A former Coinbase employee, now running a “crypto” hedge fund, was allegedly fired for gambling issues.  Maybe he wasn’t but there are a lot of addicts of many strains actively involved in trading and promoting cryptocurrencies; remember what one of the lessons of Scarface was? []
  52. ERC20 and ERC721 tokens may end up causing a top-heavy problem for Ethereum. See Watermarked tokens and also Integrating, Mining and Attacking: Analyzing the Colored Coin “Game” []
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2 thoughts on “Six bedtime stories from 2017

  1. Finally someone knowledgable talked about DCI. I am finishing up my computer science degree and listened to a Mike Casey discussion last year. I didn’t get his smugness whenever he talked about how amazing Bitcoin was, because all of the cryptographic ideas used are years and years and years old. He can be a nice guy but not sure who takes him serious.

    DCI does have some good people like Sandy Pentland, Thomas Hardjono, and Simon Johnson. But there are a lot of nuts too who give it a bad name. And check out the Engima team, even though they did an ICO they have some cool ideas that could work in the real world.

  2. The argument that one can use “renewable energy” rather than coal to mine bitcoin is meritless for a couple of reasons. First the argument ignores the concept of opportunity costs: the additional renewable capacity could be actually replacing coal for some socially useful function, rather than maintaining the blockchain. Second, even renewable energy sources aren’t without their impact on the environment–they require environmentally destructive processes to create the equipment to produce it. Solar farms utilize scarce land, windfarms kill birds and consume scare materials. There are tradeoffs for using any of these energy resources.

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