Book review: Digital Gold

Two days ago I had a chance to read through a new book called Digital Gold written by Nathaniel Popper, a journalist at The New York Times.

Popper’s approach to the topic matter is different than other books which cover cryptocurrencies (such as The Age of Cryptocurrency).

This is a character driven story, guided by about a dozen unintentional thespians — key individuals who helped develop and shape the Bitcoin world from its genesis up through at least last summer (when the book effectively tapers off).  Or in other words, it flowed more like a novel than an academic textbook exegesis on the tech.

Below are some of the highlights and comments that came to mind while reading it.

Note: all transcription errors are my own. See my other book reviews.

digital goldTerminology

I mentioned that in The Age of Cryptocurrency the authors preferred to use the term “digital currency” over “virtual currency.”  I lost count of the dozens of times they used the former, but the latter was only used ~12 times (plus or minus one or two).  I think from a legalese perspective it is more accurate to use the phrase “virtual currency” (see my review as to why).

While I tried to keep track of things more closely in Popper’s book, I may have missed one or two.  Interestingly the index in the back uses the term “virtual money” (not currency) and the “digital currency” section is related to specific types.  Below is my manual tabulation:

  • digital cash, p. 110
  • digital commodity (as categorized by the Chinese government), p. 274
  • digital code, p. 158
  • digital wallet, p. 159, 160, 179, 262 (likely many more during discussions of Lemon)
  • digital currency, p.67, 146 (Facebook credits), 260 (Q coin), 261 (Q coin),
  • digital money, p. 139, 339
  • blockchain, p. 164, 181, 186, 193, 194 (2x), 203, 235, 238 (2x), 250, 289, 295, 326 (2x), 327 (2x), 328 (14x), 336, 345
  • virtual currency (sometimes with a hyphen), p. 126, 139, 142, 144, 145, 146, 156, 174, 179, 180, 181, 186 (2x), 187 (2x), 196 (4x), 197, 198, 204 (2x), 209, 210, 216, 217, 219 (3x), 225, 234, 236,  250, 252 (2x), 256, 257, 259, 267, 268 (2x), 269 (2x), 273, 274, 280 (2x), 289, 295 (2x), 300 (3x), 302 (2x), 303 (2x). 325 (2x), 343, 349
  • tokens, p. 139
  • digital money p. 4, p. 252, 257
  • cryptocurrency, p. 36 (2x), 186, 251, 261, 286 (2x), 325, 334, 341

In the beginning

[Note: I manually typed the quotes from the book, all transcription errors are my own and should not reflect on the book itself.]

On page 38 he writes about pricing a bitcoin, “Given that no one had ever bought or sold one, NewLibertyStandard came up with his own method for determining its value — the rough cost of electricity needed to generate a coin, calculated using NewLibertyStandard’s own electricity bill.”

I have heard this story several times, NLS’s way of pricing a good/service is the 21st century continuation of the Labor Theory of Value.  And this is not a particularly effective pricing mechanism: art is not worth the sum of its inputs (oils, canvas, frame, brushes).  Rather the value of art, like bitcoins, is based on consumer (and speculative) demand.1

Thus when people at conferences or on reddit say that “bitcoin is valuable because the network is valuable” — this is backwards.  The Bitcoin network (and bitcoins) is not valuable because the energy used to create proofs, rather it is the aggregate demand from buyers that increases (or decreases) relative to the supply of bitcoin, which is reflected in prices and therefore miners adjust consumption of energy to chase the corresponding rents (seigniorage).

On page 42 he writes, “Laszlo’s CPU had been winning, at most, one block of 50 bitcoins each day, of the approximately 140 blocks that were released daily. Once Laszlo got his GPU card hooked in he began winning one or two blocks an hour, and occasionally more. On May 17 he won twenty-eight blocks; these wins gave him fourteen hundred new coins that day.”

That translates to roughly 20% of the network hashrate.

Having noted this, the author writes:

I don’t mean to sound like a socialist,” Satoshi wrote back. “I don’t care if wealth is concentrated, but for now, we get more growth by giving that money to 100% of the people than giving it to 20%.

As a result, Satoshi asked Laszlo to go easy with the “high-powered hashing,” the term coined to refer to the process of plugging an input into a hash function and seeing what it spit out.

It’s unclear how many bitcoins Laszlo generated altogether (he was also mentioned in The Age of Cryptocurrency), but he apparently did “stock pile” at least 70,000 bitcoins whereupon he offered 10,000 bitcoins at a time buy pizzas. (Update: this address allegedly belongs to Laszlo and received 81,432 bitcoins; see Popper’s new letter on reddit)

Thus, there was at least one GPU on the network in May 2010 (though it appears he turned it off at some point).  For comparison, on page 189, Popper states that “By the end of 2012 there was the equivalent of about 11,000 GPUs working away on the network.”

Later in the book, on page 191, Popper described the growth in hashrate in early 2013:

Over the next month and a half, as the rest of Avalon’s first batch of three hundred mining computers reached customers, the effect was evident on the charts that tracked the power of the entire Bitcoin network. It had taken all of 2012 for the power on the network to double, but that power doubled again in just one month after Yifu’s machines were shipped.

It’s worth re-reading the Motherboard feature on Yifu Guo, the young Chinese man who led the Avalon team’s effort on building the first commercially available ASIC.

What does this increase look like?

hash-predict

Source: Dave Hudson

Above is a chart published just over a year ago (April 28, 2014) from Dave Hudson.  It’s the only bonafide S-curve in all of Bitcoinland (so far).

In Hudson’s words, “The vertical axis is logarithmic and clearly shows how the hashing rate will slow down over the next two years. What’s somewhat interesting is that whether the BTC price remains the same, doubles or quadruples over that time the effect is still pronounced. The hashing rate continues to grow, but slows dramatically. What’s also important to reiterate is that these represent the highest hashing rates that can be achieved; when other overheads and profits are taken then the growth rate will be lower and flatter.”

Popper noted that this type of scaling also resulted in centralization:

Most of the new coins being released each day were collected by a few large mining syndicates. If this was the new world, it didn’t seem all that different from the old one — at least not yet. (page 336)

Moving on, on page 192, Popper writes:

The pools, though, generated concern about the creeping centralization of control in the network. It took the agreement of 5 percent of the computer power on the network to make changes to the blockchain and the Bitcoin protocol, making it hard for the one person to dictate what happened. But with the mining pools, the person running the pool generally had voting power for the entire pool — all the other computers were just worker bees. (page 192)

I think there is a typo here.  He probably meant 51% of the hashrate, not 5%.  Also, it may be more precise to say “actor” because in practice it is individuals at organizations that operate the farms and pools, not usually just one person.

On page 52 the author discussed the earliest days of Mt. Gox in 2010:

Mt. Gox was a significant departure from the exchange that already existed, primarily because Jed offered to take money from customers into his PayPal account and thereby risk violating the PayPal prohibition on buying and selling currencies.  This meant that Jed could receive funds from almost anywhere in the world.  What’s more, customers didn’t have to send Jed money each time they wanted to do a trade. Instead, they could hold money — both dollars and Bitcoin — in Jed’s account and then trade in either direction at any time as long as they had sufficient funds, much as in a traditional brokerage account.

Needless to say, Jed’s PayPal account eventually got shut down.

On page 65 the author briefly discusses the life of Mark Karpeles (the 2nd owner of Mt. Gox):

Since then, he’d had a peripatetic lifestyle, looking for a place where he could feel at home. He first tried Israel, thinking it might help him get closer to his Catholicism, but he soon felt as lonely as ever, and the servers he was running kept getting disrupted by rocket fire from Gaza.

Initially I thought Popper meant to write Judaism instead of Catholicism (Karpeles is a Jewish surname), but a DailyTech article states he is Catholic based on one of his blog posts.

On page 67 he writes:

But as the headaches continued to pile up, Jed got more antsy. In January, a Mt. Gox user named Baron managed to hack into Mt. Gox accounts and steal around $45,000 worth of Bitcoins and another type of digital currency that Jed had been using to transfer money around.

It’s not clear what the the other digital currency actually was — based on the timeline (January 2011) this is before Jed created XRP for OpenCoin (which later became Ripple Labs).

Also, I believe this is the first time in the book where the term “digital currency” is used.

On page 77 he writes about Roger Ver:

In the midst of his campaign for the assembly, federal agents arrested Roger for peddling Pest Control Report 2000 — a mix between a firecracker and a pest repellent — on eBay.  Roger had bought the product himself through the mail and he and his lawyer became convinced that the government was targeting Roger because of remarks he had made at a political rally, where had had called federal agents murderers.

This version of the story may or may not be true.

Either way, part of Ver’s 2002 case was unsealed last fall and someone sent me a copy of it (you can find the full version at PACER).  Below are a few quotes from the document (pdf) hosted at Lesperance & Associates between the prosecution (Mr. Frewing) and the judge presiding over the case.

“Mr. Ver’s conduct was serious.  I think one factor that the Court can take into consideration or at least should consider is there were some pipe bombs involved in this case as well that were not charged and are not incorporated in the conduct that’s before the Court except arguably as relevant conduct. The split sentence is — would result only in five months incarceration for what I think is a fairly serious offense.  It’s my recommendation to do the ten-month sentence in prison in total.”

[…]

Judge: “Well, I’ve given this case a lot of thought. I’m very troubled by it.  And when I say that I’m troubled by it I’m troubled by it in several ways.  Not only am I troubled by the underlying conduct, which is quite serious, but I don’t want to overreact either and I think that’s what makes it hard.I think if you have a case which strikes you as being particularly severe, in a way that’s kind of an easy thing to just say all right, we’ll throw the book at the defendant and that will satisfy that impulse.”

“But I don’t think judges ought to sentence anybody impulsively.  You have to look at the offense and you have to look at the person who committed it. There are elements in the probation report and in Dr. Missett’s report which concern me a great deal.  One has to be very careful.  Mr. Ver, you’re a young man and you’ve led a law-abiding life for the last two years and you’ve by all accounts performed well on pretrial release.  I did note in your letter that you accepted that your conduct was illegal, and I appreciate that. I also don’t in any way want to confuse your political beliefs, which you are absolutely entitled to have, with your criminal conduct.  There’s a long and honorable tradition of libertarian politics in our country and I don’t mean to in any way hold that against you.  It’s something that you’re entitled to have. The problem, though, is that the law is a representation of authority in a certain way.  People can disagree and they can disagree very vigorously and very reasonably about what ought to be legal and what ought not to be legal and how much the Government ought  to do or ought not to do.   But there is a point at which we start talking about public safety and I think even the most die hard libertarian would agree that one function of government, if there is to be a government, is to protect public safety.  So then it’s just a question of how you do it, how you do it in a way that’s least invasive of individual liberties.   Selling explosives over the Internet doesn’t cut it in any society that I can imagine and I think it’s — the conduct here is simply not tolerable conduct and it’s not — I don’t think one has to be a big government person or believe in government regulation of every aspect of human life to suggest that people should not be selling explosives over the Internet. The other thing that concerns me is that in looking at your social history it seems to me you’ve got some reasons for not trusting authority, and that’s.  I mean, those are feelings that are a product of your life experience.  Nonetheless, those feelings don’t give you the right to be above the same social constraints that bind all of us.”

“And I’m not saying this as well as I’d like to, but I think there’s a difference between saying I believe that the government which governs best governs least and saying that I’m above the law totally, that I’m so smart, I’m so able, I’m so perceptive that I don’t have to follow the rules that apply to other human beings.  There’s a difference between those two positions.  And while one of them is a very respectable position that I think any judge ought to uphold and support rather than punish, the other I think is why we have courts.  It’s when a person believes that he or she is so important and so intelligent and so much better than everybody else that they don’t have to follow even the most basic rules that keep us together in this society.”

“I think that these offenses are very serious.  They could have been a lot more serious.  The bombs could have gone off or people could have used them in destructive ways.  Selling bombs to juveniles is never okay.  I’d like to say that the five and five sentence that your attorney proposed is something that I’m comfortable with, but I just can’t.  And it’s not a desire to be overly punitive or to send you a message.  It’s simply saying that this conduct — when the law punishes behavior, criminal law is directed at conduct.  This conduct to me would have warranted a much stiffer sentence than ten months.  There’s a plea  agreement.  I’m bound by it.  I’m not going to upset it.  It was arrived at in good faith by the Government and by the defense and I will respect it, but I’m not going to dilute it.”

This will probably not be the last time the background and origin story of the characters in this journey are looked at.

Whales

bearwhale

Source: Billy Mabrey

On social media there is frequent talk of large “whales” and “bear whales” that are blamed for large up and down swings in prices.

Popper identified a few of them in the book.

For instance, on page 79 he writes about Roger Ver’s initial purchases:

In April 2011, after hearing about Bitcoin on Free Talk Live, he used his fortune to dive into Bitcoin with a savage ferocity. He sent a $25,000 wire to the Mt. Gox bank account in New York — one Jed had set up — to begin buying Bitcoins. Over the next three days, Roger’s purchases dominated the markets and helped push the price of a single coin up nearly 75 percent, from $1.89 to $3.30.

Another instance, on page 113:

But the people ignoring Jed’s advice ended up giving Bitcoin momentum at a time when it was otherwise lacking. Roger alone bought tens of thousands of coins in 2011, when the price was falling, single-handedly helping to keep the price above zero (and establishing the foundation for a future fortune).

Over the past year I have frequently been asked: why did the price begin increasing after the block reward halving at the end of November 2012?  Where did the price increase come from?

A number of people, particularly on reddit, conflate causation with correlation: that somehow the block halving caused a price increase.   As previously explored, this is incorrect.

So if it wasn’t the halvening, what then led to the price increase?

In January 2013, Popper looked at the Winklevoss twins:

The twins considered selling to Roger. But they also believed BitInstant was a good idea that could work under the right management. In January BitInstant had its best month ever, processing almost $5million in transactions. The price of a Bitcoin, meanwhile, had risen from $13 at the beginning of the month to around $18 at its end. Some of this was due to the twins themselves. They had asked Charlie to continue buying them coins with the goal of owning 1 percent of all Bitcoins in the world, or some $2 million worth at the time. This ambition underscored their commitment to sticking it out with Bitcoin. (page 175)

Simultaneously, another group of wealthy individuals, from Fortress Investment Group were purchasing bitcoins:

Pete assigned Tanona to the almost full-time job of exploring potential Bitcoin investments, and also drew in another top Fortress official, Mike Novogratz. All of them began buying coins in quantities that were small for them, but that represented significant upward pressure within the still immature Bitcoin ecosystem.

The purchases being made by Fortress — and by Mickey’s team at Ribbit — were supplemented by those being made by the Winklevoss twins, who were still trying to buy up 1 percent of all the outstanding Bitcoins. Together, these purchases helped maintain the sharp upward trajectory of Bitcoin’s price, which rose 70 percent in February after the 50 percent jump in January. On the evening of February 27 the price finally edged above the long-standing record of $32 that had been set in the hysterical days before the June 2011 crash at Mt. Gox. (p. 180)

Initially discussed introduction, Popper explains when Wences first met Pete Briger (p. 163, from Fortress Investment Group) during a January 2013 lodge in the Canadian Rockies.

A few pages later, in early March 2013, Wences is invited to a private retreat held at the Ritz Carlton in Tucson, Arizona hosted by Allen & Co.  There he met with and explained Bitcoin to: Dick Costolo, Reid Hoffman, James Murdoch, Marc Andreessen, Chris Dixon, David Marcus, John Donahoe, Henry Blodget, Michael Ovitz and Charlie Songhurst.

During this conference it appears several of these affluent individuals began buying bitcoins:

On Monday, the first full day of the conference, the price of Bitcoin jumped by more than two dollars, to $36, and on Tuesday it rose by more than four dollars — its sharpest rise in months — to over $40. On Wednesday, when everyone flew home, Blodget put up a glowing item on his heavily read website, Business Insider, mentioning what he’d witnessed (though not specifying where exactly he’d been, or whom he’d talked to)” (page 184)

The Henry Blodget article in question appeared on March 6: Suddenly, Everyone’s Talking About Bitcoin…

Why were they talking about it?

To prove how easy this all was, Wences asked Blodget to take out his phone and helped him create an empty Bitcoin wallet. Once it was up, and Wences had Blodget’s new Bitcoin address, Wences used the wallet on his own phone to send Blodget $250,000, or some 6,400 Bitcoins. The money was then passed to the phones of other people around the table once they had set up wallets. Anyone could have run off with Wence’s $250,000, but that wasn’t a risk with this particular crowd. Instead, as the money went around, Wences saw the guests’ laughter and wide-eyed amazement at what they were watching. (page 183)

It would be interesting to do some blockchain forensics (such as Total Output Volume and Bitcoin Days Destroyed) to see if we can identify a blob of 6,400 bitcoins moving around on March 3-5 maybe five to ten different times (it is unclear from the story how many people it was sent to).

And finally a little more whale action to round out the month:

The prices certainly suggested certainly suggested that someone with lots of money was buying. In California, Wences Casares knew that no small part of the new demand was coming from the millionaires whom he had gotten excited about Bitcoin earlier in the month and who were now getting their accounts opened and buying significant quantities of the virtual currency. They helped push the price to over $90 in the last week of March. At that price, the value of all existing coins, what was referred to as the market capitalization, was nearing $1 billion. (page 198)

The following month, in April,  during the run-up on Mt. Gox which later stalled and crashed under the strain of traffic:

The day after the crash, the Winklevoss twins finally went public in the New York Times with their now significant stake in Bitcoin — worth some $10 million. (page 211)

[…]

The twins didn’t want to buy coins while the price was still dropping, but when they saw it begin to stabilize, Cameron, who had done most fo the trading, began placing $100,000 orders on Bitstamp, the Slovenian Bitcoin exchange. Cameron compared the moment to a brief time warp that allowed them to go back and buy at a a lower price. They had almost $1 million in cash sitting with Bitstamp for exactly this sort of situation, and Cameron now intended to use it all.” (page 251)

Prices were around $110 – $130 each so they may have picked up an additional ~9,000 bitcoins or so.

Interestingly enough, Popper wrote the same New York Times article (cited above) that discussed the Winklevoss holdings.  In the same article he also noted another active large buyer during the same month:

A Maltese company, Exante, started a hedge fund that the company says has bought up about 82,000 bitcoins — or about $10 million as of Thursday — with money from wealthy investors. A founder of the fund, Anatoli Knyazev, said his main concern was hackers and government regulators, who have so far mostly left the currency alone.

The tl;dr of this information is that between January through March 2013, at least a dozen or so high-net-worth individuals collectively bought tens of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin.  The demand of which resulted in a rapid increase in market prices.  This had nothing to do with the block reward halving, just a coincidence.

Bigwigs

Interwoven amount the story line are examples illustrating the trials and tribulations of securing bearer assets with new financial institutions that lack clear (if any) financial controls including Bitomat (which lost 17,000 bitcoins) and MyBitcoin (at least 25,000 bitcoins were stolen from).

It also discussed some internal dialogue at both Google and Microsoft.

According to Popper, Google, WellsFargo, PayPal, Microsoft all had high level individuals and teams looking at Bitcoin in early 2013.  On page 101, Osama Abedier from Google, spoke with Mike Hearn and said, “I would never admit it outside this room, but this is how payments probably should work.”

Popper cites a paper that Charlie Songhurst, head of corporate strategy at Microsoft, wrote after the Ritz Carlton event, channeling Casares’s arguments:

“We foresee a real possibility that all currencies go digital, and competition eliminates all currencies from noneffective governments. The power of friction-free transactions over the Internet will unleash the typical forces of consolidation and globalization, and we will end up with six digital currencies: US Dollar, euro, Yen, Pound, Renminbi and Bitcoin.”

Some politics:

I didn’t keep track of the phrase “digital gold” but I believe it only appeared twice.  Unsurprisingly, this phrase came about via some of the ideological characters he looked at.

In Wences’ view:

 “Unlike gold, it could be easily and quickly transferred anywhere in the world, while still having the qualities of divisibility and verifiability that had made gold a successful currency for so many years.” (Page 109)

[…]

Unlike gold, which was universal but difficult to acquire and hold, Bitcoins could be bought, held, and transferred by anyone with an internet connection, with the click of a mouse.

“Bitcoin is the first time in five thousands years that we have something better than gold, ” he said. “And its not a little bit better, it’s significantly better. It’s much more scarce. More divisible, more durable. It’s much more transportable. It’s just simply better.”  (p. 165)

The specific trade-offs between precious metals and cryptocurrencies is not fully fleshed out, but that probably would have detracted from the overall narrative.  Of maybe not.

Meet and greet:

“The Bitcoin forum was full of people talking about their experiences visiting Zuccotti Park and other Occupy encampments around the country to advertise the role that a decentralized currency could play in bringing down the banks.” (p. 111)

Who isn’t meddling?

“Few things occupied the common ground of this new political territory better than Bitcoin, which put power in the hands of the people using the technology, potentially obviating overpaid executives and meddling bureaucrats.” (p. 112)

I thought that was a tad distracting, it’s never really discussed what “overpaid” or “meddling” are.  Perhaps if there is a second edition, in addition to clarifying those we can have a chance to look at some of the sock puppets that a variety of these characters may have been operating too.

Public goods problem:

Many libertarians and anarchists argued that the good in humans, or in the market, could do the job of regulators, ensuring that bad companies did not survive. But the Bitcoin experience suggested that the penalties meted out by the market are often imposed only after the bad deeds were done and do not serve as a deterrent. (p. 114)

That last quote reminded me of an interview with Bitcoin Magazine last year with Vinay Gupta: ‘Bitcoin is Teaching Realism to Libertarians’

About Argentina:

“You don’t have to battling all of the government’s problems, you aren’t going to buy bread with it, but it’ll save you if you have a stash of stable currency that tends to appreciate in value,” twenty-two-year-old Emmanuel Ortiz told the newspaper (page 241)

There is no real discussion between the trade-offs of rebasing a currency to maintain purchasing power and its unclear why Ortiz thinks that an asset that fluctuates 10% or more each month is considered stable.

Practicality

It’s unclear how many of the salacious stories were left on the cutting board, but there is always Brian Eha’s upcoming book.

In the meantime, avoiding the Product Trap:

It turned out that Charlie’s willingness to throw things at the wall, to see if they would stick, was not a bad thing at this point. The idealists who had been driving the Bitcoin world often got caught up in what they wanted the world to look like, rather than figuring out how to provide the world with something it would want. (page 129)

Hacking for fun and profit.  How secure is the code?  On page 154:

After quietly watching and playing with it for some time, Wences gave $100,000 of his own money to two high-level hackers he knew in eastern Europe and asked them to do their best to hack the Bitcoin protocol.  He was especially curious about whether they could counterfeit Bitcoins or spend the coins held in other people’s wallets — the most damaging possible flaw. At the end of the summer, the hackers asked Wences for more time and money. Wences ended up giving them $150,000 more, sent in Bitcoins. In October they concluded that the basic Bitcoin protocol was unbreakable, even if some of the big companies holding Bitcoins were not.

I’m sure we would all like to see more of the study, especially Tony Arcieri who wrote a lengthy essay a couple days ago on some potential issues with cryptographic curves/methods used in Bitcoin.

A little irony on page 162:

For Wences, Bitcoin seemed to address many of the problems that he’d long wanted to solve, providing a financial account that could be opened anywhere, by anyone, without requiring permission from any authority. He also saw an infant technology that he believed he could help grow to dimensions greater than anything he had previously achieved.

Permissionless systems seems to be everyone’s goal, yet everyone keeps making trusted third parties which inevitably need to VC funding to scale and with it, regulatory compliance which then creates a gated, permission-based process.

Altruism on the part of BTC Guild during the fork/non-fork issue in March 2013:

The developers on the chat channel thanks him, recognizing that he was sacrificing for the greater good. When he finally had everything moved about an hour later, Eleuthria took stock on his own costs  (page 195)

Trusted trustlessness?

 “The network had not had to rely on some central authority to wake up to the problem and come up with a solution. Everyone online had been able to respond in real time, as was supposed to happen with open source software, and the user had settled on a response after a debate that tapped the knowledge of all of them — even when it meant going against the recommendation of the lead developer, Gavin.” (page 195)

Origins of Xapo:

They started by putting all their private keys on a laptop, with no connection to the Internet, thus cutting off access for potential hackers. After David Marcus, Pete Briger, and Micky Malka put their private keys on the same offline laptop, the men paid for a safe-deposit box in a bank to store the computer more securely. In case the computer gave out, they also put a USB drive with all the private keys in the safe-deposit box. (page 201)

[…]

First, they encrypted all the information on the laptop so that if someone got hold of the laptop that person still wouldn’t be able to get the secret keys. They put the keys for decrypting the laptop in a bank near Feede in Buenos Aires. Then they moved the laptop from a safe-deposit box to a secure data center in Kansas City. By this time, the laptop was holding the coins of Wences, Fede, David Marcus, Pete Briger, and several other friends. The private keys on the laptop were worth tens of millions of dollars. (page 281)

I heard a similar story regarding the origins of BitGo, that Mike Belshe used to walk around with a USB drive on his key chain that had privkey’s to certain individual accounts.  This is before the large upsurge in market value.  When the prices began to rise he realized he needed a better solution.  Perhaps this story is more apocryphal than real, but I suspect there have been others whose operational security was not the equivalent of Fort Knox prior to 2013.

Alex Waters

An unnamed Alex Waters appears twice:

“The new lead developer called for the entire site to be taken down and rebuilt. But there wasn’t time as a new customers were pouring money into the site. The new staff members were jammed into every corner of the small offices Charlie and Erik had moved into the previous summer.” (page 202)

And again:

“But as problems became more evident, they talked with Charlie’s chief programmer about replacing Charlie as CEO. When Charlie learned about the potential palace coup he was furious and began showing up for work less and less.” (page 221)

For those unfamiliar with Alex, he was the CTO of BitInstant who went on to co-found CoinValidation and then currently, Coin.co & Coinapex.

Last week I had a chance to meet with him in NYC.

alex waters

Alex Waters (CEO Coin.co), Sarah Tyre (COO Coin.co), Isaac Bergman, myself

Yesterday I reached out to Alex about the two quotes above related to BitInstant and this is what he sent (quoted with permission):

“It was sad to see Bitinstant take such a drastic turn after the San Jose conference. It was as if we built a gold mine and couldn’t stop someone from taking dynamite into it. A lot of good people worked at Bitinstant (like 25 people) and the 2.0 product we wanted to launch was outstanding. It’s frustrating that some poor decisions early in the company’s history put pressure on such an important moment. A lot of us who worked there worked really hard with sleepless nights for months on a relaunch that never made it to the public. Those people didn’t list Bitinstant on their resume after the collapse as it was so clearly tainted. The quality of those people’s work was outstanding, and they had no part or knowledge of anything illegal. Our compliance standards were beyond reproach for the industry.”

Coinbase compliance

Just two months ago Coinbase was in the news due to some issues with their pitch deck (pdf) as it related to marketing Bitcoin as a method for bypassing country specific sanctions.

However two years ago they ran into a slightly different issue:

In order to stay on top of anti-money laundering laws, the bank had to review every single transaction, and these reviews cost the bank more money than Coinbase was brining in. The bank imposed more restrictions on Coinbase than on other customers because Bitcoin inherently made it easier to launder money. (page 203)

[…]

Coinbase had to repeatedly convince Silicon Valley Bank that it knew where the Bitcoins leaving Coinbase were going.  Even with all these steps, on several days in March Coinbase hit up against transaction limits set by Silicon Valley Bank and had to shut down until the next day. (page 204)

Not quite accurate

In looking at my notes in the margin I didn’t find many inaccuracies.  Two small ones that stood out:

In early December Roger used some of his Bitcoin holdings, which had gone up in value thousands of times, to make a $1 million donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that had been started by a former Cypherpunk to defend online privacy, among other things. (page 270)

Actually, Ver donated $1 million worth of bitcoins to FEE, the Foundation for Economic Education not EFF.

But over time the two Vals kept more and more of the computers for themselves and put them in data centers spread around the world, in places that offered cheap energy, including the Republic of Georgia and Iceland. These operations were literally minting money. Val Nebesny was so valuable that Bitfury did not disclose where he lived, though he was rumored to have moved from Ukraine to Spain. And Bitfury was so good that it soon threatened to represent more than 50 percent of the total mining power in the world; this would give it commanding power over the functioning of the network. The company managed to assuage concerns, somewhat, only when it promised never to go above 40 percent of the mining power online at any time. Bitfury, of course, had an interest in doing this because if people lost faith in the network, the Bitcoins being mind by the company would become worthless. (page 330)

While the two Val’s did create Bitfury, I am fairly certain the scenario that is described above is that of the GHash.io mining pool (managed by CEX.io) during the early summer of 2014.  At one point in mid-June 2014, the GHash pool was regularly winning 40% or more of the blocks on several days.  Subsequently the CIO attempted to assuage concerns by stating they will make sure their own pool doesn’t go above a self-imposed threshold of 40%.

Probably overhyped:

I spent some time discussing this use-case in the previous review:

On Patrcik Murck: “But he was able to cogently explain his vision of how the blockchain technology could make it easier for poor immigrants to transfer money back home and allow people with no access to a bank account or credit card to take part in the Internet economy.” (page 235)

I think Yakov Kofner’s piece last month outlines the difficult challenges facing “rebittance” companies many of whom are ignoring the long term customer acquisition and compliance costs (not to mention the cash-in/cash-out hurdles).2 That’s not to say they will not be overcome, but it is probably not the slam dunk that Bitprophets claim it is.

The notion that Bitcoin could provide a new payment network was not terribly new. This is what Charlie Shrem had been talking about back in 2012, and BitPay was already using the network to charge lower transaction fees than the credit card networks.” (page 272)

Temporarily.  The problem is, after all the glitzy free PR splash in 2014, there was almost no real uptake.  So the sales and business development teams at payment processors now have a difficult time showing actual traction to future clients so that they too will begin using the payment processors.  See for instance, BitPay’s numbers.

For example, on page 352 the author notes that:

It might have just been the exhaustion, but Wences was sourly dismissive of all the talk about Bitcoin’s potential as a new payment system. He was an investor in Bitpay but he said that fewer than one hundred thousand individuals had actually purchased anything using Bitpay.

“There is no payment volume, ” he scoffed. “It’s a sideshow.”

Payments again:

“But in interviews he emphasized the more practical reasons for any company to make the move: no more paying the credit card companies 2.5 percent for each transaction (the company helping Overstock take Bitcoin, Coinbase, charged Overstock 1 percent)…”

“This was attractive to merchants because BitPay charged around 1 percent for its service while credit card networks generally charged between 2 and 3 percent per transaction.” p. 134

While I have no inside knowledge of their specific arrangement, I believe the promotional pitch is 0% for the first $1 million processed and 1% thereafter.  Overstock processed about $3 million last year.  And the BitPay fee appears to be unsustainable (see my previous book review on The Age of Cryptocurrency as well as the BitPay number’s breakdown).

Probably not true:

The potential advantages of Bitcoin over the existing system were underscored in late December, when it was revealed that hackers had breached the payment systems of the retail giant Target and made off with the credit card information of some 70 million Americans, from every bank and credit card issuer in the country. This brought attention to an issue that Bitcoiners had long been talking about: the relative lack of privacy afforded by traditional payment systems. When Target customers swiped their credit cards at a register, they handed over their account number and expiration date. For online purchases Target also had to gather the addresses and ZIP codes of customers, to verify transactions. If the customers had been using Bitcoin, they could have sent along their payments without giving Target any personal information at all. (page 289)

In theory, yes, if users control their own privkey on their own devices.  In practice, since most users use trusted third parties like Coinbase, Xapo and Circe, a hacker could potentially retrieve the same personal information from them; furthermore, because some merchants collect and require KYC then they are also vulnerable to identity theft.

For instance,

What’s more, Coinbase customers didn’t have to download the somewhat complicated Bitcoin software and thew hole blockchain, with its history of all bitcoin transactions. This helped turn Coinbase into the go-to-company for Americans looking to acquire Bitcoins and helped expand the audience for the technology. (page 237)

That’s a silo-coin.  Useful and helpful to on-ramping people.  But effectively a bank in practice.  Why not just use a real bank instead?

The more you know:

  • I thought the short explanation of hashcash on page 18 was good.
  • Was a little surprised that Eric Hughes was mentioned, but not Tim May.
  • On page 296, Xapo raised $40 million at a $100 million valuation in less than a couple months and on page 306, was banked by Silicon Valley Bank (which Coinbase also uses).
  • The Dread Pirate Roberts / Silk Road storyline that Popper discusses is upstaged by recent events that did not have a chance to make it into the book.  This includes the arrest of a DEA agent and Secret Service agent who previously worked on the Silk Road case for their respective agencies.
  • In addition, ArsTechnica recently published an interesting op-ed on the whole trial: Silk Road film unintentionally shows what’s wrong with the “Free Ross” crowd.

On Roger Ver potentially selling his stake in Blockchain.info:

“Roger was constantly getting entreaties from venture capitalists who wanted to pay millions for some of his 80 percent stake in the company. “(p. 330)

In October 2014, after the book was completed, Blockchain.info announced that it had closed a $30.5 million round, half of which was raised in bitcoins.

Germane citation:

An academic study in 2013 had found that 45 percent of the Bitcoin exchanges that had taken money had gone under, several taking the money of their customers with them (page 317)

The citation comes from an interesting paper, Beware the Middleman: Empirical Analysis of Bitcoin-Exchange Risk by Tyler Moore and Nicolas Christin

Federated blockchain:

This JPMorgan group began secretly working with the other major banks in the country, all of which are part of an organization known as The Clearing House, on a bold experimental effort to create a new blockchain that would be jointly run by the computers of the largest banks and serve as the backbone for a new, instant payment system that might replace Visa, MasterCard, and wire transfers. Such a blockchain would not need to rely on the anonymous miners powering the Bitcoin blockchain. But it could ensure there would no longer be a single point of failure in the payment network. If Visa’s system came under attack, all the stores using Visa were screwed. But if one bank maintaining a blockchain came under attack, all the other banks could keep the blockchain going.

While the The Clearing House is not secretive, the project to create an experimental blockchain was; this is the first I had heard of it.

Concluding remarks:

I had a chance to meet Nathaniel Popper about 14 months ago during the final day of Coinsummit.  We chatted a bit about what was happening in China and potential angles for how and why the mainland mattered to the overall Bitcoin narrative.

There is only so much you can include in a book and if I had my druthers I would have liked to add perhaps some more on the immediate history pre-Bitcoin: projects such as the now-defunct Liberty Reserve (which BitInstant was allegedly laundering money for) and the various dark net markets and online poker sites that were shut down prior to the creation of Bitcoin yet whose customer base would go on to eventually adopt the cryptocurrency for payments and bets (making up some of the clientele for SatoshiDice and other Bitcoin casinos).

Similarly, I would have liked to have looked at a few of the early civil lawsuits in which some of the early adopters were part of.  For instance, the Bitcoinica lawsuit is believed to be the first Bitcoin-related lawsuit (filed in August 2012) and includes several names that appeared throughout the book: plaintiffs: Brian Cartmell, Jed McCaleb, Jesse Powell and Roger Ver; defendants: Donald Norman, Patrick Strateman and Amir Taaki.  The near collapse of the Bitcoin Foundation and many of its founders would make an interesting tale in a second edition, particularly Peter Vessenes (former chairman of the board) whose ill-fated Coinlab and now-bankrupt Alydian mining project are worth closer inspection.

Overall I think this was an easy, enjoyable read.  I learned a number of new things (especially related to the amount of large purchases in early 2013) and think its worth looking at irrespective of your interest in internet fun bux.

See my other book reviews.

End notes:

  1. See What is the “real” price of bitcoin? []
  2. See also: The Rise and Rise of Lipservice: Viral Western Union Ad Debunked []
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