I have found a blockchain-related book that did not have me completely shaking my fist in the air. For background, I have reviewed six other blockchain-focused books, most of which were pretty bad and/or filled with inaccuracies (the exception thus far was Digital Gold).
In contrast, The Cryptopians by Laura Shin was a breezy read and one that – from a technical perspective – I feel comfortable recommending to both geeky and non-geeky audiences trying to understand some of the people that created the Ethereum ecosystem (as well as a few other blockchains).
For instance, I enjoyed the steady dripping of GRE words like pastiche and bucolic which were carefully placed throughout each chapter alongside detailed (physical) descriptions of venues and individuals. I look forward to seeing it turned into a mini-series (Luka Dončić will obviously play Vitalik).
In terms of “inside baseball,” while I have bumped into and interacted with many of the people mentioned, I don’t know enough to comment on several figures discussed so the review below is largely about other portions of the book.
With that said, there were a few areas that I had quibbles with. For instance, I probably would’ve highlighted how much aggregate fraud took place during the 2017-2018 ICO boom (e.g., why Chinese governmental authorities kicked out exchanges, etc.). But that likely would have distracted the main story around how Ethereum evolved as infrastructure.
And before I’m labeled a rose-tinted glasses fanboy, worth pointing out that when I first interacted with Shin years ago, we didn’t agree on a number of things. Rather than dwell on those past differences, I think it is a credit to her reporting that she provided nuances in the story (such as the early days of Hyperledger project and Enterprise Ethereum Alliance) that pundits who are new to this space are unaware of or put no effort in understanding. Calling everything a scam is the laziest form of concern trolling and fortunately readers have a list of citations to peruse instead of relying on innuendo from flash-in-the-pan Twitter personalities.
Note: all transcription errors are my own. See my other book reviews on this topic. Spoiler Alert: there are a bunch of spoilers below!
Before we begin, worth pointing out that the book covers a roughly four year timespan (January 2014-January 2018) and was published in February 2022. The preface included a helpful backdrop of what was occurring in the financial services area during this time frame. One paragraph stuck out, stating on p.3:
Soon financial institutions as powerful as JPMorgan Chase, Nasdaq, Visa, HSBC, State Street, UBS, Santander, and many others worldwide began exploring the technology. In late 2015, “Blockchain, not bitcoin” became the mantra on Wall Street, and from January 2014 into February 2017, more than fifty financial services firms invested in the space.1
To be pedantic, the very first person I am aware of that said “Blockchain, not bitcoin” is a VC named Adam Draper, who opportunistically pivoted the messaging from his portfolio companies in late 2015:
I attempted to chronicle some of these wordsmith shenanigans in October 2015.
Is it important in the scheme of things?
Maybe not. But I think it is worth re-highlighting this fairweather etymology. For instance, contemporaneously some anti-coiners actively attempt to memoryhole the slur that is “no-coiner” to play identity politics; e.g., People who purposefully do not own snow skis are not labeled as “no-skier” or someone who doesn’t own an airplane, a “no-planer” or someone who doesn’t own a computer a “no-computerer.” One of the reasons some anti-coiners do not call themselves anti-coiners is because they likely do not understand the etymology of “no-coiner” and how it is a grammatic corpse.
But that’s a different story, although germane for 2022.
Chapter 1 provides readers with a short biography about Vitalik Buterin, including his early childhood (I was unaware of his prowess with Excel!).
I made a pedantic scribble on p. 12:
Shutting down Bitcoin would require tracking down and switching off the devices of every single person running the software — and that would require the coordinated action of every government in the world. But even shutting off all existing computer on the network wouldn’t stop anyone else from spinning up the Bitcoin software.
This is accurate at a high level. Pedantically however, in mid-2022 a well-resourced attacker (such cooperating governments) has a bit simpler task: (1) shut down large mining farms which ultimately slows down block production (e.g., the difficulty overhang would likely require a hard fork); (2) shut down or compromise just three ISPs or BRN/FIBRE — a protocol that propagates blocks directly between mining pools; (3) shut down or severely curtail liquidity providers (e.g., require large CEXs such as Coinbase to delist Bitcoin).
Again, we could argue (and Bitcoiners love to argue!) about the likelihood of either occurring but in my view a better illustration of geopolitical resiliency would be proof-of-stake (P-o-S) networks such as Avalanche, Polkadot, or Cosmos which do not rely on easily-identifiable points of failure (e.g., large mining farms) and are therefore mostly immune to scenario 1 (although clearly dependence on centralized cloud providers for any of these can be a weakness).
With that said, going down this rabbit trail clearly would have been confusing to the average reader so it is understandable why this hypothetical wargamming was not included.
Pages 15-17 provided some interesting background on how Bitcoin Magazine came into being (although maybe a missed opportunity to describe how it ultimately turned into a mother-son Bitcoin maximalist operation!).
On page 16, the author identified some good foresight:
Back home in Toronto after his globe-trotting, Vitalik was coding up a client using the language Python for Ethereum, while Gavin and Jeffrey worked on the C++ and Go clients, respectively. (Vitalik wanted Ethereum to work on different software clients so that a bug in one wouldn’t take the whole blockchain down; the entities on the network could run another one while the buggy one was fixed.)
This is an important paragraph and I am glad that Shin mentioned this so early on.
Why is implementation pluralism a good thing? Because as she described, it provides resiliency in the event something catastrophic or existential occurs (such as a bug that knocked 13% of Ethereum validators offline two years ago). Most blockchains, even a few years after launch, still are dependent on a single codebase maintained by a single team. Apart from resiliency (e.g,. a different implementation surviving a bug that knocks other implementations offline), this could lead to some perverse scenarios such as with Bitcoin wherein de facto gatekeepers ossifying around the BIP process (e.g., a priori anti-bigger blocks).
Today, there are at least four different “Eth 2” client implementations that are undergoing stress tests for the upcoming “merge.” Up through the spring, Prysm has been the most popular implementation and is actively attempting to reduce its marketshare by acknowledging that a network is more resilient with more active implementations.
On a personal level Chapter 2 is interesting because during the time frame it takes place (January 20, 2014 to June 3, 2014) I was also writing a short book and had a chance to interview a few of the people mentioned. I witnessed odd behavior at least once: I had a Skype call with a couple members of the original Ethereum team. During the call, one person pointed a video camera (with its bright light) right back at me and video tapped it. I don’t recall the names but according to Shin, at least one person in that group was actively recording things which kind of seems off (or maybe I’m not sentimental enough!). I also thought Charles Hoskinson (who I separately interviewed) used phrases and words intimating as if he was a middle aged mathematics guru. And only learned he wasn’t through the book.2
Shin does a good job throughout the book articulating what the inner monologue was, what key people were thinking at the time. On p. 31 she writes about Gavin Wood who was brought on as the first developer and learns that the organization isn’t fully formed. Stating, “Why are they discussing this? If Ethereum hasn’t been founded yet, then damnit, I want to be a founder!”
This is followed-up with supporting details two pages later, “Later, Gavin would feel shafted as a lower-tier founder when he says he eventually found out that Charles had gotten into the Skype group only a day before he had.”
Another interesting detail on p. 36, “From Christmas to mid-February, for their respective Ethereum clients, Gavin and Jeff wrote more than seventy thousand lines of code.3 (Eventually, Vitalik’s Python client would mostly be used for research.)
On p. 40 the author pointed out how Charles had told at least one person in the team (Mihai) that he was Satoshi.
But as Shin notes,
The real Satoshi could easily prove his/her/their identity by moving a coin in the first block of the Bitcoin blockchain. There was no need for all of Charles’s hocus-pocus. Ultimately, most of the Zug group decided Charles was not Satoshi.
Pedantically the first sentence is both true and false. The real Satoshi could prove their identity by moving coins in the first block mined on January 9th, but not by moving coins in the actual Genesis block (from January 3rd). Why not? Because the Genesis block was hardcoded into the chain, the coins cannot be spent. Shin’s statement is a good barometer for filtering out wanna-be Satoshi’s, such as Craig Wright.
I’m also glad that Shin referenced Gavin Wood’s original essay on “Web 3” which was published in April 2014. You don’t have to agree with it, but unlike many of the VCs who promote “Web 3” or the anti-coiners who permahate on it, Wood provides some specific characteristics defining it. Is that too much to ask letter campaigns today?
Chapter 2 also goes into some details about the “holons” which I always thought was kind of bananas. Stating, “The Romanian Mihai, the Bitcoin Magazine founder who had lived in anarchist squats, enjoyed drinking, and was sociable, spontaneous, and creative, wanted Ethereum to comprise a series of live-work holons.”
The book goes into some depth about the drama these live-work locations, eventually they were dropped from official sponsorship and funding.
Page 48 mentions people, such as Vitalik, possible being “on the spectrum of Autism” and I seem to recall finger pointing at various events of who is and isn’t “on the spectrum.” Hopefully these antics will retire, there’s no room for the rudeness in polite society.
Chapter 2 closes with some nice imagery:
Vitalik walked out onto the front deck, the larger of the two on the top floor. It was drizzling outside. Beneath his feet were perfectly straight, cherry-stained wooden slats, and off to the side, a black barbecue grill, four black planters with bushes, and a yellow flower pinwheel.
Shin does a good job placing these details throughout the book, helping the reader imagine the scene.
This is also an interesting chapter in terms of how certain events moved by quickly. For instance, with the crowdsale, on p. 71:
Stiftung Ethereum was finally established on July 9. By Friday July 18, the Ethereum crew had Pryor Cashman’s draft opinion letter. On Monday, July 21, they received it signed. On Tuesday, July 22, at midnight Central European Summer Time, they launched the crowdsale.
On p. 73 it is kind of funny to see some Bitcoin maximalists enter the chat:
Meanwhile, many Bitcoiners claimed “alt-coins” like Ethereum were unnecessary. For instance, a March blog post titled “The coming Demise of the Altcoins (and What You Can Do to Hasten It)” sad, “When people say, ‘But Ethereum can do smart contracts!’ this is actually false… Ethereum will therefore soon be forgotten like the rest once it inevitably fails to deliver on its promise.”
Coincidentally a few months ago I highlighted that same article and how the author ended up kicked out of the little institute he co-created, later joining the Bitcoin SV circus. Without endorsing Ethereum itself, it is empirically clear that it has not been forgotten and has delivered more than most publicly funded blockchain projects. This still doesn’t sit well with vocal maximalists (and anti-coiners).
On p. 84 the author mentions cold storage devices that stored the Ethereum Foundation’s bitcoin and specifically mentioned Michael Perklin.4 The one related anecdote I have about him: I spoke at Devcon 2 which took place from September 17-19 in 2016 in Shanghai. This is about a month after Bitfinex was hacked for around 119,000 bitcoin.
Just a total coincidence but when I got on the maglev, Perklin and I ended up sitting next to one another. Recognizing him, I started peppering him with questions about Bitfinex, who he was helping provide a security audit (he was mentioned in an official blog post on it). If I recall, my argument was that in traditional financial markets, an exchange operator that had suffered a similarly huge loss would have been closed down by regulators, least of all not been allowed to socialize losses and issue a couple of IOUs. Long story short, we disagreed on some fundamental issues and went our separate ways.
Chapter 3 concludes with the formal launch of Ethereum mainnet and the hiring of Ming Chan.
Chapter 4 & 5
Chapters 4 & 5 had lots of interesting anecdotes and drama I was unaware of. Geeky readers may be asking, “what’s with the big deal gossip?” In my view, I find it impressive that anything was built and delivered with the type of work dynamics described, e.g., it’s hard to imagine operating in an environment with a senior leader having loud outbursts throughout every conversation.
Chapter 4 ends with the termination of Gavin from the foundation and Chapter 5 concludes with The DAO being drained. A number of ICOs were mentioned, such as Lisk and DigixDAO. Where are they today? Lisk still exists, maintaining an SDK for developers. Digix suspended its operations five months ago, and is reviewing its license requirements in Singapore. A companion book could probably have been written to discuss (and scrutinize!) the types of ICOs and tokens that were created between the collapse of The DAO and early 2018, more on this later.
Chapter 6 & 7
Chapter 6 was quite the page turner. Even though I was actively providing analysis at that time, it’s always interesting to read a cohesive blow-by-blow, with comments from the key developers and stake holders (the timeline at the end is great!). The fact that Phil Potter had such a dismissive view about Ethereum (calling it a “shit coin” a couple of times, including p. 182), isn’t a huge surprise considering his previous antics of “cat and mouse” bank accounts.5
For instance, I had no idea the role Andrey Ternovskiy, the creator of Chatroulette, had in increasing the drama-per-second following The DAO hack, leading up to the hard fork (he pretended to be the original DAO hacker and tried to social engineer some outcomes).
An interesting technical point from an excellent Chapter 7 (especially the sleepless nights for the Robin Hood Group), on p. 166:
The hard fork was indeed less complicated, especially compared to a similar process on Bitcoin. Because Bitcoin was “a peer-to-peer electronic cash system,” as Satoshi Nakamoto described it in the Bitcoin white paper, it had a chain of custody that could be followed all the way from the creation of a bitcoin to the one (or fraction of one) that someone owned. It made possible the digital equivalent of being able to trace a dollar bill from the time it gets minted to the time it gets used to tip a cab driver, who then uses it to buy flowers from a florist, who then pays bus fare with it. In order to unwind something like the DAO on Bitcoin, to undo the cabbie’s tip, one would also have to rescind the bus ticket and return the flowers.
Bitcoin uses the UTXO model and Ethereum uses an accounts model, in principal, the forking process could work the same way if planned ahead of time. For example, while the flow of funds (payments) between users and merchants were not reversed when Ethereum split into ETH and Ethereum Classic, but with forks like Bitcoin Cash, if a blob of UTXO had ever been used, it really cannot be precisely excised and grafted onto the new fork without having to fully unwind the butterfly effect (see the 2013 accidental hardfork of Bitcoin for the winners-and-losers).
The brief discussion of Bitcoin maximalism on p. 181 as well as the quote from Aaron van Wirdum (a vocal Bitcoin maximalist at Bitcoin Magazine) reminded me of a tweet I posted just after the hardfork:
What’s the context of this dumpster fire? Recall that beginning in summer 2015, the Bitcoin “community” was undergoing a (negatively) transformative event: the Bitcoin civil war. At the heart was whether or not to hard fork and increase the block size. Several proposals, such as Bitcoin XT had been drafted up and a vocal wing, primarily composed of Blockstream-affiliated developers and organizations were opposed to any hard fork, let alone one that increased the block size (hence the “block size debate“).
This same group of antagonists regularly claimed that hard forks were unsafe and would lead to disaster, disarray, and the collapse of the entire ecosystem. Seriously, that’s how overdramatic some of these “small blocker” developers came across. Look up reddit and listserve discussions at the time, it was crazy talk.
Suffice to say, you don’t have to have an opinion over whether or not a hard fork should or should not have taken place on Ethereum to simultaneously observe that it did not lead to the collapse of the entire ecosystem. Hence, the egg-on-face, dumpster fire gif above. A number of other major L1s have successfully coordinated hard forks, multiple forks in fact, without leading to total pandemonium.
On p. 188-190, the author discusses the origins behind what is now called Ethereum Classic (ETC) as a separately traded coin. One personal anecdote: I distinctly recall the head of trading at a large U.S.-based exchange reaching out to me during this time period (July 2016) asking if I knew of any Ethereum holders who might be interested in selling their ETC. Worth pointing out, this was before it was listed on Poloniex. So the story of the various parties working in the background to get ETC off the ground probably could be expanded if a second edition is ever written (not that it needs a second edition!).
On p. 189, the author found a maximalist:
On the day of the fork, Bitcoin Magazine, Vitalik’s old publication, wrote an article about “the launch of a spin-off project: Ethereum Classic.” While the author, Aaron van Wirdum, noted that Ethereum Classic, “seems to be a bit of a joke, intended to make a point,” he wrote, the project has been gaining some traction, with a small-but-growing user-base on Reddit and Slack […]”
Fast forward nearly six years by several metrics such as TVL and active full-time developers, Ethereum Classic never really grew beyond its core group of devotees: Bitcoin maximalists who LARPed as Ethereans.6
Just as Litecoin and Dogecoin have not faded away (despite a lack of usage or developer interest), traders will probably continue to trade ETC until PoW coins are delisted for ESG reasons.
On this note, on p. 192 the author writes:
They could see that, in the community at large, Bitcoiners in particular felt that Ethereum’s hard fork would illustrate one of Bitcoin’s core features: its immutability.
Two quibbles with this:
(1) some of the largest Bitcoin holders are not maximalists but like Bitcoin for other reasons (e.g., can be used as collateral on other chains);
(2) from a technical perspective, no public chain is “immutable” in the sense that it cannot be forked, if anything immutability describes the one-way hash function. Bitcoin’s development has fully ossified over the past five-ish years, with those interested in building actual dapps having left for greener pastures. Arguably the only thing “immutable” with Bitcoin today is who acts as the gatekeepers to the BIP process: the same self-appointed guards that prevented bigger blocks back in 2015-2016.
Chapters 8 & 9
On p. 198-199 the author mentions some pro-ETC tweets from Barry Silbert (founder of DCG):
Bought my first non-bitcoin digital currency… Ethereum Classic (ETC)
At $0.5.0, risk/return felt right. And I’m philosophically on board
Vitalik was stunned. He had met with Barry at the DCG offices in March, and at that time Barry had offered to help him and be his advisor. Now he was finding out that despite the friendly overture, Barry had never bought ether and now instead had bought ether classic.
Somewhat ironically five years ago, a group of Bitcoin maximalists actually chided Barry Silbert for his tweets (turning it into a full on Medium post). Around the same time, Reuters did a story about whether or not someone in his position would be falling afoul of SEC regulations for the type of tweets he was publishing. Putting personalities aside for the moment, it is worth pointing out that ETC has since had multiple deep reorgs and as shown in the presentation from Electric Capital above, does not really have developer mindshare.
For instance, on pgs. 217-218
The WHG was trying to return people’s money, but instead they’d gotten the majority of it frozen at an exchange. When they asked Polo why it had blocked the trade, Griff and Jordi say the rep asked how Polo was to know the difference between a white hat and a black hat hacker. According to Griff, the rep then said that Polo was going to hold the money because it wasn’t the WHG’s money. Bity and the White Hat Group told Poloniex that it wasn’t theirs either. (Eventually, the WHG would realize that although Kraken was happy to let the Bity account trade, the exchange had blocked its withdrawals.)
Around the same time, someone working in the Bity office, who was then helping the WHG, recalls hearing a rumor from what they believed to be a credible source that the FBI had opened an investigation into the WHG’s activity, which scared the shit out of some group members. For the next two days, they spent a lot of time staring up at a big screen, incessantly refreshing the Poloniex account page to see if the money had been unfrozen. During this stretch of time, they slept very little — going to bed at 8 a.m. the night they realized the funds were frozen — and when people passed out, they did so on the sofas around the office. Weed and bottles of whiskey were strewn about, though the White Hat Group didn’t partake.
Another example of a prominent Bitcoin maximalist attempting to derail Ethereum, on p. 221
A few days after Alexis of Bity published a blog post on the status of the ETC refund, which explained why the WHG had first wanted to convert everything to ETH, a Bitcoin maximalist who went by the online handle WhalePanda published a blog titled “Ethereum: Chain of liars & thieves,” in which he delineated the trades that the White Hat Group tried to do on the various exchanges and concluded, “TLDR; We market dumped the illegally obtained ETC to crash/kill ETC but failed and now we want the locked funds back, sorry.”
His real name is Stefan Jespers and despite the fact that he has publicly invested in Ethereum-related tokens, his social media personality is toxic to this day.
Moving along, although I participated at the tail end of Devcon 2, I was completely unaware of all of the drama that was going on in the background.7
For instance, on p. 238
In the end, Bob didn’t even hear the final answer from Gav himself. Brian Behlendorf of Hyperledger had a call with Parity: Gav’s firm had decided not to go through with it. Bob felt Gav was acting out of spite. Bob also wondered if Gavin wanted to kill a potential competitor to Parity. Gav said Parity’s lawyer, who handled the company’s licensing strategy, had decided against it. Parity had partly gotten its VC funding by pitching an enterprise Ethereum implementation, so if the C++ codebase was permissively licensed, it might compete with Parity’s future product.
This was interesting because in retrospect, this future scenario didn’t really happen. While Parity did participate in several “enterprise” pilots and projects, this codebase was ultimately deprecated and turned into OpenEthereum (and later dropped altogether by Gnosis). Also, Pantheon (from ConsenSys) was donated to the Hyperledger project and re-emerged as “Besu.”
On pgs. 245-246 we learn about a possible motivation behind the denial of service attacks that took place during Devcon2
The DoS attacks were finally over. Though the period was stressful, Vitalik found fighting–and winning– this cyberwar fun in a way. Throughout, the attacker’s motivation was unclear. There wasn’t an obvious financial gain, although he or she could have shorted ETH. (The price did slide from about $13 to below $10 over the two months of the attacks.) In fact, he or she had spent one thousand ETH (roughly $12,000) on the attacks, plus the time to research and execute them. Many mused that perhaps the only people with such an incentive would be Bitcoin maximalists. Regardless, Ethereum became stronger and more capable of handling a high load of transactions–a beneficial maturation given what lay ahead.
When discussing the salaries of Ethereum Foundation employees and candidates, on p. 250:
But even her good qualities had downsides. For instance, even after the foundation found itself in a financially comfortable spot, she lowballed potential employees. When Google employees were applying and stated their salary requirements, she would say things like “Nobody gets paid that much” or that she and Vitalik didn’t–as if developers’ salaries should be benchmarked against her own. (Entry-level Google engineers would typically have incomes higher than Ming’s at the time, plus get valuable stock, and senior-level engineers’ compensation could be $1 million including stock.) At least one former Googler at the foundation was paid half his previous earnings; plus he was made a contractor, so he had no leave or benefits; another applicant from Google simply didn’t join the EF.
I don’t think these are good arguments for a couple of reasons:
(1) The Ethereum Foundation, like most coin foundations, is non-profit. We can argue about what the role of non-profits should or not be in society or what the salaries of their staff should or not be, but there is an implicit assumption that Foundations in general typically cannot offer the same types of compensation that many for-profit organizations can. For instance, the executive director role for both Hyperledger Project and the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance is around $400,000 a year. Since there is no equity or coin rewards for that role, is that high or low? Maybe it is low relative to the value that these organizations are perceived to create for the ecosystems they operate in.
(2) Having worked in the Bay area for five years (where my wife as a hardware engineer), with the current mini bear market in tech equities, arguably the salaries of Big Tech (software) employees were inflated. Plus in the case of Google, virtually all of their revenue comes from adtech which effectively monetizes personally identifiable information (PII) which is morally dubious at best. I don’t know what the “fair market value” of a senior engineer at Google should or should not be able to command after this mini bear market concludes, but the author should have used an apples-to-apples comparison: the salary of an experienced, senior engineer at other Foundations, and not with for-profit adtech companies in the Bay area.
Chapters 10 & 11
As mentioned at the beginning I don’t think the book was critical enough of ICOs in general, and specifically the way some organizers effectively fleeced retail by not disclosing much, if anything. Or how in many cases, a token was not needed.
One example of trying to force a token where one is probably unneeded on p. 256:
Many projects were, like the DAO, fund-raising by creating a token designated for use on that specific network. He said these tokens weren’t just being used to line initial coin offering (ICO) issuers’ pockets with ETH; they were actually being used in the dapps themselves. The people who offered services to the network could be pad in that token, which could then be exchanged for other money. Setting these projects apart was the fact that each was not a traditional app with a company at the center pushing out updates and making business deals; these were “decentralized software protocols” (emphasis added). Historically, such protocols had not been profitable. For instance, the people working on simple mail transfer protocol (smtp) for email did not make money. Outlook, Hotmail, and Gmail, the applications using smtp, had. However, now tokens made it possible for protocol builders to reward themselves since tokens could be created with the network, and they could keep some, like retaining equity in a start-up, and allocate some for continued work on the protocol.
A few quibbles about this passage:
(1) What the author (and the VC) is describing is: public goods, problem of free-riders, etc. Basically there is some useful internet infrastructure (smtp) that could be built but… : who builds it, who pays for the labor, who owns the IP, and so forth. The “Web 2” world now dominated by an oligopoly often referred to as Big Tech that sometimes builds out socially useful technology in exchange for monetizing personally identifiable information (e.g., rent-seeking). That is a morally bad exchange that has been normalized. We don’t have time to go into the years of abuse and exploitation (e.g., Cambridge Analytica scandal) that has occurred but this was one of the original motivations for proponents of “Web 3” in 2014. In practice, over the past eight years many VCs attempt to reinsert themselves and/or their portfolio companies (intermediaries like CEXs) in place of these tech incumbents. That’s not really mentioned in the book but probably should in a future edition.
(2) A sundry of ICO issuers did in fact attempt to line their pockets at the expense of retail. While some useful dapps and infrastructure have arisen out of the chaos of the 2016-2018 ICO mania, continually pointing to these is textbook survivorship bias. We don’t have time to go into how crowdfunding should or should not look like, but clearly there were a lot of victims who had no recourse and that’s not typically mentioned by coin promoters (such as the coin VCs of that era). The author doesn’t say it, but others have defended this time frame as “the ends justify the means” and I don’t think that is a good argument either. Nor is having to donate to unaccountable public goods (e.g., Wikipedia) the only other viable alternative.
(3) Unlike anti-coiners, I don’t think it is fair to throw the baby out with the bath water when it comes to creating new methods of funding public goods. Not everything was a scam or a fraud. Even securities regulators are okay with certain forms of crowdfunding from retail. Simultaneously I’ve been consistent over the years that a “tcpipcoin,” if it had been created almost 50 years ago, would have likely led to distractions for the stakeholders of that era, much like today.
For instance, below is a passage from a paper I wrote in April 2015 (pgs 18-19)
Moving along, on p. 257 the author put together a concise (and interesting!) history of ERC-20:
Suddenly everyone was on the hunt for the next big protocol tokens. And creating new ones on Ethereum was so easy. The previous fall, Fabian Vogelstellar of the Robin Hood Group had solicited comments on an idea that Vitalik had long discussed: standardizing a smart contract for creating new tokens. Fabian made it issue number twenty on a board designated for discussing protocol improvements called Ethereum Request for Comments. After 362 comments, they settled on a standard called ERC-20 tokens, which became a class of tokens that, because they were in a standardized smart contact, could be added easily be exchanges, wallets, and so forth.
In the discussion of crowdfunding, on p. 260 the author mentioned a now mostly dead project, Augur:
Right when they launched, the presale for Augur, a decentralized prediction market in which people could make predictions and bet on the outcome, was happening. When Taylor went to put money in, she was stymied, again, by challenging technical instructions. She asked Kosala to make a one-click button for her. He did, and they added an “Augur Crowdsale” tab to the site. Late in the sale, which ended October 1, 2015, teh Augur newsletter gave a shout-out to MyEtherWallet for the button. Taylor and Kosala exchanged chats peppered with “omg omg”–thrilled to have been noticed by others in the community.
Apart from the handful of people who bought it at < $2 immediately post-launch, the insiders of Augur did okay.8 Why? Today at around $8, Augur (REP) trades at roughly the same level as it did five summers ago. While money may not be the motivating factor for all crowdsale participants, ETH grew and sustained several multiples higher over the same time period (e.g., opportunity cost of capital). Apart from betting on the outcome of U.S. presidential elections, the platform – like Open Bazaar – remains a ghost town. To its credit, unlike other ICO survivors from that era, the Augur team converted 90% its ETH holdings for real money to build and deploy a working prediction market that is updated from time to time.
On p. 269 we learn how Poloniex operated a lot like Binance did pre-2021:
By the time of that victory, the exchange was facing a new problem. Due to US sanctions, it needed to block Iranians from using Poloniex. However, it could not, because the exchange did not have a robust know-your-customer (KYC) program to verify customers’ identities. (The one instituted in 2015 was, according to an early employee, “super basic” and “really, really easy to work around.”) It was a three-tiered KYC system that granted users greater trading access in exchange for higher levels of verification, and part of the reason for it was that Jules and Mike wanted to minimize friction for users to sign up and deposit funds. These discussions dragged on from the end of 2016 into the first half of 2017, when Jules and Mike finally relented.
Even cynical readers familiar with the cyber coin world were probably shaking their heads at this passage: how can operators of a U.S.-based CEX enrich themselves for years intentionally slow-walking compliance with the BSA?
It reminded me of when news leaked around Circle’s acquisition of Poloniex several years ago:
Speaking of the SEC, to-date they have prosecuted and/or settled with around 60 token issuers since the start of 2017 (collectively Canadian provinces and individual U.S. states have pursued about as many). The book spends a bit of time on The DAO report, published in July 2017, but doesn’t really highlight retail-focused solicitations, such as Kik (e.g., Kik was mentioned on p. 271 but nothing about their very public fight with the SEC). A second edition could include some retrospection around these retail-focused raises; e.g., why did different governmental bureaus in China ban ICOs around the same time frame?9
On pgs. 282-283 Poloniex is described as a panopticon:
In 2017, Poloniex’s volume grew fifty to seventy-five times what it had been in December 2016. With more customers, more volume, and now more processes, the company became buried. About twenty people were managing almost five million accounts, and the owners had not invested in the company at all. Instead of hiring a third-party know-your-customer vendor, as many companies would, to make sure each submitted ID matched the selfie taken and that the address given wasn’t for, say, a strip mall in Nevada, Polo employees had to process IDs one by one. Support was still bare-bones: according to a manager at the time, five people handled more than one hundred thousand support tickets. In the first half of the year, Johnny managed to “poach” a few troll box moderators to be new support agents, brining the total to eight. According to Johnny, Jules made workers put their phones in cubbies upon entering the office, forbade them from listening to music, and though this might also be for security reasons, blocked their computers from the internet so they could only do one thing on those machines: work. They had to wear headphones so that they wouldn’t accidentally overhear any conversations, they were recorded via cameras inside the office, and they were instructed to communicate with each other only on chat. (Later Jules would acknowledge to employees that they were surveilling all staff chats, including direct messages.)
On p. 288 the author mentioned some of the exuberance during the “Consensus” event in 2017:
The next day, EOS, which billed itself as a faster (but more centralized) competitor to Ethereum, kicked off its nearly year long ICO. The month before, it had advertised its sale on a massive billboard in Times Square, during the consensus conference, which had twenty-seven hundred attendees. The advertisement was ironic given that the EOS ICO blocked US IP address. That week, the ETH price again traded with highs in the $330s and lows in the $200s.
I attended this event and recall visiting the “official” afterparty wherein one of Block.One (the commercial backer of EOS) pointed out that the EOS billboard was just aesthetics and wasn’t encouraging anyone to participate in the ICO. One update for a future edition of the book: in September 2019 Block.One, settled with the SEC for a small sum of $24 million. Not-so fun fact: one of the defense attorney’s who worked on that case also (successfully) defended several other 2017-era ICOs that had purposefully focused on retail investors. This is part of the history that anti-coiners, who are new to town, should probably focus their wrath on instead of trafficking conspiracy theories.
On p. 294 we hear a prominent ICO promoter mentioned in passing:
Meanwhile, on the rocky, lizard- and fern-filled island of Ibiza the Parity team and friends were at a lovely terra-cotta-tiled, exotic-plant-adorned home rented by Brock Pierce, the former Mighty Ducks actor turned crypto VC, wrapping up a weeklong retreat that, for at least some attendees, was at times an alcohol-and drug-fueled blur. The previous Sunday, in the VIP room of the club Amnesia, the group had made merry.
There are a number of similar party-the-night-away excerpts throughout the book. One wonders how anything was shipped during this time frame! Speaking of Pierce, in early February 2018, The New York Times published a critical story of Pierce (and his crew) arriving in Puerto Rico to take advantage of the lenient tax treatment of capital gains (and income) without contributing much in return. Later that same month, clearly without any motivation to clear his name, he publicly pledged to donate $1 billion. To-date, there has been no follow-up, despite folks asking what he has done beyond drumming up easy PR. This is a pattern with some of the prominent coin promoters (post ICO mania) who promise big donations, yet little materializes beyond the press release.
Another example of why a future chapter dedicated to ICO then-and-now reflection is found on p. 298,
For instance, on May 26, the day after Token Summit, there was an ICO for something called Veritaseum that hadn’t open-sourced its code, hadn’t published a white paper, and, based on its jumbled marketing, appeared to be a centralized company that could have easily accepted US dollars for payment — not a decentralized network. It did not even take the basic step of having a secure website, despite the hacks rampaging throughout crypto. It raised $11 million. Early on, VERI tokens ranked tenth among crypto assets by market cap. On July 22, the market cap based on circulating supply was $458 million. But accounting for the fact that Veritaseum had only released 2 percent of its tokens, its market cap by the total float was $22.9 billion. By that measure, the one-month-old company was almost twice as valuable as Nasdaq. Its market cap was more than that of Ethereum’s, which on that day closed $21.5 billion. And who controlled 98% of VERI? The founder.
Two things that stuck out:
(1) In November 2019, Reggie Middleton (the founder of Veritaseum) settled with the SEC for about $9.5 million (most of which was disgorgement), this could be added in a future edition.
(2) Intermediaries such as Nasdaq have an oligopoly on the services (and infrastructure) they provide. If anything, the entire “blockchain” set of experiments (including those initiatives Nasdaq has rolled out into production) should highlight the large amount of market share that systemically important financial institutions and utilities are able to capture and hold and gorge upon. Dismissing all alternatives out-of-hand, as most anti-coin commentators frequently do, raises the question: who are anti-coiners actually trying to help? Financial incumbents who get bailed out by governments? Retail who get fleeced with PFOF? If their goal is to somehow “help” the average Joe, then clearly defending the status quo isn’t very helpful either since it largely rewards incumbents who despite having a regulatory moat, in times of need also get bailed out because they are “too big to fail.”
For all of the discussions around The DAO, Slock.it, and securities regulations, there was one interesting info nugget on p. 301:
While the document was incriminating and put the crypto industry on notice, it wasn’t entirely accurate (The SEC, which declined to comment on this matter, had not interviewed Slock.it and reached out only to at least one American curator. An October 2020 FOIA request turned up no documents on any discussion around who deployed the DAO) Slock.it hadn’t set up the DAO-hub forums (though it had set up the Slack), it hadn’t deployed the DAO smart contract (unknown DAO community members had created eight of them and Taylor’s then fiancé Kevin had tossed the coin that had chosen which DAO to use), and the Robin Hood and White Hat groups, which included some Slock.it employees on their own time, helped resolve the attack. Regardless, the SEC had meant the document to be foundational, to show how the SEC was looking at the space. Lawyer surmised the agency had chosen a “21a report”–giving others notice that going forward the commission would likely follow up with enforcement actions for similar behaviors–because the DAO no longer existed and people had not lost money.
What other regulators may have reached out to Slock.it and curators? Was there a line-in-the-sand somewhere?
On p. 307 we learned about one Ethereum co-founder’s involvement in several ICOs:
At this time, during the ICO craze, Anthony had made a name for himself–not necessarily in a good way. He was slapping his name on ICOs as an advisor in exchange for tokens: Civic, Blockmason, Etherparty, Enjin Coin, Worldwide Asset eXchange, Skrumble Network, Cindicator, Polymath, AION, PayPie, Storm, Unikrn, WAX, Po.et, and Veriblock. Although Civic, Polymath, WAX, and Unikrn were somewhat well-known, the others were no-name projects. He’d also invested in two Chinese projects, Vechain and Qtum.
Not sure why the Chinese angle was worth highlighting; also not an endorsement but both Vechain and Qtum are around and still putting out “announceables.” It is worth mentioning that there are a number of high profile coin VCs who have removed or whitewashed their shilly ICO past, to somehow become… thought-leaders. In the U.S. it is more than two hands can count. Despite the collective “coinesia,” retail-focused promoters-turned-investors probably deserved to be named in a future edition.
On p. 319, more interesting information about Poloniex was described:
That fall, Poloniex’s dominance began to slip. If in June it had sometimes seen trading volume of $5 billion per week, early that fall the peaks were more like $4 billion. Still, even with the dip, the exchange was making a killing. One reason for the drop was that competitors were investing in upgrades, but Polo was doing the bare minimum. Seeing competitor Kraken boast about a slew of new features, Polo employees asked, “Why are we not doing this? Why are we just letting them take our business?” One example: Kraken launched an efficient, self-service feature for two-factor authentication allowing users themselves to disable it. Even though customer service said launching a similar feature would cut a third of all open support tickets, Jules and Mike wouldn’t let Tristan work on it. (As far as most people could tell, Tristan controlled nearly every aspect of Poloniex’s code–a grasp of its intricacies wasn’t spread out among a team of people, as would be expected of an exchange transacting in billions of dollars’ worth of crypto every week.) By this point, according to someone familiar with the matter, the exchange had almost half a million open support tickets. Johnny managed to poach more trollbox moderators to act as customer service agents, reaching twelve total by year’s end. He would feel really good the few times in the fall of 2017 that they got the number of open support tickets down to one hundred thousand. Jules and Mike did let them hire a few freelancers, who Johnny, the head of customer support, trained to help out with the backlog of KYC verification. They were good, so he suggested hiring them all immediately. He recall Jules and Mike said, essentially, No, we’re not going to hire anyone. Work with what you’ve got.
It’s interesting to hear this side of the story because throughout this time period, on social media and in chat groups, people would complain about Poloniex’s customer service. Now we know why.
Dentacoin was name dropped on p. 325. It is routinely lampooned for as you can guess, what it is named after.
Chapter 12 & 13
On pgs. 335-336 readers are presented with a thought experiment:
But most of all, things had been different during the DAO drama. Back then, Ethereum had done so many forks before, the community thought forking was without consequences. At that time, not forking was the threat. However, after the DAO, they knew that a hard fork could create yet another Ethereum. And that became the threat. Another factor was that, unlike with the DAO, there was no time pressure. The funds were frozen, and absent any decisions, they would be frozen forever. With the DAO the time for a rescue was limited, and that had prompted people to act. Additionally, with so many new tokens having been built on Ethereum, a contentious hard fork created the risk of producing all kinds of duplicate assets on another chain–Gnosis Very Classic, BAT Very Classic, Status Very Classic, and so forth.
I chuckled at the “Very Classic” names. But truth be told, both Ethereum and Ethereum Classic have had hard forks since the time frame this passage took place (late 2017). So technically speaking, those alt tokens could exist, although to my knowledge no major exchange supported the now-deprecated forks and alts.
On p. 343 we see mentions of Julian Assange and efforts like Pineapple Fund. Assange is frequently lionized by some Bitcoin promoters but he willingly only dumped secrets that damaged one specific U.S. political party and went out of his way not to publish anything that damaged Putin’s government. Ecuador’s government (which allowed Assange to live in its embassy for several years) found direct ties between Assange and the Russian government. In 2017, then-Trump advisor Dana Rohrabacher visited Assange in London and offered a pardon in exchange for Assange publicly stating “the Russians were not involved in the email leak that damaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 against Trump.”
Obviously this would have been a distraction in the book but in my mind it is hard to mention this very controversial character without providing context on why he was likely a willing Russian asset.
The epilogue tries to tie many of the threads into complete knots. Some worked, like the Poloniex conclusion on p. 358:
Circle’s acquistion of Poloniex closed on February 22, 2018. Fortune reported the deal was for $400 million, but according to a source familiar with the matter, the actual amount eventually paid out was between $200 million and $300 million. The sale was almost perfectly time to when not only the flood of trading volume began to wane at Polo but also the crypto bubble itself began to burst and volumes globally were lower than at their peak in mid-December. Polo had been shopping itself since the spring of 2017, such as to Barry Silbert’s Digital Currency Group and Blockchain.com. Circle had been hoping to close the deal in November, but Jules, Mike, and Tristan, citing the crushing amount of work (which the staff and another person who worked with them attributed to their “greedy” refusal to hire additional employees), managed to drag it out while the exchange was still bringing in obscene amounts of revenue–and yet to close before the employees’ shares vested. Some early staff calculated they’d been strong-armed out of $5 million to $10 million apiece.
Wow, that sucks. I have some close friends that had a similar story about a different NYC-based technology company during the same time frame.
Other knots didn’t quite close, like the lawsuits between ConsenSys management and its former employees discussed on p. 364-365. One recently settled and at least one of the lawsuits is ongoing and continues to garner headlines and involves a fight over IP rights for infrastructure such as Metamask.
From a technical standpoint the book was pretty good, just a few small quibbles. As mentioned at the beginning, while I heard rumors, I don’t know enough about a bunch of the inner circle to comment on a number of the personalities that were the focus of the book.10
There are several other books describing the ins and outs of how Ethereum was created that I hope to read through this summer, and time willing write-up a review. In the meantime, if you are looking for a page turner that doesn’t require a PhD in cryptography to understand, I think The Cryptopians is worth adding to your reading list.
Also, if you’re interested in hearing a credible candidate for who The DAO hacker may have been, Shin published a related thread with links a few months ago.
- [Note: there was a footnote from a relevant 2017 CB Insights article. [↩]
- The only two interactions I am aware of on Twitter are: (1) when Brian Hoffman, creator of OB1 & Open Bazaar and Charles Hoskinson said I bashed Hoffman’s platform (For the record I repeatedly, publicly said it is unclear why Open Bazaar would succeed when it was relying on users spending bitcoin which historically they had not. Today OB1 no longer exists and Open Bazaar lives on in name only via IPFS); (2) Charles throwing barbs at Vitalik with respect to the then fork between Ethereum and Ethereum Classic. [↩]
- These stats are based on their github repo contributions. [↩]
- See More questions than answers [↩]
- As mentioned in a blog post five years ago:
This is not the first time Bitfinex has been “debanked” before. Phil Potter, the CFO of Bitfinex, recently gave an interview and explained that whenever they have lost accounts in the past, they would do a number of things to get re-banked. In his words: “We’ve had banking hiccups in the past, we’ve just always been able to route around it or deal with it, open up new accounts, or what have you… shift to a new corporate entity, lots of cat and mouse tricks that everyone in Bitcoin industry has to avail themselves of.” [↩]
- Two of the most prominent Bitcoin maximalists quickly became Ethereum Classic supporters – Nick Szabo and Eileen Ou (note: that in 2015 Ou was sued and settled with the SEC). As noted by Shin, Greg Maxwell heckled Vitalik with a couple of emails during this time as well. [↩]
- Technically speaking, I spoke on Day 5 of the International Blockchain Week (agenda), on September 23 entitled: “Opportunities and Challenges for Financial Services in the Cloud: Trade-offs in digitizing and automating finance.” Interestingly, GDPR has not been strictly enforced and public blockchains seem to have gotten a “free pass.” However the lack of data sharing, data portability agreements harmed many “private” blockchain-focused consortia. [↩]
- One of the founders, Jeremy Gardner, gave a public presentation in January 2015 highlighting how Augur could be used for “assassination markets.” I challenged him, in front of the audience, why anyone in that room would find that useful. He tried to brush it off and has publicly called me a “derp.” [↩]
- Because of rampant fraud, several local and national regulators inspected then banned several dozen trading platforms from offering ICOs on the mainland. [↩]
- Over the course of reading the book I compiled a number of personal anecdotes that while relevant, probably should be part of a separate blog post altogether. [↩]