[Note: the 10th anniversary of the Bitcoin whitepaper is this month. Below is a detailed interview with one of the first individuals to have interacted with Satoshi both in public and private: Ray Dillinger.
All of the written responses are directly from Ray with no contributions from others.]
Q1: Tell us about yourself, what is your background?
A1: I am originally from Kansas. At about the same time I entered high school I became interested in computers as a hobbyist, although hobby computers were still mostly useless at that time. I got involved in early BBS systems when DOS hadn’t been released yet, modems were acoustically coupled and ran at 300 bits per second or slower, and software was stored mostly either on notebook paper or cassette tapes.
The early interest in computers is part of my lifelong tendency to become deeply involved in technology and ideas that are sufficiently interesting. This has led me to develop interests, obsessions, and expertise in a huge variety of things most of which the public does not discover reasons to care about until much later.
I graduated from KU with a degree in Computer Science in December of 1995 after spending far too long alternating between semesters of attending classes and semesters of working to pay for classes.
After graduation I moved to the San Francisco Bay area. I worked for several AI startups in the next seven years and hold a couple of patents in natural-language applications from that work. After that, I worked the night shift for FedEx for some years while doing occasional security consulting gigs during daytime hours. I am currently doing AI algorithm research and implementation (and some cryptographic protocol/document design) at a FinTech startup. I work on General AI projects on my own time.
I am somewhat pessimistic by nature and tend to assume until given reason to believe otherwise that anyone trying to sell me something or convince me of something is a scammer. I know that’s irrational, but knowing doesn’t make the belief stop. I have an abiding hatred of scammers and find them viscerally disgusting.
I consider making noise to be rude, avoid crowds and public appearances, and distrust anyone speaking faster than they can think. Although I write a great deal, I rarely speak and strongly dislike talking on the phone.
In spite of my peculiar interests and asocial tendencies, I somehow managed to get married to a wonderful woman who tolerates an unbelievable degree of geekdom in an unbelievable variety of subjects, ranging from mild interest to full-on mad scientist levels in scope. I am tremendously thankful to have her in my life, and to whatever degree
I might be considered social, she deserves most of the credit.
I became marginally involved with Bitcoin in its early development because cryptocurrency, and the application of block chains to cryptocurrency in particular, are interesting. I ceased to be involved in Bitcoin when the next steps would necessarily involve salesmanship, frequent talking, and social interaction, because those things are not interesting.
Q2: Perry Metzger created the now infamous Cryptography mailing list years ago. When did you join and what made you interested in cryptography?
A2: I joined so many years ago it’s hard to remember. It was pretty much as soon as I became aware of the list, but I’m sure it was more than fifteen years ago. It may have been late 2001 or early 2002.
I think I may even have been one of the first twenty or thirty posters on that list – it was still very young.
I remember being vaguely annoyed that it hadn’t been available when I was actually still in college and doing a crypto project in a grad-level networking course – I’d been a member of the even-earlier ‘cypherpunks’ list back when I was in school, but its strident political ideologues (including a guy named Hal Finney, whom you’ve probably heard of)
annoyed me, even back then.
‘cypherpunks’ was where I became aware of and started corresponding with Hal. Although, way back then, I think we were both mostly annoying to each other. And possibly to others as well. Hal had been stridently political all the way from those days (and probably before) to the day he died, and in retrospect, I think I really needed some ‘remedial human-being lessons’ and some wider education at the time. I’ve learned a lot since then – and perspective outside the narrow specialties we studied in school really does matter.
Q3: There were a lot of other non-cryptocurrency related discussions taking place simultaneously in November 2008 and many of the frequent posters didn’t comment on Bitcoin when it was first announced. What interested you in it? How involved would you say you were with providing coding suggestions prior to the genesis block that following January?
A3: I was interested in it for several reasons. First, Bitcoin was a digital cash protocol, and digital cash protocols have some significant challenges to overcome, and I’d been interested in them for a long time already. I’d even designed a couple by then. The first I designed was unsound. The second, which is the only one worth talking about, which I’ll talk more about below.
Second, Bitcoin used a central proof chain (which we now call a block chain) as means of securing the history of each note, and I had known for a long time that any successful digital cash protocol had to use proof chains in some form or it couldn’t circulate (couldn’t be spent onward by someone who’d been paid in it). And I was very, very much interested in proof chains, especially for a digital cash protocol. I had already used proof chains (very differently) for a digital cash protocol when I extended Chaum’s e-cash protocol in 1995.
(see Digression #1 below to understand the differences between my protocol and Satoshi’s, and their effect on protocol design.)
Third, Satoshi eventually convinced me that he wasn’t a scammer. I’m sort of a natural pessimist at heart, and digital cash protocols have a long history of scammers, so at first I had assumed the worst. I think a lot of others also assumed the worst, which would be why few of them responded. I made my first couple of replies without even having read it yet, to see how he responded before I wasted mental effort on something that would probably turn out to be a scam.
When I finally bothered to actually read the white paper, and spent the mental effort to understand it, I realized that (A) it wasn’t the usual incompetent bullshit we’d seen in far too many earlier digital-cash proposals, and (B) Its structure really and truly contained no Trusted Roles – meaning the opportunity to scam people was NOT built into the structure of it the way it had been with e-gold, e-cash, etc.
Fourth, and absolutely the clincher for me; it was very very INTERESTING! It was an entirely new paradigm for a digital cash protocol, and had no Trusted Roles! Nobody had EVER come up with a digital cash protocol having no Trusted Roles before!
Of course it wasn’t a “serious” proposal, I thought. It wouldn’t work for any kind of widespread adoption (I thought at the time) because of course people would conclude that spent hashes which absolutely couldn’t be redeemed for the electricity or computer power that had been used to create them were valueless. And it would never scale beyond small communities or specialized applications of course because of its completely stupid bandwidth requirements.
But it was INTERESTING!
I could never have come up with Bitcoin because of the tremendous bandwidth. Without Satoshi’s proposal, the idea of transmitting every transaction to every user would just have bounced off my mind as inconceivable. Hell, I didn’t even understand it the first couple of times through the white paper because I was looking for ANY WAY AT ALL to parse those sentences and ‘transmitting every transaction to every user wasn’t even a POSSIBLE parse for me until Satoshi explicitly told me yes, that really was what he meant.
When I finally understood, I started doing math to prove to him that it was impossible, tried to relate bandwidth to rate of adoption and got a largest possible answer that’s only about one-eighth of today’s number of nodes. I was assuming transaction volume proportional to userbase, which would be at least three times the transactions that today’s blocksize-limited block chain handles, and looking at a version of the protocol which doubled it by transmitting every transaction twice. So,GIGO, I was wrong – but for good reasons and in the correct order of magnitude anyway.
But that was a couple orders of magnitude larger than the highest answer I had expected to get! And that meant Satoshi’s idea actually seemed…. surprisingly plausible, if people really didn’t care about bandwidth.
The fact that bandwidth seemed to be available enough for the proposal to be technically plausible was sort of mind-boggling. So was the idea that so many people did not care, at all, about bandwidth costs.
(See digression #2 to understand why it was hard for me to accept that
people now consider bandwidth to be valueless.)
Anyway, problems aside, it was INTERESTING! If the proof-of-concept actually sort-of worked at least on scales like for a campus or community merchandise token or something it would extend our understanding of protocol design!
What I had done back in 1995 had been INTERESTING for a different reason. At that time nobody had ever come up with a digital cash protocol that allowed people who’d been paid digital coins to respend them if they wanted instead of taking them right back to the issuer. Of course it wouldn’t work for general adoption because of its own problems, but it had extended our understanding of protocol design back then, so back then that had been INTERESTING!
And before that, Chaum had demonstrated a digital cash protocol that worked at all, and at the time that was INTERESTING!
And in between a whole bunch of people had demonstrated ways to cooperate with bankers etc to have different kinds of access to your checking account or whatever. Some of those had had privacy features v. the other users, which were also INTERESTING!
And so on. I was very much looking at things that improved our understanding of digital cash protocols, and had no idea that Bitcoin was intended for widespread release.
Anyway, Satoshi and I talked offlist about the problems, and possible solutions, and use of proof chains for digital cash, and my old protocol, and several previous types of digital cash, and finally he sent me the proof chain code for review.
And the proof chain code was solid, but I freaked out when I saw that it used a Floating Point type rather than an Integer type for any kind of accounting. Accounting requirements vs. floating point types have a long and horrible history.
The worst that could happen from a rounding error, as long as everybody gets the *SAME* rounding error, is that the miner (whose output is unspecified in the block and defined as “the rest of the TxIn values input”) gets a few satoshis more or less than if the rounding error hadn’t happened, and no satoshis would be created or destroyed.
But if people on different clients get *DIFFERENT* rounding errors, because of different representation or differently implemented operations, the chain forks. And That Would Be Bad.
It was when we started talking about floating-point types in accounting code that I learned Hal was involved in the effort. Hal was reviewing the transaction scripting language, and both the code he had, and the code I had, interacted with the accounting code. So Satoshi brought him in for the discussion on floating point, and both of us reviewed the accounting code. Hal had a lot of experience doing exact math in floating point formats – some of his crypto code in PGP even used float types for binary operations. So he wasn’t as freaked-out about long doubles for money as I was. We talked a lot about how much divisibility Bitcoins ought to have; whether to make ‘Satoshis’ an order of magnitude bigger just to have three more bits of cushion against rounding errors, or keep them near the limit of precision at 10e-8 bitcoins in order to assure that rounding errors would always fail. Failing, immediately, detectably, and hard, at the slightest error, is key to writing reliable software.
So I went over the accounting code with a fine-toothed comb looking for possible rounding errors. And I didn’t find any.
Which is more than a little bit astonishing. Numeric-methods errors are so ubiquitous nobody even notices them. Inevitably someone multiplies and divides in the wrong order, or combines floats at different magnitudes causing rounding, or divides by something too small, or makes equality comparisons on real numbers that are only equal 65535 times out of 65536, or does too many operations between sequence points so that they can be optimized differently in different builds, or uses a compiler setting that allows it to do operations in a different sequence, or checks for an overflow/rounding in a way that the compiler ignores because it can prove algebraically that it’s “dead code” because it will never be activated except in case of undefined behavior (like eg, the roundoff or overflow that someone is checking for)! Or SOMETHING. I mean, in most environments you absolutely have to FIGHT both your language semantics and your compiler to make code without rounding errors.
Clearly I hadn’t been the first pessimistic screaming hair-triggered paranoid aware of those issues to go over that accounting code; I could not find a single methods error. The ‘satoshi’ unit which is the smallest unit of accounting, is selected right above the bit precision that can be handled with NO rounding in the double float format, and every last operation as far as I could find was implemented in ways that admit no rounding of any bits that would affect a unit as large as a satoshi.
To cause rounding of satoshis in the Bitcoin code, someone would have to be adding or subtracting more than 21 million Bitcoins (I think it’s actually 26 million, in fact…). So, the Bitcoin chain is, I believe, rounding-free and will continue to check regardless of whether clients use any higher floating point precision.
For comparison Doge, which has so many coins in circulation that amounts larger than 26 million Doge are actually transacted, has rounding errors recorded in its block chain. If a new client ever uses a higher-precision float format, their old chain won’t check on that client. Which would be seen as a bug in the new client, and “corrected” there (by deliberately crippling its accuracy when checking old blocks). In fact it’s a bug in the Doge coin design which will never be fixed because they’ve already committed too much to it.
Integers. Even with code that is meticulously maintained and tested for consistency, even where methods errors have been boiled out by somebody’s maniacal obsessive dedication, Integers would have been so much cleaner and easier to check.
Why I was VERY interested in proof chains and digital cash protocols.
When I extended Chaum’s protocol in 1995, I had used proof chains attached to each ‘coin’, which grew longer by one ‘link’ (nowadays we say ‘block’) every time the coin changed hands. That allowed coins to circulate offline because all the information you needed to make another transaction was in the chains attached to the individual coins. In order to make it possible to catch double spenders, the ‘links’ contained secret splits which, if two or more contradictory links were combined, would reveal the identity of the spender.
So, it could circulate offline and make transfers between users who weren’t even connected to the Internet. It didn’t have the ferocious bandwidth expense and even more ferocious proof-of-work expense of Bitcoin. Double spenders couldn’t be caught until the differently-spent copies of a coin were compared, potentially after going through several more hands which meant you had to have some kind of resolution process. And a resolution process meant you absolutely had to have a Trusted Certificate Authority with a database that could link UserIDs to RealWorld IDs in order to figure out who the RealWorld crook was.
Buyer and seller had to have valid UserIDs issued by the Trusted CA, which were known to each other even if to no one else. And although not even The Trusted CA could link UserIDs and transactions except in case of a double spend, the parties to each transaction definitely could. Either party could later show and cryptographically prove the details of the transaction including the counterparty’s UserID, so your transactions were “Private”, not “Secret”. Finally, the ‘coins’ were non-divisible meaning you had to have exact change.
It was, at best, clunky compared to Bitcoin, and not being able to identify double spends until unspecified-time-later would probably be a deal-killer for acceptance. But it also had some advantages: It didn’t create a central permanent ledger that everybody can datamine later the way Bitcoin does, so Trusted CA or not it might actually have been better privacy in practice. It was completely scalable because no transaction needed bandwidth between anybody except buyer and seller. And it had no proof-of-work expense. But it needed a God-Damned Trusted Certificate Authority built directly into the design, so that CA’s database was open to various kinds of abuse.
I had no comprehension of modern attitudes toward bandwidth costs.
I mean, I knew it had gotten cheap, but it was still taking me hours, for example, to download a complete Linux distribution. I figured other people noticed big delays like that too, and wide adoption of Bitcoin would mean slowing down EVERYTHING else they (full nodes anyway) did. I just hadn’t understood that – and still have trouble with – the idea that by 2008, nobody even cared about bandwidth any more.
I got my first computer, because at that time privately owned computers were INTERESTING! So I had to, even though they were also mostly useless. (See a pattern here?)
But at that time, computers were not communications devices. At All. If you hadn’t invested in something called a “LAN”, which anyway could only work inside one building, probably cost more than the building itself, and was useless unless you’d also invested in multiple computers, you moved data back and forth between your machines and your friends’ machines using cassette tapes. Or, if and your friend were both rich enough to buy drives, or had been lucky enough dumpster diving to get drives you could repair, and had access to the very expensive media through some kind of industrial or business supply place, you might have done it using floppy disks. Which held eighty kilobytes.
I got my first modem a few years later, and modems at the time were flaky hardware only BARELY supported by single-tasking systems that had never been designed to handle any signal arriving anywhere at a time they did not choose. If your computer didn’t respond fast enough to interrupts, a modem could crash it. If you were running anything that didn’t suspend and resume its business correctly (and most things didn’t because they’d never had to before) or anything that was coded to use the same interrupt, the modem would crash it. If the software on your end ever started taking too long to execute per input character, the modem would fill up the short hardware buffer faster than your software could empty it, and crash it. If you transmitted characters faster than the software running on the remote system could handle them, you’d crash the remote system. There were no error correcting protocols because none of us had the compute power to run them fast enough to avoid a crash at the speeds the modems ran.
And that modem couldn’t transmit or receive characters even as fast as I could type. Sometimes you could crash the remote system just by accidentally typing too fast for a minute or two.
Computer security wasn’t a thing. Pretty much anybody you allowed to connect could at least crash your system and probably steal anything on your computer or delete everything on your computer if they really wanted to. The host programs weren’t *intended* to allow that, but something as simple as transmitting an unexpected EOT signal could often crash them – sometimes crashing the whole machine, sometimes leaving the caller at the all-powerful command-line prompt. Stuff like that happened all the time, just by accident! So people were understandably reluctant to let strangers connect to their systems.
There was one place in my whole state that I could call with it where I found people who’d leave a modem running on their machine despite the risk of crashes, and would allow a stranger on their system. That sysop, in an act of sheer grace that he didn’t have to extend and which nobody was paying him for, allowed me to connect to it. There were no such things as commercial providers; they could not exist until at least some system security actually worked.
There was barely even any commercial software: Every machine came with its own BIOS and Operating System, and the ONLY way to distribute a program that would run on more than a tiny fraction of systems was to distribute it as source code which people could tweak and fix and adapt in order to get it running, and commercial vendors didn’t want to distribute any source code.
So our software was all shared. It came from fellow hobbyists, and unless we were physically in the same room to exchange media (and had the ability to read and write media compatible with the other’s systems), we could not share it without using bandwidth.
Long distance calls were over a dollar a minute, modems ran at 160 or 300 bits per second, and I could have burned through my entire monthly paper route income in under three hours.
Finally, every second I was connected to that remote system, that phone line was busy and everybody else couldn’t use it. And the other users needed it for reasons FAR more important than I did. They were military veterans, some of them profoundly not okay after Viet Nam, using it as sort of a hobby-mediated support group, and I was a fifteen-year-old kid hobbyist with a paper route. Hobby in common or not, I had no illusions about the relative value of our access. So I tried to be a good guest; I took my turns as fast as possible, at times least likely to conflict as possible, using as many pre-recorded scripts (played off a cassette tape deck!) as possible to waste absolutely no time, and got off. I didn’t want to keep anybody out of something which was that important to them.
That’s the way things were when I started learning about the value of bandwidth.
No matter how much bandwidth I’ve got now, no matter how cheap it becomes, I’m still aware of it and it’s still important to me to not waste it. I’ve sweated every byte every time I’ve designed a protocol.
And that’s why – to me anyway – universal distribution of a globally writable block chain is still amazing. Just the fact that it’s now POSSIBLE seems incredible.
Q4: When Satoshi released the white paper, you had many public exchanges with her on that mailing list. For instance, you asked her about inflation and Satoshi seemed to think that there could be some price stability if the number of people using it increased at the same level as the supply of bitcoins increased. But, relative to the USD, there has never really been much price stability in its history to date. Is there a way to re-engineer Bitcoin and/or future cryptocurrencies to do so without having to rely on external price feeds or trusted third parties?
A4: Whoof… that’s a hard question. “Is not Gross Matter Interchangeable with Light?” was considered impossible until Einstein figured it out. And the people who’d been asking that question didn’t even recognize or care about Einstein’s answer because his answer wasn’t about bodies and souls and the afterlife. If the answer is ‘yes’ but the re-engineering involved changes the fundamental qualities that make you (or anybody) value cryptocurrencies, then is the answer really yes?
Satoshi tried to do it by anticipating the adoption curve. We know how that turned out.
I think it’s fundamentally impossible to plot an adoption curve before launch. I mean, I was the pessimist who assumed that there’d be a small group, formed early, that wasn’t going to be growing at all as these additional millions of coins pumped into that campus or that community economy. So I figured, some initial value and rapid inflation thereafter.
Satoshi was far less pessimistic in figuring a widespread and fairly gradual adoption, and had picked the logarithmic plot to put coins into the economy at about the rate envisioned for adoption, assuming Bitcoin would follow a logarithmic adoption curve. It wasn’t a bad guess, as it’s a decent approximation to the Bass Diffusion Model, but the
parameters of the curve were completely unknown, and the Bass curve often appears after something’s been around a long time – not just when it’s launched.
Most importantly, nobody anticipated Bitcoin’s primary use as being a vehicle of financial speculation. The Bass Diffusion Model isn’t applicable to speculative commodities, because price changes in speculative commodities are responsive to PREVIOUS price changes in the speculative commodity. That makes them nonlinear and chaotic.
And that, I think, is what it comes down to. If people will be using something as a vehicle of speculation, then its price point is chaotic and defies all attempts to stabilize it by predicting and compensating for it. So I think we need to abandon that notion.
You’ve already ruled out the idea of external price feeds and trusted third parties, because those would change the fundamental qualities that make you value cryptocurrencies.
That leaves internal price feeds: If a cryptocurrency is used as a medium of exchange in other fungible assets, and those exchanges are recorded in its own block chain, then exchanges of crypto for dollars and exchanges of crypto for, eg, gold bars are visible in the block chain and could at least in theory be used to detect economic conditions and adjust the rate of issue of cryptocoins.
But the fly in that ointment is, again, the fact that the crypto is being used as a speculative asset. People can read the block chain before the changes are made, anticipate what changes the code is about to make, and will front-run them. Or, operating as “Sybil and her Sisters”, make a thousand completely bogus transactions in order to fool the software into doing something crazy. Either way reintroducing positive feedback via market manipulation.
Most schemes aimed at stabilizing the value of a coin via any automatic means assume that the price can be changed by changing the rate of issue. But the more coins are in circulation, the less possible it becomes for changes in the rate of issue to shift the price, meaning it devolves back to the first case of nonlinear and chaotic feedback. IOW, the new coins being added represent a much smaller fraction of the available supply, and withholding them will affect almost no one except miners.
Honestly I’m very surprised Tethercoin isn’t dead yet. What they propose, economically speaking, simply will not work. They got themselves somehow declared to be the only way to get money OUT of a major wallet, which props up their transaction volume, but if the people haven’t already walked away with most of the money they’re supposedly holding but won’t say where, then I’m very surprised.
Q5: About a year ago you wrote a highly-commented upon, passionate retrospection published on LinkedIn. You called out a lot of the nonsense going on then, is there anything that has been on your mind since then that you wanted to expand upon?
A5: Um. Artificial Intelligence, Financial Markets, Human Brains and how they are organized, the nature, origins and mechanisms of consciousness and emotion, a generalization of neuroevolution algorithms intended to scale to recurrent networks of much greater complexity than now possible, scope of political corruption and the politics of divisiveness, gene migration and expression, the way cells control and regulate mutation in different kinds of tissues, directed apoptosis via a multiplicity of P53 genes as a preventive for cancer (happens naturally in elephants; easy to do with CRISPR; engineered humans would probably be radiation-resistant enough for lifetimes in space, or just plain longer-lived, or both), history of the Balkans, history of the Roman Empire, ancient religions, writing a science fiction novel ….
You know, things that are INTERESTING! I actually _can’t_ turn my brain off. It’s a problem sometimes.
I have had a few thoughts about cryptocurrencies, however, which is probably what you intended to ask about.
I have figured out how to redesign the cryptographically secured history database built by cryptocurrencies so that you don’t need any full nodes. There are other ways to organize the blocks that give the proof property you need; They don’t have to form something that’s only a chain, and you don’t have to have specialized nodes for the purpose of holding them because everybody can hold just the blocks they need to show the validity of their own txOuts.
In order to verify the validity of any txOut, you need three things: to see the block where it was created, to be sure that block is part of the same database as that proposed for the transaction, and to be sure that no block exists between those two in which that txOut was spent in another transaction.
Call it a “Block Hyperchain”, by reference to the N-dimensional hypercube it’s based on and the block chain it replaces.
I should be clear and say there are things it does and things it doesn’t do. If your goal is to check all transactions, you’ll download a scattering of blocks for each transaction that soon add up to most of the block database, so someone who wants to check every transaction will rapidly accumulate the whole database.
But most users should be happy with just the few blocks they need to demonstrate the validity of the txOuts they hold, and it’s damn nice to be able to download a client, open it up, and just use it with minimal delay because someone offered to pay you bitcoins one minute ago and you want to be able to make sure the transaction he’s offering is valid RIGHT NOW, instead of waiting to accumulate the whole chain to check anything.
Suppose we pick a base, for convenience, of 10. This helps make things easy to explain because we work with base-10 numbers, but we could have picked 16 and used hexadecimal for our explanations.
In a base-10 Block Hyperchain, every block that’s published has its own set of transactions, and the hashes of the blocks 10^N blocks ago for every integer value of N from N=0 to N <= log10 of block height.
Every block would record its own transactions, and also one list of destroyed txOuts per integer value N over the same range.
Each destroyed-txOut list would be all txOuts created in blocks whose block numbers match (modulo 10^N) the current block number, that have been destroyed in the last 10^N blocks.
If someone shows me a transaction seeking to spend a txOut, I want to check and see if it’s valid. Ie, I want to see the block where it was created, and see evidence that it hasn’t been spent since.
So I can look at that txOut’s ID and know it was created in block 124. If the current block is 7365, I get block 7365 and 7364 to make sure it hasn’t been spent in those, the same way we can do with a block chain.
Then I have a block whose last digit matches the last digit of the block where the txOut was created. So I start checking the 10-block txOut-destroyed lists. I check the list in block 7364 to make sure it wasn’t spent in blocks 7354 to 7363.
Then, jumping back by 10-block increments (relying on the second recorded hash in the header), I can check to make sure it hasn’t been spent in the previous ten blocks to each of blocks 7354, 7344, and 7334. Then I get block 7324.
Now I’m at a block whose last 2 digits match the block where the txOut was created, so I can start checking the previous hundred blocks using the second txOut-destroyed list, and jumping back by hundred-block increments using the third recorded hash. So I get blocks 7224 and 7124.
Finally, I’m at a block whose last 3 digits match the block where the txOut was created, so I can start jumping back by thousand-block increments, checking the thousand-block txOut-destroyed lists. So I get blocks 6124, 5124, 4124, 3124, 2124, 1124, and finally 124.
So finally, I have a txOut created over 7200 blocks previous to the current block, and I have downloaded a total of 15 blocks to make sure that it was created in the same Hyperchain and hasn’t been spent since.
The number of blocks downloaded is proportional to the log base 10 of the number of blocks in the chain.
The blocks I’ve downloaded are larger because of the spent-txOut lists, but the spent-txOut lists have an average length that is the same regardless of the span of blocks they cover. Lists that report transactions from a set 10x as long, only need to report individual transactions from that set 1/10 as often.
With more efficient access to the history database, it is possible to substantially raise transaction bandwidth. People who make transactions during the next 7 blocks or so would need to see that block; Later on, people who accept txOuts created during that block will need to see that block. And there’ll be about 49 blocks worth of txOuts, scattered through the earlier history, that someone eventually has to traverse this block to verify.
All this means you have drastically smaller bandwidth requirements (remember I obsess on bandwidth costs?) for the same transaction volume but larger data-at-rest requirements (for any weirdo who for whatever reason feels like they need to collect the WHOLE database in one place, and why would anybody do that?) by a factor of seven.
And I keep thinking I’m going to do it, because it’s INTERESTING! And I ought to do it, because it’s VALUABLE! But then I think about the current state of the cryptocurrency world and the quality of the people it would bring me into contact with and the ways people would try to scam with it and the number of people who’d find reasons to lie to me or about me, and then I get a sour stomach and go on to do something ELSE!
And feel vaguely guilty for not doing it, because it actually would be valuable.
It’s really hard for me to be motivated or enthusiastic about a cryptocurrency project, until the whole field is more full of people I’d be happy to interact and exchange ideas with and less full of …. um.
The words that come to mind really shouldn’t be printed. [This is fine meme] I don’t mind if people know I’m sort of upset with the conditions and business ethics out there, or even that being so upset is literally preventing me from doing something useful. But I’d rather not have it expressed in terms that are an incitement to violence.
Anyway, moving on; In order to mine, someone would have to be able to see seven of the previous blocks; a different set of seven every time. But if I thought bandwidth was going to waste, that doesn’t even START to address the costs of hashing! Deploying something that saves bandwidth without also figuring out a way to save hashing would fail to address a critical point.
So, I’ve had a bunch of thoughts about mining. Most of which aren’t as interesting or valuable as the thought about how to organize the history database. In favor of mining, it’s good that someone is able to join the network permissionlessly, help secure it, get paid, and initially get coin into circulation going from “none” to “some”.
My thoughts for securing a chain without proof-of-work are something I suppose I ought to call “Proof-of-Total-Stake.”
Congratulations! This conversation with you got me to name it! I had been calling it “proof-of-activity” but I see that name has acquired a much more specific meaning than it had when I started calling this by it, and no longer fits.
I still need to figure out what to call my revised structure for the block history database though.
Proof-of-Total-Stake means measuring the priority of a fork by the total value of TxOuts that existed BEFORE the fork that have been spent AFTER the fork. In other words, the total stake: how much of EVERYBODY’s money the blocks formed after the fork represent. That is a well-founded mechanism for security that doesn’t involve trusted parties nor burning hashes. It’s the only one I’ve come up with. In the long run, unless somebody comes up with another fundamentally new idea, or accepts the idea at least of trusted block signers, that’s what I think a proper cryptocurrency would have to wind up with.
But there’s a problem with it.
Proof-of-Total-Stake, by itself, doesn’t provide an obvious way to determine who gets to form the next block – which can be a CRUCIALLY important security concern.
And Proof-of-Stake, including Proof-of-Total-stake, doesn’t handle the initial, permissionless, distribution of coins. They can’t go from “none” to “some.” They can only go from “some” to “some more.”
So I think it could only be deployed along with some kind of mining.
Q6: We first started interacting some four years ago when I was doing some research on dead cryptocurrencies, most of which were just direct clones or copies of Bitcoin. At the time you were doing the heavy lifting categorizing how they died in a BitcoinTalk thread. Today sites like Deadcoins.com have tried to do something similar. Even though loud advocates at events like to claim blockchains ” live immutably forever” empirically there are probably just as many dead blockchains than living blockchains. What do you think the top reason for why so many blockchains lose support to the point of death and do you think those reasons will change much in the future?
A6: By far the vast majority of those people were not doing anything INTERESTING! A lot of the honest ones discovered that it was a lot of work and had other commitments in life. A lot of the dishonest ones made their money and walked away leaving the suckers behind. A lot of people discovered that maintaining a codebase needed more programming chops than they actually possessed, and quietly withdrew from the field. A fair number ran into scammers and crooks whose utterly disgusting behavior left them convinced they wanted to do something else rather than meeting any more of those guys.
But the most important point? Hardly any of those coins was ever used in any transaction for an actual thing – not even an initial experiment like Laszlo’s Pizza.
Most of them were only ever mined by people who intended absolutely nothing beyond immediately converting them into Bitcoin, and only ever held by people who daily watched their value trying to guess the right time to sell them for Bitcoin.
It’s not so much that most of them *failed* – it’s more the case that the vast majority never even remotely began to *succeed*. There was no economic activity, meaning sales of merchandise or payment for work, that they facilitated. Put bluntly, they just didn’t do anything beyond providing a temporary and completely discardable medium for speculation and scamming. And, as surely as atomic decay, they got used, for that purpose only, and discarded.
Q7: Based on the original white paper, the intent of Bitcoin was to be an e-cash payment system which could be utilized without needing to disclose a real identity to an administrator. It seems that over time several different tribes have popped up, including those who market Bitcoin as a form of “e-gold.” What do you think of the visible fracture that has occurred between the various Bitcoin tribes? Does proof-of-work really act as a type of DRM for coin supply or do all the forks we have seen turn the advertised “digital scarcity” and “digital gold” into an oxymoron?
A7: That endless fight, starting with the block size fight, with everybody yelling and nobody listening, pretty much convinced me that the “community” which had grown around Bitcoin was in deep trouble.
The differences between the various proposed technical changes to the block chain, are far less important to the futures of those forks, than the integrity of the people who support and do business using them.
But the technical merits were never discussed by most. Instead, repetitive sound bites and slogans about them containing absolutely no new information were shouted. Integrity was seldom displayed either. Instead, the fight was carried forward almost exclusively by partisans who had already decided what was the only possible solution that they would accept, and in many cases using tactics that inspire an absolute refusal to support their interests, or even participate in the communities where they are found.
If someone hires a troll army to attack a community by astroturfing fake support for something, can you respect that person? If someone drives people who disagree away with personal abuse, is that a reasonable method for coming to an agreement about a protocol? Is it a valid form of technical reasoning to launch a sabotage against a block chain based consensus mechanism? What can you say about someone who buys existing accounts of users whom others trust in order to fake trusted support for their agenda? How about when it happens after those users whom others trust have been driven away or left in disgust? Is it a respectful negotiator interested in the insights of others in solving a problem, whose negotiating skills include locking the damn doors and refusing to let someone leave the room until they get his signature on an “agreement” that they wrote without his knowledge before he even got there?
Is someone who would participate in a fight, on those terms, someone whose agenda or business interests you really want to support? Hint: You already know that people who fake support for their agenda, or tell lies about other in order to discredit them, or who deliberately deceive others about the merits of their own proposal or others’ proposals, are doing business by means of fraud. Do you want to carry on until the fraud is financial and the victim is you?
These factions had no interest whatsoever in reaching a consensus. And nothing prevented each from implementing their idea and launching, with no hard feelings from anybody and no fight. The only thing they were really fighting over was the name “Bitcoin,” which was absolutely unrelated to the technical merit of any proposal. And, to a first approximation, the other merits of having the name is a thing that none of them even mentioned during the fight.
Technically speaking, there is not much wrong with any of these forks. They address certain problems in different ways slightly favoring the interests of different groups, but not seriously to anyone’s disadvantage. None of them was entirely without technical merit.
On the other hand none of them make more than a tiny amount of difference. None helped with the bandwidth or transaction volume by anything more than a small constant factor, so the problem they were supposedly about solving was not in fact solved, nor even very much affected.
So while none of the proposed changes were objectionable in themselves, there was really no *very* compelling reason for any of them to be implemented. Each of those ideas is merely a stopgap that pushes the rock down the road another foot or two without moving it out of the way. If you want to move that rock out of the road, you will need a much more powerful idea.
Q8: You’ve mentioned that limited supplies simply incentivizes hoarding which leads to low economic activity. You have proposed a type of “proof-of-activity” replacement. Can you expand more on either of these views?
A8: Suppose you have an economy that’s growing (more value is being created) but has a constant supply of coins.
In that case your coins represent, let’s say, one-millionth or so of the money that’s in circulation.
And, as the economy continues to grow, your coins will continue to represent one-millionth or so of the money that’s in circulation. But that will be one-millionth or so of a lot more actual wealth. In fact, your money, just sitting there in your wallet, is GUARANTEED to rise in value by the same fraction that the economy is growing by. In our terms, this would be exactly the market average, as though you were holding stocks invested in ALL the businesses in your economy in proportion according to their capitalization. This is what index funds and IRAs make, mostly, but it’s making it with no risk.
Now, if you offer any investor a risk-free investment that’s guaranteed to make the same return as the market average, that investor would be mad to pass it up. No investor is confident that she’ll beat the market average in any given year. That’s why they call it “AVERAGE!” And volatility – variance in return – is an unqualified bad thing because it will always take an 11% gain to make up for a 10% loss. That money sitting right there in her wallet is the best investment she could possibly make. There might be things that would make as much or more money, but all of them involve risk out of proportion to their marginal return. Let other investors do that; they’re suckers and she’ll make the same money they do.
The problem with that is that the other investors are looking at the same question. And reaching the same conclusion. Why invest in companies doing anything productive, and expose yourself to risk, when you can make the same money just by holding your investment in your wallet?
And then who invests in the businesses that, if they were working, would actually create the value these people all intend to have some share in?
… (sound of crickets chirping) … Suckers.
Suckers who lose more often than they win, because it takes an 11% gain to recover a 10% loss. And the money the lose? Eventually trickles into the hands of the people who are hoarding it.
With no reason for investors to invest in business, the businesses eventually starve and the economy shrinks. And all those coins that represent one-millionth of the economy’s wealth start representing one-millionth of less and less actual value.
This is what happened to ancient Rome. They used metals (gold and silver and bronze) as currency, and their economy collapsed WHILE people had plenty enough money to keep it going! Everybody stashed all their coins expecting to benefit later from prospering businesses, and the businesses, for want of capital, did not prosper.
Then the death spiral started: everybody stashed their coins waiting for the economy to come back so the coins would be worth their “real” value, and the economy never came back. The coins were never worth their “real” value, until the people who remembered where the coins were buried had also been buried.
It’s a millennium-and-a-half later and we are STILL finding stashes of Roman coins! The people who could have gotten their economy moving again, if they had EVER supported a business, instead buried their money in sacks.
The government tried to get it moving again, or pretend for a while that it hadn’t collapsed, making coins with increasingly ridiculous adulterated alloys. But that didn’t change the underlying dynamic.
The Gold bugs of course have all told each other a different version of this story, where the adulterated coins were the cause of the collapse rather than the increasingly desperate attempt to recover from it. And it’s pointless to try to convince them otherwise; they believe they already know the only possible truth. But for those actually motivated to investigate, the chronology of the events is reasonably clear.
The next thing is about “Proof-of-Total-Stake”, which I guess is what I’m going to call this idea for securing the chain.
The fundamental idea behind Proof-of-Total-Stake is that the priority of any branch of a fork is the total amount of EVERYBODY’s money which that fork represents. That means, coins generated in that fork and pre-existing coins brought into the fork by transactions.
Coins generated in a fork are the coinbase transactions; Coins moved into the fork from earlier parts of the chain are TxOuts from earlier in the block chain that have been spent during the fork.
But we have to know which BRANCH of the fork they were spent into. ie, someone trying to create a fork should not be able to stick transactions from the valid branch of the chain into it, or they can match the txOut spending from earlier in the chain. This is the basic problem with most implementations of proof-of-stake, which some writers have called “nothing at stake.” Whatever resource you are using to secure the chain is meaningless when it can be used to secure *BOTH* forks of the chain.
In order to prevent the replay attack, each transaction would have to “stake” a recent block, making a commitment to supporting only forks which include that block. This adds a field to each transaction.
The new field would give the (hash) ID of a block, indicating that this particular transaction is not valid in any branch of the chain which does not include the staked block.
So, let’s say that two transactions “coffee” and “eggs” are made at the same time, after the chain forks at block 50. “Coffee” stakes block 48 and “eggs” stakes block 51A.
When “coffee” appears in block 51B, the total stake of fork B is increased by that amount; its weight counts toward that resolution of the fork.
Then “eggs” is added to block 52A, and can’t be placed in chain B because it staked a block doesn’t exist in chain B. Now “eggs” counts as stake in favor of the A branch and “coffee” counts as stake in favor of the B branch.
But then “coffee” appears in branch 53A, where it is also valid because the same block 48 is behind both branches. This cancels out its support for branch B, just by being equal – revealing that stake which can be used in favor of both chains counts for nothing.
Security happens because some finite resource (coins created before the branch point and spent in transactions that are staked after the branch point) is committed detectably and irrevocably to the support of one branch (by staking after the branch point), and cannot be used to support any other.
This is exactly what Bitcoin does with hashes: Hashes per second and number of seconds spent hashing are finite. Hashes are irrevocably used in support of one branch (because the hash preimage can never be made to match a different block). And the fact that they are used to support a particular branch is detectable.
Well, strictly speaking there’s only one “detectable” hash in each block. All we know about the others is, on average, how rare that one “detectable” one was and therefore, on average, how many they must have been.
But it’s still the same basic criteria. Some finite resource, committed detectably and irrevocably to the support of one branch, which cannot be used to support conflicting branches. And proof-of-total stake says that resource is the amount of EVERYBODY’s coins that branch represents.
With transactions supporting the basic security of the chain, and the idea behind coinbases being that they are payment for providing chain security, we want our “coinbases” to reward the people who make transactions that stake recent blocks.
PoTS is strong in the long run, or when the chain is seeing a high volume of legitimate transactions, but has its own problems.
Transactions in most cryptocurrencies are a very bursty use of something with long latent periods. Absent heavy transaction volume, you can’t really expect PoTS to definitively reject a branch in such a way that a crook couldn’t resurrect it with a very large spend. If the crook has more coins than the difference in total-stake between the two forks, the crook could resurrect the “dead” fork.
This is why the “interest” payments (actually per-transaction coinbases of a particular sort) when a transaction staking a recent block are made. To encourage a fairly constant stream of transactions that support one particular version of the chain up to a very recent block.
But the peril with that is that you want to structure it in such a way that you don’t incentivize people to overwhelm your bandwidth by transferring every coin they own from their left pocket to their right every block either. So the actual design would come down to some compromise between transaction fees, and interest payments on transactions staked in very recent blocks, where the breakevens represent the transaction volume you want.
And there are a couple of final things to address together. First, PoTS, while it has a workable rule for figuring out which branch of forks is preferred, is pretty silent about who gets to form blocks and how. Second, Interest on coins spent has the “nothing to something” problem where if you don’t have anything in the system to start with, you won’t have anything ever. These are both classic problem with PoTS coins. The final design has to include some additional kind of coin creation that doesn’t depend on previous holdings (even if it gets de-emphasized after a while) and some way to determine who forms the next block.
Q9: ICOs have been around in some form or fashion for about five years now. What’s your view on these fundraising schemes?
A9: The SEC is bouncing on them pretty hard, and as far as I can see it’s pretty much deserved. Everybody wants something they can freely trade on secondary markets, and sell on the basis of its future value, but they also want to lie about it by saying it isn’t a security.
It is a security. If a security is sold by a company to raise money, but does not represent a bond (a promise to buy it back) nor a stock (a share in future earnings) then an investor is getting nothing for her money – except maybe a receipt for having made a donation.
Another investor (a “real” investor who knows and understands a broad market, not a speculator who made a lot of money by a couple of strokes of sheer luck) will not buy it from them, at any price. Such a thing has only speculative value.
If something’s continued value depends on a company, but the company’s continued existence doesn’t depend on that thing having value, it would be an excellent thing to not buy.
And all of that, we can say without ever touching on ethics and business practices of the people who run them. But when we do touch on the people who run them, the story gets worse. Much worse. Much, much worse. In this most are following the path trod by Altcoins. And racking up a very similar ratio of efforts that fail, or which never even start to succeed.
Q10: You have alluded to tokenized securities in the LinkedIn article as well as our correspondence, what is your take on this topic? What are the advantages versus say, simply doing what Carta (formerly eShares) does?
A10: I would have to answer that admitting to some degree of ignorance about Carta. As I remember eShares, it was very much a top-down stock and option management tool, in that a private company with (non-traded) shares typically uses it to keep track of who owns what – actually issuing assets or recording changes in their status, making info about them available for the holders but mostly just to view online.
What it does not do, as I understand it, is directly enable the shareholders to trade those shares or options with each other. Nor does it handle securities involved with or created by more than one company at a time. It is a management interface, not a market.
I envision a block chain – sigh, now I have to come up with a name again. Phooey. I never care about naming anything, and then someone wants me to talk about one of my ideas and I have to come up with a name for it on the spot. Let’s go for the pun and call it the Stock Trading and Options CryptoAsset Keeper. I could come up with something even dumber, but for the sake of exposition, call it STOCK.
The idea is that STOCK would act both as a Transfer Agent (which Carta does) AND a market (which AFAIK Carta does not). A company could issue securities such as stocks and bonds directly on the STOCK block chain (“cryptoassets”) and the block chain could record trades in those issues against its native cryptocurrency. The benefit here is the clear record and history to keep track of all trades and the current disposition of all the different cryptoassets – the stocks, the bonds, and the “cash” used to trade in them, would all be on the chain.
As long as no off-chain assets like bushels of wheat or truckloads of sneakers need to be delivered, and dividends/prices/etc accruing to these instruments are paid out (or in) in the cryptocurrency, the block chain could then function directly as market, transfer agent, means of delivery, and payment channel. The task of converting the cryptocurrency to and from actual fiat, and the heavily regulated business of delivering the fiat currency, could be left to already-established cryptocurrency markets.
Trading in stocks/bonds/etc is highly regulated, and debts (NEGATIVE amounts) can crop up unexpectedly when companies go south or options traders go bust. Stuff gets into the RealWorld quickly when someone has to be found for debt payments, served process, and/or prosecuted for fraud, etc. So STOCK couldn’t be an “anonymous/permissionless” chain, at least not for regulated trades. Each person or entity authorized to actually make securities trades would have to have a vetted, verified ID as specified by KYC laws, and would have to sign each such transaction with a public/private key pair proving Identity.
From the point of view of investors, STOCK would be a very sluggish market – submit your trade, have a completely random execution window averaging ten minutes (or whatever) during which the price might change, then a whole block of transactions all fly past at once and everybody’s waiting for the next completely randomly-timed block. On the other hand, you don’t need an agent, or a broker, or a company transfer agent, or a registrar, or a clearance period, or ANY of those people who normally collect fees on every trade. You could actually have a market where the buyer and seller get the exact same price with no ‘float’ whatsoever. And you don’t have to worry about what time it is. NASDAQ closes at 5PM new york time, and then a whole bunch of “off-market,” “private,” and “over the counter” trades that nobody but the insiders can participate in or see happen. But STOCK would go on making blocks twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. Why should it ever stop?
The SEC would be all over it of course; they’d be sticking a microscope up the butts of everybody involved to make sure that there was absolutely no scamming the investors. Which is, after all, their job. And they’d require KYC compliance, and a whole lot of other regulatory compliance. But, y’know, that’s kind of how starting any _legitimate_ business in financial services works. No need to feel special or particularly victimized about that.
And the regulators would need some privileged keys that could be used to “seize” assets when a court orders them to, as part of a settlement for fraud or theft or something. And everything else. There’s a great irony that they’re interested in nobody having the opportunity to scam the investors, but they structurally require, just to be able to do their fundamental mission, builtins to the protocol that if misused would allow somebody to scam the investors.
But once satisfied and functioning within the law, I think they’d welcome STOCK as something that puts down a visible, provable, inalterable, unfakeable history of all trades.
Q11: Is there any cryptocurrency you think could become widely used outside of geeks, cypherpunks, and ideologues? If not, what would need to change and how? Has any popular coin ossified to such an extent that it can’t meaningfully evolve?
A11: Homer Husband and Harriet Housewife want convenience and familiarity. Which is mostly about form factor and compatibility. They do not want to deal with key management in any form.
To do that, you have to make a hardware wallet small enough to fit into a wallet or a purse. It doesn’t have to be literally credit card sized, but couldn’t be much bigger. It should be the size of a stack of five credit cards, at most. Or maybe it gets stuck back-to-back onto their cell phone. It has to have an end that acts like a chip card, or an edge that acts like a mag stripe, or both, so that it can interact with the grocery stores, auto shops, restaurants, etc that Homer and Harriet already do business with.
That’s very very important, because Homer and Harriet aren’t evangelists. The mechanic they’ve been going to for fifteen years has never heard of cryptocurrency and is never going to deal with the inconvenience of getting set up to accept it. He wants people to pay cash or pay with a card, and Homer and Harriet would NEVER consider arguing with him about it, don’t want to go to the effort of explaining it to him, and probably couldn’t explain it very well anyway. If they have to do any of those things, that’s a deal-breaker.
After that you have to get your cryptocurrency onto the Plus or Cirrus network, using the same interface as a foreign fiat currency. That would allow Homer and Harriet to automate the sale and exchange to whatever local people think is money, or the purchase and exchange to crypto, when they want to spend or accept stuff from that “card.” This will mean that they get hit with some extra fees when they use it, but
those fees are both unavoidable if you want to be on those networks, and relatively familiar to them.
Finally, there’s that key management thing. You could handle most of it by making the wallet do it. But sooner or later, that hardware wallet is going to fall and bounce of the curb, and go crunch under the tires of a bus. Or, you know, get dropped into the ocean accidentally, or just get lost.
Homer and Harriet are NOT willing to accept that this is not something they can recover. The only thing that they accept not being able to recover, when they lose their wallet, is familiar, folding fiat currency. And that’s why they don’t keep very much of folding fiat actually in their regular wallets.
If you do convince them that losing the wallet makes the funds unrecoverable, they will never want to have more than fifteen dollars on it, which will mean it isn’t useful. So, your hardware wallet has to interact with SOMETHING that keeps enough information about what’s on it, to enable a new wallet to recover everything that got lost.
Q12: Mining farms, mining pools, and ASICs. Many accounts are that Satoshi did not anticipate the full industrial scale these would reach. Do you agree with this? What are your views on mining pools and ASICs as we know them know today (specifically as described by Eric Budish’s paper)?
A12: My first problem with ASICs is that they can be used for exactly two things: Mining cryptocurrencies, and carrying out attacks on cryptocurrencies.
Every day of every year, people who own those enormous ASIC farms are deciding which is the most profitable use of them, on that day.
And the rewards for mining cryptocurrencies ratchet downward every couple of years.
That seems problematic. I keep watching to see what emerges each time the reward ratchets down, but I haven’t seen evidence yet that any of the big ASIC farms have turned around on any large scale.
My second problem with ASICs is that they are sucking up ridiculous amounts of energy that can never be recovered or used for anything else. I don’t so much mind this when converting the energy into heat is actually useful – replacing electric heaters in the basement of a building with a bank of Antminers that use the same amount of power is
energy-neutral and helps secure the chain.
But that’s not what happens in huge ASIC farms. All that heat is just waste. Nobody’s home is made more comfortable, no furnace’s power bill is alleviated, no greenhouses are enabled to grow food in the winter, nobody’s oven gets to bake bread with that heat, and all that energy is just plain gone.
The Bitcoin chain issues the same number of coins per day regardless of how much energy is spent; I’d like to think that spending a whole lot less of it, at least in ways where the heat produced isn’t useful, would be better.
But then we get back to the first problem; If honest miners start spending a whole lot less on the energy costs of hashing, then there’s a whole lot of ASICs not being used, and the owners of those are going to be looking around making their daily decision about what’s more profitable….
So the logic finally does work out the same. Security requires the vast majority of those ASIC boxes to be in use mining. It just seems such a colossal expenditure of power, and it might be that a different design could have achieved chain security without that global cost.
My third problem with ASICs is that they have become a way for their owners to steal money from the taxpayers in many nations. Countries that mean to do a good thing for everybody, create “development zones” with subsidized electricity, paid for by the taxpayers of that country. And then people move in with ASIC farms to suck up that electricity which the public paid for, and convert it into bitcoins in their private possession. These are business that employ very few people, drive the development of no other resources, and otherwise do pretty much nothing for the development of the local economy. IOW, the taxpayers who paid for that electricity are definitely not getting their money’s worth in economic development.
My fourth problem with ASICs is that there really is no way to monitor centralization of hashing power. People keep pretending that they’re tracking whether a 51% attack is underway, but I think most of them probably suspect, as I do, that what they’re really tracking is probably nothing more than whether or not the cabal of ASIC farm owners
remembered to configure that new warehouse full of machinery to use a different identifier.
In all fairness, this last thing results directly from anonymous, permissionless mining, which is something that was a very specific and very much desired part of Satoshi’s vision; he wanted anybody to be able to connect and participate, without any interference of a gatekeeper. But there can never be security from a Sybil attack when you don’t have any way of tracking RealWorld identities, and a “majority” can never be
relied on to be more than the front for some cabal or business interest, as long as a Sybil attack is possible.
And that was what Proof-of-work was supposed to prevent. In those early days everyone was thinking of hashing power as a side effect of computing infrastructure that was likely to be there, or be useful, for other purposes when it wasn’t hashing. And EVERYBODY has a use for warehouses full of computers, so it was easy to think that hashing power would remain at least somewhat distributed. The idea that someone would amass enormous numbers of special-purpose machines which made every other kind of computer in the world utterly useless for mining and which are themselves utterly useless for any other job (except attacking the network), was not, I think, really considered.
Satoshi definitely understood, and planned, that there would probably be server farms devoted to mining and that economies of scale and infrastructure would eventually drive individuals with ordinary desktop machines out of the mining business by being more efficient and making it unprofitable for the less efficient machines.
But I’m pretty sure he didn’t think of miners in places with artificially low subsidized rates for electricity outcompeting all other miners because of that advantage, driving the concentration of the vast majority of hashing power into just one country where it’s subject to the orders and whims of just one government and a few businessmen who
pal around with each other.
So he probably figured, yes, there’d be a few dozen large-ish server farms and a couple hundred small-ish server farms, but I’m pretty sure he envisioned them being scattered around the planet, wherever people find it worthwhile to install server farms for other reasons.
I’m fairly sure Satoshi’s notion of the eventual centralization of hashing power didn’t really encompass todays nearly-complete centralization in a single country, owned by a set of people who are subject to the whims and commands of a single government, who very clearly know each other and work together whenever it’s convenient.
And I find it worrisome.
Those enormous mining farms, and the way economics drove them together, are a structural problem with converting electricity into security.
I am not comfortable with the implication that, for any Proof-of-Work block chain including Bitcoin, economics will eventually devolve to the point where, when Beijing says ‘jump’ the mining and security of that block chain says ‘how high?’
And that is one of the greatest reasons why I look around for a different means of securing block chains.
[Disclaimer: The views expressed below are solely my own and do not necessarily represent the views of my clients. I currently own no cryptocurrencies.]
As a follow-on to my previous book reviews, an old colleague lent me a copy of Cryptoassets by Chris Burniske and Jack Tatar.
Overall they have several “meta” points that could have legs if they substantially modify the language and structure of multiple sections in the book. As a whole it’s about on par with the equally inaccurate “Blockchain Revolution” by the Tapscotts.
As I have one in my previous book reviews, I’ll go through and provide specific quotes to backup the view that the authors should have waited for more data and relevant citations as some of their arguments lack definitive supporting evidence.
In short: hold off from buying this edition.
If you’re interested in understanding the basics of cryptocurrencies but without the same level of inaccuracies, check out the new The Basics of Bitcoins and Blockchains by Antony Lewis. And if you’re interested in the colorful background of some of the first cryptocurrency investors and entrepreneurs, check out Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper.
Another point worth mentioning at the beginning is that there are no upfront financial disclosures by the authors. They do casually mention that they have bitcoin once or twice, but that’s about it.
I think this is problematic because it is not being transparent about potential conflicts of interest (e.g., promoting financial products you may own and hope to see financial gain from).
For instance, we learned that Chris Burniske carried around a lot of USD worth of cryptocurrencies on his phone from a NYTarticle last year:
But a particularly concentrated wave of attacks has hit those with the most obviously valuable online accounts: virtual currency fanatics like Mr. Burniske.
Within minutes of getting control of Mr. Burniske’s phone, his attackers had changed the password on his virtual currency wallet and drained the contents — some $150,000 at today’s values.
Some quick math for those at home. The NYT article above was published on August 21, 2017 when 1 BTC was worth about $4,050 and 1 ETH was worth about $314. So Burniske may have had around 37 BTC or 477 ETH or a combination of these two (and other coins).
That is not a trivial amount of money and arguably should have been disclosed in this book and other venues (such as op-eds and analyst reports).1 In the next edition, they should consider adding a disclosure statement.
A final comment is that several reviewers suggested I modify the review below to be (re)structured like a typical book review — comparing broad themes instead of a detailed dissection — after all who is going to read 38,000+ words?
That is a fair point. Yet because many of the points they attempt to highlight are commonly repeated by promoters of cryptocurrencies, I felt that this review could be a useful resource for readers looking for different perspective to the same topics frequently discussed in media and at events.
Note: all transcription errors are my own.
On p. xi, the authors wrote:
When embarking on our literary journey, we recognized the difficulty in documenting arguably the world’s fastest moving markets. These markets can change as much in a day – up or down – as the stock market changes in a year.
It is only mentioned in passing once or twice, but we know that market manipulation is a real on-going phenomenon. The next edition could include a subsection of cryptocurrencies and ICOs that the CFTC and SEC – among other regulators – have identified and prosecuted for manipulation. More on that later below.
On p. xiv, Brian Kelly wrote in the Foreword
The beauty of this book is that it takes the reader on a journey from bitcoin’s inception in the ashes of the Great Financial Crisis to its role as a diversifier in a traditional investment portfolio.
A small quibble: Satoshi actually began writing the code for Bitcoin sometime in mid-2007, before the GFC took place. It may be a chronological coincidence that it came out when it did, especially since it was supposed to be a payment system, which is just one small function of a commercial bank.23
On p. xv Kelly writes:
As with any new model, there are questions about legality and sustainability, but the Silicon Valley ethos of “break things first, then ask for forgiveness” has found its way to Wall Street.
There are also two problems with this:
Both the SEC and CFTC – among other federal agencies – were set up in the past because of the behavior that Kelly thinks is good: “break things first, then ask for forgiveness” is arguably a bad ethos to have for any fiduciary and prudential organizations.4
Any organization can do that, that’s not hard. Some have gotten away with it more than others. For instance, Coinbase was relatively loose with its KYC / AML requirements in 2012-2014 and has managed to get away with it because it grew fast enough to become an entity that could lobby the government.
On p.xv Kelly writes
“Self-funded, decentralized organizations are a new species in the global economy that are changing everything we know about business.”
In point of fact, virtually all cryptocurrencies are not self-funded. Even Satoshi had some kind of budget to build Bitcoin with. And basically all ICOs are capital raises from external parties. Blockchains don’t run and manage themselves, people do.
On p. xv Kelly writes:
“These so-called fat protocols are self-funding development platforms that create and gain value as applications are built on top.”
The fat protocol thesis has not really born out in reality, more on that in a later chapter below. While lots of crytpocurrency “thought leaders” love to cite the original USV article, none of the platforms are actually self-funded yet. They all require external capital to stay afloat because insiders cash out for real money.5 And because there is a coin typically shoehorned at the protocol layer, there is very little incentive for capable developers to actually create apps on top — hence the continual deluge of new protocols each month — few actors want to build apps when they can become rich building protocols that require coins. More on this later.6
On p. xxii the authors write:
“… and Marc Andreessen developing the first widely used web browser, which ultimately became Netscape.”
A pedantic point: Marc Andreessen was leader of a team that built Mosaic, not to take away from that accomplishment, but he didn’t single handedly invent the web browser. Maybe worth rewording in next edition.
On p. xxiii they write:
Interestingly, however, the Internet has become increasingly centralized over time, potentially endangering its original conception as a “highly survivable system.”
This is a valid point however it glosses over the fact that all blockchains use “the internet” and also — in practice — most public blockchains are actually highly centralized as well. Perhaps that changes in time, but worth looking at “arewedecentralizedyet.”
On p. xxiii they write:
Blockchain technology can now be thought of as a general purpose technology, on par with that of the steam engine, electricity, and machine learning.
This is still debatable. After all, there is no consensus on what “blockchains” are and furthermore, as we have seen in benchmark comparisons, blockchains (however defined) come in different configurations. While there are a number of platforms that like to market themselves as “general purpose,” the fact of the matter is that there are trade-offs based on the user requirements: always ask who the end-users and the use-cases a blockchain was built around are.
On p. xxiv they cite Don and Alex Tapscott. Arguably they aren’t credible people on this specific topic. For example, their book was riddled with errors and they even inappropriately made-up advisors on their failed bid to launch and fund their NextBlock Global fund.
On p. xxiv the authors write:
Financial incumbents are aware blockchain technology puts on the horizon a world without cash – no need for loose bills, brick-and-mortar banks, or, potentially, centralized monetary policies. Instead, value is handled virtually through a system that has no central authority figure and is governened in a centralized and democratic manner. Mathematics force order in the operations. Our life savings, and that of our heirs, could be entirely intangible, floating in a soup of secure 1s and 0s, the entire system accessed through computers and smartphones.
This conflates multiple things: digitization with automation.7 Retail banking has and will continue its march towards full digital banking. You don’t necessarily need a blockchain to accomplish that — we see that with Zelle’s adoption already.8
Also, central banks are well aware that they could have some program adjust interest rates, but discretion is still perceived as superior due to unforeseen incidents and crisis. 9
On p. xxv they write:
The native assets historically have been called cryptocurrencies or altcoins but we prefer the term cryptoassets, which is the term we will use throughout the book.
The term seems to have become a commonly accepted term but to be pedantic: most owners and users do not actually utilize the “cryptography” part — because they house the coins in exchanges and other intermediaries they must trust (e.g., the user doesn’t actually control the coin with a private key).10
And as we continue to see, these coins are easily forkable. You can’t fork physical assets but you can fork and clone digital / virtual ones. That’s a separate topic though maybe worth mentioning in the next edition.
On p. xxv they write:
It’s early enough in the life of blockchain technology that no books yet have focused solely on public blockchains and their native cryptoassetss from the investing perspective. We are changing that because investors need to be aware of the opportunity and armed both to take advantage and protect themselves in the fray.
Might be worth rewording because in Amazon there are about 760 books that pop up when “investing in cryptocurrencies” is queried. And many of those predate the publication of Cryptoassets. For instance, Brian Kelly, who wrote the Forward, published a fluffy coin promotion book a few years ago.
On p. xv they write:
Inevitably, innovation of such magnitude, fueled by the mania of making money, can lead to overly optimistic investors. Investors who early on saw potential in Internet stock encountered the devastating dot-com bubble. Stock in Books-A-Million saw its price soar by over 1,000 percent in one week simply by announcing it had an updated website. Subsequently, the price crashed and the company has since delisted and gone private. Other Internet-based high flyers that ended up crashing include Pets.com, Worldcom, and WebVan. Today, none of those stocks exist.
So far, so good, right?
Whether specific cryptoassets will survive or go the way of Books-A-Million remains to be seen. What’s clear, however, is that some will be big winners. Altogether, between the assets native to blockchains and the companies that stand to capitalize on this creative destruction, there needs to be a game plan that investors use to analyze and ultimately profit from this new investment theme of cryptoassets. The goal of this book is not to predict the future – it’s changing too fast for all but the lucky to be right- but rather to prepare investors for a variety of futures.
Even for 2017 when the book was publish, this statement is lagging a bit because there were already several “coin graveyard” sites around. Late last month Bloomberg ran a story: more than 1,000 coins are dead according to Coinopsy.
It is also unclear, “that some will be big winners.” Maybe modify this part in the next version.11
On p. xxvi they write:
“One of the keys to Graham’s book was always reminding the investor to focus on the inherent value of an investment without getting caught in the irrational behavior of the markets.”
There is a healthy debate as to whether cryptocurrencies and “cryptoassets” have any inherent value either.12 Arguably most coins traded on a secondary market depend on some level of ‘irrational’ behavior: many coin holders have short time horizons and want someone else to help push up the price so they can eventually cash out.13
On p. 3 they write:
In 2008, Bitcoin rose like a phoenix from the ashes of near Wall Street collapse.
The Bitcoin whitepaper came out on October 31, 2008 and Satoshi later said that he/she had spent the previous 18 months coding it first before writing it up in a paper. The authors even discuss this later on page 7. Worth removing in next edition.
On p. 3 they write:
Meanwhile, Bitcoin provided a system of decentralized trust for value transfer, relying not on the ethics of humankind but on the cold calculation of computers and laying the foundation potentially to obviate the need for much of Wall Street.
This is not quite true. At most, Bitcoin as it was conceived and as it is today — is a relatively expensive payment network that doesn’t provide definitive settlement finality.15 Banks as a whole, do more than just handle payments — they manage many other services and products. So the comparison isn’t really apples-to-apples.
Note: banks again as a whole spend more on IT-related systems than nearly any other vertical — so there is already lots of “cold calculation” taking place within each of these financial institutions.16
Now, maybe blockchain-related ideas replace or enhance some of these institutions, but it is unlikely that Bitcoin itself as it exists today, will do any of that.
On p. 5 they write:
What people didn’t realize, including Wall Street executives, was how deep and interrelated the risks CMOs posed were. Part of the problem was that CMOs were complex financial instruments supported by outdated financial architecture that blended and analog systems.
There were a dozen plus factors for how and why the GFC arose and evolved, but “outdated financial infrastructure” isn’t typically at the top of the list of culprits. Would blockchain-like systems have prevented the entire crisis? There are lots of op-eds that have made the claim, but the authors do not really provide much evidence to support the specific “blended” argument here. Perhaps worth articulating in its own section next time.
Speaking of which, also on p. 5 they write:
Whether as an individual or an entity, what’s now clear is that Satoshi was designing a technology that if existent would have likely ameliorated the toxic opacity of CMOs. Due of the distributed transparency and immutable audit log of a blockchain, each loan issued and packaged into different CMOs could have been documented on a single blockchain.
This seems to conflate two separate things: Bitcoin as Satoshi originally designed it in 2008 (for payments) and later what many early adopters have since promoted it as: blockchain as FMI.18
Bitcoin was (purposefully) not designed to do anything with regulated financial instruments, it doesn’t meet the PFMI requirements. He was trying to build e-cash that didn’t require KYC and was difficult to censor… not ways to audit CMOs. If that was the goal, architecturally Bitcoin would likely look a lot different than it did (for instance, no PoW).
And lastly on p. 5 they write:
This would have allowed any purchaser to view a coherent record of CMO ownership and the status of each mortgage within. Unfortunately, in 2008 multiple disparate systems – which were expensive and therefore poorly reconciled – held the system together by digital strings.
Interestingly, this is the general pitch for “enterprise” blockchains: that with all of the disparate siloed systems within regulated financial institutions, couldn’t reconciliation be removed if these same systems could share the same record and facts on that ledger? Hence the creation of more than a dozen enterprise-focused “DLT” platforms now being trialed and piloted by a slew of businesses.
This is briefly discussed later but the next edition could expand on it as the platforms do not need a cryptocurrency involved.19
On p. 7 they write:
By the time he released the paper, he had already coded the entire system. In his own words, “I had to write all the code before I could convince myself that I could solve every problem, then I wrote the paper.” Based on historical estimates, Satoshi likely started formalizing the Bitcoin concept sometime in late 2006 and started coding around May 2007.
Worth pointing out that Hal Finney and Ray Dillinger — and likely several others – helped audit the code and paper before any of it was publicly released.
On p. 8 they write:
Many years later people would realize that one of the most powerful use cases of blockchain technology was to inscribe immutable and transparent information that could never be wiped from the face of digital history and that was free for all to see.
There appears to be a little hyperbole here.
Immutability has become a nebulous word that basically means many different things to everyone. In practice, the only thing that is “immutable” on any blockchain is the digital signature — it is a one-way hash. All something like proof-of-work or proof-of-stake does are decide who gets to vote to append the chain.
Also, as mentioned above, there are well over 1,000 dead coins so it is actually relatively common for ‘digital history’ to effectively be wiped out.
On p. 8 they write:
A dollar invested then would be worth over $1 million by the start of 2017, underscoring the viral growth that the innovation was poised to enjoy.
Hindsight is always 20-20 and the wording above seems to be a little unclear with dates. As often as the authors say “this is not a book endorsing investments,” other passages seem do just the opposite: by saying how smart you would’ve been if you had bought at a relative low, during certain (cherry picked) dates.
Also, what viral growth? What are the daily active and monthly active user numbers they think are occurring on these chains? In later chapters, they do cite some on-chain activity but this version lacks specific DAU / MAU that would strengthen their arguments.20 Worth revisiting in the next edition.
On p. 8 they write:
Diving deeper into Satoshi’s writings around the time, it becomes more apparent that he was fixated on providing an alternative financial system, if not a replacement entirely.
This isn’t quite right. The very first thing Satoshi tried to build was a marketplace to play poker which was supposed to be integrated with the original wallet itself.
A lot of the talk about “alternative financial system” is arguably revisionist propaganda from folks like Andreas Antonopoulos who have tried to rewrite the history of Bitcoin to conform with their political ideology.
Readers should also check out MojoNation and what that team tried to accomplish.
On p. 9 they write;
While Wall Street as we knew it was experiencing an expensive death, Bitcoin’s birth cost the world nothing.
There are at least two issues that can be modified for the future:
Wall Street hasn’t died, maybe parts of the financial system are replaced or removed or enhanced, but for better and worse almost 10 years since the collapse of Lehman, the collective financial industry is still around.
Bitcoin cost somebody something, there were opportunity costs in its creation. And as we now know: the ongoing environmental impact is enormous. Yet promoters typically handwave it away as a “cost of doing anarchy.” Thus worth rewording or removing in the next edition.
On p. 9 they also wrote:
It was born as an open-source technology and quickly abandoned like a motherless babe in the world. Perhaps, if the global financial system had been healthier, there would have been less of a community to support Bitcoin, which ultimately allowed it to grow into the robust and cantankerous toddler that it currently is.
This prose sounds like something from Occupy Wall Street and not something found in literature to describe a computer program.
For example, there are lots of nominally open source blockchains, hundreds or maybe even thousands.21 That’s not very unique (it is kind of expected since there is a financial incentive to clone them).
And again, Satoshi worked on it for at least a couple years. It’s not like he/she dropped it off at an orphanage after immediate gestation. This flowery wording acts like a distraction and should be removed in the next edition.
On p. 12 they write:
Three reputable institutions would not waste their time, nor jeopardize their reputations, on a nefarious currency with no growth potential.
There is a bit of an unnecessary attitude with this statement. The message also seems to go against the criticism earlier in the book towards banks. For instance, the first chapter was critical of the risks that banks took leading up to the GFC. You can’t have it both ways. In the next edition, should either remove this or explain what level or risk is appropriate.
Also, what is the “growth potential” here? Do the authors mean the value of a coin as measured in real money? Or actual usage of the network?
Lastly, the statement above equates the asset value growth (USD value increases) with a bank’s interest. Bank’s do not typically speculate on the price, they usually only care about volumes which make revenues. A cryptocurrency could go to $0.01 for all they care; and if people want to use it then they could consider servicing it provided the bank sees an ability to make money. For example, UK banks did not abandon the GBP even though it lost 20% of its value in 2016 following the Brexit referendum.
On p. 12 they write:
Certainly, some of the earliest adopters of Bitcoin were criminals. But the same goes for most revolutionary technologies, as new technologies are often useful tools for those looking to outwit the law.
This is a “whataboutism” and is actually wrong. Satoshi specifically says he/she has designed Bitcoin to route around intermediaries (like governments) and their ability to censor. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch to get who would be initially interested in that specific set of payment “rails” especially if there is no legal recourse.22
On p. 12 they also write:
We’ll get into the specific risks associated with cryptoassets, including BItcoin, in a later chapter, but it’s clear that the story of bitcoin as a currency has evolved beyond being solely a means of payment for illegal goods and services. Over 100 media articles have jumped at the opportunity to declare bitcoin dead, and each time they have been proven wrong.
The last sentence has nothing to do with the preceding sentence, this is a non sequitur.
Later in the book they do talk about other use cases but the one that they don’t talk about much is how — according to analytics — the majority of network traffic in 2017 was users moving cryptocurrencies from one exchange to another exchange.
For example, about a month ago, Jonathan Levin from Chainalysis did an interview and mentioned that:
So we can identify, it is quite hard to know how many people. I would say that 80% of transactions that occur on these cryptocurrency ledgers have a counterparty that is a 3rd party service. More than 80%.
Maybe mention in the second edition: the unintended ironic evolution of Bitcoin has had… where it was originally designed to route around intermediaries and instead has evolved into an expensive permissioned-on-permissionless network.23
On p. 13 they write:
It operates in a peer-to-peer manner, the same movement that has driven Uber, Airbnb, and LendingClub to be multibillion-dollar companies in their own realms. Bitcoin lets anyone be their own bank, putting control in the hands of a grassroots movement and empowering the globally unbanked.
Not quite. For starters: Uber, Airbnb, and LendingClub all act as intermediaries to every transaction, that’s how they became multibillion-dollar companies.
Next, Bitcoin doesn’t really let anyone be their own bank because banks offer a lot more products and services beyond just payments. At most, Bitcoin provides a way of moving bitcoins you control to someone else’s bitcoin address (wallet). That’s it.24
And there is not much evidence that Bitcoin or any cryptocurrency for that matter, has empowered many beyond relatively wealthy people in developed or developing countries. There have been a few feel-good stories about marginalized folks in developing countries, but those are typically (unfortunately) one-off theatrics displaying people living in squalor in order to promote a financial product (coins). It would be good to see more evidence in the next edition.
For more on this topic, recommend listening to LTB episode 133 with Richard Boase.
On p. 13 they write:
Decentralizing a currency, without a top-down authority, requires coordinated global acceptance of a shared means of payment and store of value.
Readers should check out “arewedecentralizedyet” which illustrates that nearly all cryptourrencies in practice have some type of centralized, top-down hierarchy as of July 2018.
On p. 13 they write:
Bitcoin’s blockchain is a distributed, cryptographic, and immutal database that uses proof-of-work to keep the ecosystem in sync.
Worth modifying because the network is not inherently immutable — only digital signatures have “immutability.”25 Also, proof-of-work doesn’t keep any “ecosystem” in sync. All proof-of-work does is determine who can append the chain. The “ecosystem” thing is completely unrelated.
On p. 15 they write:
There is no subjectivity as to whether a transaction is confirmed in Bitcoin’s blockchain: it’s just math.
This isn’t quite true.26 Empirically, mining pools have censored transactions for various reasons. For example, Luke-Jr (who used to run Eligius pool) thinks that SatoshiDice misuses the network; he is also not a fan of what OP_RETURN was being used for by Counterparty.
Also, humans control pools and also manage the code repositories… blockchains don’t fix and run themselves. So it’s not as simple as: “it’s just math.”
On p. 15 they write an entire paragraph on “immutability”:
The combination of globally distributed computers that can cryptographically verify transactions and the building of Bitcoin’s blockchain leads to an immutable database, meaning the computers building Bitcoin’s blockchain can only do so in an append only fashion. Append only means that information can only be added to Bitcoin’s blockchain over time and cannot be deleted – an audit trail etched in digital granite. Once information is confirmed in Bitcoin’s blockchain, it’s permanent and cannot be erased. Immutability is a rare feature in a digital world where things can easily be erased, and it will likely become an increasingly valuable attribute for Bitcoin over time.
This seems to have a few issues:
As mentioned several times before in this review, “immutability” is only a characteristic of digital signatures, which are just one piece of a blockchain. Recommend Gwern’s article entitled “Bitcoin-is-worse-is-better” for more details.
Empirically lots of blockchains have had unexpected and expected block reorgs and hard forks, there is nothing fundamental to prevent this from happening to Bitcoin. See this recent article discussing a spate of attacks on various PoW coins: Blockchain’s Once-Feared 51% Attack Is Now Becoming Regular
The paragraph above ignores the reality that well over 1,000 blockchains are basically dead and Bitcoin itself had a centralized intervention on more than one occasion, such as the accidental hardfork in 2013 and the Bitcoin block size debate from 2015-2018.
On p. 15 they introduce us to the concept of proof-of-work but don’t really explain its own origin as a means of combating spam email in the 1990s.
For instance, while several Bitcoin evangelists frequently (mistakenly) point to Hashcash as the original PoW progenitor, that claim actually legitimately goes to a 1993 paper entitled Pricing via Processing or Combatting Junk Mail by Cynthia Dwork and Moni Naor. There are others as well, perhaps worth adding in the next edition.27
On p. 16 they write:
Competition for a financial rewad is also what keeps Bitcoin’s blockchain secure. If any ill-motivated actors wanted to change Bitcoin’s blockchain, they would need to compete with all the other miners distributed globally who have in total invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the machinery necessary to perform PoW.
This is only true for a Maginot Line attack (e.g., attack via hashrate).28 There are cheaper and more effective out of band attacks, like hacking BGP or DNS. Or hacking into intermediaries such as exchanges and hosted wallets. Sure the attacker doesn’t directly change the blocks, but they do set in motion a series of actions that inevitably result in thefts that end up in blocks further down the chain, when the transactions otherwise wouldn’t have taken place.
On p. 17 they write:
The hardware runs an operating system (OS); in the case of Bitcoin, the operating system is the open-source software that facilitates everything described earlier. This software is developed by a volunteer group of developers, just as Linux, the operating system that underlies much of the cloud, is maintained by a volunteer group of developers.
This isn’t quite right in at least two areas:
Linux is not financial market infrastructure software; Bitcoin originally attempted to be at the very least, a payments network. There are reasons why building and maintaining FMI is regulated whereas building an operating system typically isn’t. It has to do with risk and accountability when accidents happen. That’s why PFMI exists.
On p. 17 they discuss “private versus public blockchains”:
The difference between public and private blockchains is similar to that between the Internet and intranets. The internet is a public resource. Anyone can tap into it; there’s not gate keepers.
This is wrong. All ISPs gate their customers via KYC. Not just anyone can set up an account with an ISP, in fact, customers can and do get kicked off for violating Terms of Service.
“The Internet” is just an amalgamation of thousands of ISPs, each of whom have their own Terms of Service. About a year ago I published an in-depth article about why this analogy is bad and should not be use: Intranets and the Internet.
On p. 18 they write:
Public systems are ones like BItcoin, where anyone with the right hardware and software can connect to the network and access the information therein. There is no bouncer checking IDs at the door.
This is not quite right. The “permissionless” characteristic has to do with block making: who has the right to vote on creating/adding a new block… not who has the ability to download a copy of the blockchain. Theoretically there is no gatekeeper for block making in Bitcoin. Although, there are explicit KYC checks on the edges (primarily at exchanges).
In practice, the capital and knowledge requirements to actually create a new mining pool and aggregate hashpower that is sufficiently capable of generating the right hash and “winning” the scratch-off lottery is very high, such that on a given month just 20 or so block makers are actually involved.29
While there is no strict permissioning of these participants (some come and go over the years), it is arguably a de facto oligopoly based on capital expenditures and not some type of feel-good meritocracy described in this book.30
On p. 18 they write:
Private systems, on the other hand, employ a bouncer at the door. Only entities that have the proper permissions can become part of the network. These private systems came about after Bitcoin did, when enterprises and businesses realized they liked the utility of Bitcoin’s blockchain, but weren’t comfortable or legally allowed to be as open with he information propagated among public entities.
This is not nuanced enough. What precisely is permissioned on a “permissioned” blockchain is: who gets to do the validation.
While there are likely dozens of “permissioned” blockchain vendors — each of which may have different characteristics — the common one is that the validators are KYC’ed participants. That way they can be held accountable if there is a problem (like a fork).
For example, many enterprises and businesses tried to use Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies but because these blockchains were not built with their use cases in mind, unsurprisingly found that they were not a good fit.
This is not an insult: the “comfort” refrain is tiring because there have been a couple hundred proofs-of-concept on Bitcoin – and variants thereof – to look into whether those chains were fit-for-purpose… and they weren’t. This passage should be reworded in the second edition.
On p. 18 they write:
Within financial services, these private blockchains are largely solutions by incumbents in a fight to remain incumbents.
Maybe that is the motivation of some stakeholders, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a meeting in which the participants (banks) specifically said that. It would be good to have a citation added in the next edition. Otherwise, as Hitchens said: what can be presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
On p. 18 they write:
While there is merit to many of these solutions, some claim the greatest revolution has been getting large and secretive entities to work together, sharing information and best practices, which will ultimately lower the cost of services to the end consumer. We believe that over time the implementation of private blockchains will erode the position held by centralized powerhouses because of the tendency toward open networks. In other words, it’s a foot in the door for further decentralization and the use of public blockchains.
This is a “proletariat” narrative that is frequently used in many cryptocurrency books. While there is a certain truth to an angle – collaboration of regulated entities that normally compete with one another – many of the vendors and platforms that they are piloting are actually “open.”
Which brings up the euphemism that some vocal public blockchain promoters like to stake a claim in… the ill-defined “open.” For instance, coin lobbyists such as Coin Center and coin promoters such as Andreas Antonopoulos regularly advertise that they are experts and advocates of “open” chains but their language is typically filled with strawmen.
For instance, enterprise-specific platforms such as Fabric, Corda, and Quorum are all open sourced, anyone can download and run the code without the permission of the vendors that contribute code or support to the platforms.
Thus, it could be argued that these platforms are “open” too… which they are.
But it is highly unlikely that ideological advocates would ever defend or promote these platforms, because of their disdain and aversion to platforms built by financial organizations. 31
Lastly, this “foot in the door” comment comes in all shapes and sizes; sometimes coin promoters use “Trojan horse” as well. Either way it misses the point: enterprises will use technology that solves problems for them and will not use technology that doesn’t solve their problem.
In practice, most cryptocurrencies were not designed – on purpose – to solve problems that regulated institutions have… so it is not a surprise they do not use coin-based platforms as FMI. It has nothing to do with the way the coin platforms are marketed and everything to do with the problems the coins solve.
On p. 19 they write:
Throughout this book, we will focus on public blockchains and their native assets, or what we will define as cryptoassets, because we believe this is where the greatest opportunity awaits the innovative investor.
The authors use the term “innovative investor” a dozen or more times in the book. It’s not a particularly useful term.32
Either way, later in the book they don’t really discuss the opportunity cost of capital: what are the tradeoffs of an accredited investor who puts their money long term into a coin versus buys equity in a company. Though, to be fair, part of the problem is that most of the companies that actually have equity to buy, do not publish usage or valuation numbers because they are still private… so it is hard to accurately gauge that specific trade-off.33
On p. 19 they write about Bitcoin maximalism (without calling it that):
We disagree with that exclusive worldview, as there are many other interesting consensus mechanisms being developed, such as proof-of-stake, proof-of-existence, proof-of-elapsed time, and so on.
Proof-of-existence is not a consensus mechanism. PoE simply verifies the existence of a file at a specific time based on a hash from a specific blockchain. It does not provide consensus. This should be reworded in the next edition.
Furthermore, neither proof-of-stake or proof-of-elapsed-time are actual consensus mechanisms either… they are vote ordering mechanisms — a mechanism to prevent or control sybil attacks. 34 See this excellent thread from Emin Gun Sirer.
On p. 22 they write:
Launched in February 2011, the Silk Road provided a rules-free decentralized marketplace for any product one could imagine, and it used bitcoin as the means of payment.
This isn’t quite true. Certain guns and explosives were considered off-limits and as a result “The Armory” was spun off.
On p. 22 they write:
Clearly, this was one way that Bitcoin developed its dark reputation, though it’s important to know that this was not endorsed by Bitcoin and its development team.
Isn’t Bitcoin — like all cryptocurrences — supposed to be decentralized? So how can there be a singular “it” to not endorse something?35
On p. 22 they write:
The drivers behind this bitcoin demand were more opaque than the Gawker spike, though many point to the bailout of Cyprus and the associated losses that citizens took on their bank account balances as the core driver.
This is mostly hearsay as several independent researchers have tried to identify the actual flows coming into and going out of Cyprus that are directly tied to cryptocurrencies and so far, have been unable to.36
On p. 23 they write about Google Search Trends:
We recommend orienting with this tool even beyond cryptoassets, as it’s a fascinating window into the global mesh of minds.
Incidentally, despite the authors preference to the term “cryptoassets” — according to Google Search Trends, that term isn’t frequently used in search’s yet.
This diversity has led to tension among players as some of these cryptoassets compete, but this is nothing like the tension that exists between Bitcoin and the second movement.
Another frequent name typically used to call “the second movement” was Bitcoin 2.0.
For example, back in 2014 and 2015 I interviewed a number of project organizers and attempted to categorize them into buckets, including things like “commodities” and “assets.” See for instance my guest presentation in 2014 at Plug and Play: (video) (slides).
This label isn’t frequently used as much anymore, but that’s a different topic entirely.
On p. 25 they write an entire section entitled: Blockchain, Not Bitcoin
The authors stated:
Articles like one from the Bank of England in the third quarter of 2014 argued, “The key innovation of digital currencies is the ‘distributed ledger,’ which allows a payment system to operate in an entirely decentralized way, without intermediaries such as banks. In emphasizing the technology and not the native asset, the Bank of England left an open question whether the native asset was needed
The term blockchain, independent of Bitcoin, began to be used more widely in North America in the fall of 2015 when two prominent financial magazines catalyzed awareness of the concept.
Let’s pull apart the problems here.
First, the “blockchain not bitcoin” mantra was actually something that VCs such as Adam Draper pushed in the fall of 2015.
For instance, in an interview with Coindesk in October 2015 he said:
“We use the word blockchain now. I say bitcoin, and they think that’s the worst thing ever. It just feels like they put up a guard. Then, I switch to blockchain and they’re very attentive and they’re very interested.”
Draper seems ambivalent to the change, though he said he was initially against using it, mostly because he believes it’s superficial. After all, companies that use the blockchain as a payments rail, the argument goes, still need to interface with its digital currency, which is the mechanism for transactions on the bitcoin blockchain.
“When we talk about blockchain, I mean bitcoin,” Draper clarifies. “Bitcoin and the blockchain are so interspersed together, the incentive structure of blockchain is bitcoin.”
Draper believes it’s mostly a “vernacular change”, noting the ecosystem has been through several such transitions before. He rifles off the list of terms that have come and gone including cryptocurrency, digital currency and altcoin.
“It’s moved from bitcoin to blockchain, which makes sense, it’s the underlying tech of all these things,” he added. “I think in a lot of ways blockchain is FinTech, so it will become FinTech.”
If you’re looking for more specific examples of companies that began using “blockchain” as a euphemism for “bitcoin” be sure to check out my post: “The Great Pivot.”
The authors also fail to identify that there were lots of early stage vendors and entrepreneurs working in the background on educating policy makers and institutions on what the vocabulary was and how the various moving pieces worked throughout 2015.
Check out my own paper covering this topic and a handful of vendors in April 2015: Consensus-as-a-service. This paper has been cited dozens of times by a slew of academics, banks, regulators, and so forth. And contra Draper: you don’t necessarily need a coin or token to incentivize participants to operate a blockchain.37
On p. 26 they write:
A private blockchain is typically used to expedite and make existing processes more efficient, thereby rewarding the entities that have crafted the software and maintain the computers. In other words, the value creation is in the cost savings, and the entities that own the computers enjoy these savings. The entities don’t need to get paid in a native asset as reward for their work, as is the case with public blockchains.
First, not all private blockchains are alike or commoditized.
Two, this statement is mostly true. At least those were the initially pitches to financial institutions. Remember the frequently cited Oliver Wyman / Santander paper from 2015? It was about cost savings. Since then, the story has evolved to also include revenue generation.
For more up-to-date info on the “enterprise” blockchain world, recommend reading:
On the other hand, for Bitcoin to incentivize a self-selecting group of global volunteers, known as miners, to deploy capital into the mining machines that validate and secure bitcoin transactions, there needs to be a native asset that can be paid out to the miners for their work. The native asset builds out support for the service from the bottom up in a truly decentralized manner.
This may have been true in January 2009 but is not true in July 2018. There are no “volunteers” in Bitcoin mining as running farms and pools have become professionalized and scaled in industrial-sized facilities.
Also, that last sentence is also false: virtually every vertical of involvement is dominated by centralized entities (e.g., exchanges, hosted wallets, mining manufacturing, etc.).
On p. 27 they write:
Beyond questioning the need for native cryptoassets – which would naturally infuriate communities that very much value their cryptoassets – tensions also exist because public blockchain advocates believe the private blockchain movement bastardizes the ethos of blockchain technology. For example, instead of aiming to decentralize and democratize aspects of the existing financial services, Masters’s Digital Asset Holdings aims to assist existing financial services companies in adopting this new technology, thereby helping the incumbents fight back the rebels who seek to disrupt the status quo.
Ironically, virtually all major cryptocurrency exchanges now have institutional investors and/or partnerships with regulated financial institutions.38 Like it or not, but the cryptocurrency world is deep in bed with the very establishment that it likes to rail at on social media.
Also, Bitcoin again is at most a payments network and does not actually solve problems for existing financial service providers on their many other lines of business.
On p. 27 they write:
General purpose technologies are pervasive, eventually affecting all consumers and companies. They improve over time in line with the deflationary progression of technology, and most important, they are a platform upon which future innovations are built. Some of the more famous examples include steam, electricity, internal combustion engines, and information technology. We would add blockchain technology to this list. While such a claim may appear grand to some, that is the scale of the innovation before us.
If you’re not familiar with hyperbole and technology, I recommend watching and reading the PR for the Segway when it first came out. Promoters and enthusiasts repeatedly claimed it would change the way cities are built. Instead, it is used as a toy vehicle to shuffle tourists around at national parks and patrol suburban malls.
Maybe something related to “blockchains” is integrated into various types of infrastructure (such as trade finance), but the next edition should provide proof of some actual user adoption.
For example, the authors in the following paragraph say that “public blockchains beyond Bitcoin that are growing like gangbusters.”
Which ones? In the approximately 9 months since this book was published, most “traction” has been issuing ICOs on these public blockchains. Currently the top 3 Dapps at the time of this writings, run decentralized exchanges… which trade ICO tokens. Now maybe that changes, that is totally within the realm of possibility.39 But let’s take the hype down a few notches until consistent measurable user growth is observed.
On p. 28 they write:
The realm of public blockchains and their native assets is most relevant to the innovative investor, as private blockchains have not yielded an entirely new asset class that is investable to the public.
The wording and attitude should be changed for the next edition. This makes it sound as if the only real innovation that exists are network-based coins that a group of issuers continually create and that you, the reader, should buy.
By downplaying opportunities being tackled by enterprise vendors, the statement glosses over the operating environment enterprise clients reside in and how they must conduct unsexy due diligence and mundane requirements gathering because they have to follow laws and regulations otherwise their customers won’t use their specific platforms.
These same vendors could end up “tokenizing” existing financial instruments, it just takes a lot longer because there are real legal consequences if something breaks or forks.40
On p. 28 and 29 they ask “where is blockchain technology in the hype cycle.”
This section could be strengthened by revisiting and reflecting on the huge expectations that these coin projects have raised and were raising at the time the book was first being written. How were expectations eventually managed?
Specifically, on p. 29 they write:
While it’s hard to predict where blockchain technology currently falls on Gartner’s Hype Cycle (these things are always easier in retrospect), we would posit that Bitcoin is emerging from the Trough of Disillusionment. At the same time, blockchain technology stripped of native assets (private blockchain) is descending from the Peak of Inflated Expectations, which it reached in the summer of 2016 just before The DAO hack occurred (which we will discuss in detail in Chapter 5).
The first part is probably wrong if measured by actual usage and interest (as shown by the Google Search image a few sections above).41
The second part of the paragraph is probably right, though the timing was probably a little later: likely in the last quarter of 2016 when the first set of pilots turned out to require substantially larger budgets. That is to say, in order to be put platforms into production most small vendors with short runways realized they needed more capital and time to integrate solutions into legacy systems. In some cases, that was too much work and a few vendors pivoted out of enterprise and created a coin or two instead.42
On p. 31 they write:
Yes, the numbers have changed a lot since. Crypto moves fast.
This isn’t a hill I want to die on, but historically “crypto” means cryptography. Calling cryptocurrencies “crypto” is basically slang, but maybe that’s the way it evolves towards.
On p. 32 they write:
Historically, crypotassets have most commonly been referred to as cryptocurrencies, which we think confuses new users and constrains the conversation on the future of these assets. We would not classify the majority of cryptoassets as currencies, but rather most are either digital commodities (cryptocommodities), provisioning raw digital resources, or digital tokens (cryptotokens), provisioning finished digital goods and services.
They have a point but a literature review could have been helpful at showing this categorization is neither new nor novel.
In 2014, an academic paper was published that attempted to categorize Bitcoin from an ontological perspective. Based on the thought process presented in that paper, the Dutch authors concluded that Bitcoin is a money-like informational commodity. It isn’t money and isn’t a currency (e.g., isn’t actually used).434445
On p. 32 they write:
In an increasingly digital world, it only makes sense that we have digital commodities, such as computer power, storage capacity, and network bandwidth.
This book only superficially explains each of these and doesn’t drill down into why these “digital commodities” can’t be priced in good old fashioned money or why an internet coin is needed. If this is a good use case, is it just a matter of time before Blizzard and Steam get on board? Maybe worth looking at what entertainment companies do for the next edition.
On p. 33 they write about “why crypto” as shorthand for “cryptoassets” instead of “cryptography.”
For historical purposes, Matt Blaze, the most recent owner of crypto.com, provides a good explanation that could be included or cited next edition: Exhaustive Search Has Moved.
On p. 35 they write:
Except for Karma, the problem with all these attempts at digital money was that they weren’t purely decentralized — one way or another they relied on a centralized entity, and that presented the opportunity for corruption and weak points for attack.
This seems to be conflating two separate things: anonymity with electronic cash. You can have one without the other and do.46
Also, the BIP process is arguably a weak point for attack.47
On p. 35 they write:
One of the most miraculous aspects of bitcoin is how it bootstrapped support in a decentralized manner.
The fundamental problem with this statement is that it is inaccurate.48 Large amounts of centralization continues to exist: mining, exchanges, BIP vetting, etc.
On p. 35 they write:
Together, the combination of current use cases and investors buying bitcoin based on the expectation for even greater future use cases creates market demand for bitcoin.
Is that a Freudian slip?
Speculators buy bitcoin because they think can sell bitcoins at a higher price because a new buyer will come in at a later date and acquire the coins from them.49
For example, last month Hyun Song Shin, the BIS’s economic adviser and head of research, said:
“If people pay to hold the tokens for financial gain, then arguably they should be treated as a security and come under the same rigorous documentation requirements and regulation as other securities offered to investors for a return.”
In the United States, recall that one condition for what a security is under the Howeyframework is an expectation of profit.
Whether Bitcoin is a security or not is a topic for a different post.50
On p. 36 they write:
For the first four years of Bitcoin’s life, a coinbase transaction would issue 50 bitcoin to the lucky miner.
On November 28, 2012, the first halving of the block reward from 50 bitcoin to 25 bitcoin happened, and the second halving from 25 bitcoin to 12.5 bitcoin occurred on July 9, 2016. The thrid will happen four years from that date, in July 2020. Thus far, this has made bitcoin’s supply schedule look somewhat linear, as shown in Figure 4.1.
Technically incorrect because of the inhomogeneous Poisson process and the relatively large amounts of hashrate that came online, the first “4 year epoch” was actually less than 4 years.
Whereas the genesis block was released in January 2009, the first halving should have occurred in January 2013, but instead it took place in November 2012. Similarly, the second halving should have — if rigidly followed — taken place in November 2016, but actually occurred in July 2016 because even more hashrate had effectively accelerated block creation a bit faster than expected.
On p. 36 they write:
Based on our evolutionary past, a key driver for humans to recognize something as valuable is its scarcity. Satoshi knew that he couldn’t issue bitcoin at a rate of 2.6 million per year forever, because it would end up with no scarcity value.
Maybe Satoshi did or did not think this way, but irrespective of his or her view, having a finite amount of something means there is some amount of scarcity… even if it is a relatively large amount. Now this discussion obviously leads down the ideological road of maximalism which we don’t have time to go into today.52 Suffice to say that bitcoin is fundamentally not scarce due to its inability to prevent forks that could increase or decrease the money supply.
On p. 37 they write:
Long term, the thinking is that bitcoin will become so entrenched within the global economy that new bitcoin will not need to be issued to continue to gain support. At that point, miners will be compesnated for processing transaction and securing the network through fees on high transaction volumes.
This might happen but hasn’t yet.
For instance, Kerem Kaskaloglu (see p. 71) created a cartoon model to show what this should look like.
Notice how reality doesn’t stack up to the idealized version (yet)?
On p. 39 they write about BitDNS, Namecoin, and NameID:
Namecoin acts as its own DNS service, and provides users with more control and privacy.
In the next edition they should mention how Namecoin ended up having one mining pool that consistently had over 51% of the network hashrate and as a result, projects like Onename moved over to Bitcoin and then eventually its own separate network altogether (Blockstack).
On p. 41 they write:
This is an important lesson, because all cryptocurrencies differ in their supply schedules, and thus the direct price of each cryptoasset should not be compared if trying to ascertain the appreciation potential of the asset.
One way to strengthen this section is to provide a consistent model or methodology to systemically value a coin that doesn’t necessarily involve future demand from new investors. Maybe in the second edition they could provide a way to compare or at least say that no valuation model works yet, but here is a possible alternative?
On p. 42 they write:
A word to the wise for the innovative investor: with a new cryptocurrency, it’s always important to understand how it’s being distributed and to whom (we’ll discuss further in Chapter 12). If the core community feels the distribution is unfair, that may forever plague the growth of the cryptocurrency.
If a cryptocurrency or “cryptoasset” is supposed to be decentralized, how can it have a singular “core” community too?
In practice, most retail buyers of coins don’t seem to care about centralization or even coin distribution. Later in the book they mention Dash and its rapid coin creation done in the first month. Few investors seem to care. 53
On p. 42 they write:
Ripple has since pivoted away from being a transaction mechanism for the common person and instead now “enables banks to send real-time international payments across network.” This focus plays to Ripple’s strengths, as it aims to be a speedy payment system that rethinks correspondent banking but still requires some trust, for which banks are well suited.
If readers have time, I recommend looking through the marketing material of OpenCoin, Ripple Labs, and Ripple from 2013-2018 because it has changed several times.54 Currently there are a couple of different products including xRapid and xCurrent which are aimed at different types of users and as a result, the passage above should be updated.
On p. 43 they write:
Markus used Litecoin’s code to derive Dogecoin, thereby making it one more degree of separation removed from Bitcoin.
This is incorrect. Dogecoin was first based off of Luckycoin and Luckycoin was based on a fork of Litecoin. The key difference involved the erratic, random block reward sizes.
On p. 45 they write about Auroracoin.
Auroracoin is a cautionary tale for both investors and developers. What began as a seemingly powerful and compelling use case for a cryptoasset suffered from its inability to provide value to the audience it sought to impact. Incelanders were given a cryptocurrency with little education and means to use it. Unsurprisingly, the value of the asset collapsed and most considered it dead. Nevertheless, cryptocurrencies rarely die entirely, and Auroracoin may have interesting times ahead if its developer team can figure out a way forward.
Over 1,000 other coins have died, so “rarely” should be changed in the next edition
Why does a decentralized cryptocurrency have a singular development team, isn’t that centralization?
On p. 46 they write:
Meanwhile, Zcash uses some of the most bleeding-edge cryptography in the world, but it is one of the youngest cryptoassets in the book and suitable only for the most experienced cryptoasset investors.
In the next edition it would be helpful to specifically detail what makes someone an experienced “cryptoasset” investor.
On p. 46 they write:
Adam Back is considered the inspiration for Satoshi’s proof-of-work algorithm and is president of Blockstream, one of the most important companies in the Bitcoin space.
While Hashcash was cited in the original Satoshi whitepaper, recall above, that the original idea can be directly linked to a 1993 paper entitled Pricing via Processing or Combatting Junk Mail by Cynthia Dwork and Moni Naor. Also, it is debatable whether or not Blockstream is an important company, but that’s a different discussion altogether.
On p. 46 they write:
Bitcoin and the permissionless blockchain movement was founded on principles of egalitarian transparency, so premines are widely frowned upon.
What are the founding principles? Where can we find them? Maybe it exists, but at least provide a footnote.55
On p. 47 they write:
While many are suspicious of such privacy, it should be noted that it has tremendous benefits for fungibility. Fungibility refers to the fact that any unit of currency is as valuable as another unit of equal denomination.
Monero’s supply schedule is a hybrid of Litecoin and Dogecoin. For monero, a new block is appended to its blockchain every 2 minutes, similar to Litecoin’s 2.5 minutes.
In the next edition I’d tighten the language a little because a new monero block is added roughly or approximately every 2 minutes, not exactly 2 minutes.
On p. 48 they write:
By the end of 2016, Monero had the fifth largest network value of any cryptocurrency and was the top performing digital currency in 2016, with a price increase over the year of 2,760 percent. This clearly demonstrates the level of interest in privacy protecting cryptocurrency. Some of that interest, no doubt, comes from less than savory sources.
That is a non sequitur.
Where are the surveys of actual Monero purchasers during this time frame and their opinions for why they bought it? 56
For instance, in looking at the two-year chart above, how much on-chain activity in 2016 was due to speculators interest in “privacy” versus coin flipping? It is impossible to tell. Even with analytics all you will be able to is link specific users with purchases. Intent and motivation would require surveys and subpoenas; worth adding if available in the next edition.
On p. 48 they write:
Another cryptocurrency targeting privacy and fungiblity is Dash.
Is Dash really fungible though? That isn’t explored in this section. Plus Dash has a CEO… how is that decentralized?
On p. 49 they write:
In fact, Duffield easily could have relaunched Dash, especially considering the network was only days old when the instamine began to be widely talked about, but he chose not to. It would have been unusual to relaunch, given that other cyrptocurrencies have done so via the forking of original code. The creators of Monero, for example, specifically chose not to continue building off Bytecoin because the premine distribution had been perceived as unfair.
How is this not problematic: for a “decentralized” cryptocurrency to be controlled and run by one person who can unilaterally stop and restart a chain?
It actually is common, that’s the confusing part. Why have regulators such as FinCEN and the SEC not provided specific guidance (or enforcement) on the fact that one or a handful of individuals actually are unlicensed / non-exempted administrators of financial networks?
On p. 49 they write:
The Bitcoin and blockchain community has always been excited by new developments in anonymity and privacy, but Zcash took that excitement to a new level, which upon issuance drove the price through the roof.
Putting aside the irrational exuberance for Zcash itself, why do the authors think so many folks are vocal about privacy and anonymity?
Could it be that a significant portion of the coins are held by thieves of exchanges and hosted wallets who want to launder them? Here are a few recent examples:
Through his time at DigiCash and longstanding involvement in cryptography and cryptoassets, Zooko has become one of the most respected members in the community.
Let’s put aside Zooko and Zcash. The phrase, “the community” frequently appears in this book and similar books. It is an opaque, ill-defined (and cliquish) term that is frequently used by coin promoters to shun certain people that do not promote specific policies (and coins).57 It’s a term that should be clearly defined in the next edition.
On p. 50 they write:
While it is still early days for Zcash, we are of the belief that the ethics and technology chops of Zooko and his team are top-tier, implying that good things lie in wait for this budding cryptocurrency.
The statement above seems like an endorsement. Did either of the authors own Zcash just as the book came out? And what are the specific ethics they speak of? And why do the authors call it a cryptocurrency instead of a “cryptoasset”?
On p. 51 they write:
For example, the largest cryptocommodity, Ethereum, is a decentralized world computer upon which globally accessible and uncensored applications can be built.
How is it a commodity? Maybe it is and while they use a lot of words in this chapter, they never really precisely why it is in a way that makes much sense. Recommend modifying the first few pages of this chapter.
On p. 52 they write about “smart contracts” and mention Nick Szabo.
For a future edition I recommend diving deeper into the different uses and definitions of smart contracts. Also could be worth following Tony Arcieri suggestion:
I really like “authorization programs” but people really seem married to the “smart contract” terminology. Never mind Martin Abadi’s work on authorization languages (e.g. Binder) predates Nick Szabo’s “smart contracts” by half a decade…
For instance, there has been a lot of work done via the Accord Project with Clause.io and others such as IBM and R3. Also worth looking into Barclay’s and UCL’s effort with the Smart Contract Templates. A second edition that aims to be up-to-date should look at these developments and how they have evolved from what Abadi and Szabo first proposed.
On p. 53 they mentioned that Counterparty “was launched in January 2014.” Technically that is not true. The fundraising (“proof-of-burn”) took place in January and it was the following month that it “launched.”
On p. 54 they write:
The reason Bitcoin developers haven’t added extra functionality and flexibility directly into its software is that they have prioritized security over complexity. The more complex transactions become, the more vectors there are to exploit and attack these transactions, which can affect the network as a whole. With a focus on being a decentralized currency, Bitcoin developers have decided bitcoin transactions don’t need all the bells and whistles.
This is kind of true but also misses a little history.
For instance, Zerocoin was first proposed as an enhancement directly built into Bitcoin but key, influential Bitcoin developers who maintained the repository, pushed back on that for various technological and philosophical reasons. As a result, the main authors of that proposal went on to form and launch Zcash.58
On p. 56 they write:
Buterin understood that building a system from the ground up required a significant amount of work, and his announcement in January 2014 involved the collaboration of a community of more than 15 developers and dozens of community members that had already bought into the idea.
I assume the authors mean, following the Bitcoin Miami announcement in January 2014, but they don’t really say. I’m not sure how they arrive at the specific headcount numbers they did above, would be good to add a footnote in the future.
On p. 56 they write:
The ensuing development of the Bitcoin software before launch mostly involved just two people, Satoshi and Hal Finney.
This assumes that Satoshi is not Hal Finney, maybe he was. But it should also include the contributions of Ray Dillinger and others.
On p. 56 they write:
Buterin also knew that while Ethereum could run on ether, the people who designed it couldn’t, and Ethereum was still over a year away from being ready for release. So he found funding through the prestigious Thiel Fellowship.
This is inaccurate.
After reading this, I reached out to Vitalik Buterin and he said:59
That’s totally incorrect. Like the $100k made very little difference.
So that should be corrected in the next version.
On p. 57 they write:
Ethereum democratized that process beyond VCs. For perspective on the price of ether in this crowdsale, consider that at the start of April 2017, ether was worth $50 per unit, implying returns over 160x in under three years. Just over 9,000 people bought ether during the presale, placing the average initial investment at $2,000, which has since grown to over $320,000.
There are a few issues with this:
Ethereum did a small private and a larger public sale. We do have the Terms and Conditions of the public sale but we do not know how many participated in the private sale and under what terms (perhaps the T&Cs were identical).
Over the past 12 months there has been a trend for the “top shelf” ICOs to eschew a public sale (like Ethereum did) and instead, conduct private placement offerings with a few dozen participants at most… typically VCs and HNWIs.
There are lots of dead ICOs. One recent study found that, “56% of crypto startups that raise money through token sales die within four months of their initial coin offerings.” Ethereum is definitely an exception to that and should be highlighted as such.
On p. 57 they write:
The extra allocation of 12 million ether for the early contributors and Ethereum Foundation has proved problematic for Ethereum over time, as some feel it represented double dipping. In our view, with 15 talented developers involved prior to the public sale, 6 million ether translated to just north of $100,000 per developer at the presale rate, which is reasonable given the market rate of such software developers.
Who are these 15 developers, why is that the number the authors have identified?
Also, how much should FOSS developers be compensated and/or the business model around that is a topic that isn’t really addressed at all in this book, yet it is a glaring omission since virtually all of the projects they talk about are set up around funding and maintaining a FOSS team(s). Maybe some findings will be available for the next version.
On p. 57 they write:
That said, the allocation of capital into founders’ pockets is an important aspect of crowdsales. Called a “founder’s reward,” the key distinction between understandable and a red flag is that founders should be focused on building and growing the network, not fattening their pockets at the expense of investors.
Because coins do not typically provide coin holders any type of voting rights, it is legally dubious how you can hold issuers and “founders” accountable.60
That is why, as mentioned above, there has been an evolution of terms and conditions such that early investors in a private placement for coins may have certain rights and that the founders have certain duties that are all legally enforceable (in theory).
Because no one is publishing these T&Cs, it is hard to comment on what are globally accepted practices… aside from allowing early investors liquidity on secondary markets where they can quickly dump coins.61
Without the ability to legally hold “founders” accountable for enriching themselves at the expense of the project(s), the an interim solution has been to get on social media and yell alot… which is really unprofessional and hit or miss. Another solution is class action lawsuits, but that’s a different topic.
Also, I put the “founders” into quotes because these seem to be administrators of a network, maybe in the next edition they will be described as such?
On p. 58 they write:
Everyone trusts the system because it runs in the open and is automated by code.
There is lots of different types of open source code that runs on systems that are automated. For instance, the entire Linux, Apache, and Mozilla worlds predate Bitcoin. That isn’t new here.62
Readers and investors shouldn’t just trust code because someone created a GitHub repo and said their blockchain is open and automated.63
On p. 59 they write:
Most cryptotokens are not supported by their own blockchain.
This is actually true and problematic because it creates centralization risks and the ability for one party to unilaterally censor transactions and/or act as administrators.
For instance, a few days ago, Bancor had a bug that was exploited and about $13.5 million in ETH were stolen… and Bancor was able to freeze the BNT. That’s because BNT is effectively a centrally administered ERC20 token on top of Ethereum.
Ignoring for the moment whether or not BNT is or is not a security, this is not the first time such issuance and centralization has occurred. See the colored coin mania from 2014-2015.
On p. 60 they write about The DAO:
Over time, investors in these projects would be rewarded through dividends or appreciation of the service provided.
They mention regulators briefly later on – about SEC views – but most of the content surrounding crowdsales was non-critical and borderline promotional.64 Might be worth adding more meat around this in the next edition.
On p. 61 they write about The DAO:
The hack had nothing to do with an exchange, as had been the case with Mt. Gox and other widely publicized Bitcoin-related hacks. Insted, the flaw existed in the software of The DAO.
However, a hard fork would run counter to what many in the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities felt was the power of a decentralized ledger. Forcefully removing funds from an account violated the concept of immutability.
Just a few pages earlier the authors were saying that the lead developer behind Dash should have restarted the network because that was common and now they’re saying that doing a block reorg is no bueno. Which is it?
Why should the reader care what a nebulously defined “community” says, if it is is not defined?
The reason we have codes of conduct, terms of service, and EULAs is to specifically answer these types of problems when they arise.
Since public blockchains are supposed to be anarchic, the lack of formal governance is supposed to be a feature, right? That’s a whole other topic but suffice to say that these two sentences should be reworded in the next edition to incorporate the wisdom found in the Lexicon paper.
On p. 62 they write:
Many complained of moral hazard, and that this would set a precdent for the U.S. government or other powerful entities to come in someday and demand the same of Ethereum for their own interests. It was a tough decision for all involved, including Buterin, who while not directly on The DAO developer team, was an admistrator.
This is the first and only time they point out that key participants collectively making governance decisions are administrators… a point I have been highlighting throughout this review.
I don’t think it is fair to label Vitalik Buterin as a singular administrator, because if he was, he wouldn’t have had to ask exchanges to stop trading ether and/or The DAO token. Perhaps he was collectively involved in that process, but mining pool operators and exchange managers are arguably just as important if not more so. See also: Sufficiently Decentralized Howeycoins
On p. 62 they write:
While hard fork are often used to upgrade a blockchain architecture, they are typically employed in situations where the community agrees entirely on the beneficial updates to the architecture. Ethereum’s situation was different, as many in the community opposed a hard fork. Contentious hard forks are dangerous, because when new software updates are released for a blockchain in the form of a hard fork, there are then two different operating systems.
A few things:
Notice the continued use of an ill-defined “the community”
How is agreement or disagreement measured? During the Bitcoin block size debate, folks tried to use various means to express interest, most of which resulted in sybil attacks such as retweets and upvotes on social media by an army of bots.
Is any fork non-contentious. Surely if we looked hard enough, we could always find more than a handful of coin owners and/or developers that disagreed with the proposal. Does that mean you should ignore them? Whose opinion matters? These types of questions were never really formally answered either in the case of the Bitcoin Segwit / Bitcoin Cash fork… or in the Ethereum / Ethereum Classic / The DAO fork. Governance is pretty much an off-chain popularity contest, just like voting for politicians.65
On p. 63 they write:
The site for Ethereum Classic defines the cryptoasset as “a continuation of the original Ethereum blockchain–the classic version preserving untampered history; free from external interference and subjecitve tampering of transactions.”
This could be revised since Ethereum Classic itself has now had multiple forks.
As mentioned in a previous post last year:
Ethereum Classic: this small community has held public events to discuss how they plan to change the money supply; they video taped this coordination and their real legal names are used; only one large company (DCG) is active in its leadership; they sponsor events; they run various social media accounts
There has been lots of external interference, that’s been the lifeblood of public blockchains… because they don’t run themselves, people run and administer them.
Continuing on p. 63 they write:
While many merchants understably complain about credit card fees of 2 to 3 percent, the “platform fees” of Airbnb, Uber, and similar platform services are borderline egregious.
Maybe they are, maybe they are not.66 What is the right fee they should be? Miners take a cut, exchanges take a cut, developers take a cut via “founder’s funds.”
The next edition should give a step-by-step comparison to show why fee structures are egregious (maybe they are, it just is not clear in this book).
On p. 64 they wrote about Augur. Incidentally, Augur finally launched in early July while writing this review. I have an origin story but will keep that for later.
On p. 65 they wrote about Filecoin:
For example, a dApp may use a decentralized cloud storage system like Filecoin to store large amounts of data, and another cryptocommodity for anonymized bandwidth, in addition to using Ethereum to process certain operations.
A couple thoughts:
That’s the theory, though Filecoin hasn’t launched yet — why do they get the benefit of the doubt yet other projects don’t?
There is no price or use comparison in this chapter or elsewhere… the book could be strengthened if it provided more evidence of adoption because we have seen that running decentralized services such as Tor or Freenet have been less than spectacular.
On p. 65 they write:
Returning to the fundamentals of investment theory will allow innovative investors to properly position their overarching portfolio to take advantage of the growth of cryptoassets responsibly.
It is still unclear what an “innovative investor” is — at least the way these authors describe it.67
On p. 69 Tatar writes:
Not only did I decide to inveset in bitcoin, I decided to place the entirety of that year’s allocation for my Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan into bitcoin. When I announced what I had done in my article “Do Bitcoin Belong in your Retirement Portfolio?,” it created a stir online and in the financial planning community.
This was one of just a couple places where the authors actually disclose that they own specific coins, next edition they should put it up front.
On p. 70 Tatar writes:
Was I chasing a similar crash-and-burn scenario with bitcoin? Even my technologically and investment savvy son, Eric, initially criticized me about bitcoin. “They have these things called dollar bills, Dad. Stick to using those.”
Eric is probably right: that the authors of this book accepted traditional money for their book (Amazon doesn’t currently accept cryptocurrencies).
Based on their views presented in this book, the authors probably don’t spend (many) coins they may have in the portfolio, instead holding on to them with the belief that other investors will bid up the price (measured in actual money).
On p. 77 they write about the GFC prior to 2008:
Becoming a hedge fund manager became all the rage for business-minded students when it was revealed that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a total of $22.3 billion in 2007 and $11.6 billion in 2008.
Coincidentally a similar “rage” for running cryptocurrency-related funds has occured in the past 18 months, especially for ICOs.
More than two hundred “funds” quickly popped up in order to gobble up coins during coin mania. At least 9 have closed down through April and many more were down double digits due to a bear market (and not hedging).
On p. 83 they write:
Bitcoin is the most exciting alternative asset in the twenty-first century, and it has paved the way for its digital siblings to enjoy similar success.
It is their opinion that this is the case, but the authors don’t really provide a lot of data to reinforce it yet, other than the fact that there have been some bull runs due to exuberance.68 Worth rewording in the next edition.
On p. 83 they write:
Because bitcoin can claim the title of being the oldest cryptoasset…
Similarly, I (Chris) didn’t even consider investing in bitcoin when I first heard about it in 2012. By the time I began considering bitcoin for my portfolio in late 2014, the price was in the mid $300s, having increased 460,000-fold from the initial exchange rate.
I believe this is the only time in the book that Burniske discloses any coin holdings.
On p. 85 they make some ridiculous comparison with the S&P 500, DJIA, NASDAQ 100… and Bitcoin.
The former three are indices of multiple regulated securities. The latter is just one coin that is easily influenced and manipulated by external unaccountable parties. How is that an apples to apples comparison?
On p. 87 they continue by comparing Bitcoin with Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Netflix.
Again, these are regulated securities that reflect cash flows and the financial health of multinational companies… Bitcoin has no cash flows and isn’t (yet) setup to be a company… and isn’t regulated (no KYC/AML at the mining farm or mining pool level).
Bitcoin was originally built to be an e-cash transmission network, a decentralized MSB.69 How is comparing it with non-MSBs a useful comparison?
On p. 88 they write:
Remember that, as of January 2017, bitcoin’s network value was 1/20, 1/22, 1/3, and 1/33 that of the FANG stocks respectively. Therefore, if bitcoin is to grow to a similar size much opportunity remains.
This whole section should be probably be modified because these aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons. FANG stocks represent companies that have to build and ship multiple products in order to generate continuous revenue.
With Bitcoin, it is bitcoin that is the product, nothing else is being shipped nor is revenue being generated70
Maybe the price of a bitcoin — as measured with actual money — does reach a 1:1 or even surpass the stocks above. But a new version of this book could be strengthened with an outline on how it could do so sustainably.
The authors do have a couple narrow, daily volatility charts in the book, but none that provide a similar wideview comparison with something that is remotely comparable (Bitcoin versus Twitter doesn’t make any sense).
On p. 101 they write:
Cryptoassets have near-zero correlation to other captial market assets.
In contrast, the past few years have been more nuanced: bitcoin’s volatily has calmed, yet it retains a low correlation with other assets.
That first part is untrue, as shown by the chart above from JP Koning. The second part is relative.72
On p. 107 they write:
The Securities and Exchange Commission has thus far steered clear of applying a specific label to all cryptoassets, though in late July 2017 it did release a report detailing how some cryptoassets can be classified as securities, with the most notable example being The DAO.
That’s pretty much the extent of the authors analysis of the issue. Granted they aren’t lawyers but this is a pretty big deal, maybe in the next edition beef this up?
On p. 107 they write:
While it’s a great validation of cryptoassets that regulators are working to provide clarity on how to classify at least some of them, most of the existing laws set forth suffer from the same flaw: agencies are interpereting cryptoassets through the lens of the past.
From this wording it seems that the authors want laws changed or modified to protect their interests and the financial interests of their LPs. This isn’t the first or last time that someone with a vested interest lobbies to get carve outs, exceptions, or entire moratoriums.
Maybe that it is deserved, but it’s not well-articulated in this chapter other than to basically call regulators “old-fashioned” and out of touch with technology.73 Could be worth rethinking the wording here.
On p. 107 they write:
Just as there is diversity in equities, with analsts segmenting companies depending on their market capitalization, sector, or geography, so too is there diversity in cryptoassets. Bitcoin, litecoin, monero, dash, and zcash fulfill the three definitions of a currency: serving as a means of exchange, store of value and unit of account.
This is empirically incorrect. None of these coins functions as a unit of account, they all depend on and are priced in… actual money.74
There are lots of reasons for why this is case but that is beyond the scope of this review. 7576
On p. 110 they write about ETFs:
It should be noted that when we talk about asset classes we are not doing so in the context of the investment vehicle that may “house” the underlying asset, whether that vehicle is a mutual fund, ETF, or separately managed account.
They don’t really discuss it in the book, but just so readers are aware, there have been about 10 Bitcoin-only ETFs proposed in the US, all of which have been rejected by the SEC (or applications were voluntarily removed).
Curious to know why? See the March 10, 2017 explanation from the SEC.
Note: this hasn’t stopped sponsors from re-applying. In the process of writing this review, the CBOE filed for a Bitcoin ETF.
On p. 111 they write:
Much of the thinking in this chapter grew out of a collaboration between ARK Invest and Coinbase through late 2015 and into 2016 when the two firms first made the claims that bitcoin was ringing the bell for a new asset class.
Just to be clear: the joint paper they published in that time frame was a bit superficial as it lacked actual user data from Coinbase exchanges (both GDAX and the consumer wallet). I pointed that out back then and this book is basically an expanded form of that paper: where is specific usage data on Coinbase? The only way we have learned any real user numbers about Coinbase is from an IRS lawsuit.
For instance, a future edition should try to differentiate on-chain activity that is say, gambling winnings or miners payouts from exchange arbitrage or even coin shuffling. Their analysis should be redone once they remove the noise from the signal (e.g., not all transactional activity is the same).
This is a real challenge and not a new issue. For instance, see: Slicing data.
On p. 112 they write:
Cryptoassets adhere to a twenty-first century model of governance unique from all other asset classes and largely inspired by the open source software movement. The procurers of the asset and associated use cases are three pronged. First, a group of talented software developers decide to create the blockchain protocol or distributed application that utilizes a native asset. These developers adhere to an open contributor model, which means that over time any new developer can earn his or her way onto the development team through merit.
There is no new governance model.
In practice, changes are done via social media popularity contests. We saw that with the Bitcoin blocksize debate and Ethereum hard fork. And in some ways, strong vocal personalities (and cults of personality) is how other FOSS projects (like Python) are managed and administered.
The fluffy meritocracy feel-goodism is often not the order of the day and we see this in many projects such as Bitcoin where the commit access and BIP approval process is limited to a small insular clique.
The 4 point plan above is a much more accurate break down of how most coin projects are setup.
On p. 112 they write:
However, the developers are not the only ones in charge of procuring a cryptoasset; they only provide the code. The people who own and maintain the computers that run the code–the-miners–also have a say in the development of the code because they have to download new software updates. The developers can’t force miners to update software. Instead, they must convince them that it makes sense for the health of the overall blockchain, and the economic health of the miner, to do so.
But in many projects: developers and miners are one in the same. This is why it is so confusing to not have seen additional clarity or guidance from FinCEN because of how centralized most projects are in practice.
These companies often employ some of the core developers, but even if they don’t, they can assert significant influence over the system if they are a large force behind user adoption.
Maybe that is the case for some cryptocurrencies.78 Should “core” developers be licensed like professional engineers are?
Also, isn’t their statement above evidence that most projects are fairly centralized because the division of labor results in specialization?
On p. 113 they write:
These users are constantly providing feedback to the developers, miners, and companies, in whose interest it is to listen, because if users stop using the cryptoasset, then demand will go down and so too will the price. Therefore, the procurers are constantly held accountable by the users.
Except this isn’t what happens in practice.
Relatively little activity takes place at all on most of these coin platforms and most of what does occur involves arbitrage trading and/or illicit activity.
This activity seems to have little direct connection to the price of the coin because the price of the coin is still largely determined by the whims of speculative demand.
For instance, above is a two-year transactional volume chart for bitcoin. The price of bitcoin in the summer of 2016 was in the $600-$700 range whereas it is 10x that today. Yet daily transaction volume is actually lower than it was back then. Which means: the two are separate phenomenon.
Also, arguably the only direct way coin owners can — in practice — hold maintainers accountable is via antics on social media. That is why control of a specific reddit, Telegram, or Twitter account is very important and why hackers target those channels in order to influence prices.
On p. 113 they write about supply schedules:
For example, with oil, there’s the famous Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which has had considerable control over the supply levels of oil.
Inadvertently they actually described how basically all proof-of-work coins operate: via a small clique of known miners and mining pools. A cartel?
While these miners have not yet increased or decreased the supply of bitcoins, mining is a specialized task that requires certain capital and connections in order to be successful at. These participants could easily collude to change the money supply, censor transactions, etc. and there would be no immediate legal recourse.
On p. 115 they write:
Cryptoassets, like gold, are often constructed to be scarce in their supply. Many will be even more scarce than gold and other precious metals. The supply schedule of cryptoassets typically is metered mathematically and set in code at the genesis of the underlying protocol or distributed application.
How to measure scarcity here?
Despite what alchemists tried for centuries to do: aside from particle accelators, on Earth the only way of increasing the supply of gold and silver is via digging it out of the ground. For cryptocurrencies, it is relatively easy to fork and clone both code and chains. Digital scarcity for most — if not all — public chains, seems to be is a myth.
In the next edition, maybe remove the “backed by maths” trope? None of these chains run themselves, they all depend on humans to run the equipment and maintain the code.
On p. 115 they write:
As discussed earlier, Satoshi crafted the system this way because he needed initially to bootstrap support for Bitcoin which he did by issuing large amounts of the coin for the earliest contributors. As Bitcoin matured, the value of its native asset appreciated, which means less Bitcoin is over eight years old, it provides strong utility to the world beyond as an investment, which drive demand.
Satoshi likely mined around 1 million bitcoins for himself/herself. Because of how centralized and small the network originally was in 2009, he/she probably could have unilaterally stopped the network and relaunched it and effectively removed that insta-mine. 79
In addition, there was almost no risk to either be a developer or a miner… the entry/exit costs were very low… so why did he issue large amounts of coins for these contributors?80
Also, how does it provide strong demand beyond investment? How many people do the authors know regularly use Bitcoin itself for retail payments?81
Also, through Bitcoin’s evolution, arguably some of its utility was removed by going down a specific block size path. The counterargument is that payments will be done via some other networks (such as Lightning) attached to Bitcoin, but as of this writing, that hasn’t panned out.
One last comment about this passage, FOSS is historically charity work and difficult to build a sustainable operation. A couple notable exceptions are Red Hat and SUSE (which was just acquired by EQT).
On p. 115 they write:
The Ethereum team is currently rethinking that issuance strategy due to an intended change in its consensus mechanism.
In the second edition is it possible to be consistent on this one point: how is an “official” or “centralized” development team congruent with the idea of having a “decentralized ecosystem”?
Also, the administrators of Ethereum Classic modified the money supply last year and most folks were blasé. Where is the relevant FinCEN guidance?
On p. 115 they write:
Steemit’s team pursued a far more complicated monetary policy with its platform, composed of steem (STEEM), steem power (SP), and steem dollars (SMD).
They have also chosen to modify their monetary policy post-inception.
The authors of this book need to be consistent in their wording because in other places they criticize centralized financial institutions but do not criticize centralized monetary supply decision of coin makers. Also, again, why or how does a decentralized project have a singular team?
On p. 116 they write:
Crypotassets can be likened to silicon. They have come upon the scene due to the rise of technology, and their use cases will grow and change as technology evolves. Currently, bitcoin is the most straightforward, with its use case being that of a decentralized global currency. Ether is more flexible, as developers use it for computational gas within a decentralized world computer.
This isn’t a good analogy. Silicon exists as a naturally occurring element… whereas cryptocurrencies do not naturally arise — humans create them.
In addition, bitcoin is arguably not the most straightforward due to a long divorce and schism process the past three years. One distinct group of promoters calls it “digital gold” and another distinct group calls it a “payment system” — the two groups are almost violently opposed to one another’s existence.
On p. 116 they write:
Then there are the trading markets, which trade 24/7, 365 days a year. These global and eternally open markets also differentiate cryptoassets from other assets discussed herein.
The FX markets are open globally almost 24/6 for most of the year, so that’s not really a braggable claim.82 There are legal, regulatory, and practical reasons why most capital markets operate in the time windows they do… it is not because of some technological limitation. Worth rewording in the next edition.
On p. 116 they write:
In short, the use cases for cryptoassets are more dynamic than any preexisting asset class. Furthermore, since they’re brought into the world and then controlled by open-source software, the ability for cryptoassets to evolve is unbounded.
In the next edition, maybe remove the pomp and circumstance unless there is actual data to back up the platitudes. We can all easily conjure up lots of potential use cases for just about any type of technology, but unless they are built and used, the hype should be turned down a few notches.
Also, there are many other open sourcesoftware projects that have actually shipped frequently used productivity tools and no one is yelling from the mountain tops about how they have unbounded potential. How are internet coins any different?
On p. 117 they write:
Cryptoassets have two drivers of their basis of value: utility and speculative.
In theory, perhaps. But in practice, most coins just have potential utility because with few exceptions, most buyers typically hold with the expectation the coin will appreciate. Maybe that change in the future.
On p. 117 the write:
For example, Bitcoin’s blockchain is used to transact bitcoin and therefore much of the value is driven by demand to use bitcoin as a means of exchange.
Perhaps, though in the next edition recommend modifying the wording to include: “… as a means of exchange or investment…” Currently, we know a large portion of activity is likely movement (arbitrage) between exchanges.8384
But even ignoring this data (from analytics companies) this scenario has been diced-up elsewhere:
Speculative value is driven by people trying to predict how widely used a particular cryptoasset will be in the future.
If there are systematic surveys of actual buyers and sellers perhaps add those in the second edition.85
On p. 118 they write:
With cryptoassets, much of the speculative value can be derived from the development team. People will have more faith that a cryptoasset will be widely adopted if it is crafted by a talented and focused development team. Furthermore, if the development team has a grand vision for the widespread use of the cryptoasset, then that can increase the speculative value of the asset.
This is false.
For starters, the value of a new coin is almost entirely a function of the marketing effort from the coin issuers: that’s why nearly all ICOs carve out a portion of their funding pie to market, promote, and advertise… spreading the sexy gospel of the new coin.
This is a big bucks opaque industry, with all sorts of shenanigans that take place just to get listed on secondary markets… with coin issuers paying more than $1 million to get listed.
While $1 million or even $3 million may sound like a lot to get listed, the issuers know it is worth it because the retail speculators on the other end will at least temporarily pump the coin price up often long enough for the original insiders and investors to cash out.
Now the coin issuers may talk a big game and at eloquent length about how their grand vision: that their coin will end world hunger and save the environment, but they often have no ability to execute and build the product(s) they claimed in their whitepaper.
As mentioned above, one recent study found that, “56% of crypto startups that raise money through token sales die within four months of their initial coin offerings.”
Also, how does a decentralized cryptocurrency have an official singular development team?
On p. 118 they write:
As each cryptoasset matures, it will converge on its utility value. Right now, bitcoin is the furthest along the transition from speculative price support to uility price support because it has been around the longest and people are using it regularly for its intended utility use case.
And what is its intended use case? The maximalist vision (digital gold) or the originalist payments vision?
On p. 118 they write:
For example, in 2016, $100,000 of bitcoin was transacted every minute, which creates real demand for the utility of the asset beyond its trading demand. A great illustration of bitcoin’s price support increasingly being tied to utility came from Pantera Capital, a well-respected investment firm solely focused on cryptoassets and technology. in Figure 8.2 we can see that in November 2013 bitcoin’s speculative value skyrocketed beyond its utility value, which is represented here by transactions per day using Bitcoin’s blockchain (CAGR is the compound annual growth rate).
But this didn’t happen.
Pantera has a habit of cherry picking dates and using different types of graphs (such as log versus linear) in order to talk its book.
For instance, they conjured up and pushed the “bitcoin absorbs the value of gold” narrative back in late 2014. Then a year later, they became part of the “great pivot” by rebranding everything “blockchain” instead of bitcoin.
Putting those aside, the transactional part of the graph (Figure 8.2) from Pantera was published in early 2017 and has not held up to further scrutiny by mid-2018.
Perhaps for some unknown reason the up-and-to-the-right hockey stick graph that Pantera tried to create with its dotted lines will germinate. But for now, as of this writing, their transactional / utility thesis is incorrect.
Why? Because the assumptions were the same as the authors of this book: they assume retail or institutional users will flock to using bitcoin for non-speculative reasons, but that has not occurred yet.
On p. 119 they write:
Speculative value diminishes as a cryptoasset matures because there is less speculation regarding the future markets the cryptoasset will penetrate. This means people will understand more clearly that demand for the asset will look like going forward. The younger the cryptoasset is, the more its value will be driven by speculative vlaue, as shown in Figure 8.3. While we expect cryptoassets to ossify into their primary use cases over time, especially as they become large system that supports significant amounts of value, their open-source nature leaves open the possiblity that they will be tweaked to pursue new tangential use cases, which could once again add speculative value to the asset.
Their wording in this and other passages has definitive certainty without any hedging.
This is unfounded. Recall, what can be presented without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. This also makes a circular argument that the next edition needs to provide evidence for (or just remove it).
On p. 122 the write:
For example, currently the bond markets are undergoing significant changes, as a surprising amount of bond trading is still a “voice and paper market,” where trades are made by institutions calling one another and tangible paper is processed. This makes the bond market much more illiquid and opaque than the stock market, where most transactions are done almost entirely electronically: With the growing wave of digitalization, the bond markets are becoming increasingly liquid and transparent. The same can be said of markets for commodities, art, fine wine, and so on.
In re-reading this I can’t tell if the authors recognize that the bond market, as well as all of the other markets listed, started out in pre-electronic and even pre-industrial times.
That’s not to defend the status quo, only that if modern day trading platforms and automation existed a couple hundreds years ago, it is likely that bonds trading would have migrated much earlier than 2018… maybe even on a blockchain!
On p. 122 they write:
Cryptoassets have an inherent advantage in their liquidity and trading volume profile, because they are digital natives. As digital natives, cryptoassets have no physical form, and can be moved as quickly as the Internet can move the 1s and 0s that convey ownership.
This is conflating digitization/digitalization with blockchains. You can have one without the other and in fact, do.
For instance, with US equities, beginning in the ’60s through the ’70s, stocks were dematerialized then immobilized in CSDs and ownership is now transferred electronically.86
Perhaps there is something to be said about this market infrastructure further evolving in time with a blockchain of some kind.
For example in the US, the DTCC (a large CSD) has:
Virtually every major CSD, stock exchange, and clearing house has likewise publicly opined or participated in some blockchain-related initiatives. But that is a separate topic maybe worth looking into for the next edition.
On p. 123 they write:
Even though they are growing at an incredible clip, separation between cryptoasset markets and traditional investor capital pools still largely remains the case.
How much real money has actually entered the cryptocurrency market?
There have been several attempts to quantify it and it is still rather small, maybe up to $10 billion came in during 2017.
On p. 125 they write:
For example, in 2016, Monero experienced a sizeable increase in notoriety–largely because its privacy features began to be utilized by a well-known dark market–which sent its average trading volume skyrocketing. In December 2015, daily volume for the asset was $27,300, but by December 2016 it was $3.25M, well over a hunderfold increase. The price of the asset had appreciated more than 20-fold in the same period, so some of the increase in trading volume was due to price appreciation, but clearly a large amount was due to increased interest and trading activity in the asset.
But how do the authors know this “clearly” was the case? Did they do some random sample surveys? The next edition they need to prove their assumption, not just make them. After all, it is hard — perhaps impossible — to externally ascertain what is going on at an exchange simply by looking at self-published volumes.
Also, the exchanges that these coins trade on are still typically unregulated, with little optics into how often manipulation occurs. That is why a number of them have been subpoenaed by various governmental bodies; in the US this includes the SEC, CFTC, IRS, FBI, and even separate states acting in coordination.
On p. 129 they write:
From these trends, we can infer that this declining volatility is a result of increased market maturity. Certainly, the trend is not a straight line, and there are significant bumps in the road, depending on particular events. For example, monero had a spike in volatility in late 2016 because it experienced a significant price rise. This shows volatility is not only associated with a tanking price but also a skyrocketing price. The general trend, nonetheless, is of dampening volatility […].
This is not true either. Maybe there are cherry picked dates in which there is relatively lower volatility than normal, but this year alone prices as measured in real money, declined between 60-100% for basically all crypotocurrencies and this involved a roller coaster to achieve.
In fact, in the process of writing this review, there were multiple days in which prices increased 5-10% for most coins and then a few days later, saw the same size of loses. Erratic volatility has not disappeared.
On p. 133 they write:
Despite the many PBOC interventions, Chinese citizens used bitcoin to protect themselves against the erosion in value of their national currency.
Who in China did this?
I have spent an enormous amount of time visiting China the past several years on business trips and not once did someone say they had shifted their wealth from RMB into bitcoin because of RMB depreciation. There are many speculators and miners, but to my knowledge there has not been a formal survey of buyers and their motivations… and the result being because of RMB depreciation.
The next edition should either remove this statement or add a citation.
On p. 134 they write:
As bitcoin rose and fell, so too did these assets. This reinforces the need for the innovative investor to become knowledgeable about these assets’ specific characteristics and recognize where correlations may or may not occur.
Recommend removing “innovative investor” in this location.87
On p. 137 they write:
On its path to maturity, bitcoin’s price has experienced euphoric rise and harrowing drops, as have many cryptoassets. One of the most common complaints among bitcoin and cryptoasset naysayers is that these fluctuations are driven by the Wild West nature of the markets, implying that cryptoassets are a strange new breed that can’t be trusted. While each cryptoasset and its associated markets are at varying levels of maturity, associating Wild West behavior as unique to cryptoasset markets is misleading at best.
No it isn’t. The authors do not even define or provide some kind of way to measure “maturity.” This paragraph creates a strawman.
The burden-of-proof rests on the party making the positive claim. In this case, the party claiming that a coin is becoming mature must provide objective evidence this is taking place. Should reword in the next edition.
On p. 138 they write:
Broadly, we categorize five main patterns that lead to markets destabilizing: the speculation of crowds, “This time is different,” Ponzi schemes, Misleading information from asset issuers, Cornering.
Those are valid patterns, in full agreement here. But this edition does not help in dispelling these problems and arguably even contributes to some of the speculative frenzy.
On p. 138 they write:
Sometimes they do this to capitalize on short-term information they believe will move the market, other times they do it because they expect to ride the momentum of the market, regardless of its fundamentals. In short, they try to profit within the roller-coaster ride.
What are the fundamentals of any coin described in this book? Next edition, clearly write out 5-10 if possible.
On p. 139 they write:
As America was struggling through the Great Depression, which many pinned on the stock market crash of 1929, there was strong resentment against speculators. Every crisis loves a scapegoat.
And in Bitcoinland there is no difference. Bitcoiners love to blame: bankers, the Illuminati, naysayers, concern trolls, academics, the government, Jamie Dimon, big blockers, small blockers, weak hands, statists, other coins, China, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Mike Hearn… virtually every month there is a new boogeyman to blame something on. I’ve even been blamed many times and I’m not involved at all in the market.
On p. 143 they write:
Cheap credit often fuels asset bubbles, as seen with the housing bubble that led to the financial crisis of 2008. Similarly, cryptoasset bubbles can be created using extreme margin on some exchanges, where investors are effectively gambling with money they don’t have.
Fully agree, good point.
On p. 144 they write:
The best way to avoid getting burned in this manner is to do proper due diligence and have an investment plan that is adhered to.
Fully agree, good point.
On p. 145 they write:
The key to understanding bitcoin’s value is recognizing it has utility as “Money-over-Internet-Protocol”( MoIP)–allowing it to move large amounts of value to anyone anywhere in the world in a matter of minutes–which drives demand for it beyond mere speculation.
This might be partially true but is has the same feel-good narrative that folks like Andreas Antonopoulos have been getting paid handsomly to regurgitate. Bitcoin (the network) does not move anything beyond bitcoins (the coin). Users still have to convert bitcoins into actual money at end points.
Converting a large amount — greater than $10,000 — will likely require KYC and AML and maybe even sanctions checks. This adds time and money which is one of the reason why the remittance use-case didn’t really get much traction after the hype in 2014 – 2015 and why companies such as Abra had to pivot a few times.
With that said, their metapoint is valid on the edges: despite the frictions that may exist, some participants are willing to go through this experience in order to gain more anonymity for uses they might not otherwise be able to do using traditional methods.88
Over the past three years there has also been an expansion of country- and region-based payment schemes worldwide to achieve near-real-time transfers, with Europe being one of the most significant accomplishments.89
In parallel, there are on-going experimentation and scaling of private blockchain-based ‘rails’ like Swift gpi or Alipay with GCash which have a potential to surpass volumes of the Bitcoin network.90
On p. 145 they write:
When Mt. Gox was established, bitcoin finally became accessible to the mainstream.
Up until recently it was difficult for even diehard users to get onboarded onto most exchanges. And specifically in 2010 with the launch of Mt. Gox, Jed McCaleb used Paypal to help facilitate the transfer of money… until Paypal dropped Mt. Gox because of too many chargebacks. To get money into and out of Mt. Gox often was a frictionfull task, unless you lived in Japan.
On p. 149 they write:
As shown in Figure 10.4, steem’s price in bitcoin terms would fall from its mid-July peak by 94 percent three months later, and by 97 percent at the end of the year. This doesn’t mean the platform is bad. Rather, it shows the speculation and excitement about its prospects fueled a sharp rise and fall in price.
In hindsight, everything is 20-20. The same truism in their last sentence can be said just about with every coin that sees the meteoric rise that Steemit did in 2016.91
On p. 150 they write:
While zcash has since stabilized and continues to hold great promise as a cryptoasset, its rocky start was caused by mass speculation.
Do the authors own any Zcash (or other cryptocurrencies mentioned in this book besides bitcoin)?
In late 2016 there were oodles of “thought leaders” talking about how Zcash was — for a moment — valued at a trillion dollars because of the very thin supply that was trading on exchanges. It was a headscratching meme that illustrates a shortcoming to the common “market cap” valuation mehtod.92
On p. 152 they write:
The idea of valuation, which we will tackle in the next chapters, is a particularly challenging one for cryptoassets. Since they are a new asset class, they cannot be valued as companies are, and while valuing them based on supply and demand characteristics like that of commodiites has some validity, it doesn’t quite suffice.
Then why spend an entire chapter (Chapter 7) comparing coins such as bitcoin, to companies and their stock?
You can’t have it both ways. Either heavily modify Chapter 7 in the next edition, or remove this comment.
On p. 155 they write:
Given the emerging nature of the cryptoasset markets, it’s important to recognize that there is less regulation (some would say none) in this arena, and therefore bad behavior can persist for longer than it may in more mature markets.
And there are now full-time lobbyists and trade associations — sponsored by donors whom have benefited from this unregulated / underregulated market — that actively push back against sensible regulations being applied. But that’s a different conversation beyond this post.
On p. 155 they write:
As activity grows in bitcoin and crypotasset markets, investors must look beyond the madness of the crowd and recognize that there are bad actors who seek easy prey in these young markets.
Even for a book published in late 2017, this is pretty much lip service. Volumes of books can be written about the shenanigans within nearly every public ICO and high-profile coin project. The authors should either modify the statement above or ideally expand it to detail specific egregious examples besides just OneCoin.
While a truly innovative crypotasset and its associated architecture requires a heroic coding effort from talented developers, because the software is open source, it can be downloaded and duplicated. From there, a new cryptoasset can be issued wrapped in slick marketing. If the innovative investors doesn’t do proper due diligence on the underlying code of read other trusted sources who have, then it’s possible to fall victim to a Ponzi scheme.
Enough with the “heroic” adjectives, let’s not put anyone on a pedestal, especially if the platform is not being used by anyone besides speculators and illicit actors.
Secondly, a minor grammar question: other uses of “open-source” in this book have a dash and the one above does not.
Millions of dollars poured into OneCoin, whose technology ran counter to the values of the cryptoasset community: its software was not open source (perhaps out of fear that developers would see the holes in its design), and it was not based on a public ledger, so no transactions could be tracked.
First, what are the “values” that the “community” has? Are these explicity written somewhere? Who decided those?
Second, those actually don’t sound too uncommon.
For instance, one recent study found: “Security researchers have found, on average, five security flaws in each cryptocurrency ICO (Initial Coin Offering) held last year. Only one ICO held in 2017 did not contain any critical flaws.”
And remember, these projects are “open source” yet most buyers and investors didn’t bother looking at the code. OneCoin is par for the course.
On p. 159 they write:
The swift action revealed the strength of a self-policing, open-source community in pursuit of the truth.
In my most popular post last year, I went through in detail explaining how self-policing is an oxymoron in the cryptocurrency world.
For example, “the community” actively listed OneCoin on secondary markets and profited from its trading. Did exchange operators return those gains to victims? In addition, “the community” has thus far, not set up any self-regulating organization (SRO) that has any ability or teeth to enforce a code-of-conduct.
In fact, it was agencies from Sweden, the UK, and other governments that acted and cracked down on OneCoin… not a collective effort from exchanges or VCs or twitter personalities.
On p. 159 they explain googling for code on GitHub:
If nothing pops up with signs of the code on GitHub, then the cryptoasset is likely not open source, which is an immediate red flag that a cryptoasset and investment should be avoided.
Sure, but it doesn’t include the fact(s) that even in 2017 we knew that many coin projects had bugs in it… because there is no incentive to independently audit this code or to publish it in an objective manner.
For example, often when someone tries to help highlight problems, they are demonized as a “concern troll” as the coin tribes brigade their Twitter and reddit threads. There are a couple of sites like ConcourseQ that now do help highlight problems, but most “crypto thought leaders” on social media spend their time rallying retail investors to buy coins instead of busting or calling out the legitimate coin scams.
On p. 161 they write about John Law:
Fortunately, today it’s quite easy to find information on just about anyone through Google searches.
Yes and no. And that still doesn’t act as a shield against fraud. The founders of Centra had shady, criminal pasts but were still able to raise more than $30 million in an ICO. Their misdeeds only became widely known after a New York Timesarticle explored it… this was not a story that was investigated by any of the “coin media” who collectively have a vested interested not to “self-police” the market they cover.
As with most panics, the contagion spread from the Gold Exchange. Because of Gould’s cornering of the market, stock prices dropped 20 percent, a variety of agricultural exports fell 50 percent in value, and the national economy was disrupted for several months. Gould exited with a cool $11 million profit from the debacle, and scot-free from legal charges. It is all too common that character like Gould escape unscathed by the havoc they create, which then allows them to carry on with their machinations in other markets.
These kinds of panics and manipulation are part and parcel to retail traders on cryptocurrency exchanges. Scapegoats and the blame game consist of a myriad of boogeymen — but typically the culprits are never found.93
On p. 167 they write:
In addition to miners, in Dash there are entities called masternodes, which are also controlled by people or groups of people. Masternodes play an integral role in performing near instant and anonymous transaction with Dash.
Putting aside whether Dash is or is not anonymous… the fact that the authors state that humans play a direct role in running the infrastructure raises a bunch of questions that I have repeated in this review.
How are these participants held accountable? How is governance managed? Have these participants registered with FinCEN? Why or why not?
On p. 168 they write about the Bitcoin Rich List:
Another 116 addresses hold a total of 2.87 million bitcoin, or 19 percent of the total outstanding, which is sizeable. Unlike dash, however, these holders aren’t necessarily receiving half the newly minted bitcoin, and so their ability to push the price upward is less.
Should there be a thorough investigation of how any one party or set of parties can artificially move prices around based on control of the money supply? In our current real-world framework, there are frequent public hearings and audits done. When will minters of cryptocurrencies be publicly audited?
On p. 171 they write:
Each cryptoasset is different, as are the goals, objectives, and risk profiles of each investor. Therefore, while this chapter will provide a starting point, it is by no means comprehensive. It’s also not investment advice.
Throughout the book the authors have repeatedly endorsed or not-endorsed specific coins. The second edition needs to be a lot more consistent.
On p. 172 they write:
Currently, there is no such thing as sell-side research for cryptoassets, and this will require innovative investors to scour through the details on their own or rely on recognized thought leaders in the space.
This is a sad truth: it is nearly impossible to get neutral, objective research on any coin that has been created.
Why? Because all coin holders basically have an incentive to promote and advertise the coins they own and talk down other coins they perceive as competition. Paying “researchers” has happened and will continue to do so.
Also, here’s another appearance of “innovative investor” — can that be removed altogether?
And lastly, how to know who the “recognized thought leaders” are? Based on the amount of twitter followers they have? That has been gamed. Based on how popular their Youtube account is? That has been gamed.
For example, these two article explain some of this payola world:
It’s unclear if this is due to lobbying efforts or maybe the researchers owned a bunch of EOS coins. At this time, the EOS block producing and arbitrator framework are both broken. Block producers paused the network a few weeks ago and the arbitrators / constitutions will probably be scrapped.
How can this rating system be trusted?
On p. 173 they write about white papers:
Any cryptoasset worth its mustard has an origination white paper. A white paper is a document that’s often used in business to outline a proposal, typically written by a thought leader or someone knowledgeable on a topic. As it relates to cryptoassets, a white paper is the stake in the ground, outlining the problem the asset addresses, where the asset stands in the competitive landscape, and what the technical details are.
During the Consensus event this past May, someone accidentally dropped a napkin on the floor and someone loudly said: watch out, that’s the latest multimillion dollar white paper.
And that’s the situation where we are in now. Readers: the passage above was not at all critical of the real mess we are in today. For instance, Tron literally plagiarized in its whitepaper, raised a ton of money in its ICO and recently bought BitTorrent.
There is no direct connection between a “good” or “bad” whitepaper and the performance of the coin. Retail investors do not typically care and haven’t done much research. Yet another reason agencies such as the SEC will be overwhelmed in the coming years due to rampant fraud and deceit. Worth looking into the next edition.
On p. 173 they write:
Some of these white papers can be highly technical, though at the very least perusing the introduction and conclusion is valuable.
This seems like an incongruent statement compared to other advice in the book about doing deep research. Recommend revising.
On p. 174 they write:
A number of cryptoasset-based projects focus on social networks, such as Steemit and Yours, the latter of which uses litecoin. While we admire these projects, we also ask: Will these networks and their associated assets gain traction with competitors like Reddit and Facebook? Similarly, a cryptoasset service called Swarm City (formerly Arcade City) aims to decentralize Uber, which is already a highly efficient service. What edge will the decentralized Swarm City have over the centralized Uber?
And that in a nutshell is why the second edition of the book arguably needs to be slimmed down by 25%+. Virtually all of the use cases in this book are simply potential use cases and have shown little or even no traction in reality. For example, if the authors were as critical to Bitcoin and Zcash as they were to Swarm City then the second edition might be perceived as more balanced.
Specifically, in their promotion of Bitcoin as a payments platform, they have not done a deep dive into other existing payment networks, such as Visa or an RTGS from a central bank.94 They should do that in the next edition otherwise these come across as one-sided arguments.
Also, Yours switched from Litecoin over to Bitcoin Cash last year (around the time the book was published) and Swarm City is still not very active at the time this review was written.
On p. 175 they write about The Lindy Effect
The same applies to cryptoassets. The longest-lived cryptoasset, bitcoin, now has an entire ecosystem of hardware, software developers, companies, and users built around it. Essentially, it has created its own economy, and while a superior cryptocurrency could slowly gain share, it would have an uphill battle given the foothold bitcoin has gained.
This is untrue in theory and practice.
While maximalists would vocally claim that there can only be one-chain-to-rule-them-all, there is no real moat that Bitcoin has to prevent users from exiting or switching to other platforms (see discussion on substitute goods).
In practice, effectively all proof-of-work cryptocurrencies depend on external capital to stay afloat, often in the form of venture capital. ((See Robert Sams on rehypothecation, deflation, inelastic money supply and altcoins)) Part of the reason is that miners need to pay their bills in traditional currency and therefore must liquidate some or all of their coins to do so. Another issue is that because many participants think or believe that coin prices as measured in real money will increase in the future, they hold. Yet the expenses of service providers (exchanges, wallets, etc.) typically need to be paid with traditional money.
As a result, this creates sell-side pressure. And unlike the traditional FX market which has “natural” buyers in the form of international merchants and multinational corporations: there still is no “natural” buyers of cryptocurrencies outside of illicit activity (e.g., darknet market participants).
To compound this situation is that there is still no real circular flow of income, no real economy for any of these cryptocurrencies.95 And with the exception of a few cases each year, miners typically do not directly invest their coin holdings into companies, so crypotcurrency-related startups are dependent on foreign currency.
On p. 175 they write:
The demise of The DAO significantly impacted Ethereum (which The DAO was built on), but through leadership and community involvement, the major issues were addressed, and as of April 2017 Ethereum stands solidly as the second largest cryptoasset in terms of network value.
In the second edition, could the authors explicitly lay out how they define “leadership” in this context as well as what the “community” is? If it is singular and centralized, how is that fitting for an entity that is supposed to be decentralized?
Also, for readers interested in The DAO, here’s a short fiery thread on that topic.
On p. 176 they discuss “utility value and speculative value”
For bitcoin, its utility is that it can safely, quickly, and efficiently transfer value to anyone, anywhere in the world.
That may have been the original vision expressed in the whitepaper but it is not what the maximalists now claim Bitcoin is. Who’s promotion around utility is something we should take into consideration?
Also, considering how easy and common it is to hack cryptocurrency intermediaries such as exchanges, I think it is debatable that Bitcoin is “safe” for unsophisticated retail users, but that’s a separate topic.
On p. 176 they write:
The merchants wants to use bitcoin because it will allow her to transfer that money within an hour as opposed to waiting a week or more. Therefore, the Brazilian merchant buys US$100,000 worth of bitcoin and sends it ot the Chinese manufacture.
They explain a little more but the difficulties with this example starts here. The authors only focus on the bitcoins themselves, they don’t explore the actual full lifecycle that international merchants and manufacturers have to go through in order to exchange bitcoins into real money that they can use to pay bills.
That is to say: the Brazilian merchant and Chinese manufacture do not hold onto coins, so it is not just a matter of how fast they can send or receive the coins. What ultimately matters to them is how quickly they can receive the real money from a bank.
So the next edition needs to include the full roundtrip costs and frictions including the on-ramps and off-ramps into the traditional financial system. This is why many Bitcoin remittance companies struggled and ultimately had to pivot out of that cross-border use case (such as Abra). For the next edition, a side-by-side cost comparison would be helpful.96
On p. 177 they write:
That means on average each of these addresses is holding US$5.5 million worth of bitcoin, and it’s fair to assume that these balances are not those of merchants waiting for their transactions to complete. Instead, these are likely balances of bitcoin that entities are holding for the long term based on what they think bitcoin’s future utility value will be. Future utility value can be thought of as speculative value, and for this speculative value investors are keeping 5.5 million bitcoin out of the supply.
This seems like euphemisms. We understand that time preferences and discounted utility come into dramatic effect here. Maybe worth rewording?
For example, a large portion of those coins could be permanently destroyed (e.g., someone deleted the private key or threw away the hard drive). Though a significant portion could also be maximalists holding onto their coins with the hope that other investors create sufficient demand to move the price — as measured in real money — upward and upward. So they can then cash out.
If daily and weekly anecdotes on twitter and reddit are any indication, that’s arguably the real utility value of most coins, not just bitcoin. And there is some analytics to back up that argument too.
On p. 177 they write:
At the start of April 2017, there were just over 16 million bitcoin outstanding. Between international merchants needing 10 million bitcoin, and 5.5 million bitcoin held by the top 1,000 investors, there are only roughly 500,000 bitcoin free for people to use.
Citation needed. If the authors have any specific information that can share with the audience about any of these numbers, that’d be very helpful. Especially regarding the merchants needing 10 million bitcoin. If anything, there may be fewer merchants actively accepting bitcoin today than there were a couple years ago.
On p. 177 they write:
If demand continues to go up for bitcoin, then with a disinflationary supply schedule, so too will its price (or velocity).
It would be good to see what the authors think the velocity of bitcoin is. I’ve tried to track down and write about it in the past. See all of Chapter 9.
On p. 177 they write:
In other words, those investors no longer feel bitcoin has any speculative value left, and instead its price is only supported by current utility value.
As mentioned above, it would be helpful in the next edition if the authors included specific definitions and characteristics in a chart for what utility versus speculative value are.
Also, I don’t endorse the post in its entirety, but about five years ago Rick Falkvinge wrote an interesting note about the transactional value from illicit activity as it relates to Bitcoin. That has some actual data in it (though very old now).
On p. 178 they write:
For bitcoin, instead of looking at the “domestically produced goods and services” it will purchase in a period, the innovative investor must look at the internationally produced goods and services it will prucahse. The global remittances market–currently dominated by companies that provide the ability for people to send money to one another internationally–is an easy graspable example of service within which bitcoin could be used.
This whole section should probably be culled because this isn’t really a viable, scalable use case that bitcoin itself can solve.
For example, between 2014-2016, tens of millions of dollars were invested in more than a dozen “rebittance” companies (Bitcoin-focused remittance) and most either failed or pivoted.
Those that still exist had to build additional services and bitcoin were a means to an end. In all cases, these companies had to build their own cryptocurrency exchange and/or partner with several cryptocurrency exchanges in order to liquidate the coins — they need to hedge and limit their exposure to volatility. Bitcoin also doesn’t solve for the last-mile problem at all… but that is a separate topic.97
On p. 179 they write:
If each bitcoin needs to be worth $952 to service 20 percent of the remittance market and $11,430 to service the demand for it as digital gold, then in total it needs to be worth $12,382. There is no limit to the number of use cases that can be added in this process, but what is extremely tricky is figuring out the percent share of the market that bitcoin will ultimately fulfill and what the velocity of bitcoin will be in each use case.
This is highly debatable. And it is exactly what Pantera stated four years ago. Sources should be cited in the next edition; and also provide a velocity estimate for the potential use cases.
On p. 180 they write:
Taking the concepts of supply and demand, velocity, and discounting, we can figure out what bitcoin’s value should be today, assuming it is to serve certain utility purposes 10 years from now. However, this is much easier said than done, as it involves figuring out the sizes of those markets in the future, the percent share that bitcoin will take, what bitcoin’s velocity will be, and what an appropriate discount rate is.
An actual asset would certainly need these blanks filled, but Bitcoin doesn’t behave like a normal asset. For instance, it goes through enormous speculative bubbles and busts. It reached just under $20,000 per coin in mid-December last year not for any utility reason but pure speculation… yet many of the “thought leaders” at the time said it was because new buyers were going to use it for its utility.
On p. 180 they write:
Already there have been reports, such as those from Spence Bogart at Needham & Company, as well as Gil Luria at Webush, that look at the fundamental value of bitcoin.
I’ve read most of their reports, they’re nearly all based on edge-case assumptions or one-off anecdotes that never saw much traction (such as remittances). In addition, arguably both of their analysis may have been colored by their coin investments at the time they published their work. That’s not to say their material is discredited but I would discount some of their cryptocurrency-related reports.98
On p. 180 they write:
The valuations these analysts produce can be useful guides for the innovative investor, but they should not be considered absolute dictations of the truth. Remember, “Garbage in, garbage out.” We suspect that as opposed to these reports remaining proprietary, as is currently the case with much of the research of equities and bonds, many of these reports will become open-source and widely accessible to all levels of investors in line with the ethos of cryptoassets.
This has not happened. If anything, the market has been flooded with junk marketing material that masquerades as “research.” Universities are now getting funded by coin issuers and asked to co-publish papers. Even if there are no explicit shenanigans going on, there is now a shadow of doubt that hangs over these organizations.
Also, the next edition needs to define what “the ethos of cryptoassets” is somewhere up front. And dispense with “innovative investor”?99
On p. 182 they write about getting to know “the community and the developers”:
In getting to know the community better, consider a few key points. How committed is the developer team, and what is their background? Have they worked on a previous cryptoasset and in that processrefined their ideas so that they now want to alunch another?
If information cannot be found on the developers, or the developers are overtly anonymous, then this is a red flag because there is no accountability if things go wrong.
Satoshi clearly wouldn’t have been able to pass this test. Nor BitDNS originally (which later became Namecoin).
It is a double-standard to want accountability here yet promote an ill-defined “decentralization” throughout this book. You really can’t have it both ways.
Remember, the reason why administrators and operators of financial market infrastructure are heavily regulated is to hold participants legally responsible and accountable for when mistakes and accidents occur.
Cryptocurrencies were designed to be anarchic and purposefully were designed to not make a single participant accountabile. Trying to merge those two worlds creates the worst of both: permissioned-on-permissionless.
On p. 183 they write:
If Ethereum gets big enough, there may eventually be those who call themselves Ethereum Maximalists!
Yes, they exist and largely self-selected themselves into the Ethereum Classic world… you can see that by their antics on social media.
On p. 183 they write about issuance models:
Next, consider if the distribution is fair. Remember that a premine (where the assets are mined before the network is made widely available, as was the case with bytecoin) or an instamine (where many of the assets are mined at the start, as was the case with dash) are both bad signs because assets and power will accrue to a few, as opposed to being widely distributed in line with the egalitarian ethos.
Let’s tone down the talk on egalitarianism in a market fueled by greed and a perpetually high Gini coefficient.
In practice as of July 2018, many ICOs are pre-mined or pre-allocated, most as ERC20 tokens that are controlled by a singular entity (usually an off-shore foundation).100
Is this a “bad sign”? It would be helpful to see what the explicit criteria around token distribution should be in the next edition.101
On p. 183 they write:
For example, Ethereum started with one planned issuance model, but is deciding to go with another a couple years into launch. Such changes in the issuance model may occur for other assets, or impact those assets that are significatnly tied to the Ethereum network.
Those decision are made by individuals. Perhaps by the next edition we will know what FinCEN and other regulatory positions on individuals creating monetary policy and running financial market infrastructure.
On p. 184 they write:
With Dogecoin we saw that it needed lots of units outstanding for it to function as a tipping service, which justifies it currently having over 100 billion units outstanding, a significantly larger amount than Bitcoin. With many people turning to bitcoin as gold 2.0, an issuance model like Dogecoin’s would be a terrible idea.
What? Why? This passage conflates many different things.
As Jackson Palmer has repeatedly said: Dogecoin was set up as a joke, based on a meme. The authors seem to be taking its existence a little too seriously.
Dogecoin was originally based on Luckycoin which had a random money supply, so its original hashrate charts were all over the map, bipolar.
Its money supply was changed in part because it ran into an exitential crisis that it later (mostly) solved by merge mining with Litecoin in 2014
How does any of this have to do with maximalist narrative of “gold 2.0”?
On p. 186 they write:
The only way attackers can process invald transactions is if they own over half of the computer power of the network, so it’s critical that no single entity ever exceeds 50 percent ownership.
Technically this is not quite right.
The actual figure to sucessfully censor and/or reorg the chain may be as low as 33% and perhaps even 25% (dubbed “selfish mining“).102 More than 50% would mean the participants could do so repeatedly until their hashrate declines and/or a permanent fork occurs.
Aside from pressure on social media, there is nothing to prevent such “ownership” from taking place. And there is no legal recourse or accountability in the event it happens. And such “attacks” have occured on many different cryptocurrencies.103
On p. 186 they write:
In other words, miners are purley economically rational individuals–mercenaries of computer power–and their profit is largely driven by the value of the crypotasset as well as by transaction fees.
This should be reworded from the next edition because it is not true. Miners and mining pools are operated by people and they have various incentives, including to attack networks or abandon them altogether.
On p. 186 they write:
A clearly positively reinforcing cycle sets in that ensures that the larger the asset grows, the more secure it becomes–as it should be.
This is not true for proof-of-work coins.
If anything, mining and development have both trended towards centralization. For instance, it is estimated that Bitmain-manufactured hashing equipment currently generates 60-80% of the network hashrate and Bitmain-affiliated mining pools comprise about 50%+ of the current Bitcoin network. Maybe that is just momentary but singular entities on the mining side dominate many other cryptocurrencies as well. Perhaps that changes later in the year so it is worth revisiting in the next edition.
At the risk of being repetitive, more hash rate signifies more computers are being added to support the network, which signifies greater security.
This is a non sequitur. A new hashing machine capable of generating 10 times the amount of hashes as the previous machine could — ceteris paribus — result in other machines being turned off. In practice, you often have the Red Queen Effect take place (see Chapter 3).
Either way, depending on the costs of more efficient ASIC design, there could actually be fewer (or more) hashing machines added to a network depending on the expected price of the coin minus operating costs.
And in some cases, the network may become more centralized and therefore arguably less secure. Worth revising in next edition.
On p. 188 they write:
While hash rate often follows price, sometimes price can follow hash rate. This happens in situations where miners expect good things of the asset in the future, and therefore proactively connect machines to help secure the network. This instills confidence, and perhaps the expected good news has also traveled to the market, so the price start going up.
This passage has entered Rube Goldberg territory, where a series of specific events turn into a virtuous cycle in which prices go up and up but not down? How can we ever know what caused certain price increases or decreases with this type of asymmetric information occurring in the background? Suggest scrapping it in the next edition.
On p. 188 they write:
Ethereum’s mining network, on the other hand, is less built out because it’s a younger ecosystem that stores less value. As of March 2017, a 230 megahash per second (MH/s) mining machine could be purchased for $4,195, and it would take 70,000 of these machines to recreate Ethereum’s hash rate, totaling $294 million in value. Also, because Ethereum is supported by GPUs and not ASICs, the machines can more easily be constructed piecemeal by a hobbyist on a budget.
There are a few issues with this:
How do the authors measure or quantify “less built out”? Is there a line that is crossed in which Ethereum or other coins are “more built out” or the right size?
About a year ago a coin reporter asked me to detail the hypothetical lower bound costs for recreating the hashrate of the Bitcoin network. I provided those numbers based on Bitmain’s latest device… but the article instead ignored any of that and instead quoted some random conspiracy theory from a Twitter personality. Rather than rehashing the full story here, keep in mind that the geographic distribution and control of mining equipment is arguably as important as the aggregate network hashrate.
Their last sentence does not make much sense. How to define a hobbyist? If a hobbyist is defined as an individual who can afford to spend $4,195… then they can probably also buy ASIC equipment as well for other cryptocurrencies, including Ethereum today.
On p. 188 they write:
This range is a good baseline for the innovative investor to use for other cryptoassets to ensure they are secured with a similar level of cpaital spend as Bitcoin and Ethereum, which are the two best secured assets in the blockchain ecosystem.
There is another appearance of the “innovative investor,” remove in next edition?
Also, if security is solely measured by hashrate then yes, Bitcoin (BTC) and Ethereum (ETH) might be the “best secured.” But that assumes a purely Maginot Line attack and not a BGP or wrench attack.
On p. 189 they write:
Overall, hash rate is important, but so too is decentralization. After all, if the hash rate is extremely high but 75 percent of it is controlled by a single entity, then that is not a decentralized system. It is actually a highly centralized system and therefore vulnerable to the whims of that one entity.
This probably should come at the beginning of the chapter, not in this location. Also recommend adding some citations to the Onename and BGP posts.
On p. 189 they write:
It’s apparent that Litecoin is the most centralized, while Bitcoin is the most decentralized. A way to quanitfy the decentralization is the Herfindahl Hirschman Index (HHI), which is a metric to measure competition and market concentration.
HHI is used with known, legally identifiable parties. With cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Litecoin, and Ethereum — the mining entities were not originally supposed to be known at all — over time they self-doxxed themselves.104
Should the Department of Justice and similar organizations coordinate and carry out HHI analysis on mining pools to prevent monopolization, oligopolization, and/or coordination? What happens if participants refuse to comply?
On p. 191 they write:
Blockchain networks should never classify as a highly concentrated marketplace, and ideally, should always fall into the competitive market place category.
Okay, but what if they don’t and no one cares? Who should enforce this?
At times, Bitcoin has been a moderately concentrated marketplace, just as Litecoin mining is currently a moderately concentrated marketplace. Litecoin recognizes the impact that large mining pools can have on the health of its ecosystem and the quality of its coin. To that point, Litecoin developers have instituted an awareness campaign called “Spread the Hashes” for those mining litecoin to consider spreading out their mining activies. The campaign recommends that litecoin computers mine with a variety of mining pools rather than concentraing solely in one.
The anthropomorphism needs to be removed in the second edition. “Litecoin” does not recognize anything because Litecoin is not a singular autonomous entity.
There are individual people, developers who work on a certain implementation of Litecoin that may promote something — and if they coordinate (which they do) then perhaps they could be classified as administrators.
Either way, this “Spread the Hashes” campaign didn’t seem to work:
As the pie chart above illustrates, just 5 entities currently account for about 90% of the network hashrate. And the largest 3 effectively could coordinate to control the network if they wanted to.
Worth noting that similar marketing campaigns to “spread the hashes” have been done on other networks. Back in 2014 when GHash.io reached the 50% mark, reddit was filled with discussions imploring miners to switch to P2Pool.
Not all nodes are made equal. A single node could have a large number of mining computers behind it, hence capturing a large percentage of the overall network’s hash rate, while another node could have mining computer supporting it, amounting to a tiny fraction of Bitcoin’s hash rate.
Sort of. There are two different nodes: nodes that fully validate and attempt to append the blockchain by submitting a proof-of-work that meets the necessary difficulty threshold… and nodes that don’t. In practice, today we call the former “mining pools” and the latter, just nodes.
For instance, in Bitcoinland there was a vicious war of words from 2015-2017 waged by several parties who did not operate mining pools, or nodes that generated proofs-of-work.105 One subset of these parties used various means and channels to insist that miners did not ultimately matter, that it was “users” who truly controlled the network and they labeled themselves “UASF.” And some of the most vocal members of this “populism wing” insisted that the nodes run by mining pools were no more important than the nodes run by some hobbyist in an apartment.
The views were irreconcilable and the ultimate result is that one group involved in that battle, forked off and created a new chain called Bitcoin Cash (BCH), whereas many of the other parties coalesced with what is called Bitcoin (BTC). There is a lot more to the story, a messy emotional divorce that still continues today.
Technically the decision to fork or not fork is made by mining pools and the nodes they each manage, but there are more nuances and politics involved that go beyond the scope of this review.
On p. 194 they write:
William Mougayar, author of The Business Blockchain, has written extensively about how to identify and evaluate new blockchain ventures and sums up the importance of developers succinctly: “Before users can trust the protocol, they need to trust the people who created it.” As we touched upon in the prior chapter, investigate the prior qualifications of lead developers for a protocol as much as possible.
Two problems with this:
I wrote a lengthy book review of Mougayar’s book and found it disappointing and do not recommend because of statements like the one above.
What were Satoshi’s qualifications? No one knows, but no one really cares either. Similarly, what were Vitalik Buterin’s qualifications? He was 19 when he announced Ethereum at Bitcoin Miami and had recently dropped out of college. Similarly, Gavin Wood was a 34 year-old developer building music-related apps prior to co-founding Ethereum. Would these two key guys been deemed qualified? What are the qualifications necessary to be a blockchain wizard?
On p. 194 they write:
Developers have their own network effect: the more smart developers there are working on a project, the more useful and intriguing that project becomes to other developers. These developers are then drawn to the project, and a positively reinforcing flywheel is created. On the other hand, if developers are exiting a project, then it quickly becomes less and less interesting to other developers, ultimately leaving no one to captain the software ship.
A couple of thoughts:
This is a nice sounding theory, but that’s not really what happens with most of these projects. Generally developers are attracted due to the compensation they can receive… they do a risk-reward analysis. I’ve met and spoken to dozens, perhaps north of 100 cryptocurrency-related teams in the past 12 months across the globe. Attracting talented developers is not nearly as easy and clear cut as the authors make it sound above.
Also, having a single “captain of the ship” seems like a single point of failure and a centralization risk. Is that part of the undefined ethos?
On p. 195 they write:
Recall that this is how Litecoin, Dash, and Zcash were created from Bitcoin: developers forked Bitcoin’s code, modified it, and then re-released the software with different functionality. Subscribers refer to people wanting to stay actively involved with the code. In short, the more code repository points, the more developer activity has occured around the cryptoasset’s code.
That’s not necessarily true, and in fact, has been gamed by coin issuers who want to make it look like there is a lot of independent activity and traction with developers… by creating spam accounts and very small changes to simple documents (like grammar).
Readers may also be interested in CoinGecko to see how this acitivity is weighted.
On p. 198 they write:
A different approach is to monitor the number of companies supporting a cryptoasset, which can be done by tracking venture capital investments. CoinDesk provides some of this information as seen in Figure 13.13. Though as we will address in Chapter 16 on ICOs, the trend in this space is moving away from venture funding and toward crowdfunding.
Actually, as mentioned a couple time earlier, there has been a noticeable divergence the past 12 months: coin sales that are done as private placements versus coin sales that have a public facing sale.
In general, most of the coins that have raised capital through private placement deals typically have less than 100 investors, many of which are the aforementioned “crypto hedge funds” and coin-focused venture funds such as Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures.
The public facing sales are generally eschewed by venture funds. If venture funds are involved in a coin that does a public sale, they typically are involved in what is called a “pre-sale” where they receive preferential terms and conditions, such as discounted coins.
Upon the conclusion of the “pre-sale” the actual public sale begins with heavy marketing on social media towards retail investors. Sometimes these sales have hundreds or even thousands of individual participants. That could be called a “crowdsale” and these participants typicallyget worse terms than those who participated in the pre-sale.
On p. 199 they write:
Another good proxy for the increased acceptance of a cryptoasset and its growing offering by highly regulated exchanges is the amount of fiat currency used to purchase it.
Maybe consider revising because we have all been told that cryptocurrencies would not only displace “fiat currency” but also topple and replace the existing financial system… how does measuring these new internet coins with old money help achieve that?
For instance, at the time of this writing none of the US-based retail exchanges with domestic bank accounts have recently listed an ICO (with the exception of ETH and ETC). This includes: itBit, Bitflyer, Coinbase, and Gemini.106 Kraken’s retail exchange uses payment processors and banking partners outside of the US.107
On p. 199 they write:
in the one-year period from March 2016 to March 2017, ether went from being traded 12 percent of the time with fiat currency to 50 percent of the time. This is a good sign of the maturation of an asset, and shows it is gaining wider recognition and acceptance.
Why is that specific ratio or percentage deemed good? The next edition should include a table explaining this in further because it is unclear why it is good, neutral, or bad.
On p. 201 they write about wallets from Blockchain.info:
Clearly, having more users that can hold a cryptoasset is good for that asset: more users, more usage, more acceptance. While the chart shows an exponential trend, there are a few drawbacks for this metric. For one, it only shows the growth of Blockchain.info’s wallet users, but many other wallet providers exist. For example, as of March 2017, Coinbase had 14.2 million wallets, on par with Blockchain.info. Second, an individual can have more than one wallet, so some of these numbers could be due to users creating many wallets, a flaw which extends to other wallet providers and their metrics as well.
In the past I have written extensively on how these headline wallet numbers are basically gimmicks and don’t accurately measure users or user activity.
Why? Because it costs nothing to open one. And often there is no KYC or AML involved in creating one as well. As a result, bots can be used to create many each day to inflate the metric.
Coinbase has actually removed usage data in the past and they still don’t define what the difference between a user or wallet is. Nor do either company provide traditional DAU / MAU metrics. It’s not hard to do and it is unclear why they don’t. The only way we have some semblance of an idea of what Coinbase user numbers were between 2013-2015 is because of the IRS lawsuit mentioned above.
On p. 201 they write about a search trend, “BTC USD,” first described by Willy Woo:
If we assume this to be true, then Woo’s analysis indicating a doubling in bitcoin users every year and an order of magnitude growth every 3.375 years. He calls this Woo’s Law in honor of Moore’s Law […] It will be interesting to see how Woo’s Law holds up over time.
How has it done? “Woo’s Law” has thus far not held up.
For instance, below is a 5 year trend chart of the same search term promoted by Woo and others last year:
As we can see above, this term has some correlation between interest in coins specifically during price bubbles. But this has not translated into large quantities of new daily users.108
The next edition of this book should remove this faux eponym because it has not withstood the test of time and doesn’t measure actual users.
On p. 202 they write:
Figure 13.17 shows the hyper growth of Ethereum’s unique address count. With Ethereum, an address can either store a balance of either, like Bitcoin, or it can store a smart contract. Either denotes an increase in use.
The next edition should include a caveat because it is unclear from this chart alone what kind of use is taking place. Is it coin shuffling, miner payouts, gambling payouts, Crypokitty activity, etc.? Maybe it is just someone spamming the network?
For instance, according to DappRadar which tracks 650 ethereum Dapps, over the past 24 hours there have only been 9,926 users sending 43,652 transactions. That may sound intriguing but… nearly about 2/3rd of all these users are using decentralized exchanges (DEX). If trading and arbitraging are the “killer apps” of cryptocurrencies, then the next edition of this book could be a lot slimmer than it is now.
As described in “Slicing data,” not all transactions are the same and a deep dive needs to be done to fully describe the behavior taking place.
But this is just an estimate from Blockchain.info and is likely widely exaggerated because Blockchain.info — like most wallet providers — probably has no idea what the intent behind those transactions are. We need data from all of the exchanges, payment processors, and merchants that accept coins in order to conclusively know what activity was commercial versus non-commercial in nature.
For instance, a large portion of those transactions could simply be “change address.”
Not to get too technical, but with Bitcoin, in order to manually send X amount of bitcoin on-chain, users typically must enter a “change address” unless the whole amount of UTXO is consumed. It’s kind of like a bank teller moving money from one till to another between shifts. No new economic activity is actually taking place in the bank or in the real economy, but in this specific chart above, there is no way to differentiate “change address” activity with real commercial activity and so it all gets mixed and muddied.
On p. 204 they write:
If the network value has outpaced the transactional volume of that asset, then this ratio will grow larger, which could imply the price of the asset has outpaced its utility. We call this the crypto “PE ratio,” taking inspiration from the common ratio used for equities.
Except, without a thorough deep dive from an analytics provider who has mapped out activity into all of the exchanges, payment processors, and merchants — it is very difficult to actually differentiate the noise from the actual transactional utility.109
Here the authors take all on-chain transaction volume at face value. The next edition should scrap this section unless they get access to a thorough deep dive.
On p. 204 they write:
One would assume that an efficient price for an asset would indicate a steadiness of network value to the transaction volume of the asset. Increasing transactional volume of an asset should be met by a similar increase in the value of that asset. Upside swings in pricing without similar swings in transaction volume could indicate an overheating of the market and thus, overvaluation of an asset.
In Figure 13.22 the top line is called the resistance line, indicating a price that bitcoin is having trouble breaking through. Often these lines can be numbers of psychological weight, in this case the $300 mark.
I looked it up and couldn’t find a definition for what “psychological weight” is, so this should either be defined in the book or removed in the next edition.110
On p. 209 they write:
You’ll find many instances of newer cryptoassets experiencing wild price swings after their creation, but over time these younger assets begin to follow the rules of technical analysis. This is a sign that these assets are maturing, and as such, are being followed by a broader group of traders. This indicates they can be more fully analyzed and evaluated using technical analysis, allowing the innovative investor to better time the market and identify buy and sell opportunities.
Technical analysis may have its uses but by itself it is basically cargo cult science.
Since cryptoassets are digital bearer instruments, they are unlike many other investments that are held by a centralized custodian. For example, regardless of which platform an investor uses to buy stocks, there is a centralized custodian who is “housing” the assets and keeping track of the investor’s balance. With cryptoassets, the innovative investor can opt for a similar situation or can have full autonomy and control in storage. The avenue chosen depends on what the innovative investor most values, and as with much of life there are always trade-offs.
This is true: there are many choice. But in practice, as noted above by Jonathan Levin, a significant majority of transactions typically involves a 3rd party intermediary.
Why? Because Securing a bearer instrument can be a major hassle, as a result companies like Coinbase and Xapo offer custodial services. While re-introducing an intermediary helps with coin management that kind of defeats the purpose of having a pseudonymous bearer asset in the first place.111 But that’s a different discussion.112
On p. 212 they write:
Anyone with a computer can connect to Bitcoin’s network, download past blocks, keep track of new transactions, and crunch the necessary data in pursuit of the gold hash. Such open architecture is one of Bitcoin’s strongest points.
It may sound like a irrelevant nitpick but this is not unique to Bitcoin. Nearly every cryptocurrency listed on Coinmarketcap has the same set of “features.” Similarly, many enterprise vendors also are open source and anyone could set up their own network with the software. Future editions should include a more nuanced definition of “open.”
On p. 213 they write:
The first computer – or mining rig – with ASIC chips that were specifically manufactured for the process was connected in January 2013.
The citation the authors included was for Avalon. This is true insomuch as these systems were available for purchase to the general retail public. But the first known ASIC-mining system was launched in late 2012: ASICMiner privately run out of Hong Kong (from BitQuan and BitFountain). 113
On p. 214 they write:
For perspective, the combined compute power of Bitcoin’s network is over 100,000 times faster than the top 500 supercomputers in the world combined.
This type of stat is frequently repeated throughout the Bitcoin world but it is not an apples-to-apples comparison and should be removed in the next edition. The supercomputers are largely comprised of CPUs and GPUs which — as their names suggest — are flexible and capable of handling many different types of general purpose tasks.
ASICs on the other hand, are focused and specialized: capable of doing just one set of tasks over and over. ASICs found in a Bitcoin mining farm are not even capable of creating blocks to propagate on the network: they simply generate hashes. That is how limited they are in functionality.
On p. 214 they write:
Conceptually, mining networks are a perfect competition, and thus as margins increase, new participants will flood in until economic equilibrium is once again achieved. Thus the greater the value of the asset, the more money miners make, which draws new miners into the ecosystem, thereby increasing the security of the network. It’s a virtuous cycle that ensures the bigger the network value of a cryptoasset, the more security there is to support it.
I think this could be rewritten in the next edition to be closer with what happens in practice.114
For instance, as coin prices decrease, margins are squeezed and “marginal” operators exit, leaving fewer overall miners. In the past this has led to bankruptcies, such as KnC and HashFast.
Does this lead to a less secure network?
Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how we define secure and insecure. Pure hashrate is just one attribute… geographical location, amount of participants, and diversity of participants could be others as well. For example, see the discussion earlier on selfish-mining.
On p. 215 they write:
Before investing in a cloud-based mining pool, conduct research on the potential investment. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
This is good advice.
Also worth mentioning that “cloud-based mining” kind of the defeats the purpose of pseudonymous mining. If you have to trust the infrastructure provider to manage and operate the hashing equipment, why not just buy the coins? Why take that risk and also have to divulge your identity?
Incidentally, NiceHash is one of the most well-known cloud mining services available today. It partly cemented its notoriety (this is not an endorsement) as its mining units have been rented and used to attack several different cryptocurrencies. A site called Crypto51.app categorizes the costs of doing a brute force attack on dozens of coins and even lists the amount of hashrate NiceHash has in order to perform a hypothetical attack.
On p. 216 they write:
However, Ethereum will potentially switch to proof-of-stake early in 2018, as it is more efficient from an energy perspective, and therefore many claim is more scalable.
Quick note: this transition has been delayed again until at least the end of 2018 and more likely sometime in 2019 (although it has been moved many times before as well).
On p. 217 they write:
To this end, today numerous quality exchange are available to investors looking to gain and transact the more than 800 cryptoassets that currently exist.
In the next edition it is worth clarifying and defining what “quality” means because just about every retail / consumer-facing exchange has had its share of problems, including hacks and thefts.115 This is one of the reasons the SEC has denied ETF proposals.
With that said, there are a number of OTC trading desks run by reputable financial organizations that enable investors to trade, however, typically the minimum order size (buy/sell) is $100,000.116
On p. 218 they write:
Cryptoasset transactions are irreversible; therefore chargebacks are impossible. While an irreversible transaction may sound scary, it actually benefits the efficiency of the overall system. With credit card chargebacks, everyone has to bear the cost, whereas with cryptoassets only those who are careless bear the cost.
Two comments worth considering for the next edition:
Transactions in cryptocurrencies are possible through block reversals, which can and do happen. Often times they are relatively expensive to do, but during a “51% attack” it can occur, thus it is not impossible. In fact, as part of the Nano class action lawsuit, one of the suggested remedies is a roll-back.
As far as credit card chargebacks: this is largely borne by the merchant (not everybody). In fact, charge backs are largely a consumer-friendly feature, a type of insurance.117
On p. 221 they discuss insurance at exchanges.
At this time, no retail cryptocurrency exchange actually insures a users coin deposit. As a result, most custodians and intermediaries have had to self-insure (e.g., create their own insurance entity). There are institutional products (vaults) which are attempting to get 3rd party insurance.
Prior to the hack, Bitfinex had settled with the CFTC for $75,000 primarily because its cold storage of bitcoin ran afoul of CFTC regulations. The move to place all clients’ assets into hot wallets is cited by many as due to the fine and CFTC regulations. Either way, this hack proved that no matter the security protocols put in place, hot wallets are always more insecure than properly executed cold storage because the hot wallet can be accesssed from afar by anyone with an Internet connection.
This passage should be revised in the next edition for a few reasons:
First, as mentioned earlier, Bitcoiners like to find a good boogeyman and in this hacking incident, they blamed the CFTC.
For instance, I reached out to Zane Tackett who — at the time — was head of communications for Bitfinex.
According to Tackett: “We migrated to the bitgo setup before any discussions or anything with the CFTC happened”
I then publicly pointed out, to Antonopoulos and others, that the CFTC blame game was false. But instead of deleting that tweet and focusing on who actually hacked Bitfinex, the ideological wing of the Bitcoin tribe continues to push this false narrative.
Tackett even explicitly answered this question in detail on reddit that same day.
So either Tackett is lying or Antonopoulos is wrong. In this case, it is likely the latter.
The second point worth adding to the passage above in the book is that after nearly two years we still haven’t been told exactly what happened with the hack and theft. This, despite the fact that Bitfinex has said on more than one occasion that it would provide an audit and public explanation.
An ETF is arguably the best investment vehicle to house bitcoin.
This is debatable. Last year Jack Bogle – founder of Vanguard, a firm that popularized broad market index ETFs – implored the public to avoid bitcoin like the plague for several reasons. Critics say he is out of touch, but even if that were true that doesn’t mean his expert views on structuring ETFs should be dismissed.
On p. 238 they write:
Regardless of what people expected going into the SEC decision most everyone was taken aback by the rigidity of the SEC’s rejection. Notably the SEC didn’t spend much time on the specifics of the Winklevoss ETF but focused more on the overarching nature of the bitcoin markets. Saying that these markets were unregulated was an extra slap to the Winklevosses, who had spent significant time and money on setting up the stringently regulated Gemini exchange. In focusing on the bitcoin markets at large, the rejection implied that an ETF will not happen in the United States for some time.
For the next edition, this paragraph should probably be removed.
The facts of the Bitcoin markets today are as follows:
Mining is the process of minting new coins as well as processing transactions and… is largely unregulated in any jurisdiction.
Many exchanges, in particular those outside the US, comply with a hodge podge of regulations, often without the same strict KYC / AML / sanctions checks required for US exchanges.
Gemini and the Winklevoss have no ability to police these unregulated trading venues and unregulated coin minters. That probably won’t change in the near future.
Perhaps the SEC will eventually approve an ETF, but they arguably were not being rigid — they were being practical. In their view: why allow an unregulated asset whose underlying genesis and trading market is still very opaque and frequently is used for illicit activity?
Lastly the next edition should include a citation for who “most everyone” includes, because in my own anecdotal experience, the majority of traders at US exchanges I interact with did not think it would be allowed at that time. Note: my deep dive on the COIN ETF and its ever changing history, can be found here.
On p. 238 they write:
On Monday, naysarers were faced with the reality that bitcoin was once again back over $1,200, and the network for all cryptoassets had increased $4 billion since the SEC decision. Yes, $4 billion in three days.
A couple of thoughts:
Typo: naysarers should be naysayers
Recommend removing this sentence in the next edition because the attitude comes off as a little smug and has an ad hominem. People are allowed to have different views on the adoption of technology which is separate from what the price of a coin will be. And justifying a trading position based on price movements which are based on the mood of retail investors should probably not be the takeaway message for a mainstream book.
On p. 240 they write:
By purchasing XBT Provider, GABI strengthened the reliability of the counterparty to the bitcoin ETNs and added a nice asset to its growing bitcoin investing platform for institutions.
For the next edition, recommend removing “nice” because that is a subjective word. There are other ways to describe this acquisition.
On p. 242 they write:
It also created an independent advisory committee, including bitcoin evangelist Andreas Antonopoulos to oversee its pricing model, which utilized prices from various exchanges throughout the world.
Why is this specific person considered an expert on futures? There are a lot of articulate developers involved in promoting cryptocurrencies, but their expertise is typically not in finance. If anything, this specific person has a vocal disdain for regulators, financial institutions, and regulated instruments… just see his tweet above in Chapter 14.119
Maybe in the next edition discuss the controversy of having a futures contract that is not physically deliverable. Could also include how the CFTC has subpoenaed the four partner exchanges working with the CME: Coinbase, Kraken, itBit, and Bitstamp. These four exchanges create the price used in bitcoin futures by the CME.
On p. 249 they write:
For first-time founders who want to approach venture capitalists for an investment, often they must know someone-who-knows-someone. Having such a connection allows for a warm introduction as opposed to being among the hundreds of cold calls that venture capitalists inevitably receive. To know someone-who-knows-someone requires already being in the know, which creates a catch-22.
This is a very good point. However, it would be worth adding in the next version how most ICOs and coin sales now require knowing someone because most private sales involve roughly the same insular, exclusive set of funds and investors as the “old method” did.
On p. 252 they write:
Before we dive into the specifics of how a cryptoasset offering is carried out, the innovative investor needs to understand that the model of crowdfunding cryptoassets is doubly disruptive. By leveraging crowdfunding, cryptoasset offering are creating room for the average investor to stand alongside venture capitalists, and the crowdfunding structure is potentially obviating the need for venture capitalists and the capital markets entirely.
In the next edition, worth mentioning that this was the general pitch for ICOs starting with Mastercoin (2013) all the way up through 2016. But over the past two years and certainly in the past 12 months it has dramatically shifted back towards the traditional venture route.
One of the reasons why is because of the filtering and diligence process. Those that don’t get selected and/or those ICOs that don’t meet the requirements of this small group of funds often decide to do a public sale. And many of these ideas were half-baked and sometimes fraudulent, according to one recent report: More Than Three-Quarters of ICOs Were Scams
On p. 253 they write:
Monegro’s thesis is as follows: The Web is supported by protocols like the transmission control protocol/Internet protocol (TCP/IP), the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP), and simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP), all of which have become standards for routing information around the internet. However, these protocols are commotidized, in that while they form the backbone of our internet, they are poorly monetized.
It could be argued that Monegro’s thesis has failed to live up to its hype thus far. And counterfactually, if “tcpipcoin” existed, it may have actually stunted the growth of the internet as Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn would have allocated more time promoting the coin rather than the technology. We can disagree about this alternative scenario, but I have mentioned it before in Section 8.
For example, we frequently see that dozens of nonsensical conferences and meetups conducted on a weekly basis globally try to promote a shiny new protocol coin of some kind. Trying to monetize a public good with a coin thus far has not removed the traditional incentive and sustainability issues around a public good. That would also be worth discussing in the next edition.120
On p. 253 they write:
All the applications like Coinbase, OpenBazaar, and Purse.io rely on Bitcoin, which drives up the value of bitcoin.
Worth updating this because Purse.io added support to Bitcoin Cash. And OpenBazaar switched over to Bitcoin Cash altogether.
Also, Coinbase has become less maximalist over time and now provides trading support for four different coins.121 Though it probably wouldn’t be technically correct to call Coinbase or Purse a Bitcoin application. In the case of Coinbase, users use an off-chain database to interact and Coinbase controls the private key as a custodian / deposit-taking institution.
On p. 254 they write:
Interestingly, once these blockchain protocols are released, they take on lives of their own. While some are supported by foundations, like the Ethereum Foundation or Zcash Foundation, the protocols themselves are not companies. They don’t have income statements, cash flows, or shareholders they report to. The creation of these foundations is intended to help the protocol by providing some level structure and organization, but the protocol’s value does not depend on the foundation.
This is another reason to heavily modify chapter 7 in future versions because it is not an apples-to-apples comparison: coins and coin foundations are not the same thing as for-profit companies that issue regulated instruments (stocks, bonds, etc.).
Also, the very last sentence is highly debatable because of how often foundation and foundation staff are integral to the longevity of a coin.
Recall that blockchains do not maintain or market themselves, people do. And is often the case: staff and contractors of these foundations frequently use social media to promote potential upgrades as well as publicize the coins attributes to a wider audience. In many cases it could be the case that the protocol’s value does depend on the work and efforts of others including specifically those at a coin foundation.122
On p. 254 they write:
Furthermore, as open-source software projects, anyone with the proper merits can join the protocol development team. These protocols have not need for the capital markets because they create self-reinforcing economic ecosystems. The more people use the protocol, the more valuable the native assets within it become, drawing more people to use the protocol, creating a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop. Often, core protocol developers will also work for a company that provides application(s) that use the protocol, and that is a way for the protocol developers to get paid over the long term. They can also benefit from holding the native asset since inception.
There are several points here that should be modified or removed in the next edition:
For instance, with Bitcoin, due to a variety of political fights and personality conflicts, multiple “core” developers have had their access rights removed including: Jeff Garzik, Mike Hearn, Gavin Andresen, and Alex Waters. Thus it is not true that anyone can join a team. It is also unclear what those merits may be as most of the projects don’t explicitly provide those in written format yet.
In addition, internet coins are often traded on secondary markets in order to provide liquidity to coin holders such as developers. They all need access to capital markets to stay afloat. No project is self-sustainable at this time because no coin is being used as a unit of account — miners and developers must liquidate coins in order to pay their bills which are denominated in foreign currency.
Lastly, in practice, there are many coins that have died or lost any developer support yet initially they may have had a small army of programmers and media attention. According to Coinopsy, more than 1,000 coins are dead. Thus in the next edition the “self-reinforcing” loop should probably be removed too.
On p. 256 they write:
ICOs have a fixed start and end date, and often there is a bonus structure involved with investing earlier. For instance, investing at an early stage may get an investor 10 to 20 percent more of a cryptoasset. The bonus structure is meant to incentivize people to buy in early, which helps to assure that the ICO will hit its target offering. There’s nothing like bonuses followed by scarcity to drive people to buy.
This should definitely be removed. In May, the SEC released a parody website called “HoweyCoins” which explicitly points to this precise FOMO behavior as a big no-no for both issuers and investors alike.
Also recommend the inclusion of the Munchee Order in this chapter as it would help illustrate what regulators such as the SEC perceive as improper fundraising techniques. Specifically, include this in the “announcing the ICO” section.
On p. 258 and 259 they discuss the Howey Test. It is strongly recommended that these two pages be reworded and modified based on the enforcement actions and guidance from the SEC and other securities regulators.
For instance, they write:
A joint effort by Coinbase, Coin Center, ConsenSys, and Union Square Ventures with the legal assistance of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, produced a document called, “A Securities Law Framework for Blockchain Tokens.” It is especially important for the team behind an ICO to utilize this document in conjunction with a lawyer to determine if a cryptoasset sale falls under SEC jurisdiction. The SEC made it clear in July 2017 that some cryptoassets can be considered securities.
The first sentence should probably be moved into a footnote and the second sentence removed altogether because this document did not age well.
In fact, the current version of the document – as it exists on Coinbase – informs readers in bright red that:
Please note that since this document was originally published on December 7, 2016, the regulatory landscape has changed. The information contained in this document, including the Framework may no longer be accurate. You should not rely on this document as legal advice and you should seek advice from your own counsel, who is familiar with the particular facts and circumstances of what you intend and can give you tailored advice. This Framework is provided “as is” with no representations, warranties or obligations to update, although we reserve the right to modify or change this Framework from time to time. No attorney-client relationship or privilege is created, nor is this intended to be attorney advertising in any jurisdiction.
On p. 259 they write:
Does the token sale tout itself as an investment? It should instead be promoted for its functionality and use case and include appropriate disclaimers that identify it as a product, not an investment.
This is arguably not good advice and should be removed. Why? Courts in the US will likely see through this euphemism. For other things not to do, recommend reading the ICO Whitepaper Whitepaper from Stephen Palley.
On p. 260 they write:
One of the oldest groups of angel investors in the blockchain and bitcoin space is called BitAngels. Michael Terpin of BitAngels has been active in angel investing in blockchain companies for as long as the opportunities have existed. Terpin’s annual conference, CoinAgenda, is one of the best opportunities for investors to see and hear management from blockchain startups present their ideas and business models.
For the next edition, I’d reconsider including this type of endorsement.123 There are some interesting stories that involving these specific entities worthy of a different post.
On p. 263 they write:
For instance, if Bitcoin influences how remittances are handled, what impact may that have on stocks like Western Union, a remittances kingpin? If Ethereum takes off as a decentralized world computer, will that have any effect on companies with cloud computing offerings, such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google? If companies can get paid more quickly with lower transaction fees using the latest cryptocurrency, will that have an impact on credit card providers like Visa and American Express.
For the next edition, this paragraph — or at least argument — should come earlier, perhaps even in Chapter 7 (since there is a discussion of specific publicly traded companies).
Another thing that should have been added to this section is actual stock prices for say, the past five years of the companies mentioned: Western Union, Visa, and American Express.
I have included those three below:
If the narrative is that Bitcoin or the “latest cryptocurrency” will erode the margins and even business models of existing payment providers, then at some point that should be reflected in their share prices.
As shown above, that does not seem to be the case (yet).
Perhaps that will change in the future, but consider this: all three of the companies above have either directly invested in and/or are collaborating in blockchain-related platforms — most of which do not involve any coin. Perhaps these firms never use a blockchain. In fact, maybe they find blockchains to be unhelpful as infrastructure altogether.
That is possible, hence the need to update this chapter to reflect the actual realities.
In addition, the other three companies listed by the authors have publicly discussed various blockchain-related efforts beyond just pilot offerings.
For instance, both Amazon and Microsoft have supported blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) offerings in production for over a year. Google has been a laggard but has internal projects attempting to leverage some of these ideas as well.
On p. 266 they write:
In 2016, the father-son team of Don and Alex Tapscott published the book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World, and William Mougayar published the book, The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice, and Application of the Next Internet Technology.
I wrote lengthy reviews of both. The short summary is that both were fairly superficial in their dive into use cases and vendors. The Mougayar book felt like it could use a lot more detailed meat. The Tapscott book was riddled with errors and unproven assertions. Would reconsider citing them in the next edition (unless they each dramatically update their content).
On p. 266 they write:
For companies pursuing a DLT strategy, they will utilize many of the innovations put forth by the developers of public blockchains, but they don’t have to associate themselves with those groups or share their networks. They pick and choose the parts of the software they want to use and run it on their own hardware in their own networks, similar to intranets (earlier referred to as private, permissioned blockchains).
These are pretty broad sweeping comments that should be modified in the next edition. Not every vendor or platform provider uses the same type of chain or ledger. These are not commoditized (yet).
There are many nuances and trade-offs for each platform. For the next edition, it would be helpful worth doing a comparison of: Fabric, Pantheon, Quorum, Corda, and other enterprise-focused platforms. In some cases, they may have an on-premise requirement and in others, nodes can run in a public cloud.
We see many DLT solutions as band-aids to the coming disruption. While DLT will help streamline existing processes–which will help profit margins in the short term–for the most part these solutions operate within what will become increasingly outdated business models.
Perhaps that it is true, but again, this language is very broad sweeping and definitive. It needs citations and references in the next edition.
On p. 267 they write:
The incumbents protect themselves by dismissing cryptoassets, a popular example being JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, who famously claimed bitcoin was “going to be stopped.” Mr. Dimon and other financial incumbents who dismiss cryptoassets are playing exactly to the precarious mold that Christensen outlines:
Disruptive technologies like cryptoassets initially gain traction because they’re “cheaper, simpler, smaller.” This early traction occurs on the fringe, not in the mainstream, which allows incumbents like Mr. Dimon to dismiss them. But cheaper, simpler, smaller things rarely stay on the fringe, and the shift to mainstream can be swift, catching the incumbents off guard.
For the next edition it would be good to remove the misconceptions repeated in the statement above. Jamie Dimon was specifically dismissing the exuberance of coin mania, not the idea of enhancing IT operations with something like a blockchain.
Worth adding to future versions: JPMorgan has financial sponsored Quorum, an open-source fork of Ethereum modified for enterprise-related uses. The bank has also invested in Digital Asset. It is also a member of three industry organizations: EEA, Hyperledger, and IC3. In addition, JP Morgan has filed blockchain-related patents, has launched a blockchain-based payment network with several banking partners, and also partnered with the parent company of Zcash to integrate ZSL into Quorum.
While Jamie Dimon may not share the same bullish views about coins as the authors do, the firm he is the CEO seems to be taking “blockchains” seriously.
On p. 267 they write:
One area long discussed as ripe for disruption is the personal remittances market, where individuals who work outside of their home countries send money back home to provide for their families.
This specific use case is a bit repetitive as it has been mentioned 5-6 times before in other chapters. Should probably remove this in future editions unless there is something different to add that wasn’t already explained before.
On p. 268 they write:
It’s no stretch then to recognize that bitcoin, with its low cost, high speed, and a network that operates 24/7, could be the preferred currency for these types of international transactions. Of course, there are requirements to make this happen. The recipient needs to have a bitcoin wallet, or a business needs to serve as an intermediary, to ultimately get the funds to the recipient. While the latter option creates a new-age middleman–which potentially has its own set of problems–thus far these middlemen have provided to be much less costly than Western Union. The middleman can be a pawnshop owner with a cell phone, who receives the bitcoin and pays out local currency to the intended recipient.
This should be modified in the next versions because it is a stretch to make those claims. That is the reason why multiple Bitcoin-focused remittance companies have pivoted or branched out because “moving” bitcoins across borders is the only easy part of the entire process. For instance, the KYC / AML checks during the on- and off-ramps are costly and are required in most countries. This should be included in any analysis.
Also, there are no citations in this paragraph. And the last sentence is describing the pawnshop owner as a money transmitter / money service business which is a regulated operation. Maybe the laws change, which is possible. But for the next version, the authors should include specific corridors and the costs and margins for MSBs operating in those corridors.
Lastly, any future analysis on this topic should also include the online and app-based product offerings from traditional remittance players such as Western Union. In nearly all cases, these products and services are faster and cheaper in the same corridors relative to traditional in-person visits.
The impact of this major disruption in teh remittance market should be recognized by the innovative investor not only because of the threat it creates to a publicly traded company like Western Union (WU) but for the opportunities it provides as well.
It is strange to hear this repeated multiple times without providing quantifiable specifics on how to measure this threat.
As mentioned a few pages earlier, if competitors (including, hypothetically cryptocurrencies) were to erode the margins of publicly traded companies, we should be able to see that eventually reflected in the share price. But Western Union has been doing more or less the same as it has the past couple of years.
What about others?
Above is the five year performance of Moneygram, another remittance service provider.
What happened the past two years? Did Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency pound its share value into the ground? Nope.
What happened is that one of Alibaba’s affiliates – Ant Financial – attempted to acquire Moneygram. First announced in early January 2017, Ant Financial wanted to acquire it for $880 million. Despite approval from the Moneygram board, the deal faced scrutiny from US regulators. Then in January 2018, the deal was axed as the US government blocked the transaction on national security grounds.
This hasn’t stopped Alibaba and its affiliates with finding other areas to grow. For instance, last month Alipay (part of Ant Financial) announced it had partnered with G Cash to in the Hong Kong – Philippines corridor, using a blockchain platform for remittances. No coin was needed in this process so far.
There may be some success stories of new and old MSBs that utilize cryptocurrencies in ways that make them more competitive, those should be included in the next edition along with more metrics readers can compare.124
On p. 270 they write:
For the long term investor, careful analysis should be undertaken to understand if insurance companies are pursing DLT use cases that will provide a lasting and meaningful solution. Lastly, some of the major consulting firms may be so entrenched in incumbent ideology that they too may be blind to the coming distruption.
A few comments that should be finnesed in the next version:
Similarly, every major consulting company and systems integrator has a team or two dedicated to helping clients build and integrate applications with specific enterprise-related “blockchain” platforms. Many of them have joined related consortia too. There are too many to even list here so it is unlikely they will get collectively blind-sighted as alluded to in the passage above.
On pgs. 272 and 273 they write about consortia:
Another consortium, The Hyperledger Project, offers more open membership than R3. Remember, one of the strengths and defining aspects of an effective blockchain project is its open source ethos.
While the [EEA] consoritum will work on software outside of Ethereum’s public blockchain, the intent is for all software to remain interoperable in case companies want to utilize Ethereum’s open network in the future.
Based on the passages above the next edition should incorporate a few changes.
The Hyperledger Project (HLP) is a non-profit group that does not itself aim to commercialize or deploy or operate any technology.125 The membership dues are largely used to maintain code repositories and sponsor events which educate attendees on projects incubated within HLP. It currently has around 200 members, including R3 which was a founding member. There are more than 5 codebases that are officially incubated, the most well-known is Fabric. However, HLP seeks to maintain a neutral position on which platform its members should use. Other notable platforms incubated within HLP include Iroha and Sawtooth (Lake).
In contrast, R3 is a for-profit company that set up a consortium in order to commercialize and deploy technology within the regulated financial industry.126 Its membership model has changed over time and it is the main sponsor for Corda, an open source platform. The consortium composition initially started with 42 banks and now includes about 200 entities including insurance companies, central banks, financial market infrastructure operators, and others.
The third most known consortium is the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA). It is kind of like the combination of the two above. It is a non-profit organization and itself does not aim to commercialize or deploy or operate any technology. It seeks to be a neutral entity within the greater Ethereum ecosystem and has many different working groups that span topics similar as the other two consortia above. It has hundreds of members and the main efforts have been around formalizing an enterprise-focused specification (EEA 1.0) that other vendors can create implementations of (such as Pantheon).
Like the members of the other two consortia above, nothing prevents an EEA member from using any other platform. Thus the authors usage of “open network” is superfluous because all of the codebases in each of these three consortia is open, anyone can download and use. The key differences are: what are the trade-offs with using each platform versus what are the benefits of membership for joining the consortia. These are two separate points that could be discussed further in the next edition.
On p. 276 they write:
The CFTC Director of Enforcement, Aitan Goelman, tried to clarify his opinion with this satement, “While there is a lot of excitement surrounding bitcoin and other virtual currencies, innovation does not excuse those acting in this space from following the same rules applicable to all participants in the commodity derivatives markets.” It is clearly confusing that the Direct of Enforcement of the agency that ruled bitcoin a commodity also called it a “virtual currency.”
For the next edition the authors should remove the unnecessary attitude in the last sentence.
Up through 2017, most US and even foreign regulators used the term “virtual currency” — not as a slight against Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies, but because that was the catchall term of art used for many years.
For instance, in March 2013, FinCEN released its guidance and it was entitled: “Application of FinCEN’s Regulations to Persons Administering, Exchanging, or Using Virtual Currencies”
Throughout the guidance, the term “virtual currency” is used more than 30 times.
And one relevant passage – especially for this book review – involves the definition of an administrator. According to FinCEN’s guidance:
“An administrator is a person engaged as a business in issuing (putting into circulation) a virtual currency, and who has the authority to redeem (to withdraw from circulation) such virtual currency.”
As it relates to the CFTC, earlier this year a federal judge in New York ruled that: “virtual currencies can be regulated by CFTC as a commodity.”
The ruling (pdf) specifically uses the phrase “virtual currency” not as a slight, but as a term of art. Perhaps other terms are used over time. For instance, in its new customer advisory issued this week, the CFTC mentioned potential scams that describe themselves as “utility coins” or “consumption coins.” Worth revisiting in the next edition.
On p. 280 they write:
Here’s another Burniske-Tatar Rule: Don’t invest in bitcoin, ether, or any other cryptoasset just because it’s doubled or tripled in the last week. Before investing, be able to explain the basics of the asset to a friend and ascertain if it fits well given the risk profile and goals of your investment portfolio.
This is good advice. And while the eponymous rule was coined several chapters ago, future editions should probably drop the name of that rule… because similar advice with slightly different wording has existed for decades (e.g., don’t invest more than you can afford to lose, do your own research, etc.).
On p. 282 they write:
Are millenials turning to bitcoin and cryptoassets for their investment? Is a Vanguard fund or a small investment in Apple any better? Whereas the Vanguard fund has a minimum investment amount and buying an equity will require commission, millennials see cryptoasset markets as a way to begin investing with a modest amount of money and in small increments, which is is often not possible with stocks or funds.
They also include a footnote that reads:
Each bitcoin can be divided into 100 million units, making it easy to buy 1/2, 1/10, 1/100 or 1/1000 of a bitcoin
Would recommend removing this passage altogether because there really aren’t many good surveys that indicate who actually bought coins versus who was just interested in them.
For instance, a flawed Finder.com survey that is still being cited, says that 8% of Americans have invested in cryptocurrencies.127 While it says the majority of investors are “millenials,” the survey doesn’t ask the most important question: does the investor control the private key. If you do not control the private key then you do not control the coin, someone else does.
In addition, there are online brokerages that do allow investors to invest with modest amounts, the most notable being Robinhood (which coincidentally also allows users to purchase several different cryptocurrencies). There are also a variety of spare change investment apps and robo-advisor products that allow users to have some exposure to regulated capital market too.
Lastly, regarding the footnote they provide: due to the fees required by Bitcoin miners, in practice over the past several months 1/1000 of a bitcoin is typically the minimum transaction fee. This is one reason why many investors simply leave coins on cryptocurrency exchanges: so they don’t have to pay fees to move them to other wallets.128
On p. 282 they write:
The important point is that at least they’re doing something to invest their funds and build the groundwork for a healthy financial future. We have seen firsthand millenials who have learned about investing from buying cryptoassets and have implemented investing approaches, such as taking profits at certain price points, seeking diversification into multiple assets, and so on.
This should probably be removed too because the same thing can be said to a new cohort of investors twenty years ago, such as the ones that invested in dotcom-related companies. Who remembers Beenz?
I fully expect some reaction towards this review along the lines that it was too picky or too pedantic. Perhaps this a little true but consider: what is the right size for a thorough book review in the age of so-so fact-checking?129 Also, most of my previous reviews were about the same length, or at least used the same page-by-page model.
There is obvious room for disagreement in areas involving opinions, but there are many technical and non-technical mistakes that the authors made, not just a small handful. By highlighting these, not only could the next edition be significantly improved but it helps readers new to this space get a better understanding of what the prevalent themes versus realities are.
The goal of this review was not to be overbearing but to be dispassionate about supposed common wisdom promoted in the cryptocurrency world.
For example, just the other day I noticed in a chatroom the following statement from a maximalist:
HODLer = DAU. Bitcoin has the most DAUs on any protocol.
Several people in the room agreed with those this statement and they are not alone. If the reader is interested in learning about the sociology and subculture of many Bitcoin enthusiasts, its worth skimming reddit and twitter occasionally to see how passionate coin investors think.130
But for businesspeople who are not part of the inner sanctum of Bitcoinland, the statement above from the chatroom may make you shrug.
After all, HODLing a dollar doesn’t make you a dollar user. HODLing a barrel of oil doesn’t make you a oil user. HODLing a brick of gold doesn’t make you a gold user. HODLing a digitized Pokemon card doesn’t make you a Pokemon user. HODLing a Stradivarius violin doesn’t make you a violin player. HODLing an Olympic medal doesn’t make you an Olympic athlete. And so forth. The valuation of an auction house isn’t measured by the amount of rare collectibles it sells in a day, why should internet coins and their platforms be an exception to that rule?131
Inactivity isn’t how activity is measured. Or to look at this argument from another angle: HODLing is not ‘active’ anything. If all an investor did was buy bitcoin and then lose their keys, they would accomplish the same thing described in the chatroom.132
Sure it is possible to redefine what Bitcoin or cryptocurrencies are supposed to do, but that’s after the fact. For example, if Satoshi had wanted to explicitly build “digital gold” he/she would likely have mentioned it in the original paper at least once and even architected Bitcoin to be something different than what it looked like in 2009.133 As mentioned above, the first app he looked at building was for poker.
This is definitely a topic worth including in the next edition, but I digress.134
Other general areas for improvement:
Add a glossary.
Add financial disclosures of coins owned by each author.
Provide specific definitions for vague terms like “the community,” “administrator,” and the attributes of a target investor; ditch the “innovative” investor nomenclature.
Chapter 7 probably should be removed until more accurate comparisons can be found and Chapter 17 seemed a bit unfocused and covered a wide array of topics instead of just one or two… even dropping in thoughts about regulators. Future versions likely need an entire set of chapters focused on regulations, not just mentioned in passing.
Based on the incorrect view of financing mentioned in Chapter 5, interview Vitalik Buterin and other co-founders regarding how Ethereum was bootstrapped.
In one of the future regulatory chapters, would be good to have a discussion around PFMI, CBDCs, and settlement finality.
Provide a lot more references and citations regarding cryptocurrency-focused use cases, especially remittance providers. This seemed to be the most repeated use case but nary a mention of a specific Bitcoin remittance company, its valuation, or volume corresponding to the use case.
Have a book or paper you’d like me to look at? Feel free to send it across. Also, it just came out but this one sounds like a doozy already. See my other book reviews.
To be fair, Burniske is not the only analyst-turned-VC who has not publicly disclosed his trading positions of coins, but that’s a separate topic. [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “Likely it was partially intentional to release in late 2008 / early 2009, but did in fact coincide mainly with internal constraints. We could also argue that the GFC commenced in mid-2007 when BNP Paribas froze two mortgage-backed security funds which became the catalyst of the summer 2007 credit crunch, but that is neither here nor there. I also debate the argument that it was ‘intended’ as anything other than a solution to the double-spend problem, be it a payments system or an investment.” [↩]
As an aside, Brian Kelly, frequently promotes various coins on CNBC. Unclear what his trading positions are on each coin at the time of recording. While that may not be illegal, it’s arguably not classy. [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “This was literally the ethos that led to the GFC. Securitization and Mark-to-model were heralded as “innovation” and championed for their ability to move faster than the academic foundation and until 2007 seen as a way to ‘completely engineer risk out of from the system.'” [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “The authors also miss that “value” is still a function of ‘the market’, i.e. supply and demand. Simply by fixing supply does not equalize demand. I also take massive issue with the governance in “a [de]centralized and democratic manner.” Are the authors able to write C++ or GOLang protocol code for Bitcoin Core or GETH? Likely not. So if anything this walks us towards a new form of governance, except where we elect leaders in the US who ultimately appoint Fed governors in cryptocurrencies there are generally no elections. Long story short, in all cases, it ain’t democratic and it probably remained at least partially centralised at a given point in time.” [↩]
See Central bank digital currencies from the BIS. I know, I’ll get spammed by all the “sound money” promoters out there who insist that Bitcoin will replace central banks — it’s a religious zeal to many. [↩]
For example, about a month ago, Jonathan Levin from Chainalysis did an interview and mentioned that: “So we can identify, it is quite hard to know how many people. I would say that 80% of transactions that occur on these cryptocurrency ledgers have a counterparty that is a 3rd party service. More than 80%.” [↩]
For instance, on p. xxvi they list “the top 50” coins at the end of 2016 and don’t disclose if they own any specific ones at all, but talk about many of them in positive ways. Adding a disclosure would be helpful. [↩]
The Economist wrote a nice short article on this behavior — the greater fool – last year. [↩]
For example, on p. 9 they write: “Shortly thereafter, Satoshi vanished. Some speculate it was for the good of Bitcoin. After all, being the creator of a technology that has the potential to replace much of the current financial system is bound to eventually invoke the wrath of powerful government and private sector forces.” This seems like a strawman. Bitcoin was designed for just one simple thing: payments. The financial system is an interwoven network of hundreds of regulated and unregulated goods and services, not just payments. Also, this paragraph, like a few others later, has elements of conspiratorial boogeymanism. Just around the corner, the government is preparing to shut down Bitcoin! Nothing like that has happened in the past 9+ years. In fact, the opposite has been true as most jurisdictions have been pretty accommodating, arguably even too lenient on the issuance and usage of cryptocurrencies, but that is a topic for a different post. [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “Are the authors aware that CMOs first appeared in 1983, and that in many countries where they were heavily utilised including in the late 2000s they worked as advertised? In fact many CMOs in the US performed as modelled. The issue was, and is, always liquidity, over-leverage and most of all deteriorating lending standards. Cryptocurrencies will most likely be looked at as catalysts of these risks should their notional rise substantially, not their saviour.” [↩]
One reviewer commented: “Are they arguing that people would have been more able to pay their mortgages or that home values wouldn’t have fallen if CMOs were on a blockchain?” [↩]
One reviewer explained: “When someone claims that blockchain would have prevented the mortgage crisis, they are revealing their ignorance of their ignorance. I worked with some of that CMO data. One former colleague works for one of the large consulting firms ‘blockchain’ practices. He posted something about how blockchain would address the problems with mortgage servicing . When I privately asked him how it would do so,and that the problems with mortgage servicing that I was aware of were either failure to do certain required activities or their failure to record that they did them, as opposed to someone changing the record after it was entered, he did not respond.” [↩]
For example, at the time of this writing, Coinmarketcap tracks 1641 different types of coins and tokens. Many of these are likely ERC20 tokens and thus rely on Ethereum itself and are not independent blockchains. [↩]
Worth re-reading the recent DoJ indictment of GRU officers as the DoJ provides a reason for why Bitcoin was used versus other transmission methods. [↩]
Someone should create a website that tracks all of the gigantic bullish claims from Bitcoin promoters on how it will topple banks and destroy governments. There are at least more than 100 such public predictions each month. [↩]
But “be your own payment processor” isn’t a catchy phrase. [↩]
Some literature describes the proof-of-work process used in Bitcoin as a “scratch-off puzzle.” [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “A model that I like to describe this with is how the main professional soccer leagues are selected in Europe and other regions. For example, France specifically has an annual selection of the “League 1” after the Coupe de French. Basically any team can enter, but practically there is minimal turnover because a team from a town of 5,000 people is unlikely to reasonably beat a team like Paris or Lyon which has multi-million euro budgets. There are few upsets, but these can generally be modeled by statistical chance.” [↩]
For example, Coin Center circulated a borderline defamatory note to ESMA with regards to Corda – even before the Corda introductory whitepaper was released – likely because its author was unfamiliar with how the platform actually worked. [↩]
It seems to be a euphemism and code word for “someone with money who should buy coins.” [↩]
Based on public information, over the past four years pretty much the only cryptocurrency-related companies that probably were profitable equity investments were: exchanges and handful of mining companies operating outside of the US (e.g., some service providers have also generated steady income including several law firms and conference organizers). [↩]
In both cases, consensus is achieved by the longest chain rule. [↩]
May not be a Freudian slip here, but keep in mind all blockchains have operators and maintainers. See “arewedecentralizedyet” for more. [↩]
It arguably could have been a self-fulfilling prophecy: investors outside of Cyprus hear news about the Cyprus bailout and bitcoin… thereby marketing bitcoin to new retail investors who then go out and buy bitcoins to try it out. [↩]
It is common to see Bitcoin promoters regularly demonize these companies who are trying to improve and automate infrastructure, vilified as a bourgeoisie activity that must be shunned. Worth revisiting to see if this changes over time. [↩]
Furthermore, in September 2014 I gave a presentation (video) (slides) that similarly tried to bucket different types of proposed coins as “commodities” and the like. And I know I wasn’t the first to try and do so. Recommend readers do a bit more digging on this topic if they’d like to see a more thorough origin story. [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “The native tokens / coins / assets inside a ledger are “cryptocurrencies”, they are currency in the single sense that they the only form of compensation accepted by the miner / staker in a network. This cryptoasset business really only makes sense in the context of units which are not used to pay for the security of a blockchain.” [↩]
But that doesn’t necessarily excite speculators and coin holders. [↩]
There are few religious undertones here that could be removed in the next edition. [↩]
As mentioned above, The Economist wrote a nice short article on this behavior — the greater fool – last year. [↩]
The authors of this book are likely unintentionally promoting coin buying with a security-like mentality, the wording could be modified in the next edition. [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “Unless the authors explain how ETH is worth precisely zero based on the same logic then their statement seems disingenuous. Not that I believe that is the case, but I am not the one stating that scarcity in the future is the reason for the value.” [↩]
Since the authors are making this claim, would they be willing to disclose or be transparent about their own coin holdings for the date when they published this book? [↩]
The most likely answer is: speculators bought these coins because they knew others would buy it too thus driving the price higher. [↩]
Or conversely, you are considered “one of us” if you promote the policies and antics of said coin promoters. [↩]
Note: it should be apparent at this stage that “Bitcoin developers” should be in quotes because it is certain key individuals — and centralized organizations such as “Core” — who have the power to sway decisions such as BIP approval. These are arguably administrators of financial market infrastructure. See also: In Code(rs) We Trust: Software Developers as Fiduciaries in Public Blockchains [↩]
It is these types of passages that make a reader scratch their head as to whether or not the lessons for why equity ownership — and the rights afforded to equity holders — evolved to where they have in developed countries. [↩]
This narrative needs to be buried but probably won’t. [↩]
This is a common refrain that needs to stop being repeated. [↩]
A few months before Cryptoassets was published, the SEC published a report that said they found The DAO to have all the hallmarks of a security but they never enforced any specific legal action on its creators. [↩]
On p. 63 they write: “For example, a fully functional decentralized insurance company, Airbnb, or Uber all hold great promise, and developer teams are working on similar use cases.” Why do these hold great promise? Because everyone else says that on stage? [↩]
One takeaway is that other speculators may buy your coins at a later date when the prices go up, so you should get in before they do. [↩]
One of the biggest flaws in Chapter 7 is that all of the pricing information for the coins are based on markets that are opaque and unregulated… some of whom may be considered bucket shops of yesteryear. Lack of transparency is one of the reasons why all of the Bitcoin-related ETFs have been (so far) axed by the SEC. See: Comments on the COIN ETF. [↩]
For example, later on p. 104 they write: “More surprisingly, the portfolio with bitcoin would have had lower volatility.” Because of the time period? We could probably find other things with the same or lower volatility. That seems like cherry picking. [↩]
Maybe they are both, but that still doesn’t mean that the coins, say that Placeholder Capital invested in, shouldn’t be classified as securities. [↩]
Also, these are all arguably poor stores of value because of their relatively high volatility. For instance, “number goes up” or rapid price increases is not the definition for a store of value. Claiming bitcoin is a good store of value because it sees swift increases in price appreciation as measured by actual money is a contortionist view which ignores the empirical reality of how money is used. [↩]
For example, later on p. 110 they write: “While many cryptoassets are priced by the dynamics of supply and demand in markets, similar to more traditional C/T assets, for some holder of bitcoin — like holder of gold bars — it is solely a store of value. Other investors use cryptoassets beyond bitcoin in a similar way, holding the asset in the hope that it appreciated over time.” Spoiler alert: everyone that owns internet coins hope they appreciate over time. [↩]
And there are specific projects — such as Bitcoin — in which one clique of developers waged an effective propaganda campaign against miners. For more on this, look into the actors and organizations behind the Segwit / Segwit2x / UASF online debates. [↩]
Not to rekindle the flames of the Bitcoin blocksize debate but in retrospect, several Blockstream employees and contractors were arguably more effective at swaying public opinion than Coinbase was, even though the latter generates significantly more revenue and has actual customers whereas the former is largely just a R&D dev shop. This discussion deserves its own post but neither company is very forthcoming about client or partnerbase… although Coinbase has published a bit more information over the years relative to Blockstream. [↩]
The book downplays illicit activity as if it is not a valid, reliable use case when it is. For instance, the GRU allegedly used bitcoin to finance some of its operations focused on the 2016 US elections and they did so to obfuscate their tracks. [↩]
A fundamental problem with this book is that it wants to have it both ways, with no clear goal posts for what a good or bad platform is and how to measure it. How can an investor know if a coin is any good? A table of attributes is recommended for the next edition. [↩]
Simply multiplying the amount of mined / pre-mined / pre-allocated coins by the market price to arrive at a “market cap” is a disservice to how market capitalization is actually determined. See Section 6. [↩]
As an aside, even though there is no law preventing consumers and merchants from using or accepting gold (or silver) as a means of payment in the US, basically no one does because they’d rather hold it with the expectation of future price appreciation. I am sure lots of angry trolls will point out that legal tender laws in the US do not currently include precious metals and neither are cryptocurrencies. Yet there are other economic reasons why people would rather hold onto an internet coin or a gold bar versus use it as money, and simply blaming legal tender laws is missing those. [↩]
And as mentioned in the section above, both Zelle and Swift (gpi) will likely make a lot of inroads in the same national and international areas that cryptocurrency advocates were touting… but without needing a coin. The struggle is real. [↩]
Note: both have since left those jobs. Bogart became a partner at Blockchain Capital (a venture fund focused on coins) and Luria joined D.A. Davidson [↩]
In the next edition if possible, try to include Placeholder’s research so we can have an idea of the firm’s internal thinking on these issues. [↩]
Note that selfish mining has some odd game theoretic properties which may not hold up in the real world. But if the selfish mining pool manages to stay a block ahead on average, they can reveal a longer chain whenever they see transactions they want to censor. It comes with the caveats that it’s not completely reliable in that they aren’t guaranteed to be a block ahead of the rest of the network 100% of the time (due to the inhomogenous Poisson process mentioned earlier). However, if they manage to effect a cohort of self-interested selfish miniers, they could… and that’s the equivalent of a “51% attack.” [↩]
A user can be defined as a person who controls their private keys without relying on a 3rd party intermediary. [↩]
Several analytics providers include: Chainalysis, Blockseer, Elliptic, Scorechain, and CipherTrace. [↩]
This is reminiscent of the BearWhale nonsense a few years ago. [↩]
Recall that historically, humanity went from only having to bearer assets up through the 19th century. And that for a variety of reasons these became registered and immobilized and then later dematerialized altogether. Cryptocurrencies recreates a financial order that had already existed. [↩]
Butterfly Labs began accepting pre-orders in the summer of 2012 but delivered them late in 2013… and got sued by the FTC. [↩]
Regarding ‘perfect competition,’ four years ago Jonathan Levin opined that: “Another simple thing about this is that it is unsurprising that the bitcoin network got into this mess as it is economically rational to join the biggest pool. Minimises variance and ceteris paribus reduce orphans increasing expected return per hash. The other point is that there is still hardware bottlenecks so designing the theoretically most robust system may fail due to market imperfections. Implicitly in many arguments I hear about mining people assume perfect competition. Do we need to remind people what are the necessary conditions for perfect competition? Perfect information, equal access to markets, zero transportation costs, many players ……. this is clearly not going to be a perfectly competitive decentralised market but it certainly should not favour inherently the big players.” See p. 114 of The Anatomy [↩]
Needs a larger sample size conducted in a public venue, and/or with the help of an experienced sampling organization. [↩]
This then leads to incentives to attack and hack exchanges, because they end up acting as deposit-taking institutions, aka banks. [↩]
There were probably 50% more hand-written notes or comments that I could have added that I skipped over. [↩]
The HODLing “digital gold” meme which was only passingly mentioned in this book ultimately degenerates into goldbugism but that’s a topic for a different post. HODLing arguably became a thing once the ideologues realized Bitcoin itself wasn’t a competitive payment system. An enormous amount of revisionism has taken place since 2014 regarding what Bitcoin was and is and should be. [↩]
One reviewer mentioned: “By hoarding then actively purchasing more coins to hoard, they might temporarily create an effect whereby each marginal contribution to Bitcoin through mining rewards in expanding the effective monetary base is partially neutralized. In addition to marketing campaigns, this can lead to higher USD values and may incentivize additional mining power, which in turn creates higher hashrate. However, you cannot make the same argument for gold because simply driving the price of gold up doesn’t make gold harder to find or more secure, and in fact we see the opposite.” [↩]
For instance, the supply of gold is actually elastic whereas many cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin have an inelastic money supply. Where in the whitepaper does it talk about a store of value? If that was the goal, surely it would’ve been mentioned in the whitepaper or the first few emails upon Bitcoin’s initial release. [↩]
[Note: I originally wrote the bulk of this article as an unpublished memo about 18 months ago. I have updated it to include new information. The views and opinions expressed in this article are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of my clients.]
The big news this past week was that Coinbase acquired Earn.com (née 21.co, née 21e6 LLC). According to Recode, the offer “was slightly more than $100 million” but also lower than Earn.com’s most recent valuation (in 2015) which was $310 million.
From the current coverage, it is unclear what the revenue for any of the products or services for Earn.com was. Instead most stories have focused on one specific aspect: the current Earn.com CEO, Balaji Srinivasan, will join Coinbase as the CTO.
There have been a lot of questions around why Coinbase would purchase a company that seemed to have poor product-market fit with unknown KPIs. This post will look into several areas for answers.
Taking a step back
Following the official acquisition announcement from Coinbase, Srinivasan published a self-congratulatory Medium post that basically paints him as the savior of 21.co: that it was the previous management that were bad and he came in and turned it all around.1
His revisionism arguably whitewashed what happened, so let’s dive into a little bit of the company’s history.
In May 2013, 21inc (formerly 21e6 LLC) was co-founded by five men including Balaji Srinivasan. According to a story from Nathaniel Popper:
The company was also structured as an limited liability company, rather than the C Corp typical of startups, so that people could invest with their own money.
Why is that important to some investors?
According to Popper:
The 21e6 investment was attractive in part because venture capital firms generally felt that they couldn’t buy Bitcoins directly. 21e6, on the other hand, offered to pay its investors back with Bitcoin dividends, allowing the firm to get Bitcoins without buying them outright.
What does this mean?
Venture funds often have clauses restricting their partners from investing in asset classes that may be seen as a conflict of interest or something that could reduce the firm’s reputation (e.g., cannabis startups). In this case, cryptocurrencies may be seen as a direct speculative bet on a commodity or foreign exchange which could be prohibited by an investment funds by-laws.2
Altogether the 21e6 team, over three separate rounds, raised approximately $116 – 125 million – which at the time was more money than any other cryptocurrency-related company.3 The sum total varied depending on news source but Srinivasan frequently made it a point to casually insert comments such as: we are the “most funded” or “best funded” company in Bitcoin into interviews and talks during 2015-2016.
In the beginning
In its early days 21e6 focused exclusively on designing custom ASIC chips for Bitcoin mining and then integrating and deploying Bitcoin mining hardware for private, non-retail usage. This included installing hundreds of hashing systems in data centers which for several reasons eventually became uncompetitive against those based in China and the Republic of Georgia.45
Based on publicly available information and allegedly leaked slides we know that:6
It closed its Series A for $5 million in May 2013.
Investors included: Peter Thiel, David Sacks, Max Levchin, Marc Andreessen, Ben Horowitz, Naval Ravikant, Winklevoss Capital, Mark Pincus
Estimated $3.8 million revenue in 2013
In June 2013, then-CEO Matthew Pauker filed a Form D, Notice of Exempt Offering of Securities, which stated that 55 investors had already invested in its offering.7 While that may sound unusual for an early stage company to have so many investors, recall what Popper pointed out above, that individual investors could invest directly into 21e6 because of its LLC status.
It closed its Series B for approximately $65 million in December 2013.
Andreessen Horowitz (the VC fund) invested $25 million as the lead investor; and $10 million came from existing investors (such as $100,000 from Pantera)
$30 million also came in the form of “venture debt”
Estimated $41 million in revenue in 2014
19 employees in November 2014
The funds from its first two rounds were used in part to design and deploy “Gandalf” (its 2nd generation ASIC chip) and “Yoda” (its 3rd generation ASIC chip) in the aforementioned data centers.
How much capital is required to build a state-of-the-art ASIC chip? Depending on how much is done in-house or out-sourced as well as the fabrication facilities, it can be upwards of $15 – $20 million.8
First major pivot
The company rebranded from 21e6 to 21.co and announced its Series C on March 10, 2015, with $56 million led by RRE Ventures. 9
That morning, The Wall Street Journal led with the story:
This marked the beginning of its pivot from purely building mining hardware and instead marketing itself as supposedly moving into the Internet of Things (IoT) and API marketplace. Around this time you frequently saw 21.co and its supporters publicly talk about machine-to-machine (M2M) payments as being a killer app.10 One of the 21.co engineers was even interviewed on a (now deleted) podcast where he spoke about how drone owners would pay tolls denominated in bitcoin to cut across airspace over yards in your neighborhood. You know, the usual word salad and shower thoughts on social media.
When I first drafted this memo 18 months ago, based on LinkedIn profiles, 21.co had about 25 full-time employees; as of now their page says 22 employees but most of them are just people adding 21.co in their profiles without formally being affiliated with it. Most of the current employees unsurprisingly have shifted to Earn.com’s official LinkedIn profile. Its tally is 63 people but again, some of these profiles are from people who are likely unaffiliated with the organization.
Alan Chang (Jeff Skoll’s family office via Capricorn Management) in Series B
Richard Tapalaga (Qualcomm Ventures) in Series C
Gen Isayama (World Innovation Labs) in Series C
According to Nathaniel Popper, as of March 2015 when it announced the closing of its Series C round, “the company has paid back all of its investors.” It did so partially via payouts in bitcoin.
In his self-canonization this week, Srinivasan wrote that:
And with this deal, the total value of cash, cryptocurrency, and equity returned to our shareholders is now in excess of the capital invested in the company.
How much of the cryptocurrency above is from the not-yet-released Earnable Token? Get the whitepaper while you still can.
Since March 2015, there has also been noticeable churn at the top:12
Matthew Pauker, co-founder, was replaced as CEO in spring 2015 by Balaji Srinivasan
Albert Esser was the COO from December 2013 through August 2015
Replaced by John Granata from March 2016 to the present
Nigel Drego co-founder, was chief architect from May 2013 through March 2016
Replaced by Jian Li as CTO from March 2016 through 2017
Lily Liu became CFO during summer 2015 to the present
Because of the economic incentives that tilt in favor of mining countries like China, 21.co stopped its operations in the Bitcoin mining sector and those subject-matter experts seem to have left the ranks.
Second major pivot. Or part of the first?
What has it built since the pivot after Series C?
The 21 Bitcoin Computer was their first consumer-facing product that was announced on September 21, 2015 and released with great fanfare as an exclusive to Amazon Launchpad on November 16, 2015 at a price of $400. It also picked up the “toaster” nickname from the Financial Times.13
Several enthusiasts explored the component prices via a piece-by-piece breakdown and found that it likely cost around $247 to build each 21 Computer.14 It was subsequently nicknamed the “Pitato” because the main component at its heart was basically a Raspberry Pi, a popular DIY kit that sells for less than $200.
The only other notable piece of tech was a custom built ASIC chip that could be used for mining. However, ever before it had shipped, the mining chip was already uncompetitive and obsolete. Even if you had free electricity you likely would not generate enough bitcoin in order to recoup the full cost of buying the 21 Computer, especially since the few satoshi you generated would be stuck as dust.15
What were the maths behind this?
In September 2015, after it was announced, Vitalik Buterin crunched the numbers and worked out that:
So you’re paying $399 upfront and getting $0.105 per day or $38.3 per year, and this is before taking into account network difficulty increases, the upcoming block halving (yay, your profit goes down to $0.03 per day!) and, of course, the near-100% likelihood that you won’t be able to keep that device on absolutely all of the time. I seriously hope they have multiple mining chips inside of their device and forgot to mention it; otherwise you can outcompete this offering pretty easily by just preloading a raspberry pi with $200 of your favorite cryptotokens.
Why the relatively large markup for a device? Part of it is that Amazon Launchpad gets a 25% cut.
But like just about all things Bitcoin, sales numbers were so bad that they were never disclosed and it was eventually discontinued. Prior to its discontinuation, 21.co representatives approached multiple well-known Bitcoin developers to help resell the devices. In short, these developers were offered to buy 21.co devices at wholesale prices and expected to resell them at the retail price. It is unclear how many (if any) developers did so.
For real, the second major pivot
On April 1, 2016, 21.co launched an app “marketplace” and initially seeded it with 50 apps that were built in-house. At the time, the only way to externally measure usage or traction is to manually observe the amount of ratings (stars) an app had each day. Interestingly, in early July 2016 the amount of apps stood at 95 whereas six weeks later it fell to 76 and basically fluctuated for the remainder of the year.
In May 2016, Srinivasan took the stage at Consensus and announced his vision of a “machine payable web” and introduced several ideas but notably did not mention the Bitsplit which was rumored to have been in the works for over a year.16
Throughout the remainder of the year, 21.co sponsored and hosted meetups and had an active Slack room, and most of the ideas that were used or borrowed as API and app ideas, languished due to… a lack of users.17 If you are new to my site, one reoccurring observation is that in general: cryptocurrency owners typically are not actual users, but that’s a whole different discussion.
The 21.co Marketplace now redirects to the Earn.com homepage.
On October 27, 2017, 21.co emailed its users that it was ending server-side support for three things: the Bitcoin Computer, 21 command line interface (CLI), and marketplace. 18
Three days later, 21.co announced that it was rebranding as Earn.com and pivoting away from its second vision as a VC-backed quasi protocryptojacking play towards taking on Amazon Mechanical Turk, but with Bitcoin. It also announced a non-ICO ICO called Earnable Token, which as you can tell from its name: was earnable from doing the same kind of tasks as you could before like: filling out surveys or answering bots who email you.
Earn.com also migrated the unique profile pages it first introduced with 21.co, which is basically a static page that users can claim and use a bit like LinkedIn, but with more Bitcoin-related spam.19
This last part is of particular interest in today’s regulatory climate because Earn.com, which hosts these user-controlled accounts, has accidentally assisted and enabled the promotion of alleged unregistered securities (ICOs) as a business line. Recall that Google, Facebook, Snap, Twitter, Mailchimp, and other tech companies have reduced or removed the ability for ICOs and cryptocurrency promoters to solicit retail investors, Earn.com has done the opposite and been a refuge. At what point is this an unsuitable risk profile for a “bank” like Coinbase?20
What does that mean?
In its January 2018 update, Earn.com announced that:
This week we were thrilled to announced the launch of Earn.com Airdrops — a new way for blockchain entrepreneurs to give 100,000+ Earn.com users a free trial of any new coin or token. Airdrops allows token projects to instantly bootstrap your new blockchain project with 100,000+ cryptocurrency early adopters.
We announced our first Airdrop partner, CanYa — a decentralized marketplace for services — as well as the next three upcoming Airdrops: Bloom, Bee Token, and Vezt. Sign up for an account on Earn.com, verify your account, and download the Earn.com mobile apps on iOS or Android apps to become eligible.
I am not a lawyer but in the past – like the dotcom era – companies (including startups) have attempted to give away equity in some very creative ways… and depending on the circumstances, it can be a no-no.21 That’s not to say that the tokens above are securities or that any airdrop is a violation of securities laws. But highlighting this type of feature has inadvertently led to Earn.com becoming a magnet for ICO issuance and promotion.
Where’s the beef?
What was the long term deliverable for roughly $125 million in nearly 5 years?
Throughout 2016 – including at Consensus in NYC – Srinivasan explained that they will announce a “surprise” in the coming months, maybe all of the aforementioned products and chips were the alpha phase of a much larger operation? Maybe they were, but we probably won’t find out.
Either way, it is worth keeping in mind that between 2013-2016, cryptocurrency-specific startups collectively received a little more than $1 billion in external funding, with nearly 15% of that funneled into just one startup. One who has had to pivot multiple times to find the right product-market fit and tech-market fit. Keep in mind too that other companies such as Bitfury and Bitmain were able to make superior chips and do so initially without major venture backing.22
If the most funded, best connected startup continually struggled to see consumer traction, what are the prospects for less funded and less connected cryptocurrency startups? This is worth revisiting in another long-read, especially in seeing what the $125 million was actually spent on (salaries? chips? toasters?).
One of the investors in 21.co responded to Nathaniel Popper above claiming that Srinivasan wasn’t actively involved in the first two years.
Does it matter? Sure, when you are claiming successes and denying failures that should or shouldn’t be attributed to you.
Below is a quick series of interrelated anecdotes.
In December 2014, Srinivasan and I both attended and presented at what would become the second of three round table events organized by R3 (a family office then called R3 CEV). This was prior to the formal creation of the DLG consortium.23 Unfortunately I do not have his presentation, but the layout and design were nearly identical to the leaked slides that have circulated for years — just with different content. For instance, the design of his slides at a public talk in the spring of 2015 is pretty close to the other two decks.
In January 2015, I was unexpectedly shown a long set of slides for a company called 21e6, most of which look similar to what has been leaked in the past and linked to above.24
Later that same month – due to a variety of circumstances – I met up with Srinivasan in Palo Alto and he quickly paged through the leaked presentation and stated it was an older deck from October / November 2014.
While there is a little more to our subsequent interactions, I think the key part here and the only reason I brought up this personal anecdote is the fact that Srinivasan was able to dismiss the deck of having any relevance on the current fundraising 21e6 was doing (remember, this was less than two months before the round was publicly announced).25
So while he may not have been “day to day” as he disclaims in his post, he clearly was involved in the fundraising process if not more (deck creation?). He said as much in a post published in March 2015.
So what to make of all of this news?
An exit is an exit, right?
What ultimately appears to have happened is that Andreessen Horowitz took one of its floundering portfolio companies and merged it with another portfolio company… and declared it a great success.2627
There also appear to be a few parallels with Juicero.28 For those unfamiliar, Juicero is a now-defunct Silicon Valley-based startup that built and sold a custom $400 machine that would squeeze juice packets. It raised $120 million and unceremoniously shut down last year after reporters showed that the hands from mere humans were capable of squeezing the same juice packets.
In much the same way, during the second pivot of 21.co, no one really bothered to buy the “Pitato” because users could easily do the math: that it was far more effective to either buy bitcoins outright or buy and use more capable mining hardware.
Why hasn’t anyone written about this before?
Most of the knowledge above is public, or at least, pretty well known if you have spent much time in Bitcoinland. Other reasons involve some tinfoil hat theories around retaliation.29
Funnily enough, back in March 2015 I had a long email exchange with Michael Casey and Paul Vigna over at The Wall Street Journal regarding 21.co and other several other topics.
Tim Swanson, a consistently skeptical digital-currency consultant who makes a habit of challenging bitcoiners’ unbridled optimism, is unequivocal. 21′s plan is “a dumb idea,” he says, adding that “the investors deserve to get what’s coming to them.”
And while a few of those investors probably did, it is Coinbase share holders that likely got it on the chin this week.30 If you’re looking for more memorable gems, be sure to read this older WSJ article. It is chocked-full of hubris, kind of like Juicero.31
In closing, raise your hand if you’d like to get paid every time you respond to an email and moreso to a cold email? I know I would.
So maybe with all of the kinks, toasters, pivot denialism, and chest thumping there is still a future for a pay-to-respond model to thrive. Maybe Coinbase can turn the ICO sanctuary of Earn.com into a legitimate mainstream product that is integrated with various webmail providers and social media platforms. Or maybe this ends up like ChangeTip, whose platform was basically used to spam coin dust on Twitter… to ultimately shutting down after an acquihire from Airbnb.
Either way, there was a bit more to this story than what was let on in Srinivasan’s original Medium post on Monday.
Would that be a Bitcoin-powered bus that the management team was thrown under? [↩]
Over the past several years, multiple venture funds have had their by-laws amended or re-written to allow them to purchase cryptocurrencies and directly invest into ICOs. [↩]
In March 2015, 21inc announced that it had raised a total of $116 million, however according to Nathaniel Popper’s account of their history, they had raised about $125 million. For one reason or another, historically many cryptocurrency companies do not typically reveal their active user numbers or revenue figures. Instead they prefer talking about how much outside funding they have raised. And 21.co was not an exception to this. [↩]
There are several reasons why this was the case. With the right guanxi: a combination of electricity, land, and taxes could be cheaper in certain parts of China versus the US. In addition, 21e6 and other US-firms were consistently unable to manufacture mining machines and operate farms at a similar scale as their peers. Part of this was logistics as well: large portions of the supply chain were based overseas (primarily in Guangdong and Taiwan). I have written about this in multiple different posts over the past several years, such as this piece. [↩]
One of the interesting things that Srinivasan’s article confirms was a rumor I first heard two years ago from one of their mining competitors: that 21e6 had signed leases with data centers whose energy rates were so abysmal that you might as well just bought coins instead as it would basically be impossible to recoup those costs. Another unconfirmed rumor was around immersion cooling: that between 2014-2015 21e6 had experimented and burnt through a large quantity of chip inventory in a radical attempt to reduce the cooling needs and costs of mining chips. [↩]
Form D – note that the domains 21e6.com and .net and .org all registered around March/April 2013. [↩]
Why Are Computer Chips So Expensive? from Forbes. In addition to non-recoverable engineering, there are also component costs and testing thereof: PCB, SMT, power supply, fans, integration. Testing and trouble-shooting cannot be ignored. For instance, Hashfast was an example of a company who built a relatively fast chip but had problems with managing the power source and consequently went bankrupt. [↩]
At the time it was frequently reported that 21.co had raised $116 million but that was the sum total of all funding rounds. The Series C was ~$56 million. [↩]
Srinivasan did talk about micropayments as early as March 2014. [↩]
In May 2015 it was reported that Cisco may invest or may have invested in 21inc. Padma Warrior, former Chief Technology and Strategy Officer at Cisco, was rumored to be a key individual involved in that deal. Note: as of August 2016, a site redesign on 21.co removed investors and corporate information from the homepage. [↩]
This is mainly because an earlier 21e6 pitch stated that the company would integrate mining chips in always-on consumer electronics and appliances. [↩]
One reviewer commented: “I’d say one more thing worth adding is that it’s worth critiquing not just the feasibility of the Pitato but also the ethics. Because Pitatoes are inherently less efficient than regular mining farms due to economies of scale, the only way that they could be competitive relative to just buying bitcoin is if they were using free electricity; that is, basically all profitable usage of Pitatoes would be people using other people’s electricity in workplaces, universities, Starbucks, hotels, homes if the landlord pays for it, etc. I predict that if it actually became popular, then we’d see all the places that provide free electricity today become much more cautious about it, which could greatly reduce convenience for everyone but bitcoin miners.” [↩]
In one of its incarnations, Bitsplit was basically a euphemism for socializing CPU labor and privatizing some of the gains… now commonly called cryptojacking. [↩]
One reviewer said: “That earn.com pivot was done through the 21.co meetups that would host with Bitcoin engineers trying to buils apps on the 21 computer, which was eventually bricked. The idea for paying engineers for github pull requests led to earn.com’s business model.” [↩]
Note: in between the second and third pivot, during January 2017, Srinivasan deleted his tweets and interviewed for the top job at the FDA in Washington DC. [↩]
One reviewer commented that: “My personal view is that the current Earn.com concept is fundamentally legitimate and probably will see some usage (I can totally imagine consultants charging $50 for replying to emails, as that’s a very low-transaction-cost way to get one-time advice from people), but it deserves to exist as one of the 173 configurable settings in an email provider or social media service, not an independent multi-hundred-million dollar company. Perhaps the Coinbase acquisition actually will be utility-improving, in that gives the Earn.com team an ability to try to be useful by making gadgets for an existing company that has a userbase and services, rather than trying to build their own ecosystem which never made any sense (though it’s still a pretty disappointing end relative to Balaji’s original hype and aspirations).” [↩]
The line of reasoning is as follows: some startups attempted to randomly give away shares to strangers via various gimmicks but ultimately had to either take it back and/or were sued. If certain ICOs are deemed securities, you might not be able to just give them away to anonymous people. Reminder: I am not a lawyer, talk to a securities lawyer. [↩]
One competitor noted that: “21e6’s decision to go the Intel fabrication route was a non-starter. [↩]
Someone should remind me to talk about the dinner conversation that evening as well. [↩]
Coincidentally a few days prior to receiving those slides, I spoke with a NYC-based investor who was asking about the pros and cons of embedded ASICs for mining cryptocurrencies. Specifically: should the fund invest in a startup designing embedded ASICs for bitcoin mining. I provided my view point (the answer was no, still is a no). During this same time frame there was a big meme being pushed by many Bitcoin boosters: that mining would somehow become re-decentralized via some unknown magic bullet. Some of these promoters believed that 21.co would be the one to do it, without much evidence that the company could (or that anyone could). Note: there have been multiple other attempts at building and shipping embedded ASIC mining chips including from Midea and Bitfury. None have been successful by any measure. [↩]
Remind me to mention the coincidence at Chipotle. [↩]
Another reviewer said: “This is acquisition theater, everyone is just trying to save face because this wasn’t a great idea, had wasteful execution, and the hype and hoopla reflects poorly on all involved. The players fundamentally misunderstood the tech, the economics and use cases. I get that a VCs job is to make unsubstantiated bets on tech entrepreneurs they like. But here, an outright $116m investment in Bitcoin would have yielded X billions. And the “we returned all capital” probably because of BTC dividends and its price hike than cash returns.” [↩]
What are the repercussions for publicly asking critical questions regarding bold claims such as those from a fireside chat with both Srinivasan and Andreessen? Being blocked on ol’ Twitter. [↩]
Since we are going into the anecdote highway: in March 2015, at the Stanford Blockchain Workshop event, I approached Adam Ludwin after his panel discussion. On the panel he had mentioned that there could be a “redecentralization” of mining through an upcoming “Silicon Valley moment.” I assume he was talking about 21e6’s plan for mining chips being integrated into always-on devices because he was affiliated with one of its investors. When I told him I had seen a 21e6 deck and that it was making some very wild, likely incorrect assumptions, he basically said: we will see about that. Well, we have seen that once again: the difficulty rating rises with prices thereby diluting existing hash generating devices making them obsolete. [↩]
Some of the comments from the 21.co spokesperson are enjoyable. These hashing devices still wouldn’t be profitable at the current prices today because the difficulty rating has increased in proportion to the price yet all of the hashing units inside phone chargers and toasters had a fixed unit of labor. It’s a no-win situation for device owners as they would still have to pay for both the depreciating capital good (the device) as well as the electricity. [↩]
A couple hours after publishing this, a reader reached out and mentioned that: “I’m a proud owner of a Pitato. You forgot to mention that Balaji taught a course at Stanford about cryptocurrency and basically used it to promote 21co and Pitato to students. He gave it for free to students but all the labs were on this hardware. IMO it’s a conflict of interests for him as a professor <-> manager. The instructional material and repo is still online: (1) (2) (3) (4)”. Note: I don’t think this is a conflict of interest, professors and lecturers sometimes have their students purchase a book they may have authored/co-authored as they are the subject-matter expert. [↩]
It is early into 2017 and at fintech events we can still hear a variety of analogies used to describe what blockchains and distributed ledger technology (DLT) are and are not.
One of the more helpful ones is from Peter Shiau (formerly of Blockstack.io) who used an automobile analogy involving the Model T to describe magic internet chains:1
The Ford Motor Company is well known for its production engineering innovation that gave us the Model T. To this day, the Ford Model T is one of the best selling automobiles of all-time thanks to the sheer number produced and affordability for American middle class families. And while it was remarkable that Ford was able to sell so many cars, it is well understood Ford’s true innovation was not the Model T but in fact the modern assembly line.
It was this breakthrough that enabled Ford to build a new car every 93 minutes, far more quickly than any of its competitors. Not unlike the Model T, cryptocurrencies like Bitcaoin, are every bit the product of a similar innovative process breakthrough that today we call a “blockchain.”
Carrying the analogy a little further, what is even more powerful about this modern equivalent of the assembly line is that it is not just useful for building cars but also vans and trucks and boats and planes. In just the same way, a blockchain is not just useful for creating a cryptocurrency, but can be applied to a many different processes that multiple parties might rely on to reach agreement on the truth about something.
Less helpful, but all the same plentiful, are the many red herrings and false equivalences that conferences attendees are subjected to.
Arguably, the least accurate analogy is that public blockchains can be understood as being “like the internet” while private blockchains “are like intranets”.
Why is this one so wrong and worthy of comment?
Because it is exactly backwards.
For example, if you want to use a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin, you have to use bitcoin; and if you want to use Ethereum, you have to use ether. They are not interoperable. You have to use their proprietary token in order play in their walled garden.
As described in detail below, the internet is actually a bunch of private networks of internet service providers (ISPs) that have legal agreements with the end users, cooperate through “peering” agreements with other ISPs, and communicate via a common, standardized routing protocols such as BGP which publishes autonomous system numbers (ASNs).
In this respect, what is commonly called “the Internet” is closer to interoperable private, distributed ledger networks sharing a common or interoperable communication technology than anarchic, public cryptocurrency blockchain networks, which behave more like independent isolated networks.
Or in short: by design, cryptocurrencies are intranet islands whereas permissioned distributed ledgers — with interoperability hooks (“peering” agreements) — are more like the internet.2
Let’s do a short hands-on activity to see why the original analogy used at fintech conferences is a false equivalence with implications for how we need to frame the conversation and manage expectations in order to integrate DLT in to our reference and business architecture.
If you are using a Windows-based PC, open up a Command window. If you’re using a Mac or Android device, go to a store and buy a Windows-based PC.
Once you have your Command window open, type in a very simple command:
Wait a few seconds and count the hops as your signal traces the route through various network switches and servers until you finally land on your destination. From my abode in the SF area, it took 10 hops to land at Google and 7 hops to land at Microsoft.
If you did this exercise in most developed countries, then the switches and servers your signal zigged and zagged through were largely comprised of privately owned and operated networks called ISPs. That is to say, what is generally described as “the internet” is just a bunch of privately run networks connected to one another via several types of agreements such as: transit agreements, peering agreements, and interconnect agreements.
By far the most widely used agreement is still done via the proverbial “handshake.” In fact, according to a 2012 OECD report, 99.5% of internet traffic agreements are done via handshakes. There is also depeering, but more on that later.
What do all these agreements look like in practice?
According to the 2016 Survey of Internet Carrier Interconnection Agreements (pdf):
The Internet, or network of networks, consists of 7,557 Internet Service Provider (ISP) or carrier networks, which are interconnected in a sparse mesh. Each of the interconnecting links takes one of two forms: transit or peering. Transit agreements are commercial contracts in which, typically, a customer pays a service provider for access to the Internet; these agreements are most prevalent at the edges of the Internet, where the topology consists primarily of singly connected “leaf” networks that are principally concerned with the delivery of their own traffic. Transit agreements have been widely studied and are not the subject of this report. Peering agreements – the value-creation engine of the Internet – are the carrier interconnection agreements that allow carriers to exchange traffic bound for one another’s customers; they are most common in the core of the Internet, where the topology consists of densely interconnected networks that are principally concerned with the carriage of traffic on behalf of the networks which are their customers.
Colloquially it is a lot easier to say “I want to use the Internet” instead of saying “I want to connect with 7,557 ISPs interconnected in a sparse mesh.”
Back to topology, each ISP is able to pass along traffic that originated from other networks, even if these external networks and the traffic therein originate from foreign countries, because the physical systems can speak to one another via standardized transport protocols like TCP and UDP and route via BGP.34
Thus there is no such thing as a physical “internet rail,” only an amalgam of privately and publicly owned networks stitched together.
And each year there is inevitably tension between one more ISP and consequently depeering takes place. A research paper published in 2014 identified 26 such depeering examples and noted that while depeering exists:
Agreements are very quite affair and are not documented for, they are mostly handshake agreements where parties mutually agree without any on record documentation. This argument is supported by the fact that 141,512 Internet Interconnection Agreements out of 142,210 Internet Agreements examined till March 2011 were Handshake Agreements.
This is the main reason you do not hear of disputes and disagreements between ISPs, this also dovetails into the “net neutrality” topic which is beyond the scope of this post.
Just as the internet is an imperfect analogy for blockchains and DLT in general, so is its offspring the “intranet” is a poor analogy for a permissioned blockchains. As noted above, the internet is a cluster of several thousand ISPs that typically build business models off of a variety of service plans in both the consumer and corporate environments.
Some of these server plans target corporate environments and also includes building and maintaining “private” intranets.
What is an intranet?
An intranet is a private network accessible only to an organization’s staff. Generally a wide range of information and services from the organization’s internal IT systems are available that would not be available to the public from the Internet. (Source)
And while more and more companies migrate some portion of their operations and work flows onto public and private “clouds,” intranets are expected to be maintained given their continued utility. From an infrastructure standpoint, notwithstanding that an intranet could be maintained one or more more servers through Software Defined Networks (SDNs), it is still a subset of a mash up of ISPs and mesh networks.
What does this have to do with magic internet chains?
A private blockchain or private distributed ledger, is a nebulous term which typically means that the validation process for transactions is maintained by known, identified participants, not pseudonymous participants. Depending on the architecture, it can also achieve the level of privacy that is associated with an intranet while staying clear of the hazards associated with preserving true pseudonymity.
Why is the “intranet” analogy so misleading and harmful?
For multiple reasons.
For starters, it is not really valid to make a sweeping generalization of all identity-based blockchains and distributed ledgers, as each is architected around specific use-cases and requirements. For instance, some vendors insist on installing on-premise nodes behind the firewall of an enterprise. Some vendors setup and run a centralized blockchain, from one or two nodes, for an enterprise. Some others tap into existing operational practices such as utilizing VPN connections. And others spin up nodes on public clouds in data centers which are then operated by the enterprise.
There are likely more configurations, but as noted above: from a topological perspective in some cases these private blockchains and distributed ledgers operate within an intranet, or on an ISP, or even as an extranet.
Fundamentally the biggest difference between using an ISP (“the internet”) and using an intranet is about accessibility, who has access rights. And this is where identity comes into play: most ISPs require the account holder to provide identification materials for what is effectively KYC compliance.
Thus while you may be visit a coffee shop like Starbucks who provides “free” access, Starbucks itself is an identified account holder with an ISP and the ISP could remove Starbucks access for violating its terms of service. Similarly, most coffee shops, airports, schools, etc. require users to accept a terms of service acknowledging that their access can be revoked for violating it.
Source: FireFox 51.0.1
In short, both the internet and intranet are in effect part of identity and permission-based networks. There is no such thing as an identity-less internet, only tools to mask the users identity (e.g., Tor, Peerblock, Whisper). In the same way that, “private” intranets are a fallacy.
Anarchic chains, which were designed to operate cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, attempt to create an identity-less network on top of an identifiable network, hence the reason people involved in illicit activities can sometimes be caught.
Interestingly, where the internet analogy does hold up is in how public, anarchic blockchains are no less challenged by the effort and complexity of truly masking identity. I mentioned this in a footnote in the previous post, but it deserves being highlighted once more. Anarchic blockchains inspired by cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, used blocks because Satoshi wanted identity-free consensus (e.g., pseudonymity). That implies miners can come and go at will, without any kind of registration, which eliminated the choice of using any existing consensus algorithm.
As a result, Satoshi’s solution was proof-of-work (PoW). However, PoW is susceptible to collisions (e.g., orphan blocks). When a collision occurs you have to wait longer to obtain the same level of work done on a transaction. Thus you want to minimize them, which resulted in finding a PoW on average every ten minutes. This means that in a network with one minute propagation delays, not unlikely in a very large network (BGP sees such propagation times) then you waste ~10% of total work done, which was considered an acceptable loss rate in 2008 when Satoshi was designing and tweaking the parameters of the system.
Distributed ledgers such as Corda, use a different design and exist precisely as an identified network, where members cannot just come and go at will, and do have to register. With Corda, the team also assumes relatively low propagation times between members of a notary cluster. One of the key differences between mere PoW (i.e. hashcash) and a blockchain is that in the latter, each block references the prior – thus PoWs aggregate. It can be tough to do that unless all transactions are visible to everyone and there is a single agreed upon blockchain but if you do not, you will not get enough PoW to yield any meaningful security
When fintech panels talk about the notion of “open” or “closed” networks, this is really a red herring because what is being ignored is how identity and permission work and are maintained on different types of networks.
From the standpoint of miner validation, in practice cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are effectively permission-based: the only entity that validates a transaction is effectively 1 in 20 semi-static pools each day. And the miners/hashers within those pools almost never individually generate the appropriate/winning hash towards finding a block. Each miner generates trillions of invalid hashes each week and are rewarded with shares of a reward as the reward comes in.
And if you want to change something or possibly insert a transaction, you need hashrate to do so. Not just anyone running a validating node can effect change.
More to the point, nearly all of these pools and many of the largest miners have self-doxxed themselves. They have linked their real world identities to a pseudonymous network whose goals were to mask identities via a purposefully expensive PoW process. As a result, their energy and telecommunication access can be revoked by ISPs, energy companies, and governments. Therefore calling anarchic or public blockchains “open” is more of a marketing gimmick than anything else at this stage.
AOL and CompuServe were early, successful ISPs; not intranets.5 Conflating these terms makes it confusing for users to understand the core technology and identify the best fit use-cases. 6
Alongside the evolution of both the “cloud” and ISP markets, it will be very interesting to watch the evolution of “sovereign” networks and how they seek to address the issue of identity.
Because of national and supranational laws like General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that impacts all network users irrespective of origin.
For instance, Marley Gray (Principal Program Manager Blockchain at Microsoft) recently explained in an interview (above) how in order to comply with various data regulations (data custody and sovereignty), Microsoft acquired fiber links that do not interact with the “public” internet. That is to say, by moving data through physically segregated “dark” networks, Microsoft can comply with requirements of its regulated customers.
And that is what is missing from most fintech panels on this topic: at the end of the day who is the customer and end-user.
If it is cypherpunks and anarchists, then anarchic chains are built around their need for pseudonymous interactions. If it is regulated enterprises, then identity-based systems are built around the need for SLAs and so forth. The two worlds will continue to co-exist, but each network has different utility and comparative advantage.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Mike Hearn, Stephen Lane-Smith, Antony Lewis, Marcus Lim, Grant McDaniel, Emily Rutland, Kevin Rutter, and Peter Shiau for their constructive feedback. This was originally sent to R3 members on March 31, 2017.
From a network perspective, some of the integration and interop challenges facing DLT platforms could be similar to the harried IPv4 vs IPv6 coexistence over the past decade. Who runs the validating nodes, the bridges — the links between the chains and ledgers — still has to be sorted out. One reviewer noted that: If you equate IPv4 (TCP/UDP/ICMP) to DLTv4 where BGPv4 enables IPv4 networks to interact, we need an equivalent for BPGv4, say DLTGPv4 (DLT Gateway Protocol) for DLTv4 fabrics (ISPv4s) to interact and the same thing for IPv6 and DLTv6 where DLTv6 is a different DLT technology than DLTv4. So the basic challenge here is solving integration of like DLT networks. [↩]
Venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen and Fred Wilson have stated at times that they would have supported or invested in something akin to TCPIPcoins or BGPcoins. That is to say, in retrospect the missing element from the “internet stack” is a cryptocurrency. This is arguably flawed on many levels and if attempted, would likely have stagnated the growth and adoption of the internet, see page 18-19. [↩]
One reviewer noted that: Because of the IPv4 address restrictions (address space has been allocated – relying on auctions etc for organizations to acquire IPv4 addresses), some sites now only have an IPv6 address. Most devices today are dual stack (support IPv4 and IPv6), but many ISPs and older devices still only support IPv4 creating issues for individuals to access IPv6 resulting in the development of various approaches for IPv4 to IPv6 (e.g. GW46 – my generic label). I think, the question with DLTGW46 is whether to go dual stack or facilitate transformation between v4 and v6. [↩]
A reviewer who previously worked at AOL in the mid ’90s noted that: “In its early days, AOL was effectively a walled garden. For example, it had its own proprietary markup language called RAINMAN for displaying content. And access to the internet was carefully managed at first because AOL wanted its members to stay inside where content was curated and cultural norms relatively safer — and also desirable for obvious business reasons.” [↩]
One reviewer commented: “In my opinion, the “internet” cannot be created by a single party. It is an emergent entity that is the product of multiple ISPs that agree to peer – thus the World Wide Web. DLT-based and blockchain-based services first need to develop into their own robust ecosystems to serve their own members. Eventually, these ecosystems will want to connect because the value of assets and processes in multiple ecosystems will increase when combined.” [↩]
Earlier today, with some help from the R3 research team (thanks for the grammar fixes!), I shipped a new paper to the consortium members. This paper discusses several issues and challenges facing a Bitcoin-based ETF that was originally proposed a couple years ago by the Winklevoss twins (commonly called the COIN ETF). It specifically looks at questions publicly raised by the SEC.
It bears mentioning that R3 itself is not in any shape or fashion involved with this ETF or in using the Bitcoin network. This (tangential) paper solely represents my views and not those of my employer or companies I advise. I worked on it in my spare time.
R3 typically makes research papers available 3-6 months after sending it to members, so check back here later next spring or summer to see if it has been posted.
Update 09/2017: many months later an egg tweeted that it has been posted online at Scribd and Docdroid (pdf)
Slide 15: Field of Dreams image in reference to the model that you build it first with the hope that customers come
Slide 19: One example of this euphemism is from Adam Draper (and a similar reference point on Twitter). Each of these five companies has a couple product lines, one of which focuses on cryptocurrencies in a non-marginal manner.
Slide 21: This list could include a number of others including Tezos (DLS) and a handful of other startups including a couple in Japan
Slide 23: Collective head count for these companies is just under 100 and total funding raised (that is publicly announced) is around $10 million. There are still more companies trying to build foundational layers (some proprietary, others open) than teams building applications on top. Legend in parenthesis: E=Ethereum, R=Ripple, CP=Counterparty, OA=OpenAssets, TM=Tendermint
Slide 24: Most of the large non-bank financial institutions such as clearing houses and exchanges all have working groups focused on distributed ledger technology (e.g., CLS, SWIFT, LSEG, CME, Nasdaq, Deutsche Borse, DTCC). The Linux Foundation project is in its formative stage.
In a nutshell: despite recent efforts to modify public blockchains such as Bitcoin to secure off-chain registered assets via colored coins and metacoins, due how they are designed, public blockchains are unable to provide secure legal settlement finality of off-chain assets for regulated institutions trading in global financial markets.
The initial idea behind this topic started about 18 months ago with conversations from Robert Sams, Jonathan Levin and several others that culminated into an article.
The issue surrounding top-heaviness (as described in the original article) is of particular importance today as watermarked token platforms — if widely adopted — may create new systemic risks due to a distortion of block reorg / double-spending incentives. And because of how increasingly popular watermarked projects have recently become it seemed useful to revisit the topic in depth.
What is the takeaway for organizations looking to use watermarked tokens?
The security specifications and transaction validation process on networks such as the Bitcoin blockchain, via proof-of-work, were devised to protect unknown and untrusted participants that trade and interact in a specific environment.
Banks and other institutions trading financial products do so with known and trusted entities and operate within the existing settlement framework of global financial markets, with highly complex and rigorous regulations and obligations. This environment has different security assumptions, goals and tradeoffs that are in some cases opposite to the designs assumptions of public blockchains.
Due to their probabilistic nature, platforms built on top of public blockchains cannot provide definitive settlement finality of off-chain assets. By design they are not able to control products other than the endogenous cryptocurrencies they were designed to support. There may be other types of solutions, such as newer shared ledger technology that could provide legal settlement finality, but that is a topic for another paper.
This is a very important issue that has been seemingly glossed over despite millions of VC funding into companies attempting to (re)leverage public blockchains. Hopefully this paper will help spur additional research into the security of watermarking-related initiatives.
I would like to thank Christian Decker, at ETH Zurich, for providing helpful feedback — I believe he is the only academic to actually mention that there may be challenges related to colored coins in a peer-reviewed paper. I would like to thank Ernie Teo, at SKBI, for creating the game theory model related to the hold-up problem. I would like to thank Arthur Breitman and his wife Kathleen for providing clarity to this topic. Many thanks to Ayoub Naciri, Antony Lewis, Vitalik Buterin, Mike Hearn, Ian Grigg and Dave Hudson for also taking the time to discuss some of the top-heavy challenges that watermarking creates. Thanks to the attorneys that looked over portions of the paper including (but not limited to) Jacob Farber, Ryan Straus, Amor Sexton and Peter Jensen-Haxel; as well as additional legal advice from Juan Llanos and Jared Marx. Lastly, many thanks for the team at R3 including Jo Lang, Todd McDonald, Raja Ramachandran and Richard Brown for providing constructive feedback.
[Note: the following overview on scaling Bitcoin was originally included in a new paper but needed to be removed for space and flow considerations]
Looking in the past, the older Viceroy overlay network scaled at O(logN) where N is the number of peers which is different than the contentious scaling in Bitcoin, where even Core developers do not agree on how per node bandwidth actually scales.1
For instance, one group of developers thinks that per node bandwidth on the Bitcoin network scales linearly, O(n).2
The use of O(n) is a way of capturing simply whether something scales linearly or not. O(n) means: if it takes 5 seconds to do something when there are 10 nodes, it will take 50 seconds if there are 100. An example would be washing the dishes. It takes 30 seconds per plate and you just keep going one plate after another.
In contrast, another group of developers believes bandwidth requirements squares per node, which reads as O(n2).3
O(n2) means: if it takes 5 seconds to do something when there are 10 nodes, it will take 5 hundred seconds if there are 100. O(x) notation is an approximate. That is to say, while you have increased the number of items by a factor of 10, the time taken increased by a factor of about 100.
An example here might be if Bob needs to broker bilateral contracts between all the members of a new limited partnership fund. Four partners would require six bilateral NDAs in total. Eight partners would require 24. Thus if Bob doubled the number of partners he would need more than four times as many contracts executing.4
One calculation (BitFury 2015a) implies that in terms of block verification time, Bitcoin scales at: N(1 + 0:091 log2 N).5 For comparison, Ripple’s consensus ledger also has O(n2) scaling.67
What does this have to do with watermarked tokens?
[C]olored coins are potentially nefarious to the Bitcoin ecosystem. The security of Bitcoin rests on the assumption that miners stand to lose more by departing from consensus than they stand to gain. This assumption requires a balance between the reward received by miners, and the amounts they might stand to gain by reversing transactions. If colored coins represent valuable assets, this balance might be upset, endangering the status of all transactions.
A consequence of the hold-up problem is that it could lead to vertical integration. That is to say, to prevent this type of event (holding up the whole network) from happening in the future, colored coin platforms could acquire (or build) hashing facilities and pools.
Yet if they did this, not only would they need to increase expenditures by several orders of magnitude – which is the very reason they wanted to piggy back off the existing infrastructure to begin with – but they would effectively be building a permissioned network, with very high marginal costs.
In (Breitman 2015c) the author uses a car analogy to describe the cantankerous situation colored coins have created.9
In the analogy, the author explores an alternative universe in which the car was recently created and new owners foresaw the ability to use the car in many different ways, including a new “application” called shipping.
In this scenario, the car owners unilaterally dismissed unproven alternative “truck technology” and instead designed a solution for shipping: bolt a new wooden layer on top of four cars, much like watermarked platforms bolt themselves on top of Bitcoin.
But what about all the various mechanical challenges that came with this new ad hoc design?
Breitman makes the point that, though the same functionality of a truck can be achieved by putting a slab of wood on top of four cars, choosing it as a solution when other options exist is not effective. Similarly, in the context of a closed system, it makes little sense to rely on bitcoind, though inexperienced developers may have a bias towards it:
To be sure, they were several problems with the design. The aerodynamics were atrocious, but that could be somewhat alleviated by placing a tent over the contraption. Turning was initially difficult, but some clever engineers introduced swivels on top of the car, making the process easier. The cars would not always stay at the same speed, but using radio communication between the drivers more or less remedied the issue.
But, truck technology? Well that was unproven, and also trucks looked a lot like train wagons, and the real innovation was the car, so cars had to be used!
Where am I going with this? A large number of projects in the space of distributed ledgers have been peddling solutions involving the use of colored coins within permissioned ledgers. As we’ve explained earlier, colored coins were born out of the near impossibility of amending the code base of Bitcoin. They are first and foremost a child of necessity in the Bitcoin world… a necessary evil, a fiendish yet heroic hack unlocking new functionality at a dire cost.
One could argue that reusing the core bitcoind code offers the benefit of receiving downstream bug fixes from the community. This argument falls flat as the gist of such fixes can be incorporated into any implementation. Issues encountered by Bitcoin have ranged from a lack of proper integer overflow checking to vulnerabilities with signature malleability. Such issues can potentially affect any blockchain implementation; the difficulty lies in identifying them, not in producing a patch to fix them, a comparatively straightforward process. Of course, other bugs might be introduced when developing new functionalities, but the same is true regardless of the approach undertaken.
Basing a fresh ledger, independent from the Bitcoin blockchain, on a colored coin implementation is nothing short of perversion. It is akin to designing a truck using a wooden board bolted on the top of four cars. If, for some reason, the only type of vehicle that could use a highway were sedans, that solution might make sense. But if you have the chance to build a truck and instead chose to rig a container on top of a few cars then perhaps you should first learn how to engineer trucks.
As explored in the game theory model in Appendix B and car example above, there are real security issues with using this specific layered approach in both permissionless and permissioned systems.
The typical excuse for going such route is that building a new blockchain from scratch (e.g., Ethereum, Zerocash, Tendermint, Tezos) delays market entry and could make your startup fall behind the competition.
While it may be true that spending a year or more to purposefully design a new distributed ledger network from scratch will take significant time and resources, the reasons for doing (better security and scalabity) outweigh the downsides (systemic risks and vulnerabilities). Future research should also build models with additional agents.
It also bears repeating that based on the model presented in Appendix B, if the cost of attack is very high, the more plausible outcome is to not attack. However, if it is very attractive to attack there could have a different outcome that is worth further research.
Over the past five months there have been volumes of emails, forum posts and panel discussions on the topic of how Bitcoin can and does scale. One thread that is recommended to readers is a recent reddit debate between Mike Hearn (mike_hearn) and Greg Maxwell (nullc). [↩]
[Note: the following literature review was originally included in a new paper but needed to be removed for space and flow considerations]
How has previous research looked at information security?
Academic literature covering distributed computing and economics of information security and specifically peer-to-peer networks “Before Bitcoin” spans several decades.
Surveying literature (Lua et al. 2004; Hoffman et al. 2007; Momani and Challa 2009) we can see that there have been dozens of attempts to create decentralized peer-to-peer reputation systems that needed to be self-organizing, Sybil-resistant and fault tolerant.1
For instance, the Content Addressable Network (CAN), Chord, Kademlia and the Cooperative File System (CFS) each had a variety of characteristics that attempted to stave off abuse from attackers due to the environments they operated in (e.g., a distributed decentralized P2P infrastructure). Some used public-private key pairs, content hashes and others used NodeID.
These surveys also looked at Distributed Hash Trees (DHT) which have been known to be vulnerable to a number of attacks including Eclipse attacks, where the peering network itself comes under attack (which Bitcoin’s network is also prone to).2
What about other game theory issues? For example in (Lua et al., 2004) the authors wrote that:3
The ability to overcome free-rider problems in P2P overlay networks will definitely improve the system’s reliability and its value.
Sybil attacked termed by Douceur4 described the situation whereby there are a large number of potentially malicious peers in the system and without a central authority to certify peers’ identities. It becomes very difficult to trust the claimed identity. Dingledine et al.,5 proposes puzzles schemes, including the use of micro-cash, which allows peers to build up reputations. Although this proposal provides a degree of accountability, this still allows a resourceful attacker to launch attacks.
This is the same problem discussed above, that (Rosenfeld 2012) runs into regarding how to pay nodes on an open network.
How do these researchers believe it could be solved or fixed? According to (Lua et al., 2004):6
Having some sort of incentive model using economic and game theories, for P2P peers to collaborate is crucial to create an economy of equilibrium. When non-cooperative users benefit from free-riding on others’ resources, the tragedy of the commons7 is inevitable. Such incentives implementation in P2P overlay services would also provide a certain level of self-regulatory auditing and accounting behavior for resource sharing.
As shown above, despite rhetoric at Bitcoin-related conferences, many of the challenges facing Bitcoin today are in fact known problems facing decentralized peer-to-peer networks in general. The problem space for preventing Sybil attacks was and is relatively well-defined, Bitcoin again side-steps the actual solution by making it economically expensive, but not technically impossible to conduct history-reversing attacks, or even Sybil attacks on the gossip network.
P2Prep is a reputation system designed to “mitigate the effects of selfish and malicious peers in an anonymous, completely decentralized system.”8
How did it do this?
The system guards the anonymity of users and the integrity of packets through the use of public key cryptography. All replies are signed using the requester’s public key, protecting the identity of the responder and the integrity of the data. Only the requester is able to decrypt the packet and check the validity of the information.9
Credence (Walsh and Sirer 2006) is another peer-to-peer reputation system that uses gossip-based techniques to disseminate information.10 It defends itself:11
A key security consideration in the Credence system is the use of mechanisms to prevent spoofed votes or votes generated by fake identities. The system guards against such attacks by issuing digital certificates in an anonymous but semi-controlled fashion. The authors propose to mitigate Sybil attacks by requiring expensive computation on the part of the client before the server grants a new digital certificate. Every voting statement is digitally signed by the originator and anyone can cryptographically verify the authenticity of any given voting statement.
In (Momani and Challa 2010) the authors looked at security and trust concepts surrounding wireless sensor networks (WSN). At first glance this may seem unrelated to peer-to-peer networks but there are many similarities:12
The security issue has been raised by many researchers [14 – 24], and, due to the deployment of WSN nodes in hazardous and/or hostile areas in large numbers, such deployment forces the nodes to be of low cost and therefore less reliable or more prone to overtaking by an adversary force. Some methods used, such as cryptographic authentication and other mechanisms [25 – 32], do not entirely solve the problem. For example, adversarial nodes can have access to valid cryptographic keys to access other nodes in the network. The reliability issue is certainly not addressed when sensor nodes are subject to system faults. These two sources of problems, system faults and erroneous data or bad routing by malicious nodes, can result in the total breakdown of a network and cryptography by itself is insufficient to solve these problems. So new tools from different domains social sciences, statistics, e-commerce and others should be integrated with cryptography to completely solve the unique security attacks in WSNs, such as node capturing, Sybil attacks, denial of service attacks, etc.
In their survey they identified previous research that had looked at some of these same issues including In (Xiong and Liu 2003) where the authors attempted to build a reputation-based trust model for peer-to-peer distributed commerce platforms and use game theory to ameliorate the trust parameters by threats from malicious attacks.13
Going back more than fifteen years we can see that other researchers (Lamport 1998) and (Castro and Liskov 1999), that successful attempts were made to “use cryptographic techniques to prevent spoofing and replays and to detect corrupted messages” on a network that replicates services in the face of Byzantine faults.14
Volumes more can and will likely be written covering the research on these specific topics due in large part to the integral role that different types of information and financial networks play in the lives of consumers and businesses alike.
J. R. Douceur, “The sybil attack,” in Proceedings of the First International Workshop on Peer-to-Peer Systems , March 7-8 2002, pp. 251– 260. [↩]
R. Dingledine, M. J. Freedman, and D. Molnar, “Accountability measures for peer-to-peer systems,” in Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies , D. Derickson, Ed. O’Reilly and Associates, November. [↩]
Panelists included Atif Nazir (co-founder of Block.io), Matthieu Riou (co-founder of BlockCypher) and Greg Slepak (co-founder of okTurtles Foundation). All three were instructors for the course this past winter.
I am called any number of names on these threads and stylistically was equated with “Gish Gallop” and a “word soup” thesauri.
Hass McCook (“Bit_by_Bit”) weighs in at one point in the first thread saying that these claims are only valid in August 2014. McCook had similar sentiments as noted in Chapter 3. However, no word on the MV=MC issue that was brought up in that same chapter, it will always apply no matter what the efficiency of the mining equipment. This cost basis was also independently confirmed by a miner.
Today a friend pointed to a new post by Mircea Popescu which takes aim at me (not my book): “No, you don’t have something to say on the topic.” In it he claims I am a “boneheaded teenaged male approach to learning.” Not a word about the marginal costs of mining. In fact, he also claims that there is no data “per se” in the book which is curious since there is actually a lot of data in the book.
This is a common rejoinder; some vocal advocates not looking at actual data from the blockchain. In some ways their timeline looks like this:
2007: First lines of BTC code written
2008: Whitepaper revised and published
2009: Blockchain put into production
2009 – 2014: data created, but the only valid data is fiat prices, the rest is not real data “per se”
Aside from the ad hominem’s above what has been the criticism?
Peter Surda, a researcher, disagreed with my points on inelastic versus elastic money supply but didn’t go into many details in a short email exchange.
I received a number of encouraging emails from a variety of readers and was named one of thirteen “Big Thinkers” in this space, though I doubt some of the other candidates would like me to remain in company with them.
I have had some responses with a couple others, including L.M. Goodman (creator of Tezos), on Twitter this past weekend — though this is largely unrelated to the book itself.
What does this mean?
Partisanship may be impacting scholarship, especially the Myth of Satoshi variety.
No, Leah Goodman did not uncover who Satoshi was. But one thing was clear from that episode in February was that some partisans do not want the individual who created Bitcoin to be taken down from the pedestal they have put him on; they want their caricature to be immutable. Just like some historians have tried to revise history to make their heroes look impeachable, so to has the veneration of Satoshi. If Bram Cohen had anonymously released BitTorrent a decade ago, would BitTorrent have had a similar following due to its mysterious beginnings?
I hold no ill-will to the person or group that comprised Satoshi, but it is clear from the evidence cited in chapters 9 and 10 that he, she or they did not consult an actual economist or financial professional before they created their static rewards and asymptote money supply. This is a mistake that we see in full force today in which the quantity of money available has shrunk due to theft, scams, purposeful burning, accidental destruction, etc. Satoshi recreated a deflationary inelastic economy and much to the chagrin of the self-appointed purity police, it is not being used the way he expected it to (actual commerce) and is instead being used for things it is relatively useful for (e.g., donating to Wikileaks, gambling).
What other economic and environmental issues are still being ignored?
Jake Smith, creator of Coinsman recently published a new article on mining in China. Yet despite being, in his own words, a “true believer” and interviewing other “true believers” in the mining space, he missed the unseen calculation, the economics of extracting and securing rents on this ledger unit which consume scarce resources from the real economy. This is not something that it is unknown, there is an economic formula to explain it: MV=MC (as described copiously in Chapter 3). There is nothing magical or mysterious about mining as other people in the reddit thread point out how mining is currently an environmental albatross or as Fred Trotter dubs it, a “black hole.”
While it is unclear as to the motivations of some of the “true believers” are, they collectively did underestimate the costs of consumer protection and/or did not put it as a top priority for mass consumer adoption. But why would they? Consumer protection is usually expensive, its unglamorous and its centralized (which apparently is a “no-no”).
For example, generally speaking, most people do not like having their possessions stolen. And in the event something is stolen, in practice, individuals prefer to take out insurance and even sue those responsible for damage (torts). If instead of promoting and building illicit markets (like Dark Market and Dark Wallet), these same developers and early investors had funded a start-up that helped track down these stolen funds, or start a non-profit to help get stolen coins, it would have been an amazing public relations coup.
To be balanced, theft takes place across the spectrum of services. It also happens on the edges of Visa’s network. The difference is Visa offers insurance which is built into their cost structure (highly recommend reading Richard Brown’s recent post). Insurance alone is just another product and has nothing to do with the protocol. And this specific point (for the individual user) could be resolved sooner or later (e.g. Xapo already offers some home-made insurance). However, insurance does not change the economics behind Bitcoin, especially since lost coins are permanently and constantly removed from the money supply.
Then again, there is a built in incentive to allow this theft to occur — stolen coins need mixers and exits which could potentially benefit developers and investors of those services; and simultaneously as more coins drop out of circulation this increases the value for those holding the remaining supply.
In addition, a vocal group of these “true believers” do not think Bitcoin has an image problem. Yet it has a massive PR problem, for similar (albeit smaller) reasons that Tylenol had in 1982: customers and their families do not like getting burnt. The only group I am aware of that tried to immediately help the victims of the Mt. Gox debacle was Goxcoin (here’s the LTB interview of it). In contrast, thread after thread on reddit was filled with bullies saying “no big deal.” It is a big deal to normal people with real responsibilities beyond downvoting skeptics on reddit and pumping stories about Bitcoin curing cancer and ending wars. And Mt. Gox liabilities won’t be resolved for at least another year. Instead of cyber bullying merchants into adopting bitcoin payments, these same hectors could have created a company catering towards recovering stolen property (e.g., loss recovery specialists). It was a lost opportunity.
In contrast, Blockchain.info has a mixing service called SharedCoin based off the CoinJoin feature from Greg Maxwell. Blockchain.info recently crossed the 2 million ‘My Wallet’ mark but as I noted in Chapter 4, the vast majority of these likely go unused. This past spring, one of their representatives claimed that they receive about 15 million visitors a day, but what this actually is, is largely API traffic (external websites pulling charts from their site). They probably do not have close to 2 million users let alone 15 million visitors.
How few? We have an idea based on their own internal numbers, MyWallet transactions is flat over the past 12 months. If there were 2 million or 15 million users, we would probably see a gigantic uptick in usage elsewhere on the blockchain (e.g., TVO would skyrocket, tx fees to miners would skyrocket, etc.).
What this all means is that, while they do not release actual user numbers, that at least a minority of wallets are probably ‘burner wallets,’ dumped immediately by individuals wanting to mix coins. This is great for those who need to mix coins but not so great for consumers who just had their coins stolen. How to resolve this going forward?
Incidentally in May, Roger Ver (an angel investor including in Blockchain.info) was extorted by a hacker who had figured out a vulnerability in Ver’s security. Ver put a 37.6 bitcoin bounty on the hacker and the hacker eventually backed down; Wired and CoinDesk each did an article on it. Yet during the same month, coins were stolen from others and when the users came to reddit for help, they were ridiculed for not having done the 27 steps to make a paper wallet. No Wired article was written for them and in turn — speculatively — their coins could have been mixed on a site like Blockchain.info. As a result, why would normal consumers ever want to use Bitcoin after that experience?
Perhaps user behavior and therefore the data will change in the future. Consequently blockchains in general will probably find other niches beyond what Bitcoin is being shoehorned to do today. This includes, other chains and platforms that may be able to help firms like Wageni Tech accomplish its goals in Kenya by helping farmers move, manage and track produce to market in an attempt to bypass middlemen and introduce transparency. Bitcoin may be able to do that one day, but maybe not at the current $40 per transaction cost structure. Start-ups such as Pebble, Hyperledger, Tezos, Tendermint, Dogethereum (Eris), Salpas, SKUChain, Stellar and several other funded projects in stealth mode may be able to as well (remember, Google was the 15th search engine and the iPod was at least the 9th MP3 player).
This is not to say that “Bitcoin” has collapsed or will collapse, nor is this to single out Ver (he has done a lot to try and create value in this space and even donated 1,000 bitcoins to FEE last year). Instead it may continue to evolve into is something called Bitcoin-in-name-only, (or BINO as I refer to it in chapter 16) and it probably will continue to be used for what most risk-tolerant consumers use it for today: as a speculative commodity and as a way to pay for things that credit cards cannot be used for.
I covered a number of topics including some of the governance challenges surrounding the protocol, the tragedy of the commons surrounding the development of the system as well as how the network pays for itself through token dilution (seigniorage).
This is based on the following research paper:
Bitcoin Hurdles: the Public Goods Costs of Securing a Decentralized Seigniorage Network which Incentivizes Alternatives and Centralization (pdf)
I made at least one error in the presentation. Regarding microtransactions, this was not specifically stated in the original 2008 white paper but was subsequently discussed by adopters as an area for potential opportunities. Here is one thread at StackExchange that discusses this further.
Currently only off-chain solutions like Coinbase support the ability to transact at the satoshi level.
[Note: this presentation was made prior to the announcement of “Sidechains” which is a Blockchain 2.0 company that could ameliorate some of the governance issues]
A director of studies (DoS) for a foreign education company in China contacted me today and we discussed the conundrum of college education, specifically English education, in China. I devoted part of chapter 9 in GWON to this segment.
His view was that there are indeed opportunities and reasons for why English learning should be encouraged, that professions that interface with foreigners and foreign companies need to be proficient in English. This is true, but the reality is that there are not that many positions that do this, perhaps just a few million such positions including notably the hospitality industry and IT off-shoring companies. For comparison there are approximately 300 – 390 million English language learners in China and roughly 600,000 – 650,000 foreigners permanently residing in China.1
This is not to say that students in China should not have the option to learn or should not be encouraged to learn other languages, such as English. Rather this is to say that learning English is no longer an end in itself. It is not a “get rich quick scheme” yet much of the marketing done in the segment continues to promote this view. Whereas 20 years ago being a fluent English speaker or an EFL company, may have been a very profitable profession and sub-industry, today it is quite competitive and very mature with salaries being arbitraged to international labor rates. Instead, learning English is just another tool for high-skilled workers, to interface with their international peers and colleagues. If you do not work in such a position or have such skills in the first place (e.g., semiconductor engineering) but instead interface solely with Chinese colleagues in China, you will likely have no additional monetary incentives for mastering a foreign language.
This ties in with the conversation with the DoS because he planned to give a presentation to several college groups about the utility of learning English. I had previously given a presentation last December (video) (slides) and discussed some of the challenges that college students currently face, including a skill-set gap that exists.
By some accounts, the unemployment rate for Chinese college graduates age 21 to 25 is 16%, nearly four times that of blue-collar workers. An Education Ministry survey of 500 firms found that employers had trimmed the number of jobs available for new hires this year by about 15%. In Beijing, an estimated 98,000 jobs are available for the 229,000 new graduates, a city education committee study found.
“The manufacturing sector is still seeing labor shortages,” said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based research group. But many college graduates in major cities are ending up taking poorly paid jobs in areas such as telemarketing or real estate sales, he said, “and often these wages are lower than a factory worker in Shenzhen.”
I have written about this skill-set mismatch several times before.2 It is currently exacerbated by social promotion within institutions (e.g., degree inflation) and will likely continue into the near future. One of the problems that the company the DoS represents is that the bulk of its operations is still geared towards traditional brick-and-mortar facilities. While it was not mentioned in the conversation, two years ago the company had intended to grow and open several hundred training centers on the mainland. This has not happened for several reasons:
the EFL education tuition is unaffordable to most of the target audience (urban middle-class consumers)
on top of inflation which erodes their purchasing power, a relatively “slow” economy has put pressure on wages of these working adults who have to cut back on services such as EFL education
lack of a visible return-on-investment for most customers (i.e., after taking the courses it does not lead to instant seniority or new career opportunities)
However, there are other areas for businesses to expand, including the online sector, which is expected to grow by leaps and bounds. In fact, TutorGroup (which the DoS does not work for) just closed its Series B round of financing last month, raising $100 million to build out its online language education platform that targets (among others) Chinese seeking to learn English.
According to its write-up of the funding announcement, TechCrunch noted that:
TutorGroup says that it expects the adult English language-learning market within China to grow 25% annually and reach more than $21 billion by 2015. In China alone, the company expects sales to experience a triple-digit annual growth rate in the next few years.
China is now the top buying country of digital English language learning products, not only in the Asia region, but in the world, according to a new Ambient Insight report called “The 2013-2018 China Digital English Language Learning Market.” The five-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for digital English language learning products in China is 23.6% and revenues will nearly triple over the forecast period. […] Revenues for these products will spike to a breathtaking $931.8 million in 2018, up from the $323.1 million reached in 2013.
Thus, these two data points suggest that there may still be opportunities in the education and training segment, but likely in the online-only space an area that the DoS’ company is trying to rapidly expand (by opening up a new Boston office for freelance instructors).
What does this have to do with English-learning? I suspect that the online segment will likely benefit and recoup the costs of the investment due to the always-on nature of the urban consumer willing to try out one of these new platforms. Yet whether or not the language and educational knowledge transfers over and translates into higher productivity or more proficiency is another matter entirely.
The last example that ties into this is based on a conversation I had last November with a center manager at the same company that the DoS works at. The manager explained that the ayi (阿姨), an “auntie” custodian, at the headquarters office he worked in paid 20,000 RMB (~$3,400) to learn English through the company’s internal program. Less than six months later she was burned out due in part to the unrealistic expectations (i.e., “overpromised and underdelivered”) that is unfortunately the modus operandi that this segment in China still suffers from. This will likely change as the industry continues to mature, yet it would be in the students best interest to hear the challenges — in addition to the opportunities — that a second language can provide.
Tangential coda: in a slight twist, while English tutoring has been a relatively low-barrier to entry position in China, it looks as if Shanghai is now exporting math instructors to England.4 The UK is spending $18 million to fly 60 Chinese math teachers (proficient in English communication) to help improve the math abilities and scores of learners in England.5
A week ago I gave a guest lecture at a local college discussing three high growth areas in China: artificial intelligence, robotics and elderly care.
I also explained to the college students majoring in foreign languages such as English they should continue learning other skills, instead of merely mastering English proficiency. This was given on December 4, 2013 at Shanghai University of Sport. All citations are included in the notes (the PPT is up over here at Slideshare.net). Note: about 5 minutes are missing in the middle of the video due to technical issues. [Here is the same video on Youtube]
Over the past few days I’ve had talks with a couple of business people regarding EFL opportunities in China. While there are still many (see Chapter 9), I think entrepreneurs should be aware that there is global demand for this language.
Several years ago Jay Walker gave a short TED presentation that highlights the fact that there are around 2 billion English learners globally now. While he doesn’t cite sources he probably drew it from the British Council which publishes a similar number on its website (or perhaps it was from research done by David Graddol).
While few people have a desire to be unemployed (or unemployable) the current higher education system in China has a number of issues in that many of the programs students have enrolled and graduate from do not prepare many of them for the labor market. For example, roughly 6.99 million students will graduate from a Chinese college this summer (exams are typically held at the end of June, early July) yet in large cities like Guangdong, Beijing or Shanghai, only ~30% or so of new graduates have signed contracts for employment.
This is not a new issue or discovery, in fact, I wrote about it last year (as did the WSJ). In Chapter 9 I discuss several of the opportunities that comes from this skillset mismatch, namely the need for retraining — some of which may take place online. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) could be one solution.
Below is a very interesting, very concise write-up of the current problem as shown at a recently held Shanghai job fair, where neither candidate nor employer is incentivized by the other. From MarketPlace education:
Hundreds of HR managers carefully eye prospective employees who, resumes in hand, crowd the floor at a Shanghai job fair.
Here’s the problem: neither group is interested in each other.
Nicole Li is looking to hire college graduates for her property management company. “We need technicians to fix software problems, but college grads don’t have these skills,” says Li, frowning. “We need people for exhibitions who can do presentations in English, but they can’t do that, either.”
Li needs to hire people for 60 high-skilled jobs. She says among the thousands of candidates here today, she’ll be lucky if she finds one.
Tong Huiqin comes to this job fair every Friday. He graduated from the Shanghai Finance University six years ago. Since then, he’s jumped from one job to the next. “It isn’t hard to find a job,” says Tong. “It’s hard to find the right job.”
He’s worked as a supervisor for a bunch of companies, but hasn’t found the right fit. “You could have five hundred graduates and five hundred job openings here, and none of them would match up,” he says.
Tong blames Chinese universities. He says they need to do a better job at preparing people for the country’s rapidly changing labor market. Xiong Bingqi is the deputy dean of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Beijing. “The scale of China’s higher education system has developed so fast that we’re failing to produce college graduates with the right skills for the jobs that are out there,” says Xiong.
For those with means, that’s meant sending your college-age children instead to universities in the U.S., Australia, or Europe. But most young Chinese can’t afford that, so they’re stuck in a Chinese university. And after they graduate — according to a recent state survey — their unemployment rate is four times higher than for those who didn’t get past elementary school.
Inside the job fair, young graduates linger in front of a booth for Bao Steel, China’s largest steel manufacturer. A big sign says that people from parts of Sichuan, Henan, Anhui, and Hunan are not allowed to apply. A guy applying for a job says people from those provinces can’t be trusted. It’s sort of like a booth at a New York job fair banning applicants from, say, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. But this is typical in China, where even state-owned enterprises don’t bother to hide their discrimination.
At a neighboring booth, Jason Zhang is hiring people to work at a chain of nightclubs. He doesn’t care where his job candidates are from. He’s more concerned whether they’re willing to work. “I think today’s graduates are less appealing than people who were born in the ’70s and ’80s,” says Zhang. “They tend to be overly confident and they don’t want to work very hard.”
I turn around and ask 22-year-old Wang Qianmin, who’s about to graduate from Shanghai Normal University with a teaching degree, what she’s looking for at the job fair. “I don’t know,” she says with a pout. “Most of the jobs here aren’t really interesting. I’m looking for a company that’ll give me a high salary, money for meals and that’ll pay my rent — a place where the working hours aren’t too long.”
Wang says she wants to be a teacher. Or maybe a wedding planner.
She can’t decide.
Jason Zhang, the recruiter who has years of experience hiring people, rolls his eyes at this type of candidate. “Chinese college graduates these days think they’re really special,” he says with a smile. “The problem is — they’re the only ones who think that.”
Zhang says Wang and many others in China’s class of 2013 will go all summer thinking they’ve got lots of options, and will probably end up unemployed.
[Note: below is a guest post from a friend, Glenn Howlett, who is originally from the UK. As mentioned in Chapter 9, due to the high demand, there are approximately 100,000 foreigner teachers and experts working in China. For comparison, there are about 600,000 foreign residents currently living in China. Should you come to China and work in one of these positions? Unlike the transient backpackers that come and go, Glenn is a focused professional and was awarded a teacher of the year award in Anhui three years ago and thus gives a unique perspective to this labor segment.]
I’ll start by stating that I’ve been in China coming up to 7 years and I’m 29 years old. I’ve worked for 4 years in a small city (but excellent University) in Anhui province and approaching 3 years in a “private University” in Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province. In addition to these full time jobs I’ve helped colleagues by teaching someone on their behalf (helping my colleague to build their relationship with someone, this is called guanxi (关系） and is vitally important in China) and also worked in an established training centre during summer vacations.
The term I’m probably labelled by is a “Foreign Expert” which usually means some kind of EFL or English teacher. This has been my role in my two Universities, and also occasionally been handed a “Cross Culture Communication” course. At the training centre I’ve taught both Oral English to students preparing an IELTS examination (International English Language Testing System) and Oral English to children at a summer camp. From what I’ve found teaching “Oral English” is whatever you choose it to be, I consider myself to be a responsible individual so I prepare thoroughly and always try to improve both my teaching and lessons… however I’ve found that you’re never really put under any pressure, never have a curriculum provided and whenever you approach a colleague or liaison to ask then the common response is always “to just do anything.” Therefore it seems that many “Foreign Experts” really do take that to heart and do whatever… or nothing at all. In my experience Universities are quick to show appreciation if you’re exceeding their expectations and in Anhui I received a provincial award for my efforts.
I don’t believe that I’ve faced too many problems here, compared to others. As already stated a lack of direction, curriculum and teaching materials are just the norm. You will probably receive a textbook but really I only find them of use when teaching extremely low level English learners. Possibly two inconveniences that I’ll mention are salary and problems being solved.
In my first position, I was to be paid monthly at “around” a certain date. This proved to be extremely inconsistent as if the “boss” was away (which was common) then you didn’t receive the salary on time. I remember one time I wasn’t paid for 7 weeks! Then just a week after I was paid on time for the following month. In my current University no such problems exist.
With regards to problems being solved… maybe I’m being specific to living accommodation problems. If there’s a problems you contact the correct person, he/she’ll have a look to clarify the problem, then they’ll contact a guy to come and take a look, again just to clarify. Then after sometime action will be taken, this can be extremely frustrating as many of these problems could seem minor to them but to “us” are huge… like a broken shower, dodgy plumbing, dodgy door lock, broken air-conditioner or shower etc. From my experience you really need to point out the obvious: “OK my shower/air-conditioner/toilet is broken, you expect that it won’t be fixed for 3 days — give me a key to another flat.”
Most immediate opportunities open to foreigners in the education industry are as “Oral English” teachers, occasionally overlapping with other courses. However in big cities there are many teachers employed in Chinese public High/Middle Schools, Kindergartens and International Schools. In my opinion only the large capital cities will see options other than an “Oral Teacher.”
You can probably maintain usual hobbies here, especially in the large cities. I regularly play football (soccer) on a foreign team that I joined and also with students in my University. Traveling must be an important hobby here — China is so large and varied, you really must make the effort to get out and see this country while you’re here, especially since most don’t know if they’re here for 6 months or 10 years.
The overall lifestyle will be completely different for everyone, I started in a small city of a “poorer” province (compared to it’s Eastern neighboring provinces) so everything was a complete culture shock. Luckily there was often a pool of 3-6 foreigners who were in the same boat and all got along. This is an excellent environment to understand the Chinese ways, culture and language, sadly for most they’re always missing “home comforts” or long for the foreign lifestyle again. In the large cities you can probably find many ex-pat areas/bars and circles of friends, sports groups and organisations, even western restaurants and supermarkets. This of course is much more comfortable but at the same time you probably won’t experience the Chinese way of life, and the cost of living a foreign lifestyle here is quite high. In my mind it’s not worth the cost of such meals or drinks. I’m much happier doing my own thing with my wife, playing football (soccer) or going to the gym and travelling.
A quick update and illustration regarding online education in Chapter 9. South China Morning Post published an article this morning about massive open online courses (MOOCs) which are increasingly popular in China.
If you are from North America you have probably heard about a couple MOOCs including edX and Udacity. The SCMP piece noted that Chinese University of Hong Kong is “committing” (does that mean developing?) some classes to the Coursera platform, which was founded by two Stanford professors last year. For reference, Khan Academy is probably the best known as it has served more than 200 million classes and Wendy Bao cited it specifically in her interview as a future model for education in Chapter 9.
While millions of students are enrolled in these classes globally, it is difficult to track and measure the Chinese matriculation in terms of marketshare because, unfortunately the GFW (Great Firewall) blocks most of these sites.
What are the opportunities then? What can be done about this? Are there any domestic startups? From the SCMP piece:
NetEase, a leading China-based internet technology company, said that the number of open course subjects had doubled from last year to the present 12,000. It reported 4.6 million subscribers via PCs and smart phones and about one million student visits a day.
However, John Zhang, co-founder of mainland-based online career and recruitment consultancy Guolairen.com said open courses delivered by internet portals simply served as a “media platform”.
In contrast, he said Mooc platforms provided students with a classroom-setting learning experience and opportunities to receive credit and recognition for their work. Already five subjects provided via Coursera had been recommended by the American Council on Education.
“This is a moment of historic significance in higher education because Mooc is not just a complement to existing higher learning, it opens up a new era of online teaching,” Zhang said.
Guolairen.com which unveiled its own Mooc platform in a low-key launch in October, the first on the mainland, has recorded 35,000 enrolments for 200 courses from 100,000 sign-ups.
Zhang said the company would invest US$30 million in its Mooc platform over the next three years, in co-operation with leading international universities such as Harvard, Columbia University and MIT, to provide a specialised platform for career-minded Chinese youth.
Potentially large numbers
Upon looking at the Guolairen ( 过来人) site right now, it is not very obvious that MOOC is a central part of this portal. In fact, it is currently geared towards job-seekers, primarily for new graduates (including info about cover letters and interviews). Thus, if 过来人 is the go-to model, it may be too early to declare any domestic market leader yet.
Again, as I remind readers repeatedly (for good reason), it is incredibly easy to get caught up when big numbers are thrown around or when it comes to potential customers in the middle kingdom.
What are some actual estimates for clientele in this segment? At the tail end of Chapter 9 I note the following data:
Yet for those willing to face these technical challenges, the financial rewards could be lucrative. According to one recent estimate, up to 380 million people in China will “need high-quality education and training resources across the country” from 2012 to 2017.1 And a large percentage (~30%) of these people are expected to utilize online services and tools, creating a potential market worth an estimated $11 billion in revenue. However, to temper any get-rich-quick enthusiasm, the amount of investment into Chinese education companies fell to $46 million in 2012, less than a quarter of the previous year.2 Why? David Chen of AngleVest – a venture capital group focusing on angel rounds – noted that “the timeframe for growing an education business can be drawn-out, and a challenge for fund managers who have to achieve returns by a specific date.”3 Thus once again, while there is potential revenue there is also required patience for returns on investment.
In addition to infrastructure issues another challenge that MOOCs may face are cultural stigmas attached to learning from non-traditional, non-accredited sources (also discussed in Chapter 9). This may change though, as the country develops and the middle class begins to seek ways of self-help and autodidactism (e.g., their upcoming Wikipedia generation). For what it is worth, my current employment is involved on the periphery of this industry, though not at the scale of an MOOC though. If you are looking to work in this area I would keep your eyes open and try to attend events like 500 Startups or Barcamp Shanghai to find young techy entrepreneurs wanting to create a domestic MOOC.
Odds and ends
I mentioned it several times in Chapter 9, but there are roughly 300 million English learners in China primarily because of institutional inertia at this point (e.g., taught from primary school on up).4 And while there has always been some amount of resistance to teach this subject due to factors like nationalism, over the past few weeks I have noticed a number of op-eds published in a few national newspapers which for me, is a first.
For instance, about 10 days ago, Zhang Shuhua, a CPPCC deputy and head of the Intelligence Research Committee said that Chinese education was facing an unprecedented “destructive” crisis because of the English language requirements. Another more recent one is from today’s China Daily which discusses reform and removing English requirements from core curriculum and examinations for college majors that do not use it (such as Chinese literature researchers). While this probably will not be changed over night, it is something to also keep you eye on. Or maybe you can capitalize off this nascent sentiment and create training centers for those niches.
Over the past four years I have had a chance to live and work throughout China. This was done in the capacity as an instructor, teacher and professor at a variety of colleges and schools across the country. Along the way I have met numerous fellow travelers, international teachers and businesspersons who have worked across the wide expanse of China’s educational systems.
I say systems because there is a cornucopia of private international schools, public schools, specialized Montessori schools and a seemingly infinite amount of training centers called bǔxíbān (companies and institutions that typically offer after-school programs such as EFL, GRE, GMAT, art, business and math training). These all exist to meet the demand of an extraordinarily large population that culturally values formalized schooling for educational attainment.
For example, in 2006 there were an estimated 16.7 million students studying at 336,200 elementary schools and 21.2 million students studying at 361,300 junior high schools (the reason for the relative decline and difference in the cohort sizes has to do with the one-child policy).123 More than 9 million high school seniors take the national college examination (gaokao) each year, the top percentage of which typically then study overseas.4 And approximately 8 million college students now graduate each year in China, a rate that has quadrupled since 2002.5
In addition, as I mention below, there are a number of extra-curricular training centers called bǔxíbān that cater to the growing domestic demand for foreign educational services. For instance, in 2011 more than 20,000 Chinese high school students took the SAT as part of their quest to study overseas.67 With 58,196 test-takers from the mainland, one in five people who took the GMAT in 2011 was from China – a 45% increase from the previous year (and up from 11,000 in 2008).89 Both tests are conducted entirely in English. New Oriental Education – among many other training centers – alone trains and tests up to 200,000 students a year in standardized tests like TOEFL and SAT.1011
In January 2009, then-Premier Wen Jiabao stated that there were roughly 300 million English learners in China. For perspective, there are 600 times more Chinese studying English than Americans who study Mandarin.12 From primary school through the first two years of college, nearly every student in China is required to take English. One of the subjects tested during the gaokao, the annual national college entrance exam, is English. And with great commitment comes great costs. In 2002 the estimated price tag on EFL education was $1.4 billion and according to a 2009 McKinsey & Company report, “China’s foreign-language business is worth $2.1 billion annually.”13 As I mention below, this is substantially lower (5x) than their peers such as Japan and South Korea.
Who teaches these EFL courses? According to People’s Daily, approximately 100,000 foreign teachers and experts are recruited each year to work on the mainland.1415 But before jumping on a plane and starting a new EFL division of your company overseas consider that not only would you need various licenses to start up a new firm, but that the EFL market is already sorting the wheat from the chaff.16 For example, a large number of nation-wide EFL providers including: Disney English, Wall Street English and English First (EF) are owned and operated by foreign companies. EF is actually the world’s largest EFL company, with 34,000 employees and more than 500,000 paying students globally. New Oriental Education and Ambow Education were both founded by Chinese nationals.17 They rank among the top EFL providers in China and are even traded on the NYSE.
So like all business startups, be sure to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis and identify what your company can provide that is not already being serviced. Even with these well-funded incumbents, a case could be made that entrepreneurs (both foreign and domestic) can still create a profitable business model, catering to specific niches (e.g., first-contact health care providers, hospitality managers, financial and securities traders, lawyers and paralegals).18
While some have argued that EFL might be bubble activity, there is arguably a lot of organic, bottom-up support for this drive into English. For instance, according to Jun Liu, English professor at the University of Arizona, as of 2007 about “40,000 foreign companies have been set up within China and employ 25 million people.”19 As a consequence a lot of the day-to-day operations are conducted in English, such as emailing, accounting, finance and sales. And this outward push from within organizations can be illustrated by firms such as Air China – the third largest carrier in China – which has introduced an incentive program for its employees to learn English from a large TEFL provider. Similar incentive programs exist at foreign-owned multinationals such as Eli Lilly, Metro (a large German supermarket chain) and Intel. On a governmental level, in a bid to help tourists and foreigners, one such firm – English First – was even hired to teach taxi drivers and volunteers during the Shanghai 2010 Expo; they were also the official trainers for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
And with a goal of becoming distinguishable and eventually an international brand, most businesses and large SOEs have adopted English names such as China Unicom, Lenovo, Agricultural Bank of China, China National Petroleum, State Grid and China Railway.2021 As I mention later in Chapter 12, this push outward presents an opportunity for US companies and institutions to help market and educate Chinese firms looking to do business overseas. On this note, in June 2012, Shaun Rein, the author of “The End of Cheap China,” made the case that China will continue to need American education and American educators.22 He makes a persuasive call for US-based educational entrepreneurs as well as educational companies and institutions to set up shop on the mainland. And if you do not, someone, perhaps even your competition will.
What you and your firm can do
For perspective, South Korea, which invests more on EFL education than any other country, collectively spends between $10-$15 billion a year on EFL education; one 2005 estimate put the figure even higher, 1.9% of GDP (approximately $16 billion).23 And with a number of domestic programs similar to its neighbors, Japan spends about $8 billion a year on EFL.24 Thus with a population ten times the size of Japan and a GDP six times the size of South Korea, there is a lot of potential room for EFL growth in China, which as noted above, spent $2.1 billion on EFL in 2009.
How much do these programs at a language center typically cost? I spoke with a high level Chinese manager in charge of operations at a large EFL training center in Pudong, Shanghai who has had 20 years of experience working at Disney English, Wall Street English, EF, Web English and Huapu (the latter two are Chinese-owned and managed). According to her, “ten years ago it was a seller’s market as there were relatively few language centers and as a consequence they could charge enormous tuition fees, upwards of 400,000 RMB [$64,000] a year primarily because there was and still is a large demand for authentic face-to-face experiences. In return the centers provided one-on-one intensive training with laowai – native English speakers – for hours each day. Today, because the market has matured over the past decade, the average high-end language package now costs about 30-40,000 RMB [$4,800-$6,400] annually in larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing – which is still a somewhat high amount considering the annual wages for most urban residents is less than $9000 a year. Yet, there still a number of firms such as RISE and baite (百特英语) that specialize in providing English-only, total immersion environments for their customers – at a substantial cost.”
One of the ongoing issues that any service provider in any country must continuously deal with is figuring out the right price point for attracting potential customers. Online education is one way to create flexible rates; as a consequence several EFL programs are now available at substantially lower costs compared with ten years ago (e.g., 500 RMB per month). Another example is while the value of an EFL package is subjective based on each individual’s preferences, there are ways to make repayment easier.25 Take for instance, payment plans. At some language centers they are now allowing customers to pay by installment. And according to this same source, even though 10-20,000 RMB [$1,600-$3,200] a year is now considered a “reasonable sweet spot” in the mind of the typical middle class worker in a Tier 1 city; some of these consumers still would like flexibility and assistance and thus providing month-to-month billing allows them to achieve a win-win compromise.
Catering to specific clientele
In November 2012 I spoke with Cathy Su, a six-year marketing veteran at English First (EF) and Fujian native, about education-related business opportunities in China. According to Su, “parents will go to great lengths to sacrifice themselves for their child’s educational future. For example, in order to send their children overseas, many are essentially price inelastic. Some are willing to invest and spend substantial amounts in order to help their children get an overseas education. They do this for multiple reasons, yet in every case, the students all need both coaching and training to prepare for standardized tests like the SAT, GMAT and TOEFL in order to matriculate overseas.”
While there are cultural components (such as li or 禮) to this seeming inelasticity one of the key issues that Chinese families currently face is as Charles Zhang (the founder of internet giant Sohu) recently explained in an interview,
“I believe the US system is definitely better than the Chinese system. First of all, China just has way too many people. The entire system becomes very competitive and thus opportunities are limited. Education in China is not education; it is selection. Of course, the biggest selection process is the national college entrance exam, the Gaokao. The Chinese system naturally must prepare children to study for this inevitable exam, but the preparation is the complete destruction of creativity.”26
Zhang’s comments were similarly echoed by Paul French, the Chief China Market Strategist at Mintel who recently noted that, “[t]here simply aren’t enough places at enough good universities for all the Little Emperors capable of attending and passing the required exams.”27 Little Emperors (八零後) are single children born and raised under the one-child policy. And due to this confluence of scarcity and demographic pressures, this ultra-competitive labor market has motivated parents to push their only child to accumulate other degrees and certificates (see below). For example, according to a report from Mintel, “three-quarters of middle-class Chinese parents expect their child to earn a postgraduate degree, while only 32% said they would be happy if their child stopped at the undergraduate level.”28
This sentiment was similarly noted by Wendy Bao, with whom I also spoke in November 2012. She is originally from Zhejiang and has worked throughout EF over the past 10 years in positions such as a product manager, market analyst and in business intelligence. According to Bao, “Chinese parents care more about education for kids than themselves. Or rather, if there was an investment decision between the two, Chinese parents will invest more in their children’s education and extracurricular activities because they see their progeny as more important than their own personal achievements.”
Such sacrifice is illustrated by the family of Wu Caoying, who now attends a three-year polytechnical school. Growing up in Shaanxi province, she is the only child of her parents. Her father works in a coal mine, earning $500 a month and her mother earns $12 a day “tying little plastic bags one at a time around 3,000 young apples on trees, to protect them from insects.”29 Together they have scrimped and saved for their daughters education and spend more than 50% of their monthly earnings so that their daughter could attend a boarding school during high school and can now matriculate to the polytech. In return, Caoying is expected to help take care of her parents after they retire.
While part of the education-centric ethic stems from various Confucian teachings (e.g., xiushen or修身) that most Chinese are taught from a young age another reason why foreign degrees are sought is that this highly competitive labor market has led to credentialism (e.g., obtaining a certificate or degree merely to collect it for your resumé and CV).30 As a consequence Cathy Su also thinks that because of this education ethic, that in addition to traditional EFL training there is essentially an insatiable demand for niche services such as SAT coaching. This may be especially true since the middle class is expected to grow from 300 million today to an estimated 600 million by 2020.31 And as I noted in Chapter 6, with a growing middle class comes growing disposable incomes. Furthermore, wealthier Chinese families are increasingly looking to send their children abroad in part because of the hyper competitive domestic climate and due to the perceived creativity-friendly environment at Western institutions. For example, a 2012 report from Hurun regarding high net worth individuals (there are approximately 2.7 million HNWI in China), “85% plan to send their children abroad for education.”3233
And what do these Chinese students do after completing their degrees? While many of them obtain permanent residency, others return to the mainland (see ‘brain drain’ in Chapter 19) as future innovators and policy makers. For instance, several of the largest internet companies in China were founded by Chinese nationals who attended US institutions for college and graduate school. Charles Zhang (Sohu) graduated from MIT; Robin Li (Baidu) graduated from SUNY Buffalo; Joseph Chen (Renren) graduated from University of Delaware, Stanford and MIT; Gary Wang (Tudou) graduated from Johns Hopkins and the College of Staten Island; James Liang (Ctrip) graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology; Victor Koo (Youku) graduated from Stanford and UC Berkeley; and numerous executives in the management teams at Sina and Tencent attended a US college. In addition many others at Alibaba attended other Western institutions or joint ventures like the China Europe International Business School, the first business school to offer an MBA on the mainland.3435 Harvard has several programs designed specifically to educate and facilitate information exchange with future Chinese policy makers. One of its programs called China’s Leaders in Development brings in “50 to 60 official each year.”36 Its Kennedy School has trained 150 Chinese officials since its program began in 1998. All told about half of the 668 Chinese students in the 2012-2013 school year at Harvard are enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.37
In fact, while the legal issues are still being sorted out, there may be opportunities for both non-profit and for-profit traditional brick-and-mortar schools in larger mainland cities. For example, many Chinese families are faced with a dilemma in terms of educational options on the mainland. On the one hand they can send their children – or usually the only child – to public schools. While some of the public schools are opening special classes for students wanting to study abroad (SAT, AP, A-level prep), public schools are usually considered substandard due to lack of funding and rote memorization learning methods. Another viable choice is for families to try and help send their kin overseas yet this is financially cumbersome to most middle-class families.38 A third option is private schools, yet there are currently very few private schools on the mainland, thus the other two options above place many families in an uncomfortable bind (e.g., they would like their children to receive the best education possible but have limited choices).
This may be changing however. Two years ago Wellington School, a 150-year old British school, was replicated in Beijing.39 For £15,000 a year ($23,800), Beijing parents can now send their children to this new school based on the British public school system. Oxford International College (unrelated to Oxford University) charges up to $41,700 a year in its private schools located on the mainland and also emulate the British education system.40 And while it take some time before such imports are more widely accepted, the only other alternative currently is international schools, though while relatively popular, they are also both very exclusive (you typically need to have a foreign passport to be eligible) and prohibitively expensive ($10,000-$35,000 a year).41 Yet the trend towards international schools is growing. According to Reuters, there are now 338 such schools (up from just 22 twelve years ago) whom collectively enroll 184,073 students.42
Or conversely perhaps your firm can help place Chinese students in American schools. For example, according to the Association of Boarding Schools, “about 5,600 students from China [are] enrolled in its 285 member schools in the US this academic year [2012-2013].”43 According to the US Department of Homeland Security, in 2010-2011 the amount of Chinese students studying at private schools in the US was 6,725, up from 65 in 2005.44 In terms of costs, some international programs like Leman Manhattan Preparatory School in Manhattan cost $68,000 a year (30 out of the 40 international students at Leman are currently from China).45 Other boarding schools in the New York metro area cost an average of $46,875 a year. As a consequence, the opportunities for foreign experts and entrepreneurs looking to wade into both sides of the market may be viable, even for administrative tasks.
For instance, US institutions and organizations collectively spend $980 billion annually on education, twice as much as China.4647 Due to a variety of factors including large spending per capita, US institutions continue to attract foreign talent. For example, there were 765,000 foreign nationals studying in the US in 2011 – including 158,000 Chinese (there are now 194,000 Chinese studying in the US).4849 And according to the US Department of Commerce, these foreign students contributed $22.7 billion to the economy and many stay after graduation (Chinese students alone added $5 billion to the US economy in 2012).50 Thus in an effort to improve both the quantity and quality of its graduates as well as raise its standing on league tables and rankings, every level of the Chinese government is implementing plans to invest ever larger sums of funds into education; including recruiting foreigners (for comparison, 24,000 Americans studied in China in 2011).51
Yet, with the administrative, marketing and teaching prowess gained from over six decades of being at the top of the international educational marketplace, managers and entrepreneurs at US institutions could conceivably capitalize on their skill bases and leverage them in China’s expanding market.5253 A year ago, in March 2012, Stanford University opened the doors to a new joint venture, Stanford Center at Peking University making it one of the first permanent higher education facilities to open on a Chinese campus.54 NYU has set up the first Sino-US joint venture university that will award a double bachelor’s degree (from both the local Shanghai branch and NYU in Manhattan). Classes began in the fall of 2012 and students from the mainland will pay 100,000 RMB ($15,948) a year to attend.55 And Julliard, the performing arts conservatory, is building a campus in Tianjin (southeast of Beijing) catering to students aged 8 to 18.56
At the same time however, enthusiasm should be tempered as a joint Yale University – Peking University undergraduate program “collapsed” this past July due to “high expenses, low enrolment and weaknesses in its [Yale] Chinese-language programme.”57 Similarly, Duke University’s venture with Wuhan University has run into several major problems. The construction of the new Duke Kunshan joint campus has been delayed five times over the past three years due to “slow” and “shoddy” workmanship.58 Thus success in this segment is not necessarily a foregone conclusion.
Another role that foreign administrators may be able to utilize is that of an agent, or admissions consultant. According to one estimate, “8 out of every 10 Chinese undergraduate students use an agent to file their applications.”59 These agents in turn will help candidates fix their admissions essays, find the best references to write recommendation letters and otherwise guide clients through a streamlined process to foreign-based colleges.60 Maybe you and your company can utilize your expertise to work with new clientele.
However, as touched on above, the mainland education industry can also be tricky. For example, in order to be granted a license, certifications have to be recognized by the Ministry of Education.61 Online-awarded degrees and certifications are typically not accredited by the Ministry. As a consequence you may have to set up a physical brick-and-mortar office in order to do business within the Chinese marketplace. In addition, alternative certification programs such as Microsoft’s MCSE, Cisco’s CCNA, Huawei’s HANA and others like Certified Nutritionist are increasingly prevalent – so as long as they are recognized by what the Ministry deems as a legitimate institutional authority.
For instance, what if your company trains and educates workers in an ISO management process in the US? If you wanted to expand into China you may need to reinvent your firm on the mainland by creating a brick-and-mortar office location before you can legally market within China. A consequence for failing to do so would be the trials faced – according to a source at the company – by the University of Phoenix, which despite its 35 years of history, was originally not seen as a legitimate degree awarding institution in China.
National Quality Assurance (NQA) is one of the largest ISO registrars in the world and an Accredited Certification Body (ACB) that coordinates with regional sub organizations to train, audit and certify organizations and companies in ISO 9000 family of quality management certifications. SNQA is the organization in charge of verifying, confirming and auditing ISO 9001, ISO 13485, TL9000, BRC-CP and several other standards on the mainland.62 In January 2013 I spoke with Jason Jia, who is managing the new Wuhan, Hubei office for SNQA. Jia is originally from Anhui but has spent the last 3 years working in sales for SNQA. He noted that, “there are long-term opportunities for foreign ISO experts that can provide to mainland firms such as training and auditing services. However one of the challenges facing these same companies is that communication issues are usually a big problem. In addition, the maintenance and foreign labor overhead expenditures relative to local labor are usually cost prohibitive and as a consequence the daily maintenance fees are typically so high that most Chinese firms cannot afford it. For example, we as a certification organization pay the auditor company a daily training and on-site verification fee and this quickly adds up when taking into account the relatively higher per hour costs charged by foreign companies.”
One lively human resource area within the education labor market provides large compensation packages yet has relatively few candidates: if you have internationally recognized awards, Chinese institutions will hire Western superstar teachers to improve their table rankings.63 For example, three years ago Jiao Tong University in Shanghai scored a coup, recruiting French virologist Luc Montagnier, who discovered HIV and subsequently received the Nobel Prize in 2008. Another case is, Rao Yi, who grew up in China but spent 22 years at Northwestern University before being lured back to become the dean of Life Sciences at Peking University.64 All told, the Chinese national government in a project dubbed the “1,000 talents program” (see more below in Chapter 15) is offering perks and bonuses up to $150,000 in an attempt to lure “foreign-educated Chinese scientists, academics, financial experts, and M.B.A.s.”65 And according to Wang Huiyao, head of the Center for China and Globalization, approximately 15,000 individuals have come to the mainland through this program.66
At the same time, if your goal is acting as an intermediary and talent recruiter, expectations should be tempered with a dose of reality. For example, Pat Sullivan, an accountant and chairman of international recruiting at Young Harris College told me in March 2013 that there are a number of obstacles created by current US immigration policies, which put numerous roadblocks in the way of foreign students seeking to study in the United States. According to her, “The paperwork required for US Visas, health certificates, assurances of financial solvency, and other forms are always more time consuming than one would expect. Planning for the arrival of foreign students must begin months in advance and requires the active participation and assistance of the host educational institution.”
Consequently, for those entrepreneurs looking to open up a new seminar or class room system, several questions need to be answered: where will you find customers who are willing and able to pay? How will you build, manage and incentivize a sales force team to convert leads into customers? Who will teach and design the curriculum for the courses? Where will these seminars and courses be held?
In terms of taxes, there is one other challenge for foreign-owned companies that is not entirely unique to the EFL industry, yet should be recognized and addressed. As mentioned above, each province has its own legal requirements for business licenses and certifications.67 For example, in Shanghai, in addition to a college degree a foreign teacher is required to have at least 2 years of previous teaching experience as well as a TEFL certificate from an authorized institution. On the business end, due to relatively strict capital controls (e.g., individuals are limited to $50,000 in transfers annually) it can be relatively complex to repatriate your profits and assets from schools as there are also numerous taxes, tariffs and levies that do and do not apply specifically to educational companies. While not explicitly discouraged, creative accounting, subcontracting and the “Hong Kong shuffle” (see Chapter 10) have become increasingly popular tactics by EFL firms to reduce tax liabilities.6869 Thus it is recommended that you speak with an attorney or tax expert before you invest in a new EFL program.
In terms of educational activities irrespective of being indoors or outdoors, according to its September 2012 report, Distimo noted that the popularity of English-based apps in China for the iPhone still remains very high.70 It is the 2nd largest installed language for apps overall and thus foreign entrepreneurs – including those in the education industry – may be able to turn this embedded built-in language base to their advantage. Because the userbase is already largely familiar with Romanization, that is one less problem to be concerned with. You might consider creating online virtual EFL classrooms based on apps for smartphones and tablets or rolling out cloud-based video courses that can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection.
In fact, one point Wendy Bao explained to me was that online classes and programs like Khan Academy will be the future of education. Khan Academy is a popular non-profit educational organization that focuses on making micro lessons on a variety of topics and has delivered more than 200 million lessons online.71 In Bao’s words, “while online courses may have a slower uptake in China due to a limited – yet growing – telecommunication infrastructure, because of their inherent flexibility for being offered and accessed throughout a wide variety of time slots, this will enfranchise rural and urban students who can now utilize global knowledge databases. These same students – who due to their inland locations and schools lacking the funds would otherwise not have access to experts including foreign instructors whose language skills are highly sought after and could be substantially cheaper via telepresence.”
Yet again, one challenge, as Bao mentioned, is that the telecom infrastructure is still relatively limited in bandwidth. For example, as I note later in Chapter 15, according to their Q3 2012 speed survey, ChinaCache, the largest domestic content delivery network (CDN),notes that while the overall speeds are a little slower than previous speed rankings, Shanghai currently leads the country in average speeds at roughly 3.44 Mb/s and Beijing is 10th at around 2.5 Mb/s.7273 Akamai Technologies (a global content delivery network provider) ranked China’s average internet-connection speed at 94th globally, at 1.6 Mb/s.74 In addition, depending on the regulatory and monitoring issues discussed in Chapter 20 with the Great Firewall, quality of service and bandwidth may decline as you leave the larger Tier 1 cities. Thus entrepreneurs should take these factors into account while making a business plan.
In December 2012 I spoke with Eric Azumi, vice-president of information systems at EF. According to him “the online market is just now beginning to be tapped.75 There have been limitations that continue to be overcome including computational and bandwidth issues that arise in every country but especially in China. Voice recognition services similar to Siri will probably be the next technology incorporated into this segment and eventually, as the online industry matures, it will be commoditized. What I mean by that is that at some point all competitors will have very similar software stacks in terms of features and functionality, yet there is always room for value-added services – especially as more direct-teacher training is replaced with mobile learning.”
Azumi gives as an example, the technical changes over the past 15 years as online classrooms evolved from text-only, to incorporate audio, then video via telepresence (e.g., webcams) and as he predicts in the near-term, real-time voice recognition. Yet again even with all of these competitive forces with large, well-funded, experienced incumbents he thinks that “because of the relatively low barriers to entry just about anyone can still set up an educational center in China and elsewhere, especially if they cater to niche groups or provide a unique environment such as how coffee shops in Japan have been turned into English conversation centers that provide both relaxed and informal way of improving language skills. And because people by-and-large still insist on face-to-face time, the general acceptance of online education will take time to diffuse here and around the globe. Furthermore even with the advent of on-demand instructional services there are still many opportunities for traditional schools in 2nd & 3rd Tier cities which are still nascent markets that have not been exploited yet.” These technological challenges and opportunities related to cloud computing are further expanded on in Chapter 13.
Yet for those willing to face these technical challenges, the financial rewards could be lucrative. According to one recent estimate, up to 380 million people in China will “need high-quality education and training resources across the country” from 2012 to 2017.76 And a large percentage (~30%) of these people are expected to utilize online services and tools, creating a potential market worth an estimated $11 billion in revenue. However, to temper any get-rich-quick enthusiasm, the amount of investment into Chinese education companies fell to $46 million in 2012, less than a quarter of the previous year.77 Why? David Chen of AngleVest – a venture capital group focusing on angel rounds – noted that “the timeframe for growing an education business can be drawn-out, and a challenge for fund managers who have to achieve returns by a specific date.”78 Thus once again, while there is potential revenue there is also required patience for returns on investment.
Takeaway: The education market in China has the potential to be both large and profitable. However, gone are the days when you could merely jump on an airplane, get off and instantly set-up a market-leading company. The industry has become increasingly competitive with both professionalized workforces and various rules and regulations such as licensing and certification guidelines. But as long as the Chinese economy and population continue to grow, there should be continued opportunities for entrepreneurs and companies who have done their due diligence. This chapter does not discuss guanxi, a cultural phenomenon involving personal connections within the hiring and deal making process in all Chinese business transactions. But that is a very complex topic worthy of several copious volumes and touched on in Chapter 10.
More specifically, “Despite a 40% increase in population since 1976 the number of primary school students has gone down by 33%, from 150 million to 100 million, and there were half as many primary schools in 2010 as there were in 2000.” See 停止计划生育政策的紧急呼吁 from Eduzx.net [↩]
Currently there are no SAT test centers on the mainland due to restrictions by the government. Thus students wanting to take the SAT must go elsewhere, typically Hong Kong. See ”洋高考”来势凶猛国内高校面临挑战 from Sohu [↩]
This growth in GMAT testing and overseas matriculation is one of the reasons why US institutions that provide MBAs have grown from 26,000 to more than 168,000 annual graduates from 1970 to 2009. There are a number of mainland based MBA schools as well including the top ranked Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. See Is the MBA Obsolete from Forbes, China Best Business School Leadership MBA from Forbes and Game Changers: Guanghua Cai from Fortune [↩]
As I note in Chapter 14, through the mass consumption of Western entertainment, the Romanization and Latinization of both mainland businesses and cultures continues. And yet this is not the only area in which Western culture is absorbed on the mainland. According to Yasmin Haskell, “The Chinese already appreciate the importance of these sources [European sinologists]. Several years ago they were sending local students on scholarships to learn Latin at European universities. Today, as I am reliably informed by a senior American colleague, they are training up thousands of Chinese teachers of classics – not the Chinese classics of Confucius and Lao Tzu, that is, but those of ancient Greece and Rome.” See We must look to an ancient tongue to understand Asia from The Australian [↩]
Another on-going long-term opportunity for brand marketers is working with these large SOEs as they internationalize and go abroad. While they typically dominate their specific market segments domestically (in part because of their monopolistic privilege) they have had uphill challenges in expanding abroad. See BCG: Chinese State-Owned Firms Not So Muscular Abroad from The Wall Street Journal [↩]
As one of my Chinese mentors in Singapore explained, the cultural component should not be overlooked or downplayed. There is a Confucian virtue called xiushen (修身 or self-cultivation, improvement, rectification) which has been enshrined at a deep cultural level across the Chinese populace that Western education, especially at tertiary levels, and particularly in the fields of science, technology, management, marketing and finance will probably see strong demand for years to come. This is not simply a calculation concern (to improve one’s income potential), but even more so a cultural phenomenon. [↩]
Some of these new “special” programs (preparatory courses often taught by foreigners) are called “American-Chinese cooperation programs” and are being implemented at public schools, yet they also have their own admissions hurdles. For example, they all require their own entrance examination and some of these programs charge up to 100,000 RMB ($15,000). See “洋高考”来势凶猛国内高校面临挑战 from Sohu [↩]
It is not just US colleges that have benefited from this international student pool. According to an Al Jazeera report, “British universities receive more students from China than any other country outside of the European Union.” There were 67,235 Chinese international students in the 2010-2011 cohort in the UK. See Chinese students choosing to study abroad from Al Jazeera [↩]
Prior to World War II, the leading institutions of both the sciences and social studies were in German-speaking countries. German, not English, was the lingua franca of the academic world for nearly a century. [↩]
While there are many genuine applicants, foreign admissions consultants should be aware that considerable amounts of fraud have taken place in this subindustry. In fact, one report in 2011 based on a survey of 250 Beijing high school students matriculating to the US “concluded that 90 percent of Chinese applicants submit false recommendations, 70 percent have other people write their personal essays, 50 percent have forged high school transcripts and 10 percent list academic awards and other achievements they did not receive.” See A Chinese Education, for a Price from The New York Times, The China Conundrum from The New York Times and Busted: Fraud in China by Tom Melcher [↩]