Bitcoin Bits: 28th August, 2016

The weekly roundup of cryptocurrency and blockchain articles from the past few days that I found interesting, original or simply worth pointing out for some reason…

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The War on Cash – by Brett Scott, for TheLong+Short

Not about bitcoin per se, but if you read this, you’ll see where it fits in.

“’Cashless society’ is a euphemism for the “ask-your-banks-for-permission-to-pay society”. Rather than an exchange occurring directly between the hotel and me, it takes the form of a “have your people talk to my people” affair.”

Brett Scott writes about how we seem to be inexorably moving towards a cashless society. You may not realize that this involves you, until you notice the ads for credit cards, the fact that it’s hard to directly pay for bus or train fares with coins, the dwindling of cash-on-receipt options in ecommerce, the taxi or car-sharing rides that don’t accept cash…

“Very few media champions defend cash. It is like a taken-for-granted public utility, whereas digital payments platforms are run by private companies with an incentive to flood the media with their key messages. When they fight this war, their target is our cultural belief in cash, and the belief that its provision should be a public right.”

But doesn’t cash mainly benefit criminals?

“Other tactics include pointing out that criminals use cash, that it fuels the shadow economy, that it’s unsafe, and that it facilitates tax evasion… These arguments have notable shortcomings. Criminals use many things that we keep – like cars – and fighting crime doesn’t take priority over maintaining other social goods like civil liberties. The ‘shadow economy’ is a derogatory term used by elites to describe the economic activities of people they neither understand nor care about. As for safety, having your wallet cash stolen pales in comparison to having your savings obliterated in a digital account hack. And if you care about tax justice, start with the mass corporate tax avoidance facilitated by the formal banking sector.”

But what’s so bad about not having to carry around dirty paper bills and heavy coins?

“The proclaimed Death of Cash is thus an episode in the broader drama that is the Death of Privacy, the death of breathing room, and the death of informal, non-measured, unaccounted-for behaviour. Every action you take must forever be attached to your digital persona, dragging with it a data trail extending back to the day you were born. We face creating an entire generation of people who do not know what it feels like to not be monitored.”

Ok, so, is there a digital alternative to cash that offers the same pseudo-anonymity and convenience?

Funny you should ask…

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The artistic inspiration of the blockchain

Conceptual artist Simon Denny opens an exhibition in New York in September that combines bitcoin, Ethereum, the blockchain, Pokémon and the board game Risk to explain the potential of the cryptocurrency world in, well, colourful and relevant images.

Simon Denny, by Guy Bell via The Guardian
Simon Denny, by Guy Bell via The Guardian

From the press release:

“At a moment when public debate spotlights a global governance system that seems to ignore the needs of many of its participants, starkly contrasting visions for alternative political systems are emerging. What would a world look like where the collusion of an elite few would be rendered technically impossible? Can a truly inclusive global future exist?”

Not much to raise eyebrows there. Nicely put, in fact. The exhibition focusses on Ethereum, 21 Inc. and Digital Asset Holdings, and here we go, hold on to your artistic hats:

“[Their] aesthetic context and geo-political ecosystems are imagined through a global diagram, a community of computer Case-Mods and other sculptural infographics. The exhibition maps the myths, dreams, winners and losers of the global game of governance design. Artworks borrow their forms from the hardware of competitive gaming – with oversized special editions of the board game “Risk”, personal computer cases turned corporate “deal toys” and cartoonish entrepreneurial “players” in a land-grab for the decentralized, encrypted infrastructure of possible self-governing future worlds.”

According to an article in The Guardian, the exhibition features a large cutout of a Pokéball next to one of trainer Ash Ketchum. Because aside from the fact that “Ash” in Japanese is “Satoshi” (yes, as in bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto), the character’s name represents rising from the ashes of the existing currency system. The artist actually describes the cartoon character as a “saviour”.

Simon Denny, image via Petzel
by Simon Denny, image via Petzel

It gets better: the board game Risk is re-imagined through the ideological points of view of the leaders of the three companies represented.

“Masters, [the CEO of Digital Asset Holdings]… is an English economist attempting to bring blockchain to global markets. Denny has designed her Risk game to replace the world’s countries with financial centers and a dice made of the world’s different currencies.

Srinivasan, [the founder of bitcoin hardware and software company 21 Inc.]… believes bitcoin will give the world a free market separate from government regulations. So his Risk game has a shore and offshore territories where people can build clouds in an island in the middle of the ocean.

As for 22-year-old Russian programmer Buterin, [founder of bitcoin alternative Ethereum] who Denny calls “the Luke Skywalker of the cryptocurrency circuit”, Denny has created an intergalactic version of the Risk board game that takes place in outer space with network-to-network paths and players. In real life, Buterin is often painted as a fantastical savior figure for his crowdfunding venture capital firm Ethereum (until it recently fell victim to a $50m hack).”

[Insert rant about pedantic pet peeve: Ethereum was not hacked!! It was theDAO!! And Ethereum is not a crowdfunding venture capital firm!!! Fact checking!!! There, pant, pant…]

I love it. I definitely want to go, even if only for a reality check. This is a beautifully creative world that we live in. Just when you think you’re beyond being surprised…

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Bitcoin is still an inaccessible, obscure experiment—but Bitcoin 2.0 could change our lives – by Jon Evans, for Quartz

Bitcoin is good. Bitcoin 2.0 will be better. Sidechains, microtransactions…

“The remarkable thing about sidechains is that they would allow value to move automatically, and seamlessly, between different blockchains, each with its own rules. Think of sidechains as the ability to move your money from a bank with no rules and no insurance to a bank with lots of rules and lots of insurance—and back—whenever you want, at the push of a button.”

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Did Ethereum’s Fork Validate Bitcoin Block Size Conservatism? – by Stan Higgins, for CoinDesk

Pshh, block size problem? What block size problem?

“To some, the Bitcoin Core development team was seen as too conservative, too worried about the technical failures of a hard fork to take actions that could improve the ability of the network to grow. But since ethereum’s public struggles changing its consensus rules with this technical fix, sentiment has shifted.”

I confess, it turned my position around… Comparisons are difficult and unfair, true, but if young and relatively illiquid Ethereum can’t pull it off, it’s very unlikely that Bitcoin will be able to.

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Blockchain Is Banks’ Secret Sauce – by Christopher Langner, for Bloomberg

Not a lot of news here (other than that the FT is covering the interest in blockchain on the part of big banks, and by extension, so is Bloomberg – quite meta when you think about it…), but an interesting reaffirmation nonetheless.

“The algorithm system allows the number of people involved in verification to be significantly reduced, potentially from dozens to only a couple per transaction. The cost of settling trades in the finance industry runs as high as $80 billion a year. If each transaction that requires human verification is included, the figure is much larger. With digital ledgers, it would be a fraction of that. Not to mention the time taken would drop from days to minutes, or hours at most.”

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If you don’t know CGP Grey’s videos, I recommend them. They’re dense, entertaining and educational in a not-boring way. Impressive editing, fast information and strong messages hold your attention, even when the subject is not something you care much about. One of my favourites of his is the coffee explanation.

This one, from a couple of years ago, is about the robots coming for your jobs. However much you think you already know about the concept, it is thought provoking. And whether you believe that the outlook is exciting, worrying or just simply there, it does succeed in transmitting the message that we should be thinking about this a whole lot more.

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Have a great Sunday afternoon! I hope it’s full of sunshine, literal or figurative…

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