Bits and stuff: March 18, 2018

It’s been a staggering week for corporate “misbehaviour” – the fallout from the Theranos hubris, and the revelation that Cambridge Analytica knowingly used our social media information to manipulate us. The latter one is particularly terrifying, and will probably trigger a wave of calls for tighter regulation of the data collectors.

It could also trigger a further push (already underway in Europe with GDPR and PSD2) for data handling to be more transparent and, if possible, decentralized. Obviously blockchain technology has a potential role to play in that. But the more interesting aspect is the broader conversation about who should own our data. This is going to trigger a much bigger change in how business is run than most of us realise.

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Google’s decision to ban ads for cryptocurrencies and token sales, taken on the heels of Facebook’s similar move, is harsh, but good news for the sector. While the decent ads get unjustly washed away with the scammy ones, the necessary cleansing of the garbage that bombarded anyone interested in the space will hopefully “reset” the sector’s reputation for innovation rather than fraud.

True, it may lower the income of sector media that showed programmatic ads on their sites. But at least they will no longer find themselves inadvertently showing bad ads. That will give the sector another cleansing boost.

So, Twitter next?

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I was in Stockholm this week for a post-trade conference, talking about the potential impact of cryptocurrencies on hedge funds. (More on that to follow). Since I had some time before my flight back home on Friday, I took myself off to the Photography Museum, where they had an exhibition of Christian Tagliavini’s surreal and nostalgic work. The work that went into composition and the technique produce works of whimsy and nostalgia, almost like rennaissance paintings.

christian-tagliavini 3

If you find yourself in Stockholm, I wholeheartedly recommend a visit. Charming and hypnotic. And, the café on the top floor has breathtaking views.

christian tagliavini 2

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Did you see John Oliver’s bitcoin episode? Clever and incongruously deep, as usual. As CoinDesk points out, however, his attempt to draw a parallel between bitcoin and Beanie Babies shows that he still has some way to go in understanding the economics behind the largest cryptocurrency.

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TechCrunch published an excellent essay by Jon Evans on why social media seems like such a toxic environment.

“Of course the Internet was always full of awful. Assholes have been trolling since at least 1993…. The Intransigent Asshole Theory holds that the only thing that’s changed is that more assholes are online and they’ve had more time to find each other and agglomerate into a kind of noxious movement.”

This point seems, in retrospect, startlingly obvious:

“Adopting [Taleb’s] argument slightly, if only 3% of the online population really wants the online world to be horrible, ultimately they can force it to be, because the other 97% can — as empirical evidence shows — live with a world in which the Internet is often basically a cesspool, whereas those 3% apparently cannot live with a world in which it is not.”

In other words, we tolerate the trolls, so they end up winning.

“Only ~3% of people are truly terrible, but if we are sufficiently compliant with their awfulness, that’s enough to ruin the world for the rest of us. History shows that we have been more than sufficiently compliant.”

Online, anyway.

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They excitement around the blockchain-based tally of votes in the Sierra Leone election is bewildering. Sure, it shows that votes can be registered on a blockchain network. But we already knew that.

If I understand correctly, the votes have to be manually registered. In other words, someone from the company handling the software – Agora – takes the vote and inputs it into the platform. How is that not centralized? How is that not vulnerable to manipulation? What, seriously, is the point?

Ah, I hear you say, this platform is transparent – anyone can see the votes. This will go a long way towards restoring trust. Why? Suspicion is a hard thing to get rid of – and openly revealing potential points of failure (those inputting the data) isn’t going to do it.

Apart from the question of how do we guarantee the integrity of the data handlers, how is manipulation through identity fraud avoided?

What’s more, it’s a permissioned blockchain. A centralized, permissioned blockchain. Why not just use a distributed database?

Another question, how will electronic voting platforms – of any sort – overcome the notoriously poor connectivity in the region?

True, it’s a start – and if, as they say they intend to, the developers work on removing middlemen by allowing citizens to vote directly on the platform, with biometric data, then that will be a potentially more worthwhile system. But to get everyone biometrically identified will be a massive undertaking, and there doesn’t seem to be the political appetite.

Bits and stuff – March 11, 2018

This is definitely my favourite story of the week: “CFTC’s Giancarlo: US and Foreign Regulators Teaming Up on Crypto”.

It could be the first glimmer of an official answer to the bold claim that we so often hear from the bitcoin creed: “There’s no way you can regulate a global currency.”

Yes, there is. Well, sort of.

A global alliance of regulators is a step in the right direction. It combines the veneer of oversight with the threat of general disapproval and possibly sanctions of some sort. And it may produce useful guidelines for businesses that deal in cryptocurrencies to follow.

Yet it is not exactly “global regulation”, and any alliance will have limited power at best. National pride and cultural differences – not to mention economic circumstances and geopolitical motives – could encourage some regulators to take a different path.

Then again, “standing alone” in either permissiveness or strictness is an unsustainable strategy – having risky projects flock to your jurisdiction, or decent projects flock from, would weaken economic growth and would eventually self-correct.

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And this hints at a new trend in legislation – let’s call it the “magnet” approach. Wyoming’s state legislature has cleared a bill that would, among other things:

  • Approve the use of blockchain-based records for corporations, giving them legal validity – this opens the door to development around smart contracts and blockchain-based securities.
  • Exempt cryptocurrencies from money transmitter laws. This is interesting from a semantic point of view – so, cryptocurrencies aren’t money?
  • Exempt certain types of crypto assets from securities law. It’s unclear how this would work. The approval (or not) would work on a case-by-case basis? That doesn’t sound efficient. But then again, enshrining the conditions for exemption would encourage work-arounds, such is our nature. This is also different from a semantic point of view – it appears to be the first attempt to “define” which tokens are securities and which are utilities. Making the distinction will be both sensible and extremely challenging – and will inadvertently channel development one way or another.

The challenge will lie with tokens that are both utility and security. In other words, most tokens. The majority are useful for something (they are used in a function), and holders hope that they will go up in price.

I still think that we need to accept that crypto-based tokens are a new type of asset, that will require new types of rules and oversight. We’re trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

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This one – “Bitmain Wants to Invest in Blockchain-Powered ‘Central Banks‘” – is also particularly intriguing, in that it makes us question the “standard” definition of a central bank. A business that controls the money supply of a cryptocurrency (or digital token, if you prefer)? Yup, sounds like a central bank to me – only not one with extra-governmental authority. Maybe we need to find a new term for it.

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This article in WIRED broke my patience with innovation babble: the Vatican is hosting a hackathon.

On the surface, it looks great – yay, more innovation!

Only, technology only goes so far. Yes, it’s usually a force for good, and has been instrumental in lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty over the past few decades.

It has improved communication, logistics and medicine, finance is becoming more inclusive thanks to mobile reach, and some of the wealth that has been generated in its name has trickled down to those that have yet to enjoy its blessing.

But it only goes so far.

Most of the world’s current problems – such as poverty, starvation, war – are not due to a lack of technology. They are down to more human problems of greed, concentration of power and bad governance. Poor climate is also a factor, one that is poised to become an increasingly important one.

I’m not saying that technology can’t help with these. I am saying that there are few institutions in the world suited to dealing with the non-technology side. The Vatican is one of them. And whatever you may think about its politics, in most of the underprivileged areas it operates, it does good work (disclosure: I’m not Catholic).

Instead of a technology hackathon, what about a humanitarian one? Or one focused on soul-searching, resilience-building and the search for meaning? One that focuses on teaching community building, helping your neighbours and respecting the young.

Encouraging innovation is good, as is inviting creative people to pool ideas and work together for a hopeful cause. Sending a message that even institutions as old and fusty as the seat of the Roman Catholic church can be modern and hip is also positive. But it feels a bit like your grandad trying to dance at the disco.

I worry about the doctrine that technology is a magic wand that can fix all ills – it can’t. And when the Vatican seems to succumb to the same claptrap, we have definitely passed into the realm of a new religion.

To be fair, the organizers of the hackathon realise the limitations:

“‘We don’t expect anyone to solve such difficult issues… but I hope we can inspire both clerics and lay people to see this as an innovative model for engaging the younger generation with the problems.'”

And the article manages to maintain a neutral tone, no small feat given the potential of the subject matter:

“But as society continues to question whether technology is the problem or the solution, the participants of VHacks have a big task ahead of them.”

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Speaking of which, here is an excellent article in Open Democracy on the difficulties of applying new technologies to humanitarian aid. It highlights three main pitfalls:

  • Short-termism: making cash transfers faster and cheaper could be a saviour in times of crisis, but it does not address deeper, longer-term issues of inequality, corruption and limited access to trade (to name a few).
  • The scattershot approach: many would-be applications aren’t clear what they are trying to disrupt. The cost structure – which most applications seem to focus on – is not the sector’s main problem.
  • Local context is complicated, and many aid programs have failed because of a lack of understanding of the nuances of culture. Can code do any better?

All blockchain projects should think deeper about these issues, which apply to regions that need aid and to sectors ripe for disruption.

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A eloquent and uplifting ode to friendship:

Twitter tantrums and bitcoin brawls

What is it with Twitter and bitcoin?

source: Giphy
source: Giphy

CoinDesk published today a dissection of the latest flare-up of hostilities between bitcoin’s different factions. It makes compelling reading, and reveals the complex web of interests behind tweeters, promoters, bots and Twitter’s administration.

“…when it comes to cryptocurrency, it can be tricky to distinguish moderation from censorship.”

Yet beneath the short fuses bubbles a tension that speaks to a deeper characteristic of cryptocurrencies: the complicated mess that is consensus.

By that I mean agreement on issues both big and small. When strongly held beliefs are challenged, history shows that humans tend to man the barricades. The weapons at our disposal these days are barbs and blocks, downvotes and unfollows. We dig trenches in the battlefields of social media, and fire away, with only our reputations and tempers to lose.

Most of us just observe, sometimes taking silent sides, sometimes just feeling grateful that we don’t care that much, often oblivious to what the map is telling us.

Leaving aside the scams for now (we’ll get to them in a minute), the Twitter battles are a public example of the force of disagreement. While good-natured debate is often a feature of Twitter controversy, the distance from which verbal weapons can be fired empowers many to throw restraint and diplomacy out the window – especially with a subject like cryptocurrencies that speaks to utopian dreams and political hopes. And the intransigence of all sides is racking up the volume to such high levels that the Twitter administration is thinking about stepping in.

You see the irony? A protocol that automates consensus generates discord. A technology that is about not needing to trust your counterparty is rife with mistrust.

But that precisely is the beauty of bitcoin and its peers. It lays bare our human nature, and then shows us the solution. Or rather, it offers us a function, and then shows us how much we need it. Very clever.

With bitcoin, we don’t need to agree – the algorithm will figure out what the consensus is, and implement that. Whether or not we agree is irrelevant. If we don’t like how the algorithm does that, we can take the code and make a new version. We won’t have the ecosystem that the original one has, but the choice is ours: to pay the price of participating in a broader “society”, or to branch out on our own and forgo the support and access to a broader market. Blockchain technology makes sure that shouting and shadow attacks don’t impede progress or the working of the system.

So, what the Twitter crypto battles are really showing is how useful blockchain technology can be. It gets around the barrier of “consensus paralysis” by removing the human component.

The vast number of crypto scams on Twitter holds a different irony: that a technology based on the automation of trust is attracting those that rely on trust to steal. Blockchain technology says “I don’t know who you are, but I don’t need to in order to trade with you”. Scam artists say “trust that I am who I say I am and send me xxx”. And that the two concepts can uneasily co-exist in the same sector speaks to its sheer size and attraction.

Is Twitter a catalyst for the discord and the scams? No – if Twitter didn’t exist, the battles would be (and are) raged elsewhere – Reddit is aflame with fiery argument. I don’t use Facebook, but I imagine that that has its fair share of vitriol, also. And Twitter doesn’t affect human nature as much as it does display it.

Meanwhile, the premise of bitcoin and the possibility of blockchain reveal the underlying convictions and prejudices… and point to a way to minimize their impact on operations and progress.

So, let the Twitter wars rage (but stop the scams). Cryptocurrency doesn’t “belong” to any one faction. And as Twitter users, we can choose who we follow, who we listen to and who we ignore. There will never be a human-based consensus. But as the sector is showing us, at an operating level, there doesn’t need to be.

Bits and stuff – March 4, 2018

Leda Glyptis wrote a piece in BankingTech that called out all those that talk about a national cryptocurrency. Her quarrel isn’t with the concept of national currencies based on distributed ledgers. It’s with those who insist that they are cryptocurrencies, when “crypto” is all about decentralization, community and independence.

Pedantic, perhaps, but she’s right in that semantics matters. If we label everything “crypto”, then we fail to see the true nature of the potential, and we misunderstand the implications of national versions.

A similar peeve of mine is when businesses call their application “blockchain” when it’s really a distributed ledger. Not the same thing. But, hey, “blockchain” is sexier.

Enough of the mashing of vocabulary just to get a good soundbite.

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image by Kilian Schönberger, via Colossal
image by Kilian Schönberger, via Colossal

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It’s not because I work for them, but seriously, CoinDesk had the most measured and least sensationalist headline on the SEC probe, and that makes me proud: “SEC ICO Probe Underway, But Stories Conflict on Size of Sweep”

Compare that to:

“Subpoenas Signal S.E.C. Crackdown on Initial Coin Offerings” – New York Times

“SEC eyes crackdown on cryptocurrencies” – Computerworld

“The SEC Is Sending Subpoenas in Expanded ICO Crackdown” – Fortune

“SEC cracks down on cryptocurrency shenanigans, report says” – CNET (I love that the word “shenanigans” is used in a headline! Extra points for that.)

And the list goes on and on… Here’s what most irritates me: there’s no evidence that this is part of a “crackdown”. The SEC has issued subpoenas to gather information. Sure, some slaps on the wrist and probably even fines will follow, but by no means for all. And the initiative is in line with their declaration months ago that they would be “keeping an eye” on the nascent sector. Issuing subpoenas and gathering information is an important step in understanding what’s going on – why are we not celebrating that the SEC is taking a “tell me more” approach?

Some other reputable sources also showed restraint in their headlines:

TechCrunch – “The SEC is reportedly investigating a number of ICOs” – TechCrunch

“Cryptocurrency Firms Targeted in SEC Probe” – WSJ

… but let’s face it, boring in comparison.

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According to a report in TechCrunch, Uber’s co-founder Garrett Kamp is creating a new cryptocurrency that can be used around the world for daily transactions. In other words, “better than bitcoin”. Hunh.

Let’s see how it’s better than bitcoin:

  • It’s not open to everyone – nodes need to be “verified” (another way of saying “selected”). No chance of manipulation there. Who does the verifying?
  • 50% of the initial 1 trillion ECO coins will be given away to anyone who signs up. Akin to “helicopter money”, in which an authority hands out funds to kick-start spending in a region (assuming that it generates economic activity and growth, which will in turn create more money), this could effectively bootstrap acceptance – but would merchants go through the hassle of installing the necessary systems
  • It won’t use the proof of work consensus protocol that bitcoin relies on. Instead it is opting for an as-yet-unnamed alternative that consumes less energy.

On the plus side, it’s thinking about the user experience from the outset, supposedly launching with a simple web and app.

And it does have a good chance of getting a strong ecosystem going, given the founder’s credentials (he’s currently founder of accelerator/venture fund Expa) and the involvement of universities (who apparently will be running the nodes).

Will it be better than, say, litecoin or ethereum? Does the market need another pretender to the cryptocurrency throne? Who will end up actually using this?

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An article by Multicoin Capital’s Kyle Samani produces a bunch of “a-ha!” moments. Such as:

“Running a computation on Ethereum is on the order of 100,000,000x more expensive than running the same computation on Amazon Web Services (AWS).”

Kyle goes on two explain why blockchains can’t have it all:

“The scalability trilemma posits that blockchains in which every node processes every computation and in which every node comes to consensus about the order of those computations can have two of three properties: safety, scalability, and decentralization of block production.”

So, either safety and decentralization (bitcoin), safety and scalability (Cardano, EOS), or scalabiity and decentralisation.

As the Meatloaf song said, two out of three ain’t bad.

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The last time bitcoin transaction volume was this low, the price was around $500…

Also, a year ago, bitcoin’s market capitalization was about 85 percent of the total sector. It’s now around 40 percent.

A lot else has changed since then, too, so…

Anyway, interesting observations from Bloomberg.

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Some CoinDesk stories really worth reading:

8 Ways Telegram Thinks Its Own ICO Could Go Wrong – although it doesn’t mean to be, it’s a statement on all ICOs… to Track Beef Imports Using Blockchain Platform – another large retailer looks at supply chains (move over, Walmart)

Banking Giants Send $30 Million in Securities Over DLT – still just testing, but it’s progress on a fascinating use case

US Regional Banks Begin to Cite Crypto as Business Risk – large and small banks look at the risk more than the opportunity – but then again, they have to spell out all sorts of risks, it’s part of their job – it does not mean that they’re particularly worried.

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Stupid headlines of the week:

The Washington Post: “Bitcoin, move over. There’s a new cryptocurrency in town: The petro.”

The article does go on to explain how the petro is not at all like bitcoin – so, a gimmicky headline that will either mislead or annoy? I do not see the point.

And from Investopedia, who seem to be attempting to pivot towards becoming a cryptocurrency news site: “Montana Will Build $251 Million Cryptocurrency Mining Farm”

No, Montana is not building a cryptocurrency mining far. A private company called Power Block Coin LLC is thinking about building such a farm in Montana. Very different. Implying that a state is behind this is misleading and irresponsible. Apparently this will be the second large mining farm in Montana. That part is interesting – it speaks to the increasing decentralization of mining power as China is starting to remove mining perks.

The Daily Express: “Bitcoin WARNING: EU Commission says crypto is NOT currency ahead of imminent crackdown”

No imminent crackdown threatened – the EU is discussing regulation, but they’re a long way from any actual action, and there’s no indication that it will be a “crackdown”, or that any move will be bad for the market (legitimacy, people!). And, what’s with the shrieking capitals in headlines?

From Metro: “Bitcoin on the up as ‘SegWit takeoff’ causes cryptocurrency price rebound”

It’s not clear that SegWit had anything to do with the price move. SegWit adoption is good news, but Coinbase and Core’s rollout was expected and most likely priced in. A few days later the SEC ICO probe was blamed for a slump in the bitcoin price – again, that makes little sense. And anyway, a Bloomberg article commented on how strong the price was in spite of the SEC news. In other words, nobody really knows why prices go up and down (other than the relative weight of buyers vs. sellers).

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This is sooooo cool. Amazing, almost addictive animation. Click away.

Spook, by Nexus Interactive Arts
Solace, by Nexus Interactive Arts

Hope, reality and compromise

photo by Paul Csogi on Unsplash
photo by Paul Csogi on Unsplash

“Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. You have neither solicited nor received ours. We did not invite you. You do not know us, nor do you know our world. Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”

John Perry Barlow’s strong words echoed through the caverns of young minds high on the possibility of borderless connection. They spoke to the eternal desire for a better world, and dangled the tasty promise of empowerment.

The honeymoon was brief. We ended up finding out that, yes, the internet can be regulated. Yes, it can be centralised. And yes, the hierarchy that we hoped it would overthrow is still in control, just with different faces.

We heard similar anthems when bitcoin emerged. “Bitcoin will change everything”. “The end of the tyranny of bankers”. “Bitcoin is the currency of resistance”. And so on.

Will the same thing happen?

It already is. Bitcoin’s disruptive potential is getting channelled into a structure remarkably similar to the pre-existing one. Exchanges are becoming more and more like banks, storing our bitcoins, lending them out and collecting information. A handful are accumulating increasing amounts of clout, becoming the new “financial giants”. The promised independence and anonymity is being subsumed by, yes, the regulators, who insist on user identification. On- and off-ramps – recognizing that, on the whole, they need official permission to exist – are complying.

While this is disappointing to those of us to fell in love with the concept because it showed us a glimpse of a new structure for society (which of course would solve all of our current problems), it is not a bad thing.

To see why, let’s go back to Barlow:

“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.”

With affection and respect, this is one of many instances in the declaration which is factually incorrect. The internet runs on wires and nodes and packet switchers – “matter”. There is plenty of matter here. Just as your mind needs your body to carry it around, internet – and free exchange of information – relies on the physical world to make it work. Ideas may be slippery, but their flow can be influenced.

And anyway, regulation has never been based exclusively on “matter”.

We have seen that rules can divert the original intention of free communication (in both the “free beer” and “no limits” sense). Some areas can restrict what is accessed. Others enact policies that give bandwidth preference to more powerful websites. And a growing cohort of regulators is insisting on strict controls over the data that websites can collect. The next step is to influence business models.

Wait, how is this a good thing?

I’m not saying that restrictions are good. They can stifle innovation and communication, holding back the progress of ideas. They can also lead to direct oppression.

But, rules also protect us. And in so doing, they relieve us of the need to spend most of our energy worrying about defence, giving us freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

How much regulation is ideal? That is the eternal political debate – and I doubt there is a “right” answer to that question. Most societies, communities and organisations struggle with the balance between not enough and too much centralised control. Most individuals, too (myself included) – poke away at someone’s personal map of their “natural rights”, and you uncover a nest of confusion and contradiction.

What is a good thing is the awakening – at “mainstream level” – of constructive questions around governance and freedom. This could lead to a broader acceptance that the answers are not clear cut.

How far should regulatory reach extend? How much power do we have to resist? What price are we willing to pay? What do we want, and where will we compromise? What works?

While bitcoin was created to circumvent the influence of the centralised financial system, it is slowly being absorbed… perhaps not by the establishment, but by one that looks like it. And with banks increasingly sniffing around and tentatively dipping their corporate toes in disruptive waters, the new bitcoin finance world and the pre-existing one may end up merging.

The end of the libertarian dream? Probably.

And that may end up being bitcoin’s biggest victory. When even blue-chip representatives of the “old order” give it a veneer of respectability, it moves closer to mainstream recognition. When growth and increased scrutiny of new participants bring a welcome degree of professionalism to the services that are necessary for its use, it comes closer to realising its initial ambition of being a “world currency”.

Just not as a borderless substitute for fiat currencies. Again, that’s not a bad thing. Compromise is not conceding to the enemy. It’s a step forward, from which the battle against oppression and inequality can continue to be fought.

As we have seen with gunpowder, radio waves and the internet, a powerful technology rarely ends up being used for its initial intention. Bitcoin is already heading the same way.

And by leaving its original idealised constraints and taking on a form different from the original purpose, bitcoin underlines the freedom of ideas. Even core constituents have been unable to control the evolution of its acceptance and use. Is the establishment smothering it, or giving it life? A bit of both? And was that not inevitable?

In that, John Perry Barlow was right:

“We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.”