Bits and stuff: April 15, 2018

Hi everyone! Earlier this week I had a brief escape to a city in the clouds…

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(Canary Wharf in London, if you’re wondering)

…and came home to find half the trees being cut down on the street my apartment looks out over. Why? Apparently they’re “not safe” and the powers-that-be are worried that, in a rough storm, they might fall over. I’m not sure what’s more disconcerting: that they’re preparing for “rough storms”, or that beloved trees that have been struggling to grow for 40 years are not even being given a chance to show their sturdiness. Safety is important. But so are trees. And Madrid is poorer for their loss.

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This article by Rachel Rose O’Leary highlights a fundamental tenet of capitalism: it is naturally monopolistic.

Apparently crypto communities are up in arms over the arrival of ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) chips, which give their owners an advantage in mining certain cryptocurrencies. Developers and users of ethereum, zcash and monero fear that the advantage that the new chips can give miners of these cryptocurrencies will upset the delicate balance in their decentralized ecosystems.

And they’re right, it’s likely that the result will be increased centralisation, as those with money (to spend on the chips) end up producing a greater number of tokens and thus making more money, which means they can buy more chips, and so on.

This freedom – to spend money on making more money – is capitalism’s centralizing force. And while factories and transportation networks have certain physical barriers that could slow the centralisation down, the digital world moves faster. Network effects are realised in a shorter time frame.

Yet this is antithetical to the crypto spirit of decentralized finance. Hence the existential conflict. To stop it from happening, strict rules will be needed. But rules decided by whom? Invariably, those that make the rules end up controlling the system. Not exactly decentralised.

It’s not often we get to watch capitalism at work in a petri dish. And the accelerant of networks and social media will make this expected plot twist particularly edifying to watch.

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The reveal that several projects are contemplating launching an ICO on codebases incubated within the Hyperledger consortium is further evidence of the spread of non-ethereum ICOs…

The Sovrin Foundation, creator of the Hyperledger Indy codebase for digital identity management, is planning a crypto token launch this summer.

And PokitDok, a healthcare API platform exploring blockchains, is looking into launching an ERC20-based token on top of Sawtooth, another Hyperledger codebase. ERC20 is a template designed to simplify the issuance of digital tokens on ethereum – this is the first I’ve heard of it potentially being used on other blockchains.

While that in itself is fascinating, taking this forward, I’m intrigued as to what it could do for interconnectivity…

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by Christian Nagel, via Google Arts

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JP Koning sets out an excellent description of what a digital central bank currency could look like…

“Like banknotes, these digital tokens are anonymous and untraceable. To make use of them, people don’t have to register for an account. Rather, the tokens are held independently on one’s device, sort of like how paper money is held in one’s wallet without requiring any sort of registration with the issuing central bank.”

… why it wouldn’t destabilize the system…

“…imagine a world with digital currency. In the event of a panic, customer redemption requests will be instantaneously granted by the bank facing the run. But that same speed also works in favor of the bank, since a request to the central bank for a top-up of digital currency could be filled in just a few seconds.”

… and why it probably wouldn’t work.

“…what if there just aren’t that many people who care about online privacy? Countries like Sweden, where banknote usage is plummeting, give credence to this concern while surveys of cash users in the eurozone show that anonymity is not terribly important to them.”

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I’m far from a cryptocurrency maximalist, and am more interested in what blockchain’s can’t do than what they can, so it would be fair to think that I’m enjoying the growing chorus debunking the hype of both.

To some extent, yes, but I am now getting increasingly irritated by a new kind of hype: articles that decry blockchain’s futility and crypto’s lack of fundamentals, without understanding either. There are many smart realists out there (you’ll see me retweeting their stuff in approval). But as the hype cycle moves into the trough of disillusionment, others are jumping on the negative bandwagon without having the credentials or depth of knowledge to present arguments that hold up to either fact-checking or logical scrutiny. I’m not naming names because they don’t deserve the publicity – and that, more than reasoned debate, seems to be more what they’re interested in.

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Dramatic interior shots by Spanish artist Lino Lago – via Colossal

Bits and stuff: April 8th, 2018

An excellent article from Jemima Kelly of the FT Alphaville team on Vitalik’s “testing” of the ethereum waters with his April Fool’s “joke” about a hard cap on supply. She also talks about how hard caps are pointless when open-source chains can be forked and ICOs can be spun out on whim.

Of course, the ethereum community is split on whether a hard cap would be a good idea or not.

Hmm, conflict in a crypto community over the best way forward? This leaves us wondering when talk of an ethereum fork will materialize – capped ether vs non-capped ether – even though the possibility of a fork makes the cap pointless… But, it’ll be an interesting experiment to watch.

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This longform article in The Guardian – “The demise of the nation state” by Rana Dasgupta – should be included in every history syllabus from high school up.

“When we discuss “politics”, we refer to what goes on inside sovereign states; everything else is “foreign affairs” or “international relations” – even in this era of global financial and technological integration. We may buy the same products in every country of the world, we may all use Google and Facebook, but political life, curiously, is made of separate stuff and keeps the antique faith of borders.”

It’s an epic, zoom-out look at the rise of populism, pointing out that it’s not just the west, and it’s not just a national problem.

“The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. National political authority is in decline, and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world.”

The author talks about “post-national solidarities”, and the impact on human life (and death):

“Since 1989, barely 5% of the world’s wars have taken place between states: national breakdown, not foreign invasion, has caused the vast majority of the 9 million war deaths in that time.”

And, of course (this is The Guardian, after all), financial deregulation is part of the problem:

“Today’s failure of national political authority, after all, derives in large part from the loss of control over money flows… These fleeing trillions undermine national communities in real and symbolic ways.”

Does this mean that finance is becoming more centralized (concentrated in the hands of the wealthy), or decentralized (ignoring borders)? Will cryptocurrencies change this by putting more of this borderless wealth in the hands of anyone, or will it entrench the have/have not divide?

The whole article is worth reading for its take on citizenship, the EU, international law and global financial regulation.

“There is no reason to heed those interested parties who tell us global financial regulation is impossible: it is technologically trivial compared to the astonishing systems those same parties have already built.”

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This… is brilliant. Simple yet effective, and possibly enough to get people to think differently without them noticing.

pejac

By Pejac, via Colossal.

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At first I though this piece (by Maryland governor hopeful Alec Ross) was political fluff, perhaps, but nevertheless awesome… Now I’m perturbed. “Blockchain as a political tool” not only buys into the fluff but also perpetuates it, elevates it to slogan status and entrenches misconceptions and misaligned expectations.

A pro-innovation stance is good – but if misdirected will end up wasting money and setting progress back by years.

As an example, just take a look at the news that a bill that would allow residents of the US state of Georgia to pay their tax in cryptocurrency has stalled, due to “a lack of understanding”. It will have to be resubmitted in January 2019.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, a similar bill is again moving forward after stalling earlier in the year. Interestingly enough, the revision is removing “bitcoin” as the specified cryptocurrency. I seriously doubt that this will help it get passed.

There’s so much more to unpack here, from why the lack of understanding persists, why anyone would want to pay taxes in cryptocurrency and how, if passed, this could affect the nature of asset and the growth of the sector.

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It’s hard to draw a big-picture conclusion from the Wall Street Journal’s provocative article on the diminishing weight of auditing in the Big Four’s revenue. While the easy thing to do is to jump up and down chanting “blockchain will replace auditors!”, that’s actually far from clear. Sure, the technology affords increased transparency and immutability of data. But, “garbage in garbage out”, so verification of the data will still be a valuable service.

In line with both this and the shift towards consulting fees, most of the big auditing firms have their own blockchain departments. These could benefit from the trend of increased outsourcing of technology builds.

However, the impact of the spreading custom (sometimes mandated by law) of changing auditing firms every few years is unclear. Will it boost technology spend, as proprietary platforms are more frequently replaced? Will it make spending more selective, since the maintenance (and replacement) costs will be significant? Or will it increasingly push development towards open-source solutions that don’t depend on the chosen provider?

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I’m far from a cryptocurrency maximalist, and am more interested in what blockchain’s can’t do than what they can, so it would be fair to think that I’m enjoying the growing chorus debunking the hype of both.

To some extent, yes, but I am now getting increasingly irritated by a new kind of hype: articles that decry blockchain’s futility and crypto’s lack of fundamentals, without understanding either. There are many smart realists out there (you’ll see me retweeting their stuff in approval). But as the hype cycle moves into the trough of disillusionment, others are jumping on the negative bandwagon without having the credentials or depth of knowledge to present arguments that hold up to either fact-checking or logical scrutiny. I’m not naming names because they don’t deserve the publicity – and that, more than reasoned debate, seems to be more what they’re interested in.

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Northern lights or not, this looks like a gorgeous place to spend a night (I’m assuming it has heating…)

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Iceland’s Panorama Glass Lodge, via MyModernMet.

Bits and stuff: April 1, 2018

Happy, happy April Fool’s Day!

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I’ve been doing some digging into the top-down approach of blockchain research – in other words, what various governments are doing to support development. It’s disconcerting, because – just judging from the headlines (I know, I know, facts and figures to follow) – the US and Europe are not dedicating nearly as many resources as others (cough, China and Russia).

This article from Politico looks at Europe’s attitude towards another transformational technology: artificial intelligence. And the conclusion is alarming.

“With advanced image recognition, data analytics, prediction systems, military brain science and unmanned systems, devastating wars might be waged and won in a matter of minutes.”

That much we knew. It’s when we compare China’s approach:

“In a three-year action plan to develop AI, published by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in December 2017, Beijing laid out a goal of being able to mass-produce neural-network processing chips by 2020. The country’s cloud computing companies are racing to deploy increasingly sophisticated services featuring machine learning and AI.”

… to Europe’s:

“The EU’s strategy is organized around three concerns: the need to boost Europe’s AI capacity, ethical issues and social challenges. Unfortunately, even the first dimension quickly turns out to be about “European values” and the need to place “the human” at the center of AI… In a 14-page document, only two pages are devoted to ways of boosting Europe’s AI capacity.”

… that things start to get… alarming.

“In a passage perhaps aimed at responding to the Chinese gambit for AI supremacy, the Commission intends to argue — or so it is written in the current draft — that the EU “can position itself as a leader in the international reflection on AI.” Let others lead on AI. The EU will be able to reflect on it better than anyone else.”

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Following on from the above and from what I mentioned in the previous post – the increasing use of technology as a tool for power – this article from the Financial Times is potentially alarming.

“Data collated by Thomson Reuters from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (Wipo) database showed that in 2017, more than half of the 406 blockchain related patent applications were from China… China filed 225 of the blockchain patents last year and 59 in 2016, followed by the US (91 in 2017 and 21 in 2016) and Australia (13 last year and 19 in 2016). “

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It’s starting to feel like Spring…

by Amanda McCavour, via Colossal
by Amanda McCavour, via Colossal

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This piece in Reuters – “Wall Street rethinks blockchain projects as euphoria meets reality” –  is not only good journalism (getting stories that are both interesting and ignored), but also a refreshing reminder that we should be reporting about the cancellations and disappointments – they are, after all, more newsworthy these days than yet another pilot doing the same things as before but better. But for some strange reason, the protagonists are much more eager to talk about their importance, creativity and success than they are about their failures.

Media, on the whole, tends to focus on what innovators want us to know. We take the easy option of relying on press releases and conference leads, and forget to follow-up on projects that didn’t happen and deadlines that weren’t met – it’s understandable, even, since few outlets have the resources to keep up with everything. It’s a pity, though, and I’m sure we could do better.

And I am beginning to believe (later than many) that, yes, blockchain is in the typical hype-cycle slump. Good. Finally. Now is when it gets interesting.

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A stunning display of post-crisis data from the Wall Street Journal that shows that neoliberalism is not only still alive but doing very well, thank you…

“Analysts say the financial crisis highlighted the risk of concentration. But 10 years later the trend of larger firms is still intact.”

More than intact, according to this graph:

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“The financial sector is again becoming a bigger piece of the economy. That could translate to future risks for borrowers and consumers in another crisis.”

And it’s not that GDP has fallen… (It would be interesting to see a breakdown of finance vs insurance, and how much of that is shadow banking.)

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“Regulations are tougher, but the regulators enforcing them often come from the industries they oversee.” Omg…

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The display of graphical information in finance is getting better and better…

Via The Economist - click on the graph to go to the article, and check out the scrolling effects...
Via The Economist – click on the graph to go to the article, and check out the scrolling effects…

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For refreshing clarity and a cathartic amount of swearing, this is a damn good read: “I Survived the Eternal Boy Playground, But Will Puerto Rico?”

 

Bits and stuff: March 25, 2018

Rather than focusing on what to do about cryptocurrencies, the G20 (comprised of the world’s 20 largest economies) has decided to take a step back and first decide what information they need. This is smart, and may lead to a deeper understanding of what cryptocurrencies are and where their impact may be felt. It is also going to buy them some time – and in the accelerated pace of blockchainland, a lot can happen in a short period. So, a wait may be frustrating to some, but informative to all.

This is huge – it’s potentially a first step towards a global approach to cryptocurrency regulation, befitting a global phenomenon. It seems that legislators are waking up to the futility of playing whack-a-mole with the slippery concept of decentralized, internet-based assets. And in this climate of jurisdictional positioning (“We’re blockchain friendly! Domicile here!”), a coherent approach will pave the way for the solid construction of a new payment rails and business structures.

The role of non-G20 economies is likely to become increasingly important in the development of cryptocurrency services. With smaller jurisdictions (Singapore, Switzerland, Malta) offering logistical and legislative support in exchange for capital flows, ecosystems and high-level immigration, rather than a blanket approach we may see a re-balancing of crypto influence.

By the time the G20 does start to make concrete recommendations, the entrenchment of cryptocurrencies in the world economy may be too big to walk back – in which case, anything that seems like a clamp-down will be met with a flow towards non-G20 areas. Or, it may still be on the fringes, in which case focus will shift to new “threats” to financial stability.

While it does its background research, the group has pledged to apply the standards of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – an intergovernmental body formed to fight money laundering and terrorist financing – to cryptocurrencies. It’s not yet clear what this actually means – everyone was doing that anyway (investigating money laundering suspicions, confiscating illicit funds, etc.)

It’s interesting that Brazil (according to reports) has said that it will not regulate cryptocurrencies. This may be jumping the gun – and it’s curious that Brazil feels that it has a better grasp of the potential impact than its illustrious colleagues.

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Jill Carlson highlighted an inherent weakness in most ICO models: when the token price goes up, the project sells tokens to raise cash and becomes less exposed to the token’s price. It will therefore benefit less from future price increases.

Also, if the price goes down, it may find itself buying tokens in the market to support the price – and so it’s exposure to future price slumps will be greater.

This is the opposite to sensible portfolio management principles – in bond holdings with standard “convexity”, for instance, if interest rates fall, you will get larger and larger price increases. But if interest rates rise, your price falls will get smaller and smaller. The upside outweighs the downside. That is good.

“Short” convexity – what most tokens seem to imply – reduces upside and exacerbates downside. That is not good.

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Favourite tweet of the week:

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The Financial Times published an interesting take on the battle for crypto friendliness – and the particular risk that Switzerland runs of revisiting its hard-lost reputation as being a haven for “dirty” money…

What’s more, it turns out that all is not rosy for crypto startups in the Valley – they still can’t interact with local banks, who distrust their earnings.

And, the ability to use bitcoin to pay for public services is “clearly a marketing gag”, according to a local councillor.

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This headline, seen in SoraNews:

soranews1

The story itself contains so many gems that I really don’t know where to begin.

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Jon Evans in TechCrunch points out that blockchain projects are not going to replace existing systems any time soon. But if they offer an appealing alternative, they can be viable, and grow organically.

“If things keep going as they are, maybe you won’t ever have to go through the Wall to get to the people on the other side. Maybe, eventually, they’ll come to you.”

So, enough with the overblown ambition and inflated egos – they damage the “brand”, which is an alternative way of processing information, appealing to a (for now) relatively limited subset of users. That’s probably enough – and the scope for disappointment is more limited.

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The possibility of XRP futures is intriguing, but the CEO of LedgerX is right – a big barrier to institutional investors being interested in this is the possibility of market manipulation, with so much of the outstanding float in the hands of Ripple itself.

ETH futures sound like a more interesting bet. I wonder why we’re not hearing more about them.

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With blockchain platform announcements this week from both Google and IBM, it might seem that the “standardisation” of distributed work is here. Not yet – it’s early days still. But the increasing competition in the “cloud blockchain” space will be interesting to watch. Let’s assume that Amazon is.

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A report in Nikkei Asia on North Korea’s cyber activities sheds light on the rash of attacks on cryptocurrency exchanges in Asia, including the recent hack of Coincheck in Japan. According to a defector, North Korea has a special unit dedicated to procuring foreign cash for purchases relating to weapons programs. In this case, “foreign cash” includes cryptocurrencies.

“In May 2017, a ransomware virus swept 150 countries. In South Korea, many cryptocurrency exchange operators have been hacked; some have lost their digital coins. South Korean intelligence even suspects that North Korean hackers were behind the big heist from Japan’s Coincheck in January.”

A new type of warfare.

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The minimalist, attention-to-detail genius of Tanaka Tatsuya… Via Instagram.

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tanaka tatsuya

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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.

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

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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:

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…

JD.com 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

Bits and stuff – February 25, 2018

This article in the Guardian scratched the surface of the complicated and confusing politics of cryptocurrencies, by pointing out that they can be harnessed by both extreme right-wing and left-wing tendencies.

I think its even more complicated than that. While the “alternative to the established system” can mean many things to many people, in the end it comes down to the architecture. And blockchain architecture is in the hands of its builders.

Part of the confusion stems from the inherent and seemingly conflicting characteristics of bitcoin. An open, decentralized version sounds fair and full of opportunity – until you realise that it also means operating outside of the government’s sphere of influence. And governments are (generally) there to ensure a (relatively) fair distribution.

The right generally wants less government interference, while the left tends to argue for more. So, which characteristic carries a greater political weight: being outside governments’ reach, or being open and distributive?

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Venezuela’s launch of the petro, its oil-backed cryptocurrency (based on ethereum or NEM, depending on the report you read), unleashed a wave of inaccurate and vague reporting that does neither the petro nor cryptocurrencies justice.

Without doubt the launch was botched and the coin itself looks fundamentally flawed (in that the fundamentals are absent). Even more distressing, however, is the number of reports that showed a lack of understanding of either the petro or cryptocurrencies in general.

For example, it’s not a cryptocurrency – it’s a digital token distributed on a blockchain. Not the same thing. Nor is it Venezuela’s “answer to bitcoin” – nothing open or decentralized about this one.

There are some exceptions, though. CoinDesk’s reporting was impartial and thorough (no favouritism of course, but 9 different takes on the story!). As well as a synopsis of the launch itself, it reported on the public’s reaction, on the pressure on Venezuelan corporations to accept the petro as payment, and on possible international repercussions.

Bloomberg did well, as usual, with an in-depth “Venezuela Is Jumping Into the Crypto Craze” (BusinessWeek), and an excellent rant from Matt Levine titled “The Blockchain Won’t Save Venezuela”:

“It is simply a joke, a product for nobody. But if you add “on the blockchain!” then that somehow obscures all of the actual economics of the product.”

Here’s an attention-grabbing, tell-it-like-it-is headline, for an article with interesting and credible detail, from Motherboard: “Venezuela’s ‘Petro’ Launch Was Amateur Hour”.

The FT predictably went from the sensible (“Venezuela launches presale of state-backed ‘petro’ cryptocurrency”) to the sublime (“Venezuela/petros: cryptobabble”) without batting an eyelash. The latter focused on the lack of available information – so much for radical transparency and enhanced trust.

In spite of the political underpinnings, The Hill offered a good headline: “Maduro’s crypto end run around US sanctions is a fool’s errand”. I enjoyed the reference to the amount of money poured into “even more harebrained initiatives than the petro”.

They then went and spoiled the good impression with what seemed, on the surface, to be a good headline: “Venezuela’s cryptocurrency is a farce”… although when it turns out that by “farce” they are referring to cryptocurrencies in general (“there is no ‘there’ there”), any sentient reader would feel duped. That’s even before having to endure the choppy structure of the article.

And on Maduro’s bold statement that next week he’s launching a cryptocurrency based on gold, the FT and Reuters had some things to say.

“In a standout year for news-item absurdity, this one may set a new standard for grim humour.” (Alexandra Scaggs in the FT)

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Best thread of the week:

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And hats off to Amber, I love this:

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There is a ton of noise around regulation recently. Just from the past week, the UK Treasury is launching an official “enquiry” into cryptocurrencies – a sensible first step in figuring out how to regulate them is understanding what they are. EU regulators meet next week to continue discussions on crypto regulation.

Austria is looking more closely at cryptocurrency regulation. France has decided that it’s not crazy about the lack of oversight of cryptotrading. And Japan’s cryptocurrency industry is hoping to fend off stricter scrutiny by setting up a self-regulatory body.

And in the US, California, Wyoming, Georgia and Arizona all either passed or took steps towards passing blockchain-related laws or amendments. All that within the past week.

This trend – more regulators announcing “plans” if not actual rules – will continue for the rest of the year. It will be a slow process but with important results. The construction of the infrastructure that supports the innovation depends on which way the regulation goes.

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Here’s an example of what a shift in perspective can do on reporting:

  • CoinDesk: “Japan’s Exchanges Report 669 Cases of Suspected Crypto Money Laundering”
  • CoinTelegraph: “Japan: Only 0.16% Of 2017 Money Laundering Reports Came From Crypto Exchanges”

The difference in neutrality that a little word can make. I’ll leave it at that.

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I always loved the musical “West Side Story”, sad as it is… This 360º rendition of one of the numbers from the show at Carnegie Hall is captivating, if a bit choppy (and warning, too much spinning around with the mouse can make you dizzy, I speak from experience).

Via GoogleArts.

Bits and stuff – February 18, 2017

An awesome article from my colleague Marc Hochstein, with one of the best quotes I’ve read in ages, from Primavera De Filippi:

“You cannot assume that just because a technology dis-intermediates and is trans-national that it cannot potentially be used to reinforce existing social, political and economic structures.”

RIP, John Perry Barlow.

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In The New York Times, Peter J. Henning raises the issue of cryptocurrency regulation. Who should regulate cryptocurrencies in the US? Both the SEC and the CFTC appear to be in a game of “not me” – and they both have a point. The SEC regulates securities – cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin have not been defined as such (and to do so would defy logic). The CFTC regulates derivatives on commodities – and while it has labelled bitcoin a “commodity” (not totally unreasonable), its remit does not cover the cash market, just commodity-based derivatives.

“The C.F.T.C. “does not have regulatory jurisdiction over markets or platforms conducting cash or ‘spot’ transactions in virtual currencies, or over participants on those platforms.” To reach actual trading in cryptocurrencies, Congress would have to extend its authority to cover a cash commodity market, something lawmakers have not done.”

At the moment, cryptocurrency exchanges are loosely covered by a patchwork of state money transmission laws – but, cryptocurrencies have not officially been designated “money” – and having to get licensed in every single state is not practical. The result is a clunky, fragmented or off-the-radar network of exchanges that do not offer much protection to the user.

The article posits the creation of a new organization – a Cryptocurrency Council, for instance. This would not only be able to develop a national approach to cryptocurrency transmission and exchanges – but it could also further investigation into use cases, offer a focal point for fraud investigations and develop a comprehensive base of information on usage. Most importantly, it could offer an umbrella of respectability to the nascent field, while recognizing that a new concept deserves a new mindset.

In the end, trying to fit cryptocurrencies into one of the existing asset definitions for regulation purposes isn’t working out well for anyone. Time to re-think the paradigm.

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The FT’s Henry Mance gave us a brilliant tongue-in-cheek take on us vs. Big Tech:

“This week, 1m people signed an online petition protesting against a redesign of Snapchat, the adult-proof messaging app. They wish to express — I quote — a “general level of annoyance”. They have probably already slammed their bedroom doors. They might not come down for supper.”

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Here’s a blockchain use case: In Ghana, over 80% of landowners lack title to their land – and 2/3 of Kenya’s land is “owned” without title…

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Bloomberg reports that the UN’s World Food Programme expects to be able to cut millions of dollars from the costs of administering its food programme, just by moving the cross-border money transfers onto a blockchain system. While that is actually a tiny portion of the overall budget ($6 billion, according to the article), it does buy a lot of food… And it does mean less profit for the banks (although, again, a drop in the ocean…).

However, no details are provided on the type of blockchain to be used (a WFP programme in Jordan launched last year was built on ethereum), nor on timing – it sounds like more wishful thinking than actual plans.

And this quote by one of the directors – “Blockchain helps promote collaboration by providing enormous amounts of data.” – makes no sense whatsoever. Blockchain promotes collaboration by design, not by providing data. And it only provides data if it is programmed to do so. A strange thing to say.

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I’ve mentioned before that I’m a sucker for miniature dioramas… and I get an illicit thrill from dystopian fiction (if there’s a “survivor” theme)… so this made me gasp with delight:

Nix Gerber 1

Nix Gerber 2

Nix Gerber 3

– by Lori Nix and Kathleen Gerber

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Tyler Cowen bucks the trend with a bad review of Black Panther. I haven’t seen it yet, but have heard nothing but rave comments… which always makes me suspicious.

“So many spears and wild animals? How about holding a referendum every now and then?“

I grew up in Africa, and the way western culture attempts to portray what it thinks African culture looks like in a misguided attempt to appear inclusive has always irritated me. That said, I really like the bits of the soundtrack that I’ve heard, so…

“I would say the more you know about actual African cinema, the less you will appreciate this one.”

Then again, no way was this attempt at bridging divides not going to stir up some uncomfortable opinions.

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And speaking of Tyler, he interviewed Matt Levine – the best newsletter creator out there (original, pithy and witty comments on money and economics, for Bloomberg) – on his podcast. They had an interesting chat about cryptocurrencies (no, CryptoKitties are not derivatives), and about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Definitely worth listening to.

“It’s a perfect example of dealing very intelligently with serious themes in a way that, on its surface, and particularly in its title, is silly and is not presented as serious, which I think is, obviously, something that I often aspire to do.”

(Apropos of absolutely nothing at all, Matt Levine has a much deeper voice than I expected.)

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I’ve just finished “The Defectors”, by Joseph Kanon. It reminded me so much of John Le Carré, only more American. Although it’s actually very Russian – about the lives of US spies who escaped to the Soviet Union. Written with a certain rhythm and poetry, with complicated villains that you can’t hate and heroes that are far from heroic, it zips along with a melancholic yet determined patriotism.

defectors

Bits and stuff – February 11, 2018

On to the media crypto highlights of the week…

Taking a step back, CoinDesk published an original overview of ICO trends, which include continued regulatory pressure, the awakening of traditional tech companies to the potential of tokens, and the increasing sophistication of consumers.

What I didn’t expect was the apparently widespread belief that token funding will continue to grow, while getting more complex. I was also surprised by the revelation that many ICO entrepreneurs have back-up plans in case ethereum’s scaling issues don’t get resolved.

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From VC firm Andreesen Horowitz, a list of cryptocurrency-related readings, well worth bookmarking.

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Pascal Bouvier has the audacity to draw parallels between the evolution of established religion, and that of cryptocurrencies… and pulls it off, with flair. A stirring read:

“Money creation is backstopped by taxes on the people and the state monopoly on violence ensures a more or less orderly collection of taxes. Remove the monopoly over money creation and the nation state starts to vacillate on its pedestal… Many pundits will rightly point out that all cryptocurrencies suffer from congenital malformations… If there is one thing we can count on, it is human ingenuity, and the crypto field will find solutions and solve these defects over time. What we all hear is the sound of inevitability in the form of fitter cryptocurrencies to come.”

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I get a huge kick out of seeing how different media sources report on the same event – it often leaves me wondering how many parallel universes there can be.

On this week’s Senate hearings on cryptocurrency, for instance. At the thoughtful end of the spectrum, you have:

ETHNews: What Was Missing From The Senate Banking Committee’s Hearing On Cryptocurrency?

The report urges greater consideration of volatility and systemic risk, to what extent newer cryptocurrencies are commodities, the self-certification of cryptocurrency derivatives and whether or not all tokens are securities (as Chairman Clayton hinted).

CoinDesk: Crypto Industry Reacts to US Senate Hearing Remarks

“Optimism aside, some market observers said they believe the hearing revealed the need for more clarity on the regulatory front – something that both agency chairs indicated may be necessary in statements that broached possible action from the U.S. Congress.”

TechCrunch: Senate cryptocurrency hearing strikes a cautiously optimistic tone

“In a week of plunging prices and bad news, the hearing struck a tone that coin watchers could reasonably interpret as surprisingly optimistic.”

Reuters: U.S. regulators to back more oversight of virtual currencies

“Both regulators have cracked down aggressively on bad digital currency actors… But the question of who is best placed to oversee the underlying cryptocurrency cash market remains unclear.”

At the other end of the spectrum, you have:

Forbes: Regulators May Need More Power To Control Bitcoin, Senate Banking Chair Says

A confusing, patchwork article that I gave up trying to make sense of. (“Control bitcoin”? C’mon, that is not at all what they said.)

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As cringe-inducing as the above article is, the week’s award for Most Egregious Reporting must go to that fount of financial wisdom, the Daily Express, whose headlines “Cryptocurrency bull run imminent with bitcoin to hit $50,000 in 2018“ and “Cryptocurrency CRACKDOWN: World leaders to plan REGULATION of Bitcoin at G20 meeting” are just plain irresponsible. I’m not going to put links to those articles because they don’t deserve the encouragement.

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If this doesn’t make your mouth water…

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By Lauren Ko… check out more of her pastry creations at Colossal