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A Philosophy of Blockchain: Do You Have Hidden Centralizations?

A Philosophy of Blockchain: Do You Have Hidden Centralizations?

A Philosophy of Blockchain: Do You Have Hidden Centralizations?

It’s hard to avoid hidden centralizations, particularly when you’re creating code that’s being used by a network…

written by Shannon Appelcline

There is no doubt that decentralization was one of the core philosophies of Bitcoin (and thus the blockchain). In his original white paper, Satoshi Nakamoto wrote that Bitcoin could enable “any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party”. Over time, this idea has become a touchstone for the blockchain technology: the Nakamoto Consensus protocol ensures that a blockchain is created in a decentralized way, then anyone can validate transactions to ensure that a blockchain remains trusted.

Why is decentralization important to blockchains? Satoshi Nakamoto alludes to the intent in the original Bitcoin white paper, saying that it would be problematic if “the fate of the entire money system depend[ed] on” a centralized authority. This is certainly a crucial, if pragmatic, reason to avoid centralization: if the health and viability of that authority fails, then so does the entire system.

It would be problematic if “the fate of the entire money system depend[ed] on” a centralized authority. Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

However, the Cypherpunks, who prefigured the creation of Bitcoin, offered more philosophical reasons behind the logic of decentralization. In “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”, Eric Hughes discussed how the traditional right of privacy was being eroded as commerce moved into electronic realms, saying: “We cannot expect governments, corporations, or other large, faceless organizations to grant us privacy out of their beneficence.” Perhaps more importantly: we can’t depend on the people who run those organizations and corporations to protect our privacy. Even if we trust a centralized authority when we give them our data, we can’t guarantee that we will trust them in five, ten, or fifty years when new executives take over. The cypherpunks saw the need to sidestep those centralizations to ensure that the privacy of the physical world was replicated on the internet, but the mere desire for decentralization doesn’t ensure it.

The cypherpunks saw the need to sidestep those centralizations to ensure that the privacy of the physical world was replicated on the internet. Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Despite our best intentions, hidden centralization have crept into blockchains. They take power from the people, which was core to the conception of the blockchain, and instead give it to small and powerful groups of elites. Many people fear the 51% attack, where a majority of miners could take over a blockchain, because any proof-of-work blockchain has a hidden centralization in just 51% of its full mining nodes. However, there are even more insidious possibilities. Protocol designers, code programmers, and even blockchain voters can all be part of small, hidden centralizations, where a small subset of blockchain users suddenly become an authority.

Different blockchains have approached this problem in different ways, either fighting the hidden centralizations of miners, coders, or voters or embracing them.

But even for those of us who believe that these hidden centralizations violates the core philosophies of the blockchain, it’s a difficult battle.

Programmers & Bitcoin

Bitcoin offers the best example of the battle over hidden centralization, both because it’s the largest blockchain and because it’s worked the most with the issue — largely focused on the hidden centralization of Bitcoin protocols and code.

Theoretically, any code that aligns with the Bitcoin consensus protocols can be used to interact with the Bitcoin blockchain, but its technological future is primarily directly by Bitcoin Core — the codebase ultimately derived from the original code of Satoshi Nakamoto, and now used by approximately three-quarters of Bitcoin nodes. This code thus represents Bitcoin’s first hidden centralization.

Though Bitcoin Core has a small number of “core” team members, led by Wladimir van der Laan, the code is maintained on Github to maximize community involvement. This has allowed for hundreds of contributors: theoretically any Bitcoin aficionado can join in. However, even for the most popular and most successful blockchain, reality doesn’t always line up with desire. Just 67 contributors have made more than a dozen commits, just 45 have made more than twenty, just 23 more than a hundred. Only a dozen or so people have full commit permissions on the Bitcoin Github repository.

Just 67 contributors have made more than a dozen commits, just 45 have made more than twenty, just 23 more than a hundred. Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Fortunately, Bitcoin’s centralization begins to recede when you move away from the Bitcoin Core code to the underlying consensus protocols. Changes are initiated in Bitcoin Improvement Protocols, which support widespread community involvement. They then continue through a process of “rough consensus”, where major objections are heard and resolved. Only afterward are BIPs introduced as actual code.

If this rough consensus was the final word in which BIPs were eventually introduced into code, then the hidden centralizations within Bitcoin’s consensus protocols would be greatly minimized. However, there’s another step: Bitcoin nodes must indicate that they’ve adopted a new protocol element through signaling, as detailed in BIP9. It was never intended to be anything but a marker to show which nodes had adopted the newest protocols … until the great Bitcoin block-size debate. Different interest groups fought over how large blocks on the Bitcoin blockchain should be, and during this conflict, BIP9’s signalling methodology became a de facto voting process for how the debate should be resolved. Essentially, it was “vote-by-work”, since the votes were determined based on the power of miners creating blocks.

In other words: there are hidden centralizations all the way down. Even if “core” coders don’t have ultimate power on the Bitcoin blockchain (and there’s certainly disagreement here), then miners might, because they can limit what consensus protocols go into actual use. They’re both centralizations, and like Eric Hughes said, you can’t expect such authorities to respect the best interests of the rest of a network.

As the block-size debate continued, a User Activated Soft Fork, or UASF, attempted to shift the decision-making power all the way down to the end-user, but was superseded by the adoption of BIP91 before the UASF could come to fruition. Nonetheless, it was an important statement of the power of the people at the foundation of the blockchain (and an important step away from centralization).

The long and bloody debates over block size resulted in the creation of Bitcoin Cash, a variant of the Bitcoin currency. This fundamental and irrevocable disagreement demonstrated that even Bitcoin doesn’t deal perfectly with the problems that can be introduced by centralized code and protocols. But it’s certainly the blockchain that’s done the most to battle its hidden centralizations.

Others of us have further to go.

Programmers & Ethereum

Ethereum is the second most popular blockchain after Bitcoin, focused on distributed computing rather than just cryptocurrency transfer. Like Bitcoin, Ethereum has its own Github, its own BIPs (called ERCs), and a relatively small team of developers — though Ethereum has twice as many regular developers as Bitcoin, according to a Cointelegraph report. So, there’s certainly been care and effort in managing Ethereum’s hidden centralizations of code and protocol. However, unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum has its own non-profit: the Ethereum Foundation. This non-profit is a different sort of hidden centralization that could exert a lot of control over the future of the network — a problematic possibility that blossomed in the 2016 DAO incident.

The DAO, a “decentralized autonomous organization” was a new business model controlled by smart contracts. It allowed investors to place their money into an organization that could then make investments of its own all run from an open and borderless blockchain. It could have been the future of business on the internet.

Unfortunately, the Turing-complete nature of Ethereum’s expansive programming language ultimately spelled the DAO’s doom. Turing-complete languages are either difficult or impossible to logically prove, which means there’s no way to formally say that they will do what they’re supposed to. Or, if you prefer: they can have hidden bugs. And that was the case with The DAO. Participants invested $150 million into the decentralized autonomous organization, and then a hacker used an exploit to transfer out $50 million of that money. The bug, it should be clear, was in the DAO software, not in Ethereum itself.

Blockchains are merciless. There are no take-backs. If you send money to the wrong place, don’t recover your change, mess up a hash … or write a program wrong, that’s on you. The autonomy of decentralization becomes a harsh reality if you make a mistake. So, under the core philosophy of the blockchain, that $50 million should have been gone. As some people said in the wake of the DAO incident: “code is law”.

The whole community voted using a brand-new “Carbonvote” system, which was essentially vote-with-stake: yes and no votes were counted based on the amount of cryptocurrency held by the voting address. Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

That’s not what happened. Instead, the Ethereum Foundation proposed a hard fork to wind back time and get the lost money back to the DAO’s contributors. The whole community voted using a brand-new “Carbonvote” system, which was essentially vote-with-stake: yes and no votes were counted based on the amount of cryptocurrency held by the voting address. 89% of voters agreed to roll back the DAO losses, but it still raised the spectre of hidden centralization. How much authority did the Ethereum Foundation exert by making and pushing the proposal? And, would they do it again? In the worst case, Ethereum had revealed a hidden centralization in the small group of people controlling the Foundation, while in the best case they’d merely shown that 51% of voters could make unprecedented changes to the blockchain.

Either way, the centralization was real. The Ethereum Classic blockchain was the result: a new cryptocurrency spun off of Ethereum for people who felt that the DAO rollback had violated the philosophies of the blockchain. (Like the somewhat similar Bitcoin Cash fork, the new cryptocurrency has proven considerably less valuable than its parent.)

Programmers & Bitmark

At Bitmark, we’ve developed our own blockchain for the specific purpose of building a digital property system: the Bitmark blockchain, focused on the registration and management of digital property and assets. It allows users to transfer and license these various properties, controlling and monetizing their digital assets. Much as with the cryptocurrencies of Bitcoin and Ethereum, it’s crucially important that this network be truly decentralized, so that its users can trust the neutrality and openness of the blockchain.

And here we’ve discovered what the creators of Bitcoin and Ethereum already know: it’s hard to avoid hidden centralizations, particularly when you’re creating code that’s being used by a network. As with the other blockchain communities, our code is available on Github. We also have a brand-new Bitmark Upgrade Proposal (BUP) system, where community members can suggest upgrades to the Bitmark Algorithms. But that’s not enough on its own: several external developers have forked our core code, but to date all of the commits are from our own engineering team, while the BUP system is too new to have generated proposals.

Though Bitmark has had strong success with partners like KKBOX (who uses the Bitmark Property System to record rights to digitally streaming music) and Chibitronics (who registers Bitmark certificates to verify the authenticity of their hardware), making additions to a blockchain’s core code (or its algorithms) requires a totally different sort of community. We’ve thus experimented with other methodologies, such as seeding our coding community via a bug bounty program. A few community members have already been paid out for reporting small bugs in our web app. These bug reports aren’t Github commits or BUPs, but they’re a first step toward decentralizing our coding work.

After we’ve welcomed more external coders into our community, we’ll eventually need mechanisms to decide what actually gets added to our code and our protocols. Bitcoin and Ethereum both developed somewhat ad hoc systems to allow voting on contentious protocols: Bitcoin used a signalling system that wasn’t intended for voting, while Ethereum’s Carbonvote was created to resolve an immediate crisis. A more thoughtful system, not created due to immediate exigencies, could more carefully consider the best way to manage collective choice, whether it be rough consensus, work voting, stake voting, or something else.

Conclusion

Unlike the philosophy discussed in our last article, on proof of work vs proof of stake, the blockchain community is much more settled on the advantages of decentralization.

In spite of that, blockchains have big problems with centralized authorities; they’re just somewhat hidden.

The central power of the Ethereum Foundation to pursue a radical reversion of the Ethereum blockchain was an eye opener for many in the blockchain community, but it’s just a singular example of a more endemic problem, one that generates serious questions that we all need to consider.

How can we reduce the centralizations inherent in miners, protocol developers, coders, and blockchain VIPs?

How can we develop protocols of collective choice that maintain the power of the people without subjecting it to the tyranny of the majority?

In other words, how can we truly meet the blockchain’s original goals of decentralization in reality?

Further Reading

Bitcoin. Retrieved June 2019. “Bitcoin Improvement Protocols”. Github. https://github.com/bitcoin/bips.

Bitmark. Retrieved June 2019. “Bitmark Inc. Repos”. Github. https://github.com/bitmark-inc.

Bitmark. Retrieved June 2019. “Bug Bounty Program”. Bitmark. https://docs.bitmark.com/learning-bitmark/contributing-to-bitmark/bug-bounty-program.

Caffyn, Grace. August 2015. “What is the Bitcoin Block Size Debate and Why Does It Matter?” Coindesk. https://www.coindesk.com/what-is-the-bitcoin-block-size-debate-and-why-does-it-matter.

Electric Capital. March 2019. “Dev Report”. Medium. https://medium.com/@ElectricCapital/dev-report-476df4ff1fd2.

Hughes, Eric. March 1993. “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto”. Cypherpunk Mailing List. Archived on https://github.com/NakamotoInstitute/nakamotoinstitute.org/blob/master/sni/static/docs/cypherpunk-manifesto.txt.

Falkon, Samuel. December 2017. “The Story of the DAO — Its History and Consequences.” Medium. https://medium.com/swlh/the-story-of-the-dao-its-history-and-consequences-71e6a8a551ee.

Hall, Christopher. April 2019. “BUP 001: BUP Process”. Github. https://github.com/bitmark-property-system/bups/blob/master/bup-0001-draft.markdown.

Lapowsky, Issie. September 2017. “The Feds Promised to Protect Dreamer Data. Now What?” Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/daca-trump-dreamer-data/.

Lombrozo, Eric. June 2017. “Forking, Signaling, and Activation”. Medium. https://medium.com/@elombrozo/forks-signaling-and-activation-d60b6abda49a.

Nakamoto, Satoshi. October 2008. “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System”. https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf.

SFOX. April 2019. “Bitcoin Governance: What Are BIPS and How Do They Work?” Medium. https://blog.sfox.com/bitcoin-governance-what-are-bips-and-how-do-they-work-276cbaebb068.

Wilcke, Jeffrey. July 2016. “To Fork or Not to Fork”. Ethereum Blog. https://blog.ethereum.org/2016/07/15/to-fork-or-not-to-fork/.

Zmudzinski, Adrian. March 2019. “Ethereum Has More than Twice as Many Core Devs Per Month as Bitcoin, Report Says”. Cointelegraph. https://cointelegraph.com/news/ethereum-has-more-than-twice-as-many-core-devs-per-month-as-bitcoin-report.

By Bitmark Inc. on August 15, 2019.
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The Emergence of Blockchain in Taiwan

The Emergence of Blockchain in Taiwan

Amazon Alexa, self-driving vehicles, and robotics. These are all widely known technologies available to the general public which utilize hardware, but rely heavily on software that is programmed into it in order to function. As many are able to perceive, technology is shifting towards a software-based environment. Namely in Taiwan, one of the world leaders in hardware manufacturing, technology leaders see opportunities beyond hardware. A specific area of interest in Taiwan is blockchain technology, which is a public ledger utilizing a peer to peer, decentralized structure. As of now, we put a lot of trust into a third party such as banks, retailers, and corporations to keep our private information safe (which isn’t always reliable). Blockchain is a clever technology whose versatility is becoming increasingly apparent to the Taiwanese government. With blockchain, transactions are recorded in a public ledger and verified by none other than the users themselves, allowing the transfer of cryptocurrency and other data in a decentralized structure. Due to its almost guaranteed security and its easy traceability of irregularities, it’s not hard to think of the many possibilities for practical application that blockchain can provide — recording information such as healthcare data, tracking natural resources, and removing the need for an intermediary to name a few. Various Taiwanese businesses, institutions, and the government have begun to utilize blockchain technology in order to benefit citizens.

Taiwan has traditionally been a very hardware-focused country in its technology sector due to cheap labor costs and a high marginal profit. Sharp, HTC, and Acer are some of its most prominent names. Recently, however, Taiwan has been working towards integrating software as well, such as IOT, software development, and blockchain. Led by Jason Hsu, a legislator who is known to be a strong advocate of blockchain technology, the Taiwan Parliamentary Coalition for Blockchain was founded to push blockchain projects through legislation. Before, the Taiwanese government adopted a “hands-off” approach to blockchain technology — it neither supported nor prohibited it. In recent years however, authorities are becoming increasingly aware of its capabilities and have announced its support to turn Taiwan into a global blockchain nation. Due to various projects which have proved the usefulness of blockchain, its advantages and improvements in the public sector are clearly recognized by the government.

Some of these projects include a blockchain-based payment system which greatly reduces transaction costs and a virtual ID card that prevents identity theft. As a Taiwanese citizen, the impacts of having blockchain integrated in the public sector are very visible. For example, a blockchain-based payment system running on Ethereum has already been implemented near National Chengchi University, used by restaurants and merchants. Since its implementation, the number of transactions in this area has increased fourfold, showing how well its improved merchant sales. There are plenty of reasons for this — decreased transaction costs, elimination of intermediaries, and increased profit that follow. Because of the Byzantine Fault Tolerant consensus protocol that allows two nodes to communicate safely through a network, if a consumer were to pay for something through this system, the transaction times would be cut to less than a second. It would also greatly improve the efficiency and security for the average Taiwanese merchant because of the blockchain structure: transactions are easily verifiable and located on the public ledger, with little doubt of fraud. Due to its low cost for each transaction, merchants forgo extra payments to banks and corporations, allowing more profit to be made.

Another project aimed to integrate blockchain in the public sector and therefore improving the security of Taiwanese citizens’ data is “TangleID”. Think of it as a “Digital Citizen Card” that stores important health data, personal information, and other identification. Identity theft is always a risk when dealing with traditional public ledgers of data. Data leaks, criminal activity, and other threats can all compromise one’s personal data and identity. Yahoo is infamous for a data leak which compromised three billion user accounts. eBay has had a similar crisis in 2014, in which 145 million users’ names, addresses, birthdays, and passwords were all exposed. By utilizing the security of a blockchain ledger and its decentralized nodes, the risk of data being leaked intentionally or unintentionally from a third party is eliminated without an intermediary needed. This is the main basis of TangleID’s security. This way, citizens will be able to rest assured that identity theft as well as voter fraud will be eliminated.

One application that would be especially useful in Taiwan would be using blockchain to track natural resources. Although Taiwan has been going through a very rapid industrialization for the past decades, the environmental costs of doing so is enormous and often times shrugged off in the name of advancement. A blockchain could be used in this situation to track where resources are going towards and how much is being used. By using a blockchain and a “transactive grid” to track energy usage, businesses and the government would be able to easily query where energy is being sourced from and how much is being used. The fact that adding anything onto a blockchain is a immutable record and its low transaction costs make this a very efficient implementation.

Through the multitude of projects that are already in the works, it is very visible that blockchain can have an enormous impact in the public sector, improving Taiwanese citizens’ lives in many aspects. The unique security that comes with utilizing a blockchain structure, its fast transaction times, and low costs can be integrated in a number of creative ways. Jason Hsu hopes to continue this momentum of innovation and change with blockchain. As one of the writers of the “Financial Technology Innovation Experimentation Act” passed in Taiwan, Hsu constantly rallies for legislation supporting blockchain and cryptocurrency. With the pro-blockchain environment in Taiwan, new projects that may be in the works will utilize this technology and be a driver for next generation’s innovation, benefitting citizens and the government alike.

By Kenneth Lee on October 12, 2018.
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Finding Satoshi… And A New Way To Finance Film

Finding Satoshi… And A New Way To Finance Film

Jamie King is the founder of Totemic, a recently launched platform that lets creators issue digital collectibles around their work — and fans to support them. Jamie is an experienced crowdfunder, having created one of the first free-to-share, crowdfunded films, STEAL THIS FILM (2006–2009) and VODO, a pioneering platform in crowdfunded, P2P-distributed film. This article explains how Totemic could become a significant force in the crowdfunding space via the perspectives of experienced filmmaker, crowdfunder, and one of Totemic’s first creators, Emily James.

Finding Satoshi isa hybrid documentary/fiction film set in the world of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. It follows a detective hired to hunt down Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s pseudonymous inventor. As the detective’s quest takes him on a tour of crypto’s key protagonists, the pursuit of Satoshi’s identity leads him deep into the roots and identity of cryptocurrency itself. The search for Satoshi becomes a way to examine crypto and how it is changing the world around us.

The film’s detective, Jimmy, stalks London for leads.

The film, which is currently in development, has a lot going for it. Not only is its topic incredibly current and urgent, but its director, Emily James, is an experienced documentarian with award-winning films and large TV commissions under her belt. Yet even for an established filmmaker like Emily, raising money can be daunting in the fast-moving, highly uncertain film industry.

The Funding Maze

“Funders often want to see nearly a full rough cut before they’ll jump in. The creators of the film have to carry a great deal of the financial risk themselves…”

“In documentary,” Emily explains, “the majority of funding comes from TV commissions — and now platforms like Netflix. And often commissioners want to see quite a lot before they’ll commit any financing — in fiction a script is key; in documentary they will often want to see nearly a full rough cut. Often the creators of the film have to carry a great deal of the financial risk themselves in order to get the project far enough along for others to finally jump in.”

Enter crowdfunding. The crowd (that’s you and me) have proved to be way less risk-adverse than traditional funders, and provide a kind of moral and financial support commercial financers can’t. Platforms like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the film-specific Seed & Spark have made it possible for less established film makers to go direct to potential audiences with their ideas, raising funding for films that otherwise wouldn’t get made.

“Industry money is dragging its feet even more, as it’s now almost expected that a film will ‘prove its audience’ by raising some funds from the crowd.”

But many filmmakers are starting to feel the crowdfunding pinch: it’s getting harder and harder to raise money as the novelty wares off, and a new problem has been created— industry money now tends to drag its feet even more, with expectations that a film will ‘prove its audience’ by raising funds from fans and audience.

Is that… Satoshi I see?

Crowdfunding: The Current Model

To date the main model for crowfunding has been incentivised donations, which are paid by the audience at a variety of levels in return for a designated perk or reward. For example, a fan could fund $20, $50, or $200 and in return receive posters, a place in the credits or a special edition of the film — though the latter can, in practice, be problematic for distributors. Emily’s Film Just Do It, for which over half of the budget raised came from donations in three rounds of funding appeals, is a good example of this approach.

Trouble In Paradise

The perk system, it could be argued, is a flimsy way of rewarding early backers who are really motivate by something more substantial: a sense of protagonism, of an incorporation in the filmmaking process, conferred by being an early believer and investor. This does beg the question of the possibility of incentives that are equal to the risk of investing so early in a film’s life.

There’s a reason micro-financing never took off. The legalities of accepting investments can be sketchy at best — and the only safe route is to limit fundraising to so-called ‘sophisticated’ (read: wealthy) investors who understand, and can bear, the risks involved.

Some approaches have tried to align rewards with risk, especially early on in the history of crowdfunding. Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, which Emily produced and was an early pioneer in crowdfunding, pioneered a micro-financing system in which each investor owned a little piece of the ‘back end’ profits of the film, rather than donating and merely getting perks. Clearly, if The Age Of Stupid could deliver profits as well as perks, that might galvanise investors who weren’t ‘superfans’ and for whom perks alone wouldn’t swing it.

There’s a reason that model never took off. In many countries the legalities of accepting investments remain sketchy — and in practice, the only safe route would be to limit fundraising to so-called ‘sophisticated’ (read: wealthy) investors who understand, and can bear, the risks involved.

This somewhat defeats the point of the ‘crowd’ part of the crowdfunding. It’s true that the passage of the JOBS Act has, at least in the US, opened private investments into indie film to investors with a lower net worth — but there’s another (and perhaps bigger) problem for films raising funding. It’s kind of an open secret amongst indie filmmakers: the vast majority of the films out there, even some of the ones you may have seen or heard of, don’t wind up turning a profit. Indie films run on a shoestring, often with the majority of the team deferring much or all of their payment until when (or if — and that’s a big if) a film is sold. Any profits may come only after everyone gets paid, and marketing and other expenses can eat into returns investors were expecting. “It’s true indie films often don’t make much money,” Emily admits, “and when they do hit the ball out of the park, the people who made it (or the crowd who invested) don’t necessarily see as much of that money as you might think. Sales agents and distributors can often take over half of gross revenue off the top, before it even starts to trickle back down. People who invest in films have to understand it’s a very risky investment indeed, and be motivated by something other than hope for large returns on their investment.”

Totemic: The Middle Way?

Could there be a ‘middle way’ for crowdfunding film? A way in which filmmakers can fund their work, and funders receive not only feel-good perks, but incentives tied to the value of that work, without getting tangled up in messy equity and financing thickets? We think so, and our new platform Totemic is setting out to prove it.

Totemic offers a simple, accessible means for creators to issue collectible assets (which can be thematically aligned with their work, or totally separate) and then purchased by audiences and fans in a similar way to the perks of other crowdfunding platforms. You can think of these assets as the digital equivalent of baseball cards, in provably limited edition, and with a provenance guaranteed by the Bitmark blockchain.

From Emily James’ first set, ‘Finding Satoshi’. Each card represents a potential candidate for the real Satoshi Nakamoto.

For a physical world analogue, consider buying a numbered photographic print from a gallerist. While anyone wanting that image could very well scan and reproduce it themselves, what the gallerist is guaranteeing is access to one of a limited number of authorisednumbered copies. In effect, it’s the deed of title to the asset which is being purchased; a deed which confers an indirect relationship with the artist and guarantees provenance, producing a tradeable asset with real value.

Totemic’s collectibles have two key functions: first, they let fans collect work from creators they enjoy, by acquiring the creators’ cards. Being limited edition, if a creator’s reputation increases, the value of the cards could behave similarly. If I acquire Emily’s Finding Satoshi set, for example (which I have, except for those damn Rares… just haven’t got lucky yet!), then if her film does well, I can expect the value of the collectibles to go up. The renown of the film and its creator increases demand for the associated collectibles, which are in limited supply. Perhaps I will collect two sets of Finding Satoshi cards, hoping to sell the other one in the marketplace at such a moment.

Balancing Self Interest & Patronage

Without having an equity stake in a creator’s work, acquiring Totemic collectibles confer similar benefits — and remain outside the difficult film distribution business.

This is a new approach to crowdfunding, balancing self-interest with patronage: as with other platforms, backers benefit from the feel-good factor, (supporting Emily and her film) and also from any perks the creator might offer for holding her cards — invitations to screenings, behind-the-scenes access and so on. But they also enjoy a new, speculative relation to the creator and her work through holding the collectibles — similar, indeed, to that of wealthy art collectors and the artists they collect. When a collected artist gets a significant show, or some other cultural event occurs around them, all the works they’ve sold may well increase in price. Without having an equity stake in that artist, buying their work essentially confers similar benefits.

There are clear advantages to this approach. For film investors in Emily’s film, for example, it means holding assets which stay cleanly outside the thorny film distribution business. Even if the film turns no profit, these collectible assets may well rise in price. And this is achieved without Emily promising any equity stake in her film — leaving her deals with traditional financiers unencumbered. Nor has she promised her crowdfunders advance or special access copies of the final film, which can annoy distributors and make deals difficult to do in practice.

Emily, one of the first creators to try out the Totemic platform, agrees on the potential here. “Digital collectibles could be a great way to crowdfund. It adds real value for the backers. In traditional crowd-funding of films you are always trying to come up with ‘perks’ that will encourage people to give larger sums, but you have to be careful to not promise so much that it ends up costing so much to deliver on that you don’t actually raise enough money for the making of the film! I think that the donors also have become fatigued with giving large sums but getting something in return that’s not really equal in value.

“With Totemic’s collectible model, on the other hand, the backer’s making a bet on you, and by extension on the future value of the cards. As well as helping the film get made, they are also potentially acquiring something of real value for themselves. It’s a win-win! Best of all this money comes with no obligation to pay it back, which is immensely useful for an independent film, where every penny needs to go a long way. Money that doesn’t need to recoup (be it crowdfunding or grants) can be a crucial part of making a film more economically viable: it allows one to deliver a film that punches above its weight production value-wise, and which industry money feels safer getting involved with — because they are getting a film for only a fraction of its real cost.”

This is why we started Totemic: we see a massive potential, in the emerging class of collectible digital assets, to create a new opportunity in the crowdfunding space — both for creators and backers. Of course, crypto-assets are a new and turbulent space: on any given day skeptics are proclaiming their doom, while boosters are determined that whichever token they’re pitching is going ‘to the moon’. But the fact remains: Bitcoin has, for all but the most hardened ‘nocoiners’, shown that trustless, blockchain-based digital assets can gain and retain real value. We believe the same can and will be true of digital collectibles — backed not only by blockchain, but by the reputation and projects of artists both new and emerging.

Thanks to Emily for being one of the first filmmakers to make use of the Totemic platform to raise funds for her film. You can buy her cards right now on the Totemic platform at https://totemic.co.

By Totemic on July 23, 2018.
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Part 3: Understanding the Blockchain

Part 3: Understanding the Blockchain

Why did the creator of Bitcoin want decentralized, digital cash?

http://www.thetimes03jan2009.com/gallery/

My previous two articles came at making digital cash from an objective perspective. I explained the need for decentralization and also the need for “proof-of-work” to safely record who has what. This article is going to take a step back and look at the Big Picture picture — Why decentralize cash in the first place? Money is an abstraction, so any redesign will unavoidably include a philosophical angle. I believe Bitmark’s new model of trust and privacy are the two important characteristics that make it unique in our world of government issued currencies. This article is about trust and how it connects (in my opinion of course) to why Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin, wanted digital cash to exist.

To get started, I want to show you the very first block in the Bitcoin blockchain. What does a block actually look like? It’s raw data. Here is it:

This first block — known as the genesis block — technically could have been empty of transactions. But it was not. Along with the normal data necessary for the block structure, Satoshi manually inserted a single transaction. Here is that message:

The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks

This was probably intended as proof that the block was created on or after January 3, 2009. The message is a headline from this newspaper:

It’s obvious, but worth saying: Bitcoin emerged from a catastrophic financial crisis. The crisis was fundamentally a failure of trust. Satoshi programmed Bitcoin to have a radically different monetary policy, based on artificial scarcity and predictable issuance. In other words, it was based in mathematical trust.

The supply of Bitcoin is capped at 21 million. The protocol itself specifies that the reward for adding a block starts at 50 bitcoin and will be halved every 210,000 blocks. Each block is tuned to be found in roughly ten minutes. Thus, approximately every four years the block reward will drop in half. When the reward decrease to zero the process of record keeping will be rewarded by transaction fees alone.

What exactly motivated Satoshi to replace middlemen with math? I’ve read just about all of Satoshi’s public writings (thanks to Phil Champagne’s fantastic “The Book of Satoshi.”). I found this passage the most raw and revealing:

“The root problem with conventional currency is all the trust that’s required to make it work. The central bank must be trusted not to debase the currency, but the history of fiat currencies is full of breaches of that trust. Banks must be trusted to hold our money and transfer it electronically, but they lend it out in waves of credit bubbles with barely a fraction in reserve. We have to trust them with our privacy, trust them not to let identity thieves drain our accounts.”

Satoshi wanted digital cash, based on cryptographic proof, because without the need to trust a third party middleman, “money can be secure and transactions effortless.”

Trust and control of money are absolutely intertwinedIt’s important to always keep this in mind when thinking about digital cash. The blockchain wasn’t created as a way to make things faster. The real purpose was to remove censorship and central-control from money itself. Blockchain technology, properly understood, is a method to increase trust by removing central intermediaries and letting everyone, anywhere exchange value. And that is a radical idea whose time has come to reshape our world.

Continue with part 4: How Blockchain privacy protects consumers while thwarting mass surveillance.

By Sean Moss-Pultz on April 27, 2017.
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Part 2: Understanding the Blockchain

Part 2: Understanding the Blockchain

How to make decentralized, digital cash.

(Part 1 was A brief history of decentralization: about E-gold, Napster, and BitTorrent. What follows is part 2 of a 5 article series for the curious, non-technical reader.)

As a technology, cash is pretty impressive. It’s easy to verify and difficult to forge. When you pay for a coffee with cash, a third party is not required to verify and process that transaction — it’s peer-to-peer and decentralized. Most likely, the only personal information revealed was your physical appearance. If digital cash is to be adopted, then it should, at a minimum, behave similar to physical cash from the perspective of the individuals involved. This article will explain how to create digital cash that is 1) hard to forge and 2) transferrable without requiring a third-party (aka: decentralized).

Long before the days of e-gold (link back to previous post), people knew how to make something digital that was hard to forge. It’s called the digital signature.

A digital signature is a mathematical scheme to authenticate digital messages. The content of the message doesn’t matter — anything digital can be signed. Digital signatures employ cryptography. Most schemes have three parts:

  1. The generation of a private key and a corresponding public key.
  2. A signing algorithm that, given a message and a private key, produces a signature.
  3. A signature verifying algorithm that, given the message, public key and signature, either accepts or rejects the message’s claim to authenticity.

For some time, I struggled with how to explain digital signatures to people unfamiliar with cryptography. Then I realized the Chinese seal might be an interesting analog:

Chinese seals are typically made of natural materials (stone, wood, ivory, … ). Official documents are stamped with an individual or company’s seal instead of a handwritten signature. This has some advantages. Each seal is unique and difficult to duplicate because the surface details of the organic material cause detectable variations when the stamp is used. By fanning the pages, a stamp can be applied over multi-page documents such that it is easy to detect if a page is missing or changed. Some Asian governments and financial institutions keep stamps on record for fast, precise verification of documents.

Here’s how you would authenticate a digital document:

For example: An individual has a private key (seal) that represents ownership of their account and is used to produce a digital signature (stamp a document) that authorizes transactions in their name. Another party could view the public key (read the characters on the seal) and quickly verify their digital signature (against public government records) to accept or reject the claim to authenticity of the transaction.

We can create digital “coins” as signed digital messages. These will be very difficult to forge, which satisfies the first part of the solution. But if it’s possible to send the same digital coin to two or more people, AKA “double-spending”, then we have an incomplete solution. This “double-spending” problem, by the way, is far trickier than it might first appear. It stumped all previous attempts to decentralize digital money.

To understand how Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of Bitcoin, resolved doubling spending, it helps to consider a smaller, simplified example first. Three people — Alice, Bob, and Carol — want to transact using digital coins. Everyone starts with one digital coin, and they agree upon some rules:

  1. New transactions are digitally signed and shared with everyone.
  2. Each person records new balances in their own sheet (spreadsheet).
  3. If a transaction spends the same coin twice, the first transfer is recorded in the sheet and the second is ignored.
  4. Once per day, everyone compares sheets. If the majority (two of three in our example) of the sheets are the same, the corresponding balances are accepted as “correct.”

Initially, things would look like this:

Sheet 1 (Account Balances)

 Account Balance  
--------- ---------
Alice 1
Bob 1
Carol 1

Then Bob sends his coin to Alice and Carol transfers her coin to Bob. They each record the new balances in their sheets, and at the end of the day, the majority agree on the following sheet:

Sheet 2 (Account Balances)

 Account Balance 
--------- ---------
Alice 2
Bob 1
Carol 0

You could see how this process would continue. Each day settlement happens, and a new sheet is added. Consensus is reached among Alice, Bob, and Carol through a simple majority. The process is nicely decentralized and peer-to-peer.

Yet there’s an obvious problem: Bob and Carol could collude against Alice. They could get together and agree to reverse each other’s transactions — effectively changing their account balances. Again, “correct” is whatever the majority agrees upon.

One way to reduce the effectiveness of colluding is to randomly pick one participant’s sheet and accept that sheet as “correct”. This works when people are known, yet, when we switch to computers talking to one another, we still have a problem. Someone with more computers would have a disproportionate chance of his or her sheet being selected. This is where a “proof-of-work” system is needed. A proof-of-work is a computational puzzle that is costly or time-consuming to produce but easy for others to verify. One way to think of a proof-of-work problem is like solving a Sudoku puzzle. The goal of Sudoku is to complete a partially filled in 9×9 grid with digits such that each column, row, and 3×3 section contains the all the numbers between 1 to 9 once and only once. Although solving a Sudoku puzzles requires a lot of time and effort, anyone with a knowledge of the rules can immediately verify a correct solution without having to solve the puzzle themselves.

We can use a proof-of-work puzzle, related to the account balances in a given day, to make it expensive to connect many computers and keep them computing the puzzles. Let’s modify our sheets to also include the solution to the new and previous puzzle. (You will see why we need the previous puzzle shortly.)

Here are the updated rules:

  1. New transactions are digitally signed and shared with everyone.
  2. Each person records new balances in their own sheet (spreadsheet).
  3. If a transaction spends the same coin twice, the first transfer is recorded in the sheet and the second is ignored.
  4. Once per day, everyone works to solve the proof-of-work puzzle for their sheet.
  5. When a person solves the puzzle, they record it in their sheet and share it with everyone.
  6. People express their acceptance of the sheet by working on creating the next sheet in the chain, using the puzzle from the accepted sheet.

In effect, we have “chained” our sheets together such that making a change to any single sheet requires redoing the puzzle — not just for that specific sheet — but for all the sheets thereafter. Why? Because once a proof-of-work is created for a given set of balances, it cannot be reused for different balances without redoing the work. As later sheets are chained after it, the work to change the sheet would include redoing all the sheets after it.

I hope it’s obvious to the reader that my sheets are blocks and the chaining forms the “blockchain”. (Even though it’s more of a mouthful — I prefer calling it “proof-of-work” chain). The very astute reader might realize it’s possible that two people could share a block at the same time. (These blocks would differ because their puzzles are digitally signed and are thus different.) In this case, the tie would be broken when the next proof-of-work is found and one of the branches in the chain becomes longer. A rule is that participants must work on the longest chain.

This concept of a blockchain becoming a “trusted” record secured through proof-of-work really is fantastic and original. It makes it possible to transfer digital money directly from one party to another without an intermediary. But there is something even more subtle and deeper that involves the incentives that emerge while the system is running. And this, in my opinion, is where Satoshi’s genius shines through the most. It’s how the system combines a proof-of-work chain with incentives to help participants stay honest.

By convention, the first transaction in a Bitcoin block is special. It creates new bitcoins owned by the participant that solved the proof-of-work for the block. This is a clever way to initially distribute coins into circulation without requiring a central authority to issue them. Yet it’s far more than that. The reward of new bitcoin adds an incentive to support and secure the network. If a greedy participant could assemble a lot of puzzle-solving power, he would have to choose between using that power to defraud people through reversing their own payments or using it to generate new coins. Clearly, it should be more profitable to play by the rules and win more coins than anyone else combined, rather than working to undermine the very system that is required to transact in the first place!

And there you have it.

Continue with part 3: Why did the creator of Bitcoin want decentralized, digital cash?

By Sean Moss-Pultz on January 21, 2017.
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Part 1: Understanding the Blockchain

Part 1: Understanding the Blockchain

E-gold, Napster, and BitTorrent: A brief history of decentralization.

Before you can understand blockchain, I think you have to understand Bitcoin. And before that, it is worth looking at some of the past digital currencies — specifically e-gold.

E-gold, launched in 1996, was the first digital currency to reach scale. The service worked by allowing users to deposit US dollars into an online account that was then denominated by grams of gold. Such an account holder could instantly send their e-gold to other account holders. By 2004, there was over a million accounts.

All was going well with e-gold’s business until the U.S. Treasury Department and the United States Department of Justice stretched the definition of money, specifically the transmission of money, to include the transfer of any kind of value from one person to another, not merely a national currency. Before that change, a money transmitter business was defined as a business that cashed checks or accepted cash remittances to send from one individual to another across international borders, such as Western Union. This change was made in the USA Patriot Act and it crushed e-gold. (You’ll need to understand “Know Your Customer” and “Anti Money Laundering” compliance requirements to grasp why services like e-gold are so difficult to run, legally that is, after this legislation.)

Clearly people liked the idea of digital currencies, safely transferable over the internet, without using banks. But it was equally clear that governments would not want to give up their monopoly over the creation and control of money. We have seen this story play out many times since e-gold’s death. Any central authority that intermediates the transfer of anything resembling money is easy for a government to regulate and/or shutdown.

You can think of Bitcoin sort of like e-gold, minus the company or central authority that issues money and verifies transactions. That crucial difference — exchanging value without a central authority — changes everything. I will come back to why, later. First let’s talk about digital music. For those of us old enough to remember the early days, there is a parallel concept that I think helps to understand Bitcoin (and then we will get to the blockchain). It also hints at what we can expect in the future.

Napster launched in 1999. At its peak it had 80 million active users, exchanging mostly digital music (mp3 files) through personal computers. Napster was called a “peer-to-peer” file sharing service. Yet it wasn’t really P2P, in the networking sense. When someone wanted to download or transfer music they would need to know which computers had what files. And that information was only stored on Napster servers.

Just like e-gold, legal realities forced Napster, the intermediary, out of business. Around that time Bram Cohen, an American computer programmer, released the “BitTorrent” software to share files. His method was superbly clever: instead of centralizing the information and sharing of a file, he developed a method to distribute that data across all the people that have downloaded or are in the process of downloading that file. This has two benefits: 1) You don’t even have to download the entire file before sharing. And 2) as long as one person, anywhere in the world, has that file on their computer, others will be able to download it. Computers connecting in this manner form a decentralized, “peer-to-peer” network and are both technically and legally difficult to shut down because no central computer is required to operate the network.

I encourage you to suspend moral judgement of such a file sharing system and look at what occurred from a technology perspective. It is incredible. Even after 15 years of legal whack-a-mole, BitTorrent is still the most dominant way to exchange digital music. And beyond that, BitTorrent now moves as much as 40% of the world’s internet traffic on a daily basis. Why? Because its decentralized peer-to-peer architecture is economically and technically advantageous for moving any type of data over the internet.

I hope it’s clear now that an alternative digital currency must be decentralized for it to survive outside of and independent of the banking system.

Continue with part 2: How to make decentralized, digital cash.

By Sean Moss-Pultz on January 21, 2017.