Is every Initial Coin Offering a Scam?

OK. Stop! Please, just stop! I get this question every day. More and more people asking about ICOs. I get it… I am an early Bitcoin user, I give blockchain presentations, I write a blog, and I work for a standards association. And so, this is my definitive response to a very pesky question.

Ron, in New York City reads this Blog. He asks this:

I work for an investment bank. Some banks, like Merrill Lynch, are hostile toward Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Others, like Fidelity are dipping their toes in the water. And some, like Morgan Stanley speak with forxed tongue—condeming and hedging at the same time…

My employer is preparing to embrace Bitcoin with gusto. Once regulatory guidelines become clear and unified, we will offer crypto trading, options, futures and margin accounts. I am already working on customer literature and compliance training. We will also use crypto as money in all operations—to pay staff & consultants or purchase supplies & utilities We will even accept Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash as payment from clients.

So, please tell me: Why does our in-house crypto expert constantly warn our managers and clients that ICOs are scams? How can she condem an emergent commodity? ICOs have sparked a massive new investment class. Are they really scams?

Listen up, Ron! Pay attention to your crypto expert. Follow her advice. With very few exceptions, ICOs are all scams, plain and simple.

Why are almost all ICOs scams?

Initial Coin Offerings are scams because of:

  • The way that they are promoted
  • What investors must do to profit
  • Their fundamental purpose: Dodge securities regulations, create MLM pyramids, or facilitate pump & dump. None are are sustainable, ethical or legitimate goals!

For those intent on using, investing in, or advising others on ICOs, this article explains how to discriminate a scam from a credible and functional instrument. Note the list of traits just below the red “Scam” button. If the ICO that you are evaluating exhibits even one of these characteristics, treat it like The Plague or the Mark of the Beast. It is most certainly a scam.

Note that ICOs are not Altcoins. There is a big difference. Altcoins are forked from Satoshi’s blockchain code. They are open source, license free, permissionless, with a transparent mining history going all the way back to the genesis block. The ownership of all pre-mined coins is known and auditable. There is absolutely no MLM aspect to an altcoin. If there is any central or authoritative component, it serves only to aid in quicker governance decisions or to overcome the energy overhead associated with Proof-of-Work. There is never another valid excuse for an authority, because authorities are chokepoints.

Many altcoins are legitimate projects designed to trade value, or serve as a functional component of an IOT (Internet-of-Things) process. This is also explained in the definitive guide to Why ICOs are almost all scams. Some of the IOT altcoins attract speculators and hoarders seeking to profit from trades. This is unfortunate, and it intereferes with the utility of the token (IOTA is a clear example). But, just as with Bitcoin, speculator interest doesn’t define a scam.

What about altcoins. Are they as toxic as ICOs?

Referring to my own definition, above, many altcoins—perhaps even most—are not scams. But, I am pretty picky on the altcoins that I recommend, because most of the clever features and functional improvements introduced by altcoins will be ripped and folded into Bitcoin. It is inevitable.

Apt metaphor for ICOs

After all, Bitcoin has an enormous lead, it has already achieved a two-sided network, and none of the altcoins are protected by patent, trade secrecy or opacity. By definition, they are free, transparent and without any licensing or proprietary features.

I was never burned by an ICO, but I have certainly consoled friends and colleageus who have been sucked into them. Unlike many columnists and consultants, I am not beholden to issuers. So, if your wondering what is an ICO? It is a puss-filled boil on your privates. You may quote me on that. The article linked above is honest, unbiased and definitive.

 

John Oliver explains Bitcoin, Blockchain & Crypto (with precision & clarity)!

John Oliver is a crossover who bridges the art of a comedian with the reporting and perspective of a liberal political pundit. Even detractors acknowledge that Oliver addresses serious issues with unusual wit and humor.

I never thought Oliver could (or would) tackle the topic of cryptocurrency—at least not with value to the viewer. It is too geeky, and too esoteric. (It also cuts into my mission of evangelism and education). 🙂

He did, and he sparkles! Feel free to jump past the fluff. The Bitcoin tutorial starts at 3:40. Of course, my friend, Shechter, in Long Island New York will bust a gut over what Oliver says at 9:40. It is not only clear and concise, it is accurate and terribly funny!

Whether you are a Bitcoin newbie or a seasoned blockchain coder, this is the video you have been looking for. This one is durable.

Related Videos:

What sets cryptocurrencies apart from each other?

Today, I was asked to answer this question at Quora:

“What sets each cryptocurrency apart from the others?”

“Cryptocurrency” is a broad term. It refers to payment coins, of course—such as Bitcoin and Litecoin. But, because most tradeable tokens attain an asset value, the word is often used to refer to smart contract devices, such as Ethereum, a host of other blockchain based tokens, functional Internet-of-Things tokens, and even ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings). Since people treat ICOs and IOT tokens as investment instruments even if they are useless as a payment mechanism, they all fall within the realm of a cryptocurrency.

So, before addressing the question, let’s distinguish between Altcoins and ICOs. I assume the question refers to Altcoins, and not ICOs…

ICOs are almost all scams. A very few of these are designed to function in a well-defined IOT role (Internet-of-Things). But, any ICO that you are likely to hear about share one or more traits described here.

But Altcoins are different. These are typically forked from Bitcoin or another established blockchain-backed coin. They are created because developers feel that they have solved one or more of the problems that limit the growth or appeal of Bitcoin. For example, Bitcoin has (or recently had) all these problems or perceived limitations:

  • Transaction Malleability (Recently solved with activation of SegWit)
  • Speed of transaction (Now being addressed by Lightning Network)
  • Cost of transaction (Also addressed by Lightning Network early 2018)
  • Very high electrical demand by miners (Still a major problem)
  • Fairness of and speed of distributed governance process (a big problem)
  • Finding a validation incentive after mining runs out (a long term issue)
  • Deep privacy features. These are inherent to Monero and Zcash. (Bitcoin will soon support onion routing transactions to enhance privacy)
  • Disparate goals of miners, developers, vendors and users (still a problem)
  • Limited Smart Contract mechanism (Ethereum is the current king in this realm, with slick methods of administering and executing contracts. Bitcoin will eventually acquire these features & benefits.
  • Like ICOs (these are almost all scams), some Altcoins (not scams) address specific IOT applications. This is a legitimate and non-payment use of blockchain technology. It represents a promising evolution. It is not yet clear if Bitcoin can eventually adopt these features and function in a non-payment, IOT capacity. The intrinsic, stored value aspect of Bitcoin would make it difficult to use in such applications.

One big problem facing Bitcoin is that the distributed consensus mechanism that makes it a trusted, peer-to-peer mechanism is based on Proof-of-Work (POW). Coupled with a mining incentive that increases dramatically with exchange rate, Bitcoin is—quite simply—untenable. With consumption topping 33 terawatt hours in December 2017, it already consumes more power than some countries. If even 2% of the world’s payment transactions were settled in Bitcoin, the mining would consume more power than is generated throughout the world. This just cannot continue!

Fortunately, developers and armchair inventors have proposed or demonstrated clever POW alternatives to achieve a fair distributed consensus. Some of these use a Proof-of-Stake mechanism, while others add a limited central-authority nexus to facilitate governance and scaling. Some are built on a modified blockchain that weaken several pillars of a true decentralized, p2p network. Of course, researchers are concerned that these systems deteriorate the decentralized nature of Satoshi’s original blockchain.

But, other systems may allow for a fully distributed and democratic trust platform, such as BFT Replication (IBM) or Distributed Objective Consensus, which was proposed by an amateur mathematician.

In reply to the title question, Altcoins are set apart by their claim to address the above problems & limitations, or to add features.

Will an Altcoin Triumph over Bitcoin?

Perhaps, a few altcoins will thrive, due to specific niche advantages; features that Bitcoin chooses not to address, such as deep anonymity or with a novel utilitarian feature that facilitates a specific Internet-of-Things process.

Unfortunately for altcoins, all coins require public trust and transparency. For this reason, they are open source, permissionless, without licensing, without patent protection and with a fully disclosed pre-mining history. And for that reason, Bitcoin is free to steal any clever advantage that works. It’s all up for grabs and no one can be sued.

In effect, each altcoin as a beta test platform for Bitcoin. Now that Bitcoin is finally addressing the problems of scalability and fair/speedy governance, there is little doubt that it will continue to dwarf other coins.


Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, hosts the New York Bitcoin Event and is keynote speaker at Cryptocurrency Conferences around the world. Book a presentation or consulting engagement.

Have there been successful Transaction Malleability attacks?

First, let’s get some basics out of the way…

What is Transaction Malleability?

Here are 2 explanations of transaction malleability: [Coindesk] [TechTalk]

In a nutshell, Transaction Malleability is a weakness in the original Bitcoin implementation that enables a bad actor to change the unique ID of a bitcoin transaction before it is confirmed on the Blockchain. Such a change makes it possible for someone to pretend that a transaction didn’t happen, if all necessary conditions are in place.

As the Coindesk article points out, a successful attack requires certain conditions that make a successful attack difficult or even unlikely. Many analysts referred to it as a bug that should eventually be fixed, rather than an urgent issue.

Was This Flaw Addressed

Transaction malleability was addressed (for Bitcoin) with the introduction of Segregated Witness (SegWit) in August 2017. 1, 2

But Was There a Successful Attack?
Attack? Yes. Successful? It’s doubtful…

In March 2017, five months before SegWit was implemented, a mining pool that administers 2% of worldwide activity launched a malleability attack. No one lost money – and some individuals believe that they did this to emphasize urgency and hasten the adoption of SegWit.

What About Lightning Network?

The Lightning Network is a ‘Level 2’ network overlay, currently being adopted by miners (depending on the service or exchange, it is being incrementally activated in the first months of 2018). To function properly, it requires that transaction malleability be solved. But, in the event that a miner is not SegWit compliant, it can resolve the malleability problem in other ways.

1 SegWit should not be confused with SegWit2x, an upgrade process that was cancelled a few months later in November. 2017

2 In the TechTalk article linked above, the author concludes:

“Transaction Malleability is fixed with Segregated Witness by no longer taking into account signatures when calculating the transaction’s fingerprint. Fixing Transaction Malleability means that the Lightning Network can work smoothly.”


Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, hosts the Bitcoin Event and presents at Crypto Conferences around the world. Book a presentation or consulting engagement.

Proof-of-Work Alternatives: Massive electric consumption by cryptocurrency mining

Some blogs and news outlets eschew long titles. Publishers want readers to scan a list of topics that fit on one-line each. But, a better title for this article would be:

“Massive electric consumption by cryptocurrency mining:
An unfortunate environmental nightmare will soon pass!
… Proof-of-Work alternatives are on the horizon”

A considerable amount of electricity is used in the process of mining Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Miners are effectively distributed bookkeepers, and this use of resources is part of a system called “proof-of-work”. It keeps the books fair, honest, and without an ability for the miners to collude (In other words, they cannot ‘cook the books’).

What makes the process unique and exciting is that this “distributed consensus” does not require a trusted authority, like a bank. In fact, the whole point of the blockchain revolution is that users trust a mechanism rather than a bank, government or even each other.

But, for any network that hopes to become part of the financial fabric, it must be ubiquitous and in constant motion. Proof-of-work just doesn’t make the grade, because it doesn’t scale. The need for miners to prove that they did something complex sucks up too much power. If Bitcoin or any proof-of-work currency were to be adopted for even a small fraction of commercial and personal transactions, it would overwhelm the world’s energy services.

One reader suggests the problem will be solved by the recent boom in shale fracking and renewable, non-polluting energy. He points out that crypto mining may even drive a market for distributed, clean electric production.

Unfortunately, clean and cheap power makes the problem worse. Even if electric capacity were to rise dramatically and experience a great cost reduction, cryptocurrency networks would automatically demand all the extra electricity. It is a no-win game, because mining incentives escalate with an increase in supply or drop in cost.

Will large-scale, blockchain-based networks fail, because of enormous electric demand? Fortunately, the future is not so bad, after all. Although networks, like Bitcoin, currently use proof-of-work to ensure honesty and fairness, it is only one of many possible measurement and enforcement mechanisms. Eventually, developers and miners will swap in another proof mechanism to keep the network humming—and without creating an environmental catastrophe.

Will Change in Proof Come in Time?

The political process for changing the fairness mechanism (“forking the code”) is complex and fraught with infighting, but the problem will eventually be addressed, and it will be solved before electric demand becomes a critical issue. Despite a messy voting process, the miners have too much at stake to ignore this problem much longer.

Various proof alternatives are already being used in altcoins. Since Bitcoin is perfectly free to steal these techniques (none can be protected by patent or trade secrecy), we can think of these other coins as beta-tests for Bitcoin. How so? As the first and biggest elephant in the room, Bitcoin will likely reign supreme, as long as it doesn’t wait too long before grabbing the best technology and tucking it into its quiver.

Proof-of-Work Alternatives

  • One method, already used by some altcoins, is called “proof-of-stake”. It’s a bit like getting voting rights based on how much land you own. This method does not demand lots of electricity—but some analysts feel that is not as fair, because it cedes network control to the wealthiest members.
  • Another method, called BFT Replication was developed by Marko Vukolić, at the IBM Blockchain Group in Zurich Switzerland. It might be exactly what we need.
  • Yet another method was proposed by C.V. Alkan, an amateur analyst with a passion to solve this problem. He calls it Distributed Objective Consensus.

These aren’t the only alternatives to proof-of-work. Ultimately, one or more of these fairness enforcement mechanisms will make its way into Bitcoin and other currencies and blockchain services. In my opinion, the electrical crisis is a genuine threat, but it is one with a solution that will be implemented soon—perhaps even this year.

Related:


Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, publishes A Wild Duck and hosts the New York Bitcoin Event. He is keynote speaker at the Cryptocurrency Expo in India this month. Click Here to inquire about a presentation or consulting engagement.

How does the Blockchain ‘know’ you have printed a paper wallet?

Let’s say that you no longer trust your currency exchange to host your Bitcoin wallet and you don’t trust a Trezor or Nano hardware wallet. You don’t trust your memory and you don’t trust your kids. And you certainly know better than to keep your wealth in your PC or phone. That would be downright crazy—right? What can you do?!

A growing number of people are printing paper wallets. It is the ultimate form of security. Some individuals even delete their cloud wallet, leaving everything to a string of hex characters or a QR code printed onto a slip of paper. (NB. You had better be certain that you and a few trusted individuals know how to find that piece of paper!)

But here’s an interesting mystery. If you print the paper wallet off-line and delete your other wallets, then how can the blockchain ‘know’ that you have changed wallets? The short answer: It doesn’t and you haven’t!

Let’s explore a bit deeper…

  • The deed to your house is stored and maintained by a registry. It is housed in a court house or other government building.
  • With a bearer bond, a certificate in your posession is the actual item of value.

But, in both cases, the fact that you made a photocopy of your deed or corporate bond is not of any consequence to others. It is the same with a Bitcoin wallet. (In this case, the ownership record is netiher in a government warehouse nor in your posession. It is crowd-sourced).

Printing out a paper wallet does not change your wallet ID. The paper wallet is simply another method of storing and retrieving the proof that you own a part of a mathematical solution set—That is, you know the solution to a problem.

Your paper wallet is just a copy of the keys to your wealth. You may choose to destroy the other keys, that’s your business. No one knows or verifies that you still have access to your stored secret or how you stored it. It’s up to you to maintain access to the keys. The blockchain only records a transfer of ownership from one wallet to another at the time of a payment transaction.

Got it? I hope you like the metaphors. I am fairly proud of myself for this explanation.


Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, publishes A Wild Duck and hosts the New York Bitcoin Event. Last month, he kicked off the Cryptocurrency Expo in Dubai. Click Here to inquire about a live presentation or consulting engagement.

Should we ‘out’ Bitcoin creator, Satoshi?

Everyone likes a good mystery. After all, who isn’t fascinated with Sherlock Holmes or the Hardy Boys? The thirst to explore a mystery led us to the New World, to the ocean depths and into space.

One of the great mysteries of the past decade is the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin and the blockchain. Some have even stepped forward in an effort to usurp his identity for fame, infamy or fortune. But in this case, we have a mystery in which the subject does not wish to be fingered. He prefers anonymity.

This raises an interesting question. What could be achieved by discovering or revealing the identity of the illusive Satoshi Nakamoto?…

The blockchain and Bitcoin present radically transformative methodologies with far ranging, beneficial impact on business, transparency and social order.

How so? — The blockchain demonstrates that we can crowd-source trust, while Bitcoin is much more than a payment mechanism or even a reserve currency. It decouples governments from monetary policy. Ultimately, this will benefit consumers, businesses and even the governments that lose that control.

Why Has Satoshi Remained Anonymous?

I believe that Satoshi remains anonymous, because his identity, history, interests and politics would be a distraction to the fundamental gift that his research has bestowed. The world is still grappling with the challenge of education, adoption, scaling, governance, regulation and volatility.

Some people are still skeptical of Bitcoin’s potential or they fail to accept that it carries intrinsic value (far more than fiat currency, despite the absence of a redemption guaranty). Additionally, we are still witnessing hacks, failing exchanges and ICO scams. Ignorance is rampant. Some individuals wonder if Satoshi is an anarchist—or if his invention is criminal. (Of course, it is not!).

Outing him now is pointless. He is a bright inventor, but he is not the story. The concepts and coin that he gave us are still in their infancy. Our focus now must be to understand, scale and smooth out the kinks, so that adoption and utility can serve mankind.

Related Ruminations:


Ellery Davies co-chairs CRYPSA, publishes A Wild Duck, hosts the New York Bitcoin Event and kicked off the Cryptocurrency Expo in Dubai. Click Here to inquire about a live presentation or consulting engagement.

Jump into Bitcoin with Intuitive Understanding

In the past, I have written articles for beginners:

More recently, I have written about economics of adoption, tech issues / growing pains, and the politics of a stateless money that cannot be controlled:

It’s time to try something different. The largest segment of society is still sitting on the sidelines. They want to know more about Bitcoin, but they don’t want baby steps. They are business people, students, armchair economists or investors—and they want to get up to speed quickly.

Grab a cup of coffee and view these two videos by the eloquent and charismatic Andreas Antonopoulos. They can bring anyone up to speed on the economic and geopolitical ramifications of Bitcoin—without wading through code, math or gobbly-geek. If you are college educated or experienced in finance or economics, these short presentations are all you need. You can fill in the blanks with your own experience or by checking out the articles linked above. They provide the missing details.

Who is Andreas Antonopoulos?

No one knows who is Satoshi Nakomoto, the effusive genius behind Bitcoin and the blockchain. So without an inventor or founder to appear on TV news interviews or the evening talk shows, we have Andreas Antonopoulos as the charismatic face of Bitcoin. He is intelligent, passionate, incredibly articulate and he is an advocate for individual empowerment.

Like Andreas, I teach a class on the Blockchain, give academic lectures, consult to banks and businesses, write columns and develop courseware. But there is no way to get around the fact that I run a distant second behind Andreas. His voice (and his widow’s peak hairline) are associated with the most important financial development of the 21st century.

I first met Andreas at the 2015 MIT Bitcoin Expo. Later that month he was keynote speaker at the New York Bitcoin Event at which I was co-host and producer. Way back then, Andreas told me that Bitcoin would never become a money—and so, it would never be a threat to national currencies. Well, if these two videos are any guide, then he has certainly changed his mind. Either way, my more popular peer is now in violent agreement with my view of Bitcoin’s full potential, and so it is no accident that these videos will also give you a dose of our shared economic and political perspective.

  1. Fake News, Fake Money (26 minutes)

2. Money as a System of Control (17 minutes)

These videos don’t describe how Bitcoin works, where to obtain it, or how it is mined. Those are just details. Instead, the videos put Bitcoin into perspective against the history of money and the geopolitical interests of governments. Once you have viewed the videos, browse the articles linked at the top of this page. They backfill the details. Then, you will have become a Bitcoin pundit the quick way…by jumping into the deep end of the pool!

Free, Online Blockchain Courses

I develop Bitcoin and Blockchain courses for a profitable venture—And so, I may be shooting myself in the foot with a competitive referral. But, hey!—It’s for a good cause.

Jeremy Boris; Zero to 60 in six months

Jeremy Boris has a degree in business management. He became interested in blockchains a few months ago. In just the first half of this year, he has leapt beyond the realm of enthusiast. He already casts himself as a blockchain developer.

Now, Jeremy seeks to spread the joy (and the potential for career income). Here is his annotated list of free, online blockchain courses, covering all six critical technologies.

Everyone needs a starting point. This is a great one!

Incentivize Bitcoin Miners After All 21M BTC Are Awarded

Individuals who mine Bitcoins needn’t be miners. We call them ‘miners’ because they are awarded BTC as they solve mathematical computations. The competition to unearth these reserve coins also serves a vital purpose. They validate the transactions of Bitcoin users all over the world: buyers, loans & debt settlement, exchange transactions, inter-bank transfers, etc. They are not really miners. They are more accurately engaged in transaction validation or ‘bookkeeping’.

There are numerous proposals for how to incentivize miners once all 21 million coins have been mined/awarded in May 2140. Depending upon the network load and the value of each coin, we may need to agree on an alternate incentive earlier than 2140. At the opening of the 2015 MIT Bitcoin Expo, Andreas Antonopolous proposed some validator incentive alternatives. One very novel suggestion was based on game theory and involved competition and status rather than cash payments.

I envision an alternative approach—one that also addresses the problem of miners and users having different goals. In an ideal world the locus of users should intersect more fully with the overseers…

To achieve this, I have proposed that every wallet be capable of also mining, even if the wallet is simply a smartphone app or part of a cloud account at an exchange service. To get uses participating in validating the transactions of peers, any transaction fee could be waived for anyone who completes 1 validation for each n transactions. (Say one validation for every five or ten transactions). In this manner, everyone pitches in a small amount of resources to maintain a robust network.

A small transaction fee would accrue to anyone who does not participate in ‘mining’ at all. That cost will float with supply and demand. Users can duck the fee by simply participating in the validation process, which continues to be based on either proof-of-work, proof-of-stake — or one of the more exotic proof theories that are being proposed now.


Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa & Bitcoin Event, columnist & board member at Lifeboat, editor
at WildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

Blockchain can dramatically reduce pollution, traffic jams

The World Economic Forum has posted an article that hints at something that I have also suggested. (I am not taking credit. Others have suggested the idea too…But advancing tech and credible, continued visibility helps the idea to be taken seriously!)

I am not referring to purchasing and retiring carbon credits. I like that idea too. But here is an idea that can enable fleets of autonomous, shared, electric vehicles. Benefits to individuals and to society are numerous. And the blockchain makes it possible early in the next decade. It is not science fiction.

The future is just around the corner. Non-coin applications of the blockchain will support great things. Goodbye car ownership. Hello clean air! The future of personal transportation is closer than you think.

Read about it at the World Economic Forum.


Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa & Bitcoin Event, columnist & board member at Lifeboat, editor
at WildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

 

MIT: 3 Big Blockchain Initiatives

MIT has never stood stand still in the presence of change and opportunity. Their Media Lab Currency Initiative is at the forefront of Blockchain and Bitcoin research. With the fracture of the founding core team, MIT stands to become the universal hub for research and development.

The initiative has a team of 22 people and—currently—seven research projects. It nurtures three startups that use cryptocurrency and blockchain in a variety of novel ways. Blockchain research now sits alongside transparent robots that eat real-world fish, solar nebula research, and other imaginative, futuristic projects in progress at the university.

The initiative has already funded the work of bitcoin protocol developers and has supported research, going far beyond bitcoin—even partnering with Ripple Labs and developing enterprise data projects.

Now, the MIT Media Lab Digital Currency Initiative is working on 3 big Blockchain ideas:

  1. Shattering online ‘echo chambers’
  2. Improving blockchain privacy
  3. Building central bank currencies

The DCI is led by former White House advisor and research director Neha Narula. Read about the three BIG blockchain projects at CoinDesk

Ellery Davies co-chairs Crypsa and The Bitcoin Event. He is columnist & board member at Lifeboat Foundation,
editor of AWildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at the 2017 Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

Distributed Consensus: Beyond POW or POS

At the heart of Bitcoin or any Blockchain ledger is a distributed consensus mechanism. It’s a lot like voting. A large, diverse deliberative community validates each, individual user transaction, ownership stake or vote.

But a distributed consensus mechanism is only effective and faithful if the community is impartial. To be impartial, voters must be fairly separated. That is, there must be no collusion enabled by concentration or hidden collaboration. They must be separated from the buyer and seller; they must be separated from the big stakeholders; and they must be separated from each other. Without believable and measurable separation, all sorts of problems ensue. One problem that has made news in the Bitcoin word is the geographical concentration of miners and mining pools.

A distributed or decentralized transaction validation is typically achieved based on Proof-of-Work (POW) or Proof-of-Stake (POS). [explain]. But in practice, these methodologies exhibit subtle problems…

The problem is that Proof-of-Work can waste an enormous amount of energy and both techniques result in a concentration of power (either by geography or by special interest) — rather than a fair, distributed consensus.

In a quasi-formal paper, C.V. Alkan describes a fresh approach to Blockchain consensus. that he calls Distributed Objective Consensus. As you try to absorb his mechanism, you encounter concepts of Sybil attacks, minting inequality, the “nothing-at-stake” problem, punishment schemes and heartbeat transactions. Could Alkan’s distributed consensus mechanism be too complex for the public to understand or use?…

While I have a concern that time stamps and parent-child schemes may degrade user anonymity, the complexity doesn’t concern me. Alkan’s paper is a technical proposal for magic under the covers. Properly implemented, a buyer and seller (and even a miner) needn’t fully understand the science. The user interface to their wallet or financial statement would certainly be shielded from the underlying mechanics.

Put another way: You would not expect a user to understand the mechanism any more than an airline passenger understands the combustion process inside a jet engine. They only want to know:

• Does it work?  •  Is it safe?  •  Is it cost effective?  •  Will I get there on time?

So will Alkan’s Decentralized Objective Consensus solve the resource and concentration problems that creep into POW and POS? Perhaps. At first glance, his technical presentation appears promising. I will return to explore the impact on privacy and anonymity, which is my personal hot button. It is a critical component for long term success of any coin transaction system built on distributed consensus. That is, forensic access and analysis of a wallet or transaction audit trail must be impossible without the consent and participation of at least one party to a transaction.


Ellery Davies co-chairs Cryptocurrency Standards Association and The Bitcoin Event. He is columnist & board member at
Lifeboat Foundation, editor of AWildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

Blockchain Scalability: Proof-of-Work vs BFT Replication

Research can seem bland to us laypersons. But, Marko Vukolić shares many of my research interests and he exceeds my academic credentials (with just enough overlap for me to understand his work). So, in my opinion, his writing is anything but bland…

Vukolić started his career as a post-doc intern at IBM in Zurich Switzerland. After a teaching stint as assistant professor at Eurecom and visiting professor at ETH Zurich, he rejoined the IBM research staff in both cloud computing infrastructure and the Blockchain Group.*

As a researcher and academic, Vukolić is a rising star in consensus-based mechanisms and low latency replicated state machines. At Institut Mines-Télécom in Paris, he wrote papers and participated in research projects on fault tolerance, scalability, cloud computing and distributed trust mechanisms.

Now, at IBM Zurich, Vukolić has published a superior analysis addressing the first and biggest elephant in the Bitcoin ballroom, Each elephant addresses an urgent need:

  • Scalability & throughput
  • Incentivize (as mining reward withers)
  • Grow & diversify governance & geographic influence
  • Anonymize transactions to protect privacy
  • Recognize & preserve ownership

Regarding the first elephant, scalability, Bitcoin urgently needs to grow its Blockchain dynamics into something that is living and manageable. To that end, Vukolić refers to a transaction bookkeeping mechanism that works as a “fabric”. That is, it does not require every miner to access the history-of-the-world and append each transaction onto the same chain in serial fashion. Rather than growing an ever bigger blockchain—with ever bigger computers—we need a more 3D approach that uses relational databases in a multi-threaded, transactional environment, while still preserving the distributed, p2p trust mechanisms of the original blockchain.

While clearly technical, it is a good read, even for lay enthusiasts. It directly relates to one of the elephants in the room.

I have pasted Marko’s Abstract below. The full paper is 10½ pages (14 with references).


Bitcoin cryptocurrency demonstrated the utility of global consensus across thousands of nodes, changing the world of digital transactions forever. In the early days of Bitcoin, the performance of its probabilistic proof-of-work (PoW) based consensus fabric, also known as blockchain, was not a major issue. Bitcoin became a success story, despite its consensus latencies on the order of an hour and the theoretical peak throughput of only up to 7 transactions per second.

The situation today is radically different and the poor performance scalability of early PoW blockchains no longer makes sense. Specifically, the trend of modern cryptocurrency platforms, such as Ethereum, is to support execution of arbitrary distributed applications on blockchain fabric, needing much better performance. This approach, however, makes cryptocurrency platforms step away from their original purpose and enter the domain of database-replication protocols, notably, the classical state-machine replication, and in particular its Byzantine fault-tolerant (BFT) variants.

In this paper, we contrast PoW-based blockchains to those based on BFT state machine replication, focusing on their scalability limits. We also discuss recent proposals to overcoming these scalability limits and outline key outstanding open problems in the quest for the “ultimate” blockchain fabric(s). Keywords: Bitcoin, blockchain, Byzantine fault tolerance, consensus, proof-of-work, scalability, state machine replication

* Like Marko, Blockchains, Cloud computing, and Privacy are, also my primary reserach interests, (GMTA!). But, I cede the rigorous, academic credentials to Marko.

BFT = Byzantine Fault Tolerant consensus protocols

Related—and recently in the news:

Ellery Davies co-chairs Cryptocurrency Standards Association and The Bitcoin Event. He is columnist & board member at
Lifeboat Foudation, editor of AWildDuck and will deliver the keynote address at Digital Currency Summit in Johannesburg.

Is it Too Late to Get into Bitcoin and Blockchain?

At Quora, I occasionally play, “Ask the expert”. Several hundred of my Quora answers are linked at the top right. Today, I was asked “Is it too late to get into Bitcoin and the Blockchain”.

A few other Bitcoin enthusiasts interpreted the question to mean “Is it too late to invest in Bitcoin”. But, I took to to mean “Is it too late to develop the next big application—or create a successful startup?”. This is my answer. [co-published at Quora]…


The question is a lot like asking if it is too late to get into the television craze—back in the early 1930s. My dad played a small role in this saga. He was an apprentice to Vladamir Zworykin, inventor of the cathode ray tube oscilloscope. (From 1940 until the early 2000s, televisions and computer monitors were based on the oscilloscope). So—for me—there is fun in this very accurate analogy…

John Logie Baird demonstrated his crude mechanical Televisor in 1926. For the next 8 years, hobbyist TV sets were mechanical. Viewers peeked through slots on a spinning cylinder or at an image created from edge-lit spinning platters. The legendary Howdy Doody, Lucille Ball and Ed Sullivan were still decades away.

The Baird Televisor, c.1936

But the Televisor was not quite a TV. Like the oscilloscope and the zoetrope, it was a technology precursor. Philo T. Farnsworth is the Satoshi Nakamoto of television. He is credited with inventing TV [photo below]. Yet, he did not demonstrate the modern ‘cathode ray’ television until 1934.

Farnsworth demonstrates TV

The first broadcast by NBC was in July 1936, ten years years after the original Baird invention. (Compare this to Bitcoin and the blockchain, which are only 7 years old).

Most early TV set brands died during the first 10 years of production: Who remembers Dumont, Andrea and Cossor? No one! These brands are just a footnote to history! Bear in mind that this was all before anyone had heard of Lucille Ball, The Tonight Show or the Honeymooners. In the late 1950s, Rod Serling formed Cayuga Productions to film the Twilight Zone in New York. Hollywood had few studios for dramatic television production, and the west coast lacked an infrastructure for weekly episode distribution.

Through the 1950s (25 years after TV was demonstrated), there was no DVR, DVD or even video tape. Viewers at home watched live broadcasts at the same time as the studio audience.

The short answer to your question: No! It’s not too late to get into Bitcoin and the blockchain. IIn fact, we’re still in the very early era. The ship is just pulling into the dock and seats are mostly empty. The big beneficiaries of blockchain technology (application, consulting, investing or savings) have not yet formed their first ventures. Many of the big players of tomorrow have not yet been born.

At this early stage, the only risk of missing the Bitcoin boat is to assume that it is a house of cards—or passing fad. It is not! It is more real than the California gold rush. But in this case, prospectors are subject to far less risk and chance.


Ellery Davies is co-chair of Cryptocurrency Standards Association. He is also a frequent contributor to Quora and editor at A Wild Duck.

Diminishing Bitcoin Mining Rewards

By now, most Bitcoin and Blockchain enthusiasts are aware of four looming issues that threaten the conversion of Bitcoin from an instrument of academics, criminal activity, and closed circle communities into a broader instrument that is fungible, private, stable, ubiquitous and recognized as a currency—and not just an investment unit or a transaction instrument.

These are the elephants in the room:

  • Unleashing high-volume and speedy transactions
  • Governance and the concentration of mining influence among pools, geography or special interests
  • Privacy & Anonymity
  • Dwindling mining incentives (and the eventual end of mining). Bitcoin’s design eventually drops financial incentives for transaction validation. What then?

As an Op-Ed pundit, I value original content. But the article, below, on Bitcoin fungibility, and this one on the post-incentive era, are a well-deserved nod to inspired thinking by other writers on issues that loom over the cryptocurrency community.

This article at Coinidol comes from an unlikely source: Jacob Okonya is a graduate student in Uganda. He is highly articulate, has a  keen sense of market economics and the evolution of technology adoption. He is also a quick study and a budding columnist.

What Happens When Bitcoin Mining Rewards Diminish To Zero?

Jacob addresses this last issue with clarity and focus. I urge Wild Ducks to read it. My response, below touches on both issues 3 and 4 in the impromptu list, above.


Sunset mining incentives—and also the absence of supporting fully anonymous transactions—are two serious deficiencies in Bitcoin today.
I am confident that both shortcomings will be successfully addressed and resolved.

Thoughts about Issues #3 and #4: [Disclosure] I sit on the board at CRYPSA and draft whitepapers and position statements.*

Blockchain Building: Dwindling Incentives

mining-incentive-02Financial incentives for miners can be replaced by non-financial awards, such as recognition, governance, gaming, stakeholder lotteries, and exchange reputation points. I am barely scratching the surface. Others will come up with more creative ideas.

Last year, at the 2015 MIT Bitcoin Expo, Keynote speaker Andreas Antonopoulos expressed confidence that Bitcoin will survive the sunset of miner incentives. He proposed some novel methods of ongoing validation incentives—most notably, a game theory replacement. Of course, another possibility is the use of very small transaction fees to continue financial incentives.

Personally, I doubt that direct financial incentives—in the form of microcash payments— will be needed. Ultimately, I envision an ecosystem in which everyone who uses Bitcoin to buy, sell, gift, trade, or invest will avoid fees while creating fluidity—by sharing the CPU burden. All users will validate at least one Blockchain transaction for every 5 transactions of their own.

Today, that burden is complex by design, because it reflects increasing competition to find a diminishing cache of unmined coins. But without that competition, the CPU overhead will be trivial. In fact, it seems likely that a validation mechanism could be built into every personal wallet and every mobile device app. The potential for massive crowd-sourced scrutiny has the added benefit of making the blockchain more robust: Trusted, speedy, and resistant to attack.

Transaction Privacy & Anonymity

Bitcoin’s lack of rock-solid, forensic-thwarting anonymity is a weak point that must ultimately be addressed. It’s not about helping criminals, it’s about liberty and freedoms. Detectives & forensic labs have classic methods of pursuing criminals. It is not our job to offer interlopers an identity, serial number and traceable event for every transaction.

Anonymity can come in one of three ways. Method #3 is least desirable:

  1. Add complex, multi-stage, multi-party mixing to every transaction—including random time delays, and parsing out fragments for real purchases and payments. To be successful, mixing must be ubiquitous. That is, it must be active with every wallet and every transaction by default. Ideally, it should even be applied to idle funds. This thwarts both forensic analysis mining-incentive-03and earnest but misguided attempts to create a registry of ‘tainted’ coins.
  2. Fork by consensus: Add anonymizing technology by copying a vetted, open source alt-coin
  3. Migrate to a new coin with robust, anonymizing tech at its core. To be effective, it must respect all BTC stakeholders with no other ownership, pre-mined or withheld distribution. Of course, it must be open, transparent and permissionless—with an opportunity and incentive for all users to be miners, or more specifically, to be bookkeepers.

That’s my opinion on the sunset of mining incentives and on transaction anonymity.
—What’s yours?


* Ellery Davies is co-chair of the Cryptocurrency Standards Asso-
  ciation. He was host and MC for the Bitcoin Event in New York.

Will The Blockchain Outlive Bitcoin?

I was asked to answer this question by an editor who—like Mike Hearn—presumes that Bitcoin will die because of the current forking crisis. I believe that the future for both Bitcoin and the Blockchain is bright, despite current issues related to mining, block size, a transaction bottleneck and code evolution. My thoughts on Bitcoin are sprinkled all throughout this Blog, and especially at Quora. And so, I shall direct an answer at the other half of the question. Let’s rephrase it:

“The Blockchain is gaining popular recognition and related investment is booming. Why is this happening now—eight years after it hit the scene inside Bitcoin?”

First, a brief refresher in the Blockchain-Bitcoin parentage…

Bitcoin is the original Blockchain implementation. But, significant controversy has arisen around Bitcoin.

  • Some proponents believe that it is money—and that it may even have the potential to replace national currencies and disrupt state controlled monetary institutions
  • Others feel that it is simply a mechanism to transmit money (like a debit card or a Western Union cash transfer)
  • Some armchair pundits see Bitcoin as brief economic fad, like the tulip bulb mania that swept over Holland in the 17th century
  • Still others see it as a criminal tool, with little potential to transform businesses or consumer habits

But there is far less controversy about the underlying technology. The Blockchain is a method of distributing a ledger across all users (or as many who care to participate) in a manner that validates historical transactions,blockchain-01 but requires no central nexus and is permissionless.

With sufficient user participation, the blockchain offers advantages to complex transaction systems:

  • high user confidence (i.e. among customers, voters, taxpayers,
    land owners, patients, scientists, etc)
  • low cost
  • increased trust
  • robust data retention (i.e. distributed, fault tolerant storage)
  • security from hacking
  • resistance against human error or natural disaster
  • quick data extraction and ongoing auditing

These are compelling advantages for almost any transaction system designer. And so, all manner of financial institutions, genetic researchers, voting system designers, and, of course, bookkeepers, blockchain_logoaccountants or data aggregators, are rushing to exploit the potential for improving their business model by incorporating a blockchain into their design methodology.

This answers the question—But, allow me to add a caveat, because there is a catch—at least until a more universal understanding spreads across the community…

The Catch

The blockchain is still a new concept. It was introduced along with Bitcoin in a 2008 Whitepaper by an anonymous cryptographer. Because it is so new, pundits, process designers and investors must be very astute in implementing or justifying the use of a blockchain based architecture. If they aren’t, early investors or system users will likely feel that they are being sucked into another tulip bulb mania.

In a recent article, I explain that to qualify as a Blockchain (and, thereby, to convey the benefits listed above), a database design must embody 5 key concepts. It must be:

  • Open-source
  • Fully distributed among all users.
  • Any user can also be a node to the ledger
  • Permissionless to all users and data originators
  • Access from anywhere data is generated or analyzed

The article is brief, but the punchline should be gospel for anyone thinking of implementing a blockchain-based system. Here is the spoiler:

A blockchain is practically worthless if it is not both open source and permissionless.

Yet, it is these two design elements that many rushing to stake a claim refuse to embrace. That’s because the desire to retain a proprietary interest or to ‘own the books’ is very alluring. It is built into our business DNA. For the past 40 years, business schools teach that controlling data is the key to profits. We have been taught that blockchain-02losing control over data leads to lapses in security or losing the edge over competitors.

For commercial ventures, it seems reasonable that releasing control or outright ownership of critical business data would undermine the value of a service or system. For complex government systems, transparency and loss of control would seem to weaken public security.

On the contrary! Although the Blockchain is not appropriate for every data storage system or transaction processing mechanism, partial blockchains are charlatans (i.e. systems that embody distributed storage, but are not both open source and permissionless). They do not achieve the benefits that designers are chasing.

Without a network that is fully distributed among its users as well as permissionless, open-source and readily accessible, a blockchain becomes a blockchain in name only. It bestows few benefits to its creator, none to its users—certainly none of the dramatic perks that have generated media buzz from the day Satoshi hit the headlines.

Related:

Is a Blockchain a Blockchain if it Isn’t?

Anyone who has heard of Bitcoin knows that it is built on a mechanism called The Blockchain. Most of us who follow the topic are also aware that Bitcoin and the blockchain were unveiled—together—in a whitepaper by a mysterious developer, under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.

That was eight years ago. Bitcoin is still the granddaddy of all blockchain-based networks, and most of the others deal with alternate payment coins of one type or another. Since Bitcoin is king, the others are collectively referred to as ‘Altcoins’.

But the blockchain can power so much more than coins and payments. And so—as you might expect—investors are paying lots of attention to blockchain startups or blockchain integration into existing services. Not just for payments, but for everything under the sun.

Think of Bitcoin as a product and the blockchain as a clever network architecture that enables Bitcoin and a great many future products and institutions to do more things—or to do these things better, cheaper, more robust and more blockchain-01secure than products and institutions built upon legacy architectures.

When blockchain developers talk about permissionless, peer-to-peer ledgers, or decentralized trust, or mining and “the halving event”, eyes glaze over. That’s not surprising. These things refer to advantages and minutiae in abstract ways, using a lexicon of the art. But—for many—they don’t sum up the benefits or provide a simple listing of products that can be improved, and how they will be better.

I am often asked “What can the Blockchain be used for—other than digital currency?” It may surprise some readers to learn that the blockchain is already redefining the way we do banking and accounting, voting, land deeds and property registration, health care proxies, genetic research, copyright & patents, ticket sales, and many proof-of-work platforms. All of these things existed in the past, but they are about to serve society better because of the blockchain. And this impromptu list barely scratches the surface.

I address the question of non-coin blockchain applications in other articles. But today, I will focus on a subtle but important tangent. I call it “A blockchain in name only”

Question: Can a blockchain be a blockchain if it is controlled by the issuing authority? That is, can we admire the purpose and utility, if it was released in a fashion that is not open-source, fully distributed—and permissionless to all users and data originators?

A Wild Duck Answer (Unmask Charlatans):
Many of the blockchains gaining attention from users and investors are “blockchains” in name only. So, what makes a blockchain a blockchain?

Everyone knows that it entails distributed storage of a transaction ledger. But this fact alone could be handled by a geographically redundant, cloud storage service. The really beneficial magic relies on other traits. Each one applies to Bitcoin, which is the original blockchain implementation:

blockchain_logo▪Open-source
▪Fully distributed among all users.
▪ Any user can also be a node to the ledger
▪Permissionless to all users and data originators
▪Access from anywhere data is generated or analyzed

A blockchain designed and used within Santander Bank, the US Post Office, or even MasterCard might be a nifty tool to increase internal redundancy or immunity from hackers. These potential benefits over the legacy mechanism are barely worth mentioning. But if a blockchain pretender lacks the golden facets listed above, then it lacks the critical and noteworthy benefits that make it a hot topic at the dinner table and in the boardroom of VCs that understand what they are investing in.

Some venture financiers realize this, of course. But, I wonder how many Wall Street pundits stay laser-focused on what makes a blockchain special, and know how to ascertain which ventures have a leg up in their implementations.

Perhaps more interesting and insipid is that even for users and investors who are versed in this radical and significant new methodology—and even for me—there is a subtle bias to assume a need for some overseer; a nexus; a trusted party. permissioned-vs-permissionlessAfter all, doesn’t there have to be someone who authenticates a transaction, guarantees redemption, or at least someone who enforces a level playing field?

That bias comes from our tendency to revert to a comfort zone. We are comfortable with certain trusted institutions and we feel assured when they validate or guarantee a process that involves value or financial risk, especially when dealing with strangers. A reputable intermediary is one solution to the problem of trust. It’s natural to look for one.

So, back to the question. True or False?…

In a complex value exchange with strangers and at a distance, there must be someone or some institution who authenticates a transaction, guarantees redemption, or at least enforces the rules of engagement (a contract arbiter).

Absolutely False!

No one sits at the middle of a blockchain transaction, nor does any institution guarantee the value exchange. Instead, trust is conveyed by math and by the number of eyeballs. Each transaction is personal and validation is crowd-sourced. More importantly, with a dispersed, permissionless and popular blockchain, transactions are more provably accurate, more robust, and more immune from hacking or government interference.

What about the protections that are commonly associated with a bank-brokered transaction? (For example: right of rescission, right to return a product and get a refund, a shipping guaranty, etc). These can be built into a blockchain transaction. That’s what the Cryptocurrency Standards Association is working on right now. Their standards and practices are completely voluntary. Any missing protection that might be expected by one party or the other is easily revealed during the exchange set up.

For complex or high value transactions, some of the added protections involve a trusted authority. blockchain-02But not the transaction itself. (Ah-hah!). These outside authorities only become involved (and only tax the system), when there is a dispute.

Sure! The architecture must be continuously tested and verified—and Yes: Mechanisms facilitating updates and scalability need organizational protocol—perhaps even a hierarchy. Bitcoin is a great example of this. With ongoing growing pains, we are still figuring out how to manage disputes among the small percentage of users who seek to guide network evolution.

But, without a network that is fully distributed among its users as well as permissionless, open-source and readily accessible, a blockchain becomes a blockchain in name only. It bestows few benefits to its creator, none to its users—certainly none of the dramatic perks that have generated media buzz from the day Satoshi hit the headlines.

Related:

Ellery Davies is co-chair of The Cryptocurrency Standards Association,
host & MC for The Bitcoin Event and editor at A Wild Duck.

Bitcoin Pundicy: Recent Wrap-Up

Students: The list at bottom is your homework handout. Choose three. Refute
Ellery’s position (total length about equal to the original article). Cite references.

AWildDuck is my primary soap box. Here, I have the luxury of pontificating on whatever screams for a pithy opinion with sarcastic spin. But, regular readers know that I was recently named most viewed Bitcoin writer at Quora…

Quora is not a typical Blog. Both questions and the numerous answers form the basis of a crowd-sourced popularity contest. Readers can direct questions to specific experts or armchair analysts. The reader voting algorithm leads to the emergence of some very knowledgeable answers, even among laypersons and ‘armchair’ experts.

During the past few weeks, Quora readers asked me a litany of queries about Bitcoin and the blockchain, and so I am sharing selected Q&A. Although a pundit, I resist an urge to be verbose or bombastic. My answers are not the shortest, but they are compact. Answers may contain metaphors, but they explain across a broad audience and with the fewest words.

Check out an answer to a question that you know the least about. (For example, do you know what the coming ‘halving event’ is about?). I would be interested in your opinion.


Ellery Davies is co-chair of Cryptocurrency Standards Association. He hosted
The Bitcoin Event and moderates the largest LinkedIN cryptocurrency group.

What is a Blockchain?

This short post is not about Bitcoin. It’s about a new method of organizing and arbitrating communications that is at the heart of Bitcoin.

We hear a lot about the blockchain. We also hear a lot of misconceptions about its purpose and benefits. Some have said that it represents a threat to banks or to governments. Nonsense! It is time for a simple, non-political, and non-economic definition…

What is a Blockchain?

A blockchain is a distributed approach to bookkeeping. Because it opens and distributes the ledger among all participants, it offers an empowering, efficient and trusted way for disparate parties to reach consensus. It is “empowering”, because conclusions built on a blockchain can be constructed in a way that is inherently fair, transparent and resistant to manipulation.

This is why blockchain-backed systems are generating excitement. Implemented as distributed and permissionless, they take uncertainty out of accounting, voting, legislation or research, and replace it with trust and security. Benefits are bestowed without the need for central authority or arbitration. The blockchain not only solves a fundamental transaction challenge, it addresses communication and arbitration problems that have bedeviled thinkers since the ancient Egyptians.

Related:

—Ellery Davies, CRYPSA Co-chair
Cryptocurrency Standards Association