Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Block-Chain of infinite mystery: What the hell is Bitcoin?

[Note: for my more recent article about bitcoin, see How to Explain Bitcoin to your Granny]

By now many people will have heard about Bitcoin. That’s the global, decentralised, online crypto-currency (check out this Wired Magazine article for some background). You can either buy it on online exchanges, or your can ‘mine’ it by running algorithms that are likely to cause your laptop to catch fire. You can then use it to buy things from vendors who’ll accept it, albeit Sainsbury’s still only accepts British Pounds. There are even mainstream currency traders who actively trade Bitcoin now.

I’ll bet all the Bitcoins I have though, that very few people actually understand what the hell Bitcoin is. I myself do not understand it. Try listen to this guy explain it, and feel your mind frazzle. More than anything, I have the sense that Bitcoin is a cult. A strange cybernetic cult. An anarchic techno-pirate, quasi-mystical collective on a dystopian mission to subvert the global monetary system. I guess that’s why it attracts me, but I’d still like to know exactly how it works.

The Blockchain
One thing I do know is that the Bitcoin network worships something called the BlockChain. I don’t really know what the blockchain is, but it exists on a huge global network of nodes. It all sounds a bit like the Matrix. My friend @Webisteme understands it, and he keeps trying to explain it to me. The other night we were at the Dogstar pub in Brixton and he said various complicated-sounding things like:

1) "It's almost like a section of the blockchain has my signature on it, and then I sign it with your name, and then the whole network agrees that we've done a transaction"
2) "The blockchain is on everyone's computer. The nodes compete to process the blockchain, to create the next piece, which then everyone has to validate again"
3) "The network is so powerful, you'd need at least 50% of the total processing power to override it, and not even the world's largest supercomputer can do that"

I'm not sure if I've quoted him correctly, but I mostly sat at the table and stared at him with a strong feeling of bewilderment. In the absence of a nuanced understanding of the currency though, I come up with my own rough analogy: "Riiight" I say, "So would you say it's a little bit like the Borg in Star Trek?"

Is Bitcoin the BORG?
If you’ve never seen the Star-Trek episodes with the Borg, you can check out clips on Youtube. The clips do have something of a negative spin on them, with the Borg being portrayed as an enormous sociopathic cube bent of destruction. The interesting thing about the Borg though, is that it's an entity which has no leader, its direction being rather a function of all the pieces that make it up. According to WikipediaThe Borg manifest as cybernetically-enhanced humanoid drones of multiple species, organized as an interconnected collective, the decisions of which are made by a hive-mind, linked by subspace radio frequencies.” It is perhaps most famous for the phrase “Resistance is futile”. The analogy with Bitcoin is apparent to see: Interconnected collective? Tick. Hive-mind? Tick. Linked by subspace radio frequencies? Hmm... well, I think it uses internet relay chat. Resistance is futile? Yep, the Feds can attack it, but it doesn't exist in one place so they'd have to attack all nodes at once to shut the system down. Wait a minute, Borg and Bitcoin even have two letters in common - a coincidence?

@Webisteme looks at me from the table. “Um… I guess it’s kind of like the Borg," he says, "The network is very resilient but we’re not really cybernetic drones. It’s mostly guys with big computer rigs and powerful graphics processing cards”.

The mojo of Nakamoto
What strikes me most about Bitcoin though, is how it’s managed to capture the imagination of its users. People cite various reasons why it’s powerful, including how it’s managed to overcome double-spending problems you find with other online currencies. To me though, the real source of its power comes from its mythical foundation story, involving the mysterious character of Satoshi Nakamoto.

Let me explain. Imagine a group of researchers at MIT said "Hey guys, we’ve invented a cool new crypto-currency that is decentralised and resilient. Do you want to try it?" Maybe some people would take them up on that, but it would have no mystery, no intrigue, no dark story about mafia and the CIA. Now imagine that instead of that, a mysterious dude with no traceable identity releases strange tracts onto the web, describing a new currency, and then disappears. That’s exactly what Satoshi did, and it’s the very mystery of his story that makes people want to take part in the first place. It gives the currency soul, and that’s crucial because currency that is not legally mandated needs to be imbued with soul in order to start working. That’s one reason why gold continues to be viewed as a valuable currency: It shines and you can’t really do anything with it, and for some reason humans take that to be a good indication that it has mystical quasi-religious properties worthy of being valued.

Satoshi Nakomoto basically created crypto-gold, and sent all the miners out to find it. He then departed the earth, leaving disciples such as Gavin Andresen to continue the work in his absence (check out this psychedelic video that visualises the activities of the original developers). The elite nature of that exercise is part of the appeal too. Everyone has the potential to get the crypto-gold, but only those who invest the most time and passion will actually do so. I mean, look at this fanatical maniac who will almost certainly burn his warehouse down with his Bitcoin rig. There’s something about the sheer absurdity of devoting huge amounts of computing power to something that has no physical existence which gives power and reality to the currency.

Getting my piece of the Blockchain

I've decided to buy Bitcoins. I want a file on my computer with a bunch of numbers, created by the mysterious hands of the miners, little keys to the blockchain. If only I could enter the network, jumping from computer to computer, navigating my way through the corridors of the blockchain right to the very core of the entity created by Satoshi Nakamoto himself… or herself… or themselves. I'm not sure I could do that, but I have set up an account on InterSango and have just purchased 3.986 Bitcoins at around £4.15 per coin. Now I need to work out what to do with them. Any ideas?

If you want to learn more about Bitcoin, you can go to the main site here. If you want to work on developing it yourself, check out the Sourceforge site here. If you want to see Bitcoin blocks as they’re created check out Blockexplorer, and if you want to monitor transactions as they occur see here. If you want some free Bitcoins, you can apparently get them from this kind Samaritan here. If you want to check out more general info, see WeUseCoins. Good luck, and keep me posted on how it goes.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Forget postage stamps, let's securitise the Queen

Yesterday's Jubilee caused great jubilation, or at least that's what BBC was saying. I kind of missed it, but I did think it was fitting to at least commemorate the occasion by writing a modest proposal in Bright Green Scotland, entitled Securitise the Queen.

I proposed that the British Government issue Monarch-backed securities. Here's a quote:

"Monarch-backed securities are innovative new financial instruments that will securitise the Queen, using her as collateral against which the government can borrow money... ...The technicalities of the monarch-backed sovereign debt could be ironed out fairly quickly. We put the Queen into an SPV (a special purpose vehicle, of financial crisis fame), which issues 20-year bonds to investors. The SPV is bankruptcy remote, which means that if the entity defaults, the investors can claim the Queen, but no government assets. Of course we tranche the returns: Risk-averse investors take the upper tranches, backed by the stable cash flows of the Queen’s ordinary tourist revenue. Hedge funds take the risky lower tranches, betting on the volatile residual returns from Royal event licensing rights, such as a wedding or funeral."

Indeed. The only reason I wrote this is because I'm South African, and South Africa is part of the Commonwealth, so apparently I have to have pledge alliegence to the Queen lest the British authorities revoke my visa. I suppose the proposal was slightly unorthodox, but I felt the Queen would take it in the right spirit.

I contacted the Crown office this morning for comment. The Queen was harbouring a cold, and couldn't chat on the phone, but she sent me an email saying: "One thinks that Mr Scott's proposal is very robust and laudable. One's only wish is that one's corgies get their own little SPVs".

Sure thing ma'am.