Ten pounds of what?
April 15, 2016 10:22 PM   Subscribe

 


The major issue I see with any kind of wide spread use of bitcoin as a currency is its lack of utility for most people relative to the risk. Unless you are trying do something very illegal online, there is relatively little you can do with bitcoin you can't do more simply with Euros or dollars. While it is possible to be scammed or have your identity stolen in any currency, it takes a nontrivial amount of technical skill to keep bitcoins secure at even a basic level. And if your credit card is stolen or your banker embezzles your funds you get reimbursed. The people who lost money in MtGox won't see a penny of it back. And most people aren't going to be thrilled to adopt a system whose earlier adopters included terrorists, pedophiles, drug dealers and gun runners. For bitcoin to succeed it would have to deal with the lack of oversight, at which point it becomes even less diztinguishable from other options.
posted by pattern juggler at 10:56 PM on April 15, 2016 [12 favorites]


I think bitcoin enthusiasts assume that tax evasion will eventually be the killer app.
posted by straight at 11:26 PM on April 15, 2016 [8 favorites]


The great advantage of the fei being made from this particular stone is that they’re impossible to counterfeit, because there’s none of the limestone on Yap.

It's ironic because the great disadvantage is that they had to waste a lot of people's time and productivity and energy to mine a product to use as currency.

Almost exactly like how the process of generating or mining Bitcoin numbers to use as currency is a similarly huge waste of energy, except on a scale appropriate to the the megawatts we consume in the 2100s, and with the downside that we also now have climate change to contend with, given the pollution that Bitcoin as a technology must necessarily generate.

But this does mean that an awful lot of energy is going to waste. It’s an ugly side effect to a system of great intellectual elegance.

That's debatable, but much as we don't exchange 12-foot diameter stones today to buy a loaf of bread, it is similarly unlikely we'll ever use Bitcoins tomorrow, for exactly the same logistical reasons, but just on an exponentially larger scale.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 11:39 PM on April 15, 2016 [4 favorites]


As always, for a reality-based counterpoint to bitcoin boosterism, please consult /r/buttcoin.

You can buy plane tickets, book hotel rooms, buy computer equipment, food and pretty much anything else with bitcoin, which is now accepted by tens of thousands of businesses.

Can anyone name ten non-bitcoin companies that the average person may have heard of (let's define that as a market cap of >$500 million) that actually directly accept bitcoin?

I think bitcoin enthusiasts assume that tax evasion will eventually be the killer app.

Ransomware, literal Ponzi schemes, child pornography, illicit drugs, and credit card laundering are bitcoin's killer apps. Currency of the future!
posted by kithrater at 12:00 AM on April 16, 2016 [7 favorites]


Top-notch article. Most understandable explanation of bitcoin I've ever read. Also helps me with articulating some ideas I have been brewing regarding the meaning of "money."

Thank you.
posted by yesster at 12:30 AM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


Once again it pays to remember that Bitcoin is a potentially outstanding replacement for cash that Tech-Bros have mistaken for an outstanding replacement for gold.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:45 AM on April 16, 2016 [11 favorites]


Fantastic article, by the way. Bitcoin has been a fairly interesting experiment to watch from a safe distance, especially since it seems unlikely to ever be A Thing on its own, but quite likely to lead to real things in the future.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:46 AM on April 16, 2016


DoctorFedora: In many ways, Bitcoin *is* digital gold. Like gold (or the Yap Fei Lanchester references in his article) a bitcoin represents an unforgeable guarantee of wasted energy. When you buy a chunk of gold, that gold represents the lost energy and labour used to mine it: that labour & energy can’t be re-used to mine another chunk of gold & there’s no other cheaper way to bring fresh gold into existence. In the same way a Bitcoin “stands in for” the energy spent to find the hash of the blocks that created it. That energy is lost for good & can’t be re-used for any other purpose, most especially it can’t be re-used to make more Bitcoin. Also like gold, Bitcoin is designed from the start to limit the total quantity in circulation.

The latter is one of the things that makes Bitcoin a *terrible* currency in the long term - it’s inherently deflationary & not a good foundation for a credit-money backed economy. Economists have been railing against the evils of the gold standard for more than a hundred years at this point & Bitcoin is no better.

Bitcoin is also a pretty poor replacement for cash. The minimum payment time is 10 minutes & right now with the lag in the system, transactions can take hours to go through. Cash is instant, because it’s a bearer bond - physical possession is sufficient to prove ownership for all reasonable purposes.
posted by pharm at 3:23 AM on April 16, 2016 [8 favorites]


I always wonder whether you could design a state-backed cryptocurrency managed in a distributed ledger to implement the exact opposite of anonymity and track individual units of currency en masse for various purposes.

Like if a company is found to have committed fraud or other criminal acts, instead of penalties and damages being taken out of the company's current assets, you could shave a tiny bit off of every unit of currency that was ever paid out by the company as profits. Or maybe the obligation would need to be transfered to the recipients of the profit or something like that, to preclude money laundering.

Trying to imagine how the complexities of that sort of thing would work reminds me of the "Economics 2.0" plot point in cstross's Accelerando science fiction novel, where an unaugmented human consciousness is no longer sophisticated enough cognitively to participate in the economy.
posted by XMLicious at 4:20 AM on April 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


so has the block size / transaction time problem been resolved? (it's mentioned very briefly in the article, but i thought it was a bigger problem)
posted by andrewcooke at 5:13 AM on April 16, 2016


It's ironic to read this piece while still thinking about the Panama Papers and the huge problem of people evading legal norms by trying to stash wealth in forms that the state can't reach. We can deal with the Panama Papers type situation by agreeing some international legal norms, but the bitcoin stuff seems to evade even that form of monitoring and regulation. I'm not a fan.
posted by Aravis76 at 5:20 AM on April 16, 2016


DoctorFedora: In many ways, Bitcoin *is* digital gold. Like gold (or the Yap Fei Lanchester references in his article) a bitcoin represents an unforgeable guarantee of wasted energy. When you buy a chunk of gold, that gold represents the lost energy and labour used to mine it: that labour & energy can’t be re-used to mine another chunk of gold & there’s no other cheaper way to bring fresh gold into existence. In the same way a Bitcoin “stands in for” the energy spent to find the hash of the blocks that created it. That energy is lost for good & can’t be re-used for any other purpose, most especially it can’t be re-used to make more Bitcoin. Also like gold, Bitcoin is designed from the start to limit the total quantity in circulation.

Every generation reinvents the labor theory of value, apparently.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:33 AM on April 16, 2016 [6 favorites]


"but the bitcoin stuff seems to evade even that form of monitoring and regulation. I'm not a fan."

Bitcoin is a public ledger that anybody can see.
posted by I-baLL at 7:20 AM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


I went to look at one the other day, in a café in Bermondsey. The ‘SatoshiPoint’ was at the back of the premises, past the blackboard where a flat white was labelled a ‘Fat Wife’, past the cats’-cradle of outstretched hipster legs and MacBook Air charging cables, past the merchandise table of coffee mugs with the slogan ‘Underneath your tattoos you’re still a mainstream cunt.’

The café in question seems to be Fuckoffee, which is the southern outpost of the Brick Lane Coffee mini-chain of vaguely Nathan Barleyesque cafés. It's popular with twenty- and thirty-something trendy tourists and people with MacBooks. To be fair, their coffee is not too bad, and £2.50 for a decent flat white is below the London average.
posted by acb at 7:22 AM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


An unregulated fiat currency run by techno-wonks is an interesting idea in theory, but I'd never use it in practice.

Once the hedge fund assholes got involved, I went from "this is interesting" to "Jesus H. Christ, I would't touch this thing with someone else's dick attached to the end of a thirty-foot cattle prod" overnight.
posted by SansPoint at 7:37 AM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


Proof-of-work is not particularly secure, cannot scale, and represents an environmental disaster if you try. An average bitcoin transaction uses as much electricity as 1.5 American homes use in a day!

In particular, Bitcoin mining does not create value merely because it earns money. All those hash computations are still completely worthless.

There is otoh nothing wrong with doing finance using blockchain like records, either transparent or pseudonymous, committed by notaries, like the banks are moving towards internally. Actually that's wonderful for preventing tax evasion, money laundering, etc.

At the same time, we can have real anonymity for smaller transactions using Chaum-style RSA blind signed token systems, which can be made taxable ala Taler.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:54 AM on April 16, 2016 [5 favorites]


This speaks to the first and loudest and most persistent doubt most civilians have about bitcoin: why on earth it has any value at all. The truthful answer – which concerns the arbitrary basis of all monetary value – tends not to reassure sceptics. What Silk Road provided was a proof which went beyond argument: it showed that it just does, OK?

Well, it showed that if your business is sufficiently sketchy that The Currencies That The Rest Of The World Uses are too dangerous to use, that some sort of barter system was a logical substitute and that bitcoin was the best solution for that. As long as members of the community accepted that they could buy their desirable contraband with the barterbucks they received when selling, it held up, but it could be bitcoins or quatloos or Flooz or Confederate dollars or Monopoly money stamped with ultraviolet watermarks of Emperor Norton's face.

Which is fine if everything you buy and sell is within that particular world. The trick is to get the people who have Real Money to want to trade that for bitcoins, and to reassure them that they can do the reverse when they want to and without hassle or delay. The Mt. Gox fiasco is just one of many indicators that it's not quite that simple.
posted by delfin at 9:14 AM on April 16, 2016


"the vampire’s quid" - superb.
posted by doctornemo at 12:51 PM on April 16, 2016 [4 favorites]


All those hash computations are still completely worthless.

I have this fantasy that, a year or two from now, we'll find out that Bitcoin was really developed because the hashes are useful for SETI or some other kind of actual problem.

Like most of finance these days, the chances that Bitcoin was intended to accomplish anything are pretty minimal. But one can hope....
posted by steady-state strawberry at 2:08 PM on April 16, 2016 [2 favorites]


Those hash functions were designed to do computations so far from anything analyzable that they're extremely unlikely to be useful.

It's extremely hard to do useful scientific work as a proof-of-work because, if you're working on the boundary of human knowledge, than you'll never know if some scientist found a better way to do it. In fact, there remains the threat of needing to change your algorithm rapidly even if you assume that all the best scientists in the world are honest.

There are proposed schemes like filecoin that require providing a social good such as storing files or onion routing traffic for other people. These are still vulnerable to the same x% attacks as bitcoin, and may still face scaling issues, but at least if you make the world a slightly nicer place when you help people share their photo albums, movie collections, etc. all behind strong cryptography.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:04 PM on April 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


a system whose earlier adopters included terrorists, ...

serious question: is there actual evidence of any significant use of bitcoin by terrorists?
posted by russm at 3:29 AM on April 17, 2016


serious question: is there actual evidence of any significant use of bitcoin by terrorists?

No. The best we get is stuff like this. Vice has been skeptical of this claim in the past.
posted by kithrater at 6:13 AM on April 17, 2016


This is a good article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:48 AM on April 17, 2016


I found this article quite frustrating to read, because many parts are just not quite correct technically, and other parts just strike me as slightly odd.
The profoundest mystery about the physical universe is that it is so intertwined with mathematics. Gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two objects. Why? Why does pi, essential in calculating the circumference of a circle, also prove essential to calculating the area of a circle: why is it an exact value, not just a rough guide or rule of thumb?
I don't think it at all suprising that pi is "essential to calculating the area of a circle". An area obviously must depend on the product of two distances, and two natural distances in the problem are the circumference and the radius. This is also clear if you visualise the area as the sum of concentric annuli of infinitessimal thickness, or as very thin sectors that can be stacked into something approximating a rectangle.

Consider his explanation of how cryptography works:
The effectiveness of cryptography in essence rests on a single truth about mathematics: that it is impossible to factorise prime numbers.
I think he means that it is difficult of find the prime factorisation of a number.

Also, whilst much widely-used asymmetric cryptography relies on prime factorisation being much harder than multiplication, elliptic curve cryptography depends instead on it being hard to find discrete logarithms, and a symemtric scheme such as a one-time pad doesn't rely on any computational process being hard to invert.
For any number, there is no way of working out if a smaller number divides into it, short of actually doing the calculation.
I assume "calculation" should be "division". Otherwise this is trivially true, as there's no difference in meaning between "working [it] out" and "doing the calculation".

But even with the change, the sentance is somewhat misleading, as I can rule out many possibilities without actually doing any division (e.g. I know that if a number doesn't end in a 5 or 0, then 5 cannot divide into it).
This might sound like a small point, but it means that when you have very long numbers – numbers that are hundreds or thousands of digits long – there is no way of breaking them down into factors other than by trying every smaller number and seeing if it fits. With very very big numbers, that process is, in practice, impossibly time-consuming.
This is not true - there are better algorithms. However, factorization is still hard.
"The hash function takes a stream of information of any length and turns it into a unique set of letters and numbers, of a fixed length"
Given a fixed length, there are only a finite number of strings of that length, so it is clearly impossible to assign each of the infinitely many "stream[s] of information of any length" onto a unique string of the fixed length.
"Every computer in the world linked together could not reverse the encryption [referring to a hash of Ulysses]".
Hashing is generally not referred to as encryption for precisely this reason - there's no corresponding decryption process.
Dread Pirate Roberts had completely lost his marbles.
Commissioning the assasination of people who might inform on you is certaintly morally reprehensible, but I don't think it constitutes evidence of insanity.
And yet this detail stuck with me: he and his co-investors store their bitcoin keys in an offline laptop stored in a safe deposit box. No other form of computer storage is sufficiently secure. If those are the lengths you have to go to in order to defend yourself from crooks, what does that say about the safety of the cryptocurrency?
What lengths would you go to secure a few million dollars worth of gold or cash from theft?

Just as bitcoin derives its security by "wasting" energy in (metaphorically) mining, the security of cash is also derived from processes that are wasteful of energy (literally mining the metal for coins, minting coins/printing notes, secure cash-transit, physically securing and guarding bank vaults, etc.).
posted by James Scott-Brown at 12:31 PM on April 17, 2016 [2 favorites]


The pi thing would seem to be a handwavy reference to the sort of ideas discussed in "The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences".
posted by XMLicious at 12:52 PM on April 17, 2016


I found this article quite frustrating to read, because many parts are just not quite correct technically, and other parts just strike me as slightly odd.

Some of them read like either the intervention of an editor whose beat is not technical writing (and I imagine editors at the LRB aren't guaranteed to be up to speed with mathematics) or a simplification that gets the gist across, if skipping out the exact details (which would have required a technical digression which would add little to the point of the article). I wouldn't expect anything more technically precise in such a piece aimed at giving an overview of the implications of Bitcoin and the blockchain to a non-technical audience.
posted by acb at 2:52 PM on April 17, 2016


I would. While its still a great article, it's a shame LRB didn't organise to review this better. Some replacements could have it made it both well written and technically correct, without losing brevity.
posted by iotic at 4:32 PM on April 20, 2016


The final piece to this is the invention of the central bank, with the foundation of the Bank of England in 1694.

just a nitpick! sweden's riksbank "is the world's oldest central bank..."

In return for lending the sovereign a great deal of gold, in the first instance to build a navy to fight the French, the Bank of England acquired the right to print paper money. That paper money could then be used by ordinary people to pay their taxes. It’s at this point that banks, money and the modern state become fused together. The money system and the banks and the state are all in effect aspects of one another: a triple-headed monster, like Cerberus.

for a great (fictional fantasy!) treatment of this check out daniel abraham's dagger & coin series, specifically the penultimate widow's house and the finale spider's war, which i'm still reading :P

I always wonder whether you could design a state-backed cryptocurrency managed in a distributed ledger to implement the exact opposite of anonymity and track individual units of currency en masse for various purposes.

-"Ironically, killer app of blockchains may not be anonymity but traceability."*
-Why Financial Regulators Are Warming to Blockchains – And Rightfully So

viz.
-Billion dollar Bangladesh hack: SWIFT software hacked, no firewalls, $10 switches
-Finance bods SWIFT to update after Bangladesh hack
-Swift Hack Is a Story of Globalization and Poverty

also btw...
-Ethereum, a Virtual Currency, Enables Transactions That Rival Bitcoin's
-Against Technological Determinism: Blockchains and Encryption
-The Priests, the Temples and the Blockchain Clearing Systems

cf.
-Is there a new Plaza Accord?
-A 21st century gold standard

oh and (for my money ;) keep an eye out on india's aadhaar program...
Running India: Domesday 2.0 - "A technological blueprint for better government"
IN A month or so, India will have registered a billion residents—the latest stage in the creation of a complete identity database of what will soon be the world’s most populous country. Aadhaar, which means “foundation” in Hindi, matches names with fingerprints and iris scans on a scale that has never been seen before. Reimagining government with such technology at its core will be key to meeting the mounting aspirations of India’s citizens, according to two of the scheme’s architects, Nandan Nilekani and Viral Shah. If the Domesday Book, an 11th-century survey of England, was commissioned to raise funds for government, Aadhaar’s most useful purpose is to help their disbursement... It allows the government to pay benefits directly to over 200m bank accounts linked to its database, so cutting out layers of corrupt and inept middlemen.
posted by kliuless at 1:56 AM on April 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on May 8, 2016 [1 favorite]


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