A Brief History of Blockchain Name Systems

This past weekend I attended the Aaron Swartz Day Hackathon at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. This event, which celebrates the life and work of Aaron Swartz, is organized in multiple cities around the world every year around the time of Aaron’s birthday (November 8). Since 2015, I have been attending the SF event and giving variations of a talk about blockchain name systems.

Here’s the description of this year’s talk:

Aaron Swartz once published a blog post entitled “Squaring the Triangle“, hypothesizing that a blockchain could be used to create a name system that had secure, decentralized, and human-readable names, thus “squaring” Zooko’s Triangle.

Since that post was published, numerous blockchain name systems have been developed, putting Aaron’s idea into practice. This talk will give a brief overview of the most popular blockchain name systems in production and show some of their applications.

Systems covered include Namecoin (the OG BNS), Blockstack, and the Ethereum Name System. Without further adieu, here’s a video of my talk from Aaron Swartz Day 2017 Day 2, A Brief History of Blockchain Name Systems.

Aaron was an incredibly inspiring individual, and it was a great honor to be invited to speak at this special event celebrating and building on his legacy. If you have a chance to attend one of these events in a city near you, I encourage you to go and participate!

RIP Aaron Swartz, you are gone but not forgotten.


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Bitcoin as the Trust Layer of the internet

In today’s era of ICOs, appcoins, and “permissioned blockchains”, I am often asked about what I think about the future of bitcoin. Will it still be relevant in 20 years? Will it ever be used as anything but “digital gold”? I believe the answer is “yes” to both of these questions.

Get you a blockchain that does both

First to answer the question “will bitcoin ever be used as anything but ‘digital gold’?” This idea of bitcoin as “digital gold” has been embedded in the minds of Bitcoiners since the beginning when bitcoin mining was first analogized to the process of gold mining, and the inflation curve was compared with the rate of gold production. Since then, however, this analogy has created what I see as an artificial and unnecessary debate about whether bitcoin is “digital gold” or “electronic cash”. The answer is that bitcoin is both.

Bitcoin the token is like a digital form of gold. The supply is limited, it gets harder to mine over time, and it’s valuable for monetary, industrial, and creative uses. At the same time, bitcoin transactions work a lot more like cash than a credit card payment. Transactions are expensive to reverse once confirmed, requiring a certain amount of computational “force” to pry coins out of the wallet of a recipient. And with the activation of Segregated Witness just weeks away, it will soon be possible to send bitcoin transactions worth fractions of a cent. Try that with the physical cash!

Beyond bitcoin as money

The feature that makes bitcoin valuable as both “digital gold” and “electronic cash” is the security or immutability of the blockchain. The computational guarantee that transactions are expensive to reverse provides a solid foundation upon which many useful applications and “Layer 2” protocols are being built. For example, enterprises are recording hashes in the blockchain to create verifiable timestamps for valuable datasets, and engineers are registering domain name records on the blockchain to create a more secure web architecture.

Despite snickers from veteran Bitcoiners over the “blockchain not bitcoin” rhetoric that dominated the FinTech press cycles in 2015, it turns out that both camps were off the mark. Permissioned blockchains are beginning to show real utility as auditable, cryptographically-secured, shared ledgers of record between disparate parties in given industries or business ecosystems. But to really gain the benefits of the blockchain, operators of these permissioned systems are realizing that they need a common “trust layer” that can be used to resolve disputes over conflicting transaction histories.

Thus we come full circle as “blockchain not bitcoin” becomes “blockchain with bitcoin”. The bitcoin blockchain is beginning to fill that need for a neutral “trust layer” upon which distributed applications and shared ledgers are being built. Developers are beginning to “anchor” snapshots of their databases into the bitcoin blockchain so that they can compare histories over time and catch any discrepancies in their records. They are also utilizing bitcoin’s Layer 2 protocols to create secure PKI and payment systems for their applications. It’s looking more and more like there will be many blockchains secured by bitcoin.

The bitcoin network of blockchains and applications

In the not-so-distant future we will see hundreds of blockchains processing trillions of transactions and thousands of applications with billions of users, all secured by bitcoin. There will be machines sending each other nanopayments for bits of information or joules of electricity, people transferring money overseas and across the internet, and applications anchoring data to and retrieving verifiable information from the blockchain.

These interactions will happen across layers of protocols that form fractal networks to enable robust and scalable application ecosystems. Sidechains and interoperability protocols like Interledger will enable trust-minimized transfers of bitcoin across different blockchains, each with their own unique features and applications. For example, people will be able to pay for Turing-complete smart contracts with bitcoin on the Rootstock sidechain, and the Liquid sidechain will enable faster, more discreet transfers of bitcoin between exchanges and wallets. The days of using altcoins for anything but pump and dumps and niche experiments will be a distant memory.

Keep It Simple, Silly

The reasons why I believe bitcoin will be the Trust Layer of the internet and not a competing open blockchain are twofold:

  1. Bitcoin already has a massive network effect, giving it a strong lead over competitors, and
  2. The bitcoin blockchain is relatively simple, which is great from a security perspective. As computer security expert Bruce Schneier has said, “Complexity is the worst enemy of security.”

The most obvious runner-up for the “Trust Layer of the Internet” title is ethereum, a cryptocurrency that has an impressive amount of hype for how unstable the network is. To its credit, ethereum is still very much a work in progress, and the hype is mostly due to overzealous startups and crowdsale investors than any concerted effort on the part of the core development team. That said, while ethereum seems to have the potential to catch up to bitcoin’s network effect, by its very nature it will never compare when it comes to simplicity.

I believe that the Trust Layer of the internet demands the simplicity of bitcoin’s limited scripting language, because it is much easier to reason about when analyzing the security properties of the system. With ethereum, it is fundamentally impossible to know whether or not a contract will be deployed that could crash the nodes in the network since anything is possible with a Turing-complete scripting language.

My personal view on this is that if you need Turing-complete contracts, you can use a sidechain or permissioned blockchain for that. Then if there’s a problem, it doesn’t damage the Trust Layer, the problem is isolated to the other blockchain. The same goes for any other experimental, novel, or exotic blockchain use-case.

Due to the costs of transacting on open and decentralized blockchains at-scale, most people will choose to transact off-chain anyways. Since the scripts required to support a range of off-chain transaction security models are relatively simple, it’s reasonable to conclude that bitcoin is “good enough” to serve as the Trust Layer upon which everything else is built.

My vision for the bitcoin application stack

After watching the evolution of bitcoin and the blockchain technology ecosystem over the last few years, the stack of protocols and services that developers are using to build the next generation of digital applications is becoming more clear to me. It looks something like this:

Bitcoin as the Trust Layer of the internet

Of course, developers won’t have to use each “brick” or even each layer in the stack when building their applications. But each component will be available for building centralized and decentralized applications alike, and at the bottom of the stack sits the Trust Layer, the decentralized arbiter of truth and justice – the bitcoin blockchain.


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46 Days to SegWit: Growing Consensus in the Bitcoin Economy

You can read previous posts in this series here and here. You can find my guide about how to enforce the BIP148 UASF with your Electrum bitcoin wallet here. For templates that you can use to fill-in-the-blank and request that your favorite economic nodes and mining pools support the BIP148 UASF, scroll to the bottom of this post.

A lot has happened since last week’s blog post about the BIP148 UASF. Bitmain, the largest ASIC miner manufacturer, released their “contingency plan” for a “User Activated Hard Fork” in case the BIP148 UASF activates before the Segwit2x soft fork. The way I read this is that Bitmain is willing to do whatever it takes to avoid activating SegWit, which is quite surprising given that less than a month ago they signed the Segwit2x agreement to activate SegWit. If Bitmain would just signal for SegWit via BIP141 now, that would go a long way towards preventing a chain split on August 1. But I digress.

In more positive news, bitcoin developer James Hilliard submitted a pull request to the Segwit2x GitHub repository yesterday with code that attempts to make the Segwit2x deployment compatible with BIP148. While it’s not as good a solution as it would have been to make the proposal compatible from the start, this is likely the next best thing at this juncture. For that, I thank James for making the effort.

Continuing the theme of support for SegWit and BIP148, several important economic nodes have recently announced their support, undoubtedly thanks to the many supporters who have voiced their preference in public and private messages. These economic nodes include Ledger, a hardware wallet manufacturer, and the team behind Bitsquare, a decentralized exchange application. You can learn more about the growing support for SegWit and BIP148 among developers and economic nodes on this page of the bitcoin wiki.

If you support the BIP148 UASF, you should contact the folks behind your favorite wallets and exchanges if you haven’t already and ask them to enforce the BIP148 UASF. You can find fill-in-the-blank templates to do this at the bottom of the post here.

Since last week’s blog post I was also invited onto three different YouTube shows to discuss SegWit and the BIP148 UASF. You can watch these episodes below:

Hungarian Crypto Show

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmtaQ55AZac

This Week in Bitcoin

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wiWWQKswuY

Bitcoin News #42

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXxW5wyeGrk


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How to enforce the BIP148 UASF with the Electrum bitcoin wallet

During a recent interview I did on This Week In Bitcoin, I was asked how to enforce the BIP148 UASF with the Electrum bitcoin wallet. I didn’t have a quick answer at the time so I decided to write up this guide.

Here are some easy instructions for how to do that:

(You can skip to step 3 if you already have the Electrum bitcoin wallet installed.)

Step 1. Install Electrum

Step 2. Create a new wallet and save your master seed in a safe place. You can also hook up your hardware wallet if you have one. [Ledger] [Trezor]

Step 3. In the menu bar click Tools -> Network

Step 4. Uncheck “Select server automatically”, paste electrum.satoshiportal.com into the Server field, then click OK.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 12.57.56 AM

That’s it! The wallet is now talking to a server run by Francis Pouliot that will automatically enforce BIP148 for you. Use this wallet for all of your transactions to ensure that your wallet is enforcing BIP148. If you’re really tech-savvy you can also run your own Electrum server and configure it to enforce BIP148 for you.

WARNING: In the event that neither the economic nor hashpower majority supports BIP148 by August 1, you should undo the steps taken here to enforce BIP148. You can do that by checking the “Select server automatically” box on the Network page as in Step 3 above. If you don’t check this box, you could end up transacting on a minority blockchain after August 1, and your transactions will be at risk of getting reversed.

If you want to better protect your privacy when using Electrum, then on the Network screen select “SOCKS5” proxy on localhost port 9150 then click OK. Close Electrum then open Tor on your computer. Restart Electrum and it should sync with the Electrum server over Tor. Make sure whenever you use Tor with Electrum that you start Tor BEFORE you open Electrum and close Tor AFTER you close Electrum.

For more info about the BIP148 UASF you can read through these posts and the links contained therein:

https://lightco.in/2017/06/02/segwit-uasf/

https://lightco.in/2017/06/09/no-chain-split/


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The problem Bitcoin solves

The problem that Bitcoin solves is the reversibility of electronic payments. In the seminal Bitcoin whitepaper, Satoshi Nakamoto wrote,

Commerce on the Internet has come to rely almost exclusively on financial institutions serving as trusted third parties to process electronic payments…

Completely non-reversible transactions are not really possible, since financial institutions cannot avoid mediating disputes…

With the possibility of reversal, the need for trust spreads… A certain percentage of fraud is accepted as unavoidable.

These costs and payment uncertainties can be avoided in person by using physical currency, but no mechanism exists to make payments over a communications channel without a trusted party.

The solution that Nakamoto devised to solve the problem of reversible payments was,

… an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party.

Transactions that are computationally impractical to reverse would protect sellers from fraud, and routine escrow mechanisms could easily be implemented to protect buyers.

The result was Bitcoin, which has continued to deliver as a solution to the reversibility problem since it went live over eight years ago. The means by which Nakamoto solved the reversibility problem was by eliminating the need for a trusted third party that could willingly or unwillingly reverse transactions. In place of a trusted third party, Nakamoto used a chain of cryptographically-signed transactions secured by proof-of-work to order and validate payments. And thus, the blockchain was born.

pow

Today, the blockchain is used to securely order and validate more than just payments. People have figured out how to use the blockchain as a way to prove that a digital file existed at a certain point in time, creating a so-called “proof-of-existence“. People are also exploring how to use the blockchain to track ownership of all kinds of digital assets including domain names, game tokens, stocks and other financial instruments, and even real property titles.

The reason that people are using Bitcoin for these transactions instead of any other system for recording ownership information is precisely because of Bitcoin’s security. At the time of this writing, Bitcoin block makers, or “miners”, collectively calculate over 30 billion SHA-256 hashes per second at a cost of approximately $15,000 per block using hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin “mining” computers. It would thus be extremely expensive to reverse a transaction with even one confirmation, ensuring strong security for transactions that are included in a block added to the most difficult valid blockchain.

For users to benefit from all this security, they must run their own full node and verify that their transactions are included in the most difficult valid blockchain. Then they can decide based on their risk preferences when to consider their payments “settled” based on how many confirmations they have. The more confirmations a given transaction has, the less likely it is to be reversed.

If you need strong assurances that when you receive a payment, that it can’t be easily reversed, then Bitcoin can solve your problem. If you need to be certain that when you create a record of ownership or proof-of-existence, that it will still be there when you go back to find it in ten years, then Bitcoin can solve your problem.  But if your problem doesn’t need sealed-in-stone-forever security, and you can get away with using a plain old database to record your transactions, then Bitcoin – and the blockchain – isn’t for you.

Addendum: what about bitcoin (the currency)?

When Satoshi created Bitcoin, he really created two distinctly valuable products that by necessity are joined at the hip: the first blockchain, and the first cryptocurrency. If the blockchain was created to solve the reversibility problem, then bitcoin was created to solve the blockchain’s incentive problem.

The proofs-of-work that are used to secure the blockchain require energy to create, and energy costs money. Since Bitcoin could not rely on any third parties to operate, no third party payment mechanism could be used to pay miners for the energy they spent generating proofs-of-work. A new payment mechanism had to be created – bitcoin.

By paying miners using a currency that is issued and transferred exclusively by the blockchain, Nakamoto provided an incentive to miners to protect the integrity of the chain. If any miners attempt to subvert the integrity of the blockchain by colluding to reverse transactions, then they would also subvert the value of the block reward, throwing away money on the table and threatening their investment in specialized mining computers.

The bitcoin currency therefore ensures that incentives are aligned between miners and users so that the implicit promise of irreversibility is upheld. Even after all the bitcoin is mined, miners will continue to prefer to be paid in bitcoin for transaction fees because it is a highly liquid digital asset free of counterparty risk.

Although bitcoin solves interesting problems on its own – such as providing a new “safe-haven” asset class to investors – its value is derived entirely from the security of the blockchain and the ability for users to easily verify that security. Without these properties, bitcoin as a currency would be no more interesting than WoW Gold or Linden Dollars. It’s important to remember that bitcoin is a means to an end, and not the end itself: an irreversible electronic payment system.


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Getting artists paid

Last week I had the honor and pleasure of joining my friends Tatiana Moroz and Josh Scigala (with Brian Sovryn on tech) for a discussion on The Tatiana Show about Intellectual Property (IP) with Jeffrey Tucker and Justin Colletti. You can watch the full conversation here:

I had a chance to say most of what I wanted to say about IP during the discussion but ran short on time to discuss potential solutions for how to get artists paid in the absence of IP protection. While I did briefly mention what I see as perhaps the the simplest ways that artists have monetized their work without relying on IP – live performances, private lessons, and selling physical merchandise – there are other more interesting and experimental ways for artists to monetize their creative works that have only just recently become possible or scalable thanks to the internet.

Indiegogo

One of the most popular ways for artists to monetize their content is crowdfunding using a platform like Indiegogo. Indiegogo allows artists to fund projects by posting previews of their work and creating different “levels” of backing so that people who contribute money to the project can get special features or experiences in addition to a copy of the work being produced. For example, a $5 backer of a music album could get a thank you card personally signed by the artist, a $30 backer could get a signed copy of the album, a $100 backer could get a signed copy of the album plus tickets to any show on an upcoming tour, etc etc.

Since an artist gets paid up-front before the album is actually created, there’s no risk of losing money on producing the album. All money earned after the album is produced is pure profit. Subsequent runs of the physical album or CD could be crowdfunded in this same way, so that there’s no chance of losing money on each production run either. An artist or group of artists could even fund a whole tour this way, by pre-selling tickets to the shows before committing to each venue. In this way, artists can test new markets with less risk of losing money. Crowdfunding is by no means perfect, but it’s a great way for artists to fund their work and develop closer relationships with their fans.

Patreon

There are few services that I can say that I love but Patreon is one of them. Patreon is like a combination of a crowdfunding platform and an art subscription service. The platform allows artists to set up profiles that people can subscribe to at different contribution levels. Each time the artist releases a new piece of art, subscribers’ credit cards are charged the amount of the level they subscribed to.

For example, if someone subscribes to the $5 level of an artist’s Patreon profile, then each time the artist produces a new piece of art, that subscriber will get charged $5. Patreon “patrons”, as subscribers are called, are often given access to special deals, events, and unique pieces of art not available to non-patrons, providing a level of exclusivity to the experience. Again, a great way for artists to fund their work while developing closer relationships with their fans.

ProTip

ProTip is a bitcoin wallet that automatically sends a tip at the end of every week to bitcoin addresses that were on the webpages you have visited. You can choose to exclude certain bitcoin addresses, webpages, or even entire websites so that you don’t accidentally send every bitcoin address on your favorite blockchain explorer a tip when the wallet runs its weekly program.

For example, if you visited ten different Soundcloud pages throughout the week, and seven of them had a bitcoin address in their profile description, then those seven artists would each receive a tip from your ProTip wallet at the end of the week as long as you have not chosen to exclude any of them. The wallet can tip a certain amount to each address e.g. 0.001 BTC per address, or divide a certain amount evenly between each address e.g. divide 0.007 BTC seven ways.

All an artist has to do to make their content “ProTip-ready” is paste one of their bitcoin addresses on each webpage that hosts their content – whether that’s a YouTube video, a Soundcloud profile, a Bandcamp page, or even their own website. Then, fans who have ProTip installed will automatically send the artist tips if they’re not excluded from the wallet. This is a frictionless, passive way for fans to support artists that only requires a browser extension and some bitcoin, with a small amount of effort to exclude unwanted bitcoin addresses.

Mediachain

From the Mediachain website:

Mediachain is a peer-to-peer, decentralized database for sharing information across applications and organizations… Using cryptography, all data in Mediachain stays connected to the identity of the author, offering a channel for attribution, analytics and value to flow directly.

With Mediachain, artists can ensure that their work gets proper attribution no matter what application is used to distribute it, even if the artists themselves are not the ones who uploaded their content. This way, artists can get credit for their work and get a slice of any revenues that get directed towards the work and the curator that is hosting it.

Y’alls

From the Y’alls website:

Read and write articles, with Lightning Network micropayments.

Get ready to start reading what people are writing or join in and write what people want to read!

With Y’alls, creators or curators can post content that consumers can then pay for using the bitcoin Lightning Network. Pay and get paid for content – what a novel idea!

In conclusion…

Being an artist has always been tough. Heck, being any kind of entrepreneur has always been tough. And yet, many have found ways to be successful at it. I would consider anyone who makes a living doing what they love a success. Since the popularization of the web, it seems that more artists than ever are able to make a living doing what they love. The long tail of content has become more accessible than ever, and with new payment methods like bitcoin it is now possible for anyone anywhere to show artists love by paying for the content they create. I look forward to seeing the innovation to come in technology that helps artists get paid, and eagerly await the day when IP is no longer a hindrance on creativity and the sharing of artistic content.

Honorable mentions

Flattr, a micropayments platform.

Lighthouse, a p2p crowdfunding platform.

Rocketr, an easy way to sell digital products.

Supload, monetize images and gifs.

Tatiana Coin, a digital currency used to crowdfund Tatiana Moroz’s music.


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New year, new job

Yesterday I published a post on the Abra blog announcing that I have joined the company to help “extend [cash on- and off-ramps for Bitcoin] globally.” Most of the details about why I made the decision to join Abra are in that post, but for my friends who I’m sure will have more questions, I’m putting together an FAQ to answer questions about the new job and how it affects other projects I’ve been working on.

Why Abra?

I really like the team and the company’s mission. As I mentioned in the post on Abra’s blog, I started the Buttonwood SF meetup to make it easy and safe for people in my local community to get cash in and out of the Bitcoin network, and now I’m excited to work with Abra to make that possible worldwide.

What will happen to Buttonwood SF?

I actually turned over control of the meetup page to a prominent local bitcoin trader a while ago because I was traveling a lot for work and figured he’d be a better steward. Eventually he stopped paying the meetup dues and no one else in the community stepped up to take over. So right now the meetup page is inactive. But some of the folks in the community still meet to trade, and in the future we might decide to either reactivate the meetup page or create a new online community portal somewhere else so people can easily find the meetup. If you have any interest in helping with this, please get in touch!

Are you still working with Bitseed?

Yep! Bitseed has been a passion project of mine since we first started, and I don’t intend to change that any time soon. We’re working on the next iteration of the Bitseed node now, mostly focused on finding new hardware that can increase the power of the node and new use-cases that can be served by having a personal server self-hosted at home. If you have any ideas or want to help out in any way, please get in touch! We’re especially looking for software devs who are interested in helping us with the Bitseed Web UI and working on new software for Bitseed 3. To stay up-to-date with all Bitseed developments, you can subscribe to our newsletter.

When is the next edition of Bitcoin: Be Your Own Bank coming out?

I can’t say for sure! I plan to re-write a lot of it and add a couple new chapters. I am waiting for a couple of projects to do their first public releases before adding them to the book. After that, it should only be a month or two before the Second Edition is ready to be published. So I anticipate it will be ready by the end of the year, at the latest. Subscribe to the BYOB blog for updates.

Are you still working with Blockstack?

Yep! I’m not as active in the community as I used to be, but I still hang out in the forum and Slack and eagerly await all the software releases that the Blockstack community is working on. There’s a lot of really cool stuff happening there and I encourage everyone to at least follow the Blockstack blog and Twitter account to get alerts for important Blockstack announcements – you won’t want to miss it!

Will you still be working with the okTurtles Foundation?

Yep! I plan to publish a follow-up to my blog post about open-source Slack alternatives, and am also looking forward to helping them test the first public release of the Group Income app. If you would like to help support the Foundation’s mission to support beneficial decentralized technology, we appreciate all donations and volunteers!

Fin

I think that answers all of the important questions I can think of. If you have any others, let me know!


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