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What’s Worrying/Exciting about Bitcoin in 2017

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Looking forward into the next year and more of bitcoin, I see three main areas of concern, each related to the other. Let’s look at the problems, and the work going on to solve them.

  • Fungibility
  • Centralization
  • Scalability

Fungibility: Protecting Your Privacy

Fungibility technically means all coins are substitutable, but in practice it means that you can spend your bitcoins how you want. That means that nobody has the power to stop your transaction (see: Centralization), and nobody has reason not to accept your coins.

The state of fungibility in bitcoin today is poor. Services exist which aim to trace where bitcoins came from and whose they are. The fact that coins can be traced means some services are obliged to do so, and they refuse to interact with coins they see as “tainted”.

The simplest weakness of fungibility is the public ledger: everyone can try to analyze payments to see where they went. Consider transaction 3d96bcd… from April 8th 2016; one output is 3.10510875 BTC, the other is 0.05934611 BTC. If we convert them using the USD closing rate from April 7th, that’s $1307.8842 and $24.9968. It’s fair to guess that the second output is a $25 payment, and the first output is back to the payer. I’d also guess the payer is in the United States.

Addresses naturally cluster when a wallet has to use more than one input to create a transaction; when public addresses are revealed (particularly with address reuse!), analysis becomes easier. I asked someone to look at my bitcoin address, and he immediately linked me to localbitcoins.com using such techniques.

Different software creates slightly different transactions, which can also be used to link transactions and thus addresses. Differences in fee estimation is another method. And every transaction you know makes it easier to guess the remaining transactions, like solving a crossword puzzle. Fungibility is a network property: other people having it helps you have it, too.

There are also active probes going on; fake bitcoin nodes which connect to as many other nodes as they can, presumably to try to nail down the original source of transactions.

What’s Being Done For Fungiblity

Software is slowly improving: every bitcoin core release changelog seems to include tweaks to make active snooping more difficult.

We may see more uniformity in wallet implementations, too, though in the short term things like replace-by-fee will probably make wallets more different, not less.

The most promising development here is TumbleBit: it’s a tumbler which you don’t need to trust with your coins or your privacy. A normal tumbler is where I take everyone’s coins, and then return them randomly. Of course, I might decide to not return them, or keep records so I can trace whose coins went where. TumbleBit is more complicated, but doesn’t have either of these problems. It’s in early development, but once it’s complete I look forward to quite a few TumbleBit servers mudding the waters.

Centralization: Control of The Network

If the miners refuse to mine your transactions, your bitcoins aren’t worth anything. With better fungibility that becomes unlikely, but still possible (miners could insist on ID for every transaction, for example).

In most systems, there are economies of scale which drive centralization, and bitcoin mining is no exception. The invention of mining pools dramatically increased centralization, as small miners delegated their transaction selection to a handful of pools (this smooths out a miners income, by profit sharing). As block sizes increased, the situation became worse: if your block is slow to get out to the other miners, it’s likely to lose a race, and if you’re slow to get blocks from other miners, you’re more likely to produce obsolete blocks. Blocks which lose out like this are called “orphan blocks”, and how often you produce them is your “orphan rate”. More than 1% and your profitability is probably shot.

You can drop your orphan rate by being the biggest miner (or, part of the biggest pool). If a single miner or pool gets more than 50% (which has happened), they can reliably censor the network (which hasn’t). With even less they can still profitably exploit vendors who accept unconfirmed transactions (which has happened). And it turns out that larger miners can drive up orphan rates of other miners (so-called selfish mining) and magnify their advantage.

It should be no surprise then that mining is fairly centralized: four groups control more than half the mining power. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be deliberate orphaning attacks happening.

The other issue is that fear of orphaning leads to miners mining empty blocks (aka SPV mining). They do this because they watch other mining pools, and as soon as they see a block header which refers a new previous block, they start mining an empty block themselves. They have to mine an empty block, because they don’t know what transactions were in the previous block. That doesn’t help the network throughput at all, and because they are not validating the previous block, it greatly weakens the security of lightweight nodes which assume miners are actually checking blocks. It turns out over 50% of mining power was doing this in 2015, and many still are.

What’s Being Done For Centralization

Fast block propagation was a big area of work last year, with Bitcoin Unlimited’s XTHIN and Bitcoin Core’s Compact Block work. Both send short summaries of the block contents which often allow a node (which usually knows all the transactions already, just not which ones are in this block) to reconstruct it.

Matt Corallo previously ran the Bitcoin Relay Network to try to increase propagation and reduce incentive to SPV mine; the latest version is based on compact blocks and is even more efficient, called Bitcoin Fibre. You’re welcome to run your own Fibre network, too (I run a test one on Digital Ocean, for example). It uses UDP and error correction so you can get blocks from multiple sources at once, and handle packet loss. Matt claims that there’s no point in SPV mining any more; Fibre gets you the blocks just as fast.

There’s ongoing work on speeding up new block creation further: I’m told Bitcoin Unlimited removed the validity double-check on newly created blocks (it’s caught issues in the past, but maybe it’s time) and Bitcoin Core has worked on speeding it up so it’s no longer measurable. Combined with more significant fee income (which is lost when SPV mining), we may see SPV mining eliminated this year.

None of these addresses the core problem of centralization; this is the issue we have fewest technical fixes for and thus is likely to be least amenable to technical efforts.

Nontheless, Roger Ver’s bitcoin.com mining pool gives me hope that we’ll see some diversity in motivations for miners. Making life easier and more convenient for small miners (especially solo mining) should be a priority for those who care about centralization. In the long term, as more businesses become dependent on bitcoin, I’d like them to start investing in mining capacity as a kind of distributed insurance policy.

Scalability: More Transactions

In the early days, bitcoin software had a 100k block limit and no transaction fees were required. Nobody cared, and blocks were never full.

When blocks passed 700k, bitcoin saw its first centralization crisis as orphan rates spiked and one pool (Ghash.io) got over 50% of the hash power. Since then developers have scrambled over the issue of block propagation; in theory, it could be independent of block size, but in practice it’s not. Centralization has remained a core source of tension with hopes for enlarging blocksize. Blocks are now full (though only 85% of theoretical maximum), and the transition from “free” to “user pays” is causing pain as software has to be upgraded and users proceed through the stages of mourning on free transactions (disbelief, denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, depression, and acceptance).

But other scalability issues exist: the bitcoin history has reached 100GB (that’s a lot of work for starting a new node), the size of unspent outputs each node has to remember keeps expanding (it must remember these forever), and the number of full nodes in the network is in long-term decline (though currently flat).

What’s Being Done For Scalability

There are several “20% improvement” factors on the horizon, and together they multiply to give significant improvements in scalability as software improves. Rising fees are causing wallet authors to (finally!) begin optimizing their transactions, because users are noticing.

Block propagation has gotten better (see centralization above) and slightly less coupled to blocksize, and validation has gotten much faster (thanks much to libsecp256k1) which may see us close the gap between the theoretical 1MB blocksize and the current 850k average blocksize.

Segregated Witness should increase blocks to about 2MB, though it depends how quickly the ecosystem (wallets and other transaction businesses) start using it.

Segregated witness makes signatures (aka “witnesses”) discardable, and gives them a discount over parts of transactions which must be kept (ie. unspent outputs). This should bias wallets towards using it so more of the blocks can be discarded by nodes.

Replace-by-fee is becoming more common: this allows you to bump the fee on transactions which are taking too long to confirm. This not only means you can be more aggressive on lowering fees, it also allows you to combine multiple payments into one if you have them, which reduces your total transaction size.

On the horizon are Schnorr signatures, which can be combined together, reducing witness size even further: instead of a transaction with two inputs which are each a 33 byte key and 72 byte signature, we might have two 33 byte keys, and a single signature. Interestingly, this also provides an incentive to adopt mixing protocols (like TumbleBit) because they are smaller and hence cheaper, helping the network fungibility even if you don’t care about fungibility yourself.

Finally, there are at two significant efforts to create off-chain scaling for bitcoins; Lightning for microtransactions, and the proposed sidechain MimbleWimble. Lightning takes Satoshi’s original (but incomplete) ideas for payment channels on top of bitcoin and makes them bi-directional and trustless, and forms them into a network. There are at least four teams of us actively working on implementing it. MimbleWimble is more radical, and uses a cut-down scriptless bitcoin with some amazing math to produce a blockchain which doesn’t require transmission or storage of any historical state, just the current unspent outputs, without loss of security (but with great fungibility benefits). Implemented as a sidechain, you would move bitcoins across to it, then back. It has cast its spell on Andrew Poelstra and I look forward to seeing an alpha release this year.

Conclusion

It’s often hard to find an overview of all the different threads of development and effort going on at once in the bitcoin technical community. I haven’t even covered more speculative things like Bitcoin-NG or Confidential Transactions nor developments which don’t directly address these three areas such as covenants or new scripting enhancements, let alone things which will no doubt be dropped from the sky

But hopefully this gives you a list of things I’m looking forward to in 2017!

________________________________________________
About the Author 

This article was written by Rusty Russell. Rusty is a Linux kernel dev who wandered into Blockstream, and is currently trying to produce a prototype and spec for bitcoin lightning.

Callum Connects

Sun Ho, Founder of LittleLives Inc

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Sun Ho has an edtech business, LittleLives. She’s helping turn complex school operations into simple and enjoyable processes.

What’s your story?
I’m just a small town girl who won’t stop believing.
Someone recently told me that the curious little 10-year-old girl in me is still shining through with excitement for the world today. Although, now, instead of being curious about how things work, I am interested in how we can solve real world problems. Today, I get to learn and build everyday on our dream to turn complex school operations into simple and enjoyable processes.

What excites you most about your industry?
Have you been to a preschool lately? In our day-to-day, we get to hear the wonderful laughter of children. We see the innocent smiles of our little ones, who learn as they play. We meet the tirelessly loving educators, leaders and parents who give their best. These are the people we serve everyday at LittleLives. It excites us greatly to be in an industry that meaningfully impacts the future of our world. When we see a new feature we have implemented in our system helping to shave off minutes or hours of administrative work for schools (and put a smile on many faces), it is deeply satisfying.

What’s your connection to Asia?
LittleLives started in Singapore. We have since expanded to multiple cities in Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and China. Everywhere we go, we gain unique insights about different cultures. One thing that remains unchanged around the world is the passion to improve education. This includes the desire to refine school processes too. I absolutely love the people I work with, in schools and in my own team overseas. They have taught me so much about their cultures and countries.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It is so hard to choose one. We love Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi, Beijing and pretty much every city we have visited. Setting up in multiple Asian cities has really become faster and more transparent than ever before. What a time to be alive and working on a startup, and even more so for a young woman in Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be true to yourself.

As a woman and as the founder of a tech startup, I have heard the many ways in which people express their surprise that I do not fit into – for lack of a better word – the norm. I am my own mix of feminine and geeky. I have a computer science background that I am passionate about and, at the same time, I love fun aesthetics and product development. Technology is an industry in which venture capitalists traditionally favour white, male founders as the stats show a concentration of success in this small demographic. Despite this, I have found that the people around me will respect me for being me because I let my personality and passion take the stage.

Who inspires you?
Beth Fredericks, the Executive Director at Wheelock College. She is a wonderful educator, leader and orator. At 67, she is as active as any young teacher and as wise as the oldest, most experienced professor. She has inspired so many early childhood educators with her stories, her teaching and above all, her warmth and delightful personality. She has contributed so much to the early childhood field here in Asia, and all over the world, over the span of her illustrious career. Her charm and kind heart makes her one of the most sought-after collaborators in our industry today. Yet, she remains humble, approachable and personable. Her enthusiasm for education and children, coupled with her infectious humour, are what I aspire to.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
What continues to blow me away every time I witness it, is incredible potential that can be unlocked when a great team comes together. When you put together bright, experienced, communicative and open-minded people in a team, miracles can happen.

Creative ideas that were recently put forth in a small ad-hoc project team are now being turned into a new product that LittleLives will soon offer. When we first began discussions, we had no idea where they would take us; the only thing we knew definitively was that we wanted to help educators gain better access to resources to help them in their everyday classroom. It all fell into place when our team started brainstorming ideas that were based on the problems we knew were present in early childhood education.

Now, we have the trial version of a new module, LittleAcademy, and I am in awe of how all of this came together. I would like to quote Margaret Mead here, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
To be honest, I would not change a thing. We made so many mistakes when we started this journey, but the lessons we learnt from our failures are what make us stronger today.

On a related note, there is this beautiful quote from Batman Begins:
Thomas Wayne asked, “Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

How do you unwind?
It is important for us to allow our body, mind and soul to unwind and recharge. Badminton is my go-to exercise. I play twice weekly to keep fit and nimble. Recently I have picked up Yoga Nidra with an excellent instructor who has opened my eyes to all the good that meditation does for our minds.

Beyond this, I find that spending time with my loved ones, friends and teammates helps me feel grounded and loved.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
I travelled to China twice last year and truly fell in love with the country. It provides such a rich variety of experiences, from culture and art, to commerce and tech. I was in a constant state of amazement. It is a fast advancing nation that I really enjoy my time in, both learning and relaxing with the people I meet.

Everyone in business should read this book:
High Output Management by Andrew Grove, late CEO and Chairman of Intel. This is a book written in the 90s, but its ideas are still very much applicable to businesses today.

Andy lays out what you need to do to successfully manage your business in simple and concise terms. This does not mean that it is easy to grow as successfully as Intel did, but the book shows us that the path to greatness is apparent. What I personally love about this book is that it presents its ideas both logically and emotionally without judgement.

On the issue of an underperforming teammate, Andy offers a very simple explanation:
“When a person is not doing his job, there can only be two reasons for it. The person either can’t do it or won’t do it; he is either not capable or not motivated.”

And as a manager, all you can do is to train and motivate.

This is an excellent review of the book by Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz: https://a16z.com/2015/11/13/high-output-management/
I highly recommend this book to all entrepreneurs.

Shameless plug for your business:
LittleLives is a leading preschool edtech company with a strong presence in over 700 schools in Singapore, 20 in Vietnam, 130 in China and 100 in Malaysia. LittleLives develops and provides applications that allow preschools to record children’s administrative records digitally, from attendance-taking to portfolio management. In addition to reducing the hassle of physical filing and documentation, the LittleLives system allows parents to keep track of the progress of their children’s learning at school through LittleLives parents’ app.

As an edtech company, LittleLives does more than facilitate day-to-day school operations. In 2017, LittleLives hosted the first ever International Pre-school Conference in Kuala Lumpur, which was attended by educators representing 1200 preschools in the region. LittleLives has helped over 215,000 children, 430,000 parents and 23,000 teachers bring schools into the 21st century and we are hoping to continue empowering many more around the world.

Reach out to us if you are involved in education or entrepreneurship. We’re always happy to chat!

How can people connect with you?
Just drop me an email at [email protected].

Twitter handle?
With so much to say, 140 characters is not enough. Hence, it is best to follow us on Facebook (facebook.com/littlelivesbigdreams), Instagram (littlelives_inc), YouTube (youtube.com/user/hosunSG), and check out our LittleLives Blog (blog.littlelives.com) to get to know us better!

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Daphne Ng, CEO of JEDTrade

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Daphne Ng is the CEO of JEDTrade, a blockchain technology company focused on trade, supply chain, and financial inclusion projects in ASEAN. She is also the Scretary-General at ACCESS and Exco. of Singapore Fintech Association

What makes you do what you do?
I was introduced to blockchain technology in 2016 after I left my corporate banking career after 10 years. It was my mentor who first got me interested in this technology, which I then went on to delve further into, on its potential applications in the lending and trade finance space – domains where I came from.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
Being in the space for 2 years and actively involved in the ecosystem, I was able to bring on the projects, network and a good degree of thought leadership in this vertical. Early on in the startup journey, our team faced many challenges. And to me, the key to rising above failures are two essential factors – resilience and support. While resilience is innate, I received a lot of help be it in terms of connections or advice. ‘Nobody succeeds without help’ rings very true for me.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
From the start, I focused on my domain expertise in trade finance and the application construct of how blockchain and DLT can be applied to these use cases. Also, my strategy from the start was to build a technology company made up of 80% tech and engineers, which is also our key competitive advantage today. At the end of the day, deliverables are about strategy and execution, which includes building and leading an ‘A’ team.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I have many mentors, which includes our company advisors (all of whom are well-known in this industry) and mostly informal mentors I meet via my connections, and on various occasions and circumstances. Creating opportunities also means putting myself in the right place, at the right time. And in my case, these were mostly organic and genuine friendships formed from the initial connection.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
To me, a match in values is very important. It also takes humility to ask for help and be willing to listen to advice, which is important in order for mentorships to be successful – be it formal or informal.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I love this question! I am passionate about building strong teams and helping my people grow. I abide by the 3Rs when identifying talents: resourcefulness, resilience and right values. And then I invest in the ‘potential’ and this means giving them room to lead, make decisions and take risks.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My support of diverse talents, skillsets and characters can be seen in the make-up of our core team – all helming specific roles and each bringing their own value to the table. We need the sum of all parts to build a great company.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
Great leaders emerge in times of failures and challenges, never abandoning the team, and always putting the team’s interests before her own. And I consciously live by these mottos every day.

Advice for others?
My advice to other entrepreneurs: be resolute and dare to be different. If you are going to follow others, then you will end up on the same path as them. No right or wrong; but I would rather chart my own path. This June, we are officially launching our blockchain project, Jupiter Chain (www.jupiterchain.tech), which have garnered much interest in the industry, even before we made it public. We believe this project is the epitome of marrying innovation with practical implementation, and we want to be the first to truly operationalize blockchain for our ecosystem projects in this region.


If you’d like to get in touch with Daphne Ng, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daphne-ng-%E9%BB%84%E7%91%9E%E7%8E%B2/

To learn more about JEDTrade, please click here.

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