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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.

Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and Digital Innovation Strategist

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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.)

I am talking to Tara Velis, Growth Hacker and freelance Digital Innovation Strategist. Tara was selected and recognized by TheNextWeb.com as one of the 500 most talented young people in the Dutch digital scene during the 2017 TNW edition. Tara is known for her creative, entrepreneurial spirit, which she is using to her advantage in leading the change in SMEs and corporates around the globe.

What makes you do what you do?

I tend to see life as a big, complex puzzle. Because of my curious nature, I am in constant development, looking for new angles and new approaches to business problems. Innovation through technology is exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. The most radical technological advances have not come from linear improvements within one area of expertise. Instead, they arise from the combination of seemingly disparate inventions. This is, in fact, the core of innovation. I love going beyond conventional thinking practices. Mashing up different thoughts and components, connecting the dots, and transforming that into something useful to businesses.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I consistently chose to follow my curiosity, which has led me to where I am today. If you want to succeed in the digital industry, you need to have a growth mindset. Seen the fact that the industry is evolving in an astoundingly quick rate, it’s crucial to stay current with the trends and forces in order to spot business opportunities. I believe taking responsibility for your own learning and development is key to success.

Why did you take on the role of Digital Innovation Strategist?

The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, I got frustrated with businesses operating in the exact same way they did a couple of decades ago. Right now we are in the midst of a technology revolution, and the latest possibilities and limitations of cutting-edge technologies are evolving every single day. This means that companies need to stay current and act lean if they want to survive. On a more personal level, I noticed that I felt the need to use my creativity and problem-solving skills to their maximum capacity. In transforming businesses at scale, I change the rules of the game. I love breaking out of traditional, old-fashioned patterns by nurturing innovative ideas. This involves design thinking, extensive collaboration and feedback, the implementation of various strategies and tactics, validated learning, and so on. I get a lot of energy from my work because it is aligned with my personal interests.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries?

Yes, I look up to Drew Boyd. He is a global leader in creativity and innovation. He taught me how to evaluate ideas in order to select the best ones to proceed with. This is crucial because otherwise,you run the risk of ideas creating the criteria for you because of various biases and unrelated factors. He also taught me a great deal on facilitation of creativity workshops.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I tend to have the characteristics of a transformational leader. People have told me that my enthusiasm and positive energy is motivating and even inspiring to them. Even though I take these comments as a huge compliment, I am not sure how I feel about referring to myself as a leader. To me, it still has a somewhat negative connotation. I guess I associate the concept with being a boss who’s throwing around commands. But if a leader means listening to others and igniting intrinsic motivation in people, then yes, I guess I’m a charismatic leader.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

Yes, one hundred percent. I believe that creativity and innovation flourish when a highly diverse group of people bounces ideas off each other. Diversity in terms of function, gender,and culture is extremely valuable, especially in the ideation phase of a project, as it can help to see more possibilities and come up with better ideas.

Do you have any advice for others?

Yes, I have some pieces of advice I’d like to share.
First of all: Develop self-awareness. You can do so by actively seeking feedback from the people around you. This will help you understand how others see you, align your intentions with your actions, and eventually enhance your communication- and leadership skills.

Surround yourself with knowledgeable and inspiring people. They might be able to support you in reaching your goals, and help you grow both personally and professionally.

Ask “why?” a couple of times. This simple and powerful method is useful for getting to the core of a problem or challenge. Make sure to often remind yourself and your team of the outcome of this exercise to have a clear sense of direction and focus.

Data is your friend. Whether it’s extensive quantitative market research or a sufficient amount of in-depth consumer interviews (or both!), your data levels all arguments. However, always be aware of biases and limitations of research.

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “No”. Don’t be an idea killer. Forget about the feasibility and budget, at least in the ideation phase. Instead, encourage your team to generate ideas without restrictions. You can compromise certain aspects later.

Prioritization is key. There is just no way you can execute all your ideas, and, quite frankly, there is no point in trying to do so. Identify the high potential ideas and start executing those first.

Encourage rapid prototyping. Don’t wait too long to experiment, launch, and iterate your product or service. Fail fast and fail often. Adopt an Agile mindset.

If you’d like to get in touch with Tara Velis, please feel free to reach out to her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taravelis/

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Callum Connects

Marek Danyluk, CEO of Space Ventures

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Marek Danyluk has a talent for assessing the competencies of management teams for other businesses and pulling together exceptional teams for his own businesses!

What’s your story?
I am the CEO of a venture capital business, Space Ventures, which invests in seed and pre-series A businesses. I also own and run Space Executive, a recruitment business focused on senior to executive hires across sales, marketing, finance, legal and change.

My career started as a trainee underwriter in the Lloyds market but quickly moved into recruitment where I set-up my first business in 2002. The business grew to around 100 people. I moved to Asia in 2009 as a board member of a multinational recruitment business with the mandate to help them scale their Asian entities, which helped contribute to their sale this year, in 2017.

My main talent is assessing the competencies of management teams as well as building high performing recruitment boutiques and putting together exceptional management teams for my own businesses.

What excites you most about your industry?
Building the business is very much about attracting the best talent and being able to build a culture which people find invigorating and unique. It’s an exciting proposition to be able to define a culture in that regard and salespeople are a fun bunch, so when you get it right it’s tremendous.

From a VC point of view there is just so much happening. South East Asia is a melting pot of innovation so the ideas and quality of people you have exposure to, is truly phenomenal. The exposure in the VC has taken me away from a career in recruitment. Doing something completely different has given me a new level of focus.

What’s your connection to Asia?
Whilst I came here with work, both my boys were born in Singapore and to them this very much is home. That said, my father in law spent many years in the East so coming and settling here was met with a good degree of support and familiarity.


Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Possibly Hong Kong. It’s the closest I’ve been to working in London. Whilst there are massive Asian influences people will work with you on the basis you are good at what you do and work hard. I find that approach very honest and straightforward.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
“Always treat people well on the way up!”

Who inspires you?
I like reading about people who have excelled in business such as Jack Ma, James Kahn, Phil Knight, Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, all have great stories to tell and they are all inspirational. No-one has inspired me more than my parents and they are well aware as to why…

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Pretty much any technology innovation blows me away.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Whilst it is important not to have regrets I do continually wake up thinking I’m still doing my A’ Levels. So, I’d have probably tried a little harder in 6th form.

How do you unwind?
I like the odd glass of red wine and watching sport

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Japan skiing. I love skiing and Japanese food and it’s a time when I can really enjoy time with the wife and kids. I recently tried the Margaret River which was divine, although not technically Asia.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Barbarians at the Gate

Shameless plug for your business:
Space Executive is the fastest growing recruitment business in Singapore focused on the mid to senior market across legal, compliance, finance, sales and marketing and change and transformation. Multi-award winning with exceptional growth plans into Hong Kong and London this year, and the US, Japan and Europe by the end of 2022. We are building a truly global brand.

Space Ventures is interested in any businesses that require capital or management and financial guidance or any or all of the above. We have, to date, invested in on-line training, food and beverages, peer to peer lending platforms, credit scoring as well as other tech and fintech start-ups. We are always interested in hearing about potential deals.

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

Twitter handle?
@Spaceexecutive

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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