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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

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings

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Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@malcolmABM

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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Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs

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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.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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