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Blockchain's Two-Flavored Appeal

John Levine

A recent story in Medium describes yet again quite well why blockchains don't solve any real problems: Blockchain is not only crappy technology but a bad vision for the future.

So what is their irresistible appeal?

Bitcoins remind me of a story from the late chair of the Princeton University astronomy department. In 1950 Immanuel Velikovsky published Worlds in Collision, a controversial best-selling book that claimed that 3500 years ago Venus and Mars swooped near the earth, causing catastrophes that were passed down in religions and mythologies.

The astronomer was talking to an anthropologist at a party, and the book came up.

"The astronomy is nonsense," said the astronomer, "but the anthropology is really interesting."

"Funny," replied the anthropologist, "I was going to say almost the same thing."

Bitcoin and blockchains lash together an unusual distributed database with a libertarian economic model. People who understand databases realize that blockchains only work as long as there are incentives to keep a sufficient number of non-colluding miners active, preventing collusion is probably impossible, and that scaling blockchains up to handle an interesting transaction rate is very hard, but that no-government money is really interesting.

People who understand economics and particularly economic history understand why central banks manage their currencies, thin markets like the ones for cryptocurrencies are easy to corrupt, and a payment system needs a way to undo bogus payments, but that free permanent database ledger is really interesting.

Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic bitcoin and blockchain proponents are the ones who understand neither databases nor economics.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker
Related topics: Blockchain
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Possible uses Rubens Kuhl  –  May 07, 2018 5:49 PM PDT

I can see usage for blockchains in public records requiring low throughput like birth certificates, marriage licenses, land registers… but is a very narrow scope not alike the "blockchain will rule them all" mantra.

Not really John Levine  –  May 07, 2018 6:52 PM PDT

We have perfectly good public records already. Around here the master copy of land registers are paper books at the county office. They provide online mirrors and since the data is public there are also value added private mirrors. This system is very stable — one day I needed to find the certificate of incorporation for my church from 1865 which I did in a few minutes by paging through the book.
If you set up a blockchain who would do the mining? What's their incentive? How do you plan to be sure they will still be doing it 100 years from now?

Trust and value comes from the ability of private keys to be lost forever. Charles Christopher  –  May 21, 2018 12:46 PM PDT

>who would do the mining?

In the context of public records, I am not sure there is any mining to be done.

>This system is very stable

That is what makes me scratch my head.

If a bitcoin private key gets lost, so to are the bitcoins it was associated with. This causes deflation which everyone else welcomes, bit not the holder of those bitcoins.

Now lets say the blockchain private key for my land record is lost. Now I can avoid paying property taxes since the country recorder can't change that ledger entry. It like it! They may not .... The incentive to destroy or "misplace" private keys is tremendous, opposite the case of bitcoin / money. When I die what happens, how does land ownership transfer? ... And this is a problem that can never be solved. If one implements a solution to lost block chain private keys, then the entire point of using a block chain is gone.

The fact that private keys can be lost, and thus control of those related ledger entries is lost, is the only reason users trust the block chain to begin with. Its just an "inverse" way of looking at theft.

Um, you mine because ... John Levine  –  May 21, 2018 1:14 PM PDT

Thanks, this reinforces my initial point about people not understanding what blockchains are. If there's no mining, there's no way to add new items to the ledger. I suppose if you have a town so quiet that nobody is born, nobody dies, nobody gets married, and nobody ever buys or sells a house that would be OK. But I don't know many towns like that.

Coins are divisible Charles Christopher  –  May 21, 2018 3:24 PM PDT

>If there's no mining, there's no way to add new items to the ledger.

First "Mining" can be done beforehand. This flies in the face of the idea of bitcoin only because of how value is perceived.

And in fact, some blockchains are built off the "ledger entries" of other block chains. Because "coins" can be divided, thus I need no one to produce another coin for me to create another entry. I just split the coins I have. They use bit coin so as to eliminate have to replicate its back end "settlement" system (more on this in a bit).

How is it that bitcoin's block chain was designed from the beginning to have finite mining AKA finite bit coins? Because the "coins" previously mined can be divided. After all coins are mined the "miners" move to processing the transactions skimming off fractional coins for the service (classical banking). If what you say is true, then once all the bitcoin coins are mined there can be no new items added to the ledger. And therein lies the deflation point of bitcoin where the total number of coins will actually DECREASE with time as private keys are lost.

So when I split the coins I have, to add another entry, the value of those coins may well be greater after the split because of deflation. But this is a separate issue to settlement. A loss of coins does mean a loss of control of the ledger entries associated with it.

In the case of a land registry, nobody cares if "one" coin or 0.0000000000001 coins are associated with the ledger entry, it is the ledger entry's permanent transfer via private keys that are the value. In other words the government controls the ledger via some monetary operation occurring outside the ledger (I pay the recorder's fee with proper paperwork). To be clear, the value does not have to be associated with the ledger entry. Its like a painter, its not his existence that I value, its what he does form be that I value.

This is the point of Patrick Byrne's tZERO, where the ledger entry itself actually contains the item of value. This is why block chain split to accommodate "settlement" in the ledger (larger ledger entries to describe what is being transferred, such as a deed). The ledger says the entry is your house, as opposed to the ledger entry being associated with your house or some perceived value in dollars. The ledger entry contains "the tittle". Its also the purpose of their "ICO", in other words the coins have already "been mined". Purchasing the coins give access to the ledger, and its the ledger access that is what is sought.

Patrick Byrne's tZERO is about addressing the issue of naked short selling. In other words the ledger contains the stock certificates not money or their value. Thus one can look at the ledger and see who owns what and know that the total shares is what it should be. That is all it is, nothing more or less. A cryptographic way to prevent others from LIEING about their stock ownership.

Back to what I said earlier, its about how the block chain is a container of information, not value. To the extent I can trust its ledger more than anyones else's then I will pay to participate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdBe5_8z53A

Which relates to the opaque nature of Cede

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cede_and_Company

"Cede technically owns substantially all of the publicly issued stock in the United States.[3] Thus, investors do not themselves hold direct property rights in stock, but rather have contractual rights that are part of a chain of contractual rights involving Cede.[4]"

Thus block chains do exactly what the likes of Cede was create to do, but out in the open to prevent games from being played == LIEING. Again, its not about being a container of value, its about being a container of truth. The ledger being the authoritative record of ownership, versus say Cede.

Where is the trust, versus where is the money:

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

If memory serves bit coin is based on IEEE 754 or 64 bits. Being simple minded, this gives ~2^64 possible ledger entries THAT MAY BE TRANSFERRED AT ANY TIME per bit coin, times 21 million coins when mining ends. Which I believe is 4E26 active ledger entries total, 2E19 entries per bit coin.

According to:

https://tradingeconomics.com/united-states/money-supply-m0

Which give a current US money supply of $3,727,183,000,000 or 4E16 dollars or 4E18 pennies. Pennies are important as a penny can't be split and thus represents the minimum ownership required to have a trade (same as bit coin smallest unit) == ledger entry. This is tiny compared to 4E26 smaller indivisible units and in fact is smaller than the number of ledger entries a single bit coin can support (which is why some block chains purchased bit coins to use it as their backend processor using their seperate block chain to split the bitcoins). But again, value is not about the coin fraction, its about the truth as reflected in the ledger. Money is transferred outside and in parallel with the ledger entry for these other "settlement" systems of ownership where the ledger is for things other than money.

In the case of tZERO, nobody give a damn how much the cost of the trade was, they just give a damn that others don't LIE about owning shares they in fact do not own. Same for land registries, etc. Its about a system of trust and transparency.

But if the private key is lost, so to would the stock, the home, the whatever since you can no longer transfer the ledger entry. Which as I said earlier, it a bit of a don't care for bit coins, except for the one who lost their coins. Nobody else will care. The lost of control of a land title or car title is a huge systemic problem, total trust is lost with the loss of just a single title. Recall the MERS system and its contribution to the last financial crash, and how people gain ownership of their home in the face of foreclosure by simply asking the judge to force the bank to "show me the note". This worked because the "ledger" was broken, thus the use of block chain as an open public record which holds everyone accountable ... As as I type this I just realized GDPR guts the entire concept, hmmmmmm.

Man with two watches never knows what time it is. Charles Christopher  –  May 21, 2018 6:21 PM PDT

"Blockchain has the potential to change the way we buy and sell, interact with government and verify the authenticity of everything from property titles to organic vegetables.

It combines the openness of the internet with the security of cryptography to give everyone a faster, safer way to verify key information and establish trust."

http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/pages/blockchain/

Byrnes did the work, including exposing the issue of naked short selling. That includes going before a group of congressmen in DC, sorry I could not find the video. Goldman Sachs tried for a very long time to kill off Byrnes attempt at eliminating the problem and failed. Of course they would given their use of naked short selling .... Now of course they will ride his coat tail on the solution.

Its not about money, its about the LEDGER itself and how block chain technology creates a unique way to ledger transactions AKA "settlement". Its "just" recording who owns what at a given instant in time. As Byrnes said, its very boring stuff, but its also very critical.

>[Michael Elling] Simply put no fully centralized [...] system is sustainable

confucius say:

"Man with one watch always knows that time it is.
Man with two watches never knows what time it is.'

If someone thinks ... John Levine  –  May 21, 2018 6:51 PM PDT

that blockchains can magically solve naked shorting or any of the other items in this list, boy do I have some trans-estuarine real estate in New York City to sell them.

>that blockchains can magically solve naked shortingNo Charles Christopher  –  May 21, 2018 7:21 PM PDT

>that blockchains can magically solve naked shorting

No it does not solve it.

It gives those wishing to avoid naked short selling a broker for which it can't take place. This is the very basis of Bitcoin itself, those wishing to be free of central banking currency controls, exchange rates, etc, otherwise why bother.

Its up to *US*, the market, to decide if that is something important to us or not. *WE* then "solve it" by our choices and demanding a move towards an open public ledger (blockchain based or not).

Without a choice we can be sure nothing will change. The internet was another choice we were offered. I got onboard surrounded by people who told me how foolish I was at the time, that the internet will never be anything of significance .... As I sat in my office filled with a library of manufacturer supplied engineering data books, and manufacturers refused to update my library as everything was moving to online documents. I still vividly recall the age threshold back at the beginning of the internet, I could tell just by someones ages where they stood and watching the news was the same. Fact is I was beyond that line myself, but watching those books in my library go into the garbage really drove home what was happening. Watching how manufactures no longer had to pay UPS and printers to deliver 100 pounds (not joking) of books once a year for EACH manufacturer! ... Manufactures now being able to update those documents and release new products when they were ready, versus in sync with the next year's printing cycle. Simple, boring, and very significant.

Byrnes is not an idiot, not even close. And I remain very cognizant of how my own age makes it too easy for me to be one of those old guys who say "X" with never be significant.

Note well his comments in the initial video regarding the amount of theft being so great the government refuses to acknowledge it. All of us have been affected, and all of us will be more prosperous if it is reduced or ends.

Yes John, we are the ones who will solve the problems, or not, by making different choices using the tools offered to us. Young folk don't have the bias we have, they are much more free to make different choices.

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Centralized-decentralized Michael Elling  –  May 13, 2018 3:53 PM PDT

I agree.  The fascination with distributed networks and systems belies a true ignorance of network theory and social conventions since the dawn not only of mankind but the cosmos.  Simply put no fully centralized or decentralized system is sustainable and generative anywhere in the cosmos.  We have a generation of developers and VCs who believed the nonsense of free and distributed only to be confronted by the natural monopolies that developed.  So they go from drinking one kool-aid to another.

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