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Book review: The Truth Machine

Book review: The Truth Machine
A friend of mine sent me a copy of The Truth Machine which was published in February 2018.
I had a chance to read it and like my other reviews, underlined a number of passages that could be enhanced, modified, or even removed in future editions.
Overall: I do not recommend the first edition. For comparison, here are several other reviews .
This book seemed overly political with an Occupy Wall Street tone that doesn’t mesh well with what at times is a highly technical topic.
I think a fundamental challenge for anyone trying to write book-length content on this topic is that as of 2018, there really aren’t many measurable ‘success’ stories – aside from speculation and illicit activities – so you end up having to fill a couple hundred pages based on hypotheticals that you (as an author) probably don’t have the best optics in.
Also, I am a villain in the book. Can’t wait?  Scroll down to Chapter 6 and also view these specific tweets for what that means.
Note: all transcription errors are my own. See my other book reviews on this topic.

Preface
on p. x they write:
The second impact is the book you are reading. In The Age of Cryptocurrency , we focused primarily on a single application of Bitcoin’s core technology, on its potential to upend currency and payments.
Would encourage readers to peruse my previous review of their previous book. I don’t think they made the case, empirically, that Bitcoin will upend either currency or payments. Bitcoin itself will likely exist in some form or fashion, but “upending” seems like a stretch at this time.
On p. xi they write in a footnote:
We mostly avoid the construct of “blockchain” as a non-countable noun.
This is good. And they were consistent throughout the book too.
Introduction
They spent several pages discussing ways to use a blockchain for humanitarian purposes (and later have a whole chapter on it), however, it is unclear why a blockchain alone is the solution when there are likely other additional ways to help refugees.
For instance, on p. 3 they write:
Just as the blockchain-distributed ledger is used to assure bitcoin users that others aren’t “double-spending” their currency holdings – in other words, to prevent what would otherwise be rampant digital counterfeiting – the Azraq blockchain pilot ensures that people aren’t double-spending their food entitlements.
But why can’t these food entitlements be digitized and use something like SNAP cards? Sure you can technically use a blockchain to track this kind of thing, but you could also use existing on-premise or cloud solutions too, right? Can centralized or non-blockchain solutions not provide an adequate solution?
On p. 4 they write:
Under this new pilot, all that’s needed to institute a payment with a food merchant is a scan of a refugee’s iris. In effect, the eye becomes a kind of digital wallet, obviating the need for cash, vouchers, debit cards, or smartphones, which reduces the danger of theft (You may have some privacy concerns related to that iris scan – we’ll get to that below.) For the WFP, making these transfers digital results in millions of dollars in saved fees as they cut out middlemen such as money transmitter and the bankers that formerly processed the overall payments system.
Get used to the “bankers” comments because this book is filled with dozens of them. Intermediaries such as MSBs and banks do take cuts, however they don’t really dive into the fee structure. This is important because lots of “cryptocurrency”-focused startups have tried to use cryptocurrencies to supposedly disrupt remittances and most basically failed because there are a lot of unseen costs that aren’t taken into account for.
Another unseen cost that this book really didn’t dive into was: the fee to miners that users must pay to get included into a block. They mention it in passing but typically hand-waved it saying something like Lightning would lower those costs. That’s not really a good line of reasoning at this stage in development, but we’ll look at it again later.
On p. 6 they write:
That’s an especially appealing idea for many underdeveloped countries as it would enable their economies to function more like those of developed countries – low-income homeowners could get mortgages, for example; street vendors could get insurance. It could give billions of people their first opening into the economic opportunities that the rest of us take for granted.
That sounds amazing, who wouldn’t want that? Unfortunately this is a pretty superficial bit of speculation. For example, how do street vendors get insurance just because of the invention of a blockchain? That is never answered in the book.
On p. 7 they write:
The problem is that these fee-charging institutions, which act as gatekeepers, dictating who can and cannot engage in commercial interactions, add cost and friction to our economic activities.
Sure, this is true and there are efforts to reduce and remove this intermediation. The book also ignores that every cryptocurrency right now also charges some kind of fee to miners and/or stakers. And with nearly all coins, in order to obtain it, a user typically must buy it through a trusted third party (an exchange) who will also charge a markup fee… often simultaneously requiring you to go through some kind of KYC / AML process (or at least connect to a bank that does).
Thus if fee-charging gatekeepers are considered a problem in the traditional world, perhaps this can be modified in the next edition because these type of gatekeepers exist throughout the coin world too.
On p. 8 they list a bunch of use-cases, some of which they go into additional detail later in the book. But even then the details are pretty vague and superficial, recommend updating this in the next edition with more concrete examples.
On p. 9 they write:
Silicon Valley’s anti-establishment coders hadn’t reckoned with the challenge of trust and how society traditionally turns to centralized institutions to deal with that.
There may have been a time in which the majority of coders in the Bay area were “anti-establishment” but from the nearly 5 years of living out here, I don’t think that is necessarily the case across the board. Recommend providing a citation for that in the future.
On p. 10 they write:
R3 CEV, a New York-based technology developer, for one, raised $107 million from more than a hundred of the world’s biggest financial institutions and tech companies to develop a proprietary distributed ledger technology. Inspired by blockchains but eschewing that lable, R3’s Corda platform is built to comply with banks’ business and regulatory models while streamlining trillions of dollars in daily interbank securities transfers.
This whole paragraph should be updated (later in Chapter 6 as well):

The Series A funding included over 40 investors , not 100+.
The ‘community’ version of Corda is open sourced and available on github, so anyone can download, use, and modify it. There is also a Corda Enterprise version that requires a license and is proprietary.
While initially eschewing the term “blockchain,” Corda is now actively marketed as a “blockchain” and even uses the handle @cordablockchain on Twitter, on podcast advertisements, and in public presentations. 1
I am unaware of any current publicly announced project that involves streamlining trillions of dollars in daily interbank securities transfers. Citation?

On p. 10 they briefly mention the Hyperledger Project. Recommend tweaking it because of its own evolution over the years.
Here is my early contribution: what is the difference between Hyperledger and Hyperledger .
On p. 11 they write:
While it’s quite possible that many ICOs will fall afoul of securities regulations and that a bursting of this bubble will burn innocent investors, there’s something refreshingly democratic about this boom. Hordes of retail investors are entering into early stage investment rounds typically reserved for venture capitalists and other professional.
This paragraph aged horribly since the book was published in February.
All of the signs were there: we knew even last year that many, if not all, ICOs involved overpromising features and not disclosing much of anything to investors. As a result, virtually every week and month in 2018 we have learned just how much fraud and outright scams took place under the guise and pretext of the “democratization of fund raising.”
For instance, one study published this summer found that about 80% of the ICOs in 2017 were “identified scams.” Another study from EY found that about 1/3 of all ICOs in 2017 have lost “substantially all value” and most trade below their listing price.
Future version of this book should remove this paragraph and also look into where all of that money went , especially since there wasn’t – arguably – a single cryptocurrency application with a real user base that arose from that funding method (yet).
On p. 11 they write:
Not to be outdone, Bitcoin, the grandaddy of the cryptocurrency world, has continued to reveal strengths — and this has been reflected in its price.
This is an asinine metric. How exactly does price reflect strength? They never really explain that yet repeat roughly the same type of explanation in other places in this book.
Interestingly, both bitcoin’s price and on-chain transaction volume have dramatically fallen since this book was first published. Does that mean that Bitcoin weakened somehow?
On p. 12 they write:
Such results give credence to crypto-asset analysts Chris Burniske and Jack Tatar’s description of bitcoin as “the most exciting alternative investment of the 21st century.”
Firstly, the Burniske and Tatar book was poorly written and wrong in many places: see my review
Secondly, bitcoin is a volatile investment that is arguably driven by a Keynesian beauty contest, not for the reasons that either book describes (e.g., not because of remittance activity).
On p. 12 they write:
The blockchain achieves this with a special algorithm embedded into a common piece of software run by all the computers in the network.
To be clear: neither PoW nor PoS are consensus protocols which is implied elsewhere on page 12.
On p. 12 they write:
Once new ledger entries are introduced, special cryptographic protections make it virtually impossible to go back and change them.
This is not really true. For coins like Bitcoin, it is proof-of-work that makes it resource intensive to do a block reorganization. Given enough hashrate, participants can and do fork the network. We have seen it occur many times this year alone. There is no cryptography in Bitcoin or Ethereum that prevents this reorg from happening because PoW is separate from block validation. 2
On p. 13 they write:
Essentially, it should let people share more. And with the positive, multiplier effects that this kind of open sharing has on networks of economic activity, more engagement should in turn create more business opportunities.
These statement should be backed up with supporting evidence in the next edition because as it stands right now, this sounds more like a long-term goal or vision statement than something that currently exists today in the cryptocurrency world.
On p. 13 they mention “disintermediation” but throughout the book, many of the cryptocurrency-related companies they explore are new intermediaries. This is not a consistent narrative.
On p. 14 they write:
If I can trust another person’s claims – about their educational credentials, for example, or their assets, or their professional reputation – because they’ve been objectively verified by a decentralized system, then I can go into direct business with them.
This is a non sequitur . Garbage in, garbage out ( GIGO ) — in fact, the authors make that point later on in the book in Chapter 7.
On p. 15 they write:
Blockchains are a social technology, a new blueprint for how to govern communities, whether we’re talking about frightened refugees in a desolate Jordanian output or an interbank market in which the world’s biggest financial institutions exchange trillions of dollars daily.
This is vague and lacks nuance because there is no consensus on what a blockchain is today. Many different organizations and companies define it differently (see the Corda example above).
Either way, what does it mean to call a blockchain “social technology”? Databases are also being used by refugee camp organizers and financial infrastructure providers… are databases “social technology” too?
Chapter 1
On p. 17 they write:
Its blockchain promised a new way around processes that had become at best controlled by middlemen who insisted on taking their cut of every transaction, and at worst the cause of some man-made economic disasters.
This is true and problematic and unfortunately Bitcoin itself doesn’t solve that because it also has middlemen that take a cut of every transaction in the form of a fee to miners. Future editions should add more nuance such as the “moral hazard” of bailing out SIFIs and TBTF and separate that from payment processors… which technically speaking is what most cryptocurrencies strive to be (a network to pay unidentified participants).
On p. 18 they write:
Problems arise when communities view them with absolute faith, especially when the ledger is under control of self-interested actors who can manipulate them. This is what happened in 2008 when insufficient scrutiny of Lehman Brother’s and other’s actions left society exposed and contributed to the financial crisis.
This seems to be a bit revisionist history. This seems to conflate two separate things: the type of assets that Lehman owned and stated on its books… and the integrity of the ledgers themselves. Are the authors claiming that Lehman Brother’s ledgers were being maliciously modified and manipulated? If so, what citation do they have?
Also a couple pages ago, the authors wrote that blockchains were social technology… but we know that from Deadcoins.com that they can die and anything relying on them can be impacted.
Either way, in this chapter the authors don’t really explain how something Bitcoin itself would have prevented Lehman’s collapse. See also my new article on this topic.
On p. 19 they write:
A decentralized network of computers, one that no single entity controlled, would thus supplant the banks and other centralized ledger-keepers that Nakamoto identified as “trusted third parties.”
Fun fact: the word “ledger” does not appear in the Bitcoin white paper or other initial emails or posts by Nakamoto.
Secondly, perhaps an industry wide or commonly used blockchain of some kind does eventually displace and remove the role some banks have in maintaining certain ledgers, but their statement, as it is currently worded, seems a lot like of speculation (projection?).
We know this because throughout the book it is pretty clear they do not like banks, and that is fine, but future editions need to back up these types of opinions with evidence that banks are no longer maintaining a specific ledger because of a blockchain.
On p. 20 they write:
With Bitcoin’s network of independent computers verifying everything collectively, transactions could now be instituted peer to peer, that is, from person to person. That’s a big change from our convoluted credit and debit card payment systems, for example, which routes transactions through a long sequence of intermediaries – at least two banks, one or two payment processors, a card network manager (such as Visa or Mastercard), and a variety of other institutions, depending on where the transaction take place.
If we look back too 2009, this is factually correct of Bitcoin at a high level. 3 The nuance that is missing is that today in 2018, the majority of bitcoin transactions route through a third party, some kind of intermediary like a deposit-taking exchange or custodial wallet. There are still folks who prefer to use Bitcoin as a P2P network, but according to Chainalysis, last year more than 80% of transactions went through a third party.
On p. 20 they write:
Whereas you might think that money is being instantly transferred when you swipe your card at a clothing store, in reality the whole process takes several days for the funds to make all those hops and finally settle in the storeowner’s account, a delay that create risks and costs. With Bitcoin, the idea is that your transaction should take only ten to sixty minutes to fully clear (not withstanding some current capacity bottlenecks that Bitcoin developers are working tor resolve). You don’t have to rely on all those separate, trusted third parties to process it on your behalf.
This is mostly incorrect and there is also a false comparison.
In the first sentence they gloss over how credit card payment systems confirm and approve transactions in a matter of seconds. 4 Instead they focus on settlement finality: when the actual cash is delivered to the merchant… which can take up to 30+ days depending on the system and jurisdiction.
The second half they glowingly say how much faster bitcoin is… but all they do is describe the “seen” activity with a cryptocurrency: the “six block” confirmations everyone is advised to wait before transferring coins again. This part does not mention that there is no settlement finality in Bitcoin, at most you get probabilistic finality (because there is always chance there may be a fork / reorg).
In addition, with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin you are only transferring the coins. The cash leg on either side of the transaction still must transfer through the same intermediated system they describe above. We will discuss this further below when discussing remittances.
On p. 20 they write:
It does so in a way that makes it virtually impossible for anyone to change the historical record once it has been accepted.
For proof-of-work chains this is untrue in theory and empirically . In the next edition this should be modified to “resource intensive” or “economically expensive.”
On p. 20 they write:
The result is something remarkable: a record-keeping method that brings us to a commonly accepted version of the truth that’s more reliable than any truth we’ve ever seen. We’re calling the blockchain a Truth Machine, and its applications go far beyond just money.
It is not a “truth machine” because garbage in, garbage out.
In addition, while they do discuss some historical stone tablets, they don’t really provide a metric for how quantitatively more (or less) precise a blockchain is versus other methods of recording and witnessing information. Might be worth adding a comparison table in the next edition.
On p. 21 they write:
A lion of Wall Street, the firm was revealed to be little more than a debt-ravaged shell kept alive only by shady accounting – in other words, the bank was manipulating its ledgers. Sometimes, that manipulation involved moving debt off the books come reporting season. Other times, it involved assigning arbitrarily high values to “hard-to-value” assets – when the great selloff came, the shocking reality hit home: the assets had no value.
The crash of 2008 revealed most of what we know about Wall Street’s confidence game at that time. It entailed a vast manipulation of ledgers.
This was going well until that last sentence. Blockchains do not solve the garbage in, garbage out problem. If the CFO or accountant or book keeper or internal counsel puts numbers into blocks that do not accurately reflect or represent what the “real value” actually is, blockchains do not fix that. Bitcoin does not fix that.
Inappropriate oversight, rubber stamp valuations, inaccurate risk models… these are off-chain issues that afflicted Lehman and other banks. Note: they continue making this connection on pages 24, 28, and elsewhere but again, they do not detail how a blockchain of some kind would have explicitly prevented the collapse of Lehman other other investment banks.
See also: Systemically important cryptocurrency networks
On p. 22 they write:
The real problem was never really about liquidity, or a breakdown of the market. It was a failure of trust. When that trust was broken, the impact on society – including on our political culture – was devastating.
How about all of the above? Pinning it on just one thing seems a little dismissive of the multitude of other interconnecting problems / culprits.
On p. 22 they write:
By various measures, the U.S. economy has recovered – at the time of writing, unemployment was near record lows and the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at record highs. But those gains are not evenly distributed; wage growth at the top is six times what it is for those in the middle, and even more compared to those at the bottom.
If the goal of the authors is to rectify wealth inequalities then there are probably better comparisons than using cryptocurrencies.
Why? Because – while it is hard to full quantify, it appears that on cursory examination most (if not all) cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin have Gini coefficients that trends towards 1 (perfectly unequal).
On p. 23 they write about disinformation in the US and elsewhere.  And discuss how trust is a “vital social resource” and then mention hyperinflation in Venezuela. These are all worthy topics to discuss, but it is not really clear how any of these real or perceived problems are somehow solved because of a blockchain, especially when Venezuela is used as the example . The next edition should make this more clear.
On p. 29 they write:
On October 31, 2008, whil the world was drowning in the financial crisis, a little-noticed “white paper” was released by somebody using the pen name “Satoshi Nakamoto,” and describing something called “Bitcoin,” an electronic version of cash that didn’t need state backing. At the heart of Nakamoto’s electronic cash was a public ledger that could be viewed by anybody but was virtually impossible to alter.
One pedantic note: it wasn’t broadly marketed beyond a niche mailing list on purpose… a future edition might want to change ” a little-noticed” because it doesn’t seem like the goal by Nakamoto was to get Techcrunch or Slashdot to cover it (even though eventually they both did).
Also, it is not virtually impossible to alter. As shown by links above, proof-of-work networks can and do get forked which may include a block reorganization. There is nothing that technically prevents this from happening.
See also: Interview with Ray Dillinger
On p. 31 they write:
Szabo, Grigg, and others pioneered an approach with the potential to create a record of history that cannot be changed – a record that someone like Madoff, or Lehman’s bankers, could not have meddled with.
I still think that the authors are being a little too liberal with what a blockchain can do. What Madoff did and Lehman did were different from one another too.
Either way, a blockchain would not have prevented data – representing fraudulent claims – from being inserted into blocks. Theoretically a blockchain may have allowed auditors to detect tampering of blocks, but if the information in the blocks are “garbage” then it is kind of besides the point.
On p. 32 they write:
Consider that Bitcoin is now the most powerful computing network in the world, one whose combined “hashing” rate as of August 2017 enabled all its computers to collectively pore through 7 million trillion different number guesses per second.
[…]
Let the record show that period of time is 36,264 trillion trillion times longer than the current best-estimate age of the universe. Bitcoin’s cryptography is pretty secure.
This should be scrapped for several reasons.
The authors conflate the cryptography used by digital signatures with generating proofs-of-work. 5 There are not the same thing. Digital signatures are considered “immutable” for the reasons they describe in the second part, not because of the hashes that are generated in the first. 6
Another problem is that the activity in the first part — the hash generation process — is not an apples-to-apples comparison with other general computing efforts. Bitcoin mining is a narrowly specific activity and consequently ASICs have been built and deployed to generate these hashes. The single-use machines used to generate these hashes cannot even verify transactions or construct blocks. In contrast, CPUs and GPUs can process a much wider selection of general purpose applications… including serialize transactions and produce blocks.
For example: it would be like comparing a Falcon 9 rocket launch vehicle with a Toyota Prius. Sure they are nominally both “modes of transportation” but built for entirely different purposes and uses.
An additional point is that again, proof-of-work chains can and have been forked over the years. Bitcoin is not special or unique or impervious to forks either (here’s a history of the times Bitcoin has forked). And there are other ways to create forks, beyond the singular Maginot Line attack that the authors describe on this page. 7
On p. 33 they write:
Whether the solution requires these extreme privacy measures or not, the broad model of a new ledger system that we laid out above – distributed, cryptographically secure, public yet private – may be just what’s needed to restore people’s confidence in society’s record-keeping systems. And to encourage people to re-engage in economic exchange and risk-taking.
This comes across as speculation and projecting. We will see later that the authors have a dim view of anything that is not a public blockchain. Why is this specific layout the best?
Either way, future versions should include a citation for how people’s confidence level increase because of the use of some kind of blockchain. At this time, I am unaware of any such survey.
On p. 34 they quote Tomicah Tilleman from the Global Blockchain Business Council, a lobbying organization:
Blockchain has the potential to push back against that erosion and it has the potential to create a new dynamic in which everyone can come to agree on a core set of facts but also ensure the privacy of facts that should not be in the public domain.
This seems like a non sequitur . How does a blockchain itself push back on anything directly? Just replace the word “blockchain” with “database” and see if it makes sense.
Furthermore, as we have empirically observed, there are fractures and special interest groups within each of these little coin ecosystems. Each has their own desired roadmap and in some cases, they cannot agree with one another about facts such as the impact larger block sizes may have on node operators.
On p. 35 they write:
If it can foster consensus in the way it has been shown to with Bitcon, it’s best understood as a Truth Machine.
This is a non sequitur . Just because Nakamoto consensus exists does not mean it that blockchains are machines of truth. They can replicate falsehoods if the blocks are filled with the incorrect information.
Chapter 2
On p. 38 they write:
Consider how Facebook’s secret algorithm choose the news to suit your ideological bent, creating echo chambers of like-minded angry or delighted readers who are ripe to consume and share dubious information that confirms their pre-existing political biases.
There are some really valid points in this first part of the chapter. As it relates to cryptocurrencies, a second edition should also include the astroturfing and censoring of alternative views that take place on cryptocurency-related subreddits which in turn prevent people from learning about alternative implementations.
We saw this front-and-center in 2015 with the block size debate in which moderators of /r/bitcoin (specifically, theymos and BashCo) banned any discussion from one camp, those that wanted to discuss ways of increasing the block size via a hardfork (e.g., Bitcoin XT, Bitcoin Classic).
This wasn’t the first or last time that cryptocurrency-related topics on social media have resulted in the creation of echo chambers.
On p. 43 they write:
The potential power of this concept starts with the example of Bitcoin. Even though that particular blockchain may not provide the ultimate solution in this use case, it’s worth recalling that without any of the classic, centrally deployed cybersecurity tools such as firewalls, and with a tempting “bounty” of more than $160 billion in market cap value at the time we went to print, Bitcoin’s core ledger has thus far proven to be unhackable.
There is a lot to unpack here but I think a future edition should explain in more detail how Bitcoin is a type of cybersecurity tool. Do they mean that because the information is replicated to thousands of nodes around the world, it is more resilient or redundant?
Either way, saying that “Bitcoin’s core ledger” is “unhackable” is a trope that should be removed from the next edition as well.
Why? Because when speaking about BTC or BCH or any variant of Bitcoin, there is only one “ledger” per chain… the word ‘core’ is superfluous. And as described above, the word “unhackable” should be changed to “resource intensive to fork” or something along those lines. “Unhackable” is anarchronistic because what the authors are probably trying to describe is malicious network partitions… and not something from a ’90s film like The Net .
Continuing on p. 43 they write:
Based on the ledger’s own standards for integrity, Bitcoin’s nine-year experience of survival provides pretty solid proof of the resiliency of its core mechanism for providing decentralized trust between users. It suggest that one of the most important non-currency applications of Bitcoin’s blockchain could be security itself.
This last sentence makes no sense and they do not expand on it in the book. What is the security they are talking about? And how is that particularly helpful to “non-currency applications of Bitcoin’s blockchain”? Do they mean piggy-backing like colored coins try to do?
On p. 44 they write:
The public ledger contains no identifying information about the system’s users. Even more important, no one owns or controls that ledger.
Well technically speaking, miners via mining pools control the chain. They can and do upgrade / downgrade / sidegrade the software. And they can (and do) fork and reorg a chain. Is that defined as “control”? Unclear but we’ll probably see some court cases if real large loses take place due to forks.
On p. 44 they write:
As such there is no central vector of attack.
In theory, yes. In practice though, many chains are highly centralized: both in terms of block creation and in terms of development. Thus in theory it is possible to compromise and successfully “attack” a blockchain under the right circumstances. Could be worth rephrasing this in the next edition.
On p. 44 they write:
As we’ll discuss further in the book, there are varying degrees of security in different blockchain designs, including those known as “private” or “permissioned” blockchains, which rely on central authorities to approve participants. In contrast, Bitcoin is based on a decentralized model that eschews approvals and instead banks on the participants caring enough about their money in the system to protect it.
This is a bit of a strawman because there are different types of “permissioned” blockchains designed for different purposes… they’re not all alike. In general, the main commonality is that the validators are known via a legal identity. How these networks are setup or run does not necessarily need to rely on a centralized authority, that would be a single point of trust (and failure). But we’ll discuss this later below.
On p. 44 they write:
On stage at the time, Adam Ludwin, the CEO of blockchain / distributed ledger services company Chain Inc., took advantage of the results to call out Wall Street firms for failing to see how this technology offers a different paradigm. Ludwin, whose clients include household names like Visa and Nasdaq, said he could understand why people saw a continued market for cybersecurity services, since his audience was full of people paid to worry about data breaches constantly. But their answers suggested they didn’t understand that the blockchain offered a solution. Unlike other system-design software, for which cybersecurity is an add-on, this technology “incorporates security by design,” he said.
It is unclear from the comments above exactly how a blockchain solves problems in the world of cybersecurity. Maybe it does. If so, then it should be explored in more detail than what is provided in this area of the book.
As an aside, I’m not sure how credible Ludwin’s comments on this matter are because of the multiple pivots that his companies have done over the past five years. 8
On p. 45 they write:
A more radical solution is to embrace open, “permissionless” blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum, where there’s no central authority keeping track of who’s using the network.
This is very much a prescriptive pitch and not a descriptive analysis. Recommend changing some of the language in the next edition. Also, they should define what “open” means because there basically every mining pool doxxes themselves .
Furthermore, some exchanges that attempt to enforce their terms-of-service around KYC / AML / CTF do try to keep track of who is doing what on the network via tools from Chainalysis, Blockseer, Elliptic and others. Violating the ToS may result in account closures. Thus, ironically, the largest “permissioned” platforms are actually those on the edges of all cryptocurrencies.
See: What is Permissioned-on-Permissionless
On p. 45 they write:
It’s not about building a firewall up around a centralized pool of valuable data controlled by a trusted third party; rather the focus is on pushing control over information out to the edges of the network, to the people themselves, and on limiting the amount of identifying information that’s communicated publicly. Importantly, it’s also about making it prohibitively expensive for someone to try to steal valuable information.
This sounds all well and good, definitely noble goals. However in the cryptocurrency world, many exchanges and custodial wallets have been compromised and the victims have had very little recourse. Despite the fact that everyone is continually told not to store their private keys (coins) with an intermediary, Chainalysis found that in 2017 more than 80% of all transactions involved a third-party service.
On p. 45 they write:
Bitcoin’s core ledger has never been successfully attacked.
They should define what they mean by “attacked” because it has forked a number of times in its history. And a huge civil war took place resulting in multiple groups waging off-chain social media campaigns to promote their positions, resulting in one discrete group divorcing and another discrete group trying to prevent them from divorcing. Since there is only de facto and not de jure governance, who attacked who? Who were the victims?
On p. 45 they write:
Now, it will undoubtedly be a major challenge to get the institutions that until now have been entrusted with securing our data systems to let go and defer security to some decentralized network in which there is no identifiable authority to sue if something goes wrong. But doing so might just be the most important step they can take to improve data security. It will require them to think about security not as a function of superior encryption and other external protections, but in terms of economics, of making attacks so expensive that they’re not worth the effort.
This seems a bit repetitive with the previous couple of page, recommend slimming this down in the next edition. Also, there are several class action lawsuits underway (e.g., Ripple , Tezos ) which do in fact attempt to identify specific individuals and corporations as being “authorities.” The Nano lawsuit also attempted to sue “core developers.”
On p. 46 they write:
A hacker could go after each device, try to steal the private key that’s used to initiate transactions on the decentralized network, and, if they’re lucky, get away with a few thousand dollars in bitcoin. But it’s far less lucrative and far more time-consuming than going after the rich target of a central server.
The ironic part of this is that generally speaking, the private keys controlling millions of bitcoins are being housed in trusted third parties / intermediaries right now. In some cases these are stored on a centralized server. In other cases, the cold wallet managed by hosting providers such as Xapo (which is rumored to secure $10 billion of bitcoin) does geographically split the keys apart into bunkers. Yet at some point those handling the mutli-sig do come together in order to move the coins to a hot wallet. 9
On p. 47 they write:
It seems clear to us that the digital economy would benefit greatly from embracing the distributed trust architecture allowed by blockchains – whether it’s simply the data backups that a distributed system offers, or the more radical of an open system that’s protected by a high cost-to-payout ratio.
What does this mean? Are they saying to add proof-of-work to all types of distributed systems? It is only useful in the Bitcoin context in order to make it expensive to Sybil attack the network… because participants were originally unknown. Does that same problem exist in other environments that they are thinking of? More clarity should be added in the next edition.
On p. 48 they write:
The idea, one that’s also being pursued in different forms by startups such as Gem of Los Angeles and Blockchain Health of San Francisco, is that the patient has control over who sees their records.
This is one of the difficulties in writing a long-form book on this general topic right now: projects and companies frequently pivot.
For instance, a couple months after the book was published, Gem announced its “Universal Token Wallet,” a product which currently dominates its front page and social media accounts of the company. There have been no health care-related announcements from the company in over a year.
Similarly, Blockchain Health no longer exists. Its CEO left and joined Chia as a co-founder and the COO has joined the Neighborly team.
On p. 50 they write:
It was a jury-rigged solution that meant that the banking system, the centralized ledger-keeping solution with which society had solved the double-spend problem for five hundred years, would be awkwardly bolted onto the ostensibly decentralized Internet as its core trust infrastructure.
I think there are some legitimate complaints to made towards how online commerce evolved and currently exists but this seems a tad petty. As backwards as financial institutions are (rightly and wrongly) portrayed, it’s not like their decision makers sat around in the early ’90s trying to figure out how to make integrating the Web an awkward process.
On p. 50 they write:
Under this model, the banks charged merchants an interchange fee of around 3 percent to cover their anti-fraud costs, adding a hidden tax to the digital economy we all pay in the form of higher prices.
Again, like their statement above: there are some very legitimate gripes to be had regarding the existing oligopolistic payment systems, but this specific gripe is kind of petty.
Fraud exists and as a result someone has to pay for it. In the cryptocurrency world, there is no recourse because it is caveat emptor . In the world of courts and legal recourse, fees are levied to cover customer service including fraud and insurance. It may be possible to build a payment system in which there is legal recourse and simultaneously no oligopolistic rent seeking but this is not explored in the book. Also, for some reason the fee to miners is not brought up in this section, yet it is a real fee users must pay… yet they do not receive customer service as part of it.
Lastly, the Federal Reserve (and other central banks) monitor historical interchange fees. Not all users are charged the ~3% as mentioned in the book. For instance: Average Debit Card Interchange Fee by Payment Card Network
Source: Statista
On pages 52 and 53 they write uncritically about Marc Andresseen and VCs who have invested in Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
a16z, the venture firm co-founded by Andresseen, arguably has a few areas that may be conflicts-of-interest with the various coin-related projects it has invested in and/or promoted the past several years (e.g., investing in coins which are listed on an exchange they also are an investor and board member of such as 0x ). Those ties are not scrutinized in a chapter that attempts to create a black and white narrative: that the legacy players are centralized rent-seekers and the VCs are not. When we know empirically that some VCs, including a16z, have invested in what they believe will become monopolies of some kind.
On page 54 and 55 they write about “Code is not law,” a topic that I have likewise publicly presented on.
Specifically they state:
One risk is that regulators, confused by all these outside-the-box concepts, will overreact to some bad news – potentially triggered by large-scale investors losses if and when the ICO bubble bursts and exposes a host of scams. The fear is that a new set of draconian catchall measures would suck the life out of innovation in this space or drive it offshore or underground. To be sure, institutions like the Washington-based Coin Center and the Digital Chamber of Commerce are doing their best to keep officials aware of the importance of keeping their respective jurisdictions competitive in what is now a global race to lead the world in financial technology.
This is word for word what coin lobbyists have been pitching to policy makers around the world for years. Both Coin Center and Digital Chamber of Commerce lobby on behalf of their sponsors and donors to prevent certain oversight on the cryptocurrency market. 10 An entire book could probably be written about how specific people within coin lobbying organizations have attempted to white wash and spin the narrative around illicit usage, using carefully worded talking points. And they have been effective because these authors do not question the motivations and agenda these special interest groups have.
Either way, Bitcoin and many other cryptocurrencies were born in the “underground” and even “offshore.” It is unclear what the authors are trying to excuse because if anything, regulators and law enforcement have arguably been very light handed in the US and most regions abroad.
If anything, once a foreign registered ICO or coin is created, often the parent company and/or foundation opens an office to recruit developers in San Francisco, New York, and other US cities. I know this because all the multiple “blockchain” events I have attended overseas the past two years in which organizers explain their strategy. The next edition of this book could explore this phenomenon.
On p. 57 they write:
By The DAO founders’ own terms, the attacker had done nothing wrong, in other words. He or she had simply exploited one of its features.
Excellent point that should be explored in further detail in the next edition. For instance, in Bitcoin there have been multiple CVEs which if exploited (at least one was ) could have resulted in changes in the money supply. Is that a feature or a bug?
And the most recent one, a month ago, was partially downplayed and hidden to prevent others from knowing the extent of potential damage that could have been done.
On p. 59 they write:
The dependence on a trusted middleman, some cryptocurrency purists would argue, overly compromises a blockchain’s security function, rending it unreliable. For that reason, some of them say, a blockchain is inappropriate for many non-currency applications. We, however, view it as a trade-off and believe there’s still plenty of value in recording ownership rights and transfers to digitally represented real-world assets in blockchains.
I think this whole section should be reworded to describe:

what types of blockchains they had in mind?
how the legal hooks into certain blockchains behave versus anarchic chains ?
being more precise with the term purist… do they mean maximalists or do they mean someone who points out that most proposed use-cases are chainwashing ?

On pages 59 and 60 they write:
Permissioned blockchains – those which require some authorized entity to approve the computers that validate the blockchain – by definition more prone to gatekeeping controls, and therefore to the emergence monopoly or oligopoly powers, than the persmissionless ideal that Bitcoin represents. (We say “ideal” because, as we’ll discuss in the next chapter, there are also concerns that aspects of Bitcoin’s software program have encouraged an unwelcome conc

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