I’m an engineer, aspiring entrepreneur, this is where I write interesting things I’ve learned. In the last few months, blockchain has been heralded as an invention on bitcoin Mining Software Comparison Bigchaindb Ethereum with the internet itself, an invention that will revolutionize business and the world.
Blockchain could bring vast efficiencies to supply chains by bringing an entirely new level of reliability and accessibility to data about a good’s journey. As goods move, each company logs a record using an irrefutable digital signature. What does that extra trustworthiness provide? Consider packaging on food at the grocery store that claims GMO free, fair trade, etc. How do you know that packaging is telling the truth? This additional trustworthy data has the potential to remove countless expensive human checks and reconciliations. A store orders 10 apples, but only gets 9, who counted wrong?
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Extra data could expose new opportunities and insights, as well. A farmer could post about a truckload of lettuce that will go bad if not sold quickly. But blockchain does not deliver these promises on its own. Companies must agree on standards of data, what software to run, and who should have what access.
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It seems to be proving hard for companies to show benefits with small tests. Blockchain is not just a faster database that can be swapped in. It likely requires new business models and new ways to interact with other companies. Some of the benefits may only be apparent when a critical mass is achieved. Regulation will certainly prove challenging, especially with the GDPR now taking effect.
How can you delete data from an immutable database? If data is encrypted, perhaps throwing out the encryption key will be sufficient. On the other hand, it is hoped that blockchain can actually help on the regulatory front. The blockchain behind Bitcoin shares everything to everyone, is extraordinarily slow, prohibitively expensive, and has no clear rules for how to upgrade its software. Luckily many different organizations have already spent years creating blockchain software optimized for the enterprise world. The consensus algorithm is the core of a blockchain, the part that truly gives it shared and decentralized control over the data. It’s where the group agrees on and locks in the data.
In a stock market, if 5 people all submit a buy request at once, which one should get the stock? The system needs to reach consensus on this. The choice of consensus algorithm is vital because it generally has a major impact on performance. It takes a lot more communication and time for 1000 computers to agree on something than 5. Hyperledger actually comes with several different choices that let you make the best tradeoff for your application. I do want to point out one software package that I hadn’t yet researched when the course went live: Hashgraph.
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It promises a superior combination of decentralization and performance over any of the other algorithms I’m aware of. On the downside, it is very new, and patented. At the end of the course, I provide some commentary on public vs private networks and digital currency. Many believe private blockchains are just slow distributed databases, and without a public network and digital currency, they offer nothing new to the world.
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As the application grows, eg, global supply chains, the case for public networks seems stronger and stronger. Would I trust a record stored on a network of 5 big shipping company computers or the Ethereum network’s thousands of machines spread all over the world? And on tokens, many early enterprise blockchain software projects bragged about not having any cryptocurrencies. But tokens aren’t just about non-governmental money. They provide an important incentive layer to the networks, helping to pay for computation and network resources.
I’m very excited to announce the release of a new course on Bitcoin, blockchain and decentralized projects like Ethereum. The Bitcoin world is evolving at a breakneck pace, so I hope this 3. 5 hour course will provide one of the fastest ways possible to get up speed. The course is mostly targeted at developers, but I try to stay at the concept level for the most part and hope it will be insightful for people that just want to learn more in general about blockchain technology and its potential applications.
Note: Pluralsight is paywalled, but you can get a free trial to watch 200 minutes of this 210 minute course. A less-technical introduction to the main ideas behind how Bitcoin works, including how money is transferred, who keeps track of it, and how everything is secured. If, instead of how it works, you’re looking for where to buy Bitcoin, I use coinbase. The goal of this video is to explain the essence of how Bitcoin works without any jargon or scary math. It is not, however, an introduction to what Bitcoin is or why it matters, for that, check out the great intro video at bitcoin. So, on to how it works!
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Bitcoin lets people exchange money electronically as easily as sending an email or text. The recipient will then see the money pop up in their account. At a basic level Bitcoin is just a ledger with account numbers and balances. When Bob sends Carol 5 Bitcoins, his balance goes down by 5, and Carol’s goes up by 5. There’s no gold or government-issued money backing these numbers, just people’s belief that the numbers are worth something, and a system that prevents unfair changes. Part of this system makes sure that no one can spend money from someone else’s account.
Wallet app sends a message to the Bitcoin network describing how the ledger should change, including the sender’s and recipient’s account numbers and the amount to transfer. So what’s to prevent a thief from creating a message transferring money from someone else’s account? Bitcoin requires a kind of signature on each message to prove that it was created by the true account owner. The signature serves the same purpose as a handwritten signature on a paper check, but it’s based on math rather than handwriting. The math comes from the world of cryptography, which is normally used to hide secret messages, but in Bitcoin, has been re-purposed to prove ownership. Each Bitcoin account number has an associated key that only the true account owner knows, and is used to create signatures by encrypting transaction messages.
Others test the signature by trying to decrypt it. In addition to not relying on handwriting analysis, these math-based signatures also can’t be copied and reused on other transactions, since the signatures are unique to each transaction. So these signatures keep unauthorized transactions from changing the ledger, but who exactly is checking the signatures, and overall, maintaining the ledger? One of the main goals of Bitcoin is to provide a decentralized system, meaning no single company or government can control it. With ledgers spread all over the world, traffic delays–and occasionally fraud–can lead to differences in those ledgers.
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So how does the world decide which version to use? Like in other democratic systems, there’s a vote, but it’s a bit different than a typical ballot system. The first person to solve a puzzle announces their solution and everyone updates to that version. So the vote turns out to be a kind of mathematical race, but it’s designed to favor the majority’s version.
This is because the more people there are working on a particular version, the faster it will be solved. Because new transactions are constantly being generated, this voting process repeats over and over again so maintainers can continually agree about new transactions. So why math problems instead of, say, emailing in votes to decide on a ledger? Without a central authority to register voters, it would be hard to enforce one vote per person–a single person could create multiple accounts to vote more than once, or even millions of times. The math problems prevent this by making each vote have a cost in computers and electricity.
So the math enables a fair vote in a decentralized system. To prevent someone from pre-solving a puzzle to win the race, each puzzle builds on previous answers, and the winner is not just the most recent solution, but the ledger version with the most total solutions. The puzzles are also extraordinarily special in that there are no tricks to solving them faster, other than by buying more computers and electricity. It’s this property that underlies the entire system, and gives people assurance that solutions are truly from the majority, and not a clever attacker. A final note about how money is created. This award acts as an incentive for people to help maintain the ledger, and is in addition to small fees senders attach to transactions. The voting system simply provides a convenient way to randomly distribute money into the world, and in fact, after 2140 no more money will be created.
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In summary, Bitcoin is an electronic currency that’s based on a collaboratively maintained ledger. People transfer money by sending messages to maintainers describing where and how much money should move. Maintainers make sure that the messages are from the true account owners by checking digital signatures. I hope this gives you a quick sense for how Bitcoin works. If you’d like to dive deeper into the rabbit hole, check out my 22-minute video: How Bitcoin Works under the Hood.
At my day job I write Augmented Reality apps for industrial applications, and we recently got the chance to develop for Google Glass, both an Augmented Reality application and heads-up guide for a factory worker assembling an industrial pump. Overall, I thought the technology was underwhelming, especially compared to the hype in the media and Google’s advertising. The screen is small, the battery is terrible, the processor is barely fast enough to do anything on the Augmented Reality front. I fully expected it to directly connect my brain to the Google-plex, and turn me into some sort of man-machine hybrid that never forgot a face, with the entirety of wikipedia ready to drop in on any conversation. What I got was a gadget that showed me text messages and let me take pictures without me having to fish out my phone–which is actually pretty great, but not change-the-world-worthy. Glass, comparing it against some imagined set of capabilities, and maybe giving it a little too much credit–and fear–than it deserves. Glass is not innovative because it puts a screen on your face.
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For some reason Americans don’t haggle or negotiate over price–you either pay the listed price or you don’t buy it. Except at maybe garage sales or car delearships, but even there we hate it. 4k and making the sale into this time-consuming game of counter-offers. Here are a few of my tales about how I discovered this, followed by some tips. Note: I’m not claiming to be some master negotiator, but I think just by making the smallest effort you can reap huge savings. The closets and cupboards that we don’t open very often were acquiring some nasty dank and stale smells over time. Rather than buying an air freshener, we found out that cut up Christmas Tree branches worked pretty well as DIY air fresheners.
It’s been about 4 months and the closets still smell pine-fresh. We cut up an entire mini-tree into several tubs of branches and put them in the closets and cabinets that don’t get opened very much. This is a shorter version of my original “How Bitcoin Works Under the Hood” 22 minute video, and it’s also geared more towards non-programmers. At a very basic level, Bitcoin is just a digital file or ledger that contains names and balances, and people exchange money by changing this file. When Bob sells Carol a lawn mower for 5.
2 Bitcoins, Bob’s balance goes up by 5. 2, and Carol’s down by 5. There’s no gold or government issued money backing these numbers. Bob is only willing to trade his real-life lawn mower for a higher number in this digital file because he has faith that other people will also trust the system. So who maintains this ledger and makes sure no one cheats?
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One goal of Bitcoin is to avoid any centralized control, so every participant maintains their own copy of the ledger. One surprising consequence of this is that everyone can see everyone else’s balances, although the real system only uses account numbers and not names, so there’s some level of anonymity. If everyone maintains their own ledger, how are all the ledgers kept in sync as money is transferred? At a basic level, when you want to send money, you simply tell everyone else by broadcasting a message with your account number, the receiver’s, and the amount. Everyone across the entire world then updates their ledger.
As a quick aside, I’m describing how Bitcoin works for power users–people who help maintain the system. You can also just use the system to send a receive money, however, without maintaining a ledger. If sending money is as simple as creating a message with some account numbers, what’s to stop a thief, Alice, from spending Bob’s money by using his account number? Like a pen and paper check, Bitcoin requires a kind of signature to prove that the sender is the real owner of an account, but it’s based on math rather than handwriting. I run a meetup group called Controversial Topic Discussion Club in Atlanta.
Complete strangers from college age to retired come together regularly to discuss topics like gun control, abortion, drug legalization, charter schools, religion, and many more. Before getting into the details, I want to clarify that the goal of our discussions may be different than the goal of moderating a business meeting, where you might be trying to reach a decision. Our group is more focused on learning rather than reaching any consensus, or changing anyone’s mind. We’re also more interested in just having a good time rather than detailing out the next health care bill, so I would rather let an interesting conversation meander rather than keep it laser focused.