I attended Dominic Frisby’s talk at Brian’s, and Brian asked me to write about what I learned.
The talk did not get far into the technicalities of Bitcoin, which was good for me as I already think I know most of it. Until recently I knew some of it, and two articles by Ken Shirriff completed that picture.
But Dominic is not the quiet, contemplative, theoretical person that I am. When he wants to find something out, he goes out and talks to people. This means he has lots of stories. And so I learnt of his experiences attending a Bitcoin auction under a marquee in a London back-street (the most culturally diverse gathering he has ever attended), talking to wealthy Bitcoin owners who live in squats and are part of the Occupy movement, and exploring the myriad Darknet marketplaces that have sprung up after the demise of Silk Road. He compared Bitcoin now to Rock and Roll in the 50s. People are doing it for fun, with irreverence, but also a sense that it is something big and uncontrollable, and with the same pattern of reaction from authorities: horror gradually giving way to acceptance.
This irreverence is particularly on display with the alternative crypto-currency (or altcoin) Dogecoin, which I think should be pronounced doggy-coin because there is a picture of a dog on its logo, but everyone else pronounced it with the o from go and a soft j. Dogecoin was spun off from Bitcoin as a joke, but is finding uses in micropayments because you can pay tiny amounts with big, psychologically pleasing numbers. I actually mined some Dogecoin the evening before the talk, because I wanted to try out mining and it turns out you can’t mine Bitcoins without specialised hardware, but you can mine altcoins. I currently have 600 Dogecoins worth 40p.
A developer of a Dogecoin smartphone app was in attendance, and he told the story of a Dogecoin fundraiser that managed to send the Jamaican bobsleigh team and Luger Shiva Keshavan from India (who became known as the Underdoge) to the Winter Olympics. We all discussed the usefulness of microtransactions for tipping the authors of interesting blog posts. They might need this when all the newspapers run out of money. Here is my Dogecoin address, by the way, hint hint, I have no shame:
Before the talk I was confused about altcoins, wondering why anyone would make yet another crypto-currency, but now I understand. There was discussion about how Bitcoin might fall, be replaced by something else, and eventually there will be a winner. But the other view in the room, and the one I favour, is of all these currencies co-existing. Partly they will compete, and partly they will serve different functions. For example, there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins but there will be 5 million new Dogecoins every year forever. It is possible that Bitcoin will be used as a store of value and other currencies will be used for daily spending. Whatever inconvenience this causes can be solved with good software: whoever solves it first will be the new Paypal.
There are lots of problems impeding the mainstream acceptance of Bitcoin, and a sense that people are working on solving all of them. The demise of the exchange Mt.Gox will lead to better security practices such as distributed signatures, ways of auditing banks, and peer to peer exchanges. People who want more safety will get deposit insurance and wallets pegged to fiat currencies. And there is no shortage of convenient payment methods. There is even a Bitcoin vending machine in London.
The other cool thing I did that evening was buy a signed copy of Dominic Frisby’s book Life After The State for 0.03 BTC (he would have accepted less, but the novelty of the transaction made me generous). I’ll be sure to read his Bitcoin book, too.
“Natural gas was the origin of the crisis in Ukraine. It is in Russia’s interest to keep Ukraine and Europe hooked on Russian gas at prices just low enough to quash incentives to drill and frack for shale gas. Russia’s state-run news and propaganda outlets have for years disseminated articles critical of fracking and supported opponents of the technique. Now with Yanukovich gone it’s as if Putin has taken the Crimea as a kind of hostage — collateral to hold against what Ukraine owes Russia for gas. The desperation of Putin’s actions underscore the threat that shale gas development really does pose to Russia’s gas-fueled diplomacy.”
Christopher Helman, Forbes.
A new book, called The Frackers, has come out on the issue of the shale-gas engineers and how they have succeeded despite, and not because of, state involvement. Al Gore or whoever might try and lay claim to have invented the internet but they certainly cannot do so with fracking. About the best that can be said of the role of government is that it sometimes upholds property rights necessary for said activity to go ahead.
Sam Bowman’s talk tomorrow at the Rose and Crown has been causing worries for Libertarian Home organiser Simon Gibbs, on account of Meetup not working properly. Simon has become unsure about how many people are going to show up, but urges us all to come anyway. (I definitely intend to.) He ends his report on all this by saying that …:
… the capacity issue sometimes looks tricky on paper, but it rarely is.
My experience, with my last Friday of the month meetings, which take place in a living room which is only about half the size of the room upstairs at the Rose and Crown, is that it is almost mystical how exactly the number of attenders seems always to suit the space available for them. It’s a kind of benign spacial variant of the original Parkinson’s Law. Last Friday, for instance, Dominic Frisby looked like he might be stretching my infrastructure beyond its limits. But then I emailed people to that effect, and there was a bug going round, and the weather turned nasty, the upshot of all that was that the number who showed was just right to fill the room in comfort, and just not enough to cause any discomfort. Amazing.
It’s like we really do not need to be planned or coerced by a central authority, but can just sort things out for ourselves.
Mine was a fairly Bitcoin-savvy gathering, and several of the Bitcoin-savants present have said that they were surprised at how much more they learned, both from Frisby and from each other. I was not one of those experts; I was merely there. For me, the main message I took away from the evening was that Bitcoin, in the opinion of many people, does have real value, because it makes electronic economic transactions far easier. Although some doubts were expressed, nobody present dismissed Bitcoin as a complete fraud and a bubble waiting to just burst and vanish. In general the mood about Bitcoin was very positive, more so than I had expected, and of course even better about the general principle of encrypted currencies generally.
The big news item was that Frisby reckons he has cracked the identity of the founding genius of Bitcoin, a mysterious figure who is currently only known by a Japanese alias. Who is he? Read my Bitcoin book, said Frisby. This will be available some time around late spring or early summer, and I will keep Samizdata posted.
The other thing I will remember about last Friday was that, for complicated reasons involving an NHS kidney operation that suddenly became available (after a huge wait) to his usual back-up canine custodian, Frisby asked if he could bring his dog with him. You don’t want mere attenders bringing dogs. But since the speaker would be the main victim if a dog attended and spoke out of turn, I figured that Frisby’s dog almost certainly would behave exactly as well as promised, and so it proved. Frodo, despite being rather obviously hungry and eager to make friends with potential food providers, behaved impeccably throughout the entire evening. Not a single bark, not one. Again: amazing.
Picture of Frisby and Frodo:
Sam Bowman’s talk tomorrow will be about the idea of a legally fixed minimum wage. The libertarian orthodoxy is that, just as we don’t want or need the government to be organising our social lives or our healthcare, a government-ordained minimum wage is a really bad idea. When I met Sam earlier in the week, this orthodoxy is what he told me he would be reinforcing in his talk, citing some recent evidence.
We also discussed the idea of Sam addressing one of my last Friday of the month meetings later in the year, on the far more contentious subject of “Bleeding Heart Libertarianism”. He is, or such is my understanding, and no doubt with various reservations and qualifications, for it. I am not now totally against Bleeding Heart Libertarianism but am strongly inclined that way. I am far less inclined to leave the definition of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism as the sole property of those now calling themselves its supporters. I also have a very high opinion of Sam Bowman. That should be another good gathering, as and when it happens.
Incoming from Detlev Schlichter. He is back blogging. His second recent posting, the one after the one that just says he’s back, is about Bitcoin. He thinks that the Bitcoin principle, so to speak, even if maybe not Bitcoin itself, has a future:
Central bankers of the world, be afraid, be very afraid!
My own sense is that, just as Schlichter says, the world’s rulers are now stuck in a monetary prison of their own making, from which they cannot now extricate themselves. Quite a few of them understand approximately what is wrong with their current policies, even as many others of these people have no clue. Many others favour the current state of the banking system, because it enriches them even as it impoverishes most others. But even those banker/politicians who do understand what harm they are now inflicting upon the world and would like to stop, don’t know how to. It is one thing to be in a prison and to know that you are in a prison, quite another to escape from the prison.
To switch metaphors from the prison to the hospital, the world’s banking system is now alive rather than dead, but not in the sense that the patient is up and about, playing beach volleyball with its children like a tampon advert woman. It is alive merely in the sense that a terminally ill patient, lying in a hospital bed after a horribly intrusive death-postponing operation, sinking slowly rather than fast, is also alive rather than dead.
Only outside monetary influences, such as Bitcoin or such as variations on the Bitcoin theme, will bring back a world of true money.
The fact that, if you put some of your wealth into Bitcoin, you just might lose damn near the lot is a feature not a bug. Government guarantees that you won’t lose out no matter how unwise your decisions may prove to be are the problem, not the solution.
Schlichter spends quite a lot of his piece denouncing a certain Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at Boston University’s School of Management, but he ends his piece by quoting him again…
If not controlled and tightly regulated, Bitcoin – a decentralized, untraceable, highly volatile and nationless currency – has the potential to undermine this longstanding bond between sovereign and its currency.
… and agreeing with him! That’s a feature rather than a bug.
Welcome back to the blogosphere, Herr Schlichter.
LATER: And as I should have added, I am hosting a talk tomorrow evening about Bitcoin etc., given by Dominic Frisby (that’s Dominic’s thoughts on the recent Bitcoin disaster/price plummet (which Bruce Hoult explained here)). There is not a lot of room left for more would-be attenders, but there is, as of now, some.
In an earlier post here on Samizdata, Bruce Hoult posted some very informative comments about MtGox and Bitcoin that we thought it warranted a higher profile, so…
So much misinformation!
What has happened is that people who bought Bitcoins on MtGox thought they owned them. They did not, according to the Bitcoin system. MtGox did. MtGox kept their own records of who ‘owned’ what. And MtGox were incompetent.
Which should have been apparent from the start: MtGox learns Bitcoin
The proper way to use Bitcoin is to keep your wallet of Bitcoins on your own computer. And back it up. Several times. Print it on paper if you want — it will likely fit on one side of A4 in not very small print. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. It is a bearer certificates. If you lose your wallet or forget the password then those Bitcoins are gone out of circulation forever.
That is not what happened with MtGox. They gave Bitcoins that people thought they owned (but did not) to other unauthorised people. It is theft. Just like a bank robbery. Those Bitcoins still exist, just in other hands.
This has absolutely no effect on people who keep their Bitcoins on their own computer (or phone). There are the same number in circulation as before. Bitcoins still can’t be counterfeited or inflated.
If you want/need to use a place similar to MtGox to turn normal money into Bitcoins then DO NOT LEAVE THEM IN YOUR ONLINE WALLET THERE. Make yourself an identity and wallet on your own computer and make a payment from your account on the Bitcoin exchange to your own identity. Then you are perfectly safe.
Well, you are if you do your backups diligently.
Or, if you want to turn normal cash into Bitcoins, find someone who has Bitcoins and wants cash, agree a price, have them do a transfer of Bitcoins from their wallet to yours (using the actual Bitcoin system, not an exchange), and hand them the cash.
The recent problems are not with the Bitcoin system, they are with finding trustworthy and competent ‘bank’ or ‘escrow’ services who will not lose or steal what they hold in trust for you.
To amplify on the previous.
Assume you want to use Bitcoins to buy a used TV, and both you and the seller have Bitcoin software and wallets on your own computers: You make a transfer from your Bitcoin wallet to theirs, using the Bitcoin software. You wait about 10 minutes for the next block of world-wide transactions to be created (mined). If you are paranoid, you wait for another block to be created, pointing to the one with your transaction.
At this point the transaction is recorded on thousand of computers all over the world. They all agree that Bitcoins have been transferred from you to the seller. The transaction is irrevocable.
Now you ask the seller to send you the TV. There is a risk that they will not send you the TV, even though they have the money.
This is exactly the same situation as any on-line auction site, or newspaper classifieds or whatever.
The solutions are the same. You can not get your money back, but you can damage their reputation in whatever venue you used to arrange the deal. Or you can meet them in person and do both sides of the swap in person. Or you can use a trusted third party as escrow — you give them the money, and the seller gives them the goods, and when they have both they pass them on.
The problem is to find a competent and trustworthy escrow service.
It looks as if a large Bitcoin exchange, Mt.Gox, has disappeared, along with large numbers of customers’ Bitcoins. The sequence of events is described in one Reddit post, and the media reaction is predicted in another, along with some advice:
…the lesson is not that we ought to seek out “regulation” to save us from the evils and incompetence of man. For the regulators are men too, and wield the very same evil and incompetence, only enshrined in an authority from which it can wreck amplified and far more insidious destruction. Let us not retreat from our rising platform only to cower back underneath the deranged machinations of Leviathan.
In general, Reddit seems to be the best source of information.
There are people predicting that this is the end of Bitcoin, and others pointing out that Mt.Gox is just an exchange, and not a very well run one at that, so good riddance because Mt.Gox has been blamed for price fluctuations in the past. Of course, there will be no state bailout. We might be about to learn what happens to a free market currency in a big crisis.
One of my favourite, regular visit websites is Dezeen. At least half of the stuff there is of very little interest to me. But, I find myself wanting to look at about a quarter of it more carefully, and a single figure percentage of what it sticks up tends to interest me a lot. That’s a lot of interestingness, when you consider that Dezeen is, as of now, updated several times every day.
In particular, Dezeen often features an interesting new gizmo, news of which can be easily rehashed into one of those ain’t capitalism grand postings that we love to do here, as often as we are able to tear our eyes away from the ghastliness of politics.
So, for instance, today, Dezeen has a description of a supersonic airplane, the distinguishing feature of which is that instead of the airplane having lots of windows for its highly paid passengers to look out of, it instead has cameras recreating the visual effect of looking out, and much more continuously and impressively than is possible when you are relying on real windows. Like this:
Quite how exactly this arrangement fakes the real experience of looking out of a continuous window shaped like that, I do not know. Will 3D effects be involved? But considering that the faster an airplane goes (this one is intended to be very fast indeed) the more expensive it becomes to carve windows into it, and considering that the cost and bulk and weight and quality both of cameras and of screens are all variables that are moving in exactly the right directions, this struck me immediately as one of those “Why did I not think of this?” ideas. By that I do not mean that I could do the actual work of contriving such an airplane, merely that I ought to have realised far sooner than today that other much more engineering-savvy people than I would very soon be talking in public about such notions, and that they presumably have been doing this for quite some while, without me noticing it.
I would further assume that the structural benefits to having an airplane which does not have a lot of quite large holes scattered all along its fuselage must be considerable. Yes:
“It has long been known that the windows cause significant challenges in designing and constructing an aircraft fuselage. They require additional structural support, add to the parts count and add weight to the aircraft,” said the company.
On the other hand, if what is required inside the airplane is concentration on the job to be done when the airplane has landed, as might well be the case, then other imagery can go in the “window” instead. Or, presumably, no imagery at all.
Relying on cameras for a task like this means that if the worst happens and the cameras all go haywire, nobody dies. A few people merely have a somewhat less amusing trip than they might have been anticipating. Do the pilots have an actual window in front of them? That might be wise, but maybe not.
Whatever the details are, and indeed whether or not this particular airplane ever gets anywhere near taking to the air, I’m impressed. And talking of people who are much more engineering-savvy than I am, I wonder what our commentariat thinks about this notion.
In the event that Scotland disregards my feelings and votes for independence, what currency would you recommend it use?
Opinions on this matter do not split neatly between Left and Right. Here are two of today’s articles on the subject; one from the Adam Smith Institute and one from the Guardian. A few days ago the pro-independence, pro-market campaign group “Wealthy Nation” republished this article from the Institute of Economic Affairs, recommending that Sterling be kept for the time being. It looks a serious piece, but it was written before the recent interventions by George Osborne and Manuel Barroso.
Commenters wishing to use words like “seignorage” are requested to give me warning first so that I can hide behind the sofa.
There is a theory that suggests to be good at business you must be hard nosed, ruthless, dishonest and fight for everything. It essentially suggests that business is a form of warfare carried out by individuals against each other where the winner takes all. It states that if you’re not tough enough you shouldn’t get involved in ‘business’.
This I have learnt is complete bollocks. Yes, there are bastards out there – lots of them. But the essence of good business is cooperation and honesty. It’s about finding and working with decent and honourable people. Men and women who value what you do, pay you on time, go that extra mile for you and want to achieve the same things as you.
You can, if you desire, swim with the sharks. You may even become the biggest shark. But most of the time you will end up swimming round in circles wasting time, money, resources and energy on people who simply don’t deserve that time. And certainly aren’t paying you a fair rate for it. These people will stop you achieving your goals and add no value to your life or your business.
My advice is simple. Be the good guy or gal, fight clean and keep away from the time wasters, charlatans and arseholes.
- Rob Waller
Be warned that this is not one of those “now read the whole thing” postings. That is the whole thing, apart from the title (“On Swimming with Sharks”) and the words “end of sermon” at the very end. And now you have those words here also.
The paper money of the Soviet Republic supported the Soviet Government in its most difficult moments, when there was no possibility of paying for the civil war out of direct tax receipts. Glory to the printing press! To be sure, its days are numbered now but it has accomplished three-quarters of the task. In the archives of the great proletarian revolution, alongside the modern guns, rifles, and machine guns which mowed down the enemies of the proletariat, an honorary place will be occupied by that machine gun of the People’s Commissariat of Finance which attacked the bourgeois regime in its rear – its monetary system – by converting the bourgeois economic law of money circulation into a means of destruction of that same regime and into a source of financing the revolution.
- Bolshevik economist Evgeny A. Preobrazhensky, in his booklet entitled Paper Money during the Proletarian Dictatorship, published in 1920.
Quoted by Dominic Frisby in Life After The State (p. 92).
Just quoted at Instapundit, from this report:
According to the study, there is “widespread concern” about the negative impact Bitcoin could have on national currencies and how it could be used to fund criminal operations and tax fraud.
The first half of that is presumably what they are really worried about, and the second half is how they are already selling the story.
Whenever you hear of businesses or others carping about the lack of financing for this or that preferred cause, and demand that the State (ie, you, the taxpayer) steps in to fill the gap, it is worth bearing in mind that one of the glories of capitalism is in coming up with ever more inventive ways of putting those who want capital in touch with those who have it. This is the thrust of an article in the magazine Reason by Greg Beato (February 2014 edition):
Traditionally, the wealthiest members of society have had little trouble leveraging their resources. Those resources are highly concentrated and thus easy to strategically deploy when necessary. For the 99 percent, government provided a way to accomplish this too. Everyone pays taxes, and as a result, we get streetlights and Yellowstone National Park.
But taxation is a pretty crude form of crowdfunding. You don’t get to choose the size of your contribution. You can’t directly specify its intended use. And even though our tax system lacks the functionality of Kickstarter, participation is mandatory. When some senator-of-a-friend-of-a-friend decides he wants to follow his bliss and finally build that $2.2 billion dream dam he’s been talking about all these years, you’ve got to chip in whether you like it or not.
Crowdfunding, in contrast, privileges hands-on, voluntary democracy. If you think the United States needs more solar infrastructure sooner rather than later, crowdfund it. If you think that service-sector jobs that pay livable wages are the key to widespread prosperity, crowdfund businesses that pay such wages.
For the allegedly disenfranchised 99 percent, it has never been easier to seek common cause with like-minded souls, to pool your resources, and to exert influence in strategic and tangible ways. You might even call this a shining age of middle-class empowerment. If anyone ever decides to make a documentary about it, the financing should be fairly easy to swing.
As I sometimes note, while Hollywood, for instance, often produces films that slag off capitalism, (Michael Moore being the most egregious case) or smaller independent film producers do the same, the irony is that they make use of the innovation in fund-raising that modern capitalism constantly throws up.
A related area of capital provision that bypasses banks – and their current, often stringent capital rules – is what is known as “peer-to-peer” lending. And needless to say, the UK financial regulator is getting concerned about this, fearful that people who lend money might make mistakes or, horrors, those who borrow might not fully understand the risks. Rob Fisher of this blog wrote on the topic last year.
All this flowering of capital-raising is not really all that new, if you think about it. The idea of equities and other securities has been around for a long time; what is new is that the internet has put both sides to the transaction in touch much more easily, reducing barriers and the frictional costs associated with it. That’s surely an example of the “long tail” effect at work.