Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

29 Dec 2017, 11:44 a.m.

Blockchain and Bitcoin, Dar Williams, And So On

Sipping my soda water at the saloon across the street before the Untitled Kondabolu Brothers Project show Wednesday night, I struck up a conversation with a guy who works in an art gallery, and with his friend who works in publishing.

We talked about the Kondabolus, about current events in India, about their artistic endeavors, about the business of business books and the current interest in Bitcoin and the blockchain. And the guy said he kept hearing about those things and did not understand what they were. I gave him a simplified explanation (grateful to Scott Rosenberg's explanation which I'd enjoyed previously), and decided to record it here.

I explained that the blockchain and Bitcoin are different, and that he can expect that the blockchain is gonna stay around even if Bitcoin isn't what it's used for, like magnetic tape stayed around even though Betamax didn't take off and VHS did.

I asked him to think of a ledger, where we write down financial accounts -- money going in, money going out. Now think of one that's got two columns, one for you and one for me. With that ledger, you can track the money you exchange with me, because on the left is you and on the right is me. So it's not just about $300 in or $20 out, now, individual pluses and minuses. Now, every row matches up and you know where everything came from or went. Yup, he could conceive of that, a shared accounting record like that.

Now, I said, imagine a lot of people could do that together, so the ledger had records for the money moving around among all of us. And imagine that we could trust that record because it wasn't written in pencil, it was written in ink, so we could trust its provenance -- new stuff will only be added at the end, and the old stuff won't be changed.

That's the blockchain, I said. And that's why it would actually be useful as a shared notebook where lots of different people have to look at a record together and add notes for the future, for stuff like electronic medical records and real estate records. When did the patient get that diagnosis? Oh, it was between this surgery and that surgery.

So that's the blockchain, I explained. That's a basic technology. When people talk about a distributed, append-only ledger, that's blockchain -- "distributed" because lots of people can do it together even if they don't know each other, and "append-only" because you can only add to the end, not change stuff that's in the earlier records.

And Bitcoin is an implementation of that technology to do money, to agree about who has what money.

I asked him: Think of a Monopoly game. The box comes with, I don't know, a thousand bucks of Monopoly money. OK, so everyone in the game can trade it around. But what if you want to get a lot more people in the game and people want to do stuff and we need more money in the system, more of these tokens that people can exchange? How do you get more money into the system, add new tokens at a reasonable rate, and have everyone trust it -- trust its provenance?

Remember SETI@home? I asked. He did. I reminded him of how it had worked -- back before there was a "cloud" you could buy time on (the cloud is just other people's computers, after all, as the saying goes), the researchers said, please install this software on your computer. And then when your computer's not busy, at night, we'll give your computer a chunk of work, some data that a space telescope collected, and then your computer can use its spare time to crunch those numbers and check, hey, are there any weird patterns in that data? Do we think there are there aliens here?

And so if you've heard of Bitcoin "mining", it's kinda like that. What the people behind Bitcoin decided on is: the way you make more tokens is by having your computer solve the kind of really hard math problems that we basically need computers to do. It's just in the nature of this kind of math problem that it takes a computer a long time, crunching data, to solve the problem, but once it comes up with a solution, it's easy to check whether that solution is right. And so if your computer crunches out the next solution, then that makes a new token, and by default, you own it, because you, your computer did the work of solving that problem. He got that.

But that means people who want to make Bitcoin are like, okay, I'll get a huge row of computers to do it! And that uses a bunch of electricity which is awful for climate change! Yeah, he'd heard about that.

And so that's another reason, in late 2017, why personal computer security is more important than ever. There's the Trump Administration and its invasion of people's privacy, and surveillance, and so on. But also, when someone tries to trick you with spam or a virus these days, it's not just because they want to get your bank account password or your other private personal information. That hacker is now trying to install malware on your computer so they can use it like an evil SETI@home, evil crowdsourcing, so they can make your computer crunch those numbers to make new tokens (Bitcoins) for them. Your computer crunches the numbers but when you "mine" the Bitcoins they go to the hacker's account.

Also: So once you have this distributed trusted ledger, you don't really need people's names. So that means it's really useful for people who want to do sketchy things, and so from the beginning, the kinds of people who are interested in Bitcoin and other "cryptocurrencies" ("cryptography" meaning the study of how you make things secret + "currency") and want to use it include many of the kinds of people who give libertarians a bad name. He had heard of "the Dark Web" and made the connection here.

Around this point I started explaining what is and is not fiat currency, but it was time to line up to get a good seat at the show, so I left him and his friend to catch up and I crossed the street. As I stood in line, a (drunk?) woman who'd overheard me at the bar came up to me and tried to start a chat -- she said she works from home and feels isolated from what is going on in the world more generally. I sympathized with her; I work from home, a lot, too, and isolation can be hard. Her friend apologized for her, gently drew her away and started walking her to the subway stop; I lost sight of them.

I got a front-row seat at the show and had a lovely time. I'm currently reading Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott, and it strikes me that Ashok Kondabolu's relentlessly contrarian and cheerful self-revelatory style is a bit like Lamott's, especially vivid when they discuss addiction or antisocial reflexes. During audience Q&A, I mentioned that I am the single person who's contributed the most to the English Wikipedia page about Hari Kondabolu and asked whether there were any major inaccuracies, on any of the Wikipedias, about either Hari or Ashok. Looks like there aren't! Hari Kondabolu looked through that article live on stage and said with wide eyes, this is everything I've ever done. I was incredibly proud.

Last night I went to a Dar Williams show. I snagged a front-row seat but the seat next to me remained empty, and I eventually realized it wasn't visible to the people standing at the back. So I went to look for people who might want it; next time I do this, I need to start my sentence with "there's a spare seat up front" and not start by asking if someone's there alone. I was not hitting on you, two women I came up to!

A guy overheard me and was glad to come up front; he's a teacher with a bad back. We talked about where we'd lived, and about what coworking spaces do that coffeeshops don't, and what Meetup does that Facebook doesn't. He asked what I do (I explained a project manager's job as coordinative communication), and what kind of software I specialize in -- I briefly described the several different worlds of software development, like embedded stuff and games and websites and developer tools and so on, and said I mostly specialize in stuff for websites and in developer tools.

And within that, I said, I have a further specialty, which is not about those worlds, but about the approach to making software. There's a more open, collaborative approach, and a more closed one, and I specialize in the collaborative one. "Is that anything like open source?" Aha! But he didn't know what that meant, and asked questions, so I talked about open source a while. I talked about the four freedoms and about licensing. He asked whether more software is proprietary or open source, and so I talked about how the default for making software is simply to leave it under US copyright and how therefore, because of inertia if nothing else, most software people write is probably proprietary. And I told him about how most of the time when you interact with websites you're interacting with JavaScript that is unfree. And I was in the middle of explaining the difference between source code and binary when Anaïs Mitchell came on, and then I explained some more things during intermission, and then Dar Williams came on.

I don't know when I have cried more than at that show last night. I started listening to Dar Williams because Seth Schoen introduced me to her music, nearly twenty years ago, probably just a few months after he introduced me to free and open source software. So many of us sang along to "The Babysitter's Here" and "As Cool As I Am" (she paused her own guitar and voice to gesture to us and we all sang "I am the others" together; I feel like I never realized how anthemic that song is before) and "The Christians And The Pagans" and "When I Was A Boy" and "Iowa" (which always makes me think of this great West Wing fanfic) and "Road Buddy", and I hear a lot more in "After All" than I did before. She read aloud from her book. She does this show in Brooklyn the last week of every year, and I'm going to try to go now that I know that. 2018, 2019, 2020 -- something to look forward to in every year. I could use that.

When you're in love, sometimes you feel like every love song applies to you. When I'm trying to change, to improve myself, I find fresh news in trite old platitudes, even in inspirational quotes people share on social media, as shocking and embarrassing as some part of me thinks that is, and in songs I've known for years. I'm in a bit of my life where I'm listening to Vienna Teng and Dar Williams and the Mountain Goats to give me different lenses for my melancholy, some thoughtful and loving answers to the "what's the point? all is vanity" that pops up. This year I saw the Mountain Goats and Dar Williams and Regina Spektor live and yeah, I'm one of those people crying and singing along at the show, I'm one of the people these shows are for. Sign me up. I'll go in the cold, I'll go alone, I'll pay ridiculous service surcharges for tickets. I'm very hesitant to say I need things, but gosh it turns out that without this particular vitamin I will start developing emotional scurvy.

It turns out that when I started listening to Dar Williams she was not that much younger than I am now.

Keep going.

Comments

Brendan
31 Dec 2017, 16:28 p.m.

I really liked reading this, and Kat read over my shoulder and said I had to tell you she liked it too.

Jesse the K
jesse-the-k.dreamwidth.org
31 Dec 2017, 19:52 p.m.

Thank you x100--this is the first blockchain explanation that makes sense.