Tag Archives: Bitcoin

Bitcoin for Dummies — What Is It, and How Does It Work?

https://s15-us2.ixquick.com/cgi-bin/serveimage?url=http%3A%2F%2Ft1.gstatic.com%2Fimages%3Fq%3Dtbn%3AANd9GcRMCd_GXEMKjkXEHr4gy73dZHkGe6R_iRHCqa2N-eAOmfl4129Gfg&sp=44a211d30ef62402d875b5e9aafa3f9e&anticache=277451You might have been hearing about Bitcoin more frequently in the past few years. Recently it made a lot of news because of the ransomware attacks that affected countries around the world by demanding Bitcoin ransom to release embargoed documents on computers. So what the heck is Bitcoin, and how does it work?

First, let’s get this out of the way: bitcoin is money. It’s money as much as the dollar or euro or yen is money. And it’s fully interconvertible with these or any other currencies. Bitcoin is different than these national currencies in many key ways, however, because Bitcoin is a type of digital money that basically runs itself without any government intervention and minimal regulation.

Bitcoin is both the network for using the currency as well as the currency itself. It’s usually denoted Bitcoin (big B) when talking about the network and bitcoin (small b) when talking about the actual currency. For example, I have about four bitcoin in my online wallet, and I use the Bitcoin network to send payments.

How do you get bitcoin? There are two ways: Either you buy bitcoin, or you mine bitcoin. Buying bitcoin is quite easy. There are many online exchanges that will sell you bitcoin in exchange for whatever currency you normally use (dollars, etc.). I use Coinbase to buy my bitcoin, and it’s the most mainstream and scrutinized of the current exchanges. It was founded by Wall Street types in order to help Bitcoin become more mainstream. There are many others you can use, such as Kraken or CoinMama.

You can also buy bitcoin in person at various bitcoin ATMs around the world. There are now about 1,200 such ATMs in 60 countries around the world, and they’re growing rapidly. Here’s a site that allows you to find the nearest ATM.

Last, you can buy bitcoin through real people by using localbitcoins.com to find people in your area who will sell you bitcoin without going through an online exchange at all.

The second way to get bitcoin is by ”mining” them. You mine bitcoin using fast computers specially built for doing this. These specialized machines crunch numbers to discover the right codes. Every 10 minutes, the Bitcoin network releases a new block of bitcoin and the party or parties who discovered the right codes gets that block of coins (currently 12.5 coins per block). Bitmain is one of the bigger mining machine manufacturers and their newest model, the T9, sells for about one bitcoin.

This number crunching for “mining” is why bitcoin is referred to as a “crypto currency”: it’s all about using very large numbers that take massive computing power to preserve the integrity of the system and avoid hacking. The Bitcoin system basically turns electricity into money.

Security concerns?

So far, Bitcoin has never been hacked. There’s a common misconception that it has. Many companies that buy and sell bitcoin — bitcoin exchanges — have been hacked. Most famously, MtGox, one of the earliest exchanges, was hacked in 2013 and people lost a lot of money. But even then the Bitcoin network wasn’t hacked. Only the exchange was hacked.

That said, security is very important for those buying and selling bitcoin because the code itself is the currency. It’s a string of numbers and letters called a “hash key.” If someone has your hash keys, they have your bitcoin. There’s nothing extra beyond the hash key.

Your bitcoin are kept generally in an online wallet at an exchange like Coinbase or Xapo. Here’s a site that compares the security of the various means for storing bitcoin. Coinbase wins that comparison currently for online wallets and the Ledger Nano wins for hardware wallets.

You can also keep your bitcoin in an online “vault,” which adds extra layers of security for bitcoin that you don’t plan to use for a while. For example, it takes a couple of days to withdraw bitcoin from the Coinbase vault, and various types of authentication are required before the transaction is complete.

For those who want to take matters more into their own hands and avoid having to trust an online wallet or vault, you can keep your bitcoin in a physical hard drive, or you can even just write your codes by hand on paper and keep them in your physical wallet in your pocket.

Personally, I use a variety of online wallets and vaults in order to prevent any single mishap or hack from hitting me too hard. I can’t be bothered with keeping the codes offline but maybe I will one day as an extra layer of security.

How much is Bitcoin worth?

The price of one bitcoin has grown from nothing in 2009 when the Bitcoin network was created to more than $1,800 in May. If you had invested $1,000 in bitcoin in 2010, you would be sitting on more than $12 million now. How has it gone up so much? Well, because increasing numbers of investors have decided to place their confidence in the system.

We can look at the stats to get a good feel for how fast Bitcoin has grown. Blockchain.info keeps detailed stats.

» The number of bitcoin in circulation has grown from zero in the beginning of 2009 to almost 16.5 million now, with only about 4.5 million more to mine (but this will take about a century to complete because mining becomes intentionally more and more difficult).

» The Bitcoin price grew from nothing to almost $1,200 at the end of 2013, plummeted to around $200 in 2014, and rose again to more than $1,800 in May.

» Bitcoin’s market capitalization has gyrated similarly, but is now about $30 billion, up from zero in 2009 and $12 billion at the end of 2016, and is enjoying a strong upward trend in 2017.

» All crypto currencies combined now have a market cap over $60 billion, including Ripple, Ethereum, Litcoin and many others, many of which are also on very strong upward trajectories.

» The number of Bitcoin wallet users (required to buy and conduct business using bitcoin) has grown from zero in 2009 to more than 7 million by mid-2016 and 14 million now.

» Bitcoin daily transactions have grown from nothing in 2009 to 210,000 in mid-2016 and more than 350,000 by May.

So we’re seeing the Bitcoin system roughly doubling in size each year, and there’s little reason to believe that this rate of growth will slow down at this point. If anything, it’s likely to increase.

What does “deflationary” currency mean?

Bitcoin is different than regular money in that there’s a limit to how many can be created: just 21 million. Ever. The idea behind this limit is that the value of this currency can’t be inflated away by policymakers. The dollar loses about 2 percent in value each year because of planned inflation, and this provides a strong incentive to invest rather than save — and that’s literally why the Federal Reserve has a target inflation rate of 2 to 3 percent.

Bitcoin is the opposite: It’s designed to always increase in value, so simply buying and holding may be a very good investment strategy. This is why Bitcoin is described as a “deflationary” currency rather than an inflationary currency.

There’s also a limit on how small each Bitcoin can be divided: into 100 million parts. This tiny part of a bitcoin is called a satoshi, in honor of its mysterious and anonymous creator Satoshi Nakamoto.

What is the blockchain?

The magic ingredient in Bitcoin is the distribution of trust in a vast electronic network. This distribution moots the need for the “centralization of trust” that is the function of central banks like the Federal Reserve. Central banks issue money, control interest rates and act as a lender of last resort in “fiat currency” systems like in the United States. The distribution of trust to the network performs these roles in the Bitcoin ecosystem. This trust network is called the “blockchain,” and it is the heart of Bitcoin.

The blockchain is an electronic record (ledger) of all bitcoin transactions that is stored on every node of the ever-increasing network of the Bitcoin ecosystem. Because it is completely distributed and constantly updated in real time, using very difficult cryptographic keys that require massive amounts of computing power, the blockchain can’t be shut down by any outside force. This fully decentralized system renders Bitcoin as a system practically immune from hackers. As mentioned above, individual bitcoin exchanges can and have been hacked, but Bitcoin itself has never been hacked.

The beauty of the blockchain and Bitcoin ecosystem is that it allows any person or people using it to avoid the centralized (and often abusive) power of central banks and of national governments entirely. ABN Amro bank chief said it well in 2015: “What the Internet has done for information and the way we communicate, the blockchain will do for value and the way we look at trust. The financial world is going to flip upside-down.”

We are witnessing that upside-down flip right now in real time. This is why we’ve seen literally $30 billion in new money come into the Bitcoin and other crypto currency space in the past six months alone.

Obviously, the decentralized nature and independence from government influence has appealed to libertarians and techno-optimists since Bitcoin’s creation. Bitcoin long has had a bad rep because it’s been used by various versions of the Silk Road website to buy and sell drugs and other illegal items. But there’s far more to Bitcoin than illegal drugs.

Bitcoin is now accepted by thousands of companies and vendors around the world. Japan recently recognized Bitcoin as a legitimate currency, and this means that more than 260,000 stores in Japan soon will start accepting Bitcoin.

We are very likely seeing the beginning of a very large wave of growth for Bitcoin and other crypto currencies like Ethereum.

Investing in Bitcoin

How should you invest in Bitcoin? I’ve always advised people that you shouldn’t invest anything in Bitcoin that you don’t mind losing. That’s generally still good advice because this currency and the technology behind it are still very new. They could just disappear for a variety of reasons.

But the highly positive trends in terms of wallet growth, acceptance by businesses and governments, as well as market cap and price, discussed above have led me recently to change my mind a little and suggest that Bitcoin should in fact be a part of any smart investor’s portfolio.

It shouldn’t be a large part, but it should definitely be a part of it. With returns like we’ve seen on Bitcoin in the past eight years, it’s reasonable to accept some risk.

Will Bitcoin change the world?

The last thing I’ll look at is the revolutionary potential for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in terms of how they may change the world. I wrote a piece in 2015 looking at how Bitcoin may stop China from replacing the United States on the world stage. This would be a good thing and could happen if enough Chinese simply start to prefer using bitcoin instead of yuan to conduct business. If China can’t control its currency it can’t control the world.

I also looked in a piece last year at whether Bitcoin is likely to be the future of money more generally. I concluded then and still believe that Bitcoin (or maybe some other coin built on the blockchain) will probably either grow in the next couple of decades to become a global currency or shrink down such that it becomes just an interesting historical footnote.

What happens if Bitcoin or something like it does replace national fiat currencies around the world? First, it makes it much harder for nations to raise massive amounts of money through printing or borrowing. This means that deficit spending will shrink or even go away. And, according to at least some Bitcoin libertarian optimists, this would also stop nations from waging war as much because they’d have to finance such wars as they go, with real money, rather than using deficit spending. A more peaceful world would indeed be a nice consequence of the Bitcoin revolution.

In closing, Bitcoin is a potentially transformative new type of currency that promises to create a more borderless and peaceful world, and an increasing flow of information and goods. It also may well lead to many unpredictable effects that we’ll simply have to sit back and watch as they unfold.

By Tom Hunt | Noozhawk

Vancouver House For Sale: Only 2,099 Bitcoin

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In February 2016 we explained, correctly in retrospect, that the reason behind the unprecedented surge in Vancouver home prices was the seemingly constant flood of “hot Chinese money” desperate to park itself as far away from China’s banking system, and into offshore real-estate. This is how we laid out the stylized sequence of events that culminated with Vancouver home prices surging by over 20%:

  1. Chinese investors smuggled out millions in embezzled cash, hot money or perfectly legal funds, bypassing the $50,000/year limit in legal capital outflows.
  2. They make “all cash” purchases, usually sight unseen, using third parties intermediaries to preserve their anonymity, or directly in person, in cities like Vancouver, New York, London or San Francisco.
  3. The house becomes a new “Swiss bank account”, providing the promise of an anonymous store of value and retaining the cash equivalent value of the original capital outflow.
  4. Then the owners disappear, never to be heard from or seen again.

Separately, in mid-2015, when bitcoin was still trading in the low $200s, we also predicted that in an attempt to bypass China’s increasingly more draconian capital controls, Chinese oligarchs and ordinary savers would increasingly turn to what at the time was a largely unregulated medium of exchange: bitcoin.

we would not be surprised to see another push higher in the value of bitcoin: it was earlier this summer when the digital currency, which can bypass capital controls and national borders with the click of a button, surged on Grexit concerns and fears a Drachma return would crush the savings of an entire nation. Since then, BTC has dropped (in no small part as a result of the previously documented “forking” with Bitcoin XT), however if a few hundred million Chinese decide that the time has come to use bitcoin as the capital controls bypassing currency of choice, and decide to invest even a tiny fraction of the $22 trillion in Chinese deposits in bitcoin (whose total market cap at last check was just over $3 billion), sit back and watch as we witness the second coming of the bitcoin bubble, one which could make the previous all time highs in the digital currency, seems like a low print.

With one bitcoin now going for roughly $1,800 – and with the PBOC repeatedly cracking down on all forms of bitcoin cross-border flow – this prediction also turned out to be right.

So putting the two together, at least one enterprising Canadian homeowner has decided to make life for potential Chinese buyers especially easy, and in a posting on the Hong Kong edition of Craigslist, has listed a relatively modest Vancouver house for the price of 2,099 bitcoin.

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At today’s exchange rate of US$1,737 for one bitcoin, the US dollar equivalent price is roughly $3.6 million or C$4.9 million. So what does nearly five million Canadian dollars buy enterprising Chinese investors who are willing to pay up for the convenience of bypassing currency conversion into Canadian dollars altogether? This:

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Source: ZeroHedge

Buy One Bitcoin And Forget About It

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Summary

  • For months we have been getting messages and e-mails about Bitcoin.
  • We have long been advocate for buying the BTC dips and riding it out for the longer term.
  • We explain why we think everyone’s BTC strategy should simply be: “Buy one Bitcoin and forget about it”.

By Parke Shall

That is our simple bitcoin advice. “Buy one and forget about it for a while.” Your loss today is going to be capped at about $1400 but, as was said in Back to the Future, “if this thing hits 88 miles per hour, you’re going to see some serious s***.”

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We wanted to take the time to write a small note today about our continued thinking on bitcoin and why we think a small investment in perhaps just one bitcoin could be a prudent strategy for asset diversification for any investor.

Hopefully, our track record on the digital currency also helps our credibility today. In the past, we have advocated for buying any and all dips in the digital currency making the argument time and time again that we believed bitcoin would continue to appreciate regardless of small aberrations that have occurred along the way. For instance in December of last year, we predicted bitcoin would soar through $1200 this year.

The conclusion has generally been the same in each of our bitcoin articles: we expect demand for bitcoin to continue to rise and, with a limited supply, and we expected this demand will push the price significantly higher. This is the dynamic we have seen during the course of bitcoin’s life cycle thus far,

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Many people have been deterred from investing or purchasing bitcoin at these levels because of how much the prices has appreciated so far. This is akin to not wanting to buy a stock while it is on its way up, despite its best years possibly being ahead of it. If you didn’t buy at $700 like we advocated, then yes, you missed out on a double. But who is to say that if you don’t buy here at around $1400 you won’t miss another double? In fact, we think the reality is that an investment in bitcoin today could pay off many multiples in the future as long as, as an investor, you have patience.

We also don’t think owning gold is a bad idea either. We are not sure why this argument of gold versus bitcoin started, but we own both. We like to think of them as our “old-school” and our “new school” hedges. Gold is an “old-school” hedge because it is actually a physical asset that you can reach out and touch that has been intertwined with economics for thousands of years. It has a great track record of demand and comes in finite amounts, therefore making it a great hedge against anything and everything that is “new school” in the market, from Keynesian theory to bitcoin.

Bitcoin obviously has the biggest track for potential appreciation, we believe. While gold may not go up 10 times in the event of a catastrophe or a risk off event, it still may appreciate significantly. We believe bitcoin, on the other hand, actually has the potential to appreciate over 100 times in the future, if it holds up. By that, we mean that there is definitely a theoretical case for the asset to appreciate this much, although there is probably a cautious likelihood of it happening. In other words, and not to sound hyperbolic, Bitcoin going to $1 million may not prove to be a total impossibility.

This appreciation may occur without a catastrophe or without a risk off event. In other words, we like bitcoin not only as an investment in the financial technology and not only as an investment in a digital currency but also as an investment in a hedge against central banks and the markets.

 

To explain:

1. We know that blockchain is at the core of what makes Bitcoin tick. Companies and governments have continued to invest in blockchain, and we believe that owning Bitcoin is another way to invest in one of the earliest and possibly the most well known blockchain project out there. Therefore, an investment in Bitcoin is an investment in Blockchain.

2. Not unlike gold, people use Bitcoin because they want less government and less regulation in their lives. Buying Bitcoin is a way to, at least for now, shore up a method of transacting value outside of the “system”. Gold offers the same benefits and is tangible, which is why we like owning both gold and Bitcoin as hedges against the “system”.

We have gotten numerous questions over the last year or so about what our strategy would be if we were new to investing in bitcoin. Put simply, the strategy would be to “buy one bit coin and just leave it”. One of a couple scenarios are going to happen.

The first situation is the worst. Let’s assume bitcoin winds up going to zero eventually and is somehow either rejected as a digital currency or disproven as a financial technology. In that case, you take a 100% loss. Sorry. At least your risk was defined.

The second situation is one where bitcoin is adopted in somewhat of the same fashion as it has been adopted of recent. Its use starts to drift from outside the mainstream to inside the mainstream and the price continues to appreciate. This is a case where you’d likely see appreciation in a bitcoin that you purchased today.

Finally, the third situation. We call this the grand slam. Bitcoin is unanimously excepted as the first and only prominent digital currency. It becomes a full-scale hedge, adopted by a significant portion of the population, against central banking systems and finance as we know it today. Given the fact that only about 20 million bitcoin will be issued in total, there will be a severe dry up in supply as billions of people worldwide look to get their share of the digital currency. This is a situation where the currency could appreciate 100 times what its worth now or more. Obviously, this is the most speculative of the three situations but could be a reality if an investor has enough patience to wait it out. This type of situation could take 15 to 30 years and this is why the title of this article is “buy one bitcoin and forget about it“.

 

Again, bitcoin does not come without risk.

Relative to other assets you may hold, like stocks, options and other currencies, Bitcoin is going to be extraordinarily volatile. Due to the fact that it is easily in the digital currency’s life cycle and that it has yet to be proven on a wide scale, investors can expect significant volatility, sometimes 20%+ in one day’s time, for the capital they have invested in Bitcoin.

Also, it is an all digital currency meaning that it needs digital infrastructure to survive. In a catastrophic scenario where our infrastructure is compromised, we have no idea what would happen to bitcoin. It isn’t tangible and you can’t physically hold it, which are two of its major detracting points versus gold. However, we see buying bitcoin at $1400 as a speculative investment that could yield immense results in the future if you have the wherewithal and you have the strength to hold it over time.

By Parke Shall | Orange Peel Investments

Also see How Block Chain Will Revolutionize More Than Money

How Block Chain Will Revolutionize More Than Money

In proof we trust

Blockchain technology will revolutionize far more than money: it will change your life. Here’s how it actually works,

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The impact of record-keeping on the course of history cannot be overstated. For example, the act of preserving Judaism and Christianity in written form enabled both to outlive the plethora of other contemporary religions, which were preserved only orally. William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, compiled in 1086, was still being used to settle land disputes as late as the 1960s. Today there is a new system of digital record-keeping. Its impact could be equally large. It is called the blockchain.

Imagine an enormous digital record. Anyone with internet access can look at the information within: it is open for all to see. Nobody is in charge of this record. It is not maintained by a person, a company or a government department, but by 8,000-9,000 computers at different locations around the world in a distributed network. Participation is quite voluntary. The computers’ owners choose to add their machines to the network because, in exchange for their computer’s services, they sometimes receive payment. You can add your computer to the network, if you so wish.

All the information in the record is permanent – it cannot be changed – and each of the computers keeps a copy of the record to ensure this. If you wanted to hack the system, you would have to hack every computer on the network – and this has so far proved impossible, despite many trying, including the US National Security Agency’s finest. The collective power of all these computers is greater than the world’s top 500 supercomputers combined.

New information is added to the record every few minutes, but it can be added only when all the computers signal their approval, which they do as soon as they have satisfactory proof that the information to be added is correct. Everybody knows how the system works, but nobody can change how it works. It is fully automated. Human decision-making or behavior doesn’t enter into it.

If a company or a government department were in charge of the record, it would be vulnerable – if the company went bust or the government department shut down, for example. But with a distributed record there is no single point of vulnerability. It is decentralized. At times, some computers might go awry, but that doesn’t matter. The copies on all the other computers and their unanimous approval for new information to be added will mean the record itself is safe.

This is possibly the most significant and detailed record in all history, an open-source structure of permanent memory, which grows organically. It is known as the block chain. It is the breakthrough tech behind the digital cash system, Bitcoin, but its impact will soon be far wider than just alternative money.

Many struggle to understand what is so special about Bitcoin. We all have accounts online with pounds, dollars, euros or some other national currency. That money is completely digital, it doesn’t exist in the real world – it is just numbers in a digital ledger somewhere. Only about 3 per cent of national currency actually exists in physical form; the rest is digital. I have supermarket rewards points and air miles as well. These don’t exist physically either, but they are still tokens to be exchanged for some kind of good or service, albeit with a limited scope; so they’re money too. Why has the world got so excited about Bitcoin?

To understand this, it is important to distinguish between money and cash.

If I’m standing in a shop and I give the shopkeeper 50 pence for a bar of chocolate, that is a cash transaction. The money passes straight from me to him and it involves nobody else: it is direct and frictionless. But if I buy that bar of chocolate with a credit card, the transaction involves a payment processor of some kind (often more than one). There is, in other words, a middle man.

The same goes for those pounds, dollars or euros I have in the accounts online. I have to go through a middle man if I want to spend them – perhaps a bank, PayPal or a credit-card company. If I want to spend those supermarket rewards points or those air miles, there is the supermarket or airline to go through.

Since the early 1980s, computer coders had been trying to find a way of digitally replicating the cash transaction – that direct, frictionless, A-to-B transaction – but nobody could find a way. The problem was known as the problem of ‘double-spending’. If I send you an email, a photo or a video – any form of computer code – you can, if you want, copy and paste that code and send it to one or a hundred or a million different people. But if you can do that with money, the money quickly becomes useless. Nobody could find a way around it without using a middle man of some kind to verify and process transactions, at which point it is no longer cash. By the mid 2000s, coders had all but given up on the idea. It was deemed unsolvable. Then, in late 2008, quietly announced on an out-of-the-way mailing list, along came Bitcoin.

On a dollar bill you will see the words: ‘In God we trust.’ Bitcoin aficionados are fond of saying: ‘In proof we trust’

By late 2009, coders were waking up to the fact that its inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, had cracked the problem of double spending. The solution was the block chain, the automated record with nobody in charge. It replaces the middle man. Rather than a bank process a transaction, transactions are processed by those 8,000-9,000 computers distributed across the Bitcoin network in the collective tradition of open-source collaboration. When those computers have their cryptographic and mathematical proof (a process that takes very little time), they approve the transaction and it is then complete. The payment information – the time, the amount, the wallet addresses – is added to the database; or, to use correct terminology, another block of data is added to the chain of information – hence the name block chain. It is, simply, a chain of information blocks.

Money requires trust – trust in central banks, commercial banks, other large institutions, trust in the paper itself. On a dollar bill you will see the words: ‘In God we trust.’ Bitcoin aficionados are fond of saying: ‘In proof we trust.’ The block chain, which works transparently by automation and mathematical and cryptographic proof, has removed the need for that trust. It has enabled people to pay digital cash directly from one person to another, as easily as you might send a text or an email, with no need for a middle man.

So the best way to understand Bitcoin is, simply: cash for the internet. It is not going to replace the US dollar or anything like that, as some of the diehard advocates will tell you, but it does have many uses. And, on a practical level, it works.

Testament to this is the rise of the online black market. Perhaps £1 million-worth of illegal goods and services are traded through dark marketplaces every day and the means of payment is Bitcoin. Bitcoin has facilitated this rapid rise. (I should stress that even though every Bitcoin transaction, no matter how small, is recorded on the blockchain, the identity of the person making that transaction can be hidden if desired – hence its appeal). In the financial grand scheme of things, £1 million a day is not very much, but the fact that ordinary people on the black market are using Bitcoin on a practical, day-to-day basis as a way of paying for goods and services demonstrates that the tech works. I’m not endorsing black markets, but it’s worth noting that they are often the first to embrace a new tech. They were the first to turn the internet to profit, for example. Without deep pools of debt or venture capital to fall back on, black markets have to make new tech work quickly and practically.

But Bitcoin’s potential use goes far beyond dark markets. Consider why we might want to use cash in the physical world. You use it for small payments – a bar of chocolate or a newspaper from your corner shop, for example. There is the same need online. I might want to read an article in The Times. I don’t want to take out an annual subscription – but I do want to read that article. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a system where I could make a micropayment to read that article? It is not worth a payment processor’s time to process a payment that small, but with internet cash, you don’t need a processor. You can pay cash and it costs nothing to process – it is direct. This potential use could usher in a new era of paid content. No longer will online content-providers have to be so squeezed, and give out so much material for nothing in the hope of somehow recouping later, now that the tech is there to make and receive payment for small amounts in exchange for content.

We also use cash for quick payments, direct payments and tipping. You are walking past a busker, for example, and you throw him a coin. Soon you will able to tip an online content-provider for his or her YouTube video, song or blog entry, again as easily and quickly as you click ‘like’ on the screen. Even if I pay my restaurant bill with a card, I’ll often tip the waiter in cash. That way I know the waiter will receive the money rather than some unscrupulous employer. I like to pay cash in markets, where a lot of small businesses start out because a cash payment goes directly to the business owner without middle men shaving off their percentages. The same principle of quick, cheap, direct payment will apply online. Cheap processing costs are essential for low-margin businesses. Internet cash will have a use there, too. It also has potential use in the remittance business, which is currently dominated by the likes of Western Union. For those working oversees who want to send money home, remittance and foreign exchange charges can often amount to as much as 20 per cent of the amount transferred. With Bitcoin that cost can be removed.

Some of us also use cash for payments we want kept private. Private does not necessarily mean illegal. You might be buying a present for your wedding anniversary and don’t want your spouse to know. You might be making a donation to a cause or charity and want anonymity. You might be doing something naughty: many of those who had their Ashley Madison details leaked would have preferred to have been able to pay for their membership with cash – and thus have preserved their anonymity.

More significantly, cash is vital to the 3.5 billion people – half of the world’s population – who are ‘un-banked’, shut out of the financial system and so excluded from e-commerce. With Bitcoin, the only barrier to entry is internet access.

Bitcoin is currently experiencing some governance and scalability issues. Even so, the tech works, and coders are now developing ways to use block chain tech for purposes beyond an alternative money system. From 2017, you will start to see some of the early applications creeping into your electronic lives.

One application is in decentralized messaging. Just as you can send cash to somebody else with no intermediary using Bitcoin, so can you send messages – without Gmail, iMessage, WhatsApp, or whoever the provider is, having access to what’s being said. The same goes for social media. What you say will be between you and your friends or followers. Twitter or Facebook will have no access to it. The implications for privacy are enormous, raising a range of issues in the ongoing government surveillance discussion.

We’ll see decentralized storage and cloud computing as well, considerably reducing the risk of storing data with a single provider. A company called Trustonic is working on a new block chain-based mobile phone operating system to compete with Android and Mac OS.

Just as the block chain records where a bitcoin is at any given moment, and thus who owns it, so can block chain be used to record the ownership of any asset and then to trade ownership of that asset. This has huge implications for the way stocks, bonds and futures, indeed all financial assets, are registered and traded. Registrars, stock markets, investment banks – disruption lies ahead for all of them. Their monopolies are all under threat from block chain technology.

Land and property ownership can also be recorded and traded on a block chain. Honduras, where ownership disputes over beachfront property are commonplace, is already developing ways to record its land registries on a block chain. In the UK, as much as 50 per cent of land is still unregistered, according to the investigative reporter Kevin Cahill’s book Who Owns Britain? (2001). The ownership of vehicles, tickets, diamonds, gold – just about anything – can be recorded and traded using block chain technology – even the contents of your music and film libraries (though copyright law may inhibit that). Block chain tokens will be as good as any deed of ownership – and will be significantly cheaper to provide.

The Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto Polar has won many prizes for his work on ownership. His central thesis is that lack of clear property title is what has held back so many in the Third World for so long. Who owns what needs to be clear, recognized  and protected – otherwise there will be no investment and development will be limited. But if ownership is clear, people can trade, exchange and prosper. The block chain will, its keenest advocates hope, go some way to addressing that.

Smart contracts could disrupt the legal profession and make it affordable to all, just as the internet has done with music and publishing

Once ownership is clear, then contract rights and property rights follow. This brings us to the next wave of development in block chain tech: automated contracts, or to use the jargon, ‘smart contracts’, a term coined by the US programmer Nick Szabo. We are moving beyond ownership into contracts that simultaneously represent ownership of a property and the conditions that come with that ownership. It is all very well knowing that a bond, say, is owned by a certain person, but that bond may come with certain conditions – it might generate interest, it might need to be repaid by a certain time, it might incur penalties, if certain criteria are not met. These conditions could be encoded in a block chain and all the corresponding actions automated.

Whether it is the initial agreement, the arbitration of a dispute or its execution, every stage of a contract has, historically, been evaluated and acted on by people. A smart contract automates the rules, checks the conditions and then acts on them, minimizing human involvement – and thus cost. Even complicated business arrangements can be coded and packaged as a smart contract for a fraction of the cost of drafting, disputing or executing a traditional contract.

One of the criticisms of the current legal system is that only the very rich or those on legal aid can afford it: everyone else is excluded. Smart contracts have the potential to disrupt the legal profession and make it affordable to all, just as the internet has done with both music and publishing.

This all has enormous implications for the way we do business. It is possible that block chain tech will do the work of bankers, lawyers, administrators and registrars to a much higher standard for a fraction of the price.

As well as ownership, block chain tech can prove authenticity. From notarization – the authentication of documents – to certification, the applications are multi fold. It is of particular use to manufacturers, particularly of designer goods and top-end electrical goods, where the value is the brand. We will know that this is a genuine Louis Vuitton bag, because it was recorded on the block chain at the time of its manufacture.

Block chain tech will also have a role to play in the authentication of you. At the moment, we use a system of usernames and passwords to prove identity online. It is clunky and vulnerable to fraud. We won’t be using that for much longer. One company is even looking at a block chain tech system to replace current car- and home-locking systems. Once inside your home, block chain tech will find use in the internet of things, linking your home network to the cloud and the electrical devices around your home.

From identity, it is a small step to reputation. Think of the importance of a TripAdvisor or eBay rating, or a positive Amazon review. Online reputation has become essential to a seller’s business model and has brought about a wholesale improvement in standards. Thanks to TripAdvisor, what was an ordinary hotel will now treat you like a king or queen in order to ensure you give it five stars. The service you get from an Uber driver is likely to be much better than that of an ordinary cabbie, because he or she wants a good rating.

There will be no suspect recounts in Florida! The block chain will also usher in the possibility of more direct democracy

The feedback system has been fundamental to the success of the online black market, too. Bad sellers get bad ratings. Good sellers get good ones. Buyers go to the sellers with good ratings. The black market is no longer the rip-off shop without recourse it once was. The feedback system has made the role of trading standards authorities, consumer protection groups and other business regulators redundant. They look clunky, slow and out of date.

Once your online reputation can be stored on the block chain (ie not held by one company such as TripAdvisor, but decentralized) everyone will want a good one. The need to preserve and protect reputation will mean, simply, that people behave better. Sony is looking at ways to harness this whereby your education reputation is put on the block chain – the grades you got at school, your university degree, your work experience, your qualifications, your resumé, the endorsements you receive from people you’ve done business with. LinkedIn is probably doing something similar. There is an obvious use for this in medical records too, but also in criminal records – not just for individuals, but for companies. If, say, a mining company has a bad reputation for polluting the environment, it might be less likely to win a commission for a project, or to get permission to build it.

We are also seeing the development of new voting apps. The implications of this are enormous. Elections and referenda are expensive undertakings – the campaigning, the staff, the counting of the ballot papers. But you will soon be able to vote from your mobile phone in a way that is 10 times more secure than the current US or UK systems, at a fraction of the cost and fraud-free. What’s more, you will be able to audit your vote to make sure it is counted, while preserving your anonymity. Not even a corrupt government will be able to manipulate such a system, once it is in place. There will be no suspect recounts in Florida! The block chain will also usher in the possibility of more direct democracy: once the cost and possibility of fraud are eliminated, there are fewer excuses for not going back to the electorate on key issues.

Few have seen this coming, but this new technology is about to change the way we interact online. The revolution will not be televised, it will be cryptographically time-stamped on the block chain. And the block chain, originally devised to solve the conundrum of digital cash, could prove to be something much more significant: a digital Domesday Book for the 21st century, and so much more.

by Dominic Frisby | Aeon

Swift Is Hacked Again. The Bitcoin/Blockchain Fat Lady Sings.

Summary

  • With the second hack of Swift, the day of firewalls and permission systems are suddenly numbered.
  • This time it wasn’t hacked data — it was the banks’ money that was hacked.
  • Bank security is rapidly deteriorating.
  • It is time to adopt some kind of distributed ledger.

I see the bad moon arising. I see trouble on the way. I see earthquakes and lightnin’. I see bad times today.

— Creedence Clearwater Revival

The SWIFT payment system failed again this week. The tone of Swift’s announcement intimated the end of life on the planet earth as we know it. Swift’s description of the system’s attackers was apocalyptic, and did nothing to minimize the skills of the attackers, adding that the funds seized might be, of course, reinvested to give the hackers a kind of turboboost of evil. My sources tell me the culprit is Brainiac from the planet Zod.

Of course there is nothing funny about this situation, even if Swift’s “chicken little” corporate reaction was pretty funny. The real lesson of this event is deadly earnest and, I believe, fully anticipated by most specialists in the security of our financial system. This event, though, was the Fat Lady’s Song. The banks, exchanges, clearers like Swift, DDTC, and so on, are going to have to share something with the public that insiders already know.

The party is over for the old, permissioned, firewall based, electronic fortress, concept of trust-in-payments systems. And the alternative is very far from obvious.

The buzzwords, the sweethearts of the fintech movement, are systems known as distributed ledgers. Two words are about to become part of everyone’s vocabulary: Bitcoin and blockchain. There are multitudes of manifestations of these two intimately related electronic phenomena. If you are new to the subject of Bitcoin and blockchain, the learning curve is steep.

The significance of the second Swift failure is this. Trust-based systems, such as those upon which the current payments systems operate, are becoming more expensive to protect at a rapidly increasing rate. The horse race between hackers and firewall builders is being won by hackers in spite of the rapidly increasing spending on internet security.

And these most recent hacks took bank’s money, not customer money. That is a game changer.

Since God invented dirt, the banks have been soooo regretful about the lengthy delays and inefficiencies inherent in our transactions system. They’re so sorry, they tell us, about the three days you wait between transactions and payments. And they really regret all those fees that you pay and inconveniences you experience with foreign exchange transactions.

What bunk. The banks, as a whole, make hundreds of billions a year on these inefficiencies.

The point of the article is this. Now that the bank’s own money is being stolen, the financial world will be singing from one hymnal. The time of distributed ledgers is here. There is no longer a question that distributed ledgers will replace our current method of securing transactions. The firewall system no longer has a constituency after the Swift debacle.

What are the implications for investors? First, there is nothing yet you can invest in directly. It is possible to purchase a thing called a crypto-currency. The most prominent of these is called Bitcoin. However, unless you spend the necessary months of research to grasp the underlying determinants of the value of Bitcoin, I have an emphatic one-word recommendation. Don’t. This investment is incredibly risky, and those who provide confident forecasts of its future value are deluded or worse.

The future of transactions reminds me a little of the invasion of Europe by Genghis Khan. In the distributed ledger business, Genghis Khan is Bitcoin. There is no corporate presence sponsoring Bitcoin. It is open source. The key significance of Bitcoin/blockchain is that this particular distributed ledger is, at the moment, prohibitively expensive to hack. Its disadvantages include a lack of governance. Advocates will rightly argue that a lack of governance has its benefits – obvious to anyone who considers the problems with having a government – but there are also disputes in the Bitcoin community and no clear way to resolve them.

Genghis Kahn’s competition, the Pope and Kings of distributed ledgers, are the usual suspects – primarily the big banks. But also the big accounting firms and the major IT firms are involved. I wonder if the Pope and the Kings were afraid to speak the name of Genghis Kahn. One thing is for sure, the Big Business side of the distributed ledger debate is afraid to speak the name Bitcoin. Honest.

Almost universally, if the equity capital of a distributed ledger advocate exceeds one billion market value, the advocate will never use the word Bitcoin in a discussion of distributed ledgers. Blockchain is the magic term they use. I find this annoying since the developers of Bitcoin coined the term blockchain and would have copyrighted it if they had not been open-source kind of guys who don’t do that sort of thing.

It is much, much, too early to tell how this combat is going to sort itself out. There is a shortage of practical uses of the technology from any source. The number of practical uses at the moment is zero. But the word “inevitable” is no longer too strong.

Investment recommendations? I’ve got a few. My very long term bet is that the big banks (Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE:BK), Bank of America , Citigroup (NYSE:C), Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), and JP Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), among others) will be the big losers. Likewise, the big accounting firms. All have invested billions. For them, pocket change, but pocket change invested pointlessly.

An exception: I find of particular interest Goldman’s entry into retail banking with a strong aversion to brick and mortar branches. These both are wise decisions. I have a buy on Goldman — and its awareness of, and willingness to place bets upon, the outcome of fintech is one reason I think Goldman’s long term strength is assured. In the distributed ledger future, branches disappear.

The distributed ledger contest will ultimately boil down to a contest between the major IT firms (IBM (NYSE:IBM), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), and Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL)) (read: Pope and Kings) on one hand, and the loose governance of Bitcoin (The Great Kahn) on the other hand.

Do not, however, look here for a standard analysis of funds invested and rates of return. This is a game that will have one winner, and the game is winner-take-all. A thinking IT firm like IBM realizes that this is a contest it must enter. This is positive for the future of IBM’s stock, but I am a long way from knowing where IBM is going to jump, or whether I approve of their plan — which is, at the moment, very diffuse.

This is also not a time to look at the fintech component of IBM’s blockchain-oriented financials. It is far too early and the financials, nearly irrelevant. In this mega-contest for the future of distributed ledgers, it is not so much about dollars invested as intellectual resources expended and risks taken.

It is perhaps prudent at the moment for Big Blue to have a finger in every pie. But when a fully informed decision can be made, the winner of this contest will be the player with the most information and best instincts. And the earliest to make the right commitment. Then we can ask old fashioned questions like: What are the implications for IBM’s financials?

On the big firm side, IBM in particular has two things working for them. They are tight with the big banks and accounting firms on the one hand, yet comfortable in the world of open source on the other. I see them with a development role in devising the apps the banks and accountants will be ultimately reduced to offering in the transactions world. Those will be some monster apps, but Apps is Apps. They’re not where the big bucks are. The big distributed ledger itself is the real prize. IBM, or another big IT firm, will need to ramp up quickly to seize it.

IBM and its ilk will also be potentially better able to make decisions than the loosely structured management of Bitcoin/blockchain. But IBM should learn to say the word “Bitcoin.” The term was totally missing from their initial press release. It’s a clear sign of fear or hubris. And I don’t think IBM has a reason to fear, as its banking customers and the accounting firms do.

What of the Bitcoin community? For all of their pretensions of computer power/economics-based decision-making ala the internet, the Bitcoin community is not the free-wheeling fun-loving band it makes itself out to be. Bitcoin-land has a management problem of its own. There is indeed a hierarchy of Bitcoin/blockchain management, albeit informal. And this management has disputes. A very important current dispute is whether and how the blockchain will grow. This is no small matter. Because if Bitcoin will matter a year from now, it needs to grow like Topsy, and now.

Who will win the battle for the One Big Global Distributed Ledger? Too soon to call, but the stakes are enormous.

by Kurt Drew | Seeking Alpha