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Understanding Cryptocurrencies & the Blockchain

July 11, 2017

Bitcoin… Ethereum… You’ve heard it all. You’re hearing about blockchains and cryptocurrency with increasing frequency. People are getting wealthy off this stuff, and some of you are too embarrassed to admit it; you don’t know what the heck they’re talking about.
Okay. I jumped the gun.
You might be an expert trader, miner, or even an Ethereum smart contract developer.
I’ll assume nothing.
I got ahead of myself in my previous post, so I shall retrace. This is a primer on cryptocurrency and the blockchain. If you’re already an expert, I will spare you the agony and provide a Table of Contents so that you may skip to the sections that interest you.

A Primer on Blockchains and Cryptocurrency

How Do Blockchains Work?

Should I Invest?

Let’s Create Our Own Cryptocurrency

 

What Is Cryptocurrency?

When you check your balance on your banking app, wire money to another account, or receive a deposit, what is actually happening? The bank is acting as a ledger. It logs all credits and debits applied to your account. Since this ledger is centralized and managed by the bank(s), we are trusting them with our money. They have full control and visibility over our accounts. That’s not all. Since the US dollar is off the gold standard, our government and the banks can print more money without restriction. Your dollar is being diluted.

What if these ledgers were decentralized and not controlled by a single entity or group of entities? What if it was impossible for governments to manipulate and increase the money supply?

Enter Bitcoin. In 2009, Satoshi Nakamoto (we don’t really know for certain who this is) released Bitcoin, which operates on a distributed ledger and payment system without the need for an intermediary. The unit of currency is limited and cannot be manufactured as the decentralized ledger would disallow it. Since the introduction and success of Bitcoin, hundreds of new blockchain based coins were introduced. Ethereum is one such cryptocurrency.

 

How Does It Work?

In order to understand how a distributed ledger works, one must understand the concept of a blockchain. Very simply put, the blockchain is a linked list. A copy of this linked list is stored on every full node/miner.

Each element (in C we call it a “node”, but I shall refrain from using that word as it has a different meaning within the blockchain context… rather we call it a “block”) contains a number of transactions. For example, these would be transactions:
· Bob sent 50 units to Alice;
· Alice sent 10 units to Joe;
· Joe sent 5 units to Bob;
· Joe sent 5 units to Terry.

Unlike your standard linked list, the contents of each block are hashed. The hash of that block is included as a member/attribute of the next block, which in turn is hashed as well. This process is repeated for each block.
To complicate things further, a hashed block will be incompatible and rejected by the blockchain unless it meets a particular hash criteria. For my particular example, the sha-256 hash must have a prefix of “0000”. e.g.: ‘b94d27b9934d3e08a52e52d7da7dabfac484efe37a5380ee9088f7ace2efcde9’ would be rejected but ‘000027b9934d3e08a52e52d7da7dabfac484efe37a5380ee9088f7ace2efcde9’ would be accepted.

How do we ensure that the hash of our block begins with “0000”? Well, each block includes an additional member/attribute called a “nonce”. The nonce is just a meaningless number. This nonce is incremented and the block is hashed repeatedly until the hash of the entire block meets the blockchain requirement. This takes a lot of processing power as a miner must:

– increment nonce,
– hash block
– repeat process until hash begins with “0000”
– broadcast the block to the other nodes

What I’ve described here is one particular type of mining known as “proof of work”.

Why is this necessary? This process protects the integrity of each block within the blockchain. Due to each block’s dependency on its predecessor’s hash, one small alteration to an established block will cause the entire chain to break and invalidate itself. If the hashing power of the miners become too powerful, the mining difficulty is increased by increasing the number of 0’s in the prefix.

What are the incentives to mining? Earlier, I mentioned that there was a limited supply of currency and that more could not be manufactured. The way currency is slowly released into the ecosystem is through block rewards. When a block is mined, it includes a reward transaction to the miner of the accepted block. The miners race to mine the next block, as only one block can be added to the sequence at a time. Every x number of blocks mined, the reward amount is divided in half. In some implementations (such as Bitcoin) the rewarded amount eventually turns to zero. Furthermore, miners are rewarded with transaction fees paid for by the transaction initiators.

In my example transactions I used “Bob” and “Alice”. I lied. The person(s) receiving and/or sending units are not named. In order to be a recipient or send transactions, you must generate an asymmetric key pair. In our example, I shall use elliptical curve key pairs; Specifically, the secp256k1 curve. ECC keys have an advantage over RSA keys due to the shorter key lengths. Once we generate our key pairs, the private key MUST be secured and NEVER shared. The public key can be shared freely as the public wallet address. Now, rather than having transactions sent to “Alice”, you can have it go to an address such as this: “0409eb9224f408ece7163f40a33274d99b6b3f60e41b447dd45fcc6371f57b88d9d3583c358b1ea8aea4422d17c57de1418554d3a1cd620ca4cb296357888ea596”. Transactions can only be sent from this wallet address IF the transaction is cryptographically signed with the corresponding private key. Nodes/miners can verify these transactions with the signature and the public key alone. If Alice happens to lose her private key, she loses access to the funds in her account. If Bob steals Alice’s private key, he can spend her funds. I.e. you only own the funds if you can spend it… and you can only spend it if you own the corresponding private key.

The Blockchain

I’ve described a simple distributed blockchain which acts as a distributed ledger. What I failed to mention was that blockchains have evolved over time since its initial inception. Many blockchains are capable of parsing “smart contracts” so that funds are only released if and only if certain conditions are met. The next evolution of smart contracts came when Ethereum introduced a turing complete programming language capable of running on the Ethereum virtual machine. What that means is that one can create a fully decentralized application (dapp) which can be submitted and executed on the Ethereum blockchain. Essentially, the blockchain can act as a powerful cluster of computing resources.

So let’s review. What I’ve described is a decentralized database that has incredible partition tolerance and availability but horrendous consistency.

Just as an engineer must decide on the best database to be used for a particular application, one must decide whether blockchains are right for their business. I’ve heard FUD that blockchains can replace Amazon AWS. I strongly disagree. Blockchains can grow, but established blocks are immutable. Transactions take a long time to process because every node must agree to accept the new block for finality. It may provide a viable substitute for certain services offered by AWS… possibly S3, Route 53, Lambda.

I have presented the reader with a very simple intro/overview of cryptocurrencies. For the sake of brevity, I have omitted a lot of information. You may Google the rest. 🙂

 

Should I Invest In Crypto?

It’s true. People are getting wealthy off of various cryptocurrencies. Naturally, it attracts new investors. It can be profitable but it can also be dangerous. One must understand how it works in order to avert risk.

Here comes the disclaimer:
DO NOT take my recommendations as financial advice.

Now that we got that out of the way… do not message me asking for financial advice and definitely do not message me in panic whenever the market dips. I will try to equip you with enough data to adequately make informed choices.

Let me start with the risks:

– The cryptocurrency market is volatile! Patterns that occur over the course of months in the stock market can happen in a day for crypto

– Your currency is not protected by the FDIC. If your coins are stored on an online wallet, exchange, etc…. and they get hacked or they run off with your
money, there is absolutely NOTHING you can do about it. People have lost millions of dollars in coins because they were trusting. (Just Google “Mt. Gox”)

– If you store your keys on a cold storage or offline wallet and you lose your private key, you kiss your coins goodbye. There is no recovery nor retrieval.

– If you keep your private key on your personal computer or phone and you get hacked, you kiss your coins goodbye. There is no recovery nor retrieval.

– Most of the coins are complete garbage and many of them are outright scam coins.

– Many idiots are ICO’ing (Initial Coin Offering) with little or nothing.

– Scam artists are rampant with phishing attacks or other clever ways to take your coins. Transactions are not reversible.

– While sending a transaction, if you make a typo in the destination address, you can kiss your coins goodbye.

– Currency exchanges are susceptible to shutdowns due to heavy loads or even occasional DDOS attacks

– If a coin under-performs or disappears, there’s nobody to sue

– This kind of crap happens:

– And this:

– And this:

– And even crap like this:

Scared yet? Still there? Okay. Now let’s get to the good stuff:

– Tesla stock did well for you? That’s cute. In crypto land, 10x happens… in a matter of days.

– 2000x, 3000x happens… in just a few months.

– Millionaires are made here…. with just a few thousand dollars.

– Lack of a paper trail

– The market NEVER sleeps. Cryptocurrency is traded across the globe

– Cryptocurrency can be transferred to wallets all around the world in almost real-time. (Google search Ripple or XRP)

– Volatility is fun!

– The currency (most of the coins at least) is immune to inflation, hyper-inflation… Think “commodity” like gold or silver.

– This happens:

– And this:

– And this:

Now that we got that out of the way, here are some guidelines:

– Only invest what you can afford to lose. Don’t be greedy. I mean it. I know many of you will ignore this one, but this is the most important guideline to follow.

– Avoid 99% of all ICO’s. If it sounds too good to be true, it is. If they don’t allow U.S. residents to participate in a pre-sale token, they don’t have a working product, the code stinks, they are promising something unrealistic, there is a large innovation gap, or there is no cap on the ICO…. avoid at ALL costs

– Generate cold storage wallets for each of your coins and keep your coins off of the exchanges! Generate and keep your private keys on an air-gapped computer. You can use a device like the Trezor or the Ledger Nano S. Test that you can receive and send transactions from your newly generated offline wallet. If for some reason your key pairs are flawed, you will not be able to access your coins.

– Don’t day trade unless you really know what you’re doing. The safest bet is to buy and hold. As a matter of fact, don’t look at the charts. It can be frightening.

– Don’t panic sell, Don’t FOMO buy (fear of missing out). If you missed a short opportunity, just hold. You’re not technically losing money until you convert back to fiat.

– Don’t margin trade… but if you do, don’t leverage with crypto! A big market dump can trigger a chain reaction of stop loss orders and you will be margin called because you are leveraging with a coin that is losing value rapidly…. liquidating your assets.

Witness a chain reaction of margin calls and stop loss orders triggered by a $30 million market dump while the order book was thin on the buy side:

– Invest only in coins with a high market cap and is fully functional! Majority of the coins you see will not be around in a couple years. The survivors are likely to be significantly higher in value. I recommend only investing in the top few coins on coinmarketcap.com.

– Look at the coin’s source code before you invest. People buy sh**coins like Antshares without noticing that the entire codebase has 1 contributor and 0 tests. That’s right. One contributor and zero tests. Want to trust that thing with your money? Not I.

– Before making a transaction, check and double check the destination address. Send a small amount and verify the transaction went through before you send the entire amount.

– Faint of heart? Don’t invest.

Where to get started:
– coinbase.com, gemini.com, kraken.com are popular exchanges.
– coinmarketcap.com will show you the current status of all the coins available in the market.
– myetherwallet.com will provide you with a downloadable, open source javascript Ethereum wallet generator. (Similar tools exist for other coins)

Please trade responsibly…

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