Dear Newsweek: RTFM

Today (or rather yesterday), I was at the Texas Bitcoin Conference in Austin. It was awesome. I met a legion of capable individuals working in the Bitcoin space. But when I finally had a chance to sit down and read and talk about my experience online, I could only find people buzzing about how Newsweek had found Satoshi Nakamoto.

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The article has, of course, now been debunked, but I am still peeved at Newsweek. They wasted a really good day for internal Bitcoin community education. Unless they were hoping for a quick fix or a rebranding, Newsweek’s owners should also be peeved. No credible news organisation would have published this article. And since an in-credible news organisation is just a tabloid, Newsweek has just lost the readership who reads this article and discovers the truth. This article is the front page story of their new first print edition. So, nice work there.

Mistakes were made aplenty in the printing of this article. One minor mistake would be to  identify someone when there is no good reason to disrespect their privacy. Another mistake would be masquerading as your subject in order to obtain private records. This is clearly illegal and, to me, morally wrong. To me, the real first mistake is that finding Satoshi isn’t even really a newsworthy pursuit. I suppose it sells well, though. But enough about those mistakes; I’ll let others talk about them in detail. The mistake I would like to focus on is the mistake of not consulting the internet about any of this.

Not insane, just incompetent.

Not insane, just incompetent.

How do I know the reporter did not consult the internet about her find? Well, maybe she did. In some circumspect manner. But I find it hard to believe that anyone who has spent any time investigating Satoshi online would look at the evidence she saw, and say “I don’t have any doubt (it’s the creator of Bitcoin)”. If they would, I’d like to sit across the poker table from them someday (and I don’t play poker). Online, we have a couple standards of doubt we use to determine the truthfulness of claims about Satoshi.

One fairly speculative method of investigation is to compare writing styles. Satoshi can be more than one person, but at least one of them writes proper English. Below is Dorian’s writing style. A redditor found it from an Amazon review and reported it within less than a workday of this breaking story. An outside observer must have been amazed at his quick research, but once you realize that we’ve used this criterion for years (centuries in Bitcoinland), it seems rather obvious how we found this information so quickly.

Perhaps he's also behind Buttercoin

Perhaps he’s also behind Buttercoin

A somewhat less speculative method is to find Satoshi’s hardware. In a series of blog entries, an excellent researcher uses artifacts in the Bitcoin public ledger to make some educated guesses as to what hardware Satoshi used to mine Bitcoins. No attempt was made to locate this artifact. The reporter did not indicate she asked Dorian or his family any questions about perhaps the only unencrypted physical evidence we can obtain about Satoshi.

This guy’s blog is a good starting point for Satoshi research.

The gold standard for proving that someone is Satoshi is definitely not claiming, without recorded evidence, to have heard him say “I am no longer involved in that”. It’s getting him to sign a message that only the creator of Bitcoin can sign. He can sign from his PGP key that he used to communicate with the world, or he can sign from the very first entry in the blockchain ledger that he created. He has various other keys too (Bitcoin-QT alert key), and any one of them will work. And even then, some people will still have doubts. Certainly, you cannot counterfeit cryptographic signatures and everyone can verify their authenticity. However, Satoshi could have given his keys away. At the very least, though, you can be sure that your subject is in possession of Nakamoto’s keys. These are among his most private, personal, and valuable of possessions. Unless there were huge red flags, I would then be comfortable using the words “without a doubt”.

So, how do I know all this? I know all this simply because I read the internet. This reporter, her editor, and her research team (“research team”? “research” team?) clearly don’t know how to use the  internet. If Newsweek had simply proposed their Nakamoto in a way that protected their piece, the internet (Reddit, StackExchange, Quora, or various relevant niche forums) would have asked them about their criteria and debunked their theory immediately.

A good way to get laughed off the internet

A good way to get laughed off the internet

Instead, they used their own arbitrary contrived criteria that seemed credible to the general public to write a fantasy piece that wasted everyone’s time. When operators fail to work the basics of a system, engineers utter an expression that predates the internet era: “Read the fucking manual” (RTFM). This is a news organisation failing in a very basic way to report the news. And so, my advice as an engineer is this: Dear Newsweek, The internet is your “fucking manual”. Your interactive and extremely thorough manual. Try and use it next time you attempt journalism.

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Become Less Ironic, Give Blood.

Just thought I’d pop in here with some quick thoughts. It’s been a couple busy months, and so I’ve neglected to spend time to think about sharing something useful.

Anyway. Today, while giving platelets with the Red Cross, I discovered that after 4 years, my iron levels have fallen from abnormally high (~19.5) to barely acceptable (~12.6). I forgot to download an interesting movie to watch, so I had two hours to sit and ponder the significance of this. I’ve been giving blood every two months since discovering my peculiar ailment. Of course, some time ago, I found out that iron overload is not that uncommon at all. I should probably cut back, especially since I think I may need some of my red blood cells soon, so I can be more athletic.

Somewhere along the way, I also got pulled into doing platelet donations. If you need to veg out for 3 hours, it’s a pretty efficient use of time to give platelets. And it’s even better when you usually lack the discipline to stay still, because there’s 2 needles in your arms making you stay still. I heartily recommend everyone try it at least once; giving feels good. Also, I think you get a t-shirt your first time.

The Red Cross and blood donation is probably a business I could write or talk more in depth about if I wasn’t busy thinking about other things. The economics are pretty awesome, the staff has some pretty interesting stories, and there’s plenty of soft evidence that it makes a positive impact on society. But I have to cut it short. I guess I’ll just end with the thought that I think spending retirement volunteering at a blood center would be awesome.

(Oh man, I cut  this post so short, I forgot to post it)

A Math Problem

In the last couple of years, I’ve had a chance to learn cryptography on a very practical level, but I must admit that my background in the actual mathematics is very weak. I’ve never really studied number theory, one-way functions, or modular arithmetic. Still, I have a decent background in probability from my training as an electrical engineer, and this has been my go-to challenge problem:

Eleven scientists are working on a secret project. They wish to lock
up the documents in a cabinet so that the cabinet can be opened if
and only if six or more of the scientists are present. What is the
smallest number of locks needed? What is the smallest number of
keys to the locks each scientist must carry?

This problem and specific answer is presented by Adi Shamir in his paper on sharing secrets.

It is not hard to show that the minimal solution uses 462 locks and 252 keys per scientist.

Not hard, right. But he is talking to professional cryptographers, so it is pretty easy for them.

So, can you figure out the general solution? Let me phrase it for you with some variables:

Given a party of N people that wish to share a safe, any M out of N must be able to unlock it, and at least M are necessary for the task. What is the smallest number of locks L needed and keys K needed? M > N > 0

Apologies for the lack of LaTeX. This is a blog. Stop here to solve the problem, and/or scroll on for my hints and the answer.

An easy (but filled with caveats) way to explain Shamir’s Algorithm is that everyone gets a point that helps to chart a polynomial. The secret is the Y-intercept. In the picture above, you only have 2 points, or parts of the secret, and you need 3, so this is an “any 3 out of N” scheme.

My first hint is obvious if you read the paper’s citation: This is a combinatorial mathematics problem.

My second is this: If you have some idea, but don’t know where to start, try a simpler case and make some observations. Below is the scheme drawn for 2 out of 3 people.

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Hold a finger over columns A, B, or C to show that any 2 people can still open the safe. Look at each column to see that at least 2 people are needed.

Some observations about this case, ranging from good to great:

  • Tic Tac Toe. X wins.
  • There are 3 locks and 2 keys per lock.
  • Each lock has a specific purpose; preventing a person (Last hint: or combination of people!) from accessing the safe.

So, ready to solve this? Perhaps you need some time to Google the concepts and formulas from this point, but it should be pretty easy to tackle the problem now. Below is the case for any 3 out of 4, illustrated differently to clarify the last big hint:

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See that for all 6 combinations AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD, they share a circle in one (and only one) row. See that for all 4 combinations ABC, ABD, ACD, BCD, this is not the case.

The fact that they share a circle in one row means that that combination of 2 out of 4 is denied access and is a solution. They need to find a 3rd person. The fact that they are prevented by just one row is what makes it the minimum solution.

So, to recap our variables:

N = The # of people who share the secret

M = The # of people who can reconstruct the secret

K = The # of keys needed

L = The # of locks needed

So, if you have reworded the problem like I have, we are looking for one or two more intermediate variables. Each lock’s purpose is to prevent a specific combination of people from gaining access. That number of people D in that combination should be one less than the number M needed to open the safe, so that only M people can get at it.

D = M – 1 = The # of people that need to be denied access to a lock. 

A = N – D = The # of people that have access to each lock.

And you need one general formula, the one for combinations.

So, the number of locks needed will simplify down to:

Look who found a fancy online LaTeX Editor

The number of keys is easy to find. Just multiple L by A, which also simplifies easily:

And for good measure, the number of keys per person:

X is for the eXtreme keyring they will need

So, some quick specific solutions:

L(2,1) = 1, K(2,1) = 2 (You and your roommate both need to get into your dorm)

L(5,2) = 5, K(5,2) = 20 (Any 2 people on this project can approve a small change)

L(11,6) = 462, K(11,6) = 2772 (Shamir’s example)

L(11,9) = 165, K(11,9) = 495 (And look at what we put up with so Alice and Bob can go on vacation)

Some thoughts about Thoreau

For the past year or so, I’ve been digging into Thoreau’s works. Not just Walden and Civil Disobedience, but his Journals, Cape Cod, A Plea for Captain John Brown, and other works. I’ve even read some Emerson and Whitman tangentially after discovering my love for all things Thoreau. Being very involved with technology, it’s hard for me to agree with everything that Thoreau has written, and I think he was wrong about quite a few things. His claim that it saves time to walk rather than take the railroad (or fly) is no longer true in the modern world. He also certainly had a romantic (see: wrong) view of how humans used to live in the wild.

But to me, his distaste for technology and his solitary living habits were not the overarching theme of his works. The theme is that the simple life is a wonderful life. Free from the constraints of society and making a living and making progress, Thoreau was able to discover moral truths for himself. Living slightly outside of society he could evaluate properly the true horror of slavery and the folly of the busy lives that we lead. And although the former is no longer a problem, the latter still is.

I guess one of the most important things I take away from Thoreau is that the work I do and the money I have accumulated mean very little in the grand scheme of things. I’ve always had a sense that I could quit and be a homeless man (a friendlier version of Diogenes), but I’ve never really been able to articulate why. It’s because I can still live a moral life. And while it’s good to advance our understanding of physics and logic, that doesn’t really matter in the end.

KNCMiner November Jupiter Review

So, even though I haven’t been seriously mining for awhile, I have been keeping up with Bitcoin mining news and ended up ordering a Jupiter miner (400 GH/s promised) in late September. It arrived yesterday, and I thought I would write up a review.

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First, pics.

Shipping and Handling (4.5/5):

Besides the 10-day delay, shipping and tracking was very professional. The miner was packed nice and tight, and my only gripe here is that there wasn’t much redundant packaging. I had one loose fan to fix.

Communications (4.5/5)

Not much to gripe about here either. KNC support always responded to my e-mails within a week. My only gripe here is the change in specs such that a single 850W PSU would not suffice. I received no official communication about this, but was fortunate to read the forums. It’s also now specified on the kncminer website itself.

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Power Overwhelming!

General hardware (3.5/5):

Speaking of the loose fan, I was very annoyed that KNC used Torx screws. I had the screwdriver in the closet, but what if I didn’t? KNC knew people would have to fix the fans after October shipped out, but chose to keep using Torx screws to secure the case. I hope no one has a traffic accident speeding to the hardware store in hopes of not losing mining time.

The only other thing to be aware of is the flimsy installation of the 4-pin molex. Just put your finger behind it as you push it in.

Excellent product other than that.

ASIC modules (5/5):

Excellent product here. Zero complaints. I’m most impressed that the engineering team was working after the October release to improve their product some more once they had the time. I knew the November product would have fewer issues than the October product, but I didn’t know they would be doing such good tweaking.

Usability (5/5):

The new Bitcoin mining hardware out there is getting easier and easier to set up, and props to KNC (and BTCGuild) for continuing this process. You don’t really need to know anything about firmware or software. You just log onto the browser interface and type in two fields. Done. I’m using a new mining pool, BTCGuild, and their interface is likewise simple yet powerful.

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And pretty.

Price (N/A):

I’m not rating the price, but here are my thoughts on profitability. In September, Bitcoin difficulty was rising quickly and in a fairly unpredictable fashion. I judged there to be only three companies who had a high chance of delivering on their promises:

Cointerra – An Austin, Texas based company that is headed by industry experts, they are still my pick for having the most efficient and well built ASIC,

KnC – A Swedish company also headed by reliable engineering, promised to deliver earliest, and had CC payments as an option.

Hashfast/Uniquify – Uniquify is a company in the SF Bay area and I know they are competent chip designers (I once interviewed there), but I am not sure about HashFast itself.

I ended up going with KNC after looking at some numbers in the mining.thegenesisblock.com profitability calculator. I do cost-benefit analysis in Bitcoins, so my plan was to mark-to-market at the USD/BTC CampBX exchange rate the day before my CC was due. After deducting some bonus point and adding shipping and peripherals to the price, I marked the cost at 16.4 BTC. I was rather fortunate to hit the beginning of the bubble; I was thinking it would be marked around 30 BTC. My initial predictions of the revenue was 10-50 BTC, now it is between 12 and 30, with my best guess being 18 BTC.

Well, thanks for reading. I hope you found this useful and entertaining. Happy mining!

I’ve recently been a little obsessed with getting a beta key for the Blizzard online card game Hearthstone. I’ve been a Magic the Gathering Online player since the beta and I play tons more online than I do offline. I hear Hearthstone is a lot less complex of a game, but Magic wasn’t so complex back in the day either. Once they got a player base, they were able to develop more and more interesting mechanics, or maybe they had to; to keep people interested.

Anyway, I’m genuinely interested because MTGO is a peculiarly bad piece of software. MTGO has a very unique set of problems for a game, so I’m hesitant to rate the developers poorly, but it really does not work very well. Part of that may just be that the mechanics of the paper game it came from is difficult to translate to online play. Hearthstone, on the other hand, will have no such problem. They can adapt the cards to the game engine however they want, and they selected the mechanics of play beforehand so that it’s manageable to program (I hope).

Anyway, for some reason, even though open beta is just around the corner, keys on the internet are selling for $20. I’m going to wait this one out.

Inaugural Post

For awhile now, I’ve been thinking about starting a blog of my own, and so I’ve finally gotten around to it. I’ve missed the quasi-journalistic quality of blogs. It’s different and fun to write for an audience (or, at least, write as if you had one). The demotivating factors are, of course, that I’d much rather journal and I’m constantly worried that I’ll say something not very PC and then also become famous.

Anyway, I suppose I became motivated to start my blog after I made up my mind to eventually drop the services of Facebook and Google (a story for another post). What if someone really, really, really does want to know about the vagaries of my life?

Well, first, they should call me. But after that, I guess they can come here. By the way, I’d like to note at this time that vagaries will be the only things you will discover here. Perhaps I will write something prescient about the human condition in some post, but it’s doubtful it will be something personal. This is the internet, after all.

So, I suppose a couple of people might be wondering about my online moniker, thought courier. What exactly is that about? Well, Thought Courier is a card from a trading card game that I used to play. It doesn’t look like that great a card on the surface, but it is extremely good. Mechanically, you can use it every turn to draw a card into your hand of playable spells, and then you discard a card of your choice. To explain why it’s so good, you can think of it as taking the worst card from your hand and replacing it with the average card in your deck. Every turn. This creates a subtle “card advantage” that will eventually bury your opponent.

As great as the mechanics are, the flavor of the card is so much better. It’s because we have thought couriers in real life. Virtually anyone who tries to teach or analyze anything is a thought courier. I’ve often thought of my role in many communities as a thought courier; With my facts and experience, I help people discard their bad ideas and form better ones.

Draw a new idea, then discard your worst one.