Category: Web/Tech

Elrond and the New Crypto Spaces

I’m an advisor to a number of firms, including several in the crypto space such as Elrond (eGLD coin). When I signed on as an advisor more than two years ago, Elrond was almost completely unknown, which wasn’t surprising as they were based in Romania. I thought the Romanian base was a positive, however, because it meant that Elrond could hire extremely well-educated computer scientists, mathematicians and software engineers at below Silicon Valley prices. Moreover, the blockchain world, true to its foundations, is decentralized. Like a modern day Erdos, Vitalik Buterin operates out of his suitcase. The Silicon Valley of the blockchain is the internet. Why the blockchain world has evolved differently than Silicon Valley is an interesting question (with implications for whether SV could loses its centrality) but because it is decentralized I thought location was less important than the quality of the team. And the team, led by hard-charging founder Beniamin Mincu, is excellent. In the last two years the Elrond team has built a completely modern blockchain from the ground up using secure proof of stake and sharding to achieve a potential throughput of upwards of 16 thousand transactions per second with 6s latency and $.001 transaction cost and a toolkit for developers. I was also impressed by the commitment Elrond had to security, including formal verification methods, and especially to making Elrond accessible to the masses. Today Elrond/eGLD is on a tear and by market cap it is one of the top 50 projects in the space with a strong upward trend.

Will Elrond take over the world? I hope so! But, of course, it is unclear. Aside from ranking Elrond versus other projects the space itself still doesn’t have a killer app for the masses. In 2017 near the peak of the market at that time, Vitalik Buterin tweeted:

So total cryptocoin market cap just hit $0.5T today. But have we *earned* it?

How many unbanked people have we banked?

How much censorship-resistant commerce for the common people have we enabled?

How much value is stored in smart contracts that actually do anything interesting?

The total market cap is now close to a trillion, about twice the level when Vitalik tweeted, and these are still good questions. Bitcoin has established itself as a new asset class that is rapidly supplanting gold as a store of value (gold is lame) but not as a payments platform. Ethereum, Elrond and competitors like Algorand were built for smart contracts, including things like stable coins which will be used for payments, but smart contracts are capable of doing much more. In theory, smart contracts let people cooperate in new ways, potentially unlocking trillions in value. But we aren’t there yet.

Decentralized finance or DeFi is one suggestive hint of where things are going. Already many billions of dollars are “lent” and “saved” using DeFi. The lending and saving, however, is almost entirely done in one cryptocurrency for another. In essence, the DeFi system is leveraging off of crypto speculation and trading.

Nevertheless, something interesting is happening in DeFi. The DeX’s or decentralized exchanges have shown that automated market makers can perform the services of market order books used by the traditional exchanges like the NYSE at lower cost while being easily accessible from anywhere in the world and operating 24/7/365. Thus, every exchange in the world is vulnerable to a DeX.

Also, although DeFi is a place where you can easily lose all your money to mistakes, scams, and bugs (not to mention changes in asset values), DeFi is rapidly developing state-of-the-art security. Only the paranoid survive on the blockchain which means that the systems that do survive are robust. Balaji Srinivasan recently tweeted that Bitcoin is the most powerful algorithm in the world and few algorithms have been as battle-tested as Bitcoin. In a similar way, DeFi will be secure or die and security in a blockchain world will be more secure than anywhere else.

Combining security with accessibility is what’s hard. It’s telling that Coinbase is one of the most successful firms in the crypto space despite performing services which are in some tension with the philosophical foundations of crypto. Satoshi Nakamoto would probably be a little disappointed to learn that people were depositing their Bitcoins in a bank! I can understand the impulse, however. It’s almost magical how you can move money on a blockchain without input or permission from any authority. But when you click the button and your money disappears it’s terrifying as you pray for the invisible hand of the miners to restore your money in another account. Elrond’s soon to be released Maiar app, a wallet that interacts with the Elrond blockchain using only a phone number, will be an interesting test of whether a blockchain platform can duplicate the ease of use of something like PayPal or Zelle.

The other interesting development in the space are zero knowledge proofs. Zero knowledge proofs let someone prove that they know a piece of information or the results of a computation without revealing the information. ZK proofs started in the academic literature but research in their uses and applications has exploded as computer scientists like Silvio Micali start blockchains and blockchains like ZCash hire computer scientists who advance the scientific literature (to give just one example). Truly anonymous digital cash is one application but more generally zero knowledge proofs let people buy and sell information in a way which has always been difficult and seemed impossible (how can you sell a piece of information without showing it to someone first but then having seen the information why would they buy it?).

Bottom line is that crypto is still waiting for the killer app which will make it 21st century infrastructure but there has been tremendous scientific progress in blockchains since the ur-date, 1/3/2009. Modern platforms like Elrond are faster, more robust, and more powerful than past platforms and the potential is there for transformative growth.

My Conversation with the excellent Noubar Afeyan

Among his other achievements, he is the Chairman and co-founder of Moderna.  Here is the audio and video and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss which aspect of entrepreneurship is hardest to teach, his predictions on the future of gene editing and CRISPR technology, why the pharmaceutical field can’t be winner takes all, why “basic research” is a poor term, the secret to Boston’s culture of innovation, the potential of plant biotech, why Montreal is (still) a special place to him, how his classical pianist mother influenced his musical tastes, his discussion-based approach to ethical dilemmas, how thinking future-backward shapes his approach to business and philanthropy, the blessing and curse of Lebanese optimism, the importance of creating a culture where people can say things that are wrong, what we can all learn by being an American by choice, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

AFEYAN:

I should point out, Tyler, what these people don’t yet realize is that mRNA, in addition to being unique in that it’s really the first broadly applied code molecule, information molecule that is used as a medicine and with all the advantages that come with information — digital versus analog — or where you actually have to do everything bespoke, the way drugs usually work.

The other major advantage that it has is that it is something that is actually taking advantage of nature. There was a lot of know-how we had going into this around how the process could be done. In fact, let me tell you the parallel that we used.

We have a program in cancer vaccines. You might say, “What does a cancer vaccine have to do with coronavirus?” The answer is the way we work with cancer vaccines is that we take a patient’s tumor, sequence it, obtain the information around all the different mutations in that tumor, then design de novo — completely nonexistent before — a set of peptides that contain those mutations, make the mRNA for them, and stick them into a lipid nanoparticle, and give it back to that patient in a matter of weeks.

That has been an ongoing — for a couple of years — clinical trial that we’re doing. Well, guess what? For every one of those patients, we’re doing what we did for the virus, over and over and over again. We get DNA sequence. We convert it into the antigenic part. We make it into an RNA. We put it in a particle. In an interesting way, we had interesting precedents that allowed us to move pretty quickly.

And at the close:

Imagine if all of us were also born imagining a better future for ourselves. Well, we should be, but we’ve got to work to get that. An immigrant who comes here understands that they’ve got to work to get that. They have to adapt. The problem is, if you’re born here, you may not actually think that you’ve got to work to get that. You might think you’re born into it.

This will be a funny thing to say, and I apologize to anybody that I offend. If we were all Americans by choice, we’d have a better America because Americans by choice, of which I’m one, actually have a stronger commitment to whatever it takes to make America be the place I chose to be, versus not thinking about that as a core responsibility.

Definitely recommended, he is working to save many many lives, and with great success.

Can open access scientific publishing work?

That is the top of my latest Bloomberg column, another link here, here is one excerpt:

The Indian government has a proposal, called the “One Nation, One Subscription” plan, to buy bulk subscriptions of the world’s most important scientific journals and provide them free to everyone in India. Given the porousness of the internet, and the widespread availability of VPN services, general worldwide access is likely to result. Sci-Hub, based in Russia, already offers open access to many scientific publications.

But why stop there? Rather than just reproducing published articles, the publication process could be opened up altogether.

And the key part:

The biggest problem for an open-access regime is how to ensure good refereeing, which if done correctly raises the quality of academic papers. Under the current system, editors decide which papers get refereed, and they choose the identities of the referees. Those same referees are underpaid and underincentivized, and often do a poor or indifferent job.

Many of the original papers on mRNA vaccines, for example, were rejected numerous times by academic journals, hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo. More generally, since publication is currently a yes/no decision, the refereeing system creates incentives to avoid criticism and play it safe, rather than to strike out with bold new ideas and risk rejection.

Under my alternative vision, research scientists would be told to publish one-third less and devote the extra time to volunteer refereeing of what they consider to be the most important online postings. That refereeing, which would not be anonymous, would be considered as a significant part of their research contribution for tenure and promotion. Professional associations, foundations and universities could set up prizes for the top referees, who might be able to get tenure just by being great at adding value to other people’s work. If the lack of anonymity bothers you, keep in mind that book reviews are already a key determinant for tenure in many fields, such as the humanities, and they are not typically anonymous.

Freer entry yes, open access yes, but also more refereeing.

Should Twitter have banned Trump?

As many of you will expect, I am fine with their decision.  Furthermore I think they made it at exactly the right moment.

Questions for those who think that Twitter made the wrong decision:

1. Can you state your margin? That is, what would Trump have to do for you to think that Twitter should suspend his account?

2. Robert Nozick called for an archipelago of polities, each autonomously setting their own rules. Isn’t Twitter’s action quite consistent with this vision? Is the optimal libertarian equilibrium really one that adds centralized government regulation of tech platform speech codes?  If so, does that induce you to reject libertarian doctrines more generally?

3. If you favor regulation to avoid this deplatforming, which many are calling for, is the optimal libertarian equilibrium really one that adds centralized government regulation of tech platform speech codes?  Where else do you think technology companies should be more regulated when it comes to speech issues?

4. Do you think that the US is the only government that should regulate the speech codes of technology companies or are you in favor of the evolution that would actually occur, i.e. dozens of different countries regulating platform speech in heterogeneous fashion?  If you don’t favor the latter, shouldn’t you be stridently on the side of tech platform independence here?  Do you think that the modal government has more or less Millian liberal tendencies than say Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg?

Questions for those who think that Twitter made the right decision:

5. Why not ban the CCP or Ayatollah Khomenei or many of the other odious and even genocidal characters who populate Twitter today? This tweet still stands: https://twitter.com/khamenei_ir/status/1263551872872386562.  (My view would be to ban the violence-promoting Ayatollahs and leave the CCP, albeit with labeling that it is state propaganda.)

6. This summer, Slate and many other media organizations condoned violence in explicit terms.  Murders are in fact up a great deal this year.  Given that incitement to violence is manifestly acceptable to Twitter in many cases, can you articulate the relevant standard in more detail?

Quantum Technology for Economists

That is the title of a new paper by Isaiah Hull, Or Sattath, Eleni Diamanti, and Goran Wendin.  Much of it I did not understand, but maybe you will.  Here is one excerpt:

Our overview of quantum money starts with a full description of the original scheme, which was introduced circa 1969, but only published later in Wiesner (1983). We will see that it achieves what is called “information-theoretic security,” which means that an attacker with unbounded classical and quantum resources will not be able to counterfeit a unit of the money. Since this original scheme was proposed, the term “quantum money” has come to refer to a broad variety of different payment instruments, including credit cards, bills, and coins, all of which use of quantum physical phenomena to achieve security.The real promise of quantum money is that it offers the possibility of combining the beneficial features of both physical cash and digital payments, which is not possible without the use of the higher standard of security quantum money offers.In particular, a form of currency called “public-key” quantum money would allow individuals to verify the authenticity of bills and coins publicly and without the need to communicate with a trusted third party. This is not possible with any classical form of digital of money, including cryptocurrencies, which at least require communication with a distributed ledger. Thus, quantum money could restore the privacy and anonymity associated with physical money transactions, while maintaining the convenience of digital payment instruments.

Makes those crypto people look like David Laidler!  See also this Behera and Sattath paper.

From the comments, on Congressional cybersecurity, from Gomer

Here’s a new service sector job: Capitol IT admin. The staffers left their computers unlocked when the building was stormed. All it takes is one bad actor to infect the network with malware or steal top secret data. Those rioters broached the physical security of the building so all machines are considered compromised and have to be rebuilt from the ground up. The buildings will also have to be scanned for bugs, wires, and other spook stuff. A state actor hiding in the mob could do some serious damage to national security. Not hard to imagine those Trumpies opening the doors to let an agent from China, Iran, or Russia on to the floor of the Senate. An unknowing useful idiot is still a useful idiot. If this isn’t a coup then this is a serious, serious transgression.

You don’t have to think these are the major cybersecurity threats to USG to find this situation intolerable.  There are also reports of Molotov cocktails and pipe bombs in or near Congress.  You simply have to secure the physical building if you are to have credible security at all.  I am very familiar with these entrances, and even an outnumbered force has the ability to keep out intruders, if it has the will to do so.  In contrast, the Secret Service has a long history of agents using their bodies to block or shield presidents from threats of violence.  Does Congress as a whole (which is harder to replace than a single president) deserve any less?

Austin Vernon on crypto (from my email)

I think your column agrees with my mental model in that the actual crypto networks may not be regulated, but the on-ramps and off-ramps will be heavily regulated (and already are).

If you are an exporter being paid in crypto assets by a Nigerian importer, the obvious thing to do is hedge that crypto against your currency of choice. Because of the volatility, this is maybe most analogous to oil companies hedging oil sales. It is a common practice that most energy lenders provide as part of their menu.

If you tried to set up a service to do this without following the current regulations, I’m sure you’d end up in prison. Just like Coinbase or USDC is already regulated under current rules, hedging crypto against the dollar would easily fall under CFTC rules. Your bank that already provides a line of credit and knows your order book would be the one to offer the service.

I think this is a good outcome in that for those so inclined, the crypto networks provide high risk but low regulation pathways to do business. Everybody else that wants to straddle the dollar and crypto world to get some benefits of crypto will still use the same institutions that manage the massive amounts of regulation that exists in the dollar world.

Maybe the best way to look at the future of crypto, especially outside of bitcoin, is that it is the perfect open-source software ecosystem. Everything is easily interoperable, security is high, and there is a business model for paying developers. Linux and Unix never became consumer operating systems, but they underly every website you use, every popular phone operating system, and now both macOS and Windows. Crypto can do that for financial systems and other applications by providing the infrastructure for advanced (and regulated) consumer and enterprise apps to be built on. It is more like Marc Andreessen’s “software is eating the world” than crypto anarchy. The crypto-anarchists will always have Monero!

What should I ask Brian Armstrong?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, in case you do not know Brian is co-founder and CEO at Coinbase.

So what should I ask him?  And to be clear, this is the conversation I want to have with him, namely one that maximizes my selfish learning, not your mood affiliation.  Here is the Wikipedia page for Coinbase, here is Brian on Twitter, why does a major CEO and person with 410k Twitter followers have no Wikipedia page of his own?

Amazon search is failing us

Maybe it is different for you, but when I search Amazon for “D.M. Knight, Science and Spirituality”, D.M. being commonly used in citations to the book, I get this mess — no listing of the book!

If I pop the same into Google, the Amazon listing for the book comes up third.

So more and more I am using Google to search on Amazon (heaven forbid that your Amazon author’s name is “Glass,” you will be offered all sorts of glassworks for sale and if you are lucky the book listing is on p.3).

But what can I use for doing a Google search?  Surely not Google…Daniel Gross must know!

Dan Wang’s 2020 letter

Most of it was about China, but here was my favorite part:

The key to reading Proust is not to pay too much attention to the plot. It’s of no great import, and one has to get used to abrupt shifts. In this way the novel is like Moby-Dick, which can shift from the politics of dining at Ahab’s table to a loving tour of the literal interior of a sperm whale’s head. Couldn’t find the transition? No matter, that detracts not at all from the wonderfulness of the scenes. Focus instead on the humor. There are many funny things that take place in the aristocratic set pieces, such as the constant misunderstandings of M. de Charlus at the dinner of the Verdurins, or his suspicion at the violinist who professes to enjoy solving algebra equations until late into the evenings, or his interactions with the Duc de Guermantes. Really anything with Charlus portends comedy.

Interesting throughout.  And:

I may not not have accomplished much in life, but I’m proud at least to have eaten thalis in Chennai, pizza in Naples, and mie goreng in Singapore.

I know that Beijing is not the world’s best food city, but it might be the best food city for me. One can grab expensive sushi at the restaurant favored by the Japanese embassy or walk a few blocks and order five plates of dumplings for $20. One can find decent dosas, lots of Thai food, and even a bagel store whose breads would be out of place on the Upper West Side but would not be in San Francisco. Best of all, every region of China is represented in this city. To deal with the various challenges of a pandemic year, I found solace in stuffing my face.

I managed to sample dishes from all the provinces this year, including the relatively obscure cuisines from places like Anhui, Guangxi, and Jiangxi. My favorites are: Shanghai, Sichuan, and Yunnan…

Here is my four-step process for ordering success in China:

  1. Greens are usually the glories of the cuisine: order as many vegetables as there are people
  2. If you will have a meat, consider the juiciness that pairs well with the starch: something saucy if you will eat with rice, or less saucy if you will have soup noodles
  3. Order Yunnan mushrooms if they are on the menu
  4. Fill out the rest with cold appetizers, they are never a bad idea

Here is the full piece.

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

Why bitcoin will not take over the world

Yes it is here to stay, and it is not a bubble, but…here is one part of the argument:

If you hold or trade with a stablecoin, you incur several risks. First, the stablecoin peg to the dollar may someday be broken, an old problem with pegged exchange rates that Milton Friedman often warned about. Second, to the extent stablecoins and other crypto assets become a major part of the financial system, they will attract more regulatory interest. That in turn will limit many of their advantages over the traditional bank sector. The U.S. government does not want a financial system that evolves outside the purview of the Federal Reserve, FDIC and other regulatory institutions.

Third, the formal banking sector will improve, for instance by moving to more rapid clearing, or by introducing electronic reserve currencies. With the latter, you could transfer your electronically-based dollars within the accounting system of the central bank, and achieve a non-intermediated transfer without resorting to crypto. It is not obvious that crypto will be the market winner once more mainstream institutions learn some lessons from the success of crypto.

And in sum:

The more utopian scenarios for crypto, whether proponents realize it or not, rely on the notion that crypto remains simultaneously fringe and mainstream. That will be a hard trick to pull off.

Your rebuttals, and more, are considered at the link to my latest Bloomberg column.

New blood-test device monitors blood chemistry continually

“A blood test is great, but it can’t tell you, for example, whether insulin or glucose levels are increasing or decreasing in a patient,” said Tom Soh, a professor of electrical engineering and of radiology at Stanford. “Knowing the direction of change is important.”

Now, Soh, in collaboration with Eric Appel, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and colleagues have developed a technology that can provide this crucial piece of missing information. Their device, which they’ve dubbed the “Real-time ELISA,” is able to perform many blood tests very quickly and then stitch the individual results together to enable continuous, real-time monitoring of a patient’s blood chemistry. Instead of a snapshot, the researchers end up with something more like a movie.

In a new study, published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers used the device to simultaneously detect insulin and glucose levels in living diabetic laboratory rats. But the researchers say their tool is capable of so much more because it can be easily modified to monitor virtually any protein or disease biomarker of interest…

Technologically, the system relies upon an existing technology called Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay – ELISA (“ee-LYZ-ah”) for short. ELISA has been the “gold standard” of biomolecular detection since the early 1970s and can identify virtually any peptide, protein, antibody or hormone in the blood. An ELISA assay is good at identifying allergies, for instance. It is also used to spot viruses like HIV, West Nile and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We do ELISA continuously,” Soh said.

The Real-time ELISA is essentially an entire lab within a chip with tiny pipes and valves no wider than a human hair. An intravenous needle directs blood from the patient into the device’s tiny circuits where ELISA is performed over and over.

Here is the full story, via Malinga Fernando.

This is us, that is them, China antitrust suit of the day

Chinese regulators said Thursday they have launched an antitrust investigation into Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. BABA 0.14% and separately said they would summon affiliate Ant Group for discussions on competition and consumer rights.

Taken together, the two actions mark the strongest enforcement action by Beijing against the country’s biggest technology giant and Jack Ma, its billionaire founder.

The Alibaba investigation was revealed Thursday by China’s antimonopoly regulator, the State Administration for Market Regulation, which said in a brief statement that it was acting on reports that Alibaba was pressuring merchants who sell goods on its platforms to commit to not selling on its competitors. Alibaba’s e-commerce platforms, Taobao and Tmall, compete with domestic rivals JD.com Inc. and Pinduoduo Inc.

Here is the full story, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.