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Digging for Bitcoin Is a Labor of Love

By Jonathan Terrasi LinuxInsider ECT News Network
May 16, 2019 12:25 PM PT
plumbing the bitcoin depths offers a multitude of rewards for amateur data scientists

It would have been reasonable for those attending Josh Bressers' session at last month's CypherCon -- myself included -- to expect a presentation by a cryptocurrency expert. It was billed as a talk about plumbing the depths of the bitcoin blockchain. When Bressers admitted that his material grew out of a hobby, I was surprised. Still, the talk was far from disappointing.

Instead, "Spelunking the Bitcoin Blockchain" offered a glimpse of the impact that "amateurs," in the best sense of the word, ultimately have on the development of cryptocurrencies.

Similar to the way a lot of passion projects unfold, Bressers started out by going down a rabbit hole -- one that is of interest to many working and playing with technology -- out of sheer curiosity.

"Being able to see the data and answer questions is very powerful," he said. "Once you start to investigate something like bitcoin, every question you answer takes you down a path with more questions and new answers I can't even imagine."

Luckily for him, Bressers didn't have to start delving into bitcoin from square one. His background with Elastic, as a member of its product security division, equipped him with the technical command to set up a continually refreshing interactive dataset of the bitcoin blockchain. Right off the bat, his queryable data portal painted a vivid picture of bitcoin's ledger.

"Since starting this project, I've learned quite a lot about how [bitcoin] works -- everything from how the client stores data to what the data is, how others are using bitcoin in ways the creators probably never imagined," he said. "The fact that anyone can put anything in the blockchain intrigued me, but I ended up finding many interesting things in all the data."

"Anything" is no exaggeration. Specifically, Bressers' digging led him to the bitcoin ledger's breadcrumb trail of null blocks, a relatively unexplored oddity in bitcoin's architecture that allows anyone to record arbitrary strings of data into its blockchain instead of transfer value. Like value transfers, though, the null blocks remain permanently and cryptographically recorded in the global public ledger.

Interesting Gems

Along with curios like null data, Bressers uncovered some broader trends in bitcoin's developmental history. With bitcoin, the number of transactions that are resolved (that is, recorded in the ledger via mining) in each block varies.

In its infancy, that was because the number of transactions came nowhere close to the 1MB maximum block size imposed shortly after the software's public release. However, as bitcoin boomed in popularity, the transaction count quickly approached the limit.

One relationship Bressers found between block size and transaction count per block was that, according to his observations, after the maximum size restriction was eliminated, the number of transactions dipped to even out the overall rate of transactions to roughly the same as under the 1MB limit.

While it might constitute little more than a fascinating statistic to hobbyists like Bressers, this kind of correlation can lend valuable insight to cryptocurrency developers and users.

"I think I've gained a new appreciation for the challenges the developers have, and some of their solutions," Bressers said.

At multiple points in his presentation, Bressers maintained that he was not a data scientist, which is certainly true in a professional sense. However, whether one's discoveries or research constitute data science, or at least serve a similar function as data science, is more a matter of perspective. In fact, data science is so new that even professional practitioners are only just arriving at a consensus on what it means.

Identifying New Properties

Corey Stedman, founder and CEO of cryptocurrency accounting firm DEI, would not classify himself as a data scientist either, but the discipline is one he is picking up as part of his entrepreneurship. For him, data science simply involves using data to drive actionable decisions.

"The way that I would define data science is not taking data for surface value, but looking at it in a really granular, nuanced view, and then applying it for results, for review," Stedman said.

Correlations like the fall in transactions with the removal of the block limit, or transactions with price generally, which Bressers encountered, are useful to cryptocurrency businesspeople like Stedman in addressing development challenges like scaling.

"When you think of any cryptocurrency, whether it's bitcoin or whatever," Stedman said, you have to ask, "how could it accommodate 100 million people? So, bitcoin, for instance, would not be able to accommodate 100 million users for a couple of reasons, and that's one of the main bottlenecks."

The most significant strides that studying blockchains to any degree affords developers and users, to Stedman, is purely its ability to explore new potential applications. Stedman illustrated the point by making an analogy between cryptocurrencies and elements on the Periodic Table, in that the study of both aims to identify new innate properties.

"With cryptocurrencies, for the most part, all of them can do value transfer fairly well," he said. "However, when you look at something like Ethereum, what Ethereum did is that it changed the game a little bit, where now you have this world computer where you can program the money to do things, and a lot of other blockchains replicated that. What I see is other cryptocurrencies realizing their properties."

Amateur Roots

There is value in broadly tracking the kind of metaphorical cryptocurrency vital signs that Bressers captures in his live bitcoin data feed, said Hannah Rosenberg, managing director of the Blockchain Institute.

"When I'm looking at a new coin," she said, "I always start with, you know, [looking] at the software and then at the monetary theory aspects of things: Is there a cap on this coin? Is there inflation? Is it predictable? Who controls it? Then you wind up in more data analysis stuff: How many people are using it? How many nodes are there on the network? That type of thing."

While crediting the amateurs who study cryptocurrencies, Rosenberg also underscored the critical role amateurs play in creating and sustaining cryptocurrencies all over the ecosystem -- even including the invention of bitcoin itself.

"Bitcoin is an amateur project. This is just someone's hobby project that they released on the Internet," she said. "Because of the nature of it, because of the lack of a leader, I think in bitcoin -- at least to me, I think a lot of other people -- it is a project that winds up feeling like yours, even though I don't have any core commits."

The reliance on the passionate work of nonprofessionals is just as current in cryptocurrencies as it is part of their history. In Rosenberg's experience, which encompasses organizing cryptocurrency meetup groups, the transition from wide-eyed initiate to in-the-trenches entrepreneur is often rapid and dramatic.

"A lot of times ... the common story is, 'Oh, I heard about it years ago, I thought it was interesting and kept following it, and then finally one day I decided to come in here and check it out,'" Rosenberg said. "They have a good conversation, they'll keep coming back, and then a year later, they come in and go, 'Hey, Hannah, did you hear about my new project?'"

Data Inquisitiveness

There is a notable degree of convergence on the idea that cryptocurrencies could stand to see more data science applied to them -- or that in some cases, they eventually may demand that kind of critical analysis.

In Stedman's view, the prospect of cryptocurrency integration into the fabric of the global financial system looms large, and gaining a more concrete understanding of cryptocurrency behaviors is crucial to making the synthesis a harmonious one.

"Cryptocurrency is not going anywhere. It's here to stay, and I think that [the cryptocurrency community and the traditional finance community] don't have to be in contention with each other," he said. "This is not the horse and carriage versus cars."

By contrast, Rosenberg sees blockchain technology advances primarily as influencing how the Web 3.0 standard materializes, particularly in regard to the integrity of user personal data. In a world where blockchain use proliferates as a means of user identity verification, the onus for implementing it properly will fall on those further and further from the core of the cryptocurrency community, encompassing Web, application and operating system developers.

"The private Web is a restructuring of the Internet in a way where people have control over their own data," Rosenberg said, "and so a Web developer needs to know about [blockchain], because especially if you're doing e-commerce Web development, this is going to come into play. Or if you're just doing any kind of Web development, sooner or later I really think this is going to be something they're going to have to learn."

If nothing else, bitcoin's significance, to Bressers, is more as a jumping-off point for data inquisitiveness, whether applied to cryptocurrencies or anything else. This is so much the case that he premised his talk in large part on that kernel of thought.

"The biggest takeaway I hope people see is the power of being able to quickly look at data," he said. "I would hope the audience either expands on my current bitcoin work, or uses it as an inspiration to build their own projects looking at data in new and interesting ways."


Jonathan Terrasi has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2017. His main interests are computer security (particularly with the Linux desktop), encryption, and analysis of politics and current affairs. He is a full-time freelance writer and musician. His background includes providing technical commentaries and analyses in articles published by the Chicago Committee to Defend the Bill of Rights.


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