bitcom

This week has been extremely bad. I'll tell you about it one day.

Craig Wrong

In my day job, I try to ignore the world of cryptocurrency. I've never been particularly enamoured with the sector – notoriously, one of the first pieces I ever wrote about bitcoin confidently declared it a speculative bubble at a time when a single bitcoin was selling for $33. It's now just under over $10,000. I'm a journalist, not a speculator, none of this is financial advice.

But there's lots of parts of tech I feel are more or less overvalued, yet only (ugh) "crypto" reaches the threshold of being blanket ignored. There's a few reasons for that. One is that, even taken at the best hope for the field, the use-case for a mature crypto product is in the deep tech underpinning the consumer web, not as a consumer product in and of itself. As a writer for a mainstream newspaper, I don't cover trends like containerisation, devops, or serverless hosting, because to an end-user, those things don't really matter. What matters is the bit they see and interact with.

Another reason is that my working theory of crypto is that it's useful if you want to operate outside the law. I don't really mean that with any value judgement; it's just a plain elaboration of what virtues like decentralisation and censorship resistance mean in a mature digital ecosystem. Broadly, the combination of modern tech and modern contract law allows for many of the things you would spin up a cryptocurrency to do, without the incredible inefficiencies that blockchains require. Want to send money to a business? We can do that already, in a number of ways. Want to operate a shared data structure between a number of operators in the same field? Spin up a join venture, give that organisation control of the data, then go hog wild. 

But when you're outside the law, suddenly being able to implement some of these things in code is advantageous. Working in a business where you can't sue your counterparty because the data you're storing in a shared structure is illegally obtained? Then a blockchain might offer genuine advantages. Want to execute a payment with someone who you aren't legally allowed to pay? Then censorship resistance is quite a good thing.

In the West, "outside the law" is normally pretty closely aligned with "shady", but that's not the case globally. Want to publish and distribute Chinese-language information about the rise of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan in late December 2019? Then operating outside the law would, in hindsight, have been a useful thing to offer. 

But in practice, the usefully-illegal uses of crypto are few and far between, because they're so swamped by the uselessly legal versions of the field. It's hard to raise VC money if your pitch is 'we make crimes pay' – at least, I assume it is? VCs, get in touch, what would you do if someone had a really compelling argument that they could do that – but if your pitch is 'Flattr but with blockchain', that's something they can throw cash at. 

That signal to noise ratio is the third reason why I ignore crypto. There is so much money floating around the ecosystem, and so few products that are even interesting, let alone interesting and plausible and have a working version with human users who aren't simply speculating on the token, that ignoring the whole thing is the best possible use of my time, rather than trying to find the needles in the haystack of my inbox. 

All of which has been a long preamble to explain why I haven't been covering Craig Wright much, but rest assured: I'm still fascinated by him. Wright, you may recall – and I have to be a bit careful here, because he is notoriously litigious – is the Australian computer scientist who has been saying, since 2015, that he was Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of Bitcoin. Wright's evidence on this front has been… flimsy, culminating in 2016 in an attempt to provide evidence that was labelled a "scam" by observers.

(In short: Wright presented a few journalists, including the BBC and Economist, with what he said was an excerpt from Sartre signed with Satoshi Nakamoto's private key. If true, it would have been incontrovertible evidence. In fact, what he gave those journalists was an already-published signature, that did indeed verify as Nakamoto's, but was not in any way linked with the Sartre excerpt it was supposed to be. Added to that is the fact that there is a very clear and obvious way to prove one is Satoshi Nakamoto – spend any of the first hundred or so bitcoins ever made – and Wright has never done it, nor explained why he won't.)

The circumstances of that emergence were enough for most – myself included – to write Wright off. But, strangely, he has not disappeared. Instead, he's floated around the edges of the bitcoin community, continuing to very loudly and publicly insist that he really did invent bitcoin, no you can't see any proof, but yes he should be treated as an elder statesman of the field. And incredibly, it's worked. Wright gets invited to conferences, he gets handed buckets of money and controlling positions on important foundations, and this week, he's tried to seize control of, well, all of bitcoin.

Wright's argument is basically that a) he created bitcoin, b) he made bitcoin open-source but c) he never made the blockchain open-source. That means that projects like Ethereum and Litecoin, that implemented their own blockchain from scratch, are fine by him, but that the many competing flavours of bitcoin itself are, he says, infringing on his database rights.

The post is, well, insane. It's an attempt to enforce incredibly shaky rights over intellectual property that had been unambiguously freely licensed by someone who has effectively no ability to even prove those rights are his to enforce. It's as though I wondered into Waterstones one day and declared a) that Shakespeare's works were actually written by the Earl of Oxford, b) I was the Earl of Oxford, just recently celebrating my 500th birthday, c) therefore everything is still covered by my copyright and Waterstones should pay me, and d) no you can't see proof.

Even better, it's hard to see how the rights claimed in the post are compatible with bitcoin existing at all. If you take a decentralised cryptocurrency, and centralise the rights over the entire database – and say it's a breach of the computer misuse act to access the database without the centralised authority – then you have essentially reimplemented Dropbox. It's an astonishing power play: Wright is threatening to use the power of UK law to destroy the thing that is his only possible claim to fame and fortune. It won't work, but I can't wait to see how it fails.

Ticket to Ride

Some of you are here because of a recommendation from past boss, current pal, future first-time author Helen Lewis, who said this newsletter was good for "technology, pokemon and board games". Thanks, Helen. Thelen. 

We've covered the first today, and the second extensively before (update: a lot of my Pokemon are dead, I'm down to a core team of just five, and having checked the map I think there are only two more opportunities for me to catch Pokemon in the entire game. It's going to be tight), but we haven't done the latter ever here. So here's a bottle review of the new Ticket to Ride map pack, Japan & Italy:

The core update to the game, beyond the double-sided game board (33% larger, physically, than the base game, which is worth bearing in mind if you're challenged in table space), is the introduction of 16 bullet train pieces to the table. These are used to collaboratively build a Shinkansen network, running down the spine of the country, that completely changes the tenor of the game. 

Firstly, that's because a lot of endgame points ride on participation: 25 points if you contributed the most to the network, falling to negative 20 if you did nothing at all. And secondly, because it completely changes the risk profile of the tickets. The game continues until all the Shinkansen pieces are used, which means that most of the network is guaranteed to be built by game end. That means that long-distance tickets are comparatively safe, since any player can trace the route along the Shinkansen network, while shorter tickets off-grid can require a lot of your limited train pool: you have just 20 carriages, down from 45 normally.

But not all of the Shinkansen track is finished, leading to a maddening game-end pile-up as you realise what's not going to be connected, and pile in to try and extend your personal network far further than it can comfortably stretch. Italy, by contrast, is a more conventional affair. There are ferry cards – that can only be used to build ferries – and there's a peculiar scoring quirk around regions, but in play, it feels much more like the US or Europe maps of the base game. Fun variation, in other words, but not something that really offers a completely different experience.

Needless to say, if you've never played Ticket to Ride, a review of the seventh (!) expansion pack to the game won't make much sense to you. The base game, however, is one of the best on the market: it's the actually-good family-friendly game that should replace Monopoly on the shelves of every household that plays one boardgame a year while digesting Christmas dinner. I prefer it to the other titan of the genre, Catan, simply because it's a slightly less nerdy theme, and has rules that make a bit more intuitive sense. And because the box contains a little more than 200 trains, in card and plastic.

Choo choo,

Alex

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