FORKING BitcoinXT: Is it really a coup or just more crypto-FUD?
Let's unleash a new craptocurrency
Something for the Weekend, Sir? Bitcoin is about to fork off. Too forking right, some of you may cheer. But a great many Bitcoin “users” – miners, developers, retailers and spenders – are against the idea. If you ask them about it, they’ll tell you they don’t like being forked about. Some of them say they couldn’t be forked.
You thought Greece was in turmoil over its choice of currency? Spare a thought for the poor lambs in the Bitcoin community. At least the Greeks only had to determine which currency to use. Bitcoin hipsters, on the other hand, no longer agree what their currency is.
The discontent rippling through the community looks at first to concern nothing more than a tech fix. Unfortunately, the implementation of this fix risks causing a rift in Bitcoin’s user base by creating a fork in the dev road.
Worse, the take-it-or-leave-it way in which the fork, known as BitcoinXT, is being thrown at users has been described by some as a “coup” that could subject Bitcoin to the whims of one person.
First, a disclosure of interest: I own a Bitcoin wallet containing 0.00002232 BTC. For those of you who don’t resemble a Captain Haddock cosplayer, this roughly equates to £0.003 or $0.005. Such has been the inexplicable rise in the exchange rate that I can no longer joke about my Bitcoin wealth being “not worth a farthing” – because now it is.
Second, a disclosure of ignorance: I still do not fully understand Bitcoin, which makes it difficult for me to sympathise with its current growing pains. Nor am I convinced by claims that Bitcoin cannot be manipulated by individuals in the same way that other currencies are by banks and governments.
To my mind, Bitcoin gives the impression of being conceived and implemented specifically in order to make a handful of people very rich on the backs of the gullible. Or perhaps it is just coincidental that Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s mysteriously anonymous creator(s) and miner(s) of the so-called “genesis block”, is/are said to hold wallets containing almost BTC 1m. At today’s exchange rate, that’s worth about £145m or $224m.
Ah, but you admonish, this is no different than any minor project that eventually turns into a worldwide craze, whether it’s numismatics, collecting artworks by YBAs or launching the Hula hoop. The initiators are entitled to enjoy the benefits of increased demand and value if it turns out to be a success.
I quite agree. Bitcoin is the Hula Hoop of this decade.
The problem facing Bitcoin is that users are waking up to the fact that it’s rather more like commercial software than anyone dared suspect: Satoshi Nakamoto built timed obsolescence right into the framework. It’s all down to the blockchain.
Bitcoin’s decentralised structure and independence from control relies on universal access to the currency’s current situation and its entire history. As the currency is mined and as Bitcoins are exchanged between wallets, every change and transaction is recorded in data blocks of up to 1MB and added to the chain.
None of this is vague or speculative. At any time, give or take the odd 10 minutes, Bitcoin is completely up to date, truthful, comprehensive and in control of itself, with a complete transaction history back to year dot.
In this sense, Bitcoin is more “real” than any other currency on Earth.
It means anyone and everyone can spend and receive Bitcoins in a sensible, safe and self-managed way, rather than having to trust the value and security of their cash to a bunch of reckless bastards snorting coke from the breasts of impressionable ladies on the 32nd floor of some granite and steel skyscraper.
Sorry, that may have sounded a bit technical. I meant to write “banks”.
Now that Bitcoin is getting more popular and the demands increasing, the limitation of how many transactions can fit into a 1MB block threatens to slow everything down. You’d think the solution would be simple: make the blocks bigger.
Yes, but how?
In a commercial software environment, the developers would probably run a few focus groups, farm out the extra work to a coding sweathouse in India, announce a fix bundled with some unwanted new features, and make users pay for it.
In a scientific or academic environment, there would be a lot of chin-stroking, pen-clicking and writing of papers that would be peer-reviewed and tested before being rolled out to users or canned completely.
Bitcoin, however, is a peer-to-peer IT community, so the process of problem-solving involves a lot more email shouting, forum harrumphing, social media trolling, barista bating and generally singeing each other’s ironic Edwardian beards.
Decisions can only be made by committee, and this committee comprises every Bitcoin developer, miner, node-owner and other interested party (i.e. the human species). It’s not going to happen quickly.
Nor should it. Bitcoin has reached a stage where it’s no longer viable, nor safe, simply to chuck stuff on Github and see what happens. In March 2013, Bitcoin core developers released an update that turned out not to be backwards-compatible, inadvertently creating a fork in the progression of the blockchain. Spotting the error quickly, it got reverted back in time. In future, everyone realised, this stuff has to be done with greater care and attention.
Now, depending upon how it is implemented, changing the size of the blocks will almost certainly create a fork. Bitcoin users who don’t update their nodes and/or wallets will be left behind. In the very short term, this could create problems such as people spending cash they don’t have or not receiving cash they are due.
On the other hand, this is the kind of thing that could happen anyway if the existing system based on diddy little 1MB blocks builds up a massive backlog and grinds to a halt.
So what’s the argument? Just update the damn system, hairy dudes!
Enter Mike Hearn and Gavin Andresen, who didn’t like the idea of waiting around for consensus on the technical approach and decided to unleash BitcoinXT on the world.
BitcoinXT formulates a proposal to roll out a new version of the blockchain that increases blocks to 8MB and allows further incremental size increases every two years as necessary.
Actually, this isn’t quite true: BitcoinXT doesn’t propose anything, it is a fork that has been unceremoniously slammed down in the middle of Bitcoin’s plate of green eggs and ham, upsetting a whole bunch of diners. Overtly, BitcoinXT says “Try me, it’ll help!” but privately it is saying “Use me or die!”
A community based on peer-to-peer acceptance does not like to be told what to do. Paranoid Bitcoiners even suspect BitcoinXT to be a coup attempt in which one organisation, even one specific individual, is trying to take control. Proponents of BitcoinXT, on the other hand, accuse objectors of spreading unnecessary FUD.
Intentionally, BitcoinXT can only become the dominant fork if at least 75 per cent of Bitcoin nodes adopt its Bitcoin Improvement Proposal (BIP) 101. This will be determined to have happened when 750 of the most recent 1,000 mined blocks support BIP 101. After this, the Bitcoin community will be given two weeks to update en masse to the new version or employ an alternative solution – such as hammering their own heads flat with a house brick.
I can’t see this happening any time soon. According to one tracker, the amount of blocks mined using BIP 101 is still lingering around the 0.5 per cent mark. Still, let’s be optimistic: only 74.5 per cent to go!
It’s fascinating stuff, to be sure, but I know someone, somewhere, will make a wodge of money out of all this, whatever happens. For this reason, I have decided to get in on the act by announcing my own alternative to old-world cash. What the industry needs right now is a new craptocurrency.
Let me introduce you to the newest disruptor in fintech: the Poopcoin.
The Poopcoin will scoop away all competing currencies and dump them in little plastic bags in nearby receptacles. It will replace outmoded and inconvenient concepts such as paper notes and metal coins, and avoid the need to carry about cumbersome credit cards, by letting you pay directly from your own supercomputer.
Simply walk into a coffee shop – more accurately, the coffee shop, since only one retailer has agreed to support it (in central Kazakhstan, too!) – and swipe your Cray Titan over the full-body scanner to trigger your purchase.
Each Poopcoin transaction completes almost instantly in a matter of weeks, for which I charge just 0.2 per cent* per transaction. Minimum Poopcoin transaction value: £42,000.
To keep things interesting for the Poopcoin development community, I will deliberately build in a self-destruct subroutine that kicks in after five years, rendering all Poopcoins radioactive for the next millennium.
To keep things interesting for me, I will duck out of development, responsibility and generally giving a toss just as soon as the currency I have mined – using undocumented subroutines, heh heh – reaches the value of 17 Poopcoins (approx $3.2bn), which I estimate should take four years 11 months. Just enough time for me to get it changed into proper money!
Talk your corporate investor today about handing over more funding for your new Poopcoin leeching project, and remember, kids: in the future, all digital currencies will be Poop! ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He appreciates that Poopcoin may leave a nasty smell in the industry but insists that he will continue squeezing and fully expects to clean up afterwards. In the meantime, he can hardly wait to get his hands into Poop.