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Kieran Mesquita: Early Bitcoin Developer on Crypto Clothesline

This week on the Clothesline, we’re meeting and chatting (and even attending a little cocktail party) with Mr Kieran Mesquita, early Bitcoin developer and saviour of the crypto universe… (Not that he’d agree with that statement.). You’ll find out why in the interview…

Kieran and I, we talk about used cameras constantly and I drive him nuts because he finds me these bargains and I don’t go and snap them up mainly because my budget doesn’t allow just now. (Note to self – says Kieran: don’t have kids until I’m an absolute multimillionaire.)

How You Got Involved in Bitcoin Development

Kieran had always been interested in programming since a very young age. He coded a Pikachu Tamagotchi clown towards the end of primary school. Then he later joined the Cypherpunk mailing list and started reading about this ‘Bitcoin thing’ that was being discussed.

At one point the person running the mailing list actually asked everyone to stop talking about Bitcoin and move the conversation somewhere else, because it was the only thing that was being talked about.

“Bitcoin was really regarded as a bit of a toy currency at the time…”

Would You Call Yourself A Rebel Then?

Regardless of the request to move the Bitcoin conversation elsewhere, away from the Cypherpunk group, Kieran followed the lead and got into Bitcoin…

Amy-Rose: Was it around that time that Bitcoin was also being used for unsavoury things on the dark web?  Would you call yourself a rebel then if you continued on with Bitcoin regardless?

“It was just impossible to talk about anything else… the people that were working on Bitcoin at the time: Gavin Andresen, Greg Maxwell, Hal Finney and a couple of others, they moved to SourceForge which is where the original bitcoin code was being developed.”

It was actually a couple of years later that Bitcoin was used in dark web dealings like Silk Road and being… ‘a bit a bit starry-eyed and idealistic’, Kieran says he didn’t pay much attention to it.

Dark Web Dealings and Silk Road

‘…is the underbelly of Bitcoin and crypto.’

It’s been mentioned in various conversations: with all great technology development, really criminals are the first to use it because they’re the ones who have the greatest need.  They have this bigger picture.  If there’s criminal activity – they actually have to think outside the square in order to get their needs met. It’s often been commented on that gambling and pornography are usually the two areas where technology gets tested out first.

Kieran: The Internet grew out of Usenet boards but the thing that really drove adoption was all these Alt boards. Those kinds of boards were like, ‘anything goes’ and you can imagine what was being posted on there: pornography, gambling… Sex, drugs, rock and roll.

We have just recently had a fairly lengthy and wonderful chat with Lyn Ulbricht, Ross Ulbricht’s mother in relation to her campaign: Free Ross 

Ross Ulbricht is serving time for developing Silk Road: a double life sentence plus 40 years.  They’re saying it’s a crime but they’re also saying it’s extreme imprisonment and extreme sentencing. We wanted to talk to his mother about that because she’s currently trying to free him by getting a pardon from US President, Donald Trump. Ross was completely nonviolent and there were no victims in the trial. The judge has been recorded as saying: “I want to make an example of you.”  A lot of the background people (in the court case) were all involved in high finance in the US, so it’s widely believed they wanted to keep a lid on Bitcoin at the time.

Abheeti: What comments have you got about that Kieran?

Kieran: Ross wasn’t selling drugs. He just developed a website and I think the punishment that he’s gotten is way too harsh.  It was just a website that he developed.

Abheeti: We had a similar conversation around the dinner table about the fact that if Mark Zuckerberg got the same sentencing because people were using Facebook for illicit material or inappropriate material, which is happening all the time, it would be ridiculous.

You’re Pretty Popular Because You’ve Been Around for a While

“I was certainly a lot more arrogant when I first got involved.”

I ended up actually writing a GPU miner (cryptocurrency mining rig) for both Solidcoins and Litecoin, just to prove someone that I was talking to, that they were wrong about Solidcoins and Litecoin being GPU resistant.  This is way before ASICs (best Bitcoin mining rigs) were on the horizon.

Initially Bitcoin was mined on a CPU (Central Processing Unit), only.  People figured out that they could actually use a graphics card to mine Bitcoin even faster. And then that progressed onto dedicated devices, eventually.

So early on in development, there was a number of coins that came out that wanted to be CPU-only because they didn’t like the way that a Bitcoin was only being mined by GPUs and they didn’t think it was accessible to the average person. So, they set about developing these mining algorithms which were meant to CPU-only. And that ended up not being the case.

I ended up writing a GPU miner, just to prove that these coins, which are supposedly only mineable on CPU, are mineable (also) on a GPU.

During one of these conversations, a fairly prominent member of the community ended up just blowing his lid and typing out,

“Dude, shut your mouth!”

…and a couple of other obscenities later on, (which I won’t repeat)… It was definitely because I was being arrogant.”

Cryptocurrency Civil Wars

The whole cryptocurrency civil wars have existed since the beginning. Well, there’s Litecoin and Solidcoin which were war at the start, now it’s Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash.

Abheeti: Do you see one of them being wiped out?

Amy-Rose: Brace yourself.

Kieran: I’m going to cop a lot of flack from both sides for saying this: I think Bitcoin certainly does have a use case being the gold standard of cryptocurrency at the moment. Bitcoin cash certainly does have its own use case at the moment too. While Bitcoin’s focusing on long term development, Bitcoin Cash is focusing on being usable right now.  I don’t see a reason they can’t coexist for the time being.

What Was It Like for You as a Child Being a Coder?

Kieran talked about being a young kid into coding. He came to Australia after also living in other countries. How was life for this kid: a coding genius geek and interested in stuff which maybe wasn’t as cool as what others were doing?

Kieran: I got into coding simply because I lived New Zealand for a while before moving over to Australia where I currently live.  I just happened to move at the time where friends’ groups had already formed in schools, and it was a bit more difficult to break in… so I turned to coding.

Abheeti: What about your actual cultural background? You’ve lived in New Zealand, you’ve moved to Australia, but your family of origin?

Kieran: My parents are both from India, my family is originally from India.

Abheeti: But your name doesn’t sound Indian, so is it Portuguese?

Recently Bitcoin Had A Near-Death Experience

Amy-Rose: I saw this post and I shared it in the BlockBoxx Telegram group (and we’ll put the link to the group in the show notes) where there are these awesome discussions.

You replied to the comment about what was happening with Bitcoin, and you said that you’d been working on it.

Can you tell us…(because everyone was like): “Nothing can ever harm Bitcoin and Bitcoin blockchain is impenetrable, it’s like superman, it’s amazing!”

And I agree but…

…this thing happened.

Can you explain what happened to Bitcoin last week, and what you did, and how you worked on solving the problem, with the others?

Kieran: This bug was actually a result of a change made in 2016 to the Bitcoin code, which was meant to speed up validation of blocks.  Any Bitcoin fork that used the code after 2016, for any fork which was pulling in code from Bitcoin, and happened to pull that code in as well, ended up actually being affected by that bug.

You have things like Bitcoin Cash for example, a number of our clients were affected: Litecoin and a number of other bitcoin forks.

I’m working on my own fork of bitcoin called Bitcoin Hex. It’s a, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek fork just to poke fun at some of the ridiculous ICOs coming out nowadays. And as a way to just prove:

‘…that cryptocurrencies can actually replace the role of banks.’

We are replicating some of those roles here with Bitcoin Hex.  We’re doing term deposits.

Back to the fix. The majority of cryptocurrencies that reused Bitcoin code were affected by this bug. I’m not really too sure what the timeline was for the Bitcoin core developers, or the Bitcoin ABC developers. I think they knew about it a little bit longer than we did, but we were basically given about a day’s notice before the fix was going live on the Bitcoin Core code.  When they push the fix live, everyone can look at it and say: “Oh, there’s a bug. I wonder what other currencies have this bug.”

So, it was very important that we fix the code in all of our clients as well, prior to the bug being disclosed.

I spent a fair amount of time looking through all these clients of cryptocurrencies, which I used, and a couple of which I have been developing, (Bitcoin Hex being one of them) to actually see if the bug was present in these code bases, and patch it before the public announcement went live.

Abheeti: So patch it means to fix it up?

Amy-Rose: And what would happen if he didn’t fix it?

Crypto Inflation

If I or someone else didn’t fix it, basically anyone that was aware of the bug could look at our code base and, and see that, okay, the bug is our, take advantage of it. There were two ways that an attacker could take advantage of the bug:

  1. To mine a malicious block and then send that out to the network, which would end up crashing all of the nodes that people were running.
  2. And the other would be to, depending on what point in time the bitcoin fork was a forked off – if it was earlier, then they could actually use this to duplicate coins, or create new coins out of thin air, which is not something you want in a cryptocurrency which was only ever meant to have 21 million coins.

Amy-Rose:  You worked on a few different cryptocurrencies to make sure that you remedied that bug? Is that what you did: remedy it and then you saved bitcoin?

Kieran: Well, I saved the other cryptocurrencies which I was working on, not necessarily Bitcoin.

Amy-Rose: No, but you did the same sort of thing that they would have been doing for Bitcoin?

Kieran: Yes.

Amy-Rose: I’m a bit worried Kieran, because, you basically said that a bug existed and we could have had 42 million Bitcoin instead of 21 million, which would have been inflation as Abheeti mentioned. Are there any more of these bugs out there that we should be aware of?

Kieran:  Not that I know of. I mean, to put this into perspective, we’ve only seen a bug like this three times in Bitcoin. One just recently, another in 2015 and the final one back in 2010.  That sort of track record isn’t seen in any other software, you just don’t see that level of clean code, or bug-free code anywhere.

So Bitcoin, relatively speaking is actually quite secure. That being said, I think we still need to understand that Bitcoin hasn’t actually had a stapled release yet. We’re still in Beta. We’re still developing it. It’s not ready for throwing the entire world’s financial system on it. So that is something that needs to be kept in mind.

Does Our Future Lay In The Hand Of Hands Of Coders?

Abheeti: Clever coders hadn’t jumped in there and patched or fixed this bug, then we would be in absolute crypto chaos. And that leads to the next question which was all about the fact there have been discussions about our future lying in the hands of coders.

What can you comment on, given that we have such a great dependency on software and the developing mega giants of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and IoT, (the Internet of Things) and all the other aspects, (not just blockchain development – various blockchain developments). Can you comment on whether we are completely dependent as a human race, on coders – on developers, or whether we’ve been dependent on them for a very long time and just drifted off and didn’t notice it?

Kieran: Well, I mean, software runs a lot of the stuff that we do nowadays. I mean a lot of the world’s banking systems run purely on software.  The majority of financial transactions in the world are just ones and zeros in a computer database somewhere.

So… we’ve already been relying on coders for a very long time. I think the difference with Bitcoin as with most other pieces of software, you’re very much dependent on the company that produces it to continue updating it and ensure that it is bug-free.

Whereas with Bitcoin, it’s open up to anyone to contribute. Anyone can contribute and anyone can review the code themselves and ensure that the changes being made are of high quality and there’s no malicious code being inserted in there.  So, Bitcoin is a much better piece of software to be relying on than what we currently have. But we are very much dependent on software developers.

What’s the Next Stage in Bitcoin Development, When and What Will That Be?

Kieran: The Internet really took about 25 years (-ish) to reach the point where everyday people could use it. I mean, in the early days, no one was going to just pick up the computer and then type out an email on the command line and screw around with command line programs.

And now we pick up an iPad and send email very easily. So I think Bitcoin adoption is going to follow a very similar curve to that. We’re about 10 years in, and I think we’ll start seeing widespread use of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, as an everyday thing in another 15 years or so.

Abheeti:  You think it’s another fifteen years away?

Kieran: I wish it was sooner, there’s a lot of things that need to be worked out.

The first thing that we need to is fix the user experience. Not everyone’s going to know: “I’ve got my list of seeds, I need to write them down, otherwise I’m going to lose access to my money.”  And then: “How do I manage my private keys?” and, “Oh, I’ve got to make sure that my wallet is downloaded on my phone and synced up to the blockchain for me to actually use my funds.”

Not everyone’s going to want to deal with that right now.

“We need to figure out ways to make it a lot easier to use, before we start seeing mass adoption.”

I think that is the biggest hurdle cryptocurrencies are facing.

I suppose if I went back and Satoshi…  I went back in time and went back to 2008, 2009, I wouldn’t call it Bitcoin.

“You’ve got the world’s most intangible currency and you’re associating it with world’s most tangible currency like a coin, right?”

And then, a wallet. “It stores my coins.”

No, a Bitcoin wallet doesn’t store your coins.  Your coins are on the Blockchain.  It’s actually just a list of ledger entries: your wallet stores your keys to access those coins.

So maybe I’d call it key-chain instead of wallet.

There are a lot of mistakes in the user-experience department that were made early on, and certainly a lot of the early Bitcoin developers, myself included, weren’t the best when it comes to developing good user-experience.

To put things into perspective, Smartphones have only been around about a year longer than Bitcoin has.  We’ve seen a lot better adoption of Smartphones than we have of Bitcoin.

Women in Coding

Abheeti: Generally speaking, in education, girls, it’s a generalisation: but girls are generally attracted maybe more to the languages and communication and those sorts of things, and that men or boys are generally more driven towards tech and science and mathematics.

Would you say that’s correct or would you say that’s a misnomer?

Kieran: I think that that is the case currently, but certainly women have a lot to contribute in the coding world, with a lot of fresh perspectives that can be brought in.

Amy-Rose: I heard about a study that’s just been completed (see show notes).  They found that Australian children: boys and girls had exactly the same capacity for mathematics. They’re getting the same marks, had the same interest and these are primary school-aged kids. Basically, they’re saying that previously:

“…it was our perception that girls weren’t interested (in STEM subjects), but in actual fact, they’re doing just as well, and are just as interested.”

Abheeti: It must be more of a cultural perspective that we’re inadvertently colouring our kids, you know, like colour by number (excuse the pun), we’re  expecting our girls to have more of a slant towards ‘this’ and we’re expecting our boys to have more of a slant towards ‘that’.

In an episode this week called ‘Ladies on the Lounge: Women to the Front’ – that’s a collection of seven women, current company included, who were having a discussion at BLOCKConscious (an event in Brisbane that we attended just recently), JP Parker of BlockBoxx also made the comment that there was a sell-out event called Code Like A Girl in Perth. And it was all women: all women learning to code or existing coders, or people that were on the road.

That’s also in support of what you said about the ABC, Amy Rose.

We also happen to have the acquaintance of the lady who manages Coder Dojo, which is frequented both by girls and boys.

Amy-Rose: Thanks for killing that bug Kieran. It was buzzing around, and really annoying.

Abheeti: Thanks for stopping inflation of cryptocurrency. That’s pretty big. You know, “I just saved the world this weekend.” Have you got a cape? You’re coming to our party on Friday night, are you going to bring a Superman cape, a Supercrypto cape?

Find out more:

Web

Twitter

LinkedIn

Other:

SourceForge

Free Ross Ulbricht

Mark Zuckerberg and Illegal Opioid Sales on Facebook

BlockBoxx Community Telegram Group

Bitcoin Hex

ABC Report on Girls Just As Good At Stem Subjects  

Ladies on the Lounge: BLOCKConscious 2018

Code Like a Girl

Karen Wellington of Coder DoJo

 

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