The Basics of Bitcoins and Blockchains

Last December I was approached by a publisher, Mango, who asked me if I would write a book about blockchain technology.  A little nervously, I agreed, and I’m excited to announce the result of six months of effort:

The basics of bitcoins and blockchains - book cover

The Basics of Bitcoins and Blockchains is an essential guide for anyone who needs to learn about cryptocurrencies, ICOs, and business blockchains.  Written in plain English, it provides a balanced and hype-free grounding in the essential concepts behind the revolutionary technology.

I wrote The Basics for an audience of business people, students, practitioners, and those who are simply interested in this technology.  I tried to make it entertaining even for those who are already working in the cryptocurrency or blockchain industry.  For example, did you know:

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Avoiding blockchain for blockchain’s sake: Three real use case criteria

Blockchain use case funnel 2016-17

2016 was the year of creating frameworks and filters to determine if a business problem was worthy of a blockchain-based solution.  Often, the frameworks would declare inappropriate potential use cases as ripe for blockchaining, as the frameworks were often designed by blockchain vendors or consultants to let as much through as possible.  However, many of the proofs of concepts built in 2016-17 have not become industrial solutions.  Why?

Two main reasons are:

  1. The technology didn’t meet the requirements of the use case
  2. The use cases themselves were selected badly

This post discusses what went wrong with use case selection, and presents two new and better questions for use case selection.

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Three common misconceptions about smart contracts

There is a lot of misleading commentary about smart contracts, leading to confusion about what they are and what they can do. Here are three of the most common myths that I have noticed. This builds on a previous piece, a gentle introduction to smart contracts.

Myth: Smart contracts are self-executing bits of code

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Distributed ledgers: “Confirm-as-you-go”

Following on from the “Blockchain is a solution looking for a problem” narrative of 2016, distributed ledger technology has evolved.

Distributed ledgers – databases with shared control over what and how data is added – can be seen a strategic solution to the “reconciliation” workaround that we have had to put up with until now. This strategic solution is applicable to all industries, not just financial services.

Distributed ledgers: "Confirm-as-you-go"

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In a nutshell: Ian Grigg’s Ricardian contracts and digital assets prehistory

I enjoyed listening to Episode 151 of the podcast “Epicenter” (previously “Epicenter Bitcoin”) featuring Ian Grigg, inventor of Ricardian Contracts and blogger at Financial Cryptography. Here are my notes – part transcription, with some edits. This one is a goldmine and covers many topics: bonds, contracts, cash, Chaumian e-cash, DigiCash, financial cryptography, Ricardian contracts, digital signatures, smart contracts, dispute resolution, Ethereum, triple entry book-keeping, oh my!

Misunderstandings and paraphrasing errors are entirely mine.

This gets fairly technical; if this is hard to follow, it may be helpful to read my introduction to smart contracts first.  Hmm, if it’s still hard to follow, also read about blockchains and bitcoin and Ethereum, and digital tokens.

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The emergence of blockchains as Activity Registers

This post tries to describe two very different uses for blockchain technology: Digital Token Ledgers that record ownership changes of digital tokens, and Activity Registers that record timestamped proofs of existence of data or agreements about data.  Bitcoin is used for both.

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What you get for free with blockchains

Is blockchain solutioning from Fear Of Missing Out?

Over the past year I have come across many blockchain ‘proof of concepts’, that take existing business ideas or challenges and apply a specific technical design (blockchains) to the solution. The usual problem/solution decision process has been turned on its head:

Is blockchain solutioning from Fear Of Missing Out?
Is blockchain solutioning from Fear Of Missing Out?

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In a nutshell: Eris (Epicenter Bitcoin interview – Jan 2016)

I enjoyed listening to episode 112 of the podcast “Epicenter Bitcoin” where Casey Kuhlman, CEO of Eris Industries was interviewed. Here are my notes on parts that I found particularly interesting. Misunderstandings and paraphrasing errors are mine.

If this is hard to follow, it may be helpful to read my introductions to blockchains, bitcoin, digital tokens, and smart contracts first.

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A gentle introduction to smart contracts

What are people talking about when they talk about smart contracts?

In the context of blockchains and cryptocurrencies, smart contracts are:
pre-written logic (computer code),
stored and replicated on a distributed storage platform (eg a blockchain),
executed/run by a network of computers (usually the same ones running the blockchain),
and can result in ledger updates (cryptocurrency payments, etc).

… In other words, they are little programs that execute “if this happens then do that”, run and verified by many computers to ensure trustworthiness.

If blockchains give us distributed trustworthy storage, then smart contracts give us distributed trustworthy calculations.

Smart contracts are one of the functionalities that sets Ethereum apart from other blockchains.

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