Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Impact of Bitcoin on Fried Chicken Recipe Archives

Bitcoin is magic. Not the technology, but the hype machine behind it. You've probably heard that Bitcoin technology is going to change everything from banking to fried chicken recipes, from copyright to genome research. Like any good hype machine, Bitcoin's whips amazing facts together with plausible nonsense to make a perfect soufflé.

ChickenCoin (Comoros 25 francs 1982)
CC BY-NC-ND  by edelweisscoins
The hype cycle is not Bitcoin's fault. Bitcoin is a masterful and probably successful attack on a problem that many thought was impossible. Bitcoin creates a decentralized, open, transparent and secure way to maintain a monetary transaction ledger. The reason this is so hard is because of the money. Money creates strong incentives for cheating, hacking, subverting the ledger, and it's really hard to create an open system that has no centralized authority yet is hard to attack. The genius of bitcoin is to cleverly exploit that incentive to power its distributed ledger engine, often referred to as "the blockchain". Anyone can create bitcoin for themselves and add it to the ledger, but to get others to accept your addition, you have to play by the rules and do work to add to the ledger. This process is called "mining".

If you're building a fried chicken recipe archive, (let's call it FriChiReciChive) there's good news and bad news. The bad news is that fried chicken is a terrible fuel for a blockchain ledger. No one mines for fried chicken. The good news is that very few nation-states care about your fried chicken recipes. Defending your recipe archive against cheating, hacking, attack and subversion will not require heroic bank-vault tactics.

That's not to say you can't learn from Bitcoin and its blockchain. Bitcoin is cleverly assembled from mature technologies that each seemed impossible not long ago. Your legacy recipe system was probably built in the days of archive horses and database buggies; if you're building a new one it probably would be a good idea to have a set of modern tools.

What are these tools? Here are a few of them:
  1. Big storage. It's easy to forget how much storage is available today. The current size of the bitcoin blockchain, the ledger of every bitcoin transaction every made, is only 56 GB. That's about one iPhone of storage. The cheapest macbook Pro comes with 128 GB, which is more than you can imagine. Amazon Web Services offers 500GB of storage for $15 per month. Your job in making FriChiReciChive a reality is to imagine how make use of all that storage. Suppose the average fried chicken recipe is a thousand words. That's about 10 thousand bytes. With 500GB and a little math, you can store 50 million fried chicken recipes.

    Momofoku Fried Chicken
    CC BY-NC by gandhu
    Having trouble imagining 50 million chicken recipes? You could try a recipe a minute and it would take you 95 years to try them all. That would be a poor use of your time on earth, and it would be a poor use of 500 GB. So forget about deleting old recipes and start thinking about the FriChi info you could be keeping. How about recording every portion of fried chicken ever prepared, and who ate it. This is possible today. If you're working on an archive of books, you could record every time someone reads a book. Trust me, Amazon is trying to do that.

    Occasionally, you'll hear that you can store information directly in Bitcoin's blockchain. That's possible, but you probably don't want to do that because of cost. The current cost of adding a MB (about 1 block) to the bitcoin blockchain is 25 BTC. At current exchange rates, that's about $10 per kB. That cost is borne by the global Bitcoin system, and it pays for the power consumed by Bitcoin miners. For comparison, AWS will charge you 0.36 microcents per year to store a kilobyte. The blockchain does more than S3, but not 30 million times more.

  2. Moroccan Chicken Hash
    CC BY-NC-ND by mmm-yoso
    Cryptographic hashes. Bitcoin makes pervasive use of cryptographic hashes to build and access its blockchain. Cryptographic hashes have some amazing properties. For example, you can use a hash to identify a digital document of any kind. Whether it's a password or a video of a cat, you can compute a hash and use the hash to identify the cat video. Flip a single bit in your fried chicken recipe, and you get a completely different hash. That's why bitcoin uses hashes to identify transactions. And you can't make the chicken from the hash. Yes, that's why it called a hash.

    Once you have the hash of a digital object, you've made it tamper-proof. If someone makes a change in your recipe, or your cat video, or your software object, the hash of the thing will be completely different, and you'll be able to tell that it's been tampered with. So you never need to let anyone mess with Granny's fried chicken recipe.

  3. Hash chains. Once you've computed hashes for everything in FriChiReciChive, you probably think, "what good is it to hash a recipe? "If someone can change the recipe, someone can change the hash, too." Bitcoin solves this problem by hashing the hashes! each new data block contains the hash of the previous block. Which contains a hash of the block before that! etc. etc. all the way back to Satoshi's first block. Of course, this trick of chaining the block hashes was not invented by Bitcoin. And a chain isn't the only way to play this trick. A structure known a Merkle tree (after its inventor) lays out the hashes chains in a tree topology. So by using Merkle trees of fried chicken recipes, you can make the hash of a new recipe depend on every previous recipe. If someone wanted to mess with Granny, they'd have Nana to mess with too, not to mention the Colonel!

  4. Jingu-Galen Ginkgo Festival Fried Chicken
    CC BY-NC-ND by mawari
    Cryptographic signatures. If you're still paying attention, you might be thinking. "Hey! what's to stop Satoshi from rewriting the whole block chain?" And here's where cryptographic signatures come in. Every blockchain transaction gets signed by someone using public key cryptography. The signature works like a hash, and there are chains of signatures. Each signature can be verified using a public key, but without the owner's private key, any change to the block will cause the verification to fail. The result is that the block chain can't be altered without the cooperation of everyone who has signed blocks in the chain.

    Here's where FriChiReciChive is much easier to secure than Bitcoin. You don't need a lot of people participating to make the recipe ledger secure enough for the largest fried chicken attack you can imagine.

  5. Peer-to-peer. Perhaps the cleverest part of Bitcoin is the way that it arbitrates contention for the privilege of adding blocks. It uses puzzle solving to dole out this privilege to the "miners" (puzzle-solvers) who are best at solving the puzzle. Arbitration is needed because otherwise everyone could add blocks earning them Bitcoin. The puzzle solving turns out to be expensive because of the energy used to power the puzzle-solving computers. Peer-to-peer networks which share databases don't need this type of arbitration. While the contention for blocks in Bitcoin has been constantly rising, the contention for slots in distributed fried chicken data storage should drop into the foreseeable future.

  6. Charleston: Husk - Crispy Southern Fried
    Chicken Skins CC BY-NC-ND by wallyg
    Zero-knowledge proofs. Once everyone's Fried Chicken meals are recorded in FriChiReciChive, you might suppose that fried chicken privacy would be a thing of the past. The truth is much more complicated. Bitcoin offers a non-intuitive mix of anonymity and transparency. All of its transactions are public, but identities can be private. This is possible because in today's world, knowledge can be one-directional and partitioned in bizarre ways, like Voldemort's soul in the horcruxes. For example, you could build ChiFriReciChive in such a way that Bob or Alice could ask what they ate on Christmas but Eve would never know it, even with the entire fried chicken ledger.

  7. One more thing. Bitcoin appears to have solved a really hard problem by deploying mature digital tools in clever ways that give participants incentive to make the system work. When you're figuring out how to build FriChiReciChive, or solving whatever problem you might have, chances are you'll have a different set of really hard problems with a different set of participants and incentives. By adding the set of tools I've discussed here, you may be able to devise a new solution to your hard problem.
Bon appetit. Your soufflé will be délicieux!

Added note (2/18/2016): Jason Griffey points out that I have conflated Bitcoin and the "Blockchain". That's true, but I think partly justified. First of all, there are a number of "altcoins" that make use of modified versions of the bitcoin software to achieve various goals. The differences are interesting but mostly not relevant to a discussion of what you should learn from Bitcoin. There are rather narrow applications for blockchain-based distributed databases; these are well discussed by Coin Sciences founder Gideon Greenspan.


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