Gavin Andresen on the Block Size: “It’s Hard to Find a Signal above All the Noise”

Bitcoin Magazine
Gavin Andresen on the Block Size: “It’s Hard to Find a Signal above All the Noise”

Bitcoin XT Developer and Bitcoin Foundation Chief Scientist Gavin Andresen was interviewed on Epicenter Bitcoin earlier this week, with the conversation mainly revolving around concepts related to Bitcoin governance. Development of Bitcoin Core has somewhat slowed recently due to the lack of a clear process for reaching development decisions, which is at least part of the reason Andresen joined Mike Hearn’s Bitcoin XT project.

Reaching consensus is a terribly difficult task when there are so many different individuals involved in a distributed system, such as Bitcoin, which is why Epicenter Bitcoin co-host Brian Fabian Crain asked Andresen about who should have a say in changes made to the protocol.

Everybody Should Have a Say

Andresen believes that everyone should be able to have their say through the various communication channels available to them. During the interview, he noted:

“I think everybody should have a say. It’s hard to balance letting everybody speak and not just being drowned out by the noise. If you look on Reddit, anybody can speak there and talk about whatever issue about Bitcoin they care about. It’s hard to find a signal above all the noise. I don’t think it’s impossible, and I think it is fairly clear what the consensus on Reddit is about the blocksize issue. But it’s hard to find more than a high-level, ‘We think something should be done about this issue.’ When it gets down into the details of exactly what should be done, I think then it gets even harder.”

While allowing everyone to participate in the debate is nice in theory, it becomes difficult to find a solution on a social media platform that is well-known for jumping to conclusions and quickly pulling out pitchforks. In reality, there is a smaller subset of Bitcoin companies, miners and developers who have more pull in the Bitcoin network than the average user. As Andresen explained:

“Who should have the influence? It really comes down to what code are people running and how influential are the people running the code?”

Some Bitcoin Users are More Equal Than Others

After explaining that some Bitcoin users are more influential than others, Andresen began to describe the roles those users play in the Bitcoin ecosystem. He started with exchanges:

“Exchanges are incredibly influential at this stage of Bitcoin’s life. Exchanges are a place where a lot of trading is done. Right now, there’s a lot of speculation; exchanges are where that speculation happens. So what the exchanges want to do matters a lot.”

Speculative trading is still one of the main use cases for bitcoin right now, and anyone who uses an exchange, such as Bitfinex or Coinbase, is subject to the code that the exchange chooses to run on their own servers (as long as the user keeps his or her coin on the trading platform). Of course, users still have the ability to switch to another provider if they don’t agree with the codebase chosen by a particular exchange, but many users of bitcoin banks are also not overly interested in the code running on the server.

Andresen also pointed to the importance of mining pools:

“Miners are also very influential — and more than miners, the mining pools that pool together miners are very influential. So I think they have a big influence and a big voice in what happens.”

Miners control the security of the network, but they’ll also want to run the code that will be the most profitable option for them. If a hypothetical hard fork were to take place and split Bitcoin into two different networks, miners would be incentivized to mine on the blockchain with the more valuable coin. This is one of the reasons that the Satoshi Nakamoto Institute’s Daniel Krawisz believes investors are ultimately in charge of Bitcoin.

When it comes to the average user, Andresen conceded, “It’s harder for them to have a huge influence.”

Who Does Andresen Listen To?

Gavin Andresen also described his own thinking process when it comes to figuring out what he should work on next. The Bitcoin Foundation chief scientist explained that he tries to keep the desires of all bitcoin stakeholders in mind before deciding on his next move:

“The people who have the biggest voices right now are the developers, the exchanges and the mining pools. Those are the three biggest players. I like to think that, as a developer, I try to listen to all the stakeholders. I try to listen to what long-term bitcoin holders want, what people who are actually transacting with Bitcoin want, [and] what the companies like BitPay who are supporting merchants want. And try to balance all those things when I think about what am I personally going to be working on as I write code, as I submit pull requests, [or] as I decide what pull requests I’m going to review? I try to channel everybody to prioritize what I work on, and I think all of the other developers do that, too. We probably have different opinions on what’s important to work on next.”

Andresen is on the technical advisory board of a few exchanges and merchant processors, so that’s how he keeps in touch with the concerns at those companies. He also mentioned and Reddit as the two best channels for discussion on changes to Bitcoin by ordinary users — at least for now.


Photo Mikael Altemark / Flickr (CC)

The post Gavin Andresen on the Block Size: “It’s Hard to Find a Signal above All the Noise” appeared first on Bitcoin Magazine.

Will Scaling Bitcoin Bring Us to Consensus on the Block Size Debate?

“There’s a deep rift amongst bitcoin core devs regarding what the purpose of Bitcoin should be,” said Eric Lombrozo, Bitcoin developer and CEO of Ciphrex. “Unfortunately, the fundamental underlying disagreements aren’t being properly addressed … and most of the discussion has instead focused on the differing conclusions rather than on the real causes of disagreement.”

On August 15, Bitcoin Magazine reported that the first of two Scaling Bitcoin workshops would be held in Montreal on September 12 and 13. This first phase of proposals and presentations is intent on setting the stage for further discussions in phase two, which is planned for December 6-7 in Hong Kong, all with the goal of generating the sort of discussion that Lombrozo is referring to.

“This conference represents a communitywide effort to understand and characterize the plethora of factors that must be considered before coming to any conclusion about how to best scale Bitcoin,” Eric Martindale told Bitcoin Magazine on behalf of Scaling Bitcoin. “Our goal with this first event is to increase awareness of the research that has gone into the scaling problem over the past few years, and encourage a more open dialogue across the entire community.”

The debate over the future of Bitcoin and scalability has ramped up over the past few weeks as proponents of one solution or another have taken to social media, discussion boards and blogs to argue various cases.

On September 1, in an open letter to the Bitcoin community, 32 developers collectively  asked people “to not prejudge and instead work collaboratively to reach the best outcome through the existing process and the supporting workshops.”

“There are a lot of things we’ve learned about Bitcoin that were unknown a few years ago that change many of the underlying assumptions about how the network functions,” said Lombrozo, who has since become a signatory to the open letter. “There’s been a lot of progress in ideas … but, unfortunately, there’s also a lot of confusion surrounding how Bitcoin can evolve. I hope we can really take a step back and look at what we can do given what we know now … rather than focusing too much on the way we thought the system should have worked but doesn’t.”

Lombrozo argues that the larger underlying issue is “the lack of a process that allows us to make progress in situations where we lack near-unanimous agreement for hard forks. Until now, the policy has been to not make these kinds of changes unless everyone agrees.” He adds that while he is looking forward to attending the workshops and seeing what the engineers have to offer, he is also “working on some proposals to address the consensus-building process between developers more generally.”

Chinese mining pool BW, which provides approximately 8 percent of global mining power, will also be keeping a close eye on what comes out of the two workshops.

“We would like this to be an opportunity for everyone to get together and sit down to discuss this important issue,” representatives from the company told Bitcoin Magazine. “We are in agreement with the spirit of the open letter and look forward to meeting our colleagues from around the world.”

BW will be sending Mianhuan Li, the manager of their mining farm in Inner Mongolia, to the Montreal workshop. Qingchun Shentu, their resident expert on cryptography and Bitcoin, and doctoral candidate in Signal and Information Processing, will attend the second workshop in Hong Kong.

On the other hand, core developer Mike Hearn, who implemented the BitcoinXT fork along with Gavin Andreson, is skeptical about the Scaling Bitcoin workshops.

“If you look at how the Bitcoin Core devs and Blockstream have acted so far, this fits their modus operandi perfectly — stall for as long as possible whilst claiming that we just need more time for the ‘experts’ to think and debate. But don’t define any way to actually come to conclusions, thus ensuring the debate never ends.”

The workshops, which Hearn will sit out while Andresen attends, have explicitly stated that there will be academic and scientific presentations, but no debate. Furthermore, no decisions or pronouncements on scalability will be made during the workshops.

Core developer and one of the signatories on the open letter, Peter Todd, expressed some skepticism, in correspondence with Bitcoin Magazine, that the workshops will be able meet all the demands of the companies attending.

“If the data supports raising the blocksize to some level safely, and we can agree on what ‘safely’ means, that won’t be a hard thing to get consensus on. It’s just unlikely the amount we can safely raise it to will make people happy.”

He pointed out that what Andersen and Hearn appear to want — “zero or near zero fees forever with most transactions being on chain” — appears to be fundamentally impossible by simply changing a constant.

The Scaling Bitcoin workshops are hosted by CryptoMechanics and underwritten by Blockstream, Chaincode Labs, MIT Digital Currency Initiative and Chain, with further sponsorship support from other Bitcoin and blockchain companies.


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