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Photo by Nuno Silva on Unsplash

At Agoric, we’re a technology company solving a problem that dates back at least to Thomas Hobbes. In the 1600s, Hobbes pointed out an issue inherent in agreements between two parties engaged in a transactional exchange: The person who performs first has no assurance that the other individual will perform after because “the bonds of words are too weak,” in his famous phrasing, published in Leviathan, his classic contribution to political philosophy.

Hobbes was on my mind recently when I gave a talk at Stanford CodeX, to a group of legal scholars and technologists doing research in computational law. I talked about Zoe, our smart contract framework. This is where Hobbes’ concern about flawed agreements comes into play: Zoe adds a layer of safety to voluntary exchange that hasn’t been seen before. …

TLDR: Reentrancy attacks can be entirely prevented with eventual-sends. Eventual-sends (think JavaScript promises — promises actually come from eventual-sends!) allow you to call a function asynchronously and receive a promise, even if the function is on another machine, another blockchain, or another shard, making sharding and cross-chain contract communication much easier.

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Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

On January 15th, a group of key stakeholders chose to halt the Ethereum “Constantinople” upgrade. It was only a day before Constantinople was supposed to take effect, but Chain Security had released a blog post that pointed out that the new reduced gas costs would bypass some previously “reliable” defenses against reentrancy attacks. …

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The JavaScript world was rocked this week by news that the popular npm package event-stream included malicious code that attempted to steal the private keys of certain Bitcoin users.

Since the attack was discovered, both the JavaScript community and the cryptocurrency community have been passionately debating how to prevent such an attack. At Agoric, we think this attack was entirely preventable, and the answer is POLA, the Principle of Least Authority.

How would POLA have helped?

Here’s how the attack happened. Dominic Tarr, the maintainer of event-stream and a number of other open source packages, handed off ownership to a volunteer.

This volunteer added a malicious package as a dependency to event-stream. The malicious package was narrowly (and expertly) targeted to only execute in the context of the Bitcoin wallet Copay. …

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I wrote this a year ago as a Facebook post. For background, I was raised Catholic, went to a Baptist-run elementary school, and now I don’t consider myself religious (or spiritual! 😆). It’s fascinating to still be part of these communities online, though, and see how “outsiders” are perceived, often negatively.

Many of these same issues — consent, the legitimacy of political authority, who exactly counts as our “neighbor”— are still just as pertinent a year later.

And, as an extra enticement, I promise there are no blockchains involved.

Can I talk about something? Someone I admire said this about Louis C.K’s statement: “I took it as a good *pagan* apology, for someone raised on the idea that consent is the highest good.” …

Smart contracts aren’t legal contracts,” they say.

They’re right. But that’s missing the point.

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A 14th century fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, entitled “Effects of Good Government on the City Life”

Smart contracts were never intended to be legal contracts. Nick Szabo wanted to create new digital institutions: agreements enforced in code, rather than courts. It was obvious that physical courts (paper-driven, inefficient intermediaries that they are) could not keep pace with the Internet. A rapid influx of cross-jurisdictional transactions would further overwhelm a system already struggling to provide access to many.

Even Satoshi expressed interest in supporting a wide range of commitments in the Bitcoin script. …

Sabita Furtado is the co-founder of Kalhatti, a startup on the Tezos blockchain. Kalhatti is working to make it easy for people around the world to make small investments in global brands with no border restrictions and no transaction fees. I was able to catch up with Sabita at the recent she256 conference in Berkeley, CA and get her story.

How did you get into the blockchain space?

Two key aspects of blockchain drew me in:

Intellectual curiosity: One of the things that fascinates me is the intersection of various rigorous disciplines such as cryptography, p2p / consensus protocols, game theory, economic incentives, social engineering, legal vs. …

Mar 27, 2018

The genius of the West was to have created a system that allowed people to grasp with the mind values that human eyes could never see and to manipulate things that hands could never touch.

Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

“Rights” is a highly disputed term. Are rights the freedoms “endowed by [one’s] Creator” prior to and independent of government? Or are they obligations and permissions as defined by society? The answer is that they are both, in the common usage.

The first kind of rights are the prerequisites for true consent. The inalienable rights of the Declarationof Independence — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — fit into this category. They are the necessary starting points for a moral society in which voluntary exchange and associations can occur. Borrowing from contract law, we can see that without these basic rights, a person cannot be said to freely consent to further obligations. For instance, life and liberty are essential, because contracts agreed to under duress, such as at the point of a gun, are morally unacceptable (Fried 1981). Likewise, a contract offer in which all other alternatives have been coercively eliminated would not be fair to the recipient. An offer in which the recipient is prevented from accessing outside information wouldn’t be fully consensual, as the recipient would likely be missing important information about the deal. (It’s not an accident that authoritarian governments often violate these basic rights — if citizens are able to make a free, informed decision, they might choose to leave.) Because these basic rights are discoveries of moral philosophy and not dictates of authority figures, they can be used to evaluate (and possibly reject) authority figures and governments.1

Mar 6, 2018

Because of the Internet, our lives are significantly different. Writings on any topic, no matter how obscure, can be reached with a quick Google search. Citizens can challenge powerful authority figures such as the police by publishing videos of their misdeeds. Remote workers can participate fully in company life, and relatives can video chat each other cheaply from nearly anywhere in the world.

Yet, these innovations are only a fraction of what the adopters of the early Internet hoped to accomplish. Google searches and blog posts are innovations of a particular type: innovations in communication. That is, the rise of the Internet has revolutionized publishing. Anyone can be a creator and distributor of content, and anyone can access and read it. However, a subset of early Internet adopters (who go by many names: cypherpunks, crypto anarchists, and Internet Exceptionalists, to name a few) thought the Internet would go further. They thought we would have an Internet revolution in economics and in law. Instead of relying on government-issued money, we would have digital cash, the ability to pay any person on the Internet instantly and anonymously. …

Feb 13, 2018

Blockchain technology and other advances help expand our ability to make enforceable agreements without the state.

Jerry, we’re not just going to
give you seven hundred and fifty
thousand dollars.

What the heck were you thinkin’?
Heck, if I’m only gettin’ bank
interest, I’d look for complete
security. Heck, FDIC. I don’t
see nothin’ like that here.

Yah, but I — okay, I would, I’d
guarantee ya your money back.

I’m not talkin’ about your damn
word, Jerry.

— Fargo (1996)

Fargo is primarily a movie about promises, implicit and explicit. It asks whether we will keep our promises to others, even against our own self-interest. What makes the movie fascinating is that many of the promises aren’t backed by the court system, for very good reason — the deals are illegal. Fargo asks if we can trust each other even if there is no government force making us comply. In other words, can we make contracts in the state of nature? …

An interesting proposal popped up on Twitter this week, from an organization called The Democracy Earth Foundation. They claim that they’ve solved the problem of internet voting, and they list UC Berkeley, TED, YCombinator, and the MIT Technology Review as sponsors. There are also some big names as donors and advisors. For instance, the co-founder of Reddit is listed as an advisor, and even Satoshi Nakamoto himself is listed as a donor, although I suspect that’s a cheeky joke.

Their solution, called Sovereign, is “a blockchain liquid democracy.” …


Kate Sills

"a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism" -- Software Engineer at @agoric

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