Working Bottom Up

Kinnard Hockenhull
Nov 6, 2018 · 15 min read

We believe blockchain technology and the movement it has spawned is the most important thing happening now, both for humanity collectively and for individual people. But this new technology is like a sword. First you must train your hands to use the sword. Our curriculum is designed to be the most effective way to learn, get up and running, and take flight. It is a sweeping survey history of numbers, the history of letters, and the history of human values. Each component builds up to the next. But this isn’t just because it’s necessary to understand underlying concepts first in order to understand the ones built on top of them. It’s structured this way in order to achieve a certain effect. The whole way up you should be keenly aware that we’re building toward something. We call this way, “working bottom up”.

Paul Graham elucidates this idea in the context of programing:

“It’s worth emphasizing that bottom-up design doesn’t mean just writing the same program in a different order. When you work bottom-up, you usually end up with a different program. Instead of a single, monolithic program, you will get a larger language with more abstract operators, and a smaller program written in it. Instead of a lintel, you’ll get an arch.”

What’s so special about working this way? It’s more powerful.

“The biggest disadvantage to a post and lintel construction is the limited weight that can be held up, and the small distances[gaps] required between the posts. Ancient Roman architecture’s development of the arch allowed for much larger structures to be constructed. The arcuated system spreads larger loads more effectively, and replaced the post and lintel trabeated system in most larger buildings and structures, until the introduction of steel girder beams in the industrial era.”

Underlying misconceptions or gaps in knowledge prevent you from building higher. Salman Khan describes it with the metaphor of building a house: “I saw this in the early days working with my cousins. A lot of them were having trouble with math at first, because they had all of these gaps accumulated in their learning. [A]t some point they got to an algebra class and they might have been a little bit shaky on some of the pre-algebra, and because of that, they thought they didn’t have the math gene. To appreciate how absurd that is, imagine if we did other things in our life that way. Say, home-building,“ you’d partially build a foundation, a first floor, a second floor, and, “all of a sudden, while you’re building the third floor, the whole structure collapses.”

When you learn bottom up you end up with an understanding that can support more weight than one where ideas are just slabbed on. This allows you to build higher, and empowers you to break through to new levels. This is why people with a strong bottom-up understanding are so powerful: they’re able to keep building up and up until they can finally stick their head above the clouds and reach game-changing new insights.

Producing this head-above-the-clouds experience is part of what our work is all about.

Why don’t people “get” Bitcoin and the movement it’s spawned? Because they don’t understand the foundations off of which it is built. Without understanding why this technology was created, its history and the problems it was created to solve, without knowing the names and the struggles of the people who created it, you’ll have a weak understanding of what this movement is really about, and how you can wield its technology most effectively.

“Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.”

If you don’t understand these ideas you’ll just be watching all the hackers-in-frenzy like you’re at a silent disco and you’ve got no headphones. This technology marks a new acme and the opening of a new frontier in the quest that is human history. In order to hear the music you’ve got to know the story.

There are two ideas that elucidate this better than any others. We call them the two pillars: digital signatures and hash functions.

What’s so special about the two pillars? They’re the “crypto” in cryptocurrency. In order to understand them you need to understand what cryptography is, how it works, and why it is used. And for that you must go back to the very foundation of your education: the alphabet. There’s a whole ‘nother way of using the letters that most people never learn. And while it might be new to you, for some, it is very, very old. The journey there and back again is transformative.

Cryptography is often defined as the art of secure communication in the presence of adversaries. But during the First CryptoWar the US Government tried to categorize cryptographic technology as munitions — weapons of war. A whole movement grew up around the argument that these ideas and their dissemination are protected speech, not weapons. But, true or not, this was a hack to ensure that the weapons made it into the hands of the masses. Cryptography is a noble science: becoming aware of your vulnerability, the nakedness of your communications, is the first step in adopting the practice of self-defense. Learning about cryptography is like learning about the birds and the bees: once you cross the two pillars you’ve entered into a new way of knowing the world. People who do not understand these ideas are stuck outside.

In the whole history of cryptography one episode stands out. It begins with one man’s quest to know the infinite and culminates with the birth of the computer.

At the end of the 19th Century the system of thought governing the Western Mind reached it’s breaking point. George Cantor’s reformulation of the foundation of mathematics, the counting numbers, introduced paradoxes which sparked a crisis and necessitated rebuilding mathematics bottom up. At first mathematicians tried to route these paradoxes out. But these holes in the system, were a way out. Humans unlike all the other machines in this Universe can dance through paradox and arrive at higher truth. “No door in the labyrinthine castle of science opens directly onto the Absolute. But if one understands the maze well enough, it is possible to jump out of the system and experience the Absolute for oneself.” Cantor achieved something like a mathematical-mystical experience. You can’t just read about it. You have to experience it.

Cantor’s insights formed the foundation that led step by step to the birth of the computer. In a sequence that’s too much like the lines of a poem, Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, and Alan Turing all built on his work to answer fundamental questions and achieve cosmic insights, all crowned in 1936 with Turing’s Theory of Computation:

“Turing figured out something entirely different . . . he figured out that mathematicians unlike carpenters only needed to have one tool in their toolbox, if it were the right sort of tool. Turing realized that it should be possible to build a meta-machine that could be reconfigured in such a way that it would do any task you could conceivably do with information. It would be a protean device that could turn into any tool you could ever need.”

But these were all proofs and essays. In order to defeat the Nazis, the Allies needed to make the machine a reality. Cryptography’s best-known use case is the age-old application concealing military communications (ATTACK TOMORROW=>BUUBDL UPNPSSPX). In turn, cryptanalysis is the chiral art of cracking enemy codes. The history of cryptography is a centuries-long arms race. At each turn stronger and stronger encryption systems are matched by more and more powerful cryptanalysis techniques. But in order to crack the Nazi Lorenz and Enigma cyphers, the Allies needed a super-weapon that the world had never seen before: a computer.

According to Winston Churchill, perhaps the person best positioned to say, it was this bombe¹, not the other, that won the war. Cantor removed a lock from the mind and made all this possible by working bottom up.

Cryptography is about more than just keeping secrets, it plays a key role at history’s pivots. Mathematical Games can impact the lives of every person on the planet and determine the course of history. And the most important actions and forces driving history can be hidden . . .

Turing Machine

No one knew about the cryptanalysis work done at Bletchley Park for decades after the War. Only the biggest governments and corporations had access to the new super-weapon. Worse, like any tool this new technology could be used for good or for evil. The computer was birthed to save the world from tyranny. But in the wrong hands — or too few hands — it could just as easily be the instrument of oppression. “The foundations [were] being laid for a dossier society, in which computers could be used to infer individuals’ life-styles, habits, whereabouts, and associations from data collected in ordinary consumer transactions.” After the War a generation of hackers recognized this threat and coalesced into a movement intent on disseminating the tools necessary to defeat Big Brother. “[T]here are monster computers lurking in big business and big government that know everything from what motels you’ve stayed at to how much money you have in the bank. But at Apple we’re trying to balance the scales by giving individuals the kind of computer power once reserved for corporations.”

There’s an elucidating saying: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.”

But the father of the personal computer revolution didn’t get it at first either. Even the foremost evangelist of the movement didn’t get it at first. (“When I first came across Bitcoin I didn’t understand what it was, and [I] ignored it for 6 months.” ~ Andreas Antonopolous). I ignored Bitcoin for 10 months before someone explained mining to me and my new life began. I went on to start what became the 5th largest Bitcoin exchange in the world. There are psychological and logistical roadblocks in the process of “getting it”. We help people go over them.

Without help you might end up wasting time thinking this is a scam, a fad, just some new asset class or application platform, rather than the movement of our time. I’d bet that this is why Warren Buffett doesn’t “get” Bitcoin and its movement. It’s as if somehow in his long career he never encountered cryptography. He probably thinks it’s no better than PayPal. He can’t hear the music.

Self-substantiation is rare and it takes orders of magnitude more time. It’s better and faster to have someone give you the red pill. This is not about learning how to analyze a new asset class or learning how to work with a new technology: it’s about going from being asleep to being awake. This shift in consciousness is like a phase change. Our work is about helping people achieve this phase change.

You might get the wrong idea, then, and think that working bottom up, means you should take your time or wait perhaps for some guru. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The way to learn this stuff is like the way to learn a language. We all know people who have studied a language for 12 years but can’t speak it. They are not fluent. If a pot takes 12 minutes to boil and you put it on the burner for a minute, and take it off for a minute, then put it on for a minute, until it’s been on for a sum total 12 minutes, you won’t get boiled water. The pot has to be on for a continuous 12 minutes. The transition from not fluent to fluent, is a phase change, and like boiling, it is best achieved by a continuous application of whatever is driving the change. You don’t learn a language by sitting at home watching videos. You learn it best through intensification — by being immersed with native speakers.

Once you learn the Two Pillars you can put these building blocks together into higher crypto-systems: proof-of-work, mining, and the blockchain. These in turn form a basis for higher and higher abstractions. Soon enough you’ll be swimming neck deep in the new vocabulary of a domain specific language (HODL, BUIDL, MOON) without a dictionary to save you. Don’t understand one-way functions? Good luck understanding zk-snarks. We teach hash functions before we teach Merkle trees but it’s the weight of Merkle trees that exposes a weak understanding of hash functions underneath: the best way to check for understanding is to apply more weight. If you learn bottom up you’ll be like someone who actually knows the language rather than someone chocking together vocabulary they’ve overheard. You could say people with a bottom-up understanding are articulate but really the way they work is more like song than speech.

If you want to understand where we stand today at the dawn of the Era of the Decentralized Computer and become fluent in this new language, it helps to understand something about languages in general, and one in particular . . .

The birth of the computer opened a new canvas for experimentation. In the succeeding decades a myriad of programming languages emerged, each a new brush for painting on this new canvas. Out of these experiments Lisp stands alone. In 1958 John McCarthy “did for programming something like what Euclid did for geometry. He showed how, given a handful of simple operators and a notation for functions, you can build a whole programming language.” Lisp is what you get when you try to build programming bottom up from axioms.

“Lisp is worth learning for the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it; that experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually use Lisp itself a lot.”

The way of thinking that working in Lisp induces is somehow more like the way humans were meant to think. But as when learning a language you can’t just read about it, you have to experience it. Once you do, you may never go back.

“Lisp has jokingly been called ‘the most intelligent way to misuse a computer’. I think that description is a great compliment because it transmits the full flavor of liberation: it has assisted a number of our most gifted fellow humans in thinking previously impossible thoughts.”

Lisp demonstrates most effectively a pattern that should now be too sharp to ignore: axiomatization leads to acme, working bottom-up leads to new heights. Working bottom-up gives you superpowers:

“[W]ith Lisp our development cycle was so fast that . . . it must have seemed to our competitors that we had some kind of secret weapon — that we were decoding their Enigma traffic or something. In fact we did have a secret weapon, but it was simpler than they realized. No one was leaking news of their features to us. We were just able to develop software faster than anyone thought possible.”

“These new possibilities do not stem from a single magic ingredient. In this respect, Lisp is like an arch. Which of the wedge-shaped stones (voussoirs) is the one that holds up the arch? The question itself is mistaken; they all do. Like an arch, Lisp is a collection of interlocking features.”

The metaphor of the arch should not be taken to imply that the material you are working with is rigid. Rather, it is abstraction into building blocks, succinct functional pieces, that allows you to build up and up to a succinct keystone point: like the tip of a sword, maximum force is concentrated over minimum area. This is why succinct speakers feel so penetrating — they get to the point. Succinctness is power. “I think most hackers know what it means for a language to feel restrictive. What’s happening when you feel that? I think it’s the same feeling you get when the street you want to take is blocked off, and you have to take a long detour to get where you wanted to go. There is something you want to say, and the language won’t let you.

What’s really going on here, I think, is that a restrictive language is one that isn’t succinct enough. The problem is not simply that you can’t say what you planned to. It’s that the detour the language makes you take is longer. Try this thought experiment. Suppose there were some program you wanted to write, and the language wouldn’t let you express it the way you planned to, but instead forced you to write the program in some other way that was shorter. For me at least, that wouldn’t feel very restrictive. It would be like the street you wanted to take being blocked off, and the policeman at the intersection directing you to a shortcut instead of a detour. Great!

I think most (ninety percent?) of the feeling of restrictiveness comes from being forced to make the program you write in the language longer than one you have in your head.”

The systems we live under are restrictive. They are meant, allegedly, to empower us, and to facilitate the common good. But they impede human progress and prevent the realization of human potential.

Blockchain is a tool for breaking free from these systems and building new ones, starting first with the linchpin of them all: money. People act as if money actually does make the world go ‘round — as if it is a part of nature, not a human invention. Life and death decisions are made on this basis. But the prisons we live in are the work of our own hands: they are human inventions. They cannot exist without us. We can only liberate ourselves by realizing we are our own jailers. We create and sustain these systems by participating in them and believing in them. Remembering this is the key to freeing ourselves: what restricts us, ultimately, is not lack of a tool, a language, or a medium of exchange, but a way of thinking. These prisons are prisons of the mind. In order to free ourselves we need to free our minds. Money is the largest check on human self-efficacy. Removing this check is the key to unlocking human potential. In this sense, this movement is about breaking money not making money. Satoshi’s solution to this problem runs on human psychology: it is as much people-ware as it is software. Blockchain is a lever for shifting the world into a new way of thinking. By demonstrating that money can be reinvented, Bitcoin and its movement rewaken people to their essential capacity to create and transmit value. This shift in thinking is a shortening of the way to the world we want. Our work is about achieving this shift in thinking.

The Decentralized Computer, like the first computer, is about moving forward to the next step in human destiny. That is clear when the technology is placed in its proper context. For just a moment you can start to hear all the lines in the human story come together. But our goal isn’t just for you to hear the music — our goal is for you to join in song. At this critical juncture which will set the direction the movement takes, it’s important for people to know: “education” which hides the foundations steals your power and prevents you from doing that. It leaves the lock on. Don’t let the suits get to you first.

Steve Jobs called the personal computer a bicycle for the mind. Blockchain is a sword. But how do you wield it? “Place a Samurai sword in the hands of a master and you’ll be amazed at what he can do. A man like this on the dark path can do much harm as easily as a man like this on the light path can do much good. The sword can be used to destroy or protect, all depending on the hand that holds it. Place that sword in the hands of a baby and it will never be lifted off of the ground to do either. You now understand that it’s not the sword but the hand that holds it. If it were the sword, a baby could defend itself from a Samurai warrior simply by having the same sword.” We train people to wield the sword.

Like the bombe, lisp, and the personal computer, this new technology is not merely a new tool. In order to make each of these advances the laws of thought had to be rewritten. In order to realize the true potential of this technology we have to rewrite the laws of thought en masse. Through education we strike at the point of maximum leverage — and remove the lock from the mind. At BitBox we’re hunting for a recipe of key ideas for uptracking people from ordinary to extraordinary. This is why we teach bottom-up.

This new technology is a weapon. A weapon for liberating our minds from old modes of thought which are prisons holding us to the ground when we are meant to fly.