Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money | learnings, thoughts & notes

This blog is a first in my series of blogs on crypto (both currencies and dapps (decentralized apps) more broadly).

In this one, I’ll be sharing my thoughts, learnings, and notes from the book “Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money” by Nathaniel Popper.

Let me open it up with a question.

(when) should you read this book?

You should read this book if you’re interested in the history, people, stories, and a high-level overview of what Bitcoin is and how it came to be.

Even though you will, arguably, learn a bit about the blockchain tech itself (the underlying tech behind all of the existing cryptocurrencies including but not limited to Bitcoin), the book itself is not designed to teach you anything about the underlying tech per se.

I found some prerequisite knowledge to be of help, but having said that, this can definitely be your first encounter with the wor(l)d (of) bitcoin.

But, before I start, let me tell you a short story…🌈🌈🌈

My journey into crypto

Aside from dwelling in the depths and breadths of artificial intelligence, finance, and more broadly economics, is something that deeply excites me for its potential to reform society for the better.

Economics deals with the question of how to satisfy the unlimited demands of humans with the limited resources that we have at our disposal.

Because even if AI was to bring a huge economic value to society, if the value is not distributed effectively and efficiently it’ll cause even greater inequalities.

In my mind’s eye, I imagine the society (both global and local) as a seesaw, a delicate, and fairly fragile system. The purpose of economics, finance, and politics is to keep the seesaw in balance even when the weight (the value produced) is simultaneously changing on both sides (rich and poor).

Let it lean too much to one side and we have recessions, coups, and/or wars.

One of my main life goals is to maximize my positive societal impact. That’s a common thread that goes throughout almost everything that I do, and that naturally brought me to the topic of crypto.

From all the different trends that we’ve been seeing over the last decade or so, the crypto space (i.e. apps built on top of the blockchain, like currencies but more broadly any type of a dapp (distributed application)) introduced the most interesting ideas (decentralized, trustless systems) that could play an important role in a (more) fair distribution of wealth.

The federal reserve doesn’t have an equivalent in the world of Bitcoin. There is no centralized authority that can secretly change the distribution of wealth, based on their own plutocratic decisions, by simply printing more money.

People often complain how cryptocurrencies are a “Ponzi scheme” since they’re “not backed up by anything of value”, but, IMHO, they fail to realize that:

1) Money is inherently a social construct. A $ bill has value only because you and I are willing to accept it as such. So $ is also not backed up by anything of “value” anymore, aside from the fact that the USA government will gladly accept your $ bills when it’s tax collection time.

2) Being backed up by gold is no more real than being backed up by belief.

Why is gold valuable again?

Because it’s shiny and visually appealing? Because we put it in jewelry? Or is it’s the other way around — we use it in jewelry because it’s valuable.

But where does this value come from? From its scarcity? Well, gold is not special in that regard, we have plenty of scarce material on this Earth.

If you were freezing to death and you had to pick between a gold bar and a warm coat I’m fairly sure I could guess what’s more valuable for you in that context.

So in which context is gold more valuable? Ok, we do use it to produce electronics, but again, gold is not special in that regard, we use other scarce materials as well.

No, the reason I think that gold is valuable is that it has a couple of nice properties. It’s a mix of its mythological appeal (gold ~ Sun), relative scarcity (we still keep excavating gold), the fact that somebody had to work to excavate it, etc.

All of these properties now have a perfect digital equivalent because we’re now operating in Plato’s world of ideas.

Bitcoin is perfectly scarce (21M coins, mathematically guaranteed), somebody had to “work” to get it (mining), it’s faster to transport than gold (the speed of light in coaxial/optical fibers), it can be divided into arbitrarily small pieces (e.g. 1 satoshi = 0.00000001 btc), to name a few.

My personal journey with crypto started back in 2017, during the bull market, which was the first time ever I heard of the word Bitcoin.

Again, it’s funny how unequal our opportunities are. We need to constantly take that into account evaluating someone’s end results, without being judgemental.

Here I was hearing about this awesome technology for the first time, almost 9 years after Satoshi’s original white paper came out (back then I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of tech-savvy people like I am right now, even though I studied EE).

On the other hand, Vitalik Buterin (the (co)founder of Ethereum) had the luck (the purpose of this reasoning is not to undermine his achievements) that his dad was a skilled software engineer who told him about Bitcoin way back in the early days.

His childhood was also fairly special. He had private math tutors, and a home education by 2 ambitious, driven, and smart parents. They were throwing arithmetic problems at him since he was 3 or 4 years old, just to give a couple of examples.

This, aside from the Polgar sisters stories and many others, further strengthens my belief that extraordinary nurture can create people that we call “geniuses”.

Back in 2017, I didn’t have any serious money (I was still studying) that I could use to invest in Bitcoin, but I did do my research both from the angles of technology (how blockchains work — Merkle trees, hash codes, etc.), people (heard of Vitalik, Satoshi, btc millionaires), and trends (ICOs, centralized exchanges, lots of interesting irrational behavior in general).

Since then I’ve been reading finance/business books on and off but this time I’m sharing my learnings and thoughts. That’s what changed.

Over the past 2 weeks I’ve read 2 very interesting books:

  • “Digital Gold” by Nathaniel Popper (or is it Digital Godl?)
  • “The Infinite Machine” by Camila Russo

In this blog, I’ll give a very short overview of the book, or more precisely I’ll share my private notes, in the hope their structure or the very fact I’m doing it may help somebody.

I’ll also share a list I compiled of influential Twitter people to follow (or just check out) to stay up to date with the newest stuff happening in the crypto space. The list is very raw (I collected names from the book and did some link following) so I’ll gradually prune it as I get a better grasp for what these people are sharing, based on my own interests.

Super important tip reading the book: take notes while reading it!!! Because:

a) You’ll be a more active learner which will further help consolidate the knowledge from the book.

b) There is a lot of new names/actors that you’ll need to remember to follow along the story. Thank me later.

Digital Gold book notes

Intro

A secret meeting at lake Tahoe with Erik Voorhees (btc evangelist), hedge fund managers like Dan Morehead, and other early adopters — the “btc millionaires”.

The origin story of this mystical money called Bitcoin (Satoshi Nakamoto introduced).

Bitcoin was introduced in the middle of the financial crisis. It has nice properties (universal — can be used across borders, low fees (back then), decentralized, anonymous, divisible, scarce, etc.).

Part 1

Chapter 1

The story of Satoshi Nakamoto and Hal Finney.

Hal was the first who believed in the idea and a couple of months later he was iterating on the initial codebase together with Satoshi.

The story of cypherpunks/extropians (concerned with privacy & security).

1970/80 mathematics at Stanford/MIT enabled everyone to safely encrypt messages.

Hal was more ideologically driven rather than financially.

Chapter 2

Hashcash was invented by Adam Back.

Bit gold by Nick Szabo.

The origin story of Bitcoin and S.N.

The inner working of Bitcoin.

Hal Finney as the main evangelist and believer in the early days of Bitcoin

Chapter 3

Martti Malmi introduced. A young programmer, early Bitcoin dev.

Satoshi starts promoting btc by pushing political ideas and not just technical spec.

The problem of getting users to use btc — a need for an app (the first mention of Bitcoin exchanges)

Btc logo design.

The word cryptocurrency is born.

First $ transaction — 5050 btc was exchanged between Martti and NewLibertyStandard for 5$. The price was set based on the electrical bill needed to mine btc back then by NewLibertyStandard.

Chapter 4

Laszlo Hanecz was the first who started mining using GPUs!

He famously sold thousands of Bitcoins for a pizza— the 1st time somebody wanted to sell a real thing to get Bitcoins.

Gavin Andresen is introduced, as the 2nd core developer (after Martti) — he used his real name and pic on the forums that turned out to be quite important. He became the face behind the community.

Slashdot news on Bitcoin gave rise to a new influx of users.

Chapter 5

Jed McCaleb is introduced. He created Mt. Gox (Bitcoin exchange) out of frustration because he couldn’t buy Bitcoin during nighttime.

No deposit insurance and no regulators overseeing the safety of operation in the world of crypto.

Artzforz found a serious Bitcoin bug where somebody could spend money from another person’s account!

Wikileaks blockade (the government ordered PayPal and other providers not to allow transfers to/from Wikileaks) further increased Bitcoin’s popularity.

Satoshi stopped posting to the forum (December 2010) — the mystery of who is behind that name escalates.

Chapter 6

Mt. Gox ownership transfer (from Jed to Mark).

Silk Road is born (Ross Ulbricht).

Chapter 7

Roger Ver is introduced — a successful businessman operating in Japan.

Forbes and Times cover the phenomenon of Bitcoin.

Satoshi disappears (Martti, Gavin continue being lead devs).

Bitcoin starts getting a bad reputation: hacker attacks, Silk road, etc.

Chapter 8

A big breach of Mt. Gox.

Jesse Powell — Roger Ver’s friend introduced helping to fix Mt. Gox.

Chapter 9

Private keys on Bitomat were accidentally deleted. This further emphasizes the tradeoff — centralized platforms vs directly operating on the blockchain.

Centralized platform MyBitcoin’s CEO steals everyone’s Bitcoin and disappears.

Mike Hearn creates an email list in Google for Google employees to get involved.

Charlie Lee (creator of Litecoin) is introduced.

1st Bitcoin conference.

Chapter 10

Erik Vorhees is introduced (approached Roger on the conference) — Bitcoin evangelist same as Roger Ver.

Various occupy/anti central bank movements (occupy wall street, free state project) emerge that benefit Bitcoin.

Chapter 11

Dread Pirate Roberts is born — the idea was for Ross Ulbricht to have an alibi — “he wasn’t running the site on his own the whole time, he was just 1 man that ran it for a 1 period of time” would be the argument.

Vendor feedback/rating was keeping the Silk Road in check.

Marco Polo operation started, an agent by the name nob was about to form a relationship with Ross.

Part 2

Chapter 12

Roger the Bitcoin evangelist!

Casascius coin was first manufactured thanks to Roger (this is how media visualizes btc coin even today).

Charlie Shrem of BitInstant (“add-on” to Mt. Gox — makes things faster and easier) was introduced (Roger invested into BitInstant).

Aside from the ideas of decentralization and anonymity Bitcoin offered faster payments back then (they gave an example of how a Japanese bank had to write a 9B$ paper check for JPMorgan because they had holidays and the e-transaction would be too slow).

David Azar introduced (Syrian Jewish as well, invests into Charlie’s BitInstant).

Chapter 13

Erik’s gambling site SatoshiDice is mentioned and his friend Ira.

Peter Vessenes and Patrick Murck introduced (Bitcoin Foundation)

Mt. Gox’s Mark problem stated (micromanagement issues, speed, etc.)

Roger is called the “Bitcoin Jesus”.

Chapter 14

Barry Silbert NYC tech guy introduced.

Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss introduced, David Azar met them and offered to invest in Charlie’s BitInstant.

David & twins vs Barry and FirstMark as investors into BitInstant.

Chapter 15

Wences Casares — a successful Argentinean entrepreneur introduced.

The story of extreme inflations in Argentina.

David Marcus president of PayPal introduced (Wences converted him).

Wences’s friend Fede introduced (cofounder of Lemon).

Peter Briger of Fortress introduced (meetup at his place).

Chapter 16

Cops (user nob) are getting closer to Ross. First big arrests.

Chapter 17

Erik and Ira create a side company Satoshi Ltd. (they were still in BitInstant).

Fights with David and Winklevoss twins.

Erik leaves, BitInstant’s bank stops cooperating, forcing them to shut down.

Chapter 18

Fortress, Winklevoss, and others start investing heavily into Bitcoin.

Big secret tech leaders conference happens — Marc Andressen, Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Twitter representatives, and others.

Wences was the biggest evangelist.

Skepticism arises because PayPal also had big dreams before regulations kicked in.

Jed (the original creator of Mt. Gox) created Ripple — A.H., and PayPal invest.

Chapter 19

The dawn of ASICs. Dedicated mining machines. (CPU -> GPU -> ASICs)

Bitcoin pools emerge — you can be sure you’ll get a piece of the cake. Centralization concerns.

The full fork problem. BTC Guild downgrades to version 0.7 (Bitcoin once again shows that it has correct incentives in place — if BTC Guild hadn’t done it the legitimacy of Bitcoin would be at stake!)

USA government’s 1st statement on the legality of Bitcoin.

btc market cap crosses 1B$.

Chapter 20

Lack of trust in Mt. Gox. Wences and others put their private keys in cold storage in a bank.

Competition to Mt. Gox and BitInstant: Coinbase, Bitstamp (exchange).

Mt.Gox has very bad rates because they’re slow. Obscure code changes break clients.

Chapter 21

The biggest public investment into a Bitcoin company (Coinbase) to date happens (2013).

Bitcoin Foundation’s 1st conference (twins, Charlie, and others gave talks).

Chapter 22

Big names are buying (Pete Briger, Dan Morehead, etc.).

Operators of Liberty Reserve were arrested.

Banks are very reluctant to deal with Bitcoin (even big players like Peter Briger can’t get Wall Fargo to cooperate).

People are incentivized to hold Bitcoin since it’s truly scarce.

Charlie closes Bitinstant for legal reasons. Erik sells SatoshiDice.

Ross pays for hits, more heat on him, and on Silk Road in general.

Part 3

Chapter 23

Patrick Murck (a pro-gov guy) keeps the Bitcoin Foundation floating, regularly chats with regulators.

Regulations kick in — Bitstamp and Coinbase introduce various validations/id verifications (and they overtook Mt. Gox’s and Bitinstant’s lead).

Roger and blockchain.info (wallet company — private keys are encrypted so that the company has no info on its users) as “the last stand” against centralized Bitcoin companies.

Argentina is a great use case where anonymity can be helpful, and companies such as blockchain.info can’t be subpoenaed by the gov.

Wences sells Lemon and starts his new Bitcoin company Xapo.

Chapter 24

Ross is finally arrested.

btc price plummets, gov statements don’t indicate that they want to stop btc from happening — smart people (like Winklevoss twins) start buying.

Secrete gathering on lake Tahoe organized by Dan Morehead.

Chapter 25

BTC China exchange is formed.

Bobby Lee becomes a co-founder (his brother Charlie Lee mentioned as the founder of Litecoin (“silver to btc’s gold”)).

Tencent becomes the payment processor (and then buying became really easy in China).

Mining in China is getting bigger (rather than buying/selling because of China’s gov).

Various news in China/USA drive price changes (Baidu, PayPal).

Chapter 26

Patrick and other Bitcoiners present to the USA senate — very positive reactions.

Again gov dictates what happens.

Roger and other libertarians keep pushing for anonymous Bitcoin projects.

In China we have a different story: Tencent stops collaborating with BTC China (gov has declared btc as a digital commodity and thus banks/payment processors like Tencent can’t deal with btc exchanges).

Chapter 27

BitPagos solves the problem of receiving USA payments in Argentina. Another great application for Bitcoin.

“Bitcoin’s evolution in the United States and China was showing how the technology could become dependent on the official financial system and government approval. Argentina, on the other hand, was showing how it could develop without any of that”.

Xapo is started, 1st feature was the “vault” — safely storing private keys offline.

The wild West of China — Tencent stops collaborating but banks are still collaborating with Bitcoin businesses.

Federal reserve praises some properties of btc, more and more companies start using btc (like Overstock).

Chapter 28

A.H. invests heavily (Coinbase, 21e6 (mining company), etc.).

Wences’ Xapo gets more high-profile investments.

Charlie is arrested and bailed out for 1 million $.

New hearings, the day after Charlie’s arrest (twins, Barry Silbert, Fred Wilson, etc.)

Banks are increasingly reluctant to deal with btc companies.

Divesh Makan is mentioned as the “spider of Silicon Valley”. He manages money for many billionaires. The so-called family offices.

Chapter 29

Mt. Gox problems — Mark tells the world that Bitcoin has a bug (transaction malleability, a known “quirk”) -> price plummets, but quickly bounces back.

Huge Mt. Gox “attack” (they lost 750k Bitcoins! due to the aforementioned bug). The news is leaked by the twobitidiot.

Chapter 30

Press finds random people and claims they are Satoshi (Dorian Nakamoto was the name of this one guy who got very famous).

The real Satoshi Nakamoto writes on the forum that he is not Dorian.

Big players meet secretly in a private conf at Goldman Sachs.

Internally banks and federal reserves are looking for innovative ways to use the blockchain concept.

Bitfury (a Ukrainian mining company) is introduced — they promised that they won’t have more than 40% of computer power (they were that powerful!).

Marginalization of the early Bitcoin community (ideologically inclined people).

Big conference in Austin (Silicon Valley people + celebrities).

Chapter 31

Meeting at lake Tahoe (Dan Morehead).

Nick Szabo may be Satoshi Nakamoto.

Bitcoin conference with huge players like Bezos & Gates.

Wences converts Bill Gates! 😅

And that’s it! Hopefully, you found it somewhat useful. Now drum rolls.

People you should (probably) check out on Twitter

Here is a list of people I started following after reading the book (in no particular order):

  • twobitidot — a guy who leaked the confidential document from Mt. Gox
  • nealstephenson — a guy behind the Cryptonomicon Sci-Fi book (that talks about universal money), fairly respected in the digital currency community in general
  • pwuille, jgarzik, marttimalmi, gavinandresen— early Bitcoin developers
  • NickSzabo4 — a guy for whom many believe to be Satoshi Nakamoto because of his engagement in the early digital cash communities, the fact that he modified some dates on forum posts just before Bitcoin whitepaper was published, and that his permutated name acronym is the same as Satoshi’s.
  • adam3us (Adam Back) — proposed some fundamental ideas in the cryptography space
  • jespow — Kraken co-founder, introduced as Roger Ver’s friend in the book
  • CharlieShrem — a guy behind the BitInstant platform (made it easier to buy Bitcoins back in the days of Mt. Gox)
  • jedmccaleb — original founder of Mt. Gox and Ripple!
  • bobbyclee (Bobby Lee)— founded the most famous Chinese exchange
  • satoshilite (Charlie Lee) — founder of Litecoin and Bobby’s brother
  • virtuallylaw (Patric Murck)— a lawyer who was vital for the survival of Bitcoin foundation in the early days
  • BarrySilbert — successful NYC entrepreneur involved in btc since the early days
  • nejc_kodric — co-founder of Bitstamp (exchange)
  • tylercowen — prolific blogger in the space
  • niccary — co-founder and CEO of blockchain.com, anonymous wallet
  • TimDraper, fredwilson VCs involved in Bitcoin since the early days
  • valeryvavilov — co-founder of Bitfury (involved in mining business)
  • FEhrsam (Fred Ehrsam)— co-founder of Coinbase
  • balajis (Balaji Srinivasan)— founder of 21e6, a famous, secretive ASIC company (producing dedicated mining chips)
  • RealRossU — creator of Silk Road (a platform where you could sell/buy illegal products/services). He’s still in prison.
  • ErikVoorhees, rogerkver — biggest btc evangelists back in the days
  • tyler, cameron — Winklevoss twins, early Bitcoin adopters. Probably most famous for their dispute with Mark Zuckerberg around the Facebook idea.
  • davidmarcus — president of PayPal back then
  • bgarlinghouse — CEO of Ripple
  • paulkrugman — Nobel prize winner in economics
  • reidhoffman — founder of LinkedIn
  • sama (Sam Altman) — YCombinator, OpenAI guy
  • naval (Naval Ravikant) — founder of AngelList
  • cdixon (Chris Dixon) — partner at Andreessen Horowitz
  • pmarca, bhorowitz — Andressen Horowitz founders
  • APompliano (Anthony Pompliano)— btc maximalist/evangelist
  • saylor (Michael Saylor)— founder of MicroStrategy and btc maximalist
  • RayDalio — founder of Bridgewater hedge fund
  • jack (Jack Dorsey)— founder of Twitter
  • VitalikButerin — main co-founder of Ethereum
  • BillyM2k (Billy Markus)— co-founder of Dogecoin

Try and explore their feeds, and based on your preference start following those people whose ideas resonate with you.

But, also try and follow some people with whose ideas you don’t necessarily agree — you need a healthy dose of different opinions in your life. Who knows maybe you’re wrong and they are right. Be open-minded.

If there is something you would like me to write about — write it down in the comment section or DM me. I’d be glad to write more about mathematics & statistics, ML/deep learning, CS/software engineering, landing a job at a big tech company, getting an invitation to prestigious ML camps, finance, etc., anything that could help you!

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