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Achieving consensus in distributed systems – that chink in the armor hasn't gone away

First a disclosure: My name is Will, I founded Novauri, and our team is building a service that will allow users to buy and sell bitcoin in the US while keeping full control of their private keys as a mandatory design element, not an option.
Please SIGN UP for our US only closed beta test in 2015 here. It's super fast, takes 20 seconds, and we'll guarantee no transaction fees for the life of your account. Plus our rates will be highly competitive. Read all about it on the website!
I don’t like marketing, I intensely hate the spam I see on the forums, so my approach is going to be to write (semi) intelligent posts and hopefully gain customers through interaction and discourse, as opposed to spamming it up with astroturf and pictures of hipsters having fun that you could be like if you used our product. Now… my thoughts.
Proof of work – a tragedy of the commons
Not very long ago a mining pool called ghash.io reached 55% bitcoin mining power. It’s widely known that POW suffers from the tragedy of the commons. Mining is SHA256x2, which makes it really simple to build coin flipping application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) that run this faster than general purpose processors. This creates an economic incentive towards centralization where miners who can access the best ASICs first have a major advantage in hashing power per dollar.
Pools, a solution to a market demand that exacerbates the problem
A second problem is a solution to an economic demand, the existence of mining “pools”. Because a block is solved only every 10 minutes, as bitcoin scales, it becomes increasingly unlikely to ever solve a block by yourself, even with substantial processing power. Mining pools allow the “little guys” to participate too and contribute their hashing power to a pool of miners. This way they receive a portion of any block solved by the pool, enabling a steady and more consistent return on their investment in hardware, facilities and electricity.
Yet while pools solve a problem, they create a second issue, the centralization of mining power by pool operators. Because the blocks are “solved” by the managing pool directly, this gives the pool the same controls and ability to act poorly as if they had the hardware themselves.
One might argue that market forces will naturally correct things if a mining pool approaches 51%, but this has been disproven in practice with ghash.io. Selfish miners using ghash.io essentially put the entire system in dire peril by letting ghash.io reach 55%. They waited for others to “go first” before switching pools. This is the very definition of “tragedy of the commons”. I would argue it was only the price of bitcoin that changed the miners’ behavior, and reviewing the charts shows that the prices did not lead the mining power concentrations at all, which also defies common wisdom, but in reality is entirely true. P2P pool is a great idea, but it has not offered the same economic benefits to miners as other privately run pools on a balance sheet. Until it does, don't look there for a long term answer. Miners are trying to make a return, and if a pool gives them an advantage, most will use that pool over P2P. Mining is not a charity.
Proof of state – lack consensus and bring monopoly issues
Some might point to proof of stake as a potential solution (POS). Put very simply, POS is where by virtue of the fact that you own X virtual currency, you have a proportionate chance to win a vote or tiebreaker when confirming transactions.
Unfortunately, POS fails to provide a disincentive to fork and suffers from the monopoly problem. Ownership carries voting rights, and there is nothing wasted (no work) by voting for both sides of a fork. There is no consensus, so POS systems are generally hybrid models where POW is used to achieve consensus of forks regardless. POS also has a monopoly problem, which are as serious as POW’s problems. So solving bitcoin's problems with POS seems like a dead end. Very smart people have tried, and so far nothing viable has materialized that is stable enough to be trusted with something as mature and valuable as bitcoin.
So… let’s relist all of the bad news!!!
Solutions thus far are myopic, influenced by personal interests or blimp sized egos (I am one to talk), and are often more academic than pragmatic. Most are just to complicated to work or to be implemented safely without years of refinement in an alt coin.
Well, is there hope? What is the practical thing to do? Should we do nothing?
I would argue that there are three problems we must solve at once, and all three problems are very much interrelated. It’s one @[email protected]@ of a puzzle. We need to:
1) Make pooled mining uneconomical
2) Figure out a way to make small scale mining cost advantageous
3) Do 1 and 2 but allow normalized returns for little guys so they can run a small business or profitable hobby, without it being a lottery ticket.
Some say that a 51% issue would not be the end because we would know very quickly who the bad actor is and could react accordingly. I’m a little more concerned. A real shakeup in the core of bitcoin would shake confidence, and could set us back years. I feel we should as a community put a much higher priority on finding a practical, viable solution. Nothing academic, nothing incredibly complicated, but something that can shift the economics of the situation and solve the three problems listed above. While we have plenty of issues around individual usability, this is, in my humble opinion, the largest remaining vulnerability in bitcoin today.
So… what to do? How do we solve all three of these problems at once? What are the possible combinations of solutions that work? Let me take a stab at it…
1) Deterring pooled mining
Let’s give more serious consideration to two-phase mining.
The idea is to keep (SHA256(SHA256(header))) and add a requirement for (SHA256(SIG(header, privkey))), requiring the block to be signed with the private key of the miner. This kills pooled mining, dead. Miners can solve SHA256x2 but the pool needs the miner’s private key to sign the block header, which would allow the miner to steal the reward, which kills pools very fast.
2) Disincentivizing centralization of mining power
2a) Small scale heat recovery systems
We need to get people thinking about small scale heat recovery systems built around mining hardware. This will allow mining activity to serve as a source of heat in cold climates, or perform work where heat is required.
One example might be liquid submersion of the asic or heatsinks couples with a pump, radiator and fan in small, modular design might be economically viable. Electric heat is used very commonly, and when powered from clean power sources like solar, geothermal, nuclear (yes, nuclear I would count in the “clean” bucket) and wind, the net is a zero emission system that heats like an electric heater but adds security to the financial system in return, and generates profit for the beneficiary.
2b) Rotating or amorphous block hashing algorithms
Another possibility is to rotate or add complexity to the hash algorithms used to solve blocks. Instead of SHA256x2, perhaps SHA256x2 is rotated with scrypt? Perhaps there are many algorithms that rotate to add even more complixity. This would at a minimum make it much harder to design ASICs, and would institute a memory requirement as well. This would at least close the gap between specialized mining operations and home hobbyists. The problem is, what miner in their right mind would go with a hard fork in this direction? This is likely unviable because of economics.
2a is probably the way to go. Is there a 2c or d?
3) Normalizing returns
The issue here is that coinbase generation in a decentralized model is like winning the lottery. Your 2a heater would be unlikely to ever solve a block in it’s lifetime.
So this last issue is even harder to solve than 2. 3 is the reason mining pools were created in the first place. How do you increase reward frequency while lowering reward to generate a more predictable return?
Or maybe we are asking the wrong question or thinking in the wrong direction or dimension? Is there a way to centralize and normalize rewards in a safer way? Could the heater's price be subsidized by the mining activity if that activity was safely hard wired in the heater's hardware to pay block rewards to the reseller or manufacturer? Could electricity rates be offset by rewards going to electricity companies as a subsidy to completely smooth out the return on investment for a bitcoin heater?
That last one is tough and would need a really great strategy to reach a critical mass.
Does anyone smarter than me have an idea? This is really the problem. It’s three interrelated issues.
In closing, sign up for our closed US beta. There are still some spots left. We're poor but talented and our hearts are in the right place. Thank you!
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