Lambos? So 2017. Bitcoin-millionaires? A dime a dozen. Here’s the real test of crypto-fame: When you’re trying to catch a flight and you’re recognized by TSA.
Just ask Samson Mow, who was in SFO when a security guy said to him, “Hey, I watch your show!” The show he’s referring to, of course, is Magical Crypto Friends, his jokes-with-substance collaboration with Litecoin creator Charlie Lee, Lead Monero maintainer Riccardo Spagni, and trader and commentator WhalePanda. (A while back, BREAKERMAG spoke with all four.)
On Magical Crypto Friends, Mow is known as “Excellion,” the cuddly cartoon lion. This alter ego is also his Twitter handle, and a lion sticker on his laptop is how the TSA guy spotted Mow. Yet Magical Crypto Friends is something of a side-hustle. Mow is one of those annoyingly productive people who make the rest of us feel lazy. He’s the CSO of Blockstream, the company that’s doing things like creating a cryptocurrency data feed for traders and launching bitcoin-network satellites into space. He’s the CEO of gaming company Pixelmatic. And he’s also an unflagging defender of bitcoin (not blockchain), arguing with Roger Ver in what he calls the Bitcoin Civil War.
Mow talks to BREAKERMAG about why Blockstream is betting big on the Lightning Network, why he thinks “blockchain, not bitcoin” is absurd, how he sees “no future for Ethereum” and why “a lot of people have been proven wrong,” including Ver.
You have a lot going on! Let’s start with Blockstream. What’s your current focus?
Our primary focus right now is the Liquid network, and building out that ecosystem, and also the cryptocurrency data-feed, which is a partnership between us and ICE [the Intercontinental Exchange]. We’re also investing a lot into the Lightning Network. We actually started investing in R&D in Lightning back in 2015, and it’s really exciting, because now all of that is starting to pay off.
Why are you so bullish on Lightning?
The thing about the Lightning Network is that it brings a lot more people into the fold. A lot of people were talking about bitcoin protocol development and how it’s not inclusive enough; it’s really hard to get into Layer One bitcoin protocol development; you have to have a lot of expertise working on distributed systems, cryptography, mathematics and software engineering, and even game theory. It’s not like you can just hack on a Layer One protocol and make something. It takes a long time to ramp up. But with Lightning, you can actually hack on it and build something—it’s like you’re building a website instead of working on the TCP/IP. If bitcoin is TCP/IP, then Lightning is a web app on top of that.
What about adoption, and scaling? How far along would you say the Lightning Network is?
I still think it’s fairly early on. It looks like it’s growing very quickly, but there’s still a long way to go. Part of that is having better mobile wallets that allow you to receive offline payments. But it’s all coming along. The pace of advancement is very rapid.
Can you quantify this? What metrics do you look at to gauge success?
Hmm. I think the amount of funds in Lightning is a good metric, because that shows how much liquidity there is in the channels. It’s an indicator for how much you can route through the network. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good indicator. The more money that’s locked up in Lightning, then the bigger the network is, and the [more] transactions it can process.
The other one is just looking at people building stuff on it—how many projects there are, what new apps are coming out on mobile wallets that are coming out. Mobile wallets is a big one. Mobile is everything these days. It’s a doorway to get the mass market onboard.
I don’t even know if this is a term, but is it fair to say you’re a “Lightning Maximalist”? Do you think everything will be Lightning, eventually?
Well it won’t be everything is Lightning, but it’s just going to work. It’s just like using the Internet right now. You go onto your browser, you go where you want to go, and do what you want to do. Eventually, I think all wallets are just going to work. You’re not going to worry about on-chain transactions or off-chain transactions, or Lightning channels, or anything like that. You just say, I want to send this amount of money. If it’s a big amount, it will go on-chain. If it’s a small amount, it will go through Lightning. It’s invisible to the average user.
Any sense of timing on when Lightning will be fully integrated?
I think one or two years. If I’m optimistic, one year. Two years at most.
There are some people—maybe trolls—on Twitter who complain that the Lightning Network is no different than the banks, because it’s off-chain. How do you respond to this?
A lot of the people spreading the FUD have their own motivations. They might have their own blockchain—some project that’s supposed to be better than bitcoin and Lightning, and they need to FUD Lightning in order to promote their own thing. And that’s the case for bitcoin too, right? A lot of the projects have to say, We’re better than bitcoin, because they have two more transactions per second, or something stupid, right?
Lightning is not like a bank. You have your bitcoin. You open a channel with your bitcoin. You’re not really trusting anybody. If you want to make an analogy to something else that’s already out there, you have custodial wallets. Coinbase is a custodial wallet, right? If you’re using bitcoin and you’re using Coinbase, you don’t own your bitcoin. [Laughs.] They can freeze it. None of the FUD really makes sense, because Lightning is decentralized, and it’s your own money.
How about the FUD with Liquid?
[Deep sigh.] The interesting thing about Liquid is that, after we launched it, so many people came out of the woodwork and started complaining about it, as if it was something that they had to use, or that’s run by the functionaries, but that’s not the case at all. It’s an opt-in thing. First of all, it’s meant for traders. If you’re not a trader, then you really don’t need to use it. Do whatever you want to do. All of this stuff is opt-in. No one is forcing you to use bitcoin. No one is forcing you to use Lightning. Do whatever you want to do.
Right, and no one’s forcing them to tweet about it. What are your thoughts on Crypto Twitter these days?
Let’s see. I think, overall, it’s improved in the past year.
The Bitcoin Civil War ended. The big-blockers forked off. The beautiful thing about the whole space is that time proves who was right and who was wrong. It doesn’t matter if people are negative; ultimately, in the end, you see who’s right and who’s wrong.
To connect the dots, you famously had a debate with Roger Ver in the Spring 2018. Are you saying that the last eight months have proved one of you right, and one of you wrong?
I think a lot of people have been proven wrong, including [Roger Ver]. A lot of people were pushing for these fork-coins. If you’re around long enough, you know that this has been going on for years, since the old, old forks like Bitcoin XT and Bitcoin Classic, Bitcoin Unlimited. The BCH thing is just the latest incarnation. These people have been wrong for years.
A blockchain is just a data structure. And what really matters is bitcoin, not the blockchain.
Are you more or less optimistic about the space than you were a year ago?
I’m still optimistic. But when people like to talk about the space, they’re talking about all cryptocurrencies, and I’m very bearish about [many] things out there, especially the blockchain projects. And we’ve seen those crumble as well. Maybe a lot of people made money, or raised money, but they’re not going to be able to survive. Because they were wrong about what a blockchain is, and why it’s important. A blockchain is just a data structure. And what really matters is bitcoin, not the blockchain.
Can you elaborate?
I think people just caught up in the buzzwords—blockchain this and blockchain that. But they really didn’t dig in. It’s like Big Data in 2012 to 2015, when it was really popular. Everyone was talking about Big Data. But what do you do after you collect the data? You have to analyze it. You have to figure something actionable to do for your business, and a lot of people missed that part. That’s similar to blockchain—everyone just got hung up on the word, and didn’t think about what it means. You can make your own blockchain right now, but what prevents you from changing it? The whole point [of bitcoin] is that you cannot change it—it’s immutable, and basically permanent. That’s why bitcoin has all this proof of work and expends all this energy to secure itself. Because you don’t want things to be easily modified. If you write your own blockchain, or you’re a company who runs your own, what difference is that from a database?
That reminds me of a recent Magical Crypto Friends episode, when you guys went on a rant about how everything is going on the blockchain, and said, “let’s put the blockchain on the blockchain!”
Putting anything on a blockchain is hard. That’s an attestation. You’re saying you have something, and it’s represented by a blockchain. Even Tether is an attestation. They have the funds, but they could not have the funds, too, right?
Wait, sorry, can you explain—attestation?
You’re attesting that you have something when you put it on the blockchain. But you can’t put everything on the blockchain. [Laughs.] It’s just kind of meaningless. You still have to have the thing that you’re “putting” on the blockchain, and you have to prove it. And you see that with Tether—people question if they have the dollars. Just because it’s on the blockchain doesn’t mean anything if they can’t prove they have what they say they have.
The best example is this: If you got married, and you registered your marriage on the blockchain, and a year later, you don’t want to be married, how is a blockchain going to stop you?
It wouldn’t stop you. It’s not binding, right?
Exactly, see? [Laughs.] The reason it works for bitcoin is that bitcoin is a native token on the blockchain. You want that digital thing, so therefore you follow the rules. Your marriage is not a digital thing.
What about countries that are creating legislation saying that smart contracts are legally binding? Wouldn’t a blockchain marriage have teeth then?
Yeah, but so do real paper contracts.
So you’re saying there’s not real benefit to putting it on a blockchain?
The only benefit of tokenizing something is to trade it. Having stocks issued [via the blockchain] would be good; it would offer more transparency, and it would allow for 24/7 trading. But you’re still relying that the company behind the stock is functional, and not going under, and that the stocks they issue are honored by them.
Damn, you ruined my idea of putting my soul on the blockchain. My “soul chain” project.
Maybe it will work on Ethereum.
What projects out there are you excited about?
Well, it’s really bitcoin. Bitcoin is the king. It’s secure. It has liquidity. And there’s so many people working on it, and now we have Layer 2 solutions, like Liquid and Lightning. It’s the most interesting thing in the space. Bitcoin is where it’s at.
What about merchant adoption? I travel a ton, and I always look for places to spend bitcoin, and I gotta say, I don’t see a lot of real-world, actual improvement.
Well, the answer to that one is Lightning. But I want to go back one step. It’s a common misconception that bitcoin adoption is merchant and payment adoption. Hodling bitcoin is also a use case. The best analogy is property. People want to buy property, because they think it will appreciate, it’s stable, and it’s useful. You have this thing that you can pass off to future generations. So the [bitcoin] payments and spending use case is just one very small use case. People buying it and keeping it for themselves is a really important use case, and it’s as old as time itself. (Or at least since humans existed.)
Is there a paradox, though? I like your analogy of property. But if it’s a property that will never, ever be used for anything, is that still valuable, besides the perception of value? I still struggle with this bitcoin paradox… Do we want bitcoin because we think it might actually be useful, or just because other people think it’s valuable?
Well storing your money is also valuable, right? Even if the price stayed stagnant, if you could rely upon that to never inflate, and you could pass that on to future generations, that’s still valuable. But spending is a part of it. And that’s what Lightning does—it removes the barriers and friction to spending. Let’s say you’re getting paid on Lightning, and you could even get paid every day; there’s no reason to be paid every two weeks—that’s a holdover from the Industrial era. You just go and take that and spend it. Go watch a movie or buy a coffee or do whatever you want.
I know the term “bitcoin maximalist” is sort of squishy, and debated. Do you call yourself a “bitcoin maximalist”?
Well I guess people call me a maximalist, and some people may not. I’m okay with Litecoin and Monero and a few other things, because I think they’re interesting. If you’re a pure bitcoin maximalist, you say no, they’re not. I think the whole idea of these labels is not useful. It just causes division and. I think everybody appreciates the potential of bitcoin. I’m pretty libertarian, and I think if you do something and it’s not harmful, like Litecoin, then go do your Litecoin thing. It doesn’t bother me. The difference is when you have scam coins, like those bitcoin forks, that say ‘we are the real [one]”…that’s when you have to say it’s a scam.
Speaking of forks, and intra-project wars, any thoughts on the recent Ethereum Constantinople flap?
I really see no future for Ethereum. I don’t follow it. It just seems like a lot of hand wave-y hope.
Why is Ethereum such a doomed adventure?
I like to say that their thesis is wrong. Their thesis is that you want to compute with the blockchain. And that’s just a dead end. That’s like making bigger blocks instead of a making a Layer 2 scaling solution. Whereas bitcoin—and Monero and Litecoin—[use it] just for verification. It’s like what I said before—the blockchain doesn’t really do anything if it’s just in isolation. What you really care about is having that sound money, that money that is uncensorable, that no one can stop you from sending.
You’re coming up on your Crypto Friends one-year birthday. Happy Birthday! How has your approach to the show changed?
I think we’re pretty much doing the same thing. We’re trying to get our episodes up faster.
Have you thought about making the show a podcast?
We’re working on it.
As a podcast enthusiast, I’d support that. What’s up next for you guys?
The big thing is that we’re working on Magical Crypto Conference [in New York], which will be in May 11 and 12, I believe. We’re finalizing the details. We’ve got a venue—somewhere in Midtown—and it’s going to be a technical conference, with some interesting panels. One of the things we want to talk about is, what is the anatomy of a scam? We’ve got a lot of stuff coming.
Photo courtesy Samson Mow.