There’s a persistent and troublesome phenomenon of liberals, leftists and social justice people seeing blockchains and Bitcoin and thinking that there’s anything in this phenomenon created by fringe right-wing cranks for fringe right-wing crank purposes that will serve any of their own purposes whatsoever. David Golumbia, author of The Politics of Bitcoin (US, UK), gets a lot of earnest social justice people asking him about BlockchainTM, and we have fragments here of a half-written collaboration intended to kill this terrible idea; it’s clear I’ll need to get moving on my bit.
The New Inquiry is an online news magazine of leftist bent that’s heavily into social justice causes. It’s also a 501(c)3 charity itself. Their latest project is a good cause with an absolutely terrible idea behind it: Bail Bloc.
The cause is to help fund bail for people who’ve been arrested but can’t afford the bail. 96% keep all their court dates, so that money will come back to bail out the next person. 4% don’t, so that money needs to be topped up. The Bronx Freedom Fund, who The New Inquiry are working with on this one, uses the bail fund to keep people out of jail when they don’t need to be, which turns out to make them less likely to be sentenced, which makes for a better society. This is a good cause that makes the world a bit better! Here’s The New Inquiry’s articles on the topic.
The money comes from mining Monero on your PC, then sending the money from that in. Hands up all those who can already see the problems …
Here’s the announcement tweet, from Editor in Chief Ayesha Siddiqi:
introducing Bail Bloc – it lets you donate your spare computer power to generate bail for low income defenders https://t.co/u0r8PNCuMz
— Ayesha A. Siddiqi (@AyeshaASiddiqi) November 15, 2017
That’s a misrepresentation out the gate: you’re not donating your computing power — in the manner of Folding@Home, where computations are literally what you’re donating — but your electricity.
Photo by Hans at Pixabay, CC-0
Why this is bad: how crypto mining works
Cryptocurrencies that are “mined”, such as Bitcoin, Ethereum or Monero, use a method called Proof of Work. This involves destroying the environment in order to avoid having a central authority make decisions, because they couldn’t think of any less wasteful way to decentralise it.
It is a process of literally wasting electricity to decide who gets to mine the next block on a blockchain, and get some cryptocurrency. You run millions of calculations, which are then just thrown away, because the only point is to show that you can waste resources faster than everyone else. Nothing whatsoever is achieved by the calculation — everyone is doing a silly maths problem for no reason other than to have something to compete at.
I can’t find a link to this FAQ from the main website, but someone posted this to Twitter in response to a question about the obvious profligate wastefulness of mining:
Does this cost more to run in electricity than it generates in revenue for bail?
Unlike Bitcoin and other popular crypto coins, which require a great deal of energy to mine, Monero is ASIC-resistant, which means that it requires a comparatively negligible amount of electricity, and is therefore cost efficient.
Apart from not answering the question — the answer is “yes,” by the way — this is a near-meaningless pile of crypto jargon obscuring a completely false claim. Cryptocurrency mining is a zero-sum game, a Red Queen’s race. As miners compete to see who generates the next block, they will spend up to the value of the coins from that block to generate the block. So the cost of mining will rapidly approximate the revenue gained from mining the block.
With Monero, it’s actually worse, because quite a lot of the mining these days is done by malware and hacked web pages — you can certainly turn a profit if you just steal the electricity! So if you’re spending your own money for the electricity, you’re competing with thieves, and you will definitely get less money out than you put in.
What you are doing is getting $5 worth of coal, burning it into CO2, then The New Inquiry gets $4 for the Monero generated by your commitment to wastefulness. Then they send that to the charity.
(If I could draw, I’d put a nice diagram here of a cute cartoon coal-fired power plant belching smoke, maybe a few birds with XX for eyes on the ground nearby. “$5 of coal” with arrow pointing to the smoke. Arrow to computer, “$5 electricity, wasted.” Arrow to The New Inquiry, “$4 generated.” Arrow to the Bronx Freedom Fund, “$4 donated.” I’m sure you can picture it.)
Every month, the mining gets more difficult and needs more electricity (and hence more CO2) put into it. Monero’s mining difficulty, and hence the amount of electricity required just to produce coins at the same rate, has quadrupled in the past six months.
None of this is a useful or necessary process. The cryptocurrency mining process only exists at all because of the misguided design goal of decentralisation. As I note in chapter 1 of the book, an ordinary centralised database could calculate an equally tamper-evident block of transactions on a 2007 smartphone running off USB power.
Mine Monero, waste electricity, generate CO2 and send less money to a charity than you could have just sent directly! What’s not to like?
Nobody at The New Inquiry, and particularly not the technical team responsible, can reasonably claim ignorance of this — the reprehensible and profligate wastefulness of Bitcoin mining is regularly the subject of mainstream news coverage, most recently in Motherboard and that well-known hotbed of revolutionary socialism the Financial Times. Monero does not have as much mining as Bitcoin, but the same considerations apply: this is utterly unnecessary wastefulness that does direct damage to the world. They know, or should have known, what they are perpetrating here.
Fortunately, Monero miners are so often used in malware and hacked web pages that antivirus and ad blockers catch them reliably and will protect you from trying this terrible idea:
Seems like a great idea but my anti-viral software really dislikes the download. Wouldn't allow it at first, then send it to quarantine.
"FileRepMalware [PUP]" is what it says the problem is. I'll check back later.
— David Christian (@dave_atl) November 15, 2017
Of course, the obvious nod-nod wink-wink use for Bail Bloc is corporate theft — take back some of the surplus value you generate for your horrible boss and pass it to a charitable cause. The problem there is that corporate networks tend, for obvious reasons, to have good virus checking; run this and you can quickly share a fate with the sort of people who were fired for running Bitcoin miners at work back in the day.
The about page features a lot of text on the good cause, and misrepresents the cryptocurrency angle in passing:
WHAT IS CRYPTOCURRENCY?
Cryptocurrency isn’t real money, but it has real-world exchange value.
Just as the US Treasury prints money to infuse into the economy, cryptocurrency is generated “out of nowhere” through an arbitrary process. But where the US Treasury needs a minting machine, all miners need is computing power. Cryptocurrencies are generated through users running software to solve difficult computational problems, in a process known as “mining.” When a problem is solved, the user is rewarded by a decentralized cryptocurrency network with units of that cryptocurrency. If enough users mine for the same cryptocurrency, it begins to have an exchange value.
This omits that the “arbitrary process” is doing the most wasteful thing you possibly can, just because that’s the rules of a particularly stupid financial instrument.
The project appears to have originated with Grayson Earle of the Dark Inquiry collective, whose understanding of cryptocurrency concepts and the issues involved, particularly externalised costs, appears unclear:
“If generating money out of thin air by using a computer program seems absurd, that’s because it is,” Grayson Earle, who dreamed up and co-leads the project, told In Justice Today. “What’s equally absurd is the money bail system, and that our entire justice system is premised on the assumption that most people won’t exercise their Constitutional right to trial and instead accept plea bargains to ease the burden on courts.”
Note how he immediately pivots to talking about the cause, because what he’s just said about cryptocurrency is obvious nonsense to anyone who knows how this stuff works. It’s not generated out of thin air — it’s generated by doing literally the most wasteful thing you can do with $5, to generate $4 for charity.
So what can I do to help fund bail bonds?
Easy method that doesn’t require thinking about it: appolition.us — an app that rounds purchases up to the nearest dollar and sends the change in, to the same end. Without generating stupendous amounts of CO2. Appolition isn’t a charity, but it’s still a better idea than Bail Bloc.
Worst method: the offensive wastefulness of mining cryptos at a loss. Whoever thought this was a good idea at any point wasn’t thinking clearly that day.
Update: The New Inquiry has just put up a new FAQ in which they straight up recommend that you steal electricity to, uh, fund bail for people arrested on suspicion of crimes. This is apparently a good idea. They also disagree with my numbers on mining. See followup post.
Update 2, February 2018:
Remember Bail Bloc? It's been public since November 15th, 2017. 2.5 months later: It's averaged ~800 people mining Monero and raised $4309. Total. Not per day or per month, but total. Eek. https://t.co/uukXShAIVC
— Danny Blockchain Page Bitcoin (@DannyPage) February 2, 2018
It's self-reported in the app. At least they have done better than Imogen Heap! pic.twitter.com/WvAKScvXUr
— Danny Blockchain Page Bitcoin (@DannyPage) February 2, 2018
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