Big Data Analytics in FinTech: My talk at SMU

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Review of “Internet of Money” by Andreas Antonopoulos

Andreas Antonopoulos is considered one of the foremost authorities on Bitcoin. In fact his Senate hearing in Canada in 2014 (Click here for speech) is considered one of the key turning points in Bitcoin’s journey in educating the governments on one of the most pathbreaking phenomena since the internet. This “book” is essentially a transcription of his key speeches.

If you are embarking on your bitcoin learning journey, this book and the associated videos must be your first readings and viewings. Antonopoulos keeps his speeches accessible to everyone and that is the key in this book. There are some fundamental concepts that are explained in these speeches, such as simple networks and innovation at the edge, infrastructure inversion, and key design principles for the bitcoin.

Discussions about networks was an illuminating aspect and it gives a clear insight into the mind of Antonopoulos. He is one of the fiercest advocates for decentralization. He draws interesting parallels to the original pulse dialing phone network, which is a smart network with “dumb old dialing phones” at the edges. In the bitcoin age this is flipped on its head. The network is “dumb” but the innovation is pushed to the edge. As Antonopoulos puts it, the network is dumb as rocks and it simply processes scripts. Nothing else. Doing this affords the advantage that central permissions are not needed to innovate. Innovation can happen independently, and the network can stay as is.

Infrastructure inversion is the principle where initially the new technology runs on the old creaky infrastructure, then it upends the old infrastructure and the old technology also begins to run on the new innovations. Classic example is that of automobiles running on cobblestone and unpaved roads. They faced a lot of challenges initially, and then once roads were paved it benefited both cars and horse-drawn carts. These and several other fundamental bitcoin principles and disruptions are eloquently explained, with easy to grasp examples that makes the Bitcoin very real and appealing to all.

For anyone interested in bitcoin, this collection of essays / speeches is a must read.

My rating 5/5

Review of “Value Web” by Chris Skinner

I have no idea why this is voted 4 stars on Amazon.com, but I am pretty sure that will change once more ratings pour in. Perhaps, what I am saying is akin to blasphemy in the bitcoin world, but I found the book to be a complete snooze-fest.

The best part about the book is where the author does not talk or write, but interviews some of the most well-known doers in the bitcoin / blockchain world. There are almost 150 pages worth of interviews of leaders, visionaries, and entrepreneurs in the book and that is the gold mine. All credit to Skinner for getting these people and the opinions in a single book. Skinner also discusses some of the accurate predictions made by the renowned computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, who talked about automation in 2006 and estimates that computers will outperform humans in most tasks in twenty five years. This is already coming true with self-driving cars, autonomous flights, and hopefully blockchain-enabled smart economies by 2030.

The interview that stood out for me was that of Jeffrey Robinson the author of “Bitcoin: the Naked Truth About Bitcoin.” Robinson argues that Bitcoin is worthless but the underlying technology is the driving force for everyone to get to the promised land. Robinson, even goes on to refer to the Bitcoin as pretend currency (boom…mic drop). Not sure if I entirely agree with that categorization, but personally the underlying blockchain technology is what keeps me up at night, reading and researching.

The second best interview was with Giles Andrews, the CEO and Co-Founder of Zopa, the P2P lender. No banks needed for loans sounds like music to most ears. That is exactly what Zopa does. It epitomizes the “value web” philosophy. Zopa is known to have lower default rates than traditional banks owing to Zopa’s superior customer 360 analytics and is perhaps one of the coolest examples of Analytics in FinTech.

Skinner though does a decent job or articulating his “value web” philosophy. But it could have been done in one chapter. It doesn’t need a book. The book seems like an unnecessary attempt to put something in print rather than adding something valuable to the discourse on bitcoin and blockchain.

My rating 3 / 5.

 

Review of “The Business Blockchain” by William Mougayar

The Business Blockchain by William Mougayar, is one of the most succinct books available on this topic. The “central” theme that runs through the book is “decentralization.” A pun is of course intended. 

The book is less about Bitcoin and more about the underlying and path breaking Blockchain technology, as it should be. I have read several books on this topic where the authors just ramble on to fill pages, not so with Mougayar. He keeps the discussion solely focused on the blockchain and the technological  revolution it is unleashing in every domain we can think of where trust is key. 

I enjoyed the way he created a simple yet powerful mnemonic aid for what the blockchain enables: ATOMIC.

A: Programmable Assets

T: Programmable Trust

O: Programmable Ownership 

M: Programmable Money 

I: Programmable Identity 

C: Programmable Contracts

I cannot think of a more elegant way of summarizing the applications of blockchain technology and those in the field would do well to remember it. Another exciting portion of the book is the analogy made with the dawn of the internet age. Those familiar with that era, I am sure would identify with what is ongoing with Blockchain and associated applications. The key difference may be in the number of startups. The underlying enthusiasm is eerily similar and palpable. 

Mougayar also proposes a functional building -block  style architecture for blockchain technologies. They include a core protocol, software development tools, off-chain and on-chain services, and end user products. The book is probably one of the best out there for startup leaders and other enthusiasts to read to get a great picture of blockchain based services and applications.

It’s a quick and worthwhile read. My rating is 4/5. 

Review of “The Bitcoin Guidebook”

This is one of my shortest reviews. The Bitcoin Guidebook by Ian DeMartino begins on a high but ends up being a damp squib. The first few chapters as usual discuss the evolution of bitcoin, where to get bitcoin, who runs it, and how the bitcoin derives value, and are marginally interesting. The book rapidly goes downhill from there. There is almost nothing in this book that you cannot get from reading a blog or an article from one of the leaders in the field. One of the weakest aspects is the lack of coherence between chapters, which is rapidly lost even when smartly bundled under key sections such as: how to invest and what the bitcoin can do. Each chapter of the later part of Section 1, Sections 2, 3, and 4, seem cobbled together haphazardly.

The highlight of the book for me was the discussion whether Bitcoin is “Pseudonymous” or “Anonymous.” The author goes into great detail about transaction mixing with some helpful charts, wallets, and services which anonymize transactions for users, etc. This was something I have not found in some of the other books on the bitcoin and was surely the high point of the book. The usual discussions about Mt. Gox and Silk Road were a snooze-fest.

My rating is 2.0 / 5.0 for a decent effort by a new author. I am sure his next books will be a lot better.

Review of “Age of Cryptocurrency”

A good book always begins well. We don’t have to wait for the good parts to come by. The age of Crypto Currency by Paul Vigna (who kindly acknowledged my tweet) and Michael Casey, begins with a great quote from Mandela who said : Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will.”  This is specially true for more than half of the world’s population in many parts of Asia, Africa, Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe, and even several areas of the developed world.  For all these people, the greatest excitement that cryptocurrency will hold is the elimination of middlemen from the value exchange equation. All they need is an internet connection (even a spotty one at that) and off they go—free at last. This is demonstrated with great examples from various regions of the world by Vigna and Casey. Afghan women, who previously could not even open bank accounts are now able to confidently earn money for the work they did in the form of bitcoins. Enterprising artists from Barbados are starting to using the bitcoin as a medium to be able to compete with artists from around the globe. The examples are endless and inspiring. I can imagine the euphoric feeling of these young entrepreneurs finally unshackled from the fiat currency regimes and this is captured well by the authors.

The authors use an example of buying a cup of coffee from a local vendor to illustrate the number of entities that are involved in making this seemingly innocuous transaction a success: 1) front-end processors, 2) accounting banks, 3) card associations, 4) card issuing banks, 5) payment processors, and so on. I think of myself as a relatively smart guy, but I never once thought of what goes on as I pay for my coffee each day. Around the world, such transactions fees are pegged at ~$250 Billion a year. Almost all of these fees to the middlemen / entities can be avoided using the bitcoin and the underlying technology. Isn’t that reason enough for us all to get behind some form of cryptocurrency? Bitcoin or Altcoin or whatever else that is perfected in a few years

The authors ease readers into some of the more technical stuff such as the mining process (including some cool flowcharts–for those visual learners), the 51% attacks, ASIC mining, Hashrates, and distributed networks, etc. [For those really interested in getting into the nitty-gritty, I recommend another good book “Mastering the Bitcoin” by Andreas Antonopoulos]. Vigna and Casey, however, keep the conversation focused on getting readers excited enough to read other books on the subject, but not turn them off with the gory details of the underlying code and mathematics. The authors rightfully note the transformational and truly disruptive nature of this technology. Ignorance about the technology may not be bliss. A great read—I highly recommend it. 4.5/5.0

 

Review of “Coined” by Kabir Sehgal

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Coined by Kabir Sehgal takes us through a journey of the history and future of the thing that makes the world go around–“Money.” Sehgal describes some of the interesting findings from the domain of Neuroeconomics about how the act of winning, losing, making, and donating money makes us feel. The history of money is described quite well, spanning from Egypt to Greece and some civilizations in between. The story of the Yap and their heavy limestones has become pretty standard on any book on money and it is to be found here as well. Some interesting equations about how money and its comparison as a token of energy that is exchanged for a symbiotic relationship is quite fascinating.

Sehgal also takes us through the “Metallist” and “Chartalist” camps about money. Interesting philosophies such as the Faustian bargain (in economic terms) are explained, where soft money is introduced backed by metal that may be mined later. As it always happens, as shown throughout history, it solves an immediate need and stabilizes economies, but has a downside later as the confidence in such money erodes in society. Quoting the author, “…soft money has demonstrated both great promise and peril.”

One of the very interesting aspects about the book is the journey we are taken on from money being something physical, to something with value, ultimately how it is connected with “Karma” and the soul. A sizable chapter is dedicated to religion and money and what money signifies in different religions. Is it something to pursue? Is it something that one should relinquish to reach a higher spiritual state? Such questions are discussed and obviously answers are to be found in most world religions.

Now, on to some of the clear misses and some criticisms about the book:

  1. The Bitcoin. A measly 4 pages is dedicated to this potential future form of money that the entire world could be using in a decade. I think if Sehgal was to release a second version of this book, he would be wise to add a tad more than 4 pages.
  2. Not much ink is devoted to Hinduism, which has treatises on money and economics. It is one of the few religions that actually says that earning money is an important aspect of the life of a human being and then renouncing it all at a later stage for spiritual attainment. Even the Vedas which were written around 1200BC had discussions about money and how it should be earned. Obviously focusing more on Hinduism and civilizations from Indian subcontinent aren’t going to sell books across the globe, given many in the rest of the world do not even know Hinduism exists (we are all imagined to be still riding elephants and charming snakes), so I see why that was glossed over.

A good read before you deep dive into all other aspects of money: 3.5/ 5.0