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Bitcoin Cash Split Talk Grows Ahead of August Code Freeze
Ahead of the November 2020 Bitcoin Cash (BCH) upgrade (a hard fork scheduled every six months) is a standard code freeze set for August 15, 2020. It allows for exchanges and those running the incumbent node implementation for BCH, Bitcoin ABC, enough time to square their software with what amounts to, at present, the coin's heart. The freeze, now only 11 days from the time of this publication, might be a tipping point in an eventual chain split possibly activated on November 15, 2020. Here's why.
David R. Allen moderated all three of the recent Future of Bitcoin Cash difficulty adjustment algorithm (DAA) dev meetings. Allen is mostly a background player in BCH circles, considered shadowy by some and a puppet master by others, but has come out of late to engage more as a public personality. Recently, he is often cited as a main catalyst for bringing otherwise social media online bickering developers together for professional dialog.
That August 3, 2020 dev DAA meeting, according to early reports, saw a subtle but important breakdown in the kind of professionalism Allen is seeking. At one point during the meeting (yet to be formally released online [EDIT: the full video is here, the clip referenced is here], lead developer for Bitcoin ABC, Amaury Séchet, apparently bowed out rather suddenly. Developers often rage quit or leave discussions, mostly to no avail. Séchet, however, is no regular dev when it comes to BCH. Many believe, even begrudgingly, it is Séchet who effectively controls the Bitcoin Cash protocol's short term fate.
In attendance at the August 3, 2020 DAA meeting was Josh Green of Bitcoin Verde (a BCH node from Software Verde), who explained to Coin Fugazi, "I actually didn't know Amaury had left until I finished my statement and offered to let Amaury get the last word in the discussion. David had muted him for interrupting me, which I assume played a role in him leaving. I saw later in one of the Telegram channels that Amaury admitted 'he quit' the meeting, so it wasn't a technical thing."
It's not immediately clear what prompted Séchet to abruptly leave. "Regarding context around the disagreement, he and I [(along with Josh Ellithorpe of BCHD and Bitcoin Cash Node lead maintainer Freetrader)] were talking about ABC making 'unilateral decisions about the protocol,' as per the agenda," Green continued. "[Séchet] was trying to defend the notion that the DAA workgroup [(a Telegram group with 70 members from across projects and implementations, mostly BCH developers, administrated by Shammah Chancellor, formerly of ABC, and ABC's Antony Zegers)] had discussed correcting historical drift. My point was it was not discussed, and more certainly, it was never ratified as a requirement. [Séchet] disagreed, and said it was discussed. While he's not technically wrong that the words 'historical drift' were said in the workgroup, deeming it a 'discussion' is fairly disingenuous. Anyway, at some point during my disagreement he left; that's all I know," Green explained.
Asked in a public Telegram group why he left, Séchet quipped, "I just left. People were insisting on rewriting history, so there was clearly no point continuing." It was enough to spook normally drama-adverse developers in the August 3, 2020 DAA meeting such as BCHD's Chris Pacia to tweet, "Bitcoin Cash developer meeting blew up with multiple people walking out." It is unclear as of publication who else left the meeting.
That in turn prompted Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin's comment to Pacia's tweet, "I don't understand [why] BCH people care so much about difficulty adjustment minutiae.... I would say 'just use [Ethereum's]' but honestly your algo is fine as is......" It led to a brief public exchange between Buterin and BCH developers, with Buterin stymied by so much strife over a seemingly technical issue.
"But why do people care about compensating for historical drift?," Buterin also asked. "Seems like a tiny problem and if it's causing this much social discord it seems not even worth bothering to try to fix." He further remarked, "I will be honest; being optimistic that BCH development would improve once they got [Craig Wright] out definitely is looking like one of my worse predictions," referencing the November 2018 contentious hard fork and subsequent hash war that ended in a BCH split.
"It's like [Trump]," Buterin continued. "A crazy guy alone is just a crazy guy, but a crazy guy who gets into and for some time successfully maintains a position of power is indicative of broader problems that really need to be addressed," later clarifying, "In this case I clearly mean [Craig Wright]." Buterin has been known to be a cheerleader for Bitcoin Cash in the past, and his considerable respect within the cryptocurrency ecosystem means a thumb's up or down can turn opinion. Clearly he's keeping watch on its development.
Back in early February of this year, Buterin chimed-in on the Infrastructure Funding Plan (IFP) and the debate then raging within the BCH community. And present talk of a BCH split has its immediate roots in the IFP. The IFP's most controversial proposal was for hard-coding redirection of mining coinbase rewards, from 2%-3% to 5% to as high as 12.5%, depending on the iteration put forward by mining pools or ABC, toward an eventual whitelist of recipients chosen by a trusted handful of gatekeepers with funds held by a to-be-determined corporation (in at least one version of the IFP).
Buterin back then referred to the IFP as a compulsory soft fork comparable to a Zcash-like funding arrangement. “It’s worth noting the irony here,” Buterin explained months ago, “BCH, a chain that was born as a reaction to an ideology that claims that soft forks are the only legitimate way to make changes because they are ‘voluntary’ is…. making a controversial soft fork and insinuating that it’s voluntary,” referencing notorious battles within BTC which eventually gave way to BCH back in mid-2017."
He also called the IFP a soft fork and a “natural extension of existing BCH ideology, specifically ‘the market for consensus,'” where “miners should be proposing different consensus rules and trying to enforce them by forking off non-compliant blocks, and this will naturally stabilize toward consensus rules that the majority is okay with," Buterin explained provocatively in February. He did also wonder aloud about a “nasty equilibria and could easily lead to entrenched interests," and yet applauded “cypherpunks taking public goods challenges seriously.” He stressed back in February that for the IFP (which eventually ended in defeat for proponents), “Now the key challenge is governance.” Buterin stressed then how, "Public goods problems are not a one-time emergency, they are a systematic problem that requires a systematic solution. And that requires credibly neutral governance that people can accept for the long term.”
Pointed to the finer technical issues of the now very heated DAA debate, which can be boiled down to developer Jonathan Toomim's ASERT (seemingly embraced by BCHN and its allies) versus Séchet's Grasberg, Buterin described ASERT as looking "clever and cool. As I said I don't actually think the difference between ASERT and, say, [Ethereum] DAA or any competent algo matters much, but if ASERT is already the dominant candidate then seems like common sense to just deploy it," immediately calling into question how to determine a "dominant candidate."
Buterin also examined Grasberg, explaining he is "sympathetic to the arguments in" Séchet's proposal on the score "that floating point math is evil.... but ASERT already addresses that in section 2.2, no?," which led to another round of technical assertions and still more debate: all of which goes to Buterin's IFP warning about governance plaguing BCH and being the 800 pound gorilla in the room.
Depending upon who is crafting the narrative, talk of a split cannot be so easily pinned down on a particular camp. For sure, those supporting Bitcoin ABC and its view of governance and consensus have popularized a Bitcoin Cash split inevitability of late. Searching public records, however, within the recent strain of split talk, investor Marc De Mesel appeared to champion the concept as early as late February of this year in response to the IFP debate at the time.
In a video slightly over 14 minutes long, De Mesel details what a split would look like, how it might come to pass, and what the potential risks and rewards might be, including that of a viable alternative BCH coin free of ABC influence. That's significant because De Mesel has become an activist, a partisan in the debate, helping to fund projects like Read.cash, Bitcoin Cash Node (BCHN), vocally opposing all things Séchet and ABC.
Arguably the first to take a coming contentious hard fork seriously in this latest riff from the pro-ABC side (less anti, anyway) was developer Vin Armani (see embed, above). Titled A Message To The Leaders Of The Coming Bitcoin Cash Fork and released in late June, Armani urged an amicable hard fork into two chains. He emphasized it happening by the November 2020 upgrade to avoid more ultimate damage to what he is sure will be two separate chains eventually, ABC and BCHN.
Armani implored the likes of BCHN and ABC to acknowledge a split was going to happen. For its part, at least publicly, BCHN and its leadership has maintained a strict "no split" policy. Prominent BCHN supporter John Nieri (emergent_reasons), for example, tweeted in response to growing split talk after the August 3, 2o20 DAA meeting, "No bullshit. No split. Why not both." That has, again, been the consistent policy of BCHN and its proponents from the start of their node, and related projects, to compete with ABC.
More than a few on the BCHN side of the debate maintain it is ABC desiring a split, a somewhat final shaking-off of detractors in the West, those who ABC feels are either not supportive or downright hostile. Séchet has for years sounded the alarm about infrastructure funding, and perhaps took the IFP opportunity, as put forward by influential mining pool ViaBTC founder and longtime BCH supporter Jiang Zhuoer back in January, to make a final Game Theory-inspired push: he'd either succeed and get protocol funding once and for all and/or render those opposing ABC impotent.
When public support for the IFP collapsed, and, weeks later, after Toomim's ASERT made its case, Séchet and ABC responded to lingering concerns about the inherited DAA being gamed by miners, causing Bitcoin Cash hash power to oscillate and theoretical Proof-of-Work (PoW) security to routinely be diminished. Back and forth Séchet and Toomim went on social media and in developer meetings with the only public sign of ABC compromising, thus far, on some technical Grasberg calculations, but as of publication neither side appears to be moving off of their respective DAA positions.
In fact, sides are hardening. ABC proponents, anecdotally smaller in number with regard to community support, have pronounced a coming split's foregone conclusion (if not by November of 2020, certainly by May of 2021), citing the BCHN side's dislike of Séchet's methods and tactics which, ABC supporters claim, borders on a dispute mostly over personality conflicts. Certainly there is no love lost between Séchet and the BCHN crowd, but the BCHN contingent seems to be more concerned with governance and how decisions are made at the protocol level.
Séchet acknowledges this at times without conceding to the overall BCHN argument. "Do you want an iPhone or do you want Joe Biden?," he asked recently. "That's the difference between a vision driven product and a democratically driven product," Séchet argued after cheekily asking, "Can we have a list of people we need to have permission from to develop on this [permission-less] system?" Séchet's opinion on the IFP also highlighted these contentions, often stressing how miners, mining pools, and protocol developers have much to offer when market incentives are aligned. Appeals to "community" for Séchet are too abstract and too Trojan-horse like.
Those types of remarks contrast perfectly with Toomim's latest appraisal of Séchet and ABC, especially in, Dark secrets of the Grasberg DAA. Toomim outlines technical and economic reasons for opposing Grasberg, saving his most cutting rejoinder for the governance portion. Toomim sets Séchet and ABC as dictatorial incumbents more concerned with holding onto power than improving Bitcoin Cash, blinded by old battles and a desire for clout.
In Grasberg, Toomim sees ABC favoring longtime holders of BCH over those who enter the BCH community at a later date, pointing to an altering of the coin emission schedule under Séchet's DAA as effectively "changing the distribution of wealth." Grasberg might be more sinister still, Toomim insisted, luring support by appealing to the basest of instincts, as "then they might be interested in seeing a reduction in issuance to give them a short-term boost in their investment's value and make it easier for them to cash out" over what is good for users' experience ... under the guise of fixing the widely acknowledged flawed, inherited DAA.
With those accusations made, Toomim pivots into governance, using phrases such as "Bitcoin is supposed to be" a certain way, as he sees it, and "Bitcoin's rules need to be kept fair and economically consistent. We should not allow changes to Bitcoin Cash's economic policy that take from future users to enrich the present ones," he explained. "There is no coming back from this for Bitcoin ABC as an organization. This is the end-of-life for Bitcoin ABC." Toomim then goes on to propose a series of steps to end ABC's reign as a dominant implementation and to effectively end Séchet's tenure altogether. He did not, however, argue for a split in so many words.
Still, a split does seem a lot more likely than it did just weeks ago. Such gamesmanship among Bitcoin Cash devs and thought leaders has also brought out concerns from Bitcoin.com CEO Dennis Jarvis. "This is very sad to hear," Jarvis lamented, "and I hope everyone can come back together to work on the future roadmap. There are no good outcomes from forking/splitting for anyone who believes in the long-term value and usefulness of Bitcoin Cash." And while many are sympathetic to Jarvis' worries, not everyone holds his ultimate opinion. All eyes now turn to the ABC August 15, 2020 code freeze in anticipation of the November 15, 2020 Bitcoin Cash upgrade.