Vitalik spotted naked on sanctioned luxury yacht! Or the birth of crypto gossip as a new genre.
We read Laura Shin's Cryptopians with the same mix of relish and guilt we get from reading the New York Post or the Daily Mail. With a movie set to follow, are we seeing the birth of a new genre?
Nothing like some good old goss
Lady Roosevelt apocryphally said that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people” but she reportedly relished the occasional good gossip herself.
Presumably, Laura Shin’s recent book The Cryptopians: Idealism, Greed, Lies, and the Making of the First Big Cryptocurrency Craze1 will have been read by many a great mind who stood at the cradle of Ethereum or who have joined the community since.
However it contributes disappointingly little to the ideas that are foundational to Ethereum’s creation and which are still very much part of the debate on its future, such as the painful trade-offs between decentralization, security and scalability.
I was privy to the turbulent early days and fierce intellectual debate around the time of Ethereum’s mainnet launch and the period after, between 2015 and 2018 when I lived in Singapore.
At the time, Ethereum’s key protagonists travelled like a troubadour band of artists (some still do!) who I would often host when they passed through town.
Intellectually, my Ethereum journey kicked off in earnest with Gavin Wood’s March 2015 lecture in Singapore. Him contrasting Web2 with what is now generally referred to as Web3 made the shells fall off my eyes and see the promise of decentralization and Ethereum’s role in it.
I am not sure if Laura’s book, which paints Gavin as a brilliant mind but a flawed character, pays justice to his seminal contribution to Ethereum’s early codebase.
Genius at work
In that period Gavin and Vitalik (“V”) still tried to coincide when traveling so they were often in Singapore at the same time.
As the community was still so small and the core Ethereum crowd still very accessible, we made it a habit of hanging out.
During the day, V typically dropped by my office to work from a black Chromebook he produced from a small bag embroidered with a cat face which matched his cat-faced plastic wrist watch - who said geniuses don’t have fashion sense?
When in my office or visiting at home, I often heard him mumble about sharding whilst making quasi-spastic gestures when he got excited about a particular streak of thought.
Every time we met, often over food at hawker stalls or dim sum from Din Tai Fung, we talked use cases for Ethereum or just laughed a lot with absurdities.
To get him residency in Singapore, V used my then home address and in October 2016 he asked my help to set up a Foundation in Singapore called Ethereum Asia Pacific Limited, mentioned by Laura in her book, of which I became the first Director.2
In this context, we worked on financial projections and headcount for the Foundation which back then wasn’t rich.
I had no doubt that V’s prime motive for this second Foundation setup was that he was looking for ways to put the Ethereum research effort on a firmer financial footing, rather than become a despot with all power concentrated in his hands.
With this in mind, we commenced a genuine funding campaign for Ethereum Asia Pacific, actively scheduling meetings and going cap in hand to a lot of people who strung us along promising funding but who never came over the bridge.
The early meetups
When V was in town, we also organized events with him speaking for a group of maybe 20 or 30 Ethereum community members, which is rather unimaginable today.
These early meet-ups were a fever cabin of excitement about being part of something truly new.
They were often followed by drinks and on one occasion we even managed to drag V out to a cocktail party - I suspect his first and last! The rest of the team drank a lot but I don’t recall seeing him touch alcohol.
As a piquant fait divers, one of the early attendants to the meetups was Toby Hoenish who in summer 2017 went on to raise around US$ 80 million in an ICO for his then company TenX, had earlier caped away first prize at a blockchain contest organized by DBS Bank in Singapore, and who Laura in February this year unmasked as the alleged hacker of TheDAO, coinciding with the launch of her book.
I kept a screenshot of a WhatsApp group from May 2016 in which Toby mocks slock.it’s security. This in itself doesn’t prove guilt but he was technical enough to pull off the hack.
Composing whilst playing billiards
There’s a scene in Amadeus (a movie about genius vs. mediocrity rather than about Mozart himself) where Mozart composes whilst playing billards. When asked to show a score for an opera he was commissioned, he tells his paymasters that “It’s all in the head, I just need to write it down”.
What astonishes me most about V is how amidst the incessant travel, the packed schedule of meetings during the day and meetups in the evenings, he manages to think and write.
If it is a sign of genius that it synthesizes everything that came before it at warp speed and propels it into entirely new directions, the way Picasso did with painting or Mozart with music, then V is in the same league.
I hope one day somebody will bundle all his writings into “The Complete Works” as there are rough diamonds and fully cut intellectual jewels in there that could keep humanity busy for centuries to come.
People sometimes fail to recognize that V gave us more than Ethereum. His writings planted the seed for so many other radically new things, from DAOs to Automated Market Makers to NFTs. Each of these has lead to unprecedented waves of innovation and billions of value creation.
I hope he continues to find the mental space to write and doesn’t exhaust himself by his thirties, like Schubert or Mozart.
Don’t drag me down
Despite V’s occasional complaints about Zug and the strictures of running a Foundation from Switzerland (“who wants to spend time in Zug”), I never got a real sense of how bad the internal dynamics within the Ethereum founder team were around that time. I basically learned it from Laura’s book.
Only during Ethereum’s devcon two conference in Shanghai in September 2016 did I get a first inkling of the toxicity and did I witness the antics of Ming Chan as the Foundation’s then Exective Director.
I recall how at a small dinner at the conference Ming only talked about people and seemed to politicize everything.
I do think Ming’s protectiveness towards V was well intentioned, however she came with too much baggage and turned possessive. Whether this deserves the salvos of ad hominem attacks in Laura’s book I am not so sure.
Be it as it may, I remember thinking what a waste it was to see V as an ideas person being dragged down into people issues. He didn’t look happy at the time and though I like to think I helped him personally in matters Singapore, despite overtures I stayed well clear of the Swiss Foundation and Ming.
Otonomos under attack
Looking back, perhaps I could have reached out more on a human level.
Rather it was V who revealed his human side when he came to visit me at my home in September 2017 after Otonomos had fallen victim to a coup by bad-actor VCs who tried to wrestle control of the company from me, shenanigans I posted about tick-by-tick in late 2017 and early 2018 on Otonomos’ Medium.
Shortly after, in early 2018, crypto entered a long winter which I used to gradually rebuild Otonomos after I had to sue to get the bad actor investors off the company’s captable, however out of pure spite they pushed the Singapore company into liquidation.
My legal action however allowed me to rescue the brand and the domain name. Otonomos was soon after relaunched from the U.S. and I moved myself and my family to the West Coast, and the business is now doing better than ever.
Only in May 2018 did V and some of the other early Ethereum crowd including Alex Van De Sande and I meet again on the occasion of the EDCON conference in Toronto.
By that time V was surrounded by a small group of acolytes including Thomas Greco, who Laura paints as a dark prince in later chapters of her book.
The Toronto conference was also an occasion to re-connect with V’s dad who is as hilarious as he is profound.
Towards escape velocity from the Nation State
At the time off the Toronto get-together, I was touting the idea for an “Etherland” (then called Ethscape), an early vision of a digital sovereign nation on blockchain as an iteration on Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof’s BitNation, however the idea was precocious in its use of a citizen token and more generally died from neglect since Otonomos demanded all my attention.
I occasionally revisited the idea, for instance in an Otonomist blog post from January 2021, and am very happy that the dream of a “network nation” remains very much alive within the Ethereum community, with some projects such as Nation3 and to some extent Proof of Humanity’s Universal Basic Income idea taking over the baton where Etherland dropped it.
And now a new book by Balaji Srinivasan called the Network State is due for release in July this year.
Knowing Balaji it will no doubt be brimming with ideas rather than gossip!
The author is Founder and Chief Enabling Officer (CEO) at otonomos.com and Lead at otoco.io.
> Connect with Han on Telegram @otonomos
Pages 248, 254, 278, 327 and 329 of the first American edition of the book (February 2022).