The JPG newsletter with my friend Tim as special guest: on Ascribe, jpegs, quadratic voting, and non-transferrable non-fungible tokens.
Get ready to learn about NFT prehistory, new tooling and quadratic voting from a very amazing mind :)
Little note before we start - I started this as a google doc based conversation, but then I got busy and left my guest Tim alone with the script, and when I came back to check out the progress, he had written the entire newsletter. So most of the newsletter’s gonna be in his voice, and at the end, you’ll get your usual alpha bits delivered by yours truly, María Paula.
Now, back to Tim:
Hey anon, are you in the mood for a historical guest lecture on long-forgotten blockchain artifacts? This week’s a little nerdier, we’re gonna dive deep into the bytecode to uncover the first scriptures you degens posted on-chain. With me today is my friend (& collaborator) Tim Daubenschütz (writes at timdaub.github.io) to talk about pre-NFT ascribe.io, blockchain games and alternative ownership ideas.
Ascribe and the attempt to resuscitate it:
Ascribe was an early attempt to couple art with blockchain-based certificates of authenticity, built on Bitcoin. Although Ascribe was “sunsetted” before NFTs started taking off, its company and founders are still around. Today, Masha & Trent Mcconaghy and Bruce Pon work on Ocean Protocol to make data ownable: in their own words, Ocean came from a logical conclusion drawn from asking the aged question if you can own art on the Bitcoin blockchain. Duh.
While some doubt you can (or want), ex-Ascribers continued working on distributing the vision. In a post titled, “ascribe for NFT Archaeologists”, and on podcasts, Trent goes on saying that Ascribe could be revived - but mentions that the original AWS S3 bucket containing all of the platform’s art works is gone.
Feeling challenged and inspired through a sense of nostalgia, when more and more retrospective Ascribe content came out recently, I started digging a bit to understand what remained.
See, Ascribe was early. Real early. It was so early that when looking at Trent’s shared company calendar, sometimes you could spot him having planned a morning coffee with Vitalik somewhere around Friedrichshain, Berlin. Ethereum (successfully) built towards Ascribe as a use case.
For us engineers, that meant working with radically different tools than are available today. So, Ascribe was built on Bitcoin around the time the block wars happened. And it didn’t yet use a browser-plugin wallet like Metamask.
Instead, by signing up via email and password, a hierarchical deterministic wallet was derived from the federation wallet; all ownership transactions were stored in an inventive protocol called SPOOL, the “Secure Public Online Ownership Ledger.” Similar to the well-known ERC721 NFT standard, the SPOOL encodes ownership information on-chain; but it was hell of a mess as Bitcoin really wasn’t meant for any of this.
What it also meant was that we were exclusively storing hashes on-chain. All meta data resided on our backends and so did the media blobs. And, hence, when Trent told the world that they had deleted the AWS S3 bucket containing all the art works - surely you can imagine how it felt having my heart drop.
Yes, strictly speaking, the ownership information is technically still there; on Bitcoin. But it’s all just garbled characters and hashes.
Feeling challenged by this sense of nostalgia, hearing about our old work, I looked into the archeological remains and found - in the process and with a former colleague (Alberto Granzotto) - “ascribed,” an effort to reverse engineer the old ascribe.
The possibilities, if we could just re-minting and re-transferring pieces! Would we be able to bridge and wrap old bitcoin NTFs onto Ethereum? I worked on it for a few days, and without much rigor - but I ended up concluding that it would become a rather tricky endeavor.
See, since most of the pieces’ metadata and media blobs have been deleted by the company, re-generating the keys - as Trent suggests - could imply having to brute-force-guess an art work’s metadata.
It is both a really awesome finding, as the original “NFT” registrations are still available on the Bitcoin blockchain and a dazzling task as none of the ex-backend engineers still know what exactly we did to generate those keys or how we created the art works’ hashes.
Tangentially, it’s a fascinating example of the mystery that is history. All though, we humans are continuously present in most parts of our history, still we end up having to piece together the puzzle of what truly happened in the past.
Similarly, although we were all awoke and present during the Ascribe days, and despite the “potential thousands” in value Ascribe’s pieces are worth today, we can’t seem to figure out how it all worked. And curious is also the newly-found irony that we may be forced to “mine back” old Ascribe art works through brute-force-guessing their metadata and hashes. Classic!
What happened after Ascribe shut down?
The company pivoted, it got real stressful and annoying: Out came BigchainDB - a (retrospectively) naive attempt at scaling blockchains through replacing Nakamoto consensus with MongoDB’s non-BFT database mechanism. I guess first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, right?
Well, it took our team three years to figure it out - but we ended up fixing it, which in my opinion was a huge (if not the biggest) technical achievement.
Looking back, it’s easy to mistake Ascribe as this shiny diamond of NFT innovation: “The prehistoric patented NFT builder heroes”. In reality though, most of us worked longer on trying to make BigchainDB work and all the messy human feelings that came with having to live up to the space’s immense expectations around scaling blockchains.
Then, when we started understanding tokens and re-pivoted the company to Ocean Protocol, I quit. Actually, I almost left the IP + technology space for good.
Years later, with ERC721’s emergence - but me being just a random freelancer, I felt betrayed. “Why the fuck would people think working on ‘non-fungible’ tokens was any useful?” I did some work on ERC721, felt frustrated about it not being possible to build a decentralized wallet and decided to ignore the space.
Instead, I co-founded a hacker collective, worked in a DAO to build Ethereum plasma, helped MP and the Department of Decentralization making ETHBerlin 2019 more fun by shipping an educational game about climate change and the externalities of capitalistic markets, called Planet A, and started writing a blog and paving my own path by building rugpullindex.
StrikeDAO: the quadratic voting app and performance that got “collected” by Germany
Note from the editor: the documentation for StrikeDAO is work in progress. In this newsletter, we wanted to explain how the tech side worked. Stay tuned for the full reports.
Then in 2021, MP and I met again to collaborate with artist, philosopher and essayist Hito Steyerl. That collaboration, still ongoing, resulted in a magnus opus: a quadratic voting app (strikedao.com) and the StrikeDAO performance/discussion that took place at studiobonn.io this past March.
For context: StrikeDAO is an online application implementing a new governance voting mechanism called quadratic voting as was suggested by Glen Weyl, E. Posner and S. Lalley through their published academic literature and their seminal book “Radical Markets”.
Although most of this post and my narration has been on non-fungible art, I think our project with Hito had little to do with that, or maybe it did…
Despite one NFT being generated as the outcome of the voting, the project was rather an attempt at reflecting what infrastructure the tech scene had built in the last years.
By collaborating closely with Hito and the Department of Decentralization for over a year, we found that for our project, minting NFTs was too CO2-intense. We also concluded that any blockchain integration would bloat the project’s budget & complexity immensely.
Although we had, at first, toyed with the idea of building a blockchain-based real estate gardening game, we ended up scrapping it in favor of developing an app idea supposedly solving the tyranny of the majority.
Hito had mentioned cutting her previous work STRIKE (2010), a 28 second clip, into the stills it was composed of, and then letting people vote with them.
While, I guess, we were initially rather confused by the idea, it started picking up steam once we continued familiarizing ourselves more with the concepts.
Similar as when voting for ideas with colored stickers during a brain stroming session, our users would vote with their strike cut-outs on a governance proposal submitted to the federally-funded German Bundeskunsthalle, which hosted “Studio Bonn '', the exhibition hall’s forum and live stream internet show.
Not only was the sense in all of it to show the benefits and problems of quadratic voting to an audience of 100 - it was also to gain practical experience with implementing and running a new form of governance. For a real institution, in a real forum and with an actual camera. Red means recording.
It’s hard to fully reflect on it all now: But I think it went well. We had a great show with an interesting panel and discussion. The app worked too. Everybody was happy and it felt like a great night.
Today, thanks to trying it, we understand the user experience problems of quadratic voting. And I’m stoked to see what else this collective will come up with in the future!
The future (and the past making a comeback): Soulbound tokens and Harberger taxes.
Yeah, I guess I’m back working on NFTs after all! Reading through “Radical Markets” during the preparation for StrikeDAO, I rediscovered Harberger taxes or “Partial common ownership”.
In a way, research and writing about it on my blog - I still see it as a continuation of my work on Ascribe. In 2015, when I had been challenged to think about building an ownership layer for artists and musicians - awaking from the partiality of private property as a hyper normalized societal construct - to this day, I still want us to be able to jailbreak.
And so working on Soulbound tokens or generally any type of new ownership experience, I find fascinating. If you want to follow my work, I publish a newsletter on Substack too. I also re-created my Twitter recently. My blog’s a great resource of it all; or for more interaction: join the Rug Pull Index Discord.
Thanks for reading!
MP’s Alpha Corner
While Tim has given all of us enough to think about, no JPG newsletter would be complete without some interesting bits from across the space, so here are the ones for this week:
I like Joan Cornellá’s dark humor, and although I don’t know what to think about an NFT drop, it exists, so you should check it out.
Friend of the House EDG dropped a fantastic artblocks - Mazinaw. Still Minting!
LIA, that took part of the NfTnEtArT show, dropped an artblocks collection - to the time of writing there were a few left to mint - check here, and in case you like their style, their previous collection, Drawing Machine, is still minting here.
I would actually have dedicated this whole newsletter to the NFT collection that I have been staring now for 24 hours straight, Frank, but I had Tim already writing, so I guess a meme themed newsletter of outrageously incredible pfp projects will come next. For now, admire Frank in all its glory here.
Dotcom Seance’s picking up steam again - also still minting (full disclosure, I do run the Twitter for fun and maybe every once in a while I get a free drink in return for my services)
Rafael Rozendaal’s on Artblocks with a new series, minting today
This Artwork Is Always on Sale is one of my favorite blockchain based pieces, by Simon de la Rouviere, and the v2 is closing today.
And if you are like me, out of ETH but want to keep learning:
Brian Droitcour woke up and chose drama and invited two of my favorite lawyer people, Primavera de Filippi and Brian Frye for a discussion on Outland. Just incredible.
Mitch Chan wrote an essay on Yves Klein’s zones, after minting NFTs and before that creating an ERC-20 inspired in his work, for the Sotheby’s auction of one of the zones