Blockchain Technology Explained

Author: Alan T. Norman


Publisher: self-published, Alan T. Norman

Published in December 2017, Alan T. Norman’s latest book on the technology goes a lot deeper than many of these introductory texts. At 126 pages it simply has more depth and because Norman has written separate books on investing in digital currency and other areas of software development he has a deeper body of work on which to draw.

As one example of that depth, he actually goes into detail on the specific problems faced by organising financial services online, which BitCoin solves and the technical aspects of that solution. Put simply, the double spend problem is ensuring that money is only spent once and the solution is to combine the power of file sharing technology to ensure that information is widely distributed and always available with encryption to ensure that the distributed information is secure and accurate.

He builds that picture piece by piece using simple business english, with enough examples that most readers will get the picture, without being buried in technical detail.

He moves through the blockchain, BitCoin, other digital currencies and their uses and applications, distributed apps and the application of all this technology in corporations, software development and governance.

He breaks down the hype around the blockchain and distributed apps to paint a realistic picture of its implementation and how it will roll out in our everyday life.

Norman also goes into sufficient detail about the operation of the technology to explain why it is secure and how it works. These explanations are readable and straightforward without being dumbed down and over-simplistic.

For example his explanation about the use of cryptography in the blockchain is titled A Deep Dive on How Blockchain Hashing Works

He opens the chapter with the observation,

“This chapter is here by popular demand from reader comments. It’s a deep dive into how hashing works. This is going to get very technical, and you don’t have to read this section in order to understand the basics of blockchain.”

He then launches into a good, high level explanation of the idea of hashing (creating a code that proves online data has not been tampered with) and then, in the next section, how it is used in the blockchain. Once he has explained it as simply as possible he observes,

“I’ve been defining mining difficulty by the number of leading zeroes a successful hash needs to have, since it’s an easy visual way to understand mining difficulty. The truth is more complicated and variable.”

In this way, he builds up a complex understanding at the depth required by the reader. As soon as you get bored with the level of detail provided you jump to the next heading. By the end of that particular chapter, he has explained the SHA-256 hashing algorithm in sufficient detail that you could actually map it out and write the code required to perform it. Most readers will skip over some part of it, but it is great to be able to delve into it at your level of interest.

His discussion of the limitations of BitCoin as an active currency is honest and important. With gateway providers, such as Stripe, dropping support for BitCoin it is imperative that people considering the business applications of these technologies understand the thinking behind it. In a nutshell, that limitation is the time it takes to authorise a transaction on the blockchain. At many minutes that authorisation time is well outside the instant payment systems that we have become used to online rendering Bitcoin on its own useless as a medium for transaction in most ecommerce applications.

Norman outlines some of the approaches that are being taken to develop solutions to these teething problems but points out that the technology is not ready to sweep the world in quite the way that some of the marketing hype (and some of the less considered books available) suggest.

In summary, this is a nice combination of a low priced, self-published book and a reasonable depth of information. At the time of writing it was $US1.02 for the Kindle edition and $US9.95 for the paperback. That being said, the book is not as well produced as those from more established publishers. The ability to navigate through the book is limited to the basic functions of the Kindle application on which you are reading it. The layout is basic, there are no footnotes or references in the text and the presentation of headings and lists is primitive.

These are small sacrifices for the price saving if that matters to you.

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