All posts by hephaist0s

My Trezor

Originally slated for the end of 2013, the release of the Trezor hardware wallet has been postponed for several months. Delays like this are familiar in the Bitcoin world, but unlike preorders for mining equipment where delays destroy the profitability of the gear and leave customers feeling abused, waiting for the Trezors didn’t cost customers anything other than patience. If anything, it’s been reassuring to know how hard Stick and Slush have been working to refine the security of this first-of-its-kind device.

For me, the wait has been eight months. And it ended today.

Even the box is tiny.
Even the box is tiny.
It comes with stuff.
It comes with stuff.

The Trezor is a device which looks ahead and tries to solve a problem that casual bitcoin users may not even have realized yet. Sure, bitcoin is powerful and flexible and fast, and lets users maintain control of their own money to an unprecedented degree, but it is vulnerable to the kinds of things that personal computers are susceptible to: viruses and malware at the point of the end user. It doesn’t matter how secure and unbreakable the blockchain is if your roommate or your kid accidentally installs a keylogger on your computer. And unfortunately, unlike currencies supported by banks and credit cards, if a hacker vaccuums up your bitcoin there is no recourse, no one to complain to who can fix it for you. It’s just gone.

“Trezor” means “safe” or “vault” in Czech, and it’s designed to keep your private key safe on the device, and theoretically unhackable. When connected to a computer via USB it springs to life and is able to sign transactions initiated on the computer, but it does not share the key with the computer.  The idea is that one could use the Trezor on any computer, even an untrusted one — even an infected one — without compromising the user’s private key, or bitcoin.

The aluminum version is beautiful and feels like quality: solid, rigid and feather-light at the same time.  The manual gently informs us that it is not actually waterproof or indestructible, which is a great reminder to at least take prudent care since the little guy feels like he could take a hammer attack.

Trezor_front_detail

Trezor_back_03

After installing a browser plugin and connecting the device with the micro USB cable, the website MyTrezor.com leads the user through the simple setup process. The Trezor screen displays a 12 word seed one word at a time, prompting the user to write them down in the included booklet, then repeats the sequence again so you can double-check each word. This seed is your one and only “backup” from which your wallet can be reconstructed, either in a Trezor or another wallet which supports BIP32 deterministic wallets.

If you create a PIN, you get to use the Trezor’s nifty PIN system which displays a grid of nine numbers on the screen, the order of which changes with each use. The PIN is then entered on the computer screen onto a blank grid by clicking the button which corresponds to the number position displayed on the device, making the PIN immune to keyloggers, as well as invisible to people watching your computer screen — as long as you keep the tiny grid on the Trezor itself hidden.

Nifty!
Nifty!

Trezor_PIN

Once you’re set up and have loaded the Trezor with some bitcoin, sending is as easy as initiating the transaction on your computer, then confirming it on the Trezor by pressing one of the two buttons. The destination address pops up on the Trezor screen so you can verify that it’s going to the right place.

Inside this slim device and behind its simple interface is a lot of serious cryptographic voodoo.

The only minor disappointment is the device’s current reliance on the MyTrezor.com website. I believe the team originally hoped that the Trezor would launch with support from major bitcoin wallets, but when that didn’t materialize in time they came up with the solution of creating the MyTrezor web wallet. MyTrezor works well and has a clean design, it will just be nice if other platforms step up and offer support so there are more options.

I already love my Trezor, if only for its delightful bleeding-edge obscurity, a stunningly specialized piece of hardware that’s difficult to even explain to people who aren’t Bitcoin hardcore. It’s challenging to even show to your friends, since it has no battery and thus when it’s not connected to a computer its screen will always be stubbornly dark. You can’t show them your balance, or really do anything other than tell them that it really does work.

It’s so secure, it’s hard to even prove that it even exists.

Thin.
Thin.
Micro USB port.
Micro USB port.

Trezor_corner

Don't forget the lanyard!
Don’t forget the lanyard!
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DIY

Silver Wallets aren’t the first physical bitcoin kits that have been made, but they are the most beautiful. One ounce of silver in coin form, the  front features an elegant Bitcoin “B” overlaying an image of the world.  It’s the reverse that really wins me over, though,  with the simple, bold, all-caps “Silver Wallets” in raised letters around where the hologram goes. It’s so simple, yet so satisfying.

Each coin comes with three holograms, so you could spend from one of these and then start over and re-assemble later, which is a nice touch. Since there is no denomination on the coin, it’s entirely a matter of personal preference,  and style. Generate a private key, print the QR code to fit the half-inch square on the back of the coin, then seal it in and set aside some long-term savings that happens to be great to look at.

Obverse: Bitcoin rampant over the continents of Earth and a digital sea.
Obverse: Bitcoin rampant over the continents of Earth and a digital sea.
Reverse: QR code in place, ready for hologram application.
Reverse: QR code in place (face-down), ready for hologram application.
QED DIY.
QED DIY.
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A package from Mr. Gao

I received a sample set of Avalon generation-3 chips today, something which I felt both delighted and slightly guilty about. They were giving them away for free on the Avalon website, but obviously they were meant for developers. It’s hard to resist free, though.

They’re only 1/4-inch across,  20 tiny, feather-light chips in a little plastic box, bundled in bubble wrap, each one designated A3233-Q48 and capable of 7 GH/s each at 5.3 watts, according to the official specs.

But they needed a home, so I messaged marto74 of Technobit.eu to see how his new Avalon generation-3 board was coming along and if he’d take my chips. He said he hadn’t been able to test his design yet, as he hadn’t received his own sample chips yet, so my next stop was at the UPS store to arrange fast shipment to Bulgaria. Hopefully my chips will get there quickly and be of some use. I would be very glad to have helped in some small way with the development of a new mining board.

The A3233s, resting briefly in between Beijing and Sofia.
The A3233s, resting briefly in between Beijing and Sofia.
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OneStringMagic

Amid the push for 3rd-generation ASIC bitcoin miners, intron and c-scape went back to BitFury’s gen-2 chips and designed a board that used those chips in a new configuration which is so energy efficient it might make them relevant even into gen-3.

The OneStringMiner boards use 15 BitFury chips to produce 30+ GH/s at right around 1W/GH/s. They run so cool that one doesn’t necessarily need a heatsink, although if you get the kit it includes both heatsink and fan.

Shipped from the Netherlands, the kit is delightful in its completeness and includes all the little things one needs such as standoffs, nuts, wires for powering multiple boards together, tiny zip ties and a USB cable.  Being spared the chore of hunting around for some trivial part is a welcome relief.

Excellent kit!
Excellent kit!

I don’t truly understand the voodoo by which gen-3 performance is casually produced from chips that came out last year, but according to a post by intron it’s made possible because BitFury built a “string” feature into the chips which allows them to be strung together in series which results in lower current usage. That’s fantastic, but it does make you wonder why no one took advantage of this before.

Mine runs smoothly on cgminer, red light blinking happily, and it’s as quiet as whatever airflow setup I choose.

OneStringMiner up and running.
OneStringMiner up and running.
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Little devils

It was only last year that Casascius started making .5 BTC pieces in order to adjust for the skyrocketing exchange rate and still have a physical bitcoin that would be affordable. Then, just a few months later, Casascius, Lealana and bhCoins released .1 BTC denominations, but again, it made sense against the ever-increasing price of bitcoin.

Now MicroSoul has a .01 BTC coin. That’s one-one hundredth of a bitcoin, a bit-penny coin.  At first that seems like such a minor sum, but that’s only because my brain is inflexible and slow to adapt.  After all, at this moment a bit-penny is worth roughly 6 bucks, and if someone handed me a brand-new six dollar coin, I’d be delighted.

MicroSoul .01 BTC reverse.
MicroSoul .01 BTC reverse.

And, of course, I am.  While the design is straightforward and Casascius-esque, the gold plating makes the coins glow, and the small devil icon beside the “B” marks these as being extra-fun.

In terms of accountability and security, the creator (Matthew Rodbourne) has posted his identity online, states that the keys are generated by an offline Raspberry Pi and are only handled by either himself or his wife. They ship from France.

I opened one up, and the teeny-tiny key imported easily.

Key smudged out for your protection. It's actually quite legible.
Key smudged out for your protection. It’s actually quite legible.

Standard disclaimer: It’s always, to some degree, a bad idea to let anyone else have access to a private key which controls any of your bitcoin wallets; in a sense, it goes counter to the bitcoin system itself. Once someone else has handled the key which controls your funds, you have to trust both that they exercised adequate security procedures while handling your key, and that they have not save copies of your key to exploit at some point in the unforeseen future. While some  (such as Mike Caldwell of Casascius) have established trusted reputations, newer operators can only prove their trustworthiness over time.

 

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Mr. Pig

Where Bitcoin meets art, there’s Matthew Groves of California.  Paper wallets made from artisan papers by skilled hands, the black magic of BIP38 makes it possible: you don’t have to entrust him with your key, just your encrypted key.

There be dragons here.
There be dragons here.

His dragon paper wallet is fairly stunning, but the intricately folded origami pig (with the key folded into the inside) makes me giggle every time I look at him.

Just think of it. It’s a piggy bank which is nothing like a piggy bank, yet works exactly like a piggy bank. It’s not ceramic, it doesn’t hold pieces of metal inside, you don’t have to break it; and yet, it is a darling pig, it does hold coins inside, and you do have to unfold it to redeem it. It’s cute, it’s a great piece of origami, and it’s conceptually brilliant.

That makes it art.

And again, since you generated your own BIP38 encrypted key, the trust required is near zero; if you saved a copy of your encrypted key (as you should), then there is no reason at all not to enjoy this piece of pig-bitcoin-art.

 

He's a good pig.
He’s a good pig.
There also be an elk here.
There also be an elk here.

 

 

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Made with lasers

I just received these half-bitcoin and one-bitcoin physical pieces from NolaCoin in Louisiana, and they are beautiful.

They’re brass at heart, plated into different colors with a striking mirror finish. The half-bitcoin piece is a delicate rose gold/coppery color, and the one-bitcoin piece is nickel-plated to a lustrous silver. But beyond their beauty, they have several innovations over other physical bitcoin designs.

While most other designs hide the private key on an insert which is held behind a hologram sticker on the back of the coin, these have both the public address and private key etched into the metal of the coin with a 10 watt laser (according to the creator’s post here). The public address is readily visible on the front, and the private key is hidden on the back.

One-bitcoin piece, obverse.
One-bitcoin piece, obverse.
Half-bitcoin piece, reverse.
Half-bitcoin piece, reverse.

This is great not only because it makes the public address readily available for verifying the balance, but also because of the relative indelibility of the etching; if a more traditional key-printed-on-insert physical bitcoin gets caught in a fire or other calamity, it’s only as tough as whatever material the key is printed on, but with these the key is as tough as the metal of the coin.

It’s even greater that the hidden private key is not just presented as an alphanumeric string, but also as a QR code which is likewise etched into the metal and entirely scannable. Typing in letters and numbers is for suckers!

Because someone had to do it, I opened one up to see how it worked.  There are essentially three parts to the security over the key: a plastic film, a scratch-off hologram, and a gold ring sticker around the edge.

The gold ring overlaps the scratch-off hologram, making it more difficult to tamper with the hologram in the center. Once you’ve scratched off the hologram, you can make out the characters of the key, but there is an additional layer of plastic film still over the metal. Upon removing that, there was a fair amount of sticky residue which kept the QR code from scanning in, but a little rubbing with soap and warm water got the surface cleared away down to the mirror finish, and at that point I scanned the key into Mycelium easily.

This is a great design, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Opening the coin.
Opening the coin.
Leftovers.
Leftovers.
Residue makes it difficult to read the key at first.
Residue makes it difficult to read the key at first.
Cleans up beautifully and scans easily.
Cleans up beautifully and scans easily.

 Update: Arash Dini, the coins’ creator, explained to me that contrast on the QR-code etching on the nickel-plated coins is sharper and more likely to scan first-time, and though I haven’t opened one of those up yet, that certainly makes sense, as you can see the difference in the lettering on the front. He also said that if you leave the flash on your smartphone on, the reflection will help the scanning. In other words, it should be possible to scan the QR code just by scratching off the hologram, but without the (very minor) hassle of removing the final layer of plastic film and cleaning residue off the coin.

Standard disclaimer: It’s always, to some degree, a bad idea to let anyone else have access to a private key which controls any of your bitcoin wallets; in a sense, it goes counter to the bitcoin system itself. Once someone else has handled the key which controls your funds, you have to trust both that they exercised adequate security procedures while handling your key, and that they have not save copies of your key to exploit at some point in the unforeseen future. While some  (such as Mike Caldwell of Casascius) have established trusted reputations, newer operators can only prove their trustworthiness over time.

 

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From Shenzhen with love

The BTMiner is a rough machine, and it’s already had a rough life. Forged in the backrooms of Shenzhen and then slung around the world in 4 days to reach me, it arrived with three big, fat screws just rolling around loose in the box.

All the screws holding the blades in place had been working their way loose and the blades were barely attached, knocking against each other as they tried to break free.

When I started it up, it made a horrific sound, like a machine gunner being electrocuted, but it was just the end of a zip tie turturing one of the turbine-strength fans.

Screws tightened and zip tie trimmed,  it started right up and configured in seconds, and was soon hammering away somewhere around ~215Gh/s.

Shiny enough to see your reflection.
Shiny enough to see your reflection.
The most horrible sound in the world.
The most horrible sound in the world.
BTMiner_ui_cropped
Success!

BTMiner_endview_on

The interface is the same as a first generation 110nm Avalon, but with an “Avalon Chip” field under “Cgminer Configuration” preselected to the new 55nm size. The whole machine is  a direct descendent of a 110nm Avalon: a TP-Link running things with OpenWRT, horizontal blades with hefty heatsinks, fans pushing the air over them in a big aluminum box. This was made easier when Avalon designed their second generation chips to be essentially backwards-compatible, so the same designs could be used over.

After the delays with their later batches and subsequent outrage from those who ordered, it’s understandable why Avalon wanted to get out of the hardware business and hand the messy details of power supplies, cases, assembly and deliver off to others. The BTMiner suffers a bit in translation, though. The case is a thinner aluminum,  and the screws feel on the verge of stripping after taking the side off just once. The dual power supply design (one for each blade) is unusual and results in cords coming out both ends, but it’s handy for distributing the power across different household circuits if you find yourself tripping breakers. The whole thing feels hastily banged together,  but as long as it works, that’s just fine.

Roughly the size of a 4-blade Avalon, the design is closer to an Avalon Mini, two blades with heatsinks facing each other to make a sort of wind tunnel. There are just two fans, one at either end of the tunnel, pushing the air through with a  vengeance and a fierce whine.

BTMine took a few orders in December and once those were confirmed to have arrived in people’s hands, they took more orders. The units weren’t in-stock as they said, and mine took about a week to get manufactured and out the door, and in the process the design changed from what they had shipped in December,  getting a little more compact and growing longer, more aggressive heatsink fins.

BTMiner_vertical

Inside.
Inside.
Aggressive fins.
Aggressive fins.

Those are welcome changes, but it makes me wonder what it’s like over there in Shenzhen. I haven’t heard of this company before, and it’s clear they’re making this up on the fly, custom-manufacturing small runs of these units. It’s strange to think of companies popping up and assembling hardware which is probably only saleable for a very short time frame, measurable in weeks, mayflies of manufacturing.

Shenzhen seems like a magical place.

Inside BTMine: I grabbed this picture from a post on bitcointalk.org. Who are these guys? Whoever you are -- thanks! More manufacturing pictures here: http://imgur.com/a/vkEPu
Inside BTMine: I grabbed this picture from a post on bitcointalk.org. Who are these guys? Whoever you are — thanks! More manufacturing pictures here: http://imgur.com/a/vkEPu
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With the power of aluminum

These arrived from crypto-cards.com yesterday, and they’re fairly delightful: metal cold-storage wallets with the address and encrypted key laser-etched into the anodized surface.

They’re light, sized like business cards and easy to tuck into a wallet, or hide away somewhere. They’re not going to burn and they’re not going to rust, so it seems like they’d last just about forever.

What makes them brilliant, though, is the use of BIP38-encrypted private keys. This is great in several ways:

It’s ok that a third party is manufacturing your wallet for you, because they never handle your actual keys, only your encrypted key.  You generate it yourself using something like this, then just send the already-encrypted key and corresponding address to the manufacturer

You can carry it around with you, and not worry about someone accidentally photographing the key (or stealing it) because, again — encrypted. Then you can use something like Mycelium to spend from cold storage and decrypt on the fly.

As a bonus, if you do lose it, you’ve already created a backup just through the process of ordering, assuming you save the encrypted key somewhere at that point. So, worst case scenario, you can recover the funds that way.

When you think about how complicated a secure wallet project  could be,  it’s hard not to be impressed with what an elegant and inexpensive solution these metal cards represent.

Now I want a blue one.

 

Water-resistant to a depth of infinity.
Water-resistant to a depth of infinity.
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The AntMiner cometh

Some great designs sneak up on you. At first glance, the Bitmain AntMiner S1 might seem unfinished, all rough and caseless with its insides on the outside.

But the AntMiner doesn’t try to be anything that it isn’t. It has no case, since it’s not a consumer product and it’s not meant for the general public. Since it needs to be attached to an external power supply, why pretend that it’s self contained?

Instead of being bolted to a case or frame and hoping they don’t break loose in shipping, the heavy heatsinks are the frame, and the blades and endpieces bolt to them instead. This simplicity earns the AntMiner a gold star for economy of parts: 2 heatsinks with blades bolted to them, 2 endpieces holding them together, 1 fan, 1 TP-Link TL-WR743N.  The result is sturdy and downright elegant.

What's in the box?
What’s in the box?
The heatsinks are part of the frame.
The heatsinks are part of the frame.

For comparison, a  Butterfly Labs Bitforce SC Single is roughly the same size but has 4 fans,  a 4-piece case, and an interior armature with a whole array of tubes and screws to hold the boards, case, heatsinks and fans all in place.  The airflow is byzantine, it sounds like a jet engine and it sill needs to be connected to another computer to run. The AntMiner is almost silent and, at 180GH/s, it’s also 3 times the speed.

It has its own version of OpenWRT with CGMiner built in, much like an Avalon, and connects right to the internet through an ethernet jack. It also has an attachment for a wifi antenna.

The lights are fantastic. On each side, facing outward, is one green LED which pulses at high speed, giving the whole thing the frantic energy of a firing laser cannon.

It makes a plaintive beeping when it can’t connect to the internet, which is a handy notification, but when it wakes me up in the middle of the night I feel like I’ve acquired another needy pet. Most of the time, though, it just purrs warmly.

AntMiner_side

AntMiner_top

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