Monero Monitor

Episode 2: Saving NASA, OpenLDAP/LMDB, Monero Direct, and why Monero is the only true cryptocurrency - An interview with Howard "hyc" Chu

10 Apr 20170 Comments

Today we're joined by Howard "hyc" Chu, CTO and Founder of Symas Corp, core member of the OpenLDAP development team, and co-founder of MoneroDirect.com to talk about his background and involvement in Monero. We talk about how Howard helped develop the world's fastest directory software, became involved in the Monero project, and saved a NASA shuttle mission. Find out why Howard claims Monero, and not Bitcoin, is the world's only true cryptocurrency.

Today's show includes a duet compiled by Howard and featuring his friend Nerea, used with their permission. You can follow Nerea's music on her facebook page, facebook.com/crazyfiddlelady.

Did you enjoy this episode? Please show your support by donating today.

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Podcast Transcript:

~~ { Introductory Music } ~~

Mike: Hi, everyone, this is Mike. You may know me as bigreddmachine and you’re listening to the second episode of the Monero Monitor podcast. Welcome back to anybody who tuned in for episode one and welcome to any newcomers today. I’m excited to talk today with a person that’s not only been crucial for the continued development of Monero, but also someone who’s kind of somewhat of an entrepreneur in this space as well. Howard Chu, you may know him as “hyc_symas” or maybe just “hyc”. How are you doing, Howard?

Howard: I’m doing great, thanks Mike.

Mike: Sure. Before we get into the show, I just want to say it’s a pleasure to meet you. I feel like all the time I’m asking you how I can get this thing running on my Raspberry Pi, and you are very patient with trying to help me to get that going. So, you know, it’s kind of one of those on-going issues that you’ve always been somebody I could talk to about, so thank you.

Howard: Yeah, no problem.

Mike: Some of our listeners might have noticed that we started the show off today with a fiddle duet. And that’s something that you shared on Twitter just a few days ago. Can you tell us about it? QS 01:55

Howard: Sure. It started out with my friend Nerea, posting a video on her Facebook Live. It’s a slow, sad tune written by a musician named Jerry Holland who passed away a few years ago. He wrote that tune for his son who was dying of cancer. So, she played this tune and it seem very plaintive and I just felt like I needed to join in with that. And so, I took the recording she posted, and listened to it a few times and recorded a track of myself and just pasted the two of them together. And Nerea and I have known each other for quite a few years, but we’ve actually met on Facebook. And currently, she’s living in Dubai, I haven’t actually seen her physically in a couple of years.

Mike: Wow, I hope you can make a trip out there or maybe she’ll meet up with you somewhere. It was a very, very moving tune, sometimes I listen to it a couple of times, so yeah, thank you for sharing that and hearing the story behind the song itself gives it a little more meaning even now. 

Howard: Yeah, it certainly grabbed me when I heard it too. 

Mike: Yeah. Well, make sure you say thanks to Nerea for us and also thanks for letting us include the clip. Anybody who is listening that wants to hear more of her work, you can go to her Facebook page, it’s facebook.com/crazyfiddlelady. I’ll put that link in today’s show notes so anybody who’s interested, go check that out.


QS 03:40 Mike: Okay, so I think a few of our listeners probably have a vague idea of who you are, especially with your contributions to Monero. And maybe a couple of them have some idea of some of the things you’ve done outside Monero, but maybe you can just kind of start us off with telling us a little bit of your background and some of the things that you’ve been involved with before you ever learned what Monero was?

Howard: Okay. Jeez, where shall I start… I’ve actually been developing free software, open-source software since the late 1980s. I worked with GNU project way back when… GCC and gmake and all of the utilities, the linker and all of that, the debugger. So, from the 1980s until now I’ve worked on a lot of different projects. Then, in 1999, myself and a few colleagues from another software company we were working at, we all left that company and founded Symas Corporation. Symas was all oriented around OpenLDAP software. We thought that directories were the wave of the future and that was the wave that we were gonna ride. So, that has actually been the main thing taking up my time from 1999 till the present day. But, along the way, I worked on lots of project along the side. For the time being, Monero is also one of those side projects.


QS 05:20 Mike: Cool. I saw on your Twitter profile picture, the code STS-68, and I happen to work in the aerospace industry and so if I’m right, I believe that’s a NASA shuttle mission number. Were you at one point involved with NASA?

Howard: That’s correct, yeah. I worked for NASA for three years. I worked on two space shuttle missions. The work that I did there was mostly communications software oriented. In fact, I’ve got a fairly long story about that, I posted most of the story on my Facebook page, but the communications system that the shuttle was using to talk to the ground was quite problematic in those days. During the first launch, I mentioned I worked on two of the missions. During the first mission, the communications system actually failed a few minutes into the minutes, so while the shuttle was orbiting the Earth. And it was really bleeding-edge stuff, state-of-the-art back in 1993 and ‘94. They were sending digital data down from space to the ground at 45 megabits per second.

Mike: Okay.

Howard: And if you can imagine, 1993 when even 10 megabit Ethernet was still kind of a novelty, 45 megabits per second from orbit was unheard of. It had never been done before and it was looking like it would never get done. So, during those first 30 minutes of the mission, the shuttle couldn’t send any data to the ground. And I managed to write a compressor and decompressor to get the data down at 22 megabits per second and into one of the ground computers so it could be processed. And I did that in the space of 20 minutes.

Mike: Wow, so were you sitting in mission control then or were you somewhere else?

Howard: I was actually at the JPL lab in Pasadena, but we had a real-time link to Johnson Space Center and a couple of other places. So, yeah, that was my involvement with NASA. Which, it turned out after I had done this, which everybody in NASA said was impossible, could never be done, they stopped using the custom hardware that they had used for these downlinks and they were using my software ever since. So, that was kind of a cool thing. I got a nice signed certificate for that little bit of work.

Mike: That’s really cool. Some of my colleagues work in JPL, so I’m familiar with them. It’s quite an institution.


QS 08:22: Okay, so now you said that you founded Symas around 1999 I think you said… 1998. What’s the kind of business of Symas? Are you sort of like a Red Hat where you’re supporting corporations who want to use open source software, or what does Symas do?

Howard: Yeah, you could say that our model is very much like Red Hat. We make most of our income off of support contracts. We do some custom development work as well for contract. Primarily, we work with OpenLDAP; we work with security and authentication systems. We work with Kerberos and SASL and some of these other technologies that are centered around security or user management.

QS 09:10 Mike: Okay. Now, I have to plead a little bit of ignorance here, what exactly is OpenLDAP? I’ve tried to read about it and I really just kind of got myself confused.

Howard: Okay, well… LDAP is a network protocol and a data model for a specialized database. It’s a hierarchical database. The use pattern that’s most typically used for is one that’s heavy on reads and minimal on writes.

Mike: Okay.

Howard: It’s designed for very high speed reads and searches and that sort of thing. The technology came out of another directory system called X.500 that was developed by the ITU, the International Telecom Union.

Mike: Alright.

Howard: And that’s actually still the industry that uses it the most heavily. The telecom industry uses directory technology basically to run the phone systems. If you think about it, that’s kind of why they call it the directory, right? If you still think about old telephone books, the old telephone directories, it all came out of that concept of a single reference point where you could look and say, “Who’s so and so, what’s his phone number and what else do we know about him?”

QS 10:35 Mike: Very cool. Okay, so then how does that relate to LMDB other than just being, I think they’re part of the same kind of open-source project, but is it an off-shoot of it or a spin-off or how do they work?

Howard: Yeah. Okay, I guess you could call it a spin-off now, although it hasn’t quite spun yet. But just to go back for a second to LDAP itself and the way it’s used. If you can imagine, a mobile phone network or a cellphone network, every time you power up your phone, it has to find a nearby cell tower and talk to that tower and the tower has to tell whether this phone is authorized to use the network or not.

Mike: Okay.

Howard: So, the phone tells the tower, “Hey, here I am, here’s my phone number.” And the tower has to ask somebody, “Hey, do we recognize this phone number and are they subscribed to us?” Okay, and that turns into an LDAP lookup. And so you want this to happen as quickly as possible because you want, as soon as somebody turns on their phone, they should be able to start using it, dialing it, or using the internet, whatever they do on it. And the other thing too is, you want to know are they subscribed to the internet service, are they subscribed to multimedia service, what are the features that they have on their account? And you want to know that immediately. And also, when you’re driving down the road and you go from… you leave the range of one cell-tower and you enter the range of another cell-tower, they have to do a hand-off from one tower to the next and again, the tower has to tell the next one, “Hey, this guy is coming over, and you can authenticate him, we know who he is, you should know who he is.” So, all of these hand-offs have to be done very quickly as well, otherwise if you’re in the middle of a call, you could lose the call.

Mike: Sure.

Howard: So, you’re talking about a database system that has to respond in sub-millisecond time, alright? And at this point in time, OpenLDAP is the world’s fastest directory software. We can handle millions of queries per second, so we’re talking about queries that are answered in under one microsecond. The fact is, OpenLDAP has been the world’s fastest since about 2005 and we started writing LMDB in 2011. So, before that, we used Berkeley database, but Berkeley by itself is actually very slow, and we had to pile up a bunch of in-memory caching on top of it to actually make it work with the decent speed.

Mike: Okay.

Howard: But that got very complicated, so we decided to throw that all way, we want to start over from scratch, so that’s where LMDB came from. LMDB is fast enough by itself that if you tried to put a cache in front of it, you’ll actually slow it down. So, that’s where we are now and that’s how LMDB came to be and that’s also why LMDB has the properties that it has. The database, LMDB is also oriented towards read-heavy workload with kind of minimal writes.

Mike: Okay, okay. So I know LMDB is currently in version 0.9 or something like that, and Monero is using the beta of the next version or something. Is there a release date for version 1, is that on the horizon?

Howard: 1.0 we’re expecting that to release sometime this year, probably late summer.

Mike: Okay, cool. Good luck with getting all of that together and ready.

Howard: Thank you.


QS 14:20 Mike: Sure, okay, so that’s some interesting stuff I didn’t know about what you did. That’s pretty cool. Can you tell us, how did you hear about Monero? Were you a Bitcoin person first? How did you get involved in this project?

Howard: I was not involved with any of this stuff. I remember when Bitcoin was first on the scene and I kind of looked at it and ignored it. I didn’t hear anything about Monero until, I guess it was two years ago when fluffypony pinged me on IRC, said, “Hey, are you there, I’d like to ask you a question about something.” And so it just started from that. At that time, all he asked was, “Hey, is this the latest version of LMDB? Should we grab it from this GitHub repo?” It was like, yeah, that’s fine. And so he mentioned that he was working on this cryptocurrency called Monero, and I was like, “Yeah, that’s great, let me know if you have any questions.” Then, I didn’t hear from him again for several months. So I didn’t actually get involved with Monero early on at all. 

Mike: Okay. 

Howard: It was much later when they were working on Windows 32 software and they were having some problems with it. They mentioned, “Hey, we’re running into some issues here.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take a look.” At that point, LMDB was written primarily for 64-bit computers. 

Mike: Sure. 

Howard: And 32-bit support was really kind of an afterthought. I said, well, 32-bit processors are already obsolete; I really don’t care to support them. We’ll put something in here to appease some people, but it’s not really what we’re focused on. As it turned out, the 32-bit support was kind of broken, right? And the Monero team had decided not to rely on it and they had started a Berkeley DB driver instead for the 32-bit side. And over the course of time, I was looking at the 32-bit code and getting it to work. As I was getting it to work, I had to read up on how Monero worked to understand what they needed to do with the database. And then the more I read up on Monero, the more interested I got in the rest of the project. 

Mike: Cool. So, anytime anybody talks bad about Windows, we should just point them to this podcast and tell them, if it wasn’t for Windows, you would have never gotten involved. 

Howard: Ha-ha, that’s true, that’s true. 

QS 17:05 Mike: Okay, so are you still working on parts of the Monero code base then? I know you’re on IRC still, hanging out in the Monero channel, but are you working on anything with the project? 

Howard: Actually, yeah. I’ve started to look at other aspects of the code. Obviously, when I first started, I was only focused on the database side of things. But at this point, I wrote the optimized ARMv8 miner code for it. I’ve done several different aspects of the code now. I would say, yeah, I’ve been expanding the scope of what I’ve been looking at. 


QS 17:52 Mike: Okay. So, then how did you take that and turn it into saying, “I want to start a company in this space” and now you run Monero Direct? 

Howard: Yeah. I suppose if you dig into Monero as I have done and do the reading and you think about cryptocurrencies work or how they should work, you start to realize that Monero is actually unique. In a field where there are thousands of coins out there, new ones being forked off and presented every day, Monero is actually, as I put it, it’s the only one that actually deserves the title of cryptocurrency, right? If you look at where the word “crypto” comes from, from the Greek “cryptos” which means hidden, okay? And you look at the science of cryptography; most of cryptography is oriented towards obfuscating data, hiding information. Alright, hiding information such that only the person you want to see it is allowed to see it, right? 

Mike: Yeah.

Howard: But if you look at every other “cryptocurrency” that exists, none of them actually hides information. 

Mike: I guess, you could argue that Bitcoin uses cryptography to hide the keys to your wallet and that everything else while being public, if you can’t hide the keys, then there’s no way that this could work. You could argue that that still fits that definition, couldn’t you? 

Howard: That’s like saying, okay, you hide the keys to the front door of your house, right? Everybody still knows that your house is sitting where it is. 

Mike: True. 

Howard: But the important part… You can consider a key to be an access control mechanism, it says, this is how you get through this doorway, right?

Mike: Sure. 

Howard: But with Monero, everything is hidden, even the door is hidden.

Mike: Okay.

Howard: The information that’s being transmitted over the Monero network is hidden and that’s really what cryptography is about, about hiding the messages.

Mike: Yeah, okay, so maybe you’d be happy calling Bitcoin a digital currency, but Monero is a true cryptocurrency, I can buy that. 

Howard: Yeah, that would be more of my perspective, yeah.

QS 20:27 Mike: Alright. So, do you have any business partners with Monero Direct? 

Howard: Yeah, there is two other partners in the company. 

Mike: Okay, and are they people active in the community or at they kind of more private people? 

Howard: They are definitely more private people. This is probably their first even technology-related business. They’ve been involved in other business doing more physical merchandise. 


QS 20:55 Mike: Okay, so Monero Direct is a way that the average person can use fiat currency to buy Monero. Is that a good one sentence explanation? 

Howard: Yeah. That’s exactly what we’re after. 

Mike: What convinced you to start a company focused on that? 

Howard: Well, just when I started telling other people about the Monero stuff that I was involved in and they got interested in it, but they would say, “Gosh, this is too hard for me to get into.” They didn’t know about setting up an exchange account on Poloniex and it was too many hoops for them to jump through. After talking it over with a couple of people, we realized this is such a barrier and there’s probably a way that we can lower this barrier. 

Mike: Sure. So, now if I wanted to buy Monero from you, what would I have to do? I know OKPAY somehow comes into play, but can you walk us through the setup?

Howard: Yeah. This is something that we want to change because people are telling us that OKPAY is too difficult as well. But we’ll see how that goes. Right now, you have to create an account with OKPAY before you can do anything with us. And in order for you to fund an OKPAY account with, say a bank transfer or a credit card, you have to go through an account verification process with them, which is very much like the account verification process for opening an exchange account or some of these other accounts. You have to send an ID and send them a proof of address and that sort of thing. 

Mike: Okay. 

Howard: In that respect, it is still kind of complicated. I mean, it takes a couple of steps, it probably takes a couple of hours before you can get verified. 

Mike: Sure. 

Howard: But after you’ve done that and then you actually make a deposit into your OKPAY account from your bank account, then you can use the OKPAY funds to buy Monero from our website. 

QS 23:21 Mike: Okay. Is there any way you can link that, with I don’t know, Coinbase or one of the other services too?

Howard: We probably can, but that was never one of our objectives. I figured somebody who actually has an exchange account already knows how to do these things and doesn’t need us. So, they’re really not our target audience. Our target customer is someone who has never touched an exchange and doesn’t want to know about that.

Mike: Okay, what about something like PayPal, is there a way you could set it up where somebody could pay you directly with PayPal?

Howard: We’ve looked into that. Right now, the next step that we’re investigating is just setting up our own bank account to allow direct deposits and SEPA transfers, from other European accounts. And once we get that going, that will be again a different… It should be a smoother experience for people because a lot of people obviously are familiar with doing bank transfers. That should be an easier step for them. 

QS 24:33 Mike: Okay, and then I would guess that might help bring down some of the cost of this, ‘cause I know one of the big drivers in your exchange rate is OKPAY’s fee that they take out of this, right?

Howard: That’s true, yeah. When we get the SEPA transfer thing doing, our total fee will probably drop by at least half. 

Mike: That’s great, that’s really cool.


QS 24:55 Mike: I was looking at your terms of service or terms and conditions and I noticed there are people from two countries who can’t use your service: North Korea, which makes sense to me, and the United States. Can you tell us why that is?

Howard: Sure. I’m not gonna bother explaining with North Korea, but the reason that we exclude the United States is, if we did business with US customers, we would become subject to a whole bunch of US financial regulations and probably license obligations that we didn’t want to get involved with. Monero Direct is based in Ireland, and Ireland does not have any regulations on cryptocurrencies, so getting our business set up here was very easy. But once we get involved in any jurisdiction that requires that kind of heavy regulation, our legal fees go up.

Mike: Gotcha. Would you have interest if somebody were to approach you from the United States, like a venture capitalist and say, “Hey, I would like to fund the extension of this.” Are you just trying to stay completely independent of outside money and outside influence?

Howard: At the moment, I’d like to stay more independent. I’m not that we wouldn’t think about that down the road, but you know, at this early stage in the game, we’ve only had the website operation for half of the year. You know, we’d like to get all the other kinks worked out first.


QS 26:28 Mike: Sure, are you starting to see some volume come through?

Howard: You know… the volume tends to follow the exchanges. A week or two ago when Monero’s price was pumping, we saw a large spike in our volume as well. 

Mike: Okay, and you only sell Monero, right? You don’t buy it back? 

Howard: That’s right, at the moment. My partner has been talking about doing the buyback as well, so we may add that in the near future. 

Mike: Okay, I’d imagine that might be easier once you get all the SEPA kind of back-end going to, so that then you, again wouldn’t have to rely on a middle-man. 

Howard: Exactly, that’s right.


QS 27:08 Mike: Cool, cool. Are you working on any other projects other than Monero Direct in this space?

Howard: Well, let’s see. Just yesterday and the day before I was working on patches to the Onion Block Explorer. In the Monero code base, I’ve done a few patches to the wallet and at the moment, I’m looking at adding LMDB support to the wallet.

Mike: Okay, that’s really cool. Maybe I’ll send you a note at some point, I’ve been poking around, I don’t know if you saw my MoneroPy library that I started building back in November or December, but I’ve been poking around getting some additional functionality in there, kind of ultimate goal of having just a basic Python toolkit for Monero. Maybe I’ll bug you at some point if I have some issues. 

Howard: Oh, yeah, great. 

Mike: Cool. 

Howard: I did not look at that because at the time I wasn’t using Python, but as a matter of fact, I am using Python now. 

Mike: Okay, what I’m working on is still very pre-beta. Everything that’s in there works, but nothing that’s in there is probably the best way to do anything right now. As far as, it’d probably still be better for a production system to use something from the C++ libraries or something like that. But my goal is that maybe we have something that can be some basic key creation and some, I don’ know, light wallet tools or something like that at some time in the future. 

Howard: Yeah. 


QS 28:55 Mike: Cool. Alright, I said we’d be at about a half hour, and I think we’re pretty dang close to that right now. Do you have any kind of closing remarks that you want to give? Do you want to tell people how they can get in touch with you?

Howard: You can always find me on Twitter or reddit or various places, look for “hyc”. Yeah, now that I’m looking at wallet code, I would say keep an eye out for wallet changes in the next couple of releases.

Mike: Okay, that sounds good. I do have one final question, actually. You mentioned that your company is based in Dublin and I feel like I’ve seen - or at least Ireland - and I feel like I’ve seen mentions of Ireland elsewhere, but you do not sound like you have an Irish accent. Are you Irish or do you live in Ireland?

Howard: No. I live in Ireland now. I’ve lived here for five years. I moved here from Los Angeles. 

Mike: Okay, and what brought you there? 

Howard: Fiddle music, actually. 

Mike: Oh, that’s really cool. I’ve been in Ireland once, I was in Dublin for about two and a half days which is not nearly enough time to go to Ireland or in Dublin, so… But I hope to be back sometime. If I am, maybe I’ll look you up and we can grab a drink or something. 

Howard: Yeah, definitely.

Mike: Cool. Alright, well, thank you very much for coming on the show. I hope that it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience to set up the phone call. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the chance to listen to the previous episode, but if you want to, or if any other listeners want to hear it, it’s on MoneroMonitor.com. I’m on Twitter, @MoneroMonitor. And you can find me on reddit as bigreddmachine and that’s with two Ds, just like reddit has two Ds. So, yeah, unless you have anything else, we can say so long.

Howard: Alright, well, thank you for having me on the show.

Mike: Great, have a good one!

~~ { Closing Music } ~~