The genesis block is the first block on the Bitcoin blockchain. Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious entity that created Bitcoin, mined the genesis block on January 3, 2009. It’s been five years since the genesis block’s birth and Satoshi is still unknown, Bitcoin is bigger than ever, and the blockchain is longer than 300,000 blocks and growing.
One of the most important features of the blockchain is its immutability. After the Bitcoin network accepts a block and adds it to the blockchain it can never be altered. This makes Bitcoin blocks rare durable binary artifacts. The cryptographic hash algorithms that underpin the Bitcoin protocol enforce block immutability. If someone decides to tinker with a block, say maliciously flip a single bit, the block’s hash will change and the network will reject it. This is what makes it almost impossible to counterfeit Bitcoins. Bitcoins have been lost and stolen but they have never been successfully counterfeited. This sharply contrasts with funny money like the US dollar that is so routinely and brazenly counterfeited that many suspect the US government turns a blind eye.
The exceptional durability of Bitcoin blocks, coupled with the mysterious origins of Bitcoin, makes the genesis block one of the most intriguing and important byte runs in the world. This post was inspired by the now defunct post 285 bytes that changed the world. I would love to give you a link but this post has vanished. A secondary, but excellent reference is John Ratcliff’s How to Parse the Bitcoin BlockChain. I am adapting John’s nomenclature in what follows.
So what does J bring to the table that makes yet another genesis block parser worth a look? Let’s take a look at Bitcoin addresses. The following is the Bitcoin address of this blog’s tip jar. Feel free to send as many Satoshis and full Bitcoins as you like to this address.
There is nothing deep or mysterious about this funny string of letters; it’s just a plain old number in Bitcoin base 58 clothing. So, what is this number in standard format? Here’s how it’s calculated with J.
The second line that defines dfb58, (decimal from base 58), is the complete J program! That’s it folks. You can troll the internet for days looking at base 58 to big integer converters and it’s unlikely you will find a shorter or more elegant conversion program. Not only is the J version short and sweet it’s also fast and versatile. Suppose you wanted to convert ten thousand Bitcoin addresses. The following converts ten thousand copies of tip.
At this point fanboys of mainstream programming languages typically pipe up with something like, “changing number encodings is inherently trivial; what about something more demanding like going the other way, say converting Bitcoin public keys to the base 58 address format?”
The public key in the genesis block is encoded in what many call the “challenge script.” Here is the genesis block’s challenge script in hex.
Public keys take a number of forms in the blockchain. John Ratcliff’s post summarizes the many forms you will run into. The genesis block uses the 65 byte ECDSA form. Converting this form to base 58 requires taking SHA-256 and RIPEMD-160 hashes. These hashes are available in OpenSSL which is conveniently distributed with J 8.02 JQT. Here’s how to convert the genesis block’s public key to base 58 with J.
The ChallengeScript noun holds the bytes given in hex above. The verbs sr150, s256 and Base58Check are available in the J scripts sslhash and ParseGenesisBlock that I have put in the jacks repository on GitHub.
The following J verb ParseGenesisBlock reads the first full node Bitcoin block file and then extracts and checks the genesis block. ParseGenesisBlock tests the various verbs, (functions), it employs. As a side effect it clearly describes the layout of the genesis block and provides test data for anyone that’s interested.
If this post peeks your curiosity about J a good place to start learning about the language is the recently released New Dictionary of J. You can download a version of J for Windows, Linux, OS/X, IOS, and Android at Jsoftware’s main site.