Theodor (“Ted”) Holm Nelson, the man credited with conjuring the term “hypertext,” once told Wired magazine that four maxims have guided his life. “Most people are fools, most authority is malignant, God does not exist, and everything is wrong.” Nelson, an academic (he teaches a class at the University of California at Santa Cruz) is known for grand ideas and even grander pronouncements. Many moons ago he envisioned a “different kind of computer world, based on a different kind of electronic document.” He found conventional computer documents that mimic paper limiting. In their stead he dreamed of “flying pieces, visible side-by-side connections, connection of content to origins, and unbreaking links,” and sought to create a universal hypertext library that he predicted would one day help transform humans into an entirely new form.
Except, as a famous Wired magazine story by Gary Wolf put it, the project, which Nelson christened Xanadu, “sucked” him “and his intrepid band of true believers into what became the longest-running vaporware project in the history of computing – a 30-year saga of rabid prototyping and heart-slashing despair.” Nelson, in a lengthy and slashing letter to the editor, called Wolf’s profile “a nasty piece of work,” a “hatchet job,” and described Wolf as an “innovator in electronic media” who, by combining “the word processor and the poison pen” had managed to create a “new electronic literary genre.” Perhaps, Nelson continued, “my ideas may have been too startling and sweeping for many people.”
Yes, Nelson does not lack for self-confidence, but when he speaks the geeknoscenti are bound to listen. Recently, as he told Christopher Mims and Leo Mirani of Quartz, Nelson was reading an essay on the brilliant and elusive Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki, written by Caroline Chen, a Columbia journalism graduate student, when it hit him “like a pie in the face.” Shinichi Mochizuki must be Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of bitcoin.
The proof was sketchy but that didn’t stop him from posting an odd, rambling 12-minute video, complete with an imaginary conversation between Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson – in faux British accents, no less – announcing his discovery. He says the reason he posted first and asked questions later was that he’s “often been the first to know something, but have had a lot of trouble getting credit for it.”
As he’d hoped, Nelson has been rewarded with heaps of press – Forbes, Quartz, BusinessInsider, and covered on blogs obsessed with all that is bitcoin. The Register went so far as to interview Stilgherrian, a mono-named Australian freelance writer specializing in “big-picture Internet issues,” who stipulated that Nelson might be eccentric but he “has the annoying habit of being right.” Stilgherrian pondered whether that whole Sherlock Holmes-Watson digression might contain a clue, a “nugget of data” that could lead to…
OK, stop right there. Before we go down the path of a “Murder, She Wrote” episode let’s look at his evidence. It won’t take long.
You can boil it down to a few choice ideas: Whoever created bitcoin must have been really smart, and Mochizuki is a genius, who earned his PhD in mathematics from Princeton when he was 23. Mochizuki doesn’t bother with the standard academic peer review jive. He simply releases papers when he’s good and ready on his website and lets mathematicians comb through them afterward without feeling the need to defend or explain anything. Both Satoshi Nakamoto and Mochizuki have excellent English skills, as evidenced by the writing in Nakamoto’s famous bitcoin paper from 2008 and Mochizuki’s stellar record at Princeton.
So you can forgive me for not congratulating the man for his awesome scoop.
First, Nelson wasn’t the first to posit Mochizuki as Nakamoto. The week before a blogger, who had read the same profile of Mochizuki as Nelson, reached the identical conclusion. He added that Nakamoto and Mochizuki have the same number of Hiragana symbols in their first and last names.
Nelson points to Mochizuki’s claimed proof of the “ABC Conjecture,” which is so complicated that not even high-level mathematicians can comprehend it. This paper was released in 2012. Nakamoto published his paper on bitcoin as a “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” in 2008 and mined the first 50 bitcoins in early 2009. If you sift through Mochizuki’s list of papers he published in 2007 and 2008 – and there are a lot of them – you’ll find titles like “Algebraic and Anabelian Geometry of Configuration Spaces,” “The Geometry of Frobenioids,” “Absolute Anabelian Cuspidalizations of Proper Hyperbolic Curves,” “Arithmetic Elliptic Curves,” “Foundations of p-adic Teichmuller Theory,” “The Etale Theta Function and its Frobenioid-theoretic Manifestations,” and many others.
Don’t worry: I have no idea what he’s talking about either. Nevertheless, even I can see that there’s nothing in his list of papers then or now that has anything to do with cryptography, exchange systems, software development, and the like. Mochizuki tends to develop his ideas over a series of papers and keeps revising over time. That’s how “frobenioids,” which is something that he himself conceived of, became a key aspect of his “ABC Conjecture.” Also, Mochizuki publishes his works on his own site. He doesn’t publish them elsewhere then lurk on forums like Satoshi Nakamoto did until April 2011, when he evaporated into the cryptographic ether. About the only similarity between the two, besides the fact they both may be Japanese (or maybe not in Nakamoto’s case) is the way they express “references” or endnotes at the ends of papers. (They both use brackets and number them , , , and so on.)
Yeah, pretty thin. If Mochizuki created bitcoin, then Isaac Newton wrote Romeo and Juliet.
Nelson isn’t the first to fail in uncovering Satoshi Nakamoto’s true identity. Josh Davis, in a story for the New Yorker tried (and the man he fingered denied it). I also laid out my attempts in a piece for Fast Company and discovered a number of stunning coincidences that led me to believe it might be three men, and they also denied any part in it. For all we know, Satoshi Nakamoto may have been mining bitcoins this entire time and could be worth hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars.
As for Mochizuki he hasn’t denied anything. Then again for him that’s par for the course. He doesn’t commingle with us mere mortals on earth. Like Nakamoto, Mochizuki is a “dance-away genius,” a poetic term Nelson came up with. He’s lost in his own head — not anonymous, but he may as well be.