The Strangest Thing About the Bitcoin White Paper

A few weeks ago, I realized that the net worth of Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous creator of Bitcoin, makes him1 the fifth richest person on planet Earth. I started reading about the predictions of who he is, various analyzes of his behavior before the disappearance, etc. It eventually led me to the beginning of it all—the Bitcoin white paper where, for the first time, Satoshi laid out the design principles behind the Bitcoin protocol.

I wasn’t surprised to find that the paper was written in $\LaTeX$. After all, that’s what most of technically-minded people use when creating complex documents. However, one thing that stood out to me was its quality. It wasn’t great. Here are a few typographical errors that I spotted right away:

  • Some of the variables or calculations were not typeset in math mode.
  • Contents inside math mode were often over-italicized, e.g. the word “if” is written in italics, even though the convention would be to make it upright.
  • Satoshi used " to enclose text in quotation marks, even though the preferred way is to use `` (two backticks) for opening quotation marks and '' (two single quotation marks) for closing quotation marks2.

I know what you are thinking: “YOU NERD, WHO THE HELL CARES ABOUT THE TYPESETTING CONVENTIONS OF QUOTATION MARKS?!” Sure, if you prefer Microsoft W*rd, that’s not something you’ll ever consider, but people who use $\LaTeX$, on average, pay more attention to such things. The first documents I wrote in $\LaTeX$ weren’t great, and I’m learning new things up to this day. But Satoshi looked like someone a lot more experienced so these mistakes seemed out of place.

And so I DuckDuckWent3 “satoshi nakamoto bad latex” or something like that. It was at that moment in time that I realized—I am an idiot. I found this discussion on StackExchange which essentially showed that the Bitcoin white paper was not written in $\LaTeX$. I went back to the paper and became convinced of this myself. I had been fooled and I felt terrible about it.

But why was I fooled? Well, the white paper does mimic $\LaTeX$:

  • The margins are huge which is a feature of the default templates.
  • The font used is very similar to Computer Modern (the default font in $\TeX$ documents).
  • Centered title and numbered sections in bold.
  • Author name followed by an abstract in the center of the page with even larger margins than the rest of the document.

The totality of these observations made me not even question that this is a $\LaTeX$ document when I first opened it. But once the truth is revealed to you, it becomes obvious. The font is not really Computer Modern, the spacing is a little weird in some places, where math mode is used the equations still look really ugly.

The discussion on StackExchange provides some hypotheses as to how the document was actually produced. File metadata suggest that it was created using OpenOffice Writer. Of course, one could fake metadata, but the paper being written in W*rd or Writer would explain a lot—ugly typography, weird spacing, the style of the diagrams, etc. The thing that bothers me is this—why even try mimicking $\LaTeX$?

The fact that the document looks the way it does is no coincidence and there must have been a deliberate effort to make it look like that. Did Satoshi have some kind of insecurity about how his writings looked that he went to extreme lengths to make them appear more academic? That seems silly—it would have been much simpler to just use $\LaTeX$ which is very easy to learn, especially for someone like Satoshi. The second possibility is that OpenOffice had some sort of plugin which would allow to effortlessly make any document look more $\LaTeX$-like. I don’t know what OpenOffice’s capabilities in 2008 were, but this seems unlikely. I can think of only one other possible scenario4; the only one that would make me happy.

What if the Bitcoin white paper was written in $\LaTeX$? At this point, you might already be thinking that this whole blog post is just me trolling bitcoiners, but hear me out. $\LaTeX$ is incredibly powerful and, in theory, you could even use it to make a document look ugly. That’s not an easy task—you would have to import ugly fonts, manually modify spacing of words and characters, and change the metadata to make it look like it was produced by OpenOffice—but it’s doable. Why would Satoshi do this though? The more I read about him, the less I understand him. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this was his attempt at humor.

  1. Satoshi could be a man, a woman, or a group of individuals. Given the evidence, the first scenario seems the most likely one, so, for simplicity, I’ll make that assumption. ↩︎

  2. I am referring to the way they should be typed in the source file, not how they will appear in the compiled file. ↩︎

  3. This joke is so bad that I’m actually embarassed. ↩︎

  4. Also alluded to in the StackExchange discussion. ↩︎