Holding Every Private Key in the Palm of Your Hand: Beyond Chainsplaining Part III

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Our objective with the Beyond Chainsplaining series is to explore metaphors and stories you can use to help explain blockchain. In our last post, we built out our first ‘metaphor of the moment’: Blockchains as Brick Walls.

In this post, we’ll introduce a new and different ‘metaphor of the moment’ — how to hold virtually every possible private key in your hands. On a single sheet of paper.

Anyone who has created an Ethereum wallet is familiar with carefully writing down a sequence of seemingly random words — the seed recovery phrase. They are typically 12 words long, though 24 word seed phrases are also used.

Have you ever wondered where those words come from? Or how they were selected to safeguard your tokens? Well, we did. And here’s what you need to know:

  1. Seed phrases are based on the BIP 39 standard. What’s a BIP?
  2. BIP is an acronym for Bitcoin Improvement Proposal. Just like Ethereum’s ERC (Ethereum Request for Comments) process, BIP’s are how the Bitcoin development community considers new features and functionality for the Bitcoin blockchain.
  3. BIP 39 uses mnemonic phrases (aka pseudo random sentences) to generate a master private key, from which a hierarchical deterministic (HD) wallet can be derived.
  4. The surprising part? You can’t use just any word as part of your seed phrase. Instead, BIP 39 specifies a dictionary of just 2,048 possible words.
  5. Wait? That’s it? Just over two thousand words? That turns out to be less than 1.2% of the words in the English language. But those 2,048 words create enough permutations and combinations of seed phrases to generate virtually every possible private key.

Which begs the obvious question: is it possible to squeeze the entire BIP 39 English dictionary on a single sheet of paper?

Yes! Though if you want it to be readable you have print it on an A3 (11×17) paper. Here’s a thumbnail:

To download the full PDF, just click here to join our Discord server. Then head over to the #downloads channel. We’ll be post other downloadable assets there in the future.

Printouts like this have proven to be powerful props when we’re explaining the notion of wallets and seed phrases to the crypto-curious. Holding every possible private key in your hands somehow makes the complex concepts behind wallets and seed phrases more relatable. Which is critical if you’re your trying get Beyond Chainsplaining.

This then sparks a conversation that helps your audience understand why Seed Phrases are important. Sometimes we can almost see folks make the subtle-yet-supremely-gratifying internal shift from “I’m in way over my head” to “I think I can do this.”

As your conversation progresses, your audience may ask a version of: “So this all fits on as single sheet of paper… shouldn’t every wallet have been hacked by now?”

That’s a great question. As it turns out, the odds of guessing a private key are really slim. Really really slim. For all intents and purposes impossibly slim.

Curious to learn just how slim? Stay tuned for our next post in our Beyond Chainsplaining series. We’ll have some fun exploring Power Laws and the relative probability of guessing a private key. With props!

Having fun? Please follow @blocknative on twitter, subscribe to our email list, join our Discord to contribute to the conversation, and see the next post in our Beyond Chainsplaining Series.

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