I recently sat down with my good friend Rob Durst for a plate of hot momos at Red Chilli. Rob is a developer at Stellar and the biggest crypto enthusiast I know. He and I have bonded over difficult math courses at Colby, and I largely credit him for having gotten me interested in the crypto space. We chatted about school, early life, libertarianism, and his outlook on crypto.
Tell me about the early days of Rob Durst.
I was born in Minnesota and I started playing ice hockey at an early age. And from 4 years old to just a few years ago, pretty much I just focused on ice hockey. Everything revolved around that. So when I would go to middle school, high school, I would go to class, leave class immediately, go play hockey, do homework, go to sleep, repeat. In a nutshell, that was the first 18 years of my life.
And then—let's just dive into the whole life story—I moved from Minnesota to California when I was 7. Hockey out here is a lot different. There's a lot less people. In my town in Minnesota, there's a whole league versus here, there's one team all the way in San Jose. So, I had to do a lot of travel, which became really time consuming. In high school, my goal was to play college hockey. There are a few different routes. There's juniors, which is playing hockey full time. There's prep school, where I ended up going for a year.
The year before that, I took my first CS class. Then when I took my gap year for hockey, I also had to take classes. Those were some of the best classes I ever took. Then, after prep school, I again had to choose between juniors and college. Since the reason why I went to prep school was that I wanted to keep learning, I took my shot at Colby. The summer before college, I worked out every day and got in the best shape of my life. The tryout process was basically the first three months of school, so I just did school and hockey and had no social life.
But then I was cut from the team. Now, I had all this free time and I had to figure out what else I wanted to do. Back then, I wanted to be a lawyer so I took all these government classes; but eventually,I became disappointed with some of the professors. A computer club had just started then—the Colby Hackers—so I joined that. They had a list of projects, one being an iOS app for the Colby Spa. I learned iOS development from scratch and built this really basic app. From that point on, computer science was the way for me.
Do you still play hockey these days?
I haven't put on my skates since the last time at Colby, actually.
What are some of the best opportunities you've gotten into at Colby?
We started the entrepreneur club, which I guess didn't work out after I left. When we first started, I emailed 15 different people and David Greene was the first to get back to me. We met with him in his office—super nice guy. It was really cool having access to him like that, because at most schools you don't even talk to the president. Having access to people like Lisa Noble was also a big help
What about Real Analysis?
That was really challenging. Leo was always willing to help, though I often felt confused.
How did this adventure with crypto start?
So in December 2016, I was a sophomore looking for an internship just like everyone else. I got this email from the CS Department about CGI. They had this internship competition over Jan Plan to see who could come up with the best idea for blockchain. So I started looking into blockchain, and I told my advisor I would just study blockchain over all of Jan Plan. And I just blew this competition out of the park. But at some point it was less about the competition and more about taking these libertarian ideas (actually owning your own data), and—this is probably the only good thing that's come out of partying—I was at this entrepreneurship expo in Portland put on by Lisa Noble with some Colby kids and this guy from Bates. We started talking about Bitcoin, and he mentioned this thing called Steem. He was like, "I know the guy, you should talked to the guy. It's at number 7!" And then I had a phone conversation with the Steemit founder, where he explained Austrian economics. So then I became super hardcore into Steemit. So that's how I got into it.
You mentioned libertarianism and Austrian economics. You were also head of the Gary Johnson campaign at Colby. How did you get into that set of ideals?
Growing up, my dad was really conservative, so I grew up around that. It was an interesting mix, because California is super liberal. So a lot of times in classes I would end up playing devil's advocate. I guess that's also why thought I'd like to be a lawyer. So I took a lot of government classes, like Reisert's Political Theory. I really connected with the ideas of Hayek and Locke, and the whole idea of government being a really small entity that does only the bare essentials and everyone else—no matter what they do—not hurting anyone else.
That's a very uncommon background when it comes to Colby. Do you think there's room for those ideals, and also for interest in cryptography and privacy, to grow at Colby?
No. Did you have Bing Chen come speak [at Horizons]? I asked him about these new social media innovations coming up in blockchain that gives users their data, and whether anyone will move into that space. And he just said "no". I don't think people really care enough. It's not about awareness.
So is that a negative outlook at the future, or is there hope?
I think crypto is really cool, but the problem is that the average user just doesn't care. 99% of the time, they just care about convenience over privacy. They just say that "I have nothing to hide". They may not have anything to hide, but if you do you're in trouble.
Has that been a failure of the crypto community, to belittle user convenience for the sake of abstract—sometimes even cult-like—ideals?
I think so. It's twofold. One, everyone is still building these protocols, and a lot of people who build the protocols also build the frontend. There aren't people working on the frontend. One of the cooler aspects of Stellar is the idea of a multi-signature transaction. The point of multi signature transactions is that two or more people can send a transaction. There's no easy way to orchestrate this. So its a really cool idea. But a lot of the people who are working on things like this are working from a super technical standpoint and not from the high-level, which is all you should have to think about if you want to send a multi-signature transaction. Since none of this stuff is easy to use, and no one understands why they should use it, they just go back to convenience.
So what's next for you?
I'm going camping in a couple weeks and then the Rust Conference. And also the IACR 2018, which should be really dope. Prepping to go back to school.