Since Bitcoin first rose to public awareness in the early 2010s,cryptocurrency enthusiasts have predicted a new world order. Central banks would fall away to be replaced with a consensus currency arising almost magically out of a worldwide network of independent computers, each transaction indelibly carved into the blockchain. The blockchain, immutable and permanent, stretching back in time to the genesis block, and growing, every few minutes, one block at a time, is, they say, the answer to all our economic ills.
And not just our economic ills: blockchains, perhaps running some kind of smart contract have been proposed as solutions for insurance markets, music distribution, land registries, voting, distributed file archiving, provenance of artworks and antiques, domain name resolution, human resources records, cross-border customs clearance, and more.
In this session, we’ll have a look at what a blockchain is - how they’re implemented, and why they can indeed claim to be immutable. We’ll examine different consensus mechanisms, and how they allow new blocks to be formed without a central authority. That will lead into an overview of transaction mechanisms, and smart contracts. We might even write and a deploy a little smart contract of our own.
Into Snake Oil
Alongside establishing a baseline understanding of what blockchains are, we’ll also be looking at why they’re terrible.
The distributed nature of public blockchains purports to allow us to trust data produced by unknown and, indeed, unknowable third parties. This may not be the case, and if it isn’t you might never know. Blockchains are permanent and immutable, but is this feature or misfeature? While the ideas behind blockchains are all frightfully clever, is a blockchain basically a database with slow reads, really slow writes, and generally awful data throughput? Are they, in fact, ill-suited for many of the applications they are pitched to solve? And if you thought multi-threaded programming was hard, that’s just peanuts compared to smart contracts. Maybe we’ll also get a bit existential and consider whether a blockchain can die, and what happens if it does.
After all that doom and gloom we’ll try to end on a small positive note, with a brief look at a project which I believe is a good fit for a blockchain solution, and which might even make the world a slightly better place.
I presented this session at this year’s ACCU Conference. It’s always a good programme, but this year’s was just ridiculous, so it was a really privilege to be accepted. I’m reasonably comfortable giving a session, but I was scheduled in one of the larger rooms for the first time. You’re presenting from a stage in front of a massive screen, the room lights are down and they are spotlights in your eyes. I did find it a bit daunting. I tend to walk around and wave my arms around while I’m presenting, and I was more than a little worried I’d fall off the stage. (This was so apparent to one of my 'friends' they told me afterwards they had their phone primed and ready to capture the moment if I did.) I also cocked my timing up rather.
The talk is in two chunks. The first half is a pretty straight ahead description of the technology of cryptocurrencies. The second half looks at what a disaster cryptocurrencies and blockchains are in practice. I honestly tried to keep to time, but as I wrote new examples just kept coming up. I ended up referring to a series of events that had all happened within the past 10 days, some as recently as the day before. (And, if I’d be scheduled on the last day of the conference instead of the first, they would have been overtaken by an entirely new set of events.) So, I probably should have reigned that in a little, and I ended up skipping over some bits and dropping the small positive note I’d promised. None the less, I enjoyed doing it and it seemed to go down well. And the rest of the conference was just great.
Slides with notes - it’s a reveal.js deck, so press 'S' to get the speaker notes without which the slides will make no sense at all.
The Very Slow Time Machine - an earlier talk I gave on the small positive note
Articles and news reports I used for background research. A veritable cavalcade of knavery and nonsense
A longitudinal study
Recorded this year at 16:49 on Friday, 15 March. Weather was overcast. Customer observed crossing road as van approached. His identity is protected for obvious reasons.
The full ice cream van data is available as a spreadsheet.
Archangel is about to run a little pilot scheme with a number of archives around the world, so hopefully I’ll have something extra to say in May when this talk gets its last outing.
ARCHANGEL: Trusted Archives of Digital Public Documents - Paper presented at ACM Document Engineering 2018
Looking for Life on a Flat Earth - The astonishing New Yorker article I mention at the start of the talk
The Psychology of Time Travel is as tight a paradoxical murder mystery as you would wish to read.
Some of my internet friends do a podcast about The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. I was unreasonably excited to be appointed Beware of the Leopard Office Cricket Adjudicator for their Christmas special.
The museum filled with venomous spiders that just won’t die - Did you know the Finnish Museum of Natural History was infested with Chilean Recluse spiders? No, me neither.
Fascinating little podcast about unbuilt roads in London. London dodged a bullet that Birmingham and Coventry absolutely didn’t.
I’ve started doing some proper background reading and research for my upcoming talk at the ACCU Conference 2019. This is something of novelty. All my previous talks have been on a subject I’m comfortably familiar with, either because it’s quite a tightly defined topic or because I was speaking from my own experience. Consequently, I just needed a bit of firming up around the edges to fill things out.
This time though, my topic is rather broader and my knowledge rather more incomplete. Given the title I chose, Snakes Into Snake Oil - What Blockchains Are And Why They’re Terrible, (described by a friend as a bit clickbait-y) I’m clearly flagging my opinion. Disappointingly, nothing, absolutely nothing, I’ve read so far has given me any reason to reassess that opinion.
In the abstract for my presentation on the ARCHANGEL project, I wrote it’s about the only blockchain application you’ll hear of that doesn’t immediately make you feel dirty. I meant it as a joke but it’s increasingly turning out to be true.
As a single small example, browse around State of the ÐApps, a website that lets you discover the possibilities of the Ethereum, EOS, POA, and Steem blockchains with the definitive registry of ÐApp projects. It groups the various apps it lists into various categories. The three largest categories are games, gambling, and "high risk". The bulk of the games are variants on collectable card games. The majority of the gambling apps look to be some form of lottery. Finally, "high risk" appears to be a euphemism for "scam". Absolutely world changing stuff.
In the categories the blockchain tubthumpers have told are ripe for disruption, insurance say or energy markets, there are some apps listed. They all, however, seem to be entirely notional. They don’t exist - either they have no code, or in the unlikely event they have code then they have no users.
From top to bottom, it’s a catalogue of utter crap.
Right now, I feel like ninety slides all saying Blockchains are a pile of shit (each slide containing the SHA-256 hash of the previous slide, obviously) would be as informative and useful as whatever it is I do end up writing.