Blockchain Current Events: 2022 Technology of the Year

Technology of the Year, 2022 Edition

I’m a blockchain critic (in the company of countless others, as noted in the evergreen postscript on Blockchain Bunk), but I hope that this year’s Progressive CIO Technology of the Year doesn’t surprise you.

The Ethereum Merge was, in my eyes, the most important technology achievement of 2022.

Proof of Work was a reasonable way to kick off the cyber currency revolution, but it is not sustainable in its scalability, and the decentralization ideals behind the model have proven dubious. If the evolution of blockchain structures has taught us anything, it’s that decentralization continues to be alien to us.

My professional lifespan has been bookended with philosophical engineering movements whose aim was to prove that decentralization makes more sense than centralization. Over 30 years ago, Microsoft introduced Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), followed by IBM and Apple’s collaboration on OpenDoc. During those years, I served as an IT Director for a small publishing company, whose leadership was intrigued by these ideas, which were more academically interesting than practical. It was certainly neat-o for Joe’s PowerPoint to point to an Excel range in a document resident on Jill’s hard drive as well as a paragraph from a Word document on Mark’s drive. But who would want to keep track of the existence of these documents to ensure that Joe’s PowerPoint would function properly? What if Jill wanted to trash her ideas? What if her computer was off? What if Mark was fired, and his work proved to be a toxic force? Who was responsible for ensuring good enough computer hygiene to guarantee this would all work?

In those days, I remember asking my boss: if IBM thought peer-to-peer document links were the right architecture for enterprise work, wouldn’t they have designed the IBM System/360 in accordance with these ideals? So why didn’t they? Because anxiety:

  • Would you want your home to have its contents scattered between you and your place of work?
  • Are your cooking implements found in several rooms around your house?
  • Are your toiletries in your kitchen and living room?
  • Do you use a different keychain for each key? Do you keep each key in a different place?
  • Do you have a different bank for each dollar in your savings?
  • When shopping for groceries, do you enjoy visiting more than one store to gather everything you need?

We all want related things to stay together, as much as possible. Decentralization, in the vein of OLE and OpenDoc, makes us anxious. “What if Jill’s computer dies?” “Where is this information coming from again?” “Explain this to me again? How do I know it won’t move or disappear?”

In the wake of the thought experiments of OLE and OpenDoc, the Internet happened — boom, like that — bringing renewed and awesome focus to centralized information sources. OLE went on to become ActiveX (with a very different focus), and OpenDoc died. The client-server resonated with the human spirit, and it still does. With the Internet, every information resource had a canonical location, and it Just. Made. Sense.

Here we are, nearly a third of a century later, and the cryptocurrency movement asserts that we’ve been doing currency all wrong for 5,000+ years, calling centralization into question once again. No matter what the blockchain diehards assert, however, decentralization remains more theater than reality.

The Ethereum Merge was a risk not just in its technical execution, but in its philosophical positioning. It was the boldest of bold moves in a year overflowing with crypto failures that boggled human comprehension in more ways than one.. It has advanced the public dialog about transparency and decentralization theater, eschewing decentralization religion in favor of human comprehension.

While OpenAI, ChatGPT and the like might be popular candidates for this year’s award (and, despite widespread coverage, are very much works-in-progress that demo well for a few minutes but whose limits are quickly reached—better candidates for a future award), Ethereum’s move to Proof of Stake was a bolder statement. It is an honest and transparent step toward something more controversially centralized. The model, while lacking the abstract and religious purity of the Proof of Work blockchain, is easier for people to comprehend. The Merge didn’t just reduce Ethereum’s power consumption; it made it more possible for people of average intelligence to comprehend WTF is going on with the underpinning value proposition of ETH. Beyond that, more importantly, it increases the chances that cybercurrency will either have to significantly transform itself in order to meet a real need, or disappear altogether. Either of those things will be better for humanity than what we have today.

All this said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t remind you: there’s a lot more work to be done. The Ethereum Merge didn’t solve many things:

  • The misapplication of blockchain to physical goods;
  • The unfounded assertions that blockchains are hack-proof;
  • The fact that today’s cryptocurrencies are actually investments with significant risks associated with them, and that they need to be regulated by bodies like the SEC;
  • The entire idea of Web3, which needs a decentralization reality check of epic proportions.

If a technology move is significant enough to drive public discourse about the state of the human universe, it deserves our attention. This is why the Ethereum Merge is the Progressive CIO Technology of the Year for 2022.

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Albums of the Year Current Events: 2022

Albums of the Year, 2022 Edition

My third year into this journey, I look forward to writing this piece more than ever. It is, however, always more difficult than the others. This year saw music recover from the shroud of our post-pandemic doldrums, with some exceptional albums that are worth your attention. It seems that many EOY 2022 lists have placed Beyoncé’s Renaissance at the top, ostensibly because of its post-pandemic-dance-your-butt-off feel and its admirable nod to many LGBTQ+ artists. That album is, though, lacking in many areas that bring me joy: variety, melody, and suspended chords. Truth be told, too, I would rather hear “I Feel Love” than a sample from it in “Summer Renaissance.” Yes, I’m older than the average Beyoncé fan, but that doesn’t stop me from loving more than my fair share of music from our younger generations. Without further ado, here are my favorite six albums from 2022:

1. The Smile – A Light For Attracting Attention

While the world hasn’t seen a proper Radiohead album since 2016, Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood have created an album that is as exciting to absorb as anything their entire band has ever created. The album is a complete thought — something that invites you to hit play at track one and leave the buttons alone. There’s a sense of well-tuned control in Thom and Johnny’s mix of polyrhythms and composition on this one; it’s got the same sort of approachable balance that made OK Computer a classic, with a set of fresh statements about our current state of affairs that you’d expect.

2. Wet Leg – Wet Leg

It was as clear a year ago as it is today: this is a great album from a great new band. It’s fun, catchy, witty, musical, and everything else you want in rock and pop music. Wet Leg is Devo for the modern age, and deserving of more than the “Indie Pop” label. The world needs more pop music like this, because we need to be able to joke about the state of things while allowing our ears to be tickled.

3. Weyes Blood – And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow

My goodness. The second part of what promises to be an outstanding trilogy, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow is deserving of far more attention than it’s been getting. Natalie Mering is precisely one-half Joni Mitchell and one-half Aimee Mann, blending not just those voices but their artistic sensibilities. It’s a delightful fusion. Each song is a journey, and your ears will be taken to unexpected places if you allow the songs to simply flow. I can’t wait to hear part three.

4. Harry Styles – Harry’s House

This is the best pure pop album of the year (and of the decade, so far), hands-down. My hope is that it and reinvigorate the genre, which has lacked proper bridges and engaging melody for far, far too long now. Welcome back, pop.

5. Wilco – Cruel Country

Inasmuch as I am a diehard music fan, and diehard music fans are expected to like certain bands, Wilco is not a band that I’ve cherished. It’s always been about Jeff Tweety’s voice. I have certain tolerances for out-of-tune singing in rock music (Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and classic Bob Dylan being my borders), but in classic Wilco, Jeff Tweedy never even seemed to care about being in tune. Well, as it turns out, he does. While it would be great (for me) if Wilco could go back and re-record Sky Blue Sky and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the vein of Taylor Swift, Cruel Country is ample compensation. It’s as fine an album as they have ever done, with Tweedy’s best singing ever, fantastic ensemble playing (helped, no doubt, by being present in the studio as a proper band), some of the best songwriting the band has ever seen, and topped off with an outstanding audiophile recording quality. Plus, Many Worlds might be the best song of the year, period.

6. Phoenix – Alpha Zulu

If Harry Styles led the year in great pop music, Phoenix provided the follow-through, with superb pop hooks and collaborations with the likes of Ezra Koenig. A warming end to the year, with promises of melody ahead. I look forward to 2023; I’ve a feeling it will be the best year for music in ages.

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Antipatterns Empathy

A Vacation and a Cell Phone Walk Into a Theme Park…

“I suppose,” I said to my family, “that this is a sure sign that I am getting old, having a hard time relating to the younger generation.”

“No,” replied my 20-year old niece. “All my friends say the same thing. They hate it, too.”

This particular exchange occurred while I was vacationing with my family this past Thanksgiving week. We had just discovered that — despite a distressing amount of preparatory work that should never be required for something called a vacation — there was no place where we could sit down to a simple lunch without a reservation. We were informed that we had to find a place willing to feed us; enter a lunch order on one of our mobile phones; and wait for a time to pick our food up, sit down, and eat.

Imagine our family of seven, all perusing menus on our phones, finally passing around a single phone (I don’t recall how we chose the winner) to enter our orders in the midday sun, taking time to review everything one more time before pressing “submit order.” Then began the indeterminate countdown to lunchtime. How does it feel to spend 30 minutes out of an expensive 8 hour day doing something so “non-value-added?”

Then I looked around more closely, and saw that everybody else was doing the Same. Darn. Thing. Thus began a weeklong journey in lessons of customer experience.

I don’t know that I ever imagined a day when Walt Disney World would find so many ways to alienate its visitors.

I once had rule that I would not touch a computer when I was on vacation. Then airlines began using phones as a primary means of alerting us all to delays, and that rule began to erode. Leading into this particular vacation, it became clear that web sites and phones were going to be part of the daily experience. We needed Magic Bands. We needed the My Disney Experience app. All of this, as it turns out, is part of a concept Disney calls MyMagic+. Part of this is the Disney Genie+ Service. Please read those last two links. They are lessons in missing the point.

As our first day wore on, and my family worked hard (!) to achieve the experiences we desired, I could not unsee the vast amount of time people were spending on their cell phones rather than enjoying real-life experiences.

The afternoon of November 21, 2022 at Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida

These photos were taken on Sunday, November 21, 2022…just hours before Disney’s Board of Directors brought Bob Iger back as CEO. That day led to a week of me pondering: Should a vacation require that you so regularly employ personal technology? How did Disney get here? This is not The Disney Way.

As that evening wore on, shortly after the Iger announcement, I began to recall a passage from the book User Tested: How the World’s Top Companies Use Human Insight to Create Great Experiences:

In the 1950s, smooth-tasting Arabica coffee beans began to rise in price, in part because they were delicate and prone to dying under cold or inclement weather conditions. So, in 1954, Maxwell House, a popular brand of grocery store coffee, began blending Robusta beans into their mix to lower costs.

Not only are Robusta beans cheaper and more plentifully grown—they’re pest and weather resistant.(1). Unfortunately, they taste bitter and harsh. To mitigate this issue, Maxwell House introduced Robusta slowly and gradually so customers could acclimate to the flavor. They performed user tests along the way, asking longtime drinkers of Maxwell House to weigh in, and virtually none of them noticed a difference between all-Arabica and Arabica cut with a hint of Robusta. So they continued to add more Robusta, test among loyal customers, and roll out blends with less and less Arabica.

For many years sales boomed and profits were healthy, but over the decades, sales began to decline. Maxwell House’s U.S. market share in fresh and instant coffee sales fell from 8 percent in 2013 to 6.7 percent in 2019, and in April of 2019 parent company Kraft Heinz was attempting to sell off the once-iconic brand.(2) So what went wrong?

Maxwell House consistently found that longtime customers were happy with their product. Weren’t they doing everything right?

Not quite.

The company was only asking current customers for input, the people who had been slowly acclimating their palates to a Robusta-dominant blend. New customers who tried Maxwell House for the first time frequently hated it, so the company was failing to attract new buyers.

Had they run user tests with both current and prospective customers, they may have avoided this mistake and saved their brand.(3)

When you’re planning a round of user testing, you can’t invite just anyone to the party. And, surprisingly, you can’t always just invite your current customers to weigh in either. Deciding who to consult to get the perspectives that matter to your company requires a thoughtful approach.

Substitute “Disney cast member” for “customer” above, and I think you will get a sense for what I was thinking. This experience was the result of insidiously-introduced Robusta without enough new taste testers to spit it all out. But here we were, Arabica drinkers all…

If it weren’t for my niece’s comment, I would have been surprised to find this set of Google results as I was reading about Bob Iger’s return that Sunday night.

Google search results: “disney world too much tech not enough fun”

Since so much has already been written about Disney’s current state of affairs — prior to Iger’s return, and since — it has taken me three months to decide if I have anything meaningful to add to the canon. The piece you are reading has been in flux during those months; I finally decided here in early February what it was that I wanted to share.

In the teaching side of my career, we spend considerable energy encouraging software engineers to define metrics that can be used to help articulate success or failures in their products and processes. Rarely have I ever seen a team define “reduced user engagement time” as one of those metrics. One smart blogger I found seems to get it, but this particular search will help you appreciate just how upside-down the world can be.

A key goal of every piece of technology (with the exception of games and related experiences) should be: get all users done with it as quickly as possible so they can get back to other things. How many of your own projects actively strive for reduced user engagement?

I’m fairly certain that Bob Iger wasn’t forced to use his phone for anything during his recent visit to the park.. What does “going back to the office” mean for him? I suggest that it means that every employee responsible for UX at Walt Disney World strap on a Magic Band, plan a week at the park, and let their bosses know at the end if working at home was actually more relaxing. I know what my answer would be.

My family has long loved the Disney experience. But this trip left all of us with the same feeling: there is no need to go back as long as this is the way things are. Several post-vacation discussions have revealed that my family is not alone in feeling this way—and let’s not forget my niece’s friends, either. While I have some good memories from my recent trip — it wasn’t all bad — one stands out above all others: a renewed interest in doing everything in my power to ensure that reduced user engagement is a part of every technology initiative I undertake. On top of it all, I will seek vacation experiences that underscore these values.

The notion of vacation involves leaving something; one of those things should be the trappings of technology that we have every non-vacationing day of the year. Walt Disney Land and Walt Disney World both existed for decades before cell phones did. There is no reason other than shareholder return that it can’t operate the way it once did. Disney shareholders would do well to understand the correlation between reduced user engagement and long term shareholder return, lest they find themselves delighting in Robusta while missing out on investments in companies who care more deeply about the human experience.

The best software is the kind you can finish using as soon as possible.

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Read Other People’s Stuff

Read Other People’s Stuff: 3

From Stephen Wolfram, this is simply the most lucid (but lengthy) analysis of how Large Language Models like ChatGPT work:

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Current Events: 2023 Read Other People’s Stuff

Read Other People’s Stuff: 4

After naming the Ethereum Merge as The Progressive CIO 2022 Technology of the Year, I thought that some people might think I was out of my mind for looking past ChatGPT, which I didn’t think was all that remarkable of a technical achievement in comparison.

Here we are a few months later, and Noam Chomsky & friends put words to the feelings I could not readily express in December.

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