Blockchain Current Events: 2021 Current Events: 2022 Current Events: 2023

Blockchain Bunk

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Seth Godin on NFTs. Thank you, Seth.

I cannot think of a technology with more nerdy complexity that has been popularized as brainlessly as blockchain. Even the best technology communicators remain challenged to concisely and adequately explain blockchain and its attendant dynamics to the average person. It might actually be easier to explain relativity than it is to explain blockchain.

In a world where soundbites rule, this is a problem.

In the industry I serve as a technology professional, people routinely opine that blockchain is a solution to food supply chain traceability. It’s not. Here’s an interaction I had with a university professor last year, who had written a major scholarly article supporting blockchain in the food supply chain:

Dear Dr. {name withheld},

Happy new year! During the holidays, I got caught up on a bunch of journal reading that had been piling up over the fall, and I happened upon your thoughtful article in {journal withheld}.

I’m very much in the middle of the food supply chain, and my feelings about the use of blockchain are perhaps a bit different from others’. The idea of blockchain for the food supply chain has baffled me. In my estimation, blockchain can only truly safeguard digital products and transactions, not physical ones, which are subject to human tampering that is difficult to prevent in many product categories. I honor and respect blockchain’s ability to provide a ledger, but since the digital metadata for physical product can so easily be severed from that product in a variety of ways, I am not sure that blockchain’s robustness is as meaningful as it is with fully digital assets. Surely a less resource-intensive ledger method can provide a level of assuredness that is on par with what blockchain could provide, without wrongly implying that there is a 0% chance that product could have been tampered with by interstitial handlers.

Do you have any thoughts on this matter, and what I might be missing?

Thank you for your thoughts!


His response?

Hi Drew: You are right — there is no 100% certainty that food products are not tampered. Blockchain deployment in food supply chain may increase the costs of engaging in fraudulent activities. Combining with other technologies such as AI, robust QR codes might help . . . . Other benefits of blockchain may include brand reputation (consumers’ better perception of the brand), efficiency, speed, reliability and reduction in paperwork with digitization.

Who cares if the food is tampered with? Blockchain is good for consumer brand perception. Makes sense. </sarcasm>

This stuff is all over the place:

“…the ledger is considered immune to tampering.”

But what about those boxes?

Blockchain is useful for a few things, but its true and original value proposition is in the protection of digital things that need to pass from entity to entity. Bitcoin? Of course. Food? Not so much.

None of this even takes into account people’s misunderstanding of how much power blockchain takes to do what it does.

Thankfully, Seth did that.

Do you have stories about people employing blockchain in senseless ways, guided by their misunderstanding of it all? Join the discussion at the links below.

April 5, 2021 update: More bunk.

January 19, 2022 update:

May 17, 2022 update: People are catching on.

June 7, 2022 update: More bunk.

June 28, 2022 update: A great exposé on the bunk.

November 8, 2022 update: Could this be any more obvious?

December 2, 2022 update:

May 20, 2023 update: The Price of Crypto.

September 24, 2023 update: NFTs are officially bullshit.

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Current Events: 2023 Read Other People’s Stuff

Read Other People’s Stuff: 4

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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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Current Events: 2023 Willingness

ChatGPT Challenges Us to Focus on Better Things. Are We Up for It?

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Is a written piece inherently valuable?

Does the world need more writing?

Does it need more writers?

Or would it benefit from more original thought?

While I am not exactly mesmerized by ChatGPT, I do enjoy it as much as any new toy I’ve had in my hands throughout my life. There is no doubt that it can — and, likely, will — have a significant and positive role in the development of our civilization. I am aware that this is at odds with much of what is being written of late, so if you choose to proceed reading, I appreciate your willingness.

I am thankful for the public discourse that all manner of generative AI has spurred in the last five months, but as with all major shifts, it is amusing to watch people struggling to keep things in historic perspective. As with Clever Hans or many other magic tricks, it’s wise for onlookers to get a grip on the reality behind the illusion. Generative AI is merely the world’s most advanced parrot, underpinned by an ingenious application of statistics. If you haven’t read that last link (courtesy of Stephen Wolfram), you owe it to yourself, because it is simply the most lucid explanation of ChatGPT that has ever been written for people unschooled in the art.

TL;DR? Generative AI uses a corpus of previously-written material to generate new-ish content that is statistically derived from that corpus. In other words, the likes of ChatGPT are superb at repeating phrases that have already been uttered across all of written history, at lightning speed. And that is about it.

People are worried, as they always seem to be when it appears that the need for certain skills might disappear. Once you’ve taken it all in, however, you might feel relieved about the potential for large language models and generative AI to refine the menial work that we do so that we can focus on better things.

In the world of software engineering education, where I spend some of my most interesting off-hours, some are concerned about the ability for generative AI to interfere with learning the art of programming. Nonetheless, the best educators already have experience with the manual means to the same end: things like Stack Overflow, SourceForge, GitHub, and other similar repositories that amplify the adage that discourages us all from reinventing the wheel: “The best programmers are lazy programmers.” Because of this, these leading instructors are in the process of inverting their curricula with an emphasis on expository exercises that have students explain what their generated and third-party code is doing.

Education asks us to learn, and learning involves a balance of creation and understanding. Is one more essential than the other? Does one have to be able to create in order to understand? Or is one better off developing understanding to foster creation?

You may recall grade school science projects that involve electricity…wiring up a battery with a light bulb to make a quiz circuit; generating electricity from a potato; electromagnets; crystal radios; and so forth. My father and two of my older brothers were in the electronics industry. When I came home one afternoon in the late 1970s with my sixth grade project assignment, my family’s expectations took me by surprise. They felt I needed to present a project that plugged into a wall outlet, involving electronic components. They proceeded to conceive of a flashing neon tube project that involved a diode, a resistor, and a capacitor, similar to what you see in this video, but finished cleanly with professional soldering and clear heat-shrink tubing, installed on an attractive piece of 70s-era plywood paneling with labels on the back.

I was puzzled. Was my family encouraging me to cheat? They assured me that I wouldn’t be getting away with anything. They demanded that I learn the principles of the diode, the resistor, the capacitor, the physics behind the neon tube, and had me explain those back to them, countless times, in my own words, before I set foot in school with my assembled project.

I sat alongside them as parts were selected and as the project was assembled.

The day I walked into class with my paneling-mounted electronics, I watched a few presentations that employed D-cells and lantern batteries. When I was called, I nervously walked to the front of the room and plugged my little project into the outlet in the black-top lab desk. While I got a small thrill from being different from everyone else, I was still nervous, and I am sure I remember the teacher looking a little worried himself.

It went well. My fellow students were as astonished as I was about the bright, blinking light. We all learned something in the process. My classmates learned about things that weren’t in the curriculum, and I learned this: It’s one thing to make something; it’s a whole other thing to be able to explain how and why it works.

My teacher surprised me with an “A” grade, and I learned not only something about electronics…I learned a lesson in education that I still can’t forget.

At some point in the next 10 years, our workforce will see the demotion of scores of software engineers who eschew generative AI programming. If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself: would you, today, tolerate a software engineer or IT professional who refused to use a search engine to find solutions to a technical problem? Of course not; you’d fire them as soon as you could.

I’ve heard some software engineering instructors wonder how bad generative AI will make things for liberal arts educators. But the answers are strikingly similar on that side of campus.

In this blog, where we discuss matters relating to the nexus of liberal arts and technology, it’s worth referencing a simple but commonly-overlooked fact: writing itself is a technology. Predating the written word was the oral tradition, where people composed stories of easy-to-remember “epithets” to create stories like Homer’s Odyssey. The invention of writing liberated people from epithets, allowing people to string together create fanciful combinations of words that — to people’s horror! — could not be remembered without referring to the medium to which they were committed. If you are curious about the details of this consequential and antique technological transformation, I could not recommend a work more highly than Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy.

Since writing is a technology — and not at all natural – we would do well to remember that enhancements to any technology are normal, and not to be considered at odds with what is natural. Much writing that we do today is what one might call “perfunctory.” Think of the vast number of forgettable emails and text messages that we hurtle back and forth each day, whose purpose is merely to drive a larger conversation about a single concept. It’s perfectly fine to have help typing those thoughts out in a way that relieves our fingers and saves us time.

We have names for certain classes of communication. Linguists have a term for the most routine communication that we employ every day: phatic. The world of generative AI presents us with an opportunity to expand our palette. Consider the following:

  • Phatic communication (greetings and other similar pleasantries)
  • Perfunctory communication (emails; simple essays about basic concepts; text messages; common persuasive communication; and other forgettable acts of discourse)
  • High-value communication (first-person journalism; original documentary writing; poetry; creative writing; lyricism; cognitive dissonance; and other forms of inventive discourse that are designed to be memorable and durable)

Generative AI is likely to find its greatest application helping us deliver perfunctory communication with breathtaking ease and speed, in the very same way that calculators help us all with a wide variety of perfunctory mathematical tasks, allowing educators to focus on teaching skills that support high-value communication, where we ask the human mind to be entirely engaged.

Consider works such as:

Want to be the first person to put “Expert texpert” in front of “choking smokers?” Generative AI isn’t going to get you there. Inventive combinations of words like these are at complete odds with the statistical models behind generative AI. They are high-value in that they are landmark works that have inspired millions if not billions of people through their originality of construction. Imagine a world of liberal arts education that focuses on the ability to craft these sorts of works? The degree in “letters” might be transformed, for the better.

What does all of this portend for education in any discipline that is affected by generative AI? We would do best to ensure that we engage students to explain the reasoning behind their work in real time. This is not a new concept, but it’s an unfortunately rarified one, reserved for pivotal moments like the defense of a thesis. Education would be transformed, but teachers would have to work much harder. Of course, things that are hard are things worth doing.

Consider what it might be like to re-focus on the talents that have been neglected since the days of the oral tradition: speaking that inspires and creates movement.

Imagine a day when we frown upon PowerPoint presentations, and look forward to our fellow humans speaking extemporaneously and creatively, from their hearts, providing insight and inspiration at the times we need it most.

Imagine a day when our programmers are freed from writing login screens, and where they can focus on creating user experiences that not only save us time, but touch our hearts and souls with software that provides insight and inspiration.

Many are concerned about how “correct” generative AI is; they are alarmed by the potential effect of “hallucinations.” But these notions are not new; every book on every shelf of every library is written and edited by fallible human beings, a great deal of whom acted out of not only ignorance, but out of self-interest or with ill intent. Consumers of information have always had a duty to think critically before acting on that information. They still do.

Technology changes how we live. Writing’s initial gift was a reduction in our need to remember details. Writing’s second gift was its ability to be mass-produced, bringing us more-or-less perfect one-to-many communication. Writing’s third gift was its ability to show us how repetitive and perfunctory so much of our communication is. Generative AI gives us a chance to make perfunctory communication — and programming — even more perfunctory, liberating us for better things…if only we allow ourselves the opportunity.

Once more:

Is a written piece inherently valuable?

Does the world need more writing?

Does it need more writers?

Or would it benefit from more original thought?

Since writing is a technology — and not at all natural – we would do well to remember that enhancements to any technology are normal, and not to be considered at odds with what is natural.

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Current Events: 2023

A Plea for Balance

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When you read studies like this, which was published last week, how do you feel?

I feel apprehensive.

At universities around the United States, the troubling decline in investment in the classic well-rounded liberal arts education continues unabated. This decline has its roots, no doubt, in a decline in interest for the humanities. A high-profile article in The New Yorker earlier this year documented and lamented the decline of the English major. An editorial counterpoint in The New York Times tried to explain what might be behind that.

American universities continue their massive investment shifts away from the humanities and toward STEM. Politics aside, the 2023 Pew study “finds that, despite recent declines in ratings, scientists and medical scientists continue to be held in high regard compared with other prominent groups in society. Smaller shares of Americans express confidence in business leaders, religious leaders, journalists and elected officials to act in the public’s best interests. As with scientists, most of these groups have seen their ratings decline in recent years.”

Our value system holds scientists in high regard; high schools award varsity letters for robotics teams; universities are hailing STEM über alles; and it’s clear that parents today are as hopeful for their engineering students’ future as they might have been for their medical students’ future a generation ago.

Yet Americans find themselves worried about their country’s competitive edge and feel we aren’t pushing STEM hard enough.

What’s missing? Fareed Zakaria got it right back in 2014. The sciences can’t thrive without a foundation in the humanities, which are simultaneously served by science and are of service to it. My life’s work, founded in rhetorical theory and invested in STEM, was inspired by Aristotle’s opening line of The Rhetoric: “ἡ ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῇ διαλεκτικῇ” (“Rhetoric is a counterpart of Dialectic.”) To distill the essence: There is more to philosophical debate than logic. To extend the metaphor: there is much more to life than what is scientifically, mathematically, or logically provable.

I cannot think of a period in history where we have nurtured such an imbalance in our educational values.

What do you think it will take for our American education system to come to terms with this?

If your non-traditional professional path resembles mine in any way whatsoever, I want to hear from you.

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Current Events: 2023

The TL;DR of This Year’s Best ChatGPT Explainer

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Technology leaders have had a banner year explaining generative AI to their companies’ leaders. Stephen Wolfram gave the world a wonderful (and, admittedly, not romantic) Valentine’s Day gift this year with his lucid essay, “What Is ChatGPT Doing … and Why Does It Work?”, whose only downside was its length. Visit the link and check out the size of your scrollbar to see what I mean. It’s turned into a bestselling book, to boot.

This is simply the best explainer of ChatGPT written to date. I’ve loaded this essay into my browser and displayed parts of it on large screens in the past 10 months more times that I can count. What it helped me understand is that ChatGPT is nothing more than an ingenious application of statistics, and if you can help others absorb this, it opens minds to what it’s actually doing…its limitations…and some good reasons why we shouldn’t be freaking out about it.

I’ve found that the following eight simple portions of Dr. Wolfram’s essay distill the essence of what he’s teaching us:

1) Start by looking at a small sample of text and count the number of times the letters occur:

2) Look what happens if we do the same with a larger sample of text:

3) Start using these probabilities to generate strings of letters, and throw in some spaces:

4) Compare the probabilities for letters to occur on their own…

5) …with the probabilities of them occurring in combination:

6) Then see what happens if we understand the probabilities of them occurring in longer sequences (2/3/4/5 letters at a time)…Wow! Just with this sort of application of statistics, we start getting words!

7) What happens if we do the same with combinations of words, rather than just letters? ChatGPT!

8) Best of all…what this shows us is how utterly formulaic and predictable most of our writing is!

That last part is truly important, and I don’t think enough of this year’s discourse has amplified that point. This is the principal reason that I asserted back in April that ChatGPT Challenges Us to Focus on Better Things. Are We Up for It?

I hope that this TL;DR version of Stephen’s generous essay can help you explain how ChatGPT works to others. Do yourself a favor, though, and give it a full read if you can. It’s well-written and worth your while.

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Current Events: 2023 Technology of the Year

Technology of the Year – 2023 Edition

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I published the 2022 edition of Technology of the Year on December 12, 2022, which was less than two weeks after the public release of this year’s winner, ChatGPT. What a year it has been.

ChatGPT ticks all the boxes of a successful technology:

Beyond that, there isn’t much I can add that I haven’t already shared in my April post, ChatGPT Challenges Us to Focus on Better Things. Are We Up for It?

ChatGPT is the Progressive CIO Technology of the Year for 2023.

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Albums of the Year Current Events: 2023

Albums of the Year, 2023 Edition

🎹 Music for this post is the music for this post.

This year was saw a vast improvement in the music landscape. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that we are done with people’s “lockdown” albums, and people are writing and performing music together more often, bringing music back to pre-pandemic levels, for which I am grateful. There are a few things in this list that I noticed didn’t make any of this year’s more popular “best of” lists, which pleases me, and I hope you find joy discovering them here. Beyond that, this year saw me appreciating new music from performers who arguably peaked in the past.

1. Gord Downie & Bob Rock – Lustre Parfait

I live a few hours away from Kingston, ON, where Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip were formed and worshiped in a way that, were they a U.S. act, would have seen them become world-famous. To hear something this fresh-sounding, 6 years after Gord’s death was, to me, the musical event of 2023. If you are not familiar with The Hip’s work, consider this to be an entry point to the past, where, I promise, you will find much to love.

2. Peter Gabriel – i/o

I’m unabashedly a Genesis fan, and, separately, a Peter Gabriel fan. Here, we have a 73-year-old artist releasing an album that is as good as anything he released in his past, which is an accomplishment even the Rolling Stones couldn’t quite achieve this year. What a gift, and a delight.

3. Nation of Language – Strange Discipline

A youthful act with an appreciation for the past that brought many smiles to my ears this year. If Mozart was a student of Haydn, then Nation of Language ares students of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in precisely the same way. We are lucky to have a fresh take on this music from the past. A simple joy of 2023.

4. Young Fathers – Heavy Heavy

Young Fathers take hip-hop and make it a true ensemble act, with an interplay, passion, and musicality that I wish more U.S. hip-hop acts would attempt. This is wonderful, daring music, full of texture, creativity, passion, and message. I’ve loved every one of their albums, and this one is no exception.

5. Yo La Tengo – This Stupid World

Here we have another band on this list that’s been around for 40 years, but this time, arguably at the very top of their game. Brilliantly performed and recorded, this is grand, creative, and as current-sounding as any young act today. On top of that, I don’t think anybody can make a Telecaster (undoubtedly my favorite guitar) sound the way that Ira Kaplan can.

6. Low Cut Connie – Art Dealers

This is, possibly, the most under-noticed and under-rated album of the year. A great piece in the Low Cut Connie canon, this album got more play time in my earbuds and stereo in the last three weeks of this year than I expected. While I like to let an album settle for a few months to appreciate its impact and perspective, I am sure this belongs with the others on this list. Great stuff, and a great sound to bridge us to what is, hopefully, a grand year of music in 2024.

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