Ethereum Contributors Series // Issue #04 MrYukonC / Brian Lawson
In our previous issue we interviewed Jarred Chase about TheEtherian and his involvement in the community. That and all of the previous issues of Ethereum Contributors Series as well as our other series Ethereum DApp Creators can be found at https://blog.status.im/
This time we’ll be diving into the Ethereum community from the perspective of Brian (known by his handle MrYukonC), and discuss the world of VR in blockchains, and the fall of TheDAO.
This interview series is about the people who are actively involved with projects in the Ethereum ecosystem, and also includes some of our very own contributors to Status.
Hello Brian, let’s get started with something light, what’s your favourite ice cream? I’m a pretty structured person and my life is intentionally pretty simple. I’ve always been health and fitness conscious and strive to maintain a reasonable balance between work and health. Because of that, I don’t get to eat a lot of ice cream. But when I do, I always seem to go for the chocolate chip cookie dough :) Okay, on a bit more serious note, could you tell us about your background and how you discovered Ethereum? I studied Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1990’s. After graduating, I spent the next decade working in the video game industry as a software engineer on a variety of projects. My interest in Ethereum follows a somewhat winding path. It all started when I watched the movie The Rise and Rise of Bitcoin in mid-2015. After watching the movie I instantly started researching the alt-coin scene to see if there was anything at the time that could still be mined with consumer-grade hardware, since Bitcoin had long since moved onto requiring specialized hardware. I stumbled across Myriadcoin (now Myriad) and essentially dove head-first into learning how to mine it. It was worth very little, so mining it was more for the experience than anything else. Since leaving the mainstream game industry in 2009, I have been working in the simulation industry on projects that support a variety of different interests and efforts. Had it not been for that, I’m confident I would have eventually found my way to Ethereum somehow, some way. Ethereum has quickly become such a powerful force in the world of computing and decentralization that it’s only a matter of time before its name is as ubiquitous as Bitcoin’s. I was fortunate to discover Ethereum relatively early courtesy of a comment I saw by a random (at the time) Redditor. One day in August 2015, while scrolling through the Myriad sub-Reddit, I saw someone comment about how dead it seemed. A user by the name of Meziti replied with something along the lines of “everyone is over playing with the new cool kid on the block, Ethereum”. And that was it — that was the line that planted the seed for me. Initially, I took a quick look at Ethereum and it looked interesting. But I wasn’t sure if the excitement was real or if it was going to die down. After a few weeks passed, I checked back and things were still buzzing. At that point I took the plunge and reconfigured my small Myriad miners for Ethereum mining. From there, I just kept adding more and more GPUs and mining rigs. I ended up with about 50 GPUs and mining rigs all across the house — in bathrooms, on top of the refrigerator, in closets, in the master bedroom, etc. — on pretty much all circuits throughout the house. The heat and noise were unbelievable for a residential setting, but it was so worth it. It was worth it because it allowed me to directly support something that I believed would become revolutionary technology. So for the first year, I mined from September 2015 — September 2016 and was heavily active in the mining community. I spent a lot of my time in the Mining section of the official Ethereum forums helping other miners get started, helping them solve problems, and helping them optimize their mining setups. It was very rewarding and a lot of fun.
Some of the mining equipment
What was it about the blockchain technology that got you hooked?
As a software engineer and someone who’s always been into technology, I think it was bound to happen given enough time. It’s interesting, because I’ve known about Bitcoin for a long time, probably as early as 2011-ish. But for some reason it just never appealed to me the way Ethereum did. I think Ethereum’s programmability and flexibility is what appeals to many people, especially developers. I see the ecosystem and synergy that is currently forming on top of Ethereum continuing to blossom into something much more substantial over the coming years.
You’ve been around in the Ethereum community for a while now, what would you say has changed in the community in the past year?
It’s pretty evident the community has grown in physical size and scope in terms of the sheer number of people who have been drawn in and are now participating in some form or fashion. Whether it be developing, organizing, evangelizing, educating, etc. A year ago the community seemed much more amorphous. Today, things seem much more structured and that structure continues to improve with every month that goes by.
You’ve also been making this awesome video series about Ethereum, how did you get started on that?
Ironically, it was TheDAO. There was so much noise on Reddit and so much to say about all of the “moral” and “ideological” issues surrounding the hard fork that it became impractical to keep typing out the same walls of text every time someone wanted to engage in the debate. Thus, it was easier and quicker to cover more ground in a few minutes of speaking versus typing for 10 minutes only to cover ¼ of what I wanted to say.
The early videos were met with tremendous support from the community and it was their support and encouragement that motivated me to continue producing them.
What has been the biggest change in the community caused by the fall of theDAO in your opinion?
Hindsight is always 20/20 and time usually heals all wounds. Looking back, and as painful as TheDAO was at the time, it was really a blessing in disguise — mainly because it happened so early.
In my opinion, I think the TheDAO forced the community as a whole to take a step back and ask:
- What went wrong and how?
- How can we prevent something like this from ever happening again?
The answers to those questions resulted in two key areas of emphasis:
- Investors needed to be more grounded and more diligent in their risk assessments and evaluations of future projects.
- Developers needed to prioritize security and smart contract development best practices above all else.
They say the first part of solving a problem is acknowledging the problem to begin with. I think the community took that challenge head on. Today, you see much more focus and rigorous discussion surrounding smart contract design and security. There has been a ton of “best practices” documentation written since then and a number of people and projects are working specifically on tools to help verify smart contracts and their security.
So how do you keep up-to-date on all the things that are going on in the Ethereum space?
Right now my main sources of information for all things Ethereum are the official Ethereum blog and Reddit. /r/ethereum and /r/ethtrader are great because they are essentially crowdsourced news and always have a very steady stream of news and information flowing through them.
Are you currently working on something that is Ethereum related?
I’m not working on anything official at the moment. However, I am actively researching and developing some ideas along with some proofs of concept. My main interests have always been 3D visualization and finding interesting ways to apply visualization concepts to worthwhile datasets.
I’ve been experimenting with ways to visualize the network, network transactions, and the blockchain’s history in general. There’s a lot of data to contend with — millions of blocks with several times that in terms of transaction count. Finding fast and efficient ways to display even portions of that data in realtime is a challenge. Luckily, I’ve had some great conversations with QuickBlocks.io, who is working on efforts to pre-process Ethereum’s chain data in such a way as to facilitate super-fast queries that would greatly benefit tasks like realtime visualization.
My most recent prototype was a realtime VR-based block and TX viewer.
3D visualization of the Ethereum blockchain in VR
VR is a rather interesting technological evolution, how can Virtual Reality benefit from Ethereum?
VR is currently a niche extension of video games because that’s the path of least resistance and the next logical evolution in video game visualization. In due time VR will mature into something much more than that — an industry in its own right. There will be virtual trips, tours, training, services, courses, and all kinds of applications we haven’t thought of yet.
I think Ethereum could very easily underpin a digital content distribution platform (a la Valve’s Steam) where both video games and VR apps and services can be purchased. The sky really is the limit on that front as those types of services are poised for complete and total disruption.
Another seemingly natural fit for Ethereum is in-app purchases for content creators.
Beyond that, I think Ethereum coupled with Swarm could be used to serve all kinds of persistent and globally accessible video game and VR-specific data — from level data to character data, to user preferences and settings.
What about the gaming industry where you used to work, how could they benefit from Ethereum? What about eSports?
The video game industry has been an especially difficult nut to crack for the smaller independent (“indie”) developers and even mid-size developers to some degree.
Nearly all avenues for title distribution are gated by publishers (i.e. middlemen) looking to extract their pound of flesh in exchange for letting you through their gate. Many publishers won’t even consider a game if they don’t find it interesting or worthwhile. Thus, a decentralized distribution platform built on top of Ethereum and Swarm would empower the developers to create and publish what they want instead of what the publishers want.
In addition, it would return the free market back to the hands of the consumers by giving them access to all titles, versus having the list of available titles restricted and dictated to them by the publishers.
Admittedly, I’m less familiar with eSports. But, there are ample opportunities there for developers to leverage Ethereum for the arbitration and settlement of matches, competitions, etc.
So what is it about Ethereum that makes it interesting to you? What makes it different from the other blockchains?
I find the entire concept of returning power to the people via digital, peer-to-peer decentralization to be the most interesting aspect of Ethereum. Specifically, I find Ethereum’s support for smart contracts and programmable functionality to be what puts it at the forefront. That makes it one of the most exciting and interesting innovations in blockchain technology to date.
From a technical perspective, I believe the smart contract functionality is the key difference. I find it intuitive to think of Ethereum as a platform above all else, upon which developers can build their applications and services.
From a governance perspective, I find that The Ethereum Foundation strives to maintain a healthy working relationship with the community and that all of the members are publicly known. I think many of the key players, in addition to being brilliant, are able to communicate the vision and goals of the project in a way that helps everyday people better understand them.
Do you see that these functionalities could make Ethereum able to disrupt existing fields in the future? What kind of effects could it have to society?
I see Ethereum disrupting all kinds of existing fields in the near future. We are already seeing signs of it happening with the advent of things like the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. In my opinion, any field that is built on top of or uses any kind of distribution model for their products or services is ripe for disruption. Off the top of my head, things like digital content distribution (YouTube, Netflix, various app stores), commodity sales, tracking, distribution, social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), infrastructure taxing (road and bridge tolls), etc. are all areas that are available for disruption.
I think it will happen over time as intelligent business minds learn more and more about Ethereum and begin to truly understand the ways in which it can be leveraged to help reduce costs and streamline various processes.
Ethereum has the power to positively affect those who choose to educate themselves and think critically about the concepts of decentralization. Specifically, social or financial instruments that people use or interact with on a daily basis that can be cost-reduced and/or optimized by applying decentralized concepts are prime candidates for Ethereum-ization :)
Do you think that the Ethereum Web 3.0 stack could surpass the traditional internet protocols in the future?
Yes, absolutely. I am fortunate to have lived through the transition to what we know today as the mainstream internet. We have learned so much since then about the general population’s ability to grasp and adopt new concepts (http/web, @/email) and technologies (smart phones).
I see a lot of intelligence in the way that Ethereum and many of its DApps are being developed and deployed. People may need to add a few new concepts (bzz:// and shh://) to their internet lexicon. But with any luck, using the Web 3.0 may end up being completely frictionless because so many DApp developers are doing a great job of abstracting away the interaction with underlying decentralized network.
What would you say that the people in the community can do to make this a reality?
I think they can help by being passionate about it and by engaging in factual conversation about it with people who show interest but don’t know where or how to get started. They can also help test projects (like Status!). There are so many projects out there now — find a project or two that interests you and start using it. Developers love (and need) all the help they can get when it comes to stress testing and identifying bugs.
Tech savvy people can help educate new people who may be having a hard time understanding the general concepts of blockchain and decentralization. If they are developers, they can directly apply their skills to any of the various DApps that are under development, or even any of the various Ethereum clients that are under development.
Speaking of Dapps, which ones do you find the most exciting ones?
I think the citizens of the world would benefit immensely from a stable coin, and I see Maker’s Dai as the best opportunity to achieve that.
I think it’s impossible to overstate the significance of successful mobile market penetration in terms of bringing digital products and services to the masses in the 21st century. I see the work that Status is doing with their Ethereum social app/browser and feel like they are leading the way on that effort.
Consider for a second the power that people will have at their fingertips with a fully functional mobile Ethereum client providing the ability to use DApps and to privately communicate with and send Ether to their friends, families, and contacts. It’s amazing to think about, much less see it becoming a reality.
If you could have any kind of Dapp pop-up fully functional on Ethereum right now, what would it be?
It would have to be stable coin technology. It’s pretty much the holy grail of financial instruments and it’s apparently a very tough thing to get right. If and when that happens, I think it will be such a beneficial tool that it will no doubt have very far reaching and long lasting impacts. I see it having the biggest impacts socially, in terms of providing an escape hatch for the citizens around the world that have been subjected to the abusive government fiscal and monetary policies of the past decade.
What do you see as something that’s currently missing from Ethereum that would improve it?
Right now, it’s probably transaction privacy. Fortunately, it looks like that will be brought online with the release of Metropolis. It’s amazing how well things have come together for Ethereum. Lots of credit goes to the architects of the protocol and the software engineering teams implementing the protocol across the various clients out there.
Any obstacles that you see in the future?
Without doubt, I believe the biggest hurdle to overcome is on-chain scaling. In my opinion, finalizing and successfully deploying Serenity/Casper should be the top priority. Fortunately, it appears as though Vitalik, Vlad, et al. seem to have a really good handle on those issues and I am confident they will navigate those hurdles successfully.
People usually just talk about the blockchain, but the Ethereum stack consists of multiple pieces, Swarm has gotten some attention lately, but there’s also Whisper, which do you think should get the most attention during 2017?
I believe all three deserve as much attention as they can get since they are all critical to realizing the full vision of Ethereum. If I had to choose one, I would say Whisper. I think that people have essentially been stripped of their digital privacy courtesy of centralized tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, etc. selling them out. Thus, I think Whisper serves as an opportunity to level the playing field and return privacy rights and management back to the hands of the users, where it belongs.
What are you looking forward to from the year 2017?
I’m looking forward to the emergence of Ethereum as the premiere blockchain in 2017. I’m also really looking forward to the release of the Ethereum Name Service, the Raiden Lightning Network, the transition to Metropolis, as well as the first wave of first-class DApp releases (Digix 2.0, Maker’s Dai, Status, Augur, Gnosis, UPort, Golem, etc.). I am also anxious to learn more details about Serenity and Casper.
Thanks Brian, it was very nice to hear your thoughts and experience on the Ethereum community and its future!
Thank you for this opportunity. It has been a great pleasure!