EDCON ’18 Highlights
Last weekend I had the opportunity to head up to Toronto for EDCON 2018, the second Community Ethereum Development Conference. This is billed as a conference “by developers for developers,” so even though there was a guest appearance by a troupe of dancing badgers, it was really all about the technology and strengthening the Ethereum developer community.
Casper and scaling were two of the most widely discussed topics, but there was so much going on and so many thought-provoking speakers that’s it’s taken a few days to let it all sink in. After having some time to digest it all, here are some top highlights from my three days in Toronto.
Proof-of-Stake and Scaling: Ethereum is getting a facelift
TL;DR — The varied R&D approach to scaling will provide optionality to core developers and dApp developers over the coming year. This presents an incredible opportunity to build functional dApps, though there are still hurdles to scaling without sacrificing security and the characteristics of decentralization we want to maintain; see: scalability trilemma.
As we all saw this week, v0.1 of Casper the Friendly Finality Gadget (FFG) was officially published by Danny Ryan. Much of the discussion at the conference focused on Casper FFG, as well as the various scaling initiatives that are being worked on in parallel. With Casper FFG that much closer to reality, Ethereum’s move to Casper The Friendly Ghost is now the big question mark on the roadmap. Casper The Friendly Ghost will be a fully native PoS consensus system with no proof-of-work (PoW) component, whereas Casper FFG is a PoS overlay running in parallel with PoW and is used to finalize the blocks. See: Vlad Zamfir’s presentation on Casper here, and Karl Floersch’s presentation on Casper FFG here.
Hopes are high that Casper The Friendly Ghost will enable sharding to provide scalability without sacrificing security or decentralization. Vitalik seemed very optimistic about the progress that’s been made and he expressed confidence in their ability to bring it to completion. During a panel on scalability, he said they hope to have a semi-formal spec out within two months, and he sees no major obstacles that stand in their way. He clarified that there are still some rather large development tasks that could take longer than expected, but on the research side of things it’s looking positive. For the full sharding research update, check out Justin Drake’s presentation here.
Plasma chains and state channels will be the best short-term solutions to scaling, though it seems like Plasma chains are preferred because of their built-in “exit mechanism”. This feature allows Plasma chains to revert back to the previous merkle root on the main chain if attacked. We could see more decentralized applications follow the example of Fun Fair and Spank Chain by building their own state channels, or more development using Plasma chains like OmiseGo. Layer two solutions appear to be a practical near-term compromise between decentralization and security to enable greater scalability for dApps. It’s also possible that we see generalized layer two solutions, like Raiden Network, become more widely utilized. See: Joseph Poon’s presentation on Plasma chains, and David Knott’s presentation on Plasma here.
How can we help?
There are still many questions that need to be resolved and the more people we have contributing to the conversation the better. If you’re interested in thinking through these types of problems, check out: ethresear.ch and github.
Run a Casper validator node! Vitalik took the stage on the last day of EdCon to walk everyone through the process of setting up a Casper validator; see his presentation here. One thing that stood out to me is the relatively high barrier to entry for setting one up, about 1500 ETH or approximately $1.08M at the time of writing. Another option is to join a staking pool, but be cautious and do your own research on the quality of the pool, as there are significant tradeoffs between them that could impact one’s experience and payout. Sharding should help lower the barriers to participating, as it will lower the cost of participation to roughly 32 ETH.
The education gap for developers is real
One thing that became obvious is the need for further education regarding what’s possible on the Ethereum blockchain, given the immediately available scaling solutions. After speaking with developers both in and out of the crypto space, it appears that most believe these solutions are not ready for main-net use and more R&D is needed. Even so, significant progress has been made by projects like Fun Fair, Spank Chain, and OmiseGo, which have all embraced layer two scaling solutions.
One tradeoff that comes with a decentralized community is the lack of centrally coordinated marketing and education efforts. The narrative around the technology, community, and the mission should be refined so it’s generally more digestible for those who are not yet in the space full-time. If only everyone were as gifted a speaker as Joe Lubin! We all have a stake in spreading this gospel and Joe has set a high bar and a standard of excellence over the last few years; see: Joe’s presentation at EDCON.
Some folks like Karl Floersch and the team at Block Geeks have already started ramping up the education efforts. If you’re looking to learn more about building in the crypto space, check out the resources that are available at the following sites: Cryptoeconomics.study and blockgeeks.com.
The birth of a new ideology: Crypto Pragmatism
Crypto pragmatism is something I’ve long believed in but have been reluctant to speak about, assuming this practical point-of-view would have me exiled from the community. I’m an idealist at heart, but I try to view crypto in terms of its realistic applications and not get too lost in utopian ideals. Surprisingly, I found myself in good company at EDCON this year. There was talk about the “real economy” vs. the “financial economy” for Ethereum, and discussion of how to structure better incentive models for founders and investors. Both are practical concepts that will help us bring valuable products and services to market: #BUIDL. Bob Summerwill, Co-Founder and CTO at Varro Technologies, proclaimed the dramatic need for a variety of non-developer skill sets in the space. A fully scaled blockchain business or network needs HR, BizDev, Ops, Legal, etc, all working together to deliver a valuable product or service.
One of my favorite presentations of the conference was from Jon Choi from the Ethereum Foundation. His presentation was about building the “real economy” of the Ethereum ecosystem and moving beyond the use-case of financial speculation. Jeff Coleman, Co-Founder of L4, addressed how unnecessary tokenization has birthed a slew of projects that eschew milestone-based fundraising norms and create a melting pot of perverse incentives. WE NEED TO FIX THIS. Decentralization is about redefining societal incentive structures for the better, which will not be accomplished with no-strings-attached funding rounds and zero accountability. See: Jon Choi’s presentation here, and Jeff Coleman’s presentation here.
In order for us to build this real economy, we must focus on developing experiences that are uniquely differentiated to decentralized systems, or as Jon Choi says, “are impossible with current infrastructure.”
When does a governance ideology become the social norm?
The market cap of Ethereum has expanded rapidly, but we need better participation in the governance of the network. We have not yet established shared norms around what exceptions, if any, are tolerable when dealing with ethically questionable situations. EIP-999 is a good example of this and Preethi Kasireddy spoke thoughtfully on this topic. More rational voices like hers need to be heard in this debate across the community, though most importantly, more people need to participate in the conversation. See Preethi’s presentation here.
The community is strong, humble, and welcoming
As someone who’s primarily a business/ops focused operator by background, it’s a bit intimidating going to a conference designed for developers. But the folks at EDCON were incredibly welcoming. when I got to EDCON I was amazed at just how welcoming everyone really is.
It’s nice to see prominent organizations that have benefited from Ethereum’s ascent starting to give back to the community. Nonprofits like Ethereum Community Fund are taking shape and deploying grants! Their mandate is to fund infrastructure projects, Layer 2 solutions, scaling, education, and developer tooling. Their goal is to boost the ecosystem by encouraging collaboration with open source / decentralized projects. It became apparent to me that there are opportunities to do this on a local, regional, national, or even international scale. I’m anxious to see how we step up to and face the range of challenges in the blockchain and cryptocurrency universe — scalability, security, sharding, plasma, cryptography, privacy, etc. As I noted at the beginning of this post, we’re journeying on a long and complex road but every day we get closer to our destination.
I’m looking forward to hearing more during NYC Blockchain Week. If you want to link up at any of this week’s events, I’m always interested in talking about new projects, development, or generally discussing what’s going on in crypto.