A Few Resources to Get Started

Over the past few weeks, we have been reading and watching a lot of material about the blockchain and some of its variants (including the Bitcoin blockchain of course). The goal is not only to understand how it works technically, which will be necessary in order to understand how we can use it, but also to understand where it comes from, how it was created.

And we wanted to share with you some of the best resources we have found so far.

First things first. What are Bitcoin and the blockchain?  The first presentation is a great introduction that illustrates how Bitcoin and the blockchain are changing the rules of our world.

The second one is a presentation from Vinay Gupta, explaining in very clear terms how the blockchain came to be, from an historical standpoint, and how it fits in the timeline of data storage mechanisms. We love this talk because it doesn’t focus too much on the economic side of things but it sees the blockchain as a software paradigm, and a development platform, and that’s what we are really interested in as well, even though the currency part of it cannot be separated.

Vinay Gupta at Michel Bauwens & the Promise of the Blockchain from FIBER on Vimeo.

The third resource is also a video, a presentation by Andreas Antonopoulos, the author of Mastering Bitcoin, one of the THE reference books on how to develop on top of the Bitcoin blockchain apparently (we bought the book, didn’t read it yet). What we really love about this guy is that he is deeply invested in the Bitcoin blockchain, and yet he remains very curious and open-minded about all the evolutions of the blockchain technology. And as we are progressing in that space, we can see that a lot of people who have invested (or speculated) a lot on Bitcoin don’t really like the idea of being challenged by new tools and techniques about their core beliefs and assumptions. In that context, this talk and all of Andreas’ contributions are quite refreshing.

The last resource we wanted to mention in this blog post is a MOOC that I (Sebastien) have started following. It’s not free, it costs 830£ (by the way, given recent events, if you pay in euros or dollars, 830£ will be cheaper than usual), but so far, 2 weeks in, I must say that I’m pretty happy with the quality of the content.

I was kind of frustrated by the Ethereum tutorial, which seems pretty outdated and lacks a lot of details to get going. But the b9lab academy content is very practical and gives plenty of pointers to learn more around the main content. So far, it’s exactly what I was looking for. And one cool thing about this MOOC is that it will end with a certification that will be written to the Ethereum blockchain so that attendees can prove they followed through this course.

We will keep sharing some of the most interesting resources we find, both in English and French, about those topics, so if you have some resources to recommend yourself, feel free to leave a comment on this post.

Our Values

Said and I are starting a long and exciting journey with ChainSkills. And at the start of this kind of journey, it is often useful to take a step back to ask ourselves who we are, what we believe in, what our ambition is and what we want to achieve. This is what some call Mission/Vision/Values, but what we decide to call Identity/Ambitions/Project here, because we estimate that it makes more sense to think about it in that order, and there is too much ambiguity about these terms of mission, vision and values. The goal of this post is to lay the foundation of the identity of the team behind ChainSkills.

Pragmatism

We are both passionate about technology, but first as a means rather than an end in and of itself. For us, technology must always be useful and useable.

Useful because technology for itself, without concrete application, without an impact on life sounds like a huge waste given the infinite number of problems technology could help in solving.

Useable because the most elegant technology will always fail if it is not thought around its users, while keeping in mind their environments, their ecosystems and their mental models.

The thing is that when you speak about cryptography, security and networks, and mix in a little bit of economics and finance, as it is the case with crypto-currencies for example, it is very easy to get carried away by big abstract concepts, too much lingo and a certain fundamentalism that threaten this pragmatism.

We start from the assumption that, while making the best out of the benefits of a technology, it is sometimes necessary to find acceptable compromises to keep the technology useful and useable.

Innovation

At its core, technology is about making the impossible possible, and making the hard stuff easier. In doing so, it is not rare for it to upset business-as-usual, whether it is legal or fiscal rules, a business model or an industry. That’s what disruption is really all about.

When an ecosystem is disrupted, as it was the case recently with the taxi ecosystem and Uber for example, a naive reaction is to try and stop change in its course by blocking innovation or making it illegal.

And when politicians intervene, under the pressure of lobbying, they can overcompensate technological simplification with administrative complexity, such as what the Belgian administration is trying to do with models like Menu Next Door.

Our position regarding those trends is clear: we estimate that technology’s primary mission is to improve our lives, to make them easier and more rich, and we also estimate that nothing artificial should slow down or block that innovation. What we mean by artificial here is protecting abstract constructions such as employment or unfair competition. Innovation forces us to adapt, to evolve our beliefs and our vision of the world, and to grow as a civilization.

That’s why we will do everything in our power to minimize the compromises whose sole purpose would be to accommodate ancient administrative, legislative, competitive or fiscal models. The disruptive power of blockchain is too enormous to allow that.

Note that we are talking about minimizing compromises, and note about eliminating them, because we are aware that, at certain moments, such compromised will be inevitable to stay pragmatic.

And of course, what we don’t consider as artificial are the health, well-being and integrity of the recipients of this innovation, and as long and legal, fiscal and administrative rules will be designed primarily to protect those, we will abide by those rules unconditionally.

Lean

Said and I have both been immersed for years into the culture of Agile methodologies and software development. And today as entrepreneurs, we believe strongly in the values of Lean Startup.

Behind those lies the notion that we have access to limited and precious resources, whether they are time, energy, or more pragmatically financial means, and that it is our duty to use those resources with as much efficiency as possible, in order to go as far as possible.

In that regard, we have always leaned towards an experimental, incremental and iterative approach in the construction of our projects. We rarely try to do things perfectly on the first try, to think a problem through before moving forward. We prefer experimenting and observing empirically to hyper-theorizing. We value prototypes that do 80% of the job with 20% of effort. And we believe in the necessity to test and validate your hypotheses as soon as possible, before implementing them.

As in any new domain, our main goal here is not to get wealthy financially, but to learn, to understand and to integrate. Maybe one day, we will have learned enough to capitalize on this expertise and this understanding. But in a first approach, we want to explore and understand in the leanest and more pragmatic way possible.

Humanism

Blockchain technology was originally discovered in the context of a financial application with Bitcoin. It thus inherited some of its philosophical concepts that we don’t share entirely.

Most of today’s market finance is based on neo-liberal theories according to which human beings are cupid and selfish, and thus you have to embrace those trends fully and integrate them in the rules that regulate markets, betting on the fact that the sum of individual interests will always favor improvement in common interest.

We how two objections to those theories:

We have two major objections to these theories:

  • some major crises, including those that we are still going through today, tend to demonstrate that as stakes and inequalities get higher, individual interests can push people to do everything in their power to destroy interests of their peers, especially when it is easy to hide behind figures, regulations and anonymous structures. In such a situation where inequalities are too high, power tends to concentrate in the hands of a minority that threatens common interest in order to concentrate more and more power. We can only wonder about the solidity of this assumption that common interest is simply the sum of individual interests.
  • If it is true that survival instinct and adaption are parts of our genetic heritage and powerful forces, there is at least one other instinct that doesn’t seem used enough in big human interaction schemes like finance: gregarious instinct. If it is true that an individual will always do everything in his power to protect and improve his own life and the one of his lineage, he also understands the importance of the group and his own integration in this group to increase not only his own chances of survival but also his very quality of life. He instinctively knows that he needs others, and others need him, and with all the individual power in the world, he is nothing if he is isolated.

For these two reasons, we would like to witness the emergence of a system that pushes forward notions of reputation, accountability and mutual interest to go towards another macro-economic vision.

Besides, it is important to underline the fact that we do not adhere to this idea that there is a dichotomy between capitalism and socialism, and since socialism has been attempted and failed in the past, capitalism is the most advanced form of society there can be. We think there is another path, a path that would push forward some of the notions mentioned above but at a larger scale. And we think that blockchain technology, in its distributed and decentralized model, is an ideal platform to enable this kind of societal change.

Openness

The blockchain is a complex topic, that involves some advanced concepts in computer science, mathematics, economics, finance, etc. With such topics, it’s easy to get carried away in lingo and acronyms.

Moreover, with blockchain, it seems reasonable to observe that we are witnessing the dawn of a technological revolution, with its own “eldorado” effect, that gives birth to a whole generation of self-proclaimed and opportunistic experts who see this as a field to split, in which more people means smaller shares. Hence the temptation is big to exclude, to close and to place explorers of this new world in boxes: experts on one side, novices on the other.

As far as we are concerned, we don’t see this domain as a zero-sum game in which some have to lose for others to profit (more). To us, it looks like a gigantic field, whose potential is virtually unlimited, and that calls for an enormous diversity in vantage points and philosophical directions, given the large scope of potential changes.

That’s why we are convinced that yesterday’s novices are the experts of tomorrow, but more importantly that not everyone needs to be an expert in a field to have their say. We think everyone should be empowered to take ownership of these concepts to the best of their abilities, and our approach will always be to facilitate this access instead of restricting it.

Plus, in all humility, we ourselves are at the very beginning of our exploration of this vast domain, and we will thus go more naturally towards those who make information accessible and seek to include instead of excluding.

Our approach here will always be to discover together, to share what we think we understood, in good faith, with the community and to include a maximum of the constructive feedbacks we will receive to make them accessible in turn to the community.

Your comments, your corrections, your suggestions, your opinions and your questions will always be welcome on this platform.

Our goal with ChainSkills is not to create a secret society, an elite and closed group that would seek to protect its certainties and privileges.

We believe in the values of Open Source, sharing and open transparent collaboration. And this blog in the first manifestation of that spirit. By sharing our learning process, we hope it will help other explorers to move forward with these subjects, and that our shared experiences will produce a result far greater than their sum.

Of course, this will also apply to most of the products and experiments that will originate in these experiences, that will also be Open Source by default, except in special circumstances.

Lastly, this spirit of openness also applies to all those who will participate in that journey, without distinction of sex, age, beliefs or origin, provided they hold themselves to the same openness values.

No dogmatism

If blockchain was a religion, Satoshi Nakamoto would be its god, Vitalik Buterin its prophet. The Bitcoin whitepaper would be the Old Testament, the Ethereum whitepaper would be the New Testament. And there would be apostles and priests at war to spread the Word.

We don’t position ourselves in this logic at all. Our vision is that of a open-minded, pragmatic and non-dogmatic community, in which people don’t do things a certain way only because certain authorities said so. We are trying to understand, integrate and climb on the shoulders of our peers to build something greater and push forward practical applications that bring innovation in human societies.

In that regard, while completely respecting the expertise and the work of those who came before us, we naturally mistrust the argument of authority, behind which we will always try to understand the motivations behind the choices, even if it means exploring other choices and thinking out of the box.

Last but not least, we don’t see ourselves as apostles of the blockchain, we don’t position ourselves as owners of a knowledge to pass on, but more as explorers with and for the community.


Of course, if you have questions, remarks, corrections or suggestions, comments are open, and so long as they stay constructive, they will be more than welcome.


Said & Sébastien

Hello World!

We are Sebastien Arbogast and Said Eloudrhiri, we are software engineers and we welcome you to our new project.

ChainSkills was born out of a growing interest in a new concept called the blockchain. To put it simply, the blockchain is a relatively new technology that makes it possible to collaborate on a data set in a completely decentralized and distributed way.

Before the blockchain, the best way to have several actors collaborate on a common data set was to store that data set on a central server, and to have each actor connect to that central database. Then all you had to do was to secure access to this database in such a way that only certain actors could read or modify the data (authentication) and you could determine which actor could access which data in which way (authorization). Also, you had to put some code in front of the database in order to orchestrate access to that database. Security and integrity of the database was thus enforced by centralization. But this approach poses a certain number of problems:

  • If some malevolent actor wants to corrupt that data, all he has to do is to gain access to this central database and all other actors will access corrupted data (integrity)
  • If some authority wants to censor that data, they can simply change the rules to access the central database, or even alter the central database
  • If the central database is destroyed because of a technical failure of some sort, then all the actors lose access to that database and the system can suffer major damage, if not complete destruction

In addition, in principle, this way of organizing software systems is in direct contradiction with the design principles of the Internet it is using as an infrastructure. And it just so happens that the Internet was designed in a completely decentralized and distributed fashion precisely to avoid those problems, at a network level.

The blockchain is essentially an attempt at producing a software database paradigm that also works in a completely decentralized and distributed fashion, all while keeping the ability to maintain integrity, security and accessibility on that shared data.

Historically, the very first implementation of that new paradigm was part of the Bitcoin digital currency created in 2009. But since then, a lot of people have started to realize the opportunity to use this same technique as a foundation for many other use cases.

And this is where we come from.

We are not cryptography experts.
We are not cypherpunks.
We are not crypto-currency traders.
We are not security researchers.
We are not dogmatic, we don’t do things a certain way only because Satoshi Nakamoto or Vitalik Buterin or any other authority said so.

We are software developers.
We are curious experimenters.
We are lean entrepreneurs.
We are machine creators.
We are French-speaking (and a little bit of English too, obviously)

What we are going to do in this blog is simple: we want to get to understand more about this new paradigm created by the concept of a blockchain. We want to learn more about it, about all its subtleties, about the opportunities it creates, about its limitations too. And of course we want to explore these opportunities in a pragmatic and experimental way.

And we will use this blog to report our findings, share our experiments, document our progress and get the community’s feedback.

Our approach here is that of an open learning experience.

Of course, we already have plenty of concrete ideas about how we could use that new knowledge some day. But we also approach this with a humble perspective: we have to acquire the knowledge first, to know whether our ideas make sense. And if they do, we will share those ideas with you too.

So buckle up, and enjoy the ride.