A year with Ethereum
As I'm quickly approaching the one-year anniversary of the day I became obsessed with Ethereum in the fall of 2021, I thought I'd write up a look back on the year, quarter by quarter, with the things I was learning and thinking about and the developments that happened in each quarter.
Prologue (before the madness begins):
I've known about Bitcoin since 2014. The original idea (and ideals) seemed cool to me at the time, and I worked very briefly in the space (without acquiring any BTC, alas), and I always intended to learn about it more deeply, but still haven't gotten around to it. Since then, it's seemed like just a highly volatile asset for people to speculate on, which is not my cup of tea.
Heard of Ethereum, but isn't it just another coin, same as all the other non-bitcoin coins?
NFTs are just more new things for rich people to trade amongst themselves, and for everyone else to get screwed on. Also, they kill the planet.
Q1: Rabbit hole
November and December 2021, January 2022
I become obsessed with Ethereum at a single moment, on a single day, like the flip of a switch. It's upon listening to one specific podcast episode: The Tim Ferriss Show with Chris Dixon and Naval Ravikant.
It's reinforced by a second episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, which is his interview with Vitalik Buterin, founder of Ethereum.
The switch that flips is that for the first time, I learn what Ethereum actually is. It's not just a coin, and not even just another blockchain (a ledger of monetary transactions). It's a blockchain that runs code, runs programs and apps (smart contracts). Meaning it's a ginormous, shared, decentralized computer. (Ethereans hate this computer analogy now, but that was the lightbulb analogy for me personally.) A global database that, if pulled off correctly, can never be taken over by anyone.
Once that switch flips, every switch is flipped, all the lights flipping on in my mind at once. The existence of smart contracts means, not just one currency, but many currencies, all with different features and tradeoffs, but all native to the internet and moveable, across borders, without going through banks. Not tied to geography, not intermediated by corporations.
NFTs mean digital property of all kinds, not only collectible JPEGs for the rich to trade, but, given enough time for the space to evolve, mundane things of more sentimental value, like digital shoes, digital plants, your kid's art, badges for having done certain things—the digital equivalents of all the random things we have in our homes today that mean something to us. Digital property makes more sense when paired with an interoperable metaverse. A metaverse makes more sense in the context of VR/AR, but doesn't rely on VR/AR becoming ubiquitous. For example, many of us already live and work online. We already exist in the metaverse, it's just 2D.
Ironically and coincidentally, this switch-flip happens around the same time as the Zuckerberg Meta announcement, but that's more of a distraction than anything else. Or if anything, it motivates me to get involved ASAP. Because the metaverse will happen. But we have ONE chance, now, to make sure it's not one that's owned by Zuck.
Early on, there were visions of the internet where the tubes themselves (the routers, the routes between them connecting all the computers all over the world, and the protocol by which they talk to each other) were proprietary and owned by a single entity or a small handful of entities. But thanks to the work of many, many people who cared, TCP/IP won: a neutral, open protocol that anyone can implement.
It feels instantly, unequivocally clear to me that, now that the idea has been said aloud in the world and the tech exists, a form of internet that runs on a blockchain and is paid for by flows of a native internet currency WILL get built, one way or another. And that an internet-native currency is the thing that was missing in web1 ("the original sin," as I think Marc Andreessen puts it), the lack of which got us so deep into ad-based business models that are now killing us.
It feels so clear, I think, simply because of flows of talent, energy, and excitement. A space that gives individuals, small teams, and young people with new ideas (and without old assumptions) a chance to build things that have never been built before, especially people who would never have had the same kind of opportunity in web2—a space that gives them a chance to play, in every sense of the word—there's no betting against that. All the talent and energy in tech will pour into a space like that, and it's not coming back out. It will be a one-way flow.
And I need to be part of that.
Not only does it make sense for the world, it's a perfect amalgamation of almost all the interests I've ever had.
Will it bring about utopia? Probably not. But I think it will bring a changing of the guard, for better or worse. And I think a change is needed.
Within days I discover the Bankless podcast. There are so many episodes of it, I actually have to switch to a new podcast app just to load the older ones. I decide I will learn my way around by listening to every episode of Bankless ever. How it actually goes is that I listen to a few of the early foundational ones, then catch up on the last few months of episodes, while keeping up with each new episode that comes out (about 4-5 per week at the time), no matter what it's about, so I can learn what everything is: every company, every investor, every DAO, every chain. I listen to Bankless when I wake up, while I make coffee, while I eat, take public transit, go for walks. I fall asleep listening to it and pick up where I left off the next day.
I buy my first crypto (BTC and ETH) on a centralized exchange. I use a non-custodial wallet (Metamask) for the first time. I follow a Solidity tutorial and deploy a simple "hello world" app to Rinkeby. I buy an ENS name.
I am totally, blissfully (and, in retrospect, hilariously) unaware that it's a bull market at all—and of course, along with everyone else who can't predict the future, unaware that it's reaching its peak—riiight at the time that I'm getting into all this. Which means coin prices and gas prices are all sky-high, all projects' Discord servers are filled with thousands of people hoping for an airdrop, and it's the peak of ponzis and scams. Being a somewhat conservative and "boring" investor to begin with, I ignore the hype anyway and buy mostly ETH.
I don't know anything about Ethereum at the protocol level. I want to learn a bit more Solidity, but end up stopping basically at the aforementioned tutorial, because I have no motivating idea or project to build.
I desperately want to get a job in web3, even though I barely know anything about it. Still, a lot of jobs in web3 are actually for web2 skills, like frontend development, so there could be a way in. In web2, I wouldn't even need to apply for a job by submitting an application—I'd just go through a friend whose company I was interested in. But in web3, I don't have any friends yet. So I apply the traditional way to a whole bunch of jobs. Nobody responds.
I start telling all my friends about my lightbulb moment, the next time I catch up with them. They mostly have one of two reactions: they're either surprisingly open and curious, asking lots of questions and seeming to "get" certain ideas right away; or they're surprisingly negative, in which case it's as if I become, for them, a person to whom they send all their links that are negative about crypto. (If this was you, it's okay. I just wanted, and want, you to get a chance to learn about the thing that I'm into.) Though some friends do get it to some extent, no one gets seriously into it. So I remain alone on my journey.
The reading I'm sharing with everyone at this moment is Packy McCormick's The Value Chain of the Open Metaverse.
Wanting web3 friends, I apply to a few different communities that are web3-related in some way. My interview for KERNEL, one of those communities, is the first time I've ever talked to people about web3 who also already know what it is and don't need me to explain it to them. To my surprise, I'm accepted.
February, March, April 2022
KERNEL begins. All of a sudden I'm amongst hundreds of people, all over the world, who are passionate about the same things I am. Not only that, but some of them are bored by the same things within web3 that I'm bored by—namely, DeFi and NFTs (in the collectible-art sense), the two big use cases that have traction at the moment. Lots of people are, like me, more interested in totally different potential use cases that have yet to be built out or gain adoption, like identity, privacy, reputation, social media, games, regenerative systems, science, governance, public goods funding. It's regen culture.
When KERNEL ends, it doesn't really end. I like to say it's what an alumni network is actually supposed to be: a curated community with an incredibly high signal for really great people. Friends to hang out with when you travel anywhere in the world or go to conferences. Neighbors to lend you a couch to crash on, or water your plants. Readers for your musings and cheerleaders for your work, in perpetuity.
Macro becomes a thing, both in the world, and in my understanding of the world. It starts in January because the entire market starts to go down, including stocks, bonds, crypto. By February, there's war in Ukraine. Then talk of the Fed raising interest rates to fight inflation. This is when I start to learn, for the first time, how global economics and geopolitics work, thanks to specific guests on Bankless, as well as another podcaster, Kyla Scanlon. Why the Fed raises rates, what that means for everyone else, why the Fed has to thread a fine line between inflation and recession. Energy considerations due to sanctions on Russia. Potential ramifications of the US freezing Russia's USD, for the USD's status as the global reserve currency. The kinds of things that, as a kid, I knew that grownups understood and cared about and that I wanted to understand, but didn't know how to learn about. (When I was a kid, the marker of true grownup-hood, in my estimation, was whether or not one paid rapt attention to speeches by Alan Greenspan. Only in the mysterious world of grownups could such dullness capture so much interest. No pun intended.)
My learning of Ethereum starts to evolve as well, as I start to get a sense of recent and current protocol developments. EIP-1559 and the burn mechanism, base fee vs. priority fee. Issuance in proof of work vs. proof of stake. Modular Ethereum and how it addresses the trilemma of security, scalability, and decentralization. Ultrasound money; what makes ETH valuable into the future.
I feel more confident in my doubts about specific aspects of web3 that feel overhyped. "Play-to-earn" is gross and exploitative, at least in the forms we see today, and there's no way to swing it that gets around that. It's true that many things are more centralized today than we'd like them to be, including over-reliance on Alchemy and Infura to access the chain. DAOs are often speed-running the same coordination and collaboration problems that every high school or college/university club has faced, in terms of governance, budget, how to distribute work. Naive tokenomics and incentive engineering is hubris—it's overestimating one's ability to understand why people do things, and one's ability to make people do certain things. I think systems that work will be arrived at empirically, through trial and error, rather than by being planned out in advance. And in general, there are a lot of really young people in web3 who don't realize they are reinventing something that was already invented, and making the same mistakes again instead of learning about them and iterating on the old mistakes.
Q3: Leveling up
May, June, July 2022
May brings, of course, the UST/LUNA collapse. Starting from the day UST loses its peg for good and falls below 90 cents or so, I sit there refreshing both Twitter and CoinMarketCap in morbid, horrifying fascination for the next two or three days, as everything goes to zero. This is when I learn what an algorithmic stablecoin even is, how UST and LUNA actually work, and, well, what the potential risks are (in particular, the "death spiral risk")... as I'm watching it literally happen. By contrast, I learn how all the other major stablecoins work in general, including USDC, DAI, and Tether.
Macro continues to be a thing—my own grocery bill gets noticeably higher, as my understanding of macro concepts deepens. Why the US's raising of rates leads to every other currency weakening relative to the dollar. More fully realizing the importance and dominance of the dollar as global reserve currency. It starts to dawn on me the implications of growing up in the US, with my own country's currency also being the global reserve currency: while I thought about the prices of things in dollars from time to time, aka my own buying power, I never thought about the price of the dollar itself. A dollar costs a dollar. What else would you even price it in? Of course, for billions of people in the world, that is not how money works.
I consult new sources to learn more about how money works, including Perry Mehrling's book and lecture videos. I know what's going on with the Fed—but what IS the Fed? What is a central bank for? Liquidity is king, not net worth on paper—as can be clearly seen in a liquidity crisis, i.e., when you need it and don't have it. It's like oxygen for banks.
I finally get a job in web3—naturally, when I'm no longer actively looking for one. It turns out that the way to get a job in web3 is by making internet friends in web3 first. Then it just happens, because everyone is hiring, but they want to hire people they know and like. Working in web3 enables me to finally learn tons of things in detail that I hadn't gotten around to learning just in my spare time. I learn how smart contracts actually work, how to code them, how to interact with them from the frontend. Smart contract architectures and patterns: the proxy pattern, upgradeable contracts, the diamond pattern. I learn Solidity syntax a bit more deeply. The ERC-721 spec in detail, including all its smart contract methods, and every field of metadata. How and where to store the metadata. IPFS, Filecoin. Sign-in with Ethereum.
Having slowly amassed enough ETH that I'm now uncomfortable keeping it all in an exchange, I buy a hardware wallet and learn to use it. This is when I finally take the time to sit down and understand what a wallet actually is, and what I need to do to retain control of my accounts. I've always thought of my first wallet/account as being "inside Metamask" (which is inside of my browser), but in fact a wallet isn't contained inside the app that you access it in. It just exists anywhere and everywhere. It's the private key OR the 12 or 24 word mnemonic that gives someone access to a particular account, but through any app that connects to the blockchain. One time I run into a bug in Metamask while sending some money, and simply use a different app to send it. Kind of like cash, my money belongs to the person who has the key to my money. At the moment, and hopefully in the future, that person is me.
I stake my first ETH (via Rocketpool). I learn what this means, financially, logistically, philosophically.
I continue to buy ETH. Finally, after several rounds of being wrong, I capitulate to the fact that it really is best (for me) to just dollar-cost-average in, because I keep trying to time my buying based on being convinced about something or other, and realizing I would have done better not making any guesses at all. (In almost all cases, it is for the simple reason that I underestimated the sway of macro. ETH may be fundamentally strong, but the fear of high interest rates or a recession is much, much stronger.)
My ambitions to learn about the Ethereum protocol keep growing. When I see Vitalik's Ethereum roadmap, I want to learn what EVERYTHING on the chart means. I don't understand any of the terms on it. Each one might as well be a magical incantation. "Single-slot confirmation." "Verkle trees." "History expiry." "In-protocol PBS." "ZK-SNARK." But I'm determined to understand all of them. Even if it takes me five years, and it all gets built within that time, so that by the time I learn what all the work is, it's done. Even then.
I start following the progress toward the Merge, and understanding what the Merge actually entails. I attend the community call (livestream) for the first testnet merge, which is Röpsten. I start to understand proof of work vs. proof of stake at a deeper level: not just what the difference is, but the tradeoffs between the two, in terms of economic security and decentralization.
I start to learn about danksharding, and intend to spend my summer learning about it, but due to starting aforementioned job in web3, I turn my attention toward that instead.
By this point most of my new friends are Ethereum people, but that's okay. Ethereum people tend to share the quality of being willing to invest time into meeting people and making new friends, which makes for good new friends.
Q4: Cruising altitude
August, September, October 2022 (the present)
After 9 or 10 months, things reach a more stable state for me and I no longer vacuum in information indiscriminately at such a high rate. Instead of listening to EVERY Bankless episode that comes out, I pick and choose them. Mostly I love anything about macro and geopolitics, cultural paradigms, and Ethereum economics and development. I skip most of the ones on specific projects or companies. I no longer listen to podcasts while falling asleep or waking up. I finally make time to return to other interests dropped along the way, like watching TV, reading books, and learning languages.
Macro is bad, but in much the same way it has been all year, so fewer new developments to process. Winter is coming, and it's gonna be cold in Europe. The US is not out of the weeds in any way. Also, what we're doing may or may not break the entire global economy, but we'll see.
Tornado Cash is sanctioned, which is deeply upsetting and brings back Aaron Swartz vibes.
At work, I step back from going deep into contracts and NFTs, and instead focus on some more traditional things that need doing, like database work, testing, devops stuff.
I continue to attend every testnet merge call (Sepolia, Goerli), where I learn what the words mean that they are saying: clients, execution, consensus, attestations, epochs, justification, finalization, 66%. I bridge tokens between mainnet and L2 for the first time, to pay for the POAPs for these calls. I learn how Ethereum development happens, without any official company, hierarchy, or chain of command.
I realize: Ethereum exists purely in the clients. Like TCP/IP, Ethereum itself is just a set of specs. It exists in the real world because people code pieces of software that fulfill the specs, and lots more people run the software on little computers around the world, and the computers talk to each other through the software and help each other remember who has what, and that's how we have internet money and assets. The fact that the different clients can be, and are, written in different programming languages and implemented in slightly different ways, yet all adhere to a common spec and can talk to each other, is part of Ethereum's strength. There is no canonical implementation. Ethereum is the sum of all its participants.
I organize a virtual Mainnet Merge watch party with my friends who care the most about the Merge. For me, watching the Merge brings all the same excitement as watching a space shuttle launch, and thus merits a watch party. As part of the official Merge celebration, there is a site where you can participate in pixel painting if you hold at least one of a large list of eligible POAPs, mostly to various recent community calls and conferences. I hold three eligible POAPs: one for each testnet merge community call. No one else at the party has even one. This is when I realize that I follow the Merge and Ethereum protocol developments way more closely than anyone else I know.
The Merge goes more smoothly than anyone anticipated. NFTs no longer kill the planet.
I start to understand MEV, proposer-builder separation (PBS) (which was one of the "magical" terms, if you recall from above!), and MEV-Boost as a preliminary stand-in for eventual in-protocol PBS. How creating an efficient market for MEV by making it available to everyone can help Ethereum stay decentralized in the validation of blocks, even while allowing parties with the computing resources to build the most valuable blocks, to do so and to profit from that.
I'm also finally feeling ready to learn the nitty-gritty of Ethereum, on a different level than Solidity, like: what data goes into a block, what a transaction literally looks like (its schema), how clients talk to each other to validate a block, how data propagates through the network.
Finally, in October... I attend Devcon VI in Bogotá, the Ethereum Foundation's official conference, and my first crypto conference of any kind. I go in intending to learn more about rollups and ZK. At Devcon, I meet and spend time with more new Ethereum friends. I go to talks for most of each day and learn new stuff. EVM assembly, its syntax, the opcodes, storage, memory, the stack. Account abstraction and the need for smart contract wallets. The importance of, and excitement around, zero-knowledge (ZK) and its potential to enable both scalability and privacy on Ethereum. Potential applications of ZK for private transactions, rollups, machine learning, social media.
At Devcon I also encounter an explosion of advanced, mathy, cryptographicky concepts in the overlap of ZK proofs and danksharding, more concepts and terms I had never heard of before this year. (I have taken not much more math than the average American, so I don't know things.) Polynomials as a way to store data. Finite fields. KZG commitments. Reed-Solomon codes. Elliptic curve pairings. Data availability sampling. Merkle proofs. Counting my halting starts into learning about danksharding over the summer, this is by now my fourth or fifth time hearing or reading explanations of some of these concepts. I still don't fully get it—but I notice that each time I try to understand it, a little bit more starts to sink in. Maybe it will happen like the way I came to understand Bitcoin: I never had any one moment where it all clicked in a satisfying way, and I never felt like I understood how it worked. But seven years went by, and at some point I realized that I did, in fact, understand it.
My year with Ethereum
I learned what Ethereum actually is, and what makes it so exciting for so many people.
Macro understanding: the biggest surprise of the year was the fact that getting interested in crypto helped me understand all the geopolitical news of 2022, including the dynamics of inflation, interest rates, bonds, global currencies, war, energy markets, even the tension around Taiwan. These are really the things I most wanted to understand about the world.
As a dev: I've come to understand the landscape of frameworks, tools, and services for building smart contracts and dapps, and I know that whatever I need to build, I can figure out where to learn it.
I got a job in web3. And what I would say about that is that, while it certainly won't solve all your problems, and while most web3 jobs provide no moral high ground over web2 jobs (in spite of the marketing), there is no substitute for a web3 job in terms of learning a lot, and fast, because you have something you need to build, and you get paid to spend all day figuring out how to build it.
Ethereum protocol and ecosystem: I now understand the major milestones of the past year or two of protocol development, and the upcoming milestones for the next year or so. More than that, I've discovered that I love learning about this stuff, and that that makes me part of the surprisingly not-that-large set of people in the world who will spend their nights and weekends reading about things like danksharding.
Community: I started on this journey alone, with no friends or connections. Now I feel cozily embedded within an ever-expanding community of friends and future friends.
Learning modes: I spent Year One listening to smart conversations about Ethereum and economics. Now I'm ready to sit down and do a lot of reading.
My own role here: I think my own role is more to enable others to build whatever they want to on Ethereum, rather than to build a very specific thing myself. Be it via education, contributions to infrastructure, or something else.
Year One was a wild ride. I have absolutely no idea what Year Two will bring. And that's exactly as it should be.