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Grumpy comments on blockchain

June 18, 2017

Something that really bothers me is that I’ve been hearing about blockchain for two years, and there are things that could be really useful to be with blockchain.  But I’ve found that every single blockchain system that I’ve come across is completely unusable for my coffee trading and anything else that I’m doing.

So this is what I need.  I’m trading coffee with someone else.  We have a lot of documents, we have a lot of spreadsheets, we have lots of e-mail.  Right now we are dumping them all into google drive, but it turns out to be difficult/impossible to selectively share documents with other people.  What I’d really like is some easy to use blockchain system in which I can save a document, in which I can do version control, and get notifications if someone has annotated a document.

Integrated systems will not work – So the problem I’ve seen with all of the blockchain solutions that I’ve seen right now is that they are intended to be integrated systems in which the entire workflow exists in that system.  This simply will not work with any sort of supply chain.  Here is the problem.  I have buy coffee from a farming cooperative in Tanzania and sell it to a wholesaler in Hong Kong.  I am not in a position to ask them to change the way that they do business.  I can implement a blockchain solution in my part of the supply chain, but I cannot get them to implement a solution in their parts of the chain.  Also, I have to deal with different suppliers and different distributors, all of whom have their own systems.

The only situation in which an integrated system might possibly work is if you have a single firm that already coordinates all of the parts of the supply chain (i.e. think Walmart).  The trouble with that situation is that if you have a single firm that already has vertically integrated the supply chain, then they likely already have an internal ERP system, and they don’t need a blockchain.

Walled gardens will not work – One thing that strikes me about blockchain solutions is that all of them seem to assume that they are the only software or blockchain in the world, and they don’t have any obvious way of slicing off part of the system and working with existing software.  It turns out that I do a lot of my stuff on gmail, wordpress, and I have set up Odoo as an ERP system.  Any sort of blockchain system will have to somehow work with all those systems.  I need to be able to do stuff like pull a document from the blockchain, make some edits or annotations, and then publish that into the blockchain.

With all of the talk of distributed ledger, I really need a distributed ledger.  What I want to do is to pull in a list of payments and cash transfers into Excel, add a new entry, and then publish that on the blockchain.

I haven’t seen a single system that even begins to integrate with Excel, Word, e-mail, chat, and ERP software.  Also everyone seems to want to be the “one true blockchain” and no one has dealt with the reality that any real business transaction is likely to require integrating data from many, many different sources some of which are not digital.

Fixed workflows will not work – The other thing that strikes me about blockchain systems is that they assume that you have a fixed workflow, when in fact you need the flexibility to do new stuff.  For example, as part of my coffee distribution, it turns out that the distributor would like publicity photos of the farmers growing the coffee.  At that point you get into interesting issues, because you really need the farmers permission to use the image, and you also need to make sure that if they become the face of Tanzanian coffee in Hong Kong that they get properly compensated.  This is perfect for something involving blockchain, since you can attach the releases and the IP contracts with the actual photos.  But the problem is that this is just one of those problems that comes up, and if it takes months to put together some sort of solution with blockchain, then it’s not going to work.

But this is part of a bigger problem in that every industry has their own workflows, and the workflows can change radically.  The big problem that I’m seeing with a lot of blockchain solutions is that they have the effect of making workflows more inflexible, and that can kill productivity.

The travel agent fallacy – There is one blockchain company that I’ve worked with and I don’t want to embarrass them, because they are good people, but I used their system to optimize a business process and it turns out that it’s taken far longer to deal with that business process than if I just filed paper.  The problem is that they had the assumption that you could replace a lot of the people with computer forms just like you replaced travel agents with airline booking systems.  The trouble is with that thinking is that it turns out that people book travel a lot and it turns out that it’s a process that can be standardized.   This particular business process is something that people do once in a blue moon, and it turns out that there are all sorts of ways to fill out the form wrong.

Also there is a particular problem with using blockchain since they want to decentralize the system so that you have a private key that you use to access your information.  It turns out that I’m forgetful, and I have at one point lost the private key which meant that I had to junk the old filing which is no longer reachable, and start all over again.  You get into some UI issues.  If I have a private key to a bitcoin wallet, then I’m going to make very, very sure that I don’t lose the key.  However, it turns out that you will go insane if you treat everything as a keys to cash.

The other problem is that the business process is low priority and I keep putting it off so that I need someone to gently nag me to fill out the form. It turns out that this “nagging” is something that requires a human being since they need to figure out that I really want to get the form finished.

Missing hyphens – One other reason I think that blockchain solutions have limits is that they are trying to replace people with machines, and machines are terrible at some things.  For example, I’ve been spending the last week trying to do a transfer between a bitcoin exchange and my bank account, and it turns out the problem is that my name in the exchange has a hyphen and my bank account doesn’t.  It turns out that most of the manual processing in supply chain and international business has to do with stuff like that.  So if what will happen is that if you try to over-automate the system, you’ll end up with something that is very, very brittle, and which will fail under some pretty simple cases.  Now you can try to force everyone in the world to standardize the spelling of their names, and standardize database keys, but that involves making people act like machines, and the result could be rather dystopian.

So what do I need from blockchain

file sharing – I need a way of uploading documents in a way that the document can be timestamped and authenticated, and then shared.

revision control and notification – I need to be able to track changes to a document and to know when a document has been annotated.

system integration – I want to be able to modify a distributed ledger using Excel and to be able to swap data with gmail

fast to learn – It should take me no more than a day or two to set up the system and start using it.

non industry/workflow specific – I want to have the system work with my current workflows.  Also it makes no sense to be industry specific.  Let’s suppose you create one blockchain for supply chain, another one for insurance, and a third for banking services.  It turns out that a business needs supply chain, insurance, and banking, so what do you do then?

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One Comment
  1. Cezar permalink

    Hi, it seems you want just:
    – a generic ledger/registry for time stamping & signing any document
    – combined with a generic file sharing system that does versioning/revision control and content protection (content once published, can not be changed except by providing a new signed&timestamped version.

    The first part can actually be done with any blockchain, what is needed is not a more flexible blockchain but off-chain tools that register a signed human-readable contract or whatever application specific data record in that particular blockchain.

    For the second part I’m quite sure something is on the way, like IPFS (interplanetary file system) https://ipfs.io/#uses

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