The Stack Overflow Podcast

Ethereum finally merges, semiconductors stay scarce

Episode Summary

When we recorded this podcast episode, we heard rumblings that the Ethereum merge was coming. Now it’s here, and we’re in watch-and-wait mode to see its impact. Meanwhile, it seems to be the best and worst of times in the world of chip manufacturing. NVIDIA and AMD are releasing a new line of GPUs while automobile manufacturers have no choice but to cut back on features. Now that mining crypto is dead, maybe we can finally upgrade our video card. Today’s podcast brings up a lot of questions about humanity and its devices. Ben and Matt reflect on the challenges of hybrid work for hardware developers, Apple Watch’s health features, and Ethereum’s promise for energy efficiency.

Episode Notes

It finally happened. In the words of the Ethereum Foundation, ETH is now “ready for its interstellar voyage,” having transitioned from proof of work to proof of stake. With no centralized authority insisting on a ship date, we’re witnessing a feat. We’re all wondering what comes next. 

The Great Debate about hybrid and remote work continues. Is the decentralized talent movement winning? What can we do to prevent cabin fever? What do government workers do with their laptops if they need to cross the border?

The semiconductor chip shortage hasn’t ended yet, but some companies seem to be hurting more than others. What gives?

We conclude with a reflection on the new Apple Watch—and whether it can actually save our lives.

Be sure to follow @mattkander and @benpopper on Twitter to keep the convo going.

Big thanks to Androidian who is our latest Inquisitive badge recipient for coming to Stack Overflow for 30 separate days, maintaining a positive question record.

Catch you all later.

Episode Transcription

[intro music plays]

Ben Popper Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow, joined as I often am by my colleague and collaborator, Matt Kiernander. Hey, Matt. 

Matt Kiernander Hello! Good to see you again. 

BP Good to see you too my friend. So we've got some fun news coming down the pipe this week. One which I think you and I should probably talk about because we were on an episode earlier, is the Ethereum merge– Ethereum 2.0. 

MK [dramatic music]

BP [dramatic music] We did an episode about this where I mentioned the difficulty bomb and how this had been kicked down the road so many times. Some of the articles talking about it this week mentioned how it has been delayed for years, but it seems as though it's now going to arrive possibly as early as tomorrow. There's a countdown clock, right? 

MK There's a countdown clock on Google. 

BP Yeah. So that's pretty sweet. So this matters for a bunch of reasons which I think we should go over and is being closely watched in the crypto web 3.0 space. First up is the Ethereum blockchain, as it grew in popularity it was having trouble handling the volume of transactions that people wanted to do on it so it became a bit slow and kludgy, occasionally things didn't get written at the right time, you didn't get on the chain and you had to wait, and that it was also eating up a ton of energy through its proof of work. So the merge takes us over to proof of stake and if you believe the optimists, it will make Ethereum faster, more scalable, and 99% more energy efficient, which sounds like a lot. 

MK One other small benefit that may come from this is that GPUs are going to become hopefully a lot more accessible because the profit in mining Ethereum is not going to be there anymore because you can't mine Ethereum anymore and they're going to have to move to a lot of other alternative coins, which is going to be hopefully less profitable which means we're going to see a surge of probably well-used GPUs at the market sometime soon. 

BP In the end it all comes back to Matt's passion for high end PC gaming and whether or not GPUs will be available at a reasonable price. 

MK Pretty much, yeah.

BP But yeah, it'll be interesting to see if this works– going from proof of stake to proof of work, and the Ethereum Foundation described it for sort of non-technical audiences as, “Imagine Ethereum is a spaceship that isn't quite ready for an interstellar voyage. With the Beacon Chain with the merge, the community has built a new engine and a hardened hull. After significant testing it's almost time to hot swap the new engine from the old one mid-flight.” All right, here we go. High stakes. I think the other thing that people are watching here is whether folks who work in the Bitcoin ecosystem will then follow suit. The concerns about scalability and about environmental impact are high with both of these and there was a recent report out of the White House saying that Bitcoin is estimated to account for 60-77% of total global crypto asset electricity usage. Ethereum was another 20-40%. So between the two of them, they were basically the ones using up all the juice and Bitcoin is the worst culprit of all. So yeah, I think there's a lot of ramifications if this goes well for both Ethereum and for Bitcoin and for the whole space. 

MK Yeah. I mean, so essentially we’ve solved climate change with the Ethereum network going to proof of stake.

BP We did it. Put climate change on the blockchain. We solved it. 

MK Yeah, it's done. We can move that from doing to done. No more issues. 

BP All right. Well, let's wish them luck. Let's hope it doesn't get kicked down the road and let's check back in on a future episode and see how it went. 

MK I'm hopeful because a lot of banks are actually quite worried about the merge essentially so I think they're actually stopping any transactions going through for up to 48 hours before the merge happens and maybe afterwards as well. So there's probably some potential for some jiggery-pokery here. But yes, wish them all the best. Hope it all goes well and everyone comes out happy. 

BP Yeah, if you're in a highly regulated industry but you've also been playing around with the blockchain, you might want to press pause for a few days and see how the big update goes before you continue transacting for some very wealthy clients.

MK Yeah, because this is something that you can't just turn off and on again. It's quite serious business. 

BP A general maintenance alert for the Ethereum blockchain, it may be offline for an indeterminate amount. All right, very cool. So I also saw some news, this came out three or four days ago which I thought was pretty important. Amazon's new CEO, Andy Jassy, says he has no plans to force workers to return to the office. So this is obviously meaningful for the entire industry. Amazon is one of the largest employers in the world and largest technology companies with lots of developers, and it was also one of the first to ask some of its employees to come back and to institute policies that folks would be returning. But it seems as though, at least according to the recent quotes, they've decided to lean a bit more into embracing remote and hybrid work. Matt, what is your take on this? Is this an inflection point? Is this just good PR? “We don't have a plan to require people to come back. We're going to proceed adaptively as we learn,” is what Jassy said on stage Wednesday. Amazon tech workers were told to work from home in 2020, and then they said they'd leave it up to individuals to decide how often, but it was a sharp reversal from its earlier goal of returning to an office-centric culture. I guess that's what I was trying to get at. 

MK The way that that was phrased saying, “We don't have a plan but we're going to proceed adaptively as we learn,” that seems to me like there's a lot of room for, “We adapted and we would like you back because this ain’t working.” 

BP Yeah, a lot of wiggle room there.

MK There's a lot of wiggle room for potential mandates in the future. But yeah, I think the people who value remote work and have the option to move to a different company or change their environment based on what they want, they will move at the first hint of a mandate being required for in-office work. I'm somebody who definitely values both of those things. I enjoy the hybrid approach where I can still go and talk to people and have that social contact, but I also like the times that I like to stay at home and just focus on work and turn off my notifications and get stuff done. I personally think remote work is going to be baked into the future of what we do. There’s some companies offering four-day work weeks at the moment. There are some companies that are going to be offering full remote and hybrid remote and no remote at all and people will just have a choice I think as to what suits them best. 

BP Right. Yeah, one of the things that I guess I've been thinking about recently is that the onus, the burden of proof is really on leadership to say, “We can really demonstrate to you through empirical data or some other more objective measure that we are better off when you're in the office versus at home.” Because for a lot of these companies, they continued to thrive throughout the pandemic when everybody was forced to work from home. They continued to put out products and grow their business and in some cases post record profits. And so there's the old saw of like, “Well, we need that in person connectivity to innovate and to collaborate well,” but where is the proof? That is a story we tell ourselves, versus the tangible evidence that things changed radically and yet these companies continued. 

MK Yeah. I mean, it was only in the last quarter that we saw a lot of projected growth not being met and that was well, well, well into the pandemic and working from home. So there is a proof that we can get stuff done when we're not [in the office] sitting in front of a desk. We can do that at home sitting in front of a desk. That's perfectly great too. 

[music plays]

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[music plays]

BP I wonder how hardware engineers feel about all this, because obviously if you're working on a proprietary device you probably have to go to the office more often than other people. It really kind of changes up the relationship between hardware and software in that way.

MK So some friends of mine who are working for government agencies, they have VPNs and stuff like that. If they cross a border then their laptop essentially auto-wipes itself, as soon as they cross outside of the Canadian network and into the US network. I think that's something they didn't realize. As soon as you cross the border, poof, your laptop is back to zero. So I think there's a lot of considerations here. I think the one that hits closest to home for me is simply, I love working from home, but living in a really high cost of living city and trying to find a place where I can both work from home and live comfortably without going insane is really problematic. So having a dedicated office space is something I'm probably leaning to more. I'm not 100% remote. I'm probably shifting towards the 40-50% remote timeline. Whereabouts do you sit on this? 

BP I have joined a co-working space in my area and one of the things I love about it is that they have sites in two local cities that are small cities. So I can drive 15 minutes in one direction or 25 minutes in the other and I can spend the day in a city that's near my house. I can see people I know that I've met at the co-working spaces and chit chat over coffee or have a little walk and talk. I can spend time in that city and go to those restaurants and those coffee shops and I can be out of my home which is a nice break. So I probably do that two to three days a week, and then there'll be other days when it's rainy or whatever, I have a bunch of chores, and I'll just work from home. So I'm hybrid in the sense of working from out of the house and in the house, or in an office-like environment and not in an office environment. I don't travel down to New York City to go to the Stack Overflow office because there isn't really a need and most days the people that I'd want to interact with are not predictably there. I will go for our upcoming conference, I'll go as needed to meet with folks. So I like having it there, but I've created my own little hybrid ecosystem in the area and I value it. I wouldn't be happy, I would get cabin fever working only from home or coffee shops. 

MK Yep. For sure. 

BP All right, I've got another interesting story here which I know you're on the hardware side of things so I wanted to bring it to you. Companies are hacking their way around the chip shortage. With no end insight to the supply chain issue there's desperation in the market. The quote here that I loved is, “You're building a $350,000 mass spectrometer, and you can't ship it because you don't have a 50 cent chip. You're pretty much willing to pay anything to get what you need.” So this was a really cool one about how people are just going to countries like Morocco and The Netherlands and Japan that are not traditionally known for sourcing large volumes of chips and trying to figure out ways to get it. Or in some cases they are shipping without certain things. So Cadillac is removing some hands-free driving. Tesla is removing some USB ports. Ford is shipping without chips for noncritical features like heating controls. So if it's like, “Well we can ship this car and sell it tomorrow except we're missing this one chip for the heater, forget it. This is going to be knob only, this is going back to manual. Just get this thing out the door.” So it’s really interesting how people are still adapting to that and how this kind of invisible world of semiconductor supply chain is still really roiling a lot of industries.

MK I'm of very much two minds about this because they're essentially printing money at this stage. There's not a bunch of chips laying around and they're like, “How are we going to get these out the door?” They're in a good spot, but there have been a lot of drawbacks with the supply chain over the last couple of years. There was I think an earthquake where some manufacturing facilities in Taiwan got flooded. It was a whole big deal. And so there have been shortages happening for the last four years or so. I think it's going to be very weird buying a car for example in the next couple of years and being like, “Oh wait, was this that 2022 model that didn't have a heater? I can't warm my seats with Siri. I need to fiddle with a knob and then it burned my bum.” 

BP Yeah, yeah. There was another point in here kind of to what you were saying, people are wondering if there is hoarding out there. The best quote was, “I think chips are the new toilet paper.” But to what degree have people taken advantage of the fact that this scarcity emerged and now it’d be hard to know how much of that is real and how much of that is, as you point out, people who are making money hand over fist. 

MK Yeah, because for example, Nvidia and AMD are releasing their new line of GPUs. Sorry, this is like Ceora and Kpop, I'm just apparently the GPU person. They're coming out with their entirely new line of GPUs in the next month or two. Apple has come out with their new lines of iPhones and all the other technology around that. So there are still electronics making their way to market and it's interesting to see a lot of these more mass manufacturers, cars and other things, that are still struggling.

BP Yeah, for sure. Speaking of Apple, what did you think of their recent iPhone event? My favorite piece of the whole thing was with the phone and the watch. They talked so much about being outdoors in the backcountry, just getting away from it all, but then also how they would be able to track you and send an SOS and have a great compass and all these other things. But it was this weird juxtaposition of, you're somewhere where there is no service and you're really far away from other humans and you're finally back in nature, and luckily for you, Apple technology is here to keep you connected and help in case of an emergency. It was a little cognitive dissonance there. 

MK There are going to be some really wild stories I think over the next couple of years. Because the thing that I thought was actually coolest was exactly what you mentioned, it was the satellite capability. So basically when you're out and you don't have access to a cell tower, a lot of people when they're out hiking they'll have to use a radio and that radio needs to be pointed towards a physical satellite up in the sky. And so what they've done with the watch and the phones now have the ability to connect to satellites, so it will actually help you on the screen. It’s kind of like a little mini game, you kind of point it up towards where the satellite is. 

BP It's very cool.

MK It's very cool. And it compresses the message down to a smaller bite size and then sends it to the satellite. So it'll go and then gives you a confirmation that it's sent. I really love that type of thing. I don't really care about the notches and everything else or OLED screens or mini OLED, but having something that might save somebody's life or impact their life in a much more meaningful way, that is what really excites me a lot. 

BP Yeah. I do love it. It's like this phone is already so multi-featured, it's already like the Star Trek Tricorder, it can do so much. But yeah, layering on older technologies or different technologies like a satellite uplink, very cool. Monitoring they were mentioning, women as they're sleeping their body temperature to let you know when they're ovulating. Just these very sci-fi things that they're starting to pack in there as they expand on some of the health and communication capabilities of it. 

MK I can't wait for the next season of Handmaid's Tale and seeing how the Apple Watch features in that. It's going to be real weird. 

BP Yeah, exactly. 

MK But yeah, I personally bought an Apple Watch recently because of a lot of the health features that it offered. With COVID and everything else I was like, “Okay, so I want to make sure my heart rate is where it needs to be when I'm doing cardio, going to spin class and all that kind of stuff.” I want to be able to see that data and figure out what my heart is doing, how stressed I am, all that kind of stuff. So for me, I'm very much more interested in the bioinformatic side of things and I'm glad that products like the Apple Watch are popular enough where that's starting to gain a lot more traction.

BP Yeah, for sure.

[music plays]

BP All right, everybody. As always, we want to say thanks for listening and shout out a member of the community. We are out of lifeboat badges, so today, a big thanks to Androidian who one hour ago was awarded the inquisitive badge. That means they've come on Stack Overflow and asked a well received question on 30 separate days maintaining a positive question record. We need those people asking great questions and taking the time to formulate them, and we also appreciate the folks out there answering. So thanks Androidian, and congrats on your inquisitive badge. I am Ben Popper. I am the Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always reach me @BenPopper on Twitter. Email us with questions or suggestions, And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review. And if you are a computer science student or technologist in the United States or Canada and you want to be a Stack Overflow Student Ambassador and get some free pizza, we will throw a link in the show notes, you can check out how to apply. 

MK I’m Matt Kiernander. I'm a Developer Advocate here at Stack Overflow. You can find me online in all of the places @MattKander.

BP Awesome. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening and we will talk to you soon.

MK Thanks, everyone. Bye!

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