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On the impermanence of what we think is permanent

Musings on concrete and crypto

Last weekend, I went to Prague to attend DCX, a satellite event for DevConnect. After all, Prague is just a 2 hr train ride away and always worth visiting.

The event itself was hosted in the Lobkowicz Palace, sitting on top of a hill with a stunning view of the city. Walking up the hill is well worth it, for you get into a beautiful castle. 

Once inside the venue, I listened to a few talks and enjoyed the cityscape from the balcony. Eventually, while sitting around a round table in the co-working area, the conversation went to terrorism and war. Great ice breaker. Very intense way to finish day one.

So much so that on day 2, I spent less time at the venue and more time seeing what was around. First, I wandered around the river to eventually end up inside a hotel cafe drawn in by the golden mosaic cow on its roof. Then, I found myself in the art gallery at the bottom of the hill leading to the palace.

I didn’t know what to expect, but the curators did their homework on me as a target demographic. The first two floors were dedicated to books and reading. An entire bookshelf was full of works that used Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog as their cover motif, from novels to Mahler Symphonies.

The shelf full of Caspar David Friedrich 

Then I got up to the third floor.

I entered a sparely lit area and walked into what felt like the ruins of an industrial building. Projectors on the wall created the illusion that you were right in the center of it. The corners were lined with pieces of brick, cement, and steel as if they’d just fallen off the building. 

It felt like an exploration of the ruins of the industrial age. The exhibition itself was called The Grief of Misfit Cathedrals, and it felt the part. As I admired the installation, goosebumps were running down my spine. I never had even considered that concrete could be so beautiful yet frail. 

The videos are nowhere near the experience of standing in the center of that room — with barely anyone around. It’s one of those moments when you marvel at what artists can do. Trigger such feelings with as little as some sound and visuals. 

One of the posters explaining the exhibit mentioned the Japanese concept of “Mono no aware.” 

 物のあわれ (Mono no aware)

Sakura by Nagoya Castle

Mono no aware translates loosely to the pathos of things and is all about appreciating the impermanence of things. When experiencing, it feels like a mix of sadness paired with a deep appreciation of the beauty of things. Or, as Kyle Chayka describes it

Mono no aware is the beauty of transience, the way a falling leaf or sunlight gliding the edge of a rock at the end of the day can incite a sudden gut-punch awareness that life is evanescent.”

It’s snowflakes melting away or cherry blossoms that we marvel at because their beauty only lasts two weeks. First used in the Heian period of Jaoan (794–1185) to express spontaneous feelings that are vocalized using “ah” or “wow,” it’s a close cousin of the feeling of awe. 

Mono no aware’s focus on transience and appreciating ephemeral things is also related to Japanese Buddhism, as well as a notion of letting go gracefully and not getting too attached to transient things.

When you first think about transient things, industrial buildings might be the last thing that comes to might. 

But you’re wrong. 

Lifetime of concrete 

If you believe that stones last pretty much forever, you’re correct. But if you assume that concrete has similar properties, you’re not. 

Most of our cities wouldn’t exist without concrete. Even buildings that aren’t made of it often sit on a concrete foundation. It’s almost everywhere, yet we rarely talk about it. It’s the second-most consumed material after water, yet we fail to notice it around us. 

As the summers got hotter, we started paying attention to it — realizing that all this concrete makes heat in big cities even more unbearable. Unfortunately, with its huge carbon footprint, concrete contributes to the further acceleration of climate change (It makes up 8% of worldwide emissions). While trees offer some instant relief, chances are humanity can’t quit concrete anytime soon as the population continues growing. 

Worse, concrete does not last forever, unlike what you might assume. Steel that props up concrete in buildings, bridges, and sewage systems starts rusting. As steel decays, the steel expands, leading to cracks and eventual failure of the entire structure. 

Scientists estimate that structures of reinforced concrete can last for 100 years. Considering that it’s been 100 years since its invention, you do the math. 

We might find ourselves confronted with infrastructure that’s about to reach the end of its life. And most of us aren’t even aware or consider this an option.

All of that went through my head as I was reflecting on the exhibit while sitting in the museum cafe, trying to motivate myself to walk up the hill to the event again. 

Naturally, I ended up tying all of that back to crypto. 

Sunsetting 🌅

Sunsets over Dresden

Every once in a while, people will post a picture of the top 10 coins/chains ten years ago. And little surprise, most of them aren’t in the top 10 or anywhere near anymore. The only exception is Bitcoin. Of course, since then, a lot has happened in the tech, not least the introduction of smart contracts and now the rise of Layer-2s. 

The other day, news broke that Bullish had bought Coindesk. Bullish that’s an exchange financed through Block One, the entity that was behind EOS. Has anyone heard about them recently outside of that? I doubt it. It’s one of those Layer-1 chains that were supposed to be Ethereum killers, much like IOTA and Zilliqa. And those aren’t even 10 years old but were big when I started in the industry. 

Now, they live, at best, some sort of shadow existence, which they owe not to smart treasury management but to the price increase in ETH since they raised funds. If the asset you received for your token has done a 10x since it doesn’t even take a genius fund manager to not run out of money. 

It makes you wonder, though, wouldn't it be better if they simply gave up? All of that money poured into (what I perceive as) a dying ecosystem surely could be put to better use. 

Some might say buying a media company isn’t a bad use, and fair enough, CoinDesk not dying is probably a net benefit for the space. Editorial freedom, we’ll have to wait and see. 

Maybe it’s a great example of the sunk cost fallacy. The fallacy that propels companies and individuals to continue on a path just because they’ve already spent too much on it to give up. 

EOS isn’t the only example, albeit probably one of the best-capitalized ones. There are countless other chains and projects that hang on by the thread that is their still filled treasuries. 

Of course, whenever they started, they had a grand vision and never considered the possibility that maybe replacing/killing Ethereum or powering the future of France was simply not achievable for them. 

For the projects currently running out of lifeline, there’s always the option to do XYZ hyped thing. 

For the others, I suggest that maybe it’s time to grow up and consider demise an option. Not everything is meant to last. Take concrete; it’s going to start failing us sooner rather than later. All great empires eventually came to an end; often, the only constant seems to be change. 

Demising might not mean stopping your missions completely; it can also be an acknowledgment that the way one tried to achieve something might not have been the best. Or a realization that this market is simply not rational and some great things won’t make it while the big stupid stuff like 3/5 multisigs with real yield backed by Paradigm will. 

An example that I quite liked was Blogchain, a decentralized blogging platform with the most beautiful illustrations and an inspiring mission to maintain freedom of speech. Unfortunately, they had to shut down. They did, however openource all of their code, allowing future developers to leverage it. That’s quite an honorable way to accept defeat. 

Now I find myself writing this post on Paragraph. Another decentralized blogging platform. Maybe Blogchain just got the timing wrong.

The Aragon Association recently shut down, liquidating its assets and putting part of it in the hands of a body that will continue development with a product focus (maybe this should have been their focus from the start tbh) and otherwise paying out DAO token holders. 

Some might see it as a failure; of course, business-wise, it is. But I still think it’s better than continuing on a path that hasn’t worked so far. Survivor bias is a thing. I believe this industry would also be better off if we started thinking about all the ones that do not make it and maybe even consider a path for when we realize that what we’re currently funding isn’t meant to last. 

For infrastructure in the real world, there are infrastructure reports that paint a picture of the state of things. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had such health indexes for projects in addition to some parameters that’d be the sign to sunset? 

Obviously, if a protocol is run by a DAO, the ultimate decision would rest with the holders. There should be at least some thought put into how such a process would look like from the start. 

For 3/5 multi-sigs and other centralized entities, maybe take a little bit of a lesson from Google. 

Google has killed so many of its internal projects that there is an entire website dedicated to them. 

In the NEAR ecosystem, we had/have an NFT marketplace whose founders were found to be using funds to gamble on sports bets, and they weren’t winning — which is how all came out eventually. Yet they still post on Twitter (reply only by people who are tagged, haha) despite ongoing legal proceedings. 

This, too, should be a clear sign just to halt operations. Who are they gonna foo? 

It’s an extreme example, and most of the projects hanging onto a thin thread aren’t gambling their funds. I do believe, though, that some of them might do well with a clean slate. Taking all the lessons learned and maybe adopting some of that spirit of Mono no aware. 

Sakura Shrine in Setagaya, Tokyo

Some things are beautiful, not because they last forever. But because they don’t. And maybe it’s how we can appreciate them even more. Because we humans are weird and often just realize the importance of something when it’s gone. 

Go see all the palaces, leave draining crypto events to explore museums and fancy coffee shops, spend time in nature, walk around aimlessly, read a good book, write postcards to your friends (and maybe even strangers on the internet), call your mum, play an instrument, see a concert of your favorite artist, spend time just observing the world passing by. 

Crypto Twitter isn’t the world. It’s merely a part of it. The project you might marvel at today might be a zombie tomorrow. The colossal bridge connecting cities might crumble the next day. Industrial buildings that brought wealth might just be part of an art installation in the next decade. 

The things you believe are permanent might not be. 

Do not cry because they are past! Smile, because they once were!

- Ludwig Jacobowski

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