Going gonzo at the Bitcoin 2013 conference in San Jose
Amid the vendors, fellow enthusiasts, Winkelvii and serious lack of women, I walked around the Bitcoin 2013 conference the way I used to walk starry-eyed around Disneyland—running everywhere and only stopping for breath to wait for my parents to catch up. Playing the role of the parent was my good-natured girlfriend, Natalie, who took everything in stride and put up with myself and fellow bitcoin lunatics for days. She was one of the less than 10 females who bought tickets, and if a conference’s nerd factor were measured by it’s male-centricity, then Bitcoin 2013 conference wins the blue ribbon.
The attendees were an eclectic mix of local and international hobbyists, talented coders, chip manufacturers, podcasters, venture capitalists and business savvy folks—most walking around with the mischievous sparkle in the eye that only comes from the opportunity to get rich quick while simultaneously sticking it to the man. This conference was a magnet for the hackers, the misfits, the anarchists and the castaways, as well as a fair amount of secret Casablanca sentimentalists who still hold out hope that the little guy can disrupt an entire, utterly corrupt ecosystem. I was in the right place, and these were my people.
For those n3wb13s here, the digital crypto currency known as bitcoin is not only a new digital currency but also a social movement that has captured people from all walks of life into its tractor beam. Rarely in my life have I met more well-spoken, brilliant, eloquent, passionate and motivated people than I have through bitcoin. I wasn’t alive during the 60s, but I imagine that that decade had the same youthfully optimistic belief that a group of socially minded and active young people really can influence the world for the better. And what better way to do that than through the opening of money?
Truth be told, though, my favourite parts of the conference were the open bars. It was there that I got to chat with Yifu from Avalon, some of the crew from vice.com, the most enthusiastic Canadian on the planet and two rowdy bitcoiners from down under whom I’ll refer to as “those crazy Aussies.” In these alcohol soaked moments, you could catch candid comments with the speakers and glean some juicy tidbits from loose lips…if only I was sober enough to remember them! As it turns out those crazy Aussies “borrowed” a bottle of vodka from the last bar we were at, and the last thing I remember on Friday night was them pouring shots into my mouth on the street.
I woke up on the floor of my Airbnb rental (shit here comes a bad review from my host) next to a virtual stranger I’d become best friends with in the wee hours of the night. The sun was blazing through the curtain-less windows and my phone was nowhere to be found. Apparently I had a good night…
Back at the conference things were in full swing—as it should have been, considering I didn’t make it there until 3pm. Those crazy Aussies were nowhere to be seen, but most of the folks I had met the night before had staggered in in some form or another. In the meantime I tracked my phone (thanks meraki.com) to a local cemetery where the culprit was downloading porn apps and, presumably, having a great time at my poor, defiled phone’s expense. I’d have to deal with that later though—the day was nearly over, and I hadn’t been to a single talk.
The first vendor I got to speak with was Alan Reiner from the armory project which makes the most feature-rich bitcoin client around. It’s worth a download if you haven’t heard about it yet, and there are some exciting new security features in the latest builds that offer new layers of protection for your wallet. The newest feature lets you split your paper wallet backup into three pieces, where any two can recreate the wallet. You can also do three out of five, etc. This is relevant if you want to leave bitcoins in your will—one part of the wallet goes to the attorney and the other goes to a family member, then when combined, your inheritance is distributed as you see fit. You could also create a crazy treasure hunt, and scatter the pieces all over the world in a winner-takes-all family brawl. Movie rights anyone?
The Free State Project folks were there promoting small government, personal responsibility, bitcoin, guns and, pot. Their goal aims to be a place where like minded people can zen out together, drink, smoke, and basically flip off anyone that tells them anything different. I hear they moved to New Hampshire to influence the primaries and although this seems like a 0day exploit to the US system I’m glad that it’s a group of cool as people I can trust that are shaking things up.
The secure messaging app, gli.ph, which allows worldwide secure person-to-person communication, was showing off their newest feature—bitcoin integration. Rob, the CEO and founder, was recently on Episode 11 of Let’s Talk Bitcoin where he went into some detail about the project and where it’s headed. He was one of the coolest dudes at the conference, and while we waited the 15 or so minutes for my BTC transaction to confirm, Rob, Luke Jr and I shared confidential stories over Sierra Nevadas.
On Saturday night, the party was at a local club turned faux casino where, thankfully, the craps, roulette, and poker distracted from the free alcohol. It was here that I bumped into someone from the Internet Archive Project and learned about the Internet Credit Union and their goals to streamline some of the payroll issues related to running a non profit (iafcu.org, if you want to learn more). The casino night was filled with more organizations and bitcoin-enthusiasts with similar sentiments—notably, using technology to make the world a better place/making it more difficult to be an asshole to someone else. A more idealistic and socially conscious group you’ll never meet.
As the free drinks kept flowing, the night become more about the party and less about the ideas, which is par for the course where I’m from and yet, thankfully, I made it home by 2am, still missing my phone, but still with enough dignity intact to show my face the next day… I think.
Sunday morning started with a renewed attempt to track down my phone. I called myself, and a man answered, claiming he had bought the phone from some young punks on the street and was thoroughly shocked and amazed to learn it was stolen. He told me all he wanted was the $120 to cover what he had paid the kids who sold it to him. I wanted to trust this guy, as his story was plausible, but since I couldn’t be sure, I wondered if I could get him to agree to a bitcoin escrow service—unlikely, but worth a shot, I thought. I didn’t get a chance to ask—he stopped returning my calls and texts as I tried to work out a time and place for the trade… *sigh*.
On Sunday Yifu’s talk about the current state of the Avalon project was my favourite by far and he did great especially when you consider how late we were all out the night before. He was also the only one I saw at the con who was mobbed with a throng of
beautiful girls geeky admirers after a talk and he handled it with aplomb and enthusiasm. After seeing his composure and ability to handle himself I wished that Avalon was one of the 2 ASIC companies I put my meager investments into last year. Still, even though my investment in the bASIC mining device never panned out my other pick was ASICMINER 🙂
A few hours later, I suddenly found myself at the tail end of the conference. People were shambling around with a look in their eye both daring and reluctant to meet your gaze. They knew that it wouldn’t take much to convince themselves to call in sick the following day and stay out way too late again. Oh wait, maybe that was just me—I did secretly want to ditch my plans to head back to Los Angeles, so I could carouse around, meet more interesting folks and bullshit late into the night.
My wish was granted because as the conference ended, more and more of the speakers and vendors were looking for something interesting to do before they were forced to head back to their regular lives. We ended up corralling a few of the stragglers to McCormick & Schmick’s where all of us remaining bitcoiners who were fiending for one last hit of “bitjuice” were able to get our final fix. Some of the best conversations of the conference were had here, as we discussed everything bitcoin—from the basics of the currency to societal change and it’s broader implications for life.
Enter my little tangent on trust…
At the heart of the digital crypto currency sphere and at the heart of society in general, is the idea of trust. At every level, both macro and micro, society only functions because we trust that most of the time other people aren’t going to GO FUCKING APE SHIT. Well, most of the time.
But seriously, as we’re driving down the road, we trust people to stay in their lanes. When we go to the doctor, we trust that they will diagnose our ills to the best of their ability. When we buy or sell a good, we trust that we will be able to trade the small pieces of stinky paper for something of similar value. And just think of how many random strangers have served you food over the course of your life, and most of us have never been poisoned. Nearly everything we do in life somehow involves trusting someone or something else.
Ironically, what makes bitcoin so interesting, and so damn powerful, is that it is an entire monetary system that is based on a lack of trust. And paradoxically, through this lack of trust, an extremely trustworthy system emerges.
It earns it’s trustworthiness because:
- Every transaction is cryptographically signed so that you know who (or which address at least) sent the money and whether it was accepted by the network.
- Every transaction is public so that no back room deals can happen under the table.
- There is no central authority to control it.
- It’s self adjusting to cope with the ebbs and flows of it’s various metrics.
- It is based on real world industry leading encryption that’s damn near impossible to crack.
It’s this contrast that is what I find so endlessly interesting about bitcoin and it opens to the door to some much bigger ideas and more revolutionary ideas.
- Ask yourself what would happen if every politician registered their public bitcoin address so we could track all donations.
- What would happen if governments did this or multinational corporations?
- What would happen, if we as a people made it impossible to hide the allocation of resources?
- How much would society benefit if people knew what was REALLY going on behind the scenes?
Getting back to the con itself, we found our way into a high stakes bitcoin tournament back at someones smoke filled hotel room. I’m sure smoking wasn’t allowed in the room but judging by the high stakes nature of the game, close to zero fucks were given about the extra room charges. I bought in, quickly lost, and forked over my 1BTC buy in to the more skilled players in the room. I do epically suck at poker but found the drinks, smokes and talks more interesting anyways. It could have been worse though as one unlucky player parted with more than 30BTC.
On Monday at around 11am, I finally hopped into the car and made my way back down to LA—sleep-deprived, mind-a-buzz and happy. En route, I got a notice from the guy who had my phone. Apparently, he’d become stranded in Santa Cruz, but he promised to send me the phone if I covered the expense that he paid to buy it. His preferred method of money exchange was Western Union. My bullshit-o-meter went from green to yellow.
However, given my views on trust, and considering the fact that a new phone would be $500+, I decided to use our current money transfer system, Western Union, to send him $120 + shipping + a little somethin-somethin for his time + a hefty western union fee. The total came out to a little over $180, not to mention the time wasted finding an actual brick-and-mortar location to do the transfer since the Western Union website wasn’t working for some reason. The experience was utterly archaic and was a well-timed real world example that, regardless of the price, bitcoin is fucking useful.
Can you guess what happened to my phone and money? It seems that trust is kind of a bitch and fucks with you if you’re not discerning enough. I’m not sure who got the last laugh though: a week after my phone was supposed to have been shipped, I decided to get medieval and send a constant stream of meatspin, goatse and this guy to my phone. A sort of digital Custer’s last stand if you will. Unsurprisingly, 2 days later my phone was erased and, presumably, never to be seen again.
I’m rambling now so I’ll wrap it up. Bitcoins are here, banks are in fear, and you better get used to them.
(photo credit: Zach Copely)