Bitcoin, Satoshi, and Belief

“Violent ground acquisition games such as football are in fact crypto-fascist metaphors for nuclear war.” – Back to School


Does this look like the Bond villain Satoshi Nakamoto who put together the million 7 bitcoin fortune???

As a family we often go out together for Friday night dinner.  It’s a nice way to close the work week prior and get together as a family and talk.  We (generally) have a strict policy of leaving the phones at home (LINK).  A corollary rule is “no talking about computers” at dinner, mainly to keep The Boy and Pugsley from entering a nerd mind meld where they talk to each other in binary:

The Boy:  0101 1001 110010 10011 0111?

Pugsley:  10010!

Both:  Laughter.

On this particular Friday, The Boy would not shut up about bitcoin.  (฿ is one suggested Internet symbol for Bitcoin.)   He told me how bitcoin was a cryptocurrency – a currency that uses cryptography to verify transactions and make sure that some people don’t just counterfeit a bunch more of them.

You prove that you have a bitcoin via mathematical checks that only work if you have the “magic number” – your key to your money.  Again – secret codes – cryptography – is used to access your money.  Lose the code?  Not only can you never use your money – no one can ever use it again.

Bitcoin is also unique in that it’s mined.  Not in a real mine, but by using computer processors to break yet more codes through trial and error.  It’s not like all the bitcoins were available on day one – the inventor of bitcoin designed the system so that code breaking the next bitcoin is harder than code breaking the last one, so it gets exponentially more difficult to crack the bitcoin codes.

When people first started mining the coins, they used a computer processor.  Then someone came up with the idea to use graphics cards, like the ones in your computer that generate the images you see on the screen to do the processing.  Sounds crazy, but the graphics card is an order of magnitude better at doing the math than the processor.  Right now, most bitcoin mining is done on purpose-built processors, and a lot of it is done in cold places (Iceland) to make it easy to dump the heat from the processing with cheap electricity (Iceland has cheap electricity from geothermal).

Bitcoin started not only with a set number of bitcoins in the future, it was introduced in tandem with something called “blockchain.”  Blockchain is an open ledger system where people look at and record transactions.  If everyone looks and sees the transactions (not the details, mind you) then everyone agrees that a transaction happened.  There are multiple copies of this ledger, so it’s redundant and decentralized.  There are some people who think that blockchain might be the real innovation that will long outlive bitcoin.

I looked at The Boy as his tutorial on bitcoin came to an end.

“How many bitcoins do you have?”


I was astonished.  The Boy was 12.  He had, in his bedroom, concocted a scheme where he mined an alternate cryptocurrency (litecoin) and traded it back and forth between different currencies until he (finally, at peak wealth) had seven bitcoin.  When he had seven bitcoins, his net wealth was several thousand dollars.

“Okay.  The computer comes out of your room.”  I had no idea he was a budding day trader.

Eventually his trading losses ate all of his bitcoins, besides a few he used to register a domain name.  He even gave me 0.5 bitcoins for my birthday in 2012, but, I gave it back to him.

Yeah.  He gave me something that is worth about $8500 today.  Biggest birthday present to me, well, ever.

But don’t feel bad, at least I didn’t trade away $123,060 (today’s value) worth of bitcoin.  Like he did.

Even stranger is the origin of bitcoin.  It was created by a shadowy internet figure who used the name Satoshi Nakamoto.  Since he originated it, he also mined the first million bitcoins – worth $19 billion dollars today.

Yeah.  And they’re just sitting there.

Did he lose his secret code?  Is he dead?  Is he waiting to buy New Zealand?  Was Satoshi the CIA?  Was he a time traveler from the future?  What if it was created by the first sentient AI as a plot to crash the economy?  No one really knows if he is even a he, or if he is alive or frozen in nitrogen next to Walt Disney.

Yeah.  Weird.

But bitcoin exists.  And now it’s recognized as a commodity like pork, oranges, or PEZ® and traded in futures markets, which are regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What’s going to happen with bitcoin?

I’m not sure.  Predictions are pretty hard, especially about the future.

In the past, every single currency that’s not based on something like gold which prevented wanton printing (called a “fiat” currency, after the Italian car) has eventually failed.  Bitcoin isn’t based on gold, but it is based on the mathematical certainty of scarcity – once it’s all mined out in a decade or so, there won’t be anymore.  Ever.  In fact, the amount of bitcoin in circulation will end up getting smaller over time as people lose the secret code for their wallets (this happened to The Boy – he has a wallet with about 0.001 bitcoins in it.  About $180.  But can’t get the code.  And if he can’t?  Those coins are lost forever.  Theoretically, we could divide bitcoin forever.  And the losses mean it will go up, not down in scarcity.

Additionally, bitcoin has no government backing, and is outside the control of central banks like the Federal Reserve Bank or the International Monetary Fund.  They don’t like that, but they can live with it because it’s small.  If it gets to be of any size, they’ll kill it.  China has already made bitcoin trading illegal, and it’s possible that more countries could do the same.  Could they kill it entirely?  Bitcoin buffs say “no.”  But they could make the penalties so high and make exchange into hard currency so difficult that it’s effectively the same.  Other countries besides China will ban bitcoin.  Expect “terrorism” to play a part in this.

Currently, like a Dutch tulip bulb (LINK), it’s gone too high, too fast.   I have to think that it will come back down.  And back up again after that?  Yeah.  Probably.  The difficulty is that bitcoin is based entirely on what people will believe about it in the future, which is very hard to predict.  If people don’t believe in it, it will go to zero . . . but if people see a continually inflating dollar, a deflating currency will look very good.

All the gold in the world is worth somewhere around $1.9 trillion.  Bitcoin is worth about $300 billion.

Someone estimated “all the stuff in the world” is worth about $400 trillion, which surprised me because there is so very much PEZ© in the world.  So, bitcoin is pretty small compared to  . . . everything.  It still has plenty of room to grow.

Bitcoin is real, and it’s around to stay, especially when governments start printing money like it’s going out of style – bitcoin will provide a non-inflationary alternative – Gresham’s law (LINK) says that bad money will drive out good, and people will get rid of their currency that’s becoming worthless, and save the currency that’s becoming more valuable.

So, I wish that The Boy had not frittered away his seven bitcoins.  And I wish I knew who Satoshi was.  I could certainly help him look under the couch cushions for his code . . . for a small fee.

But . . . what if . . . The Boy is Satoshi?

I’m not a financial advisor.  I don’t have bitcoin and won’t buy any this week.  Disclaimer, disclaimer, disclaimer.

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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