Wednesday, August 06, 2014

My very first Star Trek convention: It wasn’t what I expected, but it sure was fun!

I recently attended my very first Star Trek convention in Las Vegas. Though I had some professional reasons to be in Vegas, it was a thrill to experience it as a long time Star Trek nerd. 
Not having been to one of these before, I really didn’t know what to expect, expect for the stereotypes I’d gotten from those making fun of Trekkies (or Trekkers, as they prefer to be called), and many of my preconceptions turned out to be wrong! 


Here’s what I found:

Trekkers are nice and polite. 
I personally found it thrilling to be around people who were into Star Trek as much as me (in fact, I’d say most of them were into it way more than me, which is saying a lot). I’d also say that about 70% of the people I talked to had been to a Star Trek con before, and each had advice about what to do and what to take in. The much smaller contingent of first time convention goers like me were a little overwhelmed.
One guy, who had flown up from Austin, remarked how polite people were at the convention, compared to other types of conventions he’d been to. He wondered if it had to do with the Star Trek themes of inclusiveness and respect for others – whether it was other creed or colors or planets or species. Not may non-fans know this, but Star Trek was groundbreaking in the sixties partly because of the diversity of its bridge crew – from a black woman to a Russian (trivia fact: Star Trek featured the very first black/white kiss on TV in history, and as a result was blacked out in many states in the South).
I don’t know if it was related to Star Trek philosophy or not, but everyone was friendly and polite. There just weren’t as many jerks (male or female) or posers as you usually see in Las Vegas (except for when you left the convention center and were back in the casinos and clubs!).


Everyone had their favorite series, but no one was fighting about it!
One of the topics of discussion was always which Star Trek series you preferred. The most popular of course were the original series from the 1960’s and The Next Generation from the late 80’s/ early 90’s. 
Even so, I realized that I brought with me mental images from a classic Simpson’s episode (the one where Homer goes to college) about geeks arguing snottily about why “Captain Picard is better than Captain Kirk!”. OK, I did see one guy wearing a T shirt that had 10 reasons why Kirk was better then Picard, but most of the people who saw it just smiled. As a group, trekkers seemed to way too polite and nice to get into real heated arguments about this. Everyone seemed happy to have a favorite show, and different days of the show focused on a different series. There was more discussion about what our favorite episodes were, since so many people watched more than one show.
Even as a fan of the series, Enterprise, which isn’t very popular among star trek fans (and may be the least popular of all the series), I felt included. 

Any actor from any episode of the series is a minor “hero” at the Star Trek con. It was fun seeing them, and even a little sad. Speaking of Enterprise, see some of the images of me with actors from the show below – Connor Tinnear who played Trip, the lead Engineer, Anthony Montgomery, who played Travis, the helmsman, and Dominic Keating, who played Malcolm Reed, the chief tactical officer. The three of them were sitting at tables right next to each other, and there was a panel about Enterprise.
Even for someone like me, who has been involved in independent films, it was fun to be able to go up to people whose faces you’ve been seeing in your living room and actually talk to them. I even spent a few minutes talking to Richard Hatch, famous from the Battlestar Galactica series (the original series, and the more recent one). What does he have to do with Star Trek? He’s in a fan film. More on these later.
There was the guy who played Mark Twain on a classic Next Generation episode, and a panel with guys who had recurring roles on Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and even people who had only appeared in one or two episodes. You could talk to them, get their autographs and pics (for a fee – more on this later).
Someone remarked that it was a little sad that actors that had become so well known were reduced to “hawking pics and autographs” for money at the convention. It was a little sad to see that so many of the actors we loved didn’t seem to have as much on-going success or were in between series, making $20 to $75 per pic as one of their sources of income. But, on the other hand, they got to bask in the adulation of fans of their series, something which every actor probably aspires to and few achieve. That must be fun for them too.




A lot of women like Star Trek. A lot of couples too. And kids. 
When I was growing up, the really big Star Trek fans that I knew were mostly geeks, and mostly males. Maybe this is why I expected the convention to be kind of like my old engineering school – 70+% male. 
But it wasn’t. In fact, I’d say the con was split pretty evenly between male and female. And the girls were hot. Or maybe it was just the sixties version of future outfits (short dresses) on Saturday, cosplay day, which game me this impression. OK maybe not Vegas club hot – OK maybe I just have a thing for smart, geeky girls who like to dress up LOL. But there definitely were plenty of interesting costumes to see and admire. The Klingons and a Cardassians were among the best costumes I saw.
A lot of couples were there too, and these were split half and half between those who were both big star trek fans, and those where one was a big fan and those who dragged the other along to “see what it was like” at their first con. Many of them had matching Star Trek costumes – which was cute. Many of them brought their kids, and it was eye-opening to some of us older fans to realize that a whole new generation of fans existed, even though a real Star Trek series hasn’t been on the air in 10 years!



The Captains were the big thing, especially Shatner. While any actor from the series was a hero, the big draws were definitely the “captains”. William Shatner was there and drew the biggest crowd. I wondered how he would be with this crowd. There was a famous parody on Saturday Night Live of him making fun of Trekkies and telling them at a con to “Get a Life!”.
He certainly didn’t do that, but he was equal parts self-deprecatory, self-congratulatory, and serious. He handled the crowd well, and they seemed to hang on his every word. He made fun of himself and the fans, but in humorous ways that the crowd laughing even when the most embarrassingly adulatory questions were asked such as: “I want you to know that Captain Kirk was my hero and taught me how to be a man, and I aspired to be like him,” Even though he seemed a bit absorbed he went on about some story about breeding horses (he had recently hurt his foot). One fan asked him about Ricardo Montalban, who played Khan, and he had nothing but great things to say about him and Shatner told us how he felt when Ricardo passed away, which made Kirk seem to be a sensitive guy too!
Two other captains made it, Scott Bakula (Captain Archer from Enterprise), and Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway from Voyager), and, though they weren’t nearly as big as Shatner, I got a personal kick out of seeing them – and of course I had to stand in line to get a picture with them!



Be Prepared to Bring Your Checkbook. 
Star Trek conventions aren’t cheap. Actually, it is pretty cheap to get in with “Basic Admission” ($40 a day or so), but a good number of the repeat attendees had “Gold” passes and “Captain’s Chair” passes. These cost many hundreds of dollars. On top of that, every single autograph costs money. For example, I wanted to get two autographs from Scott Bakula, one for me and one for a friend, and had to pay $75 for each one. Plus every single picture that they are autographic costs money. Oh, and you want a pic with an actor, well be ready to shell out at least $20 for that (and over $100 for the more pouplar ones). 
I met some couples who spent many thousands of dollars just on the Star Trek con getting artifacts, not to mention travel and lodging in Vegas. Of course, you don’t have to spend money on these “extras”, but the convention is much less fun if you do. For me, this wasn’t a turn off by itself, but I could see how it might be for some folks, especially if you thought you can just show up and mingle with your favorite actors.

Star Trek fan films are all the Rage. 
An interesting recent phenomenon is that fans have started to make Star Trek fan-films and mini-series and post them onto the web. For the most part, these are done without permission from Paramount, and are often funded via kickstarter. The interesting thing is that they star real Star Trek actors, which makes them 
I hadn’t even been aware of these films nor had I taken them seriously. I met with Tim Russ, who played Tuvok on Star Trek Voyager (and whom I had met years ago at, of all things, a SETI convention), and he’s directed two fan films, including Star Trek: Of Gods and Men, and the upcoming Star Trek: Renegades, each of which have many Star Trek actors in there. I also met Richard Hatch, who stars as a Klingon in the upcoming fan film, Star Trek: Axonar. There was also buzz about Star Trek: Continuum which was said to be among the best ,and I met a group that shoots episodes of a fan series in the Star Trek universe in Atlanta each month.
There are of course the big JJ Abrams Star Trek films to keep the franchise alive, but in the absence of a true series, even though these are unauthorized and Paramount/CBS will most likely be clamping down on them, there does seem to be a lot of creativity in this arena! 



Star Trek, the Music, and the Wonder. 
Anyone who’s been to one of these conventions will tell you that they’re a bit overwhelming, with so may different things going on. There was one event that actually stood out – and I almost didn’t go. I decided to go at the last minute – it was a concert of Star Trek music. The Nevada pops orchestra was on stage one evening, and it turns out their conductor was a very big fan of Star Trek, and to prove it — he told all kinds of insider Star Trek jokes and lines that he and his wife quote regularly. 
I gotta say, this event stood out because when they played music from the various pictures, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture from 1979, or The Wrath of Khan from the early 80’s, or Star Trek: The Next Generation, or Voyager, it took me right back to those times in my life. 
I felt like a kid again, watching the TV with wonder in my eyes, and that excitement that maybe, maybe someday, I too would get to go the stars! 

For now, the next Star Trek Con will have to do!

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Friday, February 07, 2014

Knights of Badassdom premiere in San Francisco a great success!

We had a full house at the Knights of Badassdom premiere in San Francisco last night.  Over 200 people attended the sold out showing!

The audience loved it's unique blend of comedy and horror and fantasy. Of course, as an executive producer of the film, I'd seen the final cut before, but there's nothing like seeing this film in a theater full of fantasy and horror fans!  Hearing the audience laugh and cheer was worth the long wait it's taken to bring this film out.

Even those who'd never LARPed or played D&D got alot of the jokes, which was awesome! Of course, for those of us who used to play D&D, some of these were priceless.  Afterwards, I had one of our younger attendees ask me: What was dungeons and dragons? Was it some kind of video game? LOL!

Between Peter Dinklage's over the top old english, Steve Zahn's comedic wizard,  Jimmi Simpson's pretentious Game Master, Brett Gimpson's viking warrior Gunther,  not to mention Margarita Levieva's flesh eating succubus from hell - there were plenty of laughs to go around.  Oh and I didn't even mention Summer Glau and Ryan Kwanten - it was a great experience all around.

Here are some pics:

People starting lining up 2 hours before so they could get a copy of the poster:


Of course I ran out of posters very early!  If you attended last night's screening and want a poster, email me and I will try to get you one.



Not only did the cheers come for the stars, but Director Joe Lynch got a huge cheer, and even when my name came up as an Executive Producer, there were cheers all around - which was awesome!


We also had a few of the film's investors present, and a few LARPers who were in the film! Overall it was a great time ... if you get the chance, see it on the big screen. If not, then watch it on VOD next week, and for the hardcore fans, Bear McCreary's great soundtrack will be available next week.
And as a bonus, here are some pics of me wearing Ryan Kwanten's armor and, of course holding my favorite prop from the film, the "book"! (guess who the guy fighting the monster in the painting behind me is supposed to be)!



Thanks to everyone who came out in the rain!  Huzzah!




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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Gandalf the Venture Capitalist: The Perfect Advisor for the Startup Journey?

Last weekend, the second part of the Hobbit trilogy of films by Peter Jackson, The Desolation of Smaug, was released and, as usual, I think there's great inspiration for entrepreneurs, venture capitalist and investors in the form of Gandalf the Grey.

I’ve been a big fan of the Hobbit since I was a little kid, and it’s gratifying to see my favorite characters brought to the big screen.  I feel like I’ve been journeying with Bilbo Baggins in my mind for as long as I can remember, from the soft meadows of the Shire to the warmth of the Last Homely House of Rivendell, through the depths of Mirkwood and Laketown, into the Den of the Dragon itself, under the Lonely Mountain.
In the second installment, Peter Jackson introduces a new scene that chronologically takes place before the Hobbit proper story began:  In the village of Bree, Gandalf convinces Thorin Oakenshield that he should try to go on a Quest to reclaim their treasure, setting up the whole adventure in the first place.  
This extra scene, and some of Peter Jackson’s commentary on the extended edition of the first film (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) made me think more deeply about the role that Gandalf plays in this “unexpected journey” to claim the treasure: sometimes as an advisor, sometimes as recruiter, sometimes as a participant, and sometimes as a concerned stakeholder.  Gandalf’s multiple hats (pointy and otherwise) remind me of the roles that a really great investor/mentor or venture capitalist can play in our own startup journey.
For many, the startup journey resembles the Quest of Bilbo and the Dwarves: full of pitfalls, unplanned detours, hair-raising near misses, and unexpected appearances of both friends and foes.  Like the Quest in the Hobbit, while there is potentially a lot of real Gold at Journey’s end, a startup adventure is fraught with the perils of mastering our own emotions: fear and greed, courage and compassion, stubbornness and open-mindedness.
In these films we see Gandalf masterfully guiding the company, sometimes through persuasion, sometimes through sheer force, sometimes through cunning and guile, and sometimes through what seems like magic, through rough roads and challenges that could easily have waylaid the company and marked the premature death of their entrepreneurial journey.
If Gandalf was a VC, he would be the perfect “older and wiser” counselor to a team of adventurers (the startup team), stepping in when he needs to be hands on, and stepping away to let the founders spread their wings, always available to give advice when needed, all the while keeping his eyes on the “bigger picture” even as the founders are down in the weeds of the day-to-day challenges of running a business.
Here are some specific instances from the Hobbit to illustrate what I mean:
  1.      Gandalf sees an opportunity and recruits a CEO. In the new scene, Gandalf meets Thorin in Bree ("this isn’t an unexpected meeting, is it?"), and convinces the Dwarf prince to go on the journey to reclaim his homeland.  Gandalf is seeing a bigger threat to Middle Earth – a broader market if you will, and he sees that Thorin's background would fit nicely, if he could be convinced to run this one adventure.  An effective VC or advisor keeps his or her eyes on the broader market opportunity, and really great ones will actually encourage entrepreneurs to start companies to take care of specific niches in this broad market.
  2.      Gandalf sees something in Bilbo that others don’t.  Gandalf decides that the Company needs a burgler, an everyday sort who can get in and out of the Dragon's Den without raising suspicion and inviting disaster.  The others think that Bilbo doesn’t have the courage or werewithal to go on such a journey (neither does Bilbo himself!).  A good VC or angel investor or advisor can sometimes see things in us (or in team members) that we might not see in ourselves.  I've often thought that that people really knew how difficult running a startup can be (compared to the popular concepts), many would-be entrepreneurs would never start.  But as in Zen, not-knowing is a good thing, as it allows us to come up with fresh solutions to the problems that crop up, which is what happens with Bilbo before the end - all because Gandalf saw something in him that he didn't see in himself.
  3.      Gandalf convinces people to do things that will help the journey, whether they know it or not.   In the movies, it’s clear to Gandalf that they need to go to Rivendell, though Thorin is resistant and doesn’t want help from the elves.  Gandalf also recognizes that if Elrond knew the true purpose of the dwarves journey, he might not help them at all.  Finally Gandalf realizes that if the dwarves ask the White Council for permission to go on the Quest, it will be denied.   In my opinion, this is one of the great ways that we see Gandalf’s age, experience, and knowledge of human (not to mention dwarvish and elvish) nature really shines through in the movies (even if it deviates slightly from the books).  He gets Thorin to go to Rivendell out of need, he withholds enough information from Elrond so that he helps to decipher the map (a moment that Peter Jackson says gets Thorin to “truly” trust the wizard implicitly), and then counsels the dwarves to leave before the Council can tell them no!   Sometimes in startups, people don’t see the whole picture – they just see their little sliver, and it’s necessary for someone (preferably someone older and wiser who can see the big picture) to show them partial views, until they are able to embrace their role and grasp the bigger picture.  
  4.      Gandalf’s prior contacts get the company out of many scrapes and keep the Quest alive.  Without Gandalf’s prior contacts, ranging from Lord Elrond to the Eagles to his knowledge of Beorn, our heroes would have been toast – literally in the scene with the Goblins and Wargs setting the trees on fire.   It turns out that in a past life, Gandalf had helped out the king of the Eagles, and this brings the Eagles in to help the company get out of the frying pan and the fire! Whether it’s making an intro that leads to a big customer or to an acquisition, or bringing in extra cash to keep the company alive, a good VC or advisor utilizes their rolodex and previous relationships to help out the team in ways they couldn’t do themselves. 
  5.      Gandalf steps away to let Bilbo and the company spread their wings.  At certain points in the adventure, Gandalf steps away from Bilbo and Thorin and the Dwarves, off on urgent business.  It’s during his time away that Thorin and the dwarves really develop confidence in themselves and particularly in Bilbo.  Moreover, Bilbo develops confidence in himself and saves the party several times.  It’s important that any startup founder or CEO or leader be able to deal with situations on their own, without always relying on their advisor, mentor.  Sometimes this leads to mistakes, but overall it builds the courage, character, and inventiveness of the team.  A good entrepreneurial team, no matter how they start up, should end up with much more wisdom, self-knowledge, and confidence in themselves by the end of the journey, whether he venture is a financial success or not.  A good advisor or board member knows when to step away, and when to engage more deeply.

These are only some of the ways that I think Gandalf brings wisdom, experience, contacts, perspective, and compassion to work in what might otherwise be seen as a purely selfish journey that ended in failure.  Even Bilbo, who doesn’t like “adventures” because they “make you late for dinner” ends up better off because of Gandalf’s role as an advisor and mentor to the company.  
Venture Capitalists, investors and advisors to startups would do well to watch these films again and pay attention to Gandalf the Grey!


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Thursday, November 28, 2013

Got Bitcoin? How not to lose them (updated!)

UPDATE: The day after I posted this, the news broke that the well known bitcoin site coindesk was hacked and hackers stole over $1m of bitcoin. Chief executive Kris Henriksen wrote on the Bitcoin Forum: ‘Please be advised that attacks are not isolated to us and if you are storing larger amounts of coins with any third party you may want to find alternative storage solutions as soon as possible.”


A few months ago, I wrote a bit about the difficulties I had buying bitcoin.  Well, eventually, as a result of establishing a bunch of wallets and setting up accounts (some verified, some unverified) in a dozen different bitcoin exchanges and sites, I was finally able to start buying bitcoin, although in small quantities.

As a result, I ended up with small amounts of bitcoin in different wallets spread between my hard drive(s), and various online places or web wallets.

The next question I faced was: once you’ve got some bitcoin, where should you store it? 

With the expanded coverage of bitcoin due to its dramatic rise recently, this is becoming an even more important question.

There was a well publicized account recently of an IT professional in the UK who got quite a few bitcoins from mining a few years ago (until his girlfriend told him to shut down the computer at night because it was making too much noise).  Earlier this year, he inadvertently threw away the hard-drive that had the bitcoin on it.  Today the bitcoin are worth $7.5 million!

So, having all your bitcoin in one wallet on one hard drive may not be the best place to keep them.  Of course, you should backup your hard-drive, that should help, but it’s not failsafe.  What if your house burns down? What if you lose the backup?  There are some bitcoin clients let you print out your private key (or a way to re-generate your private key) – but what if you lose that piece of paper?

And both of those don’t protect you from someone stealing your hard drive (or making a copy of the piece of paper with the private key on there) and then spending those bitcoin for you.

So what’s a bitcoin owner to do?

In the real world of what’s called fiat currency – i.e. USD and the like -- we don’t store cash (or even gold or securities) at home for these very reasons – they could get stolen, burned down or otherwise destroyed.  Rather we use the banking system to keep track of our money.  Can we learn anything from the traditional banking system?

Well that would be funny, because the whole point of bitcoin is to get around the traditional banking system. 

Well, the equivalent of banks would be online wallets or exchanges where you buy and sell bitcoin, like coinbase and bitstamp and localbitcoins or mt gox.  This seems like a good idea as well since they have servers (multiple servers, I’m sure) and back up their data regularly. 

But there are non-trivial drawbacks to storing your bitcoin on these sites as well:

  1.  Security.  There have been a number of well publicized break-ins and thefts of bitcoin from servers.  There was one in Australia where a well known site literally lost millions of dollars in bitcoin through a breakin – and the best they could offer their clients as an apology.  Also, all someone needs is your password and they could break into your account, perhaps this is even easier than breaking into your house. 
  2. Web accounts vs web wallets.  Most of these sites don’t actually store your bitcoin separately from others.  Instead, they keep track of the bitcoin you have in your account, and store them in central pools.  Try it – go to one of these sites and look for the single bitcoin address that holds all of the bitcoin you have in that address.  If they are holding your currency in a pool, again the possibility exists of something going wrong.
  3. Solvency.  These sites are run by companies which may or may not be well funded, and it’s possible they could go out of business. What happens to your bitcoin then? They’re locked in some address that’s owned by the business.  Are you technically a creditor of a company that holds your bitcoin and goes bankrupt? I don’t think this is really clear.
  4. Regulation.  At one point, the US government made it difficult for people to get their money out of exchanges like Mt. Gox, so it could be a tricky situation when you use these sites to store your bitcoin, then you sell some of it.
  5. Scams. In another well known example, there was a website in China where people deposited bitcoin in web wallets, and the people who setup the site decided to just take the bitcoin and run with it. 

Unfortunately, there is no FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) for bitcoin. At least not yet. After all we didn’t have FDIC until so many banks went belly up in the Great Depression.

So, having bitcoin on your hard-drive is kind of like having cash under your mattress.  And storing bitcoin in online accounts is kind of like putting your money in banks before the Great Depression.

So, again I ask, where should you store your bitcoin?

The right answer, for now anyways, is nowhere.  Or rather, everywhere. 

To be more specific, don’t store it in just one place or one type of wallet/account.  

In a fault tolerant system, one part of the system can go down, but the others can keep going. An old trick used by those with lots of money when FDIC only insured up to $100K per account was to have different accounts in different banks, each with $100k in them.

I came upon this solution of spreading out my bitcoin by chance, since I ended up buying bitcoin on different sites.  My plan was to transfer all the bitcoin to my hard-drive, but then as I thought about it I realized having a significant amount of bitcoin on one hard-drive, even with a backup, is probably not the best idea, so I left small amounts on various sites and even transferred from my hard drive to some web wallets.

As more and more people see bitcoin as an asset class to store your savings, just like stocks and bonds, it’s bound to be regulated in some ways (maybe even with something along the lines of an FDIC).   But today, it’s still the wild wild west, and my advice is, don’t put all your bitcoin eggs in one basket!


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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Zen and mindfulness during trying times - new book



My good friend, Ji Hyang Padma, who is the director of Spirituality and Education Programs and the Buddhist chaplan at Wellesley University, is releasing her new book today.

The book, Living the Season: Zen Practice for Transformative Times, contains teachings from Zen and other traditions to assist at times of  in transition.  I got a copy recently and found that it’s a great resource when you’re going through trying times.

As entrepreneurs, we often find ourselves going through trying times and transitions - ranging from times when a new product is a dud, a key employee unexpectedly quits, the company loses an important customer, an investor loses confidence, and on and on through the landmarks of the entrepreneurial journey.

I think her book and the teachings it gives about mindfulness, energy, and getting back to nature can be very helpful during these times.  Just as nature has its transitions and seasons, so do our personal and professional lives and we can’t fight this.

Ji Hyang says about her new book:

“I was inspired to write the book by a growing sense that our world is going through great change. We can see this through ... environmental changes, as well as through political, technological and social changes. So I felt inspired to offer a dynamic, eclectic range of practices with which to navigate these rushing rivers, in a way that benefits ourselves and others. Our inner life, like the world around us, experiences natural rhythms and so this book is arranged according to the four seasons. It is my hope that through this book, readers rediscover the fullness of their inner resources, and touch a deeper wholeness."

You can find out more about the book at her website, http://www.natural-wisdom.org/livingtheseason.php, and the book is available at amazon

Writing this reminds me of an incident that happened when Ji Hyang invited me to co teach a course at Esalen with her, titled  Applied Zen: Creating the World Around Us.  As we drove down to Esalen, which is located on the Pacific Coast Highway between San Jose and Los Angeles, we noticed a group of cows grazing on some grassland to the west of our road.  It was on the ocean and had amazing views, and Ji Hyang quipped that those cows, sitting there grazing, had a million dollar view at their disposal, and all they were doing was eating the grass.  

As we laughed and joked about the "lucky cows" who had no idea how good they had it, it dawned on us that we were all like that.  Here we are in our lives, with so many beautiful things happening around us - from the miracle of birth and children growing up all around us, to the indescribable beauty of a sunset which we don't stop and appreciate.   Rather than being grateful for these things, we consume our minds with worry and fear and anxiety about our jobs, about our relationships, about making more money, and on and on.

It's perhaps a natural part of the human condition, but perhaps Ji Hyang's book can remind us that we are all "lucky cows" who forget how good we have it - with incredible beauty all around us and an infinite list of things to be grateful for, if we can only stop eating long enough to reflect and enjoy the view!


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Friday, September 06, 2013

Have Money, Will Buy Bitcoins! (Updated Again!)

My frustrating journey to buy bitcoins online! 

OK so by now you’ve probably heard of Bitcoins, the great electronic virtual currency (actually, it’s what’s referred to as a crypto-currency) that has promise to become the "future of money".  The entire banking system is afraid of bitcoin because it has the possibility to replace government issued currency; Law enforcement is afraid of bitcoin because it lets people conduct anonymous transactions thus raising the spectre of money laundering; paypal and credit card companies are afraid of it because it allows you to transfer value without paying any commission, and on and on.

I won’t get too much into what bitcoin is (you can go to bitcoin.org or just search for bitcoin and you’ll find tons and tons of sites online explaining what it is), but let’s just say I’ve been intrigued by virtual currencies since 2007, when Linden Dollars (as part of Second Life) and QQ (from tencent) were the “next big thing”.

After hearing about bitcoin for months and months, and hearing that many Silicon VC’s are starting to fund  bitcoin related companies (not to mention that the Winkelvi, of Facebook fame, were big owners of a large amount of the available bitcoins), I finally decided it was time to get me some.

This was almost 10 days ago.   I decided I would buy some bitcoins online – after all this is an electronic currency, i'm a computer kind of guy, so why should I have to use snail mail or sneakernet to conduct an electronic transaction?  That would make no sense to me whatsoever.

Well, let me just say that in the last ten days, i have gotten lots of bitcoin wallets, but haven't been able to buy a single bitcoin online yet.  Yes, that’s right, I have zero bitcoins.  

And not for lack of trying and not for lack of purchasing power – I am ready to spend money to buy bitcoins.  My only criteria are:
-I won’t wire money to a foreign offshore bank account or anyplace that either looks shady
-I want to do the entire transaction online, so i'm not going to go to a bank to do a physical wire (and in fact, many banks now let you initiate wire transfers online, at least domestically)
-I don’t want to be identified up the wazoo – I’d like a semi-anonymous transaction - i'll give you my email but i'm not going to send you photos of my drivers license, etc.

Seems simple?  It wasn’t.  After scouring the internet for articles on how to buy bitcoins, I started on an my own bitcoin odyssey – wandering in the ocean of bitcoin paraphanalia and coming up mostly empty.

One of the oldest and most popular bitcoin exchanges is Mt. Gox.  And right on the home page it says I can “buy bitcoins”.  Great – that’s exactly what I’m looking for!

I was able to open an account with my email address but then I had to “verify” my account. To do this they wanted me to photocopy my drivers license for proof of residency and it felt like I was applying for a mortgage!   WTF?  This is supposed to be anonymous currency.  Then, they wanted me to wire money to some international bank account before they could fully “verify” me.

OK so I'm not going to start wiring money to some international desitination.   So, I decided to go to another popular bitcoin site.  Instantbits.  It was down.  Rumor has it that the US government has been regulating bitcoin exchanges and shutting them down.  Geez.

What about paypal? I did some research and found that paypal will shut you down if you buy or sell bitcoins. I’d rather not have my paypal account shut down, so that’s out.

So I looked around, and stumbled onto Blockchain, which promised that I could buy and sell bitoincs easily.  Once again, I was able to get an account and another bitcoin wallet ( a place to store bitcoins). The problem is, my wallet(s) are all still empty. How do I get any bitcoins into them?   Well it turns out according to blockchain the only way to get money into my wallet on their site was to go to another bitcoin site – BitStamp and deposit money there.

So I sign up for yet another account on yet another bitcoin site (BitStamp, and yes now I have another empty bitcoin wallet) and they tell me that I not only have to transfer money to the UK but I have to send it to a Slovenian bank!  WTF!  I live in the United States, the biggest economy in the world, and probably where most of the bitcions reside, and I’m not going to start transferring money to a random Slovenian bank! (Nothing against Slovenia, by the way, I actually am an investor in a company that has an office in Slovenia and the employees there are great!).

So finally, I stumble onto Coinbase.  Coinbase is one of the more “respectable” bitcoin sites and was actually funded by Union Square Ventures, a very well known VC firm recently. I had actually vaguely heard of them - they were located in New York City (I assume this means that Elliot Spritzer or Rudy Guilani or "whoever the latest opportunist lawyer/politician looking to make a name for himself in the New York Attorney’s general’s office is" will keep an eye on them).  Since they are backed by “reputable” people, I decide to sign up for YABA (“yet another bitcoin account”). 

Hell, I think, maybe they’ll even let me buy bitcoin with a credit card.  No such luck - that would be too easy!   The site tells me that I can’t buy bitcoin with a credit card, only by “verifying” my bank account.

Here we go again. But this time, it tells me that I can verify my account by them sending small amounts of money into my bank account!  OK this is starting to sound a little bit like the famous Nigerian oil money scam (we’ll transfer money to you – just give us your bank account information and social security number!).  Again, largely comforted by the knowledge that Coinbase is VC-backed, I decide to go ahead and enter my US bank information, thinking that they can “instantly verify my account” and get me buying bitcoins.

Now I’m told that it will take 3 business days to verify my information!  WTF!  So I’m still without any bitcoin and headed into the labor day weekend and i'm going on vacation for a few days.

I keep searching.  Maybe I could buy bitcoin with in-app transactions through google or apple?  I know they take a 30% commission, but the transactions are completely electronic and I think, OK someone must have done this. At this point, I don’t even mind paying the 30% commission to google or apple - i just want to get my hands on at least one bitcoin!

Nope.  Couldn’t find it.  In fact, there’s pretty reliable information out there that Apple will reject any apps that let you buy or sell bitcoins via in-app purchases (not a surprise, having been in the Apple ecosystem since 2009, the one thing I know is that Apple will reject anything at any time because they “feel like it”, but that’s another story altogether).  Google tends to be a little more lax – so it may be possible, but I couldn’t find an app that does it and in fact there's speculation that Google won't allow it either!

As I'm surfing the ocean of outdated bitcoin-related sites with outdated information, I see a random entry on some website that you can exchange linden dollars for bitcoin.  I used to have a second life account and some linden dollars left over (plus, as I recall, you can purchase those with credit cards) but when I follow the links they are no longer available.  Hmmm.

So after the Labor Day weekend, I get back and continue the hunt.  First I look at my bank account to to see if Coinbase has sent me any money to “verify” my bank account.  Nope.  Nothing yet.

I then stumble onto “localbitcoins”.  This sounds promising.  There is a list of people who are willing to sell me bitcions.  There are even some people locally, but still clinging to my fantasy that bitcoin is an electronic currency and that I should be able to buy some somewhere, online, I skip those for now.

Some of the sellers around the country use paypal but most of them use payment methods i've never heard of, for example, something called “Moneygram”.  I sign for YABA, and since I don’t want to get my paypal account banned, I try to buy bitcoin from a seller in Texas who says that I can send him a “moneygram”.

But then he tells me that he needs me to take a “picture” of my credit card so that he can verify it’s really me. Huh? Take a picture of my credit card and send it to some guy on the internet? You’ve got to be joking! This is getting ridiculous.

Still, I press on doggedly, and actually try to send the guy money through Moneygram.  Turns out they can’t find him either, and the only way he can get the money from Moneygram is to go to a physical shop and pick up the money.  Kind of like Western Union. The only problem is when I try to send to him, Moneygram rejects my transaction.  Not once but twice!

I look at other buyers on localbitcoins and there are some that want me to send Cash in the Mail.  Yes, Cash in the Mail. As in the Post Office. WTF is this, 1891 instead of 2-013?? It’s like I’m ordering bitcoins from the Sears Roebuck Catalog … 

At this point I’m starting to lose hope. I don’t think I’ll ever get any bitcoins online. 

Then, the next day, I see two very small deposits of a few cents in my bank account. Coinbase! Yes, the VC-backed company comes through!  I suppose with the millions they’ve raised ($5 million to be exact), they can afford to send out a few cents to everyone who gives them their bank account information.

Yay!  Although I did have to share my bank account info (which I don’t like to do), at least I didn’t have to photocopy my drivers license (or my credit cards) and send them to some guy called “bitcoindude” located in rural Texas.

So I go back to coinbase and “verify” my account.  Hurrah! I’m finally (about a week into it) approved to buy bitcoin!  The rest should be a snap, right?

After all, they, like every other bitcoin site out there, have a big visible button on their homepage  to “Buy” bitcoins.  So I click on it. The price is like $125 per bitcoin.  Damn that’s expensive, but OK, I tell them I want to buy several bitcoins.  Actually, I don’t even care what the price is at this point - i'm so excited that i'll finally be able to buy this mythical bitcoin thingy.

And then…. Nothing.  My order is listed as “pending” and it says it may take up to 5 days to get my few bitcoin.

Five Days??  WTF??

I thought this was the easiest currency in the world to transfer from one person to another.  I thought this was an electronic/digital currency that was going to set the world on fire.  That all you needed was a hard drive and some money to get and trade bitcoins.   I thought this was the future of money?

Well, it’s now been almost 10 days since I started trying to buy bitcoins and I have many bitcoin wallets, just no bitcoins!  I mean Zero. Zilch. Nada.

Hell, I could order a book from amazon and get it delivered to my house, faster than I’ve been able to get bitcoins.  And I’m not talking about an ebook – I mean a physical book.  Actually, Amazon’s createspace print on demand platform could print a new physical copy of a book and ship it to me in the time it’s taken me to get bitcoins.

Now, I’m sure one of these days, coinbase will say that my transaction is processed and finally someone will take my money and promise to “deliver me bitcoins in a few business days”.  But I’m not holding my breath!  Until then, i'm stuck floating in this ocean of bitcoin hype.

If they don’t arrive in a few days, I guess I’ll have to start wandering the seedy streets of San Francisco, holding up a sign “want bitcoin, will pay!” or stop random passers by wearing trenchcoats and say “pssst buddy! You got any bitcoin?”



UPDATE: After waiting patiently for 5 more days for coinbase to send me my bitcoins (after I had already given them my bank account information), today (September 10, 2013), the same day that TechCrunch had a panel on how promising bitcoin is, I got this email from coinbase.

From: Coinbase 
Hi  xxxxxx@gmail.com,
On Sep 4, 2013 you purchased 5.00 BTC via bank transfer for $631.40.
Unfortunately, we have decided to cancel this order because it appears to be high risk. We do not send out any bitcoins on high risk transactions, and your bank account will not be charged.
Please understand that we do this to keep the community safe and avoid fraudulent transactions. Apologies if you are one of the good users who gets caught up in this preventitive measure - we don't get it right 100% of the time, but we need to be cautious when it comes to preventing fraud.
You may have more luck trying again in a few weeks. Best of luck and thank you for trying Coinbase.
Kind regards,
The Coinbase Team

Huh? No explanation of why my account is high risk! Just "try again in a few weeks"!  Maybe coinbase doesn't have any bitcoins either ... and bitcoins *really* don't exist on the internet - it's like an insider joke to see how much publicity they can get for a currency that doesn't really exist.

I gotta tell you - I have never had so much trouble trying to give people money in my life!!
It is now 15 days since I first tried to buy bitcoins; still no luck - all of my many wallets still have zero balance.

I am going to change tactics and try to buy bitcoins from local sellers in person.  This kinda defeats the purpose of an electronic currency in my opinion.   I tried contacting a few sellers on localbitcoins.com, but no luck so far.


UPDATE 2:  After getting frustrated trying to buy bitcoins, I read these article by Robert McMillan at Wired about buying bitcoins:

I thought ebay might be cracking down on Bitcoin, like they did with other virtual currency/goods for MMORPG's a few years ago, but maybe not.  So I went on ebay, and sure enough there are quite a few people selling fractional bitcoin (.05, .1, .25, and 1 bitcoin denominations).  The catch? The sellers are trying to get the price bid up as much as possible so that you have to pay more than Bitcoin is trading for on the exchange.  I looked for "buy it now", and bought .05 bitcoin for like $15, but this translates into a price of like $300 per bitcoin! Way more than the market of $120-$130 that the exchanges were quoting.  Still, I was able to pay using an online payment vendor (most sellers won't take paypal!). My next purchase was .10 bitcoin for $16, a price of $160 per bitcoin and this was one of the few sellers who was willing to take paypal.

So, you can buy bitcoin on ebay, but few of the sellers are willing to take paypal, and you'll have to pay *alot* more thanon the exchanges.

UPDATE 3: Finally, i gave in and tried to find someone to  to agree with Robert's article that the only way to buy bitcoins is on the street. I advertised on localbitcoins lookinng to "buy" bitcions, and one of htem found me.  We met at a cafe, and I handed him the cash and he sold me 5 bitcions.  The catch? Well, this is a  pretty slow process and he was only willing to sell a few bitcoin.  And for some reason, localbitcions, which advertises a commission of only .0003 bitcoins, ended up taking .05 so I only got 4.95 bitcoin!

I asked the seller how he was able to acquire bitcoin in the first place.  He told me he was from Europe and so was able to transfer money to a polish bank account and get into mt. gox (one of the oldest bitcoin exchanges which has been having problems lately).  He seemed to share my assessment that it's very difficult to buy bitcion in the US online.

CONCLUSIONS:
I was finally able to buy bitcion, but the process was painful and tedious.  It took almost two weeks from the time I started until I got some.   Buying locally seems to be the best way, but finding people locally who are willing to sell may not be practical for everyone (because I live in Silicon Valley, I was able to find at least one seller).  The exchanges are already over-regulated and so concerned with fraud that they are blocking legitimate transactions.

Once you have bitcoin, it is almost instantaneously transferred between wallets. Since I ended up with like 6 empty wallets and only one with money in it, I tried transferring bitcoin around and it is as easy as promised.  I gotta say i've become a bigger fan of bitcoin after seeing how easy this process is.

Since bitcoin is a peer to peer electronic virtual crypto-currency, my big question is: why do we need excahnges at all? If all bitcoin clients can read the blockchain and find all transactions, then why can't bitcoin clients use a peer to peer system to make requests to buy or sell?  Well, i'll write more about that now that I have some bitcoin and need to figure out what I can actually do with it!


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