Bitcoin update: Haven’t lost my shirt yet

JISHOU, HUNAN — My “shirt” shrank a little, however, because the value of Bitcoin against the dollar has dropped from $864 to about $820 in the last four weeks. I’m still in the game, but bearish on the market for now.

Not that it’s easy for me to get Bitcoins in China anymore.

China’s financial overseers have choked off access to Bitcoin by forbidding China’s banks and third-party payment services — similar to PayPal — from trading in the crypto-currency. The big Bitcoin exchanges here, BTC-China, Huobi and OKCoin, soldier on, however. They have found ways to get around government restrictions, but they are not especially convenient.

So, if I want to buy Bitcoins, I can transfer money from my Chinese bank to my American bank, then pull money from the American bank to fund my account at Coinbase, where I can buy Bitcoins. Easy, right?

Aside from mining Bitcoins (see below), most people who want to own Bitcoins now have to exchange a fiat currency, like dollars or euros, for them. If that is hard to do, then most people will just forget the whole thing. Coinbase in the USA makes it fairly easy, but Bitcoins are a solution looking for a problem. Why bother using Bitcoins if plain old dollars (or euros, etc.) can do the same thing?

Maybe Bitcoins will be like the laser, which was a neat bit of technology when it was invented in 1960, but with no foreseeable practical use. The laser was described as “a solution looking for a problem.” It found first use in scientific research. Now, lasers are ubiquitous — in our DVD players, cash register scanners, industrial cutting equipment, police speed detectors, and a host of other applications.

For now, though, Bitcoins are a boutique currency, or investment, or pastime — however you choose to describe it — with limited public appeal.

While the USA has cautiously accepted Bitcoins and other crypto-currencies as a kind of commodity, to be traded like crude oil or pork bellies, China’s response has been to sharply restrict trading. As Bitcoin values passed the $1,000 mark early last month, the Chinese government abruptly banned banks from trading in crypto-currencies. The new policy quenched the bull market like a bucket of water on a campfire, and Bitcoin values dropped below $500 in a few hours.

With the new banking restrictions, the Chinese exchanges have found different work-arounds to allow customers to use yuan to get Bitcoins. BTC-China has created electronic vouchers, which can be bought on, one of China’s biggest online shopping malls, for yuan. You trade the voucher for Bitcoins at BTC-China. It’s like the cards you see in American stores to put minutes on your T-mobile plan, or fund your iTunes account.

As for the other two, Huobi’s president had set up a personal bank account to handle exchanges. Buyers would transfer money from their bank accounts to his, either online, in the bank or by ATM, with their Bitcoin address in the memo field. Apparently, he has since switched to using a corporate account, which competitor OKCoin had already done.

So far, China’s banking authorities have not clamped down on any of these gray-area swaps.

Chinese consumers see great advantages in Bitcoin, not just as an investment but also as a way to easily turn yuan — the other common name for Chinese renminbi (RMB) — into euros, pounds or dollars, and coincidentally get their money offshore. The government probably took a dim view of either practice, and clamped down on trade to keep all that RMB at home.

I have not bought any more Bitcoin since last month. My shared mining account at dribbles BTC slowly into my Bitcoin wallet. It’s not a gusher of money by any means, but as long as BTC/USD rates don’t crash, I’m making money, albeit very, very slowly.

[At the same time, I am mining other altcoins, like namecoin (NMC), devcoin (DVC) and iXcoin (IXC). They are sort of like Bitcoin’s little brothers and sisters, with dollar values far below big brother BTC’s.]

In poking around possible Bitcoin exchange methods, I stumbled upon Ripple, which was unveiled last year. Ripple uses a completely self-contained crypto-currency to facilitate payments or money transfers between account holders. One Ripple unit (1 XRP) is worth about one US cent now, but the exchange rate is not fixed.

If you have a Ripple online wallet, you can use a “gateway,” in their terminology, to turn dollars (or yuan) into XRP, and another gateway to turn XRP into some other currency. A gateway is a bit like a tollbooth giving you access to the Ripple “highway.”

In China, it’s possible to buy Ripple vouchers on Taobao to fund your Ripple wallet. Then you can exchange XRP (a lot of XRP!) to buy Bitcoins right on the Ripple website. Like the BTC vouchers mentioned above, the process is cumbersome, and probably won’t catch on.

You can also fund a Ripple account with Bitcoin through a gateway. I did this for kicks, and I have 100 XRP now (about $1). The developer of Ripple and XRP, Ripple Labs, has a “giveaway” that rewards you for participating in a distributed computing project, such as cancer or HIV DNA sequencing. That’s earned me about 5 XRP (5 cents) so far.

What will I do with this vast wealth? Right now, not much. Shop at Dollar General? It’s for the experience, I suppose, of being paid for doing something that requires little effort on my part. If the university weren’t paying my electric bill, I’d probably be losing money, since the computer needs power to do the DNA project calculations.

Speaking of which, Bloomberg Businessweek had a write-up on the 9th about the Bitcoin “mining war.” One of the miners interviewed, Joel Flickinger of Oakland, Calif., has two units that together cost more than $20,000, and rack up a monthly electric bill of $400.

He’s mined more than 100 BTC so far, which means he’s made a tidy profit (100BTC = $820,000 now), assuming he converts some of those Bitcoins into dollars. It’s a volatile market. If the BTC/USD exchange rate drops precipitously, he could lose his initial investment.

Mining is the term bitcoiners have adopted to describe the validation process used by the computers in the Bitcoin network. They don’t actually “make” Bitcoins. Each computer runs calculations to verify transactions entered automatically into the network, as a kind of code-breaking puzzle.* Units that solve the puzzle are rewarded with Bitcoins. Businessweek has a more detailed explanation, with an interactive graphic to illustrate the process.

* When I was younger, the local newspaper carried a game, Crypto-Quote, on the same page as the crossword. It was a simple letter-substitution code, a=e, b=t, and so on. The Bitcoin puzzles are much harder to crack, and become more difficult as more people use Bitcoins, so you need a lot of computing power to solve them.

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