Remote control, rank craziness and revolution 2.0

John Law's week in bitcoin: coffee commerce, Capital One chocolate coins, and UK Silk Road users arrested.

AccessTimeIconOct 11, 2013 at 2:30 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 10, 2021 at 11:36 a.m. UTC

Welcome to the CoinDesk Weekly Review 11th October 2013 – a regular look at the hottest, most controversial and thought-provoking events in the world of digital currency through the eyes of skepticism and wonder. Your host … John Law.

Bike helmets and bitcoin, the new tools of global shopping

John Law is gratified that bitcoin real life is following art so closely. Following his mention last week that in the ever-running battles between government and substances, King Charles II had tried to ban coffee because it encouraged sedition, we now discover that coffee is back on the menu.

Only this time, it's not a matter of bitcoin being used to evade the long arm of the law, but the equally long tentacles of commercial interests. The Roast Station Project is basically one man, a laptop and a group of local growers in Bali.

You send The Java Nomad your BTC, he sends you your Joe directly, and takes care of converting his stash into acceptable currency for his suppliers. He's embedded with the farmers, so there's no middlemen except him and the postal service.

This is a good fit for a number of reasons. Bitcoin commerce just needs a laptop. The Java Nomad gets to live in Bali and, presumably, wears flip-flops to the office. And, since the tech world consumes a lake of coffee the size of the Baltic every day, the marketing takes care of itself.

It won't have the established commercial coffee companies crying into their Georgian silver, but big changes come from small starts.

The obvious question is: what else can do this? Last week was beef, this week coffee, but it probably won't scale to cars and houses.

Yet think about clothes, electronics, antiques, craft goods. They don't seem to work – it's true that there are some superb markets in far-away places with tons of interesting, affordable and otherwise unobtainable goodies, but the effort in creating and updating catalogues, prices and all the other things for a good online shopping experience – well, you'd need a big team paid in local currency and with all the big company legal and practical overheads.

Hold hard. The Australians have the answer. This week saw the launch – for, it has to be admitted, tourist marketing purposes – of Remote Control Tourists.

These are jolly Melbourne types equipped with head-mounted webcams and microphones: the idea is you sit at home, Skype into their mobile systems, and let them show you the sights, do a bit of exploration for you and generally act as your meat puppets on the other side of the world. (Then you book a holiday – or so the tourist board hopes.)

All it would take to turn them into personal shoppers is a bitcoin wallet. Say you live in North London and want to buy some crazy electronic gizmos from the table markets in Shenzhen – or you live in Shenzhen and fancy the latest street fashions from Camden Market.

Sure, you can bash away at an infinite number of online shops, try and guess whether what you want is what you see, and do it the old fashioned way. Or you order up a Remote Control Shopper and go for a virtual wander in the real world.

You can check stuff out, talk to the locals, get real-time tips on bargains and rip-offs, and then just shove the requisite cybercoinage over the Internet. Job done – and anyone can set themselves up to provide this service with, basically, a smartphone strapped to a bike helmet.

All the pieces are in place for a major worldwide retail revolution. Just remember where you read it first.

Dinosaur Jr.

chocolate coins
chocolate coins

Worldwide revolutions are not universally popular, but as revolutionaries tend to be smaller, smarter and faster than the things they're pulling apart, the fight back against them can be entertainingly ham-fisted.

Digital d'oh of the week belongs, without a doubt, to Capital One. It's fine for banks to not like bitcoin – if they don't want the business, someone else will – and it's no surprise when they quote real (or imaginary) legal and regulatory issues to justify their unwillingness to have anything to do with cybercurrencies. It's pretty much at the limit of corporate imagination, but they don't keep flocks of highly-trained leathery-winged lawyers roosting in tall offices for nothing.

So, yeah, if you don't want the business of anyone trading bitcoins, Capital One, then that's your shout.

But here's a free clue to help you not look like an utter dolt while doing it: bitcoins are not real coins. They do not come in round metal form with In Turing We Trust stamped around the edges and a jolly BTC symbol on the obverse. If you find one of these, then it's not a bitcoin. It's a medallion. Real bitcoins are – there's a clue in the name – bits. They are digital. Round lumps of metal – yes, even the ones with a QR-code on them – are not bitcoins.

Now, you might think the ability to identify different sorts of money would be a core competency for financial operatives. OK, one can kind of understand that banks didn't manage to work out that sub-prime bundled insurance derivatives weren't real money, even though they invented them, because nobody understood those. But, y'know, coins. Been around for a few thousand years. Surely...

No. As Rob Grey, CEO of Mulligan Mint found out when Capital One closed down his account with no warning.

His crime? He made novelty bitcoin-themed medallions. Not ones you can buy with bitcoin either – he just takes his money the old way. You know. Credit cards. Or he did, until Capital One's sclerotic system identified him as a bitcoin trader and – wham. He's off to PayPal while he sorts out the mess.

At least, that's what everyone thinks happened. Capital One, with the dull perceptions of a stegosaurus falling into a swamp, may or may not have started to realise that something is wrong somewhere. It has not, at the time of writing, managed any sort of reaction. Not even a rustling from the lawyer coop.

So, John Law recommends that as Capital One can't tell novelty medallions from actual money, you pop out, scoop up a few of those delicious gold-foil-wrapped chocolate coin treats from your local sweetie merchant, and pay them in at once.

Just don't call them bitecoins.

This is where the real magic happens


The Silk Road shakedown continues to make sparks fly.

Four 'significant' Silk Road users have been nabbed in Britain, with the UK's Naughtiness Catching Agency (NCA) promising that plenty more will follow.

The FBI has been shown no respect, with its own bitcoin wallet (hope they don't bank with Capital One) coming under sustained payment graffiti, while complaining that since Dread Pirate Roberts kept most of his BTC in an encrypted wallet they can't get at them.

Meanwhile, the community is busy thinking about making Silk Road replacements that are much stronger against attacks, which should surprise nobody (Capital One excepted; it surprises easily).

But one thing that Silk Road did demonstrate is that complexity breeds insecurity: it wasn't the basic idea that was vulnerable to the feds, it was trying to tie up all the loose ends that burned the house down. Which is why it's good to report the week's most significant yet easily overlooked event: the imminence of a new bitcoin payment protocol.

You can and should go and read up on that; it might seem like a dry recitation of cryptographic techniques, but this is the engine-room of the whole enterprise.

The key point is that it's going to get a lot easier and safer for ordinary people to send and receive bitcoins over the Internet.

We'll all be able to be much surer that we're dealing with someone who is who they say they are, get our money back if things go wrong, and be sure that a transaction's gone through properly. It'll be far easier to exchange bitcoin wallet addresses, too.

Ordinary people have most of the money – at least, the sort that you and John Law and the rest of the non super-rich are likely to use. Turning it into bitcoin and spreading the love around is still too hard and weird for most, and that has to be fixed pronto if the idea will spread.

You may remember that one day in the 1990s, ordinary personal computers suddenly learned to speak Internet. Before that, it was the provenance of speccy nerds and wild-eyed techno-hippies: after that, even your parents had email addresses with which to complain that their Windows 95 was playing up and could you pop over and fix it please.

That has to happen for bitcoin. With the new payment protocols, the groundwork is being done to make it so. Of course, it may not – lots of things could and will happen between now and then – but then nobody really expected the Internet of 2013 would ever happen.

Note to Capital One: it has.

John Law is an 18th century Scottish entrepreneur, financial engineer and gambler. Having reformed the French economy, invented paper currency, state banks, the Mississippi Bubble and other ideas essential to modern economics, he took three hundred years off in a small cottage outside Bude. He has returned to write for CoinDesk on the foibles of digital currency.


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