Live blog: Vape Bar meet-up 19/5/2015

Vape lab barman Claudio Ravinelli
The Vape Lab, Shoreditch. Home to the London Coinscrum weekly Bitcoin meet-up. Photo: Eilidh Wagstaff

 Welcome to the Bitcoin Lab

[Hannah] Ever wondered what it must be like to hang out with today’s Bitcoin lovers in a social environment? Is it really only fintech nerds, anarchists, and drug dealers who are interested in digital currencies? Will everyone be speaking in computer code?

Cryptocity’s Hannah and Eilidh headed to Coinscrum’s weekly Bitcoin meetup at the Vape Lab in Shoreditch to give you a taster of a night on the town with the Bitcoin community.

We were welcomed to a warm and friendly environment sponsored and hosted by Quickbitcoin.co.uk. Before we get started, the online event invitation gives you a sense of what it’s all about:

Are you new to Bitcoin and other digital currencies? Are you a little unsure as to where you should start or just a little nervous about choosing the correct wallet to use or the best method of acquiring your first coins? Would you rather someone else showed you that paper wallets really aren’t that scary or that creating and using  your own cold-storage wallet isn’t actually that hard? Well, help is at hand!

Just your typical Coinscrum meetup…

17:37 [Eilidh] We’ve just arrived at the Bitcoin meet-up and a man is sitting in the middle of the group with his belt and flies undone.

I ask him why his trousers are open and he says it’s because he needed to get his money belt out, which he stores inside his jeans.

The tone for the evening has been set!

18:45 [Eilidh] There are four other women at the Bitcoin meet-up, bringing the total to five. That’s two more than I’ve ever seen before.

TAKE THAT FELIX SALMON.

Bitcoin in the developing world 

18:00 [Eilidh] I’m talking with Sensei Jamal, a maths student from Greenwich University.

He says he’s the only guy on his course interested in or knowledgeable about Bitcoin. We can take it that Greenwich Uni is no Bitcoin Hub.

Apparently the universities pioneering research into Bitcoin (and digital currencies generally) are UCL and Imperial. So if any crypto-fanatic A-level students are reading this blog, those are the places to apply to.

 18:05 [Eilidh] I ask Sensei why he got into Bitcoin. Here’s his reply:

 “Bitcoin payments are going to help developing countries.”

He’s not sure on the exact figures, but he’s heard that around 1 million Bitcoin wallets have been downloaded in developing countries.

Sensie and I get into a debate about whether Bitcoin will really make an impact in low-income countries.

It’s true that existing currency transfer companies, like Western Union, tend to charge pretty high fees for remittances. So there’s definitely room for challenger companies to break into the market and charge less for their services.

But there’s another side to the story.

I ask:

 “What’s the point of sending a Bitcoin to someone in a remote village if they have no way of spending it?”

Sensei reckons levels of Bitcoin adoption will rise, helping digital currencies become a useful tool in international development. Hope he’s right, but there are plenty of barriers that stand in the way of that happening.

Is Bitcoin really decentralised?

 18:15 [Eilidh]  Here’s a question for you: can Bitcoin claim to be a decentralised currency?

Bitcoin is often marketed as a currency that challenges the current crop of political elites. There are no central bankers or politicians controlling it.

However, the conversation going on at the moment suggests Bitcoin is effectively monopolised by a small group of ‘miners’.

So far from being decentralised, Bitcoin ownership is concentrated in a very small number of hands.

As Hugh Halford-Thompson, organiser of the Tuesday evening Vape Bar meet-up, explains:

Food for thought for idealists, especially those who believe digital currencies have the power to sweep away the current political order.

A Bit-history

 18:25 [Hannah]  Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up with the COO of a Bitcoin company who says he’s watched the currency develop over time. He attended the UK’s first Bitcoin conference, Bitcoin Expo back in 2012 (Cryptocity attended this year’s Expo).

Back then Bitcoin was mainly used for buying drugs on the silk road, buying alpaca socks, speculating on the Mount Gox Exchange, and playing Dragon’s Tail, a gambling game involving Bitcoin.

You just couldn’t make this stuff up if you wanted to.

He says that back then, it was the Bitcoin miners who held the power and prestige. Today however, with so many fresh new companies developing using Bitcoin and its technologies, the miners have lost their edge a little.

We discuss the transition of Bitcoin from something initially branded as ‘play money’ to something which now has inherent market value. What changed?

According to my fellow meetup attendee, it was early transactions such as Laszlo Henyecz’s pizza purchase in May 2010 that first got the Bitcoin economy rolling by imbuing the currency with actual value.

It wasn’t always smooth sailing however. The Bitcoin COO tells me were a number of Ponzi schemes back when Bitcoin first started. One man promised a 7% return on all Bitcoin investments made by his clients. He delivered on this promise…until he just stopped delivering on it.

The man in question, who went by the name of Pirate@40 has since been arrested on securities and wire fraud.

Where to get your Bitcoin discussions online

 18:25 [Hannah] The conversation turns to the best sources of Bitcoin gossip and debate.

For info, the two top-rated sites are:

Bitcoin and the banks

18:30 [Eilidh] The conversation has moved on to finance. We are in Shoreditch after all – right on the edge of the square mile, the financial capital of Europe.

Hugh Halford-Thompson, is explaining why banks have been reluctant to get involved in Bitcoin:

Bitcoin ATMs

 18:25 [Hannah] Plenty of attendees come to the Vape Lab to use its ATM to buy Bitcoin. As I was watching some of the ATM-users, a man whispered to me as he was leaving:

If this place is ever shut, I sell

It all sounded very dramatic, but a fellow meetup attendee assured me he was just referring to Bitcoin.

The robots are coming

18:39 [Eilidh] We’re no longer talking about Bitcoin. We’re now discussing what the world will look like once robots have taken over most human jobs and large swathes of the population are unemployed.

These kinds of fascinating future-gazing conversations are common at Bitcoin meet-ups. Makes sense really. People who are interested in digital currencies tend to be excited by technology and the power it has to reshape society.

Wallets for sale

19:20 [Eilidh] Physical ledger wallets are on sale here tonight – which is somewhat confusing.

I thought the point of Bitcoin is that it’s a DIGITAL currency? Why do you need hardware to store it? Apparently they offer better security and are good for people likely to forget their Bitcoin keys.

Bitcoin Photographer

 19:36 [Hannah] I just finished a fascinating conversation with an artist and photographer known as Abby Bitcoin.

She’s only accepting Bitcoin as payment for her services for the next six months as a way of raising awareness about Bitcoin in the artistic community in particular. Her artistic colleagues are wary of things like Bitcoin and she wants to shake off some of the suspicion by bringing the artistic and the techie communities together.

Some of her most recent customers have included blues musician Jack Tyson-Charles and folk legend Jez Hellard – both of whom are accepting Bitcoin as payment for their music and performances via tools such as ChangeTip.

Goodnight, Bitcoin blessings

20:30 [Eilidh] Most of the meet-up attendees are now heading off to the pub, so it feels like the right time to end this live blog. Here’s a parting thought: tonight is the busiest I’ve ever seen the regular Tuesday evening Vape Bar meet-up. Bitcoin may not be making waves in the mainstream, but it clearly remains as popular as ever with its hard-core fans.

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