Living on Bitcoin Day 7: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’d Definitely Do Again
This is the seventh instalment of reporter Colin Harper’s “Living on Bitcoin” experience in San Francisco. Find out what happened to him earlier on Day 1 , on Day 2 , on Day 3 , onDay 4, on Day 5 and on Day 6.
I woke to the sound of thin but consistent rain against the sailboat. A gentle storm soon rolled in to softly rock the harbor’s rustbucket bedfellows, a few spurts of lightning distant and crackling across the bay.
Dustin wasn’t up yet so I made a cup of coffee (gods be praised) and went above the deck of the Velela — the name Dustin’s sailboat came with when he bought it four years ago. The previous owner (a marine biologist) was inspired by the jellyfish of the same name, which can hoist a sail-like fin in the air to propel itself more quickly through the water.
The Velela resting in the harbor.
After Dustin got up (and we wolfed down some bacon-n-egg burritos), we made preparations, which included stuffing a rubber skiff into his Honda Fit, and we set out on the open water. The day was graying as we left the docking area, with a misting of rain so faint you could barely feel it on your skin.
Once we’d motored out far enough, Dustin hoisted the sails. Swelling with the bay’s untamable winds, the sails vaulted us forward and pushed the boat to the right — a bit more than I would have liked.
“This is safe, right? It’s not going to tip over?” I asked apprehensively.
“I wouldn’t exactly call sailing a safe activity,” Dustin said with a smile that managed to be both carefree and severe.
“But it’s not going to tip over, is it?”
“Probably not,” he joked. “But really, there’s a huge weight in the middle of the hull, so we’ll be fine.”
We were headed for the city’s waterfront, a 10-mile trek, give or take. The wind was against us, though, so we had to get there by tacking, a maritime navigation technique that involves sailing diagonally with the wind and cutting an angle to switch back toward your destination (basically making a zigzag pattern).
Roughly 10 miles out from San Francisco, the city’s skyline faintly visible to the right.
Dustin pulled out what he called the autohelm, a smart tablet ((Even the boats in Silicon Valley have iPads) that keeps track of speed, depth, GPS, trajectory and supposedly can even steer the ship using this USB-plunger attachment on the wheel, which looks uncannily like the suction sections of those automatic pumps for milking cows.
He put it to work, the mechanic whir and churn of the plunger struggling to keep the boat on course as the weather worsened. I had the feeling that, under conditions, the autohelm would have performed admirably.
The heavy force of the wind and waves, though, eventually overpowered the automaton’s control over the boat. Dustin “fired” it and took the wheel.
Looking out to my right, I noticed a blackened cloud, dark and gnarly, billowing up, the kind that looks ready to dump at any moment. The rain was falling a bit more steadily (though not too heavily), and the wind was picking up, causing the waves to chop savagely away at the haul.
Before I could convey my concerns, Mother Nature decided to blow them into the open. A gust of wind bruised the sails and sent the ship tipping and the cabin’s contents flying below. The ship was at an angle when the clatter of Dustin’s belongings became audible as they were flung about below.
Should have kept that skiff at hand. And now that I think about it, where are the life vests?
“Let out that line!” Dustin commanded, taking on the urgent persona of a captain as he strained to turn the boat against the lean. “As much as you can!”
I released a line connected to the bow’s sail and it went slack. Dustin rushed to the midsection while I took over the wheel and he let down the mainsail, finally disarming the wind. The entire ordeal, which felt like it took some time, probably lasted a minute at most.
“I think we should turn back,” I observed brilliantly.
“You think so?” he said with a heave of nervous laughter.
We got back (thankfully) right before the boat’s motor died, but we were still eight spots away from Dustin’s space in the dock. With the help of two good samaritans, we towed the sailboat back to its place with painstaking attentiveness. Dustin didn’t relax until she was safely moored.
“Whew! I’m still up on adrenaline!” he hollered when the boat was docked
Most people get stressed into a knot when their car battery dies. Imagine that happening except it’s a boat in open water and it almost capsizes. Oh, and the boat is also your house.
I said goodbye to Dustin over another burrito and sent him some sats for the trouble. After we parted ways, I grabbed a Lyft and headed just south of the Tenderloin district to cryptografitti’s place.
The apartment is on brand for an artist. Sterile, with neutral tones of chrome and white across each room, the flat was extremely well kept. Art of various styles decorates the place: a postmodern painting detailing San Franciscan life, which he had commissioned by a local artist, hangs above a tannish-brown, leather sectional; a puzzle-piece coffee table to accompany the couch; and a metal-matted two-piece fixture in the kitchen with a surface that looks like cells under a microscope that his sister made for him;.
And, of course, his own art is on display in his studio.
One original, United Nodes x 100, hangs directly behind his work desk, while two variants of Currency Exchange lie in the back-left corner and on the desk. Next to the one on the desk is one of his latest: the abstract of the Bitcoin white paper made from USD.
The rest of his office is lined with shelves that are stuffed with various supplies, including the white gloves he wears in each of his videos. On one of the shelves, a bag of hundreds of credit cards for a piece he made to commemorate the late Hal Finney. I was curious as to how he got his hands on that many cancelled credit cards.
“It’s a trade secret. They’re all used,” he said. (You can buy them on eBay, by the way).
We talked art, bitcoin culture and the experiment in a conversation that seemed to intertwine all these topics together.
“To me, it’s all about teaching people about bitcoin through art. I wanted to anchor the work in something that people were already familiar,” he said.
He’s certainly made an impact. The former DJ subsists off the money he makes from his art, and he takes regular commissions, mainly from wealthy, fellow enthusiasts who want an original of the subversive fusion of fiat and digital economies that cryptografitti’s art represents.
“I want to remind people that the materials I use in the work are short-lived and, therefore, so is the entire status quo. And if the old monetary realm is no longer, what should the new one look like and why?”
Carrying on the conversation we had the night before at Stookey’s, he said again that it’s not all that surprising fewer merchants accept bitcoin now. The party’s over and everyone’s gone home. The people who were just there for the good times left with the bull market; but, in the bear, the people who really give a damn are sticking around to deal with the aftermath.
“It’s like when you have a party and your good friends stick around afterward to help clean up after the revelers have left. Go to Bitcoin meetups nowadays and you’ll find the people that care and are willing to put in the work,” he said.
He doesn’t think enthusiasm is dead, it’s just dampened and embodied in a very dedicated core community.
“The excitement is still there, it’s just shifted focus to Lightning,” he said. It’s likely that Lighting is the very thing that may make my experiment easier, if I choose to do it again in the (distant) future.
Black Swan, one of his latest pieces, exemplifies this excitement. The Lightning Network-only auction had 100 plus participants and sold to the lowest bidder — less than 1/100th of a penny. Part-performance, part-visual art, cryptograffiti said he wanted the piece to provoke people to appreciate innovation without fretting about price.
“My work is rooted in activism. When I can motivate people to get involved, it brings more awareness to whatever I am trying to convey. In this case, a lowest-bidder-wins auction was my way of ensuring participation/reach in the project while highlighting the capabilities of the lightning network.
“The fancified promo video that accompanied the art was meant to contrast with the absurdly low micropayments and poke fun at MSM who tend to focus more on price than the groundbreaking tech being built,” he said.
Catching a few hours of R&R, I still had one thing to do before I could call the week quits. I couldn’t get a room at 20 Mission due to San Francisco boarding codes, but I was still game to visit the hacker community house that Kashmir Hill shacked up in during the weekend of her week on bitcoin. I had made arrangements with Berkeley, the community’s head honcho, to visit that night.
The Uber that took me there was yet another Prius, the fifth (maybe sixth) I’ve ridden in this week.
I buzzed myself in with the house’s callbox, entered the foyer and made my way upstairs to a labyrinth of hallways and rooms (the community houses 40 or so people).
A resident came in shortly after, toting an LED-glowing electric unicycle that had an extended handle like a rolling suitcase. I asked him if he knew where Berkeley was, and he pointed me in the right direction.
We made introductions and Berkeley offered me a La Croix, another in a set of San Franciscan constants that include whole bean coffee, 20-somethings ripping Juuls, and Uber rides in Priuses.
Berkeley actually helped Jered Kenna, the cofounder and now owner of 20 Mission, found Tradehill, a once-upon-a-time bitcoin exchange that accounted for 15 percent of the coin’s daily trading volume back in the day when Mt. Gox accounted for 80 percent.
He reiterated some of what Hill talks about in her piece: how 20 Mission was much worse for wear before Kenna first cleaned it up.
“Before that it was basically a seedy crack hotel. Squatters lived there, but it was abandoned for something like 18 years,” said Berkeley.
As we talked, we walked around the house and I surveyed the murals that decorated each hallway. Local artists had done them, including the ones that enliven the house’s glorified courtyard: an open-air space in the middle of the building that’s accessible only through windows and is floored with roofing tiles.
One of the house’s many murals.
At the corners of some of the hallways, street signs with titles like “Litecoin Lane,” “Ethereum Blvd.” and — thank God — “Coinye West.”
The signs made me wonder if the house has an active crypto and general tech community, seeing as it’s billed as a hacker community. They still accept bitcoin for room and board, but the house’s tech focus shouldn’t be overstated, Berkeley told me.
“We have some people working on crypto, but it’s not like everyone is in crypto. For example, we just had a guy here who is a doctor, so it’s a mix.”
Doctors, lawyers, professors, service workers, developers — folks of all kind live in the community.
“With 40 rooms, there are lots of different people. We’re decentralized.”
Unfortunately, none of the crypto-focused professionals were around to chat, either by virtue of being busy or because they were hiding from “the media.” That was all right by me; I understand their need for privacy, and given America’s current media climate and public sentiment, I didn’t find it shocking that they didn’t want to show their faces to a nosy reporter (the industry’s professionals seem to approach the press with serious skepticism).
Satisfied with the tour and the talk, I thanked Berkley and went on my way.
Back at the castle, I had a last supper from Curry Up Now (courtesy, as always, of Bitrefill-funded Uber Eats), relaxed and, just like that, the week was over.
I went to bed thankful I’d be able to use my fiat debit card in the morning.
As Kashmir Hill did in her original journey, Colin is accepting BTC tips to help him along the way.
Tip jar: 3CnLhqitCjUN4HPYf6Qa2MmvCpSoBiFfBN