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NO MONEY, NO TRIP!

A sort of sequel to ‘Good Horn, Good Brakes and Good Luck!’

Preface

Ring ring. Ring ring.

“Hello.”

“Hi. Is that Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, the famous British adventurer and world’s greatest living explorer?”

“Yes. Are you the annoying man who called me once before about his daft rally adventures?”

“That isn’t very nice, Mr. Fiennes. I know that driving a car through Africa and an autorickshaw through India aren’t on a par with your adventures, but they were fairly significant for me. And I managed to write a book about the trips called Good Horn, Good Brakes and Good Luck.”

“Not a very good book, as I recall. It was missing a great deal of editing.”

“True, but I was fairly new to the whole writing shebang. I’m still learning.”

“What do you want this time?”

“Well, I can’t afford another adventure at the moment, although I am working on getting the money together to do something spectacular. I’m writing a book about my trials and tribulations in the acquisition of enough money to finance another adventure.”

“Sounds boring. What do you want from me? Not cash, I hope. I am very skilled with a shotgun and have two killer attack dogs.”

“No, I don’t want your money. I was hoping for your endorsement for my new book.”

“F..k off!”

Click. Line goes dead.

Author’s Note: whilst this conversation did not actually take place, it is what the author would expect if he ever managed to get in touch with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. It should be noted that all of the telephone conversations littered throughout the book are also fictitious.

Introduction

There are many wonders of the world and I want to see them all.

One of the difficulties I have in achieving this goal is that some of them no longer exist, especially the ancient ones, and there is always the underlying thought that many wonders of the world are not things at all, but rather experiences.

I have been lucky enough though to have seen a number of wonderful things on my travels. I visited Turkey a number of years ago and saw the one surviving column of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I have also seen many wonders of the modern world - like the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, the Empire State Building in New York, and the Taj Mahal in Agra - but there are dozens more on my list which I haven’t yet seen.

I have also been lucky enough to undertake some adventurous trips - not just simple sightseeing journeys - which have included driving an old banger through Europe and North Africa, as well as driving an autorickshaw through Nepal and northern India.

I have met some fascinating people around the world during my travels, but haven’t often had the time and luxury to really explore the culture in the countries I have visited.

Suffice to say, I love to travel and I love to have an adventure. Not for me the two week beach holiday to top up a tan (don’t get me wrong, I like to relax and recharge, and a package holiday is good for that, but I want a little bit more from my holiday). So, I came back from my trips to Africa and India with a burning desire to go somewhere else for another adventure.

The possibilities for adventurous travel are endless, but I do have a few ideas. One is to take a trip through Europe, including Scandinavia, and into Russia, right up to the arctic circle, driving a motorbike with a sidecar. Another is to drive a battered old banger all the way to Mongolia - ideally ending with a cross-country ride on a Mongolian pony to Ulan Bator.

There are, however, a few reasons why I don’t currently have plans for an adventurous trip: time, money, and life itself.

The time issue is obvious: I have to work full-time to support myself and so have a limited number of holidays allocated each year. Taking a month off for an adventurous trip is possible, as long as I am willing to forego a family holiday (which the partner might object to!) and if I don’t want to do anything else that year.

The money issue is also straightforward: I simply don’t have enough of it. There is an economic downturn which makes it difficult to simply pay the bills, let alone making plans to spend thousands of pounds on a trip.

The life issue is one faced by many armchair adventurers: how to persuade the family that an adventurous trip can be justified if it also impacts on their lifestyle. How can I expect them to do without a holiday so I can go and have a selfish adventure somewhere in the world? It just isn’t fair and I know it.

And therein lies the quandary in which I find myself. I know that I should have done more in the past - visited more places and had more adventures - when I was a single man. But I don’t regret settling down for a moment and I want to have lots of great holidays and adventures with the family as well.

The question is: how can I have it all? How can I keep the family happy, pay the bills, and have selfish adventures?

The answer is at once simple, and yet incredibly difficult to achieve: I need a lot more money!

Like many people in the western world, I was brought up with the constant indoctrination that “money doesn’t make one happy.” That may be true, but money does make life a great deal easier. Nothing is free these days and the cost of living just keeps rising and rising. Unfortunately, salaries don’t seem to be keeping pace with the increasing costs of life - especially since the global economic downturn - and I, for one, find it harder each month simply to make ends meet.

I also know deep down that having more money would make me happier. It would allow me to not only pay my bills, but to also treat my family as well as they deserve … and to have the odd selfish adventure!

But acquiring more money is not as straightforward as simply working longer hours, because even though overtime is a possibility to bolster my funds it is unlikely to provide me with enough to give me the lifestyle I crave. I really need to be rich!

And that got me thinking about the nature of money itself, not just about the acquisition of more of the stuff. There are people in the world working far harder than I am and taking home a tiny fraction of my salary and, conversely, those who appear to do very little work, but who get paid bucket-loads of cash. Footballers are a good example: one guy at my local team earns double my annual wage for a ninety-minute game a week.

All of my musings about money - its nature, acquisition, and disposal - has led to the creation of this book. It is intended as a rambling adventure through finance from the point of view of an ‘average joe’ who simply wants enough of it to pay for a good lifestyle … including an adventurous travel trip to somewhere suitably exotic or exciting.

The book is not an investment guide or a ‘how-to’ book and I really don’t know how it will end. I’m writing it sequentially - not for me the convention of writing the introduction last, after the rest of the book is completed - so I have no idea where this little adventure will take me. I also don’t know if I’ll ever reach the end, but that’s part of the fun of writing. I’m planning to release each chapter onto the internet as soon as each is completed and, if I ever reach a conclusion (possibly years from now), I will release the whole thing as a free e-book (it may seem strange to give away a book about acquiring money, but this is really just the story of my journey - it’s like a long blog!).

If the story does end with an adventurous trip abroad, then I promise to write another book about that! If not, I hope it ends with me being happy and content with the cards I’ve been dealt in this life, because there is ‘more to life than money’, as a rich investment banker once told me prior to jetting off to his private Caribbean island.

Tim Deans September 2013.

Chapter One

Once upon a time...virtually nothing happened!

My adventure through the world of money started like a fairy tale, primarily because it involved something imaginary - virtual cryptocurrency.

So, once upon a time I tried to make some virtual money and ended up with virtually nothing of real monetary value, although I did manage to virtually bring my relationship to an end. It wasn’t the most auspicious beginning to my journey to find the means to fund a new adventure.

If the preceding paragraph made no sense you probably should go back and read the introduction. In a nutshell, I wanted an adventurous trip somewhere exotic, but couldn’t afford it. In the middle of an economic downturn (read: the world was broke!) and other financial priorities (read: partner, kids, mortgage, credit cards etc.) it will take more money than I earn to finance my daily life plus a trip. And so I began an adventure exploring money - not to get rich, just to become moderately well-off in the shortest time possible!

I need to remind myself sometimes that I’m not really poor - certainly not in comparison to millions of unfortunate people around the world - and my standard of living isn’t really too bad either. True, I don’t have a flash sports car or a private swimming pool, but I do have a house, clothes and enough food (and drink) to give me a middle-aged spread. But the economic downturn has affected my standard of living for the worse. People in the UK tend to think of Africa when the subject of poverty is raised, but we sometimes forget that in the western world we are also subject to pressures in daily living and making ends meet. The economic crash left lots of people in Europe on the poverty line and the average wage earner (like me) has felt the pinch.

And over the past year or two some of the poorer countries in Europe looked like going bust. How does that happen? How can a country keep borrowing more and more money with no possibility of ever paying it back? It makes me wonder why we can’t all do the same thing: borrow a couple of million and live the high life, and then default on the loan. A country gets away with it while I would go to jail for fraud - it hardly seems fair.

Greece was first to succumb to the debt crisis - and needed major bail outs from the Eurozone - followed by financial issues in a number of other states, including Spain and Italy. It was a news article about Cyprus which first caught my attention about virtual money though. The authorities there threatened to tax savings of Euros held in banks, and even to limit how much cash people could move to other banks, so everybody withdrew their money (real money, that is, not virtual). People right across Cyprus and Spain were scared to invest in Euros - or any other hard currency for that matter - because of a lack of confidence in the government, so they all started buying bitcoins instead.

Bitcoins? What the flipping heck are they?

The news article briefly described bitcoins (BTC) as a virtual currency, not subject to the control of any government. Perfect if you want some protection from the whims of the global markets, one would think. But if bitcoins aren’t backed by any one country or government how do they have a value at all? My first thought was that they couldn’t possibly be worth anything. I mean, aren’t real currencies backed up with huge deposits of gold?

Erm, no they aren’t.

It was my first misconception about money, but not the last. There was a time, of course, when major nations of the world kept stockpiles of gold (or other precious metals like silver) to underpin the value of their money. Those days are long gone. Most countries still hold some gold reserves - like Fort Knox in the US which is piled to the rafters with bullion (if the James Bond movie has it right!) - but it doesn’t act as a guarantee for paper currency.

Nothing guarantees or underpins the value of a currency except the word of the government who issue it. Blinking heck!

So the value of bitcoins seems to be solely due to the fact that people give it a value. They believe it is worth something in the same way that I think the coins and notes in my wallet are worth something.

At this stage I decided not to worry about the house of cards which the financial systems of the world seem to be built upon because I didn’t want to start worrying about economic doomsday. While I’ve always wondered what living in a post-apocalyptic world might be like - the Mad Max scenario - I do realise that I’d be lucky to last two minutes if it were ‘every man for himself’. In any case, my purpose on this journey was to acquire enough money to finance an adventure (and even on another road trip adventure I wouldn’t really want a vehicle with machine guns attached even if I was being chased by Tina Turner’s cronies around a desert).

All I cared about was that bitcoins are worth something - they can easily be exchanged for hard currency - and I wanted some. Time for a phone call:

Ring ring. Ring ring.

“Moshi moshi.”

“Hello. Is that Satoshi Nakamoto, the inventor of bitcoins?”

“I may or may not be Satoshi. He may or may not exist.”

“Very mysterious. And you don’t sound particularly Japanese either.”

“I may or may not be Japanese. I may actually be British. And I may be a group of computer programmers, not just a lone inventor toiling in my garden shed.”

“Let’s pretend for a moment that I care. Can you at least explain what a bitcoin actually is and, more importantly, how I can get my hands on some?”

“Sure. It’s a decentralized currency secured by cryptographic algorithms.”

“Can you explain in English?”

“Sure, dimwit. Just imagine your bank has a room full of boxes and one of the boxes has your account number written on it with your money inside. There is a fixed amount of money available and it is all in that one room. You can pay somebody else in the room by taking money from your box and putting it into their box - anonymously, of course - and they can pay money to you in the same way. Understand?”

“Yes, I’m following you so far.”

“OK. Now imagine there is no need for the bank. The boxes with money still exist - digitally not physically - but are shared across a peer-to-peer network of computers. Everybody attached to the network plays a part in managing and securing the money, so no central owner is needed. No banks, no governments. That is bitcoin.”

“So who makes them?”

“They are mined, much like you would mine the earth for other commodities like gold. To mine for bitcoins you use a powerful computer to solve complex algorithms and, if you are successful, you are rewarded with a small amount called a block. Oh, and there can never be more than 21 million bitcoins. When they have all been mined around the year 2040 no more will be created. But a bitcoin can be divided into 8 decimal places, so even small amounts can have a value. It is a little more complicated, but that is it in a nutshell.”

“Seems to make a kind of sense. How can I get some?”

“Some people give away small amounts of bitcoins on websites called faucets. It’s a good place to start. Or get a very fast computer and start mining.”

“Thanks, Satoshi, or whatever your name is. Last question, is it true that before you lost interest in bitcoins you mined tens of thousands of them for yourself which at today’s prices are worth around forty million dollars?”

“F**k off!”

Click. Line goes dead.

Interesting. Now all I needed to do was get my hands on some.

It was a simple matter to download a bitcoin wallet to store my wads of virtual cash, which I then intended to convert into hard currency to finance my next adventure. Mining wasn’t an option though, because I don’t own a supercomputer - just a laptop for web surfing. I needed to find a way to get the coins for nothing.

There is a story from the early days of bitcoin (2009) where an early adopter wanted to buy a pizza (for a supposed currency there are still limited avenues in which to spend them directly) but couldn’t find a shop which accepted them. The man offered 10000 bitcoins to anybody who could deliver a pizza to his house in the US. Somebody from the UK saw the request on an online forum, ordered a pizza via the internet and paid by credit card. The pizza was delivered and the bitcoins were exchanged. At that time the 10000 bitcoins were worth around forty dollars, making it quite an expensive pizza.

At today’s price (2013) those bitcoins are worth close to 1.2 million dollars (I hope that guy enjoyed the pizza)!

If I’d only gotten in at the beginning.

Anyway, with the wallet installed on my computer I went looking for free bitcoins with which to fill it. Or alternatively for somebody who wanted to trade loads of them for takeaway food. In fact, for a million bucks I would happily get a flight to America and hand deliver a pizza myself. I’d even make the dough and cook it from scratch.

The imaginary Satoshi had been correct: lots of web sites give away free bitcoins, or uBTC to be more accurate - as in one millionth of a bitcoin, or 0.000001 BTC (in some cases the sites only offer 1 Satoshi, or 0.000 000 01 BTC). All these sites are ostensibly intended to encourage more people to take up the use of bitcoins - working on the premise that the more people who use them the more legitimate the currency becomes. To get the free bitcoins all you have to do is enter your personal wallet address and complete a Captcha (where you type a word or phrase that can’t be read by software - it stands for ‘Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart’ - if you’ve been on the net you’ll have seen the slanty, squiggly writing that you probably find hard to read as a human - you type it in and it proves you’re not a cyborg!).

I was hooked immediately.

Every day I would get up, immediately launch the internet, and cycle through the available sites. I fell into a routine where I would run through a dozen sites in less than ten minutes. In some cases the websites offered tiny amounts of bitcoin every 30 minutes, others every hour, and some every 24 hours. During my non-working hours I rarely had the laptop off my knee.

In the blink of an eye I had turned from a ‘guy with a mild geek-streak’ to a complete ‘uber-nerd’! It really wasn’t a surprise that my girlfriend had a problem with it all.

She accused me of being obsessed and she was right. And the amount of time I was spending on the laptop (time which excluded her and the kids) was starting to piss her off. I needed to stop the whole thing. Crypto-currencies can ruin your life!

But I had my sights set on owning at least one complete bitcoin and, without a decent computer for mining, the only way I could get one was if somebody gave it to me - or if I bought one. But buying a bitcoin (for around $125 at the time) seemed to defeat the object of trying to make some money for a trip, unless I wanted to treat it as an investment that might increase in value.

After almost two months of continual keyboard tapping I had a grand total of 0.03983862 BTC - worth around $4.50. That represented a return on my time of about 7 cents per hour (I didn’t even want to convert it into Pounds Sterling because it would be more obvious how worthless the website visiting had been - at least US Dollars aren’t my native currency so I could pretend I was earning a bit more than in reality!)

Bitcoins have some value but it isn’t easy to get them free and I refused to buy them. I would have to try mining, and for that I would need a decent computer. On eBay and other sites there are specialist crypto-coin mining rigs for sale for hundreds or even thousands of pounds/dollars. Some set-ups have multiple graphics cards working in parallel so heat can become a problem. The electricity cost is also a factor - low processing power can cost more in electricity than is returned in bitcoins.

Unfortunately I didn’t have thousands, or even hundreds, of pounds with which to buy state-of-the-art computer equipment. All I could do was buy a cheap PC, bung in a cheap-ish graphics card, and at least try to mine a few bitcoins. I set myself a budget of £100 so realised my expectations needed to be low. It might have been easier to give it all up at that point, but I can be stubborn about things so I persevered despite the odds against me.

So with a £60 reconditioned PC, and a £35 secondhand graphics card, I set the system going in a mining ‘pool’ (where you work collectively with others and share the rewards based on your contribution) and waited for the bitcoins to roll in.

It should be obvious to anybody reading this that my plan was doomed to failure from the start. To be fair, I knew it myself. During the summer months of 2013 a number of companies were bringing out a variety of machines - based on asics, an application-specific integrated circuit - which were dedicated machines for breaking the bitcoin algorithms. It was expected by the entire ‘mining’ community that rich hardware owners would soon completely dominate the mining of new bitcoins and there would be no room left for amateurs with cheap rigs.

So I switched on my budget PC with little hope of success and it was immediately apparent that a cheap computer wasn’t going to cut it in the world of mega-computing power owned by other bitcoin nerds. My return looked to be around 0.01 bitcoin every 10 days - or about 3.5 years per bitcoin. If I kept clicking free bitcoin websites for an hour a day I might be able to bring this time down to a flat 3 years! (In reality, I knew it would take longer than this, because the difficulty to break the bitcoin algorithms keeps getting harder, so it might actually take me ten years to get one bitcoin!)

So for only 1000 hours of my time clicking websites and 26000 hours of continuous PC running time (for ‘God-alone knows’ how much electricity) I would own 1 BTC (which might not actually be worth anything by 2016).

The penny finally dropped (pun intended) - I wasn’t going to make anything from bitcoins.

There are many other crypto-currencies popping up around the world though, and I wondered briefly whether I ought to pursue the acquisition of any of them. Devcoins were particularly interesting to me because they reward people for creative activity - writing and illustrating, for example - and they fit with my aspirations to write for a living and break the mundane cycle of nine-to-five. As for the other crypto-currencies, I decided that the difficulty would lie to deciding which of them might have a future. I mean, none of them are backed up by anything (like gold) and it simply isn’t feasible to think that all of these made up currencies will be successful and become worth a fortune in the future global economy. It’s inevitable that many of them will disappear after a few years, leaving behind a number of well-off early adopters, but with the majority of people no better off. I decided that I was unlikely to make anything from any of the other crypto-currencies which seemed to be popping up every day of the week (Freicoins, Litecoins, Feathercoins, TerraCoins, ChinaCoins, LoadOfOldBollocksCoins etc.). It was time to move onto something more rewarding, though I decided to look a little closer at Devcoins.

I did - and do - find the whole concept of virtual currency fascinating, but my adventure in nerdy bitcoin finance was finally over. At least after six months of effort I’m almost a fiver ($7.50) better off.

E-currency, Cryptocurrency


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