Home Cryptocurrency Here's the Thing About Cryptocurrency—It's Actually Not That Hard to Figure Out

Here's the Thing About Cryptocurrency—It's Actually Not That Hard to Figure Out

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I almost hesitate to write the name out of sheer exhaustion at its ubiquity—but, deep breath, here it goes: cryptocurrency. Are you as sick of hearing about it as I was just a few weeks ago, when explanations of it—usually centered around Bitcoin—along with breathless narratives of its life-changing, bank-account-invigorating wonderments, popped up everywhere I turned in my news reading, my Twitter-feed scrolls, and my newspaper lifestyle trend pieces? When one of my best friends started ranting and raving about the entire “blockchain revolution” and his recent decision to toss some money into Bitcoin (which had, yes, gone from $900-something at the beginning of last year to around $20,000 toward the end of the year; as of this writing, it hovers around $11,000), I vented my rage at the entire puffed-up concept by demanding he explain to me what sort of hectic nonsense this entire scheme amounted to.

Guess what? It’s not that complicated. But yes, right about now seems an apt time for an all-important notice to my dear readers: You’re about to read financial advice from someone who until a week or two ago had, in the entirety of his life—aside from some fairly rote 401(k) behavior—invested in the stock market exactly once. When I was 13, a business-savvy family friend mentioned something about Chrysler staking their bottom line on a new kind of car; if it worked, he said, the company’s stock might skyrocket; if it failed, obviously, the company was finished. Somehow, I managed to buy a handful of shares of the stock at around $3—which I then sold around the time the stock peaked a few months later somewhere around $16 or $18, netting myself a handy hundred bucks or so along with the right to pat myself on my greenhorn greed-is-good back. But having once ridden the white lightning with such blistering success, I thought, Why not quit while I was ahead?

Understanding crypto, though, is simple—with a little help from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s perpetually useful willing suspension of disbelief. You don’t have to read the myriad stories and posts and think pieces about how to understand crypto, or Bitcoin, or the coming transformation of our entire way of doing everything: They’re generally overly complicated and, perhaps more importantly, just not that much fun. Can I explain to you exactly how blockchain technology—the DNA of crypto, if you will—works? Of course not. I can tell you that it works something like this: Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies basically record every transaction and distribute the records of these transactions equally to all parties involved. Every now and again a “block” of these transactions is verified and essentially sealed up and stacked on top of the last block, creating a chain.

In the cryptocurrency world, these “transactions” are users buying and selling different cryptocurrencies, usually in the form of virtual “coins.” (Some of the more well-known ones: Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple, Litecoin.) When people talk about the “blockchain revolution,” they’re generally noting that the blockchain can be used for secure transactions of almost any type: storing and moving birth certificates, votes, insurance claims, whatever. The revolution I’m concerned with most presently, though, is the one about to take place in my bank account.

Here’s where the skeptics come in: “But these ‘currencies’ are based on nothing!” they wail, gnashing their teeth and furrowing their brow. To which I summon all the high-minded derision that this one-time philosophy major (I jettisoned that idea faster than my Chrysler stock) can summon in responding: “Since Nixon took us off the gold standard in 1971, our entire monetary system is based solely on shared assumptions, man.” The dollar bill is, at root, a piece of paper that has value only because it relies on the “full faith and credit” of the United States. Well, crypto is just like that, with one exception: It relies on the “full faith and credit” of . . . of . . . of whoever decided to write the white paper that declared the particular cryptocurrency in question to be a thing of value. (In Bitcoin’s case, that person, or group of people, operates under a pseudonym—see above in re: willing suspension of disbelief.)

So, yeah, it’s sketchy. (Riddle me this, though: How many concepts that you know of that begin with “crypto-” aren’t?) Let’s put a positive spin on it, though, and call it untested. And then let’s test it. Honestly, it’s the best way to figure it out. Here’s what you do (or don’t do, if you’re the type of person who has qualms about putting your money into hazy concepts that could collapse at a moment’s notice but that may also be the magical money-spawning harbingers of our collective future): Take the kind of walking-around money that you’d blow on a pair of shoes that seemed necessary for about five minutes, or the equivalent of a fun-but-forgettable night out on the town. Open up a Coinbase account. Coinbase is an exchange for the biggest cryptocurrency players—think of it as the New York Stock Exchange for crypto. It’s where you buy and sell coins, or fractions of them. (Just trust me on this one: Coinbase is every casual player’s entrée; it is to crypto what AOL was to getting online in the early ’90s.) You link a credit card to your Coinbase account and buy Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin. (Bitcoin, while a bit Captain Obvious, is the crypto that’s most easily converted into other kinds of coins; it’s also the one that’s most widely accepted as payment for actual goods and services, from OkCupid to Etsy to an alpaca farm in rural Massachusetts.)

So, yeah, it’s easy. And yes, it can be addictive. Instead of reflexively checking Twitter or Instagram while waiting for the train, I’m now watching the sine curve of my crypto account on one of several apps. My Twitter feed has a new, almost psychotically geeky component: Crypto Twitter. My wife came home the other night from a night out to find me watching neither tennis nor politics but, rather, a YouTube video of a teenage boy who I likely wouldn’t trust to walk my dog dutifully explaining how to convert Litecoins on Coinbase to Ripple coins on that aforementioned China-based exchange, Binance, using the GDAX exchange as an intermediary host so as to avoid trading fees. (Reader, it worked!)

So, how am I doing? With a whole two weeks under my belt, my main anxiety over my “investments”—it still feels a bit grand to use the term, given that the midnight-sweats part of my psyche is still convinced that the entire crypto market is an invention of Chinese intelligence to raid our pocketbooks after their Russian neighbors raided our democracy—is that they are, well, maddeningly stable. The $400 worth of Litecoin I started out with (I bought at a dip in the market) is maybe $20 down; the $400 in Ripple that I jumped on a week later during what I thought was a preposterous low is up a mere $20 or so; and the $200 in Bitcoin that I dutifully purchased a few days after that is essentially the same. (There already is, though, The One That Got Away: After reading the proverbial “hot tip” from what seemed like a credible source on Twitter, I yearned to buy the XLM coin from Stellar, which, the source said, was poised to “take off.” Yee-haw! Of course, this is exactly the sort of thing I told myself I wouldn’t do—at least until I learned much more about how all this works—so I didn’t. Also of course: The coin, which is up almost 30,000 percent over the past year, gained another 20 percent in the day or so since I passed it up.) I’ve even bought a “digital wallet”—you can store your money on the exchange you buy it on, though, so far, only Coinbase guarantees it, so it’s recommended you keep funds on these tiny pieces of hardware—but, given the insane demand, it’s on backorder until March, so until then, well, Bitcoin better have my money.

The good news: Since I bought everything at a general lull in the market, when the next big bull market comes, I’m ready to ride the rocket. The revolution, it seems, is still ahead of us. (Watch this space.)

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