By Martin Hursk
“Hey Sue! Did you see a little piece of paper in the study? It was on my shelf,” asked Andy with an apparent air of nonchalance on a late morning in December 2013. Sue scanned his expression quizzically and replied, “Sorry. I haven’t, dear.” Andy stared at her, conscious of a hollow sinking feeling developing in his gut. If she did not know, where could the little piece of paper be? “That paper had the private key to over a million dollars in bitcoin…” The words were straining to come out of his lips. Sue did not have an audible response. Her heart was sinking too, not just at the money lost but also because she could sense their relationship crumbling.
In the early days, it was exhilarating. Sue was taken in by Andy’s intensely analytic brain combined with his endearing idealism and pie-in-the-sky dream of a world free of poverty and strife. He in turn fell for the charming schoolteacher grounded in real life practicalities. Though they had opposite personalities, their mutual attraction seemed to make the marriage work. And when Patrick came along in 2005 followed by cute Pete three years later, their world seemed complete. Sue quit her job, plunging into household chores, mothering kids, and giving all the tender touches that make a house a home.
When Andy first heard about Bitcoin from a friend in early 2010, it was like he was watching science fiction become science. Within a week, it was all he could think of. Libertarians and millennial techies were going crazy about Bitcoin and even though he himself had never felt like a part of any movement, his dormant idealism fired up. Here was an open decentralized technology, a payment network for sending money anywhere in the world practically free, a global currency not backed by any central bank – a total game changer. There were exciting applications he could not even pretend to imagine! It was like the heady days of the Internet when the World Wide Web had just been invented. Who knew then, watching the hours it took to download a single webpage, that the first browser would be the forerunner of electronic commerce, social networks, political revolutions, internet telephony, online learning and all the other exciting things that we take for granted today? Much like the World Wide Web, Andy foresaw a revolutionary phenomenon in Bitcoin that would transform the world.
In a month’s time, he had read everything he could on the subject. Not long after, he had quit his day job as a computer analyst and had turned into an avid participant on the bitcoin sub-reddits and other such forums on the Internet. And then he started mining bitcoin for a living. With a simple computer, which was progressively replaced by more specialized equipment, Andy was generating the magical sequences of ones and zeros on a daily basis, satisfying the increasingly difficult equations demanded by the Bitcoin protocol. And the price of the bitcoin, despite some dramatic crashes on its journey upward, had reached dizzying heights rising from a few cents in 2010 to over $1200 for a single bitcoin in November 2013. There were many nights that Andy laid awake in bed dreaming about the exciting things they could do with the newfound money. But Andy had sold not even one bitcoin. On that fateful day in December, he had 1816 bitcoins, a stash easily worth $1.2 million at the time.
And when Sue goaded him to sell a few, he said with a grin, “Just you wait. A single bitcoin will be worth up to a million dollars some day.” Ignoring Sue’s groan and rolling of the eyes, he rambled on: “And hey, we’ll be able to do things on a global scale…charities, development projects in Africa and what not, maybe even send Patrick and Pete to a college of their dreams.”
In his mind, it was not just about the money. Andy spoke of his vision of a world free of corruption with a borderless humanistic currency that could not be manipulated by governments. Some of his passion rubbed onto Sue and the children. When Patrick created a Youtube video of little Pete playing with their dog, Sue suggested that he add a bitcoin donation QR code at the end. She could vividly recall how excited the kids were, seeing on the blockchain the first donations from all over the world trickling in to their address in almost real-time. It was an aha moment for Sue – a realization of a world where imaginative people could create videos and write stories on the Internet and receive payments or donations instantly and directly. No middlemen needed!
Andy told Patrick and Pete captivating stories of the world’s most expensive pizza ordered by a miner with 10,000 bitcoins in 2010 (worth $6 million in 2013!), the government crackdown on people acquiring drugs on Silk Road using bitcoin, the creation of other new coins such as litecoin and dogecoin (Pete thought the latter was really funny), the story of the tech geek in England who lost over nine million dollars worth of bitcoin forever when he accidentally tossed out his old computer’s hard drive, and about dramatic bitcoin heists and capers. Most of all, Patrick was intrigued by the mystery of Satoshi Nakamoto, said to be the anonymous founder of Bitcoin. Was Satoshi a person, a group, an agency or an organization? Was he even real? No one knew. Even little Pete would shrug with amazement upon hearing these tales of mystique, mischief, and allure, narrated in Andy’s own inimitable style.
It was in late 2012 when Sue felt that Andy’s obsession with bitcoin was getting out of hand, bordering on the manic, and that he was losing touch with the real world. The signs were unmistakable: he would spend all his time in the bitcoin universe, he had little time for Sue or the children, he cancelled the monthly family nature outings, and he forgot their wedding anniversary date that year. He was always to be seen with an absent-minded look on his face, reading or watching bitcoin news on the Internet, and checking bitcoin prices on numerous exchanges for no reason at all (as he did not have intentions to sell).
And there was also the insecurity. In the backdrop of Wikileaks and NSA spying, stories of rampant hacking and online theft of bitcoin had become common. It was like the Wild West but instead of guns, robbers were armed with password cracking programs and cryptographic techniques. Andy’s obsession with securing his stash of bitcoins had started to grow to paranoia. He had struggled for weeks with ideas on complicated technological methods to protect his 1816 bitcoins. But when his pal , a security expert, got locked out from a huge chunk of bitcoin ensnared by his own cryptological safeguards, the irony of his plight took hold in Andy’s mind and he thought: Why not do the simplest thing possible and use one of the oldest technologies in the world? Yes, it was time for the good ol’ paper wallet. After all, Andy’s guiding principle was “When decision-making is too complex, look for the simple answer, and when it looks too simple, add nuance and complexity.” He would transfer his bitcoin stash from the twenty or twenty-two multiple encrypted locations on the Internet to a single address created by him disconnected from the Internet, in what is called a cold paper wallet. He would print the private access key on paper, and place the paper in a safe deposit vault, and he would not look at it for the next five years or when each bitcoin touched a million dollars, whichever came first. What could go wrong?
On the 12th of December, on a snowy night, Andy worked late until the wee hours of the morning in his study putting his plan to action. It did not take long to transfer the money: two mouse clicks for every transaction. He printed the destination address and the encrypted private key on a sheet of paper. He deftly cut out the secret key with surgical snips of the scissor. What now? Should he laminate the chit? Or glue it to some metal? Decisions. He was getting tired of having to make decisions. It was already pretty late. He decided to take this question up first thing the next morning. In the meantime, he placed the little paper chit where only he could conveniently find it: the left-side of the top, left-most drawer of his desk (as he was left-handed) just by the scissors, glue-stick, scotch tape, and associated paraphernalia. . And off he went into a much deserved, heavenly sleep.
The next two days were hell. The scrap of paper was nowhere to be found. Sue had been in the room that morning when Andy was still asleep and had even used the scissors and other equipment to wrap presents. But she had not noticed the chit. Sue and Andy looked everywhere in the desk, on the carpet, by the window sill, even in the trash can -- ten times, twenty times. Patrick and Pete were rigorously quizzed and fully recruited for the search task but all to no avail. The money was gone. When it was clear that the slip of paper was not to be found, and there was nothing they could do, Andy finally cracked. It was as if the rug had been pulled from under his feet and he had nowhere to go. No matter how hard Sue tried to console Andy: “After all, we are lucky we are alive and together this Christmas” and “That was just money”, for Andy, life was over. The regret of forgetfulness, the anger at his stupidity, the utter despair of existence hit him hard … like a sledgehammer.
His world had come crashing down. And so, on a bitterly cold and gloomy night in the third week of December, Andy decided it was time to end his life.
But years of analytic training had sharpened his logical skills to the point that even as he was planning his own death, he could ask some rational questions: What was it that was bothering him so much? Was it just the loss of the bitcoin? Or was it the loss of a dream – the dream of how he would change the world? Or was it disgust at himself for being so disappointed at losing a little wealth? What’s the big deal, he asked? After all, he still had his family, his occupation, his health, and the rest of his life before him. But another part of him said: “Do not console yourself. Self-consolation is not truth.” This line of inquiry led him to consider a strange question: Who is the “I” that was trying to console “himself”? This started a chain of new questions : Why was there a need for consolation in the first place? Was there a part of him identified with his bitcoins , his ideology, and his dreams (that had just crashed)? Was there a self that wanted consolation from another self that could presumably provide the consolation? Perhaps there were multiple selves each wanting opposing things, and the conflict was killing him. In that case, which was the real self? Is there a real true self? If there is a real self, then the other selves must be illusory. This led him to the question : “What is the self?” This existential mystery haunted him and pounded him for two days and two nights. He would not eat, sleep, or talk to anyone.
The “Who am I?” mystery was much harder than the cryptographic challenge of mining the next bitcoin, where at least he could rely on cutting-edge technology. But in facing this existential Koan directly without trying to console or comfort his wounded sense of self, the best he had, his sharp rational mind, was failing him…badly. The questions kept churning rapidly in his brain. Weary from his own knowledge, unable to get real answers, and drained of all energy, Andy finally surrendered to the blissful oblivion of sleep.
The next morning, Andy felt decidedly different. He felt so different that he jumped right out of bed. Gone was the tiredness of the previous two nights and gone was the angst of decades of existence. And wonder of wonders, it came as a revelation to him that the identity question, the most difficult and important existential question that he had ever faced had just vanished. When he peered into his mind, he realized that it was not that he had found a satisfactory answer; he had not. It was just that the question had exploded, disappeared, and dissolved. And with the ending of the question, in one fell swoop, the need for finding answers was gone . He had seen through the nature of illusion; he knew from the gut that he was not his ego, and hence he could watch the machinations of all egos including his own, from an objective space. Perhaps, the dissolution of the question was an answer of sorts but one consequence of his breakthrough was that concepts and explanations did not matter anymore. He just knew that he did not know and did not need to know. For no reason whatsoever, he felt happy. As he looked outside at the barren trees in the backyard, he exclaimed with joy to an astonished Sue, “Exquisite, aren’t they?” Satoshi had turned to Satori. It was a discovery of true freedom. The big aha moment! In a flash, he saw why his attachment to bitcoin, his future dreams, his idealism, and his sense of self had been the cause of his suffering. Would he find the lost bitcoins? He did not care. He was secure in his understanding of change, the transitory nature of all life.
It was an amazing week. Andy felt the first stirrings of selfless love for Sue, Patrick, and Pete, who had endured his peculiar views and tantrums for so many years. It came naturally to him to forgive all those who had wronged him including the past Andy. His relationship with Sue changed and she could feel it. For the first time in years, she felt he understood her, appreciated her, and unconditionally accepted her for what she was. He would still mine bitcoin s for a living but there was no obsession remaining in him. Gone were his regrets. Was this a miracle of God or a simple return to a natural state of humanity? Had he really found the secret key to happiness? And was it possible to share it with the world? In his mind, what had seemed to be a private key was actually a public key, available to all those who had eyes to see and ears to listen. With newfound clarity, Andy laughed and cried at the simplicity of it all.
Christmas eve is planned to be quiet, reflective, and subdued. However, the children can hardly contain their enthusiasm for their “new” Dad as they gather around the fireplace. Gifts are unimportant though they are opened with excitement. Sue has a simple smile for Andy that says, “I do not need anything more.” Patrick tears open the envelope that Sue had so diligently prepared for him. It is a bitcoin gift -- a bitcoin paper wallet with 50 pre-loaded millibitcoins. As he reaches into the envelope to grab the paper wallet out, a crumpled piece of paper falls out. It is a small slip of paper with a QR code and a bunch of printed letters and numbers – Andy’s private key. It must have attached itself to the glue used to close the paper wallet. In the hushed silence that follows, the only sound is from the soft crackling fireplace as the Christmas tree glitters nearby.
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