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Rubbing elbows with the local bitcoin evangelists

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Lex Cannon

“You can store your wealth in your brain just by memorizing a code,” John Hegyes says to me over lunch at Cafe Berlin.

Still chuckling about the idea of my “wealth,” I realize Hegyes’ statement is a logical response to the fact that I’m more likely to bury quarters in my backyard than buy into something like bitcoin (or even a debit card). His statement is predictable, even, at this weekly bitcoin meetup, where I’m outnumbered 7-to-1 by people engaging in full peer-to-peer crytpocurrency talk.

These are the local disciples of the digital currency bitcoin, introduced in 2009 by an unknown individual (or individuals) using the name Satoshi Nakamato. Julian Tosh, operator of bitcoinsinvegas.com, which organizes the Wednesday meetups at restaurants accepting bitcoin, says he’s a longtime crypto/techno geek, involved in bitcoin since 2010. Others streamed in during the past year.

“I heard about it four years ago and I said, ‘There’s no way anybody’s going to pay you money for something that doesn’t exist,’” says recent bitcoin convert Patrick Whittier. “I wasn’t skeptical. I was, ‘No way in hell …’ The thing is, I didn’t actually think about what it could do.”

By that, Whittier means, among other things, the immediacy of transactions without a middle man—ever. He says it could be particularly helpful in situations like the recent typhoon in the Philippines, in which a victim could hold up a scannable QR code on the news, allowing donors to transfer money directly into a specific account without an organization taking a percentage.

This kind of “grassroots upswell” went smoothly (albeit humorously) at a recent college football game where a fan on television held up a sign that read, “Hi Mom. Send Bitcoin” with his QR code, resulting in more than $20,000 transferred into his digital wallet.

At lunch, John Dufton wears a T-shirt that says, “Hi grandma, send blow stamps” (inside bitcoin humor) next to his QR code. A local taxi driver, Dufton accepts tips in bitcoin and is sought out by bitcoin spenders who see his information listed along with other vendors who accept the currency on bitcoinsinvegas.com.

“People who have bitcoins want to know where they can spend them,” Tosh says, which explains his efforts to get more businesses accepting them. But it’s a slow process. “I was cold calling in the beginning. I’d show them the wallets. They’d look at me like, “Dude, you need to get out of here.”

Apparently, the notion of an online currency stored in digital wallets with transactions confirmed by “miners” (paid in bitcoin) takes some convincing and patience. Skeptics abound. The highly volatile currency has been linked to cyber criminals, speculators, drugs, theft, money laundering, black markets and, most famously, the website Silk Road, shut down in 2013 by the FBI, which says it confiscated $28.5 million in bitcoin.

Local participating businesses—including the D and Golden Gate—have the already convinced even more certain of a bitcoin future. One user at Cafe Berlin said he’s cashing in his 401k for bitcoin. Dufton’s phone alarm alerts him when the currency goes down 3 percent or up 6 percent. Sell high, buy low.

“It’s world-changing,” says Whittier, who made his money playing video games and has invested $15,000 in bitcoin mining equipment. “It’s fun to talk about. It’s like explaining the Internet 20 years ago.”

Over schnitzel they discuss the troubled economy, distrust in banks, empowerment of the individual, collapsing fiats, Cyprus and Argentina. The group addresses the non-transparency of the Fed, “unseizable” and “indestructible” money (especially when crossing international borders), and, even bigger, bitcoin’s ability to take out Wall Street.

And drugs? Tosh points to a $20 bill I’ve given him in exchange for my first bitcoin (at press time, 1 bitcoin was worth around $800) and says, “There’s more cocaine in this $20 bill than there ever will be on bitcoin.” I’m still not ready to take the full plunge, so they remind me that I can safely keep my money in my head knowing only a code.

“Unless,” Whittier says, “you fall out of your window, hit your head and get amnesia.”

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Kristen Peterson

Kristen Peterson joined the Las Vegas Sun in 1998 as a general assignment reporter. In 2003, she turned her focus ...

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