Acid, Bitcoin mining and a foul journey to North Korea


Ethan Lou is a journalist turned Bitcoin miner turned two-time writer whose newest e book, Once a Bitcoin Miner: Scandal and Turmoil within the Cryptocurrency Wild West, is a contemporary western recount a depressing millennial’s rebirth within the wild west of crypto — full with scammers, social gathering medicine and a North Korean crypto convention.

“Want to go to a crypto conference in North Korea in April?” just isn’t a standard query, however was requested of me by Lou in early 2019.

The Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, attended by about 100 folks, is the massive attraction in Lou’s e book. This is as a result of eight months after the occasion, in November 2019, Virgil Griffith, who labored with the Ethereum Foundation and who was among the many attendees Lou obtained to know, was arrested by the FBI for breaking sanctions and illegally offering “highly technical information” to the North Korean authorities.

With Lou watching from the New York courtroom’s gallery on the primary day of the trial in September this 12 months, a “quite emotional” Griffith pled responsible to a cost of conspiracy to violate sanctions legal guidelines in a deal which can see him spend over six years in jail. This was a shock to Lou, who notes that Griffith’s attorneys had requested the choose to permit for 2 fits “so that he can wear different outfits on different days,” suggesting that they, too, had anticipated the trial to last more than a day.



The room during which Virgil Griffith spoke to the North Koreans. (Source: Twitter)



Lou, who thought-about the convention an innocuous alternative to see North Korea, recollects how Griffith’s preliminary arrest was a shock to everybody who had attended. He explains that the occasion was marketed as a crypto convention and he “thought we were going to hear from the North Korean crypto people because North Korea has been accused of doing lots of shady stuff with crypto,” referring to accusations of state-sponsored hacking, amongst others.

But, there have been no North Korean crypto folks.

“It turns out we, the participants, were asked to be presenters.”

Though it appeared that a few of the attendees, like Griffith, got here ready to current, “most of us thought we were going to take information from the Koreans,” he says, including that he declined to present a presentation. As most displays have been ready simply days earlier than, the occasion’s content material consisted of solely “surface level, Wikipedia-type information.” Lou notes that the occasion was organized by “the cultural side,” of the DPRK administration and that their “crypto people” by no means made themselves recognized. 





“I don’t think Griffith had any intention of benefiting North Korea in any tangible way. I don’t think he brought North Korea any benefits and he didn’t derive any personal benefit — he paid quite a lot of money to be at the conference.”

What the group of merry conference-goers missed out on anticipated North Korean crypto perception, they gained in friendships and attention-grabbing tales — a lot of the time was spent touring Pyongyang and getting “very drunk with our Korean minders.”

“It was a very interesting insight into North Korea for sure, but there wasn’t any crypto insight.”

Journalist in coaching

Lou, 31, was born in Harbin, a northern Chinese metropolis close to the Russian border. He quickly moved to Germany on account of his father doing Ph.D. work associated to engineering there. Growing up in Germany, he developed a ardour for studying and writing which impressed him to pursue the “very natural choice” of journalism for his undergraduate diploma at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.





Lou found Bitcoin round 2012 whereas exploring the darkish internet together with his mates. This secretive underbelly of the web which may solely be accessed by the Tor browser as soon as performed host to the notorious Silk Road drug market the place BTC functioned because the fee technique. Its operator, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life after his 2013 arrest which resulted within the United States authorities’s seizure and subsequent public sale of 144,000 Bitcoin.





He re-encountered Bitcoin the next 12 months in New Brunswick, a Canadian province on the Atlantic the place Lou was an intern for an area newspaper when he interviewed Anthony Di Iorio, the founding father of the Bitcoin Alliance of Canada.

Returning dwelling to Toronto after his internship and variously working as a journalist for The Canadian Press and the Toronto Star, he familiarized himself with the burgeoning native Bitcoin scene the place Di Iorio, who had relocated to town and co-founded Ethereum with Vitalik Buterin, was now lively. 



One of Lou’s many photos from the DPRK (Source: Twitter)



Another character who Lou’s e book recounts a gathering is Gerald Cotten, who, in 2013, based the QuadrigaCX trade earlier than dying in India in 2018, taking the personal keys to his 115,000 buyer’s Bitcoin to the grave. 

It was from Cotten’s trade that Lou bought his first Bitcoin that 12 months and promptly “ordered 10 hits of LSD for 0.412 Bitcoin on the dark web.” There was no going again on his journey into cryptocurrency.

Crypto cowboys

After working with the Toronto Star newspaper from 2013 to 2015, Lou was employed by Reuters which despatched him to New York in early 2016, and later that 12 months to Calgary the place he centered on reporting concerning the power business. The province of Alberta, awash with oil and with Calgary as its largest metropolis, is to Canada what Texas is to the United States. With its pre-oil historical past of cowboys, Calgary has held proudly to its western roots, and the oil increase of the earlier many years little question attracted a brand new crop of daring adventurers in search of fortune within the west.

It was right here that Lou organized a weekly Bitcoin meetup, the place we met. Lou’s was not the one present on the town, as Jan Cerato, an area crypto hype-man who held a meetup at a close-by cowboy-themed saloon on a distinct day of the week, by some means started to see him as competitors. In Lou’s e book, Cerato fills the position of comedian aid through his numerous misadventures. Moving in the identical circles, I grew to respect Lou as a severe journalist — he as soon as instructed me he would shield his sources even when it meant jail, an announcement whose validity I by no means doubted.

Lou had begun mining Bitcoin a number of months prior when, whereas searching for his bike across the loading dock of the Reuters constructing, he occurred upon a stash of treasure — eight discarded Dell Optiplex 780 computer systems.

“Each one could hold two GPUs, so it wasn’t a lot, but I ended up buying GPUs and using those to mine,” he recollects, including that he wanted to hire a automobile for $15.63 — which aggravated him — to lug the computer systems to his condo a number of blocks away.

“Eventually, it became a whole dedicated facility with ASICs.”

With the crypto business shifting a mile a minute as Bitcoin forked, the bull markets raged and his mines whirring in new BTC as he labored his company job on the information desk. Lou recollects that “I didn’t really have the chance to stand back and assess everything.” That was till at some point, sitting in his gray cubicle, he “suddenly realized, if I so fancied, I could pick up the phone and buy an elephant.” He was a crypto millionaire.





No elephant was bought that day however its scent was one in all journey, such which Lou felt was out of attain whereas dwelling the 9-5 life. He resigned. “I had the feeling that I guess any typical millennial just entering the workforce feels — maybe they call this a quarter-life crisis. Am I in the right place? Am I doing what is meaningful to me? Since I have the means, why don’t I go on an adventure?” he recounts.

And adventures he went on. In addition to these in North Korea, his e book particulars a time he and I spent on a “Thai island partying with members of a cryptocurrency incubator on a hillside resort.”

“The big boss who funded everything was an early Bitcoiner and had made a fortune. People came and went, staying for free, indulging in crazy merrymaking. At least once, they had allegedly brought over a shaman.” Lou wrote in Chapter 16.

Another journey of his is a e book of its personal, Field Notes from a Pandemic: A Journey via a World Suspended, which was printed final 12 months. It recounts his travels via Beijing, Singapore, Germany and again to Canada upon the cusp of the pandemic which appeared to observe him and, with air journey all however shut down, left him sheltering in my empty condo within the German city of Bayreuth for six weeks in the course of the eye of the storm.





A crypto western

It has lengthy been stated, usually by critics, that the cryptocurrency business resembles the Wild West. Lou agrees, although making clear that “I don’t consider that comparison an insult. I think that there are lots of cool things about the Wild West, at least the idea of it. That which attracted people to the west back then is what attracts people to crypto right now.” 

Though the actual wild west was largely constructed on “injustice, colonialism and brutality,” Lou says that the dream of the wild west lives inside our minds.

“The wild west has a powerful draw largely because it’s a place where there’s lots of opportunity and wealth — it’s also spacious and it’s open to everyone and, most importantly, it’s free from the societal hierarchies back home.”

“You go to the west so you can you can discard your past, you can bury your name and you can be born anew,” he says, inspiring concepts of poor European peasants shifting to the wildlands of the Americas, or maybe Di Iorio who moved west to Toronto the place he co-founded Ethereum. 

The wild west’s frontier ultimately moved even additional westward, and so it’s in crypto, in line with Lou. While extra established gamers like VISA and cities like Miami are coming into the partly-tamed lands, lots of the early trailblazers like Coinbase, which has labored to sanitize its idealistic early days, have upgraded their disreputable playing saloons into trendy glass places of work.



The view from a tower block. Virgil known as North Korea a “Wes Anderson movie”. (Source: Twitter)



But, the Wild West coronary heart of crypto is preventing again. Lou factors to the instance of Shapeshift, an outdated participant within the business whose CEO Erik Voorhees is transitioning the corporate from a “corporate structure to become a DAO, and the specific reason is that it wants to make it harder for regulators to rein it in. This is coming as the SEC is becoming increasingly hawkish,” Lou explains.

“A lot of law is suddenly entering this space. At the same time, people are coming up with ways to flout the law.”

The Metaverse, Lou believes, marks the subsequent frontier.

“Our online lives are just as real as our lives offline now. Online, we have no rights — we are beholden unconditionally to the digital masters. I think we already live in a Metaverse.”

The battle for rights and freedoms within the Metaverse will likely be a significant battle of this new frontier. According to Lou, this may include a battle between centralized purposes run by companies and permissionless decentralized purposes working on blockchains. 





He makes use of the instance of Facebook, now fittingly known as Meta, whose Facebook Zero initiative permits for cellular customers in sure creating nations to entry “a form of limited internet curated by Facebook, but it’s free,” including that “big corporations are shaping the way we perceive reality,” as this may trigger many individuals’s complete expertise of the web to include solely Facebook.

“Decentralized applications are the key to preventing big tech dominance. The Metaverse is not only inevitable, but already here.”

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