A Bitcoin Adventure in Four Parts
—by Brewster Kahle, Digital Librarian
Part One: The Deposit
I am proud to say I succeeded in donating BitCoins to the Internet Archive, but it took some doing. For your entertainment, here is my adventure in changing $100 into bitcoins, transferring them to the “wallet” that lives on my laptop, and then contributing them to the Internet Archive.
The first trick was to buy some bitcoins. After poking around, I found that I could use a wire transfer via the mtgox website. But, now, uh, I don’t recommend this approach. This is what happened:
To transfer $100, I asked my big bank to wire a hundred dollars to the bank MtGox suggested which is in Japan. Well, my bank cannot send dollars to Japan, only yen. And since I requested dollars, they had first transfer the money to JPMorgan, a bank that can transfer dollars. So far, so complicated.
I then waited the five days that MtGox said to allow for the transfer to conclude, but nope, nothing. I then entered the weird world of MtGox customer support.
After asking what happened to my money, and they have therefore determined that I was a risk, and that they needed to see a scanned passport and/or driver’s license to confirm the money came from an account of the same name. Even if I had given the scanned ID, it would not have matched the bank account that I had chosen. But the instruction had said nothing about a scanned ID, so worried this was a scam. Then this went back and forth several times, and my alarm bells started to go off.
They declined my request to speak with a manager, and repeated that they needed scanned identity documents. That’s when I requested that they return the money. Sure, no problem, as long as I first sent them my scanned passport and/or driver’s license. Creep factor: high and rising. When I asked how long they would sit on a transfer that never made it into any account before they automatically returned the money, they asked for … wait for it! … my full identification.
After wasting all too much time on what should have been a simple deposit, I received a terse message from the “MtGox.com Team”:
“The transfer in question is confirmed and credited to your account.In future if you are not willing to provide ID proof then please never send us any deposit again because we do not accept deposits without proof that it is actually from the bank account owner.”
My lesson: avoid MtGox.
Part Two: Installing the Software
I downloaded the bitcoin-qt application to my mac laptop thinking I would install it and create an ID. But this process takes days– and can fail. And did.
The bitcoin system is very cool—cryptographically secure, peer-to-peer, anonymous, and such—but it means that your computer is a first-class member of the system and that requires quite a bit of computing horsepower. Hours into the installation process, a friend advised me that it could take a day or so to complete.
There’s an small icon on interface that has a tool-tip to monitor progress. My progress was stymied by an error after a day, one with no recommended solution. Searching, I found a forum post suggesting that I delete some files from the computer’s application directory and start over again. Another day of processing, and Ready!
Part Three: Getting My Bitcoins into My Computer
I think I could have transferred the bitcoins directly from MtGox to the Internet Archive, but would have been cheating. I wanted to have the coins in my virtual pocket and then donate them– seemed more “real”.
The MtGox FAQ had an on-point entry, “How do I withdraw Bitcoin to my own computer?” After following the instructions, the bitcoin application on my computer said withdrawal was in process, but needed to be confirmed. Confirmed? Since bitcoin is this magic of deep math, it uses other computers in the world to confirm that you have the coins you claim to have on deposit. In an hour or two, my bitcoins were confirmed to be in my bitcoin client on my computer. Cool.
I wonder what happens when my machine crashes or is stolen, but I was on a roll, so there’s no looking back now.
Part Four: Making a Donation to the Internet Archive
The Internet Archive’s Donate page features a magic number, the bitcoin address needed to transfer the bitfunds. I cut and pasted that into the “Send Coins” tab in my bitcoin client program, labeled it for future reference as the Internet Archive, and pressed “Send.” I was hoping for that whooshing sound that iPhones make when sending mail, but nope, just silence. Not sure if I should celebrate, I stayed cool.
The next day, I asked June Goldsmith—the Director of Administration at the Archive who runs the Archive’s bitcoin client—if she had received it, and indeed she had. My donation made it!
Last year, we received a few thousand dollars in bitcoin contributions. So far this year, Internet Archive supporters have donated 186 bitcoins worth U.S. $2,400 at the current exchange rate.
I am rather proud of succeeding and now kind-of like the adventure. I feel like I am a member of a club and want to go buy something or donate some more.
If you find yourself similarly inclined, please visit the Internet Archive’s Donate page to support the world’s fastest growing library with bitcoins, dollars, time, books, and anything else.
Thanks, in advance, for your continued support.
brewster, welcome to Bitcoin land. You will get more familiar and adept at using it. Plus, tools are constantly being built that make it easier and easier.
For example, I put together the Free Bitcoin Guide (http://www.freebitcoinguide.com) and it will drastically reduce the learning curve. Most people who accurately follow it can go from downloading the guide to making the donation is less than 45 minutes total. That counts sending funds, buying bitcoins, withdrawing them, etc.
Bitcoin is a good idea, but to complicated for the general Public and even unsecure as there are Trojans wich try to remove money from PC clients et cetera.
Creating a bitcoin clone focused on ease of use could be a big business i think !
Step 1 could be avoided by using alternative means to buy it, like BitInstant, Localbitcoins, or other exchanges. But unfortunately MtGox is forced to follow all this crappy AML regulations. The weirdest thing is that you never really know for sure if you’ll escape having to send them your documents or not.
The burden of step 2 could also be avoided by using a lightweight client: http://bitcoin.org/clients.html
The client you installed, on initialization, downloads and index the entire Bitcoin transaction history. You’ll be supporting the network by seeding this database and relaying transactions, but you’re not required to do so in order to use Bitcoin. In the long run, only professional pool operators and big merchants will run a full client like bitcoin-qt.
Regarding step 3 and confirmations, you don’t really need to wait for confirmations when you know the money came from yourself or from somebody you trust. An unconfirmed transaction is like a check, if you trust the issuer, you can accept it right away.
Confirmations are important only when you don’t trust the sender, and specially for large amounts – for small amounts most of the time you can accept an unconfirmed transaction as the costs of reversing it will likely be higher than the gain.
I’d say 2 confirmations is enough for most mundane transactions. The default of 6 confirmations that bitcoin-qt waits before putting a green mark on a transaction is probably safe enough for things like selling your house or something – and for such high value transactions, you’ll likely know the other party and have means to chase him/her down if s/he tries to scam you, so even if selling your house you don’t really need to wait for 6 confirmations.
It’s a pity that you’ve faced such an “adventure” when trying to use Bitcoin, particularly because alternatives to the barriers you faced do exist, they are just not “marketed” enough. I hope my comment here at least helps to improve that a little, but certainly more could be done.
This is a great post because it covers the sheer emotional rollercoaster that is Bitcoin usage. It reminds me of the early days of BBSes etc, where you could spend days cursing modem protocols and phone lines (and get called by the local BBS SysOp to check you’re an OK Guy), but once everything was up and running you were hooked.
Having spent a few years looking at Bitcoin, it’s great to see services such as blockchain.info being built on top of it to make a great technology into a great tool. I donated just now, but the process was basically 1) get a QR code for the donation address 2) scan the QR code with phone 3) enter password on phone 4) done.
(Hint for #1: http://blockchain.info/address/17gN64BPHtxi4mEM3qWrxdwhieUvRq8R2r )
The initial side of things (running a client, getting BTC) is still a pain, sure. But when you have graphs like this:
…you just know that it’s going to get easier.
Whoa! take a look at that graph again. BIG jump
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Sorry to hear that was so frustrating. But all of this could have been avoided if you’d done just a little research and reached out to any number of helpful communities like reddit, IRC, or the forums.
For what you described, buying your bitcoins through CoinBase.com would have been a dream instead of a nightmare. Bitcoin-QT is a HORRIBILE wallet for first time users and you would have been much better off with Blockchain.info’s wallet, a smart phone wallet, or electrum/multibit.
Welcome to the community though. There’s a lot to learn about Bitcoin, but it’s all amazing and educational.
Glad to hear that you enjyed your journey 🙂
> I wonder what happens when my machine crashes or is stolen
Keep your wallet encrypted (most clients offer this option built-in these days) and backed up, and you’ll be fine. If your machine crashes while a transaction is confirming, that’s not a problem at all. Transaction confirmation is a process collectively carried out by the network, so when you start your client backed up again the transaction will have probably confirmed by then and your client will quickly update to reflect that.
You do seem to have taken the long way around to do this donation. I would suggest instead to use Coinbase. In this case, you would validate your bank account to Coinbase, similar to how you may have done with Paypal. Then once validated, you would request to transfer $100 into bitcoins. Coinbase has a wallet built in, so within 2-3 days, after they are able to ACH debit your account, your coins would appear. This is a one time setup, so you don’t have to do this again if you see something you want on BitMit or The Bitcoin Store.
It seem that you are using a Mac, which makes me feel that you have an iPhone. If you have an android phone, you could load the Blockchain.info app and sync your wallet onto your phone. Apple does not allow payment system apps in their store as those apps compete with Apple’s own payment solutions. However, I think there are some wallet applications available for jailbroken phones. It’s unfortunate that the Mac version of the QT client does not have a notification sound, but on Windows it give a notification bubble from the system tray, accompanied by the bubble popping noise, and also you can look at the transactions tab to see the transaction details.
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Missed you at the Hackers conference this year.
It’s great that you’re supporting Bitcoin in this way! If you like coffee, or you have guests that do, then I can recommend http://www.bitcoincoffee.com/ and http://bitbrew.net/ . Bitcoincoffee.com has currently won my heart with their Brazillian coffee, but I intend to give bitbrew.net another chance for old times’ sake.
I also like tipping musicians who give away free music and ask for Bitcoin donations, like these two:
sounds like a waste of time. use paypal.
Just for the record, some of your problems can be avoided. Most obviously the issue with the amount of time it took you to get on the bitcoin network. The reason for that delay is that you are downloading, storing and hashing the entire bitcoin transaction history. If you don’t want to do this, then clients that make you a second class citizen on the network do exist, where you trust other machines to reliably inform you of the information you would normally store yourself (as and when you need it).
What’s happening in the confirmation process is that the bitcoin network as a whole is solving a difficult trial and error problem, that has to be solved before your transaction is considered “confirmed”. In order to undo your transaction an adversary would have to solve a similar problem on a slightly different data set (faster than the network is solving similar problems on new data sets). Thus in order to reverse transactions an adversary would need more computing power than the rest of the network put together.
As to what happens if your computer breaks, you’re fine so long as you have a proper backup of the private key associated with your address. The bitcoins aren’t actually stored on your computer, the network as a whole has just associated them with your address. This means you can access them from any computer so long as you have the private key that proves you own the address.
I got you that MtGox should be avoided, but I missed the part on how you got your bitcoins 🙂 What is the best way to do it?
With n articles written about bitcoin, you are the first to actually test a transfer. Genius.
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I just wanted to let you know, I had exactly the same experience with Barclays Bank in the UK as you had with MTGox.
Unfortunately this has nothing to do with customer service, reasonable behaviour or “creep factor”.
It is a requirement (thanks to the war on terror / patriot act and similar rules that all countries / companies that do business with the US in any form have been forced to pass) that anyone dealing with money in any significant amounts should follow “know your[their] customer” – or KYC – procedures.
Therefore, as ass-backward as it may seem for them to refuse to return your money without ID, they’re just complying with the laws that apply to them.
Having had the same experience as you, I was tempted to launch a lawsuit against Barclays, because from my perspective this amounts to robbery and extortion, but in reality it is the fault of law-makers that make the rules, not financial institutions that follow them.
Just wanted to let you know. You might want to reconsider the “avoid MTGox” advice, because while they’re painful to deal with (because they comply with the law), they’re also one of the most secure exchanges. They even gave me a Yubikey for free in order to protect the security of my account (which is better than my bank ever did).