What’s So Interesting About Bitcoin Anyway?

bitcoin logo

I live in the United States of America, but I am not from here. Americans use the Dollar as Money. The Dollar has been a relatively stable currency during the post-WWII world, so most American citizens (myself included) are used to this stability. In many other countries around the world, this is not the case.


I grew up in the 70s and 80s Communist Poland. It was a different world. During the early 70s, the country was relatively prosperous due to foreign debt-fueled “New Development Strategy.” This ground to a halt during the 1973-74 Oil Crisis, which led to massive inflation, spiking the prices of consumer goods in Poland. The Government softened some of the impacts through additional borrowing and food price controls. Economic growth tanked by the end of the decade. 

The 80s began with an ongoing economic crisis. Eventually, the Government could no longer keep food prices low. The price hikes resulted in strikes and factory occupations and then erupted into the massive Solidarity movement. A tense struggle and negotiations between the workers and the Government took place under the shadow of possible Soviet intervention. On 13th December 1981, General Jaruzelski declared Martial Law which lasted until July 1983. The economic situation continued to deteriorate. Massive debts incurred in Western currencies and artificially low exchange rates wreaked havoc. Shortages, rationing, brownouts, empty store shelves were common. By 1985 my family had left the country.

Magic Dollar

All this is only a short simplification, of course. I was very young. But I spent much of my time standing in long lines (multiple times in a row) to purchase rare goods like bananas or coffee. I played by candlelight during brownouts, wandered through vast supermarkets with empty shelves, and laughed at frequent sightings of toilet paper armor. One of the most vivid experiences for me was visiting foreign currency stores: a chain of stores known as Pewex carried western goods. It was used by the Government to earn hard western currency. The shelves here were overflowing with candy bars, chewing gum, Coca-cola, Legos, etc. Stepping inside transported me to the threshold of a parallel world. To enter, one only needed the correct currency. 

From Trans Siberia

When I first stumbled on Bitcoin[1] during its early days, I didn’t make much of it. I tried mining some on my computer and promptly forgot about it. I stumbled on it again last year while looking for some examples of micropayments. At first, all the negative stories and excessive hype surrounding it put me off. But, a nagging feeling kept bringing me back. It was a portal reminiscent of Pewex. Inside the Bitcoin network, you enter a zone that slips between borders. 

When we lived in Germany, my uncle was allowed to visit us in Hamburg. On this trip, he smuggled a gold coin in the heel of his shoe. He exchanged it into German Marks (this was the pre-Euro era). He took the money back to Poland, where it was worth much more due to the debased Polish currency.

When the Soviet system finally collapsed, Poland underwent an economic “shock therapy.” All price controls were lifted resulting in massive devaluation of most assets. When I visited in 1991 the country was shell shocked. Crime was rampant. Everything appeared to be crumbling. US Dollar had a frightening purchasing power relative to the local currency. Most people opted for the Dollar when offered a choice. Money changers were on every corner.

Looking back at my time in Poland, I was obsessed with money. Not money as something to accumulate or spend, but in a more abstract sense. I collected coins and stamps from around the world, and of course, comics. All of these objects acquired a patina of valuable means of exchange. You could trade a duplicate stamp for one you didn’t have, or trade a rarer more valuable one for several other of lesser value to gain a broader more comprehensive collection. It was a form of barter. It was something that the adults around me were doing as well. Trading valuable hard-to-obtain items like western cigarettes, or bottles of vodka for essential goods and services. I sometimes drew fake treasure maps. I rarely imagined gold as the treasure. Most of the time I imagined a cache of US Dollars where treasure should be found. With the Dollars, I’d have the keys to the Pewex universe.

This is a long-winded way to say that we take our money for granted. We rarely think about how it comes into being, how much it is worth, and how it circulates. Bitcoin is different from our everyday Money. It is open-source Money issued outside the purview of governments. In the past, gold played a similar role. Most Money derived its value from gold or silver. Today many believe Bitcoin is the new gold. But, it is Bitcoin’s ‘outsideness’ quality that attracts me the most. 

Many economists proposed similar monetary ‘outsider’ systems. For example, Friedrich Hayek thought Money should exist outside the direct control of the state. Another well-known economist, Karl Marx, wanted to demolish the state to ensure that ‘the government of men gives way to the administration of things.’ Another Marxist philosopher Althusser elaborated on this insight:

the only way to save communism was to entirely reject the ‘metaphysics of the subject’ by embracing the idea that history administers itself without any help from humans, that it is a ‘subjectless process.’

Mark Alizart’s Cryptocommunism (Theory Redux) (p. 19). Wiley.

Althusser is said to have been inspired by feedback loops in cybernetic systems. All these ideas begin to look a lot like Bitcoin with its decentralized network, self-adjustable hash rate, and stable monetary issuance.

What about all the negative stories surrounding Bitcoin? 

  • excessive power usage
  • it’s a Ponzi scheme
  • it’s worthless
  • only criminals use it
  • it’s a speculative gambling casino
  • etc.

These concerns are valid, and I will explore them in future posts and comics. But, I hope I am getting closer to showing that Bitcoin is more interesting than that. I see it as an avatar—imperfect to be sure—a prefiguration of something else: a global synthetic store of economic value. Something like it has never existed before. What kind of a world does something like that bring about? What happens to Fiat Money in that kind of world? What happens to traditional investment instruments like land or stocks? Like in my native Poland in the 80s, what happens to countries where the currency loses all value? What happens in times of social and economic turmoil? What if these people now have access to this global synthetic economic store of value?

I plan to regularly release essays and comics that deal with all the different ideas and philosophies that emanate from Bitcoin. I want to examine the good, the bad, and the ugly of the Bitcoin network. From the utopian promises to the seamy underbelly. If that sounds interesting, sign up for my newsletter. The form on the top right of this blog >>>


[1] I view “Bitcoin” as a larger ecosystem that includes various Bitcoin forks. I will mostly focus on the three best-known ones: BTC, BSV, BCH.

Football Madness

As we slide deeper into the quadrennial football madness I get seized with a major case of Nostalgia. I played football as kid in Poland, but pretty much stopped when I moved to the US. Now I rarely think about football… except during the World Cup every four years. Above is the only football related illustration I ever drew (I think?). It was for the beautifully designed Green Soccer Journal. It maybe the best looking sports publication ever! It was a pretty fun assignment. And now it can the perfect gift for a FIFA World Cup obsessed football fan! The only other time I referred to football in print was in this very old (1996) comic (reprinted in Cartoon Dialectics 2). Who are you rooting for?

Best Totalitarian Pop Song

Kim Jong Il

I pilfered these videos from Graham Harman‘s blog. Graham is right, this is the best totalitarian pop song to emerge from an evil dictatorship.

I love both versions, but this second one opens up a Soviet sized nostalgia zone in my head. Even though I’ve never heard this song before, it contains all of the elements that I remember from my Communist childhood. The marching/military tempo, the upbeat/downbeat choral arrangements, it’s all there. All the notes this songs hits are familiar and mysterious at the same time.

It’s as if this material exists in a deep well somewhere in my soul; the building blocks jumbled up and suppressed deep within, only to occasionally manifest when I stumble on a YouTube memory. The best totalitarian pop song is already inside of me, aching to make itself known.

If anyone is interested, I wrote about my my favorite Soviet song here.

Aleja Komiksu

I came to the United States From Poland in 1987. I’ve traveled back to the home country a few times over the last couple of decades. A few days ago I had a different kind of homecoming. I was interviewed for the first time by the Polish comics community. The brief interview is now posted, along with a few pages of my comics, on the Aleja Komiksu site.
If you read Polish the rest of the Aleja Komiksu site is well worth checking. I especially recommend the extensive interview with Andrzej Klimowski, one of the most interesting figures in British comics. English speakers aren’t completely left out. The site posted a survey of recent comics by young British cartoonists. Take a look.
To celebrate this virtual homecoming, I’m posting one of my first ever comic-books. It may not be THE first comic, but it’s certainly the first total package: a stapled pamphlet, complete with a logo and print run number (it was customary for the print run to be listed on books in Poland at the time – in this case the print run was 1). I was 11 when I made this.
lunatyk panel tom kaczynski

The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind

This song has been in my head all day. I finally decided to find it online. Here it is:

It’s called ‘Солнечный круг’ (Solar Cycle). It’s better known to many as ‘Пусть всегда будет солнце!’ (May There Always Be Sunshine). It’s an anti-war song. If you grew up in Eastern Europe (or at least around Eastern European emigrants) you most likely have this song seared into your head. I posted the lyrics in English below the fold.

It’s probably been over 20 years since I heard this song… well, outside of my head that is… Hearing it again is like being hit with a ton of nostalgic bricks. But what really struck me were the visuals of the videos. The second one especially has all the hallmarks of Socialist Realism. And, yet… they are so… well… American. Besides some minor differences in clothing, and the like, the whole thing wouldn’t have been out of place in the US… at least in that timeless-Norman-Rockwell-eternally-50’s-LIFE-Magazine-innocent-Leave-It-To-Beaver U S of A that still grips the popular (and political) imagination.

I’m often struck by an uncanny sense of déjà vu whenever I watch American politics unfold on TV. The discourse is carefully circumscribed by what can or cannot be said in public about the economy, socialism, Islam, Israel, etc. The 2008 campaign was only the most recent example of that. As much as I like and support Obama, I’m still bothered by the slick visuals his campaign saturated the airwaves with. For all the soaring rhetoric (and yes rhetoric matters) and ‘straight talk’, everything is still directed at saving Capitalism (with a hefty dose of socialism if need be… but shhhh). Socialist Realism is the term used for art which furthered the goals of socialism and communism. Until the Soviet collapse, it was the officially approved style of art for decades. How long does Capitalist Realism have?
Obama Logo

Continue reading “The Eternal Sunshine of the Capitalist Mind”

Looking Backwards 2008: Blogs

The Blog is an immature medium. The Blog is a collaborative medium by the virtue of existing on the internet. It’s hard to imagine a Blog that is hermetically self-sufficient. Its nature is to be linked-to or to link-elsewhere. In fact the Blog is a reminder that writing, in general, is a collaborative act. It’s something we forget all too often‚Ķ probably as a side effect of the dominance of books. Books are physical objects; self-contained, solid and finite. They tend to make us possessive of characters, concepts, and ideas. Blogs are diffuse, porous, entangled‚Ķ The Blog auteur (if such a creature exists) is like the film auteur. S/he needs to be able to incorporate other influences (actors, assistant directors, producers, etc. or other posts, comments, articles in the case of Blogs) and still get his/her vision across. But it’s no longer a vision that exists in the vacuum sealed world of our heads. Blogging is essentially sharing. This is by necessity a truncated list. There are millions of Blogs out there and there are many great ones that are not on this list. Here’s my list of the best Blogs of 2008.
momus-avatar.pngClick Opera by Momus. Momus is Perhaps the closet thing to a Blog auteur out there. At least in my humble opinion. The Blog is full of an impressive range of topics. Unusual magazines. Paranoid architecture. Ancestral time-travel. Digital potlatch. I also really like Momus’ non-prioprietary sharing of his creative process. Readings from unfinished books, recording diaries & demos serve as direct portals into the mind of the artist.
BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh. This is an architecture Blog that dispenses with starchitects and prominent buildings (though there is some of that as well) and instead focuses on the overlooked: stabilized ruins, cloud projections, fortifications tourism, liberation hydrology, underwater archaeology…
Beyond the Beyond by Bruce Sterling. This Blog is probably the closest to a link aggregator on the list. Most of the posts point to places and events reported on elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that Bruce Sterling doesn’t pepper his posts with insightful commentary. He does. But that’s not necessarily the point. He reminds me of Cayce Pollard (from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition). Cayce is a trend hunter. She is able to zero-in on apparently insignificant events and recognizes them as signs of larger trends. Beyond the Beyond reveals a similar ability in it’s author. Bits of information plucked from chaotic sea of random information are exposed as instances of the future already existing in our time.
No Fear of the Future by Chris Nakashima-Brown and others. No Fear of the Future is a group science-fiction (a nexus of speculative word & thought) Blog. While all the writers are interesting as well, Chris has been mining an especially interesting vein of ideas on utopia and the apocalypse. When you add posts on Ballardian economic indicators, weaponized Segways and deconstructed (post-structural?) Gaza among many others, you’ve got the makings of a compulsive reading experience.
lebbeus woods scab
SCAB Construction by Lebbeus Woods
Lebbeus Woods. The visionary ‘paper architect’ made a very successful transition into digital aether. His Blog is teeming with ideas, architectural fiction, impressive guests, and above all, drawings. Will a re(de)constructed Gaza look something like architectural SCAB above?

Looking Backwards 2008: Books

Most of these books haven’t actually been published in 2008. But, I read them in 2008 so they’re here.
Islands in the Net, Weapon Shops of Isher, The Crack in Space
The Red Atlantis by J. Hoberman. It’s been less than 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and it’s cultural output already resembles impenetrable artifacts from an ancient lost civilization. This book is a great archaeology of Soviet culture in general (and Soviet cinema in particular) refracted through the prism of an American film critic.
Schulz & Peanuts by David Michaelis. A towering figure like Charles Schulz will have his life written (and re-written) several times over and I look forward to future efforts. This one was very readable if somewhat controversial. It was especially interesting to get a glimpse of Schulz’s Minneapolis and St. Paul‚Ķ even if it meant weeping over so many great things the Twin Cities lost to time and the automobile.
The Weapon Shops of Isher by A.E. Van Vogt. A sci-fi novel by the author the the amazing Slan that takes the right to bear arms to an insane extreme. A kind of libertarian dream/nightmare where individuals are protected by magical all-powerful weapons (which can be used in defense only) against the entire might of an interplanetary empire.
The Crack in Space by Philip K. Dick. This was the secret history of the US 2008 election written by a precog in 1966. An African-American runs for the presidency of the United States and promises to solve the world’s problems by opening up a space-time rift. Sound like Obama?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This Road is hard to write about. I think I agree with Steven Shaviro that it “actively repels commentary.” Still, it lingers in my head so it makes the list.
Islands in the Net by Bruce Sterling. This one was a genuine surprise to me. I was aware of Bruce Sterling more as futurist and commentator but I’d never read his science-fiction before. Now I plan to read more. Data havens, ubiquitous networking, single cell protein cheaply mass produced in “vats swarming with bacteria” (aka. scop), nuclear terrorism, mysterious insurgency manuals, etc. The novel felt really relevant to the current world wide situation despite having been published in 1988.
Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia by John Gray. This is an extremely anti-utopian book. John Gray lays out the case that much of the evil done in the the world is done in the name of the greatest good. The “utopian” projects of the 20th century turned into minor apocalypses in the hands of Hitler, Stalin, Neocons, etc. It’s hard to disagree with him… for the most part. While reading this book one gets the idea that John Gray takes all the utopian sounding rhetoric (for example of Neocons’ project of global capitalist gunboat democracy) at face value, as genuinely utopian, instead of a cynical ideological ploy to mask imperialist projects. In the book he calls for more dystopias (1984 etc.) because utopias have gotten us so consistently in trouble. I would say that it’s precisely utopias that are missing today. We have no problem with imagining apocalyptic futures, but we have lost the ability to imagine positive alternatives to the dystopia of now.
Which is why I enjoyed In Defense of Lost Causes by Slavoj Zizek so much. He takes the exact opposite position to John Gray and argues for the triumphant return of the universal. Actually, I shouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy Black Mass, I did. But it was a very antagonistic enjoyment.
Next: Blogs

Looking Backwards 2008: Comics

I’ve never done a ‘Best of‚Ķ’ list on this blog, so I decided to do one. I’m not going to limit myself to comics (though this post is about comics) and I’m not necessarily going to limit myself to stuff that came out in 2008. This list will be a little more personal and will include older items that I became aware of in 2008 as well. Hopefully this will create some interesting resonances and juxtapositions.
bodyworld_panel.jpgDash Shaw. He was one of the big stories of the year with the expansive and amazing Bottomless Belly Button book. For me, much more revelatory were the short stories that ran in Mome and Bodyworld the web comic. They were bursting with experiment, invention and idiosyncratic-and-brilliant use of color. The amount of great work that Dash was able to produce last year was breathtaking. It’s really fun seeing an an artist in the moment and 2008 was definitely his moment. I fully expected to read an interview with Dash where he explains his creative process thus: “I sit in my studio. My head is on fire with ideas. I explosively materialize amazing comics ex-nihilio directly with the power of my mind.”
Acme Novelty Library #19 by Chris Ware. I’ve definitely started taking Chris Ware for granted over the last few volumes of Acme Novelty Library. They were all of such high quality and consistency that sometimes it was hard to get excited about the next Acme installment (oh what charmed lives we lead!). “What? Another great comic by Chris Ware? Sure, whatever.” Acme 19 wasn’t really that different, but the fact that the first half was a visceral science-fiction horror story makes you kind of stand up and take notice.
Mister Wonderful by Daniel Clowes. It’s hard for me to be objective about Dan Clowes comics so I won’t even try. His serial in the New York Times was brilliant from the start. Nail-biting cliff-hanger every week! In what was essentially a romance comic!
Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 by C.F. I could say a lot of similar things about C.F. that I said above about Dash Shaw. But to me his work doesn’t have the same kind of frantic energy that Dash’s does. In fact his comics seem to have a kind of languid pace, as if C.F. has a different, slower conception of time‚Ķ at least for me.
omac_1_cover.jpgDC Kirby Reprints. Fourth World. Omac. The Demon. I’m a huge Jack Kirby fan and DC has finally done something right with these reprints. I recommend these mostly on the strength of the packaging. Gone is the super glossy paper & inattentive re-coloring of the DC Archives brand of volumes. The pleasingly uncoated paper makes these books feel like a bunch of original comics were bound between a hard cover. Remove the dust jackets for maximum effect. If you’re a Kirby fan these are great books.
Thorgal by Rosinski & Van Hamme. I’m really happy that Cinebook is putting out these comics in English. I think these are some of the best Erich Von Daniken influenced “Ancient Gods from Space” sci-fi comics out there. Polish-born Rosinski is one of my favorite comics euro-realists and he will be the focus of one of my Comics in Poland posts in the future. This material is mostly older (70’s & 80’s) but is still crackles with that Heavy-Metal-like energy.
Travel & The Garden by Yuichi Yokoyama. Yokoyama’s work was a revelation in 2007. It’s no different this year. I will have more to say about his books in an upcoming post.
american-flagg-1-cover.jpgAmerican Flagg! By Howard Chaykin. I wasn’t as happy with the production of this collection. Though from what I understand Howard’s originals from that time period are very difficult to to work with in the digital age. Still it made me appreciate American Flagg! again! This was inventive sci-fi from the Soviet era and one of the first comics to get me to read something other than Marvel or DC. Chaykin’s art is at it’s peak. This book prompted me to dig into the piles of comics I still have lying around my parent’s basement to see what other Chaykin stuff I still have. I read his mid-80’s re-vamp of The Shadow which was ok, but it reminded me of the follow-up Shadow series created by Andrew Helfer, Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker. It was a great black comedy series with exceptional art. Bill Sienkiewicz was at or close to his peak and I think this may have been the series that introduced Kyle Baker to the world. One of the very best comics series of 1986-87. The last issue has a heartbreakingly amazing never-fulfilled cliff-hanger. I hope the never published subsequent issues exist somewhere in the legendary comics library in Hicksville. It’s worth seeking out ’cause it’ll probably never get reprinted.
Good-Bye by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Impeccably produced by Adrian Tomine this is the third volume of short Tatsumi short stories. I think it’s the best volume so far. This is really revelatory work. Tatsumi really shows off the possibilities of the comics short story. It really makes me excited to see the next volume to come out this year.
Next: Books