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Investing in Bitcoin and Litecoin: My Dollar General?

Recent months have seen a Bitcoin bonanza.

I heard about the decentralized, online-only currency on NPR, the Drill Down (the tech podcast I listen to), in the newspaper, and while hanging out with friends. We discussed Bitcoin at a recent news meeting at National Geographic (where I work).

I saw on Reddit that somebody invested their retirement in the currency. Farhad Manjoo of Slate recently plunked down more than $1,000 to become a self-described speculator in the currency, getting 7.23883 Bitcoins for his troubles.

And those troubles were considerable. Manjoo had to fill out a physical wire transfer to a vendor called LocalTill, after being thwarted on Mt.Gox, the best known Bitcoin exchange. Manjoo noted how the process of buying Bitcoins wasn’t easy or straightforward, though he predicted that as the market matures it may attract more casual investors.bitcoin

Is There Money in Bitcoins? 

When I decided to dip my toes in this market, on April 28, Bitcoins were trading for an average of one for $132. At the start of this year they were going for $20. The overall value of Bitcoins is estimated at $1 billion, and yet the currency isn’t yet a true household name.

How popular and useful it becomes is very much to be seen, although there are some indications that major retailers may start processing payments with it (so far it has been largely used for black market goods online and by early investors). Financial experts warn that the “bubble” may soon pop. Only weeks ago, Bitcoins were going for as high as $266, and trading has been volatile.

Still, at least one hedge fund is investing in them, and there have been a number of similar “cryptocurrency” spinoffs, including Litecoin, which seeks to address some of the drawbacks of Bitcoin (it is said to be faster to verify and can be “mined” by computers with lower energy inputs, making it more eco-friendly, yay).

On NPR’s “On the Media,” I heard financial journalist Felix Salmon cautioning that all this recent media attention is over-hyping Bitcoins.

But the reporter also noted that if one had bought $100 in Bitcoins when it was first mentioned on Slashdot in 2009, that would have been worth roughly $1 million a few months ago.

In 2009 I was highly active on social media sharing sites Digg, Reddit, and StumbleUpon, and I’m pretty sure I remember seeing an item about the then-new virtual currency cross my desktop. I’m also pretty sure I remember thinking it would have been fun, as well as prudent, to put $100 into Bitcoin, just to see what happens.

Now, I wish I had.

My Grandpa and Dollar General

My Grandpa, Levy Clark Howard, grew up in rural southern Kentucky in a poor farming family. He went to a one-room schoolhouse and shot squirrels for dinner. During WWII he built airplanes for the war effort. Over his work life, he tried his hand at many different jobs. He taught school, bought and sold houses, owned laundromats, and sold shoes.

As a young man, he had been friends with Cal Turner. In 1939, Turner started a store in the southern Kentucky town of Scottsville and called it J.L. Turner & Son, Inc.

According to my Grandpa, Turner had asked him to go in with him on the store. My Grandpa declined. Over time, Turner’s store expanded and eventually changed names to Dollar General. There are now more than 10,000 Dollar General stores in 40 states.

My Grandpa never became a millionaire. Far from it, he lived a solidly middle class life. He did stop in to see Turner every now and then, and the men enjoyed chatting about the old days in Kentucky.

My Grandpa passed away years ago, but he never expressed regret to me that he hadn’t gone into business with Dollar General. He always told me he was happy with how his life turned out.

What Can We Learn From Grandpa?

My Grandpa’s attitude seems healthy, though I do wonder what else I can learn from his experience. I have worked on several startup projects that didn’t pan out, and I was an early adopter in social media. The latter has helped me get jobs and consulting gigs, though I certainly haven’t seen a piece of the action on the order of a Mark Zuckerburg or Biz Stone.

My Grandpa’s story teaches me that I shouldn’t dwell on past opportunities I didn’t take, but at the same time maybe I should try to remember to be open to new possibilities.

And so I recently decided I would try to buy a single Bitcoin, as well as some Litecoins, which are going for around $2.7. It hasn’t been a very consumer friendly experience.

Transaction Troubles

I first went to Mt.Gox and signed up. I tried to wire money into my account there from my bank, Bank of America, but got the following message: “According to our records, this account was previously suspended from the Funds Transfer Service therefore it cannot be added at this time.”

Mt.Gox offers few other payment options (no PayPal?), so then I tried to sign up for a service called Dwolla, which I hadn’t been familiar with. In order to use Dwolla it requires a verified account on Mt.Gox. That requires uploading scanned documents, which would add extra time since I don’t have a scanner at home.

I also couldn’t figure out a way to buy Litecoins with Dwolla. I saw that the exchange BTC, which sells Bitcoins and Litecoins, takes a service called OKPay, another I hadn’t heard of. So I signed up for that (after also signing up for BTC). In order to actually use OKPay, I had to get verified there. This took several weeks.

At first, I didn’t read all the fine print, which requires that documents uploaded to OKPay be in color, so my first attempt was rejected. Eventually, I got verified. I then wired $200 to OKPay from my Bank of America account. It took a few weeks before that money got associated with my OKPay account; I had to file a service request and upload a scan of my wire receipt, since it didn’t appear in my account on its own.

Finally, after my OKPay account showed the funds, I was able to go back to BTC. By this point, the price of a Bitcoin had fallen to $90. So I put in an order to buy 1. After a few seconds, my BTC account showed I had 0.998 Bitcoins. Sweet.

For good measure, I spent my other $100 on Litecoins, in case this newer virtual currency becomes the next Bitcoin, and jumps in value. That transaction did not clear right away, it seems there aren’t as many willing Litecoin sellers at the moment. Litecoins are trickling into my account, at the rate of one per $2.734.

This whole process was rather confusing, and a bit frustrating. It took a few hours of my time, time that I could have spent writing an article or cleaning my apartment. But I did learn a little something about virtual currency.

I don’t expect to become a millionaire by making a few small investments in something a lot of people have heard about by now. But at least I’ll be able to say that I tried not to let an opportunity completely pass me by. Hopefully my Grandpa would agree.

Once people can buy a cryptocurrency via PayPal, credit card, or brokerage account, do you think it will open the floodgates? Or is this a fad that will pass?

How Fake is Storage Wars, and Does Anyone Care?

I frequently listen to the NPR show On the Media on podcast as I walk to and from the Metro, and I recently heard the episode “The Television Show!” (12/28/12). Toward the middle of the show, they had on a guy who wouldn’t give his name because he said he had signed “ironclad” non-disclosure agreements. He said he was a former reality TV show producer.

The (relatively young sounding) guy said he had taken a job on a reality show with a curiosity to find out how much was documentary (what he was used to working in) vs. purely scripted entertainment. But this noob was immediately laughed at by two guys whose job descriptions were “story producers.”

The guy said all reality shows are highly manipulated (is that really surprising?). But he went over some of the techniques he participated in, such as having a director hide under a desk in a sales-based show to give guidance to the subjects in real time, such as “look off in the distance when you say that,” or “stand closer.” He described the role of the director as part little league coach (encouraging and disciplining) and part amateur acting coach.

He said crews take multiple retakes of everything, and that they start each shooting day by handing out a loose script to everyone, outlining what they hope to capture for the day.

The guy wouldn’t identify what shows he worked on, but he said friends of his worked on A&E’s Storage Wars. He told NPR his friends were tasked with finding interesting antiques and stocking them in lockers to be used on the show. They then gave photos of the items to the show’s subjects, and told them to find those items in the lockers, and to then act surprised, the man alleged.

The items were then taken to people who the man said are often not really qualified to be assessors.

All this rang true to me, as someone who has seen the show a half dozen times or so. I dont’ have a TV set, but I have enjoyed the show, and have caught it while traveling and at friends’ places. Even after a few episodes, though, I was struck by how formulaic the show seemed, and how each locker seemed to magically yield something interesting.

It would probably surprise no one if producers simply didn’t air lockers full of nothing but moldy records and broken flowbees. But planting items, some of them allegedly ordered through the mail according to NPR’s source, is that going too far?

Yuuup, Says Dave

In December, one of Storage Wars‘ star actors/subjects, Dave Hester (the Yuuup Guy) reportedly sued the show, claiming that he was unfairly fired after he complained that producers were being too manipulative. Specifically, Hester alleged that producers were planting objects in lockers and rigging the bidding process.

When I first saw an episode of Storage Wars, months ago, before the NPR show or Hester’s public beef, I had the suspicion that something seemed too good to be true, and not just the feeling that the prices quoted for such musty items seemed highly inflated. So I had Googled the phrase “Storage Wars fake” (I remember this because it is still in my search history now).

At that time, one of the first results I clicked on was an indie website called westcoasttruth. The site is basically one big screed against the show, stating, among many other charges:

“My retired mom is a resident manager of a storage facility that they filmed at. The crew set-up a day in advance of filming and scoped out the place. They had access to empty lockers for filming. Multiple trucks showed up with “merchandise”. A catering company was there along with tents and staging areas.

“It was a full blown TV production. On the day of filming, every scene that you see from the first shots of the actors arriving in their vehicles to the conclusions are rehearsed and taped. Extra’s were there to act as spectators and bidders. It was done during weekdays.”

At the time, I thought the website’s claims were plausible, but they were impossible to verify, so I didn’t give them too much weight. I continued to watch, and enjoy, the show when I came across it. I even picked it over American Hoggers. Maybe the site’s author, a Russell Scott, was right, given the new reports in more established media.

Do TV-Watchers Care?

Whether the TV-consuming public cares if Storage Wars is fake, and to what extent, is another question. I’m not sure if I’ll watch the show again now, or if I will enjoy it. I suppose I could still learn something about some unusual object, but I may feel too manipulated in the process.

After the James Frey scandal, I saw a lot of people still reading A Million Little Pieces (still do, in fact). I asked several if they cared that many of the claims in the so-called memoir were exaggerated. Some said they didn’t care at all. “Maybe a little, but it’s an interesting story,” others said. One person told me, “What do you expect, everything the media says is exaggerated.”

My journalist friends, in contrast, wanted to string up James Frey, or at least run him out of town. They were outraged that anyone would give him a dime by buying his books or asking him on a talk show. I think they were most disturbed by what that last person told me, perhaps fearing that Frey was bringing further discredit to a profession that is already viewed skeptically by an increasingly cynical public.

Some supporters of “reality TV” say the public should be savvy enough to know that nothing in the genre is realistic. But where is the line? What amount of manipulation is acceptable? It’s not hard to make the short leap to thinking that nothing in any media has any truth. It’s easy to take that cynical view any way, but it’s dangerous for the notion of a civilized society.

We should always be skeptical of everything, but that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as any reality.

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater Hits Barnes&Noble

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater Barnes and Noble

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater hits the holiday table at a B&N in DC. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

This weekend I popped into the Barnes&Noble in downtown DC. I scanned the newly arranged holiday tables excitedly, hoping to see the bright green cover, emblazoned with Jason Yormark’s smiling face and epic ugly Christmas sweater.

I didn’t find the book among the kids’ Christmas books by the checkout, or on the table full of holiday cards. I took the escalator to the top level, where most of the shelves are. I passed the Harry Potter table, the New Fiction table, and the Star Wars table.

I found the Merry Christmas table, and quickly scanned it. On the back side, two copies of Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater rested at the top, below the jaunty sign.

It was near David Sedaris’ Christmas book, Winter Wonderland Stencils, and a Zombie Christmas book. So I think it is in good company.

Now hopefully people pick it up!

Brian Clark Howard RYUCS Barnes and Noble

New Christmas Sweater Book Spotted in Stores

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater at Barnes and Noble

Spotted at a Barnes & Noble in Washington, D.C. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

Last weekend I did some window shopping here in the DC area. I was thrilled to see that some stores have already put out copies of Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater, the brand-new book I co-wrote with Anne Marie Blackman–even though it’s not even Halloween yet.

I have always loved Barnes & Noble, so it was wonderful to see the book on display at the store in downtown DC. My publisher told me the book will be appearing on holiday tables in B&N stores, which will be fantastic. Last week, my local store didn’t have any Christmas stuff out yet, but I found three copies of our book in the humor section (see photos).

When I used to work in retail during college, I remember we decorated the store for the holidays, and put out all the holiday products, on the day after Halloween. That’s also when we switched the Muzak to the secular holiday station, with yuletide tunes by Cheech and Chong, the Smashing Pumpkins, and of course Paul McCartney, as well as countless session musicians.

I did hear from a friend that she saw Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater heavily promoted at a different Barnes & Noble in DC this weekend, so it seems that some store managers might be getting a jump on the holiday season.

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater books on shelf at Barnes & Noble

Three copies of RYUCS in the humor section, right next to Michael Ian Black of The State, sweet!

In tony Georgetown last weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find a pile of our books in the Urban Outfitters, on a table right in the store’s entrance (see pictures). When we were working on the book, the store I most wanted to land in was Urban Outfitters, and the store’s style definitely influenced us during the creative process.

So seeing the book on prominent display there was like a dream come true.

I did pop in the Paper Source in Georgetown, which is a wonderful store full of inspirational and hilarious notecards, journals, wrapping paper, and books that make great gifts. On the walls are gorgeous art papers; they are pretty to look at, but they made me shudder remembering how difficult they were to price and package up for customers when I worked in an art store.

Let me know where you have found Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater book at Urban Outfitters Georgetown

RYUCS at Urban Outfitters in Georgetown.

Brian Clark Howard with RYUCS at Urban Outfitters

Brian Clark Howard is thrilled to find Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater at Urban Outfitters. Photo: Christine Dell’Amore

Green Lighting Now Available in Chinese

Green Lighting Chinese edition book cover

Now available in China and for those who read Chinese.

My recent book Green Lighting has just been translated into Chinese, for sale in China and for those around the world who prefer to read in that language.

This seems especially fitting, since so much of the lighting products used everywhere are made in China. (I remember one source told me he estimates 90% of all lighting products come from there.)

If you haven’t picked up the text I co-wrote with Seth Leitman and Bill Brinsky yet, it’s an overview of green lighting technologies. Since the biggest part of lighting’s footprint is the energy it consumes, we spend the majority of our pages on how to reduce that, from better technologies (CFLs, cold cathode CFLs, LEDs) to low-voltage lighting and smarter strategies, from task lighting to daylighting.

We also spend some time taking a more holistic approach to lighting, considering the relative toxicity of the components (yes, we have a lot on mercury, but not just that), their lifecycles, recycling, and even funky fixtures made of upcycled things like been cans. We also looked at future and emerging lighting technologies, from solar-powered units to OLEDs.

Green Lighting Chinese edition first page

The first page, so you know it’s legit.

Green Lighting Chinese Edition

I actually don’t know if any other foreign language editions are planned, but this is an exciting step toward a brighter future around the world!

Welcome to My New Site!

Picture of aspen trees near Maroon Bells and Aspen, CO.

Aspens, near Aspen. Photo: Brian Clark Howard

Greetings Earthlings, as my favorite high school biology teacher used to say. I have now entered the 21st century, and put my little site on WordPress.org. No more hand-building each page in Dreamweaver, yay!

I first started this site while a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2006 (Go Crowns! Er Lions!). Duy Linh Tu, the self-proclaimed “Original Multimedia Gangsta,” showed me some mad html. (Yo Duy, you should update that favicon holmes, cuz Google’s default ain’t so gangsta–spoken from one former Connecticut Yankee to another.)

In Duy’s class on digital media skillz, he told us we could make a site about anything we wanted. I seriously considered doing a theme site on something goofy, but I’m glad I waited to do that until I got some more skillz (see Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater). Instead, I built a little resume site.

The site never got any traffic to speak of, and it was totally un-monetized, but it was a great calling card for potential employers and clients. I’ve gotten story leads from it, and a lot of people have come here, found my email address, and sent me something interesting.

In this version 2.0, I am reposting my resume and brief bio, and have the obligatory ordering info for my books. There’s a link to my Twitter stream, of course, as well as to some other projects I’m working on.

I also hope to share some occasional thoughts and photos, in addition to some background on stories I’ve produced.

Let me know what you’d like to see!