Bitcoin, Fruitcake, and Christmas Pudding

On the importance of being open to divergent ideas & non-experts.

About a decade ago I’d just moved with my new bride into a house we rehabbed. We owned our house mortgage-free and my work was routinely cited in leading newspapers including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg. Congress, the Federal Reserve, and various university’s called looking for my advice and data. Despite the gloom-and-doom of the financial crisis, things were looking up.

My sister was also newly married. Her husband never went to college and didn’t seem to hold down jobs for long but she loved him. Similarly, my wife’s ex — who’d hang out with us sometimes — also never went to college.

Both asked me about something they saw on the internet, Bitcoin.

I knew about Bitcoin. Part of my work has always involved keeping track of technology trends. I’d heard about it from the earliest days. There were fun stories of people using the new cyber-currency to, say, buy pizzas. A mere 10,000 bitcoins was good for a large pizza with unlimited toppings (today, each bitcoin is worth about $23,000).

Of course, back then everybody in tech knew the main use of bitcoin, illegal transactions. It was especially favored as the currency to buy drugs on Silk Road, a website colloquially known as the “Amazon for Drugs.”

Both my brother-in-law and my wife’s ex asked me if they should buy some bitcoins which, at the time, were trading in the $100-dollar range.

Nah, I answered. It’ll probably disappear, along with your money, when Silk Road meets its predictable demise. Besides, I didn’t answer, I didn’t want anybody close to me tied into the shady world around Silk Road given where I was pretty sure the site operators were headed to.

I was right about one thing; in November 2013, the FBI raided and shuttered Silk Road. They arrested the head of the site, libertarian Ross Ulbricht, and eventually sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. Digression: while I try to focus on business, it’s impossible not to believe that sentence seems seriously harsh for a man who never actually committed a violent crime (though he did allegedly believe he’d commissioned five murders).

Bitcoin fluctuated in price, bubbling up and down like a pot of rice nobody’s watching closely. Neither my brother in law nor my wife’s ex bought any.

I didn’t think much of it until the price started to spike a few years ago. Up and up it went, with bitcoin enthusiasts predicting it’d hit six-digits. Until it didn’t then down and down it fell. Apparently, a lot of young Koreans lost a lot of money.

Now, bitcoin is the hottest thing again, the idea being the world will switch to it because the Federal Reserve is debasing the US dollar, printing an enormous amount that will devalue the dollar to near worthless. It seems like the Fed has been printing dollars at a ridiculous clip for some time now with no serious effects on their value but, at this point, I’m not making any predictions in the field anymore.

Fruitcake

This brings us to fruitcake. I’m writing this on Christmas Eve, a holiday my family doens’t much celebrate except to eat Chinese food and watch movies. Still, most people we know are into it and we’re often invited to parties and given small gifts, one of which is fruitcake.

Confession: I’ve never actually eaten fruitcake. It looks like something that’d simultaneously spike your blood sugar, add a few grams to your butt, rot your teeth, and get the kids hyper all the while not tasting very good. Fresh fruit with a slice of a not-too-sweet homemade cake sounds nice. Fruitcake, not so much.

The English have a savory cousin to fruitcake called Christmas Pudding. Think fruitcake with even more calories and less appeal. For whatever reason, it’s traditional to make Christmas Pudding weeks or months ahead of Christmas and let it develop f̶u̶n̶g̶u̶s̶ flavor as the holiday approaches, or something like that.

My wife worked as a pharmacy tech for years and tends to be hyper-vigilant about expiration dates. I’ve explained those are sell-by dates. And that lots of expiration dates are marketing ploys to get people and businesses to restock perfectly fine products. Also, yes, I’ve shown her the study where somebody found a batch of various decades-old pills that were perfectly safe and nearly full potency.

She doesn’t care; expired anything, even by one day, goes either to the dog or in the trash. (Note, while editing she clarifies “I don’t feed that s**t to my dog.”)

I try to focus on business advice but here’s a gem of wisdom that applies both in the office (assuming we ever get back there) and at home: it’s sometimes best to be quiet. Some things aren’t worth arguing about and a spouse’s dedication to protecting the family from what she’s sure would be slow and painful death caused by expired products is one of these. Better to trash the occasional packaged food or jar of multivitamins than marital harmony.

All of which puts the following into context: we were invited to a party at the house of an acquaintance and given some Christmas Pudding and a small wrapped fruitcake. After eating the Christmas Pudding our host told us how it holds up miraculously well despite that it had expired six years prior, which happens to be about the same time I was telling the ex’s to pass on Bitcoin. The fruitcake was only two years gone.

Bitcoin, Fruitcake & Christmas Pudding

Yes, this post does have a point and it’s this: different people have different vantage points. While we need to reject made-up nonsense it’s equally important to realize that a fine idea for one person is anything but fine for another and that nothing is wrong with this. Different viewpoints can co-exist just fine.

I was absolutely in a position myself to easily buy, say, a hundred bitcoins a decade ago. It wouldn’t have been an especially large investment. And I could obsess on my recommendation not to buy them.

Still, the primary purpose of Bitcoin, at that time, was to purchase illegal drugs and it seemed entirely reasonable the value of the coins would collapse with the drug marketplace. Did that happen? No. Could it have happened? Yes. Was it more than likely than not to happen? The idea that an entirely fabricated cyber-currency used to buy illegal drugs would soar in value and become respectable seemed far-fetched to a reasonable person.

However, maybe I should have listened to my (now ex) brother in law or my wife’s ex. If I’d said “I dunno - what do you think?” about Bitcoin then maybe I would’ve seen what they did which would’ve led me to buy a bag full of coins and make a bundle of money. Yes, I’m a world-recognized expert. Journalists source me for both quotes and background information. Congress, the Federal Reserve, and big banks relied on my advice. But, in hindsight, I was entirely wrong about this emerging field.

Similarly, nobody died from Christmas Pudding (though I think my wife wanted to). I don’t remember what we used the expired fruitcake for — maybe a doorstop? — but I’m certain we never ate it.

Even today, I don’t entirely get the point of Bitcoin. With the marketplace shuttered, you can’t even use it to buy illegal drugs anymore (uh … I think — I’m admittedly no expert in that field). And I’m not sure who actually wants a fruitcake or even unexpired Christmas Pudding. Still, I know there are people into all these things and that rather than snicker or sneer or roll our eyes it’s important to listen and try to see the good they see inside.

Merry Christmas.