Cryptocurrency On The Rise: What The Hell Is Bitcoin

January 14th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on January 2, 2014

On November 27th, after a short period of sudden and sustained growth, the price of one Bitcoin surpassed $1000 USD. From there it continued its ascent, peaking at $1203 before undergoing a two-week series of jagged rises and falls, finally settling at the current market average of around $700.

Four years ago, James Howells, using a Dell XPS laptop, mined 7500 of the newly introduced Bitcoins on a lark. At the time, the value of a single Bitcoin was nearly negligible. A year later, while tearing down the laptop for parts, he set aside the hard drive storing the information necessary to retrieve the coins and forgot about it. This summer, he absentmindedly tossed the spare drive in the trash. Today, had he access to the now-buried-under-tons-of-landfill hard drive, its contents would be worth over 5 million dollars.

Okay, you say, so there’s money involved, and it sounds kind of like the stock market or gold or something, and I guess some people at least have become or almost become super rich as a result, but here’s the important question: what the fuck is a Bitcoin?

In late 2008, after a year and a half spent developing and prototyping the system, an anonymous individual (or group, no one really knows), writing under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, published a paper describing a new electronic cash system that could function entirely on a peer-to-peer basis without a requiring a third party or institution to manage transactions.

Conventional electronic monetary systems such as PayPal or credit cards require a central authority, typically a for-profit corporation. That authority can then charge whatever it likes, restrict certain types of transactions, and track (and market to) an individual based on their spending history.

Bitcoin is different. By utilizing a public transaction log called the blockchain, Bitcoin bypasses the need for a central authority, instead relying on the computing power of everyone currently on the Bitcoin network. The blockchain is a master list of all the transactions that have ever taken place, and tells us which coins belong to which address. Note that there are no names involved in the blockchain – as long as you’ve got the required key to an address (within what is known as a Bitcoin wallet, but could be more accurately titled a keyring), you control the coins contained within.

Whenever someone makes a purchase with Bitcoin, the log is updated and the network timestamps the transaction, preventing users from spending coins they do not have.

Okay, you say, so no central authority, that’s kinda neat. But the whole sharing the processing thing, that sounds expensive. Why would I want to do that?

The answer? Mining.

Dedicating computing resources to maintaining the blockchain isn’t simply an altruistic gesture. As part of the process, a miner’s computer takes part in a competitive effort to perform computations between everyone involved. These complex cryptographic computations are designed to protect against fraud while also rewarding the first computer (or often, pool of computers working together) to solve the computation with both newly minted Bitcoins and any fees paid during the most recent block of transactions. Once the process is complete, it begins again with a new block. Receiving coins in this way is known as mining.

See, Satoshi designed Bitcoin as a finite resource, much like gold or silver any other natural resource, and mining is the only way new Bitcoins can be created. Additionally, to further meter the output, the difficulty of the competitive cryptography grows and shrinks based on the power of all the computers taking part, ensuring a continuous and measured flow of Bitcoins – currently 25 BTC every 10 minutes or so – into the network. As time passes, the rate of creation will slow, eventually ceasing entirely after a total of 21 million Bitcoins have been created. At that point, the number of transactions taking place should allow miners to retain some profitability based on transaction fees alone.

Right then, so that’s mining. Now that you’ve got Bitcoins, what can you do with them?

While the intention is that they be used as currency, for many the answer is simply to trade. The speculative market exploded violently in 2013, and as a result of the influx of traders, the price of a Bitcoin is extremely volatile. Still, many businesses, dissatisfied with the high fees of credit card companies and allured by the open nature of the currency, have begun to accept Bitcoin, including several here in town. I’ll write about them in a future column.

As for Satoshi? His (hers, its, their) involvement dwindled in 2010, and following the 2011 handover of further development to an organizing body called the Bitcoin Foundation, Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared completely, leaving untouched a personal trove of Bitcoins estimated to be worth nearly a billion dollars.

Press Start Gaming opens in Las Vegas

January 12th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on December 19, 2013

It’s early evening at Press Start Gaming Center, and business partners Andy Reanrungroch and Bryant Dietz are at ease as they enjoy the slow period of the day, the hour or two after the younger players go home but before the nighttime walk-ins and organized gamers begin filling seats. The LAN Center has only been open a month, and everything still bears the squeaky clean shine of recent unpacking. A board advertising a December 21st grand opening tournament (grand prize: the console of your choice) greets guests as they enter, while PS4s, Xbox Ones, and monitors sit in a cluster of octagonal tables. A pool and foosball table share space with the BYOC (bring your own console) area, where a handful of gamers are already playing Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate on a Nintendo Wii U and several 3DSes. I make a note to bring in my own 3DS from the car before leaving; Streetpasses are Nintendo gold, man.

Sitting at barstools along the counter (alas, this is a non-drinking facility), Andy, Bryant, and I chat backstory, video games, and Las Vegas.

What’s the story behind Press Start Gaming Center? How did it come to be?

The idea for PSG started six years ago as a place geared as a video game lounge – rather than your traditional LAN – built around community, culture and atmosphere where everyone feels welcome. There is a lack of things to do for young people here in Vegas so the concept was to socialize the gaming experience by having a wide open floor plan for spectating and hanging out alongside gameplay. Basically the idea of PSG was to be an alternative to the movie theatre, pool hall and go-carts for younger casual gamers, while providing state of the art tech and internet speeds more hardcore gamers could appreciate as well.

We thought the timing was right with the release of two brand new consoles so we pulled our heads together and here we are.

So what’s the hardware setup? What led you to choose console-based gameplay over a more traditional (for LAN centers) PC outfit?

PSG has 15 Xbox Ones and 15 PS4’s with all current titles available to play. All the systems are hooked up to BenQ official MLG gaming monitors ready to LAN and play online. The large tables were custom built with gaming in mind. Our larger monitors seat two for sports games and fighting games, while the smaller monitors on the octagon tables are made for first person shooters and solo play. One octagon table is wide open for BYOC or BYOPC for now. Soon we will get into the realm of adding PCs but for now, with these next gen consoles being so fresh we thought it would be best to pull our resources together and concentrate on that for the wow factor effect we want to have on our new customers.

How do you handle Xbox Live and PSN accounts? Can players use their own logins, or does each machine have it’s own account?

Each system has its own PSG account so anyone can play online, but if a customer has their own account it’s very simple to sign in and play under that and delete it when they are done. There is an option to keep asking for password as well. We have a few regular customers that like to keep their accounts on our system but no one can access it. The nice thing too now is everything is cloud based, so if someone plays Call Of Duty for example, their achievements move with the account and data is not stored on PSG consoles.

Do Microsoft or Sony make any concessions for the LAN owner, allowing for bulk purchases or account management?

We are too new and small for Microsoft and Sony. We paid full price for all the systems, although Sony was a little more helpful through their business department and allowed us to preorder all our systems at once. With Microsoft we had to create different email accounts and purchase Xbox Ones on separate transactions which was a hassle, but it all worked out in the end. Game publishers have not been any help either. We pay full retail for the games most of the time, with some small help from a local business that saved us a couple bucks on each game, but every little bit helps and we are appreciative.

Now that you’ve been open for a few weeks, how has the response been?

The response so far has been amazing and we are truly grateful for our customers. They have been very supportive by taking flyers, offering shwag, making signs for us and coming back again and again with new friends. I hope they all realize how much this helps as we try to really get our name out in the community and establish ourselves as a successful business. The FGC [fighting game community] has been very supportive as well. We host Wednesday night casuals that have been drawing 30-60 people every week. When we see them having a good time here it really puts a smile on our faces.

What’re the most popular games so far? Between the Xbox One and PS4, is either a clear preference among players?

Call of Duty Ghosts, Battlefield 4 and Killer Instinct have been the most popular games with customers so far, with FIFA close behind. There has also been a good following for Lego Marvel and Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U. System favorites has been a tossup. You have your diehard PlayStation fans and Xbox fans, then everyone in the middle that wants to check out both systems.

Many cities have robust gaming communities, most often represented in the fighting game tournament scene but extending out to other genres as well. What is the Las Vegas gaming community like?

From our short time in business, it seems like the Las Vegas gaming community in general is disbanded. There seems to be small niche groups that have LAN parties but there doesn’t seem to be a sense of community and the response we have gotten is because there’s no central place to go.

Yeah, especially for the under 21 crowd. How do you see PSG changing that?

We want to help put Las Vegas on the map. As people learn about PSG we will host more and more tournaments and events for all groups and hope this puts fire in the hearts of Las Vegas gamers to step up their competitive spirits. We would like these Las Vegas gamers to call PSG home and we’re excited about the possibility of sponsoring Vegas teams for national events, but it’s way too early. We are just dreaming about that at this point.


Press Start Gaming Center
4840 S Fort Apache Rd, Suite 100
Las Vegas, Nevada 89147

Catching up with SYN Shop

January 10th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on December 5, 2013

SYN Shop, Las Vegas’ first open-membership hackerspace, has been active in its downtown Fourth St location for nearly a year. Led by Brian Munroe and a small group of dedicated volunteers, SYN Shop transitioned from a handful of tinkerers gathering monthly in a garage to an much larger number of tinkerers meeting at all hours in a sidewalk-facing space just outside the cacophony and glow of the Fremont Street Experience.

I wrote about SYN Shop shortly after its opening, and recently met with Brian to discuss both its development over the past year and what we can expect to see from the hackerspace as we head into 2014.

Interview time!


SYN Shop is nestled just a block away from the Fremont Street Experience. Has downtown treated you well? How has the neighborhood changed since first opening your doors?

I remember when we first took over the space, once you turned off the Fremont St Experience and started heading north on 4th, the street really took on a kind of creepy feel to it. There were hardly any tourists around and lots of dark shadows. I remember walking to SYN Shop with the CEO from 3rd Ward, a creative space in Brooklyn, and even he noticed that things got a bit ‘different’ once we turned off of the main drag.

Now days, with the opening of The Grand, The Gold Spike and Nacho Daddy, this area definitely feels safer and less lonely. Plenty of people walking by which really makes a huge difference. We get so much foot traffic from people just curious to find out what the heck SYN Shop really is.

In what ways has the arrival of Zappos and the growth of the downtown tech scene impacted SYN Shop? Are you seeing a corresponding increase in membership?

I think that the move has definitely helped our membership. I can think of a few people who moved into some of the surrounding high rises, but still would like to tinker as if they had a garage. SYN Shop gives them that ability, plus it is easy access for them since it is no more then a 5-10 minute walk.

Do new members tend to be downtown residents, or are they coming from all over the valley?

Members typically come from all over the valley. I figured we would get some downtowners, but most are suburbanites who drive at least a few miles to get to the Shop.


Any new gear acquisitions recently? Are you still soliciting hardware donations, or is the hackerspace pretty much outfitted at this point?

3D printing is really hot right now! We started off with a single Makerbot Replicator 2, but it was being used so much we ended up buying two additional 3D printers. We have some rockstar 3D printer operators in our community and they do their best to keep them running and teach members the correct way to use the machines, from the software choices to the best way to post process the finish on a 3D print.

We are always looking for people wanting to donate equipment, but we have to be a little bit choosey because our space is very limited (and the space we had filled up way quicker then we imagined).

Classes on subjects such as soldering, basic electronics, and robotics have been held throughout the year. Are classes bringing in new members, or do attendees tend to be current members brushing up on skills? How has class attendance been?

Most of the people who take our classes don’t usually become members, but a lot of times they know someone who would be a perfect fit for SYN Shop, so they send them our way. Class attendance has been really good, usually when we offer a class it is filled almost immediately. We use as our scheduling system, so we get a pretty good network effect in doing so. Another amazing thing is that a lot of members are willing to teach classes on a wide variety of subjects, so we end up with a nice selection of classes being offered.

What kind of projects are members working on these days?

A whole broad range really. Lots of wood working projects – people are really interested in learning to use the Shopbot, our large format CNC router. All kinds of furniture: tables, desks, cabinets, etc have been designed and built using that machine. We also recently discovered a site called OpenDesk that shares the cut files from some pretty nice looking contemporary furniture. In a nutshell, you download the plans and then cut it out on the Shopbot. If you improve on the design, or come up with your own, you can share your modifications and everyone else can benefit. It is a great ecosystem that is kind of unique to a craft like woodworking.

We are of course doing plenty of electronics projects as well. We picked up a vending machine that a few members have been modifying to tie into our membership system. The goal is to stock the machine with items that you might need while working in the shop (little electronic components, machine bits, microprocessors, etc) and members can purchase these items without having to pump a bunch of quarters into the machine, it is just added onto your monthly membership fee.


SYN Shop has participated in area events ranging from First Friday to the Las Vegas Science Festival. What kind of role do you see the space playing in the local community?

What can folks expect to see from SYN Shop in 2014?

We definitely want to have another Mini-MakerFaire. That was a lot of fun and it really showed us that there are actually a lot of DIY / Makers in town that we never knew existed. We also want to hold a lot more classes!

The first year we were just trying to build out the space and figure out the best way to manage it. I think we’ve figured that out for the most part, so now we can focus on making some really awesome offerings for Las Vegas.

A brief guide to backing Kickstarter campaigns

January 8th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on November 21, 2013

Last week, a new startup called Coin began taking preorders for a product currently in development, a small device about the size and thickness of a credit card that stores the information from multiple credit cards, membership cards, gift cards, whatever. The clever bit is that from there the Coin device can itself be swiped on a cardreader – just like a credit card – with the owner able to select between stored cards prior to a purchase. It’s a neat idea (you can get in on the preorder at, and not the topic of this week’s column, but it reminds me of a previous attention-garnering campaign for a similar device called the Geode.

The Geode, also a device that combined the convenience of a digital wallet with the usability of a swipeable card, was developed by a company called iCache and announced alongside a Kickstarter campaign in March of 2012. The campaign was a roaring success (with over seven times the $50,000 goal raised), but the final development and release of the Geode itself was a spectacular flop. Plagued by hardware problems, timing, and personnel issues, iCache delivered only a portion of the devices to campaign backers before disappearing entirely by the end of 2012. Considering the $159 price tag and no recourse for restitution, Kickstarter backers were livid, and many were turned off from Kickstarter altogether. That brings us to the subject of this week’s column.

Since starting in 2009, I’ve backed over 50 Kickstarter projects. Aside from one that nearly fell apart only to be rescued by a generous benefactor two years later, none of them have failed. A big part of the success has been luck, but I also research and watch a campaign closely before throwing in support. Over the last five years I’ve come across the following indicators (three weird tricks that drive Kickstarter leads crazy!), line items that when checked, more often than not lead to successful campaigns:

The project or product has a prototype. This applies equally to both hardware and software. Pitch documents, CAD diagrams, and witty intro videos are all well and good, but the single highest signifier (for me) is the existence of actual development. If it’s a game, does gameplay exist? If it’s hardware, is there a rough version of the widget that actually does what they say it’ll do? This shows that the creator believes in the project enough to progress when the money isn’t there. With luck, they’ll progress even faster once funding arrives.

The organizers update the campaign frequently. Come across a multiple-weeks-old Kickstarter project with only one or two updates? Don’t back it. As many a failed organizer has learned, running a Kickstarter is hard, and takes serious commitment and a lot of time. So does actually making a thing. If the organizer doesn’t have the dedication to keep new and prospective backers updated on the campaign as it progresses, chances are the organizer won’t have the dedication to follow through when the campaign’s over, either.

Don’t bank on nostalgia. Continuing from the staggering success of early game revival campaigns such as Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland II, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with a video game in the 1980s has appeared from the woodwork with a Kickstarter project of their own. Sure, the prospect of seeing thing-you-remember-as-a-kid revisited sounds like a lot of fun, but in this case especially, be diligent. How far along the development process is the project? Is it something that they’ve been actively working on, or is it a cash grab? Does the campaign pass the above guidelines? Why now? What the hell has the team been doing for the last 20 or 30 years, anyway?

One final tip. if you aren’t sure about backing, don’t; in most cases you’ll be able to simply buy whatever it is that’s being funding once it’s complete. If you want to back a project, but feel that you need more information, throw in $1. That dollar pledge will allow you to follow along, read backer-only updates, and then near the end, if you like what you see, you can raise your pledge accordingly.

There is always risk when backing a Kickstarter campaign. Pledges are not a preorder, backers are not investors, and there is no guarantee that the object or service or game that you’ve backed will ever exist, let along find itself packed neatly in a box on your doorstep. The road from concept to production can be a long one, and even the best-run Kickstarter campaigns can collapse in catastrophic failure once the time for fulfillment comes around.

And again, as a backer, sometimes you just have to be a bit lucky. Many seemingly well-managed campaigns have ended in disaster months after campaign completion, with little or no prior indication that the project had a chance of slipping from the rails. iCache’s Geode appeared well on its way to success. CLANG, a sword fighting game project led by author Neil Stephenson, met its $500,000 goal and seemed to be chugging along soundly until last month’s sudden announcement that the team had run out of money and that the project was being shelved.

Still, for every Geode or CLANG, there’s an Oculus Rift or Ouya, extremely successful projects that both surpassed expectations and shipped. And alongside all the while, thousands of other small-scale software and hardware projects that wouldn’t exist without the shared risk of crowdfunding.

Black Friday and the New Console Generation

January 6th, 2014

Originally published in Las Vegas Citylife on November 07, 2013. Black Friday and the New Console Generation is my new band name.

In the early hours at the end of November, as many find themselves clustered around the front steps of big box electronics retailers and department stores, waiting wearily (and warily) in the dark for a tired and timid-eyed employee to finally unlatch the locks and swing open the doors while proclaiming “Slowly please. No running, no running,” to no one in particular and without enthusiasm as the pre-consumers press themselves into the opening with singular intent, hoping to score one of a handful of underpriced and understocked consumer goods, as birds begin to wake and the sun crosses over the horizon and brightens and warms the chill morning, the eighth generation of the Console Wars will have begun.

Assuming you’re not one of those sensible types who’s content to play your games on a perfectly reasonable (and increasingly cheaper) seventh generation Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii, or God forbid a PC, which one should you choose? Will it be worth it to wake up at Hell-only-knows o’clock on Black Friday in order to score hardware now that the majority of preorders have long been sold out?

Like its handheld 3DS sibling, the Wii U spent much of its first year questioned and maligned, but last month’s price cut (it now sells for $299) and a spate of well received releases has served as something of a course correction – while Nintendo still isn’t moving as many units as they’d prefer, sales of the Wii U have increased by 200%.

Spec-wise, the console is hardly a jump from the nearly decade-old releases by Microsoft and Sony, so if graphic fidelity is your thing, the Wii U is not. However, the Wii U does have two advantages over its competitors, both alluded to above: it sells for significantly less and it has notable first-party exclusives, including The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD, Pikman 3, and the upcoming Super Mario 3D World. Additionally, unlike the Xbox One or PS4, the Wii U is backwards compatible with the console it succeeded, offering players a large library of existing titles to choose from.

I highlighted the Xbox One and PS4 during the Gamestop Expo column two months ago, and to be honest, not a whole lot has changed since then, aside from the delay of Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs to early 2014. Let’s just talk about the bits that’ll be important for day one buyers.

Of the eighth generation powerhouse consoles, the PS4 will be both the most affordable and the first available, selling for $399 on its November 15 release day. While the PS4 will not feature native backwards compatibility, Sony’s 2012 purchase of streaming service Gaikai hints at support for not only PS3 games, but even PS2, PlayStation, and more down the road. Still, that doesn’t help us any on day one, and at launch the PS4 will offer 22 games in total, with only a handful of those being exclusive to the console.

The Kinect-enabled Xbox One, releasing a week later on November 22nd for $499, will fare slightly better in its launch lineup, with 23 games available on launch day, including exclusives Forza Motorsport 5, Ryse: Son of Rome, and a reboot of the fighting game Killer Instinct. The highly anticipated Titanfall, while recently announced as exclusive to Microsoft consoles, won’t be available until Spring 2014. The Xbox One will not be backwards compatible.

So, will it be worth it to face the chaos and snarling crowds following Thanksgiving just to get your hands on a new console?

No, it won’t be. In fact, purchasing a console at launch is almost never worth it: the hardware is unproven, the library out of the gates is lousy and typically rushed, things don’t work, and everything costs too much.

Then again, scoring a console at launch means that you get to be first, and that’s a hell of an incentive. I call it a wash. How about this: Forget Black Friday and stay up ‘til midnight for the Cyber Monday sales instead. Someone will have ‘em for sale.