Cryptocurrency 101 (Part 1)

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If you had 100,000 pesos in around February of 2011 and decided to buy bitcoin then (which was priced at around $1 each), and then just left it alone, you would be richer today by around 300 million pesos.

Now, before you get that urge to hit your head on the wall again and again (like me), you have to realize that you would have had to fight off the urge to cash in after its value had risen and fallen again and again. You would have had to fight off the urge to get rid of it after some major setbacks like the fall of famed bitcoin exchange Mt Gox, or China prohibiting its financial institutions from dealing in bitcoin in 2013, or the multiple times “experts” had pronounced that bitcoin was dead or dying.

Bitcoin prices have swung wildly from $1 in February, 2011 to $31 a mere 6 months later in July, and then back to $2 in December of that same year. By December 2012, it was back up to $13. By December 2013, it peaked at at $1000. In March 2014, it went down to around $600 and slowly decreased until March 2015 when it reached a low of $200. Then it began picking up again to around $500 by the end of 2015. By December of 2016, it was around $800. Since then, it has reached an all-time high of $2,800 as of this writing.

I learned about bitcoin in 2013 but didn’t really take it seriously because I couldn’t understand it and the few articles I found about it then connected it to the black market website, The Silk Road, where one could use bitcoin to buy all sorts of things including illegal items like fake driver’s licenses and illegal drugs which comprised roughly 70% of its offerings, and it could do this because bitcoin provided a certain amount of anonymity. Anyway, The Silk Road was shut down shortly after by the FBI. I decided then that I didn’t want anything to do with bitcoin because I thought it was only useful for buying illegal stuff.

It was 2 years later in 2015 when I had a chance to reconnect with the acquaintance (and now my good friend) who had introduced me to bitcoin and our conversation revolved around that and I learned more about it that shattered my previous misconceptions.

So what is bitcoin and why is it such a hot item today?

The short answer is that bitcoin is a form of digital currency (the generic term for it is cryptocurrency) that uses computer networks and high-level cryptography to secure its transactions and records. It was released as open source software in 2009. Interestingly, the inventor(s) of bitcoin remains anonymous until today as the technology was released under a pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto.

Over the years, despite numerous controversies surrounding it, it has slowly gained acceptance as more and more people understood what it was and what it can do. To put it simply, it allows two people to exchange value (the coin) across borders without any need to trust an intermediary or 3rd party. At first glance, this may not seem to be a big deal because some of us have gotten so used to internet transactions with credit cards and online banking.

Let me illustrate the difference. In the traditional way, in order to buy an item from another country, I have to go through a bank or use my credit card (which still boils down to a bank). In the process, I pay transaction fees for the transmission, as well as conversion fees (from PHP to USD, for example). And then, I have to implicitly trust the bank to successfully transmit my money to the seller. The seller also has to trust the bank to send my money to their account.

This need to trust a third party is removed in bitcoin as it is the protocol itself which ensures that the money is sent and received by whoever is supposed to receive it. The result is that we can transact anywhere in the world (that has internet) for a much lower transaction fee than banks or other financial institutions may charge.

So this idea of trustless transactions is a key concept in cryptocurrency, which removes the need for a central authority. Most cryptocurrency is designed around this concept and is said to be decentralized.

More on this next week.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Holdap (Part 2)

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Click here to read Part 1.

I had a deep, 2-inch gash on my arm and a 1-inch wound on my abdomen. The pain in my gut throbbed a little but the arm hurt like hell.

There was a commotion at the entrance of the emergency room and the nurse attending to me suddenly rushed away. They brought in a young boy who was kicking and screaming. From my angle on the bed, I couldn’t see clearly what had happened to him. I asked a passing orderly what was up and he said, “Oh, he got stabbed in the back,” and he said it in such a way that made it sound like I was just asking about the weather and him replying that it was raining outside.

It certainly put my own troubles into perspective so instead of complaining about the lack of attention, I just waited for someone to come back to me a little later.

The taxi driver then came back towing along my girlfriend and her mother (later to be known as my wife and mother-in-law) and they were understandably worried as they saw me. They arranged to have me transferred to a private hospital where I was confined for a few days because the doctors there wanted to confirm that I had not suffered any internal damage from the wound on my stomach, and it turned out that there was none. The knife happened to just nick the fat but didn’t slam into anything important.

After I was discharged, I went back to my dormitory where I was greeted by some pretty amazing stories:

“Hey, we heard you got attacked and that you were in near-death condition.” Ummm, not really.

“Hey, we heard that someone stabbed you and left you for dead and got all your belongings.” Nope, they didn’t get anything at all except that one guy who who probably got a big bump on his left temple.

“Hey, we heard you got attacked by 10 men and that you used kung-fu to defeat all of them.” This was the best one ever.

So what are a few things I learned from this encounter?

  1. Fats are useful, people. Don’t lose too much of it. They may come in handy some day.
  2. Sometimes, it’s useful to trust your gut. I still cannot explain why I felt the way I did a few minutes before the attack happened. There was just this imminent sense of danger that my body somehow knew before my brain could understand what it was.
  3. There are good people all around. That taxi driver, for instance, who broke the stereotype of Manila taxi drivers by being helpful and going beyond the call of duty. I learned that he not only called my girlfriend, but went to their house and offered to lead them to me as well.
  4. People can and will make up stories about you and there’s very little you can do about it. Live with it. Laugh at it. But you can only do that if you know who you really are inside.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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I woke up to the news that the president had just declared martial law in Mindanao because of a band of ISIS sympathizers who had apparently seized control of Marawi City.

Social media was abuzz with different reactions from different friends I had. Since I’ve made it a personal policy not to unfriend real-life friends over differences in religion and politics, I saw all sorts of reactions from left and right and everything in between.

The anti-crowd said  they already saw this coming, that it was staged to pave the way for martial law and authoritarian rule, or that it was not the correct solution.

The pro-crowd said they trusted the president, that it was the right move, and that there is nothing to fear, and that this was different from the Marcos years.

The in-betweeners tended to chastise the bashers on either side and saying why don’t you just find a way to help the victims or pray for them instead.

And then there were the grammar and spelling nazis laughing or mocking those who said “marshall law,” “marshall arts,” and even “marshmallow.”

I honestly don’t know how to express what I am feeling or thinking about this. There is a part of me that sides with those who are thinking that there are better solutions than martial law. Yet, there is also a part of me that accepts the president’s prerogative and decisiveness in this action. Only time will really tell if he was right or wrong.

I am neither a political nor history expert, and I rarely make long commentaries on politics, so whatever I say here I speak for myself only and impose upon no one these beliefs.  I have decided in this matter to simply trust the president I elected. It is not a trust based on empty promises, but a trust based on witnessing how he has led my city for almost 3 decades — a city that has grown to love him.

In my line of work, results matter — not motivations, nor opinions, nor ideologies, but results. And Duterte’s results over the years have compounded to such a degree that I have a huge amount of trust in him — just as that kidnapped businesswoman from Luzon had a few years back when she told her kidnappers to go to Davao, trusting that she would be saved because the city was under Duterte’s care.

It is funny how this trust is bordering on faith — that most freethinkers like me shun.

Although it goes beyond logic, but I’m going with my gut on this one. I hope that the trust I and many other Filipinos have in him is not in vain.

Oh, and don’t just pray for Marawi. Find a way to help. Like I said, results matter.


Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Holdap (Part 1)

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I stopped walking for a minute and stood at the spot where it happened 25 years ago.

The Reina Regente Tennis Club was still there, along with the small police precinct in front of it. Up ahead was a dirty plastic sign that said “The Church in Manila.”

I remembered that night, around 9pm, I was walking towards the corner to catch a jeepney for the long ride back to my dormitory. I had a backpack and was carrying my flute in its hard case. It looked like a very small briefcase in my right hand.

A strange feeling of dread that washed over me as I passed the police precinct. The lights were on but the door and windows were shut. I walked on. There was the long wall of a public school that I had to pass before I reached the corner of Jose Abad Santos and C.M. Recto.

There was a man in ragged clothes lying down on the sidewalk to my left. I kept a sharp eye on him as I quickened my pace, unable to shake off the strange feeling. I could feel the hair on my nape standing.

I passed the man and twisted my neck to the left, looking behind me, fully expecting him to jump up and attack me. I didn’t notice the sound of the tricycle motor on my right until it was too late. It made a sharp U-turn beside the sidewalk and out jumped two men. One of them advanced and brandished a knife as he reached for my flute case.

I instinctively twisted to my right and moved my arm backwards to avoid his hand. Then I swung my flute case hard at his temple. His right arm swung to my gut and I felt my stomach muscles tighten, as if I had been punched. His companion went behind me, trying to hold my arms. I tried to break free, then felt a sharp pain and I realized the knife had sliced my left forearm.

After a few more seconds of struggle, the guy at the back suddenly let me go and shouted to his companion, “tara na, tara na!” (“Let’s go!”). They jumped into the waiting tricycle and sped away.

I took out a handkerchief and pressed it to my bleeding arm. I glanced down at my shirt and saw some blood. It was a knife that had hit my belly, not a punch. But it didn’t seem to be bleeding much. The wound in my arm was more painful. I remember thinking that if it wasn’t so deep, I would just go on straight home. I lifted the handkerchief to assess how deep the wound was. It was quite deep so I thought I’d have to go to a hospital.

There was a taxi on the corner, and I immediately climbed in asked the driver to bring me to a hospital. He brought me to the Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital. I went down and the guard asked, “What happened to you?”

“I got stabbed,” I said.

“Ok,” said the guard. “Please sign this logbook here.”

I thought, “What the hell?” but took the pen anyway and tried to sign my name. I didn’t realize how hard it would be as my hand was involuntarily shaking as I wrote.

When I went inside the emergency room, there was a male nurse who looked at me and asked the same question, “What happened to you?”

I said I got stabbed and showed him my arm and pointed to my tummy. He looked at my arm and said, “Please go to that sink and wash that up.”

Again I thought, “What the hell?” but went ahead anyway and put my arm under running water. Then I went back and he had me lie down on the bed.

It was then I noticed the taxi driver standing beside me. He said, “Hey, is there anyone you’d like me to call regarding your condition?” So I thought to give him the number and address of my girlfriend who lived nearby, and from whose house I came from that night.

Continue to Part 2

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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Zen Again

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I used to look at zen as my in-between phase when I transitioned from religion to irreligion. But that is somewhat inaccurate as I have never really left it, nor do I think I can.

When some people hear “zen” they think of zen buddhism — of temples and monks, sitting in meditation, the two major schools — Soto and Rinzai, enlightenment, different ceremonies and so on. That is zen buddhism as a religion and an institution. That is not what I am referring to.

Zen can exist without its external trappings, without its ranks or priesthoods, even without its doctrines, because it is ultimately a way of seeing, of being aware of reality as it really is. The zen master D.T. Suzuki said, “Zen opens a man’s eyes to the greatest mystery as it is daily and hourly performed.”

A disciple asked his master, “What do you mean by seeing reality as it really is?”

The master answered, “When some people look at the moon, some might see the face of their lover, or some might see a huge ball of cheese.”

Applied to a local setting, we can say that some see the current president as the country’s savior and some see him as an evil monster. But few really see him for who he is, and yet no one would admit that.

What attracted me to zen was its total irreverence for even its own authority figures. Even Gautama Buddha himself said, “You monks and wise people, do not accept my words merely out of respect or reverence. You must examine and test them just as a goldsmith analyzes gold — by cutting, rubbing, and burning it.”

A student once asked Master Yunmen, “What is the buddha?” The master answered, “Dried dung.”

Buddhahood or enlightenment is often seen as something to achieve, a state of being that people think once attained, will give them endless bliss or contentment, but it’s not. The master breaks that illusion by referring to it as dried dung. It is not some special, spiritual way of life. It is waking up from our illusions of a utopian future and recognizing the miracle of the very life we are already living now.

Linjin said, “Those who are content to be nothing special are noble people. Don’t strive. Be ordinary. Buddhism has no room for special effort. Eat and drink, then move your bowels and piss, and when you’re tired, go to sleep. Fools will find me ridiculous, but the wise will understand.”

Zen masters are famous for not even trying to live up to the image of a master. Those who do are probably fake and after your money or allegiance. The true masters called each other fools, would make fun of their scripture and even burn them. They are often portrayed in paintings as comical and ridiculous.

What they are really trying to do is prevent their followers from idolizing them too much, from thinking that they had to be their master in order to be enlightened. That was not the point. The point was to seek the enlightened being within themselves.

Alan Watts said of these masters, “It amused them to think that they and their wise brothers were supposed by ordinary standards to be especially holy. They realized that everything was holy, even cooking pots and odd leaves blown about by the wind, and that there was nothing particularly venerable about themselves.”

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

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