Category Archives: Items & Objects

Selfies

In November 2013, Mike Caldwell stopped selling funded physical bitcoins after receiving a notice from FinCEN suggesting that his sale of such products to collectors might constitute an unlicensed money transmission business.

Asserting that selling novelty bitcoin wallets to collectors might be akin to money laundering is very silly, but whether you chalk it up to institutional incompetence or malicious machination, the result was the same: Caldwell stopped selling coins, and most others in the collectible physical bitcoin space shifted to the model of selling buyer-funded coins. What you buy is just the coin and sealed key,  and to some degree the reputation of the manufacturer, and then you fund it yourself.

Lealana finally released his brass .1 BTC design as a buyer-funded coin, and it was a great evolution of his existing artwork.  He also adapted his previous designs to the self-funded model, each now bearing a hologram declaring “Buyer funded.”

The Lealana brass .1 BTC.
The Lealana brass .1 BTC.
Lealana brass .1 BTC reverse.
Lealana brass .1 BTC reverse.
A Lealana 10 LTC piece, now with "BUYER FUNDED" designation on the hologram.
A Lealana 10 LTC piece, now with “BUYER FUNDED” designation on the hologram.

Nolacoin took a similar but more permanent tack, using his powerful laser to etch “SELF FUNDED” into the metal on the front.

Nolacoin .5 BTC piece, now designated "SELF FUNDED."
Nolacoin .5 BTC piece, now designated “SELF FUNDED.”

I was also lucky to recently acquire a couple Cryptovest physical litecoins, a CoinHoarder project, also to be self-funded.

Cryptovest 1 LTC piece.
Cryptovest 1 LTC piece.
Cryptovest 1 LTC piece, reverse.
Cryptovest 1 LTC piece, reverse.

The most fun of the lot, though, is a new .1 BTC piece from Cryptolator. While also available in copper (and in silver in a 1 BTC version), this is the “Merlin Gold” edition, a faux-gold metal which is just meant to be lovely, and it is. The pictures don’t capture the luxurious golden glow.

The design makes me giggle. Regardless of your politics, a design featuring people running out of a burning bank, dragging chains behind them has to make you smile. Are those stink lines around the edge? Maybe.

Cryptolator brings the fun.
Cryptolator brings the fun… and the fire.
Cryptolator "Merlin Gold" .1 BTC piece, reverse.
Cryptolator “Merlin Gold” .1 BTC piece, reverse. It’s much goldier in real life.

Self-funded coins aren’t entirely new, though, as Caldwell himself sold 5 BTC Casascius blanks in 2012. Unlike new coins, though, these didn’t come with key or hologram, but were simply bare nickel coins with a depression in the back.

It’s an illustration of how much things have changed, and how quickly. At 2014 rates which have, so far, hovered around $500/BTC throughout the year, a 5 BTC piece made in humble nickel and left for the buyer to assemble seems absurd, and certainly nothing that you could resell once funded. How could anyone trust that you didn’t keep a copy of the key, with so much value at stake?

Of course, 2012 started with rates around $3/BTC, so a DIY coin kit worth about $15 just seemed like good fun.

Here we are in 2014, though, so bitcointalk user OgNasty has stepped in to bridge that gap by keying, hologramming and slabbing some old Casascius 5 BTC pieces with his own holograms. It’s a hybrid solution, but since he both has experience making coins and an ironclad reputation within the community, he’s effectively putting his weight behind these coins. Should one choose to fund them, they ought to stand well beside at least the current generation of self-funded coins from reputable creators.

A Casascius 5 BTC piece from 2012, as slabbed by OgNasty.
A Casascius 5 BTC piece from 2012, as slabbed by OgNasty.
Don't let the name fool you:  Nasty = nice.
Don’t let the name fool you: Nasty = nice.

Standard disclaimer: It’s always, to some degree, a bad idea to let anyone else have access to a private key which controls any of your bitcoin wallets; in a sense, it goes counter to the bitcoin system itself. Once someone else has handled the key which controls your funds, you have to trust both that they exercised adequate security procedures while handling your key, and that they have not save copies of your key to exploit at some point in the unforeseen future. While some  (such as Mike Caldwell of Casascius) have established trusted reputations, newer operators can only prove their trustworthiness over time.

 

Gone to the Doges

I have to confess that Dogecoin used to aggravate me. It stressed me out.

My fuzzy thinking was that Bitcoin still faced a long road to acquiring public acceptance and to being taken seriously, and that a joke altcoin wasn’t helping. The sea of sketchy altcoins that existed was bad enough, but a coin that was deliberately silly was even worse.  And then instead of going away, Dogecoin became one of the most popular altcoins.

And, of course, there was the Dogecar.

But I was wrong. The genie of the blockchain-based cryptocurrency isn’t going back in the lamp, but it’s also unlikely (impossible?) that it will take just one form. Even if Bitcoin is still the primary coin in [insert time frame here] years, there will also be many others. The ideas will move and evolve under their own power, just like modern innovation in general. The future of cryptocurrency will surely be as diverse, messy and absurd as the web itself.

So, better to relax and enjoy it!

Crypto Imperator has made a 10,000 Dogecoin piece, big and heavy and made of glorious coated zinc, just as it should be.

Behold, the Crypto Imperator 10,000 DGC piece!
Behold, the Crypto Imperator 10,000 DGC piece!
10,000 DGC piece, reverse. To the moons!
10,000 DGC piece, reverse. To the moons!

The hologram on the back is great too, chock full of rockets clearly well on their way to the moon.

WOW!!

 

Safe and sound

Bitcoin has a bit of James Bond flair to it. Encryption, secret keys, anonymity and the ability to send money around the world instantly as part of a growing shadow economy is all good fun.

Detail of the encrypted key as graphed by the AndroSpectro app.
Detail of the encrypted key as graphed by the AndroSpectro app.

But Sound Wallet takes this latent spy esthetic to a delightfully extreme new level by taking a BIP38 encrypted key and converting it into a sound file which, to the casual listener, will just sound like static. Listen to that sound with an app called AndroSpectro (or Audacity with the right settings), though, and out of the static emerge the characters that comprise the encrypted key.

But that wasn’t extreme enough for bitcointalk user krach. Sure, you can have him email you the .wav file, or burn it onto a CD, but you can also have him cut it into a 7″ vinyl record.

And that is unbelievably groovy.

A picture of the shape of the sound of Bitcoin.
A picture of the shape of the sound of Bitcoin.

The resulting record is clear, with edges that are just a bit rough. The card that came with it explains:

“This record was hand shaped and individually cut in real time using a vintage 1940s Presto 75A recording lathe. It is a unique piece. It is not the same as a traditional pressed record. It was not made in a factory. It was hand carved from an 8ft sheet of polycarbonate plastic, shaped, sanded, waxed and cut in real time by one person.”

The burst of gentle static at the beginning of the record contains the key, but then the recording transitions smoothly into some harsh electronic music. This is a great touch, as anyone snooping through your record collection will think it’s just an obscure recording.

This is such a fun object. It would be a great way to hide a key in plain sight, certainly, but it’s also such an elaborately conceived and constructed wallet that it feels like a piece of art.

Cold Hard Storage

It’s almost surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to make a stainless steel BIP38 cold storage wallet, but CryoBit‘s offering is so polished and elegant that it’s been worth the wait.

It’s everything you’d want out of a stainless steel wallet card: credit card sized with a simple design, satisfyingly heavy and inflexible with a brushed-steel sheen that says sexy. It would also be great for shimmying open doors and any number of other prying, jabbing tasks.

The edge of the cutting edge of metal-card-based cold storage.
The edge of the cutting edge of metal-card-based cold storage.

According to their site, the card is made from AMS 5524 stainless steel which is proof against fire up to 2500° F. The QR codes and address are etched with a ceramic-glass which bonds with the metal underneath, so that even if you were to somehow get the material off, the odds are good that the metal would remain marked underneath. Make no mistake, this is meant to survive a house fire.

I’m not going to put it through the fire test, though others have.

a) Stainless steel should always be photographed against black leather. b) Yes, the key is encrypted, but I still don't want to show you, Internet!
a) Stainless steel should always be photographed against black leather. b) Yes, the key is encrypted, but I still don’t want to show you, Internet!

The only possible improvement I can imagine would be to include an alphanumeric version of the encrypted key on the back, in addition to the QR code, although I can’t think of a concrete use case where that would be necessary — sometimes more options are better, though.

This is about as simple and durable a cold storage solution as one can easily imagine. Whether you decide to tuck it in the back of a drawer, bury it in the back yard, or carry it in your wallet to impress your friends (“It’s better than a platinum card, it’s stainless steel!“, the Cryo Card is ready.

And it comes with a sleeve.
And it comes with a sleeve.

 

My Trezor

Originally slated for the end of 2013, the release of the Trezor hardware wallet has been postponed for several months. Delays like this are familiar in the Bitcoin world, but unlike preorders for mining equipment where delays destroy the profitability of the gear and leave customers feeling abused, waiting for the Trezors didn’t cost customers anything other than patience. If anything, it’s been reassuring to know how hard Stick and Slush have been working to refine the security of this first-of-its-kind device.

For me, the wait has been eight months. And it ended today.

Even the box is tiny.
Even the box is tiny.
It comes with stuff.
It comes with stuff.

The Trezor is a device which looks ahead and tries to solve a problem that casual bitcoin users may not even have realized yet. Sure, bitcoin is powerful and flexible and fast, and lets users maintain control of their own money to an unprecedented degree, but it is vulnerable to the kinds of things that personal computers are susceptible to: viruses and malware at the point of the end user. It doesn’t matter how secure and unbreakable the blockchain is if your roommate or your kid accidentally installs a keylogger on your computer. And unfortunately, unlike currencies supported by banks and credit cards, if a hacker vaccuums up your bitcoin there is no recourse, no one to complain to who can fix it for you. It’s just gone.

“Trezor” means “safe” or “vault” in Czech, and it’s designed to keep your private key safe on the device, and theoretically unhackable. When connected to a computer via USB it springs to life and is able to sign transactions initiated on the computer, but it does not share the key with the computer.  The idea is that one could use the Trezor on any computer, even an untrusted one — even an infected one — without compromising the user’s private key, or bitcoin.

The aluminum version is beautiful and feels like quality: solid, rigid and feather-light at the same time.  The manual gently informs us that it is not actually waterproof or indestructible, which is a great reminder to at least take prudent care since the little guy feels like he could take a hammer attack.

Trezor_front_detail

Trezor_back_03

After installing a browser plugin and connecting the device with the micro USB cable, the website MyTrezor.com leads the user through the simple setup process. The Trezor screen displays a 12 word seed one word at a time, prompting the user to write them down in the included booklet, then repeats the sequence again so you can double-check each word. This seed is your one and only “backup” from which your wallet can be reconstructed, either in a Trezor or another wallet which supports BIP32 deterministic wallets.

If you create a PIN, you get to use the Trezor’s nifty PIN system which displays a grid of nine numbers on the screen, the order of which changes with each use. The PIN is then entered on the computer screen onto a blank grid by clicking the button which corresponds to the number position displayed on the device, making the PIN immune to keyloggers, as well as invisible to people watching your computer screen — as long as you keep the tiny grid on the Trezor itself hidden.

Nifty!
Nifty!

Trezor_PIN

Once you’re set up and have loaded the Trezor with some bitcoin, sending is as easy as initiating the transaction on your computer, then confirming it on the Trezor by pressing one of the two buttons. The destination address pops up on the Trezor screen so you can verify that it’s going to the right place.

Inside this slim device and behind its simple interface is a lot of serious cryptographic voodoo.

The only minor disappointment is the device’s current reliance on the MyTrezor.com website. I believe the team originally hoped that the Trezor would launch with support from major bitcoin wallets, but when that didn’t materialize in time they came up with the solution of creating the MyTrezor web wallet. MyTrezor works well and has a clean design, it will just be nice if other platforms step up and offer support so there are more options.

I already love my Trezor, if only for its delightful bleeding-edge obscurity, a stunningly specialized piece of hardware that’s difficult to even explain to people who aren’t Bitcoin hardcore. It’s challenging to even show to your friends, since it has no battery and thus when it’s not connected to a computer its screen will always be stubbornly dark. You can’t show them your balance, or really do anything other than tell them that it really does work.

It’s so secure, it’s hard to even prove that it even exists.

Thin.
Thin.
Micro USB port.
Micro USB port.

Trezor_corner

Don't forget the lanyard!
Don’t forget the lanyard!

DIY

Silver Wallets aren’t the first physical bitcoin kits that have been made, but they are the most beautiful. One ounce of silver in coin form, the  front features an elegant Bitcoin “B” overlaying an image of the world.  It’s the reverse that really wins me over, though,  with the simple, bold, all-caps “Silver Wallets” in raised letters around where the hologram goes. It’s so simple, yet so satisfying.

Each coin comes with three holograms, so you could spend from one of these and then start over and re-assemble later, which is a nice touch. Since there is no denomination on the coin, it’s entirely a matter of personal preference,  and style. Generate a private key, print the QR code to fit the half-inch square on the back of the coin, then seal it in and set aside some long-term savings that happens to be great to look at.

Obverse: Bitcoin rampant over the continents of Earth and a digital sea.
Obverse: Bitcoin rampant over the continents of Earth and a digital sea.
Reverse: QR code in place, ready for hologram application.
Reverse: QR code in place (face-down), ready for hologram application.
QED DIY.
QED DIY.

Little devils

It was only last year that Casascius started making .5 BTC pieces in order to adjust for the skyrocketing exchange rate and still have a physical bitcoin that would be affordable. Then, just a few months later, Casascius, Lealana and bhCoins released .1 BTC denominations, but again, it made sense against the ever-increasing price of bitcoin.

Now MicroSoul has a .01 BTC coin. That’s one-one hundredth of a bitcoin, a bit-penny coin.  At first that seems like such a minor sum, but that’s only because my brain is inflexible and slow to adapt.  After all, at this moment a bit-penny is worth roughly 6 bucks, and if someone handed me a brand-new six dollar coin, I’d be delighted.

MicroSoul .01 BTC reverse.
MicroSoul .01 BTC reverse.

And, of course, I am.  While the design is straightforward and Casascius-esque, the gold plating makes the coins glow, and the small devil icon beside the “B” marks these as being extra-fun.

In terms of accountability and security, the creator (Matthew Rodbourne) has posted his identity online, states that the keys are generated by an offline Raspberry Pi and are only handled by either himself or his wife. They ship from France.

I opened one up, and the teeny-tiny key imported easily.

Key smudged out for your protection. It's actually quite legible.
Key smudged out for your protection. It’s actually quite legible.

Standard disclaimer: It’s always, to some degree, a bad idea to let anyone else have access to a private key which controls any of your bitcoin wallets; in a sense, it goes counter to the bitcoin system itself. Once someone else has handled the key which controls your funds, you have to trust both that they exercised adequate security procedures while handling your key, and that they have not save copies of your key to exploit at some point in the unforeseen future. While some  (such as Mike Caldwell of Casascius) have established trusted reputations, newer operators can only prove their trustworthiness over time.

 

Mr. Pig

Where Bitcoin meets art, there’s Matthew Groves of California.  Paper wallets made from artisan papers by skilled hands, the black magic of BIP38 makes it possible: you don’t have to entrust him with your key, just your encrypted key.

There be dragons here.
There be dragons here.

His dragon paper wallet is fairly stunning, but the intricately folded origami pig (with the key folded into the inside) makes me giggle every time I look at him.

Just think of it. It’s a piggy bank which is nothing like a piggy bank, yet works exactly like a piggy bank. It’s not ceramic, it doesn’t hold pieces of metal inside, you don’t have to break it; and yet, it is a darling pig, it does hold coins inside, and you do have to unfold it to redeem it. It’s cute, it’s a great piece of origami, and it’s conceptually brilliant.

That makes it art.

And again, since you generated your own BIP38 encrypted key, the trust required is near zero; if you saved a copy of your encrypted key (as you should), then there is no reason at all not to enjoy this piece of pig-bitcoin-art.

 

He's a good pig.
He’s a good pig.
There also be an elk here.
There also be an elk here.

 

 

Made with lasers

I just received these half-bitcoin and one-bitcoin physical pieces from NolaCoin in Louisiana, and they are beautiful.

They’re brass at heart, plated into different colors with a striking mirror finish. The half-bitcoin piece is a delicate rose gold/coppery color, and the one-bitcoin piece is nickel-plated to a lustrous silver. But beyond their beauty, they have several innovations over other physical bitcoin designs.

While most other designs hide the private key on an insert which is held behind a hologram sticker on the back of the coin, these have both the public address and private key etched into the metal of the coin with a 10 watt laser (according to the creator’s post here). The public address is readily visible on the front, and the private key is hidden on the back.

One-bitcoin piece, obverse.
One-bitcoin piece, obverse.
Half-bitcoin piece, reverse.
Half-bitcoin piece, reverse.

This is great not only because it makes the public address readily available for verifying the balance, but also because of the relative indelibility of the etching; if a more traditional key-printed-on-insert physical bitcoin gets caught in a fire or other calamity, it’s only as tough as whatever material the key is printed on, but with these the key is as tough as the metal of the coin.

It’s even greater that the hidden private key is not just presented as an alphanumeric string, but also as a QR code which is likewise etched into the metal and entirely scannable. Typing in letters and numbers is for suckers!

Because someone had to do it, I opened one up to see how it worked.  There are essentially three parts to the security over the key: a plastic film, a scratch-off hologram, and a gold ring sticker around the edge.

The gold ring overlaps the scratch-off hologram, making it more difficult to tamper with the hologram in the center. Once you’ve scratched off the hologram, you can make out the characters of the key, but there is an additional layer of plastic film still over the metal. Upon removing that, there was a fair amount of sticky residue which kept the QR code from scanning in, but a little rubbing with soap and warm water got the surface cleared away down to the mirror finish, and at that point I scanned the key into Mycelium easily.

This is a great design, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Opening the coin.
Opening the coin.
Leftovers.
Leftovers.
Residue makes it difficult to read the key at first.
Residue makes it difficult to read the key at first.
Cleans up beautifully and scans easily.
Cleans up beautifully and scans easily.

 Update: Arash Dini, the coins’ creator, explained to me that contrast on the QR-code etching on the nickel-plated coins is sharper and more likely to scan first-time, and though I haven’t opened one of those up yet, that certainly makes sense, as you can see the difference in the lettering on the front. He also said that if you leave the flash on your smartphone on, the reflection will help the scanning. In other words, it should be possible to scan the QR code just by scratching off the hologram, but without the (very minor) hassle of removing the final layer of plastic film and cleaning residue off the coin.

Standard disclaimer: It’s always, to some degree, a bad idea to let anyone else have access to a private key which controls any of your bitcoin wallets; in a sense, it goes counter to the bitcoin system itself. Once someone else has handled the key which controls your funds, you have to trust both that they exercised adequate security procedures while handling your key, and that they have not save copies of your key to exploit at some point in the unforeseen future. While some  (such as Mike Caldwell of Casascius) have established trusted reputations, newer operators can only prove their trustworthiness over time.

 

With the power of aluminum

These arrived from crypto-cards.com yesterday, and they’re fairly delightful: metal cold-storage wallets with the address and encrypted key laser-etched into the anodized surface.

They’re light, sized like business cards and easy to tuck into a wallet, or hide away somewhere. They’re not going to burn and they’re not going to rust, so it seems like they’d last just about forever.

What makes them brilliant, though, is the use of BIP38-encrypted private keys. This is great in several ways:

It’s ok that a third party is manufacturing your wallet for you, because they never handle your actual keys, only your encrypted key.  You generate it yourself using something like this, then just send the already-encrypted key and corresponding address to the manufacturer

You can carry it around with you, and not worry about someone accidentally photographing the key (or stealing it) because, again — encrypted. Then you can use something like Mycelium to spend from cold storage and decrypt on the fly.

As a bonus, if you do lose it, you’ve already created a backup just through the process of ordering, assuming you save the encrypted key somewhere at that point. So, worst case scenario, you can recover the funds that way.

When you think about how complicated a secure wallet project  could be,  it’s hard not to be impressed with what an elegant and inexpensive solution these metal cards represent.

Now I want a blue one.

 

Water-resistant to a depth of infinity.
Water-resistant to a depth of infinity.