The promises of a decentralized currency: Think Locally and Buy Globally?

Submitted by Jon on Mon, 01/27/2014 - 10:58

I once rented a part of a house that had been, well, not fully cleaned out from the previous occupants. It was a house full of hackers that had been variously occupied by friends and friends-of-friends for almost a decade as they passed through Austin on their way from or to new lives, which is to say, it had, well, "character".

One of the odder things left behind by the previous inhabitants was a literal pile of Final Fantasy boxes, completely intact save for the all-important registration codes. A bit of digging uncovered a fascinating tale of cross-border, tax- and fee-free value transfer. The former occupant, let's call him "Bob" was engaged in a business proposition with a colleague based in South Korea, let's call her "Alice." Whatever version of the RPG Final Fantasy had just been released in the States (only). This had proved very difficult to pirate, causing a huge untapped demand in Korea. Koreans, however, had been happily hacking away at another RPG game which was only just now catching on Stateside. So, Bob would tear off and destroy these registration codes, emailing the codes themselves to Alice in Korea. Alice, in exchange, would provide Bob powerful and rare in-game items for the newly-popular game - these were of less value to the Korean market, as it was saturated with players and therefore items, but there was no arbitrage market into the States -- before Alice and Bob, at least. Bob could then sell these on online grey markets for such items, effectively creating a way for both Alice and Bob to profit (rather lucratively, from my understanding) from local markets, and transfer value across borders without incurring bank costs, wire fees, or, for that matter, taxes. This setup lasted for as long as both were able to extract value from the arbitrage process, but obviously wasn't able to scale or even easily re-adapt to new opportunities.

With the rise and increasing stability of bitcoin as an actual contender for a digital currency, the global market suddenly starts looking a lot more local.

Exploring the Un-mappable: Bangkok Markets

Submitted by Jon on Sun, 03/18/2012 - 10:16

Bangkok by night

Bangkok is truly infinite in all directions.

We had just turned a corner from the nuts-and-bolts district into a more open-air-marketish area. According to our maps, this was indeed the "Thieves Market" - formerly where people would fence stolen goods, now more of a market of randomness in the heart of Bangkok's Chinatown.

We'd wandered through here earlier in the day by accident, and had had our fill of browsing powertools, pirated DVD porn, dollar-store items and kitchenware, so we peeked down a side alleyway that looked likely to go through to the next block over, in our general direction of onward wandering. On a whim, we took it (the joys of careless wandering that a good sense of direction and a local SIM card in a jailbroken iPhone afford you).

THIS was the real thieves market. We had stumbled into an invisible warren of narrow sois and passageways full of everything. From Playstations to cameras to knockoff tablets to boardgames and more, densely packed in a fractaline arrangement - a market in a market in a district full of markets in a city where everything (except a decent martini) seems to be for sale at a price -- the Bangkok Post classifieds, a surprisingly family-friendly section of the paper, still has large paid adverts for liposuction (600USD) and gender reassignment (1600USD). Package deals available.

This is Bangkok, where the downtown mega-mall shopping district got so frustrated with the street-side markets and 6-lane traffic jams slowing down foot-traffic between the office-building sized malls that they built above-ground sidewalks to link them together, as if the city itself were trying to scab over its street vendors and traffic congestion.

It's unmappable. Bangkok has a perfectly understandable system of neighborhoods, main streets and side streets that make navigation - once you grok the system - natural. WikiTravel explains this system the best:

Addresses in Bangkok use the Thai addressing system, which may be a little confusing to the uninitiated. Large roads such as Silom or Sukhumvit are thanon (ถนน), [...] while the side streets branching off from them are called soi (ซอย). Sois are numbered, with even numbers on one side and odd numbers on the other side. Thus, an address like "25 Sukhumvit Soi 3" means house/building number 25 on the 3rd soi of Sukhumvit Road. While the soi numbers on each side will always advance upward, the numbers often do not advance evenly between sides — for example, Soi 55 could be across from Soi 36. Many well-known sois have an additional name, which can be used instead of the number. Sukhumvit Soi 3 is also known as "Soi Nana Nuea", so the address above might thus also be expressed as "25 Soi Nana Nuea". The extension /x is used for new streets created between existing streets, as seen in Sukhumvit's soi pattern 7, 7/1, 7/2, 9, 11. Note that some short alleys are called trok (ตรอก) instead of soi.

To make things a little more complex, some large sois like Soi Ekkamai (Sukhumvit Soi 63) and Soi Ari (Phahonyothin Soi 7) have their own sois. In these cases, an address like "Ari Soi 3" means "the 3rd soi off Soi Ari", and you may even spot addresses like "68/2 Ekkamai Soi 4, Sukhumvit Road", meaning "2nd house beside house 68, in the 4th soi of Ekkamai, which is the 63rd soi of Sukhumvit". In many sois, the house numbers are not simply increasing, but may spread around.

Markets like the thieves market exist in a mix between sois, sub-sois, and a further maze of twisty little passages, all same-same, but different. This system has driven map-makers insane. Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide have taken to a neighborhood, points-of-interest approach, which is great if you never stray from the path, but confusingly fails to include all the random side-streets, so "the first street on the left" may be very, very misleading. Google seems to be building a more comprehensive map overall, with anything that a two-wheeled vehicle could manage showing up -- but it's not complete, missing some of the better hidden or poorly mapped areas altogether. Open Street Maps is focusing so far on only the larger streets, missing huge swaths of the fractal nature of Bangkok.

The low cost of entry into these markets also mean that there is immense flux - a food stall may only be there a certain chunk of days out of the week, may move, or go out of business. It may have the best fried quail eggs in wanton wrappers in Bangkok, but good luck finding it reviewed at TripAdvisor.

But that misses the point, anyhow. In preparing for the trip, the guidebooks and websites both were failing at restaurant and shopping recommendations. That's because these are not really specific destinations in Thailand, but journeys that every traveler willing to venture out beyond their 5-star hotel or the backpacker ghetto must make on their own. Everyone will choose their own adventure - it will be perfect and unique and unrepeatable. And that, in this age of commoditized experiences and peer-reviewed restaurants, may actually be the most valuable part of a trip in Thailand.


Submitted by Jon on Fri, 05/23/2008 - 20:46

Jon is on vacation this week on the west coast, so don't expect any insight (or email responses!)

OLPC Give One Get One: A Learning Experience?

Submitted by Jon on Tue, 01/08/2008 - 12:26

Over at OLPCNews, Wayan's written a wrap-up of the Give one, Get one (G1G1) program by the OLPC Foundation to date, and its successes and shortcomings. Here's my two cents (actually now 5 cents due to changes in the post, system upgrades, and increases in the raw cost of nickel):


Submitted by Jon on Thu, 09/06/2007 - 22:04

I'll be in India for most of the rest of September...

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