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Author Topic: Using metaphor to help ordinary folks understand bitcoin  (Read 6793 times)
HenryRomp
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August 07, 2013, 04:00:03 AM
 #1

Using metaphor and analogy to help people who don't understand what bitcoin is

I spend a lot of time trying to explain to people what bitcoin is, how it works, why it works, and why they should care. Sometimes I try to explain it to children; sometimes I try to explain it to very old folks, sometimes I try to explain it to simple-minded people, sometimes I try to explain it to somebody who doesn't speak English very well.

Often it's very difficult, frustrating, and fruitless. It's so easy to get bogged down answering questions, since so many of the questions have complex answers.


The analogy I lay out below will only be addressing certain aspects of Bitcoin; but used together with other metaphors and also with more direct, non-metaphorical explanation,  it has helped me to get the idea across.

This one was partially prompted by a question "How do you check your balance?" which led me to use this analogy to explain that anybody can check the balance of any account, provided that they have the account number, using a block explorer such as the one on blockchain.info.

"Imagine there are a bunch of safes lined up in a giant room somewhere. Each safe has a number on it identifying it, and each safe has a slot that allows people to drop money into it. The safes are all made of bulletproof glass, so anybody can see how much is in any given safe, and anybody can put money in any safe. When you open a bitcoin account, you are given an empty safe and the key to that safe. You take note of which number is on your safe, and when somebody wants to send you money, you tell them which safe is yours, and they can go drop money in the slot."

The "safe" analogy can also be used to explain other aspects.

"If you open another account, and get the keys to another safe, but you never tell anybody the identifying number on that safe and you're very careful to not let anybody see you putting money in it or taking money out, everybody can see that safe and see how much money is in it but nobody knows who owns it. That way, if you want everybody to know which safe is yours so they can send you money, but you don't want anybody to know how much money you have, you can secretly move the money to your second safe and never tell anybody which number is on that one." [I realize that all transactions are public and this doesn't really explain that aspect but it seems like the easiest way to express how you can have some privacy even though all the safes are see-through.]

"If you don't trust yourself to keep track of your key, or you're afraid somebody will steal it from you, you can have Mr. Gox or Mr. Web-wallet or some other fellow hold your key for you. He'll let you pick a secret pasword, and he'll open your safe for you if you tell him the password. Make sure if you're letting some fellow hold your key that you trust him; you have to trust him both to keep your key safe, and to let you use it whenever you want, not let some government tell him that he can't give you back your key until you fax him copies of your passport and social security card."

This bit I'm not sure about but it represents my understanding of the hybrid wallet offered by blockchain.info. If I'm misunderstanding the concept, please help me learn [I realize that this example completely oversimplifies the concept of encryption, but I'm not trying to explain to people the mechanics of how it works, rather just the end result on their experience].

"If you don't want to trust Mr. Gox or Mr. Web-wallet or any of those other fellows, and you want to hold onto your own key, but you're holding a lot of money in your safe, you might hide your key really really well to make sure nobody can steal it. But if it's hidden so well, it might be really inconvenient to go get it (maybe you buried it in the woods somewhere!) every time you want to take money out of your safe. So Mr. Hybrid-wallet gives you another option. You can take your key and make a copy of it, hide one securely buried off in the woods or wherever you like, and then take the other one and cut it into two pieces. You keep one piece and give the other one to Mr. Hybrid-wallet. He gives you a secret password, too. Then when you want to take some money out of your account, instead of digging in the woods for your key, you can just go to Mr. Hybrid-wallet and give him your piece of the key, and tell him your secret password, and he'll put the key back together and open your safe for you. When you've taken out the money you want, you lock it back up and give him his piece of the key. That way if anybody ever steals your piece of the key, they still can't get in the safe because they don't have the password; and if anybody steals Mr. Hybrid-wallet's piece of the key, he still can't get in the safe because he doesn't have the whole key. This is much better than Mr. Gox or Mr. Web-wallet because if the government decides Mr. Hybrid-wallet is breaking the law by providing this key-service and tells him he can't let anybody into their safes anymore, you can go dig up your other copy of the key and get your money out of your safe. With Mr. Gox or Mr. Web-wallet, they have the only copy of your key, so if the government tells them they're not allowed to open the safes anymore, or somebody steals all their keys, there's no way to get in the safes anymore. That's why using a hybrid wallet like the one on Blockchain.info is the best."

I have other analogies I use sometimes as well but it's late and I'm tired.

The purpose of this thread is to encourage people to share simplifications, analogies, metaphors, perhaps even comic strips or little cartoon drawings, that may be helpful in explaining bitcoin.


I'd specifically love to see things that are aimed at helping people get the idea of how to use it, and what it is, without getting too technical about how it works. If it would help an 8 year old to understand bitcoin, post it here. If it would help me explain bitcoin to somebody who barely speaks english and has no background in cryptography, math, or computers, post it here. If it would help me explain bitcoin to my 80-something year old grandfather, post it here.

The goal for me is to be able to relatively quickly explain what bitcoin is, why you should use it, how to get some, how to safely store them once you have them, how to accept them as payment at your business, how to use them as currency. Optimally in language that a child or technologically illiterate fool could understand.

Thanks for any contributions.

A properly secured wallet with bitcoin is in my opinion the safest, most secure, best all-around bet for holding wealth at this moment in history. Go ahead, call me crazy. They've been calling me crazy since 2013.
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August 07, 2013, 11:52:33 AM
 #2

Bitcoin is the Honey Badger of currencies.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg
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August 08, 2013, 07:16:09 AM
 #3

https://medium.com/bitcoins-digital-currency/a9a8c094feaf
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August 08, 2013, 07:23:11 AM
 #4

Thats a pretty good detailed explanation.  For simple explanations I like comparing it to things like torrents (decentralized) and a digital form of cash (irreversible bearer bond).
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August 09, 2013, 12:30:46 AM
 #5

but remember so called "hybrid wallets" can have faked up send addresses, if you send money through their service it all goes to a different address to the one you thought is was going through

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August 09, 2013, 12:51:55 AM
 #6

I explained it to my mother-in-law as coupons that you can spend at any store (she's a coupon clipper). I asked her what the largest coupon she ever redeemed was. She told me $50. Then I told her to imagine that you could buy that coupon in any value you needed, spend it on any product you want, at many different stores, and even use it at stores in other countries. She asked why you wouldn't just use dollars with a credit card instead of buying the coupon first. I told her because it's trendy, edgy, all the cool people use it so STFU and go get me a beer.

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August 09, 2013, 09:26:42 PM
 #7

Nice Analogy!
Definetely helpfull

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August 09, 2013, 09:39:34 PM
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I am very happy to have threat like this which explain all things so now i can talk too much about this with any body

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August 10, 2013, 01:20:31 AM
 #9

I've re-written the entire metaphor to be a bit more ready-to-use/publish. I would love it if somebody would come forward and help with some graphics. I will be writing more like this one; we can consider this just specifically an analogy to help folks pick the best wallet for their purposes.

If somebody takes the initiative to sketch up some graphics, perhaps following the ideas I've put in brackets below, or just using your own creativity, I will begin a blog and try to write a new analogy depicting a different aspect of bitcoin every week or two. This analogy really only gets across one side of bitcoin, and really only provides info about how to do certain things. I have many other ideas.



This analogy is to help you understand how to keep your coins safe and how to choose a wallet.

Imagine there are a bunch of safes, each with a number printed on them, lined up in a public place. The safes are very secure, bolted to the ground, and no known technology can cut them open.

[graphic depicting a bunch of safes with numbers stamped on them, lined up, in a cloud, hinting at the idea that this public space is actually “on the web” or “in the cloud” in some sense]

Each safe has a slot in the top, allowing money to be dropped in. To get the money out, you need the key that opens the safe. The keys are also very secure, and nobody can pick the lock or open it without a perfect copy of the key.

[graphic depicting a closeup of one of the safes number 253, with a slot in the top and a coin being dropped in it, little cartoon style lines to show that the coin is in motion being dropped in the slot]

Each safe is made of bulletproof glass, so anybody can see how much money is in each safe; but the safes don't have names on them, only numbers, so unless somebody tells you “safe number 253 is mine!” or you see him opening that safe, you don't know which safe belongs to which person.

[graphic depicting safe number 253, with transparent walls, now with a small stack of coins inside of it]

If you want to send Bob some money, you just ask him which safe is his, and he'll tell you, “mine is safe number 253” and you can go drop some money in the slot on the top. Now, maybe Bob doesn't want you (or anybody else) to know how much money he has. But the safe is see-through, made of bulletproof glass, so when you go to drop money in, you can see what he's got, right?

The trick is, anybody can have as many safes as they want. So Bob gets another safe, number 481. When he wants people to send him money, he says “put it in safe number 253,” but then periodically, he goes and takes his money out of safe number 253 and drops it in the slot in the top of safe number 481. Since anybody can drop money into any of the safes, even if you see him dropping money into safe number 481, you don't know that he owns that safe—you would only know he owns it if you see him opening the safe to take money out. So if he ever needs to get some money out of safe number 481, he might expose his secret, and everybody could see how much money he has! But Bob is smart; when he needs to get money out of his secret safe, he always wears a mask, and so nobody can ever tell he owns safe number 481.

[graphic depicting a character in a guy fawkes mask dropping money in safe number 481, which has lots of coins in it]


So nobody can tell how many safes Bob owns, or how much money he has; but if he wants somebody to send him money, he can tell them the number of one of his safes.

Now, for Bob's frequent-use safe, number 253, he has to access it pretty often. When he wants to buy something, that's where he grabs the money from; and when somebody sends him a big chunk of money, he needs to open the safe to pull that money out and stick it in one of his secret safes. Bob is afraid that somebody might steal his key. Somebody could look and see that his safe has a big stack of bills in it, and if they know it's his safe, they might go sneak in his house and search for his key. Bob thinks about hiding the key in a super-secure place; maybe burying it in the woods behind his house where nobody will ever find it. But he has to use it so often! He can't dig it up and bury it again every time.

[graphic picturing Bob with worried expression on face, with thought bubble of digging beneath a tree to bury a coin]

Then Bob hears about Mr. Web Wallet. Mr. Web Wallet and his buddy Mr. Online Exchange offer some services. Mr. Online Exchange (or Mr. OE for short) offers some other services as well, but both Mr. Web Wallet (Mr. WW for short) and Mr. OE offer a key-holding service. Mr. WW or Mr. OE will take your key, and let you choose a username and password. Whenever you want to take some money from your safe, you just tell them your username and password, and they'll go open the safe for you and hand you the money, or just drop it into whichever other safe you tell them to.

[graphic picturing two fat fellows like the banker from the Monopoly game, one with “Mr. WW” on his hat and one with “Mr. OE” on his hat, each looking a bit like a slimy car salesman, that cocky “we're gonna getcha” grin on their faces, perhaps each one with a big key-ring full of keys and another with a clipboard on which there are many usernames and passwords and at the bottom there is a blank line with an X next to it, waiting for Bob to sign up. Perhaps Bob can be pictured in this graphic as well, looking a little skeptical or hesitant, maybe scratching his head]

For a minute, Bob thinks this is great; he doesn't have to worry about somebody stealing his key, because he knows Mr. OE and Mr. WW have good security guards; they have lots and lots of keys from all their customers, and they charge various small fees for their services, so they can afford to spend a lot of money on security. But Bob is still worried. What if somebody robs Mr. OE or Mr. WW and gets all the keys? Or worse yet, what if Mr. OE or Mr. WW decides that they'd rather steal all the money out of all the safes they have keys for and just take off, instead of trying to earn money from their small fees? Bob has also heard that the Government doesn't like Mr. OE and Mr. WW and might tell them not to open safes for anybody without asking them for ID first. Bob doesn't like that, he doesn't want to have to give ID to get to his money and he doesn't want to be vulnerable to theft or fraud.

Bob is about to despair. Suddenly, he hears about Mr. Hybrid Wallet (or Mr. HW). Mr. HW offers a similar service, but with a much better system. Mr. HW asks you to choose a username and password. Mr. HW takes your key and makes a copy of it. He gives you one of the copies, then he takes his, and writes your password on it. Then he chops it into a bunch of pieces so that there is only one letter on each piece. He holds onto the chopped up pieces of your key, and puts them in a little box marked with your username. When you want to get money out of your safe, you go to Mr. HW and tell him your username and password. He goes to your little box of key pieces, and puts all the pieces back together, using your password to guide him. Then he opens your safe for you, and either gives you the money or drops it into whichever safe you ask him to. When he's done, he takes the key back apart into all the pieces, and puts it back in the little box with your username.

[graphic showing a key with a long password (12 characters or more) written on it, then showing that same key chopped into one piece for each character, then showing those pieces dumped into a box with “BobSmith239” written on it and perhaps even that box put onto a shelf full of other boxes with usernames on them]

So Bob goes with Mr. HW, the Hybrid Wallet. He takes his copy of the key, and he buries it under his favorite sycamore tree in the woods behind his house where nobody can ever find it. He rests easy at night, knowing that nobody can steal his key. He knows that if anybody breaks into Mr. HW's secure facility, and steals all the keys, they won't be able to open his safe, since his key is cut into little tiny pieces. Mr. HW doesn't keep Bob's password written down anywhere, and without the password, nobody can figure out how the key goes back together. Bob is no fool; he didn't pick “CAT” for a password, since he knows that would make it too easy for a thief to put the three pieces of his key back together; by choosing a password that's at least 12 characters long he knows that it will be mathematically unfeasible for the thief to figure out which way the 12 pieces go.

[graphic showing Bob sleeping soundly, with a thought bubble showing his key buried under a tree and his coins stacked in his safe and a puzzled thief trying to put together the chopped-up pieces of his other key]

If Mr. HW ever loses the pieces of the key, or gets shut down by the Government, or gets robbed by a thief, Bob can just go out back and dig his key up from under the sycamore tree, go open his safe, and take out his money. Bob is safe and secure.

Choose for yourself based upon your circumstances how you want to store your coins; but remember, if you hold the key yourself, you are responsible for making sure it can't be lost or stolen, and if you let an online exchange or web wallet hold your key for you, you are trusting them to keep your key safe and secure and to grant you access to your safe whenever you want. The hybrid wallet has the best of both worlds and limits the risk on both ends.

If you use a software wallet such as Bitcoin-QT or Electrum or any other wallet which you download and run as a program on your computer, you are holding your own key and must keep it secure yourself. If you use Mt. Gox or any other exchange site, or any "web-wallet," you are letting Mr. WW or Mr. OE hold your key for you. If you use Blockchain.info's Hybrid Wallet, or any other Hybrid Wallet, you are using Mr. HW.

[graphic showing Bob with his key visible in his pocket, an "=" symbol, and then the Bitcoin-QT logo and the Electrum logo; then showing Mr. WW and Mr. OE, an "=" symbol, and then the Mt. Gox logo and the Instawallet logo; then showing Mr. HW (who should look very trustworthy), an "=" symbol, and then the blockchain.info logo]

A properly secured wallet with bitcoin is in my opinion the safest, most secure, best all-around bet for holding wealth at this moment in history. Go ahead, call me crazy. They've been calling me crazy since 2013.
https://pgp.mit.edu/pks/lookup?op=get&search=0x2FDBDDB5A65EF399
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August 10, 2013, 12:07:40 PM
 #10

For web wallets you could just use the concept of a bank, they keep your keys in their bank. Many people are already familiar with online banking and having a password to make transactions.

If you liked this post -> 1KRYhandiYsjecZw7mtdLnoeuKUYoGRkH4
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August 10, 2013, 12:14:47 PM
 #11

Web wallets are not as secure as banks.

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August 10, 2013, 12:50:53 PM
 #12

Web wallets are not as secure as banks.
Why do you think this?

Any significantly advanced cryptocurrency is indistinguishable from Ponzi Tulips.
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August 10, 2013, 12:55:05 PM
 #13

Web wallets are not as secure as banks.
Why do you think this?

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Coinbase had already been hacked twice (server rooted due to outdated / vulnerable software, plus ruby exploit), but the attacker worked with Coinbase instead of slowing emptying the wallet.

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August 10, 2013, 02:29:05 PM
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i don't see any good pipes and tubes references in there ... i.e. probably not good for senile congress techno-phobes.

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August 10, 2013, 02:31:43 PM
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Bitcoinica
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Coinbase had already been hacked twice (server rooted due to outdated / vulnerable software, plus ruby exploit), but the attacker worked with Coinbase instead of slowing emptying the wallet.

Please check this, too. Pretty scary.
And not to be completely OT (sorry OP), I'll just repost this.

[OVER] RIDDLES 2nd edition --- this was claimed. Look out for 3rd edition!
I won't ever ask for a loan nor offer any escrow service. If I do, please consider my account as hacked.
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August 11, 2013, 04:01:53 AM
 #16

Web wallets are not as secure as banks.
Why do you think this?

Bitcoinica
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Coinbase had already been hacked twice (server rooted due to outdated / vulnerable software, plus ruby exploit), but the attacker worked with Coinbase instead of slowing emptying the wallet.

how about this then: http://www.fdic.gov/bank/individual/failed/banklist.html plus a few banks in Cyprus


This ^ hits the nail on the head. Banks are not secure, they are very vulnerable to a number of different sorts of attack, and also to government seizure. Whether web wallets are "as secure as a bank" or not, they are very insecure and a bad place to keep your money. I for one would prefer a web wallet (which I despise) over a bank (which I truly hate) but honestly I use neither and would not recommend either. I haven't had a bank account in years.

The owners of banks are "above the law" in many ways; the operators of web wallets are also hard to prosecute for entirely different reasons. In either case you are trusting somebody to hold your money for you and you have relinquished control of it. When your money is in the bank, it's not the same as when your money is in a safe in your closet.

Of course, if you're holding government issued currency in your safe at home, your wealth is much less secure than if you're holding bitcoins in your safe at home, since the issuing government can overprint and inflate the currency rendering your money useless and your wealth gone.

When your money is in a safe in the cloud and in the form of bitcoins and you have one key and a trusted third party has a cryptographically scrambled copy of that key, you're in a whole new ballpark and your money is protected from all the worst threats that make a safe in your closet or an account at the bank both excessively risky (i.e. your house burning down/being burglarized or the government seizing your funds, or the key to your safe being stolen, or the bank operators making risky bets with your money and losing your fortune).

The hybrid wallet filled with bitcoins is in my opinion the safest, most secure, best all-around bet for holding wealth at this moment in history.

Go ahead, call me crazy.

A properly secured wallet with bitcoin is in my opinion the safest, most secure, best all-around bet for holding wealth at this moment in history. Go ahead, call me crazy. They've been calling me crazy since 2013.
https://pgp.mit.edu/pks/lookup?op=get&search=0x2FDBDDB5A65EF399
https://churchofbitcoin.org/
http://rompfamily.com/
http://provideapp.com/
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August 11, 2013, 04:45:43 AM
 #17

Bitcoin is just like a virtual dollar

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August 11, 2013, 02:15:55 PM
 #18

Bitcoin is digital gold with a few added features for convenience and security.  Gold 2.0  Grin

Counterfeit:  made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive:  merriam-webster
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August 11, 2013, 02:17:25 PM
 #19

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.", Arthur C. Clarke

Imagine, that you are a wizard. You have a magical power over gold that you own. By making a few magical passes with your hand and your mobile phone you can magically split any gold coins and bullion and deformed gold chunks into arbitrary small pieces and then recombine them back into larger ones.

Your magic powers allow you to operate equally easy both on tiny speckles of gold dust and on huge 10000kg pieces of gold (as long as you own this gold). Now imagine that you can magically teleport any amount of your gold over the internet to any other wizard on the planet.

Now imagine that all it takes to learn this magic skill is 5 minutes to download an app on your mobile phone and imagine that everyone can do it. Imagine that it is impossible to prevent anyone from learning this magic. Imagine that, right now, millions of people are already such wizards and actively magically trade pieces of gold, regardless of borders, regardless of will of dictators and tyrants.

Now stop imagining. This is reality. This is working right now. You can be this "wizard" 5 minutes from now. Just search word bitcoin in your mobile phone app store and install a bitcoin wallet. Obtain some bitcoins in exchange for legacy money or your labor or goods and services and you are now good to go. You are now a wizard that has power over your magic gold (bitcoin).

In fact there is a gold rush. The sooner you gain your magical powers over your bitcoins the better for you and the better for the rest of the humankind. There is finally honest money available to everyone, it is just not everyone knows it just yet.

Bitcoin is new magic gold. Gold 2.0.



This is top-notch. Exactly the kind of response I was hoping for when I posted this thread to begin with. Thanks, Vladimir.

I plan to write a clear, easy-to-comprehend explanation of why fiat money is a ripoff sometime soon as well, which will help those folks who don't immediately get how much better gold is than USD.

A properly secured wallet with bitcoin is in my opinion the safest, most secure, best all-around bet for holding wealth at this moment in history. Go ahead, call me crazy. They've been calling me crazy since 2013.
https://pgp.mit.edu/pks/lookup?op=get&search=0x2FDBDDB5A65EF399
https://churchofbitcoin.org/
http://rompfamily.com/
http://provideapp.com/
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August 11, 2013, 02:17:43 PM
 #20

Bitcoin is digital gold with a few added features for convenience and security.  Gold 2.0  Grin

I find keeping it short and simple is most effective.

Counterfeit:  made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive:  merriam-webster
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