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My Bitcoin Story

(Or how I lost a million pounds I never had).

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Trade with Gox and lose the lot.


Until the beginning of 2013 I worked with Michael Taylor, who was a manager and promoter of stand-up comedians, specialising in representing Scandinavian and other foreign performers in the UK. His career developed with his friendship with Magnus Betnér, and progressed via his directorship of Comedy Café Management. By the beginning of 2013 he had established a very promising reputation in the industry.

From the time he started out in comedy management I was his primary assistant. He was very much the driving force behind the organisation, but I believe I brought some useful qualities to the party. I had been active on the open-spot stand-up circuit, especially in the mid to late 1990s, so I was known by several people who subsequently became established. They may not necessarily have liked me or my performance style, but they knew who I was. I brought my experience to the enterprise, which Michael with his considerable networking skills could exploit. He provided the social skills, I supplied the anti-social skills.

Then in mid-January 2013 Michael collapsed and was taken into hospital. For a few weeks I hoped he might eventually recover, but it became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen. The diagnosis was advanced oesophageal cancer. Additionally the episode had caused a brain injury, which appeared very like the vascular dementia my mother had. I had been my mother’s principal carer for a few months before her condition deteriorated. I visited Michael a few times in Kettering Hospital, and it was heart-breaking to see him, a physically and mentally very active man a decade younger than me, in that condition.

The tenth anniversary of my mother’s death fell in April, and I visited her grave in Warrington on the occasion. With the emotion of that anniversary, and the emotion of losing the Michael I knew before his illness, it was in retrospect not a good time to attempt rational decisions of any kind. I succeeded in becoming the April Fool of 2013.

At the beginning of April 2013 I owned a quantity of bitcoin in a Bitcoin Armory setup. Armory was open source software which ran in two environments, online and offline. I used an old Windows XP PC to run the offline version, and the online version was on my Internet connected PC. It was a very secure setup. It didn’t matter that Windows on the offline PC was not secure, the PC was there to provide “cold storage” and would never be connected to the Internet. To transfer out bitcoin I had to fire up the cold storage PC, copy the encryption keys onto a USB stick, transfer it to the online PC, and then make the transaction via the Internet.

That’s how I transferred all my bitcoin to the MTGOX Bitcoin exchange in April 2013, where I sold the whole lot. Worse, I didn’t get my cash out of the exchange before it collapsed at the beginning of 2014. After that, I didn’t want to think or talk about Bitcoin any more, for fear of being ridiculed by two sets of people, those who said that everything to do with Bitcoin was a fraud, and those (admittedly fewer at the time) who said I should have stuck with Bitcoin. Furthermore I only had myself to blame for failing to perform due diligence on the clown-car of an organisation that was MTGOX.

The amounts involved were pretty substantial. At the beginning of April 2013 I owned a three figure amount of BTC in my cold storage Armory wallet. If I’d sold 90 percent and kept the rest I’d still be substantially better off than I am now. My life would be somewhat less hand-to-mouth. As it is, I’ve lost all the speculative cash I got together to invest in Bitcoin in 2012. I may or may not get something back, depending on the workings of the Japanese bankruptcy courts.

Close but no e-cigar.

Oxford University redefines “Progressive”.

 

Keith McLauchlan, former Chemistry Fellow, writes on the Hertford College website:

“Hertford operated a uniquely progressive admissions system, so progressive that other (Oxford University) colleges consistently attempted to expel us from the system.”

What was progressive about awarding the chemistry “open” scholarship in my year to Paul Rowlinson, privately educated son of Professor Sir John Shipley Rowlinson, Oxford University’s “Dr Lees” Professor of Chemistry? With three A-level grade “A”s, and neither of my parents educated beyond the age of 14, why did I deserve only a “place”? Why did Hertford not acknowledge my state school achievements?

I fear Dr McLauchlan perceived it, perhaps unconsciously, against his interest to prevent the situation where “things conspired” to sabotage my career. It could have been embarrassing to him if I, the only other chemistry student, performed better than his faculty’s professor’s son, when the latter had been awarded the scholarship.

Dr McLauchlan’s own career progressed subsequently. K.A. McLauchlan and Sir John Rowlinson are both currently named among Oxford’s list of twenty or so “Emeritus Chemistry Professors”.

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Hertford’s website explains in the same document that “Hertford’s initiative challenged the status quo and was unpopular with vested interests”. It was certainly against my vested interests. I gave up a place at Manchester to take the one at Hertford. Manchester made the same offer as Hertford, (two “E”s at A-level, I achieved three “A”s). I look at the Nobel prizes won by Manchester University in recent years (1993 for work on DNA, and 2010 for graphene), and have no doubt, that could have been me! Why not?

If I’d taken the place at Manchester and had the kind of accommodation problems I suffered in high-rent Oxford (Hertford allocated its own accommodation preferentially to scholarship holders), I could have commuted from my parents’ home in Warrington. I am sure I wouldn’t have had the career-destroying final examination outcome I had in Oxford.

Hertford College’s “progressive admissions system” only progressed the college’s interests at my expense.

Ken Dodd remembered.

I saw Ken Dodd on two occasions 34 years apart – once with my parents at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool in 1969, and once with a friend (Mike D.) at the Parr Hall Warrington on 30th December 2003. I think the new year’s eve’s eve show was an annual event, Warrington being conveniently just up the road from Liverpool. I went in 2003 when I was temporarily living back in Warrington after my mother died.

The Blackpool show was a mere two hours I think, but the event at the Parr Hall kicked off with a sold-out audience at 7.30pm, and continued on well after midnight, with the audience decimated by fatigue and the constraints of public transport hour by hour.

I’d recently watched “Goodfellas” on DVD and it amused me to find that one of his gags was one told by “King of the one-liners, Henny Goodman” in the Goodfellas cabaret scene. I suppose if you live long enough, you get legitimately to inherit everybody else’s material.

For extreme nostalgia, I watched on youtube the 1963 interview with Gay Byrne of Ken Dodd and the Beatles, at the Granada Studios for “Scene at 6.30”. Ken Dodd was 36 and John Lennon was 23, and there’s some highly entertaining 60’s banter.

So that’s another connection to childhood memories gone into history, like Arthur Askey and, almost, George Formby. Never much cared for Ken’s singing though.

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Sunset over the Mersey estuary

Suing Oxford University

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Oxford University

Faiz Siddiqui, a former student of Brazenose College, Oxford, is suing Oxford University because “negligent teaching” caused him to underachieve in his final exams, damaging his subsequent career. I can sympathise.

Mr. Siddiqui was awarded a second class degree, when he expected a first. I left Oxford with an unclassified degree, when I might reasonably have expected a first. The letter from Hertford College stating my finals results admits as much. “With your ability you should have been at the other end of the school” it says, and “things conspired to cause you to do much less well than you should.” It doesn’t say to what extent Hertford College caused or could have prevented those circumstances.

Staff at Hertford College may have perceived it to be in their interests to neglect my academic progress. The only other chemistry student in my year, awarded the college’s only chemistry scholarship, was the son of one of Oxford University’s own chemistry professors. How would the Professor have reacted if the son underachieved and I didn’t?

I didn’t know until recently that other Oxford University colleges threatened to expel Hertford College from their common system because of its student recruitment policies (the Tanner Scheme). Hertford claims on its website that “Hertford’s initiative challenged the status quo and was unpopular with vested interests”, but I believe it was unethical. Hertford’s student recruitment depended on encouraging state school headmasters to bully or otherwise persuade students to apply for admission to Hertford straight from school. Today many academic institutions encourage students to take a gap year. Instead my own school headmaster behaved weirdly and inappropriately and caused me to believe he could be vindictive if he didn’t get what he wanted, encouraged I believe by Hertford College.

Neither Hertford College nor my Warrington state school told me that Hertford’s recruitment methods were anything but traditional. My father’s education ended at age fourteen, my mother’s at twelve, they couldn’t advise me.

Giles Coren wrote of Faiz Siddiqui “If you want to be taught and pass exams and become a lawyer, don’t you go to a red brick? Or Cambridge? Oxford is for drinking and playing tennis and nicking books out of the Bod under your cricket jumper and lobbing them at punting tourists from Magdalen Bridge.” It’s a pity for me he wasn’t around to advise me. If I had taken the year out, which I wanted, no doubt I would eventually have gone to Manchester or Cambridge.

Almost ten years after I left Oxford University, a senior manager at TSB Bank, where I was employed, told me I couldn’t be promoted on an already restricted career path, commenting “you had trouble at university, didn’t you?” Those people who say your university record doesn’t matter after ten years are not telling the truth.

Hertford College cheated me out of the career my A-level grade “A”s deserved. I’d be happier and more successful in a career and in my relationships, and I’d have avoided much unpleasantness, but for Hertford College, Oxford.

Terrorism jinx?

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Benazir Bhutto

I’ve met three people subsequently murdered by terrorists in three different countries.

John Stevenson was Treasurer of TSB Bank Computer Division (Wythenshawe) Sports and Social Association. I was secretary of the same club, though not at the same time. He was killed with his wife and two daughters in the Pan Am Flight 103 (Lockerbie) bombing on Dec 21, 1988.

I met Benazir Bhutto, who twice became Prime Minister of Pakistan, at the Oxford Union in 1974. She was assassinated in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007.

Andreas Liveras was at a Greek Orthodox Christian community social event I attended in 2000. He was in India on business when murdered by terrorists in the Mumbai massacre on 27 November 2008.

Stay safe, people!

Killing my first German.

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My father couldn’t spell “Italian” but he was meticulous when dealing with mines and booby traps.  His commanding officer had a different skill set. He could spell “Italian” but was killed by a butterfly mine.

“I shot my first German when I was your age” is what my father said when I told him I was leaving Oxford. He occasionally told stories about the War, but that was the only time he said anything about killing.

I had discussed Oxford with him when I was still at school. “You’ll make a good chemist” he said. Based on my school academic record, that seemed obvious. I doubt he knew about my school headmaster locking me in the examination room after I arrived late for the entrance exam, and the headmaster’s subsequent weirdness. I didn’t tell my father, and I doubt my mother said anything. My father left school at fourteen, and my mother at twelve, so they didn’t have the information to advise me academically.

Dad was right, though. If I’d been able to take a detached, unemotional view, I’d have put in the minimum laboratory work to pick up my third class degree, and used the time to try whatever Oxford had to offer. If Oxford University had somebody to mentor me, and who was on my side, that attitude might have been sold to me.

I panicked. Going straight to Oxford from a working class background seemed like a terrible mistake. If I had taken a year out, I’d be collecting my first class degree, or at worst a very good second, from Manchester, or perhaps a suitable Cambridge college, at the same time I was due to collect my third class degree after four years of chemistry at Oxford. I was distraught. I felt the need to get out and correct the mistake as soon as possible, although rationally it was never likely to be possible. Window punching was definitely not a rational response.

The chemistry tutor at Hertford College showed no apparent interest in encouraging me to stay. I only spoke to him very occasionally after my finals humiliation. Perhaps he was embarrassed about Hertford College’s chemistry open scholarship having been awarded to the Oxford University chemistry professor’s son, when I, the only other chemistry student, received just a place, in spite of my three A-level grade “A”s. His only encouragement – “In ten years’ time, you’ll wonder what you were worried about”, he said.

He amongst others have described Hertford as a “progressive” Oxford college, as does Hertford College’s promotional literature. What was so progressive about awarding the college’s only chemistry scholarship to the Oxford University chemistry professor’s son?

Lord Pannick’s Marxist Tutor.

Hertford College Law tutor Roy Stuart hosted a cheese and wine party in the College’s Old Hall in honour of a member of Salvador Allende’s deposed government, one evening in late 1973. I was incorrect in thinking the guest of honour had been the Chilean foreign secretary. Still it felt exciting to shake the hand of somebody of international significance, whoever it was. I was more socialistically inclined in those years than I am now, and I was surprised that my friend Chris M., then describing himself as a Marxist, refused to attend. Feeling socially unconfident, I’d have been happier with somebody I knew present. David Pannick wasn’t – he arrived a year or so later at Hertford.

People told me Roy Stuart was himself a Marxist. Apparently he attempted to support the radical socialist Rudi Dutschke, who was eventually expelled from the UK by the Heath government. Dutschke was in England in the early 1970s, recovering from a serious (eventually fatal) wounding by an assassin. I was told also that Stuart couldn’t practice Law because of a cannabis conviction. I’ve no idea how much of this was true.

I arrived in Oxford during an upsurge in radical student politics. Students occupied the Examination Schools in November 1973, and the Indian Institute the following February, demanding a central students’ union. The place seemed awash with middle class kids wearing grandad shirts and donkey jackets, mostly subsequently on fatcat salaries in the City and the media I think. Out of interest I looked inside the Schools during the occupation, but when somebody suggested I stayed I made my excuses and left.

It was a difficult time for me. I was very homesick and remorseful and felt ill much of the time. I smoked, was prone to bronchitis and ate unhealthily. Though I gave up smoking during the Christmas vacation, I suffered a fractured cheekbone in a sports accident, putting me in the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Churchill Hospital for an operation serious enough for a general anaesthetic. Then I had to find private accommodation at the end of the first academic year because unlike the only other chemistry student at Hertford College in my year, the Oxford University chemistry professor’s privately educated son, I didn’t have a scholarship award from Hertford College.

Lord Pannick wrote a brief biography after Roy Stuart’s death in the Law section of the Times (July 26, 2005, paywalled).  It reminds me that Dr. Stuart was the college Dean, “responsible for student welfare and discipline”. I believe the welfare of few students suffered more than mine. Yet I never spoke at all to Dr. Stuart. I never really got used to Oxford university terminology. If I had an instruction somewhere which stated in plain language “in case of poor welfare, see …” I think I would have been more likely to make the appropriate arrangements.

As “Dean”, Dr. Stuart just didn’t seem to me to be an approachable person. I could imagine why David Pannick would have a better rapport with him. David Pannick attended an independent school in London, I was from a state school in Warrington. Roy Stuart seemed distant and patrician. I could imagine him judging me somewhat Lumpenproletarian.

It was ultimately because of my social background, I believe, that I was never able to do justice to my A-level grade “A”s at or after Hertford. Although they spoke of equality, in practice the benefits were skewed towards the progeny of the professional middle classes. At a “progressive” Oxford college like Hertford, some animals are inevitably more equal than others.