Bitcoin is beyond understanding, but e-cigs might be worth a try

I feel out of the cultural loop these days, as I try to follow the news. I can't wrap my mind around bitcoins and I'm not sure what an e-cig is.

Pretend cigarettes? Virtual money? It's all too tech-centric for me.


If you're also confused about the bitcoin system, here's how Wikipedia explains it:

"Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer payment system and digital currency introduced as open source software in 2009.... It is a cryptocurrency, so-called because it uses cryptography to control the creation and transfer of money."

In other words, loading your computer wallet with virtual bitcoins can require solving online math puzzles that are considerably more difficult than gaming "Candy Crush."

That puts it off limits for me.

Its attraction is anonymity. The bitcoin system keeps spending private; no names, no banks, no credit cards. Its "stewardship is algorithmically determined and cryptographically protected," its promoters promise.

So you can use it to buy a couch from (one of the online shopping venues already onboard) and the company won't know who you are — until they see your name and address on the delivery form. You can use it to clandestinely purchase illegal drugs online — unless the feds shut down the dealer's website as they did last fall.

And while some consider the system a path to riches — the value of each digital coin rose dramatically as the craze took hold — it's also turned out to be a way to go broke, in spectacular fashion.

The world's largest bitcoin exchange, where consumers buy and store virtual coins, collapsed last month. Gone — likely stolen, the company says — are more than $450 million worth of bitcoins that only existed online. The company is now trying to recover the old-fashioned way, by filing for bankruptcy.

I'm not surprised that cyber thieves may have sabotaged the process. As far as I'm concerned, if I'm using my computer to make a transaction, it's not private at all.

Before I finish writing this column, an ad inviting me to join a bitcoin club will probably land in my in box.


I won't be acquiring bitcoins any time soon, but I could be talked into trying an e-cig.

A visit on Saturday to the Vapor Spot in Sherman Oaks made the "vaping" process seem as pleasant as wine-tasting or savoring a good cup of tea.

About a dozen people, most of them young, were seated in the airy lounge on couches and bar stools, sampling flavored liquids that create the vapors produced by e-cigs. The devices, in various finishes and styles, look more like fat cigars than cigarettes and range from $35 to more than $200. They have a wire coil that heats the liquid — which can be laced with nicotine — until it vaporizes. Users inhale then expel the vapor, like smoke from a cigarette.

Owner John Jenkins has three vapor bars in Los Angeles and is opening another this weekend in Sacramento.

"Our tens of thousands of clients include A-list celebrities, roving packs of grandmas from the senior center and an extremely normal cross-section of everyday L.A. people," he said.

Vapor lounges seem to be popping up everywhere, like marijuana dispensaries — or like yogurt shops and nail salons, depending on whether you consider e-cigarettes a dangerous drug-delivery tool or a harmless lifestyle choice.

The City Council came down on the drug-delivery side last week, voting to ban use of the devices in Los Angeles parks, restaurant, bars, offices and other public spots, and banishing "vapers" to the sidewalk alongside cigarette smokers.

The "vape community" thinks that's unfair; that the ban will make it hard for cigarette smokers to manage their cravings and wean themselves from tobacco.

But the limitations seem right to me. If you're a smoker, you've already adjusted to restrictions on lighting up. And if you've already managed to kick the habit, the last thing you need is some guy on the barstool next to you blowing vapor rings.

There's no consensus yet about e-cigs' effect on teens; they've only been around since 2009. Some studies say they might improve health prospects of youth who smoke by supplanting tobacco. Others suggest that young people who might never touch cigarettes will be primed to consider smoking acceptable if they learn on e-cigs to inhale.

California prohibits the sale of e-cigs to anyone under 18, but I've heard middle-schoolers bragging about the fun of vaping. That's reason enough to steer grown-up vapers to private bars and lounges, out of sight of impressionable young minds.

I could see, hanging out in the Vapor Spot, why adults might like it.

For some it's the familiarity, the hand-to-mouth movement that mimics the rituals of a cigarette habit. For others, it's a prop that makes it easy to socialize.

There's a vape community now of gourmets and hobbyists; connoisseurs who customize expensive vape pens, seek out vape clubs, sponsor vape meets, hang out at vape lounges for hours, mixing palate-pleasing e-cig fuel from flavored liquid samples.

"It's less about the act of vaping and more a communal thing," said a Vapor Spot employee, whose job seemed part bartender, part barista; mixing, teaching, chatting customers up. "It's like a steaming cup of good coffee, after a meal."

I suspect the new regulations will feed that culture, not starve it.

In fact, I think investing in vapor bars might be smarter than mining bitcoins right now.