The Bloke seemed far away even though I could hear him breathe. He was digging into his third Eggs Benedict in two weeks. Across the table, The Mrs, who typically must tell me what to have and when, said out loudly, “See, I told you to order the same! See how inviting it is?” A bit too loudly, as a sweet young thing a table away looked up at us. The Lady joined her sister in a chorus, “Try it, it’s really good,” as she shoved towards my face a fork crowned with a bit of English muffin and pale bacon, messily dripping a trail of golden yellow sauce on our table. Legend has it that it was a hungover Wall Street broker, Lemuel Benedict, who, whilst breakfasting at the Waldorf Hotel, ordered a buttered toast and asked for it to be topped with poached eggs, crispy bacon and hollandaise sauce. The Bloke did not look up as he challenged himself to pierce at a bigger portion of the poached egg. The two and a half years away from his Adelaide home have been kind to him, I deduced. I had not noticed any drastic physical changes in him. Still youngish-looking, his powerful sonorous voice still lands him the status of ‘Best Singer’ in our circle, our ‘Perry Como’ or more accurately our ‘Lau Tak Wah’ since his array of all-time favourites are all Mandarin songs. But, this time round, after the Covid-enforced absence, he is less inclined to sing. Our karaoke sessions, which used to be held nightly, were memorable, loud and fun. We have not sung together for more than three times in the three weeks they have been here. Maybe the last time I sang, I was off-key, lost confidence and became low key. Singing makes us happy. Yet, I can’t help but think we only sing when we are happy. Something is amiss, I thought as he shoved the final piece of muffin into his mouth. He had been looking down at his plate so much that morning that I could not help notice the alarming rate of hair thinning that was going on at the centre of his scalp. Right at that moment, I could not decide which was worse, a glabrous section on the scalp or sparse areas on the head. I looked at the sleeve of my threadbare jacket and decided on the latter.
The Bloke looked at me with sad eyes. Was he sad or sad for me, I wondered. He spoke about an old friend of his whose story would make a stoic man cry. “He is a really kind man, but much maligned and misunderstood, even by his wife,” The Bloke said. Although I did not know this ragged man in ragged clothes, I could easily sympathise with him; how even the most hardened of men could feel their sanity ebb away under a deluge of misfortune, bad timing and worst luck. When I first sang Don Mclean’s ‘Vincent’, I was still a teenager living in Penang. I had no clue that the song was about Vincent van Gogh, who I revered decades later as the greatest of all artists bar perhaps the old master, Rembrandt van Rijn. As The Bloke related the stories about his beautiful old friend to me, the lyrics of the song played loudly in my head. I imagined a destitute man with a weathered face that was lined in pain, flailing under swirling clouds in violet haze, as he tried to set himself free. With eyes that know the darkness in his soul, and when no hope was left inside his troubled mind, The Bloke advised him to let go and not cling to his losses. “But he would not listen,” The Bloke said. Just like in the song, he’s not listening still, perhaps he never will. I felt he is like a stranger that I have met, in a world that was never meant for people with beautiful souls.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He lost everything. Every time.” The Bloke said.
“Sounds like me,” I said before adding, “except I lost a lot, every time, not quite everything.”
Not quite everything, but still, it was bad enough every time. Bad enough for The Mrs to be scarred for life; bad enough to lose my credibility and tarnish the aura of responsibility and dependability I had promised The Mrs. Bad enough this time to want to start again. But, suffering a big economic loss is incomparable to losing The Mrs’ trust and respect. Besides love, trust and respect were the other big pillars that made me strong, confident and relevant. Losing those was a heavy price which took years to remedy. The money I lost from making dud investments was just a temporary setback. Money lost can be earned again. In 1987, I lost what was equivalent to the value of an apartment in Coogee. I was 29, and had lots of years to fix that. Which I did. When I lost big again in 2008, I was 50. I knew I still had time to fix my losses, but I also knew that the next 10-15 years were vital to how I write the final chapters of my life. I had read somewhere that Colonel Sanders did not franchise his KFC business till he was 62, and that gave me the energy to continue with gusto. The two sharemarket crashes felt like they were my doing. The market was booming each time, until I betted big on my share portfolios. On both occasions. As soon as I did, the market crashed. Bad timing? Bad omen? The Mrs said it was my bad karma. I had so much bad luck I could crash the markets. She made me promise not to ever buy shares again or else.
“Or else?” I asked.
But, the answer was clear and I did not require a reply from her. There would be no ‘next time”. If I were to be so bold or reckless to invest again in the sharemarket, it would be the trigger for a divorce.
“What happened to your friend?” I asked The Bloke.
“Is his wife leaving him?” I asked insensitively.
“Like you, he lost most of his investments in 1987 and 2008. But he also lost big in 1997, during the Asian Financial Crisis,” The Bloke said.
“So, he avoided the stock markets like a plague, and invested in real estate instead,” he said as he sipped the last drop of cappuccino from his cup.
“Shall I get you another cup?” I asked, not wanting him to end his story too quickly. But, as is usually the case with me, I spoke too softly and too unclearly. He didn’t hear me and didn’t ask me to repeat what I said.
“He bought a townhouse in the city,” he continued.
“Off the plan. So foolish,” The Bloke said.
There had been stubborn rumours the builder will follow two other builders who were giants in the construction industry and file for bankruptcy. That morning’s news of the CEO’s sudden death had forced the company to deny those rumours again. A few weeks earlier, The Bloke’s old friend had celebrated after hearing prices for building raw materials had shot through the roof after months of supply shocks due to pandemic-related manufacturing and shipping issues. He had locked in the low price with a fixed-price contract.
“He bought it cheap two years ago, the real estate market has gone up 20-30% easily since then, and inflation has made building costs gone up even more,” The Bloke said.
But, we know never to trust builders, especially builders that are facing high costs escalations. First, they wrote to say they needed to lower the ceiling heights by 300mm on the third floor, spinning excuses that the air-cond ducting was too bulky to fit under the roof beams and the city council had height restrictions in place to prevent them from building higher. Lower the ceiling height meant lowering costs. “Yeah, I wouldn’t believe that story,” I said without industry knowledge and without evidence. The Bloke said as a compromise, they would install a bulkhead in the bedrooms with linear grilles to make it aesthetically modern instead of the ceiling grilles.
“Let me draft a letter for him,” I offered.
Later that morning, I emailed the draft to The Bloke. It went like this:
“Whilst I appreciate the attempt to remedy the loss of 12% of the ceiling height to the two bedrooms and bathrooms, the eventual loss in amenity and value of our properties is too much to accept. Your proposal to “fix” the air-conditioning ductworks by way of the bulkhead and linear grille seems to be a reasonable compromise to avoid further delays to the project, and the gesture to install extra lights to the bathrooms is also commendable but we remain unhappy with the outcome of lower ceiling heights.
In Stone v Chappel, the plaintiffs were awarded a financial compensation for the loss of amenity and enjoyment of the property as per the contractual agreement. In that case, they only lost 48mm, here we are looking at a loss of 300mm. Aside from the loss of property value, there is also the loss of amenity that is difficult to value.
This breach of contract on your part has a cost but currently, the cost is for the buyer to bear solely. We need to address this so that the outcome is a fairer compensation for us.”
But, even as I drafted the letter, I felt it would be a total waste of time, if the builder folded. Memories of my old trauma came back to haunt me. Poor guy, I would hate to be in his shoes. He would face a huge financial loss if the builder folded, but a potential lawsuit if they didn’t.
“Worse was to come for him,” The Bloke said, as he sipped his coffee from the cup I had just paid for.
“My friend owns an online business that sells after-market products for cars,” The Bloke said.
“Last week, Toyota sued him for selling counterfeit goods,” he said, as his eyes looked sadder and sadder, and his brows furrowed into a stubborn knot.
“That is sad indeed,” I said whilst thinking of how the old man would cope with another big lawsuit at the same time.
“Why did he do such a stupid thing?” I asked, and assumed he knew full well the risks of selling anything that might hint of piracy.
“No, the goods he sells are after-market goods made to suit Toyota cars,” The Bloke defended his pal. They are branded in some obscure names, certainly not Toyota, yet the car giant saw fit to flex their financial muscle and sent Clayton Utz to pursue this small business owner.
“When you’re down, you get kicked one more time,” I unhelpfully added.
“Bad luck comes in threes,” I said.
“What is the third?” I insensitively asked.
“He got scammed by Bitcoin,” The Bloke said in an almost disparaging tone.
“I told him not to be fooled by these snake oil salesmen,” The Bloke continued.
The Mrs was sitting across the table from me, so I did the only wise thing and bit my lips until they bled. It was not the place and time for me to speak. In their eyes, I had no such credentials to question let alone challenge The Bloke’s opinions about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. He has the runs on the board. He has made a reputation for hitting massive sixes and scoring quick centuries, to borrow a cricket parlance. He has the Midas touch turning almost anything into gold whereas in The Mrs’ eyes, the only thing I am good for is my tendency to score golden ducks.
As if prompted by the current demise in the crypto market, a friend posted a 10-minute report by The Economist yesterday. A Hongkonger friend commented, “Gambling. One word to summarise Bitcoin.” So, I asked him for his one thousand word summary instead, “so that we can fully understand why you say that,” I said. The Hongkonger simply brushed me aside, stating that a thousand word thesis is not a summary. Unhappy with his dismissive reply, I hurled back at him more words.
“A thousand-word thesis is a summary compared to a book. Have you read the Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous before you made your one-word summary?”
“If not, whose works have you researched before you boldly made your one-word summary?”
“Besides, your one-word summary does not explain why Bitcoin can be viewed as a philosophy or as a useful form of money that can stop the wars that don’t end.”
“But I’m really keen to know how many hours’ research you’ve put in to make this one-word summary. The accuracy or quality of your summary may well depend on the quality of your research, right?”
“Also, it would be interesting to know what event (or events) this wager you refer to has to happen in order to win the bet.”
“Firstly when a report describes Satoshi Nakamoto as a shady character when they mean anonymous, it already hints of their negative bias.”
“Secondly, Bitcoin has not suddenly become volatile, it has always been. If you understand Metcalfe’s Law, then you’d understand why. Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer dropped 90% of its value in its nascent years. Same reason. That’s what happens in the S curve of any new technological innovation.”
“Thirdly, the Economist is dishonest, to say the least, about Bitcoin being responsible for wasteful energy consumption and equating it to a big contributor of climate change. The cartoon depicting miners using olden day trucks and chains transporting black ore is a sly way to reinforce this FUD (news or propaganda to create fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the blockchain technology. Bitcoin mining actually uses less power than all washing machines and clothes dryers combined, and they do not compete in the use of urban energy which is way too expensive for miners. About 58-63% of big miners use renewable energy and are mostly situated in deserts and places with lots of solar and hydro power. Others such as Exxon and Occidental are using their flare gas which otherwise would be energy that is simply wasted.”
“Fourthly, the report is dead wrong about Bitcoin being of no economic value as a payment system. Not surprisingly, Bill Gates echoes the same, he’s a one of the leaders of the WEF and of course they would want to spread FUD about a new money system that threatens their grip on the whole world. Proponents of fiat money are evil as they have always used their monetary power to suppress poor nations and control the masses. Fiat money funds wars!”
“Can I direct your attention to the Lightning network which sits on the Bitcoin network? Jack Maller’s Strike has already demonstrated how fast his payment system is. At the speed of light and at transactions per second bigger than PayPal and Visa and MasterCard combined, it is frictionless and therefore free. A big threat to the banks and card issuers, they signed up Shopify to integrate with tens of thousands of merchants receiving Bitcoin payments globally as US Dollars.”
“Fifthly, the underworld would not be so dumb to use Bitcoin to launder their money! Some scammers do but they are always eventually caught. Why? Because if you understand the open ledger publicly verifiable system, then you know everything is open and can be viewed and traced. It’s the permissionless and decentralised nature that the World Economic Forum WEF is afraid of. Therefore they use their organisations under their control, the IMF and central banks to spread more FUD.”
“To compare this exciting new technology to Tulips is indeed laughable! The blockchain technology will eventually be the foundation for new technologies to sit on, what is now commonly known as Web 3.0”
“The sovereign states and central banks have a self interest to suppress the price of Bitcoin by spreading FUD news so that they themselves can buy it first? Maybe!”
“If there is a 5% chance this technology will revolutionise the world, why would anyone not put 5% of their savings into it? That’s a basic thing about insurance. It is about looking at probabilities, not gambling!! And that is my summary.”
My Hongkonger friend insisted on having the last words.
“Like I said, mine was my summary of the video. I am not giving an opinion about Bitcoin.”
With no one else to talk to, I took Murray out for a meal instead. For the record, we did not touch on losers and their Bitcoin losses.