One Time At Coding Camp
A story of friendship and attempted revenge
Like all good ideas, bitcoin was conceived on a napkin. Beginning ideas hastily written between rude doodles. Abbreviations and arrows connecting the thoughts that flowed out of us. I don’t know totally how everything started, I think mostly out of spite.
Like some great friendships, Shiva and I met at camp. It was the summer after our senior years, and our parents couldn’t deal with the unstructured summer before college began, so we were shipped off to upstate NY to learn coding skills, via a summer intensive at the local college. Being the first of four kids raised by a single mom, honestly, I think she just wanted me out of the house to clear up some space.
Shiva and I met the first day. After the morning’s orientation session I was trying to take advantage of the unlimited free soda when the ice machine refused to cut off. Ice spilled over my cup and crashed onto the linoleum floor. As the sound echoed around the dining hall I hurried, trying to get the ice to stop exiting the machine.
Finally, I said after ice stopped, I bent over to help the girl who had come to my rescue, saying, “Ugh, this is so embarrassing.”
“Don’t worry I accidentally pushed someone down a flight of stairs this morning because I couldn’t see them over my laundry basket of stuff my Mom packed. I’m Shiva!” She offered her hand to me.
“Natalie,” I gratefully shook her hand.
That was about it. In every class, we would sit in the back and text each other quotes from our favorite movies. Hot Rod or Anchorman. Lunches were spent dissecting the days pop culture, and joking about whatever ridiculous thing our classmates had said.
The Coding Camp felt like class, but admittedly some stuff was fun. I feel like I grew up with the internet in so many ways, and I think my natural teenage rebellion took place on my screen. Combine that with my lack of a large friend group, well. Let’s just say I like the security of my little pixelated world. Luckily I had a talent for all things electronic so in the blur between hearing back from colleges and graduation, I found out my Mom had signed me up for the intensive.
Shiva was not into coding. Her Dad had signed her up as a way to fill up any and all free time. Shiva thinks he did it so she wouldn’t date any boys over the summer. “But he can’t stop me in college!” she would always joke. Shiva is the center of all attentions. She almost demands it, always ready with a quip or a laugh. While she refused to engage in the computer aspect, but she always made our teachers smile. Either with her questions, or her attempts to derail the lesson. She would hide behind her screen and draw during lectures. Drawing on folded-up pieces of paper and using the same black ballpoint pen. Another girl as a witch. Our professor as the devil. Sometimes even little cartoons.
Shiva was obsessed with history and math. She seemed so casual about her ever-expanding knowledge base. Every night Shiva would read political autobiographies before she went to bed. Sometimes she would text me quotes. Or we would discuss some intensely specific theory. Sometimes I felt like I was being tested, other times I think she just wanted someone to bounce ideas off of. She felt so fully formed to me, with hobbies and interests. I didn’t feel like that.
— — —
We were being lectured by the most boring man alive one Tuesday morning when Shiva decided to live up to her name. Our guest lecture for the day was an economist from Harvard. He was old and almost as pretentious as his tweed suit. As we looked up at his projector from the 80s with the words “How the Economy and Coding Intersect” written in black marker, I knew we were in for a terrible time.
Finally, Shiva interrupted his droning and asked, “Sorry, Dr. Brandon, this is all pretty interesting, but what is your opinion on e-cash. I know we have been talking about commerce, but what about digital currencies?”
He stared at her for a second and then, with a condescending laugh, said, “I don’t think there’s anything there” He tried to return to his slides when Shiva interrupted again.
“I did a project in AP Econ, and we looked at Wei Dai’s b-money and the emerging market there? I know it’s unprecedented, but the internet has already changed so much. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that currency will also be impacted?”
“I know AP Econ must have been informative, but I read the real economic journals so let’s just take my word for it, ok, young lady?”
Shiva was shocked as he continued rambling. I could feel her seething next to me for the rest of class. Too afraid to say anything on our walk to the cafeteria, I grabbed my sandwich in silence, and I was halfway through it when she threw her fork down on her tray. She whipped her lanyard around her neck with a flick of her wrist and said, “That fucker. That condescending houndstooth fucker”
“Well, he is a Harvard man.”
“Just because I’m a woman, he wouldn’t even answer my question. Wouldn’t even entertain the discussion. And I was so thrown off when he called me young lady,” she inserted a rude gesture, “that I didn’t press him. I should have pressed him.”
“We should get revenge,” I said playfully.
She leaned back in her chair, her eyes glinting.
“Not the worst of ideas.”
“Should we put ketchup in his shoes or something?” I laughed
“Or something,” she said, her mind whirring across the table. “What… What if we made our own digital cash.”
“Can we do that?”
“I mean… who’s gonna stop us. What if we built one and rubbed it in his stupid face. If we make enough noise, we could send him an article about us in the Economist or something like that.”
“I don’t know Shivs - I don’t know anything about e-cash.”
“C’mon Nat. You are the best one here. We have two more months of this stupid camp. Why not do something exciting!”
I opened up my laptop to research what I might be getting myself into while she doodled on a napkin.
“Shiva. This is big. I’ve never done anything with this scale, you know? I would have to build a blockchain, the mining protocols—also the website, and basically a whole language for transactions. Plus, the legality of this would probably be up for debate. I don’t think we could sign our names or anything.”
“That’s ok. Let me work on the revenge. But… is it possible?”
“It’s not impossible,” I said after a minute.
“She’s in,” Shiva screamed across the dining hall. Laughing, I looked at what she had been drawing on the napkin. Beside a remarkably lifelike-looking picture of Dr. Brandon’s face performing a particular sexual act was an uppercase B with two slashes drawn through it.
“Hm. That kinda looks cool, like a money symbol.”
Shiva drew a circle around it and said, “Our money symbol.”
— — —
We spent the rest of the months building what we now called Bitcoin. Not only were all my classes dedicated to building this monolith, but as the July days stretched on and August 19th loomed, I began working into the night. I would cover myself in my brother’s old duvet cover and sit in the XL long twin bed, typing away, trying not to disturb my roommate.
I never thought it would be even close to done, but as we rounded into our last week. I felt better; the blockchain was coming along. The majority of the baseline coding was done, and once I got to school, I knew I could fit it in between classes. Shiva was already planning a trip to visit me over winter break, so our official launch could come in January.
We were sitting on the lawn, our bags and books splayed around us when Shiva said, “So how is our baby coming along?”
Well, I looked up; I think we can register our domain name today.”
“Ah really,” she rolled onto her stomach to look at my screen. “This is exciting!
“I have the basic website ready to go. Obviously, the network can’t come into existence for a whole, but it’s coming along.” I said.
Nat, you’re a genius! A GD genius!” She started shaking my shoulders.
“Haha, buy a girl a soda first! You wanna hit go. Send our baby out into the world?”
Shiva looked at me, “Really?”
“Yep. Hit right there!”
With that tap on the mouse, Bitcoin was live.
We rolled over and looked up at the clouds passing by. Shiva rambled on about publishing some paper to give us some credibility, but I was being lulled to sleep by the humidity and the sound of mosquitoes in the distance.
— — —
Our coding retreat ended, and Shiva and I had our emotional goodbye. Fueled by twirlers and Diet Coke, we had stayed up the entire night before, pledging our best friend-ness to the world and promising it wouldn’t change as college approached.
Three days later, I moved into Carnegie Mellon. Although the brutalist architecture did not appeal to me, I had gotten a Women in Computers scholarship during my last semester of high school.
Shiva and I maintained tried our hand at a virtual friendship. At first, we were texting every day, calling all the time. She soon started peppering in new friend’s names and stories of parties at Penn State. Our college lives seemed so parallel sometimes but not intersecting. I found a group of friends; we found a bar that would let minors drink. So soon, my stories became tales of new friends and sometimes parties. Calls became less frequent, our texting more routine. But we had our visit over winter break.
Soon Shiva was in my tiny room in Norfolk. Spread out on the trundle bed from my childhood; she told me story after story about her college escapades. The dance floor make-outs, the various new drinks she had tried, and the boy she had lost her virginity to. It felt natural.
The second night we mined the first block of our new currency—time stamping it for any internet sleuths. Shiva was insisting the cryptocurrency forums had reacted so well to her article, but I didn’t see where this would go. How could I have known what we had scribbled on a napkin could become? It was live, and in many ways, now out of my hands.
I closed my laptop, excited to have our project finished and my friend back.
The next day I walked into my room to find her packing her bags. “I thought you were staying for the whole week?” I said.
“Nat. I told you. I’m going to Ryan’s house. His friend Gary’s Dad has a beach house in Virginia Beach. So we are having our freshman beach week. How cool is that? Can you drive me? I don’t think it’s too far away.”
I smiled, said yes because that’s what friends do, right? But I was crushed. The disillusionment of our friendship hitting me. I tried to push it down and focus on our time together, but I felt too hurt. Why didn’t she want to spend time with me?
I dropped her off and watched her wave and strode away. As I turned back, I couldn’t help but burst into tears. I didn’t realize how much it would hurt to lose our friendship. To lose what I thought we had. She was my first real friend, and to misunderstand your value to someone so tremendously shook me.
We didn’t talk much after that. I sent some other big programmers some bitcoins. Get them interested. I wanted out of the project. I had mined myself some bitcoins in case it ever turned a profit. I was simply the programmer for Shiva’s passion project, and I didn’t know if I wanted that role anymore.
— — —
Junior year was the hardest and the most freeing time of my college career so far, but we were nearing the end of the tunnel. I was almost done with my intensive major classes, after finally declaring computer science. I lived off-campus with three of my closest girlfriends in a complex, with half of our other friends cycling in and out on various study abroad semesters. Finals started next week, and I was trying not to feel overwhelmed with the number of projects I had due before the break.
We were all cooking dinner in our tiny apartment, trying not to burn anything, when I heard a knock at the door. I ran to open it, and I was shocked to find Shiva dripping wet on my doorstep.
“Hi, Shiva - Uh, it’s been a while.” We stared at each other for a second before I ushered her inside and took her wet rain jacket.
“I won’t stay long, and I know you probably don’t want to hear from me.”
“No, it’s really good to see you actually.” And it was, I felt softer towards her. My hurt lessened by the years passed and the relationships that had filled her space.
“It’s awesome to see you, and, sorry, I know it seems stalkerish to just show up, but I called your home phone talked to your Mom because I had to deliver this in person.”
“She handed me a receipt.”
“Cool? Should I put it on the refrigerator or something?”
“Ugh, Nat. This is a receipt from a Pizza Hut. Our Bitcoin, she said quietly, was used as legal tender. It’s happening!”
I looked at the tiny printed piece of paper, our copy of the ledger, and laughed with her.
“I can’t believe it.”
“I know. I’m going to mail it to Harvard and rub his nose in it. Who knows, it might take off!”
I smiled, almost believing it. “Who knows.”
“Well, she paused. I’m gonna run, my friend is in the car, but I wanted to tell you in person. Also, my number is still the same, so if you want to call. I-I miss you a lot Nat. I know I was -”
“Hey, uh - water under the bridge. I’ll call. I should go too. My roommates are definitely burning the stir-fry.”
“Smells like it,” she chuckled. As she walked down the stairs of my walk-up, she yelled back over her shoulder, “Also, I sent you half the original bitcoins. Might be worth something one day ya know!”