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Nathan's column: How many for an extra life?

I've been hearing a lot lately about Bitcoins, which are a kind of Internet-based money that's real in the same way Kate Upton is really my Internet girlfriend. Which is to say, if I try hard enough I might be able to convince a few nerds, but most of the world will just look at me like I'm crazy.

OK, that's not entirely true. Bitcoins are real in that they are a thing that exists. There is a finite number of them, and you can spend actual cash to acquire them.

There are places where you can spend them. Most of those places are online, but according to one report I heard this week you can also use them to pay for your room at Howard Johnson's. You can use them to buy alpaca socks, which I'm pretty sure are socks made out of alpaca fiber and not socks for your alpaca.

So far as I can tell, you can't use Bitcoins to buy an alpaca.

Still, Bitcoins are a bit of an oddity. They are not backed by any government. They don't even have a physical form. They're like the coins you collect in a game of Super Mario Bros., only you can use them to buy baklava on the Internet.

Nothing you can use to buy baklava can be all bad, can it?

The value of the coins can vary dramatically depending on how much people believe in them. When I first heard about them a few years ago they had already gone through their first big boom and bust. They could be had for just a few cents each, and I kicked myself for not getting on board earlier. I figured they had run their course and would return to being the tool of shady people who wanted an untraceable currency to buy shady things from shady places.

How shady? Consider that alongside listings for delicious Greek pastries, the site has a listing for someone who will take your cyber-money for downloads that provide "erotic self hypnosis." I'm not sure what that is, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want anybody to know I was spending money on it.

Now, it seems Bitcoins are back in a big way. According to one website, the going rate for Bitcoins this week was $234.50. That means if I had invested $20 in 2010, when they were going for 14 cents, I could conceivably cash in today for roughly $33,500, assuming I could find someone with a lot of spare cash and a burning need for erotic self hypnosis.

That's a big profit without having done anything. And then I definitely would have called Kate Upton.

I didn't do any of that, of course. I laughed at the people I assumed had invested in the online equivalent of Beanie Babies. Now they're probably all hanging out with bikini models and I don't even have a pair of fuzzy socks to comfort myself with.

All I can do now is tell myself it can't last. Eventually, everybody on the Internet will get distracted by a new cat video, or whatever comes after the Harlem Shake. Then they'll all forget about Bitcoins again and the value will fall.

But I'll still have Super Mario.