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How to Backup Your Bitcoins–In Your Head

When you think about it, cryptocurrency is a pretty terrifying investment. Besides the perpetual fear of hacks and scams, we’re all putting our wealth at the mercy of very fragile machinery. Hard drives can get damaged or misplaced; files get corrupted; and even paper wallets deteriorate with age. Even if you do everything else right, a house fire or flood could destroy your savings. 

Serious coiners devise elaborate failsafes involving bank vaults, fireproof safes, and wallets buried in the backyard. One hardcore hodler even suggests carving your seed words on titanium plates—an artifact which would certainly puzzle future archaeologists if Crypto doesn’t catch on. 

But the simplest, cheapest backup is also the one easiest to overlook—your brain.

The Simplest Cold Storage Is Your Own Memory

Now, at this point I can hear most of you objecting: “How the heck I supposed to memorize my wallet? I can’t even remember my f****ing password. You’d have to be Rainman to remember that.”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Not only can you use your memory to backup your wallet, but with this trick, it’s going to be easy. You could do it in less time than it takes to finish reading this article.

You don’t even need a good memory. Remember the days before cell phones, when you had to memorize all your friends’ phone numbers? I don’t; that’s how terrible my memory is. But even with the brain of a stoned goldfish, my memory is still strong enough to reliably back up my wallet data. 

 It’s so easy, even the guy from Memento could do it. 

You should probably not get a tattoo of your private keys.

The Seed Story: A Five-Minute Trick to Easy Memorization

Most modern wallets, hardware or software, provide a recovery phrase—a list of twelve to twenty-four random words which can be used to derive your private keys, even if you lose your wallet files. This seed should always be generated randomly, never by a human.  You did write your seed down somewhere, didn’t you?

 Here’s a sample seed phrase, generated by the Coinomi app. It’s eighteen words long, but once you get the hang of the trick you can store 24 words just as easily.

(Note: This example is just for demonstration. You should probably focus on memorizing your own.)

plate kiwi large nothing harbor task grape envelope picnic step elite fold prepare decade certain typical crush chest

Which is still a lot of words to fit in your head, especially for something as valuable as bitcoins. To squeeze it all in, we’re going to use one of the oldest tricks in the book: making a pointless, silly story which combines these words into some very eccentric imagery.

It works because the human brain, which is terrible at remembering words and numbers, is also really good at remembering faces and pictures. The more you personalize your story (for example, by including familiar people and places) the harder it is to forget.

This is one of the earliest memory techniques. It dates back to Ancient Greece, and has been popularized(and bastardized) many times in fiction. Sherlock Holmes and Hannibal Lecter were both supposed masters of the craft, and the real-life mentalist Derren Brown describes using it to get through Law School. 

“Plate of Kiwis, please. And a large nothing.”

To begin, imagine a dinner party in your childhood home. Everyone in the family receives a plate with nothing but a colossal kiwi fruit, and a huge empty cup.(A large nothing.”) This absurd visual helps you remember the first four words very easily: Plate kiwi, large nothing.

 

For the next four, I picture myself joining a group of stevedores at work unloading a ship—except instead of heaving huge crates, they are gingerly handling envelopes filled with grapes.  The more ridiculous an image is, the harder it is to forget, so I like to imagine the workers delicately pinching the envelopes one at a time, terrified of popping a single grape. That picture makes the next four words a breeze: Harbor task grape envelope. 

Once you get used to it, the rest is a piece of cake. I won’t bore you with the details, but to lock in the rest of this seed I concocted an elaborate tale involving a black-tie picnic on the courthouse steps, an aristocratic ironing contest(“elite fold”), and an obsessive ten-year scheme to woo my high school crush (who was not typical, but happened to have a very nice chest).

My story does not make for good bedtime reading, but after minute or so I could instantly recall every word, in order.

Here’s my first go at re-typing the words, without peeking:

plate kiwi large nothing

harbor task grape envelope

picnic step elite fold

prepare decade certain typical

crush chest

See? I told you it was easy. 

After that, remembering your seed is just a matter of mentally retelling your story once in a while—which is faster than a visit to the bathroom. I can recite my seed phrases twice in the time it takes me to get to work, and I work from home. 

Obviously, it’s not foolproof. You should still keep a backup or three, with long, secure passwords, in case you’re in an accident or succumb to some memory-devouring illness. But memorizing your seed will make you feel a lot more control over your coins, and a lot less panicked the next time you misplace your Trezor.

Oh, and one more thing: no matter how funny your seed story is, don’t share it with anyone else.

About Andrew

The author is a starving writer and a shiftless traveller to antique lands. After many adventures in China, Iran, India, and South America, he made a tiny fortune in Bitcoin, which he prompty squandered on Cryptokitties. He now spends his time dodging his creditors and reading fanfiction to the blind.

His writing and photography can be found in several magazines and websites. Some of them are pretty good.

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