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ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.
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ALEX: And this week, PJ, we have a Super Tech Support.
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PJ: Super Tech Support is A segment on our show where listeners write in with extraordinary unsolvable tech problems and, we decide—
ALEX: I do a great job solving them.
PJ: (laughing) we decide that you’re the person who will solve all of them.
ALEX: Yeah. And, um, I actually have kind of a doozy this week.
PJ: What have you got?
ALEX: Um, so this Super Tech Support comes to us from one of my favorite writers.
ALEX: First thing is first, can you just tell me who you are?
JIA TOLENTINO: I’m Jia Tolentino, I’m a staff writer at the New Yorker.
ALEX: And you emailed us.
JIA: Yes I did.
ALEX: Can you tell me why you emailed us?
JIA: I emailed you guys because I bought bitcoin in what I thought was 2011 but I think was January, 2012. I bought some bitcoin because I had read Adrian Chen’s piece on Gawker about Silk Road, and I was like, “I wanna see if I can learn how to buy bitcoin and find out what the dark web is.”
ALEX: Jia told me that, at the time, she’d just gotten back from a year in the Peace Corps, she was in Kyrgyzstan and she’d had very little access to the internet.
JIA TOLENTINO: And so I got re-acquainted with the internet by buying some bitcoin and then buying some drugs off Silk Road, and then being like, “Wow, the internet’s tight!” And then I like sampled a couple things.
ALEX: What did you settle on for what you wanted to buy?
JIA: I think I bought weed and Molly.
ALEX: And [clears throat] how were the drugs?
JIA: I think they were fine. I actually think the weed was not that good, and I think the molly was molly so it was great. (laughing)
ALEX: Jia says that she bought about 80 bucks worth of bitcoin for this drug purchase, and she knows that there was bitcoin left over. But, in the 6 years since the original purchase, she has totally forgotten what happened to the bitcoin.
PJ: It’s like when you go on a trip and you have some currency left over and you throw it in a sock drawer.
PJ: Although, the thing—I kinda feel like I know the next thing, which is that — it’s like if you go on a trip, have some currency left over in a sock drawer, and in the intervening years that currency becomes like (laughing) immensely, immensely valuable.
ALEX: Right. I- we sat down—this was a couple months ago—and tried to figure out exactly how much $80 worth of bitcoin would be today.
ALEX: Uh, what was the date you gave?
JIA: January 24, 2012.
ALEX: On the 23rd, Bitcoin was $6.29.
ALEX: And now, (clears throat) it is $16,848.49.
JIA: So $80/6*16k.. Um… I could have $213,000 right now!
JIA: I could have so much money! Oh my god! What’s wrong with me?
ALEX: That must be really agonizing.
JIA: I’m so mad at myself.
ALEX: I’m sorry to sound so smug about it.
JIA: No, it’s crazy. But it’s also like—that was never real money. Uh, it was though. God. $213… This really hurts to look at. This really hurts to look at. I really… wow.
ALEX: Jia probably doesn’t have the full 213k because we’ve established she’s already spent some of that money, she just has the remainder.
PJ: But it could easily be six figures of money.
PJ: Oh man, that’s the worst feeling. Okay.
ALEX: S- so I was like, “I wanted to help.” And I was like, “Okay, first thing is first, let’s just retrace Jia’s steps,” which is actually really hard. Because not only did she buy this bitcoin six years ago, buying bitcoin is stupidly complicated.
ALEX: So, can you explain to me, to the best of your memory, like exactly the process of buying the bitcoin and then buying the drugs?
JIA: Yes, OK. Uh, there are gonna be big holes here. (laughs)
JIA: OK. So I downloaded Tor…
And then I looked at the Silk Road, and I said, “OK, I’m gonna try and get some bitcoin and make an account and do this.”
And then I remember taking my boyfriend’s car to the Bank of America drive through, putting like, you know, what I think might have been $80, in a little pneumatic tube, it getting sucked up the pneumatic tube—
ALEX: Wait a minute, you deposited money–
ALEX: Cash, American, US dollars.
JIA: Absolutely, absolutely.
ALEX: Via pneumatic tube–
JIA: Yeah, yeah I did.
ALEX: At a normal bank–
JIA: Yeah, is that? I think that’s what I was supposed to do.
ALEX: I think that was actually just her putting money in her bank account. Either way, she goes home, gets on the internet, just like, the regular internet, not the dark web, and she goes to this thing called a bitcoin exchange, think of it as a bank
PJ: But it’s just like a website.
ALEX: She purchases bitcoin using that money.
ALEX: So now her money is at this… online bitcoin exchange a.k.a. bank. And she has one of two options: She can let the bitcoin exchange keep track of her bitcoin, or she can keep track of it using a program on her laptop called a bitcoin wallet. Which is what she thinks she did.
JIA: And then I remember using some sort of internet tutorial to learn PGP. Or to get a PGP key. I had to like encrypt something about my wallet.
JIA: Yeah, I hate these words, right? It’s like I wish I had a little wallet. That would- It’s like where do Bitcoin live? Where do they live? What’s money?
JIA: Hard to say.
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ALEX: So the thing that I didn’t fully understand about bitcoin until I started reporting this story is that it’s pretty much impossible to lose. Because all it means to own bitcoin is there’s this gigantic, public list of every account and every transaction that’s ever been made using bitcoin. It is totally anonymous, and when you buy bitcoin, all they do is put you on the list. And the thing that Jia lost is her proof that she’s on that list. It’s called a key. And all that does is allow her to point to a spot on the list and say, “those $80 worth of bitcoin, those are mine.”,
PJ: It’s like she- it’s like what she actually lost is more like a claim ticket.
ALEX: Right. So what we’re looking for is the key to Jia’s bitcoin, and it’s totally possible that it lives on her old laptop in her bitcoin wallet.
ALEX: Jia did tell me though that the laptop is broken, and it doesn’t turn on.
ALEX: I am going to need that computer.
JIA: Okay. Should I- Should I like- send it off to get the hard drive done?
ALEX: Before you do that, I’d like to take a look at it.
ALEX: Um, I have a- I have a history of tech support.
JIA: Yeah. Yeah.
ALEX: So I might be able to boot the thing up and see what’s going on there.
JIA: I will bring you my laptop.
ALEX: This is exciting. I like this.
ALEX: So, a couple days later, Jia comes by the office,
ALEX: Hey how’s it going?
ALEX: I meet her outside and she had told me that this laptop didn’t turn on. But she didn’t tell me the extent to which it didn’t turn on.
ALEX: Alright here it is.
JIA: It’s um …
ALEX: Oh my god it feels so big.
JIA: Well, I think it’s bloated with whatever I broke it with.
JIA: Like, I think there’s some like water damage or something.
ALEX: It was not water damage. I opened up the computer and it turns out that the battery had exploded inside the computer. But, I managed to get the hard drive out, I connected it to my computer, and I went down into the studio with Producer Damiano Marchetti.
ALEX: Okay, it is, uh, Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018. Welcome to the new year, Damiano. (pause) Don’t act like you’re not in the room. (pause)
Ok. I am going to look in Jia’s hard drive today in the hopes that I can find a bitcoin wallet and maybe her lost riches.
DAMIANO: Got it.
ALEX: Are you ready for this odyssey of discovery?
DAMIANO: (laughing) It’s very exciting. Ooh, you’re slotting it in. (pause) Maybe don’t force it.
ALEX: I had it in backwards. (pause)
DAMIANO: Is it mounting?
ALEX: It’s not. The hard drive is spinning. (pause) I can feel the hard drive spinning.
DAMIANO: There’s a chance that like this, the hard drive’s dead.
ALEX: The hard drive is spinning, which means that… oh. (laughing) I know what the problem is: It’s not connected to my computer.
ALEX: Oh, that’s embarrassing.
ALEX: So anyway, I get the hard drive working, and then …
ALEX: … wait a second. Wait a second — this looks like a wallet address.
ALEX: I find this program on her computer that’s called Bitcoin Core and I open it up
ALEX: It has no transactions, it has not received any bitcoin, it has not sent any bitcoin.
DAMIANO: Basically it’s saying she doesn’t have anything.
ALEX: That’s what it’s saying, yes.
PJ: So, it’s a dead end.
ALEX: It’s a total dead end.
PJ: But it’s a- but it’s a slightly interesting dead end because, it’s like, I mean, clearly, she’s right, it’s not like she invented the memory of buying bitcoin.
PJ: But it’s not there.
ALEX: It’s not in the laptop, which means it could probably only be in one other place. So do you remember when I said Jia bought her bitcoin from a bitcoin exchange, which is—
PJ: Like a bank.
PJ: I do remember.
ALEX: Um, she- when she bought them, she might’ve just decided just to leave that money on the website.
PJ: Since there’s nothing for them to actually hold onto, what does that mean?
ALEX: Basically, instead of her managing her own bitcoin keys and worrying about potentially losing them and never getting her bitcoin back, she could leave it on this site. And instead of having to worry about the key, all she’d have to worry about is the username and password to the site. It’s as simple as that.
ALEX: And the good news is Jia remembers where she bought her bitcoin. Which is great.
PJ: Which is where?
ALEX: Well, that’s the bad news. She bought it at a website called Mt. Gox .
ALEX: So, in the early days of bitcoin, Mt. Gox was like the Bank of America of bitcoin. If you wanted to buy bitcoin you’d go to them.
ALEX: There are estimates that like 80% of all bitcoin transactions went through this site.
ALEX: And what happened was, one day in early 2014, Mt. Gox just stopped honoring people’s requests to move money.
PJ: (laughs) Okay. It’s like all of a sudden if Bank of America was like, “Eh.”
ALEX: And then, a document leaked from Mt. Gox that said over the course of several years hackers had stolen about 850,000 bitcoin from Mt. Gox.
CLIP 1: One of the biggest bitcoin exchanges houses called Mt. Gox has gone offline. It seems to have vanished.
CLIP 2: Something is suspicious, and doesn’t smell right here.
CLIP 3: Transactions have been halted, and the CEO is unaccounted for after resigning from the bitcoin foundation.
ALEX: People were freaking out about this. There was talk that this could be the end of bitcoin entirely, because there was half a billion dollars worth of bitcoin that was just gone.
Which, today, would be worth ten billion dollars. They managed to recover some of the bitcoin that they’ve lost, but a huge chunk of it is just gone. Mt. Gox declares bankruptcy. People start filing lawsuits left and right. It’s a total mess.
The only bright point in this dark tale, I mean, at least for us, is that Mt. Gox puts a portal on their website that lets you check to see if you had bitcoin there when the site shut down.
PJ: Like if your name was Jia Tolentino.
ALEX: So I call Jia…. I walk her through the site.
ALEX: It will take you to the Mt. Gox bankruptcy filing system.
JIA: Hey, alright! (chuckles) Ok.
ALEX: Uh, she tries to login.
JIA: Hmm, okay that didn’t work. Like, what password was I using in 2011.
ALEX: She can’t remember her password.
PJ: She has like my level of memory.
ALEX: We tried using the “forgot my password” option.
JIA: The temporary authentication code will be sent to the contact email address that you entered on the bankruptcy claim form.
I think I might’ve missed the boat on this.
ALEX: Oh, no.
ALEX: It turns out the whole system only works if you filed your lost bitcoin claim before July of 2015, so we’re a couple years too late.
JIA: I’m sorry I’m so useless.
ALEX: This is—look—
JIA: I could have made us rich.
ALEX: All we’re doing is exhausting all possible options. And there’s still a chance you can make us rich. Never give up.
JIA: I will never give up.
ALEX: As long as you have hundreds- potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars locked on the internet somewhere—
JIA: Yeah (laughs)
ALEX: —You have to have hope.
ALEX: I mean, It’s still possible that her bitcoin was in Mt Gox when it was hacked, which is the only thing at this point that we’re trying to figure out. But we won’t be able to get that information from this website.
PJ: Okay, that sucks.
ALEX: But at this point, I’m feeling pretty jazzed because I feel like all I need to do is find the right person at Mt. Gox to speak to. Like the right bank teller.
And it turns out there’s actually this hotline. Somewhere in Japan, there’s a room where people sit by telephones and take calls all day from angry people who’ve lost their Bitcoin fortunes.
OPERATOR 2: Hello, thank you for calling. This is M-T GOX call center speaking. How can I help you today?
ALEX: Yeah, uh. Uh, I would like to check on the, um, account balance of an account on Mt. Gox and I was—
OPERATOR 2: I’m so sorry but it’s not possible.
ALEX: I try asking if I can talk to her boss, I ask if there’s anybody else I can speak to. And basically I learn that this operator has a ton of polite ways of saying no.
ALEX: But I could, I could give you the information, and maybe they would get back to me?
OPERATOR 2: Unfortunately, I’m not going to promise for that.
ALEX: Ok. Is there a way to contact the trustee directly?
OPERATOR 2: Unfortunately we cannot promise anything like that
ALEX: I understand. I understand.
ALEX: This went on for a while and I didn’t really get anywhere.
OPERATOR 2: Thank you so much sir, have a nice day then.
ALEX: Bye bye.
OPERATOR 2: Bye.
ALEX: So, at this point I decided that my last option was to escalate this whole thing, to go to one person who I was positive would know whether Jia has any bitcoin on Mt Gox:
The owner of Mt. Gox. His name is Mark Karpeles.
ALEX: There’s this video of him at a press conference, um after Mt Gox first went down, but before people knew it was hack…
MARK: So, we had a problem with the system that caused a loss to our customers. We’ve identified…
ALEX: He’s this nerdy, scared looking french guy, who’d bought the site in the early days and got super rich. And people who’ve worked with Mark when he ran Mt. Gox told me that he ran the site in a pretty strange way, and he was really easily distracted.
Like, a good example of that is, he was in the process of renovating a floor in the Mt. Gox building, because he was really into caramel lattes, to make a cafe, where he wanted to serve apple pie and quiche that he baked? That was like his priority.
PJ: What? That’s crazy. That’s like, Roman emperor type stuff.
PJ: So (laughs), Okay. Meanwhile, like, a thief is like, stealing tiny amounts of bitcoin, and he’s like, “I think I got a really good quiche recipe.”
ALEX: (laughs) So, after the hack, Mark actually gets arrested because people think he embezzled the money. He’s on trial right now.
And when I started talking to people in the Realm, they all said, basically, “Mark’s not talking to anybody: good luck getting in touch with him.”
I reached out to a bunch of former Mt. Gox employees, all the people I could think of who might connect us. And finally I got in touch with a person who told me that they could be an intermediary between me and Mark. And for weeks, I would send that person a message, and they would forward that to Mark, or at least that’s what they told me.
And then, a couple days ago, I was just like, “I’m just going to reach out to Mark on Reddit.” And I—
PJ: On Reddit. He’s a Redditor?
ALEX: Yes. And I did. And he was like, “Yeah, I know who you are. Sure, I’ll help you with this.”
PJ: (laughs) I’ll do it for the Reddit karma.
ALEX: (laughs) So, I gave him all of Jia’s information, and uh, proof that I—
PJ: You were her emissary?
ALEX: Yeah, and I told him, “All I want from you is to just tell me if Jia has any bitcoin on Mt. Gox.” He disappears for about 6 hours, comes back and says, “Jia has no balance.”
ALEX: On Mt. Gox.
PJ: Oh my god.
PJ: I have to say like, I’m impressed that you got that no. Honestly. But what does that mean? Like, what are the remaining possibilities then?
ALEX: Basically I asked Jia, are you sure you got your bitcoin Mt. Gox. She said yes. She sent me a confirmation email. And unless she got it on Mt. Gox and then moved it to another bitcoin exchange, it must be on her laptop. I must have missed something.
So, I asked everyone that I had been speaking to about this, is there like a bitcoin hunter out there? Like, is there like a bitcoin hunter that I could talk to?
PJ: What’s a bitcoin hunter?
ALEX: Just some person who has the skill to locate missing bitcoin.
PJ: That was supposed to be you. Just so you know—(laughs). Is there some kind of (laughing) Super Tech Expert that could solve this problem for me? (laughs)
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: I know the limits of my technical expertise.
PJ: Me too. (laughs)
ALEX: You know the limits of my technical expertise?
PJ: (laughing) Yes.
ALEX: And I go to people who, who can possibly help me.
PJ: So. Is there is a bitcoin hunter out there?
ALEX: There is. I found him, and he agreed to help.
ALEX: So the bitcoin hunter I found, his name is Jeremy Rubin. He is really involved in the bitcoin community, and has helped other people like Jia find their lost bitcoin.
PJ: It probably happens like, not infrequently.
ALEX: Oh yeah. It happens all the time. Um I read something that said that it was like 20 percent of all bitcoin are lost.
Anyway, Jeremy lives in San Francisco, but I had him remote into my computer so we could take a look at Jia’s hard drive together and try and find the lost bitcoin.
PJ: It’s cool that you finally found someone, anoth- a new person to remote into your computer.
PJ: I feel like you’re like a “remote into my computer” fetishist.
PJ: And every story we do is just like an excuse to give like, “Oo, remote access!”
ALEX: Hi is this Jeremy?
JEREMY: Yup, how’s it going?
ALEX: Basically what we’re looking for is any trace of the existence of these bitcoins. And at first we’re just looking at the same stuff that I already looked at, but since he’s a bitcoin hunter he knows to look in folders that I didn’t even know existed.
JEREMY: So if you go to, uh, the directory called application support.
JEREMY: So, now what we’re looking for in here is anything anything related to bitcoin.
ALEX: I- I see a folder right here called bitcoin.
JEREMY: That’s exciting. That’s very exciting.
ALEX: Oh, wow.
JEREMY: Oh boy.
ALEX: So Jeremy finds this file called wallet.dat, and he says, “Just move that to your computer and open it there.”
ALEX: Okay. Moment of truth. Let’s see what happens here.
JEREMY: Oh boy. Looks like at some point there was 17 bitcoin on this wallet.
ALEX: 17 bitcoin?
JEREMY: Yeah. (whistles) That’s a lot.
ALEX: 17 bitcoin is 255,000 dollars.
PJ: In today dollars?
ALEX: And at this point I’m pretty sure that this is the money that we’re looking for, that this is the change from Jia’s drug purchase. But the problem is it doesn’t stay in her wallet.
JEREMY: If you look, it looks like they came to the wallet and then she sent them out immediately. (laughs)
ALEX: So Jia’s bitcoin fortune lands in her bitcoin wallet, and almost immediately, she moves it somewhere else.
But here’s the cool thing: because we know Jia’s bitcoin wallet address, we can go online, to this website called blockchain.info—
ALEX: It shows me bitcoin block 6 -164027. From blockchain.info.
—And literally watch her bitcoin travel from account to account to account. We don’t know the actual names of the people who own these accounts, but we can see how much money they have.
JEREMY: So we’re tracing the funds now. We see where they end up. And now it’s gone from you know, being in an address with 131 to 200 coins. So let’s just keep on clicking on the biggest ones we can.
ALEX: And Jia’s bitcoin ended up in an account owned by someone who has way more than your average bitcoin user, they have 69 thousand bitcoin. And Jeremy looks at that account, and he’s like, “No one really has that kind of bitcoin, that is much more likely probably a bitcoin exchange.”
PJ: So at this point if I’m following along—Jia took the change of her drug purchase, and she put it in another bank or exchange whatever, like not Mt. Gox, some other place, for some reason. And then she just forgot about it.
ALEX: Possibly, I mean we are basically just making educated guesses based on a bunch of account balances.
So I asked Jeremy, like “Hey, I know the whole point of bitcoin is that it’s anonymous, no one can figure out who’s interacting with who, but… Isn’t like is there any way we can identify anybody? Like can we identify the people that Jia was interacting with?” And Jeremy was like, “maybe.”
ALEX: He said that- he said that that was like outside of his area of expertise: he could not do it. But there are people who claim they can, and so he put me in touch with this company called Chainalysis.
PJ: And what do they do?
ALEX: Chainalysis is a company that basically does, like bitcoin forensics. So like, they’re the people you go to if someone is trying to blackmail you from a bitcoin account, or if the IRS is trying to catch someone who is hiding tax money in a cryptocurrency account.
PJ: Got it.
ALEX: So the cofounder of this company, his name’s Jonathan Levin, I send him an email and he writes back right away: “Hey, I’m on a transatlantic flight, coming to New York from Cape Town. I don’t have anything to do right now. I can figure this out while I’m on the plane.”
PJ: Using like, Gogo Wireless?
PJ: That’s crazy.
ALEX: I send him, uh, Jia’s bitcoin wallet address and the transaction information, and he gets back to me like half an hour later, and he’s like, “I figured this out. I will be landing in New York in a couple of hours. I’m gonna take a shower and come over the studio.”
PJ: (laughs) Okay.
ALEX: So he comes to the studio, he’s wearing a blazer and scarf. Like for someone who’s just traveled many, many hours, he is an extremely dapper, dapper fellow.
ALEX: Alright, let me give you a little- a little background on this story. So—
JONATHAN: Sh- Should I try and give you the story without you even telling me and see whether that matches the story that you are gonna tell me.
ALEX: Absolutely. Go for it.
JONATHAN: Okay, so: you provided me with a bitcoin address, and I would’ve really liked it if you didn’t even provide me the name of the person that you were interested in.
ALEX: (laughs quietly)
JONATHAN: Um, because I would’ve been able to go back and basically tell you who that was. And where she got her bitcoin from. And where she sent her bitcoin to.
ALEX: How could you have figured that out?
JONATHAN: I mean, I- I figured it out in less than 30 seconds.
ALEX: (laughs) Hoh.
JONATHAN: I’m just going to try to do it in real time, just while we sit here…
PJ: Okay but so wait. The thing he’s doing, unmasking anonymous people, the whole point is that he’s not supposed to be able to do this. Like what… has he just like broken… has he like hacked bitcoin?
ALEX: No, he hasn’t hacked bitcoin. The deal is that like, since every transaction using bitcoin is public, he’s watching money go from place to place. And he’s sort of using deductive reasoning and educated guesses to figure out who is behind bitcoin accounts. And he’s really good at it.
JONATHAN: So I can see that this bitcoin address that you supplied me received 17.5 bitcoin. It received all of the bitcoin from Mt. Gox. And it sent all of the bitcoin to Silk Road.
ALEX: So that 69,000 bitcoin account that we were hoping was a bitcoin exchange? It was Silk Road.
PJ: So she doesn’t—the reason there’s no leftover money to find is what she’s misremembering is she spent all her money on drugs.
ALEX: (pause) Almost all of her money.
PJ: What happened?
ALEX: Ok, so I talked to Jia today.
ALEX: Ok, so this has been a real odyssey for me.
JIA: Really? I- Wait, do you know the answer?
ALEX: I do.
JIA: Oh my god. I’m so stressed.
ALEX: Alright, so you got 17.59259000 bitcoin.
JIA: Uh huh.
ALEX: You spent 17.5905000 bitcoin. Meaning, you have a balance in your account of .00209 bitcoin
JIA: (laughs) Oh my god. Really? Wait, I spent almost all of it? I was that precise in my—?
JIA: Oh my god. This is—oh my god.
ALEX: Um, that, to me, feels like a win. You’ve got some money in there.
JIA: Yeah, you found it!
ALEX: Um, .00209 bitcoin is, in today’s bitcoin market, 24 dollars and 40 cents.
JIA: (Laughs) it’s so embarrassing. You know this is like my mom was always like, “Jia you shouldn’t do any drugs.” And I’m like, “Mom, my life is very on track.”
This is like the first time that I’ve been like yeah, you should stop doing drugs.
JIA: God damn!
ALEX: Reply All is hosted by, PJ Vogt, and me Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, and Kaitlin Roberts. More production help this week from Khrista Rypl. Our editor is Tim Howard. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Devon Guinn. Special thanks this week to Jed McCaleb and Kenny Malone, who did his own great bitcoin hunting story on the Planet Money money podcast. We’ll link to it in the show notes. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. The Super Tech Support End Theme, AKA the best hold music in the world is Simplicity by Macroform. Matt Lieber is a vending machine that gives you two of the thing you wanted by mistake. You can visit our website at replyall.limo, and you can find more episodes of the show on Spotify, or Apple Podcasts, wherever you listen. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in a couple weeks.