Lauren Miehe: The Prospector With a knack for turning old buildings into bitcoin mines, Miehe has helped numerous other outsiders set up mining operations in the basin and now manages sites for other miners. He’s been stunned by the interest in the region since bitcoin prices took off last year. “Right now, everyone is in full-greed mode,” he says. Here, Miehe works at his original mine, a half-megawatt operation a few miles from the Columbia River. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
A few miles from the shuttered carwash, David Carlson stands at the edge of a sprawling construction site and watches workers set the roof on a Giga Pod, a self-contained crypto mine that Carlson designed to be assembled in a matter of weeks. When finished, the prefabricated wood-frame structure, roughly 12 by 48 feet, will be equipped with hundreds of high-speed servers that collectively draw a little over a megawatt of power and, in theory, will be capable of producing around 80 bitcoins a month. Carlson himself won’t be the miner; his company, Giga-Watt, will run the pod as a hosting site for other miners. By summer, Giga-Watt expects to have 24 pods here churning out bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, most of which use the same computing-intensive, cryptographically secured protocol called the blockchain. “We’re right where the rubber hits the road with blockchain,” Carlson shouts as we step inside the project’s first completed pod and stand between the tall rack of toaster-size servers and a bank of roaring cooling fans. The main use of blockchain technology now is to keep a growing electronic ledger of every single bitcoin transaction ever made. But many miners see it as the record-keeping mechanism of the future. “We’re where the blockchain goes from that virtual concept to something that’s real in the world,” says Carlson, “something that somebody had to build and is actually running.”
Granted, all that real-worlding and road-hitting is a little hard to visualize just now. The winter storms that have turned the Cascade Mountains a dazzling white have also turned the construction site into a reddish quagmire that drags at workers and equipment. There have also been permitting snafus, delayed utility hookups, and a lawsuit, recently settled, by impatient investors. But Carlson seems unperturbed. “They are actually making it work,” he told me earlier, referring to the mud-caked workers. “In a normal project, they might just say, ‘Let’s just wait till spring,’” Carlson adds. “But in bitcoin and blockchain, there is no stopping.” Indeed, demand for hosting services in the basin is so high that a desperate miner offered Carlson a Lamborghini if Carlson would bump him to the head of the pod waiting list. “I didn’t take the offer,” Carlson assures me. “And I like Lamborghinis!”
Several deep web black markets have been shut by authorities. In October 2013 Silk Road was shut down by U.S. law enforcement leading to a short-term decrease in the value of bitcoin. In 2015, the founder of the site was sentenced to life in prison. Alternative sites were soon available, and in early 2014 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the closure of Silk Road had little impact on the number of Australians selling drugs online, which had actually increased. In early 2014, Dutch authorities closed Utopia, an online illegal goods market, and seized 900 bitcoins. In late 2014, a joint police operation saw European and American authorities seize bitcoins and close 400 deep web sites including the illicit goods market Silk Road 2.0. Law enforcement activity has resulted in several convictions. In December 2014, Charlie Shrem was sentenced to two years in prison for indirectly helping to send $1 million to the Silk Road drugs site, and in February 2015, its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was convicted on drugs charges and faces a life sentence.
Each ASIC has more than 100 cores, all of which operate independently to run Bitcoin’s SHA-256 hashing algorithm. A control board on the top of the machine coordinates the work, downloading the block header to be hashed and distributing the problem to all the hashing engines, which then report back with solutions and the random numbers they used to get them.
Just because miners want power doesn’t mean they get it. Some inquiries are withdrawn. And all three county public utilities have considerable discretion when it comes to granting power requests. But by law, they must consider any legitimate request for power, which has meant doing costly studies and holding hearings—sparking a prolonged, public debate over this new industry’s impact on the basin’s power economy. There are concerns about the huge costs of new substations, transmission wires and other infrastructure necessary to accommodate these massive loads. In Douglas County, where the bulk of the new mining projects are going in, a brand new 84-megawatt substation that should have been adequate for the next 30 to 50 years of normal population growth was fully subscribed in less than a year.
What would it take for a competitor to nudge into the fray? For starters, it has to be willing to put a lot of money on the line. Several million dollars can go into chip design before a single prototype is produced. “It takes the willingness to pull the trigger and pay the money,” says Hanke. But he’s confident it will happen. “People will see it’s profitable, and they will jump in.”
The Bitcoin mining network difficulty is the measure of how difficult it is to find a new block compared to the easiest it can ever be. It is recalculated every 2016 blocks to a value such that the previous 2016 blocks would have been generated in exactly two weeks had everyone been mining at this difficulty. This will yield, on average, one block every ten minutes.
Bitcoin mining is a lot like a giant lottery where you compete with your mining hardware with everyone on the network to earn bitcoins. Faster Bitcoin mining hardware is able to attempt more tries per second to win this lottery while the Bitcoin network itself adjusts roughly every two weeks to keep the rate of finding a winning block hash to every ten minutes. In the big picture, Bitcoin mining secures transactions that are recorded in Bitcon's public ledger, the block chain. By conducting a random lottery where electricity and specialized equipment are the price of admission, the cost to disrupt the Bitcoin network scales with the amount of hashing power that is being spent by all mining participants.
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Here’s how it works: Say Alice wants to transfer one bitcoin to Bob. First Bob sets up a digital address for Alice to send the money to, along with a key allowing him to access the money once it’s there. It works sort-of like an email account and password, except that Bob sets up a new address and key for every incoming transaction (he doesn’t have to do this, but it’s highly recommended).
Then two things happen. New transactions are added to the Bitcoin blockchain ledger, and the winning miner is rewarded with newly minted bitcoins. The miner also collects small fees that users voluntarily tack onto their transactions as a way of pushing them to the head of the line. It’s ultimately an exchange of electricity for coins, mediated by a whole lot of computing power. The probability of an individual miner winning the lottery depends entirely on the speed at which that miner can generate new hashes relative to the speed of all other miners combined. In this way, the lottery is more like a raffle, where the more tickets you buy in comparison to everyone else makes it more likely that your name will be pulled out of the hat.
Bitcoin prices saw tremendous activity during 2017, rising several thousand percent over the year. The market has seen some volatility, although many of the dips seen in the cryptocurrency have thus far proven to be good buying opportunities. This trend may or may not continue, but given the outlook for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the trend could potentially remain higher for a long time to come.
Cryptojacking and legitimate mining, however, are sensitive to cryptocurrency prices, which have declined sharply since their highs in late 2017 and early 2018. According to a McAfee September 2018 threats report, cryptojacking instances “remain very active,” but a decline in the value of cryptocurrencies could lead to a plunge in coin mining malware, just as fast as it emerged.
In 2013 and 2014, the European Banking Authority and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a United States self-regulatory organization, warned that investing in bitcoins carries significant risks. Forbes named bitcoin the best investment of 2013. In 2014, Bloomberg named bitcoin one of its worst investments of the year. In 2015, bitcoin topped Bloomberg's currency tables.
“Cryptojacking scams have continued to evolve, and they don’t even need you to install anything,” Jason Adler, an assistant director for the Federal Trade Commission, wrote in a blog post in June. “Scammers can use malicious code embedded in a website or an ad to infect your device. Then they can help themselves to your device’s processor without you even knowing.”
Difficulty increase per year: This is probably the most important and elusive variable of them all. The idea is that since no one can actually predict the rate of miners joining the network, neither can anyone predict how difficult it will be to mine in six weeks, six months, or six years from now. In fact, in all the time Bitcoin has existed, its profitability has dropped only a handful of times—even at times when the price was relatively low.
Ultimately, Bitcoin mining is becoming an arms race. In the early days, anyone with a decent PC could generate Bitcoins through Bitcoin mining. Today, you need to collaborate with other Bitcoin miners in pools, strategically choose the location of your Bitcoin mining operation, and purchase ASIC-powered computers that are specially designed to handle Bitcoin mining.
Barely perceptible in the early years after bitcoin was launched in 2009, these adjustments quickly ramped up. By the time Carlson started mining in 2012, difficulty was tripling every year. Carlson’s fat profit margin quickly vanished. He briefly quit, but the possibility of a large-scale mine was simply too tantalizing. Around the world, some people were still mining bitcoin. And while Carlson suspected that many of these stalwarts were probably doing so irrationally—like gamblers doubling down after a loss—others had found a way to making mining pay.
Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency and worldwide payment system. It is the first decentralized digital currency, as the system works without a central bank or single administrator. The network is peer-to-peer and transactions take place between users directly, without an intermediary. These transactions are verified by network nodes through the use of cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people under the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009.
The basin has become a proving ground for the broader debate about the future of blockchain technology. Critics insist that bitcoin will never work as a mainstream currency—it’s slow and far too volatile. Its real function, they say, is as a “store of value”—that is, an investment asset, like gold or company shares—except that, unlike these traditional assets, bitcoin has no real underlying economic value. Rather, critics say, it has become merely another highly speculative bet—much like mortgage-backed derivatives were in the prelude to the financial crisis—and like them, it is just as assured of an implosion.
Gradually, people moved to GPU mining. A GPU (graphics processing unit) is a special component added to computers to carry out more complex calculations. GPUs were originally intended to allow gamers to run computer games with intense graphics requirements. Because of their architecture, they became popular in the field of cryptography, and around 2011, people also started using them to mine bitcoins. For reference, the mining power of one GPU equals that of around 30 CPUs.
News drives attention, and attention drives understanding. While many people have flocked to cryptocurrencies purely in search of financial gain, there are a ton of people that are simply curious. Some peoples are sticking around and trying to understand what cryptos are all about. While more users increases Bitcoin’s network effect, more people forming in-depth understandings of cryptos also strengthen the active Bitcoin community.
The bitcoin blockchain is a public ledger that records bitcoin transactions. It is implemented as a chain of blocks, each block containing a hash of the previous block up to the genesis block[a] of the chain. A network of communicating nodes running bitcoin software maintains the blockchain.:215–219 Transactions of the form payer X sends Y bitcoins to payee Z are broadcast to this network using readily available software applications.