At this point, the actual mining begins. In essence, each miner now tries to demonstrate to the rest of the network that his or her block of verified payments is the one true block, which will serve as the permanent record of those 2,000 or so transactions. Miners do this by, essentially, trying to be the first to guess their block’s numerical password. It’s analogous to trying to randomly guess someone’s computer password, except on a vastly larger scale. Carlson’s first mining computer, or “rig,” which he ran out of his basement north of Seattle, could make 12 billion “guesses” every second; today’s servers are more than a thousand times faster.
By convention, the first transaction in a block is a special transaction that produces new bitcoins owned by the creator of the block. This is the incentive for nodes to support the network. It provides the way to move new bitcoins into circulation. The reward for mining halves every 210,000 blocks. It started at 50 bitcoin, dropped to 25 in late 2012 and to 12.5 bitcoin in 2016. This halving process is programmed to continue for 64 times before new coin creation ceases.
Backtracking a bit, let's talk about "nodes." A node is a powerful computer that runs the bitcoin software and helps to keep bitcoin running by participating in the relay of information. Anyone can run a node, you just download the bitcoin software (free) and leave a certain port open (the drawback is that it consumes energy and storage space – the network at time of writing takes up about 145GB). Nodes spread bitcoin transactions around the network. One node will send information to a few nodes that it knows, who will relay the information to nodes that they know, etc. That way it ends up getting around the whole network pretty quickly.
The controller on the S9 has a red light that goes off when it detects a malfunction. Technicians like Zhang are on hand to scan the racks for sick rigs. When they find one, they pull it out and send it to a house on the factory lot where other technicians diagnose the problem, fix it, and get the machine back on the line. Sometimes it’s a failed chip. Other times it’s a burned-out fan. If the problem is more serious, then the rig gets sent all the way to Bitmain’s labs in Shenzhen in southeast China for a proper rebuild. Every moment the rigs spend unplugged, potential revenue slips away.
The process of mining bitcoins works like a lottery. Bitcoin miners are competing to produce hashes—alphanumeric strings of a fixed length that are calculated from data of an arbitrary length. They’re producing the hashes from a combination of three pieces of data: new blocks of Bitcoin transactions; the last block on the blockchain; and a random number. These are collectively referred to as the “block header” for the current block. Each time miners perform the hash function on the block header with a new random number, they get a new result. To win the lottery, a miner must find a hash that begins with a certain number of zeroes. Just how many zeroes are required is a shifting parameter determined by how much computing power is attached to the Bitcoin network. Every two weeks, on average, the mining software automatically readjusts the number of leading zeros needed—the difficulty level—by looking at how fast new blocks of Bitcoin transactions were added. The algorithm is aiming for a latency of 10 minutes between blocks. When miners boost the computing power on the network, they temporarily increase the rate of block creation. The network senses the change and then ratchets up the difficulty level. When a miner’s computer finds a winning hash, it broadcasts the block header to its next peers in the Bitcoin network, which check it and then propagate it further.
Full clients verify transactions directly by downloading a full copy of the blockchain (over 150 GB As of January 2018). They are the most secure and reliable way of using the network, as trust in external parties is not required. Full clients check the validity of mined blocks, preventing them from transacting on a chain that breaks or alters network rules. Because of its size and complexity, downloading and verifying the entire blockchain is not suitable for all computing devices.
Let’s say a hacker wanted to change a transaction that happened 60 minutes, or six blocks, ago—maybe to remove evidence that she had spent some bitcoins, so she could spend them again. Her first step would be to go in and change the record for that transaction. Then, because she had modified the block, she would have to solve a new proof-of-work problem—find a new nonce—and do all of that computational work, all over again. (Again, due to the unpredictable nature of hash functions, making the slightest change to the original block means starting the proof of work from scratch.) From there, she’d have to start building an alternative chain going forward, solving a new proof-of-work problem for each block until she caught up with the present.
Several news outlets have asserted that the popularity of bitcoins hinges on the ability to use them to purchase illegal goods. In 2014, researchers at the University of Kentucky found "robust evidence that computer programming enthusiasts and illegal activity drive interest in bitcoin, and find limited or no support for political and investment motives."
According to The New York Times, libertarians and anarchists were attracted to the idea. Early bitcoin supporter Roger Ver said: "At first, almost everyone who got involved did so for philosophical reasons. We saw bitcoin as a great idea, as a way to separate money from the state." The Economist describes bitcoin as "a techno-anarchist project to create an online version of cash, a way for people to transact without the possibility of interference from malicious governments or banks".
Even in the recent price crash, the miners have maintained their upbeat attitude, in part because they’ve died this death a few times before. In February, a day after bitcoin’s price dipped below $6,000, I checked in with Carlson to see how he was dealing with the huge sell-off. In a series of long texts, he expressed only optimism. The market correction, he argued, had been inevitable, given the rapid price increase. He noted that mining costs in the basin remain so low—still just a little above $2,000 per coin—that prices have a way to fall before bitcoin stops being worth mining there. Carlson is, he told me, “100 percent confident” the price will surpass the $20,000 level we saw before Christmas. “The question, as always, is how long will it take.”