The proof-of-work system, alongside the chaining of blocks, makes modifications of the blockchain extremely hard, as an attacker must modify all subsequent blocks in order for the modifications of one block to be accepted. As new blocks are mined all the time, the difficulty of modifying a block increases as time passes and the number of subsequent blocks (also called confirmations of the given block) increases.
Bitmain gained an edge by supplying a superior product in large quantities, a feat that has eluded every other company in the industry. The Ordos facility is stuffed almost exclusively with Bitmain’s best performing rig, the Antminer S9. According to company specs, the S9 is capable of churning out 14 terahashes, or 14 trillion hashes, every second while consuming around 0.1 joules of energy per gigahash for a total of about 1,400 watts (about as much as a microwave oven consumes).
The overwhelming majority of bitcoin transactions take place on a cryptocurrency exchange, rather than being used in transactions with merchants. Delays processing payments through the blockchain of about ten minutes make bitcoin use very difficult in a retail setting. Prices are not usually quoted in units of bitcoin and many trades involve one, or sometimes two, conversions into conventional currencies. Merchants that do accept bitcoin payments may use payment service providers to perform the conversions.
But, as always, the miners’ biggest challenge came from bitcoin itself. The mere presence of so much new mining in the Mid-Columbia Basin substantially expanded the network’s total mining power; for a time, Carlson’s mine alone accounted for a quarter of the global bitcoin mining capacity. But this rising calculating power also caused mining difficulty to skyrocket—from January 2013 to January 2014, it increased one thousandfold—which forced miners to expand even faster. And bitcoin’s rising price was now drawing in new miners, especially in China, where power is cheap. By the middle of 2014, Carlson says, he’d quadrupled the number of servers in his mine, yet had seen his once-massive share of the market fall below 1 percent.
Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, they did. As mining costs were rising, bitcoin prices began to dive. The cryptocurrency was getting hammered by a string of scams, thefts and regulatory bans, along with a lot of infighting among the mining community over things like optimal block size. Through 2015, bitcoin prices hovered in the low hundreds. Margins grew so thin—and, in fact, occasionally went negative—that miners had to spend their coins as soon as they mined them to pay their power bills. Things eventually got so grim that Carlson had to dig into his precious reserves and liquidate “all my little stacks of bitcoin,” he recalls, ruefully. “To save the business, we sold it all.”
Exchanges, however, are a different story. Perhaps the most notable Bitcoin exchange hack was the Tokyo-based MtGox hack in 2014, where 850,000 bitcoins with a value of over $350 million suddenly disappeared from the platform. This doesn’t mean that Bitcoin itself was hacked; it just means that the exchange platform was hacked. Imagine a bank in Iowa is robbed: the USD didn’t get robbed, the bank did.
For all the peril, others here see the bitcoin boom as a kind of necessary opportunity. They argue that the era of cheap local power was coming to an end even before bitcoin arrived. One big reason: The region’s hydropower is no longer as prized by outside markets. In California, which has historically paid handsomely for the basin’s “green” hydropower, demand has fallen especially dramatically thanks to rapid growth in the Golden State’s wind and solar sectors. Simply put, the basin may soon struggle to find another large customer so eager to take those surplus megawatts—particularly one, like blockchain mining, that might bring other economic benefits. Early data from Douglas County, for example, suggest that the sector’s economic value, especially the sales tax from nonstop server upgrades, may offset any loss in surplus power sales, according to Jim Huffman, a Douglas County port commissioner.
A hard fork of a cryptocurrency is a change to the protocol that makes previously invalid blocks/transactions valid (or vice-versa). This requires all the nodes to upgrade to the latest version of the protocol software. In other words, a hard fork is a permanent divergence from the previous version of the blockchain, and nodes running previous versions will no longer be accepted by the newest version. This, in turn, creates a fork in the blockchain: one path follows the new, upgraded blockchain, and the other path continues along the old path.
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.
Another advancement in mining technology was the creation of the mining pool, which is a way for individual miners to work together to solve blocks even faster. As a result of mining in a pool with others, the group solves many more blocks than each miner would on his own. Bitcoin mining pools exist because the computational power required to mine Bitcoins on a regular basis is so vast that it is beyond the financial and technical means of most people. Rather than investing a huge amount of money in mining equipment that will (hopefully) give you a return over a period of decades, a mining pool allows the individual to accumulate smaller amounts of Bitcoin more frequently.
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The influx in malware led some online companies to implement protective measures for their users. Google announced in a blog post in April that it would no longer allow browser extensions in its Web Store that mine cryptocurrencies. The online store allows for users to pick extensions and apps that personalize their Chrome web browser, but the company noted that the “capabilities have attracted malicious software developers who attempt to abuse the platform at the expense of users.”
The incremental complexity and technological know-how needed for this method are both downsides to the paper wallet approach. Cold storage solutions and hardware wallets are less nimble than other options, too; if the price of bitcoin were crashing, for example, you might find yourself slower to the draw than if you merely kept your BTC on a site like Coinbase.
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.
In March 2013 the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with different rules. The two blockchains operated simultaneously for six hours, each with its own version of the transaction history. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software. The Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the price dropped by 23% to $37 before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours. The US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (MSBs), that are subject to registration or other legal obligations. In April, exchanges BitInstant and Mt. Gox experienced processing delays due to insufficient capacity resulting in the bitcoin price dropping from $266 to $76 before returning to $160 within six hours. The bitcoin price rose to $259 on 10 April, but then crashed by 83% to $45 over the next three days. On 15 May 2013, US authorities seized accounts associated with Mt. Gox after discovering it had not registered as a money transmitter with FinCEN in the US. On 23 June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listed 11.02 bitcoins as a seized asset in a United States Department of Justice seizure notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881. This marked the first time a government agency had seized bitcoin. The FBI seized about 26,000 bitcoins in October 2013 from the dark web website Silk Road during the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht. Bitcoin's price rose to $755 on 19 November and crashed by 50% to $378 the same day. On 30 November 2013 the price reached $1,163 before starting a long-term crash, declining by 87% to $152 in January 2015. On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China prohibited Chinese financial institutions from using bitcoins. After the announcement, the value of bitcoins dropped, and Baidu no longer accepted bitcoins for certain services. Buying real-world goods with any virtual currency had been illegal in China since at least 2009.