One of Bitcoin’s most appealing features is its ruthless verification process, which greatly minimizes the risk of fraud. Since Bitcoin is decentralized, volunteers—referred to as “miners”—constantly verify and update the blockchain. Once a specific amount of transactions are verified, another block is added to the blockchain and business continues per usual.
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.”
That constraint is what makes the problem more or less difficult. More leading zeroes means fewer possible solutions, and more time required to solve the problem. Every 2,016 blocks (roughly two weeks), that difficulty is reset. If it took miners less than 10 minutes on average to solve those 2,016 blocks, then the difficulty is automatically increased. If it took longer, then the difficulty is decreased.
In the zero-sum game that cryptocurrency has become, one man’s free money is another man’s headache. In the Mid-Columbia Basin, the latter category includes John Stoll, who oversees Chelan County Public Utility District’s maintenance crews. Stoll regards people like Benny as “rogue operators,” the utility’s term for small players who mine without getting proper permits and equipment upgrades, and whose numbers have soared in the past 12 months. Though only a fraction of the size of their commercial peers, these operators can still overwhelm residential electric grids. In extreme cases, insulation can melt off wires. Transformers will overheat. In one instance last year, the utility says, a miner overloaded a transformer and caused a brush fire.
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The difficulty is a number that regulates how long it takes for miners to add new blocks of transactions to the blockchain. Because the target is such an unwieldy number with tons of digits, people generally use a simpler number to express the current target. This number is called the mining difficulty. This difficulty value updates every 2 weeks to ensure that it takes 10 minutes (on average) to add a new block to the blockchain. The difficulty is so important because, it ensures that blocks of transactions are added to the blockchain at regular intervals, even as more miners join the network. If the difficulty remained the same, it would take less time between adding new blocks to the blockchain as new miners join the network. The difficulty adjusts every 2016 blocks. At this interval, each node takes the expected time for these 2016 blocks to be mined (2016 x 10 minutes), and divides it by the actual time it took. It can be calculated as follows:
Miehe still runs his original mine, a half-megawatt operation not far from the carwash. But his main job these days is managing hosting sites for other miners and connecting outsiders with insiders—and he’s OK with that. He sold off some of his bitcoin stack, just after Christmas. He’s still bullish on crypto, and on the basin’s long-term prospects. But he no longer has any appetite for the race for scale. Gone are the glory days when commercial miners could self-finance with their own stacks. Today, you need outside financing—debt—which, for Miehe, who now has two young children, would mean an unacceptable level of stress. “I’ve already done it,” he says. “My entire data center was built with bitcoin, from nothing. I’ve already won enough for what I was looking for out of mining.” He pauses. “The risk and reward is getting pretty great,” he says. “And I’m not sure I want to be on the front line of that battle.”
The receiver of the first bitcoin transaction was cypherpunk Hal Finney, who created the first reusable proof-of-work system (RPOW) in 2004. Finney downloaded the bitcoin software on its release date, and on 12 January 2009 received ten bitcoins from Nakamoto. Other early cypherpunk supporters were creators of bitcoin predecessors: Wei Dai, creator of b-money, and Nick Szabo, creator of bit gold. In 2010, the first known commercial transaction using bitcoin occurred when programmer Laszlo Hanyecz bought two Papa John's pizzas for 10,000 bitcoin.