But Bolz, a longtime critic of cryptocurrency, says local concerns go beyond economics: Many residents he hears from aren’t keen to see so much public power sold to an industry whose chief product is, in their minds, of value only to speculators and criminals. “I mean, this is a conservative community, and they’re like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with dollars?’” says Bolz. “If you just went out and did a poll of Chelan County, and asked people, ‘Do you want us to be involved in the bitcoin industry, they would say not only ‘No,’ but ‘Hell no.’”
Is Bitcoin a safe way to store value digitally? Are we wise to save our coins on our computer? It’s true that online wallets are necessarily more dangerous than offline wallets. However, even offline wallets can be breached, meaning that security in the Bitcoin world depends largely on following good practices. Just like you would avoid flailing your bills about in a dangerous place, you should make sure to keep your passwords and keys as safe as possible.
The attraction then, as now, was the Columbia River, which we can glimpse a few blocks to our left. Bitcoin mining—the complex process in which computers solve a complicated math puzzle to win a stack of virtual currency—uses an inordinate amount of electricity, and thanks to five hydroelectric dams that straddle this stretch of the river, about three hours east of Seattle, miners could buy that power more cheaply here than anywhere else in the nation. Long before locals had even heard the words “cryptocurrency” or “blockchain,” Miehe and his peers realized that this semi-arid agricultural region known as the Mid-Columbia Basin was the best place to mine bitcoin in America—and maybe the world.
That’s all transactions are—people signing bitcoins (or fractions of bitcoins) over to each other. The ledger tracks the coins, but it does not track people, at least not explicitly. Assuming Bob creates a new address and key for each transaction, the ledger won’t be able to reveal who he is, or which addresses are his, or how many bitcoins he has in all. It’s just a record of money moving between anonymous hands.
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.
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.
Speculation drives numbers. Many Bitcoin users are holding onto their bitcoins in hopes of selling them off for an enormous profit one day. With news articles portraying Bitcoin millionaires as lucky kids who got in early, you can’t really blame them. For example, if you had spent your $5 latte money on 2,000 bitcoins one morning in 2010, they would be worth about $5.4 million today. Makes you really wish you’d managed your Starbucks budget better, doesn’t it?
Each block that is added to the blockchain, starting with the block containing a given transaction, is called a confirmation of that transaction. Ideally, merchants and services that receive payment in bitcoin should wait for at least one confirmation to be distributed over the network, before assuming that the payment was done. The more confirmations that the merchant waits for, the more difficult it is for an attacker to successfully reverse the transaction in a blockchain—unless the attacker controls more than half the total network power, in which case it is called a 51% attack.
In January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block. Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the following text: "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks." This note has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.:18