Requiring a proof of work to accept a new block to the blockchain was Satoshi Nakamoto's key innovation. The mining process involves identifying a block that, when hashed twice with SHA-256, yields a number smaller than the given difficulty target. While the average work required increases in inverse proportion to the difficulty target, a hash can always be verified by executing a single round of double SHA-256.
David Golumbia says that the ideas influencing bitcoin advocates emerge from right-wing extremist movements such as the Liberty Lobby and the John Birch Society and their anti-Central Bank rhetoric, or, more recently, Ron Paul and Tea Party-style libertarianism. Steve Bannon, who owns a "good stake" in bitcoin, considers it to be "disruptive populism. It takes control back from central authorities. It's revolutionary."
What bitcoin miners actually do could be better described as competitive bookkeeping. Miners build and maintain a gigantic public ledger containing a record of every bitcoin transaction in history. Every time somebody wants to send bitcoins to somebody else, the transfer has to be validated by miners: They check the ledger to make sure the sender isn’t transferring money she doesn’t have. If the transfer checks out, miners add it to the ledger. Finally, to protect that ledger from getting hacked, miners seal it behind layers and layers of computational work—too much for a would-be fraudster to possibly complete.
You can look at this hash as a really long number. (It's a hexadecimal number, meaning the letters A-F are the digits 10-15.) To ensure that blocks are found roughly every ten minutes, there is what's called a difficulty target. To create a valid block your miner has to find a hash that is below the difficulty target. So if for example the difficulty target is
Legal Gray Area. Major governments have largely remained on the sidelines, and this has created both a sense of potential and apprehension for Bitcoin proponents and critics respectively. Bitcoin isn’t backed by a regulatory agency and a government would technically be ceding power by supporting a decentralized currency. This has been largely officially unaddressed. Bitcoin’s price, however, tends to be very sensitive to any news concerning the US government’s opinion of cryptocurrencies. For example, when the SEC denied the approval of bitcoin-based exchange-traded-products—essentially bitcoin-backed assets on the stock market—in 2017, Bitcoin’s price dropped 18%. Yet while the price and adoption of Bitcoin would be affected by government action, governments are unable to criminalize Bitcoin. In fact, governments such as the United States and China have invested in it at some capacity.
In the meantime, the basin’s miners are at full steam ahead. Salcido says he’ll have 42 megawatts running by the end of the year and 150 megawatts by 2020. Carlson says his next step after his current build-out of 60 megawatts will be “in the hundreds” of megawatts. Over the next five years, his company plans to raise $5 billion in capital to build 2,000 megawatts—two gigawatts—of additional mining capacity. But that won’t all be in the basin, he says. Carlson says he and others will soon be scaling up so rapidly that, for farsighted miners, the Mid-Columbia Basin effectively is already maxed out, in part because the counties simply can’t build out power lines and infrastructure fast enough. “So we have to go site hunting across the US & Canada,” Carlson told me in a text. “I’m on my way to Quebec on Monday.” As in oil or gold, prospectors never stop—they just move on.
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.
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.
In December, 2013, Techcrunch published an interview with researcher Skye Grey who claimed textual analysis of published writings shows a link between Satoshi and bit-gold creator Nick Szabo. And perhaps most famously, in March 2014, Newsweek ran a cover article claiming that Satoshi is actually an individual named Satoshi Nakamoto – a 64-year-old Japanese-American engineer living in California. The list of suspects is long, and all the individuals deny being Satoshi.
These days, Miehe says, a serious miner wouldn’t even look at a site like that. As bitcoin’s soaring price has drawn in thousands of new players worldwide, the strange math at the heart of this cryptocurrency has grown steadily more complicated. Generating a single bitcoin takes a lot more servers than it used to—and a lot more power. Today, a half-megawatt mine, Miehe says, “is nothing.” The commercial miners now pouring into the valley are building sites with tens of thousands of servers and electrical loads of as much as 30 megawatts, or enough to power a neighborhood of 13,000 homes. And in the arms race that cryptocurrency mining has become, even these operations will soon be considered small-scale. Miehe knows of substantially larger mining projects in the basin backed by out-of-state investors from Wall Street, Europe and Asia whose prospecting strategy, as he puts it, amounts to “running around with a checkbook just trying to get in there and establish scale.”
The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
Exchange hacks. As stated above, an exchange hack has nothing to do with the integrity of the Bitcoin system… but the market freaks out regardless. This trend seems to minimize as users see that cryptos recover from exchange hacks. As exchanges evolve and become more secure, this threat becomes less of an issue. Additionally, outside investments funneling into exchanges are providing the capital for them to grow stronger.
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For local cryptocurrency enthusiasts, these slings and arrows are all very much worth enduring. They believe not only that cryptocurrency will make them personally very wealthy, but also that this formerly out-of-the-way region has a real shot at becoming a center—and maybe the center—of a coming technology revolution, with the well-paid jobs and tech-fueled prosperity that usually flow only to gilded “knowledge” hubs like Seattle and San Francisco. Malachi Salcido, a Wenatchee building contractor who jumped into bitcoin in 2014 and is now one of the basin’s biggest players, puts it in sweeping terms. The basin, he tells me, is “building a platform that the entire world is going to use.”
Of course, by the end of 2017, the players who were pouring into the basin weren’t interested in building 5-megawatt mines. According to Carlson, mining has now reached the stage where the minimum size for a new commercial mine, given the high levels of difficulty, will soon be 50 megawatts, enough for around 22,000 homes and bigger than one of Amazon Web Services’ immense data centers. Miehe, who has become a kind of broker for out-of-town miners and investors, was fielding calls and emails from much larger players. There were calls from China, where a recent government crackdown on cryptocurrency has miners trying to move operations as large as 200 megawatts to safer ground. And there was a flood of interest from players outside the sector, including big institutional investors from Wall Street, Miami, the Middle East, Europe and Japan, all eager to get in on a commodity that some believe could touch $100,000 by the end of the year. And not all the interest has been so civil. Stories abound of bitcoin miners using hardball tactics to get their mines up and running. Carlson, for example, says some foreign miners tried to bribe building and safety inspectors to let them cut corners on construction. “They are bringing suitcases full of cash,” Carlson says, adding that such ploys invariably backfire. Adds Miehe, “I mean, you know how they talk about the animal spirits—greed and fear? Well, right now, everyone is in full-greed mode.”
Meanwhile, investors have been rattled this week by reports bank-owned currency trading utility CLS, along with enterprise software giant IBM, are teaming up to trial the blockchain-based Ledger Connect, an application that offers services from different vendors, with some nine financial institutions, including international heavyweights Barclays and Citigroup.
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.
For one, proof of work prevents miners from creating bitcoins out of thin air: they must burn real energy to earn them. And two, proof of work ossifies Bitcoin’s history. If an attacker were to try and change a transaction that happened in the past, that attacker would have to redo all of the work that has been done since to catch up and establish the longest chain. This is practically impossible and is why miners are said to “secure” the Bitcoin network.
Let’s start with what it’s not doing. Your computer is not blasting through the cavernous depths of the internet in search of digital ore that can be fashioned into bitcoin bullion. There is no ore, and bitcoin mining doesn’t involve extracting or smelting anything. It’s called mining only because the people who do it are the ones who get new bitcoins, and because bitcoin is a finite resource liberated in small amounts over time, like gold, or anything else that is mined. (The size of each batch of coins drops by half roughly every four years, and around 2140, it will be cut to zero, capping the total number of bitcoins in circulation at 21 million.) But the analogy ends there.
Majority consensus in bitcoin is represented by the longest chain, which required the greatest amount of effort to produce. If a majority of computing power is controlled by honest nodes, the honest chain will grow fastest and outpace any competing chains. To modify a past block, an attacker would have to redo the proof-of-work of that block and all blocks after it and then surpass the work of the honest nodes. The probability of a slower attacker catching up diminishes exponentially as subsequent blocks are added.