When you pay someone in bitcoin, you set in motion a process of escalating, energy-intensive complexity. Your payment is basically an electronic message, which contains the complete lineage of your bitcoin, along with data about who you’re sending it to (and, if you choose, a small processing fee). That message gets converted by encryption software into a long string of letters and numbers, which is then broadcast to every miner on the bitcoin network (there are tens of thousands of them, all over the world). Each miner then gathers your encrypted payment message, along with any other payment messages on the network at the time (usually in batches of around 2,000), into what’s called a block. The miner then uses special software to authenticate each payment in the block—verifying, for example, that you owned the bitcoin you’re sending, and that you haven’t already sent that same bitcoin to someone else.
As more miners join, the rate of block creation will go up. As the rate of block generation goes up, the difficulty rises to compensate which will push the rate of block creation back down. Any blocks released by malicious miners that do not meet the required difficulty target will simply be rejected by everyone on the network and thus will be worthless.
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.
Bitcoin was the first decentralized digital currency; an online peer-to-peer payment system, without the need for third-party intermediaries such as banks. It was first released in 2008 and has since grown to be the largest cryptocurrency when measured by market cap. Bitcoins are not issued like traditional currency, they are digital and “mined” by powerful servers over time. It was designed to have a fixed supply of 21 million coins.
Barely perceptible in the early years after bitcoin was launched in 2009, these adjustments quickly ramped up. By the time Carlson started mining in 2012, difficulty was tripling every year. Carlson’s fat profit margin quickly vanished. He briefly quit, but the possibility of a large-scale mine was simply too tantalizing. Around the world, some people were still mining bitcoin. And while Carlson suspected that many of these stalwarts were probably doing so irrationally—like gamblers doubling down after a loss—others had found a way to making mining pay.
How hard are the puzzles involved in mining? Well, that depends on how much effort is being put into mining across the network. The difficulty of the mining can be adjusted, and is adjusted by the protocol every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks. The difficulty adjusts itself with the aim of keeping the rate of block discovery constant. Thus if more computational power is employed in mining, then the difficulty will adjust upwards to make mining harder. And if computational power is taken off of the network, the opposite happens. The difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.
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.
Claiming to be the "world's most popular digital wallet," Blockchain.info boasts more than 24 million wallets and has supported more than 100 million transactions. Security is a top priority, and with many longtime cryptocurrency enthusiasts comfortably keeping their spoils there for years, even as Mt. Gox and Bitfinex were breached, it would have to be.
That’s why mining pools came into existence. The idea is simple: miners group together to form a “pool” (i.e., combine their mining power to compete more effectively). Once the pool manages to win the competition, the reward is spread out between the pool members depending on how much mining power each of them contributed. This way, even small miners can join the mining game and have a chance of earning Bitcoin (though they get only a part of the reward).
Early Bitcoin client versions allowed users to use their CPUs to mine. The advent of GPU mining made CPU mining financially unwise as the hashrate of the network grew to such a degree that the amount of bitcoins produced by CPU mining became lower than the cost of power to operate a CPU. The option was therefore removed from the core Bitcoin client's user interface.
The Bank for International Settlements summarized several criticisms of bitcoin in Chapter V of their 2018 annual report. The criticisms include the lack of stability in bitcoin's price, the high energy consumption, high and variable transactions costs, the poor security and fraud at cryptocurrency exchanges, vulnerability to debasement (from forking), and the influence of miners.