Across the Mid-Columbia Basin, miners faced an excruciating dilemma: cut their losses and walk, or keep mining for basically nothing in the hopes that the cryptocurrency market would somehow turn around. Many smaller operators simply folded and left town—often leaving behind trashed sites and angry landlords. Even larger players began to draw lines in the sand. Carlson started moving out of mining and into hosting and running sites for other miners. Others held on. Among the latter was Salcido, the Wenatchee contractor-turned-bitcoin miner who grew up in the valley. “What I had to decide was, do I think this recovers, or does the chart keep going like this and become nothing?” Salcido told me recently. We were in his office in downtown Wenatchee, and Salcido, a clean-cut 43-year-old who is married with four young kids, was showing me a computer chart of the bitcoin price during what was one of the most agonizing periods of his life. “Month over month, you had to make this decision: Am I going to keep doing this, or am I going to call it?”
How do they find this number? By guessing at random. The hash function makes it impossible to predict what the output will be. So, miners guess the mystery number and apply the hash function to the combination of that guessed number and the data in the block. The resulting hash has to start with a pre-established number of zeroes. There's no way of knowing which number will work, because two consecutive integers will give wildly varying results. What's more, there may be several nonces that produce the desired result, or there may be none (in which case the miners keep trying, but with a different block configuration).
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.
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?
In parts of the basin, utility crews now actively hunt unpermitted miners, in a manner not unlike the way police look for indoor cannabis farms. The biggest giveaway, Stoll says, is a sustained jump in power use. But crews have learned to look, and listen, for other telltales, such as “fans that are exhausting out of the garage or a bedroom.” In any given week, the utility flushes out two to five suspected miners, Stoll says. Some come clean. They pay for permits and the often-substantial wiring upgrades, or they quit. But others quietly move their servers to another residential location and plug back in. “It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game,” Stoll admits.
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.
Bitcoin is a digital asset designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions as a currency. Bitcoins have three qualities useful in a currency, according to The Economist in January 2015: they are "hard to earn, limited in supply and easy to verify". However, as of 2015 bitcoin functions more as a payment processor than as a currency.
The unit of account of the bitcoin system is a bitcoin. Ticker symbols used to represent bitcoin are BTC[b] and XBT.[c] Its Unicode character is ₿.:2 Small amounts of bitcoin used as alternative units are millibitcoin (mBTC), and satoshi (sat). Named in homage to bitcoin's creator, a satoshi is the smallest amount within bitcoin representing 0.00000001 bitcoins, one hundred millionth of a bitcoin. A millibitcoin equals 0.001 bitcoins, one thousandth of a bitcoin or 100,000 satoshis.
The process of mining bitcoins works like a lottery. Bitcoin miners are competing to produce hashes—alphanumeric strings of a fixed length that are calculated from data of an arbitrary length. They’re producing the hashes from a combination of three pieces of data: new blocks of Bitcoin transactions; the last block on the blockchain; and a random number. These are collectively referred to as the “block header” for the current block. Each time miners perform the hash function on the block header with a new random number, they get a new result. To win the lottery, a miner must find a hash that begins with a certain number of zeroes. Just how many zeroes are required is a shifting parameter determined by how much computing power is attached to the Bitcoin network. Every two weeks, on average, the mining software automatically readjusts the number of leading zeros needed—the difficulty level—by looking at how fast new blocks of Bitcoin transactions were added. The algorithm is aiming for a latency of 10 minutes between blocks. When miners boost the computing power on the network, they temporarily increase the rate of block creation. The network senses the change and then ratchets up the difficulty level. When a miner’s computer finds a winning hash, it broadcasts the block header to its next peers in the Bitcoin network, which check it and then propagate it further.
Bitcoin's origin story sounds like something out of science fiction: It was launched in 2008 on the heels of a white paper published by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose real identity – and country of origin – are unknown. Nakamoto conceived of Bitcoin as a currency that was 1) encrypted; 2) decentralized, i.e. it was ungoverned and did not belong to any nation; and 3) a digital "distributed ledger," such that everyone can verify online the legitimacy of transactions.
A few miles from the shuttered carwash, David Carlson stands at the edge of a sprawling construction site and watches workers set the roof on a Giga Pod, a self-contained crypto mine that Carlson designed to be assembled in a matter of weeks. When finished, the prefabricated wood-frame structure, roughly 12 by 48 feet, will be equipped with hundreds of high-speed servers that collectively draw a little over a megawatt of power and, in theory, will be capable of producing around 80 bitcoins a month. Carlson himself won’t be the miner; his company, Giga-Watt, will run the pod as a hosting site for other miners. By summer, Giga-Watt expects to have 24 pods here churning out bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, most of which use the same computing-intensive, cryptographically secured protocol called the blockchain. “We’re right where the rubber hits the road with blockchain,” Carlson shouts as we step inside the project’s first completed pod and stand between the tall rack of toaster-size servers and a bank of roaring cooling fans. The main use of blockchain technology now is to keep a growing electronic ledger of every single bitcoin transaction ever made. But many miners see it as the record-keeping mechanism of the future. “We’re where the blockchain goes from that virtual concept to something that’s real in the world,” says Carlson, “something that somebody had to build and is actually running.”
With bitcoin, on the other hand, the supply is tightly controlled by the underlying algorithm. A small number of new bitcoins trickle out every hour, and will continue to do so at a diminishing rate until a maximum of 21 million has been reached. This makes bitcoin more attractive as an asset – in theory, if demand grows and the supply remains the same, the value will increase.
Bitcoin mining is so called because it resembles the mining of other commodities: it requires exertion and it slowly makes new units available to anybody who wishes to take part. An important difference is that the supply does not depend on the amount of mining. In general changing total miner hashpower does not change how many bitcoins are created over the long term.
In the blockchain, bitcoins are registered to bitcoin addresses. Creating a bitcoin address requires nothing more than picking a random valid private key and computing the corresponding bitcoin address. This computation can be done in a split second. But the reverse, computing the private key of a given bitcoin address, is mathematically unfeasible. Users can tell others or make public a bitcoin address without compromising its corresponding private key. Moreover, the number of valid private keys is so vast that it is extremely unlikely someone will compute a key-pair that is already in use and has funds. The vast number of valid private keys makes it unfeasible that brute force could be used to compromise a private key. To be able to spend their bitcoins, the owner must know the corresponding private key and digitally sign the transaction. The network verifies the signature using the public key.:ch. 5