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.
But here, Carlson and his fellow would-be crypto tycoons confronted the bizarre, engineered obstinacy of bitcoin, which is designed to make life harder for miners as time goes by. For one, the currency’s mysterious creator (or creators), known as “Satoshi Nakamoto,” programmed the network to periodically—every 210,000 blocks, or once every four years or so—halve the number of bitcoins rewarded for each mined block. The first drop, from 50 coins to 25, came on November 28, 2012, which the faithful call “Halving Day.” (It has since halved again, to 12.5, and is expected to drop to 6.25 in June 2020.)
An ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) is a microchip designed for a special application, such as a particular kind of transmission protocol or a hand-held computer. An ASIC is a chip designed specifically to do only one task. Unlike FPGAs, an ASIC cannot be repurposed to perform other tasks. An ASIC designed to mine Bitcoins can only mine Bitcoins and will only ever mine Bitcoins. The inflexibility of an ASIC is offset by the fact that it offers a 100x increase in hashing power compared to the CPU and GPUs, while reducing power consumption compared to all the previous technologies.
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.
The initialization process is relatively simple. Plug it into a USB port on your device. You will then have to generate a private key by adding 256 KB to the drive. You can do this by dragging one or two random pictures into it. After the private key is generated the drive will self-eject. It is now ready to use. To manage your assets and view your digital address you will have to open the index.htm file located on the drive. The user interface is very easy to use and even provides links to several blockchain browsers.
Researchers have pointed out at a "trend towards centralization". Although bitcoin can be sent directly to the bitcoin network, in practice intermediaries are widely used.:220–222 Bitcoin miners join large mining pools to minimize the variance of their income.:215, 219–222:3 Because transactions on the network are confirmed by miners, decentralization of the network requires that no single miner or mining pool obtains 51% of the hashing power, which would allow them to double-spend coins, prevent certain transactions from being verified and prevent other miners from earning income. As of 2013 just six mining pools controlled 75% of overall bitcoin hashing power. In 2014 mining pool Ghash.io obtained 51% hashing power which raised significant controversies about the safety of the network. The pool has voluntarily capped their hashing power at 39.99% and requested other pools to act responsibly for the benefit of the whole network.
In order to have an edge in the mining competition, the hardware used for Bitcoin mining has undergone various developments, starting with the use the CPU. The CPU can perform many different types of calculations including Bitcoin mining. In the beginning, mining with a CPU was the only way to mine Bitcoins and was done using the original Satoshi client. Unfortunately, with the nature of most CPU in terms of multi-tasking, and its optimization for task switching, miners innovated on many fronts and for years now, CPU mining has been relatively futile.
It’s decentralized and brings power back to the people. Launched just a year after the 2008 financial crises, Bitcoin has attracted many people who see the current financial system as unsustainable. This factor has won the hearts of those who view politicians and government with suspicion. It’s no surprise there is a huge community of ideologists actively building, buying, and working in the cryptocurrency world.
Another interesting way (literally) to earn bitcoins is by lending them out, and being repaid in the currency. Lending can take three forms – direct lending to someone you know; through a website which facilitates peer-to-peer transactions, pairing borrowers and lenders; or depositing bitcoins in a virtual bank that offers a certain interest rate for Bitcoin accounts. Some such sites are Bitbond, BitLendingClub and BTCjam. Obviously, you should do due diligence on any third-party site.
The Mid-Columbia Basin isn’t the only location where the virtual realm of cryptocurrency is colliding with the real world of megawatts and real estate. In places like China, Venezuela and Iceland, cheap land and even cheaper electricity have resulted in bustling mining hubs. But the basin, by dint of its early start, has emerged as one of the biggest boomtowns. By the end of 2018, according to some estimates, miners here could account for anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of all bitcoin mining in the world, and impressive shares of other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Litecoin. And as with any boomtown, that success has created tensions. There have been disputes between miners and locals, bankruptcies and bribery attempts, lawsuits, even a kind of intensifying guerrilla warfare between local utility crews and a shadowy army of bootleg miners who set up their servers in basements and garages and max out the local electrical grids.
The best mining sites were the old fruit warehouses—the basin is as famous for its apples as for its megawatts—but those got snapped up early. So Miehe, a tall, gregarious 38-year-old who would go on to set up a string of mines here, learned to look for less obvious solutions. He would roam the side streets and back roads, scanning for defunct businesses that might have once used a lot of power. An old machine shop, say. A closed-down convenience store. Or this: Miehe slows the Land Rover and points to a shuttered carwash sitting forlornly next to a Taco Bell. It has the space, he says. And with the water pumps and heaters, “there’s probably a ton of power distributed not very far from here,” Miehe tells me. “That could be a bitcoin mine.”
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.
According to the European Central Bank, the decentralization of money offered by bitcoin has its theoretical roots in the Austrian school of economics, especially with Friedrich von Hayek in his book Denationalisation of Money: The Argument Refined, in which he advocates a complete free market in the production, distribution and management of money to end the monopoly of central banks.:22
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.”
For all that potential, however, the basin’s nascent mining community was beset by the sort of troubles that you would have found in any other boomtown. Mining technology was still so new that the early operations were constantly crashing. There was a growing, often bitter competition for mining sites that had adequate power, and whose landlords didn’t flip out when the walls got “Swiss-cheesed” with ventilation holes. There was the constant fear of electrical overloads, as coin-crazed miners pushed power systems to the limit—as, for example, when one miner nearly torched an old laundromat in downtown Wenatchee.
Network nodes can validate transactions, add them to their copy of the ledger, and then broadcast these ledger additions to other nodes. To achieve independent verification of the chain of ownership each network node stores its own copy of the blockchain. About every 10 minutes, a new group of accepted transactions, called a block, is created, added to the blockchain, and quickly published to all nodes, without requiring central oversight. This allows bitcoin software to determine when a particular bitcoin was spent, which is needed to prevent double-spending. A conventional ledger records the transfers of actual bills or promissory notes that exist apart from it, but the blockchain is the only place that bitcoins can be said to exist in the form of unspent outputs of transactions.:ch. 5