Lauren Miehe: The Prospector With a knack for turning old buildings into bitcoin mines, Miehe has helped numerous other outsiders set up mining operations in the basin and now manages sites for other miners. He’s been stunned by the interest in the region since bitcoin prices took off last year. “Right now, everyone is in full-greed mode,” he says. Here, Miehe works at his original mine, a half-megawatt operation a few miles from the Columbia River. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
Bitcoin Mining is a peer-to-peer computer process used to secure and verify bitcoin transactions—payments from one user to another on a decentralized network. Mining involves adding bitcoin transaction data to Bitcoin's global public ledger of past transactions. Each group of transactions is called a block. Blocks are secured by Bitcoin miners and build on top of each other forming a chain. This ledger of past transactions is called the blockchain. The blockchain serves to confirm transactions to the rest of the network as having taken place. Bitcoin nodes use the blockchain to distinguish legitimate Bitcoin transactions from attempts to re-spend coins that have already been spent elsewhere.
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.
Anyone who can run the mining program on the specially designed hardware can participate in mining. Over the years, many computer hardware manufacturers have designed specialized Bitcoin mining hardware that can process transactions and build blocks much more quickly and efficiently than regular computers, since the faster the hardware can guess at random, the higher its chances of solving the puzzle, therefore mining a block.
Desktop wallets are installed on a desktop computer and provide the user with complete control over the wallet. Desktop wallets enable the user to create a Bitcoin address for sending and receiving the Bitcoins. They also allow the user to store a private key. A few known desktop wallets are Bitcoin Core, MultiBit, Armory, Hive OS X, Electrum, etc.
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.
Skipping over the technical details, finding a block most closely resembles a type of network lottery. For each attempt to try and find a new block, which is basically a random guess for a lucky number, a miner has to spend a tiny amount of energy. Most of the attempts fail and a miner will have wasted that energy. Only once about every ten minutes will a miner somewhere succeed and thus add a new block to the blockchain.
Bitcoin prices saw tremendous activity during 2017, rising several thousand percent over the year. The market has seen some volatility, although many of the dips seen in the cryptocurrency have thus far proven to be good buying opportunities. This trend may or may not continue, but given the outlook for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the trend could potentially remain higher for a long time to come.
On paper, the Mid-Columbia Basin really did look like El Dorado for Carlson and the other miners who began to trickle in during the first years of the boom. The region’s five huge hydroelectric dams, all owned by public utility districts, generate nearly six times as much power as the region’s residents and businesses can use. Most of the surplus is exported, at high prices, to markets like Seattle or Los Angeles, which allows the utilities to sell power locally at well below its cost of production. Power is so cheap here that people heat their homes with electricity, despite bitterly cold winters, and farmers have been able to irrigate the semi-arid region into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. (The local newspaper proudly claims to be published in “the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle on the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.”) And, importantly, it had already attracted several power-hungry industries, notably aluminum smelting and, starting in the mid-2000s, data centers for tech giants like Microsoft and Intuit.
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
Armory is the most mature, secure and full featured Bitcoin wallet but it can be technologically intimidating for users. Whether you are an individual storing $1,000 or institution storing $1,000,000,000 this is the most secure option available. Users are in complete control all Bitcoin private keys and can setup a secure offline-signing process in Armory.
The U.S. federal investigation was prompted by concerns of possible manipulation during futures settlement dates. The final settlement price of CME bitcoin futures is determined by prices on four exchanges, Bitstamp, Coinbase, itBit and Kraken. Following the first delivery date in January 2018, the CME requested extensive detailed trading information but several of the exchanges refused to provide it and later provided only limited data. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission then subpoenaed the data from the exchanges.
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.
If Eve offers to pay Alice a bitcoin in exchange for goods and signs a corresponding transaction, it is still possible that she also creates a different transaction at the same time sending the same bitcoin to Bob. By the rules, the network accepts only one of the transactions. This is called a race attack, since there is a race which transaction will be accepted first. Alice can reduce the risk of race attack stipulating that she will not deliver the goods until Eve's payment to Alice appears in the blockchain.
Because the reward for mining blocks is so high (currently at 12.5 BTC), the competition to win that reward is also fierce among miners. At any moment, hundreds of thousands of supercomputers all around the world are competing to mine the next block and win that reward. In fact, according to howmuch.com, ” the total power of all the computers mining Bitcoin is over 1000 times more powerful than the world’s top 500 supercomputers combined”.
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Bitcoin is in the very early stages of acceptance, and although it is already accepted as a means of payment by numerous merchants, it has yet to become more widely accepted and “mainstream.” This could change, however, as more and more users are attracted to cryptocurrencies for the various potential benefits they may provide. In fact, investors have been flocking to the currency in significant numbers, and some even feel that eventually Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could replace other traditional payment methods.
Several deep web black markets have been shut by authorities. In October 2013 Silk Road was shut down by U.S. law enforcement leading to a short-term decrease in the value of bitcoin. In 2015, the founder of the site was sentenced to life in prison. Alternative sites were soon available, and in early 2014 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that the closure of Silk Road had little impact on the number of Australians selling drugs online, which had actually increased. In early 2014, Dutch authorities closed Utopia, an online illegal goods market, and seized 900 bitcoins. In late 2014, a joint police operation saw European and American authorities seize bitcoins and close 400 deep web sites including the illicit goods market Silk Road 2.0. Law enforcement activity has resulted in several convictions. In December 2014, Charlie Shrem was sentenced to two years in prison for indirectly helping to send $1 million to the Silk Road drugs site, and in February 2015, its founder, Ross Ulbricht, was convicted on drugs charges and faces a life sentence.
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.”
At this point, the actual mining begins. In essence, each miner now tries to demonstrate to the rest of the network that his or her block of verified payments is the one true block, which will serve as the permanent record of those 2,000 or so transactions. Miners do this by, essentially, trying to be the first to guess their block’s numerical password. It’s analogous to trying to randomly guess someone’s computer password, except on a vastly larger scale. Carlson’s first mining computer, or “rig,” which he ran out of his basement north of Seattle, could make 12 billion “guesses” every second; today’s servers are more than a thousand times faster.
In the process of mining, each Bitcoin miner is competing with all the other miners on the network to be the first one to correctly assemble the outstanding transactions into a block by solving those specialized math puzzles. In exchange for validating the transactions and solving these problems. Miners also hold the strength and security of the Bitcoin network. This is very important for security because in order to attack the network, an attacker would need to have over half of the total computational power of the network. This attack is referred to as the 51% attack. The more decentralized the miners mining Bitcoin, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to perform this attack.
Beyond this great security feature, this new hardware wallet comes with a bevy of other features that either improve its overall security or extend its use beyond just storing your Bitcoins. Foremost amongst these features is the ability to create a secondary “hidden” wallet: marketed as “Plausible Deniability” by the manufacturer. The main idea here being that should store most of your assets in one less accessible wallet and the rest of them in the more visible one. If for some reason the more visible wallet is compromised, the hidden wallet and your main resources stay intact. With the aid of the micro SD card, you can regain access to them later.
As more miners join, the rate of block creation increases. As the rate of block generation increases, the difficulty rises to compensate, which has a balancing of effect due to reducing the rate of block-creation. Any blocks released by malicious miners that do not meet the required difficulty target will simply be rejected by the other participants in the network.
Bitmain gained an edge by supplying a superior product in large quantities, a feat that has eluded every other company in the industry. The Ordos facility is stuffed almost exclusively with Bitmain’s best performing rig, the Antminer S9. According to company specs, the S9 is capable of churning out 14 terahashes, or 14 trillion hashes, every second while consuming around 0.1 joules of energy per gigahash for a total of about 1,400 watts (about as much as a microwave oven consumes).
Miners found other advantages. The cool winters and dry air helped reduce the need for costly air conditioning to prevent their churning servers from overheating. As a bonus, the region was already equipped with some of the nation’s fastest high-speed internet, thanks to the massive fiber backbone the data centers had installed. All in all, recalls Miehe, the basin was bitcoin’s “killer app.”
If you've made it this far, then congratulations! There is still so much more to explain about the system, but at least now you have an idea of the broad outline of the genius of the programming and the concept. For the first time we have a system that allows for convenient digital transfers in a decentralized, trust-free and tamper-proof way. The repercussions could be huge.
Competing ASIC maker BitFury has also started seeking profit from nonmining industries. “While we began as just a mining company back in 2011, our company has significantly expanded its reach since then,” says CEO Vavilov. Among other things, BitFury is now providing its immersion cooling technology to high-performance data centers that are not involved in Bitcoin.
Some nodes are mining nodes (usually referred to as "miners"). These group outstanding transactions into blocks and add them to the blockchain. How do they do this? By solving a complex mathematical puzzle that is part of the bitcoin program, and including the answer in the block. The puzzle that needs solving is to find a number that, when combined with the data in the block and passed through a hash function, produces a result that is within a certain range. This is much harder than it sounds.
With the Antminers needing to stay below 38 °C, Mongolia is not the ideal location for a mining facility. It had been above 40 °C for several days when I visited in July. And in the winter, it can fall to –20 °C, cold enough for Bitmain to add insulation to the facilities. Dust is a problem as well, which is why the interior of every warehouse I walk through is veiled in a fine fabric filter.
Bitcoin's price is also quite dependent on the size of its mining network, since the larger the network is, the more difficult – and thus more costly – it is to produce new bitcoins. As a result, the price of bitcoin has to increase as its cost of production also rises. The Bitcoin mining network's aggregate power has more than tripled over the past twelve months.
The chief selling point of this hardware wallet is that you no longer have to write down several passphrases to recover your assets in case of an emergency. Rather, when you first setup the DigitalBitbox all this information is automatically stored on the SD card. No doubt, this has the potential to save many investors headaches in the future. Granted, you must still ensure that the SD card is kept somewhere safe and you should only ever have into inserted in the DigitalBitbox on setup or when resetting.
On 24 August 2017 (at block 481,824), Segregated Witness (SegWit) went live. Transactions contain some data which is only used to verify the transaction, and does not otherwise effect the movement of coins. SegWit introduced a new transaction format that moved this data into a new field in a backwards-compatible way. The segregated data, the so-called witness, is not sent to non-SegWit nodes and therefore does not form part of the blockchain as seen by legacy nodes. This lowers the size of the average transaction in such nodes' view, thereby increasing the block size without incurring the hard fork implied by other proposals for block size increases. Thus, per computer scientist Jochen Hoenicke, the actual block capacity depends on the ratio of SegWit transactions in the block, and on the ratio of signature data. Based on his estimate, if the ratio of SegWit transactions is 50%, the block capacity may be 1.25 megabytes. According to Hoenicke, if native SegWit addresses from Bitcoin Core version 0.16.0 are used, and SegWit adoption reaches 90% to 95%, a block size of up to 1.8 megabytes is possible.