Indeed, for a time, everything seemed to come together for the miners. By mid-2013, Carlson’s first mine, though only 250 kilowatts in size, was mining hundreds of bitcoins a day—enough for him to pay all his power bills and other expenses while “stacking” the rest as a speculative asset that had started to appreciate. By then, bitcoin was shedding its reputation as the currency of drug dealers and data-breach blackmailers. A few legitimate companies, like Microsoft, and even some banks were accepting it. Competing cryptocurrencies were proliferating, and trading sites were emerging. Bitcoin was the hot new thing, and its price surged past $1,100 before settling in the mid-hundreds.
Mining is the process of spending computation power to secure Bitcoin transactions against reversal and introducing new Bitcoins to the system. Technically speaking, mining is the calculation of a hash of the block header, which includes among other things a reference to the previous block, a hash of a set of transactions and a nonce (an arbitrary number used just once for authentication purposes).
The counterargument is that the blockchain economy is still in its infancy. The “monetized code” that underlies the blockchain concept can be written to carry any sort of information securely, and to administer virtually any kind of transaction, contractual arrangement or other data-driven relationship between humans and their proliferating machines. In the future, supporters say, banks and other large institutions and even governments will run internal blockchains. Consumer product companies and tech companies will use blockchain to manage the “internet of things.” Within this ecosystem, we’ll see a range of cryptos playing different roles, with bitcoin perhaps serving as an investment, while more nimble cryptos can carry out everyday transactions. And the reality is, whatever its flaws, bitcoin’s success and fame thus far makes the whole crypto phenomenon harder to dislodge with every trading cycle.
Bitmain acquired this mining facility in Inner Mongolia a couple years ago and has turned it into one of the most powerful money factories on the Bitcoin network. It quite literally metabolizes electricity into money. By my own calculations, the hardware on the grounds—some 21,000 computers—accounted for about 4 percent of all the computing power in the Bitcoin network when I visited.
Is Bitcoin a safe way to store value digitally? Are we wise to save our coins on our computer? It’s true that online wallets are necessarily more dangerous than offline wallets. However, even offline wallets can be breached, meaning that security in the Bitcoin world depends largely on following good practices. Just like you would avoid flailing your bills about in a dangerous place, you should make sure to keep your passwords and keys as safe as possible.
Benny: The Rogue Miner “Benny,” a self-taught, 20-something computer whiz, set up three mining servers in his Wenatchee home last summer. Since then he has made enough profit not only to recover his initial investment but also to pay his monthly mortgage. As a bonus, the heat from the computers keeps his home heated all winter. “It’s just basically free money,” says Benny, pictured here with his homemade mining operation. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
As soon as a miner finds a solution and a majority of other miners confirm it, this winning block is accepted by the network as the “official” block for those particular transactions. The official block is then added to previous blocks, creating an ever-lengthening chain of blocks, called the “blockchain,” that serves as a master ledger for all bitcoin transactions. (Most cryptocurrencies have their own blockchain.) And, importantly, the winning miner is rewarded with brand-new bitcoins (when Carlson got started, in mid-2012, the reward was 50 bitcoins) and all the processing fees. The network then moves on to the next batch of payments and the process repeats—and, in theory, will keep repeating, once every 10 minutes or so, until miners mine all 21 million of the bitcoins programmed into the system.
Bitcoin mining is a lot like a giant lottery where you compete with your mining hardware with everyone on the network to earn bitcoins. Faster Bitcoin mining hardware is able to attempt more tries per second to win this lottery while the Bitcoin network itself adjusts roughly every two weeks to keep the rate of finding a winning block hash to every ten minutes. In the big picture, Bitcoin mining secures transactions that are recorded in Bitcon's public ledger, the block chain. By conducting a random lottery where electricity and specialized equipment are the price of admission, the cost to disrupt the Bitcoin network scales with the amount of hashing power that is being spent by all mining participants.
Hot wallets refer to Bitcoin wallets used on internet connected devices like phones, computers, or tablets. Because hot wallets run on internet connected devices there is always a risk of theft. Think of hot wallets like your wallet today. You shouldn’t store any significant amount of bitcoins in a hot wallet, just as you would not walk around with your savings account as cash.
A wallet stores the information necessary to transact bitcoins. While wallets are often described as a place to hold or store bitcoins, due to the nature of the system, bitcoins are inseparable from the blockchain transaction ledger. A better way to describe a wallet is something that "stores the digital credentials for your bitcoin holdings" and allows one to access (and spend) them. Bitcoin uses public-key cryptography, in which two cryptographic keys, one public and one private, are generated. At its most basic, a wallet is a collection of these keys.
Wallets and similar software technically handle all bitcoins as equivalent, establishing the basic level of fungibility. Researchers have pointed out that the history of each bitcoin is registered and publicly available in the blockchain ledger, and that some users may refuse to accept bitcoins coming from controversial transactions, which would harm bitcoin's fungibility.
Hardware wallets are by far the most secure kind of Bitcoin wallet, as they store Bitcoins on a physical piece of equipment, generally plugged into a computer via a USB port. They are all but immune to virus attacks and very few instances of Bitcoin theft have been reported. These devices are the only Bitcoin wallets which aren't free, and they often cost $100 to $200.
While it is possible to store any digital file in the blockchain, the larger the transaction size, the larger any associated fees become. Various items have been embedded, including URLs to child pornography, an ASCII art image of Ben Bernanke, material from the Wikileaks cables, prayers from bitcoin miners, and the original bitcoin whitepaper.
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.
This bizarre process might not seem like it would need that much electricity—and in the early years, it didn’t. When he first started in 2012, Carlson was mining bitcoin on his gaming computer, and even when he built his first real dedicated mining rig, that machine used maybe 1,200 watts—about as much as a hairdryer or a microwave oven. Even with Seattle’s electricity prices, Carlson was spending around $2 per bitcoin, which was then selling for around $12. In fact, Carlson was making such a nice profit that he began to dream about running a bunch of servers and making some serious money. He wasn’t alone. Across the expanding bitcoin universe, lots of miners were thinking about scaling up, turning their basements and spare bedrooms into jury-rigged data centers. But most of these people were thinking small, like maybe 10 kilowatts, about what four normal households might use. Carlson’s idea was to leapfrog the basement phase and go right to a commercial-scale bitcoin mine that was huge: 1,000 kilowatts. “I started to have this dream, that I was posting on online forums, ‘I think I could build the first megawatt-scale mine.’”
To be accepted by the rest of the network, a new block must contain a so-called proof-of-work (PoW). The system used is based on Adam Back's 1997 anti-spam scheme, Hashcash. The PoW requires miners to find a number called a nonce, such that when the block content is hashed along with the nonce, the result is numerically smaller than the network's difficulty target.:ch. 8 This proof is easy for any node in the network to verify, but extremely time-consuming to generate, as for a secure cryptographic hash, miners must try many different nonce values (usually the sequence of tested values is the ascending natural numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, ...:ch. 8) before meeting the difficulty target.