Nor was it simply the deep pockets. At these prices, even smaller operators have been able to make real money running a few machines in home-based, under-the-radar mines. Take the 20-something Wenatchee man we’ll call “Benny”—he didn’t want to be identified—who last July bought three mining servers, set them up in his house (one in the master bedroom and two in the living room)—and began mining Ethereum, bitcoin’s closest cryptocurrency rival. As Ethereum climbed from $165 in July to nearly $1,200 in January, Benny had not only repaid his $7,000 investment but was making enough to pay his mortgage. As a side benefit, this winter, Benny’s power bill went down: The waste heat from the three churning servers kept the house at a toasty 78 degrees. “We actually have to open the windows,” he told me in January. His servers, meanwhile, pretty much run themselves—although, when he’s at work, clerking at a grocery, he monitors the machines, and the Ethereum price, on his phone. “It’s just basically free money,” Benny says. “All I have to do is wake up in the morning and make sure nothing crashed during the night.”
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But, as always, the miners’ biggest challenge came from bitcoin itself. The mere presence of so much new mining in the Mid-Columbia Basin substantially expanded the network’s total mining power; for a time, Carlson’s mine alone accounted for a quarter of the global bitcoin mining capacity. But this rising calculating power also caused mining difficulty to skyrocket—from January 2013 to January 2014, it increased one thousandfold—which forced miners to expand even faster. And bitcoin’s rising price was now drawing in new miners, especially in China, where power is cheap. By the middle of 2014, Carlson says, he’d quadrupled the number of servers in his mine, yet had seen his once-massive share of the market fall below 1 percent.
This is the most basic version of dividing payments. This method shifts the risk to the pool, guaranteeing payment for each share that’s contributed. Thus, each miner is guaranteed an instant payout. Miners are paid out from the pool’s existing balance, allowing for the least possible variance in payment. However, for this type of model to work, it requires a very large reserve of 10,000 BTC to cover any unexpected streaks of bad luck.
That’s all transactions are—people signing bitcoins (or fractions of bitcoins) over to each other. The ledger tracks the coins, but it does not track people, at least not explicitly. Assuming Bob creates a new address and key for each transaction, the ledger won’t be able to reveal who he is, or which addresses are his, or how many bitcoins he has in all. It’s just a record of money moving between anonymous hands.
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.
The basin has become a proving ground for the broader debate about the future of blockchain technology. Critics insist that bitcoin will never work as a mainstream currency—it’s slow and far too volatile. Its real function, they say, is as a “store of value”—that is, an investment asset, like gold or company shares—except that, unlike these traditional assets, bitcoin has no real underlying economic value. Rather, critics say, it has become merely another highly speculative bet—much like mortgage-backed derivatives were in the prelude to the financial crisis—and like them, it is just as assured of an implosion.
In January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block. Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the following text: "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks." This note has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.:18