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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.”
Because of bitcoin's decentralized nature and its trading on online exchanges located in many countries, regulation of bitcoin has been difficult. However, the use of bitcoin can be criminalized, and shutting down exchanges and the peer-to-peer economy in a given country would constitute a de facto ban. The legal status of bitcoin varies substantially from country to country and is still undefined or changing in many of them. Regulations and bans that apply to bitcoin probably extend to similar cryptocurrency systems.
All mining ASICs, Bitmain’s included, are performing essentially the same computation—the SHA-256 hashing algorithm—even if they go about it a bit differently. The standard algorithm takes 64 steps to complete, but in Bitcoin it is run twice for each block header, meaning a full round requires 128 steps that are heavy on integer addition. “That’s what dominates the whole design,” says Timo Hanke, the chief cryptographer at String Labs, a cryptography-focused incubator in Palo Alto, Calif. “So, if somebody was to optimize it, they have to optimize the adders. That’s where most of the work is.”
How hard are the puzzles involved in mining? Well, that depends on how much effort is being put into mining across the network. The difficulty of the mining can be adjusted, and is adjusted by the protocol every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks. The difficulty adjusts itself with the aim of keeping the rate of block discovery constant. Thus if more computational power is employed in mining, then the difficulty will adjust upwards to make mining harder. And if computational power is taken off of the network, the opposite happens. The difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.
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Keys come in pairs. The public key is used to encrypt the message whereas the private key decrypts the message. The only person with the private key is you. Everyone else is free to have your public key. As a result, everyone can send you encrypted messages without having to agree on a key beforehand. They simply use your public key and you untangle the gibberish by using your private key.
In front of me are nine warehouses with bright blue roofs, each emblazoned with the logo for Bitmain, a Chinese firm headquartered in Beijing that is arguably the most important company in the Bitcoin industry. Bitmain sells Bitcoin mining rigs—the specialized computers that keep the cryptocurrency running and that produce, or “mine,” new bitcoins for their owners. It also uses its own rigs to stock facilities that it owns or co-owns and operates. Bitmain owns about 20 percent of this one.
Bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency, a concept that was discussed in the late 90s. The first Bitcoin specification and proof of concept was published in 2009 in a cryptography mailing list. The concept was presented by a person or group known as Satoshi Nakamoto. The real identity of Nakamoto has been a mystery since that time, with various theories on who the individual or group may be.
More important, Nakamoto built the system to make the blocks themselves more difficult to mine as more computer power flows into the network. That is, as more miners join, or as existing miners buy more servers, or as the servers themselves get faster, the bitcoin network automatically adjusts the solution criteria so that finding those passwords requires proportionately more random guesses, and thus more computing power. These adjustments occur every 10 to 14 days, and are programmed to ensure that bitcoin blocks are mined no faster than one roughly every 10 minutes. The presumed rationale is that by forcing miners to commit more computing power, Nakamoto was making miners more invested in the long-term survival of the network.
As more and more miners competed for the limited supply of blocks, individuals found that they were working for months without finding a block and receiving any reward for their mining efforts. This made mining something of a gamble. To address the variance in their income miners started organizing themselves into pools so that they could share rewards more evenly. See Pooled mining and Comparison of mining pools.
No one knows. Not conclusively, at any rate. Satoshi Nakamoto is the name associated with the person or group of people who released the original Bitcoin white paper in 2008 and worked on the original Bitcoin software that was released in 2009. The Bitcoin protocol requires users to enter a birthday upon signup, and we know that an individual named Satoshi Nakamoto registered and put down April 5 as a birth date. And that's about it.
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.
To form a distributed timestamp server as a peer-to-peer network, bitcoin uses a proof-of-work system. This work is often called bitcoin mining. The signature is discovered rather than provided by knowledge. This process is energy intensive. Electricity can consume more than 90% of operating costs for miners. A data center in China, planned mostly for bitcoin mining, is expected to require up to 135 megawatts of power.
Cryptocurrency mining can be an expensive proposition, requiring computing hardware and electricity. Cryptojacking offers cybercriminals a way to steal computing power from other people to bypass the effort and expense. Cryptojacking software operates on computers in the background, with the only evidence of its presence signified by a user’s device overheating or slowing down.
Although it is possible to handle bitcoins individually, it would be unwieldy to require a separate transaction for every bitcoin in a transaction. Transactions are therefore allowed to contain multiple inputs and outputs, allowing bitcoins to be split and combined. Common transactions will have either a single input from a larger previous transaction or multiple inputs combining smaller amounts, and one or two outputs: one for the payment, and one returning the change, if any, to the sender. Any difference between the total input and output amounts of a transaction goes to miners as a transaction fee.
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.
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.’”
A bitcoin is defined by a sequence of digitally signed transactions that began with the bitcoin's creation, as a block reward. The owner of a bitcoin transfers it by digitally signing it over to the next owner using a bitcoin transaction, much like endorsing a traditional bank check. A payee can examine each previous transaction to verify the chain of ownership. Unlike traditional check endorsements, bitcoin transactions are irreversible, which eliminates risk of chargeback fraud.
Exchange hacks. As stated above, an exchange hack has nothing to do with the integrity of the Bitcoin system… but the market freaks out regardless. This trend seems to minimize as users see that cryptos recover from exchange hacks. As exchanges evolve and become more secure, this threat becomes less of an issue. Additionally, outside investments funneling into exchanges are providing the capital for them to grow stronger.
For local cryptocurrency enthusiasts, these slings and arrows are all very much worth enduring. They believe not only that cryptocurrency will make them personally very wealthy, but also that this formerly out-of-the-way region has a real shot at becoming a center—and maybe the center—of a coming technology revolution, with the well-paid jobs and tech-fueled prosperity that usually flow only to gilded “knowledge” hubs like Seattle and San Francisco. Malachi Salcido, a Wenatchee building contractor who jumped into bitcoin in 2014 and is now one of the basin’s biggest players, puts it in sweeping terms. The basin, he tells me, is “building a platform that the entire world is going to use.”
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.