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.
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.
A specific problem that an internet payment system must solve is double-spending, whereby a user pays the same coin to two or more different recipients. An example of such a problem would be if Eve sent a bitcoin to Alice and later sent the same bitcoin to Bob. The bitcoin network guards against double-spending by recording all bitcoin transfers in a ledger (the blockchain) that is visible to all users, and ensuring for all transferred bitcoins that they haven't been previously spent.:4
Ultimately, Bitcoin mining is becoming an arms race. In the early days, anyone with a decent PC could generate Bitcoins through Bitcoin mining. Today, you need to collaborate with other Bitcoin miners in pools, strategically choose the location of your Bitcoin mining operation, and purchase ASIC-powered computers that are specially designed to handle Bitcoin mining.
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Mining a block is difficult because the SHA-256 hash of a block's header must be lower than or equal to the target in order for the block to be accepted by the network. This problem can be simplified for explanation purposes: The hash of a block must start with a certain number of zeros. The probability of calculating a hash that starts with many zeros is very low, therefore many attempts must be made. In order to generate a new hash each round, a nonce is incremented. See Proof of work for more information.
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.
Claiming to be the "world's most popular digital wallet," Blockchain.info boasts more than 24 million wallets and has supported more than 100 million transactions. Security is a top priority, and with many longtime cryptocurrency enthusiasts comfortably keeping their spoils there for years, even as Mt. Gox and Bitfinex were breached, it would have to be.
The controller on the S9 has a red light that goes off when it detects a malfunction. Technicians like Zhang are on hand to scan the racks for sick rigs. When they find one, they pull it out and send it to a house on the factory lot where other technicians diagnose the problem, fix it, and get the machine back on the line. Sometimes it’s a failed chip. Other times it’s a burned-out fan. If the problem is more serious, then the rig gets sent all the way to Bitmain’s labs in Shenzhen in southeast China for a proper rebuild. Every moment the rigs spend unplugged, potential revenue slips away.
Instead, the ledger is broken up into blocks: discrete transaction logs that contain 10 minutes worth of bitcoin activity apiece. Every block includes a reference to the block that came before it, and you can follow the links backward from the most recent block to the very first block, when bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto conjured the first bitcoins into existence.
Across the Mid-Columbia Basin, miners faced an excruciating dilemma: cut their losses and walk, or keep mining for basically nothing in the hopes that the cryptocurrency market would somehow turn around. Many smaller operators simply folded and left town—often leaving behind trashed sites and angry landlords. Even larger players began to draw lines in the sand. Carlson started moving out of mining and into hosting and running sites for other miners. Others held on. Among the latter was Salcido, the Wenatchee contractor-turned-bitcoin miner who grew up in the valley. “What I had to decide was, do I think this recovers, or does the chart keep going like this and become nothing?” Salcido told me recently. We were in his office in downtown Wenatchee, and Salcido, a clean-cut 43-year-old who is married with four young kids, was showing me a computer chart of the bitcoin price during what was one of the most agonizing periods of his life. “Month over month, you had to make this decision: Am I going to keep doing this, or am I going to call it?”
If the private key is lost, the bitcoin network will not recognize any other evidence of ownership; the coins are then unusable, and effectively lost. For example, in 2013 one user claimed to have lost 7,500 bitcoins, worth $7.5 million at the time, when he accidentally discarded a hard drive containing his private key. A backup of his key(s) would have prevented this.