Saturday, 11 January 2014

Bitcoin | The Bitcoin-Mining Arms Race Heats Up

By Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone from Business Week

Flickinger, 37, a software engineer and IT consultant by trade, doesn’t leave the house much these days. He’s a full-time Bitcoin miner.

Bitcoin is the digital currency that thrills nerds, inspires libertarians, and incites the passions of economists who debate the value of money made from nothing but ones and zeroes. Devotees watch the fluctuations of Bitcoin’s price with a fanaticism typically reserved for college football scores. Alternative currency startups are being lavishly funded by venture capitalists while visionaries gush about the world-changing possibilities of money free from government control. Silicon Valley is the natural center for Bitcoin mania. An advocacy group named Arisebitcoin recently put up 40 billboards around the Bay Area with messages such as: “The Revolution has started … where do you stand?”

As with an actual precious metal, Bitcoins are in limited supply—they must be “mined.” Unlike with precious metals, this mining is done purely by computer. Miners set their machines to run a series of complex calculations that tally up and certify all the transactions of other Bitcoin holders around the world. If the miner’s computers complete these calculations and solve a complex mathematical puzzle before anyone else, he earns about 25 Bitcoins as payment. It’s a nice haul: With the price of each Bitcoin nosing up near $1,000, that’s $25,000 for 10 minutes or so of work. For the moment at least, miners are the rare grunts who can also get rich.

Over the past six months the price of a Bitcoin has shot up, dived, shot up again—and kept on rising, making Bitcoin mining one of the most frenzied corners in technology. Engineers are racing to design and build unique chips that crunch Bitcoin algorithms at high speeds. Thousands of entrepreneurs like Flickinger are betting that their ability to harness these complex computer systems will make them rich—and maybe create a new world order along the way.

Jake Stangel for Bloomberg BusinessweekJoel Flickinger, in his Oakland (Calif.) home, which doubles as a Bitcoin mine

Flickinger is part of a group called Give Me Coins that pools together its computing power to have a better shot at verifying transactions and solving the cryptographic puzzles first. He spends much of his time chatting online and monitoring his account on, which shows the group’s progress and his share in the work. His setup currently accounts for about 10 percent of its total computing muscle.

One of the first things he does in the morning is check the temperature of his mining rigs. Processing chips calculate faster when they’re hot, but not too hot—the optimal temperature is around 73.5C (164.3F). If it goes much higher, the machine can overheat and malfunction, but Flickinger likes to push the limit. Occasionally, he says, he stuffs the air holes of his machines with paper to bring up the temperature. “There is serious money in this,” he says, noting that he’s earned 100 Bitcoins over the past few months from mining and other transactions. He estimates his two fastest computers will earn him $150,000 each this year. “It takes up a lot of time, but I have no kids. I have no life. I have a cat.”

The Bitcoin system was introduced in 2008 by a shadowy figure who went by the name of Satoshi Nakamoto. To this day no one knows if Nakamoto is a man or a woman or some sort of cabal, though few deny the ingenuity of the creation. Digital currencies had been devised before—DigiCash and Bit Gold, for example—and never took off. Nakamoto started with the best ideas behind these earlier currencies, added a few of his own, and wove it all together with technical elegance. The biggest achievement was solving a long-standing problem of borderless digital money: With no government oversight or central database to track transactions, how do you prevent fraud?

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