commodity speculation

Our liberation from the constraints of the seasons is assumed to be progress, but it might be wiser to call it an illusion. All that food in the supermarket is coming from places where the seasons still count. We still live off soil and sun and rain. There is no question of going ‘back to the land’, because we never left: we just stretched the chains that link us to it so far, we lost sense of what lies at the other end.

This is how climate change arrives, not as a clean case of cause and effect, but tangled up with the cruelties of dictators and the profits made from commodity market speculation, washing up in boats on package holiday coastlines.

-Short version-

1) Should I buy bitcoins?

No.

2) But if they drop down to a dollar, then I can snap some up and

No. You are one of thousands of people who want to do this. Telling the thread that you are going to do this doesn’t make you look smart.

3) How does this shit work? It doesn’t make any sense!

No, it really doesn’t. It’s impossible to explain bitcoin in anything less than tl;dr terms so you should probably just not worry about it. Go do something useful instead of reading this awful thread full of socially inept people laughing at another group of socially inept people.


-Long version-

1) I really want to understand how bitcoin works. Please.

Okay, you asked for it. With some severe simplifications and a painfully neutral pov:

Bitcoin is a decentralized “cryptocurrency”. It is a network of software that shares a common protocol designed to allow secure transfer of bitcoins between users. It uses distributed cryptography to verify transfers and balances.

Bitcoin is also the subculture that has sprung up around this software, which includes additional software that is not part of the core design. The most high-profile of these are trading services that allow users to buy and sell bitcoins using US dollars and other real-world currencies.

Bitcoins users have files called “wallets”. This is sort of a misnomer, because these wallets do not actually contain anything except a cryptographic private key. One’s bitcoin balance is actually recorded inside the distributed network, which is why you cannot edit your wallet file to give yourself more bitcoins. Bitcoins can be added to a particular balance using a public bitcoin address, which acts as a cryptographic public key. The private key is contained in the wallet, and bitcoins cannot be transferred out of a balance without that private key.

(If you don’t understand public-key cryptography, do some reading because you can’t understand bitcoin without it. While you’re at it, read up on cryptographic hash functions.)

Transfers between wallets are recorded in “blocks”, which are verified by the distributed cryptography system. The act of verifying transactions and then adding those transactions to the historical “blockchain” is called “mining”. Transactions are stored in the blockchain using cryptographic hashing methods which allow the entire blockchain to be independently verified for consistency and integrity. In order to make blockchain verification an attractive prospect, the design of bitcoin gives “bitcoin miners” two reasons to tie up their computing hardware to maintain the network, both based around competition.

The first reason is that bitcoin transfers can contain optional transaction fees which are paid to the miner that verifies the transaction. Paying a transaction fee makes it more likely that your transaction will be processed in a timely manner, because those transactions are more attractive to the miners.

The second reason is that mining gives the miner a chance of receiving a batch of newly created bitcoins. The more cryptographic power one brings to bear, the more likely it is that the next batch of new bitcoins will be yours. There are a fixed number of bitcoins which can ever be mined, and the difficulty of the cryptography will continue to increase over time.

An important aspect of mining is that the network is designed to handle one complete block (containing a specific number of transactions) every ten minutes. If more computing power is added to the distributed network, making the blocks take less time to process, the difficulty of the cryptography increases. The inverse is also true. This scaling difficulty is meant to help prevent a single user or group of users from gaining complete control over the network by using more computational power.

The distributed verification process determines the “truth” of a transaction block by whether or not the majority of the network (as measured by contributed cryptographic work) considers it valid. The original designer thought it unlikely that any one user or organization could acquire a majority of the network’s cryptographic power and therefore “cheat” the system in some way.

Bitcoin verification power is typically measured in the speed at which a system can perform cryptographic hashes, which are required to verify the blockchain and to add transactions to it. The difficulty of the mining process is determined by the amount of “hashing” required to add a new block to the chain.

These are the core aspects of the original bitcoin design. In short, bitcoins are assigned to “wallet” addresses, with balances stored in a distributed “blockchain”. The accuracy of the blockchain is verified by “miners”, who have a vested interest in doing so through a reward system. Attacks (such as double-spending) are prevented by the distributed nature of the network, where any invalid transactions will be caught by other mining systems.

2) That was painful to read.

It was painful to write.

3) So what went wrong?

A lot of things, some of which are due to problems with the original design, and others which are due to problems with the bitcoin community.

Bitcoin was originally a proof-of-concept project by an anonymous crypto specialist who used the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto”. It is unlikely that he was actually Japanese, but his identity still remains a mystery. Bitcoin was meant to be a testing ground for theories about how cryptocurrencies might work. Initially, bitcoin was a curiosity and there was little participation in the network, as bitcoins had no real-world worth.

This all changed as bitcoin was discovered by three types of people. First, there were the internet libertarian types who liked the idea of a currency that was not controlled by a government. For them, bitcoin represented an ideology. Second, there were people who wanted to use bitcoin as a semi-anonymous international currency for illegal transactions, such as drugs, weapons, or illicit pornography, as well as a possible method for laundering money. For them, bitcoin represented safety from the law. Third, there were people who viewed bitcoin as a method to get rich by getting in on the ground floor of a new kind of money. These people saw bitcoin as an investment.

The history of bitcoin is too complicated to go into detail here, but these three groups shaped the bitcoin network and community into what it is today, which is a gigantic goddamn mess of idiocy, greed, and bad decisions.

4) What happened to the neutral pov?

I’m tired.

5) Well, then where is bitcoin right now?

Right now, the bitcoin community has been overwhelmed by the use of bitcoin as, essentially, a commodity to be bought and sold. Individual bitcoiners may talk about the future of bitcoin as a currency, but the vast majority of bitcoin transactions today are the buying and selling of bitcoins themselves using real-world money, and not the buying of goods or services using bitcoins. There is an extremely limited number of things you can spend bitcoins on without first converting them to dollars (or whatever), and many of those are done through third-party bitcoin-to-dollars systems where the merchant never sees any bitcoins.

Bitcoins are purchased and sold much like other commodities such as gold, petroleum, and the like. Exchange services are set up, where people who wish to buy the commodity put forth “buy orders”, where they offer to buy a certain amount of the commodity at a given price, and these buy orders are matched with “sell orders” put in by people who wish to sell that commodity.

There are several bitcoin exchanges that let one buy and sell bitcoins using dollars and other currencies, but the most important one is “mtgox”. Amusingly, Mtgox started life as “Magic: The Gathering Online eXchange”, an exchange service for virtual Magic: The Gathering cards.

When someone says “bitcoin is at $50” or something similar, usually they mean that the most recent buy order on mtgox was for $50 a bitcoin.

The market prices for bitcoin have historically tended to rapidly inflate and then crash spectacularly. Bitcoin’s market value has dropped by 50% in less than a day on multiple occasions.

Regardless, true believers in bitcoin (typically the libertarians or the investors, who are sometimes one and the same) keep throwing more money at the speculative market, in the hopes that one day their currency will be treated with respect by the world, or at least they’ll eventually make up for their losses. Neither scenario is likely.

6) Why is this funny?

Because we’re children who like laughing at dumb people, and bitcoin people are a truly spectacular level of stupid.

7) So could bitcoin ever be a real currency?

No, for one simple reason. Bitcoin does not scale. The network is already creaking under the weight of relatively few transactions, and more importantly, the blockchain size is increasing rapidly. The blockchain file is currently several gigabytes in size, and the entire chain must be downloaded in order to mine or verify your own transactions. You can use a third-party service to store and transfer your bitcoins, but these services have historically tended to get hacked or just suddenly vanish, taking all your internet funny-money with it.

If bitcoin actually became popular as a currency and not just as a speculative commodity, the network would rapidly become even more unusably slow than it already is, and the blockchain would swell to an absurd and unmanageable size.

8) Some people seem legitimately angry about bitcoin.

Bitcoin would appear to be a mostly harmless way for idiots to throw money at each other, except for the fact that bitcoin mining has (not surprisingly) become an arms race to see who can get the most hashing power online.

The original design of bitcoin did not account for the possibility of specialized, expensive hardware which could make mining without that hardware almost useless. Certain kinds of ATI Radeon video cards proved so effective at performing bitcoin hashing that mining solely on a general-purpose PC CPU gives negligible results, due to the vastly increased hashing difficulty. Miners purchased huge amounts of these video cards to create custom (and often hilarous) “mining rigs”, essentially converting electricity into heat and bitcoins.

The stakes have been raised again with the advent of specialized bitcoin-only ASIC hardware which is even more effective than the video cards were. The future of bitcoin mining appears to be in the hands of a small minority of users who can afford this specialized equipment, making the “distributed” nature of bitcoin something of a joke.

The bitcoin network now must use vast amounts of power, far out of proportion to its actual usefulness and typically generated by fossil fuel plants, just to maintain itself. It is a tremendous waste of actual real-world resources that could be better used on something important (like, for example, watching cat videos) and this makes some people actually angry at the situation.

—  SomethingAwful’s Bitcoin FAQ