What the %@#$ is a Bitcoin

Burgeoning new technologies always seem to stump us. One can easily imagine with every ground-breaking technology (internal combustion engine, gunpowder, incandescent lights) there is always some confusion about it. I think looking back on these technologies we have a bias of knowing more about it now than people did then. We forget until there is a new ground-breaking technology, that those people 100 or 1,000 years ago had the same feelings we do now. We feel made vulnerable by new technologies. We feel left behind a bit. Possibly the most common truth of new technologies is also the most overlooked when looking back.  It is that people did not yet know all of the uses of that invention. Bitcoin is no different. Here, we will now try to remove some of the shroud around Bitcoin, without getting too deep into the world of coding and computer science.

Bitcoin was first announced in a paper by its inventor Satoshi Nakamoto in October of 2008. The original paper can still be found at https://Bitcoin.org/Bitcoin.pdf. In January of the following year, Nakamoto released the Bitcoin open source software, meaning it was free to use by anyone and not held by copyright laws. The idea of a cryptocurrency has been around since the late nineties, however like many novel ideas it took some time for the technology to catch up to the idea. The specific identity of Satoshi Nakamoto is unknown. He has said he is a Japanese man living in Japan. However, several cryptographers have analyzed his code and language patterns and think it more likely that he lives in Europe or America, and even doubt his Japanese origin. The official Bitcoin website deals with his anonymity by saying his actual identity is “probably as relevant today as the identity of the person who invented paper.” True too, as there is no owner or controller of Bitcoin owing to its open source nature.

As mentioned above, the idea of a cryptocurrency has been around since 1998. It was originally credited to Wei Dai, a computer engineer who is cited as the inventor on at least 2 Microsoft patents. He created the cryptocurrency b-money in 1998, but it failed to stand the test of time. He was however, heavily relied upon when Nakamoto was creating Bitcoin.  A cryptocurrency is basically defined as a digital medium of exchange that is secured using cryptography (a fancy way of saying secure online transactions, the word is taken from Greek meaning “secret writing”.) The allure of a cryptocurrency is that it is decentralized and untraceable. This is to say, there is no nation or financial institution controlling it. Bitcoin is run opensource so any programmer can review and write into it. Also, the fact that it is untraceable lets the users make transactions that they do not want tied to them, or purchase illicit goods. The abstract from Nakamoto’s paper from 2008 spells out the intent of Bitcoin as well as his motivation behind it. Here is an excerpt:

 -A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online     payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution. Digital signatures provide part of the solution, but the main benefits are lost if a trusted third party is still required to prevent double-spending. We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-peer network.

One of the biggest pieces of history in the saga of Bitcoin is the “Silk Road”. The Silk Road was a black-market website operated as a Tor hidden service. Tor (The Onion Router) is a free software that users can use to browse the internet anonymously. It browses a side of the internet frequently known as the dark web and renders users anonymous by relaying web traffic through several thousand other systems to mask the users IP. Silk road was launched in 2011 and within months became the go-to place for underground, online, transactions. It was a huge market place for illict drugs, fake drivers licenses, child porn, and even the occasional assassination. Between its launch and subsequent closure by the FBI in 2013, there were over a million transactions completed on the silk road. This added up to 9,519,664 Bitcoins traded on the site and the commissions from the sales generating 614,305 Bitcoins ($172 billion and $11 billion by today’s value of Bitcoin.)

One of the beauties of Bitcoin is in the approval and security of transactions. Rather than a vendor contacting a bank to ensure the requisite funds are in the account, the users have a heavily encrypted communication between their two respective wallets (wallet is the name given to the account in which the Bitcoins are held.) The picture below from the Bitcoin website shows the general concept of how this encryption works.

Caution: Technical jargon. When a transaction occurs, it is included in a block chain. Embedded in the block chain is a chronological order of transactions as well as a signature on each transaction which guarantees the authenticity of the account. Basically, when you submit a Bitcoin transaction it is bounced through a bunch of other computers to hide your identity, but holds a signature to show that it is truly the account it was supposed to be. All of this encryption and transference of data requires a massive amount of computing. This processing power is achieved by using a distributed consensus system. Which in layman’s terms means it is crowd sourced. This crowd sourcing is what gives the Bitcoin system all of its anonymity and secrecy. It means that no one user has too much access. The crowd sourced processing is, also, how new Bitcoins are generated.

Caution: Maths incoming. As a reward system for lending your processing power to Bitcoin transactions, you originally received 50 Bitcoins for every block chain you unlocked (a process coined “mining”.) The reward for unlocking a block halves every 210,000 blocks unloakced, which equates to roughly a 4-year timespan. As of 2017, there are just under 17 million Bitcoins in circulation. The maximum number of Bitcoins allowed by the code is 21 million. The number of Bitcoins mined per year will drop every four years by virtue of the reward system. Simply put, every 4 years the reward is halved, so the number of Bitcoins added to circulation is halved. Various estimates for when all 21 million Bitcoins will be in circulation converge somewhere around the year 2120. The power it takes to unlock a single block chain is also variable, but a rough estimate is somewhere around 2,000,000,000 attempts.

Since the ability to mine Bitcoins is fairly straightforward, many have jumped on the train to set up computers for mining Bitcoins. In the early days of Bitcoin, it was fairly easy to do with limited processing power. However, as the number of transactions went up, and the reward went down, it has become increasingly difficult to monetize mining operations. Today, a fully self-sufficient mining rig would cost around $15,000. However, many miners take a more budget oriented route and join massive mining pools. The idea being that hundreds of people will lend their processing to the pool, which will divide up the proceeds in proportion to your contribution. At the time of writing this, a budget computer to join a mining pool could be built/purchased for about $300 which would generate about a dollar a day. However, as with most heavy computing systems, they generate a lot of heat. A raspberry pi (a sort of DIY computer that can be set up to do anything you program it to do) set up to do Bitcoin mining can easily overheat and melt itself down if not properly cooled. This brings into the equation a consideration for power consuption. It is a very tight economic balance between the money generated by Bitcoin mining and the money spent powering the necessary computing and cooling systems.

Bitcoins, whether they be mined or purchased to use in transactions, are held in wallets. These wallets are secured with advanced cryptography and are supposed to be above reproach. However, as with any unsinkable ship, hackers have broken into many Bitcoin wallets. Hackers have stolen millions of dollars’ worth of Bitcoins. Since Bitcoins are decentralized and not backed up by any security, if stolen they are lost for good. There is no law enforcement or insurance at play like with a credit card or bank account that is hacked. If your Bitcoin wallet is hacked and compromised, those Bitcoins are lost for good. It is very similar to someone stealing cash from you. There is no real way to prove the Bitcoin “Joe Blow” is using is the Bitcoin that was stolen from your wallet.

SO! Bitcoin represents the first online, decentralized, “crypto” currency to be available to the masses. Since its inception, it has been viewed with skepticism and scorn. In its brief 8-year history it has steadily worked its way into more and more legitimate markets. It is heavily traded by Wall Street traders, much like any other commodity. Today, many online vendors accept Bitcoins. everybody from OKCupid to Dominoes have set up the ability for its users to pay using Bitcoins. While nothing is certain in technology, especially not after only existing for only 8 years, Bitcoin seems like it will be here for the long haul. Many are saying Bitcoin, and what it represents, will be the future of money. A form of payment that is not linked to any particular nation or organization. A money that does not draw its value from any real basis and is not influenced by political regimes. Or, maybe it is just the next tech bubble that will exist as long as the hype is up around it and will be looked back on in ten years as a failed experiment. No one can say for now. It is natural, when there is a new technology that is out of the ordinary, to wonder about it. It is normal to view it with a little skepticism. It is only through our curiosity that we discover these things, and through that same curiosity that we must demystify them once they are presented to us. If like me, you have found yourself wondering about Bitcoin and the future of cryptocurrency you can feel at home. Many have and many will.  We started this saying “what the %@#$ is a Bitcoin”, And Now You Know.

What’s up with Hiccups

So, I think we have all been there. Drinking a coke, or laugh hard then…hiccup. I tend to get the hiccups when I drink a carbonated beverage through a straw. Not sure why, but that’s how it happens for me. My brother has had “severe hiccups” twice from two separate steroid shots to get over colds. The remedies are about as diverse as the cause. But hopefully here we can shed some light on the ins and outs of hiccups, and how to get rid of those pesky buggers.

The word hiccup is a nonsensical onomatopoeia, meaning it is just a word that was made to sound like the sound the action makes. The technical, or medical, term for hiccups is singultus. While singultus can also be used as a term for a death rattle (more on that in a later post), it literally translates from latin to mean “sobs”. It is possible it is used as the term for hiccups because of the sound that is made as one is gasping for air when sobbing. It is unlikely a coincidence that you end up with hiccups after a nice sob, but we’re not to causes yet.

What are hiccups? Well as far as hiccups go, this is the easy question to answer. Hiccups are simply a spasm in the diaphragm muscle. The diaphragm muscle is the muscle that usually is responsible for respiration. In the picture below you can see the diaphragm is situated below the lungs. It typically relaxes to allow air to fill the lungs, then contracts when it is time to exhale. This is normally a slow, and somewhat metered action. While you can breathe on your command, the diaphragm is an involuntary muscle.

A hiccup is when the diaphragm suddenly contracts and relaxes. This is typically a muscle spasm, not much different than any other. The “hiccup” comes from the sudden rush of air down the esophagus. The air rushes past your vocal cords making the classic “hic” sound. A single hiccup is said to last around 0.25 seconds.

According to the Mayo Clinic, causes of short term hiccups can be: drinking a carbonated beverage, drinking too much alcohol (cue drunk cartoon character hiccuping bubbles out of his “XXX” bottle), eating too much, excitement or emotional stress, sudden temperature change, or swallowing air. While these seem all benign, the list for long term hiccups (as defined as lasting longer than 48 hours) is much more serious. They are broken up into three categories: nerve damage or irritation, central nervous system disorders, and metabolic disorders and drugs. The specific causes are too numerous but are things like tumors, barbiturates, steroids, and “a hair or something else in your ear touching your eardrum”.

So, that’s what causes them, but where do they come from. Well, nobody is real sure. Hiccups are only found in mammals. They are either a leftover from evolution, or a result of it. One school of thought is they are left over from our evolution from our amphibian, pre-mammalian, days. Another prominent theory is they are strategically evolved for mammals. The purpose here would be to help the mammal breath while nursing. This theory is supported by the fact that hiccupping is most common among infants. The action of hiccupping acts to help clear air from the stomach. In this theory, a hiccup is like a self-burping mechanism.

Now, the real question we have all been asking. How do I get rid of them? Well there are as many home solutions as there are people hiccupping. Everything from holding your breath, to drinking water upside down, which is no mean feat. However, there has been no consistent evidence to really support any of these home remedies. Most of these home remedies, while different, seek to stimulate the vegus nerve. If you have severe, long lasting hiccups and seek medical help, there are a few reliable options. As far as medicine goes, most of the drugs are also used for treatment of anxiety or epilepsy. Coincidentally, most of these drugs are also, or have been, used for treatment of psychological disorders like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. On the fringe of the medical solutions for hiccups, persistent digital rectal massage (same action as a prostate exam) has been shown to relieve the spasms.

So, you stood on your head, held your breath, got your mate to scare you, and none of it worked. But you don’t want to be the fool who goes to the emergency room for a bout of hiccups, you just want them gone. There is one at home solution that has some factual basis. The spasm of your diaphragm is caused by your phrenic nerve. The picture below shows how the phrenic nerve connects to your diaphragm.

The trick to this solution is to pinch the area around your C5 vertebrae (also shown in picture) to interrupt the conversation between the vagus nerve and the phrenic nerve. As mentioned above, most of the home remedies draw their success from the stimulation of the vagus nerve. So, what this trick does is gets between the phrenic nerve and the vagus nerve interrupting the signal to let the spasms subside. This image brings it together well.

So, next time you are having a serious fight with the hiccups, search out that C5 area and give it a pinch. Not too much though, severing the phrenic nerve will paralyze the diaphragm which is fatal without mechanical respirators. Maybe just a little massaging touch.  People are constantly doing silly things to get rid of hiccups. They are always looking for the best way. The pinch of the phrenic nerve near the C5 vertebrae is the only consistent way of stopping hiccups. And Now You Know.

Crowd Noise

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a professional football game. Throughout the game, when the home team was on defense, a number would pop up on the big screen showing how loud the crowd was. It frequently topped 105 decibels and the highest I saw (admittedly I wasn’t watching it intently the whole time) was 107.3 dB. So that got me thinking: I know the people around me that are yelling are giving it all they got. But I am sitting here silent. How loud is each person yelling? How much difference would it make if I yelled too? So, here we go.

First things first. How loud do these things get? In the interest of everyone’s time, and my sanity, lets ignore most sports. Baseball is too spread out. Basketball is too small of a crowd. Hockey is similar in size to basketball. Tennis…. well its tennis. So, we are down to really the two big populous sports, football and well football. That is, for we Americans, football and soccer. First, lets look at soccer.

There are some absolutely monster soccer stadiums. Wembley stadium in London sits 90,000. Camp Nou, where Barcelona plays sits just under 100,000. The record for stadium size goes to Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang at 114,000, but god knows we aren’t getting any reliable data from there so it will be excluded. Camp Nuo has been reported to register as a small earthquake because of the noise from their stadium. However, when it comes to loudest there is many who are superior. In fact, the home of FC Barcelona does not even record in the top 10. This trend will be consistent throughout this post. Apparently, size doesn’t matter.

One of the biggest factors in this argument is the geometry of the stadium. Below are pictures from Google Maps of Camp Nuo (left), the largest soccer stadium, and Turk Telecom Arena (right), the loudest soccer stadium. There is such an obvious difference it feels silly to point it out. A ROOF!

Camp nuo      Turk Telecom







Yes. Enclosing sound makes it loud. Call the ancient Greeks and tell them they got another one right. Turk Telecom Arena set the record for the loudest stadium in 2013 at an ear bursting 137.5 dB with just 52,652. That is louder than a military jet taking off from an aircraft carrier.

Now the question is, how does that match up against football stadiums here in America? The largest stadium in America is the Michigan Wolverines stadium which sits a whopping 109,901 attendants. That’s a number you would expect to see as a population, not an attendance.  So how loud do they get in the “Big House”? An impressive, yet not astronomical 110 dB. The loudest college football game was the University of Washington in 1992 in their game against Nebraska.  Their stadium of 70,083 people got to a rocking 133.6 decibels. Again fellas, size doesn’t matter

Impressive numbers for a college stadium. But when it comes to breaking records, leave it to the pros. The Kansas City Chiefs, with their Arrowhead Stadium of 76,416 people, own the record at a head splitting 142.2 decibels. 140 dB is typically used as the point where noise breaks the “pain threshold”. It is the equivalent to standing next to a tornado siren that is going off. Possibly more impressive, they broke this record in the last few seconds of the first quarter of the game. When they set the 142.2 dB record in 2014 it was the second time they had been in the Guiness Book of World Records for loudest stadium. In 1990 the referees warned the whole stadium that if the crowd noise became a problem again the Chiefs would be penalized. This warning came after a complaint about how loud it was by the opposing quarterback, John Elway.

So, we agree that shape of the stadium is a big factor in the noise of the crowd. We would assume the loudest stadium must be enclosed, right? Wrong!arrowhead

Arrowhead stadium is dramatically topless. How then do they have such a loud crowd? To physics my friends. The University of Indiana’s Physics department released a paper on just this topic that should shed some light on it. We won’t get caught up too much in the math just yet. The general concept of crowd noise is that it is logarithmic. The way it works out is that if the number of sources is doubled, the increase in sound goes up by 3 dB. The normal intensity of talking is about 60 dB. So, if 2 people are talking simultaneously, it goes up to 63 dB. 4 people, 66dB and so on. Now, let’s extrapolate that out. Below are two graphs so you can get a feel for just how this works with large numbers. Adding one person to a single person crowd, adds 3dB. But to get that same 3dB increase from a crowd of 20,000, you have to add 20,000. This is the general shape of logarithmic relationships.0-100.PNG


Now we get a better feel for why Michigan’s 110,000 people don’t necessarily heavily outweigh the KC Chiefs 76,000. To get just another 3 decibels from population alone, you have to double it. That leaves us to the shape of the stadium, and the wild card, the intensity of the crowd. There is no simple way to show the acoustics of the Kansas City stadium, but there is no roof, just an overhang on one side. In the interest of simplicity, we will ignore that. We will take an introductory physics perspective and frame the remainder as: If these two crowds were in the same shape stadium, what does that mean for their intensity?

Using the equations from the University of Indiana’s paper, we can back calculate the rough average of intensity from each attendant. The University of Michigan, with 109,901 attendants reached a nice 110 dB. As seen in the graph above, that is essentially the same as everyone talking at once. In that Washington vs Nebraska game, the average is about 85 dB. Which puts each attendant yelling but not quite as loud as they can. Traditionally, the human voice yelling peaks around 90 dB.  So where did our record setting Chiefs fans get to? 93 decibels on average for their 76,416 attendants. Louder than a yell is traditionally held to be.

So, what do we really prove here. First things first, this is not to say that the KC fans were reaching 93 dB. Again, this is ignoring acoustics and geometry of the stadium. But there are domes all throughout the sports world, and they do not dominate the noise records. This leaves us with one undeniable truth. Some fans are just more intense. When it comes to sports crowds, quality beats quantity.  I found myself wondering how much impact I would make if I added my voice to the onslaught of fans. I was curious how additive sound sources work, And Now You Know.


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