Issue 80: Cryptocurrency’s Wasteful Energy Consumption and an Ode to Interlibrary Loan

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Welcome to issue 80 of Thursday Threads. I’m so happy many of you chose to stick around and greetings to all of the new subscribers. To those that received my email last Thursday giving you a heads-up that a new issue would be coming to your inbox but then didn’t receive it: check your spam folder. Over the course of the week, I’ve learned a great deal more about the spam-prevention mechanisms that are keeping our inboxes as clean as they are. I highly recommend the interactive ‘Learn and Test DMARC’ site sponsored by URIPorts. It was useful to see several standards come together to ensure email senders are who they say they are. (If you find this issue in your spam folder, please reply so I can track down more of the causes.)

Two threads this week:

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Cryptocurrency’s Energy Consumption

Kosovo's government on Tuesday introduced a ban on cryptocurrency mining in an attempt to curb electricity consumption as the country faces the worst energy crisis in a decade due to production outages.
Kosovo bans cryptocurrency mining to save electricity Reuters, 5-Jan-2022
An army of cryptocurrency miners heading to the state for its cheap power and laissez-faire regulation is forecast to send demand soaring by as much as 5,000 megawatts over the next two years. The crypto migration to Texas has been building for months, but the sheer volume of power those miners will need — two times more than the capital city of almost 1 million people consumed in all of 2020 — is only now becoming clear.
Texas Plans to Become the U.S. Bitcoin Capital. Can Its Grid, Ercot, Handle It? Bloomberg, 19-Nov-2021
Jumble of calculator tape
Tape Pile, by SidewaysSarah, CC-By

One thread that I already anticipate will be covered on many Thursdays is the growing cryptocurrency problem. In this edition: how cryptocurrencies are a waste of resources. A brief introduction, in case you haven’t encountered this technology yet, goes like this: cryptocurrencies are tokens of value that are exchanged on a “blockchain”. A blockchain, in turn, is like a strip of calculator tape…once something is printed on it, it doesn’t come off and it is there for everyone to see. Cryptocurrencies need “miners” to do the calculations that print something on the tape. Miners race each other to solve complex mathematical problems to be the first to reach the right answer, and when a miner has the answer, it prints it on the tape and all of the other miners check the winner’s work. When the work is accepted, the winning miner gets a little bit of cryptocurrency as a reward and everyone’s transactions that were included in what the winner printed on the tape are considered “confirmed”.

Racks of computers in an industrial warehouse
Cryptocurrency Mining Farm, from Wikimedia Commons, CC-BySA

In the early days of cryptocurrencies, ordinary people used their computers to run the cryptocurrency algorithms. But the algorithms were structured in such a way that as more miners started working, the harder the mathematical problems would get. It is no longer feasible for individuals to make any money using their computer’s idle time (that isn’t stopping some companies from trying, though—a Thread for another day). Instead, warehouses of highly specialized computers are doing this work, and are consuming fast quantities of electricity to do so. The world’s leading cryptocurrency mining country was China, but last year China banned miners because of the air pollution coming from the power plants (primarily coal) that were generating electricity for the miners. So the miners left China for politically unstable countries like Kosovo and deregulated states like Texas.

That’s just the start of the cryptocurrency problem. We’ll return to this thread often.

An Ode to Interlibrary Loan

My book arrived a few weeks later, a gift from a mysterious library in the Midwest. Here was knowledge on loan from afar. I loved books, but my local libraries had finite stacks—but now I could get books from anywhere. I have used this service an obnoxious amount of times since. Books about UFOs in France, folklore, saints, basketball, poetry, and propulsion system dissertations—anything.
InterLibrary Loan Will Change Your Life Nick Ripatrazone on Literary Hub, 7-Aug-2019

You know an article is good when it makes the rounds again years later. This 2019 article recently came around again in my Twitter feeds, this time originating with Brewster Kahle. It is a wonderful article about the wonder of discovery and the ethos of libraries to share resources with each other for the benefit of our patrons. Starting in the fifth paragraph, the author takes us on a whirlwind tour of interlibrary loan through the ages.

Interlibrary Loan is a thing of wonder. Modern ILL is chock full of standards, overlapping pools of cooperating libraries, and automation that with each iteration attempts to smooth the process for patrons and librarians. A worthy article if you are in need of an example of why libraries do what they do.