Bitcoins And Unicorns: The Digital Currency Lands On The Cover Of BusinessWeek

First Janet Yellen makes the cover of Time, and concurrently so as not to be left behind, Businesweek, well-known for its suggestive covers (housing, hedge fund managers, the Tea Party), has posted an even more provocative creature on its own cover: a Unicorn - one which is supposed to symbolize, you guessed it, Bitcoins - and serves as the anchor for the Bloomberg-owned magazine's extensive profile of the digital currency, with the following teaser: "Why are investors so crazy for an alterantive currency invented by a phantom?"

 

And as it has done in the past, BW walks readers through the cover creation process:

So, is everyone paying attention yet?

From the BusinessWeek article, which despite the bombastic rhetoric is mostly focused on the topic of Bitcoin Mining, something we covered last month:

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.

 

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Even some Bitcoin entrepreneurs think mining has become a sucker’s game. Fred Ehrsam is a former Goldman Sachs trader and co-founder of Coinbase, a Bitcoin startup making wallet software that allows people to trade and store Bitcoins, and which recently raised $25 million in venture capital. Ehrsam is committed to Bitcoin but pessimistic about underfunded prospectors making any money. “This is very much a fad that is going to die soon, if it’s not even dead already,” he says. But that’s not the same as saying individual mining will end. He suggests that the next generation of miners might run their computers for ideological purposes—to support the currency and be a disruptive force in global finance—even if doing so has become unprofitable.

 

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“Mining was supposed to be a democratized thing, but it’s now only accessible to the elite of the elites,” says Chris Larsen, CEO of Ripple Labs, which has introduced a virtual currency called Ripple. It’s similar to Bitcoin but without the mining. (The company gradually hands out increments of the currency to supporters.) “Hordes of brilliant engineers are raising money for mining equipment that regular folks can’t compete with,” Larsen says.

 

For idealists not swimming in startup capital, it’s still possible to join the Bitcoin rush, mostly by adding power to a distributed array of processors. Craigslist is full of miners selling their old rigs, and there are peripherals that cost about $250—they look like USB thumb drives, plug into standard PCs, and are mostly ineffective. Online calculator sites like BitcoinX let prospective miners enter processor speed, current Bitcoin exchange rate, electricity costs, and other variables to figure out whether their investment makes any financial sense. Most of these calculators suggest that even miners with older, specialized Bitcoin machines can still make a little money as long as the price for a Bitcoin is above $700. Members of mining groups are rewarded according to the amount of work they contribute.

And, of course, there are computer viruses spread by Yahoo ads, converting witless users' computers into Bitcoin mining slaves as we described yesterday.

Read the full BusinessWeek article here.