How Does Cryptocurrency Work?

iStock/Marc Bruxelle
iStock/Marc Bruxelle

In September 2018, the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary added hundreds of new words—one of which was “bitcoin.” Sure, you can get a double letter score for it, but how does cryptocurrency work? And what about the other equally mysterious cryptocurrencies, which have been called everything from the future of money to a pyramid scheme? What is all this fuss about?

THE ISLAND OF YAP

One of the most popular metaphors for how cryptocurrencies work involves the Pacific island of Yap. According to NPR, the residents long ago learned of a distant island with large limestone deposits. The islanders brought back large discs of rock which they eventually turned into a form of currency—not for every day purchases, but for major outlays.

That may sound simple, but it’s not quite that easy. These rocks could weigh as much as a car, so when they changed hands they were rarely actually moved. The society just recognized that “this rock now belongs to person B.”

There’s even a story in which a giant rock brought back to Yap was lost when the boat it was on sank. The islanders dealt with this conundrum by having an oral transaction history, so everyone knew that the rock was not lost. It did have a new owner. In fact, you could argue that they had a kind of public ledger, because everyone knew how many rocks everyone had. Disagreements rarely arose because of the distributed nature of that information. This is akin to one of the most important elements of cryptocurrency: the blockchain.

At its core, the blockchain is just a ledger distributed across a network of computers, which are called nodes. Every time any transaction occurs, the network checks to make sure that it’s a valid transaction and the blockchain gets updated with a new "block," which serves as a permanent record of the transaction. This gets sent to all of the relevant computers—like the Yap islanders telling everyone about the change of ownership of a rock. The block is added to the blockchain alongside a code called a hash.

SECURITY

The hash is essentially a digital fingerprint generated by complex mathematics. This is part of the system’s security, as it takes time and energy to generate these hashes. As Reuters explains, any change to the input creates a new hash. By way of example, they explained that the extremely long novel War and Peace might have a hash like:

a948904f2f0f479b8f8197694b30184b0d2ed1c1cd2a1ec0fb85d299a192a447

While just deleting one comma from the text changes it to:

40115cc2aecc43ea86a7e54be6f7257abff7b43959cd728f06c0c7423039166r

By itself, this is not necessarily secure. But every new block also contains the previous hash as a kind of error check. If someone goes in to retroactively change a transaction (say, by deleting that comma in War and Peace), that block's hash gets updated to a new code. But the next block will have a different hash code on record from the previous block (it will be looking for the old hash, the one beginning with a948—but seeing the new hash, the one starting with 4011), so in theory the nefarious action will be discovered. There are potential ways to cheat this system. A computer faster than the other nodes combined may be able to rewrite blocks fast enough to work, but MIT Technology Review cautioned that even then “success isn’t guaranteed.”

CRYPTOCURRENCY

But cryptocurrencies and blockchains are not synonymous. Similarly to how the internet and world wide web are not synonymous, blockchain is a technology chiefly used for cryptocurrencies, though this may not always be the case. It’s increasingly being examined for use in other fields—and some even argue cryptocurrency is one of the least promising fields.

The crypto in cryptocurrency is a reference to the cryptography used to ensure that the transactions are secure. Up until this stage, it’s not particularly different from any other digital currency—when you send U.S. dollars over the internet, physical dollars are not changing hands. That’s true for any digital currency, of which cryptocurrencies are one.

But there are key differences—including that, traditionally, money is issued by the government or some powerful institution. Cryptocurrencies are created by algorithms. Another important distinction is how ownership is traced. Because there’s nothing physical to a cryptocurrency, the blockchain ledger is used to determine ownership.

There are also more nuanced differences. Because the blockchain ledger has to be transparent, all transactions are public, leading to many suggestions for how to best manage privacy expectations. As another distinction, many cryptocurrencies are limited to a set number—only 21 million bitcoins will ever exist, and it remains unclear what will happen when the final bitcoin is "mined." Contrast that with traditional currency, which can be produced in limitless quantities.

Not everyone is convinced that cryptocurrencies are the future. Speaking to Vox, Nicholas Weaver of the International Computer Science Institute at UC Berkeley explained that miners—the people who create the blocks and get paid for their efforts—are disproportionately powerful and serve as the central agency that cryptocurrencies are trying to avoid. Also, he argues that outside of nefarious purchases (like assassins or illegal drugs), there isn’t a point to cryptocurrencies. Due to price volatility, they don’t fundamentally work as a currency. There’s a famous story about a programmer buying two pizzas for 10,000 bitcoin—a sum that would be worth more than $80 million just a few years later. This volatility, according to Weaver, means that most companies claiming they accept bitcoin aren’t actually accepting bitcoin per se, they just instantly sell it for conventional currency.

Cryptocurrency fans immediately pounced on these comments, arguing that it’s an oversimplification and could be used to argue against other forms of currency as well. No matter what, the debates will continue.

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What Exactly is Christmas Tree Flocking?

iStock.com/Spiderstock
iStock.com/Spiderstock

Of the many curious holiday traditions (figgy pudding? wassailing?), one of the oddest has to be spraying down small trees with a mixture of adhesive and cellulose fibers to satisfy our longing for a white Christmas.

That’s what’s happening when you adorn a tree with artificial snow, otherwise known as flocking. And yet, when decorated and lit up, there’s something beautiful and warmly nostalgic about a well-flocked Christmas tree. Here’s how professionals manufacture this Christmas miracle.  

The History of Flocking

We’ve been trying to get that snowy look on Christmas trees for longer than you might think, dating back to the 1800s using substances like flour or cotton. A 1929 issue of Popular Mechanics recommended varnish, corn starch, and flakes of the silicate mineral mica. 

But tree flocking as we know it really caught on in the late 1950s and 1960s, along with aluminum trees and other glitzy (if not natural-looking) decor of the post-war boom. General Mills marketed Sno-Flok home kits, to be applied using a gun that attached to a vacuum cleaner.

Such home kits are not so popular these days, says Tom Leonard, owner of Peak Seasons, one of the country's largest manufacturers of Christmas tree lots supplies and tree flock. Flocking itself, however, has retained a level of appeal. “Sunbelt states use a lot of it because there’s no snow there,” Leonard tells Mental Floss. “It’s tremendously popular. The West Coast, the South, and the Southeast, the vast majority of it is sold in those zones.”

The Science of Flocking

So what exactly is flocking? At its core, flocking means attaching tiny fibers to a surface to create texture (the process is also used in fashion, home decor, and crafts). The Peak Seasons recipe includes paper pulp as fiber, corn starch as adhesive, and boron as a flame retardant—there’s a safety benefit to flocking.

And the company makes a lot of it. Leonard says they're the largest manufacturer of flock in the United States and Europe. “I don’t want to share [how much], but we sell lots of flock. I mean truckloads and truckloads.”

Based in sunny Riverside, California, Peak Seasons starts with paper and a grinder. “It’s like a big roll of toilet paper and it weighs a ton and you feed it into a machine and it comes out a powder,” Leonard says. The exception is certain bright colors—flock comes in white, black, pink, ice blue, royal blue, red, green, gold, and purple—which require cotton fibers instead of paper to hold the dye. The final product is almost like baby powder, shipped all over the country in large, cement-bag-sized bags.

From there you need to affix the stuff in a nice even coat, which is where flock machines like the Mighty Sno-Blower come in. They’re basically big tanks that hold varying amounts of flock depending on the model, plus a mechanism at the bottom to fluff up the powder. The machine then pumps the powder through a hose, and a gun at the end mixes it with a mist of water.

And that’s how flock is born.

The Art of Flocking

You don’t have to go with a professional flocker, or even use manufactured flock. There are all sorts of DIY recipes that include things like soap flakes or even desiccated coconut flakes. But if you do go pro, you want to be in the hands of someone like Paul Iantosca, who has been flocking trees in the Boston area for 20 years.

Flocking one tree in bright purple (white is still most popular), Iantosca first sprays it down with water. Then, in an area closed off with plastic sheeting, he fires up the blower and blasts the tree evenly with what looks like a purple fog. The stuff gets everywhere. He wears a mask to keep it out of his nose, but some high-volume flockers wear full protective coveralls. 

The tricky part to flocking is that you can’t tell if you got it right until it dries. When it goes on, it’s cold and wet like paste. But as it dries, the Christmas magic kicks in and it puffs up, turning into fluffy white (or, in this case, purple) fuzz firmly affixed to the needles.

There are, of course, pitfalls. Not enough water, and the flocking falls off and makes a huge mess. A flocked tree can’t get wet a second time. “It won’t dry again. It’s disgusting actually,” Iantosca says. Also, when you flock a tree, the color highlights its flaws. A janky tree turns into a weird, uneven shrub.

But if you get it right and string it up with lights, you’ve got a real stunner on your hands. Iantosca’s had flocked trees for his own home for the past 10 years and his kids won’t let him go back.

“When you plug that thing in, it absolutely glows inside," he says. "It’s unbelievable.”

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Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?

iStock
iStock

Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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