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Explaining Mining – The Filing Cabinet Method (pt.2)

In the previous article, we talked about some potential hurdles to Bitcoin adoption in the language barrier and explored a potential way we could remedy the problem. We talked about he filing cabinet method, a way of employing metaphors to pull from pre-existing mental resources rather than asking the learner to create an entirely new understanding from nothing. So, how would we explain mining to Alice using the filing cabinet method? Let’s give it a go. 

Step 1: Pull pre-existing mental models into her mind

“Imagine you have a room full of ten people standing next to a large corkboard. They’ve all been drawing pictures, and each person wants to pin their drawing to the corkboard. Unfortunately, there’s only so much space available on the board, and if they all put their drawings up at once, they would end up with a mess, so they devise a plan. Each participant is given a Rubik’s cube, and the first person to solve their cube is awarded the right to pin their drawing to the corkboard, but they have to glue their solved cube to the board right next to their drawing. This has another effect: only the best drawings go on the board since people can no longer put anything and everything they draw up without it costing time and energy.”

Step 2: Transpose to the topic at hand

“So, how does the situation I just described—we’ll call it the corkboard problem—differ from Bitcoin mining? In the corkboard problem, each participant draws pictures; in mining, each participant writes a list of new transactions. In the corkboard problem, they’re solving a Rubik’s cube; in mining, they’re solving a maths problem. In the corkboard problem, they glue their solved cube next to their drawing; in mining, they put the solution to their maths problem above their list of transactions. In the corkboard problem, they are rewarded by getting to show off their drawing; in mining, they’re rewarded with a Bitcoin prize. In the corkboard problem, they’re trying to save space on a corkboard, but in mining, they’re trying to secure transactions. That last one is a bit of a leap, so let’s try to fill in the gaps by going over the logic of how this is achieved by mining. The Bitcoin blockchain is just a long chain of lists of transactions (blocks) that are created every ten minutes (the amount of time it takes to solve the maths problem). It’s called a “chain” because each block contains the solution to the previous block’s maths problem as an input in its own maths problem. This long history of transactions determines the balance of every Bitcoin wallet, so securing transactions is just a matter of securing the blockchain. You achieve a few things by requiring all participants to solve a maths problem before they can add a new block to the blockchain. Firstly, you even the playing field; anyone can add to the blockchain so long as they solve the maths problem; it doesn’t require proof of authority, just the solution, which is proof of the work you put in to solve the problem (hence Proof-of-Work). Secondly, you disincentivise people from putting false transactions in new blocks because everyone can independently verify a block’s validity, so it will be disregarded even if you solve the maths problem, and you won’t get your prize. Thirdly, because all transactions are a factor in each block’s maths problem, and all solutions are a factor in the next block’s maths problem, nobody can alter any previous transactions since the solution would no longer be valid. Subsequently, the solutions of all blocks that come after it would also be rendered invalid, so to successfully alter a previous transaction, you’d have to calculate new solutions to all subsequent blocks, outpacing the entire rest of the world multiple times over.”

By starting with a model that is already understood—the corkboard problem—anything that remains unclear (such as how mining keeps transactions secure) can be worked through logically and sits on top of a stable foundation already instantiated by the original set-up. Doing this properly often requires complex metaphors since the topic you’re transposing it onto is also complex, and it can take some time. What I have done above was a very simplified version, hence why so much clarification was still required afterwards to fully explain mining. 

Written by Angelo Morgan-Somers

Content Creator at FastBitcoins. I left traditional education at 12, so all I know is Bitcoin. Asking questions and exploring potential answers.

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