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.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between a Rabbit and a Hare?

iStock.com/Carmen Romero
iStock.com/Carmen Romero

Hippity, hoppity, Easter's on its way—and so is the eponymous Easter bunny. But aside from being a magical, candy-carrying creature, what exactly is Peter Cottontail: bunny, rabbit, or hare? Or are they all just synonyms for the same adorable animal?

In case you've been getting your fluffy, long-eared mammals mixed up, we've traveled down the rabbit hole to set the record straight. Although rabbits and hares belong to the same grass-munching family—called Leporidae—they're entirely different species with unique characteristics. It would be like comparing sheep and goats, geneticist Steven Lukefahr of Texas A&M University told National Geographic.

If you aren't sure which animal has been hopping around and helping themselves to the goodies in your vegetable garden, take a closer look at their ears. In general, hares have longer ears and larger bodies than rabbits. Rabbits also tend to be more social creatures, while hares prefer to keep to themselves.

As for the baby animals, they go by different names as well. Baby hares are called leverets, while newborn rabbits are called kittens or kits. So where exactly do bunnies fit into this narrative? Originally, the word bunny was used as a term of endearment for a young girl, but its meaning has evolved over time. Bunny is now a cutesy, childlike way to refer to both rabbits and hares—although it's more commonly associated with rabbits these days. With that said, the Easter bunny is usually depicted as a rabbit, but the tradition is thought to have originated with German immigrants who brought their legend of an egg-laying hare called "Osterhase" to America.

In other ambiguous animal news, the case of Bugs Bunny is a little more complicated. According to scientist and YouTuber Nick Uhas, the character's long ears, fast speed, and solitary nature seem to suggest he's a hare. However, in the cartoon, Bugs is shown burrowing underground, which doesn't jive with the fact that hares—unlike most rabbits—live aboveground. "We can draw the conclusion that Bugs may be a rabbit with hare-like behavior or a hare with rabbit nesting habits," Uhas says.

The conversation gets even more confusing when you throw jackrabbits into the mix, which aren't actually rabbits at all. Jackrabbits are various species of large hare that are native to western North America; the name itself is a shortened version of "jackass rabbit," which refers to the fact that the animal's ears look a little like a donkey's.

A jackrabbit
Connor Mah, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

As Mark Twain once famously wrote about the creature, "He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one-third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but the jackass." (Fun fact: Black-tailed jackrabbits' extra-long ears actually help them stay cool in the desert. The blood vessels in their ears enlarge when it gets hot, causing blood to flow to their ears and ridding their bodies of excess heat.)

Rabbits, hares, and jackrabbits all have one thing in common, though: They love a good salad. So if you happen across one of these hopping creatures, give them some grass or weeds—and skip the carrots. Bugs Bunny may have loved the orange vegetable, but most hares and rabbits would prefer leafy greens.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Happens If I Don't Pay My Taxes on Time?

Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Marco Verch Professional Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

While death and taxes may be the only true certainties in life, somehow Tax Day always seems to sneak up on us. So what happens if tax season slips your mind, and you just don't file anything?

It depends. If you already know you're not going to get your taxes done by Tax Day, you can file for an extension. You can get an extra six months to file federal taxes by filling out a form and estimating (and paying) how much you'll owe for that year.

While you may be granted a filing extension, you are still required to pay your taxes by the regular due date: If you don't hand the IRS at least an estimated amount by April 15, you'll be charged a fee equal to .5 percent of the tax you owed in the first place per month it was left unpaid (up to 25 percent). If you ignore repeated notices from the IRS, that .5 percent increases to 1 percent per month. And you'll have to pay interest on the money you haven't given over (3 percent plus the federal short-term rate, which changes every three months, compounded each day).

If you don't file any federal income tax return at all by mid-April, you'll be slapped with a fine—5 percent of the amount you already owe for each month you're overdue, up to 25 percent. If you file your return more than two months late without a good excuse, you'll pay a minimum of $135 in penalty fees, or the balance of the tax you owe, if that total is less than $135. (According to the IRS's website, "The total penalty for failure to file and pay can be 47.5 percent [22.5 percent late filing and 25 percent late payment] of the tax owed.")

If you do a little math, you'll see that it usually pays to go ahead and file your return or get an extension, even if you can't pay your taxes immediately. Here's how Turbotax explains it:

Example: Let's say you didn't file your return or an extension by April 15, and you still owe the IRS an additional $1000.

Scenario 1: You file an extension on or before April 15 and pay your $1000 bill on April 25 (10 days late). Your penalty would be $5 (the 0.5 percent late-payment penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 2: You didn't file an extension, and you file your return on April 25 (10 days late) along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be $50 (the 5 percent late-filing penalty applied to $1000), plus another dollar or so for the interest.

Scenario 3: You file your return five years late, along with your $1000 payment. Your penalty would be around $534 (the maximum late-filing penalty of 25 percent applied to $1000, plus 5 percent interest compounded daily assuming the interest rate doesn't change).

If you don't owe any taxes because your employer withheld more than necessary and you are due to get a tax refund, you have three years to file your taxes before the IRS will keep that money. So as long as you get around to it by April 2022, you'll still get that money back. After those three years, the IRS will keep your whole refund, and it won't count toward next year's tax bill, either.

Say you just don't want to pay your taxes (a crime, just to be clear). How long before the IRS will come after you?

If your penalties and back-taxes add up to more than $25,000, someone from the IRS is going to come knocking at your door. In 2016, the IRS investigated 206 people for regularly failing to file their taxes, and put 159 people in jail for an average of three years. (Remember, it was the IRS that took down Al Capone.)

If you are a chronic non-filer and don't file your taxes even after warnings from the IRS, the government will go ahead and estimate what you owe, calculating what's called a "substitute for return." This total doesn't include deductions that you might have been eligible for, meaning that if you let the government do your taxes for you, you'll probably end up with a heftier bill.

And that's just at the federal level. While states vary on how they treat people who don't file their taxes, they slap penalties and interest on late returns and payments, too. Some states will even take your federal tax refund to pay your state back taxes. However, in many states, being approved for a federal tax extension also gets you an automatic extra six months on your state income taxes.

The lesson: If there's any chance you'll be late filing your return this year, ask for an extension ASAP.

A version of this story was first published in 2016.

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