YA crazy bitcoin project

This project is maintained by Rusty Russell

More Regular Block Times

30 Oct 2014

One problem with bitcoin blocks is the irregular timing between them. If you’re waiting for inclusion in a block to make double-spending more difficult, the formula you need to know is is 1-e^(-(T/600)): this says the probability that a block has been found at time T seconds. At T=600 (ie. 10 minutes) it’s 63%: in fact most blocks are found in under 7 minutes, but there’s a long tail. 14% of the time you’re still waiting after 20 minutes, and 5% of the time you’re waiting over 30 minutes with no confirmation, and 1% are over 46 minutes.

10 minutes is a long time already so this doesn’t usually hurt bitcoin, but for shorter block times (for pettycoin, substitute minutes below for seconds) it can undermine the aim of making payment usable for casual purchases.

One obvious idea to trim this tail is to allow weaker blocks if some time has passed, say, twice the target block time (which should happen 14% of the time). But this doesn’t quite have the desired effect, because miners will store such lower-target blocks when they find them, whereas normal blocks enter the blockchain immediately.

Imagine block 100 is produced at midday. Miner Jill finds an easy block 101 at 12:05 and sends it out. At 12:20, no normal block has been found, so nodes accept Jill’s block. But this means that transactions broadcast at 12:06 are still waiting, so the fast block time doesn’t help them.

I hacked up a quick simulator, and simulating 1000 blocks demonstrates this: the 99-of-transactions% case withdrops to around 30 minutes (from 46 minutes), but we can do better. We could simply allow easy blocks after 10 minutes rather than twenty, but there’s another way.

There’s usually more than one easy block found before the 20 minute mark (we’d expect 4). Among those, we actually want the last one, not the first, since it will include the most transactions. But naively accepting the last or the one with most transactions would mean everyone would keep trying to mine a replacement for the last easy block, instead of mining on top of that for the next block.

Fortunately, we know what transactions were pending at the 20 minute mark (at least for us; there are delays across the network). We can use this to judge easy blocks: pick the one most similar to these “expected” transactions.

Unfortunately this opens the door to miners gaming the system. Jill creates a heap of her own self-to-self transactions, and includes them in the block she’s solving. If she solves it, publish the block like normal. If she gets an easy solution, she would wait until just before the 20 minute mark and she knows her easy block has a chance. Then she publishes all those self-to-self transactions; any other miner won’t have included those transactions, and her block will look really good by our heuristic.

Thus I suggest judging an easy block by summing the transaction fees of transactions which match our “expected” ones. There’s now a real risk for a miner publishing self-to-self transactions with fees, since another miner may include these transactions in their own competing block, and gain the fees.

Such an algorithm means that 1% case is around 22 minutes; it’s pretty close to the aim of ensuring 20 minute upper limit on transaction processing.

Side note: the technique used to adjust difficulty every 2016 would have to be changed a little. The simplest way is to adjust difficulty after each 2016-blocks-worth of work, counting easy blocks as 1/4. This might be up to 3/4 of a block out, but that’s acceptable error.