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So what’s the actual difference between Bitcoin and Altcoins?

  • Bitcoin has long been the king of the cryptocurrency market.
  • New coins and tokens have shaken up the status quo with unique use cases and innovations.
  • Bitcoin has responded with its own improvements, leading to a healthier market.

When it comes to cryptocurrency, Bitcoin has long been the king of the hill thanks to its status as the founder of the young industry and its first-mover appeal. A decade later, the original cryptocurrency is still the most valuable one on the market, at one point even reaching as high as $20,000 for a single Bitcoin. Today it is far from alone in the field. As blockchain (the technology that cryptocurrency is based on) evolved, so did the number of coins available, and the things these new coins' blockchains could accomplish.

These new cryptocurrencies dubbed "altcoins" use the same decentralized concept as Bitcoin but take things a step further with unique features. Ethereum, the second most popular cryptocurrency, introduced the idea of "smart contracts", code that can automatically execute agreements between two parties using blockchain technology. This opened the floodgates for the development of new use cases and applications for crypto.

More importantly, Altcoins have improved on overall functionality, processing transactions faster than bitcoin, and generally scaling to meet expanding demand for their services. As the market for Altcoins continues to expand, it's easy to wonder if Bitcoin's lead will end soon, or if it will be able to keep up with the new generation of cryptocurrencies.

A new take on old problems

Bitcoin was originally developed as an idea for alternative, decentralized digital currency that could eventually replace fiat money like the dollar and the euro. As such, it was built for simple transactions and uses a peer-to-peer consensus mechanism to power a network to collectively verify transactions, adding them to the "chain", which is comprised of a string of transactions in batches called blocks. As a payment mechanism, bitcoin still falls far short of methods like credit cards and even other digital payment tools. Moreover, verifying ("mining") transactions is resource intensive and expensive.

Newer coins use different mechanisms to reduce both the cost and complexity of mining and can process many more transactions per second than bitcoin's paltry seven. Additionally, some of these new cryptocurrencies use technology such as smart contracts, which let them build innovative apps directly on the blockchain.

Coins like Ripple and Dash, for example offer a fresh take on the transactability and speed of payments. Ripple is designed to facilitate centralized cross-border transactions between large corporations and institutions. Dash claims to have transaction speeds as fast as 1 second per transaction, focuses on superior security, and an easy ecosystem for individuals to manage their money.

In its original state, Bitcoin simply can't compete with these newer, more focused coins. Bitcoin was built as a catch-all currency, and its creator likely didn't envision the multiple use cases of blockchain technology. This imbalance has led pundits and industry veterans to repeatedly claim that Bitcoin is on its way out.

Old coins can learn new tricks

It seems that rumors of Bitcoin's end were greatly exaggerated and instead of fading into obsolescence, it's evolved to catch up to the Altcoin market, expanding its usability. In fact, Bitcoin still has the larger user base, which comes with mainstream appeal and substantial interest from developers. Now, it's fighting off newcomers by adding new tools and functionality over time.

Instead of building the next Bitcoin, many projects have chosen instead to build on the existing Bitcoin architecture, adding new features that make the currency more usable in various situations. RSK, for instance, gives users smart contract capabilities for Bitcoin, opening the doors for app development. Whereas this was once Ethereum's major draw, Bitcoin is now encroaching on that territory with expanded functionality from RSK's platform.

Similarly, tools like the Lightning network let users take their Bitcoin transactions off chain, taking the burden off the main Bitcoin blockchain and speeding up the pace at which peripheral transactions can be verified. These solutions don't change Bitcoin's original design but make it more competitive against younger and newer coins looking to claim the spotlight. In fact, improving these issues will only expand Bitcoin's usability and mainstream popularity.

A flourishing ecosystem

Although in theory Bitcoin could eventually be capable of doing everything Altcoins can, the reality is that it still benefits from the competition. As yet, blockchain is a young technology which requires a thriving ecosystem to truly develop and become valuable to society. Moreover, Bitcoin could do well to avoid feature creep and lose its value. The beauty of blockchain is that it allows for cryptocurrencies to be used for much more than just paying for things.

Tools like Golem, a blockchain-powered crowdsourced super-computer, or Fishcoin, which tracks fish and seafood from the sea to millions of kitchens for ethical fishing and sustainable operations, take the concept of blockchain in experimental new directions. Bitcoin is designed to be a digital currency, and it's only getting better at it. However, in a world where data is transactional by design, nearly any idea will inevitably be revolutionized by transplanting it into a decentralized ecosystem—and Bitcoin is the root of it all.

Hulu's original movie "Palm Springs" is the comedy we needed this summer

Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.

Gear
  • Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
  • As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
  • The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
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Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Our ‘little brain’ turns out to be pretty big

The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.

Image source: Sereno, et al
Mind & Brain
  • A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
  • The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
  • This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.

Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

A neural crêpe

A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.

So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.

The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."

This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

Economists show how welfare programs can turn a "profit"

What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?

A homeless man faces Wall Street

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
  • It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
  • The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
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