What you need to know about the ethereum 'merge'
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Here's the deal: It's been a rough year for cryptocurrencies and their legions of fans. Bitcoin, by far the largest token, has fallen roughly 70% from its high nearly a year ago. Ditto the second-largest coin, ether, which runs on the ethereum blockchain. But for months, the crypto faithful have been buzzing about a complex ethereum network software upgrade known as the "merge." In short, the merge would put the core infrastructure of ethereum on a more environmentally sustainable path, reducing its carbon footprint by 99%, according to the nonprofit behind the network. That's the simple version, anyway — actually pulling it off took years of research and testing, and it wasn't clear what would happen because, like so much in crypto-land, nothing like it had ever been done before. So far, though, the merge appears to have been completed without a hitch. Read MoreHere's what you need to know: When you hear critics slamming crypto for sucking up as much energy as all of Argentina, say, or comparing bitcoin's energy footprint to that of every refrigerator in America combined, they're talking about the global community of computers required to verify transactions under the "proof-of-work" protocol. Until now, both ethereum and bitcoin were running on proof-of-work, which requires high-powered computers to verify transactions and "mine" new coins across a decentralized global computer network. (Ugh, I realize that still might sound like sci-fi, but the longer explanation would seriously put everyone to sleep. Let me just boil it down to this: proof-of-work = bad for the environment and extremely bad for crypto industry PR). The long-awaited merge moves ethereum onto a more energy-efficient "proof-of-stake" mechanism for validating transactions. What happens now? Barring any snags with the merge, the ethereum network, which houses the entire community of NFTs (non-fungible tokens), should function just as it had before, but using radically less electricity and, supporters say, making the network more secure. Will bitcoin follow suit? It's not likely. Within the world of crypto, there are deep philosophical rifts over the utility of the underlying technology. "Ethereum and bitcoin have quite different cultures, frankly," says Laura Shin, host of the "Unchained" podcast. Even though it's technically possible for bitcoin to alter its infrastructure, as ethereum just demonstrated, "bitcoiners view proof-of-work as a superior way of securing the network." (For more on the merge, watch our interview with Shin on the CNN Business Nightcap show.) NUMBER OF THE DAY: 6% Ouch. Mortgage rates just passed the 6% mark, hitting their highest level since 2008. (In other words, the last time mortgage rates were this high, the US was deep in a recession and financial crisis.) Borrowing costs have shot up in response to the Fed's aggressive interest rate hikes, aimed at cooling inflation that's been stubbornly hovering around 40-year-highs for months. It's an especially painful time for prospective buyers, as home prices remain elevated, inventory is low, and the costs of day to day living make it hard to save for a down payment. HOLD UP The freight rail crisis is averted — at least for now. Unions and management negotiated late into the night, finally striking a tentative deal to avoid a work stoppage around 2:30 am Eastern, capping some 20 hours of talks that as recently as yesterday appeared to be deadlocked. Just to underscore the seriousness of the potential strike, President Joe Biden personally called negotiators Wednesday night, according to a person familiar with the matter. What happened? Unions representing tens of thousands of conductors and engineers threatened to walk off the job at the end of this week if they couldn't secure some frankly pretty basic work-life balance guarantees from their employers. The workers who operate America's freight trains were at their breaking point, often working 14 days in a row, with no sick days (paid or unpaid) and constant fear of termination if they miss work for medical reasons. A strike would have been economically devastating, hurting consumers, businesses and farmers for America's battered supply chains, potentially leading to shortages of gas, food and consumer goods, and forcing commuter rails to suspend service. Here's what we know so far about the deal: Union members get an immediate 14% raise, back pay and bonuses. In total, it amounts to an average of $11,000 per worker. The major sticking points around scheduling appeared to go in the unions' favor. Per Biden's statement: "These rail workers will get better pay, improved working conditions, and peace of mind around their health care costs — all hard-earned." The tentative agreement will exempt "time off for certain medical events from carrier attendance policies," two of the unions said in a joint statement. Workers will, for the first time ever, be able to take time off for medical care, according to the unions.But medical time off won't be paid. And it's only two days a year. After that allotment is used up, taking time off will result in penalties under a points-based system that can ultimately lead to termination. Don't rule out a strike yet... The agreement still needs to be ratified by rank-and-file union members, many of whom have balked at the idea of concessions. The unions have agreed not to strike while votes are being tallied, which means the negotiators have bought themselves a couple of weeks. A unit of the Machinists union that has 5,000 members already voted to reject the Thursday's deal, though it will try to seek a new deal by the end of the month. And, as my colleague Chris Isidore explains, there have been several recent high-profile examples of angry union members voting no on proposed resolutions.A year ago, about 10,000 workers at John Deere went on strike after rejecting a lucrative tentative agreement. Similarly, workers at Kellogg continued to strike in December after negotiators thought they'd reached a settlement. Enjoying Nightcap? Sign up and you'll get all of this, plus some other funny stuff we liked on the internet, in your inbox every night. (OK, most nights — we believe in a four-day work week around here.)Click Here To Get Funded!