The Rise and Fall of the Silk Road

June 21, 2015

Here are a couple of videos:


I’ll see you on the dark side of the net

June 21, 2015

I’ve been on the internet for some twenty years, I think. In fact, I have trouble remembering the year in which I started. I still feel a sense of wonder every time I use this incredible tool. However, there is a part of the internet that I have never seen. It is a hidden underworld frequented by people peddling drugs, pornography, hate and extreme political opinions, known as the dark net and it has recently been the subject of a book.

In The Dark Net Jamie Bartlett delves into this unsettling world. The term was popularised by four Microsoft-affiliated researchers in a 2002 paper. In the beginning it was a series of email lists, message boards and networks, the project of a few bored computer scientists and libertarians. They saw the internet as a sphere of freedom away from the prying eyes of the state.

They were helped in this endeavour by the government! The Tor (The Onion Router) browser was invented in the mid-1990s by the U.S. Naval intelligence, who wanted a web browser that would allow their intelligence officers to browse the net without giving themselves away. This software, which you download it from the net, has been taken on by a number of websites who have taken advantage of the privacy it offers to offer services that the state does not want to be offered online.

It was Tor the software that was chosen by Edward Snowden to send information about PRISM to the Washington Post and The Guardian in June 2013. The NSA whistleblower may be in Russia now, but the Russians are working to undermine the system. Last year the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs offered a 3.9 million rouble (approximately $111,000) contract for technology that can identify the users of Tor,

The Silk Road has been the emblematic site of the Dark Net. The site, which took its name from the 4,000-mile network of trade and cultural transmission routes that connected the West and the East for over a thousand years, was created in 2011. It was an online black market, notorious as a platform for selling illegal drugs. I use “was” because the site was taken down by the FBI in 2013. Its founder, Ross William Ulbricht, aka Dread Pirate Roberts, was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole earlier this year.

The Silk Road was, essentially a black market version of eBay or Amazon, where you could buy virtually anything. The comparison with these giants of online sales is very real. The key to its success was the customer service. They had hundreds of different vendors who were kept in check by the user review system. In this type of system the different vendors, who all use pseudonyms, desperately want you to give them five stars out of five. The real money is to be made in repeat business; the best way to generate this is by supplying a high-quality product. This is the reputation economy in action.

The website is the convenient online alternative buying on street corners. In this type of transaction you are taking your life into your hands. You may end up getting stabbed and you have no idea about the purity. The Silk Road was a competitive market, which provided users with some kind of quality assurance over the product they were getting. The price of cocaine was around half that on the street. The real difference, however, was in purity. On the street the purity of can be 40% or as low as 2%, with 25% being the average. On the Silk Road it was generally around 60% but could be as high as 95%.

Ross Ulbricht is an enigmatic character. A university graduate and self-proclaimed libertarian, Ulbricht was living under the name Joshua Terrey in a shared flat until his arrest in 2013. He had told his housemates that he was a currency trader, recently returned from Australia. The FBI alleges that they confiscated 144,000 Bitcoins said to be worth some $150 million from Ulbricht’s computer.

Is Ulbricht a genuine libertarian or are his lofty words about individual liberty a cover for what is a criminal enterprise. There is no doubt that many libertarians feel attracted to the internet, a place where encryption allows you anonymity. As I pointed out at the beginning of this piece, this kind of encrypted activity does appeal to a libertarian philosophy. It is about freedom from censorship, freedom from government. Society can be organised better through markets and individuals than through governments. At the same time, some of the activities on there are clearly criminal and of questionable morality. It’s not just drugs which are available in this anarchic netherworld – it is also a haven for trolls, piracy hackers and child pornography. It was said that you could even hire a hitman.

What was the effect of the government’s shutting down of The Silk Road? As soon as it went down, as is wont to happen in cyberspace, a number of other replica sites turned up in its place. It is like the hydra’s head and there will surely be dozens of similar sites. Readers of this blog will be aware of my opposition to the so-called War on Drugs or the “noble experiment” that was Prohibition. Such repressive policies have generally been ineffective. I see no reason why the results of current policies will be any different.

This quote from Heisenberg2.0, who was a Silk Road competitor, sums it up:

“And this is what Law Enforcement is now parading as a victory? Over two years of investigation, millions of dollars spent and for what? So a couple of armchair programmers can build it again in a few days while in the meantime vendors simply move to other sites.”

The dark net is a paradoxical place. The TOR was seen as a network that would help people in authoritarian countries communicate and not be censored. Indeed it has served a useful function. But you can never control how people will use a technology.  If you try too hard to sabotage these privacy and encryption systems, you are also going to penalise all the people that use it to make the world a better place, not just those with nefarious purposes. This is the difficult trade-off we face. I think the benefits are so large that they outweigh the harms.

If we want democratic campaigners, civil liberties groups and whistleblowers to have protection and privacy, we will have to accept the downsides. But we shouldn’t destroy the whole system simply as a result of some bad behaviour. I am highly suspicious of government intentions. The solution may be worse than problem.

You can hear an interview with Bartlett here.


Watson from Jeopardy to Chef extraordinaire

February 8, 2015

Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adrià, Jamie Oliver, Paul Bocuse, you’d better watch out – you have a new rival. Chef Watson may be under nine years old, but he is about to publish his first cookery book. This prodigy also won $1m on the American quiz show Jeopardy. I have been following Watson’s career since 2011. I think we can agree that we are in the presence of a unique talent. If you hadn’t realised it already Watson is not human. It is a computer designed by IBM. It is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, which was named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson, famous for his infamous 1943 prediction that there would be a world market for five computers. This is the blurb from the website:

Watson is a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer—by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes. And learn it does. Watson “gets smarter” in three ways: by being taught by its users, by learning from prior interactions, and by being presented with new information. This means organizations can more fully understand and use the data that surrounds them, and use that data to make better decisions.

It was IBM Research manager Charles Lickel who came up with the idea of an IBM computer competing on a popular TV quiz show. At the time of its Jeopardy appearance, Watson had access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage including the full text of Wikipedia. However, it was not connected to the Internet during the game. For each clue, Watson’s three most probable responses were displayed on the television screen. The machine was able to answer questions including puns, synonyms, homonyms, slang and jargon. First it zeroed in on the key words in a clue, then it would comb its enormous data bank of human knowledge for clusters of associations with those words, checking the most popular hits against all the contextual information it has at its disposal. Once it felt “confident” enough it would buzz with the answer. This method proved too much for a great human champion Ken Jennings, who, like Gary Kasparov before him, was overpowered by an IBM artificial intelligence machine. You can see a video of how Watson works:

Winning Jeopardy was just a showcase for the potential for this kind of machine. There are many possible applications in information-intensive fields such as legal research, telecommunications, financial services, and government. One particularly promising area is medicine. Doctors pose a query to the system describing symptoms and other related factors. Watson can then examine available data sources, forming and testing hypotheses before it finally comes up with a list of personalised confidence-scored recommendations, just like it did on Jeopardy. This will never replace humans, but it can surely be an invaluable tool. It is also revolutionising the travel sector. Travelocity reduced the need for live travel agents to handle routine arrangements. But with cognitive computing IBM will be able to harness the power of computing for giving tailored and customised travel advice. WayBlazer, powered by Watson, will allow its customers to ask questions using a natural language interface.

And now we come to Chef Watson. The Guardian featured a piece about Watson’s recipes, which will be published on April 14th this year. Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will set you back $21.14 from Watson was fed data about foods traditionally enjoyed by humans. The idea was the computer to analyse what we like in order to suggest new suggest new flavour combinations. There is a human element; chefs at the US Institute of Culinary Education then transformed these ingredient lists into recipes. They promise “unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine”. You can see a video of the project here:

The Guardian journalist looked at five recipes and seemed distinctly underwhelmed. He did give Kenyan brussels sprouts a 4.5/5 but the American kung pao chicken and Plum pancetta cider got 1 and 0 respectively. However, you bet against computers at your peril. Just ask Garry Kasparov!


From avatars to the Singularity

November 30, 2014

I first heard the term avatar in connection with computers. It was the time of Second Life, the online virtual world that became famous around a decade ago. Second Life users create virtual representations of themselves, called avatars, which are able to interact with other avatars, places or objects. Then in 2009 James Cameron’s film came out and the word had truly arrived. According to Wikipedia avatar also refers to a village in Qazvin Province, Iran, a guitar synthesizer and a Swedish melodic death metal band. I was vaguely aware of the terms Hindu origins, but it was not until I heard an episode of BBC Radio 4’s programme about religion Beyond Belief that I began to have a clearer understanding of what an avatar really is.

Derived from the Sanskrit avatra, meaning descent, an avatar is a deity takes human form in order to return to Earth. The purpose of the visit is to restore order. Krishna and Ram are both avatars. And, according to some beliefs schools, so are Jesus and Buddha.

These parallels with Christianity are interesting. The common translation of avatar as incarnation is rather misleading. Appearance or manifestation would be perhaps more accurate. In mainstream Christianity Jesus and God are one in the same. The concept of an avatar corresponds to versions of Christianity that fell by the wayside and which came to be regarded as heresies. Docetism is defined as “the doctrine according to which the phenomenon of Christ, his historical and bodily existence, and thus above all the human form of Jesus, was altogether mere semblance without any true reality.” The idea was that Jesus only seemed to be human, and that his human form was an illusion. Docetism was unequivocally rejected at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and is regarded as heretical by just about every branch of Christianity.

I am also interested in the use of avatars in our secular age. The programme features a company called They collect what you have created during lifetime, and using complex Artificial Intelligence algorithms, process this huge amount of information. With this they can generate an avatar that imitates your personality. This avatar will then be able to interact with family and friends once you have passed away. Here is what they say on their website:

But what if you could be remembered forever?


A legacy for your family


What if your children or grand children would know more about you and your life? What if they would be more like you, think more like you?


Everything you did


What if all the important events, adventures and thoughts in your life would be accessible to future generations, who never met the real you?


A living proof of you


And what if, more than that, they could really interact with your memories, as if they were talking to you in person?

Creepy is the word that most obviously comes to mind. But I do have curiosity about this idea. Of course in one sense it is not new. Photographs have been a source of comfort for years. The Victorians would even take photographs of the dead. Post-mortem photographs may strike us as morbid, but they were believed to help in the grieving process. Being the only visual remembrance of the deceased, they were among a family’s most precious possessions. Here is one of a deceased baby:

dead baby

More recently videos have performed a similar function. Séances were an attempt to interact with loved ones. Although as one wag said: Talking to the dead is easy. Getting the dead to talk back is the hard part. You would think that or most people interacting with this ersatz family member would not be satisfying, but who knows how future generations will react.

We may be living in a secular age, but utopian thinking is very much alive and plans to perpetuate itself for ever. The Singularity is the most famous example of this worldview.

Ray Kurzweil, its most famous evangeliser summed it up like this:

The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today — the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”

By 2045, some futurists believe, humans will be able to achieve digital immortality by uploading their minds to computers. It is a fascinating possibility, but for critics it is a secular version of the hypothetical Christian Rapture. Philosopher John Gray says “the Singularity echoes apocalyptic myths in which history is about to be interrupted by a world-transforming event.” Like Gray I am sceptical that Kurzweil’s vision of immortality is something I would want. Would it not be just a cartoon version of us? But I suppose the Singularity and as a means of cheating death will have to be a topic for another post. I will leave you with Gray’s sceptical view on the subject.

Digital photography and the age of narcissism

April 6, 2014

The Metropolitan Police are to replace safety cameras with Japanese tourists. The Commissioner said “There’s already a Japanese tourist taking a picture on every street in London, sometimes more than one. They’re low-maintenance, polite, reliable and already there. From in 2007

This satirical piece reflects a widely held stereotype about Japanese tourists. However, I would argue that we are all Japanese now. In the digital era we are all photographers. It’s all a far cry from the mid 1820s when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first permanent photograph. It certainly wasn’t point and shoot; the exposure time was about 8 hours! For many years photography was the preserve of the wealthy. The kit was very expensive, and unless you could afford to have a darkroom in your house, you had to pay for printing. It was Kodak that did much to popularise photography, making it affordable for the masses. But it has been the digital revolution that really has really transformed our behaviour. Kodak, which did so much to democratise the taking of pictures, was a victim of the creative destruction that capitalism is wont to wreak, although reports of its death are greatly exaggerated – bankruptcy is not the same as disappearance.

Nowadays there is virtually no cost to taking thousands of pictures. Before when film was expensive and it to be developed people would be more selective. You wouldn’t take a picture of a plate of meatballs. Actually, that’s not strictly true. I remember my wife complaining on our honeymoon in Thailand that I was taking more photos of the food than of her!

The digital revolution then has led to a massive increase in the number of photos we take. We hear those factoids like 10% of all the photographs in the world were taken in the last 12 months or that there are 10,000 times as many photographs on Facebook as there are in the US Library of Congress.

What are the effects of this frenetic activity? We now take so many photos that we probably never see most of them again. I do get the impression that some people are more interested in taking the photograph than actually living the experience. I don’t see the point of taking a picture of a work of art. There are even studies that those who take pictures of them actually remember less of what they saw. Sometimes it feels that if the event isn’t captured on camera, it hasn’t taken place.

The digital revolution has given us a number of new words. One obvious example is the use of photoshop as a verb meaning to alter a digital image with Photoshop or another image-editing software designed to distort reality often for deliberately deceptive purposes. The camera never lies has become a meaningless expression. In the past airbrushing photographs was something done by governments. Now though it has become available for the masses.

Adobe are none too pleased about this development and issued a press release a few years ago:

The Photoshop trademark must never be used as a common verb or as a noun. The Photoshop trademark should always be capitalized and should never be used in possessive form or as a slang term. It should be used as an adjective to describe the product and should never be used in abbreviated form. The following examples illustrate these rules:

Trademarks are not verbs.

Correct: The image was enhanced using Adobe® Photoshop® software.

Incorrect: The image was photoshopped.

Trademarks are not nouns.

Correct: The image pokes fun at the Senator.

Incorrect: The photoshop pokes fun at the Senator.

Trademarks must never be used as slang terms.

Correct: Those who use Adobe® Photoshop® software to manipulate images as a hobby see their work as an art form.

Incorrect: A photoshopper sees his hobby as an art form.

Incorrect: My hobby is photoshopping.

But there is another word which totally captures the zeitgeist of the era of digital photography. I have a feature in my blog where I make a selection of neologisms from the Wordspy website. In February last year I featured selfie. I had no idea what would happen with the word. Last year it was the OED’s word of the year. Events like Nelson Mandela’s funeral and this year’s Oscars have catapulted it into public consciousness. It has even come into Spanish. According to Wordspy the first citation back to 2002. And in 2010 the term ugly selfie, a deliberately unattractive photographic self-portrait, was coined.

The selfie has become the symbol of the age of digital narcissism. The media used to about taking people into fictional worlds, often of the rich and famous. Then it all changed. In the 1990s we got reality television, which showed “ordinary” people on 24 hours a day. But with social media we can now all broadcast our lives. Of course most social media users are not narcissistic. However, there is no doubt that it is a golden age to be a narcissist. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, a professor of business psychology at University College London characterised our age thus:

Yet, social media is to narcissists what crack is to crack addicts: the more narcissistic you are, the heavier your social media use is. Indeed, scientific studies have shown that the number of status updates, attractive selfies, check-ins, followers and friends, are all positively correlated with narcissism, as is the tendency to accept invites from strangers, particularly when they are attractive. The reason for these correlations is that narcissistic individuals are much more likely to use social media to portray a desirable, albeit unrealistic, self-image, accumulate virtual friends and broadcast their life to an audience. Klout* is a better measure of narcissism than of social reach.”

So this is my quick tour of the world of digital photography. What conclusions have I come to? As I said I am generally positive about this brave new world. It’s great that photography is not restricted to the well-off. And is it so bad that we are the protagonists of Life: The Movie? Having said that, I do think that it is a revolution that has passed me by. I don’t have a camera and my mobile doesn’t take photos. Maybe it’s a reaction against the ubiquity of photography. But I do have a blog, and so I’m all in favour of allowing people to express themselves in the way they choose.


* From Wikipedia: Klout is a website and mobile app that uses social media analytics to rank its users according to online social influence via the “Klout Score”, which is a numerical value between 1 and 100. In determining the user score, Klout measures the size of a user’s social media network and correlates the content created to measure how other users interact with that content Klout launched in 2008

Planet Container: How modern shipping transformed our world

January 19, 2014

But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it?  Who cares about the man who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms?  How ironic that the more ships have grown in size, the less space they now take up in our imagination. Ninety Percent of Everything, Rose George

On June 14th last year a ship was named at the Daewoo shipyard in Okpo, South Korea. As far as I know there were no royals there, but the launch of the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller is an important landmark in shipping history. Ane Mærsk Mc-Kinney Uggla, the youngest daughter of the late Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, the Danish shipping magnate after whom the ship was named, did the honours:

As you sail the waters of the world, may your journeys be smooth and your tasks successful. May you bring happiness to your crew, may you be a safe haven for all who board you and may you bring pride and prosperity to all. I wish you Godspeed!”

What is so special about this vessel? The ship which has the largest cargo capacity in of any ship yet constructed, is the longest ship in service worldwide as of 2013. It is 399 metres long and can carry up to 18,270 containers. It’s not just about size though. The ship is characterised for its energy efficiency and environmental performance. Its maximum speed of 23 knots reduces her fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions by 20% compared to the previous most efficient cargo vessel. Maersk are planning to phase in 20 identical vessels over the next couple of years. During normal operations, she will be manned by a crew of just 19.

container ships

We have, of course, been shipping goods for millennia. But what has been taking place in the last half century is on a totally unprecedented scale. And we have one invention to thank for that. Malcolm McLean, a visionary trucking executive, developed the first container specification in 1955. He went on to found Sea-Land Service, whose SS Ideal X, a converted World War II oil tanker, would become the first commercially successful container ship. During her first voyage on April 26, 1956 the Ideal X carried 58 containers from Port Newark, New Jersey, to Port of Houston, Texas. After five days it arrived in Texas, where 58 trucks were waiting to be loaded with the containers. Modern container shipping had been born. The patent was “given” to the world for free in order to increase adoption. In recognition for his massive contribution to world shipping McLean was named “Man of the Century” by the International Maritime Hall of Fame.

The standard container is a box that is 8ft wide by 8ft tall by 20ft or 40ft long. They are generally made of 2mm thick corrugated steel, but other materials like aluminium, fibreglass or plywood can also be used. The external corners are designed for easy stacking and lifting, using a standardised twist-lock mechanism. What’s more they are multi-modal; they can be transported from a ship to a truck to a train. It seems such a simple idea. Yet it would soon revolutionise the global supply chain.

How are goods transported these days? Cargo that used to arrive in assorted cartons, crates, bales, barrels or bags now comes in factory sealed containers. It is impossible to tell what is in each unit. The only clue is the ID number, which is used to track the progress of its contents around the world. The design of the ships is also different. Gone are all the individual hatches, holds and dividers of the traditional general cargo vessel. Nowadays, the hull of a typical container ship is like a huge warehouse divided into cells by vertical guide rails. It is here where the containers are stored. Every single cargo, be it t-shirts, laptops or plastic ducks, can be handled by exactly the same cranes. Algorithms and computer systems help plan the most efficient and practical storage schemes. All this means the ships can get in and out of port quickly.

As well as reducing the time it takes to ship goods around the world, containerization has slashed the cost of shipping, making it practically free. This has been one of the principal motors of international trade. This is the frictionless world economists like to talk about. Before the container you had to pay a lot to actually transport anything. So it wasn’t really worth your while financially to transport something when most of your profits would be eaten up by transport costs

The logistics of the shipping industry are staggering. 90% of everything we wear, eat and consume is carried by ships, many of them container ships like the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller. There are more than 100,000 ships at sea carrying all the solids, liquids and gases that we need to live. It is estimated that there were more than 530 million containers in the world in 2010. Such is the precision of the tracking system that a two-week voyage can be timed for arrival with an accuracy of less than a quarter of an hour. This has been a boon for guaranteed delivery and just in time manufacturing. Raw materials arrive in sealed containers less than an hour before they are needed in the production process. And such is the efficiency as a method of transport that it actually makes more sense to send Scottish salmon to China to get filleted and then bring it back and refreeze it and sell it. It is containerisation that explains the fact that 90% of flip flops are made in China. Indeed it is the Asian superpower which has benefitted from this revolution. It is impossible to understand China’s role as the world’s workshop without the shipping container. It should be no surprise to discover where the busiest container port in the world is located – ShanghaiChina handles 29,069,000 containers annually.

This revolution has not been all plain sailing. Not until 1961 did the International Standards Organisation finalise global standards for containers. Ports, railways and shippers baulked at the cost of developing the ports and railway infrastructure needed to handle container ships and for the movement of containers on land by rail and road. Trade unions were worried about massive job loss among port and dock workers at ports, as containers were sure to eliminate several manual jobs of cargo handling at ports. Their fears have been confirmed.

This illustrates the fact that no invention is all positive. There is no doubt that working on a container ship is a hard life. In this container age the majority of the sailors are from countries like the Philippines. But compared to what they could earn in their own countries the salaries are probably not so bad. The anonymity of the container has made it the vehicle of choice for smuggling narcotics, tobacco and even humans. We cannot overlook the ecological impact. It is estimated that between 2,000 & 10,000 containers a year fall off ships and are lost at sea. In 1992 a container with 28,800 Bath Toys fell into the Pacific Ocean. This incident was chronicled by Donovan Hohn in his 2011 book Moby Duck:

From a low-flying plane on a clear day, the packages would have looked like confetti, a great drift of colourful squares, exploding in slow motion across the waves. Within twenty-four hours, the water would have dissolved the glue. The action of the waves would have separated the plastic shell from the cardboard back. There, in seas almost four miles deep, more than five hundred miles south of Attu Island at the western tip of the Aleutian tail, more than a thousand miles east of Hokkaido, the northern extreme of Japan, and more than two thousand miles west of the insular Alaskan city of Sitka, 28,800 plastic animals produced in Chinese factories for the bathtubs of America—7,200 red beavers, 7,200 green frogs, 7,200 blue turtles, and 7,200 yellow ducks—hatched from their plastic shells and drifted free.

There are other ecological costs. I have heard that the carbon footprint is similar to that of the airline industry. What is less known is the acoustic pollution from the noise of the engines and the propellers. This can be a huge problem for whales, which survive by communicating with sound. Some humpback whales now have 10% of their acoustic range.

I realise that that there are problems, but I think on the whole the container has made the world a better place. I find this miracle of modern logistics truly amazing. Trade is a force for good. Millions of Chinese have been lifted out of poverty thanks to global trade. I am sure that ships in the future will be more ecological. So, I think we should all raise a glass to Malcolm McLean, one of the unsung heroes of our modern globalised world.

A couple of shipping videos

January 19, 2014

The world biggest container ship:

Container shipping the world in a box:


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