End of the Silk Road

Ross Ulbricht, also know as the Dread Pirate Roberts via his dark web marketplace Silk Road, was sentenced to life in prison today.

It’s hard to feel particularly sympathetic about someone who paid for the murder of six people, even if most of ‘murders’ were never actually perpetrated (1 was faked by law enforcement, 5 appeared to be a scam targeting Ulbricht).

But it gets more intriguing that Secret Service and Drug Enforcement Administration agents allegedly stole millions of dollars from Silk Road, and may have also engaged in blackmail.

It’s also notable that the maximum sentence, harsher than even the prosecution were requesting, was explicitly done to send a message to anyone else contemplating running a ‘Dark Web’ site.

Much of the Silk Road case appeared to focus on the role Silk Road played in the sale and distribution of a huge variety of drugs, and whether it made the drug trade safer for buyers or resulted in more widespread drug use and fatalities.

But essentially Silk Road isn’t purely about drugs, or any other specific product. It’s about the fact that it was possible to set up a relatively hard to track and anonymous Dark Web marketplace which took years for law enforcement to finally catch out. And numerous similar sites have since appeared, including Silk Road 2, Evolution and Agora.

If it wasn’t for the decision to pay to murder up to 6 people, it would be easy to draw parallels with the deterrent punishments handed out to hackers. Although he’s probably the antithesis of the civic awareness and activism undertaken by Aaron Swartz, a disproportionate sentence was threatened in that case, leading to Swartz suicide.

The creation of a Dark Web marketplace, even with the motive of accruing a fortune in Bitcoin, is not an immoral decision, but paying for multiple people to be killed certainly is. And it’s that point which makes it hard to have sympathy of Ulbricht, or see popular support for an appeal against a sentence which keeps him locked up for life.




A new era of bad neighbour disputes

The rise of modern, cheap technology has brought new issues for politicians, lawyers and those disrupting the future. But it also bleeds into everyday life as these tools and toys become commonplace.

We’ve already become used to seeing news about drones flying where they shouldn’t, or invading the privacy of those around us, or being used to replicate cool Star Wars speeder racing. Let alone the uproar over selfie sticks, Google Glass, wearables and constantly checking your phone in company. I had a rather pleasant experience of the future of motorcycling when KTM invited me to check out some of their new electric off-road bikes.


Photo by Joseph Barrientos (CC Licence)

It means that we’re going to have all sorts of new disputes on a non-technical, urban neighbour level. And many aren’t obvious.

For instance – the fact that robot lawnmowers annoy astronomers won’t be a huge problem – but what happens when we have everyone using as much radio frequency as possible to control every autonomous home gadget? How do you settle the problem of interference with 20 neighbours? When I raced radio control cars, we’d carry a bag of RC Crystals which meant we could change frequency in the event of conflicts, but it still took a bit of juggling at times, and the occasionally car launching itself into the distance until the problems were resolved.

Or off-road motorcycles. The normal problem is noise, but the electric bikes are so quiet you can barely hear them – removing a big problem for locating purpose built tracks. At the same time, it might mean you end up with enduro riders ‘sneaking’ up on your while you’re walking – and wildlife might take time to get used to the quieter risks as well.


Me riding a KTM Freeride E-XC

It’s going to be fun seeing how all these problems manifest and hopefully get solved for non-technical people trying to live their lives. Most people are still trying to avoid having to figure out how routers, wifi and smart phones work in favour of just having a working television, computer and Xbox whilst fixing their meals and doing the laundry.


Technology underpins and connects everything

Judging by the amount of social media shares, plenty of people were wondered ‘How Floyd Mayweather and Justin Bieber bonded over an app‘. TL:DR – they’re both investors in an app called Shots.

Celebrities from Ashton Kutcher to has invested in tech companies or developed tech products. It seems like years since Alica Keyes was signed up by BlackBerry as their Global Creative Director, which ended in January 2014 after just 12 months.

It’s no longer worth remarking on journalists leaving esteemed publications to become bloggers. Or the massive prices paid for startups which may not have produced significant profits.

Whatever the questions being asked, it seems like the answer is simple – technology.

Bridge Cables Photo by Vita Vilcina (CC Licence)

Photo by Vita Vilcina (CC Licence)

The population of the UK is mostly connected via PCs, tablets and smartphones, and the majority of people are connected via social networks, apps and casual games. It’s increasingly rare to find anyone not on Facebook or Clash of Clans – or to find a child who isn’t familiar with Minecraft or Youtube.

The mainstream media now carries news about the latest technology and can see big enough audiences to schedule full programmes on topics like 3D printing and artificial intelligence.

  • In some ways that’s amazingly great – I’ve loved technology as long as I can remember.
  • But in some ways it’s worrying – when all you have is technology, every problem looks like an application.

For all the transformational power of the internet, we’re still governed by politicians who we can’t trust, and a small group of mega-corporations who can’t effectively be controlled.

We’ve yet to see print publications finally become marginalised. Most big media companies have now had time to adapt and evolve rather than become extinct. And the biggest contributors to open source projects like Linux now come from developers employed by large corporations.

Meanwhile we still have war, famine and greater financial inequality than ever. Statistically we’re safer in the developed Western world than ever in human history, but we’re bombarded with reports of potential threats to us in greater volumes than could have been imagined.

The myth that ‘anyone can be a success’ has spread from America to envelope the whole internet, despite the fact that only a percentage of businesses will ever be successful until enough virtual currencies and bots are developed to create infinite consumption.

Meanwhile we seem to have many of the same problems which have faced society for hundreds of years, and as Gamergate has shown so well, we’ve made little progress. Because rather than asking questions about politics, society and business which mean challenging assumptions and investing huge amounts of time and resource into making a significant change, it’s easier to announce a new software platform or app. And most of us (me included) are too busy trying to scrape a living in between liking updates and checking into games to do more than sign the occasional e-petition.



Couldn’t use Flickr, even if I wanted to…

Despite my sadness at the stagnation of Flickr, I still use it regularly to upload, share and store images. Or at least I used to.

I can still upload everything perfectly from my mobile, but whenever I try and sign in to my account on my laptop, I’m asked for a confirmation code, which is emailed to my Gmail account.


Only the code never arrives. I’ve checked my Inbox, Spam Folder, All Mail and Trash. I’ve run out of retries, and I can’t sign into Yahoo Mail either, so I’ve completely stuck.

I know it’s the right address because I still have emails informing me that my subscription to Flickr Pro has expired, for example. And the email asking me to confirm my new email address back in 2009.

I’ve checked Settings and Filters, and there’s nothing there to hid or block the email.

So there are two options:

1. Gmail is mysteriously blocking some emails – I’ve had this happen to another Gmail address earlier this week when repeated invites to a Slack team didn’t show up. But this was an account with a domain alias, so I’m not ruling out user error. Whereas Yahoo have an email address for me with no aliases etc to confuse things.

2. Yahoo is not sending emails – I don’t know how likely this is, but why is there no possible way to access my account/verification code besides the one email address, and no easy way to contact support? If they knew they were going to be increasing Yahoo ID security, why not prompt existing users to add their mobile number beforehand, for example?

It’s just generally crap, and has made me keener than ever to invest in a new external hard drive for photos, and to sign up to 500px as a paying user for a service which might actually work.

It definitely doesn’t give me any faith in future Yahoo products.

(Disclosure: I know 1 or 2 people who work at Yahoo on the Editorial side of things. I haven’t asked if they’ve hidden my security code behind the sofa)



*edit* It was only as I pressed publish my brain finally made the connection that both Flickr and Slack were co-founded by the same person – Stewart Butterfield. Strange coincidence….



Xbox Marketing Fail…

My son recently received an Xbox 360 for Christmas. So as ‘gamer dad’, it was my job to go through the process of setting him up on Xbox Live, including making sure he was on a restricted profile. Even after owning an Xbox 360 since around launch, it was a bit of a faff, including the fact I’d restricted it so much that he couldn’t actually join in games with me. Which was kind of the point…

The main thing was to make sure he wasn’t seeing age-restricted content. As much as I believe in parental oversight, I’m still in trouble over the time I discovered he was able to use the Xbox navigation at the age of 3. Mainly because I left the room for a minute and by the time I came back, he’d given himself nightmares by managing to open up a game based around killing zombies.

So having used one of my email addresses for his new Xbox Live profile, I was a bit surprised to see this proudly displayed as the top recommendation.


Personally I’m quite keen on the look of Battlefield Hardline. But my son is going to have to wait around a decade before he’s a suitable age for it.

I’d be the first to admit that possibly in adjusting the profile settings to enable him to actually play games over the internet with his own father, I might have made a mistake somewhere. But I’d certainly locked everything down to the best of my abilities. And if I can’t work an Xbox 360 reasonably competently by now, I’d say there was a distinct usability problem with the system settings area – I’ve not only signed up for EULAs etc, but had a hand in writing a few.

In any case, given even a single indication that it’s an age-restricted profile, surely the default should be to play it safe, rather than risk yet another Netmums outcry over violence in videogames?

I’m already approaching the time when my son is a better gamer than I am. The longer I can keep him away from adult games and retain some kind of mystique, the better…


Improving my computer habits

I’ve blogged about some inspiration to keep improving what I do, and it’s something I’m trying to put into practice by improving my computer habits as well as in the rest of my life.

For example:

I’ve stopped hoarding 3rd party videos and cleared GBs of space. The amount I’d squirreled away to update my videogames sites (, and was getting ridiculous, and I’d run out of storage space so my main hard drive was filling up. Now the mantra is get it uploaded, get it published, or delete it.

I’ve also started becoming more strict about email. It’s easy to let the almost infinite space in Gmail seduce me into keeping every email ‘just in case it comes in handy’, but while the space in my email account my be almost limitless, my time and attention isn’t.

No more hoarding stuff in browser bookmarks either. I’ve got hundreds of bookmarks which are just sat there, with no tags or easy way to find anything that’s actually useful. While I’ll keep using it as a quick scratchpad as needed, I have both Diigo and Delicious for actual storage. And cross posting from Diigo means I have a backup if anything should happen.

Computer Desk by Tatiana Lapina

My desk is nowhere near as tidy or photogenic!
Computer Desk by Tatiana Lapina (CC Licence).

And I’m once again looking at the collection of websites I’ve built up over the years, and deciding what’s important to keep going, what has the possibility to grow, and how to best manage the relationships between each of them and social media.

Part of that has been to try and organise myself and other collaborators in Slack, which has the benefit of cutting down on emails as well.

Sadly I still haven’t found an answer for my natural tendency to get lost in brilliant articles on random topics around the internet, but I am trying to limit it more to weekend reading as my digital equivalent of a Sunday paper.

I’d love to hear more suggestions for improving productivity, and better organisation, that people have actually used and found beneficial, rather than trawling through countless lifehacker posts….


Linked consequences…

Really interesting article on Reuters explains that the rise of Amazon and other eCommerce startups has led to a commercial property boom as everyone needs more space for workers and storage – despite being a really small percentage of Indian retail at the moment.

It also has a stunningly bad, possibly machine generated, picture caption…


Could RSS be poised for a ‘comeback’?

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) has succeeded as a ‘behind the scenes’ way for information to pass between websites, applications and databases. But it largely failed as a front-facing consumer technology for anyone who wasn’t a technology/information nerd and didn’t manage to find a decent alternative after Google Reader was closed.

But I think it could be due for a comeback on the consumer side. Think about the amount of people who have become familiar with the Facebook newsfeed, the stream of Twitter updates, and similar functionality on many other sites (LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest etc, etc). We’re all sat in a stream or river of information (a la Dave Winer’s River of News)

Stream of Information

The information stream is overflowing with content

More content is being created and published today than anyone can hope to consume. So generally we filter by following people we know (Family, Friends, Colleagues), or people/services that cater to our interests.

But to keep us calm and happy using their service, increasingly social networks want to filter the information by their own metrics. The idea is that we see what is most important to us, and the social network can then explain to advertisers how to best reach us. That means that we don’t see everything, even from the people we’ve purposefully chosen to follow (Facebook’s Edge Rank, refusal to let anyone set ‘Most Recent’ as the default for their newsfeed and lowering of organic reach for business pages are perfect examples).

To some extent it’s well-meaning. Trying to consume every piece of information published in even a small network takes a large amount of time and cognitive resource.

But it’s well-meaning in the same way as it would be to have your parents choose all your entertainment for you.

No context-engine is doing a good enough job. And at the same time, a lot of the things you’ve chosen to hear about are falling by the wayside.

Maybe RSS was just too early for consumer adoption in the past – and now that larger numbers of us are accustomed to newsfeeds, streams and being able to set up a feed of RSS streams. And can now see a greater benefit to seeing everything published by the people or organisations we want, rather than what an algorithm at a very early stage of evolution wants us to see?

What it needs is a simple sell.

I envision an RSS service which allows me to quickly log in, most likely with Facebook etc, and gives me a central news feed made up of sources which I can then select/deselect within the website. No running around the web to add sources as the default, and make it somewhat pretty, in the style of a social network.


Worn out on wearables already?

The idea of wearables is great, but the reality is somewhat different. If you’re not already interested in becoming healthy and more active, do you really care about how many steps or miles you’ve taken today?

According to a U.S survey of 3,400 consumers, 85% aren’t ‘in the market for a fitness band’, as reported by Fortune.

Wearable Technology

And then there is Google Glass. Today the BBC led the news that the current version of Glass will be ditched for the time being, along with the Explorer programme for software developers.

All of that comes after famous VC Fred Wilson predicted for 2015:

Another market where the reality will not live up to the hype is wearables. The Apple Watch will not be the homerun product that iPod, iPhone, and iPad have been. Not everyone will want to wear a computer on their wrist. Eventually, this market will be realized as the personal mesh/personal cloud, but the focus on wearables will be a bit of a headfake and take up a lot of time, energy, and money in 2015 with not a lot of results.


The problem isn’t that the technology is still fairly early. Or the fact it makes you potentially look like a wally and can get you attacked, or at least banned from some pubs and cafes.

The problem is the need.

Most of the use cases for wearables are currently niche areas, which can be fulfilled at a lower cost by mobile phones or a pencil and paper.

And taking a photo, or accessing an augmented reality application (Assuming there’s one that provides enough use to be worthwhile) is also socially acceptable on your phone. Who looks twice at someone with their face glued to their phone?

If you’re an athlete, or have a medical condition, then wearables make sense. In some cases, they could be a lifesaver. But for the rest of us, it’s still easier to just walk for 15 minutes, and cut down on cakes rather than spend £100 on a device to tell us.


Thom Yorke + Bittorrent = $26 million?

Turns out 4.4 million Bittorrent downloads between the end of September 2014 and the end of the year can be pretty profitable – with a 90-10% split of revenue in favour of the artist.

Only flaw is that there’s no breakdown between free and paid downloads, so $26 million is the potential maximum, and the potential minimum could be $0. Matthew Ingram quotes a 50% payment rate for a figure of $20 million, which seems potentially a little high, although hardcore fans tend to convert better than random strangers. Still, shows experimentation can be profitable if you have a big enough following. (Source: GigaOm)