A Silk Road from a sow’s ear

Paul Raven @ 02-06-2011

Beyond the more ardent libertarians, anarchists and cryptography wonks, responses to the Bitcoin story were largely indifferent – it’s a currency for nerds, so what? But give that currency a demonstrable use, and all of a sudden the “human interest” angle leaps right out: OMFG ANONYMOUS DRUG TRADING ON THE INTERTUBES!

Silk Road, a digital black market that sits just below most internet users’ purview, does resemble something from a cyberpunk novel. [[ Right, of course – and what *doesn’t* resemble a cyberpunk novel these days, Wired? ]] Through a combination of anonymity technology and a sophisticated user-feedback system, Silk Road makes buying and selling illegal drugs as easy as buying used electronics — and seemingly as safe. It’s Amazon — if Amazon sold mind-altering chemicals.

In a nutshell: obscure (and probably regularly-changed) URLs, access only permitted by users running the TOR anonymiser, all transactions made using the untraceable Bitcoins. The ultimate anonymised storefront, in other words, complete with an eBay-esque reputation system. Cue tabloid moral panic in 5… 4… 3…

Most interesting of all is watching the schisms open up in the strata of geek libertarianism, though:

… not all Bitcoin enthusiasts embrace Silk Road. Some think the association with drugs will tarnish the young technology, or might draw the attention of federal authorities. “The real story with Silk Road is the quantity of people anxious to escape a centralized currency and trade,” a longtime bitcoin user named Maiya told us in a chat. “Some of us view Bitcoin as a real currency, not drug barter tokens.”

Maiya’s right about the “true story” there, but that last sentence is priceless – the cognitive dissonance of being in favour of a decentralised and anonymous currency but wanting to restrict what people can trade with it is really rather spectacular.

Wired‘s coverage there is pretty measured, all things considered; watching this story plough into the mainstream media is going to be a textbook demo of escalating hysteria. *fetches popcorn*


Recreational chemistry whack-a-mole continues in the EU

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2011

As predicted by myself and a lone commenter last time I picked up this thread around eighteen months ago, European production of so-called “designer drugs” continues to outstrip the ability of legislation to block them.

Rob Wainwright, Europol’s director, said the emergence of the substances was now a major feature of Europe’s drugs problem: “Organised crime groups are increasingly active in producing and distributing drugs which can be associated with ecstasy,” he said. “We are determined to combat this phenomenon.”

… by any means other than the one simple and obvious way of disconnecting drug production and distribution from criminal gangs, namely decriminalisation, licensed production and regulation. Which is politically unpalatable, of course; so whack-a-mole legislative theatre will have to do instead, I guess. After all, the kids who’ll be harmed by the dodgy chemicals probably haven’t even bothered to register to vote, while the knee-jerk tabloid readers of the middle classes certainly have; gotta sing for the peanut galleries, AMIRITEZ? *sigh*

So, I’ll reiterate my question from the afore-linked previous post on the same topic: Is there anyone among Futurismic‘s readership who can say with a straight face that more restrictive legislation will prevent drug abuse, in the UK or anywhere else? If so, tell us how and why in the comments. Feel free to suggest new alternatives to legislation, as well.


Moral medicine

Paul Raven @ 11-04-2011

Always keen to fabricate spurious definitions of illness in need of treatment on the lookout for problems to solve (so long as there’s a good profit margin involved), the world of pharmacology is looking to the sticky and complex field of human morality for its next conquest. This Guardian piece earns bonus points for including an “it’s a long way from being science fiction” soundbite

… would pharmacologically-induced altruism, for example, amount to genuine moral behaviour? Guy Kahane, deputy director of the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics and a Wellcome Trust biomedical ethics award winner, said: “We can change people’s emotional responses but quite whether that improves their moral behaviour is not something science can answer.”

He also admitted that it was unlikely people would “rush to take a pill that would make them morally better.

“Becoming more trusting, nicer, less aggressive and less violent can make you more vulnerable to exploitation,” he said. “On the other hand, it could improve your relationships or help your career.”

Kahane does not advocate putting morality drugs in the water supply, but he suggests that if administered widely they might help humanity to tackle global issues.

Gee, thanks, Doctor Kahane – it’s good to know you think that spiking our water is a step too far. That’s hugely reassuring. No, really.

I’m far from being the only person to find the whole idea instantly repellent. Elegantly-outfitted author Ryan Oakley sums up my main concerns concisely:

I don’t want any of that. I don’t trust the morality of people who’d make a pill to make moral people.

Besides, morality? What the fuck is morality? Is that like gravity? Some measurable force?

Cops, soldiers or leaders won’t be taking these pills. Just criminals and problem people. And guess who gets to decide who those people are.

Kyle Munkittrick takes a more moderate stance:

… drugs like Prozac and chemicals like oxytocin have the ability to make some people calmer, more empathetic, and more altruistic. Calm, empathetic, and altruistic people are far more likely to act morally than anxious, callous, and selfish people. But does that mean mood manipulation going to let us force people to be moral? And if it does, is that a good thing? Is it moral to force people to be moral?

[…]

Some drugs affect, that is, influence or temper a person’s response to a moral dilemma. Your initial response might be, “I don’t want my decisions being influenced by a drug!” We see ourselves as rational beings in control of our emotions. But our mood is often critical to our decision making, particularly in regard to how we react to others.

[…]

I might take a pill that makes me more more likely to be empathetic and altruistic, but it doesn’t guarantee that I will be any more than me having a crummy day will make me a jerk to others. Humans are able to exercise reason and willpower over our emotions and moods to control our actions. The great thing about mood enhancers is that they make it so that our reason and willpower don’t have to overcome anger, fear, and angst to enable us to do the moral thing. A person in the right mood has an easier time making good choices when faced with moral dilemmas.

As Munkittrick’s post title summarises: [mood manipulation] != [mind control]. But mood and character are deeply interlinked, and the ceaseless goldrush to identify, diagnose and treat behavioural or emotional “dysfunction”does not fill me with trusting appreciation for the idea of a pill that can “help us be better people”. If some kid chewing at his own lower lip in a rave made the same claim for MDMA, we’d rightfully think he or she was being naive at best, or deluded at worst; why is such a statement more acceptable when it comes from someone who wears a labcoat and (presumably) doesn’t eat their own dogfood, so to speak?

I guess the issue for me boils down to “who gets to define what’s morally good?” Given the historical record, I’m afraid that governments and pharmacology companies would be a long way down my list of reliable authorities on morality.


All the patents, none of the fun: modifying THC for medicine

Paul Raven @ 05-04-2011

Ars Technica reports on research into separating the pain-relieving power of tetrahydrocannabinol from its more commonly-appreciated psychoactive properties. You know, because “improving” natural drugs has always worked out so well for us in the past.

I suppose it’s the hallmark of a congenital cynic to suspect that research like this is focussed on finding new things to patent and peddle as safer (and more lucrative) alternatives to something that pretty much anyone can grow for themselves, rather than any genuine concern that folk getting a little baked from their pain relief might suffer ill effects…


Insomniac nation: the UK sleep deficit

Paul Raven @ 31-01-2011

Apparently insomnia is a “massive public health problem” here in the UK: the demands of our employment, our education, our families and loads of other stuff is all conspiring to wear us down into a state of perpetual exhaustion. (It’s not often I find myself in step with the rest of the country, but this is one of those rare incidences; I can’t remember when I last found it easy to get to sleep at night and get up of a morning, but I suspect it was in my early teens.)

Thankfully, the medical world has determined that (quelle surprise!) hypnotics and other highly addictive sleep-inducing medications aren’t the answer. The less positive news is that cognitive behavioural therapies and new types of drug designed to target the brain’s internal 24-hour clock (which are almost certain to have no addiction schedule or side effects, AMIRITEZ?) are the proposed solutions; as is traditional, we’re trying to cure the symptoms rather than going after the root cause of the problem, namely a ridiculously stressful social structure.

Still, why fix your society when drugs and brainwashing can get everyone back in the saddle with a rictius grin for jobs that may not exist in six months’ time, eh?


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