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*


2009 – the year the physical bookstore lays down and dies?

Paul Raven @ 30-12-2008

bookstore signWe already know there’s trouble in the world of publishing, and according to the New York Times there’s just as much grief in the domain of the bricks-and-mortar bookstores… and it’s all the fault of us dedicated readers who buy second-hand novels online or swap between circles of friends, not to mention students cutting costs by picking up pre-owned titles that would normally swell the backlist sales figures. Is publishing having its Napster moment? Is this the beginning of the end? [image by jayniebell]

Well, as with all things, it depends who you ask. Mike Masnick at Techdirt suggests that the death of bookstores doesn’t have to be the death of books:

Past studies have shown that an active second hand market helps to boost the sales of new goods, because it makes those goods more valuable to folks who recognize they’ll be able to resell them on the second hand market later. That may not be helpful to physical bookstore retailers, but those retailers have to learn to adjust with the times as well. Obviously, just selling books is going to make less and less sense, but we’ve seen retailers that have worked hard to turn their stores into destinations, where there were good reasons to go and buy stuff, rather than just being a physical version of what you could get online.

It’s an interesting response – though I’d point out that it’s exactly that type of “destination” branding that has killed off the UK library service so effectively. But then again, libraries aren’t businesses in the same way as bookstores.

Where do you buy your books?


Nobel laureate Paul Krugman discusses interstellar trade

Tom James @ 14-10-2008

Recent recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics Paul Krugman wrote a humorous academic paper on interstellar trade back in 1978:

This paper extends interplanetary trade to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light?

This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer travelling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is provided from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

It should be noted that, while the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense.

This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.

Beautiful. The paper itself is full of zingers and whatnot, and is well worth a read.

[via the FT and David Friedman’s blog][image from Gaetan Lee on flickr]


The secret life of shipping containers

Paul Raven @ 09-09-2008

shipping containers at VancouverNothing represents the ubiquity of global trade better than the humble metal shipping container, the industrial-scale use of which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.

The BBC, in one of their more adventurous and off-beat moments, have decided to crack the locks on containerised shipping with a year-long investigative project, prosaically entitled “The Box”. Basically, they’ve painted the BBC logo on a shipping container, fitted it with GPS, and set up an online map where you can follow its progress around the world over land and sea.

It’s not just a hollow gesture either – the container will actually be used for carrying real cargoes, so we’ll get to watch world trade in action. That said, it might be a bit more exciting to watch in high speed once the project is over…

All I want to know now is which bright spark at the Beeb has been reading Spook Country? [hat-tip to Asgrim; image by sporkist]


MAQUECH by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2008

First of the month means fiction time at Futurismic; this month’s offering is “Maquech” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a haunting and darkly beautiful tale of dreams and desperation set in a scarcity-riddled near-future Mexico City.

So get stuck in, and don’t forget to leave Silvia some feedback in the comments at the end!

Maquech

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The jewel encrusted beetle walked slowly across the table, dragging its golden chain behind. It was bigger than any other maquech he’d ever seen before and more richly decorated.

Gerardo put down the eyeglass.

“It’s not my usual purchase,” he said.

“It’s rare,” Mario replied. “This is the last one my grandfather made before he passed away.”

“Monkeys are the thing now. Everyone wants a monkey.”

“But it doesn’t need a lot of food or water,” Mario protested. “That’s a benefit.”

“Do you think my clients worry about things like food or water? Listen, I sold five ostriches two months ago. People want large animals now.”

It was a lie. He sold fish and birds and maybe a reptile or two. He could not afford extravagant purchases like ostriches.

“I need the money,” Mario confessed. “I want to go to Canada.”

“What for?”

“I want to see the polar bears before they disappear. Before all the ice melts away.” Continue reading “MAQUECH by Silvia Moreno-Garcia”