London gets a Bitcoin exchange and the post-Silk Road black market wobbles on

One of the drug marketplaces set up to replace Silk Road closed, with its owner stealing users' money.

Two contrasting stories about the state of Bitcoin today. The first concerns the ongoing black market for drugs, which is undergoing a lot of churn post-Silk Road. New exchanges are popping up, vendors are dispersing onto them, and customers - or, at least, those brave enough to think that law enforcement agencies aren’t also on top of all this - are trying to figure out who to trust.

It’s all about trust on these sites. I’ve written before about how Silk Road’s success was in part down to its active culture of customer reviews, alerting people to bad quality merchandise and pointing people towards trustworthy vendors. That kind of culture takes a long time to build up, as those searching for a Silk Road replacement are discovering.

This morning, one of those sites - Black Flag - went down, with its owner apparently absconding with its users’ money. Calling themselves “Metta Dread Pirate Roberts” (Dread Pirate Roberts was the name Silk Road’s owner used, allegedly the now-in-custody Ross Ullbricht), they posted the following message on the site’s forum:

Well mates, I am saddened to say goodbye. When I created P: BF [Project: Black Flag], my intent was pure and I wanted to help the community. Several days ago I begin implementing code changes to freeze funds and dump them to myself. I was unable to cope with the stress and constant demand, so I panicked. I am sorry for my actions, but with the funds I gathered from the site, I will be able to keep myself from being homeless for the next several months. I will always remember those that made this possible.

The servers will shortly be turned off. Please make migrate to the new Silk Road forums.

Keyboard DPK and Ganja are not me. They did not know this happened, and were kept in the dark just like everyone else. Please do not hold my actions against them.

I have let a lot of people down, including myself. I put hundreds of hours into this site and forum, and never wanted to see it end up this way.
As of now, I will no longer be using the name MettaDPR, nor will I be signing into the forums or site. The forum servers will be going down in week or so; the market will be going down within the next few days.

Abandon ship.


We have no idea how many bitcoins MettaDPR has taken with them - the site wasn’t up for long, and is nowhere near one of the bigger Silk Road alternatives - but it shows the difficulties facing the drug black market community. Someone could set up a site for a while, wait for people to trust their money to it, and then skip town.

You can’t regulate against that because, y’know, the drugs thing. The impossibility of retreiving stolen bitcoins is built into the system, so the only thing you can do is try and stop thefts in the first place. And that leads us to the second bit of interesting Bitcoin news today, which is that London is (finally) getting what looks to be a serious, well-backed exchange - Coinfloor.

Considering its position as a world financial centre it is surprising that it took so long for something like Coinfloor to emerge, but then UK government’s lack of urgency in working out if it wants to regulate Bitcoin trading has kind of forced its hand. As Coindesk reports:

Coinfloor, which is backed for an undisclosed sum by VC firm Passion Capital, is the first firm to trade bitcoins for GBP on an order book for at least a year. There are scant other exchanges in the UK trading bitcoins for GBP. Bittylicious offers the chance to buy bitcoins for sterling, for example, although this appears to be a more rudimentary site, and doesn’t have the charting facilities offered by Coinfloor. London-based Intersango ran an order book and allowed GBP trades, although that site inherited hacked and now-defunct virtual currency exchange Bitcoinica. It was sued by customers, and is no longer taking registrations.

Getting backing like that means it feels it doesn’t have to wait for the Financial Services Authority to sort out what its policy towards Bitcoin will be. Talks have happened, but nothing concrete has emerged.

However, Coinfloor represents the other side of the Bitcoin world to the Black Flag closure - its increasing legitimacy, both as a payment method and as a commodity. Despite a still-volatile price - over the last couple of weeks there was an unexpected surge and ebb that is believed to have been caused by a Chinese exchange - the wobbles in the underground Bitcoin market are increasingly separated from the above-ground one, lending it legitimacy it needs to survive.

The post by Black Flag's owner announcing the closure. (Screenshot: @josephfcox)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Why have men become so lonely – and how does it affect their health?

New findings show the consequences of having a lonely heart.

Go out and get some friends. No, seriously. Hop on the Tube and act faux-interested in the crap-looking book your fellow commuter is reading, even if it's on their Kindle. Chances are it's better than the one in your bag, and they're probably a decent human being and just as lonely, like you and me.

A new slate of facts and figures are showing just how widespread loneliness, is while simultaneously being amazingly terrible for your health.

Research led by Steven Cole from the medicine department at University of California, Los Angeles is showing the cellular mechanisms behind the long known pitfalls of loneliness. Perceived social isolation (PSI) – the scientific term for loneliness –increases the exposure to chronic diseases and even mortality for individuals across the world.

The authors examined the effects of loneliness on leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which are produced from stem cells in the bone marrow and are critical to the immune system and defending the body against bacteria and viruses. The results showed loneliness increases signalling in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling our fight-or-flight responses, and also affects the production of white blood cells.

Recently, the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men's health and wellbeing, carried out a survey with the help of YouGov investigating friendship and loneliness amongst men. The results are alarming, with only 11 per cent of single men across the spectrum in their early 20s to late-middle age saying they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.

Friendship has shown not only to be important to a person's overall wellbeing, but can even add to a person's earnings. A previous study involving 10,000 US citizens over 35 years showed people earned 2 per cent more for each friend they had.

The Movember Foundation survey comes soon after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that men in Britain make up 58 per cent of the 2.47m people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64. The reasons behind this figure include marrying later in life and failed marriages, which usually result in children living with the mother. Women still make up the majority of the 7.7m single-occupant households across all ages in the country, at approximately 54 per cent.

Chronic loneliness seems to have slowly become a persistent problem for the country despite our hyper-connected world. It's an issue that has made even Jeremy Hunt say sensible things, such as "the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives" about this hidden crisis. He's previously called for British families to adopt the approach of many Asian families of having grandparents live under the same roof as children and grandchildren, and view care homes as a last, not first, option.

The number of single-person households has continued to increase over the years. While studies such as this add to the list of reasons why being alone is terrible for you, researchers are stumped as to how we can tackle this major social issue. Here's my suggestion: turn off whatever screen you're reading this from and strike up a conversation with someone who looks approachable. They could end up becoming your new best friend.