Silk Road 2.0 has launched, and is totally legit - honest guv, it is

A new Dread Pirate Roberts has emerged, resurrecting a clone of the old Silk Road - but not necessarily its trustworthiness, yet

The Dread Pirate Roberts can never die, only the actors who play him. Say hello to Silk Road 2.0, run by a new DPR, launched on the deep web and offering all the delicious (and mostly illegal) drugs and contraband you could want.

The original Silk Road was shut down in October, with its alleged owner and operator - Ross Ulbricht - arrested. He’s currently in New York, awaiting trial, but since the site's closure there were claims that a group of Silk Road administrators had the site's source code and were going to re-launch it. Mashable scooped an interview with the new DPR:

We don't know this person's real name, location, age, gender or that there aren't multiple people behind the digital black mask. The new Dread Pirate Roberts could be anyone. The new Silk Road could be a well-orchestrated scam; the new Dread Pirate Roberts could be the old Dread Pirate Roberts, though he or she insists that's not the case.

...

Roberts himself is presumed to have been an active member of the original Silk Road. Based on his forum posts and our private communications, the new Roberts matches his predecessor in portraying Silk Road as a sort of libertarian utopia rather than a black market in the darkest corner of the web. He also has the same flare for symbolism.

He certainly does. Here's one of several similarly braggadoccio tweets he's been sending over the last few days:

Functionally, the site is almost identical to the first Silk Road. You need Tor to access it, purchases are made with bitcoins, and vendors list their wares for buyers to choose from in the same way with the site taking a small percentage cut of the money that trades hands. At least 170 vendors from the last site have confirmed their identities via encrypted messages to the new DPR and set up shop so far, with more expected.

Of course, nobody knows who the new DPR is, and considering the fallout from the last Silk Road's closure is still ongoing - with arrests of vendors in the US and Europe and the complete destruction of the trust that gave traders and buyers confidence to use the site - it is worth questioning the wisdom of setting up a duplicate.

Or, of trusting an unknown not to make the basic mistakes that Ulbricht is accused of having made in setting up the first Silk Road. It's hard to tell if that whiff in the air is weed or snake oil.

However, regardless of Silk Road 2.0's success or failure (or similarly, for competitors like Sheep Marketplace and Black Market Reloaded) it's obvious that law enforcement bodies are going to have to a problem keeping on top of absolutely everything on the deep web, black market-wise. As US Senator Tom Carper - the chairmain of the Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, no less - has said, on hearing of Silk Road 2.0's launch:

This new website - launched barely a month after Federal agents shut down the original Silk Road - underscores the inescapable reality that technology is dynamic and ever-evolving and that government policy needs to adapt accordingly. Rather than play ‘whack-a-mole’ with the latest website, currency, or other method criminals are using in an effort to evade the law, we need to develop thoughtful, nimble and sensible federal policies that protect the public without stifling innovation and economic growth. Our committee intends to have that conversation – among others - at our hearing this month on virtual currency.

We've speculated that the closure of Silk Road made Bitcoin stronger before by breaking its link with the dark web and forcing governments to take it seriously as a commodity-slash-currency, and it looks like that's exactly what's happening. And, if you haven't been watching, the price of a bitcoin broke $300 for the first time this week. Things are looking frothy again for the digital currency.

Christmas comes early for customers of the dark web. (Photo: Getty)

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

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”