Barely Legally

confessions of a moot court bailiff

Don’t Be Evil

Google adopted a flippant and kind of passive-aggressive “we’re cooler than Microsoft” slogan around the turn of the millennium: Don’t Be Evil. At the time, they were the underdogs and Microsoft was the Evil Empire. Now it’s 2015 and Google dominates our lives in both the digital and analog world. They are more The Empire than Microsoft ever dreamed. The slightest adjustment or update to any service Google provides will affect… well, lots of folks. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. They’re just a really big company.

That’s not intrinsically evil. Google’s sheer size and reach makes certain … unpleasantness pretty much inevitable, but it’s not oppressive. Closing free services in favor of new free ones can’t be evil, right? Come on: their business model of “collect and monetize the personal information of billions of people” is arguably halfway across the Rubicon. Things like killing off beloved RSS reader services pales in comparison, right?

Stream of the Crime

Dear Reader: if, like me, you are slowly coming to terms with the fact that you are Out Of Touch, let’s go over some basics. Firstly, The Kids apparently listen to music on YouTube. A lot. According to one study, a whopping 64% of kids turn first to YouTube when they want to fleek out to some totally bae tunes. (Or not, maybe? We’re about as sure about kids’ habits as I am about their totally fetch vocabulary.)

Disrupted Driving

The future is weird, guys. But not in the “robots will rise up and try to kill people” way.

At some point every car in San Francisco will be an Uber and every citizen, a driver, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when a random stranger walked up to my car, opened the passenger door, and started to take a seat. Actually, it’s really my fault. I pulled over to respond to a text from my wife a few yards from the famous-for-charging-too-much-for-toast coffee shop, The Mill. If you’re a car near The Mill, you’re probably picking up or dropping off a very important startup founder or VC. 

Still it was a bit surprising when a gentleman who was on the phone started to get into my car. Before he actually took a seat, he peered into the vehicle and I asked, “Can I help you?” His response, “Oh shit!” He then quickly closed the door and ran off. I mean ran in the literal sense. He actually ran away from the car. 

It used to be that in order to kidnap anyone, you needed a Lincoln towncar and a markerboard. Uber has disrupted that market.

Caveat Vendor

Recode on Amazon’s pricing strategies, as researched by a company called Boomerang Commerce:

[A]ccording to Boomerang’s analysis, Amazon identifies the most popular products on its site and consistently prices them under the competition. Amazon priced one of the most popular routers on its site about 20 percent below Walmart’s price. But when it came to a much less popular router, Amazon priced it almost 30 percent higher than Walmart did.

But when it comes to the HD cables that customers often buy with a new TV, … Amazon most likely figures (or knows) it can make a profit on these cables because customers won’t price-compare on them as carefully as they would on more expensive products.

“Amazon may not actually be the lowest-priced seller of a particular product in any given season,” the report reads, “but its consistently low prices on the highest-viewed and best-selling items drive a perception among consumers that Amazon has the best prices overall — even better than Walmart.”

This is nothing new. The product which is such a bargain that it gets customers in the store, where they buy things that make the store more money is called a “loss leader.” You sell the big TV at a loss and then also sell other goods at a normal price. (See: every Black Friday Sale ever.)

Crypto’s Weakest Link

The altogether fantastic Sarah Jeong, who is one half of the Five Interesting Articles team, has apparently been moonlighting. By day, she writes a niche IP comedy newsletter, but by night, she’s a regular contributor to Forbes about technology and the law. The sound of an awkward pause goes here.

Today, she writes about the trial of Ross Ulbricht, who has been indicted for a goodly number of federal crimes: conspiracy to traffic in narcotics, engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise, conspiracy to access a computer without authorization (i.e. hacking), and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments (money, guys. Just say money). If convicted of all of these, he could serve the rest of his life in prison, and then another life sentence, and then a twenty-five years sentence.

As Sarah writes, Ulbricht has been accused of being the founder and administrator of the Silk Road, a web site where people bought and sold drugs on the internet until it was shut down by the federal government because duh. Her article starts with the capture of Ulbricht’s laptop, which turns out to be the center of the government’s case against him:

[The FBI’s] orders were to seize the laptop in an open and unencrypted state. The arrest team suspected that the hard drive would become encrypted with a touch of a key or at the moment he shut the laptop. They were right—Ross Ulbricht’s Samsung 700z was secured with TrueCrypt. And by sheer luck, the inter-agency arrest team was able to seize it in its most vulnerable state.

The laptop was a goldmine. It wasn’t just a smoking gun; it was a smoking gun that came wrapped up in a box with fingerprints and photo ID. The computer contained accounting spreadsheets, PGP private keys, the .php files that made up Silk Road, chat logs, and—worst of all, for the defense—a journal.

Sidebar: When was the last time someone used the phrase “PGP private keys” in a puff piece about a trial? This is lovely. No more ‘the cloud is like a hat for your email, which is also like a boat with your passwords’ nonsense. Please please let Sarah Jeong write all the tech stories from now on.

Anyway, Ulbricht’s defense is apparently that, while he technically founded of Silk Road, he retired almost immediately. The real adminstrator, Dread Pirate Roberts, is someone else.

Before we found out that the FBI had a copy of his diary, which contains entries ruminating on the day to day running of Silk Road, that might have been more believable. He also apparently had chat logs for… everything. And scanned copies of his co-conspirators’ drivers licenses. (Yes, really.)

This information was all encrypted, but cryptography is like a fairy tale. The weakest link of Ulbricht’s security protocols were inside him all along.

Ye Olde Mine-hattan

Never count out your local library. Oh, sure, it’s the Information Age, and you have more ready access to more information on your phone than any human has ever had access to ever. It boggles the mind.

But libraries have some tricks up their sleeve. The New York Public Library, for instance, rendered a map of Manhattan in 1860 in the cultural phenomenon Minecraft.

We chose to use this 1860 map of the Fort Washington area of Manhattan, near the Hudson River and modern-day 160th Street. There’s something special about this map: it has contour lines, which give us a picture of how far above the waterline each point on the map is. These lines take the map into the third dimension and make it possible for us to translate it into a meaningful Minecraft world.

Back then, there was very little development in this part of Manhattan, at least as far as I can see on the map. Perhaps New Yorkers were reluctant to settle this far North because of all the giant spiders and creepers.