Later On

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Archive for December 25th, 2015

A good example of institutional blindness in the Silk Road case—fortunately remedied in time

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Nathaniel Popper reports in the NY Times:

Gary L. Alford was running on adrenaline when he arrived for work on a Monday in June 2013, at the Drug Enforcement Administration office in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. A tax investigator, he had spent much of the weekend in the living room of his New Jersey townhouse, scrolling through arcane chat rooms and old blog posts, reading on well after his fiancée had gone to sleep.

The work had given Mr. Alford what he believed was the answer to a mystery that had confounded investigators for nearly two years: the identity of the mastermind behind the online drug bazaar known as Silk Road — a criminal known only by his screen name, Dread Pirate Roberts.

When Mr. Alford showed up for work that Monday, he had a real name and a location. He assumed the news would be greeted with excitement. Instead, he says, he got the brushoff.

He recalls asking the prosecutor on the case, out of frustration, “What about what I said is not compelling?”

Mr. Alford, a young special agent with the Internal Revenue Service assigned to work with the D.E.A., isn’t the first person to feel unappreciated at the office. In his case, though, the information he had was the crucial to solving one of the most vexing criminal cases of the last few years. While Silk Road by mid-2013 had grown into a juggernaut, selling $300,000 in heroin and other illegal goods each day, federal agents hadn’t been able to figure out the most basic detail: the identity of the person running the site.

It ultimately took Mr. Alford, 38, more than three months to gather enough evidence to prevail upon his colleagues to take his suspect seriously. After he convinced them, though, the man he identified, Ross W. Ulbricht, was arrested and Silk Road shuttered. The night of the arrest, Mr. Alford got an email from one of the other special agents at the center of the case: “Congrats Gary, you were right,” it said.

Mr. Alford’s experience, and the lag between his discovery and Mr. Ulbricht’s arrest, were largely left out of the documents and proceedings that led to Mr. Ulbricht’s conviction and life sentence this year.

Previous examinations of the Silk Road investigation have generally focused on the role played by special agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security, who infiltrated the website, arrested important deputies and gathered reams of crucial information, but not enough to find Mr. Ulbricht — until Mr. Alford came along.

The other agencies involved in the investigation declined to comment on Mr. Alford’s work, but several people briefed on the investigation, who were not authorized to speak about it publicly, confirmed the basic outlines of Mr. Alford’s story.

Back in the summer of 2013, it was not hard, even for Mr. Alford, to understand why it took him time win over the others on the case. He had joined the investigation relatively late and was on a team that hadn’t previously found much of value. He also lacked the sophisticated technological experience of colleagues at the F.B.I. On a more personal level, Mr. Alford could come across as overeager.

But Mr. Alford also detected the sort of organizational frictions that have hindered communication between law enforcement agencies in the past. Within the I.R.S., Mr. Alford had heard tales of his agency being ignored and overshadowed by more prominent organizations like the F.B.I. The story that resonated with Mr. Alford most strongly was that of the tax agent Frank J. Wilson, who brought down the gangster Al Capone, but who was forgotten in the movie versions of the investigation, which tended to focus on Eliot Ness, the flashier Bureau of Prohibition agent.

“They don’t write movies about Frank Wilson building the tax case,” Mr. Alford said in an interview at the I.R.S.’s Manhattan headquarters. “That’s just how it is.”

Mr. Alford grew up in the Marlboro public housing projects of Brooklyn in the 1980s, a short, half-black, half-Filipino kid in a tough neighborhood. His father, a math teacher, would cite the power of the subject to teach his son how to prevail over difficulties. “If you get the right answer, the teacher can’t tell you anything,” Mr. Alford remembers his father saying. That attitude led Mr. Alford to study accounting at Baruch College and then to the I.R.S., where his skeptical, lone-wolf approach worked well.

It was Mr. Alford’s supervisors at the I.R.S. who assigned him in February 2013 to a D.E.A. task force working the Silk Road case. The Strike Force, as it was known, had so far had little luck finding meaningful leads. Mr. Alford’s superiors hoped he could bring his youthful energy and doggedness to the project.

Mr. Alford started by chasing down leads on low-level Silk Road vendors selling Bitcoin, but he was too ambitious to keep his attention focused on small-time criminals. Whenever he had a free moment, he would read up on the origins of Silk Road and its nearly mythical leader, Dread Pirate Roberts, who ran the business and espoused his radical free-market ideology on the site’s message boards.

“I’m not high-tech, but I’m like, ‘This isn’t that complicated. This is just some guy behind a computer,’” he recalled saying to himself. “In these technical investigations, people think they are too good to do the stupid old-school stuff. But I’m like, ‘Well, that stuff still works.’ ”

Mr. Alford’s preferred tool was Google. He used the advanced search option to look for material posted within specific date ranges. That brought him, during the last weekend of May 2013, to a chat room posting made just before Silk Road had gone online, in early 2011, by someone with the screen name “altoid.”

“Has anyone seen Silk Road yet?” altoid asked. “It’s kind of like an anonymous Amazon.com.”

The early date of the posting suggested that altoid might have inside knowledge about Silk Road.

During the first weekend of June 2013, Mr. Alford went through everything altoid had written, the online equivalent of sifting through trash cans near the scene of a crime. Mr. Alford eventually turned up a message that altoid had apparently deleted — but that had been preserved in the response of another user.

In that post, altoid asked for some programming help and gave his email address: rossulbricht@gmail.com. Doing a Google search for Ross Ulbricht, Mr. Alford found a young man from Texas who, just like Dread Pirate Roberts, admired the free-market economist Ludwig von Mises and the libertarian politician Ron Paul — the first of many striking parallels Mr. Alford discovered that weekend.

When Mr. Alford took his findings to his supervisors and failed to generate any interest, he initially assumed that other agents had already found Mr. Ulbricht and ruled him out.

But he continued accumulating evidence, which emboldened Mr. Alford to put Mr. Ulbricht’s name on the D.E.A. database of potential suspects, next to the aliases altoid and Dread Pirate Roberts.

At the same time, though, Mr. Alford realized that he was not being told by the prosecutors about other significant developments in the case — a reminder, to Mr. Alford, of the lower status that the I.R.S. had in the eyes of other agencies. And when Mr. Alford tried to get more resources to track down Mr. Ulbricht, he wasn’t able to get the surveillance and the subpoenas he wanted.

Mr. Alford said the Manhattan federal prosecutor overseeing the investigation, Serrin Turner, seemed to want to find Dread Pirate Roberts more than anyone. But Mr. Alford said that Mr. Turner was working with multiple agencies on the case and did not seem to put much weight in the evidence that Mr. Alford was finding — leading to heated conversations.

“I’m not saying I’m right; we just need to look into this guy fully,” Mr. Alford remembers telling Mr. Turner.

A spokesman for the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, where Mr. Turner works, declined to comment.

When Mr. Alford visited the main F.B.I. team on the case, later in the summer, it became clear that the team wasn’t aware of Mr. Ulbricht as a suspect — and also had no serious candidates of their own. Mr. Alford mentioned that he had a suspect in San Francisco, but no one followed up.

One of the other agents present for that meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he and the others in the room had little reason to ask for further information from Mr. Alford, given the lack of progress made by the D.E.A. Strike Force to which he was assigned. “No one was taking them seriously,” the agent said. “I obviously wished we had asked more.”

When Mr. Alford went back to the D.E.A. office in Chelsea and complained about the meeting, a fellow I.R.S. agent in the group suggested it was time for Mr. Alford to give it up. “You’ve told them what you know. They didn’t do anything,” the agent told him, according to a person briefed on the conversation. “Forget it.”

Instead, . . .

Continue reading.

It’s not stupidity that makes people refuse to consider possibilities. Organizational deference plays into it, plus a strong sense of loyalty to one’s own organization that makes it easy to reject suggestions from those outside the organization. But surely the existing organizational habits and loyalties and blindspots are  frustrating and counter-productive.

Written by Leisureguy

25 December 2015 at 5:59 pm

Dinner report

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The Whole Roasted NY Strip Loin is superb: very tasty, very easy to carve, and altogether wonderful, albeit I did not cook it as described at the link but rather used this method. After the roast rested out of the oven for 10 minutes, tented with foil, I returned it to the oven for 6 minutes of high-temperature (500ºF) browning, and next time think I will go with 8 minutes or even 10.

One important note: the (bad science) anti-fat crusade has made butchers gun-shy of allowing fat on meat. I suggest you specify at least 1/4″ of fat over the top of the roast, and put that in writing. I specified it, did not put it in writing, and got a roast with minimal fat—and the fat is important for tenderness and flavor.

The horseradish sauce in the first link is excellent. Due to corporate desires for greater profit, the 8-oz containers of creme fraîche are now 7 ounces, but I added 1 oz (=2 Tbsp) of sour cream to get the full amount. I used fresh horseradish, peeled and grated, which is much more delicate that horseradish in a jar. I did use the full 3 Tbsp of freshly grated horseradish and could even have done 4. I used English mustard rather than Dijon mustard, but either would work: the mustard is but an accent. The recipe calls for “pepper,” and I used white pepper (1/4-1/2 tsp) rather than grinding black pepper, since I didn’t want black specks in the sauce. I used an equal amount of kosher salt.

The greens—actually, the “reds”: red kale and red chard—were excellent, prepared according to this recipe except that I cooked the greens covered for 15 minutes after adding the wine before boiling off the wine.

A nice Pinot Noir, and later this evening we’ll have authentic plum pudding (no plums, and “pudding” in this case is the British word for “dessert”) with brandy butter.

Altogether a very nice Xmas feast with a fair amount of roast left over for sandwiches and the like, along with about half the horseradish sauce.

I hope your own holidays have been merry and joyous, and I give you my best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year.

Written by Leisureguy

25 December 2015 at 5:32 pm

Ayahuasca: a Possible Cure for Alcoholism and Depression

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A very interesting article by Pablo Noguiera in Motherboard:

Jorge* is around 60 years old, works a white collar job, has gray hair, married children, and grown grandchildren. People who work with him would never imagine that he participates in religious rituals using a mind altering tea.

And yet, thanks to ayahuasca, Jorge became a teetotaler. A big change for someone who, when he was younger, would buy several cases of whiskey at once. “I opened the boxes and started emptying the bottles in the kitchen sink. My wife was shocked,” he told me.

He’s not the only alcoholic to renounce booze after an experience with the mystical drink. In 2010, after a decade of failed treatments, Robert Rhatigan took a trip to the Peruvian Amazon, where he participated in four rituals conducted by a shaman. During a speech at a TEDx event, he recounted how he “saw” the “several components from his mind floating in space, as if they were pieces of a puzzle” while under the effects of ayahuasca. The experience lasted two hours and included hymns sung by the shaman and severe purging sessions. By the end of the ceremony, he “saw” the pieces returning to his head. The one that corresponded to his alcohol addiction no longer fit in. There he knew that he was cured. “My transformation is something far from understood in Western medicine,” he says.

There are some hospitals, universities, and research institutes in the West and around the world that are experimenting with powerful psychoactive substances, such as psilocybin, ibogaine and even LSD are being analyzed in hospitals and research institutes all around the world.

“Regarding ayahuasca studies, Brazil is at the forefront of research,” said Luis Fernando Tófoli, professor of the medical psychology and psychiatry department of Unicamp and coordinator of the Laboratory of Interdisciplinary Studies of psychoactive drugs, in Portuguese.

This year, a study conducted by Brazilian researchers was published in Nature. The piece examined the effects of the drink on two men and four women who showed symptoms of depression, ranging from moderate to severe. The participants consumed ayahuasca only once in doses that ranged between 120ml to 200ml prepared by a church of Santo Daime. They then had their mental health monitored through three questionnaires repeated eight times, the first one 40 minutes after intake and the last one three weeks later.

The results showed that . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 December 2015 at 12:54 pm

No Depression in Heaven

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This is, via Salon, an excerpt from the book No Depression in Heaven: The Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Transformation of Religion in the Delta, by Allison Collis Greene, Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University:

My grandmother washed out used paper towels and hung them on the clothesline to use again. She spent painstaking hours piecing quilts of mismatched and worn-out fabric scraps or odds and ends from the knitting mill where she worked because she could not fathom buying new material. “We didn’t know we was poor,” Grandma said nearly every time she told us a story about her childhood. It was not a boast. It was an apology: an apology because she had to quit school after sixth grade and never again felt smart; an apology because she spoke in a mountain accent so thick that my friends from college scarcely understood her; an apology because she was a child of the Great Depression. Those words also acknowledged the still deeper poverty that Grandma knew surrounded her, the real and urgent need for outside help as hunger and despair crept into households once happy and humming. By the twenty-first century, the depression generation would become the Greatest Generation, idealized in the popular consciousness as plucky, selfless, and self-sufficient. They grew their own food. They went to church every Sunday. They helped their neighbors. They defeated Hitler. Maybe they suffered some deprivation during the Great Depression, but that just taught them the value of saving and thrift. “We didn’t know we was poor,” or some variation of it, became a common phrase, a badge of honor that set the Greatest Generation apart from their spoiled offspring, who turned to the government instead of one another when things got rough.

This rendering of history erases one of the most traumatic episodes of twentieth-century American life and turns it instead into a morality tale about the value of family and community. There is no room in Great Depression nostalgia for parents forced to abandon their children to orphanages because they would otherwise starve, for communities fractured as their residents fled in the vain hope that any place had to be better than where they were, or for evicted farmers forced out of their homes onto frozen soil. That sanitized narrative of the depression erases the voiced suffering of millions, the murmurs of revolution that swept Franklin Roosevelt into office. That is, in the end, the point of it.

This book tells a story that the myth of the redemptive depression obscures. There is truth in the myth, of course: members of families and communities indeed turned to one another in their hardship, and many also turned to their churches for solace, for support, for meaning. Yet that turning together revealed only the inadequacy of families, communities, and churches full of poor people to aid one another in their time of mutual distress. The Great Depression gave lie to the toxic notion that responsibility for poverty lies with the poor rather than with systems of oppression that make a mockery of the American dream. Members of families, communities, and churches turned to one another, and then they turned together to demand more of their political system, more of their federal government. The greatest power of the Greatest Generation was their collective acknowledgment that they could not go it alone.Nowhere was this transformation more dramatic than in the South. For a moment, the southern Protestant establishment faced the suffering that plantation capitalism pushed behind its public image of planters’ hats and hoopskirts and mountains of pure white cotton. When starving white farmers marched into an Arkansas town to demand food for their dying children, when priests turned away hungry widows and orphans because they were no needier than anyone else, and when visitors claimed that moonshiners did as much as churches to feed the hungry, southern clergy of both races spoke with almost one voice to say that they had done all they could. Their churches and their charities were broke. It was time for a higher power to intervene. They looked to God, and then they looked to Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt promised a new deal for the “forgotten man,” Americans cheered, and when he took office, the churches and private agencies gratefully turned much of the responsibility for welfare and social reform over to the state. Yet Roosevelt’s New Deal threatened plantation capitalism even as it bent to it. Black southern churches worked to secure benefits for their own community members, while white churches divided over their loyalties to Roosevelt and Jim Crow. Frustrated by their failure to alleviate the depression and split over the New Deal, leaders in the major white Protestant denominations surrendered their moral authority in the South and then blamed the federal government for its loss.

The Great Depression revealed the inability of American religious institutions to care for the needy in the midst of crisis, and it opened new opportunities for the state to take on the burden instead. From the poorest sharecropper in Arkansas to the wealthiest philanthropist in New York, depression-era Americans re-envisioned the relationship between church and state and re-evaluated the responsibilities of each for the welfare of the nation and its people. Yet the Great Depression was a profoundly local experience that affected each region of the nation and its residents in distinct ways.

In Memphis and the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, economic crisis compounded an ongoing agricultural depression and coincided with a devastating drought. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

25 December 2015 at 12:33 pm

Comparing Otoko Organics old with Otoko Organics new

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SOTD 25 Dec 2015

Another shaving soap comparison: the soap on the left is the Otoko Organics I’ve been using, the soap on the right (with the black stripe marked) is a tub that These Men Are Professionals sent to me for testing and comparison, to see whether the formulation may have changed as an explanation for why some using the new soap have trouble getting a good and stable lather.

I first noticed that the new tub seems somewhat lighter in color, but I believe that the age of my tub might account for the darker color, or maybe there’s batch to batch variation.

I noted that a little excess water hampers loading noticeably with this soap, and using a synthetic brush can easily result in too much water: the bristles absorb none, so the brush does require a good shake. If the brush is not too wet, though, the soap lathers easily for me. I do note that I use a firm pressure to do this, and the brushing speed is quite brisk.

Both soaps, old and new, performed well. I’ll try some more shaves with the new, but my impression now is that the formulation has stayed the same, and that’s also the information we get from the maker.

As you see, I used a Gillette NEW for the shave and got a fine result. One tiny nick in the XTG pass on the upper lip was easily shut down with My Nik Is Sealed.

A squirt of Esbjerg sensitive skin aftershave gel finished the job. I like the stuff, but the dispenser pump squirts out way too much unless you’re extremely careful. They need to recalibrate that pump—and I need to remember to be cautious with this one.

I have been using the Moroccan Mint shampoo bar from Mickey Lee Soapworks, and I do like the job it does. His shampoo bar is available in other fragrances as well.

Written by Leisureguy

25 December 2015 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Shaving

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