the candler blog

Review: Deep Web Tries to Unravel the Mystery of Silk Road

Movies, Reviews

The title of actor and director Alex Winter’s engrossing new documentary, Deep Web, contains multitudes. It primarily refers to a place, that obscure no-man’s-land on the Internet that goes unseen by the majority of users. It also alludes to another, more literary meaning. In traditional true crime reportage, if you pull the thread, the truth will unravel. Not so in this tale, though. When you pull the thread you just find more thread; a deep web that goes on forever.

The film, which I saw at this year’s SXSW, follows the story of Silk Road, a notorious underground marketplace for drugs and illicit goods that was shut down in 2013 after raids by multiple federal agencies. The site existed in the “dark net,” part of the “deep web” that goes unseen by the vast majority of connected users. Think of the Internet as an iceberg. Part of it sits just above water, visible to all. This is where we shop and download music, chat with friends, and read blogs. Below the surface, though, is an expanse exponentially greater in size and almost unfathomably, well, deep. It’s a place where everything from Oxycodon to rocket launchers can be purchased anonymously. When you connect to the dark net, there is nothing that ties you to an IP address; you have no identity, no nation. It is in this notorious pocket of the unseen Internet that the film takes place.

The Silk Road was something of an online Souk, a cacophonous nook of the world where nothing was above haggling, and where almost every drug imaginable could be purchased as easily as ordering paper towels off Amazon. Marijuana, cocaine, heroine; all could be ordered anonymously from the comforts of home, with a package arriving inconspicuously a few days later. The site relied on Bitcoin, the popular cryptocurrency that allows for anonymized transactions (if you’re careful). Since Bitcoin, like Silk Road, is nationless, it acts like an invisible dollar, keeping every aspect of the sales on the site undetected.

According to the Silk Road sellers interviewed anonymously for Deep Web, the site was also a community built around libertarian ideals. The idea was to make the sale and purchase of illicit items so dead simple, there would be no need for turf wars. Some on the site believed they could end the drug war by taking violence out of the equation completely. Perhaps the most illuminating point on the topic, featured in the film, comes from a 2012 episode of the Julian Assange Show, a roundtable discussion web series on RT that ran throughout that year. The episode featured noted “cypherpunks,” or cryptographic activists, including Tor developer Jacob Appelbaum, who says this:

Force of authority is derived from violence. One must acknowledge with cryptography, no amount of violence will ever solve a math problem.

In other words, since you can’t break down the door of an algorithm, violence is suddenly removed from the equation. The users of Silk Road were looking to do an end run around the drug war. In hindsight they proved unable to avoid that “force of authority” Appelbaum refers to. The government caught up with them.

Which brings us to Ross Ulbricht, the 30 year old whose current legal predicament lies at the heart of Deep Web. Earlier this year, Ulbricht was convicted of being a “digital kingpin” for running Silk Road under the pseudonym Dread Pirate Roberts, or “DPR,” the protagonist from William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. Just as in the book and popular film, “Dread Pirate Roberts,” is a title, not a name, belonging to whoever holds the position at present. Even though Ulbricht has been convicted, questions still loom over his exact role in Silk Road, and whether or not he was, in fact, the DPR. According to one Silk Road seller interviewed in the film, the DPR account, like the literary anti-hero, did not represent a single person. It was passed down from user to user, and was maintained by multiple people as well. So was Ulbricht the kingpin, or merely the fall guy?

The film offers no real answers because there are still so many murky details about Silk Road. To cite just one glaring example, there’s the issue of a federal agent who infiltrated the site using the name “nob.” Nob not only communicated with whoever was running the DPR account, he was supposedly contracted by DPR to commit murder for hire. Whenever DPR asked an enemy to be rubbed out, the federal agent would send photos of a staged murder. Ulbricht was pilloried in the press when his arrest was made public for this. Not only was he accused of being the head of a massive, international drug enterprise, but he was supposedly behind brutal, mob-like murders, even though the murders never actually occurred. In fact, when federal prosecutors brought their case against Ulbricht, no murder-for-hire charges were brought against him. Ulbricht’s defenders believe this was a calculated ploy to allow him to be found guilty in the eyes of the public before bringing charges against him.

In late March, an even stranger twist in the tale of Silk Road was revealed. Nob, the federal agent who staged the murders, was actually a DEA agent named Carl Mark Force IV. Force, who, along with Secret Service agent Shaun W. Bridges, deposited bitcoins extracted from Silk Road in the course of the investigation into his own personal account. The agents used the anonymized nature of their investigation to their advantage, keeping encrypted conversations and transactions from their superiors.

The version of Deep Web that EPIX will air this weekend will have an end title briefly explaining the stunning turn of events regarding Force and the federal corruption that came to light only after Ulbricht’s convition. The card will likely change further as Ulbricht recieved his sentence today: life in prison.

Deep Web raises more questions than answers, not just about Silk Road and Ulbricht, but about what is fast becoming one of the defining struggles of our times. Are we prepared for the crypto-revolution? When everything is encrypted and anonymous, what rule of law is there? As more and more of our lives become digital, what scrutiny, government or otherwise, are we opening ourselves up to?

The technology that allowed Silk Road to operate so successfully also enabled corrupt government agents to extort money for personal gain. In our digital future, who are the good guys? Winter’s film exposes us to the idea that it’s getting increasingly hard to tell.


Deep Web premieres on EPIX this Sunday, May 31st, at 8:00pm EDT.

The 56 Films that Opened in New York This Year Without a Review in The New York Times

Movies

Media folks whipped themselves into a tizzy yesterday over news that The New York Times is no longer reviewing every single film that opens in New York City. Variety broke the story like it was the Pentagon Papers, but the grey lady’s co-chief film critic A.O. Scott took to Twitter (and an interview with Indiewire) to throw cold water on the idea that this was any sort of scandal.

As the paper of record, editorial changes at the Times may certainly reverberate throughout the industry. I’m not sure this change is quite the “blow to independent, documentary films” The Wrap is making it out to be, but it certainly is a change.

I got to wondering which films that have opened in New York City this year have not recieved a Times review. So I set to work (with the help of my pal Clint Bishop, whose programming skills probably saved me 100 hours of copy/pasting) figuring it out.

We took Mike D’Angelo’s invaluable “New York City 2015 Commercial Releases” list and fed all of the titles into Metacritic, looking for links to Times reviews. From there, we took the remaining titles and manually searched for reviews.1 I checked IMDb for alternate titles and fed those into the search as well to see if something was lost in translation.

I should note that this methodology is not perfect. We did not check every single reviewed film that the Metacritic script spit back out at us. Also it doesn’t account for certain inconsitincies, such as three films by Ruben Östlund, The Guitar Mongoloid, Involuntary and Play, recieving a single omnibus review.2 However I’m confident that the films listed below did not, in fact, recieve a review. I’ve got the browser history to back that up.

I want to clarify one more point. D’Angelo’s master list does not, to my knowledge, adhere to the same standards that the Times’ editors do. I may well be subtracting apples from oranges here. Some of the films listed below may have had a theatrical run but would never have recieved a Times review in any year. But it’s my best guess for now.

In the end, 56 out of 380 titles released in New York City were not reviewed in The New York Times from January 1 to May 22.3 The majority of those titles, 24, are American. The next largest grouping, 10 films, are from India.

I haven’t seen a single one of these films so I can’t really speak to any common threads. For the most part they look exactly like the sort of titles Scott mentioned in his Indiewire interview: “obvious four-walls, vanity releases and movies that would have been straight-to-video releases in the past.”

So here they are, the 56 films that opened in New York without a review in The New York Times.

Image from Accidental Love.

  1. site:nytimes.com is a very helpful prefix for these sorts of searches.

  2. These films are each counted separately for my total film release count.

  3. I exempted 5 shorts compilations released in New York City: Sundance Film Festival Animated Shorts; 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animation, Documentary and Live-Action Shorts; and Remarkable Shades of Gay

Fountain in Ulysses

Fountain, Screenwriting

Jennifer Mack figured out how to use Fountain in Ulysses:

Sadly, Ulysses doesn’t speak fountain as one of its markup styles. But I found a way to fake it.

I wouldn’t recommend Mack’s “Fake Fountain” to anyone new to the syntax. It’s a complete customization and will require a lot of tweaking to go from Ulysses to any other tool that recognizes Fountain. Markup for character names and parentheticals will need to be removed, for example. Through Mack’s custom PDF style, however, you can export a formatted screenplay right from Ulysses.

Since I do almost all of my writing in Ulysses, her point later in her explanation is well taken:

Why bother when I could just use another app like Slugline or Highland? Because I like writing my first drafts in Ulysses and having those drafts in the its document library.[sic] Also users of Ulysses for iPad might find this useful.

The point of Fountain has always been to bring screenwriting into any app. I wish Ulysses had support for Fountain that didn’t require a custom syntax to force it, but it’s nice to know it’s possible.

One note Mack doesn’t mention in her piece. After you create the Fake Fountain markup (or whatever you choose to call it) in Ulysses, you will need to change the document’s markup to recognize the new syntax. To do so, once you’re in a new sheet, go to Edit > Convert Markup > Fake Fountain. From then on all new sheets will have the Fake Fountain markup, so you’ll need to do this again to get back to Markdown, Markdown XL or your preferred syntax.

If you’re a Ulysses user, by the way, I found Mack’s markup through the excellent Ulysses blog. The team at The Soulmen have done a great job of building a community around their app.

Ambition, Risk and Failure on Kickstarter

Crowdfunding

James Grimmelmann’s excellent, brief “Riskstarter” needs to be bookmarked and revisited regularly:

Kickstarter specializes in creative projects, but creative projects are inherently risky. They are risky in an artistic sense: creativity is an uncertain and unpredictable process. They are risky in a transactional sense: you never know how good a book is going to be until you’ve read it. And they are risky in a financial sense: they take investments that may never be recouped by anyone.

The impetus for Grimmelmann’s piece is last weekend’s New York Times Magazine article on the failed ZPM espresso machine. Crowdfunding continues to be something that delights, inspires and confounds people. What’s wonderful about this piece is that it casts Kickstarter and the like in creative, not capitalist, terms. Contributing to a campaign is not an investment in the traditional sense. You don’t own a portion of whatever it is you’re trying to help get off the ground. You contribute because you think the world might be a little better if this movie, book, album or iPhone case were in it. That’s the proposition.

Still, things get hairy whenever money changes hands, and the ZPM story sounds awful for all parties, but Grimmelman’s final point is his best:

If Kickstarters never failed, it would mean that creators weren’t being ambitious enough.

Exactly.

(via Jason Kottke.)

James Burrows on Bullseye

Television

James Burrows isn’t a household name, but his work sure is. His groundbreaking direction on Cheers (which he co-created with Les and Glen Charles) set the tone for most of the successful sitcoms of the 80s and 90s. To this day his fingerprints are all over pretty much any three-camera television show.

Jesse Thorn interviewed Burrows on this week’s Bullseye and it’s just a phenomenal listen. He’s quite modest about his work, but also very exacting about what it is that sets him apart.

Here is my favorite part, from around 22:30. Burrows is discussing his work on Taxi (he directed seventy-five episodes).

You had Judd [Hirsch] who had his mind on a hundred other things, which is how Judd works. We called him “the piddler,” because he was always thinking about stuff. But when he got…when the show was on, he was unbelievable. He and Teddy Danson are two of the greatest centers you’ve ever seen in a show.

Judd, you know, didn’t have a lot of funny stuff on Taxi but his facial reactions when he was dealing with the weirdos are unbelievable. You could always cut to him. And the same with Ted.

That precise knowledge about one actor’s face is what sets Burrows apart. Go give the whole episode a listen.

Obama on Letterman and What I’ll Miss in Late Night Television

Television

A little over two weeks ago, Conan staff writer Andrés du Bouchet got himself in a bit of trouble by whining about the state of late night comedy on Twitter. Since deleted, here’s what the tweets amounted to:

Comedy in 2015 needs a severe motherfucking shakeup. No celebrities, no parodies, no pranks, no mash-ups or hashtag wars. I’m fat. … and shove your lip-synching up your ass.

Prom King Comedy. That’s what I call all this shit. You’ve let the popular kids appropriate the very art form that helped you deal. Fuck. None of the funniest stuff ever involved celebrity cameos.

The tweets were in poor taste, but they struck a chord with me. The target of the criticism was surely Jimmy Fallon, but Jimmy Kimmel seems just as guilty. I don’t think it’s fair to necessarily call either host “the popular kids,” but “Prom King Comedy” rings true. Which is to say not really comedy at all, just dress up skits.

I can’t watch Fallon’s Tonight Show because I simply have no interest in the snackable, made-for-YouTube look-at-what-I-can-do bits. His show may be fun, but I don’t find it funny and, generally speaking, I wouldn’t really call it a comedy show. The sketches feel like a crutch, propping up the host to keep him from interviewing guests.

The Tonight Show today is wildly popular, and I don’t begrudge anyone for enjoying it before bed (or, more likely and by design, at work the next day). But to me it’s not a late night talk show. It’s a different thing than what I grew up with; a different thing than what I want in the evenings. And that’s fine. Perhaps the comedy talk show is done for. Maybe we’ve moved on from a format that worked for decades to something else.

Which brings me to David Letterman interviewing Barack Obama last night. Letterman, the elder statesman of late night television, is closing in on his final show. He’s stacking the deck with high profile guests and longtime friends on each outing. Having the President come on seems appropriate for the occasion.

It has been common for politicians to stop in on comedy shows for decades now to show off their softer side. These shows appeal to a younger, often-times not-politically minded crowd. The hosts are often friendly and welcoming in a way that makes it easy to get your agenda out in front of the public. Plus you get to be funny and appear soft and relatable. Everyone wins.

But it’s always been different with Letterman. He is a brilliant comedian, but an even better broadcaster. He has an extra muscle that allows him to know what makes great television, and he’s never been afraid to use those skills in front of the camera. On Letterman’s stage, no guest, no matter how powerful can outsmart him.

Perhaps the most famous example of Letterman’s broadcasting (and, arguably, political) prowess occurred on September 24, 2008, when John McCain, then deep in his failed campaign for president, canceled a Late Show appearance so he could go back to Washington to work on the faltering economy. Letterman’s response was to tear into the presidential hopeful. His master stroke was broadcasting the CBS News live feed of McCain, still in New York at the time of the taping, getting his makeup put on in preparation for an interview with Katie Couric. As Bill Carter puts it in his excellent The War for Late Night:

The event became part of the news cycle in the race. McCain had stiffed Letterman, and Dave made him pay. He got more licks in on McCain for several nights after, and McCain ultimately had to make a date in his otherwise packed calendar to return to New York (a state he was hardly going to win) on October 16 to formally seek Dave’s pardon.

It’s hard to think of any other late night host, past or present, who could have pulled off such a stunt. McCain went head-to-head with Letterman and lost. Today we think of our television personalities, even many of our news anchors, as lightweights, fluffy sounding-boards against which any candidate, analyst or celebrity can speak rehearsed talking points. That’s never been Letterman.

His interview with Obama last night certainly wasn’t hard hitting. The President rolled out a few obviously scripted zingers and Letterman tried to lighten the mood. But for the most part the conversation was deeply serious. They discussed poverty, race relations, policing, riots and how to help disabled veterans when they come home.

Where Letterman is a deft broadcaster, Obama is a staunch politician. And so almost none of what comes out of his mouth is off the cuff. Yet there is something so refreshing about seeing him asked about specific, major issues of the day.

Letterman is so good at getting to the heart of big questions, the conversation seemed like it could go in any direction. I wondered while watching, for example, if Letterman might ask the president to explain his sweeping drone strike strategy. Only a week and a half ago a contrite Obama admitted to the accidental killing of American and Italian hostages. Though Letterman didn’t go there, he could have, and he could have done it in a way that no other broadcaster today could.

And that’s what I’m going to miss when he’s off the air. Letterman holds court in the Ed Sullivan theater. He can mete out truth from his guests while keeping them comfortable enough to have a few laughs. That mix of off-the-wall comedy (earlier in the show Will Ferrell reprised his SNL Harry Caray impersonation from the audience) and plainspoken talk show is what makes late night television such a fertile and interesting space.

All of that is a long-winded explanation not only of why I’ll miss Letterman, but, ultimately, why I don’t like Fallon’s Tonight Show and its ilk. As Obama explained to his questioner the state of race relations in our country today, I turned to my girlfriend and asked if she could ever imagine Fallon doing an interview like this. She laughed.

“No way. They’d be playing the dunce game by now,” referring to a trivia sketch that ends when either the guest or Fallon, each in a pointy dunce cap, pops a water balloon positioned over his or her head. Fun, but funny?

There is room for so many types of shows and hosts, but I hope that we don’t lose the format that has been a cornerstone of American broadcasting for so long. As the powerful get savvier, so too must our interviewers find ways to break down the barriers to honest conversation. Letterman is the best at it. Hopefully soon someone else will be.1

  1. I actually think Stephen Colbert, Letterman’s successor, is great at precisely this type of interview. His learning curve on CBS will be whether or not he can be likable up against the likes of Fallon, whose populism, I don’t know if I’ve made clear, has clouded his ability to be much more than friendly face.

Where I Fit on the Web

Writing

The web is such a different place today than it was when I first started publishing a blog in 2006. It’s bigger and, honestly, dumber. Social ate websites, and BuzzFeed ate everything else. Sometimes I have trouble figuring out where I fit in. But I know I do fit in.

I’ve been fairly quiet around these parts because I get stopped up for the silliest reasons. I wonder if anyone is listening anymore. Worse, I wonder how I can break through the clogged arteries of the web. If something seems unlikely to hit, I back off and wait for the next inspiration to come.

I don’t know how long the candler blog will last, but here’s what I do know.

This website has given me a small side-career as a writer. I’ve interviewed some extremely interesting people, covered film festivals and forged relationships with people all over the world I never would have had access to if not for the words I’ve written here over the years. That’s not something I can give up easily.

Not to sound too out of touch, but I find many of the biggest trends in media to be passing fads. I don’t know if Facebook will make sense in 20 years. I don’t think nostalgic quizzes and listicles will have value in the long run. That doesn’t mean they are without value today, but I don’t think it’s wise to hitch one’s wagon to something that doesn’t look like it will last. This, by the way, is why I’m so reticent to give my words over to Medium. Maybe it’s because I’m old enough to remember the last dot-com bust, but the party can’t last forever.

My own website is a simple proposition. Here’s a space where I can put out the best writing I’m capable of. I own every pixel here. That concept will never go out of fashion, even if it fades from the limelight.

I honestly don’t know whether or not there will always be a Google or a Facebook to help readers find me. I do know that I’m in control of whether or not there’s a candler blog.

So I guess I fit in right here. Thanks for reading.

Craft Beer Line-Ups at All 30 MLB Stadiums

Baseball, Beer, Link

Khushbu Shah and Cynthia Correa have done yeoman’s work over at Eater:

Nothing pairs better with crazy, over-the-top stadium snacks than an ice-cold beer while watching baseball on a hot summer day. Luckily, fans are no longer stuck forking over an arm and a leg for awful, run-of-the-mill beers. Instead, many stadiums have stepped up their craft beer line-ups, and are often sourcing brews from local breweries.

Philadelphia needs to up its game.1 I went to a game at the Twins’s Target Field last year and enjoyed quite a few local brews. Shocked to see they have more on offer than Colorado’s Coors Field.

Anyway, play ball and drink up.

  1. Both in beer and in actually, you know, hitting and pitching.