The trolley problem is a classic thought experiment in ethics, which asks you to imagine a trolley headed toward a track that five people are bound to. If you pull a lever, you can redirect the trolley to another track, where one person is bound. Do you do nothing at all and watch five people die? Or pull the lever, change fate and be personally responsible for the death of one person?
As a continuation to last year’s classic video edit Hell’s Club
Thumbnail image via Wikicommons
Bitcoin is a cipher—literally and figuratively. The crypto-currency conjures a William Gibson–esque panorama of dark web Tor servers, masked figures cavorting in Eastern European shipping containers, multibillion dollar South American cartel-laundering operations, gaunt college sophomores picking up Silk Road designer drugs at liberal arts–school mailboxes, and so forth. It's also an indicator of libertarian Silicon Valley utopianism where everyone pins their identity to the blockchain, eschewing the globalist banking Nanny State and spending the rest of their lives blissfully playing video games on a seasteader colony in international waters.
All this geopolitical intrigue and philosophical gesticulation omits the fact that, in 2016, Bitcoin is a real currency used by normal people. Following last night's episode of Black Market: Dispatches looking at Bitcoin-driven commerce on the dark web, we've interviewed six of those users, most of whom have asked for their identities be kept anonymous. They use bitcoin for buying drugs, selling sex, evading genome-investigation regulations, exploiting supermarket-account hacks, gambling in Las Vegas, and more. Here are some examples of the type of things people use Bitcoin to pay for.
Drugs (and Tesco vouchers)
I've been buying Bitcoin for four years and have used it on a variety of dark-web websites. I buy it legitimately from Bitcoin sellers on authorized sites, run it through a few Bitcoin tumblers, and deposit them on the dark-web site I want to purchase it through. It costs a small percentage of Bitcoin to do this, but I'd rather be safe than sorry. Law enforcement has gotten sharper in recent years—not like how it was four years ago. The process normally takes a few hours, so I start it at the beginning of the day and try to get it through to the dark web market before postage closes.
When I started buying, it was only £3 per bitcoin—I wish I'd invested more at the time, but I didn't. I've used many dark-web sites, from Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0, Sheep Market, Agora, and now Alphabay. Mostly I've been successful—I've been scammed a few times, though, but only for small amounts. I mainly use it to buy drugs because the quality and price is much better than buying from a street dealer. I've bought ecstasy, hash, cocaine, acid, 2cb, mescaline, and opium, but I've also used it to buy cracks for software and £100 worth of Tesco club card vouchers for around £30.
Sex worker advertisements
I manage locations in the sex industry, an industry very reliant on alternative currencies and untraceable forms of payment. For many years, the industry standard for how sex workers paid for advertisements and online services was using prepaid Visa cards that weren't directly linked to their identity. In the past few years, because of a pretty highly publicized battle between backpage.com and Visa/Mastercard (read more here), a lot of sex workers and industry managers have turned to Bitcoin and other alternative currencies. I use Bitcoin to fund accounts that enable me to put up advertisements for the women who work each day. My boss uses a Bitcoin brokerage firm in Brooklyn—he's wealthy enough to do that, but for many people in the sex industry, that isn't possible. Many young, independent sex workers lack the funds, education, and technology to set up Bitcoin for themselves.
I paid $200 to have my genome sequenced by 23andMe, and I was underwhelmed with it. Then I found this website called Promethease—promethease.com—that takes all your genetic data (which, I guess, is a little sketchy) as well as $5 (or the equivalent in Bitcoin); in exchange, you get a zip file with a self-contained web app that presents what associations your single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) have with various diseases/traits. The juicy information was more accessible than at 23andMe, and they can get away with telling you things that are more high stakes—even when the science is still incomplete. For example, there are no 23andMe reports for Parkinson's disease, but on Promethease, I can type in "Parkinson's" and see that I may have a slightly increased risk of developing Parkinson's. I take it all with a grain of salt, though—it'd be silly not to.
I got into Bitcoin around 2010, when the price per coin was still under a dollar, and there was no real infrastructure or institutional investment associated with it. I tinkered around with it and was able to mine an entire block of 50 Bitcoins on my shitty little PC, and I held onto it because I thought it was interesting from tech and political perspectives. Also, pre–Silk Road, there wasn't anything you could use it for besides weed and alpaca socks.
As the price went up, I started spending it. The first thing I bought was a pizza, and then I bought parts to build a computer from a site called bitcoinstore.com., which shows that you can run a store and sell PC parts cheaply for Bitcoin. I bought acid twice from Silk Road, too. These days, I mostly use it as a really volatile savings account, and for gambling money: There's a "Bitcoin ATM" inside the D Casino in downtown Vegas, and anytime I go out there, I pull out a couple hundred bucks and gamble with it.
My boyfriend got his Fake ID taken in the Hamptons last week, so now he's ordering one from a site recommended on Reddit that only accepts Bitcoin payments.
At the height of tomato season, there’s nothing better than fresh tomato sauce. You have a lot of types of tomatoes to choose from, but try cherry tomatoes for the best flavor and the least effort. Here’s why.
The day has finally arrived: You can now zoom into images and videos on Instagram. Previously, the only method to enlarge images was moving the phone closer to your face.
This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
Wednesday is International Overdose Awareness Day. Days like this used to feel weird to me: I spend most of my time working with and loving people who use drugs—providing trainings, working at syringe-access programs, doing street outreach, and fighting against harmful and racist drug war policies. Being around overdose deaths and communities affected by them is the norm. So official awareness days can feel disconnected from my daily struggle.
This isn't to say I don't want people to know about overdose—though perhaps we should more often talk about "drug-related deaths," since many involve combinations of different drugs, rather than too much of one.
I do want people to know.
I want people to know how horrible it is to have lost so many people that you stop dressing nicely for funerals and eventually stop going altogether. By the time I was 21, I had more dead friends than fingers. I stopped being able to tell the difference between suicides and accidental overdoses—I stopped thinking that differentiation mattered. I leaned into the temporary nature of friendships and relationships, celebrating connection hard because it could very well dissolve at any moment.
I often want to scream and cry about overdose, to make people know about how crushing it is—but usually this sentiment is strongest when people I know or am connected to die, or when something in particular makes me remember them.
August 31 isn't always that day.
But there's something to be said about holding space. Time for reflection and collective consciousness can be both beautiful and useful. As I've grown and lost more people, I've learned to value sharing the weight of the world with others, the weight that impacts them and me.
Check out the VICE News special on detox in New Hampshire prison
Recently, a friend reached out when someone her son knew had OD'd. She was having trouble connecting with him about this loss, this very palpable tragedy that rips through the chests of everyone close enough to feel.
Her son didn't want to acknowledge his friend's death as a tragedy, she told me. Instead, he wanted to celebrate him for "dying the way he lived, dying living the life he chose and wanted."
Her heart seemed doubly weighted with the grief her son refused. But while every drug-related death is tragic, there's something to her bereaved son's sentiment that resonates in my torn-open chest.
It's reminiscent of the colossal walls of sound that reverberated through the warehouse shows of my teens and early 20s. So many of my midnights were spent in stolen or borrowed spaces, my eyes too glazed to see that I was on stolen and borrowed time. I often laughed with my friends when we would lock our bikes four-high on fences without remembering the ride. My sweat was as wonderfully toxic as the music we loved. We bathed in sounds born of hopelessness and hurt—of alienation from society outside of those narrow confines.
I have had more privilege than many, but something about a junkie rejection of the state hits close enough for me to understand it, at least in glimmers and fragments. Our capitalist society doesn't create accessible opportunities for pleasure, expression, growth, and connection. It leaves those of us on the bottom, socially or economically, without the agency to create or find the meaning that makes life worth loving sincerely.
Refusing to engage this hatefully violent system on its own terms feels noble, if not alluring. With drugs, those seeking agency or pleasure need only look so far. It's relatively easy to hit a vein, even easier to snort a line—to find bliss, connection, empowerment, life in a world that offers too little of these things.
Early research on addiction offered lab rats the opportunity to self-administer morphine (or sometimes other substances) in the water they drank. These rats' drug use almost always increased to the point of death, solidifying to some the biological inevitability of addiction once substance use begins.
Alexander, noting the rats' glaring isolation as a variable worth exploring, designed a different study. The lab rats were placed in a large cage with toys and tunnels, where they were allowed to be social and have sex. In this experiment, the rats consumed significantly less morphine and never died.
The obvious but vital implication is that drug use does not exist in a vacuum but is heavily influenced by opportunity and environment. Rather than brazenly assuming that addiction is inevitable, we should recognize that our society creates, for many people, an isolated cage.
This, to me, is the site of the deepest pain I feel today.
While each overdose death is its own devastation to those affected, our collective incapacity to create a human equivalent of rat park—denying people agency, pleasure, community, and freedom to the point that they feel the need to reject society in such a harm-associated way—is beyond tragic. There's no amount of candles to hold an appropriate vigil.
On this Overdose Awareness Day, I mourn not only the lives lost but the life lost. So many of those who don't die have wanted other paths that have been denied them. Their isolation is so strong that people may not even realize when they want other opportunities and connections.
Yes, we can and must demand every kind of real help and human kindness and harm-reduction intervention. But without deeper structural change, this is a superficial kind of comfort. As deeply committed as I am to harm-reduction practice, it is not in and of itself a cure.
A junkie rejection of the state may be deeply resonant, but it is only beautiful if we accept that this heinous capitalist society is the only possible society. This is not a conclusion I assent to. I believe we can do better. We need to do better.
People are dying and have been for a long time—long before white kids in the suburbs started dying and people recognized the "opioid epidemic." Relegating people to the margins will have that effect.
I hope that today you are aware, that you mourn, that you do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself in the face of intractable loss.
But more than show awareness, let's do the work to dismantle a broken system and build a better one. Let's take action. Let's recognize harm reduction as resistance to the social and economic structures that produce the harm in the first place. Let's expand our conception of harm reduction to include struggling to change the system so that it allows for human growth, opportunity, meaning, and agency.
Let's take today to grieve, but tomorrow, let's come back and fight.
Soma Navidson studies and works in healthcare. She's rooted in harm reduction and primarily focuses on housing justice, prison abolition, queer and trans liberation, and fighting the drug war. Some of her thoughts on nursing and the medical-industrial complex can be found at her blog: nursingroar.tumblr.com.
All photos courtesy of Invincible Pictures
Kevin Smith knows exactly where he wants to die: the Riverview Medical Center in Red Bank, New Jersey. It's where the veteran filmmaker was born, where his mother recently spent time for a minor illness (she's fine now), and it's in the town where he grew up—where his comic-book shop Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash (the staging ground for Smith's AMC reality show Comic Book Men) is located, and where the current Los Angeles resident sometimes wishes he could spend the rest of his life.
"If I'm lucky, I'll get one of those old-person illnesses where it takes a while to take you out or something—then I can go to Red Bank, so I can die in the same hospital I was born in," he says while reclining on a cushy leather couch in a conference room in his New York publicist's office. "That would be intense, dude!" A phone starts ringing, and Smith exasperatedly rises from his position to hang it up before flopping facedown on the couch with his chin resting on the armrest—a position he stays in for the remainder of our interview. Today he's decked out in a backward baseball cap, a hockey jersey styled with the logo for comic-book hero the Flash, jean shorts, and scuffed New Balances—the closest thing to what you could call a uniform for the indefatigable indie filmmaker.
Uniforms—and, by extension, the costumes superheroes don both when they're saving the world and when they're trying to hide their identities—play a role in Smith's 12th feature film, Yoga Hosers. A spin-off of 2014's horror-comedy Tusk and the second installment in his Canada-focused "True North" trilogy, Yoga Hosers concerns two yoga-obsessed teenage convenience store employees who tangle with murderous satanic paramours, cryogenically frozen Nazis, and pint-size Hitler-resembling bratwursts ("Bratzis," as the film calls them). Yoga Hosers is a sensory overload of silly puns, Harry Styles jokes, digitized social-media imagery, spilled maple syrup, and creature-feature oddities that come together to form a movie that feels explicitly comic book-y, even without any connection to an existing franchise. By the end of the film, the convenience-store uniforms donned by heroines the "Colleens" (Lily-Rose Depp and Smith's daughter Harley Quinn) might as well resemble superhero outfits—all they're missing is capes.
Yoga Hosers is good-hearted, knowingly dopey, and cartoonishly violent all at once, a pretty rare combination. This singular-ness may be partly responsible for the somewhat brutal reviews it's gotten since it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, but despite the negative press, Smith seems proud of making a truly unique film. "When I showed it to some of Harley's friends, there was this one boy who was like 'It's not like any other movie I've ever seen—it's not like The Avengers.' I was like, 'That was a successful movie, so no, it will never be like The Avengers.'"
Indeed, one element that Smith's kept intact well into the third decade of his career is his capacity for self-deprecation—a way of kicking against the critical pricks, maybe, but also a capable method of deflection that enables him to continue his impressive working pace. "I've been taking shit for this movie since Sundance," he laughs. "People on Instagram keep saying, 'Just give us Clerks 3!' I get it, that's totally fine. I just want to make the movies I want to see."
VICE: Something that stands out about Yoga Hosers is how feminine-focused the film is. What have you learned about women from raising a daughter?
Kevin Smith: So much more than I knew when I started making movies. The female characters in Clerks were written by a guy who didn't know any other females besides his mom and his sister. All of my characters tended to sound a bit like me, including the female characters. My wife is a hardcore feminist, which bleeds into who I am—and rightfully so. I do feel like my feminine side was always there. Most people say, "You're a girly man," because I've got boobs, but I felt like having a wife and kid really put me in touch with my feminine side. There's no way I would have made this movie had I not met either of those two.
With Yoga Hosers, I couldn't write or direct 15-year-old girls better than they could write and direct themselves, so I turned to them all of the time and said, "What would you guys do? What would you say? How would you feel?" It's easier to leave it up to them, and that's one of the things you to learn—sometimes you have to just let other people take the lead.
You were an early adopter of social media. Taking into account the increase in online harassment towards women, how have you seen discourse on the internet change since you first started using it?
When I jumped out on the net, there were two filmmakers on there—me and Peter Jackson. Peter Jackson got smart and started directing Oscar-winning movies, and I'm still on the internet. So I've watched the slow decline from civility. You just see the free-floating hostility. As far back as 2001, though, people were just merciless—so has it changed that much? It's gotten much less civil and it can be a blood sport for people, but that's always been the case.
There are a few bad apples, but you can't let it spoil the bunch for everybody. This technology allowed a lot of us to find each other. When I was a kid, I didn't know any other people that liked the shit that I liked, so I felt alone. Then the internet happened and I was like, "Oh my God, you love Star Wars too? I thought there was nobody left." It's a wholly good thing. but unfortunately, from time to time, people fuck around with it.
There's two paths in life: creation and destruction. Destruction is easy, but creation requires you give a little bit of yourself and risk something. As long as you understand that going in, you get to make things and feel good at the end of the day. I have a sneaking suspicion if shit never worked out for me, I'd probably be a motherfucker online. So I have an understanding in my head and heart for it. But I also wouldn't ever be that because I wouldn't let myself. You never get anywhere attacking people online.
As a comic-book fan who understands the nature of fandom, how do you reconcile negative reactions to your work with what your understanding of fandom is?
You can't not make shit just because you're not guaranteed success. Some shit is worth doing just for doing—I learned that from Mallrats. It died at the box office, everyone hated it, then ten years later, everyone is like, "Mallrats, I fucking love that movie!" I have experience with making something that the world doesn't fucking dig.
The worst part of making movies, for me, is releasing them theatrically. It leaves you wide open for people to say, "You fucking failed!" Failure is immediate to people. They don't see the long game—or, in my case, the long con, which is, "It might not work for you now, but if you give it a minute, maybe it'll work then." If you're doing something different, you're going through the door first, and the first person through the door is the one who gets shot—so you have to decide if it's worth getting shot. To me, it always is. I look at JJ and think, "Goddamnit, I wish I was like JJ." Everything he does, everyone loves. But I'm Kevin Smith, and I like being Kevin Smith—it fucking rocks!
Yoga Hosers is based in Canada, but you've featured your home state of New Jersey throughout your previous work. What is it about the state that keeps calling you back?
It's credibility! Very few states that have that aura. I think I get a lot of passes for being from New Jersey. It's instantly relatable to people, and it makes you more authentic and real in their eyes. It's a big part of who I am, and I always come back to it. Being from Jersey puts a chip on your shoulder because you grow up next to Manhattan—you always feel like you're living in someone else's shadow. But it gives you a thicker skin and it makes you try harder.
All images captured by author
Among my online circle, Style Savvy: Fashion Forward's release date may as well have been a national holiday. Offering a welcome waypoint between No Man's Sky and the tantalizing promise of fall's packed release schedule, it had quite a few of us tweeting blurry pictures of our 3DS screens at one another, sharing tips, and subtweeting the hell out of our more troublesome fictional customers.
Yet based on some of its release coverage, it would be understandable if someone unfamiliar with Style Savvy got the impression the latest game in the series was socially regressive, if not outright sexist—a gum-popping mall princess sim spitting in the face of Lara Croft and Emily Kaldwin and Evie Frye and the all the badass lady characters we've been fighting tooth and nail to see more of in our games. It's just for little girls who don't know any better yet, the antithesis of everything that a modern, inclusive, enlightened gaming public ought to embrace.
And yet here we are doing just that, because Style Savvy: Fashion Forward is positive, affirming, and fun. It's a good game within a good series, and, just as importantly, it's not good "in spite" of being about fashion. Its subject and its quality are not water and oil.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, people love to look down on the femme. They embrace the notion that behaviors and interests often seen as femme (like fashion and shopping) are shallow and vapid. Even people who strive to be progressive and accepting can get caught up in this way of thinking—hell, I did through much of my childhood and adolescence.
It's the "she's not like the others" school of sexism; the one that says the little girl who chooses the superhero costume is making an objectively better choice than the little girl who chooses the princess costume, ignoring that choice is supposed to be the whole point. In a society where gender roles are constructed and enforced, many of us are pressured from an early age to make our choices based on how we want to be seen (or how others wants us to be seen) rather than on what we like. And we internalize that. Depending on the values of those around us, we learn to put the princess dress on even if we hate it, or refuse it even if we love it, because of what it represents. When considered more broadly across conventional gender lines, things only get more complicated.
You don't have to identify as femme to enjoy fashion, though, and ironically Style Savvy knows this. It makes as much room for tennis shoes as tulle and provides players with the tools to attract the style of clientele they identify with most. But that doesn't change the fact that interest in hair, clothing, and makeup is predominantly seen as a feminine pursuit.
It can be hard to extricate this knee-jerk dismissal of the overtly femme from the history of fashion games, because there've been some bad ones. But here's something I feel absolutely confident in saying: Not a single title in the history of gaming has been bad because it was about fashion. What has made many of these games bad is instead a lack of substance (and not because fashion is itself inherently insubstantial.)
Look at it this way: In a high-quality fantasy RPG, you do a lot more than walk up to a dragon and stab it a few times. Even at the most basic level there are other systems at play beyond this one repeatable interaction—equipment, experience points, skills, story, and so on. Whether we're talking about dragons or dresses, you still need systems, you still need scaffolding, you still need purpose. It's not enough to deliver content if there's nothing meaningful to do with it or to build toward. And just like any other kind of game, fashion games need to respect their audience enough to deliver those things, to provide a purpose, and that's where so many have fallen short.
If you want to see what it looks like when a game fails to respect its audience, then look no further than Barbie Dreamhouse Party, a collection of dry and repetitive mini-games and dress-up based on the "Life in the Dreamhouse Barbie" webseries. Few seemed surprised that the game was a letdown when it was released; after all, it was just another Barbie game.
Except it really shouldn't have been "just another Barbie game". Life in the Dreamhouse itself is the complete opposite of the game it spawned. It's lively and full of personality, deeply self-aware, and notably presents its characters as well-rounded individuals with diverse interests including fashion. They do more than skitter around collecting hidden shoes, changing their outfits, and stammering out jokes about non-fat yogurt as they did in the game. Life in the Dreamhouse is not without its problems, but the fact remains that Barbie Dreamhouse Party felt like a hot pink husk in comparison. It felt soulless, like a check being cashed.
This is certainly part of why Style Savvy has held my interest over the years. It doesn't feel like it sees its subject matter as shallow, so there's no excuse to make a shallow experience out of it. In fact, the series has historically been quite good at letting the player themselves decide just how deep they want to go, providing not just content (see Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer) but also risks, rewards, and just enough momentum in purpose to keep things interesting.
For example, here's how I personally play. Customers typically come to you with a budget, and if you exceed that budget by too much, they'll leave without buying anything—which is bad, because I'm not running some kind of fashion charity over here. I don't look at a budget as a limit so much as a starting point—it's key to remember that budgets are a soft cap. You can safely go a few dollars over just about every time without any risk. So when someone comes in (especially with a big budget), I will always filter my stock by price and pick a few of the more expensive pieces to build their outfit around. I always add a bag. I always add jewelry. I always layer (even if I don't really need to.) If I'm not exactly nine dollars over their budget, I didn't try hard enough.
The mannequin in your shop window, meanwhile, is an excellent place to display your most expensive outfit, because so long as it's well coordinated someone will inevitably pounce on it with no budget massaging required.
Yes, Style Savvy has given me a world in which I am a well-dressed muse to the masses, and I used that position to become a hyper-profitable capitalist monster. Because I could. Because Style Savvy gave me those tools and proper motivation to use them.
Beyond your business strategy, Style Savvy lays out its own complications as well. One of the better additions in Fashion Forward is just how effectively it mimics the pitfalls of customer service. In the hairstyling portion of the game, customers come in to request cuts and colors, usually with something in mind; except they don't always know how to express that—just ask the woman who told me she wanted her hairdo to make her "look just like toothpaste." Some will respond well to direct questions about what they want, while others are indecisive until you instead ask them something a little less pointed, for instance if they have any events coming up or if they're getting into any new hobbies. Just like a new runner may come to you for practical shoes, they may also come to you for practical hair. Through these questions, you can eventually wheedle out what style will make them happiest and (just as importantly) suit their needs. Sometimes they'll still struggle to find the language they want, or just outright forget to tell you something until you're finished, making you redo part of your work to get it right.
I might hate this system if it wasn't so true to life.
It bears mentioning that Fashion Forward has its flaws, many of them are the same flaws the series has always had. But it also encourages a very healthy way of thinking about personal style and accomplishes that in such a blessedly non judgmental way. You want to wear frilly clothes and spikey two-toned hair? Go for it. Blue blush and yellow lips? You do you.
There's a point early on in the game that encapsulates its philosophy rather well, when makeup artist Arabella tries to foist her taste on another character who's come to her for a new look. Arabella tells her client that she would look prettier if she did her makeup a certain way, and after you show her the error of her ways, she tells you, "Everyone should be able to choose how they want to look without being pressured by anyone else." That's the heart of Style Savvy. The point of respecting someone's choice is to respect them regardless of whether or not you personally connect with their choice.
The role of fashion and makeup in our lives is undeniably complicated, and no one should ever feel obliged to conform to something that they don't enjoy or aren't sincerely interested in.
And that goes both ways. Picking up Tomb Raider instead of Style Savvy shouldn't grant me bonus points on some kind of Cool Lady Gamer tally sheet . I'm in this hobby just as much for the rough-and-tumble ass-kickers as I am for the immaculately groomed boutique owners, and I will praise Style Savvy for years to come for giving me games that at least take that inclination seriously.
Follow Janine Hawkins on Twitter.