Interview with Nick Bilton, author of new book about The Silk Road, American Kingpin

In this week's Cool Tools Show podcast, Kevin Kelly and I interviewed Nick Bilton. Nick is a Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair and author of three books, including Hatching Twitter and his latest, American Kingpin, which chronicles the rise and fall of the Silk Road and the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Here's a bit from the interview:

Mark: I feel, in a lot of ways, the story of the Dread Pirate Roberts, aka Ross Ulbricht, is kind of like Breaking Bad.

Nick: Yeah, it's a kid who was the sweetest, nicest kid, who decided to build this website where you could buy and sell drugs, because he believed they should be legal and it spiraled out of control. Next thing you know he's running an empire that's making hundreds of millions of dollars, and ordering hits on people from the Internet, and selling guns and drugs and you name it in between.

Mark: And every three letter acronym government agency after him and competing with each other to get him.

Nick: Yeah, every single one. IRS, DHS, HSI, FBI, you name it.

Kevin: Sounds like a movie.

Mark: Yes. More than one of those agencies going rogue too. It's got everything. The way you tell it too, it's like a novel. The amount of research you must've put into this is incredible, because the conversations you have, there's stuff … Kevin and I were saying, we follow this story, but it's like your other book, Hatching Twitter, it's being there …

Nick: It's interesting because I think that some of the most successful technologists talk about how they don't want you to think about how the technology actually works. Apple, of course, has been amazing at that. For somebody like me who writes narrative non-fiction, I don't want you to think about where the reporting came from, I just want you to understand the story. But there are certain times, of course, where you're like, "Woah, how did they figure this out?"

It's definitely a wild, wild tale. I think, just one other little thing that you mentioned, it is like Breaking Bad. One of the funnest parts of the story is when Ross Ulbricht is growing magic mushrooms to sell on his website, he actually was really into Breaking Bad at the time, and he would wait for the mushroom stuff to cure and the gypsum and all that stuff to do its thing, and he would be sitting in there watching Walter White become Heisenberg in the middle of that.

Mark: Wow. Oh my God. Yeah and Walter becoming Heisenberg, Ulbricht becoming Dread Pirate Roberts, the parallels are uncanny.

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Show notes:


Epson R-D1 Rangefinder Camera
"It was one of the first digital Rangefinders, and it's so cool because it has these physical dials that pop up like you're manning an airplane from the 1920s or something like that, it's pretty neat. The Rangefinder actually has a viewfinder that you look at, and then it has a different viewfinder that the lens looks at. Almost like mirroring two images on top of each other, you have to put these images on top of each other, and that is essentially what you end up taking a picture of, but the photos are so crisp. It's what all the Magnum war photographers use, are these old Rangefinder cameras."


Space Gray MacBook

"I know this is a totally lame tool. It's like, "Oh a MacBook." It's like saying an iPod or an iPhone, but the thing is, I do 90% of my work on my computer, it's all writing. The thing with the new MacBook is it's got two holes, it's got one for the power cord, and one for your headphones, which I don't even want the headphone one anymore because I have the AirPods. I love that there's nothing you can do with it, other than just use it to write. Of course, you can use it to surf the internet and do all that stuff like that, but I just love the simplicity and how tiny it is. If I had to go on a desert island … I always ask people what their desert island device is, like, if you had to take one device, it would probably be my MacBook."


ENA Micro 9 Coffee Machine

"I, like every nerdy coffee person in the world, have been through 4,000 different versions of different coffee machines and things. I have found, and I am sure there are hardcore coffee drinkers out there that will be sending me hate mail when they listen to this, but I found that the machine doesn't really matter as much as the beans. Now, I have this … My brother-in-law had one that he bought for work, and it was too small for his office, so I got a good discount on it for a few hundred bucks. You put in your beans in the back, and you press a button in the morning to heat it up, you press rinse after about 12 seconds, and then you press the coffee button, and in a matter of about 30 seconds you have a nice, hot cup of coffee with a nice little crema on top, and that's it."


Miyabi Paring Knives

"I've been through my fair share of cheap knives, and my wife bought me one of the Miyabi's for Christmas, and it's amazing. You can chop a cherry tomato with just, by, resting the knife on the edge of the skin. The only problem is, I hate doing dishes, and you can't put it in the dishwasher, you have to clean these knives because they've got an old Japanese wood handle that expands if you put it in the dishwasher. It's fine, I can handle cleaning a couple of knives. It's amazing. The texture of the blade kinds of looks almost like fire."