Little is known about the world of secret websites dealing in drugs, pornography, guns and counterfeit documents.
Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons
Medical marijuana gets all the headlines, but many legal weeds have traditions as medicines too. Although homeowners often consider these plants as lawn outlaws, weeds can serve as a floral pharmacy. However, would-be patients of the plants should consult a doctor before self-medicating.
Cichorium intybus, the light blue flower frequently seen along roads, provides the main commercial source of the compound inulin. Patients take inulin to fight high blood fats, including cholesterol and triglycerides, according to WebMD. Research published in Diabetes & Metabolism Journal suggests that inulin intake benefits women with type-2 diabetes by reducing the rate of blood sugar increase after eating. Inulin promotes the growth of certain bacteria in the intestines. While some believe this can help digestion, others suffer serious flatulence when the inulin-fed bacteria build up.
Some people add the dried and roasted root to coffee. Chickory coffee is especially popular in New Orleans.
Böhringer Friedrich, Wikimedia Commons
Trifolium pratense contains chemicals known as isoflavones. These chemicals can act like the female hormone estrogen in the body. Doctors have examined the clover chemicals as a treatment for hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. However, doctors warn that women with a history or risk of breast cancer should avoid isoflavones, since estrogen-like chemicals have been associated with increased incidence of some cancers.
H. Zell, Wikimedia Commons
Silybum marianum has a 2,000 year history as a liver medicine. Modern research has looked at thistle extracts as a treatment for alcohol-induced liver damage. Substances in milk thistle, particularly the chemical silymarin, may protect the liver from damage after a person takes an overdose of other medications, including acetaminophen (Tylenol). Milk thistle may also be an antidote to poison from the deathcap mushroom (Amanita phalloides). Animal studies found that milk thistle completely counteracted the poison if given within 10 minutes of poisoning, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Muffet, Wikimedia Commons
Native Americans used the milkweed (Asclepias sp.) as a contraceptive, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The milky, white sap that gives the plant its name served to remove warts. However, milkweeds also contain chemicals known as cardiac glycosides. These chemicals can cause severe illness in humans and livestock. Monarch butterfly caterpillars eat milkweed and build up high concentrations of glycosides, which makes the insects nasty tasting to predators.
Tony Hisgett, Wikimedia Commons
Ancient Greeks and Romans used horsetail (Equisetum arvense) to stop bleeding, heal ulcers and wounds, and treat tuberculosis and kidney problems. My wife drinks horsetail tea to flush out her body’s system and help lose weight. The tea has a mildly bitter flavor, similar to chamomile. Research published in Ethnopharmacolgy found that horsetail tea increases urination which corroborates my wife’s contention that the plant is a diuretic, or a substance that increases urination. However, doctors recommend taking a multivitamin when drinking significant amounts of horesetail tea, because it can flush nutrients, such as vitamin B1, thiamin and potassium, out of one's system as well.
J. Carmichael, Wikimedia Commons
In the past, Europeans used remedies made from dandelion (Taraxacum sp.) roots, leaves and flowers to treat fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine take dandelions for stomach ailments and breast problems, such as inflammation or lack of milk flow. Dandelion leaves taste similar to spinach and contains vitamins A, B, C, and D, along with iron, potassium, and zinc.
Uwe H. Friese, Wikimedia Commons
Urtica dioica can put the hurt on an hiker in shorts, but historically the plant has served to treat aching muscles and joints, eczema, arthritis and gout. People still use the plant to treat joint pain, and some studies have suggested that the plant can treat arthritis. Another study found that capsules of dried stinging nettle may reduce the symptoms of hay fever. Europeans frequently use stinging nettle root to treat bladder problems. Boiled nettle makes a side dish similar to collared greens.
For those who brush alongside stinging nettle, a remedy to the sting is often found growing nearby. Applying crushed up dandelion, horsetail, Aloe vera, jewelweed or the leaf of a dock or lock plant can counter the acid in the sting.
Forest and Kim Starr, Wikimedia Commons
Like many of the medicinal weeds in this list, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) also makes a healthy snack. The plant contains a high content of omega-3 fatty acids. I ate some that grew in my yard and found it was somewhat sour. A little bit was good, but too much would be overpowering in a salad. In traditional Chinese medicine, purslane treats genito-urinary tract infections. Research published in Phytomedicine found that the plant reduced problems with cognition in older mice.
Robert Steers/NPS, Wikimedia Commons
Since the age of the ancient Greek doctors have used plantains (Plantago sp., the weed in sidewalk cracks, not the fruit) to speed wound healing. In the training manual Survival, Evasion and Recovery, the U.S. Department of Defense recommends plantain as a poultice on wounds or as a nutrient-rich tea to treat diarrhea.
Julia Adamson, photographer in the Saskatoon area, Wikimedia Commons
Traditionally, healers use burdock (Arctium sp.) to clear toxins from the blood and increase urination, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The plant also is used to treat skin ailments, such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis. The leaves and roots of burdock are edible and contains inulin, like chicory, so they may aid digestion and/or cause a nasty case of flatulence. Burdock also contains high quantities of antioxidants that can prevent damage to cells.
The arrest last week of 26-year-old Ross Ulbricht brought to light a little-known world of secret websites dealing in drugs, guns and counterfeit documents that until now have been largely hidden from authorities.
The Silk Road, an online contraband marketplace operated by Ulbricht, was shut down last week. Another, called Atlantis, voluntarily shut down in late September. Both websites used a software called TOR, or The Onion Router, in order to conceal their IP addresses, the numbers that work like street addresses to allow computers, mobile phones and laptops to find them, explained Nicolas Christin, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.
Both The Silk Road and Atlantis are just two of many websites that belong to what is known as the “deep web” or “dark web” of sites that conceal IP address from search engines and cannot be linked to by other Internet pages or blogs.
Christin said TOR’s encryption software allowed people to buy and sell drugs online (mostly marijuana according to his research), as well as trade pornography and even buy and sell illegal weapons. But TOR has also helped civil society groups in places like Egypt, Syria and Libya to avoid government eavesdropping, journalists to pass information and law enforcement agencies to receive secure anonymous tips electronically. Family members can also use TOR to share photos or other information privately. Christin compared the software to using old-fashioned couriers to carry messengers in between people who want to remain anonymous.
“It allows their couriers to find each other in the middle of the network," Christin said.
Christin said that the website itself does not sell the goods, but operates to match buyers and sellers. "The best comparison is Amazon marketplace,” he said.
It provides buyers with a user-friendly experience, complete with shopping carts and seller ratings, according to Christopher Budd, communications manager at TrendMicro, a IT security firm that recently produced a white paper on the workings of the dark web.
TOR is an open-access software available for anyone to download and install on their computers. In fact its early development was funded in the 1990s by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to protect military communications. Development of the current version of TOR was funded by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and released to the public in 2002.
Despite the indictment and arrest last week of Ulbricht, who allegedly operated Silk Road, it’s not clear that federal officials have figured out how to break TOR’s encryption methods.
“What the FBI did was break the human because they know they can’t get around TOR at all,” said Andrew Lewman, executive director of the TOR Project, a non-profit collective of computer specialists that assist TOR users. “They caught him using his real name on various forums.”
Lewman says that there are dozens of other similar sites like The Silk Road that specialize in contraband narcotics or weapons. “Now with Silk Road gone, any one of those can start moving,” Lewman said. That could make it difficult to find the next one.
“Law enforcement is engaged in an ongoing game of whack-a-mole against these sites,” Budd said. “It will be interesting to watch if the takedown of Silk Road will result in increase in prices. Like any thing else in the free market they will respond and probably are going to price in the cost of that additional risk.”
Budd said there’s another way for criminals, spies or just privacy fans to keep communications and commerce secret besides using TOR. A person could reconfigure a computer to access the dark web sites via alternative top-level domains and reach a kind of “shadow internet” that isn’t typically visible.
Budd likened it to an old-time speakeasy where customers in search of a drink need to know where they are and the secret password to get inside.
“It would be great if these sites would go away, but given the nature of the internet it’s not going to happen anytime soon,” Budd said. “They are related to the openness of the Internet and the only way to get rid of things is to create a version of the internet was so controlled and locked down that most people in this country would find that unacceptable.”