For most people, computers are magic. Which is to say, they are technology sufficiently advanced to the point of mystification. I include myself in thFor most people, computers are magic. Which is to say, they are technology sufficiently advanced to the point of mystification. I include myself in this camp, for despite my comfort with computers and my fluency in programming, a great deal of mystery still surrounds them. With the emergence of the Internet into the public sphere and the rise of the Web, computers and the phone system are now fundamentally intertwined, and vast swathes of our infrastructure are dependent on them. The dangers of cyberwarfare are very real. At the same time, however, it's important that we don't exaggerate or misrepresent this threat. Movies and television sensationalize the abilities and proclivities of hackers for the sake of drama and entertainment. Real hackers are quite different, and their motives and actions are as diverse and varied as the people they hack. Real hacking is independent of platform and technology; it's often more of a case of appealing to the weakest element in the system: the human.
Ghost in the Wires is the autobiography of Kevin Mitnick, “the world's most wanted hacker”. His is a fascinating, even bizarre tale of the convergence of law enforcement, ego, and addiction. Thanks to Mitnick’s impressive abilities, equally impressive capacity for self-delusion and self-denial, and the media’s tendency to think the worst, exploits and escapades that start as harmless fun result in a years-long manhunt and nearly a decade of jail time.
Mitnick's gateway into hacking is “phone phreaking”, unauthorized access to the phone company’s systems. This was in the days before the Web, before even personal computers, when computing itself involved entering programs line-by-line into computer memory and watching the read-outs on a printer, not a screen. It’s an era utterly alien to someone of my generation, let alone younger readers—and I love reading about how people interacted with computers at that stage.
As computers and phones become more advanced, so too does Mitnick. He explains how he acquires the ability to clone cell phone numbers, and how he uses space in dormant accounts on university and company servers to store source code he steals from companies like Sun, Novell, and Motorola. He obtains access to the IRS and DMV records, which later becomes instrumental as he creates false identities and goes on the run.
Mitnick keeps the structure of the book strictly chronological, with just enough foreshadowing to whet our appetites in anticipation of future events. However, some common themes quickly emerge. After his first few brushes with law enforcement over his hacking, Mitnick attempts to “straighten out” and quit, only to relapse time and again. In this sense, hacking is an addiction—it’s a challenge that provides a cognitive reward. No matter how hard he tries to give it up, he returns to it. This inability to rein himself in, even when he recognizes the dangers and the possibility of overreaching, is one of the reasons he eventually gets caught and goes to jail.
Mitnick also faces a revolving door of betrayal. Best friends and confidantes turn coat and rat him out to get lighter punishments; people he thought he could rely on turn against him. I sympathize. However, these accounts are necessarily one-sided, and I get the sense from reading between the lines that there was a lot about Mitnick as a person that contributed to these changes of heart.
Ghost in the Wires is a hefty book, especially as a paperback, and the pace is very slow. Mitnick enjoys teasing out every detail of his latest hack or discovery. Yet I never tired of hearing about it; I seldom wanted to put this book down. I just wanted to know what happened next: what was the next hack, the next run-in with the law, the next problem Mitnick had to overcome? Even before he becomes a fugitive, there is a sense of danger always around the corner. Though he spends a lot of time celebrating his ability to outwit and evade security employees from the telephone companies, he also gives due credit to those people who manage to outwit him. Once in a while, a technician or sysadmin catches on and boots him out. My reading pace is different for every book, but I literally did not want to stop reading this, stealing every possible opportunity to read as much as I could each day. There is just never a dull moment in the book.
It’s also truly terrifying to see how quickly rumours become exaggerated and become part of the legal record. Mitnick stresses throughout the book that he never hacked for profit or out of malice. For him, it was merely an exercise in ego. That doesn’t excuse the actions, but it does mean that charges amounting to terrorism are unjust. The ignorance of the law enforcement and judicial officials involved in this case is staggering. The overreactions—not letting Mitnick have any access to a phone for national security reasons—are a sobering reminder of how easy it is to mislead people who are less informed. When those people are in positions of power, they can abuse or misuse that power unwittingly, under the impression they are acting in the interests of public safety.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation in this book isn’t a technical one at all. Rather, Mitnick accomplishes some of his most daring hacks through social engineering. It’s incredible how willing people are to help him cirumvent their own company’s security procedures. With a little research and some guile, Mitnick poses as an employee from another office, tells a plausible story, and gets remote access or other information that people shouldn’t be so ready to divulge.
The weakest link in our cybersecurity is not the technology. It’s us. The trusting operator, the cheerful colleague … these are all parts of being human and having positive interactions every day. But the best, most secure systems are worthless if all you need to do is sweet-talk someone into reseting an account’s password. Mitnick’s approach still works today. Just ask Mat Honan, who had his Amazon and Apple accounts hacked through social-engineering of customer support representatives, and from there, the hackers disassembled the rest of his digital existence.
Ghost in the Wires is that sweet spot of books about technology. It’s accessible to everyone. At times Mitnick’s terminology definitely becomes a little technical and specialized—I don’t know enough about how our phone system works to pretend to follow his explanations of how he tricks the system into rerouting calls and letting him listen into private conversations. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book or my ability to follow what he was achieving. It also has a strong social message. Mitnick’s relationship with hacking is an addiction just as damaging to his life as an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Moreover, the book is a warning that unless we make sure people in positions of power are better-educated about the capabilities of technology, we run the risk of innocent lives being ruined by misinformed authorities.
The majority of Mitnick’s tale takes place in the 1980s and 1990s, in the infancy of the World Wide Web. There was no Facebook or Twitter, no Amazon or Google. Now we spend more and more of our lives online. Mitnick might have been the world’s first “most wanted hacker”, but I doubt he will be the last. And we’re all going to have to get a little more clued-in, or we will be in for a rough time.
I first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living BiblicallyI first heard of A.J. Jacobs when he appeared on The Colbert Report in 2009. He talked, among other things, about the year he spent “living Biblically”. This intrigued me, so I decided to read the book he was pushing at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, because I didn’t know what types of experiments Jacobs had performed. But the book is short, and his writing, if sometimes overbearing, is usually entertaining too. The Guinea Pig Diaries is genuinely interesting and enjoyable.
This is a compilation of articles that appeared, in one form or another, in Esquire. I considered talking about each chapter briefly, but with nine chapters, the detail I would like to devote to each experiment would make this review long and frightfully boring. I loved some chapters and didn’t like others. So I’ll give you the highlights.
The first chapter, “My Life as a Beautiful Woman” was one of my favourites. I spend a lot of time online. When I was younger, I was (probably wisely) relatively anonymous. Gradually I allowed that anonymity to evaporate, and now I use my real name everywhere. This is important to me, because I do not want to create a dichotomy of online/offline personae; I want to be me, whether I am on the Web or in person. But for other people, anonymity is a necessity or a desire. It’s a chance to escape, to gain voice, to explore an alternative identity. The fact remains that despite some legislators’ brutal attempts to curtail the fundamental openness of the Internet, it is very difficult to verify someone’s true identity.
In the case of Michelle’s online dating profile, Michelle was actually the user and participated on the site … but she had Jacobs ghostwriting for her. I loved Jacobs’ account of how this experience changed the way he saw some of these men and, in turn, what he thought about dating and dating sites in general. He expresses his disappointment when dates he has arranged for Michelle don’t go well. He exhorts men to be prudent in their selection of usernames: “topnotchlover” sends a very specific message…. I found myself wishing for more of this chapter, just because the story of this partnership between Jacobs and Michelle to navigate the waters of online dating was so intriguing!
Fortunately, “My Outsourced Life” also proved interesting. The idea of outsourcing one’s entire life sounds like—and usually is—a joke. Jacobs plays it up this way at first, making light of how he hired two different Indian companies to attend to his business and personal tasks, respectively. His assistants, Honey and Asha, did research for him, composed emails, placed delivery orders, etc. Jacobs has his assistants write emails to his boss, write apology notes to his wife, and even conduct a phone call with his parents! It’s all right-out-of-the-textbook hilarious. But as the chapter progresses, a theme emerges:
When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is screwed. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.
It is a small and subtle observation of the culture of entitlement and complacency that belies the myth of the American dream that one can pull oneself up by the bootstraps. Other countries are trying that tactic too, and they are reaping the benefits of getting Bootstrap v2.0.
“The Truth About Nakedness” is a slightly underwhelming chapter. It is not, as the title and risqué photo that precedes the chapter might suggest, about Jacobs’ year of living nude. No, instead he discusses how Mary Louise Parker agreed to pose nude for an article she was writing for Esquire about what it feels like to pose nude. Parker said yes, but she wanted Jacobs, as her editor, to pose nude as well. And of course, being the human guinea pig that he is, he acquiesced. I was not that interested in his account of the details of the photoshoot and his feelings at the time. However, the coda to this chapter is a strong voice for critiquing media:
I can never look at a nude picture in the same way. I can still admire a nude photo, but I can no longer separate it from the context in which it was created. I can’t forget, as Mary-Louise put it, the loss of control and possible objectification.
Photography has this amazing power to capture a moment and keep it suspended with infinite potential: what is happening, and what will happen? The right photograph at the right time can be evocative and inspiring. Yet photography can also reduce a human subject to an object, something to be admired or lusted after. For a photograph to be inspiring and empowering, there needs to be that human connection. Jacobs underscores the idea that every photograph has a story, and when we look at a photo, we should wonder about that story.
There are other chapters that are well worth reading: he spends a month doing everything his wife asks; he spends time trying to act completely rationally; he spends a month dressed as George Washington. With each chapter, Jacobs mixes witticisms with genuine reflection, and he always manages to dig down to some kind of profound, albeit not earth-shattering, truth. Despite Jacobs’ engaging tone and the book’s short length, The Guinea Pig Diaries is not a light, fluffy bagatelle. Sometimes that tone bothered me—Jacobs writes with the smugness of someone who is being funny and knows it, and that sardonic self-awareness irked me. His writing has that feel of being smooth, practised, and edited, with the perfect parenthetical inserts and the oh-so-well-timed asides. But this is a minor complaint for what is otherwise a solidly entertaining book.
The subtitle of this book is My Life as an Experiment. I hope that most people’s lives are experiments of one sort or another. I don’t ghostwrite for women’s online dating profiles or live by the personal code of conduct of one of America’s Founding Fathers … but I like to think that even as an introvert, I manage my own little experiments quite well. You don’t have to be audacious and ostentatious in your experimentation if you don’t want to … although, who knows, maybe it means you have a book deal in your future!
I saw Dave Isay on The Colbert Report and decided to buy this book as a Mother's Day gift. The idea of StoryCorps itself appeals to me, so a book consI saw Dave Isay on The Colbert Report and decided to buy this book as a Mother's Day gift. The idea of StoryCorps itself appeals to me, so a book consisting of interviews about motherhood sounded interesting. I was not wrong.
The stories in Mom are moving in a way I suspect many people would dismiss as a case of reality being unrealistic, though I'm sure Isay chose these particular stories for their emotional impact. In other words, there's nothing dull about Mom. The people telling these stories talk very openly about memories of their mothers or their own experiences of being a mother; in so doing, they provide perspectives that most of us will never have. I certainly won't ever be a mother, and while I'm lucky enough to have a mother, I only have one, so my pool of memories is necessarily limited. Mom is storytelling at its most basic, the sharing of experiences that are uncommon yet knowable.
Most of us are aware of the significance of being a mother—we do have a day to celebrate it, after all—but few of us have the time or inclination to ponder truly the meaning of motherhood. Which is where books come into play. The stories here are varied enough that they don't give a single, overwhelming definition of motherhood. They allow you to judge, to form your own idea of what it means to be "mom." There are several similar stories, some from people who were adopted and found their biological mothers, others from women whose relationship with their mothers was different than their relationship with their daughters. The former belies the traditional "nuclear family" ideal that has been fracturing for decades, reminding us that whom we label family has more to do with blood or with birth. The latter again testifies to the diversity of opinions on parenting and motherhood. There is no one correct way to be "mom."
Not that I'm trying to make Mom sound like some sort of parenting tips magazine. It's not an instruction manual, but more like a serious and intimate form of YouTube. The stories here are powerful because they're genuine, and that makes them both enjoyable to read and thought-provoking. I'd recommend Mom as a gift to mothers, but it's not just for mothers. It's for everyone, because we all had, if not have, a mother somewhere....more
At the beginning of Free, Chris Anderson presents a generalized dichotomy toward "Free." Some—mostly the older users—are suspicious of Free and insistAt the beginning of Free, Chris Anderson presents a generalized dichotomy toward "Free." Some—mostly the older users—are suspicious of Free and insist they will have to pay somewhere down the line. Many younger users, on the other hand, think that Free, on the Internet at least, is a truism. Anderson says his goal is to convince us that neither camp has it completely right and that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
This is an attitude that we can apply to the Internet in general. As newspapers and record labels have found, approaching the Internet like it's another form of print doesn't work. The rules are different, and in that respect, the Internet is a game-changer. Yet the difficulties the Internet presents us are not all new and unique to that medium, and this is not the first Free crisis in history. Indeed, the most important thing I learned from Free can be expressed as another truism: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Let's level for a moment and crowd onto the same page (or pixel): this is popular economics. Anderson is a businessman, so he knows his economics, but he's chosen to distill it in an accessible way that isn't always rigorous, favouring the simple explanation over complicated economic theory. As someone who is intelligent about most things but stupid when it comes to economics, I'm glad he did that. Had he chosen otherwise, I would not have read this book. But if you're looking for a textbook on economic theory, you'll be disappointed. This book has no bibliography (which actually surprised me) and very few footnotes. That being said, Anderson treats his topic with the nuance and subtlety it deserves.
Free offers a granular analysis of exactly what types of Free economies you'll find, both offline and online. There's freemium, gift economies, cross-subsidies, etc. Sometimes it gets a little technical, but what matters is that Anderson is unambiguous in his division of the Free world; not all Free is created equal, and he shows us examples of each case. Moreover, he stresses that the idea of Free as a marketing tactic is far from new.
What the Internet changes about Free is that it drives marginal costs for the producer to zero. Microprocessor production has become so efficient that microchips are essentially "too cheap to meter," as Anderson puts it, which means that bits, unlike atoms, are in abundant supply. In the physical world, Anderson has to make tough decisions about which articles get the finite and valuable page space in Wired. Online, he can allocate as much space as his content creators need. That is the almost science fictional difference provided by the Internet, and if you wrap your head around this key point, you're well on your way to understanding Free.
The paradigm case for Free online services is, of course, Google. Anderson spends a lot of time discussing Google (although not as much as one might think), and he also looks at how other companies have used Free to compete with Google. In particular, he presented a brief case study on how Yahoo! prepared for the competition of Gmail in 2004 by introducing unlimited email storage (as compared to Gmail's 1 GB and increasing email storage). I liked this example, because it belies the critics of Free who claim that it will somehow eradicate capitalism and no one will make money any more. Google's profits show that those who embrace Free instead of viewing it as a threat can still be successful.
Free's value to the average reader comes in the connections it makes between practice and business. I know that Google gave away most of its services for free because it made money off ads. I also know that Google collects an amazing amount of data about people, companies, and websites as we browse the Web. Yet I didn't consciously connect these two and realize that one reason Google makes its services free is to facilitate data collection. It sounds sinister (and certainly has that potential), but it's also brilliant. Anderson's example is Google's 411 service, which was free of charge. Google didn't stand to make much money from that service if it did charge; by giving it away for free, it acquired voice data for use in its voice search and recognition algorithms. For businesses, this is another example of how Free can be better in the long-term. For readers, it raises awareness of the motives a company has behind its offerings of Free. In both cases, the message is the same: Free can sometimes be the most beneficial path for a company to pursue.
From Gillette to Jell-O, Anderson has enough anecdotes of companies creating successful products (or in some cases, entirely new markets) with a Free strategy. Aside from showing that Free works, these examples are valuable because they considerably pre-date the Internet, and they demonstrate that the phantom of Free has lingered over our economy for a long time.
Newspapers decry the availability of free news online; music labels complain about piracy. We're seeing pressure on governments to regulate and legislate these companies back into profitable business models. This is somewhat ironic, since if these companies really believed in a free market (small F, note), they should be changing those models, not asking for a rule change. It's important to recall, however, that this situation is not new. Lawrence Lessig points this out in Remix, and Anderson reiterates it in Free. New technology has always presented challenges to incumbent businesses:
Radio Broadcast magazine announced a contest for the best answer to the question "Who is to pay for broadcasting and how?" . . . The winning entry sought a tax on vacuum tubes as an "index of broadcast consumption." . . . There were some suggestions that advertising might be the answer, but it was by far from a popular solution. It seemed a shame to despoil this new medium with sponsored messages.
Does that sound familiar? "Who is to pay for music downloads and how?" "Who is to pay for ebooks and how?" The technology and the content might have changed, but the question remains the same: who's going to pay? Radio did find a solution—advertising—but then when it became viable to play recorded music over the radio, this triggered another crisis in revenue for recording artists. So the cycle began again.
We found solutions to those crises. So why are people so doubtful that we'll find solutions to the current crisis? Maybe I'm just not being empathetic enough for the poor newspapers and recording labels. Yet I can't help but think that trying to legislate a way toward a static situation in the face of changing technology is a losing endeavour. Best to adapt now, get ahead of the curve, and be the trend-setter.
So in case you can't tell, I liked Free. It was accessible, but not over-bearing, in its analysis of the Free economies. Although "Free" may be a radical price, this is not a radical book; it offers sound advice that can probably be repackaged as common sense. Even if you aren't planning to start your own business any time soon, I would still recommend this book to you, for the simple reason that it raises awareness of how companies use Free to make money. And when companies make money, the older generation is right: someone pays, somewhere. But the Internet has changed that too, because more than ever, consumers interact with companies on a very personal level. So it behoves you to know where the money's going (and whence it comes). Read Free, be savvy....more
Neuromancer remains one of the most influential science-fiction books I’ve read. It’s the kind of book that influenced me even before I had read it byNeuromancer remains one of the most influential science-fiction books I’ve read. It’s the kind of book that influenced me even before I had read it by influencing books and TV shows and movies that I then read or watched. However, it’s not William Gibson’s imagination of cyberspace that sticks with me. Rather, it’s his vision of a future dominated by corporations, one where governments are atrophied entities and one’s life and prosperity are dependent upon feudal loyalties to these transnational mega-corporations. Whereas the initial cyberpunk renderings of cyberspace and virtual reality seem very quaint thirty years on, corporate statehood remains a viable and fearsome proposition.
Life Inc is a non-fiction exploration of the power that corporations have and the means by which they hold onto power and gain more. Douglas Rushkoff looks at the historical antecedents of the modern corporation, exploring how corporatist philosophies developed out of old-style mercantilism. From there, he factors in the rise of individualism in the twentieth-century. Ultimately, he aims to show how corporations are alternatively self-reinforcing and, occasionally, self-defeating, but how our short-sightedness has allowed them to gain more power than they should have.
If I had read this back when I first heard about it in 2009, then I probably would have been more impressed. Since then my feelings about capitalism have changed. Whereas before I was more optimistic about the ability for regulation to rein in the excesses of capitalism, I’ve since become more radical. Now I view capitalism as an inherently unethical system that reinforces inequity, so let’s burn it all down. Rushkoff doesn’t go quite so far—he acknowledges that regulation is unlikely to be effective, at least by itself; but he isn’t in a rush to reimagine our entire system. About as far as he’ll go towards that radical end of the spectrum is to point out that we shouldn’t suffer from tunnel vision. Just because we currently have a centralized currency doesn’t mean we must always have one, for example.
As far as economic arguments go, Life Inc is a little bit all over the place. Rushkoff seems split over a chronological or thematic organization to his argument … so he kind of goes for both. Each chapter is loosely based around a theme, and then from there he delivers a historical perspective on that theme. In some cases this works fine—the first chapter, for example, is very informative. In other cases it can be confusing or repetitive. The book is also extremely American in its perspective and tone. I mean, that’s to be expected—but it’s always amusing, as a Canadian, reading an American’s writing and seeing very plainly the biases that inform it. Even as Rushkoff talks about how people too easily assume that this is the way it has to be, he’s making assumptions based on an American society that has laboured under the myth of the American Dream for over two hundred years.
The book is front-loaded, generally proceeding downhill towards its resolution with ever-dimininshing returns. The last two chapters, in particular, I skimmed. After dedicating a great deal of time to discussing how corporations, and in particular the self-help industry, target people by singling them out as individuals, Rushkoff ironically does the same: “I believe it can. And more important, you can.” And then there’s this gem:
Likewise, each tiny choice we make to take back our world leads to a long chain of positive effects.
Oh, I get it. Power of positive thinking … wait a minute. That sounds awfully similar to the Secret or those other self-help scams you were talking about earlier, Douglas.
Critiquing capitalism is easy. Coming up with solutions is hard. And to be fair, some of these community-minded solutions that Rushkoff includes are probably worthwhile ventures. But again, so much here assumes a kind of homogeneous, middle-class, white privilege in the reader: “You are an upper-middle class white guy with a university degree and a steady but not amazing income. You might be married or about to get married, and you want to make your community a slightly less corporatized place.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is very little fire to this book, because like it or not, Rushkoff has benefitted a great deal from the way our society is currently set up. That’s one of the largest differences between a book written by a member of the dominant group and a book written by someone who has experienced more oppression—both books can be accurate critiques, but one is going to be more dry and academic and the other will necessarily have more passion. Rushkoff delivers a lot of fact and a lot of opinion, but it’s the same kind of opinion I largely have on these things: opinion formed from careful and reasoned judgement and study rather than lived experience. While that doesn’t make our opinions less valuable, I think sometimes it makes them less interesting.
So like I said, if I had read this in 2009, I’d be all over Life Inc. If you are just getting started in questioning capitalism or corporatism, Rushkoff is going to walk you through it. And this is such an important issue. So you could do much worse here.
Nevertheless, there’s just so much that this book isn’t that it could have been. While there are plenty of gems, accurate criticisms, and interesting historical tidbits, you have to wade through a lot that isn’t so interesting to get to them. Life Inc reminded me of all the many reasons I’m not fond of corporatism, and it gave me some fresh perspective on some of the reasons corporations are as powerful as they are today. But it’s a long way from becoming any kind of bible on the subject.