For most people, computers are magic. Which is to say, they are technology sufficiently advanced to the point of mystification. I include myself in th...moreFor 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 Biblically...moreI 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 cons...moreI 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.(less)
At the beginning of Free, Chris Anderson presents a generalized dichotomy toward "Free." Some—mostly the older users—are suspicious of Free and insist...moreAt 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.(less)
I always regret not being more handy than I am. The feeling I get when wielding a screwdriver is the closest I can come to understanding what people m...moreI always regret not being more handy than I am. The feeling I get when wielding a screwdriver is the closest I can come to understanding what people mean when they say, “I just can’t do math!” It always bothers me when people insist upon this, as if mathematical skill is something that you either have or you do not. But when I am reduced to basic manipulation of the physical world, I understand their frustration. Like any skill, there are some who have a talent for it and others for whom it will always be an uphill slog. Some are like that with math, and I am like that with tools and any kind of physical labour.
So I have immersed myself in the world of intellect, becoming exactly the kind of disembodied, disconnected ivory tower individual against which Matthew B. Crawford argues in Shop Class as Soulcraft. Well, it’s not so much that he’s arguing against such people—he admits that, if academic pursuits are your thing, you should go for it—but he laments that we have somehow become the standard against all rising stars are measured. Crawford would rather see the trades and the crafts restored to a place of honour; for that matter, so would I.
Crawford paints a bleak picture of how our rising exuberance for computers at the end of the twentieth century muscled out shop classes in high schools across the United States. I think the situation in Canada is little better, though my limited experience here in Ontario shows glimmers of hope in the more enlightened, trades-oriented options that many high schools offer students. In some places, we are beginning to realize that a balance can be had, and we are striving to attain it. Whether the rest of society is willing to follow, I don’t know.
As the subtitle, An Inquiry into the Value of Work, suggests, Crawford sings the praises of the “honest work” of the people who build, repair, and make things. He intersperses more theoretical and academic approaches to the subject with his own, personal experience, first as an electrician and then as a motorcycle mechanic. In both cases, Crawford emphasizes how physical work offers access to a type of knowledge different from that which we acquire from books and from social interaction. There is certain wisdom one can only acquire through direct experience.
I enjoyed the sections in which Crawford describes his journey from novice to confident mechanic more than I thought I would. Even with the wonderful artist illustrations and his own explanations, I still can’t fathom or picture the magic he worked inside the guts of those machines. The way he describes doing something, the number of variables that he must account for, the amount he must know … it baffles me how anyone is able to do it. I guess that’s how people feel when I describe working on a math proof or programming. It’s a very weird feeling, knowing that someone else knows something you can barely comprehend.
I’m not sure how successful Crawford is at convincing someone more sceptical of his ideas, since I began the book firmly believing in the value of work. For that reasons, a lot of his arguments left me with a, “Yes, so?” reaction, simply because I felt like everything he was stating was pretty obvious.
Instead, Shop Class as Soulcraft was more useful to me as a mirror for my own frustrations. In my first year of teaching, which I spent in England, I ran up against a most fearsome dragon, that of standardized testing. I was teaching 16-year-olds who had no concept of how to multiply properly, let alone finding area and perimeter or the missing angle of a triangle. Somehow, though I was supposed to prepare them for a test that would give them a grade that would determine where they could go next for schooling and what kind of jobs they could get. It was madness. I could have taught much more basic math, arithmetic and personal accounting, the kind of thing that could really seem relevant to them. But my hands were tied by the test.
I always feel a little hypocritical when I try to extol the virtues of the trades to students. After all, it’s clear I didn’t go down that road—so who am I to try to convince them it’s worthwhile? Not only that, but it’s painfully clear I didn’t go down that road. Some teachers have the virtue of straddling the divide between academic and applied, of fusing these worlds together into a harmonious whole. That distinction is not mine to hold. Throughout my life, people have remarked that I give off the vibes of one dedicated to intellectual pursuits. That gives me pleasure, of course, but it also makes my attempts to downplay the academic life a lot more problematic. I basically feel like a fraud. Unlike Crawford, who has truly lived in both worlds, I have always been confined to one.
As I mentioned above, Crawford is at his best when recounting his own personal experience with the value of work. When he strays further into the territory of sociology and psychology, his arguments become less captivating even if they are more objectively robust. Probably most interesting of these sections is his explanation of how the introduction of assembly lines and mass production offered an effective alternative to the craftsman in his own little castle. It was the era of the assembly-line worker that ushered in the harsh distinction between blue collar and white collar, Crawford argued.
I’m not so sure, but I think he makes a good point when he links the rise of mass production to a reduction in respect for the trades. We are raised now as consumers first, producers second—production is something other, something that happens away from us. Moreover, society continues to become blazingly, bewilderingly complex. It’s just not possible to be good at everything any more or to know everything the human species knows. We have to specialize, and in turn this means we have to outsource certain tasks, whether it’s tax preparation or car repair, to other people whose specialities those are. Crawford provides some compelling explanations for why this makes us feel uneasy.
Shop Class as Soulcraft is exactly what it claims to be. It’s competently written, with an interesting mix of personal anecdotes and more abstract, philosophical reasoning. It isn’t quite as inspirational or awe-inspiring as it might be; this is more a sobre prod towards thought and action that it is a plea for swift change. You wouldn’t do wrong to read it, but I’m not particularly put out that it took me this long to get around to doing so.