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Post  eddie Sun May 01, 2011 5:35 am

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick – review

James Gleick's complex magisterial essay encompasses everything from linguistics to cosmology

Philip Ball The Observer, Sunday 24 April 2011

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A drum from a Turing bombe, Bletchley Park. Photograph: Alessia Pierdomenico/ Reuters

Too much information: the complaint du jour, but also toujours. Alexander Pope quipped that the printing press, "a scourge for the sins of the learned", would lead to "a deluge of Authors [that] covered the land". Robert Burton, the Oxford anatomist of melancholy, confessed in 1621 that he was drowning in books, pamphlets, news and opinions. All the twittering and tweeting today, the blogs and wikis and apparent determination to archive even the most ephemeral and trivial thought has, as James Gleick observes in this magisterial survey, something of the Borgesian about it. Nothing is forgotten; the world imprints itself on the informatosphere at a scale approaching 1:1, each moment of reality creating an indelible replica.

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The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick

But do we gain from it, or was TS Eliot right to say that "all our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance"? Gleick is refreshingly upbeat. In the face of the information flood that David Foster Wallace called "total noise", he says, "we veer from elation to dismay and back". But he is confident that we can navigate it, challenging the view of techno-philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy that "ours is a world about which we pretend to have more and more information but which seems to us increasingly devoid of meaning". Yet this relationship between information and meaning is the crux of the matter, and it is one that Gleick juggles but does not quite get to grips with.

This is not, however, a book that merely charts the rising tide of information, from the invention of writing to the age of Google. To grasp what information truly means – to explain why it is shaping up as a unifying principle of science – Gleick has to embrace linguistics, logic, telecommunications, codes, computing, mathematics, philosophy, cosmology, quantum theory and genetics. He must call as witnesses not only Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel, but also Borges, Poe and Lewis Carroll. There are few writers who could accomplish this with such panache and authority. Gleick, whose 1987 work Chaos helped to kickstart the era of modern popular science, is one.

At the heart of the story is Claude Shannon, whose eclectic interests defy categorisation today and were positively bizarre in the mid 20th century. Having written a visionary but ignored doctoral thesis on genetics, Shannon wound up in the labs of the Bell Telephone Company, where electrical logic circuitry was being invented. There, he worked on code breaking during the second world war. And in 1948 he published in Bell's obscure house journal a theory of how to measure information – not just in a phone line signal but in a random number, a book, a genome. Shannon's information theory looms over everything that followed.

Shannon's real point was that information is a physical entity, like energy or matter. The implications of this are profound. For one thing, manipulating information in a computer then has a minimum energy cost set by the laws of physics. This is what rescues the second law of thermodynamics (entropy or disorder always increases) from the hypothetical "demon" invoked by James Clerk Maxwell in the 19th century to undermine it. By observing the behaviour of individual molecules, Maxwell's demon seemed able to engineer a "forbidden" decrease in entropy. But that doesn't undo the sacrosanct second law, since processing the necessary information (more precisely, having to discard some of it – forgetting is the hard part) incurs a compensating entropic toll. In effect, the demon instead turns information to energy, something demonstrated last year by a group of Japanese physicists – sadly too late for Gleick.

By this point, we are a long way from cuneiform and Morse code, though Gleick makes the path commendably clear. Moreover, he does so with tremendous verve, which is mostly exhilarating, sometimes exhausting and occasionally coy. He is bracingly ready to use technical terms without definition – nonlinear, thermodynamic equilibrium – rightly refusing any infantilising hand-holding.

What impresses most is how he delves beneath the surface narrative to pull out the conceptual core. Written language, he explains, did not simply permit us to make thoughts permanent – it changed thinking itself, enabling abstraction and logical reasoning. Language is a negotiation whose currency is information. A child learning to read is not simply turning letters into words but is learning how to exploit the redundancies in the system. She reads "this" as "that" not because she confuses the phonemes but because she knows that only a few of them may follow "th", and it's less effort to guess. Read the whole word, we tell her, but we don't do it ourselves. That's why we fail to spot typos: we've got the message already. Language elaborates to no informational purpose; the "u" after "q" could be ditched wholesale. Text messaging lays bare this redundancy: we dnt nd half of wht we wrt.

Shannon's take on language is disconcerting. From the outset, he was determined to divorce information from meaning. That's why a random string of letters is more information-rich, in Shannon's sense, than a coherent sentence. There is a definite value in his measure, not just in computing but in linguistics. Yet to broach information in the colloquial sense, somewhere meaning must be admitted back into all the statistics and correlations.

Gleick acknowledges the tension between information as Shannon's permutation of bits and information as agent of meaning, but a reconciliation eludes him. When he explains the gene with reference to a Beethoven sonata, he says that the music resides neither in acoustic waves nor annotations on paper: "the music is the information". But where and what is that information? Shannon might say, and Gleick implies, that it is in the pattern of notes that Beethoven conceived. But that's wrong. The notes become music only in the mind of a listener primed with the cognitive, statistical and cultural apparatus to weave them into coherent and emotive forms. This means there is no bounded information set that is the music – it is different for every listener, sometimes subtly, sometimes profoundly. The same for literature.

Lest you imagine that this applies only to information impinging on human cognition, it is equally true of the gene. Gleick too readily accepts the standard trope that genes contain the information needed to build an organism. That information is highly incomplete. Genes don't need to supply it all, because they act in a molecular milieu that fills in the gaps. It's not that the music, or the gene, needs the right context to deliver its message – without that context, there is no message, no music, no gene. An information theory that considers just the signal and neglects the receiver is limited. It is the only serious complaint about a deeply impressive and rather beautiful book.

Philip Ball's most recent book is Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People (Bodley Head) © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Last edited by eddie on Sat Jun 18, 2011 4:38 am; edited 1 time in total
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Post  eddie Mon May 02, 2011 10:07 pm

Paul Allen: 'I think Bill Gates was surprised by my book. He'll want an intense discussion about it'

The Microsoft co-founder and multi-billionaire talks about his autobiography in which describes his bizarre working relationship with Bill Gates – and how it was he, not Gates, who had the visionary ideas

Ed Pilkington The Guardian, Monday 2 May 2011

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Paul Allen. Photograph: Tim Knox

Perhaps it's only to be expected, that the co-founders of one of the most powerful corporations on Earth, who have touched the lives of millions of people with products that they dreamed up when they were still kids, should turn out to have been a bit weird. After all, we already knew that Bill Gates had a habit of rocking to and fro when in deep thought, and Paul Allen's decision to build the world's largest privately owned yacht (replete with helicopter landing pads and submarine) is hardly the definition of normality.

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Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft by Paul Allen

But not until now did we know the full extent of Allen and Gates's combined oddity. We didn't know, for instance, that when they got excited they had a way of talking to each other in quick fire that they called "popping up the stack". It meant that they would leap from one subject of conversation to a completely unrelated one, so that if you happened to be listening in to their dialogue you would think they were talking utter gobbledygook.

"So then we can move this string," Gates might say.

"You're right, the other thing will never happen if that's true," would come Allen's rejoinder.

"Exactly! That's the variable we used the last time."

We didn't know either that the pair would go for days and nights struggling with some particularly difficult element of coding then, when they cracked the problem, would roll around the floor giggling hysterically. We didn't know that Gates liked to work in what he called "hardcore" Coca-Cola-fuelled late-night sessions until he would pass out on the office carpet, to the alarm of colleagues. Or that at weekends Allen would give the young Gates – who then weighed barely 50kg – a leg-up into a Dumpster so he could go rummaging around in the office rubbish looking for computer print-outs that would provide clues to early operating systems.

These priceless insights have been brought to us courtesy of Allen himself who, now aged 58 and some 28 years after he quit Microsoft, has finally got around to writing his side of the story. His book is revealing in so many ways, many of them, one suspects, unintended by its author. It illuminates the peculiar cocktail of factors that lay behind the Microsoft miracle – the extraordinary drive, extreme competitiveness, creative brilliance and sheer luck that put the two of them way out in front of the opposition. It exposes the gruelling drudgery that is required to translate great ideas into commercial reality. It unveils Gates's ruthlessness in sweeping out of his way all impediments to success, Allen included. And perhaps most potently, it suggests that even fabulous wealth – Allen is worth $13bn (£7.8bn) – will not buy you satisfaction or heal your wounded pride.

The first thing to strike the reader, though, is how astonishingly young the two of them were when they forged the relationship that would change the world. There is a photo in the book of Allen and Gates soon after they became friends at Lakeside school in Seattle, gathered around one of the lumps of metal that passed as computers in those days. Gates must have been 14 at the time, but with his blond hair and gangly frame looks closer to 9; Allen, all sideburns and corduroy, seems twice his age.

"We were very complementary," Allen says when we meet in Penguin's offices in New York. "From a very young age we both became skilled programmers and knowledgeable about the technology landscape, and excited to do something entrepreneurial. Bill and I were both equally fanatical about learning everything we could."

From the start, it was obvious to Allen that Gates had exceptional qualities. He was smart, competitive and persistent. A couple of years into their friendship, Allen wrote of Gates that he was "very suggestible and is ready to jump at any chance to have fun in strange ways. We fit together very well."

The bond was quaintly touching, knowing what we now know. "Bill and I had a discussion, I remember, probably some time around 1974," Allen says, with a smile. "We said, 'Hey, if we're really successful we could form a company that could grow to around 35 employees.' Microsoft is today north of 90,000 employees. So obviously we blew through our initial hopes and dreams there."

What's striking is that most of that explosive growth occurred after Allen had left the company. When he resigned, in February 1983, the company had a workforce of just 500. Inevitably, perhaps, with the passing of so much time and with Microsoft moving on to new pastures (such as Windows and the Xbox 360), Allen's profile at the forefront of the technology revolution has faded to become something of a spectre – present but only faintly visible. He has become the "other guy", the other founder of the most successful technology company in history, who shares Gates's fabulous riches but little of his recognition or standing on the world stage. And yet in Allen's telling of what happened in those first formative years, it was he, not Gates, who had all the truly visionary ideas. The title of the book alone speaks volumes: Idea Man.

So in the Allen version it was he who came up with the groundbreaking idea that they could write a BASIC software that would unlock the holy grail of the personal computer – the birth of a world in which computers would become so cheap and user-friendly they would be in every home. Gates at first tried to pooh-pooh the idea, he claims, insisting on waiting until more powerful hardware came on the market. Later, it was Allen, not Gates, who created the SoftCard, allowing a popular operating system to be run on Apple computers. It was Allen, not Gates, for heaven's sake, who came up with the name Microsoft (an earlier frontrunner had been Allen & Gates – note whose name came first – but that was deemed too much like a law firm).

As Allen describes their relationship, he would come up with great innovations that Gates would make happen. "During the founding first eight years my ideas were definitely key to the company. Bill would test my ideas. I would come to him with another 10 ideas that never went anywhere – he was the sanity check on the flow of ideas. When it came to selling and marketing and staffing and all those kinds of things, he was much more excited on the business side, so we became very complementary."

This depiction, of Allen as visionary, Gates as glorified salesman, is an extremely radical retelling of the Microsoft story, and it makes me wonder what Allen is seeking to achieve in putting it out there for public consumption after all these years. Is he trying to create a legacy that has got somewhat lost in the way the story has usually been told?

"I don't know about lost," he says. "I just felt it was important to tell my side of the story in as accurate a way as we could. We have hundreds of hours of interviews with people involved, and we have documents. Nobody has contradicted anything in the book on the record. It is what it is."

But any lay person would say the most important part of a technology company is the ideas.

"Right, right," Allen says.

And in the book you write that several of the key ideas were yours.


So instead of the 60%-40% split that Gates insisted on at the start of the company, in favour of Gates, shouldn't it have been the other way round?

"Well, at the time, Bill made an argument that I was getting a salary while he was still at Harvard making no money. I could see the logic of that. Maybe I could have argued more forcefully for the value of my original idea, but at the time I agreed to it."

A politician's answer. I try a slightly different tack. So are you trying, I ask, to come to some resolution over the Microsoft years, to put to rest the feeling that you had all the big ideas that were never fully recognised?

"It has nothing to do with recognition," he replies. "There were some things that nobody had ever really talked about – the final elements that led to my departure. I thought I should just record those. But at the time those things have a real power. I was really surprised. I was stunned and disappointed."

He is alluding to the parts of the book in which he recalls the harsher side of Gates's character, anecdotes from the early days that portray Gates in such a poor light they make the reader cringe with embarrassment for him. Such as the fact that Allen stopped playing chess with Gates after only a few games because Gates was such a bad loser he would sweep the pieces to the floor in anger; or how Gates would prowl the company car park at weekends to check on who had come in to work; or the way he would browbeat Allen and other senior colleagues, launching tirades at them and putting them down with the classic denigrating comment: "That's the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard!"

Worst of all was the way Gates tried to maximise the money for himself, at Allen's expense. After insisting on a 60-40 split in his favour at first, Gates then renegotiated the terms of their partnership to give himself 64-36. As the final insult, Allen overheard Gates discussing with Steve Ballmer (now Microsoft's CEO) how to dilute Allen's equity in the company, complaining that he was so unproductive. Allen was fighting his first bout of life-threatening cancer at the time. "This is unbelievable! It shows your true character, once and for all," Allen said, bursting in.

In some of the US reviews of Idea Man, critics have accused Allen of being driven by bitterness. Is he bitter?

"I don't think the book is bitter at all. I think it's a direct telling of what happened, and tries to give you a real feel of the personalities involved."

He adds that much of the disappointment he felt at what he calls their "failed romance" has faded. "After a few years all that passes. Bill and I have always been friends, even through the ups and downs, and there have been some. Those events were in 1982, there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then."

In Allen's case, much of that water relates to the rather enviable question that he seeks to answer in the later chapters of the book: what do you do if you are a billionaire by the age of 37 and 10 times that by 43? What on earth do you do with all that money? It's a question I'd quite like to have to wrestle with myself, I say, though the quip singularly fails to elicit even a smile from Allen.

As it happens, the answer is quite straightforward, at least it is if you are a boy. You spend billions of dollars playing with boys' toys: you buy a basketball team and an American football team and mingle with the stars of the sporting world. You revel in your passion for music, jamming with Mick Jagger and Bono and hanging out with Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel. You indulge your love of Jimi Hendrix by buying the white Stratocaster he played at Woodstock and many other artefacts, then get Frank Gehry to design one of his trademark buildings in Seattle to house them. You play with rockets, pumping millions into the private space programme SpaceShipOne. Because you've always loved going to the cinema, you invest in DreamWorks when it is founded.

Not to mention Octopus, that yacht he had built, all 126 metres of it, with a full-time crew of more than 50, an industry-standard recording studio, cinema, basketball court and swimming pool, in addition to the helicopter pads and eight-person submarine. That has got to be the ultimate boy's toy, I suggest.

He gives a rare belly laugh, and says: "I don't know about a toy. It's another kind of platform for exploration, though it is big, much bigger than I expected."

Admit it, I say, despite the name of the band you formed, Grown Men, you really never have grown up, have you?

"Yeah. You love these things when you are young, and then you have a chance to realise them . . ."

He pauses, before adding: "Hopefully, you try and do things that will change the world as well."

The changing the world part has risen up his list of priorities in recent years, not least since 2009 when he had his second, unrelated tussle with death in the form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. By the time it was detected, it had already spread to his lymph nodes.

After intensive chemotherapy, he is now in remission. He is tested every few months and is hoping that if he remains clear for a few more years he will be considered cured. He's found ways to cope with the terror of not knowing about the future – friends, working on the book, keeping positive – but he says it has changed his outlook. "All of this reminds you of the fragility of your life, that all of us have only so much time to enjoy life, to do good things, and hopefully make the world a better place."

He's increasingly focusing his time and riches on scientific research into the brain. And he has joined Bill and Melinda Gates billionaire's club where members pledge to give away most of their wealth. Bill Gates again! Isn't he bored rigid of having that man loom over him all over again with his "philanthro-capitalism"? Allen is gracious in reply. "Bill's taken on some huge global health challenges in a great way. He's done some great stuff."

And their relationship today?

"He came to visit me a number of times when I was resting after chemotherapy. I really appreciated it."

What about the book? Gates put out a statement after it was published in the US saying he remembered several of the key Microsoft events differently.

"We haven't had the chance to discuss the details of the book yet. I think Bill was a bit surprised by some of the elements in it, and he'll want to have a very intense discussion about that. That's the way Bill is."

Where will you meet to have the showdown, I ask. He laughs out loud a second time. "Maybe he'll come to my house. Maybe it'll be in a public place so our voices can't be raised too much. Not in a lawyer's office, please." © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Post  eddie Sat Jun 18, 2011 4:37 am

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky – review

There's much to take note of in Shirky's thoughtful portrait of a world in which everybody shares information

Nicholas Lezard, Thursday 16 June 2011 10.05 BST

Clay Shirky is known as a "technology guru". This means that he writes about the internet. Well, someone has to. He also teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. Three years ago he wrote a book called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The heart might sink when contemplating such titles. Stuart Jeffries reviewed the earlier book which, speaking as a print journalist, he found "harrowing". The idea that everyone else's opinion is as valid as, say, that of a Guardian critic, is obviously monstrous.

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Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky

Being a cheerleader for new media (and this book rings, among other things, the death-knell for the archaic understanding that "media" is the plural of "medium"; which Shirky, at his age, ought really to know) means, though, that at some point you are going to have to engage with lolcats. If you do not know what lolcats are, then you are probably the kind of person who is going to be depressed when I tell you: a lolcat is a photograph of a cat with an atrociously spelt caption designed to make one laugh out loud, or "lol". Sample: "im steelin som ur foodz k thx bai." These can be found mainly on the website (How many more little bits of me are going to die inside while writing this review, I wonder?)

It is with some gratitude that I note that Shirky does not think that lolcats in and of themselves represent the best of the new media. "Let's nominate the process of making a lolcat as the stupidest possible creative act," he says. And adds in a parenthesis: "there are other candidates, of course, but lolcats will do as a general case." However, neither does he think of them as representing the end of the enlightenment project. He says that beyond the initial impression a lolcat gives, there is a second message: "You can play this game too."

Now, this is in essence the argument of Here Comes Everybody, and Cognitive Surplus is, if you want to put it like this, Here Comes Everybody 2.0. Shirky portrays a world where everybody shares information of one kind or another – sometimes very useful and important information, such as where to assemble for a demonstration. This, he says, is much more creative than sitting passively in front of a television for hours watching Gilligan's Island. "Even the banal uses of our creative capacity . . . are still more creative and generous than watching TV." Really? I would say instead that we are also grateful recipients of, say, Graham Linehan's incredible talent and creative generosity when we watch a sitcom written by him.

But there is much here that is worth taking good note of. He has thought about these issues, and he knows whereof he speaks. (Although there are the inevitable hiccups. He thinks that "followers of the Arsenal soccer team" are "continually praising the object of their affection", which shows how little he knows about football fans, or indeed Arsenal.) There is also much to take in, and he writes winningly and clearly about what his colleague Nicholas Mirzoeff describes as "the full crazy range of what people are actually interested in". Although it is funny how the phrase "the information superhighway" has been quietly abandoned. It might have died a few years ago, when the online satirical paper The Onion rechristened it "the masturbation superhighway".

Whether humanity will really be changed by the new media is another matter. These are surely different ways of doing the same things. We will still, as one ancient commentator put it, like to lie a-bed of a morning; we will still suffer loss or heartbreak or experience joy irrespective of whether we are on Facebook or not. The fundamentals do not go away. I also note – as did Jeffries in his earlier review of HCE – that Shirky has not eschewed the medium of the book, printed on paper, rather in the manner of an earlier technology. I may also inform him and the reader that the notes I jotted down on the flyleaf in order to write this review were made in pencil, something that you can't do with a Kindle. And I wrote this review with a quill pen and sent it to the Guardian by carrier pigeon. So there.r © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Post  Guest Sat Jun 18, 2011 10:28 am

As long as people realiase that there is also a lot of misinformation on the internet and like any source it needs to be confirmed and checked out.


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Post  eddie Sat Jul 02, 2011 7:51 am

Why we must remember to delete – and forget – in the digital age

Human knowledge is based on memory. But does the digital age force us to remember too much? Viktor Mayer-Schönberger argues that we must delete and let go

Stuart Jeffries, Thursday 30 June 2011 20.30 BST

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Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Photograph: Martin Argles for the Guardian

When Viktor Mayer-Schönberger's stepfather died, he left a collection of 16,000 heavy glass photographic slides, his visual record of decades travelling the world. His stepson had to decide what to do with them. "I had two rules in working out whether to keep a slide. One, if there was anybody in it I knew or might know. Two, if it was beautiful. Know how many I kept? 53."

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Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger

His stepfather also kept a diary of his travels. Mayer-Schönberger doesn't expect to publish it any time soon. "The entries were so dull! What was the temperature, if the butter was good."

But maybe there was a point in his stepdad recording butter quality at some otherwise forgotten breakfast. In his book Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age, Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance and regulation at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute, writes: "Time is quite simply a very difficult dimension of human memory for humans to master."

Mayer-Schönberger says: "My stepfather's diary was probably incredibly meaningful for him because when he read some banal detail about butter, maybe that triggered the memory of the place for him. He externalised what was important for him, so he would have the cues he needed to remember something later."

In Delete, Mayer-Schönberger traces the history of such external memories – cave paintings, scrolls, photographic slides, diaries – and their importance to the flourishing of human knowledge. "Since the early days of humankind," he writes, "we have tried to remember, to preserve our knowledge, to hold on to our memories and we have devised numerous devices and mechanisms to aid us. Yet through millennia, forgetting has remained just a bit easier and cheaper than remembering."

No longer. Because of the digital revolution, he argues, it is easier to keep everything – the drunken email you sent your boss, the photo you put on Facebook in which you're doing something non-CV-enhancing to an inflatable cow – rather than go through the palaver of deciding what to consign to oblivion.

That's because so many of our external memories – digital pictures, emails – are now hardly as heavy as Mayer-Schönberger's stepfather's glass slides, but lighter than bees' wings. The overabundance of cheap storage on hard disks means that it is no longer economical to even decide whether to remember or forget. "Forgetting – the three seconds it takes to choose – has become too expensive for people to use," he writes. If Mayer-Schönberger's stepdad had taken digital photographs, his stepson wouldn't have had to bother thinking about which to delete.

But isn't it great that digital memories correct fallible human ones? "Many of my critics say that forgetting is a weakness of the human mind that we should be happy to get rid of. I agree we benefit from digital memories, but not if that means we lose the capacity to forget because that capacity is valuable."

The dream of overcoming human memory's fallibility was expressed by HG Wells when, in the 1930s, he wrote of a "world brain" through which "the whole human memory can be . . . made accessible to every individual". Today, perhaps we have that world brain, and it is called Google. Mayer-Schönberger sounds an Orwellian note about this: "Quite literally, Google knows more about us than we can remember ourselves."

His point is that a comprehensive memory is as much a curse as a boon. He cites the case of a 41-year-old Californian woman called AJ who, since she was 11, has remembered the events of her every day in agonising detail – what she had for breakfast three decades ago, what happened in each episode of every TV show she watched. That inability to forget, Mayer-Schönberger argues, limits one's decision-making ability and ability to form close links with people who remember less. "The effect may be stronger when caused by more comprehensive and easily accessible external digital memory. Too perfect a recall, even when it is benignly intended to aid our decision-making, may prompt us to become caught up in our memories, unable to leave our past behind."

And not being able to leave our past behind makes humans, he argues, more unforgiving in the digital age than ever before. In 2006, Vancouver-based psychotherapist Andrew Feldmar was crossing the Canada-US border to pick up a friend from Seattle airport – something he'd done many times before. This time, though, the border guard searched online and found that in 2001 Feldmar had written in an academic journal that he had taken LSD in the 1960s. As a result, Feldmar was barred entry to the US. "This case shows that because of digital technology, society's ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory."

In the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham envisaged a prison called a panopticon in which guards could watch prisoners without them knowing whether they were being watched. In the 20th century, Michel Foucault argued that the model of the panopticon was used more abstractly to exercise control over society. In the 21st century, Mayer-Schönberger argues that the panopticon now extends across time and cyberspace, making us act as if we are watched even if we are not. He worries that this "perfect memory" will make us self-censor. "That's becoming standard. In the US most colleges have a mandatory class on how to clean up your Facebook account."

But isn't it good that digital technology encourages us to modify our behaviour? "Not necessarily. If you increase utility of storage, you risk collateral damage. In my home country of Austria, the DNA database keeps samples of everybody who left traces at a crime scene. It even means there are two classes of people – suspects and non-suspects and the class of suspects includes those who have been mugged or raped who have their DNA samples on the database."

Mayer-Schönberger took part in a radio phone-in recently. One caller related how her children's classmates found her image on a website publishing mugshots of convicts. "In the US, there are companies who buy up mugshots of prisoners and put them online – unless you pay $500 to take them down." Surely that's inimical to the spirit of the law whereby convictions become spent and offenders are rehabilitated? "It is inimical, but that's not a question that troubles their business model."

Suddenly this woman was punished again for an offence she had committed more than a decade ago and for which she had spent time in prison. Friends and neighbours treated her as a criminal, even though a day before they had entrusted their children to her care. Mayer-Schönberger writes in the new edition of Delete: "Digital memory, in reminding us of who she was more than 10 years ago, denied her the chance to evolve and change." This story, he argues, typifies how digital memory denies us the capacity to forgive.

Once lost, it's difficult to reconstruct. Germany's lawmakers tried prohibiting HR departments from Googling job applicants – thereby compelling institutional forgetting. "It was impossible to operationalise. They couldn't stop HR department workers Googling at home, for instance."

Mayer-Schönberger believes his book struck a chord. "Nine out of 10 Americans want the right to force websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about them. And for US digital natives [those born after the introduction of digital technology] the figure is 84%."

Why is there such a concern? "People feel vulnerable online and don't trust organisations to protect their personal information. Google was clumsy in dealing with complaints about StreetView. Think of Facebook: it's in their DNA to keep information because they can monetise it."

He's intrigued by what Facebook does to human identity. "In the analogue era, it was relatively simple to keep your lives separate. If my main leisure pursuits were being in the golf club and in an S&M circle, it was essential that no one at the former knew about the latter. Facebook, by not allowing you to have two accounts, problematises that separation. The response is that individuals employ strategies to hack the system – almost all my colleagues have two Facebook accounts, to keep different parts of their lives boxed in."

What can be done to reverse the demise of forgetting? "I suggest we reset the balance and make forgetting just a tiny bit easier than remembering – just enough to flip the default back to where it has been for millennia, from remembering for ever to forgetting over time." He argues that digital storage devices (cameras, mobiles, computers) should automatically delete information that has reached its expiration date.

How? He suggests that users, when saving a document they have created, would have to select an expiration date in addition to the document's name and location on their hard disk. "Expiration dates are about asking humans to reflect – if only for a few moments – about how long the information they want to store may remain valuable."

This chimes with Harvard cyberlaw expert Jonathan Zittrain's idea that we should have a right to declare reputation bankruptcy – ie to have certain aspects of one's digital past erased from the digital memory. Such a right might have helped the woman caller to Mayer-Schönberger's phone-in.

Mayer-Schönberger envisages that each digital camera could have a built-in process to select expiration dates for a photo. Before taking a picture the camera would send out "picture requests" to what he calls "permission devices" (about the size of a key fob that, perhaps, might dangle from our necks) that respond to the request with the owner's preferred expiration date. That date could range from zero to three years to 100 years from now (an option reserved for really memorable pictures).

He concedes expiration dates are no overall solution to the problem, but what he likes about them is that they make us think about the value of forgetting and, also, that they involve negotiation rather than simply imposing a technical solution to a technical problem. There are alternatives, such as turning your back on the digital age. "I don't like digital abstinence. I want us to embrace participation in digital culture and global networks. Just not at any cost."

He argues that digital memory intrudes into our most intimate relationships. "Think of my old love letters. I hope they were destroyed or they're rotting in some attic. There's an implicit ethical agreement that they won't be used against me or published." In the digital age, such implicit ethical agreements are rendered obsolete. So much of our past is so readily retrievable in the digital age that we can't help but stumble across things we'd do better to forget. In Delete, he imagines a sad little story of two friends meeting after not seeing each other for years. John and Jane arrange to go for coffee at an old haunt to reminisce. But Jane can't quite remember the name of the cafe. So she has a brainwave – she'll check through her old emails to John. As she looks for the cafe address, she stumbles across an exchange with him that poisons her attitude to him. Instead of forgiving and forgetting, she is overwhelmed with old resentment and, quite possibly, won't turn up for that coffee.

Our digital footprints, that's to say, can trip us up later on – unless we self-censor assiduously. Given that, what information is Viktor Mayer-Schönberger prepared to disclose to me about himself – given it will be Googlable for the forseeable? He tells me he was born in a small Austrian alpine resort called Zell am See 45 years ago. Little Viktor started computer programming when he was 12, invented a new computer language aged 14, and before he was out of his teens had won awards at the International Physics Olympics and the Austrian Young Programmers Contest. Aged 18 he started a data security company called Ikarus Software.

He sold Ikarus at 26, amassed degrees from Salzburg, Cambridge, Harvard and the LSE. He worked for his father's tax law practice, then spent 10 years on the faculty of Harvard's John F Kennedy school of government. Last October, he took up his Oxford appointment. He has John Lennon glasses, and sounds – thanks to all those Stateside years – like Steve Buscemi. He has a wife and one child and hopes that this information will never be used against him. But, given how little we know about the future, who knows if that will happen?

When we finish this interview the professor did not activate a permission device to change preset expiration dates for the online version of this article, which was kind of him. In future, journalism may well not be like that.

"One thing that's pleased me since I've been working in this area is some online services have implemented expiration dates for information." Among them was, which offered private file sharing with expiration dates – and was bought up by Facebook last year. Google also now has a facility to set dates after which a web page will no longer be included in its search results displayed to users. He is heartened too by the tendency to encourage digital users to set privacy settings. "When Apple launched iCloud , it allowed you to sync privacy setting across devices – that's incredibly nifty."

Mayer-Schönberger is now researching what he calls "institutions of remembering". "We set up institutions of memory to help us remember important things – such as the Holocaust, for example. But with Google and Flickr and other sites offering seemingly comprehensive memory, we might be prompted to devalue these established institutions of memory. They risk being drowned out by stuff online. My fear is that the digital age, while benefiting us enormously, impoverishes us too."

Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age is published in paperback on 25 July by Princeton University Press, £12.50. © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011
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Post  eddie Sun Jul 03, 2011 5:06 pm

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr – review

Is the internet really altering the way our minds work?

Ian Tucker The Observer, Sunday 3 July 2011

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Nicholas Carr argues that the internet is rewiring our brains in its image. Photograph: Howard Sochurek/Corbis

It feels odd to write, or indeed review, a book that states: "For some the very idea of reading a book has come to seem old fashioned, maybe even a little silly…" The author of this one even confesses that, while reading, "my concentration starts to drift after a page or two". This must have made the writing, editing and proofreading processes quite tricky. Still, he manfully completed 224 pages and, to judge by the footnotes, must have read a large number of serious tomes in the process.

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The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by Nicholas Carr

According to Carr, the internet is to blame for reading becoming so much harder these days. Carr is no luddite. He admits and celebrates how the net has given us access to gigabytes of previously hard-to-find information, has exposed us to the lives and views of an exponentially expanding number of people and communities, and made buying aeroplane tickets really easy (and books too, for that matter).

But, he says, it has altered the way our minds work. The web encourages us to click and flick. Soon all our brains want to do is click and flick. We stop reading novels, and before we know it, "the linear, literary mind" becomes "yesterday's mind".

Carr puts together an informative history of brain science to back up his argument. The latest neuroscience says that our grey matter is malleable and plastic. And as the internet remoulds and rewires the brain in its image, the old book-reading circuits fall out of use and wither.

Unsurprisingly, Carr comes across as someone who is uncomfortable with change. The internet has too many distracting flashing lights; it's a bit noisy. While he points out that he was an early adopter who spent all his savings on a Macintosh SE, he seems more comfortable with digital devices that help him with analogue tasks (such as word processing) than entirely new digital forms, such as Facebook. One begins to wonder whether Carr is mourning the death of the author, the end of narratives and all that, and using neuroscience to vindicate his grieving.

Read this book: you'll learn lots of interesting stuff, lots of thought-provoking theories about the brain, about Google. And if you finish it, you'll have a satisfying sense of having, at an individual level, disproved its thesis. Or buy it, knife out all the pages, bin a few, shuffle the rest and begin to digest. It may not be what the author intended, but you might learn more, and make some stimulating connections along the way – just like you do on the internet.
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Post  eddie Sun Jul 31, 2011 8:54 pm

Feeling Lucky by Douglas Edwards – review

The confessions of Google employee number 59

Steven Poole, Thursday 28 July 2011 12.23 BST

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Illustration by Clifford Harper/

In Douglas Coupland's 1995 novel Microserfs, the twentysomethings who work at Microsoft are so cossetted by perks and freebies that they barely have lives outside the office "campus". Reading this book's picture of the early days at Google, one is tempted to suppose that the founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, pored over Microserfs very carefully indeed: "Google encased us in a cocoon of essential services – on-site haircuts, on-site car washes, on-site dentist and doctor, free massages, free snacks, free lunch, free dinner, gaming groups, movie nights, wine and beer clubs," and so on. If you worked at Google, Google was your life.

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I'm Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59 by Douglas Edwards

Douglas Edwards was "Google's word guy" between 1999 and 2005, responsible for official text and branding. A former journalist with a literature degree, he portrays himself as a rather bemused outsider, indulges in a lot of retrospective office-politics point-scoring, and insists, with curious pride, on his utter lack of technical chops: apparently he never bothered to learn even basic HTML while at Google, nor did he take a few seconds to look up the definition of a "Java Virtual Machine" for the purposes of writing this book. He does, however, have a pretty line in wry tech metaphor, speaking at one point of a moment when "the kids went offline in the back seat of the Taurus", or describing a colleague thus: "Her mind worked so quickly that her buffer overflowed, filling all available conversational space with a flurry of words."

On his own account, though, Edwards had value precisely as a non-programmer, furnishing a humanistic corrective to the narrow software-engineer's idea of "smart". To the geeks' mantra that the data don't lie, Edwards responds sensibly: "I would discover, however, that data does lie. Sometimes the method of collecting it is flawed, sometimes it's misinterpreted, and sometimes it provides only part of the answer." Even Google's famed algorithms couldn't do everything: after belatedly conceding that advertising copy had to be screened by humans, the company eventually hired thousands of people to do it.

But then Google's success has always been built on iterated failure. Its first social network, Orkut, was launched before Facebook but doomed by what one employee quoted here calls "tech snobbery": it was starved of the resources it needed to scale up. Later on, Buzz and Wave came and went unlamented (and, in the case of the latter, uncomprehended by nearly everyone). Now the geekocracy are salivating over invites to Google+, the giant's latest attempt to catch up with Twitter and Facebook.

Early on, Edwards warns that, as his story stops in 2005, "This book won't delve deeply into Google's current imbroglios over censorship, regulation, and monopoly." But we do get some relevant prehistory. On 11 September 2001, employees were instructed to download all the text and HTML of news sites in order to display it on Google. "No one asked whether it was within our legal rights to appropriate others' content," Edwards comments laconically. He describes, too, a clever move in the early stages of Google's book-digitisation masterplan: at first, they scanned only product catalogues, knowing that no company would complain about free promotion. Page and Brin's attitude to user privacy (retention and data-mining of search history, etc), meanwhile, appears little better than the notoriously contemptuous stance of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. "I found few converts," Edwards writes wistfully, "to my vision of users making fully informed decisions about the data they shared with us."

Google, it seems, was run simply as Larry and Sergey's fiefdom: "The only rules that applied were the ones they agreed upon." Lords need their vassals, of course, and the founders are portrayed as curiously avaricious in terms of their "human resources". Analysing a decision to hire someone instead of using him as a consultant, Edwards writes: "Larry and Sergey didn't like renting intelligence when they could buy it. There are only so many really smart people in the world. Why not collect them all?"

What, then, did the self-congratulatorily superintelligent masters of Google accomplish with all these human Pokémon? They, er, found new ways to sell advertising. When they were still at Stanford, Brin and Page had argued that a search engine that ran ads had an obvious conflict of interest. So ads at first were considered "evil", until they could be corporately blessed by labelling them "useful" instead (because "targeted" to the user's "interests"), and presenting them separately from "organic" search results. Still, people who today find their Google results littered with zillions of useless splogs (spam blogs set up to catch popular search terms) might doubt that the company has sufficient motivation to clean up its listings: the splog-farmers, after all, are making money for Google as well as themselves by running its ads.

Google's wholesale embrace of advertising might have had another pernicious, if more subtle, effect. "Ross had a PhD in aerospace robotics," Edwards writes of one employee, "and notions of his own about how the ads system should develop." One cannot help wondering about the loss to the world of flying robots that resulted from this change of field. Another Googler, Edwards reports, "led an effort to build one of the biggest machine-learning systems in the world – just to improve ad targeting." Reading the story of this steady brain-drain from other disciplines (Google's early network-hardware guy was a former brain surgeon), one recalls what the former Facebook engineer, Jeff Hammerbacher, told BusinessWeek earlier this year: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks."

The fact is, of course, that online adverts are now considered the best hope for survival by most of the "old media" that Google's brilliant minds have worked so assiduously to render obsolete.

Unspeak: Words are Weapons by Steven Poole is published by Abacus.
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Post  TinyMontgomery Sun Jul 31, 2011 10:24 pm

It's a bit dated but still possibly the essential book about Microsoft:

Information, the Internet etc. 51Tc3JuGv4L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date
Robert X. Cringley

Robert X. Cringley details how the major fortunes were made in Silicon Valley by such hardware and software companies as Apple, Microsoft, Lotus, and Compaq. His subtitle, while not accurately describing the book’s contents (there is little concerning foreign competition or dating habits), offers a clue about the nature of the book, which is not a business manual but rather a lively, irreverent look at the personal computer (PC) industry by the “gossip columnist” for INFOWORLD magazine.

Cringley calls the PC industry one of America’s greatest success stories, even though it succeeded more or less by accident. Most of the people who founded the most successful companies were amateurs, he says, and most of them still are. Lack of business experience is not necessarily a flaw in this industry. Cringley describes how those who took risks, let their egos run rampant, and operated under rules that are not taught in business school (or no rules at all) often succeeded where the professional managers at IBM and elsewhere failed.

ACCIDENTAL EMPIRES is full of anecdotes about the major personalities in the PC industry. Cringley perhaps carries his personal analysis too far, explaining much of Steve Jobs’ business behavior at Apple and NeXT, for example, by the fact that he was adopted. Technical developments receive just enough attention to keep them interesting and to support Cringley’s conclusions and predictions for the future. Perhaps the most surprising prediction is that the mainframe computer industry will slump at the millennium as a result of the fact that changing the software to reflect the date change will be more expensive than buying new minicomputers and networks of PCs.

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Post  TinyMontgomery Sun Jul 31, 2011 10:27 pm

Another classic:

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Clifford Stoll - The Cuckoo's Egg

THE CUCKOO'S EGG by Clifford Stoll is subtitled the more descriptive though less poetic "Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Counterespionage." although much of the world has changed since these events of 1989, it's still a fascinating story sure to appeal to everyone who enjoys reading about computers and international espionage, because it's a true story of both. THE CUCKOO'S EGG by Clifford Stoll takes us back to the days when the Internet was unknown to those of us outside the scientific and academic worlds and the Soviet Union was an active threat.

THE CUCKOO'S EGG by Clifford Stoll -- an astronomer by training -- starts his second day on the job as a systems administrator at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. He is faced with an earth-shaking problem -- a 75 cent discrepancy in the phone bill!

If he had more experience and confidence, he may have ignored that to focus his attention on problems of a higher priority, but didn't, so he decided he ought to be able to quickly learn who on his network had logged 75 cents worth of computer time without accounting for it.

So he checked through the user accounts and discovered the culprit -- Hunter. But Hunter didn't have a valid billing address. Who was Hunter?

Although some of the details of the days that follow may be too detailed for some readers, they are as fascinating as Tom Clancy at his technical best.
We learn Hunter can get away with his antics because he found a backdoor bug in Unix through open source advocate Richard Stallman's GNU-EMACs text editor

Its mail utility runs with root privileges, allowing the hacker to substitute his own Unix atun program for the real one -- the cuckoo's egg of the title -- and therefore granting himself super-user status in the system, meaning he can do anything he wanted.

The only clue he slips is a one letter command that gives away his unfamiliarity with the Berkeley version of Unix in use at the Lawrence Laboratory. He uses stodgy old AT&T Unix -- so he couldn't be a local student, but from the East Coast.

That doesn't keep him from using his super-user status on their network to hack into military base networks and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and MILNET, the network of the Department of Defense.

Realizing he is dealing with a potential national security threat, and just ticked off at somehow hacking into HIS system, Stoll steadfastly tracks the intruder through the phone systems of the world, including ARPANET of the Internet and TYMNET, a long distance telephone network.

Staying up late every night because he never knew when the hacker would come, Stoll step by step tracks him back to the East Coast and then overseas. Getting the cooperating of the FBI, overseas telephone companies and law enforcement was difficult, but he finally got the finger pointed at one Markus Hess of the University of Bremen, Germany.

In those days the champion hackers were the Chaos Club of Germany, and Markus Hess apparently knew some of them. Although they claimed to hack to improve security, Hess and some others apparently provided their computer skills to the Soviet Union, who paid them for the information they discovered.

THE CUCKOO'S EGG by Clifford Stoll is highly recommended for anyone interested in the "early" days of computing, hacking and international espionage.

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Post  TinyMontgomery Sun Jul 31, 2011 10:28 pm

"The Cuckoo's Egg" appears to be available online:

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Post  eddie Thu Nov 03, 2011 1:34 pm

DarkMarket by Misha Glenny - review

A riveting study of the internet's global crime networks

Thomas Jones, Tuesday 1 November 2011 16.55 GMT

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True crime: post by Master Splyntr on DarkMarket. Photograph: SOCA/PA

I've just received an email from "Co-operative Bank" informing me that a "message regarding 'payment on hold'" is waiting for me in my "Secure Message Center" and inviting me to log into my account to retrieve it. Even if I did bank with the Co-op, I'd like to think I wouldn't be foolish enough to fall for the scam. But in DarkMarket, Misha Glenny describes meeting Brazilian hackers who ran a phishing operation along these lines and "secured tens of millions of dollars for themselves from bank accounts in Brazil, Spain, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States". As Glenny observes, "if a hacker sends out several million spam emails, he does not need a high response rate in order for it to be worthwhile".

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DarkMarket: Cyberthieves, Cybercops and You
by Misha Glenny

This morning's phishing bait dropped into my inbox from an anonymous address in Denmark; the hyperlinks to the supposed banking log-in page redirect to a site registered in Poland. A few years ago, the British anti-spam website exposed a Polish hacker, Pavel Kaminski, who went by the nickname "Master Splyntr", as one of "the world's top five spammers". In 2006, Master Splyntr was made one of the administrators of DarkMarket, a website dedicated to facilitating the exchange of information – above all, stolen credit card details, extracted either through phishing scams or illegal "skimming" machines piggybacked on to cash dispensers – between hackers, "carders" (credit card fraudsters), spammers and other cyberthieves. Glenny's riveting and comprehensive account of DarkMarket's rise and fall shines a disconcerting light into some of the dingier corners of the internet.

Glenny conducted more than 200 hours of interviews to gather the material for DarkMarket, speaking to most of the major players on both sides of the law. The book is structured like a thriller, though the story's gripping enough not to need it. Glenny begins on the outer fringes of the DarkMarket web, where its tendrils reach out into daylight, with a West Yorkshire clergyman whose bank account has been hacked into. He then more or less follows the money, which leads him first to the Nigerian chemical engineer in Scunthorpe who was robbing Rev John, and on to DarkMarket's adminstrators: an unlikely alliance, possible only on the internet, of a Tamil crack addict in north London, a middle-class teenager in Baden-Württemberg, a representative of a Turkish crime syndicate, and Master Splyntr the Polish spammer. At least, that's who they appeared to be: one of them was in fact a deep cover FBI agent, who had infiltrated the site and who engineered its demise in 2008.

DarkMarket covers more physical territory than a Bourne movie. One of the reasons cybercrime is hard to police is that it's so widely distributed geographically. As Glenny puts it, money can be "stolen by a Russian in Ukraine from an American company and paid out in Dubai – and the whole transaction need last no longer than 10 minutes". Even if law enforcement agents are able to penetrate the sophisticated firewalls that the criminals hide behind, they often find prosecution difficult or impossible, either because of a lack of hard evidence – one hacker, Roman Vega, has been imprisoned without trial in the United States for seven years – or because their quarry is outside their jurisdiction.

A lot of the biggest carding operations have been run out of Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has an extradition treaty with the US. All Russian internet service providers are required to send a copy of every packet of data that passes through their servers to the secret police, and encrypting computer files is illegal. In theory, this means that all internet activity in the country is monitored by the FSB. In practice, this means that Russian gangsters could have a hard time ripping off their compatriots, but as long as they confine their activities to cardholders in the US and western Europe, the authorities are happy to turn a blind eye.

A bigger threat to cybercrooks may come not from law enforcement agencies but from other criminals. For a long time DarkMarket was subject to hacking attacks from Iceman, aka Max Ray Vision (né Butler), the mastermind behind a rival website called CardersMarket, until his arrest in September 2007. Last year he was sentenced to 13 years in prison. Vision used to be a patriot, seeking out and patching up holes in the Pentagon's cyber defences. The trouble was, he didn't see the need to tell the Defense Department what he was doing, and in 1998 he was arrested on suspicion of infecting them with a virus.

Glenny points out that the hundreds of billions of dollars being spent on cyber security are almost all "invested in technology", but "there is virtually no investment in trying to ascertain who is hacking and why". However, it's hard to go along with his suggestion, following a hazy summary of Simon Baron-Cohen's (much contested) work on autism and sex difference, that it could "be possible to identify hacker personality types among children who are still at school" and "offer them ethical guidance so that their abilities can be channelled in positive directions". One of DarkMarket's early chapters, ironically enough, is entitled "Miranda Speaks of a Brave New World".
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