February 6, 2013

Edward Tufte was a phreak

Category: academic,Phreaking — Biella @ 11:09 am

It has been so very long since I have left a trace here. I guess moving to two new countries (Canada and Quebec), starting a new job, working on Anonymous, and finishing my first book was a bit much.

I miss this space, not so much because what I write here is any good. But it a handy way for me to keep track of time and what I do and even think. My life feels like a blur at times and hopefully here I can see its rhythms and changes a little more clearly if I occasionally jot things down here.

So I thought it would nice to start with something that I found surprising: famed information designer, Edward Tufte, a professor emeritus at Yale was a phone phreak (and there is a stellar new book on the topic by former phreak Phil Lapsley.

He spoke about his technological exploration during a sad event, a memorial service in NYC which I attended for the hacker and activist Aaron Swartz. I had my wonderful RA transcribe the speech, so here it is [we may not have the right spelling for some of the individuals so please let us know of any mistakes]:

Edward Tufte’s Speech From Aaron Swartz’s Memorial
Speech starts 41:00 [video cuts out in beginning]
“We would then meet over the years for a long talk every now and then, and my responsibility was to provide him with a reading list, a reading list for life and then about two years ago Quinn had Aaron come to Connecticut and he told me about the four and a half million downloads of scholarly articles and my first question is, ‘Why isn’t MIT celebrating this?’.
[Video cuts out again]
Obviously helpful in my career there, he then became president of the Mellon foundation, he then retired from the Mellon foundation, but he was asked by the Mellon foundation to handle the problem of JSTOR and Aaron. So I wrote Bill Bullen(sp?) an email about it, I said first that Aaron was a treasure and then I told a personal story about how I had done some illegal hacking and been caught at it and what happened. In 1962, my housemate and I invented the first blue box, that’s a device that allows for free, undetectable, unbillable long distance telephone calls. And we got this up and played around with it and the end of our research came when we concluded what was the longest long distance call ever made, which was from Palo Alto to New York time-of-day via Hawaii, well during our experimentation, AT&T, on the second day it turned out, had tapped our phone and uh but it wasn’t until about 6 months later when I got a call from the gentleman, AJ Dodge, senior security person at AT&T and I said, ‘I know what you’re calling about.” and so we met and he said ‘You what you are doing is a crime that would…’, you know all that. But I knew it wasn’t serious because he actually cared about the kind of engineering stuff and complained that the tone signals we were generating were not the standard because they record them and play them back in the network to see what numbers they we were that you were trying to reach, but they couldn’t break though the noise of our signal. The upshot of it was that uh oh and he asked why we went off the air after about 3 months, because this was to make long distance telephone calls for free and I said this was because we regarded it as an engineering problem and we made the longest long distance call and so that was it. So the deal was, as I explained in my email to Bill Bullen, that we wouldn’t try to sell this and we were told, I was told that crime syndicates would pay a great deal for this, we wouldn’t do any more of it and that we would turn our equipment over to AT&T, and so they got a complete vacuum tube isolator kit for making long distance phone calls. But I was grateful for AJ Dodge and I must say, AT&T that they decided not to wreck my life. And so I told Bill Bullen that he had a great opportunity here, to not wreck somebody’s life, course he thankfully did the right thing.
Aaron’s unique quality was that he was marvelously and vigorously different. There is a scarcity of that. Perhaps we can be all a little more different too.
Thank you very much.”

September 7, 2010


This summer of 2010 has been memorable. It started with a difficult period following the hospitalization and death of my mother, a series of very intense and equally memorable conferences catapulting me out of my funk and ending with a trip to Ireland, perhaps one of my most pleasant trips ever. I have always wanted to go there, as I have some good Irish friends and I was also quite attracted to the place due to its history, so when the opportunity came for me to go, I did not hesitate to book my ticket. I was not left disappointed in any way, shape or form, although since I barely experienced the gray, misty, and rainy weather Irish is famous for, my experience may admittedly be a bit skewed.

These are some of things I did and some of my fragmented thoughts about Ireland and some photos, proof that the weather was UnIrish

Ireland and The Irish: Well I can’t—as no one can—speak of The Irish as if they were some unitary group but I did learn a lot about Irish history and managed hang out with a number Irish folks (even a family) and one thing that seems to mark Ireland as distinct, what makes it stand out from the rest of its Western European brothers and sisters, is the pervasive sense of history bleeding into the ambiance, perhaps because it is so tragic. The short version of the history, if you don’t know it, is that the Irish, especially the Catholics, got repeatedly screwed by the British monarchs/rulers/planters/government/ for nearly a thousand years, the last five hundred of those being particularly harsh and ugly, a cycle of slight gains crushed by various forms of tyranny and violence at least until part of the country achieved independence (Northern Ireland is a bit of a different story).

I may have gone a bit out of my way to learn about Irish history, more than I have done for any other place, but this historical consciousness seemed to be inescapable, precipitating into all sorts of conversations and places. To take one example, I went to see Gaelic Football, one of the two beloved national sports (the other being hurling), and the minute you learn anything about this sport, you learn that it is intimately bound with the Irish fight for independence and nationalism.

The Irish are also very warm, kind, and outgoing. They also seem to curse an awful lot as well, so much so cursing is a bit of a national pastime, which yes, I (f*cking) loved as I tend to have a bit of a foul mouth myself, curbed I will admit, in recent years and in the classroom. It crept up in a lot of places but was most pronounced during the All Ireland Semi-Final Gaelic football game when the ladies (not lads, mind you) behind me were constantly yelling at the referee, hurling the c-word (rhymes with trunk) whenever they made a call they disagreed with.

EASA/Maynooth.: I went to Ireland to attend the largest Anthropological meetings in Europe, and in specific an all day panel on digital anthropology, which seemed like a great opportunity given we are a a bit of a minority. The conference was impressively large with roughly 1200 attendees (can you believe there are that many anthropologists?), smoothly run, and the all-day panel on digital media was quite lively and I got to meet some really interesting folks. I was a tad sad to find out Maynooth is the only university in Ireland with an Anthropology department (for crying shame lads!!!) but at least it is located in a darn stunning university: the old quarters of the campus are strikingly beautiful.

Anonymous: I have done some work on Anonymous and well when I found out there was going to be a raid/protest at the Church of Scientology (a pretty dismal, and run down church), I got in contact with Irish anon to let them know I was coming. Although someone first decapitated me (at least in character with their norms, right?), when I showed up in person, they were not only civil but really quite hospitable (greeting me with one of my favorite songs). Overall it was a great day. I was reminded of important differences among Anons (Irish Anon’s take their anonymity pretty seriously, the New York Anons do not) and also good to experience the social life and metabolism of a protest, especially one attended by folks who have lost family to the church.

Dublin: Since I stayed with my friend and his family in Dublin, this is where I spent most of my time. I was able to hook up with various friends, including one from graduate school who just got back from years of fieldwork in Rwanda and hearing about his experiences and stunning but stunningly sad project made me feel like mine in comparison was Child’s Play (in fact, it really was). I got to see the Debian crew (many who work at Google) and I finally paid a visit to the office, which was exactly how I imagined it to be (good and abundant food, good lighting, lots of toys and bikes, lots of Star Wars posters.. Yep, it could have been in Silicon Valley). But I was surprised at the young age of the marketing and sales folks who were hanging in their lounge when I ran into them. In fact when I saw them I thought like I was looking at my freshman class or something! It was great to see the Debian folks (though no one I met was actually Irish), as well, one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit a foreign city.

I walked my heart out in the city getting a blister in a shoe that I thought was blister proof and while not as picturesque as some other European cities, it has a ton of character and no shortage of Guinness and pubs (no surprise there). My favorite places/things were: The National Library (great exhibit on Yeats, but make sure to use the multi-media as that is where all the information is stuffed), St. Stephen’s Park (overflowing with chubby ducks and lovely flowers), the prison Kilmainham Gaol (would not advise a visit if you are feeling in any way down, there is some heavy shit you learn during the tour), the simple stained glass that seemed pretty common, and finally the Long Room in Trinity Church, which you enter after the Book of Kells (I realized just how much I adore books when I visited this old library stuffed from floor to ceiling with old old old books).

The West Coast: I did not think I was going to head out west but after hurricane Earl started its burst along the eastern Seaboard and I was able to change my ticket for free so I stayed a few more days. I went to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher both totally stunning, really majestic. As is often the case with these type of these natural wonders, I am often left elated and awed but such strikingly wondrous places also seem to subsequently spur a more melancholic state of mind and heart.

Friends, Family, and Dogs: While in Dublin I stayed with my friend A. and his extremely hospitable family, which included, a brother, a father, and three Irish mutts, one of which, Buster (pitt bull/lab mix), pretty much stole my heart. Buster’s true love, is food, so much so he almost poised himself to death a little while back snorting down something he shouldn’t have costing the family a pretty penny to save him. My friend no longer lives there but came from Berlin and it was a real treat to not only spend days layered upon each other with a friend (it has been an awful long since I have done that outside of conferences) but also meet his family. You learn a lot about your friends that way and in this case, there is some serious and I mean serious intellectual jousting that happens, sometimes bordering on warfare but generally it plays out in more contained, civil and fascinating fashion. Now I understand why my friend is armed with seemingly endless knowledge: it was needed for purposes of defense at home.

So in essence, a great, great trip and a fantastic way to end a memorable summer and transition into what I hope will be a bit of a monkish (I call it monk mode) period for this academic year. I am (so so so) fortunate enough to have a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study and am going to try my darnest to take advantage of the fact I am not teaching (Hell Yes!) and hide away and accomplish all that I have set out to do.

July 14, 2010

Annual Review of Anthropology on Digital Media

I don’t remember how but I remember when I first stumbled on an “Annual Review of Anthropology.” Reading the first one was like stumbling accidentally into a pirate chest of gold doubloons. I was simultaneously flabbergasted, elated, and somewhat annoyed. I could not believe how helpful of a resource the articles were, how interesting it was to learn about the state of the field (since each review covers one topic) and what a time saver it was in terms of research. I was annoyed only because no one had really properly clued me into its existence and felt like it was one of the things that every graduate student should know about like before they even entered their program.

When I got asked to write one a few years ago, a mix of conflicting emotions welled up. I was honored and horrified at the same time for I knew that it would require some of the heaviest lifting I have ever engaged in, which turned out to be the case. I almost quit twice but managed to turn in the first draft on time, before the deadline (thanks to a scheduled trip to NZ).

After a parade of months of reading, drafting, and rethinking, the uncorrected proofs are now online on the ARA wesbite (you need library access to fetch it and the link is tiny and on the right hand corner). The corrected proofs will be there in a few months but all the mistakes at this point are typos, although I would check back to get the final copy for the purposes of citation.

There is a lot more I want to say about the piece and the process of writing it but I will leave such ruminations for future posts. For now, it suffices to say that with a piece like this, you become a dart board, as my friend cleverly put it the other night. I am sure I have overlooked folks (I was working within very thrifty parameters, 6000 words, 150 citations though I managed to get a bit more) and I could have pushed everything further than I did, though this again was very hard to do given the constraints. I decided in the end to be as inclusive as I could, which meant sacrificing a few lines of thought, which I hope to pick up in the future. The part I like the most is the last bit, where I conclude by with the help of systems administrators and spam.

October 26, 2008

When did the term cracker arise?

Category: academic,Hackers,Politics — Biella @ 4:06 am

Seegras asked

Until Eric S. Raymond turns up in 1990 with this: “CRACKER (krak’r) n. One who breaks security on a system. Coined c. 1985 by hackers in defense against journalistic misuse of HACKER,
see definition #6.”

And I’ve never heard before of this; so I presume ESR himself decided that people who break into systems are now called by a name which some other group had already applied to themselves. I anyone has some documents referring to this kind of “crackers” from before 1990 and not from ESR, I’d be happy to hear of. And I’ve got plenty of documentation on the other “crackers”, those who crack copyprotection, from 1980 onwards…

Does anyone know the answer? Have any thoughts? I penned a few comments below as well but won’t repeat them here. His comment as well as Nona’s reminded me of this brilliant shirt crafted by Mathew Garret.

October 17, 2008

Measuring a Courses’ Success: xkcd

Category: academic,Hackers,Teaching — Biella @ 9:56 am

So we are about 1/2 way done with my hacker class and I have to say it has been a pretty fun ride, especially since many students thought hacking was all about pimply kids engaging in malicious acts of computer violence and many had no knowledge of basic technological concepts like UNIX or source code. We had to first sweep away the cobwebs of misrepresentation and replace with a more solid foundation of facts (however messy the world of hacking still is!)

But after building a foundation, you still wonder whether students are learning. Traditionally we gauge progress with exams or essays, which can be effective but let’s face it, at times a little tedious. But today a student sent me the following very short email, which made me realize I had another barometer at my disposal to gauge their progress xkcd:


I wouldn’t have gotten the joke if it wasn’t for you. Thanks.

The email not only made me smile (for it is always nice to know your students are leaning something) but it gave me the idea that in the future I might include a comic based exams composed of 5-10 comic strips (many from xkcd) and ask for an exegesis of them. Why not? Seems like fun to me. And it would be great to include the following as one of my course objectives: “By the end of this class you will be able to read xkcd and actually understand (most) of it.” If they could do that, well, they must have learned at least something :-)


One of my readers, Florian, sent this nice bit, which I have not read before:

“I read your blog via Planet Debian and immediately felt reminded of Jane
Goodall’s Foreword to Gary Larson’s The Far Side Gallery 5 which I’d
like to share with you:”

| Recently I was talking with one of the best researcher know, Tim
| O’Halloran. He has been able to inspire generations of middle and high
| school students to care for the natural world. Tim told me that Gary
| Larson has had a major impact on his teaching. Tim uses Far Side
| cartoons to introduce topics, to illustrate points, and to “reinforce
| the notion that the more we investigate the universe, the richer is our
| experience.” When designing exam papers Tim finds the cartoons “ease the
| tension and spark the memory.” It all began when, in the fall of 1985,
| he was given the task of teaching science to 162 Tulsa ninth-graders who
| were convinced that it was absolutely irrelevant to their futures. Tim
| put one hundred Far Side cartoons on a large bulleting board, and told
| the students to study them. The consensus was that they didn’t
| understand the humor – The Far Side was “too weird”. However, Tim wrote
| me, “Each time we completed a unit and the students approached the
| bulletin board with newly acquired wisdom, I smiled quietly and thanked
| the cosmos for Gary’s perspectives as the kids roared with the confident
| laughter of the enlightened.”

Having taught myself for a while, I can fully and happily relate.

Later in the semester, and for my hacker course, we will be reading Understanding Comics, which will give us a bit of a meta perspective on why comics are so good at conveying a certain type of message. I can’t wait to read it as I have heard it is fantastic.

December 2, 2007

The other AAA’s

Category: academic,Anthropology — Biella @ 6:19 pm

The (overpriced) Amtrak train is rapidly hurling itself north toward New York City, the vanishing light gently illuminating the first snowfall of the year. I am heading back from the American Anthropological Association annual meetings, which were held in Washington D.C this year. After a year’s hiatus, I attended to present a short version of my paper on hacker conferences, which I have pushed along further to entertain more general questions and ideas about the role of conferences in ensuring forms of solidarity among publics that are dispersed geographically. While there are other events that are far more visceral or more profoundly produce what Emile Durkheim has called collective effervescence, conferences are probably one of the most common social forms for ensuring a steady state of moral solidarity among connected but geographically dispersed groups of people. Their importance and role is often overlooked, I think, because of their sheer ubiquity (and I am sure the fact that many are held in creepy corporate hotels populated by seriously over sized & gaudy furniture where you can sit and sip your overpriced Starbuck’s coffee does not help). But it is because they are so common that I think we need to take them a little more seriously as distinctly 20th century events that combine much older elements of ritual and pilgrimage.

Because I have attended so many developer and hacker conferences, which tend to be longer as well as far more more enveloping, festive, and, frankly, well executed than academic ones, I tend to think of academic conferences as tepid, lightweight versions. But as I make my way back home, I am pretty worn yet inspired from this one as I decided to sort of let go to give it my all, sleeping far less than I really should have. I usually hold back some, perhaps because most academic conferences I attend are smack in the middle of the academic year, so my mind is partially occupied with the pile of work that awaits me, somewhat depressingly, at the end of your journey. Academic conferences can also produce a fair bit of anxiety, especially for younglings like myself, given that you are performing your skills (or lack of) and ideas (or lack of) to people you respect and admire too. Perhaps it is also due to the hotel environment, which I find not only particularly uninspiring but in all honesty, sort of soul sucking, though albeit, *very* conveniently so.

This time, however, I was not going to let the hotel suck any more soul out of me because I was thrilled to see friends from time’s past, had a great time on my panel on digital subjectivities, and was excited to meet new folks and talk about those topics that I spend a lot of time thinking about. I also think the proliferation of (very cute) babies among my friends and the now visible crow’s feet adorning the smiling eyes of my friends made me feel the passing of time a little more forcefully than really I wanted to. So I did my best to turn that pesky faucet of time of off so as to give way to immersion, drawing those from past into the shared nest of the present, so that I would want to see them again in the future. And in the end, that is the point: social reproduction and shouldn’t procreation be fun? I think so…

Now back to that pile of work.

May 15, 2007

Money Talks

Category: academic,Pharma,Politics,Psychiatry,Tech — Biella @ 7:32 am

This is somewhat old news but these two articles are worth linking here and linking together for they convey nicely, in the words of AC/DC, how “money talks” and also how numbers can talk about how money talks.

One article is Senators who weakened drug bill got millions from industry from USA Today and the other is on a topic that has been receiving a lot of play in the NYTimes Psychiatrists, Children and Drug Industry’s Role.

I am not so much a researcher of numbers in so far as I don’t produce them, and think it is a good idea to cultivate a healthy skepticism of them, but I do appreciate what they can tell us. I think the article in the NYTimes is particularly insightful because it is based on “public reports of all drug company marketing payments to doctors” in the state of Minnesota, the *only* state that requires this access. The authors of the article are careful to hedge and qualify their findings, but many of them do suggest that the more money a doctor gets, the higher the likelihood they will prescribe more meds and of a certain class. Hopefully more states will pass such legislation and more research will be done.

This is my favorite quote from the article

“There’s an irony that psychiatrists ask patients to have insights into themselves, but we don’t connect the wires in our own lives about how money is affecting our profession and putting our patients at risk,” he said.”