5 essential books for geeks…

Having seen some recommendations for what Wired considered the essential books for any geek, and found it a bit esoteric in recommending the original Dungeons & Dragons manual, for example, I thought I’d recommend the five books I have read, owned, re-read and recommended on numerous occasions as the core of my own geek libary. It’s not a definitive list, as I’m sure there are some great books I’ve yet to read, and it’s not focused on marketing, because that requires it’s own list.

So if someone was intending to spend a while on a desert island and wanted to be a fully certified geek by the time they got back, what would I recommend?

 

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling:

Originally published in 1992, Bruce Sterling does an amazing job of explaining the roots of how hacking became a target of law enforcement and media scare stories, in addition to describing the various groups involved, from hackers to law enforcement and civil libertarians.
And whilst the names and people involved may have changed in the last 20 years, it’s still relevant – the motivations and aims of each group continue to this day. By that, I don’t mean that all hackers are working towards some kind of common vision, but that there are certain traits and motivations which are shared by a signficant proportion. And a study of hacking forums released just last week backs that up.

 

Code 2.0 by Lawrence Lessig:

If you’re not taking an active role in the political and legal threats to the internet as it is today, or at least considering them and their implications, then you really, really, really need to read this book to understand that the ‘free’ internet as we consider it exists only because of the underlying code, and that can be changed, manipulated and controlled by govering interests, including Governments in particular.

 

Neuromancer and/or Pattern Recognition by William Gibson:

Picking the first major novel by the creator of cyberpunk isn’t exactly a radical suggestion, but when it comes to weaving fascinating stories with a technology thread, there are few equals. However, if the thought of science fiction, or the memory of Keanu Reeves in Johnny Mnemonic put you off, then it’s definitely worth trying Pattern Recognition, which is set in the modern day with a suspence/thriller approach. You’ll barely spot the references to technology as it’s as integrated to the story as it is to many of our lives now. And one of the other works I love by William Gibson was his collaboration on ‘The Difference Engine’, with Bruce Sterling. Yep, the one I first recommended.

 

Makers or Little Brother by Cory Doctorow:

Again we’re venturing into science fiction territory, but the best recommendation comes from my own family. After 10 years of playing with websites, it was reading Cory Doctorow that prompted my father to say that he finally understood why I kept going on about the web, social networks, 3D printing etc.

In the Gibson vein, both are strong stories which happen to have technology woven into them, and Makers is particularly relevant given the current economic situation, and my own predictions about 3D Printing. Little Brother is more accessible, and don’t be put off by anything that comes with a ‘teen’ label. Sometimes we forget how intelligent teenagers actually are, but Doctorow hasn’t.

 

Web Analytics an Hour a Day by Avinash Kaushik

The most practical and business-led recommendation isn’t exactly a hands-on guide to analytics product, despite the title. It’s actually a supremely good introduction to analytical thinking in general for businesses and websites, and then outlining the various useful metrics and methods to actually achieve progress, rather than just churning out pointless numbers for the sake of it. Google Analytics is used as the standard example for everything, but considering the fact it’s pretty much the default option as a free tool, that’s no bad thing, and all the information is transferable to whatever analytics package you prefer, but it means you can work directly on your own test site without spending any cash, for example. And it comes with a handy CD full of videos, podcasts and other info. So when the other books have inspired you to do something, now you’ll now whether that something is being successful or not.

 

And if you want to find out more without paying any money, then there’s

So those are my five (OK, stricly seven) books which form the core of my own geek library. They’re the ones I’d immediately replace if lost.

And while I could go on to recommend so many other great books, I’d rather read your recommendations for the must have geek books you love – so do leave a comment, as it’s not just me that will benefit…

Implications of the News of the World phone hacking…

There’s obviously been a lot of in-depth intelligent analysis of the demise of the News of the World due to the phone-hacking outcry. So rather than attempt to add to that, I just wanted to throw three quick thoughts out there:

  • People still read print newspapers? Recent research has claimed around 50% of the UK population no longer read a daily paper, and that number is only growing – the demographic for the News of the World is likely to be one which embraces smartphones as later adopters, but closing the print product now is only likely to have pre-empted what would have happened in the future, and a digital title may or may not have succeeded, but given the content and the transitional chaos of mainstream news online, it’s not assured that a digital version would have been guaranteed to continue.
  • ‘Hacking’ has probably skewed so far to the negative connotations of the word that any positive associations will fade pretty fast, whether that’s the idea of improving an inefficient program, hacking together software for a positive outcome, or lifehacking etc. I’ve overheard several conversations recently from people way outside the computer literate world, all concerned with hacking, and all referencing phone-hacking and recent Lulzsec and Anonymous activities. That’s what the word ‘hacking’ means to most people now.
  • Journalism is likely to go the same way – the negatives get massive press coverage and analysis, whilst the good is rarely commented on. For many years bloggers have aspired to be accepted on the same terms as journalists, while some journalists have attempted to maintain an occupational gap even to this day, without clarifiying much except academic qualifications as a barrier. But now, maybe we’ll all have to put that to one side and become writers, when the stories of journalists using phone-hacking, or pestering people via email, social networks and in person are becoming widely spread online. I’m holding two training sessions as part of a journalism training course this month, and I wonder how, in the UK and U.S at least, the term ‘journalist’ is being perceived – I can only suspect it’s in a similar place as ‘banker’ except not paid as well.

The ‘Hacking Continuum’…

It’s times like this when I curse my graphical ineptitude, because a nice infographic might actually make more sense here – so if any artistic designer types are reading and fancy helping? Basically what I want to plot out is the ‘hacking continuum’ that seems to have evolved over the last 50 years. Incidentally, a continuum is defined by Wikipedia as ‘anything that goes through a gradual transition from one condition, to a different condition, without any abrupt changes’ and a dialect continuum is also appropriate: ‘the transition of one language to another through a series of speech variations’.

Because what I’m interested in is the way in which the term ‘hacking’ has changed since it was original brought into use, and also how the variety of uses seem to reside on a moral spectrum ranging from the positive to the negative.

The history of the word ‘hacking’

The term ‘hacking’ came out of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club and Artificial Intelligence Labs. And it is commonly defined as exploring the details of programmable systems, having an intimate knowledge of the internal workings of a system, and was used to describe looking at programs and reducing the code to the most efficient implementation, for example. If we put that on the far left of the spectrum as the origination of the term, then you can put next to it the likes of modern ‘hackdays’ where programmers and developers get together to work out new solutions and mash-ups of various software for a particular cause – whether that’s to improve healthcare, create new music services or anything else. And hackdays are being run by all sorts of companies ranging from small groups to Google to encourage more people to use APIs and other tools to create new things or improve existing ones.

Ethical hacking and comedy:

In the middle would be all sorts of hacking activities that belong in more of a grey area. The idea of ‘hacking ethics’ surfaced fairly early in the era of home computing and home internet access, and generally focused on the ideas that all information should be free, access to computers should be unlimited, and that it’s OK to break in and look around, but don’t wreck anything or steal.

When you’re dealing with as loose and amorphous a term as ‘hackers’ or ‘hacking’ which refers to so many individuals and groups around the world which all operate independently, it’s easy to see how many people and activities don’t fall into the ethical definition, but there’s certainly enough awareness and acceptance of the principles.

Then alongside it could be the ‘harmless’ comedy hacking of organisations and businesses amongst others for some tomfoolery. For instance, hacking into a large media site to proclaim ‘Tupac is alive, rather than accessing user or advertiser data. Although it’s certainly not going in and out without changing anything, there’s seemingly no motive beyond amusement (assuming that it isn’t a cover-up for other activity). Or using such activity as a way to alert complacent companies into updating their security measures by embarrassing them (without compromising user data)

Political hacking:

Then there’s the idea of politically-motivated hacking. And this probably has two levels of acceptance by most people. The first is when it’s directed against a foreign regime with which we generally disapprove, in which case we can broadly accept it. The second is when it’s directed against our regime, in which case even if we disapprove of the establishment, we’re probably less approving as suddenly people are attacking us.

Criminal hacking:

Now we’re into the realms of breaking in for financial gain, at which point most of us become disapproving, unless the scheme shows particular ingenuity against a faceless corporation, in which case some will have similar admiration as they have for any criminal lawbreaking with flair.

What’s particular interesting here is that there’s still a range of responses. For instance, in mobile phone hacking, it seems we have a greater tolerance for a media company to illegally hack into celebrity phones and email accounts than if they do the same to ‘normal’ people.

And I’ve put the hacking of a major media site in the comedy category (see Tupac is Alive, above), but then put hacking by a major media site of individuals into the criminal category.

Where do your perceptions come from?

The last area that I want to explore more is how your perspective of all the different implications of the word ‘hacking’ may have been shaped. If you’re in the tech world, you’re likely to be used to the double meaning, and the regular examples of talented hackers of systems then being hired by large tech companies for their skills, or applying the same term to areas like lifehacking to improve your general lifestyle, or bodyhacking to describe more efficient use of a healthy diet and gym time.

How does that change if you don’t like or love technology and computers?

How does that change it your account is one leaked by a hacking group?

How does that change if instead of reading blogs and social networks, you only see mainstream media reports?

Taking this forward:

I’m really fascinated by the cultural side of hacking, and the way in which it’s changed for those within the hacking community (both white hat and black hat), those technology people outside the community, and those completely outside the digital world to all intents and purposes.

I’d definitely be interested in artistic help in making this come to life, but also anyone with an interest in the subject, particularly those who might have expertise in language, psychology, or hacking itself…

 

Recommended reading:

If you’re interested in the history of hacking and hacker culture etc, then I strongly recommend the following books:

Hackers by Steven Levy.

The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier by Bruce Sterling.

The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll.

 

Ebooks evolving: TEDBooks launch as Kindle Singles

The launch of Amazon’s Kindle Singles has been accompanied by the launch of TEDBooks – short nonfiction works designed for digital distribution by following the type of idea which has resonated from the global series of TEDTalks, and presenting it in less than 20,000 words, which is enough for a single sitting. And you can read them via any device with a Kindle App: iPad, Mac, PC, Android, iPhone, Blackberry and Windows 7 smartphones, as well as the Kindle itself.

Longer than a typical magazine article, but shorter than your typical book, it’s an interesting approach which sees three books available at launch for $2.99. The line-up is The Happiness Manifesto: How Nations and People Can Nurture Well-Being by Nic Marks, Dangerism: Why We Worry About the Wrong Things, and What It’s Doing to Our Kids by Gever Tulley, and Homo Evolutis: Please Meet the Next Human Species by Juan Enriquez and Steve Gullan.

The presumption behind the books is that their length and cost will see people choose them in preference to magazines or other short entertaining diversions, and I think it’s a fair gamble to make. I don’t think it would work for everyone, but the ideas which are shared at TED events are always interesting, engaging and designed for you to want more. It also means I can self-serve myself the topics I really want to know about, rather than paying a few dollars or pounds more for a magazine, which often contains things that I either don’t care about or don’t read if time is short.

It’s interesting to see projects like this, and Seth Godin’s The Domino Project, all taking a new look at how publishing works in a digital world, and pretty much starting from scratch and building from there. Does a book need to be a certain minimum length? Does it need a traditional print version, or the standard marketing and promotion? Will people go for something for a couple of quid or bucks, and will they choose that over a longer, more general, and more expensive magazine?

It’s also interesting that these ideas are coming Amazon, TED and Seth Godin, not a traditional book publisher. That’s not to say traditional publishers aren’t changing, but it seems like starting from a fresh perspective could reveal a lot more about the future…

(Incidentally, an alternative source of TED inspiration are the videos of TEDTalks available via Youtube. I can’t recommend it highly enough if you fancy watching talks ranging from the likes of Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Richard Dawkins through to the likes of Christoper ‘Moot’ Poole – the founder of 4Chan.)

(And if you’re intrigued or interested in what books I’m currently planning to obtain for myself, here’s my current tech/marketing/digital culture wishlist on Amazon – this isn’t a cheap ploy for presents (Although they’re always nice), but it’s the one place I’ve gone to the trouble of updating recently with recommended additions to anyone’s library. I’ll have to go back through the various book sharing social networks to provide a complete list of everything already assimiliated. Anyone got any recommendations?)

Thank you and some free books for Christmas reading

It’s the season of goodwill, so it seems a perfect time to say thank you to everyone that’s visited my blog, followed or message me on social networks, or kindly referred me to potential new clients. Plus everyone that’s helped me set-up sites, answered my own questions, and anyone that’s come along to the #DPiP meetups or chatted at conferences etc.

And as times are financially tight for most people, and the cold weather for a lot of us is conducive to staying inside in the warm, I’ve put together a list of some books which I recommend, and are freely available for download (usually under a Creative Commons licence) – mainly because as much as I’d like to offer something I haven’t managed to come up with my own book as yet…

Obviously if you download them and enjoy them or get value from them, I’d encourage you to thank the author by buying a copy for a friend, maybe buying a copy to share in your business, or buying a copy for your local library, for example.

Note: Some of the links are to descriptions, others are directly to PDF downloads. And please check before assuming that any of the works are Creative Commons licenced.

And if you want to compare notes over Christmas, I’m just starting:

So get downloading, have a read, and maybe you’ll be inspired to help the author and your friends/colleagues/local neighbourhood. As an inspiration bonus, I’d also recommend checking out Cory Doctorow’s fictional novels – particularly Makers‘, ‘Little Brother, For The Win‘, and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

And if you’ve got recommendations you can share, or want to share your thoughts on any of the books listed, comments are much appreciated!

Interested in mobile or internet privacy and security?

If you have any interest in security and privacy on the internet and mobiles (and security is always increasing in importance as more of our lives become so heavily integrated with the digital world), then it’s worth taking a look at what’s coming out of the Black Hat Conference taking place in America at the moment.

There are some really interesting presentations by people looking to raise discussion and awareness on a range of security issues, including being able to eavesdrop on mobile calls with equipment costing $1500, reading RFID tags from over 200 ft away, or hacking ATM machines to let them spit out cash for you. Plus a lot of debate and discussion about how companies and governments can improve security, or nations investing in cyberwarfare.

VentureBeat appears to have just about the most comprehensive and readable coverage, and it’s something we should all be trying to become more aware about. Not only is it important for your personal information and data, and to be aware of what companies and governments are capable of doing – but as we’re the more digitally-aware percentage of the global population, we need to be able to explain these things in simple and accessible ways to those less aware than ourselves…

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The aftermath of Twitters biggest phishing scam

Over the last week, many people have fallen foul of the latest phishing scam to do the rounds of Twitter. And an unusual number of high profile individuals have been included in the list of users affected, including the Press Complaints Commission, BBC correspondent Nick Higham, the Guardian’s Head of Audio Matt Wells, bank First Direct, and environment minister Ed Milliband.

Environment Minister Ed Milliband caught by phishing scam

Environment Minister Ed Milliband caught by phishing scam

Phishing scams have long been endured by most internet users – the traditional mechanism has been via email, but as social networks have becoming hugely popular, they’ve become the vector of choice. And Twitter is particularly attractive as the speed with which messages can spread is combined with the use of short urls, which help to mask the malevolence of the message.

While this is just another example of the huge amount of phishing attempts which exist, the higher profile of these attacks as they affect prominent politicians will hopefully lead to a better awareness and response by governments.

It’s probably a forlorn hope, but for example, here are some things which might change:

  • More education about phishing and spam to the ‘general public’ – how about a public awareness campaign?
  • More understanding about how normal users can have accounts compromised very easily – for instance, with ‘Three Strikes Rules’.
  • More people using offline backups of any content that is valuable or useful to them
  • More of a move towards data privacy, and Vendor Relationship Management, to allow users to only share the information they choose with any service provider under strict controls.
  • A rethink of the UK Identity Card scheme which includes private businesses taking fingerprint and photos.

Importantly, it should place the risks of Social Engineering alongside those of teenage cyberwarfare specialists taking down defence satellites from their bedroom. If a private company was, for example, storing fingerprint data, you wouldn’t need to target their infrastructure (Although I’m not sure most chemists have a particularly high level of internet security) – you’d use social engineering on their employees via Facebook, Twitter, or offline in person to gain information and access.

Of course, technology can play a part, and I’m sure Twitter will increase their response to phishers in future, particularly as a high profile attack via any platform is never good for PR. But any measures will always be part of a never-ending arms race, and only when every individual is educated enough will there be any noticeable difference…

Big money for hacked Twitter accounts

Stolen Twitter accounts appear to be commanding a premium amongst hackers sharing details on forums.

Data stealing software is a risk to your details for any site, but according to Kaspersky researcher Dmitry Bestuzhev, he’s seen  a Twitter account with just 320 followers offered for as much as $1000. In this case, the three-letter username may have influenced the price.

That compares with Gmail accounts for $82, Rapidshare accounts for $5 per month, and other sites including Skype and Facebook. Bestuzhev also went on to say Kaspersky had detected 70,000 data stealing programmes in 2009, which is twice as many as in 2008.

Twitter is likely to be a preferred route to spread malware as links can spread in near real-time to hundreds or thousands of followers – each of whom can quickly and easily repeat a malware message to their own network.

Malware messages are also hidden by shortened urls, and with the amount of links spread via Twitter, there’s a good chance people are less suspicious than seeing the same links in an email or IM message.

It’s a reminder to make sure you use a unique password which is a mix of alphanumeric characters, and to change it regularly. Be careful of sharing it with third party sites and tools which aren’t using Twitter’s OAuth protocol, and be careful with links being posted by others – even including people you trust.

(Via Computerworld)

Has Twitter become a weapon?

The recent Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on popular social networks was mainly felt by Twitter, which seemed to either be more susceptible or hit harder by the action, resulting in it going offline entirely for a short period.

The concept of Governments using the internet for spreading information or cyberwarfare is not a new one – but the question is how prevalent it is becoming on social networks, and how many users are aware of it happening?

Twitter seems the most likely place for this question to play out – combine a design which lends itself to the fast spread of information, and an average user age which is more likely, as a percentage of users, to be interested in news and events (particularly political), than most social networks.

Examples of the fast spread of news are commonplace, particularly when it comes to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, or human disasters, such as terrorism or fire. And increasingly these pieces of breaking information are being repeated and picked up by unquestioning users seeking to capitalise on the interest, major news organisations, and even shops using it for spam purposes.

Usage of the media by both Governments and unofficial organisations has long existed, but the internet removes the need to engage with ‘official’ media sources to reach a large audience.

And now we’re seeing the potential for Governments or organisations to co-ordinate attacks against popular services. That’s something that print distribution has somewhat protected us against – you might be able to control or attack a printing press in your own country, but it’s harder to exert pressure on foreign media platforms (although not impossible).

But the internet is accessible from any location, meaning that those who don’t believe in freedom of speech or information are able to co-ordinate their attacks on whichever target they deem suitable – and when it comes to media and social networks, we’re relying on the efforts of private companies to respond. And whilst, for example, the UK Government might interject as best it could to preserve a media institution such as the BBC for the good of the country (being a mechanism to effectively reach the population in times of emergency), do we expect – or indeed do we want, Governments to be increasingly involved in attempts to protect social networks and microblogging?

 

What do you think?

Want evidence of end user control?

If you really want to underline the way control is now being shared with an ever greater number of people historically know as your ‘audience’, then show people the increasing rise of Firefox browser usage – then show them Greasemonkey.

Now Firefox isn’t the most used browser globally – Internet Explorer still rules, and Google’s Chrome certainly has some advantages and enthusiastic adopters. But whether or not Firefox ever dominates the browser market, the influence of the open source approach, add-ons and plug-ins is undeniable. It’s the reason that many people, including myself, might use Chrome for certain tasks for speed, but can’t give up the utility of plugins which offer everything from easy ways to see the way a page is coded, to Swedish spellchecking, mouse gestures and more.

But why is Greasemonkey so incredibly important?

Greasemonkey is a Mozilla Firefox add-on that allows users to install scriptson-the-fly changes to most HTML-based web pages. As Greasemonkey scripts are persistent, the changes made to the web pages are executed every time the page is opened, making them effectively permanent for the user running the script. Greasemonkey can be used for adding new functions to web pages (for example, embedding price comparison in Amazon.com web pages), fixing rendering bugs, combining data from multiple webpages, and numerous other purposes. From Wikipedia.

So that means:

You can spend as much time and money as you like on designing your webpage, but if I want to disable elements, change the layout, or do whatever I like, I can.

For instance, Facebook’s redesign angered many people – so if you want to hide the Highlights sidebar, just install one of three Greasemonkey options.

Or you can just emulate the old Facebook design.

And what’s really interesing?

As a website owner/publisher, I’m not aware of any way you’d know this was happening via analytics (And I’ve asked a few metrics/analytics types before posting), and you wouldn’t know what users are adding to your site to improve their experience, and possibly conversion rates.

(If you do know ways to track any of that information automatically, I’d love you to share it in the comments.)

Your users would though.

Resources:

You can keep up with the Greasemonkey blog at Greasespot, and find Userscripts for it at Userscripts.org. Please do keep in mind that you’re installing code which may in a very small amount of cases have been created by people who aren’t 100% lovely, so do some research before adding new scripts. Or just don’t blame this post if you kill the internet by accident.