Baltimore City Paper

How I Spent Election Night in a Baltimore Jail

It was sometime between 2 and 3 a.m., and I was handcuffed and sitting inside a Baltimore police paddy wagon.

"Officer," I yelled.

"What?" a cop brusquely answered from outside the van.

"Officer, I need to use the bathroom. I really have to go." It was the third time I'd asked since my arrest, over an hour earlier. It was no joke -- my bladder felt as if it was going to rupture.

"You'll have to wait 'til we get downtown," he answered.

I grimaced. Behind my back, my wrists chafed against sharp, plastic cuffs. I squeezed my legs together. "I think I'm going to piss myself," I said to my only companion, a skinny kid in khakis and a pink oxford with a popped collar. He shook his head but didn't answer. My entire body began shaking, and I doubled over, sliding to my knees on the floor in pain. I remembered reading about a study in which volunteers were paid good money to piss their pants, and none could do it -- such is the power of social conditioning.

"Fuck," I said, and felt warmth spreading between my legs.

It struck me, then -- the pathetic and surreal absurdity of my situation. Why was I, a 42-year-old husband and father of two young daughters, a senior employee of Johns Hopkins, a freelance journalist, and a law-abiding, civic-minded guy, sitting in my piss-soaked underwear in the back of a paddy wagon outside the Northern District police station?

The day had begun with such promise.

That day I served as a Baltimore City election judge. I didn't do it for the measly paycheck but considered it a chance to connect with my neighbors. A handful of people were lined up when I arrived at 5:45 a.m., and an hour later the line stretched around the inside of the school and out along the sidewalk. The mood was electric. I saw lots of familiar faces and many, many new ones.

Some I'll never forget. A bearded 75-year-old white man holding a Noam Chomsky book said to me, "I didn't think I'd be around for the last election. And I know I won't be around for the next one. But this one … " he smiled.

A visually impaired black woman asked me and another judge to read the ballot for her. We read it all (yes, every last word of the bond issues) and when we finished, she pressed the button and turned to us with tears in her eyes. "That's the first time I ever voted," she said, and hugged us. My eyes welled up, too.

A smiling blonde woman approached the polls and explained to us that she had flown home to vote, in person -- from Sudan.

As soon as the polls closed, I put on a bootleg Obama T-shirt I'd bought on Greenmount Avenue. It was over-the-top -- an enormous image of Barack's face covering most of the shirt.

Later that night, I watched on a friend's television as a wave of blue swept over America. Eight of my friends had gathered, and after Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago, we heard car horns, whooping, and cheers from 33rd Street.

"Let's go," my friend Dan said.

I haven't seen such spontaneous celebration in the streets since the Ravens won the Superbowl. All around us cars honked, while people cheered and chanted "Obama!" and "Yes, we can!" We noticed an enormous gathering in North Charles Village, and as we approached several of the people in the crowd saw my Obama shirt and started cheering.

"This is amazing!" Dan said.

And it was. The crowd was an amalgam of the forces that had swept Obama into power: multiracial, young, old, straight, gay, with one commonality -- they were all smiling. Students were holding American flags aloft with pride. Students! Ecstatic! About a presidential race! Strangers hugged and danced and high-fived one another. Tears flowed.

I need to write about this, I thought. I need to remember all of it, and document it, because it will never happen again.

Even the police were swept up in the mood, smiling and posing for photos. An occasional handful of students would venture into the streets to high-five enthusiastic, honking motorists, only to be waved back by the police, but otherwise, it was as peaceful and well-behaved as a high school pep rally.

Then I looked up the street, to where the police had blocked off St. Paul Street with almost a dozen cruisers. A phalanx of about a dozen cops had lined up.

They began marching, and I saw one of the cops holding a pile of plastic flexicuffs. No one had a bullhorn or a PA. They just moved into the crowd and started yelling at people. There was no clear officer in charge, just a group of belligerent, angry police.

My brother came running up the sidewalk. "Some guy just got tasered!" he said. I saw some cops walking back toward us, so I crossed the street to stay out of their way. The first arrestees were being led to the paddy wagon. I pulled out my cell phone and started snapping pictures.

A beefy officer saw me taking photos and approached. I held my hands at my side and said, "I'm a journalist. I'm just taking pictures."

He slapped my cell phone out of my hand and grabbed my shirt. "Well, write a nice, long story about this," he said, spinning me around as another officer cuffed me. I was in the paddy wagon before I could even comprehend what was happening. After processing at Northern District I was thrown into a concrete cell, strip-searched, fingerprinted, and subject to the singular degradation of a long night spent in Central Booking.

To the Baltimore City Police: I have met plenty of decent, respectful cops in this city. I could single out those who arrested and cuffed me, but I won't. This isn't about individuals -- throughout the ordeal, I met many who were appalled at the behavior of their comrades. One complimented my Obama T-shirt and loosened my cuffs. Another strip-searched me while shaking his head in disgust. "Welcome to the Baltimore City Police," he said.

To Mayor Dixon: I hold you accountable for the appalling, irresponsible behavior of your police force. They turned a peaceful, orderly, euphoric celebration of democracy into a brutal, embarrassing fiasco. People spontaneously celebrated in cities across our country -- indeed, the world -- without major incidents. Baltimore failed. Shame on you if you don't address this and apologize. And oh, by the way, thanks for not returning any of my calls despite promising to do so.

Most importantly, to the voters of Precinct 12, Ward 8, and the students, professors, teachers, and other citizens who gathered in Charles Village to celebrate the end of eight years of divisiveness and toxic politics and to inaugurate the beginning of an era of new possibilities: thank you. Because of you, I know my country, and my city, is in good hands. You made me proud.

Finally, to the officer who dared me to write about my arrest: Here you go, sir -- as requested. I just hope you read it.

Beware the Software Rats

I figured Bob Kruger, vice president of enforcement for the Business Software Alliance might be a tad sheepish about his organization's way of encouraging employees to rat out their bosses. Heck no! Harnessing employees' vengeful tendencies to find out whether companies are using more copies of software than they have licenses for is what the alliance is all about. Kruger says BSA gets about 1,500 calls a year from its hotline (888-NOPIRACY) and about as many leads from e-mails sent to its Web site. And it follows up on most of these tips.

"Those with an ax to grind, those who are disgusted with some aspect of the company, or have been mistreated" is how Kruger characterizes BSA's whistle-blowers. "Sometimes it's a person with a vendetta," he acknowledges in a phone interview. But it can be a vendetta with some good information."

Thanks to these legions of the disaffected, BSA recently collected $512,000 in fines from eight California businesses, some almost mom-and-pop in size. Since 1988 the alliance, acting on behalf of software companies such as Adobe, Apple, Microsoft, and Symantec, has collected approximately $59 million from the corporate world (the money goes back into BSA "enforcement and education" programs for the prevention of future software theft).

Here's how this situation starts: A company may buy one copy of a software program but, for whatever reason, spreads it across five or 10 computers in the workplace. Some companies purchase multiple licenses to cover such additional users -- licenses can cost as much as the cost of the original software but are usually sold at a discount -- but many don't. BSA estimates that 25 percent of all business software in the United States is illegally copied this way.

So obviously, Adobe and Symantec and other makers of commercial software want businesses to buy their products the same way they purchase pens, staples, or automobiles--if you need cars for 10 workers, you buy 10 cars. The problem is getting office managers, who probably don't spend much time thinking about "software licenses," into line with the industry's thinking. What better way to do so than a few well-publicized "software raids" accompanied by heavy fines for software misuse? And what better way to ferret out such misuse than relying on the many, many desk jockeys who would love to see their office managers sweat?

Kruger speaks with a rough-hewn, gravelly voice. It's a voice I suspect is attached to the kind of body I wouldn't want to meet up in a dark alley with a 100 bootlegged copies of Quark XPress. He tells me that the key is finding an informant willing to go on the record. BSA can only get a court order to do legally do an audit of the suspect firm's computers if it has someone willing to vouch that a business is using software illegally. ("We don't like to call [an audit] it a raid, but in reality that's what they are -- raids," Kruger says.) Then the alliance corroborates the info with other resources -- for instance, it can check the software company's registration records or consult with its regional sales office.

Once the alliance has a judge's OK, a team of auditors -- usually BSA accountants with laptops -- shows up at the business under suspicion, along with a few U.S. marshals. The auditors check what software is on each computer, then asks to see the company's licenses. For each software use for which the firm doesn't have papers, it's fined. While each violation carries with it a fine of up to $150,000, Kruger says, the actual figure comes down to a dance between BSA lawyers and the offending party's chosen reps. He assures me that the alliance's intent is to make its point via the company's bottom line: "It's one awfully rude way for companies to realize it's a lot more expensive to violate copyright laws than to comply with them."

Unquestionably, copying of proprietary software is ethically incorrect. But to my mind, BSA's methods are equally foul. To encourage individuals' petty tendency to "get back" at their bosses is to encourage a mind-set of irresponsibility. It suggests to employees that whatever sucky situation they are in is the result of circumstances beyond their control, and therefore they're justified to "retaliate." I thought responsibility -- in the form of paying for software that is used -- is what BSA is trying to promote. It may serve BSA's bottom-line ends, but it makes for even more hostile working environments. The software industry is doing no favors to the communities it serves by encouraging mistrust.

Kruger estimates that the number of BSA software raids will probably level off in the next few years as acceptance of proper licensing procedures grows. He is confident this will happen, what with all the publicity generated by the busts. In the meantime, there is no shortage of targets.

"It's very easy to get caught," Kruger says. "Companies may think they won't, but they're assuming they won't ever have a disgruntled employee."

E-mail Joab Jackson.

Gear Jammers

Dumb-ass Nike just had it coming. The shoe company has this online service where you can have your name or a favorite saying stitched on the side of a pair of sneakers (Nike iD: nikeid.nike.com/). So it was just a matter of time before some wiseacre would come along and choose a word related to the shoe company's spotty international labor record -- like, say, "sweatshop."

Which, early last month, was exactly what 27 year-old grad student Jonah Peretti did.

In retrospect it's one of those obvious ideas that you kick yourself for not thinking of first. Which is why it was so great.

Peretti studies educational technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, so he often searches the Web for novel ways of using computers to tailor services to users' needs. He checked out Nike's site, and found it wanting.

"The Nike site bothered me because it trumpeted individual freedom, which seemed like a contradiction with Nike's labor practices," Peretti e-mails. "[The company's] aggressive advertising campaigns seem rather hypocritical when juxtaposed with their labor practices."

"Furthermore, I was not impressed technologically with the site," he continues. "Basically [it] lets you send a to-do list to sweatshop workers in far-away countries. Then the shoes are build by hand. . .Nike's advertisements presented the service as if gleaming robots make the shoes."

Indeed, it isn't gleaming shoe-bots churning out those tennies. According to the watchdog group Corporate Watch (www.corpwatch.org/trac/nike/ernst/), the sneaker giant employs more than 350,000 workers in Indonesia, China, and Vietnam -- occasionally in horrid working conditions, in factories lacking proper ventilation and water, and for wages barely over the legal minimum for those countries (Vietnamese workers are paid an average of $45 a month).

So a pair of Nikes with "sweatshop" stitched on the side would be pretty ironic, huh?

A little too ironic, as it turned out. The company, all too predictably, refused Peretti's order. In a hilarious series of e-mail exchanges (www.shey.net/niked.html), Peretti badgered Nike for a reason as to why his shoes couldn't be made. After Peretti was sent a series of form e-mails, a Nike representative finally responded that the company had the right to refuse words that "we consider inappropriate or simply do not want to place on our products." No further explanation was given. And none was needed.

Nike couldn't have garnered more flak if it plastered billboards across the United States reading "corporate third-world oppression: just do it." This exchange quickly made its way around the Internet and was featured in The Village Voice's sports column (villagevoice.com/issues/0107/jockbeat.shtml). Peretti was even featured on NBC's Today Show, facing off with a spokesperson from Nike.

Peretti's stunt reminds me of Mike "Pepsi Boy" Cameron, who gained similar notoriety in 1998 for being suspended from his school for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on Coke Day.

What, your local school doesn't have a "Coke Day"? Well, Greenbrier High School in Evans, Ga., did. It had invited a Coca-Cola Co. regional president and a few other management types in for a day of educating students about the wonders of The Real Thing. Greenbrier was trying to win a $500 prize, offered by a local Coke bottling plant to the school that, according to an Associated Press report, came up "with the most creative method of distributing promotional discount cards to students."

It was only when the students were arranged, marching band-style, to spell out C-O-K-E for a group photo that someone noticed Cameron was sporting a Pepsi shirt. The 19-year-old student was suspended for one day, but after the resulting press deluge the suspension was stricken from his record.

In an interview with the e-zine Fade to Black (www.fadetoblack.com/interviews/mikecameron/), Cameron later said he "didn't do this as a joke or a prank, I just did it to do it." And Greenbrier principal Gloria Hamilton dismissed any satiric intent in explaining her disciplinary action to AP: "It was a student deliberately being disruptive and rude."

Disruptive though Cameron may have been, his was no mere juvenile prank -- no simple case of setting off firecrackers in the bathroom. Cameron, like Peretti, was clever to a point. Companies spend millions on marketing campaigns to have us believe their soda water or shoes or whatever are the bee's knees. And while we pretty much know what advertising is and discount it accordingly, the sheer repetition of these placements just wears us down. And eventually, on some unconscious level, we accept their claims.

What Cameron and Peretti did, consciously or not, was cleverly expose the hypocrisy perpetuated by such companies and their ad campaigns. How can Nike espouse the virtues of freedom while exploiting people in impoverished countries? And what the hell is the educational value of arranging children to spell out Coke?

This sort of thing is called "culture-jamming" -- using the tools of consumerism to undermine consumerism itself. There are a growing number of grass-roots groups intent on deconstruct the best-laid plans of corporations. The clandestine organization RTMark (www.rtmark.com) funds various culture-jamming projects, and the magazine Adbusters (www.adbusters.org) promotes events such as Buy Nothing Day designed to stir awareness.

But sometimes the best pranks are the spontaneous ones, those from individuals who, in small but meaningful acts of defiance, remind us how passivity leads to blind acceptance. To this end, Peretti and Cameron aren't mere jokesters, but modern-day folk heroes.

Email Joab Jackson at childlabor@joabj.com.

The Cult of IT

Like the fabled cargo cults of the South Seas -- whose members tried all manner of superstitious acts to get the Gods of Consumable Goods to return to their lowly South Seas villages after World War II -- the dot-comers, freshly shaken from their stock-market tumble, have been loudly banging the drums of hype over this mysterious IT thing.

Was it any wonder that IT -- or "Ginger," as Dean Kamen's as-yet-undivulged invention was also code-named -- was one of the big stories on the infotech news sites these last few weeks? Who wouldn't want to read about something that, in the inventor's own words, is "unlike anything that now exists," especially when the other big story of late has been the unceasing flow of layoffs up and down the last decade's next-big-thing, the Internet? Take a look at the dot.com deadpool Fucked Company (www.fuckedcompany.com) for a rollcall of the latest casualties: Customer outreach specialists MarchFirst (www.marchfirst.com) lays off 550 people, iBooks.com sheds 77 out of their 100 employees, ComedyWorld.com lets go 40. The list goes on.

Copy the disgruntlement and fear of those ex-employees clearing out their space-age work stations and paste it across every business campus in America and you'll get the sense of the collective unease going down these days. It leaves us ripe for apparitions: The Japanese invented Godzilla to deal with the leftover nightmares of the atomic bomb; could we have conjured IT to whisk us back to the monetarily comfortable days of the tech revolution?

It's not incidental that the IT hype bomb was detonated by Inside.com, itself an online media-news site as desperate for clicks as a Geiger counter in a nuclear-free zone. On Jan. 9, the site posted "exclusive coverage" of the $250,000 advance the Harvard Business School Press paid journalist Steve Kemper for a book about the latest invention of Kamen and his research lab DEKA (www.dekaresearch.com).

The hook, of course, was that neither the publisher nor Kemper's agent had any idea what Kamen's invention actually was -- to this day Kamen refuses to say, for fear of his idea being stolen. The guy's invented many quirky, useful things -- a wearable infusion pump, an off-terrain wheelchair. But Inside.com assured us that this latest invention is bigger than all that, and tantalized us with plenty of hints: It is small, it will cost less than $2,000, and it will "sweep over the world and change lives, cities, and ways of thinking," as Kemper himself put it.

It was enough to leave a reader delirious. What could IT possibly be?

Of course, in hindsight, the only real mystery is why Inside's reporter, upon writing 1,300 words on the mystery of IT, didn't bother to check the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov) for patents that would have detailed any invention that DEKA registered. In fact, as many subsequently found, DEKA did receive a patent, # US 5,971,091, in October 1999, for a "vehicle for transporting an individual over ground having a surface that may be irregular." There was even an diagram of the thing. It looked like a motorized scooter.

A freakin' motorized scooter.

Some revolutionary product, if it is indeed IT. But what's remarkable is that, even after the patent was posted to the new crop of IT-tribute sites like theITquestion.com (theitquestion.com), people were still speculating about how revolutionary the thing would be.

"Scooters? Who cares. We have scooters already," Roman Totale posits on the new culture-news site Plastic (www.plastic.com). "What's important is the dynamic-balancing techniques... . If Kamen can produce dynamic balancing and a lightweight, powerful ... power plant ... for under two grand, he's got something there." "It's a personal gyrocopter!" speculated "Monty" on theITquestion's bulletin board. "Maybe when you step off Ginger, it will fold itself up into something the size of a briefcase," The Washington Post weighed in.

It was almost as if there was a collective effort to make IT more than what the patent made it out to be. To me, the mystery was over, and the rest was all cargo-cult talk.

You remember cargo cults -- those primitive South Seas islanders who, after being exposed to Western technology in World War II, supposedly built simulacrums of runways, radio towers, and even headphones, hoping this would lure back the planes with the magical booty that so enriched their lives during the war. In the same way, today's nervous dot-comers are building a runway of hype, the same hype we first heard about the Internet. (It's revolutionary! It'll change the world!) After all, wasn't it the Internet that liberated us from the stone age of low-paying, dead-end, non-stock-option-generated jobs we otherwise would have been working these last few years -- and may be back to working a few years (or months, or weeks) from now?

No wonder the natives are getting all excited.

e-mail: nativetongue@joabj.com

The Problem with Priceline

Is it just me, or does anyone else find the idea of using Priceline (www.priceline.com) for grocery shopping a bit odd?

I have nothing against Priceline, mind you. I became a convert to this Internet bidding service a while back, after it saved me about $100 on a last-minute airline ticket from Baltimore, Md. to San Francisco. (Priceline's gig is taking bids on flights: You submit your destination, travel dates, and what you want to pay; Priceline looks for a match, and if it finds one you have to take it.) I'd e-mailed a bid of $200, half the lowest fare I'd found on my own. I got a quick e-mail rejection, the electronic equivalent of "What, are you kidding?" So I sent in a higher bid; an hour later my credit card was charged $300, and I was San Fran bound. I gave up the flexibility of departure times and the option of refundability, but Priceline got me there.

Still, when I saw the company's commercials trumpeting how we can now buy groceries by the same bidding method, it just seemed to me like crazy Internet talk (The company now offers the grocery service pretty much in all the states east of the Mississippi River, and plans to take it nationwide by year's end). Not a week later, though, I found someone who was actually using the service. Out apartment shopping, I had to wait to see one unit while the building manager finished her shopping list on an office computer.

With her prim bun of hair and floral dress, this sixtysomething seemed more like a coupon clipper than a technological pioneer. I asked her how Priceline grocery shopping worked. What she told me seemed kind of complicated: You go to the Web site and bid on the items you want. (There are thousands to choose from-but you must be somewhat flexible as to brand names.) In a minute or so, Priceline returns a list of those offers that it accepts. You then print out the list, and, with your Priceline shopper's card, take it to a participating supermarket. ("And pretty much all of them do," the apartment manager said, showing me a list.) The cost of the items is charged to your credit card.

"So you actually save money on this?" I asked.

"Oh, sure," she said. "Look at this." She points to a picture of a box of Life cereal on her computer screen. She had purchased a box for just under $3. "You can't get cereal for that price. Not that brand." Indeed, the equivalent item at the local supermarket would run a full dollar more. "And this," she went on, directing my attention to the twin tubes of toothpaste she'd picked up for $1.97. A single tube of that brand alone would cost about $2.39 if obtained by traditional methods of purchase.

Not that Priceline, like any new on-line enterprise, doesn't have its share of snafus. Leaving the apartment manager, I took a quick jaunt through Usenet, where I found some tales of Priceline frustration. One Netter, Sheryl Rosen, wrote in the rec.food.cooking newsgroup that on a recent Sunday morning she spent three hours trying to log in to Priceline to buy groceries, and had to wait five hours for the downloadable list she needed to take to the store. She essentially lost a shopping day.

Still, Rosen is pleased with the service. "Today, I spent a little over $9, and my grocery bill came to $27. Which means I saved about [two-thirds of the cost of the groceries]," she tells me by e-mail. "I save a ton of money. It's simple and I'm pleased with it." (And not long after her bad Priceline day, a site employee spotted her tale of woe on the Net and sent discount tokens.)

Groceries aren't the only consumer item Priceline hopes to bring under its umbrella. Having already added hotel rooms, new and rental cars, and long-distance phone service to its original airline-ticket business, the company plans to start offering gasoline too. Instead of just paying whatever price is quoted, we can now haggle like our forebears in a medieval marketplace, perhaps realizing savings from a seller in need of quick cash. One can almost believe William Shatner when, in that silly age-of-Aquarius Priceline ad ( www.priceline.com/media/plmedia.htm), he boldly states, "It's a whole new age of consumer power. Can you dig it?"

Maybe. But something still left me uneasy about Priceline, something I couldn't put my finger on until I read writer/composer/virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier's 1995 essay "Agents of Alienation" ( www.advanced.org/jaron/agentalien.html). An essay about intelligent software agents, it nonetheless could be applied to Priceline as well. Lanier pointed out that sometimes we humans have a habit of fooling ourselves into believing computers (or, in this case, computer-run services) are making our lives easier, when in fact we are only contorting our lives in all sorts of complicated ways to make it seem so.

"The person starts to limit herself to the categories and procedures represented in the computer, without realizing what has been lost," Lanier wrote, almost as if he foresaw services like Priceline. When, under the guise of saving money, we spend hours waiting for a printout, or show up at the airport at odd hours on short notice, we are guilty of this foolishness. And our folly may actually reduce rather than expand our options.

"Priceline is a little disingenuous," Lanier responded when I e-mailed him asking what he thought of the service. "Since consumers actually have less information than they do in conventional transactions ... consumers won't get to learn how desperate sellers might have been." Vendors may cut a deal to make one sale but won't have to lower prices to meet the market as a whole.

Far from actually bringing buying power to the people, in the long run Priceline may keep us in the dark. If this service takes off and more people bid for items independently rather than buy them at prices listed for all to see and compare, everyone may lose out.

Peeping Through Port 139

I couldn't believe it. There, before me on my computer screen, was a directory filled with family photos, labeled by name. I could have looked at pictures of these folks if I'd cared to. It wasn't my family, though, and these photos weren't on my computer. I had no idea whose computer they were on, but I guessed it was someone in my apartment building, and that they hadn't a clue I was spying on them.

Many of us here in my building get Internet access through cable modems. Few know of the security risks. Now that high-speed access to the Internet can be had through cable and digital subscriber lines (DSL), security holes are easier to exploit. They're easy to fix too, but few are, probably because few people know about the breaches in the first place. Certainly, the cable guy who hooked me up never told me that Windows, in effect, offers an Internet party line to my hard drive. I'm guessing that at least three of my neighbors weren't informed either.

How easy is it to tap into a neighbor's computer if it isn't secured properly? Insanely easy, I learned after a recent night of experimenting. It doesn't take any networking savvy -- just the right program and some anti-social attitude.

One such program is called SMBScanner. It took me about 10 minutes to find on the Internet. Like a police scanner monitoring many frequencies, this software rolls through Internet-protocol (IP) numbers (Internet addresses of nine digits separated by periods, the online equivalent to phone numbers), checking for open ports on computers. Now, a cable company like the one I use usually reserves blocks of successive IP numbers for customer use. So I figured my neighbors would have numbers nearly identical to mine, probably varying only in the last two digits. SMBScanner paid a visit to each of these addresses, checking to see if port 139 -- the connection point computers often use to network with one another -- was open. Within minutes, it found three.

From there, it was just a matter of employing the operating system's user-friendly ability to "map" another computer's hard drive to its own file system. This was a snap, given that two of the three computers had no password protection whatsoever. One poor user actually had a printer online. I pondered printing him or her a page reading YOU'VE BEEN HACKED! But what good would such a missive be if I couldn't enjoy the other person's surprise upon receiving it? Anyway, it was probably best to remain in stealth mode for this fact-finding mission. So I mapped someone else's C drive instead, giving me access to its contents. And that's when I found the directory named "Family Photos."

That's also when I chickened out. I couldn't nerve myself up to actually look at any of the snapshots. I felt guilty enough already for having snooped this far. So I disconnected. My point was made. I didn't actually want to peer into somebody else's computer; I just wanted to see if I could do it.

Anyone who has a high-speed Internet connection (and wants to avoid having done to them what I nearly did to my neighbors) should take the ShieldsUp security test offered by the Gibson Research Corp. (GRC, grc.com), run by computer guru Steve Gibson. It's where I learned about these vulnerabilities. GRC's Web site tests your computer to see what ports it can wiggle into. It's an eyeopener.

How does this happen? It's a weird amalgamation of factors, a snafu that only surfaces when home networking, dedicated Internet lines, and people's steadfast refusal to use passwords are combined.

Start with someone tying two computers together. According to GRC, when "Microsoft's networking client is installed, a default setting which would have protected many millions of computers if it were normally set to 'off' is instead set to 'on.'" Upshot? A home network is left open to the entire Internet. What is odd about this is that it is totally unnecessary. This option was set to "on" only to save Microsoft in customer-service calls, the Gibson site contends.

Until recently, the pitfalls of home networking were limited, as most networked Netters went online with dial-up connections, which were assigned IPs more randomly. They remained online for limited periods of time and so were harder to pinpoint. But as more people set up networks and use connections that are always "on," it is starting to make for a lot of sitting ducks.

And there are a lot of clandestine hunters out there. Here are computers that remain online for long stretches of time, with easily discoverable IP numbers. What better place than on somebody else's computer to spend some time nosing around, looking for free software or just some neighborly dish?

I asked a system administrator who, up until fairly recently, used to work for an Internet service provider, about port scans. How much did he used to see, I wondered. "The amount was staggering," he responded by e-mail -- about once a minute, some unknown computer cracker would test the lines, looking for an in. The friend's employer blocked that sort of traffic from reaching its customers, at least that from folks with other ISPs. It didn't stop this company's customers from snooping on each other, though, as I'd snooped on my neighbors.

GRC provides an easy explanation of how to secure port 139. All it involves is a few points and clicks. The biggest challenge is letting people know.

These Mortal Coils

I have just learned about yet another possible way for the human race to get creamed. Forget about a giant-ass meteor rocketing down on us, or flesh-slurping aliens, or the four horsemen riding hard over the hills. Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, predicts an altogether different finality. In the much-discussed Wired's April 2000 cover story ("Why the Future Doesn't Need Us": www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html), Joy warns that it is gray goo we need to watch out for.Mind you, the goo might not necessarily be gray in color, nor even gooey in texture. Those are just its hypothetical characteristics. What's important is that, whatever shape it takes, there will be a lot of it. There will be so much of it, in fact, that it will be damn-near impossible to stem its oozing onslaught. We'll drown in the stuff. And it'll be our own damn fault.The idea of gray goo is a hypothetical worst-case scenario, dreamed up by people who think about such things. The goo would actually be many tiny robotic machines, built on a molecular level. The prototypes would be created by humans, but they would be designed to go forth and multiply on their own, with instructions programmed in their tiny robot heads on how to search their environment and, with the materials they find, build copies of themselves. No matter how small these biological "assemblers" might be, once the first few have been set loose, they'd just keep replicating until they eventually crowd out all other life forms."Gray goo would surely be a depressing ending to our human adventure on Earth," Joy writes, "far worse than mere fire or ice, and one that could stem from a simple laboratory accident."If such a dire future comes to pass, it would be due to the merging of three scientific fields of study, all of which will come to maturation in the next few decades: robotics -- the science of making machines that can carry out complicated tasks; genetic engineering, or the reshuffling of genes to achieve desired characteristics; and nanotechnology, the art of building things atom by atom, or at least at a submicron level. Any mad scientist with all three skill sets on his or her risumi could conceivably make machines that can do all sorts of complex stuff (such as build copies of themselves). The scientist could make them out of organic materials found pretty much everywhere (i.e., living cells), and could make them very small -- small enough that they could be built in a basement. Or, heck, in a file-cabinet drawer in a basement closet.Frightened yet? We have trouble enough keeping such relatively simple scourges as viruses, mosquitoes, and Microsoft at bay. How would we combat genetically engineered bacteria spreading over the globe like pollen? Or solar-powered, self-replicating devices so efficient at using sunlight that they crowd out real plants?This is what Joy is trying to warn us about. Despite his tantalizing descriptions of future annihilation, the article shows him to be deeply conservative about the issue. Like a Sunday-morning preacher warning of the excesses of Saturday night, Joy argues that these technologies are just too powerful to mess with. Eventually, he argues, someone will go and fuck up the entire planet by misusing them. And this is why he advocates limiting "development of technologies that are too dangerous, by limiting our pursuit of certain kind of knowledge."Frankly, I had been taking Joy's essay only half seriously until I read the sentence just quoted. It is Joy's solution, not the problem, that has me worried. I mean, nanotechnology and genetic engineering are still in very primitive stages. It's a mighty long way from the lab room to the production floor; like artificial intelligence or alchemy, these are ideas that have yet to produce bankable results (at least not results anywhere near the scale Joy envisions). But advocating that we not learn about certain things causes real damage right here and now. Can Joy really be so simpleminded as to believe everyone on the planet will choose to remain ignorant of the potentially lethal possibilities of these new disciplines? What does he propose to do, have all the bad guys in the world sign pledges swearing not to play with the nano-sized biological agents?Forget the obvious argument here. ("If we outlaw genetically engineered self-replicating killbots, then only outlaws will have genetically engineered self-replicating killbots.") Think about the bad precedent it sets. Where would we be if our ancestors had successfully snuffed out Galileo's ideas about Earth not being the center of the universe? If J. Robert Oppenheimer and his genius cronies didn't build the atomic bomb? As Joy himself points out, the federal government didn't gather together the best scientists to build a monster weapon merely for the sake of building a monster weapon; it was considered a necessary deterrent. It was widely thought that Adolf Hitler's people were already building one; no one wanted Germany to be the only country in the world with atomic capabilities.In retrospect, maybe creating the atomic bomb was a good idea, and maybe it wasn't. But once the notion and the technology to bring it to fruition were within reach, it was pretty much inevitable that someone was going to build one. If gray goo is indeed within reach of humankind, then we couldn't prevent its production even if we wanted to. Somebody, somewhere, by accident or by malicious design, will concoct a batch of the stuff, and all we can do is put on trunks and swim through it as best we can. But we'd be doing ourselves a major disservice if we let fear limit our exploration of how the world works. In the long run, such voluntary ignorance might be even more detrimental.E-mail: joabj@ charm.net

Confessions of a Computation Addict

I guess it's one of those things you do that doesn't seem odd until you try explaining it to someone else. I just wanted to listen to some newspaper articles.The great lengths to which I'd gone to achieve this goal didn't strike me as all that unusual, until I told a co-worker how I'd been spending my weekends. He stared at me with disbelief as I described my home project -- an effort that had grown to almost Frankensteinian proportions -- involving three computers tethered to each other on a network and my new Diamond Rio 500 MP3 player (www.riohome.com).Hey, once you start something you might as well see it to the end, no matter how far out there the end might be.It started out simply enough. I'd long relied on audio books -- you know, those taped, spoken recitations of texts -- to spice up my long commute and daily workout. But, having worked my way through everything from Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon to Dave Barry in Cyberspace, I found my local library rapidly running out of titles I considered even remotely interesting.Solution: homegrown audio newspapers. I hooked a cassette recorder to my computer and had voice-synthesis shareware (HELP Read: www.pixi.com/~reader1) read stories into it from Boston Review (bostonreview. mit.edu), the New York Observer (www.observer.com), New Scientist (newscientist. com), and other publications with online editions.This struck people as a bit odd. They'd ask if I found the clanky computerized voice grating. Naah, I'd reply. It's kind of like having Stephen Hawking reading me the news. And, the system cost no more than the price of a Radio shack portable cassette player, some rechargeable batteries, and a battery charger. I already had an old recorder and plenty of used cassettes.So I don't know what really possessed me to switch over to using a digital player. I mean I could recite practical reasons. There are no moving parts on these kinds of devices, so there would be fewer things that could break. Plus, no fumbling with cassettes or untangling tape jams -- a tad demanding when cruising down the highway at 80 mph.But I suspect the real reason was sheer lust for the Rio 500, a tiny, light, demure gray digital player that Diamond Multimedia just introduced this March. Audible (www.audible.com), a company that vends downloadable books, was selling a version at $169. This wasn't cheap, and even that price was contingent on my buying some overpriced Audible "books" over the next year to download onto this MP3 player. But the ad copy boasted that the player held 32 hours of spoken-word recordings. That blew my mind. I looked into digital recorders a year ago, but decided against it as the memory they held wasn't large enough to hold any decent amount of recordings.Well, a lot changes in a year, at least for the digital memory market, and 32 hours of space was enough to give me a month's worth of listening material.Here's the catch though, the problem that didn't really occur to me until after I'd bought the Rio: I got my computer to read the articles, but I needed a second computer to actually record what the first computer was "saying." I had such a beast, but it was in a different room, and for various logistical reasons I couldn't move either machine. Long story short -- I needed a third computer to grab the stories from the first one and read them to the second, which then could download them to the Rio. Simple, yes?If all this sounds to you like a justification for getting a third computer -- which in itself would only be a justification for having spent $169 in the first place on something to take the place of a $12 cassette player -- well, you're getting my drift. But that's the plan, and I'm sticking to it."You know, they already have something that you can listen to the news with," my co-worker said after I'd described my mad vision. "It's called radio."Well, duh. Sure, it would be easier (not to mention cheaper) to simply listen to the radio. So what? We live in an age when the upstart Web site eBay is worth eight times more on paper than Sotheby's. It's just plain crazy, man, and it's the power of new digital muscle that sends people around the bend. Memory and processors advance at a staggering rate. Intel just introduced its 1-gigahertz Pentium III processor (http://www.intel.com/home/prodserv/PentiumIII/prodinfo.htm?iid=uslocal+ghz3&), which is roughly five times as fast as the state-of-the-art computers processors made five years ago. Of course we need these 1-GHz processors, just like we need those 40-gigabyte hard drives now making their way onto the shelves at computer stores. Three months ago I bought a 20-gig model and wondered if I'd ever need all that space. Last week, when I returned to purchase a second one, I enviously eyed those 40-gig sweeties.I used to laugh at those fools caught up in the expensive cycle of buying faster computers just to run bigger programs. But now I understand. All this digital stuff is surprisingly malleable, and it's only getting more so. Sometimes the most amazing thing about the computer industry's steep innovation curve is all the new possibilities it creates that just weren't feasible the year (or even the month) before, like storing entire audio books in your front shirt pocket. I am in awe of the possibility of creating ever-more intricate symphonies of process.e-mail: joabj@charm.net

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