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Roundup: Anomaly, al-Asaad, Ashley Madison, Project Sansar, and a personal update

I have a bunch of small commentaries floating around in my brain and one massive post underway, so I think it’s time for a roundup. First though, a film. Anomaly takes place in the 1960s and is hard to explain. There’s a near-miss comet, an astronaut, a scientist, and the women they love. The pace drags a bit at times, but it’s very well made for a Kickstarter-financed independent project and it’s also a selection in the Sploid Short Film Festival.

 

Khaled al-Asaad

If you know the names of any archaeologists, I suggest that al-Asaad should top the list above grave robbers like Indiana Jones and Howard Carter (no matter how much we enjoy what they gave us, both fictional and real). In the American educational system, archaeology is a subset of anthropology; my university anthro department had an annual dig in the Middle East, a number of projects in the US, and a staff that was 40% archaeologists. I can understand the dedication it must take to work for a lifetime on discovering and protecting our shared cultural heritage. I can’t begin to fathom the resolve, courage, and selflessness Dr. al-Asaad showed in refusing to reveal the location of artifacts to criminal savages.

Ashley Madison hack

Is anyone else feeling ambivalent about this? I’ve seen vicious comment threads on articles about the hack and there certainly isn’t a consensus of opinion. Personally, I think it’s awful that private information is being revealed by the hackers. Infidelity can be devastating, but isn’t that an issue for the people involved and not the whole Internet? Ashley Madison is vile for a number of reasons, yet I can’t fault them for making money off an existing market; if you spent time on any Internet dating sites — as I did off and on in the late ’90s and early ’00s — you know that married people looking for a fling on the side can be found anywhere. AM grouped them together, tossed in some fake profiles to make the site more appealing, and made as much cash as possible off of it. I hope the company is sued into oblivion for their lax security and for the lie about completely deleting users who paid for that service, which allegedly inspired the hackers.

But on the other hand, the data-loving nerd in me is hungry for the details coming out about how many idiots used their work and government email addresses to register on the site, and sure, part of me wants to pump my fist when yet another “voice of morality” is revealed to be lying, cheating scum.  When private celebrity photos were leaked, I chose to look away. I won’t ignore the news stories that come out of this hack, but I won’t be combing the data for the names of friends, relatives, or colleagues, as I know some people are doing. That’s not my business. Some tips for anyone it may benefit: if you’re doing something on the Internet that you don’t want revealed, for heaven’s sake, use a throwaway email address! Buy a reloadable Visa gift card at a drug store if a credit card is required, and register with a fake name, address, and phone number. Use Tor or a heavily secured browser, lock your smartphone or get a burner phone, and don’t forget to turn off automatic backups. And, maybe you shouldn’t trust a company with a business model based on lying.

Linden Lab and Project Sansar

Someone sent me a note asking my opinion on Project Sansar and I really don’t have much to offer. I haven’t written much about Second Life or the next Linden Lab project in months. With my vacation and then accident, plus Jakob’s illness, I simply haven’t been spending much time in SL. My enthusiasm is currently ebbing, but I’ve had an SL avatar for 10 years now and know that cycles of excitement and boredom are normal for me. I’m sure the next time I go back in-world and explore, I’ll be struck by the creativity and beauty again. That said, there are SL bloggers who are covering the topic to death and back. I won’t be one of the early invitees to try Sansar as I’m neither a creator nor have I sought out a relationship with the Lindens, but I’ll be excited to see what’s there once I can have a look.

Personal stuff

Jakob is conscious and talking after a blood sugar crisis sent him to the hospital over a week ago. However, the doctor says that cancer is now active and growing in his stomach, brain, and liver. He is fighting pneumonia and cannot swallow solid food yet. Since Jakob doesn’t know or acknowledge that he still has cancer, he is demanding to go home (no way) and making life hell for his sister, the only person who visits or helps him. This is something I know well from the two weeks I spent with him in May: his illness has stripped away most of his kindness and intellect, leaving a selfish, arrogant, paranoid man. Those qualities were always part of him but now they are prominent. Even though this is not his fault, it’s a huge challenge to sustain empathy when he’s being an asshole. I’ll admit that I’m relieved he isn’t well enough to read or write yet, but I feel for his sister. Her latest text to me was anguished both from concern about his health and hurt from his behavior toward her. It’s possible to care about him and also want to tell him to get stuffed.

As for me, I took my dog for a short walk today! I’ve been cleared to put 25% of normal weight on the leg that had a tibial plateau fracture, which means that I wear a thigh-to-ankle hinged brace and I lean heavily on my walker whenever I step on that side. It’s slow and very tiring, but I know I need to rebuild my stamina. Of course, my wheelchair is still a necessary tool for longer travels or when I need to use my hands. I start physical therapy next week.

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Roundup: Relay for Life, anthro of hacking, marketing SL, and travel questions

I’ve got some little things today, while I’m working on my other writing and a bigger post for next week:

Relay for Life

Did you know that more than $2 million has been donated to the American Cancer Society over the past decade through its presence in Second Life? Or that as of last summer, the SL Relay for Life team ranked 17th on a list of donation amounts from 5000 RFL teams? The run up to the fundraising season kicks off this weekend, leading up to Relay Weekend on July 18-19th. I’ve never participated in RFL, but this year… well, with Jakob going through intensive cancer treatment and being a “survivor” myself (I hate that term with a passion), I think it’s time. Anyone need another team member?  One thing that the Relay for Life of Second Life site really lacks is a “How can I help?” page: it’s not easy for an individual to understand how to jump in if they’d like to do more than attend an event or make a donation.

2015-rfl-of-sl-logo-v7

Anthropology of Hacking

Earlier this year I reviewed the latest book from Gabriella Coleman, We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency. There’s a little treasure trove of her other writing available here on her website, including links to sites where you can read several of her papers/articles. The link to the CC PDF version of her book “Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking” is unfortunately broken, but perhaps that will be repaired. I’ve got a copy and it’s on my current reading list.

Drax and Becky on Marketing Second Life

This week’s Drax Radio Hour [with Jo Yardley] discusses the topic of how to market Second Life, with special guest Canary Beck. That’s something that many of us debate at length, since SL is what we make of it, and therefore many different things to different people. The show runs more than an hour; check it out.  Also, happy rez day, Drax!

Travel Advice? Berlin, Dresden, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Salzburg, Munich?

I’m in the final stretch of planning a trip for this Spring and our transportation and places to stay are booked. I’ve been to some of these cities before and I’ve read websites and guidebooks, but the best tips I’ve ever gotten have been from locals or travelers who stumbled across something incredible. Anyone have recommendations for things to see or places to eat that aren’t the basic tourist spots?  We’re traveling by train and most of our accommodations come via airbnb, so we’re restricted to places we can reach with public transportation in the cities (except for a day when I plan to rent a car so we can go to Český Krumlov). Thanks for any ideas!

 
 

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Lulz and beyond: an anthropologist writes about Anonymous

Last night, I finished reading Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (thanks to my husband for the Christmas present). I recommend it and think it’s important for anyone with an interest in Internet activism, trolling, hacking, surveillance, or security. You won’t be overwhelmed with a lot of anthropological assessment or theory, and Coleman had access and a background that make her journalistic story a compelling read.

Anon photo by me, staged in Second Life

Coleman’s narrative is told from a near-insider point of view. Studying hackers for many years, she has talked with, met in person, and even befriended some hardcore operators from the Anons and other groups. She had access beyond the #reporter room in the Anon IRC channels with the handle biella; she didn’t go undercover or mislead anyone about her identity or intent. She points out that, of course, this could be risky. A friendly Anon warned her once about overhearing a conversation among others who considered hacking Coleman to give her a taste of what it feels like. Another Anon (the snitch Sabu) hinted that the FBI might be watching her even if she was innocent. She had to remind the Anons that she had no special standing — she wasn’t a lawyer, for example — so for her protection and their own, they should not discuss illegal ops in front of her. She became very mindful of her data security, saying, “crossing a border meant days of preparation to secure my notes and put together a safe travel computer.” (Note that Coleman now lives in Canada: a country that searched my husband’s laptop at a border crossing, confiscated it, and temporarily detained him because of the existence of a common Internet meme image in his browser cache.)

Coleman covers the LulzSec fiasco that was also well told by Parmy Olson in We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency, but that is neither where she starts nor ends.  She gives some background on hacking and trolling, from phone phreaks to the cesspool of 4chan’s /b/ and then dives into Project Chanology, the Anonymous attack on Scientology.  She details the conflict between “moralfags”, “namefags” and those who just want the lulz and the subsequent splintering of Anonymous into smaller and conflicting ops teams. The book continues through the Arab Spring, on through LulzSec, and into the releases from Edward Snowden and Anonymous ops related to rape cases in the US and Canada.

Anthro notes: Coleman’s analysis of lulz is one of the few times the book gets downright anthro. Her anthro roots also show with the frequent reference to trickster figures in myth. I found the trickster framework useful but overdone, one of the pet peeves I developed while reading.  She also suggests that Anonymous can be understoood as the “superaltern” (via Chris Kelty). In comparison to the subaltern, who have no voice, the superaltern are “those highly educated geeks who not only speak for themselves but talk back loudly and critically to those who purport to speak for them.” She also twisted the James Scott’s term “weapons of the weak” (methods used by powerless populations to express themselves politically in indirect ways) into “weapons of the geek” — “a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life”. She even pulls in some Bakhtin, describing IRC as “polyphony”. She writes about tactics for enforcing egalitarianism in societies, the effect of creating a shared identity stripped of conventional outside markers, and secrets as tokens of exchange.  If you’re reading this with an anthropological background, there is a lot to think about, but these analytic moments are scattered through a book that rarely feels academic and is accessible to anyone.

It’s not a perfect book by any means. Coleman admits to being romantic about Anonymous and making a philosophical choice to “enhance enchantment” in her approach. This has been the chief criticism I’ve seen from other (relatively) unbiased critics. Her discussion of disgusting, racist, sexist, life-fucking, and otherwise maliciously lulzy ops is very limited in contrast to ops of more punk and political activism. She nearly lost me relatively early in the book when she stated that “Ma Bell” was a term that came out of phone phreaking, when it actually predated phreaking by many decades. A small error, but since I’m not unfamiliar with the main topics she’s discussing, it made her sound like an academic outsider. Coleman also writes about the Occupy Wall Street movement as someone who was in New York City at the time, which I believe gives her a very different perspective than how it was seen by many of us outside the area, whether we agreed with the basic message of the protests or not. There are a few typos in the Kindle edition; unfortunately, some of them are at places where they could cause a flash of confusion.

The conclusion of the book is not the strongest part, which is disappointing because I think the messages there are so important. Coleman was trying very hard to avoid cynicism (she says as much). We are now post-Chelsea Manning, post-Wikileaks, post-LulzSec, and post-Edward Snowden. The police took down The Pirate Bay about three weeks ago. People cheerfully share intimate information on social media and carry GPS-enabled devices. She writes:

When this push toward the panopticon is stacked with a litany of broader issues — from growing wealthy inequality, waves of global and national recession and unrest, and the looming prospect of climate-induced environmental disaster — it is not difficult to understand how a disabling, pervasive, and frightening uncertainty has come to colonize our states of being.

She sees hope in the activist-oriented Anonymous ops, and frankly, so do I.  Anonymous is deeply flawed, destructive, and often wrong, but I think we need it. I think it’s important to remember that we can be Anonymous, too. Behind our keyboards or writing letters or out in the streets, we can draw attention to the bullshit.

Oh, and a final note: ffs, encrypt.

 
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Posted by on January 3, 2015 in Culture, In the News, Research

 

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