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Original author: 
Cory Doctorow


I reviewed Ronald Diebert's new book Black Code in this weekend's edition of the Globe and Mail. Diebert runs the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and has been instrumental in several high-profile reports that outed government spying (like Chinese hackers who compromised the Dalai Lama's computer and turned it into a covert CCTV) and massive criminal hacks (like the Koobface extortion racket). His book is an amazing account of how cops, spies and crooks all treat the Internet as the same kind of thing: a tool for getting information out of people without their knowledge or consent, and how they end up in a kind of emergent conspiracy to erode the net's security to further their own ends. It's an absolutely brilliant and important book:

Ronald Deibert’s new book, Black Code, is a gripping and absolutely terrifying blow-by-blow account of the way that companies, governments, cops and crooks have entered into an accidental conspiracy to poison our collective digital water supply in ways small and large, treating the Internet as a way to make a quick and dirty buck or as a snoopy spy’s best friend. The book is so thoroughly disheartening for its first 14 chapters that I found myself growing impatient with it, worrying that it was a mere counsel of despair.

But the final chapter of Black Code is an incandescent call to arms demanding that states and their agents cease their depraved indifference to the unintended consequences of their online war games and join with civil society groups that work to make the networked society into a freer, better place than the world it has overwritten.

Deibert is the founder and director of The Citizen Lab, a unique institution at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. It is one part X-Files hacker clubhouse, one part computer science lab and one part international relations observatory. The Citizen Lab’s researchers have scored a string of international coups: Uncovering GhostNet, the group of Chinese hackers taking over sensitive diplomatic computers around the world and eavesdropping on the private lives of governments; cracking Koobface, a group of Russian petty crooks who extorted millions from random people on the Internet, a few hundred dollars at a time; exposing another Chinese attack directed at the Tibetan government in exile and the Dalai Lama. Each of these exploits is beautifully recounted in Black Code and used to frame a larger, vivid narrative of a network that is global, vital and terribly fragile.

Yes, fragile. The value of the Internet to us as a species is incalculable, but there are plenty of parties for whom the Internet’s value increases when it is selectively broken.

How to make cyberspace safe for human habitation

Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace     

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Original author: 
Cory Doctorow


Moustetronaut is a lovely picture book by Mark Kelly, a former Space Shuttle pilot and husband of former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It tells the story of Meteor, an experimental NASA mouse who saves a shuttle mission by scurrying into a tight control-panel seam and retrieving a critical lost key. The story is very (very) loosely based on a true story -- there was a Meteor, but he never left his cage, but he did indeed display delight and aplomb in a microgravity environment. The whole rescue thing is a fiction, albeit an adorable one.


What really makes this book isn't its basis in "truth," but rather the amazing illustrations by CF Payne, who walks a very fine line between cute and grotesque, with just enough realism to capture the excitement of space and just enough caricature to make every spread instantly engaging. There's also a very admirable economy of words in the book itself (which neatly balances a multi-page afterword about the space program, with a good bibliography of kid-appropriate space websites and books for further reading). It's just the right blend of beautifully realized characters -- Meteor is particularly great -- and majestic illustrations of space and space vehicles.

Moustetronaut

    

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Last month, I blogged a fascinating profile of Apollo Robbins, a stage pickpocket with an almost supernatural facility for manipulating attention and vision to allow him to literally relieve you of your watch, eyeglasses, and the contents of your wallet without you even noticing it, even after you've been told that he's planning on doing exactly that.

The profile mentioned that Robbins had consulted on a book called Sleights of Mind, written by a pair of neuroscientists named Stephen L Macknick and Susana Martinez-Conde (a husband and wife team, who also hired science writer Sandra Blakeslee to help with the prose, to very good effect). Macknick and Martinez-Conde are working scientists who had a key insight: the way that magicians manipulate our blind spots, our attention, our awareness, our intuitions and our assumptions reveal an awful lot about our neurological functions. Indeed, conjurers, pickpockets, ventriloquists and other performers are essentially practicing applied neuroscience, working out ways to systematically fool our perceptions and make seemingly impossible things happen before our eyes.

The book is a marvellous read, a very well-balanced mix of summaries of published scientific insights into visual and attention systems; accounts of the meetings between illusionists and scientists that the authors organized; histories of magic tricks; exposure of psychic frauds and fakes; and a tale about the couple's quest to craft a neuroscience-based magic act that would gain them full membership to the exclusive Magic Castle in Los Angeles.

I really can't overstate the charm and delight of Sleights of Mind -- from the introduction to the extensive footnotes, it is a truly great popular science text on one of my favorite subjects. The accompanying website is full of supplemental videos, showing how illusions work as mechanical effects, scientific principles and bravura performances. The performers who assisted the authors -- James Randi, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, and, of course, Apollo Robbins -- are all justly famed for their skill, and the book is worth a read just for the insight it provides into their work. But it goes so much farther, providing both a theoretical underpinning in the neuroscience of perception and consciousness, and practical advice on how to apply this to your everyday life.

One interesting note: the authors mention a book called The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception, which reprints the secret (and long-lost) training documents that magician John Mulholland created for the Agency in 1952, which were used at the height of the Cold War by US spies to deceive their Soviet counterparts -- for example, details of how to use the "big move" of lighting a cigarette to disguise the "small move" of slipping drugs into a rival's drink. I haven't read this yet, but I've just ordered it.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions

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Happy New Year! Warren Ellis's second novel, Gun Machine, ships today, and it's the kind of grim, mean hard-boiled fiction that is just the right tonic for your hangover from 2012: the booze, the Mayan apocalypse, the austerity, the misery and revolutions betrayed and horror and bile and pain --

But I digress.

As with his first novel, 2007's Crooked Little Vein, Ellis manages to transition the kind of grotesque madcap action that makes his graphic novels so memorable and enjoyable into prose. This isn't a novelisation of Transmetropolitan by any means, but it enjoys a similar kind of density, largely thanks to interludes in which Ellis enumerates all the awful crimes announced on a police-radio that his protagonist, a NYC detective named Tallow, is addicted to.

Gun Machine is a hard-boiled cop story that opens with Tallow and his doomed partner confronting a deranged nude man with a shotgun who spatters the partner's brains all over Tallow before Tallow blows him away. But losing a partner is just the start of Tallow's problems. By chapter two, he's checked out the seemingly empty apartment next-door to the killer's, and discovered an enormous cache of mouldering guns, arranged in a kind of patterned tapestry on the walls. What's more, each of these guns is from a seemingly related, unsolved murder on the streets on New York, stretching back decades.

Tallow has just discovered the trophy room of the most prolific, most successful serial killer in New York City history. And now his troubles have started. Because while Tallow should technically be sent off for mandatory leave while he gets over the death of his partner and his own killing of the deranged slayer, he is instead sent to the bowels of One Police Plaza, charged with solving hundreds of crimes, some of them decades old. The only help he has in this is a pair of misfit CSU investigators, and in their way stands some of the richest and most powerful people in New York -- some of whom seem to have benefited from the killer's convenient removal of their rivals at key junctures in their stellar careers.

As if that wasn't enough, Tallow is also being hunted, by -- who else? -- the serial killer whose trophies he has just discovered and seized. The most remorseless killer in New York's history is after him with a literal vengeance, and now his problems are really kicking off.

Gun Machine is a novel that never stops to draw breath. It's a monster of a book, bowel-looseningly scary in places, darkly uproarious in others, and remorseless as the killer who hunts in its pages. Ellis never disappoints, but this is particularly good, even by the high standards of a Warren Ellis tale.

Gun Machine

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Stephen Weiner's seminal Rise of the Graphic Novel has had a second edition. Rise builds on Weiner's influential work in cataloging and charting a course through the field of graphic novels for librarians around America and the world, spinning out a compact, fascinating narrative of the history of graphic novels, from the Yellow Kid to the modern explosion of Pulitzer-winning, "respectable," multi-media, highly lucrative graphic novels of today. For such a short book -- 70 pages -- Rise covers a huge amount of ground, from The Spirit to R Crumb, from indie comix to Cavalier and Clay, from Death Note to Understanding Comics and Sandman. Even Boing Boing's own Elfquest gets a chapter.

This is a perfect book for anyone trying to wrap her or his head around the field of comics, a quick and smart overview of the field that spans both decades and genres. Whether you're developing a syllabus, improving your library's collection, or just trying to get a better sense of the field and the good stuff you might have missed, Rise is well worth a read, and worth keeping around afterwards for reference.

Plus: there's a dandy introduction by Will Eisner himself!

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: The Rise of Graphic Novel (Second Edition)

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A Rule Is To Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy is a perfectly wonderful picture book about the spirit of anarchism and its utterly fitting dovetail with the joy of childhood. The book is full of excellent advice, wonderfully illustrated.


Along with the pages reproduced in this post, there's such goodies as "Give stuff away for free," "Speak your mind," and "Listen to the tiniest voice."


Also: "Build it, don't buy it" and "Stay up all night." There's nothing about setting fire to cars or joining the black bloc -- just sound advice about being happy, generous and caring for your community.


The book has become something of a Tea Party bogeyman, which is dumb and would be a tragedy if it wasn't for the fact that the ensuing publicity will likely turn it into a bestseller. I'm sure none of the criticism can have come from people who've actually read the book -- rather, they're likely reacting to the blurb from Bill Ayers, which says "a children’s book on anarchy seems somehow just right: an instinctive, intuitive sense of fairness, community, and interdependence sits naturally enough with a desire for participatory democracy, feminism, queer-rights, environmental balance, self-determination, and peace and global justice."

A Rule Is To Break: A Child's Guide to Anarchy

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I mentioned in September that Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre had a new book out, Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients. I was sure at the time that this would be the usual excellent Goldacre fare -- lucid, thorough, and important. Now that I'm back from my own book tour, I've had a chance to read it and I'm pleased (or rather, furious -- more on this later) to report that this really is the usual, excellent Goldacre stuff.

Bad Pharma is an exhaustive look at the corruption that infests every corner of the pharmaceutical industry, from drug trials to regulatory approval and oversight, to marketing and prescribing and followup research. Systematically, Goldacre lays out the case against pharma, showing that the widespread practices of research suppression, coercion and bribery of journal editors and doctors, propaganda masquerading as mandatory continuing education programmes for doctors, deliberate manipulation of research data, interfering with (or ignoring) regulation, and out-and-out fraud has put all of medicine in jeopardy.

If you're like me, you might be thinking "Oh, yes, of course, it's full of all the usual big-business/regulatory capture stuff," and it is. But what I didn't realise until I read Bad Pharma was that the system isn't just corrupted, it is corrupt. For decades, the evidence for and against medicines that you and I are prescribed every day has been distorted and manipulated to the point where it is now impossible to say whether practically any medicine is better than its competitors, whether it is safe for human consumption -- whether, in other words, we should be taking it.

Goldacre shows that pharma companies routinely suppress the findings of their own trials, cherry-picking their publications to show their products in a flattering light. What's more, something like half of all clinical pharma trials are never disclosed. Think of it: if I ran a "clinical trial" on a coin and was allowed to throw away half of my outcomes, I could show that it came up heads every time. If you didn't know that I chucked out all the trials when it came up tails, you'd think that I'd really hit on something. But that's just for starters. Goldacre's chapter on trial manipulation could be called "How to Lie With Statistics: the Pharma Edition," and it is a thorough catalogue of tricks simple and complex for making pills look like miracle cures, even those that do nothing, that cause harm, or that underperform compared to existing medicines.

Goldacre also documents the manipulation of public perception, showing how clever PR stunts create "diseases" out of thin air, and shows how campaigns to spread awareness of "diseases" like Female Sexual Dysfunction were, in fact, marketing for a planned campaign to get Viagra prescribed to women. This is but one prong of the marketing attack. The other is directed at doctors, and involves everything from fake "classes" taught by eminent physicians that are just marketing for a sponsor's drugs (these classes qualify for as continuing education for doctors, who are required to keep their credentials current in order to continue practicing) to fake journals (produced by real journal publishers to the specifications of pharma companies, who are also their major advertisers), and more tricks, some of which had my jaw scraping my chest.

It goes on and on. Bad Pharma is a well-told tale of how indifference, greed, criminality, impotence, and regulatory capture have worked together to put us all at risk. Rich or poor, doctor or patient, we're all in the dark when it comes to the medicines we take every single day. The billions spent by pharma on the distortion of health science have worked: the companies have made back billions more (providing them with a healthy war-chest for continued corruption), and the rest of us are left without any way of knowing whether our treatments are effective.

It would be easy for Bad Pharma to be a counsel of despair, but it's not. At every turn, Goldacre describes simple measures that could stem the tide of corruption and even reverse it. Pharma companies, for example, have the trial data on all of their clinical trials. Simply forcing them to publish this data would allow researchers to re-run the data on treatments and get better advice to doctors and their patients. Goldacre proposes remedies large and small, ways that all of us could do something to help solve this problem. It's hard to write a book that demonstrates bottomless, vast corruption without leaving the reader feeling helpless, but Bad Pharma will leave you ready to fight for a better world, to demand the professional conduct and regulation that promotes the best health outcomes for all of us.

Bad Pharma: How drug companies mislead doctors and harm patients

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Gizmodo's Brent Rose reviews the TheraPik, a $13, ugly, plasticky bug-bite zapper that actually works really well. It heats up your mosquito (and other critter) bites until the venom's proteins break down, and the itching and swelling disappear.

Using It
You put the tip of the Therapik onto your bug bite, then you press and hold down the button. The tip uses light to heat the bite up. You hold it there for as long as you can take it, up to a minute. The burning sensation gets pretty intense after 30 seconds or so.

The Best Part
It actually works! Mosquito bites (the only thing we tested it with) stopped itching within a few seconds of taking it off, and in most cases they never itched again. We are officially stunned.

Therapik Bug Bite Relieving Gadget Review: We Can’t Believe This Actually Works

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On the most excellent TableTop web-show, a two-part episode on the RPG Fiasco, which Mordicai Knode on Tor.com sums up perfectly:

...a game in which you capture the dark comic confusion of the Coen brothers, where snappy Tarantino dialogue in the midst of mounting carnage is provided by the players, where the good-hearted charm of Simon Pegg’s bumbling runs smack dab into the harsh realities of a Greg Rucka spy comic. Quirky characters in unfortunate circumstances with the odds piling up against them, turning on each other and going out in a blaze of…well, going out in a blaze of glory might even be asking too much.

In this episode, Wil Wheaton and his pals Bonnie Burton (late of Lucasfilm and a frequent suggester of awesome Boing Boing stuff), John Rogers (showrunner for Leverage and former Cosby writer, and Alison Haislip (late of Attack of the Show, now on Hulu's Battleground) play out a round of Saturday Night 78, a 1970s nightclub module co-written by Wheaton (it's a free download). The four players improv a series of short scenes, each funnier and more improbable than the last, collaboratively making a complete (and fantastic) debacle out of the lives of their characters.

There's a bonus episode as well, showing the character generation sequence. This is a great look at a very different kind of RPG, played out by a gang of extremely hoopy froods and happy mutants, and by the time it was over, all I wanted to do was hop on a plane to LA and ask to sit in on another round. I've embedded part one above, the other two episodes are after the jump.

TableTop’s “Fiasco” Captures the Heart of Roleplaying

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King City collects Brandon Graham's magnificent Tokyo Pop comic serial in one mammoth, $11 (cheap!) trade paperback edition, and man, is that a deal.

Take the sprawling, weird, perverse cityscape of Transmetropolitan, mix in the goofy, punny humor of Tank Girl, add ultraviolent gang warfare, the impending resurrection of a death-god, and a secret society of cat-masters whose feline familiars can serve as super-weapons and tactical material, and you're getting in the neighbourhood of King City.

Graham's black-and-white line drawings have the detail of a two-page spread in MAD Magazine and a little bit of Sergio Argones in their style, if Argones was more interested in drawing the battle-scarred veterans of a Korean xombie war who consume each others' powdered bones to drive away the madness.

Despite the fact that this is a very, very funny story, it manages to be more than a comedy. Joe the cat-master's lost love, Pete the bagman's moral crisis, and Max the veteran's trauma are all real enough to tug at your heart-strings, even as you read the goofy puns off the fine-print labels on the fetishistically detailed illustrations showing King City and its weird and wonderful inhabitants.

JWZ wrote "It's the best comic-book-type thing I've read in quite some time. The trade is a huge phonebook-sized thing and it's awesome." He's right.

King City

(via JWZ)

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