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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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Somebody tried to kill Elle Peterssen. She's comatose in the hospital. Her wealthy family doesn't seem to care much -- not her Korean tiger mom, not her emotionally vacant father, not her spoiled brother. They consider her hospitalization a major inconvenience. Elle's boyfriend, Dane, cares a lot but he's the prime suspect.

Elle, unconscious in a hospital bed, is somewhat aware of what's happening. Her disembodied, amnesiac mind inhabits a kind of spirit world with other coma patients. With the aid of a psychologist (also in a coma and in a hospital bed right next to her) and a British coma patient, Elle attempts to figure out who she is and how she ended up this way.

Meanwhile back on Earth, clues of a complicated plot concerning Elle reveal themselves in odd places -- in a hospital staff doctor who purges Elle's records, in hoodie-wearing nogoodniks skulking in doorways and whispering urgently in their cellphones about contingency plans, in office explosions, and in double-crosses.

Mind the Gap: Intimate Strangers collects the first five issues of Jim McCain (writer) and Rodin Esquejo's (artist) Hitchcock-esque comic book series of the same name. The art is superb and the story is a masterfully-paced, intriguing thriller.

Warning: this is an ongoing series so when you get to the end of this graphic novel, you'll want to find out what happens next. Fortunately Mind the Gap #6 is out. I'm going to wait for Volume 2 of the anthology series, myself.

Mind the Gap: Intimate Strangers

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Say you want to quickly transfer a file, like a photo or a contact entry, from your smartphone to a friend’s. Most people would email or text the file. But a number of technologies have come along to make the process quicker and simpler.

On some Android phones, you can “beam” files like photos from phone to phone by tapping one phone to another, or bringing them very close. But that requires that both phones have a special chip, called NFC, which isn’t yet universal on Android phones and doesn’t exist at all in iPhones.

Another approach is to use an app called Bump, which transfers files between iPhones and Android phones when those holding them do a sort of sideways fist bump. It works pretty well, but you have to make contact with the other person.

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With the Xsync iPhone app, you select an audio file, photo, video, contact or calendar appointment by tapping on the simple icon that represents each one.

This week, I’ve been testing a different approach — an iPhone app called Xsync. It doesn’t require any special chip and instead uses a free app and a hardware feature almost every smartphone possesses — the camera. While it is primarily meant, like Bump, for transfers between phones in proximity, it works over long distances. I was able to almost instantly send and get photos, videos and songs using Xsync between two iPhones held up to computer webcams during a Skype video call.

The key to Xsync is the QR code, that square symbol found seemingly everywhere these days—online, in print newspapers and magazines, on posters and other places. These codes typically just contain text—often, a Web address. But Xsync, a tiny company based in Seattle, generates QR codes that initiate the transfer of whole files, or in the case of photos, even groups of files. It has a built-in QR code scanner to read these codes using the phone’s camera.

The biggest drawback to Xsync is that it is currently only available for the iPhone. An Android version is planned for sometime this quarter. Meanwhile, you can use an Android phone with any QR code reader to receive, though not send, files sent via Xsync.

The Xsync app is something of a teaser for the underlying technology, which the company calls the Optical Message Service. The company’s goal isn’t to build its own apps, but to license the technology to cellphone makers so it becomes a built-in way to transfer files.

Here’s how it works. Once you install Xsync on your iPhone, you select an audio file, photo, video, contact or calendar appointment, each of which is represented by a simple icon. The app creates a QR code representing the intended transfer of that file and temporarily sends the file to Xsync’s server. Your friend uses Xsync to scan the QR code you’ve created with his or her iPhone’s camera, and the files are sent to your friend’s iPhone.

In my tests, it was easy, quick and reliable. I successfully used Xsync to send and receive all the included types of files with an iPhone 5, an iPhone 4S and an iPad mini. I was also able to receive files on an Android phone, a Google Nexus 4, via a QR code generated by Xsync.

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The app generates QR codes that initiate the transfer of whole files, or in the case of photos, even groups of files.

You can even generate a QR code using Xsync that will allow you to transfer money from your PayPal account to another person’s, though that requires an added authentication step for security. But it worked, and would be a good way to, say, split a bill at a restaurant. (This PayPal feature of Xsync doesn’t work with Android, for now.)

The company says the file transfers are secure, for two reasons. First, they are encrypted. More important, each code is generated for a specific transfer and expires after a relatively short time. For instance, codes for photos expire after 24 hours, according to the company.

You can use Xsync to transmit certain kinds of files — including documents — you’ve stored in your Dropbox account, though, oddly, the Xsync app hides this document-transfer feature under an icon for sharing calendar appointments.

And you don’t have to be close to make the transfer. In addition to my Skype example, you can send a QR code generated by Xsync via email or text message, or even post the code to Facebook. Another person can then scan the code to get the file.

Xsync can generate codes that represent either existing files on your phone, or files you create on the spot. If you don’t want to use an existing one, the audio, photo, video and calendar icons in the app invite you to create a new file to be transferred.

On the iPhone, the receiving device displays the transferred files right within the Xsync app. If you’re using an Android phone to receive, you get a Web address that leads you to the file on Xsync’s server.

If you have an iPhone, Xsync is an effective way to transfer files like photos, songs, videos and more between phones.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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I’ll admit it: I still use a BlackBerry. I also use an iPhone and an Android phone, but I don’t mind being teased by friends when I need to crank out a long email in seconds, because the BlackBerry keyboard is still the best. My thumbs can speed along on its tactile keys without forcing me to look down as I walk, and it never makes an embarrassing word change using autocorrect.

But really, typing on glass keyboards — like those found on iPhones, Android phones and Windows Phones — should be much easier by now. This week I took a look at a few technologies that gave me hope.

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BlackBerry 10 | The keyboard on RIM’s newest smartphone will suggest words right on the keyboard; swipe up on a word to add it to a sentence.

I tested two apps for Android phones that use very different approaches: the $3.99 SwiftKey 3 by TouchType Ltd., which is available now, and Snapkeys Si by Snapkeys Ltd., which will be available free in the Google Play Store Jan. 16. (Apple doesn’t allow third-party companies to take over core features, like the keyboard, on devices running its iOS mobile operating system.) I also got to briefly try out the smart predictive keyboard technology on Research In Motion’s upcoming BlackBerry 10.

Of the two new apps, I had an easier time adjusting to SwiftKey 3, which uses a traditional on-screen keyboard and guesses what you’ll type next by using a predictive language algorithm. It also incorporates touch gestures, like a right-to-left swipe across the keyboard to delete the last word and left-to-right swipe from the period button to insert a question mark.

Snapkeys Si was a tougher adjustment: It abandons the traditional keyboard altogether, forcing users to type on just four squares that hold 12 letters; all other letters are produced by tapping in the blank space between these four squares. Like SwiftKey 3, it uses some swipe gestures, like a right-side diagonal swipe down to create a period. Snapkeys Si aims to solve fat-finger syndrome, giving people’s fingers bigger targets and guessing the words they mean to type.

The BlackBerry 10 is scheduled to be launched on Jan. 30. I got some hands-on time with its on-screen keyboard, and was impressed by its suggested words, which users can swipe up to throw into sentences. This is designed to make the device easy to use with one hand. The BlackBerry 10 keyboard also reads and learns exactly where a user taps each key to better predict which letter to type, so clumsy fingers make fewer mistakes.

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Snapkeys Si | The traditional QWERTY keyboard layout is abandoned in this app, replaced by just 12 letters displayed in four squares.

SwiftKey 3 for Android is an app that has a healthy understanding of how language is used in everyday conversation, and supports 54 languages, including variations like American, British and Australian English. Creator TouchType scraped Internet language data from around the world to understand how people speak in real-life situations — not by studying a dictionary. It then used this knowledge to create a predictive algorithm that guesses what you’re likely to type next, suggesting three options above the keyboard as you go.

This app can also detect where you meant to add a space, automatically adding it in for you. I found this feature to be a handy time saver as I typed since I could just keep going rather than stopping to tap the space key after each word.

During setup, SwiftKey 3 users can opt to give the app access to their Gmail, Facebook, Twitter and SMS interactions so that it can study a user’s language to further understand how the person talks. For example, if someone always preferred to spell “thanks” as “thx,” SwiftKey 3 would learn this behavior and add “thx” in as a word rather than continuously trying to correct it. A TouchType spokesman says later this year the company may add a feature allowing users to customize the app to write out complete words when they type abbreviations, like typing “abt” to get “about.”

For privacy purposes, the app only stores this data locally on your phone rather than sending it back to the company for making improvements. And you can erase the app’s personalized data at any time in Settings, Personalization, Clear Language Data.

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SwiftKey 3 | This app supports more than 50 languages, and remembers how you use words, like knowing to type ‘MacLaren’s’ above.

SwiftKey 3 is free for the first month, and then costs $3.99 to continue using it. The app will remember all of your custom language settings when you upgrade, so you don’t have to reteach it.

Snapkeys Si, made by Israeli startup Snapkeys, lets you see more of your smartphone screen while you’re typing by using just four squares containing 12 letters instead of the traditional keyboard. Although these bigger finger targets made it so I never accidentally typed the wrong square, it took me a while to get used to knowing where each letter was and which letters weren’t in squares at all.

Typing words with letters that aren’t in squares requires using the blank space in the middle of these squares. So to type the word “wish,” I’d find the first three letters in squares, selecting each of them. But the “h” isn’t in a square, so I’d tap the blank space between these squares. In the case of “wish,” Snapkeys Si got it right, but other words were more challenging to type, which frustrated me. Suggested words appear on the right side of the four squares, and tapping one of them adds it to a sentence. Once a new word is added to Snapkeys Si dictionary, it will be suggested from then on.

Like SwiftKey 3, Snapkeys Si only saves your personalized language settings on the phone.

The space key is to the right side of these four squares, and the backspace key is to the left. I added periods to the end of sentences by swiping diagonally down from right to left, and added commas by swiping diagonally down left to right.

Snapkeys Si is worth a try if you’re looking for a fresh alternative to traditional keyboards. But I found that it was a lot of work to learn after years of using the traditional QWERTY keyboard layout. The app is still in its beta, or first version, and the company says it will continue to improve.

Smart keyboard apps like SwiftKey 3, Snapkeys Si and others make typing on glass less painful and more intuitive. Just beware of the steep learning curve you may have to climb to start using them.

Write to Katie at katie.boehret@wsj.com.

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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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Biella Coleman is a geek anthropologist, in both senses of the epithet: an anthropologist who studies geeks, and a geek who is an anthropologist. Though she's best known today for her excellent and insightful work on the mechanism and structure underpinning Anonymous and /b/, Coleman is also an expert on the organization, structure, philosophy and struggles of the free software/open source movements. I met Biella while she was doing fieldwork as an intern at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She's also had deep experience with the Debian project and many other hacker/FLOSS subcultures.

Coleman's has published her dissertation, edited and streamlined, under the title of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, which comes out today from Princeton University Press (Quinn Norton, also well known for her Wired reporting on Anonymous and Occupy, had a hand in the editing). Coding Freedom walks the fine line between popular accessibility and scholarly rigor, and does a very good job of expressing complex ideas without (too much) academic jargon.

Coding Freedom is insightful and fascinating, a superbly observed picture of the motives, divisions and history of the free software and software freedom world. As someone embedded in both those worlds, I found myself surprised by connections I'd never made on my own, but which seemed perfectly right and obvious in hindsight. Coleman's work pulls together a million IRC conversations and mailing list threads and wikiwars and gets to their foundations, the deep discussion evolving through the world of free/open source software.

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking

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If you’ve ever had to dial in to a videoconference for work, you know what a painful experience it can be. Staring at the backs of people’s heads and struggling to see presentation materials doesn’t make for a fun time. But one company is hoping to change that by thinking outside the box — literally.

Today, Altia Systems, a start-up based in Cupertino, Calif., introduced a new video camera called PanaCast. It takes videoconferencing beyond a stationary, rectangular screen by providing a real-time panoramic view of the room and giving users the ability to pan and zoom the scene from their computer or mobile device.

“We felt that if we could bring a new experience that is as simple as the normal human experience of talking in real time, it could be really powerful for users,” said Aurangzeb Khan, co-founder and CEO of Altia Sytems, in an interview with AllThingsD.

PanaCast uses a system of six cameras to capture HD video at 60 frames, and a custom-developed video processor that synchronizes and stitches all the images in real time to create a single, 200-degree panoramic view of the room. (PanaCast also runs the Linux operating system and features a dual-core ARM 11 processor.)

Altia’s server then uses a low-latency encoding process that allows you to stream the video over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection, unlike some videoconference systems that require dedicated bandwidth.

Remote participants can view video using the company’s Mac or Windows app or on their iPhone or Android devices. On mobile devices, you can use familiar touch gestures, such as pinch-to-zoom and swiping left or right, to zoom in on notes written on a whiteboard or to pan over to a speaker on the other side of the room.

“The experience you get with PanaCast is much more natural than current videoconferencing systems,” said Khan. “You get to interact with it in real time, and it makes a difference because you’re not a passive viewer anymore. You’re engaged in the discussion and how you want to participate in the discussion.”

I got a hands-on demo of the device last week (the company was originally scheduled to show PanaCast at our D: Dive into Mobile conference, which was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy), and I was actually surprised at what a difference the panoramic view made. It made for a better visual experience, and it was also helpful to see who was saying what, instead of hearing a faceless voice from one corner of the room.

Occasionally, I noticed some lag in the video, but the panning and zooming motions were very smooth, and worked well. One thing to note is that PanaCast does not have a built-in microphone.

Conference organizers will still need to use either a speakerphone or Polycom system. The PanaCast apps will have integrated VoIP audio, so participants can listen and talk using the app.

Altia says another benefit to its PanaCast system is cost. The company did not reveal exact pricing, but did say that it would be less than $700. Altia is launching PanaCast on Kickstarter, and the first 25 pledges of $399 will get a camera, with an estimated ship date of January.

The apps are free, and there is no subscription fee for up to two simultaneous remote participants. The company has a fundraising goal of $15,000 by Jan. 1.

Altia Systems was co-founded by Khan, CMO Lars Herlitz and CTO Atif Sarwari. The company has received $3 million in series A funding from Lanza TechVentures and private investors Dado and Rey Banatao.

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