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March 26, 2010

Sung heroines

There are more of them than you think; there are fewer of them than there should be. We are talking, of course, about geek girls. Er: women in science and technology.

To be sure, there are some benefits to being one of only a few women. Being a woman at a geek conference means never having to stand on line to use the bathroom.

Not long after I started working as a technology journalist, a friend at MIT commented to me in passing that the early computer programmers were women. By then it was the 1990s and the predominant image of anyone doing anything with computers was male. So women in technology have a long, if hidden history. There may not be an overlooked Rosalind Franklin for every Crick and Watson, but there are definitely enough to write home about.

Wednesday was, by the style and grace of Suw Charman-Anderson (founding director of the Open Rights Group and social media consultant), Ada Lovelace Day, an effort to get everyone to blog about the women they admired in science and technology to highlight the contributions of women to science and technology. (I like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as much as the next person, but I still don't think the very fictional Buffy Summers and Willow Rosenberg qualify as "women in science and technology". Perspective, folks!)

My favorite among the blog postings I've read is the story of the poster's grandmother, Jean Valentine, one of a group of women assigned to help work on the Bombe, Alan Turing's world war-winning crypto-cracking project at Bletchley Park, where she is now a tour guide (and probably being told more technical detail about the work she did than she was allowed to know at the time!).

There are, of course, many science and technology women I know but didn't see listed. Here are a few.

Rebecca Mercuri published her doctoral dissertation on electronic voting in 2000, about six months before the whole chad debacle the following November.

Susan Landau was for many years a Distinguished Engineer at Sun; she is author of several books on the inner workings and history of wiretapping and other privacy issues, and has a long list of awards and honors. And, years before Ada Lovelace's birthday became a thing, she founded ResearcHers, a mailing list for women computer science researchers and co-created the ACM-W Athena lectures to celebrate women researchers.

One woman worth mentioning who did make it onto several people's blogs is Hedy Lamarr, who besides her career as a movie star (of which she memorably commented that anyone can look glamorous if she stands still and looks stupid) was co-inventor of frequency hopping, a technique used to encrypt radio signals. It was her contribution to the war effort and is used now by the mobile phone industry. You have to be really smart to know how to look that glamorous. The EFF granted her a Pioneer Award in 1997.

Amy Bruckman works on education through designing online communities. In her Ada Lovelace Day blog post she talks about the expanding range of women in her classes.

For a lawyer Lilian Edwards is pretty geeky.
Ellen Ullman is a former software engineer, essayist, and author whose books ought to be required reading for anyone, male or female, working in technology. In Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents she talks about the way the cold, discrete logic of computer systems changes their owners and specifiers, removing human compromise and understanding. In The Bug she charts the inner life of a programmer who spends a year trying to resolve a single bug in a program. Both are excellent.

Also not on anyone's list, I think, is the math teacher I had in junior high school, Nancy Rosenberg. In the interstices of teaching geometry and trigonometry, she introduced us to the work of Martin Gardner, whose mathematical games she loved (for years, my father and I played Nim on placemats in restaurants while waiting for food). She had ideas for cartoons that today would be huge hit on YouTube to illustrate geometrical concepts. She was funny, smart, direct, and forthright, and talked about whatever was exercising her most at the time. She once stopped whatever she was supposed to be teaching us, swore us all to secrecy, and proceeded to read us the first chapter of the book she was reading because she thought it was so screamingly funny. The book was Portnoy's Complaint. In my entire school career, I had only three teachers who really made a difference in my life; Rosenberg's was probably the most significant, since she got me interested in math and science and directed me to Gardner, who was of key importance in leading me to the skeptics. Not exactly a heroine, because for one thing I think she would have found that ridiculous. But an excellent teacher and the kind of geek girl who makes a lot more geek girls.

Happy belated Ada Lovelace Day.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

March 19, 2010

Digital exclusion: the bill

The workings of British politics are nearly as clear to foreigners as cricket; and unlike the US there's no user manual. (Although we can recommend Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels and the TV series Yes, Minister as good sources of enlightenment on the subject.) But what it all boils down to in the case of the Digital Economy Bill is that the rights of an entire nation of Internet users are about to get squeezed between a rock and an election unless something dramatic happens.

The deal is this: the bill has completed all the stages in the House of Lords, and is awaiting its second reading in the House of Commons. Best guesses are that this will happen on or about March 29 or 30. Everyone expects the election to be called around April 8, at which point Parliament disbands and everyone goes home to spend three weeks intensively disrupting the lives of their constituency's voters when they're just sitting down to dinner. Just before Parliament dissolves there's a mad dash to wind up whatever unfinished business there is, universally known as the "wash-up". The Digital Economy Bill is one of those pieces of unfinished business. The fun part: anyone who's actually standing for election is of course in a hurry to get home and start canvassing. So the people actually in the chamber during the wash-up while the front benches are hastily agreeing to pass stuff thought on the nod are likely to be retiring MPs and others who don't have urgent election business.

"What we need," I was told last night, "is a huge, angry crowd." The Open Rights Group is trying to organize exactly that for this Wednesday, March 24.

The bill would enshrine three strikes and disconnection into law. Since the Lords' involvement, it provides Web censorship. It arguably up-ends at least 15 years of government policy promoting the Internet as an engine of economic growth to benefit one single economic sector. How would the disconnected vote, pay taxes, or engage in community politics? What happened to digital inclusion? More haste, less sense.

Last night's occasion was the 20th anniversary of Privacy International (Twitter: @privacyint), where most people were polite to speakers David Blunkett and Nick Clegg. Blunkett, who was such a front-runner for a second Lifetime Menace Big Brother Award that PI renamed the award after him, was an awfully good sport when razzed; you could tell that having his personal life hauled through the tabloid press in some detail has changed many of his views about privacy. Though the conversion is not quite complete: he's willing to dump the ID card, but only because it makes so much more sense just to make passports mandatory for everyone over 16.

But Blunkett's nearly deranged passion for the ID card was at least his own. The Digital Economy Bill, on the other hand, seems to be the result of expert lobbying by the entertainment industry, most especially the British Phonographic Industry. There's a new bit of it out this week in the form of the Building a Digital Economy report, which threatens the loss of 250,000 jobs in the UK alone (1.2 million in the EU, enough to scare any politician right before an election). Techdirt has a nice debunking summary.

A perennial problem, of course, is that bills are notoriously difficult to read. Anyone who's tried knows these days they're largely made up of amendments to previous bills, and therefore cannot be read on their own; and while they can be marked up in hypertext for intelligent Internet perusal this is not a service Parliament provides. You would almost think they don't really want us to read these things.

Speaking at the PI event, Clegg deplored the database state that has been built up over the last ten to 15 years, the resulting change in the relationship between citizen and state, and especially the omission that, "No one ever asked people to vote on giant databases." Such a profound infrastructure change, he argued, should have been a matter for public debate and consideration - and wasn't. Even Blunkett, who attributed some of his change in views to his involvement in the movie Erasing David (opening on UK cinema screens April 29), while still mostly defending the DNA database, said that "We have to operate in a democratic framework and not believe we can do whatever we want."

And here we are again with the Digital Economy Bill. There is plenty of back and forth among industry representatives. ISPs estimate the cost of the DEB's Web censorship provisions at up to £500 million. The BPI disagrees. But where is the public discussion?

But the kind of thoughtful debate that's needed cannot take place in the present circumstances with everyone gunning their car engines hoping for a quick getaway. So if you think the DEB is just about Internet freedoms, think again; the way it's been handled is an abrogation of much older, much broader freedoms. Are you angry yet?


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

March 12, 2010

The cost of money

Everyone except James Allan scrabbled in the bag Joe DiVanna brought with him to the Digital Money Forum (my share: a well-rubbed 1908 copper penny). To be fair, Allan had already left by then. But even if he hadn't he'd have disdained the bag. I offered him my pocketful of medium-sized change and he looked as disgusted as if it were a handkerchief full of snot. That's what living without cash for two years will do to you.

Listen, buddy, like the great George Carlin said, your immune system needs practice.

People in developed countries talk a good game about doing away with cash in favor of credit cards, debit cards, and Oyster cards, but the reality, as Michael Salmony pointed out, is that 80 percent of payments in Europe are...cash. Cash seems free to consumers (where cards have clearer charges), but costs European banks €84 billion a year. Less visibly banks also benefit (when the shadow economy hoards high-value notes it's an interest-free loan), and governments profit from Seigniorage (when people buy but do not spend coins).

"Any survey about payment methods," Salmony said Wednesday, "reveals that in all categories cash is the preferred payment method." You can buy a carrot or a car; it costs you nothing directly; it's anonymous, fast, and efficient. "If you talk directly to supermarkets, they all agree that cash is brilliant - they have sorting machines, counting machines...It's optimized so well, much better than cards."

The "unbanked", of course, such as the London migrants Kavita Datta studies, have no other options. Talk about the digital divide, this is the digital money divide: the cashless society excludes people who can't show passports, can't prove their address, or are too poor to have anything to bank with.

"You can get a job without a visa, but not without a bank account," one migrant worker told her. Electronic payments, ain't they grand?

But go to Africa, Asia, or South America, and everything turns upside down. There, too, cash is king - but there, unlike here with banks and ATMs on every corner and a fully functioning system of credit cards and other substitutes, cash is a terrible burden. Of the 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 a day, said Ignacio Mas, fewer than 10 percent have access to formal financial services. Poor people do save, he said, but their lack of good options means they save in bad ways.

They may not have banks, but most do have mobile phones, and therefore digital money means no long multi-bus rides to pay bills. It means being able to send money home at low cost. It means saving money that can't be easily stolen. In Ghana 80 percent of the population have no access to financial services - but 80 percent are covered by MTN, which is partnering with the banks to fill the gap. In Pakistan, Tameer Microfinance Bank partnered with Telenor to launch Easy-Peisa, which did 150,000 transactions its first month and expects a million by December. One million people produce milk in Pakistan; Nestle pays them all painfully by check every month. The opportunity in these countries to leapfrog traditional banking and head into digital payments is staggering, and our banks won't even care. The average account balance of customers for Kenya's M-Pesa customers is...$3.

When we're not destroying our financial system, we have more choices. If we're going to replace cash, what do we replace it with and what do we need? Really smart people to figure out how to do it right - like Isaac Newton, said Thomas Levenson. (Really. Who knew Isaac Newton had a whole other life chasing counterfeiters?) Law and partnership protocols and banks to become service providers for peer-to-peer finance, said Chris Cook. "An iTunes moment," said Andrew Curry. The democratization of money, suggested conference organizer David Birch.

"If money is electronic and cashless, what difference does it make what currency we use?" Why not...kilowatt hours? You're always going to need to heat your house. Global warming doesn't mean never having to say you're cold.

Personally, I always thought that if our society completely collapsed, it would be an excellent idea to have a stash of cigarettes, chocolate, booze, and toilet paper. But these guys seemed more interested in the notion of Facebook units. Well, why not? A currency can be anything. Second Life has Linden dollars, and people sell virtual game world gold for real money on eBay.

I'd say for the same reason that most people still walk around with notes in their wallet and coins in their pocket: we need to take our increasing abstraction step by step. Many have failed with digital cash, despite excellent technology, because they asked people to put "real" money into strange units with no social meaning and no stored trust. Birch is right: storing value in an Oyster card is no different than storing value in Beenz. But if you say that money is now so abstract that it's a collective hallucination, then the corroborative details that give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing currency really matter.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of the earlier columns in this series.

March 5, 2010

The surveillance chronicles

There is a touching moment at the end of the new documentary Erasing David, which had an early screening last night for some privacy specialists. In it, Katie, the wife of the film's protagonist, filmmaker David Bond, muses on the contrast between the England she grew up in and the "ugly" one being built around her. Of course, many people become nostalgic for a kinder past when they reach a certain age, but Katie Bond is probably barely 30, and what she is talking about is the engorging Database State (PDF).

Anyone watching this week's House of Lords debate on the Digital Economy Bill probably knows how she feels. (The Open Rights Group has advice on appropriate responses.)

At the beginning, however, Katie's biggest concern is that her husband is proposing to "disappear" for a month leaving her alone with their toddler daughter and her late-stage pregnancy.

"You haven't asked," she points out firmly. "You're leaving me with all the child care." Plus, what if the baby comes? They agree in that case he'd better un-disappear pretty quickly.

And so David heads out on the road with a Blackberry, a rucksack, and an increasingly paranoid state of mind. Is he safe being video-recorded interviewing privacy advocates in Brussels? Did "they" plant a bug in his gear? Is someone about to pounce while he's sleeping under a desolate Welsh tree?

There are real trackers: Cerberus detectives Duncan Mee and Cameron Gowlett, who took up the challenge to find him given only his (rather common) name. They try an array of approaches, both high- and low-tech. Having found the Brussels video online, they head to St Pancras to check out arriving Eurostar trains. They set up a Web site to show where they think he is and send the URL to his Blackberry to see if they can trace him when he clicks on the link.

In the post-screening discussion, Mee added some new detail. When they found out, for example, that David was deleting his Facebook page (which he announced on the site and of which they'd already made a copy), they set up a dummy "secret replacement" and attempted to friend his entire list of friends. About a third of Bond's friends accepted the invitation. The detectives took up several party invitations thinking he might show.

"The Stasi would have had to have a roomful of informants," said Mee. Instead, Facebook let them penetrate Bond's social circle quickly on a tiny budget. Even so, and despite all that information out on the Internet, much of the detectives' work was far more social engineering than database manipulation, although there was plenty of that, too. David himself finds the material they compile frighteningly comprehensive.

In between pieces of the chase, the filmmakers include interviews with an impressive array of surveillance victims, politicians (David Blunkett, David Davis), and privacy advocates including No2ID's Phil Booth and Action on Rights for Children's Terri Dowty. (Surprisingly, no one from Privacy International, I gather because of scheduling issues.)

One section deals with the corruption of databases, the kind of thing that can make innocent people unemployable or, in the case of Operation Ore, destroy lives such as that of Simon Bunce. As Bunce explains in the movie, 98.2 percent of the Operation Ore credit card transactions were fraudulent.

Perhaps the most you-have-got-to-be-kidding moment is when former minister David Blunkett says that collecting all this information is "explosive" and that "Government needs to be much more careful" and not just assume that the public will assent. Where was all this people-must-agree stuff when he was relentlessly championing the ID card ? Did he - my god! - learn something from having his private life exposed in the press?

As part of his preparations, Bond investigates: what exactly do all these organizations know about him? He sends out more than 80 subject access requests to government agencies, private companies, and so on. Amazon.com sends him a pile of paper the size of a phone book. Transport for London tell hims that even though his car is exempt his movements in and out of the charging zone are still recorded and kept. This is a very English moment: after bashing his head on his desk in frustration over the length of his wait on hold, when a woman eventually starts to say, "Sorry for keeping you..." he replies, "No problem".

Some of these companies know things about him he doesn't or has forgotten: the time he "seemed angry" on the phone to a customer service representative. "What was I angry about on November 21, 2006?" he wonders.

But probably the most interesting journey, after all, is Katie's. She starts with some exasperation: her husband won't sign this required form giving the very good nursery they've found the right to do anything it wants with their daughter's data. "She has no data," she pleads.

But she will have. And in the Britain she's growing up in, that could be dangerous. Because privacy isn't isolation and it isn't not being found. Privacy means being able to eat sand without fear.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.