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REVIEW: "The Hacker Diaries", Dan Verton

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  • Rob, grandpa of Ryan, Trevor, Devon & Ha
    BKHCKDRY.RVW 20020519 The Hacker Diaries , Dan Verton, 2002, 0-07-222364-2, U$24.99 %A Dan Verton %C 300 Water Street, Whitby, Ontario L1N 9B6 %D
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 15, 2002
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      BKHCKDRY.RVW 20020519

      "The Hacker Diaries", Dan Verton, 2002, 0-07-222364-2, U$24.99
      %A Dan Verton
      %C 300 Water Street, Whitby, Ontario L1N 9B6
      %D 2002
      %G 0-07-222364-2
      %I McGraw-Hill Ryerson/Osborne
      %O U$24.99 905-430-5000 +1-800-565-5758 fax: 905-430-5020
      %P 219 p.
      %T "The Hacker Diaries: Confessions of Teenage Hackers"

      Teenaged hackers are misunderstood. Definitions are for lamers,
      morality is a "bogus" concept. These noble idealists are questers
      after the Holy Grail of knowledge: problem solvers who are attempting
      to enlighten the masses. Given a little dedication, you too can,
      inside of six months, go from being a technopeasant to "knowing
      everything there [is] to know" about computers. Thus it is written in
      the Gospel of Verton.

      (While we are at it, I have this nice bridge you might want to
      purchase ...)

      Even if you ignore questions about the definition of what "hacking"
      actually is, and even if you leave aside the author's biased sympathy
      for rebels-without-a-clue, the introduction alone points out that
      Verton has not performed the research one would think minimal to such
      a project: reading the "popular" literature on the subject, never mind
      the more serious analyses by researchers like Denning and Gordon. How
      else can he make the statement that this book is the first ever to try
      and penetrate the veil of secrecy surrounding the computer vandal
      community, an assertion that must come as a bit of a shock to authors
      like Levy ("Hackers," cf. BKHACKRS.RVW), Sterling ("Hacker Crackdown,"
      cf. BKHKRCRK.RVW), Taylor ("Hackers," cf. BKHAKERS.RVW), Dreyfus
      ("Underground," cf. BKNDRGND.RVW), and a host of others. It is,
      therefore, no surprise that this author gets basic factual information
      wrong, such as the confusion of the infamous Operation Sundevil with
      more successful prosecutions of computer crime.

      Verton decries the blind and ignorant stereotyping of loners who are
      more comfortable with computers than with their peers, but he is,
      himself, guilty of promoting the same kind of confusion. The group
      targeted after the Columbine shootings was not the computer community
      but the Goths, who share almost no characteristics with hackers except
      for a slightly obsessive interest in an esoteric topic and a position
      outside the mainstream. (Well, possibly also an aversion to sunlight
      ...) Verton has attempted to include "representative" examples of
      both maladjusted criminals and ethical hackers, but draws no
      distinctions between them and, indeed, seems to be trying to lump them
      all together.

      No, I've changed my mind. Let's not leave aside the question of a
      definition of hacking. Like too many authors, Verton also wants to
      continue the confusion of the original idea of a hacker as a skilled
      technologist with the more recent concept of the vandals of computer
      systems. But he also immediately destroys his position by pointing
      out that a cracker cannot change his "handle," the (usually offensive)
      nickname used to achieve both identity and anonymity online. If an
      underground "hacker" changes his handle, he loses his status and
      becomes just another wannabe. Verton does not seem to realize the
      import of this statement. A cracker's credibility is tied to his
      nickname, since he is only as good as his "rep," the record of
      defacements or intrusions he is able to boast about. There is no
      actual skill set behind such a reputation. In opposition, if true
      hackers like Richard Stallman or Eric Raymond were to change their
      names, and were then to write new programs and release them to the
      world, those programs would still be useful and of good quality. (Top
      programmers would, in fact, probably be able to identify the authors
      of emacs and fetchmail by programming excellence and style.)

      Verton's writing seems clear and readable unless you start to think
      about it. A story will say that A happened, then B happened, then C
      happened, then B happened, then D happened, then B happened. Times
      are quite indefinite, but since the narrative is unclear even about
      simple sequences it is not any real shock to find out that the author
      does not know larger items of technical history, such as that UNIX
      predates VMS. Likewise, Verton isn't interested in having consistency
      get in the way of a good story, even if the story doesn't make any
      sense. Directions and motivations change suddenly and without
      apparent reason: reading between the lines indicates that there is a
      lot that we aren't being told. Probably the author wasn't told,
      either. It sounds like he didn't even ask. (The interview subjects
      seem to have realized that they were dealing with a credulous author:
      Verton retails stories out of common urban legends and jokes without
      seeming to have identified them as such. Despite his credentials as a
      reporter for a computer trade magazine Verton's technical knowledge is
      questionable--he doesn't know a denial of service attack from a
      reformat nor that the Macintosh doesn't have a Windows Registry.)

      Despite tidbits of trivia, ultimately the book is boring. One can
      only read so many times that Amanda (or Betty or Cathy) accidentally
      touched a computer on her seventh birthday and thereafter became
      obsessed with re-writing the CP/M kernel before one loses interest.
      The names may change, the hacks may change, the outcomes and choices
      of whether or not to be useful or messed up may change, but in the
      end, the lessons are the same: non-existent.

      copyright Robert M. Slade, 2002 BKHCKDRY.RVW 20020519

      ====================== (quote inserted randomly by Pegasus Mailer)
      rslade@... rslade@... slade@... p1@...
      Viruses Revealed 0072130903 victoria.tc.ca/techrev/vrfresft.htm
      http://victoria.tc.ca/techrev or http://sun.soci.niu.edu/~rslade
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