JERUSALEM — A
YouTube clip mocking
Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s megalomania is fast becoming a popular token of the
Libya uprising across the Middle East. And in an added affront to Colonel
Qaddafi, it was created by an Israeli living in Tel Aviv.
Noy Alooshe, 31, an Israeli journalist, musician and Internet buff, said he saw
Colonel Qaddafi’s televised speech last Tuesday in which the Libyan leader vowed
to hunt down protesters “inch by inch, house by house, home by home, alleyway by
alleyway,” and immediately identified it as a “classic.”
“He was dressed strangely, and he raised his arms” like at a trance party, Mr.
Alooshe said Sunday in a telephone interview, referring to the gatherings that
feature electronic dance music. Then there were Colonel Qaddafi’s words with
their natural beat.
Mr. Alooshe spent a few hours at the computer, using pitch corrector technology
to set the speech to the music of “Hey Baby,” a song by the American rapper
Pitbull, featuring another artist, T-Pain. Mr. Alooshe titled it “Zenga-Zenga,”
echoing Colonel Qaddafi’s repetition of the word zanqa, Arabic for alleyway.
By the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mr. Alooshe had uploaded the electro
hip-hop remix to YouTube, and he began promoting it on Twitter and Facebook,
sending the link to the pages of young Arab revolutionaries. By Sunday night,
the original clip had received nearly 500,000 hits and had gone viral.
Mr. Alooshe, who at first did not identify himself on the clip as an Israeli,
started receiving enthusiastic messages from all around the Arab world. Web
surfers soon discovered that he was a Jewish Israeli from his Facebook profile —
Mr. Alooshe plays in a band called Hovevey Zion, or the Lovers of Zion — and
some of the accolades turned to curses. A few also found the video distasteful.
But the reactions have largely been positive, including a message Mr. Alooshe
said he received from someone he assumed to be from the Libyan opposition saying
that if and when the Qaddafi regime fell, “We will dance to ‘Zenga-Zenga’ in the
The original clip features mirror images of a scantily clad woman dancing along
to Colonel Qaddafi’s rant. Mr. Alooshe said he got many requests from Web
surfers who asked him for a version without the dancer so that they could show
it to their parents, which he did.
Mr. Alooshe speaks no Arabic, though his grandparents were from Tunisia. He said
he used Google Translate every few hours to check messages and remove any
Israelis have been watching the events in Libya unfold with the same rapt
attention as they have to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
In the past, Colonel Qaddafi has proposed that Palestinian refugees should
return en masse by ship to Israel’s shores, and that Israel and the Palestinian
territories should be combined into one state called Isratine.
Mr. Alooshe said he was a little worried that if the Libyan leader survived, he
could send one of his sons after him. But he said it was “also very exciting to
be making waves in the Arab world as an Israeli.”
As one surfer wrote in an Arabic talkback early Sunday, “What’s the problem if
he’s an Israeli? The video is still funny.” He signed off with the
internationally recognized “Hahaha.”
For years, Wal-Mart has used its clout as the nation’s largest retailer to
squeeze competitors with rock-bottom prices in its stores. Now it is trying to
throw a holiday knockout punch online.
Starting Thursday, Wal-Mart Stores plans to offer free shipping on its Web site,
with no minimum purchase, on almost 60,000 gift items, including many toys and
electronics. The offer will run through Dec. 20, when Wal-Mart said it might
consider other free-shipping deals.
“Everyone’s trying to figure out how we can serve a customer that’s trying to
save every penny they can,” said Steve Nave, senior vice president and general
manager of Walmart.com. “It’s the most competitive offer out there, and we’re
pretty excited about it.”
Even before Wal-Mart’s surprise move, shipping prices were this holiday season’s
predicament for online retailers. In a bid for cost-conscious consumers, Target
and J. C. Penney introduced their most aggressive free-shipping programs ever,
and Sears, Toys “R” Us, Williams-Sonoma and others were trying to match the
success of Amazon’s shipping program, offering unlimited two-day shipping for an
But given Wal-Mart’s scale and influence in the marketplace, its free pass for
shipping sets a new high — or low — in e-commerce. And it may create an
expectation among consumers — free shipping, no minimum, always — that would
make it harder for smaller e-commerce sites to survive.
Wal-Mart says it will not raise prices to offset shipping and will not press
shippers, like UPS and FedEx, to absorb the costs. But Wal-Mart and other big
retailers already have low-price contracts with shippers, and the stores
maintain distribution centers nationwide that reduce shipping distances and
For smaller retailers and Web sites, which pay regular mail rates and may ship
from only one location, free shipping is not nearly as affordable and often must
be added into prices.
“You’re trying to compete with the Amazons and the Zappos, who have so many
different warehouses that they can significantly reduce transport costs,” said
Gary Schwake, director of business development at the Distribution Management
Group, a consulting firm that advises retailers like Eddie Bauer.
Retailers say that shoppers have already started to revolt against shipping
fees. While consumers are sensitive to what an item costs online, shipping costs
can have even more influence, according to market research.
When e-commerce took off a decade ago, free shipping was a rare perk. Now, 55
percent of consumers are at least somewhat likely to abandon their purchase if
they do not get free shipping, according to comScore, the online-research firm,
and about 41 percent of transactions online now include free shipping (usually
with a minimum purchase).
Wal-Mart is throwing itself into the holiday season shipping fray as it tries to
revive sales. Even as other retailers’ sales have recovered, sales at Wal-Mart’s
stores in the United States open more than a year have fallen for five
consecutive quarters. Recently, it has been adding to the merchandise it
carries, offering products for under $1 and undercutting Target on toy prices.
The Wal-Mart shipping offer has no minimum. Mr. Nave said an important factor
was that an item was likely to be given as a gift. “We looked at the areas we
felt were going to be popular in gift-giving this holiday, and went from there,”
Even after the holidays, “I would expect to see us continue to have offerings
similar to this in the future in some way, shape or form,” he said.
The Wal-Mart announcement was not public until Thursday, but retailers had
already been escalating their shipping programs since last year, when mobile
comparison-shopping apps helped make free shipping popular.
Amazon.com has one successful model. Year-round, it offers free shipping on
orders over $25. And its Amazon Prime program, in which members pay $79 a year
for unlimited two-day shipping on almost all purchases, could account for as
much as a third of sales, said Jordan Rohan, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.
“It is making other retailers scramble,” he said.
To fight off Amazon Prime, a month ago GSI Commerce started ShopRunner, a
service that bands together e-commerce sites including eBags and the Web site of
Toys “R” Us. Shoppers pay $79 a year for unlimited two-day shipping from any of
the members. This fall, Williams-Sonoma started a service like that for $30 a
year, and Sears and Kmart, which introduced a similar program three years ago,
are pushing it heavily this season.
Beginning in October, J.C. Penney started offering free shipping year-round,
with a minimum purchase of $69 for most of the year. Target is offering free
shipping on purchases of $50 and up, on 800,000 items. And in August L.L. Bean
began offering free shipping with no minimum, through Dec. 20.
Bigger companies have a big advantage in the battle over free shipping: volume.
According to the Distribution Management Group, air shipping prices for big
retailers are about 70 percent less than for a small company. Shipping at Amazon
costs about 4 percent of sales, and Amazon loses money on it because it offers
marketing benefits, said Aaron Kessler, an e-commerce analyst at the research
firm ThinkEquity. But shipping at small sites usually costs about 35 percent of
sales, said Mr. Schwake, the retail adviser.
Despite the costs, smaller retailers say they have little choice but to offer
free shipping, in some form, these days.
“Everyone does it,” said Michael Mente, the co-founder of Revolve Clothing, a
Los Angeles-based women’s clothing site. Asked if he received discounts from the
shippers, he said, “Unfortunately not.” At the start-up site ModCloth, which
sells women’s clothes, the co-founder Susan Gregg Koger said she couldn’t afford
free shipping year round, but she decided to do it for the holiday season. It is
a risk, she said.
“That’s really hard to offer and then roll back,” she said.
While Wal-Mart may continue with some free shipping offers after the holidays,
even other big retailers like L.L. Bean say they just cannot afford it after
Christmas is over.
“We’d love to be able to offer free shipping, but free shipping isn’t free,”
said Laurie Brooks, an L.L. Bean spokeswoman. “It does cost a company money."
There are potential downsides, even for Wal-Mart. Physical stores with Web sites
run a risk in promoting free shipping, Mr. Rohan said. “They’d much rather you
buy that same item in the store for $50 and pick up a hundred dollars of other
stuff you wouldn’t even think about,” he said.
January 12, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN TIERNEY
When does the wisdom of crowds give way to the meanness of
In the 1990s, Jaron Lanier was one of the digital pioneers hailing the wonderful
possibilities that would be realized once the Internet allowed musicians,
artists, scientists and engineers around the world to instantly share their
work. Now, like a lot of us, he is having second thoughts.
Mr. Lanier, a musician and avant-garde computer scientist — he popularized the
term “virtual reality” — wonders if the Web’s structure and ideology are
fostering nasty group dynamics and mediocre collaborations. His new book, “You
Are Not a Gadget,” is a manifesto against “hive thinking” and “digital Maoism,”
by which he means the glorification of open-source software, free information
and collective work at the expense of individual creativity.
He blames the Web’s tradition of “drive-by anonymity” for fostering vicious pack
behavior on blogs, forums and social networks. He acknowledges the examples of
generous collaboration, like Wikipedia, but argues that the mantras of “open
culture” and “information wants to be free” have produced a destructive new
“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, “is that authors, journalists,
musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and
imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity
takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but
I find his critique intriguing, partly because Mr. Lanier isn’t your ordinary
Luddite crank, and partly because I’ve felt the same kind of disappointment with
the Web. In the 1990s, when I was writing paeans to the dawning spirit of
digital collaboration, it didn’t occur to me that the Web’s “gift culture,” as
anthropologists called it, could turn into a mandatory potlatch for so many
professions — including my own.
So I have selfish reasons for appreciating Mr. Lanier’s complaints about masses
of “digital peasants” being forced to provide free material to a few “lords of
the clouds” like Google and YouTube. But I’m not sure Mr. Lanier has correctly
diagnosed the causes of our discontent, particularly when he blames software
design for leading to what he calls exploitative monopolies on the Web like
He argues that old — and bad — digital systems tend to get locked in place
because it’s too difficult and expensive for everyone to switch to a new one.
That basic problem, known to economists as lock-in, has long been blamed for
stifling the rise of superior technologies like the Dvorak typewriter keyboard
and Betamax videotapes, and for perpetuating duds like the Windows operating
It can sound plausible enough in theory — particularly if your Windows computer
has just crashed. In practice, though, better products win out, according to the
economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. After reviewing battles like
Dvorak-qwerty and Betamax-VHS, they concluded that consumers had good reasons
for preferring qwerty keyboards and VHS tapes, and that sellers of superior
technologies generally don’t get locked out. “Although software is often brought
up as locking in people,” Dr. Liebowitz told me, “we have made a careful
examination of that issue and find that the winning products are almost always
the ones thought to be better by reviewers.” When a better new product appears,
he said, the challenger can take over the software market relatively quickly by
comparison with other industries.
Dr. Liebowitz, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the
problem on the Web today has less to do with monopolies or software design than
with intellectual piracy, which he has also studied extensively. In fact, Dr.
Liebowitz used to be a favorite of the “information-wants-to-be-free” faction.
In the 1980s he asserted that photocopying actually helped copyright owners by
exposing more people to their work, and he later reported that audio and video
taping technologies offered large benefits to consumers without causing much
harm to copyright owners in Hollywood and the music and television industries.
But when Napster and other music-sharing Web sites started becoming popular, Dr.
Liebowitz correctly predicted that the music industry would be seriously hurt
because it was so cheap and easy to make perfect copies and distribute them.
Today he sees similar harm to other industries like publishing and television
(and he is serving as a paid adviser to Viacom in its lawsuit seeking damages
from Google for allowing Viacom’s videos to be posted on YouTube).
Trying to charge for songs and other digital content is sometimes dismissed as a
losing cause because hackers can crack any copy-protection technology. But as
Mr. Lanier notes in his book, any lock on a car or a home can be broken, yet few
people do so — or condone break-ins.
“An intelligent person feels guilty for downloading music without paying the
musician, but they use this free-open-culture ideology to cover it,” Mr. Lanier
told me. In the book he disputes the assertion that there’s no harm in copying a
digital music file because you haven’t damaged the original file.
“The same thing could be said if you hacked into a bank and just added money to
your online account,” he writes. “The problem in each case is not that you stole
from a specific person but that you undermined the artificial scarcities that
allow the economy to function.”
Mr. Lanier was once an advocate himself for piracy, arguing that his fellow
musicians would make up for the lost revenue in other ways. Sure enough, some
musicians have done well selling T-shirts and concert tickets, but it is
striking how many of the top-grossing acts began in the predigital era, and how
much of today’s music is a mash-up of the old.
“It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can
do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump,” Mr. Lanier
writes. Or, to use another of his grim metaphors: “Creative people — the new
peasants — come to resemble animals converging on shrinking oases of old media
in a depleted desert.”
To save those endangered species, Mr. Lanier proposes rethinking the Web’s
ideology, revising its software structure and introducing innovations like a
universal system of micropayments. (To debate reforms, go to Tierney Lab at
Dr. Liebowitz suggests a more traditional reform for cyberspace: punishing
thieves. The big difference between Web piracy and house burglary, he says, is
that the penalties for piracy are tiny and rarely enforced. He expects people to
keep pilfering (and rationalizing their thefts) as long as the benefits of
piracy greatly exceed the costs.
In theory, public officials could deter piracy by stiffening the penalties, but
they’re aware of another crucial distinction between online piracy and house
burglary: There are a lot more homeowners than burglars, but there are a lot
more consumers of digital content than producers of it.
The result is a problem a bit like trying to stop a mob of looters. When the
majority of people feel entitled to someone’s property, who’s going to stand in
Computers may be good at crunching numbers, but can they crunch feelings?
The rise of blogs and social networks has fueled a bull market in personal
opinion: reviews, ratings, recommendations and other forms of online expression.
For computer scientists, this fast-growing mountain of data is opening a
tantalizing window onto the collective consciousness of Internet users.
An emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape around one of the
computer world’s unexplored frontiers: translating the vagaries of human emotion
into hard data.
This is more than just an interesting programming exercise. For many businesses,
online opinion has turned into a kind of virtual currency that can make or break
a product in the marketplace.
Yet many companies struggle to make sense of the caterwaul of complaints and
compliments that now swirl around their products online. As sentiment analysis
tools begin to take shape, they could not only help businesses improve their
bottom lines, but also eventually transform the experience of searching for
Several new sentiment analysis companies are trying to tap into the growing
business interest in what is being said online.
“Social media used to be this cute project for 25-year-old consultants,” said
Margaret Francis, vice president for product at Scout Labs in San Francisco.
Now, she said, top executives “are recognizing it as an incredibly rich vein of
Scout Labs, which is backed by the venture capital firm started by the CNet
founder Halsey Minor, recently introduced a subscription service that allows
customers to monitor blogs, news articles, online forums and social networking
sites for trends in opinions about products, services or topics in the news.
In early May, the ticket marketplace StubHub used Scout Labs’ monitoring tool to
identify a sudden surge of negative blog sentiment after rain delayed a
Yankees-Red Sox game.
Stadium officials mistakenly told hundreds of fans that the game had been
canceled, and StubHub denied fans’ requests for refunds, on the grounds that the
game had actually been played. But after spotting trouble brewing online, the
company offered discounts and credits to the affected fans. It is now
re-evaluating its bad weather policy.
“This is a canary in a coal mine for us,” said John Whelan, StubHub’s director
of customer service.
Jodange, based in Yonkers, offers a service geared toward online publishers that
lets them incorporate opinion data drawn from over 450,000 sources, including
mainstream news sources, blogs and Twitter.
Based on research by Claire Cardie, a former Cornell computer science professor,
and Jan Wiebe of the University of Pittsburgh, the service uses a sophisticated
algorithm that not only evaluates sentiments about particular topics, but also
identifies the most influential opinion holders.
Jodange, whose early investors include the National Science Foundation, is
currently working on a new algorithm that could use opinion data to predict
future developments, like forecasting the impact of newspaper editorials on a
company’s stock price.
In a similar vein, The Financial Times recently introduced Newssift, an
experimental program that tracks sentiments about business topics in the news,
coupled with a specialized search engine that allows users to organize their
queries by topic, organization, place, person and theme.
Using Newssift, a search for Wal-Mart reveals that recent sentiment about the
company is running positive by a ratio of slightly better than two to one. When
that search is refined with the suggested term “Labor Force and Unions,”
however, the ratio of positive to negative sentiments drops closer to one to
Such tools could help companies pinpoint the effect of specific issues on
customer perceptions, helping them respond with appropriate marketing and public
For casual Web surfers, simpler incarnations of sentiment analysis are sprouting
up in the form of lightweight tools like Tweetfeel, Twendz and Twitrratr. These
sites allow users to take the pulse of Twitter users about particular topics.
A quick search on Tweetfeel, for example, reveals that 77 percent of recent
tweeters liked the movie “Julie & Julia.” But the same search on Twitrratr
reveals a few misfires. The site assigned a negative score to a tweet reading
“julie and julia was truly delightful!!” That same message ended with “we all
felt very hungry afterwards” — and the system took the word “hungry” to indicate
a negative sentiment.
While the more advanced algorithms used by Scout Labs, Jodange and Newssift
employ advanced analytics to avoid such pitfalls, none of these services works
perfectly. “Our algorithm is about 70 to 80 percent accurate,” said Ms. Francis,
who added that its users can reclassify inaccurate results so the system learns
from its mistakes.
Translating the slippery stuff of human language into binary values will always
be an imperfect science, however. “Sentiments are very different from
conventional facts,” said Seth Grimes, the founder of the suburban Maryland
consulting firm Alta Plana, who points to the many cultural factors and
linguistic nuances that make it difficult to turn a string of written text into
a simple pro or con sentiment. “ ‘Sinful’ is a good thing when applied to
chocolate cake,” he said.
The simplest algorithms work by scanning keywords to categorize a statement as
positive or negative, based on a simple binary analysis (“love” is good, “hate”
is bad). But that approach fails to capture the subtleties that bring human
language to life: irony, sarcasm, slang and other idiomatic expressions.
Reliable sentiment analysis requires parsing many linguistic shades of gray.
“We are dealing with sentiment that can be expressed in subtle ways,” said Bo
Pang, a researcher at Yahoo who co-wrote “Opinion Mining and Sentiment
Analysis,” one of the first academic books on sentiment analysis.
To get at the true intent of a statement, Ms. Pang developed software that looks
at several different filters, including polarity (is the statement positive or
negative?), intensity (what is the degree of emotion being expressed?) and
subjectivity (how partial or impartial is the source?).
For example, a preponderance of adjectives often signals a high degree of
subjectivity, while noun- and verb-heavy statements tend toward a more neutral
point of view.
As sentiment analysis algorithms grow more sophisticated, they should begin to
yield more accurate results that may eventually point the way to more
sophisticated filtering mechanisms. They could become a part of everyday Web
“I see sentiment analysis becoming a standard feature of search engines,” said
Mr. Grimes, who suggests that such algorithms could begin to influence both
general-purpose Web searching and more specialized searches in areas like
e-commerce, travel reservations and movie reviews.
Ms. Pang envisions a search engine that fine-tunes results for users based on
sentiment. For example, it might influence the ordering of search results for
certain kinds of queries like “best hotel in San Antonio.”
As search engines begin to incorporate more and more opinion data into their
results, the distinction between fact and opinion may start blurring to the
point where, as David Byrne once put it, “facts all come with points of view.”
March 11, 2009
Filed at 1:16 p.m. ET
The New York Times
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Apple Inc introduced a smaller version of its popular
iPod Shuffle music player on Wednesday with a new feature that tells the user
what song is playing.
The new 4-gigabyte gadget costs $79, is half the size of the previous Shuffle,
and carries up to 1,000 songs -- twice as many as the last generation of the
All of the controls on the new Shuffle have been moved from the device to the
earphone cord. The new VoiceOver feature announces songs and playlists to users
in 14 different languages, according to Apple, whose shares rose 4.5 percent.
The voice function is particularly useful on the Shuffle, which does not have a
display screen like most iPods or other digital music players.
Needham & Co analyst Charles Wolf said the new Shuffle design was appealing and
called the voice function a "nice a little gimmick. It shows that Apple intends
to keep that piece of the portfolio going. They're going to continue to
innovate, upgrade the sub-$100 device."
"It won't necessarily stimulate sales, but it clearly will keep sales of the
Shuffle going forward," he said.
The VoiceOver feature works by synchronizing with iTunes software, which
installs a voice kit on the user's computer. VoiceOver can also tell a user how
much battery life remains.
"You previously couldn't have multiple playlists on the iPod Shuffle because you
couldn't really switch between them as there was no way to know how you would
switch," said Greg Joswiak, Apple vice president of iPod marketing, told
Reuters. "So now instead of seeing, you get to hear."
Although Apple does not break out Shuffle sales, Needham's Wolf estimated some
7.5 million units were sold in the December quarter, it's biggest-selling
quarter. Apple sold 22.7 million iPod units overall in the period.
The third generation of iPod Shuffle will be the world's tiniest music player,
smaller than an AA battery. It comes in two colors, silver and black.
Apple will continue to sell the second-generation version of the 1-gigabyte,
240-song Shuffle for $49. but phase out the 2-gigabyte Shuffle, which sells for
The iPod music player has played an important role in the revival of Apple's
fortunes. The company has sold more than 200 million iPods since they launched
in 2001. It launched the first Shuffle in January 2005.
The refreshed Shuffle comes just a week after the company updated its line of
Mac desktop computers. Apple refreshed it MacBook laptop computers last fall.
Shares of Cupertino, California-based Apple rose $3.97 to $92.59 in early
afternoon trading on Nasdaq.
In the 21st century,
technology is allowing people to express their desires
fulfil their fantasies in ways never before possible
– and all at the touch of a
logs on to the new sexual revolution
Interviews by Esther Walker
Saturday, 6 December 2008
After watching Blade Runner recently on late-night television, I wondered:
whatever happened to all those scientists' predictions that humans would be
having sex with robots by now – or at least in the very near future? After all,
Ridley Scott's film is only set in 2019.
I still can't imagine having a hot replicant boyfriend any time soon – a
battery-operated vibrator is about as high-tech as it gets for me. Others,
however, are fast becoming accustomed to using technology to take things a step
further: men already go online to purchase custom-made "real dolls", which are
like silicon Stepford Wives minus the vocal cords, and cost several thousand
pounds. Fans claim they are a viable alternative for the lonely and socially
awkward. But can it really be healthy to seek out intimacy with an inanimate
At the same time that technology is causing some people to withdraw from the
dating game – preferring online porn and virtual sex to the real thing – the
sheer volume of specialised websites means that huge numbers of people are now
connecting in ways that they never have before. Though most deviant sexual
behaviours have been around for ages (the Romans were having orgies, after all)
the Noughties have ushered in the normalisation of fetishes – and made it vastly
more easy to find others with similar tastes. These days, BDSM (Bondage,
Domination and Sado-Masochism) has gone from underground fringe clubs to
housewives browsing spanking paddles online and in high-street sex shops.
Sex parties, too, have shed their image of dumpy, middle-aged couples circling a
bowl of car keys, and now upmarket swinging events such as Fever and Killing
Kittens cater to young and more conventionally attractive couples by using their
website to vet applicants. These days, more and more single women are taking the
Technology has also made casual hook-ups – and infidelity – simpler than ever: a
well-placed digital photo and a reasonably witty online profile can bring dozens
of responses within a few hours. And there are niche markets for everything
(among the more obscure I've come across: love connections for the freakishly
tall and even for devotees of the American writer Ayn Rand).
But what a friend of mine calls "the crack cocaine of online dating" does have
its risks. Ultimately, it's much easier to hide one's true intentions behind the
anonymity of a keyboard, and to lie. I've met men who happily crop out years of
their life (and children!) as easily as the woman standing next to them in their
Of course, not everyone online is a cheater. Some people are completely open
about their alter egos, and use their "avatars" to have cybersex on sites such
as Second Life. And many see it purely as a form of escapism, and have no
intention of actually meeting in person.
The internet does, of course, provide people with fetishes with an easy way of
finding each other. I personally would not want to change an adult baby's nappy,
but it seems there are people out there who want to breast-feed and role-play a
nanny scenario. And it's much easier to send an e-mail through a website than to
mention the subject casually on a first date.
In a world bombarded by hyper-sexualised images, even those who identify
themselves as asexual or celibate are able to surf over the sea of pornography
and connect with people who understand them.
Modern sex, to me, is about easy connectivity, and open-mindedness – whether
your sexual soulmate wants to be spanked over a desk or likes to dress up as a
giant squirrel. Today, there really is something for everyone.
The doll fetishist
James, 52, civil servant
I suppose you could say that I am a recluse. I've always lived on my own and
find it hard to make friends or have happy relationships – I've got a history of
unsuccessful relationships with women. I did hope that eventually I would find
happiness settling down with a partner and I have tried internet chatrooms and
online dating but nothing worked. A few years ago I watched a TV documentary
about men who live with "real dolls" (see introduction) and thought it might be
the perfect solution as I was extremely lonely at the time. I contacted an
online company that makes dolls to order and although I was very nervous about
the whole thing they put me at my ease and helped me decide what sort of doll I
Alice cost me about £6,000 and via the company's website I was able to customise
every area of her looks and physical attributes – I admit it seems childish but
I got a real kick out of creating my fantasy woman. She's aged about 25 and has
dark hair and the perfect body. I also enjoyed being able to choose all her
clothes at the click of a mouse; perhaps it's the power thing that appeals –
being in control of every aspect of her.
Whe she first arrived, it was a very surreal feeling having this gorgeous and
life-like silicone creature sitting opposite me in the lounge.
Very gradually, however, I have got used to having her around and now I have
grown to love her as I would a real woman. I know it must seem pretty sad, but
for me, she's everything. I think of her primarily as a companion, although
obviously she fulfils my sexual needs too – in my experience it's a lot easier
and more pleasurable than the real thing! I like the fact that she's always
there for me; she eats with me, sits and watches TV with me and sleeps with me.
I haven't told anyone about Alice; my work colleagues would laugh at me and if
my neighbours saw her they would probably freak out too. To me, however, it's
the perfect partnership – and what harm am I doing to anyone else?
The internet sex addict
Simon, 38, regional sales director
I got into internet sex by accident; I wasn't even looking for sex. I was at
work about four years ago and a friend was registered to one of those dating
sites, and he was having a whale of a time.
He was single at the time and went out on lots of dates with different women and
met them once or twice and then slept with them and after that he didn't really
see them again. I joined my first internet website for a laugh when I was bored,
and I couldn't believe how easy it was to meet up with women. I said I was
single on my profile but I was married, of course. I hooked up with one or two
girls in the first couple of months but they were all looking for relationships
and I wasn't. I felt a bit guilty, to be honest. I was already lying to my wife
and I didn't want to have to start lying to another woman as well.
After that I discovered some other specialist websites where married people can
contact each other for a bit of flirting and then hooking up. I usually meet the
women in a bar first and then maybe we'll go to a hotel.
I spend a fair amount of time surfing the sites, maybe an hour or two a day when
I'm at work and then maybe an hour or two at home. I don't think it's excessive,
though – people spend hours and hours on Facebook, don't they?
It's not that I don't love my wife or that we don't have sex – we do! But we've
been married for 12 years now and we've got small kids and it's not really the
same as it used to be. I suppose you might call me highly-sexed. It's just sex,
pure and simple. I don't sneak around with the same woman, and I'm not having a
big romance behind my wife's back. And I never really have to worry about her
finding out because, first, the women I sleep with are married, too – so it's
not in their interests to tell my wife – and second, I'm incredibly careful. My
wife could go through my computer with a toothcomb and she wouldn't find a
What surprised me about it all was how many women there are out there who were
really up for casual sex with someone who's not their husband. I know so many
men who say things like, "Oh my wife wouldn't cheat on me," and I laugh and
think, OK, whatever, mate – she probably already has, with someone just like me.
The modern Mrs Robinson
Marian, 54, interiors consultant
I was with my husband for 25 years and then he ran off with one of our
neighbours and we got divorced. It was quite funny really, looking back on it. I
don't miss him at all; it was the best thing that happened to me. But at the
time I was really angry and sad.
I kept the house after the divorce and my children were grown-up and I had
plenty of money and I sat down one day and thought, "What the hell am I going to
do with the rest of my life?" Eventually I hit on the idea of starting my own
interiors company, and I was contacted by this woman who was having her whole
house re-done after getting a divorce, just like me. We started chatting and she
told me about a website where she met young men online for sex. She said it was
brilliant and I should give it a go.
So I went online, and within a fortnight I was dating this amazing boy. He was
only about 30. He was amazing-looking and wanted to do all the things that men
my age just aren't interested in. We went out to the theatre and to the movies
and out for dinner and he was just so fun and alive. We saw each other for about
three months and then he sort of disappeared, and I didn't mind at all. When I
was younger I would maybe have been a bit upset but I didn't give a damn.
When men get into their forties and fifties they don't want to do anything. They
just talk about their new cars and sit on the sofa flicking through the channels
with the remote. And now I've got so much energy. Ten years ago I felt totally
dead, like a zombie, but now I jump out of bed in the mornings. Life is so
No one believes me when I say it, but going out with much younger men is not
just about the actual sex – even though the sex is great and young men these
days know much more about it than men my age. The fundamental thing for me is
that men in their twenties are a better match for women in their fifties and
sixties than men of the same age are. I went on some dates with men my own age
after Keith left and all they wanted was a replacement wife to wash their pants.
I wasn't having any of that.
I'm seeing a couple of boys at the moment, but nothing serious. And I don't care
really. This time in my life is just for me – for as long as I can remember it's
been about other people, my husband and my children. Now it's just for me and I
The party animal
Gemma, 23, shop assistant
People think that sex parties are really seedy but actually, they're not.
They're much less seedy than most nightclubs, in a way. Firstly, there are so
many sex-party swinging sites on the internet, so you can do lots of research in
the comfort of your own home. Once you decide to actually go to a sex party,
there's no pressure on anyone to do anything; it's usually just a fun atmosphere
with people standing about chatting – quite often just drinking tea or
I got into swinging, at first, with my then boyfriend Tim, when I took him to a
swingers' party in Brighton for his birthday present. He actually didn't enjoy
it that much, but I thought it was really fun. The people were nice and there
was hardly any drinking or taking drugs or anything like that.
There were living-room areas, where you couldn't get up to anything particularly
racy, and then bedrooms upstairs, some with the lights on and some with the
lights off, where you could go for more explicit action.
I broke up with Tim about a year later. We hadn't been back to any swingers'
parties but I had had sex with someone else at that first party with my
boyfriend looking on in the same room and I don't think he enjoyed it; we both
realised that we had such different levels of inhibition. I'm not at all shy!
After I broke up with Tim, I went online and signed up for what I suppose you'd
call an orgy. It's just the same as a swingers' party, really, except that not
everyone is in a couple. It was just really fun. I met so many like-minded
people; it wasn't just about sex, it was about being yourself and letting go a
bit. There's no pussyfooting around – so if you meet someone and think, "I
really like you" and if they like you back, you can just have sex without anyone
judging you or thinking you're weird.
I'd never tell my family or some of my more straight friends about this. I don't
think they'd get it and there's no point in trying to explain to someone who
isn't open-minded what you get out of it. They'd just think I was being a bit of
a slag, and I'm not at all.
I don't feel ready to have a steady relationship now. Even if a prospective
partner was really amazingly cool, I wouldn't introduce him to the idea of a
swinging party because nine times out of 10 he'd be scared off by it.
Mark, 44, scientific glassblower
I've always known that I was different from other people, especially when I hit
puberty and found that I just wasn't interested in sex in the same way that my
friends were. I also found my own gender more interesting and nicer-looking than
the opposite sex, so I thought I might be gay. Back in the Seventies, there was
still a lot of homophobia.
I started hanging out on the gay scene, which led me to being in bed with
people, sometimes men, sometimes women – and I realised that I'm not capable of
sex. I just don't get aroused. I did have relationships, but they tended to be
very short-lived. I greatly enjoy physical contact, such as hugging, as well as
companionship, but unfortunately once people realise that there's not going to
be any sex, the relationship usually comes to an end.
My longest relationship was in 1997 with a man. We were together for 10 months
and it was a sort of mutually beneficial arrangement whereby he tolerated my
affections and I was his ticket to friends and parties. When that ended I
thought: this is a pointless pursuit.
My brother, to whom I'm really close, went through a divorce a couple of years
ago and I was driving in a car with him and talking about relationships. And I
told him. I said, "I'm asexual." And he said, "You lucky bastard!" We laughed so
much! I think some people still assume that I'm gay but if they do then it's not
an issue. My brother later told me that my parents had asked him more than once
if I was gay. I suppose they thought it was strange that I never brought anyone
My life really changed when I saw a piece in the paper in 2004 about the
differences between asexuality and celibacy – in the former there is no sexual
attraction and in the latter a conscious decision is made not to have sex. I saw
it and it was a total epiphany. I was so thrilled to find there were other
people like me. There's a range of different kind of asexuals – some are born
that way (like me) and some become that way over time. At the end of the article
there was a reference to AVEN (asexuality.org), the website for the asexual
community, and I joined up straight away. When I went to the first meet-up it
was a revelation to meet other people who felt the same way as I did. There's
always a lot of stuff going on and I've got a busy social life – although I do
worry a bit about what things will be like when I get older and I'm on my own.
The adult baby
John, 45, computer programmer
My mother walked out on my family when I was four, so I think I always craved
being nurtured by a female figure. My two older sisters and I were looked after
by a very strict nanny at our house in Nottingham, who showed us no affection.
My father would come home late from work and was of the "children should be seen
and not heard" school of thought. My sisters and I spent a lot of time on our
own and would invent games where they would play at being nurses and would give
me baths, get me dressed and so on.
I have always been quite sexually dysfunctional and my sisters haven't managed
to form lasting relationships either. When I was in my early twenties I started
a string of relationships with older women and realised that I was fantasising
about a mother figure. Things started to spiral out of control when I had strong
fantasies about dressing up as a baby – it's called infantilism. At the
beginning, being honest about my desires was very hard. I felt like a pervert
and didn't know who to turn to. Then I confessed to one of my older girlfriends
and she encouraged me to seek professional counselling. My counsellor helped me
to understand the root causes for my predilections – a lack of love in childhood
– but although she encouraged me to stop dressing as a baby I wasn't able to
I then discovered an online adult-babies' club in south-east England where I
found like-minded people who wanted, as I do, to dress up in adult-sized baby
clothes and behave as a baby might do. This might include being bathed by
"nannies", wearing nappies and being "breast-fed". I realise that it sounds
weird, but it gives me some sort of comfort at the same time as addressing my
sexual needs. The fact that it's all done anonymously through the web provides
me with extra privacy, too.
The New York Times
By AMY HARMON
N.Y. — Her grandfather wanted to play tea party, but Alexandra Geosits, 2½,
insisted she had only apple juice. She held out a plastic cup, giggling as she
waited to see if he would accept the substitute.
That they were a thousand miles apart, their weekly visit unfolding over
computer screens in their respective homes, did not faze either one. Like many
other grandchildren and grandparents who live far apart, Alex and Joe Geosits
(pronounced GAY-sits), 69, have become fluent in the ways of the Web cam.
“Delicious,” Mr. Geosits exclaimed from Florida, pretending to take a sip from
the cup, which remained clasped here in Alex’s small hand.
Video calling, long anticipated by science fiction, is filtering into everyday
use. And two demographic groups not particularly known for being high-tech are
among the earliest adopters.
In a way that even e-mailed photos never could, the Web cam promises to
transcend both distance and the inability of toddlers to hold up their end of a
Some grandparent enthusiasts say this latest form of virtual communication makes
the actual separation harder. Others are so sustained by Web cam visits with
services like Skype and iChat that they visit less in person. And no one quite
knows what it means to a generation of 2-year-olds to have slightly pixelated
versions of their grandparents as regular fixtures in their lives.
But at a time when millions of people around the world are beginning to beam
themselves across the ether, the Web cam adventures of the nursery school set
and their grandparents offer a glimpse at what can be gained — and what may be
lost — by almost-being there.
“We would be strangers to them if we didn’t have the Web cam,” said Susan
Pierce, 61, of Shreveport, La., who will be a virtual attendee at Thanksgiving
dinner with her grandchildren in Jersey City this year.
Over the last year, Ms. Pierce and her husband watched Dylan, 17 months, learn
to walk and talk over the Web cam, and witnessed his 4-year-old sister Kelsie’s
drawings of people evolve from indeterminate blobs to figures with arms and
fingers and toes.
But the powerful illusion of physical proximity also sharpens their ache for the
real thing. “You just wish you could reach out and cuddle them,” said Ms.
Pierce, a nursing professor. “Seeing them makes you miss them more.”
Nearly half of American grandparents live more than 200 miles from at least one
of their grandchildren, according to AARP. Prof. Merril Silverstein, a
sociologist at the University of Southern California, has found that about
two-thirds of grandchildren see one set of grandparents only a few times a year,
But many grandparents find that the Web cam eases the transition during
in-person visits, when grandchildren may refuse to sit on their laps or may
reject their hugs because they do not recognize them. As one Web cam evangelist
wrote on her blog, www.nanascorner.com: “You’ll be able to pick up where you
left off without those warming up to you, awkward moments.”
On Ms. Pierce’s most recent visit to New Jersey last month, for instance, Dylan
called out the nickname he uses for her over the Web cam, “Buffy!” and jumped
into her arms. “It melted my heart,” Ms. Pierce said.
Urged on by strong word of mouth from fellow grandparents, they are often the
ones to buy Web cams for their grandchildren (or, technically, their own adult
children, who then have to plug them in). But the youngsters, who spend much of
their time playing games of pretend, may shuttle more easily between the virtual
and the real.
When Gail Hecox of Park City, Utah, shows her 2-year-old granddaughter Lily her
cats over the Web cam, the child often pats the space on the ottoman next to the
laptop and says “meow, meow,” as though “it should be able to walk through the
screen,” Ms. Hecox said.
Many grandchildren play as their grandparents watch from afar, and when Coulter
Medeiros, almost 3, of Cincinnati, wants to summon his grandmother in
Massachusetts, he simply points to his parents’ computer and says, “Nana on
Substitutions of retrograde technology are frowned on. If Nana is at work,
without the Web cam-equipped computer she bought to visit with him, Coulter’s
mother, Elizabeth, sometimes puts her on speakerphone. “No Nana phone,” Coulter
says. “Nana on computer.”
The adult children in a family have their own reasons for encouraging the Web
cam enthusiasm of the younger and older generations. When Martha Rodenborn
discovered that Elena, now 4, would sit happily in front of the computer in
their Upper West Side apartment while her grandmother read her piles of picture
books from Ohio, the Web cam quickly became a vehicle for remote baby-sitting.
“It was a lifesaver,” said Ms. Rodenborn, who graduated from Columbia Law School
Because the Web cam connection is free, parents often keep it on as long as a
grandparent is willing to make funny faces and animal sounds.
But for adult children pressed into service as real-time documentarians, the
experience can also be taxing.
After Alex Geosits’s virtual apple juice party with her grandparents on a recent
Sunday, her father chased her upstairs, laptop in hand, as she went to get a
favorite doll. Then he followed her around the living room as she played
hide-and-seek and showed her bellybutton. Finally, it was her snack time, and he
The recent inclusion of Web cams in most laptops helps account for the 20
percent growth in video calling over the last year, said Rebecca Swensen, an
analyst at the technology research firm IDC.
Internet companies are also promoting “video chat” as an enhancement to standard
instant-messaging and Internet phone services. Google, for instance, which makes
money from the advertisements in its popular Gmail Web-based e-mail software,
introduced video capability for Gmail this month.
About 20 million people around the world have made a video call for personal
communication in the last month, Ms. Swensen said. American soldiers in Iraq
beam themselves home over Web cams; parents on business trips (including
President-elect Barack Obama) bid goodnight to their children,
But grandparents and grandchildren are already working on ways to nudge the
medium a little closer to actual teleportation.
When Deborah Lafferty, 55, and her granddaughter Natalie, 2, want to hug, for
instance, Natalie comes to the screen in Seattle and squeezes her own face, just
as her grandmother does to her when she visits from England. Ms. Lafferty, in
turn, squeezes her face. “Grammy loves you so much,” she says, echoing the
phrase she uses in person.
Grandparents also use their own children as surrogates to close the tactile gap.
Barbara Turner once sang her fussing newborn grandson to sleep from Ottawa,
watching as her son rocked him in Indiana. She said she could almost feel the
baby snuggling against her shoulder.
But last week Ms. Turner and her husband rushed to Indiana to be on hand for the
birth of her second grandchild. “Some things you just can’t do over the Web
cam,” she said. “You make the trip.”
Still, some veterans of the technology fear that the video cam has started to
substitute, rather than supplement, actual time together. Jennifer Ray, 24, of
San Antonio, and her brother persuaded their parents to get a new computer so
they could all video chat with their respective toddlers on split screens from
different states. Now the siblings commiserate about their mother’s
unwillingness to travel.
“She still comes,” said Ms. Ray of her mother, Diane Heyman, who lives in
Arizona. “But not nearly as often.”
Ms. Heyman, 49, admitted: “It’s probably true. You feel like you’re actually
seeing them and interacting with them, so it eases that longing.”
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
worries that ever-more-real virtual encounters (holograms may be next) could
make us forget what we are missing in the case of a grandchild: the smell of a
grandmother’s cooking, the warmth of an embrace. In interviews, older
grandchildren who video chat with grandparents say they visit them less, feeling
that they have already “seen” them.
“It’s important that we not start to equate what the technology can deliver with
what we can deliver to each other without the technology,” Ms. Turkle said.
But the Web cam generation may already be recalibrating how much value to place
on the sharing of real space with another person. Is it better for a grandchild
to video chat twice a week and visit twice a year, or to visit four times a
year? Perhaps, having built intimate relationships with them early on through
the Web cam, they will choose both.
For now, when Jacob Mosier’s mother, Ginny, of Las Vegas, tells him they are
going to visit Mamaw and Grumpa, in Scottsdale, Ariz., the 2-year-old runs to
the computer and waits happily for it to boot up.
October 21, 2008
The New York Times
By JOHN MARKOFF
REDMOND, Wash. — In a windowless room on Microsoft’s campus
here, T. J. Campana, a cybercrime investigator, connects an unprotected computer
running an early version of Windows XP to the Internet. In about 30 seconds the
computer is “owned.”
An automated program lurking on the Internet has remotely taken over the PC and
turned it into a “zombie.” That computer and other zombie machines are then
assembled into systems called “botnets” — home and business PCs that are hooked
together into a vast chain of cyber-robots that do the bidding of automated
programs to send the majority of e-mail spam, to illegally seek financial
information and to install malicious software on still more PCs.
Botnets remain an Internet scourge. Active zombie networks created by a growing
criminal underground peaked last month at more than half a million computers,
according to shadowserver.org, an organization that tracks botnets. Even though
security experts have diminished the botnets to about 300,000 computers, that is
still twice the number detected a year ago.
The actual numbers may be far larger; Microsoft investigators, who say they are
tracking about 1,000 botnets at any given time, say the largest network still
controls several million PCs.
“The mean time to infection is less than five minutes,” said Richie Lai, who is
part of Microsoft’s Internet Safety Enforcement Team, a group of about 20
researchers and investigators. The team is tackling a menace that in the last
five years has grown from a computer hacker pastime to a dark business that is
threatening the commercial viability of the Internet.
Any computer connected to the Internet can be vulnerable. Computer security
executives recommend that PC owners run a variety of commercial malware
detection programs, like Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool, to find
infections of their computers. They should also protect the PCs behind a
firewall and install security patches for operating systems and applications.
Even these steps are not a sure thing. Last week Secunia, a computer security
firm, said it had tested a dozen leading PC security suites and found that the
best one detected only 64 out of 300 software vulnerabilities that make it
possible to install malware on a computer.
Botnet attacks now come with their own antivirus software, permitting the
programs to take over a computer and then effectively remove other malware
competitors. Mr. Campana said the Microsoft investigators were amazed recently
to find a botnet that turned on the Microsoft Windows Update feature after
taking over a computer, to defend its host from an invasion of competing
Botnets have evolved quickly to make detection more difficult. During the last
year botnets began using a technique called fast-flux, which involved generating
a rapidly changing set of Internet addresses to make the botnet more difficult
to locate and disrupt.
Companies have realized that the only way to combat the menace of botnets and
modern computer crime is to build a global alliance that crosses corporate and
national boundaries. On Tuesday, Microsoft, the world’s largest software
company, will convene a gathering of the International Botnet Taskforce in
Arlington, Va. At the conference, which is held twice a year, more than 175
members of government and law enforcement agencies, computer security companies
and academics will discuss the latest strategies, including legal efforts.
Although the Microsoft team has filed more than 300 civil lawsuits against
botnet operators, the company also relies on enforcement agencies like the
F.B.I. and Interpol-related organizations for criminal prosecution.
Last month the alliance received support from new federal legislation, which for
the first time specifically criminalized the use of botnets. Many of the bots
are based in other countries, however, and Mr. Campana said there were many
nations with no similar laws.
“It’s really a sort of cat-and-mouse situation with the underground,” said David
Dittrich, a senior security engineer at the University of Washington Applied
Physics Laboratory and a member of the International Botnet Taskforce. “Now
there’s profit motive, and the people doing stuff for profit are doing unique
and interesting things.”
Microsoft’s botnet hunters, who have kept a low profile until now, are led by
Richard Boscovich, who until six months ago served as a federal prosecutor in
Miami. Mr. Boscovich, a federal prosecutor for 18 years, said he was optimistic
that despite the growing number of botnets, progress was being made against
computer crime. Recent successes have led to arrests.
“Every time we have a story that says bot-herders get locked up, that helps,”
said Mr. Boscovich, who in 2000 helped convict Jonathan James, a teenage
computer hacker who had gained access to Defense Department and National Air and
Space Administration computers.
To aid in its investigations, the Microsoft team has built elaborate software
tools including traps called “honeypots” that are used to detect malware and a
system called the Botnet Monitoring and Analysis Tool. The software is installed
in several refrigerated server rooms on the Microsoft campus that are directly
connected to the open Internet, both to mask its location and to make it
possible to deploy software sensors around the globe.
The door to the room simply reads “the lab.” Inside are racks of hundreds of
processors and terabytes of disk drives needed to capture the digital evidence
that must be logged as carefully as evidence is maintained by crime scene
Detecting and disrupting botnets is a particularly delicate challenge that
Microsoft will talk about only in vague terms. Their challenge parallels the
traditional one of law enforcement’s placing informers inside criminal gangs.
Just as gangs will often force a recruit to commit a crime as a test of loyalty,
in cyberspace, bot-herders will test recruits in an effort to weed out spies.
Microsoft investigators would not discuss their solution to this problem, but
said they avoided doing anything illegal with their software.
One possible approach would be to create sensors that would fool the bot-herders
by appearing to do malicious things, but in fact not perform the actions.
In 2003 and 2004 Microsoft was deeply shaken by a succession of malicious
software worm programs with names like “Blaster” and “Sasser,” that raced
through the Internet, sowing chaos within corporations and among home computer
users. Blaster was a personal affront to the software firm that has long prided
itself on its technology prowess. The program contained a hidden message mocking
Microsoft’s co-founder: “billy gates why do you make this possible? Stop making
money and fix your software!!”
The company maintains that its current software is less vulnerable, but even as
it fixed some problems, the threat to the world’s computers has become far
greater. Mr. Campana said that there had been ups and downs in the fight against
a new kind of criminal who could hide virtually anywhere in the world and strike
with devilish cleverness.
“I come in every morning, and I think we’re making progress,” he said. At the
same time, he said, botnets are not going to go away any time soon.
“There are a lot of very smart people doing very bad things,” he said.
A Robot Network Seeks to Enlist Your Computer, NYT,
October 12, 2008
The New York Times
By RICHARD DOOLING
“BEWARE of geeks bearing formulas.” So saith Warren Buffett, the Wizard of
Omaha. Words to bear in mind as we bail out banks and buy up mortgages and tweak
interest rates and nothing, nothing seems to make any difference on Wall Street
or Main Street. Years ago, Mr. Buffett called derivatives “weapons of financial
mass destruction” — an apt metaphor considering that the Manhattan Project’s
math and physics geeks bearing formulas brought us the original weapon of mass
destruction, at Trinity in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.
In a 1981 documentary called “The Day After Trinity,” Freeman Dyson, a reigning
gray eminence of math and theoretical physics, as well as an ardent proponent of
nuclear disarmament, described the seductive power that brought us the ability
to create atomic energy out of nothing.
“I have felt it myself,” he warned. “The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is
irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your
hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding.
To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is
something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some
ways, responsible for all our troubles — this, what you might call technical
arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their
The Wall Street geeks, the quantitative analysts (“quants”) and masters of “algo
trading” probably felt the same irresistible lure of “illimitable power” when
they discovered “evolutionary algorithms” that allowed them to create vast
empires of wealth by deriving the dependence structures of portfolio credit
What does that mean? You’ll never know. Over and over again, financial experts
and wonkish talking heads endeavor to explain these mysterious, “toxic”
financial instruments to us lay folk. Over and over, they ignobly fail, because
we all know that no one understands credit default obligations and derivatives,
except perhaps Mr. Buffett and the computers who created them.
Somehow the genius quants — the best and brightest geeks Wall Street firms could
buy — fed $1 trillion in subprime mortgage debt into their supercomputers, added
some derivatives, massaged the arrangements with computer algorithms and — poof!
— created $62 trillion in imaginary wealth. It’s not much of a stretch to
imagine that all of that imaginary wealth is locked up somewhere inside the
computers, and that we humans, led by the silverback males of the financial
world, Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, are frantically beseeching the monolith
for answers. Or maybe we are lost in space, with Dave the astronaut pleading,
“Open the bank vault doors, Hal.”
As the current financial crisis spreads (like a computer virus) on the earth’s
nervous system (the Internet), it’s worth asking if we have somehow managed to
colossally outsmart ourselves using computers. After all, the Wall Street titans
loved swaps and derivatives because they were totally unregulated by humans.
That left nobody but the machines in charge.
How fitting then, that almost 30 years after Freeman Dyson described the almost
unspeakable urges of the nuclear geeks creating illimitable energy out of
equations, his son, George Dyson, has written an essay (published at Edge.org)
warning about a different strain of technical arrogance that has brought the
entire planet to the brink of financial destruction. George Dyson is an
historian of technology and the author of “Darwin Among the Machines,” a book
that warned us a decade ago that it was only a matter of time before technology
out-evolves us and takes over.
His new essay — “Economic Dis-Equilibrium: Can You Have Your House and Spend It
Too?” — begins with a history of “stock,” originally a stick of hazel, willow or
alder wood, inscribed with notches indicating monetary amounts and dates. When
funds were transferred, the stick was split into identical halves — with one
side going to the depositor and the other to the party safeguarding the money —
and represented proof positive that gold had been deposited somewhere to back it
up. That was good enough for 600 years, until we decided that we needed more
speed and efficiency.
Making money, it seems, is all about the velocity of moving it around, so that
it can exist in Hong Kong one moment and Wall Street a split second later. “The
unlimited replication of information is generally a public good,” George Dyson
writes. “The problem starts, as the current crisis demonstrates, when
unregulated replication is applied to money itself. Highly complex
computer-generated financial instruments (known as derivatives) are being
produced, not from natural factors of production or other goods, but purely from
other financial instruments.”
It was easy enough for us humans to understand a stick or a dollar bill when it
was backed by something tangible somewhere, but only computers can understand
and derive a correlation structure from observed collateralized debt obligation
tranche spreads. Which leads us to the next question: Just how much of the
world’s financial stability now lies in the “hands” of computerized trading
Here’s a frightening party trick that I learned from the futurist Ray Kurzweil.
Read this excerpt and then I’ll tell you who wrote it:
But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power
over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we
do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a
position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical
choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. ... Eventually a stage may
be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be
so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At
that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to
just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that
turning them off would amount to suicide.
Brace yourself. It comes from the Unabomber’s manifesto.
Yes, Theodore Kaczinski was a homicidal psychopath and a paranoid kook, but he
was also a bloodhound when it came to scenting all of the horrors technology
holds in store for us. Hence his mission to kill technologists before machines
commenced what he believed would be their inevitable reign of terror.
We are living, we have long been told, in the Information Age. Yet now we are
faced with the sickening suspicion that technology has run ahead of us. Man is a
fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine
intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart
ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.
We are still fearful, superstitious and all-too-human creatures. At times, we
forget the magnitude of the havoc we can wreak by off-loading our minds onto
super-intelligent machines, that is, until they run away from us, like mad
sorcerers’ apprentices, and drag us up to the precipice for a look down into the
As the financial experts all over the world use machines to unwind Gordian knots
of financial arrangements so complex that only machines can make — “derive” —
and trade them, we have to wonder: Are we living in a bad sci-fi movie? Is the
Matrix made of credit default swaps?
When Treasury Secretary Paulson (looking very much like a frightened primate)
came to Congress seeking an emergency loan, Senator Jon Tester of Montana, a
Democrat still living on his family homestead, asked him: “I’m a dirt farmer.
Why do we have one week to determine that $700 billion has to be appropriated or
this country’s financial system goes down the pipes?”
“Well, sir,” Mr. Paulson could well have responded, “the computers have demanded
Richard Dooling is the author
of “Rapture for the Geeks: When A.I. Outsmarts
The New York Times
By JOHN MARKOFF
FRANCISCO — The era of the American Internet is ending.
Invented by American computer scientists during the 1970s, the Internet has been
embraced around the globe. During the network’s first three decades, most
Internet traffic flowed through the United States. In many cases, data sent
between two locations within a given country also passed through the United
Engineers who help run the Internet said that it would have been impossible for
the United States to maintain its hegemony over the long run because of the very
nature of the Internet; it has no central point of control.
And now, the balance of power is shifting. Data is increasingly flowing around
the United States, which may have intelligence — and conceivably military —
American intelligence officials have warned about this shift. “Because of the
nature of global telecommunications, we are playing with a tremendous home-field
advantage, and we need to exploit that edge,” Michael V. Hayden, the director of
the Central Intelligence Agency, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee
in 2006. “We also need to protect that edge, and we need to protect those who
provide it to us.”
Indeed, Internet industry executives and government officials have acknowledged
that Internet traffic passing through the switching equipment of companies based
in the United States has proved a distinct advantage for American intelligence
agencies. In December 2005, The New York Times reported that the National
Security Agency had established a program with the cooperation of American
telecommunications firms that included the interception of foreign Internet
Some Internet technologists and privacy advocates say those actions and other
government policies may be hastening the shift in Canadian and European traffic
away from the United States.
“Since passage of the Patriot Act, many companies based outside of the United
States have been reluctant to store client information in the U.S.,” said Marc
Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in
Washington. “There is an ongoing concern that U.S. intelligence agencies will
gather this information without legal process. There is particular sensitivity
about access to financial information as well as communications and Internet
traffic that goes through U.S. switches.”
But economics also plays a role. Almost all nations see data networks as
essential to economic development. “It’s no different than any other
infrastructure that a country needs,” said K C Claffy, a research scientist at
the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis in San Diego. “You
wouldn’t want someone owning your roads either.”
Indeed, more countries are becoming aware of how their dependence on other
countries for their Internet traffic makes them vulnerable. Because of tariffs,
pricing anomalies and even corporate cultures, Internet providers will often not
exchange data with their local competitors. They prefer instead to send and
receive traffic with larger international Internet service providers.
This leads to odd routing arrangements, referred to as tromboning, in which
traffic between two cites in one country will flow through other nations. In
January, when a cable was cut in the Mediterranean, Egyptian Internet traffic
was nearly paralyzed because it was not being shared by local I.S.P.’s but
instead was routed through European operators.
The issue was driven home this month when hackers attacked and immobilized
several Georgian government Web sites during the country’s fighting with Russia.
Most of Georgia’s access to the global network flowed through Russia and Turkey.
A third route through an undersea cable linking Georgia to Bulgaria is scheduled
for completion in September.
Ms. Claffy said that the shift away from the United States was not limited to
developing countries. The Japanese “are on a rampage to build out across India
and China so they have alternative routes and so they don’t have to route
through the U.S.”
Andrew M. Odlyzko, a professor at the University of Minnesota who tracks the
growth of the global Internet, added, “We discovered the Internet, but we
couldn’t keep it a secret.” While the United States carried 70 percent of the
world’s Internet traffic a decade ago, he estimates that portion has fallen to
about 25 percent.
Internet technologists say that the global data network that was once a
competitive advantage for the United States is now increasingly outside the
control of American companies. They decided not to invest in lower-cost optical
fiber lines, which have rapidly become a commodity business.
That lack of investment mirrors a pattern that has taken place elsewhere in the
high-technology industry, from semiconductors to personal computers.
The risk, Internet technologists say, is that upstarts like China and India are
making larger investments in next-generation Internet technology that is likely
to be crucial in determining the future of the network, with investment,
innovation and profits going first to overseas companies.
“Whether it’s a good or a bad thing depends on where you stand,” said Vint Cerf,
a computer scientist who is Google’s Internet evangelist and who, with Robert
Kahn, devised the original Internet routing protocols in the early 1970s.
“Suppose the Internet was entirely confined to the U.S., which it once was? That
International networks that carry data into and out of the United States are
still being expanded at a sharp rate, but the Internet infrastructure in many
other regions of the world is growing even more quickly.
While there has been some concern over a looming Internet traffic jam because of
the rise in Internet use worldwide, the congestion is generally not on the
Internet’s main trunk lines, but on neighborhood switches, routers and the wires
into a house.
As Internet traffic moves offshore, it may complicate the task of American
intelligence gathering agencies, but would not make Internet surveillance
“We’re probably in one of those situations where things get a little bit
harder,” said John Arquilla, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in
Monterey, Calif., who said the United States had invested far too little in
collecting intelligence via the Internet. “We’ve given terrorists a free ride in
cyberspace,” he said.
Others say the eclipse of the United States as the central point in cyberspace
is one of many indicators that the world is becoming a more level playing field
both economically and politically.
“This is one of many dimensions on which we’ll have to adjust to a reduction in
American ability to dictate terms of core interests of ours,” said Yochai
Benkler, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard.
“We are, by comparison, militarily weaker, economically poorer and
technologically less unique than we were then. We are still a very big player,
but not in control.”
China, for instance, surpassed the United States in the number of Internet users
in June. Over all, Asia now has 578.5 million, or 39.5 percent, of the world’s
Internet users, although only 15.3 percent of the Asian population is connected
to the Internet, according to Internet World Stats, a market research
By contrast, there were about 237 million Internet users in North America and
the growth has nearly peaked; penetration of the Internet in the region has
reached about 71 percent.
The increasing role of new competitors has shown up in data collected annually
by Renesys, a firm in Manchester, N.H., that monitors the connections between
Internet providers. The Renesys rankings of Internet connections, an indirect
measure of growth, show that the big winners in the last three years have been
the Italian Internet provider Tiscali, China Telecom and the Japanese
telecommunications operator KDDI.
Firms that have slipped in the rankings have all been American: Verizon, Savvis,
AT&T, Qwest, Cogent and AboveNet.
“The U.S. telecommunications firms haven’t invested,” said Earl Zmijewski, vice
president and general manager for Internet data services at Renesys. “The rest
of the world has caught up. I don’t see the AT&T’s and Sprints making the
investments because they see Internet service as a commodity.”
FRANCISCO — Alex Payne, a 24-year-old Internet engineer here, has devised a way
to answer a commonly asked question of the digital age: Is my favorite Web site
In March, Mr. Payne created downforeveryoneorjustme.com, as in, “Down for
everyone, or just me?” It lets visitors type in a Web address and see whether a
site is generally inaccessible or whether the problem is with their own
“I had seen that question posed so often,” said Mr. Payne, who perhaps not
coincidentally works at Twitter, a Web messaging and social networking site that
is itself known for frequent downtime. “Technology companies have branded the
Internet as a place that is always on and where information is always available.
People are disappointed and looking for answers when it turns out not to be
There is plenty of disappointment to go around these days. Such technology
stalwarts as Yahoo, Amazon.com and Research in Motion, the company behind the
BlackBerry, have all suffered embarrassing technical problems in the last few
About a month ago, a sudden surge of visitors to Mr. Payne’s site began asking
about the normally impervious Amazon. That site was ultimately down for several
hours over two business days, and Amazon, by some estimates, lost more than a
million dollars an hour in sales.
The Web, like any technology or medium, has always been susceptible to
unforeseen hiccups. Particularly in the early days of the Web, sites like eBay
and Schwab.com regularly went dark.
But since fewer people used the Internet back then, the stakes were much lower.
Now the Web is an irreplaceable part of daily life, and Internet companies have
plans to make us even more dependent on it.
Companies like Google want us to store not just e-mail online but also
spreadsheets, photo albums, sales data and nearly every other piece of personal
and professional information. That data is supposed to be more accessible than
information tucked away in the office computer or filing cabinet.
The problem is that this ideal requires Web services to be available around the
clock — and even the Internet’s biggest companies sometimes have trouble making
Last holiday season, Yahoo’s system for Internet retailers, Yahoo Merchant
Solutions, went dark for 14 hours, taking down thousands of e-commerce companies
on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. In February, certain Amazon
services that power the sites of many Web start-up companies had a day of
intermittent failures, knocking many of those companies offline.
The causes of these problems range widely: it might be system upgrades with
unintended consequences, human error (oops, wrong button) or even just
old-fashioned electrical failures. Last month, an electrical explosion in a
Houston data center of the Planet, a Web hosting company, knocked thousands of
Web businesses off the Internet for up to five days.
“It was prolonged torture,” said Grant Burhans, a Web entrepreneur from Florida
whose telecommunications- and real-estate-related Web sites were down for four
days, costing him thousands of dollars in lost business.
Web addicts who find themselves shut out of their favorite Web sites tend to
fill blogs and online bulletin boards with angry invective about broken promises
and interrupted routines.
The volatile emotions around Web downtime are perhaps most prevalent in the
discussion around Twitter, on which users post updates on who they are with,
where they are, and what they are doing.
According to Pingdom, a Web monitoring firm, Twitter was down for 37 hours this
year through April — by far more than any other major social networking Web
Instead of simply dumping the service and moving on with their lives, Twitter
users have responded with an endless stream of rancor, creating “Is Twitter
Down?” T-shirts, blog rants and YouTube parodies, and posting copies of
Twitter’s various artfully designed error messages.
“This is a free service. It’s not like anyone’s life is depending on Twitter,”
said Laura Fitton, a consultant and self-described passionate Twitter user.
“Twitter is all about the things we discover we have in common, so right there,
Twitter failing is a huge thing we have in common,” she said. “It’s fun to
complain to each other and commiserate.”
Twitter has said its downtime is the result of rapidly growing demand and
fundamental mistakes in its original architecture.
Jesse Robbins, a former Amazon executive who was responsible for keeping Amazon
online from 2004 to 2006, says the outcries over failures are understandable.
“When these sites go away, it’s a sudden loss. It’s like you are standing in the
middle of Macy’s and the power goes out,” he said. “When the thing you depend on
to live your daily life suddenly goes away, it’s trauma.”
He says Web services should be held to the same standard of reliability as the
older services they aim to replace. “These companies have a responsibility to
people who rely and depend on them, just as people going over a public bridge
expect that the bridge won’t suddenly collapse.”
By some measures, despite the high-profile failures, the Internet is performing
better than ever.
“There are millions of Web sites and billions of Web pages around the world,”
said Umang Gupta, chief executive of Keynote Systems, which monitors companies’
Web performance. “These big high-visibility problems are actually very rare.”
But perhaps they are not rare enough. One morning last month, Google App Engine,
a service that lets people run interactive Web applications, was unavailable for
Among those affected was Mr. Payne, who had just shifted
downforeveryoneorjustme.com over to Google’s servers. It was inaccessible as
The New York Times
By JOHN MARKOFF
FRANCISCO — On sabbatical in 2001 from Macromedia, Kevin Lynch, a software
developer, was frustrated that he could not get to his Web data when he was off
the Internet and annoyed that he could not get to his PC data when he was
Why couldn’t he have access to all his information, like movie schedules and
word processing documents, in one place?
He hit upon an idea that he called “Kevincloud” and mocked up a quick
demonstration of the idea for executives at Macromedia, a software development
tools company. It took data stored on the Internet and used it interchangeably
with information on a PC’s hard drive. Kevincloud also blurred the line between
Internet and PC applications.
Seven years later, his brainchild is about to come into focus on millions of
PCs. On Monday, Mr. Lynch, who was recently named the chief technology officer
at Adobe Systems, which bought Macromedia in 2005, will release the official
version of AIR, a software development system that will power potentially tens
of thousands of applications that merge the Internet and the PC, as well as blur
the distinctions between PCs and new computing devices like smartphones.
Adobe sees AIR as a major advance that builds on its Flash multimedia software.
Flash is the engine behind Web animations, e-commerce sites and many streaming
videos. It is, the company says, the most ubiquitous software on earth, residing
on almost all Internet-connected personal computers.
But most people may never know AIR is there. Applications will look and run the
same whether the user is at his desk or his portable computer, and soon when
using a mobile device or at an Internet kiosk. Applications will increasingly be
built with routine access to all the Web’s information, and a user’s files will
be accessible whether at home or traveling.
AIR is intended to help software developers create applications that exist in
part on a user’s PC or smartphone and in part on servers reachable through the
To computer users, the applications will look like any others on their device,
represented by an icon. The AIR applications can mimic the functions of a Web
browser but do not require a Web browser to run.
The first commercial release of AIR takes place on Monday, but dozens of
applications have been built around a test or beta version.
EBay offers an AIR-based application called eBay Desktop that gives its
customers the power to buy wherever they are. Adobe uses AIR for Buzzword, an
online word processing program. At Monday’s introduction event in San Francisco,
new hybrid applications from companies including Salesforce, FedEx, eBay,
Nickelodeon, Nasdaq, AOL and The New York Times Company will be demonstrated.
Like Adobe’s Flash software, AIR will be given away. The company makes its money
selling software development kits to programmers.
Mr. Lynch and a rapidly growing number of industry executives and technologists
believe that the model represents the future of computing.
Moreover, the move away from PC-based applications is likely to get a
significant jump start in the coming weeks when Intel introduces its low-cost
“Netbook” computer strategy, which is intended to unleash a new wave of
inexpensive wireless connected mobile computers.
The new machines will have a relatively small amount of solid state disk storage
capacity and will increasingly rely on data stored on Internet servers.
“There is a big cloud movement that is building an infrastructure that speaks
directly to this kind of software and experience,” said Sean M. Maloney, Intel’s
executive vice president.
Adobe faces stiff competition from a number of big and small companies with the
same idea. Many small developers like OpenLazlo and Xcerion are creating
“Web-top” or “Web operating systems” intended to move applications and data off
the PC desktop and into the Internet through the Web browser.
Mozilla, the developer of the Firefox Web browser, has created a system known as
Prism. Sun Microsystems introduced JavaFX this year, which is also aimed at
blurring the Web-desktop line. Google is testing a system called Gears, which is
intended to allow some Web services to work on computers that are not connected
to the Internet.
Finally, there is Microsoft. It is pushing its competitor to Flash, called
Silverlight. Three years ago, Microsoft hired one of Mr. Lynch’s crucial
software developers at Macromedia, Brad Becker, to help create it. Mr. Becker
was a leading designer of the Flash programming language.
The blurring of Web and desktop applications and PC and phone applications is
further encouraged by the cellphone industry’s race to catch up with Apple’s
iPhone. The industry is focusing on smartphones, or what Sanjay K. Jha, the
chief operating officer of Qualcomm, calls “pocketable computing.”
“We need to deliver an experience that is like the PC desktop,” he said. “At the
same time, people are used to the Internet and you can’t shortchange them.”
Much software will have to be rewritten for the new devices, in what Mr. Lynch
said is the most significant change for the software industry since the
introduction in the 1980s of software that can be run through clicking icons
rather than typing in codes. This upheaval pits the world’s largest software
developer groups against one another in a battle for the new hybrid software
applications. Industry analysts say there are now about 1.2 billion
Internet-connected personal computers. Market researchers peg the number of
smartphones sold in 2007 at 123 million, but that market is growing rapidly.
“There is a proliferation of platforms,” Mr. Lynch said. “This is a battle for
the hearts and minds of people who are building things.”
The battle will largely pit Microsoft’s 2.2 million .Net software developers
against the more than one million Adobe Flash developers, who have until now
developed principally for the Web, as well as a vast number of other
Web-oriented designers who use open-source software development tools that are
referred to as AJAX.
Microsoft executives said they thought the company would have an advantage
because Silverlight has a more sophisticated security model. “Desktop
integration is a mixed blessing. There is potentially a gaping security hole,”
said Microsoft’s Mr. Becker. “We’ve learned at the school of hard knocks about
Microsoft’s competitors challenge its intent and assert that its goal is
retaining its desktop monopoly. “Microsoft is taking their desktop franchise and
trying to move that franchise to the Web,” said John Lilly, chief executive of
Mozilla. He faults the design of Silverlight for being an island that is not
truly integrated with the Internet.
“You get this rectangle in a Web browser and it can’t interact with the rest of
the Web,” he said.
He said Mozilla’s Prism offers a simple alternative to capitalize on the
explosion of creative software development taking place on the Internet. “There
are jillions of applications. A million more got launched today. The whole world
is collaborating on this.”
Up to now, it has been a low-level war between Microsoft and Adobe. Silverlight,
for instance, got high marks from developers for its ability to handle high
resolution video, but Adobe quickly upgraded Flash last year in response.
“We said, ‘Let’s put this in right now,’ ” Mr. Lynch said. With revenue last
year of $3.16 billion, Adobe is large enough to fight Microsoft.
Adobe, the maker of Photoshop, Acrobat and other software, also has a strong
reputation as a maker of tools for the creative class. "We’re one of the best
tool makers in the world," said Mr. Lynch, who worked on software design at
MicroPro, the publishers of the Wordstar word processor, and at General Magic,
an ill-fated effort to create what could be called a predecessor to today’s
smartphones, before joining Macromedia.
“Adobe’s known for its designer tools, but they realize that development — for
the browser, for the desktop, and for devices such as cellphones — is a huge
growth market,” said Steve Weiss, executive editor at O’Reilly Media, a
technology publishing firm.
The age-old business of breaking up has taken a decidedly
Orwellian turn, with digital evidence like e-mail messages, traces of Web site
visits and mobile telephone records now permeating many contentious divorce
Spurned lovers steal each other’s BlackBerrys. Suspicious spouses hack into each
other’s e-mail accounts. They load surveillance software onto the family PC,
sometimes discovering shocking infidelities.
Divorce lawyers routinely set out to find every bit of private data about their
clients’ adversaries, often hiring investigators with sophisticated digital
forensic tools to snoop into household computers.
“In just about every case now, to some extent, there is some electronic
evidence,” said Gaetano Ferro, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial
Lawyers, who also runs seminars on gathering electronic evidence. “It has
completely changed our field.”
Privacy advocates have grown increasingly worried that digital tools are giving
governments and powerful corporations the ability to peek into peoples’ lives as
never before. But the real snoops are often much closer to home.
“Google and Yahoo may know everything, but they don’t really care about you,”
said Jacalyn F. Barnett, a Manhattan-based divorce lawyer. “No one cares more
about the things you do than the person that used to be married to you.”
Most of these stories do not end amicably. This year, a technology consultant
from the Philadelphia area, who did not want his name used because he has a
teenage son, strongly suspected his wife was having an affair. Instead of
confronting her, the husband installed a $49 program called PC Pandora on her
computer, a laptop he had purchased.
The program surreptitiously took snapshots of her screen every 15 seconds and
e-mailed them to him. Soon he had a comprehensive overview of the sites she
visited and the instant messages she was sending. Since the program captured her
passwords, the husband was also able to get access to and print all the e-mail
messages his wife had received and sent over the previous year.
What he discovered ended his marriage. For 11 months, he said, she had been
seeing another man — the parent of one of their son’s classmates at a private
school outside Philadelphia. The husband said they were not only arranging
meetings but also posting explicit photos of themselves on the Web and
soliciting sex with other couples.
The husband, who like others in this article was reached through his lawyer,
said the decision to invade his wife’s privacy was not an easy one. “If I were
to tell you I have a pure ethical conscience over what I did, I’d be lying,” he
said. But he also pointed to companies that have Internet policies giving them
the right to read employee e-mail messages. “When you’re in a relationship like
a marriage, which is emotional as well as, candidly, a business, I think you can
look at it in the same way,” he said.
When considering invading their spouse’s privacy, husbands and wives cite an
overriding desire to find out some secret. One woman described sensing last year
that her husband, a Manhattan surgeon, was distant and overly obsessed with his
She drew him a bubble bath on his birthday and then pounced on the device while
he was in the tub. In his e-mail messages, she found evidence of an affair with
a medical resident, including plans for them to meet that night.
A few weeks later, after the couple had tried to reconcile, the woman gained
access to her husband’s America Online account (he had shared his password with
her) and found messages from a mortgage company. It turned out he had purchased
a $3 million Manhattan condominium, where he intended to continue his liaison.
“Every single time I looked at his e-mail I felt nervous,” the woman said. “But
I did anyway because I wanted to know the truth.”
Being on the receiving end of electronic spying can be particularly disturbing.
Jolene Barten-Bolender, a 45-year-old mother of three who lives in Dix Hills,
N.Y., said that she was recently informed by AOL and Google, on the same day,
that the passwords had been changed on two e-mail accounts she was using,
suggesting that someone had gained access and was reading her messages. Last
year, she discovered a Global Positioning System, or G.P.S., tracking device in
a wheel well of the family car.
She suspects her husband of 24 years, whom she is divorcing.
“It makes me feel nauseous and totally violated,” Ms. Barten-Bolender said,
speculating that he was trying to find out if she was seeing anyone. “Once
anything is written down, you have to know it could be viewed by someone looking
to invade or hurt you.”
Ms. Barten-Bolender’s husband and his lawyer declined to discuss her
Divorce lawyers say their files are filled with cases like these. Three-quarters
of the cases of Nancy Chemtob, a divorce lawyer in Manhattan, now involve some
kind of electronic communications. She says she routinely asks judges for court
orders to seize and copy the hard drives in the computers of her clients’
spouses, particularly if there is an opportunity to glimpse a couple’s full
financial picture, or a parent’s suitability to be the custodian of the
Lawyers must navigate a complex legal landscape governing the admissibility of
this kind of electronic evidence. Different laws define when it is illegal to
get access to information stored on a computer in the home, log into someone
else’s e-mail account, or listen in on phone calls.
Divorce lawyers say, however, if the computer in question is shared by the whole
family, or couples have revealed their passwords to each other, reading a
spouse’s e-mail messages and introducing them as evidence in a divorce case is
Lynne Z. Gold-Bikin, a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer, describes one client, a man,
who believed his wife was engaging in secret online correspondence. He found
e-mail messages to a lover in Australia that she had sent from a private AOL
account on the family computer. Her lawyer then challenged the use of this
evidence in court. Ms. Gold-Bikin’s client won the dispute and an advantageous
Lawyers say the only communications that are consistently protected in a
spouse’s private e-mail account are the messages to and from the lawyers
themselves, which are covered by lawyer-client privilege.
Perhaps for this reason, divorce lawyers as a group are among the most
pessimistic when it comes to assessing the overall state of privacy in the
“I do not like to put things on e-mail,” said David Levy, a Chicago divorce
lawyer. “There’s no way it’s private. Nothing is fully protected once you hit
the send button.”
Ms. Chemtob added, “People have an expectation of privacy that is completely
James Mulvaney agrees. A private investigator, Mr. Mulvaney now devotes much of
his time to poking through the computer records of divorcing spouses, on behalf
of divorce lawyers. One of his specialties is retrieving files, like bank
records and e-mail messages to secret lovers, that a spouse has tried to delete.
“Every keystroke on your computer is there, forever and ever,” Mr. Mulvaney
He had one bit of advice. “The only thing you can truly erase these things with
is a specialty Smith & Wesson product,” he said. “Throw your computer into the
air and play skeet with it.”
Calif. (AP) -- The chilling sounds of gunfire on the Virginia Tech campus; the
hateful taunts from Saddam Hussein's execution; the racist tirade of comedian
Those videos, all shot with cell phone cameras and seen by millions, are just a
few recent examples of the power now at the fingertips of the masses. Even the
man widely credited with inventing the camera phone in 1997 is awed by the
cultural revolution he helped launch.
''It's had a massive impact because it's just so convenient,'' said Philippe
Kahn, a tech industry maverick whose other pioneering efforts include the
founding of software maker Borland, an early Microsoft Corp. antagonist.
''There's always a way to capture memories and share it,'' he said. ''You go to
a restaurant, and there's a birthday and suddenly everyone is getting their
camera phones out. It's amazing.''
If Kahn feels a bit like a proud father when he sees people holding up their
cell phones to snap pictures, there's good reason: He jury-rigged the first
camera phone while his wife was in labor with their daughter.
''We were going to have a baby and I wanted to share the pictures with family
and friends,'' Kahn said, ''and there was no easy way to do it.''
So as he sat in a maternity ward, he wrote a crude program on his laptop and
sent an assistant to a RadioShack store to get a soldering iron, capacitors and
other supplies to wire his digital camera to his cell phone. When Sophie was
born, he sent her photo over a cellular connection to acquaintances around the
A decade later, 41 percent of American households own a camera phone ''and you
can hardly find a phone without a camera anymore,'' said Michael Cai, an
industry analyst at Parks Associates.
Market researcher Gartner Inc. predicts that about 589 million cell phones will
be sold with cameras in 2007, increasing to more than 1 billion worldwide by
Mix in the Internet's vast reach and the growth of the YouTube generation, and
the ubiquitous gadget's influence only deepens and gets more complicated. So
much so that the watchful eyes on all of us may no longer just be those of Big
''For the past decade, we've been under surveillance under these big black and
white cameras on buildings and at 7-Eleven stores. But the candid camera is
wielded by individuals now,'' said Fred Turner, an assistant professor of
communications at Stanford University who specializes in digital media and
The contraption Kahn assembled in a Santa Cruz labor-and-delivery room in 1997
has evolved into a pocket-friendly phenomenon that has empowered both citizen
journalists and personal paparazzi.
It has prompted lawsuits -- a student sued campus police at UCLA for alleged
excessive force after officers were caught on cell-phone video using a stun gun
during his arrest; and been a catalyst for change -- a government inquiry into
police practices ensued in Malaysia after a cell-phone video revealed a woman
detainee being forced to do squats while naked.
On another scale, parents use cell-phone slideshows -- not wallet photos -- to
show off pictures of their children, while adolescents document their rites of
passage with cell phone cameras and instantly share the images.
One of the recipients of Kahn's seminal photo e-mail was veteran technology
consultant Andy Seybold, who recalled being ''blown away'' by the picture.
''The fact that it got sent wirelessly on the networks those days -- that was an
amazing feat,'' Seybold said.
Kahn's makeshift photo-communications system formed the basis for a new company,
LightSurf Technologies, which he later sold to VeriSign Inc. LightSurf built
''PictureMail'' software and worked with cell phone makers to integrate the
wireless photo technology.
Sharp Corp. was the first to sell a commercial cell phone with a camera in Japan
in 2000. Camera phones didn't debut in the U.S. until 2002, Kahn said.
Though Kahn's work revolved around transmitting only digital still photographs
-- video-related developments were created by others in the imaging and chip
industries -- his groundbreaking implementation of the instant-sharing via a
cell phone planted a seed.
''He facilitated people putting cameras in a phone, and he proved that you can
take a photo and send it to someone with a cell phone,'' Seybold said.
Kahn, 55, is well aware of how the camera phone has since been put to negative
uses: sneaky shots up women's skirts, or the violent trend of ''happy slapping''
in Europe where youths provoke a fight or assault, capture the incident on
camera and then spread the images on the Web or between mobile phones.
But he likes to focus on the technology's benefits. It's been a handy tool that
has led to vindication for victims or validation for vigilantes.
As Kahn heard the smattering of stories in recent years about assailants scared
off by a camera phone or criminals who were nabbed later because their faces or
their license plates were captured on the gadget, he said, ''I started feeling
it was better than carrying a gun.''
And though he found the camera-phone video of the former Iraqi dictator's
execution disturbing, Kahn said the gadget helped ''get the truth out.'' The
unofficial footage surreptitiously taken by a guard was vastly different from
the government-issued version and revealed a chaotic scene with angry exchanges
depicting the ongoing problems between the nation's factions.
Kahn also thinks the evolution of the camera phone has only just begun.
He wouldn't discuss details of his newest startup, Fullpower Technologies Inc.,
which is in stealth mode working on the ''convergence of life sciences and
wireless,'' according to its Web site.
But, Kahn said, it will, among other things, ''help make camera phones better.''