Computers, punch cards, and other technologies

Residents of the Eastern Townships, of Canada, and even the world have looked on in horror at the devastation and loss of life in Lac Megantic caused by a runaway train’s crude oil tankers exploding in the downtown.

We offer condolences, and we give whatever aid we are asked, whether it be money or teddy bears for children who’ve lost homes and loved ones.

The people of Lac Megantic are also incredibly resilient, and they deal with their anger and sorrow in different ways.

One such way was the spoofing of the website of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ltd., operator of the train transporting those many tankers. The page’s design was copied, but the text rewritten.

A sentence that read that the MMA operates 15 trains daily was crossed out; the number 14 was inserted instead.

A little further down, a job ad read: “Regarder ici pour actuel opportunité professionnel. Seul requise habileté est savoir comment laisser un locomotive sans surveillance. Contactez notre marketing departement pour apprendre à propos des bénéfices des explosions de vos marchandises.”

Even though not written by a native French speaker, the message is clear. Exploding merchandise is a service on offer. (The spoof has since disappeared.)

It’s the sort of black humour that those on the edge of despair may need to retain their sanity.

It’s also a computer hack, though, that requires a bit of specialized knowledge. Those who are still distrustful of computers will know that any technology can be used for different reasons and in different ways. Parody is a quiet, simple action with a personal and political point.

Not all computer hackers are so carefully controlled. In 2000, the Montreal teenager known as Mafiaboy shut down websites like Yahoo (then the most used search engine on the Internet), CNN, EBay and E*Trade.

The well-known leftist activist Naomi Klein claimed Mafiaboy as an anti-capitalist tiger, out to take back the world from the big bad corporations. In truth, writes Mafiaboy, he did it because it was fun. He did it because he could. He did it to show off.

A 15-year-old Michael Calce was pursued by the FBI and the RCMP for his crimes, ending up incarcerated and, eventually, repentant. Or at least, repentant in his book, Mafiaboy: How I Cracked The Internet And Why It’s Still Broken (2008, written with Craig Silverman and filed in adult non-fiction at 346.16).

The book notes how Calce became enamoured of computers at six years of age, his obsession with hacking, and his view of the international police investigation that led to his arrest and eventual guilty plea. He portrays himself, in many ways, as a stupid kid, too naïve to understand what he was doing. His father was also arrested – on a trumped up charge, Calce suggests, as a way to drag down the child.

Calce also points out the importance of risk-taking and the good that can, at times, come out of disobeying authority, noting that the two Steves, Wozniak and Jobs, began their lives as hackers and ended up founding Apple.

It’s a quite readable memoir, with the last 60 pages an education for the gullible who are asked by fake PayPal and bankers’ emails to supply credit card numbers and passwords.

Going further back, International Business Machines is still a big name in the computer technology industry. But it began as something else – back in 1933, it conducted the first census for Germany’s Nazi government that carefully ferreted out every Jew in the country. Author Edwin Black has written a history of IBM, and how its punch card and sorting system, the computer’s precursor, helped the Nazis be far more efficient in tracking, harassing, and finally shipping six million so-called enemies of the state to concentration camps.

The book is titled IBM And The Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany And America’s Most Powerful Corporation (2001, filed in large print books at number 940.53). IBM’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude is a reminder that there’s more to life than profit, and that individuals must accept responsibility for their actions.

Finally, Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs And Steel (1999, in non-fiction at 303.4) goes even further back in time, arguing that the Western World’s economic dominance is based on who had access to what raw materials and who was able to best use older technologies, from the skills of farming, of medicine, and of weapons-making.

Diamond’s tour de force is nothing less than a startling attempt to explain the power dynamics of the modern world, beginning in prehistoric times.

– Eleanor Brown, July 19, 2013


About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au Click on the above to get to our website!
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