Book Review: Ghost in the Wires

Kevin Mitnick is a legendary hacker who pioneered the use of phone phreaking (gaining access to systems via the phone lines) and social engineering (gaining access to codes for phreaking by chatting with engineers, secretaries and others), and while he was imprisoned for his hacking, he claims never to have done it for profit. He was in it for the fun, the thrill of the activity, and he was energized by the cat-and-mouse games that went on. He was out to prove himself to the world. But the police and FBI were soon hot on his trail, and even though he used his knowledge of the government information system to go into hiding for a time, he eventually was caught.

Ghost in the Wires is Mitnick’s tale of how he came become such a notorious hacker. It’s full of interesting technical talk about the early days of computers, the lack of security at so many sites, and the high intelligence, perseverance and creativity it took for Mitnick and his friends to worm their way through various computer networks. At times, the book is a little too self-serving, and the writing could have been stronger. I was glad his co-writer, Bill Simon, resisted too much technical talk (which Mitnick apparently wanted) because that move makes the book accessible to a wider audience.

I was somewhat familiar with his tale because I have read the WhizzyWig series of graphic novels by Ed Piskor, which is inspired by Mitnick and other early phone phreakers. The two books — WhizzyWig and Ghost in the Wires — are nice companion pieces, and give some insight into the motivation of hackers. While it is true that some hack for financial gain, most early hackers were looking for the thrill of the action, and the thrill of seeing how much they could get away with. At one point, Mitnick even compares hacking to a magic act, where the audience is in awe of what can be accomplished, but they would be stunned by how easy it is once you know the trick. Every system has weaknesses, Mitnick says, and the hacker

Look around your classroom. Notice the kids who are smart, but bored, and who can work their way around a computer or piece of technology with ease. They might be your future hackers. We need to find a way to engage those kids, too, and use their skills in creative ways. Metnick and others were always left out of the social loops, left to their own devices, and in doing so, society created this cadre of intruders. While Metnick went to jail, the story does have a happy ending — he is now a high-paid consultant for many companies seeking to strengthen their data security.

But I wonder about those kids who are not so lucky.

Peace (in the wires),


Book Review: Wonderstruck


Some writers just leave me gasping for breath. I can’t put the book down and feel as if life is intruding on an intimate space that the writer, the characters and I inhabit. I was thinking of this as I finished up Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (whose The Invention of Hugo Cabret remains a solid favorite of mine), shifting towards the end of a twining narrative of words and illustrations that had me hooked from the very start. Selznick is one of those writers who is also an illustration, and who has come to understand the way to merge those two ideas together, so that the pictures are not just complementary tokens to the story. The illustrations are the story itself.

Or in this case, one of the stories. Here, in Wonderstruck, Selznick skillfully uses his line drawings to tell the tale of a deaf girl, and the pictures are like a silent movie unfolding on the pages. We don’t hear the sounds. We don’t hear any dialogue. We only see the world in a veil of silence, and through the eyes of the character. The effect is pure genius.

And then there is the other part of the story, as a young boy named Ben tries to find his father after his mother has died in a tragic car accident, and he too becomes deaf  (by a lightning strike). Using a museum as a setting for the middle of the novel, the two narratives of these characters in Wonderstruck slowly come together in a wonderful way, which I won’t give away here, except to say that the panoramic model of New York City is a delight to see, as are all of the hidden reasons for its importance.

I’d like to share this quote from the book:

“Ben remembering reading about curators in Wonderstruck, and thought about what it meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized that he had already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonder.” (574)

Is there a better phrase than that? Maybe we are all cabinets of wonder? I love that idea.

Don’t be put off by the size of this book (630 pages) nor the price, and be sure to read through Selznick’s notes at the end of how he came to write this story and how he researched the elements. Just like the video that he made for Hugo Cabret in which he talks about how he made that book (which I show every year to my young writers), Selznick here pries open the veil of the writing and drawing process for the reader to see and understand.

Peace (in the wonder),


(Interactive) Book Review: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

All the promise in the world hasn’t yet translated into digital books truly taking advantage of all of the affordances of the digital canvas. I keep waiting, and waiting. Honestly, I am not sure exactly what I am waiting for but, like the famous expression about pornography, “I’ll know it when I see it” or I will know it when I experience it. I hope.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is an interactive book on the iPad that comes pretty darn close. It’s beautifully designed; it draws the reader in with both the story and the interactive elements; and when you first read it, the next thing on your agenda will be to read it again. And again. Trust me. We can’t keep the iPad and Morris Lessmore out of our kids’ hands — and they range in age from 7 to 13. The writers and creators of this beautiful story have done it right — from the ways in which the reader can play music, to creating a swipe of blue across the grey sky, to the animation, to the ways the books in the library read the first lines of famous novels; to the story itself (about the wonderful magic of books that we read and the stories that we write, and how those stories linger on even after we die). Each page holds a little treasure to be savored.

I wish there were more books out there like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Why aren’t there? It may be that the confluence between design (so important) and rich storytelling have not yet found enough common ground. It seems like most ebooks are really just games disguised as books instead of books as an immersive experience. Kudos to the group that pulled this book together. And I wait for the next one.

Peace (in the interactive),


Book Review: Reality is Broken

(This book is going to be part of an online discussion at the National Writing Project Book Group, so I will hold off on a lot of details about the book here. — Kevin)

I guess the title says it all for the underling premise of Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. She’s certainly someone with a lot of credibility in a lot of circles — as an academic and as a gamer, and game designer, too. This book delves into the many ways in which reality for many people is boring, unfocused, and unmotivating, and how gaming can bring new possibilities for increasing our satisfaction with reality by inserting challenges, rewards and connections into life.

“If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time. You’ve been building up a wealth of virtual experience that …can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what makes you happiest.” (p. 12)

McGonigal has a lot of good points about the benefits of gaming to engage us, particularly when she delves into the global social game movements that connect people across the world for information building, cooperative challenges and problem solving that could have an impact on the real world (which is the concluding premise — to solve world problems we need to create a gaming mentality). She also notes that the sheer number of hours that young people are playing, and the complexity of games that people are playing, is changing the way people interact with the world. And if you buy into the 10,000 hours argument of expertise (see Malcolm Gladwells’ Outliers), we are now seeing a generational wave of gaming experts emerging in our ranks. (Although, I wish those hours were creating more than just playing).

But I did find much of the middle of the book veering off a bit too much into happiness quotients and other topics that I had trouble buying into, and I found myself muttering at McGonigal more than once. Some of it felt wish-washy. I understand that she was trying to lay her groundwork for why gaming can positively impact reality, but I didn’t buy all of it. I’ll leave it at that for now.

Still, the book does a nice job of taking a step back from an individual gaming experience and argue on behalf of the gaming experience itself. And as a teacher who is still grappling with the possibilities of how to work gaming into my curriculum in a meaningful way, McGonigal is an experienced voice to turn to (watch some of her video presentations — she’s a great speaker). She really does know her games, and her gaming experiences as a designer were interesting to read about.

I’ll be interested to know how my NWP friends felt about the book when the discussion goes live sometime in early October. I have a ton of pages in Reality is Broken with note tabs, ready to be reviewed again in a few weeks.

Peace (in the game),


(Abandoned) Book Review: The Doom Machine

All the reviews said The Doom Machine was a great read. It came highly recommended from our school librarian. But … eh … I couldn’t finish it. I don’t know if it was me or the book, but I could not get my mind past Mark Teague’s writing. While I have loved his work in picture books (The Dear Mrs. LaRue books are a riot) and find him to be funny and imaginative as a storyteller, The Doom Machine could not hold my interest, even with the neat drawings and sci-fi element. And I kept with it for almost 120 pages, thinking: this is bound to change for the better at any moment.

It didn’t. The writing felt choppy, and lacked a certain flow. It was as if he were trying to fit his picture book writing style into a novel format. That doesn’t work. (Which, if you think about it, is an interesting ideas — that the genre influences the writing, and how does a master of one genre make the switch?)

I put the book down and stuffed it into the pile of books for my classroom. Now, as I write that, I wonder if someone will say, You don’t like it but you’re going to put it in front of your students? Good question! Yes. I’m not the arbiter of everything that’s good (again, most reviewers of the book gave it high marks), and I bet someone will like this story of a boy and girl on an alien spaceship trying to save the world.

It just won’t be me.

Peace (in the doom of the book),


Graphic Book Review: The Influencing Machine

Influenced heavily by the work of Scott McCloud, radio host/media critic Brooke Gladstone and illustrator Josh Neufeld take a deep look into the ways in which we are influenced by media, and the ways that we influence media. Told through a sort of historical lens, Gladstone’s The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone On The Media takes apart ways in which culture has been impacted by public relations by government officials; the rise of radio and television in marketing a world vision; and how technology is increasingly playing a role in both amplifying voices (for good or ill).

I give props to Neufield’s artwork here, which creatively and playfully tells its own story even as Gladstone’s writing shines through as  critic and a self-professed lover of all things media (she is a host for On the Media radio show). The Influencing Machine is a prime example of ways in which the visual text is as rich as the written text on a non-fictional scale. I found myself pretty interested in what Gladstone had to say, but I also have a history in journalism as a newspaper reporter and junky. I wonder if the general public would stay with this book?

If you are a teacher of high school or college journalism, The Influencing Machine is worth a look, as it may give your students another perspective on ways that media shapes our world, and how it can be both a boon for the otherwise powerless and a weapon for rhetoric by those in power. I imagine that Gladstone comes from the political left, but her graphic non-fiction here takes dead aim across the board.

In the end, her message is one that we all do need to hear: stay alert and don’t let the powerful whisper in your ear, and use the advantages of media for your own benefit. Her call for us to be individuals in the face of media overload, and not be content as just passive consumers, is even more important as the world of journalism does a slow dive. But we need filters, too.

She writes: “…the media cover the world like cloudy water. We have to consciously filter it. In an era when everything is asserted and anything denied, we really need to know who we are and how our brains work (128).”

I agree.

Peace (in the media),


Book Review: Edible Secrets

Somewhere on another website that I was reading, this book — Edible Secrets: A Food Tour of Classified US History — was recommended as a graphic novel, and that is not quite right. Sure, there are graphics in it. There are images of classified files and other assorted images.

But I would not term it a graphic novel, per se.

Instead, this small, fascinating non-fictional book by Michael Hoerger and Mia Partlow is an interesting glance at some moments in United States history as seen through the lens of documents once classified as “secret” but now made public through the Freedom of Information Act. And the filter they use to peruse the documents is “food,” as in all of the areas of study — from trying to kill Fidel Castro, to sullying the reputation of Black Panther leaders, to experimenting with drugs on unwitting subjects, to the evidence that leads to the hanging of the Rosenbergs for being Russian spies, to the influence of Coca Cola on global politics in the Middle East — have some connection to food.

It’s a gimmick that works.

The focus of food provides a hook for Hoerger and Partlow to hang on, which is a good thing. It also allows them to inject some much-needed humor into their analysis, which is good, too.  (Some of the charts and maps they create are both hilarious and insightful — including the chart of the various attempts to get Castro over the years. One attempt involves a milkshake.) The files they expose here are pretty interesting — providing an inside look into some of the notes and letters sent between government officials as they sort through politics and intrigue. It’s sort of like a Wikileaks on a smaller scale (and the Wikileaks event happened just around the time of publication of this book, but the authors make references the emergence of electronic databases of secrets, although the files in this book are legally declassified.)

The authors clearly have a political bent, as they examine the documents from the eyes of someone very critical of the government and very critical of keeping secrets. They explain, “If you’ve ever wanted to peek behind the door of a top secret government meeting, or wondered how they broach delicate subjects such as corporate boycotts, mind control, espionage, and assassination attempts, these documents provide you with a voyeuristic insight into the US government.”

They sure do. And it isn’t pretty. This book is worth the read, if only to figure out how doughnuts, ice cream, Jello, milkshakes and popcorn play a role in the secret files of government officials.

Peace (in the secrets),