Computer Underground Digest--Fri Aug 23, 1991 (Vol #3.31) Moderators: Jim Thomas and Gordo
Computer Underground Digest--Fri Aug 23, 1991 (Vol #3.31)
Moderators: Jim Thomas and Gordon Meyer (TK0JUT2@NIU.BITNET)
CONTENTS, #3.31 (AUGUST 23, 1991)
File 1--Moderators' Corner: Blurbs
File 2--Request info on suggestions for a class
File 3--New BBS for CuD back issues and other services
File 4--Moderators' Corner: Blurbs
File 5--BOARDWATCH Magazine
File 6--NREN Boondoggle?
File 7--Inslaw Death Investigation Continues (NEWSBYTES REPRINT)
File 8--Memes, Gurus, and Viruses
Issues of CuD can be found in the Usenet alt.society.cu-digest news
group, on CompuServe in DL0 and DL4 of the IBMBBS SIG, DL1 of LAWSIG,
and DL0 and DL12 of TELECOM, on Genie, on the PC-EXEC BBS at (414)
789-4210, and by anonymous ftp from ftp.cs.widener.edu,
chsun1.spc.uchicago.edu, and dagon.acc.stolaf.edu. To use the U. of
Chicago email server, send mail with the subject "help" (without the
quotes) to email@example.com.
COMPUTER UNDERGROUND DIGEST is an open forum dedicated to sharing
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Date: Wed, 22 Aug 1991 10:00:00 CDT
From: "Jim Thomas"
Subject: File 1--Moderators' Corner: Blurbs
The address for contacting INTERTEK disappeared from our review of it.
You can email steve steinberg at firstname.lastname@example.org (he's quite good
about answering mail) or
325 Ellwood Beach, #3
Goleta, CA 93117 (805) 685-6557 is the phone)
Subs are $8 a year.
NIA #72 is out and it's available in the CuD ftp archives. The latest
EFFector is also available there.
Because of conferences, the start of school, and other craziness, CuD
editors will take a week off, over labor day. We'll be back in about
two weeks with a special issue of _Cyberpunk_ by Katie Hafner and John
Date: Mon, 19 Aug 91 17:15 EDT
From: I'm hunting wabbits! - Elmer Fudd
Subject: File 2--Request info on suggestions for a class
It looks like I may be teaching an introductory course in information
systems this fall. What I would like to do, is point out and discuss
as many issues as possible. Two big ones are in the areas of computer
crime, and the issues of Right to Privacy, and such that are being
discussed in CU digest these days.
I would like to ask the readership for their favorite top 10 articles,
magazines, books, excerpts, etc. in some form of bibliographic format
so that I can compile a suggested reading list for the class.
I will happily summarize, remove duplicates, alphabetize, etc. and
re-post back to the list.
Would prefer that replies be sent directly to me.
Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1991 00:20:30 -0400
From: Mike Neuliep
Subject: File 3--New BBS for CuD back issues and other services
Mike Neuliep recently put up a new BBS which will be a distribution
site for CuD as well as for other online publications. When he saves
up enough money for another harddrive it will be a mirror of the
widener ftp site. The number is 708-672-5426 and the location is Crete
Illinois which is about 35 miles due south of Chicago. To download
back issues users must exit from the user-friendly menu to c-shell and
then cd to /hd20/cu/cud which is where all the files are archived.
The software is Pro-Line running on an apple //e it is running a
single user unix-like shell but is also somewhat networked
(pro-mopar.cs.widener.edu on the internet). The name of the BBS is The
World Trade Center. Users can store files in their home directories
like on chi-net, and other services are also available. It's worth a
look, especially for those in the 708/312 area.
Date: Mon, 20 Aug, 1991 04:18:31 EDT
Subject: File 4--Federal abuses of Seizure Law
The complaints against Federal agents for their abuses in seizing
equipment and not returning it pale against the seizure of property in
drug busts. The Chicago Tribune ran a story (August 11, 1991, p. 1,
13, "Drug Law Leaves Trail of Innocents: In 80% of Seizures, no
Charges by Andrew Schnieder and Mary Pat Flaherty of The Pittsburgh
Press) that illustrates the abuses of Federal seizure law and
practices. Excerpts include:
"Thousands of ordinary Americans are being victimized each year
by the federal seizure law, which was meant to curb drugs by
causing financial hardship to dealers.
A 10-month study by The Pittsburgh Press shows that 80 percent of
the people who lost property to the federal government were never
charged with a crime. And most of the seized items weren't the
luxurious playthings of drug barons, but modest homes and simple
cars and hard-earned savings.
Those goods generated $2 billion for the police departments that
Said Eric Sterling, who helped write the law a decade ago as a
lawyer on a congressional committee: "The innocent-until-proven
guilty concept is gone out the window."
Under the government's seizure law, police can seize cash and
belongings if a person fits a vague description of a drug runner,
which is heavily weighted against minorities; or if a person has
cash tainted by drugs, which is true of almost all U.S. currency,
or if someone has property used in the commission of a crime,
even if that person was not involved in the crime. To try to get
it back,owners have to hire an attorney and sue the federal
government. Cases usualy takes (sic) months or years, and there's
no guarantee of success.
The article lists several outrageous horror stories of people
(mostly Black) detained for how the looked or for other
"suspicious" but innocent acts. They broke no law, but their
money or property was confiscated.
Seizure laws originally intended to curb organized crime and
substance abuse has had virtually no success in curtailing either
drug use or the violence and other crimes associated with it.
Yet, the laws have been expanded, and give the government what
amounts to the power of totalitarian dictatorships in seizing
property. This is a throwback to the dark ages where "might makes
right," and it is a power that is expanding and being used
The story concludes:
((One victim's)) lawyer, Jenny Cooke, calls the
She said: "There is no difference between what the police did to
((her client)) or what Al Capone did in Chicago when he walked in
and said, 'This is a nice little bar and it's mine.' The only
difference is today they call this civil forfeiture."
The confiscation of computer equipment is part of a larger trend
toward "punishment without trial," and punishment allotted all too
often to those who have committed no crime. The computer community is
as apathetic to many of these issues--and some actually laud them--as
the general public, but injustice in the name of justice is as
criminal as any act of hackers.
Date: Sat, 24 Aug 1991 01:29:20 -0600
Subject: File 5--BOARDWATCH Magazine
We've been hearing lots of good things around the country about a
magazine called BOARDWATCH from a cross section of cyber hobbyists and
professionals. It's been around for awhile, but has only recently
started drawing national attention for its content and perspective.
Boardwatch Magazine is a monthly newsletter/magazine done by Jack
Rickard out of Littleton, Colorado. It covers the online world with
an emphasis on electronic bulletin boards, product support BBS,
government data services, and unique or odd applications of BBS
technology (i.e. BBS for Cockatiel owners, BBS for sailing/yachting
race results, etc.). It includes a good dose of technology update on
modems, ISDN, BBS software, and the odd but useful shareware utility.
Starting as a regional publication in 1987, Boardwatch has grown to
international proportions and amassed a readership of about 18,000 with
subscribers in 56 countries based on a startling new marketing
concept: if you can track it down, find the publisher, and talk him
into taking your $36, he'll add you to the mailing list. Some
May 91 issue - List of 37 Soviet BBS - coverage of Computers Freedom
and Privacy Conference with Mitch Kapor of EFF as cover girl. Review
of $399 GVC V.32 9600 bps modem. Discussion of 16550 UARTS. Unicode as
ASCII replacement. Multitech V.32bis modem. Publicly available
Internet access sites. Boston Computer Society to join Internet.
Book review of !%@:: A Directory of Electronic Mail Addressing and
Networks. Massachusetts Commission for the Blind BBS. Photo of Bob
and Tracey Mahoney and story on their new EXEC-PC chatline service.
June 91 Issue - "Cover Girl" was Cliff Figallo, administrator for THE
WELL. ATT Packet/Cellular laptop. Article on NeXT computers.
Discount on TBBS bulletin board software. Windows application for
TCP/IP. Announcement of Wildcat! sysops meeting in California.
Medical Physicians computer resource guide on diskette. Photo and
story about Hayes ISDN 1 external terminal adapter. U.S. Robotics
acquires Touchbase Systems and the Worldport pocket modem line.
Detailed article on Prodigy's STAGE.DAT woes. Review of America
Online. Article by Lance Rose on Law in CyberSpace. Reprint of a
January 1980 Kilobaud Microcomputing article by Frank Derfler with
first printed BBS list - 3 systems - ONE IS STILL UP. CERFNet dialup
Internet access program. Knowbot Online E-Mail Directory Source of
26000 Voyager images on CD ROM for $99. Library of Congress online via
Internet. Ciarcia's Circuit Cellar BBS. Order flower delivery online.
July 91 Issue. Announcement of FidoCon 91 BBS Conference in Denver.
List of all 400+ FidoNet network coordinators worldwide. K12Net
educational network. Tokyo BBS Systems with a review of Tympas X.25
network allowing access to Japan at $8.40 per hour. Review of
Heartland FreeNet offering free Internet e-mail boxes. List of BBS
Software Vendors support BBS. Announcement of a 9600 bps V.32 modem
available to BBS operators at $199. Eight-line caller ID interface
for PCs. HP intros two plain paper faxes. Internet mailing lists -
where to find them and what they are.
The magazine has a regular national list of some 200+ selected BBS,
and a standing "List of Lists" noting BBS where you can get electronic
lists of BBS for particular area codes, topical BBS lists, etc. The
art and layout are a little cramped and a little odd - NOT what you
normally see on the newsstand. But a quick take on the editorial
style explains why Rickard has gained a following with this monthly
publication. July issue was 56 pages. $36 annual domestic - $99
overseas. BOARDWATCH is available at at all Software Etc. and Comp
USA stores among others.
Boardwatch Magazine's address is:
5970 South Vivian St.
Littleton, CO 80127
Voice subscription line 800-933-6038.
Rickard can be reached at email@example.com
Check it out. BOARDWATCH, MONDO 2000, INTERTEK, and 2600 illustrate
that cyberspace is expanding, and these 'zines will help us
navigate through it.
Date: Sat, 3 Aug 91 22:11 EST
From: "Michael E. Marotta"
Subject: File 6--NREN Boondoggle?
GRID News. ISSN 1054-9315. vol 2 nu 21a August 03, 1991.
World GRID Association, P. O. Box 15061, Lansing, MI 48901 USA
(73 lines) Summa Contra NREN -- Part 1. The Boondoggle
(C) 1991 by Michael E. Marotta
NREN is the National Research and Education Network, a proposed
two-gigabit/second fiber-optic network to connect all national
research and educational facilities. Publicly, NREN is the brainchild
of Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee. In reality, Gore's proposals
draw heavily on the work of Robert E. Kahn, founder of the
Corporation for National Research Initiatives. Dr. Kahn worked on
ARPANET for Bolt Beranek Newman in 1966. Later, he helped set up
Telenet. (see "Bob Kahn Wants to Wire the Nation" BUSINESS MONTH,
April 1987, and "Networks for Advanced Computing", SCIENTIFIC
AMERICAN, October 1987.)
NREN's primary beneficiaries will be university researchers who use
supercomputers to model colliding neutron stars, an example provided
by the Coalition for NREN, 1112 16th Street NW, Suite 600, Washington
DC 20036. Other "Grand Challenge" scientific problems such as global
warming and mapping the human genome are also mentioned in NREN
literature. Companies that make supercomputers (IBM, CDC, Cray) will
also profit from NREN. Other businesses are offered positive
incentives. They are promised access to marketing data, access to
industrial development and the ability to sell data in an
information-based economy. More benefits to businesses include
access to satellite imaging, high definition television conferencing,
and contracts to "wire the nation." NREN proponents also claim that
doctors in rural areas could communicate with major healthcare
facilities. Children in small towns could reach the Library of
However, the truth is less exciting than this. As defined in Senate
Bill S.272, introduced on January 24, 1991, NREN is a $2 billion
study. It is ONLY a STUDY. The overall plan is for Congress to
allocate funds which NASA, the Departments of Energy and Defense, and
the National Science Foundation would spend on supercomputers and
high performance computing networks. There is no plan to connect
rural children with the Library of Congress.
In fact, when in Washington for the White House Conference on Library
and Information Services, I visited the Library of Congress. They
don't want children doing their homework to dial in and request
"everything you have on Thomas Jefferson." That service can be
provided online at the local level. And in fact, it already is in
many places. That it is NOT provided in MORE places is significant.
A more correct priority would be to put dialup catalogs in every
The thought of a rural doctor accessing an urban medical center
sounds compelling. Such technology is offered by CATV companies
already and cable is very affordable. The reason that this is not
more common is that it is not demanded by the doctors and hospitals.
You are reading this file because you are already in cyberspace. You
are a netrunner on the electronic frontier. FidoNet is possible
because of individuals like Ward Christensen, Michael Hayes, and of
course Tom Jennings. Your sysop is a private individual who donates
time and materials to making FidoNet possible. When it was founded,
CompuServe ran on a PDP-11 and today their platform is a VAX Cluster.
WELL, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, runs on a multi-processor
Fujitsu. Hobbyists enjoy modem speeds of 9600 and 19.6K baud. If
there were really a demand for NREN, the private sector would
overcome all obstacles to provide it.
In the 1800s, governments financed canals just in time for railroads
to come along. Then governments got into the railroad game, spending
public money on private ventures just in time for the invention of
the automobile. Those governments then built highways for the auto
industry just as computing was sprouting. NREN promises to be
Next file: NREN vs. the First Amendment
(GRID News is FREQable from 1:159/450, the Beam Rider BBS)
Subject: File 7--Inslaw Death Investigation Continues (NEWSBYTES REPRINT)
INSLAW DEATH INVESTIGATION CONTINUES (NEWSBYTES Reprint)
(By Barbara E. McMullen & John F. McMullen)
Martinsburg, West Virginia, the scene of the death of Washington,
D.C. journalist Joseph D. "Danny" Casolaro, has received more press
attention than ever before in its history as reporters from ABC-TV,
Newsbytes News Network, and the Washington Post roamed the halls
interrogating bell-hops, waitresses, and desk clerks for information
regarding the death of Casolaro.
Employees, supposedly under the cloak of Sheraton-forced silence,
told Newsbytes that, while some prospective guests have specifically
requested the room in which Casolaro died, their instructions have
been to leave the room vacant for an unspecified time.
Casolaro, 44, had been investigating the "Inslaw" case, a rather
tangled web of allegations relating to the charges brought by Inslaw
Inc., that the Justice Department had first stolen its software
product, "Promis," and then driven the firm into bankruptcy. Casolaro
had told friends and family that he was about to receive material
that would provide him with documentation linking Inslaw to other
alleged incidents of Reagan-Bush administration wrong-doing. Casolaro
was said to have referred to the alleged conspiracy as the "Octopus"
and stated that there were links between the Inslaw theft, the
"October Surprise," and Iran-Contra allegations.
The "October surprise" refers to allegations that representatives of
the Reagan-Bush campaign team, through meetings with Iranian
representatives, delayed the release of the hostages in Iran until
after the 1980 elections. These charges are currently being
investigated by Congressional committee. Casolaro was found dead, an
apparent suicide, in Room 517 of the Sheraton on Saturday, August
10th, two days after his arrival in Martinsburg. He was found in the
bathtub at approximately 1:00 pm with both wrists slashed. His body
was released within three hours to a local funeral parlor for
embalming, an action that Berkeley County Medical Examiner Sandra
Brining was quoted as saying was normal in the case of a suicide.
"Everything was consistent with a self-inflicted wound."
When Casolaro's family became aware of his death on Monday, August
14th, it immediately called for an expanded investigation and his
brother, Dr. Anthony Casolaro, an Arlington, Virginia physician, was
quoted as saying, "In my heart I remember Danny telling us that in
case of an accident, don't believe it." Dr. Casolaro also discounted
statements made by his brother in a letter to a publisher in which he
seemed financially strapped and despondent. Dr. Casolaro attributed
Casolaro's remarks to a desire to convince the would-be publisher of
the importance of extending a book contract to him. Casolaro had been
immersed in the Inslaw case for over a year and had been unsuccessful
in two proposals to the publishing firm of Little, Brown & Co.
The clamor for a fuller investigation caused an autopsy to be
subsequently performed on Casolaro, an action that Assistant Berkeley
County prosecutor Cynthia Gaither said was not hindered by the
Casolaro was buried on Friday, October 16th after a funeral service
at St. Ann's Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia attended by over
At a press conference held on Thursday, August 15th, Dr. James Frost,
assistant West Virginia medical examiner, said that, while the
results of the examination bore out the preliminary findings of
suicide, the investigation would be continued. Brining and Gaither
also participated in the hour-long press conference held in the
meeting room of the Martinsburg City Council.
Newsbytes has obtained conflicting reports on the state of Casolaro's
mental condition. A California free-lance journalist, Virginia
McCullough, with whom Casolaro had allegedly shared information, told
Newsbytes, "It is ludicrous to think that Danny took his life. He was
excited about his new contact and said that 'For the first time I
really believe that the government was involved.'" McCullough,
herself, claims to be the victim of a government action that drove
her electronics firm into bankruptcy and she is presently writing a
book on her case and other similar cases, including Inslaw.
McCullough's comments on the unlikelihood of a Casolaro suicide were
echoed in quotes from Pat Clawson, president of Washington-based
Metrowest Broadcasting Co., and Richard O'Connell, editor of the
Washington Crime News, a newsletter published in Arlington, VA. Nancy
Hamilton, vice president of Inslaw, also took issue with the suicide
finding telling the Martinsburg Morning Journal, "We don't accept
that. They are saying that here is a man, totally sober, mutilating
Martinsburg residents interviewed by Newsbytes paint a slightly
different picture and depict Casolaro as seemingly depressed and
drinking pitchers of beer by himself in a local Pizza Hut on the
Thursday evening before his death (although a wine bottle was found
in his room, there was no evidence of alcohol found in the body by
the autopsy). Additionally, a Washington Post piece of Saturday,
August 17th by Gary Lee and Robert O'Harrow, Jr., shows Casolaro to
be debt-ridden and despondent. According to the Post report,
"Casolaro had no independent means of income and had invested heavily
in the book project for at least eight months, financing several
trips to the West Coast and long-distance telephone calls."
The Post article also revealed that Casolaro's sister had committed
suicide in California 20 years ago. While confirming the sister's
suicide and his brother's financial difficulties, Dr. Casolaro said
that these facts still did not support a conclusion of suicide for
his brother. He told the Post, "Danny was the sort of guy who was
always broke but he knew that he had a lot of resources for money in
the family if he needed it."
Dr. Casolaro also told the Post that he had received a call from a
man who purported to have met with Casolaro in Martinsburg on the day
before the death and turned over documents relating to computer
hardware thefts. Dr. Casolaro said that the man was willing to meet
with investigators under the cloak of anonymity. Newsbytes has
confirmed, from multiple sources, the existence of the
contact, a man called "Bill," but has not yet obtained information
concerning the content or the validity of the purported
The so-called "Inslaw Case" began in 1982 when Inslaw signed a $10
million contract to provide an enhanced version of its case tracking
software to the U.S. Department of Justice. According to Inslaw,
shortly after it rebuffed attempts by a company owned by Earl Brian,
a close friend of former US. Attorney General Edwin Meese, to buy
Inslaw, the government stopped its contract payments and eventually
forced the firm into bankruptcy. In January 1988, a federal
bankruptcy judge upheld the claims of Inslaw President William
Hamilton and awarded Inslaw damages of $6.8 million, saying that the
Justice Department has stolen the Promis software by "trickery, fraud
and deceit." A second federal judge later upheld the ruling.
The Justice Dept. continued to appeal the verdicts and, on May 7,
1991, was successful when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the
bankruptcy court had claimed extraordinary and improper jurisdiction
in the case. The court said that Hamilton was free to pursue his
claims in the proper federal court and that the Justice Department's
"conduct, if it occurred, is inexcusable."
During the appeal process, Inslaw broadened its charges to claim that
Iran Contra figures Robert McFarlane and Richard Secord had played a
role is disseminating the software to intelligence agencies of
Israel, Libya, Iraq, South Korea, and Canada. These charges were
substantiated by Ari Ben-Menashe, who claims to be a former Israeli
intelligence officer, Iranian arms dealer Richard Babayan, and
Michael Riconosciuto, who said that he was hired to modify the
software for use in law enforcement and intelligence agencies
Riconosciuto, who was arrested in March of this year and is being
held in the state of Washington, also claimed to be involved in a
now-defunct joint venture between the Wachenhut Corp. of Coral
Gables, FL and the Southern California Cabazon Indian tribe.
According to Riconosciuto's affidavit, the joint venture developed
sophisticated weapons for the Contras. McFarlane and Brian have
denied all charges.
There have also been reports that the software, allegedly used by the
foreign intelligence services for maintaining dissidents, contained a
"Trojan horse" that would allow U.S. security agencies to have
undetected access to the computer system of the foreign agency. It
was also revealed during this time that Inslaw President Hamilton is
a former employee of the National Security Agency (NSA).
As the long appeal process continued, the House Judiciary Committee
under Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) began its own investigation of
the case and became embroiled in a year-long battle with then
Attorney General Richard Thornburgh who refused to turn over Justice
Department documents to the committee. Shortly before Thornburgh's
departure to run for the Senate from Pennsylvania, an agreement was
reached between the committee and the Justice Department on the
release of certain documents and the investigation is now continuing.
During the controversy, another former U.S. Attorney General, Elliot
Richardson, now serving as counsel for Inslaw, said, "Evidence of the
widespread ramifications of the Inslaw case comes from many sources
and keeps accumulating. It remains inexplicable why the Justice
Department refuses to pursue this evidence and resists cooperation
with the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives."
On Wednesday, August 14th, Richardson called for a federal
investigation of Casolaro's death and was quoted as suspecting murder
in the case.
In an interview with Newsbytes, an investigative reporter who has
been tracking Inslaw and related cases for a few years said that he
had met with Casolaro within the last six months and that Casolaro
had no material at that time that the investigative reporter deemed
as new. The reporter, speaking to Newsbytes under the promise of
non-attribution, also said, "I believe that the Justice Department
stole Inslaw's software. I have not seen, however, compelling
evidence to support the charges that it was linked to the so-called
Date: Thu, 21 Mar 91 20:39:31 PST
Subject: File 8--Memes, Gurus, and Viruses
//Moderators' note: Keith Henson wrote the following, and we liked it
so he gave permission to print it. He subtlely addresses the issue of
information processing and power, which directly raises some of the
political and cultural dangers of cyberspace. There are many issues
to develop further here, and we encourage readers to develop them and
send them over//.
The Guru Trap
What Computer Viruses Can Tell Us About Saddam Hussein
(By H. Keith Henson)
Over the past 10 years Iraq started two disastrous wars. Making an
incredible error in judgment, they invaded Iran, a country with almost
three times their population. With Kuwait, they picked a smaller
country, but failed entirely to predict the response from the rest of
the world. They continued to delude themselves, believing that other
countries would not fight, even up to the eve of the ground invasion.
As irrational as their actions were, they were far from unique. Most
wars of this century have similar origins, origins which I propose can
be understood, and perhaps avoided in the future.
Many people hold the informal opinion that Saddam Hussein is insane.
In a company which includes Hitler, Pol Pot, and Jim Jones, I believe
this opinion is technically correct. In my view Saddam is a victim of
a group situational psychosis called "the Guru Trap." The people
around Saddam, and to a lesser extent the whole population of Iraq,
are also direct victims of the group psychosis. The population of
Kuwait and the rest of the world are indirect victims of the effects
of the trap.
I cannot explain how groups of people fall into the Guru Trap without
introducing a number of concepts from memetics. Memetics (from meme,
a word coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins) is the study
of why and how information patterns are replicated in human minds.
The patterns themselves are called memes (rhymes with schemes). You
can think of a meme as an idea (or sometimes a connected set of ideas)
which are passed on from person to person. A passing idea which is
not communicated to another fails to be a meme. A really successful
meme spreads out to vast numbers of human minds, and some memes have
major effects on the behavior of the people so infected.
Consider baseball as a meme. You could determine that a certain
person had (or was infected with) the baseball meme if they were able
to teach a group of children who had never seen baseball to play a
To explain why information is replicated in human minds requires a
little background in human evolution, and the strategies we
large-brained, tool-using primates have used so successfully to spread
all over the world.
However far back this discussion reaches, the goal of understanding
the origin(s) of war is certainly worth the trouble. It is virtually
impossible to make progress on problems we do not understand. It is
historical fact that no significant progress was made in controlling
the epidemics which, time after time, swept over the world until it
was at long last understood that epidemics are caused by
microorganisms. Without an understanding of the root causes of war,
activities we undertake to prevent war are unlikely to have the
desired effect. Demonstrations strike me as about as effective as
praying for relief from the plague in a 14th-century, rat-infested
church, and as likely to succeed.
How should we go about trying to understand the origin of wars? Marvin
Minsky (one of the founders of the field of artificial intelligence)
contends in Society of Mind that the expansion of human knowledge
comes about almost entirely through analogy. I agree with him. We
come to a crude understanding of some phenomenon by saying that it is
similar to something we already understand. We then reduce the
differences between our rough model and what we are trying to
understand by a process of refining. After a while, we may be able to
use our new understanding as an analogy to help understand some new
Another advantage of analogy is that it allows us to roughly
understand problems which are very complex or so close to us that they
are hard to see. Computers (at this stage of their development) are
much simpler than humans. And yet, they are plagued by parasitic
"worms" and "viruses" which share many of the properties of a
dangerous class of memes. These computer parasites are patterns of
information which instruct the computers they find themselves in to
replicate the worms and viruses in ways that will sooner or later
infect another computer. In a very similar fashion, some memes
include explicit or implicit instructions of "teach me to others" (or
sometimes "impose me on others!").
Computer parasites can replicate in computers because computers have
been designed to (among other things) make copies of data and
programs. The parasites take advantage of these features. Some
computer viruses (after a certain number of replications) wipe the
hard disk. That is a fairly close analogy to suicide!
Human minds have been wired up by evolution to copy information as
well. The origin of this skill is apparent in our closest relatives,
the chimpanzees. As Jane Goodall has documented, chimpanzees groups
have primitive cultures. They pass on complex skills such as fishing
for termites which even involve making tools. It takes many years of
imitating, that is, copying the behavior of other chimpanzees, before
a young chimpanzee becomes proficient at living in the wild.
Our line's success in living all over the world is directly dependent
on our ability to pass on a great deal of information about how to
cope with the local environment from one generation to the next. In
other words, the success of humans is dependent on memes, which in the
aggregate constitute culture.
The great majority of the memes we pass from generation to generation
are helpful, just as most data copied by computers is intentional.
These are memes that direct behaviors such as how to chip rocks, make
shoes, or which berries to pick. Other memes, such as tunes and fads,
seem to be mostly harmless. Rumors are another class of sometimes
harmless memes. Long established religions can be considered as
defenses against some harmful memes.
Like computers, our strongest point is also a serious weakness. We can
be infected with memes which (like a computer virus) can do serious
damage to us, kill us, or induce us to kill others. Here the analogy
between computer viruses/computers and memes/humans is limited.
Computers almost never make an error copying a virus; memes,
especially those committed to paper, can be copied into new minds
fairly accurately, but they can also mutate wildly, sometimes at every
transfer. So, a relatively harmless belief (i.e., some complex of
memes) which is passed around in a close group can become more
destructively out of step with reality at each turn. This is
especially true when the memes are cycling between a leader and a
group of followers who for one reason or another are strongly
motivated to please the leader. This is the Guru Trap. (And also the
classic "kill the messenger who brings bad news" problem.)
An example of the distortion information can go through in just one
transfer comes from the example just before the invasion last August.
Saddam asked the US Ambassador if the US had any opinion on the border
dispute between Kuwait and Iraq. The Ambassador said that was
considered an Arab problem, which Saddam took to mean that it didn't
matter to the US if they moved their border over to Saudi Arabia.
Runaway infectious craziness episodes are not too common because
humans and their cultures have evolved some defenses against
pathological accumulations of memes. Laughter is one defense when
someone starts stating ideas wildly out of line with reality. It is
easy to understand why this defense failed to control weird ideas in
Hitler, Pol Pot, or Jim Jones, and hard indeed to imagine someone
laughing (more than once) at one of Saddam's ideas. In some cases,
almost anything the leader utters becomes a meme, is written down, and
transmitted to large numbers of followers.
Just like infectious diseases, Guru Trap episodes seem to be less
common in the more advanced countries of the world. When they do
occur, they tend to be labeled "religious" instead of "political." It
is only preliminary speculation, but "meta- memes" may be involved.
Meta-memes are reasoning skills such as logic and the scientific
method. These "memes-people-use-to-judge-other-memes" are relatively
wide spread in the more advanced countries.
There are several conditions which seem to predispose a leader go fall
into the Guru Trap. A low level of education is one of them. It
seems to be harder for an educated person to accept being worshipped
for very long, perhaps because education conveys to people just how
little they do know. Most examples of the Guru Trap I have noted in
western countries tend to have relatively uneducated followers as
well. There are exceptions; the Rajneesh cult was one.
Economic dislocations seem to be a factor in the rise of some memes.
Nazism originated in an economic hard times; and closely related memes
began to infect more people during recent hard times in the Western
US. There may be very simple reasons, having to do with resentment
against "them" for job loss, combined with a lot of idle time to
contract an information disease.
I suspect that exposure to a lot of modern advertizing may raise a
population's resistance to being sucked into the Guru Trap. A
culturally uniform population should be more susceptible than a
heterogeneous one for the same reasons a heterogeneous genetic
population is less susceptible to being wiped out by epidemic disease.
It is a common occurrence for leaders and followers deep in the Guru
Trap to become lawless. The central meme(s) they are infected with
become so important in their minds that matters of legal conduct drop
out of their consideration. This seems to be an almost universal
problem with gurus and their followers in intense "cult"-type
situations. Lawlessness by a small cult leads to the legal process
being invoked, a fairly common end to many small-scale cults. This
was the fate of the LaRouche cult. On the nation-state scale,
lawlessness eventually provokes a response from other nations.
Because the system was primed by the example of Hitler, the response
came sooner rather than later for Saddam.
Intense positive feedback in guru-trap situations leads to memes that
get entirely out of step with reality. This makes leaders (and
groups) in the trap unpredictable. Hitler's successes and later
downfall were both dependent on making illogical (and therefore
unexpected) military moves. The blitzkrieg through a forest against
France was unorthodox--and worked. Opening a second front by
attacking the Soviet Union, and then dithering till winter set in to
go after Moscow was monumentally stupid. It would not have been
tolerated by his generals except for the fact that Hitler's previous
unorthodox orders had worked.
Saddam's behavior in occupying and trying to hold Kuwait against the
forces which took it back was pathologically divorced from reality.
This is an effect of circular information flow. Real information on
the state of his military machine, especially after being mauled from
the air, was either not presented or not believed by Saddam. I
suspect that as you got closer to the bottom of the hierarchy the true
conditions became more and more apparent. If they had not been
worried about reprisals on their families back home, the Iraqi troops
might well have given up before the ground assault. (Some did
The end game of a nation-state Guru Trap varies. Sometimes, as
happened to the USSR, the original guru(s) hang on till they die and
are replaced. Eventually information started leaking into the system
>from outside. A society divorced from physical and social reality
falls further and further behind societies which are not trapped. It
was the discovery of the true economic state of the Soviet Union by
Gorbachev which kicked off glasnost and perestroika. From what one
can see at this distance, Gorbachev has managed to stay out of the
Guru Trap, a feat which impresses me as much as anything else he has
In other cases, reality comes down hard, as in bombs and artillery
shells. One class of response is the "Gotterdamerung" response: "if
I can't be the guru, nobody else will either." Hitler and the Rev. Jim
Jones took that route. Once it became unavoidable knowledge that they
were going to be beaten, Hitler ordered the entire country wrecked.
He was thwarted by Albert Speer, who felt guilty at the time for not
obeying his guru. Hitler ended his days with poison and a gun in a
The Jim Jones affair came to a similar end. A US senator showed up to
investigate reported gruesome conditions in a cult in the jungle.
After having the senator shot, Jones ordered a long- rehearsed mass
suicide, where over 900 people drank poison and died. (Jones took
poison, but shot himself before it had time to act.)
This is not the only possible outcome, but it is a likely one given
Saddam's history. If Saddam does not end his days like Hitler and Jim
Jones, he may be tried and possibly hanged by a Nuremberg-type court.
However, if I were in charge of his defense, I would try to get him
off as insane, a victim of his own brutal and unstable nature and the
overpowering amplification of the Guru Trap. (It probably wouldn't
work, but it might get the "meme about memes" more widely known.)
Perhaps an understanding of memetics would permit organizations,
including governments, to watch for emerging Guru Trap situations.
They might issue "memetic epidemic warnings" reports for places around
the world the way the Center for Disease Control does for cholera. If
we were able to see dangerous conditions emerging, we might be able to
take reasoned and effective actions before a war grows out of a Guru
Trap gone lawless. Even if we cannot take positive actions, at least
we would know which emerging gurus we should quit helping. (Though it
might not have helped in the case of Saddam. There were about 2-1/2
Guru Traps going in adjacent countries, and it was not obvious at the
time which were the most dangerous.)
Understanding memetics and the Guru Trap gives me more of an
appreciation of the empirical progress we made in creating good
government. It has been a very long time since a western democracy
went to war with another western democracy. When they do go to war,
it usually requires considerable provocation. This was true even in
the case of Vietnam. Not the Gulf of Tonkin event, the provocation
was in the form of the grisly stories which came from the people who
fled from North Vietnam when those infected with the local version of
the Marxist-Leninist meme took over. (For extra credit the reader can
do a memetic analysis of the Vietnam war. Use at least three
meme-infected groups and two Guru Traps in the analysis.)
The knowledge that epidemics are caused by microorganisms allowed us
to control them. In the last hundred years we have come a long way
toward keeping germs out of people through sanitation and clean water.
We have also built up resistance to germs by vaccinating people. The
result has been a massive reduction in human misery.
If, as I have proposed here, most wars are an outcome of a Guru Trap,
a similar reduction in human misery could come about from an
understanding of memetics and human vulnerability to memes. Educating
people about these topics should raise the resistance of leaders and
followers alike to being sucked into the Guru Trap. It is my hope
that the conditions leading to wars could be detected early, or better
yet, never happen.
Mr. Henson is a local hardware/software consultant. He has been
infected by a number of memes including the space colony meme which
originated with Dr. O'Neill of Princeton in the early '70s, the
nanotechnology/cryonics meme reported on in West Magazine recently,
and, of course, the meme about memes. He is a founder of the L5
Society, a Senior member of IEEE, and has been widely published on a
number of topics--including memes.
End of Computer Underground Digest #3.31
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank