Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Art of Invisibility

The Art of Invisibility: The World's Most Famous Hacker Teaches You How to Be Safe in the Age of Big Brother and Big Data
© 2017 Kevin Mitnick
320 pages

So, you want to be invisible online? Great. All you'll need is three separate computers -- one for your top secret business, one for your banking, and one for your everyday use; a few new email addresses,  a handful of burner phones, a large pile of cash to buy gift cards and electronics without leaving a credit trace, a slightly larger pile if you intend on paying strangers to buy said cards and electronics for you,  an ability to habitually lie, and the concentration of a criminal mastermind to remember which accounts you're using on which computer so you never accidentally blend your Top Secret identity with your real one. Child's play.

Kevin Mitnick knows a thing  or two about the necessity and the difficulty of staying invisible. He spent two and a half years as a fugitive from the FBI, wanted for hacking, unauthorized access, and wire fraud. These days he works as a security consultant,  and in The Art of Invisibility he provides a point-by-point tour of the surveillance web created by the internet and telecommunications infrastructure. There are also specialized chapters on surveillance in the workplace, and maintaining privacy while traveling abroad.  Mitnick's survey and advice have at least two audiences:  most of the book can be appreciated by a technologically savvy and privacy-minded individual who wants to know more, while a smaller but not insignificant portion of the book, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent,  would be of interest to the truly paranoid.

Although Mitnick does cover material would be a given to those with an interest in security --  don't use public WIFI networks for banking or other sensitive business, even if they're password-protected, that kind of thing -- most of his information is less elementary. He's thorough, explaining how tools like email and hardware encryption work,  where they're vulnerable, and why they're useful.   The Tor browser  is a mainstay of recommendation, as it allows users to be relatively anonymous and evade filters that restrict access in territories controlled by authoritarian states like China by redirecting the user's activity across a series of nodes. The nodes chosen are random, and it's possible to encounter a node controlled by surveying authorities. If a person uses Tor on the same computer and accesses the same accounts as they normally do, however, then if they're under active surveillance by someone their token efforts at anonymity are for naught.  People in witness protection can't go to family reunions, and those who want remain invisible can't muddle their identities together. If you want to have an email account and use Tor,  Mitnick advises, then use Tor and create a new email account. The same concept applies across communication technologies: Mitnick was caught in the 1990s because despite using multiple cell phones, he was using them in the same location (a motel room), and thereby connecting to the same cell tower every single time -- allowing  the FBI to collaborate with the local telecom to get a fix on their man.

The Art of Invisibility is far more comprehensive and helpful than Mitnick's previous books on intrusion and social engineering.  Mitnick offers his exhaustive tour of vulnerabilities not to scare readers into retreating to a monastery, but to point out -- this is what you're up against, this is what you can do about it, this is where you'll still be weak. Like a security consultant's tour of your home, The Art of Invisibility shakes expectations, and disturbs the illusion of safety -- while at the same timeVanishingly few people are capable of taking all of Mitnick's advice: even he doesn't. He leaves the decision to the reader how best to integrate this information with their own practices. Everyone can benefit from better cyber-security hygiene, even if it's something as basic as keeping your cellphone locked, running adblock to disable malicious scripts on websites,  and keeping SmartTvs that never stop listening to you out of your house.


Sunday, June 24, 2018


© 2015 Ernest Cline
368 pages

“Where are you going?” Cruz said over the comm. “Protect the Icebreaker, dumb ass!” 
“Sorry, Cruz!” I said, pushing my throttle forward. “But you’ll never guess who just showed up. Leeeeeeroyyy—”
 “Oh, Lightman, don’t you even dare!” 

Zack Lightman thought he was going crazy. Not only was there an alien spacecraft hovering above his school, but it was a spacecraft from a video game. If he was going crazy, it was a special kind of crazy -- the kind of crazy that his long-dead father had gone, he being the man who built elaborate conspiracy theories that involved Men in Black creating Star Wars and raiding video arcades.   But Lightman wasn't going crazy.  Earth really was being invaded, and the aliens from his video games weren't fictional.

Armada is another fun SF novel from Ernest Cline, one with lots of science fiction and video game references, but not the sustained geekery, of Ready Player One. Lightman (and I went the entire novel before picking up on the Wargames reference in his name)'s first response to seeing the not-so-fictional alien spaceship is to swear off playing  Armada, the SF flight simulator he and his friends play together as they defend Earth from drones sent by squid-like aliens. But Armada turns out to have been a government-funded project to train unwitting civilians for a war they knew was coming.  While the truth is hard to believe, the voice of Carl Sagan -- who recorded the first announcement that  other life in the universe had been discovered,  who also warned that first contact had gone aly and Earth itself might be danger -- sways him over. With a little help from his friends, Lightman goes to war, playing his favorite game but for real this time. But...if it's real, why does it continue to feel....orchestrated? 

Take Ender's Game, mix evenly with Contact, with  a splash of Redshirts and you have a novel that definitely kept me entertained.  Armada is much lighter in its subject than Ready Player One, since no one really believes Earth will be destroyed by aliens. Imperiled, sure. At the end we may safely expect death and damage, particularly to landmarks and symbolic government buildings, but it's a rare author who actually destroys all life as we know it.  Ready Player One featured a real-world threat, that of a person losing themselves in fantasy to the expense of everything else, and it was one that wasn't resolved by the novel wrapping up. Armada is a much more straightforward adventure, with its own Ender's Game-like twist.

*** I hit the floor laughing at this scene. For the uninitiated,  in May 2005 a video was posted from World of Warcraft in which an elaborate multiplayer plan  was hilariously ruined by one player -- "LEEEEEEROOYYY JENKINS!" going rogue action hero on everyone.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Forgotten Founders

America's Forgotten Founders
© 2011 ed. Gary Gregg II
185 pages

After reading several thoughtful full-length biographies in this series, I expected the same quality in miniature from this collection. That is not the case at all; after a lengthy opening essay on what constitutes a founding father, and why some are forgotten and others not, the reader is treated to ten brief articles about revolutionary-area personalities. Some of these men are unequivocally  not forgotten, like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine. A few others are more obscure, but the information included here is so slight that one could just as well read any entry in a biographical dictionary about them. I liked the organization of each article: a biographical sketch, an outline of their chief contributions, and an excerpt of their writing. There's just not enough content here. One gentleman's writing excerpt is the Preamble of the Constitution. The full-length volumes in this series, particularly American Cicero and The Cost of Liberty are much more helpful.

The men considered:  James Wilson, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, Roger Sherman, John Marshall, John Dickinson, Tom Paine, Patrick Henry, and John Witherspoon. According to the introduction, many names were submitted and considered, but the editor chose the names which were suggested most often. The native American and female contributors teased at in the introduction don't actually get sketches.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


© 2006 Daniel Suarez
444 pages


When a incomparable programming genius known for his immersive games and uncanny AI dies, his greatest creation awakes.  A sophisticated program running in the background begins putting into action a plan that will remain unknown to the reader throughout most of the novel, hidden except for when its actions result in death or global panic.  So begins a technological thriller, featuring a faceless enemy which grows more daunting by the moment as it steadily increases its power, imposing a new technological order over a world that has grown too complex for its own good. The world is to be reprogrammed, and resistance is futile.

The kernel of Daemon's story is that a doomed genius (Matthew Sobol) once courted by the NSA created a program which scanned the news for announcement of his death, and then began a hostile takeover of anything powered by silicon chips. Effecting the deaths of opponents, recruiting human agents through a video game, taking over computerized systems and using their resources for its own expansion, it lurks in the background  except for when it issues press releases to manipulate public reaction. The Daemon's greatest strength is that it is a distributed program, a global botnet;  it has no master server to destroy, no switch which can be thrown. The Daemon is autonomous, persistent, and pervasive. When it sends instructions to its human agents through wireless headsets, it concentrates its demands for action into YES/NO prompts. While Sobol presumably could have created an AI that can parse spoken sentences, the nature of this machine-human communication makes the Dameon seem like an alien intelligence, instead of a naughty instance of Alexa.

As the story progresses, readers encounter a pair of battered men who are trying to unravel the Daemon and expose it, as well as a few individuals who come agents of the Daemon.  The Daemon entices them in different ways, each according to their ambitions:  a sociopathic identity thief finds his calling in enlisting to the machine's service  as its greatest champion, the  Sauron to its Morgoth (or the Saruman to its Sauron, but without the initial resistance), and a criminal is given freedom, and a frustrated TV tabloid reporter is given the chance to become a Serious Journalist.  All they have to do is listen to the remorseless voice in their head and follow its instructions. The Daemon's ability to manipulate systems grows throughout the novel, to the point where it controls physical infrastructure producing autonomous weaponized vehicles.

I had no idea that this book was written in 2006, as the amount of now mundane electronic control within it is perfectly in sync with our own world. The only clue that this novel had a few years on it was the Daemon's inability to parse complete sentences, but as mentioned that actually helped reinforced the Daemon's other-ness.  Daemon is an unnerving thriller, one capable of unsettling the reader with the kind of world we're headed into, in which authentic freedom and privacy are as impossible as Triceratops flank steaks.  As successful a thriller as it is, Daemon also succeeds in raising questions about how politics, society, and the economy will be transformed by ubiquitous networking;  although it only offers a glimpse into early disruption,  one can't help but think that the present state of affairs will be as alien in a century as early 19th century agrarian society is to our own.

Sidenote:  Sobol was known for a World War 2 shooter and a game in which one opens the gates of hell. Sounds kiiiiiiiiiinda like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.  Considering that Sobol's company was named CyberStorm, I wonder if he was inspired by John Romero -- cocreator of the two programs mentioned above, and founder of a company called Ion Storm. (See Masters of Doom).

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Summer TBR

This week, the Artsy Reader Girl inquires: whaddya reading at the beach? Or this summer, anyway.  This was to have gone up yesterday, but what's 24 hours between friends?

1. Something in American lit, because I'm...a little behind on my Classics Club participation, and I like to do something to celebrate Independence Day. I'll probably finish The Sun Also Rises, which I've been grudgingly picking my way through.

2. The Invaders, some speculative anthropological history that posits the Neanderthals fell because we had man's best friend and they didn't.

3. How to Watch TV News, Neil Postman. I ordered the "updated" version of 2008, with a supplement by another author.

4. The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future . At the beginning of the year I posted a list of ten titles I hoped to read in 2018, and the rest were finished by April.

5. The Essential Russell Kirk.  Kirk is an extraordinary author, who I first read in disagreement but quickly realized had an intelligent, principled perspective that I could learn from even if I remained unconvinced.

6. The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology. Robert Wright.

7. How the Post Office Created America, Winifred Gallagher. This one is intended as one of my 'celebrating America' books, set for around Independence Day.

8. Seeing Further: The Story of Science and the Royal Society, Bill Bryson. History of science and Bill Bryson? Say no more.

9. Forgotten Founders, ed. Gary L. Gregg II, Mark David Hall. Biographical articles about long-forgotten founding figures of the former federation (sorry),  including women and at least one native American.  Also Indendence Day reading, but continuing in a series that I've been reading the last few Independence Days. Full works in this series have included: American Cicero, Forgotten Founder & Drunken Prophet The Cost of Liberty, and (almost) Founding Federalist.  I didn't finish that last one last year because I was reading too much about the Constitutional Convention all at once.

10. The Network: The Battle for the Airwaves and the Birth of the Communications Age, Scott Woolley. 

Fire and Blood

Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico
 © 1973 T.R. Fehrenbach
675 pages

Fire and Blood is an epic history of Mexico, one that begins at the dawn of time and takes its time moving on.  Case in point: the 20th century is addressed in the last 10% of the book.   If nothing else, Fehrenbach should be lauded for a historical survey that focuses more on the past rather than the recently-expired present.  Fire and Blood is dauntingly comprehensive, taking no shortcuts; not only are the cultures of the Aztecs and Maya plumbed, but when the 16th century arrives Fehrenbach pauses to render a history of the Spanish empire, and readers are continually fed with changes on its evolution as they affect Mexico.  The arrival of the Spanish is a pivotal moment,  as they destroyed the old tribal order -- and imperial order, while easy to declare, was  harder to realize.  A dominant theme within the book is a search for Mexican identity, and it begins with the Spanish disruption.  Spanish authorities organized their new domain into a multitude of racial castes, with varying privileges and duties depending on whether one was a Spaniard born in Spain, a Spaniard born on the peninsula, or racially mixed in some way. Over time, and especially after the Spanish empire collapsed of its own corruption with Napoleonic assistance,  the mixed Spanish-and-Native population was dominant,  but even so Mexico still writhed trying to create social, economic, and political order for itself. Some wanted a republic, some a monarchy; some wanted to destroy the Church utterly, some to embrace it.  Struggles over land a la the brothers Gracchai also drove politics.  All this turmoil tended to produce autocratic leaders, not principled democrats,  and even once democracy had established itself one political party held sway.

Prose-wise, Fire and Blood is approachable history; the history itself, however, as the title indicates, is harsh, unforgiving, and often violent.  It took me several weeks to finish, with frequent breaks,  because the constant strife seemed relentless.  The content an style make this a valuable resource for those interested in learning about the roots of Mexican culture, however.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Switch

The Switch
© 2017 Joseph Finder
384 pages

Picture this. You're a senatorial aide whose boss is technologically illiterate enough to be dangerous. The senator's MacBook, containing information that was never supposed to leave the Senate offices,  has been inadvertently switched with someone else's at an airport security checkpoint.  The guy who mistook the senator's MacBook for his knows something is screwy, because when you tried to get it back you pretended to be someone else. Your  clumsy attempt to hire an bagman from the Dark Net backfired when the target got nervous and ran over your employee.   Now you're thinking this hapless owner of a failing coffee company is some sort of criminal mastermind, and he thinks he's being targeted by some cold-blooded Agent Smith type at Fort Meade.  In reality, you're both goofballs not taken seriously by their wives and bosses,  who have manged to turn an innocent mistake into a light action thriller which is accidentally funny, despite pitting secret government goons on opposing sides trying to kill a nice buffoon of a main character.

The Switch  is...extremely light reading -- basically,  what might happen if James Patterson tried a novel with cybersecurity and surveillance themes. I  was often entertained by it, sometimes in ways not intended by the author.  I would probably try the author again to see if  the quality varies, but only for the mental equivalent of a lazy morning on the couch.  I like the general premise of this novel, but the execution was often bizaare: one journalist character claims to have gotten Hillary Clinton's oatmeal cookie recipe from their whistleblower dropbox, and an NSA character refers to a flashdrive as something like a thingamabob. He was wearing cowboy boots and flannel at the time.  I only got through that scene by pretending the NSA guy was playing some bizarre mind game with the main character that required him to pretend to be an insidious country bumpkin who can also delete all of your from Google, Facebook,  and even your favorite craft beer website. (I'd wager a bottle of IPA that Finder has watched The Net at some point and thought it was worth borrowing liberally from.)

In short, The Switch is kind of like the Rush Hour movies -- kind of preposterous, but entertaining.

Monday, June 18, 2018

50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True

50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True
© 2011 Guy Harrison
458 pages

"Just because it's vivid, detailed, and expressed with confidence and emotion...doesn't mean it's true."

Chances are you know someone who harbors what you know to be irrational beliefs, and chances are they hold the same opinion about you. It isn't easy to stay sober with a monkey brain trying to impose order on the chaos of life,  sometimes mesmerizing itself with its own fiction.  50 Popular Beliefs consists of an introduction, fifty brief essays debunking various icons of culture from ghosts to horoscopes, and a conclusion.  Those who count themselves skeptics already will find no surprises, and should not anticipate anything that will add greatly to their own knowledge, like The Demon Haunted World or Why People Believe Weird Things. This is straightforward debunking, along with some information on how we are so easy to fool -- especially when we're fooling ourselves. The ideal audience is people who regard themselves as well-informed and appropriately skeptical, but who are exposed to some ideas so often that they're wanting confirmation that yes, horoscopes really are BS.

While many of the essays address areas of constant skeptic scorn -- astrology, homeopathy, ancient aliens, Area 51,  Holocaust denial --  Guy Harrison also covers matters that aren't low-hanging fruit, like the value of television and the dimensions of race. He explores race as a concept, then some stereotypes about it in regards to sports and intelligence. The pieces have a strong personal flavor, as Harrison uses his own experiences to try to understand those of others, and he attempts to experiment directly when he can. For instance, in the chapter on psychics he successfully cold-reads someone, and in the chapter on faith healing he attends a Benny Hinn performance. The pieces are sometimes too short to do their topic service, which I think will expose them to "what about" rebuttals as believers present similar convictions from a slightly different angle  Not every article has the same length, however;  Harrison is partcularly passionate about the veracity of the Moon landings and that essays goes on for a bit rebutting the various arguments for their being a fraud.

The most valuable part of 50 Beliefs, personally, are its resources for extended reading. I saw more than a few titles in here which I'd either long forgotten about or had never heard of at all.  Harrison has written more in this genre, but I'm more interested in Brian Dunning's new book dissecting conspiracies or The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe's  October release of a book using their name.

Saturday, June 16, 2018


Star Trek Typhon Pact: Brinksmanship
© 2012 Una McCormack
352 pages

Who's up for the Cuban Missile spaaaaaaace? When an otherwise friendly nation on the borders of the Federation and two of its allies signs a treaty with a hostile power, allowing them bases for repair and refueling along the Federation border,  Starfleet is understandably concerned -- and doubly so when news arrives that a fleet is enroute to supply the bases for their new tenants, carrying chemicals that could be used in biogenic warfare attacks on the Federation. While the USS Enterprise speeds to meet with the Space Cubans to work the diplomatic angle, the USS Aventime is dispatched to do a little friendly snooping near the proposed base nearest the Federation border.   When the Cardassians -- who, along with the Ferengi are the other two threatened allies --  arrive ready for war, and the Space Cubans catch wind of possible spies inserted in their country, events begin to spiral out of control, heading towards a war that no one wants but no one seemingly can avoid.  But the drama unfolding in open view is only the smoke and mirrors for another maneuver,  one that is using parties on both sides.

I bought this book a couple of years back,  intrigued by the possible historical parallels and interested in a book which includes both Picard and Dax.   The primary appeal of the book is learning about the Tzenkethi, who along with the Breen were pretty much black holes before the Typhon Pact series began. Romulans, we know, love, and fear;  while the Gorn and Tholians can be wrapped up in primal fears about reptiles and insects, respectively.   The Tzenkethi are presented as a very stable, very hierarchical society who have a natural affinity for the Space Cubans, another stable and hierarchical society.  The Tzenkethi view the Federation as some kind of chaos monster, however, the epitome of their every social fear:  it's all argument,  class-and-racial intermixing, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!  Who can tell what they'll do, what new planet will sudden fall under their spell?   

Having read beyond this series, I knew that no epic war between the Federation and the Typhon Pact broke out, so the drama was largely dampened for me. I assumed the drama would keep ramping up until something happened out of left field to defuse things,  and that's more or less what happens. Still, it's nice to see Picard being the commanding diplomat again, and I'll never say no to a story with Ezri Dax and her ship,  in part because the Relaunch developed her in such a commendable way -- turning the awkward 20-something shrink of 2000 into the Captain on the Bridge, and in part because the Aventine looks much different than the other Starfleet ships and I 'm ever curious about it.

Friday, June 15, 2018


© 2013 Corey Doctorow
400 pages

Two years ago, an innocent teenager was swept up on the streets and thrown into a blacksite prison run by the Department of Homeland Security. Initially a suspect for being near the scene of an explosion, Marcus Yallow's refusal to unlock his phone or give DHS his access codes for his computer and email made him an object of special abuse for the people running this illicit site -- and their abuse turned him into a revolutionary, determined to  throw a light on government malfeasance and restore privacy through technological and political means.   Now Marcus is approached by an old ally under tense circumstances, and handed a drive that contains a key unlocking 4 gigs of explosive information  -- information that she wants shared if she happens to disappear.   Her paranoid proves to have been justified, and Marcus finds himself with a choice.  What dark secrets are buried in those 810,000 files -- and what will happen when &; if he lets them lose on the internet?

Since the events of Little Brother,  martial law in San Francisco is over, but the city is still deteriorating. Unemployment, foreclosures, and bankruptcy plague the city,  even affecting Marcus' own parents.  His new job  as the resident tech guru for an independent political candidate is one of the few bright areas on the horizon, but being linked to some new WikilLeaks-style dump might spell the end of that. Homeland addresses most of the same issues as Little Brother in the same way,  including the passages where Marcus explains his security precautions to the reader -- how he partitions a drive, creates virtual machines to run programs without exposing his files,  that sort of thing. The greatest difference between Little Brother and Homeland is that in in the first book, Marcus  believes the problem can be solved politically, that the wrong people are in office. In Homeland, however, Marcus has seen the "good" president since elected prove himself an ally, not an enemy, of the surveillance & police state.  Although Marcus never in as dire straights as the first book -- despite being  kidnapped by goons once, arrested once, and nearly stampeded several times as he participants in an Occupy San Francisco protest that grows ever-bigger by the day -- this is still a thriller, one with some interesting side trails like the Burning Man event and a guest appearance by Wil Wheaton. As with Little Brother, the book has a couple of essays at the back -- this time on the importance of activism, and for the same reason that Marcus continues struggling even though there's no winning. To do nothing is to cede the field to complete subjugation and defeat.

If someone were curious about this series, reading only Little Brother would be safe. Homeland does teach its readers to put not their trust in princes, a lesson anyone should take to heart.  I'm personally ten years sober from believing in any politicians. There are a few I admire -- chiefly, Rand Paul, who doesn't just criticize FISA and unlawful drone assassinations, but has actively filibustered against them -- but even if he were put into the office of president I would expect him to be immediately warped by it.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Rebel Dawn

Star Wars Han Solo Trilogy Vol III: Rebel Dawn
© 1998 A.C. Crispin
400 pages

Rebel Dawn is the final volume in the "Han Solo" trilogy, a volume that stands more as an immediate prequel to the original Star Wars movie than a novel solely about Han.    At its beginning, Solo is on top of the world;  his new ship has him ahead of the other smugglers,  he can't walk into a room without gathering female attention, and he's raking in the cash. At its end, Solo has  been betrayed and unwittingly duped, made into an outcast with a bounty on his head, desperate for anything that will pay off his enemies and keep him alive.   And in the middle...well, that's mostly someone else's story.   Rebel Dawn takes side trails in previous novels and brings them front and center here - -chiefly,   competition between two major Hutt clans that threatens to turn into civil war, and Han's old flame uniting disparate groups into one Rebellion -- one whose seed money can be had by sacking the place where she was once a slave, the place where she and Solo's love was as they fought an insidious slave racket, one that used ecstatic drugs and religion to keep captives working of their own free will.  But Brea loves the fight more than she loves Han, and that will put him into a seedy cantina looking for fares.

Rebel Dawn conlcudes a series which is mostly light-adventure, not to be taken too seriously. The writing definitely had weaknesses in the form of awkward dialogue.  I enjoyed the character of Brea -- Han's old flame and the leader of the rebellion -- the most, and Crispin's treatment of the Hutts and Boba Fett were also appealing.  Imagine Jabba the Hutt as a sympathetic character!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Hutt Gambit

The Han Solo Trilogy, Vol II: The Hutt Gambit
© 1997 A.C. Crispin
352 pages

At the end of The Paradise Snare, Han Solo was a heartbroken man moving on with his life, doing his best to forget  about the woman who left him with a "Dear John" letter as he entered the pilot academy and the service of the Empire.  As The Hutt Gambit opens, readers realize how short-lived both Solo's tenure in the Imperial Navy and his determination to avoid romantic entanglements were: not only has he been cashiered from the service and blacklisted from commercial piloting, but he can't move to a planet without falling in love again.  Turning again to that faithful standby, a life of crime, Solo begins working for the Hutts and acquiring the money and reputation he needs to make it as as first-rate smuggler. Too bad the Empire has decided to slag his and other smugglers' favorite retreat, Nar Shadaa.   The Hutt Gambit serves a steady course of light action-adventure that builds Solo's character, introducing him to Jabba, Lando, the Falcon, and even Boba Fett, and ends with a desperate attempt by the smugglers to stave off an Imperial attack fleet. Fortunately it's one of older ships, left by a man who is both hesitant to commit genocide and very susceptible to bribes.  I thought the ending was contrived, to say the least, but enjoyed the characterization given to both the Hutts and Boba Fett, who -- in a nod to Return to the Jedi -- does a low pass over the Sarlaac pit while visiting Tatooine, unwittingly walking over his own grave.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Little Brother

Little Brother
© 2008 Corey Doctorow
380 pages

Following the destruction of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, a nightmare begins for a high school student who is scooped up by police in the aftermath. Not only has one of his friends been seriously wounded, but Marcus'  presence near the bridge and his suspicious computer equipment make him a person of interest to the authorities, doubly so when he refuses to unlock or decrypt his devices and information for them.  If he’s innocent, he has nothing to hide, right? But Marcus has been rebelling before this,  mostly to elude his school’s draconian security measures. and his initial stubbornness turns into revolutionary resolve when he realizes  that the authorities are not merely mistaken: they are malevolent. He seems doomed in the police state that San Francisco has become overnight, where the demonization of any dissent alienates Marcus from his family and friends,  but there are other allies waiting in the wings, and they and his own resolve will spur him on.

So begins Little Brother, a man vs state story that combines the alienation and surveillance of 1984 with modern cybersecurity tools.  At its best, Little Brother is a technologically savvy thriller,  a defiant championing of civil liberties amid the war on terror,  and a call to arms to readers to get serious about learning to defend themselves against abuse.  This continues after the novel: there are several essays included after the story on the nature of security. At its worst,  the arguments are one-sided, with only one attempt at mutual understanding.  The security apparatus of the State is so extensive, however – both in the story in real life – that I can’t seriously begrudge Doctorow just wanting to fire up righteous indignation.  Easily my favorite aspect of Little Brother was the pervasive cybersecurity information: Marcus doesn't just do things, but as a narrator he's conscious that he's speaking to an audience, and explains how encryption or whatever is he's doing at the moment works.  Winston's intelligence as cyberpunk rebel extends not only to tech, but to the nature of resistance: he realizes that certain tactics will only strengthen the government's hand against him, so the trick is to find ways to keep them off balance -- sometimes by appearing to retreat.

Little Brother is an exceptional read, a smart thriller that takes its teen readers seriously. If you are concerned about the status of civil liberties across the world, the surveillance state,  or curious about how tech can both amplify and mitigate the problem, it's one to take a look at.

The story's use of a couple of young dissidents who fall in love underground reminded me strongly of a song called "By Morning" by folk-punk songwriter Evan Greer. He wrote it in tribute to several young people who were imprisoned on charges of terrorism for  harassing an animal testing lab. The song begins at 1:15.

And if they come for us by morning, with that "knock knock" on the door --
I'll hold you a little closer as they reach the second floor
And if I have to give my name, know I won't be giving yours
I'll run my hands through your hair, say it's them that's really scared
Because they know love is stronger than their bars can ever be.

  • 1984, George Orwell. Little Brother is commonly referred to as "1984 for the 21st century", which is a gross exaggeration. Even so, Little Brother makes numerous hat-tips to Orwell's dystopia beyond the surveilliance state:  one of Marcus' online pseudonyms is pronounced "Winston", for instance. 
  • No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald The story  of Edward Snowden and the surveillance apparatus of the NSA. 

Friday, June 8, 2018


Replay: The History of Video Games
© 2010 Tristian Donovan
501 pages

Video games emerged in the late 20th century as a completely novel form of entertainment.  Replay recounts the history of how programming experiments and text-based adventures were transformed first into a new hobby with widespread juvenile appeal, then a serious platform for storytelling, and then ..became ubiquitous.

This Replay is comprehensive, covering consoles, arcade machines, and home computers; it is also international, examining games/platform developments in Japan, Korea, Russia, France, and England. Donovan moves chronologically through the development of early computers and game programs associated with them,  their spinoff invention of gaming consoles, and the establishment of video games as art and entertainment. By the early nineties, video games encompassed such a wide variety of genres that the author examines the development of different genres -- role-playing games, first-person shooters,  simulations, etc --  as they emerged and grew popular. He pays special attention to particular machines and games that transformed the industry --   Ultima and GTA3,  the Atari and the Wii, and also includes information on business rivalries (Nintendo v Sega) and the drama of software firms falling out with one another. It culminates with the arrival of games on smartphones, though that era -- the current one -- is only introduced, not delved into itself. Many more games and platforms are addressed in the book, of course, and it is appended with an extensive list of influential titles.

While Replay is a straightforward history of how the software and hardware developed,  it also steps back and looks at the larger picture, pointing out how the games grew with their users: successive platforms advertised themselves to teenagers and adults, trying to shed the image of videogames as merely for kids.  Gaming in general has gone back and forth on plot vs action:   while one might dismiss DOOM and Wolfstenstein 3D as primitive shoot-em-ups  that were later surpassed by shooters with more developed plots, like Half-Life,  in reality DOOM's designers  were rejecting a tendency in earlier games to take themselves too seriously by returning to sheer, unbridled action. DOOM guy  didn't have a personality: he existed to mow down demons from hell. Users also grew with their games: part of the interest for game designers was that they could rewire players brains by putting them into positions and confronting them with choices that they would never encounter in their real lives.  Will Wright, for instance, co-founded a company whose original intent was educational games -- but he did so through "software toys", games that were fun, but also taught players how intricate systems like an antbed or a city functioned.  Wright's company promoted a feature of PC games that made them especially popular: customization.   DOOM allowed players to create their own maps, but even before The Sims had shipped, Maxis had already made tools available for people to create their own clothing, wallpaper, and floors in the game. Later the game was opened to custom objects (for the homeowner who wants a decorative cannon, say), and both the original game and all of its successors have promoted user-created content through their Sims Exchanges. Customization isn't merely about expanding the game:  as a teen, I marveled at the stories of people who became interested 3D modeling because of their tinkering with The Sims mods or crafting Civilization III units.  Donovan mentions that games have also become the stuff of independent creative ventures: people use video taken from gameplay to create stories, and function as "actors" in the game to get the shots they need.

While its subject is games, Replay is fairly serious about the subject -- it's not a "fun" read like Masters of Doom, but those who have a real interest in games as an industry and hobby will appreciate its heft. I noticed minor errors sprinkled in (a reference to "Richard" Heinlein as a prominent SF author, say), but nothing too substantial.

Masters of Doom, David Kushner

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ready Player One

Ready Player One
© 2011 Ernest Cline
354 pages
Audible presentation read by Wil Wheaton,
runtime 15 hr 46 min

Who knew that School House Rock could save the world?  When an eccentric genius dies and leaves a will laden with eighties pop culture references, the entire world is called to an epic adventure. The mission: to find an Easter Egg within his creation, the world's most popular massively multiplayer experience, the Oasis. Completing the quest -- deciphering clues to find keys that will lead to other clues and finally to the prize itself -- will earn the winner half a trillion dollars as well as control over the game itself.   The premise is intriguing; the execution is a glorious triumph of geek culture starring a poor orphan who unwittingly becomes a global hero.

We enter a future where the 'real world' is increasingly dismal, decaying under  a Great Recession that has lasted decades, largely fueled by...the lack of fuel, because the oil age is over. Poverty and overpopulation are both extreme,  forcing people to live in cobbled-together skyscrapers made of stacks of trailers. That's where our main character Wade Watts is from.  But there is an escape -- the Oasis, a kind of communal holodeck in which different planets allow people to have adventures in different kinds of worlds: there are fantasy environments for swords-and-potions questing as well as science fiction ones in which players might do their adventures from the Starship Enterprise. Wade, for instance,  goes by the Oasis name of Parzival and does his questing in either an X-Wing or Serenity. There are user-created worlds, too: imagine the Oasis not only as a mass gameworld, but one like the internet which is constantly being expanded by its users.  People lose themselves in it utterly through haptic suits that allow them to 'experience' what they're seeing in-game; one character doesn't leave his real-world apartment for over six months, because he doesn't have to. He can order real-world food delivery through the Oasis.

Although there is appeal in seeing the technological developments of this world, Ready Player One's attractive genius lays in the sheer abundance of geekery. It's incredible that so many references to various classic video games, eighties movies and music, and science fiction can be worked into to so small a book without becoming distracting, but it somehow works. One minute players are dancing to eighties music, the next they're being assaulted by a hit squad with laser weapons and then rescued by a wizard named Og the Great and Powerful. This book isn't just fun: if you're a gamer who also shares some of the creator's interests (and they are many), it's a ball.   The quest's actual demands and latent demands are both incredible:  not only does a player have spend years watching eighties movies, listening to music, and playing games like Zork , but in the actual quest they might be called on to  navigate through a TRS-180, then jump through a movie poster and play the lead role in Wargames, reciting every line perfectly.  And the author isn't just dealing with the top-heavy cream of geekery,  Star Trek geeks and LOTR readers:  his references are obscure. At one point a character searches a house for boxes of Captain Crunch to blow the toy whistle buried inside at the exact pitch used by John Draper to fool AT&T's phone system into doing his bidding. There's even a School House Rock moment, in which singing the opening bars of the song is crucial. (If you're unfamiliar with SHR, check Youtube. It's basically the series that taught me the Preamble and what a preposition is.)

Beyond this, Ready Player One is also a tightly plotted adventure novel. The main character is not alone with his friends in seeking the Egg: a powerfully evil corporation is also in the hunt, using all of its resources to bribe and threaten players into helping them, and their malicious will isn't just effected in-game. The main character spends half the novel in hiding after an attempt on his life,  at its darkest point -- when the corporation is seemingly at the threshold of winning -- he has to execute a real-world plan to stop them from taking over.  Throughout the book, Klein subtly plays with the fact that the Oasis is both attractive and insidious: it offers players unlimited experiences at the cost of their real-world lives, a fact not lost on the characters. Doubtless many readers of the novel will share that experience, in part, having spent hours in virtual environments with friends, so much so that the game map seems to be a physical place in our minds. (Andy Weir, author of The Martian, wrote a short story called "Lacero" based on RPO's Oasis, and wells more on the insidious aspect.)

Although I'm admittedly an ideal audience for this book --  the only references that went by me were the anime/manga/Transformer ones --   I've rarely been as enthralled by a novel as I have been with this one. This is definitely one to buy so I can re-read!

A note on the audiobook:  you get to hear Wil Wheaton refer to himself as "an old geezer".  Wheaton is as usual a solid voice actor, and his presence adds geek appeal to a novel already brimming over with it. The only hitch is that some things don't lend themselves well to being read, like chatlogs or a scoreboard.

Night of the Living Trekkies, Kevin Anderson.
Redshirts,  John Scalzi. Read by Wil Wheaton.
Masters of Doom, David Kushner.  Read by Wil Wheaton.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Paradise Snare

The Han Solo Trilogy: The Paradise Snare
© 1997 A.C. Crispin
338 pages

Han Solo easily has the most personality of any of the original trilogy's characters, but where did he come from? A.C. Crispin's Solo Trilogy was the first to try and answer that question. The Paradise Snare opens on a young orphan impressed into a gang, who has been brought up hustling and conning wealthy marks -- but longs to escape, and be a pilot.  Just getting away from the gang is a great challenge, and there's no easy path forward. Solo seems to jump from the frying pan into the fire into a swollen pit of molten lava,  eventually angering even the Hutts. Happily A Paradise Snare is Solo's book, with no early appearances of other major characters -- and Solo himself is a work in progress. The Paradise Snare takes a hopeful young escapee and throws him around like a rag doll until the more cynical gunslinger of A New Hope seems to taking shape before us. Crispin's approach in working Solo gives readers an idea as to why Solo is so easy with Wookiees, and why he is loathe to trust others -- especially a woman who's he's falling for.  The Paradise Snare is a solid first step in the trilogy.

Interestingly, Crispin also wrote a background novel for the character of Sarek, from Star Trek TOS and The Next Generation.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

9 Dragons

9 Dragons
© 2009 Michael Connelly
544 pages

Harry Bosch doesn't know who they are.  He doesn't know what they want.  If they're looking for ransom,  he doesn't have money, but he does have is a very particular set of skills, acquired over a long career, skills that make him a nightmare for people who might have abducted his daughter to threaten him away from a case involving a Hong Kong gang.  If they don't let his daughter go, he will look for them, he will find them,  and he will kill them. And he'll still close his case, because that's what Harry Bosch does.  He takes down baddies and then he sits in the dark and listens to jazz.

9 Dragons is an unusual Harry Bosch novel in that it begins as a police procedural before quickly becoming an international action-adventure thriller. Usually, Harry is dealing with pedestrian scum of the earth -- rapists, robbers, etc --  but this time his investigation of an apparent robbery and homicide turns him on to a Chinese gang, one that imperils his ex-wife and daughter living in Hong Kong. He's definitely out of his element, away from his usual resources and forced to rely on people he would otherwise distrust: like an Asian Gang Unit cop who talks too much and  his ex-wife's mysterious Chinese valet.  Although the book is bookended as a procedural, with respect paid to the chain of evidence, laws, that sort of thing, the great in-between is a rip-roaring  manhunt as Bosch tears through Hong Kong's underbelly looking for his daughter -- and adding to the pile of bodies he finds with his own freshly-minted ones. It really isn't smart to kidnap a street detective's daughter and try to sell her for organs, it really isn't.

I enjoyed 9 Dragons well enough as the action thriller it was,  especially with the little cameo played by Mickey Haller (Connelly's other novel series character), but the intrigue of the initial case was quickly sidelined by the action itself. Still, Connelly kept my attention, and it can't be said that he gave Bosch a quick and easy shoot `em up solution:   Bosch has to surrender his pound of flesh before all is said and done.  The greatest appeal of this novel for me -- as someone who always imagines Liam Neeson in the role of Bosch -- was the ability to quote Taken while reading it.

Harry Bosch. He likes brooding, jazz, and fighting with FBI agents over jurisdiction. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry

Gates: How Microsoft's Mogul Reinvented an Industry-and Made Himself the Richest Man in America
© 1994 Stephen Manes and Paul Andrews
560 pages

I recently watched Pirates of Silicon Valley, a questionably-acted movie based on the rise of  Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, and found myself curious about the facts. Did a young Bill Gates really race bulldozers and ram his buddy's sportscar?   Gates is an astonishingly detailed biography of not just Gates himself, but of the computer industry as it developed throughout the seventies, eighties, and early nineties. The book culminates with the release of the then-revolutionary Windows 95, an OS that merited even Rachel and Chandler from Friends pitching it.  The evolution of computing hardware and software overshadow Gates himself, not surprising given that developing software was his singular obsession from high school on.   This mix of biography and technical history makes itself more attractive as computer history than personal, but it still presents a more interesting Gates than "Brilliant, Nerdy Billionare".  He really did race bulldozers, and they weren't his.

Gates is not a rags to riches stories, as young William Gates started off fairly comfortably: his parents sent him to a private school that exposed its older students to computer programming, and one of Gates' classmates there would become his partner in founding Microsoft later on -- Paul Allen. Both were enthusiastic members of a student club called the Lakeside Programmers Group,  who were allowed free computer time -- back when computer users could be billed on how many seconds of computer processing they used --  in  exchange for helping debug programs and and machines.   Being both self-confident teens and curious about what they could do, Gates and his friends also found ways to cheat the billing cycle outside their arrangement -- and when Gates took on the challenge of creating student schedules,  he somehow found himself the only boy in a class otherwise filled with girls.

Even before they were out of high school, Gates and Allen were making a name for themselves as programmers, and exploring the possibilities of this for their future. Their first huge coup was writing a language to use with the first consumer-marketed microcomputer, the Altair.  The Altair was amazing popular considering it had to be assembled, component by component, by the buyer, and that the finished product was initially only capable of blinking its lights. Programming was done not with a keyboard, but by flipping toggle switches.   Although Gates and Allen did attempt building their own computer, one pitched at municipal governments for managing traffic,  their talents lay in software.  Gates was both obsessive and aggressive:  he had no objections to working eighty hours a week trying to iron out bugs, and expected that from whomever he hired later on.  Gates hated to lose, and if that meant selling products he hadn't even built yet-- hadn't even planned yet --  to prevent someone else from making the pitch, he would.  (Hence the reason for those eighty hour workweeks..)  Gates' success came not just from his gifts with programming language, but because he and his partners were so intent on making sales: one of Gates' tricks was to use one product to sell another.  His dream was a computer in every home, on every desk, running Microsoft software. It didn't matter who the manufacturer was: Microsoft did work for both IBM and Apple, as well as smaller computer companies which have fallen away, and Gates' goal was to create a hardware ecosystem where everyone was using a common software, with the effect that devices would be cross-compatible.  A monitor made by one manufacturer -- IBM, say -- would be compatible with a computer made by another firm, like Hewlett Packard.

Gates  delves into an astonishing amount of detail both on the technical hurdles and on the business deals that Gates made: there's an entire chapter on a font battle with Adobe, for instance.  Readers do see the man behind the machine, however: Gates the crazy-competitive, Gates the parsimonous executive who regarded hotel rooms and first class as decadent,  Gates the teenage millionare, Gates the spectacularly reckless driver, Gates the bellicose boss who liked people who stood up and yelled right back at him.    Although Gates is not necessarily the ideal book for someone merely curious about the man, its depth of technical and business history would recommend to those interested in the  microcomputer revolution.  Oh, and the bulldozers? Gates literally saw them sitting in a rural construction yard, discovered the keys were in them, and decided to figure out how they worked. Then he and a buddy drove them around and raced, because that's what you do when you're twenty and it's 3 am.

Pirates of Silicon Valley, trailer below
CYBERPUNK: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier

"I got the loot, STEVE!"