Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Book reviews: Daemon and FreedomTM

James over at The Campaign War Room has been on my case for a little while to read a book called Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, and since its avaliable on Kindle (I got one a little while ago, its awesome), I figured it was time to give it, and its sequel FreedomTM, a try.

I dont want to go into the plot in too much detail, since the story is really impressive and quite surprising in places.

In essence it deals with the attempts of a group of people to form a new social order in the face of a world where corporate power increasingly dominates.

If you have an interest in networks, insurgency, resiliant communities, corporate power, hacking, cyberwar/crime, 3D fabrication, or even where your food comes from, these books cover them in one way or another. It creates a world which is entirely feasible and to some extent has already been realised and then sets it on a course towards destruction.

Its a depressing read in many ways because so much of it is entirely feasible, and I think certain elements of this book we will have to live through in our lifetimes, sad as that is to imagine.

Suarez has done something really unique with his book, he's taken a range of concepts, from an incredibly diverse range of fields, and synthesised them into something complete, a compelling narrative.

I really recommend that you go out and get both of these books as soon as humanly possible.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Cyberwar just happened...

... And as with all fantasy media panics, when it becomes a reality, they missed it and covered other things.

The Stuxnet worm is the first example of a weaponised piece of malware. It's apparent design is intended to damage a piece of physical infrastructure. No one knows quite what yet, although speculation centres on the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, since thats where it seems to be occuring most frequently.

Interestingly Iran came out today and said that although its nuclear facility computers were infected, nothing is actually exploding. Although I imagine thats what I would say if some of my nuclear reactor had just developed a terminal case of boom due to a weapon which was supposed to be nearly impossible.

The physical equivalent of this weapon would be taking an minigun, getting a crowd of a few thousand, and firing wildly into it, and killing only the person you wanted dead. The implications are staggering.

Right now most of the people who know what they're talking about think this is the work of a major organisation, for which the majority are filling in the blanks with the word "USA" or "Israel".

The problem is, what is done once is easily done again. This code is now out in the world. People who would think that causing a meltdown in a nuclear power plant is a really fun idea will try and replicate this tool. They have time, they have skill, and there is a huge networked community of people who will see this as a challenge.

The best article I've found on the topic is this one on Ars Technica, which has this to say:

Security researchers have uncovered some unexpected behaviors in a piece of malware called Stuxnet. The worm exploits a number of zero-day vulnerabilities in order to propagate itself over Windows networks, but it also targets embedded software developed by Siemens that runs in industrial equipment. The worm could be used to disrupt factories and other industrial environments.

Researchers have found that the highest concentration of Stuxnet infections is located in Iran. That discovery, coupled with the very high level of sophistication exhibited by the malware, has led some researchers to speculate that it was crafted by a major government body with the aim of disabling Iran's nuclear power plant.

Reports indicate that the worm can exploit four separate zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows, giving it substantial spreading power compared to average malware. According to Symantec researcher Liam O. Murchu, who has been analyzing the worm, it relied on command and control severs located in Malaysia and Denmark. Those servers have been disabled, but the worm has a peer-to-peer update mechanism that allows the attacker to propagate changes and new control server addresses. The update feature will make it more difficult to centrally disable the malware.

We just entered a whole new reality, and no one wants to talk about it.


Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The shocking state of the Strategic Defence Review

I was honestly optimistic about the SDR, I thought it might be something Conservatives would do right and take some honest steps towards restoring the military covenant.

It looks like they'll fail that spectacularly.

Robert Fox has this excellent article over at The First Post which has this to say:

Firefights are breaking out across Whitehall between the three services and the MoD, the Cabinet Office and the NSC (national Security Council). Some of the details leaked to the Sunday Times about Army numbers, and to the Financial Times about the row over aircraft carriers and Trident's replacement, are clearly accurate. But things seem to be getting worse.

One of the plans, supported by most senior civil servants, was to slash service numbers - by up to 40,000 by one account - in order to preserve some of the big-ticket industrial programmes, principally the aircraft carriers and the order for four new Trident submarines to be placed in 2014.

Civil servants have argued that personnel are expensive – making up about 30 per cent of the £37 billion annual budget – and are relatively easy to fire compared with breaking major equipment contracts, which incurs huge penalty payments.

But Cameron has now been persuaded by the head of the Army, Gen Sir David Richards, to spare 20,000 of those troops. As a result, the RAF and the Navy can expect deeper cuts.

Well now, can't we all be delighted that only 20,000 soldiers from across the various services will be kicked out. Its not like we needed them as we support open ended commitments across the globe.

What we really need are some huge aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons. No techno-fetishism there at all.

In case it wasnt clear, I was being sarcastic there. With a hint of bitterness.

The military creates jobs, it saves lives across the planet, and performs tasks which no one else can. We need it, we need to support it, and we need to be proud of it. Watching a Conservative Government, one I campaigned to get elected, look at slashing numbers of troops is abhorrent to me on a fundamental level.

I have been returning to my Boyd recently, re-reading things and continuing to hone my understanding of his work, and I'm moved to wonder what the great 20th century strategist would have thought about this.

I like to believe he would look at the types of wars we are fighting, against networked, flexible ground forces and thought what we might need is an equally effective networked flexible ground force of our own, one well versed in 4GW, able to win wars, hearts and minds.

I'm still investigating why it is that the Public Administration Select Committee is hosting the "Who Does UK Grand Strategy" discussion. As far as I can tell this is a pretty transparent move to keep this important debate as far from the eye of the media as humanly possible.

The Party I voted for promised this:
We are committed to succeeding in our mission in Afghanistan and will not leave our Forces without the resources they need to fulfil this goal. We will repair the Military Covenant with a series of measures to support service personnel, their families and veterans.
Where did that Party go? Can we have it back please?

Saturday, 18 September 2010

3D printing and the insurgent

I've started reaching more about the emerging technology of 3D printing of late, and for some reason its gelled with some other thoughts on the drug war in Mexico, the truly horrifying campaign which is going on there and recieving entirely too little attention.

Firstly, if you want to read a decent article on the scope and scale of the violence take a look at this piece on Boing Boing

Here is a week's worth of the headlines, as recorded by Blog Del Narco, one of the blogs which seeks to record what is actually happening in the country:
72 bodies found, a federal policeman killed, 4 men decapitated and hung from a bridge, 19 corpses found, 33 men executed, a massacre at a La Quinta Inn, Girl Assassin Squad Discovered
Bear in mind this is just the headlines, not a full accounting of the violence itself.

As manufacturing capacity, at least for simple objects, approaches the most local level, its worth asking the question, what will happen when it is possible for gangs to become entirely self sufficient in terms of weaponry, body armour and ammunition?

Consider the so called Mobile Parts Hospital, described as:
An 8' x 8' x 20' custom built facility was built for the U.S. Army to house a sophisticated, computer controlled manufacturing facility meeting stringent size, weight, and operational constraints; self - contained, air (C-130), ground (PLS/trailer) or rail transportable, easy to deploy and re-deploy, controlled user friendly work environment
Essentially designed to churn out spare parts to support military activity on the ground, there's not a lot here you couldnt buy, at which point it becomes a software issue. If you can crack that, you'd be able to replicate this device.

If a device like this could be deployed by a drug gang, or a comparable insurgent group (the IRA keeps coming to mind), and kept secret, imagine how dangerous it could be.

Imagine an insurgent group could become entirely self sufficient in terms of the basic materials needed to conduct an armed campaign. Able to directly manufacture, rather than buy, high quality weapons.

Obviously this group would be highly dependent on the manufacturing resource itself, but presumably if you could build one once, you could do it again, and again, ensuring that you were not dependent on a single source.

Shortened, simplified supply chains, a qualititative improvement in equiptment and a broadening of its avaliability, all sound like the glorious dream of generals throughout the ages. Within a decade or two technologies will almost certainly be commonly avalible which can provide this at any level.

Now it might be that the iFactory will have careful controls which stop people building an AK47 in their back yard, but it seems to me unlikely that an insurgent group would be kind enough to stick to this.

Replication technology will be one of the defining technologies of the 21st century. The current debate on protecting copyright is nothing compared to what is coming.

A life altering book, Nothing to Envy

A friend of mine was kind enough to lend me a copy of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. I'd never heard of it before (shamefully) but I've got a long standing fascination with North Korea (who doesnt), so as soon as I got it I sat down to read it.

I've never read anything like it. I couldnt put it down, even though I wanted to at times.

Its written though a set of interviews with a group of North Korean refugees who all now reside in South Korea as naturalised citizens.

Each of these accounts is woven togeather in order to form a composite oral history of what has happened within North Korea over the last 20-30 years. Occasionally the author feeds in statistical and factual information, but its carefully done in order to avoid disrupting the overall flow.

The key players come from a variety of social levels within North Korea, and thus you get to see how brutual the lifestyles of even the most privilaged are within this closed regieme.

Its a country entirely out of time, something which should be impossible in the modern world. Country entirely cut off from the world. Unnetworked, lacking entirely in modern infrastructure and technology, yet still somehow it struggles on.

The harrowing tales of what can only be described as survivors deserve to change the world. It is inexcusable that such a country is allowed to exist, and anyone culpable in its survival is wholly without heart and soul.

This is a book that needs to be read, reread and burned into the minds of as many people as humanly possible.

The world has come so far since the collapse of communism, and I believe is still finding a new equilibirum. Even Cuba has finally started to recognise that reform is necessary. Yet this living anachronism of a country continues to exist.

A beautifully written book, filled with beautiful insights, terrible stories of deprivation, it oozes raw emotion.

I challenge you to read this book and not be moved and changed by it.

Blair Vs Mandelson (books, not deathmatch)

Although a deathmatch would be more satisfying.

I usually like to do a bit of a head to head here and pick an actual winner, but in this case I've got to say, there are only really varying degrees of failure.

Firstly, both books are inexcusably badly written. Uncomfortable prose, poorly selected phrases which trip up the brain, and a cloying need to use words which are more complicated than necessary for no reason. Neither is easy to read.

So, Mandelson first (the picture is clearly not the front cover, but its substantially better than the book jacket, so I'm sticking with it.

Mandelson as a figure, I have a huge amount of respect for. I don't like his politics, but he is a uniquely skilled figure and has an exceptional understanding of the way the world (of politics) works. So I was looking forward to this book and hoped it would contain at least some real insight into the party he helped create and the campaigning that went into it.

I was sorely dissapointed. There is entirely too much focus on his relationship with Gordon Brown. I realise this has been a topic of interest for a long time, but there is more to life than the fact they didnt like each other very much.

It feels like he glosses over some fascinating chapters of his life in order to get back to this topic time and time again. I'd very much like to have seen more about his time in Europe and the role he played in developing the New Labour brand. Instead of talking endlessly about Gordon Brown he would have looked in more depth at some of the other major players and opponents involved, perhaps Whelan or others.

The section on Northern Ireland stood out. He was excellent. Clearly a period of his life he was incredibly passionate about and felt he'd achieved something incredible (which he did). If the whole book could have been up to that standard then it would have been a really interesting read.

To be honest, there isnt a great deal else to say about this book. Its interesting, there are some fun anechdotes and insights into a few characters which arent avaliable anywhere else. But the substance was really lacking.

And then we have Blair. I've been looking forward to this book as I thought it'd be a really intensive look at politics through the eyes of someone who has shaped most of my adult life.

It really isnt. Putting aside the fact that its badly written, its an awkward, poorly structured lecture on why Tony Blair is great and the world would have spun off its orbit without him.

Fair enough for him to be somewhat arrogant. He beat the Conservative Party into submission for a decade, reinvented his own Party, and achieved some great things (if you're a socialist). But the level of self aggrandisement is painful.

A case in point is the section of the book on the Northern Ireland peace process. Virtually no other people are discussed in detail in the entire chapter, a few name checks here and there, but to be honest, its as if no one else was even involved, including the Irish politicians themselves. How you can write about the NI peace process without mentioning key Irish stakeholders I'm not sure, but by god he manages it.

Im still reading it, but to be honest, after 8 chapters, its not getting any better and I'm already moving on to other things.

Before the end of the year we'll see Brown's book, and possible Charlie Wheelan's too. Unless something changes dramatically, its going to be a rough year for political biographies...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Back from a long absence

I dont have a convincing reason for being away for so long. I've had some personal drama, some work drama and generally life has been a bit crap, but nothing which should have kept me away from keeping this up to date for so long.

I'm now settled into a new job, working with an exceptionally skilled and interesting group of people at a market research, communications and strategy company. Its what I've wanted to be doing for quite some time, and its good to be settling in here.

Over the next few days I'm aiming to catch up with some book reviews, particularly of Blair and Mandelson's books. I also have been drafting a piece on a topic which has been increasingly of interest to me, the growing gang violence in Mexico and what implications that might have in the long term.

Hopefully I'll be able to get back to regular posting, although it won't be on a daily basis.