Monday, 30 May 2011

Book Review: Wasp

Wasp, by Eric Frank Russell, recently turned up on Kindle and I noticed it in my recommended books, so I thought it was high time to catch up on what I actually think to be an important (if lighthearted) book on the topic of insurgency. Its a work of science fiction, but a very entertaining one. Written in the 1950's it emerged from a time when suspicion and threat of the Soviets were rising, and the second world war was only recent history.

The premise of the book is that the Earth (a pretty clear analogue for the UK during WW2) is besieged on all sides by the hostile Sirian Empire (Aka Germany). Technologically less advanced but far more populous the Sirians will eventually win the war and Earth will be wiped out. Enter the main character Mowry.

Mowry is recruited to be dropped into enemy territory to become, in the words of one of the protagonists, a "wasp". The theory is that a wasp, in the right place, can cause enormous damage as humans flail in panic at it. Occasionally the wasp gets crushed, but more often than not it gets away scot free. Mowry is therefore disguised as a Sirian and dropped off on one of their planets to disrupt the enemy with everything from leafleting campaigns to assassination to bombings.

Its a very clever book, and deals with the idea of insurgency very well. The tactics of the "wasp", the reaction of society at large, all are very true to life. Mowry's slow descent into culture shock and madness as he is increasingly isolated from Earth is very well described.

To me this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. As Mowry continues to struggle to maintain his focus and remember that everyone around him, including people who are his partners in crime (albeit unwittingly) grow to be friends. He knows how foolish this is, but at the same time cannot resist it.

The abject failure of the Sirian Empire to manage to crush the wasp is almost a case study of the difficulties we face in modern times, both at home and abroad in finding threats to our own security. Our massive and disproportionate reaction to threats which are in truth minor is charted in playful detail in Wasp. I dont want to spoil anything for those who might like to read the book so I won't go any further than that.

This charmingly written, entertaining little parable is a story which should be part of the reading list of anyone who is interested in the idea of insurgency or counter insurgency.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Congrats to Mike Maher-King

This is just a short one to say congratulations to a good friend of mine, who recently spoke at TEDxTokyo about his work with orphans in Japan. He founded an organisation called Smile Kids Japan, which seeks to do outreach to orphans. He's been doing this for quite a while now and deserves every bit of recognition. Take a few minutes to watch the video, its well worth it.

If you want to learn a bit more you can check out the Smile Kids website.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Book Review: Kingpin by Kevin Poulsen

As regular readers will know I have an abiding fascination with hacking and hackers, both the people and the technology. Good books about hacking are extremely rare however, comprehension of the topic is extremely poor, witness the endless poor debate about cyber warfare. So when I came across Kingpin I was intrigued and I'm glad I made the effort.

Kingpin explores the world of hacking, both legal and illegal, through the life story of "Iceman", a man who skirts both sides of the coin.

It helps that Poulsen is himself a former hacker (I'm always curious as to whether you can be a former hacker, since its primarily dependent on personal interest). He doesn't shy away from technical terminology or do any favours to the reader.

Despite being a highly technical book it doesn't lack for intrigue or pacing. Ultimately this is a fast paced, fascinating exploration of a world which few people have access to. It charts a history which basically doesn't exist anywhere else, the emergence of modern cybercrime.

To me the most interesting sections of the book is the interplay between the law and the criminals. The ultimate lesson is that the law is barely able to cope at any stage with this new field. Criminals are consistently ahead of the law, and it takes a vast amount of resource in order to bring down small numbers of criminals. Time and again tiny mistakes or misunderstandings allow cybercriminals to walk free.

Its strangely hard to empathise with any of the characters in the book, as by and large they are all criminals, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. They continue to evolve and adapt to the changing world in which they find themselves page by page.

As governments around the world continue to create aggressive and reactive laws to deal with exactly these sorts of problems it would be wise to take the time to read this book to place the changing world in the correct context. This is a global criminal network, with no centre, only individuals.

An excellently written and elegant narrative of the hacking world, this is a must read for anyone interested in cybercrime, cyberwar or hacking.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

A tentative relaunch

After a significant period of absense I've decided its time to try and get back into the blogging game. A few people have been asking me about my absense of late and I can only blame myself really, I've been working too many hours and not taking enough time to actually sit down and think about things. Happily, in the interim I've not entirely disengaged my brain, so hopefully the transition back into blogging shouldnt be too brutual.

In my absense I've become something of a follower of Thomas P.M. Barnett, someone that pretty much anyone interested in this blog will at least have heard of, so expect a fair bit of commentary around his ideas and where they intersect with my own interests. It actually took me a little while to get used to some of his concepts, but now I'm there. If you havent already seen it, then watch his excellent talk at TED

TED of course remains an unbelievably good source of some fascinating ideas. I'm immensely proud of a friend of mine, Mike, who will be speaking at TEDxJapan (I think thats the one, he's certainly speaking at one of the TED conferences soon). Mike is genuinely one of the most impressive people I know, and did some fantastic work after the earthquake in Japan. Until his speech comes on (I have no idea when that might be) watch this one about online "filter bubbles"

Things continue to be interesting in the Middle East, and the unrest is perhaps even moving into Europe via Spain right now. Regardless, it looks like Bahrain, Syria are still shaky, and Libya remains an enigma. Osama is dead, which is good news considering he has outlived his own movement by about 2-5 years. So thats a good few posts right there.

I should do a review of Kingpin by Kevin Poulson soon, one of the finest books on hacking and the hacking community so far. To be fair, thats not saying much, fiction and scholarship on hacking is woefully inadequate. I recently tried to read Underground by Suelette Dreyfus, I say tried, because it was one of the worst books I've recently tried to grind through. A book about hacking which focusses almost exclusively on inane details about the lives of those it tries to chronicle.

Anonymous will continue to be a part of what I talk about. As the organisation continues to find an identity and a focus for its activities it forms a model for... something.

I want to refocus this blog and renew it. I allowed myself to go down too many blind alleys particularly towards the end of my last run. Thats no bad thing, but I don't want to fill this space up with what amounts to pub chat.

I do want to talk about BitCoin, once I understand it. An emergant online economy it promises to be an interesting experiment if nothing else. If it is successful I see lots of exciting legislation emerging over the next couple of years to make it illegal, failing dramatically, and then who knows. Read about it and see what you think.

So, here we go again. Lets see how it goes. Thanks to those who have encouraged me to get back into this.