Saturday, October 3, 2015

From the tree

Tommy emerged quietly from the thicket and clambered up a tree, perching legs akimbo on a thick branch.

The curtains at the back of the cabin were open, the rooms lit.

He wiped sweat from his brow, raised his binoculars and directed them to the room at the far end.

The girl was lying on the bed in her underwear, tapping at her phone.

He increased the magnification; if only he could reach out and touch her. 

A hand grabbed the top of his trousers and tugged hard.

As he tumbled backwards a booming voice said: ‘Gotcha, you little bastard!’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Review of Dragnet Nation by Julia Angwin (2014, St Martin’s Press)

The subtitle for Dragnet Nation is ‘A quest for privacy, security, and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance,’ which neatly sums up the book’s focus.  In short, Julia Angwin charts: (a) how web- and mobile-based communication has become an intersecting set of data dragnets in the United States (and elsewhere), with state agencies and companies using a variety of practices (such as using cookies, data trackers, wifi and MAC address sniffing, spyware) to track and trace the use of phones, apps, websites and online transactions and purchases; (b) her attempts to reclaim her privacy and to evade mass surveillance, and to improve her data security, using a range of different tactics, including cloaking, blocking, obfuscation, encryption, requests for copies of her data and deletion from databases, and changing which services she used.  Her analysis draws from of two main sources: her journalism with the Wall Street Journal and interviews with key witnesses, as well as desk-based research of literature; and her own attempts to install various bits of software and to change her online and communications behaviour. 

Angwin’s argument is that ‘the modern era of dragnets marks a new type of surveillance: suspicionless, computerized, impersonal and vast in scope.’  She reports that in 2013 Krux Digital had identified 328 separate companies tracking visitors to the top fifty content websites.  She herself identified 212 data brokers operating in the US that consolidated and traded data about people, only 92 of which allowed opt-outs (65 of which required handing over additional data to secure the opt-out), and 58 companies that were in the mobile location tracking business, only 11 of which offered opt-outs.  She contends that through a lack of privacy people are being routinely hacked in a number of ways, including: always being locatable; finding it difficult to keep something secret; being impersonated; having devices hacked and used to spy on activity using the microphone, camera, and screenshots; being categorized, socially sorted and financially manipulated; and always being considered a suspect by state agencies and open to suspicionless searches.

While one of the back cover endorsements claims the book is an ‘antidote to Big Brother’s big chill’, I experienced the opposite.  It is an engaging and informative read, but an also somewhat depressing, revealing the US state to be entirely paranoid about its own citizens, routinely spying on them as if they are all criminal suspects (often in secret and without legal recourse; as the Snowden and Wikileaks revelations have also highlighted), and corporations have little respect for their customers treating them as simply another commodity to be monetized and sold, with just about all of their online behaviour, however mundane, being harvested, traded, and consolidated to create new derived data products, and used to nudge them towards purchases (with such actions authorized in the small print of complex legal documents that detail terms and conditions, or not at all as in the case of many apps).  In both cases, privacy has disappeared almost entirely, despite claims to the data being anonymized (it is incredibly easy to de-identify the data given the overlapping metadata). And Angwin’s analysis only concerned the internet and mobile phones; once one considers the plethora of smart home and smart city technologies, from mass digital CCTV, automated systems, to the internet of things, then the loss of privacy multiplies.

As Angwin’s own concerted attempts to reclaim privacy highlight, at present it is very difficult to regain any meaningful level of protection (and even if one does, the very fact that a person is seeking privacy flags them up as a potential risk and further potential surveillance).  Indeed, Angwin often struggled to make sense of different technical approaches, install various bits of software, and change her behaviour, despite being technically savvy and having access to leading experts in the field.  Certainly many of the approaches she tried would be beyond the average internet or smartphone user.  This leads her to conclude that the solution to the data dragnet cannot be purely technical, but rather requires a combination of better laws, oversight and financial penalties, a more transparent and ethical state (just as there is surveillance focused on citizens, there should be on the state itself to create mutual accountability; and it should use more ethical approaches such as programs like ThinThread that tries to respect and protect privacy, relying on encryption and court sanctioned search warrants), and a new market of platforms that see consumer privacy as a competitive advantage.  Here, I was somewhat surprised not to see privacy-by-design in the mix, or even discussed, nor data minimization or fair information principles. 

Ultimately, Angwin concludes that there is a need to find a middle way between ‘those who ask us to hand over all our data and “get over it,” and those who suggest that we throw our body on the tracks in from the speeding train that is our data economy ... We didn’t shut down the industrial economy to stop pollution.  We simply asked the polluters to be more accountable for their actions’ (p. 223-224).  Finding and implementing that middle way, however, given the vested interested involved will not be easy or straightforward.  Overall, an interesting read that highlights the extent of the present dragnet and the difficulty of avoiding it, but a little thin on how the data captured is being used and alternative privacy visions (which might have been gained by examining privacy, technology and legal debates).  Certainly worth a read if you want to increase your paranoia about how data about you is generated and traded.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Review of Natural Causes by James Oswald (Penguin, 2012)

Newly promoted Detective Inspector Tony McLean has been living his life in limbo.  His finacee died a couple of years ago and his grandmother, who raised him since he was four after the death of his parents, has been in a coma for 18 months.  Travelling home one evening he spots flashing blue lights outside a house and stops to offer assistance.  A prominent city resident has been murdered, but the investigation is in hand and he’s sent on his way.  The following day he’s called to a building site where the body of a young girl has been discovered, apparently murdered in a strange ritual some sixty years previously.  McLean is oddly affected by the case and makes it his priority, despite being drawn back into the first case as pressure within his station mounts.  Then there’s a breakthrough with the killer seemingly found having taken his own life, only for a very similar murder to happen shortly afterwards.  Against his rationality, McLean suspects some link between the long dead girl, the deaths, and the supernatural, and with the death toll mounting he and his colleagues are under pressure to solve the case.

Natural Causes in the first book in the Detective McLean series set in Edinburgh.  The tale is a police procedural thriller with a supernatural bent.  Oswald has an engaging voice and he keeps the pace and action high, with plenty of twists and turns and a fair dose of emotional heart-tugging with respect to McLean’s personal life.  McLean is the typical wounded cop and Oswald quickly has you on his side, and there is a decent amount of character development as the story unfolds.  His colleagues are also nicely penned and there’s a good sense of place with Edinburgh forming the backdrop.  The plot is an entertaining yarn as long as one can suspend disbelief, with the procedural elements as much a fantasy as the supernatural heart of the tale.  Nonetheless, the story rattles along, with the body count rising as it makes its way to its denouement.  I’ll certainly be checking out the next book in the series, The Book of Souls.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lazy Sunday service

I'm just back from an interesting trip to Zagreb, where it rained heavily pretty much non-stop.  The next trip is to Nova Scotia, including a trip to Cape Breton, so I've bought a handful of books to accompany me: Lunenburg by Keith Baker, Cape Breton Road by D.R. MacDonald, Sign of the Cross by Anne Emery, and Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally Walker.  It's time I expanded my Canadian repertoire a little.

My posts this week
August reviews
Review of Rome ’44: The Battle for the Eternal City by Raleigh Trevelyan
That was our home

Saturday, September 26, 2015

That was our home

‘But it’s our home,’ Doug said to the officer.

‘I appreciate that, sir, but it’s also a crime scene.’

‘All we want is to gather a few things.  Some clothes; items of sentimental value.’

‘If you give me a list, I’ll try and retrieve them for you.’

‘But it’ll only take five minutes.’

‘I can’t let you into a crime scene.’

‘But the bones are old.  They’ve been buried there for years.  Plus our traces must be everywhere.’

‘That may be the case, but there are protocols to follow.’

‘It’s over, Doug,’ Debbie said, turning away. ‘That was our home.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Review of Rome ’44: The Battle for the Eternal City by Raleigh Trevelyan (1981, Coronet)

On January 22nd 1944 the Allies landed at Anzio, about 60 kilometres south of Rome.  The beachhead was quickly established and the troops were meant to break out and head north and east to liberate the eternal city and cut-off German troops manning the Gustav line at Monte Cassino.  Instead, the Anzio landings turned into a desperate war of attrition as the Germans mounted a campaign to drive the Allies back into the sea.  Moreover, the Gustav line held firm, with Monte Cassino becoming one of the most bloody and controversial battles of the war.  It was only on June 4th that the Fifth Army entered Rome, abandoned by the Germans largely intact. 

Trevelyan tells the story of the liberation of Rome using four narratives.  The first concentrates on the inhabitants of Rome, especially the lives of and roles played by the resistance members, Vatican/church workers, and senior German and fascist officers.  The second focuses on the Anzio beachhead and the skirmishes between the Allied and German units, and the in-fighting between Allied commanders.  The third concerns the battle at Monte Cassino, the lynch-pin of the Gustav Line.  And lastly, the author’s own recollections of taking part in the campaign as a young officer. 

Trevelyan certainly pulls together a lot of information, covering the various battles and skirmishes from a variety of perspectives, including testimony from locals, resistance fighters, and the German Army, as well as the Allies.  And rather than simply providing a high level overview, he captures the everyday experiences of different groups of actors.  He also details the various political shenanigans going on between rival Italian groups and within the Allied and German armies.  The result is quite a rich telling of the liberation.  However, how the material is put together is sometimes a little uneven and somewhat sketchy.  Moreover, the book has a hard start and end dates, meaning some contextual framing is missing, and the liberation of Rome itself felt a little rushed, consisting of just a few pages. Nonetheless, Rome ’44 is a fascinating account of the Italy campaign in the first six months of 1944.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

August reviews

I've realised that I completely forgot to do a summary post of my August reads, so here it is.  A month of 3 and 3.5 star reads.  All solid and entertaining enough, but no real standout book.  I think this is the first month since starting the blog that I've not read a four star or higher book.  Nevertheless, it didn't feel like a poor month of reading and I've previously read books by five of the authors.

Lehrter Station by David Downing ***.5
Royal Flash by George Fraser Macdonald ***.5
Deadlock by Sara Paretsky ***
Princes Gate by Mark Ellis ***.5
In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward ***.5
Secret Warriors: Key Scientists, Code-Breakers and Propagandists of the Great War by Taylor Downing ***
Border Angels by Anthony Quinn ***.5
Target London: Under Attack From V-Weapons During WWII by Christy Campbell ***

Lazy Sunday Service

I'm off to Zagreb this week to give a talk.  My choice of reading is going to be Luke McCallin's The Pale House, which is actually set in Sarajevo, but it's the nearest in geographical terms amongst the books on my to-be-read pile.  I've not been to Croatia before and I'm looking forward to the trip.

My posts this week
New paper: The diverse nature of big data
Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson
Review of Black Bear by Aly Monroe
Lone patrol

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Lone patrol

After twilight came the moon and stars and the chatter of a spandau just below the ruined monastery walls.

Kelly ducked out from behind a large boulder and slowly picked his way up the slope.  Ahead he caught a few words of German and dropped behind a fallen tree.

Nearby a man laughed, answered with angry words.

A scrawny boy lined up in Kelly’s sights.  He looked seventeen going on forty.

Kelly’s finger touched the trigger and paused.  This wasn’t the heat of battle, but a calculated kill. But if there was a battle ...

The boy dropped from view.

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review of Black Bear by Aly Monroe (2013, John Murray)

1947 and British spy Peter Cotton has arrived in New York as part of an advance British delegation to check out the nascent United Nations.  Shortly after arriving he wakes up in the Ogden Clinic, an exclusive recovery centre for veterans.  His physician is surprised that he is both alive and not brain-damaged, having been found badly battered in a doorway, injected with three different truth-drugs.  As Cotton slowly recovers he’s plagued by vertigo, colour blindness, tunnel vision and hallucinations.  He has no recollection of his abduction and interrogation and cannot make sense of why he’s been left alive.  Both British and American intelligence are interested in his case, but both are guarded in their dealings with him.  As soon as Cotton is well enough he heads to Rhode Island to recover in peace, but despite the two months break he can’t help wondering what happened to him and speculating on who was responsible and why.

Black Bear is the fourth book in the Peter Cotton series.  It’s quite a curious book, being somewhat compelling despite the fact that very little seems to happen.  Cotton wakes in a clinic, slowly recovers, is discharged and heads away on vacation to recover, he makes friends with a couple of locals, and interacts with a couple of American and British intelligence agents.  And yet, Monroe manages to make all that mundanity somehow interesting, in part by driving the story along through character development, in part by capturing the reader’s need to discover what happened to him, and in part by layering in authentic historical detail.  I found the ending somewhat of anti-climax, but then the whole story is under-played, a kind of antithesis of the spills and thrills variety of spy tale.  Assuming that’s partly the aim, the book succeeds admirably.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Review of The Peripheral by William Gibson (2015, Penguin)

Flynne and her brother, Burton, live in rural America in the not too distant future, where the drugs business, the Hefty corporation, and Homes (Dept Homeland Security) control just about everything.  Their life consists of raising the money for their mother’s meds and playing games for others for cash on what passes for the internet.  When Burton is called away, Flynne steps in to play security in what seems like a staid beta game.  All she is supposed to do is work a perimeter around a huge tower block, keeping away buzzing objects.  Then she witnesses what appears to be a murder.  After that things start to get a little crazy, with a contract taken out on Burton’s life and a corporate entity from Columbia, Coldiron, seeking to protect them.  Whatever Flynne has witnessed, one group wants her dead and the other wants her to identify the killer.  And both seem to have the resources to make staying alive one hell of a ride.

It’s easy to understand how some readers might get frustrated with William Gibson’s writing style.  In The Peripheral he uses a raft of made-up slang and neologisms, new cultural norms and invented technologies without ever explaining them.  He just plunges the reader into the narrative as if the world he is describing is entirely familiar.  One simply has to either try and work it out, or guess, or keep reading until what is being described eventually makes sense.  It took me about 80 or 90 pages to feel confident that I knew what was going on, but by then I was entirely immersed in his worlds.  And from there on in it was a really great read as Gibson conjoins two parallel histories, separated by seventy years, with the witness to a murder in one residing in the other, and ideas and minds shuttling between the two.  Flynne is an engaging humanist lead and Gibson populates the books with a coterie of other interesting characters, especially the cynical, jaded PR man, Wilf Netherton, and a clever, mysterious cop, Lowbeer.  The plot is ingenious and nicely constructed, and after a somewhat ponderous opening gains direction and pace.  The temporal separation of the two eras enables Gibson to explore the unfolding arc of history, and the interplay of politics and technology and to speculate on the fate of humanity.  Moreover, there is a good sense of place, both of rural America and urban London.  My advice is, if you find yourself struggling in the open chapters to understand what is happening, simply keep going and you’ll be rewarded for doing so.  I thought it was a great read.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

Another busy week, which meant a slow week of reading.  I have though almost finished Aly Monroe's Black Bear, which is proving to be an engaging read. 

I've just booked my accommodation for a trip to Nova Scotia in October.  Does anyone have any recommendations for novels set there?

My posts this week:
Review of Mangrove Squeeze by Laurence Shames

Saturday, September 12, 2015


Every cell in Holden’s body vibrated with fear and shock.  Two hours of heavy shelling, punctuated by probing infantry attacks, had him shaking like a jitterbug.  Only the soundtrack was all wrong.  Instead of Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, he was jiving to Jerry Howitzer and his machine guns.  They were big on percussion and bass, but devoid of melodies and harmonies.  Betty would have hated it. She’d only dance four four. Not that he’d be dancing any time soon.  Not with one leg.  Or perhaps never again unless a medic was suicidal enough to join him in no-man’s land.

 A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Review of Mangrove Squeeze by Laurence Shames (Ballantine, 1998)

Aaron Katz has packed in his Wall Street job and headed to Key West with his elderly father to take over a rotting guest house, The Mangrove Arms.  Suki Sperakis is a College dropout who’s drifting through life, presently selling ad space for a local freebie paper.  She’s intrigued as to how all the Russian-owned t-shirt shops manage to turn a profit, suspecting they’re a front for laundering money.  Using her job as a cover she starts to investigate.  In the meantime, she meets Aaron and Eros casts his spell.  Then she disappears, seemingly the victim of the Russian mafia.  Along with his inventor father, his friend ex-mafiosa Bert the Shirt, and Pineapple and Fred, two vagrants who live in a ex-hotdog van, Aaron sets out to rescue Suki and take on the bad guys.  

During the 1990s Laurence Shames published a series of standalone comic noir novels set in Key West, Florida.  Mangrove Squeeze was the fifth.  In the tradition of Carl Hiassen and Tim Dorsey, Shames sets ordinary people in the crazy underbelly of Florida, interacting with a motley crew of colourful characters as they’re caught up in a madcap escapade.  So it is with Mangrove Squeeze, with Aaron and Suki taking on plutonium smuggling Russian mafia aided by two philosopher vagrants, a retired mafiosa, and Aaron’s dementia suffering inventor father.  The result is a tightly told tale that rattles along at a fair clip.  There’s no major surprises and it’s all a little predictable, but nonetheless it’s enjoyable jaunt, made-so, I feel, by its engaging assemble of well drawn actors and their interactions.  And there are some genuinely amusing moments, especially Fred and Piney ruminating on life, the universe, and whatever else comes to mind.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Lazy Sunday Service

A busy week.  First hosting the Data and the City workshop in Maynooth from Sunday evening until Tuesday night.  Then two talks on Thursday: one in Dublin Castle as part of Irish Design 2015, then another at an Internet of Things meetup.  On Friday I got news that I've won a tender from the Taoiseach's (prime minister's) department to write a report on citizen-related data privacy/protection concerns arising from the development of smart cities.  That, along with another project, will keep me busy for the next two months.  On the book reading front I'm slowly making my way through William Gibson's The Peripheral.

My posts this week:
Review of Unholy Ground by John Brady
Review of The Exterminators by Bill Fitzhugh
Tiny seed of doubt