Distrust That Particular Flavor

Distrust That Particular Flavor
By William Gibson
272 Pages

Distrust is a collection of William Gibson’s non fiction writing offering a glimpse into the development of his ideas.  Each short story comes with a brief endnote from the author giving an idea of how he views the piece from the advantage of hindsight.  The writing is still Gibsonian with pervasive juicy phrases that are fun to mentally chew on.   He is clearly a bit uncomfortable with the non-fiction genre.  To cope he often adopts the first person perspective in many pieces on subjects ranging from obscure 80s music to Japonica providing nice biographical tidbits.  The collection includes many Wired pieces including one of my favorites on “Disneyland with the death penalty” (Singapore). Its a shame he hasn’t written for Wired more recently.  Is this something to do with Anderson’s editorship?  By far the best part is to see references to various ideas Gibson is developing that get incorporated into his fictional writing.  A fun and quick read.


Fatal System Error

Fatal System Error: The Hunt for the New Crime Lords Who Are Bringing Down the Internet
By Joseph Menn
304 Pages

The Cybercrime genre is starting to come in to its own, developing a standard style of first hand accounts from those in the trenches performing daring technological feats of dubious legality.  Menn flips the template a bit by following two “whitehats” Barrelt Lyon and Andrew Crocker as they attempt to fight the proliferation of international organized cybercrime.  Lyon is the hero hacker who uses his self taught skills to defend companies from DOS attacks.  His work brings him perilously close to the world of organized crime.  His first clients run semi-legal online gambling sites.  The online extortion they are subject to and the protection money they are intimidated in to paying are straight out of the Sopranos.  Lyon finds ways to offer legal protection to these and more legitimate companies through the use of sophisticated packet filtering and massive bandwidth reserves although his own company gets tied up with shady investors.  He takes the fight to the cybercriminals by actively mapping their informal and formal networks in eastern europe and russia, exposing their mob connections.  His attempts to get  law enforcement involved go largely ignored.

While the US comes across as either willfully incompetent or good naturedly handicapped by the lack of international cooperation depending on the agency, the British are well ahead and actually pioneer international cyberlaw enforcement through new fashioned detective work.  Enter Andrew Crocker a British detective and pioneer in eastern european cybercrime investigation.  Andrew builds trust with Russian law enforcement the Russian way, heavy drinking.  He manages to get stationed in Russia and actively pursues one cell of Botnet controllers responsible for early DDOS attacks. Through perseverance and guts he pursues the criminals through a corrupt legal system and organized crime, eventually securing one of, if not the, first cybercrime conviction in russia for international crimes.  Despite all the effort his methods fell by the wayside after the post 9/11 shift in security resources towards terrorism.  Only now, over a decade later is the true threat of cybercrime becoming widely apparent as Menn alludes in his final chapters.  We are left with a system whose defenders are informal groups of dedicated and skilled whitehats.  We need them now more than ever.

The Swerve

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
By Stephen Greenblatt
356 Pages

Greenblatt chronicles the fortuitous discovery and reintroduction of Lucretius’  epic poem De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) by the fascinating Poggio Bracciolini.  The story is told mostly as a narrative focused on the main character of Poggio, a 15th century Humanist, book hunter, papal secretary, social climber and admirer of ancient thought.  The story fluidly weaves together Greek and Roman Epicurean philosophy and its accompanying historical context with middle age monastic scholarship and the budding Humanist enlightenment.  Greenblatt (Editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature) highlights the Epicurian ideas expressed in beautiful prose in the poet Lucretius’ masterwork and their refraction throughout a diverse collection Enlightenment though and literature including everything from the works of Shakespeare to Montaigne to Jefferson. De Rerum Natura appeared in the mid 1st century BC  and expressed radical ideas including atomism, a material soul, the lack of an afterlife, advocacy of the pursuit of pleasure, and a theology that dismissed god as taking an active role in the world.  Suppressed by early Christianity these ideas survived, ironically, only by the heroic and wrote efforts by monastic scholars who copied the works and preserved the knowledge while keeping it tightly controlled.

Greenblatt concentrates mainly on the historical context of the poems’ creation, disappearance and  rediscovery giving details of 1400 and 1500 papal corruption and political upheaval, Roman decline, dark age monasticism and early Greek and late Roman though with very  little study of the actual poem itself.  This is not entirely bad as it gives the reader a taste of  what Lucretius has to offer and motivates them to pursue the actual text.  In summary Greenblatt has taken one chance moment in history (the swerve) and weaved it into a thoroughly enjoyable tapestry connecting ancient and modern thought.  This book is highly recommended for anyone with interested in middle european history, literature, and the connection between ancient thought and the birth of Humanism.