Saturday, July 13, 2019

Ghost in the Wires, by Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker

Subtitled "My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker" this is a rollicking story of how Kevin Mitnick became a computer break-in artist, how he eluded the FBI for years, and how he was eventually caught. It is a fascinating read; he starts by breaking into the phone company to make free long distance calls, and continually improves his skills and systems access until he can control tapping any phone. He stole thousands of credit card numbers and personal details, and created multiple false identities to evade the FBI when they caught on. Mitnick claims he never used any of these details for personal gain, but instead simply approached hacking as a problem to be solved—he wasn't interested in the credit cards, just the challenge of obtaining them.

Mitnick goes into great detail about how he got into so many systems, and that detail is fascinating. Most of his entry points weren't purchased on the dark web, but obtained through fairly straightforward social engineering. We hear all the time about how we are never supposed to give out passwords over the phone or provide detailed answers for people we don't know, but over and over again Mitnick does exactly that. For example, he'd call someone and ask if they were authorized for a particular system, and when they said yes he'd reply with something like, Your password is '0128.'" The person on the other end would respond, "No, no, no. My password is '6E2H." And just like that, Mitnick had another password. Simple.

Mitnick comes off as antisocial, narcissistic, and arrogant which is a bit surprising as he is the author; I'd expect he'd tone down his disdain for authority or contempt of social mores. He shows a staggering lack of remorse, and his regrets all center around him getting caught. While not very likable, his story is compelling and hard to put down. If you are in any way interested in cyber crime or the dark side of technology, this is a must-read story.

First Sentence:
My instinct for finding a way around barriers and safeguards began very early.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Barbary Station, by R. E. Stearns

Barbary Station (Shieldrunner Pirates, #1)

Space pirates versus murderous drones controlled by an insane artificial intelligence: not a bad hook! Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir are our heroes; two women that hijack a colony spaceship and take it to a space station run by pirates hoping to join their crew. What they find is the pirates hiding in the walls of the station and its security AI hunting them. The adventure is fairly by-the-numbers, but fun to read—kind of like an old Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon serial. The author isn't afraid to kill off characters which adds some surprise and gravitas in places, but the main characters are predictably safe throughout. Not a lot of humor, but I did like the chapter headings; each one listed the crimes that occur within, such as "Changes Accrued: Piracy, Assault and Battery, Theft." Not an amazing book, but a solid adventure perfect for a long airplane ride.

First Sentence:
Despite the darkness, the pressure on every centimeter of skin, and the smooth, flat plastic in front of her nose, Adda Karpe was not locked in a coffin in deep space.

Thursday, July 04, 2019

The Night Angel Trilogy, by Brent Weeks

The Night Angel Trilogy (Night Angel, #1-3)

This is a collection of three novels: The Way of Shadows, Shadow's Edge, and Beyond the Shadows. As such, it is a long read—almost 1200 pages not including the glossary and list of characters at the end. (The glossary and list are well worth reading; they have a fair amount of humor in them, which is sorely lacking in the main narrative.) The story follows a young thief as he apprentices to an assassin and with a magic artifact becomes one of the most powerful people in the world.

Weeks is clearly heavily influenced by George R.R. Martin: magical creatures, warring kingdoms, an incestuous queen, and a tendency to kill off major characters mid-novel. They both share a love for excessive gore as well; Weeks does not shy away from describing the horrors of the dungeon, slavery, or murder, often bordering on uncomfortable. A scene where it is discovered that dead women are being used as sculpture and furniture was particularly disturbing (and quite misogynistic). The biggest difference is that Weeks actually finished his series, where we've been waiting nearly a decade for the next volume of Martin's epic.

The plot is great, both gripping and compelling. The rest is a mixed bag, though. Many of the heroic characters experience some depth and growth, but the villains are largely one-dimensional. Magic plays a huge part in the story, but the mechanics lack definition; maybe I'm just used to Brandon Sanderson and L. E. Modesitt Jr. though. The descriptions of the land are pretty solid, but without a map it was difficult to judge distances and it seemed that the time to travel between places varied greatly. Overall, a great escapist read, perfect for a long airplane ride (or three).

First Sentence:
Azoth squatted in the alley, cold mud squishing through his bare toes.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Shades of Grey, by Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey

Set in the far-future, the world has experienced some sort of cataclysm and the resulting society is dictated by how much color perception one has. Greys (those that can't see color) are the rock-bottom, with the hierarchy following the rainbow after that (Reds just above Greys, Purples at the top). Much of history and technology has been lost, innovation and inquisitiveness are taboo, and a set of inconsistent and often nonsensical rules—spoons cannot be created, lunch is mandatory, counting sheep is forbidden, and the number 73 has been banned—are strictly enforced. Couple this with deadly swan attacks and roaming lightning balls and we have an amazing and madcap environment for an adventure.

Eddie Russet is the hero and narrator, and we follow his journey from a young adult to a leader. Along the way he gets a peek behind the curtain hiding the secrets of power in the land, and has to decide to take his place or revolt. The mystery is solid, although many of the characters are a bit one-dimensional: the brat, the bully, the schemer, etc. The setting is so rich, however, the superficial inhabitants aren't a drawback. Rich with sarcasm and dry humor, this is a rollicking read and difficult to put down.

First Sentence:
It began with my father not wanting to see the Last Rabbit and ended up with my being eaten by a carnivorous plant.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman (The Last Policeman, #1)

In 2011 scientists discover a huge asteroid that is going to hit the earth in about a year, ending life as we know it. As the world unravels with this news (economic panic and massive inflation, a staggering rise in suicide and cultism, people walking away from all responsibility) a young detective discovers what he believes is a murder, but is having a difficult time getting anyone to care. The mystery is a by-the-numbers affair, following one lead to the next, but what sets it apart is the hopelessness and apathy of pretty much everyone but the detective, Hank Palace. The secondary plot involves Palace's sister and a supposed government conspiracy, but that is left largely unresolved and I imagine fodder for future books. A fascinating setting, but I'm not sure I liked it enough to read the next in the series.

First Sentence:
I'm staring at the insurance man and he's staring at me, two cold gray eyes behind old-fashioned tortoiseshell frames, and I'm having this awful and inspiring feeling, like holy moly this is real, and I don't know if I'm ready, I really don't.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Four Hours of Fury, by James Fenelon

Four Hours of Fury: The Untold Story of World War II's Largest Airborne Invasion and the Final Push into Nazi Germany

Operation VARSITY was the largest single-day airborne drop in history, and Four Hours of Fury tells the story. I've read about Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the war in the Pacific, but hadn't ever heard of this operation which was the first push into Nazi Germany, signalling the end of WWII. Fenelon does an amazing job; facts and maps abound, but the focus on the combatants (enlisted and officers on both sides of the battle) keeps the story humanized. He has an amazing knack to toss in a sentence that seems amusing or light-hearted at first, but after more thought is covering the horrors of war. "Instructors reminded them that on an actual jump, if they didn't feel the opening shock of their chute by 4,000, they had the rest of their lives to deploy their reserve." The last sentence is flat-out heart-wrenching, capturing what every wife must have felt when getting a death notice: "There would be no fifth wedding anniversary celebration." Well-written, informative, and hard to put down—not a combination of traits I often ascribe to a history book, but they apply to Four Hours of Fury in spades.

First Sentence:
Three months before they dropped into Germany, the troopers of the 17th Airborne entered combat for the first time in a manner entirely different from how they'd been trained.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Alexander Hamilton

With the musical Hamilton making it to Austin this year I decided to read the book that inspired it before attending. A hefty tome—731 pages of narrative alone—but I managed to finish the day of the show. Very glad I did this; several friends said the show was hard to follow in places (especially around the actor playing Lafayette and Jefferson; his accent was thick and made him hard to understand even having heard the music before) but I was continually rewarded with recognition of where the songs matched the book. I found the musical to be excellent, and the book as well.

Other than Hamilton being the main author of The Federalist Papers, his visage being on the $10 bill, and his death as a result of a duel with the sitting Vice President at the time, my knowledge of the Founding Father was light on details. It is amazing to see how what he accomplished in only six years as the Secretary of the Treasury still affects us today. He fought for a strong central government and standing military led by the executive branch and for closer ties to Britian. He founded the US Mint, the first national bank, the Coast Guard, and the New York Post. His strong difference of opinion with Thomas Jefferson (who believed in strong state governments and a largely agrarian society) effectively created the political party system that still dominates politics now. Finally, Hamilton also was the first major American politican involved in a sex scandal, which in all likelihood prevented him from becoming President.

One quote that stuck with me: "[Hamilton] viewed 'hypocrisy and treachery' as 'the most successful commodities in the political market. It seems to the be the destined lot of nations to mistake their foes for their friends, their flatterers for their faithful servants." In our current era of amoral politicians, fake news, and idiological echo chambers this still rings true 226 years later. Hamilton was truly an impressive individual.

First Sentence:
Alexander Hamilton claimed Nevis in the British West Indies as his birthplace, although no surviving records substantiate this.

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