Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

The mole in the machine

Saturday, 17 September, 2016 0 Comments

Dame Stella Rimington was the Director General of MI5, the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence agency, from 1992 to 1996. After retiring from the world of enigmas, she turned her hand to writing spy thrillers, a genre she loved long before she became a spy herself. In July 2004, her first novel, At Risk, about a female intelligence officer, Liz Carlyle, was published. This was followed by Secret Asset, Illegal Action, Dead Line, Present Danger, Rip Tide, The Geneva Trap and Close Call.

Liz Carlyle is summoned to Switzerland in The Geneva Trap for a meeting with a Russian agent who has approached the British with an offer of information. But he will only speak to Liz. He tells her that there is a mole in the Ministry of Defence in London, working for an unnamed third country tasked with stealing information about a secret US-UK project involving the next generation of drones. When one of the drones ignores the instructions of its human operator and self-destructs, it becomes obvious that someone is able to gain control of them and the race is on to find the hackers. Who are they? The Russians, the Chinese, the North Koreans? Snippet:

“Clarity is concerned with the communication systems and commands sent to drones. We’ve developed protocols that let us send instructions to these new drones in natural language.”
“Natural?” asked Liz.
“As opposed to artificial – which is what computer languages are. Look.” And he flipped open the top of his laptop and tapped a key. The screen was filled with row after row of numbers and symbols. “That’s raw ASCII, the bits and bytes that tell this machine what to do.”
“Looks like Chinese to me,” said Peggy. Then realising what she’d said, blushed and added, “Oh, sorry. Let’s hope it’s not.”

Cyberwar: Moscow? Beijing? Pyongyang?

Friday, 16 September, 2016 0 Comments

“Over the past year or two, someone has been probing the defenses of the companies that run critical pieces of the Internet. These probes take the form of precisely calibrated attacks designed to determine exactly how well these companies can defend themselves, and what would be required to take them down.” Says who? Says the Chief Technology Officer of Resilient, an IBM company that “empowers cyber security teams to transform their security posture.”

That CTO is none other than Bruce Schneier, and when he talks, people listen. When he issues a warning, people should act. In his blog post Someone Is Learning How to Take Down the Internet, Schneier echoes the conflict of a previous era: “It feels like a nation’s military cybercommand trying to calibrate its weaponry in the case of cyberwar. It reminds me of the US’s Cold War program of flying high-altitude planes over the Soviet Union to force their air-defense systems to turn on, to map their capabilities.”

Fancy Bear But this is not the work of a data fundamentalist like Julian Assange or a data thief such as Fancy Bear, Schneier believes. To him, it feels like a large nation state is at work. “China or Russia would be my first guesses,” he says, although he accepts that the identity of the country of origin for the attacks now being mounted could be disguised.

All this reminds the avid reader of espionage thrillers of the time when a rogue Russian spy warned an MI5 agent of a plot to hack into a top-secret US-UK military satellite system. Tomorrow, here, we follow Liz Carlyle to Geneva as she tracks the moles.

The axis of cyber evil

Thursday, 15 September, 2016 0 Comments

On Monday, Ciaran Martin, the Director-General Cyber at GCHQ, outlined the British approach to cyber security at the Billington Cyber Security Summit in Washington DC. Very topically, he addressed email. Snippet:

“We need to make sure UK Government email is trusted, so we need to stop people spoofing our domain. To do that we’ve set a DMARC policy as a trial to stop emails from the wrong IP sets, or with the wrong key, from being delivered purporting to come from Well they do get delivered, but they get delivered to us, not the recipient — usually members of the public. And when we first trialled it, whoever was sending 58,000 malicious emails per day from the delightfully named isn’t doing it anymore.”

In an increasingly digitized economy, security is a critical currency. When Colin Powell wakes up and finds his hacked emails on the front pages of global media outlets, overall confidence in cyber security is greatly diminished and while his comments on Clinton and Trump might make for great merriment, we should condemn these intrusions because the cyber bell may toll for us one day, too. Just as it has done for the tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams, the gymnast Simone Biles, and the Tour de France winning cyclists Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins. Because when Ciaran Martin was speaking, the World Anti-Doping Agency was confirming that a Russian cyber espionage group known as Fancy Bear had accessed its Anti-Doping Administration and Management System database. The stolen information is now being broadcast 24/7.

People, businesses and institutions will be reluctant to share information in a digital environment they feel is fundamentally unsafe, and Ciaran Martin accepted this when he said that the internet may have transformed the way we live, “but it hasn’t completely changed our nature fostered over thousands of years. And nor are the groups who pose us harm particularly new.” They are stealing secrets, stealing money, stealing intellectual property, and they are pumping out propaganda that’s crafted to confuse and intimidate. Without naming Russia, China and North Korea specifically, he said:

We’ve got hostile states. Some of them are great powers, using cyber attacks to spy, gain major commercial and economic advantage or to pre-position for destructive attack. Others are smaller states, looking to exploit the relatively immature rules of the road in cyberspace to tweak the nose of those they see as bigger powers in a way they would and could never contemplate by traditional military means.”

Tomorrow, here, we’ll name the most hostile of these states.

“This is no way a dreadful book.”

Wednesday, 14 September, 2016 0 Comments

Truman Capote is supposed to have dismissed, immortally, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road by saying: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Dorothy Parker was typically acidic in spurning Lucius Beebe’s Shoot if You Must: “This must be a gift book. That is to say, a book which you wouldn’t take on any other terms.” And the old master of the put down, Mark Twain, put Henry James down thus: “Once you’ve put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up again.”

The diss is a staple of the reviewing industry and Lionel Shriver added to the lore in the FT Weekend section with a one-sentence appraisal of Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney. She wrote: “This is no way a dreadful book.” Ouch. ‘Nuff said.

Bright, Precious Days

Mrs Clinton’s deplorables meme

Tuesday, 13 September, 2016 1 Comment

Between her coughing attack in Cleveland last Monday and her collapse in Manhattan on Sunday, Hillary Clinton found time to generate a meme: “basket of deplorables”. Definition: “a meme is a humorous image, video, text, etc. that is copied and spread rapidly by internet users.”

In a speech she gave at a New York City fundraiser on Friday night, she said: “You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.” Thus, was the “basket of deplorables” meme born.

It prompted Ben Zimmer to post “Horribles and deplorables” at Language Log. Snippet:

Deplorables, whether or not they’re in baskets, fit a pattern we’ve observed in the past: adjectives ending in -able or -ible that are turned into pluralizable nouns… More generally, many adjectives ending in -able/-ible have spawned related noun forms: think of collectibles, convertibles, deductibles, disposables, intangibles, perishables, and unmentionables. Sometimes the noun overtakes the adjective: vegetable comes from an adjective describing something that is able to vegetate, i.e., grow like a plant.”

Donald Trump’s supporters were not interested in the etymology and on Twitter they were quick to post their anger using the hashtag #basketofdeplorable. It should be noted, however, that Mr Trump wished Mrs Clinton well yesterday in a TV interview, saying: “…something’s going on, but I just hope she gets well and gets back on the trail and we’ll be seeing her at the debate.”

iPhone 7 photos

Monday, 12 September, 2016 0 Comments

No, not photos of the iPhone 7; photos by the iPhone 7. The first thing that has to be said is these look like professional magazine photos, not smartphone photos. The depth of field is really impressive. Thoughts: Is this the final nail in the coffin of consumer stand-alone cameras? And will next year’s iPhone 8 camera allow 3D capture for object and VR? Anyway, here’s the story:

“On Sunday, Sports Illustrated photographer David E. Klutho took photos with the new iPhone 7 Plus camera at the Titans-Vikings game. The iPhone 7 Plus has a 12–megapixel telephoto camera that offers new zooming capabilities. Each new model also features a wider aperture and a lens that allows the camera to capture brighter and more vibrant colors in photos and videos.”

iPhone7 photos

The unforgettable Falling Man of 9/11

Sunday, 11 September, 2016 0 Comments

The photograph was taken by Richard Drew on 11 September 2001, and it shows a man plummeting from the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Today, on the 15th anniversary of the terror attacks, we should take time to read “The Falling Man” by Tom Junod, which appeared in Esquire on 1 September 2003, for this is magazine writing at its best: “He is, fifteen seconds past 9:41 A.M. EST, the moment the picture is taken, in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down.”

The Falling Man

Junod succeeds far better than anyone else who has written journalistically about that day in conveying both the instant of death and the length and meaning of a life. Quote:

“THEY BEGAN JUMPING NOT LONG after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building’s fatal wound. They jumped from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors — the top.

For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. One photograph, taken at a distance, shows people jumping in perfect sequence, like parachutists, forming an arc composed of three plummeting people, evenly spaced. Indeed, there were reports that some tried parachuting, before the force generated by their fall ripped the drapes, the tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from their hands. They were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way down lasted an approximate count of ten seconds.”

Never forget.

9/11 at 15

Sunday, 11 September, 2016 0 Comments

For the people who went to work in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001 and were mercilessly slaughtered; for the firefighters and the police who gallantly responded to the calls for help and were obliterated; for the passengers on the planes and the flight crews whose lives were extinguished in a terrifying moment, this poignant memorial is dedicated to you and yours.

“Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose. A pity that we let them pick the time and place of the challenge, but we can and we will make up for that.” — Christopher Hitchens

Paula Radcliffe: “The ability to run is a gift”

Saturday, 10 September, 2016 0 Comments

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always.” So writes Haruki Murakami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Clouds of all different sizes and big sky are constant presences in Run by the filmmaker Jack Weatherley. His subject is Paula Radcliffe, the English long-distance runner and holder of the women’s world record in the marathon with her time of 2 hours 15 minutes and 25 seconds, which she set in the Chicago Marathon on 13 October 2002.

After competing in the London Marathon last year, Paula Radcliffe announced that she had decided to end her long-distance running career. But she keeps on running.


Friday, 9 September, 2016 0 Comments

We end our anniversary week here with a reflection on L’Élégance du hérisson (translated into English as The Elegance of the Hedgehog) by Muriel Barbery. The book is narrated by the residents of a small upper-class Paris apartment block, mainly its secret-intellectual concierge, Renée, and Paloma, the radical teenage daughter of a neighbouring family. Nearing the end, Renée says:

“Yes, my first thoughts go to my cat, not that he is the most important one of all but, before the real torment and the real farewells begin, I need to be reassured regarding the fate of my four-legged companion… and I take the measure of how the ridiculous, superfluous cats who wander through our lives with all the placidity and indifference of an imbecile are in fact the guardians of life’s good and joyful moments.”


Now, I can confront the others.

Manuela, my sister, may fate keep me from being for you what you were for me: a safeguard against unhappiness, a rampart against banality. Carry on with your life, and think of me with joy.

There you are, Lucien, on a yellowed photograph, as if on a medallion, the way I see you in my memory. You are smiling, whistling… I did  love you well, after all, and for that reason, perhaps, I deserve to rest. We’ll sleep in peace in the little cemetery, in our village… In the evening, at sunset, you can hear the Angelus.”

Sometimes, you have to look back or look in the mirror to understand what lies ahead.

All you who sleep tonight

Thursday, 8 September, 2016 0 Comments

“Life is not easy for anyone here. Loss and fear, failure and disappointment, pain and ill-health, doubt and death – even those who have escaped from poverty have no escape from these. What makes life bearable is love – to love, to be loved, and – even after death – to know that you have loved and been loved.” Vikram Seth

The novelist and poet Vikram Seth divides his time between India, England, China and the USA. His most famous work is A Suitable Boy. Published in 1993, the book is one of the longest novels ever printed in the English language with its 1,488 pages and 591,552 words. A sequel, to be called A Suitable Girl, is due for publication next year.

At Evening

All you who sleep tonight
Far from the ones you love,
No hand to left or right
And emptiness above —

Know that you aren’t alone
The whole world shares your tears,
Some for two nights or one,
And some for all their years.

Vikram Seth

Evening candle