Avast blog: A Bruce Schneier reader

Bruce Schneier’s work has withstood the test of time and is still relevant today.

If you’re looking for recommendations for infosec books to give to a colleague – or even to catch up on some holiday reading of your own – here’s a suggestion: Take a closer look at the oeuvre of Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and privacy specialist who has been writing about the topic for more than 30 years and has his own blog that publishes interesting links to security-related events, strategies and failures that you should follow. In my blog post for Avast today, I review some of his books.

Book review: A Small Affair by Flora Collins

This was a difficult novel for me to get into for some reason. You don’t really know the four central women that are part of a very toxic and twisted relationship: Two are sisters, both interested at different times in the same man, one of whom she marries and is about to have her second child with when they are both found early on in the book dead in their house. The other two women are friends of the sisters at varying times over the course of ten years. One of them was the murdered husband’s lover shortly before his death, and is eviscerated by the press over that relationship. It took me several tries to get past the first couple of chapters before I could interested in the book, and then the plot thickens. We find out what happened the night of the murder, how the four were introduced, how their lives took various turns and how this novel is really the poster child for bad friendships and relationships. The venality of the women involved is breathtaking and fascinating — it is like watching a huge traffic pile-up on a snowy freeway — but the setting in the modern social media era where oversharing your life can lead to disasterous consequences rings quite true.


Book review: The boys from Biloxi by John Grisham

The boys in this novel are from two families and tracks their lives. One chooses a life of crime, the other of public service. We see the boys as they compete in school sports together and then gradually grow apart into their respective careers. One of the things that I like about Grisham is that his characters seem so true-to-life: we are witness to their triumphs and challenges, loves and friendships both won and lost to moments of critical decisions and fate, The plot takes place in and around Biloxi Miss. and the decades around its infamous coastal “strip” of bars, brothels, and gambling parlors. I found the book as engaging as his other novels, and while a bit heavy on the court scenes, no more so than necessary to move the narrative and characters along. Highly recommended.

Avast blog: Review of “The Chaos Machine” by Max Fisher on the evolution of social media toxicity

The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our WorldWith the reinstatement of previously banned Twitter luminaries including Donald Trump and Kathy Griffin, this is a good time to do further research into the role of social media in our public discourse. The recent book by Max Fisher, The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World, should be on everyone’s reading list. His book documents the rise of social networking for the past decade and shows its highly influential role in society. Fisher is a reporter for the New York Times who has covered its effects for many years.

I review his book for my blog for Avast here. I highly recommend it, even if you think you have been following along the evolution — some would say the devolution — of social media.

One solution is from Google’s Jigsaw unit, who has a couple of experimental tools freely available, such as the Tune browser extension that can be used to filter the most toxic discussions.

Book Review: Dead and Gondola

A bookstore in a small Colorado ski town is at the center of a murder. The sisters who own the store imagine themselves as amateur sleuths and you meet many of the townsfolk, all of whom have secrets to keep and interesting lives that unfold over the course of the following days. The characters are all charming in their own special ways, and there is a lot of classic drawing room murder mystery setups as one or another comes under suspicion. If you are a fan of bookstores or ski towns, you will appreciate the setting even more so.

The book is available on AMZ here.

Book review: Mother Daughter Traitor Spy

The novel tracks pretty closely to the real-life mother/daughter duo that lived in LA in 1940 and spied on a group of American Nazis who were organizing various meetings and propaganda efforts before we officially entered WWII. The two infiltrated the group, taking notes and names and eventually providing the details to the FBI. What is interesting about this story is how many parallels we have with present-day America, and the power of disinformation and hate to polarize and energize the general public. The mother/daughter duo — who have German heritage — have various adventures as they try to keep up appearances and convince the Nazis that they are genuine sympathizers, even though they want nothing to do with them. Coming on the heels of the new Ken Burns documentary about American’s role during this period, it presents some thought-provoking choices that were made.

Book review: Tomorrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow: A novel by [Gabrielle Zevin]Normally when I finish a book I have some strong opinions either pro or con. I am of two minds with this novel by Gabrielle Zevin which is excellently written and an epic tale of its three principle characters. We follow their exploits for the next 20 years, starting when they are all in their late teens. If you are interested in computer gaming, the book portrays the world of game creators and the gaming industry very realistically — I covered this world as a tech journalist once upon a time. And the relationships of the trio — who form their own gaming studio and quickly become successful — is also very believable and interesting as they and the industry matures. The downside is that the ending is less than satisfactory as the author takes us inside a game itself that the characters play new roles. It just felt off somehow. Nevertheless, this novel is one of hope, of loves found and lost, of how people work together and work against each other in interesting ways that drives the plot forward. And maybe one day you will find those secret underground LA freeways that are posited in the book. (You ‘will have to read it to understand this reference.)

Finding the tell

What does the Greek king Ptolemy I, the way you type in your sentence endings, a WWII weather report, and the word “northeast” have in common? They are all clues to solving some of the grandest puzzles of all time, and what con men and magicians often call “tells” or personal habits that give away the game.

The 1987 movie House of Games has a wonderful take on tells that is actually central to its plot, so I won’t go into detail just in case you haven’t seen it yet. Even if you have seen it and know how it ends, it is still delightful to rewatch it years later. Another wonderful memory of mine is watching one of Penn and Teller’s magic acts where they repeat the same trick several times, each time providing a fake tell to fool you repeatedly about the trick. (Penn wrote the foreward of my first book about email BTW.) Magicians excel in having you focus on something other than what they are doing, so the tell is part of their act. Con men — such as card sharks and swindlers depicted in the movie — look for their mark’s tells so they can manipulate them into getting money.

I was reminded about tells and clues after reading The Writing of the Gods, a wonderful book that came out last fall by Edward Dolnick about solving the translations that appear on the Rosetta Stone. The book describes how two scholars tried over decades to make progress on the translation. It is a wonderful read, especially if you have interest in ancient Egypt, like solving codes and puzzles, want to hear about mathematicians behaving badly, or just interested in a fascinating description about life back in the day when colonial powers ruled the world and could just appropriate artifacts with never a care. Dolnick brings the puzzles of the stone to life for me, showing us the pure thirst for knowledge and showing the drive that these two men had in trying to figure out what was going on with the three languages written on that piece of rock.

As you might have guessed, the Ptolemy clue that opened this post is what got scholars working on figuring out how the text, which is written in three different languages, were related. Given that he was Greek, there was no easy way to write down his name using a word that was not part of the languages of ancient Egypt. The scribes had to spell it out, phonetically. The hardest part about the stone was the hieroglyphics, because they can play the role of symbols, letters of the alphabet, and grouped together to form ideas or other concepts.

One of my favorite stories about tells has to do with solving the German wartime codes Enigma and Lorenz. I have written about my visit to Colossus here. The tell used to break these codes had to do with knowing the vocabulary used by the military to provide the local weather report, and knowing that this report was usually placed at the top of each message. Given that the Allies recorded thousands of messages, they had a large corpus to use in their decodes.

But unlike these wartime puzzles, figuring out the Rosetta Stone had a major problem: you first had to find the context and get into the heads of the ancients without really any idea of what their lives were like or what they did. It is one thing to be solving a puzzle with contemporary references. It is another thing to try to reconstruct a dead language with no known speakers, and to do so by using yet another dead language.

Dolnick mentioned something in his book that got me looking further into our next tell. He was nice enough to answer my query with a link to this story in the NY Times which recounts the double-space-at-the-end-of-a-sentence debacle. The problem has to do with college essays, and having your parents write them, or more accurately, type them. Because those of us of a certain age learned to type back in the pre-PC era, we have this ingrained habit of using two spaces after a period. Kids who were digital natives didn’t have this habit, and college admissions staff could quickly recognize what parts of the essay were written by the parent as a result. If you didn’t know the context or the history, you probably would have missed this tell.

Finally, there is the “northeast” clue. Astute readers will probably recognize this as part of the decoding effort with the Kryptos sculpture at CIA headquarters. I wrote about this several years ago when I got a chance to meet Elonka Dunnin, who maintains a wonderful resource page here. The clue is from the sculptor, James Sanborn, who is trying to help people decrypt the final piece of the puzzle. And just to bring things to a delicious full circle, one of the passages in the sculpture relates to the diary of archaeologist Howard Carter on the day he discovered King Tut’s tomb in 1922. It is all about Egypt!

Book review: Suddenly Hybrid Provides Good Advice On How To Manage Our New Way Of Meeting

Karin Reed and Joseph Allen have written a great sequel to their book, Suddenly Virtual, titled, naturally enough, Suddenly Hybrid: Managing the Modern MeetingIt should be required reading for all of us as we try to keep up with the changing nature of work as we move into the third year of the COVID pandemic.

The authors have a few suggestions on how to improve hybrid meetings and other practical tips and tools to both run them and participate in them. This book will help you build upon the habits from our fully remote world over the past few years and use the collaboration tools found in videoconferencing platforms, even when we are conducting meetings in person or with hybrid audiences. It will help you figure out where an organization wants to land on the “hybrid meeting spectrum,” and remove any obstacles from fully realizing their benefits.

You can read my full review on Biznology here.

Book review: Ahead of the Game

As someone deeply steeped in the tech industry, I am embarrassed to admit that reading Ahead of the Game by Kevin Ryan (a business tech reporter) is the first time I have heard of Delane Parnell and his rise to run one of the most successful startups of the modern era. His company, PlayVS, has grown into an eSports powerhouse, and Parnell’s origin story is told with lots of verve and interest in this book.

Parnell showed early signs that he was going to be a great business leader. As a teenager, he leveraged his way from working in a cell phone store to becoming a partner and owning several of them in his native Detroit.

When he funded his first venture round, he was the third largest such round by a Black-owned business. PlayVS was responsible for recruiting thousands of high school gamers to participate in the first ever varsity-level gaming contests, with almost half of the players being in their first after-school activity ever. The story shows the numerous obstacles that the venture capital world — like the rest of society — places on successful Black entrepreneurs and how Parnell managed to overcome them to build his company. For all potential entrepreneurs, this is a must-read book.

My former boss Jason Calacanis interviewed Parnell at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in April 2020 on This Week in Startups. If you don’t want to read the book, you can watch the interview, where Parnell talks about going to Jason’s Launch event as a teenager and getting inspired by the conference and meeting other startups.