Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon

Kim Zetter


A technical whodunit of the first order, rendered surprisingly readable without losing the scientific details.

This is probably as close we we'll ever get to the true story of Stuxnet. It opened up a whole new era of state (and non-state) competition, as well as exposing for all to see the intertwining of military and civilian concerns. What does it mean when a government finds a vulnurability in a computer system that might affect companies worldwide – and then exploits it as an attack vector rather than warning the software vendors and users to secure their systems? How should private security firms behave when they realise that they've found what is effectively collateral digital damage in civilian systems from the poor targeting of a weapon aimed at the institutions of another state?

Every computer scientist will find something of interest here, as well as pointers to things they'll want to dig into more deeply. (In my case, how to reverse-engineer a compiled piece of software that's been written using a non-standard language or compiler.) The wider social concerns are also fascinating, and will be a staple of ethics classes in the years to come.

Finished on Wed, 25 Aug 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

How Britain Ends: English Nationalism and the Rebirth of Four Nations

Gavin Esler

An analysis of the state in which the UK finds itself, with some policy prescriptions as to how to address the issues without breaking-up the state.

If only the UK were a properly federal state! Many other countries have similar tensions, but have proper constitutional structures in place to balance them (and to adjust those structures over time). The UK, by contrast, relies on the "good chap" theory of governance by which role-holders' actions are supposedly limited by their reverence for the norms and conventions of office. If people gain power who don't respect these limits, there are no checks and balances to prevent their misbehaviour. The "unwritten constitution" seems like it should be flexible and able to juggle competing interests, but turns out to be rigid in the hands of those determined to force a chosen outcome.

Esler correctly identifies "the vow" as emblematic of the problems. This was a public undertaking, given by the leaders of all main all-UK political parties before the last Scottish independence referendum, to move towards greater devolution if independence was rejected (which it was). But the vow was jettisoned in the light of the changing circumstances that led to the EU referendum, leaving Scotland bound to the UK and not to the EU: exactly the situation that the independence vote sought to avoid.

Esler is a Unionist, and sees a constitutional convention and federalisation as the way to save the Union. It's an opinion many have shared, but that many no longer do. His prescriptions strike me as logical, sensible – and unachievable given the history, politics, and individuals in play at the moment. And perhaps not even desirable given those constraints.

Finished on Mon, 16 Aug 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Orkney: A Special Place

Richard Clubley

A collection of anecdotes about life in Orkney, from an outsider who's decided it's the place for him. A little too glowing to be taken entirely at face value, but nonetheless full of human and historical detail.

Finished on Tue, 10 Aug 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 2/5.

Shards of Earth (The Final Architects, #1)

Adrian Tchaikovsky


A superb start to a space opera coming from an unexpected place: Earth is already destroyed, and the culprits are known but largely uncontacted and impossible to understand. A small number of other species seem to know something more of what's going on (but aren't sharing). Factions abound.

There are a lot of strands in play in this book. What will the effects be of human gene manipulation, and what happens when some (but not all) are willing to accept it? What sort of reactions will extreme threats provoke, and will there be a backlash against even what seems to be the most sensible plans? In that sense this is very much a book of its time, taking themes from modern right-wing revival politics and anti-vaccine rhetoric into the scenario of alien invasion.

Finished on Tue, 03 Aug 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City

Greg Grandin


A story that's hard to categorise.

In the early 20th century, Henry Ford needs rubber for his car tyres. He is persuaded to set up a plantation in the Amazon, where rubber originated, and thus to bypass the global market for rubber that's dominated by rubber grown in Malaya from purloined Amazon seeds.

But rather than simply do this, Ford also attempts some major social engineering. And not for the first time: other Ford facilities offer great wages, but at the cost of intensive domestic surveillance to ensure workers' compliance with Ford's social theories. As a result the master of capitalism falls foul of capitalism at work in providing services for his workers that he'd rather they didn't have access to.

The most amazing thing about this story, to my mind, is exactly how little time Ford's men spent on the problems of actually growing rubber, compared to the time they spent on labour relations that could easily have been side-stepped. The people trusted with managing the task were loyalists without strong technical backgrounds, and it's hard to see them surviving in roles that were more central to the Ford enterprise.

Finished on Tue, 27 Jul 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides

Adam Nicolson


An elegy to a Hebridean island through time.

The author is the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, and son of the man who last purchased the Shiant Islands (pronounced shant) that sit in The Minch off Lewis. The book is an homage to them. Not, as might be expected, a tale of living on the islands, which Nicolson never does for any extended period of time. Instead it tells the story of finding out about when they were inhabited, and how that habitation came to an end around the turn of the nineteenth century as the cash and market economy took over from the more self-sufficient one that had previously been in place. It's hard to say this was an improvement for the islanders, but equally hard to say that many would now seek out the kind of life they lost.

The main resonance here is with The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, in which Robert Macfarlane covers a lot of similar ground (and water). It makes no attempt to "sell" island life for what it isn't, and is dismissive of attempts at "structured" conservation in place of enlightened private ownership. It's hard to accept this argument, or at least hard to feel safe assuming that all future generations will be enlightened in the same way – although that's perhaps true of government quangos as well.

Finished on Fri, 09 Jul 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs

Michael T. Osterholm


Sub-titled as being by the man who predicted the pandemic. He didn't, of course, he predicted a pandemic – which he expected to be of influenza, not coronavirus, which was relegated to a "regional" risk.

That's not a criticism of this book, however, which is a powerful exploration of the world's state of preparedness for pandemics and – more importantly – some very detailed policy prescriptions to improve that level that are now even more relevant given what we know about pandemic spread in the modern world.

The style is a mixture between personal anecdotes and broader perspectives: very characteristic of Mark Olshaker, whose style I think I could have recognised (from Mindhunter: Inside the FBI's Elite Serial Crime Unit and The Cases That Haunt Us, which is co-write with John Douglas) even had I not seen his name on the cover. It gives an immediacy to the content that otherwise risks becoming lost in a maze of science and politics.

Finished on Thu, 01 Jul 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Stalin's War

Sean McMeekin


Even those who are familiar with Second World War History, and with Stalin, will find a huge amount in this book. It's a complete take-down of the usual western-centric perspective of both the war and its background diplomacy.

It's hard to comprehend the degree of duplicity displayed by Stalin, other than as an utterly ruthless and unswerving devotion to both the short- and long-term benefits of any agreement to the USSR. No lie is too brazen, and no-one remains un-betrayed. It renders the war in the West unavoidably morally compromised, as Britain and France fight Germany over its treatment of its neighbours while not fighting the USSR which has invaded just as many of its neighbours. Having said that, it's clearly rather fantastical of McMeekin to suggest that this could have been rectified by the Allies fighting the Russians too in defence of free peoples: no matter that it would have been an unsaleable proposition at the time, it's hard to see how it would have enormously altered the broad strokes of what followed had the Nazis still knocked-out France.

The Western leaders come out very badly: Churchill, but especially Roosevelt. The former is too romantic and too old-world to cope with the diminished nature of Britain's place in the world; the latter is clearly entirely taken in by his belief in his own ability to charm and manage anyone, with this belief being fed by a collection of NKVD assets and Communist fell0w-travellers embedded in the US foreign services. Both are comprehensively outclassed. It's shocking to read of Roosevelt's treatment of Churchill in the wider context of the Lend-Lease programme, from which Russia receives a cascade of material for free while the British receive substantially less and are required to pay exorbitantly for it. It's also shocking in this context to read that the Red Army's supply base from Lend-Lease left it so overwhelmingly superior in men and machinery to the Wehrmacht – and yet still took almost unimaginable casualties in almost every encounter.

McMeekin's overall view of the war is that the Russians won in terms of their final positioning in the world, and that both Lend-Lease and the looting of German and the other countries of Eastern Europe positioned them as a superpower ready for the Cold War. It's a hard diagnosis, but one that's also hard to counter.

Finished on Mon, 28 Jun 2021 05:57:51 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Savage arena

Joe Tasker


Still one of the greatest mountaineering books ever written, all the more poignant for being posthumous. It's the book that first fired my imagination for the mountains.

The climbs that Tasker tackles (with a variety of "great names" from British muntaineering of the era) gradually grow in severity – although starting with the north face of the Eiger is hardly a normal progression! His honesty in describing his feelings is remarkable, not least because they're generally feelings of technical and emotional inadequacy. These are set amid quite epic descriptions of climbing challenges and the (often grim) reality of being on expeditions in the Himalayas.

Tasker often compares his own emotional state to that of his companions, notably the notoriously self-contained Dick Renshaw and equally notoriously voluble Doug Scott. It's hard to know from this book what they would have thought of him: he gives the impression of being rather inscrutable himself (an impression that Chris Bonnington reinforces in his forward). It's perhaps a trait that served him well on the walls when the going got especially tough, as it did frequently. He finds himself repeatedly questioning his motivations for climbing without reaching too much of a conclusion. He seems simply to accept it: it's what he does, there doesn't have to be a reason, and the dangers and isolation are simply part of the cost. It never feels over-examined.

Finished on Mon, 21 Jun 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.