We Are Bellingcat: Global Crime, Online Sleuths, and the Bold Future of News

Eliot Higgins (2021)

The history of a still-evolving open-source intelligence collective.

Intelligence collection and analysis used to be limited to governments and a handful of companies. Not any longer: the tools are available on the open internet. Eliot Higgins realises that he can use them to investigate news stories, including the shooting-down of MH-17 over Ukraine. It’s this investigation, in which he and his volunteer analysts manage to argue convincingly that the culprits were Russian-backed separatists using Russian anti-aircraft missiles, that really demonstrates how much information can now be found and cross-corollated. The result is for formation of Bellingcat, an amorphous group of international investigators organised in a way that closely resembles that of an open-source software project, where all that matters is an individuals’ ability and willingness to share findings, and to have them challenged and possibly refuted in the search for the best explanations.

The book was written before the Russian attack on Ukraine, and so will demand a follow-up given Bellingcat’s deep involvement in tracking the conflict and digging-into the details of individual incidents.

5/5. Finished Thursday 16 June, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Childhood’s End

Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

An entirely unexpected take on alien invasion. The aliens come, take over – and then allow humanity to proceed as its wants, without revealing themselves or really taking much control at all. Why? What are they hiding? And how is it that, when they do reveal themselves, they look so familiar?

The reasons are all thought out with the rigour and open-endedness you’d expect from Arthur C. Clarke. The very fact that he can build such a narrative is a testament to his abilities as a world-creator, with an ability to pose questions and then not answer them definitively without this spoiling the enjoyment of the story.

4/5. Finished Monday 13 June, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Electronic Brains: Stories from the Dawn of the Computer Age

Mike Hally (2005)

Some lesser-known tales from the early days of computing. It doesn’t provide any new aspects on the stories that are well-trodden, but does illuminate some corners that deserve more attention: the role that the Lyons company of cafes had in transitioning computing from scientific calculations into commercial applications, and the contributions of the Soviet Union to the development of different hardware techniques. (Most of the latter seemed to be carried out in Ukraine.)

4/5. Finished Friday 10 June, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Time on Rock: A Climber’s Route into the Mountains

Anna Fleming (2022)

A modern rock-climbing autobiography. The thing that struck me most (as an ex-climber) is how little the culture and terminology have changed in the nearly thirty years since I was active. The ethos and approach have remained very communal and collaborative, with less of the competitiveness one sees elsewhere.

There were some changes, though, notably taking a climbing holiday on a Greek island, which is something I couldn’t even have dreamed of, before the era of cheap flights and European holidays. It certainly made a change from the damp of gritstone and gabbro!

3/5. Finished Thursday 19 May, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote (1959)

Reportage about a gruesome quadruple murder followed from beginning to end. It’s a deservedly classic tale, a “non-fiction novel” (as Capote described it) where the basic plot is true but with the dialogue and details elaborated for the sake of story-telling.

I first read this book about thirty years ago, and my perceptions of it this time are rather different to back then. There was a basic question I didn’t then ask, but should have done: what is the position of the author in this?

Capote as a character is entirely absent from the book, as is Harper Lee, who accompanied and assisted him. It’s since been revealed that Capote was in fairly close contact with the perpetrators, and had to wait – with increasing frustration – until they were executed and he could finally close (and publish) the story. He presented himself and the story differently to them than it was in reality, and there’s a slightly ghoulish aspect to the way he needed them to die for literary effect as much as for anything else: the death row and execution scenes are some of the most powerful in the book, and it really wouldn’t work without that end to the character arcs.

5/5. Finished Wednesday 18 May, 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)