“Spam Nation: The Inside Story of Organized Cybercrime-From Global Epidemic to Your Front Door” by Brian Krebs, 2014

DCF 1.0“Spam Nation”  is an account of the various internet scams and the story behind the major players in this mostly Russian based crime arena. The time period Brian Krebs covers is from the late nineties through the first half of 2014.  At the end of the book is a summary of the state of internet crime in 2014 and steps that individuals can take to mitigate theirs risks of becoming victims. The types of scams he goes into include: spam, internet pharmacies, scareware (bogus threats pretending to be from law enforcement to intimidate users into paying ransom to get their computers unlocked), fake anti-malware (intended to bait users into downloading and thereby introducing a virus into their system that can take over their machine), identity and password theft.  He doesn’t include hacking by governments and hacking aimed at corporations.

Several interesting points came up as I was reading this.  The first is that so much, perhaps most of the cybercrime is based in Russia and some of the former Soviet countries like Belarus and the Ukraine. There are historical reasons he gives for this.  Another interesting point is the subject of “Botnets” and how individual computers can be subverted to spam other machines without the owner even realizing it.  Armies of these machines are commandeered and sold in the underground market for perpetrating attacks and other nefarious purposes. The most interesting section of the book to me was about internet pharmacies.  Many of these sites pose as “Canadian pharmacies” and are actually based in Russia and source their drugs anywhere in the world they can find the cheapest price at that given moment.  One impediment to stopping them has been that the pharmaceutical industry and the US government have resisted having samples analyzed because  99.9% of the time they are chemically identical to the medications that we pay so much for in the US.  The problem for customers is that using them for long periods of time increases the chance of getting a bad drug.  Some customers have purchased drugs with lead or uranium in them, for example, and suffered severe consequences.  Also interesting to note is that in Europe and other countries where medications aren’t as expensive or are covered, the greater number of sales tend to be for recreational purposes such as opioid pain killers and Viagra.  In the US where legitimate medications are unaffordable for many people, the greatest sales are for drugs to treat serious illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.  There are a few licensed pharmacies online, but they are vastly outnumbered by the fraudulent ones.  It is illegal for Americans to have drugs shipped to the US from foreign sources even if purchased through a licensed foreign pharmacy with a prescription.

Brian Krebs is an investigative journalist specializing in internet security.  His research for this book even included going to Russia and meeting with some of the cybercriminals in person (at some risk to himself).  The subject of cybercrime and cybersecurity is a rapidly evolving one and Brian Krebs maintains a website for the latest information; at http://krebsonsecurity.com/.  He also does frequent speaking and media appearances.  A final thought occurred to me while reading this book: how could so many revelations about cybercrime be uncovered by an individual reporter while eluding so many government agencies and internet corporations who have a stake in security?

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“Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories” by Alice Munro, 2001

DCF 1.0This collection of nine short stories by Alice Munro showcases her mastery of the form for which she was given a Nobel prize for in 2013. The Nobel prize is for her short stories in general rather than just this particular volume, however this collection also won a New York Times Editor’s Choice Award in 2001 for the  top 10 books of 1996-2000. She has won numerous other awards including the Man Booker International Prize in 2009.

Each of the nine stories is a stand-alone piece although there are certain commonalities running throughout all as to settings, themes, and types of characters.  They all take place in Canada, mostly in Ontario province or the Vancouver area.  Many feature life on the farm or in small towns.  The time periods are the 1950’s through the 1990’s.  The characters tend to be ordinary middle class or those struggling below the middle.  Many of the stories involve married couples with complicated extra-marital romantic interests.  Themes of aging, death and dying, bereavement, and the nature of close human relationships are examined.  Stylistically, the writing is straight forward with attention paid to the nuances of communication and the psychological layers of the characters.  The endings open up space for contemplation rather than clear-cut resolution.    The title is derived from the title of the first story which itself is the name of a game played by two characters, and alludes to the relationship themes throughout the book.

My two favorite Stories are: “Comfort” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain”.  In “Comfort” a high school biology teacher is harassed by creationists and eventually is forced to resign.  In the meantime he comes down with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.  His wife struggles to follow his wishes after they have made his end-of- life plans which tie into his conflict with religion fundamentalists.  An outside romantic interest crops up to further complicate issues.  In “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” a woman develops Alzheimer’s disease after many years of marriage and her husband, who in his younger days had some secret affairs, is forced to enter her into a nursing home. She forgets who he is and develops a close emotional bond with a man who is another Alzheimer’s patient, who is similarly married.  The two healthy spouses meet and also develop a relationship.  The ending is goose-bump worthy.

Quote from “Possibilities” by Herbie Hancock, 2014

DCF 1.0This quote is from the autobiography of jazz musician and composer, Herbie Hancock , entitled “Possibilities”.

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960’s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up.  The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength.  The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.  

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire.  Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming.  The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music.  We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What”, and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath.  And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong.  I don’t even know where it came from —it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit.  I think, ‘Oh, shit.’  It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right.  In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open.  What kind of alchemy was this?  And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction.  The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time.  But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it.  I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winded at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face.  He didn’t say anything.  He didn’t have to.  Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage.  As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the ‘wrong’ chord.  But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of ‘How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re doing?’  And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.  Miles trusted the band, and he trusted himself, and he always encouraged us to do the same.  This was just one of many lessons I learned from Miles.

This excerpt is representative of the tone and theme of Herbie Hancock’s book.   His story is one of great accomplishment in music and the development of an optimistic  personal philosophy influenced by Buddhism.  It was enjoyable and inspiring to read.

“Gray Mountain” by John Grisham, 2014

“Gray Mountain”,  is the latest offering by John Grisham, and number one on the New York Times bestsellers list,DCF 1.0 at the time of this writing.  As almost all of his other novels, this is a story of injustice, and a legal system that’s unable to rectify it.  The main character, Samantha, a young lawyer, is furloughed by her Wall Street law firm in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008.  She reluctantly takes an unpaid internship at a legal clinic in rural Appalachia.  Here, instead of 80 hours a week of reading and writing contracts, she is providing free legal assistance to poor people who are victims of the coal industry and seeing how her efforts can impact individual lives for the better .  Reluctantly, she takes a central role in fighting the coal companies’ illegal practices in strip mining and disregard for worker safety.  There is transformation of the main character and the broad view of how the legal system is manipulated by corporations to allow them to pursue their destruction of the environment and communities in the coal mining areas of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.  John Grisham’s background as a lawyer allows him to write legal stories with authenticity and accuracy in regards to the process of law.

I found the book exciting and greatly entertaining.  It was a quick and easy read and illuminating in the area of strip mining and its costs to the environment and people in Appalachia.  John Grisham has, once again, created a more just world in his story than the real world legal system can render.  In the back of the book he lists some of the real world champions of this struggle.

“Dataclysm, Who We Are When no one is looking”, by Christian Rudder

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“Dataclysm” by Christian Rudder in 2014, describes the recent and still emerging ability to analyze the human psyche  with data gleaned from the internet.   This method solves a number of problems researchers have had previously.  One being the lack of accuracy when asking people directly about personal attitudes and preferences, since people are usually less than totally candid about their true feelings.  Another being the greater number and variety of cohorts to coalesce data from.  This is especially true when studying subjects from narrow demographics who are not otherwise practical to gather in large numbers for traditional polling.  So for example, rather than asking college volunteers (because their the most available subjects in universities where such studies are done) questions about sexuality, or attitudes toward races, politics, or other personal inclinations and getting answers shaded by how the subjects want to appear, researchers can comb through data online and get more accurate answers by analyzing the data.   Christian Rudder is a statistician as well as one of the founders of “OKCupid”, an online dating site.  He gives numerous examples of questions that can now be answered more accurately.  One example is measuring the percentage of same-sex attracted men in the population.  One of his methods was to look at the number of searches for gay pornography in different parts of the country.  He found that it is relatively the same everywhere, in contrast to the number of self identified gay men which was lower in conservative areas.   Another example is the attitude of whites towards blacks.  When asked directly it is very difficult to find racist attitudes because people want to answer in politically correct terms.  However, when looking at the google searches for “n*gg**” around events as Obama’s first election, there are huge spikes indicating an underlying sentiment. The book contains a lot of graphs and statistics.  There are lots of specific examples to flesh out the general point that data from the internet offers social scientists a new way of getting a clear accurate answer to questions that couldn’t be done with prior methods.