2013 Book Report 4 – As Good As Dead – Mark Billingham.

Mark Billingham has created his own detective, Tom Thorne, and this book is the latest of his stories that I’ve read.

Thorne, like all good fictional cops, is a damaged character. His father was a regular character in the early books, and Jim Thorne was frequently a source of exasperation for a loving, but sometimes impatient son. When his father is killed it isn’t immediately clear whether he has been killed in revenge for Thorne getting his man in a previous book. In a later book, having started a relationship with a female police officer it falls apart under the pressures of the job they both do.

These dings and knocks form the backdrop for Thorne and his behaviour, and it probably helps to have been with Thorne for most of his previous stories.

In this book Thorne is called in to intervene in a hostage situation where a fellow policeman has been taken hostage by a distraught father whose son has apparently committed suicide in a youth offenders institute.

In a race against time Thorne has to re-investigate the sons death. It soon becomes clear that the boys death is not suicide, and the culprits have to be uncovered.

The story is pacey throughout, though the action never becomes confused. A whole slew of new characters are also introduced who could well serve again in future books (this has been a feature of the series so far).

I really enjoyed the book, an excellent addition to the series, and to be fair I have enjoyed all of its predecessors. I like the fact that Thorne clearly has a very strong sense of wrong and right, and is keen to stay in the right, but that he knows the world is not black and white, and that in the heat of the moment neither is he.


2013 Book Report 3 – Billionaires and Ballot Bandits: How To Steal An Election In 9 Easy Steps – Greg Palast

I bought this book before the American elections of 2012, but have only just got around to reading it. I didn’t really worry about that, I’m not American, I don’t have a vote in that country, so I didn’t need to fight disenfranchisement.

Eventually getting around to reading it was a strange experience. The election had been and gone, and Obama had won, despite, if Palast’s book is to be believed a massive and complex conspiracy to steal the election.

In summary, this book takes over where ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’ leaves off. Bush was successfully gifted his presidency by a concerted effort to disenfranchise those who are most likely to vote Democrat. Having engineered a machine for removing voters who are likely to vote for your competitor the Republicans had discovered a way of winning elections that didn’t rely on you persuading the majority to vote for you.

The difference since the earlier book is the change in law usually referred to as ‘Citizens United’ which allows essentially unlimited political spending by corporations. This has skewed the system enormously as detailed in this dense, but wonderfully readable book. Greg Palast has a wonderfully conversational style where you almost feel like you might be sitting in a bar with him as he expounds on his investigations.

One thing that is interesting, reading this book with the gift of hindsight is that it makes it clear why Karl Rove so famously refused to believe even Fox News when it called Ohio for Obama. It wasn’t self belief in terms of thinking Romney had the better message, it was self belief that all of his dirty tricks would deliver the election to Romney. The video of him ordering the Fox anchor to go and check with the statisticians is wonderful, if only because of the obvious butt-hurt that it is causing Rove!

A strongly positive point of this book is that Palast is quite clear firstly that this isn’t a Democrat v. Republican thing. Both parties have some history of blocking voters, but the Republicans have raised it to a whole new level. Palast clearly believes that the aim should be that all voters who are eligible and willing should be able to vote and have their vote counted. If this were to hand power to one side or the other then that would be acceptable in Palast’s view because democracy would have been served. I would guess that he sees Obama as the lesser of two evils, but also considers him to be in the same thrall of billionaire backers.

One point of order that I would make is really one of editing. Most of the chapters in the book are derived from articles in magazines like Rolling Stone and papers like the Guardian. Care has clearly been taken to make the book into a homogeneous whole, but there isn’t any real indication either at the start of the book, or throughout as to what the 9 steps are for stealing an election. At the end of the book the steps are named. I would like to have seen the steps named in some sort of introductory chapter and maybe grouping of chapters into sections that matched the steps. However, this is just because that sort of meta-structure for the book would have suited the way my mind likes to work.

To summarise, an excellent book, easy to read and digest. The tale that it told did less to stoke my ire than the Mark Thomas book Extreme Rambling as the story had, for the time being a positive outcome. Of course US citizens will need to continue to be vigilent to avoid mass disenfranchisement, but they will, for the time being, be far too worried about their right to shoot each other with impunity than with having their vote counted. I also loved the little comic book summary of the contents of the rest of the book. I skipped the cartoons on my way through the book, but then enjoyed them after finishing the text. Somehow it felt refreshing to skip through a summary of the books contents in an even easier to digest form. I think every serious book should have this kind of insert from now on.

The book I read was the paperback, but it is also available on Kindles. The Amazon link is: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1609804783

There Needs To Be A Word For…

I was listening to Radio 4’s Documentary of the week (last weeks one) titled ‘Do I Have The Right To Be Forgotten?’. It is an interesting exploration of the way that we all put information about ourselves on-line, and we may, in the end, live to regret it.

It got me thinking, and I did something that I haven’t done for a while. I googled myself!

I have a pretty unusual, but not unique name, so I found, as expected, a few hits. Most of them I was already aware of. Some were emails on mailing lists which I sent back in the early days of my Linux usage. They are mildly embarrassing as they show how little I knew back in the day, but they were written a long time ago, and I have learned an awful lot.

There are a few photographs, but not many. They only got indexed if I uploaded them via Ping.fm.

There are some of my namesakes, many of these results are from Facebook. This pleases me because I have deliberately set my Facebook privacy in the past in order to minimise my exposure. This was something I did when I was unemployed and furiously job hunting. Most of the matches that are there are people I am already aware of. I have a namesake living in Spain, but who was originally from the UK. All well and good.

But then I saw a Facebook hit. One of my namesakes is a US citizen who has changed his profile picture to show his solidarity with the National Rifle Association.

Now I know that having the same name as someone doesn’t mean you should expect to share the same philosophies, but to find someone who you would consider abhorrent, that is a bit different. There should be a feeling for the quesy, uncomfortable feelings that that evokes.

Maybe ‘nominative-shameguilt’?

2013 Book Report 2 – Extreme Rambling – Mark Thomas

Another Tuesday, and I have reached the end of another book. Yeah for me. I read this book on my Kindle, the book is available here.

Mark Thomas is a stand up comedian who has also written a fine line of books on subjects ranging from the arms trade to Coca-Cola.  As a left wing comedian his stage shows are often a virtual diatribe, but delivered with, in my opinion warmth and humour. Of course, I tend to agree with his politics, so I enjoy the content.

This new book is an attempt to combine Mark’s love of that peculiarly British pastime, the Ramble, with an investigation into the impact of Israel’s ‘security barrier’.

Israel’s wall is, according to the Israeli government, purely about security. But Mark makes a strong (some would say irrefutable) case that the wall is actually more about crushing the idea of a Palestinian state by cutting off access to farm land, water and jobs.

Not for the first time while reading one of Mark’s books I felt a mixture of sadness and fury. Sadness at man’s inhumanity to man, and fury at the way that Israel has de-humanised and degraded the Palestinians while aided and abetted by America.

Mark Thomas manages to walk with activists from both sides who oppose the wall, he even meets activists who are open in their desire to crush the Palestinians. Understandably, given that his sympathies do not lie with the pro-wall, Palestinian hating activists, these people get short shrift. The fact that he talked to them at all must be considered a positive. I felt sullied just by reading the reports of the encounters, I think I would have felt moved to the verge of violence in a face to face meeting with them.

Having finished reading I decided to have a look at the Amazon comments on this book. I was interested to see that there were almost no votes in the ‘3 stars’ range, but lots in the 4 and 5 star categories  There were also large numbers in the 1 star. Reading the 1 star comments it was clear that these were comments that were made, not because of style, or, in most cases language or grammar. These were comments where the reader had disagreed with the political stance taken in the book. Fortunately such people are in the minority, with all the governments of the world, with the exception of America (and occasionally their smaller proxies) recognising both that the wall is illegal and a massive hindrance to any sort of long term peace. Unfortunately, with the USA bank-rolling this genocidal project it is unclear where the region will go from here.

I did find myself, rather simplistically, I admit, horrified at the treatment of the Palestinians by Israel. If any group of people should be wary of labels which allow you to dehumanise and degrade people, then surely it should be the Jewish peoples of the world. But seemingly, the politicians and extremists on the Israeli side willingly use this tactic to allow collective punishment of the Palestinians. And of course, at the end of the day they call upon their ancient book to justify their actions. Yet another reason to decry religion and the religious.

In summary, an excellent read, well paced and informative. On a Kindle the maps and pictures weren’t very clear, but I know from long experience that I never really keep map information in my head, so I tend to skip over such things, returning to the text instead.

Shiny, Shiny… See, It Excites.

I have a little project at the moment. One of the research groups has ordered two brand new iMacs (21″ screen, i5 processors and oodles of ram).  They are actually going to be using them in laboratory experiments, testing subjects using a piece of software which is Windows specific.

At this point, you may be wondering, as I did, why purchase Macs to run Windows software. The only explanation is that the group supervisor is a Mac-ophile, and nothing else would do.

Initially the plan was to purchase and install Parallels, but for reasons that no-one (not even the Apple Sales Rep) can fathom, Parallels isn’t listed as an item for sale through the Cambridge specific version of the Apple store. While I was trying to get this sorted out I floated the idea of using BootCamp and configuring the Macs with dual-boot. This seemed to be a popular idea, so I am now trying to get the Macs set up this way.

The Macs themselves arrived at the beginning of the week, and I got the copy of Windows to install yesterday. So I unpacked one of the machines ready to carry out the install.

Being new Macs they are the slimline models. And of course that means that they come without a built-in DVD drive. This isn’t the first time I have hit this issue of a Mac without a DVD drive. The first time it was a researcher who arrived with a MacBook Air and an installation disc for Microsoft Office. It was then that I discovered that Apple expect users either to shell out for an external drive or to have a second computer that you can use  either to host the installation media. Obviously this isn’t a huge problem in that I do have a desk full of computers, but I can imagine it being a real ball-ache in the real world!

Anyway, I am now using my desktop machine to generate an ISO file of the installation disc which is being written to a USB stick (fortunately I have suitably large USB sticks on hand). I am doing this, obviously, on my Linux desktop, but I know that the Disc Utility in Mac should be able to do this, and I assume that there are tools in Windows too.

The command to generate an ISO file and write in to the disc in my case is:

dd if=/dev/disk/by-label/UDF\\x20Volume of=/media/KINGSTON/winstall.iso

The command takes a while to run, but can be left chugging away in the background. Then, when it is complete you can un-mount the USB stick and return to the Mac.

BootCamp Assistant is shipped with all modern Macs, and will take the ISO that you have just created and turn it into an installation disc. To do this I transferred the ISO from the USB stick to the desktop, then gave the USB stick as the target for the disc creation process and the ISO as the source. At this point the software unpacks the installer onto the USB stick, then downloads appropriate drivers for the hardware and then partitions the hard drive (it gives the option to adjust the partition sizes). Then the software completes the partitioning process and reboots the computer, beginning the Windows 7 installation process.

The Windows installation is familiar territory. Choosing options was a little laborious as the Apple Magic mouse wasn’t working, so there was lots of tabbing between options. And when I was presented with the options for which disc partition to install to, it wasn’t obvious, especially as all of them were marked as not being suitable. A quick check online, and it was apparent that the correct option was the partition marked ‘bootcamp’, but that you have to format it before use (to format the disc as NTFS).

In the classic Windows style, installation features numerous reboots (at the first reboot you have to unplug the USB stick to prevent the installation starting again). When installation was complete the resolution was shot and the wireless, mouse etc still didn’t work. Plugging the USB stick back in I found a folder which included Mac extras, basically the drivers for the hardware. Double clicking the setup and allowing the installation fixed all the hardware issues.

One last reboot, followed by installing MacAfee anti-virus (the University has a site license), Google Chrome for browsing and then the 103 ‘important’ updates. This is going to take a while, and will probably require more restarts! But I’m getting there. Time for lunch before my afternoon meeting.



2013 Book Report 1 – Moranthology by Caitlin Moran

I have decided to buckle down and try and get more reading done this year. My aim would be to read one book a week, and one week into the new year I have finished my first book.

Moranthology is a collection of various newspaper columns from Caitlin Moran. One of those books that you can pick up and absorb in little, bite-size pieces. The most recent equivalent for me are the various Charlie Brooker books.

Moran is a fascinating writer, home schooled, but gifted with a voracious appetite for reading and a wonderfully dynamic writing style. Each piece felt snappy, a little gobbet of words and ideas easily digested and savoured.

The majority of the articles are light hearted. In some ways this is in marked contrast to the previous book ‘How To Be A Woman’ which was a treatise on feminism in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Some of them are even laugh out loud, especially the supposed late night conversations between Moran and her husband. The very frivolity of much of the book strengthens and highlights those few articles that aren’t so frivolous.  One column talking of favoured holiday destinations quietly, achingly sadly mentions a miscarriage, almost as an aside. I can imagine the aside is as close as the writer can bear to get to such a sad moment, but its very light touch makes it somehow even more affecting for the reader.

One last point. This is a good book to read on a Kindle. Moran is often found dropping arcane terms into her articles. If I were reading a normal book I would probably plan to look the words up in a dictionary when I got home, but with a Kindle it was just a matter of moving the cursor to the word in question.  Who knew there was such a word as greige, a sort of drab grey beige!

In summary, I loved this book. Thank you Caitlin.

Raspberry Pi Now Up and Running.

I got a Raspberry Pi (http://www.raspberrypi.org/) for Christmas. I didn’t really have much chance to have a play with it over the break. But this afternoon Lizzie was off to a Pantomime with her Grandparents so I took the opportunity to have a proper play with this little box of tricks. Initially I plugged it into our TV, a ‘normal’ old CRT model.

The initial setup is simple and it boots wonderfully quickly. I did discover that my Logitech wireless keyboard and mouse are only found when the USB dongles are plugged in. This means that if I reboot then I need to replug them. I would investigate this in the longer term, but I am planning on using the Pi largely through an SSH connection while it sits on my network.

Having confirmed that the Pi boots successfully and that the SSH server was configured to start on boot I disconnected the Pi and moved it to the study where it could sit connected to the router.

Having started the Pi again I tried SSH’ing from my laptop. This was easy, though I plan to get up a certificate to handle access rather than use a password in the future.

To view graphical programs on the Pi simply SSH using the command:

ssh -X raspberrypi

Then suitable applications can be launched from the command line and they will be displayed as X Windows on the desktop.

I took some time to add some of my favourite programs to the system. Obviously this includes the mighty Emacs, and the related Emacs Goodies. I won’t be able to use the trick of using the shared initialisation files held in Dropbox as my Dropbox is currently more than six times larger than the SD card that the Pi is running off!

Over Christmas my family kept on asking what is it for, but I don’t think that Pis have to be for something… they are just a brilliant demonstration of what is possible keeping computing simple. Now I have a working system I can see what fun things occur.