This week we journey with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as they break the biggest story in American History. There’s also…Chubby Batman.
Join us for – All The President’s Men
The home of freelance writer Martyn Casserly
This week we journey with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as they break the biggest story in American History. There’s also…Chubby Batman.
Join us for – All The President’s Men
In the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA and GCHQ surveillance activities, there has been a slew of books looking at how power is corruptly used to control the internet and the general populace. While many of these are certainly interesting reads (see my review of Data Vs Goliath for the impact on personal privacy for example) it’s not often that you get to see the other side of the coin represented in a non-sensational way.
The Internet Police comes as a palette cleanser then, with its focus on how policing has evolved online and why this is a positive force protecting people against the various neredowells and scams that pervade the digital world.
The law has, for the most part, always been reactive. Of course there are general societal norms which everyone expects to be maintained – don’t steal, murder, that sort of thing – but it often takes new approaches towards crime to cause laws to come into force. Essentially, if people don’t know it’s a problem then they’re not going to protect people from it. With The Internet Police Nate Anderson, deputy editor at the excellent Ars Technica, recounts the seminal cases of internet-based crime, and how this has brought about new legislation and police practice.
UK readers should know up front that the majority of the book focusses on US based policing, but that doesn’t detract from what is a very informative read. Actually, the book begins off the coast of the UK with HavenCo, a secure data centre built into the old legs of a North Sea naval fort. The reason for this less than sumptuous location was so that the company could declare the fort a sovereign principality, primarily to avoid prosecution for hosting shady sites. As you can imagine, this didn’t end well, but it is a good example of how modern policing has to contend with some very strange interpretations of legal statutes, and work around them to ensure that the law is upheld.
Throughout the following chapters we’re exposed to the dark and disturbing world of child pornography rings, webcam hijackers, fake pharmaceutical companies preying on men with low genital esteem, the origins of Spam mail, and a wealth of other people who thought they could hide behind their perceived anonymity online.
Anderson follows several cases closely, revealing how police first became aware of the crimes taking place, then the methods they needed to use to combat them. It’s not exactly as gripping as a detective novel, but does give an insight into how leads are followed up, legislation is created, and in some cases, how the bad guys still get away.
If the ongoing storm of distrust about governments and surveillance agencies is getting to be too negative for you, or you’re just interested in how the police force works online in the best interests of everyday people, then this book will maybe go some way to restoring your faith in the system.
While the world is enjoying the splendid celebration of science and Matt Damon that is The Martian, those who want to find out more about the realities of space travel and actual planned trips to Mars should head immediately to Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey.
Just to make things clear up front, this isn’t some cash-grab book hanging onto the tails of a huge motion picture, instead it’s a careful and diligently assembled history of the human need to explore, and where this will inevitably lead us.
Impey, himself a university professor with a few astronomy books already to his name, does a wonderful job in charting humanity’s journey from the earliest African adventurers who went in search of better lands, up to the theoretical travellers of the future who will take our species beyond the solar system for the first time.
Along the way he explores the early days of rocket science (with the accompanying political mire), relives the excitement of the Space Race, and explains the challenges facing those who would head out to the deeper parts of space in the years ahead. While this kind of topic does lend itself to an over-technical style of writing – the concepts are themselves actually quite complicated – Impey walks a fine line of keeping the reader engaged while opening up the ideas of Space Elevators, Dyson Sphere’s, and a number of other advanced theories, all without dumbing down or leaving non-engineering people behind.
Illustrations are scattered throughout the book, and prove very helpful in putting visual meat on the cerebral bones of Impey’s explanations. Not that Beyond is reliant on these, as the patient and knowledgeable writing style draws the reader in, aided in no small measure by the author’s obvious passion and fascination with the subject matter.
Naturally there are a few slower parts of the story, with the section on private space travel companies (such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space X) feeling a little more focussed on the entrepreneurial nature of their founders rather than the technology itself. That’s not to say that it’s boring, quite the contrary, but it does seem like something of a diversion at times.
The latter part of Beyond turns its attention firmly to long space travel, Mars trips, and how the human body can be affected by the extended journey times that these ventures demand. While many of the difficulties have yet to be overcome, with even theoretical solutions still falling short in some areas, the sheer inventiveness of thought that is going into this field makes for compelling reading. It’s this very resourcefulness and desire to shake off the confines of Earth, and to an extent physics itself, that Impey brings to the fore with such deftness.
In the opening chapter of the book he discusses the supposed ‘Restless Gene’ (which geneticists refer to as DRD4-7R, and which probably explains why they don’t write interesting books), and how the desire to explore is literally hardwired into a proportion of people. Thankfully this also seems to make its way into the occasional writer’s toolkit, with Impey being a prime example.
If you’ve ever looked up a the stars and thought ‘what if…?’, or sat through Interstellar, The Martian, or at a stretch Gravity, and wondered the same, then Beyond: Our Future in Space should be high on your reading wish list. Excellent stuff.
As a regular podcaster, with my show I Saw That Years Ago, microphones hold a bit of interest for me. Over the years I’ve tried a fair few, and when my old Zoom H2 developed problems recently I needed to quickly find a replacement.
My search led me to the Blue Snowball, which has been a perennial favourite of many people, and for good reasons. First of all it’s inexpensive, usually found going for around £50 online. Then there’s the fact that it’s actually quite versatile, with the higher end version (as reviewed here) offering three different recording modes – Cardioid, Cardioid with -10dB pad, and Omni-directional.
Aesthetically it’s also a very handsome device : the main body being spherical, hence the name Snowball, with grilled openings at the front and back. Manufacturer Blue increase this visual splendour by offering the Snowball in a number of colours including White, Blue, Green, Orange, Purple, and the rather fetching Chrome finish on this review model.
In the hand the ball-like microphone has a decent amount of heft, making it feel durable and expensive. It’s a little bigger than a tennis ball in real life, and once affixed to the included stand it can sit quite happily at chest height on a normal desk.
As the Snowball is a USB microphone there’s not much to do in regards of setup. I just plugged the device into my Mac, where it was instantly recognised and ready to go. Very handy for mobile podcasting, which is in fact where I went first.
Having a holiday booked, but shows still to record, I was pleased to find that the Snowball packed easily into a laptop bag without adding much in the way of bulk. The only real issue I had with it on my travels was the bemused look a customs lady gave me when I produced it from my luggage. At that moment it did resemble, with some accuracy, a thermal detonator from Star Wars. So I immediately demanded the release of Han Solo, and made my getaway on a passing baggage carousel.
Of course the main purpose of a microphone is to sound, rather than look, good. In this regard the Blue Snowball is again solid. As this is a condenser mic it’s very good at picking up a wide area of sound. On the standard cardioid setting, which was pretty much the only one I used, the Snowball proved sensitive enough to capture good quality audio while being positioned a foot or so away from my mouth. In fact I found the best results by having the mic sit to the right of my MacBook on a desk while I sat back in a chair. As I was travelling I didn’t want to have to pack a pop-shield, but this meant I couldn’t speak directly into the Snowball as it would invariably cause popping due to my sloppy microphone-technique.
The place I was staying was quite remote, and as such there was next to no background noise. This turned out to be important, as my home setup is in the heart of a city where it is very hard to block out the shouts and traffic noise of a metropolis, and the Snowball struggled more in this urban setting. Amidst my seclusion the sonic sphere proved a useful and sturdy companion. Recording was trouble free, and the amount of edits required due to noise or ‘plosives was acceptable. One thing I did find though, which is probably due to the entirely digital nature of the device, was that ‘plosives and pops did tend to completely obliterate the audio rather than simply make it grainy and harsh.
To hear samples of how the recordings went you can listen to these episodes of the show, all of which had my voice captured by the Snowball with no tonal alterations applied.
I Saw That Years Ago – Never Say Never Again
In general the audio seems clear and balanced, with maybe a slight over-emphasis on the higher registers. EQ would address this, and my only real concern is the sensitivity to background noise that a condenser mic brings. If you have a quiet recording environment, then the Snowball is a stout choice, especially for the price, but those with less sedate surroundings will find that noise spillage can be an issue. As an example you can try listening to the High Noon episode of the show, in which the first half is recorded on the Zoom H2 (which has always done a good job of cutting out background sounds), but was replaced by the Snowball for the second half.
I Saw That Years Ago – High Noon
While the audio isn’t hugely different, it did take more work to keep the background clean on the Snowball. This isn’t technically a problem with the device itself, but definitely an environmental factor that needs to taken into account if you’re thinking of buying one.
The Snowball is a popular microphone, and after spending a month or so with this model I can see why. Sound quality is good, and with a few tweaks in post production this can be brought up to impressive. There are a few idiosyncrasies that you’ll need to work around to get the best out of the unit. Using a pop shield is essential if you intend to speak directly into the Snowball, but this is true of many microphones, and you’ll need to take care with any changes in speaking dynamics to avoid sudden peaking in the audio, again not uncommon. Overall though the Snowball is dependable and versatile, especially as a travel recording solution. It won’t be replacing my SM58 and Focusrite preamp for my main home rig, as that handles noise a lot better, but the Snowball will be one of the first things in my bag for future trips.
With more of our lives increasingly taking place online, the issue of privacy, especially in regards to our personal data, has never been more important. Without even knowing it we broadcast a wide range of information about our locations, habits, interests, and beliefs just by carrying a smartphone in our pocket or using the web. This data isn’t lying fallow in digital fields though; it’s being collected, collated, and used to build detailed profiles so that companies such as Facebook, Google, and even our own governments can know more about us than ever before.
This isn’t a good thing.
Bruce Schneier has been a specialist in the data security industry for many years, and in Data and Goliath he expertly outlines the way in which we are being monitored and analysed by a variety of interested parties. Unlike some other books that cover this subject, Schneier is careful not to invoke histrionics or sensationalism in order to sell his story, instead he calmly explains how tracking works and why it is used so widely.
From its origins in the cold-war, he charts the way that government agencies regularly spied on their enemies (not to mention each other), and how this eventually transformed into the digital surveillance culture that Edward Snowden so spectacularly revealed in 2013. Schneier actually handled some of the famous Snowden documents while working with the Guardian newspaper, and even interviewed the whistleblower after he sought asylum in Russia.
Data and Goliath is a fascinating exploration of this post-Snowden world we live in. It shows how the back-doors that technology companies were forced to implement for the NSA, have actually become weapons for other agencies and hackers to use. We’re taken through the murky world of international espionage, and shown how we have all become collateral damage in this digital arms race. Schneier also explains that even when we try to protect ourselves by leaving Facebook or Gmail, the fact that our friends and relatives still use them means we’re caught up in this global informational dragnet.
I’ll admit, at times the book leaves you with a profound sense of hopelessness, as fighting against powers so strong appears an exercise in futility. But all is not lost. In the final third of the story, Schneier outlines his manifesto for how governments, corporations, and individuals can change they way they act, thus restoring some kind of trust to the online world. Sadly this is also one of the slowest part of the book, as the governmental and corporate sections really feel more like a utopian call to arms than an actual solution. Data has become so valuable that the prospect of them surrendering it for the greater good seems a distant and unrealistic possibility.
Tips on how individuals can at least obfuscate the data we generate is useful. Schneier advocates software such as the Tor browser, HTTPS Everywhere, plus other helpful tools. He also has some ingenious ideas about throwing in random behaviour to mess with the algorithms that predict our patterns.
In the end you’re still left with the knowledge that big brother really is watching, and won’t be stopping anytime soon. But at least if you’re aware of the facts it could help you make better decision about how much you, at least willingly, share. It might not be a happy read in a lot of ways, but it is an important one.
Data and Goliath is published by W.W.Norton in the UK and USA.
On this week’s show we revisit one of our favourite films from the 80s. Kurt Russell braves magic, demons, and bright red lipstick as he gets involved in some…Big Trouble in Little China.
Technology is woven into pretty much every element of our society. We all carry devices in our pockets that give us access to the majority of all human knowledge and a fair proportion of the current population. Our phones help us organise our lives, and in some cases are beginning to replace parts of them. But what does this mean for the future? Will these helpful gadgets continue to be our aides, or are we actually being slowly outmoded? In the Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explore the impact that technology will have on the economy and workplace in the coming years…and in many ways it isn’t good news.
Both Brynjolfsson and McAfee hail from the MIT Centre for Digital Business, which gives them an impressive amount of insight to the emergent technologies that are transforming the way we live and ply our trades. At the start of the book they outline three principles which are creating this new landscape. The first is the incredible rate at which technology is improving its power and software capabilities. The second is the continued digitisation of knowledge and products, and the third is how most new innovations are actually recombined elements of previous ideas. In isolation any of these principles might just be seen as an interesting outlier, but when they combine it paints a picture where many jobs, and entire professions, could soon become replaceable by cheap, efficient, software AI or robots. In fact, in some cases, that’s already begun.
Now, we’ve all heard these types of stories before in the pages of science fiction novels, but what makes the Second Machine Age so fascinating is the amount of study that the authors have done into the socio-economic factors that are currently at play in the modern world. In fact the middle section of the books does get a little bogged down in economic theory, making the reading a little hard going at times, but it never descends into text book territory. The ideas put forward are clearly argued, backed with data, and make a lot of sense. The authors look at innovations such as Waze, the mapping app that employs the locations of its users to gauge how fast traffic is moving at any given time, and show how it is an example of the three principles. Self driving cars and intelligent computers are also explored, with discussions over how they will benefit people while also potentially threatening their livelihoods. Baxter, the cheap, programmable manufacturing robot is another example of the way repetitive, manual work will be done before too long. It all mounts up to a sea change in what we should expect the workplace to look like in the not so distant years ahead.
Now I’ve been interested in this subject for some time. Last year I wrote an article for PC Advisor magazine here in the UK called ‘The Future of Robots‘ which explored many of the themes covered in this book. While it still remains a fascinating area, I have to admit that as a ‘knowledge worker’ in his early forties, the Second Machine Age is quite a scary book. On several different occasions I had my career flash before my eyes. Navigating the future does look like it will be tricky, and the luddite fear of the oncoming computer overlords is given plenty of fuel in this tome. That’s not to say though that this is some kind of techo-horror attack on the brave new world. In the closing chapters the authors lay out various ideas for how this could all be a very positive thing, and the potential growth of new employment sectors and trades. They even suggest areas you should look towards to avoid being retired by machine in a few years from now. In many ways it’s a Pandora’s box style book, one that releases many terrifying things into your mind, but at least contains hope.
You might not strictly enjoy the Second Machine Age, but a few years from now you could be very glad that you read it.
Smartphones are not only getting smarter, they’re also getting bigger. It was only a couple of years ago that my old iPhone 4S felt like a premier device that could do almost anything. Now, after spending a lot of time using a Nexus 5, the diminutive iOS handset seems more like something out of Zoolander than a phone that grown ups can use.
Of course Android phones were the first to make the leap into larger forms, with most of the top models for the past few years dwarfing Apple’s offerings. Samsung even introduced a new category of device with its Note range, causing the creation of a word the world could truly do without – the Phablet. What was wrong with the Tahone? It sounded far more exotic and less like a marital aid, but them’s the breaks.
Now LG has recently updated its flagship range with the new G4, a powerhouse device with many excellent features…but, has the craze for size actually hampered this design?
Having spent the last eighteen months using a Nexus 5 as my daily driver, I’m not one to eschew the delights of a bigger handset. Admittedly it did take a little getting used to initially, but now I’d regard the 5″ device as probably the optimum size. It’s big enough to enjoy the web, videos, and reading, but not so much that you can’t reach anything on the screen or feel like you’re holding a tea tray to your head when you make a phone call. Important stuff.
The LG G4 comes in at 5.5″, which might not sound like much, but actually makes quite a difference. In the hand it’s heavy, although not uncomfortably so. The body and screen are gently curved, which does make it sit well in your palm, but on this Korean model I reviewed the current genius trend for making expensive, mainly glass devices, incredibly slippy is in full force. For the first few days I was terrified of the G4 leaping from my grasp at any moment, so much so that I avoided taking it out of my pocket if I was walking down the street. Those who live in plush, green fields, or never leave the confines of a deeply carpeted house, will avoid these stressful issues, although static electricity could become an issue in the latter. LG does offer a leather backed version, which would certainly go a long way to solving this issue, but if you opt for a more standard model you’re definitely going to need a case, or at least some sedatives to avoid a heart attack.
While you can use the G4 one handed, it’s not really ideal. The reach is just too big for my average sized hands even with Android’s sensible placement of navigation buttons. To compensate for the larger frame LG has once again opted to place the power and volume buttons directly on the back of the unit rather than the side, just like on the G3. While this does make them easier to reach, it also makes them impossible to see, and I found myself feeling around for them unsuccessfully on more than one occasion. Maybe with more time you would get used to it, but for now I find it somewhat awkward.
LG has skinned Android on the G4, but it’s nowhere near as aggressive as Samsung or HTC’s offerings. The icons, settings, and general feel is clean and light, with a recognisably Android feel. Swiping left from the home-screen reveals a news stream app, rather than the Google Now page that is so useful on stock Android. Of course the Google Now launcher is freely available, and I did download it to regain my purist badge, but it’s only applicable to the top layer, as the drop down settings menus still remain the LG defaults. That’s not to say they’re bad, not at all, and after using the handset for a week or so I was whizzing around like a native. One excellent feature I liked was the tap to wake function, in which you simply double tap the screen and it will act as if you’ve pressed the power button. It worked for me about 70% of the time and was an easy way to quickly check notifications and even the time without picking up the device.
So, the screen’s too big, it’s too heavy, slippy, and the UI isn’t as good as it could be. Surely that’s a pretty damning opinion of the G4?
You see many of those objections are down to personal preference, clouded by my love of Google’s Android UI. If you want a larger phone but don’t quite want the step up to phablet territory, then the G4 is a very impressive unit. The display is bright, crisp, and is a fine place to watch YouTube or surf the web. Touch responses are accurate, and the whole interactive experience is fast, smooth, and easy to use.
Battery life is fantastic. On my Nexus 5 I usually finish the day with about 20% remaining, less if I’ve used it heavily that day. For the couple of weeks with the G4 I hardly ever got below 50%. The one time I managed to drain it involved travelling all day, making a few calls, moving between wi-fi antennas (always a drain on a battery) and taking about one hundred photographs in a dark room. Even then I still got home at around 1am with 5% left.
Very, very good.
Oh, and the battery is removable, so if you do manage to burn through it, you can always pop in another. While you’re at it, slap an SD card in there so you can take even more photos.
The camera, though, is the prime reason for buying a G4. It really is about as good as it gets on mobile phones at the moment. Using the device at a gig, with the usual challenges that low lighting and fast moving subjects presents, I still managed to get some really decent shots. This is mainly down to the extensive manual mode that the G4 offers. I even used the digital zoom, which on most units returns awful results, and snapped a couple of cool atmospheric images. Seriously, this camera is brilliant.
The LG G4 is an excellent, premium smartphone that delivers pretty much anything you want from an Android device. It’s powerful, fast, has a lovely display, and that camera, oh yes.
It surprises me then that I just don’t feel much love for it. I think the size feels too big to be truly comfortable in my hands, and while the UI is snappy and well laid out, it’s not as simple as a Nexus. I had hoped to upgrade to this model from my Nexus 5, which of course was made by LG, but I think I’ll hold onto that model for a little longer yet.
These are just personal gripes though. The G4 will be an incredible phone for most people and should certainly be at the very top of the list for anyone who wants a larger handset. Prices seem to be less than iPhones and Samsung G6s at the moment, and for the money I think you’d be getting a real bargain.
It was on a beach in Eastbourne that I first encountered Henry Kuttner. Not personally – that would have been scary as the American author had been dead for a number of years by then – instead our first meeting was a quiet one that saved me from the dire predicament of being a teenage boy on holiday with his parents. Driven out of my mind by the boredom of two weeks in the seaside town that doubles as retirement central of England, I sought solace – as was often the case – in books.
While searching for something new I found him on an old wire carousel outside an ice-cream shop. The curious looking book bore the legend ‘The Proud Robot by Henry Kuttner – author of Fury and Mutant’. Well what could I lose? Furious, mutated robots….fantastic!
Rather than some dark tale of android revenge though, I found an inventor called Galloway Gallegher who was a genius, but only when drunk out of his mind. The story began with him waking up after a real bender only to find a robot preening itself by his mirror and complaining that the cat was walking too loudly. Galloway then spends the rest of the story working out why he invented the diva-like mechanoid, as he was far too inebriated to remember. From the first line “Things often happened to Gallegher, who played at science by ear.” I was hooked. Kuttner’s writing was elegant, visual, and most of all funny – very funny. Nearly thirty years later the book sits next to me as I write, battered from repeated reading and a sad reminder of a great author who is now all but forgotten.
2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of Henry Kuttner’s birth, and for many of those years a large majority of his work has been out of print. There was a brief spell when the children’s film ‘The Last Mimzy’ (based on his story ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’) was popular, but apart from that Kuttner has faded from memory and slipped quietly into legend. Even the internet, in all its Google fuelled glory, has scant information on his writing or the man himself. So who was he, and why is he still relevant today?
Born in Los Angeles on April 7th 1915, Kuttner grew up to become a prolific author of short stories and novels. His first published work of fiction was called ‘The Graveyard Rats’ and appeared in Weird Tales magazine in 1936. In the following years he would contribute regularly to the publication, with stories covering sword & sorcery, horror and science fiction. He used several pen-names, which was not uncommon at the time, and after his marriage to C.L.Moore (herself an author) they began writing together. The pseudonyms that the two adopted, usually indicating only one writer, was a neat way to ensure that C.L.Moore received the same word-rate as her husband – women being generally paid less at the time. L Sprague De Camp, a good friend of the Kuttner’s, said that it was not unusual for the two to finish a story and not remember who wrote what – such was the closeness of their writing partnership.
Kuttner, friends with H.P.Lovecraft, also contributed to the Cthulhu mythos with stories such as ‘The Eater of Souls’, ‘The Invaders’, and ‘The Salem Horror’, alongside creating the deities Iod, Vorvadoss and Nygogtha. He produced several novels, the most famous being ‘Fury’ in which the remaining survivors of the human race lives under the seas of Venus, ruled over by genetically mutated people who appear to live forever.
Under one of his more prevalent pen-names ‘Lewis Padgett’ Kuttner also wrote an iconic episode of The Twilight Zone – ‘What You Need’. In this typically inventive story an aggressive loser stumbles upon an old man who has a knack of providing people the very thing they need to make their lives better – be it a bus ticket back to the big time, or a dripping fountain pen that can predict horse races. The sad tale unfolds with an odd menace and, as is common in the Twilight Zone, the ending is one that sticks in the memory.
In keeping with the brevity of the majority of his own creations, in 1958, at the age of 43, Kuttner died suddenly from a heart attack. His legacy was not a string of bestsellers, or a collection of glittering awards, but rather the inspiration he gave writers that followed after him. Marion Zimmer Bradley claimed ‘I consider the work of Henry Kuttner to be the finest science fantasy ever written’, dedicating her novel ‘The Bloody Sun’ to him. Richard Matheson did likewise with ‘I am Legend’, thanking Kuttner for ‘his help and encouragement on this book’. Other notable fans include Ray Bradbury and Roger Zelazny.
I find it deeply saddening that this great literary talent may be lost to us within my lifetime. His writing had such wonderful playfulness and comedy, matched by the ferocious imagination that he and Moore brought to the table. His influence is hard to measure, but certainly looking at the calibre of writers mentioned above who saw him as a mentor, we can be pretty sure that it is significant. Reading his work now still feels fresh and modern, with hardly a sense that it came from an era before computers, the internet, or even man landing on the moon. Ideas leap from the page, a deft quip is never too far away, and there is a genuine sense of wonder mixed with the darker side of humanity running through his creations.
It’s hard to find much evidence of Kuttner in bookshops these days – well, it’s increasingly hard to find bookshops these days – but maybe the internet will be able to keep his tales around a little longer. In 2013 a Kickstarter campaign successfully printed a collection of ten short stories by Kuttner, and as this was a fully funded project it shows that there is still an audience for one of science fictions great forgotten masters.
If you’ve never experienced Kuttner, then do a bit of shopping around on eBay or Amazon to find his books while they still exist. They’re cheap, easy to read, and remain a link to a style of writing that isn’t too often found in the modern age. Henry might be long gone, but maybe the fact that someone he never met is still entranced with his work half a century later would make him, like his robot, proud.
I’ve contributed to Guitar and Bass magazine for over a decade, in which time I’ve written numerous interviews, reviews, and features. Here is a small selection of those articles.
Why every guitar player should buy an iPad