Book Review: The New Digital Age

As you’re here on this blog there’s a fair chance that you’re interested in technology. So a book written by two of the senior minds at Google is probably a good thing to mention.

The New Digital Age is a collaborative work between Eric Schmidt, long time Google CEO, and Jared Cohen, the Director of Google Ideas and previously advisor to US Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hilary Clinton. Here they lay out their vision for how technology will be used in the future, thankfully avoiding the standard fare of obsessing over the various devices that will emerge.  Instead they focus on how an ever more online world will interact socially, what impact technology will have on emerging nations, and how wars, revolutions, and terrorist activities will be played out with the aid of the internet.

Ideas flow fast and furious, causing the reader to have to slow down and reread many a section to keep up with what’s being stated. It isn’t that the book is badly written, or in any way unclear, it’s simply a dense collection of thoughts on how the world will change, and you really don’t want to miss any of them. It’s true that chapters can feel a little repetitive at times where theories are revisited from different angles – say cyber–terrorism or government oversight – but the multi-layered nature of the subject matter makes this a necessary  way of exploring the themes. The real thrust of the book though is painting a picture of the future where the smartphone,  or rather access to the internet on a mobile device, is the centre of the universe. It’s surprising how many times the simple technology that we take for granted now is the fulcrum for prison control, tracking terrorists, keeping rogue governments in line through public accountability, or even enabling fishermen in the developing world to get fair prices for their catch.

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It’s not often that technologists the calibre of Schmidt and Cohen set out their ideas in such a straightforward and expansive manner, but the New Digital Age is exactly that. You know they’ve seen the secret labs which develop new hardware, their access to Google records also means that they can analyse data that other social scientists could only dream of, and as they have dealt directly with governments all around the world they can speak with real insight into the issues they’ve witnessed first hand.

The New Digital Age is a rare creation, in that it doesn’t feel speculative at all, instead it’s a wisely considered and authoritative map for the path that lies ahead.

This, of course, isn’t always a better, happier, road to take. Whereas they argue that mobile devices mean that citizens can report on their governments quickly and easily – thus causing the officials to be more careful with their abuses – It also demonstrates clearly that doing so will make you an easy to find target of said governments. In the light of the recent Edward Snowden / Prism scandal this only seems more real. An interconnected world is a frightening one when you realise that information and access to the internet are key to the future, but the means for both still resides mainly with those in power. Schmidt and Cohen are more optimistic though, seeing the internet as an incredible opportunity for those who can embrace its potential, with mobile devices freeing them to do that in their natural environments.

I remember reading Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte many years ago and being astounded by the ideas he put forward for the future, many of which we are now finally seeing in everyday life. The New Digital Age has a simliar feel. You don’t really need to be interested in technology to read it, just curious about how societies will use the already existing means of communication and self expression to move the world forward. There are exciting avenues to explore, and some dark passages to hide from, but in the end that’s true in life whether it’s digital or not.

 

The New Digital Age is out now in Hardback from John Murray. If you are in the UK then you can click here to buy a copy, US readers can click here . If you live in any other part of the word, which judging by the latest WordPress stats I’ve been reading many of you are (hooray!), then please head over to your preferred bookseller and purchase a copy of this fascinating book. 

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Living with the…Kobo Glo

After recently spending some time with the Amazon Paperwhite (see the review here) I was interested in trying out some of its direct competitors.

In the UK Kobo have been building a name for themselves due to a deal with large retailer WHSmith. You can’t go near a book section in any of their shops without coming across a large display of the current models from the Kobo range, albeit usually unpowered or in some state of disrepair – presumably due to the WHSMith staff rather than the quality of the devices.

The Kobo Glo that we have here is a backlit, 6″, touch enabled e-reader that supports the Kobo store ebooks alongside a healthy selection of other formats such as EPUB, PDF, TXT and RTF.  It’s small, about the same size as a paperback book, but slimmer and, as George R.R. Martin fans will attest, in many cases lighter. Pretty standard form for this type of device. Of course the main selling point for the Kobo Glo is, as the latter part of the name suggests, its illumination. Much as the Kindle Paperwhite did, the Glo brightly and evenly lights up the screen, making reading in low light no trouble at all. In fact both units did a remarkably similar job, with little to choose between them in terms of quality.

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One area that does need some attention though is the touch menu on the Glo. Whereas using the Kindle Paperwhite was a simple, no frills, no problems experience, the Glo can be frustrating. The placement of the touch points are a little close, meaning you hit the wrong option a bit too often, and there’s also lag in some areas, especially when changing the font size on larger ebooks which could render the Glo inert for several seconds. It’s a small thing, as you don’t spend much time fiddling with these elements in normal use, but Kobo would be wise to address them in any upcoming firmware patches.

The Kobo store itself is a decent size and nicely designed. There are plenty of top titles available and should fulfil the needs of most bookworms. Kobo also has apps for iOS, Android and even Blackberry , although Windows Phone 8 users will have to wait – but then they’re getting pretty used to that scenario. The ebooks you download are well formatted and behave nicely with the font and margin controls in the Glo, sadly the same can’t be said for anything else. You can read other formats, but the layout had a nasty habit of pushing itself to the very edges of the screen, and adjusting the formatting options had no discernable effect. As I’m sure you can imagine this didn’t lend itself to a particularly immerse reading experience. Of course if you stick within the Kobo universe then everything is fine and dandy.

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I suppose this is the case for many of these devices nowadays. You’re not buying an e-reader, you’re buying an (insert favourite brand here) e-reader and must be prepared to adopt the whole eco-system as your own. If you do so then life is easy and your reading will be unencumbered – except for the slow touch interface on the Glo – but you need to choose wisely, as once you’re in it can be expensive to buy your way out.

The Kobo Glo currently retails at around £100, making it cheaper than the Amazon option by about £10. If you’re not already invested then certainly give it a go, the device is good and will meet your literary needs with little fuss. For myself, I think I’m still hooked on the Paperwhite, but then with about 100 titles already purchased in the Amazon world I was hardly likely to say anything else.

Hacking the Humans

One of the harsh realities of our now digitally interconnected lives is the constant threat of hackers trying to gain access to our systems. According to a recent study by the University of Cambridge we here in the UK spend an estimated £100 million each year on anti-virus software to protect our valuable data, yet still stories of identity theft, compromised email accounts, and social media hijacking continue. But when you look at the figures, and see how the actual types of crimes are broken down, a surprising common factor emerges. Although most of us associate hacking with malicious software that somehow breaks into our systems via brute force, the real truth is actually a lot more simplistic.

While software companies are learning how to strengthen programs,’ explains Christopher Hadnagy, in his book Social Engineering : The Art of Human Hacking, ‘hackers and malicious social engineers are turning to the weakest part of the infrastructure – the people.’

 

If it seems too good to be true...
If it seems too good to be true…

Writing code is complicated and time consuming, plus there’s the distinct possibility that it can be traced back to an origin source, leaving the police a trail of breadcrumbs to follow. So rather than investing their resources in these forms of attack, human hackers instead use techniques that have long existed in the physical world – an old fashion con. By now we’ve all seen examples of phishing attacks: emails that appear to have been sent from our banks, or favourite online shopping portals. They usually arrive in our inbox warning us (ironically) of security threats, are often accompanied by graphics from the real site, and a time pressure to respond quickly or the relevant account will be shut down. All the customer needs to do is click on the embedded link, confirm their account details and everything will be fine. Of course the email is a fake, the site you click through to is also bogus, but the details you enter – usually of a financial manner – are very real, and now rest on the machine of someone who will immediately embark on a shopping spree.

These scams are as old as the internet itself, in fact they have existed in one form or another since people first became people, but the threat of the modern age is that the information needed to trick us is often given away freely by ourselves on social media sites, internet forums, or even by casual conversations with seemingly well meaning strangers.

Many of these attacks,’ continues Hadnagy, ‘could have been avoided if people were educated, because they could act on that education. Sometimes just finding out how malicious people think and act can be an eyeopener. I was recently discussing with a close friend her financial accounts and how she was worried about being hacked or scammed. In the course of the conversation we started to discuss how easy it is to guess people’s passwords. I told her that many people use the same passwords for every account. I saw her face go white as she realised this is her. I told her that most people use simplistic passwords that combine something like their spouses name, his or her birthday or anniversary date. I saw her go an even brighter shade of pale. I continued by saying that most of the time people choose the simplest security question, such as your mother’s maiden name, and how easy finding that information is via the internet or a few fake phone calls.’

 

Who's there?
Who’s there?

This combination of real world conversations mixed with online information gives the enterprising hacker, or social engineer as some call them, a powerful amount of knowledge about us. Knowledge they can use to accomplish frighteningly penetrative attacks. In his book Hadnagy lays out the various tactics that social engineers use to ensnare their targets. These include information gathering via the internet, direct phone calls posing as representatives from companies the target uses, raiding their rubbish bins for financial information such as bank accounts or credit card numbers, all of which they can use to build a profile of the target enabling the hacker to create a persona or fake website that will be the most alluring. It sounds at times like something out of a James Bond movie, but these techniques are used constantly in one fashion or another, usually with the intent of gaining access to the target’s office machine which of course then means they have access to the business as a whole. This form of elicitation is a skill that social engineers develop to a high degree, so the target often doesn’t even know that they surrendered the information.

The goal with elicitation is not to walk up and say what is the password to your servers?’ Hadnagy reveals. ‘The goal is getting small and seemingly useless bits of information that help build a clear picture of the answers you are seeking or the path to gaining those answers’.

Armed with these different fragments of knowledge, hackers can then exploit weaknesses in other parts of the human chain, sometimes with devastating consequences.

Mat Honan is a senior writer at Wired magazine and has written for many of the top tech magazines. He is someone who understands the internet, technology, and the culture that surrounds it. But during the summer of 2012 his digital world was torn apart in the space of an hour when determined hackers employed a variety of tactics to gain access to his accounts. The tech community was shocked at the apparent ease with which this happened, as it highlighted the house of cards nature of online security.

Mat Honan
Mat Honan

A hacker, posing as Mat, called Amazon and said he wanted to add a new credit card to his existing account, the number was of course fake, but this didn’t matter. Amazon required Honan’s billing address, email contact, and the name on the account – all of which was possible to find by a little digging online and some logical deduction. The process was complete and the hacker finished the call. Moments later he rang again saying that he was locked out of his account, the operator asked for him to confirm the details of his account – including the new credit card number – and not surprisingly the details matched. The hacker was issued a replacement password for the account, and now they could see the numbers of Honan’s actual credit cards – not the whole number, just the last four digits. As it turns out these four numbers just happened to be the exact part of the card that Apple use as part of their account verification process.

The hacker placed a call to the Applecare support line saying that he had forgotten the password to his me.com account. After supplying the operator with the billing address and credit card digits a temporary password was issued from Apple which allowed him to access the account. He was in. All it took was a quick Google search and two phone calls. In a matter of minutes the hacker had gained access to Honan’s Gmail account, Twitter, remotely wiped his iPhone, iPad and then finally his Gmail account.

In many ways, this was all my fault’ Mat wrote on his Wired blog detailing the events. ‘My accounts were daisy-chained together. Getting into Amazon let my hackers get into my Apple ID account, which helped them get into Gmail, which gave them access to Twitter.’

Since the events were made public both Apple and Amazon have made changes to their customer service practices so that these weakness can’t be used again. The fact that they were only discovered after hackers had used them to destroy most of Honan’s online life though, suggests that they never even knew it was possible in the first place. The hackers that think beyond the boundaries of code breaking and malware will always be looking for ways to draw seemingly innocent information from their targets, and until we become aware of these possibilities they will most likely succeed. With software you can build in complex levels of security, and have warning flags go up the minute a breach is attempted. Incorporating these types of failsafes into people may take a little longer. 

 

A version of this post originally appeared as part of a new series of features called News Viewpoint that I write for the PC Advisor website and also appears in the April 2013 issue of the print magazine – yes, I know that’s in the future, but the way magazines work is a mysterious form of sorcery. To see the original click HERE or pop out to your local newsagent and purchase the rather splendid magazine itself. 

 

You’re either for us or against us!

It’s fair to say that the divides caused by our choices of computing platforms has been around since the beginning.

When the first apeman lifted a sabre-tooth tiger’s jawbone aloft and declared it, through the language of Ug, to be the pinnacle of design, you can guarantee that another hairy proto-chap nearby raised a mammoth’s tooth and said, again in Ug, that this was superior due to its cutting edge functionality and open source architecture.

Ok, maybe it didn’t happen exactly like that, after all we know that the do-it-yourself flint supporters would have had their say, but the apeman analogy is one that seems strangely fitting even today. Visit an internet tech forum of any kind and it won’t take long for a massive argument to break out, eventually reaching its inevitable climax in accordance with Godwin’s Law (The law, first proposed back in 1990, states that  “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”). The root of these disagreements usually boils down to the opposing tech camps to which the combatants belong. Android Vs iOS, Windows Vs Mac, Linux Vs everyone.

So it is, and thus it ever was.

My first computer was a Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a magisterial symphony of plastic and rubber. The tiny, British device became an obsession with me and I’d spend hours playing games, trying to write music, and failing to learn how to program on it. This period in the early eighties was when the home computer industry was in its infancy (I actually wrote a potted history of the period for PC Advisor recently – which you can view here)  and many competing platforms vied for dominance. Most fell by the wayside (Oric, Dragon, Amstrad, etc) but the Spectrum held firm and ended up slugging it out with its big American rival the Commodore 64.

Fight!

These two machines prompted passionate responses from their owners and gave me my first taste of tribal colours. If you had a Spectrum you would somehow fail to notice the appalling graphical shortcomings of the machine, not to mention the useless sounds it generated, and instead focus on the wealth of games available, the friendly feel to the machine, and the fact that it was British. Commodore owners would strike back with a completely oblivious view of the washed out screen colours, corporate looking body, and lack of spectral stripe on the front, while positing its powerful internals and ability to render sprites without turning two conflicting images into some kind of rainbow hallucination.

Of course now, with three decades of distance between myself and those days, it’s clear to me that both were excellent machines. Although the Spectrum was obviously better…because I had one.

So, we like to fight a cause? Surely there’s nothing wrong with that? Of course not, until people find ways to control our causes, then direct us towards their ends rather than our own. Then it becomes something more sinister.

Mac and Windows have fought the OS battleground for as long as I can remember, and for most of that time Windows has been victorious. Their percentage of the computer market is estimated to be around 90%, with Mac holding a rather lowly 6% (although in laptops they are thought to be slightly higher). This meant that for years certain software wasn’t available on Macs due to incompatibility issues. In recent years this has improved, as Apple has grown in popularity, and now the Mac boasts some enviable software of its own – the iLife suite being a fine example. But with a few notable exceptions users could choose which programs they wanted to run, and even dual boot their machines to run both operating systems on the same machine if there were programs they couldn’t live without. But times are changing.

I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

With the advent of tablets we’re seeing a lessening in the options open to users. The eco-system is beginning to define how we behave. Now our tribal allegiance is no longer necessarily a voluntary one, but something subtly forcing us to remain in place. The major manufacturers don’t want us moving freely from device to device, unless they are all ones they make.  So we’re seeing something happening called lock-in, and as the convergence of tablets, phones, and computers continues this could be a problem in the future.

Say you buy an iPad. It’s maybe your first Apple device. It doesn’t take long to realise that you need apps to make it do interesting things. Before you know it you’ve spent a fair bit of money on games, calendars, photo apps, and maybe some magazines. Then a year later you want to try out an Android tablet, you check to see if the same apps exist (which mostly they will), only you discover that even though you bought the apps on iOS, the same company wants you to pay again for basically the same app on this opposing platform. This is enough to make you pause before clicking on the buy button for that Nexus 10 tablet.

Of course this has always been the case with Macs and PCs, but most of us didn’t buy that much software. In the 8 year of using Macs I think I’ve bought possibly one or two programs. In two years of using my iPad I’ve bought a few hundred – admittedly at a much cheaper cost per program, but it soon adds up.  This investment makes it harder to switch away from your hardware, and as companies like Apple are seemingly increasing the rate at which they want you to upgrade it can become difficult to remain happy with your purchase before you feel the need to change. Another factor is that new features are added which only work on the latest version of the operating system, meaning you need to keep your different pieces of hardware current if you want to have this smooth experience. But as most of us don’t want to upgrade our computer, phone, and tablet every two years we end up with hardware on different versions. This means some features work across the board, while others – usually the most useful ones – don’t, and once again the pressure to upgrade increases, further deepening our financial commitment to the company and reducing our motivation to move to another platform.

Ha Ha Ha, you’re my customers now!

Then, as we saw recently with the Google Maps debacle, inter-company disputes are beginning to reach down to consumers as we are are denied superior services just to satisfy the egos of the manufacturers involved. Another example is that Apple doesn’t have the Amazon MP3 store on iOS, presumably because they don’t want you buying music from stores other than iTunes. This isn’t the optimum experience for the user, rather the best financial opportunity for Apple. Amazon’s Kindle books can be read on tablets, phones, and computers, but not on other ebook readers. So if you buy into their eco-system then you’re unlikely to come out again without losing your investment. Now with Windows switching to the app store model for Windows 8 it can only be a matter of time before the systems finally close off our ability to install software from external sources – citing security as a major factor in the change.

It’s a troubling thought that the technology we buy today, may well define the ones we’ll be buying ten years from now, and to protect ourselves from the feeling of being coerced we may well develop a heightened sense of allegiance to our tribe rather than taking up arms against them.

Living with the…Google Nexus 7

I adopted the tablet revolution quite early on. In the build up to the release of Apple’s iPad I was critical of how useful something like Steve Jobs’ latest magical creation could be. In fact the first time I encountered an iPad it left me unimpressed. I played with a few apps, discovered that well lit rooms were no friend of the tablet then decided that laptops were for me, not these expensive toys. I can’t remember when I changed my mind, but somehow – via a generous birthday present – I had the chance to really explore this new computer format…and from then on I was hooked.

Now the iPad is easily my most used piece of hardware. Internet browsing is strangely serene on it, podcasts play loud enough that I can use the device as a mobile speaker unit in the house, reading is great at night, I’ve rediscovered an old love of comic books thanks to excellent apps like Comix, and when teamed up with my Apple TV the iPad brings the endless time-wasting joy of Youtube directly to my TV. I’ve even been known to do the odd bit of writing on my beloved machine, including this blog post.

So now it’s pretty fair to say that I’ll always want a tablet in my life. Funny how times change. The problem is that due to the closed nature of the production of tablets there’s no way I can fix one or upgrade it to maintain optimum performance. Slowly, over time, my original iPad has developed…issues. Due to the low 256mb of internal memory apps now crash in a frustratingly regular fashion, and some tasks that were once instant now drag their heels in spectacular fashion. I’m guessing this is the way that Apple and their competitors ensure that we move up to a new device every three years or so, just like we do with phones. But a £500 purchase is something I want to last a bit longer than that, especially when it’s being used for non-intensive tasks. Thus it was with great interest when I saw that Google had released the Nexus 7 – a smaller, lighter, much, much cheaper tablet that had the press in unanimous praise. Could this be the Droid I’m looking for?

Good things come in small packages….sometimes.

There’s no doubt that the Nexus 7 is an attractive device. Everyone that has seen the review unit I’ve been using was impressed by it’s bright, clear screen and diminutive form. Holding it in the hand was a light relief from its chunky inspiration, and the latest Jelly Bean Android software felt quick and stable. Initially it was an instant success and I thought that my bank account could be saved the mauling that Apple had bestowed upon it in previous days. Then the cracks began to appear.

The Nexus is small…but it’s also too big.

Confused? Yes, I’m not surprised. You see swiping and pinch-to-zooming is all well and good, but to navigate the internet, send emails, or interact with social media you’re going to need to enter some text. Typing on the iPad is, well, excellent. In landscape mode I can pretty much type at 80% of my top speeds, with a surprising level of accuracy. Using the Nexus 7 is somewhat confusing. Landscape mode is a bit of a stretch and the onscreen keyboard feels less accurate and sensitive than the Apple one. Turning to portrait mode makes the Nexus seem like an over-large phone, and once again the lower accuracy makes it easier to make mistakes. It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s not the effortless experience that I’ve enjoyed on my iPad.

Of course the Nexus’ size becomes an advantage when using apps like Google Currents and Flipboard, which are both excellent and make catching up on news a very easy and pleasant experience. Amazon’s Kindle app is also a standout. Reading novels on pages that are pretty much the same as an actual book feels right, and the screen definition renders the text in a crisp manner. Social media is a little less splendid. The Facebook and Twitter apps appear to be the mobile versions, offering smaller text size and a compact view that just seems to lessen the experience, especially Facebook with it’s constant flow of pictures. Google+ is decent, but again feels a cheaper alternative to the magnificent iPad offering.

After exploring these sites I noticed another oddity of the device. With the iPad I tend to balance the unit against my legs, lean it on furniture, or prop it up against any random protuberances that offer purchase. It means that my arms don’t tire of holding what is still a quite substantial weight. The Nexus is light and slim, but I found that I had to hold it all the time, which actually ended up causing my hands to ache faster than the iPad did. It’s a small thing, but as I suffer from an old RSI injury, this became a bigger issue rather quickly.

You’ll be needing this…

Ok, so comparing a £200 device to a £400 one seems a little unfair. Of course the iPad should be a more luxurious environment, it damn well better be for double the price. But the reason I’m doing this is that I was serious about converting from an expensive Apple device that I use mainly for media consumption to a cheaper alternative that offered most of the benefits with only a few losses. After a few weeks with the Nexus 7 though I was disappointed to realise that the iPad has pretty much ruined me for anything else. The drop down felt so vast in terms of quality, not of build – the Nexus is very solid – but rather experience. I’ve rarely felt frustrated by the iPad (except now that it crashes more often) but the Nexus became annoying in a fairly short space of time. As an e-reader it’s a very tempting option, offering more functionality than the Kindle Paperwhite for only £50 more, but for more general purpose tablet adventures it seems limited and more akin to a phone.

I dearly wanted to love this device, as did my wallet, and to be fair my children did. I think the issues I had with size were the exact opposite for them. But the compromises seem too big to make this a viable option to those who have grown used to the glorious expanse of Apple’s tablet. Even my mother, who has to be surgically removed from my iPad every time she comes over, but for whom the price tag is prohibitive, couldn’t get on with the Nexus. The text size proving difficult for her older eyes.

The Nexus is a cool little device which some people will undoubtedly love. For me though it looks like another trip to the Apple store looms in March when the new model comes out. Better start saving now then…

For we are many…

I love Twitter.

Since those first nervous posts a few years ago I’ve gone on to be something of an addict. In that time I’ve made friends whom I now regard as significant in my life although we may only have met in person on a couple of occasions – some never at all. I’ve witnessed marriage proposals, several emerging author friends sign major book deals, Stephen Fry stuck in a lift, breaking stories reported before news crews could get there, and tragically a friend returning home to find his wife had passed away. Whoever thought that so much could be said in 140 characters?

It occurred to me this morning how subtly the micro-blogging service has actually infiltrated and altered modern society. Over a hearty (attacky) breakfast with a friend we discussed the appointment of the latest manager of the England football team. Many in the press had expected another chap to get the job and when he didn’t there was an outcry that the people’s choice had been overlooked. Twitter on the other hand gave the people the chance to represent themselves and many were quite happy with the new man. Whether that will remain the case once the team starts playing is another question entirely. What it brought out though was how media outlets have spoken on behalf of ‘the people’ for years, mostly without bothering to actually talk to any of them. Social media now allows us to call them on that, and it’s going to be interesting to see how they adapt to the new journalistic landscape.

It’s not just the news that is under pressure from the masses. Reviewers need to up their game too. Gizmodo ran a story this morning about how Amazon customer reviews appear more accurate than professional ones. It reported that a study conducted at Harvard found that, when taken as a whole, the scores given by customers in their reviews proved as reliable as those found in the major magazines and newspapers, but with customers being more lenient on new authors and less dazzled by award winners. Having worked in bookshops I know that publishers are very keen for prominence to be given to their established stars even when their work isn’t as good as it could be. Having also been part of a movement that supported new emerging talent I’ve also been party to talking up writers who are still young in their craft. For one I think encouraging new voices is preferable to cosseting older ones and it appears that I’m not alone. Good to know.

I think we stand at the crossroads now in terms of how we define the entertainment and arts that we want to experience. With more choice comes more noise, making the curated mass market a simpler place to navigate. But if we want more than demographically decided content then we need to work a bit harder to find it. Thankfully there are many voices that will help us along the way, most of which are trustworthy….

How has social media affected you? Let me know in the comments below.

A Peculiar People

Here at the True Brit Blog we pride ourselves on bringing you the best in social commentary, cultural enlightenment, and the Arts. Plus the occasional biscuit or two. So it with great pleasure that we herald the arrival of a new novel penned by two friends of ours from the colonies. The thing that makes it particularly interesting, and relevant to this blog, is the fact that they have set it in England (a fictitious England, but good old Blighty non-the-less).

 

Madam is that a pistol in your stockings or are you just pleased to see me?

The book in question is ‘Phoenix Rising’, set in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, a government department charged with the investigation of mysterious events and strange goings-on. Within the sacred walls of the ministry’s archives we find Wellington Books, a Victorian gent with a penchant for information and inventions – less a James Bond, but rather a proto-Q. Into his life explodes, quite literally, Eliza D Braun, a field agent for the ministry hailing from New Zealand and bringing with her a collection of exotic weapons and little patience for asking questions. Their relationship remains as combustible as her entrance but they soon find themselves teamed up to fight against the dark forces of the Pheonix Society. This pursuit takes them through High Street Carriage Chases, Robot Infested Mansions, and even the occasional Fatal Opera, all for Queen and Country.

Phoenix Rising is many things, but first and foremost it’s a lot of fun. Eliza and Wellington play their parts wonderfully well as the sexy, deadly secret agent, alongside the stiff-necked Brit with a little more going on under his perturbed surface than first appears. The real strength of the duo is the deft banter that fills the pages as each tries to work out the other while holding their own cards close to their, in Eliza’s case ample, chests. Comparisons can be drawn between the Avengers, Castle, and Warehouse 13 for the partnership of brains and battle but Tee Morris and Pip Ballantine have worked hard to give their creations a life of their own with enough depth and charm to warrant the further titles that are planned in the series. Add to this a believable Victorian London setting (complete with the obligatory street-urchins of unquestionable loyalty and dubious hygiene), a fine selection of secondary characters, and enough action sequences to keep even Michael Bay happy, the result is an exciting, funny, and highly enjoyable novel that will last long in the memory. A romp with some pomp, we Brits love that.

So in honour of this marvellous achievement we are proud to bestow upon Mr Morris and Lady Ballantine the Order of the Brit Blog (OBB) which acknowledges their outstanding efforts in the service of fictional Britain. God bless them, and all that sail in them.

To receive your own copy of this exemplary example of storytelling simply go to Amazon or order it from your local bookshop. For more information please visit – www.ministryofpeculiaroccurrences.com/