Sun, 30 Mar 2014
Dark Market

Dark Market, by Misha Glenny.

I bought Dark Market a couple of years ago and am ashamed to say that I only just got around to reading it. I say ashamed because it was quite riveting as Glenny puts together a hike through some of the darker fringes of the internet.

The book covers the emergence of the online "carding" forums: web sites for the discussion and dissemination of the tools and knowledge to take part in crimes like credit card fraud, ATM and card skimming, phishing and botnets. This sort of criminal activity has a long history now but far from being the preserve of the amateur hacker nerd doing things for reputation or kicks, it has grown into a very major, global criminal enterprise. Think Mafia. Think professional criminals and some very nasty people, sometimes even affiliated with state or secret security services. Rich pickings are available and it's usually hard to investigate and hard to prosecute.

Of particular relevance just now, the book starts in a particular time and place: the mid nineties and Ukraine. With Russia, the post-Soviet Ukraine became a ground-zero for a massive amount of criminality, including internet fraud. Under the radar of most, a huge illegal industry grew in Ukraine and for many years the people involved seemed to be untouchable, protected by bribery and corruption. This stuff if far from being the preserve of script kiddies or amateurs laughing at authority.

An absorbing book. Well written and easy to read. Highly recommended.

Brian Krebs is mentioned in the book and has a very good web site if you're interested in this stuff :

Kreb's on Security.

Including a series all about ATM skimmers. Be careful out there!


Sat, 01 Mar 2014
The Old North

The King in the North, by Max Adams.

There's a scene in the first season of the TV series Game of Thrones where Robb Stark and his followers debate their next move now that his father is dead. War looks likely and the son is heir to House Stark and lordship over the northern kingdom of Winterfell. The scene ends with him being acclaimed as King: "King in the North!". A rousing scene, and adds some power to is the fact that all the voices you hear actually have Northern English accents.

This crossed my mind when I saw the title of Max Adams' book about England's dark age northern kingdom, Northumbria.

Having read and enjoyed this book, I can see many parallels between the world George R.R. Martin creates for his series and the world of post-Roman Britain in the early 7th Century. A real Game of Thrones plays out, as competing Kings, Warlords and peoples battle it out for supremacy over Britain, or as much of it as they can hold.

Adams tells the story of Oswald Whiteblade, who returns from exile in Dál Riata (in what is now North Western Scotland), to win a battle and claim the throne of Northumbria in the year 634. Northumbria, the unified kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia, stretched from the Humber (Hull, Grimsby) all the way up to Lothian in Southern Scotland at this time.

Map from the book.

The 7th Century was particularly important for Christianity in Britain and much of what we know of the times was set down by the monk and historian Bede. One of the striking aspects of Adams' history is how important the Irish missionary work was to the restoration of the faith in the years after the Roman withdrawal. St Columba (or Colm Cille as Adams calls him) had made a much surer and deeper impact in the north of the country and this was cemented by such deeply religious men as Aidan. Aidan was the founder and first bishop of the monastery of Lindisfarne, a daughter institution of Columba's Ionan monastery. Oswald spent his early years as an exile in Dál Riata and his Christianity was Irish and British rather than Roman.


Aidan

This is a well written and interesting book about a subject that seems to have almost faded from history today. A world where Britain had its own warring states period like the Chinese, although "state" is not really the right word. As Adams says, when the King or Warlord died (many in battle), their Kingdom would often fall apart. Oswald met a particularly grisly end in life. His afterlife has been very illustrious however: veneration as a saint.


Sun, 02 Feb 2014
Oh, X

It's been a very long time since I've played around configuring X Windows on Linux but I've recently had the "pleasure" again. X mostly just works now, and there's no more need to fight monitor modelines or an arcane xorg.conf file (the file usually doesn't even exist anymore). This is a very good thing because X setup was sometimes a nightmare.

For the past few years, I've done well to steer clear of proprietary graphics drivers as well, drivers for hardware like ATI/AMD or NVIDIA. I've choosen Intel graphics hardware because Intel's writing good open-source drivers. If I happen to be using ATI/AMD or NVIDIA hardware, I try and use the nouveau or the radeon driver.

X was the only big component of the Linux desktop stack that I never compiled from source, back in the mid-1990's (when X was "XFree86"). Too scary, and perhaps my 486 CPU, 128MB RAM and 33.6 baud modem weren't so up to it.


Not my graphics card

When I bought a cheap(ish) laptop to use as my "desktop" (TV/HDMI connected) a year or so ago, I hit a small snag in that it's based around an AMD chipset for graphics (and HDMI audio) and an Atheros for ethernet. I had to download, compile and load an out-of-tree Linux kernel module to get the ethernet working. Very 1990's.

An out-of-tree module means you have to remember to rebuild it if you ever upgrade your kernel. Luckily, the ethernet module (alx) is now "in-tree" from 3.11 and I'm using Debian Wheezy backports.

Generally, all's been well. I don't play computer games so have no need for fast 3D, just decent 2D performance. I'm not sure what happened but a while ago I noticed that full-screen desktop video had got very choppy (tearing). The desktop felt "stickier" than usual. So, I decided to (perhaps foolishly) try the proprietary AMD Catalyst driver and see if things are better.

Past experience with graphics driver updates on Linux have been varied, to say the least. I recall painful times and black screens, but this was a long time ago and I have much more experience and confidence now. This stuff is generally still a bit of a black art if things don't work out though!

Got the Catalyst 13.12 release driver installed and working, after a bit of messing around. A bit more playing with xrandr on the laptop to sort out display outputs to laptop, TV and/or both. Made sure I was using kernel 3.11 from backports as well and that the AMD driver supported this. Result? Video playback seemed good now and all appeared well (plus it didn't take long). Success! Or so I thought ...

A Key Problem

A problem quickly manifested itself during the week: key press delays in X applications.

Pressing a key in the web browser search box (for instance), would exhibit 1/2 second delays occasionally. Maybe 1 or 2 seconds sometimes. Consoles were fine: at least konsole and rxvt. Laptop keyboard directly or USB keyboard showed the same issue ... very annoying.

So, on the merry-go-round again ...

To investigate, I planned another look at X for a Saturday. This time I updated the kernel to a new backports version 3.12, and downloaded and installed the AMD Catalyst driver 13.11-beta (which said it supports kernel 3.12). A bit of trouble :

  • I had to do a force install because the previous AMD driver didn't want to --uninstall.
  • I had to do some symlinking to link libGL.so.* from /usr/lib to /usr/lib64 (not sure why this was wrong - poor AMD/ATI Debian x64 support?).

But still the same key press problem ...

Key presses worked fine with the radeon driver but not the AMD driver. So I started to look at X Server options, starting with the "easy" stuff via the memorably named amdcccle, the AMD graphics control centre (a graphical application).

I enabled the "tear free" control (sync to vertical refresh), which was off, and this seemed to fix my key press delay trouble.

Apparently, I could have used the following command to enable this as well :

aticonfig --set-pcs-u32=DDX,EnableTearFreeDesktop,1

Thank goodness for that!

At the end here, I was going to start up the control centre and get a small screenshot of it. But it gave me a segmentation fault ... ugghh.

X Windows is due to get a replacement in Wayland at some point in the future. I can't say I'll miss it. In fact, there are a few quite exciting developments happening in desktop Linux-land just now so it should be an interesting year or two.


Sun, 26 Jan 2014
New Tate Britain

I had to fit some new brake pads on the bike at the weekend and to test them I went out for a ride. So down to Millbank to have a look in Tate Britain. I knew there had been some changes recently.

New brake pads: what a difference they make! I should definitely fit them earlier in the future. One of the four I replaced was almost bare metal ...

The Tate has recently re-opened a lot of new and renovated areas, including its rotunda and staircase. It's a beautiful and light space at the front. The gallery also feels larger (it's always seemed much bigger on the inside) and shows more of its art. A really great improvement to a great gallery. The Whistler resturant downstairs (named for the murals created by artist Rex Whistler) also looked very stylish and swanky (from the outside). Must visit!

I took some pictures. This is another big positive at the Tate: pictures are allowed and no one's bothering you about having a backpack on your back, unlike other galleries.

Atkinson Grimshaw, Liverpool Quay by Moonlight, 1887 (link) :


Sun, 19 Jan 2014
Getting Poetry

I've never managed to read poetry well. I often find it hard to read and parse, hard to find the rhythm and then perhaps hard to put aside and come back to. Poetry has been such a central part of our literary tradition however that I feel drawn to trying again every now and then. I want to "get" poetry.

Part of the problem I have is knowing how to speak the poem properly: picking up the proper cadence, the pauses and breaks. It's very different to prose and the way it is written down and structured sometimes seems to make it harder to get through. Hearing a poem read well helps a lot, and there have been quite a few learning opportunities recently.

The Radio 4 program Radio Heaney last week was a very good retrospective of some of the great man's radio appearances over the years. He was deservedly popular so we're lucky to have plenty of recordings of him and his work. His reading of Digging is beautiful and moving.

On Saturday, Jeremy Irons read T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets which I am looking forward to listening to (maybe with the text in front of me).

In addition, I've been wanting to read Clive James' well received translation of Dante, Alice Oswald's Memorial and more Eliot. The list is a lot longer and stretches to the classics like Byron and Keats. Maybe some practice and persistence. Like I say, poetry takes a little bit more work.

Digging

By Seamus Heaney

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

The BBC Radio 4 program Poetry Please is often a pleasant part of a Sunday afternoon.


Thu, 09 Jan 2014
Sir John Soane's Museum

Lincoln's Inn is well known as one of London's "Inns of Court", the professional bodies barristers belong to. A large square to the east of The Strand, Lincoln's Inn Fields also contains a very good little museum, Sir John Soane's Museum. Visiting the museum to have a look at the Alan Sorrell exhibition, I had a good look around Soane's house.

Sir John Soane was an architect from very humble origins (son of a bricklayer) who married into a lot of money. He had a long and very successful career, designing buildings like the (old) Bank of England building and Dulwich Picture Gallery.

The house is a well preserved time capsule from the 18th Century and supposedly not too different from the way he left it when he died in 1837. It is absolutely full of stuff: paintings, books, sculptures, furniture, drawings, clocks, architectural models, roman and greek antiquities. Even a crypt containing the the sarcophagus of Seti I (from 14th Century Egypt). It really is an amazingly eclectic and diverse collection of things and quite a warren of rooms, corridors and floors.

It's quite cramped in places, with so much crammed inside (and visitor numbers are restricted), but well worth a visit. It's free as well.

It's home to some very good paintings, including Canaletto, Piranesi, Turner and a lot of Hogarth. Hogarth's Rake's Progress is in Soane's collection and I was lucky enough to be in the painting room when a museum guide described the paintings within and went through each of the series. He described Rakewell's progress from wealth to Bedlam. An unexpected but excellent talk. I definitely have a much better appreciation of Hogarth now.

Wed, 01 Jan 2014
Person of the Year 2013

Thinking about who my person of the year would be, in the spirit of Time magazine.

I considered Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. Like what he did or not, he's certainly made a massive impact on the debate over our government, privacy and counter-terrorism/crime.

In the end however, I feel that the person who was most inspiring in 2013 was Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who spoke out for education and against the Pakistani Taliban.

At the age of 12 she was writing a blog that was picked up by the BBC. At 15 the Taliban shot her. She recovered from very bad injuries and now continues to speak out, even though she may never be able to return home because of the continued danger to her life.

A very brave girl and a real inspiration. This is the sort of person a country like Pakistan needs. More Malala and much less of Ehsanullah Ehsan.


Thu, 26 Dec 2013
The Name of the Rose

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco.

I remember seeing the film of the book a very long time ago and loved it. Unusually for a cerebral film about medieval monks debating the fine points of theology and heresy, a lot of people seemed to like it as well and it did very well at the box office. I wish there were more films made like this. I've been wanting to read the book since then but put that thought aside until the film's influence waned Now that I've read it, I see how faithful an adaptation it was.

The book has great depth on various levels, as you would expect from Professor Eco. Perhaps the most superficial level is the detective novel, with nods to Conan Doyle in the name of the main protagonist, the English monk William of Baskerville. Although played with a broad Scottish accent in the film, Sean Connery was good in this role. Eco's prose is detailed and readable, although I have to admit to skipping over some passages fairly quickly, particularly the latter parts of Adso's mystical dream late in the book (and one or two others): a bit too long. I also wished I understood more latin, which figures regularly and is left untranslated. Wherever the monks hail from, whether Italy, Germany, Spain or England, they would be talking to each other in Latin of course, the lingua franca of the time.

As long ago as the film, I liked to submerge myself in a lot of history, including many books covering the history of Christianity and the Church, especially all the various debates on the canon. The question of the right teachings was of high importance in an age where literacy was uncommon and the "truth" something only the Church held. The spread of wrong teachings and heresy was something to guard against and watch out for at all times. The trial of the cellarer for heresy is a centrepiece in the novel and as horrific as it is fascinating. Through such scenes and the commentary and debate around them, Eco brings the medieval world to life: a world that was almost entirely centred around prayer, where religion was a matter of life (of the eternal variety) and death. The heart of the book revolves around the real debate over the Poverty of Christ, with the Franciscans fighting to save their order from charges of heresy and dissolution by the Catholic Church.

Within the church and religious communities, this sort of debate and tension has never really disappeared. Couple the theology with the investigation of a raft of murders and we have a unique book - hard going at times but a rewarding work.

A strange coincidence that I bought three books at the same time and they have some references to each other : Possession, by A. S. Byatt, a collection of stories by Jorge Luis Borges and this book (a beautiful hardback Everyman edition). Byatt mentions Eco's book in her introduction as showing it was possible to write a successful and intellectual book set in a medieval monastery. The writer David Lodge adds an introduction to Eco's book and highlights the debt paid to Borges in the novel (the Labyrinth, library, the monk Jorge de Burgos). I've yet to read Borges but am looking forward to it.


Sun, 22 Dec 2013
moto g

As much as I liked the Firefox OS phone, I've stopped using it and bought a new Motorola Moto G Android phone.

The ZTE is just too slow and I found it increasingly painful to use. I hope to see Mozilla get their mobile OS on better hardware and, at that point, I'd have another look. For the money paid (£65) it's no great loss and the Moto G (at £160) is an amazing phone.

There'll be no FF OS updates from v1.0 here it seems, and a last straw was discovering my bluebooth headphones won't work with it: extremely minimal bluetooth support. Couple this with a slow touchscreen, sometimes needing multiple presses to get a response, and then a few complete freezes and I've given up. For me, attempting my own OS builds doesn't seem a reasonable thing to do.

The Motorola Moto G is a new "Google" phone and runs (almost) stock Android 4.3 (upgrade to 4.4 soon apparently). I haven't used Android on a phone since 2.2 (Cyanogen) and the changes are huge. It's an extremely polished interface, the whole thing looking and feeling great. It's fast, has a great screen and seems to have very good battery life as well. I am very happy with it.

Less satisfying is that MTP, the "Media Transfer Protocol", doesn't work very well on Linux. Ironic this is so bad, considering a) Android is based on Linux and b) Google do a lot of work using (and engineering) Linux. Go-mtpfs seems to work on my desktop (manual mount, fine) but not on my X220 laptop (this morning). MTP support seems to be fragile, spotty and therefore quite annoying!


Sun, 15 Dec 2013
Whistler at Dulwich
ArtFund

A few weeks ago, I bought a National Art Pass. This gives me a discount on the price of entry of a lot of art galleries and museums and over the course of a year, the £40 it cost me will be worthwhile in savings. It also contributes to the work they do saving and restoring art.

I used the pass for the first time visiting the Dulwich Picture Gallery for their exhibition Whistler and the Thames.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was an American artist who worked mainly in London during the middle and late part of the 19th Century.

I'm not very familiar with his work other than his most famous painting Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, colloquially known as Whistler's Mother (see opposite). A great painting I think, with its subdued, almost monochromatic tones and good composition. I also appreciated his titling skills. Note: not exhibited at the gallery.

Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872)

A painting that was exhibited is on the left. Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge (1872) is a picture more interested in form and colour than any realistic image of a bridge and there's a real atmosphere to it. The Nocturnes are amongst his most famous paintings and one of the best parts of the exhibition.

However, most of the show was of his etchings and lithographs of the river environment. Although of some interest, especially the historical interest of a river side changing dramatically, this work was of much lesser impact than something like a large Nocturne painting.

So not a bad exhibition but not as good as I had hoped: too many drawings and too little nocturne. Many of the paintings that were shown struck me as a little dull, both in subject and execution. Whistler has some great paintings in his canon but I'll have to keep an eye open for them in the future rather than find too many in Dulwich just now.