Review of “Wild Abandon”, Joe Dunthorne, TLS, August 19th 2011


This is a brief review of an entertaining second novel by Joe Dunthorne. It didn’t quite have the success of Submarine, which was a pity, since in many ways the focus expanded quite effectively. Some tendency towards journalistese (see the Happy Mondays quote I mention below) it was a very effective comic novel that did a certain justice to its characters. With thanks to Maren Meinhardt for sending me the full published text.

Joe Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine (2008), depicted a Swansea teenager’s comically sex-obsessed, self-dramatizing existence and his tragic attempts to keep his parents together. In his new novel, Dunthorne broadens his canvas to a commune in South Wales, but the focus remains on growing up, family life and marital breakdown. These, the novel suggests, are equally painful in unconventional families and in nuclear ones. Blean-y-llyn is a secular, non mystical exercise in communal living, conceived in the early 1990s by Don Riley and his companions. The Welsh name is not significant since all the communards are English, and it is known to the locals as the Rave House after a legendary fifteenth birthday party for Don’s daughter, Kate, which turned into an all-night affair.

The opening scene, in which seventeen year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert have a shower together – it is the only way to get Albert to wash – suggests the eccentricity of the Riley ménage, in which Freya, the children’s mother, is increasingly alienated from Don. While Kate leaves every day to attend a sixth form college, Albert, who feels “puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder”, is still schooled in the commune, with only six-year-old Isaac for company. Sensible Kate is one of those exasperated daughters of ostentatiously countercultural parents, but Albert has absorbed the apocalyptic beliefs of Isaac’s mother Marina, a serial commune-dweller and a believer in the upcoming cosmic dislocations of 2012.

Don Riley is a monster of righteousness and ill-judged humour. In one excruciating scene he tells his unwilling eleven-year-old son how he lost his virginity: “he leaned down to Albert’s ear and whispered conspiratorially in a tone that he hoped would show his son that, one day, the two of them could be friends. ‘She had a climber’s body but alpine tits’”. Also disturbing is Don’s use of the Personal Instrument, a self-built device for the focusing of consciousness, as an initiation for the commune’s children into adulthood – he inflicts this modified motorcycle helmet on Albert as a desperate and futile attempt at control. At times the larger-than-life Don threatens to dominate the book to the detriment of its wider themes.

Dunthorne creates sympathetic adolescent characters. Kate’s alienation from the commune reaches a crisis point, and she leaves to stay with her boyfriend Geraint and his nice, average suburban family – local television news producer dad, devoted and supportive mum. Having grown up on a diet of films depicting bourgeois life as a repository of hidden dysfunction, Kate expects dark secrets amid the mown lawns and plasma screens, and some of Dunthorne’s most acute humour exposes the limits of Kate’s apparently clear-eyed world-view. There are some false steps – a long expository section dips into Sunday supplement generalizations (“Black Monday revealed the vulnerability of the stocks markets; the Happy Mondays revealed the quality of drugs coming from the continent”) and the final rave seems set up for a sentimental resolution. Fortunately, a powerful last scene is able to reconcile Kate’s new maturity, the altered dynamics of the Riley family, and even Albert’s millennial anxieties, and Wild Abandon comes to a satisfying close.

“Ample food and sleep” : A thought on retrospective diagnosis, visions and full bellies

From Geoffrey Moorhouse’s fine bookSun Dancing

A clinical diagnosis of Aedh’s erotic and other visions would doubtless have concluded that , whatever shaped them in his psyche, they were triggered by his reckless fasting. Hallucination as a result of extreme exhaustion, including that which has resulted from semi-starvation, is a well-established condition, though many more centuries would pass after Aedh’s time before this was recognised. But visionaries of every father at all stages of history have tended to be people whose lives are marked by exceptional austerity, and it is difficult to think of a single instance in which a holy man or woman has reported tempting, fearsome or inspiring manifestations, on a regime of ample food and sleep.

On one level there is nothing objectionable about the above. Moorhouse, whose book I greatly admire, is careful not the ascribed the visions to starvation per se, but as a triggering factor. I I am suspicious of retrospective diagnosis and also of transporting the clinical worldview outside its natural habitat But reading this passage, a brief thought occurs. For the vast majority of the time homo sapiens has been in existence “ample food and sleep” have not been the common condition of humanity. Indeed, a regime of ample food and sleep could be said to be as anomalous as complex societies themselves- as Tainter points out

Laptop Warriors – on the “Stealing the Network” series. SAU Blog, October 2007

As it stands, my last contribution to the Social Affairs Unit blog is this piece on two novels written by (firstly) Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan “Effugas” Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig, and (secondly) Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Tim Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker.

Even more is written about “cyber war” now than back in 2007 , though this paper persuasively argues that “war” is not the correct terminology for cyber attacks.  

As novels these books are pretty awful, although I did like the opening section about

Stealing the Network: How to Own the Box
by Ryan Russell, Tim Mullen (Thor), FX, Dan “Effugas” Kaminsky, Joe Grand, Ken Pfeil, Ido Durbrawsky, Mark Burnett, and Paul Craig
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2003
Paperback, £25

Stealing the Network: How to Own A Continent
by Ryan Russell, Jeff Moss, Kevin Mitnick, 131ah, Russ Rogers, Jay Beale, Joe Grand, Fyodor, FX, Paul Craig, Timothy Mullen (Thor), and Tom Parker
Rockland, MA: Syngress Publishing, 2004
Paperback, £22

Last May, the Estonian government’s decision to relocate a statue of a Red Army soldier lead to vigorous protests from Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin and ethnic Russians in Estonia and abroad. Most media coverage in the West focused on another confirmation of Putin’s self-confidence, and of resurgent Russian sabre-rattling. Less remarked on – and less reported – was the fact that an EU member was virtually assaulted – and “virtually” here means the contemporary sense. An army of computers attacked Estonia’s computer-based infrastructure. As the Estonian Minister for Defence later told Wired:

The attacks were aimed at the essential electronic infrastructure of the Republic of Estonia. All major commercial banks, telcos, media outlets, and name servers – the phone books of the internet – felt the impact, and this affected the majority of the Estonian population. This was the first time that a botnet threatened the national security of an entire nation.
[A botnet is basically a collection of computers whose security has been compromised and are being used for some nefarious purpose, usually unknown to the computer’s owner.]
As Wired adds portentously:

Welcome to Web War One
Computer-phobic readers, if such a breed read a web-based publication, may be forgiven a sigh of exasperation. The phrase “Revenge of the Nerds” has rarely seemed more apt – for not only are the computer nerds and geeks derided in schools and college now the world’s richest men, they are now claiming martial glory as their own.
So, war too goes digital. War has always been one of the staples – if not the staple – of popular fiction for men and boys of all ages. War and adventure are linked so closely that we often hear heard the war in Iraq described as “a foreign policy adventure”.

Of course, while the martial virtues and the computing virtues seem, at first, diametrically opposed, on closer inspection this is not the case. Someone once remarked that anyone who uses the phrase “military efficiency” without irony has never been in the army.

Be that as it may, the military mind is methodical, plans ahead, tries to break down the unknowable chaos of war into manageable units one can train and prepare for, and while the outcome is vastly more unknowable than the in theory entirely predictable response of a computer, shares with computer programming a mission of controlling the world.

Syngress specialise in computer security manuals, most of which are in a traditional format. They also publish the Stealing the Network series, which has become a series of “cyber-thrillers”, fictional stories about hackers using real techniques and technologies. How To Own the Box, the first in the series, is a set of short stories, while How To Own A Continent is a novel.

Jeff Moss, President & CEO of Black Hat, Inc. in his introduction (both books have slightly different introductions, with essentially the same material) is at pains to point out that “hacker” is abused in the media as a term for computer criminal. “Hacker” originally simply meant competent programmers and system administrators. They would “hack up” the source code of a system to fix things, because they would have the big picture of the entire system in mind at all times – unlike less competent computer folk who may know their small patch very well but have no vision of the entire system.

You would not describe a criminal auto mechanic as simply a mechanic, and you shouldn’t do the same with a hacker, either.
The introduction is a useful primer for understanding hacking. Interestingly the hardest attacks to defend against are not the technical assaults of viruses and worms, but physical attempts to literally hack into systems and what are called social engineering attacks – essentially closest to the traditional confidence artist’s manipulation of people’s gullibility, naïvete and trust.
The popular image of brilliant hackers taking over the Pentagon with a few keystrokes belies the sheer hard work, patience and ingenuity hacking seems to require. Hackers, as portrayed in the book, generally exploit the inefficiency and laziness of most system administrators. They remind me somewhat of the Oakland Athletics, the heroes of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball – poor outsiders in the world of baseball who methodically identified the great inefficiencies of the traditional scouting and recruitment system and played well above their weight.

The books are written by committee – both boast nine contributors, some of whom go by a nom du hack such as “FX”, “131ah” and “Fyodor” (yes, a tribute to Dostoyevksy, and Fyodor is properly embarrassed that a Google search for “Fyodor” lists him about the great proto-existentialist), some of whom such as Kevin Mitnick have gained fame well beyond the world of hacking.

How To Own A Continent boasts one of the most compelling opening chapters I’ve ever read. Much of both books is imbued with a kind of edgy nihilism, slightly contemptuous of the non-hacker and proud of technical competence and ingenuity. This opening chapter has a punch and narrative drive that sucks the reader in:

How much money would you need for the rest of your life? How much would you need in a lump sum so that you never had to work again, never had to worry about bills or taxes or a house payment. How much to live like a king? Your mind immediately jumps to Bill Gates or Ingmar Kamprad with their billions. You think that is what you would need.
Ah, but what if you wanted to live in obscurity, or at least were forced to? It’s not possible with that much money. You might actually need a billion dollars to live like royalty in the United States. It can be done; a few people live that way, but their lives are reality TV. If that kind of attention means the end of your life, either by a charge of treason or a mob hit, then the US isn’t an option. The US has a culture of being intrusive, everyone knows too much about everyone else.

The narrator explores the pitiless logic of this completely self-sufficient life – and surely total self-sufficiency is a common fantasy? For most of us, it will always stay in the world of fantasy. As the narrator explains,
It was not without its costs; several years of my life and my wife. Now I’m alone, there’s no one to take care of but myself. No reason to stay in Virginia. No distractions.
Over the rest of this chapter, a remorseless routine is laid out. It is utterly focused, but focused on what? We have hints, but no clear picture. The next chapter transfers the action to Lagos, and the plot proper commences. Some of what follows is impenetrable even if you are paying attention:
He logged in to the mac3 machine with another one of his stolen accounts, and switched over to his wstearns context by running the wstearns shell:
[mac3:~] ajr % ~mrash/Public\Drop\ Box/.shells/zsh-wstearns mac%

He next ssh’ed into the VA teach cluster using wstearns’ password:

Mac% ssh’s password:

I doubt Robert Louis Stevenson or Captain Marryat could write a ssh’ing into a cluster scene to match that. However, generally the detail is either incidental or secondary to the thriller aspect of the plot, and in the context of the scene perfectly understandable. What matters is not what the characters type or what technology they use (though the authors obviously take considerable pride in the technical accuracy of their work) but the insight into the hacker mindset – problem-solving, logical, methodical, patient.
Military metaphors abound in the hacking world. Most obviously, the prefix war – as in wardialling, wardriving, warwalking and even warbiking. The etymology of all these terms is rooted in the 1983 film War Games.

War-driving, walking and biking all involve searching for wireless networks while in various forms of transport – either as a hobby, to identify unsecured networks to use for free, or for some other purpose. All you need is the free program NetStumbler and a wireless enabled laptop or PDA, and off you go on this addictive (as I can attest) if rather pointless (unless you actually are motivated to, and know how to, use the information) activity. The industry critics who have praised the books describe them as “attack orientated”.

How To Own A Continent is predominantly set in Africa, and while Conde Nast Traveler may not be commissioning the authors for sweeping travelogues anytime soon, their pithy style is in its own way evocative:

He took a taxi to Hotel Le Meridian. Everything in Lagos was dirty and broken. Even with its four stars and a price tag of $300 per night, the hotel’s water had the same color as Dr Pepper. You couldn’t even brush your teeth in this water let alone drink it. He went down to the bar area, and had a Star beer and chilli chicken pizza. It was not long before the prostitutes hanging around made their way to him. He was blunt but polite with them – he was in no mood for a dose of exotic STDs, and besides, he had work to do the next morning.
This is the world of the hacker – immensely proud of their competence and focused on their work. And how different is this from other heroes of popular, male-orientated fiction? Read Bond (rather than watch the glib cartoons of movies) and what comes across is Fleming’s hero’s professional pride, his self-recrimination when things go wrong, his satisfaction when things go right.
Male popular fiction has historically been criticised for dealing with the complex world of emotions and feelings by ignoring it. Put simply, the predominantly masculine world of the martial adventure story ignores, idealises or denigrates women. Perhaps the funniest moment of unintentional humour comes in the How to Own the Box story h3X’s Adventures in Networkland by FX.:

h3X is a hacker, or to be more precise, she is a hackse (from hexe, the German word for witch).
h3X occupies herself in the course of trying to exploit an American university’s vulnerable printer servers (I think). FX, we learn from the introductory biographies, is male. It’s an age-old literary problem – can a male writer convincingly convey a woman’s inner life, and vice versa? Perhaps the reader can judge if FX gets it right:
Since it’s about one in the morning (CET) on a Thursday (actually it’s Friday already), h3X decides to pay the local house club a visit and see if there is a nice piece of meat to play with in place of the printer. She puts the freshly discovered devices in her list file and makes a note about that one particular go-and-never return box. Then it’s time for DJs, vodka-lemon, and possibly some dude with a decent body and half a brain – though she knows that’s a hard-to-find combination.

It seems perhaps slightly ungallant to suggest that h3X’s persona might form some kind of wish fulfilment for hackers – but passages like the following make it difficult to suggest otherwise:
Inspecting about 50 different Cisco router configurations for hints on the application of this particular black or blue box is as boring as it sounds. You need to proceed methodically and stay concentrated, and this basically sucks, since you don’t see real progress being made. It’s the same for h3X, but females are sometimes a lot better at concentrating than males, and so she spends the better part of the night, trying to figure out interconnections and other facts about the network. After that, she barely has enough energy left to sit on the couch and watch some TV before she dozes off. The phone rings several times in an attempt to make this attractive, young member of society participate in what people call nightlife, but it goes unheard.

There’s a bathos to the last line that couldn’t be bettered. “What people call nightlife” indeed. But while it is easy to mock the occasional clunky dialogue and characterisation, and the occasional confirmation of the computer nerd stereotype, the books have a compelling power. For me at least they pass the Pageturning Test, along with the Reread Test the only assessment of a thriller that really counts.
And like boy’s fiction of earlier eras, the aim is not to produce a masterpiece of psychological penetration, or to faithfully chart the emotional life of the hacker, but to recount tales of derring-do and adventure. These adventures take place almost entirely in virtual space, but the sense of excitement is still there.

And so what if it is often incomprehensible? I barely understand the naval manoeuvring in Patrick O’Brian, but still derive much pleasure from the books (granted, much of this is from Aubrey and Maturin and the precision of the description of the world, rather than the action as such) In his review on this site of the film Miami Vice, Christopher Peachment argued that:

Not understanding the professional jargon is one of the great joys of watching any new American TV series or film. Think back to the beginnings of ER. It took several shows before you could follow what the doctors were shouting over the mayhem and blood. So too with The Shield, currently the best show on British TV and nearly impenetrable thanks to the cop’s street slang.
And the art of skipping the boring or impenetrable is part of the art of reading (although this can be taken too far).
Finally the universe of Stealing the Network is far from amoral. Just as in boy’s stories of the past, the good are rewarded and the bad punished. In the story Just Another Day At the Office in How To Own The Box, the anonymous protagonist begins highly-paid industrial espionage against his own employer, A42:

A42 was contracted by the U.S. Government to research new technologies for a next-generation stealth-landmine.
Obviously this is a particularly high-security workplace, and our narrator uses a variety of ingenious technical attacks, physical attacks, and social engineering to derive the information. The Epilogue, while lacking much local colour, summarises the disaffection of the successful traitor (and is reminiscent of Henry Hill’s closing monologue in Goodfellas):
I can’t disclose much about my location. Let’s just say it’s damp and cold. But it’s much better to be here than in jail, or dead. I thought I had it made – simple hacks into insecure systems for tax-free dollars. And then the ultimate heist: breaking into a sensitive lab to steal one of the most important weapons the U.S. had been developing. And now it’s over. I’m in a country I know nothing about, with a new identity, doing chump work for a guy who’s fresh out of school.
Proud of their profession, daring, ingenious, patient, methodical, contemptuous of “chump work”, playing the game for the game’s sake more than for the supposed casus belli – the hackers of the Stealing The Network books are not so far from the military heroes of popular literature as we might think.

“our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise”

The geodesic dome  was the brainchild of Buckminster Fuller,  a polymath perhaps noted best for the number of his ideas than the successful execution of any of them. Geodesic domes are perhaps the most emblematically retro-futurist structure – in the 1980s, one thought we would be living in domes on the moon by the year 2000.


At TreeHugger.Com, Lloyd Alter has a piece on his own experience of owning and living in (or trying to) a dome. The whole thing is worth reading, especially this closing section:


Lloyd Kahn of Shelter Publications wrote two books about dome building in the early seventies and built many of them. He wrote many years later:

Metaphorically, our work on domes now appears to us to have been smart: mathematics, computers, new materials, plastics. Yet reevaluation of our actual building experiments, publications, and feedback from others leads us to emphasize that there continue to be many unsolved problems with dome homes. Difficulties in making the curved shapes livable, short lives of modern materials, and as-yet-unsolved detail and weatherproofing problems. We now realize that there will be no wondrous new solution to housing, that our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise.

He goes on to describe the waste of materials (cutting triangles out of rectangles), the problems with plastics, the impossibility of roofing them properly, the issues of wasted space.

I learned from my dome why we have roofs that are different materials than walls, why we have roof overhangs, why windows are vertical instead of sloped, why square is better than round. Useful lessons, and an interesting ride getting here.

But with every generation there is revived interest in geodesic domes and I only have one bit of advice: Don’t do it.

10 things I’ve learnt about conservation optimism

10 things I’ve learnt about conservation optimism

I have posted before about #OceanOptimism. This post is an interesting summary (in handy listicle format) of some learnings from the movement and the wider conservation optimism philosophy. This is an ethic which is far from being blandly reassuring about very wicked problems but is also not falsely wallowing in a rather ostentatious virtue-signalling misery.

A View To Sea

  1. ‘Conservation optimism is about planning for the future, not just holding the line’ – Elizabeth Bennett. Conservation optimists are focused on making positive change and taking real steps forward for recovery, turning passion into practice.
  1. It’s a powerful movement that’s growing fast, thanks to the drive of hundreds of motivated and inspirational conservationists.
  1. We need to widen who can call themselves a ‘conservationist’. As Heather Koldewey spoke about at the Summit, anyone can be a conservationist. You don’t have to have a science degree – this is for anyone from any discipline, with concern for our environment and the drive to work to protect it for future generations. No lab coat required.
  1. The passion showed by young people is the engine of the movement. School children’s voices have been seen to have strong weight in political decision-making, and the skills and optimism shown by young conservation professionals entering the field…

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Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey is literally overshadowed by theRock of Cashel. It is well worth taking the path down from the Rock to the considerably less touristed Abbey. There is a relative lack of interpretative material, to say the least, except for this interesting information, especially on what I suspect was a rather convenient dream:


The abbey is reached by paths via a field which was populated by cows (and cowpats) aplenty. One doubts a Royal Visit is imminent.
From above on the Rock it appears a somewhat slight structure, an impression quickly corrected closer to. An air of monumentality remains, all the more accentuated for the relative abandonment.

Maren Meinhardt on an urban tree

From the TLS, June 2nd:

Outside my window, there is a tree. Even without it, the view is not at all unpleasant: a row of Victorian houses, cars, a skew-whiff estate agent’s sign, a lamp post. But it is the tree that transforms the scene into something more than just an accumulation of things. The movement, the colour, the presence of something living – together, they create harmony, and beauty. The occasional bird flies from the tree’s branches, leaves move gently in the wind, and the eye is naturally drawn to it. The scene calls to mind, for me, the way Humboldt talks about plants. There is “dead, motionless rock”, and then “the animate plant cover, which puts, as it were, gentle flesh on the skeleton”.

I am writing all this because the tree is scheduled for removal. “Removal” has a calming, sensible ring to it – prompting an image of a tree being gently lifted from its plot and, perhaps, reinserted somewhere else. The reality, of course, is quite different: it will involve tree surgeons – who, not entirely pursuing the vision of the medical practitioners implied in their name – will spend the best part of a day sitting in the tree with chainsaws, cutting it down branch by branch.

I know this, and can picture the result, as this is exactly what has taken place in the street next to mine. I don’t know what the reasons were for cutting down the tree in that case, but I think it’s safe to say that the effect is not desirable, or pleasing.

In the case of the tree on my road, a sign tied around its trunk with council tape informs residents that the tree has been “implicated in damage to an adjacent property”. It seems a rather vague, and at the same time damning, accusation. “Works”, therefore, the sign goes on, will “commence shortly”.


And seen like this, trees, particularly mature ones, probably are quite an irresponsible proposition: there they stand, making houses harder to insure, causing cost by needing to be pruned, and dropping sticky leaves on to people’s cars. But it’s hard not to feel that to view them like that is to miss the point. Not only because, in a world of climate change and air pollution in our cities, it would be absurd to say that a tree causes greater damage than, say, a car. But also because we must ask ourselves where all this is going, and how we want to live.  Do we want the bits of nature that surround us subdued and manageable, in the form of those little “architect trees”, the ones Ian Jack wrote about so eloquently in the Guardian last month, pointing out that they “represent the new orthodoxy in planting: small trees for the short term, easily replaced”?

More info on the tree (and the campaign to save it!) here