Review of “The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, The Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity”, Amir D Aczel, Lancet, 17th February 2001

Following on from a review of a book on Nabokov on butterflies, my second piece in a proper non-student publication was this review of Amir D Aczel’s book on George Cantor and infinity. I still find the topic of this book quietly mind-blowing. The “diagonal argument” is a wonderfully accessible “ah-a” moment. Around this time I read a lot of popularisations on maths – which may have given me an entirely false confidence in my own mathematical ability.


The French mathematician Henri Poincaré wrote that the work of Georg Cantor was “a malady, a perverse illness from which someday mathematics will be cured”; the equally legendary German mathematician David Hilbert held that “no one will expel us from the paradise that Georg Cantor has opened for us”. Cantor, working in isolation in a provincial university, was at the cutting edge of late 19th-century mathematics, discovering set theory, establishing notation for infinite numbers, and stating the continuum hypothesis, for decades regarded as the most difficult problem in pure mathematics.

Galileo demonstrated in 1638 that one can prove that the set of all whole numbers is equal in number to the set of all squares of whole numbers, which is a subset of the set of all whole numbers. How can this be so? If we list all the natural numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on, we can place each of these umbers in direct one-to-one correspondence with its square. We can also put each one in correspondence with a prime. Cantor would later use such thinking to define an infinite set as a collection of objects that can be put into a one-to-one correspondence with a part of itself. Cantor realised that the paradoxes of infinity produced weren’t just slightly bothersome games but required a new type of arithmetic. Sets that can be matched to each other like the example above are then said to have the same cardinality; Cantor dubbed such sets “countably infinite” and denoted their cardinality by “aleph-null”—the Hebrew letter aleph with the subscript zero.

Cantor proved that there are infinities larger than countable infinities by a remarkably ingenious argument—if we try to count all possible real numbers (numbers that can represented as decimals) between 0 and 1, we find we cannot put them in a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers of countable infinity. Suppose we list the natural numbers and correspond them with all possible decimals between 0 and 1, in no particular order, like so: and so on forever. Cantor constructed a “diagonal number” by taking the first digit from the first place after the decimal point of the first number, the second digit from the second place after the decimal point of the second, and so on. In this example we get the number 0·27267…which is made of a digit from every single number on the list. If we alter each digit in this number by adding one to it, we get a new number (in this case 0·38378…) which cannot appear anywhere on the original list, since by its very construction it differs by at least one digit from every single entry in the list. In other words, constructing the diagonal number creates a number that has at least one digit in common with every single decimal on the list—and by changing that digit we create a number that loses this common characteristic with each of the numbers on the list. So the decimals cannot possibly be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers—they are uncountably infinite and are denoted by the symbol C for continuum. The author also demonstrates how Cantor used the concept of the continuum to prove, amongst other things, that there are as many points on any given line as in any shape or volume, no matter of what size. “I see it, but I don’t believe it!” Cantor wrote (in French) of this result.

1 ………… 0.2345678 to infinity
2 ………… 0.5756037s to infinity
3………… 0.6729283 to infinity
4 ………… 0.2386412 to infinity
5 ………… 0.9877754 to infinity

The continuum hypothesis was Cantor’s next step. He wondered whether infinite sets exist that are intermediate in size between aleph-null and C. He thought they didn’t—in his own notation, he hoped to prove that aleph-one (which he defined as the next order of infinity following aleph-null) equalled C—but was unable to prove so. The problem increasingly began to haunt him. His work was under attack from the Berlin-based mathematical establishment, embodied in Leopold Kronecker, who sternly declared “God made the integers; all else is the work of man”. He longed for an appointment to the mathematical faculty in Berlin, and began to believe that his enemies were conspiring against him. Spending increasing amounts of time in the Halle Nervenklinik, he also became an enthusiastic advocate of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship; Aczel represents this as Cantor’s tortured intellect taking refuge from the blinding light of infinity, which he compares to the infinite brightness of the chaluk, God’s robe in Kabbalah tradition. Increasingly Cantor gave the continuum hypothesis the status of dogma, declaring that “from me, Christian philosophy will be offered for the first time the true theory of the infinite”.

The mathematicians Kurt Gödel (who himself suffered from paranoia and hypochondria) and Paul Cohen would later show that, firstly, if we treat the continuum hypothesis as an additional axiom of set theory, it doesn’t contradict any of the other axioms of set theory, and secondly if we treat the opposite of the continuum hypothesis as an additional axiom of set theory, it doesn’t contradict any of the other axioms of set theory. Thus the continuum hypothesis is independent of the other axioms of set theory, and therefore can neither be proved or refuted from those axioms.

As he discusses Cantor’s existence in the provincial university of Halle, Aczel announces “mathematical research is best done within a community of good mathematicians. Research results can be shared and ideas exchanged, so that new theories can develop and thrive”. This is almost certainly true, yet within a few pages Aczel has discussed not only Cantor but two of his contemporaries who made spectacular advances working in isolation; the immensely likeable Karl Weierstrass (who developed the modern theory of mathematical analysis by night while working as a schoolteacher), and Richard Dedekind (who made equally important contributions to the definition of irrational numbers in the provincial University of Brunswick)—yet Aczel never even discusses the implications of this.

It is significant that a recent survey of American scientists’ attitude to the divine found mathematicians the most likely (with biologists the least likely) to believe in a God. Reading of the dizzying orders of infinity that Cantor explored, one feels perhaps that maths and music are the closest humanity can get to any sense of the divine. Aczel treats this potentially fascinating theme in a curiously perfunctory way; the Kabbalah is discussed in one chapter, belying the subtitle. There are some rather superficial references to the ability of the human mind to comprehend the infinite, with occasional references to the connection between Cantor’s fragile mental state and his work on the continuum hypothesis. Periodically Aczel announces that Galileo or Cantor or Güdel had the ability to face in full the concept of infinity, which most mathematicians and indeed human beings never do, but never explores precisely what this means.

All told The mystery of the Aleph deals with one of the most fascinating themes that mathematics holds for the general reader, and deals sympathetically with its central character. Indeed the rarefied world of infinity and its relationship with the divine is perhaps the most beguiling seductress mathematics can rely on to persuade the reflex numerophobes conditioned to see mathematics as dry, soulless, and worst of all, boring. Like Paul Hoffman’s The man who loved only numbers and John D Barrow’s Pi in the sky, this is another accessible introduction to the world of pure mathematics, although perhaps Hoffman’s work is more engaging. Aczel’s work belongs in the set of books dealing with fascinating tales and concepts that fall just barely short of greatness.


Review of Oliver Sacks, “The River of Consciousness”, TLS 13th March 2018

A Medical Education

I have a review in the current TLS of Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, “The River of Consciousness” . The full article is subscriber only so here is the opening….

Who is the most famous medical doctor in the world today? Until his death in 2015, a reasonable case could be made that it was Oliver Sacks. Portrayed by Robin Williams on screen, inspiring a Michael Nyman opera and plays by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, Sacks took his followers far beyond the confines of neurology.

In their Foreword to The Rivers of Consciousness, a posthumously published collection of Sacks’s essays, the editors recount the time Sacks appeared in a Dutch documentary series, A Glorious Accident. Along with, among others, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discussed “the origin of life, the meaning of evolution, the nature of consciousness. In a lively discussion, one thing was clear: Sacks…

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“The silent are never at home in our culture again”

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”


Adam DeVille has a fascinating pair of posts (one here, one here) on Maggie RossSilence: A User’s Guide. Both posts are worth reading in full (and I must now read Ross’ book itself!)

In part 1 of these posts, deVille discusses his own dislike of the term “spirituality”:

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of “spirituality.” I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in “spirituality” taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, “spirituality” was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious–before I had the language to express it–that “spirituality” was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.


In part 2, deVille draws further on Ross’ bracing approach to many oft-abused concepts:

One of the biggest misunderstandings–as I have long thought myself–comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of “experience,” which Ross says is “perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list.” Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today’s usage, running totally contrary to “ancient, patristic, and medieval” wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word–and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed–because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

: All these terms “have become useless and misleading” and function to justify “weirdness,” “exoticism,” “voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography” (90). See below for more on the problems with “mysticism.”

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called “spirituality” exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as “spiritual directors” everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted “spiritual directors” lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross’s denunciation of “spiritual direction, so-called” as having “little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control.” As she continues, “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”


There is a wider cultural context to this:

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross’s critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty “cures” approved by modern “therapists” and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over “unknowing” that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word “experience and other anachronisms” the effect of which is to “have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears.” Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we “experience” (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.


Previously I posted a link to an interview with the media theorist Marie Thompson which made reference to “the conservative politics of silence”. From a rather different perspective, Ross and DeVille share this concern:

For those worried about the “political” implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed “me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell” Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are “green” in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of “custody of the ears.” Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

For me, “simultaneously more liberal and more conservative” captures something not just about our encounter with silence, or with Christ, or indeed with many other phenomena (secular as well as religious), onto which we tend to try and shoehorn our own political preferences and biases.


Finally, deVille captures the tranfigurative power of silence, and its counter-cultural nature:

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User’s Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009


This fine book on evolution was well reviewed at the time and won the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books. Here is my review from Eurotimes . Or rather this is a draft, and readers will note one paragraph just trails off… I cannot find the final version online or in my email so I am not sure what followed! This review is focused on the ophthalmological aspects of the book, though not to the exclusion of the wider issues :

Life ascending.
Nick Lane

There are ten great inventions of evolution discussed in Nick Lane’s lucid, stimulating book – life’s origin,
DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Lane
makes it clear from the outset that invention does not mean a conscious agency purposefully steered the
process, rather he is referring to the ten great innovations that have transformed life that were created
through natural selection. Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the chapter on sight, which
I will therefore focus on in this review, but the whole book is superbly written and extremely enjoyable.

The eye has long been a favourite topic of anti-evolutionists. In 1802, the English utilitarian philosopher William Paley
argued in his Natural Theology that the eye is an organ of such complexity that it is absurd to suppose
that the purposeless blunderings of evolution (evolutionary ideas pre-dated Darwin, of course) could have
produced it. He used the analogy of a blind watchmaker producing a timepiece, which later gave Richard
Dawkins the title of one of his books. Darwin himself is frequently misquoted by creationists and affiliated
persons in this context – he seemed the admit that “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems
… absurd in the highest possible degree.” Darwin went on the write, however, that “if numerous
gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each being useful to its
possessor, can be shown to exist” the problem is solved.

In fact, we now have models of the evolution of the eye that exceed those of other organs in explanatory
power. The Swedish researchers Dans Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have modelled this succession
of steps, which is each generation is taken as one year, requires somewhat less than half a million years.

The eye does seem, at first glance, to pose a problem to evolutionary explanations of its origin. What’s
more the human eye, with its rods and cones located behind an array of nerves and with its blind spot
where the optic nerve leaves the orbit, does not at first, cynical glance to be especially well designed.
Furthermore, the cant charge of anti-evolutionists has been “what use is half an eye?”, and answering the
question of how a retina could have evolved, separate from the rest of the optic apparatus, is at first
glance difficult. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” is a famous dictum of the evolutionary biologist Leslie
Orgel, and Lane goes on to show not only that the eye is well adapted to its purpose, but that (I am not sure what I said subsequently)

His approach begins, entertainingly for readers of this publication, with the observation that “anyone who
has been to a conference of ophthalmologists will appreciate that they fall into two great tribes: those who
work at the front of the eye … and those who work at the back … the two tribes interact reluctantly, and at
times barely seem to speak the same language.” For this divide, ironically, reflects the half-an-eye
distinction and allows us to consider the evolution of both halves of the eye.

For the retinal part of the answer, Lane travels (literarily speaking – it was the marine biologist Cindy Lee
Van Dover who did the actual exploring) to the most hostile and extreme habitat on earth – black-smoker
vents on the deep ocean floor that support an ecosystem of hardy survivors. Among these is the
ironically named eyeless reef shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata), which as a larva has fully formed eyes.
These are not of use to the adult shrimp, so they are reabsorbed and replaced with a literal half an eye
– a naked retina.

Most doctors will remember rhodopsin, perhaps rather dimly. It is the light-sensitive protein at the heart of
the visual process, being involved in photoreceptor synthesis as well as the initial perception of light.
Rhodopsin evolved from an algal ancestor where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis.
Rhodopsin is used by some bacteria for a form of photosynthesis.
Lane synthesises the evolution of all the aspects of the eye, although one of the ophthalmological tribes
may feel their area of interest is dealt with in slightly less detail than their retinal brethren. The naked
retina was the first step on the journey. As different organisms’ sheets of light-sensitive were arrayed in
different ways, with some recessing into pits which allowed shadows to be cast and therefore an idea of
where light comes from to be assessed, the trade-off between resolving light and light sensitivity began to
tip the balance in favour of lens formation.

Writers in this field must be tired of having to handle the creationist/intelligent design issue. Lane’s book is
not aimed at this debate, although in the footnotes he refers the reader to “The Flagellum Unspun” by
Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller which attacks the creationist idea of irreducible complexity, as
exemplified by the development of a flagellum. Lane quotes Miller on intelligent design advocates as
double failures, “rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because
they think too little of God,” and discusses Pope John Paul II’s views of evolution and the mind (made in
the course of his 1996 pronouncement recognising that evolution was more than a hypothesis) with
respect and sensitivity. Lane is clearly that wonderful thing, an enthusiast able to explain and inform

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.

Argentina’s Dark Half-Century: Review of Lewis Shiner’s “Dark Tangos”, SF Site, 2012


I reviewed Shiner’s definitely SF short story collection Love in Vain for SF Site also. This was a highly impressive “mainstream” novel which comes highly recommended as the review hopefully makes clear. Original here.

Few countries have had as dark a half-century as Argentina. Once one of the ten wealthiest nations on earth, and blessed with outstanding natural resources, Argentina’s post-war history became a catalogue of repression, oppression, exploitation and (perhaps worst of all) a pervasive sense that justice was never done. The most intense and damaging period of repression was the so called processo, which introduced “disappeared” as a noun to the lexicon. Anyone suspected of leftist sympathies was liable to vanish, and in one of those particularly sinister twists of the human capacity for cruelty, pregnant women would give birth in captivity only to be killed and their children adopted by the elite. The CIA and various American corporations were complicit in this abuse, yet another murky drama of Cold War powerplay.

As Lewis Shiner’s narrator observes, while the absolute numbers of dead (thirty thousand or so in the processo) is not near as high, the evil and determination to utterly destroy The Other is reminiscent of the Holocaust. In the novel, the narrator, Robert Cavenaugh, works for a fictional American corporation whose Buenos Aires office was, it turns out, complicit in all this. He himself is a relative innocent, a frequent visitor to the city even before the posting, and recovering from the breakup of his marriage. This is, for him, far from a hardship posting; he is keen to master the tango, and embraces the Buenos Aires lifestyle, the antithesis of the suburban commuter life he knew, with gusto.

Shiner has weaved a compelling and sharply observed tale. The tango is Robert’s key to the nocturnal, sensuous world of Buenos Aires nights, and Shiner takes the reader into this culture with subtle, unshowy erudition. I have never been to Buenos Aires myself, but Shiner manages to create a convincing portrayal of a vast, vibrant city with the intimacy of a village. There is plenty of local colour, but it does not overwhelm.

What follows is a by turns entertaining, erotic and disturbing account of how Argentina’s and America’s pasts and presents intersect and interact. Falling in love with Elena, a beautiful Argentinian he sees one day at his workplace and meets one night at the tango, Rob enjoys a blissful interlude of eroticism, suddenly cut short by Elena withdrawing all contact. Determined not to let this relationship just end, Rob insists of entering her world, and through this determination is drawn into the darker heart of Argentinian politics. The darkness of Argentina’s past is counterpointed with the bright, romantic world of the tango, and the gentleness of the love story counterpoints the viciousness of the political plots.

At times I found some of the contrasts Shiner’s narrator drew between Americas North and South a little laboured; Argentina, too, is the New World. However they are perhaps necessary for us to understand the transformation from political innocent to someone whose involvement goes beyond the superficial, touristic liking of a country to something deeper. Shiner, whose short story collection Love In Vain I reviewed, has written a “straight”, mainstream novel that reminded me most of all of Graham Greene’s tale of painful moral awakenings and difficult comittments. There is no real speculative element to this fiction; when you read the torture scenes, and read about the tragedy of Argentina in the last half century, you’ll wish that these were the products of imagination rather than grim reality.

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.