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Weekend read: Becoming a password cracker

In order to better understand how password crackers crack passwords, Nate Anderson decided to teach himself the technique in a day. His Wired article describing both the process and the lessons he learned from the experience is a must-read for anyone with even a passing interest in the topic. It fascinated me!

This 2,034th post was filed under: Weekend Reads, , .

Review: Inferno by Dan Brown

I’ve reviewed several Dan Brown books on this site in the past. As I sat down to write this review, my memory was that I’d always pretty much laid into them with unremitting criticism. In fact, that’s not true. I was rather more positive than I remembered being.

Of Digital Fortress, I said:

One knows what one is getting into when one buys a Dan Brown book … Sometimes, it’s just what you’re after.

Of Angels and Demons, I said:

The storyline is good, and it’s an entertaining book.

Of The Da Vinci Code, I said:

It was a fairly enjoyable book … certainly worth reading, but don’t expect a masterpiece.

Looking through the archives, it seems I never got round to reviewing The Lost Symbol, though I remember – perhaps falsely – that reading it was a bit of a trial.

I mention all of this because I approached Inferno with the expectation that I would hate it. I wanted to be amused by Brown’s crazy use of language, and even crazier use of ideology. I wanted to find myself amused at the predictable structure of a art-themed treasure trail, which Robert Langdon would complete just in the nick of time. I was looking forward to writing a scathing and somewhat amusing one-star review.

But, as I read, I unexpectedly found myself enjoying this book. It isn’t high art by any means: Dan Brown’s amusingly clunky leaden prose retains its knack for destroying any semblance of atmosphere, the plot is described and recapped constantly for those who weren’t paying attention, and many of the events are predictable.

But Brown has fixed some of the problems that detracted from his earlier works. By and large, Brown has avoided having hero Robert Langdon deliver long speeches explaining points of art history when he is supposedly in a race for his life. Instead, these are accommodated through a combination of flashbacks, and through delivery by other characters who have no knowledge of the wider plot. This isn’t rocket science, but it does improve things considerably.

Brown also manages to deliver several plot twists in this volume that aren’t obvious from the start. The plot of his previous books is entirely predictable: not so this volume. This makes it far more engaging.

Yet not all of the problems have been solved. Brown still writes hilariously clunky prose:

He half wondered if he might at any moment wake up in his reading chair at home, clutching an empty martini glass and a copy of Dead Souls, only to remind himself that Bombay Sapphire and Gogol should never be mixed.

Brown is still utterly incapable of giving his main characters distinct voices. When he attempts to distinguish the voices of minor characters, he resorts to quite hilarious stereotype:

Sienna, eez Danikova! Where you?! Eez terrible! Your friend Dr. Marconi, he dead! Hospital going craaazy!

And yet, Brown builds an uncharacteristically gripping novel that kept me turning the pages, and had me genuinely surprised by the end. This isn’t a bad effort by any means, and probably reaches the uppermost quartile of “mental chewing-gum” novels.

Inferno is available now from amazon.co.uk in hardback and on Kindle.

This 2,033rd post was filed under: Book Reviews, .

Weekend read: Is iOS7 ‘good’ or ‘great’?

ios7

Since Apple’s WWDC Keynote, there’s been no end of stuff written about iOS7. As always with Apple stories, the majority of what’s written has polarised into suggesting that iOS’s new look is either “insanely great” or “the beginning of the end for Apple”. And, as always with Apple stories, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

By some co-incidence, I was reading an interesting blog post from Paul Buchheit – one of the original Gmail developers – this week. It’s an old post, written in the aftermath of the announcement of the original iPad. He argues that many successful technology products share the attributes of doing a small number of things extremely well, while (at least initially) doing many other things poorly. The reaction of many commentators will be to criticise what the product lacks, whilst consumers will often be seduced by what the product offers.

It’s an interesting antidote to the reactionary guff that passes for news and reviews in the aftermath of a product announcement, and shifted my perspective to that of the developer in a way that many others try unsuccessfully to do. It’s well worth reading this weekend.

The picture at the top of this post was uploaded to Flickr by Kārlis Dambrāns, and has been modified and used under Creative Commons licence.

This 2,032nd post was filed under: Technology, Weekend Reads, , , , .

2D: Media rigour

Newspapers

In some ways, watching a dying industry attempt a caterpillar-like metamorphosis is as fascinating as following a nascent one. It’s genuinely intriguing to see the choices different players make about which parts of their former selves they retain, which they reject, and what new elements they add to their products. For this 2D post, I’ve picked out two articles which look at very different responses to those challenges.

The first is an article from the Columbia Journalism Review by Peter Canby about the fact-checking process at the New Yorker, and the way in which that process has morphed under economic pressure. I’ve never before seen such a clear admission from anyone – other than, perhaps, The Guardian – that mistakes happen.

Ultimately we make mistakes. I wish we didn’t, but they are inevitable and constant.

Admitting a problem is, as they say, the first step to addressing it. This article suggests to me the the New Yorker has invested a great deal of effort in working out how to minimise errors without maximising costs, and continues to do so.

At the other end of the spectrum, as Martin Robbins describes in the New Statesman, the Daily Mail has taken a rather different approach, seemingly involving a rather strong dose of hypocrisy.

The coverage of Kick Ass star Chloe Moretz at the age of 14 contains some classic examples: looking “all grown up” she was “every inch the classy young lady” at a film premiere, for example. All this comes from a newspaper campaigning vigorously against ‘sexualisation’ and its impact on children.

I personally find the Daily Mail‘s approach distasteful, but it’s hard to deny that it has been successful. Mail Online is now the world’s most popular news website (perhaps “news” should be in inverted commas), with almost double the number of unique browsers of the BBC News website. Vox populi, vox dei – or at least vox populi, vox argentum. If this is what most people want to read, perhaps we should be a little more respectful towards their art in our tone, even if we make the argument no less forcefully that the protection of the individuals concerned should be paramount. Or perhaps we should focus on the underlying problems of society, rather than the newspaper-based symptoms. I don’t know.

2D posts appear on alternate Wednesdays. For 2D, I pick two interesting articles that look at an issue from two different – though not necessarily opposing – perspectives. I hope you enjoy them! The photo at the top of this post was posted to Flickr by Jon S and has been used under Creative Commons Licence.

This 2,031st post was filed under: 2D, Media, , , , , , , .


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