Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre (Bloomsbury, 2014)

For over twenty years Kim Philby operated as a Russian agent inside the British establishment, much of it working in MI6, including heading up Soviet counter-espionage.  The most famous of the Cambridge spies recruited in the early 1930s, he sent thousands of copies of secret documents to his spymasters and hundreds of Allied agents and provocateurs to their death or incarceration.  When asked to choose between family, friends, country and political ideology, he always chose politics.  A skilled liar and accomplished charmer Philby had a knack for establishing friendships and then exploiting them, relying on them to support his ‘good name’ when accusations eventually surfaced in 1951 as to his exploits.  Remarkably the strategy worked, with Philby not only remaining unprosecuted and free, but heavily defended by friends and colleagues and bought back into the intelligence fold, only defecting in 1963.  It is these duplicitous friendships that Ben Macintyre explores in A Spy Among Friends, notably his relationship with Nicholas Elliott, a high-flying MI6 agent, and James Angleton, who became the CIA head of counter-intelligence.  To a certain degree this does provide a new route into the story of Kim Philby and his exploits, though his charm and friendships are well known.  Moreover, the Philby story is one that has been told many times before; it is one that is highly contested with multiple versions of the truth and much disinformation circulating.  As a consequence, there is little in the book that has not previously been spun and reworked a few times over.  Indeed, most of the material is sourced from other accounts rather than archive sources.  What Macintyre offers then, is a slightly different take on an well-worn tale, but one that is told through an engaging narrative.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Some books can spend an age on my to-be-read pile before suddenly popping up to the top.  I've just made a start on Nick Quantrill's The Late Greats, the second Joe Geraghty novel.  I'm not sure how long it's been stuck on the pile, but far too long.  I'm not really sure why some of the books I acquire languish unread for so long.  They all start near the top of the pile and then somehow shuffle down.  And once they slip it's difficult to jump back up given the in-flow of new books.  I either need to work my way through the whole pile and try and stop a new one developing (some hope), or adopt an occassional re-shuffle policy (browse and re-order), or a deadline mandate (the book has to be read within two years of purchase, automatically being pushed to the top as the deadline nears).  I'm not sure any of these will work, but I should probably adopt one of them.  Suggestions welcome.

My posts this week

Review of Salty by Mark Haskell Smith
Review of Automate This by Christopher Steiner
Washed up on the tide

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Washed up on the tide

The tennis ball sailed over the top of the dune, quickly followed by a black and white collie. 

Maria crested the ridge, the full expanse of the bay coming into view.

Buster was at the surf’s edge, sniffing at a tiny pink body.

Maria gasped and hurried down the steep slope onto the beach.  ‘Buster!’

As she dashed across the wet sand she spotted another small body a few yards away.  Then another.  Then dozens more.

She slowed and approached the closest.  It was a child’s doll.  Relieved, she tipped it over with her foot, jumping when it muttered, ‘Mama.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Review of Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World by Christopher Steiner (Portfolio-Penguin, 2012)

In Automate This, journalist Christopher Steiner, discusses the ways in which algorithms are increasingly mediating and augmenting everyday life through their deployment in a variety of industries.  He makes a persuasive case, using a series of well told stories that focus on the activities of particular pioneers of creating and using algorithms.  The result is an engaging and informative read that largely celebrates the development and use of algorithms and their creators, and congratulates them for finding ways to make themselves incredibly rich whilst improving the lot of mankind through better health care, financial trading, music production, a multitude of apps, etc. 

That said, the book suffers from a couple of troubling flaws.  First, the narrative almost exclusively focuses on the development and use of algorithms in the United States, as if it’s the font of all global computing and algorithmic innovation.  And second, and more problematic, is the almost total absence of any critical analysis of algorithms, the logic and rational instrumentality underpinning their use, and their wider effects on social and economic systems.  Sure, the use of algorithms has its benefits, but there are also all kinds of risks and social, political and economic consequences to their use, including wide-scale economic restructuring and job losses.  Occasionally Steiner acknowledges some of these risks and effects, usually in a throwaway sentence, before quickly moving on, with the suggestion that the benefits out-weigh the risks and better algorithms will address most present shortcomings.  No serious attention is paid to forms of algorithmic governance or their uses in surveillance, social sorting, filtering and profiling, nor the inherent contradictions in rendering labour redundant and therefore unable to buy the goods and services algorithms create.  The result is an interesting and largely optimistic book that lacks analytic depth and critical reflection.  Nonetheless I have recommended it to several folk, with the warning to keep that caveat in mind.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Review of Salty by Mark Haskell Smith (2007, Black Cat)

Turk Henry, former bass player with the biggest rock band on the planet - Metal Assassin - and recovering sex addict, and his supermodel wife, Sheila, are on holiday in Thailand.  Turk is in a funk, unsure what to do now that the band has split, and just wants to sit on the beach and drink beer.  Sheila wants to explore and to take an elephant ride.  Heading into the jungle without Turk she gets more excitement than she anticipated when the group she is with is kidnapped by pirates.  Turk is quite happy to pay the million dollar ransom, but a neurotic Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent has other ideas, seeing the kidnapping as a way to fast-track his career and to get him reassigned somewhere cooler and more hygienic.  Meanwhile, Turk’s manager is plotting his rock star’s triumphant come-back after heroically saving his wife.  What should have been a straightforward transfer of cash, soon turns into trial for Turk, who for the past twenty years has had his life organised for him, but now has to take charge of his own destiny.

Salty is a darkly comic crime caper set in Phuket and Bangkok in Thailand that follows the travails of Turk Henry, a washed-up former rock star and recovering sex addict, as he tries to save his supermodel wife, an ex-drug addict whom he met in rehab, from a group of Thai pirates.  The set-up is relatively straightforward, putting the interests of different parties -- Turk, Sheila, an American government representative, the pirates, Turk’s manager and assistant, MaryBeth -- into conflict or tension and riffing on the interplay and character development as each has a small epiphany that helps them come to see themselves for who they really are.  For the latter to work, the characters have to be somewhat tarnished and a little unlikeable at the start and it takes some time to warm to some of them (and a few stay unlikeable).  The narrative is also full of cliches and cultural and country stereotypes, which are barely worked against.  As a result, I was never really firmly hooked into the story until near the end.  What kept me reading was the workable setup and the story moving at a relatively quick clip.  Overall, an enjoyable enough yarn that never quite kicked into a higher gear.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

Yesterday I made a start on A Spy Among Friends about the life of Kim Philby.  The argument forwarded is that Philby survived for so long as a spy inside the British establishment because of his charm and extensive network of deep friendships.  What is striking about the story is that it is full of people with names such as 'Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen', 'Hester Harriet Marsden-Smedley', 'Sarah Algeria Majorie Maxse', and 'David de Crespigny Smiley', who were mostly educated at private schools and Oxbridge, and drifted into key government posts by virtue of their class and daddy's connections.  Eccentricity is a hallmark of this class 'born to rule' but nevertheless, half the anecdotes would be probably be dismissed as a little too fantastical if they were in a novel.  And when one looks at the present British cabinet, it's not hard to conclude that very little has changed with respect how and by who the country is run.  An interesting read so far.

My posts this week
Digitial geography
August reviews
Review of Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth

Saturday, September 6, 2014


‘Head left.  Keep going.  Now right.’

Lofty adjusted the headset.  ‘Are you sure?  Wasn’t I just here?’

‘No, no.  Head right.’

‘This is taking too long.’

‘Relax.  We’re beating the clock.  Okay and stop.’

‘There’s nothing here.’

‘The plans say there should be a door on the right.’

‘Well the plans are wrong,’ Lofty replied, tapping the blank wall.

‘It must be concealed.  Try searching for a switch or something.’

‘It’s just a smooth surface.’

‘Try shuffling along.’

Lofty pressed the skirting board.  It tilted in.  The floor beneath him snapped opened and he plunged down a narrow shaft.


A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review of Bad Penny Blues by Cathi Unsworth (2009, Serpent's Tail)

London, 1959, Stella and Toby, both art students, have married and moved into their first home and surround themselves with bohemian friends.  Pete Bradley has been a policeman for a year and is dreaming to a move to CID when he finds the body of young prostitute lying near to the River Thames.  The case is quickly taken over by the murder squad, but Bradley’s potential is spotted and he soon finds himself working undercover monitoring fascist groups operating in Notting Hill, where a large Irish and Caribbean community is located.  Spotting a notorious criminal, he makes what appears to be a significant collar, only for the case to be prized away from him.  A few months later and another victim is found not long after Stella experiences another vivid nightmare.  As London moves into the swinging 1960s Stella’s career as a fashion designer starts to take off, and Toby becomes a successful artist.  However, her nightmares are still occurring, followed by the discovery of another victim of ‘Jack the Stripper’.  Pete is now working undercover within the police, but is still obsessed with solving the prostitute murders.  Unwittingly, Stella and Pete are working different ends  of the same mystery, desperate to stop any more women falling victims.

Bad Penny Blues provides an evocative rendering of London in the late 1959s and early 1960s and the criminal and bohemian interface around the north inner city, and the emerging racial tensions.  Indeed, the real strength of the story is the creation of a very strong sense of place using music, fashion, and the arts, along with snippets of scandals from the news and thinly veiled references to real-life criminals and the ‘Jack the Stripper’ case, which took place between 1959 and 1965.  Cathi Unsworth tells the story by swapping between two narratives, a first person account of Stella, a young fashion designer, and the third person perspective of Pete, a young copper.  It was an interesting approach, with the former designed to introduce the bohemian side of the city, and the latter its seedy underbelly and police corruption.  However, it took me a little while to connect with Stella and her third sight, and the two parallel narratives created an awful lot of characters and subplots, and at times it become a little confusing to keep track of everyone and what's happening.  Either narrative would have been substantive enough on its own.  That said, there is sufficient character development in both strands, the story is interesting, and London in the late 1950s and early 1960s is really alive on the page.

Monday, September 1, 2014

August reviews

August proved a very good month of reading.  Along with my usual contemporary fare I mixed in five books published more than 40 years ago, all considered noir classics in their different ways.  My read of the month, however, was a dark noir tale published last year, Dana King's Grind Joint.

The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty ***.5
I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woodrich *****
Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith ***
The Steam Pig by James McClure ****
The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers ***
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler *****
Little Caesar by W.R. Burnett ***.5
All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre ****
The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz ****
Hard Bounce by Todd Robinson  ****.5
Grind Joint by Dana King *****

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

The new academic year has started and I've already been sucked into the fray.  I spent most of last week in London at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers conference, where I delivered one paper, was a discussant in six sessions, and chaired another.  This week coming I'm running a two day workshop on Code and the City, with many of the world's leading scholars in the field coming to Maynooth to discuss how software is changing urban systems and life.  The week after I'm back to London for a couple of days, and the week after that term starts and we also launch the Dublin Dashboard, a treasure trove of data about the city.  This is an extended way of saying, expect the number of posts to drop off for the next wee while.  On reading news, I'm just finishing off Cathi Unsworth's Bad Penny Blues and hope to make a start on Mark Haskell Smith's Salty this evening.

My posts this week:
Data Revolution book published
Review of The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty
Review of I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woodrich
Changing paths

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Changing paths

Her boss looked up from the letter.  ‘You’re resigning?’

Jane nodded her head.


‘I’m not cut out for advertising.’

‘But you’re good at it.’

‘But its ... not for me.’

‘So what’ll you do instead?’

‘Go back to waitressing.’

‘Waitressing?  Your ambition is to skivvy as a waitress?’

‘My ambition is to be happy.’

‘And you think you’ll find joy scraping by on minimum wage?  That’s insane.’

‘No more insane than working in a job I loathe.  I enjoyed working in a cafe.’

‘Just think of all the income you’ll lose.’

‘I managed before.  I can do it again.’

A drabble is a story of exactly 100 words.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Review of I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woodrich (Penguin, 1948)

Originally from San Francisco, but having moved to New York, Helen is 19 and eight months pregnant with the child of gambler and cad, Steve Georgesson.  He abandons her, leaving her with a train ticket home and five dollars.  On a packed train she meets Patrice, who is similarly pregnant, and her husband, Hugh, who are travelling to meet his parents for the first time.  Patrice is an only child and her parents are dead.  Sharing the bathroom, Helen minds Patrice’s wedding ring to stop it slipping down the plughole, but then the train derails.  Patrice and Hugh perish, but Helen survives along with her premature baby.  She wakes in a hospital and is assumed to be Patrice.  Every time she tries to reveal the truth, fate conspires against her, and once she is ensconced in Hugh’s parent’s comfortable house the lie is sealed.  For the next couple of years Helen lives in fear of her secret being discovered and then Georgesson reappears in her life, threatening blackmail.

Cornell Woodrich was a prolific writer of short stories and noir novels.  His stories were made into 33 noir movies.  Published in 1948, I Married A Dead Man was produced as a movie on four occasions.  The tale tells the story of a young, pregnant woman who takes the identity of another woman who has died, along with husband, in a train accident, and subsequently lives in fear of being discovered.  Whilst the tale is a little melodramatic at times, both the telling and the plot are excellent, with a wicked twist in the denouement.  Woodrich saturates the story with paranoia, anxiety and desperation through some evocative prose, and peppers the tale with astute observations about the various players.  The result is a compelling, dark, atmospheric tale by one of the noir masters of the twentieth century.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Review of The Sun is God by Adrian McKinty (2014, Serpent’s Tail)

After a traumatic incident at the end of the Boar War, military policeman Will Prior orchestrates his dismissal from the British army. Not wanting to return home to Yorkshire he instead heads to German New Guinea in the South Pacific. There he tries to forget his past, eking out a living by managing a small plantation and conducting an affair with his native housekeeper, Siwa. When the autopsy of a German national, who’d been living on a remote island populated by a strange cult, suggests foul play, the authorities turn to Will for professional help. Reluctantly Will agrees to accompany a representative of the Governor and an English traveller, Bessie Pullen-Burry, who is writing a travelogue, to the island to investigate the death. There they are greeted by the small group of Cocovores who believe they have discovered the secret of eternal life - naturism, the worship of the sun, and a strict diet of coconuts, bananas and heroin. Over several drug-addled and malaria-ridden days, Will tries to discover whether any of the dozen inhabitants had murdered one of their number and as he nears his conclusion he starts to fear that he might not leave the island alive.

The Sun is God is based on the true story of the suspicious death of a member of a strange cult on a small island, Kabakon, in German New Guinea in 1906. Rejecting modern life, the Cocovores believed that they could achieve immortality through sun worship and a strict diet of coconuts and bananas (fruit that grows at the top of trees, nearest to the sun). Whilst most of the case are based on real characters, McKinty sends a fictional, ex-military policeman, Will Prior, to the island to investigate the case. Prior is a veteran of the Boer War, still suffering from post-traumatic stress from the conflict, and a reluctant policeman who’s prone to leap to conclusions and stumble his way through an investigation. The tight knit nature of the small community, their addiction to industrial heroin, and the surfacing of Prior’s malaria fever doesn’t help matters. The strength of the story is the oddity of the case itself, the mix of nicely penned characters, and the dynamic of the religious cult. However, background information on the history of the cult and the suspicious death is a little thin. Curiously for a McKinty book, the telling was slightly detached, almost as if he was mimicking an Edwardian voice, and it’s not until the last few pages when the narrative shifts focus and tense that his usual style kicks in, providing a climax to what had been a rather terse and reserved narrative. Overall an interesting and thoughtful historical crime tale.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Data Revolution published

My latest academic book The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructure and Their Consequences was published on August 23rd.  The publisher tells me that the book is in their warehouse and is ready to ship.  I've made a bit of an effort marketing wise with this one, setting up a dedicated website with a bunch of resources (including open access links to related papers and a hyperlinked bibliography) and making a promotional video (below).  The publisher has made the preface and chapters one (Conceptualising Data) and four (Big Data) open access.  The website has a full table of contents and chapter outlines though the title gives a pretty good description as to what it's about!  I'm also delighted that the book has had a lot of advance praise.  The site includes details about buying the book, including electronically through just about every format going.  I'm glad to see this one head off into the world.  I learnt a lot writing it and hopefully readers will as well.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lazy Sunday Service

I had a productive trip to the bookshop yesterday where I picked up three books I'd ordered - John McFetridge's Black Rock, Bill Fitzhugh's Pest Control and Mark Haskell Smith's Salty - but also found two others that caught my eye: Ben MacIntyre's A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, and Mike Rossiter's The Spy Who Changed the World: Klaus Fuchs and the Secrets of the Nuclear Bomb.  It'll be interesting to compare the respective stories of Kim Philby and Klaus Fuch, two infamous spies from the mid-Twentieth century whose actions had major consequences with respect to the cold war.

My posts this week
Review of All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses an Eye by Christopher Brookmyre
Six ways to break down barriers in our housing market and build more homes
Housing supply, principles, politics, compromises and pragmatics
Review of Tatiana by Martin Cruz Smith
Review of The Steam Pig by James McClure
Wishing on a star