Book review: Sting of the Drone

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Sting of the Drone.jpg

Sting of the Drone by Richard Clarke offers a nuanced perspective on the U.S use of drones to kill terrorists.  It depicts scenarios where drones are more effective with less collateral damage than alternatives.  It shows that there are many layers of experts and decision-makers involved in each drone strike.

It also presents legitimate causes for concern.  Should drones be used in allied, first-world countries where terrorist cells are operating?  You might say no, if the ally wants the U.S. to kill a terrorist in their midst who is plotting an attack, you may arrive at a different conclusion.

The book also makes the reader question whether the individuals involved in making drone strike decisions the best people to be making the decisions.  It would be beneficial to have more transparency about their deliberations, but the challenge would be keeping national security secrets secret.

As a thriller, this novel could have used some improvements.  The first half of the book is more of an ensemble cast than a story with one main character.  Eventually it settles on somebody.  I read the book two months ago, and I can’t remember any of the characters’ names.  There is a reasonably compelling villain, and he’s plotting an attack against America’s drone infrastructure, which is a great concept.  But the failure to ground the story in one main hero limited how engaging it was.

Another issue was an exaggerated treatment of drone operators.  There is a group of Air Force pilots in the book who take their drone piloting seriously, but quietly wish they were still flying “real” planes.  They become racked with guilt after some bad publicity about one or two strikes that Al Qaeda made to look like civilian massacres.  They start exhibiting PTSD.  That is all sort of interesting, but overblown.  Most UAV pilots are normal, well-adjusted people.

Overall this is a fair and balanced glimpse into U.S. drone policy and its ethics presented through a vivid story.  Just don’t expect to fall in love with the characters.

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Book Review: Cybersecurity for Everyone

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Cybersecurity for Everyone: Securing your home or small business network by Terence L. Sadler is an informative guide to securing your electronic devices at home.

One risk of writing or speaking about cybersecurity is that it can quickly devolve into “gloom and doom” that terrifies audiences, sends them away chilled, but results in no behavioral changes among computer users.  Sadler’s approach is different, focusing less on threats and more on preventative measures.

Cybersecurity for Everyone compares information security to safe sex:  the only guarantee against contracting an STD is abstinence, and the only guarantee against a compromise of your network is to not have a computer.  Since there are no guarantees on computers, the best we can do is use appropriate prophylactics and practice safe habits.

Sadler suggests starting with router security.  Until reading this book, I did not realize how vulnerable to intrusion typical residential routers can be, or that superior models and configurations are available.  One thing computer owners can do is to blacklist all electronic devices but their own, or expressly whitelist their own devices.  Sadler also suggests using a service like OpenDNS for home internet security.  A few suggestions in the book may go overboard, but I’m glad to know what the best practices are so I can make informed decisions, rather than mindlessly renewing my anti-virus protection every year and patting myself on the back for it.

The book is a pretty quick read, and it provides valuable context for understanding of cyber threats and safety measures.  It came out in late 2014, but is still fresh.  There are some tables and lists of resources that will probably become dated quickly or already have, but I mostly skipped over sections.  To me, the more important takeaway was the basic point that amping up your security at home is feasible and affordable without sacrificing performance.

As for the title, this book isn’t really “Cybersecurity for Everyone.”  It’s more like “Cybersecurity for Fairly Technically Literate People,” or “Cybersecurity for Whoever It Is in Your House That Installs Stuff.”  Much of it would sail over the heads of people who don’t already have some interest or knowledge of technology.  Furthermore, the subtitle of the book adds “or small business network,” but the tips within are truly geared toward a household, not to businesses.

Book review: Zero Alternative skewers “too-big-to-fail”

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From the recession of 2008 was born a litter of woes.  Mortgage defaults.  Foreclosures.  Cram downs.  Lay-offs.  Furlough days.  Stagnant wages.

Was the recession caused by exotic financial instruments like mortgage-backed securities?  Was it the result of excessive pressure from the federal government on banks to issue home loans to borrowers who couldn’t pay the bills?  Or just the boom and bust of the business cycle?

That’s not the way that Scott “Yours” Walker (surely, an unintentional homonym with no relation to the governor of Wisconsin), the main character in Luca Pesaro’s financial techno-thriller Zero Alternative (2014), sees it.  Walker, an investment banker with a skeptical mind, inhabits a darker world, where friends and enemies alike work for larger, shadowy entities pulling strings behind the scenes.

The story begins with a banner performance by Walker, making millions in one day of trading when everybody in London but him predicted the worst.  It’s all downhill for Walker from there.  Walker’s friend D.M., who is just finishing the creation of a powerful predictive analytics software that can anticipate ups and downs in the market, is murdered.  The killer attempts to frame Walker, who has the next most knowledge of the software.

Walker goes on the lam with a hired gun on his tail.  Hired by a rival investment bank, perhaps.  The sexy woman at his side, Layla, was working for the hired gun, after she quit working for a foreign spy agency.  While on the run with her, Walker must trust her when she says she’s working for herself now.  They travel from London to France to Switzerland to Italy to the U.S., facing close shaves at every turn and doubting but seducing each other along the way.

The computer program is valuable enough to kill for.  While Walker isn’t above using the program to make money for himself or his allies while in hiding, he mainly wants to use the application to bring down an odious investment bank.  This is his act of rebellion against the too-big-to-fail financial system which is rigged to make money for itself regardless market direction or morality.  The adventure of Zero Alternative is in Walker’s personal, international life-and-death cage match against overwhelming forces of greed.  Whether Walker’s his pursuers will steal the computer program, whether he will be able to use the program against the financial system, and the question of Layla’s reliability, are compelling elements.

There is stock market terminology and information technology jargon in the book, but it is not excessive.  The movement of Walker and Layla across the borders of Europe into Italy are plausible for a man of Walker’s resources.  Where things get a little shaky are the oracle-like foresight of the computer program.  It might have been more plausible if the application occasionally predicted the wrong outcome, required input of more data in order to make a prediction, or if it had a lot of bugs to be worked out.  Also, the politics—the allegation that the recession is mainly the result of corporate greed—is not for all tastes.  But the excitement of the international chase and the tense romance make up for that.  Recommended.

Book review: how tech enables smart cities

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Rio de Janiero's control room

Rio de Janiero’s control room

Anthony Townsend has blended the history of city planning and high-tech innovation and what it means for the future in Smart Cities:  Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia (2013).

A “smart city” is a city that taps into the power of the internet of things, mobile devices, and big data to improve public services, provide officials with better information, and to realize cost savings.  An example is deploying internet connected sensors to monitor leaks in city water infrastructure and ping officials for repairs.

A challenge to widespread knowledge and adoption of the smart city concept is the amount of salesmanship lurking behind it.  Much of what is written about smart cities originates from press releases by big companies like IBM and Cisco.  They are selling major systems like a control room for Rio de Janeiro to monitor its neighborhoods like NASA would monitor a space launch.

Townsend describes these high-profile smart city examples but also puts them in historical context.  Townsend is generally supportive of smart city innovations, but he is balanced.  He points out flaws, bugs, and risks in certain solutions.  He also explains smaller elements of smart city planning that are more practical for adoption.  Townsend’s context and balance make Smart Cities a valuable resource to cut through the clutter of big businesses’ marketing materials.

Chapter 1 tells a pleasant story in London in 1851 about building the Crystal Palace, an early microcosm of a smart city solution.  The Crystal Palace had precise climate controls through ventilation based on readings from 14 thermostats.  It’s an early model that also serves as a future vision:  an ecosystem where tiny devices trigger appropriate system-wide responses to improve urban living.

Chapter 5, “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” tracks the recent history of app development that has helped connect city dwellers and visitors.  Apps such as Foursquare and Meetup have demonstrated how social apps can thrive when they are tied to specific places like cities.

Chapter 9, “Buggy, Brittle, and Bugged” does a good (and ominous) job of highlighting the risks of large systems that are heavily dependent on technology that is prone to bugs, breaches, and interruptions.

Some of the other chapters aren’t as focused.  Specific topics overlap multiple chapters and previous themes are repeated seemingly at random.  The book would have benefited from better organized chapters with straightforward titles.

Still, there a lots of good nuggets and pearls of wisdom scattered throughout the book.  This book can help inspire innovative thinking among city leaders.  It is probably the best book about “smart cities” on the market.  Recommended for community leaders, civic hackers, government technology professionals, and city planners.

Big data highlights big delays in veteran care

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The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are capitalizing on the power of social media, analytics tools, and data visualization technology.  They’re using these capabilities not just to recruit and serve members, but to monitor and report on the quality of veteran care across the country.  These projects help public officials shift resources to underserved veterans.  The website 1to1 Media recently interviewed IAVA’s CEO about these initiatives:

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Gives Data a Seat at the Table

The nonprofit organization uses data visualization and social media tools to uncover insights about female veterans and more.

By Judith Aquino | Published 01/20/2016 in 1to1 Media

For-profit businesses aren’t the only organizations that are leveraging data analytics and online tools—nonprofit organizations like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are also investing in better member experiences.

As the largest organization for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, IAVA helps veterans successfully transition back to civilian life. 1to1 Media spoke with IAVA Founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff about the organization’s use of data collection tools and social media.

1to1 Media: In what ways did your organization need help to better reach and engage veterans?

Paul Rieckhoff: Our veterans’ population is young—the average age is in the late 20’s. They’re also digital natives, but extremely geographically and ethnically diverse. One of our biggest challenges is trying to connect 3 million people who are spread out across the world. Technology provides their connection to home.

We began working with Salesforce six years ago and they’ve empowered us to do a lot from a shoestring budget, from getting the veterans connected to their families, building an online community, and collecting information to better understand a veteran’s needs. On Veterans Day, for example, we organized 144 events around the country in one week. Salesforce allowed us to do everything from marketing to check-ins to social media integration to getting people in touch with a therapist.

Do you have an example of an insight about your members that you discovered and were able to implement to improve your service?

Our generation of veterans is different in a lot of ways but one aspect in particular is that 20 percent of our members are women. And they’ve had unique challenges accessing healthcare and getting child care support. We were able to drill down and find out what their experiences were like in the Veteran Affairs system.

What we found out was a female veteran’s experience was much worse than their male counterparts in getting support. We were also able to share that data with Congress. We testified before Congress at least 18 times [in 2015]. Every time we go before Congress, we use this data to share what’s happening on the ground for women veterans.

In some ways we have better data than the Secretary of Veteran Affairs. We’re able to explain to him where the gaps are and what women veterans are looking for from the VA. Many of our women members are also frustrated in getting recognition as veterans. So it’s a cultural transformation that has led all the way to women registering as rangers and the military allowing women into combat roles. We’re part of that movement in making the case that women can do anything that men can.

How do you gather data?

We have systems in place that allow us to connect with the veterans on their cellphones or via social media. For instance, if a woman is having challenges getting healthcare, and she reaches out to us on Twitter, one of our case managers can get in touch by phone, email, or social media within 24 hours. That gets entered into a case that goes into our systems.

We get other data on a regular basis from web traffic, phone calls, and donations. A lot of it is user generated…

New Israeli drone provides air rescue

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Unmanned aerial vehicles can play a role in medical evacuation of wounded troops and search-and-rescue missions.  This would be especially useful in areas that helicopters can’t reach.  From Daily Dot Tech with a tip of the hat to Barry Roskin Blake:

This ambulance drone can carry two people out of dangerous situations
By AJ Dellinger
Jan 22, 2016

When it comes to military conflicts, drones are best known for killing. But the AirMule is built for saving lives, and it recently completed its first successful flight.

The autonomous vehicle, built by the Israeli company Tactical Robotics, serves as an airborne ambulance. The unmanned craft, which can take off and land vertically, can travel to terrain unsafe for human rescue personnel—like a battlefield.

The AirMule is designed to carry two people at a time and can lift nearly 1,000 pounds and travel over 30 miles. A single engine powers the drone, and the rotors are entirely internal. Its design presents opportunities for emergency rescue craft and cargo-carrying vehicles.

The AirMule test run occurred at a facility in Megiddo, Israel, after the Israeli Civil Aviation Authority cleared the company for unmanned flight. Future tests, including demonstrations of its cargo-carrying capacity and beyond-line-of-sight flights, are planned for later in 2016.

Thanks to its internal rotors, the AirMule is capable of traversing areas unreachable by emergency vehicles and helicopters. Because of this design, the drone can get closer to structures and navigate tight confines…

City denies disabled vet’s plan for iPad-controlled smart home

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Taylor Morris, a Navy veteran who was injured defusing a bomb in Afghanistan, and his wife want to build a “smart home” in Cedar Falls, Iowa, that he can operate with a mobile device.  The property they want to buy is zoned for agriculture.  The Cedar Falls city council has denied the Morrisses’ request to have it rezoned residential.

It’s hard to judge a rezoning application without seeing the actual plans.  However, the reasons for the denial (as reported by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier) are flimsy.  The main reason cited is that approval would have “set a bad precedent.”  This is specious because there probably isn’t a backlog of rezoning applications from quadriplegic war veterans in the Cedar Falls zoning department.  If a similar application came through by somebody without a disability, the city could justify a different decision based on the difference circumstances of the applicants.

The second stated reason for denial is that the property is too difficult to access for providing public services.  That is probably a legitimate concern assuming the site is tricky for trash pick-up, police, fire service, etc.  However, the city has in their long-term plans an objective to rezone the area to residential anyway.  Wouldn’t approval help Cedar Falls make progress toward their own plan?

I really hope that city officials will redouble their efforts to work with the veteran and his wife.  Mr. Morris is trying to take advantage of technological innovations on the market to live a more comfortable life with his family.  It’s the kind of residential development that most communities would want to promote.