Worthwhile books, Q3

Some of what I’ve read over the past quarter, and want to recommend each of the books below as worthy of your time.

Cyber

  • The Internet of Risky Things, Sean Smith. This was a surprisingly good short read. What I gained was an organized way of thinking and a nice reference for thinking through the issues of IOT. Also, the lovely phrase “cyber Love Canal.”
  • American Spies, Jennifer Stisa Granick. Again, surprisingly good, laying out with the logical force that really good lawyers bring, explaining both sides of an issue and then explaining the frame in which you should understand it.
  • Saving Bletchley Park, Sue Black. (Title links to publisher, who sells ebook & print, or you can go to Amazon, who only sells the hardback.) The really interesting story of the activism campaign to save Bletchley Park, which was falling apart 20 years ago. Dr. Black is explicit that she wrote the book to carry the feel of an internet campaign, with some stylistic bits that I found surprising. I was expecting a drier style. Don’t make my mistake, and do read the book. Also, visit Bletchley Park: it’s a great museum.

Nonfiction, not security

Fiction

  • N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Series. Outstanding writing, interesting worldbuilding, and the first two books have both won Hugos. First book is “The Fifth Season.” Bump it up in your queue.
  • The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. I’m not (yet) familiar with Galland’s work, much of which seems to be historical fiction. This fairly breezy and fun time travel read, much less dense than most of Stephenson’s recent books.

Previously: Q2.

Humble Bundle

There’s a Humble Bundle on Cybersecurity, full of Wiley books. It includes my threat modeling book, Ross Anderson’s Security Engineering, Ferguson, Schneier and Kohno’s Crypto Engineering and more.

Wiley bundle twitter post

I hope that this is the best price you’ll ever see on these books. Get ’em while they’re hot.

The bundle goes to support EFF &/or Water Aid America.

Worthwhile Books: Q2 2017

I’m always looking for interesting books to read. These are the books that I enjoyed enough to recommend in Q2.

Cyber

Nonfiction, not security

  • Narrative and Numbers, Aswath Damodaran. Presents a compelling approach for using narrative and numbers to discuss business valuation, but the lessons can be extended and used in many places. Also worthwhile is his focus on improving stories by testing them and seeking out contrary views.
  • The End of Average, by Todd Rose. Rose uses narrative to make the case that the mean is not the distribution, and that focusing in on averages leads to all sorts of problems.
  • A Sense of Style, Steven Pinker. I learned a number of things about how to write clearly and how the brain processes words. Some of those things will be in the next edition of Threat Modeling.
  • Starman, Jamie Doran. A biography of Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space.
  • Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, Nicholas de Monchaux. A really fascinating socio-technical history of the Apollo Spacesuit and the interactions between NASA and their systems approaches and the International Latex Company, who at the time, mainly made women’s undergarments under the Playtex Brand. NASA was focused on manufacturing from plans, ILC fashioned from patterns. The engineered suits didn’t function as clothing. ILC once sent NASA a silent filmstrip of an space-suited employee playing football as part of their argument for their approach. (As an aside, I re-wrote the first sentence here to put the long dependent clause at the end, because of advice in Pinker, and the sentence is better for it.)

Fiction

  • Underground Airlines by Ben Winters. What if Lincoln had been shot, the civil war averted, and slavery was still legal in a “hard four” southern states? Not a breezy read, but fascinating alternate history.
  • Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer. The second book in a quartet chronicling in the 23rd century. An interestingly non-standard future with deep layers of complexity. Challenging reading because of the language, the nicknames and Palmer’s fascinating lens on gender, but easier than her first book, Too Like the Lightning. Searching this blog, I am surprised that I never linked to her excellent blog, Ex Urbe. Also, there’s a Crooked Timber seminar on the series.
  • Yesterday’s Kin, Nancy Kress. Nancy Kress, need I say more? Apparently, I do, there’s a trilogy coming out, and the first book, Tomorrow’s Kin, is out shortly.

The Evolution of Secure Things

One of the most interesting security books I’ve read in a while barely mentions computers or security. The book is Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things.

Evolution Of useful Things Book Cover

As the subtitle explains, the book discusses “How Everyday Artifacts – From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers – Came to be as They are.”

The chapter on the fork is a fine example of the construction of the book.. The book traces its evolution from a two-tined tool useful for holding meat as it was cut to the 4 tines we have today. Petroski documents the many variants of forks which were created, and how each was created with reference to the perceived failings of previous designs. The first designs were useful for holding meat as you cut it, before transferring it to your mouth with the knife. Later designs were unable to hold peas, extract an oyster, cut pastry, or meet a variety of other goals that diners had. Those goals acted as evolutionary pressures, and drove innovators to create new forms of the fork.

Not speaking of the fork, but rather of newer devices, Petroski writes:

Why designers do not get things right the first time may be more understandable than excusable. Whether electronics designers pay less attention to how their devices will be operated, or whether their familiarity with the electronic guts of their own little monsters hardens them against these monsters’ facial expressions, there is a consensus among consumers and reflective critics like Donald Norman, who has characterized “usable design” as the “next competitive frontier,” that things seldom live up to their promise. Norman states flatly, “Warning labels and large instruction manuals are signs of failures, attempts to patch up problems that should have been avoided by proper design in the first place.” He is correct, of course, but how is it that designers have, almost to a person, been so myopic?

So what does this have to do with security?

(No, it’s not “stick a fork in it, it’s done fer.”)

Its a matter of the pressures brought to bear on the designs of even what (we now see) as the very simplest technologies. It’s about the constant imperfection of products, and how engineering is a response to perceived imperfections. It’s about the chaotic real world from which progress emerges. In a sense, products are never perfected, but express tradeoffs between many pressures, like manufacturing techniques, available materials, and fashion in both superficial and deep ways.

In security, we ask for perfection against an ill-defined and ever-growing list of hard-to-understand properties, such as “double-free safety.”

Computer security is in a process of moving from expressing “security” to expressing more precise goals, and the evolution of useful tools for finding, naming, and discussing vulnerabilities will help us express what we want in secure software.

The various manifestations of failure, as have been articulated in case studies throughout this book, provide the conceptual underpinning for understanding the evolving form of artifacts and the fabric of technology into which they are inextricably woven. It is clearly the perception of failure in existing technology that drives inventors, designers, and engineers to modify what others may find perfectly adequate, or at least usable. What constitutes failure and what improvement is not totally objective, for in the final analysis a considerable list of criteria, ranging from the functional to the aesthetic, from the economic to the moral, can come into play. Nevertheless, each criterion must be judged in a context of failure, which, though perhaps much easier than success to quantify, will always retain an aspect of subjectivity. The spectrum of subjectivity may appear to narrow to a band of objectivity within the confines of disciplinary discussion, but when a diversity of individuals and groups comes together to discuss criteria of success and failure, consensus can be an elusive state.

Even if you’ve previously read it, re-reading it from a infosec perspective is worthwhile. Highly recommended.

[As I was writing this, Ben Hughes wrote a closely related post on the practical importance of tradeoffs, “A Dockery of a Sham.”]

On Language

I was irked to see a tweet “Learned a new word! Pseudoarboricity: the number of pseudoforests needed to cover a graph. Yes, it is actually a word and so is pseudoforest.” The idea that some letter combinations are “actual words” implies that others are “not actual words,” and thus, that there is some authority who may tell me what letter combinations I am allowed to use or understand.

Balderdash. Adorkable balderdash, but balderdash nonetheless.

As any student of Orwell shall recall, the test of language is its comprehensibility, not its adhesion to some standard. As an author, I sometimes hear from people who believe themselves to be authorities, or who believe that they may select for me authorities as to the meanings of words, and who wish to tell me that my use of the word “threat” threatens their understanding, that the preface’s explicit discussion of the many plain meanings of the word is insufficient, or that my sentences are too long, comma-filled, dash deficient or otherwise Oxfordless in a way which seems to cause them to feel superior to me in a way they wish to, at some length, convey.

In fact, on occasion, they are irked. I recommend to them, and to you, “You Are What You Speak.”

I wish them the best, and fall back, if you’ll so allow, to a comment from another master of language, speaking through one of his characters:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Seattle event: Ada's Books

Shostack threat modeling Adas

For Star Wars day, I’m happy to share this event poster for my talk at Ada’s Books in Seattle
Technical Presentation: Adam Shostack shares Threat Modeling Lessons with Star Wars.

This will be a less technical talk with plenty of discussion and interactivity, drawing on some of the content from “Security Lessons from Star Wars,” adapted for a more general audience.