Category: books

Books Worth Reading: Q2 2019 (Apollo Edition)

  • A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin is probably the best of the general histories of the moon landings.
  • Failure is not an Option, by Gene Kranz, who didn’t actually say that during Apollo 13.
  • Marketing The Moon by David Scott and Richard Jurek. I was surprised what a good history this was, and how much it brought in the overall history of the program and put it in context.
  • Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, as mentioned previously.
  • Full Moon. Gorgeous photography, printed from very high quality scans; the author convinced NASA to provide access to first generation negatives. You may need to search on Amazon to find a reasonably priced copy.

Also worthwhile: From the Earth to The Moon (DVD, Blue Ray), and the Museum of Flight Apollo exhibit, in Seattle through September 2nd.

The White Box Essays (Book Review)

The White Box, and its accompanying book, “The White Box Essays” are a FANTASTIC resource, and I wish I’d had them available to me as I designed Elevation of Privilege and helped with Control-Alt-Hack.

The book is for people who want to make games, and it does a lovely job of teaching you how, including things like the relationship between story and mechanics, the role of luck, how the physical elements teach the players, and the tradeoffs that you as a designer make as you design, prototype, test, refine and then get your game to market. In the go-to-market side, there are chapters on self-publishing, crowdfunding, what needs to be on a box.

The Essays don’t tell you how to create a specific game, they show you how to think about the choices you can make, and their impact on the game. For example:

Consider these three examples of ways randomness might be used (or not) in a design:

  • Skill without randomness (e.g., chess). With no random elements, skill is critical. The more skilled a player is, the greater their odds to win. The most skilled player will beat a new player close to 100% of the time.
  • Both skill and randomness (e.g., poker). Poker has many random elements, but a skilled player is better at choosing how to deal with those random elements than an unskilled one. The best poker player can play with new players and win most of the time, but the new players are almost certain to win a few big hands. (This is why there is a larger World Series of Poker than World Chess Championship — new players feel like they have a chance against the pros at poker. Since more players feel they have a shot at winning, more of them play, and the game is more popular.)
  • Randomness without skill (e.g., coin-flipping). There is no way to apply skill to coin-flipping and even the “best” coin flipper in the world can’t do better than 50/50, even against a new player.

The chapter goes on to talk about how randomness allows players to claim both credit and avoid blame, when players make choices about die rolls and the impact on gameplay, and a host of other tradeoffs.

The writing is solid: it’s as long as it needs to be, and then moves along (like a good game). What do you need to do, and why? How do you structure your work? If you’ve ever thought about designing a game, you should buy this book. But more than the book, there’s a boxed set, with meeples, tokens, cubes, and disks for you to use as you prototype. (And in the book is a discussion of how to use them, and the impact of your choices on production costs.)

I cannot say enough good things about this. After I did my first game design work, I went and looked for a collection of knowledge like this, and it didn’t exist. I’m glad it now does.

Image from Atlas Games.

Books Worth Your Time (Q1 2019)

Cyber

  • Making Software “What Really Works, and Why We Believe It” by Andy Oram and Greg Wilson. This collection of essays is a fascinating view into the state of the art in empirical analysis software engineering.
  • Agile Application Security by Laura Bell, Michael Brunton-Spall, Rich Smith and Jim Bird. A really good overview of the many moving pieces in an agile SDL. Good enough that I bought a paper copy to augment the ebook. (Also, sometimes redundant, and says nice things about my work.)
  • Click Here to Kill Everybody by Bruce Schneier. Thought-provoking survey of the problems that come from the book above not being better read. More seriously, we haven’t scaled application security, and even if we do, there will be bad developers who’ll do a crappy job at building things. What can we do about that as a society? I don’t like all of Schneier’s answers, but the reasoning is sound.

Nonfiction

  • Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday lays out the toolbox of the fellow who used to run marketing for American Apparel. Shows how guerrilla marketing works in the age of Twitter, and outlines techniques now being used to screw up elections and people’s lives.
  • The Internet of Garbage by Sarah Jeong. As a summary of the problems and challenges of the internet, it’s aged sadly well since 2015.
  • The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life. We’re used to thinking that genes are passed on from parents, but as David Quammen explains, there’s also horizontal gene transfer (NIH, Wikipedia). Really fascinating history of both science and the personalities involved. Recommended despite the writing being somewhat rocky and uneven – these are hard topics and I do not envy the author’s task of making an accessible and interesting read.
  • Things We Think About Games by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball is 140 micro-essays about games. Some I loved, some I hated, but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

Fiction

As it turns out, all three fiction books are re-imaginings of other stories. If you find that wicked annoying, these are not for you.

  • The Queens of Innis Lear, by Tessa Gratton is a re-telling of Lear from the perspective of his daughters.
  • A Study in Honor, Claire O’Dell re-tells the Holmes/Watston story in the aftermath of a second American Civil War.
  • Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik is a re-telling of the Rumplestiltskin tale. (Hugo nominated)

That’s what I read last quarter that I want to share. What was memorable for you?

“Fire Doesn’t Innovate” by Kip Boyle (Book Review)

I hate reviewing books by people I know, because I am a picky reader, and if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. I also tend to hate management books, because they often substitute jargon for crisp thinking. So I am surprised, but, here I am, writing a review of Kip Boyle’s “Fire Doesn’t Innovate.”

I’m giving little away by saying the twist is that attackers do innovate, and it’s a surprisingly solid frame on which Kip hangs a readable and actionable book for executives who need to make cybersecurity decisions. And it doesn’t fall into the jargon trap either in security or management.

It is not a book for the CSO. It is a book for executives, including, but not limited, to CEOs. They need to understand why cyber risks aren’t like fire risks, they need to drive action by their company, and they don’t need, want, or have the time to be able to talk about the difference between Fancy Bear and SQL injection.

In this, it is less detailed by far than Peter Singer and Allan Friedman’s “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar.” That book is intended to act as a primer and get people ready for deeper learning. “Fire” is much more for the busy executive who needs to know what questions to act, what good answers look like, and what to tell their team to go do.

The book is organized into two major parts. Part I is basic cyber ‘hygiene’ for the exec, including actionable steps like turn on updates and backups and two factor auth. (I disagree with his blanket advice to never pay ransoms — getting your business back is probably better than losing it.) Part II is what to do. It’s organized around the NIST CyberSecurity Framework, and makes it actionable. The action is in three parts: assess, plan and execute, and do so on an annual schedule.

Part of me burns with the urge to scream “that’s too simplistic!” But I know that for a lot of executives, that’s what they need as they get started. The nuance and complexity that we can bring to their problem leads to a feeling that cyber is overwhelming and impossible. So they do nothing. There’s an important lesson and model here for those writing ‘how to be safe on the internet’ guidance, and maybe there’s a second book here for normal folks.

There’s another trap that Kip avoids, and that is the book that tells you about but doesn’t reveal the secret sauce. Those books are essentially ads for the thing the author has to sell, and the book tells you enough to get you to pick up the phone. “Fire” doesn’t do that. It lays out, specifically, here’s the questions to ask. Here’s the email to frame the project. Here’s how to interpret results. It’s a brave move, but one that I think is wise. (My threat modeling book tells you what you need to know, and people call me looking for help. The coaching, the “here’s the nugget you need,” and the comparisons all make for a good business.)

I don’t know of another book at this level. Buy it for the execs you know.

Disclosure: I bought a copy of the Kindle Edition, and Kip gave me a signed copy of the paperback. He says nice things about me in the acknowledgements.

Structures, Engineering and Security

J.E. Gordon’s Structures, or Why Things Don’t Fall Down is a fascinating and accessible book. Why don’t things fall down? It turns out this is a simple question with some very deep answers. Buildings don’t fall down because they’re engineered from a set of materials to meet the goals of carrying appropriate loads. Those materials have very different properties than the ways you, me, and everything from grass to trees have evolved to keep standing. Some of these structures are rigid, while others, like tires, are flexible.

The meat of the book, that is, the part that animates the structural elements, really starts with Robert Hooke, and an example of a simple suspension structure, a brick hanging by a string. Gordon provides lively and entertaining explanations of what’s happening, and progresses fluidly through the reality of distortion, stress and strain. From there he discusses theories of safety including the delightful dualism of factors of safety versus factors of ignorance, and the dangers (both physical and economic) of the approach.

Structures is entertaining, educational and a fine read that is worth your time. But it’s not really the subject of this post.

To introduce the real subject, I shall quote:

We cannot get away from the fact that every branch of technology must be concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, with questions of strength and deflection.

The ‘design’ of plants and animals and of the traditional artefacts did not just happen. As a rule, both the shape and the materials of any structure which has evolved over a long period of time in a competitive world represent an optimization with regard to the loads which it has to carry and to the financial and metabolic cost. We should like to achieve this sort of optimization in modern technology; but we are not always very good at it.

The real subject of this post is engineering cybersecurity. If every branch of technology includes cybersecurity, and if one takes the author seriously, then we ought to be concerned with questions of strength and deflection, and to the second quote, we are not very good at it.

We might take some solace from the fact that descriptions of laws of nature took from Hooke, in the 1600s, until today. Or far longer, if we include the troubles that the ancient Greeks had in making roofs that didn’t collapse.

But our troubles in describing the forces at work in security, or the nature or measure of the defenses that we seek to employ, are fundamental. If we really wish to optimize defenses, we cannot layer this on that, and hope that our safety factor, or factor of ignorance, will suffice. We need ways to measure stress or strain. How cracks develop and spread. Our technological systems are like ancient Greek roofs — we know that they are fragile, we cannot describe why, and we do not know what to do.

Perhaps it will take us hundreds of years, and software will continue to fail in surprising ways. Perhaps we will learn from our engineering peers and get better at it faster.

The journey to an understanding of structures, or why they do not fall down, is inspiring, instructive, and depressing. Nevertheless, recommended.

Books which are worth your time: Q4

Nonfiction

Fiction

  • Void Star, Zachary Mason. The best William Gibson novel in a while. The one with 51 reviews has 3.9 stars, while the one with 26 only gets 3.7. Other than their Amazon ratings, I am unsure of the difference. Ms. O’Neil would be appalled, or perhaps amused.

What have you read lately that’s worthwhile?

Reflective Practice and Threat Modeling (Threat Model Thursday)

Lately, I’ve been asking what takes threat modeling from a practice to a mission. If you’re reading this blog, you may have seen that some people are nearly mad about threat modeling. The ones who say “you’re never done threat modeling.” The ones who’ve made it the center of their work practice. What distinguishes those people from those who keep trying to teach developers about the difference between a hactivist and a script kiddie?

A book I’ve read recently, “The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think In Action,” gives some useful perspective. It’s about how practitioners use the cases and issues before them to grapple with questions like ‘is this the best way to approach this problem?’ It’s not an easy read by any stretch. It engages in analysis of both what makes a profession, and how several professions including architect, psychologist, and town planner engage with their work.

They may ask themselves, for example, “What features do I notice when I recognize this thing? What are the criteria by which I make this judgment? What procedures am I enacting when I perform this skill? How am I framing the problem that I am trying to solve?” Usually reflection on knowing-in-action goes together with reflection on the stuff at hand. There is some puzzling, or troubling, or interesting phenomenon with which the individual is trying to deal. As he tries to make sense of it, he also reflects on the understandings which have been implicit in his action, understandings which he surfaces, criticizes, restructures, and embodies in further action. It is this entire process of reflection-in-action which is central to the “art” by which practitioners sometimes deal well with situations of uncertainty, instability, uniqueness, and value conflict.

Those seeking to advance their practice of threat modeling would do well to pick up a copy and use it as a lens into reflecting on their practice of the arts.

After the jump, I’m going to quote more bits that struck me as I read, and offer some reflection on them.

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