Monday, May 27, 2019

Stories from the Kingdom of Lies

Former cybersecurity executive and journalist Kate Fazzini is sharing in the Kingdom of Lies everyday stories from the dark world of cybercrime. The complexity of human beings  and the ambiguity of human nature offer both a simple explanation for the latest dramatic development in the field of e-crimes. 
Random people from the remotest areas of the world - from Romania to Siberia, Hong Kong and USA - are entering this world with the boldness and organisation of a business person. There is a plan and a financial target as well as a serious lack of ethics. 
Writing with the simplicity of the journalistic reporting and using a relatively simple vocabulary, Fazzini introduces this world to the reader in the most natural way. The perpetrators of such crimes could be anyone, you can be anytime the victim. The moment you are signing in for opening an email account, you are becoming part of a vast network that at the same time includes the legal and illicit trade. 
The author's experience is an important asset in introducing this world to the reader, from the intricacies of the corporate world to the simplicity of the daily hacker, looking for some opportunity to get some money or just explore some loopholes in the system.
At the end of the reading day - the books reads easily in a sitting - you can be either afraid and paranoically skeptical about the human nature (but for that you don't need necessarily a book, just some basic everydaylife observation) and the Internet in general, or just rationally aware about the risks of the cyber world and consequently the criminal implications. 
Although from the technical point of view, the book is documented and has a pertaining speciality background, I've found some local descriptions and details not necessarily accurate. For instance, it's doubtful there is an Arnika Valley village in Romania, 200-km away from Bucharest where you can have Starbucks and pay with Bitcoins (it's highly doubtful that you can pay with such currency at all in this country). Also, arc doesn't mean spring in Romania. (The book is expected to be published in June and I've been offered a complimentary ARC, therefore it might be time to make corrections if necessary). 
If you are looking for getting some basic knowledge about cybercrime Kingdom of Lies is the recommended lecture but if you are looking for some sophisticated revelations about the complexity of the underground criminal network operating on the Internet, maybe you should search for another reference.

Rating: 3 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Thriller Review: Traitor, by Jonathan de Shalit

'Just like a frog in a pot gets used to water that's boiled slowly, the frog will allow itself to be cooked alive without even considering the option of jumping out of the boiling water'. 
Jonathan de Shalit - a pen name and he might be a she as well- created quite a sensation in the world of thriller readers and writers. Described as a 'former high-ranking member of the Israel intelligence community', his books - 2 by now - are reviewed by a governmental committee in order to be sure that his literary endeavours are not offering open information about state secrets and operations. This short presentation only guarantees that touch of glamour that will make his books automatically interesting for the lovers of thrillers and spy novels. 
Influenced by John le CarrĂ© - that he translated into Hebrew - and Somerset Maugham - both authors with a previous experience in the intelligence field - de Shalit introduced in Traitor a post-Cold War world where old secrets are out in the air - shared by old women at the end of their lives with nothing to lose. Under the codename 'Cobra', a high-ranking official in the Israeli establishment trade secrets to - what he thought - Americans. In fact, he was a poor pawn used first by the East-German intelligence - STASI - and thereafter directly by their de-facto masters from Moscow - KGB/FSB. Mossad is now searching for the mole after a friendly exchange of information from their German colleagues. 
A special unit is created which in just a couple of days is able to trace - through stories of love and deception - that person that willingly offered himself to betray, in exchange of power and money, without being fully aware with whom actually it is dealing.
Maybe it was the censorship or some writing choice, but the slight imbalance between the literary part of the story and the 'technical'/'operational' made the reading more than once a bit uninteresting. Explaining the reasons why someone betrays and the fact that intelligence agencies, all of them make mistakes, took too much impetus from the writing itself and the story is relatively affected by this clumsiness. The intricated game of betrayal is in itself a fascinated topic that was not extensively exploited from a literary point of view. I've also found that some of the characters are in fact extremely forgetful and make mistakes too easy to be made by someone labelled as belonging to an 'intelligence' community - including in their sexual/love choices.
However, book is a good Cold War thriller, although the influence of Le Carré - which I personally cannot digest at all - it's too predominant. I have on my Kindle already the other book of 'Jonathan de Shalit' and would be curious to explore it. If you love spy thrillers and old West vs. the rest stories, it is a good recommendation. You can read it fast and in one sitting. But don't expect too much action or fantastic and unexpected page turning adventures.

Rating: 3 stars 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Butterfly Effect: The Mokha Version

In a time when we hear in the media about people - some of them with a certain public status - that are bothered by hearing foreign languages (other than English) spoken in public or about countries that are 'full', reading positive immigrant stories brings some light. It sounds cheesy and stereotypical but that's the only good thing that can be done given the current American - and not only - toxic public discourse regarding immigrants. Ironically, in a country built by immigrants.
The Monk of Mokha is part of a series of non-fiction books by Dave Eggers offering real-life accounts of immigrants to America. I've read some of Eggers books and I am fine with them, but this work of non-fiction was a pleasant surprise: it is a well-researched piece of journalism that can be read in so many ways. Mokhtar Alkhanshali is the son of Yemeni immigrants growing up in the high-risk area of Tenderloin in San Francisco. He keeps switching jobs without a certain professional direction in mind, until he become familiar with the 500-year history of the Yemeni coffee. The story goes that actually the coffee was discovered in Yemen, not in Ethiopia. However, Mokha is a port in Yemen. At the time, the kind of coffee no one was keen too pay for and placed on the lowest level on the Western preferences. Nowadays, it's America's most expensive coffee, sold for 16$ the cup.
Mokhtar takes a huge leap of faith and decided to return to Yemen, in a time when the country was dramatically torn by civil conflict and instability. He will research all the possible coffee farms, will identify the best coffee beans and will learn himself almost everything about making and producing coffee. But how to launch a global business when the country can get closed any time and shipping to America might be amost impossible especially when Mokhtar himself, although an American citizen, can be the target of additional security screening and border interrogations?
You need to really believe in your dream and the non-coffee induced sleepless nights (a bit of qat helped maybe) spent setting up the details of an incredible yet successful entreprise. No terrible threat was enough to discourage Mokhtar from giving up. From his high clouds, he can easily pass through the political changes underwent by Yemen and move forward. 'Mokhtar's family and friends in the United States worried for him, but Mokhtar saw very little change in his daily life. He'd gone to bed one night with Hadi in power, and woke up without a president. And yet the airport was still open and hosted regular commercial flights. The banks functioned as usual. And the grocery stores, the health clubs, the mosques. Taxi drivers drove their taxis. Sana'a was still Sana'a though it was now run by Houthis. The lives of everyday working Yemenis continued unchanged. Mokhtar spent afternoons at Andrew's mill, chewing qat with Ali and together they laughed at the Yemeni Americans who were fleeing the country'.
But the boy whose grandfather couldn't believe he is worth more than a donkey succeeded and nowadays, the Port of Mokha is a most sought coffee in San Francisco. And there is more than that: the success of the product in America made back in Yemen a lot of people - especially women - happy as they got secured a job, but also encouraged the local production of coffee. Butterfly effect at its best.
The book can be read in more than one way, depending on what the reader is looking for. It offers inspiration to those looking for business inspiration. It sooth the immigrants in need of a positive story to brighten their dark beginnings. Those interested to travel to Yemen might have first hand accounts of what to expect, not only from the point of view of the security situation, but also regarding the culture. First and foremost though, it is Mokhtar Alkhanshali story of finding his voice while switching from being a doorman without a clear direction to becoming a business man in his own right. 
Stories like his are building the socio-human texture of a society built on diversity and that survived because of its exceptional immigrants that succeeded because they built bridges between cultures and people. Walls never did anything good except in construction work. Let's hope that in the end, the dream -and not the nightmare will prevail.

Rating: 5 stars

Monday, May 20, 2019

Children Book Review: Yara's Tawari Tree

Yara is living together with her mother in their quiet rainforest corner. They are happy and they embraced the pristine environment. But not too far away, the threatening human machines are taking over the land.
When Yara saved a seedling of Tawari tree (called also Ixerba, it is a native honey flower tree, used among others to treat infections and various inflammations) she couldn't foresee that this tree will later save her life. As she fell very sick, a concotion made of the tree's leaves brought her back to life.
The message is simple: humans and nature need each other, in a very purposeful way. There is a certain balance between the human heart and the green heart that we often forget it exists. We, humans, we need to start learning again the secret language of nature. We are fragile and easy to break although we have the strength and the tools to create the allmighty nature. 
Yara's Tawari Tree is the first book from the a new series of children books created by Yossi Lapid: Yara's Rainforest. Although I've heard about Lapid before, this book was my first direct encounter with the author and most probably would love to read more of his books. The illustrations belong to Joanna Pasek and follow an inspiring style of pastel-watercolours with a touch of Asian painting. The lettering of the cover is in my opinion not the greatest choie, but after all the book appeals to children.
Yara's Tawari Tree is a recommended read to children of 5 years and more. If you want to teach your children to respect and understand nature, this book offers a good and inspiring start.

Rating: 4 stars
Disclaimer: Book offered by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Book Review: Vivek Shraya I'm Afraid of Men

'I'm afraid of men not because of any singular encouter with a man. I'm afraid of men because of the cumulative damage caused by the everyday experience I've recounted here, and by those untold, and by those I continue to face'.
Vivek Shraya is a Canadian musician and author. His lengthy essay I'm Afraid of Men is inspired by We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and I personally think it reveals in a dramatic yet gentle way the challenges of gender-based dynamics nowadays. Before coming out as a trans woman, Shraya tried to correctly play the masculinity role assigned by the society. As a woman she was the target of undeserved masculine aggressivity. In a relationship with a man, she had the experience of masculine entitlement. Regardless of your choice, masculinity -as it is seen and projected and taught in the society - is a matter of internalizing automatically a certain mindset.
Hence, Shraya pledged for a completely switch of perspective, which encourages gender creativity: 'What if you were to challenge youself every time you feel afraid of me - and of all of us who are pushing against gendered expectations and restrictions? What if you cherished us as archetypes of realized potential? What if you were to surrended to sublimne possibility - yours and mine? Might you then free me at last of my fear, and of your own?'. 
Regardless of our gender choice or not, there are aspects of masculinity which need a second thoughts if not a complete reconsideration - or as Vivek wrote re-'imagination'. 'If we want masculinity to be different, we must confront and tackle the baseline instead of longing for exceptions. Loving your mother, holding a door open for a woman, being a good listener, or even being a feminist doesn't makes a man an exception. Experiencing oppression - including racism, homophobia and transphobia - doesn't make a man an exception. If we are interested in perpetuating and confronting the myth of the ''good man'', we are also complicit in overlooking, if not permitting the reprehensible behavior of the ''typical man'''. 
I'm Afraid of Men is a short but rich in ideas and inspirational essay. After reading it, you need time to think and reconsider many of the common approaches regading gender roles and masculinity in general. It raises questions and challenges the reader to doubt. Regardless of the reader's final conclusion, it inspires to think and only this is a tremendous change for the critical mind.

Rating: 4 stars