Archive for May, 2009

May 20 2009

The Bin Ladens – An Arabian Family in the American Century

Published by under Books

by Steve Coll

A while ago, I listened to a podcast of a lecture given by the author of this book which was interesting enough to make me want to read it. Sure, that was the purpose of the lecture, and it worked. While reading, it soon became apparent that there are too many Bin Ladens for me to keep track of.
The patriarch of the family, Mohamed, had 53 children by a bunch of wives. As he was a scrupulous and devout Muslim so he had no more than 4 wives at a time, but women (really young girls) seem to be the way deals or alliances are confirmed in that culture. To keep within the acceptable limit of 4 wives, he had a number of short term wives some of whom provided him with children. As appropriate under his version of Islam, Mohamed took care of all his wifes and children even after he ‘divorced’ them. Osama was the only son of one such short term marriage. He and his mother were sort of transferred to a respectable employee who married the mother. They both continued to be included in the extended Bin Laden family; especially Osama. But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
The book is about the family and not just Osama though he eventually dominates the narrative. Mohammed and Abdullah Bin Laden where penniless young boys from Yemen who emigrated to Saudi Arabia soon after that Kingdom had been created by the Al Saud tribe. They were clever, worked hard, took on any project, and most of all, were successful in cultivating the king and his extended family. Both the Saudis and the Bin Ladens were beneficiaries of excellent timing; the start of major oil explorationb and development in the Arabian Peninsula.
In telling the family’s story, the book focuses on the three patriarchs plus Osama. Mohammed is the founder and initial focus. He worked the system and ingratiated himself with the Al Saud family by taking on construction projects as they attempted, and succeeded at, spending their new found oil wealth. He was an interesting mix of conservative Islam and modernity. Uneducated but clever and bright. A conservative Muslim who selectively sought out and adopted aspects of western technology. Especially, airplanes and construction technology.
When Mohamed died in a crash of one of his airplanes while traveling to a construction site, his son, Salem, became the patriarch. Salam was a western educated playboy with a love of flying and other high speed games. He roamed around the world with a ever changing bunch of mostly western friends, but he took his family role seriously and knew how to act like a responsible Saudi when necessary. He too died in an airplane crash but this time in an ultralight he was playing in Texas.
The patriarch role then fell to a brother Bakr who was an executive in the Ben Laden Organization which is their main holding company. Almost a bureaucrat by style and much less of a world traveler, he has kept their relationship to the royal family and their construction empire together and growing.
As described in this book, the family has quite a range of characters from very liberal and westernized to very parochial and conservatively Muslim. The family officially disowned Osama, the extreme right wing, and the author seems to believe that they really did cut him off from his money in the mid 90’s. Not just announced they did. But, Osama has friends in the family and among the Saudi population. The recruiting and development of Osama’s radical opinions and actions is outlined sufficiently.
There is a lot of detail in the book about the family and Saudi society. Not all of it flattering. Worth reading.
Incidentally, both the CIA and the FBI are panned for handling of research on Osama Bin Laden and his family before 9/11. Just didn’t do a decent analysis. They accepted false information on the Bin Ladens at face value without any real verification and then kept repeating it.

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May 17 2009

Espresso Shot

Published by under Books

by Cleo Coyle

The latest book in a series called the “Coffeehouse Mysteries” all of which have coffee related puns in the title and the key sleuth of which is a manager of a Manhattan coffeehouse called the Village Blend. As you’d expect, the ambiance provided for the story is coffee and food. Especially, Italian food and recipes for the dishes mentioned are provided at the back of the book.
I don’t read many mysteries so I can’t really compare this to other books but it was a quick fun read. A large number of possible suspects and motives were introduced, though it was disappointing that the criminal was a minor character who didn’t appear till 3/4 of the story was over. Good for an airplane trip or a day at the beach. I’d read another, but the library doesn’t have to have any of the earlier books. One called “French Pressed” seems to have bee the most successful.

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May 11 2009

Botnets

Published by under Books,General

The book “Daemon” described in my prior post is built around an imaginary ‘botnet’ set loose after its builder dies. That botnet is imaginary, as far as I know, but less capable botnets are very real and cause a lot of problems on the Internet and in the wider world. Botnets are the source of much of the spam, data theft, and disruptive attacks on legitimate web sites that seem to be a daily occurrence.
A botnet consists of a large number of Internet connected computers owned and operated by unsuspecting, normal, users that have been infected via email or via accessing a web site that injects malicious programs into the machine. These programs allow a remote controller of the botnet (a person using a computer somewhere) to tell the machines to send email, attempt to log on to a web site, or just take data from the machine and send it off over the internet to some place from which they retrieve it. The number of machines in a bot net can be huge; at least hundreds of thousands and probably in the millions. The BBC has a video of a simple use of a botnet to send spam. That activity by the BBC spawned its own controversy .
Recently, researchers at UCSD manage to get temporary control of a different botnet and analyzed the data that would be collected by the botnet’s controller. What they found makes interesting reading.

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May 07 2009

Daemon

Published by under Books

by Daniel Suarez

While in the middle of reading a couple of non-fiction books, I quickly read this action packed, contemporary Thriller. It is a fast paced story with an interesting context and some clever twists. A good airplane book and maybe more.
The book was written by a ‘software consultant’ turned author and the computer related context he provides is well grounded if significantly enhanced over current capabilities. Many of the computer network exploits that contribute to the story are grounded in fact, but carried out with over the top precision and scope (I believe!). On one level, it can be read as an almost comic book like ‘shoot em up’ (especially the penultimate battle and chase scene), but it can also be viewed as providing an ominous view of the future. A future in which most people are marginalized and caught in a world being fought over by big anonymous entities: big government, big corporations, and big ‘botnets’ (collections of computers controlled by someone who shouldn’t control them).
The bots form the idea which this story adds to an otherwise commone scenario. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but a, probably not really evil, genius creates a distributed set of programs (bots) that implement his desires after he dies. The genius has been responsible for creating extremely popular and realistic on-line games played by millions of people. These skills are then expanded into using those capabilities to enlist people to his cause and to attack the computers and institutions we depend on all the time. The game environment is used to communicate about and to coordinate actions in the real world. Real and virtual blend together. Focusing on the question of “what’s real” is the more serious way of reading the book.
My main objections to this story, is that the characters are too good to be true; too smart, too strong, too beautiful. This applies to the good and bad guys as well. Everything works according to somebody’s plan. Nothing is messy, nothing breaks. Everything works just right. No messy loose end or ‘noise’ interferes with plans and implementations. A common failing of speculative fiction.
The way the story ends, the author seems to be setting up at least a series of books; if not a movie or TV series. Another book (‘Freedom’) is in the works and promised for 2010.

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May 02 2009

Sanctuary?

Published by under Books

Sanctuary

Sanctuary


Love to walk around the city and I occasionally get surprised by what I see. This sidewalk message struck me as I was walking home from the gym. Nicely designed, two color, spray on stencil is appropriate for this city which likes to dress up.
Some truth in the message, but not a lot. There are a fair number of rich people in and around San Francisco, but we have a fair share of not rich immigrants, not rich 20 (and 30) somethings, not rich street people, not rich long time residents. The rich are, as they should be, a minority. A minority that the painter of this message apparently doesn’t want to have around.

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