Books

'Worm: The First Digital World War' Is a Techno-Thriller That's, Uh, Real

Many of us have an over-reliance on the Web, but go on using even as we feel a little anxiety about it. This anxiety fades quickly enough -- after all, the guys in charge are on top of it, right? 'Fraid not.


Worm: The First Digital World War

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press
Length: 288 pages
Author: Mark Bowden
Price: $25.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-09
Amazon

It's one of those things. Most of us rely on the Internet a little more than maybe we ought—not just for entertainment and news, but also for shopping, banking, and sharing personal (and potentially embarrassing) information. Many of us will acknowledge an over-reliance on the Web, but go on using it anyway—what's the alternative?—even as we kinda, sorta, feel a little bit of anxiety about the whole affair. This anxiety fades quickly enough -- after all, if there were really something to worry about, the guys in charge would be on top of it, right?

Well -- no, actually. Partly this is because new threats crop up constantly, so just keeping up to date with them is a full-time job. Partly, it's because nobody knows quite what the next threat will look like. And partly, of course, it's because there are no "guys in charge" of the Internet. It is, famously, a self-regulating entity. What this means in practice is that in the Internet's early days, the smooth flow of information on the Web, and the control of privately-held information like your credit card numbers and the Pentagon's missile launch codes, was left in large measure to a de facto honor system. People being people, this didn't work for long.

Soon enough, Web experts saw the need to stay ahead of malicious hackers who would use the Internet for any number of possible nefarious purposes, most of which—but not all—involved making money. As time went on, the brightest of these very bright Web experts, or super-geeks if you prefer, attained a certain status among those in the know. Dubbed "the cabal", this assortment of security kingpins, code-writers, adminstrators and tech wizards took it upon themselves to safeguard the Web from malicious atacks. They chatted on message boards, exchanged information and created "sinkholes" where new strains of malware and viruses could be contained, studied, and in some cases picked apart line by line.

It was just a matter of time before one of those attacks threatened to take down everything.

Worm: The First Digital World War describes a span of two and a half years, from November 2008 to April 2011, in which the cabal found themselves faced with an Internet worm of truly alarming size and cunning. Displaying a degree of sophistication far outstripping any previous computer bug, the Conficker worm operated in stealth: it infected a computer, then erased the computer's knowledge of its arrival. Computer users had no idea it was there, as it didn't flash a pop-up ad offering financial services, anti-virus software or porn. It just sat there. Ultimately it would infect an estimated 100 million personal computers. It might be in yours.

And the purpose of this ingenius bit of computer nastiness? That's just it. Nobody could figure it out.

Once safely ensconced in the target computer's operating system, the Conficker worm sent out a regular pulse to a randomly generated set of web sites each day. (Random generation ensured a virtually infinite set of possibilities, as numbers and letters were scrambled together in meaninless strings of characters.) Sooner or later, the writers of the virus would be waiting at one of those web sites, and when that happened, they would be able (presumably) to give the program its next set of instructions.

If this were to happen to your computer and yours alone, that would be a bummer. But Conficker created a botnet—a remotely-controlled network of "robot" computers that could be vulnerable to receiving orders from a remote location. In effect, this was an Internet within the Internet, and with 100 million computers engaged to one purpose, it represented a potentially devestating threat. Just think of how many of the world's financial institutions are reliant on the Internet, not to mention military applications, civil air traffic control, municipal power grids…

Author Mark Bowden, whose Black Hawk Down proved him a capable storyteller of nail-biting catastrophe scenarios, does a good job here, as well. In terse, no-frills writing, Bowden lays out the problem, then escalates it level by level. He draws brief but effective thumbnail sketches of the cabal's members, as these "white hats" engage in a silent, all-but-ignored battle with the "black hats" and their unknown but presumably nefarious schemes.

Apparently, Bowden was granted access to the emails of various members of the cabal, as he presents us with lengthy extracts that reveal tensions within the group, as egos clash and mistrust rises among members, even as the overriding concern of quelling the Conficker worm remains the paramount consideration. Oh, and if you're one of those people who's always suspected that the government is more or less clueless about everything, there's plenty here to support that belief.

Worm is a solid although disquieting read for anyone with a stake in the Internet's continued smooth functioning—and these days, isn't that just about all of us? The book illuminates a shadowy part of the cyberworld that few of us have any expertise in, and while reading it won't make you an expert, it may at least open your eyes to how little you actually do know. Hey, that's a start. Knowledge is power, and nowhere is that more true than in cyberspace.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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