Monthly, 01/24

TL;DR: Given that length of the monthly posts has increased quite a bit, I’ll include a TL;DR for those as well, from now on. January involved cleaning up non-commercial subscriptions, buying an expensive new keyboard, working on a fun technical project and reading a surprising number of books. If you’re interested in World War II, go read “Das Reich” by Max Hastings.

January? Cleanup time! Which is what I did. Apart from throwing or gifting away some leftovers from my recent move, I also spent some time going through my RSS-feeds and podcast subscriptions, drastically cutting down on the amount of either. Unfortunately I didn’t take notes beforehand, but I suspect that I cut down the number of feeds I’m subscribed to by a third, whereas I definitely more than halved the number of podcasts showing up on my phone.

Aside from that I placed a focus on my physical health. As I alluded to in one of my last posts, I’m still dealing with some issues on that front. So this month was dominated by trying to get my diet in order, getting physical therapy and massages in, working out regularly (or at least going for a walk every day) and taking a hard look at some of my habits and routines to figure out what might be more harmful than I would think, and how to change that.

Speaking of my physical health: I’m going to talk write about it longer in a different post, but I went and got myself a Kinesis Advantage 2, in order to ensure that the pain in my wrist is kept in check. This was one of the most (financially) significant decisions I made in a little while, and I hope it will pay off. For now it’s fun getting used to an entirely new typing experience.

As for work: I was finally able to secure funding for a project shortly before Christmas. And by “able to secure” I don’t mean “convince the decision makers that it would be wise to give me money”, I mean “finally got off my arse and dealt with some bureaucracy”.

This in turn meant that I was forced, in a positive sense, to start working on the project, which I thoroughly, greatly enjoyed. Building something myself instead of either helping other people build things or trying to help other teams salvage the wreckage left by attackers (or trying to make sense of the ever increasing amount of policies trying to make computers more secure, which I should probably rant about in an entirely different post) was a refreshing change of pace.

Since it involves a few things akin to honeypots I probably should finally get around to reading “Intrusion Detection Honeypots” by Chris Sanders. I’ve been told that it’s excellent, and I think it deserves a better life than as a supporting asset for my screen at work. Maybe February will be the month for that. This month I completed:

  • “Dakhil - Inside Arabische Clans” by Mohamed A. Charour, Marcus Staiger - Ever since this book was released in November of 2022, I contemplated on reading it. The history of the al-maḥallamīya (or al-mārdallīya, depending on who you ask), especially in Germany, and the phenomenon of family-based organised crime are topics I’m keenly interested in, so I tend to read every publication I get my hands on.

    But having listened to the podcast of the authors made me suspect that I would most likely loathe reading the book. But when I saw it in a local book store after last Christmas I decided to give it a shot and look for myself.

    I’m sad to say that my suspicion was confirmed. Except for the first chapter of the book - which is an (to the extent of my knowledge) excellent summary of why the term “Arabische Großfamilien” - much beloved by sensationalist news outlets in Germany - is thoroughly misleading and ignorant, the book is a continuing cycle of Whataboutism, excuses and dancing around uncomfortable topics or conversations.

    Which saddens me greatly, because of the loss of opportunity. A lot of the books or articles that have been published on the subject matter suffer from both sensationalism and what (at times feels like) racist prejudices. It would have been easy to counter a lot of the narratives pushed by people with less-than-stellar intent, but instead the authors decided to wallow in the role of perpetual victimhood.

  • “D-Day” by Antony Beevor - I’m reasonably well acquainted with the chronological details of the events on this front of World War II, but I still enjoyed getting a refresher on some dates and operation names. What was a learning experience was getting a detailed explanation of what was actually happening on the ground. Narration of stories that were mostly based on reports by those involved furthered an understanding of how complex and vicious fighting in the landscapes of Normandy was, and how challenging the initial phase of the landing actually was for Allied troops. This was a stark contrast to most documentaries, and not just ones produced in / by the US, which tend to paint a picture of the Allied forces steamrolling the Germans except for maybe Caen.

    What was, in a way, also surprising to me, was the seemingly high amount of instances of war crimes committed by Allied troops, especially at the beginning of the campaign in the West. It’s not that I was under the impression that there is such a thing as “a Gentleman’s War”, or that anyone involved in this war would be willing to wage it if there were. But the regularity of German soldiers (Wehrmacht, not SS-formations) surrendering simply being shot outright was something that I wasn’t aware of.

  • “Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944” by Max Hastings. There was a well produced documentary by the French television channel ARTE a few years ago, about the 2nd SS Panzer Division (“Das Reich”) and their involvement in combat with French partisans as well as their perpetration of significant war crimes in June of 1944, as they were trying to reach the Allied beachheads.

    I greatly enjoyed the 90 or so minutes it lasted. My intention of reading more about that part of the war quickly faded from my mind - until I saw a copy of this book on an entirely legitimate website that definitely wasn’t related to digital piracy in any way shape or form.

    It was an entertaining, often depressing read, but certainly not what I expected. In fact the specific actions of the division are often more present in the background of the storytelling, rather than taking center stage.

    Instead the author focuses on providing context. I learned a lot of new things about how Allied support of the French Resistance was hampered as much by British military politics as it was by internal rivalries and political differences within France. I also

    One thing that surprised me was how well the author went about being tactful and as neutral as possible throughout the entire book. I can imagine that it’s probably not the easiest thing to not be silent about crimes perpetrated by irregular French forces against German soldiers (or even fellow French citizens) when confronted with the murders and massacres committed by the Das Reich division.

    If you are interested in World War II and want to read an account of the events during the summer of 1944 that manages to both be comprehensive (in the sense that the author tries to have most angles and areas covered to some extent) as well as personal (in the sense that there is plenty of general history mixed with personal accounts of people involved on both sides), there are definitely worse books you could read.

  • “Japan’s Infamous Unit 731” by Hal Gold - the topic of Japanese research into chemical and biological warfare is an interesting, in a terrible sense, subject whose coverage suffers from a tremendous amount of sensationalism and morbid fascination with the suffering of the victims.

    Which is why I’m always quite cautious when opening up a new book, expecting the worst, because while I agree that you have to describe the suffering caused by Japanese personnel involved in the research, all too often the focus is on graphic descriptions of the crimes committed during the “research”, rather than on a more general understanding of what happened, and why.

    The reason why I picked up this (audio)book was because of extensive quoted statements from surviving perpetrators or people who worked adjacent to Unit 731 (and other research facilities / units), so I was hoping that the focus would be on those. And at least for the second part of the book, that was the case.

    The first part of the book, which is intended to act as an introduction to the topic, however still had some issues. It felt like the author did sincerely try to not get into gory details, knowing how diminishing it would be for the overall quality of the book. However, there’s a repeating pattern of starting out with a focus on explaining timelines and those involved, providing important context to the event, only for the storytelling eventually ending up with graphic descriptions again. Rinse and repeat.

    All in all I still think that it’s one of the better books on Unit 731. But I truly wish for an actually excellent book to eventually come out. The victims would deserve it, and we - in the spirit of “Never Again!” - would too.

  • “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the U.S., and Iran s Global Ambitions” by Arash Azizi ended up on my bookshelf shortly after the death of Qassem Soleimani, since I knew comparatively little about him, which means that I had absolutely no clue and was looking forward to read it - only for the usual thing to happen, which is that I didn’t actually read it.

    As with the “Das Reich” it was a documentary that reminded me about wanting to read the book. Admittedly, I was a bit worried initially. Books about relevant figures in the Middle East sometimes, in my experience, have a tendency to become too much of a biography of the personal life of the figure being talked about, rather than their impact on the region or their legacy.

    This book very much did not suffer from that. A review I read about the book put it this way: “It is rather hard to find a good book that is a page-turner and also tells you the inner-dynamics of Iran and the region as astutely as a historian. Through the life of Qassem Soleimani, Azizi tells the story of the political culture of Iran, intertwined with the Middle East and USA.”. I couldn’t have put it better.

  • “The Gatekeepers” by Dror Moreh has been on my list of books I should probably read pretty much since its release. Coincidentally, I’ve also had it in my bookshelf for a considerable amount of time now. Look, buying books and reading books are two entirely separate hobbies that I happen to enjoy both. Don’t look at me like that.

    What finally got me to read it was watching the documentary based on this book

    • or the book is based on, given that the author is primarily a filmmaker I don’t know what came first - and finding it so intriguing and well made that I immediately pulled out the book from the shelf and raced through it in a matter of a handful of evenings.

    There is a lot of media out there covering Mossad, the Israeli foreign intelligence service. Some of the information out there is good, some is bad. But they have been the subject of a ton of attention over the years. Shin Bet, the internal intelligence service, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. They are by far less well known, and because they are not involved in things like abducting Adolf Eichmann from Latin America (even though they are involved in targeted assassinations, but that’s another matter), they aren’t as entertaining to cover.

    This level of secrecy makes it even more surprising that the author was able to get several former heads of Shin Bet to talk to him about the history of Shin Bet, their history with the service, and several controversies or significant events in recent Israeli history, such as the killing of Jitzchak Rabin by a radical Zionist.

    What surprised me as well was how honest most of the former heads of the service were, and how aware they tended to be of most of their own errors, or mistake the service had committed. I don’t want to spoil the entire content here, but if you are interested in intelligence services, the Middle East, Israeli-Arab relations or generally enjoy a good book, I recommend you give this one a try.

  • “The Islamic State in Africa: The Emergence, Evolution, and Future of the Next Jihadist Battlefront” by Jason Warner; my partner recently received a Kindle from a friend, which I promptly acquired for my own use while she was sleeping. Widely differing sleep patterns can be a pain, given that I enjoy going to bed at the same time she does. But with this new addition to my collection of electronic gadgets, a couple of hours of waiting for the sweet relief of sleep have been replaced by two hours of reading. Given that I also spend less time mindlessly browsing the Internet and falling asleep earlier because of this, I consider this a big win on all fronts.

    This book was the first one I read. The authors tried their very best to keep the book as light and entertaining to read as possible, and they succeeded for the largest parts. But I have to admit, sometimes it felt like I wasn’t reading a professional analysis of terrorism, but instead reading a sketch of Monthy Python. The Democratic Forces of Islam fighting the Islamic Forces of Democracy, only to merge together into the Forces of Islam and Democracy, ultimately splitting up again .. that made my head hurt at times. Still, very insightful read.

  • “Tribe of Hackers Security Leaders: Tribal Knowledge from the best in Cybersecurity Leadership” by Marcus J. Carey and Jennifer Jin. I’m going to keep it brief to avoid being disrespectful towards the authors.

    I’m sure their intentions were good, but the outcome was a collection of more or less random people from the Infosec industry, each getting nearly a whole page to celebrate their accomplishments (like unnecessarily emphasizing for how long they’ve been a CISSP), followed by - with very few, precious exceptions - platitudes and generic statements with the occasional recommendation of some cringe-worthy-titled book about management. I rarely say it this harshly, but save yourself the time. You’re definitely not getting it back.

  • “The End: Hitler’s Germany 1944 - 1945” by Ian Kershaw surprised me. I’m generally fan of Kershaw’s books, and I enjoyed the ones I have read so far. But for reasons I can’t accurately describe, or even grasp, this one was torturous to “read”. I’m convinced that if it would not have been an audiobook that I could chew through during chores or while getting groceries, I probably would have abandoned it halfway through.

    It’s not necessarily that it’s bad in the direct sense of the word, nor is it partisan or outright false. There really isn’t anything obviously wrong with the book, and the developments towards the end of World War II usually are excellent grounds for interesting analysis and narration. But .. yeah. As I said above, I didn’t enjoy it at all. And I’m still confused by that fact.

  • “Meat Grinder: The Battles for the Rzhev Salient, 1942–43” by Prit Buttar was a depressing read, even for a book that covers the Eastern Front of the Second World War. The events at this part of the front were the epitome of the senselessness of the war, or any war.

    They can easily be summarized by calling it a seemingly never ending circle of command on either side coming up with the same “plan” (which was mostly hurling unprepared and barely supplied troops at the same defensive positions in terrain that was everything but fit for offensive operations) over and over again, without achieving any measurable success & doing it for around two years before the overall front situation changed so much that the Germans were ultimately forced to retreat.

    The author managed to describe the horror of the situation for both sides in a way that was fascinating, in the most uncomfortable way. I went “.. this shit again?” in my head more than once during my read.

While I tried to keep up with noting down what I was reading throughout the month, I have to admit that I was surprised when adding the final touch to this post. Ten books in a single month. Even if it included a handful of audiobooks that I probably didn’t pay full attention too, .. that’s an impressive number. What “not being able to go to bed at average times” does to a backlog ..

As for music, I managed to stick to my habit of discovering three new albums or artists every month:

  • The entire collection of Monasterium Imperi - it’s ambient, it’s Grimdark, and it’s far less than 10$. Need I say more?
  • Jazz Spastiks - The Product - when I first listened to the album on the release page, my head immediately started following the beats. Adding it to my collection ensured that my head will continue to do so.
  • The Offline - La couleur de lamer - “The Offline is a modern version of TV and film music from the 60s and 70s with an analogue feel, reminiscent of those old funk and jazz albums hip-hop artists used to sample.” .. this description by the artist is extremely fitting. I didn’t know that I needed this in my life before stumbling upon it.

I’d like to honorarily mention RESIN TOMB - Cerebral Purgatory, because while I unfortunately don’t seem to be able to listen to anything Metal for longer than a couple of minutes anymore, the album art of Metal releases is almost always absolutely dope, and the sound of this is also completely banging.