Review: Crack99: The Takedown of a $100 Million Chinese Software Pirate, David Locke Hall, 2015.Crack99

These are the kind of books I like to review – short, informative, a recap of news I missed, and a source for follow up reading.

And I don’t I have to pay for it since this was a review copy from Amazon. Because these books always seem a bit overpriced considering they are short and summarize a lot of news. This one’s fairly cheap though.

As our subject, Xiang Li, the man behind the titular software cracking site Crack99, might say, “The product is pretty. You be pleased. Go tell other people.”

As you would expect from a longtime Assistant US Attorney used to bringing juries to the desired conclusions, Hall recounts his case against Li convincingly and clearly.

He takes us through Homeland Security Investigations (HSI – Homeland Security’s investigative arm that finds it more amenable to pursue counterfeit purses than illegal aliens) showing him the childish looking Crack99 site.

The software it sold for one percent of retail were not versions of Microsoft Office or Adobe products. These programs were very expensive – tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each – and used for very sophisticated engineering and manufacturing uses. Generally, for a lot of this stuff, you need to, as a mere prerequisite, be an engineer or physicist.

Hall takes us through the legal facts, questions, and obstacles to prosecuting someone running a software pirate site: establishing identity, location of the criminal, criminal intent, establishing whether selling pirated software – sans any physical product but just file transfers over the internet – is stealing. And, of course, there is the not trivial problem of physical getting the cuffs on Mr. Li and taking him back for trial in America.

Hall is a personable fellow who seems to have led an interesting life outside of being a lawyer and he drops in some “war stories” at the beginning of each chapter. That causes a bit of a problem on the concise narration front because one such story is actually a chapter on the arrest of an Iranian arms merchant, Amir Ardebili. (A story covered in John Shiffman’s Operation Shakespeare: The True Story of an Elite International Sting.) Granted, it’s there to show how you go about arresting international criminals on foreign soil and extradite them with the cooperation of other countries, but it’s also 32 pages out of a 290 page story.

Hall is hardly the first ex-public servant to use a book to push his ideas of reform. It’s hard to argue that Chinese industrial espionage goes hand in hand with their military spying and poses a very real threat to American economic and military (and, thus, national) security though Hall makes clear that he has no certain proof that Xiang Li had ties to the Chinese government. Hall wants more people in the US Department of Justice and military to follow his lead and prosecute these software pirates.

Brief Additional Thoughts

Though my time in government has been at a completely different level and involved in the enforcement of completely different laws, some of Hall’s experiences are familiar.

Reluctance to do the hard work. Hall labels this, in the world of law enforcement, “big cases, big problems” or “junk food” — quick and not the best for the public. Some people refer to this as the Easier For Them explanation of government behavior. I call it going after the soft targets.

Evil metrics. (Hall doesn’t use the “e” word, but I will.) Governments love to use metrics because it sounds oh-so-private sector and official and accountable. Well, government is not a business. Its “customers” don’t usually have a choice in using or paying for its services. Metrics can be gamed in so many ways — and are by so many government agencies — that you might as well not use them. (Sir John Cowperthwaite collected almost no statistics when he governed Hong Kong.)

I liked Hall because he reminded me of some of the older men I’ve worked with in government who had “war stories” to tell — literal war stories as well as things they did in their career before management became so rigid and ignorant.

Which brings me to Hall’s boss who “knew nothing about the Chinese government’s sponsorship and encouragement of cyber intrusion and espionage”. I didn’t quite take the time to break down who this was (Hall never names his bosses), but obviously giving even a cursory glance at the day’s newspapers is not a prerequisite for a US Attorney.

Hall calls the Chinese government “totalitarian”.  I wouldn’t go that far, but I would call them fascistic in the sense that their governments and businesses are closely co-ordinated to pursue national ends. Both co-operate in espionage as shown in David Wise’s Tiger Trap.

And I’m suspicious of those ends. China is full of smart people who resent that their civilization was eclipsed by the West and are determined to catch up and, to my mind, dominate the world. (Though that is merely a suspicion.  People who know China way better, out of experience and study, than me disagree on the future of U.S. and China relationships.)

Just as U.S. political circles asked “Who lost China?” when the Communists came to power there, I suspect future historians will be busy cataloging the foolishness of our trade and immigration policies with China. As Pat Buchanan has pointed out, free market Britain was eventually eclipsed by not so free traders Germany and America. American dominance was partially the result of an industrial espionage program that, for its day, was rather like China’s now.  Peter Andreas’ Smuggler Nation talks about this briefly.

I’m not the only one seemingly unkeen on a future dominated by China. Given the number of Chinese women practicing obstetric tourism, many of them may not be keen on it either.

Finally, in a two page argument, Hall thinks perhaps  we “might be doing something wrong” because black and Hispanic men are convicted of certain crimes in a greater proportion than whites. I have a suggestion to Mr. Hall in his retirement — glance at a map of world homicide rates and ponder the patterns. While you’re there, follow up by reading the FAQ at the esteemed blog of JayMan.


The Espionage page.

Tiger Trap

In preparation for posting a review shortly of David Locke Hall’s Crack99, I’m posting another review about Chinese malfeasance.

From April 12, 2012 …

Review: Tiger Trap: America’s Secret Spy War with China, David Wise, 2011.Tiger Trap

The ongoing struggle – whether acknowledged or not by our governments – of America with China is the subject of several books, and the cyber attacks and espionage of China against Western targets has gotten a fair amount of coverage. And that subject is even covered in this book’s last chapter.

China’s more traditional espionage activity has been less well covered and that is the subject of this book which ranges in time from the possible 1960s affair of Richard Nixon with a Chinese agent to 2009 espionage prosecutions. Wise bounces back and forth in time as he covers two major cases of Chinese espionage: a double agent for both the FBI and the MSS – China’s organization for gathering foreign intelligence – and a Chinese-American scientist suspected of providing details of America’s most sophisticated nuclear weapons to China. Because Chinese espionage operations often seem to overlap somewhere, these two cases, code named Parlor Maid and Tiger Trap respectively, also introduce us to other cases including perhaps the most famous – the matter of the reputedly innocent Wen Ho Lee.

There are several points of interest in Wise’s caroming narrative. Continue reading “Tiger Trap”

Smuggler Nation

Another retro review, this one from January 14, 2013, and it’s being posted because of its relevance to a book I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Review: Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, Peter Andreas, 2013.Smuggler Nation

Condoms and cotton, salt and slaves, blueprints and booze, molasses and marijuana, Americans and their colonial predecessors have smuggled them all.

What exactly do we mean by smuggling? Simply, it’s illegally avoiding taxes, regulations, or outright prohibitions when moving goods and people across a political border. And Andreas writes a clear, entertaining, jargon-free history making his case that smuggling did, indeed, make America from its beginnings in a tax revolt, its acquisitions of land, and its development into something like a surveillance state.

Andreas’ chronological history begins with molasses and how New England rum distilleries obviously used way more molasses than they were legally importing from other British colonies. But molasses wasn’t the only good smuggled into the colonies. There were brandies from France and clothing, gunpowder, coffee, and chocolate from Holland, a torrent of illegal goods that, incidentally, generated enough income from illegal trade for colonists to buy legal British manufactured goods. As he does throughout the book, Andreas doesn’t just throw out stats but also quotes contemporary sources about all this smuggling or, as one New Englander put it, “this Trade So very pernicious to the British Nation”. That became a literally treasonous trade during the French and the Indian War when American smugglers selling to France prolonged combat in the North American sector of the war. (It was not the last time Americans would, in the middle of a war, sell to their enemies exhibiting, depending on your predisposition, risky pragmatism or a tendency to put selfish economic gain over national interest.) Attempts to recoup its war expenses from its American colonists – and reform customs enforcement – precipitated a civil war in the British Empire – the American Revolution. Continue reading “Smuggler Nation”

My Work Is Not Yet Done

In response to a recent comment from Sean Easton (of the R’lyeh Tribune — which you should be reading if you are interested in weird fiction), I’m reposting this retro review from August 8, 2009.

Review: My Work Is Not Yet Done, Thomas Ligotti, 2002.My Work Is Not Yet Done

Two of these “three tales of corporate horror” will fascinate many of those who have spent time as symbol manipulators in the offices of large corporations.

The collection’s titular short novel and “I Have a Special Plan for This World” expand on the themes of “Our Temporary Supervisor” and “The Town Manager”, two of the best stories in Ligotti’s Teatro Grottesco. The narrators here work for companies whose ultimate goal is to produce nothing or baleful somethings and undertake a literally inhuman replacement of their workforce, the logical end to all this being a structure that is more shaped by an invisible tentacle than capitalism’s invisible hand.

The narrator of “My Work Is Not Yet Done” is a supervisor, Dominio by name though his boss Richard keeps calling him Domino. Said boss and six fellow supervisors become the target of Dominio’s revenge after getting him fired from the company. But on the way back from the gun store in preparation for his upcoming rampage – and Ligotti has the narrator wryly and concisely sum up all the reasons usually given for such rampages, something mysterious happens. Dominio’s vengeance takes an increasingly bizarre and supernatural turn, the world literally darkening with each killing. The novel ends with a surprising confrontation with Richard and attendant revelations. Continue reading “My Work Is Not Yet Done”

Readings in the Classical Historians

A retro review from January 4, 2009 since I’m resting up today.

Reviews: Readings in the Classical Historians, ed. Michael Grant, 1993.Readings in the Classical Historians

In this collection of ancient historians writing in Greek and Latin, Grant selects all the historians anyone who casually exposed to Ancient Greek or Roman history would be likely to have heard of: Livy, Thucydides, Plutarch, Polybius, Herodotus, Caesar, Xenophon, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Josephus (translations of his Greek writing). To those he adds a more obscure roster: Hecataeus, Hellanicus, Nepos, Diodorus Siculus, Sallust, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Velleius Paterculus, Appian, Arrian, Dio Cassius, Eusebius, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Luke of the Gospels is also thrown in for his historical material.

There are three main purposes behind this collection.

First, Grant simply wants you to read these historians who are so important as primary source on the classical world, see where some of the famous anecodotes so often repeated in cable documentaries actually come from, get a sense of the character of their writing. Second, Grant gives some basic information about each historian – when they lived, the works they wrote and which ones survived to our time, the extant of their personal involvement in what they write about, the merits and defects of their histories, and a bit on their political and literary influences on the modern world. Finally, by arranging the book in chronological order of the historians’ lives, and not by language or order of their subjects, Grant develops an argument about how the art of history developed in the classical world and which writers were regarded as particularly admirable.

Besides his own translation work (primarily on Tacitus and Suetonius), Grant has selected many other translators and all are fully credited if the reader wants to follow up and get their entire translation of a work.

Grant’s introduction and timeline puts the selections in a rough context for events in the ancient world. The book is extensively footnoted, and Grant often gives, in the titles to individual selections, the date of the event described.

As to the span of time covered here, we have the migration of the Etruscans from Lydia and the founding of Thebes to the death of Emperor Valens at the Battle of Adrianople.


The Rome page.

A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of Empire 1776 — 2000

The men with jackhammers have left, but the disruption of home remodeling lives on.

And I’m still doing research for some future posts.

So, you get another retro review of a history book.  This one’s from December 21, 2008.

Review: A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of the Empire 1776 — 2000, Simon Schama, 2002.A History of Britain Volume 3

There’s history read mostly for entertainment. And then there’s history that’s not escapist at all, that brings to mind the struggles of the day. This is history definitely in the latter category.

The subject of the book may be British imperial history, especially in Ireland and India, but the particulars of that history remind one of all the great debates the world has been having since the Englightenment. Or, more precisely, all the competing philosophies that people have killed, rioted, and rebelled for throughout most of the world in the last 250 years: equality vs freedom, economic security vs dynamism, rule by oligarch or by democracy, universal vs limited franchise, imperialism vs national self-determination. The debate over the aesthetics of the environment are even represented as Schama shows throughout the book, from beginning to end, how political the act of perceiving and traveling through the English countryside has been in the book’s years.

But this book, even though it touches on all those issues, isn’t detailed enough to provide any conclusive answers to any side of those arguments. And Schama acknowledges that up front, that this is even more of a collection of personal essays on Britain than a detailed history. To be sure, you do get an overview of British history up through WWII. To an American like me, it was nice to see some details about the actual philosophies of Disraeli and Gladstone, that Winston Churchill was not the stereotypical conservative that some Americans imagine him to be, Prince Albert’s contribution to Victoria’s reign, the controversies of rule in Ireland and India. Still, I got the sense I was exposed to some elliptical references that only an educated Brit would know. Like many general histories, though, it left an appetite for learning more details.

But I’m going to be viewing a bibliography so heavy with titles from the 1990s with suspicion. Especially when I see Schama repeating that hoary feminist myth about a legal “rule of thumb” sanction for husbands to beat their wives. A running theme is the use of British history from Macauley to Winston Churchill and George Orwell, how their perceptions of what the British past was guided their visions for the future, their notions of what war must preserve. I said in my review of the preceding volume in the series that Schama calls himself a “born-again Whig”. He didn’t just mean subscribing, in part, to a great man of history. (Though you can find that in his portrayal of the great, contradictory Churchill and his defense of the man, warts and all.) He makes clear he mostly means Macauley’s notion of an empire bringing democratic liberalism to the world, teaching its subjects, and then releasing them to become brothers in a common culture. Continue reading “A History of Britain, Volume 3: The Fate of Empire 1776 — 2000”

A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776

A retro review from November 28, 2008.

Review: A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776, Simon Schama, 2001.A History of Britain

Even more than its predecessor, this is a fine companion to the tv series of the same name. Partly that’s because Schama isn’t trying to do 4,600 years of history in one volume. And, besides constricting the time covered, Schama largely restricts the book to one theme: the notion of how the civil wars of the British, starting in the Stuart monarchies and ending with the American Revolution, led to a particular notion, an English notion of liberty.

In the Preface to the book, Schama describes himself as a “born-again Whig”. He not only seems to mean an agreement with the gist of Victorian historians like Carlyle and Macauley – if not the details of their scholarship — but what’s been called the Whig notion of history, that great men matter.

Throughout the high points of the book, Oliver Cromwell and his reign, and the escalation of tensions before the American Revolution, he emphasizes history as often pivoting on the peculiarities of individual personalities. Cromwell, we see, may have been a theocrat, but he ultimately didn’t think anyone, including himself, should have the power to sustain his regime. The loss of the American colonies was not inevitable – though Benjamin Franklin thought their eventual political and economic domination of the Empire was – but the result of stubborn personalities in the British government. Continue reading “A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British, 1603 – 1776”

The Terror

In honor of NOVA’s “Arctic Ghost Ship” episode, detailing the solution to one mystery of John Franklin’s famously doomed Arctic expedition, I give you a retro review of Dan Simmons’ fictional take.

From January 20, 2010 …

Review: The Terror, Dan Simmons, 2007.The Terror

On July 26, 1845, the Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror, bound on yet another journey to discover the theoretical Northwest Passage, left two whaling vessels in Baffin Bay. These ships and the hundred odd men of the Franklin Expedition were, as the saying goes, never seen again – at least not by any white man. The Franklin Expedition became a legend in the annals of polar exploration. Discovering what happened to it became the object of many other journeys into the Arctic down to our day.

Franklin’s men faced the horrors of the polar cold, starvation, food poisoning, scurvy, and cannibalism. Did Simmons really need to add mutineers? No, but he gets away with it, makes it seem natural and not unnecessary sensationalism.

And did he need to add a monster to the horrors of real history? Well, no, but I probably wouldn’t have read this novel if he hadn’t given my impatience with most historical fiction. I’d have just read another nonfiction book on the expedition. And, while he gives several possible explanations for the monster, the one he goes with at novel’s end is probably the one most likely to appeal to the fan of historical fiction. Or so I imagine.

It’s a long novel, but Simmons grabs you from the beginning. The first chapter starts out with the trapped ship, shivering men, the mysterious and tongueless Eskimo woman Lady Silence, and a monster. To be sure, Simmons does repeat himself sometimes, perhaps more than he needs to even to keep track of over a hundred characters. There is a bit of cleverness involving a work of Edgar Allan Poe, but Simmons engages in some too obvious and unconvincing, in context, explanation of his allusion.

More serious is that I don’t think he quite lays the psychological foundation for the decisions and fate of one of his characters at novel’s end. And I think he waits too long to reveal a crucial characteristic of that character. But that is, relatively speaking, a minor flaw in a novel that should appeal to all but the most diehard disciples of realism in their historical fiction. Simmons blending of horror and history works, his jumping back and forth in time never confusing.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Last Man Through the Gate

The home media archives have been disrupted to prepare for men with jackhammers.

I am making detailed notes on a super expensive book I have on loan from the library.

So you get a  retro review from January 12, 2012.

Review: Last Man Through the Gate, Tim C. Taylor, 2011.Last Man Through the Gate

Vagueness and mystery can be dangerous tools for a writer, concealments for laziness, muddled thought, pointless obscurity, an inability to solve the problems of a story’s construction. But when an author uses them well, they can paradoxically make a fictional world seem almost as real as ours.

Taylor’s story is the latter case.

The set-up for this story blends the old and the new as political refugee Codrin leaves the regime of Jastrevech for the Free States. While he departs via a high-tech dimensional gateway, he is greeted by musket bearing soldiers. And, almost right away, a malfunction of the gate puts an end to Codrin’s plans to have his family join him in a few months. Time, in the worlds of the Free States and Jastrevech, begins to proceed at very different rates.

The pleasures of the mysteries Taylor unveils prohibit me from saying more. And, while the answers he gives are tantalizingly incomplete, one gets the impression there is a well-formed and real cosmos behind the glimpses we get. And I liked the way the names and political history of Jastrevech evoked an Eastern European flavor. Codrin’s journey – metaphorical and real – is well depicted. While Taylor cites other fictional inspiration, Codrin’s plight reminded me also of Poul Anderson’s classic “Flight to Forever”.

Taylor has promised to return to this universe, and I am certainly interested in seeing more of it.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

Teatro Grottesco

I’ve mentioned this one before. It’s one of my more popular reviews, so I might as well reproduce it in whole.

A retro review from November 21, 2008.

Review: Teatro Grottesco, Thomas Ligotti, 2007.Teatro Grottesco

Impressed enough by the Ligotti work I’ve seen in anthologies devoted to following up on H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, I bought this anthology.

Is Ligotti a Lovecraftian writer? Well, based on this collection – and I have no idea how representative it is – yes and no. There are no explicit Lovecraftian allusions in this collection – no references to the forbidden books, nightmare locations, and mysterious entities created by Lovecraft and those adding to the Mythos. Yet, the pre-eminent, most important aspect of Lovecraft’s work, “cosmic horror”, the “infinite terror and dreariness” of existence, as one story here puts it, is shared by Ligotti.

Yet, that horror is expressed in vaguer and more general terms than in Lovecraft. In one of his stories, the horrific revelation is one of man’s hidden evolutionary past, miscegenation in a family’s past, the existence of alien races. The revelation at the end of a Ligotti story is rarely so specific.

Continue reading “Teatro Grottesco”