Adam's Reviews > Counting from Zero

Counting from Zero by Alan B. Johnston
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's review
Mar 23, 2011

it was ok
Recommended to Adam by: Alan B. Johnston
Recommended for: People who enjoy arguing on slashdot

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the author for review.

Counting from Zero is the tale of a young and brilliant computer security expert who becomes embroiled in an effort to destroy a malevolent network of compromised computers on the internet before they can be used for nefarious ends. Alec Robertson, aka Mick O'Malley, is first alerted to trouble by a zero day exploit which takes over both his own personal servers as well as those of other organizations throughout the world, ostensibly for sending spam e-mail. Mick discovers there is more to this attack than what first appears, and his effort to discover the source of the attack and end it has him spanning the globe.

There are a number of issues I had with this story that kept me from potentially enjoying it. I have enjoyed reading books such as Daemon and Zero Day which revolve around the topic of computer security and the internet. I was looking forward to another story in this vein. Unfortunately, the story seems highly distracted. Dialogue between characters is sometimes non sequitur, which was jarring. For instance, an early scene tells of two characters in the cab exchanging brief and disjointed comments, and then immediately exiting the cab. How long and awkward was that cab ride? The mood of the characters swings wildly between tense and dark to light hearted. Further, a great deal of the content of the book fails to add to the plot or the characters. Throughout the book are blog post style entries from a security website which act to inform the reader and expand on a particular bit technology. In addition, wherever a bit of tech is referenced in the main story, the tech is explained in sometimes unnecessary detail. These would have been better suited as footnotes, or perhaps left out entirely, as I would have to guess that most who will be interested in this book will be at least somewhat familiar with the topics; at least enough so to be able to understand the story. In addition, the main character expounds on his interest in fixing his motorcycles, learning about WWII and the Manhattan Project, enjoying time with his sister and niece, and so on. Unfortunately, the many pages devoted to these interests have a very weak tie in with the story, if at all. The motivations of the characters in the book are never very clear either.

In addition to my frustrations with the storytelling, I also found that I did not enjoy some elements of the story itself. The main character, Mick, is not just a security expert. He is a motorcycle mechanic, stunt man, hacker, frog man, and aspiring adulterer. Basically James Bond with a keyboard. For a security expert, he also makes some very bad choices. For instance, after being threatened, he receives a note to meet a strange informant at an unfamiliar location. Does he notify anyone, or even take something to protect himself with? Nope, just waltzes up to the door and knocks. For a character who is so careful with their network security, it is frustrating to see physical security given so little thought.

(view spoiler)

All of that aside, I do think there are some things the author gets spot on in the story. First is the way in which most computer experts attending a conference don't ask questions because they are looking for an answer, but instead to test the knowledge of the speaker. It's a practice I don't care for, but it is definitely something that happens at most conferences, and it was nice to see it acknowledged here. There is also some good advice for security that, if taken with a grain of salt, could enhance the readers understanding of their personal exposure on the internet, and how to protect themselves.

I feel a bit guilty giving such low marks to a book that the author was generous enough to offer for review, but I feel that this honestly reflects my impression. The basic story has merit, but I found too many elements detracted from the story and I could not enjoy it.
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