Book Review: Zero Day by Mark Russinovich

Hi folks!

There was a time when a computer was just that thing on your desk at work or the giant monstrosity locked away in an air conditioned room in the basement. Now just about everything has a computer inside. Your phone and car are just for starters. What about the airplane you’re flying on? Or the power plant providing electricity to your home? We’re all more dependent on computers than ever before.

So what happens when those computers start to fail randomly for no apparent reason?

Zero Day by Mark Russinovich paints a chilling picture of what might happen if hackers lose interest in stealing credit cards and become more focused on cyberterrorism. First a passenger jet’s controls go dead when the computer goes offline. Then an oil tanker plows into a Japanese port and a nuclear power plant loses control… But that’s just the beginning.

When Jeff Aiken, a computer analyst who used to work for the CIA, starts investigating a failure at a large law firm in New York, he discovers that somehow a virus has corrupted data on the server. Not only is their financial data gone, but all of their litigation data as well. Though they have backups, Jeff does a thorough check to make sure those aren’t infected too and down the rabbit hole he goes. After hours of work, he uncovers a name – Superphreak.

At the same time, Dr. Daryl Haugen at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and part of the United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT) is investigating other instances of computers shutting off. Critical computers at hospitals failed and caused medication confusion that led to patient deaths. Were they simply isolated incidents or part of a broader attack on US interests?

As Jeff & Daryl’s investigations progress, they find shocking coincidences and connections between the various computer failures in the US. Can the two computer investigators figure out what’s going on and who’s behind it before more people die? Can they figure out what, who and where Superphreak is before it’s too late.

I won’t spoil the plot twists and surprises for you, but I was hooked from beginning to end. It’s hard to believe that this is Russinovich’s first novel.

If his name rings a bell, it might be because you’ve seen it in conjunction with Winternals, a website dedicated to helping system admins manage, diagnose, troubleshoot, and monitor Microsoft Windows environments. It was so influential in Windows circles that Microsoft acquired it in 1996. Russinovich is co-author for several books in the Windows Internals book series, as well as a contributing editor for TechNet Magazine and Windows IT Pro Magazine. He has some serious geek cred.

Zero Day offers a scary scenario for what could happen via cyberterrorism. Hackers are only part of the problem and usually only out for their own best interests or to illuminate issues that need to be fixed. If terrorists can harness hacker knowhow and find ways to take down key systems, we’re going to be in a world of hurt. Russinovich does a great job of shedding some light on the possibility. Hopefully businesses and governments are listening.

He does get a bit deep into “geek speak” at times, describing the inner workings of computers, BIOS, and operating systems and how they relate to one another. If you don’t like the jargon, you can skim it and get the gist of what he’s after, but I found it fascinating to see just how far he goes to detail the potential of this looming threat. It doesn’t quite offer a step-by-step guide to destroying the world with a storm of computer viruses and ‘bots, but damn if it doesn’t come close.

Whether or not you’re a computer geek, Zero Day tells a compelling story with thrills and chills to entertain you. I found it more plausible and fun than Dan Brown‘s Digital Fortress, so I’m hoping that Russinovich gets ideas for further cyber thrillers to educate us while entertaining and scaring us!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these great books at Barnes & Noble below!

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The Pain of Computer Upgrades

This is a little off topic, but I felt the need to write about it… I’m in the process of getting my proverbial “house” in order as far as computers go.

Image representing Dell as depicted in CrunchBase
Image via CrunchBase

At the present time, we have three desktop PCs and two laptops, all from Dell. My desktop is the oldest of the bunch from 2007 or 2008 I believe and my laptop is probably older than that. My wife’s computer was just purchased in 2009 and her laptop was picked up late last year or early this year. And my eldest daughter’s computer was just picked up a month or two ago.

All three desktops are running Windows Vista, which I have come to hate as an operating system. The two laptops are running Windows 7. Back in late February/early March 2010, I had to replace the hard disk in my laptop and added more memory while I was at it so I could install Windows 7 on it. That laptop may be old, but it runs great with Win 7 and I have no complaints. It runs better now than it did when it was new.

So what am I doing now? Well, they shipped the latest computer with Vista, though I asked for Win 7 initially. And while updating my computer with the latest virus security suite, it nearly gave me a heart attack by quitting. That was enough to push me over the edge to get everybody on the same operating system.

Image representing Windows 7 as depicted in Cr...
Image via CrunchBase

Vista sucks. Win 7 runs the way that Vista should have.

However, that means backing up my hard drive… I have something like 250 gigs of data on this thing and it’s going to take a while to move it all to the nice 1 TB Western Digital USB 2.0 drive. Once that’s done, I will open the case and dust everything, plug everything back in and start the Windows 7 install.

Once the install is done, I’ll work on installing apps and get to the real reason I wanted to refresh my computer… Civilization V. That’s right, the world’s biggest time sink for yours truly.

That’s phase 1… Phase 2 will be to do my wife’s computer (and install 4 Gigs of memory to replace the 1 gig that’s there). And finally I’ll get to Phase 3 and update my daughter’s computer. That should be the easiest of the bunch, considering it’s the newest and has the least stuff on it.

So if you’ve been through this process, you understand the pain of a major upgrade. On the plus side, everybody should be happier with the result (including me).

Have a great weekend! I’ll be working diligently here to at least get my computer redone before Monday…
–Fitz

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PC Game Review: Itzabitza

Hi there!

I love being a parent. It gives me excuses to check out cool educational software for my daughters. Itzabitza offers a combination of art, reading, creativity, and exploration as well as a reason for kids to get used to using a mouse! In addition, it’s fun for parents to play along with their kids – unlike far too many games I’ve played with them recently.

The general theme behind Itzabitza seems to be selecting a setting and drawing things with the mouse to interact with the setting on screen to collect stars. As you collect more stars, you unlock new settings and can do new things. The five settings or playsets are “Home Sweet Home,” “Let’s Go Camping,” “Play in Space,” “A Farm Life,” and “A VERY Scary Haunted House” (just in time for Halloween).

If you’re familiar with Scribblenauts for the Nintendo DS, you sort of have the idea. But this is aimed squarely at younger kids, probably in the 4-6 year old range (though my 8 year old liked it too). Instead of having to write words to create things on the screen, you’re given a set of words that you click to get little tasks – like draw a house, a window, a rock, and so on. So you draw a house. And even if the house isn’t great, it figures out that’s what you drew and it animates it.

Honestly for me it was the little animations that made the game work. I’m definitely not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but my two daughters worked together to figure out each cool little thing to do at their own pace. Add to that the fact that no two sessions will ever be exactly the same and you have a definite winner.

One day after playing the game, my eldest daughter told the story of how she and her little sister (age 4) had to try and get milk from a cow. They kept clicking on it and all it did was poop, but they eventually got the milk and giggled like mad for the better part of 10 minutes. It’s little unexpected things like that which will endear this game to most kids immediately. I think the folks at Sabi Games have an amazing understanding of what makes kids tick and how to keep them entertained while simultaneously teaching them about cause and effect, reading, and how to use their creativity. It’s a great combination.

In case you think I’m gushing about this game, I’m not the only one. ItzaBitza was just named to Dr. Toy’s Best 100 Children’s Products of 2009 list. It has also received glowing reviews from parenting and technology experts and recently won a Creative Child Game of the Year Award. The game had previously won a Parents’ Choice Gold Medal Award; an Editor’s Choice and Gold Award from The Children’s Technology Review; a five-star review from USA Today; The Toy Man Seal of Approval, eco-Recognition Seal, Award of Excellence and eChoice Award; an Editor’s Choice Game Award from the Computer Times; and a “Best Tech for Kids” mention in BusinessWeek.

Honestly, the only issue I had with the game while playing with my 4 year old was after you click on a word, you get a question. And you have to mouse over the words one at a time to have the computer read them. At a certain age, I think the word-by-word option should be there, but for younger kids to not get frustrated quickly it would be nice if it read the whole question instead of a word at a time. Perhaps that can be an option on the lower, easier levels, and the more backgrounds you unlock you have to read more.

If you’re a parent looking for a creative way to engage your youngsters ages 4 and up, Itzabitza is a great way to spend some time with them and let them explore their creative side while learning. It’s only available on Windows machines (XP and up), but you can find the boxed version at Amazon.com or purchase it on Steam (http://store.steampowered.com). Be sure to get your copy today!

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up these games today!

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