June Book Club: Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

Posted on Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024
Time for some summer reading! Elora and Mandi talk about crypto, Walmart parking lots, and money laundering.


Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page It to The Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software in production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve the system and liability and the lives of the people supporting those systems. I’m your host, Mandi Walls. Find me at LNXCHK on Twitter.

Mandi Walls: Welcome back. This is our June book club. We’re doing some summer reading, so this month I have a novel that we’ve read instead of a regular tech book, and we’ll be back to the tech stuff in the fall, it’ll be fine, but we’ll do a couple novels that are sort of tech adjacent, right for June and July. So this month we’ve got Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow. As always, there’s a link in the show notes and you can pick up this book in your favorite format. It was published last year, so you can get it in e-Reader form. And with me today, returning to the pod is Elora. Welcome back.

Elora Burns: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Mandi Walls: Awesome. So Cory Doctorow has been around forever basically, right? He works for the EFF. He is a science fiction writer. He writes nonfiction and fiction books. He’s got a blog or a personal website at craphound.com. We’ll put a link to that in the show notes. Yeah, he’s just kind of been around for basically forever, so this is one of his more recent novels and it’s about a forensic accountant who turns hacker for hire. Oh, it’s exciting already. And he’s going to do one last job before he retires and it ends up being a twisted setup of crypto bros and the Azerbaijani mob it sounds like from that point and kind of touches a whole lot of weird stuff in there. Yeah, so it was interesting and it’s very short if nothing else. So from that standpoint as well, so for folks out there looking for a quick summer read, it was fine from that standpoint.

Mandi Walls: So the premise being that I love the names of nothing else, the character names are kind of hysterical. So the main character is actually called Martin Hench, and you’re like, okay, is he a sidekick? Is this a clue what is going on here? His name’s Martin Hench. Okay, it’s fine. It’s a fine name for forensic accountant, but then the other main character is named Danny Lazer, and I’m like, all right, okay. We put the adventures of Martin and Danny here, and it was Danny Lazer. So Danny is in some trouble with his crypto friends because he got a hold of something he shouldn’t have gotten hold of, and then it got stolen and then everything falls apart from there. So yeah,

Elora Burns: Everything falls out from there.

Mandi Walls: It does. Then there’s a whole thing about the buses. We could talk about that too, but what did you think about the book overall? Did you read it or do you have the audiobook or what was your format for this one?

Elora Burns: I got the audio book of it. I had a credit to use up. I figured, Hey, I’ll do that and then I can listen to it while I walk and do Pickmin Bloom or do yard work.

Mandi Walls: Oh, nice. Yeah. Awesome. So let’s talk about the buses. Right, so our main character has a repurposed rock and roll tour bus that he runs around in. He’s a 67-year-old bachelor running around California in a tour bus. But the part that was interesting, other people actually also doing this, he has other friends that also are there people running around Silicon Valley and big buses like that now?

Elora Burns: I don’t know.

Mandi Walls: It’s like, okay,

Elora Burns: It’s not even an rv, it’s a bus.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, he probably should have a CDL in the United States to drive something that big, you probably need a commercial driver’s license.

Elora Burns: Oh, likely. Yeah.

Mandi Walls: So he is like itinerant journeyman, kind of floating around, meeting random people,

Elora Burns: Parking in Walmart parking lots,

Mandi Walls: Parking in Walmart parking lots. Yeah.

Elora Burns: He seems to eat well. I’m wondering how he powers the refrigerator on that thing.

Mandi Walls: Yes, I would a little bit more on the logistics on the bus. It sounds like it’s very fancy and he’s got all this fancy food that he cooks and there’s some weird side quest details about stuff in this book, tha is very funny.

Elora Burns: Oh yeah, there are several recipes in this book,

Mandi Walls: Right? I was like writing this down. I’m making notes. Okay. Yeah, we have steak. He’s got, he’s finishing it with the butter and he’s got some rosemary and all this stuff. I’m like, that sounds pretty good. Okay. I’m not sure why it’s in here, but it was.

Elora Burns: Make my mouth water.

Mandi Walls: I was like, oh, it sounds pretty good. I don’t know if I cook it on a propane stove in a camper van, but sounds all right. I don’t know it. Okay.

Elora Burns: And the names, each of those buses had a name, the Unsalted Hash.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, like it’s in ship, right? It’s a boat that’s floating around. What was the name of the other one?

Elora Burns: I can’t remember. Ross’s bus name.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, hers had a pretty good name as well, his one friend. But yeah, the Unsalted Hash was the name of this thing, and I’m just, okay, buddy, whatever you say, man.

Elora Burns: It’s the giveaway that he’s digitally savvy.

Mandi Walls: Of course. Of course. A name that no one else would understand. Right. Although I think at one point someone else asked if it had something to do with cooking a fancy cooking show or whatever.

Elora Burns: Oh, I can see that. Cooking or I think at the very end it was also like, Hey, is that a drug reference?

Mandi Walls: There you go. Yes. Drug reference. Yes, sure, why not? That would make as much sense as Unsalted Hash. Yeah. So what did you think of that crypto stuff that was in here? I admit it kind of brushed up against the edges of the stuff that I know about crypto. I recognize the data center. At one point he goes on a data center visit and I’m like, okay, I can picture that if anything else. But part of that premise is that Danny Lazer has these, what were they called? Enclave keys from other providers. I didn’t quite catch all of how that was supposed to work, except that everybody wants these things and that’s what gets stolen and everything falls to crap after that. Do you understand any of the crypto stuff on that side? What was going on there?

Elora Burns: Yeah, so with something like Bitcoin, the reason that there’s something, some amount of security that people can agree, Hey, a thing that’s on there is a thing that happened is that a huge amount of compute resources goes into calculating a bunch of hard math problems. And the idea is that every entry on the blockchain is followed by a whole bunch more work followed by the next entry and a whole bunch more work. To the point that if someone else wanted to claim the history of the blockchain is different, they would have to have exerted at least that much compute power to do it. So the fact that Bitcoin uses an obscene amount of power is actually a necessity for its security because if you didn’t, for Bitcoin in particular, I know there are other cryptocurrencies and they get mentioned as well, there’s proof of work and proof of stake, and I’m not big on understanding all of those, but Bitcoin at least is fairly straightforward that way. And the idea is, yeah, these are not environmentally sound. They’re difficult that way, and honestly, a full nation state can probably still subvert them if they really wanted to. But I mean that would probably be a scandal as well, because it would be really obvious that now there’s a fork

Elora Burns: And now which fork is the real one.

Mandi Walls: Sure.

Elora Burns: And so the idea here behind Denny Lazer’s trustless coin is that it’s not a cryptographic ledger like that. It takes advantage of the trusted compute module that you have in all of your modern computers and smartphones and watches. It’s like a YubiKey in that a YubiKey is this secure device that you can use to authenticate yourself, but if someone tries to disassemble it, it is physically designed to disintegrate in bad ways so that someone cannot, even with physical access, extract the keys from it and then try to impersonate you. So the idea is that these trusted compute modules are really generally low CPU power, but they can do exactly the thing you ask, and there’s a whole bunch of cryptographic signatures that say, yes, this is exactly what was supposed to be here. Everything is signed and what got stolen were the root signing keys for these trusted compute modules for Apple and whatever other vendors, Samsung, whoever makes things that have these modules. And the idea is that if you’ve got something like the blockchain and you make a mistake, I think Ethereum has this idea of smart contracts. If you make a bug, if you write a software bug, because those never happen,

Mandi Walls: They never happen, never.

Elora Burns: If you write a software bug, there’s no way to undo it,

Mandi Walls: Right?

Elora Burns: Because it’s baked into the chain and undoing it is the same as trying to falsify something. So Danny wanted this out just in case, and we find out in the story reasons why he wanted this out. Are they legitimate reasons? Yeah. Was it a good idea?

Mandi Walls: No, not a little bit.

Elora Burns: No. And he realized that later on he realized it was a bad idea because the idea is that you don’t need to spend a huge amount of energy to make this thing secure if you can trust these compute modules, but that means you do have to trust Apple and you have to trust these other companies. And as we saw, I think from a recent Apple keynote where they were talking about offloading AI work to the cloud, they’re working really hard even looking at the chips and imaging them with a camera to see, Hey, is there any silicon on here that we do not recognize? It wasn’t in the design? That kind of stuff is really hard to get in, but if you get it in, it’s really hard to find and get out and then, as I said, papering it over with epoxy making it basically impossible to disassemble. It’s all the same stuff, but somehow he managed to buy these keys illicitly and then did sounds like a relatively good job of making them extremely hard to get at encrypting them and putting the laptop that they’re on in a box, disabling all of anything that can transmit and receive data, and having a second token that’s required to decrypt them, and of course people going to steal.

Mandi Walls: People going to steal, so he puts them in… At first I thought it was a secure banking facility, but it wasn’t was a secure data center facility. So if you’ve been to one of those data centers where the folks are armed guards and double entry and all that kind of stuff, that kind of place and things got stolen and turns out that was one of the little proteges that had a minor character in the story. Then they tried to double cross the people who wanted them stolen, and that ended up badly for everyone involved. That got a little graphic and unpleasant for sure. And one of the interesting parts about this, in addition to going into detail about his food, he’s also going into detail about locations, which was kind of funny too. Sometimes we pick up on that. I read a bunch of murder mysteries.

Mandi Walls: It’s fine. Everybody loves Midsummer Murders. You get a little sidebar and the weird things that happen in Midsummer or whatever, but you get to these little sidebars of he’s going to San Luis Obispo and he is going to all these other places in the van, and then the logistics of dealing with his Nissan Leaf as well, and then the place where he goes to track these kids that stole the thing. There’s a bunch of detail there because it had been a burnout from one of the forest fires that was out there a couple of years ago. So it was a little bit of location dropping was kind of interesting. I’m like, oh, people recognize these places. I bet that is a tip off for them, but yeah,

Elora Burns: People who live in those areas, I don’t live in California, so

Mandi Walls: Yeah, me either

Elora Burns: Like, oh, okay, these are places, but they sound about right. They’re doing things in San Francisco. I’m like, oh, I recognize that name.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, absolutely. The stuff he does in San Francisco was much more recognizable than the traveling around he does and the rest of California, I’m like, I could look this up on the map and understand where you are, but

Elora Burns: Living in Toronto, I get a lot more of the watching movies and TV shows that are not set in Toronto, but they’re filmed here. So you’re watching The Expanse and you go, oh yeah, I know this is the head of Earth, and you’re like, that’s actually Roy Thompson Hall, downtown Toronto. They’ve gussied it up a little, but it’s just Roy Thompson Hall.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, they do a lot of filming in Toronto, so you guys get a lot of places. That’s awesome. Yeah,

Elora Burns: There was a La Femme Nikita TV show 20 years ago or something,

Mandi Walls: Years ago,

Elora Burns: And at one point she gets onto this cruise ship, this really rich thing, and that’s the Captain Matthew Flinders. It’s parked right next to where I grab the tender to go to my friend’s boat so we can sail his house on Wednesday nights. It’s not very exotic to me, but I can see how it looks that way when you film it just right at night.

Mandi Walls: Right, right. You get that special look on it, a little bit of lens on it. That’s all good. Yeah, absolutely. There’s definitely some of that. So then as the rest of the thing is just drama, there’s all kinds of messiness going on, and then there’s a little bit of hiding money, which was fun, I think to get into, he talks to a couple of, well, he gets the laptop back eventually. Then that was kind of a kismet moment. That was actually kind of an interesting twist. The way that happens, I won’t spoil it for people, but he gives it back to Danny Lazer and Danny then has to pay him. So then we go down the side quest of what do you do with $300 million? Which was also an interesting little trek through how the ultra wealthy divide up their assets and allocate things. So that was kind of interesting as well. It’s like what? Jersey Islands? What are you talking about? What’s going on

Elora Burns: Here? Yeah. And so it’s interesting. He’s a forensic accountant, but digital forensic accountant, but also understands the non-digital side of things from an accounting perspective. And we get, Hey, there are billions of dollars over here, and then there’s millions of dollars here. He’s got his person at KPMG that he can call to just get a new car delivered to his house.

Mandi Walls: Right. Personal concierge sounds amazing. Yeah, absolutely.

Elora Burns: It’s mind blowing. I cannot imagine living like that. I

Mandi Walls: Know the murder mystery story aside, the rest of the stuff was kind of interesting from that perspective too. Yeah, he calls, he’s got his concierge at KPMG, and there’s all this stuff going on, and then I did appreciate there was a bit of him thinking about what, having a kind of culture shock moment with having all this money, and to the extent where it kind felt like it didn’t feel like he was struggling. The bus was not a cheap asset to have, but to have an astronomical amount of money and suddenly things just go away and you don’t have to think about or worry about certain things anymore. Do I take an Uber or do you struggle with these kinds of conversations anymore? So that was kind of interesting sidebars a couple of times on that stuff.

Elora Burns: Yeah, so in the later part of the book, money is not a problem for him. It’s actually operational security, and it was a bit of a weird whiplash to have this guy who got $300 million and at the same time is running around pretending to be homeless.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, okay.

Elora Burns: I was like, I don’t know if you’re pulling that a little too far, Cory, but

Mandi Walls: That felt like a bridge too far for me. So later in the book, as the bad guys in this one are a bunch of corrupt politicians and whatever, Azerbaijan, whatever, because one of the kids was Azerbaijani

Elora Burns: Mobs, Mafia banking, money laundering, all that.

Mandi Walls: It was very James Bondish kind of bad guys kind of on that side, and so to hide from them, I don’t know how he got to this decision. All of a sudden he’s pulling a wheelie cart around the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and that was how he was hiding from these folks. I’m like, that’s a choice. I guess.

Elora Burns: He was trying to stay off grid. Yeah, that’s the excuse anyway, is that he didn’t have his bus. It had been impounded and he didn’t have his assets actually at that point, he had only the

Mandi Walls: Money in his pocket.

Elora Burns: Only $5,000 in cash.

Mandi Walls: Five grand. Yeah, I carry that around, right?

Elora Burns: Yeah. Yeah. It was a bit weird.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, it was super weird, and there’s probably a discussion to be had there about the privilege of an older white man kind of rolling up in San Francisco, play acting on that kind of lifestyle and at certain points, leaning on the kindness of others, other folks who are houseless in that area, and that was a strange,

Elora Burns: They do call him on it, but maybe not hard enough.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, right. Are you sure this guy, I don’t know. Yeah, it’s very odd. It was very strange. I guess I understand in retrospect the choice, but at the same time, you have five grand. You could buy a piece of crap car off a lot somewhere and drive to Idaho and just bug out or whatever. Yeah. So that was interesting. And then he solved the whole problem by basically starting a gang war at the end, it wasn’t enough for him to cause his own disaster. The whole thing gets solved with a gang war, and I’m just like, alright, look man. The forensic accounting stuff, part of this was interesting, and the crypto stuff was kind of interesting, but this is getting silly. So it was interesting as a summertime beach read, it’s a quick afternoon on the seashore. If you’re looking for something that’s a little bit technical to read and enjoy, maybe for a hot minute. I don’t say it was bad for what it is, it was fine. But yeah, there’s some interesting bits in there.

Elora Burns: I’m rying to remember which other Cory Doctorow books that I’ve actually read. It was Eastern Standard Tribe, I remember reading.

Mandi Walls: Oh, okay.

Elora Burns: That one was fun, but I’ve read it so many years ago.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, that’s an older one, right? Yeah. Yeah, because a lot of the other stuff of his that I’ve read has been more of the nonfiction stuff done a lot of, I mean, he’s very prolific. There’s just stuff coming out all the time. I think I read maybe Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and a couple of other things that he had out. But yeah, so the sequel to this is out now, which is probably why it came up on one of my recommended reading lists is that the next one is up, it’s called The Bezel.

Elora Burns: Oh, okay. I keep hearing about it, and now I know it’s a sequel. Alright.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Yeah. I’m assuming it’s a bezel is maybe short for embezzling. I don’t know.

Elora Burns: That’s my guess.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Elora Burns: Alright. The other one I read was For the Win.

Mandi Walls: Oh, okay. Yeah. I mean, he puts out so much different kinds of stuff. It’s just hard to keep track of everything, but yeah. Yeah, so it was an interesting summary. Did you give it an overall rating out of any stars?

Elora Burns: I hadn’t thought of that.

Mandi Walls: I track all my stuff on GoodReads, so I know what I’ve read and what I haven’t. Otherwise, I’ll just forget.

Elora Burns: I might give it a seven out of 10.

Mandi Walls: Okay. That’s not bad. That’s respectable.

Elora Burns: It was okay.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t want to throw it down or not finish it. Yeah,

Elora Burns: Exactly.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, exactly. That gets at least halfway, so yeah.

Elora Burns: Engaging enough.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Yeah, just to read for more recipes. Of course, there’s hidden gems in there. I’m not looking for tax advice. I certainly don’t have 300 million that I need to launder or wash through the tax system. But yeah, the other little bits were interesting.

Elora Burns: Yeah, it certainly didn’t grab me the way that the books in the Locked Tomb series have.

Mandi Walls: Oh, yeah. That’s a whole other,

Elora Burns: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Elora Burns: And I love books where you can give them a forward description and it’s entirely accurate and entirely unhelpful. Necromancy sword fighting, space lesbians.

Mandi Walls: Okay, what could we do with that? Almost anything,

Elora Burns: And there are three of the four books out so far, and none of them are, they’re all different. They all feel completely different.

Mandi Walls: I have them all in my TBR and I haven’t started them yet afraid that once I get them started, I’m going to want to read them all, and since the other one isn’t out yet, I’d be very disappointed. So when the last one comes out, I’ll blast through them all.

Elora Burns: Soon. Soon,

Mandi Walls: Yes. Yeah.

Elora Burns: It was funny as well. A friend told me that when she got to one part of Harrow the Ninth, she just wanted to throw the book across the room. Didn’t say why, and when I reached that point, I knew that I would reached it.

Mandi Walls: Oh, yeah. Okay.

Elora Burns: It was just one of those magic moments. Again, what I said is entirely accurate but unhelpful. And yet in that moment, oh, oh, this is where I would throw it across the room. Oh, yes.

Mandi Walls: But you love that. I like stuff that gives you not only a bit of to think about, but also those emotional reactions. It’s nice to sometimes be jolted into a feeling by something like that.

Elora Burns: Absolutely. That’s why I love books.

Mandi Walls: Of course. Yes. I got all kinds of good stuff. My TBR is like 600 books long, so just keep adding stuff to it. Part of the reason for doing this podcast was I have all these tech books I haven’t read yet, so

Elora Burns: I have so many PDFs from Humble bundles and things.

Mandi Walls: I know!

Elora Burns: These would be great books to read, and then I just don’t get to them. And now it’s like, no point. They’re too

Mandi Walls: Old now. They’re too old now. I know.

Elora Burns: I don’t regret getting them. They were part of a bundle and I got some value out of the bundle, but so much stuff.

Mandi Walls: So much out there right now. So, so much about. Absolutely. So yeah, if it’s not good to finish, put it down. There’s something else to read.

Elora Burns: The other interesting thing is some books age well and some don’t.

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Elora Burns: It’s the other thing, there was the Habits of Highly Effective People Book, and I remember reading it 20 years ago and thinking, oh, okay, yeah, this is a thing. And had enough problems trying to implement it for myself, but still I’d read it thought, oh, this is interesting. And then maybe five-ish years ago, I thought, Hey, I should reread this. And I got maybe two chapters in and went, this is going in the recycling. And I think it’s because it was an original first edition, and I have a feeling they made some updates for another edition. It was just, honestly, it was dripping with sexism.

Mandi Walls: Well, a lot of that stuff is the business books, even Self-Help stuff. That’s how that stuff was written for so long. Yeah. Bad, bad, bad. And we all had to sit through whatever variation of Dale Carnegie’s various, I don’t want to call ‘em scams, but Methods, we’ll say, of various former employers. They thought that was a good idea. I’m just like, okay, man, if you say so, will go along with it.

Elora Burns: Yeah. It is nice sometimes to see a book like Radical Candor, which my wife and I both read and my wife read it and went, oh yeah, there are some parts of this that I can’t apply because of who I am, because of things that I can’t change about myself. And to see subsequent books later and having the author reflect on, oh, here’s some advice that I gave that Oh yeah, is not actually that helpful. And here are the ways that people also misinterpreted what I said in the first book, and trying honestly to clarify that, doing a reasonably good job of trying to improve and provide better books going forward.

Mandi Walls: And that’s a good one too. What I like about that one is I’ve seen it recommended by people in lots of different professions and different industries and stuff like that. You mentioned it today, a couple of weeks ago, I was at my college reunion and our acting president, who was the provost who stepped in for the president while he was on sabbatical, she mentioned it as something that had helped her and being the president for a semester just has helped to speak to people you wouldn’t normally talk to and how to have effective communications and all that kind of stuff. It just comes up in so many different places. It’s just such a applicable for so many people.

Elora Burns: Yeah, really good to acknowledge later on, Hey, there are some aspects of race here that just weren’t addressed in the first one that absolutely need to be.

Mandi Walls: Absolutely. Oh my goodness. Yes. That certainly wasn’t on the checklist.

Elora Burns: No, it wasn’t. No intersectionality for the win.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Finally. All right. We’re living in the future.

Elora Burns: Oh, we try.

Mandi Walls: We try. Awesome. This has been super good. So lots of additional stuff. We’ll put some stuff in the show notes for people who want to find all the other books that we’ve talked about in addition to the one that we read for this month. So help people out and if you have any suggestions or anything you’d want us to read you think we should take a look at, let me know. Our team is community-team@pagerduty.com and we’re always looking for information, suggestions, and if you want to be on the show, give us a shout as we’re looking for new guests. You might’ve noticed the feed’s been a little bare, so we’re trying to plan some more guests for the fall, so give us a shout if you’d like to be on. We’d love to talk to you out there. So Elora, thank you so much for being on.

Elora Burns: You’re very welcome. It was a pleasure to be here again.

Mandi Walls: Awesome. We’ll have you on again sometime.

Elora Burns: Woohoo.

Mandi Walls: Sweet. Alright out there. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back soon with another episode. In the meantime, we’ll wish you all an uneventful day.

Mandi Walls: That does it for another installment of Pager to the Limit. We’d like to thank our sponsor, PagerDuty for making this podcast possible. Remember to subscribe to this podcast if you like what you’ve heard. You can find our show notes at pager to the limit.com and you can reach us on Twitter at page it to the limit using the number two. Thank you so much for joining us and remember, uneventful days are beautiful days.

Show Notes

Additional Resources


Elora Burns

Elora Burns (she/her)

Elora likes to find weird bugs. Well, she finds them whether she wants to or not! She’s done several “change the engine while the plane is flying” migrations over the years, and enjoys making things better going forward. She also sings with www.countermeasuremusic.com, cooks, makes things, and knits continental.


Mandi Walls

Mandi Walls (she/her)

Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.