Saturday, May 27, 2017

Countdown to Zero Day

Countdown to Zero Day:  Stuxnet and the Launch of the World's First Digital Weapon
© 2014 Kim Zetter
448 pages



A couple of years ago I created a new label, 'digital world', in recognition of the fact that the Internet is no longer a discrete system (like a grid of water pipes). It has seeped into every aspect of our everyday lives, as basic as electricity. Through it, the entire developed world moves. War is no exception to this digital revolution, and the fun is just beginning. People may associate cyberwar with the theft of intelligence, or perhaps monkeying-around with the power grid, but the case of "Stuxnet" demonstrates how weaponized computer programs can cause physical destruction no less complete than a bomb. What's more, the specific vulnerability used to great effect here is virtually universal in the industrial world. Countdown to Zero Day is a forensic-political history of how the United States used a computer virus to effect the kind of destruction only imaginable before by an airstrike, and a warning to the entire online world that we are vulnerable.

If war is the continuation of politics by other means, cyberwar appears to occupy a grey area between the two. The policy of the Bush administration, once it became obvious that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons, was to squelch the threat through any means necessary. While there may have been many in DC who wanted to see another example of shock-n-awe, even Bush knew a third war in the same mideast minefield wasn't possible. Remote sabotage, however, offered an alternative to war or a nuclear Iran, and a program which started under Bush would bear full fruit during the Obama administration. What a small elite knew in DC as "Olympic Games", the world would later call "Stuxnet": a virus that began as a carefully targeted weapon and but which would later spread across Eurasia.

The author delivers the full story of Stuxnet in a back and forth narrative: the first track begins with the eruption of the virus, and the methodical picking-apart that Symantec, Kapersky, and other cybersecurity firms subjected the code to. Step by step, they attempted to figure out what the code was doing, how it got in, what mechanisms the code was using, and finally -- what was its intended target? This campaign of digital detection work wasn't the product of one cyber Sam Spade, but a collaborative effort between various businesses who shared their information and results. Eventually, over the course of two years, they realized that the initial program was highly target specific: it was aimed at two kinds of programmable logic controllers, or computers used in industrial work. The particular PLCs targeted were used in rotors that were specific to the kind of centrifuge that Iran used to enrich uranium.

The teams dissecting the Stuxnet code marveled several times at its structure, but marveled all the more when they figured out - -based on reports coming in from Iran -- how the program worked. Because the centrifuges' speed and weight necessitate careful handling -- slow acceleration and then slow deceleration, nothing too abrupt -- the program's main attack was to methodically stress the centrifuges by taking them up to speed, or down, in patterns resigned to slowly ruin the pieces. What's more, long before this act of digital undermining ever began, the program silently sat and waited, recording the normal activities: during the actual sabotage, the program fed recorded data to he plant's control room, meaning eventually the Iranians had to physically watch the motors to see what was happening. The program had a nucleus so deeply hidden that when the machine software was placed under repair by the Iranian engineers, the core program methodically re-wrote the new programming. It's as if an invasive bacteria promptly turned the body's immune system into its own means of reproduction.

The case of Stuxnet is important because PLCs are pervasive; they aren't just used in manufacturing, but are common wherever computer-controlled machinery is used. They're in hospitals, food production plants, powerstations, transit networks: there's no end to the mischief that could be managed by attacking them, and until recently very little done to protect the systems. Stuxnet was a wakeup call to many technical directors in the developed world, an alarm bell to their vulnerability. As the recent WannaCry attack which cripped hospitals in the UK demonstrates, however, we're not taking cybersecurity anywhere near enough seriously. (The WannaCry and Stuxnet attacks also demonstrate the volatility of cyberweapons: they don't go away. In both cases, code and tools designed by DC were trapped and corralled into use by other parties.) Throughout the world we rely on computers which haven't been protected for years, or we have foolishly ensnared vital public infrastructure like the power grid with the public internet. Stuxnet was only the beginning -- perhaps it may be like the Hiroshima-Nagasaki attacks, a singular event that frightens everyone into more caution. I doubt it, though.

Related:
@ war: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, Shane Harris
Glass Houses: Privacy, Secrecy, and Cyber Insecurity in a Transparent World,  Joel Brenner

Friday, May 26, 2017

Off to St. Augustine




Dear readers, you may remember a few months back I read a slew of books on colonial Florida's history. I did so with purpose, for I'd then scheduled a four-day trip down to the Florida coast, with the aims of spending two days in St. Augustine.   Wish me well, for I'm off to drive seven hours. I'll be driving almost as many miles as I did in New Mexico, but with six days compressed into two.  It's Memorial Day weekend, too, but if I can handle Albuquerque during the Balloon Fiesta, I can handle anything shy of Atlanta.   My rental this round is a luxurious-looking  Hyundai Veloster.  Yowza!

Until Tuesday!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Ten potters, one brain of clay

If we are the books we read, then for the last ten years I have been growing and changing under a public eye. Nothing I've read has been hidden; most of it has been commented on, if ever so lightly.   Of course, magazines, blogs, and online lectures have played a considerable part in shaping my mind. As part of my 'anniversary celebration', I'd like to reflect on ten authors who have had a significant hand in shaping my worldview over the last ten years.

I should note, however, that a list like this is inherently misleading:  few of these authors were one-man armies. Indeed, most of them had an effect because their subtle influences mixed  and reacted with one another.

Carl Sagan



For most of my adolescence, I lived in constant fear of doomsday and the tortures of Hell. I grew up in a very passionate and opinionated branch of Pentecostalism, one that I could not connect to despite my best efforts, and  by the age of twenty I was utterly demoralized.  Years of frustration, terror, and exhaustion left me so calloused to the threat of Hell that I just couldn't care anymore. I decided that I was going to make the best of my life, however meager that might be.

Through a forum for ex-Pentecostals, I discovered reason to believe that the Pentecostals were not right about me, that I and the rest of humanity were not damned to a torture pit forever.  I flushed all they told me and began building a worldview from scratch,  igniting then the ravenous hunger for nonfiction that continues even today.  Carl Sagan  was one of the first voices I encountered, and what a gift he gave me. He restored my childhood awe of the Cosmos and helped give me a sense of optimism about the future of humanity.   For years thereafter, whenever reading about society made me depressed and anxious, I would return to science and be refreshed. More fundamentally, however, my extensive reading of science  in 2006-2007 (which was dead-even with history, if you can imagine that)  gave me a fundamentally scientific worldview, which shapes my reading of other disciplines. For instance, one of the reasons market economics caught my eye was  because the emergent order therein reminded me rather of biological evolution.

Henry David Thoreau



"I went into the woods to live deliberately"... that approach called to me in the spiritual vacuum following my abrupt departure from the Pentecostals.  I had around this time discovered the great Robert Ingersoll, and admired his commitment to taking nothing on authority.  It was an approach I adopted for myself, but it wasn't simply pragmatic: I needed to know, as a teenager becoming an adult,   that my values were mine, that they were real and not passively accepted. Already wary of consumerism out of fiscal self-defense, Thoreau first awoke in me an interest in simple living --  sow the seed of a deep conviction that flowered later on, namely that a thing can be morally wrong evil if the State has declared it legal -- and a thing can be right even if the State declares it illegal.

Although Thoreau's simple living had a quasi-mystical approach,  another author named Erich Fromm gave me another justification, couched in the language of psychology. What intrigued me about Fromm was his belief -- expounded in a book called To Have or to Be? --  that the modern world had erred in developing a possessive view of itself.  That is, we define ourselves by what we possess, instead of by our character.  I can still remember his example of person plucking a flower in an effort to capture, to posses the beauty -- an action which actually destroys the thing that is so desired.   Part of the reason I keep this example in mind is that I believe the ever-presence of cameras has this effect in terms of our experiences. So intent are we on capturing the moment -- taking photos to post to facebook -- that we take ourselves out of the moment and so, lose it.   This is something I have to remind myself of constantly, especially while on vacation.

Frances and Joseph Gies



Until I encountered the Gies, my perception of the Middle Ages was fairly typical: I regarded them as a dark period in European history between the high points of the Roman empire and the Renaissance, where learning and the arts existed in perennial stupor, where nothing happened but death and war and pushing around mud.   The Gies introduced me to another medieval world,  one in which the institutions that failed were struggling to reform themselves, or being replaced by new structures.   The Gies didn't merely give me a new appreciation for the Medieval period, however, they awoke me to a kind of...chronological snobbery. The view of the medieval epoch as a long period of civilizational death is self-serving flattery on the part of those who came later -- those who, in fact, were standing on the shoulders of the people they dismissed as ignoramuses.   Will Durant would reinforce my newfound appreciation for the medieval period, and Neil Postman would later make me aware that modern minds are just as pliable and superstitious as the "ancients":  we are 'enlightened' only to the extent that our institutions have been managing to acquire, save, and utilize more information.



James Howard Kunstler




My exposure to James Howard Kunstler begins with a lecture at the University of Montevallo, in which Kunstler connected  suburban sprawl, peak oil, and the financial crisis.  I subsequently read his book, The Geography of Nowhere, which allowed me to understand my own strong interest in historic cities and communities -- particularly the idea of 'place'.  I've since read much about urbanism and place, and through those studies (and others) became more locally-oriented. Additionally,  Kunstler's  doomsday lecture -- delivered at the height of the financial crisis in 2007 --  made me more aware of the need for resilience and preparedness.  By this I don't simply mean he enticed me to become a prepper;  he made me aware that systems can be inherently fragile.  In agribusiness, for instance,  monocultures increase fragility because one disease can have an outsized effect; in urban planning,  the concentration of zones into pods and traffic into collector roads increases fragility by narrowing network options.  I would see fragility at work in politics and economics, too, which is why I've moved away from top down, rational-plan oriented politics and more towards decentralization. Kunstler has thus had a long albeit sometimes indirect influence on my thinking.

In retrospect,  one of Kunstler's subtle effects was to undermine my easy belief in government intervention by demonstrating to me how DC's programs had helped destroy American cities.


Neil Postman


I discovered Postman entirely on accident, finding his book Building a Bridge to the 18th Century while searching for a history of the enlightenment.   I found Postman an intriguing enough author that I went on to read his book about technology and society, which gave me eyes to see just as the internet was becoming less a distinct place to go, and more a component of everyday life.  Postman argued that technology is not value-neutral, that its uses carry conceptions about the world: our ability to do a thing leads us to believe doing is perfectly normal.  We never question whether so much of our attention should be focused on smartphones throughout the day,  that we should expect instant reply texts from people, that we should design babies to appeal to our own vanity.  More fundamentally, Postman argued that we have adopted the ethos of the machine -- Efficiency above all --  at the cost of humanity, quality, or other values.

Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death were the two books that most penetrated my thinking.

Marcus Aurelius



A sermon on humanist spirituality introduced me to the Stoics,  and Marcus Aurelius' writings proved a source of needed peace and sanctuary during a particularly unsettling year in college.  I cannot overrate Stoicism's influence on me. It made religion comprehensible for one thing:  my native religion consisted of living in terror of an invisible authority figure with many rules, some of which made sense and some of which didn't. (Why did he want us to scream at him?)    It was the Stoics who helped me understand the power of viewing the Cosmos  as a thing with a moral-rational order, and the serenity from attempting to live within that order.  Stoicism made Greek philosophy come alive, gave me a new appreciation for the idea of Virtue altogether, and would later on  contribute to my political  maturation.  (Specifically: once I started focusing only what I could control,  I started viewing as inappropriate  for other people to control what was beyond themselves, specifically other people and me.  Self government, to me, grew to mean something much deeper than casting a vote for one fraud over another every four years.  Self-government meant self-command.

Emilie Carles



Emilie Carles was a French peasant girl with a quick mind, whose intelligence was appreciated by local authorities and guided towards an education.  She became a teacher in her village, but her real education came from studying the changing world around her with a critical eye.  She was particularly molded by the Great War, through which she developed a deep disdain for government twinned with a love for humanity. For her...government, organized religion, and organized big business were foes of humanity,  joy, beauty, and innocence.  Her brothers and cousins were anarchists and libertarians, and as the sons of France continued being thrown into war or prison, she continued teaching her children to think for themselves and to refuse to allow the government to control their hearts and minds -- to divide them from their fellow men. (I was already cynical about the Great War,  and remain so.)

Carles is important because she opened the door for me to explore the Left. Before this I didn't have a political philosophy, as such, just the belief that we ought to help people who needed help, as well as a strong attachment to the Bill of Rights. I'd never seriously considered the ideas of socialism because of their  connection with mass murderers like Stalin and Mao, but Carles'  writings were more democratic and pacifistic. Yet Carles' door gave me a unique angle of approach: the more I explored the left from that direction, the less I favored state and central control; by the end of college I was thinking of myself as a left-libertarian, one who simultaneously distrusted big business and big government.  (I have a longer  essay called "Accidentally Evil: Considering Libertarianism" that explains my shift from left-libertarianism to plain-ol-liberterianism in full, and includes comments on the role of Stoicism and Gandhi.)


Howard Zinn 




At one time I regarded Zinn so highly that when he died, I changed my forum avatar to his face for a year in memoriam. Now my image of him is more troubled, old affection mixing with new and contrary convictions.  Zinn's histories of the marginalized and powerless coming together in mobs and forcing the government to respond to their needs used to inspire me, but now I see that approach as problematic on several fronts --- first, the protesters  aren't so much actors as pleaders before the king, subjects, and two, they invariably campaign not for a cessation of coercion, but a redirection of it.  Still, I ever believe that people must be in control of their lives, and while my own thinking on the subject has more in common with  Jefferson than Marx these days, for a while what most appealed to me about the left was the idea of people obtaining the means to be economically independent.  The Epicureans taught, and I am still tempted to believe, that genuine liberty necessitates economic self-direction.  History indicates that total autarky is the path to poverty: just see any nation that has sealed itself off from trade.



Russ Roberts


Had I been born into money, no doubt I could have lived a happy existence doing nothing but going to university for my entire life, with the summers off for travel and museums.  I wasn't, though,  so my ravenous hunger for understanding has to be fed from other sources -- books and podcasts.  I found Russ Roberts while looking for podcasts from professionals (lawyers, economists, and doctors specifically)  because I wanted to glean some of their insight.   Roberts was, to my faint horror, a free market economist. Still, he had interesting conversations with people on the return of industry to America, and on how milk was distributed -- something of interest to me, someone who is prone to read books on the history of coal or cattle or housework.    I found Roberts astonishingly -- maddeningly -- pleasant.   He would interview people he disagreed with, and they'd have the most amicable of discussions, and he was so doggone nice I wanted to keep listening to him.  Later on I started reading his novels, which were political and economic policy arguments in story form. It was through Roberts that I developed a partial understanding of basic economics, as well as an appreciation for libertarian political philosophy.  Eventually I would connect the libertarian nonaggression principle to my own strong sympathy for Gandhi''s refusal of violence, and since then (2012/2013) I've been firmly settled as a libertarian.



Jane Jacobs




Reader, you will search in vain for a review of any Jane Jacobs books on my blog -- for despite the fact that she  is easily one of the top five influences on my thinking,  I've never been able to reduce my wonder at her books to a review.  When I began reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 2010, I could still describe myself as a social democrat on a good day, and a left-libertarian on a bad day. That is, I disliked both government and corporate power, but if I was feeling optimistic I could still support government ventures.    A third of the way into Death and Life,  my belief in government planning was over.  Granted, Jane didn't do this by herself:  I'd long been acquiring an appreciation for the complexity of systems and seemingly inevitable backfire from authors like Kuntsler and Michael Pollan, and  my increasing belief  in 'emergent order' -- was leading to an interest in how markets worked.  But Jane wasn't writing about free markets. She was writing about cities.  Specifically, she was an observer of humans living in cities, and she watched and contemplated the ways their use of the city changed its very nature, and how its physical form changed their use of the city.  I'll have to re-read the book (again) to give it a proper review, but her influence can be reduced to two points. First, she made me realize that planning people's lives without their  consent is immoral. Two,  her understanding of how cities really worked destroyed my resistance to understanding how free economies worked.


There are strong influences I did not mention here because I didn't read full books by them, only essays or speeches or something (Gandhi, Robert Ingersoll)  or because they're relatively recent and I don't know yet what their influence will be. If I do this again in five or ten years, I'm pretty sure Russell Kirk will hold a spot,  as he has been camping in my cranium since I read a few of his works in  2013.  


If you made it through to the end, congratulations and thank you.  As I have reflected on these authors and their influence on me the last few weeks, I've been amazed at the connections, the interplay, and I wonder how I would respond to them if I encountered their works again. A few of these definitely require re-reading, particularly Postman and Jacobs.





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Dark Net

The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
© 2015 Jamie Barlett
320 pages



In middle school, the Internet was a distinct place, a world apart from 'real life'.  Now it has grown so ubiquitous that it's as exciting as the paved street outside my house.  When I first heard of the dark net a few years ago, I caught a whiff of the old excitement - there are still places that haven't been bulldozed into boringness! While I had no interest in exploring the dark alleys of the internet, I took comfort in knowing they were there.  Jamie Barlett's  The Dark Net promises to reveal a little of what goes on in the digital shadows,  but its true real subject is the human condition, and how it is interacting with the possibilities that the internet and its shadows provide.  Barlett mixes criminal voyeurism and philosophical debate about the nature of freedom to great effect.

Barlett examines two different 'dark nets'; the first is the submerged internet, websites which are only accessible with certain programs and certain knowledge.  Virtually all of the websites we use on a daily basis exist both above the surface and a little below it; for instance,  banks  have ample public areas for potential customers to explore, but certain rooms, like our individual account pages, are slightly submerged and accessible only through our username and password. But there's a deeper level to the web,  websites that require specific browsers and knowledge of their URL to appear. (One address  Barlett finds here actually requires a series of cookies from other websites:  users must visit a set of websites in a particular order before being able to load the target successfully, otherwise, an attempt to load the address will produce a completely-different looking site.)  On these hidden pages -- accessibly only through secure browsers -- anything is for sale, from illicit drugs to lives, but there are also safe havens for whistle-blowers to upload documents to the media, or hide from opinion-policing.

Connected but not limited to this is the second 'dark' aspect that Barlett explores, the effect that the internet's anonymity and diverse opportunities have on the human psyche. Here he catalogs support groups for destructive behavior: websites promoting anorexia and suicide, for instance,  or which radicalize political opinions and produce bombers out of disaffected coeds.  The websites he explores here operate on the surface net -- places like 4chan and reddit -- but the behavior promoted reveals the darkness inside the human soul itself,  its capacity for brutality.  In one case, a woman who foolishly posts a photo of herself without clothing is identified by background information, and the 4chan residents promptly start sending the photos to everyone on the woman's facebook page to publicly humiliate her.

Despite this catalog of horrors, from child pornography to terrorist communities, The Dark Net  is not a polemic against the evils of new-fangled technology.  Early on, he writes about the enthusiasm early adopters had for the internet, the generation of 'cypherpunks'  who viewed the digital world as their long-waited escape from the medieval dreariness of nation-states and castles of control and surveillance. The internet was anonymity and freedom -- liberty.  Although the internet was normalized relatively quickly in the 1990s and early 2000s, saturating the geeks' playground with boring e-businesses and teenagers posting their journals online, technology did arrive to give the cyphers more of what they wanted: anonymous browsing via browsers like Tor, and secure modes of payment like Bitcoin.  Just as the lightless ocean depths create extraordinary creatures, so to have the pressures of illicit marketplaces created  new ways of communicating and doing business, creating payment structures that  allow some degree of trust but without legal exposure.  Just as PGP encryption for secure messages has filtered down into email clients like Thunderbird, so too  may multisignature escrow accounts for online payments one day appear above the surface for those who prefer not to use credit cards online for mundane security reasons.

The Dark Net is disturbing reading at times, particularly the chapter on child pornography.  There are lessons to be learned here, though, like the ways that highly specific interest groups amplify their members' devotion as they enter into an echo chamber where increasingly more strident views and increasingly more antagonistic behavior are viewed as perfectly acceptable. (Barlett believes, for instance, that child pornography grows off of increasingly compulsive consumption of ordinary pornography, as the user requires increasingly more provocative content to engender excitement.) The conclusion is worth reading in itself, as Barlett uses two people -- a technohumanist and an anarcho-primitivist -- to examine different views of freedom. Although both view the present state of things as unattractive for shared reasons, their solutions are utter opposites.  Ultimately, although there's much here to give one pause about human nature, I still find myself faintly relieved to know (as I did in reading A Renegade History of the United States) that rebellion lives.

Related:
The Internet Police: How Crime Went Online, Nate Anderson
#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media, Cass Sunstein. Book about how highly specific internet filters and communities lead to increased polarization and disaffection.
Spam Nation, Brian Krebs


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Visiting Harper Lee





On Saturday I visited the boyhood home of Hank Williams in Georgiana, and then decided -- since I was in the neighborhood -- to drive a bit further into the woods and go to Monroeville, the hometown of Harper Lee. Its former courthouse was used as the model for To Kill a Mockingbird's courthouse, and the building is now used as a museum.  The above photo depicts three Depression-era children reading To Kill a Mockingbird. 





Although I arrived in town long after the museum's scheduled closing at 1 PM, out of utter luck the museum was hosting a production of a Mockingbird stage play that night, and was subsequently open until ten.  The two classic cars to the right of the building are used in the play; a would-be lynch mob arrives in them.



The second floor houses the courthouse and rooms dedicated to Harper Lee and Truman Capote (both of whom grew up in Monroeville), while the first floor shows off general history, with a model lawyer's office circa 1930.



Best 100 Books I've Read in the Last Decade

Dear readers, today is a special today -- the tenth anniversary of my writing about books!  In the next few days I will have some reflective posts,  but today I'd just like to thank my regular readers for your digital company over the years -- and especially Cyberkitten, who has been coming by at least since 2008.

Five years ago, I celebrated my five-year blogging anniversary by posting a list of fifty of my favorite or most memorable books. It's  time for another round!   In chronological order, the fifty most memorable books read since 2012:

  1. Bowling Alone: the Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D. Putnam
  2. Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back, Jane Holtz Kay
  3. Lucifer's Hammer, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Fiction)
  4.  Blood, Iron, and Gold: How Railroads Transformed the World, Christian Wolmar
  5. Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich
  6. A Conspiracy of Paper, David Liss
  7. Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Eric Schlosser
  8. Suburban Nation: the Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck
  9. Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood, Jennifer Linn
  10. The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community, Ray Oldenburg
  11. The Green Metropolis: Why Living Smarter, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, David Owen
  12. John Adams, David McCullough
  13. A Man on the Moon, Neil Chaiken
  14. No Logo: The Case Against the Brand Bullies, Naomi Klein
  15. Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, Susan Strasser
  16. The Arthur Trilogy, Bernard Cornwell
  17. Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists are Changing American Cities, Jeff Mapes
  18. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe
  19.  The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs
  20. The Plain Reader: Essays on Making a Simple Life, edited by Scott Savage
  21. Jayber Crow, Wendell Berry 
  22. The Conservative Mind: From Burk to Eliot, Russell Kirk
  23. Religion for Atheists, Alain de Botton
  24.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt
  25. small is beautiful: economics as if people mattered, EF Schumacher
  26. Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein 
  27.  Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front Porch Anarchists, Bill Kauffman
  28. Human Scale, Kirkpatrick Sale
  29. Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping,  Rose George.'
  30. Antifragile: How Some Things Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
  31. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, Brant Pitre
  32. A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich
  33. The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy (Politics)
  34. The Iron Web, Larken Rose (Political Thriller)
  35. Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery
  36. The Horse in the City,  Clay McShane and Joel Tarr
  37. How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had it Coming, Mike Brown (Science)
  38. Picking Up:  On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, Robin Nagle
  39. Future Crimes:  Everything is Connected, Everyone is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It, Marc Goodman
  40. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein 
  41. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens 
  42. The Chosen, Chaim Potok 
  43. Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, Neil Thompson
  44. Sphere, Michael Crichton 
  45. All the Shah's Men,  Stephen Kinzer
  46. The Porch and the Cross, Kevin Vost
  47. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-Earth, Brad Birzer
  48. Musonius Rufus on How to Live, adapted Ben White. 
  49. The Twilight of the Presidency, George Reedy
  50. Fear no Evil, Natan Sharansky

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Hank Williams

Hank Williams: The Biography
© 1994 Colin Escott
320 pages


"You don't have to call me Mister, mister --  the whole world calls me Hank."

Hank Williams is the legend of country music. I'd heard of him long before I ever heard him;  my father (who stopped listening to country in the 1970s) took me to visit his grave in Montgomery back in the early nineties, and Williams was a constant Presence in the music I grew up on,  haunting the singers of pieces like "Midnight in Montgomery" and "The Ride".      Hank Williams: The Biography renders a thorough and sober account of Williams' life,   one that appraises the man without romanticism.   It is exhaustively detailed, utilizing interviews with those who remember the "Lovesick Blues boy", and also features some commentary on Williams' musical craft.

Part of the legend of Hank Williams' life is that he died young and tragically -- alone, in the back of his car,  his heart destroyed by a mixture of alcohol and haphazardly-dosed medicine   Easily the most surprising aspect of The Biography is that Williams' chronic alcoholism was not the result of his fame and fortune, but something he fought with for most of his life.  From the time a thirteen year old Hank raided some loggers' booze hoard buried in the woods,  the young singer would have bouts with the bottle. He did not drink constantly, but  once he started on a bender he was hopeless for weeks. Time and again he submitted himself to sanatoriums,  especially when he needed to focus on his career, but every time he would stumble.  Although there was no shortage of excuses -- constant strife with his wives, the pressure of the road, the constant agony of spinal disease --    Williams' problems were only amplified by his success,  not created by them.

Williams was a genuine country boy, the son of poor strawberry farmers who lost everything they had in a fire,  a man whose first memories were of living in a boxcar. The Williams moved from place to place in search of a living:  after his father was stuck in a VA hospital, the family got by selling peanuts and taking in boarders.  That's where Williams got his start singing and selling , down in a little town called Georgiana.  Hank was a sickly boy, born with a spinal disease, and that diminished his ability to take part in the roughhousing and hard labor so common to southern men. He could sing, though, and after the family moved to Montgomery he began promoting school shows -- something that would grow into a career.  From schoolhouses to bars,  Williams became a local star who grew into a southern icon -- and after his death, a national figure.  His success was partially his own,  from his ability to turn his constant troubles, particularly with his wife,  into plaintive songs rendered in simple melody that resonated in the hearts of his country audiences.  Although Williams would mature as a writer in his brief window of fame,  his re-use of old melodies retained a sense of familarity.  He also owed success to his domineering mom, however, who opened her home to his band and who personally sold tickets at early concerts. (His wife Audrey, though she tried to use him for her own ill-conceived musical career, was also a forceful personality who replaced his mother as a manager of sorts after they moved from Montgomery to Shreveport.)  

Escott mentions that Williams came along at just the right time when radio was allowing hillbilly music to reach larger audiences, and become of interest to popular   musicians: indeed,  many of Williams' songs were performed by men on the national stage, like Tony Bennett.  Although Williams' financial success came from record sales -- concerts were hit and miss when he was on a bender -- he seemed to think of himself primarily as a songwriter, and was drafting lyrics even on the night his body surrendered to a bad mixture of painkillers and booze. Escott also notes coldly that Williams died at just the right time:  his back pains had only increased as time wore on,  as had the stress of performing on the road, and despite steady record sales his career seemed to be stalling and on the verge of sinking when he perished.  Instead of living to become a forgotten washout, a star that blazed briefly before being eclipsed,  Williams became a tragic figure.

As a history of Hank Williams, this appears to be the definitive work, and pads the detail with humor. (One favorite: Escott comments that if everyone who claims to have been in the car with Hank the night he penned "I Saw the Light" was, he would have needed a touring buss to accompany them. Escott also describes Audrey's show house as a tribute to what bad taste and good money can accomplish.  Another lady is described as being someone who, if she had been born a canary, would have still sung bass.)  



Image may contain: 1 person, standing, hat and outdoor
(Photo taken by me, Sept 2012. Downtown Montgomery.)

When the wind is right, you'll hear his song, smell whiskey in the air
Midnight in Montgomery,  Hank's always singin' there...



(Photo taken by me, May 2017. Georgiana.)

Funny story: The first time I listened to Hank Williams knowingly was after hearing my childhood preacher rail against country music for its sad songs and use of alcohol, using "There's a Tear in my Beer" as his example. Naturally I had to give it a listen,

Some songs:
"Lovesick Blues", the song that made his career.
"Lost Highway", my personal favorite

Related:
Don't Get Above Your Raisin': Country Music and the Southern Working Class,  Bill Malone