Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead
© 1943 Ayn Rand
753 pages

"Howard Roark laughed."   This epic novel opens with the roar of its main character, leading the reader to wonder what is to come. Is he laughing in triumph? In fatalistic glee, like a Spartan before the Persian hordes?   The Fountainhead is his story, his triumph over those who would crush or control him. It is an eight hundred page tale, featuring only five principle characters, all of whom grapple with one another.  Written consciously as a heroic epic for a world in need of  a fire lit under its bottom,  it is an confrontational story, targeting the reader,  that deserves its reputation. In the end it is not a book about economics, or politics; at its heart, this is a novel that forces each character and the reader to answer the question: What are you living for?   Is it for your own convictions, or for the approval and at the whim of others?

First and foremost, The Fountainhead is a novel about integrity. The main character, Howard Roark, wants to be an architect -- but for him, designing buildings isn't just an occupation. It is an expression of his soul, something he pours his everything into.  Roark designs and builds according to his belief that form follows function, that the site and materials of a building should spur its design. Not for him are the fake Greek pillars of Beaux-Arts, standing pretty but adding no functional support. (He would not be a fan of McMansions, brimming over with random and functionless elements, from fake shutters to mismatched windows).  If Roark can't design according to his guiding principles, he simply won't;  he's content to work in a quarry if no one wants his kind of building.    He encounters occasional interest, however, and develops a practice in New York -- and through that practice, establishes a certain reputation for obstinacy.  He won't design a building that he doesn't believe in, and those who are accustomed to wheedling, manipulating, etc, gaze at him with disdain and indignation. Who does this man think he is, refusing work and scorning compromise? Maybe he should be taken down a peg or two...

The book remains controversial because its main character lives out a creed that the author, Ayn Rand, championed as 'the virtue of selfishness'.   On the face of it, this is a slap in the face to every belief system -- religious, political, moral-philosophic -- on the planet.  Even the beasts of the field, to use language Rand would despise,  engage in mutual aid. As I progressed through the novel, it seems to me that Rand/Roark had something altogether different in mind than the usual understanding of selfish. The main character is self-possessed, self-driven -- but he does not use others for his own private gain.  Roark does not dismiss self-sacrifice; he tells one character he would die for her, and at one point when waxing on the beauty of the New York City skyline -- the will of man made visible,  creativity rendered corporeal --  he declares he would fling himself bodily on these buildings to protect them from war.  But it is the act of will that is important;  Roark cannot be satisfied if he is not the master of his fate, the captain of his soul.  His convictions are such that he cannot allow anyone to think for him, to manipulate him into doing anything he does not believe in doing, to force him to sacrifice his time and creativity against his will.  He is like the woman in Fahrenheit 451 who sets the match to her own house and to her own person rather than surrender them; like  Henry David Thoreau, who chose to be thrown into prison rather than give money to pay for an unjust war.  Even like Gandhi, who maintained* if he were imprisoned the British would have his body -- but not his obedience.

We see why Roark lives as he does, through  other characters who act as foils.  Most prominent among these are his sometimes-colleague, Peter Keating. Unlike Roark, Keating doesn't have the courage of his convictions; he constantly seeks the approval of others, even when designing products of his own. He sinks hours and hours of his life in socializing with people he doesn't actually like,  diligently making connections so he can get bigger jobs, better commissions, and more influence. By novel's end, none of this has made him happier. He is old before his time, and he isn't even proud of his work, because so little of it is actually his.  Hank Williams said it best:  wealth won't save your poor wicked soul.  Another minor character of note is Peter's jilted finance, a relationship he let lapse because another woman offered better connections, even though he loved the jiltee genuinely.     All of the principle characters seemed strange to me, save Peter Keating,  but as the novel reached its height -- the second trial of Howard Roark,  accused of blowing up his own building rather than allow other designers to mar it --  I found him admirable in his constancy. The rest are either deceitful manipulators who keep their actions and motives in the dark, or pliable creatures whose actions move with the wind, like Keating and another. Howard, for all his strangeness, is constant.

While I still regard a worldview centered around individualism as problematically simplistic, in the limited context of The Fountainhead there is no difficulty at all in appreciating Roark's stand. This novel champions integrity and creativity, and while it calls its champion selfish, the men who act in in the way we truly understand as selfish are the bad guys. They are the would-be dictator who uses a political platform of equality-first to manipulate unions,  or people who marry others not to love them  but to seek advancement.  But ironically, by Roark's understanding, their selfishness is Other-driven: they are obsessed with power over Others, with reputation in the eyes of Others,  with things that Others will admire. Their actual selves are shallow, empty creatures, like the  pathetic, shriveled thing that was Voldemort in the aftermath of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Early on Roark meets a woman who wants him to design a house with a historical look. When he asks her why -- why she came to him for this kind of work, which he did not do, and why she wanted that kind of house in the first place --   Roark receives nothing but vague answers and references to her friends.

"He tried to explain and to convince. He knew, while he spoke, that it was useless, because his words sounded if they were hitting a vacuum. There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmot; there was only a shell containing the opinions of her friends. the picture post cards she had seen, the novels of country squires she had read; it was this that he had to address, this immateriality which could not hear him or answer, deaf and impersonal like a wad of cotton.”

Whatever the limitations of Rand's philosophy as a whole, The Fountainhead is a call to life.  One can -- without knowing anything of Objectivism, let alone embracing it --  appreciate Roark's stand. Without being a Stoic, a person can monitor their thoughts from time to time and ask: why am I dwelling on this? What good is it doing?  Likewise, without adopting Rand's philosophy in full, a person can monitor their thoughts and actions and ask: why am I doing this? Am I doing it because I want to, or am I merely following the path of least resistance?   We needn't be self-obsessed, but we can at least maintain a level of self-possession, to be present and active in our lives. These are the questions that have made hippies, that have sent people to Quaker communities and on other journeys -- questions that sent Thoreau to Walden Pond.  Having climbed Mount  Roark with this novel,  I think Rand deserves more thoughtful consideration than outright dismissal.

Architectural Addendum: 
Architecture is important to the Fountainhead, being Roark's reason for living. His attempt to maintain his own integrity and the buildings are linked. as I'd expected to dislike Roark's architecture on principle, because very little of the 20th century's building designs appeal to me. They are all bizarre forms that are  building-size art projects, or dismal inhuman hulks, like the cattle pens for proletarians the Soviets called apartments.  Roark's architecture is not bizaare; it follows a certain logic. And it is not inhuman: Roark's designs are explicitly humanistic, designed for perfect and comfortable use rather than public approval. (Unlike the works of the starchitects!)  He builds to the human scale, with grace and proportion-- his designs are nothing like those featured on something like Jim Kunstler's 'Eyesore of the Month"  series.

*Well, sort of. It's a line given to him in the Ben Kingsley performance of Gandhi.  It's a belief completely consistent with his character, so far as I know it from reading books like The Story of My Experiments With  Truth.

A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe. Another epic novel about two men sloughing off banal expectations and learning to stand and live with steel in their soul.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Infinity's Prism

Star Trek Myriad Universes, Vol 1: Infinity's Prism
© 2008 William Leisner, Christopher L. Bennett, and James Swallow
527 pages

What if....Khan won the Eugenics Wars? What if....Earth had succumbed to fear after the Xindi attack, and withdrawn from the Coalition of Planets and exploring the final frontier? And what if -- and this is a big one -- what if Harry Kim was promoted to lieutenant?   Such are the stories, the three novellas, comprising ST: Myriad Universes, volume one.   Three Treklit veterans have produced here a collection of stories that have old heroes and villains -- Kirk, Dukat, KHAAAAAAAAN! --  playing very different roles. An unexpected discovery for me, I couldn't stop reading it.

William Leisner's "A Less Perfect Union" starts us off with an alternate Babel conference,  featuring a xenophobic James Kirk who serves the United Earth ship Enterprise, under the command of an aging Christopher Pike. Although  Earth succumbed to xenophobic politics following the conclusion of the Xindi war, withdrawing from the proto-Federation,  after a century of isolation some on Earth are interested in restoring relations with the Vulcans and Andorians. Unfortunately, their spokesperson -- T'Pol, who remembers the hopeful days of Archer's Enterprise -- is   kidnapped by a Romulan impersonating Ambassador Sarek, with the unwitting help of Jim Kirk.  Leiser almost rivals Greg Cox for subtle allusions to parts of the Trek verse, including Trek literature.  This was a strong start to the book, with the hilarious sight of  Doctor McCoy urging Jim not to be so defensively racist about Vulcans.

In Christopher Bennett's "Places of Exile", we see a Voyager too shattered by its first encounter with Species 8472 to continue pressing on towards the Alpha Quadrant, choosing instead to temporarily settle among the residents and officers of a space station-based civilization.  Bennett brings his customary science strengths to the table here,  and they serve him and the reader well when he begins exploring fluidic space.  Janeway and Chakotay's enthuaism for making a home in the Delta Quadrant vary widely: Janeway's intention of returning to the Federation never wavers, and she is concerned that her crew might lose its identity.  But it is Federation ideals that move Janeway and the other to work with refugees of the Borg-8472 war, creating a nascent coalition that works to find a way, martial or scientific, to end the brewing catastrophe.  Another interesting aspect of this story is the expansion of the Doctor, who becomes a dispersed intelligence controlling medical droids throughout the Coalition's stations and ships.  Although Bennett kills off Tuvok and Paris, Harry Kim finally gets a love life and a promotion.  (Was it worth it, Harry?)

"Seeds of Dissent", authored by James Swallow, visits a very different 24th century,  one in which Khan Noonien Singh won the Eugenics Wars and created a human empire nearly engulfing the Alpha Quadrant.  The discovery of an ancient human freighter -- the Botany Bay -- sparks problems for the Children of Khan, however. The freighter contains the last survivors of unmodified humanity, and their memory banks contain records of the atrocities committed during Khan's rise to power --  and challenging a history of Khan that sees him personally doing everything from being the first to step foot on Mars to breaking the lightspeed barrier.  Although this story features an amusingly perverse pairing of Kira and Dukat (rebel lovers), it's mostly a generic rebels vs the Empire story.  The augmented humans aren't even interesting: they're big and can survive in space for a few moments, but nothing of their society is revealed beyond a lot of Roman-derived titles.  The ending was a little different than expected, however.

Of the three,  I regard Bennett's as the strongest. Swallow's had the most interesting premise, but its development wasn't nearly as imaginative as it could have been.  This book is first in a trilogy of alt-tales, but the others don't seem particularly interesting -- with one exception, of Soong-type androids becoming pervasive in the Federation. As usual, Bennett posts annotations for his story.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Masters of Doom

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture
2004 David Kushner,
Audible presentation read by Wil Wheaton, runtime 12 hours & 43 minutes
334 pages

I wasn’t playing PC games  in the early nineties when Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM, and Quake revolutionized both the industry and the hobby, but  they were legends I never stopped hearing about after I subscribed to PC Gamer in 2000.  I was conscious of playing in their shadow:  one of my favorite games,  Star Trek Elite Force, used the Quake III engine.  When I learned that Wil Wheaton, a geek gamer’s gaming geek,  narrated an audiobook about  the formation of id software, I couldn’t pass it by.  Masters of Doom chronicles the coming-together of two programming geniuses – John Carmack and John Romero, their overnight transformation from pizza cooks into millionaires, and the pressures that broke their team apart.

This book’s main lure for me was the voice of Wil Wheaton, and I’m happy to say he delivered. Wheaton’s acting experience  serves him well here; his reading is flawless and even,   giving slightly difference voices to different people.   On several occasions he uses an accent, or gives a ‘dramatic reading’, as he does when he imitates one game developer announcing his game in the imitative style of Walter Winchell. The effect is utterly hilarious --  and ditto when he does a reading of Bill Clinton’s accusations against Doom in the wake of the Columbine bombing attempt.

I’d previously heard id described as innovative, but never appreciated how far back their innovations went. John Carmack, for instance, introduced side-scrolling to the PC at a time when it  was regarded as impossible given the hardware limitations of computers themselves. His test project inserted an id character, Commander Keene, into the first level of Mario.  Several other major breakthroughs are mentioned here; dynamic lighting, for instance, and tweaks that forced the Apple II to create colors  beyond its original pallet.   At this time, id was creating relatively innocent games like Commander Keene, which set a young boy against an alien invasion.  Elements that would become id hallmarks (the retention of slain enemies), were already present.  More importantly,  multiplayer itself was an id creation, at least as far as LAN connections went. The software that allowed multiple computers to dial a remote server – creating gamerooms to meet other gamers and play matches against them in – was created by a fan, but quickly purchased and integrated into the core gaming experience. From Doom and Quake came  gaming clans, still a staple of gaming competitions.

Throughout the book, id grows from two guys doing all of the work – designing, programming, art-crafting – into a team of men with different ideas and different directions. Although their success  -- and their garages of Ferraris – had been made by working together, their wealth also enabled the two senior owners the resources to go their own way once their personal differences had become too much to bear. Carmack, for instance, is seen here as deeply serious coder who likes the challenge of it more than anything else.  Romero,  initially no less dedicated a programmer (and initially the engineering strength of the two-man team), later grew to relish the attention and moolah id’s success had given him.    The last quarter of the book details Romero’s departure from id,  the creation of his Ion Storm design firm, and the projects both men pursued throughout the 2000s. As of the book's publication, and the audiobook's presentation, both were still involved in gaming -- Romero was then branching out into the un-exploited terrain of pocket pc/smartphone games, and  Carmack was still finishing Doom 3 despite nursing another hobby in rocketry.  (According to Wikipedia, he's now involved in some VR project that Facebook bought out.)

Masters of Doom proved a fun bit of computer and gaming history, and my first look inside the gaming industry. My favorite designers are guys like Sid Meier (Civilization)  and Will Wright (SimCity /The Sims), both Carmack and Romero were fun guys to get to 'know' through these thirteen hours spent listening to Wil Wheaton.  There's more than a little nostalgic appeal here,  too.

Doom 2 Easter Egg:  John Romero's Head hidden inside final boss
IGN Plays Doom with John Romero

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
© 1953 Ray Bradbury
158 pages

Like 1984, I suspect Fahrenheit 451 is famous enough that its basic details have seeped into the cultural consciousness of people who have never read it. Here we have a fireman whose job is to burn books, because so few people read them and the few that do are rendered unhappy by their contents. He’s fighting a losing battle, however, for despite the veneer of prosperity and the abundance of entertainment, the world the Fireman inhabits is a deeply unhappy one. Work is light, goods are cheap, travel is fast, and televisions can encompass entire rooms – but there is something wrong with a world where so many people try to commit suicide that stomach-pumping technicians are as routine as garbage collectors.

Our fireman, Guy Montag, is not like all the rest. While his wife buries her malaise by ensconcing herself inside her television stories, he finds the meaningless noise a distraction. The slight imperfection in his character that makes it impossible for him to simply sink into the soporific covers and ignore the sense of alienation widens into an outright fracture after he encounters two women with upraised heads. The first is a teenager reared without television, whose childhood curiosity has never been squelched, who looks to the heavens in wonder and asks the Fireman questions he has never heard before, or thought to ask. The second is an old woman who, threatened with the destruction of her house and books, takes the match from the firemen and sets the house and herself ablaze, staring in defiance all the while.

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing."

So the fireman  takes home a book, wondering -- is there really something he's missing?  But this isn’t the first time. It’s just the first time he’s admitted what he’s done to himself, the first time he’s dwelt on it enough to take out the other books he accidentally didn’t burn and then hid away – the first time he’s dared to read them, to confront what they have to say. His wife and coworkers can’t help but notice he’s not the same – and apparently unpracticed at guile, he’s terrible at it, sinking into bed with depression and quoting lines of poetry he could have only encountered through the forbidden fruit of books.

It’s when his boss arrives to put him back on the wide and winding that the book really reveals its substance. This is a book about the decline of literacy, yes. Books declined not because of a conspiracy but because people tended to gravitate toward easy entertainment, shorter synopses, that sort of thing. They failed to challenge themselves and became vapid creatures living for soma. But the book-burnings themselves were deliberate, created by a government that sought to minimize disruption and the loss of a happy-clappy world. Anything that could be offensive to anyone was purged. Anything that might start a mind to thinking about the world, to doubting, to unsettle everything was likewise burned. The chief’s case covers a couple of pages and is mesmerizing in its condemnation – not of his world, but of ours.  Our lives are saturated in sensation -- news, politics, action-and-sex movies, dissent is filtered out through  our will and the design of search engines, and language and history are the stuff of clay, to be molded to fit the conceits of the day.

"Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Bum the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man's a speck of black dust. Let's not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean."

Bradbury!  thou shouldst be living at this hour:
  America hath need of thee.

1984,  for the widespread anomie and the total loss of history and language.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Friday, June 16, 2017

I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did

I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy
© 2013 Lori Andrews
272 pages

Think about what you put on facebook. If you're like most people,  there is something in your photos, comments, likes, etc. that could get you into trouble.  I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did  explores the many ways that social networking websites expose individuals to physical and legal abuse. Written by an attorney,  the book has a legal emphasis, with many chapters on how publicly-visible facebook posts can prejudice judges against one claimant over another, or function as evidence not admitted in court when jurors begin googling people.   In many of the instances recorded here, the exposure comes not from people being careless, but from sites' privacy settings being adjusted without their knowing -- or because technology was being used to switch on their webcams without their awareness. Because of this, the author argues for a 'constitution' that would govern 'facebook nation', in essence a digital bill of rights protecting people.  Having read Future Crimes and Data and Goliath,  this was old hat for me, but a distilled reminder is always a good thing.  The catchy title and comparative slimness might draw in readers who ignore those other works, as well.    Very few congressional officials seem to know anything about cybersecurity, so I doubt we'll have a cyber bill of rights any time soon -- especially when easy violations of privacy serve the national security state so well.   In the meantime all we can do is stay paranoid.

Revolutionary Summer - Independence Kickoff

288 pages
© 2014 Joseph J. Ellis

Earlier in the week I read Joseph Ellis’ Revolutionary Summer to kick off my yearly tribute to American Independence.   Ellis should be familiar to readers here, as I enjoy his narrative histories of the revolutionary and early republican period of America enormously. Revolutionary Summer follows two interlapped threads of the revolution, political and military, as they flowed together.   That summer was the summer in which a tax rebellion sharpened into a bid for complete independence, and it started before the Declaration of Independence. In May, for instance, the colonies began working on their own constitutions,  superseding the earlier ones granted through the king’s authority.   British commitment to reversing the rebellion – two diplomat-generals  and a task force of 50,000 men, carried on the largest fleet ever seen off the waters of North America – also made it clear that a threshold had been passed: both sides were committed, root, hog, or die.

I’m using Ellis’ book to kick off my annual tribute to American independence, or rather the early Republic since I tend to read little about the war itself. I am no less fatigued with politics than I was last year, however, largely because the political atmosphere here is  still charged and turbulent, and so will be cutting the politics with literature and one travel memoir.   Expect a biography of a forgotten founder, at least one book on the Constitution, and a bit of literature. I’ll most likely use my Classics Club list to provide the spot of American lit.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Baghdad without a Map

Baghdad without a Map and Other Adventures in Arabia
© 1992 Tony Horowitz
285 pages

So your wife is on extended assignment in Cairo, and you’re a freelance journalist without a regular gig. What do you do? Why not wander around northern Africa, the Arab world, and Iran whenever an opportunity presents itself – chasing stories, even when they led you into dark mountains where grenades and AKs are cheaper than a week’s worth of the local narcotic? Baghdad without a Map presents anecdotes from Tony Horwitz’s time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Sudan, Jordan, Yemen, and Iran, mixing comedy and tragedy.

Because Horwitz is chasing stories -- a refugee crisis in Sudan, for instance, or the still-simmering conflict between Iraq and Iran on the border -- he is often exposed to misery and danger. He still finds humor in the chaos of Cairo's streets, the chanciness of Egyptian-Sudanese air travel, or the loopiness of Yemense men after a goodly amount of qat-chewing. Horowitz attempts to learn about local cultures and politics as he can on the ground, conversing with people in his rough Arabic, chewing qat, or playing soccer. Although much of the middle east has changed drastically since the 1980s – the invasion of Iraq and the Arab spring just in the last ten years, these snapshots of life in the middle east are worth taking a look at for readers with any human interest in the region.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Martian Chronicles

The Martian Chronicles
© 1950 Ray Bradbury
222 pages

As the 1940s began giving way to the 1950s, Ray Bradbury began penning a series of stories about the future human exploration of Mars -- stories that he thought of as fantasy in his letters, but which were called science fiction by everyone else. The stories were re-published as an integrated novel, the result is more of a mosaic than a straightforward tale.

Th Chronicles do not present a rosy, optimistic view of Mars exploration -- or of the future in general. Although arriving on Mars safely is a considerable challenge for the Earthmen, eventually Earth triumphs in the same way it survived a Martian invasion in H.G. Wells' earlier work, and the same way Europeans came to posess a widowed continent. One of Bradbury's characters, Spender, could be an Ed Abbey in space -- gazing at the ancient beauty of Mars, of the sad ruins of a once-great civilization -- and lamenting that one day settler would arrive like locusts and devour all of this, plonking down hot dog stands. "We have a way of ruining big, beautiful things," he says, shortly before going on a shooting spree against those who would chuck wine bottles into the pristine Martian canals. Mars is settled, and emptied, as Earth's cold war finally waxes hot and all colonists are called home to fight -- an odd and tragic development, considering the war's nuclear nature.

There's more to the Chronicles than environmental concerns and nuclear dread, however. In another story, "Usher II", Bradbury introduces a theme later expanded in "Fahrenheit 451", when a man builds a house of horrors inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The house is a tower of rebellion, for on Earth all works of fantasy and politics were long burned and their ashes buried, in the hopes of burning and burying imagination and discontent with them. The political police catch up to the house's architect, but he invites them to tour the house just once before they burn it. The vengeance then wreaked through recreations of Poe's stories testifies to a delicious anti-authoritarianism, a contempt for those who would control the lives of others for them. Many people came to Mars to escape conformity, bureaucracy, the sterile life -- but found it came following after them, like the Alliance in Firefly.

And yet there is more to this little volume of stories. Needless to say, after spending an evening with it, I now know why it's held in such high regard.

Friday, June 9, 2017

"Far winds and whispers and soap opera cries"

"In writing the short novel Fahrenheit 451 I thought I was describing a world that might evolve in four or five decades. But only a few weeks ago, in Beverly Hills one night, a husband and wife passed me, walking their dog. I stood staring after them, absolutely stunned. The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap opera cries, sleep walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there. This was not fiction."

Ray Bradbury, 1953

This week I've been listening to a survey of science fiction from Bradbury to Star Trek, and it's reminding me that I've only read his Fahrenheit 451, and that was in high school. I'm long overdue..

Thursday, June 8, 2017


CYBERPUNK: Hackers and Outlaws on the Computer Frontier
© 1991 Katie Hafner
400 pages

Cyberpunk takes readers back to the early days of hacking, when it was so old-school that computers weren’t involved. Using three case  in the United States and western Germany,  Katie Hafner’s history introduced readers in 1991 to the general idea of hacking, and her history sheds some light on what hackers were, what they did, and what they might want. It’s a fun look at early internet history, with the net as we know it developing slowly  throughout the course: ARPAnet, the internet’s predecessor, only appears halfway in.

The story begins with telephone lines, which -- in the mid-20th century -- bored teenagers began to examine with great interest.  Kevin Mitnick and Susan “Thunder” met over their mutual interest in learning to detect the patterns used by telephone switching systems and reproducing the sounds to manipulate their way through the boards, arranging free phone calls for themselves. (This was a bit of a cultural education for me -- evidently there were conference call lines advertised where people called in and just chatted with whoever was also on the circuit, a telephone chatroom!)  When the systems became controlled via computers,  Kevin, Susan, and a few more of their friends began tinkering with them.  (For readers born in the eighties, whose first computers came with web browsers, it takes a bit of chewing to realize that Mitnick and Thunder were literally dialing other computers;  telephone and computer network access systems were much more closely related)  Their explorations would eventually led to purloined and privileged accounts on sensitive systems across the United States; Susan had a particular interest in looking at military hardware.  The group weren’t plundering records for profit.

Although this group acquired an enormous amount of access via its steady experimentation, little was involved in the way of programming. They weren’t creating bugs to invade systems;  at most they rooted through the dumpsters of phone and computer-access companies looking for manuals, notes, and other juicy bits of detritus. The manuals not only allowed them to understand the systems they were ‘phreaking’, but often included passwords from people who hadn’t yet developed any sense of security.  They also engaged in what Hafner calls ‘social engineering’ -- lying, essentially, and obtaining information by talking to telecommunications and networking personnel under different guises -- almost exactly like phishing, but they did it in person. Eventually an interpersonal feud led to one of the crew being turned in, and the tip was used to great effect by a security specialist who had been doggedly tracking their excursions.

From here, Hafner moves to a group in Germany whose hacking begins to resemble what we in the 21st understand it to be. Initially, they too were interested only in the thrill of entering computer systems.  Unlike the American group, “Chaos” did experiment with programs to do their work for them -- and unlike the Americans, some of the Germans became interested in converting their skills into currency. Specifically, they approached East German border guards (who connected them to KGB personnel), offering to sell them information obtained through the networks.   The Soviets’ real interest was in the actual software -- compilers, especially -- but they were willing to engage in occasional business.  (Chaos also claimed to be working on behalf of world peace, since if a balance of power was maintained, war was less likely.)

The third act in Hafner’s book concerns the “Morris worm”, the invention of a son of the NSA who invented a self-spreading program to explore the size of the internet. An error in judgement allowed the program to collect several instances of itself on one machine, consuming their memory, and causing system after system to grind to a halt.  The worm infected ten percent of all machines then connected to the internet. Needless to say, this unexpected attack caused a panic, and in the resulting trial some members of the cyber-communications industry were out for blood despite it being fairly obvious that the culprit hadn’t intended any harm and had in fact sent off anonymous warnings within a couple of hours of noticing that his creation had gone berserk.  Although a zealous prosecutor -- and an equally zealous witness, the man who had led the hunt for the Mitnick intrusion -- did their best to incarcerate Morris, in the end the judge erred on the side of mercy and concluded with a sentence of community service, probation, and a large fine.

Cyberpunk was quite the education for me.  My interest in the early days of the internet, and in particular the quasi-libertarian ethos of some of the personalities attracted to it, first interested me in the volume.  Most of the people cataloged here are quirky individuals, all uncomfortable in school but obsessive about learning the ins and outs of different systems.  They were driven to explore a new world, to prove themselves masters of it -- but they were also inspired by the literature they were reading. From time to time books like Shockwave Rider,  Neuromancer, and the Illumantus Trilogy show up. (Interestingly, the latter was used as a staple of one of the hacker characters in David Ignatius' The Director..)   Although Hafner was recounting these cases to an early 1990s audience just starting to explore the consumer-oriented internet,  the cases as arranged offer a look at the internet and its cultured as they evolved.  I enjoyed it enormously.

As a side note: the case of Kevin Mitnick continues provoking controversy, with numerous books authored by him and others arguing with one another over the "truth".  According to this book's epilogue, Hafner's own account is "80%" true.

Neither East nor West

Neither East Nor West: One Woman's Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran
© 2001 Christiane Bird
396 pages

Christiane Bird didn't have an ordinary childhood. Her father was a doctor attached to a Presbyterian mission a world away, in Iran.  They focused more on healing bodies than converting souls, but the Iranian revolution still forced them to return to the west.  Despite all the negative news about Iran in the decades that passed, however, Bird remembered her time in Tabriz fondly and wondered (as an adult) which parts were true, which parts were merely disguised in the haze of childhood nostalgia, and which parts had disappeared or endured. So, contacting  one of her father's former colleagues in Iran,  Bird requested a visa and set about touring the country,  living in the homes of Iranians and talking to them in her rough Persian about their lives. Neither East nor West is a travelogue through Iran, but Bird's previous experience and emotional ties to Iran produce an memoir that isn't just another wide-eyed tour through an 'exotic land',  Combining her travels with reflections on Iranian history and culture,  she has produced a balanced look at Iran much needed in the west.

Bird's journalist visa gave her more freedom of movement than an ordinary tourists's, but she remained under the watchful eyes of the tourist-management of the Iranian government, and was required to find local guides. As time wore on Bird suspected this was done out of genuine concern for her protection, as Bird encountered several potentially volatile situations. (She also actively courted them, as she visited a  shrine in Mashdad that strictly prohibits non-Muslims) Bird toured Iran throughout 1998, when a bombing in Saudi Arabia had cast a darker-than-usual pall over DC-Iranian relations,  and  President Clinton was answering charges that he had lied under oath regarding his kennedian antics in the Oval Office.   Bird's interviews with Iranians -- from liberal Tehranis to orthodox Qom clerics --  involved both give and take. Bird's various guides encouraged her to live with them and their families during her stay, and she often did,  bonding with their daughters and friends.  Bird queried her new friends about their life before and after the Iranian revolution,  probing for its effects on their lives. They in turn asked her about America:  was it really so violent? Were the women really all so skinny?  And why did it hate Iran?

Most of the people Bird spoke with had cautious praise for the Iranian revolution, which ousted the Shah and led to its present mixed-state, theocracy and democracy intermingled.  While she encountered many young students in Tehran who scoffed at the 'morals police', outside the capital other people took Iran's status as an Islamic republic more seriously; these included women who believed in the hijab and were frustrated that Americans seemed to view the entire middle east as if it were Saudi Arabia. Iranian women run and vote for office and own businesses, for instance, and many would wear the hijab even if it weren't legally required.  She often found wariness about the pervasive moralism of the new Iranian state, a belief that the country had gone too far in the reverse of the Shah.   Bird was similarly conflicted by Iranian traditionalism; she delighted in the lack of consumerism and the closeness of Iranian family life, in the fact Iranian men regarded their family and not their jobs as their first priority -- but didn't like how old women on the street would regard any young woman and man talking together on the street as evidence of decadence that needed to be checked.

The Iranian people's relationship with their republic has undoubtedly changed in the last twenty years; during the reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran's young people did more than scoff at authority, they challenged it.  Many aspects of Iranian culture that Bird encounters here are still present, however:  for instance, the overwhelming hospitality she encountered was likewise commented on by Niall Doherty when he found himself in Iran with nothing but $10 to his name.  (Another common aspect is the double lives that urban Iranians live; circumspect behavior out in public, and relaxed rules behind the familiar walls of home.)    Because it combines travel with history so smartly -- reflecting on Iran's Shi'ism during a visit to a shrine, or on the durability of Persian while visiting the home of a legendary poet -- and shares a land that western news presents only as a villain, Neither East nor West could serve well as an introduction to a fascinatingly rich culture that has endured for millennia.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Beautiful Genius

After leaving the Castillo, I began exploring the streets of a city which had come alive.  Already, the wide sea-front avenue and the narrow alleys of the ‘old town’ proper were filled with the smell of food, from grilled fish to gelato.  Buskers were beginning to claim their respective spots, and I made my first donation to a man doing an acoustic version of “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger.  The other major building I wanted to see in the town was the Basilica of St. Augustine, and so I made my way blindly, moving forward only at glimpses of the spires.

The basilica doors were closed for a funeral, so I milled around the plaza for a bit. After escaping a confrontational man in his cups who claimed to be a tour guide who could get me onto an island ordinarily restricted to federal employees (what, Rikers?),  I admired the general scenery until the sound of bagpipes drew my attention. What proved to be a funeral service at the basilica had ended.  

After waiting twenty minutes or so for the bereaved to leave and the doors to be reopened to the public, I entered the basilica very quietly and sat in a chapel for a moment to gauge the situation. If nothing else, I could sit and soak in the atmosphere.  More tourists came in behind me, and they weren’t shy about roaming around taking photos, so I  took a few of my own and beat a respectful retreat.

Although I would spend over twelve hours downtown the first day -- strolling, sitting, cruising --  the day’s biggest surprise came early, around noon, when I laid eyes on Flagler College.

Established as the Ponce de Leon, a luxury hotel in a time when people wintered in St. Augustine, Flagler College now bears the name of its architect, Henry Flagler. This man also contributed several other buildings to downtown St. Augustine, but he wasn’t just a local architect. He helped found Standard Oil and developed one of the first major railways in Florida.  By the time I finished touring the gallery and dining hall of the college, I was completely awed by the man.

Even an unpracticed eye like mine couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming amount of detail. The Ponce de Leon rvivaled even the two basilicas I’ve been in for architectural grandeur. Even the water tower was a visual feast.   To the learned eye, there were even more surprises.

For instance, this fountain? Not just a fountain. It’s the central point of a cruciform courtyard, but also presents an image of sword stuck planted in the ground -- a sword of triumph and conquest.  It’s also ringed by twelve frogs, one for each month, and four turtles, one for each season.

The inside is similarly divine. Much of the interior is painted in gold leaf, and replete with mythic imagery.  The gallery floor is a mosaic with minute imperfections that were sewn in intentionally, so as not to rival Creation in their perfection. And the dining hall --  Dios m√≠o!   Decorated with colorful panels memorializing Spain’s empire,  it was lit brilliantly by sun and chandlier. My camera didn’t do justice to the amount of golden light in the room. It was awe-some in the truer, older sense of the word.

Trying to capture some of the light in the dining hall, and not doing it justice.

Across the street is another hotel that Flagler designed, which is now home to City Hall and the Lightner Museum.  Initially named the Alcazar Hotel, it was less exclusive. 

Another hotel Flagler owned, but did not design, was the Casa Monica.  Check out those balconies! 

My university library has a biography of Flagler, so next month I'm looking forward to learning more about him.  His were not the only beautiful buildings in St. Augustine, however!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Citadel of the Spainards: Castillo de San Marcos

Last weekend I traveled down to St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, to engage with Spanish history, see the Atlantic ocean, and enjoy a town so architecturally rich and dense that it's almost like visiting Europe.

The Castillo de San Marcos was constructed by the Spanish, beginning in 1670, after the previous wooden forts to defend St. Augustine were destroyed. The star-patterned structure would withstand serious sieges, but never fall in war: it would only be surrendered in peace treaties.    A friend of mine  and I arrived early in the morning, shortly after seven, to walk around the fort area before it opened.  To be around the fort in the early morning is to witness a curious mix of the bellicose and the bucolic,  severe towers and cannons facing a beautiful morning on the bay. 

From the ramparts, a reconstruction of the old wall extends into the town itself, leading to the Old City Gate. 

A few of the fort's casements have been coverted into museum pieces, demonstrating living quarters, ammunition stockpiles, and so on.

If I understood the plan of the north wall, much of the city now regarded as downtown exists beyond the borders of the original wall.   Many of St. Augustine's major buildings share the architectural touch of one man, Henry Flager, who gives the skyline a distinctive flavor.   Anyone who lives in the Southeast  should see this city during sunset. 

This is my favorite shot from the weekend, as it captures so much of St. Augustine:  its military history, its beauty, and the energy in its cozy old town. The spirit I enjoyed so much in Albuquerque and Santa Fe's plazas was present here throughout the city, and consequently a friend of mine and I spent fourteen hours downtown on Saturday, and just over ten on Sunday.  I didn't even read when we returned to our motel rooms -- I just showered and fell into bed asleep.

Zero Day

Zero Day
© 2011 Mark Russonovich
328 pages

Two cybersecurity experts, both with government backgrounds, realize their current cases have a connection. The more they dig the more widespread the danger grows, and  to their horror they realize what seems like an ordinary bit of digital vandalism is merely the prelude to a total infrastructure attack that is planned for the anniversary of September 11th.  Computer systems in the United States and Europe -- from private PCs to those controlling ships and power plants -- are being hit with an array of distinct but related viruses, all of which have the simple goal of turning their targets into complete bricks.  The effect on the west will be catastrophic when the full attack is released.

Zero Day is a technical thriller, with cyber-forensics constituting most of the book. The ending chapters are a brief switch into action,  but on the whole only readers with a serious interest in computer crime stories should try. Unfortunately, those are the very readers who are liable to be annoyed by the multitude of electronic conversations here being rendered in highly abbreviated form, with so many missing vowels one might as well be reading Hebrew.  There's also a bit of l33t speak, which -- seriously, is that still a thing?   I enjoyed  this book's sequel, Trojan Horse,  far more, as it had more balanced characters (here we have evil Arabs, Russian hackers, and corrupt bureaucrats), and hope that means Russinovich continued to improve.

This completes my WannaCry-inspired sweep of books, although they've led me to an older history of the hacking community, publishyed in 1995.

WannaCry Sweep:  The Dark Net | Kingpin | Countdown to Zero Day | Zero Day

Saturday, June 3, 2017


Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground
© 2011 Kevin Pulsen
288 pages

If Meyer Lanksy had gone straight, a contemporary of his noted, he could have rivaled Nelson Rockefeller. Maybe the same could be said for Max Butler, only a few years older than Mark Zuckerberg. Instead of becoming a billionaire, however, Butler’s genius and entrepreneurial risks landed him in prison for thirteen years with a $30 million dollar debt to pay off. Kingpin recounts his beginning as a teenager given to pranks, discovering the internet as a place with ample opportunities for play, and follows his slide into crime. Although Butler attempted to direct his skill and curiosity towards creative purposes -- becoming a ‘whitehat’ security consultant, a hacker for the good guys -- his early experiences with the Justice Department gave Butler a chip on his shoulder, and he continued to flirt with darkness, unable to resist tests of his skill.

Butler entered the scene just as hacking’s very character was changing. A generation of telephone ‘phreakers’ turned programmers whose motivation had been exploring the technology itself was giving over to those who saw in the internet an opportunity for quick money. Central to this story, and Butler’s evolution as a criminal, is credit card fraud. Although he tended to get into trouble as a kid, Butler wasn’t malicious at heart: he liked to push the boundaries, especially when he could experiment with his skills. When he began stealing card numbers, he did so from other fraudsters, and used a similar justification when he began compromising the systems of banks: they were the utter bad guys, constantly luring poor people into debt. What were they but crooks pretending to be legitimate? Time and again Butler contemplated going straight, but he’d see an opportunity for showing off and couldn’t fail to take it up. One of his most dramatic achievements is covered early on, when he single-handedly effects a takeover of several underground forums, combining their databases into his own and deleting the originals from the internet. It was a hostile takeover that made Butler the king of a carding empire, netting him a $1000 a day just from stealing, selling, or using credit card data.

Kingpin is the fascinating history of not just a man, but of a criminal industry. Because of creative minds like Butler’s, identity theft doesn’t just threaten people who thoughtlessly throw sensitive information into the trash. Butler’s bread and butter was milking restaurants’ point of sale systems -- those machines shoppers use for credit card transactions -- so anyone who uses a credit card in stores is vulnerable. In recent years, for instance, customers of Target and Wendy’s have been exposed. The government and businesses have attempted to respond by moving to cards with an embedded chip which is nominally more difficult to extract data from, but after reviewing Butler’s many adventures it’s hard to believe anything will be secure for very long.

Good reading for a bit of ‘modern’ true crime, told by someone like Butler who once practiced the dark arts, but who managed to stay on the straight and narrow.

Spam Nation, Brian Krebs

Friday, June 2, 2017


© 1992 Ben Bova
560 pages

Mankind has finally arrived on Mars, via a joint venture between the United States, Russia, Europe, and Japan. An expedition slated to last several months on the planet itself plans to explore part of the Valley of the Mariners as well as a volcano. While each member of the international expedition has his or own private ambitions to realize on the planet --   honoring Yuri Gagarin, or living up to a celebrity-scientist-father –  at least a couple of members are seriously hoping to find signs of life, living or extinct.   Although the mission is  carefully planned and equipped with redundancies, the crew still trip over one another’s personalities, and must fight against technological failures, the easy hostility of the Red Planet, and (worst of all) politicians back home.  Ben Mova’s Mars  is a tale of scientific enterprise and adventure, slightly dated in parts but timeless in its descriptions of Mars' eerie beauty.

I'd never heard of this author until the library displayed a few of his books,  and his lead character here -- a half Navajo  geologist who is fascinated by the similarities between Mars and northern New Mexico's landscapes --  caught my eye.   The story has two parts: as the geologist and his colleagues settle into life on Mars and begin their research in earnest, overcoming obstacles like dust storms and each other,  Bova occasionally flashes back to the months that led up to the expedition. (It's very similar in structure to Stephen Baxter's Voyage, another "go" for Mars story.)  There are other elements, too: the lead character's sort-of girlfriend is a news reporter eager to use her connection to him to scoop everyone else, and the expedition as a whole is at the mercy of the vice president, a blonde-haired bully who is planning a presidential run and is paranoid that everyone is out to get her.  Bova is at his strongest when taking readers through the scientific puzzles and descriptions of the Martian landscape, evoking the astronauts' wonder.  I found the frequent description of the Navajo as an "Injun" by the international expedition a little odd. While American media is pervasive, including westerns which are oddly popular in eastern Europe,  would Russians and Japanese scientists really  regard him as some uber-foreign creature?   Of course, the main character does promote cariacturization of himself, deliberately using phrases like "White man speaks with forked tongue" when his commanding officer promises something and then has to contradict it.

Bova has a series of SF books about the future of human spaceflight, and I look forward to exploring him more.  He ends this book with a terrific hook.....the possible discovery of life beyond Earth.

Voyage, Stephen Baxter
The Martian, Andy Weir

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Mind's Eye

© 2014 Douglas E Richards
362 pages

A man wakes in a dumpster, covered in blood. He has no idea who he is, but there are men trying to kill him.  This dumped stranger isn't completely defenseless, however. he wakes to find the killers' and everyone else's minds wide open to him.  He can read minds, and what's more, his brain has its own wireless connection, allowing him to dive into the internet and pull up any bit of information he needs, all without blinking.    The man soon discovers himself to be the victim of an arrogant bioengineer whose motives are utterly sinister, and the fantastic expansion of his mental abilities will be desperately needed as the man flees and fights mercenaries, false friends, and the US military.  At its best, The Mind's Eye offers a look at the fascinating possibilities and problems that widespread cranial implants could present humanity; at its worst,  the writing veers to the awkward, and the villains indulge in those "I'm about to kill you, so why don't I tell you my ultimate plan?" kinds of speeches.   (The uber-villian's ultimate motive is also wholly unbelievable -- the mad scientist/technocrat unmasks himself as a crusader for a completely unrelated cause, and there's been no hint, not even a shadow, of the other identity. )

The only reason I made it through this novel was the technical concept. I can only hope the characterization and dialogue improve in Richards' later novels..

Monday, May 29, 2017

La Regresa

Well, dear readers, I have returned from two twelve-hour days walking around St. Augustine, bracketed by two seven hour drives. I have stood in the waves and watched the sun set over the city,  climbed a lighthouse fourteen stories above it,  and descended into basements to learn the stories of conquerors and architects from days gone by.  More importantly, I've passed two very full days -- arriving as the sun was rising and leaving after nightfall -- strolling the streets of a city brimming over with life and architectural richness.  It was a fantastic weekend.   At the moment I'm still resting and curating my photos, but here's a couple of previews:

Castille de San Marcos. 

Twilight rays on the Basilica of St. Augustine

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.

@ 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.