Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet

Forgotten Founder, Drunken Prophet: The Life of Luther Martin
© 2008 Bill Kauffman
227 pages


There isn't enough whitewash in the world to create a Luther Martin hagiography, Bill Kauffman admits, but in the spirit of lost causes he does his best. Billed as a biography, Drunken Prophet is truly more about Martin's role in the Constitutional debates, in which he warned the assembly that the Constitution they were debating would destroy the States altogether  Few realize today that the Constitution - -regarded as a guardian of our liberties, however much a token now -- was rightfully feared in its day as a tool of big-government enterprise.  In this biography of Martin, Bill Kauffman gives voice to one of the Constitution's chief opponents, a man who refused service in the government it created.

When the delegates invited to reform the Articles of Confederation chose instead to create an entirely new government, Luther Martin took a stand against it. He could do no other.  He wasn't alone in being suspicious of the Constitution; Patrick Henry wouldn't even attend the convention, claiming to smell a rat. The convention contained radicals who wanted to do away with the States themselves, men like Hamilton, and Martin was their steady opponent.  He promoted the New Jersey plan against the Virginia plan, arguing that Virginia's bicameral legislature was beyond the scope of what was necessary. A government that need so many checks and balances was oversized to begin with.

Following the conclusion of the convention,  Kauffman's usual energy and the book's point drift. Technically, this is a biography of Martin, but little of import happened in his life  beyond the convention, other than a couple of court cases. Oddly, the staunch anti-Federalist became a defender of Federalist politicians, defending Sam Chase in the first-ever Supreme Court impeachment, and later defending Aaron Burr. (Kauffman notes that Burr's only crime was invading the Southwest too early, and shooting Hamilton too late.)  Kauffman suspects that Martin's defense of Federalists owed principally to his hatred for Thomas Jefferson.  Another case Martin participated in was the famous McCullough v. Maryland, arguing against the expansion of Federal powers.   Martin was evidently regarded well-enough in Maryland that the state imposed a tax on all lawyers just to give the aging attorney fiscal support after stroke and alcohol forced him to retire.

Drunken Prophet is the first Bill Kauffman book I've read that didn't absolutely bowl me over, but those interested in the anti-federalist or republican case against the Constitution will definitely find it of interest.

The Anti-Federalists stood for decentralism, local democracy, antimilitarism, and a deep suspicion of central governments.  And they stood on what they stood for. Local attachments. Local knowledge. While the Pennsylvania Federalist Gouverneur Morris 'flattered himself he came here in some degree as a Representative of the whole human race', Anti-Federalists understood that one cannot love an abstraction such as'the whole human race'. One loves particular flesh-and-blood members of that race. 'My love must be discriminate / or fail to bear its weight,' in the words of a modern anti-Federalist, the Kentucky poet-farmer Wendell Berry. He who loves the whole human race seldom has much time for individual members thereof.

From the introduction, "The People Who Lost".


Previous books in the Forgotten Founders series:
American CiceroCharles Carroll (Brad Birzer)
The Cost of LibertyJohn Dickinson (William Murchinson)

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Lost Continent

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America
© 1989 Bill Bryson


When I read The Road to Little Dribbling, full of Bryson complaining and thinking murderously about people who so much as annoyed him, I returned it disappointed. "Bryson's turned into a real crank," I thought. The Lost Continent makes me think he's always been that way, he just hides it better in some books than others.

This book chronicles Bryson's attempt to apparently re-live his childhood road trips, often following the very routes his father chose to get lost on in those bygone summers. That can only be a beginning, however, because by the end of the book he has visited (or at least zoomed through) all but eight of the 48 states, Hawaii and Alaska being frauds. Although billed as a tour of small-town America, he zooms through several larger cities as well. (One, Los Angeles, is pointedly avoided.) The book consists of Bryson chattering along as he drives, recounting stories of his family's travel misadventures, complaining about the view (or rarely, admiring it), or venturing into completely irrelevant terrain. When he is not being an utter pill -- heaping scorn on any development that is not a 18th century mansion, or raging against locals for being ignorant, too friendly, too suspicious, etc, Bryson can be funny. To an extent he's funny when attacking people, but it grows obnoxious after a while.

Related:
I'm a Stranger Here, Myself: Notes on Returning to America After 20 Years, Bill Bryson

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Great Explosion

The Great Explosion
© 1962 Eric Frank Russell
187 pages



Following the discovery of faster-than-light travel, Earth's population fell by half as her children fled to the stars.  After decades of benign neglect, the powers that be on Earth -- the military and politicians -- have decided to reassert their authority.  A grand ship is built, and ordered to fulfill an even greater commission:  arranging a meet between the imperial ambassador and the local leaders, so that his lordship can declare to them that it's time to rejoin hands with Earth and march together into the future.  But as the Dude would say -- yeah, well...that's just, like, your opinion, man.

The Great Explosion is a SF comedy, an expansion of the author's amusing "And Then There Were None" (1951).  The plot is straightforward: a ship with hundreds of crewmen, soldiers, and government flunkies visit a series of planets and attempt to reunite them to the lovingkindness  (a compound word  translating to "rules and taxes") of Earth.  Shockingly, however, no one who left the Man behind on Earth is eager to see him come back -- whether they're criminals, nudist health freaks, or libertarians. Anyone who has had an ill experience with government functionaries -- from IRS auditors to DMV clerks -- will find vicarious amusement here,  as a series of rebellious characters annoy, exasperate, obfuscate, and harass humorless G-men and their pompous, pot-bellied prince.

The third story is the heart of the book, as the ship lands on the planet 'Gand'.  The imperials  are utterly tactless in their approach to the locals, regardless of the planet, but Gand is a particularly bad place to be grabbing people and pressuring them for information. Gand is composed entirely of some tribe of libertarian anarchists, who don't cotton to authority.  So deeply do they loath the idea of uniformity or regimentation that there isn't even a common style of clothing.  Every  intrusive question is answered "Myob*!", and attempts to physically coerce the Gands is met with civil disobedience. One exploring sailor on his bicycle, out of uniform, manages to discover what makes the Gands  tick. Close to the Gandian heart is cooperation; they don't even use money, instead using a barter system of favors, or "obs". The Gands live in small communities in constant contact with one another, meaning that free riders ('scratchers') don't get away with it for too long. Those who break rules are shunned. The Mahatama would be intrigued.

As a novel there are faults; the health-nudists of Hygeia, for instance, insist that Earth deal only with them, and ignore a smaller community on their planet. Why?  Who knows, because  the Earthers leave without this other community ever being mentioned again. There the ship goes directly to another planet where there were settlers, but now...there aren't. Every sign of civilization also points to the planet's population being long gone, their structures surrendered back to Nature. What happened there -- again, who knows, because the Earthers enter orbit, decide not to risk a pandemic, and break orbit.  As a rule, creators of fiction avoid introducing elements have have no functional element in the story, so to see two instances of it back to back was rather odd.

Still, I enjoyed the original short story, and this expansion of it.  It's a short bit of comedy with some food for thought sprinkled in.

*Mind your own business!

Related:
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein. Another libertarian society where culture is more important than force.
The Martian Chronicles, with another chapter of free-spirited settlers being chased down by  humorless drones working for the government.

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.

Related:
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.

Related:
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.

Related:
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

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

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.

Related:
Spam Nation, Brian Krebs

Friday, June 2, 2017

Mars

 Mars
© 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.

Related:
Voyage, Stephen Baxter
The Martian, Andy Weir