Wednesday, August 31, 2016

When Tigers Fight

When Tigers Fight: The Story of the Sino-Japanese War, 1937-1945
© 1989 Dick Wilson
269 pages

"We Japanese cannot win here. We are trying to plow the ocean."

Before plunging into the abyss of hubris and attempting to claim the entire Pacific as its own  in 1941, the Empire of Japan was hard at work attempting to enlarge itself at the expense of its 'elderly, doddering brother', China.  China was, in the 1930s, in a weak state: riddled with outside colonies and barely unified after a period of feudal civil war, its only defense against Japan's increasing aggression being sheer size and numbers.  After reviewing the early stages of Japanese intervention in China, which included taking over Germany's colonial interests and asserting its own after the Great War,  Wilson uses the Marco Polo Bridge incident as the start of the war and delivers a straightforward military history, concluding in the epilogue that the Sino-Japanese war was a complete waste for both sides. China was ravaged, falling into the hands of an internal dictator, and would not emerge onto the global stage for decades thereafter -- while Japan would, astonishingly, bounce back as a commercial titan.

Before large-scale combat actually began, Japan had effectively annexed a portion of northern China, Manchuria, and placed a surviving member of the Chinese nobility there as their puppet. The armed conflict assumed an air of self-perpetuation escalation, as these things do, and soon Japan's goal was the complete military subordination of China. Its early attacks seized Beijing, in the north, and Shanghai in the south. (The infamous Nanjing sadism followed Shanghai.) From there, Japan labored to link  its spheres of power, resulting in numerous battles  in the mountains and vast expanses between the two cities.   China's Nationalist leaders were able to augment their meager defenses with men and material from the west: not just the United States and Great Britain, but Germany and Russia as well. One of the more interesting tidbits exposed in this book is that Hitler struggled to rid the army of its anti-Japanese types, so while Bavarian's most famous mediocre painter  was looking for alliance with Tokyo,  other German elements were supporting the Rising Sun's scorched victims!)  Once Hitler plunged into his foolhardy invasion of Russia, Japan felt free to  seize Anglo, Dutch, and American East-Pacific holdings and thus began a separate campaign for Burma, which lay between British India and the Japanese empire in China.  After a retreat, the Allies returned in a year to reclaim the territory, and by that time Japan was being slowly pushed back by the US Navy and Marines. Even as it was driven into defeat,  the somnolent internal war in China between Nationalists and Communists became much more active.

For me, this was only the beginning  in trying to get a handle on the Chinese side of the war. It seems like a good outline, and Wilson doesn't skip over important aspects like China's guerrilla warfare or the utter horror the war let loose in China: both from the brutal behavior of the invading army to the  grim measures the Nationalists resorted to, like flooding the country to stymie a Japanese offense but killing and displacing thousands in the bargain.

Forgotten Ally: China's WW2, Rana Mitter
The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Killer Blondes and Killer Wheat

A few weeks ago I read Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, a murder-mystery from the same Pinkerton agent turned author who produced The Maltese Falcon.   I was sold by the opening line:

I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on Fifty-second Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me. She was small and blonde, and whether you looked at her face or at her body in powder-blue sports clothes, the result was satisfactory.

The narrator will, in the opening act of the novel, consume a small truckload of spirits, and some fun lines follow. (Paraphrase: "'Practically'. Everybody's telling me 'practically' the truth. What I want is some impractical joker who will shoot straight!")  Alas, I didn't  care whodunit. The solution surprised me, though!

This Saturday, I wrapped up William Davis' Wheat Belly,  which I read more for inspiration than information. As someone who lost 120+ lbs in a half a year after dropping most processed food, I'm solidly in the camp the author was writing to. (I've also read Why We Get Fat, and that work by Taubes is in line with the Weston Price/Atkins/Paleo/Davis family of nutritional thinking.)  According to Davis, modern processed wheat is a frankenfood with no resemblance to natural wheat, and  responsible for obesity, diabetes, celiac disease, and even some mental problems.  As I said, I don't really need convincing that bread, cereal, etc. are bad for the waistline, but I've been unable to break 206  (March 2012) and it is utterly annoying.  I have weaknesses, you see --  like sweet tea and sweet potatoes. In the last couple of weeks I've actually cut out my 'sweet' tea altogether (which was lightly sweetened -- 1/4 cup in a full gallon of tea, but if you drink a pitcher a day it's a lot of sugar), mixing in lemon juice instead.  (I mostly drink water, of course, but one does like to taste something every once and again.)  Essentially I read this to psych myself up for valiantly saying "No" to the various little temptations -- tortilla chips,  blueberry waffles, that sort of thing.  The psychic game is the reason I've been reading the Stoics and WW2 history's all about trying to adopt that indomitable spirit. I've also resumed daily walks, which less about burning calories and more about mental focus -- I find it's a lot easier to exercise my will against cornbread if I've already exercised said will four miles in the rain.

What's coming up?  I'm chasing a few rabbits at the moment and need to focus on one them, really,  Gobs of history -- WW2, Spanish empire, Arab conquests -- a little historical fiction, and a few miscellaneous bits.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Porch and the Cross

The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living
© 2016 Kevin Vost
198 pages

Stoicism as a moral philosophy has had admirers through the ages, and especially during the medieval epoch. While modern snobbery tends to dismiss the medieval mind as intellectually somnolent, in truth the cathedral schools and universities of Europe were alive with discussion and engagement. Part of that engagement was with the classic tradition, which included not only the old masters but their progeny, like the Stoics.  Doctors of the church, like Ambrose and Aquinas, were especially interested in the Stoics'  understanding of how the mind could be entrapped by vice, or sin, and how people could resist such an influence.  Kevin Vost is a contemporary Christian whose faith is informed -- even formed -- at the Painted Porch. I recognized this when reading his Seven Deadly Sins, which frequently looked to the Stoics for advice, and so knew I had much to look forward to in The Porch and the Cross.  Here, he reviews the lives and principle ideas of four Stoics (Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius), examines their legacies through history, and finally applies the lessons to Christian moral concerns.

The Porch and the Cross's format makes it immediately accessible to readers who have never heard of a stoic. The biographical intro chapters reveal first Stoicism's broad appeal, as the four authors spanned Roman societies, from slave to emperor.  Vost follows this with a summary or distillation of their major works, which concentrate the very best of Stoic thinking and practice for the beginning investigator.  If you have never heard of Stoicism before, here is the elevator version: the universe has a perceivable order, and the good life consists of conforming to that order, in part by recognizing that there are things within our control and things outside our control. To worry about that which cannot be controlled is self-defeating: we should instead focus on what we can do, like being prepared for what Fortune throws at us.

There are obvious points of agreement between Christianity and Stoicism:  for instance, both emphasize the preeminent importance of a soul squaring itself with the order of the cosmos -- or in Christian terms, in line with the will of God. Both view spiritual order as superior to the needs and appetites of the body, though Catholic orthodoxy cautions the faithful against holding the latter in complete contempt -- that's the sort of thing Gnostics, Manicheans, and Puritans get up to.  Vost instead looks to Stoicism as a guide for moderating the influence of  both inner turmoil and outside temptation.  Self-control is a virtue hailed by both Stoics and Christians, and Vost is especially pleased with Musonius Rufus' writings on sexual propriety.

Another common link is the Stoic conception of the cosmopolis, that all men hold within them a divine spark which makes them brethren. The well-ordered soul is not confined by tribalism, but can look beyond it -- just as the Christian life is not a nationalistic one, but one which brings together  all people ("Greek and Jew, Scythian, barbarian") into communion.   Communion is an important Stoic concept, as Marcus Aurelius often reminds himself: we are members with one another -- not units within a pile, as bureaucrats would have it, but discrete individuals with distinct jobs. We are, Aurelius said, like the fingers of a hand -- we can either work with one another, or put up with one another, but to antagonize the other is irrational and vice-laden.

At just under two hundred pages, The Porch and the Cross is a terrific little collection, bringing together the best-of  from the extant masters into one slim volume, with connecting commentary. I'd forgotten how truly bracing they could be, and must look into reading Musonius Rufus!


The Stoics themselves:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Cargo Ship Diaries

The Cargo Ship Diaries: 44 months, 37 countries, 0 flights 
© 2014 Niall Doherty
133 pages

A few years ago while looking for information on minimalism, I encountered the YouTube presence of one Niall Doherty, an Irishman traveling the world, living and working out of a backpack. Doherty left a comfortable but unfulfilling life in the nine-to-five world to live an adventure, instead. His throwing of himself into the world wasn't merely physical, as he also used new environments to experiment with his life, to impose new challenges on himself.  This is where I encountered him, as every week he seemed to be in a different place, invariably a cafe or club surrounded by laughing people (often women), and posing serious questions to the viewer, like "What would it take for you to change your most fundamental beliefs?"   As it turns out, he was in the middle of a purposeful quest: to travel the world without flying.   In The Cargo Ship Diaries, aboard a commercial freighter traveling from Yokohama to Peru, he shares both his experiences aboard the ship, and reminiscences on his Eurasian journey.  The book ends with his arrival in the Americas, though an epilogue shares diary entries about his time in South America, New Orleans, and later the return to Ireland.

Although his first book, Disrupting the Rabblement, captured his philosophy of life much better, some of it still comes through in this travel diary. As mentioned, it's a two-part book;  the framing narrative tells about life aboard the cargo ship, where for a month he explored, danced, wrote, and studied.   The 'writing' bit is this actual book, recounting his time in Eurasia. Landing in Amsterdam, he bused, biked, and ferried his way across the continent. He was not a 'tourist', and preferred to spend most of his time trying to interact with locals.  Much of that, he admits, was 'chasing tail'; in Amsterdam he challenged himself to flirt with 100 girls in a week, and the book is filled with one-night liaisons and brief relationships. Only when he found a friend to join him did he go on touristy adventures like visiting the Taj Mahal.  (His adventures tended to not be the usual kind: once, for instance, he climbed an abandoned skyscraper. Although reading about his sex life grew tiresome quickly,  I am always astonished at the amount of human goodwill global travelers run into. Doherty entered Iran despite being warned his bank cards wouldn't work, and found himself with the local equivalent of $10 to his name. Yet, through goodwill, local connections, and the internet, he was able to make his way through and out of the country, departing it with fond memories for the Iranian people -- who, he says, live double lives, defying the outside authoritarianism within the privacy of their homes.

Although I was sorely tempted to skim through the many dating episodes, I find Doherty's willingness to throw himself into the unknown admirable -- and of course, as someone who has read books on commercial shipping, this account of life aboard a cargo ship had a distinct attraction for me.

Doherty maintained a web presence throughout his travels, and produced a video about life aboard the ship below.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Miracle at Midway

Miracle at Midway
© 1983 Gordon Prange, Donald Goldstein and,Katherine Dillon,
512 pages

Miracle at Midway is a thorough history of the June 4-7 effort of the Japanese to simultaneously seize the most likely U.S. approaches to the Empire and lure the US Pacific Fleet into a general engagement wherein it might be destroyed in total. Though colossally outnumbered in ships, the US Navy and Army Air Forces on Midway island had a slight advantage in planes which was used to enormous effect; in this David and Goliath battle, the Japanese carriers were the object of a surgical strike, though one of dive-bombers instead of stones. While there was definitely an element of luck on the American side -- one Japanese carrier's planes were caught pants down, trying to refuel and re-arm -- Midway was a victory of intelligence and courage more than fate. Although suffering from a paucity of maps, the authors bring extensive analysis and heavy research into the Japanese side to the table as well. Midway is one of the more important battles of the second World War, at least for Americans: just six months after the humiliating surprise of Pearl Harbor, the Pacific Fleet had utterly reversed its fortunes, destroying in a day the pride of the Japanese imperial fleet. Dai Nippon lost not only four carriers, but hundreds of planes and thousands of veteran men whose talents and experience could not be replaced. It's also an extraordinary moment in the history of naval warfare, the first battle in which the competing surface fleets never saw one another but through their air wings.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Retail Warfare

Recently I decided to drive to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for a bite to eat. Tuscaloosa is famously the home of the University of Alabama, feared and resented throughout the United States for its football program (so I hear), but I was there for a little Greek food.  Lamb, specifically. In the deep south, there aren't many places that sell lamb, but Taziki's Mediterranean Cafe does.  While sitting at an intersection waiting to turn in, though, I happened to see...a jet fighter. And a tank! And a helicopter!

Turns out, near the University Mall (across the street from my destination) is a Veterans Memorial Park, with various pieces of military equipment from different services parked there, including a M60 tank, a Huey, a A-7 Corsair, a Willys jeep, and two pieces of artillery (one land-based, one naval).  I've never been near a tank, so despite a downpour, I happily jumped out of the car with umbrella in hand to go stand and stare at it. According to a plaque, a military hospital once stood on the site, presumably now covered by the mall's footprint.  I took some photos with my phone; click for larger versions.

Speed checked by radar....and strictly enforced

The M60.

UH-1 Iroquois, but his friends call him Huey.

A-7 Corsair, formerly of the US Navy but with a Marine's name on it.

A Willys Jeep in Air Force livery.  The downpour is slightly more obvious here.  Considering I was holding an umbrella with one hand, aiming and taking photos with a phone from another, and standing in a rainstorm with strong winds, these came out very well!

Friday, August 19, 2016


Dreamland: Travels Inside the Secret World of Roswell and Area 51
© 1998 Phil Patton
336 pages

"What would happen if the U.S. government opened its doors to us and let us see all that was going on? Depending on what is there, we'd either be vindicated or disappointed, but we would also rapidly lose interest. What would we focus our attentions on? Where would we go next?....the greatest thing about Area 51 is its mystery, otherwise nobody would care."

Dear readers, I have a confession. In middle school, I was way into alien conspiracy theories, specifically the Roswell Incident. I didn't believe anything had happened, but it was fun to pretend that it did. My bedroom walls were littered with three things: tiger photographs, glow-in-the-dark star stickers, and posters of green bobble-head aliens, sometimes dressed as hippies offering peace signs.   So, when I ran into Dreamland while looking for a similarly titled book on rural drug epidemics (Dreamland: the True Tale  of America's Opiate Epidemic), I had to try it out. Right?

It took me a few check-outs to actually read the book, because it's an odd kind of investigatory tourism that begins with the paranormal, shifts to completely sober and extensive discussion of military test aviation, and then swings back to more severe paranormal material towards the end. The author plays the part of reporter-tourist searching for the truth, presenting himself as neither credulous nor particularly skeptical. Like Herodotus, he simply reports what he is told, though there's an obvious personal interests in what 'Area 51' truly is.

Dreamland is not solely about 'the' Area 51, the conspiracy codename for Groom Lake, Nevada, where experimental jets are/were tested. 'Dreamland' as a place covers much of the southwest; it is not merely 'The Ranch' of Nevada, guarded by private paramilitary 'camo dudes', but the headspace world in which the subjects of this book live -- and while some of them believe devoutly in alien visitation and even in-progress takeover, others believe the alien talk is mere coverup for more ominous projects. One interviewee opined that the alien hype is being created by the military which will use a faux-alien invasion to effect a coup. The last quarter of the book is a bizarre mix of conspiracy theories, Christian and Islamic prophecies merging with alien obsession and political intrigue:  fear of a 'New World Order', so intense in Endtimes believers of the 1990s, is very strong here. My personal favorite, in part because it's the sort of thing I would do if I were in charge of a secret government project, is that Area 51 is cover, used to distract the public; the real base  is in Tonopah. (Of course, if I were in charge of the secret government project, I would put it underground and then stick a shopping complex on top of it.)

 Although the first and final fifths of Dreamland are very odd reading, fraught with true-believer syndrome ("Yes, the flying saucer we saw was a B2. But they're just  letting us see it so we won't freak out about the real flying saucers!"),  there's actually an enormous amount of information on military test aviation throughout the late 20th century, including on projects that were scrapped but which are now declassified.  Many of the aircraft mentioned bear little resemblance to conventional aircraft, at least to a public expecting to see something that looks like a commercial transport or fighters. The proposed A-12 Avenger is downright alien.   Dreamland features a chapter on the development of unmanned spy vehicles from spy planes like the U2, and speculates that soon these UAVs may be armed. (He was right: three years later after publication, a Predator drone blew up the outside  of a Taliban building, wrecking cars and sending the actual target running away instead of crossing the Styx.)

If you're interested in experimental aviation, this actually has a few chapters of interest. The actual subject of the book may distract from the fascinating bits inside, though, and considering the context of the source I'm not sure how seriously I'd take the information on CIA spy planes and the like.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942-1943
© 1998 Anthony Beevor
494 pages

In June 1941, Hitler demonstrated the truism that evil will oft evil mar by launching an invasion of the Soviet Union. Though initiated later in the year than planned, the Wehrmacht's assault achieved rapid success, partially because Stalin believed Hitler's saber-rattling to be an attempt at intimidating him at the trade-table.  Even so, Russia's vastness and Hitler's competing commitment in Italy stalled the offensive, the initial momentum never to be regained. On the banks of the Volga, at the city of Stalingrad,  part of Hitler's army provided a foretaste of the German state as a whole: overextended, surrounded, starving, dying, and defeated.

Initially, Stalingrad was only notable to military strategists for two things: its position on the Volga river, and its armaments factories.Simply breaking Russian command of the river and destroying the factories would suffice for victory, leaving the ever-more accomplished panzers and men to take on the Soviet south, with its attractive oil fields.  As is well known, however, the Germans were unable to achieve the coup de grace before the Russian winter set in, and soon the final pockets of resistance in Stalingrad were proving ever more obdurant.  Their resistance provoked  stubborness in Hitler, now remote-managing the battle from Germany: the attempt to take Stalin's City was becoming increasingly more personal.

Unknown to the Germans, the Russian general Zhukov saw a greater strategic value in the city.  He urged Stalin to gamble: let him maintain only a paltry defense in the city, just barely enough to keep it from falling completely, while secretly building an offensive army. The gamble would be pursued, and play off wonderfully for the Soviets:  a year into the German stall, in November 1942, Soviet tanks  launched an all-quarters attack and completely encircled the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad, as well as Romanian and other Axis units which were in the city's environs at the time. The force was considerable, as Hitler's obsession with the city meant it was consuming far more men and material than it was worth to keep. Though a half-hearted attempt at outside rescue was made after the Soviets had already consolidated their positions, and although the Luftwaffe gamely attempted to keep the Sixth Army supplied through increasingly thick resistance, the men of the Sixth Army were virtually abandoned. In the bleak midwinter, they decayed while still living: picked off or driven mad by the stress of constant attack,  attempting to live on rations as small as 200 grams per day,  eaten alive by lice, constantly exposed to the brutal winter of the steppes, and utterly exposed to disease.  Not until February 1943 did the Soviets finally move in for the killing blow.

Stalingrad is a grim book, depicting as it does first the plight of civilians being tread underfoot by two armies of ideological orcs, then the extensive suffering of civilians and soldiers in Stalingrad during the wintry siege.  There are moments of odd gallows humor, like the instructions written to German soldiers returning home for leave.(They are urged, upon entering a building back home, to use the doorknob. Grenades are a last resort.)  Largely, this is a work of prolonged suffering, first merely through the Russian winter and then through a second winter of isolation and death.  As the last remnants of the the Sixth army were marched into captivity, a Russian soldier urged them to look at the ruins of the city behind them:  "This is what Berlin will be!", the Soviet cried.   Unfortunately, it would be so: Stalingrad and the Russian campaign helped begin the downfall of the Nazi regime, but would ultimately empower an ogre just as foul on the continent: Stalin.

While it doesn't cover the whole of the Russian campaign, Stalingrad is a visceral and deeply-researched history of the campaign for the city, and the siege which followed. The armies of both state reveal their wretchedness, chucking civilians out of their homes as winter set in, and shaking them down for supplies. There is nothing as beastly as man at war, but as Stalingrad demonstrates, man at war with the unction of the imperial state achieves superior horror.  Yet Volvograd -- thanks be that the city now bears a name worth uttering -- is a moment of triumph for the Russians worth noting. Once on the retreat and dependent on the Allies for war material, by 1943 they were producing enough tanks and planes to completely dominate the Wehrmacht and launch their own bid for command of Europe. That is quite the comeback.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Ordinary Spaceman

The Ordinary Spaceman: From Boyhood Dreams to Astronaut
© 2015 Clayton Anderson
330 pages

Clay Anderson knew when he was nine years old that he wanted to grow up to be an astronaut.. He knew it when he witnessed the crew of Apollo 8 circling the Moon on Christmas Eve.  His passion for the black took him to NASA first as an intern, and then as employee, where he worked for well over a decade before the last of his fifteen applications to the astronaut program proper landed him a spot in the class of 1996.   The Ordinary Astronaut is a memoir of his years at NASA and in the shuttle program, one filled with interesting details but not much in the way of long-term perspective.

Ordinary Spaceman is primarily a work of human interest, since Anderson almost never refers to his scientific work, or comments on the space program as a whole.   Unlike Tom Jones' Sky Walking, which combined Jones' memoirs with a narrative history of NASA during the eighties and nineties to provide background information,  there's no broad review of the organization. We get instead workplace stories which happen to be set in space shuttles, the space station, and Russia's "Star City".  Since this is NASA the work stories can be extraordinary; for instance, early on he was asked by Rick Husband to be a family escort during Husband’s  mission aboard Columbia; ordinarily, this involves driving the family around during launches and landings, getting them punch, and offering reassuring answers to concerned questions.  If the name Husband rings a bell, it should – he commanded the Columbia when it broke apart in orbit, and Anderson became not just a valet, but the immediate focus of the family’s sorrow and despair, helping them to shoulder their emotional burden – a shared one, for he and Husband had trained together.  More cheerful is his account of the extensive time spent with Russian astronauts in Star City.  Anderson's class was required to have a rudimentary grasp on the Russian language, and part of his basic training took place in Russia where he learned their systems as well.   Still more fascinating is his recollection of time spent in NASA's underwater  habitat,  which offered its own difficulty and delight --  the photo of Anderson staring out into the water at a close-range school of fish makes obvious the utter joy it brought to him.

The Ordinary Spaceman is an odd book.  It lives up to its title in that  Anderson seems like a guy off the street, a Nebraska farmer in space. He didn't enter NASA as a hotshot pilot, but as a civilian intern. He met his wife in the cafeteria line and uses Wikipedia as his go-to reference. (The first time he did this, to supplement his memory while remniscing over Saturday morning cartoons, I thought it was funny. The next five times, when he was referring to actual NASA history, not so much.) It abounds in stories about the mundane details of working for NASA, the inns and outs, without drifting into complaining.   (I do mean ins and outs: he goes into great detail on how to use a space-toilet, records at length his body's reaction to returning to Earth by expelling fluid from every possible orifice, chronicles his attempt to self-administer an enema, and proudly counts himself as the only man to poop in four space vessels -- two shuttles, Soyuz, and the ISS.) Towards the end the organization gets odd, very back and forth, frequently chatty -- but ultimately, Anderson is a nice guy who sustains the reader's sympathy and affection.  His career in NASA, by his own account, was undermined by his own weaknesses,  like a short temper. But he's not proud of failing at times, and does his best to make amends. In that, he really is an ordinary guy, doing his best, and picking up the pieces when he goes  off the rails. The Ordinary Spaceman is more useful as an account of a man's living the dream at NASA than about NASA or shuttle spaceflight in general, but a boyhood fantasy turned reality certainly has its appeal.

Anderson's space selfie


  • Sky Walking, Tom Jones.  Not quite as fun, but more substantive  in regards to appreciating the history of the shuttle program and the creation of the ISS.
  • Two Sides of the Moon, Alexei Leonov and Dave Scott. Joint Apollo-Soyuz history of the space race, with a lot of content on the Russian space program and Star City. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Playing to the Edge

Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror
© Michael Hayden 2016
464 pages

As someone who became a civil libertarian in response to the increasingly sweeping powers of the surveillance state during the Bush administration, I began reading this as a hostile audience, more or less. I was chiefly interested in the chapter on cybersecurity, although he says very little about it. The book is part memoir-biography, part defense of the privileged powers given to the United States' intelligence-security programs. While I am still not nor never will be comfortable with the amount of information being collected by these agencies, even if they are staffed by the heroic characters who populate this book under Hayden's pen, recent books on cyber war have made me realize that that agencies like these have actual national-security priorities, with a focus on malevolent organizations outside the U.S.

Hayden is very good at making the enormous amount of data-collecting sound completely mundane, even benign, and is very cagey with details when a plant is bombed or infrastructure sabotaged via computer viruses. Sometimes interesting and sometimes plodding are his comments on CIA-NSA organization, and the organization of the intelligence community (sixteen agencies, including the intelligence depts of other organizations). There's the usual attraction in a political memoir in that formidable media personalities are suddenly reduced to ordinary people: Secretary of State Condeleeza Rice becomes "Condie", the attorney general is "Al", Hayden himself is "Mikey"'s a little touch of intimacy that a vast bureaucracy, far-removed from the concerns of the people as a whole, is usually without. All that said, I still like having Greewalds and Snowdens to keep the government on its toes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Rising Sun

Rising Sun
385 pages
© 1992 Michael Crichton

In downtown Los Angeles, in a gleaming tower of Japanese commercial success, a woman lies dead on a boardroom table.  The  grand opening of the Nakamoto Corporation's downtown skyscraper attracted celebrities and politicians alike, all anxious to impress the Japanese businessmen who play such an important part in the U.S. economy. It was supposed to be a festive occasion, but instead it's turned into a source of anxiety and dread:  this murder-in-the-office stuff is very bad for publicity. It turns out to be a major source of trouble for the police assigned to investigate, too, because to Nakamoto, business is war...and if trouble-making cops can't be bribed, they can be 'removed'.

Rising Sun combines a police procedural with a business thriller, and ends with an ominous note from Crichton that the Japanese are taking over the American economy and we'd better do something.  Published just as the Japanese were drifting into their 'lost decade', that warning now makes it seem slightly dated. Despite this, the technological aspect gives the book a solid sci-fi edge;  though set in the 1990s, we see wireless cameras, facial-recognition software,  and image manipulation so intensive that the courts no longer permit imagery as evidence.  Here we have forensic technology long before CSI made it popular,  but most of the character-lecturing is done in regards to Japanese culture, history, and business practices.  I know next to nothing about Japanese economic history, so I don't know when Crichton leaves history  behind for alt-history here. His 1990s-America is virtually a Japanese economic colony, with only its university system keeping it from being an utter subordinate. So awed by the Japanese are these Americans that Japanese lingo has crept into common usage among the political and business elite, and their power is such that LA cops have a time getting the Nakamoto Corp's officers to let them investigate.  I was a little suspicious of Crichton's economic doomsaying; if the Japanese were 'dumping' under-priced goods onto the American market, why couldn't those goods be purchased by American companies and sold as their own?    Crichton's fear is not quite as irrelevant as it seems, because today we hear the same fears about China. right down to the concern that their ownership of so much  American debt is a national security problem.  Awareness that there must be a line between national security and profitable participation in the global economy has become an issue in the presidential debate this year as well.

Despite being dated in some ways, Rising Sun made for a very interesting read, both as a technologically-savvy police novel ahead of the curve, and as an alt-history piece which features Japanese characters and culture heavily.

Sunday, August 7, 2016


© 1995 Michael Crichton
352 pages

What could happen on a plane to leave three people dead, fifty others seriously wounded, and the passenger cabin in ruins?   Why did its pilot only break radio silence shortly before he was due to land in Los Angeles? Thus begins Airframe, a technical mystery from the pen of Michael Crichton, in which one woman  has to scramble to find answers before either her company's life-saving contract with China falls through or before a union upset ripens into war on the plant floor.   This is the first book I've read by Crichton which is not science fiction, although it's still very much the technical thriller, with a nerd-thrilling abundance of information on aviation and the aeronautics business.   It's not merely dumped on the reader, but introduced through characters who stand in for the reader and need to have all of the tech-speak around them translated. Airframe isn't purely technical, as Crichton also develops a business conspiracy angle to make the reader wonder if the accident wasn't one at all. There's also a little bit of author-lecture, as Crichton delivers a rolling barrage at television 'news', condemned as vapid and sensationalistic. None of the characters are particularly compelling, but in a Crichton novel they rarely are.  It is the pursuit of the mystery, simultaneously learning a great deal about an important aspect of global 'civilization', that drives this one. I enjoyed it enormously.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Director

The Director
© 2014 David Ignatius
384 pages

The first week at a new job is rough for anyone, but what if you're the new director of the CIA and a German kid off the street just informed you that every agent in Europe is exposed?  Such is the promising hook of The Director, a novel  involving  conspiracies within conspiracies, told through meeting after meeting. The news that the CIA's internal networks are compromised grows more ominous after the German is found with a Russian bullet in his head, but for most of the work the 'action' consists of the Director's agent flitting from town to town,  reading up on his Globalist British Banking Conspiracy literature and  recruiting a cyber League of Shadows to take down said conspiracy. Everyone else sips mineral water and talks. And talks....and talks...and....talks.  The director also occasionally receives ominous quotations from Cicero.

I found The Director to be utterly tedious, as most of the book consists of people who enjoy hearing themselves talk spinning riddles around the increasingly frustrated director. (He's not so much an actor as a coordinator, bringing the plot together in his office.)  There are some positive points, however.  Some bits of description leap out; "the cowl of a foreign accent shrouded his voice". The author, a D.C. journalist, offers an interesting flavor to the hacking conspiracy; early on,  people are recruited into it using references to the Illuminitas trilogy. The author claims this is a cult classic among hackers, and while I can't vouch for that, this playing-with geek culture is definitely different from the ordinary international thriller. The problem is that all the conversation of this book isn't all that thrilling. Some of it borders on pompous, as though the characters were straining to be dramatic. I just imagined and pictured them as Hollywood personalities to make it tolerable (and amusing).  There were very few people in this novel I enjoyed reading about -- and I certainly had no interest in following them to the supermarket to consider competing brands of Greek yogurt, or to Berlin's sex-clubbing scene.

Interesting in spots, obscene in others, but on the whole rather dull.

Trojan Horse, Mark Russinovich.  Also a cyberthriller, but buckets more fun.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Devil in the Sky

ST DS9: Devil in the Sky
© 1995 Greg Cox and John Gregory Betancourt
280 pages

In the classic TOS episode, "Devil in the Dark",  Kirk and the Enterprise were dispatched to a mining colony to discover and put an end to the monster that had been killing the colonists. The 'monster' turned out to be a silicon being, a Horta, who was waging a war of self-defense against colonists unwittingly destroying her eggs.   Now a Federation outpost is again imperiled by the Horta, after a mother Horta is kidnapped and her eggs arrive on a freighter to Deep Space Nine as hungry orphans. The Horta had been invited to Bajor to jump-start a dormant mining industry, but she was kidnapped by Cardassians enroute. As Kira, Dax, Bashir are dispatched on a rescue mission into Cardassian territory,  Sisko and the others labor to keep the hungry rock-slugs from literally eating them out of house and home.

The only high point here, really, is Kira and Bashir's maturing 'friendship'. Bashir begins as a caricture of himself. His youthful arrogance and total confidence in himself are taken up to eleven, and made all the more obnoxious by Bashir swaggering around like a lady-killer.  Kira, with an established disdain for Bashir's patronizing view of Bajor, only likes him slightly more than the Cardassians.  Forced to work together to free the Horta from a death camp filled with Bajorans, however,  Bashir matures and Kira starts to find him tolerable. It's the Bashir-Kira version of that Bashir-O'Brien episode: evidently the key to liking the doctor is facing death with him.

The rest is fairly average: Odo is grumpy and doesn't like Quark, Quark is scheming, Jake and Nog get into trouble, that sort of thing. There's at least one nice call back to the original episode, in which the Mother Horta is forced to communicate by writing letters in acid on the floor -- not "NO KILL I", but "FOLLOW ME".  Sisko takes entirely too long to remember that Bajor has  deserted moons that he can stick the Horta babies on without angering the Bajoran government who have suddenly decided that nope, Horta have no place in Bajor's delicate ecosystem.

If the first one hundred pages -- of Bashir being utterly obnoxious, far more so than he was in the show -- can be survived, it's an enjoyable enough action tale.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Glass Houses

Glass Houses: Privacy, Secrecy, and Cyber Insecurity in a Transparent World
© 2011, 2013 Joel Brenner
320 pages

Glass Houses, originally titled  America the Vulnerable, outlines some of the major ways that private citizens, corporations, and the government itself are exposed to attack through digital measures, and closes with measures to strengthen defenses. While not as sweeping as Future Crimes,  Brenner offers a different kind of insider perspective -- the NSA's.  Brenner was formally the head of counterintelligence, and thus his work primarily concerns itself with national security.  He argues that an ordinary citizen's desire for privacy, and the government's own need for secrecy, are essentially the same. (And what about a citizen's desire for privacy from the NSA?)


Brenner isn't nearly as fear-inducing as writers like Marc Goodman,  but his piece stands out because of his role within the government. While arguing for better data hygiene, he also criticizes the still-disjointed approach of D.C. to cybersecurity.  There are several 'cyber' organizations within the aegis of the government, but all of them have completely different priorities, and none of them truly cover civilian infrastructure that the government relies on. One of the early points Brenner makes is that not only is everyone utterly exposed  to digital threats --  hacking tools are cheap,   marketable, and encouraged by governments  in China and Russia --  but the boundaries between public and private are increasingly gone. Corporations are now under attack by national governments, and the United States relies more and more on private services  for essential functions.   Brenner likens the current division of cyberdefense --  one on military security, one on collecting information about foreign states and securing the information of the government --  to that which prevailed in the armed services before World War 2.  Then, the Army and Navy departments were separate, and rivals:  they are both contained within the Department of Defense and officers commonly serve tours in connection to other branches.

While Brenner doesn't argue for militarization of non-military departments, he does maintain that closer cooperation is vital. The president's cybersecurity 'czar' does nothing but ineffectually urge everyone to work together, a la Gladhands in West Side Story.  Brenner's specific policy recommendations don't involve creating a new Cyber Homeland Security department, though; instead, his measures are more subtle. He suggests that antitrust laws that discourage ISPs and cybersecurity firms from working  more closely together  be relaxed, and that the federal government use its buying power to insist on more security from the equipment and software it uses, dictating to the market a la Wal-Mart. Such a demand will filter through to the consumer market shortly enough.  He also echoes the advice of other books:  disconnecting the control networks of energy companies from the public Internet (Richard Clarke, Cyber War), and companies practicing deliberate and methodical digitial hygiene (various, incl. Swiped).  Companies whose networks contain vital information, for instance, should forbid the use of outside flashdrives, and issue instead encrypted drives which are collected and purged periodically.

Unless the current Dear Leader candidates have savvier advisors than themselves, the outlook of the United States' cybersecurity remains fairly grim.  Glass Houses is effective citizen awareness -- not technical, not long, and with quasi-fictional 'scenarios' to illustrate how a cyberattack might look, and how the mere threat of it might alter foreign policy -- that stands out especially  for the look into the American intelligence community.  It's unusual to read a book from the NSA's perspective,given their secrecy and recurring roles as uber-villain in  other books about data security, but aside from the unapologetically hostile attitude toward Julian Assange, there's nothing too partisan.  I appreciated Brenner's prudent recommendations, which are more about incentives and pressure and less about outright coercion.