Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency
pub. 2017, Chris Whipple
384 pages

True confession: I never paid that much attention to the chief of staff position within the White  House until I started watching The West Wing, a show marked by its characters' constant movement and work.  In The Gatekeepers, Chris Whipple introduces readers to the office as created by Eisenhower and Nixon, and then reviews how subsequent chiefs have played a pivotal role in executive success or failure.

Whipple traces modern chiefs of staff to Eisenhower's administration. Formerly commander of the Allied forces in Europe in World War 2, Eisenhower was no stranger to a complex, demanding job --and he imposed a little of the organization from the army onto the executive office, relying on a chief to vet  requests and control access to his office.   This proves throughout the book to be a critical role played by the chief, though it wasn't until Nixon that a formal WH staff organization was created.  An abundance of advisers only makes a wash of noise out of otherwise useful information, and distractions keep the executive from accomplishing much of anything. Whipple demonstrates how a good chief of staff can bring order to chaos -- demonstrating to a new-to-town Bill Clinton, for instance, that his office was leaching productivity by wandering from topic to topic within the day, rather than focusing on anything at all.  The chief also directs the flow of information by controlling access to the Oval Office: under an active chief, there might be an astonishingly short list of people permitted to access the office at will (a Cabinet officer or two), while others wait for appointments and the chief as chaperone. 
Another vital role of the chief is as the advisory who will and must say to the most powerful man on the planet -- "No."   Some people in DC are evidently aware of the bubble they live in, and aware that the White House can become host to its own private bubble only dimly aware of the reality  abroad and in the world. (The insulating effects of the Oval Office were explored to great effect in The Twilight of the Presidency).   A good chief of staff is aware  of limits to how much is possible, and pushes back when needed, serving to check his bosses's overreach. This doesn't always happen, and some of the saddest and most expensive mistakes of modern American history happen because no one pushed back enough.  Because the position of chief is so intense,  they rarely last more than two years -- so even an effective chief can quickly give way to one that's not quite up to the task.

I found The Gatekeepers an utterly fascinating work, and one largely nonpartisan -- though Whipple does seem protective of the Clintons,   he doesn't shy away from documenting the disorder that popped up there.  It's certainly an interesting lens to see presidencies through -- viewing, for instance, Carter's ineffectiveness as owing to the utter lack of a chief at all for much of his administration.  Although the book doesn't cover the current administration very much (nor can it, given the publication date),   given the current executive's willfulness and the highly irregular nature of his own staffing decisions, it is unlikely that a future version of this book would regard its chiefs a success stories.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Top Ten Places in Books I'd Want to Visit

This week Top Ten Tuesday is asking us to share places from books we'd like to visit.  Allllllllllllllll aboard!

1. Hogwart's

2. Al's Diner with a Portal to 1958, a la 11/22/1968

Obviously this one is immediately on my mind because of watching the Hulu series  based on 11/22/1963,     but one of the reasons I was drawn to that book so much was because of the setting.  I grew up listening largely to music from the 1950s and 60s -- it was the only non-church music  my parents would listen to in the car  or in our home --   and watching series like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or The Wonder Years.   Granted, I wouldn't want to live in 1958 (insert the usual reasons, from pervasive smoking to race relations), but  how I'd love to visit it...again and again,  using the diner for historical tourism. Penn Station? The Hotel Albert?   It'd all be there waiting for me.

3.  Amsterdam, from The City of Bikes

Granted, this one isn't impossible. Once I pay off my student loans (OCTOBER OCTOBER OCTOBER),   I'll be able to travel more, and I could theoretically handle even a jaunt across the Atlantic.  I suspect, however, Amsterdam is more meaningful to me as an ideal rather than a reality, and if I got there I'd be overwhelmed by the crowds and the noise. 

4. The Flat of One Bertie Wooster (P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves-and-Wooster stories)

Honestly, I'd pop in to let Jeeves serve me some English drink I've never heard of ("A lemon squash,  Jeeves, thank you") and then listen to Bertie talk, because he's a riot.   Perhaps I could even witness him being shanghaied by one of his aunts.

5. The Oasis, Ready Player One

I realize that the real world Wade and company live in is definitely a craptastic wasteland, but I am only visiting after all, and if I'm visiting  you really can't get more value for money than the friggin' Oasis. 

6. Narnia, The Chronicles thereof

 The best bits of the medieval era -- castles, swords,   quests -- without the constant smell of manure, urine, and death.

7. The Shire, LOTR

 A quiet life surrounded by friends, food, drink, and gardens? Count me in, and if Gandalf shows up I'm not at home. And if those dwarves show up I'm most definitely not home.

8. Tara

 I've been in my share of grand antebellum estates and savored their smell and sights, but I've never been to a country plantation home, one that would have commanded the surrounding countryside like its kingdom in miniature.  Those who have read Gone with the Wind know that Tara -- for Scarlett -- means stability and home more than anything else, and the movie delivers that feeling well:

 ASHLEY: Tara, the red earth of Tara.
Mr. O'HARA: That land's the only thing that matters, it's the only thing that lasts.
ASHLEY: Something you love better than me, though you may not know it... Tara.
Mr. O'HARA: ...From which you get your strength...
ASHLEY: ... the red earth of Tara.
Mr. O'HARA: Lands the only thing that matters...
ASHLEY: something you love better than me...
ASHLEY: ...the red earth of
Tara...Tara!... Tara!... Tara!
SCARLETT: Tara! Home.

 9. The Nautilus, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I can still remember being fascinated by the idea of the submarine having a Star Trek-like viewing window as a kid. 
10. The Abbey, Redwall


C''s a medieval-like castle-monastery thing filled with woodland creatures who wear robes and pack swords and bows. I'd want to be one of the animals, of course (little awkward otherwise).  

Sunday, February 24, 2019

We Did Not Ask for This Room

© Stephen King
We Did Not Ask For This Room

We did not ask for this room,
       or this music;
       we were invited in.
because the dark surrounds us,
       let us turn our faces toward the light.
Let us endure hardship
       to be grateful for plenty.
We have been given pain
       to be astounded by joy.
We have been given life
       to deny death.
We did not ask for this room,
       or this music.
But because we are here,
       let us dance.


On Friday evening, I learned that Stephen King's 11.22.63 had been made into an eight-part series on Hulu,  and I decided to use a trial membership to take a look at it.  Last night, I finished the last of eight episodes, having been completely spellbound by the drama.  The novel was incredible; the series, though rather different in some respects, was likewise incredible.  Despite its title and setting regarding the Kennedy assassination, 11.22.63 is in truth a love story -- one with depth and power.   The series ends with one of the central characters reciting a poem (apparently written by King) that is quite appropriate. It's rather interesting to think of Stephen King creating beauty, given that he is known for horror, but -- I was just astounded.   I can't do a reads-to-reels post because it's been so long since I've read the book, but here's the trailer in case you're interested.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Yesterday: Memories of Selma

Yesterday: Memories of Selma and her People
© 1940 C.C. Grayson
155 pages

(For want of a book cover, I'm including a photograph of Selma's main street in the early 20th century, after 1891 but before 1926.)

In the 1940s, one of Selma's oldest living residents, Claude Grayson, was asked to record his memories of the town. He had made a habit of contributing little recollections to the local paper and apparently created demand for more of the same.  What was produced, in 1940, is an exceedingly rare and personal look at a town from the 1860s to the early 1900s.   It was written in longhand and not organized in the least,  but what interesting times to record! Grayson arrived in Selma as a young lad in 1867,  and found it a town whose two great avenues, Water and Broad,  lay much in ruins from the invading Yankee army of two years before.  He witnessed its revival, as Selma capitalized on its river commerce by investing heavily in railroads.   This was an age when  Selma was one of the leading cities of Alabama, and where Dallas County's massive population gave it a powerful position in state politics. (It wasn't an accident that Selma managed the rare feat of claiming both of Alabama's senators to Washington at one time.)

Much of this is of interest only to locals, of course. I stumbled upon this book while pursuing any and all leads relevant to the Hotel Albert, a historical sketch of which I'm working on on behalf of the city.  (In the photograph above, it's that ornate four-story building.) I quickly learned that Grayson used to walk the third and fourth-floor rafters long before the building was complete shooting pigeons, but I was thereafter fascinated by the myriad of stories Grayson reveals. Some are random, some tender, some weird.  I've only recently learned of a phenomenal man - Goldsby King -- who plowed his fortune into creating and maintaining a private hospital in the city,  who worked himself to death and was hailed as a saint when he perished in his fifties.  King makes an appearance here, but as mentioned the collection is somewhat random -- Grayson gives a full account of the Battle of Selma, and closes with a history of St. Paul's Episcopal Church,  making no attempt at all to be chronological. It's whatever comes to mind, really, so it will probably frustrate an outside reader trying to make sense of it. As a native Selmian and someone whose career involves its history, I was perfectly at home, and found it satisfying to connect the names of buildings and streets to prominent personalities who made Selma such a beautiful and satisfying place to live.  Although since the closing of the Air Force base in the 1970s the town has struggled economically,  so much of the granduer of yesterday still stands, and it's nice to be reminded of it.

Rebel Without a Green Card

Americanized: Rebel Without a Green Card
288 pages
© 2018 Ssara Saedi

Sara Saedi and her older sister Samira were both born in Iran, but following the revolution their parents fled to America by way of Italy.  Although Sara had virtually no memory of her home country, she was marked by it, growing up as an undocumented resident when her family visa lapsed and the green card applications were endlessly delayed. In Americanized, Saedi offers a memoir of her coming of age,  most of which is humorous takes on the indignities of youth: fighting with older relatives, stressing out over acne and puberty, worrying about boys, etc.  Occasionally, however, the memoir grows more serious when her parents' on-going attempt to move forward with permanent legal residency and citizenship is stalled again and again.   The memoir is obviously political in its intent, as Saedi  frequently frets over residential attitudes regarding illegal immigration,  so Rebel can be read as an attempt to put a human face on an abstract policy. Her family would certainly be poster children for more inclusive immigration policies (being good, passionate people who want nothing more than the freedom to live their lives and pursue their dreams, etc),  but the Saeds are only one family, and not necessarily representative. Immigration offices can be painfully difficult to navigate, however, and needlessly burdensome: as a public librarian, I've personally witnessed struggles by my city's Yemeni and Bangladeshi immigration population to make any any progress with naturalization,  with form after form being rejected because a jot was a little too tiddlish -- there being specific requirements for only using capital letters, for instance. I've no doubt it could be made far more humane.

As a book, Americanized has some interest -- but honestly, it's more of a teen-girl-in-the-90s memoir than a serious discussion about immigration.  Firoozeh Dumas'  Funny in Farsi offers a much fuller idea of the immigrant experience, partially because Firoozeh remembered more of her childhood in Iran. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019


Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change
pub 2006 Stephen Kinzer
384 pages

The prolonged debacle in the middle east is not, sadly, an exception in modern American foreign policy.  Since the late 19th century,  the powers that be in DC have repeatedly looked abroad – both with  honest avarice and with idealistic dreams of remaking the world in an Empire of Liberty. In Overthrow, Stephen Kinzer delivers a review of its actions, beginning with the seizure of Hawaii,  covering seemingly every country in central and South America save Brazil,  and ending up in the Ozymandian wastes of Afghanistan and Iraq, delivered with a slightly journalistic flair.

Because of the popularity of books like those penned by Howard Zinn,  some of these adventures are not as unknown as they once were. Popular ignorance about the events, however, is chronic.  When Cuba and Iran roiled in revolution and their people spoke of previous interference from America,  few in the United States knew what they meant -- even American leadership. The scales of American involvement in the countries detailed here  -- places as small as the isle of Grenada, and as large a Afghanistan -- vary from  clandestine coups arranged by the CIA, to outright invasions. The interventions often happen in connection with "helping" the people in the target country, either to save them from themselves (Cuba, the Phillipines), to secure democracy (Hawaii, Iraq),  or to prevent worse evils from occurring (most of Central and  South America).  Teddy Roosevelt's role in interventionist wars is no surprise, but Eisenhower  arguably accounts for more.  Considering how he warned the American people about a military-industrial complex  driving all too much of public policy, that comes as something of a surprise. Eisenhower invariably got involved in these outside adventures out of fear of the Soviet Union's rising influence, however, and it's possible that he realized he was manipulated in retrospect, and based his warning on that. This is only speculation on my part, however.

I mentioned Howard Zinn earlier, because his history published decades before exposed more Americans than ever to the bare facts of these events, and Kinzer does not go into that much more detail.   What he has is documented,  but  in tone it struck me as more of a newspaper-esque expose in book form than a work of history, making the regime-change events more dramatic than necessary by having DC attack men on false pretenses every single time.   This kind of foreign intervention can still be argued against even when the persons targeted are objectively awful human beings; it isn't necessary to make them angels first. Frankly, I've been a bit wary about Kinzer since he revealed he keeps a portrait of the dictator Ataturk in his office.

While Americans definitely need to be more aware of their government's history in this regard -- both to guard against future excursions and to understand why  there might be resentment between our neighbors and ourselves --  Overthrow doesn't quite suit the task.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Why We Hate and How to Heal

Them: Why We Hate and How to Heal
 © 2018 Ben Sasse
272 pages

The tenor of civil 'discourse' in America today is disheartening and distressful, in part for at least over a decade there has been little discourse at all, only yelling.  We seem less a nation and more a mob of three hundred million people who happen to have some connection with DC. Ben Sasse's Them  reveals the author (a fairly new senator from Nebraska whose hope has not been ritually smothered in subcommittee meetings)  to be similarly disturbed.   Despite his occupation, however, this is not a book on politics. It is, rather, a citizen's thinking-over how things deteriorated to this degree and what, if any hope there is for finding our way out of the darkness.  It is a profoundly thoughtful and touching book, and although I don't know if the course Sasse recommends will necessarily be adequate,  his description of the problem, with his heart fully on the line, is insightful.

The greatest problem, Sasse argues, is loneliness - a profound, sickening loneliness that is undermining our physical, mental, emotional, and civic health. We are living in a profoundly disruptive moment in history, in which the snowball effects of technology are making any sort of vocational stability a joke for many Americans.  A vocation is an important thing: it isn't merely a means of putting food on the stable, it is a source of meaning for people, even for people who don't have jobs that allow them to have a profound effect on people, like a teacher, nurse, or artist.   For someone to know that others need them is a vital piece of our interior lives.  Technological change is radically eroding the ability of many people to hold on to it.  This is especially the case in America's poorer segments, who don't have the material or social resources to  adapt quickly to the need for change.  The other major  source of our civic loneliness is the fact that so much of civic society has been destroyed, especially the family.  A poor child born to supportive family can climb their way into financial stability, but not one born into chaotic circumstances.  A supportive family is not just the means to a financial end, however:  families give us deep roots to our places, and meaning to our lives.

Our loneliness, alienation, and frustration are only part of the problem, says Sasse; what makes matters far worse is that we are trying to meet our needs for meaning and community by embracing anti-tribes. We sit at home in front of the television, attaching ourselves to ideological stories and personalities, or lose ourselves  for hours on and throughout the day in the constant roar of social media activity.  We are engulfed in a roar of online chatter, and those voices that we hear above the din are the loudest and the angriness. We do not hear the still, small voice of grace or reason -- we hear only rage.  And it doesn't matter if we're raging against something, or we're being raged against: either way,  our emotions are quickened,  our minds are stirred, and , we are engaged in poisonous rapture, and kept  addicted. It's  good for the professional politicians, and it's wonderful for the hack journalists -- but it is woefully bad for America.

What can be done? First and foremost,  unplug from the noise. Sasse argues that we can and must redefine our relationship with the technology that has overtaken so much of our lives in this past decade, and re-prioritize the people who are physically in our lives.  (He and his family have scheduled 'tech sabbaths'.) Second, people must reject anti-identities -- defining themselves by who they oppose -- and put politics in its place.   The government should not be used as a bludgeon to attack one's enemies, and  each of us should labor to hold everyone to the same standards -- even if they're on "our" side. More importantly, however,  Sasse calls readers to be "Americans, again": to re-affirm our common identity, rooted in the fundamental belief in human dignity declared with our independence on July 4th, 1776.   If we truly took one another's dignity to heart, we could not rail against one another or ignore  our mutual sorrows.  Tying all these together is the need for humility.  Each and every one of us need to admit to acknowledge that we have our limits; to our knowledge, to our personal virtue, to our ability to control things or fate or one another.

We Americans are plainly in a dark place now,  and this earnest plea from Sasse is a welcome reminder that there are people groping in the darkness, trying to find others and a way out of it.   He is very much the citizen-writer here,  earnestly nonpartisan -- quoting from liberals and conservatives alike, acknowledging his own biases as he entreats the reader to consider theirs.   We cannot know now how modern democracies will adjust to the volatile effects of social media, or to the industries of the 21st century.  Continuing to linger in mobwar will only lead to some nightmare like the cultural revolution in China, or greater tyranny still.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Becoming Mrs Lewis

Becoming Mrs Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis
© 2018 Patti Callahan
415 pages

Few books transfix me in the way that Becoming Mrs Lewis did; I suppose it helps to have a strong affection for 'Jack' to begin with.  Reading Surprised by Joy felt less like working on something and more like listening to a friend chat, and Becoming Mrs. Lewis was quite the same way.  It's the story of Joy Davidman, an American writer who took up writing letters to CS Lewis while struggling with her newfound faith and her illfound marriage.  Though no stranger to deep discussions with women over matters literary and theological, Lewis and his brother Warnie were especially taken with their 'American friend', and invited her to visit them should she ever visit England.  She did, of course, seeking refuge from her frustrated artist-turned-drunken lech of a husband, and there fell in love with England, Oxford, and  -- Jack.   

Becoming Mrs. Lewis is a curious novel; based much in fact,   and though ostensibly about a romance,  its delivery is far more serious and substantial. Throughout the book, Jack and Joy, and sometimes  his friends in England, are deep in conversation with one another about all manner of things. It's not quite random, though, because the give and take leads them to new revelations about themselves and God. It is in England,  surrounded by the beauty of Oxford, the English countryside, and the warmth of true friendship, that Joy finds the strength she needs to take a leap and leave her toxic 'husband' behind,  beginning a new life for herself and her boys in England.  From there she is free to grow into her a best self -- developing her writing,  maturing in faith, and developing a deep relationship with Lewis. That relationship is fascinating to watch grow, as they each wrestle with their inner doubts.  They each have to have an "A-ha" moment before they can embrace one another as husband and wife as well as deep and devoted friends.

Becoming Mrs Lewis is an utterly lovely novel. I read it immediately after watching Shadowlands (and many, many thanks to Hopewell's Public Library of Life for bringing that gem to my attention!) and was so primed to enjoy it.   The book was so much deeper than I expected, though, in part because the conversations are based on their letters and quotes from the pair. At least, I recognized quite a few Lewisisms, like his wryly noting that if someone thinks Christianity is the key to happiness and comfort, they'd be better off with a bottle of port.  Although I was fairly familiar with Lewis'  and Davidman's  story -- their meeting in correspondence, a friendship turned to love in England, their marriage to one another late in life, and her sudden passing when cancer loomed -- I wasn't bored for a moment hereenjoying this like precious few other books.

Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis

Top Ten Couples Redux

Eight years ago, in another Top Ten Tuesday,  I almost managed to think up ten literary couples I liked. I've read...more books since then, so can I think of ten more?

1. Jayber Crow and Mattie. Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)

I'm really hesitant to write anything here, because the Jayber-Mattie relationship of Jayber Crow is not a conventional love story. In my drafts is an essay called "Love Can Mean More", and it's about this relationship, which is so unique.  Suffice it to say,  it demonstrates love is more a giving of self to the other's benefit,  rather than just being hormone-drunk about someone's smile or caboose.

2. Jack and Joy, Becoming Mrs. Lewis

This is cheating a bit, because though Mrs. Lewis is a novel,  (one I finished only yesterday, in fact),  it's closely based on the true story of Joy Davidman and her dear friend, C.S. Lewis -- "Jack" to his friends.  I utterly enjoyed this account of their becoming friends, bonding over discussions of literature, philosophy, theology, the beauty of life -- as well as the slow deepening of their friendship as they became wedded to one another in thought, in work, and then finally -- in fact.   As with The Shadowlands, a movie based on the same relationship, it's become an instant favorite.

3. Tobias and Rachel, Animorphs

Tobias and Rachel are another atypical couple, though more in the romcom sense. Rachel is your high school queen: beautiful, popular, talented, etc. not. Tobias was on the margins even before he got stuck living in the body of a hawk who regularly dined on mice and rabbits.  And yet these two don't just come together just for some trope;   Rachel is a little more complex than she appears, and their relationship develops from that, in part. Rachel is wild in her own way, feral in battle, and is far more serious about the war the kids face against Earth's alien infiltrators than she lets on.  I think their seriousness and isolation links them.

4. Arthur and Molly Weasley, Harry Potter

I loved every bit of the Weasleys I saw in the HP books, and these two must have been incredible parents to have so many strong characters as kids.

5. Parzival and Art3mis, Ready Player One

I thought Ar3mis was cool from the moment Wil Wheaton described her (I first experienced RPO as an Audible presentation), and of course their relationship -- along with Parzival's  friendsihp with Aech --  is one of the most important elements of RPO, reminding them that relationships are far, far more important than glory or wealth.

6. Jane Eyre and Lord whathisname, Jane Eyre

They look so happy, don't they?
Rochester! That's it.  Jane really is the more memorable of these two, at least for me.  I still like this quote from the novel:

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad — as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth — so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am quite insane — quite insane: with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot."
Rochester who really tests Jane's decision to hold to those principles, so they as a couple definitely warrant mentioning.

7. John and Abigail Adams, First Family

Okaaaay, so they're not a fictional couple. But since 2011, I have read an awful lot about the Adams,  and they were an example of iron sharpening iron.  Adams was a formidable figure in the revolution and an admirable -- if not widely admired -- president,   but I doubt could he could have been so resolute had he not had the good fortune to marry his greatest ally and intellectual equal.

8. Howard Roark and his Skyscraper, The Fountainhead

Theirs was a pairing more doomed than Romeo and Juliet, because the mob had to meddle.  They'll always be together, though, in that Big Apple in the Sky.

More seriously,  I remember All Other Nights as having an incredibly powerful relationship between a Jewish man serving as a Union spy in the Confederacy, and a southern belle who proves to be a master of intelligence gathering for her own side, but I can't remember her name.

9. Robin and Marjorie, Come Rack! Come Rope!

Robin and Marjorie are a young couple in love, seriously intent on creating a life together. But then Robin, an ardent Catholic, realizes a call to the  priesthood, despite the mortal peril this will put him in as a resident of Elizabethan England.  After leaning on Marjorie for advice, she does the utterly noble thing  and supports him regardless of his decision --  even though if he becomes a priest they'll have to be chaste friends instead of husband and wife. 

10. Bertie Wooster and Honoria Glossop, Code of the Woosters

So...Berrtie and Honoria aren't a couple, but Honoria was the funnest by FAR of Bertie's intended fiances -- those women who Bertie's wife intended him to marry, anyway, since Bertie was far more interested in drinking and playing the piano than consorting with the fairer sex -- and I loved that she made an end-series appearance (dancing!!) on the TV version of the Jeeves and Wooster stories. Unlike most of the women in the series, Honoria has the good sense not to take Bertie seriously --- to appreciate or laugh at him just as he is, rather than  fancying him as raw materials for a respectable husband like his aunt and various other personalities do.

And that's ten! I...mostly made it. I could have dropped John and Abigail and stuck in another purely fictional couple (Hannah and Nathan from Hannah Coulter), but that would have been two from Wendell Berry, and I wanted to avoid duplicating authors.   I really don't read a lot of fiction.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Ghost in the Wires

Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World's Most Wanted Hacker
© 2011 Kevin Mitnick, William Simon. Forward by The Woz.
393 pages

CYBERPUNK introduced me to the story of Kevin Mitnick, a teenage phone phreaker turned celebrity hacker,  who boasted that he never used an outside program to break into a company. Instead,  all of his access was obtained by manipulating people within companies into giving him the information.  Writing later as a security consultant, he explained the workings of this manipulation in the book Art of Deception, which I referred to as "interesting but highly repetitive". Well....ditto for Ghost in the Wires.  It's the memoir of a serial, and apparently compulsive, hacker, whose obsession with accessing networks he has no authorization for,  and obtaining information he has no right to have,  utterly consumes his life.  He admits that hacking was like booze for him -- his entertainment, his addiction.  Even when he's barely escaped from one episode, he's already starting the other....and his enormous pride in getting one over on the hapless clerks,  alarmed security admins, and frustrated federal agents is so hubristic that he routinely calls the FBI or accesses their computer network during investigations to see how close they are to the scent. 

It's his compulsiveness that does him in time and again: even when he was relatively safe on the run, with a stolen identity (several, actually) and a comfortable job,  Mitnick is so consumed by his desire to hack that it attracts the attention of his employers, who  fire and investigate him. At one point while working there, for instance, he was on his cell phone putting on a presumably awful Japanese accent to convince an engineer that his counterpart in the Tokyo office needed him to upload cellphone source code to a server Mitnick had access to. One of his coworkers heard this outside the door and could only wonder what on earth was going on.)  When the FBI found his scent, it was because he was trying to collect the source codes for a UNIX release, as well as various next-gen cell phones that were hitting the market. Was he selling them to rival businesses? No. He was collecting them as trophies.  Mitnick is the movie villain who undermines himself by  pausing mid-kill to gloat at the hero, or  decides to consign him to a slow death in an elaborate trap.

This book was informative, however;  Mitnick proves to be far more dangerous than I'd previously believed. He wasn't  just exploring networks as portrayed in CYBERPUNK:   for him, there was no limit to the systems he'd compromise. The DMV, Social Security, Vital Records? Grist for the mill for Kevin to do what he wanted. Admittedly, his technical expertise is admirable, in the same way that Napoleon's army or the Luftwaffe  were technically admirable.  He certainly wasn't just relying on people giving him information, as  he frequently applied patches to systems to give himself  backdoor access later on. What's less admirable is Mitnick's ability to lie to so many people so habitually, to manipulate them like switches on a board. The act is deeply disturbing in itself, but  what happened to the hundreds of receptionists, clerks, and engineers who became Mitnick's unwitting dupes? 

While I began this book guardedly sympathetic to Mitnick (impressed by his talents, a little wary of his lying), by the end I regarded him as a compulsive, hubristic ass. I'm glad he's turned semistraight, in managing to squelch his desire to thwart everyone else,  but the book has virtually no information on that. Was there any soul-searching at all, or was it just a mercenary decision?   Mitnick may be a nice guy in person; he's friends with Steve Wozniak, who has experience with egotistical personalities before  and would presumably recognize it in Mitnick,  but based on this book I wouldn't trust him.

Exploding the Phone
Books by Kevin Mitnick

Friday, February 8, 2019

Ever wonder how those Animorphs covers were made?


The Lazy Game Reviewer,  YouTube's favorite guide to retrotech, Sims reviews, and computer oddities, finds the program used for  the covers and tries his hand at it. Pretty cool if you were into Animorphs like me! 

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Status Anxiety

Status Anxiety
© 2004 Alain de Botton
 306 pages

Who said "comparison is the thief of joy"?  If they hadn't, Alain de Botton would, as here he argues that most of our misery comes from the constant comparison of ourselves to others -- to their lives, their wealth, their accomplishments.  A book addressing that -- marshaling philosophy, art, and religion to diagnose and combat the problem -- is arrestingly relevant these days, as it's never been easier to compare ourselves with our friends, our neighbors, and the people who we went to high school with and who are doing so much more with their lives than we are.  That said, however, it's incomplete, treating  the human concern for status as something wholly new, something spawned by modern economies and the decline of religious perspectives which once reminded us again and again that we are more than the sum of our parts, that our true valuation lies in something else -- like our being created in the image of God, for instance, and possessing inherent dignity. (It should be noted that de Botton is not himself a believer in any creed; he simply appreciates the strengths of religiosity for people and societies, and is presently engaged in creating a secular substitution he calls the School of Life. It sounds a bit like one of those things participants describe, then add "But it's not a cult.")  My chief gripe here is that I believe concern for status stems not from economy, but from biology, and de Botton never goes near this.  If chimpanzees constantly wrestle for status within their tribes,  it's not a farfetched idea to me that humans do something like that as well, and that this instinct has been made a constant obsession by the factors he mentions. That said, I rather liked de Botton's prescriptions, from Stoic philosophy to an engagement with music, literature, and other art that reminds us of our common frailty.    He's still one of my favorite people to read, with a graceful pen and a thoughtful mind.

Well, this is unsettling

In the last couple of months I've received spam comments that were eerily good at sounding human. Only the fact that they have nothing at all to do with the posts gives away that they're spam, but what really gives me pause is the fact that I don't see the hook. There's no link to anything in any of these.  Maybe that's because they haven't been approved as comments, but I'm not convinced that's the case.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The measure of a man

I am presently reading Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton, and in it he quotes a bit from Michel de Montaigne which is worth sharing.

"A man have have a great suite of attendants, a beautiful palace, great influence and a large income. All that may surround him, but it is not in him...Measure his height with his stilts off; let him lay aside his wealth and his decorations and show himself to us naked....What sort of soul does he have? Is his soul a beautiful one, able, happily endowed with all her functions? Are her riches her own or are they borrowed? Has luck had nothing to do with it? ....That is what we need to know; that is what the immense distances between us men should be judged by."

p. 188.

I couldn't help but be reminded from a quote from Marcus Aurelius, too:

“Everything in any way beautiful has its beauty of itself, inherent and self-sufficient: praise is no part of it. At any rate, praise does not make anything better or worse. This applies even to the popular conception of beauty, as in material things or works of art. So does the truly beautiful need anything beyond itself? No more than law, no more than truth, no more than kindness or integrity. Which of these things derives its beauty from praise, or withers under criticism? Does an emerald lose its quality if it is not praised? And what of gold, ivory, purple, a lyre, a dagger, a flower, a bush?”

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Big Ones

The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them)
© 2018 Lucy Jones
256 pages

Earth is not a peaceful place; even it were stripped of all life, it would still teem with energy, from vast tectonic plates below, to the rolling seas and fantastic lightening storms above.  Much of that energy is put to use by human ingenuity, but sometimes it lashes out in displays that destroy hundreds or thousands of lives and undermine what we've built. The Big One reviews some of the greatest recorded disasters to strike human civilization, mixing science and history, and closes with some general advice  to the public on how to think about disaster preparation and emergency management.

Jones' background is in seismology, so it's probably no surprise that most of the disasters chronicled here are earthquakes. But disasters that  make history -- the 'big ones' that people remember  -- are rarely by themselves. The great San Francisco earthquake, for instance, did great direct damage, but its greatest impact was the fires it helped create and feed.  Likewise, for the Fukushima affair; the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan were formidable in themselves, but they compromised and accelerated the demise of a nuclear reactor and led to an altogether different kind.  The most recent 'big ones' covered in this book are the Christmas 2004 tsunami that affected sixteen countries and killed nearly three hundred thousand people, and the Fukushima event.  There are some here which have nearly no name recognition (like the massive earthquake that struck immediately after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in China, and some I've seen mentioned in other books, like the earthquake and fire that destroyed over eighty percent of Lisbon in 1755. 

In addition to discussing the science behind disasters -- why they happened, what specific forces are causing various calamities, why some earthquakes are more disastrous than others  -- Jones also addresses the long-term effects of these disasters when possible. The timing of the Lisbon earthquake -- on All Saint's Day, during the morning when all the churches were full of faithful parishioners celebrating the memory of saints present and pass --  could not have been better timed for mass death, and it shook the faith of many, just as the Holocaust would centuries later.   Japan and China's traditional way of explaining disasters, as distortions of yin and yang, would be challenged by "big ones' during the dawn of modernity as well.  The disasters around the Mississippi -- a great flood and then Katrina -- also  bring up a discussion of race, and the US government's first forays into federal emergency management. Jones defends FEMA during Katrina, however, arguing that the great failures there happened on the ground, as both the city and state officials were not communicating with one another or with FEMA enough to be at all effective.   In one of the few non-earthquake examples,  Jones points to greater international information-sharing as a result of the 2004 tsunami.   (Which...was triggered by an earthquake. We're really never far removed from that!)

All said, this is an interesting history of how  a few earthquakes have altered nations' responses to disaster response, driving the desire to learn about them and find realistic politics to cope with the aftermath -- topped with advice to citizens at the end that's a little generic ("Educate yourself"). It's not as wide-ranging as I'd hoped, since most of the disasters were earthquakes, but keeping this subject in mind is good for any citizen today. Future disasters will effect proportionally more people, as the global population swells and concentrates, and as the globe becomes fully industrialized we will have more distortive effects on the environment.  Emergency awareness and management should be near to the forefront not just for citizens, but for every level of government.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Happy City

Happy City: Transforming Our Lives through Urban Design
© 2013 Charles Montgomery
368 pages

City air makes one free, but -- happy? Throughout the 20th century, Americans fled the urban centers seeking Arcadian bliss. They didn’t find it, and despite an abundance of material wealth the nation continues to writhe in anxiety.  We’re addicted to medication, legal or otherwise;  many live lives of quiet desperation, and others lash out violently in scenes that horrify the imagination.  The suburban experiment was a failure from the start, says Charles Montgomery, because we were made for one another. In leaving the cities to decay, we uprooted ourselves from the social fabric which sustains us. It doesn’t have to be this way; we can come home to the village, even to the city. We can restore our cities to the picture of health, and ourselves in the bargain. Montgomery’s Happy City is a masterful work,  bringing together Greek philosophy, urban economics, and social commentary.

Why care about the city? Globally, the human race is half-urbanized, using a loose definition for urban that includes suburban sprawl. The semi-urban forms we choose to live in can either contribute  to our well-being by meeting our needs, or they can serve to frustrate us. Montgomery opens  with a review of what constitutes 'happiness'  and its connection to the urban form. There are sound objective reasons for wanting to make the setting of most human lives 'better';  traditionally-planned cities are more economically productive and allow for both greener and healthier lives by making it easy for people to walk or bike to work, for instance. Montgomery touches on these arguments, but he's not just writing to city planners or mayors who hold the fate of others in their hands. He writes to appeal to the common citizen, someone less interested in return-on-investment breakdowns and more concerned with the quality of everyday life.  Being able to walk to work or shops is good for our bones and good for the air, but it's also good for our spirits; we're not dependent on a car, we're out in the fresh air, we're seeing and being seen.  There are material pleasures to consider, of course; the concentration of diverse restaurants and stores in dense neighborhoods, and the bliss of pedaling down to the library through leafy streets , but there is more to the human experience than simple sensuality...even though there's nothing like a well-placed park to relax stressed brains.

We are political creatures, wrote Aristotle, not because we like to vote and share "Hooray For Our Side" memes on Facebook, but because people like other people. We like to watch people; we like to bump into them   We don't like to be crowded against people, however; there are tricky dynamics at work that the design of cities and the buildings within have to account for. There's a big difference, for instance, between apartment buildings that are designed around impersonal corridors, and those designed around suites that allow people to occupy a goldilocks area between the private and public realms. The front porch of southern homes in the US had the same effect in detached housing, allowing just the right amount of engagement and privacy. Montgomery is sneaky, exposing readers to brief chats about building codes  and housing policy while offering touching stories about people coming together to make their lives together.  In one neighborhood, for instance, residents turned an intersection into a public square by painting it and filling it with places to sit and talk.  They did this over the protests of the municipal government, which had steadily ignored residents' request for traffic-calming measures at that intersection.  A happy city is one where people can be agents in their own lives. Montgomery also stresses that a happy city is one that works for everyone, where even the poor and marginalized can feel like members of the city, and not just clients of its social services office. He goes into many examples of how even something mundane like traffic infrastructure can frustrate or quicken the ability of a person to thrive.  

Happy City is a supremely thoughtful book on what makes happy, and why urban design is important  in cultivate it.  America is plainly in a bad way judging by the politicians we favor with success.  Maybe we don't know what we want -- from one another, from the places we live. I think Happy City can help with directions. When I first heard someone speak on the importance of the urban form to human flourishing, I was blown away by the insight -- and that came from a grating critic. Montgomery is far more amiable, though not less impassioned.  The book itself offered a look at places that were healthy and growing more so, and both the information it provides and the examples it shows are tremendously encouraging.  

As a final note, this review has been a work in progress since  2015, and the state of it above is more or less the state it's been in since then. I've read the book twice since then, and re-skimmed it a few times more, and every time I just can't hit the button.  Maybe I just don't want to stop thinking about the book? At any rate, it's one of my very favorites. 

Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam
The Great Good Place, Roy Oldenburg, both on the human need for connection and 'place'.
The Geography of Nowhere, James Howard Kunstler, a history of suburban malaise
Walkable CityPedaling Revolution, and Straphanger 
It's a Sprawl World After All, Douglas Morris, focusing on sprawl's impact on the human need for community.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs; Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, Chuck Marohn; and Suburban Nation, Andreas Duany

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe

The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake
© 2018 Dr. Steven Novella, Bob Novella,  Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Burnstein
512 pages  Okay, so...back in 2006 I found a weekly podcast that was so consistently good that, even on a dial-up connection,  I had no problem spending four or five hours every week downloading it, just for an hour of content. It was The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe, hosted by several brothers and a couple of friends, sharing science, skeptic, and tech news, playing games, etc.  It often featured scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins as interviewees,  and was for a long time my absolute favorite podcast.   I still listen to it on a regular basis thirteen years later, and I never had any doubt that I'd buy and read this book.  However, I didn't.  Instead, I discovered that there was an audible version.....featuring the primary host of the show, Steven Novella.    So I listened to SGU Audible, instead, and -- well, it was delightful, and even opens with the SGU theme music.  Here's the short version: The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe is the best guide to critical thinking since Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World, and even surpasses Sagan as far as depth of content goes.  If you're a regular listener of SGU, there's added appeal is not only choice of narrator, but the fact that it ends with the entire SGU panel talking about the podcast and the creation of the book.

When this book calls itself "The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe", it's not kidding. This is not a one-off work to take advantage of the podcast's popularity, filled with little more than transcripts of old interviews. It's a fat ol' book, with a table of contents that runs three pages. It opens with core concepts that everyone should keep in mind, moves to logical fallacies and the like,   tackles pseudoscience both historical and contemporary,  addresses the media and Hollywood, and -- by way of ending -- dips into the grim results of persistent irrationality before offering ways to change ourselves and the world. Make no mistake: the target of this Skeptic's Guide is the reader, and that's obvious from the very beginning when Novella addresses the frailty of memory, as well as other mental snags like our  hyperactive pattern recognition.  The skeptical "rogues" as they term themselves are no strangers to mistakes, as Novella shares later on;  we all have blind spots. I was also taken with the section on trying to communicate with people; one tactic Novella suggests is finding common ground between the skeptic (on a particular issue) and the believer, or something they both disbelieve in -- and trying to find a connection from there.  The focus of Novella and company is to find a path to the truth, not prove oneself's right.

As much as I enjoyed listening to a familiar voice for nigh sixteen hours, framed by familiar music, given the sheer amount of content I find myself wishing now I had read the physical book. For one thing, it's harder to take notes on an audio book, especially when you're out doing laps or playing Civilization III. (I was playing Civ3 more often than doing laps, alas.) I'm going to keep my eyes open for a used copy and possibly revisit this one. It's an excellent resource as well as a fun read, and the panel discussion at the end of the audiobook indicated there are more books on the way.  I'm eagerly anticipating them!