Tag Archives: history

Review: Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage

Cyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital EspionageCyberspies: The Secret History of Surveillance, Hacking, and Digital Espionage by Gordon Corera
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Cyberspies” is exhaustive, but in the way that climbing a mountain is exhaustive, where the reward is worth the effort. It’s comprehensive, leaving you with the sense of no stone having been left unturned. Most importantly, however, it is neutral. By the end of the book, I couldn’t suss out author Gordon Corera’s allegiances on the privacy vs. security debate. Does he think Snowden is a traitor or a hero? Are groups like the NSA doing necessary work or have they become the latest incarnation of the Stasi?

Based on the book alone, it’s impossible to say. And for an issue as contentious as cyber-security, surveillance, spying, and information, it’s a rare treasure to not have politics get in the way of the presentation of the facts. Corera’s work offers up the information in a careful, thoughtful way, and invites us to draw our own conclusions. What does digital privacy mean to our lives? What are we willing to trade for it?

Another interesting aspect of Corera’s work is that we get a British perspective on things, which is a refreshing change of pace. If you read about the history of computers for long enough, eventually you start to the see the patterns and the same names over and over. And while Americans did, indeed, create the internet as we know it today, the history of computers and cyber-security isn’t an American-only topic. Corera’s perspective, both informed and directed by his identity as a Brit, means that this isn’t the same old story.

Even as he maintains authorial neutrality, he makes observations that don’t seem to occur to American authors in quite the same way. “Americans trust their corporations and mistrust their government,” he notes, “while for Brits, it’s the other way around.”

If you’re interested in the topic of cyber-security, espionage, or information privacy, this book is a strong recommendation. It might not be my first foray into the subject if you’re a novice; Corera assumes his readers have a baseline proficiency with computers even if he takes care not to overwhelm them with technical jargon. But if you’re just now starting to think about topics like cryptography and digital privacy, this might not be the best starting place. Add it to your list of books to come back to once you’re comfortable with the topic.

Regardless, Corera feels like an author to watch. His style is direct and pleasantly journalistic, which feels increasingly rare in an era that seems to treat information and entertainment as synonyms. That doesn’t mean that this is a boring book in the slightest, but it feels pleasantly old-fashioned in its aims, rather like the Cold War-era spies that Corera writes about. And like those old time-y methods like invisible ink and typewriters, this writing style might just be exactly what we need in today’s world.

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Review: On the Trail: A History of American Hiking

On the Trail: A History of American HikingOn the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started hiking as a kid with my family and later as a boy scout, I never gave much thought to how trails were made or who made them. Even as a teenager and then as a young adult, I had some vague sense that these trails were probably created by the CCC half a century ago. It wasn’t until I joined a local trail organization myself and started working to maintain and build new trails that I began to understand the sheer amount of man-hours (person-hours?) that go into keeping the trails open and enjoyable.

“On the Trail” describes the evolution of trail walking and hiking, from its inception of nature and rural graveyard strolls to organized clubs to the current incarnation of largely solo and ad hoc group hiking. Chamberlin’s history focuses on a few key groups and areas, such as the Dartmouth Outing Club, the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Trail, and (briefly) the Pacific Crest Trail, though many other organizations and trails get some coverage. His work nicely bridges the gap that seems to exist in outdoors-nature writing, which often goes “Thoreau > present.”

If you’re a hiker, backpacker, or outdoors enthusiast, this is a book I’ll happily recommend. It’ll give you something interesting to contemplate or discuss while you’re out on the trail yourself and make you wonder: “who built the trail I’m on now? Who takes care of it?” It might even make you feel inspired to get involved in a local trail organization of your own; always a good thing! Certainly, I felt a sense of vindication and pleasure knowing that I’ve shifted my hiking style from “net consumer” of trails to “net producer” (terms that Chamberlin uses to describe the shift).

If you don’t see what all the fuss is about when it comes to the outdoors or if your sense of what hiking should be is largely associated with forced family gatherings that are to be endured rather than enjoyed, there’s nothing here that’s going to make you want to strap on a pair of boots. But that’s okay, because this book is really aimed at the crowd of hikers who like to go out, enjoy the woods, but maybe haven’t thought too much more about how they can give back to their hobby. If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate how much work went into, and still goes into, created all the paths we enjoy.

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Review: Encounters with the Archdruid

Encounters with the ArchdruidEncounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a time capsule for the environmentalist. It’s a fossil. It’s a treasure.

“Encounters with the Archdruid” takes us back to 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency will be born this year. Climate change isn’t yet in the environmentalist’s lexicon; even its forerunner, “the greenhouse effect” is still a decade away from being a talking point. The greatest scourges are hydroelectric dams, mining, and housing developments. You can drink from the Colorado River, untreated, without worrying about giardia. The American southwest is still largely a remote backwater, with none of the explosive growth that it will see in the 80s and 90s.

It’s an entirely different world.

John McPhee writes about three different narratives with David Brower, the famous conservationist and former Sierra Club director. Part travelogue, part dialogue, McPhee captures the experiences and conversations as Brower explores different wilderness areas with men who are, quite possibly, his archenemies: a mineral engineer advocating for a copper mine, a developer who purchased a mostly pristine Atlantic island, and the Director of the Bureau of Reclamation who wants to build dams where ever dams can be built.

The discussions themselves are interesting and thought-provoking; should we aspire to be conservationists, who manage land wisely and responsibly, or preservationists, who leave the land alone entirely? Brower is firmly the latter, the other men the former, and in a supreme display of narrator neutrality, we never find out which camp McPhee falls into.

The fact that they’re able to go on these trips at all and argue while hiking or rafting before throwing back a beer shows that it was a different time. The things that Brower rails against, hydroelectric dams being his biggest bugbear, now seem quaint when we face the threat of global climate change and dams represent a cleaner, carbon neutral power source compared to fossil fuels.

And yet, though the book shows its age, it’s a marvelous look back, a tantalizing reminder of what was. It’s fascinating to look back on the thoughts, hopes, and fears from those in 1970 from my moment of time, here and now in 2017. Even if 2017 and the near future look horrifically bleak for the environment, far more grim than anything Brower could have imaginaged in 1970.

Regardless, this book is a gem. As a way of looking back at where we’ve come in the hopes of understand where we’re going, I would consider this book a must-read for anyone interested in the natural world and the environment.

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Book Review: The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence

The New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of AffluenceThe New Gilded Age: The New Yorker Looks at the Culture of Affluence by David Remnick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A curious mixture of the sublime and the staid. With any articles read more than a few years removed from the era in which they were written, there is a chance that they will not have aged well, that the context in which they flourished no longer permeates the world. One hopes that such things will have a certain timelessness, which would be why they’re worth putting into a book in the first place, but this doesn’t always work. And then there’s the chance that even the book itself might not be lasting, might be subject to the same whims. This collection was published in late 2001, a scant few months after the world changed.

How does this collection hold up, almost fifteen years later? Interestingly, some of it does. It’s fascinating to see Trump’s name pop up early in the book and read about him as we knew him in 2001, with little idea that in 2016, he’s be . . . well, what he is now (it should go without saying that my politics do not align with his, but as a student of the world, there’s still something interesting here. Even terrible men can be interesting). Likewise, coming back to the story of Bill Gates in the wake of the Microsoft anti-trust case . . . remember when that was a thing? It was a different world.

The book is front-loaded with its best stuff; its human stories, the ones that stand up to the test of time because they are about people in moments of time, people that, for the most part, are still around, still doing things, still interesting. Not all of them, of course, but enough that it’s fun to do the “where are they now” calculation as you read.

After that, however, things start to wander. It’s obvious we couldn’t have known in 2001 what 2016 would be, how some of the problems were eerily prescient and some we could have never imagined. Does it justify your time? Depends on how you feel about leaving books unfinished. For me, it was incumbent upon me to read everything, to earn my right to complete and review it. For you, dear reader? I think it’s fair if you pick this one up and, like trail mix or a bowl of Lucky Charms, pick out the tastiest-looking bits and leave the rest alone.

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Review: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the InternetTubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Near the end of the book, the author realizes that he’s flown all over the world to essentially look at corrugated steel boxes in nondescript warehouses and feels a moment of despair; for me, it’s the moment that points out that while “Tubes” is lofty in its aim, it’s uneven in its execution. Essentially, we really are reading a travelogue about a guy wandering around the world to visit warehouses and talk to the people who work there. For the most part, it’s rather mundane, but the book redeems itself with poetic musings about what the Internet really is, how we perceive it, and the massive amount of unseen infrastructure that go into maintaining it.

It’s a neat idea; where is the Internet? And certain aspects of it are undeniably cool, such as the undersea transoceanic cables that connect America to Europe to Africa (look up a picture if you’ve never heard of these, they are literally these insanely long cables running across the ocean). But while author Andrew Blum continually defends his mission of “wanting to visit the Internet” to the skeptical, the reality is that finding the Internet’s physical structure is much like finding the man behind the curtain. Certainly, there is expertise and skill on display. There is brilliance woven into and through the various component pieces. But what they form is something much more impressive than the physical reality. Because the physical reality tends to be a steel box with a snake’s nest of cables everywhere.

Blum’s musings on the Internet and the genesis for his quest are the book’s highlights and the question he works to answer is provocative; how much time do any of us actually spend thinking about the physical reality of this crazy network we’ve assembled? It’s exciting to consider the scope. But the reality is as mundane as the scope itself is impressive and “Tubes” loses steam when we and the author realize that. Even so, it’s a quick enough read and worth a bit of wandering for those that are curious.

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Review: Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era

Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft EraPride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era by John Heilemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting account of the Microsoft trial, which everyone my age will remember as being “a thing” in the news for a while. But then, like many “a things,” it just sort of went away, didn’t it? The story vanished off the front page and then, years later, occasionally nerds like myself would wonder, “wait, didn’t Microsoft lose that case? Weren’t they supposed to be broken up? Why didn’t that ever happen?”

The book itself is good; Heilemann’s writing style is enjoyable enough to liven up courtroom proceedings, which are often not the most fascinating affairs (John Grisham’s entire bibliography and all Law & Order versions notwithstanding). Ultimately, though, this book is harmed by its publication date. There’s no real aftermath, no depiction of what happened next. Of course, at the time it was written, that’s because we didn’t yet know what would happen, but at the time of this review, it’s been 15 years. Would an afterword from the author have been too much to hope for?

In the end, if you’re looking to immerse yourself for a bit in the recent history of computers in the 90s, there’s enough information here to sate your hunger. But you’ll probably want more than this book offers, given how far we’ve come since then, and sadly, it seems like an update is not forthcoming. But the bones of the story are still good; if nothing else, it’s fun to see the “who’s who” mention from some of the big names in software at the time, including the occasional cameo from Steve Jobs, who hadn’t yet completed his reformation of Apple. Interesting stuff.

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Review: Skipping Towards Gomorrah

Skipping Towards GomorrahSkipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My fellow liberals: remember the Bush years? We were at the mercy of the “Moral Majority,” the theocracy seemed inevitable, our LGBT friends (or selves) were criminals, and everywhere you looked, another blonde Republican lady author was scrawling a book that we were traitors or monsters or traitor-monsters. It was a dark time. Dan Savage wrote a book lashing out at the perceived “immorality” of the times. “All things in moderation,” he writes, “even moderation itself.”

And although I’m writing this review during the odious rise of Donald Trump and all that this entails about a certain percentage of the electorate, it really has gotten a lot better. Gay marriage is the law of the land (although like abortion rights, it’s under assault and will be for a long while), DOMA is dead, and the “Moral Majority” as a political entity to supporting an obvious lizard-person in a human skin suit (Cruz) or a blatant opportunist who so obviously doesn’t give a shit about that “moral majority’s morals” so long as they vote for him. It’s been a long, hard fall from the Evangelical’s pinnacle of power in the early 00’s. We have an African American president now. We (hopefully) will see the first female president. Pot is legal in a few states, including mine! Concern about climate change has gone from being a punchline on South Park to a real thing that many reasonable people are seriously concerned about. In short, it’s a different era.

But it’s good to remember what it was like, not too long ago. “Skipping Towards Gomorrah” isn’t timeless; it’s rooted deeply in the political landscape that was the Bush years. But that’s precisely one of the things that makes it so compellingly readable today. It’s a chance to remember what it was like before. It’s a chance to compare what we railed against then to what we rail against now. And while we’re certainly not living in liberal utopia (and might soon take a hard right turn to dystopia, if we’re not careful) . . . it has gotten better.

Aside from the trip down memory lane, Savage’s writing style is crisp and wonderfully funny. He writes with clarity and self-awareness (but not self-consciousness). It’s unlikely that you’ll read this book if you’re not already drinking deeply of our liberal gay hippie kool-aid (it’s organic and locally sourced, yo) but Savage will surprise you. He doesn’t always do what you’ll expect for a sex columnist who is also a gay man. Look for the chapters on wrath (guns) and pride (gay pride) to see what I mean.

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Review: Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest

Starvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific NorthwestStarvation Heights: A True Story of Murder and Malice in the Woods of the Pacific Northwest by Gregg Olsen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A fun and thrilling dive into local lore that unfortunately fizzles out at the halfway point.

The first half of this book basically demands to be made into a horror movie (and that’s a good thing). It has all the trappings of the best horror tropes; naive, unaware victims, a scarily commanding and charismatic doctor, and then a spooky and remote location that serves as a backdrop. It’s great. Dr. Linda Hazzard operates a “sanitarium” in the backwater location of Olalla, WA, where she promotes her “fasting cure” which is really just starving people to the brink of death. Two English heiresses, Claire and Dora, are intrigued by the promise of perfect health and are lured into the doctor’s clutches and gradually weaken as the starvation takes hold. The tension builds and you feel the pressure as you try to will Claire and Dora to escape and then the desperate hope as someone attempts to intervene on their behalf. It’s an excellent story.

Unfortunately, around the middle of the book, the escape from Dr. Hazzard’s sanitarium happens and the book transitions to a courtroom drama in an attempt to stop Hazzard from inflicting her “cure” on people. This has the potential to be interest, as the case centers around the question of whether or not the deaths caused by Hazzard’s “treatments” were intentional, negligent, or the result of patients too far gone to be saved. Was she “really” starving people?

Well, we know that she was, because we just saw it happen through the proceeding action. The courtroom drama is then mostly a retread of ground that we already covered, with a few witness accounts and other details sprinkled in.

Had the story been arranged differently, perhaps with the courtroom narrative serving as the structure for the book as a whole, I might have enjoyed it more. It would have been excellent to have the reveal of Hazzard’s starvation “cure” come towards the end of the book, as opposed to in the first third. As it is, though, you’ve got half of a great campfire story and then a courtroom drama about it, which ends up making this merely a good book, instead of a great one.

Also, purely as an aside: some of the metaphors and similes here were very . . . odd. “He turned two shades closer to the color of a holly berry” as a way of describing someone getting mad is . . . well, it’s certainly unique, though not to my taste. Your mileage may vary.

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Review: In the Beginning…Was the Command Line

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s entirely possible that “Neal Stephenson thinking about stuff” might be one of my favorite genres of non-fiction.

This little book is an oddity. It’s a seventeen-year-old look at the state of computer operating systems, but it’s also essays, musings, and other thoughts. Hence my earlier point: it’s Stephenson thinking about stuff.

And for anyone else, that would be a criticism. But Stephenson is fascinating. You can tell by his work that when he becomes interested in a topic, he throws himself headfirst into it with the velocity of a BASE jumper. He does his homework. And his research. And his dissertation. He tends to know what he’s talking about.

Even so, what’s the value of a book that, in timeline terminology relative to the speed of computers, is somewhere between cave paintings and the emergence of cuneiform tablets? Certainly, these observations have no bearing on the state of computers and operating systems today. Google doesn’t exist at the time of these writings. Apple hadn’t yet made its triumphant return under Steve Jobs. Microsoft was the evil empire with an antitrust case to fend off. It was a different time.

And that’s why I enjoyed this book so much. It’s a little time machine, a look back at the heady days of the late nineties, just as this whole “computer thing” was starting its ascent into the stratosphere. It was written about a year after I received my first computer, which caused me to reflect on how things were back then. More than once, I marveled at Stephenson’s observations as I read his book on a tablet in ebook format, with that strange little thrill that yes, sometimes these gadgets really do feel like the future has arrived.

This book, more than anything, is a glimpse at the digital zeitgeist from those bygone days. Apple fans can remember the dark times while Linux fans can enjoy Stephenson’s musing on how it really is the superior tool for superior minds. Windows fans . . . well, get ready to endure some light griefing. Hey, it was the 90s. Early versions of Windows really were pretty bad. The blue screen of death and the three fingered salute (ctrl-alt-delete) didn’t become early memes for no reason. If you’re interested in the pop side of computer history, here’s a book that will take you down memory lane (assuming you were alive in the 90s). Stephenson’s a masterful storyteller, so you know that it’ll be worth it.

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Rise Of The Third Party?

When I first became interested in politics as a young man, one of the things that bothered me most about our political system was the complete dominance of the two parties. You were either a Republican or you were a Democrat. Sure, you could cast your vote for some other party, assuming there was a suitable candidate. But a vote cast for the Green Party or the Libertarian Party was largely symbolic. Even the most successful party in recent history – the Reform Party – managed a mere 8% of the popular vote in the 1996 presidential election. They did manage to elect a governor, though, so . . . that’s good, I guess.

But even though my youthful enthusiasm for a multi-party political system has waned, I’ve long wondered if I might see a new third party emerge within my lifetime. It’s not without historical precedent. Parties come and go, wax and wane. We don’t have a Whig Party these days. We don’t have a Federalist Party.  The Democratic-Republican Party, oddly enough, split into what eventually became the modern Democratic and Republican Parties (via a detour through Whig Town for the Republicans).

My secret dream has always been that the Green Party would eventually rise up and gain some real teeth in the political process; a longshot, I know, but when you’re an early political idealist, you think just about anything is possible. I’m still holding out for that future, in case anyone is thinking about accusing me of giving up on my dreams.

Laugh if you must.

What I didn’t predict was that our rising third party would be hewn from the fragments of the schismatic and possibly irreparably broken Republican Party:

For nearly 150 years, there was something in America called the Republican Party. It was far from perfect. It often faltered. It made mistakes. But it was predictable; when it was in power, you knew, for the most part, what you were getting.

Cut to now and things look mighty different. The Republican Party today is, as Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein put it, “an insurgent outlier in American politics … ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.” But, to borrow the title of Mann and Ornstein’s recent book, it’s even worse than it looks. There’s the Tea Party and then there’s a rump of spineless moderates. The GOP, quite simply, has been split in two.

So, I guess my long-held wish for a third party may be on the verge of fruition. With House Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing to the Tea Party candidate Eric Brat, it seems like a permanent split between the mainstream Republicans and the Tea Parties might well be here. Or maybe not; it’s a little too early in the primary season to say how this will all shake down.

Maybe Cantor’s defeat is an outlier. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s going to be interesting to observe.