Monthly Archives: September 2011

Book review: The Commission

Philip Shenon, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation

This is a major contrast to Steven Levy’s In the Plex. Yes, obviously the subject matter is pretty far removed, but aside from that Shenon is all critical sources and critical distance here. If someone was involved in the 9/11 Commission, Shenon and his sources have some criticism of that person. Well, at least if someone was either a commissioner or a senior staffer, that is: it seems that a lot of his sources were more junior staffers, and so there is a touch of reverence in the treatment of them. (On the other hand, what other sources are there going to be?)

Impressively, Shenon seems to have managed this while continuing to get comment from Philip Zelikow, the Commission’s executive director and the person who is by far the most consistently criticised. (Well, possibly excepting Condoleezza Rice, but the Clinton and Bush White Houses, the FBI, the CIA and so on are all more in a cameo role here.) Shenon has gone on to publish all the correspondence he had with Zelikow, but I haven’t read it.

The result is, frankly, a rollicking good read. The major difficulty I have with the book is the difficult I had, while reading it, of remembering the truth of the story: the actual dead people in the towers, the planes, and the wars. It’s all shocking and fascinating: both the failures that led to the dead people (the FBI’s contempt for counter-terrorism, the Bush White House’s diminished focus on terrorist threats prior to September 2001 and subsequent laser focus on Iraq and so on) and the politicking, silliness and compromises that the Commission made both by necessity and by choice.

Some of it is forehead-slapping: the NSA was apparently keen to cooperate with the Commission and set up a special secure reading room within walking distances of their office, which the Commission then proceeded to almost totally and inexplicably ignore, with the result that probably no one other than the NSA has gone through their material in any detail to this day. Some of it is more necessary compromises: US politics made it pretty unlikely that Bush and Cheney were going to be ripped to shreds.

Read it if: you are interested in US politics, you are interested in interpersonal politics in formal situations, you are interested in how the victors write history.

Note: the Commission’s own report is both sold by various bookstores and available for free. There’s a seemingly good e-book conversion by a third party.

Book review: In the Plex

Steven Levy, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

This book started off annoying me by being a little too worshipful of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in my opinion. So clever! So Montessori! These cheeky little geniuses will rock your world! They’re going to take over your brain and you’re going to like it! But it improved early on other histories I’ve read of Google (lest this sound like an unfortunately dull hobby of mine, I mean shorter essays over a period of ten years or so). which tend to focus on a couple of things heavily: the Google Doodles and their approach to raising venture capital. I’ve heard about all I ever want to hear about doodles and Google’s fundraising. Levy doesn’t quite stay away from the latter but it’s mercifully short at least. Instead he gets into things that are more interesting to me, namely the engineering.

He spends a fair portion of the book getting to grips with the basic design of and use-cases of the two key Google products, search and ads, in a way that’s useful to me as someone with a software engineering background, so that was a win. I’m not sure how that would read to people without said background although it didn’t strike me as very technical. Later it deals with some of Google’s key expansions: the creation of its massive set of data centres, the Youtube acquisition, the attempt to become a major search player in China, book scanning and search, and finally, social.

I’ll certainly give Levy credit for finally explaining to me the wisdom that Google “doesn’t get social”, which I hear everywhere and which no one has ever given me a bite-sized cogent explanation for. (This is a terrible admission from someone who is meant to have some idea about the tech industry, yes? But I’m not really your go to person for social either. I use it, but I don’t make sweeping claims about it.) Levy’s bite-sized explanation: Google is philosophically committed to the best answers arising from processing huge amounts of data, and is resistant to cases where the best answers arise from polling one’s friends. Whether it’s true I have no idea but at least it’s truthy.

Levy has created a good history of Google for people especially interested in Google I think, but he largely hasn’t jumped over the bar of making Google into an interesting story for people who don’t have an existing interest in it, in the way that people have done with Enron, for example. There are parts of it that start to get close, particularly the treatment of Google’s expansion into China and its sometime Beijing office. But it’s not quite there. Possibly Levy didn’t have access to enough critical sources, or, if he did, he didn’t use them to their full extent for fear of jeopardising his access to Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt and to the Google campus. (Also, it sounds like Google makes it very hard for any current employee to be an anonymous source.)

Read it if: you are interested in the history of Google, and find them impressive. You don’t need to be a complete fanboy.

Caution for: as noted, not really a book for people seeking a rollicking good story of corporate ups and downs in general; and not really for people looking for really sharp criticism of Google either, although his critical distance certainly increases as the book goes on.

Sunday Spam: crepes and maple syrup

As just fed to my son, in fact.

The execution of Troy Davis and the death penalty

I donated to the Innocence Project and the (US) National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, for what it’s worth.

Fukushima Disaster: It’s Not Over Yet

The impact of both radiation and fear of radiation on Japanese society, although it feels a little shallow. I’d love to read this argument from the perspective of a Japanese person.

Debunking the Cul-de-Sac

Struggles to come up with anything nice to say about cul-de-sacs, frankly, unless you are in the business of selling either cars or fuel for them. Oh, they’re quieter. Other than that, cul-de-sacs suck.

Queen of the Kitchen

A Christmas-time fairy story by Karen Healey. So you know it’s got a tough-minded teen girl, New Zealand, and magic. Several of my favourite things.

Chemotherapy doesn’t work? Not so fast…

Science Based Medicine reviews the real position of chemotherapy. It works as the primary treatment for a fairly small number of cancers, it doesn’t work much at all for some cancers, and much of the time it is part of several treatments (radiotherapy, surgery).

On Feminism and Virtue

Sady Doyle reflects on the extent to which being a feminist makes you a better person: potentially not much.

The Great American Bubble Machine

Goldman Sachs: always there to turn a functioning market into a speculative bubble, and thence to profit. Highlights include 100 million people entering hunger in 2007 due to speculation on food and oil futures. This was via Tim O’Reilly, who went down to the Occupy Wall Street protests because even rich small-government types do (or ought to) have a beef against Wall Street.

Disability Culture meets Euthanasia Culture: Lessons from my cat

On the normalisation of euthanasia in animals, to the point where vets can’t advise on what death of natural causes is like, and its relationship to euthanisa in humans. I was thinking about this issue over the last few years, most recently after a vet euthenised my parents’ elderly pet horse after what my father, who works in the meat industry and has seen hundreds if not thousands of animals die—and some seriously negligent treatment of animals for that matter—described as the worst suffering he’d ever seen. So, I don’t have a lot to say about Tony’s death, but it did make me think about how animals die.

Certificates and “authorities”

The certificates that identify websites for secure web browsing, that is. Basically, it’s a mess. There are about 400 organisations that are trusted by browsers to sign the identities of secure websites, they get hacked quite a bit, and some of them are careless at best about security.

Movin’ Meat: Instinct vs Expertise

An ER doctor puzzles over why a neurosurgeon isn’t taking a certain fracture seriously. Unlike a lot of stuff I link here, this is less about systemic concerns and more just an interesting story.

The iPad, the Kindle, and the future of books

From early last year, more in my attempt to understand publisher perspectives on ebooks. I’m in an interesting place on this, reading both in the open source/copyright reform world which tends to accept and embrace the tendency of the sale value of intellectual property to fall to zero or nearly so once distribution is cheap (see for example Copyfight on ebook prices rising), and librarians, publishers and authors who aren’t so hot on that happening to books.

Anyway, now I know what the agency model is.

Do We Need A New Nirvana? Does Modern Music Suck?

Joel Connolly (my brother-in-law, and a band manager) thinks audiences need to wise up to existing awesome music, basically. It’s a longer version of what he said to Bernard Zuel early in the month.

Above reproach: why do we never question fidelity?

I like this style of inquiry. Basically, the question is that everyone agrees that infidelity (not having multiple partners, but having multiple partners without being honest about it) is unethical. But should we? Is this sometimes part of oppression?

Every so often, asking these questions of human relationships is important. (Note that the writer, also, doesn’t have an answer.)

Increasing Barriers to College Attendance Through ‘Optional’ Extracurriculars

Something I’ve wondered about for ages, as Australian universities, which largely admit students based on pure academic performance, are constantly criticised for not moving to the US model, which takes into account the whole person, yadda yadda. As long as the whole person has time in their life for charity work, sports teams, student politics etc. To me, US college applications often sound like high schoolers applying for a Rhodes scholarship straight out of school. Not that raw exam scores don’t incorporate endless privilege, but extracurriculars do not in any way ameliorate that.

Book reviews: The Big Short, The Zeroes

Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

The story of the subprime mortgage crisis, from the point of view of various traders who were betting it was all a crock for a long time. I originally learned about this book on The Daily Show. Mmm, March 2010. A good time for our local Bing Lee: we went and bought a washing machine with a decent spin cycle and I suddenly put my foot down and said that if I was going to be spending 2 hours each night putting our then young baby to sleep we were going to have a TV recorder to tape The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

If anyone is interested in the genesis of the Ada Initiative, it’s actually that washing machine, because I wrote a blog entry about it that inspired Valerie to get in touch with me after some years of radio silence. (We weren’t mad at each other, we just usually only talk when we have a project cooking. Or when we have washing machine thoughts, it seems.)

Ahem, Lewis’s book. A fun tale of investment outsiders who were shorting subprime mortage bonds by buying credit default swaps against them. They ranged from cynical to apocalyptic. They were mostly social misfits or investing misfits or both. (Aren’t we all misfits?) It’s a well-told tale, but it’s not a true insider’s tale. What was happening at Goldman Sachs, again?

Caution for: it’s from a trader point of view, so while at least one person profiled believed he was watching evil happen, we aren’t talking radical critiques of capitalism or anything here.

Bonus: As I said earlier, I wish I could read expert reviews/rebuttals for almost every non-fiction book I read. And this time I could. Check out Yves Smith, Debunking Michael Lewis’ The Big Short.

Randall Lane, The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane

Another insider-but-outsider tale of the bond market of the Naughties (the Zeroes, as Lane calls them). Lane was the co-founder of Trader Monthly, a glossy freebie magazine for Wall Street traders. This brought him into contact both with traders themselves, jockeying or not to be profiled as hot up-and-comers, and luxury goods advertisers keen to get in on bonus season.

It’s about equal parts how-my-magazine-startup-failed, which is interesting enough—a combination of it-could-happen-to-anyone road bumps, and getting into business with some real jerks—and what-were-they-like-these-traders. Entertaining enough as a library loan (which is how I read it), but I probably wouldn’t have actually purchased it. Still a bit of an outsider’s tale.

Book review: The Wisdom of Whores

Elizabeth Pisani, The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS

I picked this up when it briefly was a free ebook giveaway in 2010. Was that less than a year ago? Seems like a long time. I had not got through Jonathan Engels, The Epidemic: A Global History of AIDS, finding it not-global and spending too much time emphasising that the AIDS activists from the gay community really should have understood that they were viewed as sinners. Or that’s how I remember it now. I’m still interesting in the story of AIDS in the US, but I want it billed as such.

Anyway, Pisani’s book is an epidemiologist’s view of working in HIV research and prevention in (mostly) Indonesia. It’s partly a story and partly an argument that HIV/AIDS funding and approaches need some revision. In particular: prevention is cheaper than treatment, so while treatment is essential she thinks prevention is very underfunded. The approaches used successfully in the high-infection-risk communities in the US don’t all translate well to other high-risk groups. Emphasis on “everyone’s at risk” is nice for funding but is essentially bogus in most cultures: in most cultures sex workers, drug users, and people who have anal sex with multiple partners are at risk. (She argues the African epidemic is due to multiple long-lived concurrent heterosexual relationships being very common in some African cultures. This means that when someone has a primary HIV infection, one of the most contagious times, that they will often have more than one partner to potentially transmit to.)

I simply don’t know how valid her arguments are, because I know next to nothing about epidemiology, public health or HIV/AIDS, really. One of many books (almost anything outside my expertise) where I wish I could see expert reviews to read alongside it.

Read it if: you are interesting in HIV/AIDS, the UN, charity and NGO stuff, Indonesia, trans issues, sex worker issues.

Caution for: every so often she likes to add in a teaspoon of “I’m not PC!” She actually is, somewhat, anyway, but she likes to revel a touch in how her hip UN “AIDS mafia” crew were just such good buddies they could throw the lingo (about trans people, drug users, sex workers) in the bin. Also you may not actually agree with her on where HIV/AIDS funding should go, but it’s a book, you run that risk.

Friday Fanfic: A Piece of the Continent, The Shadow on the King’s Roads

Probably a bit more occasional than Sunday Spam, but again, the Kindle does mean I read a bit more of it (AO3 has ePub and MOBI downloads of their fic).

A Piece of the Continent, Hainish Universe: what Genly Ai did after Winter. This is a big act of world-building, and a peaceful story of self- and other-discovery. So, capturing much of the Hainish Cycle’s spirit.

I’ve read it enough times that I have noticed technical problems with the world-building, that has to be a good sign right? (Their reproductive strategy as described makes it impossible to maintain replacement rate. Also, the part with Kiyoshi Dan makes her sound like an old friend, and the vagaries of near-light speed travel make it unlikely to run into them again.)

The Shadow on the King’s Roads, Strange and Norrell: Arabella Strange becomes the chaperon of the Misses Enderwhild of The Ladies of Grace Adieu. It’s nicely in keeping with the tone of JS&MN, and for that matter, with the style of magic in that universe.

On journalism

The unredacted Wikileaks cables are out, due to the Guardian publishing the key to them in a book (and assorted other events that caused the file to be circulated on Bittorrent). (Presumably, various defensive measures could have been taken on the Wikileaks side too, some kind of two factor for example.)

One of Bruce Schneier’s commenters writes:

I think someone on Boing Boing said all journalists should have basic tutoring in crypto. A novel and good idea.

It is a good idea. It would also be a good idea if journalists have a high level of knowledge of law, politics, police procedure, ethics, media history, media ownership, advertising, applied statistics, experimental design, the Internet and associated technologies, social justice, neurological findings about bias in eyewitness accounts, and any number of other things. Whether they can is another thing entirely.

Some of those are more or less reasonable and more or less in place. But past a point it’s impossible to demand that this level of knowledge be widespread among professional journalists. I have six years of generalist undergraduate education and it didn’t get me across as wide a variety of fields as that. And trust me, I tried. (I have undergraduate majors in pure mathematics, computer science, philosophy, linguistics and semiotics. Yes, majors.) At some point, there’s a limit, and frankly, I think it’s prior to crypto. People wanting to do controlled release of sensitive documents to the media are going to have to make sure their crypto measures stand up to the practices of utter non-experts.