Monday, October 31, 2005

Losing America, Senator Robert Byrd

Losing America
Senator Robert Byrd

I heard about this book on some program on NPR a while back. I live in California, so Senator Byrd isn't exactly a local personality, but if you follow politics at all you may know that he is a very senior Democrat, and he sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. He is also considered something of a constitutional scholar, and he has a reputation and a past that can be problematic. (He's from the deep south and over 80 years old now, so the race issue is "interesting" when dealing with him.) Regardless, when I hear him speaking about the constitution and the history of the country, he does seem to have a pretty firm grip on those issues. And with a subtitle of "Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" I thought I ought to read it. So I bought it used.

My summary is that he's a better speaker than a writer. That may not make much sense at first, but it's true.

The book consists of (basically) 8 chapters followed by the text of 8 speeches he made on the floor of the Senate.

The chapters meander about, containing ideas and points that he never gets back to, or that seem out of place in the context he is trying to discuss. The speeches, however, are the opposite. They are concise, eloquent, and drive home a specific point clearly and cleanly.

While I did learn some things from the main text that I hadn't previously known, and that I will try to follow up on in my "copious free time" (tm), most of the important things are said much more cleanly in the text of the speeches.

I'm not going to launch into a political discussion here - I hope to write that up and put it on my personal web relatively soon. (I'm feeling the urge to make a statement somewhere that others might find, if they dig far enough.) What I will say is that obviously Bryd is no friend of President Bush, and he makes no bones about that here.

The things Senator Byrd has to say about how Washington is working during Bush's presidency should disturb anyone - regardless of their political affiliation. That said, I worry a tiny bit about how slanted this presentation is, and I'd have preferred some footnotes and/or and bibliography to document some of the things he says. This is a polemic of sorts, and whether it is deserved and accurate or not, I'd have preferred a bit more backing for the concepts presented. (If the Bush administration's way of handling X is bad, how did Clinton handle it, or Bush Senior, or other presidents?) I'd also have preferred a bit more openness from Byrd himself. In some cases he says how he voted on certain things, but in others he does not. The entire book could have been clearer and deeper without too much more effort. Perhaps it was rushed to press.

Regardless, Byrd's speeches are good reading, and they make sharp, concise points that I think should be heard. In theory, though, you can find them online somewhere in the *.gov hierarchy, if you dig.

So was this book worth reading or not? Yes, but it could have been a lot better.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Lynne Truss

Title: Eats, Shoots, & Leaves
Author: Lynne Truss
Rating: Good

I need to be a bit careful reviewing this book. My text is always full of errors. No matter how hard I try, for example, I cannot manage to distinguish between "it's" and "its" without actually engaging the brain for several seconds on the topic. It should be simple, and it is in the case of "their", "there", and "they're", but "it's" and "its" are messed up deep in my reptilian brain.

This is a book in which Lynne Truss complains (rightly so, mostly) about the state of punctuation in our language. The American release of the book contains (essentially) the British content, so some things she does and says aren't "right" for us yanks. But that doesn't detract from the essential correctness of the content, nor the charm of her writing.

Personally, I didn't learn much that surprised me in this little volume. I did enjoy the time reading it, and it was nice to see that my tendency to put terminal punctuation outside of quotes at times is valid in the Queen's English, even if it isn't valid here. (Someone else commented on this in an earlier post as well. I will continue the habit as well.)

This isn't really a language reference book. Thus if you want to look up some of the more obscure rules for the use of the comma you'd be better off with a true style guide, rather than this book.

In short: recommended, but probably a library trip, rather than a bookstore trip, as you'll probably only read it once.

PS: Can someone actually explain the apostrophe in this phrase:
two weeks' notice
That seems entirely wrong to me, but Truss goes on and on about it. (It's a movie title - without the apostrophe - and even the photo on the back cover shows her adding an apostrophe to a movie poster; guerilla style.) To me, the phrase "that will take two weeks to do" needs no apostrophe, so why would "I'm giving my two weeks notice now" need one? Is this perhaps a British English thing, or am I missing something? Alas, Truss's text (I believe that 's is correct there) doesn't explain this issue in a way I could understand.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Amphigorey, Edward Gorey

Title: Amphigorey
Author: Edward Gorey
Rating: Good

This was a surprise. As I put Chatter back on my bookshelf, I noted the spine of this book, and I did not recognize it at all. I have no idea how we came to own it, but I've now read it, and call it #27 on my list for 2005.

Amphigorey is a collection of 15 short books by Edward Gorey. All were originally published between 1953 and 1965.

As with all things Gorey, they are macabre. His prose is as dark and twisted as his drawings.

Worth the read. Disturbing, but very much worth reading.

Chatter, Patrick Radden Keefe

Title: Chatter
Author: Patrick Radden Keefe
Rating: Good

Chatter is both profoundly interesting and frustrating at the same time. It amounts to an overview of most of the Western world's signal intelligence interception (SIGINT) capabilities, without actually having any meat available on the topic. That's not really a surprise, and the author cannot be blamed for that, as the subject of the book doesn't really want to be talked about, or even known.

Chatter should make you think about several things. Most importantly, where should the line between security and liberty be drawn? For some, the answer is clearly one way or another. For others, it's more vague. There has been no real discussion of that issue in the US as yet, but we spend billions of dollars each year on SIGINT, and errors (or deliberate aggressive actions on the part of SIGINT agencies) always reduce liberty. Is that the right approach?

I dog-eared a page near the end of the book, as it has some startling statistics on it. Assuming you accept the premise that 9/11 was a wakeup call and our intelligence gathering needs to improve, things have not gotten better. (The premise may be arguable... more on that in a moment though.) According to Chatter, in the time since 9/11, the NSA fired some people and hired a bunch of others. In order, they've hired:
  • Security guards
  • Polygraph analysts
  • Linguists
  • Analysts
Remember that after 9/11 it was made very clear that we didn't have enough linguists and analysts in the US spy agencies, and the NSA is hiring more polygraph analysts than linguists? Excuse me? The polygraph is a notoriously unreliable instrument, and there has never been a suggestion that anyone on the inside hid or damaged information that would have prevented 9/11. Why do we need more polygraph analysts?

And this plays into the reason that the above 9/11 "wakeup" argument may be flawed. Perhaps SIGINT is simply not the place to spend money anymore. Or at least not the place increase budgets anymore. Our new foes (Al Qaeda and others) work the technical side well, or communicate in person. They have handbooks to tell them when our satellites will be overhead, and encryption to slow us down if they are on a monitored medium. Should we spend more money on the NSA in such a case? How would we know? Seriously... how would we know?

Before answering that, though, let's look at the other side of the 9/11 wakeup theory. We were also told we needed more human intelligence (HUMINT in the lingo) after 9/11, since clearly our SIGINT hadn't warned us in advance. OK. But according to Chatter, as of May 2004, the CIA had fewer than 1,100 case officers posted overseas. It says that is fewer than the number of FBI agents stations in the New York City field office. So perhaps we're not spending our intelligence money in the right places there either. Again though, how would we know?

And that is probably the most important point of this book. There is no way for anyone - even our elected officials - to judge the success or failure of our intelligence agencies. There are stories in here about congress members on the Intelligence Oversight Committee, and why they are there that clearly show that no one is watching the watchers. No one.

So are we getting our money's worth from the CIA, the NSA, and the related agencies? Is ECHELON worth the effort and money we (as a country) put into it?

There is no way of knowing. None at all.

Stop and think about that, fellow tax payer. I may be odd, but I am not averse to paying taxes for things that are actually valuable and provide some measure of public good. In the case of our intelligence operations, though, I honestly don't know if I am getting even $1 worth of anything from them or not. And they won't tell us. They won't even tell our congress people. We don't know what we're paying or what we're getting, or even who is being watched. I find that profoundly disturbing.

A bit more about the book itself:

To be honest I was hoping for more nuts and bolts about the capabilities of the NSA (or other agencies) from this book. There is some of that here, but not much. After reading the book, though, you know why that is the case, which is nearly as valuable as the data I'd wanted. The writing style is light and breezy, though there are end notes and a reasonably sized bibliography at the back. The claim is the book is all (or nearly all) based on publicly available information. Developing sources inside the SIGINT community is hard, I's sure, so again that is no slight against the author.

All in all, I recommend Chatter. If enough people read it, perhaps we'll get a movement together to get the intelligence agencies to open up to some degree, and at least learn if the billions we pay are doing us any good or not.

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Art & Physics, Leonard Shlain

Title: Art & Physics
Author: Leonard Shlain
Rating: Terrible!

I really wish I'd liked this book more. It's the 2nd in the pair I've been slogging through for months now. Sadly, in the end, I have to state that it wasn't remotely worth the effort.

I am not a physicist, but I have some interest in the topic. I am an artist though - specifically a stone carver. Add to those a technical background in software engineering, and this looked like an interesting read.

Shlain's thesis is that artists give advance warning of pending changes in science (or what passed for science a long time ago). To do this, he describes various events in science, and then shows how one or more artists introduced new forms that not only predate those new scientific discoveries, but also how they anticipated the nature of those discoveries and how that anticipation is visible in their new work.

As the book unfolds, I started off thinking the idea was interesting, but as the examples got more and more recent - and more contrived - I became convinced that he was stretching whatever he needed to prove his point. About halfway through I decided that Shlain really needed to learn something I was taught years and years ago:

Correlation does not imply causation.

Any doctor studying disease causes has to learn that phrase. And guess what, Mr. Shlain is actually Dr. Shlain -- "the Chairman of Laparoscopic surgery at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and is an Associate Professor of Surgery at UCSF." (Text taken from his web site Shlain should know better than to conflate causation and correlation - it should have been drummed into his head in medical school.

To put the problem another way, it is easy to go back and find all kinds of connections between items A and B in retrospect, particularly if A and B are big, broad categories like "Art" and "Physics". Doing so is trivial with the benefit of hindsight.

Nowhere does he actually justify his coincidences, he just states them, as it the fact that they are pointed out makes them true. (Another related phrase that came to mind is "proof by repeated assertion" which I found in Peopleware by DeMarco & Lister. But I digress.) In fact, in many cases, he mentions or quotes artists and physicists saying they know nothing about the other field, as if that helps his cause somehow. It doesn't, and his ideas don't hold together.

To cap this all off, in the last few chapters Shlain goes off to find a way to explain this amazing connection between art and physics. To do so he launches into a discussion of an overmind of some sort. Using analogy and mysticism in ways I was entirely unhappy with, he suggests that perhaps we (as individuals) are part of some larger mind, which exists fully in spacetime. We're not aware of the overmind since we can only conceive of space and time separately, not as one unified whole.


The book finally ends in a bunch of new age (pronounced "newage" which rhymes with "sewage") psycho babble, oddly mixed with ancient Greek mythology.

Nowhere does he discuss near or far eastern art history. Perhaps this art / physics connection is unique to western society. That seems odd to me, since if he was right and artists do have some mystic connection to coming future events in science, that would be the same regardless of culture. After all, we're all part of the same overmind, right?

Before writing this review I went to and read the reviews of the book, to see if others felt as I did. That was enlightening. Some loved the book; some pointed out gross errors in the physics. It was a decidedly mixed bag.

As I come out the other end, I doubt I can trust Shlain's layman explanation of the physics, I'm not at all sure I believe his explanation of some of the art, and I have reason to wonder about his grasp of reality.

Sadly, I suggest avoiding this book.