Tag Archives: book reviews

Halloween wrap up

Another Halloween season is down and I tried to delve into the season with mixed results.  Here are my findings.

Trick or treating was rather tepid.  We had some kids come by but nothing spectacular.  I can’t blame them however.  The community set Trick or Treating hours from 1-4pm on the 30th!  It’s like they sat down to try to figure out how to suck all the fun out of the day.

We started our way through the Twilight Zone catalog.  I thought I’d seen all of them but apparently not.  What a brilliant show.  Rod Serling was a particularly interesting guy and I highly recommend you check out this interview (parts 2 and 3 are on YouTube as well) with him circa 1959.  You could see the struggles between ‘selling out’ and commercial success being fought out even in TV’s early days.  I found his bluntness surprising and inviting.  Could you imagine a producer today alienating so many potential demographics on the eve of launching a new show?

We watched a couple of movies.  The first was titled Moon and the second was a Spanish movie called Timecrimes.   Both movies had promise and weren’t bad but I think both suffered from spending too much time with their central idea.  Both would have been much better had they been shorter (45 minutes or so…definitely less than an hour).  It’s kind of a shame there isn’t much of a market for shorter films like there is for short stories or novellas.  I’m not sure I could recommend these films but I wouldn’t actively dissuade someone from seeing them either.  If you find yourself on a barren asteroid with lots of free time on your hands, go check them out.

But, something I most definitely can recommend is The Passage by Justin Cronin.  The book has a number of similarities to Stephen King’s The Stand but without some of it’s flaws (primary among them the fact that Stephen King was the author).  At 845 pages it’s just about a massive as the King book (and since it’s only the first of a proposed trilogy the final project will dwarf The Stand) but without the long descriptions King is famous for that convince you the guy is getting paid by the word.  It also avoids the incredibly lame ending of the Stand (although to be fair, since this is only the first installment of the series comparing the end of the first book to the end of King’s entire project may not be appropriate).  It’s got something for everyone:  out of control military test projects, vampires, the apocalypse and cross country travel.  What more could you want?  There are some nice twists to the story, namely the way Cronin plays with the vampire mythology and adapts it to his universe.  There was some interesting imagery used in the story and it might deserve a second read to see if there’s more than just a entertaining post apocalyptic yarn in there.

Mrs. TwShiloh and myself got to catch up on the new season of Dexter and we continue to be flummoxed at how this show manages to avoid jumping the shark.  Every time we’re convinced the writers are going to have to go for the easy and predictable contrivances, they surprise us yet again.

And finally, I saw the pilot episode of The Walking Dead on AMC.  As much as I enjoy the comic I have to admit I envy those who haven’t read it since the whole storyline will come as a surprise.  Still, the series has a great deal of promise.  The actors they’ve shown so far are quite good as are the effects and if they can keep the quality up this promises to be a great, plot heavy series.

I’m bewildered…

…at how I made it this far in my life without reading A Cantacle for Lebowitz.  A thoroughly delightful book (if one can say that about a post apocalyptic work) that probably benefited from me reading it as a middle aged man rather than a teenager.  This is one that definitely deserves a re-read.

Viking mayhem!

Barnes&Noble Review has a review (of course) of Frans G. Bengtsson’s new edition of The Long Ships.  I read this book a couple of years ago and it was quite enjoyable.  The story follows one Orm Tostesson as he’s captured by raiders, rises up the ranks on the vikings and eventually becomes a leader, while traveling throughout the Baltic, around the Mediterranean, over to Constantinople (via Russia) and back again.  He captures ships, raids villages, becomes a Varangian (if I remember right) and partakes in all sorts of adventures.

Even though the book was written in the ’40s, it has the feel of a much older story.  I suppose that was the author’s intent but the fact that they were able to preserve that in the English translation was pretty nice.  As such, the story has a lot to challenge modern sensibilities when one thinks about morality, heroics, and the role of women.

This isn’t some dry tome however that you have to muscle through, however, in order to gain some insight into the human condition or bragging rights for how well read you are.  It’s a very entertaining and fun read and while it might not motivate you to pick up an ax and go plundering, it might be the next best thing.

Disappointment with Stieg Larsson’s finale

I just finished the final book in the millennium trilogy.  After his second book I said that Larsson was really clever for challenging our notions of heroes by making his main protagonist (Lisbeth Salander) engage in behavior that is ethically and legally questionable.

In this third book, I seriously had to consider the possibility that Larsson wasn’t as clever as I originally thought and, in fact, was quite substandard.  Larsson’s third book lacks just about any of the qualities that made the first two books worth a read.  The characters were flat (Salander fades into the background for the vast majority of the book, popping up only to act as a Deus ex machina), the plot was predictable and it resolved weekly.

Larsson’s villians are evil.  That’s cool.  They’re supposed to be.  But they’re also grossly inept.  So inept that they would be at home with the lamest stormtroopers or other minions.  Every decision they make is wrong…fortune breaks against them at every step…every assumption they make is delusional.

Alternately, Blomqvist and Salander are blessed by the gods.  Every long shot pans out, every guess becomes fact.  Despite the fact that Larsson occasionally tries to build suspense by writing things like ‘She knew she had to get away or she’d be dead…but there was no way out!’ (Ok, not an exact quote but not far off).  Before you can even feel a bit of suspense, however, the situation magically resolves itself and usually with a prize of a new critical clue.

In Larsson’s world you can quickly determine if you’re supposed to root for characters.  Heterosexual men who aren’t too old to have sex are either:

  1. incompetent government employees
  2. sadistic sexual predator
  3. part of a secret government conspiracy (usually combining one and two above)
  4. Michael Blomqvist

Likewise, you’ll know if women are important characters in the story if:

  1. They’re bisexual
  2. They sleep with Michael Blomqvist
  3. They are totally cool with the fact that Blomqvist is only interested in casual sex and has multiple partners
  4. Men refer to them as ‘bitches’ or other sexist terms with amazing frequency

Women who don’t meet those criteria can be counted on to totally cave when placed under pressure or be murdered violently.

Through long stretches of the book I was actually hoping that the main characters would get whacked by a decent hit man.

The one trick that Larsson brought back from the second book (which I’m increasingly coming to believe was unintentional) is that he makes his protagonists copies of the antagonists.  So, the villians violate the constitution, attack and kill to further their own ends?  Hey…so do the heroes.

It’s like a socialist version of Death Wish.  500 pages of revenge fantasy.  Larsson pretties it up to rationalize all sorts of illegal activity but at the end of the day it’s just not clear what separates the ‘bad’ from the ‘good’ apart from the favorable press of Larsson.

I’d recommend the first book but after that, save your time.

Afghanistan roundup…

Anna Badkhen is writing a series on her trek from Kabul to the North of the country to see what’s going on there.  She makes an observation up close that I’ve been remarking on from a distance for some time now.

The last time I was here, Afghanistan’s north commonly considered the safest section of the country. You could hail down a taxi in Mazar-e-Sharif to drive to Kabul; you could stop for a lamb kebab at a roadside café; and if you decided to stay at a chaikhana for $15 a night you worried about bedbugs, not kidnappers.

With the Taliban banished, villagers clenched by poverty still died of hunger and diseases, the literacy percentage among women remained in single digits, children as young as six still joined the work force, and landmines and cluster bombs continued to kill and maim hundreds of people each year. But, compared to now, those were happy times.

While the world was distracted, the Taliban quietly returned to the north.

You could say the same think in the area around Bagram as well.

Spiegel writes about Uzbek militants in Kunduz.  One bit of annoyance.  The story references photos throughout but then doesn’t show them.

I just finished listening to the audio version of The Road to Kandahar by John Wilcox.  I will do my best to avoid the term ‘rip roaring’ in my description but it’s going to be difficult.  I’ve never read other books in this genre of 18th century British military fiction like the Sharpe or Hornblower so I can’t compare it but I did enjoy this book with it’s generous quantities of stiff upper lipisms, nick of time rescues and British soldiers fighting against overwhelming odds.  I’m not sure how the dead-tree version reads but I highly recommend the audio version as the reader, Graham Padden, is superb.  Ok, I’m a bit partial since I’ve been agitating for some decent Afghan-themed military fiction and the 19th century provides enough distance from current events to give me the flavor I’d like without the despair of seeing the headlines.

Michael Yon (the Great Ego of the Hindu Kush) has apparently been disembedded (and I don’t think that’s a word).  Of course Yon (who appears to have read too many Dan Brown novels) is convinced this is because of a secret cabal of generals, politicians and who knows who else to keep him from revealing THE TRUTH to the world.  Oh, and by the way, Yon has also decided he’s the only person in the world who can/will report the hidden truth.  This is apparently a huge blow to freedom or some such nonsense but don’t worry!  Yon has promised to keep going…the lone voice in the wilderness.

Hey Mike, get off the cross, will ya?  Somebody else needs the wood.

Imperial Secrets

I’ve just finished ‘Imperial Secrets:  Remapping the Mind of Empire’ by Patrick A. Kelley.  It’s available as a free download from the National Defense Intelligence College and well worth your time.  In fact, I’m inclined to say it’s one of the best books I’ve read about intelligence analysis in a very long time.  If Richards Heuer’s Psychology of Intelligence Analysis can be thought of as an examination of analysis from an internal perspective, then Kelley can be thought of examining the subject from the external.

Heuer examines how neurobiology, psychology and cognitive biases all influence how an analyst searches for information and interprets it once she has it.  Kelley, on the other hand, examines how the preferences and biases of an ’empire’ (more on the definition of that in a moment) influence not only analysts but consumers of intelligence.  He identifies the purpose of his work as addressing three questions:

How do power and knowledge interact? How do marginal actors and slippery knowledge mediate this interaction? And is there a distinctly imperial way of knowing?  184

As you might guess from those questions, this is an epistemological study designed to look at the limits of what we can know, bounded within the limits of our circumstances.  As such, it is not filled with ‘practical’ tips for analysts (‘No more than 3 bullets per PowerPoint slide!  Don’t cross lines on your link chart!’) but rather it presents cases in which allow analysts today see those boundaries that restrict them and their customers.  Too often, those boundaries are so invisible to us that we don’t even realize they exist.  But they do and ignoring the information outside our universe of information is what puts us at risk of becoming victims of strategic surprise.

Empires are always at an information deficit—telling more than they hear—and the deficit over time becomes associated with a lost capacity to listen. That quality of listening is key to generating truly alternative analysis, if as we might guess it takes surprising approaches to anticipate surprise.

Kelley uses three historical examples which he says share some of the same challenges and circumstances as the United States does today:  Rome in the first two centuries of the Principate, the Ottoman Empire of the 16th to 18th centuries and the British Empire from the 18th to 20th centuries.  In explaining why the United States in the twenty first century should look back centuries to other nations to explain our current situation he says:

…our relation to the world has changed beyond that of a traditional nation-state—albeit a profoundly powerful one—our attempts at intelligence reform indicate our interest in answering traditional questions, just in a faster and more accurate fashion. Better interagency cooperation, sharing with partners, broader and more rapid dissemination will ultimately result in more “actionable intelligence.” Not surprisingly, the catch-phrase implies a specific type of action, especially for military audiences.

…there will never be a “VE” or “VJ” day when all the insurgents and terrorists are captured and killed; the letters of capitulation signed; and the vast war-time machines of actionable intelligence dismembered, dissolved and disbanded. Success, rather, will come with an open-ended enterprise to identify ideas, values, understandings and movements that threaten an international order built around a specific set of legal principles and economic interests. It is an intelligence challenge more akin to that facing Rome in 150 CE, Istanbul in 1600 or London in 1800, than it is to that confronting Washington, DC in 1941. (pg 2)

And here a word about his use of the word ’empire’ or ‘imperial’.  While I was reading this, the one complaint I had was that I couldn’t find a definition to these terms put forth.  By the end of the book it’s clear that his intention all along and upon reflection I think that was a good choice.  I would argue that the term definition could be applied even more broadly than Kelley would have imagined when he wrote this.  So, allow me to present this chart and explanation of his in which he explains his theory of how entities interact with information.

As imperial formations and associated political power expand from the inchoate and fractured nomad condition, information availability increases with more of the world entering a single social space. It also becomes increasingly accessible as communities merge and morph, and individuals are able to circulate and contest definitions of identity. In short, power and knowledge grow together; they are mutually enhancing. At the apogee of imperial power, this hybrid and experimental condition begins to take on more of the formal attributes of the state. Information availability continues to increase, but it becomes progressively less accessible as only one frame of reference defines legitimacy, only one perspective constitutes truth, and only one network of transmission seeks to control the passage of information. In short, from this point on, power increasingly inhibits knowledge. pg 183

There’s no reason why this needs to be confined to actual empires…I suspect the same explanation could be applied to business, (non-empire) government or other organizations.  A company moving from small entrepreneurial to hot start up to cumbersome multinational following the same trajectory as the Romans or you can look at the newspaper industry which arguably can trace its decline to the inability to identify the value of ‘marginal actors’ and ‘slippery knowledge’ (via public media and information) or a way to monetize them.  I’d also argue that virtually all government entities in the U.S. are at the far right side of the graph within their sphere of influence as they attempt to bind their corner of the universe within their bureaucratic rules.

Knowledge is indeed power, but in a relation of mutual influence rather than direct equality. Power influences the kinds of questions asked and on what topics; it shapes the kinds of answers possible and how they are expressed. Knowledge, too, influences power; and philosophical issues about the nature of reality and understanding can shape how power is realized. pg 3

As the British empire in India expanded, it encompassed an increasing expanse of human and physical terrain which it did not fundamentally understand, prompting the series of “information panics” which characterized the British experience in the sub-continent. pg. 30

Information panics.  Think about how many of those we’ve had in the past, leaving aside the question of terrorism.  The RIAA has been an almost permanent freak out since the introduction of Napster.  Concerns about predators on the internet.  Youth sub cultures (goth, hip-hop, metal).  Immigrants.  Religion.  As all of these issues have been absorbed in our ‘imperial’ sphere of interest they’ve generally been ignored until some trigger (either real or contrived) caused them to leap to the public consciousness and lead to a bunch of flapping about, chicken little style.  Some of these are overblown and others (going back to terrorism – the rise of violent Islamism) aren’t but what these all have in common is that they generally weren’t within the scope of what the ‘imperial power’ considered to be valuable knowledge.

British attempts to rationalize Hindu and Islamic law in India, for example, fundamentally contorted the material at hand in order to make it intelligible for officials operating from an English common-law background. Their consequent understanding misread what their subjects experienced and expected, with far-reaching ramifications for Anglo-Indian relations and the experience of religiously defined identity in South Asia. pg 10

This is a concept I still don’t think we fundamentally understand.  Before the invasion of Iraq, conventional wisdom was that Saddam’s refusal to allow wide ranging weapons inspectors in was proof that he was hiding stockpiles of WMD.  It wasn’t until later that it became clear that at least part of his motivation in keeping the existence of a WMD program ambiguous was to deter Iranian hostility.  The mind boggles at the number of times we’ve made errors both tactical and strategic because we don’t understand that not everyone shares the same reality we do.  For Americans, I suspect that even the majority of them that claim to be religious don’t experience the concept of God in the same way that people might in the NWFP or in Ghana, for example.

My most recent posting provides a perfect example, as we moved operations to a new embassy complex shortly after my arrival. This facility—based on a standard model common to all new embassy construction worldwide—is modern, sanitary, safe from bombs and earthquakes, and plausibly attractive, depending on one’s aesthetic; all attributes we would presumably like associated with America. As a practical matter, however, its prominent fortress-like appearance at the top of the hill has inspired local rumors regarding the 800 Marines secretly sequestered inside and the CIA rendition facility in the basement, and prompted my driver and cook to ask “Why does America want to take over Nepal?” pg. 95

But that’s only one half of the equation.

The language and image of empire is universally visible and available to its nominal subjects, while the reverse is not usually the case. Josephus, a Jewish priest, can write a generally acceptable history and enter the informal canon of Roman literature. Moreover, discounting divine inspiration, his prophecy of Vespasian’s ascension suggests a savvy understanding of Roman politics. It is far less likely, were the attempt ever undertaken, that a Roman noble could enter the discourse of the Midrashim (various collections of Jewish commentary on Scripture, especially prevalent in the 2d Century CE). Similarly, Osama bin Laden and his ilk are far more ready and able to post videos to the Internet—to enter the imperial discourse—than are U.S. interlocutors suited to interact with restive tribes in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province via Urdu poetry.  pg. 157

In issues closer to home, think about activists (like the ad hoc ‘group’ that crushed Nestle recently).  These people were understand the information flowing from Nestle yet the company was clearly unable to process information coming the other way until it was too late and they had to take a road trip into Fail Land (here’s a presentation of the whole timeline which I normally wouldn’t link to but it was done on Prezi which I find to be an interesting alternative to linear presentation systems like PowerPoint).

In intelligence systems (regardless if its national, state or local) it’s still common practice to only value information obtained via traditional sources.  The idea of open source intelligence having real, practical value is not widely held even if it’s generally understood that you have to say it’s important.  But yet again, this is a problem of prioritizing the wrong things.

…modern intelligence analysis tends to attribute undue value to information obtained via “sensitive sources and methods”—i.e. the value of its degree of protection, its dearness to the seller—rather than information which meets purchaser requirements.  pg. 194

So, instead of how important the information is to address collection requirements we determine the value of the information on how hard it was to get.  Even when we’re talking about information others are attempting to hide, that doesn’t always translate into information we might need.

Here we need to expand upon the old cliche that we’re spending too much time on technical intelligence collection (IMINT, SIGINT, MASINT) and not enough on human intelligence.  But it might even be more than that.  Even if we hire a ton of additional agents and analysts and dedicate ourselves to finding out what’s going on in people’s heads will we get where we want?  Will be we able to get to, understand and pass along the importance of the ‘slippery knowledge’ if our people are all corn fed, middle Americans forced to operate in organizations which, like the Ottoman Empire, “privileged a certain world view and prioritized a certain kind of knowledge”. I’d remind you that in the wake of the Hasan shootings there were calls to forbid Muslims from serving in the military.  There are numerous stories of the difficulties in recruiting people with the cultural/ethnic/linguistic backgrounds which we might want because those same backgrounds don’t fit within the perception of what’s trusted or normal.  An agent who becomes fluent in Dari through extensive schooling is good.  One who grew up in Central Asia and not only knows the language but can effortlessly understand the cultural context of what goes on there is priceless.  And yet…try to do a background check of someone who grew up in Charikar (or places even further afield).

…this restriction in sense perception with the structural winnowing of imperial architecture both material and political, and the amount of information arriving at the policy-making end rapidly approaches nil.  Whether driven by considerations of status or force protection, the blinding and deafening effects of isolation are the same—…pg. 94

But, maybe even that doesn’t go far enough.  Kelley seems to argue that trying to capture ‘slippery knowledge’ within the guidelines of highly structured organizations may just not be possible.  Instead, what may be required is the reliance on other types of networks.

Truly alternative information networks—the places where surprises come from—may circulate among these “oppositional structures” and associations of more genuinely state-separated “civil society” like modern incarnations in the liberation theology movements of Latin America or the exploding Christian Pentecostal churches of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s. pg. 68

So, what are the characteristics of success?

Organizations that thrive will likely not be those that seek information dominance (a chimera if ever there was one), but those that provide innovative perspectives and connections. In practice, this means there is a place in strategic intelligence analysis for topics as apparently irrelevant as women’s literacy rates and rural access to irrigation systems.  193

The point is that frequently sound analysis isn’t about paring away the extraneous to reveal the “bottom line” or to identify the “center of gravity.” Rather, more fruitful results may oft en open up from exploring marginal aspects of context, picking a single stray thread and pulling until the fabric unravels, or tugging at a single weed until an entire underground network of roots emerges from the earth.  71

Really a superb read.  Check it out.

Karen Armstrong’s Buddha & the Silencers

I just finished listening to the audio version of Karen Armstrong’s biography of Buddha.  There isn’t much in the historical record to latch onto about Buddha but Armstrong does an admirable job of putting his life and the origins of his belief system in context.

Notably, she discusses Buddhism as a manifestation of a greater movement which occurred from about 800 b.c. to 200 a.d. (the Axial Age) and was the result of widespread cultural and social change all across Mediterranean and Asian cultures.

I thought the discussion about Buddha’s struggle over whether to allow women into the order was particularly interesting.  They had similar misogynistic struggles as you’d see in other cultural movements of the time and the issue disentangling the issue from the cultural background of the time and place is beyond me.  I do think it was notable in that the Buddha was supposed to be against the idea of women becoming ordained and was convinced otherwise by one of his followers.  It seemed to be a not-so-subtle lesson that even the enlightened could be wrong about things and shouldn’t be considered to  be infallible.

The final chapters of Buddha’s late life were the most interesting and his attendant Ananda is a particularly sympathetic figure.  Even though he had been a companion of the Buddha for years and had intellectually absorbed his teachings, while the Buddha was near death Ananda realized that he hadn’t been able to internalize the Buddha’s teachings and was wracked with guilt and suffering.

And, of course, the various interpretations of Mara’s temptations by the early Buddhists was quite good as well.   Refusing to look at Mara only as a literal being, they allowed enough ambiguity to also see him (it?) as a personification of the internal struggle or the temptations of a world discovering new wealth and sensations.

Ok…if this ain’t your cup of tea allow me to stay (kind of) on topic and recommend the song “Blues for Buddha” by the Silencers.  Unfortunately, I can’t find a version of the song on line you you’ll have to settle for the preview on Amazon.  here are the lyrics though:

A BLUES FOR BUDDHA (J.O`Neill/The Silencers)

We`re running guns to a holy war For soldiers of the soul Where right and wrong come apart at the seams And fear is on patrol In the mad mad world Of a lost newsreel Little children sing A blues for Buddah Buddah The dollar is our king A blues for Buddah Buddah The dollar is our king We`re making friends with a foreign power Through telescopic sights A quiet cocktail during happy hour For the exploitation rights In the mad mad world Of a lost newsreel Teach our kids to sing A blues for Buddah Buddah The dollar is our king A blues for Buddah Buddah The dollar is our king The dollar is our king The dollar is our king