Categories
Review

“Grunt”

Mary Roach
I spent the entire time reading this book thinking that it was by the same person who wrote Combat-Ready Kitchen. Which was an interesting comparison to have in mind, as I quite liked that one, but “Grunt” was much more fun. While “Combat-Ready Kitchen” felt like it was trying to be ready for use as a textbook in a history class, “Grunt” was unabashedly written by a human being who likes to mention their human responses. I’ve got a great deal of highlights of comedic moments that Roach captured very well.1
As someone with precisely zero interest in joining the military, I think Roach is an excellent writer for this topic. Clearly she’s got a bit more experience in this area than I do — nobody who’s spent a week on a nuclear submarine doing research for a book can really be as clueless as she tries to convey — but she’s removed enough from it that she can be an excellent go-between. The feigned cluelessness doesn’t read as an affectation, it reads as making sure the genuinely clueless folks like me can follow along.
And it’s just an interesting subject matter. The Department of Defense has a spectacular research budget, which they put into doing all sorts of neat things. Nothing in the book focuses on the science of Exciting New Ways To Make People Dead; in fact, it’s almost universally focused on the opposite. I’m okay with my tax dollars going to research on reconstructive surgery and heat-stroke prevention.
I can definitely recommend “Grunt”. It’s a fun read, and the science is neat. Check it out.


  1. And a pent-up rant about just how bad the experience of trying to highlight stuff is in Apple Books. While the location of the highlight has a clear correlation to where your finger is on-screen, they’re not directly related in the way that we’re trained to expect from iOS. And god forbid you want to highlight something that spans across a page break – to date, the only way I’ve found to do this is to change the text size until they’re on the same page. Even Amazon does better than that, and their Kindle app has never not felt like an abandoned project. 
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Review

“Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies”

Nick Bostrom
This was, simultaneously, one of the driest and most terrifying books I have ever read.
Really, the conclusion summarized it well:

“Before the prospect of an intelligence explosion, we humans are like small children playing with a bomb. Such is the mismatch between the power of our plaything and the immaturity of our conduct. Superintelligence is a challenge for which we are not ready now and will not be ready for a long time. We have little idea when the detonation will occur, though if we hold the device to our ear we can hear a faint ticking sound.”

It is what the title says: a list of ways we can achieve superintelligence (including, I’d note, a discussion of the fact that it’s both necessary and inevitable), a harrowing discussion of exactly how many ways it can go wrong, and some things we can start trying to do to keep it from going all Skynet on us. Or, as is more likely, wiping out humanity without really noticing, because we were a convenient source of raw materials.
Like I said: terrifying.
But valuable. I’m also convinced this book should be required reading for any AI course. And, y’know, a good chunk of the population beyond that: I count AI as one of the three most likely existential threats out there.1
So hey, want to somehow be a little bored and scared out of your mind at the same time? Read it.


  1. I’ve got it tied with “Global War, Nuclear” and “Climate Change.” Lower on the list are “A Pandemic With 100% Transmission Rate and 90-Plus Percent Lethality” and “Something From Space.” 
Categories
Review

“The Plutonium Files,” or, “‘it’s a good thing we’re the good guys and the laws don’t apply to us,’ they said”

Eileen Welsome
I’m not sure what it says about me that all of my nonfiction reading is about the Cold War, but here we are again.
The funny thing about this book — and there isn’t much of that, because it’s a detailed account of some truly horrible things — is what did and didn’t stick in my mind. A lot of the book was about trying to humanize the victims of the experiments, and that aspect didn’t really land for me. The actual experiments, what was done, did stick, to a degree; having just finished my read, the ones I most remember are the prison experiments in Oregon and Washington, the radioactive iron supplements at Vanderbilt, a bit about the total-body irradiation experiments, and, of course, the titular plutonium trials. Some of the accidents also stood out to me — there’s a discussion of a man who took a plutonium criticality to the face, and the summary of how thoroughly screwed you are by that is that, when he threw up on the floor of the hospital an hour or two later, after they’d cleaned the floor, they had to get out a geiger counter to check if it was safe for anyone to walk there. (He didn’t survive; to add insult to horrible injury, his body was then parceled out to labs around the country, without the permission or knowledge of his next of kin.)
There were also a couple figures, dropped in as part of an anecdote in the portion of the book about the pilots who flew planes through mushroom clouds to measure their effects, that lodged in my head pretty effectively.
The first set of tests after WWII ended were called Operation Crossroads. The second of these was an underwater detonation; I’ve heard the story before that, during the explosion, a Japanese battleship was thrown — 30,000 tons of metal, launched out of the water. (I’ve been trying to confirm this story in writing this, but haven’t found any clear evidence either way, so I’m going to call it apocryphal and move on.)
This story, though, was from the Castle series, Castle Bravo, the first thermonuclear weapon test. 15 megatons of TNT; while it wasn’t a useable weapon — the device was the size of a small building, and had to be constructed in-place on the ‘target’ island — it was mind-boggling in scale. Because, 15 megatons of TNT, that’s… a number. But what the book described was a 20-mile-wide column of water and mud, 45,000 feet tall. Again, mind-boggling in scale, but slightly easier to conceptualize; just imagine a mountain, and then… make it taller.
The figure that truly got to me, though, was the statement that it took hours for the water and mud to finish falling back into the ocean. Hours.
These nuclear tests were also so bright that test animals, 350 miles away, got retinal burns from looking directly at it.
It’s a scale of destruction that I can’t fit in my mind. Humans aren’t equipped to think about this sort of thing.
And it’s not the scariest part, is the thing. Sure, you can erase a city in the blink of an eye.
This is where the book shines: it’s about the radiation, and just how scary and insidious it is. I’ve mentioned before that people aren’t afraid enough of nuclear war; at risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again. Write your Congresspeople, and advocate for disarmament, everyone.

Categories
Review

“The One Device,” or, “I’m amazed this man didn’t get arrested”

Brian Merchant
It’s rather fitting that I’m writing this review on my iPhone. Parts of the book were written on an iPhone, I suspect, and the author mentioned that a good deal of the interview recordings and photos were made on his iPhone.
Structurally, the book is interesting — there are two through lines, and they’ve got the same writing style but different feels. The more story-like one is the historical aspect, going from the beginning of the project through to the keynote where Steve Jobs introduced the world to the iPhone. And it’s a story, for sure: there’s a narrative to it, characters being introduced, politics and inventions, failures and triumphs. It’s the best telling of the story I’ve read so far, though admittedly I don’t think I’ve actually sat down to read the full story before.1
The other part is more of the ‘now’ aspect, which explores the impact of the iPhone as a product, focusing on the manufacturing process. The author tells how he… made his way into the Foxconn plant where iPhones are assembled; predictably gets hacked immediately after arriving at a hacker convention; goes on a claustrophobic tour of a tin mine; under-details an agoraphobic tour of the salt flats that produce most of the lithium used in the iPhone’s battery; and a few other stops along the way.
All told, it’s an interesting read. Some of the historical context was new to me—the history of ARM was inspiring, for example—and while I already knew a lot of things—photos of those lithium flats are pretty striking—I’m glad I took the time to read it. If you’re at all interested in the history, I can recommend the book.


  1. Creative Selection is on my list to read, so I’ll get there eventually. 
Categories
Review

James Baldwin’s Collected Essays

James Baldwin
This is ostensibly supposed to be a book review in the way I normally do them, but that doesn’t feel like the right way to go about it. For a variety of reasons, really: firstly, because most of what I review is fiction, and this was only partially that, if at all; and secondly, because it’s just a different sort of book than I usually do.1
James Baldwin was, I’ve learned, a Figure in the civil rights campaigns. To be honest, before I started the project of reading this book, I hadn’t really heard of him. The first references I got to his work were as quotes in essays I proofread for a friend of mine; it took me a while to catch on to the fact that I was seeing the same name come up over and over. (That friend went on to write a thesis about Baldwin; I believe it’s available online, and I’d recommend reading it, if only so you get a better look at Baldwin’s work than I’ll be able to give here.)
The Essays cover a variety of things, but the core component is the relationship between Black and White in America. Which I’m hardly qualified to talk about; again, I’ll point you to that thesis, or just directly to Baldwin’s writings, because both are far better takes than anything I can come up with.
Content aside, Baldwin is a great writer, and a powerful speaker; if you get a chance, check out some of his speeches, they’re certainly on YouTube by now.
The one caveat I’ll give this book is that you shouldn’t plan on finishing it in one sitting, or even a handful; it’s a book that demands effort. Even just from the physical standpoint — it’s 800-plus pages, in the edition I have, fine print on the Bible-like thin paper. It demands endurance, and you can’t really power through it like I tend to with books; after, at most, 100 pages, I had to put it down and give my brain time to process through things, because after a while you start to feel like a river is pouring through your head, in one ear and out the other.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t read it, because you absolutely should. I’m glad I put the time into it, and I suspect I’ll be budgeting time for another run at it again sometime in the future.2


  1. I’ve reviewed one other collection of essays, that I can remember: “The Control of Nature”, which I adored. But that was also different; the essays were about Man’s relationship to Nature, and not Man against Man and Society, or whatnot. I dunno, I’m trying to remember terminology from the last literature class I took, which was either three or four years ago, depending on how you count things. 
  2. And, tacked on here as a footnote because I couldn’t leave it out, but I also couldn’t work it in anywhere else: a couple people who’d read his work before had lead me to believe that he was queer in the way that Shakespeare was — rumored or hinted at, but never really confirmed one way or the other. I can only assume, from that stance, that they hadn’t read the last two essays in the collection, because the final essay includes a description of a young man that begins with “We were never lovers: for what it’s worth, I think I wish we had been.”
    The essay before is even more explicit, I’d say, in that it devotes several pages to talking about Baldwin’s experiences in what are, today, equivalent to gay bars and bathhouses; perhaps my favorite part is the little editorial note at the end that consists of the year it was published and the fact that it was first published in Playboy
Categories
Review

“The Control of Nature,” or, “there’s nothing like finding out 100,000 tons of concrete has no foundation left whatsoever”

John McPhee

I’ve actually had this book for quite a while; one of the essays in it was required reading for a class I took, oh, two years ago or so? Something like that. I quite enjoyed the read at the time, but somehow never thought to read the other essays in the book. I found it again in the whole mess of moving out of campus housing after graduation and decided to toss it into the to-read pile, and I finally got around to it.1

And I’m glad I did; while “Los Angeles Against the Mountains” wasn’t quite as fun to reread as it was to read the first time around, the other two essays were both just as enjoyable on first read as I’d hoped. McPhee’s writing style is beautiful; very visually descriptive, deeply informative, and with well-timed flashes of humor throughout.

I’m going to split this review up a bit and include some excerpts from each of the essays, to try to give you a sense of not only McPhee’s voice, but also the content of the essays.

“Atchafalaya”

The first essay, “Atchafalaya,” follows the US Army Corps of Engineers and their work on the Mississippi River; it’s far more involved than I’d ever thought, and the project is fascinating.

On the outflow side—where the water fell to the level of the Atchafalaya—a hole had developed that was larger and deeper than a football stadium, and with much the same shape. it was hidden, of course, far beneath the chop of wild water. The Corps had long since been compelled to leave all eleven gates wide open, in order to reduce to the greatest extent possible the force that was shaking the structure, and so there was no alternative to aggravating the effects on the bed of the channel. In addition to the structure’s weight, what was holding it in place was a millipede of stilts—steel H-beams that reached down at various angles, as pilings, ninety feet through sands and silts, through clayey peats and organic mucks. There never was a question of anchoring such a fortress in rock. The shallowest rock was seven thousand feet straight down. In three places below the structure, sheet steel went into the substrate like fins; but the integrity of the structure depended essentially on the H-beams, and vehicular traffic continued to cross it en route to San Luis Rey.

Then, as now, LeRoy Dugas was the person whose hand controlled Old River Control—a thought that makes him smile. “We couldn’t afford to close any of the gates,” he remarked to me one day at Old River. “Too much water was passing through the structure. Water picked up riprap off the bottom in front, and rammed it through to the tail bed.” The riprap included derrick stones, and each stone weighed seven tons. On the level of the road deck, the vibrations increased. The operator of a moving crane let the crane move without him and waited for it at the end of the structure. Dugie continued, “You could get on the structure with your automobile and open the door and it would close the door.” The crisis recalled the magnitude of “the ’27 high water,” when Dugie was a baby. Up the alley somewhere, during the ’27 high water, was a railroad bridge with a train sitting on it loaded with coal. The train had been put there because its weight might help keep the bridge in place, but the bridge, vibrating in the floodwater, produced so much friction that the coal in the gondolas caught fire. Soon the bridge, the train, and the glowing coal fell into the water.

One April evening in 1973—at the height of the flood—a fisherman walked onto the structure. There is, after all, order in the universe, and some things take precedence over impending disasters. On the inflow side, facing the Mississippi, the structure was bracketed by a pair of guide walls that reached out like curving arms to bring in the water. Close by the guide wall at the south end was the swirling eddy, which by now had become a whirlpool. There was other motion as well—or so it seemed. The fisherman went to find Dugas, in his command post at the north end of the structure, and told him the guide wall had moved. Dugie told the fisherman he was seeing things. The fisherman nodded affirmatively.

When Dugie himself went to look at the guide wall, he looked at it for the last time. “It was slipping into the river, into the inflow channel.” Slowly it dipped, sank, broke. Its foundations were gone. There was nothing below it but water. Professor Kazmann likes to say that this was when the Corps became “scared green.” Whatever the engineers may have felt, as soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish. (28-30)

“Cooling the Lava”

The next essay is set in a very different clime: a volcanic eruption in Iceland, with occasional detours to a similar eruption in Hawaii. The way he describes these immense forces is amazing; it feels as if he’s trying to make sure you feel the same sense of awe that he does.

The university installed [the seismometer] on Einar’s farm about a year before the Heimaey eruption, its primary purpose being to sense the threats of Katla, an unusually dangerous volcano only fifteen miles away. Hekla is in the area as well—the stratovolcano that appears in early literature as one of the two mouths of Hell. Groans from dead sinners have been heard in the crater. But Hekla is out in the open, observable under the sky. The baleful Katla is covered with ice It lies under Myrdalsjokull—a glacier field of two hundred and seventy square miles. When Katla erupts, as it has about twice a century, it creates a vast chamber of water under the ice. When the water reaches a critical volume, it lifts the ice cap, and one or two cubic miles bursts out as a violent flood—a blurt of water twenty times the discharge of the Amazon River. The outwash plains these floods have left behind are as desolate as the maria of the moon. A town, villages, and farms lie between Katla and the sea. (113-114)

While I’d probably call “they saw fish” my favorite line of the whole book, probably the best example of his sense of humor comes from this description of a golf course:

In 1801, it came down off Hualalai, a lesser volcano eight thousand feet high, and poured into the sea. There on the leeward side of the island, where rainfall is ten inches a year, the lava has remained essentially unchanged. Resorts have sculpted it like movie sets, landscaped wit imported soils. The bunkers of designer golf courses are not concave and full of sand but—lovely in the green surrounding turf—solid black islands of undisturbed basalt. Use your wedge on that. Your hands sting for a year. If a long approach shot lands on one of those, it bounces to Tahiti. (152)

Finally, from a portion of the book where I could feel myself mentally adding a few things to my bucket list:

The rock, being essentially glass, was very sharp. It was also hot, particularly where a tube lay below and molten lava was running there. We came to a skylight and inched toward it. Steam swirled above it but did not close off the view—of the racing orange currents of an incandescent river. By an order of magnitude, this was the most arresting sight I had ever seen in nature. The time spent gazing into it could not be measured.

Gradually, I began to think. Out of curiosity, I asked Christina if we were looking down into the near side of the tube or were standing over the middle and looking at the far side of the tube.

“The far side,” she said.

If my legs still had knees in them, I was unaware of it. (155)

“Los Angeles Against the Mountains”

The last essay of the book is the first one I read. It was interesting; at the time, I found it fascinating, and since that first reading I’ve come back to it again and again in my mind.

Los Angeles is overmatched on one side by the Pacific Ocean and on the other by very high mountains. With respect to these principal boundaries, Los Angeles is done sprawling. The San Gabriels, in their state of tectonic youth, are rising as rapidly as any range on earth. Their loose inimical slopes flout the tolerance of the angle of repose. Rising straight up out of the megalopolis, they stand ten thousand feet above the nearby sea, and they are not kidding with this city. Shedding, spalling, self-destructing, they are disintegrating at a rate that is also among the fastest in the world. The phalanxed communities of Los Angeles have pushed themselves hard against these mountains, an act of aggression that requires a deep defense budget to contend with the results. (184)

It follows the Los Angeles Flood Control District, or, as the locals call it, Flood. Now, controlling floods seems like it’d be easy in Los Angeles, the city of perpetual doubt, but that’s far from the truth; not only is there the occasional bit of torrential rainfall, but also something much more difficult: rockfall.

Many people regard the debris basins less as defenses than as assaults on nature. They are aesthetic disasters. To impose them on residential neighborhoods has been tantamount to creating a Greenwich full of gravel pits, rock quarries at either end of Sutton Place. The residents below Hook East were bitter when the basin was put in. Months later, the bulldozer tracks were still visible, they said, meaning that nothing had happened—no debris had come, and not even enough rain to obliterate the tracks. So why had the county used taxpayers’ money to build something so obviously unnecessary? A form of answer came when the basin overfilled in one night. Afterward, people criticized the county for not building basins of adequate size. (246)

What was most interesting to me, though, wasn’t just the concept of trying to fight against these rockfalls; it was the interrelationships between everything.

When fire comes, it puts the nutrients back in the ground. It clears the terrain for fresh growth. When chaparral has not been burned for thirty years, about half the thicket will be dry dead stuff—twenty-five thousand tons of it in one square mile. The living plants are no less flammable. The chamise, the manzanita—in fact, most chaparral plants—are full of solvent extractives that burn intensely and ignite easily. Their leaves are glossy with oils and resins that seal in moisture during hot dry periods and serve the dual purpose of responding explosively to flame. (209)

It burns as if it were soaked with gasoline. Chaparral plants typically have multiple stems emerging from a single root crown, and this contributes not only to the density of the thickets but, ultimately, to the surface area of combustible material that stands prepared for flame. Hundreds of acres can be burned clean in minutes. In thick black smoke there is wild orange flame, rising through the canyons like explosion crowns. The canyons serve as chimneys, and in minutes whole mountains are aflame, resembling volcanoes, emitting high columns of fire and smoke. The smoke can rise twenty thousand feet. (210)

If you walk in a rainstorm on a freshly burned chaparral slope, you notice as you step on the wet ground that the tracks you are making are prints of dry dust. In the course of a conflagration, chaparral soil, which is not much for soaking up water in the first place, experiences a chemical change and, a little below its surface, becomes waterproof. In a Forest Service building at the foot of the mountains Wade Wells keeps some petri dishes and soil samples in order to demonstrate this phenomenon to passing unbelievers. In one dish he puts unburned chaparral soil. It is golden brown. He drips water on it from an eyedropper. The water beads up, stands there for a while, then collapses and spreads into the soil. Why the water hesitates is not well understood but is a great deal more credible than what happens next. Wells fills a dish with a dark soil from burned chaparral. He fills the eyedropper and empties it onto the soil. The water stands up in one large dome. Five minutes later, the dome is still there. Ten minutes later, the dome is still there. Sparkling, tumescent, mycophane, the big bead of water just stands there indefinitely, on top of the impermeable soil. Further demonstrating how waterproof this burned soil really is, Wells pours half a pound of it, like loose brown sugar, into a beaker of water. The soil instantly forms a homunculus blob—integral, immiscible—suspended in the water.

In the slow progression of normal decay, chaparral litter seems to give up to the soil what have been vaguely described as “waxlike complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.” These waxy substances are what make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water, or “slightly nonwettable,” as Wells and his colleagues are won’t to describe it. The the wildfires burn, and temperatures at the surface of the ground are six or seven hundred centigrade degrees, the soil is so effective as an insulator that the temperature one centimetre below the surface may not be hot enough to boil water. The heavy waxlike substances vaporize at the surface and reconvenes in the cooler temperatures below. Acting like oil, they coat soil particles and establish the hydrophobic layer—one to six centimetres down. Above that layer, where the waxlike substances are gone ,the veneer of burned soil is “wettable.” When Wells drips water on a dishful of that, the water soaks in as if the dish were full of Kleenex. When rain falls on burned and denuded ground, it soaks the very thing upper layer but can penetrate no further. Hiking boots strike hard enough to break through into the dust, but the rain is repelled and goes down the slope. Of all the assembling factors that eventually send debris flows rumbling down the canyons, none is more detonative than the waterproof soil.

In the first rains after a fire, water quickly saturates the thin permeable layer, and liquefied soil drips downhill like runs of excess paint. These miniature debris flows stripe the mountainsides with miniature streambeds—countless scarlike rills that are soon the predominant characteristic of the burned terrain. As more rain comes, each rill is going to deliver a little more debris to the accumulating load in the canyon below. But, more to the point, each rill—its naturally levees framing its impermeable bed—will increase the speed of the surface water. As rain sheds off a mountainside like water off a tin roof, the rill network, as it is called, may actually triple the peed, and therefore greatly enhance the power of the runoff. The transport capacity of the watershed—how much bulk it can move—may increase a thousandfold. The rill network is prepared to deliver water with enough force and volume to mobilize the deposits lying in the canyons below. With the appearance of the rills, almost all prerequisites have no sequential occurred. The muzzle-loader is charged. For a full-scale flat-out debris flow to burst forth from the mountains, the final requirement is a special-intensity storm. (212-214)

And, again, there’s always that sense of awe, for nature and all the forces involved. But he tempers it well with human stories:

The Harkness house projected from the hillside and had a carport beneath the master bedroom. The debris tore off the master bedroom with Sara and the baby inside. The bedroom fell on the family station wagon. With the bedroom on top of it, the station wagon went down the driveway and on down the street. In what remained of the house, the twins and their sister Claudine were unhurt. Sara and the baby came to the end of their ride unhurt. The station wagon suffered considerably. When the bedroom was taken off it, the car was twenty-six inches high. (263)

At this point, if you’re still reading, I think it’s safe to say you’re as interested by these clips of the essays as I was by the whole things. I can absolutely recommend that you give it a read.

  1. Technically it was the second item on the pile, behind Baldwin’s “Collected Essays”, but that’s a rather dense book that I’ve been working on for a while, and I needed a bit of a break.
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Review

“Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality,” or, “you could make a drinking game of watching people change the world with these essays”

Edited by Randall Packer & Ken Jordan, with a foreword by William Gibson
As a well-documented computer nerd, I’m honestly kinda amazed I’d never stumbled across this book before. It’s an impressive collection of titans of the field — Alan Kay, Douglas Engelbart, Vannevar Bush, Tim Berners-Lee, and so on.1 Other than the foreword, there’s nothing truly new in this book,2 but the essays are downright formative. Bush’s essay, written in the wake of the Second World War, describes what is recognizably a smartphone; Berners-Lee’s describes the foundation of what would become the internet. Looking back, it’s a fascinating read — hindsight is 20/20, and all that. It’s a cool book, give it a read.


  1. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to call Bush a titan of the field of computer science, but he did invent the military-industrial complex, which led to a lot of computer tech, so… I’ll let it stand. 
  2. Well, the introductions of each author probably are, but I digress. 
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Review

“An American Princess,” or, “how is this woman not a gay icon”

Annejet van der Zijl
I’m not a big history person; if you haven’t noticed from the sort of things I tend to review, I like my books distinctly fiction. This one was a bit of an accident — as a Prime subscriber, I get a free Kindle book a month, and this seemed the most interesting of the available choices. Which, to put it lightly, was pretty accurate.
Since it’s a biography, it’s a bit weird to try to summarize at all, because anything interesting feels like it’d be spoiling a surprise. Rather than doing that, I think I’ll just leave you with the title of this post, the title of the book, and a note that I can happily recommend it, because it was a heck of a read. She had a wild life.

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Review

“Automate This,” or, “Wall Street is slightly more terrifying than I thought”

Christopher Steiner
At some point, I’ve probably mentioned that I’m a computer guy. If not, hopefully you’ve been able to figure it out just by reading along; it’s probably a safe bet that only a computer nerd would make an app.1
Fairly often, this means I get to explain things to people in a less incensing way than they’d first heard about it.2 This book… did not do that. It was intended to be calming, but as a person who lives in a capitalist society, it’s a bit unnerving to see how quickly things that used to be jobs are being eaten by computers.3
That said, it was a fascinating read — I’d never heard of some of the things being talked about, not because they failed and disappeared, but because they succeeded but are borderline invisible.4
And, of course, it’s an interesting history of how the finance industry made themselves entirely redundant, all while arguably slowing the pace of human progress. Ah, banks.
Anyways, go read the book.


  1. Yes, I am still in shameless self-promotion mode, thank you for asking 
  2. Looking at you, “Apple is making your iPhone slower” thing 
  3. And yes, I say this as somebody whose entire career path is basically going to be “helping the computers eat more jobs, faster.” 
  4. Call center software that picks which agent to route you to based on your personality type so that you’ll be a happier customer at the end? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t just read its origin story. 
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Review

“Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage”

“When veterans get together, it doesn’t matter who won or lost,” [Makarov] said through his translator. “It’s enough that both survived.”

Oh boy, do I love me some Cold War history. It’s easily my favorite time period to read about, and the one that I keep coming back to whenever my education requires I learn something about the past, lest I repeat it.1 The craziness of the whole period fascinates me – the Space Race happened in such a short time, people were cramming nuclear reactors into anything they could think of, Freeman Dyson was wandering around spitting out ideas that will probably remain the basis of science fiction giga-structures for the rest of human history, and the military was determinedly ensuring that they could wipe out the entire human race before the Commies could, dammit! It was insane! And a bit of a miracle that we all survived, really.
This book dove2 into an aspect of the Cold War that I hadn’t actually thought about very much. Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about submarines, but never really as elements for espionage, always in either their key role as an element of the US nuclear triad3 or in the sort of crazy things I’d do with them if I had the sort of ridiculous budget that both Navies had during the War.
But they actually make a lot of sense in that context – nearly impossible to spot from orbit, invisible from the surface; their only real weakness to detection is sonar, and from the standpoint of a submarine or other stealth craft, active sonar is a big no-no when you’re trying to stay hidden. They’re basically the perfect stealth vehicle. So why not use them to do a bit of listening in?
And boy oh boy did they do some cool stuff with that. The one that takes the cake is actually how I found this book: Operation Ivy Bells. A specially-modified nuclear submarine wandered in past Soviet naval defenses and settled down on top of a key underwater communications line. Divers went out, divers affixed a wiretap, divers went back in. Wait a day or two, pick the wiretap back up, and then sneak back home to deliver the tapes to the spooks at the NSA.4 Between them and the people listening in on the sub itself, they found that the line was a treasure trove: the Soviets assumed it was safe, as it ran entirely within Soviet territorial waters, and part of the time they didn’t even bother to encrypt their communications. It was an intelligence coup, one that would be repeated on multiple other undersea cables, bringing in massive amounts of information. (At first, the wiretap could only run for a week at most before being replaced; the NSA and the Navy called in engineers from telecoms companies, and wound up building one with some rudimentary computational capabilities and an onboard nuclear power plant;56 the new device could be left in place for a year or more, require far less frequent invasions-of-territory by US subs.)
I’m going to stop there, having given away one of the biggest success stories told in the book, but that’s hardly all of it – the book, a beautiful work of non-fiction, weaves several interesting tales, ranging from political intrigue to scientific success stories to on-the-edge-of-your-seat adventure novel in places. I’d absolutely recommend it to anyone who’s at all interested in Cold War history.7


  1. What, exactly, I’m personally in danger of repeating from the Cold War, I don’t really know. 
  2. Pun absolutely intended. 
  3. Land-based missiles, SAC bombers constantly in the air, and submarines packed to the rafters with SLBMs. 
  4. This was back in the good old days, when our nation’s spies were looking outside the country. Mostly. Unless you were a Communist. Or Communist-adjacent. Or, y’know, vaguely suspicious.
    That said, the NSA didn’t do the “watching our own,” that was mostly handled (very illegally) by the CIA. 
  5. It wasn’t stated in the book, but I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet that it was a radio-thermal generator, better known as an RTG; both sides in the Cold War used them to power space-based devices, and the Soviets also used them to power a grid of remote lighthouses along their long, long coastline. 
  6. The “nuclear-powered lighthouses” thing would turn out to be a horrible idea, though only after the Soviet Union had already collapsed; the lighthouses these days have been stripped for materials, leading, presumably, to a spate of heavily-irradiated thieves around the country. 
  7. Or just people who’re interested in submarines, a stance which I totally respect – submarines are cool!