Review of “Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker,” by Kevin Mitnick with William L. Simon

Several weeks ago Kevin Mitnick spoke at the research arm of my employer. He is a funny guy, knowledgeable, a great public speaker. He was also hawking his book. During the Q&A Kevin was asked what the most realistic movie about computer hackers was. He replied, “Sneakers,” a 1992 film starring Robert Redford, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix, and Sidney Poitier, which I had remembered watching as a teenager. This answer seemed so bizarre it made me want to know more — hence several hundred pages later, I’ve read Mitnick’s book.

After re-watching Sneakers, I was struck that it did not use the Hollywood trope of a computer whiz sitting down on a keyboard, hitting random buttons, and getting into the system. Or Mission: Impossible high tech wizardly or suspension cables. Instead, in Sneakers access is gained by talking to people, calmly and persuasively lying to them, and getting them to do what you want. This was Mitnick’s method. That was why he liked the film.

Kevin’s story begins as a boy “hacking” the L.A. mass transit system to get free rides, thru getting his mom free long distance, to finally an increasingly complicated web of compromised systems to evade the growing number of enemies who was looking for him. Mitnick’s adventures take him from California to Las Vegas, Seattle, South Dakota, and North Carolina, before finally being arrested.

Kevin’s spoken a lot about his former life. Here’s a 60 minutes report:

And an hour-long talk he gave at Google

Shortly after his release his prison, he was called to testify before a Senate committee headed by Joe Lieberman and Fred Thompson.

If technology, “social engineering” (which Mitnick calls “lying on the telephone”), and security interest you, I strongly recommend Ghost in the Wires: My Adventures as the World’s Most Wanted Hacker. I read Mitnick’s book in the Nook edition. It is also available for Kindle.

Review of “The Accidental Time Machine,” by Joe Haldeman

The Accidental Machine, which was nominated for the Nebula Award in 2007 (it lost, unlike Haldeman’s Forever War and Forever Peace novels) is a tricky book review. It is very close to being a very good mix of humor and hard science fiction. It’s close to being trash that was barely worth reading. All in all, the writing quality is very uneven, and the good parts (barely) make it worthwhile to finish.

The protagonist of The Accidental Time Machine is Matthew Fuller, a laboratory technician at MIT, who accidentally ‘breaks’ a complex piece of lab equipment and turns it into a time machine. The time machine goes only one direction — into the future — with jumps of exponentially longer duration. So jump-time goes from about 1 second, to about 12 seconds, to about 144 seconds, to nearly six hours, and so on. As Matthew goes farther and farther into the future, life is always an exagerated version of what we’re familiar with (religious conservatism, or materialism, or bureaucratism, etc.).

Unfortunately, Haldeman sabotages his own work with pointless (in the truest sense: with no intellectual cut or heft) attacks on religion. I’ve read works by atheists who care deeply about their viewpoints, and argue them coherently and logically. Haldeman can’t be bothered. Instead, Haldeman could have cut the exposition sharply, included some reddit threads in an appendix, and everyone would have been happier.

The ending is clever.

I read The Accidental Time Machine in the Nook edition. It is also available for Kindle.

Review of “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” by Walter Miller

It is amazing that I have not read A Canticle for Leibowitz until recently. I enjoy classic Science Fiction, and Canticle won the Hugo Award in 1961 (placing it between 1960’s Starship Troopers and 1962’s Stranger in a Strange Land). I enjoy reading about the Dark Ages (Before France and Germany and Muhammad and Charlemagne being two of my favorite histories), and this is a retelling of the rise of Europe from the Dark Ages to the modern era. I’ve had tremendous luck with books recommended to me by my favorite high school teachers (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Marx’s The Communist Manifesto, Quinn’s Ishmael, etc.), but I ignored this recommendation.

But I’m glad I read it now. What a book!.

Canticle can be thought of as a play on a Latin phrase that appears in Chapter 26, in the section “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (Thy Will Be Done):

Reminiscentur et convertentur ad Dominum universi fines terrae. Et adorabunt in conspectu universae familiae gentium. Quoniam Domini est regnum; et ipse dominabitur…

Which is translated as:

All the ends of the earth shall remember, and shall be converted to the Lord: And all the kindreds of the Gentiles shall adore in his sight. For the kingdom is the Lord’s; and he shall have dominion

Canticle takes place largely in the American southwest, and primarily at four different times: following the collapse of literate society after a nuclear war, later, during the redawn of science, and still later, in a technological society. The fourth time is our own, expressed largely in the notes and recollections of “Leibowitz,” an electrical engineer whose writings are rediscovered in the first pages of the book.

Miller has a unique gift for building empathy for characters who are very different from the reader. In the first chapter a monk discovers a “Fallout Shelter,” with a maximum capacity of 50. After slowly reading the inscription, he is terrified: everyone knows that “Fallouts” were dragon-like incubi (because they were born in fire, and lead to deformed children), so this must have been a home to 50 of them! Throughout the book an inventor, a scholar, and many others are introduced to the reader, and always with humanizing descriptions and writing.

Miller’s view of the relationship with science and religion is wry. In one scene monks (who have read St. Augustine) ask a visiting scholar if it is possible that humans had evolved from earlier creatures, in accordance with Augustine’s theory of natural development. That is impossible, the scientists retorts — the oldest surviving pieces of paper describe a world merely centuries old! (It’s implied the most ancient physical manuscripts is an awful science fiction story about a robot uprising!)

Canticle is hard science fiction with epistemological, scientific, and religious overtones. An amazing book, I received my copy from a friend, and quickly mailed it to my brother. This is one of those books you “can’t put down,” and need to share. Read it!

Review of “Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream,” by John Derbyshire

Mr. Derbyshire admits to sharing many of his narrator’s thoughts. The author, too, becomes obsessed with “dead thinkers” from time to time. His latest is Bellini, the 19th-century composer of opera, which is one of Mr. Derbyshire’s passions and the subject of his next novel.
The New York Times

Try to kill it all away,
but I remember everything.
What have I become,
my sweetest friend?
– Johnny Cash, “Hurt

I’ve read through all the reviews of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream I could find. I think my impressions of it are different from theirs. Because I read it an order different from theirs.

John Derbyshire’s “Bellini” novel, teased in the New York Times review of Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream, is Fire from the Sun. Calling it a “Bellini” novel is like mentionin that Ayn Rand’s follow-up to Night of January 16th (The Fountainhead) was going to be about architecture.

The difference between Rand and Derbyshire, though is that Rand is an idealistic and ideologue who presents a pathway to an ideal society. Derbyshire’s view of life is less romatantic:

I can remember being profoundly shocked, around age 25, reading James Boswell’s London Diaries, the bit where Bozzy encounters a very old aristocrat and asks him whether, looking back on life, he can discern any pattern or purpose to it. No, says the old boy, it has all been “a chaos of nothing.” I’m not quite ready to agree with that, but it doesn’t shock me any more, not at all. Perhaps the old nobleman was right.

Fire from the Sun is about two Chinese immigrants, Weilan and Yuezhu, who experience that chaos of nothing. Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream seems to revolve around the same two characters, with only minor changes in their back-stories, lead less chaotic (and less meaningful?) lives. But instead of the sweep of history — instead of a book I described as “Heartbreaking. Inspiring. Moving. One-thousand pages.” — in this earlier iteration the characters star in a quite clever domestic comedy.

Think of the characters of Schindler’s List. In the UK version of The Office.

(For the curious, most American sitcoms can be classified as “domestic comedies.” All feature the adventures of a male lead who desires to get up to mischief, and a more intelligent female lead who appears to be walked all over, but in fact controls the unfolding of events. The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, and The Simpsons, are examples of domestic comedies. It was fascinating to read this set-up in book form though, especially this well done.)

I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge — or at least more than I did before! — from this short novel.

I read Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream in hardback. I bought my copy from Barnes & Noble, but it is also available from Amazon.com.

Teachers Colleges, Teacher-Artisans, and Education Reform

Last month I published an invited commentary in Teachers College Record, a peer-reviewed education journal from Columbia University. The content will be familiar to readers of this blog — I mention the political economy of education reform, the federal-academic complex, and our failure to educate young people.

An except:

The reasons for these failures are many. When the American workplace was desegregated along sex lines, the subsidy of cheap female labor that American K-12 schools had received disappeared. Teacher salaries have not kept up, and the low-to-mediocre pay society provides to teachers is answered in the quality of education that society receives in return. Teaching is no longer a woman’s profession – a feminine analog to the legal field – but an artisan craft – in which apprenticeship counts for more than theory. Teachers are not professionals who are entrusted to work without supervision for the best interests of their clients. Rather, they are artisans – skilled laborers – who use practical expertise and learned talent to practice their craft

Additionally, safeguards that made sense when teaching was a profession that attracted high-quality workers do not make sense now that many see teaching as a back-up plan. Academic tenure, a reliance on teachers writing their own lesson plans, the absence of individual accountability, the lack of pay-for-performance or even piecemeal reward schemes, and other accouterments from the past are not appropriate for artisans even if they were once appropriate for professionals. Given the increasing importance of the knowledge economy, something has to give.

Teachers colleges should not change how they conduct research. They are already brilliant at that. Rather, teachers colleges need to change how they teach. They do not produce world-class professionals now, so little is lost by changing teaching methods. But nor do they produce world-class artisans, so much can be gained.

Read the whole thing.

Review of “Ancient Shores,” by Jack McDevitt

First, get past the horrible cover-art of Ancient Shores. Perhaps this is attractive to a subculture of readers, but it is not to me. If Ancient Shores had not been recommended to me by my favorite high school teacher, the cover art alone would have dissuaded me from buying it.

OK, now that’s out of the way.

Ancient Shores by Jack McDevitt was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1997. It is best thought of as an answer to The Tommyknockers by Stephen King, which had been published a decade earlier. Here’s the first line of The Tommyknockers:

For want of a nail the kingdom is lost — that’s how the catechism goes when you boil it down. In the end, you can boil everything down to something similar — or so Roberta Anderson thought much later on. It’s either all n accident… or all fate. Anderson literally stumbled over her destiny int eh small town of Haven, Maine, on June 21, 1988. The stumble was the root of the matter; all the rest was nothing but history.

The beginning of Ancient Shores reads like it could be the very next paragraph:

“If that ain’t the damnest thing.” Tom Lasker had to raise his voice to be heard over the wind. Will paused with his spade full of black earth to see what had drawn his father’s attention.

A triangular plate, not unlike a shark’s fine, stuck out of the ground. It was tough. Metal, apparently, but not corroded.”

Both The Tommyknockers and Ancient Shores concern the discovery of an ancient vessel in a field near a small town in an out of the way state. The difference is what the author chooses to focus on. Stephen King focuses on the person of Roberta Anderson, her emotional and physical well-being, and her relationships with her neighbors. Jack McDevitt writes much flatter characters, but focuses on the political and economic consequences of such a find.

McDevitt’s weak description of characters contrasts nicely with his beautiful description of place. Ancient Shores is probably the most realistic description of life in the Dakotas I’ve ever read in a work of fiction. Likewise, the relationship between the Sioux reservation and the white town near the objects is painted vividly, without the bathos such a setting would normally draw out.

Rapidly the reader learns the “shark’s fine” is part of a yacht made of trans-uranic elements that seemingly sailed on the dead Lake Agassiz. What happens next, of course, is the story.

Ancient Shores is also only a third of the length of The Tommyknockers, making it much quicker to get through!

I read Ancient Shores in the Nook edition. It is also available for Kindle.