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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Fine Line Between Indignity and Inanity, or, The Travails of Travel

I was thinking over recent events related to travel while basking in a hot shower this morning and the difference small things can make to the general impression of a trip. I recently returned from a very pleasant trip to Seattle. I had a great trip out on the Empire Builder. The train arrived early, the accommodations were very nice, the food good; it was very relaxing. Seattle itself was its usual charming and wet self, but the rain made itself known mostly when I wasn't outside walking around (or perhaps I was just clever enough to schedule myself around it.) The museums were all spectacular and everything was fun, public transportation making it easy and inexpensive to get around.

The return trip on a new American Airlines 737-800 was as to be expected, overbooked, very full, cramped (the poor tall fellow next to me in the middle seat suffering from a cold which he indelicately managed to transfer to me) spent the four-hour flight with his knees in his nose after the girl in front of him reclined her seat all the way. (Why do we need to have seats that recline, anyway?) He never complained (no doubt being a seasoned and hardened traveler used to the indignity of it all.) The flight entertainment system was quite good, and I had some nice NC earphones, so my suffering was no worse than usual.

The worst part of any flight now, as every traveler knows, is the airport and TSA. From the moment you set foot in the terminal you realize that everyone (even other passengers) views you as the "enemy" and potential terrorist. Loudspeaker messages remind you to constantly be vigilant for unattended bags, people nervously eye others (especially those of darker skin or wearing a turban; interminable lines where dogs walk up the lines sniffing for explosives, currency, drugs and probably also liquids over three ounces (give me a chemist and I'll show you how to create a problem in less than three ounces.)

After waiting patiently in line for 30 minutes and removing belt, shoes, and emptying pockets so I could be body scanned, my carry on was selected for hand search. No problem, I always arrive at the airport at least three hours early -- that's what Kindles and laptops are for, right? Of course, that meant extra waiting until the surliest TSA rep showed up. (One dares not try to be friendly or joke with these guys, that's guaranteed to make them suspicious, after all you are a potential terrorist.)

Now, I like to avoid buying plastic bottles whenever possible, and I had my usual container with less than 3 ounces of Mt. Dew (it's a clear bottle) in my bag, intending to fill it up with water later (I was trying to ration my doses of caffeine). The guy holds it up, looks at me clearly disapprovingly; after all, I'm white, 70-years-old, with a beard so clearly a threat, and wanted to know what it was. Not wanting to make a problem, I offered to drink the contents right there. I was informed that in order to do so I would have to exit security and drink it outside security and then go through security again. Or, throw the bottle in the trash (well he would, I wasn't allowed to touch anything.) So much for that bottle. I have racked my brain trying to figure out how we are safer by drinking the contents outside security, just making more work for them but having to process me all over again. But what the hey.

Now I enjoy flying, i.e. being in a plane as it goes up and down, but the airport experience has gotten so ridiculous, the inane approaching indignity, that from now on it's car or train (I'd have to be chained and dragged on to a bus -why aren't there luxury non-stop buses with wi-fi and snacks to get places?) When the airport experience (I do hate that word) becomes so inane that it approaches the ridiculous, it's time to get off.

Review: Back to Bologna by Michael Dibdin

If you like Aurelio Zen novels, this book might disappoint you. If you enjoy Michael Dibdin, you’ll love this story. Aurelio is really just a peripheral character. He’s recovering from surgery and trying to fix his relationship with Jenna. (Reading some of the earlier novels first would be useful.) Dibdin’s goal in this wickedly funny and cynical view of Italian academia and upper crust is to skewer the phoniness of the elites and famous. Lots of in jokes including a hidden appearance of Umberto Eco disguised as Eduardo Ugo as a semiotics professor which gives you an idea of Dibdin’s humor.

I suggest reading some of the earlier books in the series and Googling “Ruritania.” The crime is irrelevant and plays second fiddle to Dibdin’s irreverent look at Italiana and gentle spoofing of Italian detective stories. Dibdin has a way with words that often brings a smile to one’s face.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: After the First Death by Lawrence Block

Another reissue of a Block classic that was originally published in 1969. A man wakes in a hotel room only to discover he is covered in blood and there is a dead girl he has apparently murdered while in an alcoholic haze. He had done this before, and had, in fact, just been released from prison for the murder of another prostitute. He was sure of his innocence the first time; now he’s not sure of what he might have done. Could he have done it again?

A lot of Block’s later themes are beginning to show in this book which has the elements of sixties romanticism: the hooker with the heart of gold; redemption, and the Hollywood ending with a slight twist. But it’s a good story even though lacking some of the subtleties of Black’s later work. Very pleasant airplane read.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

United Airlines 3411: A Case Study in Linkages

The United Airlines fiasco will surely go down as a case study in how not to do things. It had all the elements of potential disaster, and the restriction on Chicago Aviation Authority officers (they were not Chicago police officers) not being permitted to carry guns may be the only thing that prevented a death that would have made the episode considerably worse. As with many disasters it’s rarely one factor that causes the event; it’s the piling on or linkage of several mistakes that when compounded inevitably lead to failure.

1. Passengers were fully seated, any overbooking had been taken care of at the gate, as it should be, and the plane was apparently close to push back and under control of the captain.
-The first problem arose when four United employees approached the agent and said they had to be in Louisville for a flight. (There is some uncertainty about what flight that was, but one report said it was to be the next afternoon.)
-The agent had several options at this point:
--Tell them to grab a different flight
--Bump four seated passengers to accommodate the employees
--Arrange for alternative transportation to Louisville by limo (that option seems to have occurred to no one) which was only 5 hrs by car and would have cost far less than the $3200 they were willing to pay bumped passengers. It would have certainly be exponentially less than the resulting firestorm.
--The agent chose to bump passengers.

2.The second problem arose when no one wanted to accept the voucher offer. (Note that vouchers suck. They come with all sorts of restrictions.
-Options open to the agent:
--Offer cash in increasing amounts (not sure if United/Republic policy offered this as an option)
--Offer cash instead of a voucher
--Force removal of four passengers
--Reported at first to be random, it was then said they used a sophisticated algorithm. How that formula made the choices has not been revealed and certainly was unknown to the passengers. Had it been, perhaps the outcome would have been different.
Three passengers reluctantly decided to leave rather than face forced removal which apparently was made as a threat. One passenger did not.

3.Problem three
-Someone (the agent?) called in security
-Questions remain.
--What were the officers (they were not Chicago police but Airport Security) told.
---Their reaction may well have been dictated by what they were told. Was this passenger a security risk? Was he unruly? Why was he being removed?

4.Problem four: Who was told what and who was in charge?
-An investigation needs to be made into just what they were told and their perception of who was in charge.
--Was the captain aware of the commotion in the cabin?
--Who was in charge of the officers?
--What were they told to do?

-All of these things had a bearing on the outcome.

5. Training
-The level of force was clearly excessive.
--How had the officers been trained to deal with the situation?
--How do you get a concussion, broken nose, and lose two front teeth by being dragged out of an airline seat?
I have a suspicion - item e is not supported by any evidence so it’s purely speculative -- that the following sequence occurred
Officers drag the man off the plane. He looks unconscious so may have hit his head (or been hit on the head)
Officers lose control of the man in the jetway or at the gate (!!!!!! how could that happen with three of them?)
Man runs back on the plane uttering incoherent statements (Kill me, I want to go home - let’s not forget he had escaped from Vietnam)
--The plane is emptied of passengers ostensibly to clean up the blood.
---The man is beaten to subdue him by the officers in the back of the plane. That’s when most of the injuries occurred.
---The man is taken off in a stretcher to the hospital.

6.Attitudinal Issues
-Post 9/11 passengers are treated as the “enemy” and as “potential terrorists” as soon as they enter the airport. Certainly TSA regards them as such and everyone in the airport is warned about strangers and unattended bags, etc., checked by bomb-sniffing dogs, searched, x-rayed, etc. This has infected the way crew view the passengers. They are considered as possible terrorists - --All of them. I think this is very important in causing the result on flight 3411.
-The United CEO had just replaced a CEO forced to resign because of his connection to the Bridgegate scandal. He wanted to be seen as supportive of the employees and not reflexively dismissive of their actions.

7. PR Missteps
-The United CEO made statements without being in possession of all (or one wonders, any) of the facts. The United PR department should be fired en masse for their bad advice.
-The second “apology” was horrible in its use of a new euphemism (re-accomodate) that simply inflamed a bad situation. Here again, waiting to collect all the information should be mandatory. Some thinking before speaking might also be useful.
-The final apology was a good one, but considering that the videos had gone viral in China where United wants to have a larger presence, seemed disingenuous and stemmed more from a fear of what the impact might be on their business in China, so its positive impact was lessened considerably.

8. Who was in charge?
-The episode gave the impression that no one was in charge.
--The pilot? Ultimately he needs to take some responsibility as he is presumably in charge of the plane. He had the authority to step in at any point and just say “stop” until things could be figured out.
--The gate agent? s/he presumably had authority to manipulate the amounts offered to passengers. Was s/he under pressure to keep the amounts as low as possible?
--The flight attendants? Couldn’t they have stopped the action at any point? Did they believe they had no authority to do so?
--Does United empower its employees to fix problems?
--The security officers? Did they assume they were in charge because they represented power and force? Again. What were they told about the ostensible threat and who told them? It seems not unreasonable their actions were governed to some extent by what they had been told and their perception of the event.

Note that at any point if someone had stepped in and said “stop let’s sit down and talk about this” or examined their options, the disaster would not have occurred. Clearly the passengers all felt cowed and the United employees unempowered. Each assumed someone else would make everything right. As in Charles Perrow’s excellent book, Normal Accidents*, breaking any one of the links in a coupled system will always prevent disaster. Someone has to break that link.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Review: Hang Fire by Henry Kisor

I have read all the previous books in the Steve Martinez series. Steve is a Lakota Indian working as a deputy sheriff (now sheriff) in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve also read all of Kisor’s non-fiction books and I’ve enjoyed everything immensely. This one seemed a bit off to me. Perhaps it was the absence of Gina, or the potential relationship with Sue, or that he is now in charge, I don’t know. It’s still very entertaining. It concerns the murders of several people, some apparent accidents, using relic smooth bore rifles. The killer is expert with the antiques and we get to see into the mind, such as it is, of the religious zealot, but her motivations are never very clear to me. Still, I liked the sense of place and the prosaic nature of the investigations. On to the next in the series.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Review: Swiss Spy by Alex Gerlis

Henry is on his way back to Switzerland from Britain. It’s 1939 and he’s stopped at the border before getting on his flight. Edgar, a member of the British Secret Service then blackmails him into spying for them. After some training he’s sent back to Switzerland through France where he is to wait for more instructions. In France, however, Henry circuitously and surreptitiously sneaks away briefly to meet with his Russian handlers. Turns out he’s a Russian spy and his handlers now think they control a double agent. But then we learn the British are fully aware of Henry’s relationship with the Russians. Add a Jewish woman and her daughter hiding from the Gestapo and the plot thickens beyond stew.

I love complicated spy thrillers.

Review: Family of Spies by Pete Early

Another of those must reads after watching the eponymous movie. I have this need to always find out what really happened, i.e., what verity there might be in the dramatic film version compared to real life. Some background reading revealed that John A. Walker’s achievements were monumental. The Soviets could read our communications but not break the code until Walker gave them the code cards. But that was only half of the puzzle. The North Korean hijacking of the Pueblo in 1968 gave them the machine (whether that was the intent of the hijacking remains an interesting speculation.) Why the U.S. didn’t change all its codes after the hijacking baffles me, but they didn’t, and the Soviets could read all the U.S. military traffic until 1980 when the system was changed. That was millions of coded messages. “K-mart store has better security than the U.S. Navy,” John told the author in one of his interviews.

This is the extraordinary story of John Walker who, as a Navy warrant officer, passed vital secrets to the Russians, not out of any political conviction, but purely for the money. He successfully enlisted his friends and relatives in his operation. This went on for more than twenty years. And he would never have been caught except John’s maltreatment of his wife. In fact, the FBI initially discounted Barbara’s revelations much as they ignored the information they had on the 9/11 attackers. John soon realized their ineptitude. “I began to realize that the FBI is not like it is on television. You see, the FBI doesn’t really do any investigating. It doesn’t know how to investigate. The FBI is not powerful at all because its agents are really just bureaucrats and they have the same inherent ineptitude of all government bureaucrats. All they do is spend their days waiting for some snitch to call them and turn someone in. That’s how they operate, and I was beginning to sense that.”

I have always said that the danger to an institution is more likely to come from within (this applies to computer facilities and well as American society - especially with Trump now on the loose.) Of course, that is the danger inherent in trust and it’s virtually impossible to live in a society devoid of trust so the balance between trust and openness and self-protection is a delicate one. “Perhaps it is time for intelligence experts to rethink this central concept of attitudinal loyalty, this idea that Americans don’t betray their country to foreign powers the way that Europeans are perceived to do quite regularly. We trust our citizens to an extent that is almost unknown in history and unheard of in most other countries. This is as it should be. However, we live in a society where money is no longer a mere commodity, but a sacrament. Money is power, possessions, persona, sex, and status.”

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Review: Black Orchestra by JJ Toner

Lt. Kurt Muller, nephew of the infamous Reinhold Heydrich, reports for work at the Abwehr one morning only to discover the body of his colleague, an ostensible suicide. It was certainly a peculiar way to kill oneself, pointing the gun to the back of his head before pulling the trigger. Odd indeed and Kurt starts asking a few questions, wondering why the Kripo is taking such little interest in the case. He’s soon promoted to the translation section where they receive all incoming signals which are then translated and distributed. The Gestapo takes an interest in Kurt’s meddling and it’s only because of his relationship to Heydrich that he’s not shot.

Kurt is sent to Ireland, where he was born, to find out what happened to their Irish agents. There he learns of the “Black Orchestra,” originally a college chess club, to which his father (his mother was German) and several others now prominent in the Abwehr had belonged. He finds himself enmeshed in a vicious political battle to take down Hitler but also for control of the Reich’s security forces orchestrated by his uncle.

It’s often a convoluted story with a few gaps but a fun read that barrels along.

Some nice similes: :”Our conversation was like a loose clutch” i.e., slow to start and jerky.”

Review: Rain Dogs by Adrian McKinty

What if you suspected that an ostensible suicide was really a murder, but one of the “locked room” variety and it might have been cleverly designed in a way so that you, as a detective inspector who had already solved a different locked room puzzle, would never considered the new murder as a locked room riddle because the real world likelihood of being faced with two such enigmas was completely improbable. |

And yet, according to Bayes’ Theorem which describes “the probability of an event, based on prior knowledge of conditions that might be related to the event,” the fact that you knew of the previous locked room investigation might influence how you view the current one. Whew.

McGinty comes through once again with an excellent addition to the Sean Duffy series, this one #5 read by a favorite reader Gerard Doyle. Lily Bigelow’s death seemed to be a suicide; no other solution appeared possible and yet the forensic evidence pointed in a different direction. But who would want to kill her? And why?

Duffy’s tenacity pays off in his usual sardonic and winsome manner even as he has to inspect underneath his car for an IRA bomb. It’s 1987 and there are the usual tensions between the police and everyone else although they aren’t as prominent as in others of the series. Several of the books have darkly hinted to being the last of Sean Duffy and this one is no exception (fortunately there is a #6).

Excellent read, but four stars instead of five because I felt it wasn’t quite as compelling as the previous books in the series, but I eagerly await diving into the sixth (Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly.) Note that this one stands alone better than the first three of the series.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Review: Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky

Outstanding read. Patrick Blackett’s career is used as a metaphor for an examination of the role played by scientists in defeating the Nazis during WW II. Budiansky begins by discussing the profound effect WW I had on scientists, many of whom had served in the war and returned with deep-seated antipathy to war in general. Many turned to pacifism and Marxism as a perceived alternative, but the ill-considered racist actions of the Hitler regime against Jewish intellectuals and scientists, many of whom fled the country and were instrumental in the Allied war effort, coupled with Nazi militarism pushed them in the opposite direction.

Budiansky argues successfully that it wasn’t just new weapons and countermeasures developed by the scientists, it was also a new way of doing business for the military. They questioned the traditional ways of doing things in favor of a reliance on quantitative analysis. Focus on operational aspects often produced startling results. By looking at the statistical results of aircraft operations against U-boats depth settings were changed on depth charges and bombers were repainted white instead of black to make them less visible from the sea. These small changes resulted in the likelihood of air attack success from less than one percent to over ten percent.

In another very prosaic example, a scientist noted that long lines formed at the sinks after eating as soldiers washed their kits. Ana analysis showed it took much more time to wash the plates in the first sink than to rinse them in the second sink. Instead of having an equal number of sinks for both rinsing and washing, two thirds of the sinks were devoted to washing and that totally eliminated the lines.

Some of the conclusions reminded me of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds ( see my review at who postulated that the best decisions were made by groups made up of differing experiences and points of view, especially naysayers. I tried to utilize this concept as head of IT at the college. When we were doing strategic planning I always tried to include faculty from the anti-tech crowd and they often made very significant contributions that we, as IT types would never have thought of. Blackett insisted similarly in his operational activities, trying to include scientists who had no obvious experience in the area under discussion.

Mathematicians were obviously extremely important in dealing with ciphers, but their experience with probability was crucial to many important operational changes in the conduct of the war. But sailors had their own operational experience to share. Generally the word among convoy sailors was that if you were on a ship with a heavy cargo, like iron ore, you slept in your clothes on deck because, if torpedoed, it would sink like a stone. In a ship lightly cargoed, you slept in your clothes below decks, and slept lightly so you could rush on deck if hit. The only sailors getting a good night’s sleep unclothed were those in tankers. If they got torpedoed you went up in a flaming cloud so it didn't matter where you slept. Similarly, it was rapidly learned ships in convoy never stopped to retrieve survivors. Any ship that stopped became a perfect target for the U-boat and it was better not to lose another ship.

Sometimes the results of the analysis was not welcome. Blackett’s group discovered that only an estimated 400 Germans were being killed in bombing raids per month while 400 airmen were killed during the same period, hardly a fortuitous ratio. (After the war when more accurate data was available, it was learned the number of Germans killed was only about 200 per month.) They also discovered that production was more influenced by holidays rather than bombing. They recommended putting more resources into the naval battle and protecting ships that were in convoys delivering much needed goods and military supplies, i.e., the war against U-boats. That was not a message the RAF wanted to hear. They were basically told to back off and the RAF changed the justification for their bombing to the importance of “dehousing” the population. Note that the fire bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Pforzheim and Tokyo produced substantially different results. (

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: The Killing of Reinhard Heydrich: The SS 'Butcher of Prague' by Callum MacDonald

Buried to the strains of Siegfried's Death March, more than a few people were quite relieved at the death of this hated man. Heydrich was a man feared by just about everyone, including his fellow Nazis. Much like J. Edgar Hoover, he was known to keep a dossier on everyone, and as head of SS intelligence and the secret police was well-placed to use it to his advantage. Killed by a couple of Czechs, the author documents the murder had less to do with British intelligence than Czech resistance and rooted in the political needs of the Czech president in exile.

Born into a family that suffered during the depression following World War I, Heydrich began his rise through the Navy where he excelled in languages and seemed to fit right in although he was bullied for his high voice and introverted ways. He was kicked out of the Navy thanks to an incident with a well-connected woman (he was a notorious womaniser), so he joined the ranks of Himmler's SicherheitsDienst (SD) the intelligence section of the SS. It was a perfect match and his rise was meteoric.

Heydrich had been sent to Prague to boost armaments production by the Czechs. The previous Reichs Protector, Neurath, was relieved of his duties in late 1941. Heydrich was assassinated barely 8 months later. The resistance had originally intended to use assault weapons, but they jammed so they threw a grenade which wounded Heydrich severely and he died of sepsis..

Considered exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, ambitious and totally amoral, Heydrich had achieved his rise to the top of the SS by mercilessly crushing his enemies and by creating the “Final Solution” for Hitler’s plan to destroy all Jews. By putting him in charge of Bohemia and Moravia the Czechs would soon learn what it meant to live under a master of suppression. Heydrich’s plan was to use the “carrot and stick” approach, increasing food supplies to reduce the power of the resistance on the one hand, and on the other dealing ruthlessly with any opposition.

Both sides, as is so common, were driven by political needs. Heydrich wanted to combat the rising power of Martin Bormann, and to do so he needed to successfully convert the Protectorate into an SS state thus accruing more power to the SS. Benes needed to prove that the Czech people opposed the Nazis, who, he suspected were still seen by many in Britain as a bulwark against Russian imperialism and power. That many ordinary people got caught in the political crossfire bothered few except perhaps the families of those killed.

Those on the ground in Czechoslovakia in the resistance, when they heard about the proposed assassination were horrified and argued with London that it would have disastrous consequences for the resistance and thousands of innocent people who would be swept up and killed as reprisal with little to show for it. Anton Heidrich (more irony), a high ranking resistance officer, sent a message to London requesting the operation be called off, although the message they received did include a note at the end saying if the assassination was deemed absolutely necessary to the national interest they were willing to make the sacrifice (other people’s lives are always easy to sacrifice.)

It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that Heydrich died following an almost bungled assassination. The reprisals that followed killed many innocent people. The book does a terrific job at portraying the multiple agendas of all those involved and the details of the assorted plots.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

I know this is dated, but...

In my assorted reading I run across all sorts of interesting stuff and this article was a response to a remark Scalia made during the Texas affirmative action case. The article itself is worth reading. My comments were made in response to someone critical of the author.

I'm not sure you read the article which had less to do with racism than was a stinging criticism of higher education's failure to teach. Paul Thomas was using the media criticism of Scalia's remarks to suggest that higher education is not addressing the needs of individual students.

A couple of quotes: "A significant number of students are admitted to colleges and universities for the benefit of the institution (full-pay students and athletes, as the most prominent examples). Often, these populations fall into the deficit category of “remedial,” or would be the exact type of student Scalia has now further marginalized with the damning blanket of racism." and "vulnerable populations of students admitted to colleges and universities (often black, brown, poor, and English language learners)—those who need higher education the most, in fact—are being neglected by the very institutions who admit them, often after actively recruiting them (again, the athletes)."

As the parent of six black children, I have learned the expectations of teachers are a real problem. Over and over I saw how my kids were assumed to be deficient even though they were often smarter than the rest of the class. As a society I fear we will never be race-blind so what we need to do is focus on strong educational support at the lower levels, especially high school and then let all students compete for college entrance, but colleges (especially the elite ones where students can educate themselves with little help from professors who most often delegate that teaching to grad students anyway

Affirmative action has outlived its usefulness and I fear liberals, in particular have been much too paternalistic toward the disadvantaged and make the *false* assumption that black students aren’t as smart as white ones and therefore should be admitted even though their qualifications (their words not mine) may not be as high. The whole qualifications/merit debate is silly anyway since universities have given preference to all sorts of groups from children of faculty to athletes to some with special abilities, many of whom would never meet the supposed minimum standards which usually just measure ability to take tests anyway. Not to mention than any black, Hispanic, woman student who is now on a major university campus is immediately labeled as an affirmative action admission even though he/she may be far better prepared than his/her white colleagues.

We also have to get beyond this idea that you have to go to Harvard or Yale to get a good education. I’m an Ivy League grad who has worked in community colleges and if you want superior teaching go to a community college. At elite four-year schools you get lots of bright kids who can basically teach themselves and are led by grad students who often have less preparation and graduate credits than are the minimums required to teach in community colleges. Universities have got to do a better job at teaching its students. That’s the point of the article I cited.

The News Media has Lost its Way

The news media has lost its way. The current paradigm is that reporters need to hold interviewees accountable for what they say, and that their job is to “push back” against what they perceive to be disingenuous statements. I think that’s wrong and counter-productive.

The role of the reporter is never to argue with the interviewee. To do so, especially with a personality like that of Trump, who is basically a child, devolves the interview into a power struggle that no one can win (except Trump in this case who thrives on the perception that he is attacking the press.)

This was particularly apparent in the debates when moderators were castigated for not arguing with the candidates about their statements. Those who did were celebrated as being “good” moderators. Aside from the fact they weren’t moderators at all, the debates often became mere pissing contests between the candidates and the panelists. Unfortunately, the competition among reporters has forced them to compete with others to stand out among the crowd and they seem to think only by creating a lot of noise can they do so.

Much better to ask the question and let the answer stand, however unsatisfactory. Let the audience decide and the reporters can write about the validity of the response later when they have had time to research and reflect on the proper response, collecting the facts. For example, ask Trump why he has not released his tax forms. He can answer, next question. To argue about whether he should or not reduces the amount of time available for other questions and places the reporter in the stance of adversary (a role for the editorial pages) rather than reporter. A press conference is not a debate nor power struggle. It should be a time for reporters to ask intelligent and probing questions and let their editors and readers decide the veracity of the answers.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Review: Quarry (aka The Broker) by Max Allan Collins

According to Max Allan Collins' afterward, This book was the first to be written of the Quarry series. It was re-released a few years later by his publisher with a different title: The Broker, a change he was unaware of, so when the opportunity to bring it out once again came around, he changed the title back to its original.

I like the Quarry series, but you can tell this was an early, unpolished work. Quarry's character is unsettled, and you get the feeling that Collins was struggling a little to make him into a bad guy with few redeeming traits. Collins admits he was "ripping off" Westlake's Parker, but in this book (not so much in the later Quarrys) the protagonist lacks Parker's sense of irony, as brutal as he may be.(See the author's correction below.)

Quarry is sent by the Broker to kill an apparently innocuous man in a small town along the Mississippi (patterned after Muscatine, Iowa but we don't get a good sense of place). He's also charged with taking out a man at the airport who is carrying a load of heroin. Quarry abhors having anything to do with drugs so he sets up the Broker who ordered the hit by hiding half of the load which he later uses to his advantage. When things start to go wrong, contrary to all good sense, he decides to find out who the original purchaser of the hit was.

It's a fun read, but not up to the level of the later books in the series. For a truly memorable "hitman" series read Lawrence Block's Keller books which set the standard.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Review: The Spy Who Couldn't Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI's Hunt for America's Stolen Secrets

audiobook that tells the story of a disgruntled U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst who used his cipher skills to almost pull off an incredible intelligence theft and attempted sale of classified documents. The author discusses the spy’s background and details the tedious work of the FBI in tracking him down. It was an intelligence agency’s nightmare: having a mole in your own agency.

The FBI received a package containing several letters in a sophisticated cipher but when deciphered were marked by numerous misspellings. Those errors proved to be Brian Regan’s undoing. The FBI agent who doggedly pursued him was Steven Carr, and the methods used to track him are straight out of the best espionage/police procedural novels. Regan was a retired Air Force Master Sergeant whose dyslexia and ineptitude with social skills made him an almost perfect spy and he was viewed as the least likely person to be involved in such a scheme. One of eight children, he had been bullied and mistreated most of his childhood, considered stupid by most of his teachers because of his dyslexia. Steven Carr, his FBI antagonist, was a devout Catholic who considered his mission to track down Regan as a spiritual assignment.

Once they had identified their suspect, the FBI had to build a case, and here another of the ironies appeared. The agent who broke Regan’s ciphers had a disability himself, one that prevented him from doing arithmetic functions and math, a form of dyscalculia. He was really good at word problems but doing straight arithmetic and polynomial functions was very difficult. He was superb, however at pattern recognition and was discovered while taking a class from a postal inspector who told the clasExcellents to ignore some codes because they are insoluble. He took it as a challenge and deciphered the codes during class. First, though, to get into the FBI he had to get a college degree and it was only with the help of a very understanding math instructor (probably at a community college) that he managed to pass the math requirement.

Something I have emphasized over and over to my friends is to never, ever, ever, put anything into a digital document or email you don’t want the world to see. In spite of Regan’s having formatted his HD and deleted documents, they were, of course, all recoverable, including multiple versions of letters he had written. (The only way to truly protect yourself -- short of using a hammer to smash and fire to melt -- is to use a program that writes over your HD with multiple passes using gibberish.)

I love books about codes and ciphers so I liked the sections where Bhattacharjee discusses Regan’s system in some detail. Others may prefer the human aspects of the characters. For me it was a perfect mix and a very enjoyable book, difficult to put down. What was astonishing was how easy it was for Regan to steal highly classified material. Then again government has a tendency to over-classify material which perhaps leads people to be careless with the stuff. That he was discovered at all was a fluke, and the letters deciphered only because the letters happened to be delivered at the same time.