The Circle: Mass Survelliance and the Slippery Slope

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Alfred A. Knopf, NY NY 2013

This was easily one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read.  There were no monsters, and no really bad people.  Just idealists, driven to make the world a better place…through total and complete transparency.  The protagonist, Mae Holland, is a good person who gets hired by the Circle, which is kind of the worst parts of Google and Facebook combined.  Slowly but surely she gets drawn into the overall goals of the company, rarely questioning – and squashing doubts when she does – to make every bit of information known to every single person on the planet at will.  No secrets, from anyone, ever, anywhere.  No matter who it hurts, because it’s all in the name of the greater good.



The scary part about this book is this:  It could be done.  From the miniaturized cameras to the bio-monitors to the always-on social networks, we already have most of the technologies.  Now, granted, the main character is not really that realistic – I mean, everyone is going to have second thoughts – but the key point of the book is that she does what she does because she believes it is for the better.  The need to constantly be watching your social rank – that’s not to far off people constantly looking for likes (it’s been shown that we get a hit of endorphins when we get a comment or a like) on their posts on Facebook and Instagram.  And we can find out quite a bit of information on most people via Google – I’ve surprised interviewers by knowing more about them than they do about me.


It progresses one step at a time until all individual privacy is gone, and the worst part is, by the time it happens, by the time the line is crossed, it seems so…normal, so inevitable.  This book, to me, is a warning.  The panopticon could happen, is slowly coming, and rather than trying to stop it, we are eagerly accepting its technologies – Facebook, for always-on feedback; Instagram, for showing what we’re doing and eating all the time; drones – that can film us anywhere; and things like the Fitbit, that record our health state 24 hours 7 days a week.

Is privacy going to disappear?  Are we willingly going to give it up?  Maybe not now, but ten years from now – I”d say it’s a good possibility.

Books I Read in 2015

I’m a little late on this one – Usually I put it up in January, but never late than never!

It seems like I read less this year than in previous years, but a lot of what I was doing was working through coding exercises.  Also, we moved in the middle of the year, and a whole lot of bad stuff happened too.  At one point I was working two jobs.  So, life happening plus less time to read combined with working through coding textbooks meant this year was anemic when it came to books.  Still, I hope you find some value in the list below. There are books on history, international affairs, religion, mathematics, epidemiology, and of course, many fiction books.


3.) Vengeance (Rogue Warrior #12) – Richard Marcinko
9.)  GIS for Dummies – Michael N. DeMers
11.) There Will Be War Volume 1 (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
14.) Blowback (Vanessa Pierson #1) – Valerie Plame and Sarah Lovett
15.) Men of War: There Will Be War Volume II (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
16.) The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate – Scott D. Sagan & Kenneth N. Waltz
17.) The Art of War: A History of Military Strategy (Castalia House ebook version) – Martin van Creveld
19.)  El Borak and Other Desert Adventures – Robert E. Howard
21.) There Will Be War: Volume III Blood and Iron (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
23.) GIS: A Visual Approach – Bruce E. Davis
25.) Rough Justice (Sean Dillon #15) – Jack Higgins
27.) A Darker Place (Sean Dillon #16) – Jack Higgins
28.) Wesley for Armchair Theologians – William J. Abraham
32.) Full Force and Effect (Jack Ryan #10) – Mark Greaney (Tom Clancy)
34.) There Will Be War Volume IV: Day of the Tyrant  (Castalia House ebook version) – Jerry Pournelle, Editor
35.) Why Homer Matters – Adam Nicolson
39.) Founders (The Coming Collapse) – James Wesley, Rawles
44. The Martian – Andy Weir
45.) Treasure of Khan (Dirk Pitt #19) – Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler
46.) Finding Zero – Amir D. Aczel
48.) End of the Earth: Voyaging to Antarctica – Peter Matthiessen

U.S. Strategy and the New Medievalism

I’ve noted before that I’ve done some work with the Matthew Ridgway Center for International Security Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.  Dr. Phil Williams, a noted scholar on transnational security threats, was the director, and was also a visiting scholar at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College, and for them he wrote several monographs.  One in particular that caught my eye was “From the New Middle Ages to a New Dark Age: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy“.  At the time (two years ago) I toyed around with the possibility of a book-length expansion on this, going as far as working up a table of contents and listing some extra things that the book could cover that the monograph did not.
Real life intervened, as it often does, and I found myself back at work as an engineer, so I never got much further with the book.  Still, I think Dr. Williams’ paper deserves more consideration, and I’d still like to explore some of the ideas in the monograph in further detail.  Given the Arab Spring, Ukraine, and Syria, as well as the situation in the South China Sea, I think Dr. Williams foresaw a lot of things in this publication.  At the end of it, he gives some recommendations which are interesting in light of the cutbacks to the U.S. military that we are seeing.
I’ll explore different areas over the next few weeks – I’m aiming for one blog post per week.  For today, here is a synopsis of the monograph taken from the SSI website.  I encourage you to download and read it.
From the New Middle Ages to a ... Cover Image
“Security and stability in the 21st century have little to do with traditional power politics, military conflict between states, and issues of grand strategy. Instead they revolve around the disruptive consequences of globalization, declining governance, inequality, urbanization, and nonstate violent actors. The author explores the implications of these issues for the United States. He proposes a rejection of “stateocentric” assumptions and an embrace of the notion of the New Middle Ages characterized, among other things, by competing structures, fragmented authority, and the rise of “no-go” zones. He also suggests that the world could tip into a New Dark Age. He identifies three major options for the United States in responding to such a development. The author argues that for interventions to have any chance of success the United States will have to move to a trans-agency approach. But even this might not be sufficient to stanch the chaos and prevent the continuing decline of the Westphalian state.”

My Books Read in the Last Year

Another year, another book list.  I read less book this year than last, but over two thousand more pages!  Here’s the list:

2.) Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
4.) Debt: The First 5000 Years – Peter Graeber
5.) Warmth Disperses and Time Passes: The History of Heat – Hans Christian von Baeyer
7.) Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography – Hew Strachan
8.) Tanks in the Cities: Breaking the Mold – Kendall D. Gott
13.) Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – Eliezer Yudkowsky
15.) A Magic Broken – Vox Day (Novella)
17.) Shadow of the Hegemon (Ender Wiggin Saga) – Orson Scott Card
18.) Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology – Rosemary Radford Ruether
19.) Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale – Ian Morgan Cron
24.) The Last Stand of Fox Company – Bob Drury and Tom Clavin
27.) Liberation Theologies: The Global Pursuit of Justice – Alfred T. Hennelly, S.J.
28.) Human Security in a Borderless World – Derek S. Reveron and Kathleen A. Mahoney-Norris
31.) The Mathematics of Life – Ian Stewart
40.) Worm: The First Digital World War – Mark Bowden
44.) Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
45.) Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War – Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss
46.) How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth – Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart
51.) Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty – Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
54.) Beginning Programming – Adrian and Kathie Kingsley-Hughes
55.) Sure Fire (Rich & Jade #1) – Jack Higgins with Justin Richards
56.) Just My Type: A Book About Fonts – Simon Garfield
60.) Head First HTML and CSS – Elisabeth Robson and Eric Freeman
63.) Star Wars: Scoundrels – Timothy Zahn
66.) Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think – Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier
67.) The Tao of Programming – Geoffrey James
68.) The Myriad: Tour of the Merrimack #1 – R. M. Meluch
69.) Caliphate – Tom Kratman
70.) Kris Longknife: Mutineer (Kris Longknife #1) – Mike Shepherd
71.) Shadow Puppets (Ender’s Shadow series) – Orson Scott Card
72.) Starting Out With Visual Basic 2012 – Tony Gaddis and Kip Irvine
73.) Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger Things – Ken Wytsma with D. R. Jacobsen
74.) The City: A Global History – Joel Kotkin
79.) Theology: A Very Short Introduction – David F. Ford

On being a “Conservative Futurist”

In a recent Twitter conversation with Justin Pickard, I referred to myself as a “conservative futurist.” He said he would be interested in what that means and I promised to write a blog post about it. This is my attempt to do so.

Looking back over my social media profiles (FacebookTwitterblog) you can see that I am a Christian, and nominally a libertarian. Those two alone put me at odds with many of the futurists I read, and especially with many Transhumanists who seem to believe that anyone who believes in God is opposed to them and trying to hold back humanity.

That’s not a debate I want to get into because it’s too polarized and neither side is going to change its mind no matter how well the other side argues. Instead, I want to touch on a few issues that commonly come up in Futurist conversations and describe where I might be positioned on them.

First, and probably most controversial, I am a global warming skeptic. Note that I did NOT say denier, which is a derogatory term used by those who are convinced. Does global climate change happen? Absolutely, and in cycles through time. Are we causing global warming? I’m not so sure. I’ve seen evidence that contradicts it, and seen good arguments against it. Enough so that I’m not convinced. It will be interesting to see if many of the scenarios used for planning that assume global warming will be useful after all.

Second is artificial intelligence. Ray Kurzweil (link to Kurzweil) and others believe that within forty years we’ll have created computers that will be super-smart and capable of thinking – that will, for all intents and purposes, be alive. I am, again, skeptical. First, I think it’s a long way from creating a computer program that evolves to one that can think for itself. Even Watson cannot do much without tweaking it’s program – which is done by human programmers, not by itself. Second, (oops, here come my religious beliefs) I don’t believe that it’s alive unless it has a soul. Does this mean I think all research should stop? Of course not – the smarter we can make them, the more help they’ll be. I just don’t believe that any computer (or robot) will ever be truly alive.

Third is life extension. I’ve read quite a bit on this, (links to books) and pay special attention to the blog of Sonia Arrison. I’ll be honest though: I believe that there’s a limit set in the Bible for us. As a matter of fact, a recent article notes an average of 114 years. I believe we can extend the healthy part of our lives up until then, but remain unconvinced that we can extend it much beyond that – and I don’t believe immortality is a possibility in any way, including “uploading.”  Especially at our current state of technology, but even beyond, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to use a silicon-based matrix to represent the human brain. (I would love to be proven wrong, of course!)

That’s just several areas where my beliefs affect my view of the future. What about you? Do you lean more toward a transhumanist view of the future or more towards a “conservative” view of the future? If you believe in some sort of supernatural diety, how does that affect your view?

My Books Read in the Last Year

I read quite a bit last year, with an emphasis on linguistics, Counterinsurgency, complexity, and mathematics.  Fiction, as always was scattered throughout the year.  Lots of good links below; I encourage you to check them out, along with the reviews I did of several of them…

1) Your Child’s Growing Mind: A Guide to Learning and Brain Development from Birth to Adolescence – Jane M. Healey, Ph.D
2) Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple) – Jeffrey Kluger
3) The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis
4) A New Kind of Science – Stephen Wolfram
5) Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power – Robert D. Kaplan
6) The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity – Richard Florida (My review here)
7) Language: The Big Picture – Peter Sharpe (my review here)
8) Understanding Physics: Volume 1: Motion, Sound, and Heat (Understanding Physics) – Isaac Asimov
9) Seven Firefights in Vietnam – John A. Cash, et al.  (My review here)

10) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages – Guy Deutscher (My review here)
11) Chaos Theory Tamed – Garnett P. Williams
12) Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity – John Gribbin (My review here)
13) The Defense of Jisr al-Doreaa: With E. D. Swinton’s “The Defence of Duffer’s Drift” – Michael Burgoyne and Albert Marckwardt (My review here)
14) The Age of the Unthinkable , Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us and What We Can Do About It – Joshua Cooper Ramo
15) The Quiet American (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) – Graham Greene
16) Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq – Patrick Cockburn
17) Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life – Len Fisher
18) Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language – Seth Lerer (My review here)
19) Migration: Species Imperative #2 – Julie Czerneda
20) Euler’s Gem: The Polyhedron Formula and the Birth of Topology – David S. Richeson
21) Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means – Albert-Laszlo Barabasi (My review here)
22) Chicago Blues – Edited by Libby Fischer Hellmann

23) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Dan Pink
24) The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why – Richard E. Nisbett
25) Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer – Mireya Mayor (My review here)
26) A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines – Anthony Bourdain
27) Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World – Liaquat Ahamed (My review here)
28) Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions – Lisa Randall
29) The Mother Tongue – English And How It Got That Way – Bill Bryson
30) Raising Musical Kids: A Guide for Parents – Robert A. Cutietta

31) Thought Contagion – Aaron Lynch (My review here)
32) Prince Caspian (Chronicles of Narnia 2) – C.S. Lewis
33) Memories of My Melancholy Whores – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
34) Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age (Open Market Edition) – Duncan J. Watts
35) The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention – Guy Deutscher
36) Hardwired – Walter Jon Williams
37) The Next Decade: Where We’ve Been . . . and Where We’re Going – George Friedman

38) Almost Human: Making Robots Think – Lee Gutkind
39) Understanding Physics: Volume 2: Light, Magnetism and Electricity – Isaac Asimov
40) Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials) – Robert B. Cialdini
41) Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do – Albert-Laszlo Barabasi
42) The Secret Servant (Gabriel Allon) – Daniel Silva
43) Pittsburgh Noir (Akashic Noir) – Edited by Kathleen George
44) Freedom (TM) – Daniel Suarez
45) Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots – Gareth Branwyn
46) The Traveler (Fourth Realm Trilogy, Book 1) – John Twelve Hawks
47) Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take It Back – Douglas Rushkoff
48) Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource – Peter Rogers and Susan Leal
49) Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants – Dennis Okholm

50) Counterinsurgency – David Kilcullen
51) Hunter’s Run – George R. R. Martin, Gardner Dozois, Daniel Abraham
52) The Killing Ground (Sean Dillon) – Jack Higgins
53) One Shot (Jack Reacher, No. 9) – Lee Child
54) The Hard Way (Jack Reacher, No. 10) – Lee Child
55) Why Things Break: Understanding the World By the Way It Comes Apart – Mark E. Eberhart

56) Earth Strike: Star Carrier: Book One – Ian Douglas
57) Mediterranean Winter: The Pleasures of History and Landscape in Tunisia, Sicily, Dalmatia, and the Peloponnese – Robert D. Kaplan
58) The Post-American World: Release 2.0 – Fareed Zakaria
59) Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer – Novella Carpenter
60) The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization – Bryan Ward-Perkins
61) The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century – Thomas X. Hammes
62) Four Colors Suffice: How the Map Problem Was Solved – Robin Wilson
63) How to Build Your Own Spaceship: The Science of Personal Space Travel – Piers Bizony
64) The X in Sex: How the X Chromosome Controls Our Lives – David Bainbridge
65) The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World – Peter Schwartz

66) The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine – Francis S. Collins
67) The Scar – China Mieville
68) The Profession: A Thriller – Steven Pressfield (My review here)
69) Symmetry: A Journey into the Patterns of Nature – Marcus du Sautoy
70) The Five Chinese Brothers (Paperstar) – Claire Hutchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese
71) Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America – Matt Taibbi
72) How to Talk to Your Child About Sex: It’s Best to Start Early, but It’s Never Too Late — A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents – Linda and Richard Eyre
73) The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris – David McCullough
74) Havoc – Jack DuBrul
75) Sundiver (The Uplift Saga, Book 1) – David Brin
76) Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy – Steven Metz

77) The Rest of the Robots – Isaac Asimov
78) Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things – William McDonough and Michael Braungart
79) 7th Sigma – Steven Gould
80) 50 Mathematical Ideas You Really Need to Know – Tony Crilly
81) The Future of Work: How the New Order of Business Will Shape Your Organization, Your Management Style and Your Life – Thomas W. Malone
82) Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier – Edward Glaeser
83) Free Agent Nation: The Future of Working for Yourself – Dan Pink

84) The Future of Management – Gary Hamel with Bill Breen
85) 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith – Sonia Arrison
86) The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics – Karl Sabbagh
87) Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (Great Discoveries) – David Foster Wallace
88) The Final Warning (Maximum Ride, Book 4) – James Patterson
89) Re-read Where Eagles Dare – Alistair MacLean
90) The Caryatids – Bruce Sterling

91) Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality – Jonathan Weiner
92) Mathematical Mysteries: The Beauty and Magic of Numbers (Helix Books) – Calvin C. Clawson
93) The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity – Amir D. Aczel
94) Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes – Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson
95) Reamde: A Novel – Neal Stephenson
96) The Poincare Conjecture: In Search of the Shape of the Universe – Donal O’Shea

97) Euclid’s Window : The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace – Leonard Mlodinow
98) Millennium Problems – Keith Devlin
99) The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
100) Godel’s Proof (Revised Edition) – Ernest Nagel and James R. Newman
101) Moscow Rules (Gabriel Allon #8) – Daniel Silva
102) The Bourne Legacy – Eric van Lustbader
103) Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus – John Eldredge
104) Count Down: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad – Steve Olson
105) The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets – Alan Boss

A review of Steven Pressfield’s The Profession

(Spoiler free!)

I’ve read most of Steven Pressfield‘s books, and The Afghan Campaign was the one that really made me realize that we couldn’t win in Afghanistan.  I had no idea that the tribes had been around since before Alexander’s time, and if Alexander, the British, and the Soviets couldn’t subdue them, how would we?

Since then I’ve followed Mr. Pressfield’s blog where he discussed the tribes and how an understanding of those tribal groups was a key to the fight in AfPak.  I looked forward to reading his newest novel, The Profession, because it combined three things that I have an interest in: the classics, futuring, and modern warfare.

By 2032, most land warfare is fought by mercenaries.  These range from Marine MEU-sized groups complete with logistical support such as intelligence and communications to Apache helicopters owned and operated by individuals.  Most of the action in this book takes place in the Middle East and the United States.  The events in the book cover the gamut from the tactical level – ambushes and so on – to the geostrategic level.

The story is well done, and I did get a pretty good feel for the characters.  There’s enough action to keep things moving but Pressfield also gives a sense of the geopolitical background and the history that has led to this world.  The book excels in portraying the brotherhood between warriors – the knowledge that above all else you are fighting for the man beside you.  You are left with no doubt that these men would die for each other.  Pressfield also does a good job of portraying what it takes to lead such men, at least in the character of Gentilhomme.  I also liked how he worked in quotes from and references to the classics such as Thucydides, Alexander, Xenophon, and others.

As for the geopolitics, personally, I hope Pressfield’s wrong about this becoming a world where nations and corporations hire their armies to do their dirty work.  One of the complaints I have about the book is that mercenaries are portrayed as honorable – in real life, some are, but many aren’t.  For example, in the Sudan, it has been noted that:

“among those in the counterinsurgency accused of war crimes were “foreign army officers acting in their personal capacity” – that is, mercenaries, presumably recruited from armed forces outside Sudan.  The involvement of mercenaries in perpetrating gross violence has also been seen…in Iraq.”(1)

Another thing that disturbed me – although I think Pressfield’s portrayal is spot on – was the utter amorailty of the characters.  For the most part, each one seemed to feel that the ends justified the means and it seemed many of them had values that changed with their circumstances.  As one of the characters notes, this is how things are done in 75% of the world.  My question is, if we abandon what makes us the other 25%, what makes us any different than those we fight?  It’s a tough question and I certainly don’t have the answer.  For a mercenary, it’s probably not as big an issue.

I was also interested in how much this reminded me of the Hammer’s Slammers series by David Drake – I wonder if Mr. Pressfield is aware of that series, which has a tank regiment of mercenaries that is employed by different groups on other planets to fight – you guessed it – other mercenary armies, and often is based on historical themes such as the odyssey or Xenophon.  A collaboration by these two authors would be outstanding (hint, hint)!

Overall, this was a good if disturbing read, and I highly recommend it.

(1) Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror – Mahmood Mamdani, Pantheon Books, NY, NY 2009. p.43.