Sunday, February 23, 2014
I am taking a short break from reading non-fiction books while I reload my book stack.
I discovered (perhaps rediscovered is a better word) that my wife had purchased Dan Brown's 1998 first book, Digital Fortress,
a few years ago. Digital Fortress was one of two books published by Brown before he hit the big time with The
Da Vinci Code. Since I like all of Brown's later books I decided to read Digital Fortress.
Even though Digital Fortress was written over 15 years ago it fits right into today's headlines. The
book is based on the activity within the National Security Agency (NSA) and the efforts of some of its people to gain
access to all encrypted digital communication. The supposed goal is to gain the capability to protect innocent citizens
from the "bad guys" of the world. However, the supposed "good guys" do some bad things in their
efforts to protect all of us. Human flaws are exposed at the top of our national security leadership.
In the past few years there has been a lot of discussion concerning the NSA's efforts to combat terrorism through
its extensive digital surveillance systems. Is the NSA spying on innocent citizens conducting their personal business
or truly working to root out terrorists? In an increasingly interconnected digital world more and more of our activity
is traceable through electronic records that can be accessed through passwords in many computer systems or by those that
can hack through the passwords. Some of our young people have their entire life history digitally interconnected among
their smart phones, the cloud and those organizations handling their financial transactions. Some of these youngsters don't
know how to write a check and seldom use cash.
Are there effective
limits that can be placed on NSA or any other agency? I doubt it. The only way individuals can protect themselves
is to limit the amount of information about themselves that is stored in computer systems. In this day and age that
is extremely difficult to do. We are all exposed to digital investigation by "good guys" or "bad guys",
if we can tell the difference. It extremely difficult to go off the digital network. Every day we hear about a
new company or new technology that is determined to more fully interconnect us and our information in the digital world.
They want to make our collective lives easier and productive.
Fortress is a bit out of date from a technology perspective. But its fundamental story line is right on the
money for the world we live in today. Do we fully trust the NSA and other intelligence agencies? Probably not.
However, there are some really bad people in the world that will inflict damage on the US in any way they can, if they find
a way to do so. Cyber warfare is no longer in the future, it is a reality today. This is a really tough
issue to govern and manage but we must find a way to do so while we protect ourselves from the "bad guys".
Saturday, February 15, 2014
Random Thoughts from Princeton Economics Professor
Sometimes we read books and when we are finished we ask ourselves a question, what was the
real point of the book. After reading Angus Deaton's recent book, The Great Escape - Health, Wealth and the
Origins of Inequality, I asked myself this question. Mr. Deaton is the Dwight D Eisenhower Professor of Economics
and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.
He has a big time position at a big time university and has apparently written a number of books. Hopefully, this book
was not his best. The Great Escape is a random compilation of data and commentary that doesn't address the
fundamental issues that drive much of the information that is presented. However, I actually agreed with some of the
his points relative to government-to-government foreign aid that are made in the final chapters of the book.
Deaton presents many charts on life expectancy, infant mortality, happiness and economics and how they vary by country and
change over time. In general his conclusion is that people living in countries that are wealthier live healthier
and happier lives. What a shock!
The book contains an interesting discussion of the definition of poverty.
The bottom line is that poverty is not easy to measure because it varies dramatically by country and culture.
of the major topics of The Great Escape is income inequality. This book is just one of many sources to comment
on economic inequality in the US and globally. For me the bottom line is relatively simple. Nations, cultures,
families and individual people are not equal. We have different genes; lived in different cultures; worked
harder, or not, to educate ourselves and worked harder and smarter, or not, throughout our lives in our effort
to differentiate ourselves from others. Each of our lives have been buffeted by the actions our governments historically
and during our lives. There can not and should not be any reasonable expectation of anything other than major divergence
in economic outcomes. I have met many people that have gone to extraordinary means to improve their lives by leaving the
comfort of their home culture to work hard in a completely different and unique environment. I have met others that essentially
refuse to do the minimum necessary to elevate themselves on the global economic ladder. The United States was built by people
that were aggressive in taking personal risk to improve their economic status. Some won, some lost, tens of millions of people
were given the opportunity to succeed. The same opportunity exists today in a different form.
believe that actions taken by western governments and central banks in recent years has helped the rich get richer at the
expense of the middle class and the poor. The irony of this outcome is that the actions were supposedly aimed at
helping the middle class and the poor, which is unfortunate. However, we are each responsible for our own actions and life
The subject of foreign aid from rich nations to poor nations is discussed toward the end of the
book. The author makes the point that a high percentage of foreign aid doesn't accomplish a lot of good and may be harmful
to the receiver in some circumstances. From my perspective the best aid one nation can give to another is an open trading
market. If we give the opportunity to compete to everyone in the world everyone will have the opportunity to improve themselves
The Great Escape and other sources attempt to oversimplify the issues of economic inequality
and growth rates and the resulting outcomes that result in different economic circumstances for individuals or groups
on a national or international level. The most anyone can ask for is the opportunity to use their individual talents and
energy to achieve their goals. Individuals must remove the perceived obstacles in their paths.
In the end
we are all unique individuals and we must accept personal responsibility for our actions and outcomes. The responsibility
for making The Great Escape lies with each one of us.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
A Book About Trees, Really
During my recent cruise I read a book that was mostly about trees, yes you read it correctly,
trees. The book is American Canopy - Trees, Forests and the Making of a Nation by Eric Rutkow. The book
is fundamentally about the development of major elements of the US economy based on trees and forest products from the
very beginning of the our country to the present day. The last section of the book deals with the environmental
movement in the US and around the globe. Mr. Rutkow is an environmental lawyer and his personal views toward global
warming are clearly presented in the final chapters of the book.
I received American Canopy as a gift
and it is unlikely I ever would have bought it myself because of the title. However, the book is extremely interesting and
a learned a lot about our nations history that I have never read in any other source. I think everyone understands that
trees and wood were critical to our nations early economy. Mr. Rutkow explains in fair amount of detail how the
US economy developed based on harvesting and utilizing wood and its impact on our forests. For example, during
the colonial period selected tree trunks were exported to England to become masts on English war ships. I really enjoyed
reading how Frederick Weyerhaeuser became a forest products industrial giant after coming to the US from Germany with
nothing. He also explains how and why Central Park in New York City was developed.
Mr. Rutkow also explains the
development of the US Forest Service, the National Park Service and other US government agencies created to protect our nation
natural resources from devastation by over zealous industrialists. He also discusses the evolution of the environmental
movement from its very beginning. I think he does a good job of explaining the evolution of people's thinking on these
issues as the national and world economy evolved over decades. It is clear that politicians struggled to find an appropriate
balance between all interests. We should not be surprised it is taking many years to solve today's issues.
The end of the book is focused on the extensive harvesting of the world's rain forests and the movement to address
global warming. Mr. Rutkow explains his views on these issues without really getting into the details of the various
perspectives on the issues. These issues are very complex and deserve a book of their own.
I read a
book about trees, really.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
Updated Cruise Plans
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Terry Lenzner - The Investigator
I just finished reading a very interesting new book, The Investigator - Fifty Years
of Uncovering the Truth by Terry Lenzner. I don't remember ever hearing Mr. Lenzer's name before reading this book, even
though he has been around the Washington political world for 50 years. Mr. Lenzner is currently Chairman of Investigative
Group International, a Washington, DC based private investigation and corporate intelligence firm that he founded. Mr.
Lenzer began his career as a government lawyer working for the Department of Justice.
Mr. Lenzer gives his account of his role in many extremely interesting legal and investigative projects during
his career, which included the civil rights movement, the Watergate hearings, the relationship between the Nixon family and
Howard Hughes, the construction of the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, US government experiments with LSD, the United
Way scandal, the Clinton- Lewinsky scandal, and more. The book is easy to read and provides new insights on many of
the headline grabbing events of the past 50 years.
Some of the most
interesting aspects of the book are Mr. Lenzer's comments in the final chapter in which he assesses the lack of integrity
in much of the information that is presented as fact in today's internet/media world. Mr. Lenzer states "There
are no legal standards of conduct for political campaigns, no legal consequences for false assertions, and few press outlets
or institutions voters can trust for an honest examination of facts." I completely agree with Mr. Lenzer on this
points. There are many people that don't care about the facts. They only care about advocating for their personal or organization's
gain or political philosophy. Mr. Lenzer closes his book with the following comment. "It's increasingly difficult
to establish the reliable factual information that is essential to drive sound personal, corporate, government, and political
decisions. Internet sites are filled with errors, distortions, and outright falsehoods. And media outlets profit from
oversimplification, rumor, and diatribes."
Each of us may agree or disagree
with Mr. Lenzer concerning his conclusions regarding some of the projects he worked on during his long career. However,
I don't see how anyone can disagree with his assessment of the spin, lies and lack of factual integrity that is
prevalent in the world we live in today. It is left to each of us to sort through all the information and misinformation
and determine how we should proceed with our lives.