Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Written by: Ashlee Vance
Narrated by: Fred Sanders
Ashlee Vance writes about launching dragons in a biography of Elon Musk. Like the mythical fire breathing beast that destroys civilizations, Musk’s fire-breathing ambition levels two of the most powerful organizations in the world; e.g. the auto industry and government bureaucracy.
Tesla Motors is the first automobile manufacturer to receive a unanimous vote as the best car of the year. SpaceX is the first private rocket manufacturer to successfully transport satellites and cargo into space. The principal behind these extraordinary feats is Elon Musk, a combination of the fictional Tony Stark and the real Thomas Edison. Not since the 1920s has anyone successfully launched a new automobile manufacturer. Never in history has a private company launched rockets into space to service the international space station.
Vance shows that Musk has an optimistic vision of the future of America and the world. His willingness to risk everything for alternative energy sources, and reduction of carbon-based energy consumption are astounding in this recurrent era of capitalist greed. Musk’s focus is on transition from traditional industrial methods of production to technological innovation. His methodology is a combination of traditional cost-based negotiation, vertical business integration, and hard work. The methods are not new but Musk’s extraordinary intelligence and personal commitment are reminiscent of great inventor/innovators in history.
Vance clearly illustrates that Musk is not perfect but his story will eventually, if not now, be recorded as historically important.
For one thing, Musk exposes the lie of Trump’s vilification of immigrants. Musk is born as a South African who comes to America through Canada. He becomes an American job producer and manufacturer when both are sorely needed to revivify the, largely mythical, American dream. Musk gives America hope.
Musk faces many obstacles in his life; just as all humans do. One advantage for Musk is in being white; oh, and being blessed with a prodigious memory, extraordinary cognitive ability, and an immense drive to succeed. Musk relentlessly pursues what he believes in. Fortunately, Musk’s natural advantages work toward the best interests of humanity; e.g. a cleaner environment, exploration and/or colonization of other worlds.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords is reminiscent of ignorant industrial Luddites. Innovators like Musk pursue an opportune future while Trump and others pursue the mythology of the past.
Both Musk’s and Trump’s errors are human, but their consequences are hugely different. Vance’s biography of Musk shows releasing dragons can benefit society. In contrast, Trump’s dragons only harm society. In history, Musk will be remembered fondly; Trump will be recalled sadly.
Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street
Written by: Sheelah Kolhatkar
Narrated by: Kaleo Griffith
In “Black Edge” Sheelah Kolhatkar masterfully recounts the dark side of capitalism. The American stock market is a tremendous source of energy (private money) for entrepreneurial capitalism. At the same time, a poorly regulated stock market pollutes the capitalist ideal.
Capitalism is an economic and political system for trade and industry that allows individuals rather than a collective determine one’s future. The capitalist ideal’s upside is that people have more freedom. The downside is unrestricted human nature becomes brutish and unfair. Some form of governance is needed to provide rule-of-law. Without rule-of-law, society devolves into an anarchy of individual interests. There is no “invisible hand” that guides an economy to equal opportunity; i.e. there is only human nature and its penchant for good and evil.
Kolhatkar explains the meaning of black edge information. She shows how the American stock market becomes a breeding ground for greed. In the stock market, black edge information is personal notice to private investors of events that affect stock prices. The information is proprietary and unknown to the public. The private investor chooses to buy or sell stock before the public knows of an event that will affect stock prices. Steven A. Cohen develops an organization, SAC Capital, that revolves around gathering proprietary information before it is known by the public. Cohen becomes one of the richest men in the world by using that information.
In one sense, this seems a “no harm, no foul” entrepreneurial benefit in capitalist society. Cohen pays big money for traders that can provide him inside information. People are employed and well compensated for their effort.
However, Kolhatkar infers there is harm, and it is foul. It breeds an organizational philosophy of abuse. Cohen creates a “dog eat dog” organization that hires and fires people based on revenue made or lost on investment. Individual traders are compelled to violate the law by soliciting black edge information that is not available to the public. The only criteria for success is money; not family, not friendship, and not society.
One may argue, so what? Cohen becomes a rich man and is known as a benefactor to charities based on his accumulated wealth. Some of the traders that worked for Cohen became multimillionaires. Similar arguments can be made for the Koch brothers. Where is the harm? Where is the foul?
The harm is somewhat inchoate but care for others is missing in Kolhatkar’s story. Lives were ruined by Cohen; i.e. some of his closest associates are abandoned, traders operating as information gophers break the law, and Cohen’s personal life falls apart. He is divorced by his first wife. Cohen focuses on making money because it offers power and prestige. The gap between rich and poor widens because of Cohen’s philosophy of life. In the end, Cohen is found not guilty of insider trading but he leaves a trail of human destruction.
The story of Steven Cohen is the story of a Trump presidency in the United States. America loses its way when capitalism is only seen through the prism of wealth. The “Get out of my way” philosophy of Cohen and Trump are cut from the same cloth. The difference is–one is more financially successful than the other.
Capitalism is not the problem in America. It is the failure of the S.E.C., the FBI, Presidents, and congressional legislators to do their job. The purpose of the American government is to protect the public through rule-of-law. Every day, we see a President denying immigrants the chance of becoming a part of an American Dream that made and makes America great. We see an Education Secretary intent on dismantling our public education system. We see a congressional and departmental effort to dismantle health care and welfare. We see Americans being discriminated against because of their sex, race, and religion.
Human nature is not self-regulating. Unregulated human nature is brutish. The checks and balances of the American government are founded on that truth. When the American government fails to exercise its mandate for the health, education, and welfare of the nation, it diminishes capitalism. It diminishes a way of life cherished by most Americans. People like Steven Cohen and Donald Trump are guilty of being human and un-ruled.
In a cursory search of Caleb Carr’s writing bona fides, it is a surprise that “Surrender, New York” was written by an accomplished author. Undoubtedly, fans of Caleb Carr will be appalled by this review.
Carr’s fictional dialog often sounds unnatural. His dialog is contrived in ways that detract from the story’s characters. Without being prudish, “F” words are used unnecessarily. Only subject matter and mystery make “Surrender, New York” feed desire to finish the book.
Carr’s creative insight to forensics and research on America’s failure to protect unwanted and abandoned children is remarkable.
Two areas of fascination that make Carr’s story worth completing are one—an intelligent explanation of the difference between quality forensics and TV forensics; and two—an examination of the hardship of “throw-away” children in America.
Carr notes quality forensics lets facts lead to conclusions. In contrast, Carr notes TV forensics often only collect facts to support conclusions. Carr also notes that forensic procedure is subject to human error at different stages of evidence development.
Carr implies forensic technicians are often seduced by crime scene investigators; i.e. they become adjuncts to conviction rather than researchers for justice. The technician only looks for facts that fit the crime investigator’s conclusions. TV’ forensics become part of a self-fulfilling prophesy based on an investigator’s preliminary conclusion. In real life, Carr implies some forensic technicians ignore facts that do not fit pre-conceived conclusions. Carr’s story argues that, in some forensic investigations, facts are ignored, mistakes are made, conclusions are false, and justice is thwarted.
Carr addresses forensic deficiencies with a story about children that are abandoned by their parents. Around the world, the number of children who fit that category are estimated to be 400,000 (by ISK, International Street Kids). “Throw away” kids are a specific category of children without any defined estimate in the United States; however, the number of homeless children in the U. S. was estimated as high as 2,000,000 in 2015.
Kids who are abandoned by their parents are faced with three choices; i.e., one, to become a ward of the state in a group home; two, be taken care of by a willing foster parent being subsidized by the government, or three become a “Street Kid”. None of these options have much to recommend them. Undoubtedly, some street kids luckily find an adult that truly cares for them. However, those who turn to the street likely become victims of society. Street kids get zero support from the U. S. government. They are blocked from getting a legitimate job because they are not adults. They cannot enroll in school because they have no address or guardian to support them. They become like “children of the dust” who beg at street corners, turn to crime, to traffickers, and/or prostitution to survive.
Carr creates a story that offers a creative alternative for a few “throw-away” children who exhibit some extraordinary ability. He creates an underground of “do-gooders” that search the world for wealthy people looking for a child. This underground becomes a way, in theory, for “throw away” children to have a second chance.
However, there is an unintended consequence from the opportunity presented to some of these special children. The unintended consequence is death. Carr’s story is about the ethics of the underground organization, and the forensic process in finding the truth of several children’s deaths.
Carr does create some interesting characters and offers some entertaining scenes but Carr’s poorly developed dialog diminishes the story’s creativity.
In 1970, “QB VII” is acclaimed as a page turning best seller. It is the story of a libel trial against an author for naming a knighted Lord as a Nazi collaborator. Among other things, it is a parable about morality and redemption. The books fame is enhanced by a mini-series aired on ABC in 1974. The author, Leon Uris, had been sued for a similar libel accusation in his first best seller, “Exodus” (see Dering v. Uris). The title, “QB VII”, is an allusion to Queens Bench VII.
The story is about the trial of a Polish surgeon who runs a surgical department in a Polish concentration camp in 1943. The story begins after the war with Dr. Adam Kelno being held in a British prison while Poland is requesting extradition of Kelno for medical experimentation and abuse of concentration camp prisoners.
Kelno’s principal accuser is Dr. Mark Tessler, a Jewish prisoner and fellow surgeon in the prison camp. Tessler testifies that Dr. Kelno victimized concentration camp prisoners, particularly Jewish prisoners that are experimented on at the direction of SS leaders. Kelno argues that Tessler is a liar. No corroborating evidence (neither witnesses or records) is found to support Tessler’s accusations.
Uris prepares the reader/listener for the ending of the story by having one of the British interrogators suggest Dr. Kelno is hiding something. However, after two years of imprisonment, the English courts deny Poland’s extradition request, and the doctor is released.
Kelno fears for his life because of Poland’s aggressive extradition attempt, and Tessler’s damning testimony. Kelno secretively flees with his family to Borneo to begin a practice treating local natives and colonial British overseers. The natives resist his help because of their belief in witch doctor’ traditions of health care and medical treatment. Over time, Dr. Kelno and his wife gain the confidence and appreciation of the natives. Kelno reputation rises in the colonial medical administration of the region.
Kelno’s stature grows to the point of being knighted by England for selfless service in the colony. Kelno raises a son with his wife who becomes a favorite of local natives. As Kelno’s reputation rises, he eventually returns to England to begin a practice in a small community near London.
Uris then introduces a new character, an unorthodox Jewish author who is a young successful writer and becomes a sought-after playwright for the movies. However, this writer longs to return to writing and become a noted author of Jewish history. After milking the movie industry with a work of pulp fiction, Abraham Cady dedicates time to researching and writing what becomes an acclaimed best seller titled “The Holocaust”. This event sets the table for a libel case because it reveals Kelno’s role in a Polish concentration camp. What makes Uris’s story revelatory is the complexity of guilt and redemption for unpunished crimes, and the tenuous nature of morality.
Half of Uris’s story builds Dr. Kelno into a legend. Kelno provides selfless duty to his patients and the medical profession after the war. He seeks no fame, none of the accouterments of wealth, raises one son and inspires his son’s best friend to become a doctor for the natives of Borneo; while later settling into a life of obscurity in a small English community. In contrast, Abraham Cady uses his youth to perfect his writing skill, join the military as a WWII pilot, and marry a nurse who cares for him after a disastrous plane crash. After recovery, Cady chooses to live the life of a profligate, cheating on his wife, and prostituting his skill as a playwright.
However, the writer in Cady reaches a point of self-awareness that compels him to author something important. This point leads to the publication of “The Holocaust”. From Cady’s research, the accusatory testimony of Dr. Mark Tessler is found and the book references Dr. Kelno and his role as the Polish concentration camp’s medical director. Dr. Kelno’s son’s best friend convinces Kelno that he should sue for libel. Kelno had been found not guilty of any misdeeds when Poland tried to extradite him from England after the war. It seems he had been unfairly imprisoned for two years, investigated, and found innocent because of lack of corroborating evidence.
The suit is drawn. Cady insists his research is accurate and refuses to retract his findings. The case goes to the Queen’s Bench VII for trial. This is thirty or more years after the war. Cady is defended by one of the best lawyers in England with payment for services made by an English aristocrat (one of Cady’s lovers), and an obscurely identified Jewish interest group.
The trial reveals Dr. Kelno’s guilt. The complexity of the guilt is in Kelno’s penance by being a better person after the war. It does not absolve his quilt but it makes him something less than a monster. One is confronted with what he/she would do in a similar circumstance of war. Would you say no to a supervisor that tells you to castrate someone if you believed you would be killed? Stanley Milgram’s experiments show that normal human beings can be driven to kill other human beings for no other reason than their acceptance of someone else’s authority.
Kelno may have been an anti-Semite. Poland is noted for anti-Semitism just as America is noted for Black discrimination. Is Kelno less human because of his acculturation? In a perfect world, yes, but who lives in a perfect world? Kelno is despicable. The Ku Klux Klan is despicable. However, when any person is classified as something other than human, classifiers condemn themselves to inhumanity.
There are so many questions raised by Uris’s story. How brave are you? Would you risk your life to save someone else’s life? Would you kill someone if you were told by the government it is your duty to kill another? Is their redemption in good works? A judge can sit in a chair and think what his/her answer should be, but any human in a circumstance of life or death can only answer the question with his/her action in the now. There are few winners in Uris’s story. There are many losers.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich
Written by: Eric Metaxas
Narrated by: Malcolm Hillgartner
Religious rationalism seems an oxymoron but Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life story implies otherwise. In Eric Metaxas’ detailed history of Bonhoeffer’s adult life, one becomes acquainted with a pastor who abjures organized religions that choose self-preservation over biblical commandments. The complicity of the Roman Catholic Church in fascism and Nazism in WWII is well documented in Gerald Posner’s “God’s Bankers”.
Bonhoeffer (who is raised as a Christian) covertly and overtly protests Jewish discrimination by the German Nazis while living in Berlin in the late 1920s, early 1930s; until his death in 1945. In contrast to many Christians’ support of Hitler’s genocidal Jewish plans, Bonhoeffer openly challenges Nazi German policy.
Bonhoeffer is born into a wealthy aristocratic family in Breslau. He is the son of a successful neurologist, Karl Bonhoeffer. His mother is a teacher and granddaughter of a Protestant theologian. In contrast to his father’s science background, Dietrich is drawn to the church. Though religion is Dietrich’s calling, he never abandons belief in the value and importance of rational thought.
Because of Bonhoeffer’ wealth and aristocratic position, Dietrich acquires an advanced German education and travels the world. He earns the equivalent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees and goes on to receive a Doctor of Theology from Berlin University in 1927. In concert with family wealth and pursuit of education, Bonhoeffer travels to Italy, England, and America. On many occasions, Dietrich could have abandoned Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, but he chooses to return again and again to the heart of Nazism’s ascension.
In returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer becomes a spokesman for religious leaders who reject Hitler’s antisemitism and discrimination. Just before Hitler becomes Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer gives a radio speech attacking Hitler by warning the public not to be seduced by a leadership cult. Metaxas notes Bonhoeffer calls Hitler a mis-leader, a seducer. Bonhoeffer publicly rejects Jewish persecution, while Hitler moves to co-opt Catholic and Christian Churches by appointing pro-Nazi leaders to their synods. A schism develops in the German religious community with Bonhoeffer on one side and the Nazis on the other. Effectively, the Nazis become the dominant religious force in Germany; i.e. Christianity is co opted during Hitler’s reign.
As Bonhoeffer’s religious beliefs grow, his rationalist view of life demands action based on his interpretation of the Bible. Bonhoeffer recognizes Jesus Christ is a Jew and that intolerance of fellow human beings is a mortal sin. The author suggests Bonhoeffer becomes a spy for Hitler’s opposition and a covert participant in an assassination plot against the Fuhrer. Participation in an assassination plot makes one question Bonhoeffer’s faith.
Metaxas implies Bonhoeffer’s faith is consistent with biblical teaching. Unquestionably, Bonhoeffer’s history is one of self-sacrifice but overt conspiracy to murder seems beyond Bible-based instruction. After the failed assassination attempt on Hitler, Bonhoeffer and many other real and alleged German conspirators are arrested, tortured, and murdered. Bonhoeffer is tried and sentenced to death. He is sent to a concentration camp, moved several times, mis-identified once, and finally murdered on April 8, 1945.
What makes this history interesting is the consequence to one’s life when he/she has great faith in the Bible. On the one hand, Biblical interpretation gives one strength to endure the worst that can happen in life; on the other, Bible interpretation allows one to rationalize murder of another human being. Bonhoeffer is shown to be a pastor of faith, a martyr to a cause, a prophet of a future, and a spy willing to participate in a murder.
A cynic might suggest that Hitler’s assassination plot is vindicated by history as much as by religious faith. Without question, Bonhoeffer is on the right side of history but reason based on Bible interpretation also leads, and has led many Christians astray.
Don Winslow has written a novel that exposes the culpability of addicts, recreational drug users, and government enablers for an estimated 20,000 drug-war’ deaths/year in Mexico.
The location of Winslow’s story is Mexico but all countries that manufacture drugs for illegal use are driven by the same human motives and similar organizations. Winslow writes about the social organization of “The Cartel”; i.e. a criminal organization designed to make people rich, powerful, and respected.
Government’s reluctance to treat addicts, and society’s rich and middle class who use illegal recreational drugs, are financing the murder of innocent men, women, and children around the world. Every grade school, high school, college, working, or unemployed citizen buying illegal drugs is paying for the murder of people just like them.
Winslow credibly describes how drug cartels are formed. They come from the human desire for a better life. With poor education, poor paying jobs, and few of the basic needs of life, the poor and middle class seek the best jobs they can find to improve their lives. Illegal drug cartels offer a kind of education, a good paying job, and all the basic needs of life.
Winslow describes how street children are recruited by drug cartels. They are sent to boot camps for some months of training to become part of an exclusive business. The business is the manufacture and sale of illegal drugs. Many become soldiers of the drug industry to carry out demands of the cartel. They are taught, like soldiers recruited for combat, to kill. They can be as young as 8 in Winslow’s story.
Winslow describes how two young boys are recruited, trained, and assigned by the Zetas to murder a rival in another cartel. One drives and the other boy throws a grenade into a room full of people to complete the task. However, he fails to kill the target and kills innocent bystanders. The young boys return for their reward (expected to be thousands of dollars), but because of messy execution and failure of the assignment, the grenade thrower is brutally beaten. He barely escapes but the lesson is clear to the recruits that remain in training. You are paid well if you do what you are told but murdered if you fail. The grenade thrower’s escape eventually leads to another drug cartel where he becomes a better soldier; a better killer. The boy is under 10 years old.
In a second story Winslow suggests another way the Zetas recruit members. A bus filled with citizens is stopped by a cartel leader. (The leader is called Z-40 because he is the 40th person to join the Zetas.) The leader culls the bus passengers. He orders them into groups. Old males to one group; old females to another, and young females assigned to a third group. Forty of the passengers appear to be able-bodied younger men. The leader gives each of the 40 culled men a bat with a nail driven through it. Z-40 tells each man to face the person next to him and beat him to death. Whomever survives becomes a part of the cartel.
Those seriously wounded are murdered; presumably along with the older men and women. After bludgeoning each other, eleven are left. The younger women are raped and also murdered. The reward for the eleven survivors is that they are now Zetas.
Winslow’s characters capitalize on what drug cartels offer. In a struggling economy, private and public enterprises create few jobs; i.e. they fail to provide a decent education, and, when they do have available jobs, they pay substantially less than cartels. A rational person compares job providers and takes the one that offers more opportunity or money; even at the risk of being jailed or killed. For young people, the cartels are like joining the military and being paid to learn a new job. For older people, it is a job that pays well.
One is reminded that cartels can pay more money because they are making more money. Why are they making more money? Because they offer something that cannot be purchased legally. They conduct business internationally so they can tap strong market economies; with the added bonus of a product that is addictive.
As long as healthy economies ignore drug addiction and treatment for the addicted, they are complicit with the growth of drug cartels. What is worse, individual recreational drug users from stable countries (who can afford to pay for drugs, or are addicted) are paying for the murder of people who are struggling to survive in unstable countries. All users of illegal drugs are culpable for the murder of innocents.
Of course, this is a novel. Winslow’s story may not have basis in fact but, with little credible doubt–money, power, and prestige accompany admittance to a cartel. There is ample evidence in the daily news of drug cartels’ wealth, power, institutionalized presence, and influence. With money to burn, cartels are willing to train children to kill, influence politicians to lie, move governments to comply, and convince the rich to ignore.
Two other main points made in Winslow’s story is that decent people live in drug cartel countries, but corruption is endemic. Public servants, like some police and government military, are not paid well because the countries they serve are poor. Newspaper reporters, private business owners, and public officials receive packages of money to look the other way or ignore drug cartel’ business. Those who choose to fight the cartels by writing negative stories or interfering with cartel’ business have themselves, their families, or their employees threatened, kidnapped for ransom, or murdered. The second point is that when a cartel employee is killed in the “line of duty”, the cartel supports the employee’s family for the rest of their lives. This second point insures loyalty to the cartel even when a loved one’s family member is killed.
Finally, Winslow’s story shows the human degradation that comes from a gang culture that depends on money to maintain power and prestige in their respective fiefdoms. Greed drives gangs to compete for territory. In that competition, non-aligned citizens are caught in blood-feud and territorial conflicts between rival gangs. The non-aligned include citizens who think they are protected from the violence because they are wealthy or politically influential.
Soon newspaper editors, wealthy citizens who make their living as doctors, and owners of large properties and businesses lose their lives and lives of innocent employees or relatives. Cartel leaders begin losing control when non-aligned wealthy or influential citizens become collateral damage. Everyone becomes a victim. Then, Winslow’s story suggests it becomes a matter of choosing sides. Vigilantism and revenge become the chosen path of the many factions in the small towns, cities, and states. No one can be trusted; no one is in charge, chaos increases, and anarchy dominates the state.
Winslow’s story suggests that previous opponents of the drug cartel; i.e. state government agencies, the police, the military, the newspaper industry, and business moguls choose sides. They choose to support one drug cartel rather than another because they believe a particular cartel is the lesser evil. Winslow suggests choosing sides extends to the American government.
Violence and revenge become the only tools of control. One cartel, and several American government agencies (like the CIA, FBI, and DEA) collude (albeit for different reasons) with the state to combine forces to eliminate cartel competition. The American government and Mexico, in Winslow’s story, choose to help one cartel dominate the illegal drug trade because it is perceived as a lesser evil.
As fictional as Winslow’s story may be, the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, seems to have chosen vigilantism as the only way of fighting the drug war in his country. One wonders if the American government is complicit in Duterte’s methods of enforcement and attack.
“The Cartel” is a novel. However, what it reveals is the fundamental truth that America’s 40-year war on drugs is a failure. Like alcohol prohibition in the 1920’s, all that is accomplished by making addictive drugs illegal is the creation of a criminal industry.
War against the cartels will only lead to a Hobson’s choice; i.e. the choice of lesser evils. In that choice there is no justice. There is only vigilantism. Blame for this continuing tragedy begins with every grade school child, high school student, college alumnus, working, or unemployed citizen buying illegal drugs. As long as government fails to treat the drug addicted and legislatively regulate drug use, the story of “The Cartel” is a harbinger of the future, and a reflection of the present.
Winslow’s “The Cartel” fits into a pulp fiction genre, but it is insightful. It is also excellently narrated by Ray Porter.
Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World
Written by: Bruce Schneier
Narrated by: Dan John Miller
Bruce Schneier’s book is about battles with government and private industry for personal privacy and freedom in the information age. The seriousness of the subject is diminished by millions of us who revel in the knowledge, accessibility, and convenience of the internet. However, Schneier explains how our appreciation and use of the internet threatens privacy and freedom.
Perfect as an adjective for human is an oxymoron. All human beings are emotionally and intellectually imperfect. Human beings conduct their lives within normative social boundaries. They are generally not criminal, sexually perverted, or psychologically impaired. However, all human beings transgress some social boundaries. Most individuals feel appropriately guilty for their transgression; suffer the personal and societal consequence, and then get on with their lives. This loose definition of humanity seems a fair description of all human beings. However, Schneier argues that use of the internet categorizes, spindles, and mutilates human lives. Like a forest being attacked by borer beetles, the internet infects the public; not with malicious intent, but with a hunger for money, power, and prestige.
The borer beetles of the internet are well-known; e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon, the Federal Government, and a host of smaller species. Some borer beetles can kill a forest, while others benefit nature’s ecology by getting rid of weakened trees to regenerate healthy trees. Schneier suggests America is at a crossroad where captured data from the general public will either grow into a society’ killer or a humanized friend.
Schneier suggests or implies government, eleemosynary, and private entities continually gather personal information and mine it for public and private purposes. The government’s objective is to protect American citizens from crime and terrorism. Churches and charities’ objective (though not specifically addressed by Schneier) is to evangelize and increase donations for “good works”. Private industry’s objective is to increase profitability.
On some level, Schneier suggests there is no harm; no foul. On another level he argues, surveillance, big data collection, and unregulated invasion of privacy attacks the foundation of democracy. Though the right to privacy is not explicitly protected by America’s founding documents, Schneier suggests the internet encroaches on the 4th 5th and 9th articles of the Constitution.
Schneier acknowledges the benefits of the internet; e.g. educational opportunity, communication timeliness, shopping convenience, banking access, and interconnection. Every article written in this blog is benefited by information available on the internet.
Convenient purchase of consumer goods requires no trips to a local vendor. The bank writes checks with a few taps at a computer terminal. A personal Ipad, Iphone, and laptop communicate with each other via Bluetooth with input required only once; on one device. A wonderful life with no harm, no foul—right? Schneier notes there is a price paid for these benefits. Unquestionably, the internet is a great source of valuable information and convenience. However, it is also a vehicle for illicit activity. The internet reveals personal information about users that embarrass, bully, and sometimes ruin lives. It disseminates bigotry that recruits like-minded miscreants. It provides access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other financial instruments for fraudulent use.
Every purchase made on the internet becomes a factoid in the history of a purchaser. All of these factoids are accumulated and used by privately owned search-engine companies (like Google, AOL, and Amazon) to profile personal habits and preferences. That information is sold to retailers for a fee. Private retailers use that information to customize their sales pitches to consumers. The retailer adjusts prices according to the buyer’s purchasing and income profile.
To increase income, the search engine owner sells the retailer a first position on internet searches. That first position increases probability that the profiled consumer will purchase from that retailer who has enough information to estimate how much you are willing to pay. The public is being manipulated by retailers that know where you are, what you buy, and what you are willing to pay, or are capable of paying. Retailers who purchase data from search engine owners can estimate (if not know) your net worth, sexual orientation, educational achievement, and personal preferences.
The internet is a money machine for search-engine owners. First, the search-engine owner raises revenue by selling personal information and then increases income by selling positions on search-engine web pages. The retailer benefits by having personal consumer information and a primary position on web-page searches. It increases the retailer’s odds of being seen on a search and the consumer’s likelihood of purchase. Schneier implies the consumer is being controlled by Goliath’s data collection. Goliath is a two-headed dog guarding the entrance to Sartre’s “No Exit” hell. The David in this battle is the consumer with only hope and a sling shot to defend himself. The sling shot has no ammunition and no target because no remuneration goes to the consumer and the information has been stolen anonymously.
The internet is a supersonic communications vehicle. There is no waiting for the mail. Instant messaging and the twitterverse are part of the spindling and mutilating process of the age. Thinking before one speaks is yesterday’s reality. Today, even in the race for President of the United States, speaking-without-thought is commonplace.
The internet is a worldwide recruiting vehicle for the extremes of society; some of which fly airplanes into skyscrapers in New York, bomb government buildings in Oklahoma, and murder innocents in Manchester. Internet access provides a forum to convince people of the iniquity (either false or true) of an enemy or government.
With the click of a mouse, and a newscaster’s ego fiction competes with truth to lead and mislead the public. Publicly shared television news programs created by professionals are now created by anyone with access to the internet. There is no incentive or structure to fact-check reports posted on the internet.
Schneier suggests government intrusion into private lives has gone too far as a result of 9/11 and other terrorist events around the world. Schneier implies that Edward Snowden is a hero; not a traitor. Snowden exposed the covert surveillance of the NSA (National Security Agency) in gathering information about private citizens without their knowledge; and without probable cause, or judicial consent. Schneier argues that big data surveillance, by private enterprise and the government, have colluded to compromise freedom and control the individual.
Schneier suggests that promulgation of fear, exacerbated by public access to the internet, causes the government to overreact. He notes how the Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, stated that he did not want to be accused of not protecting British citizens because of lax surveillance of private citizens. This climate of fear pervades the politics of our time. It is not the first time America abandoned the principles of privacy and freedom. Schneier notes the “Alien and Sedition Act” passed by Congress and signed by President John Adams, the incarceration of American Japanese during President Roosevelt’s administration, and the McCarthy witch-hunt for communists in the 1950 s. He suggests those were mistakes made then; with the same mistakes being made now.
Schneier offers solutions. He acknowledges the necessity of surveillance but believes public oversight should be strengthened. Government regulation should require judicial warrants for spying on an individual. He argues that mass data collection is an unwarranted invasion of privacy that has little value in defeating terrorism. Only after the fact did mass surveillance reveal the perpetrators of the Boston marathon bombing. He suggests the same is true for the shoe bomber and the terrorist attack of the disability hospital in California. Mass data collection does not protect the public.
Schneier suggests consumers should know who, in the private sector, is accumulating their personal information. Private citizens should have a right to opt out of private sector data collection by any internet user. He believes a set of rules should be established for government to follow when seeking individual surveillance. Schneier suggests those rules should be designed for transparency; legislatively adopted, and justified by legislators to their constituency.
Schneier infers there is tremendous value to be drawn from the internet. There is the value of education, and quick reference to the news and history of the day. There is the informational value of a world of different cultures that have common needs and aspirations. There is the potential benefit of mass data collection on medical history of individuals and their treatments for fatal injuries or illnesses. Medical successes will be more quickly codified for improved patient treatment of common maladies. There would also be the added benefit for a patient changing physicians with a comprehensive history available for review.
Schneier cautions that an individual’s data should be encrypted in ways that limit access to only those authorized by the individual. In general, Schneier is a proponent of encryption to secure the privacy of individuals.
Schneier’s book aptly describes the threats and benefits of big data. Terrorism is real but its threat cannot become an excuse for denying the privacy and freedom of the individual. Terrorism is just one of many risks in life.