It’s quite amazing to me

…that we’re replaying the crypto wars. Terrorism and child pornography are evergreen weapons for scare mongering, it seems. If you’d like to know when I first got politicized about technology, Google for [Clipper chip].

Mr. Cole offered the Apple team a gruesome prediction: At some future date, a child will die, and police will say they would have been able to rescue the child, or capture the killer, if only they could have looked inside a certain phone.

His statements reflected concern within the FBI that a careful criminal can shield much activity from police surveillance by minimizing use of cellphone towers and not backing up data.

The Apple representatives viewed Mr. Cole’s suggestion as inflammatory and inaccurate. Police have other ways to get information, they said, including call logs and location information from cellphone carriers. In addition, many users store copies of a phone’s data elsewhere.

During the hourlong meeting, Mr. Sewell said Apple wasn’t marketing to criminals, but to ordinary consumers who store growing amounts of data about themselves on smartphones and are increasingly suspicious of tech companies. Many of those customers are outside the U.S., the Apple representatives said, where phone users want to shield information from governments that are less respectful of individual rights.

If the government wants more information from Apple, the company representatives said, it should change the law to require all companies that handle communications to provide a means for law enforcement to access the communications.

Mr. Cole predicted that would happen, after the death of a child or similar event.

More than once, Mr. Cole suggested there had to be a technical solution—a way to design a phone so that police, with a court order, can access information, without compromising security.

“We can’t create a key that only the good guys can use,” Mr. Sewell responded.

(Cached copy. Or, at least for the next few days, you can get it by going to news.google.com and searching for ‘Apple and Others Encrypt Phones, Fueling Government Standoff’.)

Come work with me!

I work for Akamai, the company that everyone who uses the Internet uses every day of his or her life (we carry 15-30% of all web traffic), yet no one (not even geeks, in my experience) knows that they’re using. What we do is super-important, and the scale is just fantastic. In truth, there are only a few companies in the world that would allow you to work at this kind of scale. For an engineer, it’s great work.

Also, I work there, and I’m pretty great.

These two facts together should get you, if you’re a geek, to want to work at my company. We’re hiring for a role that would allow you to work with me every single day.

If I haven’t sold you yet, how about if I tell you that the company pays pretty well?

You should email me about applying to work at Akamai.

Some quick reviews of books I’ve read recently

Preface: I’m just catching up on books that everyone else read a decade and more ago. So sue me.

  • John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle

    I’m still sort of confused about this novel (Cheever’s first, after a career spent more-famously writing short stories). It’s several kinds of stories rolled into one: part semi-Biblical novel about one family; a tale of the Wapshot kids’ growing up and, well, boning; and maybe an exploration of male paranoia.

    It starts out feeling like it’s going to be some fusty novel about quaint rural life in some old-school sleepy New England town. (Cheever was born in Quincy.) There are little hints early on that it won’t be so, like when Cheever mentions in an aside that the kids are occasionally going out whoring. And then there’s the bizarre grandmother, who holds the rest of her family under her sway through the threat of withdrawing her inheritance; this inheritance depends upon her grandchildren producing male offspring.

    Then that matriarchal Sword of Damocles, so far as I can tell, disappears from the rest of the book; the matriarch herself does too, mostly. The kids go off into the world to make their fortune and escape from their little town; one goes to New York and another to D.C. One of them marries a beautiful woman who is, forebodingly, bound tightly to her mother, who also dangles her family via some invisible string. The beautiful woman, not to put too fine a point on it, goes crazy at some point. Meanwhile, the other brother marries another woman who goes crazy in her own way, writing him a Dear John letter from back home, whence she’s returned.

    But no matter: by the time the novel is done, both couples have gotten back together, for reasons that are completely unclear. One of the joyful reunions involves a completely unbelievable deux ex machina.

    This is all so oddly plotted that I have to imagine it was deliberate — a book like this couldn’t turn out the way it does by accident — but the allure was completely lost on me. There’s something in here about being a man, surely, and about male feelings of powerlessness; that’s not to be scoffed out, despite a feeling (voiced by a long-lost friend many years ago) that books about male emotion ought to take a backseat for the next few decades so that books about women can take the spotlight. (We were discussing Philip Roth at the time — The Dying Animal specifically, if memory serves.)

    Books about men are important, and can generally be worth reading. I’m not so sure about this one, though.

  • Amy Poehler, Yes Please

    This book made me laugh uncontrollably on a few occasions on a cross-country flight recently, to the point that I was feeling spasms in my chest as I tried to avoid annoying my seatmate. It also made me cry repeatedly: Poehler seems to genuinely love life and love her family, and her love is contagious (at least if you’re a sentimental fellow like me).

    This is a book about Poehler’s rise through the Chicago comedy scene, through to Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation (a television show that I recommend in the highest terms, at least from season 2 until Rob Lowe and Rashida Jones left). It’s a pure delight. Imagine your most ebullient friend gushing about the amazing life she’s led in little ten-minute essay chunks, and you’ve got a good sense of Poehler’s book. I started it right around the start of a 5.5-hour flight, and finished it maybe two hours from the end. You should buy it, read it, and love it.

  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

    This novel is partly a historical epic, spanning several generations of one Greek family from its hasty departure out of Smyrna as that city burned to cinders in the 20s, through its arrival in Detroit as that city did the same in the 60s. But it’s also partly an emotional study of our intersex narrator. And in the process of studying him, it’s a scientific walk through intersex issues generally.

    Honestly, I’ve never read anything like it. No book I’ve ever read has been both grandly historical and richly character-driven. It’s got the depth of character of a Love in the Time of Cholera, with the (never-dry) historical arc of a work of nonfiction. It’s breathtaking.

  • Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides

    This is completely unlike Eugenides’ later novel. I think it’s fair to call this a very, very black comedy, though it’s so black that sometimes I don’t know whether it’s a comedy. We know early on in the novel that all (sic) of the daughters in this one family will, by the end, have committed suicide. We watch the story of their gradual deaths through the retrospective eyes of a man who grew up in their neighborhood and — like all his street-mates — lusted after them mightily, if confusingly. They’re identical-looking beautiful blonde girls, or at least they’re identical when viewed from afar. And as it turns out, afar is the distance from which awkward teenage boys will view them. So we’re listening to a man in his 40s or 50s describe his memories of girls whom he was mostly too scared to touch 30 years earlier.

    And they all die. But I’m inclined to say that the fact of their deaths is not even the point of this book. I mean, yes, it’s the central frame off which the rest of the story hangs. The girls’ parents slowly withdraw into their home, progressively allowing it to rot while the neighbors all watch in stupefied horror. No one really does anything about their decline, which is maybe the point — or maybe not. I really think the point of this book is in the endless little details that add up to something that is just alarmingly funny. For some reason, for instance, a couple parts of these sentences caught me:

    The Pitzenbergers toiled with ten people — two parents, seven teenagers, and the two-year-old Catholic mistake following with a toy rake. Mrs. Amberson, fat, used a leaf blower.

    First, “two-year-old Catholic mistake.” And there’s something just beautifully economical and perfect in “Mrs. Amberson, fat”. Given the chance to express that idea, 99% of humans — myself included — wouldn’t have given it a second thought: that would have been “Mrs. Amberson, who was fat” or “the fat Mrs. Amberson” or a dozen similar alternatives. But no, she’s “Mrs. Amberson, fat”. That’s an immeasurably better sentence.

    I can’t quite articulate whether that’s why The Virgin Suicides is so dry, and so funny. But it is both. And the accumulated effect of page after page of this dryness is that you’re laughing uncontrollably while an entire family is dying. This left me permanently off-balance throughout. Other examples start you in one place and end abruptly in a way that makes you back up and ask, “Wait, really?” E.g.,

    Our interview with Mrs. Lisbon was brief. She met us at the bus station in the small town she now lives in, because the station was the only place that served coffee.

    I can’t get over the hilarity of a town so rotten that the best coffee is to be found in a bus station. This immediately calls to mind at least four forms of grey, bleak disgust: the sort of town about which this would be true, the sort of bus station that this sort of town would have, the sort of coffee that they’d serve there, and the sort of person who would rather meet you at a bus station for coffee than pour you a cup in her own home. And it’s just two sentences. I can only imagine that Mr. Eugenides pared and pared and pared and pared some more, until the bare minimum number of words were left to convey the laughably dismal world he wanted. And then he moved on to paint another scene — as briefly as possible, but no more briefly.

    Even the sex scenes are out of some parallel-universe science-fiction/fantasy dystopia:

    He felt himself grasped by his long lapels, pulled forward and pushed back, as a creature with a hundred mouths started sucking the marrow from his bones. She said nothing as she came on like a starved animal, and he wouldn’t have known who it was if it hadn’t been for the taste of her watermelon gum, which after the first few torrid kisses he found himself chewing. … It was as though he had never touched a girl before; he felt fur and an oily substance like otter insulation.

    Everything about this passage is off-balance. He ends up chewing her gum? Otter insulation? This isn’t a sex scene, and it’s not the least bit sexy. Maybe it initially promises to be, in that you start out thinking that this she-beast is a Hall and Oates-style man-eater. But then you get to otter insulation. There is nothing sexy about otter insulation. Also: “insulation”? Any word that legitimately fit there — in an ordinary world — would have been minimally sexy. Consider ‘pelt’ or ‘fur’ or even ‘quills’. ‘Insulation’, by contrast, is the least sexy word that bears any relation to physical reality there. It turns this young woman’s body into construction equipment.

    Everything, just everything about this novel is intended to leave you a few degrees off plumb. Like Eugenides’ other novel, above, I’ve never read anything like it, but what’s remarkable is that The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, both masterpieces, have so little in common. It would be churlish to demand a similarly masterful, similarly sui generis third act; if Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides are all Eugenides ever gives us, we should count ourselves blessed.

  • Joan Didion, Democracy: A Novel

    If you’ve read Didion’s nonfiction political works from the 80s, this is exactly the novel you should expect. And, to be clear, you really really need to read Didion’s nonfiction political works from the 80s. Particularly After Henry. She’s just icily cynical about the world.

    Imagine a menacing episode of a soap opera, where the characters say virtually nothing to each other because nothing is left to say, and where virtually all of the soap opera’s menace comes from chilly atmospherics. That’s Democracy in a nutshell. There’s a U.S. senator and his wife; there’s a military attaché who spends most of his time in the air making deals about unspeakably deadly military hardware. There’s the politician’s daughter, overdosing in a miserable flophouse. And all throughout, as backdrop, there’s the evacuation of Saigon, spreading nameless fear over everyone.

    It turns out that Didion is just as keen an observer of fictional political characters as she is of real-life ones.

  • Steve Martin, Born Standing Up

    I got two big messages from Born Standing Up. First, Steve Martin worked very, very hard, for 18 years, to go from nothing (well, to go from working at a Knott’s Berry Farm) to the level he eventually attained, where there are few people more widely beloved. I’ve come to think over the years that working very, very hard is the only answer to most questions of how to be successful. Reading Martin’s autobiography — since that’s what this is; or at least it’s the first volume of one — made me feel incredibly lazy.

    The second thing it taught me is that you can take major risks like he did if you have no one depending on you. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bulk of the world’s risky accomplishments came from single people, like Martin, in their twenties. I’d love to ask the man whether he thinks he could have achieved what he did had he been married with children.

    The book only reinforces my love of his standup work from the 70s, which is the era this book focuses on; it ends with his writing for the Smothers Brothers and starting on the production of The Jerk. (The book, by the way, confirms my suspicion that his stand-up bit about how he was “born a poor black child,” and how he really found himself when he heard his first Mantovani record, pre-dates the movie based around that premise.) It’s the record of a man starting out not knowing what he’s doing, and slowly accumulating fame by playing the game and refining his act endlessly. Perform in several thousand nightclubs and you maybe — again, with a lot of hard work — will eventually meet the guy who will open the door that eventually opens another door for you. But of course Martin wasn’t just doing the same thing over and over; he documents tinkering with his jokes night after night, adapting them to the subtlest changes in his audience’s mood. Then he’d return to his lonely hotel room and agonize over how to make his act better until sleep overtook him.

    This and the Poehler book make me feel both inspired and depressed. They feel like people who’ve worked exceptionally hard, taken exceptional chances, and ended up doing exactly what they love every day of their lives. Perhaps they’ve downplayed (deliberately or otherwise) the drudgery involved in doing any job, even the dream jobs they ended up in; or perhaps not. In either case, I’d like to take the Martin and Poehler books and use them to build a life that’s worth living.

What will be the next gay-rights-style debate?

A thought: circa a century ago, say, the thought that gay people deserved equal treatment was probably so absurd that it didn’t even need to be discussed, because no one thought it was true. Then at some point it became a debatable proposition, and now it’s so obviously true that it doesn’t need debate; the generation that believes gay people don’t deserve equal rights will die off soon enough. There are plenty of other obvious examples of this phenomenon. Consider intermarriage between the races, for instance. If you go back far enough, probably religious toleration would fit in the same bucket.

So I wonder what sort of issues are, at this very moment, in the first phase of that evolution: things that even we (who consider ourselves more enlightened than our benighted ancestors) consider so absurd or so obvious that no one even bothers to discuss them, which will eventually become topics of vigorous debate, and will later on become obviously true or obviously false, respectively. I can dream that maybe “the nation-state is a sensible grouping of human beings” or the related “it is right and just that we treat those who live on the other sides of an arbitrary border differently than we treat our own families” will one day become debatable. Or maybe even those are too explicit; maybe the sort of propositions that we take for granted and will one day reject are exactly those propositions that I couldn’t even think to write down.

Phrased this way, it could be seen as a hopeful question — part of our habit of viewing history as a vanguard marching ever forward in the direction of social liberalism. (I think this might be “The Whig Interpretation of History”, after the book of the same name by Herbert Butterfield. Though it sounds slightly different.) I can see this going in a very illiberal direction as well, however. E.g., maybe there was a time when it was considered obvious beyond the point of discussion (or even of conscious thought) that we lived in something called a “society” in which we were more than just disjoint libertarian billiard balls colliding inelastically into one another. Maybe it was once considered obvious beyond the point of discussion that the main way in which an industrial democracy cares for its least fortunate was by way of its government, which was largely expected to spend money wisely. And so forth. You can imagine any of these slowly becoming less true. And when they become less true, you can imagine them becoming less true in an exponentially-increasing way: if all your friends believe that the less-fortunate are largely shirkers living off the dole, that might cause you to feel the same way (or maybe it’s not causal).

So there’s nothing necessarily liberal about this sort of change, if indeed it happens. I’d like to talk to an actual historian about how one might measure this sort of change. I imagine it would be difficult: almost by definition, the ideas which are believed so widely that they’re beyond the reach of conscious thought are those which few people will ever bother to write about. Extracting earlier societies’ unconscious beliefs might involve digging into the unspoken assumptions behind what they are saying.

Reminding myself how beautiful statistics is

As I think I’ve mentioned here before, my partner is taking a biostatistics course and thereby reminding me of how much I loved this stuff. And I’m reminded of the Galton quote about the Central Limit Theorem:

I know of scarcely anything so apt to impress the imagination as the wonderful form of cosmic order expressed by the “Law of Frequency of Error.” The law would have been personified by the Greeks and deified, if they had known of it. It reigns with serenity and in complete self-effacement amidst the wildest confusion. The huger the mob, and the greater the apparent anarchy, the more perfect is its sway. It is the supreme law of Unreason. Whenever a large sample of chaotic elements are taken in hand and marshalled in order of their magnitude, an unsuspected and most beautiful form of regularity proves to have been latent all along.

It’s not only beautiful, but it’s obviously extremely useful. Yet, given how often I’ve failed to explain how a random sample of a couple thousand people can adequately capture the political views of a nation of 318 million, clearly there’s something mysterious and objectionable about it. For that matter, given how many people took umbrage at Nate Silver’s election forecasts, even though basically all he did was average poll data, it seems like this antipathy to statistics is pretty widespread; statistical laws explain exactly where, and under what conditions, you’d expect individual chaos to yield collective order, yet people really seem to recoil from the thought that their collective actions might be rule-governed.

It really does often feel like I’m possession of a kind of occult knowledge that everyone could learn but few choose to. And I’m nowhere near the level of statistical knowledge that I want to attain. Even just the bit of probability and statistics that I know is enough to resolve a lot of mental muddle.

One of the clearest things about measure theory I’ve ever read

Check out Terry Tao’s measure-theory book, starting with ‘let us try to formalise some of the intuition for measure discussed earlier’ on page 18, through to ‘it turns out that the Jordan concept of measurability is not quite adequate, and must be extended to the more general notion of Lebesgue measurability, with the corresponding notion of Lebesgue measure that extends Jordan measure’ on p. 18.

I’ve understood for some time that there’s a notion of “non-measurable set”, and that you want your definition of ‘measure’ to preserve certain intuitive ideas — e.g., that taking an object and moving it a few feet doesn’t change its measure. I didn’t understand that there was any connection between non-measurability and the axiom of choice. Tao’s words here are some of the first that have properly oriented me toward the problem that we’re trying to solve, and the origins of that problem to begin with.

My partner is taking a biostatistics course, which is reminding me of how much I loved this stuff at CMU. I’m inclined to find a course in measure theory around here. We have a university or two.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

A painting of a young gentleman

This was my first foray into Oscar Wilde, and it was delightful. The book is an excellent meditation on the relation between art and life; but if it were only that, it would be boring indeed. So it’s about equally split between that and scenes of building tension that culminate in some scenes of jaw-dropping horror. I was not expecting the latter. I was expecting mostly Victorian material of the sort that Eddie Izzard described (summarizing the Merchant-Ivory movies) as “Room with a view and a staircase and a pond.” To the contrary, it was actually a page-turner. I wasn’t expecting that.

The basic story is that Dorian Gray is the sort of exquisitely beautiful creature that Plato would have taken as his sexy boy-servant and taught the ways of the world; the earlier parts of the book feature a fair bit of innuendo around Dorian’s ruby-red lips and so forth, which I imagine were fairly titillating when Wilde’s book came out in 1891. The painter Basil Hallward, when we meet Dorian, has seated the boy for a number of sessions, taking Dorian as his muse. Basil’s friend Harry Wotton, being one of those English gentlemen of leisure who spend their days careening from luncheon with the duchess to a cocktail party to the opera, hangs out with Basil and Dorian and drops apothegm upon apothegm about the proper conduct of a life. Should a man be ethical and good and decent? Harry generally finds decent people the most boring, and advocates for sucking the marrow out of life: when you’re young and beautiful, as Dorian is, sin as much as you can. You’ll have time enough to be decent when you’re dead. Harry rejects conventional morality; he’d much prefer to live every moment to its fullest, consequences be damned. Dorian takes this to heart.

One moment Dorian is engaged to be married to a young, exquisite actress. The next moment is just perfectly framed: the next night after he’s proposed to her, he goes to see her on stage, and all the art has drained from her performance; she is atrocious, and most of the audience has left by the time she’s done. When he confronts her about this after the show, she gushes that she now sees that all art is fake, and she wants only to live a beautiful real life with Dorian. He, meanwhile, has sworn himself to a life that is nothing but art; seeing his formerly beloved as the wretched actor that she’s become, he casts her aside, rending her heart in two. You might say that he’s in pursuit of truth through the Platonic forms, and has given up on vulgar reality, while she’s done just the opposite. His rejection of her leads her, that very night, to kill herself in one of the ghastly ways that women in 19th-century novels did (see Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary).

Initially Dorian is shocked. In his shock, he goes to examine the portrait that Basil had painted of him, and he sees that the portrait has ever-so-subtly changed. The mouth has become noticeably more scornful and … evil, while Dorian himself remains as perfect as he ever was. And as he ages throughout the novel, descending into a more and more hedonistic life, paying less and less attention to the destruction he wreaks on everyone around him, the painting becomes more and more grotesque while real-life Dorian still bears the physical perfection of a naïve and unsullied 17-year-old. He jealously hides the painting where no one will see it, in a locked attic to which only he has the key. His soul, which is on display in the painting, blackens, while the man himself is physically as flawless as ever.

There are interesting bits in here that you might call “philosophical” if you were into labeling such things. For instance, the moment when Dorian decides to worship art over life is the moment when the art depicting Dorian comes to be the only source of reality in Dorian’s life. What is art, anyway? And what does the artist depict? What should the artist depict?

Hard to know how much to blame Dorian’s descent into metaphysical ugliness on his friendship with Harry, and his absorbing Harry’s sinful teachings. Harry appears throughout the book, watching Dorian’s debauchery with (we envision) a slight smirk. Harry somehow seems above the fray. He can’t be too upset about anything, because his cynical eye has already foreseen the decline and fall of everything, and the true grotesque nature that lies inside most men. Dorian becomes the sort of dissolute, revolting creature whom respectable people cross the street to avoid, while Harry remains admitted to all areas of polite society. That may be the part of the book that mystifies me the most: Harry is Dorian’s teacher, and to all appearances Harry is satisfied with the progress of his student. Yet the student turns evil in ways that the teacher never would.

All told, it’s an engrossing book: thought-provoking and absolutely gripping. After 100-some years, you don’t really need me to tell you to go read Wilde’s novel; nonetheless, you really should.

I’m confused about what sin Amazon is supposed to have committed

I don’t have time to write about it right now, but Matt Yglesias’s post today on why calls to fight Amazon’s ‘monopoly’ are misguided did hit the mark. I wanted to write something the other day when John Gruber predictably snarked in favor of the Justice Department fighting Amazon’s ‘monopoly’.

There’s no there there, seriously. I’ve been waiting patiently for someone to make a good case that Amazon has done anything wrong. Seems to me that their worst sin is … negotiating very hard against publishers? And using their market power to demand lower prices? This is good for readers, isn’t it? It makes books cheaper. Maybe you could argue that something which is good for readers is bad for authors, but that requires argument; it can’t just be asserted. I had this same problem with George Packer’s argument against Amazon a few months back.

To put it in perhaps a few words: whatever Amazon is guilty of, Wal-Mart is guilty of too. And I don’t see anyone pushing to break up Wal-Mart. They’re both just large retailers pursuing high volume and low profit margins, perhaps at the expense of their suppliers. That’s all. What am I missing?