This Machine Kills Secrets

This Machine Kills Secrets by Andy Greenberg

“This machine kills secrets” is a riff on Woody Guthrie’s slogan “this machine kills fascists.” Greenberg lays out how cryptography and anonymity are the machine that can help people leak secrets that those in power don’t want the public to know. The best example of this idea is Wikileaks where thousands of classified documents were posted for public consumption. Greenberg goes back to Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers where the leaking technology was nothing more than a photocopier and brings the reader to today where Tor, PGP, SSL, and other technologies make it possible for whistleblowers to anonymously spread information. Or at least they would in theory. In practice, Wikileaks and similar sites are plagued by problems like internal strife, legal issues, and endangerment of innocents mentioned in leaked documents.

Greenberg does a wonderful job of capturing the personalities of those involved in the struggle to free information. He doesn’t shy away from showing that some of the “heroes” of the movement are deeply flawed. He’s equally honest about the subject of leaking. While leaked documents can make for a more informed public, they can also cause great danger to the people who leak and share them as well as those mentioned in the documents themselves. Security measures to prevent or catch whistleblowers are more likely to catch innocent people and are a danger as well.

There are many elements to leaks–why people do it, how they do it, where the leaks go, what happens with the information, how you protect the people who want to leak information, and how to keep that information from doing more harm. Greenberg covers all of them and his conclusion is that what we currently have in the form of Wikileaks and its offshoots and copycats isn’t the final form and somewhere, someone is working on the next big thing. After reading This Machine Kills Secrets, I have a better understanding of why people are working on it. I wish some of the technical descriptions had been more detailed (I’m a fan of Neal Stephenson’s infodumps and think Cryptonomicon would be a great readalike). Despite the subject, this is a very readable book since Greenberg focuses on individuals and uses them to talk about the technologies they use. You don’t need a lot of knowledge about computers to get into This Machine Kills Secrets but it may leave you wanting to learn more.


The Murder Room

The Murder Room by P.D. James

I was looking for a good audiobook to enjoy in the car, and picked a P.D. James mystery because the morning book discussion group is discussing James’ Death Comes to Pemberley at 10am, October 16. Venerable British mystery author James is now 92, and still writing. The series featuring Commander Adam Dalgliesh is lengthy and I’ve just read a few of the books. This title was published in 2003, and was made into a BBC miniseries, which our library owns on DVD.  The setting is the privately owned Dupayne Museum, devoted to the inter-war years, 1919-1938. There is an art gallery, a library, and the murder room, which contains exhibits with articles and artifacts from some of the most notorious British murders. 

Adam Dalgliesh had recently visited the museum, at a friend’s request. The Dupayne Museum is at a turning point; its lease is expiring and a new lease needs the signatures of all of its trustees. The trustees are the children of the museum’s founder. Caroline is a school principal who keeps a flat in the museum’s building; Marcus has just retired from the civil service, and Neville is a psychiatrist who favors closing the museum.

The first murder is not a surprise, but the similarity to a case from the murder room has the staff and volunteers naturally concerned, especially Tally, who lives in an adjacent cottage on the edge of lonely Hampstead Heath. Dealing with the Dupaynes reminds Detective Inspector Kate Miskin of her working class background, while her colleague Piers Tarrant is being transferred soon. Mostly the mystery centers around the museum and Dalgliesh, who is the sort of man strangers confide in. Dalgliesh is falling in love with Emma, but the demands of New Scotland Yard may have cancelled too many dates for their relationship to survive. The mystery kept my interest, but the memorable characters had me worried for their safety. Charles Keating narrates well.


The Islanders

The Islanders by Christopher Priest

 In this Sci Fi imagining of Earth written in a travel guide format, the planet is mostly open water filled with thousands of Islands of all sizes, shapes and weather patterns.  The northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere are bisected by this world sized ocean.  The hemispheres are where endless wars are waged for one reason or another.  The islands are a haven from all the unrest in the two hemispheres.  Each featured island has its own stories and characters.  As you read through the book you see that some of the stories and characters are related but you would have to read through it twice to really see the connections.  The stories are uneven with   one about discovering a lethal variety of insect on one island, which is quite engaging, to another about a man working in a theater, which is rather lame and boring.

This book is intriguing at first and then as you get into it, becomes confusing unless you read it all in one sitting and have the memory of an elephant.  It kind of works as a group of short stories but the gazetteer function is a distraction.  I read it because it was favorably compared to Cloud Atlas  by David Mitchell.   I would stick with Mitchell.



Candyfreak by Steve Almond

I like the subtitle of Steve Almond’s book: a journey through the chocolate underbelly of America. Even though Steve doesn’t like coconut, you can guess what his nickname was as a kid, which is clear in the name of his website: He would like readers to know a few important facts about himself, especially that he has “eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life.” He has a high metabolism and isn’t overweight, but spent much of the 1970s at the dentist having cavities filled. He thinks about candy a lot, and has an awesome stash of candy.

Steve wasn’t very happy as a boy or a teen, so he ate lots of candy. Halloween was definitely his favorite day of the year. A journalist looking for his next writing project, Steve wondered what happened to some of the candy bars he enjoyed as a kid that were no longer available. He explores the twentieth century history of candy in America by visiting several family owned candy factories, and meeting other candyfreaks like himself. His writing is both funny and sad, and most of all delicious. His descriptions of how candy is made and how he would go into a trance watching it are well worth reading, especially if you remember spending your allowance on candy and comics. Readers of Candyfreak will be happy to know that since the book was published in 2004, Steve has gotten married and now has two young children. He’s still writing, and undoubtedly, still eating lots of candy.