Chapter 38
Heard at the Boston Book Festival 2015

Four Interesting Sessions

The seventh annual Boston Book Festival was held Saturday, and the schedule was such that I managed to get to four sessions that I really wanted to hear. (One other was overfilled, rats, but Plan B was a very good substitute.)

Please try not to kill the messenger.

20151024.1100 New Threats in the Modern Age

Jessica Stern, Bruce Schneier, Gabriella Blum; Juliette Kayyem

ISIS in the Middle East

  • ISIS raises money in a variety of ways: oil sales, of course, but they also creatively tax refugees for moving.
  • ISIS is unusually successful at attracting many foreign fighters. They tend to appeal to young people who are fed up with modernity, the complexity of life today, and are looking for a simpler life.
  • ISIS seems to be a religious fundamentalist movement today, but it was founded by secular thug, an actual criminal.

Free-for-all discussion

  • Hear that mosquito buzzing about your room? It might be a mini-drone sent by the government or a competitor to spy on you. Or by an enemy to assassinate you with a teensy poison dart. Some mosquito bite, eh? It can be controlled by someone somewhere -- anywhere there's in Internet connection -- who can't be traced back. This may be slightly fictional now, but certainly possible soon. Passive surveillance today; active lethality tomorrow.
  • The Internet and cheap electronics have democratized tactics. For instance, if there's a tank at your door, you can be sure that an army is involved. They're the only ones who can afford tanks. But everyone has an Internet connection, everyone has hacking software, everyone has drones. If you're attacked by one of these things, there are too many suspects, too many people who could have launched the attack.
  • ISIS wants to be a nation-state; they need land. Cyber-attackers don't. Land is actually a liability for hackers: we know where you are.
  • Security versus liberty: we routinely sacrifice some liberties to gain security. E.g., we accept the delays and intrusions of airport security because it gives us the freedom to travel by air. We accept a lot of government surveillance in cases where there is enough transparency, oversight, and accountability to make us think that it is under control.
  • Health records are a different matter. We don't understand the privacy, security, or surveillance of health records.
  • We allow criminals to use social media -- up to a point. When they communicate openly, we can at least watch them. Examples: ISIS, pedophiles.
  • The physical world needs to be policed, so we can live in it with some sense of security. The Internet seems to be virtual, but it's not anymore. Our money, our relationships, our lives are visible -- and accessible -- there. So the Internet needs to be policed, too.
  • Today drones are basically uncontrolled. A person flew a drone into a sports stadium full of people during a match. If he had not walked into the stadium to retrieve it, it would not have been possible to trace it back to him. This needs to get fixed.
  • The Brennan email hack is a good example of what can go wrong and how easily. He was not an easy target: he did not have a weak password; he did not use open wireless networks. What happened was this. A teenage hacker called Verizon, pretended to be a Verizon employee, and got a lot of private information about Brennan's accounts and personal information. Then he called AOL, pretended to be Brennan, and got AOL to reset the password. Mission accomplished. The real problem is that two companies had a lot of his personal information. He had ceded control over it to them, and they didn't keep adequate controls over it.
  • No one, no one, ever, ever, reads the lengthy user agreements.
  • Cars are more dangerous than guns. Guns? Almost unregulated because of constitutional provisions. Dangerous, and they kill people. But not as many as cars. Cars? Tons of metal hurtling down the road at high speed, piloted by marginally trained, stressed, angry, distracted drivers. We accept the dangers because cars and driving are highly regulated, with safety and manufacturing standards; training, identification, and licensing procedures for drivers; and so forth.
  • Your email is encrypted today, not because you are clever and use PGP, but because Google and Yahoo and Microsoft and others decided to encrypt it.
  • You should just assume that the NSA is reading your email. You should worry much more about your competitors reading it.
  • Why do Internet Service Providers (ISPs) pass through all Internet traffic so that I have to have a personal firewall? They *could* provide some security services.

20151024.1245 Sherlock

Josh Cook, Bonnie MacBird; Lisa Rourke

  • Conan Doyle modeled the Holmes character after his mentor at surgery. He was a doctor, but his practice did not flourish, so he had lots of time to think and write.
  • More or less contemporary TV shows considered Sherlockian: Elementary, House, Bones. All these characters are somewhere "on the spectrum."
  • Ms. MacBird: "I'm married to a computer scientist, so there's no need to explain the Sherlock character to me." Big laugh from the audience. (We computer types don't know whether to be flattered or insulted.)
  • There are only a few real people in the stories: Watson, Irene Adler, maybe Mycroft. Others are just elements of the case. That includes Moriarty, who appears only once in the stories.
  • Holmes is rude, but he is not morally compromised. He doesn't kill people, a la Dexter. Generally he turns the bad guys over to the law. He does fight: he is a boxer and uses baritsu. And he does have a slight vigilante streak, as in The Specked Band, when he sends the snake back to the bad guy, and the snake kills him.
  • Is Watson an unreliable narrator? We should probably assume that he is. Looking from the outside, Doyle wrote quickly and made mistakes, so there are inconsistencies. From the inside, Watson was very close to Holmes, a loyal friend, and he may have covered up some nasty things that Holmes said or did.
  • Holmes refers to his work as "the art of detection." He does not consider it simply a science.
  • These authors view the Holmes character and canon as "freeing constraints." They remove many mundane options that can paralyze a writer with too many possibilities.

20151024.1415 What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex

Rachel Hills, Lauren Holmes, Dylan Landis; Nancy Bauer

  • The session title is modeled after the title of the Raymond Carver story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
  • There is a "sex myth," but it's not a single thing. It is the process of magazines and popular culture setting society's expectations of sexual norms, telling us that what we do with whom determines who we are.
  • The most depressing description of sex one of the authors heard was from an old uncle who bred dogs: "When the male part meets the female part...." Clinical, cold. She wants to know what people are thinking. Don't write about cliche experiences and cliche responses.
  • No interest in sex in the Victorian era? False. They were fascinated, talked about it and wrote about it all the time. It's just that they discussed in public what you shouldn't do.
  • One of their stories discusses molestation rather obliquely; many readers think that the father's friend was molesting the daughter, but many think not. Later the character is actually raped by one of the father's students, and he questions her account of it. "You were raped? No, you may be feeling regret."
  • One character, "Barbara the Slut" from the title story, sleeps with many boys but each only once. That is her way of exercising control over her sex life.
  • We talk too much about consent and mechanics, and not enough about how to have good sex. One of the authors had a different approach. In a story, a character should have a task, something to do that perhaps requires planning and execution. It is much more interesting to write about when a task goes wrong. The character must react, and we -- the readers and the writer -- learn about the character from that.
  • "Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power." (Oscar Wilde)
  • Even positive, affirming stories set expectations of what sex is supposed to be. Magazine articles routinely claim that "Sex is essential to your health" or "Sex is essential to maintaining your marriage." These positive statements are just as much a part of the "sex myth" as negative ones.

20151024.1600 Funny Papers

Chip Kidd, Bob Mankoff; Jared Bowen

  • Bob Mankoff is the cartoon editor of the New Yorker magazine.
  • "I'm seventy, and that's okay. The good news is that it could be worse. The bad news is that it is going to be."
  • "I went to Syracuse, where I majored in hair."
  • He started sending cartoons to the New Yorker in 1974. His entries were rejected more than a thousand times in the first three years, before he finally succeeded in selling one.
  • He looks at more than thousand cartoons a week, and very few of them make the cut.
  • Chip Kidd just published a bio of Charles Schultz, creator of the "Peanuts" comic strip.
  • The Schultz Museum in Santa Rose, California, gave him unprecedented access to see and record (photograph) many unpublished works: pencil sketches, ideas that never made it to the page, early drafts, etc.
  • In "Peanuts" the girls mistreat the boys, badly. That's okay. If the boys mistreated the girls, that would be creepy.
  • (Both books are filled with cartoons.)