Recommended Reading: ‘Love Is Whatever You Can Still Betray’

The Perfect Spy ThrillerLooking back on the books I read in 2021, one stands out as the best: John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy. It is a cold-war thriller and thinly-veiled autobiography that follows a spy named Magnus Pym. Its disjointed narrative explores his life from early childhood to the novel’s present-narrated 1986. Like le Carré, Pym is raised by a widower conman, abused at boarding school, and put to work as a spy against enemies both foreign and domestic. Unlike le Carré, Pym never quite learns which way is up; he’s had to wear too many faces, for too long. When the book begins, and Pym vanishes, it is less of a shock to everybody than it ought to be. As the story proceeds, we learn why.

I don’t want to spoil too much, although you can guess the broad contours just by looking at the cover (and what a cover Penguin has chosen!). It’s less about the story than the main character anyway, and his relationship with his father. An early quote, written by Pym about himself, sums it up better than I ever could:

So there’s yet another Pym for you, Jack, and you had better add him to my file even if he is neither admirable nor, I suspect, comprehensible to you[…]. He’s the Pym who can’t rest till he’s touched the love in people, then can’t rest till he’s hacked his way out of it, the more drastically the better. The Pym who does nothing cynically, nothing without conviction. Who sets events in motion in order to become their victim, which he calls decision, and ties himself into pointless relationships, which he calls loyalty. Then waits for the next event to get him out of the last one, which he calls destiny.

A Perfect Spy is a story about a man who only ever wanted genuine companionship, and about how the whole world, himself included, constantly conspires to keep it from him. It is about what happens when you break a man who was never quite whole to begin with. Along the way, there are some pretty good adventures, but for the most part it’s as gloomy as the weather in the English seaside town where Pym writes his memoir. This mood isn’t always my cup of tea, but when it works, it works. Apparently it’s considered le Carré’s masterpiece; it’s not hard to see why.

Like many things, this book reminds me of a Mountain Goats song, in particular a line near the end of this one: When you punish a person for dreaming his dream, don’t expect him to thank or forgive you.

What were the best books you read in 2021?

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Looking Up And Forward

From the aboriginal Australians to the Zuni people, human civilizations have celebrated the winter solstice for as long as we’ve comprehended the seasons. It is a time for optimism, hope, miracles, and light. Even before we understood the solar system, we knew the basics: at a certain point, less sun gives way to more. These days, we’ve figured out a lot more about our place in the universe, but that doesn’t make this moment any less special. Humans look up, and forward; it’s who we are.

This morning’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope got me thinking about where we’re at as a species. We live in an age of wonders, but it doesn’t always feel that way. For better and worse, we’ve atomized; we don’t have as many universals as we used to; sometimes it seems like solstice celebrations are one of the few things we have in common any more. We’ve broken down a lot of old structures and sources of meaning, which has been great for a lot of people, but we sort of forgot to replace them with anything. People report having fewer friends than they used to. Deaths of despair have skyrocketed in this country, and lots of people feel lonely and isolated, a situation that the last two years have not improved. Maybe it’s all a big coincidence that we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other, but I’m not so sure. People need communities and shared goals and things bigger than themselves.

Which brings me back to thinking about that telescope, about the thousands of people who worked together for decades to build a device which, if it works, might revolutionize our understanding of reality. If we want to find meaning in something, work together, and better ourselves, we could do worse than focusing on space. It’s how we will press forward with figuring out what the universe is; it’s how we will defend our planet from species-destroying asteroids; it’s how we will find extraplanetary life. These represent big tasks and big questions. Space exploration is broadly popular, too, and it’s not even that expensive, in the grand scheme of things–the James Webb telescope only cost $10 billion.

There’s something deeply humbling about cosmology and space exploration; something awesome, in the old sense of the term. They inspire feelings in me that a less atheistic person might find in religion. Carl Sagan had it right when he convinced NASA to turn Voyager 1 around and take one last picture: Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

So I guess my message on the darkest week of the year is: there are worse directions to look than up!

Happy launch day to all who celebrate.

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“The Internet Is On Fire”

Late last week, the engineering team at Alibaba announced that they’d found a major vulnerability in a widely used software library. The library is called log4j, the vulnerability is named log4shell, and it has the potential to be very bad. With a lot of luck, you won’t see it all over the news, but in the event that you do, here’s a quick primer. Wired has a good longer piece.

"The Internet Is On Fire"

Do I have to worry about log4j?

Not in so many words. Unless you’re a systems administrator, you probably aren’t running a (particularly) vulnerable machine, so there’s nothing you can do anyway. See a movie; hug your children.

How does it work?

log4j is logging software, that is, it writes down information about a running program so that developers can see how it’s working (or not working)."The Internet Is On Fire" 1 Sometimes, when it sees a certain string, it says, “oh okay, let’s download a file from this arbitrary location and execute it.” An attacker, with fairly basic knowledge of what kind of computer they’re attacking, can use this to take control of the whole system (or whatever sandbox the application may be limited to). And log4j is used in many, many systems, systems where the admins might not even know about it, because it’s buried under a bunch of other software libraries. The little guy on the bottom right of the cartoon? Sometimes that’s log4j.

Sounds bad!

It is! It’s worse than 2014’s Heartbleed, which resulted in the theft of, conservatively, tens of millions of identities. At the time, Heartbleed was widely considered to be the worst vulnerability ever found in the modern Internet. This distinction now belongs to log4shell. And just like with Heartbleed, there is probably nothing you, personally, can do about it.

How bad?

Above, I said that the attacker needs to have ‘fairly basic’ knowledge of the computer they’re attacking. This is because computers can’t execute any old arbitrary code–it has to be a Java binary written for the correct version of the Java Runtime Environment. This means that viral spread will be limited, at least until somebody figures out a way around this, which may happen in a matter of days. And if that happens… lots of very important computers will find themselves under the control of hackers.



Open thread!

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A Tale of Two Cities

This isn’t a novel observation—we already know that Trump voters have been significantly more likely to die from COVID in the vaccine era—but it still smacks my gob to see how clearly New York City demonstrates this.

A Tale of Two Cities A Tale of Two Cities 1

Drowning in your own lungs to own the libs… I don’t know about you, but I just can’t bring myself to care any more. Pity the poor children, yes, but none of the mandates are working on their parents, and what else are we supposed to do?

Open thread.

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What Better G(r)ift Than Invisible Garbage?

I’m sure you’ve noticed that NFTs are ‘in’ right now, among a certain set. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this means that they may also be in some of our stockings. The WSJ, naturally, has included them in their “cash gift guide“, which also includes sections such as “meme stocks” (remember GameStop?) and “financial products for children”, because of course it does. Bloomberg, ever the more serious financial publication, merely has a trend piece about this.

(What is an NFT, anyway?)

This is just depressing. As an art lover, I’d be pretty mad if somebody gave me a certificate of authenticity for an ugly doodle of a smoking monkey, instead of like, a piece of art. And how do you even wrap an NFT? You’re essentially giving them the private key to an online wallet, i.e. a long string of nonsense characters. Maybe you give them a slip of paper with login instructions? I doubt many givers will include the instructions the recipient will actually want: how to dump this crap immediately upon receipt so they can convert it into actual money–you know, something fungible.

This is my favorite part of the Bloomberg piece, though. The woman they interview isn’t even pretending this is something people want; she just wants to proselytize, and will spend a good chunk of change doing it:

Educating family about NFTs is part of Jessica Walker’s motivation for giving the tokens as gifts this year for Christmas. […] Her budget is about one Ethereum, or $4,100 U.S. dollars. […] “My brother will look at me slightly disappointed that I have not bought him food or alcohol.”

This Christmas, why not spend thousands to give your loved ones the gift of disappointment?

Open thread!

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Friday Afternoon Respite

I’m guessing we could use a thread for talking about things that don’t make us feel bad. Here, have some nifty sayings in other languages:

I especially like the Czech one! Feel free to talk about more things you like about other languages–or anything else, except for you-know-what.

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