Review – Snowden: A Biography

Snowden, Ted Rall, Seven Stories Press, 2015

In graphic novel form, this book looks at the life and motivation of Edward Snowden, one of the most famous, or infamous, people in the world.

Snowden grew up in Maryland, just a few miles from the headquarters of the National Security Agency, or NSA. It was the sort of community where one learns not to ask their neighbor, or their spouse, just what they do for a living; it’s probably secret. An attempt to join the Army after 9/11 was not successful. As a CIA employee, he was stationed for a time in Switzerland. He was exposed to other systems of values, and began to wonder if America was really the “good guys.”

He left the CIA, and joined the NSA, eventually becoming a systems administrator, or sysadmin. He spent some time in Japan, which further removed any notion that America was on the side of the angels. As a sysadmin, he had access to all sorts of classified files that detailed America’s surveillance plans. Whenever he had a chance, he downloaded file after file onto flash drives.

Here are a couple of examples. An NSA program called “Captivated Audience” lets them track you through your smartphone and listen to conversations in your home, even if the phone is Off. “Gumfish” allows the NSA to take a picture of you, at any time, using the camera in your laptop. Smart TVs, those that allow streaming of web content, have a camera that the government can activate at any time to watch anybody (like the telescreens in Orwell’s “1984”).

Now working in Honolulu for an NSA contractor, one day Snowden hopped a taxi to the airport with his flash drives. His next stop was Hong Kong where he leaked his information to a couple of journalists. After the worldwide bombshell, he was planning to fly to Latin America to ask for asylum. While in the air, his passport was revoked. He also knew that if he flew through the airspace of a US ally, the ally would force the plane to land. Snowden would be arrested, handed over to American authorities and “disappeared” (like Bradley/Chelsea Manning). Snowden got as far as Moscow, where he remains today.

Say what you will about Edward Snowden (he is a hero or he is a traitor), this is an excellent, and very easy to read, look at why he did what he did. It’s very highly recommended.

Surviving James Dean (Book Review)

When I saw “Surviving James Dean” on the bookshelf, I felt I had to reach for it, probably just for reminiscing. James Dean was the idol of my teenage years, although I wasn’t all that much taken by him. My cousin, however, married her first husband because he looked, walked, and acted exactly like James Dean. When the actor died, our entire generation of people went into mourning.

I can’t tell how much of what I read in the book’s pages can be the truth. It is always easy to say anything for or against a person after his death, because he is not around to tell his truth or defend himself against lies, if there are lies.

This book, however, is a memoir of the writer William Bast and it reflects his life, his lifestyle, and the way he looks at his former roommate and friend. I did not take this book as James Dean’s truth as it would be in an objective biography, but more like as William Bast’s truth and his obsession with the actor.

James Dean was not only an American icon; he was an idol worldwide. The reference to Dean’s homosexual tendencies, therefore, should not be taken as facts, since they may be colored by the writer’s own tendencies and his awe of the actor. After Dean’s death, the author must have had his glory days, since everyone, the renowned and the unknown, held him in high esteem because of his friendship with Dean.

According to Bast, James Dean had his flaws, especially when it came to financial responsibility, recklessness, and maybe eccentricity, but he was enthusiastic about life and showed compassion to living things. The best part of the book for me were when the two friends shared an apartment and helped each other out in times of need.

The language of the author is direct and easy to understand, and some parts of the book can be very interesting to those who remember James Dean and still cherish his memory. A passage when the author gets his first ride in Dean’s famous white Porsche reveals the actor’s recklessness that led to his demise. Passages like this make the book worth reading.

“The Porsche, built low and sleek, took the hills as they were freeways, hugging the road neatly with each treacherous curve… I had never, in all the time I’d known him, ridden in a car with Jimmy when he’d driven so fast. That night I swore I’d never ride with him again.”

The author of the book, William Bast, educated at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA, has concentrated extensively on James Dean in the book James Dean: a Biography and in “The Myth Makers” a television drama. Originally from Milwaukee, Bast resides in Los Angeles.

“Surviving James Dean” is in hardcover with 320 pages and ISBN: 156980298X.

Even if it was written from a different perspective and possibly an obsession, I found the book descriptive and interesting, because it points to the complexities of two people who have shared a friendship as well as room and board. “Surviving James Dean” could be worth reading if you keep an open mind about a few uncertainties.

Book Review: Andrew Fowler’s Biography of Julian Assange

Julian Assange’s rise to global notoriety has been lightning quick. His whistleblower website Wikileaks began merely as an inspired idea written on a piece of paper and placed in his Carlton bedroom in the inner city suburb of Melbourne. Early on Assange assumed that leaking government secrets would set the world on fire. This did not happen. The world, it appears, did not share Assange’s moral outrage. All of that would change when Wikileaks released a video in April 2010 the site labelled ‘Collateral Murder’, a classified US military video showing the killing of over a dozen people – including two Reuters news staff.

The theory behind Wikileaks is that complex and powerful bureaucracies rely on secrecy, and that once their ability to communicate in this clandestine manner is removed it makes it more difficult for them to exist. Therefore powerful institutions can be crippled by exposing (or rather leaking) their secrets. Basically taking away an organisation’s ability to harbour secrets is like taking away its oxygen, according to Assange’s political philosophy. It reduces the powerful organisation’s ability to communicate within itself; it makes it dysfunctional.

As Assange writes:

“The more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…. Since unjust systems, by their nature, induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance.”

Julian Assange, Electronic Media and the Threat to the Status Quo

The Most Dangerous Man in the World explores three main themes: the character of Assange; the old print and new electronic media; and how powerful political systems react to the threat of having their secrets exposed. Andrew Fowler, a journalist with the ABC, has written a well-considered and thoughtful book about the whole Wikileaks phenomenon, and the mercurial character of Julian Assange. Usually these types of books are quickly knocked up, and are little more than cut-and-paste jobs that lazily skim the surface. As a globetrotting journalist immersed in international politics and media, Fowler brings a refreshing range and subtlety of analysis to his subject. He has also interviewed Assange, for the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent program.

The question that most often comes to mind when assessing the cultural significance of Julian Assange is whether he is a freedom warrior, a scourge of despots the world over, or an over hyped computer nerd living in a world of instant media fame.

In Fowler’s portrait, Assange comes across as a bit of an international hobo, travelling the world and staying wherever friends will put him up, but with no fixed address of his own. His essential character is as hard to pin down as his fixed address. Obviously highly intelligent and also creative, he has jokingly described himself as a bit autistic. He also has a tendency to flip friendships into disgruntled enemies with alarming alacrity.

From all the information that Fowler puts forward on Assange, it’s hard to take him seriously as a Messiah of the Internet age. Information technology, with its inexorable march towards complete openness, always made Wikileaks seem like a child predestined to be born. An early supporter of Assange, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, has said he identifies more with Bradley Manning, the 22 year old soldier who leaked the mammoth cache of classified documents to Wikileaks, than with Assange himself. Assange, afterall, is publisher of leaked documents, not the actual leaker. Manning faces life in jail, whereas whether Assange will ever be given a prison sentence seems unlikely.

What The Most Dangerous Man in the World really highlights is the intersection between the work of journalism and the free-for-all world of Internet publishing, where there is no editor, only individuals self-publishing and Google’s mysterious algorithm, which ranks search engine queries as a sort of machine-editor. In the end it was Assange who approached various media outlets to seek advice on how to sort through the material from the leaked US cables. On his own, as a rogue publisher, he made serious editorial mistakes by not redacting names from the Afghanistan war logs, thereby potentially putting lives at risk. Maybe this is Fowler’s journalistic bias coming through in the text, but it seems that editors and journalists are still more important than the absolute freedom of information. Information still needs to be assessed and sorted; individuals need to have their privacy protected from leaks that may endanger their lives, careers or reputations.

Whether Assange’s reputation as a freedom fighter and enlightenment figure will grow with time, it is still too early to tell. Andrew Fowler’s biography of Julian Assange persuades that the Wikileaks founder is more of an old style journalist than anything else, making public what vested interests would like to keep secret.

The Most Dangerous Man in the World, by Andrew Fowler. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 978-0-522-85866-2