Disturbing but superbly insightful.

SPIES, LIES, AND ALGORITHMS

THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF AMERICAN INTELLIGENCE

Books on American intelligence rarely bring cheerful news. This expert account is no exception, but it’s particularly astute.

A contributing writer at the Atlantic, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and author of Spying Blind: The CIA, the FBI, and the Origins of 9/11, Zegart reports that the digital age has made intelligence gathering vastly more difficult. Agencies once concentrated on foreign governments and terrorists. “Today,” writes the author, “they also have to understand American tech giants—and how malign actors can use our own inventions against us.” The National Security Agency, the traditional big data behemoth, faces competition from Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, and Twitter and Facebook have become disinformation highways. Zegart warns that Americans get most of their ideas on intelligence agencies from the movies: Torture always works. Heroes break the law, ignore ethics, and act without mercy against America’s enemies. The author recounts triumphs and debacles but mostly delivers a splendid education in psychology and political science as she explains the role, operation, and limitations of intelligence. Intelligence organizations provide information, never policy, which is politicians’ responsibility, and bad things happen when they forget this. All services gather data, which becomes intelligence only when it is analyzed and used to make predictions. Unfortunately, intelligence predictions are too often wrong, for reasons the author explains in a brilliant section, “The Seven Deadly Biases,” which should be taught in schools along with multiplication tables. According to confirmation bias, humans (not excluding analysts) readily accept facts that confirm what they believe and reject those that contradict it. Readers who assume that catching spies and covert action are straightforward and that Congress keeps an eye on our intelligence services will learn the error of their ways. Zegart’s conclusion offers further unsettling news: In the wireless 21st-century world, espionage, sabotage, and brainwashing are no longer the province of government agencies; nearly anyone with an internet connection can do it.

Disturbing but superbly insightful.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-691-14713-0

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Princeton Univ.

Review Posted Online: Oct. 20, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2021

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A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

HAPPY-GO-LUCKY

Sedaris remains stubbornly irreverent even in the face of pandemic lockdowns and social upheaval.

In his previous collection of original essays, Calypso (2018), the author was unusually downbeat, fixated on aging and the deaths of his mother and sister. There’s bad news in this book, too—most notably, the death of his problematic and seemingly indestructible father at 96—but Sedaris generally carries himself more lightly. On a trip to a gun range, he’s puzzled by boxer shorts with a holster feature, which he wishes were called “gunderpants.” He plays along with nursing-home staffers who, hearing a funnyman named David is on the premises, think he’s Dave Chappelle. He’s bemused by his sister Amy’s landing a new apartment to escape her territorial pet rabbit. On tour, he collects sheaves of off-color jokes and tales of sexual self-gratification gone wrong. His relationship with his partner, Hugh, remains contentious, but it’s mellowing. (“After thirty years, sleeping is the new having sex.”) Even more serious stuff rolls off him. Of Covid-19, he writes that “more than eight hundred thousand people have died to date, and I didn’t get to choose a one of them.” The author’s support of Black Lives Matter is tempered by his interest in the earnest conscientiousness of organizers ensuring everyone is fed and hydrated. (He refers to one such person as a “snacktivist.”) Such impolitic material, though, puts serious essays in sharper, more powerful relief. He recalls fending off the flirtations of a 12-year-old boy in France, frustrated by the language barrier and other factors that kept him from supporting a young gay man. His father’s death unlocks a crushing piece about dad’s inappropriate, sexualizing treatment of his children. For years—chronicled in many books—Sedaris labored to elude his father’s criticism. Even in death, though, it proves hard to escape or laugh off.

A sweet-and-sour set of pieces on loss, absurdity, and places they intersect.

Pub Date: May 31, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-316-39245-7

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: March 11, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2022

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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