shirley yin

Strong Opinions, Weakly Held (short book reviews no. 3)

February 9, 2020

If these book posts have a general theme, the theme for this post would be integrity. While inconvenient, stubborn, or even foolhardy at times, I find it admirable and strive to live a principled life and not bend to opportunism. I’m reminded of the foreword of Clean Code, written by James O. Coplien, which mentions a Danish saying, “honesty in small things is not a small thing.” While he meant it in the context of putting care into the mundane decisions of software development, it also serves as a good reminder to stand for one’s beliefs, even and especially when it is uncomfortable to.

i dont think you necessarily have to boycott every evil company/product in the world but i think it’s good nay healthy to pick out a handful of things that are antithetical to your beliefs and practice abstaining from them. it’s ridiculous to frame consumerism, especially of frivolities, as something that is natural and inherent to modern life. even if there is no ethical consumption under capitalism, you don’t have to consume everything

engrave this on my tombstone (source)

Permanent Record – Edward Snowden


My primary impression after reading Permanent Record is that Snowden is a staunchly principled person. I love reading accounts of workplace self-righteousness and the later sections of this book fall squarely into that category. I found the earlier sections of the book boring, because I was not interested in Snowden’s childhood, but his own retelling and interpretation of childhood events helped contextualize him and his principles and decisions in some ways. He describes a childhood where he was enthralled with computers, but gradually realized the perils and implications of pursuing technological advancement without reservations, which is something that probably many tech workers are grappling with now that technology has an inescapable influence over society.

I didn’t know a lot about Snowden or the NSA revelations prior to reading this book so here are some notes on what I read:

The most important thing to the IC is not that you're 100 percent perfectly clean, because if that were the case they wouldn't hire anybody. Instead, it's that you're robotically honest--that there's no dirty secret out there that you're hiding that could be used against you, and thus against the agency, by an enemy power. (p. 95)

The Intelligence Community tries to inculcate in its workers a baseline anonymity, a sort of blank-page personality upon which to inscribe secrecy and the art of imposture. You train yourself to be inconspicuous, to look and sound like others. You live in the most ordinary house, you drive the most ordinary car, you wear the same ordinary clothes as everyone else. The difference is, you do it on purpose: normalcy, the ordinary, is your cover. This is the perverse reward of a self-denying career that brings no public glory: the private glory comes not during work, but after, when you can go back out among other people again and successfully convince them that you're one of them.

Though there are a score of more popular and surely more accurate psychological terms for this type of identity split, I tend to think of it as human encryption. As in any process of encryption, the original material--your core identity--still exists, but only in a locked and scrambled form. The equation that enables this ciphering is a simple proportion: the more you know about others, the less you know about yourself. After a time, you might forget your likes and even your dislikes. You can lose your politics, along with any and all respect for the political process that you might have had. Everything gets subsumed by the job, which begins with a denial of character and ends with a denial of conscience. "Mission First." (pp. 66-67)

There is, simply, no way to ignore privacy. Because a citizenry's freedoms are interdependent, to surrender your own privacy is really to surrender everyone's. You might choose to give it up out of convenience, or under the popular pretext that privacy is only required by those who have something to hide. But saying that you don't need or want privacy because you have nothing to hide is to assume that no one should have, or could have, to hide anything--including their immigration status, unemployment history, financial history, and health records. You're assuming that no one, including yourself, might object to revealing to anyone information about their religious beliefs, political affiliations, and sexual activities, as casually as some choose to reveal their movie and music tastes and reading preferences.

Ultimately, saying that you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different from saying you don't care about freedom of speech because you have nothing to say. (p. 208)

The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz – Aaron Swartz


This is a collection of blog posts by Aaron Swartz. Many of the essays were fairly interesting, but overall they felt underdeveloped, as though he’s writing about a book he read about a subject, but reading the original book would have been more insightful (which is perfectly normal for a blog post). Some also seemed dated or immature (also normal considering he wrote many of them in his teens or early twenties). My favourite essay was “School”. I’m less dazzled by his writing than I was when I first read him as a teenager, but I still admire the earnestness in which he lived, even though that unfortunately led to his downfall in the end. It’s gauche to speculate on people’s motivations for suicide, but I can empathize with the feeling that he could no longer live his life in a manner that was internally consistent with his beliefs. I keep thinking back to this quote from Henry Farrell, who wrote the foreword to the “Media” section:

If he could be accused of arrogance (and some people did so accuse him), it was a curiously egoless form. He simply expected other people to live up to the same exacting standards that he imposed upon himself.

I’ve since learned about a dispute regarding IP and copyright surrounding this book, so perhaps find a different source to read his work.