Fowler’s Assange biography not really so bad

A couple weeks ago I wrote that Andrew Fowler’s biography of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, The Most Dangerous Man in the World, was failing to impress. I persisted reading, however, and things got better.

My main gripe then was that just 41 pages into the narrative I was getting the distinct impression that Melbourne University Press hadn’t assigned an editor who had the faintest grasp of internet technology, history and culture. I listed a bunch of what, to me, were glaring errors.

However once we get past Assange’s earlier hacker life and into more recent material, which is more about interpersonal relationships and international politics, the book is significantly stronger. Indeed, The Most Dangerous Man in the World does a good job of tying together the various threads of the Assange and WikiLeaks stories, and even buries on page 217 an important revelation — if it is a revelation.

I have been reliably told that ASIO played an active part in the investigation into Assange, trawling through his life and activities in Australia. But what must be just as worrying for him, and has also never been revealed before, is the fact that the inquiry also included officers from ASIS, Australia’s overseas intelligence agency, which has strong links with the US.

Personally I’m not surprised by that news one bit. That’s just the intelligence organisations doing their jobs of investigating perceived threats to national security, as should be expected. But given how some folks get all frothed up whenever they discover that spooks are involved, I’m wondering why this wasn’t given more prominence.

The book still has some curious wording, such as on page 147 where WikiLeaks is described as “a child of the anarchic blogosphere”. I’m not sure that’s the right heritage to stress and, as I wrote before, Robert Manne’s free-to-read essay in The Monthly does a much better job of capturing Assange’s and WikiLeaks’ cypherpunk roots. On page 165 there’s a reference to “what’s known as the DefCon conference”, as if there’s some doubt as to the name of one of the longest-running and most-respected hacker events on the planet. And there’s still plenty of that sloppy editing I referred to, such as the Chaos Computer Club being explained twice.

Nevertheless, reading The Most Dangerous Man in the World will give you the core narratives. Just be aware that the technical and cultural descriptions are wobbly, and use it to get the timelines straight in your head.

Fowler’s Assange biography is failing to impress

Warning! I bought Andrew Fowler’s biography of WikiLeaks front man Julian Assange, The Most Dangerous Man in the World, ‘cos it’s a bestseller with good reviews. But just 41 pages in, I’m feeling like I’ve done my dough.

If I’m paying money for a book — especially when it’s written by someone billed as an “award-winning investigative journalist” and published by a prestigious imprint like Melbourne University Press — I have two basic but very simple requirements. The book should tell me more than I already know. And it shouldn’t tell me things I know to be wrong.

Quite frankly, after the first 41 pages I’m wondering whether MUP had assigned to this book an editor who had the faintest grasp of internet technology, history and culture. Shall we run through some of the problems?

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Tufte books for sale

[Update 10 January 2011: These books have now been sold.]

For sale right now on eBay: my copies of Edward Tufte’s first four books on data visualisation: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative and Beautiful Evidence.

This is the first of a whole bunch of things I’ll be selling over the next few weeks. Yes, partially it’s because I have to move house. But it’s also because I’ve decided to make good on the comment I made at a lunch with the people from Blurb — that books I haven’t even opened in six months are simply wasting space on my shelves and are of no use to anyone. They’re an asset in a coma.

This also relates to a point I’ve been trying to make for the last couple of years, with varying degrees of success: that digital media allows us to separate to creative content — a novel, say — from the container it was traditionally published in, i.e. a book. One version was a Crikey article, Literature? What’s that got to do with the price of books? The core issue is that the pleasure people enjoy from reading the novel, with its characters, settings and plot, is a separate pleasure from the tactile sense of turning pages and feeling the paper, or the satisfaction of collecting objects. I don’t deny anyone any of these pleasures, but they’re no longer necessarily interlinked.

But I digress…

Having read Tufte’s books and absorbed their message, there’s no need for them to sit idly on bookshelves. They’re not something I refer back to. And I have no need to reinforce my sense of self-worth by displaying them as tribal markers either.

You can bid for these books directly at eBay.

Links for 16 August 2009 through 26 August 2009

Stilgherrian’s links for 16 August 2009 through 26 August 2009:

  • Academic Earth: “Video lectures from the world’s top scholars”, it says. Provided they’re American. The universities included so far are Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, UCLA and Yale.
  • [Air-L] Trivial tweeting: Another viewpoint on the “Twitter is pointless babble” rubbish, this time from Cornelius Puschmann, PhD, in the Department of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Düsseldorf.
  • Power of Information | UK Cabinet Office: The February 2009 report from the UK government’s taskforce on Government 2.0.
  • My #blogpostfriday post | Scripting News: Dave Winer is worried about the cloud. “We pour so much passion into dynamic web apps hosted by companies we know very little about. We do it without retaining a copy of our data. We have no idea how much it costs them to keep hosting what we create, so even if they’re public companies, it’s very hard to form an opinion of how likely they are to continue hosting our work.”
  • 8129.0 – Business Use of Information Technology, 2007-08 | Australian Bureau of Statistics: Detailed indicators on the incidence of use of information technology in Australian business, as collected by the 2007-08 Business Characteristics Survey (BCS).
  • The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction | Wikipedia: Someone — I forget who — told me to read this 1935 essay by German cultural critic Walter Benjamin. It’s been influential in the fields of cultural studies and media theory. It was produced, Benjamin wrote, in the effort to describe a theory of art that would be “useful for the formulation of revolutionary demands in the politics of art&”. “In the absence of any traditional, ritualistic value, art in the age of mechanical reproduction would inherently be based on the practice of politics. It is the most frequently cited of Benjamin’s essays”, says Wikipedia. Sounds like I should indeed read it.
  • How Tim O’Reilly Aims to Change Government | ReadWriteWeb: Tim O’Reilly posits “government as platform”, where the government would supply raw digital data and other forms of support for private sector innovators to build on top of. That’s the writer’s version. Does this fit with the Rudd government’s idea of the government as an enabler, as outlined in their Digital Economy Future Directions paper?
  • CHART OF THE DAY: Smartphone Sales To Beat PC Sales By 2011 | Silican Valley Insider: This is based on worldwide sales figures, and it makes sense. The Third World could really use a low-power, rugged smartphone at a sensible price, rather than a laptop or even a netbook to lug around.
  • News Corp pushing to create an online news consortium | By “consortium” they mean “cartel”, right? “Chief Digital Officer Jonathan Miller has positioned News Corp as a logical leader in the effort to start collecting fees from online readers because of its success with the Wall Street Journal Online, which boasts more than 1 million paying subscribers. He is believed to have met with major news publishers including New York Times Co, Washington Post Co, Hearst Corp and Tribune Co, publisher of the Los Angeles Times.”
  • Us Now : watch the film: “In a world in which information is like air, what happens to power?” This entire film can be watched online.
  • Morons with mobiles sour the tweet life | Jacqui Bunting writes some of the dumbest words about Twitter which have ever been written. Note to editors: Anyone who starts from the premise that Twitter is meant to be a “commentary on life” needs to be taken out the back and slapped around a bit. It’s 2009. Please catch up.
  • The Conversation | Now That I Have Your Attention: The creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd, Graham Linehan, also has a few words on Pear Analytics’ cod research on Twitter. He makes the point that for the first time we’re truly having a global conversation.
  • Pointless babble | The New Adventures of Stephen Fry: The redoubtable Stephen Fry rips into that Pear Analytics research on Twitter, with more brevity and wit than I did the other day. Well said, Sir!
  • Top 100 Aussie Web Startups – August 09 | TechNation Australia: The latest league table of Australian web businesses, for those who like to have winners and losers in clearly-defined categories.
  • Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule | Flickr: Proof that you don’t need the Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology to be boringly anal-retentive about your scheduling.
  • Bruce Schneier: Facebook should compete on privacy, not hide it away | The Guardian: Another thought-provoking essay by Bruce Schneier.
  • Hype Cycle Book | Gartner: Mastering the Hype Cycle is the book explaining Gartner’s regular Hype Cycle reports.
  • How It All Ends | YouTube: A follow-up to the video The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See, which presented a risk analysis showing that we cannot afford to ignore the potential risk of climate change, even if it all turns out to be wrong. This version skips over the main argument and addresses the potential objections.
  • Climate change cage match | Crikey: A delightful comment from a Crikey reader, Stephen Morris, who likens the tactics of climate change denialist Tamas Calderwood to the mating habits of the Satin Bowerbird, which is totally obsessed by the colour blue. “It will actively search through a wide variety of brightly coloured objects that might suitably decorate its bower, but the only colour that interests it and it wants to collect are those coloured blue. Tamas in his scientific objectivity (and unfortunately often his logic) is very Satin bowerbird like. It doesn’t matter what large amounts of available data says about global warming, the only titbits of data of interest to Tamas, are those that can be seen to indicate cooling. Once a data set loses its blueness (or coolness), it seems interest in it is lost and other blue data sets are sought.”
  • Senator Lundy describes her Public Sphere initiative | Net Traveller: A ten minute video in which Senator Kate Lundy describes her Public Sphere initiative, made for students at ANU studying Information Technology in Electronic Commerce COMP3410.
  • AP contradiction: Move forward but restore | Pursuing the Complete Community Connection: Steve Buttry points out the problem with Associated Press’ content protection plan: How can you “move forward” and “restore the past” at the same time?

Links for 01 May 2009 through 07 May 2009

Stilgherrian’s links for 01 May 2009 through 07 May 2009, pubished wl late in the week for your weekend reading pleasure:

  • VideoLAN: I was surprised to discover quite a few people who didn’ know about this free open source video player. It’s very good, you know, handling both downloaded files and live streams.
  • The Iremonger Award | Allen & Unwin: A $10,000 prize for someone who was an idea for a non-fiction book which will “contribute to public debate on a contemporary Australian political, social or cultural issue”. Entries close 1 September 2009.
  • Control freaks don’t get it: the web works best in a free-for-all | The Observer: John Naughton says it all on the 50th anniversary of C P Snow’s famous meme, the mutual incomprehensible “two cultures” of science and the “literary intellectuals”. But now, the two cultures are very different.
  • Defence needs a plan for the Internet age | Tom Worthington via Link: Tom says the Australian government’s new defence white paper is deficient in not mentioning “Internet” or “web” at all. The section on cyber warfare envisages military personnel and scientists operating a “Cyber Security Operations Centre”. But without civilian support from organisations such as AusCERTt, the ADF will be vulnerable to cyber attack.
  • Mogulus Live Broadcast: I’ve been using Ustream.TV to do Stilgherrian Live. This new (?) service still officially in beta offers the full mix of live video streaming, video on demand of previous programs, and 24/7 streaming of pre-sequenced programs. I will definitely be exploring this properly soon!

Review: “Without Warning” by John Birmingham

Cover of Without Warning by John Birmingham

John Birmingham has followed up his highly-successful Axis of Time trilogy of military thrillers with another “ripper yarn” novel, Without Warning: America is Gone. It’s a good read, but not as good as it could be.

Like Axis of Time, which posited a 21st-century naval task force suddenly finding itself at the Battle of Midway and the final volume of which I reviewed earlier, Without Warning is alternative history. One the eve of the 2003 Iraq War, an unexplained energy field obliterates all human life across most of the United States. As the world realises the last remaining superpower is gone, the novel tracks the political and military conflicts which emerge through the eyes of characters ranging from a US general at Guantanamo Bay to a female assassin working undercover in France.

My perceptions of Without Warning are coloured by Katie Harris’ comment that my recent Gonzo Twitter effort was like Hemingway. I still haven’t read any Hemingway, but I’ve been thinking about writing styles. In a previous review I described William Gibson’s noir prose as “a richly textured cabernet merlot” in comparison with the “slab of VB” simplicity of Adrian d’Hagé’s action thriller. Birmingham’s writing is another slab of VB. It’s a fast, easy read without too many difficult words or complex metaphors to slow you down.

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