Canadian students of national security have historically suffered in ways that their British and American colleagues have not. Whereas our Anglo-cousins enjoy a robust literature that, amongst other things, maps out what parts of their governments are involved in what elements of national security, Canadians have not had similar comprehensive maps. The result has been that scholars have been left to depend on personal connections, engagements with government insiders, leaked and redacted government documents, and a raft of supposition and logical inferences. Top Secret Canada: Understanding the Canadian Intelligence and National Security Community aspires to correct some of this asymmetry and is largely successful.
The book is divided into chapters about central agencies, core collection and advisory agencies, operations and enforcement and community engagement agencies, government departments with national security functions, and the evolving national security review landscape. Chapters generally adhere to a structure that describes an agency’s mandate, inter-agency cooperation, the resources possessed and needed by the organization, the challenges facing the agency, and its controversies. This framing gives both the book, and most chapters, a sense of continuity throughout.
The editors of the volume were successful in getting current, as well as former, government bureaucrats and policymakers, as well as academics, to contribute chapters. Part One, which discusses the central agencies, were amongst the most revealing. Fyffe’s discussion of the evolution of the National Security Intelligence Advisor’s role and the roles of the various intelligence secretariats, combined with Lilly’s explanation of the fast-paced and issue-driven focus of political staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office, pulls back the curtain of how Canada’s central agencies intersect with national security and intelligence issues. As useful as these chapters are, they also lay bare the difficulty in structuring the book: whereas Fyffe’s chapter faithfully outlines the Privy Council Office per the structure outlined in the volume’s introduction, Lilly’s adopts a structure that, significantly, outlines what government bureaucrats must do to be more effective in engaging with political staff as well as how political staffers’ skills and knowledge could be used by intelligence and security agencies. This bifurcation in the authors’ respective intents creates a tension in answering ‘who is this book for?’, which carries on in some subsequent chapters. Nonetheless, I found these chapters perhaps the most insightful for the national security-related challenges faced by those closest to the Prime Minister.
I downloaded a copy of Desk last week, an OS X applications that is designed for bloggers by bloggers. It costs $30 from the Mac App Store, which is in line with other blogging software for OS X.
To cut to the chase, I like the application but, as it stands right now, version 1.0 feels like it’s just barely out of beta. As a result there’s no way that I could recommend that anyone purchase Desk until a series of important bug fixes are implemented.
What’s to Love
I write in Markdown. At this point it’s so engrained in how I stylize my writing that even my paper notebooks (yes, I still use those…) prominently feature Markdown so I can understand links, heading levels, levels of emphasis, and so forth. Desk uses Markdown and also offers a GUI where, after highlighting some text, you’re given the option to stylize add boldface or italics, insert a hyperlink, or generally add in some basic HTML. That means that people like me (Markdown users) are happy as are (presumably) those who prefer working from a graphical user interface. Everyone wins!
In line with other contemporary writing applications (e.g. Byword, Write) the menu options are designed to just fade away while you’re writing. This means there are no distractions when you’re involved in writing itself and that’s a good thing. You always have the option to calling up the menu items just by just scrolling somewhere in the main window. So, the menu is there when you want it and absent when you’re actually working. Another win.
Steven Levy’s book, “In the Plex: How Google Things, Works, and Shapes Our Lives,” holistically explores the history and various products of Google Inc. The book’s significance comes from Levy’s ongoing access to various Google employees, attendance at company events and product discussions, and other Google-related cultural and business elements since the company’s inception in 1999. In essence, Levy provides us with a superb – if sometimes favourably biased – account of Google’s growth and development.
The book covers Google’s successes, failures, and difficulties as it grew from a graduate project at Stanford University to the multi-billion dollar business it is today. Throughout we see just how important algorithmic learning and automation is; core to Google’s business philosophy is that using humans to rank or evaluate things “was out of the question. First, it was inherently impractical. Further, humans were unreliable. Only algorithms – well drawn, efficiently executed, and based on sound data – could deliver unbiased results” (p. 16). This attitude of the ‘pure algorithm’ is pervasive; translation between languages is just an information problem that can – through suitable algorithms – accurately and effectively translate even the cultural uniqueness that is linked to languages. Moreover, when Google’s search algorithms routinely display anti-Semitic websites after searching for “Jew” the founders refused to modify the search algorithms because the algorithms had “spoke” and “Brin’s ideals, no matter how heartfelt, could not justify intervention. “I feel like I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on the world,” he said. “It’s a bad technology practice”” (p. 275). This is an important statement: the founders see the product of human mathematical ingenuity as non-human and lacking bias born of their human creation.
Despite some cries that the publishing industry is at the precipice of financial doom, it’s hard to tell based on the proliferation of texts being published year after year. With such high volumes of new works being produced it can be incredibly difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Within scholarly circles it (sometimes) becomes readily apparent what books are above middling quality by turning to citation indices, but outside of such (often paywall protected) circles it can be more challenging to ascertain what texts are clearly worth reading and which are not.
While I can hardly claim to speak with the weight of scholarly indices, I do read (and rate) a prolific number of texts each year. In what follows, I offer a list of the ‘best’ books that I read through 2011. Some are thought-provoking, others were important in how I understood various facets of the policy process, and still others offer interesting tidbits of information that have until now been hidden in shadow. For each book I’ll identify it’s main aim and a few points about what made the book compelling enough to get onto my list. Texts are not arranged in any particular ranking order and all should be available through your preferred book seller.