Tuesday, June 16, 2015

BOOKS: Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring

During the American Revolution, not only were the politics revolutionary, and the military tactics, but the espionage as well. In his book Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, Alexander Rose tells a fascinating story of how George Washington used spies during the war. Using words like "handler" and "tradecraft", well-known to modern audiences familiar with Tom Clancy novels, he finds the roots of these concepts in the tradecraft of 1777, when best practices were first being worked out. We get a thorough account, not only of more well-known heroes and villains such as Nathan Hale, Benedict Arnold, and Major André, but of a network of spies that ran through most of the war and remained unknown until generations later. Rose brings a historian's meticulousness to his work, carefully identifying each person and not going too far beyond his sources. At the same time, he does a good job giving a rich and full picture of the men in this history, their character and their likely motivations, based on their family history and place in the political, religious, economic, and social tides of their times. It was very interesting to see how the constant struggle to balance security against efficiency played out in the quest for timely accurate information. The spies were constantly worried about exposing themselves to undue scrutiny, while Washington fretted how to get their information faster. The book also provided an eye-opening window on life in New York and Connecticut during the Revolution, places that were deeply divided in their loyalties. It's easy to forget that not all Americans at the time were pulling for the American side. There were many loyalists supporting the British, as well as opportunists playing both sides, and one could never be completely sure where one's neighbors stood. In telling his spy story, Rose also paints a vivid picture of what life was like in such a time and place.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

BOOKS: Plato at the Googleplex

Rebecca Goldstein feels that philosophy is embattled, both by scientists who dismiss it as a pre-scientific pursuit and people in general who don't see its relevance. In her book Plato at the Googleplex, she makes an engaging and entertaining argument that the questions raised by Plato 2400 years ago are as relevant and important today as ever. The centerpiece of the book are imaginative dramatizations of Plato encountering modern people at the Googleplex, at the 92nd Street Y, being interviewed by a Rush Limbaugh-like talk radio personality, and getting an fMRI brain scan. These dialogues are alternated with lectures providing background on various aspects of Plato, setting him in the context of the politics and recent history of his time, and giving a good account of why he was just so challenging to his contemporaries. She is wanting to address a broad audience, and the book sometimes skirts a fine line of being a bit patronizing by trying to be accessible, but I was ultimately won over and found it worthwhile to stay with it. Her characters who are foils for Plato in her dialogues are sometimes buffoonish caricatures. But then I remembered that that's often how it was in Plato's own dialogues, so she is actually doing a faithful pastiche. Not only did I learn a lot I didn't know about Plato, but I found she did succeed in showing his way of thought to be vital today, pondering questions like whether morality can be crowd-sourced, how to raise children, whether followers are your best friends, and what if anything might be left of free will when neuroscience has scanned the entire brain. If you have any interest in philosophy, don't leave this book unexamined.