Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre is an engrossing work of nonfiction subtitled The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War. It's about Soviet KGB officer Oleg Gordievsky who spied for the British government and the book reads like fiction it has such remarkable events written of.

Gordievsky came from a KGB family and in his early twenties was in Germany as the Berlin Wall started to be built and he disapproved of the crackdown on freedoms for citizens in East Germany. He then became a KGB spy, drawn not to the ideology of the Soviet system, which he felt could change for the better, but rather the allure and glamour of intelligence work. He started in the Soviet embassy in Denmark in 1966 and was part of 20 officials there, with 6 of them actual diplomats, and 14 working for either the KGB or GRU, Soviet military intelligence. Gordievsky worked with the patchy network of illegals in the country and was disgusted by the Soviets sending troops into Czechoslovakia in 1968. He began spying for MI6 based on this disillusionment with his government and it was interesting reading how much of the information that he gave to the British then had to be altered to conceal its source and parsed out slowly and in drips to the groups that would benefit from having it.

After his time in Denmark came to a planned end, Gordievsky was sent back to Moscow for three years and had no contact with MI6 but decided to learn English. He then was posted to the Soviet embassy in London and resumed passing along secrets to the British. One of the more astounding ones was that the KGB genuinely believed the United States would launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike, and that Soviet leadership thought the NATO war game ABLE ARCHER in 1983 was the start of WWIII. Information such as this, which was passed along to the United States with Gordievsky’s identity concealed from them, about Soviet paranoia helped lead to a slightly different approach from the West, and more of a thaw in relations. He also gave tips on how Margaret Thatcher should act at the 1984 funeral of Yuri Andropov, and later about how to best interact with new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Gordievsky was close to becoming the rezident, or lead KGB officer in the London Station, but came under suspicion of being a spy for the West, likely from mention of a mole being made to the Soviets by U.S. Intelligence Agent Aldrich Ames. Gordievsky in 1985 was called back to Moscow for meetings and interrogated by the KGB as they knew there was a mole somewhere, quite possibly in London, but didn't know who it was. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence of his guilt, but no proof. The KGB interrogated Gordievsky and tried to get a confession from him, with perhaps him being saved by his vehement and angry denial of guilt. Even if the KGB was 99% certain he was a spy, they didn't want to get in trouble on the off chance that he turned out to be innocent. This same principle helped Gordievsky when he attempted to escape from Moscow, via operation Pimlico by the MI6 exfiltration team. He shook his KGB followers but they didn't want to report losing him, rather hoped they'd find him again and avoid getting in trouble. It was an amazing story of the effort by he and the British to try to get him to safety, capping off an engrossing book.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates is a solid and detailed book with the subtitle The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need.

Gates covers the importance of reaching net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases. We emit 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere annually. The world's biggest emitters, the richest countries, need to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the rest of the world to follow. To get there, we have to be planning now. 

There's sections in the book about each of the activities that emissions come from: making things (31% of 51B tons), plugging in (27%), growing things (19%), getting around (16%), and keeping cool and warm (7%). Heavily written about is the Green Premium, the additional cost of something green. When the Green Premium becomes less, it's more likely the green item will be purchased. Government programs, policies, and incentives can help the most in areas where the Green Premium highest, to force it closer to zero. We need to electrify every process possible, and get that electricity from a power grid that's been decarbonized. 

Covered in the book as things that individuals can do are have an efficient A/C or furnace, or even better, use an electric heat pump (heat pumps are in 11% of American homes), eat less meat, drive an electric car, have a smart thermostat, sign up for a green pricing program with your electric utility, and reduce home emissions. These are all important by themselves, but also as demand signals to governments and companies. 

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Think Again by Adam Grant

Think Again by Adam Grant is a solid book with the subtitle The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. Grant is an organizational psychologist who I've written on three prior books by and in this he writes about the need to rethink, to question individual, interpersonal, and collective beliefs and opinions. 

About individual rethinking, Grant notes that it not the changing of one's mind that's important, but the considering whether to change one's mind. With this type of scientific thinking, we refuse to let our ideas become ideologies. We embrace uncertainty and doubt, search for reasons why we might be wrong, and are happy to be wrong as we have learned something new. The opposite of this approach is to be arrogant, which keeps you blind to the things you could do differently. Grant also covers how an important thing is someone’s time horizon. Rather than wanting to be right at a given point, people should want to be right eventually. 

In terms of interpersonal rethinking, Grant covers persuasive listening, asking how someone formed an opinion rather than why they have that opinion and acknowledging common ground in disagreements. He notes how it’s good in a debate to show that you're trying to figure things out, and rather than approaching a debate with a straw man, poking holes in the weakest side of the other person's argument, people should perhaps start with a steel man, considering the strongest version of their argument. Psychologists have found that the person most likely to change your mind is you so often the best thing to do is get people to ask the question of how they feel about something. If you simply try to convince someone of something, them rejecting your argument will likely just make them most steadfast in theirs. Motivational interviewing is just that, a discussion with someone where they’re talking through their point of view and you’re listening to them. Great listeners are interested in making their audiences feel smart, and by listening, you're offering your attention. 

About collective rethinking, Grant covers group polarization reinforcing the stereotypes someone has. It’s ok to have caveats and contingencies to your opinions and the best work is often going to come not at first, but after multiple drafts and iterations. Additionally, he notes that we shouldn’t be asking kids “what they want to be when they grow up.” Jobs are not who people are, and it's better to ask what people like to do. Kids will be more excited about doing science than being scientists. Also, it’s good to have regular checkups with yourself to determine if you're in the right spot with your career or life and if what your spend your time on is the best use of that time. This will be force you to ask the question, and to prevent you from asking it too frequently.

Grant tells stories well in the book, starting off with smokejumpers in 1949 in Mann Gulch, Montana as a wildfire fast approached, and how being stuck in thinking vs. open to something new made all the difference.

Last Call by Elon Green

 Last Call by Elon Green chronicles the Last Call Killer who preyed on gay men in New York in the '80s and '90s and the book tells the story of the men who were killed and of violence against the gay community. 

Last Call starts in 1991 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gay people during this time were being targeted with violence, and police often responding with apathy. Many did not report crimes against them as they didn’t believe the system would protect them and they didn’t want to be outed. If someone was arrested and prosecuted for violence against gays, there was a common defense, going back to the '60s, of "gay panic." Defendants charged with murder or assault would claim that the shock of finding out someone gay drove them to temporary insanity. AIDS then increased anti-queer violence and in New York City, incidents of violence against gay people grew by 83% between 1985 and 1986. 

Amid this backdrop that he describes in Last Call, Green writes of a body being discovered in trash barrels off the Pennsylvania Turnpike in 1991. The dead man was Peter Stickney Anderson of Philadelphia and he had been killed after visiting a gay piano bar, the Townhouse, in New York City. Then in 1992, the New Jersey State Police contacted Pennsylvania State Troopers after they found a body stuffed in garbage bags and put in a trash barrel by the side of the road. The dead man was Thomas Mulcahy of Sudbury, Massachusetts. He had been in New York on business and also visited the Townhouse. In 1993, two more bodies of gay men were found in garbage bags by the side of the road. Anthony Marrero was a sex worker in New York City who was found by a New Jersey road and Michael Sakara, a Manhattan resident who was a regular at the Five Oaks gay bar in New York was found in trash barrels outside the village of Haverstraw, New York. The gay community was angry that more not being done to solve these murders and a task force started with members of various police departments and then after no success was quietly disbanded. 

In 1999 the widow of Thomas Mulcahy retained a retired trooper to investigate the still unsolved murder of her husband and he and the widow contacted a member of the New Jersey State Police, Thomas Kuehn, who pledged to work on the cold case. In April of that year another New Jersey policeman watched a television show that noted a fingerprinting process called vacuum metal deposition, a way to lift hard to find prints off garbage bags. He told Kuehn about it, and Kuehn reached out to the Toronto Police Service as they had the technology to do this and said they would be willing to help. Kuehn and other members of a newly formed police task force sent to Toronto the garbage bags that Thomas Mulcahy and Michael Sakara were found in, and the evidence of the Mulcahy murder was in good condition, and prints lifted from the bags. Those prints were matched to Richard Rogers, a nurse living in Staten Island who in 1973 was arrested for the murder of his college roommate, Fred Spencer, and then acquitted. Then in 1988 he took someone home from a New York gay bar who accused Rogers of tying him up and drugging him, with Rogers in 1990 acquitted in court.

Rogers then was arrested after his prints found on the garbage bags and subsequent investigation into him and charged, tried, and convicted for the murders of Thomas Mulcahy and Anthony Marrero. He was not prosecuted for the murders of Peter Anderson and Michael Sakara, but evidence from their deaths was part of the trial and Rogers received two consecutive life terms. The book details the lives of the men and the gay community and how it treated and feels an important work.