We’re constantly behind on things these days. Sorry. A week or so ago, we said that we had gotten our hands on the newest book from our nemesis, Bruce Schneier. It’s called “Liars and Outliers“, and no, we didn’t pay for it. Don’t ask what we did to get our hands on a copy – you don’t wanna know what we had to go through. Anyway, since then, it’s been passed around a bit, everyone’s been strangely excited to get to see it, and then pretty much not read it. It’s all very mystifying, since reading something Bruce put a lot of work into (?) should be interesting to all of us… and then it wasn’t.
Look, we’re gonna be honest here. That’s sort of the point of a review…thing, isn’t it? Sure it is. Bruce is a pretty good writer. The intro to the book is pretty interesting, he doesn’t have any run-on sentences, he uses topic sentences and paragraphs like building blocks, and that’s good – it’s the cornerstones of a good text, really. It’s almost as if he’s read Strunk and White… or maybe he stuck to King’s “On Writing”. They’re both excellent, by the way…
So. Aside from a vague interest in Bruce’s writing style, a slight amusement over the introduction, where he outlines an encounter with a plumber that went very well, apparently, the excitement died quickly, and without much pain. The point is this; when you get a few pages out into the book (actually, page 8 or so… ), you realize that this isn’t going to work. Bruce begins to explain what the book is going to be about, and what he’s done research on beforehand. Then he explains part I of the thing, and here’s where it all derails. He’s going to “explore the background sciences” of the book, and write something to “help us understand” all that. Here’s what he claims to “explain” in part I (part of a book, no less): experimental psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociology, economics, behavioral economics (whatever that means), evolutionary biology, neuroscience, game theory, systems dynamics, anthropology, arheology (!), history, political sience, law, philosophy, theology, cognitive science and computer security. Yikes.
Bruce goes on to say that “[…] delving into any of these areas of research could easily fill several books.” No shit, Bruce. Also, any one of these “areas of research” have literally thousands of books already written about them, and thinking, having the audacity to even hint, that a part of a 384 page book written by a cryptographer who works for BT in any way explains or conveys understanding of any sort on any of these topics is probably the most over ambitious and foolish things we’ve ever heard or read. Anywhere. Since we were born. Anyway… moving on.
The book is about, seemingly, how a society can function when there are people and entities out there that can’t be trusted. And what does bruce mean by “trust”? He doesn’t say. Or he says that it means something, and then that apparent defintion changes as the text goes on… it’s all very vague. But hey, that’s one of the things that readers of Bruce’s books should be used to by now.
Like I said before – our interest in the book plummeted when we saw the assertion that we would be explained and made to understand 17 of the world’s most complicated topics (and one not so complicated) in just a part of the book. Put nicely, that was the claim that doomed the whole undertaking.
Right at this point, we’ve almost written 600 words about this. We’re not going to go on much further. Suffice to say, we (well, a couple of us anyway) trucked through the rest of the pages, and to no avail. We don’t feel smarter, and we certainly don’t have any deeper understanding of those 17 topics we mentioned earlier than we had before we started reading this thing. Maybe that’s just us… but we don’t think so. Bruce starts off one of the other chapters with something that is quite descriptive of the whole book, and the wooly feeling that makes it so useless to us. Here’s what he says:
“Our exploration of trust is going to start and end with security, because security is what you need when you don’t have any trust – and as we’ll see – security is ultimately how we induce trust in society.”
When we were finished going “Wha…?” at the end of that sentence, we also realize that we were a bit hasty in mentioning that Bruce is a good writer who avoids run-on sentences. Oh well. The point is, that this sentence quite aptly illustrates the entire book. Bruce tries to explain a concept, and that attempt unfailingly results in a loop of wooly arguments for or against another argument that was for or against the first one. Or another one. A sort of loop that branches into more loops, in an impressive display of indicisiveness. It’s true that all the topics Bruce mention ties into eachother, and that each and every one of them in some way or another can also be tied to security… but just because you can, that doesn’t mean that you should.
Bruce tries hard. That’s a point in his favor. Bruce is an excellent researcher, and that’s another point in his favor. It’s evident that before he started this book, one of the things he checked out (we don’t know if he read the whole thing, because he seems to have missed the point a bit) must be Konrad Lorenz’s excellent “On Aggression”, and he’s incorporated a few of Lorenz’s similes in the text. However, Bruce’s book just tries too hard. He tries too hard, and it’s very, very evident that he just doesn’t have the capacity to grasp all of the 18 topics that he tries to incorporate. Who does, for crying out loud? No one! Even Stephen Hawking and Einstein sticks/stuck to one or two major sciences. Bruce tries his hand on 17 of them. The result is, as we’ve already said; wooly. And in the end, useless. So that’s a thousand points that are not in Bruce’s favor. We’re sorry.
What to do instead?
If you want to understand aggressive behavior, you should probably just pick up the Konrad Lorenz book we mentioned. If you want to understand trust, there’s a mass of excellent books on that – you can find them under “Psychology” in your local book store. Or on Amazon… If you want to understand security, your first stop should be “Introduction to Security, 8th Ed.” which is mandatory reading for anyone in the field. We’re going out on a limb here, but we don’t think Bruce has read that. It’s a shame, really.
For all of the other topics, there are thousands of volumes that will provide you with a basic understanding. This book doesn’t. Also, it doesn’t really explain security. Or trust. Or archaeology, for that matter… In the end, you’re probably better off reading our site, for that matter, where we do nothing but explain security now and then, bash on Bruce Schneier the “Security Guru” from time to time, and procrastinate a lot. We also have more pics and vids of more or less questionable entertainment value than Bruce’s books.
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