Good Reads: From rules for rebels, to elevator cables, to an enchanting sci-fi world

This week's round-up of Good Reads includes rules for arming rebels, defense contractors may know more than our own government, buildings may get taller thanks to new elevator cables, a profile of a cyberwar general, and sci-fi brings magic back to the mundane.

Muzaffar Salman/Reuters
Women rebel soldiers receive training in Aleppo, Syria.

Rules for arming Syria

With the United States inexorably heading toward greater involvement in Syria’s civil war, the need to figure out the “rules of engagement” has taken on more urgency. In a Foreign Policy piece titled “5 Rules for Arming Rebels,” Edward Luttwak offers a list that’s short and simple – but not easy.

Rule No. 1: “Figure out who your friends are” – presents no easy task in sizing up the various Syrian insurgent groups. Rule No. 4: “Do not invite an equal and opposite response by another great power” – translates as “Make sure you come to an understanding with Russia, the patron of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, before diving in.” Russia may insist that Mr. Assad play some continuing role.

“The Obama administration ... can convincingly argue (despite the somewhat inconclusive and murky assertion that Assad’s use of chemical weapons has now been verified) that it must provide some help to the rebels simply to deny a victory to Iran and Hezbollah,” Mr. Luttwak writes. “Even so, one hopes that it retains its prudence – and keeps these five rules in mind.”

Spies among us

While the world plays a game of “Where's Edward?,” the whereabouts of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden – and whether the US will be able to extradite him for prosecution – are just the most public parts of the story. A recent in-depth piece examines a private US spy organization that operates off the radar. In BusinessWeek, authors Drake Bennett and Michael Riley peer inside Booz Allen Hamilton, Mr. Snowden’s employer, a private contractor whose roots go back to World War II, when it tracked Nazi U-boats. In the last fiscal year, Booz Allen reported $5.76 billion in revenue, 99 percent of it from government contracts. Some $1.3 billion of that was from US intelligence agencies. 

The firm is saturated with “intelligence community heavyweights,” and sends its alums back into government as well, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Riley say. They include James Clapper, a former Booz Allen executive who is President Obama’s principal intelligence adviser; Mike McConnell, a Booz Allen vice president who was George W. Bush’s director of national intelligence; and Joan Dempsey, a former CIA deputy director who now works for Booz Allen.

US government spy agencies now complain that “the damn contractors know more than we do,” the authors report. “That could have been a factor in the Snowden leak – his computer proficiency may have allowed him to access information he shouldn’t have been allowed to see.”

An elevator to space?

Why don’t skyscrapers go any higher? One limitation is elevators. After several hundred feet the steel cables used to hoist them eventually become too heavy to use. Now, says a report in The Economist, new carbon-fiber “ropes” that weigh a fraction as much as steel (but are even stronger) may send buildings soaring again. 

The new ropes should allow buildings to reach as high as one mile (5,280 feet). The tallest building today is Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, at 2,717 feet. Thinking even bigger? The new material might also be part of a “space elevator” that connects Earth with a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, eliminating the need to launch rockets to send humans and materials into orbit.

Cyberwar general

In “The Secret War,” James Bamford at WIRED magazine profiles powerful and secretive US Army Gen. Keith Alexander, “a man few even in Washington would likely recognize.” Alexander heads up America’s cyberwar efforts, both defensive and offensive. Alexander, Mr. Bamford says, has built an “empire” by pointing out the nation’s “inherent vulnerability to digital attacks” and in the process has gathered more and more power to himself.  

Alexander’s band of cyberwarriors are responsible for Stuxnet, the computer malware that was able to damage Iran’s nuclear program in 2010. And that’s only the beginning of what lies ahead.  The mysterious Alexander is a modern J. Edgar Hoover, a man “regarded with a mixture of respect and fear,” Bamford writes. “ ‘We jokingly referred to him as Emperor Alexander – with good cause, because whatever Keith wants, Keith gets,’ says a former senior CIA official.... ‘We would sit back literally in awe of what he was able to get from Congress, from the White House, and at the expense of everybody else.’ ” 

Sci-fi fantasy as an exercise in wonder

As yet another summer filled with science-fiction movies gets under way, Christine Folch in The Atlantic lends her perspective in “Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” Robert Downey Jr. already opened the season with his third go-round as an American inventor-superhero in “Iron Man 3,” and “Man of Steel” brings Superman (this time played by British actor Henry Cavill) back to the big screen – just two among many such films.

Today sci-fi and fantasy may serve a function akin to that of religion, offering hope that the answer to “Is that all there is?” is a rousing “no,” Ms. Folch writes. “Western societies perceived the world as knowably rational and systematic, leading to a widespread loss of a sense of wonder and magic.... And so we turn to science fiction and fantasy in an attempt to re-enchant the world.”

– Gregory Lamb / Staff writer

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