Good Reads: From Syria’s stable center, to Julian Assange’s bio, to tech management

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes a look at why Damascus still stands, how democracy spreads, the challenge of writing about Julian Assange, how to manage techies, and why Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion.

The snow-covered Umayyad Mosque is in the heart of Damascus, Syria.

Life in Syria’s government-controlled capital, Damascus, is surprisingly normal. But with the sound of shelling in the suburbs, occasional mortar explosions, and sluggish peace talks in Geneva, residents are unsure how long it will last. In National Geographic, Anne Barnard writes that Syria’s survival may depend on a sense of “Damascene identity” – a model of diversity and tolerance that has enabled the Syrian capital to survive for centuries.

People of varying religious beliefs (Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Jews) have lived and traded together in the Old City for centuries, “not without conflict, but with a common relish for city life and business,” Ms. Barnard writes. Damascus comes “as close as anything to embodying a shared national idea.” The people in Damascus – whether they support the government or the rebels – are united in a desire to preserve the city’s rich history and culture.

What’s wrong with democracy?

Between 1941 and 2000, democracy spread from 11 countries to 120 – making it “the great victor of ideological clashes of the 20th century,” writes The Economist. But in the early 21st century, setbacks in democratic movements in Egypt, Iraq, Venezuela, Cambodia, and Ukraine have “dispelled the once-popular notion that democracy will blossom rapidly and spontaneously once the seed is planted,” the authors write. Democracy lost its forward momentum, in part, because new democratic countries lack the institutional capacity, or cultural foundation, to make it flourish.

Fledgling governments put too much emphasis on elections, and not enough on creating a firm democratic foundation: limiting the power of the state and ensuring individual rights. “[If] democracy is to remain as successful in the 21st century as it was in the 20th, it must be both assiduously nurtured when it is young – and carefully maintained when it is mature,” writes The Economist.

Julian Assange’s ghostwriter

Publishers paid WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange $2.5 million for his autobiography in 2011, hiring a ghostwriter to help him write it. But the deal turned into a giant flop, as Mr. Assange delayed, manipulated, and eventually canceled the contract for a book he never really wanted to write, says the ghostwriter, Andrew O’Hagan, in the London Review of Books.

Mr. O’Hagan, whose first draft eventually became an unauthorized autobiography, related to Assange’s initial ideals behind WikiLeaks: that “technology might allow people to watch their watchers, at last, and to inspect the secrets being kept, supposedly in our name, and to expose fraud and exploitation wherever it was encountered in the new media age.”

But behind Assange’s facade as the champion of transparency, he contradicted those principles. “The man who put himself in charge of disclosing the world’s secrets simply couldn’t bear his own,” O’Hagan writes.

Tech management tips

Failure is common practice in the information technology industry, a fact that the US government has failed to embrace in its implementation of large-scale IT programs. Just look at, writes Clay Shirky in Foreign Affairs. In its IT projects, the US government relies too heavily on detailed plans with strict timeliness, a deviation from private industry project management standards.

“On a major new tech project, you can’t really understand the challenges involved until you start trying to build it,” Mr. Shirky writes. “Rigid adherence to detailed advance planning amounts to a commitment by everyone involved not to learn anything useful or surprising while doing the actual work.”

What is needed instead is agile and test-driven development: breaking down a project into small, incremental, and testable chunks. Constant testing allows developers to catch and fix errors early in the process before they become gigantic problems. With, the tests that were done were “late and desultory, and even when they revealed problems, little was changed,” Shirky writes.

Future of social networking

With the purchase of messaging service WhatsApp for $19 billion, Facebook is staking a claim in the future of mobile communication – a field that is inundated with start-ups and applications that are changing how people, especially teenagers, communicate via their phones. Facebook’s modus operandi has been to allow users to interact publicly, “a highly unnatural way to interact with friends and acquaintances,” writes Mat Honan in Wired. “It’s akin to standing before a room filled with every single person you know and delivering a presentation about your personal life.”

Teenagers are leaving the social networking site in droves – some 11 million fewer teenagers use Facebook today than three years ago – opting instead for messaging apps, which allow for private conversations and photo and video sharing with people already in the phone’s address book.

“Facebook and its emerging competitors are struggling not just for revenue or home-screen real estate, but for the very future of mobile communication. In 2014, the message is the medium worth fighting over,” writes Mr. Honan.

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