Grapefruit cocktails, computer viruses and late 20th century American malaise

During these days of sunshine and warmth in the Californian desert, I have opportunities to do things that I don’t do at home. Like, read things other than blogs. And drink a bit more than usual. And write.

First things first. What’s my favourite cocktail poolside? A tall glass filled with ice, 4 ounces of tequila (it’s a big glass, seriously) and the juice of a freshly squeezed grapefruit.

So, as I work my way through one of those cocktails, I wonder…what to write about? My reading, of course.

At the midway point in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, I’m hooked. I mean, I was hooked about 50 pages into the this 600+ pager from the author of the more recent Freedom – which I’m now dying to get to – mostly because of the prose. Franzen has a lovely way with words and a knack for describing the malaise of late 20th century middle America. And for some reason, I dig malaise – the fictional kind, anyway.

The book starts with the spectacular decline of Chip, the dysfunctional Lambert family’s middle child. His story is so much like a car crash – one that just happened and you can see people extracting themselves from the wreckage and walking around dazed and confused – that you can’t help but rubberneck as you drive by. And there’s sex, with a particular college coed, which is problematic considering Chip is the one having it and he’s an untenured professor. Oops. Tragic, really. But entertaining.

But it’s the dysfunction of the oldest Lambert son, Gary, that hits home. Successful in appearances, but limited in his ability to actually enjoy his life, Gary is married to a woman who hates his dysfunctional parents and family dynamics and refuses to spend time with them. This leads to a protracted, take-no-prisoners war between Caroline and Gary over their upcoming Christmas plans. Franzen perfectly captures the way married couples can fight – over “principled” issues, for extended periods of time, often with several negotiated settlement attempts. This one ends predictably for this 40-something, depressed bank executive who is drinking too much for his own best interest. He surrenders, fully and unconditionally.

When Franzen reveals to us the early family life of the Lamberts in mid-book, all becomes clear. The resentments, the guilt, the psychological damage. It is very uncomfortable, painful at times, to observe how these youngsters were raised. On the outside, their parents wanted them to be as clean, crisp and upright as the pressed white cotton shirts they wore to church, but on the inside, the damaged parents lived with their own pain and hurt and played that suffering out on their children. Makes you look very long and hard at yourself as a parent and wonder: do I do any of this?

It was precisely in the middle of this disturbing section that I took a break from The Corrections today. And I picked up the latest (April 2011) edition of Vanity Fair. Scanning the cover, my attention was immediately drawn to the story on Stuxnet. If you haven’t heard of this computer virus – don’t stop reading or gloss over just because I said the words “computer” and “virus”.

“Stuxnet represents the Hiroshima of cyber-war.”

This comes in the last paragraph of this stunning investigative expose of the computer virus that appeared in the summer of 2010 and became linked to covert efforts on behalf of western powers to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program’s development toward a weapon of mass destruction.

I cannot recommend this article more. It is very well researched and written. And it raises some critically important aspects of cyber-war that most of us – even those of us who spend lots of time immersed in technology – are not thinking about.

I’m not going to summarize the entire article here because I won’t do it justice. However, the points it raises about the nature of malicious computer code used in cyber-war are truly chilling:

  • Lack of intentionality. Computer viruses can be made so that the authors are unknown. What does it mean to be a target of war where the enemy is unknown and perhaps unknowable? Warfare starts to look more like terrorism. Is the Stuxnet virus an act of war that justifies a response?
  • Collateral damage. Stealthy computer viruses are designed to cause damage to target systems while remaining undetectable. What happens if these viruses are spread inadvertently beyond the target systems as appeared to happen in the Stuxnet case?

The so-called Stuxnet virus is said to represent the Hiroshima of cyber-war because it is a game-changer. It has forever changed the way warfare will be conducted. With digital technology proliferating in all aspects of life – both civil and military – a new era is upon us.

I think I’ll return to The Corrections tomorrow. This cyber-war stuff is way scarier than socio-cultural malaise.

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