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Ralph Stayer

Nicole Perlroth’s book on cyber warfare, This is How They Tell Me the World Ends, could not be more on point. Russia is attacking Ukraine as this column is being written. The book Sandworm that we featured last year covered Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s power grid and commerce infrastructure. It is now apparent that those were only dress rehearsals for the main event, which began in February. The first sentence of Perlroth’s prologue is prescient: “By the time my plane touched down in Kyiv—in the dead of winter 2019—nobody could be sure the attack was over, or if it was just a glimpse of what was to come.” We now know that it came, but there are far greater implications for the world than what is happening in Ukraine.

Have you ever heard of the term “Zero-Day”? It is a weakness in the software of a computer’s operating system that will allow a hacker to penetrate it and employ malware that can lay dormant and hidden for days or months or even years. The hacker can then take over the system and wreak havoc whenever they choose. Russia again shut down many of Ukraine’s systems when it began its attack. If it can shut down Ukraine, why couldn’t it shut down our system? The truth is, it can. In fact, since we are the most interconnected country in the world, we are the most vulnerable. Our defense systems, our water supply, electrical grid, transportation and supply chain are all vulnerable. And then there is the big “what if”—can nefarious agents take over some country’s nuclear system?

Who are these hackers and who do they work for? These are the best and the brightest who were hired by our government—specifically the NSA and the CIA—to find ways to exploit operating systems all around the world. Our government created a worldwide market for these Zero-Days that they dominated. The Snowden and other leaks alerted the world to what we were doing, and a new arms race ensued. Zero-Day hacks that used to sell for hundreds of dollars can now sell for millions. Our world is now engaged in a new MAD: Mutually Assured Disruption, as opposed to Mutually Assured Destruction. This book is incredibly well researched and written. 

We now live in a YouTube world. There is so much information at our fingertips that people are encouraged to think they are experts in many subjects on which they, frankly, have no clue; a phenomenon perhaps best summed up by the “I stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night” commercial. Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, exposes the trend toward devaluing knowledge and experience. He doesn’t say so in the book, but the inference is that much of the world has reverted to being teenagers again. 

Nichols is a professor. Some may say that this is a self-serving rant, but he picks his examples well and he makes many good points. One of his concerns is the field of education—he asserts that many colleges now treat students as clients rather than students because the institutions need the money. They allow students to think they are the equals of their teachers and will not accept grades that are below what they feel entitled to, potentially causing so much unrest that the administration forces professors to bow to the pressure. This subverts the purpose of college, which is to learn what you don’t know and learn how to learn. For many students in those colleges, their education has become “those magical several years between high school and your first warehouse job.”

He tells of people who research medical conditions on the internet and think they know as much or more than doctors, and the disastrous outcomes that attitude creates. One of the greatest destroyers of respect for expertise is cable news. Since 24 hours is a lot of time to fill between commercials, they bring on well-known people as so-called experts who never allow their paucity of knowledge on a particular subject to prevent them from having a strong opinion. This book is timely, entertaining and well-written. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and owner/CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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