06/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This Week in Magazines : Are Computer Hackers the Pentagon's Real Threat?

It's not as sexy as trying to save Chrysler but the government is trying to save defense contractors from a peril as great as lousy car sales, namely slimeball computer hackers.

May 2 National Journal includes Shane Harris' "The Cyber Defense Perimeter," word that, "The Pentagon has quietly begun sharing classified intelligence about hackers and online threats with the country's biggest defense contractors."

Actually, this started two years ago, "after top Pentagon leaders realized that hackers were trying to steal information not just by breaking into government computers but also by going after corporations that contract with the government. These private computers and networks often contain the same sensitive and classified information found in the government's systems."

Robert Lentz, the Pentagon official who is overseeing this sharing, wouldn't be all that specific but said that, "In the past 18 months, we've seen a significant spike in cyber-criminal activity," mostly theft of restricted data through the Internet. Another official contends that the threat is decidedly persistent: "It wasn't that we got wacked by a two-by-four; we were getting wacked by a two-by-four every week."

---If you don't know him, Barack Obama does, as do all federal judges and legal academics, which is why you should check the May 14 New York Review of Books for MIT economist Robert Solow's "How to Understand the Disaster."

The fellow you might not know is the subject of Solow's effort, namely the brilliantly provocative, and sometimes off-the-rails, Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge in Chicago and one of the most influential legal thinkers of the past 25 years. He'd generally be caricatured as a conservative product of the law-and-economics, free-market thinking at University of Chicago. That's way too facile, and may explain why Sunday's New York Times noted how Obama, himself a former University of Chicago Law School teacher, once told students that Posner was the judge he'd most like to argue before because he was smart enough to know when you were right.

But, as Solow underscores in reviewing Posner's latest (the guy is so prolific, he also clearly writes while asleep) A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression, the caricature of Posner certainly doesn't hold when it comes to the judge's critique of our economic mess as he argues that's it reflect a distinct failure of free markets. Indeed, Solow calls Posner's dissection a "noteworthy intellectual event" as it concedes the mess of an unregulated financial system.

Solow concludes:

"As Posner sees it, talk about greed and foolhardiness is comforting but not useful. Greed and foolhardiness were not invented just recently. The problem is rather that Panglossian ideas about 'free markets' encouraged, on one hand, lax regulation, or no regulation, of a potentially unstable financial apparatus and, on the other, the elaboration of compensation mechanisms that positively encouraged risk-taking and short-term opportunism. When the environment was right, as it eventually would be, the disaster hit."

---April 30 Economist's "Snowball Fight" reminds us (in case we somehow forgot) that there are three theories of the origins of singing and dancing. Two suggest they're aimed at serving to attract mates or to foster social cohesion and cooperation. The third, the recent notion of a scientist in San Diego, is that it's all an accident, the result of an evolved ability to mimic vocal cues. The magazine thinks that newest notion is fine for singing but not necessarily dancing.

This has led the San Diego scientist, Aniruddh Patel, to study Snowball, a parrot at the Bird Lovers Only Rescue Service in Schererville, Indiana. The handiwork of Patel and colleagues, published in Current Biology, is that "Snowball is really dancing. If a song's tempo is changed without changing its pitch, his head-bobbing and leg-lifting change time to match. The magazine is intrigued, not convinced, concluding that, "Though there is no disputing Snowball's talent, that is not proof" of the thesis concerning causation.

--April 20 Nation includes "One Hat for Labor?" David Moberg inspects the wreckage of the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO, the nation's biggest labor federation, prompting creation of the breakaway Change to Win led by the head of the growing Service Employees International Union. Can one bring them back together, as well as lure into the fold the traditionally independent teachers' giant, the National Education Association? Strategically, it would be the smart thing to two but, as Moberg details, significant divisions remain among unions when it comes to longterm goals and tactics, so don't bet on this for now, its overriding logic aside.

---May 11 New Yorker's "The Instigator" profiles Steve Barr, owner of Green Dot Public Schools, a string of seemingly successful charter schools in California which have apparently attracted the attention of the new hierarchy at the Department of Education. The department is looking to funnel lots of money to existing public school systems willing to partner with outside groups apparently like Green Dot. There are few trickier challenges confronting the Obama administration than transforming under-achieving schools, so this is worth a look. Does Green Dot, which is associated with the first de facto hostile takeover of a public high school (in Los Angeles), offer a recipe for successful change? It's worth consideration, even though all the appropriate qualms are voiced here.

---May 18 Newsweek includes novelist Richard Ford's five most essential books: Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson; The Moviegoer by Walker Percy; Inferno by Dante; Collected Stories by John Cheever; and The Snopes Trilogy by William Faulkner. Most interesting is the classic he "revisited with disappointment." Generations of frustrated liberal arts grads, present company included, may be reassured to hear that it's Ulysses by James Joyce. "Way too long, and unduly obscure. Should have stuck to short stories."

---"Is Baghdad Now Safer than New Orleans?" is the unavoidably alluring headline for a tale out of the Iraq capital. The analysis:

"In all, deaths in Baghdad in 2008 numbered roughly 2,880, according to the database's figures. Given that Baghdad is a city of about six million that makes for a murder rate of about 48 per 100,000 people. How does that compare to other cities blighted by high levels of violence? "

"Let's go to the numbers: Caracas, with about 3.2 million people, is in a bloody league of its own, with an estimated murder rate of 130 per 100,000 residents according to government figures. Cape Town is about the same size as Caracas but nearer to Baghdad's murder rate with 62 violent deaths per 100,000 people. New Orleans, with an estimated post-Katrina population of just over 300,000, is tiny in size compared to its rivals. But the number of murders is huge; figures vary, but even the low estimate puts the city on a par with Cape Town. By way of comparison, Moscow, one of the most violent cities in Europe, has an estimated murder rate of just 9.6 per 100,000 residents. New York City's murder rate is 6.2, Washington D.C.'s about 32. "

---May 4 Sports Illustrated's "Zach Greinke Is in Total Control" profiles a little-known Kansas City Royals pitcher whose rise (this argues he's now baseball's best) has been "as spectacular as his fall was chilling," partly prompted by "social anxiety disorder, a condition marked by tension in social settings." Now, it appears, with the help of medication, he's in total control.

---When it comes to control, WSJ., the new offering of the Wall Street Journal, argues that Desiree Rogers is very much in control of Brand Obama as White House social secretary. The summer issue's "Desiree" is a distinctly solicitous opus, including posing her in a dark Viktor & Rolf trench coat and earrings from Cartier (and "styling by David Farber"). And this asserts that "Rogers is playing a major role in Mrs. Obama's transition from controversial campaign figure to potential American icon. The onetime director of the Illinois lottery doesn't advise the first lady on which publications to appear in or which media interviews to grant, but she does organize widely covered events that reinforce the image makeover Mrs. Obama underwent during the campaign."

---This week's journey to the obscure, or those interesting treatises which can still prompt a declaration akin to that of my five-year-old son ("Daddy, this makes my head hurt!"), brings us to "Unsophisticated Lady: The Vicissitudes of the Maternal Melodrama in Hollywood" by Lea Jacobs, a University of Wisconsin-Madison film historian, in Modernisn/modernity volume 16, number 1.

"During the transition to sound in Hollywood, several articles in the film industry trade press suggested that audiences were no longer interested in "sophisticated" fare and that the new technology had occasioned the resurrection of "10-20-30 style melodrama" or "old tear-jerking hits." Most of the films to which the journalists referred were adaptations of well-known stage plays -- Madame X, East Lynne, Common Clay -- that fell under the generic rubric of what present-day critics have called the maternal melodrama. This essay investigates the reception of such films across the course of the 1920s and early 1930s in order to shed light upon what was considered "old fashioned
melodrama" in the period, and to explain shifts in critical attitudes toward the genre.

The maternal melodrama derives from several late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century theatrical prototypes. Although there are many narrative variants, the basic plot concerns a mother who is suspected of adultery and expelled from her home, thereby becoming separated from her children."

"She suffers degradation, sometimes becoming a drug addict or a prostitute. After a long period of separation, she again encounters her children who do not recognize her. In East Lynne, a perennially popular stage melodrama based upon Ellen Price Wood's best-selling novel of 1861, the mother returns to her former home in disguise and takes a position under her husband's new wife, acting as nursemaid to her own children. She nurses her son during an illness and dies of grief after his death (in the 1925 film version, by Fox, the boy lives as a result of her care and only the mother dies; in the 1931 film version, also by Fox, the boy is not ill and his mother goes blind before dying). In Madame X, from Alexandre Brisson's play of 1908, the mother stands accused of murder and is defended by her son, now grown and a lawyer, who does not realize her connection to him. "

"The genre has been discussed by film scholars from several perspectives. Christian Viviani first coined the term 'maternal melodrama' in a special issue of Les Cahiers de la Cinémathèque devoted to film melodrama as such. Less concerned with questions of genre, feminist scholars have interrogated the maternal melodrama's representation of motherhood, and the appeal of stories of maternal suffering and self-sacrifice for women spectators. While there are good reasons for using the genre to pose theoretical questions about the structure of female fantasy, this approach does not give us a good handle on the historical problem of reception. In the 1920s, these films were not primarily understood as "women's pictures." Rather, within the film industry trade press, the films were discussed in terms of long-standing oppositions between rural and urban theaters, and naïve and sophisticated taste. An awareness of these oppositions is crucial for understanding the cultural status of the maternal melodrama as well as the variation in its reception over time."

There's more, and it's actually pretty good. Ciao.