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An intellectual freedom blog with an emphasis on libraries and technology

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Top 100 books

Shortly after David Bowie died a colleague tweeted a link to his list of what he considered his top 100 books. I never gave too much thought to compiling a list of 100 (top 10 was enough for me). In no particular order, here are my top 100.

If anyone would like to ask, why this book and not that one, please leave a comment.

I tend to follow authors, in the sense that if I like one book by a given writer, I will want to read whatever else s/he wrote. In this list, I avoided loading it with all or most of the books by a single individual. That said, certain writers have produced such great books that I cannot pick just one for the list. I also consider as one "book" multiple books which have a unified story-line from one title to the next. For these I either refer to the "collective title" or select one of the series which I liked the most. I selected books which I find myself quoting over the years, ones which had a profound influence on me, ones from which I learned something important or just ones which I so greatly enjoyed that I re-read them from time to time.

There are two books by two different authors with the exact same title. This is not a typo. One is non-fiction and the other science fiction.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams
Frogs into Princes by Bandler and Grinder
I Robot by Isaac Asimov
The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov
Don't Know much about History by Kenneth Davis
Myth Conceptions by Robert Aspirin (3d book of the "Myth" series)
The Glass Teat by Harlan Ellison
The Other Glass Teat By Harlan Ellison
Approaching Oblivion By Harlan Ellison
The Fall by Albert Camus
The Plague by Albert Camus
Cambodia : a book for people who find television too slow by Brian Fawcett
The short stories of Anton Chekov (not a book title, but I have read almost all of his short stories)
Ever Since Darwin by Stephen J. Gould
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Our Inner Conflicts by Karen Horney
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Word for the World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
Captain Jack Zodiac by Michael Kandell
The Story of English by McCrum, Cran, MacNeil
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
Art Speigelman's Maus books ("My Father Bleeds History" and "And Here my Troubles Began")
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
1984 by George Orwell
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
Hogfather by Terry Pratchett
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
Caravans by James Michner
The Hawkline Monster a Gothic Western by Richard Brautigan
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradburry
The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer
Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
The Locked Room by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsin
Homicide a Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Adolph Hitler and the German Trauma by Robert Edwin Herzstein
A People’s History of The United States by Howard Zinn
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
"The Lord of the Rings" trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Philip Jose Farmer
The Complete tales and poems of Edgar Allen Poe
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammet
M*A*S*H* by Richard Hooker
The Ghost of the Executed Engineer by Loren Graham
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many by Noam Chomsky
Behind the Urals by John Scott
The Warlock Heretical by Christopher Stasheff
The Doctor's Plague by Sherwin B. Nuland
Biko by Donald Woods
The Good Neighbor by George Black
War by Gwynne Dyer
Blood in the Face by James Ridgeway
Life During Wartime by Lucius Shepard
Life During Wartime by Paul Fussel
Class by Paul Fussell
How We Got to Now by Stephen Johnson
Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Conformity and Conflict edited by James W. Spradley and David W. McCurdy
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek
The Cosmic Landscape by Leonard Suskind
Seeing Voices by Oliver Sachs
I Claudius by Robert Graves
The Ubu Plays by Alfred Jarry
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
The Naked Consumer by Erik Larson
Death from the Skies by Phil Plait
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
A Dance with Death by Ann Noggle and Christine A. White
Action Figure! by G.B. Trudeau
Fish Whistle by Daniel Pinkwater
Naked by David Sedaris
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
"The Golden Compass" trilogy by Philip Pullman
The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Slay Ride by Dick Francis
God Save the Mark by Donald Westlake
The Postman by David Brin
Adolph Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by Spike Mulligan
Shadows of Sanctuary edited by Robert Aspirin
The Phantom Tollbooth Norton Juster
Fool on the Hill Matt Ruff
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Little Women Louisa May Alcott
How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman
Lord and Peasant in Russia by Jerome Blum
The Assassination of Julius Ceasar by Michael Parenti
Drift by Rachel Maddow
Candide by Voltaire

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Nelson Mandela dies in jail! Apartheid rule in South Africa unbroken?!

(A trip down the memory hole.) 

(Post updated to fix mis-spelling and a typo which added 3 Justices to the Supreme Court).

Yes, something like that could be the reality the next time municipalities or U.S. states attempt to stop doing business with an undemocratic repressive state. Lost in all the tributes to Nelson Mandela is one chilling fact: no sooner did the South African Apartheid regime end then the usual suspects cooked up a plan to stop another divestment movement from happening again. First they tried the the MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment). Formulation of this international agreement started in the OECD in the secret in 1995. It would have stopped localities from pursuing their own economic sanctions against an oppressive regime -- removing decision-making power from governments by making sanctions a matter of corporate rights and restricting trade decisions to economic factors only. Massive grassroots push-back created delays in voting on this in the OECD. Then France backed out causing the matter to drop at that time.
Secret negotiations took place from 1995 until 1997 when an OECD source leaked a copy of the draft agreement to a Canadian citizen group. The leak revealed that the MAI sought to establish a new body of universal investment laws that would guarantee corporations unconditional rights to buy, sell and do financial operations all over the world, without any regard for national laws and citizens' rights.
Unfortunately, the MAI continues to rise up, typically in WTO negotiations (most recently in Cancun 2003). To paraphrase Monty Python and the Holy Grail "It's not dead yet" and probably never will die. Grassroots push-back has kept it at bay up to now. 

But there's more than one way to subvert democracy. Also in the late 1990s a group called The National Foreign Trade Council (which represents major U.S. corporations that it won't name for fear consumers will boycott them) brought suit against a Massachusetts law against trade with Burma. Using a different argument than corporate rights, Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council attacked the Massachusetts law on the basis that it "impermissibly infringes on the federal government's power to regulate foreign affairs." 

On June 19, 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court decided 8-4 8-1 in favor of the National Foreign Trade Council. Souter delivered the opinion "The issue is whether the Burma law of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, restricting the authority of its agencies to purchase goods or services from companies doing business with Burma, 1 is invalid  [**2291]  under the Supremacy Clause of the National Constitution owing to its threat of frustrating federal statutory objectives. We hold that it is."

Whether this prevents future divestment movements we can not tell for certain. Most likely divestment by legislative action will have to happen at the national level or not at all. This also has nothing to do with non-governmental entities, such as private universities. (For example, at Columbia University in the 80s the divestment protests forced the administration to disclose that it had over $100 million of its portfolio invested in companies that did business with South Africa and even included some South African companies). A future divestment movement will have a much harder time than the anti-apartheid one did. 

I admit that I felt astonishment when South Africa not only let Nelson Mandela out of jail but then elected him President. That he proved a great statesman, president and world leader gave me hope that decent human beings can win sometimes. With Mandela humanity won a trifecta. 

However, (and there's always this however) what the National Foreign Trade Council and its secret members have demonstrated (along with a Supreme Court already positioned far to the right) is that they will cheerfully steam-roller over countless people in order to enjoy their wealth, power and privilege. Anything good the rest of us do they will scheme and lie and do anything they can get away with to undo it. These people have more in common with the patricians of ancient Rome than any citizen in a democracy in the 21st century. By all means celebrate Nelson Mandela's life and accomplishments. But humanity -- watch your back! 


Citation for the Supreme Court case: 



530 U.S. 363; 120 S. Ct. 2288; 147 L. Ed. 2d 352; 2000 U.S. LEXIS 4153; 68 U.S.L.W. 4545; 2000 Cal. Daily Op. Service 4852; 2000 Daily Journal DAR 6469; 2000 Colo. J. C.A.R. 3538; 13 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 441

March 22, 2000, Argued 
June 19, 2000, Decided

Citations for analysis of the case

Time for a new approach? Federalism and foreign affairs after Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council. James J. Pascoe. Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law. 35.1 (Jan. 2002) p291. 

Wide Impact Possible From Decision Axing Burma Law. The Legal Intelligencer. (November 6, 1998 Friday)  Pg. 4 By Leslie Miller, Associated Press.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Deja Vu all over again.

The Obama Administration has already begun to intervene in the Syrian Civil War with weapons and with advisors to train the Syrians in their use. The announcement that the Syrian Government's use of chemical warfare agents provides the basis and justification for this intervention. But "[t]he evidence is secret and we have to take it on faith…" -- (Colum Lynch Washington Post U.N. reporter).

Sound familiar? The chain of custody does not have any transparency. From the Washington Post story:  "Western governments have relied on physical evidence smuggled out of the country by rebels or intelligence operatives. Precisely who acquired the evidence and what methods were used to guard against tampering may be unknowable. If you are the opposition and you hear that the White House has drawn a red line on the use of nerve agents, then you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used."

Rachel Maddow begins her show's report on this question with a description of Spanish police arresting a group of men Al-Qaeda recruited to fight in Syria. The U.S., once again, finds itself fighting on the same side as Al-Qaeda (The Mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s evolved into the Taliban and the foreign fighters there evolved into Al-Qaeda. Remember that Osama Bin Laden received his training from the C.I.A. as a matter of public record).

Really? We're doing this again!? How did U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East turn into Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football?

In this segment Rachel Maddow interviews Lynch about the questionable evidence and the already growing U.S. intervention in the Syrian Civil War. As Lynch finishes his explanation of how we may never see a "smoking gun" proving Syrian government's use of chemical weapons, Maddow adds:

Even while recognizing that people's inability to trust assertions from western governments on things like this without actually seeing it proven is an earned distrust because of our history.

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Also, John Stewart's substitute host on the daily show, John Oliver, interviews Fareed Zakaria, during which we hear a far more cogent and informative analysis of the situation in Syria than you could ever hear on the "serious" news shows.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The NSA did not notice this one

In a discussion on another blog about the 2 racist lunatics who tried to build a "death ray" to kill Moslems (I could not make something like this up - I do not have the imagination) someone raised an important point:

Please note, stoopid plot stopped by citizen reporting and good old-fashioned detective work. Yes, phone lines were tapped, but 14 months of surveillance should have been enough to not have to resort to data mining phone and internet records. I am making a big assumption here, but this plot doesn’t feel like it needed a civil liberty spying program to foil. 
I believe it’s important to call these out so we have a chance of getting our Fourth Amendment Rights back and perhaps to not be so terrified, either. (link

Yes. Maybe the two did not e-mail each other or chat or even use the phone to cook up their plot. Whatever the reason, spying on all of us did not accomplish anything in this case.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Asking the right questions, reporting the wrong answers

This sort of commercial self-censorship is a "textbook" example of why I started this blog (actually its pre-cursor web site) in the first place. CNN asks some good questions in its recent poll to measure the approval or disapproval of the Affordable Care Act (i.e.: Obamacare). But the headlines of the various reports about this poll grossly mis-states the results, for example: Most Americans still oppose Health Care Law. Really? But keep reading the CNN's own report on this poll to find out why.

The survey indicates that 35% oppose the health care law because it's too liberal, with 16% saying they oppose the measure because it isn't liberal enough. [emphasis added].

I can even remember the polling data as the administration floated various proposals. At the beginning of 2009 polls ran around 65% in favor of reform, but that number dropped after Obama removed the "public option" (i.e.: the way it works in other countries that have national health care systems). The polling data above remains consistent with that of the recent past. The Rachel Maddow show has this helpful chart to illustrate why this 16% matters so much:

click to enlarge

To be fair, the one question the CNN poll did not ask was of the respondents who support the Health Care Law how many would oppose it if it were more liberal. That said, the polling data from 4 years ago showed the public option with greater than 50% approval. Also, if you put the green bar representing the 16% who want a more "liberal" health care reform on top of the blue bar of the 44% who approve of Obamacare as is, you see the same 65% that polls showed 4 years ago as approving reform before President Obama withdrew the public option from the proposed bill. The chart above comes from a screen capture of the Rachel Maddow Show segment below.

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To paraphrase Strother Martin's character from Cool Hand Luke, what we have here is a failure to communicate listen to the voters. Had the Democrats grown a spine and/or had President Obama had any dedication to reform as it actually has proven to work effectively in other countries that tried it, we would not be in this mess now. The Democrats do not find themselves in a very defensible position. What are they going to say? Look! Add the 16% of the people who want more extensive reform and you can see what spineless cowards we were 4 years ago (and now too, by the way).

To make matters worse, the Affordable Care Act only "works" in blue states. In red states the Republicans can obstruct it to death, thereby insulating their constituency from any good effects. This makes criticizing it so much more effective because the Republican voters will have no first hand knowledge of its benefits. State government officials know how popular reform will be if they let it happen.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Chronology and its Discontents

Some friends and colleagues have asked me about President Obama's recent (May 23, 2013) speech on counter-terrorism. I have had a chance to read the speech and find out more background information about the President's assertions. This does not look good.

First, I did vote for President Obama in 2008 in the hope that he would prove as different from the rest of the candidates as he presented himself. But within a week and a half of taking office in 2009 he ordered his first drone strike -- this one in Pakistan (supposedly an ally). His record on killing civilians outside of any battlefield or emergent situation only grew worse as his first term progressed. Unfortunately, I also voted for him again in 2012. I consider a vote for Democrats in general and President Obama in particular "the damage control vote." In my opinion I predict that they will murder fewer people than the Republicans.

His most recent speech fails to inspire confidence for the simple reason that he has very dishonestly attempted to justify the assassination of a U.S. citizen ex post facto with allegations and assertions that contradict reality as already reported. I will explain (with the help of Rachel Maddow and one of her show's guests, Jeremy Scahill).

From the President's speech:

But when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America – and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens; and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot – his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a swat team.
That's who Anwar Awlaki was – he was continuously trying to kill people. He helped oversee the 2010 plot to detonate explosive devices on two U.S. bound cargo planes. He was involved in planning to blow up an airliner in 2009. When Farouk Abdulmutallab – the Christmas Day bomber – went to Yemen in 2009, Awlaki hosted him, approved his suicide operation, and helped him tape a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack. His last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil. I would have detained and prosecuted Awlaki if we captured him before he carried out a plot. But we couldn't. And as President, I would have been derelict in my duty had I not authorized the strike that took out Awlaki. [emphasis added]

However, Jeremy Scahill, on The Rachel Maddow Show, pointed out that the first time the administration admitted to attempting to kill Awlaki was on December 24, 2009 before any of the events President Obama cited ever happened. The speech says nothing of Awlaki's 16 year-old son who the C.I.A. killed with a drone strike not specifically targeting him. We know nothing about this strike, including whether or not it was a "signature" strike. (A signature strike is when CIA or military staff observing from satellites or drones far above the ground see "activity" that intelligence analysts have deemed "suspicious," such as people converging on a given location singly and/or in small groups. Bear in mind that if some other country did this to the U.S. we would be reading about drone strikes killing teenagers at raves nearly once a week. This policy also explains some of the weddings that have had a drone interrupt the festivities.) To date, no one has presented any evidence or even allegations that Awlaki's son did anything at all.

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From the Rachel Maddow interview above:

… The president also said that if he had the opportunity, he would have detained and prosecuted Anwar Awlaki. If that's true, why didn't they seek an indictment? Why not bring into a court of law, seek his extradition, and if you can't get his extradition, all sorts of other options are available. They didn't even try. So none of the allegations against Awlaki have been proven. Haven't produced any evidence, except for assertions by the Attorney General and now assertions from the President. For much of the past 600 days, and Awlaki died 600 days ago, his case has been litigated posthumously.
It's about who we are as a society. How we treat the most reprehensible of our citizens says a lot about who we are. If we had that evidence against him, why couldn't we uphold the rule of law? Almost no one talks about this. The first time we know the U.S. tried to kill Anwar Awlaki was before the underwear bomb plot. They tried to kill Anwar Awlake December 24, 2009 before any of this [alleged participation in bomb plots] had taken place, before any of the things in the attorney general's letter.
The tribal leaders from his region told me [Scahill] that they had repeatedly told the Yemeni president, if you present us with evidence that he is guilty of any of these crimes, we'll execute him ourselves. The head of the Al Whack tribe told me, he told a liaison with the US government, if you show us evidence, we will execute him ourselves. [emphasis added] 

(Note, the Christmas Day plot mentioned in the President's speech is what Scahill called "the underwear bomb plot" above).

Oddly, as rabid as radical republicans have proven in their quest to remove Obama from office, I wonder if any of them will seize on this? Will any mainstream news outlet cover this? Will anyone ask him about this at his next press conference? Now that would be interesting.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Copenhagen - Movie review

(Before he was Bond he was Heisenberg)

 I find Daniel Craig a versatile and gifted actor and hope he does not suffer type-casting as James Bond. In 2002 he played Werner Heisenberg in a PBS TV movie about two nuclear physicists. An adaptation of a stage play by someone I never heard of before, Michael Frayn, I did not expect Copenhagen to draw me in so quickly. Many of the best "talking" movies do that - Mindwalk, My Dinner with Andre, Swimming to Cambodia - all have this in common. As movies grow more frenetic with increasingly unbelievable "action" sequences and pacing so fast you're out of breath while sitting down, I find it comforting to watch a film that reminds me that sometimes just two people talking can prove far more interesting.

Last year I read about Heisenberg and learned a fascinating mystery about his actions during WWII. As a young and brilliant man, he earned his Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics at the age of 22. Two years later he met the Danish (and Jewish) physicist Niels Bohr (played by Stephen Rea). They immediately became friends, worked intensively together for 2 years then remained very close, frequently visiting each other through the 20s and 30s. Heisenberg often accompanied Bohr's family on skiing trips and other of Bohr's family outings. The numerous long walks the two men took together characterized a relationship that all who knew them described as "father and son." There exist in many people's lives a great, very close, friendship that can, if it ends, feel as devastating as the end of a marriage. The start of World War II ended this famous friendship between the Jewish "father" and the German "son."

 Bohr, 16 years older than the young German Heisenberg, had won a Nobel prize in 1922. Many do not know who he was or what he did, but Bohr made contributions to physics every bit as important as Einstein's. And sadly most Americans know Heisenberg only as the alias of Walter White from the TV show Breaking Bad. But Heisenberg revolutionized our understanding of the atom and of the relationship between experimentation and observation. He won his Nobel prize in 1932.

 In September 1941 Germany had conquered nearly all of Europe, Britain barely escaped invasion, the Soviet Union and the United States had not yet entered the war and Denmark had already spent a year and a half under German occupation. After having remained in Germany after many other atomic scientists had fled, Heisenberg found that his friendship with Bohr cooled. Unknown to Bohr before the visit, Hitler put Heisenberg in charge of the Nazi atomic energy program. For reasons which to this day remain unclear, Heisenberg choose this time to visit Bohr.

 After a very awkward initial conversation, the once father-son duo warmed to each other again. After dinner Heisenberg asked to go for a walk with Bohr, just like old times. Normally they would not have returned for hours, but a very short time later, maybe 5 to 10 minutes, they returned separately, with Bohr looking - according to his wife - angrier than she ever remembered seeing him before or since. Heisenberg awkwardly excused himself then left. They did not speak again until after the war -- a very brief conversation which did not end well either. Then never again.

 From this point the details grow hazy and increasingly less reliable. The two did not agree on most of what they said to each other that night. And although historians, journalists as well as their family members, friends and colleagues often asked, they never elaborated beyond the following. The only part they agree on is that Heisenberg started by asking Bohr about the morality of science and scientists, saying that scientists could decide what politicians and other leaders learned about atomic energy; thus, they could easily tell people that development of an atomic weapon would prove too expensive with too uncertain an outcome. According to Bohr, Heisenberg then inquired or assumed that Bohr was in contact with American and/or British agents concerning the feasibility of making an atomic bomb. He urged Bohr not to tell them it was possible. Past this point we have no clue what transpired next other than Heisenberg said something which led Bohr to end the conversation abruptly then head back to his house.

 What exactly did Heisenberg say, and what about what he said sent Bohr storming off? No one, including Bohr and his wife, ever thought Heisenberg sympathized with the Nazis. Did Heisenberg's decision to remain in Germany make Bohr feel betrayed? Did Bohr think Heisenberg was trying to trick him somehow? Obtain advice or insight for making a bomb? No one can know for certain. Did Heisenberg accept the job from Hitler in order to sabotage the Nazi development of atomic energy? We do know for a fact that he did not tell Albert Speer, the Nazi to whom he reported, about plutonium. In addition, he made some strangely amateurish mistakes (amateurish by brilliant physicist standards), including a mathematical error (Heisenberg was a mathematician). But after the war in England he made an inexplicable mistake when explaining to a colleague how the atomic bomb used on Hiroshima could work. During the war Heisenberg's project never even built a functioning nuclear reactor. The wannabe reactor they tinkered with did not have any lead shielding, which means if it ever worked it would have fried them all. Did his lab lack shielding because of Heisenberg's incompetence or because he had no intention of building a real reactor and therefore did not bother with shielding? If he botched the project on purpose why didn't he admit to doing so after the war, while safely in allied custody?

 I admit that the possibility that Heisenberg purposely ran Nazi Germany's atomic project just well enough to stay in control of it without ever coming close to giving Hitler the bomb appeals to me. I'd be happy with any story of anybody who pulled one over on the worst monster in history. But Heisenberg's own behavior muddies every attempt to pin down his motivation and intentions. It all comes back to Copenhagen in September 1941. What was Heisenberg trying to ask or tell Bohr? Did he somehow botch what he wanted to say or did he explain himself clearly enough to let Bohr discover something new about his former friend's character?

  Copenhagen mixes what's known with educated guesses and intelligent speculation. The three characters - Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife - appear as ghosts who re-hash the conversations of that evening over and over again with each other, with different iterations of that day shown in flashbacks. In order to understand the possibilities the audience must understand at least some of the science the two men pioneered. The "ghosts" do a good job of explaining the essential principles of quantum physics - you do not even feel like you're listening to a science lecture. This allows the playwright to fill in the blanks of that evening with some intriguing possibilities, including the rather shocking one that Bohr saved humanity from Hitler getting his hands on an atomic bomb. Thankfully what really happened remains only an interesting mystery to think about for a while.